Tuesday 31 March 2009

A steady of supply of electricity

One of the things we must demand from our politicians and those who govern us is a steady, uninterrupted supply of electricity. It is unimaginable that things are actually much worse today than they were a few years ago, in a large city like Nashik, for example. Where we could more or less rely on a steady supply of electricity a few years ago, today we have power cuts for as many as four hours a day.

What might the problem really be? And why can't this kind of problem - it is certainly not Marcel's type of mystery - be solved?

The legacy of Phule and Ambedkar

A missed speech

Dear Mr Bhujbal: We want to congratulate you for the good reports of your energy and administrative abilities that we are hearing from places like Nagpur and Nashik. Knowledge City in Nashik seems to be a great facility for young people of simple backgrounds, not too expensive and quite within reach.

Sitting here in this beautiful room, waiting for you to arrive, we had time to take in the four great people whose portraits adorn your walls: Shivaji Maharaj, Shahu Maharaj, Mahatma Jyotiba Phule, and Babasaheb Ambedkar. These great men have left us a great legacy of togetherness, concern for the upliftment of the most depressed, equality of all human beings. We Christians ourselves, as you know, believe that God is our Father, and that we are all therefore one family of brothers and sisters. We feel privileged therefore to have this meeting with you, our brother. We want to wish you every blessing of God as you carry forward the great legacy of Mahatma Phule and Babasaheb Ambedkar. We want to assure you that we feel proud to form part of that same legacy. We love these great men. It is their inspiration that we hope will prevail in our beloved country.

We are not here to ask for any special favours for our community. All we ask you is that you ensure that every citizen of India, and every group and community, feels secure, safe, and cared for. We ask that the rule of law be applied to all, irrespective of caste, creed, community, affiliation. We ask that the poor be respected, that women and children be protected, that each of our citizens, our brothers and sisters, are able to live in peace with their heads held high. We are confident that this is your philosophy, the philosophy of your party, the philosophy on which our Indian Constitution is based.

Jai Bharat. Jai Hind. Jai Maharashtra.

Saturday 28 March 2009

Laburnum in Divyadaan

First flowering of the laburnums / amaltas planted by Ashley on the Divyadaan drive. A death-life experience: so many times we thought the trees were dead. Most recently after the torrential showers in early March, they lost all their leaves, and gave absolutely no sign of life. And now this. Spring-time, Lent, new life!

Yesterday a student asked me whether laburnums were mentioned in the psalms. I scratched my head till the cedars of Lebanon came up. I had to explain gently that laburnum was a flowering tree, while Lebanon was a country...

Friday 27 March 2009

Mongols and Mughals

I picked up a 'historical' novel about Genghis Khan while waiting at Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok: Conn Iggulden's Lords of the Bow.

Genghis Khan was responsible for bringing together mutually warring Mongol tribes into an all-conquering force and perhaps the largest contiguous empire in human history. With his golden hordes, he made inroads into China. His grandson, Kublai Khan, founded the Yuan dynasty in China, and contributed greatly to culture and art.

Taimur Lang was a descendant of one part of Genghis Khan's hordes that had settled in the area of modern Iraq-Iran; from Taimur came Babur and the Mughals of India.

It was interesting that I began my Burma trip with a pilgrimage to the tomb of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal Emperor of India, and ended with a novel about his remote ancestor, Genghis Khan.

The 'wild and savage' Mongols have contributed greatly to culture and civilization, and even provided the bridge between Europe and the East.

Catholicism and the Japanese spirit

Interesting comment on Catholicism and the Japanese spirit:
During his adolescence Nicholas could recall coming into contact with a number of Japanese nuns. To him the sight had been incongruous. The Japanese spirit had come to be synonymous with acquiescing to nature, the elements of the cosmos. To him, Christianity preached a divine order that had been meted out by man himself, though its adherents professed otherwise. The history of the Roman Catholic Church was a blood-stained banner lifted to the concept of domination.

All Catholics, he had found, were arrogant and none more so than nuns or priests. It was their utter faith in a narrow-spectrum morality that took into account absolutely no natural factors. Man’s nature as well as that of his environment held no interest for the Church’s hierarchy. Their moral rectitude rendered them deaf, dumb and blind. (Eric van Lustbader, The Miko [London: Panther Books, 1985] 579-80.)
Right, wrong, I don't know. But if true, then Catholicism can certainly learn something from an extremely 'natural' culture like the Japanese. This is perhaps part of the contemporary, hopefully irenic, interaction between religions and cultures.

Tuesday 24 March 2009

Archbishops of Canterbury

Very interesting passages from Edward Carpenter, Cantuar: The Archbishops in their Office. First published Cassel 1971. Second edition, Oxford: Mowbray, 1988. (Edward’s wife Lillian was a good friend of Phyllis Wallbank. Edward was Dean of Westminster.)

“Warham was not of the calibre of More or Fisher, both of whom were exceptional men and suffered death rather than play false to deep convictions. Certainly, he too had his scruples of conscience, but an accommodating temper made him give way little by little to a stronger will whether it was that of Wolsey or Henry. Warham’s tragedy was to be called the serve the Kingdom ‘at such a time as this’. Probably it would have made little difference if he had stood resolute behind his principles. Henry had the power and knew how to use it to strike down, without mercy, those who stood in his way. So it happened that Warham left behind him a primacy reduced in influence and effective power.” [132. William Warham, Archbishop 1503, d. 1532. Last Archbishop if we exclude Pole, to have died within the Roman allegiance.]

“Cranmer’s trial and execution have left an indelible impression on English Protestant history. Not many will, I suspect, be anxious to sit in judgement upon one who, partly from fear of physical pain, partly because of a life-long allegiance to an ecclesiastical supremacy vested in the Crown, forswore his Protestant faith. More and Fisher, Latimer and Ridley were made of sterner stuff, although, maybe, they were not such merciful men. Yet Cranmer’s recantation in St. Mary’s and his behaviour at the stake were heroic. There was ambiguity in Cranmer, and something of this has remained in the Church of England ever since. The Ecclesia Anglicana breeds kindly, understanding men, more prone to conciliation than to combat.” [142. Thomas Cranmer 1532.]

Monday 23 March 2009

Blindness and sight

We are in the Liturgical Year B, so we did not do the gospel of the cure of the blind man yesterday, Fourth Sunday of Lent. We did it instead this morning. How fresh John is! The brothers spontaneously broke into laughter while I was proclaiming the gospel.

Cure of the blind man. The giving of sight. Light. The washing. Baptism. How well Thomas Stephens and De Nobili captured all this when they decided to translate 'baptism' as jnana-snana, the bath of knoweldge or wisdom. The term is still in use in Tamil, though, unfortunately, not in Konkani or in Marathi.

Baptism and the ability to see. The Christian life as the ability to see. Do I see? Am I able to see? Am I able to read the Word of God, and the Book of Nature and of Life? And if I am not, why? What is happening? What is God inviting me to do that I might regain my sight once more, that I might see?

When I live in the grace of God, when I am being carried by his love, when I move in his love, then I see, I understand, I act - with pleasure, with ease. Then I am able to hear the ringing of a thousand bells.

Yet: not that I must seek this sight, or this sound. Only that I respond to Love.

Saturday 21 March 2009

Bagan of a thousand pagodas

Bagan: land of a thousand pagodas – well, some three thousand, actually. Everywhere you look you find pagodas. Pagodas sculpt the skyline, they make it visible, as Heidegger likes to say. Fascinating. Big pagodas, huge pagodas, tiny little ones; pagodas in use, pagodas crumbling because of earthquakes or neglect, pagodas carefully rebuilt by the authorities….

We reached Bagan well after dusk, after a grueling 8 hour journey because of having taken the wrong road. Going to a new place is always something of an adventure: one forms an idea and an image of it in one’s mind, and seeing that Bagan is always on the tourist map of Burma, I had formed the idea of a biggish town, not necessarily very elegant, but biggish and certainly townish. So here we were in Bagan, purportedly, but no sign of any town, no lights, nothing. We asked. We were directed to turn back and then right. We landed up at a huge resort: the Aureum (Shwe!) Resort at Bagan. Five star. Certainly not our place. We asked again, and we were told to turn back again and turn right. We did that, passing lovely, mysterious, ghostly silhouettes of pagodas in the dark. The road turned into a dirt track. At one point it crossed a little stream, luckily dry, and at other points it seemed to disappear altogether. Finally we hit a good road that seemed to be going somewhere, but not a signboard in sight, and no town lights. We kept going and finally reached New Bagan: a little village with two main streets. After wandering about a bit, we managed to trace the Thiri Sandar Motel, the Auspicious Moonlight Motel, where the owners were themselves waiting for us, having been alerted to our coming. It was 2230 hours, but the welcome was exquisite, with Burmese tea and snacks, and the motel and rooms clean, fresh, excellent, except that there was no current and no lights.

Our guide the next day was a young man called Toe Hlaing, Saturday Wednesday, a native of old Bagan which used to be in the midst of the pagodas, and who knows, he explained, quite possibly a descendent of the kings of Bagan. Toe Hlaing took us on a tour of the main attractions of Bagan. I can’t even begin remembering the names: the Hti Lo Min Lo pagoda, the Ananda Phaya, the incomplete pyramid like pagoda built by the wicked king Narathu, and the five sided Dhamma Ya Zi Ka pagoda that we saw towards the end.

Bagan – Pu-gama, land of the Pyus – capital of a flourishing kingdom for 200 years. Bagan was the confluence of the Pyus, the Mons and the 'Burmese' to give the modern day Burmese. It was the place where the Burmese turned from Hindu Tantrism to pure Theravada Buddhism, probably borrowed from the Mons who were already Theravada Buddhists. It met its end so soon chiefly because of the arrogance of its kings in the face of the Mongol threat – but an eternal monument to the type of inspiration that the Buddha can inspire in the human heart.

Unfortunately, it is likely that such passionate devotion in the form of building brick pagodas has contributed to the desertification of the surroundings. Most of the trees, it is said, were cut down to burn the bricks. Excellently made brick: our modern day bricks are cheap and brittle comparatively. But brick needs to be baked, and the trees went. Today the whole area is filled with only vedi babli and other types of acacia for hundreds of miles around – and that, despite the Irrawaddy making its sluggish way through the land.

Kadamba script, Kannada, Burmese, Brahmi

I have written earlier that the Pyu script of Burma was derived from the Kadamba script of Goa / South India around 5 AD. Here is some more information on the matter:

The Kadambda script evolved from the extremely ancient Brahmi script and became stylistically different from other Brahmi variants by 5 AD (about the time it was exported to Burma). It was used roughly in what is nowadays the modern states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh in southern India. By 10 AD it has involved into the Old Kannada script which was used to write the Kannada and Telugu languages.

The Kadamba script gave rise also to the Grantha script, which is at the root of Sinhala. This explains the family resemblance between Sinhala and Burmese...

People on Goanet have been raising mischievous suggestions about writing Konkani in the Kadamba script, seeing that the Kadambas ruled Goa... That would be a sort of poetic justice, given that we have so many Konkani speakers who write in contemporary Kannada script.

The Brahmi script is one of the most ancient scripts in the world, and is at the source of many South and South East Asian scripts. Its origin is disputed; some say it borrowed elements from Semitic languages. Asoka wrote his Pillar Edicts in this script.

Interestingly, Devanagari is also descended from Brahmi. Even more interestingly, Tamil also seems to have descended from Brahmi, though after Thai, Tamil has the most letters not found in Brahmi.

But if the Burmese script is derived from Kadamba and ultimately from Brahmi, the Burmese language belongs to the Tibeto-Burman group, which itself belongs to the Sino-Tibetan group of languages. Burmese is a tonal and analytic language - tonal meaning that it is 'sung' like Mizo: there are three main tones (high, low and creaky) and two other tones (stopped and reduced).

See www.ancientscripts.com. Fascinating site. Besides, there are huge amounts of linguistic information on the net.

Friday 20 March 2009

Burmese orchids






Flowers

A very common decorative plant in Burma... Comes in different colours. Anyone knows what this is called? The smaller variety is easily found in India.

- Learnt from Augusta D'Souza that the plant is called Euphobia. Helen and Rudy Lima have a lovely specimen at their entrance...

Bougainvillea

A delicate three-petalled violet bougainvillea, somewhere across the river from Yangon... Never seen quite this colour and variety before.

Plumeria alba

Lovely instance of Plumeria Alba, White Frangipani, overlooking the ascending stairs to the Mandalay Hill pagoda.

Burmese words

Burma is the anglicized form of Myanmar, which is what the country is officially called nowadays. People were, however, surprised when I told them that in Indian languages, Burma is called Brahmadesh - the land of Brahma. Perhaps there is some connection with the river Brahmaputra which originates also in the North-East of India or perhaps in China - Brahma-putra, Son of Brahma.

Minglaba = How are you?

Pya = God, I was told; thus Gotama-pya was translated as the God Gotama.

Maw-hinga is a breakfast dish with soft rice noodles drowned in curry, while maw-hti is another breakfast dish with soft rice noodles with sauce, vegetables, meat, etc. Palada is, instead, a corruption of our paratha - the South Indian maida version, at any rate. And I guess balachaung is the root and origin of the Goan balchao.

Hti (pronounced Ti) means umbrella. Toe means Saturday, while Hlaing (pronounced lay as in English) means Wednesday. Our young Bagan guide was called Toe Hlaing, which means something like Saturday Wednesday. (Burmese names are often related to the days of the week, and many pagodas have different corners for people born on different days of the week. Kachins instead give numbers to their children: thus David Lum Je means David the first child.)

Gyi (pronounced ji) is a common suffix, and it means what it does in India: big, great, a respective. Thus Kandowgyi gardens, Kandowgyi lake: big gardens, big lake. Lat (pronounced lay as in English) is the opposite, meaning small, a diminutive.

The currency is the kyat, pronounced chat. Thus also Aung San Su Kyi is pronounced Aung San Su Chi.

And shwe means golden; thus the Shwe Dagon Pagoda. Strangely, in neighbouring Thailand, the word for gold is still suvarna, the beautiful colour: thus Suvarnabhumi Airport, the Golden Land Airport. So Burmese seems to have preserved more of its original Tibeto-Mongolian base.

In Burmese, the ra is pronounced ya; thus if you see Yaza, as in the Dhamma Ya Zi Ka pagoda at Bagan, it is really our raja; and the Irrawaddy is pronounced E-Ya-Waddy. The sa also often becomes ta; thus vipassana is pronounced vipattana; the Emperor Asoka becomes Atoka or Atokan, and Assam becomes Atam. Interestingly, tanha, desire, which is the root problem according to the Buddha, becomes sanda.

Monks are bhounji, whose root is Bha, meaning 'great', and which translates probably as Revered or Reverend. They used to be also bhikkus, which is the proper Pali word, the 'one who begs.' Nuns are still called bhikkuni.

The last Queen was Su Phaya Lati of the Yadanabon dynasty of Mandalay; the strange Yadanabon is really a Burmese rendering of Ratnapura, the Jewel City, Mandalay - prophesied into existence 2400 years ago by the Buddha on one of his visits to what is now called Mandalay Hill. (Mandalay - does it come from Mandala? Perhaps!)

Thursday 19 March 2009

Bogyoke market, Yangon

Gracious old lady at the Bogyoke market, Yangon. It seems the lacquerware she was selling is manufactured chiefly in Bagan...

An Irrawaddy scene

A tree on the banks of the Irrawaddy. The trees in Burma are simply huge. It is not common to find trees this size, at least in the India that I know.

Mingon Bell

The Mingon Bell, second largest in the world at 90 tons, cast in 1808 for the incomplete Mingon pagoda. It is one-third the size of the bell at Moscow, and fourteen times that of St Pauls...

The Mingon pagoda


The Mingon pagoda on the banks of the Irrawaddy opposite Mandalay. Never seen anything like this: huge, extremely ambitious structure with no internal space, just solid brick. Naturally it split. It teeters today at crazy angles: everything about it seems to be out of skew. A stairway has been added on the right side which is the most broken one. The top is flat, with huge cracks, and quite unsafe according to me, but tourists and pilgrims are allowed up there. The view is stupendous from up there, with the Irrawaddy on one side, and hundreds of white and gold pagodas dotting the rolling hills on the other... The Mingon was never completed, I think. The only inner spaces are shallow recesses on each of the four sides; there is a Buddha statue only in the front recess.

Little monks in Lashio

Two little monks, pagoda overlooking Lashio. The structure is the covered walk up to the pagoda, usually from all four sides.

Sugarcane juice in Lashio

Roadside sugarcane juice vendor in Lashio, with a portable crusher... Quite original!

Chinese Buddhist temple in Lashio


A Chinese Buddhist temple in Lashio - very different architecture, very different atmosphere. The Chinese Buddhists, I am told, are vegetarian. Their temples are, however, much less serene than the Burmese pagodas. Could it be the influence of Mahayana? Kwannon was prominent in the temple I visited, and there were a myriad other deities, protecting spirits, guardian spirits, etc. Behind the main altar there were even arrangements for tea, snacks, and so on. Outside, in the courtyard, there seems to have been some sort of 'oratory' or summer club for children. Everyone was very friendly though, especially the young nuns, who were bald, but dressed in Chinese style, with a loose top and pants. I think there were murals or frescoes of Fa Hsien's journeys to India to obtain original Buddhist writings.

Meditation


A wonderfully meditative scene from an ancient pagoda on a hill outside Thibaw...

Honey oranges


Orange grove outside Thibaw (or Hsipaw - 'four pots', which used to be the seat of a Shan leader).

A Pyin Oo Lwin garden



A lovely little garden hidden away in a corner of Pyin Oo Lwin...

'Blue flower white flower blushing deception'


A lovely flowering bush whose name I did not record - in Burmese it goes something like 'blue flower white flower blushing deception'... Someone told me it is propagated either by runners or by rooting.

Festive food at a monastery feast

Festive food from the annual feast of the Monastery at Anisakan: sticky rice in bamboo, 'couples' (rice flour cups filled with quails eggs or grams) ... Every village has at least one monastery, and every monastery has an annual feast. Great big happy affair, with countless food stalls, large numbers of people having fun, and an all night entertainment with traditional Burmese song, dance, and drama.

Tribal dress

Traditional costumes in Burma - the central one is Burmese, the one on the extreme right is Kachin.

Inside view

This is a view from the inside of the church of the Immaculate Conception. The roof has caved in, but you have a good idea of the space. The ugly hut in the middle is a well-meaning attempt to preserve an old grave with inscriptions, but...

Ancient Portuguese Church



Ruins of the Church of the Immaculate Conception, built by Philip de Britto across the river from Yangon, around 1749, now in ruins. Probably one of the first churches built in Burma.

The tomb of Bahadur Shah Zafar



My very first visit in Yangon was to the tomb of the last Emperor of India, Bahadur Shah Zafar. I knew that the tomb had been recently discovered (the British had tried to erase all trace of it, and had succeeded till recent digging for an extension of the dargah led to an accidental discovery). Not many Burmese seem to know about the tomb, naturally. We found it in a quiet suburb of Yangon, what used to be the British cantonment. The dargah is quite well-maintained, and the imam was a friendly sort who spoke fluent Hindu/Urdu, was happy to show us round, and even recited Na kissi ki aankh ka noor hoon upon request.

Strangely, the last king of Burma, Thibaw, was exiled to Ratnagiri, and probably died there. If he was buried and not cremated, there just might be some traces...

Tuesday 17 March 2009

Burmese dress



The traditional Burmese attire is the lungi – written longyi. Even today, many – even most – men wear a coloured longyi with their shirts tucked in. Given a good figure, the longyi can be quite elegant! Formal attire would add a light white or offwhite short jacket over the shirt. Women also wear a longyi, but wrapped somewhat differently. In contrast to the men, their blouses tend to be worn over the longyi. Shirts, blouses and longyis can become quite elaborate and colourful on festive occasions. From the cultural dances I saw, I would guess, however, that there used to be also the dhoti – though far more elaborate and colourful than those seen in India today. In fact, these special dhotis reminded me of what we see in our classical paintings, and certainly in the Burmese traditional paintings.

Another interesting feature is that most Burmese women wear a sort of creamish paste on their faces, daubed in different ways. This is a special woodpaste that is considered to be good for the skin, cooling, and also a facial decoration, much like the rouge of the West. Young boys and children also wear it, though the men tend not to. The monks and the nuns are not supposed to use this paste, and so the Christian clergy and religious avoid it too!

Getting back to longyis, the great problem is the lack of pockets: where do you put the purse? Simple: it is simply tucked into the back. And it does not fall off, my friends assured me. Some of the farmers carry knives and koytas - but those were safely inserted into a cane basket attached to the waist by a belt. No fooling there.

Burma: a Goan connection

Bagan, capital of a flourishing Buddhist kingdom in central Burma, was originally known as Pugama, Pu-gama, the land of the Pus or Pyus. From there it evolved into Pugam, Pagam, Pagan, Bagan. In fact, in Burmese it is still written as Pugama, though pronounced as Bagan.

The Pyus were almost unknown until the beginning of the 19th century, when a stone was discovered with inscriptions in four languages – Pali, Burmese, Pyu, and Mon. The stone is rightly called the Burmese Rosetta stone, as our hotel owner told us: it helped decipher the Pyu writing.

What was even more surprising for me was to learn that some characters of the Pyu language are borrowed from the Kadamba script of India. The Kadambas, of course, were the rulers of Goa… So there you are: a Goan connection with Burma that antedates the 20th century links by about 1500 years, if I am not mistaken.

I do not know what the Kadamba script looks like. My own impression is that modern Burmese has links with the Kannada script. The GA, for example, is exactly the same as the Kannada letter GA. The LA, I am told however, is similar to the Tamil LA.

One thing is certain, because I have checked: the Burmese alphabet is absolutely modeled on the Sanskrit one, though the ordering might be different, and variations can be expected. So KA, KHA, GA, GHA, NA, and so on!

The Shan people

One of the great surprises for me was to learn the connections between peoples. The North-West of Burma is populated largely by the Shan people, who are fairer and perhaps taller than the Burmese who inhabit the central plains. One group of the Shans migrated to North-East India, and were known as the Ahoms. They gave us present-day Assam, and produced a great culture that today is considered completely Indian. Where the Shans of Burma are staunch Buddhists, the Ahoms became Hindus, so much so that we speak today of Assamese Vaisnavism.

The other connection is with Thailand or Siam as it used to be known: according to W.E. Harvey, Siam is the greatest Shan state. The Thais, I am guessing, are probably not pure Shans – but then who is pure. But it is good to know the connections between peoples.

What I would like to find out is where the Shans came from. They are, of course, Tibeto-Mongolian peoples. But I need to find out more about that.

Monday 16 March 2009

Burma and Buddhism


Fascinating to see a Buddhist country: the innumerable and often extremely beautiful pagodas dotting the landscape, the countless monasteries of both men and women, and above all, the ubiquitous monks and nuns...

The Shwe Dagon Pagoda seems to be the biggest I saw: huge, really, and high. It towers over the Yangon landscape, and is certainly an identifier of the city. I was struck also by the atmosphere of serenity and peace: hundreds of people praying in different corners in front of the myriad statues of the Buddha, with great devotion. I felt like sitting myself down and joining them….

Buddhism is India’s greatest export to Burma, and it has left its mark on that country. Of course, it has been inculturated. Burmese Buddhists, it might be interesting for Indians to know, are by no means vegetarian. Their argument, like that of the Sri Lankan Buddhists from whom they derive their Theravada convictions, is that the Buddha forbids them to kill; but if someone else has killed, there is no problem eating. So Burmese food is happily non-vegetarian, with pork playing an important part, not to mention balachaung with its dried prawns and garlic.

The other great difference is the marked absence of the caste system. I think it is one of the Buddha’s greatest merits to have done away with the caste system. There is, in Burma, an atmosphere of equality and serene dignity that marks rich and poor alike in most cases, something that one is hard put to find in India. There too, as in India, the poor surround the tourist and pester him or her to buy postcards and trinkets; but the Burmese seems to take a no with far greater dignity, and desists far more easily.

But the most fascinating thing for me was the monks: you find monks everywhere. In the morning they go around barefoot, with their large black begging bowls, silently asking for alms. After the single midday meal they seem to be still found around the place in numbers. There are the senior monks, pictures of dignity and composure, walking around, traveling at times on the ‘pick-ups’ that serve as public transport, or sometimes hitching a ride on somebody’s motorbike (except in the Shan states, where you might even find a sunglassed monk riding the bike himself with another monk on pillion). There are the cute little monks (‘monkeys’?), bright-eyed, vivacious, on their begging rounds in the mornings, or just frolicking around like any kids their age, but bald and draped much like their seniors. There are the young monks, bald and yet erect and even handsome, toga-ed like Roman senators, and sometimes dallying with their young college friends. The point is that the Buddhist monastic life is not a ‘permanent vocation.’ It is quite possible to leave the monastery at any time. And, in fact, many Buddhist countries, Burma included, have the custom that a young man should spend at least one period of his life in a monastery. Parents consider it a pious duty to encourage their children to do so. Usually a big festival is called for: I have seen processions of richly bedecked women, with musicians and the young monks-to-be on horses with umbrellas over their heads, looking dazed and somewhat tearful, and I was told that it is a huge expense for the families involved. But the feast can probably be bypassed, and it is not unheard of for families that are on hard times to take themselves off, father and sons to a monastery and mother and daughters to a nunnery, for a while till things look better.

Theravada Buddhism seems to have made it compromises with images long ago, for there are statues of the Buddha both in Sri Lanka and in Burma, while the earliest caves in Kanheri, Karla, Nashik, Ajanta and Ellora have bare stupas within the caityas. The pagodas in Burma have, in addition, depictions of the jataka tales, and sometimes also gods from the Hindu pantheon. But there is something fascinating about a statue of the Buddha, something that invites reverence and bestows peace.

Buddhism disappeared from the land of its birth, thanks to the ability of Hinduism to learn from and absorb its central concepts. Thus the Gitakara took the Buddhist ideal of desirelessness and converted it into the ideal of niskama karma, desireless action, and at one stroke both gave Buddhism its due and upheld caste duty (dharma) and the caste system. Thus again Vedanta (or at least the disciples of Sankara) learned from the Madhyamikas (Sunyavadins) and made maya the centerpiece of their interpretation of the Upanisads, while insisting that Brahman was Purna (Fullness) rather than Sunya (Emptiness). And the Buddha is, of course, considered the ninth avatara of Visnu. So the caves remain, dotting the landscape of India along the old trade routes (there is a half-buried but still visible stupa in the fields on the way to Nala Sopara near Mumbai), but Buddhism flourishes in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, China and Japan in its many different forms, and thus remains India’s largest and most important export.

Sunday 1 March 2009

Expat Blogs

Some interesting blogs to check out:

Our Delhi Struggle (ourdelhistruggle.com), by Dave Prager and Jenny Steeves.

snidknits.blogspot.com, by Cindy Bajema.

A Girl From Foreign (agirlfromforeign.blogspot.com), by Jurate Petraityte.

Window Views (paulancheta.blogspot.com), by Paula Ancheta.

American Expats in India (americanexpatsininddia.blogspot.com), by Joseph McGann and Kristina.

The information is all from V. Shoba, "The Expat Blog About Town," The Sunday Express, 1 March 2009, p. 5.

Delhi 6

Strangely, I had not heard of the movie - which comes from not reading the newspapers these days. Bernard told me that Delhi 6 was based in Old Delhi, and was showcasing the Old City... That got me curious, and since I had the time I dropped in for a show. It was worth it. The critics, it seems, are not raving about the movie, but I liked it. Beautifully done, with great performances by Abhishek Bacchan and Sonam Kapoor, Chintu Kapoor and Waheeda Rahman, I think... and music, Bernard tells me, by Rahman. Great camera work. And, best of all, a wonderfully handled theme. An NRI of Hindu-Muslim parents who brings his grandmother back because she wants to die in the Old City. The life and vibrancy of Delhi... the gullies, the kabutars, the rubbing shoulders... a peek into the havelis. A very delicately etched love story. Hard hits against the caste system. The kala bandar menace, and how it becomes an occasion for a Hindu-Muslim riot. Our hero who gets entangled in the mess....

I think Raykesh Mehra has handled the scapegoat theme beautifully. Roshan (Abhishek) becomes the unwitting victim; thanks to this the riot is averted. But the punchlines are by Gobar, the halfwit: Roshan is not the bandar. The real bandar is in each one of us... Very very deeply Christian themes. Or, better, very deeply human themes - themes which are played out in the Christian story: the evil that resides in each of us; the divine spark too that is within us; and the One who takes our sins upon himself, continues to take our sins upon himself, so that hopefully one day we will realize what he has done, and why - because we have one Father, and we are all of us brothers and sisters.

Rene Girard is a philosopher we have not heard of this side. He deals with the scapegoat theme. I don't think Raykesh Mehra has heard of him. But he has listened to his inner voice, and he has, to my mind, produced a magnificent film.

I kept wondering what our audience was thinking and going through. But I think the response was positive... This film speaks to our inner spark, our innate humanity. It is good news. I recommend it strongly.

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