A Temple of Reflection

I have never been big on places of worship because I believe that the only temple that matters is the one you build in your own mind. Oh, I do visit temples occasionally. There have even been occasions when a place of worship has soothed my troubled mind or simply touched my soul. But by and large, as I said, I am not a big temple goer. There was this one time though that a temple left a deep impression on my mind. So much so, that I am writing about it today to share my experience with a temple of reflection.

Wat Rong Khun, also known as The White Temple,  is situated in Chiang Rai, Thailand. The temple was not really on our itinerary. A group of us friends were simply driving from Chiang Mai up to the border of Myanmar to explore the region.

We had a lovely guide escorting us. You can judge that for yourself when I tell you that each time we stopped for a break to stretch our legs or for a cup of tea, he’d sing out, “The happy room is that a-way.” He was referring to the rest rooms:)

It was our happy guide who insisted we stop at Chiang Rai and visit The White Temple.

I am glad he did so because the very first glimpse of the temple blew me away. It was like seeing a picture out of a fairy tale book. Pictures never do justice to the real thing, but take a look anyway.

Wat Rong Khun (The White Temple): Image by Lata Subramanian
Wat Rong Khun (The White Temple): Image by Lata Subramanian

Fairy tale stuff, right?

So, what would your reaction be if you saw the scene in the picture below at a prominent spot in the temple courtyard?

Sculpted hands in The White Temple reaching out for salvation? Image by Lata Subramanian
Sculpted hands in The White Temple reaching out for salvation? Image by Lata Subramanian

Was your reaction one of shock? I can tell you mine was! Who would expect such a gruesome sight in a temple? One normally expects to see scenes of peace, right?

Once I got over my shock, however, the hands reaching out made me reflect. Rather, the sculpted hands, as if reaching out from some mass grave, absolutely provoked me into thinking. What message was being conveyed here? Reflecting on the rather disturbing scene, I could only imagine that the creator was depicting distressed people reaching out for salvation from a life of misery. It also made me think of the graveyard scene from Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Act 5, Scene 1):

Hamlet.  Why may not that be the skull of a lawyer? Where be his quiddities now, his quillets, his cases, his tenures, and his tricks?  Why does he suffer this rude knave now to knock him about the sconce with a dirty shovel, and will not tell him of his action of battery? Hum! This fellow might be in ’s time a great buyer of land, with his statutes, his recognizances, his fines, his double vouchers, his recoveries; is this the fine of his fines, and the recovery of his recoveries, to have his fine pate full of fine dirt? will his vouchers vouch him no more of his purchases, and double ones too, than the length and breadth of a pair of indentures? The very conveyance of his lands will hardly lie in this box, and must the inheritor himself have no more, ha? 

Don’t ask me why but those hands reaching out from that pit brought to mind Hamlet and Shakespeare’s philosophising about how life finally brings us all to the leveller that is death.

These were the thoughts that ran through my mind as I stood there gazing on the deliberately disturbing sculpted display. I later found out from googling that the hands reaching out to people crossing the bridge of the Cycle of Rebirth within the temple was meant to convey that the way from hell to heaven is through the overcoming of cravings.

Maybe. But as every artist knows, the intended communication is not always the received communication. And the scene I saw conveyed to me that life can be hell on earth and we are all looking for salvation. It was also a reminder that in the end the life we chase reduces us to skulls, bones and begging.

There may be something in my interpretation because Wat Rong Khun is a Buddhist temple and didn’t the Buddha embark on his search for enlightenment after witnessing innumerable scenes of suffering?

The temple makes you reflect on other aspects of life as well. For instance, one sees another startling wall art scene within the temple. A scene where Superman and other super heroes are flying towards the World Trade Center buildings even as planes are flying into the twin towers.

Life is a constant race between good and evil? Is that what the wall art was trying to say?

In a family discussion one day, my niece’s husband, Ashish Singh, remarked, “Aunty, sab mein Ram hain, sab mein Ravan hain.”  Translated that reads, “In all of us, there is Ram (a Hindu God) and there is also Ravan (the Demon King in the Hindu epic Ramayana).”

Who will win? The Ram or Ravan in us? Superman like heroes or the people deliberating flying planes into buildings filled with innocent people?

That is the million dollar question, the temple of reflection seems to ask. Yes, the temple is called Wat Rong Khun or The White Temple. But I prefer to call it the temple of reflection because the questions it asks of its visitors mirrors my belief that the mind is the only temple that matters.

#ChiangMai #ChiangRai #Thailand #Temple

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Featured Image Credit: Wat Rong Khun – The White Temple: Image by Lata Subramanian


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