Letter from China: Shaolin and Bodhidharma

Note: This is a blog post about my six-month journey across India and China. To find out more about why I went on this trip, please read, Next book: From Kerala to Shaolin. In the interest of clarity, I am not publishing this “from China”, but Singapore, where I am back now.

Zhang Yong

Zhang Yong, one of the shifus at the Shaolin Temple Wushu Training Center

A continuation of Letter from China: Xi’an and the road to Shaolin

The Shaolin Temple…at last

Two days after reaching Dengfeng, we visit the Shaolin Temple. After paying the RMB100 (US$16) per head entrance fee, we walk through the ticket counter, and soon pass one branch of the Tagou school on our right. We keep walking for another five minutes to arrive at the wushu demonstration centre, which has hourly performances. Even at 9 in the morning, some 30minutes before the first performance, a queue has formed.

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First letter from China: Sichuan

Note: This is an on-the-road blog post. To find out more about why I am on this trip, please read, Next book: From Kerala to Shaolin

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A continuation of Postcard from Tibet: Drinking yak butter tea

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Chengdu streetfood

Chengdu

When I find out that our mainland China trip will begin in Chengdu, I am overjoyed. Before this Kerala2Shaolin research trip, I had visited only a few mainland Chinese cities: Chengdu, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Zhuhai. By some distance, Chengdu is my favourite.

Li Ling, my wife, and I had visited in April 2012. Ling, on her first ever visit to the land of her forefathers, was filled with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, worried about a week of musky hotel rooms, smoky restaurants and squalid, squatting-only toilets.

Deciding on Chengdu back then was easy. Ling wanted to look at animals and I wanted to eat them. Few places attract animal lovers and carnivores so effortlessly: Chengdu is home to the world’s foremost Panda sanctuary; it is also one of Asia’s gastronomic capitals, the centre of Sichuan cuisine. After five days we were smitten, by the comical, goofy pandas, by the irresistible “mala” spice (ma: numbing;  la: spicy) and, unexpectedly, by the charming, laid-back people of Sichuan, who seem less interested in China’s hot growth than China’s hot tea. (For a more detailed digression into mala and Sichuanese food, see Culinary post from China: Sichuan)

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Travel note from India: Chandipur beach, Orissa

If you enjoy visiting places that still feel raw and untouched, and where tourists are rare; yet also developed enough that you can easily get there, and enjoy clean toilets, comfortable beds and Wifi, move Orissa—now known as Odisha—up your travel list.

Kirit and I travel here to investigate paika akhada, one of India’s lesser-known martial art forms. I am eager to find out why, in comparison to gatka, kalarippayattu, silambam and thang-ta, Orissa’s martial art seems to be very much on the decline. (For more on my book project, From Kerala to Shaolin, please see here.)

In between our martial arts interviews and exhibitions, Orissa leaves the wanderlusty travellers in us absolutely smitten. Bhubaneshwar, where we begin our journey, is known as the Temple City of India. I am not really one for marvelling at temple architecture, but the stone and wood work is so intricate and unique—unlike all the hundred others I’ve seen in India—it takes my breath away. Moreover, when strolling around Bhubaneshwar’s old city, where the old and new are so seamlessly integrated, one can easily forget what age we’re in. It is one of these “living” old cities.

Other major Oriya attractions—which we didn’t have time for—include Puri, a seaside town which is an important Hindu pilgrimage centre, the Sun Temple at Konark, with its erotic sculptures, and the many forest reserves, including those with some of the best tiger populations around.

You should go before the international airport in Bhubaneshwar, the capital, is complete, because then, as we all know, the floodgates will open. As it stands now, it’s still very easy to get there via Bombay, Calcutta or Delhi. More info below.

For now, I will just leave you with one of the highlights of my trip so far: Chandipur Beach. I love beaches, and have been lucky to spend time on many across the entire world. Chandipur is, in a way, the most special. This is because of its unique topography. The sea bed’s incline is so gentle that the sea recedes up to five kilometres during low tide. Locals call it the vanishing sea.

At high tide, you can see the whites of oh-so-gentle waves forming from five kilometres out and slowly rolling in. At low tide, the topography creates a gigantic low-water expanse for one to explore and play in. You can let your three-year old kids run wild without ever worrying about them drowning.

Click to enlarge any image:

High tide

High tide. The whites of the waves form from far, far away, and slowly making their way to the shore Continue reading

Letter from India: Gatka

Note: This is an on-the-road blog post. To find out more about why I am on this trip, please read, Next book: From Kerala to Shaolin. In the interest of clarity, although I wrote most of this letter when in India, I am actually clicking “Publish” when in S Africa, where I am visiting my wife for a few days.

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A continuation of Letter from India: Philosophies

Buses

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By the time Kirit and I reach Punjab, buses have broken our backs. Unable to secure a seat on any northbound train, we board a series of overnight buses—Pondicherry to Hyderabad; Hyderabad to Nagpur; Nagpur to Indore; Indore to Jaipur; Jaipur to Chandigarh; and, finally, Chandigarh to Amritsar—collectively taking more than 50 hours over some 3000km, greater than the distance from Hong Kong to Singapore, or Houston to San Francisco.

In Indore we break our journey for a few days, visiting my Nani’s house every day for home cooking. Then, as if to compensate for those comforts, our karma delivers the bus from hell. We have two “upper sleepers” on a “Non-AC bus” to Jaipur. This doesn’t sound too shabby, but when we board we find a dirty, old interior. The faux leather plastic on my bed’s “headrest” is completely worn, exposing the spongy foam beneath. Every time I lift my head up, I find little bits of black foam clinging lovingly to my hair. The bed itself is sandy. That is partly its steady state, and partly my doing, as I keep my soiled slippers up there with me, rather than down below on the even filthier bus floor, where they might get trampled on by even filthier slippers.

Across the aisle, on a double-sleeper on the other side of the bus, are my travel companions: an elderly man and his white terrier, “Kutta”, literally dog in Hindi. Kutta is actually quite cute, but he annoys me by barking sporadically and also because I’m envious of his royal diet: burfi, which I look at longingly, every time the man places one delicately in Kutta’s mouth. Kutta’s bark isn’t the only aural pain. At every available opportunity our bus driver blares his irritating horn, which in India can range from the multi-layered melodious to the fart-like. The racket is worse than anything those post-South Africa 2010 Vuvuzuela nuts conjured. I regret booking a sleeper in the front of the bus.

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Letter from India: Philosophies

Note: This is an on-the-road blog post. To find out more about why I am on this trip, please read, Next book: From Kerala to Shaolin.

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A continuation of Letter from India: People

Philosophy and spiritual teachings have crept410px-BodhidharmaYoshitoshi1887 into conversations throughout the last eight weeks in India. Perhaps I should have expected this. Almost all Indian martial arts are grounded in spirituality, if not necessarily religion. Boddhidharma (pictured), who many believe brought some form of martial arts from South India to Shaolin sometime in the 5th-6th century, was a Buddhist monk.

Although, as somebody different reminds me every few days, back then Buddhism and Hinduism were not “religions” in the contemporary sense, and there might have been a lot more overlap between them. Many Hindus might have subscribed to the teachings of the Buddha; moreover, they would probably not even have identified themselves as “Hindus”, distinct from “Buddhists”. Even today, the terms “Hindu” and “Buddhist” do not have widespread currency across India. “I prefer to say that I am a follower of Lord Buddha’s teaching,” Kirit’s uncle, the secretary of a Japanese Buddhist organisation in Jaipur, tells me.1

All this is important, because as we consider the ancient connections between Chinese and Indian martial arts— a microcosm, perhaps, of broader cultural exchange—it is worth noting that undergirding those flows was not “religion” or “proselytisation” as we know them today, but rather a more universal ethos about living a good, honourable, spiritual life.

As such, the shorthand that I’ve been using this past year to describe kung fu’s origins—“Martial arts probably spread from India to China in the 5th-6th C with Buddhism as its vehicle”—is simplistic. Continue reading

Letter from India: People

Note: This is an on-the-road blog post. To find out more about why I am on this trip, please read, Next book: From Kerala to Shaolin.

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A continuation of Letter from India: Kalarippayattu

The best part about being on a long research trip is that I get to meet so many fascinating people. Every day. All the time. It is actually both a blessing and a curse, because I spend hours agonising over which people to spend more time with, which ones I may develop into character profiles for the book, which ones must be interviewed right there and then, which ones can wait till a later trip/phone call, etc.

As I went through the first editing process for Floating on a Malayan Breeze in late 2010, I had to omit, with great sadness, many different characters about whom I had already written. There was “Penang Lyn”, who ran Sweet Manna Matchmaking, helping, among others, Singaporean Chinese guys looking for Penang Chinese girls, in demand because they are apparently less materialistic than KL and Singapore girls.

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Letter from India: Kalarippayattu

Note: This is an on-the-road blog post. To find out more about why I am on this trip, please read, Next book: From Kerala to Shaolin. In the interest of clarity and transparency, although I wrote most of this letter when in India, I am actually clicking “Publish” when in Singapore. I am back home now for a few days break.

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A continuation of Letter from India: Trivandrum

India is helping me slow down. On Day 1 I am frustrated when I find out it will take three days to get my Indian SIM card. On Day 5 I hear that the new estimate is one week. Babu Uncle, in a rare rationalisation of Indian delays, says something about terrorists and cellphone-activated bombs, but all I can think about is the Roaming Charge Bomb that Singtel will dispatch in three weeks.

Moreover, it’s getting embarrassing and tiresome responding to well-meaning folks who repeatedly ask, “You don’t have a local number?” For writers working abroad today, a local cell number is essential, not only for convenience’s sake, but also because it symbolises, in some small way, a semi-permanent, serious kind of scholarship, as opposed to parachuting, fly-by-night analysis. Continue reading

Photos from India: Kalarippayattu

Note: This is an on-the-road photo journal. To find out more about why I am on this trip, please read Next book: From Kerala to Shaolin. Importantly, these are just some simple photos taken by yours truly. The really good photos on this trip are being taken by Kirit Kiran, a Delhi-based photographer and filmmaker. The best will appear in the actual book.

Massage oils

Massaging oils before practise, CVN Kalari, Trivandrum

Young fighter

CVN Kalari, Trivandrum

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Photos from India: Trivandrum

Note: This is an on-the-road photo journal. To find out more about why I am on this trip, please read Next book: From Kerala to Shaolin. Importantly, these are just some simple photos taken by yours truly. The really good photos on this trip are being taken by Kirit Kiran, a Delhi-based photographer and filmmaker (photo below). The best will appear in the actual book.

People

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Vasantha, a helper, and amachi, Babu Uncle’s mum, world-renowned chef. They took good care of Kirit and I for a week. Continue reading