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 Post subject: The Whispering Dagoba
 Post Posted: Thu Sep 29, 2005 12:35 am 
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The Whispering Dagoba

By James Henderson
Travelintelligence

In the books about Sri Lanka you read that there are enough bricks inside some of the island's dagobas (those rounded temples that stand like vast white water-droplets impacting in the jungle) to construct a wall three feet high from London to Edinburgh. They are truly massive; fitting buildings at which to witness the divine.

In the books about Sri Lanka you read that there are enough bricks inside some of the island's dagobas (those rounded temples that stand like vast white water-droplets impacting in the jungle) to construct a wall three feet high from London to Edinburgh. They are truly massive; fitting buildings at which to witness the divine. But unlike most religious buildings, dagobas have no interior. They are merely a focus for worship and they are solid inside.

Which makes the Gangatilaka Vihara dagoba, at the roadside in Kalutara about 30 miles south of Colombo, a little strange. There you can enter the building, into the huge dome-roofed hall, painted white with statues of the Buddha and illuminations from his life. At the centre stands another, smaller dagoba. It is peaceful and awe-inspiring. But the magical thing about the place is the acoustics. It is a vast whispering gallery.

So many religious buildings use great size as a way of impressing humans with the magnificence of the divine. The huge, cavernous interiors of Christian cathedrals dwarf us into silent wonder and then the acoustics have their way. Of course many Western cathedrals also have a whispering gallery, a simple and satisfying trick to impress the faithful.

Most dagobas are reliquaries (the Temple of the Tooth at Kandy is the best known; the tooth refers to one of Buddha's own), but the most sacred thing about the Gangatilaka Vihara is the bo tree (important in Buddhism because that is where Buddha attained enlightenment). The dagoba itself is not that old, though it was built on the site of an ancient temple (a gubernatorial mansion interrupting the continuity during colonial times). It stands on an island and it is one of the most popular temples in Sri Lanka. It has also recently been restored and so is looking quite spruce.

I arrived on a full moon day, also special in the Buddhist calendar because the Buddha was born, attained Enlightenment and died all on a full moon day. In the street was a half-mile procession of children. They filed past in groups: drummers and cymbal players, rice tossers, pot bearers, flag bearers; dressed in embroidered waistcoats, they danced as they moved, stepping left and then right and then leaning down to the ground. An elephant lumbered past and then some young monks in the back of a Toyota pick-up.

I turned into the dagoba yard. Around the walls of the white dome, the faithful were gathered making their devotions. First they offer fragrant flowers (lotus lily and frangipani) at the different Buddhas, then they offer tiny clay lamps burning with coconut oil and finally they chant their thanksgiving quietly under the bo tree.

I entered the dagoba itself - as usual you must take off your shoes to go inside a Sri Lankan temple - and I padded silently up the curving stairway into the main hall. Overhead was a huge skylike ceiling, perfectly rounded and painted white. At the centre was the small dagoba and the four Buddhas, their tables covered in flowers. Around the outside were the paintings normally seen in a shrine room, depicting Buddha's life and his route to enlightenment.

But of course it was the noise that was so impressive. There were perhaps 200 people in the room and they were constantly moving and talking. Standing against the wall noises reached me from all around, in shifting and shuffling echoes. The normal impact of the noise was dissipated, like sound reflected on corrugated iron: a clap was stretched into a hiss like a breaking wave; each screech by a child came softened, as a three or four, maybe ten-part echo. The quiet invocations of the devout were amplified and then shifted into a constant sibilant stream.

On a quieter day I could have whispered to someone positioned diametrically opposite me thirty yards across the room - whispering galleries best reflect sounds of higher wavelengths - but with so many people there was no definition. I was simply washed over with a mesmeric stream of noise. It had an unworldly, liquid quality. There can be few more powerful man-made ways to witness the divine.


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