Borobudur: Relief Scenes from the Life of the Buddha (Video)

Borobudur, a massive 9th century Buddhist temple in Java, Indonesia, holds some of the best reliefs in the Buddhist world, recounting events in the life of the Buddha. Approach Guides’ founder David Raezer offers a tour of the eight best reliefs. This video is produced as part of our Insights Series in conjunction our guidebook on the subject “The Temples of Java: Borobudur and Prambanan

Taj Mahal Architecture: Origins in Humayun’s Tomb (Video)

Humayun’s Tomb was built by the Islamic Mughal dynasty in Delhi from 1562-71, 85 years before the Taj Mahal. By comparing the two structures, you will see how the Mughals refined and perfected their original design to create their masterpiece: the Taj Mahal. Approach Guides’ founder David Raezer explores the how the design similarities between the first tomb built by the Mughal dynasty in India, Humayun’s Tomb, and their masterpiece, the Taj Mahal. It is produced as part of our Insights Series in conjunction our guidebook on the subject “Highlights of India: Delhi & Agra.”

Taj Mahal Architecture: Origins in Humayun’s Tomb

Comparison: Humayun's Tomb and the Taj Mahal

Comparison: Humayun’s Tomb and the Taj Mahal

Facade Comparison

Similarities in the architecture of Humayun’s Tomb and the Taj Mahal

Let’s begin by looking at the similarities between the architecture of Humayun’s Tomb and the Taj Mahal. Both have large, rectangular pistaq entrances the tops of which break above the rest of the facade. They frame pointed-arch iwan niches. You can see this pistaq-iwan niche combination repeated on both facades. There’s a clear prototype for this arrangement in the earlier Timurid Madrasa of Ulegh Beg, which was built between 1417-1420 in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

Timurid Madrasa of Ulegh Beg. Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Timurid Madrasa of Ulegh Beg. Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Additionally, both Humayun’s Tomb and the Taj Mahal have large bulbous domes that rise above the tomb at the center, they feature Hindu-inspired chhatri pavilions, and they have chamfered corners that give the impression of depth. Finally, they sit on elevated platforms, symbolic of their importance.

Differences between the architecture of Humayun’s Tomb and the Taj Mahal

This is where things get interesting! The Taj has Quranic inscriptions that communicate a clear narrative to the visitor. In the video, we zoom in so we can see them more clearly. They convey an apocalyptic message focused on judgement and the potential for salvation. Another difference is the color scheme. In Humayun’s Tomb, white marble is used exclusively to highlight key features, while at the Taj, entire tomb is white. The facade of Humayun’s Tomb undulates, with octagonal wings that flank the entrance projecting forward. These projections are eliminated at the Taj. Finally, the dome changes form. You can see how the Taj’s dome is more elevated and significantly more bulbous.

Layout Comparison

Both tombs employ what is called a nine-fold plan, in which eight rooms surround a central chamber. The tomb sits at the absolute center. In both the rooms are octagonal. The octagon represents a middle state between a circle (symbolic of the divine world) and square (symbolic of a human world) and is used to designate sacred areas. As for differences, Humayun’s tomb encourages visitors to move outward from the center, while the Taj encourages a rotation around the central tomb.

Comparing the flow of movement: Humayun's Tomb and the Taj Mahal

Comparing the flow of movement: Humayun’s Tomb and the Taj Mahal

And finally, to illustrate the most important point, we have overlaid the floor plans on the elevations. You can see that the Taj is significantly more balanced. It is a perfect cube with a 1:1 ration between its plan and elevation.

Comparison of the floorplans and elevation of Humayun's Tomb and the Taj Mahal

Comparison of the floorplans and elevation of Humayun’s Tomb and the Taj Mahal

Cultural Insight: Buddhist Prayer Beads

Prayer beads or japa malas are used by both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists.

The Tibetan faithful at Jokhang Temple, Lhasa. Prayer beads are used by both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists.

The use of prayer beads, or japa malas, in both Buddhism and Hinduism speaks to a historical connection between the two faiths; however, Buddhist japa malas typically contain a lesser number of beads than the Hindu japa malas’ 108 — it is usually a divisor of 108. There many potential explanations for the significance of the number 108, however, none alone appears offers a definitive explanation.

The beads are typically made from the seeds or wood of the Bodhi tree (a.k.a. “ficus religosa” or fig tree; this is the tree under which the Buddha gained enlightenment) and are typically used as counters, thereby enabling the faithful to keep track of recitations of mantras or prayers, prostrations, circumambulations and so forth.

The large bead on the strand is symbolic of the wisdom that allows one to recognize emptiness (sunyata) and the bell-shaped bead surmounting it is symbolic of “emptiness” itself (the bell is always a Buddhist symbol for emptiness; its ringing is the sound of emptiness).

A few words on Buddhist philosophy: “Emptiness” signifies that everything one encounters in life is empty of absolute identity, permanence, or an in-dwelling ‘self’ (anatta).  All things are connected and mutually dependent, in a constant state of flux, transforming and becoming (rather than self-centered and fixed).  The Buddhists believe that only when this abandonment of “self” occurs can the transcendent state of enlightenment be achieved.

How to Use Buddhist Prayer Beads

A mantra is said as each bead is spun (in turn) in a counterclockwise direction (similar to circumambulation of the stupa).

The rotation through the beads is also typically done in a counterclockwise motion beginning at the first bead after the large central bead. This large bead is used a counter, signaling that one full rotation of the beads (108 mantras) has be achieved. This process is of 108-bead cycles is repeated countless times.

How to Read a Japanese Kaiseki Menu

During our first visit to Japan, we were overwhelmed (in a good way!) by the traditions of the local culture. The culture of food, especially, had so many rules, courses, and new types of dishes to experiment with that we can see how first-time travelers may be overwhelmed. We attempt to demystify Japanese food, specifically a traditional kaiseki meal that you will likely encounter in ryokans (Japanese inns) when traveling throughout the country.  Here are the many courses you will encounter as part of any kaiseki experience:

  • Shokuzen-shu – to start off your meal, you may be offered a small glass of alcohol — this aperitif may consist of sweet wine or a local alcoholic beverage.
  • Sakiduke – these hors d-oeuvres are typically beautifully prepared, bite-sized tastes that serve to whet the appetite of the diner.
  • Wanmori (or suimono) – this is a very light soup that is served before the main dish.
  • Tsukuri – this course consists of sashimi-style (no rice) raw fish, thinly sliced and usually accompanied by soya sauce and a small amount of wasabi paste.
Tsukuri (Shashimi) - Traditional Kaiseki Meal

Tsukuri (Sashimi)

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Top things to do in Tokyo: Tsukiji Fish Market

The Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo is definitely worth a visit, if for nothing else than to see the early-morning tuna auctions. The complex is enormous (it makes the old Fulton Fish Market in New York City seem like child’s play) and contains hundreds of vendors selling tremendous quantities of super-fresh fish.

Tuna at Tsukiji Market in Tokyo, Japan

Tuna at Tsukiji Market in Tokyo, Japan

Tips for visiting Tsukiji Market

  • You will have to register onsite to gain access to the auctions. The registration office — on the 1st floor of the “Fish Information Center,” located by the Kachidoki Bridge entrance — opens at 5:00 am.
  • There are only 120 visitors permitted per day, so be sure to arrive at the registration location a little before it opens (4:30 am will assure you a spot).
  • Tours of the auctions are offered at two times: (a) 5:25-5.50 am; and (b) 5:50-6:15 am.
  • It is closed Sundays, national holidays and frequently on Wednesdays.

Visit the official site of the Tsukiji fish market for more details.

Map of Tsukiji Market


For your convenience, we have also marked the location of Tsukiji in Google Maps.

After spending the morning walking around Tokyo’s famous fish market, take your breakfast at Daiwa Sushi, the quintessential place to go for a reasonably priced sushi breakfast. There are only 8 seats, but it is a great and totally unique experience.


What to Order: Sushi and Sake in Japan
Guide and eBook to Sushi and Sake in Japan

A helpful resource for any visitor to Japan is our guide to sushi and sake. This ebook gives travelers a glossary of different types of sushi and sake, and tips that range from how to order and eat sushi at a restaurant (dip the fish side, not the rice side, of a piece of nigiri sushi into soy sauce) to alcohol pouring etiquette (pour for others, not yourself).

Visiting Varanasi (Benares): History, Sunrise, and the Ghats

“Older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” -Mark Twain, giving his (not entirely inaccurate) description of Varanasi

Bathing in the Ganges in Varanasi, India

I felt brilliantly alive from the first moment we arrived in Varanasi. Its sights, sounds, colors, and yes, death, brought me immediately into the present, absorbing me in its endlessly fascinating spectacle of ritual activity. Over the next few days we would come to know the city in a very intimate way, learning what we could about its history and ritual. Here is some of what we learned.

Brief History of Varanasi

The city name, “Varanasi” (also known as Benares, likely a corruption of the name Varanasi), is derived from the two tributaries of the Ganges River — Varuna and Asi — between which it is situated.  Historically, the city has been known to the Hindus as Kasha, which means “brightness”, which gives the city its title as the “city of light”. According to Hindu tradition, Varanasi is the oldest city in the world, the eternal city of Shiva. However, to put this in historical perspective, the city was likely settled by the Aryans, as they progressed eastward across the Gangetic plain in the earlier part of the 1st millenium BCE (1000-750 BCE). Although certainly still pretty old, this would make it far younger than the oldest Indian subcontinent civilization, the Harappan civilization (2300-1000 BCE) along the Indus River Valley, which existed simultaneously with the Sumerians in Mesopotamia (2900-1800 BCE) and the Old Kingdom Egyptians (2650-2134 BCE).

Visiting Varanasi: Sunrise on the Ganges River

Hindus have a cyclical view of life and death (death feeds life, and in turn, life feeds death, around and around again); in Varanasi in particular, this cycle is strikingly tangible and omnipresent: birth and death dominate the rituals of daily life.  The belief is reinforced by the city’s physical layout: Varanasi is entirely positioned on the west side of the Ganges, the side of the setting sun and therefore symbolic of the city’s association with death as the Hindu cremation center; at the same time,  the city faces east, the side of the rising sun, symbolic of rebirth and new life. The east-facing direction of city creates incredible morning light; a sunrise boat ride is a highlight of any visit.  Since the city is entirely positioned on the west bank, sunrise boat rides afford the early riser unparalleled, magical, orange-hued views of ritual bathers performing puja (worship) of the rising sun and doing laundry.

Sunrise boat ride along the Ganges

The “Burning” or Cremation Ghats in Varanasi

The stone steps (ghats) lining the Ganges — descending from the city, down the riverbank, and into to the river — emphasize the city’s focus on the sacred river. There are over 100 individual ghats in total lining the river’s edge; these steps make access to the river possible during wet (when the river runs high and only a few steps are visible) and dry (when the river runs low and many steps are visible) seasons. As Hinduism’s most sacred city, Hindus arrange (to the extent possible) to die and be cremated in city, whereupon their ashes are left to be carried away by the sacred Ganges river. The cremation fires at these ghats burn 24-hours a day, 7 days a week. Firewood used for cremation: mango tree for common people and sandalwood for rich; apparently, double the weight of the body is required in firewood in order fuel the fire for the three hours it takes to cremate a body.  The premier cremation ghat in the city is Manikarnika Ghat, and lies about a 5-10 minutes walk north of the main ghat. No photographs are permitted, for obvious reasons.

Ceremonies at Dashaswamedh Ghat

Ganges ceremonies at sunset are held at the main (Dashaswamedh) ghat. Every day, as the sun sets, multiple Ganges ceremonies begin on the steps of the main ghat. The ceremony consists of bell-ringing (to ward off evil spirits) and offering a series of seven, elaborate gifts of light to the river.  The gifts of light get progressively brighter as the ceremony proceeds; it ends by floating candles on the water and pouring water into the Ganges. A definitely memorable experience…

Sunset ceremony along the Ganges in Varanasi


Arati Ceremony in Varanasi

A Guide to Eating Thali in India

Indian Thali (Vegetarian)

Vegetarian Thali. Image by GracinhaMarco Abundo.

Thalis are one of the most delicious and inexpensive dishes that you will encounter throughout your travels in India; however, they can be intimidating if you don’t know how to eat them. Our friend, Surya, generously gave us a few lessons in how to approach eating thalis – we hope that this guide helps you as much as it did us. Enjoy!

What is a Thali

The thali is typically served on a round plate (or more traditionally, a banana leaf), with small bowls (including vegetables, curries and curd) lining the periphery; in the center of the plate is places a heap of plain rice, which is replenished as you move through the meal.

Although thalis can now be found in the north and south of India, the thali (Hindi for “the plate”) has its origins in South India, given its orientation around rice (as compared to the north’s orientation around wheat).

Fingers, please… A thali is traditionally eaten with your fingers, and only with the finger of the right hand, specifically. Use your left hand only for pouring the curries onto your rice and to grasp your drinking glass.

Rice is central to the dish. The rice sits in the center of the plate; you divide off a portion of the rice and place the different curries or vegetables on top of that portion (rather than pouring the sauce over the top of the whole pile of rice on your plate). Mix the sauces in with the rice with your fingers to get a good spread throughout the rice.

How to Eat Thali

There is an order to the progression of thali eating:

  • Begin by eating any of the vegetables (in both curries and dry form) on the plate. You can also eat the vegetables throughout as an accompaniment to the rice and sauce courses to follow.
  • The fiery lentil-based vegetable sauce called “sambhar” is next to be eaten (it is added to a portion of rice as you desire).
  • The chili- and tamarind-based “vathal kozhambu”, the spiciest of the three sauces, is eaten next with rice. Note that this sauce is not always given.
  • The “rasam”, mixed with rice, is always eaten last of the sauces. It imparts a tomatoey and peppery palate.
  • Curd (yoghurt) mixed with rice is always eaten last, to cool your palate and aid with digestion. The roasted dry chili can be added for balance.
  • There is sometimes a sweet for dessert added as well.

Then again, you could just wing it! Just pretend like you know what you are doing and all will be well….Enjoy!

Going to India? Explore India’s art and architecture with our downloadable travel guides to India

AUM: Symbol, Sound and Silence

The meaning of the AUM (OM) symbol

Travelers to Buddhist and Hindu countries might find a review of AUM valuable, as it exemplifies many of the fundamental tenets of these faiths.

The AUM symbol (also spelled “Om”) consists of three curves, one semicircle, and a dot; these are symbols of each person’s self and his potential:

  • The large curve (the lower left corner of the image) symbolizes the waking state.  Perhaps it is best to think of this curve as symbolic of the ego, our outward persona, the person we think we should be, that identity that we consciously associate with the self.
  • Moving clockwise, the upper curve (upper left corner) symbolizes the unconscious state, that part of the self that is hidden to one’s consciousness, but is equally part of the self.
  • The middle curve, which extends from the center to the right side, symbolizes the dream state. This dream state, positioned vertically between the conscious and unconscious elements of the self, serves as a means to connect the two, a means for the conscious and unconscious to interact.  This is certainly what we do when we dream: the unconscious becomes conscious, affording a more complete view of the self.
  • The semicircle or crescent (upper right corner) symbolizes illusion, specifically in this case, the illusion that the self exists as a separate entity at all.  Notice that the crescent separates the dot from the other three curves.  It is this illusion that separates the individual from becoming one with his infinite self, beyond boundaries.
  • The dot signifies the infinite, absolute self, hidden from the individual by illusion; this is what the Eastern faiths of Hinduism and Buddhism consider God.  Dispelling the illusion and becoming one with this infinite self is the ultimate experience of life and the experience of the divine.

Joseph Campbell’s interpretation

One of our favorite descriptions of AUM, which touches on many of the symbols described above, can be found in Joseph Campbell’s book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces“.  Campbell breaks down each of AUM’s three phonemes, a, u and m:

  • The A representing the realm of waking experience: “cognitive of the hard gross facts of an outer universe, illuminated by the sun, and common to all”.
  • The U representing the realm of dream experience: “cognitive of the fluid, subtle forms of a private interior world, self-luminous and of one substance with the dreamer”.
  • The M representing the realm of very deep sleep: “dreamless, profoundly beautiful” (the person unified with the unconscious and the greater self).

For Campbell, the most profound element of AUM is not the sound, however, but the silence that surrounds it: “The silence surrounding the syllable is the unknown: it is called simply ‘the fourth’.  The syllable itself is God as creator-preserver-destroyer, but the silence is God Eternal, absolutely uninvolved in all the openings-and-closings of the round.”

Experience the silence!

Cosmology Shapes Design of Angkor Wat Temple

Fig. 1: Angkor Wat temple’s design recreates three-staged cosmological journey.

The Khmer temple was designed as a microcosm of the Hindu cosmological universe. In making his way from the temple’s entrance to the sanctuary at its center, the visitor undergoes a symbolic three-staged journey to salvation through enlightenment.

Stage 1: Moat as Cosmic Sea

The outermost boundary of a Khmer temple was often surrounded by a moat, a body of water symbolic of the Cosmic Sea (blue highlights in Fig. 1). For Hindus, the Cosmic Sea is the source of creative energy and life, the starting point for the journey toward salvation.

The temple visitor begins his journey by crossing the sea on causeways lined with serpents, beasts similarly intimately associated with both Hindu and Khmer myths of creation (we explore the serpent in detail in our guidebook to Angkor).

Stage 2: Enclosure Walls as Sacred Mountain Ranges

Continuing on his way to the center of the temple, the visitor passes through a series of massive enclosure walls; these walls recreate sacred mountain ranges, symbolic of obstacles that must be overcome on the path to enlightenment (green highlights in Fig. 1). Monumental tower gateways, called gopurams, grant the visitor passage through the walls, each successive one revealing a more sacred area, farther removed from the outside world.

The combination of concentric enclosure walls with large gateways was derived directly from South Indian Hindu architectural precedent. Enclosure walls make their first appearance very early in the Khmer building tradition — at the late 9th century pre-Angkor site of Roluos in the temples of Preah Ko, Bakong, and Lolei — and are a constant feature in all subsequent temples.

Fig. 2: Angkor Wat’s five towers.

Stage 3: Five Sanctuary Towers as Mount Meru

At the center of the temple stand sanctuaries with tower superstructures (red highlights in Fig. 1).

  • The mountain residence of the gods. Under Hindu cosmology, the gods have always been associated with mountains. The sanctuary’s form, dominated by its large tower, recreates the appearance of the gods’ mountaintop residence, Mount Meru (Fig. 2). The mountaintop residence of the gods carried particular symbolic resonance for the Khmer people.
  • God’s cave. The sanctuary proper, located directly under the tower, is where an image of the deity resides. Its dark interior is designed to represent the cave into which god descends from his mountain home and becomes accessible to human beings.
  • The sacred intersection. At the Hindu temple’s sanctuary, the worlds of the divine and living connect: the god’s vertical axis (mountaintop to cave) intersects with the visitor’s horizontal axis (temple entrance to cave). The entire universe emanates from this intersection, as unity with god is the goal of earthly existence. In Hinduism, god is believed to temporarily physically inhabit his representation in the sanctuary; the Hindu temple is arranged to enable the direct devotee-to-deity interaction that necessarily follows. Unlike other faiths, there is no religious intermediary and no abstraction; god is manifest before the devotee’s eyes, a profound encounter.

It is here, among the peaks of Mount Meru, that the visitor’s symbolic journey ends in nirvana: the pairs of opposites characteristic of worldly existence (e.g., good versus bad, right versus wrong) fuse into a single infinite everythingness beyond space and time.

Guidebook to Angkor’s Temples

The Temples of Angkor Guidebook
Angkor — the ancient capital of the Khmer Empire that thrived for 500 years from 802-1327 — is one of the most magnificent sites in Southeast Asia. This recently updated and expanded Approach Guide serves as an ideal companion for travelers seeking a deeper understanding of Angkor’s art and architecture.