Thursday, February 18, 2016

Incorporating the natural and inviting the supernatural

At the Mamangam Kovil tank in Batticaloa you take a breather next to a stunning urban lake. Almost as much wildness is incorporated here as you might see in a rural tank, one of the 30,000 human-built ecosystems spread throughout Sri Lanka. In the near distance at the other side of the lake lies a thick forest. It hides more miles of sub-urban settlement behind it. More lakes and waterways lie in and among the houses and kovils that stretch northward to the Kali Kovil, a sort of terminus of this sacred series. 

Covering the lake are lotuses, water lilies, and other assorted plants that suggest deep country more than inner city. Fish dart here and insects glide along the water or in the still air just above. This is a natural space, probably built before the city grew up around it rather than the other way around-something carved out of the urban fabric. 

How people use and perceive this space is a point of interest. I've seen children walking along the concretized steps of the gently curbing bund, barefoot, chattering, happy. Older people too I've seen stopping here, either to look or to touch the water. I've heard much about young couples stopping by temple, either Buddhist or, like this place Hindu. Here they come for relaxation, a moment to meditate together, or, as I saw today, to supplicate prayerfully in hopes of starting a family. 

The peacefulness and peaceable surroundings lend themselves to a feeling of relaxation that might be regarded as a kind of holiness. The gentlest breeze refreshes as your eyes rest on the green expanse of water, the weightlessness of local birds, the harmony felt by standing here in silence. This awe is brought by a connection with nature. It's no wonder then that holy places like this kovil incorporate the natural. 

In the preserve of nature is also a claim to ownership, something I've observed in Buddhist spots here in Sri Lanka but perhaps true as well of the Hindu holy places I've encountered. "We are here" as part and parcel of this nature's world makes a statement of belonging, profound in its embrace of nature as part of your humanness. Our houses and roads and buildings are less than pretty. Our holy buildings stand apart, not within a natural surrounding. But these ponds, these forests, these meditative steps taken among rocks or water are a living iconography of landscape and our embrace of it. Embrasure is at once a holding and an immersing. In this simple gesture lies a dawning of the complex, a drawing of human and nature together, "human nature." Possibly the ownership expressed here is mutual. We may own this spot but as part of nature, at least in gesture, we acknowledge nature's ownership of us. 

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