Buddhist Stupas
In Asia

The Shape of

Joe Cummings (Text)
Bill Wassman (Photographs)

(Lonely Planet)
The word "stupa," according to the author, may have come from the word "thupa," which, in Assamse, means a heap of straw. Think of a haystack. In the Far East, the shape is associated with peace and prosperity.

The first four stupas were built, according to legend, to hold the remains of the Buddha --- and were erected at his place of birth, of enlightment, at the site of his most significant teachings, and the place of his death. Since then, thousands have been built in Thailand, India, Burma, Sri Lanka, Japan, China, Tibet, Cambodia, Laos, Nepal, Korea, and Vietnam.

The shape varies from country to country --- some being a simple round breast-like structure, others perfectly square; many with spires, others with a variety of spiral, pointed, or decorative elements. Chinese stupas traditionally display an octagonal shape with a variety of shrine levels.

Almost all of the stupas in Vietnam were damaged --- some severely --- during American military shenanigans there. In the Himalayas, there are eight stupa types, including those with rounded tiers, square tiers, Buddha niches, dharma wheels, and bell-shaped domes. The most eye-catching of the stupas are the white ones --- often repainted with whitewash every year --- and those with golden domes and spires.

Buddhist Stupas in Asia contains 250 photographs of the most interesting or unusual, and it's a feast for the heart and soul. Some, such as the Pha That Luang in Laos are hoary, streaked with age. Others, such as the Taxila in Pakistan are nothing but a ruined hump in a meadow.

In Sri Lanka, alongside the Ayeyarwady River, countless brilliant white spires stick out of the greenery. The Wat Arun in Thailand is a riot of porcelain decorations and figurines with scary faces.

The Wat Phra has a spire of solid gold pointing straight up from its bell-like base. The eyes of Vairochana Buddha peer out in the four directions from the stupa in Kathmandu called Bodhnath.

In this particular volume --- 170 pages of pictures and text --- there are a dozen clear overlays to illustrate the basic structure of the major stupas. When Margot and I were in Bangkok, we went to the Wat Pho --- which we thereafter referred to as the "What fo'." I can remember nothing about it except a very noisy guide type who insisted on following us around and offering his services.

Some stupas are designed so that you can trace the stages of life by going around and up into them. The recent destruction of two Buddhist statues by the Taliban is neither rare nor unusual. There are several photographs of stupas that have been razed by Muslim radicals --- especially in Indonesia.

The Great Stupa in Sri Lanka is just that: breathtakingly great. It was built 2,150 years ago. As the Zen Masters would have it, who (or where) were you 2,150 years ago? The biggest stupa of them all is in Java, hardly a hotbed of Buddhism nowadays --- more the home of beefy Australian surfers out for a cheap drunk. It --- the stupa, not drunken Australians --- was discovered by Thomas Stamford Raffles in 1817, and is in Borobudor.

If you want my advice, and if you were setting out to visit just one, I'd pick the 11th Century Bogan in Burma, named after the great Buddhist mystic Hum Fre Bogan. The great gold bell-shaped dome should make you give up your stodgy Presbyterianism forever.

Some stupas have the relief of a rabbit carved on the side, representing peace and fecundity. Or the moon. Did you know that to the Japanese the man in the moon is a rabbit grinding mooshi? The next time you peek at the moon, see if you get the picture. When they answer the telephone in Tokyo, they say, "Mooshi-mooshi." If you don't believe me, watch Kurosawa's High and Low.

Despite my stupid stupa memory lapse, and from what I can see here, the What Fo' is fairly stunning. As the author points out, stupas are not locked off from the world like, say, much of the Vatican. They are there, day and night, to be wandered through.

One I do remember in Bangkok had a Buddha lying down, as if for a quick nap. Can you imagine a cathedral in Europe with a forty-foot reclining Jesus? Another showed a giant Buddha, towering over us all, beautific smile and all. Worshippers plastered gold leaf on his huge toenails. I swear, those toenails were as big as my head, and the gold beat out any put out by Revlon. I've had fungus under one of my toenails for over fifty years now, but let's not get into that now.

--- Carlos Amantea

The Architecture
Of Connection

Lucy Blakstad

Ms. Blakstad has a thing about bridges. In this 192 page volume, she offers us, among others, the Golden Gate, the Millennium Bridge, the Øresund Fixed Link, the Bridge over the River Kwai, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Tacoma Narrows, and the Mostar Bridge. The last two have disappeared --- the former because of engineering problems, the latter, through political violence. Then there is the Bridge of No Return at Panmunjom --- one that lies athwart North and South Korea.

Much space here is devoted to the Mostar Bridge that used to pass over the Neretva River in Herzegovina. It was constructed in 1566 and was destroyed in November 1993.

    Everyone agrees that the bridge was a genuine masterpiece, a stone monument to superb skills and mastery. It would be quite a task to find anything to match its beauty.

A Serbian artillery barrage under one Miodrag Perisic did it in, and it was a victim of that complicated, maddening, barely conceivable war involving Bosnia, Muslims, Serbs, Croats and god knows who else. "When they can destroy eternity," says Ms. Blakstad, "what has man become?"

There are eleven authors represented here, and much discussion of the symbolic importance of bridging cultures, nations, peoples:

    The impressive symbolic gesture of Calatrava's bridges speaks of overcoming an obstacle, of the risk of movement and of its beauty. He who experiences and thinks movement also becomes aware of the dimension of time, of the temporality of all human works and their finite nature --- and above all of our own existence...

says Robert Steiger. Hell, we think: for us, it was just a leisurely evening walk over the East River.

"This book tries to understand the peculiar hold that bridges have over us, and what it is that makes us strive to cross over to the other side." Maybe, but the layout of Bridge is a nightmare, expecially for those of us who have forgotten our specs. The type seems to be five point. There are blurred shots, overlapping shots, intermix of word and picture and color. The clearest pictures are not necessarily those engineering miracles which make it possible "to cross over to the other side," but color shots, for example, of people who live in Brooklyn talking about their bridge.

"It transforms you, it makes you feel lovely," says Marnie, all dressed in her wedding gown, taking up the whole of page 122. Page 115 is given over to a gas station: Texaco, homely --- no, ugly --- complete with slush, stoplights, black fire-hydrants, and grey-sided, windowless buildings.

"Brooklyn's not quite swank, you know," says Marnie in teeny-tiny type. It's Wired gone looney, and detracts from a moderately entertaining volume about getting from here to there. There's the feeling of imbalance, wanting to make too much out of something that doesn't need whizz-bang show-off to bring it into focus.

--- Ignacio Schwartz


For another perspective on bridges
go to The Øresund Fixed Link

Of Time

Photographs of
Flor Garduño

Introduction by
Carlos Fuentes


On the other hand, there's no show-off, no tricks here. Just stunning black-and-white photographs of indigenous peoples of Mexico, Guatemala, Bolivia, and Ecuador. It is "the Indian cosmos" by the photographer Flor Garduño.

A stone village in the mist, two men, a woman, one of the men carrying a small white casket, strapped to his back. A half-naked Indian woman, surrounded by tropical leaves, reminding us of the paintings of Gaugin. A girl-child with a basket of flowers on her head.

A boy beside the dirt road, in the mist, four packages wrapped in dirty cloth, and a drum and a trumpet. Indians marching along a bridge, the cross painted sideways on their flag.

A man carrying a huge wooden fish. Another man wearing a wolf's head, seated in a bare wood office. A indigina wrapped in a blanket, a white cross painted on her forehead.

The names are given: Chichicastenango, Norogáchic, Isla del Sol, Condoramayha, Cunén, Sololá --- but this is everyman and every woman; these are the poor of the world; these are all of us immersed in the dances of death and the dances of life.

"The slow march from life to death," writes Fuentes, "interrupted by comic accidents, childish play, liturgical ceremonies, erotic repose..."

    There are many roads in Garduño's photographs: some go to parties, others to graveyards, others, simply to the farmer's fields. But sooner or later all of them cross that threshold of incense where, uncertainly, nature and art blend so that mankind may have a margin of whimsy, freedom, or significance on the face of the gods.

"We know that we would never have discovered the beauty of this women if it hadn't been preceded by the masks of the gods, the skins of the animals, the elegant robes of the saints, and even the corn-stalk capes of the corn farmers....

"Work and faith, death and life had to precede her so she could emerge, like an Indian Venus, from the jungle water," Fuentes writes, concluding with the appropriate words, The moving portrait of eternity.

Aperture operates out of 20 East 23rd Street, New York City 10010. Their volumes are wonderfully designed, laid out with respect and reserve, embodying some of the best photography available today. They deserve your love and your support.

--- L. S. Evans
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