Join the party at Tanjong Pagar this June!

2 06 2011

Tanjong Pagar Railway Station for many of us, has come to be that sleepy, somewhat laid-back and old world escape from the crowded ultra-modern Singapore that now surrounds us. But, if you have been there of late, the station, you would have noticed that the crowds which the glorious work of architecture that the station’s building is deserves, missing for several decades, have returned. It is perhaps ironic that they have in what is now the last month of the building’s use the southern terminal of the Malayan Railway, that we see crowds that perhaps are reminiscent of those in the earlier days when the appeal of rail travel went far beyond the romance of taking the train.

A party is happening at the station this last month with many hoping to get a last ride on the trains which have passed through Singapore for 108 years.

Interest in rail travel from Singapore to Malaysia has indeed waned over the years as other modes of travel have become not just affordable, but a lot more convenient. Where it might have been a norm for Singaporean families to take a trip our of Tanjong Pagar Railway Station back in the 1960s and 1970s, the construction of the North South Highway has made road travel for one, a lot quicker than the trains, which for most part, run on a single track, and rail became somewhat of a forgotten and less used means of travel (although it is still popular with Malaysian residents along the line working in Singapore as a means to travel back home during the weekends).

A party from years gone by: crowds queuing up for tickets in the lead up to the Lunar New Year in the 1970s (photo source: http://picas.nhb.gov.sg)

The impending shift of the southern terminal station of the Malayan Railway has certainly increased interest in rail travel over the last few months, with many who had not taken the train out of Tanjong Pagar doing so for the first time as well as many like me, who are doing it out of pure nostalgia. The trains will of course still be around with us as a means of transport come the 1st of July when they will pull out of and into Woodlands Checkpoint instead, but there is nothing that compares to embarking on a train journey from and returning to a station of the stature of Tanjong Pagar, which was to have been the southern terminal of a grand rail transport network that was to have spanned the continents of Europe and Asia, that never was completed.

The party will end when Tanjong Pagar Railway Station sees its last train pull in and leave on the night of the 30th of June.

The terminal, which opened on 2nd May 1932, and after a 79 years and a month of operations, is now into its last month of its life as a railway station. That also means that after some 108 years since the railway started making its way through the railway corridors of Singapore, first in 1903 through much of Bukit Timah (part on which Dunearn Road now runs) to Tank Road and then in 1932 when a deviation at Bukit Timah turned it towards the docks at Tanjong Pagar, we would soon see no more of the trains chug along the various visible parts of the line (a friend related how he had learnt to count by counting trains passing by the window of his flat in Tanglin Halt), across the two black truss bridges over Bukit Timah Road, the various simple girder bridges, the prominent ones being the ones across Hindhede Road and Hillview Road, the five remaining level crossings. What I guess many of us will miss more is sitting on a train as it weaves its way on that half an hour journey that brings us into another world – the hidden parts of Singapore that we might have only seen from window of the train … In a little less than a month, it would not be the old world Tanjong Pagar that greets the train passenger coming back into Singapore, but, a stone cold platform surrounded by high wire fences and manned by blue uniformed personnel, and with that, the wonderful experience of passing over the old railway tracks and bridges and through some very charming parts of Singapore that would otherwise be hidden, will be a thing of the past. That, is reason in itself, to join the crowds that have descended on the usually sleepy Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, for what must surely its farewell party, and hop on a train out or back into the station before the opportunity to have that wonderful experience passes by.

29 days before the final farewell ....

The Malayan Railway (now KTM) which has provided a rail service to Singapore since 1903 and maintained the grand station at Tanjong Pagar since May 1932, will after the 1st of July, terminate at Woodlands, the entry point from the Causeway into Singapore.


Ticketing information:

Tickets for the Express services, which can be purchased up to 30 days in advance, to and from Singapore this June are fast selling, with trains for most weekends already quite full. Tickets can be obtained at the station (advance bookings open from 8.30 am daily) or online at the KTMB website. If you are interested to join a party on the last train into Singapore on the 30th of June, there are several of us who would be having one on Train 15 Ekspres Sinaran Timur. Most of us are in Coach 2 and will be getting on that at Segamat. If you have you tickets, you may drop an email to Notabilia or me with the subject line “Strangers on a Train”.


Further information of interest:

Information related to the station and its architecture can be found on a previous post: “A final look at Tanjong Pagar Station“. In addition to that, I have also put together a collection of experiences and memories of the railway in Singapore and of my journeys through the grand old station which can be found through this page: “Journeys through Tanjong Pagar“.

Do also take a look at the proposal by the Nature Society (Singapore) to retain the green areas that have been preserved by the existence of the railway through Singapore and maintain it as a Green Corridor, at the Green Corridor’s website and show your support by liking the Green Corridor’s Facebook page. My own series of posts on the Green Corridor are at: “Support the Green Corridor“.






A tweetup to explore the mind of the genius that is Salvador Dalí

30 05 2011

If you have ever wondered how a mind of a artistic genius works, you would be able to take a walk through the mind of one, in the form of the Dalí: Mind of a Genius – The Exhibition, now running at the ArtScience Museum at Marina Bay Sands. The exhibition which opened on 14 May, will run up until 30 October 2011, and transports the visitor into the world of Salvador Dalí, the world as he saw it that is manifested in the somewhat bizarre surrealist expressions of his inner workings that he has made his mark on the world with.

Step right into the inner workings of the great surrealist artist Salvador Dalí's mind at the ArtScience Musuem in Marina Bay Sands.

I have long had my own fascination with the artist, drawn to his work after stumbling on a striking and haunting expression of a religious zeal he had at the point of the painting rediscovered when wandering around Glasgow’s west end almost a quarter of a century ago. That painting, Christ of St. John of the Cross, still captivates me to this day. It is however, the depictions of melting time, a reoccurring theme on many of his artworks that has been the greater source of fascination. Having had an opportunity to visit the Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, in the following summer, I was able to understand a little more of the background and interpretation of Dalí’s own fascination with the depiction of time in a fluid and non-linear state, not the hard deterministic version of time that most of us would have.

Dalí is known for his bizarre interpretation of the world around him which is expressed by depictions of everyday objects in a ways that seem beyond human comprehension.

I had the opportunity at a tweetup organised by the good people of the ArtScience Museum on Saturday to reacquaint myself with the works of Dalí, and to explore the inner workings of his mind. It is in the latter, that the curators of the exhibition have done an excellent job in bringing out the influences, inspirations and the perspective that Dalí had in giving us his wonderful works. In walking through the themed areas of the exhibition Femininity and Sensuality; Religion and Mythology; and Dreams and Fantasy, we are transported into what some would see as an insane mind that sees the world in the way he did. It is in this that we understand the artist’s mind further and see the genius of it. Dalí as with Oscar Levant who is attributed with the well used quote “there’s a fine line between genius and insanity”, is one who seems to have erased the line where genius starts and insanity ends.

The exhibition explores several themes in Dalí's work including Dreams and Fantasy.

Throughout the guided exploration of Dalí’s mind, we are constantly reminded of the background to the influences on his thoughts – a repressed sexuality stemming from an upbringing largely influenced by his strict widower father an atheist, who in stark contrast to Dalí’s staunchly Catholic mother – suppressed all form of expression in Dalí. It was through Gala, Dalí’s would be wife that freed him from the repressed sexuality and besides depicting her, his ideal of womanhood, in many works, he sought to express his view of femininity and sexuality in many ways. Amongst the influences Dalí had were some of the thinkers of the time, Einstein for one, the Theory of Relativity being a source of inspiration for the stretching of time and Sigmund Freud, who provided a basis for the understanding of symbols in dreams as symbols of a repressed sexuality that Dalí seemed to be obsessed with.

Dalí's exploration of sensuality and femininity includes Woman Aflame which includes plenty of the symbolism that is found in his work which includes drawers signifying secrets, revealed by them being opened, and the use of clutches to represent death and resurrection.

Space Venus - also contains much symbolism: a melted clock which tells us that beauty is finite, the body split at the midriff representing death and the egg, the symbol of life representing renewal in death.

Anthropomorphic Cabinet with drawers again ... this time on a female form that perhaps deceives us into seeing a masculine one who appears almost as if she is writhing in pain.

Dalí who returned to Catholicism later in life, becoming a staunch follower of the faith, also shows religious influences in his works and this can be explored in the Religion and Mythology themed area. Both mythical figures and religious symbols can be found in sculptures such as Adam and Eve, St. George and the Dragon, Unicorn and Vision of the Angel. The last of the three themed areas, Dreams and Fantasy, which features works such as furniture in the form of Mae West Lips Sofa, Glasswork, and Sculptures such as Alice in Wonderland, was perhaps my favourite. It is in some of the works here that the quirkiness of Dalí comes to the fore. This is perhaps summed up by at quote we see at the exit of the exhibition “I do not understand why, when I ask for a grilled lobster, I am never served a cooked telephone”.

St. George and the Dragon again explores sexuality in a depiction of the legendary slaying of the dragon by St. George. The stallion - a symbol of power and masculinity mounts a dragon whose wings as seen through the fore legs of the stallion resemble flames - the flames of passion.

Unicorn has some sexual connotations. Possibly influenced by Sigmund Freud's interpretation of images in dreams and their hidden sexual meanings.

Lady Godiva with Butterflies - butterflies symbolise the soul.

Vision of the Angel explores the role that religion plays in society.

Mae West Lips.

Alice in Wonderland.

I was enthralled enough to return once more to the ten galleries which feature in total over 250 of Dalí works which come from a collection of the Stratton Foundation, the most striking of which are the sculptures which, full of symbolism which the exhibition does attempt to explain in detail, providing a perspective on Dalí and the thoughts behind his lifetime of work that would be otherwise be hard to fully appreciate. It is for this that the exhibition is well worth a visit, giving us not just an opportunity to look at an amazing collection of Dalí works, but also a rare opportunity to appreciate the mind of one that was certainly a creative genius.

A nice touch added by the curators - a reflection of clocks distorted by their reflection on convex and concave mirrors at the exit from the exhibition.





A date with a lovely French lady

23 05 2011

I took the rare opportunity to pay a visit to a French lady that was in town recently. She is a lady of much beauty and the pride of the French (Naval Fleet that is) and was the largest of the warships that was in Singapore for the biennial IMDEX Asia Maritime Defense Exhibition which was held last week. The vessel, the FNS Mistral, is indeed a beauty, designated as a Landing Platform Helicopter (LPH), she has been provided with six helicopter landing spots on an expansive flight deck which features an island (offset) superstructure, resembling an aircraft carrier. In fact, she might be seen as a mini one, having the capability to deploy up to sixteen large helicopters that can be stowed in a large hangar below the flight deck. An LPH is traditionally designed to support long range troop deployment and amphibious assault, providing a force projection capability to the forces that deploy them, with the U.S. Navy having the largest fleet not just of LPHs but of purpose designed amphibious assault ships. The Mistral is designated by the French Navy as a Bâtiment de Projection et de Commandement (BPC), or a (Force) Projection and Command Ship, and is the lead of two Mistral class BPCs, the other being the FNS Tonnerre.

The French Navy LPH or BPC, the Mistral was in Singapore for a visit during the recently concluded IMDEA Asia exhibition.

Having previously visited similar but smaller vessels such as Landing Platform Docks which have a reduced capacity and hence capability as compared to the Mistral, including the FNS Foudre, and the ITS San Giusto, the Mistral seemed a lot larger and a generous amount of space that the smaller LPDs (the Foudre is 168 metres in length and the San Giusto, 133 metres compared to the Mistral’s 199 metres) do not afford. The Mistral represents a tremendous effort in coordination and engineering, not so much from its design but by the fact that the hull was constructed in two pre-outfitted sections, the aft section at Direction des Constructions Navales’ (DCN) yard in Brest (which also constructed the island superstructure) and the forward section at the well known passenger shipbuilder Chantiers de l’Atlantique in St-Nazaire. Various sub-assemblies were also outsourced in the process to contractors in various locations including to a Polish shipyard. The keel of the Mistral was laid in July 2002 and the vessel was launched in October 2004, before being commissioned in December 2006, thus being in service for some six and a half years already.

The Mistral, seen at berth at the finger pier in Changi Naval Base during IMDEX Asia, next to the USS McCampbell, an Arleigh Burke class Destroyer. The Mistral, which displaces 21,500t at Full Load, was the largest of the warships in town for the event.

A view of the Mistral's bow in the rain.

One of the large differences in the Mistral compared to the LPDs is that there are multiple decks for the stowage of vehicles and helicopters compared to a single deck in the case of most LPDs. This was very much in evidence from the guided walk through the less sensitive parts of the magnificent vessel led by a member of the ship’s crew, which started with a walk up the multiple decks, first to the Bridge, then to the Helicopter Control and Operations Rooms, and the Flight Deck before visiting the Helicopter Hangar immediately below the Flight Deck (helicopters are raised and lowered via two elevators), the hospital, the large Vehicle Deck below the Flight Deck and the Dockwell. A ramp allows vehicles and other material to be transported between the dockwell and the vehicle deck. The dockwell is floodable by ballasting and opening of a stern ramp with a water depth of 1 to 2 metres and lined with wooden sheathing to take punishment from the Landing Craft Mechanised (LCM), up to four of which can be accommodated, allowing for troops, vehicles and equipment to be deployed to shore. The Mistral also features a side ramp / door which can be used to load and discharge vehicles and equipment to the wharf.

A walk through the FNS Mistral

The wheelhouse console on the Bridge.

The Bridge was the first stop.

A view of the Flight Deck and ship's bow from the Bridge.

The Helicopter Control Room.

Windows of the Helo Control Room.

View of the Flight Deck from the Helo Control Room.

Helicopter ops are planned in the Helicopter Operations Room directly below the Helo Control Room.

Looking forward from amidships on the large Flight Deck which has six helo landing spots.

Looking aft over the expansive flight deck.

View of the Helo Control and Ops Rooms from the Flight Deck.

The walk through also provided an appreciation of the generously sized alleyways on the Mistral.

The hangar below the flight deck. Two elevators (one seen in the background) provide communication between the Flight Deck and the lower decks which includes the Hangar and the Vehicle Deck below.

The hangar can accommodate up to 16 large helicopters.

Another view of the Hangar.

A view at Hangar level.

Republic of Singapore Navy Officer Cadets posing for a photograph in the Hangar.

The Mistral is equipped with a large Hospital over 900 square metres on Deck 5 to support both military and humanitarian operations. This is expandable by use of the Hangar to provide space for up to 100 beds.

One of two Operating Theatres inside the Hospital.

The large (upper) Vehicle Deck. Together with the lower Vehicle Deck which is contiguous with the dockwell, the vehicle decks provide for the stowage of 60 armoured vehicles or 13 main battle tanks on 2 650 square metres of space.

Another view of the (upper) Vehicle Deck.

A ramp provides communication between the upper and lower Vehicle Decks (and the Dockwell).

The side door/ramp at the lower Vehicle Deck / Dockwell.

The floodable Dockwell accommodates up to four Landing Craft or two LCACs (Hovercraft).

Information on the Mistral from the DCN Brochure






In the eye of the frenzied storm of the Bisket Jatra

22 05 2011

A third UNESCO World Heritage Site that I visited on the day of the Nepali New Year was probably the one that was the highlight, not just of the day, but also the trip. Having explored Swayambhunath and Boudhanath, the group of friends I was with were left with the latter half of an afternoon with which to catch the action of a Nepali festival, the Bisket Jatra, being lived out on the streets of Bhaktapur, an ancient town 13 km east of Kathmandu.

Durbar Square in Bhaktapur. Bhaktapur is a UNESCO World Heritage Site 13km east of Kathmandu.

It was quite a pleasant ride in once the van took a turn off from the highway from Kathmandu, this in spite of the somewhat dusty and bumpy approach we were given. Even with being on the outskirts of the city, it gave us a feeling that we were in a world far removed from the madding streets of the Nepali capital and even further away from the incessant honking on the busy streets of Kathmandu. The view we were afforded by the windows of the moving van were quite refreshing ones at that – padi fields dominated either side of the road against the backdrop of what would be the green foothills of the world’s highest peaks, interspersed with the red-brown piles of brick that lay in the yards of what must have been brick making kilns. It was the warm colour of the piles of bricks we passed that radiated from the buildings and cobblestone streets of Bhaktapur that greeted our arrival into the ancient town.

Piles of red brown bricks mark the passage into Bhaktapur, an ancient town founded in the 9th Century that once served as the capital of the Kathmandu Valley. The bricks used in bulk of the buildings and cobblestones now colour much of the town.

The point at which we alighted was at the bottom of a street that rose steadily uphill, either side of which was lined with a row of tall and narrow brick houses that in a strange sort of way perhaps resembled a scene one might associate with Tuscan hill town. The streets were strangely quiet for a town that was in celebration – just a few children could be seen playing up the street. My attention was quickly turned towards the blue of a rectangle that framed an aperture within which the colourful display of what literally was a hole-in-a-wall shop manned by an elderly lady set into the dusty sand coloured plastered wall of a building at the corner that seemed to break the orange-brown light that the earthen bricks and cobblestones reflected in the mid-afternoon sun. It was only the cry of the lady behind another aperture that alerted us to the window of the bureau which collected the equivalent of US$15 (NRs 1100) from the tourist as an entrance fee to the town.

Set against the dusty sand coloured plaster of a building that was in contrast to the rest of the town, the blue frame of the hole-in-a-wall shop caught my eye.

With the entrance fee out of the way, we sought the help of a guide to lead us to the heart of the festival of which we had found no evidence of where we were. Making our way up a dusty road that did well to obscure what we were to discover at the summit of the climb. At the top, we found ourselves making our way past the first sight of the heart of the old capital of the Kathmandu Valley, the white tower of the Fasidega temple (one that is dedicated to Shiva) that rose on the left of an alley into the eastern edge of Durbar Square. Beyond that, two stone lions seemed to guard the square within Durbar Square where the Tadhunchen Bahal stood. The Tadhunchen Bahal dates from 1491 and is where the origins of the Kumari, the living goddesses of Nepal, is said to have started from. Turning left past the magnificent wooden structured Tadhunchen Bahal, and then right through a narrow street lined with the dwellings of the town folk on the right and tourist shops on the left, we soon found ourselves with the first signs of the Bisket Jatra in full swing, with the amazing sight of the huge gathering of townsfolk and curious tourists colouring the steps of the towering 30 metre high Nyatapola temple, the tallest temple in Nepal, built in 1702 and said to be one of the best examples of traditional temple architecture in Nepal.

Part of the Tadhunchen Bahal, where the Nepali living goddessess, the Kumari, had their origins.

Townsfolk seated beneath the wooden arches of the Tadhunchen Bahal.

The crowd gathered on the steps of the Nyatapola temple in Taumadhi Square.

The scene around the Nyatapola temple and Taumadhi Square.

Continuing our way through the crowded Taumadhi Square in which the Nyatapola stands, we wound our way through yet another cobbled street in which we encountered the steady flow of townsfolk, before arriving at the entrance to Khalna Tol at which we had to squeeze our way past a wall of people before we were able to survey the square at the heart of the Bisket Jatra celebrations. The scene that greeted us was an amazing one. From where we had stood, the Khalna Tol fanned out downwards, every inch of which was filled by the gaudy colours of the sea of people decked out in their New Year’s finery. At the end of the square, a tall pole seemed to rise, as if it were a mast of a ship in the colourful sea of people. The 25 metre pole, representative of the lingam, is set into a mound of stone, representative of the yoni, and is part of the ancient festival which is celebrated in Bhaktapur over a nine day period that straddles the Nepali New Year. The festival is said to have preceded the establishment of Bhaktapur in the 9th Century and has been celebrated from the time of the Lichhavi period (5th to 8th Century A.D.) to commemorate the defeat of a snake demon that was believed to possess a princess who according to legend, was made a widow when the man who married her died of a snake bite. After that, no one would marry her out of fear of death and it was only with the arrival of a merchant who married the princess that the snake demon was defeated.

The crowd seen from the top of Khalna Tol, where the main festivities were taking place on the fourth day of the Bisket Jatra which coincides with the Nepali New Year.

The lingam pole erected in Khulna Sqaure with one of the two chariots that are pulled through the streets of the town over the nine day festival.

The highlight of the festival, which culminates in a tongue piercing festival during which participants carry a Mahadeep (similar in some respects to the practice of the carrying of the Kavadi still practiced by southern Indian communities of South-East Asia during Thaipusam and Panguni Uthiram), is the pulling of two chariots, the Bhairavnath and Bhadrakali chariots, containing the idols of the god Lord Bhairavnath and his consort, the goddess Bhadrakali respectively. The chariots with huge crude wooden wheels, are traditionally made of a mix of wood and cane and coated with gold at the top. Iron nails and bronze rods have now been introduced to strengthen the chariots which undergo quite a fair bit of punishment as they are pulled from Taumadhi Square in a slow parade around the streets of the town. It seems that on the last day of the festival, the copulation of the god and goddess is enacted by the ramming of the smaller chariot carrying the goddess Bhadrakali against the chariot carrying Lord Bhairavnath.

The chariot carrying the idol of Lord Bhairavnath seen in Khalna Tol.

The highlight of the festival is the pulling of two chariots through the streets of the town.

While we did not have the opportunity to see all of that happening, we did weave our way through the sea of people towards the lingam and the Bhairavnath chariot which was being pulled through Khalna Tol near where the lingam was located. The chariot up-close was a lot bigger that it had seemed from a distance floating in the sea of people. The wheels were huge, the diameter of which was certainly larger than the height of a person. The chariot itself was mounted by many young boys, perhaps seeking a good vantage as well as hitching a ride on the chariot, oblivious to the dangers of doing so (the wheels do sometimes give way during the drawing of the chariots). A pause in the pulling saw even more children attempting to climb on, as well as giving a chance for parents of the very young to seek blessings for their children from the bells that hung from the front of the chariot. That also allowed us to get right up to the chariots to see the feathers and blood of chickens on the wheels – evidence of a sacrifice that would have taken place at the start of the festival.

A closer inspection of the chariot reveals the scale of the crude wooden wheels.

Evidence of the sacrifice of a chicken could be seen on the wheels which had feathers and streaks of blood on them.

A pause allowed children to scramble up the chariot - one seen having his share of an ice lolly ...

Sights and sounds at the heart of the festivities in Khalna Tol.

It wasn’t very long before the cries of men perched on the curved front of the chariot that extended much like the bowsprit of a sail ship rang out, urging on the two lines of boys who held two lines used to draw the wooden structure as if they were participating in a tug-of-war against the chariot. It was with that that some of us were drawn towards the heavy looking ropes – something that one is probably ill advised to do, as an attempt to turn the chariot resulted in the lines sweeping swiftly across the crowd that had gathered, causing a few including a woman carrying a baby to fall … the thought that immediately crossed my mind was “stampede” – as bodies swept by the rope pressed me hard against the wall of people that stood behind me. Fortunately nothing worse than what happened to the woman who fell resulted from this and a pause in the drawing of the chariot allowed order to be restored, giving me an opportunity to quickly make my way out of the eye of the storm. We were to learn later from two Israeli travellers with whom we had the pleasure of sharing a bottle of whisky with on the terrace of the Peaceful Inn in Nagarkot that the festival has in the past proven to be a deadly one … they how they had witnessed the lingam pole being pulled down and breaking in the process and whilst on this occasion no one had been hurt, it was common knowledge that a few deaths are not uncommon as a result of the pole falling on the crowd or from a runaway chariot.

Trying to get close to the action during the pulling of the chariot proved to be not just an exhilarating, but also quite a terrifying experience.

One of the two lines being tugged at by children to the cries of men perched at an extension at the front end of the chariot.

Short clip of the chariot being pulled in Khalna Square.

Being caught up in the frenzy of the ancient Bisket Jatra close to the action probably counts as one of my most exciting experiences. If you were to ask if I would do it again, I would definitely want to … but knowing what I know now, chances are that I would keep a safer distance from all the action – as did many of the better informed tourists in the square. Leaving the excitement of the festival behind, we made our way back to Taumadhi Square and then to Durbar Square – that was enjoyable in many ways as we were able to take in some fine examples of traditional Newari religious architecture for the first time on the trip … but what probably remains etched most in our memories were the events of Khalna Tol that we had moments before, been caught up in.





A circle of Tibetan life in the Kathmandu Valley: Boudhanath

12 05 2011

From one UNESCO World Heritage Site, we found ourselves, after a quick (in Nepali terms) lunch, at another – the giant stupa of Boudhanath, the largest stupa in Nepal, some 5 kilometres northeast of Kathmandu. As was very evident from the crowd and the décor of the buildings that were laid out in a circle around the giant stupa, the stupa and its supporting buildings is very much a centre for Tibetan Buddhism, as well as being a shelter for the largest community of Tibetans (numbering some 16,000) in Nepal.

The stupa at Boudhanath, a UNESCO World Heritage Site is an important centre for Tibetan Buddhism in Nepal.

Our first glance of the stupa was through a passageway which to get to, required a somewhat treacherous passage across the busy stream of traffic passing through a thoroughfare that perhaps epitomised traffic conditions in Kathmandu with its steady stream of honking motorcycles, cars and buses bursting with passengers. The street, besides the chorus of horns and over laden vehicles, was littered with the colours of the saffron and dark red robes of Buddhist monks and that of the many pilgrims attempting to weave their way through the cross current of dusty vehicles. Once across, a sign board next to an archway gave us a clue as to what we were about to visit a World Heritage Site, and through the crowd of pilgrims and curious tourists many of whom were posing for a photograph, and the row of shops many offering religious articles, the towering sight of the grandest of stupas in the Kathmandu valley greeted us. The great white dome and its pointed pinnacle dressed up in the colours of the New Year crowd was truly a magnificent sight.

Getting across the street filled with honking overloaded vehicles proved to be a challenge.

Many of the buses and vans were bursting at their seams with the Nepali New Year crowd.

The first sight of the stupa, the largest in Nepal.

The stupa and the area around has apparently a long association with Tibet, being on an ancient trade route used to reach the Kathmandu valley from Tibet, and is where Tibetan merchants have stopped for a rest and to seek blessings before continuing on their journey. Boudhanath has since 1959, in the aftermath of the People’s Republic of China’s annexation of Tibet in 1950, served as a area where many Tibetans crossing the border into Nepal to flee the oppression of Chinese rule have taken refuge in. There is a fair bit of information on the stupa and the area around the stupa as well as on Tibetan life in exile around the area of Boudhanath which can be found on Wikipedia as well as on blogs such as Everyday Exile, Of Yetis and Yaks (Nepal through Western Eyes) and other online resources such as on this link. The area which hosts many new monasteries that have come up since has become one of the most important centres of Tibetan Buddhism outside of Tibet.

The area around the stupa is home to some 16,000 Tibetans in exile.

Two elderly Tibetan ladies at Boudhanath.

Boudhanath is home to many new Tibetan monasteries set up after the influx of refugees in 1959.

Detail on one of the buildings of the monasteries.

A Tibetan temple.

A mural on one of the religious buildings.

Another mural on one of the religious buildings.

Pastel shaded houses circle the stupa.

A monk turning a giant prayer wheel.

The stupa is set on terraces which allows the visitor to ascend to the base and also circumambulate the stupa. Again, being the New Year, we had a chance not just to mingle with the Tibetan community who were distinct in their appearance and in the dressing, as well as the many locals who had descended on the stupa for the occasion. Having circumambulated the stupa once, it was time then to move on, on to our next destination which proved to be the highlight of the day, but not before the treacherous crossing back across the street to where the van was waiting for us.

The circle of life ... a spinning prayer wheel ...

What goes around certainly comes around ....

The circle of houses around the stupa as seen from the terraces of the stupa.

The ascending terraces allow access to the stupa's base.

The base features niches in which images of Buddha are placed.





365 steps plus 13 degrees to enlightenment: Swayambhunath

11 05 2011

It was with a touch of good fortune that seven friends and I found ourselves in Kathmandu on the eve of the Nepali New Year I suppose. We hadn’t intended that, having to accommodate one who now lives half a world away, as well as fitting the trip we had planned within the constraints of flight availability. That we were, was something of a photographer’s dream I suppose, as we were confronted with the burst of life and colour around some of the most wonderful cultural heritage sites that I have visited. Wonderful not so much for the richness of architecture or craftsmanship that we sometimes associate with a cultural heritage site, but for the fact that the sites were not edifices that remind us of a time gone by, but living ones that are very much bursting with the life that makes them what they are.

The Nepali New Year is as much a religious celebration as much as it is one to celebrate the arrival of a new year.

Our first stop during the New Year was to the pilgrimage site of Swayambhunath, up the pilgrims path of 365 steps that leads one to a stupa, built with thirteen rings that represent the thirteen degrees of knowledge one needs to acquire on the path to enlightenment. Swyambhunath, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is located on a holy site that is thought to go back some 2,500 years, according to local legend, the bodhisattva Manjushri was said to have discovered a lotus flower at the centre of an ancient lake that had filled the Kathmandu valley, and drained it by cutting a gorge, allowing the valley to become habitable. The flower was said to have settled where the stupa now is.

The stupa at Swayambhunath is accessible via a pilgrims path of a flight of 365 stone steps to the top of the hill on which the stupa is perched.

The stupa of Swayambhunath said to be built on a site where a lotus flower of an ancient lake drained by the bodhisattva Manjushri was found and features 13 gilded rings each representing a degree of knowledge a person needs to acquire on the path to enlightenment.

Arriving at the foot of the steep flight of steps, we stepped out from the calm of the van into the din and frenzy that accompanied the gathering of street vendors in a clearing next to where we alighted, and were transported into the sea of saffron, crimson and gold of pilgrims decked out in the finery of the New Year, mingling with holy men and monks in robes that suggested the paths in life they had taken, in the cool shade of the trees at the foot of the hill. The trees are in fact according to legend, said to have grown from hairs cut from Manjushri and the monkeys we find around, said to have been the lice from Manjushri’s hair.

The foot of the hill is shaded with trees which are said to have grown from the hairs cut from Manjushri's head.

And the many monkeys found around the complex are said to have grown from the lice that fell off.

The stupa is of course one that is associated with the Buddhist faith, one that in many parts of the world is distinct in its practice to that of the predominant Hindu faith in Nepal, and has been a cebtre of Buddhist learning for centuries. It is in Nepal where the faiths intertwine, as much as life and faith comes together as one in daily life. Nepal is where Buddha, as the Hindu Prince Gautama had been born, and where he left the comforts of his princely life to live a life that led him on the path to enlightenment on which the Buddhist faith was built on.

A statue of Buddha on the ascent up the pilgrim path to Swayambunath - Buddhism is embraced within the larger Hindu faith in Nepal.

Smaller stupas on the pilgrim's path.

Detail on a small stupa.

The ascent is one that gets steeper as it reaches its climax, as the stairway narrows and the stupa comes into sight. It is near the top where the tourist is required to pay an entrance fee of Rs 200 at a landing on the left of the stairs that one realises how much one has climbed as the opportunity to look back and survey the mass of narrow brick dwellings that define the city of Kathmandu that lay below. At the top, the stupa dominates the crest of the hill, surrounded by other structures and a circle of prayer wheels at the base. Teeming with pilgrims that sought blessings for the New Year, the area around the stupa was a kaleidoscope of the colours of the earth, the wind and of fire, earth being that of the offering laid out all around; wind seen in the the fluttering of prayer flags and the frenzy of movement of people around the stupa; and fire being the fire of fire being offered to the deities.

The steep final part of the ascent ...

... as the stupa comes into view.

The view of the Kathmandu valley near the top.

Another view of the stupa at the top of the 365 steps.

Prayer flags to be offered at the top.

Prayer wheels circle the base of the stupa.

The turning of prayer wheels on which mantras are written on is believed to bring purification and merit to aid in the path one takes to enlightenment.

Offerings being prepared.

An offering of food.

The area around the stupa is surrounded by temples, shrines and other religious buildings and monkeys roam the area freely, mingling with the pilgrims and curious tourists. For this, the stupa is sometimes referred to as the Monkey Temple. A feature of the stupa is the four flat sides of a cuboid of which each is adorned with the eyes of Buddha looking in four directions, each with a third eye painted above. More information on the complex and its background can be found on this site.

View of the complex around the stupa.

Roof of a building around the stupa.

Saffron water being thrown to trace the shape of the lotus petal on the stupa.

Dongak Choling Gompa.

A view of the Swayambhunath complex.

Offerings of fire.

Local children.

Another view of the area.

The stupa and the Hariti temple in the background.





Taking flight from Old Kallang Airport

5 04 2011

No, it wasn’t flights of fancy that one might associate with the idealistic pursuit of expression that artists are sometimes inclined to have that took off from what was Singapore’s first civil airport, Old Kallang Airport. The former airport, still with us in the form of its iconic terminal building and control tower, along with a few auxiliary buildings around it, isn’t of course capable of hosting flying machines – something that we have not seen in the shadows of the simple terminal building for over half a century, with its runway and much of the land it occupied given to other uses.

The light is shinning on Old Kallnag Airport for the Singapore Biennale 2011.

One that certainly did not take to the skies .... parked where a flying machine might have been seen over half a century ago.

It wasn't just the flying of an imaginary flag up a flag pole that Old Kallang Airport saw on Sunday.

What did take off from the old airport were some of the simpler pursuits we once indulged in during our childhoods, something that both young and old were able to participate in – the flying of simple light paper and bamboo framed kites. It was a simple yet brilliant idea that provided a welcome distraction to many of the younger and otherwise bored visitors at Singapore Biennale Open House, which hasn’t really taken Singapore by storm as it should really have done. The kite flying was part of the craft activities that reached out to the young that included terrarium making, badge making, and paper aeroplane making. Children were allowed to decorate their own kites, have tails fixed on, and with a kite string on a small reel, the kites were ready to go.

The lack of a runway did not deter flights from taking off from Kallang Airport.

A child running with a kite ...

Even the older "kids" had a ball of a time.

Flights from Kallang Airport ...

A kite seen through a dangling cable.

The activities are all part of the Beinnale’s Family Day Out aimed at reaching out to members of the public offering not just a host of activities, but also free admission to all venues on Sundays and Public Holidays in April and May right up to the Beinnale’s last day on 15 May. For more information on the activities and the Family Day Out, do visit the Singapore Biennale 2011’s website at this link.

Despite the manifesto for bad music ....

... there was some good music in store for visitors to Old Kallang Airport with an enjoyable performance by Ling Kai.