A city of temples, home to a teeming multitude of gods and goddesses, each with a compound of courts and monasteries, with tombs of saints and sites of miracles, a holy city where religious endowments own and occupy most of the real estate, Ringdongdu might well be called the city of bells, from the constant ringing, tolling, chiming, striking, and tinkling of bells of every tone and timbre, a carillon spread over acres of urban landscape.
Of extreme antiquity, founded by the legendary King Ringdong, who laid out the city with help from a host of industrious angels, Ringdongdu is the cosmological center of the world. Its religion lacks a name and dogma. Believers say no other exists. Like a magical loom that works on its own, their faith unravels and reweaves all other faiths, from primitive demons to the most advanced theological concepts. The people call their highest deity Lord and epithets including the Many-Layered One, which hints at a range of divine ideas, complex and contradictory. Yet serene amid this welter, they dispense a threefold blessing: “May you find peace, love and joy.”
The plan of the city resembles a wheel, a rose window in a Gothic cathedral, a peek inside a kaleidoscope, a starburst of radial symmetry, a brass cymbal covered with relief, or a mandala, circular in shape with complex internal images. All comparisons are apt. In the center rises the gem-encrusted Dome of Heaven, like a golden bell, with attendant courts and shines. The Hall of One Hundred Columns recalls a grand mosque. Centuries ago, it may have been built as a vast cistern for a royal palace no longer extant. These buildings are set in a spacious grove ringed by a boulevard. Avenues radiate from the dome to points of the compass and navigational bearings between. A bird’s eye view shows a pattern of zones and segments balanced in space.
Yet the view from the ground is disorderly. A broad river cuts through the plan, disturbing its geometry. At the same time, the river gives sweeping views of the built-up banks, with spires, pinnacles and upturned roof eaves mirrored in its flow. A slow boat ride on the water allows you to see the major monuments. As the river winds under bridges of graceful span, the clang of bells floats over the trees.
Pilgrims converge on Ringdongdu year round. Their shoulders slung with bags and cameras, their feet encased in sandals and sneakers, they roam the city like curious herds of upright beasts of burden. They attract snack vendors, souvenir hawkers, beggars, and touts. The atmosphere of a carnival is muted, as the people are so earnest. They have sights to see, places to go, and bucket lists of long-desired things to do.
In the streets and plazas, flocks of nuns in bird-like habits of brown or white or scarlet or blue are ubiquitous. Armies of monks with shaven heads and begging bowls, each with a wooden staff like a halberd, march from barrack-like dormitories to temple duty. They attend the lectures of eminent priests, and they sit in massed ranks in silent meditation. Major festivals draw dense crowds, yet peace reigns over the city. Incidents of crime are rare, though rival bands of monks have clashed over shades of interpretation.
Day and night, trails of smoke rise from altars in temple courts. Priests burn quantities of incense, while humble pilgrims hand up scraps of paper inscribed with prayers, the names of loved ones, ritual curses, and their bucket lists with items checked off. These also go up in flames, so the thoughts and deeds of devout believers will fly to heaven. Animal sacrifice, bloody and cruel, ceased before the modern era.
It is recommended that all believers visit Ringdongdu once in a lifetime, to make the tour of shrines and temples, and above all to see with their own two eyes the incredible Dome of Heaven. Elderly persons whose children are grown, who are past their peak and in decline, sell all they have and walk to the city. Young men and women about to embark on adulthood, uncertain and full of difficult questions, make the pilgrimage. Asleep on a mat in a temple compound, they hope to obtain a vision to guide them. The seekers, then, are those in bud and those who wither. People who come in their mid-life years are mute and downcast. They have suffered a grievous wrong or committed a crime that requires atonement. All this gives the constant ringing of bells a melancholy cast.
Of the thousands who come to the holy city, some die of old age, some enter a religious order, and some wander in circles. This fact gives rise to a phrase for those who journey to a far-off place and never return: “They found peace, love and joy.”
Robert Boucheron grew up in Syracuse and Schenectady, NY. He has worked as an architect in New York City and Charlottesville, VA. His short stories and essays appear in Bangalore Review, Fiction International, The Fiction Pool, Litro, London Journal of Fiction, New Haven Review, and Short Fiction.