Thursday, September 06, 2012

The City in the Sky Illusion

Trouble concentrating on your work? Keep seeing things that very probably aren’t there? Or at least aren’t there in the way they would seem to be there? You may be sure you are not alone.

Somehow when I did the blog about the floor/water confusion illusion — the one that explains how the Jokhang Temple got its original name — I overlooked something very important, something we might even call a game changer. It’s often been my experience that just when I thought I had something all figured out, that was practically the same moment when something new came up and the bottom fell out. 

Could it be that India is, once again, the source of a Eurasian phenomenon? Does an Indian epic story date further back than the story told about the queen of Sheba? We really must ask this question, although answering it... well...

One thing Lethaby mentioned briefly in the long piece of his quoted in that blog, but that I failed to go into, is the story from the Mahabharata Epic. This surely must count as one of the oldest accounts, or even perhaps the oldest of them all. Duryodhana's humiliation he felt from Draupadi's scornful laughter is sometimes seen as the true cause of the great universal-scale battle at Kuru Field. If you’re not familiar with Indian epic, I’ll just send you to video versions at the end of today’s blog rather than spoil the plot for you. There you will learn about the miraculous city of Indraprastha, built by Vishvakarman, the divine craftsman. When Delhi was founded, Indraprastha was nearby, or at least its ruins were, but now it is believed that New Delhi has long ago swallowed up and digested its original site. If you’ve been to Delhi you would know that some intangible something of Indraprastha still remains there. More on Indraprastha soon, but now let’s look at another city, a city of the disappearing kind.

“The Sampua says:

‘The same as Haricandra’s city, 
appearing like play in a dream.’

“There was once a city called Harikela near the ocean in southern India. In the summertime, when rain fell during the night and the sun shone during the day, a reflection appeared in the sky in the shape of the city, down to the exact people and animals. The Indian commentaries on the Sampuṭa say that a reflection appeared of Haricandra (a past king of that country) and his retinue going to Khecara without having discarded their bodies. In any case, that type of appearance arises from the combination of those dependently arisen connections: the rain falling in the night, the clear dawning of the sun in the morning, and the traveling of King Haricandra to Khecara.”

—  Source:  Cyrus Stearns' fabulous book of translations, Taking the Result as the Path, Library of Tibetan Classics (2006), p. 438, in a section supplying examples of illusory appearances, in a work by Jamyang Khyentsé Wangchuk (1524-1568). Khecara means 'sky life' or heaven.

I doubt anyone has noticed, but illusions have featured regularly in Tibeto-logic blog. Some of these are illusions we share, some are limited to myself, while others are entirely your own, not that you would ever know, or want to know that. Sometimes I think this blog is an illusion. I mean, it shows up on the screen, but is it actually there in the way it appears to be there?

    Videos for your vision (Don’t trust it! The vision I mean. At least not too far):

I recommend this short one (tap there in case you don’t see it appearing just above). Although it’s in Hindi you will understand practically everything if you have spent even one week in India. I mean, I think “Cha-lo!” is the first word every foreign visitor learns during their first trip on an Indian bus. It means "Let's go!"

There is a longer version, if you have time for it — one with English subtitles.  It’s in one episode of the television serial version of the Mahabharata done by B.R. Chopra et al., in 94 episodes broadcast between 1988 and 1990. If you were so unfortunate as to need a taxi to the airport when this show was on the air, forget about it; you made a big mistake. You could have shouted Cha-lo! until you went hoarse and the cows came home for all anyone cared. Everybody regardless of their name was glued to TV sets wherever TV sets were to be found. The whole country was practically at a standstill. Go here to episode 44 and try to understand why.  Wait about 20-some minutes into it for the watery floor episode.* 
(*The linked video has English subtitles. It seems to load slowly, so go put on a pot for tea meanwhile. Only 13 people have viewed it as of today. That may seem like an unlucky number, but not really, and anyway, I predict it will change very soon. With this blog I celebrate the blog with the ultimate in auspicious numbers.  This is number 108 since I started Tibeto-logic six years ago, almost to the day.  Six years later and Dolma Kyab, a young man who featured in the first Tibeto-logic blog posting, is still in prison as a punishment for writing an unpublished book. My sister, who has written an excellent novel is, the last I heard, free from prison, but her book has not been published. Injustice is injustice regardless of where you find it. Oh, Happy Birthday Kim!)
~   ~   ~

Links for the fun of it:

Phantom cities like Harikela have shown up in other parts of the world. I can’t vouch for the truth of this one, but it sure is interesting.

And what about those legendary missing pagodas at Mahabalipuram in South India that miraculously reappeared during the Tsunami of 2004? Not exactly the same thing, of course, but fascinating anyway. Look here.

There was a magically projected city in the Lotus Sutra. Also not exactly the same thing.

In China a city appeared floating above the river on a cloud. This is the same thing, isn’t it?  See this video filmed just last year, although it has elsewhere (look here) been debunked as a fraud. A fraudulent illusion? Who and/or what is deceiving who precisely?

What is a Fata morgana exactly? If it just means an illusion in which objects that are actually there appear to be much larger than is ordinary on the horizon, I’ve seen them plenty of times, and it would seem silly to pretend to debunk them. In that account of Harikela, there is an impressive amount of attention paid to the physical conditions necessary for such illusory visions to arise. But wouldn’t that just go to prove that illusions are very ordinary? natural even? Or that they are very much a part of our ordinary existence? Are we getting confused yet? Oh well, yes, I’d say the confusion goes back very far and runs quite deep. What evidence would make anyone imagine otherwise?

Frontispiece: Not a real Fata morgana, this building on a northern Taipei hilltop might appear to resemble one, which is about as close as I could get photo-wise.

Some amazing artwork
is to be seen
Try not to fall in.

Highly recommended: 

A time or two around on the Magical Mystery Tour ride at the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen if such a ride exists (did it ever?).

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