Through the Streets of the Orient

Chinatown never does fail to delight. Everytime I go there, the excitement is palpable, it courses through my veins, and I am never disappointed. I remember the first time I walked out of the train at the Chinatown station on an impulse, and the magic has lingered ever since.

I am sure there is more to it than just my own curiosity about Chinese culture, because evidently, I am not the only person fascinated by the colours and the warmth of the area. The exit that I normally take from the station, the one that leads on to Pagoda Street, opens out on a flea market. Things are delightfully attractive and rather inexpensive, and even if you are not a huge fan of shopping, you can walk up and down the aisles between the rows of shops stocked to the brim with colourful clothes, artefacts and other curiosities. You lose yourself among the tourists, you are just one person in a stream of humanity; people searching for presents to carry home to friends, burrowing through heaps of pretty clothes, stopping to finger strange bits of stone or shells or beads at stalls that lie unabashedly open to susceptible, greedy eyes and purses.

It isn’t just the shopping, though. There is more to Chinatown than mere words can explain. Old, graceful buildings stand proud amidst the endlessly changing, milling crowds, red-and-gold lanterns suspended over the variously coloured people, bobbing briskly under the influence of the slightest gust of wind. Walking down the streets on a sunshiny afternoon gives you a profound sense of peace and quiet, almost like the serene calm of a clear pool untroubled by pebbles or wading feet.

The whole morning at work was spent waiting for 2.30 pm, when I’d get off and be able to make my way to the mesmerizing alleys of Chinatown, to travel backwards or forwards in time I know not, but to an entirely different, mysterious world for sure. Laughing Buddhas and frogs in jade and metal; unbelievably chunky jewellery, glimmering beads strung and twisted inextricably together; dolls dressed with loving care in bright ethnic costumes; beaded and brocaded bags; silken cushion covers and slippers; pretty fans, umbrellas and chopsticks- the stuff of plundered loot from ships returning from the Orient in the marvellous stories that we read and loved and still do.

The best part of the afternoon, though, was more spiritual than material. Bursting plastic bags in blue, orange and green notwithstanding, there was something I was really looking forward to- the visit to the monastery. Normally, too much grandeur makes me uncomfortable, but the red and gold décor within the Buddhist temple just left me awestruck without disconcerting me. The serene, benevolent faces of the deities, the powerful, overwhelming presence of the Buddha seemed to pervade the atmosphere within with a sense of incredible calm and reassurance, spelling an end to unhappiness and turmoil. Numerous incense sticks were lit in a huge cauldron just outside the doors, and the mellow fragrance wafted in on the breeze as people held up lanterns and laid their faith and conscience bare, in humility and surrender, to the inexplicable Power.

Stumbling upon a Mariamman temple next, I couldn’t quite let go of the opportunity to go in. It is incredible how, when you are physically spent, your head and heart conspire to carry you through. So it was, laden with shopping as I mentioned, that I walked into the temple with my friend. Strains of the nadaswaram and the rhythmic tolling of bells accompanied the ancient chants as curious tourists crowded in to take in the sights and the sounds of unfamiliar rituals. Walking around the temple courtyard, I looked up at the discoloured figures carved out on the gopuram and the walls, and then at the metallic blue-and-grey skyscrapers, which seemed rather incongruous when set against the more tranquil, less ambitious symbols of faith and beseeching.

And before the magic wears off, before the commonplace becomes life once again and drives away the wonder of the unexplained, I am glad I have written it all down.

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