The Other China: Taiwan-II
A monk called Candragupta carried Buddhist ideas to China in the mid-ninth century, finds out Dr Gautam Vohra who thought it was Chandragupta spelt wrongly in the Chinese document...
We left our hotel at Chiayi and headed for the southern branch of the National Palace Museum which was established in 1965. During the fight against the Manchus, Chiang Kai-shek collected a lot of art and art objects as he along with other warlords strode across China. Gordon says that the initial hoard was of 6000 objects collected by the time World War II ended. Thereafter the civil war erupted and Mao defeated Chiang Kai-shek who fled with 6000 artworks – paintings, calligraphy, research documents, precious stones, engravings, carvings, beautifully crafted and engraved lacquer boxes... to Taiwan where he housed them in the National Palace Museum. The number of objects d’art has grown many times over (700,000 now) and are divided between the enormous museum in Taipei and its southern section in Chiayi County. We were first exposed to the Buddhist section of the museum. We were informed that the essence of Mahayana Buddhism is altruism and the central figures is the bodhisattva who vows to liberate all sentient beings from suffering. Among the many bodhisattvas, the largest following is of Maitreya, the Buddha of the future, and Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. As I wandered examining various Buddhist artefacts and documents I came across a Tibetan text that stated: The translation of the Buddha’s words in a Tibetan Buddhist canon consists of tantras, sutras and monastic codes. I learnt that the Tibetan text comprised 108 volumes and was divided into six parts. I admit that I am interest in Buddhism – not for nothing am I named after the Buddha – but no way was I going to peruse the numerous volumes. Even as I pondered on the statement that the focus of Tibetan Buddhism was meditation, we were told that Buddhism made its way to China via Central Asia. A local version of Buddhism was developed during the Sui and Tang dynasties. And who carried Buddhist ideas to China? Apparently it was a monk called Candragupta (I thought it was Chandragupta spelt wrongly in the Chinese document) in the mid-ninth century, as noted in the document I was perusing. He was based in Madhya Bharat, central India and visited present day Yunan where he taught yoga, yoga tantra aimed at the subjugation of evil. Thereafter we visited the section of curio boxes of the Qianlong Emperors, which contained metal (bronze) and porcelain ware, carvings, jade, gemstones, gold coins; but I could not focus on the riches on show. My mind was on fighting evil, extending compassion and being liberated from suffering. For that period I was totally engrossed in Buddhism. It was only when we settled down for lunch in the city of Sihio that I snapped out of my trance.
At 7 a.m. we were picked up by van to visit the old township of Shifen which, as its name denoted, had 10 families. That was over a century ago. Now it was no longer a tiny village near a magnificent waterfall. It was a tourist attraction reflecting an ancient village (now a town) of Taiwan. No sooner had we arrived in Shifen, sky lanterns were handed to us. Ours was coloured yellow. We wrote messages on each of the four sides: then the opening within the lantern was lit which created gas that enabled the lantern to rise up and reach towards the sky. Then we were off to view Shifen’s waterfall. The walk to the water fall was a winding affair, up and down the path even as it drizzled. At various stages smaller falls appeared and we got held up at each. Then there it was. An impressive fall, not nearly as impressive as the Iceland one; I could not recollect the Argentinian one except the massive thunderous sound the water made. Not so Shifen waterfall, not so tumultuous but appealing nevertheless.
Next day, we took a boat to the nearby island of Qujing. The view from the boat gave an idea of the enormous size of the harbour. As soon as we got off the boat, we climbed into pedicabs, cycle rickshaws, in which I had not ridden since I was five, during my Ferozepur days. While the drivers of the other two couples were oldish men, one with a thin long Confucius-style white beard hanging from his chin, ours was a matronly lady with a straw hat who kept pointing to various sites as we rode gently through the crowded, a bit noisy, Qijing market. I was struck once again by the size, the imposing structure, of the church. We were passing through pineapple and banana plantations. Further along the beach appeared the Taiwan Strait on one side, with on the other, the Pacific glistening in the sun. The beach, the gently rolling country-side and the woman singing on the radio “You broke my heart...” made it a pleasant drive. We had arrived at Maobitou, the “Cat’s Nose”, which is situated on the western side of Taiwan’s southernmost point. It separates Taiwan Strait and Bashi Channel, and is a coral reef rock rolled down into the ocean from the nearby cliff and looks like a cat lying on its stomach. We were at one end of the island, the Cat’s Nose. At the other end was Sail Rock, a coral reef land mass in an oval formation. Our guide said we would be driving down the oval path encircling the ocean to the other end shortly.
The nuclear plant stood out at the other end, nearer Sail Rock. It was Taiwan’s third nuclear power station. Then, we arrived at Sail Rock, the Chuanfan Rock, which apparently rolled down to the coastline from the nearby plateau. From a distance it looks like a sailboat about to set sail. On closer inspection the nose jutting out from the rock (head) formation, looked like the nose of a former US President. I wondered why it was called Nixon’s Rock. But as I stared at the nose ... by golly they had it right. Having covered the Nixon-McGovern election campaign in 1972-73, I had occasion to spend a fair bit of time with both candidates – have telling photos with both – and I could recognise the impeached President’s nose, if anyone could. In the evening we visited the most famous of the night markets – the Linhe Night Market. The Tropic of Cancer passes through the country. To the north of it a temperate climate! To the south, a sub-tropical. Though we had rains during the day, they did not interfere with our sight-seeing. (To be continued) All pics by Priya Sen