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The pilgrim’s progress

A bid at soul searching leads to the world’s tallest pillarless dome located in the lush green surroundings of Gorai, writes Vidya Balachander.

india Updated: Mar 07, 2009 15:45 IST
Vidya Balachander

One path led to a gilded dome that glinted in the afternoon sun. The other to an amusement park that I still had fond memories of, ten years after I last visited it. I was at the proverbial crossroads. In theory, I was in Gorai, a short boat ride away from the Mumbai mainland, to do some soul searching in the grandiosely named global Vipassana pagoda — the gilded dome in question.

But in spirit, I felt drawn to the relatively mindless charms of Essel World, the amusement park that sits within shouting distance of the pagoda. A small voice in my head said, maybe you could scale new heights with the roller coaster. Ice rink, anyone? But unlike Christian in the Pilgrim’s Progress, I silenced the Worldly Wise voice in my head and planted my feet firmly on the path to deliverance. Continued on P 10 Continued from P 9

Along the way, many of my companions on the boat ride to Gorai slipped away, choosing superficial thrills over spiritual ones (I told myself). But a few lingered on. We walked along the dusty path, stopping to squint at the majestic dome of the pagoda, which has been touted as being the world’s largest. The last of the tinsel balls from the pagoda’s recent inauguration hadn’t yet been stripped off.

The dome itself was a work in progress, and construction crews were camped out on the site. But, to my surprise, despite the fact that the pagoda wasn’t entirely complete, droves of curious Mumbaikars had descended on the site on a weekday. Thankfully, there was none of the push and shove of a tourist spot here. Maybe it had to do with the deserted canteen, I noted ruefully. The short boat ride from Borivli and the longer train ride before that had left me famished. But in this distant outpost, there wasn’t much more than visual splendour and spiritual succour to sate myself with.

An insider’s view
The pagoda, a Buddhist monument whose dome is believed to contain the original bone relics of Gautama Buddha, is set atop an elevated platform that affords it a vantage view of the Gorai creek and the high rises of the mainland beyond. From this location, cut off from the creek by a thick of mangroves, Mumbai seems less like a looming megalopolis and more like the innocent cluster of islands it once was. In this calm and silent environment — interjected every now and then by shrieks from Essel World next door — the mind clears up and the accumulated stress of the work week melts away.

Given the scenic setting and the imposing structure of the pagoda, which has been under construction for nearly 11 years, you expect the experience inside the dome to be especially memorable. And that’s where you’re likely to be a tad disappointed. The dome itself is spectacular: it is 325 feet tall and 280 feet in diameter. In other words, it provides the visual and surround-sound experience of a gigantic planetarium. Even the softest whisper resonates off the stone walls.

The problem is that only those who practice Vipassana meditation are allowed to enter the massive pillarless hall. Everyone else has to be content with seeing the dome through a glass partition and imagining the possibilities within. However, if you can live with the anticlimax, you could wander into one of two smaller pagodas in the same campus.

Finding inner peace
Was it disappointing to come all this way and not be able to walk into the dome, I asked Archana Sagaonkar, a homemaker from Kandivli, who had brought along her three-year-old son Abhiraj. But she replied in the negative. “I’ve always wanted to go somewhere to find internal peace,” she said. “Our routine life keeps going on. It’s important to take time out for yourself.”

While Archana filled out a form to enroll in a Vipassana course, Abhiraj had found inspiration in something far more mundane. He took a shine to the tinsel balls strewn around and invented fanciful uses for them, including as makeshift, miniature shot puts.

When I left hours later, Archana was still sitting in the shade of the pagoda, admiring its intricately carved doors while Abhiraj skipped about merrily. I’d come seeking some soul-stirring, and I found it in the most unexpected way. The global Vipassana pagoda, near Essel World, Gorai Creek, Borivli (W) (2945-2261)