Melanie Venables and Samantha Langdon (pictured) from Wales have just returned from a month long trip in which they inaugurated the site of a new library project in South India, and visited the Buddhist holy sites on pilgrimage.
Kottakasaram is a small village in one of the most disadvantaged areas of South India. There are currently few facilities for knowledge and self-development, although there is a strong sense of community. Koteswara Rao, who grew up in Kottakasaram, currently lives and works in London for the London Buddhist Centre. Through Buddhism and education he changed the direction of his life and decided to return to his village to give his people the same opportunities. Deciding a library would be of great benefit to the whole village, he raised funds for the purchase of a plot of land, and on New Years Day 2007 we and others from Hyderabad returned with him to inaugurate the site. During an inspirational address to the assembled gathering, chief guest Dharmachari Manidhamma commented: “You knew Koteswara Rao ten years ago. Any change which he has made in his life since then is because of Buddhism.” These words had a strong effect on the villagers, some of whom pledged resources to the project on that same day.
Witnessing Mr Rao’s vision come into action and the positive response with which it was met, felt deeply meaningful to us after spending two weeks visiting the places in which Buddhism was born. The pilgrimage, led by Dharmachari Manidhamma, had excellent standards of safety and hygiene and the spiritual depth of a ‘retreat on the move.’ By retracing the footsteps of the Buddha, our appreciation for what he did as a human being deepened. Most valuably our confidence in own practice grew and we both felt inspired to make important changes in our lives in order to return later to Vaishali in the state of Bihar, to begin our own community project there.
Vaishali was the world’s first democracy, and also the site where the women’s Order was founded. Today, there is little evidence that it was once an advanced society. The gate to the site of the birth of Amrapali, the court dancer from the ancient city who renounced her worldly life to follow the Buddha, was in disrepair. In front of it stood a crowd of men who cheerfully, proclaimed, ‘Amrapali was Miss Universe!’ They begged us to write to the Bihar Government to develop the area. We saw few women in public in this least developed state of North India, yet in the time of the Buddha it was possible for women to own land; Amrapali donated her mango grove to the Buddha and his Order.
Dr. Ambedkar is mostly known for his work for Dalits and drafting the constitution of India but he also fought for a law for women’s rights- the Hindu Code Bill, and resigned from Cabinet when the Government opposed it. Hanging in the many family homes where we were so heartily welcomed was a framed picture of Ambedkar, a sign that his work was greatly appreciated by the people he helped liberate. But the conditions for women in India, as in many other places in the world, remain oppressive and even dangerous; the recent rape and brutal killings in Kherlanji, near Nagpur, are not isolated tragedies. Our envisaged community project in Vashali will help expand the freedom of women. To visit the land of the Buddha is an enriching experience which will change the context of your spiritual practise.
This story was posted on fwbo-news.org