It was meant to be just another photograph to show off my wonderful trip to Colombo. I had been to the Seema Malakaya shrine, a part of the famous Gangaramaya complex, the city’s most revered Buddhist temple. Located on the jade waters of the Beira lake, the shrine is a petite place, a short wooden walkway leading to a square girded by Buddha statues. It was a sun-shining, bird-chirping, breeze-blowing sort of a day and it seemed to me that this line of decidedly photogenic Buddhas sitting so serenely on the perimeter of the shrine were all waiting to be clicked, instagrammed and posted. I obliged.
Soon enough, a few friends had “Liked” the photo and said the usual nice things. And then.
“Ask the cost of this meditation to the Tamils living in the Lankan north” commented someone.
Here we go, I thought. A perfectly nice photograph ruined by a stray sneer. I am not unsympathetic to the plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka, I know what everyone knows. It’s a terrible affair, in the same league as Indonesian abuses in East Timor, and India’s own record in Kashmir and Manipur. But what did these beatific Buddha statues have anything to do with it. The Seema Melakaya shrine is a cultural heritage dating back a couple of centuries, and its most recent restoration was completed by Sri Lanka’s most liberal and progressive of artists, the architect Geoffrey Bawa.
In a few seconds, there was another comment on the picture. Quoting a critical commentary on Sri Lanka’s status as host of the Commonwealth Heads Of Government Meeting (CHOGM), another friend posted this excerpt: “…you will notice a large number of Buddha statues all over the city. The official guide handed out to you will tell you about how Sri Lanka is the land of tolerance and ethnic harmony upholding the ideals of the Buddha but they will omit to tell you that there is a systematic attempt to ritually stamp the city and country’s landscape with Buddhist icons. The guide will almost certainly not tell you that Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism is riding high with the blessings of the regime, and that religious minorities and Muslim and Christian places of worship and businesses in particular are the targets of systematic attacks.”
What’s their bloody problem, I thought. Why can’t they see the distinction between a timeless object of cultural beauty and fundamentalist freaks, government-aided or not. I was a tourist, this was a beautiful sight, why bring in politics?
Months later, reading about Sinhala Buddhist mobs rampaging through three towns on the southern coast of Sri Lanka, burning and attacking Muslim businesses and homes, I couldn’t help but think back to this little Facebook fisticuff of mine. “Families cowered in marshes and took refuge in mosques as crowds banged on doors, baying for Muslims to come out.” wrote The Economist magazine in a piece headlined ‘Buddhist Power’. The New York Timesreported that “the attacks followed an anti-Muslim rally organised by the Bodu Bala Sena, which roughly translates as Buddhist Power Force, an ultranationalist group linked to the Rajapaksafamily.” Violence sputtered for nearly two days. Four people, three of them Muslims, were killed, and about 80 were injured.
I thought also of what was happening then in Myanmar. Like in Sri Lanka, there has been a militant rise in religious nationalism leading to attacks on minorities. In fact the Burmese monk Wirathu, whom Time magazine famously called ‘The Face of Buddhist Terror’ and who recently has been in news for calling an UN special envoy a b***h and a w***e, is an inspiration to Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, the Sri Lankan monk who leads Bodu Bala Sena. And I thought of Babri Masjid and the Bamiyan Buddhas, both beautiful structures, both heritage sights, both tourist spots once upon a time.
No one can possibly argue that the actions of these monks – or of the Kar Sevaks and the Taliban – in anyway diminishes the glory of centuries old cultural expressions. The question is different. Do we as travellers have a certain responsibility in which we approach our engagement with a place? What do we see – what should we see, when we sightsee? Do we only note the picturesque, or do we also register the political? Should we only read inscriptions on plaques and reviews on TripAdvisor or must we inform ourselves of context before we set out?
While in Srinagar during the elections last year, I had taken a shikara out to explore the old city architecture along the Jhelum river. Much of the ‘new’ city has succumbed to the corruptions of concrete, the traditional timber and brick structures, as beautiful as they are seismically sensible, being passed over for charmless and incompetent ‘modern’ housing. The old city is a refuge, the past preserved effortlessly in the lives of its residents.
I had chosen the shikara ride that particular day because, elections being what they are in Kashmir, most of the city was under curfew. Curfews are common enough in Kashmir and, while inconvenient and a violation of freedom, they don’t really throw people off. Everyone has learnt how to plan their lives around it and make the best of it: the boys will play cricket all day long, old men will drink endless cups of tea and talk about the halaat, the women will sit in the sun and dry their hair or carry on their chores a little more leisurely. In most curfews, river traffic is allowed to carry on and it is possible to get to most parts of the city, albeit at a glacial pace. That day however, even the rivers were curfewed in several places. We were stopped near the Habbakadal bridge but reluctant to turn back so soon, I decided to hop out and walk through the old houses and the streets.
Habbakadal is home to the 14th century Shah-i-Hamdan mosque, a stunningly beautiful structure in Persian style with exquisite enamel work – a ‘must see’ in Kashmir.
As it happens, Habbakadal is also known for 21st-century stone pelters. Much of the old city is labeled ‘restless’ by the Indian forces and all the skirmishes one reads of in the papers take place in areas like Habbakadal. Imagine dozens of boys, keffiyehs wrapped around their faces, flinging stones with the practiced arm of pace bowlers. The police and CRPF cower behind their shields and bullet proof jackets, firing live bullets every now and then. Sometimes, like in 2010, stuff gets out of hand and too many people (120) die. On other days, things remain at a tear gas canister or two, maybe one dead. Not quite the stuff of tourist trails.
Wandering through the narrow alleys I come out on to a deserted street and find myself immediately set upon by a CRPF soldier. He asks me if I am tourist or press, suspiciously eyeing my camera. Despite himself he warms to me, I am reassuringly ‘Indian’, my features that of the plains and my name undoubtedly Hindu. He offers me friendly advice when I tell him I want to explore the old city, see what’s going on.
“Kya bekaar idhar ghumoge, sar phudwaoge. Dalgate jao, Boulevard jao, Mughal Garden jao, Shalimar dekho, Nishat dekho, badiya photo banao.” (Why waste time here? You will get your head split. Go instead to Dalgate, to Boulevard, to Mughal Gardens, see Shalimar, see Nishat, take good photos)
Mughal Gardens in Kashmir, Shalimar and Nishat among them, are, unlike the Old City, World Heritage Sites. They are pretty enough with their summer blooms and sweeping views, even ‘historic’ for having stone walls all around dating to the Mughal era. Yet these gardens represent everything that is wrong with tourism in Kashmir. Located within a misplaced narrative of normalcy, these manicured gardens serve as disembodied bubbles for the Indian tourist to live out fantasies that our films have peddled us for the past half-a-century, including that garish ritual of togging up in faux Kashmiri costumes for picture postcard memories. In this version of Kashmir, the scenery is conveniently devoid of all discomfiting realities, allowing us to leave with our denials intact.
And so, we are back to the question: what should we see when we sightsee? Should we see only what is presented to us in history museums and heritage sites, in guided tours and ‘city attractions’? Or should we try and see more, see what we are not supposed to see, see what is not on display. In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the horrors of yesterday are presented neatly through audio tours and walk maps of the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide museum, but what about the ongoing human rights violations? In West Papua, should we see only beautiful coral reefs and penis sheaths of indigenous tribes or should we also note the ongoing conflict and Indonesian repression? In Tel Aviv, should we only admire the beauty of the people and of Biblical ruins, or ponder over the continued policy of settlements and occupation in Palestinian territories? If travel is about truly finding a place, discovering a space, what sense does it make to erase its edges with our obliviousness?
And if we do choose to ask these questions, not with an agenda but with curiosity and awareness, if we allow ourselves to grapple with the politics of the answers we accept or reject, if we force ourselves to record the ugliness in a thing of beauty, if we struggle with what it means rather than what it is – we might just end up seeing a lot more of our own selves than simply a tourist sight.