Friday, June 1, 2012

Believer or Not- God is Good for the Traveler

     The abundance of books by atheists in the last several years has surely enlivened the intellectual debate about the existence of god. Whatever position one takes on this matter, however, it is hard for the traveler to overlook the inspiration of a belief in god or gods that has motivated the creation of some of the loveliest buildings in the world, as well as some wonderful dance, rituals and music. Add to that the vast variety of interesting ceremonies that communities share for prayer and tradition and you have a enormous array of fascinating sites and scenes that contribute to the traveler's pleasure. I find that atheist authors, however serious and accurate their reasoning and arguments may be, often overlook the contribution that religion has made to enrich the diversity of customs awaiting the traveler's viewing.

     One can begin almost anywhere to find the many great examples of architecture that were inspired by a culture's belief in god(s). In the Western Hemisphere alone there are the amazing monuments to the perceived god figures of the Mayans and the Inca, as well as the Teotihuacanos and others who preceded them. Their worship of snakes or birds or other representations of the supernatural are permanently represented by the remains of glorious temples and pyramids that have withstood the ages since their creators built them. One needs only to view the vast Pyramid of the Sun bequeathed to history by the Teotihuacanos whose culture has long since vanished or the elegant temples left for our pleasure by other residents of Meso-America.

     It is in Asia and Europe, however, where the most significant sites stand in testimony to the importance that notions of god played in the cultures where such buildings now paint the landscape. In some cases, these great edifices remain in use by contemporary religions. Examples of overwhelming religious centers exist in every corner of our largest continent. In India alone, one can visit the amazing ancient temple of Konark or the currently active Meenakshi Temple in Madurai. The erotic temples at Khujaraho, the extraordinary caves of Aurangabad, and the Buddhist temples of the North are all more than worth an intense visit. In nearby Myanmar there is the sumptuous Schwedagon Pagoda, Buddhism's answer to Disney world, as well as an assortment of deserted pagodas on the plains of Bagan. China's fantastic pagodas include the Yellow Crane Tower on the banks of the Yangze River and the Temple of Heaven near the Imperial Palace. In neighboring Indonesia the powerful structure of Borobudur which claims to be one of the seven wonders of the world and has more than 500 enclosed statues of the Buddha looks out over the plain to the glory of Buddhism while the ancient Prambanan Temples mark the earlier Hindu settlements that were founded nearby.

     In Nepal, Bhutan, Cambodia, Tibet and other places in Asia, there is a plethora of great buildings erected to testify to the religious devotion of the people who created them over the centuries. While much of the dancing and art and music have disappeared over the years, one cannot imagine the great structures of Asia being lost in history. I need not mention the very familiar sites in Europe which stand in memory to Greek and Roman worship as well as Christianity or the many beautiful mosques in Turkey and the Middle East which depict the glory of Islam. Whatever flaws or doubts one associates with religious belief, it is impossible to dismiss the beauty that devotees of one or other of the great faiths, past or present have created for our everlasting pleasure. 

The Sphinx and the Pyramids, Egypt

No comments: