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Religion

 

The most immediately obvious thing about India is its numerous religions in everyday practice. According to the 2001 census, about 81% are Hindu followed by Muslims (13%) then, surprisingly, Christians (just over 2%); Sikhs (2%); Buddhists; Jains (0.4%) and others. Jains are the most literate and Muslims the least (probably because they don’t educate women and wealth is an important factor in Indian education).

Overall, literacy is increasing but this is often in a religious context. It was extraordinary that Indians we talked to often gave a mythical/supernatural explanation for historical and even everyday events.

Indians have thousands - possibly millions of gods and will pray to anything. A tree will do. Failure to pray to something will make this life, and the next, even more lousy and unlucky than it is now.

The most commonly seen god image is Ganesha a boy (sometimes having four arms) with  the head of an elephant.

 

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Ganesha

 

There are various explanations for how he got his elephant head. While some texts say that Ganesha was born with an elephant head, in most stories he acquires the head later. We were told by a guide that Ganesha was made (rather than born) by Parvati  (second wife of Shiva also sometimes having four arms) with a human head and body. But Shiva returned from hunting to find this unknown boy protecting Parvati  while she bathed and beheaded him. Following Parvati’s remonstrations, Shiva replaced Ganesha's original head with that of an elephant (the first animal that came to hand). Ganesha first appears somewhere during the third century CE (AD) and is revered as the remover of obstacles, provider of good luck and patron of the arts.

Our first real exposure to this was on Elephanta an island in Mumbai harbour where Hindu temples were carved out of solid rock between 800 and 1200 CE and are now a great tourist attraction, reached from the Gateway of India (well known terrorists’ landing spot) adjacent to the Taj Hotel.

 

 

PhotoThe Gateway of India

 

Our guide told us the above story as if it were true. The main cave contains a very impressive Shiva as the trinity (his three faces), in addition to other relief sculptures representing stories about him and related deities.

Elephants are one of the five sacred animals of India. The others are, obviously, the cow, the snake, in particular the cobra, the tiger and the monkey, next in importance after the cow. 

On Elephanta the monkeys run riot, skipping along the paths and swinging in the trees alongside. If they see a tourist with a soft-drink, even it it's clear but not water, they will attempt to steel something, like a bag or a wallet, that they then hold for ransom until the tourist hands over the drink. They are perfectly able to unscrew the cap and even to put it back. The victims may not be amused but almost everyone else is.  There is, of course, a monkey god, often seen depicted in stone or bronze, and many temples are dedicated to him.

Although defaced by the Portuguese (at the height of the Inquisition); the sculptures on Elephanta were later protected by the British (with some basic engineering to prevent cave collapse) and much of the sculpture remains intact. The big elephant that gives the Island its name was removed by the Portuguese but proved too big for their technology at the time and was abandoned in the harbour; later under the British it was first taken to British Museum; and then returned to Bombay where it now resides (no longer on the Island).

 

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Defaced by the Portuguese

 

 

A notable feature in the inner temple is Shiva’s lingam and here the dispute over its phallic nature is not in question. The male organ is a symbol of lordship or competence in many early religions.

The Hindu religion is the oldest surviving documented religion in the World; with a clear continuous archaeological record back to the Bronze Age. The nearest contender is Judaism (and therefore Christianity and Islam), that has roots in Egyptian monotheism (around 1300 BCE). Australian Aboriginal animistic beliefs may be the oldest continuous non-documented religions; perhaps twenty times older; possibly as old as humanity itself.

As a result of this great age, combined with environmental diversity and evolution, the Hindu religion has a vast number of branches and incarnations. The more credible (to Westerners) of these are the atheistic/agnostic philosophical strands like Jainism (reliably dating to the 9th century BCE); and later Buddhism (dating from 534 BCE). These deny any specific god but promote the purpose of life as enlightenment. Both have increasing followings in the west and Buddhism is now the second largest religion in Australia after Christianity.

Jainism is a religion that proclaims the partial divinity of all living things (a sophisticated spin on animism - with a mix of Teilhard de Chardin or James Lovelock?). Although adherents in India are relatively tiny in number they have been very influential in commerce and government. We visited a number of Jain Temples of which there are many. These are typically elaborately decorated with the famously rather erotic sculptures of couples and dancers and contain Buddha-like representations of the teachers.

 

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Jain Temple in Udaipur

 

The Buddha (Gautama) is well documented and was born and taught in India. He taught that the goal of life is to reach pure enlightenment by the middle way (between asceticism and sensual indulgence). Failure results in endless reincarnation but once reached, enlightenment is eternal. The Buddha proclaimed, amongst other things, that the pre-enlightened are as aware of the true nature of reality as an un-hatched chic is of the world outside its shell.

Buddhism was suppressed by the Mughals (Islam) as atheism and annihilated in India. But it was allowed to recover and even encouraged under British rule. As it denies caste and regards everyone as potentially enlightened, it has attracted those wishing to escape the caste system; so it is practiced by an odd mix of Western (often aging) hippies seeking enlightenment and often lower cast Indians.

Near Varanasi we visited the site at which Buddha first taught, Sarneth. The ruins of the original temples built on the site were uncovered by British Archaeologists in the 19thcentury and now occupy a pleasant park.

 

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Buddhist Stupa at Sarneth

 

A Buddhist symbol, recovered from Sarneth, is now the central motif in the Indian flag, simultaneously proclaiming the founders’ egalitarian principles and making a religious point (for religious diversity or against Islam?). Modern day Buddhists (Japanese, US and European) have built a temple nearby – together with a very kitsch sculpture of the Buddha teaching under a tree said to be replanted from a cutting of the original.

As actually practiced in India, Jains and Buddhists seem to be in a minority even in their own temples. The common people exercise both of these philosophies like any other strand of the Hindu religion with prayers and offerings, as if the temple images of Parshva, Mahavira and Buddha were representations of gods.

Thus, at street level (for the lower castes), Hindu religion is akin to primitive Catholicism (with many saints and martyrs). Pick your Saint, pick your God. Like primitive Catholicism the religion trades for adherents with bizarre fairytales and superstitions; praying and sacrifice, to a chosen deity, to gain advantage or ward off evil or simply as a habit, or family tradition; from birth.

Varanasi is the Holy city on the Ganges and has a number of Ghats leading down to the river that allow for washing clothes, bathing and disposing of the dead. At a shamshan or burning ghat we watched bodies cremated, prior to the disposal of the ashes in the river (it is downstream from the washing ghats). Tourists are encouraged to go for the sunrise and are rowed up and down the river for a small price. Various performances take place on the riverside but it is hard to determine if these are in a state of religious ecstasy or staged for the tourists (possibly both?).

 

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Varanasi with our rower

 

At the cremations there is no sense of ceremony; it’s very pedestrian; more like a building site. Cremations are administered by the lowest caste (untouchables) and it is said that this is one hold they have over the higher castes. The bodies arrive swathed in fine fabric and apparently shaved and pre-greased with ghee. There are no obvious mourners – presumably cremation is after ceremonies have taken place elsewhere.

Tourists are requested not to take photos of the cremations but there are plenty of postcard sellers offering books of cards with 20 pictures for 100 Rp (about $2.50). They generally start at 500 or so but bargaining or simply ignoring them ‘til they come down (like anywhere in India) might even get you two books for 100.

 

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The Holy Ganges - Varanasi

 

Bargaining for everything, even over a dollar, can be a serious annoyance so you often accept a higher price than someone else might get. It is particularly galling when you are sold something and the seller then offers you a second, or even two more, for half the price you paid for one. One thing we did insist on was getting drinking water at the right price (10 or 15 Rp per L), in a properly sealed bottle. We went through gallons.

As one comes to expect around religious sites (all over the World) there is more than the usual number of beggars around the Ghats, including some with leprosy, and the whole area is particularly filthy, with faeces of all kinds besmearing the walkways.

The other great religious strand is Islam, introduced by the Mughals who invaded India in 1526 and ruled, to a greater then lesser extent, the continent for the next 300 years; finally losing all power after the Indian Mutiny (against the East India Company interests) in 1857. As a result of this uprising Bahadur Shah was tried for treason in Delhi, and exiled to Rangoon (where he died in 1862) bringing the last of the Mughal dynasty to an end.

The Mughals were enormously influential even in Rajasthan where the princes remained Hindu. In the Hindu areas they influenced by treaty, threat of war (and actual punitive wars) and intermarriage. At their height they were great builders and patrons of the arts and science; particularly astronomy. Amusingly, the Hindu Princes took Mughal women for wives but refused to give up theirs to the Mughals, believing that in doing so they were keeping their line free of Mughal blood. This is proudly proclaimed even today.

But there was certainly some kind of selective breeding going on as these warlike Princes were often over six feet tall and some only recruited troops six feet and over, whereas today the great majority of Indians are very short and some make the ‘hobbits of Flores’ look tall.

Great forts and palaces still dot India. The Red Fort in Delhi is comparable to the Forbidden City in Beijing and the fort at Agra is not far behind.

 

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A section ot the fort at Agra

 

These are in turn similar to the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. Smaller but possibly more impregnable forts dot Hindu Rajasthan. These are generally hill top forts with a single very well protected entrance and effectively unreachable walls. The forts at Jodhpur and Jaisalmer are quite wonderful examples.

 

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Jodhpur

 

These forts could hold out for many years. But if the forts were besieged and the defenders had no hope of winning their penultimate act was to kill all their women before their own death. This happened on three separate occasions at Jaisalmer. In 1294, after an eight year siege and facing certain defeat, the defenders decided there was no alternative but to perform the rite of jauhar. 24,000 women committed suicide, most on a funeral pyre though some were killed by the sword when the pyre proved too small. The remaining 3,800 men then rode out of the gates, swords aloft, to their death. Again in the late 14th century Sultan Ferozshah besieged Jaisalmer this led to the second jauhar and the suicide of 16,000 women and 1,700 warriors.

 

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Jaisalmer

 

 

Finally in the 16thCentury, Amir Ali, an Afghan chieftain, gained permission to let his wives visit the queens of Jaisalmer. Instead of containing women the palanquins contained armed men, who took the fort by surprise. When the Prince thought he was losing the battle he slaughtered his womenfolk by the sword, as there was no time to arrange a funeral pyre. Unfortunately, immediately after killing all the women, reinforcements arrived, sparing the men. This was known as a ‘half jauhar’ or Sako. Apparently much the same tactic had been used infiltrate Chittor Fort 200 years earlier, obviously by a scholar of Homer; so much for accepting women in palanquins (or Greeks bearing gifts).

Jodhpur the fort also boasts a clay tablet set into the wall near the gate with the hand prints of the wives who died in a similar way.

 

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Our hotel set into the wall of the fort at Jaisalmer was perhaps the best of the whole trip. It had a magnificent view spoiled only by the seemingly endless forest of wind turbines on the horizon; and well into the desert.

Many of these had the particularly ugly truss type towers, looking like a jungle of transmission pylons. But unlike many I have seen in Spain and the US, these actually rotated at different times of the day, sometimes quite quickly. We were told that there are 1,500 out there. They are particularly unpopular in Jaisalmer as local perception is that the power goes elsewhere. They also interfere with an important local tourist business, ‘non-tourist’ camel safaris.

 

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Apparently non-tourists like to get out into wilderness and many hundreds of large noisy machines tend to spoil the illusion. A later check on-line told me that this area has an installed capacity of 690 MW and turbines belong to two different companies, so either the online information is out of date or some of them must be quite small, well under 1 MW.

India is the fifth biggest wind power user in the world. Wind represents 7.7% of installed capacity and generates 1.6% of India’s electrical power. About 75% of the electricity consumed in India is generated by thermal power plants, based on India’s massive coal deposits; 20% by hydroelectric power plants; and 4% by some 20 nuclear power plants, one of which can be seen in Bombay harbour. India is presently constructing a dozen new nuclear plants (including a fast breeder) to increase the nuclear contribution to 9% within 25 years. It is presently the ninth biggest nuclear electricity generator in the world.

Electricity is turned off for part of the day throughout India (different times in different regions) to save coal and possibly water. As a result, offices, larger hotels (and anywhere else with a lift) have standby generators that kick-in several times a day. Most use standard diesel engines but some have very sophisticated gas turbine sets (probably burning diesel or aviation fuel). Most of these units are obviously a lot less efficient and more polluting than a large stationary power station. The saving must come from the tens of thousands of small businesses and homes that lose their lighting, fridges, air conditioning and Internet connections for several hours each day.

Street wiring all over India is a mess and illegal hooks onto it can be seen all over the place.

 

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But about one third of Indians still have no electricity at all. Even more have no engine driven vehicle. As prosperity increases the inevitable demand for energy in India will have frightening consequences for World fossil fuel consumption.

The Medieval period in India extends well into the 17thCentury. Some of the palaces and forts we visited were still under construction when Britain was becoming a parliamentary democracy. All medieval palaces in India have some elements in common. They all contain a palace complex where the majority of the physical area is provided for the Prince’s private household (zenana) and a smaller but usually more impressive part is provided for audiences, administrative functions, public entertainment and events.

 

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A princely zenana

 

As in pre-revolutionary China and Turkey the zenana, hougong, harem, or seraglio was reserved for the Prince and his mother, his wives and his children (boys up to 12 or sometimes 16) and their servants, possibly some courtesans, dancers and/or entertainers.

To protect against possible corruption of the royal line the only other males allowed in to this area were de-sexed (eunuchs). In India and Pakistan this inner household is known as the zenana which is actually a Persian name and suggests that this cultural practice dates back to Alexander the Great or earlier (certainly two or three centuries BCE) and well before Islam was conceived (in China the harem is known as the hougong and dates from a similar time as does the practice in Egypt; the Old Testament mentions some 40 men having multiple wives including: Moses; Abraham; David; and Solomon, who is said to have had 1000 wives).

In India even quite modest (compared to the palaces) Haveli (private mansions), for instance several in Jaisalmer, contain a zenana.

 

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A zenana in a private haveli 

 

 

The word haveli is also derived from Persian meaning "an enclosed place" although we got several different versions involving water and wind from Indian guides who also often have a very bizarre idea of history, how old things are and where things came from.

One self-appointed guide (they simply attach themselves to tourists – and ask for payment after trailing around being annoying or interestingly ill-informed – see Slum Dog Millionaire) got very distressed and somewhat irate when I asked him why Indian women needed so much protection from Indian men (obviously very predatory) and why wealthy Indians needed so many wives for their sexual pleasure. He almost tearfully told me that Indian men keep women separate out of respect and they have only one wife for life – sir. I said it would be nice to see more women in the street mixing with men on a one to one basis as in Australia and Europe: ‘we find we can trust our women’. At that point he walked away.

 

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There are very few women, proportionately, in most Indian streets and Indian women seldom move about alone in public. Trains have women only carriages. Even European women are cautioned to be careful when they go alone to some areas and how they dress, lest they be considered ‘fair game’. This is changing and quite a few young couples can now be seen (typically in western dress) holding hands or arm about in the cosmopolitan cities but they are still very much in the minority.

The newspapers are full of stories of ‘honour killings’; where women are apparently murdered, sometimes not even by their husband, for suspected infidelity, or even some social transgression by a member of their family, and this seems to be seen as some kind of defence by some. The courts are apparently trying to clampdown on these killings and the fact that the papers find this newsworthy, and unacceptable, is encouraging.

Although expressions of heterosexual affection in public are still frowned upon outside the international cities, all over India (as in most Islamic cultures) men can be seen holding hands and quite intimately embracing in public. It’s not necessarily gay but homosexuality or at least transvestism does not seem to be frowned on.

At a folk festival we attended in the desert outside of Jodhpur, with vast numbers of men in attendance, the majority of the performances were by a transvestite group. It was hard to discern the thrust of these acts but they apparently had their roots in traditional performances by palace eunuchs. They bore a striking resemblance to some Monty Python skits like ‘the fish dance’ and the surreal piece in the ‘Meaning of Life’. Although they clearly wanted to entertain, I don’t think they intended to be funny.

To be fair there were also some dancing girls in harem outfits balancing pots of fire on their heads; a traditional music group (with little boys dancing) followed by a couple of popular Bollywood singing stars (most of the crowd had apparently attended to see). 

 

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The latter were hard to take and we needed to get away soon after they began (India’s Kamal and Kylie). It was clearly maudlin with dreadful Bollywood music and indecipherable to us, but our driver loved them and didn't want to leave.

The whole folk experience was wonderful – first a drive out of town and into the desert for about an hour (65 Km); then a place on a sand hill and a traditional snack (obtained by our driver); about five western women to about 4,000 men and boys; a local pre-performance of a traditional game in the sand; reminiscent of ‘cocky-laura’ that we played at Thornleigh  Public School (but now banned in schools), involving two courts with a centre line, marked out in rice or flour, and forays into the other team’s territory without getting caught (teams from the army and police).

 

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Then we received an invitation to the VIP area (about six Europeans – us plus two Spanish girls plus, separately, Indian VIP women and children and in an adjoining section Indian VIP males); a very good view of the stage; then the drive back at night.

Any drive in India, particularly at speed, is exciting, dangerous, frightening exhilarating, interesting. There are things across the road (like a row of rocks deliberately placed by someone); piles of rubbish, rocks or sand; holes in the road; speed humps; unmarked entrances and few road signs; and lots of other road users: cars, trucks, bikes rickshaws, bullock carts, tractors with trailers, horses and buggies, camels, buffalo, elephants, goats, cows, sheep, deer, dogs, cats, rats, squirrels, peacocks and people wandering (to name a few). These can be anywhere on the road going in any direction; often on your side – coming towards you.

 

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Things are happening beside or actually on the road: animals asleep, people relieving themselves or simply sleeping, vehicles being repaired loads being added, removed, fallen over, and reloaded. At night and at speed this can be particularly exciting as Indian drivers like to save their headlights until needed (if they have any).

 

 


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Travel

Turkey

 

 

 

 

In August 2019 we returned to Turkey, after fourteen years, for a more encompassing holiday in the part that's variously called Western Asia or the Middle East.  There were iconic tourist places we had not seen so with a combination of flights and a rental car we hopped about the map in this very large country. 

We began, as one does, in Istanbul. 

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Fiction, Recollections & News

Remembering 1967

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1967 is in the news this week as it is 50 years since one of the few referendums, since the Federation of Australia in 1901, to successfully lead to an amendment to our Constitution.  In this case it was to remove references to 'aboriginal natives' and 'aboriginal people'.

It has been widely claimed that these changes enabled Aboriginal Australians to vote for the first time but this is nonsense. 

Yet it was ground breaking in other ways.

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Opinions and Philosophy

Medical fun and games

 

 

 

 

We all die of something.

After 70 it's less likely to be as a result of risky behaviour or suicide and more likely to be heart disease followed by a stroke or cancer. Unfortunately as we age, like a horse in a race coming up from behind, dementia begins to take a larger toll and pulmonary disease sees off many of the remainder. Heart failure is probably the least troublesome choice, if you had one, or suicide.

In 2020 COVID-19 has become a significant killer overseas but in Australia less than a thousand died and the risk from influenza, pneumonia and lower respiratory conditions had also fallen as there was less respiratory infection due to pandemic precautions and increased influenza immunisation. So overall, in Australia in 2020, deaths were below the annual norm.  Yet 2021 will bring a new story and we've already had a new COVID-19 hotspot closing borders again right before Christmas*.

So what will kill me?

Some years back, in October 2016, at the age of 71, my aorta began to show it's age and I dropped into the repair shop where a new heart valve - a pericardial bio-prosthesis - was fitted. See The Meaning of Death elsewhere on this website. This has reduced my chances of heart failure so now I need to fear cancer; and later, dementia.  

More fun and games.

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