Monday, October 24, 2016

Discovering Mumbai: Kanheri Caves

Few persons visiting India’s commercial capital Mumbai have heard of the Kanheri caves. Even less seem to have visited it. This post is about this forgotten jewel of Mumbai that deserves to be seen.

Kanheri caves are rock-cut Buddhist caves in the Borivali suburb of Mumbai. References to king Yajna Satakarni in one of the cave inscriptions shows that its oldest parts date back to at least 2nd century BCE. It was one of the most prosperous Buddhist monk communities, functioning actively for a period of more than a thousand years.

Modern Mumbai is composed of 7 islands that were merged together through land reclamation in the 19th century. Before the merger, Borivali and the Kanheri caves were part of the Salsette island.

Rock-cut Caves in India

Carving rocky hills to create caves for human dwellings in India started about 2,500 years ago. One of the oldest rock-cut caves in India are at Udaygiri near Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh, dating back to 5 century BCE. Among the twenty caves of Udaygiri, 1 is dedicated to Jainism while the remaining 19 caves are dedicated to Hindu Gods. Some other rock-cut caves, such as the Pandava Caves in Panchmarhi, also seem to be equally old.

Other caves in India older than the rock-cut caves, such as the prehistoric Bhimbetaka caves near Bhopal (Madhya Pradesh), are natural caves.

The rock-cut caves were carved mainly for Buddhist and Jainist monks. They were built over periods of centuries. On the other hand, rock-cut structures linked with Hinduism are usually temples, such as the temple complex in Mahabalipuram in eastern coast of south India dating back to about 700 BCE. This could have been because Hinduism mostly has individuals or small groups in search of God and spirituality, while it lacks centralised monastic orders and therefore, did not need a large number of caves in one place for the monks.

Many Hindu temples contain “Garbhgriha” (Womb caves) where the deities are placed. In many old temples, like in the Kamakhaya temple in Guwahati (Assam), such Garbhgrihas are rock-cut structures. Though the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) was created in 1861 under the British colonial rule, it has not been able to carry out precise dating of most of these structures. Thus, usually the information available regarding these ancient rock-cut caves is based only on myths and popular stories.

Buddhist Caves in Maharashtra, India

The tradition of carving out caves in rocks and hills for creating Buddhist monasteries probably started after the death of Gautam Buddha. Except for the Saspol caves in Kashmir, all the other well-known Buddhist cut-rock caves are located in the state of Maharashtra in central-west part of India. These include the famous Ajanta and Ellora caves from 3rd century BCE.

A total of 27 significant Buddhist caves have been identified in Maharashtra.  Five of these caves are in Mumbai – Elephanta (Gharapuri), Jogeshwari, Mahakali, Mandapeshwar and Kanheri; while another 8 caves are close to Mumbai, going towards Lonavla and Pune - Bhaja, Karla, Bedse, Ghorawadi, Lenyadri, Shelarwadi and Shirwal.

The presence of these caves in Maharashtra indicates that from 5th century BCE till about early medieval times, there were a lot of flourishing communities of Buddhist monks in this part of India. These seemed to have close relationships with the seafaring trading communities.

Why did rock-cut Buddhist monasteries remain circumscribed only to central-western parts of India? Why there were no similar Buddhist monasteries in other parts of India? Was it linked to the coastal trade routes from the west coast of India? Was it a geological issue that other parts did not have rocks suitable for making caves? Was it because the artisans involved in making the caves were concentrated only in this part of India? Perhaps some experts can answer this question.

Reaching Kanheri Caves

Kanheri Caves can be reached easily through the public transport of Mumbai. Borivali local train station is just a couple of kilometres away. From the train station, a 20 minutes walk or frequent buses bring you to the entrance of Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP), the wild-life park of Mumbai. A shuttle bus service connects the entrance gate to the Kanheri caves, around 6 km away inside SGNP.

If you come with your own vehicle you have to pay the vehicle entry fee at the entrance gate while the tickets for entering the Kanheri caves are sold near the caves-entrance.

Kanheri Caves

The name Kanheri comes from two words - Kanha or Krishna (Black) and Giri (mountain). The name refers to Kanha hill with the dark coloured basaltic rocks common in this area. Basaltic rocks are formed from volcanic lava. The darker coarse grain basaltic rock, as found in Kanheri, is also called Gabbro or the Black Granite.

There are 109 rock-cut caves in Kanheri. The earliest caves date back to 2nd century BCE while the most recent caves are from 1000 CE. It seems that these caves were part of a thriving learning centre, where student monks came to study the teachings of Buddha. It was also used as a resting and storage point for the seafaring traders.

Most of these caves were used as living rooms for individuals. These are mostly small caves without any specific adornments and have a rock platform to be used for sitting and sleeping. The area also has some bigger halls closer to the entrance, which were used for prayers and meetings.

The first cave close to the entrance has pillars similar to those found at Elephanta. However, this two storied cave was never completed, probably due to some defect in the rock structure. (Image below)

The second cave is divided into three parts, each hosting a stupa. Each of these stupas is accompanied by rock-cut sculptures of Buddha, almost all of them in the Vyakhyana mudra. For example, the sculpture near the first stupa has a sitting Buddha in Vyakhana mudra, holding a lotus and with two lions at his feet. Two guards stand behind him along with two flying gandharvas. One of the walls has a large beautiful statue of Avalokiteshwara form of Buddha. (a part of Cave 2 in the image below)

The third cave from the entrance is the most beautiful. It has an entrance gate with guard-sculptures.

Entrance leads to a courtyard and then a covered anteroom with giant Buddha statues on the two side walls.

The anteroom walls also have sculptures of some couples, who probably donated money for the construction of this temple. These were rich merchants of the area and thus, these sculptures give an idea of local society of that period. Both men and women seem to be given equal importance and both are wearing loin clothes and jewellery while upper parts of their bodies are uncovered. They all wear a head-gear and they have something on their shoulders connected to their head-gear, perhaps for holding a clothe covering their backs? They are not wearing any kind of footwear. (image below)

The main hall of the cave temple is spacious - 26 metres long, 12 metres wide and 15 metres high, with pillars on the side walls. The roof of the hall shows the signs of the wooden rafters, which covered it originally. A 5 metres high stupa stands closer to the deep end of the hall. An inscription found in this hall explains that the hall was built in 2nd century BCE.

Another important cave is cave 11, located at a higher level above the entrance caves. It is known as Darbar cave. Around 20 metres wide and 8 metres deep, it has rows of low rock-benches.

Some persons believe that this was a teaching area and thus consider Kanheri as a learning centre. Others think that it was a meeting room, perhaps used for a Buddhist council meeting. It has a covered verandah with 8 pillars and two cisterns on the sides. 

When I saw it, I thought that it resembled a hostel mess. But it also has some beautiful sculptures on its walls, and I think that an eating room was unlikely to host beautiful sculptures. So I don't know if it could have been an eating place, with kitchens and store rooms around the main hall and the two water cisterns. To confirm it we need to check if there are signs of fires in the rooms used as kitchens.

One of the Buddha sculpture has Buddha shown sitting with his feet on the ground - I had never seen a similar statue of Buddha before. (In the image below)

Recently (January 2016) another group of 7 caves was discovered not far from the Kanheri complex in the forest surrounding it. Further excavations of this area is awaited to understand the role of these caves.

Inscriptions in Kanheri Caves

There are more than 70 inscriptions in Kanheri. Three scripts have been used in these inscriptions – Brahmi, Devnagari and Pahlavi. The inscriptions provide information about local rulers such as Vashishtiputra Satakarni, about the supervisors, artisans and artists who worked here, and general information such as a list of local birds. Most common inscriptions are about the gifts of caves and cisterns by the rich merchants of nearby towns such as Sopara and Kalyan.

One of the caves has an inscription about a “Tooth cave”. It is thought that this cave temporarily hosted a tooth, a relic of Buddha, which was later placed in a big stupa near the great temple hall. More recent excavations of this stupa did not show any tooth, though a brass plate was found. It is thought that the tooth was removed from the stupa in some earlier excavations. It is not clear if this tooth relic was in any way related to the famous tooth relic in a stupa in Sri Lanka. According to some experts, the brass plate found in Kanheri refers to 494-95 BCE and thus propose it as the oldest rock-cut Buddhist caves in India.

The image below shows one of the epigraphs near the Darbar hall (cave 11). Close to the epigraph is a bass-relief showing a strange figure which reminded me of the bull horns. I wondered if it was linked to Pashupati Nath (Shiva) worship or if it could be linked to the Pashupati seals found in Indus valley (image below).

Water Collection and Conservation Systems of Kanheri

A water stream flows between the northern and southern hills of Kanheri. One of the inscription mentions the construction of a dam for the collection of water. However, the caves are on the higher parts of the southern hill and thus going down to collect water from the stream must have been difficult. For this reason, as well to answer the water needs of a large number of persons, a detailed water collection and conservation system was designed in Kanheri including a network of canals and cisterns, as shown in the image below.

I visited Kanheri around the end of the dry season and was surprised to find that many cisterns of the monastery were full of water. This traditional knowledge of water collection and conservation seems to have been lost from many rural communities of India which face regular droughts and water-shortages.

Some Specific Things to See in Kanheri

There were a few other things in Kanheri caves which struck me as interesting. These included the numerous steps carved in the rocks for going from one place to another. Some of these were very long. These seemed like snakes winding on the rock surfaces.

Another curious find were small holes in the surface of rocks on the top of the hills, as shown in the image below. When I saw them I thought that they were holes above the cisterns for a ritual use similar to the stepwell of Santa Cristina in Sardinia island of Italy. However on closer look, these were not deep holes and were closed at the bottom. I wondered if these holes were made for fixing the bamboo umbrella stands to avoid the sun or may be for fixing poles for hanging out the washed clothes for drying.

Views of the Borivali high rise buildings from the top of the hills, behind the dense forests surrounding the Kanheri rock caves, were beautiful.


I have been to the more famous Elephanta caves on an island near the Gateway of India. It has a beautiful Trimurti scultpure. However, Elephanta does not have the rugged beauty of Kanheri. I was really surprised by this visit because I was not expecting to see such a vast and imposing structure with such beautiful sculptures.

I have not yet visited the other three rock-cut Buddhist caves in Mumbai and and if they are half as beautiful as Kanheri, it will be worthwhile to go and look for them. 

The large number of caves in and around modern Mumbai also means that this area was already inhabited many centuries before the British came and developed the city of Bombay in the 19th century.

If you live in or are only visiting Mumbai and are interested in the rich Indian cultural heritage, do visit Kanheri.


I found some useful archaeological information about the caves in an article by Saurabh on the Indian History and Architecture website.


Friday, October 21, 2016

Actors Prepare - From Ravan to Mahatma Gandhi

I love watching actors get ready for their roles. I find fascinating the process of putting make-up and costumes and to see the person change form in front of me. Over the years, I have had some great opportunities to watch the actors get ready for their roles. This post presents some of my favourite images of the theatre actors from India, Italy and some other countries.
Artists getting ready for dance and theatre performances

India - Actors of Ramlila and Other Sacred Stories

Let me start with some images from India. All these images are related to Ramlila, the enactment of Hindu epic Ramayan. During the days leading to the festival of Dusshera, hundreds of Ramlila plays are organised across big and small towns in northern and central parts of India.

The first image above is from the Bhaona enactment of Ramayan at the Majuli island in Assam (India). The actors were getting ready for the "Sita Swayamvar" scene, where princess Sita has to choose her bridegroom and different kings have come from all over India, hoping to marry her. The image shows the actor playing Lord Ram help one of the actors playing the role of a rival king, get ready.

I have some wonderful memories of watching Ramlila as a child at the DCM grounds near Rohtak Road in Delhi. I was especially fascinated by the figure of Ravan, the Rakshas king with ten heads, who kidnaps Sita. His booming laugh made me feel afraid, but I also felt a bit of pity for him.

The image below is from Ser Jatra from Puri in Odisha during which actors wear masks and go in a procession. The image shows the actor playing Ravan getting ready with a ten-headed black mask, along with an actor playing Arjun (from the epic Mahabharat).
Artists getting ready for dance and theatre performances

In Delhi, one of the oldest Ramlila traditions is from Chandni Chowk in the old city, started during the reign of Mughal king Bahadur Shah Zafar. This Ramlila play takes place in the open grounds at Ajmeri Gate, known as Ramlila grounds. The actors of this Ramlila get ready at a Dharamshala near Esplanade Road in Chandni Chowk. The image below shows the actor playing Lord Ram's younger brother Lakshman, get ready. The make up man is Mr Shyam Chandra Trikha who has been doing make up for this Ramlila for the last 25 years.
Artists getting ready for dance and theatre performances

Often people playing actors say that for them playing a role in Ramlila is a kind of sacred benediction.

The last image of the Ramlila actors is from Kochi in Kerala, at the southern tip of India. The Kathakkali actor is getting ready for a temple dance-drama performance. Kathakkali has specific rules about the colours to be used for the make-up of different characters.
Artists getting ready for dance and theatre performances

The next three images are of characters from other sacred stories of India. The first is of the Goddess Durga and is from the Ser Jatra in Puri in Odisha. The person getting ready to wear the Durga mask is a man, Mr. Bhimsen Mahapatra.
Artists getting ready for dance and theatre performances

From Sikkim in the north to Kerala in the south, India has a wonderful tradition of using masks in the traditional theatre and dances. The use of masks provides ready-made faces for theatre, thus avoiding the need of spending hours on make-up. The next image has the masked Buddhist monks from Sikkim in the traditional Vajra (Lightening) dance.
Artists getting ready for dance and theatre performances

The last image is that of Mr. Sunil Kumar getting ready to play Yamraj, the god of death, for the Ramlila procession in Chandni Chowk (Delhi), where he is going to sit with a noose around the head of an actor playing Markandeya.
Artists getting ready for dance and theatre performances

The story of Yamraj and the boy Markandeya, where the boy is saved from death by Lord Shiva, appears in two sacred texts - Bhagwat Puran and Mahabharat. I ask him, why there are Yamraj and Markandeya in a Ramlila procession, since they are not a part of the Ramayan story? With his flashing eyes and a shining scimitar, Sunil Kumar does look a little scary, till he smiles at me benevolently, shaking his head. He would make for a wonderful image in the procession and their audience knows their story, so it is does not matter if he is a visiting celebrity from another sacred story.

Actors prepare in Europe

The next few images are from Bologna (Italy) where I had my first experiences of watching actors prepare for their roles.

The next image is of Mario Barzaghi, an Italian theatre actor and dancer who is also a trained Kathakkali dancer, getting ready for his role as Hanuman from the Indian epic Ramayan. This image can give you an idea of hours of preparation needed for the make-up and putting on of the Kathakkali costumes. The day I had clicked this picture, he was going to enact the episode when Hanuman flies to Lanka in search of Sita.
Artists getting ready for dance and theatre performances

It is said that early Romans and Greek actors did not use any make-up or costumes. The use of the masks in the plays came much later. The traveling actor-comedians of the Italian Commedia dell’Arte in the 16th century had developed a set of stock characters, such as Arlecchino, who used masks. The image below shows some medieval puppets from the Bargellini museum of Bologna, wearing iconic costumes and masks of the Commedia dell'Arte era.
Artists getting ready for dance and theatre performances

Introduction of electricity in the 19th century provided better lighting for theatre. Thus actors had to change their make-up techniques to adapt to the lights on the stage. In 1890 Carl Baudin used a mixture of flesh-coloured paste of zinc white, yellow ochre, vermilion, and lard, which was given the name of grease-paint. Even today often we use the term grease-paint to talk about the make-up of actors but with time, now we have much better water-soluble make-up. Rather than flashy and gaudy colours, modern theatre prefers the natural look with its own techniques of make-up.

The next three images are all from cultural events in Bologna showing actors putting on the make-up with water soluble colours to paint rainbows on their bodies.
Artists getting ready for dance and theatre performances
Artists getting ready for dance and theatre performances
Artists getting ready for dance and theatre performances

The last image above has my friend Jana Daniela as the make-up artist. Jana herself is a cinema actor and has used amazing make-up for her role as a zombie in a recent film.

Actors From Americas

The next image shows animal-masks used by a Brazilian dance group from south America.
Artists getting ready for dance and theatre performances

The second image from Americas is from Washington D.C. (USA) where the two actors of Indian origin, Subodh Sen and Natwar Gandhi, are getting ready respectively for the roles of Jinnah and Mahatma Gandhi for the play "A Tryst with Destiny", about the independence of India.
Artists getting ready for dance and theatre performances


Selecting images for this post was immensely pleasurable. I loved going through my image archives to search for them, and in the process, rememberd many of those performances and the persons behind the make-up.

The concluding image of this photo-essay is of Mario Barzaghi getting ready to play Hanuman for the Kathakkali performance.
Artists getting ready for dance and theatre performances


Wednesday, October 19, 2016

From Ape to Robocop

Yuval Noah Harari’s first book, “Sapiens – a brief history of humankind” was written in Hebrew in 2011. Its English translation appeared in 2014, and became a bestseller. In 2016, his second book has come out, “Homo Deus – a brief history of the future”. This post about these two books.

Harari’s approach to history is innovative and interesting. It questions many of the scientific dogmas and entrenched beliefs around evolution. At the same time, it links history to knowledge from different fields including biology, genetics, economics, archaeology, sociology and anthropology.

“Sapiens” starts with the first progenitors of humans and ends with the modern age, speculating briefly about the things to come. “Homo Deus” carries forward this speculation on the future and how it could affect the humanity.

Progenitors of the Sapiens

In “Sapiens”, Harari proposes that initially the different human species were unremarkable animals, not much different from other apes. They were not able to compete with the brute strength, force and attacking capacities of most other animals, however they had larger brains and could invent wood and stone tools for cracking open bones. They occupied a niche role - extracting marrow from bones of animals killed and eaten by other larger animals.

The human evolution was not linear. From about 2 million years ago until some 10,000 years ago, the world was home at the same time, to several human species. Fire was first used by humans 800,000 years ago. By cooking food on fire, it became easier to digest and thus humans needed less time and shorter intestines compared to other animals for digesting their food. Thus more time coupled with larger brains leading to stone tools and control of fire gave them a strategic advantage over other animals.

“Sapiens” is broadly organised around the three themes, or the three revolutions –cognitive, agricultural and scientific – that have spurred human evolution.

Cognitive Revolution

Cognitive revolution was constituted by the appearance of new ways of thinking and communicating, between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago, due to random genetic mutations. Harari proposes that social cooperation among different groups of humans facilitated by the new communication skills ultimately was the key development of this era.

Legends, myths, gods and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution”. Capacity to imagine and to share that imagination with other humans was the next step. No other animals before humans were capable of this, and this development of collective imagination helped the sapiens to cooperate in extremely flexible ways with large number of other humans.

Humans shared information with others about the surrounding world, about their social relationships, and about things that do not really exist except in imagination, such as totems, spirits and gods. This same capacity of collectively imagining things continues even today leading to our ideas of countries, brands and human rights. Harari explains how these abilities lie at the base of all that progress that modern humans have achieved.

Initially humans lived as foragers in small groups, at the most a few hundred individuals, hunting and gathering food and materials. They also foraged for knowledge, important for their survival. Foragers had wider and deeper knowledge of their surroundings, they also had to master the internal world of their own bodies and senses. This was the time for the development of human diversity, each tribe developing its customs, language and culture.

This long experience of hunting and gathering life has shaped the biology and psychology of present humans.

Agricultural Revolution

The agricultural revolution, 8-10,000 years ago, changed everything. Harari suggests that “the rise of farming was a very gradual affair spread over centuries and millennia. A band of Homo sapiens gathering mushrooms and nuts and hunting deer and rabbit did not all of a sudden settle in a permanent village, ploughing fields, sowing wheat and carrying water from the river. The change proceeded by stages, each of which involved just a small alteration in daily life.

Agriculture accompanied by domestication of few animal species, helped in creating villages and towns, along with increases in populations. It led to the creation of rulers, commanders and kings, who lived on the hard work of others. It also led to the arrival of organised religions. Development of agriculture has been seen as important for improving the quality of life of humans, but Harari proposes a different view. He also points out its negative aspects including worsening of diets, poverty, back-breaking hard work and diseases, and suggests that though in the long run it helped to expand the reach of humans, for the early agriculturists its impact was negative.

Scientific revolution

The third part of “Sapens” is about the different ways the scientific revolution is impacting human lives – “A modern computer could easily store every word and number in all the codex books and scrolls in every single medieval library with room to spare. Any large bank today holds more money than all the world’s premodern kingdoms put together.

Starting from the “discovery” of Americas in the 16th century, this part of the book traces impact of the different changes of modern age on humans. One key change caused by this revolution was the wider understanding about the limits of our knowledge of the world, and that there was/is much more to be discovered. This led to the belief that humans can increase their capabilities by investing in scientific research. While generally optimist regarding the future of humanity, the book raises the issue of environmental destruction as one of the key challenges, “The future may see Sapiens gaining control of a cornucopia of new materials and energy sources, while simultaneously destroying what remains of the natural habitat and driving most other species to extinction.

Harari notes that inter-dependence and inter-connections between countries are leading to the whole world joined together as one empire, inside whose boundaries peace rather than war is valued – the world has never been as peaceful before as it is today.

He concludes “Sapiens” with discussions on the important issues for the future of humanity - pursuit of happiness including manipulation of our biochemistry for the “chemical” happiness, quest for immortality and possible role of genetic engineering and artificial intelligence leading to the end of Homo sapiens as we know them.

Homo Deus: The Future of Humans

Compared to “Sapiens”, Harari’s second book “Homo Deus” is shorter and less optimistic. Harari explains that it is not about prophecies, but is rather about a possible dystopian future for humans. The book is dedicated to his late teacher, S. N. Goenka, a Vipassana guru from India.

Homo Deus starts with the consideration that ever since their arrival on the earth, across the centuries, Homo sapiens faced three main problems – hunger/famines, plagues/infections and wars/terrorism. Harari explains that at the dawn of twenty-first century, all the three have been already resolved or can be resolved if properly tackled because we have the means to answer each of these challenges.

For example, regarding terrorism, Harari suggests a different remedy than what has been adopted usually by the countries:
However, terrorism is a strategy of weakness adopted by those who lack access to real power. At least in the past, terrorism worked by spreading fear rather than by causing significant material damage… How, then, do terrorists manage to dominate the headlines and change the political situation throughout the world? By provoking their enemies to overreact. In essence, terrorism is a show. Terrorists stage a terrifying spectacle of violence that captures our imagination and makes us feel as if we are sliding back into medieval chaos. Consequently states often feel obliged to react to the theatre of terrorism with a show of security, orchestrating immense displays of force, such as the persecution of entire populations or the invasion of foreign countries. In most cases, this overreaction to terrorism poses a far greater threat to our security than the terrorists themselves.
He thinks that humanity needs challenges and the new challenges will be about prolongation of human life in the quest for immortality, and improvement of human life through biotechnology and artificial intelligence so that we become God-like.

The remaining part of the book is devoted to the possible innovations in these areas and their impact on us. Like “Sapiens”, “Homo Deus” is also organised around three main themes – domination of humans (anthropocene), how humans give meaning to the world and the risk of losing control so that artificial intelligence and machines along with a tiny number of God-like humans control everything.

The possible dystopian future depicted by Harari is scary and uncomfortable. Repeatedly, Harari points fingers at us humans - we think that we are special beings and we have a right to exploit, kill and destroy all other beings. He wonders if the future Homo Deus who will control the world, will treat Homo sapiens as we have treated our planet and the animals on it. Our system of large scale brut use of animals grown in big farms blocked in narrow confined spaces or nailed to the ground for their milk, meat & skin, treats them as commodities. Before humans, no single species of a life form had ever dominated and affected the whole planet, therefore he calls it the Anthropocene age.

Harari devotes a lot of pages to the understanding of the different ideas of humanism which will become the dominant force in future replacing the religions, with the ideas about the centrality of ordinary people, their beliefs and feelings in the way we make decision, instead of leaving the decisions to sacred books or authorities. Thus, Harari is equally dismissive about the threat posed by the fundamentalists of different religions:
How about radical Islam, then? Or fundamentalist Christianity, messianic Judaism and revivalist Hinduism? Whereas the Chinese don’t know what they believe, religious fundamentalists know it only too well. More than a century after Nietzsche pronounced Him dead, God seems to be making a comeback. But this is a mirage. God is dead – it just takes a while to get rid of the body. Radical Islam poses no serious threat to the liberal package, because for all their fervour, the zealots don’t really understand the world of the twenty-first century, and have nothing relevant to say about the novel dangers and opportunities that new technologies are generating all around us.
It is the concluding parts of the books regarding the new humans with long lives and conjoined with artificial intelligence, which are the most disturbing, and at the same time less believable. Probably my lack of technological understanding precludes from understanding some of these ideas.


I found the two books fascinating in their scope and the way they manage to provide an overview and general understanding of so many diverse events and issues of human history - why we are the way we are and where are we going. All this is done with wit and great story-telling, and thus the book is not a dry lesson but rather a kaleidoscope of stories and stimulating discussions that sometimes meander, go out to follow some new paths before folding back and continuing with their chosen direction.

Compared to "Homo Deus", “Sapiens” is much bigger book but it tells a larger and a more fascinating story.

On some specific events about which he uses as examples to explain his points, sometimes I felt that he is a bit superficial. However in the two books looking at the human history of the whole planet and its future, that is inevitable.

I think that both are wonderful books and would warmly recommend them if your interests lie in our history, evolution, how we came to be where we are and our possible future directions.


Friday, October 14, 2016

Vishnu and Darwin

Some time I ago I had written about references to Other human species in the Indic mythology, arguing that the Indic myths and sacred stories represent the oral traditions and could be the keepers of ancient knowledge from prehistoric times.

This post is is a continuation of that thinking, provoked by a sculpture in a temple in Guwahati (Assam, India). The sculpture is a statue of an avatar of Vishnu.


The first ancestors of the modern man, Homo sapiens, appeared on earth around 70,000 years ago while our knowledge about human history goes back to about 5-6,000 years. This in-between period about which we have no written records is called prehistoric period.

Human beings probably started to speak and developed languages, even before the appearance of modern man. Thus for a very long time, humans only had speech and art to express themselves. This led to different oral traditions in the communities and the memories of most important events were saved as stories and songs and passed along the generations.

These stories changed over time, as they passed from one generation to another and as groups of people broke away from their parent groups and moved to new lands, with people adding new details and new explanations to the old words. When human-groups invented writing, they usually codified these stories as part of their sacred books.

Jayakrishnan Nair in his post "Preserving Long Term Memories" has given a nice overview of oral traditions in safeguarding ancient knowledge across countries and cultures:
Memories are preserved when societies have the ability to retell stories across generations and remain unaffected by military, religious and cultural assaults. Indigenous traditions have foundational ways — through stories, art, ritual — to preserve knowledge. Textual studies won’t reveal the secrets; these have to be experienced.


Hinduism has many stories about Avatars of God coming down to the earth. For example, in chapter 4 of Bhagwat Gita, verse 7 (Yada, yada hi dharmasaya glani bharwati bharat ...) is about God coming down to earth whenever there is a decline in Dharma.

Stories of different avatars of Vishnu are part of the Indic sacred literature. For example, Bhagwat Puran mentions 24 avatars of Vishnu. Other stories have ten such avatars (Dasavatar). In all these stories, the first four avatars of Vishnu show him as an animal – Mataysa (Fish), Kurma (Tortoise), Varaha (Boar) and Narsimha (half man and half animal).

While visiting Shukreshwar temple in Guwahati, I saw a sculpture of the Matasya (Fish) avatar of Vishnu on one of the walls of a temple (shown in the image below).

Different authors have linked these stories about Vishnu's avatars to the Darwin's theory of evolution of species. In 19th century, Darwin had proposed that over a period of millions of years, life had evolved from single cells and through natural selection, gradually created more complex organisms. Life had started in oceans, it moved to the land, passing through fishes, amphibians and then birds and animals, till humans evolved from the apes.

People have remarked on how the first 4 avatars of Vishnu seem to reflect the evolution of life in the ocean (Matsya/Fish), its progression in creatures that lived partly in water and partly on land (Kurma/Tortoise), the arrival of mammals (Varaha/Boar) and the birth of humans from their animal progenitors (Narsimha/Half human, half animal). The image below shows a statue of Narsimha avatar from a street in old Delhi.

According to the Dasavatar stories, the fifth avatar of Vishnu was Vamana (Dwarf). This story reminds me of another human species, Homo floresiensis, also called "hobbits", the short humans who lived in Flores island of Indonesia.

These stories do not talk specifically about development of humans from the apes. However Indic sacred literature has many figures such as that of Vanars/Apes (Sugriv, Bali, Hanuman) and other beings such as Asurs, Danavs, Rakshas, etc. These other figures share certain similarities with humans and could be seen as references to other human species during prehistoric times.

If Indic myths speculated on the origins and evolution of life and some times came up with answers similar to those given by the science today, it means that those persons had significant capacities of observation and logical deduction. They did not have the scientific tools to test and confirm their ideas and thus, came up with stories of Vishnu's avatars to explain their observations.

At the same time, the Dasavatar story includes a prophecy about future - the tenth avatar of Vishnu who is supposed to come at the end of Kaliyug. This future avatar is called Kalki and is shown as a man with a sword on a white horse. This myth implies that there was some understanding that there will be other forms of life and that humans are not the end-point of evolution of life. This idea is also consonant with the present view of evolution of species, though the future life-evolution is not likely to be about white horses or swords, rather it might be linked to artificial intelligence and other technological innovations.


As explained above, the roots of the myths go back to the oral traditions of prehistorical times, before writing was invented and before we had the formal religions.

Emergence of religions like Christianity and Islam, with their specific books such as Bible and Koran, influenced attitudes towards the knowledge contained in ancient myths. Some ancient myths were incorporated in these books and came to be accepted as part of their religious dogmas. Other ancient myths, not included in these books, came to be seen as superstitions or false stories.

Therefore, the common use of the word Myth came to imply that these stories provide wrong and unreliable knowledge and thus, should not be taken seriously.

Most Indic myths are part of Vedic literature, especially of the Puranas. "Mithak", the Sanskrit word used for myths, sounds very similar to the Greek word Mythos. The Sanskrit word "Mithya", derived from Mithak, is also commonly understood as a synonym of lies or untruth. Thus, it would seem that even in Indic traditions, myths are seen as unreliable or wrong knowledge. So I was wondering, if our myths and sacred stories are part of our oral traditions, why and when did we start to consider them as lies?

The word "Mithya" appears in only one Upanishad, the Muktikopanishad, which is considered as the last Upanishad, written relatively recently (probably in seventeenth century). Its use in that Upanishad seems to suggest its meaning was somewhat similar to that of Maya (illusion). Thus is it possible that the negative connotation given to ancient stories or the myths in the Indic traditions was a more recent phenomenon? Certainly, traditional Indian scholars did not consider the Purana stories to be a bunch of lies.

Another explanation can be that in Indic traditions, Purana stories were seen as Itihasa (history) and they had used the word "mithak" to refer to some other stories, while today we have started to club together all our sacred stories as myths because that is how Western scholars have described them over the past couple of centuries?


Reconstructing the ancient history gives a lot of importance to written documents, skeletons, cultural artifacts and images such as the cave paintings, while the oral history traditions are not given similar importance. This is natural since stories of the oral traditions must have undergone many changes as they were passed from one generation to another, and thus are not as reliable as written texts and pictorial testaments of the prehistoric humans.

Over the last couple of decades technical advances in molecular biology and informatics have also started adding to our knowledge about prehistorical period, for example through reconstruction of genome.

On the other hand, cultures with strong oral traditions that have unbroken links with their prehistoric past through their mythologies and sacred stories, are fast disappearing. Except for some tribal communities, such cultures have survived only in India and in certain parts of Asia, especially where there are significant numbers of Hindus and Buddhists.

At the same time, looking at and understanding this ancient knowledge is becoming increasingly difficult as we tend to look at the myths and ancient stories through the lens of rational approaches, ignoring the original cultural contexts and philosophies that guided their meanings.

However, I feel that speculations about the seeds of historical events and ancient knowledge hidden inside the myths are also important. Looking at myths and sacred stories can be another way of knowing our past, though at present it may not be possible to have objective proofs of such knowledge.


Saturday, October 8, 2016

Guwahati Walking Tour – Riverside Temples of Uzanbazar

Uzanbazar is an important social, cultural and historical area of Guwahati, spread around the Dighalipukhuri pond. This second part of the Uzanbazar walking tour will take you to the different places on the northern side of Dighalipukhuri, the part towards the Brahmaputra river. You can also look at the first part of this tour focusing on the southern side of Dighalipukhuri.

The image below shows the Brahmaputra river seen from Kachari ghat in this part of Uzanbazar. The swirling water of the swollen river and the monsoon clouds painted in broad brush-strokes by the nature, make it a fascinating place. I remember sitting there and passing hours looking at the passing boats and people.

Brahmaputra at Kachari ghat in monsoon

This walking tour will start from the west at the Northbrook gate and cover three important temples – Shukreshwar, Umananda and Ugratara, as well as some other buildings such as the high court, planetarium and the cricket club.


Northbrook gate was built in 1874 to welcome the British Governor General of India Lord Northbrook, whose ship was anchored here. He had come here to announce that Assam province will have its own high commissioner. After 1850, as the British import of tea from China had declined, Assam had become important to the empire for its tea gardens. After his visit, for 40 days “Gowhatti” had become the capital of British Assam, before the capital was shifted to the cooler hills of Shillong. At that time the city population was only 11,000.

British called this gate the Gateway to Assam. It is located on M. G. road, where the road leaves the Brahmaputra river and turns inwards.

Northbrook gate, Guwahati, Assam, India

It is a simple gate made of 12 arches, 5 in front, 5 at the back and 2 on the sides. In 1897, there was a big earthquake in Assam with widespread damages in Guwahati. Northbrook gate was one of the few buildings that had survived this earthquake.

In 1919, poet Robindranath Tagore had rested here before going to nearby Jublee park for a public meeting. In 1949, the urn containing the ashes of Mahatma Gandhi was placed here before their dispersion in Brahmaputra river.

From Shukreshwar ghat near the Northbrook gate you can hire private boats for visting the Umananada temple and island in the middle of the river. However, if you do not want a private boat but want to use the public ferry for this visit, you need to walk to Kachari ghat (explained below).

Beginnings of modern Guwahati: The lower half of Assam came under the British rule in 1826. British author William Robinson in his 1841 book "A descriptive account of Assam", explained that at that time the city covered an area of about two and half miles on the south bank of the river. He wrote that this area had one of the old chowkis for controlling entry into the city – the Lattasil chowki or Pani Chowki. At that time, the ruins of some of the old gateways to the city were still visible, though the city had lost its ancient importance and its numerous spacious tanks were choked up with weeds and jungle.

Thus,when British arrived in Assam, the ancient city of Pragjyotishpura of the Kamrup empire was in decline. The new city of "Gauhati" (also called Gowhatti) took birth around Uzanbazar, especially in the areas near the Northbrook gate.


This temple is situated close to the Northbrook gate and was already there when the British had arrived in Guwahati in the 19th century.

The Shukreshwar complex hosts many temples, including a famous Shiva temple on the top of a small hill where the inner walls are covered with hundreds of flowers. Since this temple is dark inside and the use of flash is not possible, I do not have a good picture of this temple, but it is really worth a visit.

The courtyard of the Shukreshwar temple complex is full of colourful statues, including the Vishnu statue presented below.

Vishnu, Shukreshwar temple, Guwahati, Assam, India

The temple complex overlooks the Brahmaputra river, where the rocks have some 1500 years old rock-cut sculptures. You will find some more information about these rock-cut sculptures in a separate section further down in this post.


As you will walk further down the M. G. road you will see the Assam High Court building and Guwahati Ashok hotel, followed by the Cricket club grounds (Judges' field), which used to be the officers' club during the British period.

Cricket grounds, Guwahati, Assam, India

Near the Cricket grounds are the the Latasil grounds, whose name remembers the old chowki with its gateway (Lattasil chowki or Pani chowki) which had once marked the entrance to the medieval city of Guwahati.

Latasil grounds are a popular venue for the different city festivals including the Bihu celebration (Bihu dance and a pani-puriwala at Latasil grounds at the Megh Bihu fair are shown in the two images below).

Bihu dance, Latasil grounds, Guwahati, Assam, India

Paanipuri, Latasil grounds, Guwahati, Assam, India

Across from Latasil grounds is the Guwahati Planetarium, which has daily shows in Assamese, English and Hindi to learn about the stars and the cosmos. Near the planetarium there is small white marble temple while on the other side of the Latasil grounds is the well known Dighalipukhuri mosque of Guwahati. (Planetarium of Guwahati in the image below)
Planetarium, Guwahati, Assam, India


The road next to the Planetarium will bring you to the river and to the traditional market of Kachari bazar and ghat. The name of this area "Kachari", means court and makes reference to the high court.

Kachari bazar is a simple market with small shops and tin roofs, but it is famous because you can find a wide variety of traditional Assamese vegetables and plants that are not available in other parts of the city.

Vegetables, Kachari bazar, Guwahati, Assam, India

The market has a small but beautiful Kali temple.

Kali temple, Kachari bazar, Guwahati, Assam, India

Steps near the Kachari market take you down to Kachari Ghat where you can get the public ferry for Umananda temple. The grounds of Kachari Ghat are a popular venue for cultural events like the annual kite festival and the celebration of chhath festival by the Bihari immigrant community of Guwahati (in the image below).

Chhath festival, Kachari ghat, Guwahati, Assam, India


Umananda temple is one of the ancient temples of Guwahati. The 1841 book of Britisher William Robinson already mentioned above, said about it: “In the centre of the river, opposite the station, stands a little rocky island called Umananda. According to the Hindu legends, this island was formed by God Sib (Shiva) with the dust that marked his forehead. It presents a very picturesque object, clothed as it is with trees and crowned with temples.

The Indian Railway association was formed in 1845 and the first train journey in India took place only in 1851, so I think that the “station” mentioned by Robinson in this paragraph refers to a local boat station, perhaps near Kachari ghat or near Shukreshwar ghat?

The image below presents the Kachari ferry dock with the river island hosting Umananda temple in the background. From here you get the public ferries for visiting the temple.

Kachari ferry for Umananda temple island, Guwahati, Assam, India

The return ticket on the public ferry boat to Umananda temple on the peacock island costs only 20 Rs. The temple is located on the top of a hill and requires a bit of a climb. The image below shows one of the temple priests.

A Brahmin priest, Umananda, Guwahati, Assam, India

The Umananda island is also home to a group of Golden Langur monkeys. Usually you will find them on the trees, if you take a walk going towards the back of the island, below and behind the main Umananda temple, on the path facing the north bank of the river. (A golden langur in the image below, eating a cake given to her by some visitor).

Golden langur, Umananda, Guwahati, Assam, India

The island is also home to a group of friendly geese who might follow you around and even ask you with their quack-quack to share your food. They have learned that people do not hurt them, so they seem completely fearless.

The views of the other river islands with their pristine white sands, visible from the top of the Umananda hill if you look towards the north bank of Brahmaputra, are breath-taking.


The road along the river going east from Kachari ghat towards the Kharguli hills and the Governor's house has many traditional old Assamese houses. Vivekanand Cultural Kendra, one of the cultural centres of Guwahati, is located at its corner, just opposite Kachari ghat.

Upper Stand road is home to some exclusive boutiques selling traditional Assamese silk dresses for women (Mekhla Chador), including the Fab India Handicrafts store of Guwahati.

Across the road, is the fish market of Guwahati that is ideal to buy fresh river fish, early in the morning. The image below shows one of the traditional Assamese houses on Upper Stand road.

Traditional Assamese house, Riverside, Guwahati, Assam, India


The same road that goes towards Kachari ghat along the planetarium, if taken in the other (southwards) direction will pass along the boundary of Latasil grounds and then take you to Lamb road and the unassuming Ugratara temple.

Ugratara temple, Guwahati, Assam, India
It is one of the ancient temples of Guwahati built during the medieval Ahom kingdom.

Behind the temple, there is a big pond, Jorpokhuri. A road was built here which divides this pond into two. The pond is famous for its large number of geese.

Like the friendly geese of Umananda, these Ugratara geese are also aware that people and vehicles will never hurt them so they are completely fearless. It is not unusual to see a gaggle of geese walking in the middle of Lamb road while all the cars and autos, try to pass around them without hurting them.

Ugratara Jorpukhuri geese, Guwahati, Assam, India


Guwahati area has many bas-relief rock sculptures, rock-cut sculptures (carved into the rock) and rock sculptures. According to Prof. P C Choudhury (The History of Civilization of the people of Assam till the 12th century A.D., 1959), the rock-cut sculptures are from 5 to 12 century CE.

However, it seems that the actual archaeological dating of the rock-cut sculptures has not yet been carried out. According to a recent article in the Ancient Asia journal, “A number of scholars have highlighted on the rock sculpture and iconography of the region but no work focusing on the rock art and engravings of the region have so far been reported.

The visit to Uzanbazar will give you an opportunity to visit two important sites of rock-cut sculptures in this area.

One group of rock-cut sculptures representing Vishnu (with adjoining figures of Surya, Ganesh, Devi, etc.) is present in the rocks facing the Brahmaputra river behind the Shukreshwar temple. These are locally known as Vishnu Janardan and are protected under the Archaeological Survey of India.

Vishnu Janardan, Rock-cut sculptures, Guwahati, Assam, India

A second group of ancient rock-cut sculptures representing Ganesh are located on the island of Umananda temple, near its western tip facing the Neelanchal hill and Kamakhaya temple. Near by a path goes down towards the river, with some more sculptures. These sculptures look much older than many of the Umananda temple buildings.

Ganesh, Rock-cut sculptures of Umananada, Guwahati, Assam, India


I think that Uzanbazar is one of the most culturally vibrant area of Guwahati with a lot of places to visit.

All the places mentioned in this post are located close together and you can easily walk to them. Reaching Uzanbazar through public transport is easy and you can get down at the Kachari bus stop.

If you do not have time to visit all the places mentioned in this post, make sure to visit at least the Umananda temple and the island. The visit to the temple by the public ferry will require at least 3 hours. If you have less time, take a private boat from Shukreshwar ghat near Northbrook gate (BTW, don't try asking people about Northbrook gate, hardly anyone knows this name. However, most people can point you to Shukreshwar ghat.)

You can also look at the first part of this tour presenting other places to visit on the southern side of Dighalipukhuri, towards Cotton College and Paltan Bazar railway station.

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