Silence is golden. Tell that to a person living in Mumbai, and receive a bewildered stare. The meaning of silence is lost on the city that never sleeps. At any given time, a honk or a screech or a scream is bound to come crashing on a visitor.
Therefore, a place that encourages people to take a vow of silence seems incongruent with the very idea of Mumbai. It exists nonetheless, right in the middle of the city's hustle and bustle. The Global Vipassana Pagoda in suburban Mumbai is a centre where visitors can leave the city behind for a few days and immerse themselves in meditation.
The best way to get there is by ferry from Gorai. Usually, the ferry is full of kids and young adults heading to Essel World, India's first amusement and entertainment park, which shares an island with the pagoda. The dock on the island is lined with colourful walls and caricatures, urging you to have fun. Most of the travellers head to Essel World, while a handful turn left for the pagoda.
As you enter its premises, decibel levels drop noticeably. The red-and-gold pagoda can leave visitors spellbound. Parts of it are still under construction and you hear piercing drills from time to time. But there is an overarching feeling of serenity as you wander about the place.
Walk in past a tall statue of the Buddha and up the marble steps, and the pagoda transports you into another era and another region. It is a replica of the Shwedagon Pagoda of Myanmar—built to show India's gratitude to the country for preserving the practice of vipassana meditation. “They have meditation workshops which help you focus on your breathing, your inner voice,” says Dhananjay Bajaj, who attended an hourlong workshop at the pagoda. “It is a great way to control your thoughts, relax and forget about the outside world and connect with yourself.”
The golden dome of the pagoda is supposedly the world's largest stone dome built without any supporting pillars. At 325 feet, the pagoda is as tall as a 30-storey building and can accommodate 8,000 people. Day visitors are not allowed inside the meditation hall, but they can walk around the dome. The outer wall has messages of peace and dharma, while intricate designs and woodwork adorn the gates and the ceiling. The pagoda, run by the Global Vipassana Foundation, took 11 years to be constructed; and, it is said, it will exist as a beacon of harmony and peace for a thousand years.
A couple of kilometres away from the pagoda are the Kanheri caves, a group of rock-cut monuments from the first century BC. Said to be an ancient Buddhist monastery, the Kanheri caves remind us of an era long gone, while the pagoda keeps alive the Buddha's message. The pagoda has an art gallery that portrays the various stages in the Buddha's life.
By virtue of its very location, the Global Vipassana Pagoda shows that peace and tranquillity can exist even in the unlikeliest of places.