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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii, Ancient Rome

Entrance to the Villa of Mysteries, Pompeii, Rome (Destroyed in 79 CE) 

   On 24th of August, 79 CE, Mount Visuvious erupted in the dead of the night when the people in the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculanaeum slept. Both of these fine cities of the Roman Empire were destroyed by the volcanic lava, their citizens and their residences along with all their belongings encrusted in the molten lava. Herculanaeam was rediscovered in 1738 and Pompeii in 1748. (See here). Their buildings went through a series of destructions before the archaeological conservation began. Yet, almost entire villas were found preserved below the volcanic debris, alongwith the bodies of people who were not able to escape their fate.
 Villa of Mysteries, Restored Exterior (See Original Image Here)

Villa of Mysteries Inner Courtyard (See Original Image Here)

   One such villa which has been found intact is called the Villa of Mysteries, lying in the suburbs outside Pompeii. The identity of the owner of this villa is not established. But this building is particularly interesting because of the series of narrative wall paintings around the inner wall of one the chambers inside the villa. The theme of the narrative has not been definitely identified and hence, it is called the Villa of Mysteries.

   Villa of Mysteries an Artist's Reconstruction (See Original Image Here)

Villa of Mysteries Plan and Reconstruction (See Original Image Here)

   This villa had a vineyard and farms annexed to it. The building housed a large wine-press and wine-cellar. This, combined with the fact that it lies outside the urban centre of Pompeii, the wall paintings lend themselves to a possible interpretation of being related to some kind of secret Bacchanalian ritual. The inner chamber possibly served as a place for this secret ceremony.

   In ancient Greece, there was a cult of god Dionysus, who was associated with vineyards and wine-making and drinking. His public ceremony involved much drinking and feasting, using intoxicants and trance-dancing with music and song. It has been postulated that this cult was older than the Classical Olympian cults and may have travelled either from Asia Minor or from North Africa, spread into Minoan Crete and from there to the ancient Greek regions.  Its earliest practice may have been as old as about 6000 BCE and it may have entered Crete (3000 to 1000 BCE) about 1500 BCE or even earlier. It was not a common cult and its followers were restricted to membership by initiation rites. Because of this exclusivity, not much is known about its secret ceremonies. It was transported into the Roman Empire, around 200 BCE, where Dionysus was known as Dionysus Liber or Bacchus. Liber was a Roman fertility god and Dionysus got associated with him (See more on this here).

   It has been suggested that the initiation rites for men involved their enacting the persona of Dionysus through life, death and rebirth. This involved a descent into hell in a cavern or catacomb and undergoing some kind of ordeals. A woman initiate enacted as a bride for Dionysus and had to undergo a union with him in the "underworld." The symbol of Dionysus in these rites was a goat's penis or a phallus made of fig-wood. Flagellation and symblic hanging also could be used for women. These rites went on in a secret place while  feasting revelries in the honour of Dionysus went on in public. With time,  at least in some cases, these rites became painful and involved physical and psychological hardship for the initiates, though it becoming a regular feature of the cult is doubtful. Besides, the mainstream Greco-Roman religion may have faced a threat from this cult. Hence, in time the Roman State banned the cult of Dionysus in 186 BCE for alleged sexual abuse and other atrocities. However, it continued to be practised in secret till about 4th-5th centuries CE, when Christianity became forceful under political patronage (See more here).

   Since this villa is located outside the city and has this inner chamber and also served as a large-scale producer of  wine, it's quite possible that it was the site for some sort of Dionysian ritual. An alternative interpretation could be that this chamber was the place for feasts and drinking revelries of the Roman aristocrats who were invited by the owner. Hence, a narrative of Bacchanalian ritual was an appropriate decoration for this chamber. A third explanation could be that this depicts a narrative from the Dionysian mythology which has got lost  to us from history.
Wall Paintings in the Inner Chamber of the Villa of Mysteries (See Original Image Here)

   As noted earlier, the identification of these paintings is debated. But a suggested identification following the Dionysian initiation rites follows the sequence of figures as - a matronly woman (the girl initiate's mother?) stands in an authoritative fashion, a young boy reads a scroll (ceremonial verses?) a female attendant brings some cake-like objects on a platter (offerings for Dionysus?), a priestess (?) performs purification for some myrtle leaves (?) held by a female attendant in a tray, aged Silenus playing music for Dionysus, a nymph suckling a goat and the girl initiate standing nearby.

Detail from above (See Original)

Detail from Above (See Original)

 Wall paintings in the Villa of Mysteries (See Original)

   The next sequence of paintings have been suggested to portray Silenus offering a wine bowl to a Satyr, a Satyr holding a mask and a second one seeing his reflection in the bowl. Wearing masks during Bacchanalian dances was a common practice. This scene may also symbolise taking off the mask that we wear and looking at our true selves as a form of liberating experience during drunken revelry that was a part of these feasts. Next to this is Dionysus, who is the only figure definitely agreed upon by the scholars. He is spreading himself in the lap of either his mother Semele or Ariadne, his wife. Next is the girl initiate before the symbol of Dionysus i.e., a fig-wood phallus called herm.

Continuation of the Scene Above (See Original)

   This scene continues from the previous one described above. In this we find that the girl is leaning before the herm, a priestess (?) stands with a staff in hand and a winged creature raises a whip to lash the girl (?).

Wall painting in the Villa of Mysteries (See Original)

In this scene which follows on the next wall, the girl is being comforted by another priestess (?) and a woman stands sounding cymbals while another woman holds a staff over the seated priestess (?). Perhaps this symbolises that the initiation rite is completed. The symbolic union of the girl with Dionysus is not shown here, though Dionysus himself presides over the ceremony.

Final Scene, Villa of Mysteries (See Original)

In the final scene, a woman (the girl initiate?) is dressed up and her hair is being combed by another woman. Perhaps she is dressing up now after the ceremony to join in the Bacchanalian feast (?). Or perhaps she is someone else (?).

   There is another way of looking at these paintings. Rather than seeing them as inter-connected, they can also be seen as separate scenes related to the Dionysian cult. It's possible that this room was used for some kind of ceremony for sanctifying freshly-harvested grapes and newly-pressed wine, in which a feast of Dionysus and some rites for him were held. Hence, most activities related to the Dionysin cult such as food offering, feeding goats for sacrifice, wearing of masks for dance, initiation rites, music on cymbals and a woman dressing to join the revelry are depicted on the wall of this room, while Dionysus himself presides over all these activities. The "Initiation rites" may also be perceived as exorcism rites which may have been practised by the Dionysians, since flogging is involved.

   Till the paintings are definitely identified, we will not know what narrative is shown here. At best the above description is an educated guess of the scholars. But these paintings and the villa, dating to pre-79 CE, show the advanced state of art and architecture of Pompeii. It also shows the social and cultural life of that era.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Carnival in Europe, Americas and Goa and Maypole Dance

Russian Carnival (See Original Image Here)

Carnival in European countries is celebrated just before the Lent and is more popular in the Catholic areas. It was originally a pre-Christian festival which marked the end of winters and beginning of spring. During this time, people wore masks and colourful costumes and danced in the streets. In ancient Rome, acrobats, dancers, actors, jugglers and tricksters also appeared in the streets to show off their skills. Gradually, the Catholic Church included it within its fold, removing the elements that didn't go with Christianity while retaining the celebratory aspect of the festival. It begn to be observed as a preparation for the fasting period of Lent, during which time rich food, meat and dairy products were forbidden. Hence, these foodstuffs had to be finished off before the beginning of Lent. Thus, carnival time was combined with great feasting and merry-making before the fasting period began. Different countries combined this with their own pre-Christian elements into the Carnival celebration.  Because of this, carnival in every country acquired its own local flavour and has remained to be so.

 Costume and Mask at Tettnang in Germany (See Link Here)

 Costume and Mask from Ramstein, Germany

Swabia in Germany has a custom that at the end of winter they drive away the cold and lifelessness, believed in the ancient times to have been brought by the witches and spirits, by wearing witch-like masks and dancing in the streets. This element has been incorporated into the Swabian Carnival.
"Witch-Costume" from Swabian carnival

Protestants don't observe the carnival as they don't regard including the pre-Christian elements into their religious observances as appropriate. However, countries such as Denmark, Austria and Switzerland have their own variations on the Carnival.

As the Europeans established their colonies in Asia and South America, they also influenced these regions with their culture and the Carnival was brought to these regions. As a result, carnivals of South America, Kerala and Goa have their own flavour as they combine the European elements with their local elements and also borrow from other religions in their countries. One such instance is the painting of faces and throwing colours at each other during Goa Carnival, which is obviously an influence of the Hindu colour festival of Holi. In Brazil they like to wear their traditional tribal head-gear made of gorgeous feathers.

Playing With Colours, Goa Carnival

Following is a photographic project of carnival in Europe and Americas -

A Goa Carnival Parade at Panjim, the capital town of Goa -

See Original Video Here

Apart from the parades in towns of Panjim and Margao, Goa also has local village carnivals, where villagers like to show off their traditional village life alongwith masked dances and also their traditional Goan dances. In Goa, it's celebrated for four days before the Ash Wednesday. Following is one such video showing a South Goan village carnival.

Goa Village Carnival and Maypole Dance

Another European celebration that has emerged from the pre-Christian times is the Maypole dance. It was originally a fertility celebration. A long pole was decorated with garlands, stripes, flowers, flags etc. and the people danced around it. Later, the Church included it within its fold. Some puritanical Churches don't include it as they regard it as un-Christian. There is a second kind of Maypole dance which originated in Italy and France in the 18th century as a traditional art form, celebrated on May Day. From there it travelled to the theatre stages of London and became very popular. It involves wrapping stripes of colourful ribbons around a short pole. The loose ends are held by the children, who dance on music around the pole to unravel the ribbons.The video above shows one such dance.

The second form of Maypole dance reached India with the Missionaries, who set up schools in various parts of India. This dance was introduced in these schools. As a child, I remember having danced around a Maypole holding colourful ribbons and wearing a colourful dress. Unlike in the video above, we were taught dance steps and we moved around the pole dancing slowly to the music. After the ribbons were unravelled, we stood with these ribbons in our hands and danced with them.

In the countryside of England, the Maypole dance was celebrated by the young maidens, who danced around a pole holding strands of flowers strung together or simple ribbons of different colours wrapped around a pole. This was a pre-Christian tradition which endured for centuries befor getting absorbed in the early Church. It was observed in honour of Flora, the goddess of flowers. The younger girls formed the inner ring while the older girls formed the outer ring. See more on this dance here.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Chughtai - An Artist from South Asia

Holi by Chughtai

Despite all the bad blood that has shed between India and Pakistan, these two countries share a common heritage, which can't be denied no matter how much one wishes so. This is because of the thousands of years of history we have shared together. One brilliant gem of this common heritage was Muhammad Abdur  Rahman Chughtai (1899-1975), a prominent painter who lived through much of the 20th century.

Shakuntala by Raja Ravi Varma

In the 19th century, Raja Ravi Varma had learnt the Western aesthetic ideals and had brought the principals of Western painting techniques to India, which were very different from the traditional painting techniques that had existed in India in the pre-modern period. Ravi Varma was influential in modelling the future art forms, theatre stage settings, film settings and also gave rise to the popular art genre called calendar art in India. On the other hand, He also generated a reaction from the nationalist artists of the sub-continent, who felt that Indian art has to find its own identity. Although they used the shading techniques from the Western art, their art was modelled on the the traditional Indian art practice. This was their contribution towards building a national identity in the Colonial period which played a role in the Indians' struggle against the British Empire.

The major ones amongst these were the followers of Rabindranath and Abanindranath Tagore in Shantiniketan in Bengal (known as the Bengal School), the artists based in Bombay and at Lahore. MAR Chughtai was based in Lahore. He had received art training at the Art Academy set up by the British and also taught art at the Mayo College at Lahore. Hence, eventhough he was trained in the European aesthetics, he developed his own style of art which derived its themes from the Mughal and Persian history and mythology. Amongst the prominent poetic works he illustrated were Diwan-e-Ghalib in Urdu and the Rubaiyyats of Omar Khayyam. In this sense, he continued the manuscript illustration tradition of Mediaeval india.

Chughtai was very popular and drew his clientele from Hindu, Muslim and other groups of people. He painted themes from all religions. His paintings on Buddha, Holi and a representation of "Dream" which shows a couple resembling Radha and Krishna are kept in the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi. After Partition, Chughtai lost the clients from the Indian side as he stayed back in Lahore and hence, he stopped painting Hindu and other non-Muslim themes. This was forced by the situation of partition and not because he had turned "Pan-Islamic" as has been claimed by some scholars.

"Dream" by Chughtai (Couple resembling Radha and Krishna)

During Partition Chughtai had sheltered many Hindus and Sikhs in his house during riots and had saved their lives. Undoubtedly, Chughtai's art is a common heritage for the whole South Asia.

If one looks closely at Chughtai's art, it becomes clear that he was not blindly following the traditional art idiom of India, but eventhough he borrowed from the mediaeval style, his idiom was very modern. His paintings are suffused with emotional abandon and individual expression, which was possible only in modern times. It was not a replication of the mannered, courtly style of the mediaeval miniatures.

Radhika (Radha going to meet Krishna)  by Chughtai

Amongst his many paintings is a painting of Laila, the Arab mythical princess who was the centre of attraction for many princes and of Majnu. This legend has become a part of the popular psyche of the people of West Asia and South Asia, as the two regions share many traditions with each other.

Laila by Chughtai

If one looks at Laila, one realises that Chughtai has presented this woman in a very admirable light - to emphasise her attractions. Eventhough she is covered in a cloak, she retains her feminine charms and looks very different from the completely black-covered women of Saudi Arabia of today. Chughtai's Laila has a confidence to be alone in the desert (perhaps waiting for Majnu), while the deer and her facial expression show a softness. This is a woman who is modest, charming, confident and soft, all at the same time. Chughtai's Laila then, is not just an Arab woman, but a new ideal of femininity who can retain her traditional values and also look independent. In this sense, this is very much the South Asian representation of a legendary Arab princess.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Dance and Music in Different Religious Contexts

A cultural system can have absolutely opposite connotations in different social and religious context. When we look at Hinduism and Islam, dance and music have exactly opposite connotations in these two religions, but there have also been efforts in history to bridge this chasm and merge the two traditions through dance and music.

In Hinduism, all forms of artistic activity - whether it is painting, sculpture-making, architeture, dance, music, singing or any other artistic activity - all of it is essentially a sacred act. The theme of the artistic activity need not be religious; just the activity of indulging in any art form is a sacred act. Indeed, there is Saraswati the patron deity of arts, learning and knowledge, there is Shiva, the master of dance - who creates, destroys and sustains the universe through his dance, there is Krishna, who is an expert dancer, and when the Goddess dances, the whole universe dances with her. There are many other deities who take the role of a dancer, musician or a singer from time to time. Add to this the multitude of sages who are forever singing the praise of the divine. 

Because of this view of arts, Hinduism in general is flooded with artistic activity, art forms were patronised by the rulers and artists were attached to the temples, granted with money and land and performed their artistic activity in the temple precincts on festival days. It has always been considered an accomplishment in Hinduism to be an exponent of any art form.

Because of its sacred associations, art activity in pre-modern India was almost exclusively religious in nature. Even today, the folk arts and the classical music and dance traditions are predominantly religious in character, even though they have been brought out of the sacred space and are performed in a secular environment for a secular audience for commercial purpose, but the theme is almost always religious. It is impossible to understand the traditional art forms of India without understanding the Indian religions.

Here, I'll only talk about Odissi, a classical dance form from Orissa the Eastern state of India in brief.

Odissi, like all other classical dance form of India, was a temple dance, with dancers attached to the huge temples of Orissa such as those at Puri, Bhubaneshwar and Konark. These temples patronised dance and music traditions and received large grants from the kings for this purpose. However, this centuries old dance form by early 19th century had begun to get degraded into a kind of prostitution as with the growth of the colonial powers in India, royal patronage to the temples were cut off, the British were not patronising this system and the temples lost a lot of their revenue. This was coupled by the excessive priestly orthodoxy and the control of the elites over the society. As a result, dancers began to be exploited by the priests and the traditional royal families - much diminished in political power, but still holding a ritual validity (even today, before the chariot festival of the Jagannath Puri, it's the earlier royal family's descendant who comes to perform the "royal rituals," not the chief minister who really holds the political power). Hence, by the late 19th century the system of temple dancers (called Devadasis) attached to the temples began to diminish and they were now working as dancers as well as temple prostitutes. With this, the classical dance tradition of Odissi began to die, as was also the case with other classical dances of India.

After Independence, the Indian government decided to promote the various art forms of India which were on the verge of extinction by this time. In every region, some exponents of art forms came to recover the knowledge from the ancient texts, from the few surviving artists and connoisseurs. In Orissa, Kelucharan Mahapatra collected the dance postures as described in the ancient dance treatises, as practised by the folk dance form called Gotipua in which young boys dress up as girls and dance on the song and music related to Krishna's stories, from the few exponents of Odissi left in the temples and from the iconography of dance sculptures from various temples of Orissa. In 12th century, there was a great Sanskrit poet called Jaydev in Orissa who composed a work of poems on Krishna in simple Sanskrit, called Gita Govinda (see the multimedia project here). This text was made the primary basis for enacting the classical Odissi. he pieced together all this information and evolved an elaborate system of classical Odissi which could be performed on stage in a secular environment for a secular audience. He began to perform this Odissi and also taught the women who wished to learn it from him. Thus, the credit for the Odissi as it exists today goes to Kelucharan Mahapatra.

The first Odissi video given above is an enactment of a Sanskrit poetry in praise of Vishnu, one of the three major Gods in Hinduism. The dancer is Sharmila Mukherji, a disciple of Kelucharan Mahapatra. The second video is an enactment of the ten incarnations of Vishnu (see the first comment below for more descriptions). The dancer is Saumya at Bangalore. The third video is about Gotipua, a folk form from Orissa from which modern Odissi has borrowed some postures.

Praise to the Ten Incarnations of Vishnu in Odissi by Saumya

Gotipua Dance

In contrast to this, in orthodox Islam, all forms of artistic activity are prohibited as "anti-religious." Especially, dance and music are forbidden except the drum-music. However, there is a controversy about it, since there is a Hadith in which Prophet Muhammad said to Aisha who prepared a bride for marriage and took her to the venue of marriage, that she should have arranged for (dance and?) music because the Ansars, the community in which marriage was being held loved dance and music. Because of this, many Muslims enjoy dance and music, while the militant Wahhabis and their successors forbid it and also don't allow others from engaging in it. In countries such as Saudi Arabia, dance and music performances are forbidden, with strict punishments for those found indulging in it.

In South Asia, the Muslim community always took a liberal view towards this issue. Especially the Sufis have contributed greatly for melodious music, singing and dance which employs fast whirls. These performances were - and are - held in the Dargahs of Sufi saints and later in the 20th century were brought out of the Dargahs and began to be performed on stage in a secular environment. People from all communities enjoy Sufi music in the Indian sub-continent. In recent decades, pop music singers began to use the rhythms and the beats of Sufi music for their compositions. Runa Laila, a pop music singer from Bangladesh was amongst the earliest to do this. Her composition "Damadum Mast Kalandar" which actually uses a Sufi song, became an all time favourite. The last video below shows a performance of this song by Runa Laila.

The Mughals, as in all other cultural and political fields, take a prominent place in this field as well. During the Mughal rule, all the classical dance and music forms of India were greatly patronised by the Mughal Emperors, under whose patronage some of the musical instruments and musical modes were also invented. Kathak, the classical dance of North India, received extensive patronage during this period and hence, it spread over half of India. To its already existing repertoire from the Hindu tradition, it added the Persian dance elements, since Persian dancers were always coming to the Mughal court. Especially in the later Mughal period, when they had become politically weak and the British were really ruling India, the Mughal princes contributed greatly towards the development of Kathak. Wajid Ali Shah, the ruler of Oudh (approximately Uttar Pradesh and Uttaranchal of today in North India) was a Kathak dancer himself and used to hold Kathak performances in his court. he had received training in classical singing and composed poetry for his Kathak performances. Eventhough he was not successful politically and was eventually captured by the British and sent into exile, he contributed greatly to the dance and music of India.

Monday, May 10, 2010

What Happened to the Women's Hajj Theatre at Makka?

Long line of pilgrims entering the sanctuary, extending for miles into the surrounding area (19th Century drawing)

Makka and the Hajj were not always as they appear today - multitudes of crowds in a modern city with technologically monitored Hajj, removed of all the creativity that the people expressed and buildings pushing each other out of the limited space. Till the 1950s, visitors were much less in number. In early 20th century, artisans from other countries like Egypt participated in crafting the Kiswa and the sanctuary held a much smaller area than it holds today. In the 19th century, the town of Makka surrounding the sanctuary in its centre was a much smaller place, having only twelve residential areas, narrow lanes and no dazzling electric lights. Click here for the history of the Kaaba.

This was the time when the rulers were more tolerant of the people's activities, rather than enforcing on them their own version of militant religion in a police-state like environment. This was before the Al-Saud captured Makka in 1925 and attempted to first become its "servant" and then its "custodian" (click on this link). 

This was the time when the people had the freedom to decide how they wanted to interpret Islam for themselves, without any fear from the ruling powers.

One very interesting custom during Hajj, with a long history, was the women's theatre called Al-Ges, performed by the women of Makka in the streets of the town when the menfolk went to the Kaaba to help the pilgrims to perform Hajj. Begun in the 11th century, it continued right till 1925, when the Al-Saud captured Makka and banned this custom.

The women were left to themselves when the menfolk went to the Kaaba. Hence, dressed up as men, women went from street to street, drawing out the women from their homes and went around the town, impersonating the character of various prominent men of the town in a satirical manner. Thus, a woman was dressed up as the chief guardian of the town of Makka, another would dress up as the chief cleric of the Kaaba, yet another as the Mayor of Makka etc. and others would dress up in colourful clothes as the common menfolk of the town and would satirise their roles through performance of actions and songs composed in Arabic! 

Going from street to street, they would enact these satirical performances, singing songs, as more and more women joined them. This performance would continue till the morning hours, when the men would be returning from the Kaaba. At this time, the women would go back home, to return again the next day for their satirical theatre in the streets. 

If any man was seen loitering in the street at this time, women would pull him and beat him up, calling him Al-Ges or the one who abstained from going to the Kaaba to help the pilgrims. He was looked down upon and was called names in the songs sung by the women.

In this sense, women acted as sort of custodians of the Hajj management, as they ensured through their theatre that all men went to the sanctuary and helped the pilgrims.

Dressed as important men who were satirised by the women in songs and actions, it also showed a temporary inversion of the power equations in the society by the women - they were not following the orders of these important men, but they rather liked to point out the flaws in their actions, though in an all-women's gathering.

This custom also shows that religion was not necessarily a serious, tight-upper lipped, high-browed kind of affair in those times. People related to it in a natural manner and were not necessarily offended when satirised - something like the way the people of other religions accept a satire on their religion in the democratic world. While they were devoted in their religious duty, they were not necessarily pretentious about it.

In this sense, Saudi Wahhabism has taken a retrograde step in pushing the attitude towards religion back to more than a thousand years. The ease that had developed with the maturing of Islam has been destroyed by the regimes like the ones ruled by Wahhabism, Iranian revolution, Taliban etc. 

This is not revolution, it is retrogressive thought process in a world which is increasing becoming relaxed about religion, even foresaking it.

It is highly unfortunate that this interesting theatre of the women during Hajj came to an end in 1925 under the orders of the Al-Saud.

Till about 1950s, it continued to be performed inside the houses behind closed doors, but was completely discontinued thereafter as the Al-Saud dynasty grew in power.

Even more unfortunate is the fact that no traces of this custom have been allowed to survive in the archives and the writings in Saudi Arabia. Militant Islam is notorious for wiping out history, because it is afraid of history.

For more on this theatre of the Makka women, read Ahmad A. Nasr and Abu Bakr A. Bagader, "Al-Ges: Women's festival and Drama in Makka," in Journal of Folklore Research, September-December 2001, Vol. 38, No. 3, pp. 243-262.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Kaaba - Different Perspectives

Fig.1 Drawing of the Kaaba as it looked in 1911

Last Hajj month one of my friend's family went to Makkah for Haj. They brought from there the sacred water of Zamzam well, which is drunk as a part of the Haj ritual. I was offered this water and I drank it. The way to drink this water is to face the direction of the Kaaba (West in India), cover one's head and drink it. It has an earthen smell mixed with the fragrance of  the fresh water. Hinduism has a similar custom of drinking the sacred water of the river Ganga or the water from any other water body near a pilgrimage centre. I was quite surprised to know that Islam too has a similar ritual!

Hajj Pilgrims in the Hajj Dress called Ihram, Similar to the Traditional Indian Dress for Men

Shaving off the Head During Hajj

I explored the details of the Haj pilgrimage and found that some Muslims shave their head after throwing stones at the three pillars, which is again similar to the practice some Hindus observe during a pilgrimage - usually after a wish they asked for has got fulfilled. The Haj pilgrims also wear a white cloth draped around them, which looks very similar to the traditional Indian dress for men. Besides, circumambulating the Kaaba is an essential part of Haj. This ritual of circumambulating the cultic object or the shrine is also an integral part of the worship system of all Indian religions. I am not suggesting here that these aspects are borrowed from India, rather just wondering at their similarities.  

The accounts of the evolution of the Kaaba through history vary in different realms of discourse, depending on who is narrating the account.

In order to understand these discourses, we should look at the pre-Islamic overview of the region.

It is well-known that Kaaba existed in Makkah even before the rise of Islam in Arabia. It was the shrine where the Arab tribes used to worship their deities fixed around the cubical structure. There were 360 deities in all - one for each day of the year and each tribe having its own set of deities. The chief amongst them were Hubal the moon god, Al-Uzza the goddess signified by the morning star, Al-Lat, which means the Goddess and Manat the goddess of destiny. These were daughters of Allah the chief god. It has also been suggested by some authors that the word Allah was derived from Al-Lat.  Some others believe that Hubal the moon god has been transformed into Allah. That these terms certainly existed before Islam and even outside Arabia is attested by archaeological evidence from the surrounding regions.

Nabataean inscriptions mention the names (see link for an overview of the Nabataeans) of Allah, Al-Lat, Manat, Uzza etc. These inscriptions pre-date Islam for several centuries - they are datable from about 2nd century BCE. The Nabataean language developed out of Aramaic and from 4th century CE, there began a two-way exchange between Nabataean and Arabic - the latter so far an oral language - so that Nabataean language shifted from Aramaic to Arabic in its vocabulary, while lending its cursive script to Arabic around 5th century CE i.e., before the rise of Islam. hence the origin of Arabic script lies in Nabataean in pre-Islamic times (see also Abraham Negev, Nabataean Archaeology Today, New York University Press, New York).

Fig. 2 The Black Stone at Kaaba (Hajar Aswad)

The existence of these goddesses at the pre-Islamic Kaaba and similar goddess cults in the neighbouing regions in West Asia and the Mediterranean have led some scholars to conclude that the Kaaba was originally a shrine of the cult of goddess worship, the crescent moon forming the symbol of the goddess (another association with the moon, apart from Hubal the moon god), which was later adopted by Islam. The Black Stone at the Kaba was the symbol of the sexual organ (called "yoni" in India, also associated with the fertility cults, in one form associated with the cult of Shiva, worshipped as a phallus [linga] joined with the yoni). Incidentally, Shiva has a crescent moon on his head. There is another interesting feature related to this issue - the Sanskrit "S" and "Sh" sounds are often rendered into "H" in Arabic and Persian. Thus, the Sanskrit "Sindhu" became "Hind" in Arabic and Persian, giving rise to the European "Indus" and "India." If we apply this rule to the Arabian moon god Hubal, then it can be rendered into "Shubal" or "Shuval" which is thus, phonetically close to the Hindu god "Shiva" who wears a crescent moon on his forehead. The only difficulty in this is that in Sanskrit, "Shiva" is pronounced as "Shiv", making "a" in the end silent. However, the goddess associated with Shiva has many names and one of them is "Shivaa", pronounced with a long "a" (as in "card"), which can be phonetically transliterated into "Hiva" or "Huba" and rendered into "Hubal" as shown above. In the Hindu iconography, the goddess Shivaa also wears a crescent moon on her forehead and is worshipped as a mother goddess. All these evidences lead to the argument that this crescent moon symbol may have been a part of a cultural continuum from the South Asia to the West Asia to the Mediterranean), worshipped by the pre-Islamic Arab tribes as a part of a fertility cult that existed there. It is further stated that the maiden name of Al-Lat was Qure, thus lending the designation Quraish to the tribe that was the guardian of the Kaaba in pre-Islamic times. The name Qure has continued into modern times in the name of the University of Al-Qura established at Makkah. The sacred text of the Muslims is called the Quran, which means "reading." But it is contemplated by the scholars whether this word came from "reading the word of Qure" that may have existed in pre-Islamic times. Islam substituted the "reading the word of Qure" to "reading the word of Allah," but retaining the original term. It is remarkable that Kore was a moon goddess in ancient Greece as well. Since Al-Uzza was the morning star and Hubal was the moon god, cosmic symbolism was also important at the Kaaba. It has been discovered that the geometric alignment of the Kaaba is accurately aligned to the phases of the moon and to the rise of Canopus, the second brightest star in the sky after Sirius. Indeed, in a desert environment where more activity took place after the scorching sun set, it was only natural that the moon and the stars would be important to the Arab tribes living there. It is to be noted that the "day" in Arabia began at the time of sunset and the sighting of the crescent moon (Hilal) - a system continued by Islam. The pre-Islamic tribes performed the Hajj to Kaaba to bring about the winter-rains. Some fertility rites were also associated with this Hajj, which later survived in the  form of the temporary Misyar marriages of the Shia community performed at Makka, though banned by the Quran. (For more on this theme, see Rufus C. Camphausen, 'The Ka'bah at Mecca', Bres (Holland) No.139, 1989, Richard Burton, A personal narrative of a pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah, London 1856 and this well-research internet site).

Fig. 3 Al-Uzza in the Centre of the Zodiac, surmounted by the Moon, Petra, Jordan

Al-Lat also had a temple dedicated to her in the Temple-compound of Sun-god Shamash at Hatra in Iraq (Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq, Hammondsworth, 3rd Edition, p. 420). At Saba in what is roughly now Yemen (called Sheba in Hebrew), some Arab population from central and western Arabia settled in the 2nd millennium BCE. Their capital, Ma'arib was excavated in the 20th century and yielded an imposing temple dedicated to the moon god. From about 700 BCE, a temple dedicated to the queen of Sheba, called Mahram Bilquis was excavated. The Sabaean archaeology shows that the worship of the moon cult continued in this region till about the 5th century CE, when it was overtaken by Judaism and Christianity, a century before the rise of Islam.
Fig. 4 Interior Cross-Section of the Kaaba

The archaeological account above suggests that the cults of the astronomical deities prevailed over much of West Asia before the rise of Islam and Arabia was a part of this religious matrix. These cults were very ancient and had existed there for centuries. Besides, from about 4th century CE onwards, Judaism and Christianity had begun to influence the region. This had led to the emergence of a sect of monotheists called Hanifs at Makka, who wanted to reconstruct the original Abrahamic monotheism, now lost to the world (the modern Hanfi sect of liberal and modern form of Islam prevailing in the majority of the non-Arab Islamic world is different from this). They began to label the existing astronomical religion of Arabia false and tried to gain followers for their monotheistic philosophy. This obviously led to conflicts between the polytheistic Arabs and the Hanifs. One of the major followers of this monotheism was Zaid ibn Amr, the half brother of Umar bin Al-Khattab. He used to malign the astronomical cults of the Arabs and call their gods as false gods. This enraged Umar bin Al-Khattab so much that he began to persecute him and he had to leave his family and go and reside in the mountains surrounding Makka.

There is evidence that Muhammad before he became the Prophet used to visit Zaid ibn Amr in the caves of these mountains where he lived. At this time, Muhammad had not received his revelations and he followed the ancient religion of the Arabs like everyone else. During these meetings Zaid used to teach him about monotheism and inspire him to leave the astronomical religion he was following. There is a narrative that once Muhammad went to meet him with a bag of meat and offered it to him. Zaid however, refused to take it and said he never accepted anything that had been offered to the idols. He also prevailed upon Muhammad never to offer any sacrifices or worship any of the idols and Muhammad followed him till he received his revelations (see M. J. Kister, "A Bag of Meat: A Study of an Early Hadith," in The Bulletin of the School Of Oriental and African Studies, University of London,  Cambridge University Press, Vol. 33, No. 2, 1977, pp 267-275, citing the Qurawiyun Manuscript at the Library at Fez in Morocco, folios 37b-38). Ibn Ishaq the earliest biographer of Prophet Muhammad who lived in the 7th-8th centuries CE, has included some of the poetry composed by Zaid Ibn Amr in his work. It has been ascertained by some that the spiritual poetry of Zaid ibn Amr shows some similarity in its ideas with some verses of Quran.

Fig. 5 Map of the Kaaba and the Grand Mosque Around it (Shami refers to Syrian or Levantian)

It appears that Prophet Muhammad was influenced by the spiritual ideas of the Hanifs and the Sabaeans of his time, who were monotheists. The Hanif ideas came to him from Zaid ibn Amr and he used to meet the Sabaeans during the commercial ventures he used to manage for Khadija, who became his first wife. It's also possible that he received his revelations in the cave of Hira  in the mountains of Makka after listening to the discourses of Zaid ibn Amr who had gone to stay there. 
Fig. 6 Map of the Kaaba and Surroundings

It is well-known that in the beginning Prophet Muhammad and his followers used to face Jerusalem during prayer and only later, when he gained a large number of followers, did he ask them to turn towards the Kaaba. Kaaba was still a sanctuary for the pre-Islamic deities. Prophet Muhammad  instructed the new adherents of Islam that this had been the sanctuary created by Abraham to worship Allah and hence, it should become the focal point of worship for the Muslims. Hence,  the Kaaba remained the axis of devotion for the tribes of Arabia, but instead of the astronomical deities, now it was the symbol of the throne of Allah. The images were removed from the sanctuary, except the Black Stone and it became the axis of Islamic worship. The Black Stone is said to be a white meteorite originally, which gradually turned black - a normal characteristic of the meteorite stones which turn from white to black due to oxidisation. 
Fig. 7 Venerating the Black Stone

The Black Stone has got cracked into several pieces long time back because of centuries of pilgrimage and it is held together only by a silver band. It must be remembered that Muslims don't worship the Kaaba; they worship Allah. Kaaba is only the axis for the direction of their prayers and veneration.

Fig. 8 Kaaba Covered with Kiswa and the crescent-shaped wall called Hateem (Early 20th Century)
The sanctuary of Kaaba is covered by a black cloth called the Kiswa. It has a band of Quranic calligraphy embroidered in gold thread around it. This cloth had for centuries been a symbol of the combined participation of the Muslims from outside Arabia. Till 1927, this cloth was brought every year by the Egyptian artisans from Cairo in a special caravan when they came for Hajj, when the cloth was changed every year. In this sense, the Kaaba was not a domain of the rulers of Saudi Arabia alone. However, this changed in 1927, when this practice was discontinued and henceforth, the Kiswa was made locally by the Arab artisans. The present Al-Saud dynasty came to power  in Saudi Arabia four years later in 1931, but the first King bin-Saud had controlled Kaaba even in 1925.

Fig. 9 Kaaba in 1917

The sanctuary of the Kaaba has undergone several renovations and expansions so that it accommodates around 2 million Muslims now. The original wood and brick structure has been  lined with white marble. The interior of the sanctuary holds nothing but three pillars. Originally, there were twelve of them, but they have been reduced to three now. There is only one door near the Black Stone and entry into the sanctuary now is restricted to some privileged people like the King of Saudi Arabia and some important clerics. There is a crescent-shaped wall outside one face of the Kaaba called Hateem, which is believed to have been part of the sanctuary earlier. The crescent-shape is striking here again.
Fig. 10 Kaaba and its Surroundings in Early 20th Century

Monday, March 8, 2010

My Name is Khan - A Critical Review


This film created waves before it was released and on its first screening in India - not so much because of its aesthetic value, but more because of the cultural politics associated with it (read my other post on this theme). In essence, this is an attempt by the popular culture of India to initiate a dialogue with the terrorised West, especially America, in the post-9/11 world. However, because of several other issues that got involved with Shah Rukh Khan the actor who plays the leading role in the film, the reviews of this film have got tainted by those issues - the major one being the communalisation attempted by the extremist Hindutva party Shiv Sena on the day of its first screening.  Those who sympathise with the portrayal of a "victimised majority" in India have criticised the film and Shah Rukh Khan and Shiv Sena's opponents have given an excessively undue credit to the film as well as to Shah Rukh Khan. In this post I attempt to distance myself from this politics and look at the film from the aesthetic angle, as a member of audience interested in the art of cinematic narration. I do so after I have watched the film and have allowed the first impressions to sink in for some time.

This is not the first attempt to make an aesthetic assessment of this film. Rama Lakshmi has reviewed this film in the Washington Post. However, it appears as if either she has not watched the film entirely or she has failed to understand the message of the film. Her account of the film is far removed from what the film actually shows. She presents this film as if it is an attempt of the terrorism-afflicted India to talk about terrorism, but for convenience's sake films such as this one are set in the distant USA - another democracy afflicted with terrorism. However, that's not what this film's object is. In fact, this film directly approaches the issue of how Muslims are being perceived by the local people in the West, especially in the US, in the aftermath of 9/11.  Moreover, it attempts to convey a message to the Western audience that all Muslims are not terrorists - quite literally in the film, as this message keeps on getting repeated throughout the narrative as a refrain. Closely intertwined with this message is another message that this film attempts to convey i.e., Islam has many aspects of peaceful living which are getting drowned in the excessive focus on terrorism.

Seen from this perspective, it is significant why this film is set in the US and the way in which the US has been portrayed - a land of prosperity, where hard work is truly acknowledged, where Indian diaspora has truly realised the American Dream and a majestic global power picturised gloriously through the technique of aerial photography. 

This land where every Indian dreams to at least visit if not settle in, is terrorised by the violence of 9/11, which has made the Americans suspect every Muslim who goes there. This has created other kinds of conflicts and violence in the society. Hence, this film tries to convey this message that every Muslim is not a terrorist and Islam also has teachings about peaceful co-existence in it. Hence, they should not look askance at every Muslim. 

And it was only expected that this message had to be conveyed by an Indian Muslim.

This is brought most effectively by including a personal experience of Shah Rukh Khan, who was pulled out for a second-degree interrogation last year at the Newark Airport, when he went there to participate in the Indian Independence Day Parade. This scene has been included in the film in the very beginning and becomes the inspiration for the character of Shah Rukh Khan to spread his message in the US and to convey it to the President of America. In this sense, this film is somewhat autobiographical. 

This film conveys this quite figuratively - till he had this experience, Shah Rukh Khan had been a world-famous popular Bollywood icon. On that eve of India's Independence Day at the Newark Airport, he was suddenly turned into a Muslim. Perhaps he had never given much thought to his religious identity all these years! And he suddenly also realised that all these years he has had a Hindu wife - could he have been a terrorist?

To complete the autobiographical sketch, Shah Rukh Khan's character in the film marries a Hindu woman - enacted by Kajol (see picture above). She continues to worship in the Hindu style even after marriage and there is no evidence that she or her son from her previous marriage convert to Islam. Although there is a strong narrative flaw in the film - his wife and her son are portrayed as having remained Hindus even after this marriage, perhaps to show the tolerant image of Islam. However, this son is killed in the film because "he was a Muslim's son and a Muslim," as is explained in the film. 

Both mother and son acquire the surname Khan after marriage, which gives rise to this "Muslim" identity.  However, there was no need for them to change their surname and in any case they never converted. Hence, this boy's death because he "was a Muslim" is really a product of this narrative flaw in the film. Yet, without this narrative flaw, the film couldn't have taken a critical turn. The makers of the films should have handled this aspect more dexterously.

There is some pretentious symbolism also employed in the film - visually and schematically. The incident showing the flood in a Black-majority village of Georgia is one such symbolic usage. The entire scene has been portrayed to show how Islam saves Christianity while Christianity tries to destroy Islam. There are prolonged shots of the Cross over the village church falling in storm and Shah Rukh Khan helping the villagers to save it. These shots can also be interpreted in a different manner - the falling Cross may be symbolic of a fallen Christianity, while Islam is portrayed as the "rescuing religion."  

About the acting performances in the film - Shah Rukh Khan has the best of intentions to convey a noble message to America. However, he is the one who has done the worst acting in the film. In fact, he has not acted at all! He seems to have taken cover under the fact that his character suffers from Asperger's Syndrome. Hence, there is no need for him to act - his character doesn't understand the nuances of the world's conversations and he doesn't have any emotions and expressions like others around him. This means Shah Rukh Khan doesn't have to act - he doesn't have to work on his facial expressions or his body language or dialogue delivery. He just repeats most of the dialogues twice. I suspect if Shah Rukh Khan is a great actor at all.

In fact, this is another narrative flaw in this film. There is absolutely no need for this character to have the Asperger's Syndrome as far as the film's story goes. If he had been a normal person who showed emotions, expressions and body language, this would have been an extremely challenging role, which only an exceptionally intelligent actor like Aamir Khan - another Bollywood celebrity - could have carried out with his natural flair. I have doubt that Shah Rukh Khan has the capacity to carry out that kind of challenging role. Perhaps that's why his character has Asperger's Syndrome.

Despite his non-existent acting, the film is worth watching - because of the excellent acting of Kajol. She has the natural flair to carry her difficult character with dexterity. The child actors in the film have also done well. In fact, almost everyone in the film has acted well -  except Shah Rukh Khan! Hence, the audience doesn't feel cheated. 

As for the films on terrorism go, the Washington Post review doesn't mention the most complex film on the theme - Khuda Ke Liye, which shows the complexities of the situations in which terrorists are made, how they interact with the society and how they are treated by the State. My Name Is Khan is not in the same class as Khuda Ke Liye, but I would still recommend this film as worth watching.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Judaism in India

Fig. 1 Pardeshi ("Foreigner") Synagogue, Cochin, Kerala 

Although Jews are one of the smallest minorities in India, with a population of only a few thousand, they have existed in India for thousands of years. While they were subjected to the worst persecution in the history of religions in the rest of the world, they received patronage from the rulers and the elite class in India and lived a life of ease and comfort. In return, they contributed to the trade and commerce of the region.

It's difficult to say when the first Jewish group arrived in India, but the earliest of them claim to have arrived in Kerala from Judea as early as 2500 years ago as traders and more groups came around 70 c CE after the destruction of the Second Temple. They have several synagogues in Kerala, the most exquisite being the Pardeshi Synagogue built in 1568 (see Figs. 1&2). They acquired land from the local Hindu king and built this synagogue there and also lived in this area as aristocrats.
Fig. 2 Pardeshi Synagogue, Cochin, Kerala 

Another group of Jews arrived around 2100 years ago south of Bombay and they were referred to as Beni Israel, as distinct from the Kerala Jews. They engaged mostly in oil pressing and were regarded as Telis or oil pressers by the local Indian population. They lived in the area covering Bombay, Pune and Ahmedabad.
The European Jews came to India as traders from the 16th century onwards, when Europe had begun to expand commercial contacts with India. We have many references in the Mughal sources about the Jewish traders in India, who travelled and settled in different parts of the Mughal Empire. Akbar the Mughal Emperor used to hold inter-faith religious discussions in his Ibadatkhana at his Fatehpur Sikri Palace near Agra and Jewish scholars used to participate in these discussions. Jewish scholars held a special position with the Mughal royal family during Emperor Shah Jahan's time.
Fig. 3 Shrine of Saint Sarmad, near Jama Masjid Main Entrance, Delhi 

The most noted figure with Jewish antecedents close to the Mughal court during this time  was Sarmad, a mystic saint. He was from Kashan in Persia. Originally a Jew, he came under the influence of Hinduism as well as Islam later in life. As he travelled to the Mughal empire like many others, he met a Hindu youth in Sindh and cultivated a friendship with him. He also engaged with Islamic leaders of his times. Thus, his mysticism drew various strands from Hinduism, Islam and Judaism. He walked naked in the streets of Delhi, which was not an uncommon feature of ascetics in India. The Mughal Crown-Prince Dara Shikoh, who had a special interest in engaging with the religious men from all faiths, had a special friendship with him.
The history was however, ordained to be written differently. Aurangzeb the younger brother of Dara Shikoh rebelled against his father Shah Jahan (builder of Taj Mahal), imprisoned him in Agra Fort, got his brothers including Dara Shikoh killed and ascended the Mughal throne. Since Sarmad had been close to Dara Shikoh, it was politically necessary for Aurangzeb to get him executed. However, he could not do so without providing a valid reason, since Sarmad was immensely popular. Hence, Aurangzeb got him summoned to the Mughal court and asked him to recite the Islamic creed (called kalma in India). Sarmad was influenced by many religions, but he didn't follow any religion in the conventional manner. Hence, instead of the entire sentence - "There is no God other than Allah and Muhammad is his Prophet," Sarmad recited only the first part - "There is no God." This gave Aurangzeb sufficient reason to get him executed on grounds of refusal to recite the Islamic creed. Sarmad's mausoleum (Fig. 3) lies opposite the main entrance of Jama Masjid in Delhi and is visited by people of different faiths alike, who pray to him to intercede with God on behalf of them.

Fig. 4 David Magen Synagogue, Bombay

Some 250 years ago came the waves of Jews from the West Asia and North-Western frontiers of the Indian Sub-Continent - Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria etc., who settled in Bombay. They are known variously as the Baghdadi or Persian Jews, eventhough they came from many countries. Their oldest synagogue is the David Magen Synagogue, built in old Bombay (Fig. 4).
The most interesting Jewish community in India is of the Bnei Menashe in the states of Manipur and Mizoram in the North-Eastern India. These tribes of Tibeto-Burman origin believe that they are a lost tribe of the Israel, descended from Menasseh, the son Of Joseph. According to their folklore, their ancestor was Manmasi, which they take to be the same as Menasseh. They have a harvest festival song which talks about how they escaped from the enemy, crossing the Red Sea, led by a pillar of cloud. They also traditionally worship a single god.
 Fig. 5 Children of Bnei  Menashe, on a festive gathering, Menorah on the right

Since the early 20th century, beginning with the Welsh missionaries, many conversions took place and most of the Mizo tribes and the tribal populations of Manipur became Christians. Thereby, in 1951, a Pentecostal called Chellianthanga is supposed to have dreamt that they were supposed to return to their ancestral religion, which he determined to be Judaism. Gradually, followers of Judaism in these tribes grew and they subsequently demanded to move to Israel. The State of Israel attempted a move of mass conversion of these tribes by sending some Rabbis before they could emigrate to Israel. Some 600 people were converted as a part of this move. However, Indian government protested at this proselytisation and Israel dropped its conversion plan of these North-East Indian tribals.
Judaism in India has thus, taken many forms and has existed through the long history of India, remaining a silent witness to the turmoils of this country. After the state of Israel was created, a large number of these Jewish populations emigrated to Israel. Now only a miniscule group is left here.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Lost Gospel of the Judas...

This finding is an important one for the history of religions. It throws light on many forgotten aspects of the early history of Christianity and revises many long-held notions of the life of Christ. The figure of Judas emerges as a noble character in this.

See full report below -

The National Geographic Society has been part of an international effort, in collaboration with the Maecenas Foundation for Ancient Art and the Waitt Institute for Historical Discovery, to authenticate, conserve, and translate a 66-page codex, which contains a text called James (also known as First Apocalypse of James), the Letter of Peter to Philip, a fragment of a text that scholars are provisionally calling Book of Allogenes, and the only known surviving copy of the Gospel of Judas.

The Lost Gospel of the Judas

I Go Here...

In These Times...

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