emperor and the peasant
There are over ten thousand visitors a day at what is now called 'The Forbidden City' in Beijing, which had been the emperor's palace for about 6 centuries. Most of the visitors could be the descendants of several hundred generations of people who had slaved, suffered and died in every way under these emperors.
This is a world heritage site today, but I felt it was a very incomplete heritage preservation. Adjoining this site, there should have been erected and preserved a model of an ancient village of the 14th century, or several villages during the times of the Ming and Qing dynasties, to remind the present day Chinese youth, and the world outside, the contrast between the lives of the emperor and his family, and the families of the rest of the country. While the emperor lived in a 185 acre complex of over 9000 rooms, the peasants would have lived in one room huts. This would also open the eyes of the youth of China how fortunate they are, that they do not have to live under such emperors today.
The Ming dynasty emperor Zhu Di ordered the construction of the palace in 1407. There would not have been anyone in his kingdom who could protest or question his decision. The 20,000 peasants who had to haul enormous stone cylinders from Fangshen could not disobey and their situation would not have been any different from the fate of thousands of horses who were used to pull the stone columns. It would have been the same with those who had to haul the massive tree trunks from far away.
We admire the architecture, because we do not see the devastation caused in felling a few thousand vanaspathi trees to satisfy the whims of the emperor, trees that would have been living for hundreds of years. There are no trees in the outer courts, and the explanation frequently given is that the emperor is the Son of Heaven, and supreme. A tree would grow to be taller than the emperor and would hover above him, which could not be allowed to happen.
In the inner courtyard, in his personal living area, there were many trees, most of them believed to give long life. All the symbols displayed, the crane and the turtle were also believed to give long life. Was it because the emperor did not wish to see the end of his life, but wished to prolong his life on earth, as long as he could, so he could continue to enjoy it? The rest of the country would have wished not just for his early demise, but for the demise of the entire system, which was only attained very much later under Chairman Mao. Till such time most of the common people would have preferred early death, rather than prolonging their suffering.
As the Son of Heaven the emperor mediates between heaven and earth, man's world and God's world. It is claimed that the Chinese people had worshipped Heaven for over 4700 years (since 2600 B.C.), but in the early days there would not have been a mediator.
The original Altar of Heaven had been built at the same time as the Forbidden City, in 1420. The temple is in the midst of a 700 acre park. At the Temple of heaven, we were informed that the emperor visited here, to pray for a birth in heaven. He had to pray for it, because he was enjoying the maximum pleasures and powers in this life, and there was nothing more he could attain here. The only thing he could pray for was the unknown and unseen pleasures that heaven could offer him.
The Hall of Prayers for Abundant Harvests would have been of importance to the entire country, even if the trickled down benefits to the peasants would have been meagre.
Yet, seeing the skyline of the New China and the New Beijing, I wondered if the present day people were trying to create their own version of heaven on earth, because they could not live like the early emperors. Or it could be that human beings all over the world, in their arrogance believe that they could reach heaven or create heaven on earth by using science and technology and by sacrificing the natural environment.
In contrast to the Forbidden city the Palace of Peace and Harmony is what a Palace should be, because it is no longer a residence of a king or emperor, but a Lama temple and monastery of the Geluk School of Tibetan Buddhism. It would have been a place of worship for the people too, since it became a lamasery from 1722. In the Hall of Heavenly Kings stands a statue of Maitreya Buddha with the four Heavenly Kings on the sides. The statue of Gautama Buddha is in the Hall of Harmony and Peace. The 18 feet tall statue of Maitreya Buddha, carved out of a single log of white sandalwood is one of the most venerated statues in the temple.
Thinking along these lines, it made me rethink about Sigiriya, and if Kasyapa too had enjoyed this life and tried to live like Kuvera while the rest of the people in the country suffered untold hardships. Sigiriya too had been a monastery before and after Kasyapa, but unfortunately was not preserved or maintained.
The visit to the Lama Temple lifted my spirits and raised my hopes, that mankind could still survive the devastation caused by our own greed and thirst. Almost all the visitors, even some of the Europeans, had not come as curious tourists, but as faithful devotees. Most of them were young, in their twenties and thirties, and it was a pleasing sight to see their devotion, how they paid homage and worshipped the Buddha and the Bodhisattva, touching the ground with their foreheads many times. The atmosphere and the vibrations of the devotees would have made even an atheist to feel the divine presence.