Stupafy

Milton Keynes is one of those places that I suspect generates a lot of preconceptions. Hardly surprising since the place was once synonymous with half a dozen concrete cows (which in all my visits I’ve never seen).

I was under the mistaken impression until recently that the town was named after the economists with conflicting philosophies; Milton Friedman and Lord Keynes, but as the name goes back a few centuries I’ve had to scrap that theory.

What is beyond doubt is that the straight line is king. They might be tree-lined and further softened by being called “boulevards” but the fact is that the roads run straight and parallel, the buildings are square and even green spaces have rectilinear tendencies.

With time to explore I might have embraced those angles, but with a tight schedule and the ever-present parking challenges that are also part of this town’s character I grabbed a few examples in the vicinity of my workplace but nothing of real value or impact.

Disappointing, but there was a surprise still to come. Just before joining the motorway that would lead my back to my northern homeland I spotted an alien structure standing in an area of parkland. It was a pagoda.

Now I’ve seen pagodas before (and photographed one earlier this year) but this one was different. No tiers of oriental canopies here, just one. What’s more there was a large white dome beneath it that reminded me of a different religious structure altogether, or rather two.

Temple de swayambunath-nepal
Temple de swayambunath-nepal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was lucky enough to celebrate my 40th year by cycling across Nepal, and in my time in Kathmandu visited two of the Buddhist faith’s oldest religious sites; Swayambunath (The Monkey Temple) and Bodnath where refugee monks from Tibet continue to worship. Sadly in those days my interest in two wheels exceeded my interest in developing photographic skills so I returned without images of these great monuments so forgive me for resorting to wiki at this point.

Bodnath Stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Bodnath Stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These white hemispherical structures house holy relics and are known as Stupa, and this was what I recognised at the MK pagoda.

Was this some sort of hybrid?  No, not really.  Look at the structures above the dome and you will see a series of tapering circles or steps (which in Buddhist symbolism represent fire).  Now that’s more pagoda like.

The truth is that the Stupa was the original Buddhist religious structure in India and Nepal where the religion first took hold, but as it spread further east to China and Japan, the dome (which represented water) became less prominent and disappeared whist the structure above became more developed and ornate.  The Milton Keynes Peace Pagoda provided me with the missing link that enabled me to see this architectural evolution.

It made for some interesting pictures too.

Peace Pagoda, Milton Keynes
Peace Pagoda, Milton Keynes

Silence

I’ve spent a lot of timing musing on silence recently, and began thinking about how I would try to convey silence in a photograph.  Most of us would define it as the absence of sound, so logically the photographic equivalent would be an absence of light.  silenceNot really what I wanted to achieve because it’s obvious, lacks any degree of skill or decision-making, and besides which as far as art is concerned Mark Rothko‘s chapel has pretty much cornered the market in large blocks of darkness.

I talked to my friend Jane about silence and its effects and we agreed that whilst a desolate landscape might be silent of human input you wouldn’t be able to prevent nature’s voice from being heard through wind noise, birdsong, water movement etc, and this is interesting because we when we talk about silence it’s something that many of us will never truly achieve.

A recent discussion on the subject that I heard gave truth to this.  The participants were John Francis (the Planetwalker), an environmentalist who gave up speaking for several years, Galya Morrell, a Russian artist who grew up in the harshness of the arctic circle, and Diarmaid MacCulloch who has written a book on the role of silence in Christianity.  As the discussion progressed it was clear that none had experienced absolute silence, a fact demonstrated by the story told by Morrell in which she described an encounter with a polar bear when she was pregnant.  The predator was easily close enough to attack but did not and both parties stood silently watching one another.  Well actually although she described the encounter as silent, she then went on to describe how in that moment she was able to hear her own heartbeat, her baby’s and more remarkably the bear’s!  Whilst I’m dubious about the last of these I’m sure she would have heard it breathing at least.  So even in that moment there wasn’t really absolute silence.

Jane’s other input was more morbid.  The silence of the tomb.  We didn’t pursue that any further as I had no intention of forcing my way into some mausoleum in search of my answer, and yet that idea must have taken hold in my subconscious, because today I set off for Durham’s Oriental Museum confident that I would find my solution there, though I had no idea what form it would take.

This was my first visit to the museum, which in consideration of the preservation of its artefacts is cool and dimly lit, and being largely subterranean had a sepulchral resonance that suggested Jane might be on the right track.  The light forced me into ISO settings on my camera that I wouldn’t dare consider in normal use and after taking the first shot or two another change came to mind.  The ability to shoot more silently.  The museum was virtually deserted and as I paused between shots I had near silence, only the soft hum of dehumidifiers rendering the adjective inadmissible.

There was plenty to photograph, though clearly some objects like this temple bell were clearly off topic!

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Oriental Museum, Durham

  A range of Chinese grave goods were more promising; objects that had endured centuries of silence before being removed for our education and their preservation.  Yet these didn’t really do it for me; for one thing, the tiny bells clearly symbolised anything but silence, the cockerel on the funeral tile was far too garish, the terracotta horse too active.  Only the tiny figurine showed promise, until you consider the history of these sculptures.  They were substitutes for the human sacrifice that had preceded their introduction, a practice that must have been anything but silent.

Moving on from the associations of death I considered religious observance, inspired perhaps by MacCulloch.  Would worship at this shrine have been conducted in silence? I can’t be sure, but of course when it comes to silent meditation there is one religion that springs to mind.  Buddhism.  Actually this might also be slightly misleading.  The buddhist temple I visited

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 in Kathmandu was positively discordant with the sounds of trumpets, cymbals and conch shells, the sound of which apparently dispels evil spirits.  Nevertheless the Buddha himself is indeed a peaceful figure.

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It was however in the Egyptian rooms that I found my image.  Lots more grave goods including a pair of intact sarcophagi.  I might have missed it due to the attack on silence being conducted by a philistine loudly declaiming his expertise on Japanese seppuku.  Loudly and inaccurately.  I remained silent rather than correct his use of “hari-kari” to “hara-kiri”  I found him so irritating that I was in a hurry to leave the room, but not before I found my goal.  An object that being a sarcophagus mask had endured the centuries of silence, it’s face displaying a peace that could mirror the Buddha, and whose damage ensured the completeness of its silence.APW_8189-2