The overcast sky, the wild wind and the long road seemed akin to a visual metaphor of the storm that had raged inside my mind since few days. It was nine in the morning and I was in IIT Guwahati, driving past a middle-aged woman, with dark and sturdy calves smeared in mud, bent over a bed of frail-looking yellow flowers that lined the campus road, plucking weeds and dropping them into the bamboo basket strapped on her back. Leaving behind a large, tree-lined pond and the morning rush of students cycling to their classes, I was soon out of the IIT campus.
My jethai (my mother’s elder sister) had accompanied me, but we drove in a secretly grateful companionable silence. The road was empty apart from a herd of goats that sat authoritatively right in the middle of it. I rolled down the windows to let the cold wind beat against my face and course their way throw my curls. Just as I was about to turn left on the Amingaon road, a huge Buddha statue with yellow robes and indigo hair caught my eye. It was set atop a hill a few hundred yards away on the opposite side. Why hadn’t I ever noticed it earlier despite taking this road umpteen times?
On an impulse, I turned right and towards the immense statue of Buddha that sat here in the middle of nowhere, so far away from the city. I stopped near three tiny temples which I had misjudged as the path uphill to the statue. We got out of the car anyway at the insistence of the priest who had come out on seeing us. I was hesitant as the only thing religious about me is that I religiously avoided any place of worship thronging with crowds and commercialized rituals. But here we were the only visitors (don’t want to use the word devotees).
The priest told us that this was the Jaiguru Ganesh Mandir. My jethai was more pious than me and did the rounds of the Ganesha temple (where the idol was carved into the slope of hill that formed one of the temple walls), the Shiva temple and the Lakshmi temple.
I just stood there soaking in the quietness and serenity and watched the tiny shed next to a tree with red blossoms, a lone dove perched up on the dome of the Lakshmi temple and large boulders and trees that surrounded the temple. The priest wasn’t judgmental or inquisitive of my avoidance of worship, and came forward smilingly to hand me a sacred flower. I smiled back in acceptance. He directed us the way to the Buddha statue which we were told was located in the Assam Buddha Vihar.
Barely a hundred meters away, we drove uphill into a narrow path. On seeing two old cars covered with dust and grime and half-hidden in the bushes, I wondered if they were abandoned by their owners who couldn’t find any way to reverse and drive down the narrow curves of the path we were on. Chuckling at that possibility of my own car, I parked it and walked up the stone steps into what I assumed was a Buddhist monastery.
In her late sixties now, my jethai wasn’t keen on climbing too many stairs. We reached the verandah of what I still assumed to be a monastery and hence was on the lookout for meditating monks when a woman dressed in a baggy yellow kurta welcomed us with a cheery ‘namaste, please come in’. She dragged out a plastic chair for my jethai to sit in, and showed me the path further uphill to the ‘Bada wala Buddha, Big Buddha’. I walked on alone just as I heard the woman tell my jethai "I thought I was a tall woman, but you are even taller than me". The trail was relatively short and populated with bushes, boulders and red beetles.
The giant torso of the Buddha loomed into view soon enough. Even though it wasn’t as large as the one I had seen in the Tawang monastery, it still cast an imposing figure. There was a view-point that looked out into lush paddy fields, groves of coconut trees swaying in the brisk wind and the distant river. A pale sun shone through the clouds. If I had drove up alone and if I had a book with me, I would have stayed there the entire day.
Half an hour later, I was back with my jethai and the woman with the pleasant face who introduced herself as C. S. Lama. She insisted that we visit her private prayer hall and took us into her home, which I had mistook for a monastery. We walked into a narrow lobby and up some steep stairs to a room with a shabby wooden door. But the lock had got stuck and as her house-help was out on leave for Bihu, we couldn’t enter the prayer hall.
Instead she showed us the mud-filled wooden pot filled with numerous half-burnt incense sticks stuck on it and a wok containing a paste of flour, milk and honey. Every evening Mrs. Lama prayed for peace and poured a spoonful of the milk and flour mixture into the incense-stick pot in a gesture of offering it as ‘bhog’ to the departed souls of loved ones. She then showed us the two Stupas that stood on a tiny hillock adjacent to the verandah.
She guided us through the delightful maze that was her cozy home. The bedroom was littered with old photographs and magazines on the floor; a television was tuned to IPL match highlights; and a stationary exercise bike stood against the large floor to ceiling windows. The view from the bedroom and the adjacent balcony was breathtaking and I could almost touch the blossoms of the gulmohar tree. Mrs. Lama told us how on some nights leopards and deers climbed out of the forests and roamed outside her window. Just hearing about it made me want to camp out there till the next sighting.
She showed us the photographs of her grandchild and nostalgically said, He is seven and often I forget the passage of years and mistake him for my son at that age. They look identical. She took us to an old stove and the pile of firewood lined next to it. Those of us from the hills like our food with the distinct flavor that comes from cooking on firewood.
Mrs. Lama insisted that we stay for coffee as we had visited on the occasion of Bihu and ushered us into the dinning hall bathed in a warm orange light. As she took the lids off tiny red cups with painted yellow dragons and poured in the coffee powder (ironically stored in a Bournvita container), she started narrating the story of her life. She had constructed the entire Assam Buddha Vihar on her own as a tribute to her husband. Just like Shahjahan built Taj Mahal in the memory of Mumtaz, she chuckled. She was assigned the land by the government in the outskirts (as was her preference to be away from the city) in 1984 and whenever sufficient funds were accumulated the construction progressed step by step, and was completed in 1989. It would be completing its twenty-fifth foundation day next year.
She had come to Assam as a young bride from Bhutan, accompanying her husband and used to be the unofficial and preferred translator in all his business transactions here. They ran a flourishing real estate and transport business. Despite having homes in several places in India and Bhutan, she decided to settle down in Assam when she had made up her mind to construct the Buddha Vihar. I used to have a horrible temper and portrayed a tough exterior in the early days, but I had to do so to prevent people from duping me or taking advantage of the fact that my husband was no more, she said matter-of-factly. She proudly stated that her son had graduated from St.Stephen College and now lived in Delhi with his wife and son. Mrs. Lama’s daughter is married to a Bhutanese national and her grand-daughter had just passed her senior year of school. She broke into giggles talking about the events leading up to her son’s marriage that involved some parental resistance and a short ‘living in sin’ (as the term goes in conservative societies) period. I am a broad-minded, modern woman. I understand these things, she said and I couldn’t help feeling a rush of endearment for her.
Now she lives alone in the home she had built for her atop this secluded hill, adjacent to the giant Buddha statue. Downstairs there is a communal prayer hall, where we prayed before a bronze statue of Buddha set atop an artistically set altar. There are plush low settees, gongs, prayer wheels, portraits of leaders she admired, and hand-drawn paintings depicting the teachings of Buddha. She showed me a painting about the fate in after-life and rebirths if we conduct misdeeds in the present life. See, if you needlessly cut down a healthy tree, you will be reborn as a tree too and get mercilessly chopped down. Agar galat kaam karega, toh aadmi agle janam mein khamba ban sakta hai (pointing to a man with a pillar for a torso). Finding her own words very funny, she burst into another set of giggles.
Mrs. Lama mentions that she has eight rooms in the adjacent guest house, that is used by visiting family members as well as occasional tourists. We cook our food together. Come and stay sometime. A new tourist lodge is coming up adjacent to the property and would soon be functional. Mrs. Lama’s warm hospitality, endearing and easy familiarity, delightful conversations, the serene ambience, the peaceful prayer hall, the majestic Buddha statue, the addictive quietude of being far away from the city, the surrounding lush forests and the blossoming Gulmohar; Assam Buddha Vihar is a must visit for the Guwahati residents and tourists alike. I look forward to visit this quaint little place again for the Buddha Jayanti celebrations next week (25th May).
I am just glad that a mundane morning drive brought up such quiet, serendipitous finds. The storm inside had abated.