Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Photography Menace

Have you found yourself in situations where there are more photographers than there are artists at some public cultural events?

Unfortunately, often these photographers are also a little aggressive and they seem to believe that their right to click pictures is more important than the right of the public to watch the cultural event. They want to be in the front to click their pictures and some times they are willing to fight with each other to get the pictures they want.

If you think that I am exagerating, take a look at the picture below. Can you count the number of photographers surrounding the artists in this picture? And do you think that these photographers were really worrying about hundreds of spectators who had gathered in the city square to watch this cultural event?

Warring and uncivilized photographers disturbing public cultural events
Recently, I found myself in the middle of a fight among people wishing to click photographs. Fortunately, I was not involved in the fight, and as soon as I could, I slipped away to a calmer place. But the episode made me think about what had happened, how the world of photography is changing and the feeling that over the next years, probably the things are only going to get worse.

If we are organising a cultural event, I think that it is important to have clear rules so that photographers do not disturb the event. By photographers, I mean both - those with different kinds of digital cameras, as well as those with their smart phones.

THE FIGHT

First let me tell you about the fight that I witnessed. It happened one evening in Schio (pronounced Skio), a tiny town at the foothills of Alps in north-eastern part of Italy, where I live.

The cultural event was about the uniforms of the soldiers of Republic of Venice from 1797. It was almost near its end. I had found a place to stand in one corner of the square near the stairs of an underground parking. A guy with a nice SLR camera had taken position on the stairs, and set up his camera. For the finale of the event, they were going to fire the cannons. More people had joined us, including a lady clicking pictures with her smart phone, since we had a good view of the cannons.

The lady with the smart phone kept on moving from one side to other, to click pictures from different angles. I saw the man with SLR camera standing on the stairs, moving left and right, trying to get a visual of the event and avoiding the lady. After about fifteen minutes, he could not control himself and spoke sharply, "You mind standing still instead of moving all the time and breaking my balls?"

The lady turned towards him, initially shocked and a few moments later, indignant, "How dare you speak to me like that? Behave yourself."

I think that the guy realized that he had crossed a line and had been too rude, but for some time he continued to bluster, while the woman raised her voice and soon her husband, who was standing some distance away, came and joined her. For a moment, I thought that they were going to punch each other, but somehow common sense prevailed and the SLR camera guy backtracked, while the woman moved away.

After another 5 minutes, a couple of men with their smart phones, busy clicking a video, came and took the place vacated by the woman, standing in front of the camera guy. Disgusted, the guy snorted, put away his camera in his bag, left his place on the stairs and moved to an empty area of the square, which did not have a good visual of the event.

After the event, I kept on thinking about the photographers at the event. I was also there with my camera, though I am quite laid back about clicking pictures. If I get the opportunity I am happy to click but if people come and stand in front of me, I usually wait for them to move or change place.

That evening there were hundreds of persons who took pictures. Perhaps, 20% had digital cameras. The other 80% had their smart phones. That evening I was asking myself, if we going towards wars among the photographers?

PHOTOGRAPHY AS A PUBLIC MENACE

I think that photography in public cultural events has become a serious issue that requires the setting up of some clear rules.

In the cities of developed countries of Europe and US, and even in the big cities of less developed countries, the number of people with big SLR cameras and all other kinds of digital cameras is increasing every year. Whenever there is a public cultural event, it becomes a free for all among all the photographers to get good pictures, close ups and innovative angles. Some photographers block the visual of people who have come to watch the performance, standing there in the front as if they are transparent or if they have a special right to go and do as they wish.

I am not including "official photographers" in this list, including videographers, who also block the visuals but at least they do it because they are being paid to do it. In fact official photographers are often in the middle of the performances, moving around, not really bothering about the public.

If the epidemic of different digital cameras was not enough, the proliferation of good cameras in the smart phones and the possibility of sharing "See, I am here" kind of pictures on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, has added another layer of chaos to the discourse.

Now it is not enough to worry about those with digital cameras blocking you, there are literally hundreds more with their smart phones who also want to click pictures. If they have a family member or a friend who is performing in the event, they become impossible to control, jumping around in front, and refusing to move from their places, ready to fight for it if needed.

NEW RULES FOR PUBLIC PHOTOGRAPHY

It seems that the trend of taking pictures and videos and sharing them with our friends and others, is going to spread and get bigger over the coming years. Thus, I think that photography related conflicts are going to become more common.

The good manners' guides do not tell us how to behave in so many situations in today's world like for the use of our mobile phones and  cameras, but if we want to avoid conflicts, we need to define new rules that respect common codes of decency and privacy in public spaces.

Fortunately, lately my interest in photography is on the wane. I had my first digital camera in 2005. For many years I have suffered from clickitis, defined as the irresistible urge to click pictures. I was always looking for opportunities to click pictures. I had my photoblog Chayachitrakar where I posted new pictures every day. It has more than 2000 posts.

Then something changed inside me during 2015 - suddenly I was no longer so compulsive about clicking pictures. In January 2016, I also stopped adding pictures on my photo-blog. Lately I have even been to some cultural events without my camera.

I still take a lot of pictures, but if I can't, it is not such a big deal. Perhaps it is because of this change in my attitude that I can now talk of making of rules to regulate photography.

What do you feel - do you think that photographers are becoming a nuisance at public cultural events?

***

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Doctors and Alternate Sexualities

Note: I had written this article for the newsletter of Xukia, an organisation based in Guwahati, fighting for the rights of LGBTQI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersexual) persons in the north-east of India. The images used in this article are from LGBTQI Pride Parades organized by Xukia and held in Guwahati in 2015 and 2016.

***
GLBTQI Pride Parade, Guwahati, India - Images by Sunil Deepak
It was around 1973-74. I was a medical student. One evening, a close friend from my school days had hesitatingly asked me for advice. He felt attraction towards a male classmate in the university and wanted to know if this meant that he was gay. Probably he had thought that because I was studying medicine, I must know something about it.

I was not sure how to answer him. Yet, I was pleased that he had enough confidence in me to raise that question. I don’t think that it was, and I don’t think that it is, easy to discuss doubts about your sexuality with your close friends.

Till that time, the subject of sexualities had never been raised in our medical studies. In our anatomy class, when he had come to the chapters on sexual organs, our male professor had told us with a knowing smile that we could read those chapters ourselves. I used to think that it will be taught in the final year. I wouldn’t have believed at that time that at undergraduate level, medical students were not taught any thing related to sex, sexuality or genitals.

And, I don’t know how much of it has changed today. Perhaps young doctors can add about their own learnings on sex and sexualities in the medical colleges in India now.

It was a time when many of us went to work after the medical degree, rather than going for a specialisation. So our education system was turning out doctors, who were going to work, and who had never been taught anything about sexuality.

During our clinical studies, we had studied about the health conditions linked to the genital organs, especially sexually transmitted diseases, those that require surgery and those related to child-birth. And that was the end of our sexuality knowledge. Our medical education was linking sexuality exclusively to the ideas of disease conditions, rather than to ideas of pleasure and self-fulfilment.

***

“So what is the opinion of the doctor about it? Is it normal?” Similar questions are common in a variety of situations. When people are not sure about something related to the human body, asking the opinion of the doctors seems like a logical solution.

Rarely people ask themselves if the doctors have the knowledge and training to answer those questions properly. It is difficult to think that doctors, like most other persons in the society, carry the usual prejudices of the society in which they live.

There is limited research in India on the issues of sexualities. Often the research is carried out under the aegis of psychiatry departments, leading to the impression that sexuality is related to psychiatric disturbances.

I could not find any research on attitudes of Indian doctors about alternate sexualities. However, from colleagues, I have heard stories of doctors refusing to see and to treat transgender persons or being rude to them.

***

What are the opinions of Indian doctors about LGBTQ issues?

After the Supreme Court judgement on 11 December 2013, that reinstated section 377 of Indian Penal Code, on 27th December 2013 the Indian Medical Association (IMA) passed a resolution that “homosexuality is a variation of sexual orientation and not a disease”. However, many members of IMA did not agree with this official position.

On 19 January 2014, an ex-president of Indian Psychiatric Society (IPS) said that in India, talking of sex was unnatural and that homosexuals had brought these discussions out on the streets, implying that homosexuals were unnatural. Some days later, on 3 February 2014, the general secretary of IPS said that “Homosexuality is a grey area, entailing confusion and complexity, and black and white comments can't be made on it”. The above statements made by psychiatrists, who are supposed to have greater understanding about sexualities, did provoke some debates. Thus, On 7 February 2014, IPS was forced to issue a statement that “there is no evidence to substantiate that homosexuality is an illness or a disease”.

A recent newspaper story dated 26 July 2015 talked about a group of psychiatrists in Delhi who considered homosexuality as “a condition similar to bipolar disorders and schizophrenia”, to be treated by “conversion therapy” based on electro-shocks. This story provided details of interviews with many doctors.

One doctor claimed to have “helped” more than a thousand persons in “treating” homosexuality and usually charged 1.1 lakh Rs as a “complete package for treatment”. Another clinic claimed to “cure homosexuality” in one month for “only” 2,100 Rs. One doctor blamed the “excess of female hormones in male bodies” for homosexuality, while another talked of a “recessive homosexuality gene”.

Such pseudo-scientific talks, not based on any scientific-evidence, feed on the common prejudices among people. Since doctors and even more so, specialists like psychiatrists, are seen as authority figures, such claims and such services, serve to perpetuate and strengthen stereotypes and prejudices in the society.

Thus, even when official medical bodies make the “right” statements, individual doctors often continue to hold-on to their ideas that do not agree with the official positions.

These newspaper stories were about doctors in Delhi, but are doctors in other cities any better? What about similar doctors and clinics in the North-east? Probably the situation will not be so different.

***

So what should persons do when they want an advice about a sexuality issue from a health professional?

There are many occasions when LGBTQ persons and their families need sensitive and sensible advice from professionals who understand their worlds and their specific needs – such as, when young people are not sure about their orientation or gender, when persons wish to undertake hormonal or surgical treatment for gender reassignment, and when persons want to have families and think of surrogate pregnancy or artificial insemination.

Today a lot of information is available on internet. However, it is not always easy to judge the reliability of this information. It may be too much and sometimes, contradictory. Thus coming to a decision may not be easy and some guidance may be needed. However, I feel that the greatest advantage of internet based information relates to sharing of personal life stories and experiences, and creating peer support groups.

One answer for LGBTQ groups can be to start working on creating a database of responsible and sensitive health professionals in their cities. For example, a group of persons have started a crowd-sourcing work on identifying “Gynaecologists whom we can trust” (#GynaecsWeCanTrust), that provides information in different languages about reliable gynaecologists in different Indian cities.

Some time ago I had visited the office of an Association of transgender persons in Bologna (Italy) called MIT. They were able to convince the local government on the need of having access to experienced psychologists and health professionals. Thus, in their office, the local government had agreed to provide them with professionals, to be available for consultation a few times in a month. Though initially the professionals had limited knowledge and skills about issues related to transgender persons, with time, they were able to gain both.

Hoping for a support from the Government on this issue in India may not be realistic in the short term, but perhaps similar solutions can be explored by GLBT Rights organisations and groups locally with some professionals who have an understanding of these issues.

***
I want to conclude this article with a few images from the LGBTQI Pride Parades held in Guwahati (Assam, India) in 2015-16.

GLBTQI Pride Parade, Guwahati, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

GLBTQI Pride Parade, Guwahati, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

GLBTQI Pride Parade, Guwahati, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

GLBTQI Pride Parade, Guwahati, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

GLBTQI Pride Parade, Guwahati, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

GLBTQI Pride Parade, Guwahati, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

GLBTQI Pride Parade, Guwahati, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

GLBTQI Pride Parade, Guwahati, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

***

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Saving the little hog – Goutam Narayan

I am not an animal lover, I am a conservationist. I have no sentimental attachment to any one animal that I want to save at any cost like the animal lovers do. To save a species, if some animals have to be sacrificed for larger good, that is fine with me”, Goutam had said passionately. Goutam Narayan is known for his work in saving the Pygmy Hog (Porcula salvania) from extinction in the north-west of Assam in India.

Conservationist Goutam Narayan and the pygmy hog

We were visiting the Pygmy Hog Breeding Centre (PHBC) in Basistha in the periphery of Guwahati, of which he is the founder-director. Another breeding centre is located at Potasali near Nameri National Park.

When I had first arrived to live in Guwahati in December 2014, I did not know anyone in this city. However, I had the contacts of Goutam and his wife, Nandita, given to me by my sister. So I had gone to visit them at their home. That was the first time I had heard about Goutam’s work with pygmy hogs. “I want to come and see your work with these hogs”, I had told him. Finally, in January 2016 I had managed to visit it.

WHY SAVE THE PYGMY HOGS?

Goutam thinks that this tiny and shy animal is a very good indicator of the ecological conservation of its local environment, “The big animals like tigers or rhinos, they can thrive in lots of places and even if the environment changes, they can survive. But not the pygmy hogs. They need the specific tall wet grassland plains at the foothills and without it, they will not survive. So when animals like the pygmy hog start disappearing, you know that something is wrong and the environment is getting damaged. It is a sensitive indicator of the change in the environment.

Pigs, hogs, boars and swines are different words used to talk about the animals of the suid family, though usually pig is used for domesticated animals while hogs and boars are used for wild animals.

Conservationist Goutam Narayan and the pygmy hog

The pygmy hog is the smallest suid. The grown adult is about 65 cm long and 25 cm tall, weighing around 8 or 9 kg. It is also a very shy animal so it is very difficult to see in the wild. There was a time when these pygmy hogs were found in several places along the Himalayan foothills at the India-Bhutan border extending westwards to India-Nepal border to eastern parts on Assam-Arunachal Pradesh borders. However, now these animals are almost extinct except for a small area in Manas National Park, which has around 200 pygmy hogs. During the last few years, 94 animals born and raised in Goutam’s breeding centre have been released in Sonai Rupai Wildlife Sanctuary and Orang National Park in Assam.

HOW DID PYGMY BECAME ALMOST EXTINCT?

So what has happened to these pygmy hogs? How had they become extinct? Often the extinction of animals is linked to excessive killings by humans, but that is not the case with the pygmy hogs. Since they are shy animals hiding in the wet grasslands, they are not easy to hunt. Also, they are small, so have little meat to justify their hunting. Rather, their extinction is linked to the destruction of the tall wet grasslands.

They are very finicky animals, they require that tall thatch grass and without it they can not survive. They make their homes underneath a bunch of that grass and if they can not find it then they will have no homes, they will not breed and they will die”, Goutam had explained.

Conservationist Goutam Narayan and the pygmy hog

Goutam is a field biologist and had started with the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) under Salim Ali, the noted Indian ornithologist. Goutam had earlier worked with Bengal Florican (Houbaropsis bengalensis), another endangered species that shares its habitat with the pygmy hog. After working with Bengal Floricans in Manas grasslands he was offered to work with Pygmy Hog Conservation Programme by the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, founded by Gerald Durrell in Jersey, Channel Islands.

The wet grasslands habitat has one of the richest in bio-diversity in India, so it is important to safeguard it. Pygmy hogs are one of the most sensitive indicators of the safeguarding of this habitat. These wet grasslands serve as buffer against floods in rainy season while maintaining high groundwater levels in dry season, indirectly benefiting farming communities living in the fringe areas.

A few years ago, in an interview Goutam had expressed his desires of the changes he would like to see, “I would (like to) banish the indiscriminate dry season burning of grasslands every February and March. I may allow some controlled fire till mid January to clear dried grass debris and to delay the transformation of these successional grasslands into a different habitat but not the highly destructive hot burns. Secondly, I would convert hoards of cattle grazing the grasslands bare and trampling the soil hard into a few high yielding breeds of stall-fed animals. Thirdly, I would transform the mindset of planners who want to construct scores of mega dams on Himalayan rivers. They should instead be planning for ecologically and economically viable smaller alternatives that do not cause flash floods in the grassland plains and downstream areas when water is released from reservoirs, particularly during the monsoons.”

PYGMY HOG CONSERVATION PROGRAMME

In the pygmy hog breeding centre in Guwahati, the hogs are kept in separate enclosures according to the genetic lines. Since their numbers are so small, it is important to ensure the genetic lines to maximise their genetic diversity. Pygmy hog is the only member of the genus Porcula.

The Pygmy Hog Conservation Programme (PHCP) has a significant research component. An important part of the research is genetic and endocrinal studies of the hogs. While we were visiting it we met a researcher Shyamalima Buragohain who is working on PHCP’s collaborative project with CCMB-LaCONES (Laboratory for Conservation of Endangered Species of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad) on the endocrine status of pygmy hogs by studying their excreta.

The breeding programme had started with nine pygmy hogs captured in the Manas National Park in 1996 and in 2013. Over the years, their numbers have slowly increased. When we visited, PHCP had 85 hogs. Every year around 12 hogs are released in protected and restored grasslands under a planned reintroduction project. A pre-release centre has been built in Nameri Tiger Reserve where the animals get used to living in the grasslands in a gradual manner under minimal human contact for 5 months, before being released. At the same time, together with forest authorities, programme for rebuilding the grassland habitats of the hogs are started by controlling the burning of the grass and livestock grazing.

HISTORY OF INTEREST IN SAVING THE PYGMY HOGS

The story of conservation of pygmy hogs is linked to the British colonial history of Assam. A British born tea garden owner and naturalist Edward Pritchard Gee, who had decided to stay in India after 1947, is known for the identification of Golden Langurs and conservation of one horned rhinos in Assam. In 1964 he had written the book “The Wildlife of India” in which he had written that probably the pygmy hog species was already extinct.

The 1971 rediscovery of pygmy hog is credited to another British tea planter from the Jersey island, John Tessier-Yandell. Under his guidance a tea garden manager had found pygmy hogs being sold in a tea garden market near the Barnadi Reserve Forest (now a Wildlife Sanctuary where the pygmy hogs will be released by PHCP in May 2016) in Darrang (now Udalguri) district of north-western Assam and John had written a report that was published in the journal “Animals”. The tea company had set up a small project for the conservation of the pygmy hog, but unfortunately it had failed to maintain these animals in captivity.

Following its rediscovery, during 1970s-80s different surveys had shown the existence of pygmy hogs in different parts of Assam, however these had gradually disappeared with the destruction of the wet grasslands habitats.

The international Wild Pig Specialist Group was setup under the Species Survival Commission (SSC) of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), under William Oliver in 1980. As an acolyte of Gerald Durrell, in whose zoo in Jersey he started working in 1974, William Oliver promoted the role of zoos and captive breeding. For saving the pygmy hogs Oliver had drawn up his first action plan in 1977, but was unable to get the state of Assam and the government of India to agree to protect them properly until 1995, when he had asked Goutam Narayan to join this project.

THE FUTURE

In September 2015, Goutam Narayan has received the International Harry Messel award “in recognition of his pivotal role on leading the Pygmy Hog Conservation Programme in north-eastern India since 1995, thus saving a whole genus from extinction, and his long service to the SSC Wild Pig Specialist Group”.

Conservationist Goutam Narayan and the pygmy hog

Regarding the future of the Pygmy Hog species and its habitat, Goutam is optimistic and says, “Hopefully one day the importance of wild habitats such as the wet grasslands will be recognised for their role in providing significant ecosystem services to the local communities and they will be protected and managed using sensitive indicator species, thereby helping both the highly endangered wildlife and local people. Till that day comes the conservationist should help preserve at least some small pockets of these habitats lest everything is lost!

***

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Ancient Indians, Neanderthals and Denisovans

Recently I was reading the wonderful book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by the Israeli writer Yuval Noah Harari (originally written in Hebrew in 2011, English translation is published by Signal books, UK, 2014). Reading this book reminded me about some of my old thoughts on ancient Indian myths and the prehistoric humans such as the Neanderthals.

Many decades ago, while reading the old Indian sacred stories, I used to wonder if some of the people described in them such as asur, danav, rakshas, and vanar, could have been references to other human species.

This post explores some of those ideas about the non-human persons in the sacred books of Hinduism including Veda, Puranic stories and epics like Ramayan and Mahabharat. I am not claiming any scientific rationale behind these ideas, they are just speculations. The images used in this post are from the north-east of India and show depictions of those persons in the temples, folk-art and folk-plays.

Encounters with diverse human species in Indian mythology

Different human species: Regarding the encounters between the different human species, in his book Yuval Noah Harari has written that:
There were humans long before there was history. Animals much like modern humans first appeared about 2.5 million years ago. But for countless generations they did not stand out from myriad other organisms with which they shared their habitats. …
Homo sapiens, too, belongs to a family. This banal fact used to be one of history’s most closely guarded secrets. Homo sapiens long preferred to view itself as set apart from animals, an orphan bereft of family, lacking siblings or cousins, and most importantly without parents. But that’s just not the case. Like it or not, we are members of a large and particularly noisy family called the great apes. Our closest living relatives include chimpanzees, gorillas and orang utans. The chimpanzees are the closest. Just 6 million years ago, a single female ape had two daughters. One became the ancestor of all chimpanzees, the other is our own grandmother.
Homo sapiens has kept hidden an even more disturbing secret. Not only do we possess an abundance of uncivilised cousins, once upon a time we had quite a few brothers and sisters as well. We are used to thinking about ourselves as the only humans, because for the last 10,000 years, our species has indeed been the only human species around. …
Humans in Europe and western Asia evolved into Homo neanderthalensis, popularly referred to simply as ‘Neanderthals’. .. The more eastern regions of Asia were populated by Homo erectus, ‘Upright man’, who survived there for close to 2 million years, making it the most durable human species ever. .. On the island of Java in Indonesia, lived Homo soloensis. On another Indonesian island – the small island of Flores – archaic humans underwent a process of dwarfing … This unique species, known by scientists as Homo floresiensis, reached a maximum height of only metre and weighed no more than twenty-five kilograms. .. In 2010 another lost sibling was rescued from oblivion, when scientist excavating the Denisova cave in Siberia discovered a fossilised finger bone. Genetic analysis proved that the finger belonged to a previously unknown human species, which was named Homo denisova. … from about 2 million years ago until around 10,000 years ago, the world was home, at one and the same time, to several human species. …(pp 11-20)
European theories of encounters between different people in India: European academics and indologists from 19th century had popularized the theories of Aryan invasion and proposed that people of south India (Dravidians) were pushed southwards by those Aryans coming into India from the west. They had also proposed that fair-skinned Aryans had exploited and subjugated dark skinned indigenous populations of ancient India and forced them into specific caste groups (shudra) or outside the caste system (untouchables). They had argued that groups like Asur and Rakshas described in the ancient Indian tales were actually Dravidians and other indigenous people of India.

These ideas have been widely accepted both in India and internationally. For example, many people believe that the more than three thousand years old Harappa and Mohanjodaro civilizations in the Indus valley had disappeared due to Aryan invasion.

Only during the last couple of decades there have been doubts about the invasion theories since they have not found matching archaeological or documentary evidence or the evidence is non conclusive, to support this theory. However, objective discussions on this theme are sometimes difficult because certain Hindu groups see the Aryan invasion theory as diminishing of their claim to be original inhabitants of India. At the same time, objective discussions are difficult because many leftist scholars see them as efforts to pander to conservative Hindu groups.

Alternative hypothesis of encounters between different human species in Indian myths: However, I used to think that the Puranic stories and myths of ancient Indians could have been orally transmitted stories of the prehistoric humans, who could have travelled from one continent to another over thousands of years, enriching those stories with events from their own lives and passing them on to their younger generations.

So my thought was: what if the asur, danav, pichash, rakshas and vanar of those stories were other species of humans who might have lived on earth at the same time as the Homo sapiens? What if stories like those of the vanar kingdom from which Hanuman comes, which is described in Ramayan, are based upon much older stories from the millennium-long oral traditions and refer to our humanoid ape ancestors from which the different human species took birth and who were our species-cousins?

Encounters with diverse human species in Indian mythology

The Puranic stories talk about the birth of deva (humans) and asur from the same father Brahma and their subsequent fights. Similarly the stories linked to rakshas like that of Ravan, mention the highly developed cultures of these people and their rich cities full of gold (Lanka). I do not think that we can take these stories as literal truths or histories. Indian traditions have looked at, analysed and understood these myths in diverse spiritual and metaphorical ways.

Encounters with diverse human species in Indian mythology

For example, Indian mythologist Devdutt Pattnaik in his book “My Gita” writes of deva and asura as the two children of Brahma, “Though half-brothers, these sons of Brahma do not like each other: the deva fear the asura and the asura hate the deva. … In the Veda, the deva and asura are celestian beings. But in Purana, they are clearly rivals. The Europeans identified asura first as Titans, in line with Greek mythology, and later as demons, in line with Abrahamic mythology. This causes great confusion, as the asura are neither “old gods” nor “forces of evil”. Both old gods and forces of evil are unwanted and need to be excluded, while in the Purana, both are needed …” (p. 79)

To explain the disappearance from earth of all other human species except for the Homo sapiens, wars and genocides have been proposed. However, we can also interpret the old Indian myths as stories of interactions between different human species. Yuval Noah has written about these interactions, "About 70,000 years ago, Sapiens from East Africa spread into Arabian peninsula and from there they quickly overran the entire Eurasian landmass. When Homo sapiens landed in Arabia, most of Eurasia was already settled by other humans. What happened to them? … According to the Interbreeding theory, when Sapiens spread into Neanderthal lands, Sapiens bred with Neanderthals until the two populations merged. If this is the case, then today’s Eurasians are not pure Sapiens." (p. 20)

Can we confirm these ideas?: When the human genome mapping project had come up, I had thought that genome mapping could give the answers about inter-mixing between the different human species. For example, genome studies have shown that 1 to 4 percent of Europeans and Asians have some Neanderthal genes.

Encounters with diverse human species in Indian mythology

Another recent report about a genome study by Sriram Sankararaman of California university and David Reich of Harvard University has shown that a higher than expected percentage of south Asians have genes of the Denisovan species of humans. People of Oceania and Pacific have even higher number of persons with these genes.

Thus, these studies suggest that at least some degree of inter-mixing between human species did take place. However this does not prove that the other people mentioned in Indian myths and ancient books were other human species like Neanderthals and Denisovans.

The continuity of the living oral traditions in India: Another questions I have asked myself is - if it is true that the Indian myths carry memories of the prehistoric encounters between the different human species, are there similar myths and old stories among other cultures and people?

Encounters with diverse human species in Indian mythology

We share many myths with other cultures. For example, the floods of the Genesis Narrative are a common myth in different parts of the world, from Noah in the Bible to Sumerian and Babylonian myths, and the primordial floods described in the Indian myths of Manu.

So why we have not found other myths and stories of encounters between Sapiens and other species of humans? One answer can be that the myths and ancient stories of people could have included stories of encounters between different human species, but those stories are not accessible today. Or that these stories are there but they have not been thought/understood in this way. Another answer can be that the relatively new religions like Christianity and Islam have suppressed many of  the old myths of the oral traditions of the ancient people.

On the other hand, India has had a very strong tradition of keeping alive the oral narratives and customs. For example, a group of persons in Kerala still continues and conserves the tradition of chanting of ancient vedic sounds, whose meanings have been lost with time. Thus, these are living traditions in India and not just things that are found in museums and old manuscripts. Another factor influencing the continuing presence of old stories in India is because Hinduism is composed of hundreds of different belief streams, none of which can claim to be dominant or more legitimate than others, which makes it possible for the acceptance and continuing adaptations and relevance of old myths and sacred stories.

In India the myth-recreation and re-elaboration process is active and ongoing even today. For example, in popular Indian culture public figures like Mahatma Gandhi and Ambedkar, as well as some film actors and politicians, are regularly turned into gods with building of their temples and making of new myths and stories about their exploits.

Perhaps that is how, ancient myths of encounters between different human species could have found resonance in relatively more recent stories of exploitation between different castes, and thus these continue to be woven and used in different ways in contemporary India!

Conclusions: Do ancient Indian myths tell stories about encounters between different human species from prehistorical times? May be one day the technology will be able to provide better answers to such speculative questions. More likely, these will remain speculations.

However, I like the idea that our old Indian myths and stories can remember events from the dawn of the humanity before we had our languages and identities. I like the idea that the archetype chimpanzee grandmother of Yuval Noah Harari is still remembered as the mother of Hanuman in our stories. That our Neanderthal cousins are still there with us as Ravan, Kumbhkaran and Meghnath in the Ramlila plays. That our Denisovan cousins are not lost for ever, they live in the Puranic stories of India.

Encounters with diverse human species in Indian mythology

I think that "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind", is a wonderful book. If Human history interests you, it will give you a lot to think about!

***

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Guwahati - The year gone by

One year ago I had come to Guwahati. On this first anniversary, I want to share those experiences in the city that have left a sign on my heart.

I love photography. Thus, the best way to share my special experiences in Guwahati is by selecting 12 of my favourite pictures from the year gone by! Let me start this journey with Bhaona, the traditional theatre of Assam, which was an unforgettable experience!

(1) Bhaona, the traditional Assamese theatre: The first image shows a Bhaona actor dressed as Ram, waiting for the start of his performance. Bhaona was introduced by sixteenth century Assamese Vaishnavite social reformer Shrimanta Shankar Dev. This theatre group had come from the Majuli island.

12 Images of Guwahati in 2015 - Images by Sunil Deepak

This wonderful experience was enhanced because I was also able to see the actors putting up make-up and costumes, and getting ready for the performance. I loved being able to do that, to have a look behind the scenes, and to click pictures of their preparations.

That day they were performing the part from Ramayana where king Janak holds a Swayamvar (a competition to select the bridegroom) for his daughter Sita. This part of the play has different kings and princes who come to the Swayamvar with the hope that Sita will choose one of them. In Bhaona, usually men play all the parts, including the female parts. Thus, the princess Sita and her friends were all young men dressed as women.

It was fascinating to see the actors getting ready and putting on the make-up. I love looking back at the images from that evening. It was definitely a highlight of my life in Guwahati.

(2) The mighty Brahmputra river in Guwahati: When I had reached Guwahati in December 2015, I had been booked in a hotel close to the Brahmaputra. In those initial days I was able to spend the mornings and evenings to explore the life along the river. This was crucial to understand how this river influences the city life.

12 Images of Guwahati in 2015 - Images by Sunil Deepak

Because of that initial experience of living close to Brahmaputra, I make sure every month to go back to the river and spend a morning or an evening soaking up the different aspects of life on its banks.

I have selected an image of Brahmaputra that I had clicked on a cloudy evening of August. Due to the impending monsoon floods, a ship to help the monsoon affected persons was moored near the Kachari ghat. I love the contrast between the dark clouds and the light coming out from the ship. The picture also gives an idea of the way the river swells up with water during the rainy season.

(3) The Baul singers at Ambubashi: Kamakhaya temple in Guwahati is the most important pilgrimage site of the north-east and Ambubashi is its most important festival. The festival brings together Naga sadhus and thousands of pilgrims from different parts of India.

It was a riot of colours at the Kamakhaya temple during Ambubashi 2015. I was feeling drunk by the sounds, sights, colours and smells of the never-ending crowds. During this visit I discovered the Baul singers and my heart belongs to them.

My favourite experience of Ambubashi was with a small group of Sadhus and Baul singers sitting in a corner of a Shiva temple. Some of them were smoking pot. Among them was an old man, his arms thin like sticks and a box of talcum powder in a hand, filled with some seeds, so that it was making a swish-swish sound. He was in trance, standing and swaying gently with his eyes closed and his hands moving in delicate gestures. Behind him, a bearded man with drum and an ektara (one cord) was singing about feeling lost in nature and the contemplation of God.

12 Images of Guwahati in 2015 - Images by Sunil Deepak

That voice, that song, that rhythm of the ektara-drum and the serene face of the dancing old man touched me profoundly. Just to think of them makes me feel peaceful. It was one of the most touching spiritual experiences of my life.

(4) The landfill site of Boro Gaon: It is a small village off the national highway that goes around Guwahati. You can smell the city trucks full of garbage before you see them, going up and down the main road of Boro Gaon.

If you are not attentive, you can miss the landfill site very easily. However, if you follow a garbage truck, you will see the mountains of garbage and the people who work there, including many children. The rotting fruits and vegetables, give this place a sweet, slightly sickening smell that infiltrates your body and your cloths.

In the mountains of garbage you will also find the large and ugly looking Greater Adjutant storks, that are on the endangered list. You can also see other more beautiful birds, including the graceful egrets in pristine white and delicate yellow.

12 Images of Guwahati in 2015 - Images by Sunil Deepak

It is impossible to visit the landfill site and not be affected by it. When I think about that visit and look at my pictures, I still feel slightly sick.

I also remember my feelings of surprise that people working in the garbage dump had seemed cheerful enough, nor did they seem to mind that I was clicking their pictures in that place.

(5) The lake and the marshes of Deepor Beel: It is one of the protected natural areas of Guwahati. Its marshes provide a unique eco-system for the nature. During the monsoons, it becomes a real lake. During winters hundreds of migratory birds from north Europe arrive here. It is also one of the popular picnic places in the western periphery of the city.

12 Images of Guwahati in 2015 - Images by Sunil Deepak

The main parts of Deepor Beel where tourists usually go, have boats for visiting the lake and taking a closer look at the birds. However, there is an alternate way to reach parts of the Beel, that is not very far from the garbage dump of Boro Gaon.

After passing through the garbage areas, if you cross the railway tracks, you reach a more isolated part of the Beel full of thick and big round-shaped leaves, flowers and birds. When I had visited it, it was the beginning of the summer and most of the migratory birds had already left for their homelands in the north. However, I am planning to go back to visit this place this winter.

It is place of peace and quiet, an amazing experience!

(6) North-East GLBTI Pride Parade: In February 2015, the first north-east parade was held in Guwahati. As usually happens in the Pride parades, it was a colourful event with different cultural activities. I was pleasantly surprised because somehow I had an image of Assam as being a very conservative place!

The picture that I have selected from this parade is that of a woman singer from a band in Shillong (Meghalaya) who had sung about the rights of the lesbians and persons with alternate sexualities.

12 Images of Guwahati in 2015 - Images by Sunil Deepak

(7) The monkeys of Guwahati: Local newspapers regularly carry reports of wild animals in Guwahati, including leopards and wild elephants. The city is surrounded by hills and forests. As explained above, Deepor Beel Wildlife park is part of the city. About 60 km to the east from the city, along the Brahmaputra river, it also has the Pobitora wild life sanctuary.

In the city, it is easy to see monkeys, ducks and geese. For example, you can see the golden langur monkeys near the Umananda temple in the Peacock island off Kachari ghat. Near by, in the Ugratara pukhuri you can see hundreds of ducks and geese. The temples are full of the more common rhesus monkeys as well.

12 Images of Guwahati in 2015 - Images by Sunil Deepak

I have selected the image of a baby monkey at Nabagraha temple to represent my joy at this close contact with nature in Guwahati.

(8) Festivals of Guwahati: Like the rest of India, Guwahati has a rich calendar of social festivals, especially the three Bihu festivals linked to the agricultural life. Durga Puja, Kali puja, Manasa puja, Vishwakarma Puja and Saraswati puja are some of the most important Hindu festivals. There are also the festivals of other religions that are widely celebrated here, especially Idd and Christmas.

I love participating in the festivals. Below you can see a picture of Saraswati puja from a girls' school of Guwahati, for which young girls were dressed up in saris and they had put on make-up, looking like "little women".

12 Images of Guwahati in 2015 - Images by Sunil Deepak

(9) Discovering the rock music: I prefer Hindi film music from 1960s to 1980s. I also like Hindustani and Western classical music. I am also open to popular English music of 1950s to 1970s. However, I had thought that I did not like the noisier music styles such as grunge and metallic rock.

In Guwahati I discovered that I can also appreciate the music of heavy metal bands, especially during the live performances. By chance, one evening I found myself in a metallic rock music concert and I enjoyed it very much. I still can't bear listening to it on radio or on my Mp3 player but in a live concert, I think that it can be fun.

Guwahati is a traditional city that values the legacy of Shrimanta Sankar Dev and Madhav Dev through traditional dance and music. At the same time, it an active hub for more contemporary music with well known singers like Papon and Zubeen Garg. Finally, it has different groups active in the rock music. The image that I have selected to show this aspect of Guwahati music life has the singer Rudy Wallang from the group Soul Mate.

12 Images of Guwahati in 2015 - Images by Sunil Deepak

(10) Life in the Brahmaputra islands: A meeting with the well known thinker-writer and activist of Assam, Prof. Sanjoy Hazarika from the Centre for North-East Studies (C-NES), took me to visit one of the islands in the Brahmaputra river at the periphery of Guwahati.

The riverine islands of Brahmaputra are beautiful places with white sands, the majestic river and the green fields, often full of flowers of different colours. At the same time, they are difficult places to live in, as they are usually without any services and get flooded during the monsoons.

12 Images of Guwahati in 2015 - Images by Sunil Deepak

It was a beautiful experience to visit one of the islands and to have a glimpse of the lives of people living there. It was another example of how the mighty Brahmaputra influences and shapes of the lives of people.

(11) Dances, plays and cultural events in Guwahati: The city has a rich cultural life with frequent opportunities for watching dances, plays and other cultural events. Places like Kalakshetra, Robindra Bhawan and Shilpagram play an important role in the organisation of such events, with the help of local music and dance schools and clubs.

The only difficulty is to receive information about the cultural events in time. I wish that soon someone will start an email based mailing list or a website that provides regular information about the different cultural events planned in the city.

Fortunately, the place where I stay is not very far from Kalakshetra and Shilpagram. As part of my morning walk, often I walk to that part of the city so that I can gather news about the cultural events planned there. They have wonderful programmes but sometimes there are few people watching them.

This year I had many opportunities to watch beautiful cultural programmes in Guwahati. I have selected a picture of the Bihu dance from the Republic day celebrations in the Veterinary College grounds in Guwahati, which was a wonderful experience.

12 Images of Guwahati in 2015 - Images by Sunil Deepak

(12) Spiritual experiences in Guwahati: I have already mentioned about my visit to Kamakhaya temple during Ambubashi and the opportunity of listening to the Baul singers. I have also been to Bashistha and Nabagraha temples. However, I feel that temple visits are more cultural experiences rather than spiritual experiences.

Guwahati also has Namghars, simple sacred places for Vaishnavite cult inspired by Shrimanta Shanker Dev. I found more spiritual experience in visiting the Namghars. The  visit of Sri Sri Ravishanker in Guwahati was another of the spiritual experiences, though a little different from what I had imagined.

I like reading spiritual books and was expecting to hear something enlightening from Sri Sri. However, I found his speech to be a little disappointing, as he talked in platitudes mixed with marketing of his numerous brands, from "Sudanta tooth paste" to the "Art of Living Ghee" and "Shakti drops".

Walking on a ramp like a rock-star, he was surrounded by hundreds of delirious fans who chanted "Guru ji, Guru ji ..." and clicked his pictures.

12 Images of Guwahati in 2015 - Images by Sunil Deepak

However, I enjoyed the brief session Sri Sri conducted on meditation. Usually I have lot of difficulty in meditating. However, his approach of initiating with certain physical movements seemed to work with me. Ever since I have used that approach to meditation with good results. So even if I did not find any particular spiritual joy in his speech, I found it in meditation!

CONCLUSIONS

I have enjoyed putting together this post and selecting the pictures to go with it. It was great way to look at the hundreds of pictures I have clicked in Guwahati during 2015 and to have a flashback of my experiences in this city over the past 12 months.

***

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Guwahati City Walks: War Cemetery and Nabagraha Temple

This is my fifth post about walking tours and places to visit in Guwahati (Assam, India). This walking tour is in an old part of Guwahati called Silpukhuri and the walk includes visits to a pond built by an Ahom king, a cemetery of the Second World War and an ancient Hindu temple dedicated to the planets and located on the top of a hill.

The image below shows a painting on the Durga temple that is part of the Nabagraha temple complex on the Chitrasal hill that you can visit on this walk.

Nabagraha temple, Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak
So let us start this walk with some information about the history of Guwahati and Assam.

INTRODUCTION

The area around Guwahati in the plains of the Brahmaputra valley has been inhabited since prehistoric times. It had always been of strategic importance as the river port connecting the Brahmaputra valley in the east with the Gangetic plains to the west.

Yet, in spite being an important commercial hub, in the recent history Guwahati did not become the capital of any important regional kingdom for a significant period of time. Thus, you do not find any important heritage buildings of medieval or British colonial periods in Guwahati. However, you do find many important heritage temples in Guwahati.

Guwahati is located in a region known as Kamrup. The legends of Kamadev, the Hindu god of love, are linked to the Neelachal hill near the river in the south of the city. A pillar inscription in Allahabad from 4th century mentions two ancient kingdoms in this region – Kamrup and Davak. Later the Kamrup kingdom had absorbed the Davak kingdom.

In ancient times Guwahati, was known as Pragjyotishpura, or the "city of astrology". The ruins of the Ambari from the ancient Pragjyotishpura, dating back to 8th-9th century, can be visited at the archeology institute of Guwahati in Uzanbazar, not very far from Silpukhuri.

Ahoms, a Tai group, became dominant in the 13th century and created its kingdom in Upper Assam. The Ahom kingdom gradually expanded and lasted till early 19th century. Till the 17th century, the Ahom kingdom was still very strong. For example, the Mughal forces tried many times to enter Assam but were defeated by the Ahoms. The last Mughal invasion was in 1682.

However by early 19th century, the Ahom kingdom had become weaker. Burmese invasions between 1817 and 1825 ended the Ahom reign and the region came under the Burmese rule for a short period. The Anglo-Burmese war in 1826 brought Assam under the rule of the East India company.

Initially the British presence in Assam was marginal. However, the discovery of the tea plant (Camellia assamica) in Assam and the ending of a trade agreement between the British and the Chinese for the import of tea into Europe during the 1830s, changed everything. The British decided to set up tea plantations in Assam. Gradually during 19th century, East India company and the British colonial rule expanded their presence in the north-east, creating tea plantations in the Brahmaputra and Barak valleys. For a brief period Guwahati (at that time called “Gauhati”) was the capital of the British Assam but then the capital was shifted to a more temperate Shillong.

When India became independent in 1947, whole of the north-east was part of Assam and Shillong was its capital. Nagaland was created in 1963. Other states of the north-east were created in 1971. After separation, Shillong became the capital of Meghalaya while Dispur area in the outskirts of Guwahati became the new capital of Assam.

THIS WALK

The walk starts from the Silpukhuri pond, goes along the Nabagraha road to the old war cemetery and then climbs up on the Chitrasal hill to the Nabagraha temple.

Nabagraha temple, Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

This walk is moderately difficult as it involves climbing on a hill. The road going up the hill is not very steep and has places where you can stop to rest and admire the panoramas of the city below.

Wear comfortable shoes and keep a water bottle and an umbrella to protect you from the sun. Along the way, there are some small shops selling soft drinks and snacks. If you are planning an unhurried and relaxed walk, keep at least 2-3 hours for it.

THE POND OF SILPUKHURI

Silpukhuri is a popular residential and commercial area of Guwahati close to Uzanbazar. It is separated from the Brahmaputra river by the Chitrasal (Nabagraha) hill. It is easily accessible by buses going towards Narengi and Chandmari. It is believed that in more ancient times, when Guwahati was called Pragjyotishpura, the ashram of sage Kannwa was located in the Silpukhuri area.

Silpukhuri pond at night, Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak
This walk starts from the Silpukhuri crossing (Silpukhuri Chariali) near the round-shaped pond that gives the name to Silpukhuri (Pukhuri = Pond).

The round pond of Silpukhuri was constructed by the Ahom king Rajeswar Singha (reigned from 1751 to 1759). According to an old inscription, this pond was built in 1753 AD under the guidance of an officer called Tarun Duara Phukan and was originally a nine-cornered pond (as the pond of the Nabagraha temple) and was therefore called Na Kunia Pukhuri.

According to Mr Brahmananda Patiri, after becoming the king, Rajeswar Singha had come to Guwahati on a pilgrimage and his visit had resulted in the construction of three important temples in the city – Nabagraha temple, Bashistha temple and Monikorneser.

Today the pond and its surrounding garden are areas of calm and tranquillity even if the nearby road is full of traffic and noise. If you wish to go inside and take a walk around the pond, it has an entry fee of five Rupees.

WAR CEMETERY

To visit the Second World War cemetery in Silpukhuri take the Nabagragha road, opposite the Silpukhuri pond, going towards the hill. You will find the cemetery, a ten-minutes walk away on the right side of the road.

War cemetery, Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak
During the Second World War, this part of India had witnessed the fight between the Japanese and the British forces. Japanese forces had come to India from Myanmar and through the cities of Imphal and Kohima. For a certain period, along with the Japanese, there were also the soldiers of the Independent Indian Army (Azad Hind Fauz) of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, who had also fought against the British. For the dead soldiers of those battles, different war cemeteries were built in the north-east.

The war cemetery of Guwahati is relatively smaller compared to some other cemeteries of the north-east. It has the graves of Christian and Muslim soldiers while the Hindu soldiers were cremated and are commemorated by simple tomb stones and a monument.

There were a total of 548 graves in this cemetery. According to the Commonwealth War Cemeteries Group (CWCG), among these there were 486 graves of persons from the British army, including the Indian soldiers fighting for the British. The cemetery also contained 25 unidentified graves, 11 Japanese graves, 24 Chinese war graves, and two non-war graves.

This cemetery was initially started for burials from the several military hospitals posted in the area. Later, graves from other cemeteries in Assam and also from other NE states were brought here. For example, in 1952, graves were brought here from isolated sites in the Lushai Hills and from places like Cooch Bihar, Darjeeling, Lebong, Lumding, and Shillong.

War cemetery, Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

In 2012, a delegation from Japan had come here to exhume eleven Japanese graves. It is the only war cemetery in India that had the graves of Japanese soldiers. Were these the Japanese who had died during the war or they were the prisoners of war? I have not been able to find out more about the Japanese soldiers buried in Guwahati. Anyway, I like the idea that soldiers of the two warring sides can lie together in the same cemetery in eternal repose.

While visiting the war cemeteries of soldiers in the British army, I am always struck by the young age of so many of them – 22 or 23 years old boys, especially among the Indian soldiers.

If funerals and cremations interest you, just behind the war cemetery is the Hindu cremation ground of Silpukhuri.

NABAGRAHA TEMPLE

The Nabagraha (Naba = Nine, Graha = Planets) temple celebrates the nine planets of the Indian mythology. The temple is dedicated to Shiva. Inside the temple, a central Shiva lingam is surrounded by the nine Shiva lingams each representing a planet.

Nabagraha temple, Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak
While visiting the Nabagraha temple, it is important to understand the differences between the ancient Indian view of planets and the planets described according to the modern astronomy.

According to the ancient Indian knowledge of nakshatras (planets & stars), there are nine graha (planets) – Ravi or Surya (Sun), Soma or Chandra (Moon), Buddha (Mercury), Shukra (Venus), Mangala (Mars), Guru or Brahaspati (Jupiter), Shani (Saturn), Rahu and Ketu. Indian astrological charts usually mention the positions of all these nine planets for preparing the birth-charts of the individuals.

Except for Rahu and Ketu, the remaining seven planets of Indian astrology are familiar to us as the names of the seven weekdays. It is remarkable that the names of the weekdays in the west follow exactly the same structure and order. It could be that when the system of weekly organisation of days came to India, the names of the Western weekdays were translated into Hindi or Sanskrit. Or, it can mean that in ancient times, knowledge about these seven planets was shared across the known world. I am not sure about the chronology of the use of the seven-days' weeks in India and in the west.

On the other hand, according to the modern astronomy there are eight planets – Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. There used to be a ninth planet called Pluto, which was discovered in 1930, but this planet is small in size and according to the modern definition of planets, is no longer considered as a real planet.

The Nabagraha temple built on the top of the hill, is set up on a raised platform, facing Silpukhuri. At the back of the temple, looking down beyond the trees and the buildings, you can see the mighty Brahmaputra river with its riverine islands and the beaches of pristine white sand.

Nabagraha temple, Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

During my visit, the whole area was full of monkeys who were busy playing. They did not pay any attention to me. However, I was told that if you go there with bananas or other edibles, they can surround you or even snatch away your food.

Nabagraha temple, Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak


There are some other smaller temples on the sides of the main Nabagraha temple. These include a temple dedicated to Durga, another to Ganesh and another to the humble mouse, used as a vehicle by Ganesh. I had never seen before a temple dedicated to Mushak (Mouse), the vehicle of Ganesh. Personally I like this aspect of Hinduism where humans and animals are mixed together in a common narrative, such as the elephant head of Ganesh and the role of animals and birds as the vehicles of different gods, because it explains the essential unity of all the life on the earth and our obligation to safeguard the nature.

Below you will find some pictures of these smaller temples in the Nabagraha temple complex.

Nabagraha temple, Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak
Nabagraha temple, Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak
Nabagraha temple, Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

The climb from the bottom of the hill up to the Nabagraha temple, took me around 40 minutes. However, if you are in a hurry, it can be done much faster! If you do not want to climb the hill, you can also reach the Nabagraha temple in a taxi.

The path for walking to the temple is not marked but if you will ask, local persons will indicate it to you. The path passes in front of the houses built on the hill. All around you can see other hills with houses on different sides. Many houses in this area, especially those not very close to the main road, seem poor. The only way to reach them is through informal paths on the hill.

SERVICES AND CHALLENGES

Unfortunately there are no public toilets in the area, which is a pity since this means that men stand and piss behind the shops and some times even in front of the houses.

I can imagine the difficulties of the people living in those houses and those of the women pilgrims, in trying to find secluded places.

Some places near the temple were full of plastic bags and other garbage. Sometimes our love for the temples and the nature, does not translate into cleanliness, taking proper care of the garbage and having decent toilets!

CONCLUSIONS

The walk back was much easier and faster since it was downhill. There were not so many things to see on this walk, yet it was fulfilling as it brought together the elements of recent history, the sacred temple of Nabagraha, the panoramas of Brahmaputra river and the antics of playful monkeys.

Nabagraha temple, Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak
This walking tour to the Silpukhuri tank, war cemetery and the Nabagraha temple is a relatively short walk and can be easily completed in a couple of hours. This walking tour stimulated me to think about the differences in the traditional Indian way of thinking and the western thinking on planets.

As explained above, there is a partial overlap between the Indian planets used for astrology and the planets according to the modern astronomy. Some persons see this difference as a criticism of Indian systems of knowledge. However, personally I think that the ancient Indian knowledge was developed without the help of advanced telescopes and other technological instruments, so the understandings reached by ancient Indian astronomers/astrologers were remarkable.

Personally I am also intrigued by the Indian way of defining Rahu and Ketu as the planets which can “swallow” the Sun and the Moon. At one level, these two “planets” are mythological answers to explain the phenomenon of eclipses. However, this does not mean that there was no Indian knowledge about the physical explanation of the eclipses. According to a paper from Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Aryabhat in 499 AD gave a formal theory of eclipses based on the transit of Moon between Earth and Sun and in the shadow of the earth. (Vahia and Subbarayappa, 2011 )

To conclude, here are the links to my earlier four posts about Guwahati – an introduction to Guwahati city; the cultural life in Guwahatithe Basistha temple; and, Nilachal hill and the famous Kamakhaya temple.

***

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

An Unexpected Musical Evening In Guwahati

Last saturday night (12 September), unexpectedly, I found myself at an amazing music concert of retro classical rock. This post is about the unplanned musical surprises of the rich cultural life of Guwahati (Assam, India)

Adam's Apple, Rock Music Concert, Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

The picture above has Danius Marak, the lead singer of Adam's Apple, from that music concert. Adam's Apple is a rock music group from Darjeeling (West Bengal, India) that had won the Hornbill Rock Music festival in Nagaland in 2014.

WONDERING ABOUT SRIMANTA SHANKAR DEV & BISWAKARMA

Let me start by explaining how I found myself at the rock music concert.

I knew that  2 important dates related to one of the most important cultural and religious icon of Assam, Srimanta Shankar Dev are close - 15th is his birth anniversary and on 23th, his death anniversary. In addition, on 18 September, there will be Biswakarma Puja, an important day in the religious calendar of the north-east. I wanted to know if any special events were planned at Kalakshetra, one of the most important cultural hubs of Guwahati.

Though it was a day of Assam Bandh (strike), Kalakshetra was open. The person at the ticket office was very helpful. He told me that no cultural events were planned in Kalakshetra in this period and next big cultural event would be in October 2015 during the Durga Puja festivities. On my way back, on an impulse I decided to go and visit Shilpagram, that is located close to Kalakshetra.

SHILPAGRAM CRAFTS VILLAGE

Shilpagram (literally "Village of crafts") is on Aurobindo path, just before Kalakshetra. Apart from Shilpagram, on the same road there are the Assam Film Museum, the state music school and the Guwahati Aurobindo centre. The film museum did not seem to be functioning and its gate was locked. Saturday was also the weekly closure day for Aurobindo centre. However, Shilpagram was open and no ticket was required for entering on that evening.

"At 6 PM, there is some music festival", the guard outside Shilpagram had told me. It was only 4.30 PM, and my first reaction was that I did not want to wait there till 6 PM for the music programme.

So I entered thinking that I would quickly visit and see what kind of things were there. It is used as a venue for holding handicrafts fairs and exhibitions. Since no fair or exhibition were going on yesterday, there was not much to see except for some buildings representing a few tribes.
Shilpagram, Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak


These buildings were decorated in traditional ways, but they were all closed and empty. In one garden, a statue of someone was placed under a tree but I had no idea of who he was.

Shilpagram, Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

RETRO CLASSIC ROCK MUSIC CONCERT

The sound of music was coming from the park at the centre of Shilpagram where a stage had been set-up. A young guy was sleeping there on a plastic sheet next to the stage, in spite of the loud vibrating sound of drums and guitars.

Guy sleeping, Rock Music Concert, Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

It reminded me of my early days in India, when I could sleep in the middle of noise, lights, chaos and confusion, and not like now, when the slightest thing wakes me up or keeps me awake!

On the stage, a group from Diphu called the "Celestial Sphere" was rehearsing. Their vocalist had a nice voice. Behind them, a banner showed the name of the event - a "Retroactive Classic Rock Revival" music concert sponsored by Cafe Hendrix of Guwahati.

I listened to Celestial Sphere for some time and then decided to visit a few handicrafts shops around the park.

SWARAJ KANTI SORCAR'S BHAJANS

In one handicraft shop of Shilpagram I met Mr. Swaraj Kanti Sorcar, who had an Assamese prayer book open before him and was slowly singing a hymn. His voice attracted me and I stopped there to listen to him.

"What are you singing? Your voice is very nice", I told him when he finished the hymn.

"My voice was much better when I was younger", he said proudly and brought out a drum with a cord. He sang me another of his prayer songs for me, this time accompanied with music from his drum and the tinkles of small brass bells fixed to the end of a cord that stretched between the drum and his fingers. It was a song about Krishna, though I could not understand all the words. And it was amazing listening to him.

That drum with stretched cord is called Bagoli (since it is held in the underarm or "Bagol") or Khamen.

I was reminded of some Baul singers that I had heard at Kamakhaya temple during Ambubashi festival. Simple songs and music, and a voice filled with emotions that go straight to the heart.

Shilpagram, Mr Swaraj Kanti Sorcar, Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

After his songs, I sat with him for some time, listening to his stories about his life. Meeting Mr Sorcar warmed my heart. While we were talking, some other group had come to do the rehearsal on the stage. Sounds of their music filled the whole place. It was a throbbing and pulsating sound, while the lead singer had a raw voice. I said good bye to Mr Sorcar, as I wanted to check this group.

They were "Adam's Apple" from Darjeeling. I loved their music and decided that I wanted to stay there and to listen to them properly during the concert.

Adam's Apple, Rock Music Concert, Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

BEAUTIFUL EVENING SKY AND THE SCHOOL GIRLS

There was still more than half an hour for the start of the concert. The sky covered with clouds had turned first orange and then red. There were not many persons there to listen to the music concert.

I decided to take another walk around Shilpagram. In one corner I came across a group of high school girls, all dressed up. They had just had their cultural function in the auditorium and were now waiting for refreshments.

They were happy to pose for me for some pictures, proud to show off their beautiful costumes.

School girls, Shilpagram, Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

2 SQUARES

The concert was started by a group called 2 Squares from Guwahati. Their lead vocalist Gregory Sarma sang beautifully and with wonderful energy. The guitarist and the guy on drums were great. In some ways Sarma's performance reminded me of Robbie Williams.

Among the groups that I had watched that evening, I liked this group most. (I am not sure if I am doing any favour to this group by writing it since rock groups having white-haired elderly persons as their admirers do not sound very exciting!)

02 Square, Rock Music Concert, Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

I did not know any of the songs they did, probably they were not retro enough for me, but it was difficult to stand still during this part of the concert.

02 Square, Rock Music Concert, Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

I am really surprised that this group does not have its own page on Google Plus or Facebook. Gregory Sarma has been part of some popular groups like Nakshatra, Faith and the Beat Route. He came back to Guwahati earlier this year and has started this new group, 2 Square. Anyway I am sure that they are going to get a good fan following.

02 Square, Rock Music Concert, Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

S.K.D.

The lead vocalist of this group is one of the historical figures of rock music in Guwahati, active for the last 30 years. They had a female co-vocalist, a girl with a nice warm voice. They sang more retro songs including “Run to me” by Bryan Adams, that I could identify.

SKD, Rock Music Concert, Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

Even the SKD does not seem to have a Facebook page or a website. I searched on internet, but I have been unable to find the names of the components of this group.

SKD, Rock Music Concert, Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

SKD, Rock Music Concert, Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

ECLIPSE

Eclipse is another all-guys group. It is a historical group from Guwahati that was started in 2004. Its members are Kundal Goswami (Vocals) Rahul Kaushik (Bass) Sumit Baruah (Guitar) Rakesh Baro (Keyboard) Mrinmoy Edwin Singha (Drums).

Eclipse, Rock Music Concert, Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

They are going to come out with a second CD soon and they sang two unreleased songs from this new album titled "Clandestine Resurrection". Their first album had a very poetic name, "A mouthful of moonlight".

Their music is good, Kundal their lead vocalist, and the musicians are great and the group has a good energy. In my personal classification, they were number two in this evening’s groups.

Eclipse, Rock Music Concert, Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

All their songs were great but I enjoyed most their version of the retro number of the Queen, “I want to be free”, because it made me relive my young days.

Eclipse, Rock Music Concert, Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

CELESTIAL SPHERE

Celestial Sphere group is from Diphu in Korbi Anglong. From the reaction of the audience this seemed to be a very popular group. The members of this group are: Thengchum on Guitar, Lumar on Guitar, Edwardo on the Bass Guitar,  Bendang Toshi on Drums while Dr Aleena Terangpai is the vocalist. This group is considered as among the top 50 emerging rock groups in India.

Celestial Sphere, Rock Music Concert, Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

Aleena, their vocalist has a good voice and the guitarists were great. By the time the Celestial Sphere came, I was wondering if any of the groups would have anything in terms of fusion music? I feel that it is great to sing retro songs from US/UK singers but if you are a north-east group, it would be nice if occasionally you also add to your music something that represents your own culture and music, to root it to this land and moment.

Celestial Sphere, Rock Music Concert, Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

Celestial Sphere must have heard my wish, so they had one Korbi Anglong song in their repertoire. Its refrain sounded like “Say, say”. You can hear this song on their Sennheiser profile page.

Celestial Sphere, Rock Music Concert, Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

ADAM'S APPLES

Like I wrote earlier, Adam's Apple are the winners of Hornbill festival 2014. The members of this young group from Darjeeling are: Danius Marak (vocalist), Praggya Lama (Guitar), Sawan Chettri (Bass), Anil Pradhan (Keyboards) and Ushang Bomzom (Drums, battery) - BTW, I think that Bomzom is a wonderful name for someone who likes to play drums! Danius is the new vocalist for this group I was told.

Adam's Apple, Rock Music Concert, Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

It was the music of this group that had hooked me and made me stay there to listen to this music concert. However by the time they came, I had a slight headache and my hips and knees were hurting, so I was wondering if it was time for me to start my walk for going home.

Adam's Apple, Rock Music Concert, Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

Danius, the lead vocalist of this group looked like a teenage Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones. The two guitarists, Praggya and Sawan, also looked very charismatic. The sound of their first song started with a raw energy-filled scream. However, something happened to the electrical system and the group was suddenly soundless.

They smiled and waited patiently while the problem was resolved. They restarted and once again, not even one minute into their song, the electrical system failed again.

I thought that it was kind of a divine sign for me to leave. I still had to do a three km walk to my home, and I had no idea what to do for my dinner. So reluctantly, I left the music concert.

CONCLUSIONS

The whole evening was a wonderful experience, probably because it was so unexpected. From the event poster, I have seen that there were 2 more groups in the programme after Adam’s Apple – Still Waters from Gangtok and Spreading Roots from Guwahati. I am sorry that I missed them.

I had never been to a proper rock music concert before. Before this experience, if anybody had asked me, I would have said that I don’t like rock music concerts, that they are just too loud and noisy for me. This concert was indeed noisy and loud. Yet I discovered that I enjoyed it. That the strumming of electrical guitar and bass can give me a high. That the raw screams make my feet feel like dancing.

This experience also made me aware that I am a photography-junkie. I loved the music and the collective experience of being part of a group that is swaying to music. But I loved even more, looking through the lens of my camera and framing pictures of the concert. People who were there as parts of the groups, if you wish to receive your pictures in high resolution (obviously free of cost) do let know - it will be a pleasure and an honour.

Compared to the quality of the groups, and considering that it was a free entry event, I think that the audience there was very limited. This concert certainly merited a much larger group of people in the audience. I hope that next time, they will publicise such events better.

I think that some of the pictures that I have clicked in this are wonderful, many are a little blurred and abstract, almost like poetry.

Let me close this post with another beautiful picture of this memorable unexpected musical evening from Guwahati. This picture was taken while we were waiting for he concert to start and the sky had started to turn red.

Shilpagram, Rock Music Concert, Guwahati, Assam, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

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