THE BIRTH OF Siddhārtha Gautama
6th Century BC:
The old nurse looked at her radiant Queen, Maya Devi. She still had the same sweet smile on her face, and nothing seemed to have changed since the day she was born, the day the old nurse picked her up as an infant. Pregnancy only made her glow more like the full moon. She still insisted doing things her way in that same charming captivating way like now, when she went bathing all by herself in the Puskarini pool, even though she was about to give birth in a fortnight. Her nurse watched helplessly as Maya played in the pool, with her friends amidst the pink and white lotus flowers. The nurse sighed, and got up to ready the sleeping arrangements for Maya. Maya had wanted to leave for her father’s home for birthing her child as was the custom of those times. But instead of leaving earlier by a month, she spent more time with her affectionate husband, King Suddodhana, the leader of the Shakya clan. On the way to her father’s place, she wanted to spend the night at the beautiful garden in Lumbini, which meant ‘the lovely.’
Just as the nurse was about to walk away towards the tents, she could sense something waswrong. She turned to see Maya’s face contorting in pain for just a moment. Or did she imagine it? She squinted her near-sighted eyes, and watched intently for a longer moment, and noticed the same expression again. Maya met her gaze, and the nurse knew it was time. She waded mid-pool and quickly helped her out of the water. Maya insisted on walking all the way to the tent without support, wincing during every contraction, supporting her hips with her arms. She did not reach the tent. She took a quick detour and halted below a strong and sturdy sal tree, under the full and bright moon of the first lunar month Vesak, of the New Year. She rested for a moment, as her womb contracted in divine agony. Her nurse held out her hand, but the all-time-self-sufficient Maya supported herself by clutching a branch, and birthed her handsome Prince, whom she named Siddhārtha, the one who achieves his goal. The Gods from heaven showered a stream of lukewarm water to clean the baby, and then another cooler shower. She thanked the Gods silently. As she gazed lovingly at her just born beautiful new baby boy, Siddhārtha walked seven steps on the lotus in the pond, as the lore goes.
Nativity Scene: The Birth of the Buddha
Maya passed away 11 days later, leaving Siddhārtha in the hands of her sister Prajapati, who was also the second wife of her husband. Prajapati’s motherly love for Siddhārtha never made him realize the absence of his birth mother. The court astrologers predicted that the Prince would either become a great saint of modern times or a mighty Monarch.
As the story of the Buddha goes, Prince Siddhārtha abandoned the palace and the kingly riches in search of meaning for life and wandered away to the forests, at the age of 29. Through the strictest of penance, he eventually attained Nirvana or enlightenment at the age of 35.
Just before passing away at the age of 80, Buddha told his primary disciple and cousin, Ananda, that Lumbini his birth place would be one of the 4 holiest places which would attract Buddhists for all time.
LUMBINI, BIRTH PLACE OF BUDDHA, UNESCO World Heritage site
2500 years later today, the Lumbini garden remains so, as predicted by Buddha. In my eternal quest for all things Buddhist, I was taken to the serene land of Nepal, which is adorned by the whitest and most beautiful Himalayan Range to the north, and by the rather nondescript town of Lumbini to the South. I won’t go into details of how to reach Lumbini by road/air, where to stay once you reach there, or the best things to do there. You can find all of that in travel websites and travelogues written by travelers and tourists who have visited the place before me and who would visit after me.
UNESCO World Heritage Site
For the travel-lusting curios, however, I am going to briefly share my experiences of visiting the Maya Devi temple in Lumbini. This temple is housed inside the Lumbini development complex which also has the Monastic zone and a Lumbini village zone. In 1978, many nations came forward to build monasteries depicting the evolution of Buddhist culture in their countries and I am going to share a few pictures of those different monasteries below. To confuse you further, when you visit, there are many gates to this complex, depending on how you plan to enter. Whichever of the 9 gates you choose, be sure to cover all the monasteries. They are absolutely lovely and unique and give you a flavour of their own respective countries.
A few of the monasteries below …
The Thailand Monastery
One of my favorite monasteries. It stands magnificent in snowy, pristine white glory; embodying purity. It is very well maintained with manicured lawns and neatly trimmed trees.
The insides of the Thai monastery is also very beautiful. The decorations of the Buddha, the culture reflecting in the ornate decorations, information on neat bulletin boards, and so on – all gave a very nicely organized monastery.
Insides of the Thai Monastery
The Cambodian Monastery
This monastery reminded me very much of the Angkor Wat temple in its looks and structure. It is still work in progress with construction work going on, and dust billowing towards us, in the heat. We were forced to make a hasty retreat to the other monasteries, though this breath-taking beauty did not stop beckoning us…
The Myanmar Monastery
The Golden monastery from Myanmar decorated with green and gold paint, and a maroon balustrade to match, was a splendid sight from outside and inside too. It is a replica of the monastery in Yangon. My husband’s bucket list grew, with Myanmar as one of the places to visit, before the end of this year, as we breathed in the sight of this beautiful monastery.
The German Monastery
As we kept walking, we came across a circular lake, and on one side there is this beautiful German monastery called, ‘The Great Drigung Kagyud Lotus Stupa’. Do not let this humble, yet beautiful monastery mislead you, for you are about to witness wonder inside it.
As we entered this monastery, we were slowed down. There was not enough time in the world, to complete admiring the beautiful murals on the walls. There was a prayerful atmosphere which the monks tried hard to maintain inside the prayer room. It was simply splendid. I recommend, you sit down for a few minutes to meditate here. No photography is allowed inside, for which I am thankful, because our senses were already assaulted enough, just admiring the murals inside.
Inside the German Monastery
At times, I was so glad for these “No photography” signs because Nature was giving us a chance to just sit, allow the beauty to descend into you, both in a way of the senses and also into the heart. No more thinking about Portrait mode or Normal mode or other modes, light exposure, and all those umpteen photography things which my husband and son keep discussing about, but just a mind which needs to calm down, and a heart which needs to look inward.
Colorful Murals Inside the German Monastery
And we moved on, because a noisy group of tourist arrived and were discussing with the care taker, as to how they could seek permission to take pictures inside the prayer room.
The International Nuns Temple of Nepal
On the right side of the International Nuns Temple, you can see that there is a place of stay for the nuns from Nepal, and is maintained by the Government of Nepal. It has a long courtyard where footwear was not allowed, and as our feet were getting burnt, we were reminded of childhood memories of playing hide and seek with our cousins, during summer break, on the hot terrace at midday. We had to make a hasty retreat this time too, because we could not bear the burning of the hot grounds on our naked feet.
(*If I did not tell you earlier, you are requested to leave your footwear outside most of the monasteries, as a sign of respect and cleanliness.*)
International Nuns Temple in Nepal
The Singapore Monastery
This was closed and we could not learn much about it. So we resorted to taking pictures of it and us.
The Author and her son in front of the Singapore Monastery
The Chinese Monastery
The Chinese have built the biggest monastery in the complex. It is very well maintained and organized with a lot of information displayed. There was so much to assimilate about the culture and history of Buddhism in China and about the monastery itself.
The entrance of the Chinese monastery is guarded by their traditional ‘Four Heavenly Kings’ and other deities. There was even a Maitreya Buddha at the entrance. This is a very beautiful and colorful monastery.
Guardians of the Chinese Monastery
Though the entrance looks not so huge, the courtyard was heavenly. The visitors who entered never felt like leaving. You would also notice that the entry and exit of the monastery is structured such that it makes you circumambulate in clockwise around the Buddha which is a holy practice of Hindus and Buddhists.
Courtyard of the Chinese Monastery
World Peace Pagoda
We were then directed towards a path by one of the tourists, saying it led to the Eternal Flame, The World Peace Pagoda and the Maya Devi temple. They are all in a straight line.
Inside The World Peace Pagoda
As you walk on this path, you can find the golden Bodhisattva statue glistening in the sun. It is a fairly recent addition, in 2012. It is supposed to personify that image of the infant Buddha when he took the seven steps on the lotus, as soon as he was born.
Golden Bodhisattva statue
The Maya Devi Temple
Our walk brought us to the Sacred Zone at the Maya Devi Temple. There was an ambience of tranquility in the atmosphere. But something else was also missing. I couldn’t quite sense what, yet. There is a pond beyond which the temple stands tall and majestic, in white serenity. It felt that the temple was celebrating Buddha’s mother rather than the Buddha.
Maya Devi Temple
There are rows of small stupas outside the temple. Excavations seemed to be happening continuously since the discovery of the Ashoka pillar in 1896.
King Ashoka in the 249 BC is supposed to have originally discovered Buddha’s birth place and built this iconic pillar with detailed inscriptions and the various stupas around it.
Details – The Ashoka Pillar
Around the temple building, there are numerous small stupas and they have been archaeologically dated back to the second century BC.
Archaeological Ruins Around the Temple
We entered the temple, and began walking on the wooden floor, following the signs. People were throwing coins below into the ruins, as offerings for good luck. We stood above and gazed from the railings, there were coins from different countries. As we kept walking, we finally reached the Marker Stone which marks the exact spot where Buddha was born. Devotees were praying, some tourists were gazing intently trying to capture everything in their memory, as you see, photography is prohibited inside the Maya Devi Temple. The path further leads to the Nativity sculpture where you can see mother Maya Devi holding the branch of a Sal tree and Buddha standing on a lotus. As we walked beyond, the path led to the exit of the temple.
The sun was very bright and almost scorching, and glared my eyes, because the temple was very dimly lit, like the insides of a movie theatre. I waited for a moment, for everything to sink in. Everything seemed like nothing.
I noticed the colorful prayer flags in the garden outside. There was a small pond, and a few monks were sitting around a tree, chatting. There were benches for tourists, and some were meditating on it.
I got the feeling that perhaps it was time to leave.
What did I seek in Lumbini?
As we made our way towards the exit, we halted for a drink of water at the watering pool. A few monks were filling up their plastic bottles too, and we waited patiently for them to move. It gave me a moment to reflect.
When we made this journey, all the way from Chennai, South India, what did I anticipate to find? I was allured to Buddha’s birthplace, but I couldn’t find him here. Lumbini is no doubt a very important and holiest of sites for followers of Buddhism and even followers of other religions and I appreciate the beauty of the Lumbini development zone and commend the effort of the Government to preserve this as place of value and heritage.
However, as I fill up my bottle, with the cool water from the tap, I wonder, “What did I get, which I sought from this visit to the birth place of Buddha?”
Did I get enlightenment like Buddha? But did I seek that? I don’t even know what that means…
Did I seek to find Buddha somewhere hidden in the beautiful monasteries constructed by various countries? Or somewhere near the Marker Stone, which claims he was birthed there?
I was not seeking his physical presence – surely not!
Was I seeking to find some meaning to the strong presence he left behind in this world? Perhaps…! But what of it?
Well, whatever I was seeking or not, I surely was trying to find some essence of Divinity in all of this. One could call it peace, or bliss or a meditative calm or any other word… and it all can be identified with something akin to Divine. But I was vaguely disappointed. I felt generally at peace at a superficial level in some of the monasteries, but I still was trying to figure out what I was searching, assuming that I would know once I found it. And here I was experiencing an anti-climax of having found nothing at all.
My water bottle overflowed and I sensed an impatient monk behind me who was being fidgety with his bottle, tapping it against the railing of the water taps. I closed my bottle and allowed him to use it. He smiled his thanks but I did not have the energy to smile back. I was drained by the heat and my own contemplation.
We walked back along the long path leading to one of the exit gates, each of us silent in our hearts and in our own world.
Long after I came home to India, and decided to write about my experience in Lumbini, I felt emotional about not having experienced Buddha’s presence. I just did not feel him or find him anywhere in Lumbini. It felt like ‘time’ had trapped all of Buddha back in the 6th century BC.
It just felt like memories of Buddha lost in time, accentuated by celebrated tales, and an active humanity in the future which tried to relive the enlightenment of a single man (or God) of the past.
The Ethos of the Heart
As I was wondering about my experience, my friend texted me and offered to have a Heartfulness meditation session, where one meditates on the source of light in the heart. I could not say no. After the session, I felt lighter and peaceful in a general way. Later, I remembered something I read long ago, written by Daaji, the Global Guide of Heartfulness. This seemed to be a fitting climax to my experience.
“Imagine for a moment that we don’t have to go anywhere, or to do anything, except simply sit wherever we are, and allow ourselves to be found? Imagine that heavens are waiting to enter our heart, right here and now! What a powerful concept! How do we make this a reality and allow ourselves to be found? How do we create such a state where the higher presence naturally settles within our hearts?”
He goes on to explain as below …
“The answer possibly lies in cultivating the seeds of contentment within our hearts…
It starts with a simple suggestion that everything we need is already present within us. All the love of the world, the beauty of life, the seed of perfection is present in our heart represented as a source of light. This suggestion is strengthened through actual experience in meditation, as the idea of light leads to a feeling of an inner presence. This inner presence becomes a reality as our consciousness expands, and we become aware of a wholeness of being. When we begin to experience this state of wholeness and perfection at our core, the clouds of discontent and ignorance start to dissolve. The heart regains its light and innocent nature.
Under such circumstances, the egoless heart, the humble heart, automatically draws the heavens towards itself. Such a heart is perfectly adjusted to its external circumstances. It creates heaven around itself.”
Full article here.
I felt light instantly. This seemed to be the missing puzzle to my experience-jigsaw. I had read this article almost 2 years ago, more or less agreed with it, and swiped away to the next article, devouring words and ideas. But the joy of the pudding is not merely in the eating, but in the conscious experiencing of the taste, or the sweet of it. The Universe is so vast, and the world of learning and experiencing is also as broad as the Universe and perhaps even more so. As the human soul tries to imbibe everything or parts of the universe in a quest which is directed external – to new places, new understanding of the senses, and new knowledge, there is something limiting to that, as the façade never fully lifts.
As I try to understand what he meant in the article, I also realize that perhaps humanity is unconsciously seeking an ethos of that content heart, which satisfies itself with everything within, which knows with confidence that indeed the Universe is present within.
What do you look for, when you visit holy lands? Tell me, your experiences …
Photo Credit to the Author.
This is the first in the series of articles by #WorldMom, Purnima from her travels in #Nepal.
You can read the series of articles from her travels in #Bhutan here.
Often World Moms contributors are also global travelers, and we are excited that a new travel podcast called Dramatic Travels recently featured two of our contributors. Nicole Melancon had the honor of being the very first Dramatic Travels podcast interview to air, and more recently Elizabeth Atalay shared her travel stories in Episode 9.
Aaron Schlein launched the inspirational family travel podcast Dramatic Travels earlier this year as a resource for family travel, a way to ignite curiosity, and to open people’s minds to the power of travel. In each episode Aaron talks travel with passionate and experienced travelers who are sharing the world, and that love of adventure, with their kids.
Travel opens up a world of possibilities, education, and cross cultural appreciation in a unique and impactful way that no other type experience can. A large part of our mission at World Moms Network is to cultivate cross cultural understand to help build a better world for all of our children. To hear about Nicole and Elizabeth’s travel adventures and how they are sharing their love of travel with their families you can listen to their podcast interviews here:
Nicole Melancon is a freelance journalist, blogger, and social good advocate living in Minneapolis, Minnesota with her husband and two children. A world wanderer at heart, she has visited over 40 countries for both work and pleasure and is still wandering.
Nicole founded her blog, ThirdEyeMom, in 2010 after a life-changing trip to Nepal where she trekked the Annapurna circuit with her father. Landing in India, she received her “third eye” which symbolizes wisdom. It reinforced her strong belief that you must view the world with a third-eye and as openly as possible. On ThirdEyeMom Nicole writes about travel, culture and social good issues focusing on poverty, global health, education, human rights, women and girls’ empowerment, food security and the environment. She is a member of Impact Travel Alliance Media Network, an alliance of journalists, content creators and social media influencers around the world who are passionate about sustainable tourism, and she volunteers with Travel+SocialGood Blog Coordinator.
In May of 2013 Nicole traveled to India as a member of Mom Bloggers for Social Good to report on water, sanitation, newborn health, and education. In July 2014, she traveled to Ethiopia to report on newborn and maternal health as a fellow with the International Reporting Project, and was a Social Good Fellow for the UN Foundation Social Good Summit, and chosen to attend ONE Women and Girls first AYA Summit in Washington DC in 2015. In July 2015, Nicole climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with Solar Sister, a non-profit organization that brings solar electrify to Sub-Saharan Africa. She has been on two separate press trips to Haiti in 2015 and 2017, and reviewed an all-women’s learn to surf camp in Nicaragua in 2016. Most recently she travelled to Kenya to work on the 2018 Follow the Liters Campaign with LifeStraw where the mission was to deliver safe water to the one millionth child.
Elizabeth Atalay is a Digital Media Producer and Managing Editor at World Moms Network. In 2016 she traveled to Haiti to visit artisans in partnership with Heart of Haiti and the Artisans Business Network. She was a 2015 United Nations Foundation Social Good Fellow, and traveled to Ethiopia as an International Reporting Project New Media Fellow to report on newborn health in 2014. In 2013 Elizabeth traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa with Social Good Moms report on reproductive health and a women’s collective in Alexandra Township. At Documama.org she uses digital media as a new medium for her background as a documentarian. After having worked on Feature Films and Television series for FOX, NBC, MGM, Columbia Pictures, Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, and Castle Rock Pictures, she studied documentary filmmaking and anthropology earning a Masters degree in Media Studies from The New School in New York. Since becoming a Digital Media Producer she has worked on social media campaigns for non-profits such as Save The Children, WaterAid, ONE.org, UNICEF, United Nations Foundation, Edesia, World Pulse, and The Gates Foundation. Her writing has also been featured on ONE.org, Johnson & Johnson’s BabyCenter.com, EnoughProject.org, GaviAlliance.org, and Worldmomsblog.com. Elizabeth has traveled to 70 countries around the world but home is in New England with her husband and four children.
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This is an original post for World Moms Network.
Gangai Konda Chola Puram, UNESCO World Heritage site in India
There was an air of pious anticipation, that one could almost hear the elephants trumpeting while carrying huge granite stones to build the temple, one could almost hear the hum of the 400 odd dancing damsels’ and their anklets tinkling, while dancing for Lord Shiva (as the lore tells), and one could almost envision the talented artisans carving out the beautifully sculpted figures. Gangai Konda Chola Puram is one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites, and called as the “Great Living Chola Temples”. It is called “living” because it is still very much an alive place of worship. Perhaps it is also called “great” because of the rich heritage of the Chola Dynasty still palpable in the atmosphere. But wait, I was in for a surprise as I was just yet entering the temple’s premises.
The temple was built in the 11th century AD in a record time of nine years by Rajendra Chola-1, son of Raja Raja Chola. He was a mighty warrior, who won over major kingdoms in India up to the Gangetic plains in the North, and South East Asian countries like Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia and so on. He had come back to Tamil Nadu State in India, and built a city as his ruling capital, and named it Gangai-Konda-Chola-Puram, meaning the capital of the King who won over the rulers of the Ganges.
The Welcoming Nandi Sculpture
The Welcoming Nandi Statue
The first thing anyone would notice in this compound is the huge 11 feet tall kneeling Nandi (bull) statue, Lord Shiva’s stoic vehicle. This is so similar to the Sphinx in front of the pyramid in Egypt. It is resplendent and majestic in itself, and one can gaze for more than a few minutes and walk all around it admiringly. The strength, virility, and controlled power in Nandi was tangible in the statue. This is one of the 12 monoliths of Nandis in India, carved out from a single granite stone.
The World Famous Dancing Nataraja
The World Famous Dancing Nataraja Statue
As I walked beyond the Nandi, there was a flight of stone steps leading up to the sanctum where Lord Shiva’s idol rested. The entrance was flanked by the dancing Nataraja sculptures, which was a trademark of the Chola architecture. The Chola dynasty was known for encouraging art, culture, dancing, creativity in the form of sculpting, painting, poetry, literature, scholarly debate as a way of expression and so on.
The dancing Nataraja sculpture which is world famous, with a presence even at CERN, Switzerland, originated during the Chola period.
Walking past this ancient relic, I wondered if the foot of the statue held any geomagnetic effects as the lore claimed.
Entry into Lord Shiva’s Abode
The Long Walk – Entry into Lord Shiva’s Abode
The weather was very pleasant, not too sunny, just the right dose of sun for a summery South Indian morning. The entry into the doors of the temple gave me a tiny shiver. There was a man sitting just near the entrance giving out oil lamps for those who wanted it. There were some who walked in without taking his lamps. My attention drifted, searching for the idol. All I could see was a very long corridor, with the hope that there was the idol at the end of it. It was slightly darker inside. I wondered, why the King, Rajendra Chola, who built the temple, had to make the corridor so long? Slowly my son and I started walking onward. There was an opening in the left and right side somewhere ahead of us. But we could already feel a cool breeze from a draft somewhere nearby. We continued to walk. The gentle breeze was soothing. It was perhaps whispering secrets about the beauty of the art and richness of the culture of the Chola Dynasty. I looked around to observe the walls, trying to grasp all that I could from this one long walk. I also realized my mind was numbing me to stop my wandering focus.
We had made this trip to the temple, because we happened to be in the vicinity, and did not want to miss out checking a UNESCO World Heritage site. That was all. But here I was trying to squint my eyes trying to figure out what the idol of Lord Shiva looked like. Slowly I felt my eyes drifting close. I opened them, immediately alerted. I was walking after all. I could not close my eyes.
This was not like the regular temples. There was a special uniqueness here. We both could sense that.I wondered if Lord Shiva knew all the devotees entering this temple.
During all this train of thoughts, I felt the gentle chide of the breeze, nudging me to focus on the life essence of the Universe.
The idol was consecrated, I realized. The breeze was telling me that.
The holy process of PranaPrathishta or consecrating a stone idol, which is an image of god, is done to infuse the divinity into the idol, the temple and the neighborhood too if the energies can be strong enough. So how is it done? In recent history, rituals, hymns, and mantras are used for the process thereby signaling the completion of consecration. However, in ancient times, the sages Agastya and Patanjali were known to perform PranaPrathishta by infusing life force or life energy into the idol. It was a very active and transformative process. They wanted to make sure that all of living habitation across the world should have an environment of holy life energy. Thus this also accounts for numerous temples across India.
Is there a modern day scientific explanation validating the process of PranaPrathishta, you may ask.
Fellow to the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, Professor Emeritus William A. Tiller, of Stanford University’s Department of Materials Science, spent more than three decades to validate this.
William A. Tiller says, “For the past 35 to 40 years, in parallel with my traditional science research and teaching at Stanford University, I have been seriously investigating the effects of human intention on both the properties of materials (inorganic and organic; non-living and living) and on what we call physical reality. From this research, I and my colleagues have discovered that it is possible to make a significant change in the properties of a material substance by consciously holding a clear intention to do so.”
More info here.
Our walk in the corridor, from the door leading to Lord Shiva’s abode, was almost ending. We were standing in front of the idol now. I looked at my son. He was silent for a change. His mind was not jumping into all sorts of science and math and mythology talk, which was a relief for me. I was enjoying these few moments of silence too. He had already commented about the similarities and differences between the trident of Shiva and Poseidon, as we were entering the temple.
After what seemed like a long lapse in time, in front of the idol, we looked at each other and then silently walked out.
#WorldMom Purnima from India with her son
The lawn around the temple grounds was well maintained, and we sat down and relaxed for a bit. There were a lot of sculptures all around, and some smaller temples for minor deities. We were in no hurry to check them all out.
“What just happened in there?” asked my son.
“It is a holy place. You felt the effects.” I replied.
“But what really is that, which we felt?” he asked again.
“You tell me,” I said.
“It was peaceful,” he said.
“So it was,” I replied.
“And something more, which cannot be explained,” he continued.
Transformation of man
I felt obliged to explain to him the holy process of pranaprathishta of an idol by pure intent and will, by the holy seers of the ancient.
“If they could transform a mere stone to god, they could do it to living things too, who are alive and receptive, and holy in thought and action,” he concluded.
“Yes, perhaps they could,” I smiled.
Bidding Goodbye to Gangai Konda Chola Puram
As our visit was coming to an end, I couldn’t help thinking that in today’s times, we are gifted with Pranahuti, or Yogic transmission in the Heartfulness Meditation system. The Heartfulness trainers are trained to impart this energy to the seeker.
In the words of the modern-day saint, Ram Chandra, “Transmission is the utilization of Divine Force for the transformation of man.” By such a transformation man is divinized, he says.
Kamlesh Patel, the global guide of Heartfulness says, “The best way to understand transmission remains to experience it practically… For many people, the experience of receiving transmission is so convincing that no further proof or understanding is necessary. I invite you to experiment and experience it for yourself.”
Extending the possibilities of the consecration of an idol through pranaprathishta to the transformation of man to make him divinized through pranahuti, is a giant leap of evolution in the history of mankind.
The beautiful thing about our planet’s rich past is that it has led us to the evolution of the present.
Tell me a little bit of spiritual revelations you have had, from your culture.
Photo Credit: The Author
In 2013, Kathryn Pisco and her husband Mike left their corporate jobs and decided to take a trip of a lifetime in an attempt to unearth and discover the world. Over the next 250 days, the pair traveled to over 20 countries and volunteered at 5 different volunteer projects.
It was during their volunteer experiences that they learned the ins and outs of volunteering abroad. Although their time volunteering was meaningful, they were surprised to see how broken the system was.
A lot of projects charged tons of money for volunteers, were not exactly beneficial to the host community, and were not sustainable. The couple returned home and realized that they had to share their knowledge and experience of what they learned.
In 2014, they launched their social enterprise Unearth the World, an international volunteer organization that strives to improve the international volunteering industry by promoting cross-cultural learning, fostering reciprocal partnerships and elevating social consciousness through responsible international programs.
Today they work with 6 non-profit partners in Peru, Nicaragua, Mexico, Guatemala and Zambia which they have personally visited to ensure that each volunteer experience benefits the local community and provides sustainable change. Since they founded Unearth the World, 200 people have already dedicated 3,500+ hours of service over the past two years in collaboration with their six international nonprofit partners.
Teaching in Peru with Unearth the World
I first met Kathryn at the Women in Travel Summit in April and instantly connected. She is a mom like me and has a passion for sustainable travel and a zest for life. I knew I wanted to feature Unearth the World on my blog so I set up a phone interview to learn more. Here is a transcript of our conversation.
Me: What did you and your husband do for work in Chicago before setting off on your epic travel adventure? Had you ever traveled before? How did you pick your countries and volunteer projects?
Kathryn: Mike and I were both in sales for medical companies prior to traveling the world. While we had done quite a bit of personal travel in the past, it was more traditional tourism. We would maximize our allotted vacation time each year but that was the extent of our travel. Prior to our professional careers, I did a traditional study abroad program in Paris and Mike spent a summer living/volunteering in Nicaragua. Mike’s Nicaragua experience inspired us to volunteer on our epic adventure.
When choosing where to travel, we prioritized regions that were far away and – therefore – challenging to get to on a typical 7 – 10 day vacation. We also sought out countries that were relatively secure and affordable. Once we had outlined our 20-country itinerary we tried to spread our volunteer projects evenly throughout the trip. Our idea was to have a few weeks of personal travel and then a few weeks of volunteering. It ended up working out quite well!
We did a lot of research on where we should volunteer but found it really challenging to understand what organizations were legit based upon online research alone.
Me: Tell me a little bit more about the five different volunteer projects you did. What did you learn about the world of international volunteering?
Kathryn: We taught English in Kathmandu, Nepal, worked at Children’s Homes in Chiang Mai, Thailand and Phnom Penh Cambodia, taught at a school in Ofaakor, Ghana and built homes in Mwandi, Zambia. Through these experiences we learned how important it is to ensure that you have the proper skills to engage in each project. I have adopted the belief that if you are not qualified to do something in your hometown – why would you be qualified to do it abroad?
We realized that so many of our projects were well-intentioned but not truly as helpful as they could have been. There was such a disconnect between the true needs of the community and the projects that were designed to appeal to volunteers. We heard horror stories about schools that were built and torn down each year with the sole purpose of attracting and making money off of international volunteers. We also experienced some great things! In Zambia for instance, the organization is 100% locally run and the entire community is engaged in the mission. Mike and I worked alongside local people and learned from them every step of the way. Finally, we saw how incredible cross-cultural exchange can be for both volunteers and local communities. We built authentic and lasting relationships at many of our projects and are still in touch with people from all around the world.
Me: How did traveling and in particular volunteering abroad change you?
Kathryn: In so many ways! I entered the trip thinking that – as a 30 year old woman – my values, personality and worldview were pretty set. On the trip I learned how to thrive outside of my comfort zone. I became a better communicator, leader, and person. I also realized that I have so much to learn from people of different cultures.
Me: Why did you decide to launch Unearth the World?
Kathryn: As I mentioned earlier, our five volunteer projects varied greatly in intentionality and impact and illustrated the pros and cons of volunteering abroad. We learned that there are many problems in the current multi-billion dollar volunteer travel space: a lack of financial transparency, an absence of meaningful volunteer training, and a shortage of community driven projects. So, we returned from our trip inspired to create our own social venture – Unearth the World – that strives to improve the volunteer travel industry by promoting cross-cultural learning, fostering reciprocal partnerships and elevating social consciousness through responsible volunteer exchange programs. We founded Unearth the World to make volunteer travel more transparent, accessible and positively impactful.
Me: Where did you come up with the name?
Kathryn: Unearth the World was actually the name of our travel blog during our nine month trip. We thought it really encompassed what we were trying to accomplish on our journey. We sought to unearth – or discover – the world around us in a meaningful way. We decided to give our business the same name because we believe that international service and cross-cultural exchange is a great way to understand the world around us.
Me: What makes you different from other volunteer organizations?
Kathryn: We saw that the industry lacked financial transparency and affordability with many projects costing several thousand dollars for just one week. We also saw a lack of community driven projects. Instead, we saw many volunteer opportunities that were created with the purpose of bringing in tourists rather than actually addressing a true need in the community. Additionally, we saw that many of the volunteer sending organizations fail to train and educate their travelers before and after their trip leading to uninformed and unqualified volunteers. These problems in the industry saddened us greatly. UTW’s innovative model addresses the problems in the volunteer travel market in three ways: transparency, reciprocity and volunteer preparation.
Me: What has been the most powerful experience you have experienced with Unearth the World?
Kathryn: That is a tough question. I am always impressed by the transformative effects of our programs.
I have seen the biggest impacts on people who have not had previous international experiences. For instance, we recently had a student from Cornell University join a group trip to Nicaragua. He had never been out of the country before. His experience volunteering in Nicaragua sparked something in him. He immediately booked a second trip – this time to Zambia – to continue to engage with the world. Upon returning to school, he is considering shifting his major to something more focused on social impact and he has begun to volunteer in his local community.
Another great story is from one of our Advisory Board members – Amy. She took her two daughters to Nicaragua as a way of exposing them to different cultures. A memorable moment from their program was when one of her daughters turned to her and said “Mommy, I want to do really well in school so I can continue to travel and learn about the world.”. Amy was so inspired that she joined our board.
Me: What kind of advice can you give someone who wants to try volunteering abroad?
Do your research and ask tons of questions. Make sure that you have a true understanding of the impact on the community and planet that your trip is having.
To learn more about volunteering with Unearth the World, please visit their projects page to learn more about our opportunities.
Have you ever volunteered abroad?
This has been an original post by Nicole Melancon of Thirdeyemom in the USA. Additional posts by Nicole on World Moms Network.
From September 21st-23rd, 2017 World Moms Network will be at the International Travel Bloggers Summit on Study Abroad and Global Citizenship using social media to engage more students and people to study abroad! Follow the Summit at hashtag, #studyabroadbecause.
A Promising Terrace Above The Town
That is what the receptionist said when I asked her the meaning of “aussichtsterrasse baumli”.
“So, how do we go there?” I asked again.
She looked at me blankly at first, and I worried if I had asked a culturally inappropriate question.
“You have been here in Winterthur, for three days and you have not gone there yet?” she asked me incredulously.
I frantically looked out for where my husband was. He was busy fuzbolling with the children, at the hotel lobby, much to my annoyance. I thought he had already spoken to this particular receptionist and asked for directions and I had to just pick up some papers from her.
When I returned my attention to her, she was back to being busy at her computer, and I wondered if I should ask her again or just go back to watching fuzboll.
“So, this is a print out of the local map from here to the bus station,” she handed out a sheet.
“Thank you,” I said.
“And this is a map from the bus station to the forest,” she continued with another sheet. “And let me get you a local map of our city,” saying so she got up and went into another adjoining room.
“Now if you take the bus from Loki station to …” she was amazing.
Switzerland is just not the friendliest nation in the world. It is also the most hospitable. The people there are truly helpful.
A walk through the town of Winterthur
We began our journey to the promising terrace on top of the town. As we stepped out of the hotel, a light drizzle started and perhaps we hesitated to continue, because we were the only ones who had embarked on this journey, all alone, without our friends. And we wondered at the futility of it, in the rain, at a shivering temperature.
“Why don’t you use my umbrella,” said a voice. We turned to find our friendliest receptionist in the world.
“You think it is okay to go in the rain?” I asked.
“Today is your last day, and you should not miss Baumli,” she answered.
There was no looking back now.
With maps in hand, taking blind turns at intersections, reading German street signs, comparing it with the map, not understanding, giving up, almost turning back again, our adventurous spirit returning, trotting on, asking directions from students who had perennial ear plugs in their ears, we continued our journey.
Culture soaking the lonely, rainy streets…
It was not bad. It was an adventure. My only fear was, we could get lost, not knowing how to find our way back, and missing our return flight home. It was our last day in Switzerland.
My son kept insisting, “Ma, we are not kids, we won’t get lost. See we have maps.”
We reached what they called the bus station after a walk of half an hour and following the map. You see we had refused to take the connecting bus from the hotel to the bus station which would take us to the beautiful terrace on top of the town.
Culture soaking the streets some…
My husband and son wanted to ‘soak’ in the culture and feeling of the town, they claimed. I still wonder how they claimed to do it without the feeling of feeling lost with a map in hand.
Culture soaking the streets some more…
We were faced with the most challenging task to get tickets. The automatic ticket kiosk at the bus station displayed everything in German. And we jumped to our maps to check all the words which our kind receptionist had circled in red.
None of the words or destination names looked familiar. I knew we were lost. I had this intense irritation which I masked. My husband kept insisting that he was taking me to a surprise destination, but with Google in our mobile phones, no destination is ever really a surprise.
Finally, after a short epic incident at the ticket kiosk, we got our tickets and got on a bus and waited with bated breath for the supposed destination to arrive. When we got down, I almost expected to see a beautiful terrace or viewpoint. But no! We got down finding ourselves at the entrance of a narrow trail leading into a very dense forest.
Entering the forest…
“We have to walk into this forest,” said my husband.
The entry to the forest …
“Of course,” I really put efforts into masking my irritation.
“Google says if we are lucky, we can sight many wild animals,” my son shrieked excitedly.
I knew I had to make peace with the world now, or I could never. I am never a surprise loving person. I am a Taurean, who likes to be grounded, who likes to know what to expect, and who likes everything in order. But here we were embarking on a journey into a forest to a promised beautiful view above the town, after a long and assiduous journey by walk and bus. For all that anyone knew, we were already lost. And there was that promise of wild animals too, which I tried hard to forget.
I followed the two excited kids – one an adult, one still a kid; they had both already entered the narrow trail and walked further on assuming I was following too. So, I decided to oblige them as well. And it is good to get lost together, isn’t it?
A walk into the forest continues …
The air was fresh. There was a light mist. The drizzling had stopped some time back. I have always been a trekker, and so I enjoyed walking generally. It was not so bad, I decided.
“Look ma, nature is smiling at us. You have to too.”
A Change of my heart!
About ten minutes into our walk, my heart was doing wonders. There is something about a walk that creates magic in the air, that makes you inhale miracle dust, that makes you wonder at the beauty of the world, and this was one such walk, into the dense forest, sighting wild animals. My son claimed an animal to be a fox, my husband thought it to be a wolf or vice versa. It was chasing behind another small animal.
Nature beckoning us on …
We continued our walk. The path curved beautifully. It started to drizzle again slightly. We shivered in the rain, but for nothing in the world, I would have stayed back at the hotel.
As the forest cleared slightly, we came across beautiful vineyards, the tiny vines yet to creep up the fence. The tender leaves yet to open up fully were shyly grinning against the rain drops glistening on their tips.
Beautiful vineyards in the making…
We continued to walk up. I believe we would have been walking for about half an hour now. I make it a point to never wear a watch unless my husband reminds me to. I do not like to know the time, at any time.
You could walk forever if you have the time, energy and a heart which loves to meander about natural beauty. There were benches lined up in short intervals in the path, in the middle of the vineyards. The journey was romancing us, the path was dancing up to us, singing to us, luring us into its fold.
The journey romancing us …
There was an occasional jogger who waved at my son. I wondered who would want to jog in a drizzle, but here she was, with a pink hood. There was another middle-aged man who was strolling just like us, and who was content to just walk, pause, look ahead at the vast beauty from the elevation, and continue to walk, pause, and so on.
A wayfarer who posed for us …
We continued our walk. These were the only two people we ever met during our whole walk because it was just not the day to take a walk uphill. I totally agree, never at 7 degrees Celsius in the shivering drizzle.
A thermometer on the path
It was pretty lonely. The past few days had been a constant whirl or seeing all over Europe, drinking in the beautiful architecture, gazing lovingly at Renaissance art, eating exotic foods, being bombarded with brand new culture every hour of the day, playing fuzzball, running behind kids, interacting with our friends, singing antakshari and so on. This walk felt like a fitting end to the hectic trip we were just concluding.
Nature assaulting us with her bounty
This walk to Baumli, was the best part of our trip, for, in this walk, we received more from nature than we ever hoped to seek. Traveling in Europe fulfilled our expectations of the art, culture, excitement and all the assaults on our senses, which we had hoped for. But this walk was an assault on our soul, it was joyful, it was bliss.
Reaching the promised terrace:
The walk led us to the terrace – the promised heaven of the exercise. And what a view it was. We were all spellbound. We could not drink in the sight more than we did, but we ached so much to drink more if at all that makes sense.
The promised terrace above the town
There was not a single soul around. It was still drizzling, and we still had only one umbrella, with which our son was generally dancing, leaving the two of us to shiver so badly.
Dancing with the umbrella
It was also the worst day to go on a trek, and into a forest, to the top of the mountain, just to look at a view.
But you did not need an umbrella or a special shoe for this trek, you only needed a special type of soul, and we all had that, I guess.
A destination worthy of a journey
And in that shiver, our beautiful souls were looking at something, never before looked at. We were experiencing those feelings in our heart since the past hour, which had never before been experienced. A walk in nature is definitely good. But a walk to reach Baumli, all alone in solitude, in a brief drizzle of love from mother Nature, was beyond the best. I think I could explode by just looking at the view, or going through the journey again.
Culmination of an epic
I promise, anyone who undertakes such a walk, could hear angels whispering in her ears, angels whispering verses of poetry, angels beckoning your fingers into a painting, I felt all my creativity surging in, and I tried hard to stifle it, for I did not want my creativity to steal away my precious moment of communion.
This long trek to Baumli, was really a walk inwards to my own heart, to the deepest recess of my heart, ever traveled by me, and with open eyes too. There is a beautiful phrase used in the Heartfulness system of meditation – Constant Remembrance. What it means in very simple terms is, to be in touch with divinity at all times. And on this day, I felt this term take on more meanings than what was ever felt possible to me at any earlier time.
I have said this before, and I will say it again, the beauty always lies in the journey, it lies in the walking or trekking or riding. The destinations are almost always déjà vu or an anti-climax or at times even betrayals of the long arduous effort of reaching there. This time, this one time alone, in this walk to reach the top of Baumli, I could say that the statement could be rendered false.
Both the destination and the journey were as beautiful as the other. None were competing with each other. They both stood alone, in their own individual splendor, and reverence.
Some walks cannot be explained; alas we only can fall back on words like this article, for communication. Some walks can only be experienced, and even then, there would still be something lurking in your consciousness which could be trying to say something to you, which you could continue to try to understand, even one month after the walk. This was one such walk.
Well, after about 15 minutes, we decided that we had to interact and looked at each other, and smiled.
My husband’s eyes twinkled as if to say, “I wanted to surprise you, didn’t I say that?”
Love is ‘Meaningless Meanderings Leading to Perfection’!
Love and romance certainly is a candle light dinner or red roses on birthdays (no, he has not got me either, lol). It is also a declaration of love like the poems written by Romeo for Juliet. However at times, true love could mean a frustrating journey with upside down German maps and unintelligible road signs, at times true love could mean a walk along with foxes (or maybe wolves), and at times true love could also mean shivering in the rain with hair plastered all over my face at 7 degrees Celsius.
True love could be a meaningless meandering which can lead to perfection, says Lao Tzu.
Above all true love is that, where each one takes the other to the Ultimate communion.
Has any vacation taken you by surprise to redefine your opinion of beauty or love?
Photo credit: The author
My Name is Nancy and I am experiencing, after more than six years of motherhood, a terrible case of separation anxiety. We are used to our toddlers give us hell with this – it is, after all, expected during the terrible twos. But you may call mine a case of the “terrible thirties.”
I have never had to leave my baby, (she doesn’t agree with the baby part) for longer than a week. That week, might I add, was the toughest week ever. I am so fortunate that my job requires minimal travel. Each year, I travel for just a few days to get things done, and hurry back, super lightning speed, to be reunited with my family.
Those brief work trips are hard. I suffer everything from insomnia, to hearing my daughter’s voice in my head, to general feelings of self loathing and sadness. I could really kick myself because it’s ridiculous. She is 6! Surely that’s old enough for me, and for her. Why can’t I get over my separation anxiety? Does traveling have to give me such dread? Why is it never the same without them?
I recently got a fantastic opportunity to be a part of an academic fellowship across the pond, I mean waaayyy across, that will require me to be away for most of the summer holidays. While it a great opportunity for myself, the first thing I felt was pure dread. Dread that I have to leave my husband and my baby behind for what seems to be an eternity.
Ladies, please tell me I am not going crazy and some of you also feel this way at times? Is it impossible to put ourselves first?
This is an original post written for World Moms Blog by Nancy Sumari in Tanzania. Image courtesy of the author.