Some places inspire awe and wonder while others quietly touch your soul and follow you home when you leave.
Burma followed me home from a cave high in the mountains.
Pindaya is a fly speck on a map of predominately Buddhist Myanmar/Burma. It sits halfway between Mandalay and Inle Lake on a steep incline that terminates in a vertical granite rock face and can only be reached through a series of steep switchbacks. I had been told that an enormous cave system in the mountains held one of the holiest sites in local Theravada Buddhism. Theravada means, “Teaching of the Elders.” It is one of three main branches of Buddhism that originated in northern India and Nepal in the sixth century B.C. and rapidly spread throughout Southeast Asia. It is a personal religion that replaces deity worship with strict self-control in order to release all attachment to the material world and achieve personal enlightenment. Pindaya is one of its ancient bastions.
The road halts in a large parking lot lined with coffin-sized vendor stalls all hawking cheap tourist trinkets and cold drinks. “Hey Mistah ! One dollar!” a man yells as he shoves a plastic Buddha in my face that I politely decline. These vendors are far more aggressive than any I have encountered and I attribute this to their isolation and lack of western customers. A dollar here goes a long way.
At the end of the parking lot a ten foot brightly painted warrior is firing his bow at a twenty foot tall spider. The spiders’ eyes bulge and blood drips from its elongated fangs. The statues represent an old Burmese folk tale associated with the cave but their gaudiness combined with the vendor stalls give the place an amusement park feel more than a religious site. People are climbing onto the spider to have their photos taken and I am second guessing my reasons for coming.
I enter a glass and steel elevator attached to the rock face like a monstrous erector set and am shot 800 feet into the air where I step out into a different reality.
Pilgrims are prostrated everywhere in front of towering Buddhas, more than 8,000 statues of all sizes and shapes. Many of the faithful have forsaken the elevator to climb the dizzying stairs on hands and knees. From the entrance, I must step carefully over and around hundreds of devotees, kneeling in prayer and meditation, slowly moving from one statue to the next in a mendicant assembly line.
The oldest statues date to 1750 and many bear inscriptions from the Konbaung period, (1782-1885) the last ruling dynasty of Burma when its final king was deposed by Great Britain. No other religious site offers such a range of Buddhist iconography or diversity of style and ornamentation. The cave gives physical form to esoteric beliefs, but, like Buddhism itself, it is internal, hidden from the world until you enter its’ mysteries.
As one raised within a dogmatic faith, I have long been fascinated by Buddhism because to me “religion” has always implied a deity and Buddhism has none. Yet, the passionate fervor that I have personally come to associate with Buddhists seems based on “right action” a cornerstone of Christian belief. Nowhere is it more evident than in the masses all around me, foreheads pressed to the floor, crawling like inchworms, lost in concentrated faith to the essence these images represent.
The statues are staggered like seats in an arena, disappearing upward into the black vastness of the cave ceiling. The lighting is dim and dramatic, designed to accentuate the immensity of the cavern and to give an aura of mystery to the statues. A meandering maze of paths leads pilgrims in all directions past one diorama after another. Some trails dead end at ancient meditation cells while one enters a massive cathedral like room where stalactites and stalagmites grope for each other like fingers entwining to pray. Pathways wander for miles, each leading to a unique diorama.
The Buddhas seem to turn and follow as I pass, and in the dim light they begin to press inward, towering over me. Under the unyielding gaze of hundreds of enlightened ones I feel a great sense of self-awareness and my own insignificance in the great cosmic puzzle. I can sense such belief in the cavern that should a statue begin to walk, I would not be shocked. The low muttered prayers, chants, and mantras filling the air create an all-encompassing OOHHMMM, the vibrating essence of the universe that I can feel in my stomach.
My heart begins to race and I am mildly euphoric. I surrender totally to this feeling wondering if I am succumbing to the sheer epic of the cavern, or unwittingly tapping into the religious fervor of thousands of faithful; what anthropologist Wade Davis calls the collective consciousness of mankind. My walk itself becomes a meditation, a flowing prayer, synched to the cadence of my steps.
I wander into an area with no people and turn a corner to find myself at a dead end. There, in isolated shadow, I almost stumble over a monk, the first one I have seen. He is a hermit, identified by his cone shaped leather hat, and probably lives in the cave. He sits silently on his haunches, head bowed, prayer beads passing through his fingers. His unwashed body odor mingles with the moldiness of the cavern. He is stick thin, an empty rice bowl on the floor in front of him. He prostrates himself before a sitting Buddha, a black hole of a silhouette before a glittering gold statue, each posture mimicking the other in a perfect ying and yang. The image is stunning. Perhaps he is a bodhisattva, an enlightened one who has passed on achieving nirvana in order to stay behind and assist others on their own spiritual journeys.
The monk occupies a separate reality, oblivious to my presence, and I am too startled to move for several seconds. This tiny space is the only spot in the cave with no other people and I feel something has drawn me to him in a way words cannot define.
I step behind him, pressed flat to the wall, making myself one more statue while taking in the moment. His low chanting captures me and for a few seconds I am connected to this holy man. These are the moments I travel for, moments to which words can never pay proper homage; moments when time stops and experience imprints an image on your soul. I know I should leave but can’t make my feet move and I don’t want to disturb him. I step over the hem of his robe, trying to back away un-noticed and in doing so I knock over a bowl of money and fruit offerings.
The sound is muffled by the close proximity of dozens of large Buddhas but in my mind I have just upset the cosmos and probably thrown the earth off its axis to boot. I turn to see the monk, still unmoving, hearing none my irreverent clatter, when a hand touches my shoulder.
It’s a young monk, smiling from ear to ear. He helps me pick up the money and fruit as I wait for a cosmic lightning bolt from Nirvana to strike me but none comes. He holds up his I-Phone and I realize he wants a selfie with me but I must bend in half to reach his level. The young monk races off and returns seconds later with what I assume is his family. Each produces a cell phone and all six of them take up stations around me, each handing off their phone to a stranger to take a photo while I tower over the entire group.
I feel like an extended middle finger of an enclosed hand and begin to laugh at the situation. Buddha really does have a sense of humor. This triggers a domino effect. A line of tiny people is gathering, all wanting their picture taken with this sweating western giant. Only then do I realize what an oddity I am here as people flash away and it does not feel right. I have unwittingly become the center of attention and must end this.
I begin to walk, shaking outstretched hands as I go, a celebrity by default. People are pointing at me until I reach an upper cavern and gain my anonymity among the crowd once again.
I board the elevator to leave and am packed hips to shoulders with about a dozen Chinese tourists all two feet shorter than I am; all craning their necks to look up at me with a wide eyed stare I have so often encountered in Asia. A single tiny hand rises from the crowd and snaps a photo of me. When the elevator door opens they almost trample me in their rush to get out.
I turn to walk away, past the giant warrior who is still shooting an arrow at the giant spider. Several crimson robed monks strike ridiculous poses and mug for the cameras as it towers over them. One hangs from a long hairy leg. My celebrity has been replaced by a giant plastic bug.
I walk by the tourist vendors and the same man shoves a tiny Buddha into my face. This time I buy it as the perfect reminder of both the tackiness and religious fervor of this cave.
I climb onto the bus and sink into an empty seat. Staring at the little statue balanced on my knee I am aware that I am softly repeating the word, “Buddha.”
James Michael Dorsey is an award winning author, explorer, photographer, and
lecturer who has traveled extensively in 46 countries. He has spent the past two
decades researching remote cultures around the world. His work can be seen on
the web at jamesdorsey.com.