With its 300 or more species, primates represent the third most diverse order of mammals, after rodents and bats. They include lemurs, lorises, tarsiers, monkeys, apes, and humans. For their body weight, the primate brain is larger than that of other terrestrial mammals, with a fissure unique to primates that separates the first and second visual areas on each side of the brain.
In all primates except humans, the big toe diverges from the other toes, together forming a pincer capable of grasping objects. Not all primates have similarly dexterous hands; only the catarrhines (Old World monkeys, apes, and humans) and a few of the lemurs and lorises have an opposable thumb. Fossils of the earliest primates date from at least as far back as the Early Eocene Epoch (54.8 - 49 million years ago).*
Shooting with a camera, that is. Most regular readers of this blog are probably aware of my large collection of travel photos on shunya.net. About a month ago, a man from Germany emailed me this note:
May I just politely ask you who gave you permission to post the images of all these people on the web? Have you ever asked them for their consent - some of your pictures really look like they were snapshots or secretly taken - even of people in the most miserable situations.
How can you bear people praising your photographic "skills" - when you just took from poor people what others would never yield: their very sphere of privacy and personality.
I am sure you want to do only good by exposing the world to what is going on in disadvantaged places. It might however be worth reconsidering if you are not mostly just benefiting yourself.
This is how I replied to him (with minor edits):
(For a significantly modified and expanded version of this post, please click here.)
Varanasi (Benares, Banaras, Kashi), on the left bank of the Ganga (Ganges), is one of the seven sacred cities of the Hindus. Among "the oldest continuously inhabited cities of the world, its early history is that of the first Aryan settlement in the middle Ganga valley. By late 2nd millennium BCE, Varanasi was a seat of Aryan religion and philosophy and a commercial and industrial centre famous for its muslin and silk fabrics, perfumes, ivory works, and sculpture."
It was the capital of the kingdom of Kashi during the Buddha's time (6th century BCE), who, after achieving enlightenment, gave his first sermon at nearby Sarnath (it is said that he purposely avoided this hotbed of Brahmanism). The Chinese traveler Hiuen Tsiang visited Varanasi in c. 635 CE and saw it as a centre of art, education, and religion. The city, he wrote, extended for about 5 km along the western bank of the Ganga.
Varanasi declined during the early centuries of Muslim rule in India (from 1194). Its temples were destroyed and its scholars fled to other parts of India. In the 16th century, Akbar brought some relief to the city's religious and cultural activities. Fresh setbacks came with Aurangzeb but the Marathas again sponsored a revival. It became an independent kingdom in the 18th century. Under the British it remained a commercial and religious centre; in 1910 it became a new Indian state (until 1949).
Varanasi has the finest religious river frontage in India, with miles of ghats (steps) for bathing; shrines, temples, and palaces rise tier on tier from the bank. Over a million pilgrims visit each year; many hope to die there in old age. A center of learning through the ages, it now has three universities, including the large Banaras Hindu University (estd. 1915), and over a dozen colleges. Besides being a centre of arts, crafts, music and dance, it is still famous for its production of silks (and brocades with gold and silver threadwork), as well as for wooden toys, bangles made of glass, ivory work, and brassware. (Text for preceding paragraphs adapted from Encyclopedia Britannica.)
My most memorable experience in Varanasi was visiting the burning ghats. The bigger of the two is Manikarnika, the other is Harishchandra. The former hosts up to 200 cremations each day. The process is efficient and businesslike. Above the ghats are huge stacks of wood; the family of the deceased, according to their means, buys one of many funeral packages on offer, including a certain quantity of wood, sandalwood sawdust, ghee, other ritualistic paraphernalia, and a priest's services.
Orderlies set up the pyre, the body is placed on it, the priest chants and performs the rituals, ghee is poured on, and the pyre is set alight, as the men of the family watch (women stay at home). If the fire doesn't catch on well, more ghee and sawdust are added. If a family can't afford enough wood, as is not uncommon, the body is burned in stages: middle part first, while the head and legs stick out, to be pushed in deftly by a pole after the middle part collapses.
A few hours later, the ashes and bits of bones are gathered by the eldest son or a senior male of the family and consigned to the waters, where "untouchables" stand with wire nettings to dredge up the ash and mud, hoping for a gold tooth or nose ring that may have survived the fire (pieces of jewelry may be left on the deceased by the family). Not all who die are cremated -- children under five, lepers, sadhus, pregnant women, and snake-bite victims are offered directly to the river.
Watching the spectacle, I felt a liberating calm visit me. Few better ways to peer into the abyss and see our common fate, laid out evocatively in the Book of Common Prayer: from earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Why, there is nothing morbid about death. It is a simple fact of life that should inform our everyday choices and opinions. Yet, the greatest wonder of all, as Yudhisthira says in the Mahabharata, is that each day death strikes, and we live as though we were immortal.
(For a significantly modified and expanded version of this post, please click here.)
Kerala is known for its long tradition of religious amity, high literacy rate, high social status of women (due in part to its former matrilineal system), and a relatively decent public health service. In 1957, it democratically elected the first communist government in the world. Owing to its high population density, long exposure to foreigners, and a mercantile spirit, lots of Keralites travel abroad for work, most to the Middle East.
Hindus, with their diverse sects and practices, form the majority. Christians, over a third of the population, belong to the Orthodox Syrian, Roman Catholic, and Protestant churches. While Muslims reside throughout the state, the Mappilas of the Malabar Coast constitute Kerala's largest Islamic community (the earliest known Indian Muslim community, having existed since the 8th cent. CE). Jains live mainly in the far north. The Jewish community remains a small, exclusive sect, centered around an ancient synagogue at Cochin.
First mentioned as Keralaputra in a 3rd-century-BCE rock inscription of Ashoka, the region was famous among the Greeks and Romans for its spices (esp. pepper). During the first five centuries CE, it was a part of Tamilakam, and so partially controlled by the eastern Pandyas, Cholas, and Cheras. In the 1st century CE, Jews arrived and St. Thomas the Apostle visited (or so the Syrian Orthodox Christians believe). Arab traders introduced Islam in the 8th century. Under the Kulaśekharas (c. 800–1102), Malayalam emerged as a distinct language and Hinduism became prominent. The Cholas often controlled Kerala in the 11-12th centuries. Ravi Varma Kulaśekhara of Venad briefly ruled southern India in early 14th century. After his death, Kerala became a conglomeration of warring chieftaincies, among whom the most important were Calicut in the north and Venad in the south.
The era of European intervention began in 1498, when Vasco da Gama landed near Calicut. The Portuguese superseded the Arabs to dominate the commerce of Malabar. Their attempt to establish sovereignty was thwarted by the zamorin (hereditary ruler) of Calicut. The Dutch ousted the Portuguese in the 17th century. Martanda Varma ascended the Venad throne in 1729 and crushed Dutch expansionist designs at the Battle of Kolachel. He adopted a European mode of martial discipline, expanded the new southern state of Travancore, and allied with the central state of Cochin (against the zamorin). By 1806, however, Cochin and Travancore, as well as Malabar in the north, had become subject states under the British Madras Presidency. In 1949, Cochin and Travancore were united as Travancore-Cochin state. Today's Kerala was constituted on a linguistic basis in 1956.
Tamil and Sanskrit literature flourished from the 2nd cent. CE. Malayalam, an offshoot of Tamil, absorbed a good deal of Sanskrit and has a prolific literature. Notable Malayali poets include T Eluttaccan and K Nampiyar (classical), and K Asan and Vallathol (modern). In 1889 Chandu Menon wrote Indulekha, the first major novel in Malayalam. Traditional dances in Kerala honor Hindu deities or depict scenes from the great Indian epics. In kathakali, the classical martial dance form of Kerala, males portray both male and female characters. Kerala even has a martial art form, Kalaripayattu, still practiced today. Kerala's writers and artists include TS Pillai, MT Vasudevan Nair, OV Vijayan, Kamala Das, Shashi Tharoor, Arundhati Roy, P Zacharia, and Raja Ravi Varma. Famous entertainers and sportspeople include Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Yesudas, John Abraham, M. Night Shyamalan, the Sarabhais, PT Usha, Shankar (the cartoonist), and Jimmy George. ♣
A disproportionately large number of Indians have congenital defects and visibly stunted growth. The poorest of them are often abandoned by their families and/or forced to beg. Tourist and pilgrimage sites inevitably become their favorite stomping grounds. Why does it seem so much worse in India, even compared to the lower GDP nations of, say, East Africa (the only part of sub-Saharan Africa I have seen)?
Excluding the unlucky rolls of genetic dice (many of which can be avoided by a medical pre-screening), most birth defects are due to maternal malnutrition and substance abuse, as well as exposure to toxins, pollution and hazardous waste. In India, the latter may be no less significant. Given India's worsening urban environments and anemic healthcare, one has to stretch facts, ignore evidence, and be a determined optimist to see light at the end of this tunnel. At least for the foreseeable future, India should remain the prime destination for photo ops of the kind below.
Among the most affecting and iconic works of photojournalism are those that capture the human experience at its extremities: war, famine, disease, torture, genocide. The best of these photographs reflect back to us our starkest human material, and bring into focus both the benefits and the costs of political events and policies. They give "a voice to those who would not otherwise have a voice [and] put a human face on issues which from afar can appear abstract or ideological."
For various reasons, not many photographers operate in this space. One who does is James Nachtwey; he has produced an enviable body of work from our war zones and brought to light vital stories from around the world. He wanted above all to be a war photographer, "driven by an inherent sense that a picture that revealed the true face of war would, almost by definition, be an antiwar photograph." Photography like his is much more than being at the right place at the right time -- it requires a certain eye, a special way of looking at the world, which can recognize and distill a significant human experience into an image. Above all, it is a work of demanding intellect, honesty, and empathy.
Visit James Nachtwey's website, read his bio, and hear his inspiring speech at the recent TED awards acceptance ceremony for 2007 (also explore other TED talks by some pretty smart people). I've chosen here a few of my favorite images from his website.
Anandpur Sahib is a holy city in Punjab. Its historical significance to the Sikhs is second only to Amritsar. Hundreds of Sikhs once embraced martyrdom here. Sikh history is deeply marked by their struggle for survival in a volatile land, especially during the peak of Mughal persecution under Aurangzeb, which radicalized the Sikhs (many paintings in the museum at the Golden Temple in Amritsar record the horrifying persecution stories retold across the land). The mystical faith of Guru Nanak transformed into the fiercely spartan and nationalistic faith of Guru Gobind Singh, who also committed the Sikhs to the five Ks. In early 19th century, Maharaja Ranjit Singh further militarized the Sikh nation, creating the first modern army in the subcontinent. Reversing the dominant historical trend, he went west to conquer new lands (which later fell in the British lap).
Takhat Kesgarh Sahib—one of five Takhats, or seats of authority, in Sikhism—is the centerpiece of Anandpur Sahib. It stands upon a hill and is visible for miles. The Khalsa was revealed here by their tenth and last guru, Guru Gobind Singh, who selected the five beloved ones and administered baptism of Khanda (Khande di Pahul), instituting the Khalsa panth on Baisakhi, 30 Mar 1699. A special congregation was held that was attended by thousands. Kesgarh Sahib Fort was built here in 1699, replaced long since by the Gurdwara (a room in its inner sanctum holds twelve important military relics of Guru Gobind Singh). The Sikhs celebrated the 300th anniversary of the day in 1999 with thousands of religious gatherings all over the world. Two Gurus and families of four Gurus lived in Anandpur Sahib for many years.
This transformation is still reflected in the iconography and practice of Sikhism. Swords, spears, shields, and daggers are a centerpiece display in all Gurdwaras, besides the Guru Granth Sahib covered in finery. Even today many Sikhs become Nihangs, an order founded by Guru Gobind Singh himself as the fighting body of the Khalsa. The Nihangs—in distinctive blue robes and armed only with traditional swords, spears, daggers—renounce worldly possessions and commit to embracing martyrdom should the need present itself. Even today a disproportionate number of Sikhs enter the Indian defense forces.
The evening I arrived here in early September '06, the Gurdwara resounded with a Hindu devotional well-known in the north. In its liturgical music above all, Sikhism still betrays its mystic roots. I was below the hill when a massive monsoon downpour began—somehow the sun, near the horizon, managed to stay out the entire time. I took shelter under a souvenir shop awning, bathed by sunlight and watching water rivulets gushing by with great force. When the rain stopped, I ambled up the hill and sat inside the Gurdwara, heard the three singers (one sang notably well), did two parikramas (circumambulations), ate the prasad of sooji halwa, and took photos.
I had dinner at the Gurdwara langar: a simple, tasty, nutritious, and free meal of thick dahl, roti, and pickle. Open to all humans twice a day, believer and non-believer alike (no questions asked), these meals are sustained by donations and volunteers who cook, serve, and clean each day. I was moved by this afresh, and it struck me that this is one truly meaningful service that major temples, mosques, and churches in a syncretic India would do well to emulate.
Dodi Tal, considered the birthplace of Lord Ganesh, is a lake in Garhwal, western Uttaranchal. We hiked 44 km in 3 days, going up and down from about 5,000 ft to 11,000 ft, where we camped near the lake. Unfortunately, it was drizzly or overcast the whole time, so we couldn't view the snowy peaks all around. Still, the walk was incredibly beautiful, through the luminously green, high mountain woodlands of the early rainy-season, the cliffs punctuated by streams of clear water gushing from the rocks, with breathtaking drops falling away on one side of the path.
We had asked for two people to accompany us: a guide/cook and a porter, but when they turned up on the first morning, there were five of them! It seemed like overkill for only the two of us, but they all had large packs stuffed with provisions for our trip and we figured we couldn't turn any of them away, denying them their day's wages [Rs 225/$5]. So, we hiked up with an entourage of five men—a bit silly, but we had fun; and, as it turned out, their knowledge and assistance was invaluable to us lowlanders. The cook made hot breakfast and dinner each day; lunch was cobbled together in sporadic and makeshift chai stalls; one night they cooked a local wild veggie that tasted like asparagus.
They were all friendly, kind men, aged 15 to 55, all refugees/illegal workers who had crossed the border from Nepal years ago. All but the kid were incredibly competent guides with years of experience leading trekkers through the perilous high Himalayas for their livelihood (the kid was on summer vacation, working for the summer with his dad so he could earn some money to finish his education in Nepal; a sharp kid from a dirt poor family, he dreams of being a doctor; this was his first time trekking). The men told us all kinds of chilling stories of glacier crossings with tourists, of deaths they had witnessed, of people trapped in crevasses, frozen in icy waters. eesh! And they themselves can rarely afford anything but the shoddiest of equipment, footwear, and woolens, risking their lives much more than the tourists. Fortunately, we weren't crossing any glaciers. Instead, we walked through tiny little mountain villages; lower down, they grow wheat; higher up, they are shepherds, living in very basic wooden and piled-stone houses.
We met Bachendri Pal, the first Indian woman to climb Mt. Everest (1984) and something of an Indian cultural icon; she just happened to be staying at the same campground as us that day, leading a group of young men on a trek arranged annually by the TATA Adventure Foundation, where she works (she said she was happy with her job and her employer, who had created a whole new department for her to lead). She seemed like a very sweet and gentle woman, also a native Garhwali who grew up in a village not far from here.
The people of Garhwal are an interesting ethnic blend. They speak Garhwali, closely related to Hindi (Nepali is a dialect of Garhwali); their religion is Hinduism. In appearance, they cover the map, ranging from light-skinned, brown haired (I even saw a couple of redheads), with European features (Eastern Europeans, in particular) to light-skinned, brown-haired, with more Tibetan/ East Asian features, to "red" skinned, to brown-skinned, and black haired, with or without varying degrees of the epicanthic fold. And all these different looks, that in the US might pass for different "races," were intermixed as the same people, in the same communities. We saw a demonstration of traditional Garhwali folk dance and I was surprised to see that it was nearly identical to Eastern European folk dance, and distinctly different from folk dance styles from other parts of India. It made me wonder about the population migrations and mixtures across the region in the centuries past. But so far, I haven't found anything informative on the subject.
Many Indians claim that the Dilwara Jain temples of Mt. Abu are a more magnificient achievement than the Taj Mahal – both were stunningly ambitious, state-sponsored, multi-year, monumental, marble-work projects – but the claim is an imponderable to me. One difference, however, springs to mind: while thousands of art lovers and devotees also worked for a generation on each of the two Dilwara temples, the Taj, proof of an emperor's inability to rationally accept his lover's death, was built largely by hired men. I can understand a man's desire for a memorial to his lover; I also believe that a modest memorial need not be any less meaningful, but no, size clearly mattered to Shah Jehan. He had to divert enormous resources of state to fund his absurd private infatuation.
While I think the Taj is rather sublime – I am awed by its beauty each time I visit – the so-called "romance of its inspiration" bugs me. For the untold thousands who labored on it, Shah Jehan didn't even have the magnanimity to dedicate the Taj to, say, "all the lovers of Hindustan," or something similarly inclusive. The poet Sahir Ludhianvi, speaking for the masses, famously said of the Taj: "Ik shahanshah ney daulat ka sahaara ley kar / Ham ghareebon kee mohabbat ka uraaya hai mazaaq" (An emperor relying so on his wealth / Has ridiculed the loves of the poor like us). On the other hand, the Dilwara temples, built half a millennium before the Taj, seem to me expressions of a fairly democratic religiosity.
The temples lie a few miles from Mt. Abu, a picturesque hill resort centered on Nakki lake, atop an isolated feature of the Aravali Range in southern Rajasthan. Mt. Abu was once the HQ of the British Rajputana States Agency. If you read Hindi, check out the local rendition at a traffic square of the famous lines from Frost's Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.
The two main temples at Dilwara, built in the northern Nagara style (as opposed to the southern Dravidian style), are the Vimala Vasahi temple (1031 CE) and Tejpal temple (1200 CE), known for the audacity and the delicacy of their rich marble-work. Unlike most other Indian temples, their exterior is starkly plain; it is the interior that is far more magnificent, especially the breathtaking chandelier-like marble ceilings and ornately carved brackets and pillars. The two temples were commissioned by the Solankis of Gujarat (a branch of the Chalukyas of southern and western India) and one of their former feudatories, the Vaghelas, respectively.
Sadly, photography at this exquisite global cultural heritage site was banned in 1992 for reasons that no one at the temples is willing to articulate clearly (why not allow it for a fee during a designated visiting hour at the least?). Orders, say the orderlies, issue from a managing trust, one that seems to me dominated by conservative and obscurantist Jain elders who, in their infinite and timeless wisdom, also deem it proper to bar menstruating women from entering the temple precincts (enforcing this is fortunately not easy – I looked around but saw no sniffer dogs ;-).
I have welcomed very greatly one experiment in India: Chandigarh. Many people argue about it; some like it, some dislike it. It is the biggest example in India of experimental architecture. It hits you on the head and makes you think. You may squirm at the impact but it has made you think and imbibe new ideas, and the one thing which India requires in many fields is being hit on the head so that it may think. I do not like every building in Chandigarh. I like some of them very much. I like the general conception of the township very much but, above all, I like the creative approach, not being tied down to what has been done by our forefathers, but thinking in new terms, of light and air and ground and water and human beings. [-Jawaharlal Nehru. Speech, 17 Mar 1959]
Chandigarh may well be India's greatest achievement in urban town planning. But despite Nehru's enthusiasm, and the evident success of the experiment, the Indian political establishment seems to have learned nothing from it. Chandigarh ought to have become the harbinger for more planned cities. What came instead was unplanned urban sprawl, dispiriting shanties, and creaking infrastructure, punctuated now by gated enclaves built for the rich by a land-grabbing mafia of private developers. That Chandigarh did not inspire a hundred planned cities points to a colossal failure of the Indian imagination.
Plans for building the city began soon after Punjab was split up in 1947. Pakistan was ceded the larger western part, including the Punjabi capital of Lahore, leaving the Indian Punjab without an administrative, commercial, or cultural capital. It was hoped that a grand new capital would become a symbol of modernity, heal the wounded pride of Indian Punjabis, and house thousands of Hindu and Sikh refugees from Pakistan. Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier was commissioned to lead the city planning, aided by Indian architects and town planners. Construction began in the early 1950s, and much of the city was completed in the early 1960s.
Scenically located at the foot of the Himalayas, Chandigarh boasts a modern infrastructure, open spaces, greenery, cleanliness, and a relatively low population density. Divided into 46 rectangular sectors, numbered 1-12 and 14-47 (13 was deemed unlucky), most sectors have an area of nearly 250 acres and a housing capacity of about 15,000 people. Designed to be self-contained in civic amenities, the sectors are separated from each other by broad streets for the city's fast-moving arterial traffic. In the northeast is the artificial Lake Sukhna, a major recreational spot of the city.
Chandigarh is also an ancient Harappan site. In '69, while digging for a shopping center in sector 17, a Harappan cemetery was unearthed. Remains include painted pottery (jars, dishes, goblets, vases, bowls, cups, beakers), terracotta figurines, beads, toy-cart frames, wheels, faience and copper bangles, stone querns, pestle and sling balls, etc. This, along with their Gandhara, Mughal, and Pahari art collections, makes Chandigarh's museums among the best in India.
A wonderfully whimsical creation, unusual in modern India, is Nek Chand's rock garden, made from building and industrial refuse. I had seen it as a teenager in 1983 but nothing quite prepared me for its expanded scale and the audacity of its creations when I went back in Sept 2006. I stayed in a hotel in sector 17, probably upon the still buried remains of an ancient Harappan settlement, part of a civilization best known to us for its urban town planning.
The Rann of Kutch, an area of 18,000 sq km, lies almost entirely within Gujarat along the border with Pakistan. The Little Rann of Kutch extends northeast from the Gulf of Kutch over 5,100 sq km. Once an extension of the Arabian Sea, the Rann ("salt marsh") has been closed off by centuries of silting. During Alexander's time it was a navigable lake, but is now an extensive mudflat, inundated during the monsoons, salty and cracked otherwise. Settlement is limited to low, isolated hills.*
When I visited the Rann in April, 2006, the highs were already soaring past 110 F. The best way to see it, as I did, is in a 4WD stocked with lots of water. Dotting the parched landscape are desolate desert-like encampments, where a family or two combine forces to eke out a living by mining salt from the saline ground water, the biggest local industry. Legend has it that when a salt worker dies and is cremated, the soles of his feet survive – a lifetime of salt pan labor bakes them so hard that even fire cannot fully burn them.* Tata lorries transport their salt to small trading villages along a railway line. In the dry season, such villages host veritable hillocks of salt as far as the eye can see, where it's packed and sent out on trains.
Kutch is also home to numerous tribal groups, whose attire often adds a dash of color to the otherwise dull desert monotones. Many, such as the Rabari, are still nomadic or semi-nomadic pastoralists (these photos only show women, children, and older men with the camels; the younger men were out tending their sheep and would converge in the evening at a designated place, where the women would setup the tents and cook).
In the monsoon season, parts of the Rann fill up with seasonal brackish water and some locals harvest shrimp in it. They abandon their boats afterwards in the barren salty mudflats, creating a rather surreal scene for the spring/summer-time visitor. Heat mirages abound, making distant objects hover strangely above the land. The Little Rann is also a wildlife sanctuary that protects the Asiatic wild ass, a shy and handsome animal that can sprint at 70 km/h. Reduced to about 2,800 in number, they depend on the few grassy islands, or bets, nourished by monsoon rains. The sanctuary also contains a large number of local and migratory birds, especially flamingos, at its many wetlands. A memorable experience was to go wading knee-deep into the warm waters of a salt marsh with thousands of flamingos around.
Calcutta is a difficult city to be in. With its illustrious past as the one-time heart of the British Empire in India, its seemingly endless roster of lettered luminaries, social activists, freedom fighters, entertainers, and scientists, with lush tropical forests and fields along the Gangetic delta as its backdrop, the city has long since fallen into a sad state of decay, where it stubbornly remains. More than in any other major Indian city, the grind of poverty, pollution, and desperation were front and center at all times during our visit. It felt like a city left behind. But people with close ties to Calcutta maintain that its intellectual life and revolutionary spirit are not dead. Given that its culture and education system still produce a disproportionate number of India's scholars and artists even today, I suppose that must be true. Unfortunately, this isn't evident to the casual visitor. What I saw were the destitute widows of the Calcutta cliché—society's refuse—and sidewalks lined with sleeping families pickling themselves in the thick, black exhaust of autos, cars, and buses.
We went during Durga Puja, the region's most spectacular festival. At this time, every neighborhood constructs a pandal that depicts Durga, flanked by other gods, slaying a demon. For days these doll-like statues are fussed over, dressed up, prayed at, entered into competitions, and then with great fanfare and emotion, they are foisted into a nearby lake or river to dissolve back into the mud from which they were made. All day long during the week of the puja, loudspeakers all over the city hysterically amplify the beating of drums or sacred recitations—with interludes of film music—for those who somehow manage to retain their hearing. Frankly, to me the whole thing felt like just one arduously long, painfully loud puja, and I did not find it all that charming. Still, the joyful and festive spirit of the participants was frequently evident.
On the final evening of the puja, as we waited down by the riverside to watch the procession of revelers dunk their idols, a small fishing boat pulled up and deposited a freshly dead human corpse on the bank, then sailed off (perhaps to avoid getting embroiled with the authorities). It was the body of a handsome young man, not more than 20, strong and flush with health, except for being dead. He appeared to have been fished up from the river, perhaps a young fisherman, drowned, wearing nothing but a soggy dhoti, which now was coming undone. Lying face down, the body had gone stiff with rigor mortis; his nose still leaked blood into the dark muddy bank. The body was left directly in the path of the merry-makers who, refusing to let their enthusiasm be tempered, simply chose to dance around the corpse, careful not to step on it. At this moment, the whole spectacle turned surreal for me: the dancing-clapping jubilation of the devout holding up their glossy-painted, ornamented idols built of myth and mud as they surrounded the awkward, still corpse made of real flesh, the boy with a face but without a story. I found it vulgar; it was too severe, too human, too emptying.
The only lions in the wild outside Africa are in the Western Indian state of Gujarat in the Sasan Gir Forest Reserve, created in 1913 and accorded sanctuary status in 1965. Hundreds of Asiatic lions have been bred here and now number close to 350. Other notable fauna includes leopard, wild pig, spotted deer, nilgai, four-horned antelope, and chinkara (a type of gazelle). A large water hole contains a few crocodiles. The sanctuary lies in a hilly region of dry scrubland. Spread over 1,295 sq km, its vegetation consists of teak with an admixture of deciduous trees, including sal (Shorea), dhak (Butea frondosa), and thorn forests. ♣
Lions were once plentiful in Asia, which explains their prevalence in folk stories like the Panchatantra. Even in the 19th century, they ranged from the Middle-East to Bihar. While the lion population at Gir has grown in recent years, they compete for habitat with 52 human settlements of various sizes inside the sanctuary. Livestock constitutes about 25% of the lion diet and this loss is tolerated by the locals (the dominant group is called Maldharis).
The locals include the Sidis of East African extraction (brought in as slave-soldiers by the royals of Junagarh?) who have now lived here for centuries as pastoralists and farmers. Though Indian in every other way, their music and dance still retain strong links to Africa (I saw a troupe of Sidis perform in Jaipur once). Most Sidis are Sufi Muslims and today live at the margins of Indian society (read more here).
A note to wildlife watchers: brace yourself for some cavalier, overzealous, and boisterous men who unfortunately serve as park rangers, drivers, and safari guides.
(This is a follow-on to part one of my notes on photography)
Many urban middleclass Indians I know are peeved by what they see as a staple of photography on India: squalor, poverty, lepers, fakirs, the deformed. Their India is not like that, and they harbor a knee-jerk hostility to such images. There are so many more suitable subjects of photography, they say, this isn’t the full story (what is?). One cousin was more articulate: the West, he said, has employed such a lens for decades to perpetuate negative stereotypes of India. It is an act of power. The white man came, and still comes, with little love in his heart. His jaundiced eye only sees the exotic and the grimy, making India seem primitive and medieval.
This may well be true but my cousin's stance also reveals his inferiority complex. It is conditioned by what he imagines as the colonizer’s gaze, scarcely a better tribute to it. His insecure pride is tinged with nationalism. He despises a whole class of portrayals of his country, including scenes so ubiquitous that they can perhaps be ignored only as a survival tactic. Because he turns defensive and shuts off upfront, he doesn't find in such images a universal human drama beyond nations and states. He neither sees in them our common humanity, nor its astonishing diversity.
I present this example to suggest that the motivations we ascribe to a photographer usually have more to do with us than with the photographer. To be sure, fresh new pictures can challenge stereotypes, forcing us to examine our received ideas. They can be a mirror to our inner selves; they can reflect the very depth of our being and experience, individual and collective. They can certainly evoke in us joy and sorrow, wonder and delight, but can a picture by itself increase self-knowledge? One answer is that it helps only those who are ready to be helped by it. It may well confound others, or reinforce their stereotypes. Like all works of art, a picture's contribution to self-knowledge is therefore indeterminate.
It is often said that a photo doesn't lie, since it records something real in the world. But what's behind this laboring woman’s smile for the camera? Is it even a smile or is she reacting to the load? A smile absolves us from further concern or involvement. It lulls us into imagining that all is well in her life, despite her innocence of dentists and sturdier equipment. Our ignorance and our need for solace can even make her charming. Is the deformed man begging for alms, yawning, or singing? There are many other interpretations but they all share one thing: what we make of them has little to do with their self-image or reality, a lot with ours. So photos can lie, and generally because we let them.
One of the pleasures of traveling in India is to unexpectedly run into elephants. Almost always decked out by the mahout, they're typically found blessing visitors at temples and festivals, strolling down a street, or giving rides at tourist sites and national parks. I’ve also seen wild herds in the African savanna and tropical forest, and in the grassy woods of Uttaranchal and the hills of Kerala. But elephants never cease to amaze and delight me.
That elephants are smart is common knowledge, but a new study has moved them into a super-elite club of smart animals: the great apes and humans
Elephants can recognize themselves in a mirror and use their reflections to explore hidden parts of themselves, a measure of subjective self-awareness that until now has been shown definitively only in humans and apes, researchers reported … The findings confirm a long-standing suspicion among scientists that elephants, with their big brains, complex societies and reputation for helping ill herdmates, have a sufficiently developed sense of identity to pass the challenging "mirror self-recognition test."
... The new study involved three female Asian elephants at the zoo, in New York City…In a series of experiments, the elephants first explored the mirror -- reaching behind it with their trunks, kneeling before it and even trying to climb it -- gathering clues that the mirror image was just that, an image.
That was followed by an eerie sequence in which the animals made slow, rhythmic movements while tracking their reflections. Then, like teenagers, they got hooked … All three conducted oral self-exams. Maxine, a 35-year-old female, even used the tip of her trunk to get a better look inside her mouth. She also used her trunk to slowly pull her ear in front of the mirror so she could examine it -- "self-directed" behaviors the zookeepers had never seen before.
Moreover, one elephant, Happy, 34, passed the most difficult measure of self-recognition: the mark test. The researchers painted a white X on her left cheek, visible only in the mirror. Later, after moving in and out of view of the mirror, Happy stood directly before the reflective surface and touched the tip of her trunk to the mark repeatedly -- an act that, among other insights, requires an understanding that the mark is not on the mirror but on her body.
The rest of the article is here and includes video footage of the above mirror test. My partner who loves elephants called it “impossibly cute” and I agree. For lots of still photos of elephants from India and Africa, click here.
Two days ago I went on a day trip to Pushkar, a Hindu pilgrimage site, from Jaipur. It has what is said to be the only temple to Lord Brahma in the world. Bathing ghats encircle Pushkar Lake, which, like the umpteen other polluted lakes and rivers in India, is believed to have miraculous healing and purifying power. Though alcohol and meat are banned in this holy town, soft drugs are tolerated (Lord Shiva partakes of it himself!) and are a major draw for Westerners. Pushkar’s history goes back a long way but all its temples date from modern times; the earlier buildings were summarily razed by the bad guy Aurangzeb.
This was my second visit, occasioned by the annual, weeklong Pushkar camel fair that attracts over 250,000 visitors from India and abroad. Villagers turn up for both business and pleasure. In the animal market, amid women gathering camel dung for fire and children frolicking in tanks that hold drinking water for the camels, I felt transported back by decades, save for the large telecom company ads and the camcorder-toting tourists.
Besides the trade in camels, horses, livestock, and farm items, the fair—held on the outskirts of town at the edge of the desert—also offers lots of entertainment and a street market. The former includes tightrope walkers, performing monkeys, snake charmers, acrobats, dare-devil bikers, spherical mirror illusions, circus acts, and shows promising ‘melting girls’ and ‘women who turn into serpents as they wish’. Competitions focus on moustaches and bridal wear, as well as events like camel and horse races, matka phod, and a cattle beauty contest. Brightly dressed women shop for fashion jewelry, pots and pans, and clothes. Food stalls abound, as do merry-go-rounds and similar rides. All in all, it seems like the biggest fun event of the season for the hinterland population.
It struck me afresh that these Rajasthani villagers are a proud and handsome lot, weathered by the sun and the desert, though they don't exactly shine on the UN Human Development Index. They have high rates of illiteracy, underage marriages, and selective abortions. Westerners visit aplenty; perhaps Rajasthan, old world and loudly demonstrative, represents a fairly safe and exotic foil to their own modernity. And since a picture says a thousand words, check out some I took that afternoon.
(See my updated and expanded article on Nalanda University.)
In July this year, I visited Nalanda in Bihar, India, one of the most spectacular archaeological finds on the subcontinent. Nalanda was once a famous Buddhist monastery and university. The region's traditional history dates to the time of the Buddha and Mahavira (6th–5th cent. BCE). Nagarjuna, it is said, studied there.
Excavations by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) reveal that the monasteries belong to the Gupta period (5th cent. CE), now considered the beginning of Nalanda University, where subjects like theology, grammar, logic, philosophy, metaphysics, astronomy, and medicine were taught. The Gupta kings were a major patron of Nalanda, as was Harshavardhana, the powerful 7th-century ruler of Kannauj. During his reign, the Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsang visited Nalanda and left a vivid account of the curriculum and of the general features of the community. I-ching, another pilgrim a generation later, also left an account of the life of the monks.
Between 8th–12th cent., Nalanda flourished under the Pala dynasty as a centre of learning and the arts (stone and bronze sculpture in particular), even as Buddhism began a broad decline in India. Nalanda was put to a brutal and decisive end by Bakhtiyar Khilji, a Turkish invader (c. 1200), who is said to have looted and burned the monastery and killed its senior monks – he cut off the head, so to speak, the body rotted thereafter. Local legend has it that the three libraries of Nalanda were so large that they burned for six months.
10,000 monks and 1,500 teachers once inhabited Nalanda in 108 monasteries, which often had two or more floors. Excavations have revealed a row of ten monasteries of oblong red bricks; each has rooms (single or double occupancy, with wooden doors back then) lining four sides of a courtyard. Across the courtyard, facing the main entrance, is a shrine. Outside, a row of larger shrines, or stupas, in brick and plaster, stand in front of the monasteries. Teachers lived among the students in each monastery, other common features of which include a podium for lectures, a communal brick oven, a bathroom, and a water well (often with an octagonal cross-section, supposedly inspired by the Eightfold Path).
The local ASI museum houses many of the finds from Nalanda and its vicinity. A notable theme in sculpture includes Buddhist deities trampling Brahmanical ones (Shiva and Parvati, Ganesh). A Buddhist goddess has mighty Brahmanical gods like Indra, Vishnu, and Shiva as her "vehicle bearers", while she carries the severed head of Brahma in one hand. Buddhism in India, by the end of the first millennium, was losing out to Bhakti, or devotional Hinduism, and this probably put the Buddhists on the defensive. They had lost most of their royal patronage. They had to resort to more dramatic imagery to assert their religious superiority to the ambivalent.
"Punjab" comes from two Persian words, panj ("five") and ab ("water"), thus signifying the land of five rivers (the Beas, Chenab, Jhelum, Ravi, and Sutlej). The present Indian state of Punjab is the result of two divisions: a) during the partition of India in 1947, and b) during 1966, when the majority Hindi-speaking areas were separated to form Haryana. "Punjab" is a misnomer today since only two rivers, the Sutlej and the Beas, lie in its territory. Chandigarh, a union territory, is the joint capital of Punjab and Haryana. ♣
Cultural clichés associate Punjabis with prosperity, hard work, straight talk, tolerance, a relaxed yet enterprising spirit, stellar contributions to Indian defense, politics, media, sports, and entertainment, a huge presence in Bollywood, truck/cab driving, dhabas and Punjabi food (the best known Indian cuisine worldwide), turban and beard, a butt of ethnic jokes, and a joie de vivre that manifests itself in the exuberant song and dance routines of the bhangra. Women here seem among the freest in the north. Literacy stood at 70% in 2001, higher than the Indian average of 65%. Sikh Gurdwaras are cleaner and more charitable and welcoming to outsiders than most temples and mosques I have visited. From the road, the harsh edge of poverty is visible here far less than in most parts of India.
About 60% of Punjabis are Sikh; the rest are mostly Hindu. A lively debate continues on Sikh religious doctrine and political strategy between conservatives and liberals. Though typecast as a rustic people not into "high culture", the Punjabis are heirs to a profusion of "folklore, ballads of love and war [think Heer-Ranjha, Sohni-Mahiwal], fairs and festivals, dance, music, as well as literature, the origins of which are the mystical and religious verse of the 13th-century Muslim Sufi (mystic) Shaikh Farid and of the 15th–16th-century Guru Nanak, founder of Sikhism, who were the first to use Punjabi extensively as a medium of poetic expression." ♣
Punjabi writers and painters of note include Khushwant Singh, Mulk Raj Anand, Amrita Pritam, Vikram Seth, Amrita Sher-Gil, Satish Gujral, and Manjit Bawa. Har Gobind Khorana, Nobel Laureate in medicine, was Punjabi. Punjabis in media, sports, and entertainment include A Shourie, Kuldip Nayyar, Aroon Purie, Vinod Mehta, Kapil Dev, Bedi, Siddhu, M Amarnath, Harbhajan S, Sehwag, Milkha Singh, Dara Singh, Gulzar, the Kapoor, Khanna, Deol, Dutt, Chopra, and Roshan clans, Sahir Ludhianvi, Shamshad Begum, Allah Rakha, Bhisham Sahni, Dev Anand, Om Puri, Raj Babbar, Jagjit Singh, M Rafi, KL Saigal, Gurdas Maan, Daler Mehndi, Deepa Mehta, Mira Nair, Gurinder Chadha, Deepti Naval, and more.
Yet for all that, the Punjabis have only 793 girls to every 1000 boys up to the age of six, the worst ratio in India, whose national average in 2001 was already low (and falling) at 927 girls to 1000 boys. How does one reconcile such a high incidence of selective abortions (long banned in India) with the seemingly progressive spirit of Punjab?
(Click on the links below for more text and pictures.)
If a picture says a thousand words, which thousand words does it say to whom? If we all wrote down what we hear, no two accounts would be the same. A picture of an antelope can tickle a palate, provoke wonder in the Lord’s creation, convey a medical factoid, illustrate the photographer’s technique, bore a teenager, etc. A picture of a destitute woman with child may provoke sympathy, wonder, or contempt (if she is seen as lazy, irresponsible with pregnancy, parasitic on society, etc.). The more "abstract" a photo, the wider its range of interpretations. So the question is: can a photographer convey a controlled moral message at all?
On the art of photography, we'll do well to recall Wittgenstein: "What can be shown, cannot be said." What a picture conveys, he suggests, cannot be fixed by words. Words are a subjective proxy for a picture, a separate creation with a life of its own.
In matters of appreciation, photography may well be closer to music. As forms of art, both are more abstract than, say, novels and films, which at least have words and ideas to latch on to. But novels and films are already notoriously subjective. The best writers know how hard it is to control interpretation. "The stories we write," says JM Coetzee, "sometimes begin to write themselves, after which their truth or falsehood is out of our hands and declarations of authorial intent carry no weight. Furthermore, once a book is launched into the world it becomes the property of its readers, who, given half a chance, will twist its meaning in accord with their own preconceptions and desires."*
So what hope is there for photography? One answer is that its subjectivity is no worse than other art forms. As a mirror to our protean soul, all art is radically subjective, making it impossible to convey a controlled moral message. But radical subjectivity doesn't mean that a practical convergence in appreciation is impossible. We still produce art, judge it, discuss and debate it, buy and sell it, all while relying on a shared cultural sensibility to give it meaning (i.e., a language game). Pictures, like music, can also establish broad appeal by tapping into many universal human archetypes such as joy and sorrow, wonder and delight, fear and revulsion, etc.
(Read Part 2 for a follow-on to this post.)