I can only imagine the rest of the tourists were scared off by the grand staircase, a structure that dares you to even try and climb it. That’s the only explanation as to why the temple was so quiet.
It’s almost a shame, because this temple seems to me a beautifully welcoming one. It’s alive, even in its peace. Alive with a faith still practised today, and one that greets you with open arms. It’s truly a unique atmosphere, and it drew out in me a peculiar sense of safety, or more accurately a confidence that the people who work here, and meditate here, and show off their shaven marble heads here, are understanding of me and my stupid tourist ways. That confidence is the only explanation as to why I walked the wood panneled corridors in my socks, following a mysterious, distant chanting.
I’m sure it’s a regular that chanting. I’m sure people go to this temple purely to hear it. But for me, someone who inevitbly ends up doing absolutely no research on the places I visit, the chanting came as a tantalizing surprise.
I rounded a corner, and the sounds got louder and louder, faster and faster. A heavy banging joined in, something metallic and solid. The sound was powerful, scary, and I began to feel a trepidation as I neared the source. Then, just ahead, a man ducking away. Long robes trailed behind him and his head, his round, football head, bore the telltale pink purity of a monk.
I gave chase as fast as I could. I caught further glimpses of his shape, heard the light clatter of his prayer beads as they rattled against his chest, smelled the strong scent of incense…
I stumbled into a room, wide and simple, a familiar sight. The left side of the room was partitioned off by pillars, a rope hanging between them, and beyond this shabby wall was gold. Pure, brilliant, shining gold.
Statues and lamps and huge bowls, clouds of smoke rising from within. Splashes of purple here and there, puncturing the illusion of darkness these temples are so good at creating. A dozen monks were kneeling on the floor, chanting in powerful rhythmic loops.
Right I thought. What the hell have I just walked into?
It looked, I’m afraid to say, rather like a cult. When a man, old and barely able to finish his sentences, started rambling in a language I couldn’t understand, that image only seemed more accurate. The monks filled his silences with more furious chanting, and the man tried chanting himself, but his voice trailed off into croaky quiet sooner than anyone would have liked. A few awkward tourists like me were standing at the side, watching, and I joined them.
It was confusing, and fascinating, and so peculiarly un-Buddhist, when compared with my stereotypical image of Buddhism. It was grand and loud and garish, and it felt insular in a way this place so rarely did. I felt like I was watching something I shouldn’t. Which isn’t to say it wasn’t brilliant, because it was. But it was big.
People lit sticks of insense and threw them into golden bowls. They threw coins into wooden boxes, briefly praying to the display. A child, on the other side of the pillars, was brought up to the centre of the room and given… Something. A room full of mysteries, better left unsolved. There’s a magic in seeing without comprehension, and if my time in that temple left me with anything, it left me with that.
When the ringing in my ears grew too loud, I wandered away from the chanting. I walked through beautiful shrines and past a humble, peaceful garden, before spotting a small building a stone staircase away. It looked empty, and I could do with some quiet just now. With a shrug of my shoulders I began the climb.