Following the Buddha around Bombay
The Buddha’s teachings gradually disappeared from India between the 8th and 12th Centuries, but have been revived in recent years. BR Ambedkar, a Maharashtran lawyer, human-rights activist and author of the Indian constitution (you can see where he studied and practiced law in the city centre) was also a Dalit – the lowest caste in Hinduism – who fought discrimination with Buddhism as his moral platform. He inspired millions of Indians, especially Maharashtrans, to convert to Buddhism in the 1950s, and today you can see Buddhist villages and temples across the state built in his honour. The biggest Ambedkar stupa is in the town of Nagpur in far north-eastern Maharashtra, but Mumbai’s Dadar neighbourhood is home to the Dr Ambedkar Smarak Chaitya Bhoomi monument where regular ceremonies are held in his honour. The major ones in October and December and the occasional mass conversions attended by thousands of people are definitely worth a visit.
Maharashtrans, already familiar with the Buddha’s teaching through Ambedkar, were especially receptive to the meditation courses that became popular in India in the 1950s, brought to the country by SN Goenka, an Indian who grew up and learned meditation in Burma. Today there are 13 retreat centres across the state -- including Dhamma Giri and one right in Mumbai, the Dhamma Pattana Vipassana Centre -- which are open to international visitors as well as locals.
The Mumbai centre sits in the shadow of the monumental Vipassana Global Pagoda on the island of Gorai, a short ferry ride from Mumbai’s Borivali neighbourhood. The 96m-high golden pagoda rises up like a mirage, bringing to mind Burma’s famous Shwedagon Pagoda. Built in 2008 to showcase the Buddha's teaching, the pagoda is the world's largest unsupported dome structure, pieced together using an ancient technique of interlocking blocks. It contains a museum and cavernous meditation hall that seats 8,000 people.
Enshrined at the base of the pagoda tower, just as they were in stupas 2,000 years ago, are pearlized remains of the Buddha -- their presence is thought to be conducive to meditation. So you can take a meditation course underneath the Buddha’s relics and reflect on impermanence, just as people have done in Maharashtra, maybe even on that exact spot, for centuries.
Intensive residential 10-day meditation courses at Dhamma Giri and other centres in Maharashtra are free of charge, though registration is essential. Read more about the courses and apply online at dhamma.org.
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