Treasures of Aromatic Literature-FRAGRANCE OF TEMPLE FLOWERS by Jefferson Thurber Wing


IN the picturesque village of Kandy, in the high mountains of Ceylon, there is a little lake; and close to this lake stands the far-famed Temple of Buddha's Tooth. I was walking toward this temple along the roadway by the shore. A graceful railing of stone bordered the water, while, on the other side of the road, many lofty trees upheld their vermilion blossoms to the sky. Beyond the trees, I could see the circular temple library, that juts out from the rest of the buildings. Its roof, shaped like an inverted morning glory, and conspicuous from all the surrounding country, is the first part of the temple to meet the view and thrill the pious pilgrim, as he tops the encircling mountains on his journey toward Kandy. Nearing the temple, I could see on my left the graceful, large, white, bell-shaped dagobas, covering most holy shrines. Beside them a bo tree, of hallowed tradition, spread its aged branches. The white of dagobas and temple glistened. Altitude abated the heat of the tropics, but did not take from the brilliance of the tropical sunlight. A charm about the scene could not but make me regret that this was my last afternoon in Kandy; that, in order to catch my steamer at Colombo, I must leave in a few hours.

I turned away from the lake, with its reflections of verdant mountains and the cloudless sky of late afternoon, and soon came to the narrow stone steps of the temple approach. Mounting these, I crossed an arched bridge over the temple moat, where sacred tortoises swam. Flowersellers held up their trays of frangipanni and jasmine for the Buddhist sacrifice, where flowers are offered, since Buddha forbids his followers to kill. With the perfume of flowers came came the sound of temple drums, calling worshippers to some Buddhist service.

I wished to answer the call of those temple drums, but necessity took me, not to the temple itself, but to the adjoining Law Courts. Their meagre structure is given dignity almost solely by their marvellously carved wooden pillars, which with traditional lotus ornament and strange capitals copy the vanished splendor of Anuradhapura, far to the north. At the foot of one of these columns squatted the ragged culprit against whom I was going to appear. No one would have guessed from his serene brown face, as he glanced at me, that it was he who but a few days before had robbed me of some hundred rupees. Only in his restless hands did he show his agitation. Near him waited my faithful Sinhalese guide, through whose untiring efforts I had at last been able to discover the thief. The guide came and stood beside me.

"It is early," was his brief comment.

On inquiring, I found that he was right. I was not to appear for fifteen minutes; but, at the end of that time, I must be on hand promptly, as there would then be but another quarter of an hour before sundown, when the court would adjourn. I had intended to wait where I was, but my conscientious guide had other plans. He reproached himself that, while he had been assisting me in my quest of the vanished rupees, he had shown me too little of Kandy. He suggested that we go to the great Temple of the Tooth, and catch a glimpse, however brief, of the Buddhist service there. He guaranteed to get me back in time. I had learned to trust him, and said I would go. I was much pleased, as I was very curious to witness a ceremony in one of the most renowned of all Buddhist temples.

Entering the near-by temple, we found ourselves in a cave-like room, lighted only by the meagre glimmer of flickering tapers. There, some temple boys were pounding in haphazard fashion upon the barrel-shaped drums which hung from their necks. Another was blowing with much energy upon a shrill horn. The purpose of this din was to assemble the devout, and it should have been able to accomplish this, regardless of distance. As soon as my shoes had been removed, the guide took me into other parts of the temple. We went up ladders, through low black corridors and creaky doors, where my guide explained in silver that we were in a hurry. The sound of the drums at the temple entrance grew faint, until one could not tell if one heard them or merely their echo in the imagination. We halted. My guide said a few words to the attendant, who had lighted our way with his candle. The attendant disappeared. There was a moment's darkness and silence. Then a door slid aside from somewhere, and I saw, in the light of myriad candles, the Buddhist altar.

Before some hallowed image of the Serene Being, numberless temple flowers nearly hid the gold of the flat surface on which they lay. They were arranged in symbolic pattern, and the air was heavy with their perfume. At the side of the altar opposite me stood a Buddhist priest. His saffron robe was draped over one shoulder; his head was shaven; and his bare bronze shoulder glistened with holy oil.

While I looked at him, worshippers came between us, from a room in front of the altar. I had passed these by in my labyrinthine journey. The first was a Kandyan chief. The features of the chief were strong and his expression devout, as he knelt and prayed, and as he placed his gift of flowers upon the altar. Beside him were his wife and tiny boy. The boy clung timidly to his pretty mother's robe of some rare Oriental green. They left many flowers and made way for others. And others came and left before the symbol of their god the symbols of their prayers; flowers, exquisite as human aspirations, as frail, too, fading discouraged as the day ends. Yet, when the next dawn's gray light reddens to the coming sun, new flowers unfold their beauties to the waking world, as new prayers disclose their hopes to the Serene Being.

A little girl of perhaps nine years was among those who came directly after the Kandyan chief. A torn maroon-colored shawl was thrown about her shoulders, and around her brown ankle a silver serpent coiled. She placed her one white flower before the shrine with anxious care. Then, as she turned, her black, glittering eyes met mine. She gave a startled sort of cry and disappeared.

In a distant room Buddhist priests were chanting accompanied by the regular beat of bell-like cymbals. My guide said in a low voice, it was time to leave.

"One minute more," I answered.

"One minute, then," he grudgingly conceded.

The fragrance of temple flowers was more intense. The myriad candles of the altar flickered not, in the dense unmoving air. The serene distant chanting of the priests continued. In even time it spoke of timeless things. The pious made their offerings, and passed on; and their many prayers, upward going, paused before the image of the Serene Being, and rested on the fragrant air. My senses dimmed. Vaguely I heard my guide remonstrating. At regular intervals, bell-like cymbals faintly sounded. The Buddhist priest unmoving watched the image in the shrine. Numberless worshippers filed past. Hope and resignation mingled. Frangipanni and jasmine were heaped upon the altar. The even, distant chanting ceased, and time was not; and for an infinite moment the presence of the Serene Being rested on the fragrance of the temple flowers.

The chant began again. A candle flickered and went out. Then I turned. My guide muttered, "Too late, too late."

"Surely it is not yet sundown," I answered, "but let us see."

Hastily I retraced my steps through the dark labyrinth. The temple drums were silent. I followed my guide to the balcony, which surrounds the part of the building where the sacred books are kept. The sun had set. The mountains loomed dark, and behind them flamed the first light of the afterglow.

A faint breeze stirred the surface of the lake, where no boats sailed. People were passing along the road below me. Among them I recognized a child, a little barefooted girl with a ragged maroon shawl. A silver serpent coiled about her ankle. A native held her close to him as they walked. It was the culprit I had failed to appear against, and, as he looked down into her upturned face, I knew that he was saying:

"Yes, little daughter, you are right. It must have been your prayer and the white temple flower."