There's no clear path to Hire Benakal in the hills north of the Tungabhadra River in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. If you have to double back only two or three times on the way, you've done well .. knee-high aligned stones and propped-up slabs ... mark the edges of the site. As we navigate through it, we walk around a pile of house-sized boulders, and the massive scale of Hire Benakal, like a city skyline in the distance, becomes apparent.
On a gentle slope are scores of dolmens (megalithic tombs) resembling houses of cards—if playing cards were slabs of granite 10 feet tall and weighed 10 tons or more ... built over more than 1,000 years spanning the southern Indian Iron Age (1200-500 B.C.) and Early Historic (500 B.C.-A.D. 500) periods, and there are more than 1,000 of them across nearly 50 acres, from modest rock enclosures to mausoleum-like tombs.
Afghan archaeologists say they are racing against time to salvage a major 7th Century religious site unearthed along the famous Silk Road. [This] 2,600-year-old Buddhist monastery will be largely destroyed once work at a mine begins. A Chinese company is eager to develop ... the world's second-biggest unexploited copper mine which lies beneath the ruins at the site ... located at Mes Aynak, in the eastern province of Logar. Archaeologists fear that the monastery - complete with domed shrines known as stupas - will probably be largely destroyed once work at the mine begins. (another story)
A well-preserved tomb of an ancient Maya king has been discovered in Guatemala by a team of archaeologists led by Brown University’s Stephen Houston. The tomb is packed with carvings, ceramics, textiles, and the bones of six children, who may have been sacrificed at the time of the king’s death [in] about 350 to 400 A.D., beneath the El Diablo pyramid in the city of El Zotz....
Though the findings are still very new, the group believes the tomb is likely from a king they only know about from other hieroglyphic texts ... “These items are artistic riches, extraordinarily preserved from a key time in Maya history,” said Houston. “From the tomb’s position, time, richness, and repeated constructions atop the tomb, we believe this is very likely the founder of a dynasty.”
An evening of music, poetry, and other readings inspired by the new anthology of literature, Tablet & Pen, hosted by its editor Reza Aslan (approx two hours). Though the anthology is about "literary landscapes from the modern Middle East", it includes selections from South Asia. While most performances were quite good, particularly resonant to me were Ajay Naidu's reading of a poem by Zeeshan Sahil (@ 33 mins), Kiran Ahluwalia's singing (@ 38 mins), and Azra Raza's reading of two poems by Faiz Ahmed Faiz (@ 49 mins).
John Cornwell introduces many central ideas of moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre (whose work I haven't read), including on economics. Thought-provoking ideas for sure, though some of them will raise eyebrows:
MacIntyre’s key moral and political idea is that to be human is to be an Aristotelian goal-driven, social animal. Being good, according to Aristotle, consists in a creature (whether plant, animal, or human) acting according to its nature—its telos, or purpose. The telos for human beings is to generate a communal life with others; and the good society is composed of many independent, self-reliant groups....
In philosophy he attacks consequentialism, the view that what matters about an action is its consequences, which is usually coupled with utilitarianism’s “greatest happiness” principle. He also rejects Kantianism—the identification of universal ethical maxims based on reason and applied to circumstances top down. MacIntyre’s critique routinely cites the contradictory moral principles adopted by the allies in the second world war. Britain invoked a Kantian reason for declaring war on Germany: that Hitler could not be allowed to invade his neighbours. But the bombing of Dresden (which for a Kantian involved the treatment of people as a means to an end, something that should never be countenanced) was justified under consequentialist or utilitarian arguments: to bring the war to a swift end....
[The] rift between economics and ethics, says MacIntyre, stems from the failure of our culture “to think coherently about money.” Instead, we should think like Aristotle and Aquinas, who saw the value of money “to be no more, no less than the value of the goods which can be exchanged, so there’s no reason for anyone to want money other than for the goods they buy.” Money affords more choices and choice is good. But when they are imposed by others whose interest is in getting us to spend, then money becomes the sole measure of human flourishing. “Goods are to be made and supplied, insofar as they can be turned into money… ultimately, money becomes the measure of all things, including itself.” Money can now be made “from the exchange of money for money… and trading in derivatives and in derivatives of derivatives.” And so those who work in the financial sector have become dislocated from the uses of money in everyday life.
The world, we are told, is in the midst of a revolution. The new tools of social media have reinvented social activism. With Facebook and Twitter and the like, the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will has been upended, making it easier for the powerless to collaborate, coördinate, and give voice to their concerns.
Yet, what exactly Zuckerberg has unleashed on humankind remains a grey area. Facebook is just six-and-a-half years old, and there are already studies being done on its social and psychological effects. It is transforming reality as we know it. And sometimes the two worlds overlap with quaint consequences.
We’ve known for years that the Web allows for unprecedented voyeurism, exhibitionism and inadvertent indiscretion, but we are only beginning to understand the costs of an age in which so much of what we say, and of what others say about us, goes into our permanent — and public — digital files. The fact that the Internet never seems to forget is threatening, at an almost existential level, our ability to control our identities; to preserve the option of reinventing ourselves and starting anew; to overcome our checkered pasts.
Observing anniversaries is often a way to mark the passage of time, celebrate small achievements, and reflect on the journey. It can also be an exercise in self-absorbed narcissism. ☺ Be that as it may, I'd like to observe a minor milestone in my creative and online life. Earlier this year, Shunya completed its 10th anniversary. I created this website in 2000 to share my travel photos from around the world—photos that were fading away in cardboard boxes—and to learn web publishing. It was to serve as my web address, and perhaps become a quiet record of a personal history. ("Shunya" means the number "zero" as well as "void" or "nothingness" in Buddhist philosophy.)
The site has since evolved much and now includes prose by me and others, photo essays, and videos. A big expansion came when I took a two-year break (2004-06) to visit 100+ destinations in 20+ Indian states. As a result, nearly half of the ~15K photos on Shunya are from India, the rest from ~50 other countries. In the last two years I've added a host of essays to it, including ones I've written for 3 Quarks Daily as well as by others on this group blog. I've even made new friends through Shunya, found long lost ones, and received many notes of appreciation.
Encouraged by the inquiries I got out of the electronic blue, I also began licensing my photos based on the buyer's means and ends. Over a hundred organizations, including 15 museums, 25 academies, and 35 publishers have since licensed photos from Shunya. I've given away quite a few for free, especially to progressive non-profits, students, and starving artists. They have inspired paintings (samples below) and adorned calendars, posters, music CD jackets, slideshows, brochures, ads, postcards, websites, and book and magazine covers.
Google Analytics reports that Shunya got 3+ million page views in the past year. Each month over 100K people—45K+ from India, 25K+ from the U.S.—stop by at least once. According to Alexa, ~15 out of every million people on the Internet visit Shunya (15 ppm, as I like to think). In 2005, I put ads on the site, which has since paid for at least one vacation abroad each year for me and my partner. Not bad for what is still a labor of love and lunacy (fortunately, I have a day job ☺). Shunya will continue to evolve, but it has already been a very gratifying journey that has helped me grow as a person, writer, and travel photographer. Thank you for your interest, friends and visitors!
(Shunya home pages from 2000, 2004, 2007, and 2010, respectively.)
I've often wondered why Indian popular cinema generally leaves me cold. Though I've offered up defensive explanations to Indian friends and family who feel slighted by my lack of regard for it, the question has continued to simmer for many years on a back burner in my mind.
Take, for instance, this latest offering, Endhiran (The Robot), India's biggest blockbuster foray into science fiction, starring Superstar Rajinikanth. Though told with humor, Endhiran is a familiar story about a gifted man whose hubris brings tragedy upon his people (in this case, however, not upon himself). The archetypes and themes familiar to most Americans from the story of Frankenstein, also echoed in the story of Icarus, or Rabbi Loew, are styled here for an Indian aesthetic and sensibility. (For a plot summary, see the review in Variety.)
Creative and vividly imagined, rendered with high gloss and big budget wizardry, Endhiran makes a proud showing for cinematic scope and technical prowess (though the editing did feel rough during the battle scenes). The film is full of whimsical moments, as when our robot converses with a swarm of disease-infested, CGI-rendered mosquitoes. And Rajinikanth, who, I understand, may well be the global master of the chase scene (with all due respect to Jackie Chan), left me suitably jaw-dropped and amused at the gymnastic tricks he carried off with cars, trucks, and trains. Yet while I certainly appreciated the film's ambition and brash camp—a style for which Rajinikanth is deified in South India—in the end, I found myself rolling my eyes, as I always seem to do when the lights come up on 4 out of 5 popular Indian films. So, what is it in these films that so tries my patience?
In this short lecture, historian Ian Morris talks about the key themes of his ambitious new book, Why the West Rules—For Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future. Geography, he claims, is what explains the arc of world history. He hammers this home in the provocative title of his recent article: lattitudes not attitudes. The book, predictably enough, has been praised by Jared Diamond but also by some historians with very different vantage points, such as David Landes and Niall Ferguson (though it was dissed by philosopher John Gray).
I haven't read the book but going by this lecture and the article, Morris—echoing Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel—seems to me broadly right for prehistoric times. However I worry that, like Diamond, he may be overplaying his hand in explaining more recent history via geography alone. Even with the contextually shifting role of geography, is he not granting it too much explanatory power at the expense of (non-material) culture, especially in the age of powerful states, group politics, and big religions? Nor was I impressed by his take on the future, what with his sophomoric embrace of Kurzweil and Singularity. Guess I should rouse myself to read the tome before saying more.
Do you know California's leading cash crop? Not grapes, not almonds. It's pot. Though widely grown and consumed, it is wholly illegal to do so (except when approved for medical use, for which getting a prescription is, I'm told, laughably easy). Without taxes, it has fostered a black market, is expensive, and burdens the already overstuffed state penitentiaries. A ballot measure to legalize pot (growing and/or possessing small amounts) was defeated this week 54-46%, a tantalizingly close margin. The trend however is clear, and it seems only a matter of time before pot is legal in California. Meanwhile, here are two interesting articles on the culture of pot farming in northern CA:
In its relatively brief 100-year career as an American intoxicant, marijuana has been cast in an alarming number of roles: first as a scourge that drives users to murder and insanity; then as a narcotic that reduces them to passivity and indolence; later as a benevolent herb that can comfort the sick; and now—in the canny propaganda advancing Proposition 19—as a harmless but popular substance whose taxation could save California from fiscal ruin. Who knows what fantasies future Americans will project onto this unsuspecting plant?
To reach Jason's farm you drive south out of the small town of Arcata, in Humboldt County, Calif., and plunge into the forest that gave the region its "Emerald Triangle" nickname. After passing through hilly ranch country and a stretch on a dusty dirt road, a wooden house peeks out of the fruit trees on 150 acres of land, completely off the electrical grid. Jason is in the kitchen, stuffing cannabis leaves into a juicer. "Everyone around here is involved in some way," says Jason, a professional marijuana grower.... a large percentage of people in town, and every other town for miles, is either directly or indirectly subsidized by dope, from the young parents cultivating a few seedlings in the backyard to the owner of the sushi restaurant where seemingly unemployed people eat dinner, always paying in cash.
The poem inspired my friend Leanne Ogasawara to write a wonderful short essay, exploring "what these Ithakas mean". She writes,
[Is] Cafavy not also suggesting this same idea that our destiny is probably nothing else but the inner journey of meaning itself, no matter "where" we find ourselves? For as many of you will recall, Cavafy, the great poet of foreign lands and times past, never in fact traveled to these places that he was writing about. Writing his epic historical and romantic poetry, he lived alone for 25 years, working as a clerk in the employment of the Ministry of Public Works of Egypt, in Alexandria. Indeed, when I think of him working by day in a government office and at night writing poetry of such passion ... I am almost overhelmed by this triumph of the human spirit.
James A. FitzPatrick (1894-1980), American movie-maker, is best known for his 200+ short documentary films from around the world. They appeared in two series, Traveltalks and The Voice of the Globe, which he wrote, produced, and directed from 1929-55. Commissioned by MGM, the shorts played before its feature films and were no doubt a mind-expanding experience for many. Some of them are now online at the Travel Film Archive. Nearly eighty years later, what should we make of FitzPatrick and his travel films?
FitzPatrick's shorts on India—including Jaipur, Benares, Bombay, The Temple of Love (Delhi & Agra, no audio), and others not yet online—are a rare and unique window into Indian public life in the 1930s. We can see what many of these cities' prominent streets and traffic looked like before motor vehicles and billboards, what familiar urbanscapes and skylines looked like, and how uncrowded these cities were before the big rural migrations, not to mention 70% fewer Indians. It is interesting to hear an American public figure from the 1930s pronounce on the castes of India, the religiosity of the Indians, and how they shared their public spaces with animals. They have the charm of quaint narrative conventions we find in period pieces. His films are valuable records of history also because they are a unique encounter of two very different cultures—illuminating the world behind the lens through the one in front.
But having said that, I also think their present value owes more to the paucity of video records of everyday life from that era, than to the quality of FitzPatrick's mind. FitzPatrick seems to me very much a man of his time. In his directorial choices and opinions, he may well qualify as a textbook orientalist. This is not to say that his films are devoid of truth, empathy or humor. It is to say that he brought along with him a marked sense of cultural and racial superiority, as he trained his viewfinder on what he found amusing, outlandish or admirable.
FitzPatrick saw Bombay as "the first constructive imprint of western civilization upon this much talked of and generally misunderstood country." He was impressed by the cosmopolitan life and energy of Bombay, whose population was "over one million people, representing practically every race and creed in the world." But even in Bombay, he notes, "the 15th century is constantly rubbing shoulders with the 20th" and "the ancient procession goes on in strange defiance." In his day, Jaipur was apparently "off the beaten track of tourist travel" despite being "unquestionably the most colorful of all the cities in India [and] one of the cleanest and most prosperous." He doubts if there is another "place in the world where birds and beasts live in closer proximity with mankind." The people of Jaipur, he finds, have "a contented and peaceful nature, living in a sort of bovine resignation to life". While in Benares, "the Hindu Heaven", he suspects that "in the whole world there is no stranger manifestation of human faith in the supernatural than what is witnessed here on the banks of the sacred Ganges." It confounds him that millions of "dumb animals", "made and kept worthless by the Hindu religious code, roam the land devouring annually millions of dollars worth of food for which they produce nothing."