My Unforgettable Experience in
‘Sri Chinmoy Peace Capital’


By M. P. PRABHAKARAN



A monument to Birger Jarl, in the City Hall of Stockholm. ‘Jarl’ is a title in the ruling hierarchy of Sweden, next only to that of king. Birger wielded tremendous power, not only by virtue of his being a jarl but also because of his marriage to King Eric XI’s sister. On King Eric’s death, in 1250, in accordance with the matrilineal system that prevailed in Sweden at the time, Birger’s son, the king’s nephew, became the ruler of the country. But because the son was a minor, Birger got appointed as his regent. That is, Birger Jarl was the virtual ruler of Sweden from 1250 until his death, on October 1, 1266. The picture above is that of a cenotaph of Birger Jarl, cast in bronze with a gold coating. It reminded the author of the statue of Buddha in the famous Buddha temple in Bangkok. One of the differences is that in the Bangkok temple, Buddha is shown lying on his side, relaxing. Here, Birger Jarl is shown dead, with his body placed on a tomb. The most important difference is that while the Birger Jarl monument is gold-plated, the Buddha statue is made of solid gold, tons of it.



July 17, 2009 – Friday



“If you’re looking to see Stockholm from the water, this is the tour for you.” When I read those words, written in bold letters on a banner in front of one of the stalls at the Stockholm harbor, I thought it was specially meant for me. I had been looking forward to taking such a tour ever since I heard that seeing Stockholm while cruising through its lakes and canals was an unforgettable experience.

Apart from enabling one to enjoy the beauty of the Stockholm skyline, the tour takes him through parts of the city which he would otherwise bypass. But for the two-hour tour that I took, I wouldn’t have known what an inner city in Stockholm looks like. I wouldn’t have known how beautiful the islands of Södermalm, Lilla Essingen and Stora Essingen, and the green areas of Djurgarden are. Thanks to the tour, I now know why city planners from around the world are flocking to Hammarby Sjöstad (roughly translated as Hammarby Lake City). It is a bellwether for eco-conscious, eco-friendly city planning.


When I bought the ticket for the tour, entitled “Under the Bridges of Stockholm,” I knew it was unrealistic to expect the boat to go under all the bridges in the city. They are too numerous to cover in two hours. The boat, however, passed under 15 important bridges and the locks that connect Lake Mälaren to the Baltic Sea.

 How a Water Lock Works

Until this tour, I had only heard and read about water locks that facilitate passage of vessels from one body of water to another. This was the first time that I watched how they worked.


A lock is a man-made, rectangular chamber, with gates at both ends, that connects two bodies of water. The water level, as we all know, varies from lake to lake, river to river and sea to sea. When a vessel enters a lock, the water inside the lock is at the same level as the body of water it has just left. Once the vessel is inside the lock, the gate through which it has just entered the lock shuts from behind. The vessel is locked in. And then, the level of water inside the lock is raised or lowered, by pumping water into or out of it, to bring it to the same level as the body of water the vessel is going to enter. Once that is done, the gate of the lock in front of the vessel opens, and the vessel enters the new body of water – lake, river or sea. Being my first exposure to how the lock mechanism worked, I watched it with great enthusiasm. (To get slightly ahead of the story, I was less enthusiastic when, three years later, I watched how the three locks in the Panama Canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans worked, though the lock mechanism in the latter is much more advanced.)


As the boat passed by important landmarks, I noted them down, hoping to visit some of them on my own at the end of this tour. The pre-recorded commentary on the boat, which provided interesting pieces of information on the Swedish society, history and politics, was very helpful in deciding which ones to visit.


As we passed by an old ship used by the Vikings, which is now a restaurant, the commentary dwelt at some length on the Viking era in the Scandinavian history – the era in which Scandinavian coasts were frequently subjected to exploration and plunder by the Vikings. Just by coincidence, a luxury cruise ship sailed by us, which had “The Viking Line” written on its side in bold, attractive letters. It was on its way to Helsinki. Looking at the beautiful ship, I found it difficult to associate the Vikings with plunder. The Viking Line is one of the companies that regularly transport passengers, most of them fun-seeking vacationers, between Stockholm and Helsinki.


When the boat sailed by the Vasa Museum, the commentary switched to the history of another ship and of how it became a museum piece. The Vasa ship, named after Gustav Vasa, king of Sweden from 1523 to 1560, was added to the Royal Swedish Navy on August 10, 1628. It was done with great fanfare. Alas, it remained part of the navy only for a few minutes after its launch! It had sailed on its maiden voyage just about 1,300 meters, when, in a gust of wind, it capsized and sank. For Sweden, it was a major national disaster. Not just because it claimed 53 lives, but because it was the most expensive project the country had undertaken until then. More important, at the time of the disaster, the country was at war with Poland and it badly needed the ship in its war efforts.


For over three centuries, until it was spotted in 1956 by a man by the name of Anders Franzen, the Swedes had nearly forgotten about the Vasa. In 1961, 333 years after it sank, it was raised to the surface. Today, it is housed in the Vasa Museum, near the site where it foundered.


When the commentary on the ill-fated Vasa ship was over, I said to a fellow tourist, “Now I know that the Titanic was not the only expensive, highly decorated ship that sank on its maiden voyage.”


“Absolutely true,” he replied.


When the commentary gave interesting tidbits on the Royal Palace, the Royal Swedish Opera House and the Stockholm City Hall, I made a mental note that I should visit at least those three places before the day was over. As soon as the tour ended, a little after 11 a.m., I headed to the Royal Palace. It’s only walking distance from where the boat docked.


The Royal Palace


The Royal Palace of Stockholm is one of the largest palaces in Europe. It was built, as the Swedish king’s official residence, on the site where the Tre Kronor Castle once stood. The Tre Kronor Castle, named for the three golden crowns that decorated its tower, was destroyed in a devastating fire, on May 7, 1697. The golden crowns are Sweden’s national coat of arms. Though the rebuilding of the palace began soon after its destruction, it was completed only in 1754. The Great Northern War (1700-1721), which marked the beginning of Sweden’s decline as a superpower in the Baltic region, interrupted the work. Adolf Frederick, who ruled Sweden from 1751 to 1771, was the first Swedish king to occupy the newly-built palace.


Now, the king of Sweden uses the Royal Palace only for official purposes. He lives elsewhere. The palace draws large crowds of tourists throughout the day, especially in the summer. A daily event at the palace, which all tourists are advised not to miss, is the changing of the guard. It takes place at 12:15 p.m. (On Sundays, the time is changed to 1:15 p.m.)


As I entered the palace gate, I saw a throng of tourists jostling for vantage positions to watch the ceremony. I jostled with them, too. The spectacular show is presented by the palace guards picked for the day’s duty. They are picked from the 30,000-strong Royal Guard, which in turn is drawn from Sweden’s armed forces.


After watching the 40-minute changing of the guard Ceremony, I wandered around the palace complex. Few visitors will have the time and patience to go through all the 600 rooms, many of them fabulously decorated, of the vast complex. But none would want to miss the most important ones, the ones that are steeped in history. I visited some of them.


The first one was the Gallery of Charles XI. It represents the place where Charles XI held state receptions and dinners. According to a travel brochure I had with me, this room was modeled on the famous mirror room in the Versailles Palace. Having visited the Versailles Palace a few years earlier, I could say that the Swedes did a good job at emulating the French.


Another famous room in the palace is the Rikssalen (the State Room). Its silver throne, built in 1650 for the coronation of Queen Christina, was one of the few items salvaged from the 1697 fire.


The royal chapel in the palace, decorated in Rococo style by Carl Hårleman, is a big tourist draw. It was consecrated in 1754.


History buffs among tourists would find some of the museums in the palace fascinating. The Tre Kronor Museum recreates the palace’s medieval history. The few objects, other than the silver throne, recovered from the ruins of the Tre Kronor Castle are displayed in this museum.


Gustav III, the king of Sweden from 1771 to 1792, was reputed to be “a vigorous patron of the arts.” The Gustav III Antikmuseum bears evidence to that reputation. Among the items on display in it are several statues, which the king had brought from Rome.


The Livrustkammaren (the Royal Armory) has a collection of armor, carriages and costumes which the royalty had used in the medieval period. And the Skattkammaren (the Treasure Chamber) displays the crown jewels and other treasures of the period. One of the treasures is the sword of the king Gustav Vasa.


Admission to the Royal Palace of Sweden, unlike to most palaces in Europe and Asia, is free. At the end of my 2008 trip to Stockholm, I had left the city with one big disappointment: I had failed to visit the Royal Palace. Not many tourists have made that mistake. This time, as I came out of the palace gate, I realized what I had actually missed in 2008.


The Royal Opera House


My next destination was the Royal Opera House. It’s a few minutes’ walk from the palace, and connected to it by a bridge.


This magnificent neoclassical building, designed by Axel Anderberg and opened in 1898, is an extension of the Royal Palace in terms of grandeur. It was meant to be that way, we were told. After walking by its façade, adorned with statues, arches and columns; through its 92-foot-long Golden Foyer decorated with crystal chandeliers and ceiling paintings by Carl Larsson; and up the marble staircase leading to a three-tiered, chandeliered auditorium that can seat 1200 people, one could see that designer Anderberg had taken great care to blend the opera house well with the nearby palace, architecturally.


At the end of the tour of this majestic building, walking through its Golden Foyer once again, I thought about the man who founded the Swedish opera and the fate that befell him. Yes, I am referring to King Gustav III.


As mentioned above, he was a great patron of the arts. One of the arts he patronized was opera. He also commissioned the construction of the first opera house in Sweden. Named after him, the Gustavianska Operahuset (the Gustavian Opera House) was opened in 1782.


Little did he know then that ten years later, the house he built to promote the art he loved would be the place of his own assassination. The assassination had nothing to do with the art, though. It had to do with a trait in his personality that angered some in the political arena. They found the trait despotic.


The despotic trait in him notwithstanding, some of the reforms he introduced in the country – like abolition of torture as an instrument of legal investigation and religious tolerance – earned him the adulation of the mass. But one ‘reform,’ the one that increased the power of the royalty at the expense of the Riksdag (Sweden’s parliament), alienated him from a section of the nobility in the country. A conspiracy grew out of that alienation. One of the conspirators, Captain Jacob Johan Anckarström, shot him point blank, when he was enjoying a masquerade ball in the foyer of the very opera house he had built ten years earlier. The shooting took place on March 16, 1792, and he passed away 13 days later.


The original Gustavian Opera House was demolished in 1891. The one we see now, built on the same site, was inaugurated in 1898 by King Oscar II, with a performance of Franz Berwald’s Estrella de Soria.


While leaving the opera house, my thoughts were on Gustav III the art-lover, not Gustav III the despot. I walked toward the next stop I had marked for visit, the Stockholm City Hall.

 
Visit to the City Hall


I had read somewhere that the Stockholm City Hall was built to look like a swan resting on water. From the angle from which I approached it, it did look like a swan – with some stretch of imagination, of course. And I didn’t have time to try and find what it looked like from other angles. I am not trying to belittle the grandeur of what is said to be “one of the country’s leading examples of national romanticism in architecture.” An important center of Stockholm’s political, cultural and social life, it certainly is impressive and imposing.


The three golden crowns on the spire atop the city hall’s 106-meter-tall tower shone brighter in the evening sun. One piece of art, which none approaching the city hall would fail to notice, is the statue of Birger Jarl, mounted on a tall pillar. It looks as if the man acclaimed to be the founder of Stockholm were welcoming those approaching the city from afar.


Once inside the building, I was disappointed to learn that certain areas were open to the public only through guided tours. As it was well past the time for the last guided tour, I decided to wander around and explore things on my own. There were a lot to explore.


There is a monument to Birger Jarl inside the city hall, too. It is in the form of an empty coffin, with the dead body of Birger Jarl placed on top of it. Both the coffin and the body are cast in bronze, with a gold coating on it.


Jarl is a title in the ruling hierarchy of Sweden, next only to that of king. Birger wielded tremendous power in Sweden, not only by virtue of his being a jarl but also because of his marriage to King Eric XI’s sister. On King Eric’s death, in 1250, in accordance with the matrilineal system that prevailed in the country at the time, Birger’s son, the king’s nephew, became eligible to ascend the throne. But because the son was a minor, Birger got appointed as his regent. That is, Birger Jarl was the virtual ruler of Sweden from 1250 until his death, on October 1, 1266. (The exact date of his birth is unknown. Historians have placed the year of birth at 1210.)


Another thing about Birger Jarl that is in dispute is the claim that he was the founder of Stockholm. What is not in dispute, however, is that he “made the country more civilized by enacting [among other things] laws that protected the rights of women,” according to Encyclopedia Britannica.


Apart from housing various departments of the city administration, the Stockholm City Hall also serves as the venue of the great Nobel banquet. It is held annually, on December 10, at the end of the ceremony awarding Nobel Prizes. The Nobel Prizes, as we know, are conferred by four institutions – three of them Swedish and one Norwegian. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences confers the prizes in physics, chemistry and economics; the Karolinska Institute, in physiology or medicine; and the Swedish Academy (different from the Royal Swedish Academy), in literature. The prize for peace is conferred by the Norwegian Nobel Committee, based in Oslo, and the prize-giving ceremony is held at the Oslo City Hall.


The prize-giving ceremony in Sweden, held at the Stockholm Concert Hall, is followed by a banquet at the Stockholm City Hall. In addition to the Nobel laureates and their families, the Swedish king and queen and other members of the royal family are guests of honor at both the award ceremony and the banquet. I passed by the Blue Hall where they all dine and the Golden Hall where they – i.e., those who want to – dance.

An Enterprising Newsvendor

As I came out of the city hall, I was pleasantly surprised to see on the sidewalk a newsvendor, who had several English newspapers displayed on a makeshift newsstand. The newsstand was mounted on a wheelbarrow, which was attached to a van.

Since morning, I had been looking for a copy of The International Herald Tribune. For a New York Times addict, it is the next best thing, when he is in Europe. I jumped for joy when the vendor said that he had both, but in a slightly different format. He had all leading English and French dailies, photo-copied page-for-page from the original, and stapled.


“Are you not violating copyright laws?” I asked him.


“No,” he said. “I have an arrangement with all these publications to do what I am doing.” He pointed at the framed permit hung in front of the wheelbarrow.


He said he was originally from London, now living in Prague. “I have a regular job in Prague,” he added. “I do this on the side. The man who works for me here is on vacation. So I flew in to fill in for him.”


“Very enterprising,” I told him.


“An enterprising person can always create jobs for himself,” he said, “no matter the slump in the economy.”


When I told him that I would be in Prague in a few days, he gave me some tips on the places I must visit while there.


“This is one of the few advantages of traveling alone,” I told him. “You can stop where and when you want to and chat with whomsoever you want to.” I shook hands with him and thanked him for the tips.




It was past 6 p.m., and I was in no mood to call it a day. There was one more reason why: it was my last day in Stockholm and I wanted to enjoy the sights and sounds of the city as long as my energy level permitted. I continued my wandering.
 
After several minutes of aimless wandering, I reached a place called the Cultural Centre. A plaque placed on a concrete slab in front of one of the buildings at the place caught my attention. Actually, it was not the plaque, but the message inscribed on it, that did it. The message is from the late Sri Chinmoy, whose career I had followed fairly closely.


He was born in East Bengal (now Bangladesh) in 1931 and died in New York on October 11, 2007. Since he moved to New York, on April 13, 1964, it had been his home. With New York as base, this Aurobindo Ashram-trained Indian guru traveled around the world to spread his message, the essence of which is:


“Our goal is to go from bright to brighter to brightest, from high to higher to highest. And even in the highest, there is no end to our progress, for God Himself is inside each of us and God at every moment is transcending His own Reality.”


I was pleasantly surprised to see that Sweden was one of the 60 countries in which the Indian mystic had won disciples. I don’t know whether it was his Swedish disciples’ idea to call Stockholm “A Sri Chinmoy Peace Capital.” The inscription on the plaque does it.


The main Chinmoy message, inscribed on September 10, 1998, reads:

 
Good it is
To receive peace in the world.
Better it is
To give peace to the world.
Best, by far the best, it is
To become the peace of the world.


The message echoed in my mind the rest of the evening. I retired to bed, saying to myself: “What better way to end my visit to Stockholm, where I have had the good fortune to be a beneficiary of the best in Swedes,”


Tourists watching the changing of the guard ceremony, at the Royal Palace, Stockholm. For many tourists, this spectacular show is one of the reasons why they visit the palace.

●​

(Published on August 1, 2016. This is a slightly edited version of Chapter 3 from the author's recently published book, An Indian Goes Around the World – II: What I Learned from My Thirty-Day European Odyssey. The book is available online at amazon.com, xlibris.com, prabhakarantravels.com and at Barnes and Noble.)

(Comments from readers are welcome. Send your comments to
[email protected])



Back to Home Page