A Travellerspoint blog

Burial& Exhumation customs of the Malagasy people,Madagascar

Famadihana : Turning and washing of the Bones , Madagascar....................................................Ramdas A. Iyer, New Jersey

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Introduction:

From the embalmed body in a funeral home in modern day America to an early Neanderthal burial site like La Chapelle-aux-Saints, France from 50,000 years ago, humans have always taken care of their departed in unique ways. As world travelers, some of us are fascinated by Egyptian pyramids, Roman catacombs and the magnificent tombs built for Ming emperors in China; sometimes not necessarily for the beauty of the edifices but for the cultural practices of such burials that led to such monuments.

While traveling to distant lands and visiting old cultures, which hang precariously from the onslaught of modernity, I have observed many strange funeral customs. These customs stem from ancient religions that allows people to know about and communicate with supernatural beings—such as animal spirits, gods, and spirits of the dead. Religion often serves to help people cope with the death of relatives and friends, and it figures prominently in most funeral ceremonies
My previous articles on the funeral practices of the Dogon of Mali, the Taroja of Sulawesi, Zoarastrians of Iran and those along the Ganges river in India have been well received by my readers. Having returned recently from Madagascar I wanted to share some interesting customs and practices that have their origins in Indonesia, from where the original populating members arrived from around 1000 AD. These practices along with those of the African Bantu who arrived much later define the cultural landscape of Madagascar.

A firm belief in the existence of close ties between the living and the dead constitutes the most basic of all traditional beliefs and the foundation for Malagasy religious and social values. All the Malagasy peoples have traditionally accepted the existence of a supreme God, known commonly as Zanahary (Creator) or Andriamanitra (Sweet, or Fragrant, Lord). The dead have been conceived as playing the role of intermediary between this supreme God and humankind and are viewed as having the power to affect the fortunes of the living for good or evil. The dead are sometimes described as "gods on earth," who are considered the most important and authoritative members of the family, intimately involved in the daily life of the living members. At the same time, the razana (best defined as "ancestors") are the sources from which the life force flows and the creators of Malagasy customs and ways of life. The living are merely temporary extensions of the dead. Great hardship or trouble can result if the dead are offended or neglected.
The burial tomb, a prominent part of the island landscape in all regions, is the primary link between the living and the dead among the Malagasy. It is built with great care and expense, reflecting the privileged position of the dead, and is often more costly and substantial than the houses of the living. The land upon which a family tomb is situated--tanindrazana (land of the ancestors)--is inalienable, and social and economic practices are designed to guarantee that tomb lands are kept within the family.
Unlike cultural anthropologists who visit places like Madagascar armed with knowledge of unique burial practices there, I in turn simply stumbled upon these fascinating practices despite the main purpose of my visit being that of observing wildlife and natural history. As a result, my attention was constantly diverted towards observing the different ethnic groups as I traveled; the Merina and Betselio of the central highlands, the coastal Betsimaraka and Vezo people and the south western Sakalava and Mahafaly tribes. In this article I will attempt to share the different funeral customs of the six tribes mentioned above along with photographs that will help the reader appreciate these ancient customs.

The Six Tribes that I met & their Customs:

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Of the 18 distinct groups, the Merina originally came from Indonesia, which is still reflected by their facial features. This tribe, which is numerically the largest, lives in and round the highlands of the capital Antananarivo. Historically, Merina dominated the country until it was declared French colony in 1882 ( until 1958). They were mainly involved in slave trade in the early 19th century. What remained from their long history is the splitting of their society in three classes: The Andriana (nobles), Hova (free men) and Andevo (slaves). Anthropologists have described the Merina as living, in effect, in two localities: the place where one happens to work and keep one's household, and the tanindrazana, a locality of much deeper sentimental significance, the spiritual center where the family tomb is located. The two are usually separated by a considerable distance. Among some groups, whether one decides to be buried in the tombs of the father's or mother's family determines individual descent-group allegiance. The tombs of the various peoples around the island differ somewhat in form. Merina tombs tend to be solid, stone structures, built partially underground, with a chamber in which the bodies of ancestors are kept on shelves, wrapped in silk shrouds.
The traditional tombs of the Mahafaly of the southwest desert region were built of stone but surmounted by intricately carved wooden posts depicting human and animal figures. More recent Mahafaly tombs, particularly those built by rich families, are often made of concrete, with glass windows, brightly painted designs and often remarkable depictions of airplanes, taxicabs, or other modern paraphernalia mounted on the roof. The graves are decorated with innumerable zebu horns and small wood carvings. Many families go in debt to be able to build a pompous grave for their relatives.
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The Sakalava descend from the African Bantu and therefore very different from the other Asiatic tribes. The Sakalava were the dominating tribe for a long time ( until Merina dominance began in the 1820s )who sold slaves to Europe in exchange for weapons and other articles of value. Even today they are the second biggest tribe of Madagascar. Every seven years, Sakalava families celebrate male circumcision ceremonies similar to Bantu traditions. What is unusual is that grandfathers to eat their grandson’s cut foreskin after the event. They typically inter their dead in rock caves or rock caves, which are used to store the remains of dead Sakalava kings. Periodically, the Sakalava bring the mortal remains into the living’s circle during a ceremony called Fitampoha. They wash the remains in the river and return them into Doany thereafter. Even today Sakalava still use Trombas ( mediums): Trombas are persons, who get into some kind of trance and thereby experience the ghost of an ancestor, who speaks through them to the others. Not too long ago, it was the custom of the Sakalava people living around the Morondava River on the west coast to decorate their tombs with carvings showing explicit sexual activity. These were meant to illustrate the life-giving force, or fertility, of the ancestors.

Since the Sakalava tribes control the areas around World heritage site of Tsingy Bemaraha, they still will not allow Merina highlanders, their traditional enemies from visiting the Tsingy for the fear of displeasing their ancestors who fought them. I was told that special permission had to be received from the departed spirits through magic and mediums to obtain such a permission. I remember when I was in the highlands of Flores, Indonesia visiting a remote mountain settlement, Wae Reabo, the village head had to do a prayer to his ancestors in order receive me into the village.

Betsimisaraka people live along the east coast, most of them make their living from fishing in the Indian ocean and Canal des Pangalanes (The Canal des Pangalanes is one of the quiet wonders of Madagascar, a collection of natural and artificial waterways that stretches over 645km along the east coast, built by the French colonists) . They’re one of the biggest tribes of Madagascar and consist of many different smaller sub-groups (similar to Sakalava).
If Betsimisaraka die, they use pirogues as coffins ( like Viking nobles) and place those not far from the beach under small roofs. Zebu sacrifices play another important role in Betsimisaraka life. Fisokonas – wooden stakes, embellished with carved patterns and cattle horns are planted on the ground and sprinkled with sacrificed Zebu blood. They then call the ancestors through the fisokana and beg for succor or counsel.
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The Bara people who dominate another large area are an important tribe of cattle farmers around the city of Ihosy, South Madagascar. They descend from African Bantu people. Their most famous tradition is that boys who want to marry will have to steal a Zebu beforehand to prove to the girl’s parents their courage and pay the cattle as dowry for their future wife. This nowadays leads to several conflicts between the people of the South – and often leads to the death of the cattle thieves.
When Bara die, they are buried in natural caves and covered with a stone cairn of neatly arranged granite. The bereaved cut their hair to express their mourning. Bara see the spirits of dead people as danger, so it can happen that a whole village moves to a new locality to save their lives.

The Vezo originally came from East Africa across the Mozambique channel. They are half nomadic fishermen in Southern Madagascar, in the areas between Toliara Intampolo, Morondava and Mahajanga. With their self-made small mangrove wood pirogues they ride the angry sea swells of the west coast to catch fish and other sea food. Even today they hunt with nets, spears and traps, because they don’t have money for modern equipment. Funerals of Vezo people take place in courtyards inside the forests, far away from their villages.
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The Betsileo people are specialists in terraced rice field farming and are well known for their traditional exhumation of their dead, which is called Famadihana. This tradition is also practiced by the Merina living in the highlands who are closely related to the Betsileo people. ( I noticed that the Betseleo are a slightly mixed people of the Asiatic Merina and the Bara people of African extraction). Among the Merina and Betsileo the custom of famadihana ("placing" or the "turning" of the dead) reaffirms the link between the living and the dead. This ceremony occurs either because a person's remains are taken from a temporary to a permanent tomb or simply to remove the remains from a tomb in order to re.wrap the remains in new silken shrouds. These ceremonies incur immense expenses of providing food & shelter for a large number of relatives and guests. It is considered a serious transgression not to hold a famadihana when one is financially able to do so. The ceremony is presided over by an astrologer, but the chief participants are the close relatives of those persons whose remains are being moved or re wrapped. In this regard, the famadihana resembles in spirit a family reunion or the more austere ancestral ceremonies of China and Korea, where the spirits of ancestors are invited to a feast given by members of a family or lineage, rather than the funerals of the West, which are "final endings."
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The Famadihana or "Turning of the Bones:" ceremony

The Malagasy people have built a way of life around death – during the dry winter months, famadihana ceremonies, known as “the turning of the bones”, take place around various towns and villages to commemorate the deceased.
Once every two to seven years, each family holds a huge celebration at their ancestral crypt where the remains of the dead are exhumed, wrapped in fine silk, sprayed with wine or perfume, and brought out for community festivities. In the Malagasy culture, the turning of the bones is a vital element in maintaining links with revered ancestors, who still play a very real role in daily life.
The famadihana custom appears to be an adaptation of pre modern double funeral customs from Southeast Asia as seen in Bali, Sulawesi, Sumba and other islands.. The custom is based upon a belief that the spirits of the dead finally join the world of the ancestors after the body's complete decomposition and appropriate ceremonies, which may take many years. In Madagascar this became a regular ritual usually once every seven years, and the custom brings together extended families in celebrations of kinship, sometimes even those with troubled relations.
The practice of famadihana is on the decline due to the expense of silk shrouds and belief by some Malagasy that the practice is outdated. Early missionaries discouraged the practice and Evangelical Christian Malagasy have abandoned the practice in increasing numbers. The Catholic Church, however, no longer objects to the practice because it regards famadihana as purely cultural rather than religious. As one Malagasy man explained to the BBC, "It's important because it's our way of respecting the dead. It is also a chance for the whole family, from across the country, to come together.
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April Holloway in her blog in Ancient-origins says the ceremony is an evocation of being together again, so that the dead can experience once more the joys of life. But most importantly, she says, famadihana is an act of love.
As one foreigner who witnessed the ceremony described, “I came expecting the most macabre of ceremonies but instead found an extreme form of adoration for loved ones that will forever change how I view life and death. Death is not a sad occasion for many Malagash, but a time for celebrating. It is believed that the ancestors, like everyone, appreciate a really good party, especially one held in their honor.

Family members come from far and wide to attend the famadihana, sometimes traveling entire days on foot to attend the two-day festivities. When everyone has gathered, the corpses are delicately pulled from the tomb or crypt and wrapped in straw floor mats. Groups of people heave the corpses above their heads and carry them off, before laying them side-by-side on the ground to be cleaned and dressed. Their dried burial garments are delicately pulled from their corpses and the bodies are dressed in fresh silk garments. Women who are having trouble conceiving will take fragments of an ancestor's old shroud and place them under their mattresses (or even eat them) to induce pregnancy. Following the dressing of the deceased, a great party is held with music, dancing, and a huge feast among the villagers. As a band plays at the lively event, family members dance with the bodies. For some, it’s a chance to pass family news to the deceased and ask for their blessings — for others, it’s a time to remember and tell stories of the dead.
When the festival ends, the bodies must be returned to the tomb as the sun slowly retires beyond the horizon. They are re-buried alongside gifts of money and alcohol and placed upside-down to close the cycle of life and death. After a final ritual cleaning, the tomb is immediately closed - a powerful and emotional moment, embodying all the spiritual richness of the previous days' celebrations.
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Brad Bernard writes an interesting first hand essay in the New York Times about a famahadina he attends :

"The village elder smiles at me curiously, his leathery hands nudge a plastic mouthwash bottle of homemade rum toward me. I cringe as the amber liquid burns my throat and the fumes fill my nasal cavity, temporarily numbing my anxiety about what comes next. The weathered shovel I hold creaks with my tightening grip. I wonder what I have gotten myself into. From here, I go with the village down the lonely path to dig up his family’s corpses from the cemetery, some still ‘wet,’ and parade them around town. When I first heard about this seemingly macabre ceremony in the highlands of Madagascar, I was immediately intrigued. I’m not sure what dark fascination I have with a ceremony called Famadihana, or Turning of the Bones, where local villagers exhume the skeletons of their elders to dance with. I search unsuccessfully for a justifiable motive. Perhaps I was seeking a simple thrill or maybe voyeurism fuels my morbid fixation on this phenomenon.
Earlier that morning, on our way to the ceremony, Njara, my college-educated driver, tells me, “They have never allowed a white person to attend this ceremony and emotions are high for this event. We will need to be very delicate in our approach so we don’t incite hostilities.” The look of concern in his eyes stirs my inner doubt. “…they say that the dead can sometimes cross back over into the living world. And during this ceremony, the souls of their ancestors can rejoin the living to indulge once again in worldly desires. It is so taboo for people our age, who prefer to avoid black magic, so the practice is dying out.” He says. “Anyways, this ceremony only occurs every seven years and is restricted to the immediate family so they may not let us attend.” We buy homemade “Rhum” to give them as a token of appreciation in the hopes they’ll let us attend.

We pull off the road at a tiny village. The whole town, all related in some way, is assembled outside the largest of the two-story mud-brick shacks, chanting in anticipation of the procession from the city. Njara announces that the elders have asked to meet me. My heart beats wildly as I focus intently on portraying respectfulness; my hands shake noticeably as I humbly offer the gifts. The elders look me over and the debate quickly becomes heated. The patriarch of the village, an old man with distinguished wrinkles and clouded eyes, darts toward me, snaps up the rum from my hands and slips into the dark entry of the house. I’m in. The family members slowly overcome their curiosity and introduce themselves.
We march down the pitted cattle path away from town.. We await the sign from the astrologer that the fabric between both worlds is thin enough that the exhumation can begin. A growing curiosity swells around me as more and more villagers seek out Njara to ask him questions about me. The old man approaches me showing deep concern. He tells Njara that I appear remorseful which is sending the wrong signals and arousing suspicion. He tells me I should act happy and joyous; that this is a celebratory event and I look like I am attending a funeral. I fear my uninformed presence is a mockery to the family The crowd dances tirelessly to the clumsy yet hypnotic melody of the band, a ragtag group of eight men swaggering around in matching uniforms. Their dented and tarnished brass instruments are reminiscent of the faded splendor of the long abandoned French ‘culturalization’ of natives on this island. A vendor has wheeled her wooden cart and tattered umbrella from far away to sell sodas and cigarettes.

The crowd goes silent. Suddenly, trumpets sound an impending climax. The old man leaps on top of the family tomb and announces the digging will begin. The crowd ignites, encircling the tomb, chanting rhythmically. The men shovel furiously. The old man pushes his relatives aside and hands me a shovel, insisting I participate.Digging up corpses from the cemetery in Madagascar
Once the hole is big enough, the door to the underworld is smashed and collapses into pieces. The crowd gasps collectively. I back away gingerly. The old man soon finds me, grabbing my hand and insisting I go inside with him. I glance at Njara, seeking permission. He nods suspiciously but issues me grave warning, “Whatever you do, don’t touch the bodies.” We crawl on hands and knees through the tiny opening of the catacomb to a small room and find mummies on stone benches with their caramelized bones poking through holes in their garments. Flickering candlelight illuminates the yellow stains from seeping body fluids. A sour, earthy smell of decay permeates the tiny room. The old man introduces me to each of his ancestors by name as he pats the dust from their corpses. He insists I feel the decaying body of his mother on my right who has just died a few weeks ago. I place my hand on her chest and close my eyes as he begins to chant. The hair on my neck stands up as a strange feeling engulfs me, dizzy and scared; I lunge toward the fresh air to avoid fainting.
One by one, the corpses are delicately pulled from the tomb and wrapped in straw floor mats like burritos. With several pushes, a group heaves a corpse above their heads and carries it off. They are laid side-by-side on the flat ground to be cleaned and dressed, the names are written in faded black marker to tell them apart. Their dried burial garments are delicately pulled from their corpses like crispy skin from chicken wings to avoid taking too much flesh. The bodies are dressed in fresh silk garments and individually whisked off by awaiting family members. The corpses are cleaned and dressed in fresh silk garments
The same corpse I touched in the crypt is now in her granddaughter’s arms, dancing in circles. She holds her grandmother delicately, crying tears of happiness and talking about her progress in school. In that moment, I heard a voice answer the granddaughter’s call that I still cannot explain. To this day, I dream of that moment. That voice is hard to forget. My heart sinks as I realize how real this is to her. She passes the mummy to the hands of an awaiting woman who begins to cry with happiness. The young girl refocuses her attention on a game her friends are playing and is soon laughing and joking again.
As the sun slowly retires beyond the horizon, the bodies are once again laid to rest but upside-down to close the cycle of life and death. The young always return home to honor their origins here at this earthen hill that embodies their ancestry. I feel a deep connection with this family now that only comes from sharing the most intimate experiences. I am eternally grateful to them for opening their doors and my eyes to such a beautiful practice. It is the most amazing way of respecting the dead that I have ever experienced. I came expecting the most macabre of ceremonies but instead found an extreme form of adoration for loved ones that will forever change how I view life and death. My enlightenment feels bittersweet as I realize my own aversions still prevent me from wanting to visit my loved ones at their graves and the void this creates in my life. I don’t have the stomach for facing death. I stubbornly prefer to bury and forget; somehow thinking this will satisfy desire to remember the way they were. I’ve found more happiness in death than I could have ever imagined."


Other societies that wash their ancestor's bones

While doing my research on this subject, I was quite amazed at how these practices are common in many countries in Asia and South America.


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Campeche, Mexico

:During Hanal Pixan in Pomuch, Mexico, decedents honor the dead through the annual ritual of “washing” or brushing the bones of dead loved ones with a piece of cloth or small brush. The local custom is for family members to exhume the skeletons of the deceased after they have been buried for three years, when the flesh has turned to dust, and carefully clean the bones. Once they have been cleaned, the bones are placed in an open wooden box that has been lined with embroidered or painted linens. These boxes are then displayed in small cement niches in the graveyard. Every year, families return to the graveyard to re-wash the bones of their relatives, change the linens, and leave offerings of fresh flowers and lit candles. Although perpetuating an unusual practice, the people of Pomuch take much pride in caring for and presenting the bones of their ancestors. Pomuch is the only town in Mexico to still honor this tradition.

Sulawesi , Indonesia

Prior to the Dutch colonization of this area in the 20th century, the Toraja people lived in remote villages without roads connecting one to the other. Due to the difficulty of treading terrain in this mountainous region, people were terrified to journey too far in fears that their body could not be returned to their birthplace in the event of their demise. The Toraja’s beliefs state that if the body is not returned to the corpse’s village of birth, the soul will never reach Puya and will forever wander around in limbo, confused by their unfamiliar surroundings. In order to aid in transporting corpses, Shamans would be called upon to temporarily raise the dead so that they could walk back to their birthplace on their own in order to attend their funeral and begin their journey to Puya. Every August, a ritual known as Ma’nene or “The Ceremony of Cleaning Corpses” takes place. Corpse cleaning, grooming and redressing during Ma’nene. During this time, families exhume the bodies of deceased relatives in order to wash them, groom them, change their clothes and repair their coffins. The bodies are taken to the place of their death, then back to their grave in the village of origin. Often the deceased are paraded around the village in straight lines during the journey in order to observe the living.
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This is done out of respect to the ‘Hyang’, unseen spiritual entities with supernatural powers who reside in mountains, hills and volcanoes and may ==only move in straight lines.
Luzon, Philippines:== Bogwa” is the practice of exhuming the bones of the dead, cleaning, rewrapping and returning them to the grave or “lubuk. The Ifugao is one of the ethnic groups in the Cordillera region of the Philippines that practice this tradition of exhuming their dead usually after a year or more depending on the desire and necessity. The Ifugaos traditionally see it as a family responsibility towards the deceased loved one and a necessity for those left behind in order to prosper and live at peace with the spirits of their departed. With all the animals offered to appease the spirits of the dead, the bogwa is one of the most expensive native rituals next to a wedding. Three days of feasting rather than mourning is expected and an open invitation is extended to everyone within or outside the community. Performing bogwa shows not only the love and care to a family member even though he died several years ago but also the concern, love, care and hope for prosperous years for the living ones.

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Changmai, Thailand:

Songkran is a time when people are expected to return to their villages to pay respect to their elders. It is a time of family reunions, family parties, celebrations with friends, and religious merit making to go along with merriment in general. Songkran here in Thailand is like the combining of Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, and the Super Bowl into one grand celebration. Songkran also has a more somber and sober side. It is during Songkran that Theravada Buddhist families will remove the bones of ancestors to wash them and then return them to their resting places inside of the family Tat.
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Contact: Riyerr@aol.com

Some information extracted from different sources.
credits:
Area handbook-US Army on Madagascar
New York Times: Brad Bernard 2010 article
Huffington post: Campeche photos: Janelle Pietrzak A world traveling documentary and fine art photographer.
Photos other than by Ramdas Iyer are taken from Web sources.
This is a not for profit blog

PHOTO GALLERY:

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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 16:19 Archived in Madagascar Tagged madagascar burial merina bara betseleo betsimaraka vezo mahafaly famahadina Comments (2)

Madagascar- A Paradise in Retreat...............Ramdas Iyer

Environmental & Conservation issues of the "Eighth Continent"

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Blogs are a great means of describing in detail what the writer wants to convey in an environment where word count is not a factor. This write-up elaborates on my recently published article in Forbes Woman Africa (FWA), Jun-Jul 2017. There is little doubt that Madagascar is one of the final frontiers for the discovery of new fauna and flora. But the amazing cultural traditions of this country is something the reader also needs to be made aware; a small portion of this article covers this area of interest.

The prehistoric breakup of the super continent Gondwana separated the Madagascar–Antarctica–India landmass from the Africa–South America landmass around 135 million years ago. Madagascar later split from India about 88 million years ago, allowing plants and animals on the island to evolve in relative isolation.Plant and reptilian fossils confirm this breakup as illustrated in the Gondwana break up figure below.

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This break up also created the Mozambique channel that separates Africa with the fourth largest island on earth, Madagascar. Flying over the 400 mile wide Mozambique Channel my heart raced at the prospect of visiting a remote island where nearly all the species evolved in isolation since it broke off. What I found there was a lost world of unique animals and plants unseen by humans until their first arrival.
Imagine an island more than 1,000 miles long in a blue tropical ocean uninhabited for most of its history. Forests cover vast areas, interspersed with swamps where crocodiles 8 meters long lie in wait to prey on pygmy hippopotamuses. In the rain forests and in dryer parts of the island live some of the strangest primates to have ever existed on Earth. Some 110 species of these lemurs live throughout the island and range in size from the world's smallest primate, weighing about 1 ounce, to a lemur the size of a Gorilla ( now extinct).

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Peering out of my aircraft window, I watched the strato cumulus clouds tower over the many swollen rivers draining the rain waters as we descended towards Antananarivo (Tana), its capital located in the cool central highlands. With golden paddy fields blanketed by green clusters of trees, I was descending into what appeared to be a paradise of forests, paddy fields and rolling hills.
At the arrivals area I was surprised by the faces that displayed a unique mix of African and Indonesian bloodlines. Despite the island's location just off the coast of Africa, the Malagasy are of Polynesian descent, with the same linguistic and cultural characteristics also found in a small region of southern Borneo, over 3500 miles away. The exact circumstances of how those settlers arrived on the other side of the Indian Ocean has until now been unclear, but analysis of settlement patterns seems to suggest that Malagasy with Polynesian heritage can trace their lineage back to one of only 30 women, who landed on the island roughly 1,200 years ago. According to molecular bio scientist Murray Cox of Massey of the University in New Zealand, this settlement of Madagascar might have been the result of a one-off event like a shipwreck rather than any deliberate migration. ( This is not an accepted theory but one of many that has confounded anthropologists). Discover Magazine reports that the study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, used previous research which had found that 30 percent of Malagasy people shared the same maternal mitochondria. In a typical population study, a diverse population of humans would normally share only two percent, by comparison.

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A unique blend of African and Asian landscapes and cultures is usually one of the first things recognized by first-time travelers to Madagascar. In the zebu cattle-raising regions of the south and west, for example, the savannas resemble those of East Africa. In the central highlands, however, irrigated and terraced rice fields evoke images of Southeast Asia. Indonesians brought rice to Madagascar some 1,500 years ago, and they came more than 3,500 miles across the Indian Ocean in outrigger canoes to get here, arriving well before the first Africans. The author Jared Diamond has called this migration, 'The single most astonishing fact of human geography in the world.'
My planned take-away from this adventure included photographing colorful chameleons, trek lush rain forests, navigate spiny thorn forests and climb the spectacular rock formations. At the end of it all what left me with a deeper sense of this country was its unique people who follow ancient customs despite their wanton destruction of a paradise.
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My guide in Antasibe, Maurice Ratsesakanana was instrumental in my tracking down the apex lemur, Indri. Its haunting calls are reminiscent of the songs of the humpback whales. Each morning in my bungalow at the Hotel Fenny Ala at the edge of the rain forest, I woke up to its call. The Indri is the largest lemur in existence today and tracking and photographing them in rain was a trophy to be had. Indri's have never been successfully bred in captivity and this is the only place on earth that one can see these unusual primates. A spectacular jumper the indri can leap up to 30 feet between branches.
Maurice also exposed me to some of the 600 amphibians and reptiles that inhabit the forest, most of them endemic to Madagascar, meaning found nowhere else on earth. Frogs of every imaginable color and pattern leapt in this wet jungle. Chameleons, some brilliantly colored, and others shades of mottled brown, crept invisibly about. The largest, can capture mice and birds, while the smallest, measuring only 1 inchs feeds on insects.
More than 80 percent of Madagascar's 14,883 plant species are found nowhere else in the world. The rain forests had many orchids growing on tree barks and stems. Maurice indicated that three-fourths of Madagascar's 860 orchid species are endemic, as are six of the world's eight baobab species. I found orchid nursery's lining all along the Antasibe road, simply harvested from the rain forest each day.

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At the World heritage rain forest of Ranomafana, Theo Farafidison, my guide educated me on so many aspects of the fauna there. Theo had worked with David Attenborough during the shooting of the BBC series there .Almost all the amphibians and reptiles in Madagascar, half the 300 bird life and all its 110 species of lemurs are endemic. Theo and I spotted a Parson's chameleon that was almost two feet long capable of grabbing birds with its sticky tongue. I could not help but coax it to walk on my arms, a small violation of the park's rules. The Bamboo lemurs are a specialty here along with 7 other species.

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My personal highlight was that of grabbing a 6 ft tree Boa at night while we were looking for nocturnal lemurs and chameleons. He was quite docile and surprisingly comfortable in my hold. He could have decided to sink his long fang giving me a severe puncture wound. After studying him in my confines, I gently eased him on to a tree not realizing until later that they hunt on the ground. After photographing many species of frogs, tens of geckos including those that mimic leaves, several chameleon species, five snake species including a very Madagascar large tree Boa, I moved on to the drier side of the highlands. In order to photograph the rare gekkos like the uroplatus guentheri ( 10 inch long leaf gekko) that completely mimics leafs and barks and the uroplatus phantasyicus also known as the Satanic leaf gekko, I had to dispatch a pair of forest workers to hunt them down. Such unique animals of this country are a target for pet suppliers from all over the world especially the tree Boa constrictor.
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Some of the amazing landscapes I found in its national parks included spectacular rock massifs, canyons, aquatic environments, savannahs and dry lands. Isalo, Zombitse , Kirindy, Bemaraha and Andatringa, comes to mind as places that cannot be missed. Waterfalls abound, cascading down tall cliffs into rivers and lakes, the central highlands are a mosaic of woodland and savannah, while the eastern regions are covered in dense, humid rainforest. In my quest for soaking up this paradise I swam in cool pools inside canyons, trekked the Tsaranaro massif, a sheer rock 800 meters tall known for world class rock climbing, went sapphire prospecting on river banks, walked in wet, dry, semi-humid and spiny forests enjoying everything from insects like the endemic kung fu cricket, which takes a martial posture when approached to the diverse ethnic groups that populate this island .
One great adventure that will last in my memory was my attempt to to reach the spectacular limestone karst formations of Tsingy de Bemahara in the rainy season. "Tsingy" means 'one cannot walk barefoot'. It is an impenetrable wilderness of limestone spikes and sharp rocks that dominates the North West. The Tsingy is an ancient 200 mile long coral reef lifted from the ocean and carved over the millennia by wind and water into dagger edged pinnacles. Crossing rivers on barges and driving through the dirt roads that had become 3ft deep streams during the rainy season, I reached this remote area to be hailed as the first tourist to arrive there that season. A nine mile trek and climb ensued my visit this world heritage site from the top looking down since all road access was inundated.
Deforestation has been present on the island since its colonization by humans, approximately 2000 years ago, with 90% of the original forests lost .With an unprecedented population growth, an extreme poverty (one of the highest in the world ) and a brewing political crisis, the nature of the island is helpless and besieged by multiple fronts including corruption at the highest levels. There is a police stop almost every few miles who find something wrong with every vehicle in order to squeeze a few arriaris out of innocents and crooks alike. Thankfully they do not bother tourists. One interesting behavior that I wish to write about is that of the gendarmerie ( National police) offered a full ceremonial salute when all our papers were in order
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In addition to the traditional system of slash and burn deforestation, which allows local people to open forests to cultivate, international players in cahoots with local officials selectively log rosewood tree species and has become the main threat for the biodiversity of the island. Lorries of hardwood leaving forested areas forced me to inquire about its legitimacy to everyone I met. They all shrugged almost helplessly even though their future was being stripped one day at a time.

Other threats include killing lemurs for meat, poaching reptiles and amphibians for the pet trade (the Ploughshare tortoise fetches US $ 200000), habitat alteration and the clearance of forests, primarily for firewood and charcoal production. En route to the rainforests of Antasibe I could see virgin rain forests burning outside the limits of the park for agriculture and cattle grazing, that brought tears to my eyes. At every turn during my trip, my driver Tony Rebetsitonta, reflected on the different forested areas that had disappeared in his 25 years of driving around the country. It is anticipated that all the island's rain forests, excluding those in protected areas and the steepest eastern mountain slopes, will have been deforested by 2025. As a result several charismatic species such as chameleons and lemurs that evolved for millions of years here may become extinct by the end of the century
The urgency to conserve habitat has long been noticed by western scientists and conservation funding for Madagascar is at its peak. From protecting flora, fauna, habitats and large swathes of remaining forest, organizations are finding new ways to compensate the locals, educate them in sustainable land use and above all deal with a complex system of taboos that hold back progress. While at Ranofamana National Park I came to realize that this large virgin rain forest was protected and later converted into a park by none other than Dr. Patricia Wright of Stony Brook University in 1980, while studying Bamboo lemurs as a post doctoral research worker there. I was so impressed by her work that I contacted her at the University and will soon be meeting her, first to thank her and also to interview her for an article to appear in FWA soon. This is another example of a driven woman scientist challenging government officials, locals and vested interests to create a legacy for mankind.
By the 16th century, the central highlands where the bulk of Madagascar’s population resides had been largely cleared of their original forests. It was small wonder that I saw red top soil getting washed off into the rivers from the air with no roots to hold them down. More recent contributors to the loss of forest cover include the growth in cattle herd size since their introduction around 1000 years ago. I met a professor from the University of Pretoria who is studying land grabs and cattle rustling in Madagascar and did not want his name publicized. This is a country where people still keep their wealth in cattle and not cash. He told me that rustling cattle is big business and as a result big groups of heavily armed men attack villages and run away with the several hundred heads of cattle. I am told that the Malagasy people register their Zebu cattle at birth with the authorities, and not their own children.
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Today, there are around 18 different ethnic groups living on the island. These include the Asiatic Merina (who make up over a quarter of the population), the Betsimisaraka, Betsileo, Tsimihety, Antaimoro and the Bantu Sakalava. Indians, Arabs, French also make up a small immigrant population who have formed small communities during the past 300 years. The Malagasy language is very similar to the Indonesian language called Minaan, spoken only in Borneo it has accepted some Bantu/Swahili words over time. Their customs especially of burials, land ownerships, taboos and professions are very unique for the traveler to see and experience.
The Malagasy burial customs matches closely with cultures from Indonesia where I have traveled extensively to study them This includes periodic exhumation of the bones and have huge celebrations, keeping the corpse at home until it dries before burial or placing them inside rock cairns in hard to reach places, all of which bankrupt families in pursuit of satisfying their forefathers. Their philosophy much like the ethnic Indonesians of Sulawesi and Borneo believe that life on earth is very ephemeral when compared to the soul’s journey through the universe.
This beautiful land and its people are in a ticking time bomb of land loss, top soil erosion and desertification in a few centuries. While western agencies are doing their best to stem the degradation, it is inevitable that it cannot be reversed. Added to this, poor education, absent health care and a corrupt government has kept the people very poor, just living under an annual US $500 per capita. A deeper problem is that the island's population has doubled since 1990 and is increasing faster than ever.

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Richard Grant in his article in The Telegraph writes" Nowhere in the world have I met nicer people, but their need for firewood, charcoal and land, their farming and herding practices, and their increasingly successful attempts to have seven daughters and seven sons per marriage, have
created a catastrophe with no solutions in sight. Already Madagascar is one of the most eroded countries on earth. The topsoil is washing away in red rivers to the sea, and astronauts have reported that Madagascar appears to be bleeding to death.
As a newcomer to the island, I find my emotions swinging erratically between delight and despair, exhilaration and sorrow. The food, the music, the people I'm meeting and what's left of the forests and the wildlife are all so wonderful, but as the Duke of Edinburgh put it with characteristic brusqueness when he was here, 'This island is committing suicide.'"

It is a paradise in retreat and all our efforts to decelerate this decline is all I can hope for these wonderful people and its other living denizen. It is a travesty created by man in his effort to conquer nature.

The End

Questions & Contacts: RIYERR@aol.com

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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 08:12 Archived in Madagascar Tagged madagascar boa chameleons tsingy lemurs ranomafana indri antananarivo ramdas iyer sifaka tsaranaro kirindy antasibe bemaraha anja constrictor uroplatus Comments (2)

Meditating my way along the Silk Route and Holy India.

Retracing history through travel and meditation in historical locales. 2008-2016......Ramdas A. Iyer

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I have attempted herein to combine my travels to historical places along the silk route along with my practice of meditation which melds seamlessly through wonderful places touched by Buddhism, Hinduism and nature. Without a historic perspective, these travels do not mean much. The great history behind these places increases their value as a destination and an appropriate location to meditate. Spanning a time frame from 500 BC to 2012 AD, I have within the percepts of 5000 words compressed 2500 years of history. Many empires are referenced and can be better understood with the time frame and maps provided.
I have been experimenting with meditation since 2007 ever since the paths of Mark Reisenberg and mine intersected at a gym in Short Hills, NJ. Generally feeling rather rushed, anxious ,short tempered with frequent outbursts at work and lack of patience at home, one day I became deeply aware of my short comings. I sought the counsel of Mark, who had trained under the great Mahesh Yogi. Mark and I had developed a friendship since he was drawn to my knowledge of the East and me to his deep interest in it. Most days Mark had a glow in his face and when questioned he would comment about the great meditation session he had had that day. In fact he has been having those great moments almost daily for the past 40 years. A walking prescription for that practice. He agreed to come to my house and give me an introductory lesson in Transcendental Meditation. I could immediately feel its impact and would feel "cleansed" and be more mindful of my actions. Being a busy entrepreneur, committing time for meditation without feeling rushed has been my only challenge. Despite having the knowledge that there is only upsides when time is dedicated to this practice, it has still been a work in progress having already tapped into the nectar of its abilities.
The structured practice of meditation( Dhyana) is thought to go back 5,000 years with its development in India, culminating in its initial development by Hindus as a means of discerning the true nature of Brahman (or God) and its later development by the Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) who reached “enlightenment” by meditating under a Bodhi Tree (ficus religiosa), following years of disenchantment with established religious practices.
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I had promised to escort Mark and his daughter Kate to some of the great meditation centers of India someday when everyone was ready to do so.
As my travel regimen peaked during the last decade, I had traveled much of the Silk road and other Asian countries which coincidentally fell under the sway of Hinduism and Buddhism for over 2000 years. This gave me ample opportunities to not only explore the historical areas but also meditate in storied locations which has been a great personal joy thus far.
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Uzbekistan lies north west of current day Afghanistan & Pakistan and is the route through which Buddhism spread into China along the fabled silk road. Ancient India and old Persia had their border near current day Uzbekistan/ Turkmenistan. This border delineated the two great axial religions that were borne out of the migrating Aryans of the Central Asian Steppes: Hinduism and Zoarastrianism.Visiting the town of Termez in 2009, where Alexander the Great had crossed the Oxus (a major military feat) enroute to India, I realized that I had emerged from a time machine upon landing at the small airport. 2000 years of history lay at my feet .In a town called Fayez Tepe, about 40 km from Mazar-e-Sharif , Afghanistan,( another center of Buddhism during the Kushan Empire, not too far from Bamiyan where the great Buddha statues were decapitated by the Taliban)), I visited a small stupa and monastery erected by Kanishka I, the Great (AD 127-163), the fabled ruler of the Kushan Empire of Ancient India. Kanishka came to rule an empire in Bactria (Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan) extending from Turfan in the Tarim Basin ( Xinjiang Province of China) to Pataliputra ( near modern Patna, India)on the Gangetic plain. His conquests and patronage of Buddhism played an important role in the development of the Silk Road, and the transmission of Mahayana Buddhism from Gandhara ( modern Pakistan)across the Karakoram range to China. Kanishka 's father hailed from Xinjiang province and belonged to a tribe known as Tocharians and spoke an eastern Iranian language similar to Sanskrit, another one of the Indo European languages. The Aryan connection with India that started around 1500BC continued until the 4th century AD through migrations and conquests. So I followed Kanisha's conquests which incidentally lay the foundations of the fabled silk route.
While visiting Fayez Tepe, being the only traveler that day in this remote corner, I requested my guide for some free time to sit alone under the stupa and meditate for world peace; a fitting location given the double electrified border fence and minefields less than 500 metres away.*( Quiet the mind, and the soul will speak. ~Ma Jaya Sati Bhagavati).

Later that evening my guide who also worked in the local museum, gave me a private post dinner tour of the amazing Bactrian and Gandharan artifacts excavated around Termez by Soviet archeologists of renown. Sotheby's would have drooled at such a treasure fairly well kept by the State Museum.
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On an earlier trip to China in 2008 while passing through the Tarim Basin, considered one of the hottest places on earth, I came upon many small towns that constituted the original silk road, but is today set away from the main highways connecting Xian to Kashgar for over 3000 miles. In these now Islamic towns inhabited by the Turkic Uygur people, one could see Buddhist caves scattered all over remote hill sides. I sat besides some of them and pondered the impact of Buddhism on these peoples who were all Buddhists prior to their conversions around 840 AD. during the rise of Islam. So I asked the locals about Buddhism and they had no clue what I was talking about. Communism and Islam had erased all spoken history, despite the area being Buddhist for nearly 600 years. I suspect that no European would ever admit to being a pagan at that time either.
Crossing the Tarim Basin from Kashgar to Urumqi along the silk road, home of several Uighur unrests, I could only begin to fathom the extreme conditions in which the silk road merchants traveled. After an adventure filled 36 hour train ride through the Gobi desert I arrived at the town of Dunhuang- famous for its world famous Magao Buddhist grottos and now a World Heritage site. Carved into the cliffs above the Dachuan River, the Mogao Caves south-east of the Dunhuang oasis, Gansu Province, comprise the largest, most richly endowed, and longest used treasure house of Buddhist art in the world. It was first constructed in 366AD and represents the great achievement of Buddhist art from the 4th to the 14th century. 492 caves are presently preserved, housing about 45,000 square meters of murals and more than 2,000 painted sculptures. The unique artistic style of Dunhuang art is not only the amalgamation of Han Chinese artistic tradition and styles assimilated from ancient Indian, Greco-Bactrian and Gandharan customs, but also an integration of the arts of the Turks, ancient Tibetans and other Chinese ethnic minorities. Many of these masterpieces are creations of an unparalleled aesthetic talent. The artifacts stolen from here by British and German archeologists began the rift between China and the west and well documented in the book" Foreign Devils on the Silk Road" by Peter Hopkirk. If I were to be on an adventure during Victorian times, this would have been it.
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The railhead being 2 hours from town, my guide and driver spent the night in a small lodging nearby. On arrival at 2:00 AM, there was no soul stirring in the station and I had to carry my heavy baggage up and over railway trestles to meet my people. It was cold, hard and riven with anxiety.
Later that morning driving along the Dachuan river, I could see the multitude of caves at different elevations on the hardened mud cliffs of the river valley. It was extremely cold near the caves with the temperature in single digits. After taking a private tour of some of the grottos I looked for a place to meditate. Out of a possible 200 well preserved caves one can only see 4 caves during each visit. This way they reduce the impact of tourism on the murals adorning the fragile walls of the caves. These amazing caves were decorated using gifts given to the monks by traders to build altars and grottos to thank Buddha for their successful missions. The Tang Emperors had built a beautiful pavilion near the grotto around 650 AD. This gave me a quiet place to meditate and appreciate the opportunity bestowed on me to be in such a place. *(Mind is a door that leads you outside in the world; meditation is the door that leads you to your interiority—to the very innermost shrine of your being. ~Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh)

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Again after another 24 hour train ride, I arrived in Xian and transferred to another train to Lou Yang, one of the greatest ancient cities of China. Not realizing that I had to break journey in Xian ( Ancient Chang An), I hired a porter who carried my belongings to a youth hostel nearby. After a quick breakfast, I hired one of the hustling taxi drivers to take me to the famous Xian mosque built in 742 by the Tang Emperors in classic Chinese style. The Tang Dynasty noted for its religious tolerance is still considered the Golden Age of China. There were even two Hindu temples with Brahmin priests in Chang' An in the 8th century. India and China historically had such a great connection that the damage done during the Communist Government will take more time to fully heal. I meditated at this mosque which to me was more Buddhist in element than Islam in presence.( *One hour of contemplation surpasses sixty years of worship. – Muhammad)
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Situated on the central plain of China, Luoyang is one of the cradles of Chinese civilization, and is one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China. For several centuries, Luoyang was the focal point of China. In AD 68, the White Horse Temple, the first Buddhist temple in China, was founded in Luoyang. The temple still exists, though the architecture is of later origin, mainly from the 16th century. The history of this city is so rich that it asks to be investigated outside the scope of this article. My coming here was to visit two great sites; the White Horse Temple and the Longmen Grottos.
On the instruction of the Chinese Emperor Ming Di, two of his emissaries departed to India around AD 67 during the Kushan period (2nd century BC to 3rd century AD), in search for Buddhist scriptures .They encountered two Indian Buddhist monks in Gandhara and persuaded them to join them and return to China, bringing their book of Buddhist scriptures, relics and statues of Buddha with them on two white horses. At the behest of the emperor, the two monks named Kasyapa Matanga and Gobharana translated the Buddhist classics at the Baimai Temple at LuoYang, which was then the nation’s capital. The most notable of the classics, the Sutra of Forty-two Chapters was translated by Matanga. This was the first Buddhist sutra in Chinese and has the pride of place in the history of Chinese Buddhism. The temple then increased in importance as Buddhism grew within China and spread to Korea, Japan and Vietnam. The introduction of Buddhism in China was a significant influence on Chinese morals, thought and ethics. Pleased with their arrival in China, the king built a temple in their honor and named it the White Horse Temple as an appreciation of the white horses that had carried the monks. The horses are buried here and a statue has been erected there. The Buddhist religion prospered from here and with the arrival of Bodhidarma ( from Kanchipuram in South India), another monk from India in the 5th century, Chinese Buddhism evolved, spreading to other countries.
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. The two monks are buried there under earthen mounds typical of Chinese burials of that period. One cannot imagine a better place for an amazing meditation session. I found a quiet corner next to Kashyapa Matanga's mound and had one of my greatest meditation sessions there. (*Meditation is not a way of making your mind quiet. It’s a way of entering into the quiet that’s already there – buried under the 50,000 thoughts the average person thinks every day. – Deepak Chopra.)
One of the most spectacular Buddhist sites is the Longmen Grottos- located on both sides of the Yi River to the south of the ancient capital of Luoyang, Henan province ( Near modern Zhengzhou). It comprises of more than 2,300 caves and niches carved into the steep limestone cliffs over a 1km long stretch. These contain almost 110,000 Buddhist stone statues, more than 60 stupas and 2,800 inscriptions carved on steles. Well, one would think that it must be the ultimate place for meditation, but unfortunately the place got run over by tourists since it is a World heritage Site. While the location has nothing of great historical connection with Buddhism itself it encapsulates the high cultural level and sophisticated society of Tang Dynasty China(5th-7th Century AD).
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On the next leg of my travel in China, I finally came upon the famous Shaolin Temple, home to Chinese martial arts, Kung Fu. Shaolin Temple was established in 495A.D. at the western foot of Songshan Mountain, 13 kilometers northwest to Dengfeng City, Henan Province. The then Emperor Xiaowen of the Northern Wei dynasty (386-557) had the temple built to accommodate the Indian master Batuo (Buddhabhadra). Shaolin Temple literally means “temple in the thick forests of Shaoshi Mountain”.

As the first Shaolin abbot, Batuo (Buddhabhadra) devoted himself to translating Buddhist scriptures and preaching doctrines to hundreds of his followers. Later, another Indian monk Bodhidharma arrived at the Shaolin Temple, after crossing the Yangtze River from Canton. He spent nine years meditating in a cave and initiated the Chinese Chan tradition( Zen Buddhism) at Shaolin Temple. Thereafter, Bodhidharma was honored as the first Patriarch of Chan Buddhism. As Chinese Kung fu also originated from Shaolin Temple, it has been recognized as the origin of Chan Buddhism and the cradle of Kung fu; both attributed to Boddhidharma.
I must elaborate on this great Buddhist, Bodhidharma, since he hailed from Kanchipuram a town 35Km from where I grew up in Madras, India. Shaolin tradition mentions Bodhidharma (ca. 470-532) as that the 'first Zen patriarch'. The son of a South Indian ruler, a king of Kanchipuram, and that he appeared one day at the southern Chinese port city of Canton around 520 A.D is written into history by scholars, whence he traveled to see Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty. This tradition points to Bodhidharma as a member of the ruling class of the South Indian dynasty of the Pallavas, the contemporary of Skandavarman IV or Nandivarman I.
It is well known that Kanchipuram, the Pallava capital, was one of the most important strongholds of Indian Buddhism at that time. Bodhidharma, (like me) was a Tamil-speaking South Indian who trained the monks of Shaolin Temple, Kalaripayat, a local form of martial arts still practiced in the Kerala region today. This training of monks became necessary due to regular raids from the forested areas on the monastery. Until this day Shaolin is the home to Kung Fu ( too commercialized within the city today) and Bodhidharma is recognized as the undisputed master of Zen philosophy and Kung Fu. He is worshiped as Damma in Japan where Chan Buddhism is called Zen Buddhism.
What better place to do meditation where the great Bodhidharma himself meditated. It was a quiet, cool afternoon as I found a place under a statue of the master and meditated deeply.( *As long as you look for a Buddha somewhere else, you'll never see that your own mind is the Buddha. -Bodhidharma)

From Uzbekistan to interior China I had travelled on three different trips to complete this circuit ever so closely connected with Buddhism and meditation. Now it is time for me to return to India and connect the dots where great Hindi philosophers and Buddha himself began these traditions.
In 2010 , my sister, her husband and my cousin did a road trip through Garwhal Himalayas. We were heading to Badrinath one of the holiest places of Hinduism in India. Enroute, we stayed in the hill town of Jyothirmatt. This was where one of India's greatest Hindu philosopher meditated and started a monastic order. He was Shankara. The great Adi Shankara in early 8th century was a philosopher and theologian who consolidated the doctrine of Advaita Vedanta. He is credited with unifying and establishing the main currents of thought in Hinduism philosophy which expounds that God resides inside our own soul. This is the branch of philosophy my community and family have practiced over millennia.
Shankara travelled across the Indian subcontinent to propagate his philosophy through discourses and debates with other thinkers. He established the importance of monastic life as sanctioned in the great Hindu works of Upanishads and Brahma Sutra, in a time when the existing Mīmāṃsā school established strict ritualism and ridiculed monasticism. He is reputed to have founded four mathas ("monasteries"), which helped in the historical development, revival and spread of Advaita Vedanta of which he is known as the greatest revivalist. At a time when Buddhism was a populist religion that attracted the masses, he through doctrines and brilliant discourses restored Hinduism in India. In its aftermath Buddhism and Jainism became diminished religions within its borders for better or worse.
Just imagine meditating in the cave were the great Shankara himself immersed himself inwards. This along with my time under the Bodhi tree marked moments of great internal bliss for me.*( “If the mind falls asleep, awaken it. Then if it starts wandering, make it quiet. If you reach the state where there is neither sleep nor movement of mind, stay still in that, the natural (real) state.” ― Ramana Maharshi)
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There is little doubt among those who appreciate Indian philosophy that the foothills of the Himalayas was a Petri dish for great thinkers. The Hindu Rishis subjected themselves to great feats of body & breathe control and would survive in very cold climes with very little outerwear. Through those extreme moments, they focused their mind into deep meditation. The Buddhists were even more severe in their penance and rigor during meditation. While my wife Pushpa and I were at the Mt. Everest Base Camp in Tibet in 2012, we visited the Rongbuk Monastery (17600 ft altitude). Rongbuk Monastery was founded in 1902 by the Nyingmapa Lama Ngawang Tenzin Norbuin in an area of meditation huts and caves that had been in use by communities of nuns since the 18th century. Hermitage meditation caves dot the cliff walls all around the monastery complex and up and down the valley. Mani stone walls, carved with sacred syllables and prayers, line the paths. These are areas where temperatures never climb above freezing point.
The founding Rongbuk Lama, also known as Zatul Rinpoche, was much respected by the Tibetans. Even though the Rongbuk Lama viewed the early climbers at the Base Camp as "heretics," he gave them his protection and supplied them with meat and tea while also praying for their conversion. It was the Rongbuk Lama who gave Namgyal Wangdi the name Ngawang Tenzin Norbu, or Tenzing Norgay, as a young child.
On a very cold but windless day with crystal clear skies and on a ground with ice over several inches thick, I found a spot facing the great Choma Lama-Mt. Everest and got into deep mediation with the peaks staring down at me. This was a memorable place and moment in my life. I could see the glaciers below and wisps of snow blow from the peak and imagine a visit to its pinnacle through an inward journey.*( Sitting like a mountain let your mind rise, fly and soar. – Sogyal Rinpoche)
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So travel can be combined with many personal hobbies or practices. One can do yoga in spectacular places, meditate in meaningful places, exercise in unique locales, paint as my friend cerebral Suresh does alongside nature and yet be tourist and traveler.
Finally 2016 came around and the trip I promised my guru a decade ago kicked into being. In February of 2016 Mark, Kate and I embarked on a two week journey to North India. The ultimate destination, The Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya was true to our expectations.
I must give a small primer about Buddha for some of my western readers. Born as prince Gautama and living the trappings of luxury, he became exposed to the ultimate reality of life: sorrow. Gautama abandoned his court life and family took on the life of a wandering monk, accepting food as it was offered to him. He pursued his spiritual quest and studied under the well-known teachers of his day. He learned deep meditation and followed the yogic practices, but in the end discovered that he reached a point where the teachers could offer him no more. He wanted to find the truth of life through severe penance and meditation.
For six years, Sakyamuni starved and punished his body and lived the most austere life imaginable. He sat under a Bodhi tree at a place called Bodh Gaya and determined not to move until he had found the answers he sought. His meditation was deep, and, on the night of the full moon in May of 523 BC, complete Enlightenment came to him. His mind became calm and clear and he understood the cycle of birth, death and the wheel of life. He understood his true nature and that of all living beings. This was the end of his spiritual journey, and at that moment he became "the Buddha". His simple message was a lot more appealing than the complex ritual and caste based Hinduism, that a religious revolution that took root in ancient India.

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Waking up early we visited the grounds which was thronging with Buddhist pilgrims from all over the World. The chant of the Tibetans, the songs of the Sri Lankans, the quiet worship of the Japanese and Thai, along with a smattering of westerners who were deeply rooted in meditation. The Mahabodhi Temple Complex, UNESCO Heritage Site, is one of the four holy sites related to the life of the Lord Buddha, and particularly to the attainment of Enlightenment. The first temple was built by Emperor Asoka in the 3rd century B.C., and the present temple dates from the 5th or 6th centuries. It is one of the earliest Buddhist temples built entirely in brick, still standing in India, from the late Gupta period.
After walking around the complex with throngs of monks and lay people performing worship both in a private and personal manner in every nook and cranny of the grounds, was truly inspirational. As a Hindu, the lack of major ceremonies or grand rituals in Buddhism became quite evident here. Mark had always maintained that the power of group meditation was synergistic. Mark, Kate and I searched for a spot under the huge branches of the Bodhi tree and the three of us mediated amongst the faint backdrop of chanting and singing. It was an invigorating experience, something I could have done sitting there all morning.*( Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without............... Buddha)
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We returned to the complex again in the evening and again the following morning with each visit providing immense satisfaction and internal joy. On the last morning while Mark and I were meditating before sunrise, a monk came and sat next to us. In the midst of meditation he placed a fruit in each of our hands. Upon waking up we realized that he had gone. Within a matter of minutes, two monks came to us with a begging bowl and all we had with us were the fruits in our hands to offer. It was a remarkable event and seemed to be surreal moment that either of us can explain in words.
Another important place that marks the life of the Buddha. He arrived in Sarnath after wandering along the Ganges river and spent days meditating in a grove with wandering deers. Word soon got out that a great monk was dispensing great words that even ordinary people could understand. Here he preached his message of the middle way to nirvana after he achieved enlightenment at Bodhgaya and gave his famous first sermon here. In the 3rd century BC, emperor Ashoka had magnificent stupas and monasteries erected here as well as an engraved pillar. When Chinese traveler Xuan Zang dropped by in AD 640, Sarnath boasted a 100m-high stupa and 1500 monks living in large monasteries. However, soon after, Buddhism went into decline and, when Muslim invaders sacked the city in the late 12th century, Sarnath disappeared altogether. It was ‘rediscovered’ by British archaeologists in 1835.Today it’s one of the four key sites on the Buddhist circuit.
In a suitable spot, Kate, Mark and I had a tremendous group meditation session. My personal awakening here is simply indescribable.*( Half an hour's meditation each day is essential, except when you are busy. Then a full hour is needed. -Saint Francis de Sales)
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Our spiritual travels also took us to Rishikesh, the ashram of Mahesh Yogi and famous for the Beatles in residence in the 60s. Since ancient times, Rishikesh has been an important pilgrimage spot for the saints and Hindu devotees. However, it is during the initial medieval period in India that the place started to gain more popularity. During 8th century Adi Shankaracharya, mentioned earlier, built several temples and ashrams in the region. Unfortunately, most of the temples and ashrams were destroyed because of several earthquakes and floods that have affected the region over the centuries; however, some temples still stand tall and are reminiscent of the rich cultural heritage of the place.

While Rishikesh has a rich religious history that makes it an important place among Indians, but the event that really put Rishikesh on world’s map was the visit by The Beatles in 1968. The band arrived in India in the search of answers to life’s larger questions. During their stay of several weeks, at Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s ashram, they learnt transcendental meditation to understand the deeper meaning behind human existence. It is in Rishikesh, that they wrote most of the songs of their most famous album, The White Album. Since their visit, millions of people from across the globe have thronged the place, either to seek answers to their own questions or to witness the remains of that historic event.
While John Lennon and Ringo went about practicing songs for the White Album, George and Paul really got into some serious meditation. It is said that Paul still supports the Transintendal Meditation organization until this day. Mark and I had a small meditation session there to follow the footsteps of his guru and the Beatles.* ("Meditate and enjoy."
"TM in the am and the pm."
"Water the root to enjoy the fruit."
"20 minutes in the bank, all day in the market place." .........Maharishi Mahesh Yogi)
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Mark and I meditated at the famous Sivananda Ashram in front of the samadhi of the great Hindu spiritual teacher and a proponent of Yoga and Vedanta. Swami Sivananda is the last of India's great sages and I would ask my readers to sample his works available in the web. A few miles downriver in Hardwar, we had the opportunity to witness the Ardh Kumbh Mela where over 80 million pilgrims wash away their sins in the river over a 45 day period. The Kumbh Mela is a very ancient event referred to in the Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata dating to 1500 BC. First written evidence of the Kumbha Mela can be found in the accounts of Chinese traveler, Huan Tsang or Xuanzang (602 - 664 A.D.) who visited India in 629 -645 CE, during the reign of King Harshavardhana.

  • ( "Regular meditation opens the avenues of

intuitional knowledge,
makes the mind calm and steady,
awakens an ecstatic feeling,
and brings the practitioner in contact
with the source of his/her very being."
...............Swami Sivananda"_

While staying at the elegant Hari Ganga Haveli in Haridwar we took a plunge in the icy waters around 5:00 AM. We followed that dip by a meditation session in our room and the energy of the place and the meditation carried us through for a couple of days. Kate unfortunately took ill in Hardwar and was bed ridden for three days with a virus. The local doctor was very efficient and kind and the in room treatment including medicines for three days cost less than $20. Haridwar was an amazing place where one could see poor peasants and rich land lords dip next to each other competing for space to wash away their sins. The deep faith shown by the masses, the orderliness, the excellent security arrangements provided by the government and our ability to meander amongst millions of people, with a camera pointed, was quite exceptional. As a traveler and photographer such an access to humanity ever willing to grace themselves in a photograph cannot be found anywhere else on earth.
Varanasi has been a cultural centre of North India for several thousand years, and is closely associated with the Ganges. Hindus believe that death in the city will bring salvation, making it a major centre for pilgrimage. The city is known worldwide for its many Ghats, embankments made in steps of stone slabs along the river bank where pilgrims perform ritual ablutions. In Varanasi, we walked the alleyways, sailed the river passing bathers, worshipers and the cremation Ghats which has witnessed the burning Hindu remains for over two millennia, 24/7 365 days a year. Our meditation sessions took place in the terrace of our haveli, overlooking the river, that once belonged to the King of Nepal. On these banks the great Buddha gave his sermons, where saints like Kabir and Tulsi Das called home. *(“Be quiet in your mind, quiet in your senses, and also quiet in your body. Then, when all these are quiet, don't do anything. In that state truth will reveal itself to you.”...................Kabir)
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With Mark, Kate and brother Vijay in attendance, I also used this great opportunity to bring the cremated remains of my dear father who passed away in 2015 in New Jersey and immersed it in the river after Hindu rituals lead by a chief priest. Here he joined my forebears who watch and guide me through my daily meditation and machinations of life.
Mixing and meeting amazing people, meditating in historic sites, eating great food, I offered my friend and his family a glimpse into Hindu India. I will try to devote some other amazing mediation moments while traveling through South east Asia in another article. I must stop now. It is time for meditation. Aum. ( riyerr@aol.com)
The End

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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 15:16 Archived in China Tagged temple buddhism meditation white xian buddha varanasi road horse monastery tang empire silk rishikesh shaolin longmen sarnath rongbuk bishkek swami sivananda bodh gaya ramdas iyer kushan adi empire. advaita shankara hardwar magao grottos boddhidharma damma kanishka Comments (2)

In the Footsteps of The Beatles to Rishikesh, India

Highlights of my 'Beatles Ashram' visit in Rishikesh, India.............................................Ramdas A. Iyer

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It was a grey and rainy day when friend Mark Riesenberg and I crossed the long suspension footbridge, Ram Jhula, hanging nearly 200 feet above the Ganges into the wonderful valley of Rishikesh, early last month. The river Ganga, both a spiritual and life giving resource had finally descended here to make its journey through the plains of India, after traveling from the glaciated peaks of the Himalayan ranges.
I had met Mark in my gym in New Jersey over a decade ago and soon came to realize the spiritual depth of this man though raised Jewish was more Hindu than most. Soon he became my meditation guru and who better to learn the techniques than from a master who was a student of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi himself, the founder of Transcendental Meditation( TM) institutes, whose ashram we were visiting. After graduating college in the 60s during the thick of the hippie movement, Mark chose to become a meditation teacher and worked for many years as one for the TM institute in the NY/NJ area.
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I had promised Mark that someday I would escort him to the real India and in 2016 accompanied by his daughter Kate, we embarked on a spiritual journey visiting Varanasi, Haridwar, Rishikesh and Bodh Gaya. We were treated to some amazing experiences including the Ardh Kumbh Mela in Haridwar ( over 100 million bathe in the Ganges during this month long worship of the river), meditations twice a day along the Ganges, uplifting moments under the Bodhi tree where Buddha achieved his enlightenment 2500 years ago in Gaya. One of the unplanned highlights was a visit to the Maharishi's much vaunted ashram in Rishikesh; a musical and spiritual retreat for the Beatles in 1968. Mark always remarked that the Maharishi had told him to visit India with an Indian in order grasp the full impact of the experience. The Maharishi's wish had indeed come true.
The Beatles first met the Maharishi in London in August 1967 and then attended a seminar in Bangor, Wales. They had planned to attend the entire ten-day session, but their stay was cut short by the death of their manager, Brian Epstein. Wanting to learn more, they kept in contact with the Maharishi and made arrangements to spend time with him at his teaching centre located near Rishikesh, in "the Valley of the Saints" at the foothills of the Himalayas.
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Along with their wives, girlfriends, assistants and numerous reporters, the Beatles arrived in India in February 1968 and joined the group of 60 people who were training to be TM teachers, including musicians Donovan, Mike Love of the Beach Boys, and flautist Paul Horn. While there, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Harrison wrote many songs and Ringo Starr finished writing his first. Eighteen of those songs were recorded for The Beatles ("the White Album"), two songs appeared on the Abbey Road album, and others were used for various solo projects.
According to McCartney, the Maharishi "was great to us when Brian Epstein( their manager) died" and Cynthia Lennon wrote "it was as though, with Brian gone, the four needed someone new to give them direction and the Maharishi was in the right place at the right time." Curious to learn more, the Beatles made plans to spend time at the "Maharishi's training center" in India in 1968.
A quick brief here on the Maharishi(meaning Great seer) is apropos. Mahesh studied physics at Allahabad University and earned a degree in 1942. In 1941, he became an administrative secretary to the great philosopher and Vedanta scholar and Shankaracharya of Jyotir Math, Swami Brahmananda Saraswati( respectfully called Guru Dev) and took a new name, Bal Brahmachari Mahesh. The Maharishi recalls how it took about two and a half years to attune himself to the thinking of Brahmananda Saraswati and to gain "a very genuine feeling of complete oneness". Eventually he gained trust and became Guru Dev's "personal secretary" and "favored pupil". He was trusted to take care of the bulk of Swami Brahmananda Saraswati's correspondence without direction, and was also sent out to give public speeches on Vedic (scriptural) themes.
Although Brahmachari Mahesh was a close disciple, he could not be the Shankaracharya's spiritual successor because he was not of the Brahmin caste. The Shankaracharya, at the end of his life, charged him with the responsibility of travelling and teaching meditation to the masses. Thus began the TM movement.
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As Mark and I walked through the town along the many ashrams, coffee shops and Ayurveda Clinics, Mark with his characteristic smile quipped " This is a perfect home for a Hippie" . The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram was a bit way out of town, a 20 minute walk along the high river bank where the jungle starts engulfing the narrowing pathway. The Ashram today is inside the Rajaji Tiger Reserve and National Park. Until recently, one had to scale a small fence to get inside but recently access to the site is allowed with an entrance ticket. As we walked into the overgrown vegetation onto the small stone pathway we came suddenly we treated to a unique sight of multiple meditation pods that lined it on either side. The place was quiet, extremely peaceful except for an occasion chirp from the birds amidst the sound of flowing water. Lennon-McCartney song" Mother Nature's Son" written in this location rang in my mind:
"Born a poor young country boy, Mother Nature's son
All day long I'm sitting singing songs for everyone

Sit beside a mountain stream, see her waters rise
Listen to the pretty sound of music as she flies

Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo
Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo
Doo doo doo

Find me in my field of grass, Mother Nature's son
Swaying daises sing a lazy song beneath the sun

Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo
Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo
Doo doo doo doo doo doo
Yeah yeah yeah

Mm mm mm mm mm mm mm
Mm mm mm, ooh ooh ooh
Mm mm mm mm mm mm mm
Mm mm mm mm, wah wah wah

Wah, Mother Nature's son ".

Mindy Poder, executive editor of Travel Age West captures the scene inside the ashram well in her 2014 article.
" While the Ganges River may be a pilgrimage site for Hindus, “The Beatles Ashram” is something of a Mecca to many Fab Four fans. That’s what I explain to Ramesh Chawla, a local guide and native from nearby Haridwar, who has trouble understanding why I would want to visit a closed, decaying ashram. Somehow, in spite of its blazing importance to Western pop culture, the place where Maharishi Mahesh Yogi taught Transcendental Meditation to his famous followers in the 1960s has been left to rot. There, overlooking the Ganges River, they grew beards, donned Indian-style cotton pajama pants and tunics, meditated in private caves and attended lectures and discussions on their meditations. Following years of extraordinary success and the sudden passing of their manager Brian Epstein, the Fab Four were seeking peace of mind. They were hoping to expand their minds as well.
“Oh, it was pretty exciting, you know,” said Ringo Starr in an interview for “The Beatles Anthology” documentary. “We were in this really spiritual place, and we were meditating a lot, having seminars by Maharishi. It was pretty far out.”
Their time in Rishikesh turned out to be one of the most prolific periods of their career. They wrote most of the double album, “The Beatles” (more popularly referred to as “The White Album”), as well as songs that would later appear on “Abbey Road.” Many songs, such as “Dear Prudence,” “Mother Nature’s Son,” and “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and Monkey,” make direct references to what the band learned and saw while in India.
“I remember having a great meditation, one of the best I ever had,” recounted McCartney in the biography “Many Years From Now” by Barry Miles. “It was a pleasant afternoon, in the shade of these big tropical trees on the flat roof of this bungalow. It appeared to me that I was like a feather over a ... warm-air pipe. I was just suspended by this hot air, which was something to do with the meditation. And it was a very, very blissful feeling … And I thought, ‘Well, hell, that’s great, I couldn’t buy that anywhere.’ That was the most pleasant, the most relaxed I ever got, for a few minutes I really felt so light, so floating, so complete.”.
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The guide, Ramesh Chawla, referred in Mindy Poder's article incidentally turned out to be our guide too. He was a great 'guyde' and can be seen with us in a photo shot inside the Maharishi's bungalow . Each of the 86 meditation pods had a private room, toilet and a winding staircase that leads to a meditation grotto under the foliage. The scene was very surreal and looked like a scene from "Lost" as mentioned in Poder's article. Two wonderful gentlemen, from New Zealand and lovers of the Beatles emerged from the thicket and were glad to see us since they were completely lost. We walked and chatted away into the late evening with much energy and excitement.
It is said that it was Paul and George who had the most benefits from this trip. Ringo left in a week while Lennon was very restless during his stay. Mia and Prudence Farrow were a part of the Beatles entourage. Prudence was supposed to be a serious meditator, spending hours a day deep in meditation. She became so serious about her meditation that she "turned into a near recluse" and "rarely came out" of the cottage she was living in. John Lennon was asked to "contact her and make sure she came out more often to socialize". As a result, Lennon wrote the song "Dear Prudence". In the song Lennon asks Farrow to "open up your eyes" and "see the sunny skies" reminding her that she is "part of everything". The song was said to be "a simple plea to a friend to 'snap out of it'".
" Dear Prudence, won't you come out to play?
Dear Prudence, greet the brand new day
The sun is up, the sky is blue
It's beautiful and so are you
Dear Prudence, won't you come out to play?
Dear Prudence, open up your eyes
Dear Prudence, see the sunny skies
The wind is low, the birds will sing
That you are part of everything
Dear Prudence, won't you open up your eyes?
Look around round
Look around round round
Look around
Dear Prudence, let me see you smile
Dear Prudence, like a little child
The clouds will be a daisy chain
So let me see you smile again
Dear Prudence, won't you let me see you smile?
Dear Prudence, won't you come out to play?
Dear Prudence, greet the brand new day
The sun is up, the sky is blue
It's beautiful and so are you................ "

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My friend Mark was so excited to visit Maharishi's bungalow- once a wonderful abode with fine detailing and sweeping views of the Ganges below. Mark had always maintained that the Yogi was a very special person with great penchant for of design and organization. This was evident from the layout of the ashram. Later as we walked into the huge meditation/ lecture hall, Mark remembered his lectures in Switzerland in similar halls were Maharishi used to be seated in front of 400 plus devotees who listened to his speeches on Vedanta. One of the idealistic views of the Maharishi was that World Peace could be achieved through inner peace attained through meditation. While a great utopian concept, it was unfortunately a failed attempt at changing the world. At least someone tried and many of us are still on that path.

Just two years ago, Canadian artist Pan Trinity Das set out to revitalize the former meditation hall of the ashram. Das was joined by volunteers from around the world — artists and fans alike. According to the group, the project was closed down after two weeks by park authorities. But with just black, red and white paint, the group created what is now called Beatles Cathedral Gallery. As I view the art that fills the hall, it’s clear that this group tapped into the same creative energy that inspired The Beatles during their stay. We were lucky to photograph this beautiful place and present it here even as the light on that rainy evening was fading rapidly.
On one giant wall, there is a painting of John, Paul, George and Ringo in pop-art style, with each of their faces half-obstructed by shadow. Other pop-art portraits fill the hall, including that of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi on an empty stage on the opposite wall. It feels like a visual representation of what the guru-teacher relationship might have been like, as imagined by fans solving the puzzle themselves. Snippets of classic Beatles lyrics written at this very location twirl around the paintings. They fill the silent hall with song. What was even more beautiful was a 'Peace" symbol made completely out of fallen leaves.
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It was indeed a reminder of an amazing counter culture age so enriched by the music of the Beatles and the spiritually uplifting message of the Yogi.
With joy in our hearts we left this beautiful ashram, though in a state a decay it still had the spirit of a great philosopher and the imprint of four great musicians. Jai Gurudev!.
emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)

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Credits:
Wikipedia (245 references)Travel Age Media, The Story of the Maharishi (published 1976), William Jefferson,Photographs of the Beatles in Rishikesh by Paul Saltzman, Mark Riesenberg

PHOTO GALLERY

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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 11:55 Archived in India Tagged india himalayas john beatles george rishikesh paul lennon mia starr ringo harrison yogi mccartney tm maharishi mahesh farrow Comments (11)

Congo- A Traveler's review of its Brutal and Bloody History

My travels through this natural paradise in 2015...........................Ramdas A. Iyer

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Growing up reading Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan,the mysteries of Africa have always played in my mind and fantasies. Growing up in India, tales about fabulous Indian kingdoms, tigers and rope tricks written by the likes of Rudyard Kipling, were less exciting to me than that of Africa. Lee Falk, who created the 'Phantom" comic strip was also a hero of mine. Written in 1936, he culled all the interesting stories that came out of Africa from French and Belgians who were busy with the brutal enterprise of slavery, ivory trade and colonialism at that time.
My interest in Africa transcends books. Since 1992 I have collected over 100 pieces of wooden African sculptures belonging to over 25 tribes of anthropological re known like the Bambara, the Fang, The Luba, The Dogon etc to name a few. The stories attached to the usage of masks and fetishes, mostly to invoke both human and animal spirits, is a testament to these first peoples.

Last week, I was having a long conversation about the plight of Africa with my cousin Venkatram Santosh of Richmond, Virginia. Living in the capital city of the old confederate America we talked at length about Africa and slavery, until such time his surgeon's emergency button beeped. So I decided to continue that conversation by penning my thoughts here while using the framework of great writers on this subject.
During the past two decades I have managed to get a glimpse of East Africa through Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, that of the North through Egypt and Ethiopia, Mali in the west and the southern countries of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Angola and Zimbabwe. Alas it was time to penetrate the darkest deepest jungles of Africa- the Congo Basin. While I was filled with excitement to explore I was also anxious to avoid the many conflicts and diseases that has afflicted this area . After spending 2 weeks in the Republic of Congo(ROC of Congo-Brazzaville), I both was amazed and shocked by the riches of the country along with the corruption and poverty endured by the people. This article will mostly deal with its neighbor on the other side of the river, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC -Kinshasa) but by extension includes the entire basin. I could not obtain a visa in time to the DRC-Kinshasa, but spent many an evening sipping beer at the Brazzaville- Congo river front looking at Kinshasa on the other bank just 4 km away.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is potentially one of the richest countries on earth, but colonialism, slavery and corruption have turned it into one of the poorest . The world's bloodiest conflict since World War II is still rumbling on today. It is a war in which more than five million people have died, millions more have been driven to the brink by starvation and disease and several million women and girls have been raped.
The DRC borders the Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan to the north; Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania to the east; Zambia and Angola to the south; and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. It is the second largest country in Africa by area and the eleventh largest in the world. With a population of over 75 million, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the most populated officially Francophone country, the fourth most populated nation in Africa.

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The Great War of Africa, a conflagration that has sucked in soldiers and civilians from nine nations and countless armed rebel groups, has been fought almost entirely inside the borders of one unfortunate country - the Democratic Republic of Congo. Many of the country's mining operations are connected to the waters of the mighty Congo River. It is a place seemingly blessed with every type of mineral, where even the more fortunate live in grinding poverty. It is consistently rated lowest on the UN Human Development Index,) ranking 176 out of 187 countries in 2004 .

In order to understand the reasons for this penury and suffering I did some research using the web and by reading books about its ancient history, its ethnic composition, politics, colonies, impact of slavery and corruption that has spread like blight into African society. The land of the Congo river is split between DRC-Democratic Republic of Congo (Belgian Congo) and ROC- Republic of Congo ( formerly French Equatorial Africa). The DRC is the most violent part of the world today while the ROC is a dictatorship which is poor, corrupt but stable. Two books; King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hoschild and Blood River-A Journey through Africa's Broken Heart. by Tim Butcher, enabled me to grasp the depth of suffering in these accursed nations.
The Congo River is the largest river in western Central Africa and the most powerful on the continent. Its overall length of 2,900 miles makes it the second-longest in Africa (after the Nile). It is the fifth-longest river in the world, draining a basin of nearly 1.5 million square miles. The river also has the second-largest flow in the world, with a discharge of 1.5 million cubic feet of water per second, trailing only the Amazon. The river and its tributaries flow through the second-largest rainforest in the world, the Congo Rainforest, second only to the Amazon Rainforest in South America. The dense rain forest, heavy rainfall, and poor soil of the basin that is traversed by the Congo results in sparse population, except for small settlements of hunters, farmers, and fishermen along or near the river. Since it is close to the equator, the climate is hot and humid.
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The Congo Basin spans across six countries—Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. There are approximately 10, 000 species of tropical plants in the Congo Basin and 30 percent are unique to the region. Endangered wildlife, including forest elephants, chimpanzees, bonobos, and lowland and mountain gorillas inhabit the lush forests. 400 other species of mammals, 1,000 species of birds and 700 species of fish can also be found here.
The Congo Basin has been inhabited by humans for more than 50,000 years and it provides food, fresh water and shelter to more than 75 million people. Nearly 150 distinct ethnic groups exist and the region’s Ba’Aka (Pygmy) people are among the most well known representatives of an ancient hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

Ancient history and Ethnicity:

Most of my readers may understand Aryan, Viking, Mongol and Arabic migrations that has impacted much of China, India, Iran, Middle East and both western and Eastern Europe. Some of these migrations were gradual while others were through trade and mostly conquests. The Aryan impact happened around 2000-500BC BC, the Vikings were active around 800-1100 AD, the Arab conquests between 780-1100 AD and the Mongol/Turkic incursions around 1200 AD. However, the largest human migrations in history happened in Africa with the Bantu speaking tribes pushing south from west Africa.
The Bantu migration was one of the first formative events in African history The great southward Bantu migration in Africa took place in sub-Saharan Africa (south of the Sahara Desert), over some 2,000 years between 1000 BC and 1700 AD. With the development of the iron blade( iron age), reaping became easier for the bantu people and agriculture took on a whole new meaning. This necessitated the enlargement of territory since the foragers settled down to form communities. A linguistically related group of about 60 million gradually migrated down to the continent into southern Africa from the west and equatorial Africa.
The Bantu-speaking peoples brought agriculture to the southern half of Africa, which was mostly populated by foragers, herders, and hunter-gatherers. Bantu peoples settled land and created great empires like the Great Zimbabwe and the Zulu kingdom, and continued to expand and settle more land. Bantu refers to several similar languages, or a 'family' of languages, that can be found throughout central and south Africa.
If you look at the map showing the Bantu migration, the southern Africa was primarily peopled by the Xhosas ( San and Bushmen) while the Congo region was peopled by the Mbuti (Pygmy- Aka, Baka, Twa and Mbuti). In this migration, these people were displaced, exterminated ,marginalized and in some cases enslaved until this day.
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The first sub Saharan kingdoms emerged in the early 4th century( barring the Ethiopian and Egyptian kingdoms of earlier periods). These Sahelian kingdoms were a series of kingdoms or empires that were centered on the Sahel, the area of grasslands south of the Sahara. They controlled the trade routes across the desert, and were also quite decentralized, with member cities having a great deal of autonomy. The Ghana Empire may have been an established as early as the 4th century AD. It was succeeded by the Sosso in 1230, the Mali Empire in the 13th century AD, and later by the Songhai and Sokoto Caliphate. There were also a number of forest empires and states in this time period.
Following the collapse of the Songhai Empire, a number of smaller states arose across West Africa, including the Bambara Empire of Ségou ( Mali-Ivory Coast), the lesser Bambara kingdom of Kaarta, the Fula/Malinké kingdom of Khasso (Mali)), and the Kénédougou Empire of Sikasso ( Mali-Burkina Faso) emerged. We will not go into details of the other minor kingdoms that existed during my focus on Congo.
The Kingdom of Kongo was established around 1390 in west central Africa in what is now northern Angola, Cabinda, the Republic of the Congo, the western portion of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as well as the southernmost part of Gabon.( Please see modern map attached). At its greatest extent, it reached from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Congo River( Kwango in Bantu)in the east, and from the Congo River in the north to the Kwanza River in Angola to the south. I was basically traveling that section during my recent trip, reaching almost 30 miles near the Gabon border. Since I was a bit inland and in a dense forest, I must have been about 100 miles east of the coast.
The kingdom largely existed from c. 1390 to 1891 as an independent state, and from 1891 to 1914 as a vassal state of the Kingdom of Portugal. In 1914, the titular monarchy was forcibly abolished, following Portuguese victory against a Kongo revolt. The remaining territories of the kingdom were assimilated into the colony of Angola ( which was under Portugal since 1575).

The Congo River and Slavery 17th-19th Century:

In 1482 when the Portuguese sailor Diego Cao accidentally came upon the river as it emptied into the Atlantic, he was astounded by its sheer size. Modern oceanographers have discovered more evidence of the great river's strength in its 'pitched battle with the ocean' a 100-mile-long canyon, in place 4,000 feet deep, that the river has carved out of the sea floor... It pours some 1.4 million cubic feet of water per second into the ocean; only the Amazon carries more water.
Thanks to satellite technology, the world now knows that much of the river's basin lies on a plateau which rises nearly 1,000 feet high 220 miles from the Atlantic coast. Thus the river descends to sea level in a furious 220-mile dash down the plateau.
During this tumultuous descent the river squeezes through narrow canyons, boils up in waves of 40 feet high, and tumbles over 32 separate cataracts. So great is the drop and the volume of water that these 220 miles have as much hydroelectric potential as all the lakes and rivers of the United States combined."
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Diogo Cão, became the first European to visit the Congo when he reached the mouth of the Congo River and sailed a few miles upstream. Soon thereafter the Portuguese established ties with the king of Kongo, and in the early 16th cent. they established themselves on parts of the coast of modern Angola.
The Portuguese had little influence on the Congo until the late 18th cent., when the African and mulatto traders whom they backed, traveled far inland to the kingdom of Mwata Kazembe ( Katanga province of DRC in eastern Congo bordering Zambia). In the mid-19th cent. Arab, Swahili, and Nyamwezi traders from present-day Tanzania penetrated into E Congo, where they traded and raided for slaves and ivory. Some of the traders established states with considerable power. With the discovery of the Americas, slaves were in great demand in South and North America. As a result raiding villages in all of Congo took place in the entire length of this huge country from the Atlantic to its borders with Lake Tanganyika almost 3000 miles away.
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From the 17th century to the early 19th century, many Congolese and Angolans were brought as slaves to the United States. The first Angolan slaves of Virginia (15 men and 17 women) were Mbundu and Bakongo, who spoke bantu based Kimbundu and Kikongo languages respectively. Many of these early slaves were literate due to their conversion to Catholicism by the Portuguese.
Later, slaves were stolen by English and Dutch pirates from the Portuguese from the Angolan port of Luanda. Many of these slaves were imported by the Dutch to New York, which, at that time, was called New Amsterdam and was under Dutch control. As a New Yorker I find it interesting that the Angolans also were the first slaves in New York City. According to Harvard university professor Jill Lepore, the slaves of Angola who arrived in New Amsterdam were also Ambundu of Angola and, to a lesser extent, Kongos, as was the case with the first slaves who arrived in Virginia. The Congolese-Angolan slavery trade in the United States reached its greatest magnitude between 1619 and 1650. In 1644, 6,900 slaves on the African coast were purchased to clear the forests, lay roads, build houses and public buildings, and grow food. During the colonial period, people from the region Congo-Angola made up 25% of the slaves in North America.
Based on the data mentioned, many slaves came from distinct ethnic groups, such as the Bakongo and the Tio and Northern Mbunbu people. However, not all slaves kept the culture of their ancestors. The Bakongo were Catholics, from the kingdom of Kongo who had voluntarily converted to Catholicism in 1491 after the Portuguese conquered this territory. Many of the Bakongo slaves who arrived in the United States in the 18th century were captured and sold as slaves by African kings to other tribes or enemies during several civil wars in Kongo.

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European , Stanley and King Leopold- 18th -20th century

Until the middle of the 19th century, the Congo was at the heart of independent Africa, as European colonialists seldom entered the interior. Along with fierce local resistance, the rainforest, swamps, and attendant malaria, and other diseases such as sleeping sickness made it a difficult environment for European invasion forces. Western countries were at first reluctant to colonize the area in the absence of obvious economic benefits. Those who tried to sail upriver encountered a narrow gorge that compressed the water into a powerful opposing current. In the river's final 220 miles from the edge of the central plateau to the coast, the Congo River drops more than a thousand feet and has 32 rapids. Difficult terrain made exploration on foot also treacherous. Following Cao, more than three hundred years elapsed before serious exploration of the Congo was undertaken.
Francisco José de Lacerda, a Portuguese explorer, reached the copper-rich Katanga region from the east in 1798, as did Arab traders in the first half of the 1800s. The Arabs extended their influence over the eastern Congo River Basin, engaging in the slave and ivory trades. In 1816 a British expedition went as far as Isangila ( see map). Scottish explorer and missionary David Livingstone visited the Luapula and Lualaba rivers in 1871, believing them to be sources of the Nile.
Henry Morton Stanley was the first European to navigate the river's length during his search for Dr. Livingston and reported that the Lualaba was not a source of the Nile, as had been suggested. After leaving Livingstone, Stanley sailed for 1000 miles (1600 km) down the Lualaba (Upper Congo) to the large lake he named Stanley Pool, near Kinshasa and Brazzaville. Then, rather than perish in the impenetrable country of the cascades, Stanley took a wide detour overland to come within striking distance of the original Portuguese trading station at Boma on the Congo estuary. In 2004, a Daily Telegraph correspondent, Tim Butcher, was the first person to have retraced his route. -"Blood River'-A Journey to Africa's Broken Heart, in under 24 hours last week. Any fan of Congo should get hold of this amazing modern day adventure book.
When Stanley returned to Europe in 1878, he had not only found Dr. Livingstone (an event remembered to this day), resolved the last great mystery of African exploration-exploring the Congo, and ruined his health: he had also opened the heart of tropical Africa up to the outside world. This was to be his most enduring legacy.
Stanley was lionized across Europe. He wrote articles, appeared at public meetings, lobbied the rich and powerful tirelessly; and always his theme was the boundless opportunity for commercial exploitation of the lands he had discovered or, in his own words, to "pour the civilization of Europe into the barbarism of Africa".
"There are 40,000,000 nude people" on the other side of the rapids, Stanley wrote, "and the cotton-spinners of Manchester are waiting to clothe them... Birmingham's factories are glowing with the red metal that shall presently be made into ironwork in every fashion and shape for them... and the ministers of Christ are zealous to bring them, the poor benighted heathen, into the Christian fold."
Though trade in goods was the initial impetus for the Europeans, they quickly discovered that the slave trade was much more lucrative, and the river was the means to deliver them to the coast from inland areas once the supply of slaves dwindled on the coast. As the wealth from the slave trade filtered inland, the demand for slaves grew, leading to raids by some groups and migrations by others to escape the slavers. But the increased trade and multiplication of towns along the river had the unforeseen benefit of lifestyles becoming more similar and new crops and technologies being shared.
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Europe was less than keen on the idea: the great European scramble for Africa had not yet begun. Outside of the Cape of Good Hope and the Mediterranean coast, Europe had no African colonies of any significance. The focus of the great powers was still firmly on the lands that had made Europe's fortune: the Americas, the East Indies, India, China, and Australasia. There seemed no economic sense to investing energy in Africa when the returns from other colonies were likely to be both richer and more immediate. Nor was there a strong humanitarian interest in the continent now that the American slave trade had been extinguished. Stanley was applauded, admired, decorated—and ignored.
As a constitutional monarch, Leopold was charged with the usual constitutional duties of opening parliaments, greeting diplomats, and attending state funerals. He had no power to decide policy. But for over 20 years he had been agitating for Belgium to take its place among the great colonial powers of Europe. Leopold noted, "Our frontiers can never be extended into Europe." However, he added, "since history teaches that colonies are useful, that they play a great part in that which makes up the power and prosperity of states, let us strive to get one in our turn."
At various times, he launched unsuccessful schemes to buy an Argentine province, to buy Borneo from the Dutch, rent the Philippines from Spain, or establish colonies in China, Vietnam, Japan, or the Pacific islands. When the 1860s explorers focused attention on Africa, Leopold schemed to colonize Mozambique on the east coast, Senegal on the west coast, and the Congo in the centre. None of these schemes came anywhere near fruition: the government of Belgium resolutely resisted all Leopold's suggestions, seeing the acquisition of a colony as a good way to spend large amounts of money for little or no return.
Leopold's eventual response was extraordinary in its hubris and simplicity. If the government of Belgium would not take a colony, then he would simply do it himself, acting in his private capacity as an ordinary citizen.
In 1876 Leopold II sponsored an international geographical conference in Brussels, inviting delegates from scientific societies all over Europe to discuss philanthropic and scientific matters such as the best way to coordinate map making, to prevent the re-emergence of the west coast slave trade, and to investigate ways of sending medical aid to Africa. The conference was a sham: at its close, Leopold proposed that they set up an international benevolent committee to carry on, and modestly agreed to accept the chairman's role. For the look of things, he held one more meeting the following year, but from that time on, the Association Internationale Africaine was simply a front for Leopold's ambition. He created a baffling series of subsidiary shell organisations, culminating in the cunningly named Association Internationale du Congo, which had a single shareholder: Leopold himself.
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Stanley returned on behalf of King Leopold of Belgium in 1876 and claimed huge swaths of land in the Conger River basin for the king, an area more than 76 times the size of Belgium. By 1885 Leopold ruled this huge area as his personal domain through his private army, the Force Publique. His legacy is one of exploitation and human rights abuses such as slavery and mutilation of the peoples. He was eventually forced to cede this land to Belgium in 1908.It is estimated that nearly 5 million perished under his brutality and is known as the second Holocaust. Other than scholars and students of Africa, this fact is little known to everyone. This is another reason that prompted me to write this blog.
Having established a beachhead on the lower Congo, in 1883 Stanley set out upriver to extend Leopold's domain, employing his usual methods: negotiations with local chiefs buying sovereignty in exchange for bolts of cloth and trinkets; playing one tribe off another; and if need be, simply shooting an obstructive chief and negotiating with his cowed successor instead. However, as he approached Stanley Falls at the junction between the Congo proper and the Lualaba (close to the general vicinity of Central Africa where he had found Livingstone six years before), it soon became clear that Stanley's men were not the only intruders.
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Tippu Tip, the last and greatest of the Zanzibari slave traders of the 19th century, was well-known to Stanley, as was the social chaos and devastation that slave-hunting brought. It had only been through Tippu Tip's help that Stanley had found Livingstone (who himself had survived years on the Lualaba by virtue of Tippu Tip's friendship). Now, Stanley discovered, Tippu Tip's men had reached still further west in search of fresh populations to enslave.
Four years before, the Zanzibaris had thought the Congo deadly and impassable, and warned Stanley not to attempt to go there, but when Tippu Tip learned in Zanzibar that Stanley had survived, he was quick to act. Villages throughout the region had been burned and depopulated. Tippu Tip had raided 118 villages, killed 4,000 Africans, and, when Stanley reached his camp, had 2,300 slaves, mostly young women and children, in chains ready to transport half-way across the continent to the markets of Zanzibar.

Leopold's Rule of Congo Free State:( 1885-1908)

When Leopold finally ascended the throne in 1865, his undying desire was to own colonies. He tried everything under the sun to get a colony to no avail, including offering to buy the Philippines from Spain, buying lakes in the Nile and draining them out, or trying to lease territory on the island of Formosa.
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He despised Belgium's small size. "Small country, small people" was how he described his little Belgium that had only become independent in 1830. The brutal expeditions of Stanley in Africa finally offered Leopold the chance to land his prized jewel, Congo in 1876.
The agents of King Leopold II of Belgium massacred 10 million Africans in the Congo. Cutting off hands as we see in Sierra Leone today, was very much part of Leopold's repertoire. Today, Leopold's "rubber terror" has all been swept under the carpet. Adam Hochschild calls it "the great forgetting" in his brilliant new book, King Leopold's Ghost(1999, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). This is a story of greed, exploitation and brutality that Africa and the world must not forget. I learnt about this book from a British English language teacher, Eric G. with whom I played Scrabble during a boring a 2015 Xmas party in Brazzaville where many UN and Embassy workers were present.
While Stanley was staking out land for Leopold's colony( Congo Free State) in the eastern Congo, the French where greedily establishing their own on the western side of Stanley pools in Brazzaville- Republic of Congo ( ROC). It is in the ROC where I spent nearly two weeks with Brazzaville its capital, which was formally established as the French Congo in 1882. Its borders with Cabinda, Cameroons, and the Congo Free State ( Belgian Congo)were established by treaties over the next decade. The plan to develop the colony was to grant massive concessions to some thirty French companies. These were granted huge swaths of land on the promise they would be developed. This development was limited and amounted mostly to the extraction of ivory, rubber, and timber. These operations often involved great brutality and the near enslavement of the locals.
Even with these measures most of the companies lost money. Only about ten earned profits. Many of the companies' vast holdings existed only on paper with virtually no presence on the ground in Africa. The French Congo was sometimes known as Gabon-Congo.
"In France's equatorial African territories including the Republic of Congo where the region's history is best documented, the amount of rubber-bearing land was far less than what Leopold controlled in Belgian Congo, but the rape was just as brutal. Almost all exploitable land was divided among concession companies. Forced labor, hostages, slave chains, starving porters, burned villages, paramilitary company 'sentries', and the chicotte were the order of the day. [The chicotte was a vicious whip made out of raw, sun-dried hippopotamus hide, cut into a long sharp-edged cork-screw strip. It was applied to bare buttocks, and left permanent scars. Twenty strokes of it sent victims into unconsciousness; and a 100 or more strokes were often fatal. The chicotte was freely used by both Leopold's men and the French].
"Thousands of refugees who had fled across the Congo River to escape Leopold's regime (Congo-Leopoldville) eventually fled back to escape the French (in Congo-Brazzaville). The population loss in the rubber-rich equatorial rainforest owned by France is estimated, just as in Leopold's Congo, at roughly 50%." writes Hoschild.

Many excerpts from his book review constitute the bulk of the next few paragraphs. Adam Hoschild, a Professor of Journalism from University of California, Berkeley has done a yeoman's service in researching and exposing Belgian rule and brutality in Congo.
Leopold never set foot in "his" Congo Free State - for all the 23 years (1885-1908) he ruled what Hochschild calls "the world's only colony claimed by one man".
It was a vast territory which "if superimposed on the map of Europe", says Hochschild, "would stretch from Zurich to Moscow to central Turkey. It was bigger than England, France, Germany, Spain and Italy combined. Although mostly rainforest and savannah, it also embraced volcanic hills and mountains covered by snow and glaciers, some of whose peaks reached higher than the Alps."
Leopold's "rubber terror" raised a lot of hairs in Britain, America and continental Europe (particularly between the years 1900-1908). But while they were condemning Leopold's barbarity, his accusers were committing much the same atrocities against Africans elsewhere on the continent. Hochschild tries to be fair here by pointing to what the Americans and the British were doing, or had done, elsewhere.
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"What happened in the Congo was indeed mass murder on a vast scale, but the sad truth is that the men who carried it out for Leopold were no more murderous than many Europeans then at work or at war elsewhere in Africa. Conrad said it best (in his book, Heart of Darkness, based on the brutalities in the Congo): 'All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz'."
Kurtz is Joseph Conrad's lead character in Heart of Darkness. He is "both a murderous head collector and an intellectual, an emissary of science and progress, a painter, a poet and a journalist, and an author of a 17-page report to the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs, at the end of which he scrawls in shaky hand: 'Exterminate all the brutes'."
Conrad had himself gone to Congo in 1890 and claimed that Kurtz was created after Leon Rom, who in real life was committing his atrocities. "The moral landscape of Heart of Darkness", writes Hochshild, "and the shadowy figure at its centre are the creations not just of a novelist but of an open-eyed observer who caught the spirit of a time and place with piercing accuracy." Rom was born in Mons in Belgium. Poorly educated, he joined the Belgian army aged 16. Nine years later, aged 25 in 1886, he found himself in the Congo in search of adventure. He became district commissioner and was later put in charge of the African troops in Leopold's murderous Force Publique army in the Congo.
Rom's brutality knew no bounds. It was such that even the white people working with him were shocked to their boots.
So, how did Leopold come to own such a vast territory, exploited it, killed its people, took away its riches and never set foot in it?
Three things stand out in this sad story - the naivety of the African kings and people; the misfits of Europe sent to subdue the Africans; and the superior weapons of war that the Europeans possessed which the Africans lacked.
When the first Europeans (the Portuguese) arrived in Congo in 1482, they met a thriving African kingdom. "Despite the contempt for Kongo culture," says Hochschild, "the Portuguese grudgingly recognized in the kingdom a sophisticated and well-developed state - the leading one on the west coast of central Africa. It was an imperial federation, of two or three million people, covering an area roughly 3,000 sq miles, some of which lie today in several countries after the Europeans had drawn arbitrary border lines across Africa in 1886."
The great fascination of the Congo at the time was its mighty 3,000-mile river, variously called Lualaba, Nzadi or Nzere by the people who lived on its banks. Nzere means "the river that swallows all rivers" because of its many tributaries. Just one tributary, the Kasai, carries as much water as Europe's longest river, the Volga in Russia and it is half as long as the Rhine. Another tributary, the Ubangi is even longer. On Portuguese tongue, Nzere became Zaire which was adopted by Mobutu when he renamed the country in 1971. Like most things African, the Europeans changed the river's name to Congo.
In all, the river (Africa's second longest) drains more than 1.3 million square miles, "an area larger than India," Hochschild testifies. "It has an estimated one-sixth of the world's hydroelectric potential... Its fan-shaped web of tributaries constitute more than seven thousand miles of interconnecting waterways, a built-in transportation grid rivaled by few places on earth."
Thus, Congo was a jewel any colonialist would kill for. And the lot fell to Henry Morton Stanley to colonize it for King Leopold II.
Stanley was Welsh but he passed himself round as an American. He had first stumbled on the river on his second trip to Africa. Because the river flowed north from this point, Stanley thought it was the Nile.
Stanley's background tells a lot about the brutality he unleashed on the Africans he met on his journeys. He had been born a "bastard" in the small Welsh market town of Denbigh on 28 January 1841. His mother, Betsy Parry (a housemaid) had recorded him on the birth register of St Hillary's Church in Denbigh as "John Rowlands, Bastard". His father was believed to be a local drunkard called John Rowlands who died of delirium tremens, a severe psychotic condition occurring in some alcoholics.
John Rowlands Bastard was the first of his mother's five illegitimate children. After an exceptionally difficult childhood spent with foster parents and in juvenile workhouses, John Rowlands Bastard moved to New Orleans (USA) in February 1859 where he changed his name several times - sometimes calling himself Morley, Morelake and Moreland. Finally he settled on Henry Morton Stanley which he claimed was the name of a rich benefactor he lived with in New Orleans.
Stanley would become a soldier, sailor, newspaperman and famous explorer feted by the high and mighty on both sides of the Atlantic. He was knighted by Britain and elected to parliament. Despite his lowly background, Stanley, I have come to believe, rose above the fray as a great explorer, author and leader. Like how racism has kept many a talented individual down in the west and around the world, Stanley was subjected to many torments by his peers. On one hand as a modern day traveler I find him to be an exalted explorer without a peer. On the other, I find his cruelty and indiscretions utterly revolting.
Stanley had made two "journalistic" trips to Africa, first in 1869 to find David Livingstone. The second was in 1874 where, starting from Zanzibar with 356 people (mostly Africans), he "attacked and destroyed 28 large towns and three or four score villages" (his own words) as he plundered his way down to Boma and the mouth of the Congo River on the Atlantic coast.
In 1879, Stanley was off again to Africa, this time under commission from King Leopold to colonize Congo for him. Stanley used the gun, cheap European goods and plain-faced deceit to win over 450 local chiefs and their people and take over their land.
Stanley apparently remembered how the 22-sq-mile Manhattan Island in New York Bay had been "bought" from the Native Americans by the Dutch colonial officer, Peter Minuit, with trinkets valued at just $24.
If Minuit could do it in Manhattan, Stanley could do it, too, in the Congo. Only that in his case, he just asked the Congolese chiefs to mark Xs to legal documents written in a foreign language they had not seen before. Stanley called them treaties, like this one signed on 1 April 1884 by the chiefs of Ngombi and Mafela:
"In return for "one piece of cloth per month to each of the undersigned chiefs, besides present of cloth in hand, they promised to freely of their own accord, for themselves and their heirs and successors for ever...give up to the said Association [set up by Leopold] the sovereignty and all sovereign and governing rights to all their territories...and to assist by labor or otherwise, any works, improvements or expeditions which they said Association shall cause at any time to be carried out in any part of these territories... All roads and waterways running through this country, the right of collecting tolls on the same, and all game, fishing, mining and forest rights, are to be the absolute property of the said Association."
With treaties like this, Stanley set forth to colonize Congo for Leopold. But the French would not let them have all the laugh. They sent Count Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza on their own colonizing mission. De Brazza landed north of the Congo River, carved out an enclave for France and had a town named after him (Brazzaville). The enclave eventually became known as Congo Brazzaville, where the French too unleashed their own brutality on the local people.
Meanwhile Stanley was doing a "good" job across the river for Leopold, building a railway and a dirt road to skirt the 220-mile descent of the river. This was to facilitate the shipping of Congo's abundant ivory and other wealth to Belgium to enrich Leopold and his petit pays. In 1884, Stanley finally left for home in England, his work for Leopold done.
Leopold next sent in his hordes, including Leon Rom, to use absolute terror to rule the land and ship out the wealth. It was the brutality of Leopold's agents that would catch the eye of the world and lead to his forced sale of Congo to the Belgian government in 1908.
Ivory had been the initial prized Congo export for Leopold. Then something happened by accident in far away Ireland that dramatically changed the fate of Leopold, his Congo and its people. John Dunlop, an Irish veterinary surgeon, was tinkering with his son's bicycle in Belfast and accidentally discovered how to make an inflatable rubber tire for the bike. He set up a tire company in 1890 named after himself, Dunlop, and a new major industry was up and running. Rubber became the new gold, and Leopold was soon laughing all the way to the bank.
The huge rainforest of Congo teemed with wild rubber, and Leopold pressed his agents for more of it. This is when the genocide reached its peak. Tapping wild rubber was a difficult affair, and Leopold's agents had to use brutal force to get the people of Congo to go into the forests and gather rubber for Leopold. Any Congolese man who resisted the order, saw his wife kidnapped and put in chains to force him to go and gather rubber. Or sometimes the wife was killed in revenge.
As more villages resisted the rubber order, Leopold's agents ordered the Force Publique army to raid the rebellious villages and kill the people. To make sure that the soldiers did not waste the bullets in hunting animals, their officers demanded to see the amputated right hand of every person they killed. As Hochschild puts it, "the standard proof was the right hand from a corpse. Or occasionally not from a corpse. 'Sometimes', said one officer to a missionary, 'soldiers shot a cartridge at an animal in hunting; they then cut off a hand from a living man'. In some military units, there was even a 'keeper of the hands', his job was the smoking [of them]."
Fortunately for the people, Edmund Dene Morel, a clerk of a Liverpool shipping line used by Leopold to ship out Congo's wealth, discovered on his several journeys to the Belgian port of Antwerp in the 1890s that while rubber and ivory were shipped from Congo to Antwerp, only guns and soldiers were going from Antwerp to Congo. This marked the beginning of his massive newspaper campaign to expose Leopold and his atrocities in the Congo.
Newspaper accounts of "sliced hands and penises was far more graphic and forceful than the British government had expected. In the end, the Belgian government was forced to step in and buy Congo from Leopold in 1908. Negotiations for the buy-out started in 1906. Leopold dragged his feet for two years, but finally, in March 1908, the deal was done.
"From the colonial era, the major legacy Europe left for Africa was not democracy as it is practiced today in countries like England, France and Belgium; it was authoritarian rule and plunder. On the whole continent, perhaps no nation has had a harder time than the Congo in emerging from the shadow of its past.
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"When independence came, the country fared badly... Some Africans were being trained for that distant day; but when pressure grew and independence came in 1960, in the entire territory there were fewer than 30 African university graduates. There were no Congolese army officers, engineers, agronomists or physicians. The colony's administration had made few other steps toward a Congo run by its own people; of some 5,000 management-level positions in the civil service, only three were filled by Africans." , writes Hochschild.
Yet on the day of independence, King Baudouin, the then monarch of Belgium, had the gall to tell the Congolese in his speech in Kinshasa: "It is now up to you, gentlemen, to show that you are worthy of our confidence".
No cheek could be bigger! And you could well imagine how mad the Congolese nationalists like Patrice Lumumba were jumping.
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After Leopold and Independence from Belgium in 1960:

In May 1960, Patrice Lumumba became the first Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Belgian Congo achieved independence under the name "République du Congo" in English). Shortly after independence, the provinces of Katanga (led by Moise Tshombe and the west) and South Kasai engaged in secessionist struggles against the new leadership at the behest of the Belgian expats.
Most of the 100,000 Europeans who had remained behind after independence fled the country, opening the way for Congolese to replace the European military and administrative elite.[( Katanga Rebellion).
As the neighboring Brazzaville based French colony also chose the name "Republic of Congo" upon achieving its independence, the two countries were more commonly known as "Congo-Léopoldville" and "Congo-Brazzaville", after their capital cities.
Within 4 months, Lumumba was arrested by forces loyal to Joseph Mobutu. On 17 January 1961, he was handed over to Katangan authorities and executed by Belgian-led Katangese troops. Lumumba had previously appointed Joseph Mobutu chief of staff of the new Congo army, Armée Nationale Congolaise (ANC). Taking advantage of the leadership crisis between President Kasavubu and Prime Minister Lumumba, Mobutu garnered enough support within the army to create mutiny. With financial support from the United States and Belgium, Mobutu paid his soldiers privately. The aversion of Western powers to communism and leftist ideology influenced their decision to finance Mobutu's quest to maintain "order" in the new state by neutralizing Kasavubu and Lumumba in a coup by proxy. A constitutional referendum after Mobutu's coup of 1965 resulted in the country's official name being changed to the "Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 1971 Mobutu changed the name again, this time to "Republic of Zaïre".
One more time we can see USA supporting the wrong guy to avert communism. The list goes on Mossadeh in Iran, Allende in Chile, Nkhruma in Ghana, Chiang Ki Shek in China, Arbenz in Guatemala, Aristede in Haiti, Saddam Hussain ( we installed him) in Iraq, Sandanistas in Nicaragua. In every country we have interfered the outcome has not been great for either parties. Our track record is as bad as the British.
Corruption became so prevalent the term "le mal Zairois" or "Zaïrean Sickness",]meaning gross corruption, theft and mismanagement, was coined, reportedly by Mobutu himself. International aid, most often in the form of loans, enriched Mobutu while he allowed national infrastructure such as roads to deteriorate to as little as one-quarter of what had existed in 1960. Zaïre became a "kleptocracy" as Mobutu and his associates embezzled government funds.
In a campaign to identify himself with African nationalism, similar to the local leaders in India who changed British given names that I am familiar with, Mobutu renamed the nation's cities: Léopoldville became Kinshasa (the country was now Democratic Republic of The Congo – Kinshasa), Stanleyville became Kisangani, Elisabethville became Lubumbashi, and Coquilhatville became Mbandaka. This renaming campaign was completed in the 1970s.
In 1971, Mobutu renamed the country the Republic of Zaïre, its fourth name change in 11 years and its sixth overall. The Congo River was renamed the Zaïre River.
During the 1970s and 1980s, he was invited to visit the United States on several occasions, meeting with U.S. Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union U.S. relations with Mobutu cooled, as he was no longer deemed necessary as a Cold War ally. No wonder no one trusts our foreign policy!.
Civil wars involving Rwanda and Congo (1996–present)
By 1996, following the Rwandan Civil War and genocide and the ascension of a Tutsi-led government in Rwanda, Rwandan Hutu militia forces (Interahamwe) fled to eastern Zaïre and used refugee camps as a base for incursion against Rwanda. They allied with the Zairian armed forces (FAZ) to launch a campaign against Congolese ethnic Tutsis in eastern Zaïre.
A brief history of the Tutsi- Hutu conflict / genocide needs to be explained here. In 1994, Rwanda’s population of seven million was composed of three ethnic groups: Hutu (approximately 85%), Tutsi (14%) and Twa (1%). The Tutsis historically were herders and therefore organized and administered their lives in a notable manner. This trait had established them as the elite in Rwanda then and as a model East African Nation today. The ruling Hutus were basically hunter gatherers and marginalized the Tutsis .
In the early 1990s, Hutu extremists within Rwanda’s political elite blamed the entire Tutsi minority population for the country’s increasing social, economic, and political pressures. Tutsi civilians were also accused of supporting a Tutsi-dominated rebel group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying Rwandan President Habyarimana, a Hutu, was shot down. Violence began almost immediately after that. Under the cover of war, Hutu extremists launched their plans to destroy the entire Tutsi civilian population. Political leaders who might have been able to take charge of the situation and other high profile opponents of the Hutu extremist plans were killed immediately. Tutsi and people suspected of being Tutsi were killed in their homes and as they tried to flee at roadblocks set up across the country during the genocide. Entire families were killed at a time. Women were systematically and brutally raped. It is estimated that some 200,000 people participated in the perpetration of the Rwandan genocide.
In the weeks after April 6, 1994, 800,000 men, women, and children perished in the Rwandan genocide, perhaps as many as three quarters of the Tutsi population.
Talking to Rwandan scientists in Odzala National Park in the ROC, I finally understood the reasons behind the genocide and penetration of Rwandans into Congo to kill the perpetrators of genocide. One interesting information that I garnered during several hours of conversation in the middle of an equatorial rainforest made me shudder: France, which was a peacekeeper in the Rwandan conflict allowed the fleeing Hutu criminals into Congo since they were Francophone while the Anglophone Tutsi army were watching helplessly.
A coalition of Rwandan and Ugandan armies ( Anglophone) invaded Zaïre to overthrow the government of Mobutu, and ultimately to control the mineral resources of Zaïre, launching the First Congo War. The coalition allied with some opposition figures, led by Laurent-Désiré Kabila, becoming the Alliance des Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Congo-Zaïre (AFDL). In 1997 Mobutu fled and Kabila marched into Kinshasa, naming himself president and reverting the name of the country to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Congolese Civil Wars, which began in 1996, brought about the end of Mobutu Sese Seko's 31-year reign and devastated the country. The wars ultimately involved nine African nations, multiple groups of UN peacekeepers and twenty armed groups, and resulted in the deaths of 5.4 million people
Kabila later requested that foreign military forces return to their own countries—he had concerns that the Rwandan officers running his army were plotting a coup in order to give the presidency to a Tutsi who would report directly to the Rwandan president, Paul Kagame. Rwandan troops retreated to Goma and launched a new Tutsi-led rebel military movement called the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Democratie (RCD) to fight against Kabila, while Uganda instigated the creation of new rebel movement called the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), led by the Congolese warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba. The two rebel movements, along with Rwandan and Ugandan troops, started the Second Congo War by attacking the DRC army in 1998. Angolan, Zimbabwean and Namibian militaries entered on the side of the government.
Kabila was assassinated in 2001. His son, Joseph Kabila, succeeded him and called for multilateral peace-talks. UN peacekeepers, MONUC, now known as MONUSCO, arrived in April 2001. Talks led to the signing of a peace accord in which Kabila would share power with former rebels. By June 2003 all foreign armies except those of Rwanda had pulled out of Congo. A transitional government was set up until the election was over. A constitution was approved by voters, and on 30 July 2006 DRC held its first multi-party elections. An election-result dispute between Kabila and Jean-Pierre Bemba turned into an all-out battle between their supporters in the streets of Kinshasa. MONUC took control of the city. A new election took place in October 2006, which Kabila won, and on December 2006 he was sworn in as President.

The DRC today:

In 2009 people in the Congo continued to die at a rate of an estimated 45,000 per month estimates of the number who have died from the long conflict range from 900,000 to 5,400,000.The death toll is due to widespread disease and famine; reports indicate that almost half of the individuals who have died are children under five years of age. There have been frequent reports of weapon bearers killing civilians, of the destruction of property, of widespread sexual violence, causing hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes, and of other breaches of humanitarian and human rights law. One study found that more than 400,000 women are raped in the Democratic Republic of Congo every year.
One more important fact that cannot go unmentioned here is the plight of the Pygmies. In 2003, Sinafasi Makelo, a representative of Mbuti pygmies, told the UN's Indigenous People's Forum that during the Congo Civil War, his people were hunted down and eaten as though they were game animals. ( The German Colonists did the same to the Bushmen in Namibia in 1938). In neighboring North Kivu province there has been cannibalism by a group known as Les Effaceurs ("the erasers") who wanted to clear the land of people to open it up for mineral exploitation. Both sides of the war regarded them as "subhuman" and some say their flesh can confer magical powers.
Makelo asked the UN Security Council to recognize cannibalism as a crime against humanity and an act of genocide. According to Minority Rights Group International there is extensive evidence of mass killings, cannibalism and rape of Pygmies and they have urged the International Criminal Court to investigate a campaign of extermination against pygmies. The greatest environmental problem the Pygmies seem to be facing is the loss of their traditional homeland, the tropical forests of Central Africa. In several countries such as Cameroon, Gabon, Central African Republic and the Republic of Congo this is due to deforestation and the desire of several governments in Central Africa to evict the Pygmies from their forest habitat in order to cash in on quick profits from the sale of hardwood and the resettlement of farmers onto the cleared land. In some cases, as in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, this conflict is violent. Certain groups, such as the Hutus of the Interahamwe (of genocide fame), wish to eliminate the Pygmy and take the resources of the forest as a military conquest, using the resources of the forest for military as well as economic advancement. Since the Pygmies rely on the forest for their physical as well as cultural survival, as these forests disappear, so do the Pygmy.
Raja Sheshadri, one of my fellow Indian expatriates of fPcN-Global.org has conducted extensive research on the pygmies. This human rights organization states that as the forest has receded under logging activities, its original inhabitants have been pushed into populated areas to join the formal economy, working as casual laborers or on commercial farms and being exposed to new diseases. This shift has brought them into closer contact with neighboring ethnic communities whose HIV levels are generally higher. This has led to the spread of HIV/AIDS into the pygmy group.
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Since poverty has become very prevalent in the Pygmy communities, sexual exploitation of indigenous women has become a common practice. Commercial sex has been bolstered by logging, which often places large groups of male laborers in camps which are set up in close contact with the Pygmy communities.
Human rights groups have also reported widespread sexual abuse of indigenous women in the conflict-ridden eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Despite these risks, Pygmy populations generally have poor access to health services and information about HIV. The British medical journal, The Lancet, published a review showing that Pygmy populations often had worse access to health care than neighboring communities.[ According to the report, even where health care facilities exist, many people do not use them because they cannot pay for consultations and medicines, they do not have the documents and identity cards needed to travel or obtain hospital treatment, and they are subjected to humiliating and discriminatory treatment

In 2015 major protests broke out across the country and protesters demanded that Joseph Kabila step down as President. The protests began after the passage of a law by the Congolese lower house that, if also passed by the Congolese upper house, would keep Kabila in power at least until a national census was conducted (a process which would likely take several years and therefore keep him in power past the planned 2016 elections, which he is constitutionally barred from participating in).As of 2015 elections are scheduled for late 2016 and a tenuous peace holds over the Congo.

The ROC today:

Despite the military's claims that its interests are not divorced from those of the people, it is clear that the military undermines human security when it attempts to govern rather than follow the lead of the elected civilian authorities. The military barely understands the nature of its own institutions-and still less those of the democratic civilian governments. The military is undemocratic, order-oriented, and hierarchical, and does not tolerate differences of opinions. My own experiences during arrival into Brazzaville was a 2 hour ordeal. The local Government is not interested in tourism or world opinion since they are content with plundering and enriching themselves from their own people.
In ROC power is concentrated in the hands of one group. To consolidate its position, the power wielders exclude others from fully participating in national life. Violence is used to force them to cooperate with the authorities. Detention, persecution, mistreatment, and other human rights violations become a common practice. The victims of the politics of exclusion rarely achieve a fair hearing before courts, which further exacerbates their conditions. They are not allowed to become active players in the key areas of the economy, lacking access to agricultural lands, investment opportunities, or the higher positions that their counterparts enjoy. Modern African history is replete with examples of leaders enriching their own groups while paying little attention to the plight of their fellow citizens. Some leaders have even made their birthplaces into exclusive development zones.
I was traveling through the town of Edo en route to Odzala National Park in the north west of the country. The airline, airliner and the airport belonged to the daughter of the ruler Denis Sassou-Nguess. There were multiple checks on the passengers akin to traveling to Israel. Flights are only on weekends to suit his traveling needs. There are elaborate homes along the poverty stricken villages; a clear slap across the face of his citizens. In the west we are more subtle and have learned to hide them in distant places.
These powerful men live behind high walls, sun shades and automatic weapons unable to face their citizens. Internationally, Sassou's regime has been hit by corruption revelations despite attempts to censor them. One French investigation found over 110 bank accounts and dozens of lavish properties in France; Sassou denounced embezzlement investigations as "racist" and "colonial".
Around Edo new schools, colleges ,hospitals including a 4 star hotel have been built along with the nations only cattle farm to feed the elite( milk is imported from France and not affordable by most). None of these institutions have staff since the country has not developed any form of professionals other than gun toting militia.
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In the Republic of Congo, where Pygmies make up 2% of the population, many Pygmies live as slaves to Bantu masters for over a millennium. The nation is deeply stratified between these two major ethnic groups. The Pygmy slaves belong from birth to their Bantu masters in a relationship that the Bantus call a time-honored tradition. Even though the Pygmies are responsible for much of the hunting, fishing and manual labor in jungle villages, Pygmies and Bantus alike say Pygmies are often paid at the master's whim; in cigarettes, used clothing, or even nothing at all. As a result of pressure from UNICEF and human-rights activists, a law that would grant special protections to the Pygmy people is awaiting a vote by the Congo parliament. Pygmies are often evicted from their land and given the lowest paying jobs. At a state level, Pygmies are not considered citizens by most African states and are refused identity cards, deeds to land, health care and proper schooling. Government policies and multinational corporations involved in massive deforestation have exacerbated this problem by forcing more Pygmies out of their traditional homelands and into villages and cities where they often are marginalized, impoverished and abused by the dominant culture.
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Today there are roughly 500,000 Pygmies left in the rain-forest of Central Africa. This population is rapidly decreasing as poverty, intermarriage with Bantu peoples, Westernization, and deforestation all gradually destroy their way of life and culture along with their genetic uniqueness.
The End.
emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)

PHOTO GALLERY
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References:
King Leopold's Ghost- Adam Hoschild
Into Africa-Adventures af Livingston and Stanley by Martin Dugard
Blood River- A journey through Africa's Broken Heart- Tim Butcher
Extensive Wikipedia and Wiki Images
http://www.pbs.org/wnet/slavery/teachers/readings7.html
http://www.unitedhumanrights.org/genocide/genocide_in_rwanda.htm
http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Congo_River

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 21:15 Archived in Republic of Congo Tagged park of river king french republic congo henry david stanley genocide rwanda belgian livingston leopold pygmy drc kinshasa pygmies odzala national; brazzaville kinsasha democractic mobutu Comments (0)

Congo- A Traveler's review of its Brutal and Bloody History

My travels through this natural paradise in 2015...........................Ramdas A. Iyer

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Growing up reading Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan, the mysteries of Africa has always played on my mind and fantasies. Growing up in India, tales about fabulous Indian kingdoms, tigers and rope tricks written by the likes of Rudyard Kipling, were less exciting to me than that of Africa. Lee Falk, who created the 'Phantom" comic strip was also a hero of mine. Written in 1936, he culled all the interesting stories that came out of Africa from French and Belgians who were busy with the brutal enterprise of slavery, ivory trade and colonialism at that time.
My interest in Africa transcends books. Since 1992 I have collected over 100 pieces of wooden African sculptures belonging to over 25 tribes of anthropological re known like the Bambara, the Fang, The Luba, The Dogon etc to name a few. The stories attached to the usage of masks and fetishes, mostly to invoke both human and animal spirits, is a testament to these first peoples.

Last week, I was having a long conversation about the plight of Africa with my cousin Venkatram Santosh of Richmond, Virginia. Living in the capital city of the old confederate America we talked at length about Africa and slavery, until such time his surgeon's emergency button beeped. So I decided to continue that conversation by penning my thoughts here while using the framework of great writers on this subject.
During the past two decades I have managed to get a glimpse of East Africa through Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, that of the North through Egypt and Ethiopia, Mali in the west and the southern countries of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Angola and Zimbabwe. Alas it was time to penetrate the darkest deepest jungles of Africa- the Congo Basin. While I was filled with excitement to explore I was also anxious to avoid the many conflicts and diseases that has afflicted this area . After spending 2 weeks in the Republic of Congo(ROC of Congo-Brazzaville), I both was amazed and shocked by the riches of the country along with the corruption and poverty endured by the people. This article will mostly deal with its neighbor on the other side of the river, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC -Kinshasa) but by extension includes the entire basin. I could not obtain a visa in time to the DRC-Kinshasa, but spent many an evening sipping beer at the Brazzaville- Congo river front looking at Kinshasa on the other bank just 4 km away.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is potentially one of the richest countries on earth, but colonialism, slavery and corruption have turned it into one of the poorest . The world's bloodiest conflict since World War II is still rumbling on today. It is a war in which more than five million people have died, millions more have been driven to the brink by starvation and disease and several million women and girls have been raped.
The DRC borders the Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan to the north; Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania to the east; Zambia and Angola to the south; and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. It is the second largest country in Africa by area and the eleventh largest in the world. With a population of over 75 million, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the most populated officially Francophone country, the fourth most populated nation in Africa.

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The Great War of Africa, a conflagration that has sucked in soldiers and civilians from nine nations and countless armed rebel groups, has been fought almost entirely inside the borders of one unfortunate country - the Democratic Republic of Congo. Many of the country's mining operations are connected to the waters of the mighty Congo River. It is a place seemingly blessed with every type of mineral, where even the more fortunate live in grinding poverty. It is consistently rated lowest on the UN Human Development Index,) ranking 176 out of 187 countries in 2004 .

In order to understand the reasons for this penury and suffering I did some research using the web and by reading books about its ancient history, its ethnic composition, politics, colonies, impact of slavery and corruption that has spread like blight into African society. The land of the Congo river is split between DRC-Democratic Republic of Congo (Belgian Congo) and ROC- Republic of Congo ( formerly French Equatorial Africa). The DRC is the most violent part of the world today while the ROC is a dictatorship which is poor, corrupt but stable. Two books; King Leopold's Ghost by Adam Hoschild and Blood River-A Journey through Africa's Broken Heart. by Tim Butcher, enabled me to grasp the depth of suffering in these accursed nations.
The Congo River is the largest river in western Central Africa and the most powerful on the continent. Its overall length of 2,900 miles makes it the second-longest in Africa (after the Nile). It is the fifth-longest river in the world, draining a basin of nearly 1.5 million square miles. The river also has the second-largest flow in the world, with a discharge of 1.5 million cubic feet of water per second, trailing only the Amazon. The river and its tributaries flow through the second-largest rainforest in the world, the Congo Rainforest, second only to the Amazon Rainforest in South America. The dense rain forest, heavy rainfall, and poor soil of the basin that is traversed by the Congo results in sparse population, except for small settlements of hunters, farmers, and fishermen along or near the river. Since it is close to the equator, the climate is hot and humid.
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The Congo Basin spans across six countries—Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. There are approximately 10, 000 species of tropical plants in the Congo Basin and 30 percent are unique to the region. Endangered wildlife, including forest elephants, chimpanzees, bonobos, and lowland and mountain gorillas inhabit the lush forests. 400 other species of mammals, 1,000 species of birds and 700 species of fish can also be found here.
The Congo Basin has been inhabited by humans for more than 50,000 years and it provides food, fresh water and shelter to more than 75 million people. Nearly 150 distinct ethnic groups exist and the region’s Ba’Aka (Pygmy) people are among the most well known representatives of an ancient hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

Ancient history and Ethnicity:

Most of my readers may understand Aryan, Viking, Mongol and Arabic migrations that has impacted much of China, India, Iran, Middle East and both western and Eastern Europe. Some of these migrations were gradual while others were through trade and mostly conquests. The Aryan impact happened around 2000-500BC BC, the Vikings were active around 800-1100 AD, the Arab conquests between 780-1100 AD and the Mongol/Turkic incursions around 1200 AD. However, the largest human migrations in history happened in Africa with the Bantu speaking tribes pushing south from west Africa.
The Bantu migration was one of the first formative events in African history The great southward Bantu migration in Africa took place in sub-Saharan Africa (south of the Sahara Desert), over some 2,000 years between 1000 BC and 1700 AD. With the development of the iron blade( iron age), reaping became easier for the bantu people and agriculture took on a whole new meaning. This necessitated the enlargement of territory since the foragers settled down to form communities. A linguistically related group of about 60 million gradually migrated down to the continent into southern Africa from the west and equatorial Africa.
The Bantu-speaking peoples brought agriculture to the southern half of Africa, which was mostly populated by foragers, herders, and hunter-gatherers. Bantu peoples settled land and created great empires like the Great Zimbabwe and the Zulu kingdom, and continued to expand and settle more land. Bantu refers to several similar languages, or a 'family' of languages, that can be found throughout central and south Africa.
If you look at the map showing the Bantu migration, the southern Africa was primarily peopled by the Xhosas ( San and Bushmen) while the Congo region was peopled by the Mbuti (Pygmy- Aka, Baka, Twa and Mbuti). In this migration, these people were displaced, exterminated ,marginalized and in some cases enslaved until this day.
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The first sub Saharan kingdoms emerged in the early 4th century( barring the Ethiopian and Egyptian kingdoms of earlier periods). These Sahelian kingdoms were a series of kingdoms or empires that were centered on the Sahel, the area of grasslands south of the Sahara. They controlled the trade routes across the desert, and were also quite decentralized, with member cities having a great deal of autonomy. The Ghana Empire may have been an established as early as the 4th century AD. It was succeeded by the Sosso in 1230, the Mali Empire in the 13th century AD, and later by the Songhai and Sokoto Caliphate. There were also a number of forest empires and states in this time period.
Following the collapse of the Songhai Empire, a number of smaller states arose across West Africa, including the Bambara Empire of Ségou ( Mali-Ivory Coast), the lesser Bambara kingdom of Kaarta, the Fula/Malinké kingdom of Khasso (Mali)), and the Kénédougou Empire of Sikasso ( Mali-Burkina Faso) emerged. We will not go into details of the other minor kingdoms that existed during my focus on Congo.
The Kingdom of Kongo was established around 1390 in west central Africa in what is now northern Angola, Cabinda, the Republic of the Congo, the western portion of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as well as the southernmost part of Gabon.( Please see modern map attached). At its greatest extent, it reached from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Congo River( Kwango in Bantu)in the east, and from the Congo River in the north to the Kwanza River in Angola to the south. I was basically traveling that section during my recent trip, reaching almost 30 miles near the Gabon border. Since I was a bit inland and in a dense forest, I must have been about 100 miles east of the coast.
The kingdom largely existed from c. 1390 to 1891 as an independent state, and from 1891 to 1914 as a vassal state of the Kingdom of Portugal. In 1914, the titular monarchy was forcibly abolished, following Portuguese victory against a Kongo revolt. The remaining territories of the kingdom were assimilated into the colony of Angola ( which was under Portugal since 1575).

The Congo River and Slavery 17th-19th Century:

In 1482 when the Portuguese sailor Diego Cao accidentally came upon the river as it emptied into the Atlantic, he was astounded by its sheer size. Modern oceanographers have discovered more evidence of the great river's strength in its 'pitched battle with the ocean' a 100-mile-long canyon, in place 4,000 feet deep, that the river has carved out of the sea floor... It pours some 1.4 million cubic feet of water per second into the ocean; only the Amazon carries more water.
Thanks to satellite technology, the world now knows that much of the river's basin lies on a plateau which rises nearly 1,000 feet high 220 miles from the Atlantic coast. Thus the river descends to sea level in a furious 220-mile dash down the plateau.
During this tumultuous descent the river squeezes through narrow canyons, boils up in waves of 40 feet high, and tumbles over 32 separate cataracts. So great is the drop and the volume of water that these 220 miles have as much hydroelectric potential as all the lakes and rivers of the United States combined."
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Diogo Cão, became the first European to visit the Congo when he reached the mouth of the Congo River and sailed a few miles upstream. Soon thereafter the Portuguese established ties with the king of Kongo, and in the early 16th cent. they established themselves on parts of the coast of modern Angola.
The Portuguese had little influence on the Congo until the late 18th cent., when the African and mulatto traders whom they backed, traveled far inland to the kingdom of Mwata Kazembe ( Katanga province of DRC in eastern Congo bordering Zambia). In the mid-19th cent. Arab, Swahili, and Nyamwezi traders from present-day Tanzania penetrated into E Congo, where they traded and raided for slaves and ivory. Some of the traders established states with considerable power. With the discovery of the Americas, slaves were in great demand in South and North America. As a result raiding villages in all of Congo took place in the entire length of this huge country from the Atlantic to its borders with Lake Tanganyika almost 3000 miles away.
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From the 17th century to the early 19th century, many Congolese and Angolans were brought as slaves to the United States. The first Angolan slaves of Virginia (15 men and 17 women) were Mbundu and Bakongo, who spoke bantu based Kimbundu and Kikongo languages respectively. Many of these early slaves were literate due to their conversion to Catholicism by the Portuguese.
Later, slaves were stolen by English and Dutch pirates from the Portuguese from the Angolan port of Luanda. Many of these slaves were imported by the Dutch to New York, which, at that time, was called New Amsterdam and was under Dutch control. As a New Yorker I find it interesting that the Angolans also were the first slaves in New York City. According to Harvard university professor Jill Lepore, the slaves of Angola who arrived in New Amsterdam were also Ambundu of Angola and, to a lesser extent, Kongos, as was the case with the first slaves who arrived in Virginia. The Congolese-Angolan slavery trade in the United States reached its greatest magnitude between 1619 and 1650. In 1644, 6,900 slaves on the African coast were purchased to clear the forests, lay roads, build houses and public buildings, and grow food. During the colonial period, people from the region Congo-Angola made up 25% of the slaves in North America.
Based on the data mentioned, many slaves came from distinct ethnic groups, such as the Bakongo and the Tio and Northern Mbunbu people. However, not all slaves kept the culture of their ancestors. The Bakongo were Catholics, from the kingdom of Kongo who had voluntarily converted to Catholicism in 1491 after the Portuguese conquered this territory. Many of the Bakongo slaves who arrived in the United States in the 18th century were captured and sold as slaves by African kings to other tribes or enemies during several civil wars in Kongo.

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European , Stanley and King Leopold- 18th -20th century

Until the middle of the 19th century, the Congo was at the heart of independent Africa, as European colonialists seldom entered the interior. Along with fierce local resistance, the rainforest, swamps, and attendant malaria, and other diseases such as sleeping sickness made it a difficult environment for European invasion forces. Western countries were at first reluctant to colonize the area in the absence of obvious economic benefits. Those who tried to sail upriver encountered a narrow gorge that compressed the water into a powerful opposing current. In the river's final 220 miles from the edge of the central plateau to the coast, the Congo River drops more than a thousand feet and has 32 rapids. Difficult terrain made exploration on foot also treacherous. Following Cao, more than three hundred years elapsed before serious exploration of the Congo was undertaken.
Francisco José de Lacerda, a Portuguese explorer, reached the copper-rich Katanga region from the east in 1798, as did Arab traders in the first half of the 1800s. The Arabs extended their influence over the eastern Congo River Basin, engaging in the slave and ivory trades. In 1816 a British expedition went as far as Isangila ( see map). Scottish explorer and missionary David Livingstone visited the Luapula and Lualaba rivers in 1871, believing them to be sources of the Nile.
Henry Morton Stanley was the first European to navigate the river's length during his search for Dr. Livingston and reported that the Lualaba was not a source of the Nile, as had been suggested. After leaving Livingstone, Stanley sailed for 1000 miles (1600 km) down the Lualaba (Upper Congo) to the large lake he named Stanley Pool, near Kinshasa and Brazzaville. Then, rather than perish in the impenetrable country of the cascades, Stanley took a wide detour overland to come within striking distance of the original Portuguese trading station at Boma on the Congo estuary. In 2004, a Daily Telegraph correspondent, Tim Butcher, was the first person to have retraced his route. -"Blood River'-A Journey to Africa's Broken Heart, in under 24 hours last week. Any fan of Congo should get hold of this amazing modern day adventure book.
When Stanley returned to Europe in 1878, he had not only found Dr. Livingstone (an event remembered to this day), resolved the last great mystery of African exploration-exploring the Congo, and ruined his health: he had also opened the heart of tropical Africa up to the outside world. This was to be his most enduring legacy.
Stanley was lionized across Europe. He wrote articles, appeared at public meetings, lobbied the rich and powerful tirelessly; and always his theme was the boundless opportunity for commercial exploitation of the lands he had discovered or, in his own words, to "pour the civilization of Europe into the barbarism of Africa".
"There are 40,000,000 nude people" on the other side of the rapids, Stanley wrote, "and the cotton-spinners of Manchester are waiting to clothe them... Birmingham's factories are glowing with the red metal that shall presently be made into ironwork in every fashion and shape for them... and the ministers of Christ are zealous to bring them, the poor benighted heathen, into the Christian fold."
Though trade in goods was the initial impetus for the Europeans, they quickly discovered that the slave trade was much more lucrative, and the river was the means to deliver them to the coast from inland areas once the supply of slaves dwindled on the coast. As the wealth from the slave trade filtered inland, the demand for slaves grew, leading to raids by some groups and migrations by others to escape the slavers. But the increased trade and multiplication of towns along the river had the unforeseen benefit of lifestyles becoming more similar and new crops and technologies being shared.
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Europe was less than keen on the idea: the great European scramble for Africa had not yet begun. Outside of the Cape of Good Hope and the Mediterranean coast, Europe had no African colonies of any significance. The focus of the great powers was still firmly on the lands that had made Europe's fortune: the Americas, the East Indies, India, China, and Australasia. There seemed no economic sense to investing energy in Africa when the returns from other colonies were likely to be both richer and more immediate. Nor was there a strong humanitarian interest in the continent now that the American slave trade had been extinguished. Stanley was applauded, admired, decorated—and ignored.
As a constitutional monarch, Leopold was charged with the usual constitutional duties of opening parliaments, greeting diplomats, and attending state funerals. He had no power to decide policy. But for over 20 years he had been agitating for Belgium to take its place among the great colonial powers of Europe. Leopold noted, "Our frontiers can never be extended into Europe." However, he added, "since history teaches that colonies are useful, that they play a great part in that which makes up the power and prosperity of states, let us strive to get one in our turn."
At various times, he launched unsuccessful schemes to buy an Argentine province, to buy Borneo from the Dutch, rent the Philippines from Spain, or establish colonies in China, Vietnam, Japan, or the Pacific islands. When the 1860s explorers focused attention on Africa, Leopold schemed to colonize Mozambique on the east coast, Senegal on the west coast, and the Congo in the centre. None of these schemes came anywhere near fruition: the government of Belgium resolutely resisted all Leopold's suggestions, seeing the acquisition of a colony as a good way to spend large amounts of money for little or no return.
Leopold's eventual response was extraordinary in its hubris and simplicity. If the government of Belgium would not take a colony, then he would simply do it himself, acting in his private capacity as an ordinary citizen.
In 1876 Leopold II sponsored an international geographical conference in Brussels, inviting delegates from scientific societies all over Europe to discuss philanthropic and scientific matters such as the best way to coordinate map making, to prevent the re-emergence of the west coast slave trade, and to investigate ways of sending medical aid to Africa. The conference was a sham: at its close, Leopold proposed that they set up an international benevolent committee to carry on, and modestly agreed to accept the chairman's role. For the look of things, he held one more meeting the following year, but from that time on, the Association Internationale Africaine was simply a front for Leopold's ambition. He created a baffling series of subsidiary shell organisations, culminating in the cunningly named Association Internationale du Congo, which had a single shareholder: Leopold himself.
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Stanley returned on behalf of King Leopold of Belgium in 1876 and claimed huge swaths of land in the Conger River basin for the king, an area more than 76 times the size of Belgium. By 1885 Leopold ruled this huge area as his personal domain through his private army, the Force Publique. His legacy is one of exploitation and human rights abuses such as slavery and mutilation of the peoples. He was eventually forced to cede this land to Belgium in 1908.It is estimated that nearly 5 million perished under his brutality and is known as the second Holocaust. Other than scholars and students of Africa, this fact is little known to everyone. This is another reason that prompted me to write this blog.
Having established a beachhead on the lower Congo, in 1883 Stanley set out upriver to extend Leopold's domain, employing his usual methods: negotiations with local chiefs buying sovereignty in exchange for bolts of cloth and trinkets; playing one tribe off another; and if need be, simply shooting an obstructive chief and negotiating with his cowed successor instead. However, as he approached Stanley Falls at the junction between the Congo proper and the Lualaba (close to the general vicinity of Central Africa where he had found Livingstone six years before), it soon became clear that Stanley's men were not the only intruders.
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Tippu Tip, the last and greatest of the Zanzibari slave traders of the 19th century, was well-known to Stanley, as was the social chaos and devastation that slave-hunting brought. It had only been through Tippu Tip's help that Stanley had found Livingstone (who himself had survived years on the Lualaba by virtue of Tippu Tip's friendship). Now, Stanley discovered, Tippu Tip's men had reached still further west in search of fresh populations to enslave.
Four years before, the Zanzibaris had thought the Congo deadly and impassable, and warned Stanley not to attempt to go there, but when Tippu Tip learned in Zanzibar that Stanley had survived, he was quick to act. Villages throughout the region had been burned and depopulated. Tippu Tip had raided 118 villages, killed 4,000 Africans, and, when Stanley reached his camp, had 2,300 slaves, mostly young women and children, in chains ready to transport half-way across the continent to the markets of Zanzibar.

Leopold's Rule of Congo Free State:( 1885-1908)

When Leopold finally ascended the throne in 1865, his undying desire was to own colonies. He tried everything under the sun to get a colony to no avail, including offering to buy the Philippines from Spain, buying lakes in the Nile and draining them out, or trying to lease territory on the island of Formosa.
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He despised Belgium's small size. "Small country, small people" was how he described his little Belgium that had only become independent in 1830. The brutal expeditions of Stanley in Africa finally offered Leopold the chance to land his prized jewel, Congo in 1876.
The agents of King Leopold II of Belgium massacred 10 million Africans in the Congo. Cutting off hands as we see in Sierra Leone today, was very much part of Leopold's repertoire. Today, Leopold's "rubber terror" has all been swept under the carpet. Adam Hochschild calls it "the great forgetting" in his brilliant new book, King Leopold's Ghost(1999, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). This is a story of greed, exploitation and brutality that Africa and the world must not forget. I learnt about this book from a British English language teacher, Eric G. with whom I played Scrabble during a boring a 2015 Xmas party in Brazzaville where many UN and Embassy workers were present.
While Stanley was staking out land for Leopold's colony( Congo Free State) in the eastern Congo, the French where greedily establishing their own on the western side of Stanley pools in Brazzaville- Republic of Congo ( ROC). It is in the ROC where I spent nearly two weeks with Brazzaville its capital, which was formally established as the French Congo in 1882. Its borders with Cabinda, Cameroons, and the Congo Free State ( Belgian Congo)were established by treaties over the next decade. The plan to develop the colony was to grant massive concessions to some thirty French companies. These were granted huge swaths of land on the promise they would be developed. This development was limited and amounted mostly to the extraction of ivory, rubber, and timber. These operations often involved great brutality and the near enslavement of the locals.
Even with these measures most of the companies lost money. Only about ten earned profits. Many of the companies' vast holdings existed only on paper with virtually no presence on the ground in Africa. The French Congo was sometimes known as Gabon-Congo.
"In France's equatorial African territories including the Republic of Congo where the region's history is best documented, the amount of rubber-bearing land was far less than what Leopold controlled in Belgian Congo, but the rape was just as brutal. Almost all exploitable land was divided among concession companies. Forced labor, hostages, slave chains, starving porters, burned villages, paramilitary company 'sentries', and the chicotte were the order of the day. [The chicotte was a vicious whip made out of raw, sun-dried hippopotamus hide, cut into a long sharp-edged cork-screw strip. It was applied to bare buttocks, and left permanent scars. Twenty strokes of it sent victims into unconsciousness; and a 100 or more strokes were often fatal. The chicotte was freely used by both Leopold's men and the French].
"Thousands of refugees who had fled across the Congo River to escape Leopold's regime (Congo-Leopoldville) eventually fled back to escape the French (in Congo-Brazzaville). The population loss in the rubber-rich equatorial rainforest owned by France is estimated, just as in Leopold's Congo, at roughly 50%." writes Hoschild.

Many excerpts from his book review constitute the bulk of the next few paragraphs. Adam Hoschild, a Professor of Journalism from University of California, Berkeley has done a yeoman's service in researching and exposing Belgian rule and brutality in Congo.
Leopold never set foot in "his" Congo Free State - for all the 23 years (1885-1908) he ruled what Hochschild calls "the world's only colony claimed by one man".
It was a vast territory which "if superimposed on the map of Europe", says Hochschild, "would stretch from Zurich to Moscow to central Turkey. It was bigger than England, France, Germany, Spain and Italy combined. Although mostly rainforest and savannah, it also embraced volcanic hills and mountains covered by snow and glaciers, some of whose peaks reached higher than the Alps."
Leopold's "rubber terror" raised a lot of hairs in Britain, America and continental Europe (particularly between the years 1900-1908). But while they were condemning Leopold's barbarity, his accusers were committing much the same atrocities against Africans elsewhere on the continent. Hochschild tries to be fair here by pointing to what the Americans and the British were doing, or had done, elsewhere.
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"What happened in the Congo was indeed mass murder on a vast scale, but the sad truth is that the men who carried it out for Leopold were no more murderous than many Europeans then at work or at war elsewhere in Africa. Conrad said it best (in his book, Heart of Darkness, based on the brutalities in the Congo): 'All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz'."
Kurtz is Joseph Conrad's lead character in Heart of Darkness. He is "both a murderous head collector and an intellectual, an emissary of science and progress, a painter, a poet and a journalist, and an author of a 17-page report to the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs, at the end of which he scrawls in shaky hand: 'Exterminate all the brutes'."
Conrad had himself gone to Congo in 1890 and claimed that Kurtz was created after Leon Rom, who in real life was committing his atrocities. "The moral landscape of Heart of Darkness", writes Hochshild, "and the shadowy figure at its centre are the creations not just of a novelist but of an open-eyed observer who caught the spirit of a time and place with piercing accuracy." Rom was born in Mons in Belgium. Poorly educated, he joined the Belgian army aged 16. Nine years later, aged 25 in 1886, he found himself in the Congo in search of adventure. He became district commissioner and was later put in charge of the African troops in Leopold's murderous Force Publique army in the Congo.
Rom's brutality knew no bounds. It was such that even the white people working with him were shocked to their boots.
So, how did Leopold come to own such a vast territory, exploited it, killed its people, took away its riches and never set foot in it?
Three things stand out in this sad story - the naivety of the African kings and people; the misfits of Europe sent to subdue the Africans; and the superior weapons of war that the Europeans possessed which the Africans lacked.
When the first Europeans (the Portuguese) arrived in Congo in 1482, they met a thriving African kingdom. "Despite the contempt for Kongo culture," says Hochschild, "the Portuguese grudgingly recognized in the kingdom a sophisticated and well-developed state - the leading one on the west coast of central Africa. It was an imperial federation, of two or three million people, covering an area roughly 3,000 sq miles, some of which lie today in several countries after the Europeans had drawn arbitrary border lines across Africa in 1886."
The great fascination of the Congo at the time was its mighty 3,000-mile river, variously called Lualaba, Nzadi or Nzere by the people who lived on its banks. Nzere means "the river that swallows all rivers" because of its many tributaries. Just one tributary, the Kasai, carries as much water as Europe's longest river, the Volga in Russia and it is half as long as the Rhine. Another tributary, the Ubangi is even longer. On Portuguese tongue, Nzere became Zaire which was adopted by Mobutu when he renamed the country in 1971. Like most things African, the Europeans changed the river's name to Congo.
In all, the river (Africa's second longest) drains more than 1.3 million square miles, "an area larger than India," Hochschild testifies. "It has an estimated one-sixth of the world's hydroelectric potential... Its fan-shaped web of tributaries constitute more than seven thousand miles of interconnecting waterways, a built-in transportation grid rivaled by few places on earth."
Thus, Congo was a jewel any colonialist would kill for. And the lot fell to Henry Morton Stanley to colonize it for King Leopold II.
Stanley was Welsh but he passed himself round as an American. He had first stumbled on the river on his second trip to Africa. Because the river flowed north from this point, Stanley thought it was the Nile.
Stanley's background tells a lot about the brutality he unleashed on the Africans he met on his journeys. He had been born a "bastard" in the small Welsh market town of Denbigh on 28 January 1841. His mother, Betsy Parry (a housemaid) had recorded him on the birth register of St Hillary's Church in Denbigh as "John Rowlands, Bastard". His father was believed to be a local drunkard called John Rowlands who died of delirium tremens, a severe psychotic condition occurring in some alcoholics.
John Rowlands Bastard was the first of his mother's five illegitimate children. After an exceptionally difficult childhood spent with foster parents and in juvenile workhouses, John Rowlands Bastard moved to New Orleans (USA) in February 1859 where he changed his name several times - sometimes calling himself Morley, Morelake and Moreland. Finally he settled on Henry Morton Stanley which he claimed was the name of a rich benefactor he lived with in New Orleans.
Stanley would become a soldier, sailor, newspaperman and famous explorer feted by the high and mighty on both sides of the Atlantic. He was knighted by Britain and elected to parliament. Despite his lowly background, Stanley, I have come to believe, rose above the fray as a great explorer, author and leader. Like how racism has kept many a talented individual down in the west and around the world, Stanley was subjected to many torments by his peers. On one hand as a modern day traveler I find him to be an exalted explorer without a peer. On the other, I find his cruelty and indiscretions utterly revolting.
Stanley had made two "journalistic" trips to Africa, first in 1869 to find David Livingstone. The second was in 1874 where, starting from Zanzibar with 356 people (mostly Africans), he "attacked and destroyed 28 large towns and three or four score villages" (his own words) as he plundered his way down to Boma and the mouth of the Congo River on the Atlantic coast.
In 1879, Stanley was off again to Africa, this time under commission from King Leopold to colonize Congo for him. Stanley used the gun, cheap European goods and plain-faced deceit to win over 450 local chiefs and their people and take over their land.
Stanley apparently remembered how the 22-sq-mile Manhattan Island in New York Bay had been "bought" from the Native Americans by the Dutch colonial officer, Peter Minuit, with trinkets valued at just $24.
If Minuit could do it in Manhattan, Stanley could do it, too, in the Congo. Only that in his case, he just asked the Congolese chiefs to mark Xs to legal documents written in a foreign language they had not seen before. Stanley called them treaties, like this one signed on 1 April 1884 by the chiefs of Ngombi and Mafela:
"In return for "one piece of cloth per month to each of the undersigned chiefs, besides present of cloth in hand, they promised to freely of their own accord, for themselves and their heirs and successors for ever...give up to the said Association [set up by Leopold] the sovereignty and all sovereign and governing rights to all their territories...and to assist by labor or otherwise, any works, improvements or expeditions which they said Association shall cause at any time to be carried out in any part of these territories... All roads and waterways running through this country, the right of collecting tolls on the same, and all game, fishing, mining and forest rights, are to be the absolute property of the said Association."
With treaties like this, Stanley set forth to colonize Congo for Leopold. But the French would not let them have all the laugh. They sent Count Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza on their own colonizing mission. De Brazza landed north of the Congo River, carved out an enclave for France and had a town named after him (Brazzaville). The enclave eventually became known as Congo Brazzaville, where the French too unleashed their own brutality on the local people.
Meanwhile Stanley was doing a "good" job across the river for Leopold, building a railway and a dirt road to skirt the 220-mile descent of the river. This was to facilitate the shipping of Congo's abundant ivory and other wealth to Belgium to enrich Leopold and his petit pays. In 1884, Stanley finally left for home in England, his work for Leopold done.
Leopold next sent in his hordes, including Leon Rom, to use absolute terror to rule the land and ship out the wealth. It was the brutality of Leopold's agents that would catch the eye of the world and lead to his forced sale of Congo to the Belgian government in 1908.
Ivory had been the initial prized Congo export for Leopold. Then something happened by accident in far away Ireland that dramatically changed the fate of Leopold, his Congo and its people. John Dunlop, an Irish veterinary surgeon, was tinkering with his son's bicycle in Belfast and accidentally discovered how to make an inflatable rubber tire for the bike. He set up a tire company in 1890 named after himself, Dunlop, and a new major industry was up and running. Rubber became the new gold, and Leopold was soon laughing all the way to the bank.
The huge rainforest of Congo teemed with wild rubber, and Leopold pressed his agents for more of it. This is when the genocide reached its peak. Tapping wild rubber was a difficult affair, and Leopold's agents had to use brutal force to get the people of Congo to go into the forests and gather rubber for Leopold. Any Congolese man who resisted the order, saw his wife kidnapped and put in chains to force him to go and gather rubber. Or sometimes the wife was killed in revenge.
As more villages resisted the rubber order, Leopold's agents ordered the Force Publique army to raid the rebellious villages and kill the people. To make sure that the soldiers did not waste the bullets in hunting animals, their officers demanded to see the amputated right hand of every person they killed. As Hochschild puts it, "the standard proof was the right hand from a corpse. Or occasionally not from a corpse. 'Sometimes', said one officer to a missionary, 'soldiers shot a cartridge at an animal in hunting; they then cut off a hand from a living man'. In some military units, there was even a 'keeper of the hands', his job was the smoking [of them]."
Fortunately for the people, Edmund Dene Morel, a clerk of a Liverpool shipping line used by Leopold to ship out Congo's wealth, discovered on his several journeys to the Belgian port of Antwerp in the 1890s that while rubber and ivory were shipped from Congo to Antwerp, only guns and soldiers were going from Antwerp to Congo. This marked the beginning of his massive newspaper campaign to expose Leopold and his atrocities in the Congo.
Newspaper accounts of "sliced hands and penises was far more graphic and forceful than the British government had expected. In the end, the Belgian government was forced to step in and buy Congo from Leopold in 1908. Negotiations for the buy-out started in 1906. Leopold dragged his feet for two years, but finally, in March 1908, the deal was done.
"From the colonial era, the major legacy Europe left for Africa was not democracy as it is practiced today in countries like England, France and Belgium; it was authoritarian rule and plunder. On the whole continent, perhaps no nation has had a harder time than the Congo in emerging from the shadow of its past.
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"When independence came, the country fared badly... Some Africans were being trained for that distant day; but when pressure grew and independence came in 1960, in the entire territory there were fewer than 30 African university graduates. There were no Congolese army officers, engineers, agronomists or physicians. The colony's administration had made few other steps toward a Congo run by its own people; of some 5,000 management-level positions in the civil service, only three were filled by Africans." , writes Hochschild.
Yet on the day of independence, King Baudouin, the then monarch of Belgium, had the gall to tell the Congolese in his speech in Kinshasa: "It is now up to you, gentlemen, to show that you are worthy of our confidence".
No cheek could be bigger! And you could well imagine how mad the Congolese nationalists like Patrice Lumumba were jumping.
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After Leopold and Independence from Belgium in 1960:

In May 1960, Patrice Lumumba became the first Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Belgian Congo achieved independence under the name "République du Congo" in English). Shortly after independence, the provinces of Katanga (led by Moise Tshombe and the west) and South Kasai engaged in secessionist struggles against the new leadership at the behest of the Belgian expats.
Most of the 100,000 Europeans who had remained behind after independence fled the country, opening the way for Congolese to replace the European military and administrative elite.[( Katanga Rebellion).
As the neighboring Brazzaville based French colony also chose the name "Republic of Congo" upon achieving its independence, the two countries were more commonly known as "Congo-Léopoldville" and "Congo-Brazzaville", after their capital cities.
Within 4 months, Lumumba was arrested by forces loyal to Joseph Mobutu. On 17 January 1961, he was handed over to Katangan authorities and executed by Belgian-led Katangese troops. Lumumba had previously appointed Joseph Mobutu chief of staff of the new Congo army, Armée Nationale Congolaise (ANC). Taking advantage of the leadership crisis between President Kasavubu and Prime Minister Lumumba, Mobutu garnered enough support within the army to create mutiny. With financial support from the United States and Belgium, Mobutu paid his soldiers privately. The aversion of Western powers to communism and leftist ideology influenced their decision to finance Mobutu's quest to maintain "order" in the new state by neutralizing Kasavubu and Lumumba in a coup by proxy. A constitutional referendum after Mobutu's coup of 1965 resulted in the country's official name being changed to the "Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 1971 Mobutu changed the name again, this time to "Republic of Zaïre".
One more time we can see USA supporting the wrong guy to avert communism. The list goes on Mossadeh in Iran, Allende in Chile, Nkhruma in Ghana, Chiang Ki Shek in China, Arbenz in Guatemala, Aristede in Haiti, Saddam Hussain ( we installed him) in Iraq, Sandanistas in Nicaragua. In every country we have interfered the outcome has not been great for either parties. Our track record is as bad as the British.
Corruption became so prevalent the term "le mal Zairois" or "Zaïrean Sickness",]meaning gross corruption, theft and mismanagement, was coined, reportedly by Mobutu himself. International aid, most often in the form of loans, enriched Mobutu while he allowed national infrastructure such as roads to deteriorate to as little as one-quarter of what had existed in 1960. Zaïre became a "kleptocracy" as Mobutu and his associates embezzled government funds.
In a campaign to identify himself with African nationalism, similar to the local leaders in India who changed British given names that I am familiar with, Mobutu renamed the nation's cities: Léopoldville became Kinshasa (the country was now Democratic Republic of The Congo – Kinshasa), Stanleyville became Kisangani, Elisabethville became Lubumbashi, and Coquilhatville became Mbandaka. This renaming campaign was completed in the 1970s.
In 1971, Mobutu renamed the country the Republic of Zaïre, its fourth name change in 11 years and its sixth overall. The Congo River was renamed the Zaïre River.
During the 1970s and 1980s, he was invited to visit the United States on several occasions, meeting with U.S. Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union U.S. relations with Mobutu cooled, as he was no longer deemed necessary as a Cold War ally. No wonder no one trusts our foreign policy!.
Civil wars involving Rwanda and Congo (1996–present)
By 1996, following the Rwandan Civil War and genocide and the ascension of a Tutsi-led government in Rwanda, Rwandan Hutu militia forces (Interahamwe) fled to eastern Zaïre and used refugee camps as a base for incursion against Rwanda. They allied with the Zairian armed forces (FAZ) to launch a campaign against Congolese ethnic Tutsis in eastern Zaïre.
A brief history of the Tutsi- Hutu conflict / genocide needs to be explained here. In 1994, Rwanda’s population of seven million was composed of three ethnic groups: Hutu (approximately 85%), Tutsi (14%) and Twa (1%). The Tutsis historically were herders and therefore organized and administered their lives in a notable manner. This trait had established them as the elite in Rwanda then and as a model East African Nation today. The ruling Hutus were basically hunter gatherers and marginalized the Tutsis .
In the early 1990s, Hutu extremists within Rwanda’s political elite blamed the entire Tutsi minority population for the country’s increasing social, economic, and political pressures. Tutsi civilians were also accused of supporting a Tutsi-dominated rebel group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying Rwandan President Habyarimana, a Hutu, was shot down. Violence began almost immediately after that. Under the cover of war, Hutu extremists launched their plans to destroy the entire Tutsi civilian population. Political leaders who might have been able to take charge of the situation and other high profile opponents of the Hutu extremist plans were killed immediately. Tutsi and people suspected of being Tutsi were killed in their homes and as they tried to flee at roadblocks set up across the country during the genocide. Entire families were killed at a time. Women were systematically and brutally raped. It is estimated that some 200,000 people participated in the perpetration of the Rwandan genocide.
In the weeks after April 6, 1994, 800,000 men, women, and children perished in the Rwandan genocide, perhaps as many as three quarters of the Tutsi population.
Talking to Rwandan scientists in Odzala National Park in the ROC, I finally understood the reasons behind the genocide and penetration of Rwandans into Congo to kill the perpetrators of genocide. One interesting information that I garnered during several hours of conversation in the middle of an equatorial rainforest made me shudder: France, which was a peacekeeper in the Rwandan conflict allowed the fleeing Hutu criminals into Congo since they were Francophone while the Anglophone Tutsi army were watching helplessly.
A coalition of Rwandan and Ugandan armies ( Anglophone) invaded Zaïre to overthrow the government of Mobutu, and ultimately to control the mineral resources of Zaïre, launching the First Congo War. The coalition allied with some opposition figures, led by Laurent-Désiré Kabila, becoming the Alliance des Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Congo-Zaïre (AFDL). In 1997 Mobutu fled and Kabila marched into Kinshasa, naming himself president and reverting the name of the country to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Congolese Civil Wars, which began in 1996, brought about the end of Mobutu Sese Seko's 31-year reign and devastated the country. The wars ultimately involved nine African nations, multiple groups of UN peacekeepers and twenty armed groups, and resulted in the deaths of 5.4 million people
Kabila later requested that foreign military forces return to their own countries—he had concerns that the Rwandan officers running his army were plotting a coup in order to give the presidency to a Tutsi who would report directly to the Rwandan president, Paul Kagame. Rwandan troops retreated to Goma and launched a new Tutsi-led rebel military movement called the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Democratie (RCD) to fight against Kabila, while Uganda instigated the creation of new rebel movement called the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), led by the Congolese warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba. The two rebel movements, along with Rwandan and Ugandan troops, started the Second Congo War by attacking the DRC army in 1998. Angolan, Zimbabwean and Namibian militaries entered on the side of the government.
Kabila was assassinated in 2001. His son, Joseph Kabila, succeeded him and called for multilateral peace-talks. UN peacekeepers, MONUC, now known as MONUSCO, arrived in April 2001. Talks led to the signing of a peace accord in which Kabila would share power with former rebels. By June 2003 all foreign armies except those of Rwanda had pulled out of Congo. A transitional government was set up until the election was over. A constitution was approved by voters, and on 30 July 2006 DRC held its first multi-party elections. An election-result dispute between Kabila and Jean-Pierre Bemba turned into an all-out battle between their supporters in the streets of Kinshasa. MONUC took control of the city. A new election took place in October 2006, which Kabila won, and on December 2006 he was sworn in as President.

The DRC today:

In 2009 people in the Congo continued to die at a rate of an estimated 45,000 per month estimates of the number who have died from the long conflict range from 900,000 to 5,400,000.The death toll is due to widespread disease and famine; reports indicate that almost half of the individuals who have died are children under five years of age. There have been frequent reports of weapon bearers killing civilians, of the destruction of property, of widespread sexual violence, causing hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes, and of other breaches of humanitarian and human rights law. One study found that more than 400,000 women are raped in the Democratic Republic of Congo every year.
One more important fact that cannot go unmentioned here is the plight of the Pygmies. In 2003, Sinafasi Makelo, a representative of Mbuti pygmies, told the UN's Indigenous People's Forum that during the Congo Civil War, his people were hunted down and eaten as though they were game animals. ( The German Colonists did the same to the Bushmen in Namibia in 1938). In neighboring North Kivu province there has been cannibalism by a group known as Les Effaceurs ("the erasers") who wanted to clear the land of people to open it up for mineral exploitation. Both sides of the war regarded them as "subhuman" and some say their flesh can confer magical powers.
Makelo asked the UN Security Council to recognize cannibalism as a crime against humanity and an act of genocide. According to Minority Rights Group International there is extensive evidence of mass killings, cannibalism and rape of Pygmies and they have urged the International Criminal Court to investigate a campaign of extermination against pygmies. The greatest environmental problem the Pygmies seem to be facing is the loss of their traditional homeland, the tropical forests of Central Africa. In several countries such as Cameroon, Gabon, Central African Republic and the Republic of Congo this is due to deforestation and the desire of several governments in Central Africa to evict the Pygmies from their forest habitat in order to cash in on quick profits from the sale of hardwood and the resettlement of farmers onto the cleared land. In some cases, as in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, this conflict is violent. Certain groups, such as the Hutus of the Interahamwe (of genocide fame), wish to eliminate the Pygmy and take the resources of the forest as a military conquest, using the resources of the forest for military as well as economic advancement. Since the Pygmies rely on the forest for their physical as well as cultural survival, as these forests disappear, so do the Pygmy.
Raja Sheshadri, one of my fellow Indian expatriates of fPcN-Global.org has conducted extensive research on the pygmies. This human rights organization states that as the forest has receded under logging activities, its original inhabitants have been pushed into populated areas to join the formal economy, working as casual laborers or on commercial farms and being exposed to new diseases. This shift has brought them into closer contact with neighboring ethnic communities whose HIV levels are generally higher. This has led to the spread of HIV/AIDS into the pygmy group.
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Since poverty has become very prevalent in the Pygmy communities, sexual exploitation of indigenous women has become a common practice. Commercial sex has been bolstered by logging, which often places large groups of male laborers in camps which are set up in close contact with the Pygmy communities.
Human rights groups have also reported widespread sexual abuse of indigenous women in the conflict-ridden eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Despite these risks, Pygmy populations generally have poor access to health services and information about HIV. The British medical journal, The Lancet, published a review showing that Pygmy populations often had worse access to health care than neighboring communities.[ According to the report, even where health care facilities exist, many people do not use them because they cannot pay for consultations and medicines, they do not have the documents and identity cards needed to travel or obtain hospital treatment, and they are subjected to humiliating and discriminatory treatment

In 2015 major protests broke out across the country and protesters demanded that Joseph Kabila step down as President. The protests began after the passage of a law by the Congolese lower house that, if also passed by the Congolese upper house, would keep Kabila in power at least until a national census was conducted (a process which would likely take several years and therefore keep him in power past the planned 2016 elections, which he is constitutionally barred from participating in).As of 2015 elections are scheduled for late 2016 and a tenuous peace holds over the Congo.

The ROC today:

Despite the military's claims that its interests are not divorced from those of the people, it is clear that the military undermines human security when it attempts to govern rather than follow the lead of the elected civilian authorities. The military barely understands the nature of its own institutions-and still less those of the democratic civilian governments. The military is undemocratic, order-oriented, and hierarchical, and does not tolerate differences of opinions. My own experiences during arrival into Brazzaville was a 2 hour ordeal. The local Government is not interested in tourism or world opinion since they are content with plundering and enriching themselves from their own people.
In ROC power is concentrated in the hands of one group. To consolidate its position, the power wielders exclude others from fully participating in national life. Violence is used to force them to cooperate with the authorities. Detention, persecution, mistreatment, and other human rights violations become a common practice. The victims of the politics of exclusion rarely achieve a fair hearing before courts, which further exacerbates their conditions. They are not allowed to become active players in the key areas of the economy, lacking access to agricultural lands, investment opportunities, or the higher positions that their counterparts enjoy. Modern African history is replete with examples of leaders enriching their own groups while paying little attention to the plight of their fellow citizens. Some leaders have even made their birthplaces into exclusive development zones.
I was traveling through the town of Edo en route to Odzala National Park in the north west of the country. The airline, airliner and the airport belonged to the daughter of the ruler Denis Sassou-Nguess. There were multiple checks on the passengers akin to traveling to Israel. Flights are only on weekends to suit his traveling needs. There are elaborate homes along the poverty stricken villages; a clear slap across the face of his citizens. In the west we are more subtle and have learned to hide them in distant places.
These powerful men live behind high walls, sun shades and automatic weapons unable to face their citizens. Internationally, Sassou's regime has been hit by corruption revelations despite attempts to censor them. One French investigation found over 110 bank accounts and dozens of lavish properties in France; Sassou denounced embezzlement investigations as "racist" and "colonial".
Around Edo new schools, colleges ,hospitals including a 4 star hotel have been built along with the nations only cattle farm to feed the elite( milk is imported from France and not affordable by most). None of these institutions have staff since the country has not developed any form of professionals other than gun toting militia.
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In the Republic of Congo, where Pygmies make up 2% of the population, many Pygmies live as slaves to Bantu masters for over a millennium. The nation is deeply stratified between these two major ethnic groups. The Pygmy slaves belong from birth to their Bantu masters in a relationship that the Bantus call a time-honored tradition. Even though the Pygmies are responsible for much of the hunting, fishing and manual labor in jungle villages, Pygmies and Bantus alike say Pygmies are often paid at the master's whim; in cigarettes, used clothing, or even nothing at all. As a result of pressure from UNICEF and human-rights activists, a law that would grant special protections to the Pygmy people is awaiting a vote by the Congo parliament. Pygmies are often evicted from their land and given the lowest paying jobs. At a state level, Pygmies are not considered citizens by most African states and are refused identity cards, deeds to land, health care and proper schooling. Government policies and multinational corporations involved in massive deforestation have exacerbated this problem by forcing more Pygmies out of their traditional homelands and into villages and cities where they often are marginalized, impoverished and abused by the dominant culture.
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Today there are roughly 500,000 Pygmies left in the rain-forest of Central Africa. This population is rapidly decreasing as poverty, intermarriage with Bantu peoples, Westernization, and deforestation all gradually destroy their way of life and culture along with their genetic uniqueness.
The End.
emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)

PHOTO GALLERY
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References:
King Leopold's Ghost- Adam Hoschild
Into Africa-Adventures af Livingston and Stanley by Martin Dugard
Blood River- A journey through Africa's Broken Heart- Tim Butcher
Extensive Wikipedia and Wiki Images
http://www.pbs.org/wnet/slavery/teachers/readings7.html
http://www.unitedhumanrights.org/genocide/genocide_in_rwanda.htm
http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Congo_River

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 13:39 Archived in Republic of Congo Tagged park river king french congo henry david stanley belgian livingston leopold drc pygmies odzala national; brazzaville kinsasha Comments (0)

Of Mines and Men in the Alaskan Wilderness, Alaska

Kennecott Mines inside the Wrangel-St.Elias National Park ..........Ramdas A. Iyer

sunny 48 °F

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All these years I had dismissed mining and prospecting as a dirty business constituting the back end of a shining industrial society. My recent trip to Alaska opened my eyes to the history of mining in remote regions where men either toiled for a fortune or just to pay for their next meal. As a traveler who primarily highlighted the natural history and geography of a region, I feel pressed this time to celebrate the industriousness and challenges undertaken by Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries that ultimately turned USA as a "golden city on the hill" for the rest of the world to admire.My training as a Chemical Engineer gave me additional insight and fascination with this plant. Also due to the presence of limestone in the nearby rocks, the sulfuric acid effluent was readily neutralized thereby avoiding acid leaching into a pristine environment.

In addition to my photographs, I have introduced some archival material to reflect the times when the mine was active.
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Arriving at Kennecott, Alaska famous for the copper mine and processing plant, deep inside the glacier lands of today's Wrangel-St.Elias National Park, I was astounded by mans innovativeness and determination to accomplish the impossible in a very harsh and intemperate corner of Alaska. The prospecting, mining, processing and shipping a very valuable metal prior to the outbreak of World War I is described here. As an amateur historian, I have culled information from various sources to tell you a wonderful story that I believe my readers will find fascinating.

Alaska, it seemed, was the scene of a continuing gold rush that started in the 1860s and extended into the early 1900s. The indigenous peoples in north-west America had traded in copper nuggets prior to European expansion. Most of the tribes were aware that gold existed in region but the metal was not valued by them. The Russians and the Hudson's Bay Company had both explored the Yukon in the first half of the 19th century, but ignored the rumors of gold in favor of fur trading, which offered more immediate profits - indeed, some of the first prospectors had to supplement their income with fur trading in order to survive.
In the second half of the 19th century, American prospectors began to spread into the peninsula. Making deals with the Native Tlingit and Tagish tribes, the early prospectors succeeded in opening up the important routes of Chilkoot and White Pass to reach the Yukon valley between 1870–90. Here, they encountered the Hän people, semi-nomadic hunters and fishermen who lived along the Yukon and Klondike Rivers. The Hän did not appear to know about the extent of the gold deposits in the region.

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Following discoveries in western British Columbia, prospectors found gold in the Fortymile River drainage and at Birch Creek in the upper Yukon River area. The world heard in 1897 of the Klondike gold fields in western Canada. Two years later, discoveries were made on the Seward Peninsula, more in Interior Alaska, in Western Alaska along the Innoko River and in the Kuskokwim River drainage, and in northern Alaska in the Chandalar River area. Gold seemed to be everywhere in Alaska.
The Klondike stampede was an attempt by an estimated 100,000 people to reach the Klondike goldfields, of whom only around 30,000 to 40,000 eventually did. Migrants from over 40 nations were represented, mostly drawn from recent migrants to North America. It formed the height of the Klondike gold rush from the summer of 1897 until the summer of 1898. The migration of prospectors caught so much attention that it was joined by outfitters, writers and photographers Various factors lay behind this sudden mass response. Economically, the news had reached the US at the height of a series of financial recessions and bank failures in the 1890s. The gold standard of the time tied paper money to the production of gold and shortages towards the end of the 19th century meant that gold dollars were rapidly increasing in value ahead of paper currencies and being hoarded.[38] This had contributed to the financial panics of 1893 and 1896, which caused unemployment and financial uncertainty. There was a huge, unresolved demand for gold across the developed world that the Klondike offered to fulfill and, for individuals, the region promised higher wages or financial security. The Klondike rush lasted till 1903 when most of the gold was mined out. The events of the Klondike gold rush rapidly became embedded in North American culture, being captured in poems, stories, photographs and promotional campaigns long after the end of the stampede.
Alaska's mineral wealth was not just gold. Copper, coal, tin, platinum, mercury, and molybdenum were also found in Alaska.
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In the summer of 1900, prospectors Clarence Warner and Jack Smith were exploring the east edge of the Kennecott Glacier. As they drew closer to the limestone-greenstone contact, along which US Geological Survey geologist Oscar Rohn who had predicted copper would be found, they were amazed by the magnificent green cliffs of exposed copper. Samples from their discovery, the “Bonanza Mine Outcrop,” revealed up to 70% pure chalcocite, one of the richest copper deposits ever found.
Mining engineer Stephen Birch, went to Alaska to look for investment opportunities for the wealthy Havemayer family of New York whose interest he represented and began buying up shares of the Bonanza claim. However, without a way to transport the copper to market, it was worthless. Some said building a railroad from the coast, across mountains, powerful rivers and moving glaciers would be impossible. Others offered a glimmer of hope. The Havemayers collaborated with J.P. Morgan and the Guggenheim family, forming the Alaska Syndicate, to build a railroad 196 miles long and develop the mines. In the fall of 1907 the Alaska Syndicate hired Michael J.Heney, builder of the White Pass & Yukon Railroad. For the next four years his crews worked relentlessly, building rail bed and bridges through difficult terrain at temperatures down to 40 degrees below zero. At the same time, Stephen Birch was in Kennecott developing the mining claims. By hauling an entire steamship, piece by piece, over the mountains from Valdez to be reassembled on the Copper River, he was able to bring equipment in by dog sled, horse and steamship to begin mining ore even before the railroad was finished.
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The first train left Kennecott in 1911 just ten days after the railroad was completed, filled with $250,000 worth of copper. Kennecott was a place of long hours and hard, dangerous work. At the height of operation, about six hundred men worked in the mines and mill town. Paying salaries higher than those found in the lower-48, Kennecott was able to attract men willing to live and work in this remote Alaskan mining camp. Miners often worked seven days a week, coming down only for the rare holiday or to leave Kennecott. Mill workers and miners came to Kennecott only to work, living in bunkhouses with little time off, often sending money home to their families around the world. Despite the dangers and grueling work, the Kennecott workers mined and concentrated at least $200 million worth of ore. Especially during World War I and the early 1920s, copper prices soared (to as high as 38 cents per pound) and so did profits. Underground, extensive tunnels connected the five mines; above ground, buckets of copper traveled via aerial tramways downhill from the mines several miles above to the concentration mill below, where the ore was crushed and sorted before being packed in burlap bags that were then piled in the open railcars bound for Cordova on the Prince William Sound. The ore was then sent to Tacoma,Washington for smelting.

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Reaping profits fueled by America’s high demand for copper, Kennecott Copper Corporation invested in mines in Chile and the lower-48. By the time the Kennecott mines closed in 1938 the
corporation had grown into one of the largest minerals companies in the world, due to the perseverance and ingenuity of its founders and engineers.
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The Kennecott Mines National Historic Landmark includes the land and mining claims that formed the foundation for the Kennecott Copper Corporation, later the Kennecott Minerals Company. The operation had two components: the mines where ore was extracted from the mountains, and the mill town where the ore was processed. At the peak of operation, approximately 300 people worked in the mill town and 200-300 in the mines. Kennecott was a self-contained company town that included a hospital, general store, school, skating rink, tennis court, recreation hall, and dairy. The processing plant had nice facilities but the miners who mined 5 separate mines lived 3 miles away. Winter temperatures at the mine sites can plunge to 50-below—so cold that miners were said to find it warmer to sleep in the mine tunnels during the long nights of that long season than to bed down in their minimally heated dormitories.

The Kennecott mill town and mines are an extraordinary relic from America's past. The impressive structures and artifacts that remain represent an ambitious time of exploration, discovery, and technological innovation. They tell stories of westward expansion, World War I politics and economy, the lives of men, women, and children who lived there, and the rise of a multinational corporation. Each link in the historical chain connects to another until we realize that this remote Alaska mining venture was intricately connected to the world around it.
By the late 1920s, the supply of high-grade ore was diminishing, and Kennecott Copper Corporation was diversifying into other North American and Chilean mines. Declining profits and increasing costs of railroad repairs led to the eventual closure of the Kennecott operation by 1938. By that time, the corporation was well on the way to becoming a multinational giant. Today it is part of the the multinational Rio Tinto Kennecott Mining Company.
While reading up on the Klondike Gold Rush, I have been deeply drawn into the adventure aspect of this American experience. Stories of the Klondike and Kennecott experience affords the reader a glimpse into the low and high points of human morality in the quest for fortune and survival.
emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)

Sources: Alaskahistorycourse.com, National Park Service, Wikipedia
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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 11:41 Archived in USA Tagged alaska glacier mines mining copper root klondike mccarthy kennecott chitina syndicate Comments (3)

Kazan: Legendary city of Genghis Khan's Golden Horde

Traveling in Tatarstan along the Volga River in Russia............................Ramdas Iyer, 2013

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As the train was getting cold, our conductor was shoveling coal into the furnace that kept our carriage warm. Since this coach was cut off to be picked up by another train, a coal furnace was provided for each carriage. This was a non-elite passenger train that connected Yekaterinburg to Kazan, the capital of Tartarstan. My fellow passengers was a young family of Tartar Muslims coming home to Kazan for the winter holidays from the oil fields Of Northern Siberia. Traveling on the Trans-Mongolian and the Transiberian, I was living the modern version of Genghis Khan and his assault of Europe in the year 1252.
The Mongol Empire emerged from the unification of nomadic tribes in the Mongolia homeland under the leadership of Genghis Khan, who was proclaimed ruler of all Mongols in 1206. The Mongol Empire which existed during the 13th and 14th centuries, was the largest contiguous land empire in history. Originating in the steppes of Central Asia, the Mongol Empire eventually stretched from Central Europe to the Sea of Japan, extending northwards into Siberia, eastwards and southwards into the Indian subcontinent, Indochina, and the Iranian plateau, and westwards as far as the Levant and Arabia.
By the time of the great Kublai Khan's death ( grandson of Genghis, Emperor of Mongolia and China under the banner of the Yuan Dynasty ) in 1294, the Mongol Empire had fractured into four separate Khanates or empires, each pursuing its own separate interests and objectives: the Golden Horde Khanate in the northwest; the Chagatai Khanate in the west; the Ilkhanate in the southwest; and the Yuan dynasty based in modern-day Beijing.
The history of the Mongol Empire has always fascinated me and in my travels I have seen many of their conquered lands and read about the history of different Khanates: Khiva( Uzbekistan and Khoresm), Ilkhanate (Iran, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan), Mamaluk( Egypt and Turkey) and the Chagtai Khanates( Kazakhstan, and Russian Steppes of Central Asia).
This article is about Kazan, the focus of my journey that belonged to the Golden Horde Khanate. It was ruled by Juchi Khan, son of Genghis and expanded by his son Batu Khan. At its peak the Golden Horde’s territory extended from the Carpathian Mountains in eastern Europe to the steppes of Siberia( See Map). On the south, the Horde’s lands bordered on the Black Sea, the Caucasus Mountains, and the Iranian territories of the Mongol dynasty known as the Il-Khans.
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That December morning of 2013 was quite chilly on arrival at the Kazan station, a very ornate building built in 1896. I soon arrived at my hotel on the grand boulevard Kremlivskya, a walking distance to the World Heritage Kremlin which I had primarily come to visit. The population of Kazan is equally divided between mild practitioners of Sunni Islam and orthodox Christianity. The old city has some beautiful churches including the Cathedral of Peter and Paul, which is one of its most valuable architectural monuments. Built on an elevated site it is built on the Russian Baroque style of the 17th century. I caught my first site of the mighty Volga river from its steps in its frozen splendor just a few miles away.

Having arrived around 4:00 AM on that cold winter morning , my anticipation and excitement kept me from falling asleep. Leaving my hotel at day break, I took a quick look around the Kremlin and was excited at the prospect of spending more time visiting the palaces, mosque and churches inside. The Kremlin dominates the city. Built on an ancient site near the Volga, the Kazan Kremlin dates from the Muslim period of the Golden Horde and the Kazan Khanate. Archeological excavations on the territory of Kazan Kremlin provided evidence that the first fortress of Kazan was founded at the turn of 9th-10th centuries by Volga Bulgars. In 1438 Kazan became the capital of Khanate of Kazan, in 1552 the city was conquered by Ivan IV and became a significant and integral part of the Russian state.
The Tartars (or Tatars) controlled the trade routes between Scandinavia and the Caspian Sea and extracted tributes from Russian rulers and other Christian enclaves that was in their vicinity. Tired of Muslim aggression and the demands for tributes over the Eastern Orthodox Empire, Ivan the Terrible amassed an army of 150,000 soldiers and launched an attack that would permanently weaken the Islamic/Mongol-Turkic dominance of the Volga region. Muslims were massacred, converted or exiled to Siberia. This ethnic cleansing was one of the most severe in Russia only to be paled in comparison by the deeds of Stalin in the 1930s.
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The Kazan Kremlin was built after the siege of Kazan on the ruins of the former Bulgar/Mongol castle. Ivan built many churches in Kazan and it became the Christian See of the Volga Land. Today, the only surviving Tartar fortress in Russia the Kazan Kremlin consists of an outstanding group of historic buildings dating from the 16th to 19th centuries, integrating remains of earlier structures of the 10th to 16th centuries. The site and its key monuments represent an outstanding example of a synthesis of Tartar and Russian influences in architecture, integrating different cultures (Bulgar, Golden Horde, Tatar, Italian, and Russian), as well as showing the impact of Islam and Christianity.

Lyudmila, an English tutor in the University of Kazan moonlights as a guide. She arrived at my hotel around 8:00 AM and we were off to explore the city by foot. Within 1/2 a kilometer I came across a campus of ornate buildings with post modern Soviet buildings ringing its outer perimeter. I had arrived at the well known Kazan University, that began over 210 years ago. Lenin and Tolstoy attended classes while scientific research yielded new discoveries such as Ruthenium, popular methods for petroleum extraction and above all the science of magnetic resonance. Since Lyudmila had access to the buildings I chose to visit all the historic buildings from 200 years ago. This was not a part of my tour and it turned out to be very enriching. Moments such as these are only possible when traveling alone. The administration building had a museum showing the dresses of royalty, military personnel and professors over the years. They had curated a fine collection of scientific and literary dioramas showing the University's achievements. Despite visiting several prestigious schools in the USA, I had not seen something even close.

The Chemistry department was thrilled to note that I was a Chemical Engineer and gave me several publications in Russian, to take back with me. The University administrator personally showed me the halls where lectures, sometimes attended by the Tsars and nobility, were conducted. I even got to sit in the classrooms of Tolstoy and Lenin(expelled from the University of Kazan for revolutionary activities).
Another mile from the University was the historic Kazansky street with a large pedestrian shopping street that one would encounter in western Europe. This part of Kazan had been destroyed and rebuilt to showcase this city that has a future. There were many Tatar restaurants serving spicy lamb, dumplings and all kinds of Turkic foods that reminded me of my time in Kashgar in Xinxiang Province. We had a delicious meal costing no more than $5 for the two of us. I visited the magnificent Cathedral of Epiphany of Our Lord, the seat of the Russian Orthodox church. However, it became the gymnasium of the Universe of Kazan University in the 1950s during the peak of the revolution.

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It seems to me that many ideological philosophies such as Communism and fundamental Islam have one thing in common. A penchant for destruction of civilization and preventing the evolution into arts, architecture and the sciences. In Russia, China and now in the Middle East, the silent victims of such creeds are some of the historic monuments once built by great conquerors and rulers whom the world remembers as game changers. I have shed many a tear for the number of monasteries burnt in Tibet, Buddha images desecrated in Xinjiang and Shaanxi provinces and magnificent churches reassigned to the common man for mundane purposes as in the Soviet Union and above all the execution and debasement of scientists and scholars everywhere. This does not include many Shamanic and Tribal cultures whict stood against their oppressors.

The Mongols under Genghiz Khan destroyed 500 years of learning in Central Asia in the 14th century, the Uzbeks under Timor cleaned up where the Mongols left. The raids into India, first by the Afghans then by Turks and the Mongol-Turkic Mughals destroyed many parts of an ancient land from the 12th to the 19th centuries. The Greeks and the Spartans and the Romans and the Persians were no better. The Jews were persecuted as long as there has been history. Yet despite all these wanton destruction, now in the 21 st century, we have still not learned from our past mistakes and crimes. Yet mankind has a penchant to survive these calamities with grit, guile and perseverance to allow someone like me to visit and review our past history in all these previously ravaged areas from China to Russia to Central Asia to the Middle-East and India.

With such thoughts in my mind I walked along the banks of a tributary of the Volga that cuts Kazan city into two; the old Islamic section and the European section. My first stop was the Islamic center established in the 1700s to understand the severity of Islam followed there. Islam in Russia has been clobbered into submission and at this point it is in synch with other religions of that nation. I fanned through the neighborhood of beautiful old houses, some in poor repair while many were being rebuilt to the specifications of their original splendor. When compared to the European side, it felt like being in the bad sections of Istanbul. After sampling some street foods I took a local bus to visit the banks of the mighty Volga; Europe's longest River. Its banks have played a major role in history including being the home to 11 of Russia's largest cities located in its watershed. This river was home to the Proto-Indo Europeans- land to the early Aryans; Iranians, Scythians, Parthians, Kushans , Mongol-Turkic tribes, Huns and the later settlers like the Tatars and other Turko- Finnic Tribes.
The Volga in winter has an ice thickness of 8 to 12inches. Every winter, a highway is cut across the river to avoid a longer route to gain access to bridges. This was a common sight I saw all over Russia especially on Lake Baikal were trucks of all kinds were seen navigating through frozen lakes with large surface areas
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Reserving most of the following day for the Kremlin (Russian for fortress), I set off to see the magnificent fortress, only 500 meters from my hotel. Built on an ancient site, the Kazan Kremlin dates from the Muslim period of the Golden Horde and the Kazan Khanate (13-15th centuries)

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From the 10th to 13th centuries Kazan was a pre-Mongol Bulgar town. For the uninitiated reader, the Bulgars were a semi-nomadic warrior tribe from present day Kazakhstan steppes. They are a group such as the Aryans, Scythians and Huns who left the eastern Steppes of Siberia and moved westward around the 7th century AD( due to Chinese aggression). The Bulgars eventually split into two groups; one moved along the Volga river( Volga Bulgaria) while the other took refuge along the Danube river ( today's Bulgaria). The Kazan Kremlin hill consisted then of a fortified trading settlement surrounded by moats, embankments, and a stockade. A stone fortress was built in the 12th century and the town developed as an outpost on the northern border of Volga Bulgaria. They practiced a pagan religion with strong influences from Christianity and Islam .
The fortress was demolished on the instructions of the Mongols in the 13th century. A citadel was then built as the seat of the Prince of Kazan, including the town's administrative and religious institutions. By the first half of the 15th century, the town had become the capital of the Muslim Tatar Principality of Bulgaria, with administrative, military, and trading functions.
Having survived repeated destruction first by the Mongols in the 13th century, and the Tsarist Russia in the 15th century Kazan's modern desecration came at the hands of Stalin in 1922. The ensemble of historic buildings lost many of its compositional dominants, which were pulled down on by the communist fanatics-the belfries of the Annunciation and Savior- Transfiguration Cathedrals, the church of Cyprian and Justinia, the Savior-Transfiguration Monastery complex, the dome of Bishop's House, and the domes of the Annunciation Cathedral. The Kremlin however retained its status as a centre of Soviet state power and as garrison.

Well maintained, this masterpiece of Russian architecture is yet another achievement by Postnik Yakovlev most famous as one of the architects and builders of Saint Basil's Cathedral on Red Square in Moscow (built between 1555 and 1560). According to legend, Ivan the Terrible blinded Yakovlev so that he could never build anything so beautiful again. However, this is probably a myth, as Yakovlev, in cooperation with another master, Ivan ShirIai, designed the walls of the Kazan Kremlin and the Cathedral of the Annunciation in Kazan in 1561 and 1562, just after the completion of St. Basil's.
Spending time inside one of the many beautiful churches, especially the Church of Annunciation, I could not help but realize that I was also walking over the fallen remains of the Khanate's army. Eight Christian churches were built over the remains of thousands of Muslim warriors by Ivan the Terrible..Many unearthed tombstones are displayed inside the Kremlin. Visiting places such as Kazan, one tends to reflect on imperialism and its effects the world over. The Museum of Islamic Culture and The History of Statehood of Tatarstan within its confines helped me understand the gradual reemergence of Tatarstan in the 450 years past the wake of its destruction.
After forcibly converted or relocated to Siberia in the 1500s, the Tatars got their first foothold under Imperial Russia when they were given increased rights as citizens in the 1700s during the liberal reign of Catherine the Great. By the 1860s a Tatar language newspaper was circulated in Kazan and other Muslim areas of Russia.
The Bolshevik revolution of 1917, during when Russia was in a civil war, forced the Tatars to join the Bolsheviks. Under the new Soviet rule the state of Tatarstan was ruled under TSSR ( Tatar Socialist Republic), where they were repressed again due to religion conflicting with communism. With the ultimate fall of USSR, Tatarstan liberated itself as an independent entity in 1990. But not wanting to face the problems of Chechnya in the Caucuses region which came under the weight of Russian aggression under Putin, Tatarstan decided to be an autonomous region within Russia and in 1994 became the Republic of Tatarstan.

The spiritual mosque of the Tatars, Qol Sharif, which was razed to the ground by the armies of Ivan the terrible was rebuilt in 1996, mostly funded by Saudi Arabia and UAE. Today it is the largest mosque in Europe located adjacent to the historic Church of the Annunciation, inside the Kremlin. Tatarstan is an unusual example of a Russian region where the majority of the population is Muslim, but where interethnic and interfaith strife is rare. According to the latest census, 52.9 percent of Tatarstan's 3.8 million inhabitants are predominantly Muslim Tatars; 39.5 percent are predominantly Orthodox Christian Russians.
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On Kazan, Nikolas Gvosdev, a Russia expert and professor of national security studies at the U.S. Naval War College, believes "
"This is a brand of Europeanized Islam, westernized Islam, that is Islamic yet functions in a Western society. As part of the ongoing engagement of the Muslim world, there could be benefits there.".
In conclusion, I must confess my fascination with the history of the Eastern and Western Steppes region with my readers. It is one of the most neglected portions in history text books of western learning, but in my opinion one that has shaped mankind. This history starts with Genghis Khan and the Chinese states, Mongolia, Indo-Europeans, Turkic peoples, Scythians , Parthians, Huns and Kushans It also includes the history of the Silk Road, Ottoman Empire and that of Persia until the conquest of Asia Minor by Alexander.

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After witnessing ancient sites as a companion to reading written history, I boarded my train to Moscow 500 miles to the west. Staying a walking distance from the Red Square on the old Arbat street, my first foray was to see St.Basil's church built by Postnik Yakovlev who also rebuilt the Kazan Kremlin.

The End.

emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)

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References:
UNESCO web site
Wikipedia
Foriegn Affairs" Russia's Muslim Reality"- Vasily Rudich
https://www.usnwc.edu/NikolasGvosdev

ADDITIONAL PHOTOS FROM MY KAZAN EXPERIENCE
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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 16:03 Archived in Russia Tagged kremlin church the of golden university russia state khan kazan ivan horde volga mongols tatarstan tartar tatar terrible bolgars ukazan genghiz tartarstan qol sharif annunciation chagtai Comments (2)

Searching for Oriental carpets along the Silk Routes of Iran

Visiting ancient bazaars on a journey across Iran.........Ramdas Iyer ( 2014)

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I asked the owner of Kashmir Emporium in Madras, India, the home of my youth, about Kashan and the origin of the design of my very first oriental carpet bought from him. This was in 1986, when Kashmir was one of India's leading producer of fine carpets, honed from the traditions of Safavid era Persia and improved upon by the artisans of the Mughal court. As a young man living in the United States heaven was listening to Crosby, Stills and Nash with a cold beer at hand. As refinements entered life it lead to sipping wine while perched around an oriental carpet, but with the music remaining the same.

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The Kashan carpet, a silk and woolen gem still ranks amongst one of my finest acquisitions. But Kashan has always been on my mind. I read up on oriental carpets, their classifications including Persian, Turkic, Turkoman, and Caucasian masterpieces: kelims, carpets, weaves, knots, warps and all. After nearly 30 years of falling in love with carpets, I finally stood in the desert light of Kashan, Iran. A silk route gem, it was one of the leisure spots of the Safavi kings, Shah Abbas I who created the Bagh-e-fin, a World heritage garden reminiscent of the classical Persian version of paradise. There was production of Persian carpets at Royal workshops in the 17th and early 18th century. The Persian carpet workshops ceased production in about 1722 after the Afghan invasion. But its designs endure and are made in other parts of Iran and the Khoresan region encompassing north east Iran near Mashad and parts of Turkmenistan.

I scoured the city that is visited by less than a thousand tourists a year these days, only to find a handful of large shops where the merchants were so indifferent to commerce and the carpets so large that I suspected that only the mullahs could afford and fit them inside one of the many new mosques being built all over Iran since the revolution. Disappointed, I went to visit the Sialk Teppe, one of the oldest Zigguarts in the world with a history from 5500 BC . It is possible that they too wove carpets, but the fragile nature of the materials used could not last the test of time.

Another interesting legend in Kashan was that of the origin of the three wise men who followed the star that guided them to Bethlehem to witness the nativity of Jesus, as recounted in the Bible. Whatever the historical validity of this story, the attribution of Kashan as their original home testifies to the city's prestige at the time the story was set down. The small tomb/mosque of the Three Wise Men, covered with fine carpets from Kashan, was also another highlight of my time spent there.
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From being simple articles of need, floor and entrance coverings to protect the nomadic tribesmen from the cold and damp, the increasing beauty of the carpets found them new owners. - kings and noblemen, art lovers and energetic immigrants like myself, who looked upon them as signs of wealth, prestige and a thing of beauty with distinction.

Historical evidence points to carpet weaving being prevalent during the reign of Cyrus the Great in 529 B.C. They were made in villages for personal use with designs and weavings identifiable of the specific village or tribe. The artistic design and quality of Persian rugs reached its pinnacle during the Safavid Dynasty (1499-1722), because the reigns of Shah Tahmasp and Shah Abbas created a weaving industry that focused on "large-scale artistic and commercial enterprise revolving around highly skilled and organized weaving workshops." During this time, trade was established with Europe with Persian rugs as one of the threads that spurred economic exchange, and Persia reached its golden age.
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The word Oriental carpet is bestowed on carpets from Persia, Turkey, Turkestan and the Caucasian regions of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. While the splendor of carpets is normally attributed to Islamic artistry, it also thrived in the Christian Caucasian regions mentioned above. While on a trip to the Hermitage Museum, Leningrad in 1989, during the final years of the Soviet empire, I was drawn to a small ragged display of a carpet . Russian archaeologists Rudenko and Griaznov in 1949 discovered the oldest known "knotted" carpet in the Pazyryk valley, about 5000 feet up on the Altai Mountains in Siberia. Dating back to the fifth century BCE . The Pazyryk carpet is of rare beauty and woven with great technical skill. It was found preserved in the frozen tombs of Scythian chiefs, which were 2400 to 2500 years old.

My arrival in Teheran during the Iranian spring of 2014 was not without excitement and wonderment , but along with a strange discomfort caused by three decades of isolation from the western worlds. It is a land once ruled by the Persians of Fars province ( Shiraz) but now contains a republic of many tribal and ethnic groups. Representing 35% of the population they include Azeris(Turks), Baluchis(western Afghan and Pakistan), Kurds and Turkmen. I spent two days of visiting the major sites, including the US Embassy building ravaged by students of the Khomeini led Islamic revolution of 1979. Late evenings were spent in the many carpet shops near hotels to get a flavor of what I expected to see over the next three weeks. The prospect of a carpet hunt after seeing the variety and workmanship energized me for the rest of my wonderful travels from Kerman Province in the South East to the Azerbaijan province in the North west. All the legendary silk road cities and carpet weaving centers lie near the mountainous deserts of this ancient land.The Zagros mountains run across the country while the Alburus mountains form a northern chain.

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Leaving Teheran, I landed in Shiraz; capital of Fars province, home of the legendary Cyrus and Darius founders of the Persian Empire and a city of refinement and culture .The bazaar of Shiraz ranks as one of the greatest in Iran second only to the World heritage bazaar of Tabriz, in the Azerbaijan province. While in Teheran I had only visited air-conditioned shops, here I finally arrived in a real bazaar. In fact I had no time to visit the great carpet bazaar of Teheran.The vaulted ceilings and the many carpet shops with almost no customers was one big rug paradise of wool and silk in resplendent colors and classic motifs. After a couple of hours of walking around I focused on one shop who had a couple of small woolen rugs that caught my attention. I fell in love with both of them but was quite shocked by prices which still are only a third of that sold in the famous ABC Carpet shops in New York City.

It was a small carpet slightly bigger than a prayer rug but had all the qualities of a silk rug with very intricate non repeating patterns, displaying a menagerie of animal motifs possibly making it a one of a kind masterpiece for my collection. It was a Qashqai Nomadic carpet also known as Shirazi. The Qashqai nomads are a conglomeration of clans of different ethnic origins, mostly Turkic, but also Arab, Kurdish, and Luri. Majority of Qashqai people were originally nomadic pastoralists and some remain so today. The traditional nomadic Qashqai travelled with their flocks each year from the summer highland pastures north of Shiraz roughly 480 km or 300 miles south to the winter pastures on lower (and warmer) lands near the Persian Gulf, to the southwest of Shiraz. They are referred as "Shirazi" because Shiraz was the major marketplace for them in the past. The wool produced in the mountains and valleys near Shiraz is exceptionally soft and beautiful and takes a deeper color than wool from other parts of Iran.

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"No wool in all Persia takes such a rich and deep color as the Shiraz wool. The deep blue and the dark ruby red are equally extraordinary, and that is due to the brilliancy of the wool, which is firmer and, so to say, more transparent than silk, and makes one think of translucent enamel".(Hawley, Walter A. (1913) Oriental Rugs Antique & Modern)]

Qashqai carpets have been said to be "probably the most famous of all Persian tribal weavings".( Bennett, Ian (1978) "Later Persian Weaving." In: Rugs & Carpets of the World, edited by Ian Bennett.

Prices were agreed upon but I had no clue as to the transportation of the rug to the United States. The Baazari merchant had no international experience and was at a loss to assist me. I left town for a couple of days to visit Persepolis and other sites before returning to my new love that I had left hanging at the front of his shop. Other neighboring shop keepers offered help including one of them calling a relative in Los Angeles ( place with the largest Iranian diaspora in the US) for help with the credit card transaction. Alas the shopkeeper found a courier to hand carry it to Dubai, usually by Arab Dhow, that plies the waters of the Straits of Hormuz near Bandar Abbas to Dubai, a distance of only 300 miles. These waters are the life blood of Iranian commerce that enables the smuggling of western merchandise into Iran.
I immediately contacted my brother in law in Dubai who was glad to pay cash for the merchandise and hold on to my Qashqai treasure until it was safe to bring it into the USA. The Shirazi Baazari trusted me to act in good faith and concluded his perhaps first international transaction since the embargo.

Leaving Shiraz for Kerman, the road was carved out of the Dasht-e-Lut Desert, one of the 10 hottest places on earth. Being spring time, patches of small green sprouts were quickly devoured by the Qashqai black Tibetan sheep, renowned for fine carpet quality wool and succulent meats. Groups of nomads could be seen herding the animals as far as the desert horizon.
While I did not have the time nor opportunity to visit their traditional homes, I was able to photograph some of them on the range.
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The city of Kerman today has a pleasant atmosphere with mosques, blocks with bazaars and tea houses. The carpet manufacturing has long been an important industry and carpets from Kerman are easily recognized. The ground color is often red, and the pattern is dominated by a centrally placed medallion together with a wide border filled with flowers. When Nadir Shah finally wrested control of Persians from the Afghans around1746, whose insurgency cost Kashan its place as a royal workshop, Kerman became the recipient of royal patronage. However for modern consumption these carpets are not very popular and found mainly in mosques and Islamic assembly halls. I could not locate a single shop in Kerman Bazaar since perhaps like the rest of Iran, carpet making has moved from their traditional homes to concentrated workshops in Esfahan and Meshad.

From Kerman I went further south to the famous Bam citadel, which was destroyed by an earthquake, much to the sorrow of adobe architecture lovers. The road from Bam to Baluchistan province of Pakistan is less than 100 miles from Bam and is rampant in banditry. However near Bam one can find many dark skinned Baluch nomads and merchants who straddle both sides of the border. I stopped to photograph a Baluch nomad on a donkey. He spoke fluent Hindi and had tended sheep near the Indian border a few years beforehand. Before my experience of buying a Baluch nomadic carpet, I wish to give some history of the production of non Persian rugs that form the family of Oriental carpets.
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Great oriental carpets, I must reiterate do not belong to Persians alone. In 1219 Genghis Khan went to war against the Khwarezm (Khoresan)Empire ( Aryan-Persian rulers) in present-day Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Iran. The sultan there had agreed to a trade treaty, but when the first caravan arrived its goods were stolen and its merchants were killed. The sultan then murdered some of Genghis Khan’s ambassadors. Despite once again being outnumbered, the Mongol horde swept through one Khwarezm city after another, including Bukhara, Samarkand and Urgench. Skilled workers such as carpenters and jewelers were usually saved, while aristocrats and resisting soldiers were killed. As the Mongols ruled a predominantly Turkic population in central Asia a cultural synthesis( Turco-Mongol era) that arose. During the early 1300s among the ruling elites of Mongol Empire successor states such as the Chagatai Khanate and Golden Horde were notable. These elites adopted Turkic languages and local religions such as Islam and Buddhism, while retaining Mongol political and legal institutions. Many later Central Asian states drew heavily on this tradition, including the Timurid dynasty, the Khanate of Kazan, the Nogai Khanate, the Crimean Khanate, and the Mughal Empire.

I bring up this important history because this conquest gave rise to the fine tradition of carpet making in non Persian areas ;Afghanistan-notably Herat, Samarkand, Bokhara, Anatolia and the caucuses regions. Baluchistan being a neighbor of Iran has produced some amazing tribal tugs. While in Esfahan, I purchased a relatively inexpensive Boluch Yakub khani rug( see photograph). The story of Yacub Kahni rugs is as rich as the history of carpet making itself and falls outside the focus of this article.


Turning back and heading north towards Esfahan, I had the opportunity to stop in the storied silk route city of Nain. Close to the western edge of the great desert Dasht-e-Kavir, it has one of the oldest Islamic mosques in Iran built in the 9th century soon after Islamic incursions from Arabia. The semi adobe architecture with classic Persian and Arab elements was a unique site.
Outside the mosque I happened to make eye contact with a person who introduced himself as the Director of the Museum of Ethnology which was housed in a classical Qajar era house from the 18th century. After my brief tour, the gentleman inquired if I would be interested in seeing a Nain carpet woven by his family members. Carpets from the city have a high reputation and were very popular. The material in the more exclusive carpets consists of wool on a silk warp or silk in the warp as well as in the weft and pile.( The terms warp and weft are used in reference to textiles that are woven. They are the technical terms for the two types of thread used to create a finished woven product. The warp is the tightly stretched lengthwise core of a fabric, while the weft is woven between the warp threads to create various patterns.). I had him display the rug next to my car but did not find it visually appealing despite the very attractive price quoted.
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I finally arrived in Esfahan (Isfahan), the magnificent capital city of the Safavids and a city over 2500 years old. Such is Esfahan’s grandeur that it is easy to agree with the famous 16th-century half-rhyme ‘Esfahan nesf-e jahan’ (Esfahan is half the world). Robert Byron, author of the 1937 travelogue The Road to Oxiana, was slightly more geographically specific when he ranked ‘Isfahan among those rarer places, like Athens or Rome, which are the common refreshment of humanity’.
The architecture, history and the classic elements of Persian society were on display for the world to consume. Despite the severe embargo, the shops were filled with handicrafts, foods and fabric of a superior quality. It has become both the production and trade center for carpets representing the diversity of designs from the entire country. Carpets from Isfahan have high class especially when it comes to the composition of the patterns, materials and designs. They are characterized by thin, often carpets with extremely high knot density (Senneh knots) that sometimes are made on silk warp. The motifs often consists of medallions with palmettes and arabesques (Shah Abbas pattern), but figural motifs also occur.
I spent perhaps the most amount of money on any purchase ever other than buying a car, in Isfahan. After dedicating an entire afternoon to studying the various offerings I settled on a store where the buyers seemed to have an eye for rugs that suited mine. I purchased a fine Qashqai Nomad silk carpet( see photograph) with animal motifs, a Qom made silk Bakhtiari carpet( see photographs); a timeless classic and the Baluch Yakub khani mentioned above.

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All the carpets were shipped to Dubai or India for safe keeping until the embargo with Iran is lifted. Many Bakhtiari rugs, especially the one I purchased, are in fact tribal pieces that rely upon a repertoire of abstract geometric and animal motives. But Bakhtiari weavers are also acclaimed for their ability to produce sophisticated medallion all over, and garden designs of classical Persian inspiration, with an added vitality and boldness.
As with any mighty dynasty the decline of the Isfahan based Safavid dynasty happened around 1722, due to neglect by rulers who failed to share the wisdom of their forebears. The Mughal court of India which maintained great relations with the Safavid court became a natural choice for mass migration of talent to India as the Safavid era faded. Its great poets, architects, weavers and statesmen found employment in India. Sufi Islam, monument building, carpet weaving and other handicrafts flourished in Mughal India. Oriental carpets reached international standards first in Kashmir, the winter retreat of the Mughal emperors and also in Agra, capital city of the Mughal king Shah Jahan, famous for being the builder of Taj Mahal( with an architect from Shiraz). With today Kashmir in severe religious turmoil this industry has moved to Jaipur. The Indian woolen carpets are inspired by the classical Persian motifs transformed to the most contemporary style. Bright glowing colors, hand-knotting technique allowing high number of knots per square inch and exquisite design sense have made Indian hand-knotted woolen carpets, cherished products in home decor. The Iranians need to wake up to this fact.
My own collections from India include the silk and cotton Kashan from Kashmir, a large Isfahan in robust colors from Jaipur (purchased at ABC carpets, New York), and an antique Turkoman Tekke carpet ( from Agra).

The Esfahan experience left me elated about my new acquisitions and yet was a nagging source of concern for their eventual transportation to the USA. Leaving Esfahan and traveling to many ancient centers including Hamadan, Kermanshah and Qazvin, another capital of the Safavids, I reached the legendary carpet city of Tabriz. Tabriz has been a place of cultural exchange since antiquity. Its historic bazaar complex is one of the most important commercial centers on the Silk Road. Tabriz was a gateway to the West, since it lay on one of the principal trade routes from Iran to Anatolia and then onwards to Europe. The city of Tabriz was also the terminus of the Silk Route from China. The most prosperous time of Tabriz and its bazaar was in the 16th century when the town became the capital city of the Safavid kingdom. The inhabitants are primarily Azeris from nearby Azerbaijan which was a Persian province until the Ottoman Empire carved out most of it from Persia. One can see many Turkish and Kurdish inhabitants in this town. I have never seen so many carpets in one place in my life. The style of the carpets are predominantly of Ardebil and Tabriz designs; "Tabriz", "Heris", "Lachak-turanj", "Afshan", "Agajaly", "Dord Fasil", "Sardorud". Ardabil", "Sheikh Safi", "Sarabi", "Shah Abbasi" and "Mir".

The carpet section of the bazaar with must have at least 300 stores each stacked with large carpets ranging from 12 X 16ft to 36 x 48 ft. There were very few customers and most of the shop keepers were quietly reading the morning papers or chatting over tea with the neighbors. None of them were interested in selling anything. Unlike in Turkey or Morocco where touts will constantly harass one to visit their shop, this was a pleasant surprise. I understood that their main customers were Arabs especially from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The Tabriz designs though very likeable, belonged in another era. The prices of large woolen carpets of similar quality were half the prize of those Isfahan. If one is keen on Ardabil carpets, Tabriz is the place to acquire. I was burnt out both financially and emotionally for any further carpet buying expeditions.
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I finally flew back to Teheran from Tabriz on a very old DC-8 aircraft wishing that I could have done better on a flying carpet. Back in Teheran and reunited with my wonderful guide, I visited the famous Carpet Museum of Iran, built under the patronage of Shahbanu Farrah, the wife of the Late Shah of Iran, in an architecturally amazing building. Staring dumbfounded at the quality, designs, colors and intricacy of those carpets, made me realize that the art of carpet weaving ranks amongst one of the greatest expressions of art; both tribal and royal.
Inspired by this museum visit, I returned to the original carpet store in Teheran to look at my early selections. One more time I was floored by the tribal motifs of the Qashqai and purchased a woolen carpet with cotton waft produced in the great carpet making area of Mashad. That too found its way to Dubai.

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The Iranians were among the pioneer carpet weavers of the ancient civilizations, having achieved a superlative degree of perfection through centuries of creativity and ingenuity. The skill of carpet weaving has been handed down by fathers to their sons, who built upon those skills and in turn handed them down to their offspring as a closely guarded family secret. To trace the history of Persian carpet is to follow a path of cultural growth of one of the greatest civilizations the world has ever seen.

Having covered the silk route from Luoyang in China though Xinjiang, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenstan,parts of Khazakhstan, Iran and to Azerbaijan and Anatolia, my other great oriental carpet shopping experiences were in Samarkand, Bokhara and Khiva/Urgench in the remote Khoresm region. While in Shanghai I came across a lot of carpet making facilities and are producing quality silk carpets using fine Chinese silk yarn, synthetic dyes with old designs from Persia. The Kerman design silk carpet that I purchased there more than a dozen years ago has all the qualities of a fine oriental carpet in my living room. The classic Turkmen Yomut and Tekke designs purchased in Bukhara and Samarkhand are also some of my favorites.The Koneh and Anatolian carpets purchased in Istanbul add a different dimension to that of the Persian ones in my home.

It is sad to see Iran losing its place as a premier carpet producer. Before the 1987 embargo, the total wholesale value of Oriental hand-knotted rugs imported to the United States was about $750 million in current dollars. Iran had the biggest share of that market, 28 percent, followed by China and India. Today they are probably place fourth or fifth -- about where they have been all along during the embargo. Both now and in the long term, industry experts agree, Iran faces tough competition. Iranian weavers will have to adjust their designs and colors for a share of the American market. India, Pakistan, China and Turkey may not be easy to push to the background again.

Carpet dealers in Iran have also had to improvise. Their products have been getting to the lucrative American market via Pakistan, or Mexico, where they are mixed with shipments of local carpets. Money is channeled to Iran via middlemen in the Gulf. Some of the bazaar’s larger dealers have contacts in Dubai who help with bank accounts and offer chip-and-pin services for foreign buyers and tourists, whose cards are otherwise, owing to sanctions, useless in Iran. “We have to trust the middlemen with thousands of dollars,” explains a dealer, who says he pays up to 3% on transactions to get paid from abroad. “Many of us have been cheated. The weak have left the business. Only the strong dealers with good foreign connections have survived.”
Iran has an amazing history of rug production and I sincerely hope that the past 3 decades of embargo has not permanently damaged the industry. Of the 2 million weavers in the 1980s only half of them are in the trade. The weavers are very poor and need advance cash and materials to start a new rug. Youngsters find other professions that are less difficult, such as selling clothing in the bazaars more appealing. Carpet making is in the Iranian DNA and I am eagerly awaiting its chance to dominate the oriental carpet industry.

In conclusion, I just gathered that the most expensive carpet ever sold was a Kerman carpet that was auctioned by Southeby's of London for $43.5 million dollar in 2013!
While I still have a lot of room in me for oriental carpets, I have literally run out of space.

emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)

References:
A brief history of Persian Carpet and its patterns-Iran Chamber of Commerce, June 28, 2015
The Economist Iran’s carpet trade-A magic comeback? Oct 2013
New York Times- No More 'Pssst!' For Iranian Rugs, But Who Cares? March 23, 2000
Wikipedia- a wide variety of information
Lonely Planet-Esfahan

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=====ADDITIONAL PHOTOGRAPHS FOLLOW=====
THE MAKING OF A NOMADIC CARPET

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CARPET MAKING

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NOMADIC LIFE

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BAZAAR AT TABRIZ

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CARPET MUSEUM OF IRAN, TEHRAN

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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 17:51 Archived in Iran Tagged route iran kerman persia azerbaijan oriental nomad kashmir silk tehran mashad kashan qom carpet safavid carpets tabriz baluchistan ramdas iyer nain hamadan qashqai qahqai ardebil Comments (0)

Traversing the Pamir-Alai High mountain range in Tajikistan

In the shadows of Alexander the Great.....by Ramdas Iyer

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In the spring of 329 BC, Alexander the Great's conquests brought him to the river Oxus, which today forms the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan at the city of Termez( in Uzbekistan) He was on his way to India and beyond. Having crossed the Oxus and captured Bessus ( murderer of Emperor Darius of Persia), Alexander took fresh horses and set off for the royal capital of Sogdiana, Marakanda (Samarkand). From Marakanda, Alexander marched north to the river Jaxartes (Syr Darya) where the Macedonians were attacked by Scythian tribesmen who were also defeated. The victorious Alexander founded a city on this site, Alexandria Eschate “Alexandria the Farthest” today's Khujand, in northern Tajikistan.
My story here retraces the path of Alexander from Termez( Uzbekistan) to Dushanbe( capital of Tajikistan) and over the Alai-Pamir ranges to Penjakant (Tajikistan), a great Sogdian city( of Zoroastrian faith) and onto Samarkand, the magnificent silk road city. The route traversed the 18000 ft Anzob peak and the magnificent Karakul Lake, a place visited by Alexander when he landed there in search of his beloved horse Bucepahlus, that got lost in the mountains.

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These routes and cities are very common in history books and have been discussed at length by the Greek historian Arian including the instructors at West Point Military Academy. My travels along the Central Asian silk route in the winter months of 2009 intersected with that of the campaign trails of Alexander in Termez (southern Uzbekistan/Afghan border), Penjakant( Tajikistan) and Samarkand (Central Uzbekistan)in this trip taken in 2009 and also in Persepolis, Hamadan(Ecbatana) and Teheran while in Iran in 2014.Leaving Termez, I spent the worst harassment by Uzbek border police while I tried to make the land crossing into Tajikistan. Short of a strip search they tried to match my declared currency value against what I really carried on my person and luggage. After 2 hours of questioning, and dictating a confession letter stating my unintended currency carriage violation, I was finally released. In line with expected "democractic" norms I was offered a lawyer to take my case to court that was recessed for the weekend ( 200 miles from any population), so I had to give up close to $400 in cash . But I still had money stashed in other areas that they did not search because a reasonably decent officer stopped an impending strip search. As a US Passport holder they did not harm me but put pressure on me similar to our own US border guards who use intimidation, harassment and the "law". The other reason for this unfortunate event was propagated by the closure of this crossing to commercial traffic due to a brief war between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan over an ill defined border in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union . This closure prevented kickback money from flowing to the guards from truck drivers.
Crossing the Uzbek border and arriving into Tajikistan, the mood was entirely different. The border post was laid back and my guide and driver were waiting for me with great concern for my welfare.
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A little Tajik history will help the article to movie forward smoothly; The entire Asia Minor landmass including current day Turkey, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Northern Egypt, Iraq, Iran,Syria, Afghanistan till the,western border of India was a part of the Persian Empire for 700 years. The Tajiks speak a dialect of modern Persian, unlike the Uzbeks who speak a Turkic-Mongol dialect as a result of Genghis and Timor's dominance. The Tajiks are a beautiful and graceful people as opposed to the Uzbeks who take pride in the villainous ancestry of its heroes. In 1996, when in Ladakh, once an independent Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas, I learnt that over 50% of the population were Muslim. Ladakh, now a part of Kashmir State of India, was a part of the sub silk route that moved goods to and from Srinagar in Kashmir to China, and Central Asia. When India was partitioned in 1947, an entire historic trade route connecting Samarkand, Dushanbe, Kabul, Kathmandu and Lhasa was blocked overnight. This left a huge population of Tajiks, Hunza-the Indo Europeans of the Swat valley and Tibetans to be stuck forever in India. This along with the polygamist and polyandrous practices of the mountain Muslims have transformed an ancient Buddhist community into a minority.

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Crossing the border I arrived at the capital city of Dushanbe. It was well laid out with a strong presence of Soviet Union done right in its early days of socialism that was built on optimism and hope. The following day we left the beautiful city of Dushanbe and started hitting the slopes of the mountains that form the backdrop of this beautiful city. Tajikistan is home to some of the highest mountains in the world, including the Pamir and Alay ranges. 93% of Tajikistan is mountainous with altitudes ranging from 300 m (980 ft) to almost 7,500 m (24,600 ft), and nearly 50% of Tajikistan's territory is above 3,000 m (9,800 ft).
The massive mountain ranges are cut by hundreds of canyons and gorges at the bottom of which run streams that flow into larger river valleys where the majority of the country's population lives and works. The Pamirs in particular are heavily glaciated, and Tajikistan is home to the largest non-polar glacier in the world, the Fedchenko Glacier.
Due to heavy snowfall expected that day, we took on an additional driver to aid Mehrzad my driver who was highly experienced working the mountainous roads while a driver in the Soviet army during their occupation years in Afghanistan. My guide, the beautiful Yassaman, hailed from the town of Khojand- famous for beautiful women and the hometown of Roxanne, wife of Alexander the Great. Within reaching 8000 ft all the vehicles on the road were stuck in ice and snow. With skills not seen before by me, my drivers managed to free the Land Cruiser from its icy anchorarge using chains and planks while Yassaman and I trekked the amazing snow packed mountain scenery for over an hour. The road to the Anzob pass was carved through a glacier and I was quite surprised at the speed of road crews that arrived to rescue a host of vehicles, mostly Russian made, from the pack snow. The Anzob Pass 56 mi north of Dushanbe at roughly 11,000 feet (3,400 m), is one of the most treacherous mountain passes of Central Asia. On October 23, 1997, an avalanche killed 46 people, burying 15 trucks and cars. The avalanche was so large that it took two weeks for the would-be rescuers to reach the victims. Due to the importance of the route connecting the north to south and its level of danger, the 5 kilometres (3.1 mi) Anzob Tunnel was built, completed in 2006.
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After crossing the pass I noticed the marked difference of entering a land unchanged for millenia, a land of ancient villages and a people trapped in unchanging customs and practices. This is what makes travel to these areas very special. We stopped in a road side tea shop whose owners agreed to cook us a meal. During winter nothing is open except for hot tea sold in small eateries. Much to our excitement delicious meat dumplings, Afghani bread and copious amounts of sheep yogurt was served. The atmosphere was something to die for. With a steep ravine exposing itself outside the fogged window, we all sat in an elevated platform (typical Persian influence) laid with a multitude of faded rugs with the meal served in common dishes where everyone picks from their quadrants.
We traveled past beautiful villages set amidst poplar and willow trees, which almost seemed integral to the landscape. I was shooting so many photographs that my guide informed me that we might not reach our night lodging- a Shepherd's house, vacated for foreign travelers passing through that village. Around 10:00PM we reached the house set near a bubbling icy brook far enough from the road that we could not take our vehicle there. The sky was like a planetarium with all the constellations and the milky way showing themselves in an explosion of star dust and celestial light. Till date, other than in the Sahel Desert in Mali, I have not seen such a sky, almost similar to that seen by the ancient Greek and Indian astronomers. The house consisted of the main room and two little rooms on the perimeter. The focus of the house was the main room which had the coal stove which also served as the room heater, on which tea is always ready to be served. The Sheppard, Malyik, was a nice young man whose wife had prepared a magnificent meal of dumplings, lamb chops, soup and over 15 other items for snacking. We opened the Vodka bottle that I had my driver procure in Dushanbe and toasted each other with tales from USA, Russia, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. My sleeping quarter was a private room with no heat. Over 10 blankets were layered on top of me until I couldn't move anymore. Visiting the distant toilet was a challenge but having to walk in the icy starlit night was certainly welcome.
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The next morning, I was paraded around the village and shook hands with over a dozen bearded men who seemed very pleased to meet me. The name Shahrukh Khan, India's super movie star, was a universal name known to one and all in Tajikistan. Everyone whom I met would ask if I had met Sharukh Khan and I would answer that I was planning on it. Sharukh is a Muslim and widely revered in that Hindu country, a fact well noted by Islamic countries surrounding India, giving it a truly secular status.
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Each time we crossed a small mountain village, introductions had to be made to the village chief. A kind of request for permission that only applies to the villagers who still adhere to an ancient custom. What was really scary is that Tajikistan has become a transit hub for heroin from Afghanistan. With a 1300Km porous border between the two countries, almost not policed, it is a major source of opiates shipped to Russia, Europe and China. At any given time I was never more than a few hundred kilometers from the Afghanistan border; an area ripe for transportation and distribution by all the major terrorist organizations including Taliban and Al Qaeda . Tajikistan went through a horrible civil war between 1992 and 1997 with atrocities that involved dumping people from cliffs, en masse.
However, the villages I saw were poor where people lived a dignified life, proud to be dressed in native clothing and not averse to display Islamic hospitality to strangers at every opportunity. While I can write many sentences on my trip through the mountains, I believe my accompanying photographs can show the mountain environment in greater depth.
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Two photographs published in this article may peek your interest. In one, a dozen young ladies look at my car with curiosity. In the following picture, all of them turn away simultaneously upon seeing a man inside. In another amazing set of two pictures, you may notice a truck loaded with 30 plus men driving along the road. In the following photograph you will notice a young girl who was walking on the road dive for cover to hide her face from all the men in that truck.
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These two events were an eye opener for me showing me that in places like rural Tajikistan, it would take eons for women to be truly liberated. However in Dushanbe I could see a very Russian oriented workplace where women played an equal role in all professions. In retrospect one of the positive outcomes from the occupation of USSR of the lands of Central Asia, is that women are more liberated than in other Islamic countries.
After 3 days of an amazing fairy tale journey through the mountains, I arrived in Penjakent the border town with Uzbekistan. Alexander the great defeated the Sogdian king in Penjakent on the way to Samarkand. There is another important snippet about this town that is very important to Zoroastrians. Islam finally conquered the Iranian plateau, a full 100 years ( 920 AD) after Muhammad challenged all the neighboring countries to follow Islam or perish under his sword. The last of the Zoroastrian kings, Devaschtich ruled from Panjakent until his kingdom capitulated to the" violence" or as some say "message" of Islam.
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Panjakant is home to Aryan/Zoroastrian ruins from 2nd century BC and that of Bunjikanth, capital of the Sogdian kingdom (5th century AD -pre Islam). I visited these sites along with other Sogdian sites in Tashkent, in Uzbekistan. It is simply amazing to see the vastness of the Persian Empire and its vassal states even today. These locales are in the tentative list of future World Heritage sites.
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On my last day in Penjakant I was in a home stay with a family who host foreigners. The lady of the house was traditional Tajik, who understood some english and had converted 22 of her good teeth to gold caps. Her makeup included conjoining the eyebrows to form a contiguous ridge over her eyes. Their young daughter of 17 was so lively and had all the aspirations of any modern young girl but it looked like she would ultimately succumb to her mother's wish of an early marriage to a local boy and continue life as a second class citizen,
That last day, prior to my reentering Uzbekistan, just like Alexander the Great did, we dined, drank, laughed and danced a lot, except of course to the movie music of Sharukh Khan. The End

emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)
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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 18:30 Archived in Tajikistan Tagged the great alexander tajikistan termez Comments (2)

In Search of the Tomb of Songtsang Gompa, Tsetang, Tibet

In Search of the Tomb of Tsongsang Gompa, Founder of Tibetan Buddhism, Tsetang, Tibet..........................................by Ramdas Iyer

sunny 28 °F

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The spread of Buddhism in Asia, first through the Silk Route to China and Japan and by Buddhist Emperors of India to SE Asia, who sent missionaries by trading ships, are fascinating subjects that lay the foundation of early religious and political history of Asia. Having visited almost all the great centers of Buddhism in Asia I wish to discuss two areas, Tibet and Mongolia, that came into the fold of Buddhism only after the 7th century, almost 800 years after its initial impact in Central Asia.
There were two reasons for this. Firstly, Tibet and Mongolia lay off the main caravan routes along which merchants and pilgrims travelled between India and China. Secondly, the Tibetan and Mongolian people who were nomads and warlike, were generally indifferent to the Teaching of the Buddha and the higher level of culture that came with it.
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In Tibet, however, all this changed in the seventh century. The Tibetans, who had long been divided among many warring clans, were united under the rule of a great king, Srong-tsangam-po( also known as Songtsang Gampo). His success in uniting the Tibetans brought him and Tibet newfound prestige in Asia. As a result, he was able to wed both a Chinese (daughter of Tang Emperor Zhang-Zung) and a Nepalese princess(daughter of King Bikrut). His Chinese and Nepalese queens were both Buddhists and before long he, too, became interested in Buddhism.
Srong-tsan-gam-po sent representatives to India and China to study the Teaching of the Buddha and to bring back Buddhist texts. The result of these missions strengthened the king's faith in the Buddhist religion. He had many Buddhist texts translated into Tibetan and encouraged the people to practice the Buddhist teachings. He also constructed many temples throughout Tibet. Thus Srong-tsan-gam-po was the first patron of Buddhism in Tibet.
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The thirteenth century saw the rise of Mongolian power in Central Asia. Under Genghis Khan, an ambitious and brilliant chieftain, the Mongols soon made their influence felt throughout the region. By the middle of the century, links had been established between the Mongol court and Tibetan Buddhist masters.
During the reign of Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, China was conquered and as a result the Mongol court came increasingly under the influence of Buddhist and Tibetan cultures. Thereafter, a succession of Mongol Khans continued to look to Tibet for religious inspiration.
In 1578 the Mongol ruler Altan Khan gave the title Dalai Lama to Sonyam Gyatso, third in a line of reborn lamas of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. The title means "ocean of wisdom" .In the eighteenth century, the Manchus intervened to end a long period of political strife in Tibet. They appointed the then Dalai Lama as the ruler of Tibet. In this way, the Dalai Lamas became political as well as religious leaders. This situation lasted until the People's Republic of China assumed control of Tibet in the middle of this century.
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Like the Tibetans before them, Buddhism transformed the Mongols from a primitive people to a nation respected for its learning and wisdom. From the thirteenth to the twentieth century, Mongolia remained a stronghold of Buddhism. There, the Teaching of the Buddha was preserved in many monasteries as well as in the homes of the people. Although Mongolia today came under Communist rule, Buddhism survives in the hearts and minds of the Mongolians.( I will write about it in a future article)

Upon arriving in Lhasa I was eager to visit the great Jhokahang Temple ( my very first article in the blogosphere can be read in Travellerspoint). This temple was built by King Songtsang Gampo in 642. For most Tibetans it is the most sacred and important temple in Tibet. It is in some regards pan-sectarian(Black and yellow hat sects have conflicting philosophies), but is controlled by the Gelug school(yellow hats). The temple's architectural style is a mixture of Indian vihara design, Chinese Tang Dynasty design, and Nepalese design.
According to tradition, the temple was built for the two brides of the king, Princess Wencheng of the Chinese Tang dynasty and Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal. Both wives are said to have brought important Buddhist statues and images from China and Nepal to Tibet as part of their dowries, and they were housed here.
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The more one travelled in Tibet one begins to see the importance of this person who transformed a medieval warlike nomadic people who practiced a pagan religion called Bon. When I planned our trip to Tibet (2011) ,I made sure that I visited the valley of Kings where the tomb of Songtsang Gampo and his successors are buried in mounds, as was the practice in Tibet and China then. The Valley of the Kings or Chongye Valley branches off the Yarlung Valley to the southwest and contains a series of graveyard tumuli, approximately 27 kilometers south of Tsetang, Tibet, near the town of Qonggyai ,Shannan Prefecture.
The site possesses eight large mounds of earth resembling natural hills that are believed to contain at least eight to ten buried Tibetan kings.
One gets a classic flavor for Tibetan village culture as one travels through this interesting valley of the Tsang Po river ( Brahmaputra in India), one of the largest river systems in the world.
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Traveling in Tibet requires police registration in each province who may change itineraries depending on the unrest in the region. During our travel, my wife Pushpa and I, only missed one obscure monastery in which a monk had immolated himself in protest the previous day. However, we decided to take an excursion off the main road to visit a small village guarded by huge decrepit walls of a monastery destroyed by the communists in the 1950s. We visited several homes, played with young kids and met several pilgrims who were making their round to many monasteries by foot, often covering hundreds of miles. We met a young nun who proudly displayed her pendent image of the Dalai lama. A punishable offence that could land her in prison. My photographs are self explanatory and show life in a typical village in the countryside.
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Similar to the great mound in Xian, China where the Tomb of the First Emperor Qin Shi Huang Do is still unearthed, the tombs of the Tibetan kings are undisturbed in the mounds. However due to the great reverence the Tibetans had for Songtsang Gampo they built a temple on top of the mound credited with his burial. When the Tang emperor Gaozong(650-683)came to the throne, that made Songtsang Gampo the emperor's brother-in-law, he was awarded the title Prince of the Western Sea and was promoted to the position of Prince of Bin. Upon his death, emperor Gaozong held a mourning ceremony and sent an envoy to express his condolences. We visited this small temple and was enamored by its simplicity. A great man who transformed a nation is still worshiped daily after 1600 years.
The End.
email me @ ( riyerr@aol.com)

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Information Sources:

China Tibetology Magazine. tanjia-Hong
BDEA/Buddhanet-2008/ Buddhisn across the Himalayas
Wikipedia

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 13:07 Archived in China Tagged temple buddhism tibet mongolia lama tang hats dynasty khan dalai songtsang gampo yello jhokahang tsetang kublai srong-tsan-gam-po Comments (1)

Funeral Traditions of Zoroastrians In Iran and India

The Towers of Silence of Yazd, Iran...................................................................Ramdas Iyer

In my earlier blogs, I had written about funeral practices in Mali and Indonesia. These articles had more than 16000 visitors each. Therefore I decided to present here yet another interesting funeral practice of Persian Zoroastrians of Iran and India( Parsis) .I have always been fascinated with Persian culture, especially the age of Aryan migration from the central Asian steppes region into India and Iran. Despite the perceived difficulties of travelling in Iran in 2014, I applied for a visa and made a private tour of most of the country. While traveling , I was treated with respect, kindness and hospitality,and also given that my face betrayed my Indian extraction.
Zoroastrianism was the main religion across the Iranian plateau from 6th century BC to the Arab conquest in the 9th century AD. Founded by the Iranian prophet and reformer Zoroaster in the 6th century BC, Zoroastrianism contains both monotheistic and dualistic features. Its concepts of one God, judgment, heaven and hell likely influenced the major Western religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is also credited with being the oldest monotheistic religion.
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Starting my working life as an engineer in Bombay in 1979, I was exposed to Parsis ( a community of Zoroastrians that fled Iran in the 10th century to avoid Islamic incursions in Persia and its aftermath), who are today mainstream Indians but still practice the Zoroastrian traditions. They number 70000 in India out of a World population of 200000. I lived in Andheri, in the street that housed the largest Parsi colony in Bombay.

One of the most striking facets of their religion is the disposal of the body after death in Towers of Silence; a special place on a hill where the body is returned to nature without polluting land, water or fire, by committing the body to putrefaction by sunlight and to be consumed by birds of prey.
As a young man I was fascinated to see these structures around the Malabar Hill area of Bombay where even today these rites are performed. Now, 35 years later while in Yazd and Kerman provinces in Iran I visited some historic Towers of Silence. I wanted to share with you the knowledge I acquired along with a few photographs of the Yazd monuments in this article.

First, I need to discuss the commonality shared by the ancient Persians and ancient Indians. The source of the English word Aryan comes from the Sanskrit word ārya, which is the self-designation used by the Vedic Indic people who migrated into the Indian subcontinent from the European Steppes about 1500 BCE. The religious scripture of Zoroastrians, The Avesta and that of the Hindus, The Vedas, were more or less composed around 1000BC. The languages of the two scriptures, the Zoroastrian Avesta (old Persian) and Hindu Rig Veda (Sanskrit), are similar(50% common words) but not identical, indicating that at the time of their composition, the people of the Avesta and the Rig Veda were related and close neighbors.

It is said that the similarity of the cultures over millennia that enabled the Parsis to settle in India under the protection of Gujarati and Sind kings in the 10th century.
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A guiding principle in Zoroastrian funerary practices, is to prevent rotting flesh from coming into contact with the soil, water, and fire. In Zoroastrian dakhmas or towers of silence, the majority of the flesh of the dead is consumed by birds and the rest disintegrates through the action of sunlight and heat. The bleached and dried bones are then placed in an ossuary. The ossuary is either a central pit in the dakhma - a communal way of disposing of the bones - or a container, tomb, pit or cave - a private method for disposing of the bones.

Private, container ossuaries were subsequently placed in the home in a niche, on a special site in a family's property, in a mausoleum as part of a necropolis, or buried. The grand example of these rock-face ossuaries were the Achaemenian royal tombs in Pars, which I visited while in Iran.

Orthodox and egalitarian communities such as Yazd and Kerman appear to have opted for communal disposal where rich and poor were united in death. Other communities seem to have used the optional private ossuary method for those who could afford the choice or where families had hereditary ossuaries, say caves carved out of rock hill faces.

While in Bombay, I could only look at these interesting monuments from afar but while in Yazd, Iran, I had the opportunity to visit these monuments.

The Towers of Silence ( Dakhma in Persian, Cheel Ghar in Hindi) where this ritual is performed is often on a hilltop in the outskirts of town. In Yazd, Iran I visited the two massive towers built nearly a 1000 years ago when Zoroastrianism was the state religion of Persia and practiced from present day Iraq (Babylon) to the Indo-Pakistan Border near Tajikistan (Sogdiana).
Yazd is one of the highlights of any trip to Iran. A UNESCO World Heritage city, it is wedged between the two great deserts of Iran, Dasht-e-Kavir and Dasht-e-Lut. It is a silk road town of historic streets and lanes with over 2000 mud brick homes and unique wind towers, badgirs, that keeps the homes cool. Yazd has been known for its silks and other products long before Marco Polo stopped here in the 12th century.
The city was definitely a Zoroastrian centre during Sassanid times (225-650 AD-post Alexander). After the Arab Islamic conquest of Persia, many Zoroastrians migrated to Yazd from neighboring provinces. By paying a levy, Yazd was allowed to remain Zoroastrian even after its conquest, and Islam only gradually became the dominant religion in the city. It is home to the second largest population of Zoroastrians in Iran (20000 out of 90,000) and home to the sacred fire burning since 470AD.
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It was a hot afternoon as I made my way past ritual buildings, ossiuaries, and the the water reservoir before ascending the ramp to the top of the massive tower. Each Yazd city neighborhood (formerly villages around Yazd city) had a mortuary where the body of the deceased was bathed and wrapped in a shroud. When the body was brought to the dakhma, sixteen individuals (presumably men) carried the body to the top in teams of four individuals (taking turns). At the door of the dakhma, the body was placed on a platform after which the priest prayed for the departed's soul. Two salars ,traditional pallbearers and care takers of pollutants as the name signifies, took the body into the dakhma where the laid the body at its appointed place and removed the shrouds, leaving the body naked.
After thirty or forty bodies were consumed by birds of prey, the bones were gathered and placed in the central ossuary pit.When there is adequate population of birds, the body is completely stripped of its flesh within a couple of hours (often sooner). The bones are allowed to dry and bleach in the sun.
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Once the bones are completely stripped of their flesh either by birds or by rain and sun, the dried bleached bones are gathered by the salars and placed in the central well where they reduce to a powder, a process sometimes aided with the addition of lime. As stated above, the disintegration of the bones is so complete, that after forty years, one tower's central well had only five feet of accumulated residue.

The central well goes down in depth to the base of the tower. At the base of the well are filter layers of sandstone, sand and charcoal. Fluids and rain water that collects in the well are filtered by these layers and drain through grates on the well's side into four underground channels, each sloping towards underground pits at four corners of the tower - just outside the its walls. The bottom of these pits also have a thick layer of sand covered with layers of sandstone and charcoal, which are replaced from time to time. The filtered water leaving the pits is clear and free or any contamination. In wet climates, gardens surrounding the towers absorb the filtered water.

These towers were last used in Yazd in the early 1970s. The pressure from the Islamic communities brought a gradual end to this practice. The Zoroastrian dead are now buried under stone and concrete layers as an alternative to sky burial. It should not be forgotten that the sky burial was also a last act of charity to donate ones physical self to birds of prey.

For the interested readers, I have shown illustrations of the Bombay Tower of Silence (Cheel Ghar). The funeral process is elaborate and has changed little over thousands of years. First, the Parsis wash and then wrap the body in a shroud. The family then pays its last respects and a dog, regarded as faithful and loyal, visits the body to confirm death. In ancient times bodies were fed to the dogs, but now a token piece of bread is given to the dog that follows the corpse. The body is then taken to the Dakhma by an even number of bearers dressed in pure white, carrying the body on a metal slab with curved side edges. The family follows behind, turning back when they reach the tower, heading for the prayer house. Inside the tower, the bearers then place the body in the designated section according to their age and sex. The inner ring is for the children, the middle ring for women and the outer ring for men.
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While the tower of silence method of laying to rest the body of the deceased and the disposal of the body draws the attention of non-Zoroastrians, it is the fate of the soul and remembrance of those who have passed away, that occupies the minds of Zoroastrians.

Those who have passed away are not memorialized by monuments, but in the prayers of Zoroastrians. Memorial prayers are recited both at the home of the deceased's family and at the fire temple on the tenth day after death, after a month, and then annually on the death anniversary of the deceased. The prayers are seen as an essential part of keeping the memory of the individual alive. This method is very similar to the Hindu tradition, including lack of permanent memorials, a 10th day ceremony followed by annual rituals and prayers.
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In conclusion, it is interesting to note that we are all born alike: in a manger, a hospital, a hut or even in a police car. We call it the miracle of life. But when we die we celebrate our time on earth through a range of rituals and funeral practices that are affected by religious traditions, geographic locations where burial is impossible in winter like Tibet or philosophical considerations much like the Zoroastrians. The disposal of one's remains to the birds (sky burial) is seemingly macabre.These rituals are practiced only in India and certain parts of Pakistan where secularism is alive and well. The Parsis are an upstanding community of India and I wish they can maintain this tradition as long as they desire. In a Nov 2012 article in NY Times by Gardiner Harris " Giving New Life to Vultures to Restore a Human Ritual of Death"( w.nytimes.com/2012/11/30/world/asia/cultivating-vultures-to-restore-a-mumbai-ritual.html?_r=0), reveals the desire and efforts of the Bombay Parsi leaders to repopulate vultures so that their ancient funeral practice lasts forever. The End

emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)

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Sources:
Towers of Silence: JC Atkinson and Molly Russell
Zorostrian Heritage by K.E. Edujee
Wikipedia, Lonely Planet Iran.
Photos: heritage Institute.com/ bulletinasiainstitute.org/ truthcliff.com
Ramdas Iyer Travels- 2014

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 15:23 Archived in Iran Tagged sky of towers burial iran yazd silence avesta ramdas iyer zoroastrians parsis aryans parsees Comments (0)

In search of the Great Apes-Gorilla, Chimpanzee & Orangutan

Travels through Borneo, Uganda and Tanzania............................Ramdas Iyer

In the next few weeks I will be on a journey to Galapagos where Charles Darwin laid rest to his Theory of Evolution. As a son of a Zoologist, evolution was a much discussed subject around me. Before discussing my travels in search of the great apes, I wish to dedicate a few paragraphs to Louis Leakey, the father of Paleoanthropology. The first hominid ( Apes and Humans) skeleton was discovered in 1913 by a German scientist Hans Reck in German East Africa. With the end WWI (1914-1918), the Leage of Nations mandated that German East Africa needs to be transferred to Britain and regained its original name, Tanganyika. Louis Leakey, who was born in British East Africa (Kenya) was a paleoanthropologist and archaeologist whose work was important in establishing human evolutionary development in Africa, particularly through his discoveries in the Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania.
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He continued the work of Hans Resk whom he met in Berlin in 1929 and started his expedition in 1931 and subsequently unearthed several early human fossils ; Homo habilis (1.9 million years ago), Homo erectus (1.2 million-700,000 years ago) and Homo sapiens( 17000 years ago), in 3 decades of work at Olduvai Gorge. I visited Olduvai Gorge in 2013 while on a photographic Safari to Tanzania.
It was indeed a pilgrimage of sorts for me since I have been following the work of the Leakeys ( his wife Mary and son Richard are also renowned scientists) for quite a few years. Their son Richard Leakey is credited with the discovery of a 160000 year fossil of a Homo sapiens in Kenya. It was the oldest of the species found at that time and was the first contemporaneous with Homo neanderthalensis, found in Europe. This find confirmed that these two species of Hominids lived at the same time.
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Richard Leakey had an illustrious career culminating as the Director of Kenyan Wildlife. He was lauded world over for saving the elephant in 1980s by issuing a shoot at sight order on poachers. I had the privilege of attending his lecture in The Smithsonian Institution in DC in 1986.
One of Louis's greatest legacies stems from his role in fostering field research of primates in their natural habitats, which he understood as key to unraveling the mysteries of human evolution. He personally chose three female researchers, Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas, calling them The Trimates. Each went on to become an important scholar in the field of primatology. Leakey also encouraged and supported many other Ph.D. candidates, most notably from Cambridge University.
The introduction of Louis Leakey in this article is critical to my travels. His prescience on the evolution of humans ultimately resulted in my seeing all the great apes.

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In the past few years, no time and expense was spared by me to see the great Apes. I have always been interested in Primates and in the course of my travels through Asia and Africa these past couple of years, I not only marvelled at our distant cousins but also visited sites that were critical in the understanding of the emergence of man from Apes.
Apes live in the green equatorial belt that straddles Africa and Asia. The Gorillas primarily live in three countries on either side of the Congo River; Uganda and Rwanda are home to the Highland Gorilla while Congo is home to the Lowland Gorilla. It was in the volcanic mountains of Virunga, bordering Rwanda and the then Belgian Congo, where Dian Fossey,the American primatologist studied the mountain gorilla for 17 years beginning in 1967. Her life is depicted in the movie" Gorillas in the mist", a moving and fascinating film starring Sigourney Weaver.
Fossey made discoveries about gorillas including how females transfer from group to group over the decades, gorilla vocalization, hierarchies and social relationships among groups, rare infanticide, gorilla diet, and how gorillas recycle nutrients.
Mountain gorillas are one of the most endangered animals in the world today. Scientists estimate that there are about 600 Mountain gorillas, living in two populations of about 300 individuals each and separated by about 20 miles. There is only 285 square miles of high-elevation rain forest in the whole world, which is in east-central Africa, and the gorillas’ natural habitat. These gorillas are highly endangered due to habitat loss, but also to poaching and war. There are no mountain gorillas in captivity. In the 1960s and 1970s, mountain gorillas were captured in order to begin a population of them in captive facilities. They have never survived in captivity.
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I visited the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (a World Heritage Site) in 2014. It is located in southwestern Uganda in East Africa. The park is situated in Uganda near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda and next to the Virunga National Park on the edge of the Albertine Rift. It comprises 331 square kilometers (128 sq mi) of jungle forests and contains both montane and lowland forest and is accessible only on foot. Advance permits are needed at the cost of $700 per day. At this park there are 7 groups of habituated gorillas that are approachable by humans each with populations ranging from 8 to 16 individuals. The permits allow a maximum of 12 people per group to trek through the park. The 12 people in our group were supported by 12 porters, 2 advanced trackers and 2 armed forest rangers. The park's elevation ranges from 300o ft to 5400 ft with no trails. One has to penetrate by hacking through vines in an undulating terrain, where reasonable physical fitness is expected of visitors.
After 3.5 hours of trekking, through thick vines and vegetation sometimes at 30 degree inclines we spotted two females, an infant and three siblings waiting nervously for their Silver backed alpha male leader, who had gone away to fight another male. In such instances, the male can get killed followed by the group being taken over by a new younger male that has left its group to start one of its own. While this is a natural process amongst gorillas, it nevertheless leaves the group traumatized. Our trackers finally located the male in a steep area of the forest which we reached under great effort. It must be noted that only one hour of contact and observation with after the first sighting is allowed . The sight of the 350 lb alpha male in his majesty and gentleness is a moment one cannot easily forget. The rest of its family joined in but the vegetation was too thick to see them all together. The entire trek took 7.5 hours; heavy rain or our inability to locate them would have been a great loss for me.

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Jane Goodall's pioneering work on the behavior of chimpanzees have enabled us to appreciate the human like qualities of our closest DNA relative with 99% similarity. Goodall’s work was in the Gombe stream area of western Tanzania, even today a remote corner bordering Uganda. As an ardent follower of Jane Goodall’s work, I desperately wanted to visit Gombe during my trip to Tanzania in 2013. But one had to take a chartered plane which only flew twice a week making it both very expensive and time consuming.. Instead I chose to visit Kibale in 2014 in Uganda which is a vast tropical rainforest over 700 sq.km in area at an altitude ranging from 3000-4500 ft. which runs into Queen Elizabeth National park, Uganda ( creating a 180 Km long Wildlife corridor) a much celebrated but much poached national park.
Kibale National Forest has one of the highest diversity and concentration of primates in Africa. It is home to a large number of endangered chimpanzees, as well as the red colobus monkey and the rare L'Hoest’s monkey. The park is also home to over 325 species of birds, 13 species of primates, a total of at least 60 other species of mammals, and over 250 tree species. The predominant ecosystem in Kibale is moist evergreen and semi-deciduous forest.

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Since the 1960s a team of Japanese scientists have been habituating chimpanzees to human presence at Kibale national park. In Serengeti, the animals are used to the safari vehicles and are as such “habituated” to their presence. In the tropical rain forest it is not possible. So scientists spend time and in the case of Kibale, up to 6 years to make some of the chimpanzee groups get accustomed to the presence of human beings. Jane Goodall was the first to do so in Gombe stream and DianFossey with the Gorillas in Volcanoes Park, Rwanda. Akin to the gorillas in Bwindi, one can track chimpanzees in their natural habitat. For 600 USD per day one can spend 12 hrs.with them : from the time they wake up till the time they build new nests and sleep. For $150 one can insert himself into the forest and catch them for an hour, either at 8:00AM or 2:00PM. Since chimps can be found in 19 African countries, they are not as exclusive as the gorillas. But this is the only place that I know of where there is a formal wildlife tracking program available, in a classical moist hardwood equatorial rainforest.
Kibale is 325 KM/ 6 hrs. from Kampala with the last hour on dirt roads leading to one of the most lush and beautiful forests in central Uganda. The community, Batooroo and Balinga tribes surrounding the park were once notorious for killing chimps for bush meat, but today
readily endorse international Eco tourism that supports local infrastructure. I arrived at Chimps nest lodge by 6:00 pm and heard loud chattering noises from chimpanzees in the forest around us along with the sounds of grey cheeked Mangabeys and red Colobus monkeys. The air was cool, the surroundings forested and the noises classical Africa. Each cottage had solar lights, Eco toilets and a wood burning stove for hot water. We did night walks to spot Bush babies and Ganet cats and day walks around the camp for photographing primates. This gave me a chance to photograph non chimpanzee primates which I would otherwise not be doing once inside the national park.

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The trip to Uganda was successful and fulfilling but left in me a yearning to see the Orangutan. I ventured into Tanjung Puting National park, in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia in December 2014 to see them in their natural habitat. Tanjung Puting National Park is the largest and most diverse protected example of the extensive coastal tropical heath and peat swamp forest, which used to cover much of southern Borneo. The area was originally declared as a game reserve in 1935 and it became a national park in 1982. The park has over 800 different species of plants, over 220 bird species and nine primate species including the endangered orangutan and endangered proboscis monkey.
The park is home to more than 4,000 orangutans making it one of the largest populations in Borneo. Birute Galdikas pioneered the study of the orangutan, an intelligent great ape with long arms and spectacular red hair, native to parts of Indonesia and Malaysia. Determined to enter and open wide the world of the elusive red ape, Galdikas convinced Leakey to help orchestrate her endeavor, despite his initial reservations. In 1971, Galdikas arrived in Tanjung Puting Reserve, in Indonesian Borneo. Galdikas thus become the third of a trio of women hand-picked by Leakey to study mankind's nearest relatives, the other great apes, in their natural habitat. Leakey and the National Geographic Society helped Galdikas initially set up her research camp to conduct field study on orangutans in Borneo. Before Leakey's fortuitous decision to appoint Galdikas as the third Trimate, the orangutan was much less understood than the African great apes. Galdikas went on to further burnish Leakey's legacy by greatly expanding scientific knowledge of orangutan behavior, habitat and diet.

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When she arrived in Borneo, Galdikas settled into a primitive bark and thatch hut, at a site she dubbed Camp Leakey, near the edge of the Java Sea. Once there, she encountered numerous poachers, legions of leeches, and swarms of carnivorous insects. Yet she persevered through many travails, remaining there for over 30 years while becoming an outspoken advocate for orangutans and the preservation of their rainforest habitat, which is rapidly being devastated by loggers, palm oil plantations, gold miners, and unnatural conflagrations.
Unlike in Africa, the coastal swamp forests of Borneo are often flooded and one needs to go by boat to reach the Orangutans. Camp Leakey is 25 km by boat from the nearest town. While it possible to do a day trip into the Camp, travelers such as myself live on a houseboat with basic facilities. It is almost impossible to spot an Orangutan unless many days are spent along the riverbanks where the animals come to drink water. Thanks to Camp Leakey which was operated as a release station for captive orangutans until 1985, three generations of wild and semi wild animals are present in its environs throughout the year. While all the animals near camp Leakey live a wild existence, they are however fed a nutritional supplement of fruits during the lean fruit bearing months to ensure that the babies get enough nutrition. Around 10 different animals arrive each day at the three different feeding stations along the river. This program may be stopped in a few years as efforts to make Tanjung Puting fully wild are underway.
The jungle is full of Proboscis monkeys, which is endemic to Borneo. Hundreds of them can be observed along the waterways. One can see an occasional orangutan through the woods but it is almost impossible to photograph them given the density of the forest. My luck prevailed when a mother with its young was approaching the river in a relatively open spot. The time spent observing them and photographing them was a special moment in my annals of wild life photography.
Orangutans are solitary animals. However mothers nurse their young till they are 6 and the young females will always be near the mother for 20 years. Spending three days near Camp Leakey, I observed various individuals, young males and females, and many mothers with their young. Unfortunately the two alpha males that hold the territory near Camp Leakey were foraging inside the forest and not to be seen.
I was also fortunate to see the magnificent Mueller' Gibbon near the Camp. There are five types of ape. Four are considered "great." The fifth is the gibbon. Greatness in apes is largely a matter of size, and the gibbon, maxing out at 30 pounds, doesn't make the cut. To primatologists, it is known instead as the "lesser ape". Gibbons may be small, but they bear all the requisites of ape hood: large brains, no tail, and rotary shoulder blades. Like orangutans, they populate Southeast Asia.

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Gibbons are masters of their primary mode of locomotion, brachiation, swinging from branch to branch for distances of up to 15 m (50 ft), at speeds as high as 55 km/h (34 mph). The gibbons' ball-and-socket joints allow them unmatched speed and accuracy when swinging through trees. Nonetheless, their mode of transportation can lead to hazards when a branch breaks or a hand slips, and researchers estimate that the majority of gibbons suffer bone fractures one or more times during their lifetimes. They are the fastest and most agile of all tree-dwelling, non-flying mammals. The IUCN currently recognizes fifteen gibbon species, all but one listed as either endangered or critically endangered. Habitat loss from logging and fires place the most stress on current population levels.
In 2014 between my travels through Borneo and Uganda, I was able to see the Great Apes and the lesser ape. It is interesting to note that there are only two species of each of the great apes( except man Homo sapiens),eastern Gorilla (gorilla.gorilla) and western Gorilla (gorilla.berengui), Chimpanzee(pan troglodytes) and Bonobos( pan paniscus), the Bornean Orangutan (pongo pygmaeus) and the Sumatran Orangutan (pongo abilii). The Gibbons consist of 15 species and is the only lesser ape.
While on a trip to Addis Ababa in 2007, I ensured that I visited the National Museum where the oldest and most famous skeletal fossil 'Lucy' (Australopithecus afrensis) is displayed.
I also had the good fortune to visit the Sterkfontien caves near Johannesburg in 2012, where the Australopithecus africanus was discovered. This is a much celebrated species since it was tree dwelling with ape like limbs but with a much larger cranial capacity as seen in homo erectus and other future species.
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While in Indonesia in Dec 2014, I visited Flores Island home to Homo floresiensis, a new hominid discovered in 2004. The remains were discovered by an Australian-Indonesian team of archaeologists in Liang Bua caves, who were looking for evidence of the original human migration of H. sapiens from Asia to Australia. They were not expecting to find a new species. They were surprised at the discovery of a nearly complete skeleton of a hominin. Excavations done after that found seven more skeletons, dating from 38,000 to 13,000 years ago.
It was my bad luck that while just 14 km away from the Liang Bua, severe rains caused a mudslide that prevented vehicular movement. It will be interesting to note that the H.floresiensis lived as a contemporary of modern man and the Neanderthal man thus having three human species inhabit earth at the same time about 20,000 years ago.
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In conclusion, I would like to reflect on my journey in seeking knowledge about human evolution. The various fields of Primatology, Archeology and Paleo-anthropology come together in providing a picture of how we evolved from non-ape primates to Great apes and branched out into other species of hominids. The study of non human primate behavior has helped us understand our own species behavior. The joy derived from watching them in their natural habitat is something everyone who has as interest in this field must pursue. The End.

emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)

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Scientific sources:
Univ. of California, Berkeley/ Sumatran Orangutan Society/Orangutan.org/Wikipedia
Illustrations:
drstevebest.worldpress/wwnorton/sciencephoto.com/glogster.com
Photographs:
@Ramdas Iyer

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 14:00 Archived in Indonesia Tagged indonesia mountain borneo gibbon orangutan gorilla fossey uganda bwindi tanjung chimpanzee goodall kibale puting galadakis Comments (2)

Where the Elephants Rule in the Botswananian Bush

Close encounters in the African bush at Elephant Sands Campsite, Botswana by Ramdas Iyer

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The African bush is never quiet at night. The growls of lions and the laughing cries of the hyenas are commonplace. But to hear elephants outside your humble chalet, chomp and tear barks all night is certainly an exhilarating experience . On the large tract of land between Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe and the world famous Chobe National Park, Botswana lies Elephant Sands, an open camp site on 16000 hectares of private land with absolutely no fences. It is a wild life corridor connecting these national parks.
I arrived at dusk at the very sandy campsite, impassible without a 4X4 in the rainy season. Two large tuskers were blocking the entrance to the campsite. We waited until they moved away, but this was just the harbinger of things to come. No sooner we arrived, excited to see a small herd by the water hole I ran straight to set up my equipment to capture the incredible animals at such close proximity. In the process I had failed to register which could have almost turned me into a "open-air"khakhi tented camper instead of being inside the confines of a thatched hut like a registered guest.

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Four hours later, I was still watching these creatures, having missed my call for the communal dinner. It was getting dark and my photographic quality was suffering, with the constantly moving animals in the dark. Sipping wine with my guide on a fabulous moonlit night, I figured out a way to take some decent snaps with my Lumix X-5 by setting the timer at 2 secs . Once the excitement of photography had abated, I simply enjoyed the comings and goings of different herds. They would arrive as a big group, have a brief stand-off with another group at the hole, after "introductions" they would mingle and depart quietly. Occasionally there would be skirmishes amongst the young bachelor males resulting in prolonged gentle jousting.
Elephant Sands was opened by Oom Ben, who converted his private lands for eco-tourism in 2008. Botswana has done a great job of managing its wildlife and improving tourism. In fact it is Africa's destination for high end safaris. Elephant Sands is located in the fringe of the sandy desert of Nata area, where the great Nxai pan and the Makadgadi pans form a contiguous natural habitat. The pans themselves are salty desert whose only plant life is a thin layer of blue-green algae. However the fringes of the pan are circled by grassland and then shrubby savanna.
The water in the camp is so brackish that sweet water is transported from 30 km away to quench the visitors and the elephants. Every day over 6 truckloads are brought in during summer months. Many ecologists do not like the idea of attracting wildlife with unnatural water sources, since they are on a collision course with human safety. There have been many instances where the elephants simply walk into the lodge and sip from the pool while startled guests cower on one end of the pool.

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Jeffrey Barbee, South African photojournalist writes in his blog about Oom Ben, the elephant loving owner: "A small injury from an angry and confused female elephant has done nothing to deter him. Earlier this year a baby elephant fell into his swimming pool. The mother jumped in after it, but the pool was too small for her to turn around. In the resulting chaos, Ben jumped into the pool and helped the baby elephant to safety at considerable risk to his own life. The mother made it out but not before damaging the pool and getting very worked up. Later in the evening she came to the bar, cornered Ben, and charged him -lifting him up off the ground with the force of her impact and sending him flying across the bar floor. Only the solid roof of the structure prevented her from trampling him. In response, Ben widened the pool and made big elephant-sized steps for the beasts to safely get out. He also grudgingly made a small fence around the bar area to protect clients from what he calls "the possibility of future confusion". He does not regret the attack, and feels that people and elephants can get along with mutual respect and understanding. He blames himself for not making sure his trunked guests were as catered for as him two legged ones"
You should see this URL from YouTube " http://www.wimp.com/elephantpool/".
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When I arrived at Elephant sands in June of 2013, the pool had already been widened and a small wall no higher than 18 inches erected around the fire pit to separate wilderness from humanity.
This lodge has been trampled upon , ripped apart and made treeless by the elephants that surround it on a daily basis. Many guest complain about its rudimentary offerings not realizing that they are in an absolute wilderness area where the elephants rule.
I used this new berm for some interesting shots on a moonlit night with the seven sisters appearing in the sky on many shots. There was a moment when I had a close call. My constant presence near the berm had irritated one of the larger males as he had raised his trunk to sniff my presence. My driver/guide Coleen warned me to back off a bit after the big male took a couple of quick steps in my direction.
Elephants are very dangerous animals. They may not appear aggressive on first sight but may react to their environment in a very unpredictable manner. Having travelled in the African bush for 7 weeks in the last 18 months, I could see minor differences in elephant populations in different parts of the continent. Despite being the same species, their environment must have an effect on their appearance. The Etosha , Namibia elephants were large and stocky, theHwange, Zimbabwe elephants were tall, the Tanzanian and Ugandan elephants were thinner and of medium size while the Botswana variety looked very healthy. This is my personal assessment and may be factors such as poaching, nutrition and disease could be the reason for these perceived differences. Coleen mentioned that the Hwange elephants due to rampant poaching in Zimbabwe are always more aggressive in the presence of human beings. Something I noticed while driving through the park there.

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After several hours of enjoying these wonderful animals, I wanted to get some sleep but was unable to retrieve my luggage from our car. There was a big guy standing right next to the car. Elephant sands has its share of lions, leopards, hyenas and wild dogs walk through its facilities. Recently a pack of 16 wild dogs chased one another while guests were scurrying for safety. In fact a black backed Jackal was skulking around the kitchen area.

After a brief night's sleep, I was up at sunrise to see these beautiful creatures in daylight. Once again they arrived like clockwork to get a 200 liter drink each from the man made waterhole . I saw beautiful birds and a mother and baby Kudo coming to the hole to drink water. The moonlit night was magic and so special that a future visit may not grant me that same joy .Reluctant to leave on one hand but excited on the other on the prospect of visiting Hwange ,I made my way through the Pandamatanga gate into Hwange and Zimbabwe.

Earlier this year, I read that Oom Ben was hospitalized after taking a fall from a ladder while trying to fix a radio antennae that the elephants had ripped apart. In July 2013, The Daily Telegraph, UK reported that 325 elephants were poisoned in water holes by poachers in Zimbabwe along with a host of Lions, antelopes and hyenas. I hope that one of the hundred odd pachyderms that arrived from Zimbabwe which I saw that moonlit evening was not a victim of this disaster which happened only a month after my departure. The End.

emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)

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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 13:08 Archived in Botswana Tagged elephants safari african botswana chobe ramdas iyer hwange Comments (1)

In the trail of the Persian Empire Darius the Great, Iran

Visiting the legendary site of Bisotun, Kermanshah.................................Ramdas Iyer

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Current day Iran and a part of ancient Persia sits in the cradle of civilization and a traveler may find himself deficit with time if at least 6 weeks are not budgeted to cover all its great historical sites. Persia was consolidated into one of the greatest empires man had known in antiquity between 550BC and 330 BC. In those two hundred years the statecraft employed by the Achaemenid kings ( after founder Achaemenan) is still taught in political science classes universally.
My journey to Bisotun began in Hamadan. This present day city was built on the ruins of Ecbatana, the great capital of the Median Empire and the first capital of the Persian Empire under the Achaemenids, prior to the construction of Persepolis by Cyrus the great, circa 480 BC. Alexander the great sacked the fabled city of Ecbatana in 331 BC. It is said that Alexander's army employed 10000 mules to carry the treasures of this great city. When I stood on its ruins. which was already in poor condition I felt great sorrow for this city.
Before I proceed any further I wish to inform my readers that there may be a lot of historical references in this article that may either confuse or confound someone who is not versed in Greek/ Persian history. While it is not my intent to confuse you, I believe that this story might lose its significance if these appropriate historic markers are not inserted.
During my recent trip to Iran in May of 2014, I had the privilege to obtain a visa and conduct independent travel with a driver/guide all over the country. Being an American or a British citizen has many disadvantages as the representatives of the Great Satan may be subjected to harassment in short notice. This is not true for many European nationals like the French or the Italians, who seem to visit Iran and can travel independently by domestic transport without an escort.
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Like any seasoned traveler I put forth a plan through an agency which was then approved by the Ministry of Tourism and a tour number issued to the agency on my behalf. One has to conform to this itinerary including staying in the stated hotels and not straying anywhere independently. While seeming constrained, it was never monitored but was a Damocles sword over the head. My wife who accompanied me to pick up my visa was given a head cover when we visited the Iranian desk of the Pakistani Embassy in DC in order to collect my visa. It was amusing to see the American Iranian women at the Embassy who were wearing their head cover like they were ready to walk down a runway at the Milan fashion show; subtle and sexy.
Most Americans travel to Iran in a group. As an independent traveler I was subjected to questioning by a bunch of officers at the airport. It was more like a high school hazing. One guy asked me that if I had an Indian passport on me which will make it easy for me to exit. The real problem that prevented the immigration officials from making my entry easy was a new directive to fingerprint independent travelers from the US on entry. But since the only device at the airport was not working they had a "moral' struggle about letting me off easily.. Once inside the country everything was fine and all the check points routinely verified my US passport or just waved me through after seeing my Indian face. Iran and India have a relationship at a very core level stemming from their Aryan and Mughal histories spanning several thousand years. The Achaemenids secured their eastern border with ancient Indian kingdoms through treaties while they were busy expanding their western provinces.
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The main subject of this essay is my visit to the great World Heritage site of Bisotun. Even though I got there ultimately, I had fallen in love with another location instead with little time to spare for Bisotun. I forced my well meaning guide to change my plans and go to Qazvin and Alamut mountains, home of the legendary Assassins of the Shiite religion. I thought that this trip will be more spectacular than just reading famous inscriptions. A quandary that affects many who have a large travel list but with limited time. So I had my travel agent alter my plan trepidation to spent the night in Qazvin (former capital of Persia) in order to visit the Alamut mountains. As a matter of procedure the police were notified accordingly.

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(For almost two centuries, from 1090 until 1273, the Order of Assassins operating out of the Alamut mountains played a singular and sinister role in the Middle East. A small Shiite sect known as Ismailis, tamed more powerful enemies using shocking means: Murder. Even the most powerful and carefully guarded rulers of the age—the Abbasid and Fatimid caliphs, the sultans and viziers of the Great Seljuk and Ayyubid empires, the princes of the Crusader states, and emirs who ruled important cities like Damascus, Homs, and Mosul—lived in dread of the chameleon like Assassin agents. Source: http://www.historynet.com/holy-terror-the-rise-of-the-order-of-assassins.htm). ISIS today is not too different.

As I was visiting the sites of Hamadan, I suddenly realized that they could be covered in one day, leaving us a full day to go to Bisotun despite my scrapping the original itineraray. I argued with my guide that we had filed two plans; the original Bisotun plan and the latter Alamut mountains plan. My guide pleaded with me that he could lose his license if plans were changed and also insisted that I could be in danger of being detained. I bet on the fact that we were approved for Bisotun earlier so it was a security risk worth taking after seeing the dismal state of the immigration computers on arrival in Tehran.
Kermanshah where Bisotun is located is barely 50 miles from the Iraq border. The route was peppered with roadblocks that it was quite a risk to undertake this visit. It was a city that was destroyed by the Iraqi army with US weapons given to the Shah in 1980 after Ayatollah Khomeini had one of the greatest revolutions of modern human history. Over a million Iranians had died in and around the Kermanshah province. That war left a nation that still obsesses about their "Martyrs" with photos of dead persons all over the country. (See Plate)

Bisotun is home to Darius I inscriptions and bas reliefs (circa 500 BC )that left a written history of the Persians high above a rock bluff at 1000 ft from the road below. The raod from Hamadan to Kermanshah is an important road link to Iraq since it is where the great Shiite pilgrimage sites of Mosul, Najaf, and Karbala are located. The British without much thought put Shiasms holiest sites into the newly created Arabic country of Iraq, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire( 1918) .They did the same thoughtless deeds all over the Arabian Peninsula, during the creation of Israel and the partition of India in 1947. Colonial imperialism is still resented the world over and many countries in the middle east and Africa have never recovered from it.
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The drive from Hamadan to Kermanshah was beautiful with green fields, mountains and four lane highways. Remember that it is a pilgrimage route. Iraq is where Islam's 4th Prophet and the founder of Shiism, Imam Ali, is buried in Najaf. Najaf is the third holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medina. The hoardings on the roadside were extremely militaristic. Sign boards showing Iranian might, photos of martyrs from the Iraqi war etc. An interesting contrast with the USA, home to the greatest war machines in the world,is that one does not see military presence anywhere.

I soon arrived in Bisotun unmolested. The Kermanshah province is mostly populated by the Kurds. An Aryan race as old as Persia itself. They are some of the most hard working and friendly people one can encounter in the middle-east. I had the same feeling about Kurds whilst in Turkey a few years earlier. These are a people trapped between Iran, Iraq and Turkey who survived over millennia through tribal alliances with the great powers of Persia and Greece, and converted to Islam after the Arab conquest of 780 AD and tolerated the Ottoman Empire. The middle east was divided under the auspices of the League of Nations (1918-22)mandate after the collapse of the Ottomans. The Kurds ,Assyrians and Turkmen the major tribes in the region were left out while carving different nations, creating several problems in Iraq, Syria and Turkey that we are aware of today. The land of Kurdistan encompassing the three countries mentioned above remains a major thorn on the side of each government not willing to offer territory for an independent Kurdistan. Perhaps this short lesson serves as a backdrop of what is happening in the middle east with ISIS, Syria and Turkey. As of today Turkey is not getting involved with a much needed war with ISIS since they are unwilling to compromise their rigid position regarding an independent Kurdistan.

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Given this modern and ancient backdrop, I wish to celebrate the great site of Bisotun and the inscriptions which indeed a was a hair raising experience. The Achaemenid or First Persian Empire, was founded in the 6th century BC by Cyrus the Great. The dynasty draws its name from king Achaemenes, who ruled Persis between 705 BC and 675 BC. The empire expanded to eventually rule over significant portions of the ancient world, which at around 500 BC stretched from parts of the Balkans and Thrace-Macedonia in the west, to the Indus Valley in the east, making it the largest empire the world had yet seen . The Achaemenid Empire would eventually control Egypt as well. At the height of its power after the conquest of ancient Egypt, the empire encompassed approximately 8 million square kilometers spanning three continents: Asia, Europe and Africa. At its greatest extent, the empire included the modern territories of Iran, Turkey, Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, all significant population centers of ancient Egypt as far west as Libya, Thrace and the ancient kingdom of Macedonia, much of the Black Sea coastal regions, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, much of Central Asia, Afghanistan, China, northern Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and parts of Oman and the UAE. Hindustan was always an ally going back 2600 years!. Hence its affinity to India and vice versa.
In 480 BC, it is estimated that 50 million people lived in the Achaemenid Empire. According to Guinness World Records, the empire at its peak ruled over 44% of the world's population, the highest such figure for any empire in history. The Bisotun inscriptions(480 BC) are a powerful statement of a literate ,imperial and progressive society never before seen by man. What is more important is its location 1000 ft above the main highway connecting the Levant region consisting of Palestine and the pre Arab kingdoms of Assyria, Babylon and Lydia. It was also the land connector for future penetrations of Alexander and his army.
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Darius I(550BC-486BC), the greatest of the Persian kings had subjugated most of the middle-east as described earlier. Furthermore, he wanted to leave a legacy behind for humanity to understand his achievements. In my own theory, it was also the highway connecting the ancient axial religions of Buddhism in the east, Zoroastrianism in the center and Judaism to its west. It was also a highway connecting many well known pagan religions born in Babylon (Marduk), Greece(Zeus) and Egypt (Osiris)
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The greatness of the Achaemenids was in their capacity to tolerate other religions since 4 million Persian ruled 50 million subjects. I suspect the British in India did not tamper with religion for 200 odd years for the same reason and when they did so, it gave rise to a mutiny. Another folly of history typically never followed by imperialists.(read Barbara Tuchman's -March of Folly).
In the 3 languages that these inscriptions were carved; Babylonian, old Persian and Elamite, Darius I begins by stating the following powerful sample of the inscriptions:
• I am Darius the great king, king of kings, the king of Persia the king of countries, the son of Hystaspes, the grandson of Arsames, the Achaemenid.
• My father is Hystaspes [Vištâspa]; the father of Hystaspes was Arsames [Aršâma]; the father of Arsames was Ariaramnes [Ariyâramna]; the father of Ariaramnes was Teispes [Cišpiš]; the father of Teispes was Achaemenes [Haxâmaniš].
• That is why we are called Achaemenids; from antiquity we have been noble; from antiquity has our dynasty been royal.
• Eight of my dynasty were kings before me; I am the ninth. Nine in succession we have been kings.
• By the grace of Ahuramazda am I king; Ahuramazda has granted me the kingdom.
• These are the countries which are subject unto me, and by the grace of Ahuramazda I became king of them: Persia [Pârsa], Elam [Ûvja], Babylonia [Bâbiruš], Assyria [Athurâ], Arabia [Arabâya], Egypt [Mudrâya], the countries by the Sea, Lydia [Sparda], the Greeks [Yauna], Media [Mâda], Armenia [Armina], Cappadocia [Katpatuka], Parthia [Parthava], Drangiana [Zraka], Aria [Haraiva], Chorasmia [Uvârazmîy], Bactria [Bâxtriš], Sogdia [Suguda], Gandhara [Gadâra], Scythia [Saka] Sattagydia [Thataguš], Arachosia [Harauvatiš] and Maka [Maka]; twenty-three lands in all.

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These inscriptions go on for 1200 lines, in three languages with a life size bas relief of the king in front of his 9 subjugated emperors with the Zoroastrian angel/god Ahuramazda hovering over him. Note: Ahura=Light and Mazda= wisdom.
While there are many ancient carvings and inscriptions stretching over 1000 years at this site, the Bisotun inscription is a clear historic record from 2500 years ago. The greatness of Darius even reflects in the way these were inscribed in 3 languages at a great height for posterity to appreciate his achievement. While I can be verbose on this subject, by the grace of Ahuramazda, I wish to stop my main article here. I felt privileged, and fortunate for being in this great historic outpost.
In conclusion I wish to make the following personal observations on Iran:
Iran was a great country in antiquity and still has some great minds. Bisotun is a testament to that thought. Persia is not to be confused with Iran. Persians are people of the Shiraz region, home of the Achaemenids. Iran is a nation of several tribes of which the Persians are a sizable political majority. Turkmen, Bakhtiari, Baluchis, Kurds, Pashtuns, Lurs and Tajiks to name a few, constitute this historic land.
Because of their history, they believe that they should have the upper hand in the middle-east as they are a great people. I personally sense that they may be the brightest people in the middle- east outside of Palestine. But Iran is not what it used to be ; its government is a petty theocracy which wills itself to eliminate other countries. I feel sorry for its people who are very similar to Indians in mentality. They are not religious and even the religious ones are put off by the hypocrisy of the ruling Mullahs.
They have been taken advantage by the Americans and the British ever since oil was first struck in Iran in the 1800s,first by the British and then the Americans who were their last puppet masters. The revolution in Iran was indeed one of the people without any coercion by anyone. We must salute their revolution against the west. But unfortunately it did not redeem the country. It turned to be a failed revolution of hypocrisy, selfishness, meaningless theocracy, theft and usurpation of a beautiful land by the Mullahs. the End.
emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)

Credits:
Venkat Santosh for editing the material for relevancy of content.
Wikipedia : Translation of the inscriptions
Prof. John Lee "The Persian Empire" in Teaching Company lecture DVD
UNESCO .org
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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 15:44 Archived in Iran Tagged world heritage site iran persia darius kermanshah ramdas iyer bisotun bisttun hamadan Comments (2)

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