déjà vu

They are like a re-enactment of things that have happened before. Or, my imagination has been jolted into overdrive by the horrific events of the last few weeks.

In the Afghanistan-US collision I fancy I hear echoes of the first encounter of Out-of-Africa Homo sapiens with the local Homo neanderthalensis nearly 70,000 years ago. The US and Afghanistan could very well be divergent evolutionary systems and have nothing in common.

I imagine the Rohingya in Burma, Tigrayans in Ethiopia, and other clashes taking place right now on earth, also echo the past and reflect fault lines. Are there deep intangible differences between ethnic groups that can’t be bridged because they can’t be named, described, understood and resolved as they’re beyond the reach of language? Have democratic people created a collective delusion that we are all exactly the same, to which others don’t subscribe?

Are wars actually a face-off between species, then? Setting aside the fact that scientists are now revising the definition of ‘species’, are there actual evolutionary differences in how people’s brains are wired, the way we think and behave because of differences in genes inherited from different remote ancestors and subsequently altered further by adaptation?

Surely it matters, considering that genes decide who we are and what we prioritize in life. The differences can’t be put down merely to culture, which is a superficial construct.

Our common ancestor Homo erectus evolved from chimps in Africa about 7 million years ago and his descendants migrated to different parts of the world in waves. Each group of ancient people adapted to life as they found it: desert, ice, grasslands, dense tropical forest, altitude, level of UV radiation, availability of water and food, etc.

Over time, adaptations generated genomic signatures of natural selection. So, though we share basic emotions like joy, sadness, excitement, anger, hate, etc., the nuances differ enough to sometimes not be able to relate to people who think very differently from us.

There were at least 21 human species that existed on earth at different times. These species were different from Homo sapiens, and interbreeding between some of them happened thousands of years ago. All the other species died out, but left some of their genes in the cells of different groups of Homo sapiens.

Some populations living now have 2-4% neanderthal genes from Eurasia. The indigenous people of Oceania have 4-6% denisovan genes from Siberia. So do Native Americans, whose ancestors entered America via the Bering Land Bridge from Siberia.

Does that explain why people of different ethnicity differ beyond just skin colour? I wonder, because the same people, when transplanted in a different environment, adapt and assimilate within one or two generations. Maybe neuroplasticity offsets inherited traits, or maybe these traits lie dormant and don’t manifest unless triggered by insecurity, distrust, fear or anger.

The Chinese government has accepted the new Afghan set-up with no reservations. Again, in my imagination, an echo from the past: Timur admired Genghis Khan and tried to emulate him! While Timur killed 17 million people, Genghis Khan killed 40 million. What might these allies get up to! Will they endanger India?

Of course, I’m not stereotyping regular citizens of either country by saying this. Citizens anywhere can only protest, and taking out processions doesn’t work in any country, which is why governments allow them in the first place! The subaltern history of any place is summed up as a footnote: the citizens rose up against the state but the uprising was successfully quelled by police with lathis, teargas and firing in the air.

Strangely, there are no stories about indigenous Indian kings with the sensibilities of these two men and their descendants. Though the Mauryas, Guptas, Cholas, Pallavas, Karkotas, Ahoms and all the rest continuously waged wars, killed people and wreaked destruction, I haven’t come across accounts that indicate they crossed the line separating soldier from psychopath.

Of course, it’s possible such records existed in the Nalanda or Vikramashila universities that were destroyed by primitive marauders whose idea of treasure didn’t go beyond jewelry. A re-enactment of this wanton destruction happened in 2001 when the Bamiyan Buddhas, a fine specimen of Gandhara art from the 6th century, were blown up. Déjà vu.

I do wonder if present day Chinese leaders and the Afghans that currently hold sway tap into a deep intuitive knowledge of one another’s minds. I mean, do they recognize themselves in the other and instinctively know how to transact business with them?

India doesn’t have that best-friend thing with any country, though some say we do have a genuine connection with Russia and Israel.

We see how India completed several civil projects in Afghanistan over the last 20 years but didn’t forge a friendship. One can’t force friendship – it’s like college roommates, some are merely roommates while some become friends for life. What we had going with Afghanistan is closer to the former.

Treaties, pacts, partnerships, MoUs, promises and assurances don’t carry quite the same meaning and sanctity in all cultures. People with fewer scruples may use them as expedients, bait, or devices to achieve immediate goals. To unscrupulous people ‘a gentleman’s word is his bond’ means ‘a foolish man who deserves to be taken advantage of’. This is illustrated by one version of Prithviraj Chauhan’s fate that has gained publicity recently.

As an Indian I feel a niggling unease, as if the Ghori-Prithviraj interactions in the two Battles of Tarain 1000 years ago might be re-enacted anytime. The US is either as innocent as a child getting into a car with the ‘nice’ man he just met, or incredibly stupid, or there’s a clever foreign policy that is beyond the understanding of ordinary mortals, or there’s a conspiracy involved. It’s hard to believe the US didn’t know where its ‘aid’ was going for twenty years.

Perhaps the aftermath of the 20-year Afghan war is to Americans what our 1000-year history of being under relentless attack is to us, hopefully making them a little more circumspect in future while dealing with people who live by a different set of ethics.

Words like president and minister in the context of a government in Afghanistan sound contrived because people holding those posts have different qualifications and job experience in our world. Since it is not an elected government, the nomenclature doesn’t sit well with many of us. All they want is the $$$$$, the bag of goodies they feel entitled to receive from the international community, and everybody knows it.

But the images coming out of Afghanistan of malnourished and sick children, vacant-eyed mothers sitting by the hospital beds of their little ones, women howling in pain on being beaten up, these are tugging at people’s heartstrings all over the world.

We empathize, because we’ve seen this before, whenever there is an upheaval somewhere in the world – Serbia, South Sudan, Burma, Honduras, Chechnya, Ukraine, Spain, etc. – and in our own country. Hopefully, the $1billion collected yesterday for food and basic necessities for the Afghan people reaches them.

the afghans and us

Every Indian has a representation of Afghans in his mind starting from school days. Our image of ourselves has been shaped by how Indian rulers of those times responded to attacks from the northwest, chiefly from Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. And our core idea of Afghanistan is based on a whole lot of niche facts from History classes.

As 7th and 8th graders we were shocked by the savagery of Afghan invaders described in our textbooks. These accounts are based on what was written down by the invaders. They could be distorted by subjectivity, translation or victor’s bias. Or maybe that’s the truth, that’s exactly how they did happen.

Apparently, nothing was recorded by those whose lives were too disrupted by the maelstrom to muster up the will to record the events.

These are some of the invaders from Afghanistan that we had to learn up a lot about in school. After plowing through a few chapters it was like watching something play on a loop on a TV screen in a hotel lobby. They all began to sound the same!

Ghazni: 10th /11th century

Ghori: 12th century

Jalaludin Khilji: 13th century

Timur: 14th century

Lodi: 15th century

Ghazni:

Ghazni’s ruthless ransacking of temples, especially the Somnath temple that he robbed and razed 17 times, bewildered us.

And the Rajputs patiently rebuilt it each time! What drove them? Perhaps a sense of duty, coupled with acceptance of the temple’s destruction as either God’s will, the attackers’ ignorance, or a test of their own faith. Fatalism is in our genes and we do sometimes behave like automatons if we are exhausted from being hit on the head too many times. Anyway, the temple still exists.

Ghori:

Ghori conquered India thanks to the original Jai Chand whose name is now a pan-India metaphor for a traitor. But, as children, we felt ashamed that an Indian betrayed our country. After Ghori, his slaves, and then their slaves, ruled India for nearly 100 years! To rule only meant to exercise supreme authority. Royal qualities were not required, so it didn’t matter who sat on the throne! So, this was the oxymoronic Slave dynasty.

Khilji:

Jalaludin Khilji killed the last ruler of the Slave dynasty and declared himself king when he was seventy. He was killed by his nephew-cum-son-in-law, Alauddin, so he could be king. His dynasty lasted for only 30 years and is best known for destroying the Nalanda University.

The Khiljis were followed by the Turkic Tughlaq dynasty whose exact origins in the northwest are not known. But one of them provided generations of Indian school kids with much needed comic relief in the emotionally draining History classes that mostly featured cruel people and a lot of bloodletting.

Tughlaq is now a metaphor for someone who makes costly decisions that are doomed to fail, and everyone but the Tughlaq can foresee what is going to happen!

Timur: Timur captured and looted all the towns from Kabul to Delhi, killed with abandon, ruined and destroyed everything in his path, and then, on his way back, plundered the towns he had missed on his way in, like Meerut, Hardwar, Kangra and Jammu. He has the distinction of causing the deaths of 17 million people, i.e. 5% of the world population at the time.

He took away gold, silver and precious stones from India. I wonder what happened to all the treasure that reached Afghanistan from India. Maybe the Chinese will find it when they start digging, once they get the mining rights they’re angling for!

Lodi: Lodi was a Pashtun Afghan. He and his descendants were a harsh and bigoted lot and did exactly what their predecessors did. Ibrahim got his brother assassinated so he could occupy the throne, something we simply accepted as one of their rites of passage by the time we reached tenth grade and had been force fed this stuff for four years.

The Lodis destroyed temples and built mosques on top, another standard procedure, which made remembering facts about each of these people both easy and difficult while studying for exams, because they all blurred into one turbaned, bearded, mustachioed, sword-brandishing hulk on a horse.

So this is the historic Afghanistan-India relationship we inherited! Reviewing these events from the safety of 500-1000 years into the future makes it’s easier to talk dispassionately about them, the way historians write about Attila and Bleda the Huns’ onslaught on the Roman Empire in the 5th century, or the Norsemen’s on medieval England.  

But, as school children, these stories upset us enough to prefer Amar Chitra Katha comics. Many of these comics were about kings like Prithviraj Chauhan who fought back, valiant rulers who were dismissed in one short paragraph in our textbooks. Until last month’s Tokyo Olympics India never appreciated the efforts of people who didn’t win in a competition or war!

Meanwhile, we read Tagore’s short story Kabuliwala every year from 8th to 10th grade, either in English or in Hindi. We warmed to the big Afghan as he affectionately teased the author’s little daughter. We felt his pain when he shed tears for his little girl back home in Kabul.

You might say the pen is truly mightier than the sword if one Nobel-winning Indian writer could make Indian kids forget all the terrible Afghans in Indian history for the moment, and feel compassion for an Afghan trader down on his luck in the 1890s, but honestly, coming across a normal human being from Afghanistan was a huge surprise and a great relief!

In the 1990s we felt sorry for present-day Afghans and were happy that our country was giving them refuge. At that time I was friends with the Afghan refugees who lived next door – Naaz and Nazia – and we spent a lot of time in each other’s homes.

For the past couple of decades we were glad there was peace in Afghanistan, thanks to the US presence. From 2001 India invested US$3 billion in Afghanistan to build roads, schools, hospitals, dams – and even a beautiful parliament building costing $90million.

400 infrastructure projects across the country. Nice!

Now, here’s the thing.

In 2011 we signed the India-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement and Afghanistan got duty-free access to the Indian market. Great. But I can’t find any information regarding what India gained from this deep engagement with Afghanistan!

I typed ‘What has India gained from Afghanistan’ – worded in many different ways to make sure Google understood – in the search bar and it returned 38,20,00,000 results for ‘What has India done in Afghanistan’! It never found the answer to my question! Perhaps private investors from India prospered and that doesn’t appear online?

I would have expected the government to get some quid pro quo for this construction work, like maybe lithium for our solar energy and electric vehicle projects?

The Ministry of External Affairs says we have ‘a people-to-people relationship’ with Afghanistan. I can’t decode that. I presume there is a solid reason for investing in a country that shares only a 106 km long border with us, thousands of feet up in the Hindukush Mountains; otherwise, we are separated by thousands of km2 of hostile land.

We are currently hosting over 20,000 documented refugees from Afghanistan and several thousand undocumented ones besides. We are providing for them, obviously, despite our own impoverished populace being hit by corona and job loss. The refugees say we’ve made a bad job of it – merely saving their lives doesn’t count! Therefore, those who were stranded in a gurudwara in Kabul last week refused to come to India.

As of now, it seems to me that India helped Afghan civilians painstakingly build a comfortable nest in which parasitic cuckoos have now laid their eggs. And the US has inadvertently provided equipment for their protection. The civilians who built the nest want to go to Europe because their nest is now a ghetto. I’ll be pleasantly surprised if any good comes out of what, at this point, looks like India’s vanity project in Afghanistan.

power games

Even though I’m not religious I can’t stop thinking about Religion and what it is doing to this country and, indeed, to the world. It’s in your face, making headlines everyday. If the purpose of Religion is to make us better people that’s certainly not happening. In fact, I don’t think that is what Religion is about anymore. And as news media confuse us more than they clarify, we need to think things through as best we can.

I wonder if it’ll help if I go back to the beginning of religion in India, and work my way to the present. Not being a theologian, I’m definitely hamstrung, but I’ll try.

Let’s see – what do I know of the nascent stage of religion in India? Our ancestors’ gods were elements of nature, personified. Consequently trees, rivers and animals had identities and were respected. They were not treated like disposables – to fell, pollute, cage and kill as we pleased. Forces of nature like fire, wind, thunder and rain, and celestial bodies like the sun, moon and stars, had names. They were part of the interconnected system of which human beings were a small part. A change in one link could impact the whole system. The Sanskrit word for this perspective is Sanatana, meaning ‘without a beginning’. Religion had no beginning as it was already there? I guess.

Okay, this aspect of religion does make sense to me. That would make me an Animist. To me every object in the universe is an arrangement of recycled quarks and leptons, including myself. Everything has its place and duty, which is literally what dharma means. Dharma comes from ‘dhr’, which means ‘to hold and maintain’ or ’that which is established’ in Sanskrit. To put it simply, dharma is my duty, what I am supposed to do in an honest and ethical manner during my earthly sojourn. That’s it, Sanatana Dharma! Religion at its simplest!

What is the problem with stopping here? Some say Animists are primitive because they can’t tell the difference between living things and non-living things! Well, Animists are by nature not Cartesian thinkers and cannot understand why some people see god as a separate anthropomorphic entity when the whole world is a manifestation of god, or maya. Some say god created the world, I think he manifested as the world, and I put down the difference to semantics, because this is a futile debate.

God is described as neti neti, meaning ‘not this, not this’ in Sanskrit because he’s all of it, the whole universe, including all of us in Kingdom Animalia and Kingdom Plantae, and things inanimate. By the way, there is now something called New Animism. The adherents revere nature after acknowledging that the objects they revere are inanimate, to show the world they are not primitive. The Cartesian mindset cannot process the original, organic Old Animism, but even if it could, this disclaimer is necessary so their Rationalist friends don’t dismiss them as cuckoo!

Admittedly, a lot of things went wrong with Sanatana Dharma as it got more and more complicated over the centuries. Pettiness, meanness, high-handedness, clannishness and exclusion created rifts and resentment among people. Reformers like Siddhartha and Mahavira in the BCEs, theologians like Shankaracharya, Madhvacharya and others about thousand years ago, and some kings and sages along the way, provided checks and balances from time to time. Things continued in pretty much the same way as the world is proceeding now, selfishly, with no regard for the greater good. We all know that entropy is inevitable, and we see it happening everywhere on earth now too, but faster than then. Stability is transitional in the affairs of human beings because we have an insatiable appetite for drama and BREAKING NEWS!

Let me skip to about 1000 CE because there don’t seem to have been any upheavals until then that are germane to the problems in India today.

People from other cultures encountered Indian culture for the first time in large numbers from the time Afghans invaded India in the 11th century CE. Over the next thousand years Islam and Christianity clashed with Indian thought continuously.

Islam and Christianity are centred around two different personages from Middle Eastern regions. They evolved from systems of thought that tend to study, classify, quantify, record, separate and order everything in the Universe, rather than flow with the inherent universal order and merge and be one with all of life, unlike the original Sanatana Dharma.

This is just my impression. I see one human lifetime as a few decades in a span of four billion years. We are as transitional as dinosaurs, mastodons, Java lapwings and orange upperwing moths. We don’t matter. I expect others will have their own take on this because religions are complex and people are individualistic, and I’m not an authority on the subject. And I’m certainly not saying one way is right and the other wrong, because opposites are often illusory, and both paths ought to lead to the same point if there are no biases.

What is Indian culture?

A loosely defined pan-Indian culture does exist. There are too many cognate words common to Sanskrit (north Indian) and Tamil (south Indian) for anyone to swallow the myth of the Aryan invasion. The gods of North Indians and South Indians are the same, so are the scriptures. Festivals like lohri and sankranti are harvest festivals of the north and south respectively, raksha bandhan and nagpanchami reaffirm the bond between brother and sister in the north and south respectively, and karva chauth in north India and varalakshmi pooja in south India celebrate the bond between husband and wife. They occur at the same time of the year in both the north and the south.

The only thing I can say for sure is that Indian culture is syncretic, having absorbed elements from immigrants over more than two millennia, or maybe even five. Make that sixty five if you start from the advent of the first Africans.

If Indian culture is syncretic and accepting as I say, you might well ask why Hindus of today seem intolerant. Some sections of the English press in India and abroad have asked this question and tried to answer it. Every time I read one of these articles I get the feeling that the writer doesn’t have all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle he’s trying to complete.

Let me go back to the very beginning or, rather, the many beginnings, of religion in many parts of the world. One thing is obvious: the religion of a population is subject to change depending on which section is dominant at a given time, and how much pressure that section exerts on the rest to convert.

  • The Celts worshipped nature gods between 500BCE and 500 CE. When Romans invaded Celt territories their religion got romanised, later christianised, and finally lost its essence.
  • The Greeks had a pantheon somewhat like the one in India. Their religion gradually disappeared by the 9th century CE, replaced by Christianity. The ancient Greek religion is being revived now under the name ‘Hellenism’ and has been gaining popularity since the 1990s.
  • The Romans created a pantheon of nature gods of their own based on the Greek one. The entire edifice of Roman culture and religious beliefs collapsed in the 4th century CE when the king, Constantine, converted to Christianity and gave it legal status.
  • The Nordic religion of Germanic peoples was lost in the 12th century CE when Christianity replaced it. It has been revived as Forn Sidr, meaning ‘the old way’, and worship of Norse gods has been practiced as Asatro for the last two centuries.
  • Lithuanians worshipped nature until Christianity became the religion of the majority by the 14th century CE. They have now revived their ancient faith, which is called Romuva. I came across a most surprising post today: https://medium.com/@subhashkak1/romuva-and-the-vedic-gods-of-lithuania-3aae469ff2f1
  • Native Indian tribes in America had their own religion and gods. From the 1600s to the 1970s these religions were suppressed, until the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed in 1978. Though much of their culture is lost they are apparently trying to save what they can. Meanwhile, 66% of them identify as Christian according to US government data published in 2014.
  • Zoroastrianism, one of the oldest religions in the world dating back to 2000 BCE, originated in Iran and was the state religion for a thousand years, until 650 CE. Then its followers had to convert to Islam or flee. Many of them fled to India in the 8th century CE. They are called Parsis and have assimilated well over here. They are devout Zoroastrians but do not attempt to spread their faith. My Parsi friend tells me that the community continues to be grateful to India for sheltering them when they fled Iran twelve centuries ago and they show it by respecting the culture that welcomed and helped them. That sounds very fair to me, because that gratitude and respect for local culture is exactly what I see in my relatives who are now citizens of the USA.

All of these peoples, except Parsis, were Animists or Polytheists. They were probably open to accepting others’ gods as an addition to their altar, the way a lot of Hindus are, even today. They didn’t suspect that their gods would completely disappear if they did that. We learn from history. We see patterns. We become wary.

In South-East Asia, indigenous religions were replaced by Hinduism and, later, Buddhism many centuries ago. Some South-East Asian nations became Muslim, like Indonesia and Malaysia. Many African countries like Ghana, Zambia, Kenya and Congo have a Christian majority, though this wasn’t so in earlier years. This shows that religions of entire populations can change depending on which group has seized the chance to stealthily crawl into the breach, because forced conversions following conquests are not common now.

Putting together what happened to other ancient religions of the world with what is currently happening around the world it seems that Christianity and Islam have always been vying to dominate the world. All 193 countries, except India and Nepal, seem to have one of these two religions as their majority religion! India and Nepal are the only Hindu majority countries in the world, and there are very few Hindus outside of these two countries.

The pantheon of gods is what has kept India stable for centuries. All gods are welcome here, but since the search for the meaning of life is an individual quest, each person ought to do it his own way, however primitive his idea of god and religion may appear to someone else. Anyone who disrupts his growth by telling him his god is not worthwhile, and offers to replace his god, is impeding his soul’s progress. That is the essence of Hinduism. This is why Hindus don’t proselytise. Which means Hindu numbers will greatly diminish if conversions to Christianity and Islam are strategically planned and rapidly executed.

What happens to Hindus if two warring faiths (starting with the first of the Crusades in the 11th century CE) become the dominant religions here?

As Christianity and Islam exhort their followers to proselytise, Hindus try to hold on to the gods worshipped by different communities, so that each Hindu community has a traditional god and a network of supportive relatives and friends affiliated to that god. This way, they are less likely to get conscripted into one of the two armies. India could eventually turn into a battlefield for turf wars, and be reduced to the state Yemen and Iraq have been reduced to. The zeal of new converts will make it easy for them to offer themselves up as cannon fodder. Hindus suspect that systematic proselytisation is destroying this network by targeting the most vulnerable among them.

I fervently hope the unfolding years prove me wrong.

This is my personal view. I don’t claim to speak for all Animists, or Hindu Indians, or anyone else, nor do I have issues with Indians affiliated to any religion. I think religion is a set of ethics a person lives by, nothing more. To me, religion is neither a social nor a political concept; my religion has nothing to do with anybody else.

As I understand it, the religious turmoil in India right now is less about God, more about the fear of control, manipulation, negation of identity, and the unspeakable horrors inflicted on us by some of the Delhi Sultanate kings and Europeans in the past. Right now nobody’s in a good place, neither Hindus, nor the rest. The echo chambers of each religion are circulating plausible-sounding hypotheses and frightening the entire country, except those who don’t believe that Religion is powerful enough to rip this country to bits.

Unlike Europeans, we Indians are fortunate that our link with our past is unbroken. Many of us are aware of our remote past through stories passed down orally by parents and grandparents. Thanks to social media they are being collected and shared all over India. People have started noticing and appreciating similarities rather than differences now. Someday somebody will have to verify and catalogue these stories.

If Greta Thunberg’s ancestors had held on to Forn Sidr she might not have driven herself into depression over the state of the world at the tender age of twelve. If people still worshipped nature gods they wouldn’t have brought Earth to the brink of total destruction. Right now, India is one of the few countries on earth where nature worship is still prevalent in some form. When I walk around the lake every morning I see quite a few people stand for many minutes facing the sun with hands joined in a Namaste, eyes shut. People still worship the Peepal tree, anthills, cows and other things in nature during different festivals. It’s just giving thanks to the universe, a forerunner of the modern gratitude journal!

Meanwhile, I’m somewhat relieved to see there are quite a few moderate known voices of people from all religions, and many concerned, articulate, generous and empathic unknown Indians, who are not any party’s bots, who lucidly explain new developments to the public so they don’t go completely berserk with fear. As Steven Pinker says: With violence, as with so many other concerns, human nature is the problem, but human nature is also the solution.

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When my son was two he would play peek-a-boo with the moon, excitedly shouting “Boooooo” when it came out from behind a cloud. When a cuckoo trilled “Ku-oooo” he’d say “Mama, birdie calling Kayu” (what he called himself then), and call back “ku-oooo”. He would switch easily from English to Russian when necessary. There were no barriers between himself and celestial bodies, birds, or Russians!

Once, when we were packing up to leave a cabin we had been living in for four months, I unthinkingly deflated his inflatable panda and he screamed in terror, obviously thinking it would be his turn next! Perhaps we are, likewise, getting frightened of what we think will happen, and there’s no reliable source of information left to enlighten us in this era of fake news.

 

what’s in a name?

I’m quickly jotting down something that occurred to me when I saw the name of the Thai king in the news recently. It’s Maha Vajiralongkorn. It seemed so familiar, so Indian. I broke it down like this:

Maha = great

Vajira = diamond, in two of the languages I know well, Konkani and Kannada.

Longkorn = ?

I looked up the meaning of longkorn in Thai. It means decoration. And it is apparently pronounced alongkorn.

Longkorn . . . alongkorn . . . alongkorn . . . I said it over and over, trying to catch the association that was floating in my mind, almost within reach. Then I grasped it! Alankar, meaning decoration in Sanskrit. It means the same thing in North Indian languages like Hindi, and South Indian languages like Tamil as well. Alankar refers only to decoration of a deity, or dressing up a murthi of a goddess in a silk sari and gold ornaments. When a woman dresses up in finery it’s called shringar, though alankar is also used as a slightly sarcastic sort of hyperbole in my community.

I know that there has been contact between Thailand and India from way back, starting around 300 BCE. There are many Indian words in the Thai language. Some of those relating to rituals haven’t even changed. I wonder when longkorn became a Thai word. I also wonder if what I have deduced is right.

This kind of guesswork can go wrong too. I read more about Thai linguistic history on the net and came across the name of an important Thai festival, Songkron. I toyed with the idea that it may be related to our Sankranti, but it doesn’t seem to be.

I remember being similarly surprised when I came across the Cambodian version of The Ramayana in a museum in Phnom Penh last year. It’s called The Reamker and the story and cast of characters is identical. Though almost all the names are distorted many still carry a faint echo of the original!

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tinder and kindling

When he landed in Pakistan after UNGA last week Imran Khan gave a speech in Hindi about what he wants for the Indian Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir. These are a few things he said (in bold type), with my imagined Indian responses (in italics).

Imran: “It is jihad. We are doing it because we want Allah to be happy with us.”

Gen. Bipin Rawat: Ah! He finally admitted it.

Imran: “Kashmiris will win if the Pakistani people stand by their side.”

Tamilian: Win what?

Kashmiri: Freedom!

Assamese: From what?

Kashmiri: India!

Gujju: To do what?

Kashmiri: I can’t answer that!

Kashmiri Pandit: Oh, let me answer that! These people chased us, Kashmiri Pandits, out of the valley in 1990. They killed nearly 50,000 of us. They occupied our homes and grabbed everything we owned. We now live in a refugee camp in Delhi. We were a minority, a small percentage of the population, even before the genocide. The freedom to change the demography of Kashmir and destroy its syncretic culture, then secede from India – this is what they want to ‘win’.

Punjabi: Abey, don’t you see that’s losing, not winning? Job nahi, paisa nahi, kya faltu azadi hai … 

Kashmiri: Indian government uses your taxes to take care of us, we don’t need jobs! And we get Rs. 500 each for stone-pelting every time!

Malayalee: Don’t worry Imran bhai, we’ll stand by the side of the Balochis too, and make them win. 

Imran: “India must lift inhuman curfew and release all political prisoners.” 

Bengali: What will you do if we lift the curfew?

Kashmiri: Pelt stones at the Indian Army, na-nana-naa-nah!

Mumbaikar: Release prisoners – like the guy responsible for the attack on the Taj Hotel here? The one who was released in a hostage exchange after an Indian plane was hijacked…?

Kashmiri: Exactly!

Imran: “If there is a face-off between India and Pakistan there will be consequences.”

With that, PM Imran Khan thanked his nation, and his third wife, for channeling divine strength to support him in the forty-five minutes it took to say all that he wanted to say to the world.

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Of course, this is a commonly used template all over the world.

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It is a holy war.

We are doing it because we want Yahveh to be happy with us, his chosen people.

Palestinians will ‘win’ if they give up West Bank and East Jerusalem to Israel.

Palestinians must stop killing our soldiers and our people in Israeli settlements.

If there is a face-off, there will be consequences.

***

It is a war against immigrants.

We are doing it because we want the American people to be happy.

Mexicans and DACA kids will ‘win’ if they go back, because ICE won’t hound them any more.

We don’t want more of them coming across the border.

If there is a face-off, there will be consequences.

***

It is a war against sanctions.

We are doing it – enriching our Uranium – because we want to use our stash our way.

The Saudis will ‘win’ if they ask the US to lift the inhuman sanctions imposed on us. Otherwise, schadenfreude over their anonymously bombed oilfields is all they get from us.

If there’s a face-off, there will be consequences. We will catch a random oil tanker passing through the Strait of Hormuz and hold the Indian or Filipino crew hostage!

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It is a war for space.

We did it because we need Sevastopol to dock our Black Sea fleet.

Ukraine will ‘win’ if it doesn’t try to join the NATO, or station its army close to us like it did in 2014 (only 500 km from Moscow!).

If there’s a face-off . . . it’s just as well they elected a comedian as their President!

***

It is a war for profit.

We do it – supply drugs to American kids – because we need the money.

America will ‘win’, now that they have legalized weed and might’ve thus paved the way to legalize our other stuff as well.

If there is a face-off, there will be consequences. El Chapo isn’t the only one, tenemos muchos más hombres como él.

***

It is an economic war.

We are doing it because Catalonia gives us one fifth of our GDP. It’s our golden goose. We can’t lose it.

Catalonians will ‘win’ if they stop fussing – see what happened to Puigdemont?

No more face-offs, okay?

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It is a cultural war.

We are doing it because we want to protect our culture.

The British will ‘win’ if they honour our laws and stop entering our neighbourhoods to impose their laws.

The British must not expect us to assimilate into their culture.

If there’s a face-off, there will be consequences, but we’d rather talk about them after Brexit, when it’s just them and us, with no EU to side with them!

***

This is not a war. There are no opponents.

We are doing this because communism is the only way for a country to prosper.

The Uighurs will ‘win’ if they cooperate with us in the camps we have set up for them.

There will never be a face-off – we pre-empted it!

Like in everything else we do, there’ll be no consequences for us! Check out our latest islands in the South China Sea!

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Each of  these is like a stack of seasoned firewood. Never know when somebody will lay on some kindling, sprinkle some tinder, strike a match and start a raging fire in one of them!

of unicorns and other myths

How do archeologists pick up one piece of pottery, sculpture, bone or metal and build such a complicated backstory? I concede there is added input from genetics and linguistics now. Nevertheless, I’m skeptical of some of their conclusions. I’m reading Early Indians by Tony Joseph right now. Though it is an interesting and informative book, there are instances where I simply can’t accept his explanations.

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Why is this a unicorn and not the left profile of a bull or auroch with his horns perfectly aligned? The thing in front of him has to be a sort of feedbag or trough with food in it. Why on earth would anyone place a scorching hot brazier near his delicate dewlap! And if this is supposed to be a unicorn as he says, it makes even less sense. Unicorns in mythology were shy and bolted from humans; they were never domesticated or kept in mangers; they had a single long, ramrod-straight, horn that was twisted like liquorice candy. Maybe a species of Oryx – whose horns were aligned and appeared like a single horn – was mistaken for a rare animal and given a new name.

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(Photo by Sandeep Vatsa)

Below is a seal from Mohenjo-daro. They say it depicts a horned deity under a peepul tree, a worshipper kneeling before her, a ram behind the worshipper, a fish behind the ram, and seven figures standing in a line below all of them. Maybe this frieze is not about a deity at all, maybe this is just art made by the Michelangelo of that place and time.

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What if the images represent constellations? There’s Taurus (the Bull, figure with horns), Aries (the Ram) and Pisces (the Fish) lined up exactly in the order in which they appear in the night sky. The seven figures below are the seven big stars of Orion. I thought they might be Pleiades, the Seven Sisters, but the position is wrong. Besides, the seven demure damsels wouldn’t be chiseled out to look like tough men standing stiffly in a straight line.

The ‘worshipper’ could be Aldebaran, which literally means ‘the follower’ and is in the constellation of Taurus, but that would be carrying my yarn too far.

If I had to name the tapir-like squiggle below the Fish, I might say it’s Cetus, the sea-monster slain by Perseus in Greek mythology, judging by its position.

Seals with this design could be replicas of a record made by an amateur astronomer from his observation of the night sky. In which case, it is Science, not Art or Religion.

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Anyway, why are we so certain that the Indus Valley people were steeped in Religion? Weren’t they busy farming, cooking, cleaning, weaving and stitching together garments out of grass or cotton or whatever, raising kids and commuting to work and back from their fields, just as we are? What we think is their religion might’ve been their literature (their script not having been deciphered yet) or their social life, the temple serving primarily as a community centre, with pooja a small part of it, the way saying grace – which is an extant but unobserved ritual in most religions now – is only one small part of a family’s meal.

The Indus Valley people sent up prayers, for example, to the rain god to bless their crops. How is that different from the various petitions people of all faiths today send up to god on a daily basis? When we say, “God bless you” when someone sneezes it isn’t a religious thing. It’s just an utterance, to be understood in terms of social pragmatics.

Why do we patronise our ancestors like they were intellectual cretins?

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Here’s a picture of columns found at the Harappan site at Dholavira in Gujarat, India. The archeologist’s conclusion is given below the picture.

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This is a picture I took on Residency road, just outside the gates of Bangalore Club, yesterday.

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From this picture we could conclude that the BBMP, which maintains Bangalore’s infrastructure, is a Shiva-worshipping organisation that has put up these phallic symbols across the sidewalk, and while we are at it, wonder why Bangalore Club is the repository of so many animal skulls and a stuffed leopard, and what’s the connection between the phallic structures on the pavement and the skulls in the club’s foyer. Come on! These short columns – that look to me like dock pilings for tying boats to – have apparently been put there to prevent people from driving on sidewalks. So there’s a civic explanation for the columns and the ‘symbols’ have nothing to do with religion!

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notre dame

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fifteen years ago

i took this pic

lucky to see this beautiful church

feel terrible at its partial destruction…

but…

twin bell towers are safe

 organ is safe

rose window is safe

bell Emmanuelle seems safe

 cross is safe

nail from crucifixion is safe

crown of thorns is safe

paintings are smoke-damaged, not fire-damaged

copper rooster safe

flying buttresses look okay to me in images, hope they really are too

 loss of the spire is very sad, but was newer, so hope it can be constructed again…

Wishing France the best in her plans to restore Notre Dame, a happy Easter, a new beginning…

 

apologising for jallianwala bagh massacre

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Jallianwala Bagh at present. I took this picture in December 2013.

Today is the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Exactly a hundred years ago, on this day, Col. Reginald Dyer and his army shot down thousands of Sikhs gathered at Jallianwala Bagh to celebrate Baisakhi. At the time the House of Lords in England lauded his action; however, a year later, the House of Commons – probably more decent folks ­­– condemned it, and he was dismissed from the Army.

Now Jeremy Corbyn has asked Teresa May to apologise to the Sikh community. The Sikh Federation UK has asked for an apology too. Among Indians, Shashi Tharoor and an MP from Kerala, M.B.Rajesh, have brought up the issue in the Lok Sabha. That’s it, two people out of one billion plus people! There could be another five thousand people I haven’t heard about, but even that would be a small number!

What purpose does this apology serve? Churchill already called it “a monstrous event”, the Queen called it a “deeply shameful event in British history” when she visited Amritsar in 1997, and Cameron expressed “deep regret” in 2013. All of them have dutifully mouthed the words they were required to. Maybe they even felt a twinge of sadness because, after all, they are human beings. But it might be too much to expect them to relate to the sufferings of ‘natives’ whom they never understood in the first place.

What value can an apology have if it is grudgingly given, when a fine distinction is made between “deep regret” and an “apology” just to make it clear to the receiver that it is only a formality, not a heartfelt expression of empathy? Doesn’t it humiliate the receiver even more? I believe an apology can only be from actual perpetrator to actual victim, in the spirit of what Jews call teshuva, so an apology by present-day Brits, even if it were offered, would be redundant. You can’t ask for an apology; it has to well up in a truly contrite heart, and has to be expressed without needing a nudge from someone else.

The Jallianwala Bagh massacre was just one event, like the Bengal famine, India’s partition, the Boer War, the uprising in Kenya, the partition of Iraq and Syria, the decimation of the aborigines of Australia. . . etc. Truly, how many misdeeds can one country apologise for, especially when there is a very long list of them? They need to be getting on with their Brexit, not tendering apologies around the world for their sins! From their point of view, this is no time for a debate on the feelings of a small community belonging to a developing country. Teresa May has to keep her eyes on the Brexit ball if she doesn’t want Nicola Sturgeon to start the process of balkanisation of her country.

Sikhs are among the bravest people in the world. Our Indian Army is full of them. So was the British Army, by the way! It’s possible they were sent out as cannon fodder into WW1 & WW2 on the more dangerous expeditions. I mean I wouldn’t put that past the Brits of those times. The remains of Sardars are still being unearthed in Europe and are sometimes sent back to India to be laid to rest in a more befitting and respectful manner.

This is a Sikh prayer written by Guru Gobind Singhji himself, shared by a Sikh friend. All it asks for is courage. Not for food, not for wealth, not for forgiveness, not even for God’s protection! Just more courage to add to their stockpile of it. Tell me, who else says a prayer like this?

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I wonder how far back in history we can go with this Apology Drama. Should France apologise to the British for the Norman Conquest of the 11th century? Should Italy apologise to them for the Roman atrocities of the 1st century CE? Should Scandinavians apologise to the Scots for the Vikings of the 9th century? The Portuguese have not apologised to me for torturing my forefathers through Francis Xavier’s Goa Inquisition in the 16th century, but it doesn’t matter. Honestly. If the Bible is right about the sins of the forefathers being visited upon their descendants, we can leave retribution in His hands and move on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

kashmir, 1988

In November 1988 I met a little Kashmiri boy of about eight in a local bus in Srinagar, Jammu & Kashmir.

Unasked, he informed me in Hindi, “I’m Pakistani”.

I naïvely asked why he was visiting India.

He gave me an insolent look and said in a curious singsong voice in Hindi, “I will live in India, I will eat of India, but I will remain Pakistani!”

He surely didn’t come up with that himself. It even had a tune like a much-repeated jingle, the kind that you can’t help saying like it sounds on TV, like ‘washing powder Nirma, washing powder Nirma’.

And this was in 1988, two years before the Kashmiri Hindu genocide.

I think the whole system on which Jammu & Kashmir runs is rotten from top to bottom, from the top person in government to indoctrinated kids like this. You don’t expect a fine yield if a wheat crop is affected by blight when young shoots are emerging; the grains will be nubbins. And it looks like it’s been this way with such children in Kashmir since 1947.

This was not all. On a sightseeing trip around town our bus once got stoned by a bunch of people. Another time, when the tour operator had stopped by a shop that sold silk sarees and scarves, we saw our bus suddenly lurch out of its parking spot with some of our group trying to scramble up its steps. We were still inside the shop. Local men were chasing the bus and pelting stones as the driver increased speed. The shop-owners hustled us to the back of the shop and hastily downed shutters. Then they called for a cab (or maybe somebody’s car), peeped out furtively and sort of smuggled us out into the car. We were too dazed to even ask what happened. These people were probably average Kashmiris who were not anti-India and were protecting us – Indians from other states ­– the way the rest of India is now trying to protect Kashmiri students from angry, unhappy citizens baying for Kashmiri blood.

So you see, stone-pelting in Srinagar is nothing new. I saw it with my own eyes in 1988. Thirty years ago.

One evening there was an explosion in Lal Chowk in the city centre. Luckily, we were staying in the cantonment area in an Army guesthouse a few kilometres from downtown. We weren’t affected except for having to make a number of phone calls to our anxious parents and others who knew we were in Srinagar. I can only imagine how much anxiety families of army and CRPF men posted at Jammu & Kashmir live through.

Like most Indians I am deeply saddened by the killing of more than forty jawans by an Indian hireling of a bunch of subversive elements. Their modus operandi is simple: a psychopathic coward programs a less intelligent being to kill. Adil Ahmad Dar is described as a shy, introverted high school dropout with average intelligence. A perfect candidate for a fall guy.

Like an agent convincing a flop actor that he has hundreds of fans, his handler wooed him with dreams of success and fame, and a place in a mythical heaven. So he agreed to ram a car loaded with explosives into a convoy of his own country’s soldiers. Before doing this he recorded a little speech and put it on the internet. His fifteen minutes of fame. Poor little minion, a weak Indian kid whose diffident soul fell prey to a depraved person’s machinations.

Tourism is all that Kashmiris have. They don’t produce anything that we can’t easily get from elsewhere. For example, we get apples from Himachal Pradesh and we import California walnuts from the US. And the wool for Pashmina shawls sold in souvenir shops in Srinagar comes from Ladakh, not Kashmir. But Kashmiris get most of their daily needs from the rest of India.

A genuinely important cash crop they grow is saffron. Indian saffron is considered the best, supposedly better than Iranian and Spanish saffron. Apparently saffron crops are currently suffering because of corm rot and a lack of water. A little R&D might help the saffron farmers of Kashmir, but who will set up a lab in a place like that?

When I visited Kashmir in 1988 I was advised to avoid buying saffron because what they were selling as saffron was actually a box of hair-thin strands of cardboard dyed red! What a perfect metaphor for Adil Ahmad Dar and his ilk.

ancient ties

This is not a side of Cambodia that we expected to see when we planned this vacation. A congregation of kids worshiping at the altar of STEM!

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High School children attending the Annual STEM festival to prepare for college overseas

We were sitting in a gazebo in a park in Phnom Penh. There was a large crowd of teenagers gathered for a ‘STEM festival’ near by. Two kids came in and asked if they could use the table to eat their lunch and we got into a conversation. They were eleventh graders from a distant province. Their school had arranged transport and lunch for them to attend the event. They were looking at going to college in either New Zealand or Japan. “Not the US?” we asked, as that’s where most Indian kids want to go. They shook their heads and smiled.

IMG_5960By the way, the boy’s name was Makaran and it means January in Khmer, which is what it means in Indian languages too. Makara is the zodiac sign of Capricorn.

We knew that the Education system in Cambodia had been completely destroyed in the seventies by the Khmer Rouge, so this revival was obviously a very good thing. Everywhere, even in the small towns we passed through on our 6-hour bus journey from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, we saw a steady stream of children in neatly pressed uniforms wending their way to school. Right now, there are hundreds of kids working in the tourism industry apparently selling souvenirs. But the sheer number of seedy massage parlours in tourist areas like the riverfront, with very young girls hanging around outside, hint at child sexual abuse, with tourists actively involved. Education is the only way out.

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A whole generation grew up with no exposure to the arts through the seventies and the eighties because of the Khmer Rouge. Artists and performers from the pre-Khmer Rouge era have kept their art forms alive and are teaching the younger generations what Khmer culture and Khmer glory are about. We saw a beautiful dance performance presented by Cambodian Living Arts at the National Museum one evening.

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Churning of the Ocean of Milk

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Apsara dance

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Mani Mekhala – Praying for rain

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Peacock in the rain

The churning of the ocean of milk is a story called Samudra manthan in Hindu mythology that explains how Amrita, the nectar of immortality, was made. Apsaras are celestial maidens in Hindu mythology, and Mani Mekalai is a Tamil epic poem from South India that was written around the 6th century CE.

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Though we didn’t initially know it, we happened to be at Siem Reap during one of their most important festivals, the Water Festival, when the annual boat races are held on the Siem Reap river. We were lucky to get an unobstructed view as a friendly organiser gave us ringside seats next to a group of monks!

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The entire town of Siem Reap seemed to have lined up along the river’s banks, eagerly awaiting the races.

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Brilliant reflections of colourful flags looked like Monet’s paintings of water lilies!

Those not at the races were gathered in small groups having picnics all along the length of the river.

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In the evening religious rituals were performed and flowers and lighted candles were floated down the river by hundreds of people, a little like Ganga Arti in India. The whole city was partying!

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The legend of the water festival is actually a geographical fact: when the Mekong river is in spate water backs up into the Tonlé Sap river, fills the Tonlé Sap lake, and backs up into the little Siem Reap river which therefore floods its banks. The ebbing of the water is what is celebrated.

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The Mekong river in spate

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School in floating village on the Tonle Sap lake

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Children arriving at school in boats

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The skipper let my husband take a turn at the wheel as he is a captain on sea-going vessels!

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A young girl rowed the boat through the floating forest

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Houses on stilts

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A home on stilts. Rice spread out to dry in the sun.

This is the reason why homes are built on stilts in regions along the river. This is also why floating villages exist.

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Dawn at Angkor Wat is as beautiful as the brochures say.

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Dawn breaking, Venus shining in the sky

This was my blue-and-silver sunrise, shared with a couple of hundred other folks that morning.

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Angkor Wat is a vast ruin. It’s the largest religious complex ever built in the world. Walking past ancient sculptures under a bright blue sky and a blazing sun, a magical vibe in the air, you feel transported to a distant time in the past, making the trudge through rubble and up and down uneven stone steps worthwhile.

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There’s a comfortable sense of familiarity in Angkor Wat’s layout and architecture for an Indian like me. It’s a mandala, or a microcosm of the universe.

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A model of the Angkor Wat temple at Phnom Penh

The central shikhara represents Mt Meru, the mythical abode of the gods; you pass through five doorways in five walls to reach the centre. Each wall and space symbolizes a step in the spiritual journey of man until he reaches the garbagriha, where the deity embodying the Universal Principle, or God, resides. The moat surrounding the temple complex stands for the ocean that surrounds the land, the flat earth with an edge, as people imagined it those days.

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First Hinduism, then Buddhism, came to Cambodia from India in the late BCEs and early CEs. Funnily, Hindu gods who came before Buddha are now viewed affectionately as remote ancestors: Ta Prohm = Ancestor Brahma, Ta Reach = Ancestor Vishnu. Ta means grandfather. They are still worshipped, as is Ganesha, something we were surprised to discover. Hindu beliefs have been absorbed into a seamlessly syncretic Buddhism rather than ridiculed and rejected without comprehension, the way recent converts from Hinduism to other religions do today in India.

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Ta Prohm, temple of Brahma

IMG_5357A dwarpalak, or guard, stands on either side of the first doorway. All dwarpalaks at these temples have been beheaded over the past few centuries, like most of the statues of deities and divinities. The heads are now probably displayed in museums around the world. Fortunately, many of them are housed in the Angkor museum, safe from vandals and smugglers. Angkor artifacts command a high price in the black market dealing in stolen antiques.

There are scores of empty yonis from which Shivalingas have been gouged out, possibly by the Vietnamese or the Chams long ago. Or even the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.

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Empty yonis from which Shivalingas have been removed

Or maybe they were removed when the temples were repurposed for Buddhist worship in the 15th century. Historically it is common for people to remove deities of another religion and replace them with their own deities: the Hagia Sofia mosque in Istanbul was once a church, Spanish conquerors replaced the temples of Inti the Sun-god of the Incas in Peru with churches, etc. Traditionally, Hindu temples are built from scratch on carefully chosen plots of land following rules of vaasthu shastra and shilpa shastra, so any available building cannot be turned into a temple. It has to be on land where there has been no strife or bloodshed so there’s sanctity to begin with. Anyway, the guides at Angkor were unable to tell me what happened to the shivalingas, though one did mention that they were in the government’s safekeeping.

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The memorial at Choeung Ek

One day we visited one of the Killing Fields of Pol Pot at Choeung Ek, a most unhappy experience. There was a monument housing all the bones that had been unearthed from the mass graves after the Khmer Rouge were defeated in 1979. There were piles of victims’ clothes that had apparently floated up to the surface of the shallow graves after heavy rains turned the area into slush.

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The tree against which the heads of babies belonging to ‘arrested’ people were smashed was covered in little offerings left by visitors. I felt terrible and I could see that most people standing there were feeling awful too.

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In the museum there are many, many photographs of victims, and well-made charts telling the story of what happened in those awful years between 1975-1979. A couple of rooms in the museum are dedicated to information about the people responsible for the genocide. There’s a large photo of Kaing Guek Eav, the commandant of the Tuol Sleng (S-21) prison in Phnom Penh, wearing a smart white Polo shirt, no obvious remorse on his face after being responsible for the death of nearly 10,000 innocents. In fact, he has actually said in court that he ought to be acquitted because he was only following orders! He is still alive, in jail.

IMG_7322 2The most shocking part of the story is that he worked as a mathematics teacher for twenty whole years, undetected, until a journalist exposed him. And the other thing that I find amazing is that he converted to Christianity after all this! An avowed communist who killed thousands for his atheistic cause, now seeking absolution through religion!

Another sad aspect of this saga is that the international community could have saved more than a million lives if only Gunnar Bergström of Sweden had not accepted Pol Pot’s invitation to check out the refugees’ claims of starvation, torture and massacre for himself, then got taken in by the Potemkin village scenario that was set up for his benefit. So, unfortunately, the message he carried to the western world favoured the Khmer Rouge. In 2016 Bergström said that it was the geopolitics being played out between China, the US and Russia at the time that resulted in the Cambodian genocide. The usual explanation, like how one explains the destruction of Yemen, or the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi nowadays. We never learn in spite of all the wars and genocides that have happened.

On our way back from the Killing Fields we stopped at Tuol Sleng (S-21) to see the school that had been used to imprison, interrogate and brutally torture victims before they were dispatched to the killing field in Choeung Ek. IMG_5852The metal cots, the torture paraphernalia, the barbed wires strung across the building’s façade to prevent desperate people from committing suicide by jumping off higher floors, single cells, dried blood stains and actual photographs of people being tortured have been preserved almost in the condition in which they were found in 1979. The blackboards in the classrooms are a poignant reminder that this was once an ordinary little school. Looking down from an upper storey I could imagine the excited shrieks of children running around during lunch break.

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As we were leaving Tuol Sleng we passed a very old man sitting at a table signing books. He is one of the only seven survivors from Tuol Sleng. His name is Bou Meng. He says he was treated a little better after his tormentors came to know that he was an artist and could keep painting portraits of Pol Pot for them. We bought a book and he autographed it for us.

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One morning we set out for Preah Khan, another part of the Angkor Wat complex. Just outside the archway leading to it we got out of the tuk-tuk to admire a very tall white tree. Its common name in Khmer was painted on a small board at its base. It was a Spung tree.

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I was very surprised to find that the shape of the letter ‘sa’ in Khmer was similar to ‘sa’ in Kannada, my state language. I asked our tuk-tuk driver Chanda (chanda means light in Khmer, moon in many Indian languages) if he could recite the Khmer alphabet for me. Again I was surprised that it was like the alphabet of almost all Indian languages, from J&K to Kerala, from Gujarat to Bengal (excluding the northeastern states)! Our consonants go like this: ka-kha-ga-gha-nga, ch-chha-ja-jha-nja, etc. Khmer goes ka-kha-ko-kho-ngo, cha-chha-cho-chho-nho. Looking it up on the net I found a resemblance between the kannada ‘ga’, ‘ya’ and ‘ja’ and the corresponding consonants in Khmer in the written form.

At the museum in Phnom Penh there was a whole section devoted to stone inscriptions.

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The Khmer script has apparently evolved from both Sanskrit and ‘South Indian’. For example, there’s a stone slab with the first two lines in Sanskrit and the next six in Khmer . . .

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I fancied I could read this word in Khmer as sha-ta . . . ­ha-na in Kannada. Could it be shatavahana? That was one of the dynasties that was in power in South India from 1 BCE to 2CE . . . Was the next word sin-ha-la, the old name for Sri Lanka? I’m very likely totally, totally wrong but those moments of speculation were exciting . . . The Khmer script has gone through 9-10 iterations over the past 10-12 centuries, and the ancient Kannada script is so different from the current one that I can’t read it at all, so I can’t tell if they did resemble once upon a time. So, even if there had been a likeness a thousand years back, they diverged long ago. Chaos Theory applies I guess.

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However, this inscription says Aum jaiminiya swaha, a Hindu mantra. I can read the ‘jai‘ and the ‘swaha‘ here – in Kannada! Swaha is the last word in every mantra recited by pandits while performing a homa, or havan, a ritual involving fire offerings to Agni the fire-god. Swaha is the name of Agni’s consort. The same rituals were observed in Cambodia as they were in India, so far away, at one time in history! And in the same language ­–­ Sanskrit. I was overwhelmed.

A single idea can change when it is processed by another mind. Like when I use any of my mother’s recipes the dish turns out slightly different than hers, and other versions result when my sisters cook the same dish using the same recipe. So I marvel at the fact that such a massive bunch of Indian notions and beliefs were shared with a large, distant population, propagated almost intact for many centuries, modified in an organic way rather than by design, and they still remain recognizable. For example, they have a version of the Ramayana, called Reamker, in which all the names are distorted but recognizable from the context because the story remains quite faithful to the original. The names of Lakshman, Bharat and Shatrughn carry a hint of their original names, but those of Luv-Kush, Rama’s twin sons, not at all.

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And the transfer of all this information was done without indoctrination, coercion or bloodshed. When another set of ideas and beliefs – Buddhism – arrived from India, the Khmer people liked them more. So they began to follow Buddha’s teachings, retaining some of the old Hindu beliefs and their own animistic ones, while also allowing room for the Chinese in their midst to indulge their rituals and religious beliefs (pic below). At least, this is the impression we got from what we saw and what we managed to glean from the language-challenged conversations we had with Cambodians we met.

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We found the Cambodians to be peaceful and patient people except for one young tuk-tuk driver, Dara, who lost his temper because we stopped to drink coconut water too many times, when all he wanted was to ride his tuk-tuk non-stop at breakneck speed. He glared at us and shouted “Youuuuuuuuu . . . youuuu . . . stop-stop-stop-stop-stop . . . WRONGGG!” and threatened to offload us on the highway!

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I can’t do justice to Cambodia in one blog post – there’s street food, clothes, Pub Street, lotuses, the markets, silk weaving, modern monuments, the riverfront, cute little babies, tree roots reclaiming land from old monuments, the longest boat in the world, loads of Apsara dance poses, lush green rice paddies, the bus trip to Phnom Penh, remains of French colonial architecture, Khmer script written by our tut-tuk driver, a young couple on a pre-wedding shoot (saw quite a few – it’s a trend now), Buddhas, homes on stilts, and the bane of cities everywhere – ugly black wires marring the beauty of the city . . . and lots more . . . So, here’s a slide show. . .

 

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