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On a mission for enlightenment

W. CHANDRAKANTH

Renowned as an ancient Buddhist centre, Amaravathi rediscovers its past glory with the 13-day Kalachakra festival that began on January 5.

Photo: P. V. Siva Kumar

Religious tourism: Monks flock the town.

THE black-topped road that winds it way through the cotton and chilli fields for about 33 km leads from Guntur city to Amaravathi and sinks without trace into the Krishna behind the Amareswara temple.

The road is not much travelled except by those residing in Amaravathi, a town with hardly 3,000 dwellings in a three-kilometre range and occasional visitors to the ancient temple and the nearby Dharanikota, a holy Buddhist site.

It is a traditionally cotton growing area just as the rest of the district is. There are two high schools and two colleges.

Many tourists

The town averages about 500 tourists a day. Not any longer. A continuous stream of "Buddhists" is flocking to the town from all corners of the globe, as Amaravathi copes with nearly 2,00,000 devout from as far as Tibet, Netherlands, Ireland, Australia, Japan, Iceland, Slovakia, South East Asia and South America. Already the visitors who have landed outnumber the local population.

The place looks more like a Tibetan settlement with Tibetan artefacts and other wares lined up for sale all along the narrow lanes. "Amdo" hotels have come up to serve traditional Tibetan food.

The Tibetans and other Buddhists are here on a spiritual mission of attaining enlightenment through their initiation into the most profound of tantra yogas, "Shri Kalachakra".

Buddha Shakyamuni first gave it to the ruler of the mythical kingdom Shambhala at Palden Drepung (in Tibetan) or Shri Dhanyakataka of ancient India. The latter is otherwise known as Dharanikota. This is where one of the grandest stupas of South India is located. An emissary of Emperor Ashoka laid the foundation for the stupa in Third Century BC. It was subsequently extended under the patronage of the Satavahana dynasty in the Second and Third century A.D. The stupa was built to house the relics of the Buddha, now kept in a jewelled casket in Amaravathi museum.

Just a month ago, when the dark skies mercilessly pounded the catchment areas all along the river, Amaravathi residents saw the majestically widened Krishna almost reaching their doorsteps. Today the monks in maroon and saffron are swamping it. Six tented cities have come up nearby to house the visitors. Twenty-eight schools and colleges and other buildings have also earmarked for accommodation. A thousand luxury tents have come up at Ganesh Nagar where rents are fixed at Rs.60,000. The budget tents cost under Rs.1, 000 for 12 days.

Some well-to-do pilgrims have hired about 800 houses at exorbitant rates ranging from Rs. 15,000-20,000 for the period. Some have hired it for about three months to the joy of the locals.

The Norbulingka Institute is the main organiser of the Shri Kalachakra. In close coordination with the district administration it has ensured the creation of a magnificent tented structure from which the Dalai Lama will give the empowerment. Never before has a Tibetan-style tent been attempted on this scale, says Thepten Tsewang of the institute. (In 1939, the Peacock tent was created near Lhasa in honour of the arrival of the Dalai Lama from his birthplace in Amdo and the present one is said to be the largest and the most impressive Tibetan tent to be constructed so far).

Preparations

The craftsmen of Norbulingka led by Tenpa Choephel, master Thangka painter, are on the job. The tent will be raised over a three-tier stage and the frame will be made of waterproof canvas. There will be 13 roof panels with traditional Tibetan appliqué in 11 colours. A 35ft golden roof fabricated from wood and gold canvas will display the traditional Buddhist deer and dharma wheel on the lower canopy. The all-important Kalachakra Mandala, made of sand, has been built with the help of monks from the Nomgyal Monastery, Himachal Pradesh. A central Tibetan team visited Amaravati on February 13 last year for a preliminary study of the stupendous logistics involved in creating the tented cities to lodge the huge gatherings.

Says the District Collector, G. Jayalakshmi, "we have made provisions for drinking water, water for washing clothes and built 4, 000 toilets and 2, 000 bathrooms. There is a provision for erecting a 1, 000 more toilets in no time if need be as we have kept the panels ready. Electricity, water works and fire services personnel are deployed round the clock. Chlorination both at the headworks and at the local supply levels is being monitored. Food labs have come up to ensure the quality of food."

The pilgrims can breath easy as the administration has not only roped in the services of the medical and the nursing staff of the general hospitals of Guntur and Vijayawada but also established medical camps near all the tented cities and bus stations, railways stations and at other places of accommodations.

Arrangements are being made to allow 20,000 outsiders to witness the Kalacharka empowerment through specially erected enclosures every day.

"Every one is welcome. But please don't disturb the peace. We are here to contribute to world peace. We have great respect for India, which adopted us when we were thrown out. This country and its people have given us love as well livelihood. Please cooperate," says Thupten Tsewang.

Local response

"We too welcome them. They have not only brought peace but also prosperity to our little town. Perhaps the town was like this (crowded with monks) during the ancient times. Just as the locals prospered then, we are also prospering now. Look at our youth who have rented out their used two-wheelers for Rs. 200 per day while collecting Rs.10,000 towards advance. Bi-cycles are taken on rent for Rs. 30 a day and we are given Rs. 500 as advance," adds Koteswara Rao, a farmer. Spiritual attainment for some is material gain for others.

Amaravathi is soon to have another major landmark of religious tourism. A new museum to house Buddhist relics and decorated with the Jataka Chakra stories is coming up. An 80-ft high towering statue of a meditating Buddha is coming up over the building under the Dhyana Buddha project. In some sections reports have mixed up this project with the Kalachakra event).

The Kalachakra festival and the proposed project are set to change the economic profile of the sleepy town forever. Land that cost Rs.20, 000 an acre earlier is now going at Rs. 1,00,000.

After all the cycle of time — Kalachakra — has come a full circle for the residents of Amaravathi.

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