A Travellerspoint blog

My-Son, The Ancient Champa Hindu Kingdom of Vietnam

Spreading and colonization of South East Asia by the early Hindus from India by Ramdas Iyer

I opened the NY Times today and realized that the famous North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap who threw both the French and the Americans out of his country had passed away. Growing up in India during the Vietnam war I remember that many Indians were mostly sympathetic to the American “cause” out of ignorance and also due to the existence of strong US propaganda there. As someone who came to the US out of love for everything American I could not accept the fact until I visited Vietnam in 2012 the extent of our misadventure there.

So this beautiful fall morning I decided to revisit Vietnam through the eyes of an Indian American. I had published a photo blog on Mi-Son Kingdom of the Champa Hindu people last year. Here I will try to elaborate on that text and include some fascinating facts about India and South East Asia from 1BC until the 19th Century.

I am peeved by the lack of knowledge nor interest exhibited by "bulk" tourists who are bused to fragile sights in hordes . While their money is important for protecting the sights the damage caused by touching and trampling cannot be quantified. Above all most of them do not have a clue of why they are even there except to fill a blank afternoon in the itinerary. So here is my contribution to those who wish to learn a bit more about Champa and to indeed fill in the blanks..

The transmission of Indian culture to distant parts of Central Asia, China, Japan, and especially Southeast Asia is certainly one of the greatest achievements of Indian history or even of the history of mankind. None of the other great civilizations - not even the Hellenic - had been able to achieve a similar success without military conquest.


Indian and Chinese kingdoms, the two great powers of Asia where predominantly conducting trade via land utilizing the silk route, from 500BC through 1000 AD). Indian and Chinese influences by land can be seen in Burma, Laos and North Vietnam. Sea trade was predominantly Indian in SE Asia since its navigators traded with the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt and as far as Rome at the height of the Roman Empire. It is believed that it was the Persians who developed the technology for carrying over 600 troops on large ships during Persia’s incursions into Greece around 400 BC. This technology was adapted by the early Indians to begin colonizing SE Asia and establishing Indianized states somewhere around 50 AD.

The first of these “Indianized” states to achieve widespread importance was Funan, in Cambodia, founded in the 1st century A.D. These local inhabitants were the Khmer people. Khmer was the former name of Cambodia, and Khmer is their language. The Hindu-Khmer Empire of Funan flourished for some 500 years. An elite practiced statecraft, art and science, based on Indian culture to the Malay Peninsula in the west. The first organized state to achieve fame was the Hindu-ised Malay kingdom of Srivijaya, with its capital at Palembang in southern Sumatra. Its commercial pre-eminence was based on command of the sea route from India to China between Sumatra and the Straits of Malacca. In the 6 th – 7th centuries Srivijaya succeeded Funan as the leading state in South East Asia.

By the 7th Century a powerful Indianized Buddhist Kingdom, Sailendra, rose in Java( Indonesia)challenging the supremacy of the Sri Vijaya Kingdom in Sumatra. A union of these two Empires resulted in Hindu/Buddhist dominated kingdoms until the early 14th century when the visitations of Europeans Spice traders eventually led to their colonization of SE Asia.
The various Indianized states and empires of this first 1500 years A.D., though founded by Indian colonization and maintaining diplomatic contacts with India, remained politically independent of the Indian kingdoms. The only exception to this was the temporary conquest of Malaya by the Chola kingdom of southern India in the 11th century, but the Sailendra kings of Srivijaya were victorious in a long war against the Chola armies of Peninsular South India. My ancestry for the past 500 years was rooted in the Chola Capital of Tanjore, which until this day is home to refined South Indian culture.
The patronage of Indian arts and culture by the Empires of Sri Vijaya (Sumatra), Mahajapit & Sailendra (Java), Funan( Cambodia),the Pagan( Burma) and the Champa (Vietnam) have given us some jewels of Asian architecture. They include the monuments of Pagan, (built from 1044 to 1287 AD), Angkor (Combodia;,889 to c. 1300 AD), the Borobudur (Java, early ninth century AD), Prambanan (Java 9th century) and Mi Son (Vietnam 4th-10th centuries). Though they were influenced by Indian culture, they are nevertheless part and parcel of the history of that respective country as witnessed by me between 1996-2012.

With this backdrop of a strong Indian political and religious influence in SE Asia we can begin to explore the Champa people and the eventual building of the magnificent Mi-Son Complex near Danang, Vietnam. The people of Champa (Cham people) were descended from Malayo-Polynesian settlers who appear to have reached the Southeast Asian mainland from Borneo and Aceh, Sumatra around the Ist century BC .

About 100 km from Danang, the famous US Air base during the Vietnam war, lies Mi-Son, the holy site of the Champa Hindu Kingdom that was established by Bhadravarman in the 4th century AD. in a Chinese dominated area. The Han dynasty held sway over Vietnam and Cambodia for 1000 years till the 10th century. The Cham rebelled against the Han Dynasty and drove it northwards creating a huge swathe of territory extending a 1000 km from Danang in the central Highlands southwards. Hinduism must have deeply influenced the Cham people who experienced the rule of Hindu kings over a millennium during their gradual move from Sumatra and Borneo into Vietnam.

The rulers of Champa, presided over a small territory between high mountains and the sea. This not only gave them extensive maritime access but also helped them stave any land-based invasion by non-maritime powers in their neighborhood. They were a belligerent lot resorting to fighting often with the Chinese to the north, and the great Khmer kingdoms(Hindu and Buddhist), then dominating Cambodia, Thailand, southern Vietnam and Laos. Due to lack of arable land in their narrow territory, they also resorted to piracy. The 53 plus rulers of Champa dynasty ruled the middle Vietnam for 900 years and built elaborate temples from the 4th century in wood and from the 7th century in stone, until their weakening and subsequent destruction by the 14 th century when the Minh kingdoms of Vietnam grew more powerful.


The Mi- Son Sanctuary dates from the 4th to the 13th centuries AD. The property is located in the mountainous border of Quang Nam Province, in central Viet Nam. It is situated within an elevated geological basin surrounded by a ring of mountains, which provides the watershed for the sacred Thu Bon river. and through the historic heartland of the Champa Kingdom, draining into the South China Sea at its mouth near the ancient port city of Hoi An. Hoi An is another World Heritage site that I visited is preserved wonderfully despite the many wars Vietnam endured. This is the base from where one explores the Champa sites.
The tower temples were constructed over ten centuries of continuous development in what was the heart of the ancestral homeland of the Cham clans who the kingdom of Champapura (Sanskrit for City of the Cham people).They owed their spiritual and cultural identity to the Indian sub-continent. Under this influence many temples were built to the Hindu divinities such as Krishna and Vishnu, but above all Shiva. Although Mahayana Buddhism penetrated the Cham culture, probably from the 4thcentury AD and became strongly established in the north of the kingdom, Shivite Hinduism remained the established state religion.


The main deity for all the temples was lord Shiva with the Mi- son complex dedicated to Bhadreswara; making the founding King Bhadravarman the god king ,by adding the Eswara (God) suffix similar to the Shivite Pandya kings who claimed to be Sundereswara (King Sundara plus Easwar)in Tamilnadu, India.( As a child I have worshiped Shiva at the Sundereswara Temple in Madurai.) They used the sanskritised Pali as the court language with several tablets still pockmarked by machine gun bullets in the complex today. Completely overgrown by forests the French archaeologists uncovered the Mi Son complex in the late 19th century. The Champa kingdom comprised of Amaravati nagar in the north( Mi-Son) and Po Nagar in the south. The Po Nagar Hinduism never really vanished and is still practiced by the minority Champa community of south central Vietnam. There are many Champa built pyramidal towers similar to Gopurams in south India. The worship is not that of classical Hinduism and has drifted to more animist form of Hindu worship seen in Bali.


The story of Mi-Son is exciting and very sad at the same time. Due to its
mountainous ground cover ,it served as a major Viet Cong Base operating inside south Vietnam. A single week of carpet-bombing campaigns by the US Military during August 1969 razed the site from more than 70 temples to its current 20. French Champa experts appealed to president Nixon in vain. In fact the hostile terrain was impenetrable by US forces that they had to finish off the elaborate and finely adorned tall buildings that did not collapse by B-52 aerial bombing with focused helicopter bombing. Upon mentioning this to my cousin Hari in India, the words that came out of his mouth were “An American Bamiyan?”




Although Cham art and those of Southeast Asia were all adapted from the arts of the Indian subcontinent, each Southeast Asian civilization possessed their own grammar and vocabulary to express their aesthetic characteristics and tastes. The ethnic aesthetics of indigenous people filtered the Hindu and Buddhist arts that come from India, resulting in a disparate artistic lexicon and differing artistic sensibilities.

The Champa Kingdom collapsed with the resurgence of Viet Kingdoms( Dai-Viet) in the 10th Century in the wake of the collapse of the Song Dynasty in China. As a traditional enemy, the Viets embarked on a genocide of the Champa people. Between 1200 and 1700AD the kingdom went through several attacks and counter attacks by the Khmer and the Viet including a brief takeover by the Mongols of Kublai Khan. The Champa kingdom seized to exist after 1832 when it formally became a part of the Nguyen Dynasty of Vietnam.

Much to our blessing the original Bhadreswara temple stands. Though started in the 5th century the current structures were renovated in the 10th century .Please see my photographs taken around 7 am on a wet, rain soaked day including a sculpture of shiva with two unexplored 6-ton bombs next to it. This visit to Mi Son was a highlight of my south east Asia trip. I plan on exploring other Champa and Khmer Hindu temples in Vietnam ,Cambodia and Laos in the future. Please note that a good portion of Cham people were converted to Islam by the Indonesians in the past 200 years and only 60 percent of the Cham claim to be Hindus. There is an elaborate Cham festival every year at Po nagar, Vietnam presided by Cham Brahmin priests.!!!!
This again shows that commerce and cultural intercourse changes entire civilizations and continents. Shouldn’t that be the lesson learnt from the Indians for western action in the Middle East. A couple of years ago I read an article in the Wilson Quarterly about how Central Asia and the fringe Islamic countries can become less polarized from the international community with the re establishment of the Silk Route for commerce. China is already successfully attempting that in Central Asia and Africa.
The Indian Hindu community has built over 300 temples in the US. While they are great centers for keeping an ancient culture alive , I would only hope some of the contributions can go back to India to restore the thousands of grand and historic monuments that are crumbling into oblivion daily. The End.
emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)

References and further reading sources:

Vestiges of Champa Civilization by Tran Phuong
Encyclopedia of Ancient Civilizations
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Hindu Colonies in the Far East. by R. C. Majumdar

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 07:51 Archived in Vietnam Tagged son india vietnam angkor hindu prambanan pagan colonization champa borobadur my- Comments (4)

Sailing between the Spectacular and the Spiritual in Ireland

Visiting the 6th century christian monastery of SKELLIG MICHAEL,off the Atlantic coast of Ireland by Ramdas Iyer


Given its ancient history and remoteness of location, Skellig Michel naturally fell into my itinerary during my travels through Southern Ireland in 2013. Skellig Michael is an outstanding, and in many respects unique, example of an early religious settlement deliberately sited on a pyramidal rock in the ocean, preserved because of a remarkable environment. It illustrates, as no other site can, the extremes of a Christian monasticism characterizing much of North Africa, the Near East and Europe. 1996 Skellig Michael became a UNESCO World Heritage Site to protect its archaeological wonders for posterity.

Located 12 km off the coast, access to the site is very limited. Each year 13 boat licenses, carrying no more than 12 passengers are granted to tour operators who each run a single trip to Skellig Michael each day during the summer season (April to October), weather permitting. For safety reasons, because the steps up to the monastery are rocky, steep, and old, climbs are not permitted during very wet or windy weather. Few have ever had enough time to explore at leisure all that Skellig Michael has to offer since the normal visit to the island lasts only a few hours. A lengthy stay involves complex logistical problems because of uncertain sea and weather conditions and the lack of housing, food, and water on the island. Weather alone can wash away all resolve; very few can afford either to sit for days onshore, grimly eyeing the skies, or to huddle on the island in soggy misery awaiting those rare flashes of mercy from the Irish weather
Located in the most beautiful area of County Kerry, the approach to the western most tip of Iveragh Peninsula, where the Skelligs lie, was constantly interrupted by stops for spectacular photo opportunities offered along the way. At one point Pushpa, my wife and I decided to abandon the idea of reaching it given our limited time available in the country. Eventually we reached the peninsula about 3:00PM on our chosen day instead of at 8:00AM to catch one the boats. As I have always done, I struck a conversation with a local in a tea shop and a brief chat led to our going around the Skelligs in a private boat. The gentleman I was talking to offered to contact his friend, a boat owner, asking by phone if he would take us around the Island. An hour later we were walking into the Fisherman’s Pub in Portamagee, looking for Kevin Lavin, who was supposedly known to everyone in town. Essentially we were in the hands of a novice carpenter turned tour operator, who was going to make his first few if not his maiden trip to the Skelligs-I could feel Jesus, a carpenters apprentice, smiling!


Christian monasticism had its conceptual roots in the belief that union with God could best be attained by withdrawal from civilization into harsh and isolated regions. In the third century, Egyptian Christians fled the distractions and temptations of cities to live solitary lives of prayer, meditation, and fasting in the desert. The fame of St. Anthony (ca. 251–356), the great founder of eremitic monachism, spread rapidly throughout Egypt; his duels with the devil while locked in a tomb and his decades of total isolation in the most inhospitable areas of the Egyptian desert became the heroic model for a multitude of followers. Yet St. Anthony's vision of solitary withdrawal into bleak areas where survival is difficult has remained over the centuries the ideal—the purest form of monastic life. From St. Simeon Stylites (ca. 390–459), who lived for decades on a pillar fifty feet high, to the nineteenth-century recluse who established himself on a volcanic plug in the Hoggar Mountains of the African Sahara, Antonian monasticism has continued to be practiced by a few highly motivated ascetics.

One of the most spectacular inaccessible regions of monastic withdrawal is in the province of Thessaly near the village of Kalabaka in Greece, where rock masses have eroded into isolated columns ranging in height from eighty-three to three hundred feet. Some have described Meteora, Northern Thessaly, Greece founded in the 16th century to be the ultimate in isolated living.
Walter Horn, medieval scholar at UC, Berkeley who researched the monastery writes “We had thought of the hermitages and monasteries of Meteora as the climax, the ne plus ultra, of monastic withdrawal until we came to work on the Irish island of Skellig Michael. In the course of investigating the island, we were startled to discover the architectural remains of a hermitage five hundred years older than the earliest hermitage of Meteora. On Skellig Michael, an island at the western edge of the European land mass—at the time the monastery was founded, the western edge of the Christian world—was a hermitage even more awesome than Meteora seven hundred feet above the sea, clinging to the narrow ledges of an austere pinnacle, the Skellig Michael hermitage is a visual wonder and a marvelous feat of construction”
Solitary asceticism was praised throughout Europe, but nowhere was it imitated so faithfully, for so long, or on such a grand scale as in Ireland. Enthusiastically adopting Antonian ideals, early Irish monks began with hermitages and small eremitic colonies The ascetic revival of the late eighth and early ninth centuries was led by a group of highly articulate and persuasive monks who referred to themselves as the Célí Dé, the "companions of God," but were popularly referred to as the Culdees. They have been attributed to the construction of the monastery on the southern peak of the island.
Not much is known about the details of life in the monastery, except that it flourished for 600 years until the 12th century Norman Conquest of Ireland, where it is listed in their coda as a functioning church. The monks of Skellig Michael might have had another reason for their strong interest in supporting the dreams and aspirations of a hermit. In the ninth century the Vikings began to raid Ireland. After a first bitter experience, in which monasteries was brutalized, the monks would have wanted to build a temporary place of safety from attack.
The earliest undisputed reference to Viking raids on Skellig Michael is in the Annals of Inisfallen , where under the year 824 it is stated: "Scelec was plundered by the heathens and Etgal was carried off into captivity, and he died of hunger.
The monks of Skellig Michael had reason to be anxious, for the approaches to their monastery were not easily defended. By the end of the 12th century Skellig Michael had been abandoned by monks in favor of the Augustinian Monastery in Ballinskelligs( Another interesting place to visit in the Inveragh Peninsula). In the early 13th century there was a general climatic deterioration resulting in colder weather and increased storms on the seas around the Skellig isles. Also a shift in the Irish church from a monastic to a diocesan structure, brought the end of Irish eremitic island colonies, which resulted in the community of Skellig Michael eventually moving to the mainland. This was probably not a single event but likely happened over a period of time.
In 1578 Queen Elizabeth I dissolved certain monasteries as a result of the Desmond rebellions, including the Skelligs. In the 16th and 17th centuries Skellig Michael becomes a focus for pilgrims from all over Europe. By the 18th century the Butler family gave up the land to the Irish Government which set up lighthouses on the Island, still functioning.

While waiting for Kevin to show up, we hung out with the local fishermen, friends of Kevin over a pint of Guinness malt. Interestingly an abandoned boat belonging to Kevin’s father had the same name as the “Maria Theresa” that we were told over the phone that we will be sailing to the Isles. The locals had fun indicating that Kevin was a good sailor and he was the only one adept at handling that seagull dropping adorned vessel. One cannot discount the great sense of humor the Irish men and women exhibit for every occasion. It was humor that I believe I kept this hardy Celts from caving into the British, many famines and today a lack of natural resources, failure of the “Irish Tiger” economic phenomenon and a young population ready to emigrate from this beautiful land.

We chugged out into the ocean at 6:00PM on a day considered one of the best by the locals; 70F, blue sky and last sunlight at 10:30PM.It turned out Kevin, son of a fisherman and a carpenter had just bought the boat for 300K Euros and had an economic reason to take us. We observed many seabirds; gulls, gannets, cormorants, shearwaters, terns, guillemots and Razorbills. Little did we realize that one of the two Isles; the lesser and greater Skelligs was home to 70000 Gannets (2nd largest Gannet colony in the World) and the clown amongst seabirds the erstwhile Puffin.
As our 30 ft boat pulled up close to Lesser Skellig, all 130degrees of our vision was absorbing the panorama of surreal rocks from which flew thousands of birds. Pushpa and I were literally dumbfounded and in total ecstasy at such a sight. As a well heeled traveler, it is only occasionally have I seen a locale that made me gasp and gape in dumbfounded astonishment. Over a 1000 birds were overhead in addition to the entire sea around us with bobbing gannets, gulls and beautiful Puffins. As we sailed around the Island for 30 minutes, I ran out of disc space because I shot over a 1000 images in RAW format, despite the fact that my D600 holds 2 SD cards.


We then chugged along towards the Greater Skellig; Michel Skellig (named for St. Michael, the Archangel), an island that could have very well have been a scene from “Lord of the Rings” movie. Faulting of Devonian sandstone and gravels has created a U-shaped depression, known today as 'Christ's Saddle', 400ft above sea level in the centre of the island, and this is flanked by two peaks, that to the north-east rising to 550ft and that to the west-south-west 700ft. The rock is deeply eroded and weathered, owing to its exposed position, but is almost frost-free. Landing is possible at three points, depending on the state of the sea. These communicate by flights of 700 very slippery steps with the principal monastic remains. (The Irish and UNESCO authorities have not introduced anything man-made including railing or chains to hold on to, nor a toilet, lest the site lose its original feel. Every year a couple of deaths have been registered on the steps.
The well-preserved monastic remains have retained a strong spiritual after-life which appeals strongly to the human psyche. Visitors cannot but be awestruck by the physical achievements of these early monks which, when combined with the sense of solitude, ocean and bird sounds evokes a quiet sense of magic. This is beautifully expressed by George Bernard Shaw who, following a visit in 1910, described this ‘incredible, impossible, mad place’ as ‘part of our dream world’...

After circumnavigating the Isle, I requested Kevin to take us back to Lesser Skellig where I could enjoy the birds some more.
My reflections of this 4 hour trip can be concluded as such; The Lesser Skelligs gives the soul an opportunity to commune with nature, while the Greater Skellig gives the same opportunity to do so with the great unknown. This converging communion with nature and the spiritual makes the visitor or pilgrim consider themselves to be blessed with the ability to appreciate the greatness and mysteries of this world. The End.
emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)


Citations: Walter Horn and Jenny White Marshall, University of California Press, UNESCO World Heritage site, Ministry of Environment and Heritage website, Ireland.

Ramdas Iyer ( Riyerr@aol.com)

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 12:37 Archived in Ireland Tagged religion ireland monks monastery michael kerry county christianity skellig Comments (2)

Buddhism arrives from India to China: A Silk Road Journey

Story of the White Horse Temple built in 67 CE, Lou yang, Henan Province, China..........................by Ramdas Iyer

An interest in 2007 for traveling the silk route and beyond spurred me into taking a trip to Louyang, which lies 300 miles east of its terminal point of Xian. In the year 64 of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 CE), Emperor Mingdi, whose capital was Lou Yang, wanted to send a delegation of his men to study Buddhism in India. Taoism at that time was a higher–level religion in China and was pursued mostly by the upper class. There was a growing need for a more spiritual culture than one built on nature and ghost-worshipping. Mingdi forthwith selected emissaries, in all totaling 18 people, to go towards the west to India in search of the religion based on the teachings of Gautama Buddha.
One has to remember that Hindustan (India was a British creation) then extended from present day Burma in the East till the Uzbek border with Afghanistan in the West. The absence of Islam until 850 CE and the lack of influence of the Levant religions helped Hinduism and Buddhism flourish within this broad sub-continent and parts of Central Asia.
One of the interesting historic features of North India has been its cultural intercourse with several Middle Eastern regions and many tribes of the Central Asian Steppes. By discussing initially the geo-politics of the region, I wish to show the natural process by which Buddhism could propagate to China. I believe this will also be a useful primer to understand early Indian History. Many are already aware of the gradual Aryan migration of nomadic people between 2000-1500 BC into India from Central Asia, through the Khyber Pass and then onto the Gangetic plains. This group of people introduced the pre Hindu “Vedic” cultures in India around 1500BC ( date of the Rig Veda)into India which already had a rich indigenous culture as can be seen existing in current day Tamilnadu ,Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh and other parts of South and Central India.

These Aryan interlopers were members of a broader group of Indo- European Steppe nomads (Lithuania-Ukraine area) who splintered with a rival group that led to the foundation of Persia. The similarity of the Aryan Indians and Aryan Persians has been established by scholars through the common language used to recite the Rig Veda by the Indian Brahmins and the Zend Avesta by the Persian Zoarastrians.
As recently as 2010, when India was being pressured by USA to stop importing oil from Iran , the Indian Prime minister before acquiescing to the embargo lamented in public about betraying a historic trust and partnership between India and Iran that was laid on 4000 years of common heritage including the flowering of Islamic Persian culture in modern India. Historians and the informed community always suffer during wars and political crises which sometimes destroys ancient cultural bridges.

When Alexander the Great subjugated Persia in 330 BC his eyes lay upon Hindustan, a land described by Herodotus the father of historic studies. After Alexander’s premature death, the lands between Persepolis and the Indus rivers were ruled by Greek Satrapies. The Greek General Selucus Nikator ruled over the area of current day Pakistan and parts of Punjab...As the Greek-Bactrian (Bactria is current day Uzbekistan) domination waned around 100 BC, the area of northwestern India consisting of Pakistan and the Punjab were run over by the Scythians. The Scythians were an Indo-Iranian horse people who migrated from Central Asia to the European Steppe north of the Black Sea around 700 B.C.
The Scythians preceded the Huns, Turks and Mongols by many centuries. The Scythians did not have a written language it is believed that they spoke an Indo-European language similar to Persian. The Scythians inspired such terror among the Greeks that they are credited with inspiring the myth of Centaur. Indo-Scythians or Sakas(in Sanskrit)is a term used to refer to Scythians who migrated into parts northern South Asia ;Sogdiana( Tajikistan), Bactria(Uzbekistan), Arachosia (Pashtu Afghanistan), Gandhara,(Pakistan) Kashmir, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, UP and Bihar. from the middle of the 2nd century BCE to the 4th century CE. They ruled from Kabul and Taxila, practiced Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoarastrinism and Ancient Greek religions. They were also known as the Indo-Greeks by many historians.
Around this period, the normally naked Buddha image of central India slowly changed and were now donned in robes similar to that of the Greeks. This Hellenistic evolution of the Buddha’s robes also ended up in the Europeanization of his face (see Photograph). It may be one of the reasons why Jesus allegedly of Ethiopian Jewry was depicted as a Caucasian as is normally done by the rulers of that time.

Following the Indo-Scythians, the Kushans set up their Empire around 30 CEand ruled for over 300 years. It was formed in the early 1st century AD under Kujula Kadphises in the territories of ancient Bactria around the Oxus River and later based near Kabul, Afghanistan. The Kushan Empire spread from the Kabul River Valley and rose to defeat other Central Asian tribes that had previously conquered parts of the northern central Iranian Plateau once ruled by the Parthian( Greek-Persians). It reached their peak under the Buddhist emperor Kanishka (127–151), whose realm stretched from Turfan in Xinjiang province of China in the Tarim Basin( see photograph) to Pataliputra (Patna) on the Gangetic Plain.
I am proud to say that my travels have taken me to the far corners of this great Buddhist empire including a visit to Kanishka’s stupa (see photograph) built in 125 AD in Termiz,Uzbekistan, 40 Km from Mazar-i-sharif in Afghanistan, lovingly restored by UNESCO.

The Kushans were one of five branches of confederation of Indo-European nomadic Yuezhi people who had migrated from the Tarim Basin and settled in ancient Bactria ( see photo of Yeuzi man). During the 1st and early 2nd centuries AD, the Kushans expanded across the northern parts of the Indian subcontinent at least as far as and Sarnath near Varanasi (Benares), where inscriptions have been found dating to the era of the Kushan emperor Kanishka, which began about 127 AD. Around this time he sent his armies north of the Karakoram Mountains. They captured territories as far as Kashgar, Khotan and Yarkhandh in the Tarim Basin of modern-day Xinjiang, China. A direct road from Gandhara to China was opened which remained under Kushan control for more than 100 years. The security offered by the Kushans encouraged travel across the Khunjerab Pass ( see Photograph) and facilitated the spread of Mahayana Buddhism to China.

Coming back to the original storyof the Chinese emperor Mingdi sending emissaries to Gandhara; after travelling through several countries bordering India such as Getse and Yuchi (the Saka Tartars), and Bactrian Greece they reached Afghanistan (Gandhara country) and eventually met two Buddhist monks named Kasyapa Matanga Pandita (a Hindu Brahmin from Central India) and Bharana Gobhakarana Pandita,( also known as She Matang and Zhu Falang in Chinese, respectively). They accepted the invitation of the emissaries to go to China.

They then proceeded to China on two white horses accompanied by the emissaries. They carried with them a few sacred texts of Sutras - the Sutra of Forty-two Chapters- statues of Buddha, portraits and some sacred relics. They reached Lou Yang where they were put up in a temple. The King met them in 67 CE, with due reverence and was pleased with the presents the monks had brought for him. Pleased with their arrival in China, the king built a temple in their honor and named it the White Horse Temple ( see photograph) as an appreciation of the two white horses that had carried the two monks and the sutras. It is for this reason that the temple is honored as the ‘Cradle of Buddhism in China’. The temple boasts great antique architecture which has remained intact for over 1,900 years. (See Photograph)


The monks resided at the new temple and here they translated the Buddhist scriptures into the Chinese language. The notable of these was the Sutra of Forty-two Chapters which was translated by Matanga. This was the first Buddhist sutra in Chinese language and has the pride of place in the history of Chinese Buddhism. Gobharana translated the ‘Dasa Bhumi’ or the ‘Ten stages of Perfection’
Like in any other historic research, the sutras have also been attributed to another Indian monk Dharmaraksa in 419, but the arrival of the first two monks with the sutras are not in dispute.

The Buddhist religion prospered from here and with the arrival of Bodhidarma (Founder of Chan or Zen Buddhism), another monk from Kerala, India in the 5th century, Chinese Buddhism evolved, spreading to other countries. (Await a future blog on Zen Buddhism and Boddhidharma)
It is for also this reason that the temple is honored as the ‘Founder’s Home’ and the ‘Cradle of Buddhism in China’...

The main temple buildings, a large complex, were reconstructed during the Ming (1368 to 1644) and Qing (1644 to 1912) dynasties covering an area extending to about 13 hectares.

The renowned monk Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang) of the Tang Dynasty (see my photograph of a visit to his temple erected in Xian during the Tang Dynasty) spent 16 years on a long pilgrimage to India (630–635 AD) to the land of the Buddha, his cherished desire. He started on his pilgrimage from this temple. On his return from India, Xuanzhang remaine==d the abbot of the White Horse Temple till his death.

I reached Louyang after a 26 hour rail journey across the Gobi desert and after making a train change at Xian. Louyang sits in a very culturally steeped area. It was the eastern capital of the Tang Dynasty and was then considered the second largest city in the world after Xian(Changan) its capital. There is so much to see here including the World Heritage Longman Grottos, a collection of over a thousand Buddha carved on a rock face by cave dwelling monks.

The White Horse temple sits in an old square (see picture) and if one does not understand the significance of the events that led to the construction of this landmark, it will just be another Chinese temple. Thankfully I was prepared for this visit. My trip in 2008 to observe the spread of Buddhism from the Khunjerab Pass ( connecting China to Islamabad, Pakistan) near Kashgar in Xinjiang province all the way to Louyang, a journey of 3500 km through the Tarim basin was indeed a home coming.

I had recently taken up meditation and what an ideal environment was the White horse temple. I closed my eyes at the feet of the statue of Kashyapa Matanga, located in front of his burial mound; a practice in china in those times. The feeling of peace, serenity and inner warmth was indescribable.

With globalization and inexpensive airfares, the whole world is one the move, unintentionally trampling the great sites of the world. While most tourists visit spectacular locations, it is historic locations like the White Horse temple that seems to excite me. One can still find such venues that helps elevate the purpose of a traveler than that of a tourist.
In its quiet surroundings one can see the great burial mound of the two white horses that brought these Sutras. The beautiful statues of these horses are used as photo props by the local Chinese perhaps not comprehending the greatness of their own kings who saw the spiritual impact the arrival of the sutras had on their land.
I also spent another 20 minutes meditating near the mound of the Great master Gobhakarana Pandita. As an ethnic Indian, a descendent of Kaundnya Rishi, one of the great Indo-Aryan sages, these moments carried profound historic and spiritual weight for me.


In 1966 began the most destructive “Cultural Revolution” in China. Regarded as objects of “feudalism, capitalism, and revisionism,” the Buddhist temples, Taoist temples, Buddha statues, historical and scenic sites, calligraphy, paintings, and antiques became the main targets for destruction by the Red Guards.
Here are some notes from a party functionary’s diary
“There was a White Horse Temple production brigade near the temple. The Party branch secretary led peasants to smash the temple in the name of ‘revolution.’ The more than 1,000-year-old clay statues of the Eighteen Arhats built in the Liao Dynasty (A.D. 916–1125) were destroyed.“The Beiye scripture that an eminent Indian monk brought to China 2,000 years ago was burned. A rare treasure, the Jade Horse, was smashed to pieces.”
In 1973, Prince Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia visited the temple. Cambodia was a communist ally of China and Prince Sihanouk was exiled to a palatial residence in Beijing. He was permitted to visit various parts of the country on a tour for propaganda purposes, to show to the outside world that all was normal within China. As an ardent Buddhist, Sihanouk expressed a wish to Premier Zhou Enlai to visit the White Horse Temple. This put the administration into a frenzy, since many parts of the Temple had been damaged during the Cultural Revolution in China and items were missing. Post haste, 2900 artifacts, which were in other palaces and museums within China, such as the Palace of Benevolent Tranquility on the western side of the Forbidden City and statues in the Arhat Hall (Luohan Tang) of the Temple of Azure Clouds (Biyun Si) in Beijing’s Fragrant Hills (Xiang Shan) were secretly shifted to the temple, and the White Horse Temple was fully restored. Interestingly, the shift of artifacts to this temple from other places was decreed as permanent by Premier Zhou Enlai, and not a loan, when the authorities of the palace and Azure temple wanted the artifacts to be returned to them.


The symbolic importance of the temple to the ancient cultural relations between China and India was demonstrated when the Prime Minister of India P.V. Narasimha Rao visited the temple in 1993. A decade later, in 2003, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee also visited the shrine.
To enhance the Buddhist cultural links between India and China, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed on 11 April 2005 under which it was agreed that India would build an Indian Style Buddhist temple to the west side of the White Horse Temple .Under this agreement, India was to provide the architectural design, material for construction, the Buddha statue, landscaping and technical advice of architects and experts during construction. Chinese authorities were to allot land area of 28000 sq.ft for building the temple.
Following the MOU signed by India and China in 2005, a Buddhist shrine that is a close replica of Sanchi Stupa has been completed in 2008 within the precincts of the White Horse Temple, the first Buddhist temple in China that was also inspired by Buddhist saints from India in the 1st century AD. The architectural features of the new temple have closely recreated the Stupa at Sanchi. An image of Buddha has also been transported from India and deified in the new temple, which conforms to the Indian Buddhist tradition. The temple has been built over a land area donated by the Chinese Government. The shrine is a two-storied structure with circular walls on both floors. The circular walls inside the temple have been embellished with murals of scenes from the Jataka tales and the life of Buddha. The Buddha statue made in the pattern of the 5th century image of Buddha at Sarnath has been deified in the central congressional hall of the temple. The President of India, Pratibha Patil, inaugurated this temple on 27 May 2010.

the End

Emailme at ( riyerr@aol.com)

Hail O Kashyapa Matanga, hail O Gobhakarana Pandita!

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 08:46 Archived in China Tagged india buddhism china uzbekistan louyang kushan bactria aryan Comments (5)

Funerary Customs of the Toraja People, Sulawesi, Indonesia

Amazing customs of a Megalithic people as seen in 1995......................Ramdas Iyer


My first visit to Indonesia in 1996 opened my eyes to the beauty of this magnificent archipelago of 17000 Islands, 300 ethnic groups that range from the highly evolved Javanese court culture to the tree-dwelling Korowai stone-age peoples of Papua. This was a time when globalization had not quite reached the far corners of this earth and one could see ancient cultures in the cusp of slowly adapting modernity while still offering the outsider a glimpse into their societies.
Over the next few years I had made it a point to visit as many cultures in Indonesia as time permitted and managed to visit Sulawesi ( Celebes Islands), Kalimantan (Borneo), Java, Bali, Lombok and Papua in four separate trips to this trans- continental nation of 250 million people.
Here I wish to share my experience I had with the Toraja people of Central Sulawesi. I had read about their unique funeral ceremonies and of a culture of elaborate funerary celebrations that even UNESCO granted World heritage status to their cultural landscape. These were pre- internet and pre digital camera days, so travelling was a little bit more challenging especially for me who was stationed in India on assignment.
Upon reaching Ujung Padang (known as Makkasar to the Dutch colonists) from Jakarta, I took a rickshaw to a travel agency; one with absolutely no posters or advertisements but only an album with some pictures of Tana Toraja. After some negotiations I had settled on taking a 6 hour drive to the highlands with a guide in tow. This was also a time when the Rupiah and reached an all time low of 14000 to the dollar after the famous Asian Financial meltdown. To put things in perspective, a room in 5 star hotels in Jakarta could be had for $40.
My guide would remain with me for the 3 days and I would eventually fly back on a pre WWII aircraft back to Ujung Padang. One particular observation in Makassar has still left an indelible image in my mind. It was that of one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen; one that could launch a thousand ships. It was a face that could write the history of the coming together of Polynesians, Chinese and the Malay people. Eighteen years later, last month I happened to have dinner with my son in Utah and the lovely receptionist was also from Makkasar , reminding me to tell the story of these unique peoples.

Extracted from UNESCO’s citation “The Tana Toraja Traditional Settlement is a living tradition. It is a heritage that has been handed over from generation to generation for at least 700 years or even longer back to prehistoric time. Torajans, who are used to live in an isolated hill, had moved to low land. Burial customs had also changed especially since the seventeenth century when the Buginese from the coastal area to south invaded Tana Toraja. Prior to that time, human remains and precious burial gifts were stored in elaborately carved wooden coffins. During the invasion, lots of the precious gifts and beautifully decorated coffins were destroyed. Since then, Torajans began to make less decorated coffins and placed them high on the cliff-face vaults, reserving more intricate carving for the tomb doors and portrait statues of the deceased, tau-tau.
However, all of these changes should be understood as a dynamic process that commonly occurs within a living culture. These changes are part of the historical stratification... The Toraja burial custom and ceremonies are exclusive. Such complicated and expensive ceremonies sustain many aspects of prehistoric megalithic culture which cannot be found in any other part of the world today.”
The World Heritage nominated Tana Toraja Traditional Settlement consists of 10 sites which are dispersed in an area of 100 square miles around Rantepao, capital of Central Sulawesi.. Traditionally, a Toraja settlement consists of a compound of houses (tongkonan) and granaries (alangs), burials (liang), ceremonial grounds with menhirs (rante), rice-fields, bamboo forests, and grazing ground or pasture for buffalo and pigs.
With so many exciting sites to visit, I first needed to understand the reasons for elaborate funeral ceremonies. Torajans traditionally believe that death is not a sudden, abrupt event but a gradual process toward Puya (the land of souls, or afterlife). It is based on a strong belief that the soul of the deceased travels to the land of the south and in this land of eternity, he will need all the requisites of everyday life in the hereafter just like when he was alive in this world. The death ceremony is often held weeks, months, or years after the death so that the deceased's family can raise the significant funds needed to cover funeral expenses. During the waiting period, the body of the deceased is wrapped in several layers of cloth and kept inTongkonan.
I visited one such traditional Tongkonkan home where there was one such pre burial coffin inside the small 12 ft by 10 ft living quarter. I was quite surprised to hear about the actual post death ritual ;The departed one is wrapped in a cloth and kept in the corner of the house until all the body fluids drained into a pan. The whole place reeked of death, yet something the Tor get used to daily ( similar to living next to the nightmare of the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island, NY in the 80’s, a name very similar to the Torajan experience!). After the body mummifies and dries out they assemble it in sitting position and sometimes seat it with the family during meals with food offerings before returning it to the coffin...This is due to a firm belief that the soul of the deceased is thought to linger around the village until the funeral ceremony is completed, after which it begins its journey to Puya. Even after burial they feared that if the deceased started missing their living relatives they would take them away too. So they built effigies with similar facial features and mount them on platforms on cliffs high above the villages, giving the deceased “companionship “after the funeral ceremonies. They offer food, drinks, and cigarettes and annually change the clothing inside the graves and reassemble scattered bones.


It is custom that funerals may take place only after the harvest and before the first sowing of the rice seeds, which normally falls between July and September. Toraja Funeral Ceremonies are occasions for entire families to gather from around the globe, and for villagers to participate in communal events, renewing relationships and reconfirming beliefs and traditions in the way of the ancestors.
In preparation of the Funeral Ceremony, villagers and family members build a tower on the designated ceremonial site where the meat of slaughtered cattle will be distributed during the event. In the centre of the ground is planted a stake where the sacrificial buffalo will be tied to and stabbed. Around the large site are built temporary shelters forming balconies where people can watch proceedings below. The next day the coffin of the deceased is moved down from the Tongkonan to the floor of the rice barn where decorations are made around the bier.
The first official day is dedicated to the seemingly endless formal procession called Ma’passa Tedong where persons, families, groups, bring with them their gifts and contributions ranging from water buffaloes to pigs, rice or alcoholic drinks. All gifts are meticulously registered and announced while donors will show off their gifts by walking around the ceremonial area. Everyone watches who gives what, so that the occasion is not only to confirm one’s status and wealth in society, but also to express former debts repaid, or even new ones made. In the evening, the coffin is brought by hundreds of people to the ceremonial site - called Rante and placed on the high house. After the procession, start the exciting and rowdy buffalo fights, where a lot of betting goes on.


The next day the committee tallies all gifts, and the family then decides how many buffaloes and pigs will be slaughtered and distributed to guests, and how many given to charity to neighbouring poor villages. Most expensive are the prized pied buffaloes. Every Torajan Tongankkan is decorated with Buffalo horns; those that were slaughtered to respect the family. The one with the most horns naturally has a high standing in their society.
The following day comes the actual slaughtering of the cattle for their meat to be distributed for meals to the thousands attending the ceremony that lasts for over a week. The slaughter of the sacrificial buffalo is done in public. This happens very fast and sure, where the buffalo is stabbed directly into its heart and collapses immediately. The buffalo is then hacked and its meat distributed from here, where each part is allocated to a specified person or group whose name is called out, with prime cuts given to the most important in status.
The Torajans believe that aristocrats must be buried between heaven and earth - hence their spectacular grave sites. High up in the limestone cliffs are set tombs, carved out of solid rock, and guarded by human effigies called Tau tau watching sightlessly over the rice fields.

The coffin may be laid in a cave or in a carved stone grave, or hung on a cliff. It contains any possessions that the deceased will need in the afterlife. The wealthy are often buried in a stone grave carved out of a rocky cliff. The grave is usually expensive and takes a few months to complete. In some areas, a stone cave may be found that is large enough to accommodate a whole family. The coffin of a baby or child may be hung from ropes on a cliff face or from a tree. This hanging grave usually lasts for years, until the ropes rot and the coffin falls to the ground. If a child dies prior to teething, it is placed in a small niche inside a tree and eventually the tree envelopes the child. (See my pictures on baby graves laid inside trees)
Aside from Toraja, living megalithic cultures still exist in some places in Indonesia, mainly among the Batak (Sumatra), and the islands of Nias (west of Sumatra), and Sumba (in Lesser Sunda Islands). All of them have been influenced by modern culture to varying extents. There are indeed some basic similarities among these living megalithic cultures, especially in cosmology, settlement pattern, ornamental design, and subsistence, since they have a common root in the prehistoric culture of Early Austronesians. However, none of them are identical and each demonstrates peculiarities of its own.
The Batak people who live on Samosir islet in the middle of Lake Toba in the interior of North Sumatra still maintain their traditional houses, settlement patterns, and ornamental design. But they do not construct stone monuments anymore and practice less elaborate secondary burial custom. Ceremonies for the dead as well as thanksgiving festivals are conducted, but are not as complex as in Toraja. Upright stones are erected only occasionally within the housing compound. The people of Sumba continue to build megalithic structures, but elaborate and expensive ceremonies for the dead have been abandoned.
Tana Toraja Traditional Settlement and culture differs in many aspects to other living megalithic traditions in Indonesia. Toraja burial customs with their elaborate and complex ceremonies, numerous water-buffalo sacrifices and varied burial methods (hanging coffins, rock chambers, cave burial), have no other living comparison.

This article is mostly edited from data garnered from the net together with my own 35mm scanned pictures hopefully offers an opportunity for the reader to get a glimpse of the uniqueness of such cultures. In 1975 only 50 people reached Toraja. From 1985 to 1995 only 40000 per year people made it to Toraja, far less than the amount of people visiting Antarctica today. However in 2007, my plane stopped at the spanking new Ujung Padang International Airport while transiting from Jayapura, Papua and I finally realized that this remote part of the world has now access from all over Asia bringing in tourist dollars but quickly eroding a way of life. I was fortunate to see one of the last megalithic cultures (where stone menhirs are planted on the ground as a death memorial). The End
Emailme at ( riyerr@aol.com)

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 10:17 Archived in Indonesia Tagged indonesia sulawesi tana toraja celebes megalithic Comments (0)

Voyage to Antarctica: Seabirds of the Drake Passage

Observations and reflections on the plight of seabirds...............................Ramdas Iyer

26 °F


My travel stories are normally laced with adventure in very historic places. But somehow the story of the sea birds of the Southern oceans is very compelling. My real adventure to Antarctica involved crossing the violent 500 mile Drake Passage for 2 days until reaching the cooler waters of Antarctica. My article here has to do with the seabirds of the Antarctic convergence.
” The convergence is a geological feature. It is a curve continuously encircling Antarctica where cold, northward-flowing Antarctic waters meet the relatively warmer waters of the subantarctic. Antarctic waters predominantly sink beneath subantarctic waters, while associated zones of mixing and upwelling create a zone very high turbulence causing frequent storms and high seas .The oceans south of the sub-tropical convergence is highly productive on account of the strongly developed water currents and the associated upwelling of the nutrient rich sub-surface water. This leads to the multiplication of the zooplankton and krill which sustains a wide variety of marine animals’ especially pelagic sea birds.” says K.J. Matthew, Scientist, Indian Antarctic expedition of 1986.

The Drake crossing if choppy or stormy completely confines one to the insides of the vessel. But we were fortunate to have a good crossing onwards aboard the sleek former research vessel Akademik Sergei Vavilov .Armed with my cameras I was scouting the decks for presence of marine mammals alongside my good friend Lee Slabber, winner of National Geographic Wild Life photographer of the year 2011.About 200 miles south of the South American continent we started observing seabirds. Our normal fascination for birds is a result of beautiful plumages, patterns, singing ability and the like. But here in the Southern ocean my fascination for these birds was a result of their size, majesty and their survival story in a harsh clime where they cover large distances for food and survival.

We started observing different species of albatrosses and petrels swooping around the ship. It was much akin to standing near the run way of a busy airport. They came at a steady pace, at a steady path gently gliding past the deck before making another pass after a few minutes. This process involved at least 10 to 12 different species of petrels, shearwaters and albatrosses. After passing the ship the more elegant albatrosses swam over the surface of the choppy water feeling the water with one tip of the wing and adjusting to the undulations of the waves. It was mystical. We saw the great Wanderer albatross reaching wing spans of over 12feet, Royal albatrosses with fine white feathers, the sooty albatross with a beautiful smoked feather pattern over its face and the large black browed albatrosses (see pictures)


They were followed by Giant Southern petrels and Antarctic Petrels. They were so close to us yet hard to photograph given my slow speed lenses and the speed of their flight. They flew with such purpose for hours at a time keeping me transfixed on the deck despite the cold and moisture.

Albatrosses are miracles of nature’s engineering – their long, narrow wings enable them to glide for thousands of miles on wind currents without flapping their wings. Simply by angling their wings and their flight path, albatrosses can use the variation in air speed and direction near the waves to soar over the oceans. This phenomenon is called dynamic soaring. This soaring is incredibly efficient, requiring less energy than sitting on a nest. Albatrosses are the great ocean wanderers, often flying thousands of kilometers on a single trip to feed their chick. The wandering albatross flies up to 10,000 kilometers (6,250 miles) to find food for its chick. So the photograph on my blog could be of one such bird flying to feed her chick! A grey-headed albatross from South Georgia has been recorded circumnavigating the globe in a mere 46 days! Since they depend on wind to fly efficiently the equatorial doldrums acts as a barrier. During my research and reading for this article I came across a spectacular photographer who had attached a camera on an albatross to see its feeding habits. This picture shown below shows the wandering albatross following a killer whale with the hope of picking up scraps of meat from a dolphin or seal.

If you observe the picture of my Giant Southern petrel, you will see twin tubes above the beak.Seabirds have two small salt glands that are 10 times more efficient at removing salt than the birds’ kidneys. These glands are positioned in a small groove above their eyes. Blood carries the salt through the salt glands, where it’s excreted in a saline-loaded solution that drains into the bird’s nasal cavities. This salt solution typically drips from the bird’s nostrils to the end of its bill. You may also see salt water dripping from most of the bird pictures.


Albatrosses and petrels have long life spans with some individuals known to live for more than 60 years. They have low rates of natural mortality and low rates of mortality among their offspring. While some species breed annually, others breed only every second or third year. A young bird that leaves its nest only comes back to the same site 7 years later to mate. During that time it is always flying except for brief and occasional stops on the water. While albatrosses and petrels can withstand the demands of the harsh Antarctic and sub-Antarctic environments, they are facing numerous human-induced threats that are putting their long-term survival at risk. These threats include pollution, hunting and poaching for eggs, meat and feathers, habitat destruction, introduction of non-native predators and longline fishing methods. These threats are putting some species of the birds at risk for extinction


Long line fishing is the biggest human induced threat facing albatrosses and petrels. Longline fishing is a popular method of fishing that is used in the Southern Ocean to obtain high quantities of bluefin tuna, ling, snapper, hoki and Patagonian toothfish. The way that long lining works is that fishermen set out a single line up to 130 km long behind their boat and attaches to the line thousands of baited hooks. Once the loglines are sunk they do not affect the birds but while floating behind the boats albatrosses and petrels try and take the bait but may end up swallowing the hook and then drowning. According to Bird Life International more than 300,000 seabirds are killed by longline fishing every year, including 100,000 albatrosses. 17 species of albatrosses that are already endangered are now threatened by extinction due to the significant number of deaths brought about by longline fishing. Every time we eat Chilean Bass it is nothing but Patagonian toothfish harvested from the subantarctic waters.
However, this threat can be greatly minimized by modifying fishing practice and adopting seabird by-catch mitigation measures. These include the use of bird-scaring lines and streamers, weighted lines to reduce the amount of time baits are available to birds, setting lines at night, setting lines beneath the waters' surface, and seasonal closures of fisheries to avoid fishing when birds are more susceptible to being caught, such as around nesting colonies during the breeding season. Adoption of these measures has now virtually eliminated seabird by-catch in some fisheries.

Sam Thalmann of the Tasmanian Wildlife Division, a 20 year subantarctic bird conservationist, and one of our expedition leaders lectured us on the plight of these birds through slides and unbelievable photographs. He was especially concerned about the introduction of feral cats in the South Georgia Islands, the last untouched paradise on earth where the albatrosses and other seabirds breed. Jamie watts formerly of the British Antarctic Survey who was stranded in the South Georgia islands during the Falkland wars gave us great wild life stories but often with the bad news of impending population collapse.

As we approached the coast of Antarctic peninsula we saw less of the sea birds and instead saw porpoising penguins in open waters, another story of beauty and hardship. We saw plenty of terns, shearwaters, prions and Skuas. These birds are mostly land based and only use the waters for prey. On our return from Antarctica the weather had turned sour with nasty winds and huge waves. The birds were nowhere to be seen. I am fortunate to have witnessed some of the finest flying specimens on earth and hope my pictures will convey the rest of my thought. The End

Emailme at ( riyerr@aol.com)

Wildlife List – R/V Akademik Sergey Vavilov
Antarctic Explorer December 04 - 14, 2011
X marks number of sitings

Gentoo Penguin Pygoscelis papua x x x x x
Adélie Penguin Pygoscelis adeliae x x
Chinstrap Penguin Pygoscelis antarctica x x x x
Magellanic Penguin Spheniscus magellanicus x
Wandering Albatross Diomedea exulans x x
Northern Royal Albatross Diomedea sanfordi x x
Black-browed Albatross Diomedea melanophris x x x x x
Grey-headed Albatross Diomedea chrysostoma x x x
Light-mantled Sooty Albatross Phoebetria palpebrata x x
Northern Giant Petrel Macronectes halli x x x
Southern Giant Petrel Macronectes giganteus x x x x x x x
Southern Fulmar Fulmarus glacialoides x x x x x x x x
Cape Petrel Daption capense x x x x x x x x x
Antarctic Petrel Thalassoica antarctica x x x
Antarctic Prion Pachyptila desolata x
Blue Petrel Haplobaena caerulea x x
Sooty Shearwater Puffinus griseus x
Storm Petrels
Wilson’s Storm-Petrel Oceanites oceanicus x x x x x x x x x
Black-bellied Storm-Petrel Fregetta tropica x
South Polar Skua Catharacta maccormicki x
Brown Skua Catharacta antarctica x x x x x x
Chilean Skua Catharacta chilensis x
Antarctic Shag Phalacrocorax bransfieldensis x x x x x
Rock Shag Phalacrocorax magellanicus x
Gulls and Terns
Dolphin Gull Larus scoresbii x
Kelp Gull Larus dominicanus x x x x x x
Antarctic Tern Sterna vittata x x x x x
South American Tern Sterna hirundinacea x
Pale-faced Sheathbill Chionis alba x x x x x x
Crabeater Seal Lobodon carcinophagus x x x x
Weddell Seal Leptonychotes weddellii x x x x
Leopard Seal Hydrurga leptonyx x x x x
Elephant Seal Mirounga leonina x
Baleen Whales - Rorquals
Humpback Whale Megaptera novaeangliae x x x x
Antarctic Minke Whale Balaeonptera bonaerensis x x x
Orca Orcinus orca x
Peale's Dolphin Lagenorhynchus australis


Posted by Ramdas Iyer 13:01 Archived in Antarctica Tagged passage drake antarctica albatros petrels Comments (1)

Deception Island, Antarctic peninsula: A State of Mind

Sailing inside an active volcanic caldera in Antarctica................Ramdas Iyer

snow 31 °F

I have come a long way
to a distant place far far away
from where i used to live
and from what i used to do

Deception Island...
it’s just a state of mind,
i tell myself
hoping to erase these thoughts
of fear that hinges on the edge of my happiness

Adapted from Praveen ( Poetry of Life.com)


Exhausted by an exhilarating and action packed 12 days of sailing and exploring the Antarctic Peninsula we were mentally preparing for our return to South America through the rough seas of the Drake Passage. Our expedition leader…. had one more surprise. An announcement made on the PA system of our sleek Finnish built Russian Arctic explorer Akademik Sergei Vavilov called everyone to the various decks to see the walls of rock rise on both sides of our vessel through sea mist. It was a surreal moment. We were sailing into the active volcano, Deception Island


Deception Island (62°57'S, 60°38'W) is one of the most incredible islands on the planet. Deception Island has fire and ice in its history, and in the present day. Mountainous, half covered by glaciers and mostly covered with black volcanic ash, Deception is an active volcano. The island is a “submerged caldera,” a circle of craggy hills around an almost-enclosed seawater lagoon its horseshoe shape formed when a volcanic eruption 10,000 years ago that blew off the top of the mountain and allowed seawater to flood the center, or caldera.
This volcano is quiet, but not dead. The island is classified as a “restless caldera with significant volcanic risk,” that could erupt at any time. Eruptions in 1968 and 1970 forced a British scientific research station to close, sending mud and ash through it and the nearby abandoned whaling station. Geologists continuously monitor the island for seismic activity.
Deception Island is now managed as part of the Antarctic treaty, making it a protected area with restricted human visits and impacts. But its history also records some of the human over-use of the Antarctic. Human activity there began in about 1820, with sealing. But in the early 1900s, when seals were nearly hunted to extinction, Antarctic seafarers turned to whaling.
A little whaling history is essential to understand Deception Island. With the advent of Industrial revolution in Europe in the 18th century, need for lighting, to increase the working hours of people who woke up at dawn and retired at sunset, changed. It was first seal oil and later whale oil that was the energizer of the industrial revolution. Animal fat from pigs lubricated the machinery while wholesale slaughter of seals and whales provided candle and oil lighting. Norwegians were the pioneers of European sealing as they had access to the riches of the Arctic Ocean. Ironically what made them rich in the 18th century has sustained their wealth through North Sea oil in the 20th century. Good karma I suppose.
The rise of Industrial America increased whaling in the Atlantic waters further diminishing supplies to the growing economies. In 1906, Norwegian whaling magnate Christen Christensen sent the first factory ship to the South Shetlands of the Atlantic Peninsula. These islands were discovered by sailors who were blown off course while trying to navigate Cape Horn in 1821.Soon other shore stations had been set up, including one at Deception Island. By 1912, there were six shore stations, 21 factory ships, and 62 catchers in Antarctica. That year 10,760 whales were killed. In 1926, a new kind of factory ship entered Antarctic waters, one equipped with a chute for hauling whole whales on board. With this, Antarctic whaling entered a new phase.

Around 1500 barrels of oil was obtained from killing 155 Right whales according to the records of a Whaler. It is estimated that 200000 Humpbacks were killed in the early 20th century, not to mention the Sperm, Beluga, Grey and Right whales. Nonetheless, during the 1937-1938 season, over 46,000 whales were killed, 9000 of them immature.
Thankfully the discovery of petroleum in the 1859’s and the mass usage of Kerosene which was 5 times cheaper , which did not turn rancid and was less smellier quickly turned the table on whale oil consumption. By the early 1900’s the price of whale oil dropped and by 1938 the industry was deemed unviable, (read “How the oil Industry saved the Whales” http://www.sjvgeology.org/history/whales.html).

Entering the volcanic caldera, a live one, was in itself a great adventure. We could see ice, snow and volcanic ash laden mountains all around us. Beautiful black sand beaches awaited our Zodiac boat landing. While in the other parts of Antarctica we were awed by nature here we were shocked by the extent of human occupation and damage done to a pristine environment. Upon landing we were free to walk about anywhere. As an engineer I was curious to see the riveted storage tanks, the huge boilers that melted the blubber and an abandoned machine shop. At every corner there was a penguin peering at me curiously. Due to its interesting temperature gradient -11C to plus 13 C, it has the largest chinstrap penguin rookery in the area with a population of 65000. (Protected and not approachable)
On my walk along the beach I enjoyed seeing Kestrels lapping in the waves, Giant Skua
birds roosting on their eggs and fur seals in the distance. There was an old airplane hanger where in 1935, Lincoln Ellsworth assembled his aircraft the Polar Star here prior to his pioneering trans-Antarctic flight from Dundee Island, nearby. Deception Island was also the base of an early Aerial Survey Expedition (1955-57).

Stories of men ill equipped to handle the cold suffering from depression and insanity is rampant. Especially to see the graves of some of the Norwegians from a distant land was spooky. The ruins of this station are the most complete remains of whaling history in the Antarctic, and governments have agreed to let the remains stand, undisturbed, to be seen and understood as part of maritime history—and as a witness to the power of volcanic activity. A visit here leaves an equally powerful impression, and Deception Island is the most-visited site in the Antarctic. There is a restriction on the numbers of people allowed to visit, and each ship must plan visits in advance, to lessen their impact on the island and its life
Prior to embarking on our vessel we were given the opportunity to skinny dip in polar waters. Depending on the currents, the geo-thermal waters make it possible to take a quick dip there. We were lucky to have one such day and my pictures will highlight the event.
We said good-bye to Antarctica and alas hit the roughest seas I have ever encountered. While the hull was racked by 50 foot waves half of the 90 passengers disappeared to their cabins dealing with their own waves of nausea. I was one of those lucky ones to experience the notoriety of the Drake Passage. Deception Island is a great story and a great place.
The End.
Emailme at ( riyerr@aol.com)


Posted by Ramdas Iyer 17:16 Archived in Antarctica Tagged beach volcanoes black penguins antarctica whaling sealing skua Comments (4)

Embedded in a Balinese Procession to appease the Gods, Bali

A Peek inside one of the great cultures of Asia................Ramdas Iyer

After my first trip to Bali in 1995 I was totally convinced that if there is a Paradise on earth it must be centered in Ubud, Bali. The sensory effects of the land combined with a predominantly Hindu people whose purpose in life seem to be one that is committed to ritual celebrations placating their various gods is a truly uplifting experience. Upon my return after nearly a decade in 2004 I was pleased to observe that the core of the culture was still intact but I could see irreversible changes taking place along the fringes of the villages and in the towns. Even though there was no concerted effort by Indonesia’s fairly secular government to disturb this idyllic Island, pressures of a growing Islamic population, commercial opportunism and mass tourism centered mainly around the beaches was a source of cultural erosion. As a frequent visitor to rain forests I can see similarities between deforestation of forests and cultural erosion of societies.
While many writers and photographers have highlighted Balinese culture in wonderful articles, I chose to present here my own photographic journey and the cultural richness of Bali using my own experiences growing up in India in a Hindu family performing similar rituals. The details of these ceremonies were extracted from various sources with spare commentary interspersed by me. An important distinction between Hinduism practiced in Bali is very dissimilar to the Classical Hindu practices. The paganized version practiced here is much akin to the brand of catholism I witnessed in Chichicastenango, Guatemala where petitions to Christ are made with animal sacrifices. Even in India today there are many paganized versions of pre Hindu styles of worship that exists alongside with Vedic Hinduism.

The question I hear frequently is how Bali became a Hindu Kingdom. As early as 200AD the SriVijaya Kingdom was established in Sumatra by the strong naval powers of south Indian kings. This kingdom eventually became the Mahajapit Empire occupying Sumatra, Java, Bali and later Cambodia. Buddhism and Hinduism alternated as the state religion between 500 AD and 1300 AD. With the spread of Islam under the sword, Hinduism was relegated to tiny Bali while the Javanese slowly converted to Islam after 1300. Since Hinduism and the Indic religious culture was ingrained in the Javanese mainland culture that the elites ruling Java left Bali alone as a safe haven for Hindus,

The Balinese devote most of their waking hours to an endless series of offerings, purifications, processions, dances, and dozens of other religious rites. Ceremonies and festivals guide a Balinese from birth to death and into the world thereafter. There can be few places of comparable size where ceremonial obligations hold such a sway over people's lives. There are festivals dedicated to the art of woodcarving, the birth of a goddess, percussion instruments. There are temple festivals, fasting and retreat ceremonies: parades to the sea to cleanse villages, special prayer days for the dead, nights of penance (sivaratri), harvest festival, blood sacrifices, and house deity anniversaries. But some ceremonies-such as the extraordinary mouse cremation at Ababi village near Tirtagangga takes place once every 10 years. I have personally witnessed elaborate cremation ceremonies in Bali that is a macabre spectacle.
In this article I wish to highlight the Pura Taman Ayum temple procession in Mengwi village during the Galungan ceremonies, an annual festival to appease the Island spirits. We all like parades but no parade on earth can match the colorful religious processions of the women of Bali.
A basic tenet of the Balinese religion is that rituals and ceremonies maintain harmony between the two equally powerful forces of good and evil, and that the proper and harmonious behavior of the people brings the supernatural forces under control.
Starting at the home of my guide Ketut I joined the cavalcade dressed in sarong and sash, with his family members. Over the years many small community platforms have been erected all over the island. Some big and some small, where the locals gathered to build decorations, stitch flowers into garlands, make religious paraphilia or even carve wooden effigies for funerals. Female members of Ketut’s family gathered at a nearby community platform with me firmly embedded with them. I knew they were teasing me a little bit including asking me to marry somebody’s daughter, They had all prepared elaborate offering platters some weighing in excess of 20 lbs. The platters consist of sweet cakes, glutinous rice, sumptuous quantities of fruits and flowers all decorated with cut patterns made from palm fronds.
Nobody is left out; peasants as well as aristocrats take part in the preparations. Rules govern exactly how much food, oil, palm leaf strips, lamak, and symbolic money are offered. Men ready the temple grounds; hanging friezes, canopies, and banners, building bamboo platforms and altars, slaughtering pigs, erecting penjor poles, performing guard duty, and covering the genitals of statues with checkered cloths.
Fashionable dress shows respect and is also a mark of social prestige. Women don rich handspun kain and ornament themselves with jewels, scarves, and pounded gold in their hair. At festival times a young woman looks her best. She's allowed to wear lipstick and makeup at religious events but not in daily life when it would be considered too flirtatious. Infant girls wear flowers in their hair and bright sashes around their tiny waists. Men wear a brocaded head cloth, kris, and colorful sarung.

We then proceeded to join the many women emerging from various corners of the village, all wearing the same pink-laced blouse and matching floral sarong. It was so well orchestrated that new entrants smoothly merged into the procession. After a couple of kilometers of walking we stopped for a while waiting for a neighboring village to join the procession. Then suddenly through the rice fields emerged over a 100 women dressed in white lace blouses and dark floral sarongs. Caught in the confluence of these streams of caparisoned women made me feel like I was in the Sangam at Allahabad, India where the Ganges and Yamuna rivers meet kicking off one of the largest religious gathering mankind has ever known with 15 million people taking a holy dip on Maha Shvrathri day.
What is great about Bali is that it is poor with rich traditions. So the people have a great self-dignity. One could tell the wealthy from the not so fortunate ones from the gold jewelry worn by some of them. Rarely have I seen a more egalitarian social festival that brings all people together using one common denominator: the welfare of the community. I must admit that the Haj maybe another one such event.
After 4 km about 200 of these fine women escorted by a few men and myself reached the grounds of the temple. I realized that I was the only non-oriental in the entire gathering and was often the subject of an occasional flash photograph by a camera-toting member of the Balinese diaspora.
The women systematically placed their offerings in front of the shrine of the trinity Siva, Vishnu and Brahma. There was no orchestration, no fumbling nor stumbling. There was no rehearsal nor was judging it all purely organic.
The priests began their chanting and amidst the clanging of bells and prostrations of the women, I made an exit towards the gate not wanting to make a spectacle out of private worship. I wish to make this point about the spectacular Hindu temples in India. They do not seek World Heritage status because doing so would interrupt the private nature of worship between man and his creator. While I would like all of humanity to enjoy cultures I myself would find it hard to be a non-believer amongst believers.
Here in Bali large celebrations, lasting for days and mobilizing thousands of people, are performed with startling efficiency. A large temple festival is like a stage for a lavish form of metaphysical theater, a three-ringed circus of the arts when the temple comes alive with devotees who crowd into the courtyard and parade between the shrines. For three or four days almost without break, ritual dances, festive music, dramas and cock-fights ( see my blog on travellerspoint) are performed as if the occasion were a costume party instead of a fervid act of worship. Finally, bloated with sensory pleasure, the gods are invited to return to their heavenly spheres.
No one who has encountered a Balinese procession will ever forget the total immersion into Balinese culture and the wonderful opportunity to interact with the people on a special occasion. Am I blessed!
Emailme at ( riyerr@aol.com)


Posted by Ramdas Iyer 15:07 Archived in Indonesia Tagged bali indonesia culture hindu balinese galungan Comments (2)

Centerstage in a Balinese Cockfight, Central Highlands, Bali

Religion and Roulette in a delicate balance


As an entrepreneur who had literally bet his house on his new business, I needed some serious relaxation in Paradise. It was indeed Ubud in Bali that I chose for that time. During this second visit in 2004 after 9 years of yearning to return, I spent a full week exploring the Hindu culture of Bali. Staying at “Taman Rahasya “ a coconut Grove that translates to secret grove in Sanskrit and great views of the volcano , Mt. Batur, I launched project "go Native". The backyard lead to miles of paddy fields with locals planting rice, kids flying kites and butchers chasing pigs, while ducks and geese were taking cover awaiting their turn at the abbotoir.Here I had the good fortune to meet a young guide/driver who helped me to simply merge with the locals.
The purpose of this trip was to attend several Hindu temple ceremonies, including the 210 day cycle Galungan and Kuningan ceremonies during when the island fills up with red-colored arc-shaped coconut leaf and bamboo decorations. With thousands of temples “dressed up” in new yellow clothes, small rural roads become incredibly pretty. The Kuningan holiday takes place ten days after Galungan, bringing the holiday period to a closing time. On this day, a special ritual ceremony is held for the ancestral spirits. The cockfight.


Cockfights have the ceremonial purpose of ritually spilling blood, an important pacification of the demons that escort Hindu temple festivals. In fact, cockfight is required, not just allowed at every Balinese temple festival or religious ceremony. The blood is an offering to the hungry forces of evil. But times are changing fast in Bali. The Indonesian Government has officially banned this sport after pressure from western animal rights organizations. Being an insider in Ubud and a ranking Hindu from India, I was given the inside track to one of this culturally significant battle of the cocks.


Dressed in my linen shirt, colorful sarong and head dress I quickly made my way into the massive gathering in front of the temple. Cock-fighting is the Bingo or slot games of the third world. Unlike the monotonous whir of the slots, there is literally blood and guts here - like the Romans throwing the Christians to the lions. There are crowds that jostle and shout. There is lots of frenzied action. Even if you don't bet, the scene may be worth the effort of getting there. Although this is almost exclusively a man's sport, there are always ladies who show up to sell snacks to the spectators.
The cocks that are used in cockfighting are specially treated in preparation for the cockfight. They are fondled, massaged, plucked, bathed, deloused, and fed the choicest mixtures of corn, rice, egg, and proprietary strength-building ingredients. It is said that a mixture of chopped grilled meat and jack-fruit leaves thickens the blood and prevents serious bleeding when injury results from the fight.
As the only foreigner albeit of Asian descent, I was given every courtesy by the frenzied crowd. Someone dragged a rickety chair for me to sit down. I had not gone digital SLR yet and I was a simple point and shooter having decided to finally rest my film SLRs for this paradise vacation. Standing on a chair is taboo in Asia since the oft soiled shoes in a tropical environment is nasty. I wish the westerners understand this too. They put their feet everywhere, much to my dismay. I cleverly removed my sandals, slipped a pair of ankle socks that I always carry in my back pack for walking on hot surfaces in the tropics. This way I could stand above the fray to witness this religious cock fight and present it to you here.

The ceremony started when the cocks are brought to the arena in small, flexible bamboo cages. The cages are lined up around the edge of the arena, inside the barricade, and their handlers’ squat behind them. Then a white-clad priest advanced to the center of the arena and presented offerings on the ground to the spirits “ butas and kalas”, chanting over them, ringing his bell over them, and finally pouring rice wine on the ground. Then he made similar offerings to the gods in a shrine built up off the ground at a corner of the arena. Blood shedding was on its way.

Usually there are 3 fights & each cockfight between 2 birds ends after three rounds or when one cock is no longer able to continue fighting. After the fights, the crowds don't automatically disperse like at the end of other sporting events, instead males will just stay behind chatting about the match or about arcane facts of cock lineage similar to equine racing. Often the visitor like me misses most of the significance. The preliminaries and the post script, the daily treatment of the fighting cocks, the arcane lore of the sport, and especially the intricacies of the betting are as integral a part of the story as the fight itself. And, unfortunately, they are aspects that most people miss because they occur in such a seemingly chaotic fashion as to make them unintelligible to anyone but the person who would take the time and trouble to investigate.
I hope these images contribute to your understanding of one of the great “blood sports” of Indonesia

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 16:47 Archived in Indonesia Tagged bali indonesia hindu cockfight Comments (1)

Along the Taklimakan Desert to the Turpan Oasis

A Silk Road Travel segment in Xinjiang Province, China



I started my Chinese silk route travel west of Kashgar near the Pakistan border and headed east passing the ancient Uyghur towns of Kashgar and Urumqi. Turpan, a key stop on the Silk Road, was easily accessible from Urumqi by road, driving alongside the “Flaming Mountains” so named for its baked reddish orange appearance. Turpan was once one of the crossroads of central Asia. Historically, it was a strategic stop on the overland trade route linking China with India, Persia, and Rome.
My visit was primarily to observe and understand the cultural changes brought about by the Silk Road in a distant land by Buddhism and to visualize its spread and later that of Islam
Turpan lies in the second deepest inland depression in the world, with more than 4,000 sq. kilometers of land situated below sea level( 153 mts). Anciently called, 'Land of Fire,' it has recorded some of the hottest summer days in China, with temperatures as high as 130 degrees F. The basin surrounding Turpan has been the long-time haunt of the Uyghur’s (a mixed Turkic-Mongol ethnic group that is the majority in Xinjiang Provence). The Turpan area is also historically significant because nearby Gaochang City (World Heritage Site)) was once the Uyghur capital and an important staging area on the Silk Road. It was destroyed in the 14th century by the hordes of Timor Lane (see Photo) after surviving 1600 years.


Culture and religion also moved along the Silk Road. Before Islam established a firm grip on central Asia, the Uyghur’s practiced Buddhism, Manichaeism, Nestorian Christianity, and other religions. Buddhism came north from India across the Karakoram Range. Extraordinary examples of this culture were found in caves at Bezeklik, near modern-day Turpan (see Photo. All three cultures were extinguished from central Asia by the tidal wave of Islam, with Tamerlane driving the final nail in their coffin in the 14th century.
One of the major obstacles along the Silk Road was the Taklimakan Desert, which has one of the world's most inhospitable climates. Caravans skirted this oval-shaped impediment by going around either the northern or southern edges. Turpan was located on the northern route. My journey skirted the northern route along the Taklimakan and enroute I could not help but admire the massive Wind Turbine farm, the largest in the world, near Turpan. Its output capacity of 2 million KW is a good comparison with the 1million KW output by the Three Mile Island nuclear reactors in the USA.


Turpan's greenery owes its existence to the underground channels called ‘karezes’. The Silk Route was dependent for both its existence and survival upon a line of strategically situated oases which hugged the perimeter of the Taklimakan Desert. In turn, these oases depended for their survival upon the glacier-fed rivers flowing down from the vast mountain ranges which form a horse-shoe around three sides of the great desert. As the Silk Road traffic increased, these oases began to rank as important trading centers in their own right and no longer merely staging and refueling posts for the caravans passing through them.
Approaching the city I was surprised to see an explosion of verdant farms all around in the midst of a very harsh land. Mile after mile there were melon farms and grape vineyards everywhere punctuated with unique towers to dry the grapes using the harsh mid day heat as an oven. (see photo)
It is said that over 80 varieties of raisins are grown here. My guide and I visited several farms and enjoyed the hospitality of the locals. In at least two instances we were invited inside their homes and seated on a huge pedestal that was well cushioned with carpets and served as their living space and bedroom. Plates of grapes and tea were served and in one case some oven baked meat turnovers. The Islamic cultures are in general known for hospitality to strangers and the Uyghur’s of Xinjiang were no exception, I felt that warm hospitality everywhere. After some small talk and the customary group photo with me, which they all relished despite the fact that they were never going to see it always intrigued me, I was shown the farms, the drying towers and storehouses with tons of raisins.
I also had the good fortune to visit the regional Karez museum to understand how the system works. Akin to a high school project several clay models explained how the system worked. Visitors to the museum can actually visit one of these underground “mother Canals” in order to really understand this fascinating technology. These underground tunnels rate as one Asia's more intriguing and historic public works activities Uyghur and Chinese versions of karez technology date back over 2,000 years ago. The Karez underground canal is a manifold that conveys water from aquifers in the alluvial slopes of the mountains (ancient glacier water) to lower elevation farmlands. Each farm digs a well to tap into the canal every 500 mts or so. The farmers are responsible to keep the underground canal from clogging by entering the well and manually cleaning out fallen muck. Such cooperative farming was a necessity in the harsh corner of the Taklimakan desert.
The world is discovering this area and visiting backpackers can now stay in a farm and sleep under the grape vines and get treated daily to some wholesome Uyghur cuisine.

Mildred Cable and Francesca French, two intrepid missionaries who spent many months in the region during the 1920s and '30s, describe the oasis vividly in their book The Gobi Desert (1942) “ Turfan lies like a green island in a sandy wilderness, its shores lapped by grit and gravel instead of ocean waters, for the division between arid desert and fertile land is as definite as that between shore and ocean. Its fertility is amazing, and the effect on the traveler, when he steps from the sterility and desiccation into the luxuriance of Turfan is overwhelming.”
Personally, I was attracted to this area after reading Peter Hopkirk’s “Foreign Devils on the Silk Road. The Search for the Lost Treasures of Central Asia”. It was such a fascinating read and soon thereafter I set off to Xinjiang with the same passion as the treasure hunters of yore. The Amazon excerpt of the book reads ” The Silk Road, which linked imperial Rome and distant China, was once the greatest thoroughfare on earth. Along it travelled precious cargoes of silk, gold and ivory, as well as revolutionary new ideas. Its oasis towns blossomed into thriving centers of Buddhist art and learning. In time it began to decline. The traffic slowed, the merchants left and finally its towns vanished beneath the desert sands to be forgotten for many centuries. But legends grew up of lost cities filled with treasures and guarded by demons. In the early years of the last century foreign explorers began to investigate these legends, and very soon an international race began for the art treasures of the Silk Road. Huge wall paintings, sculptures and priceless manuscripts were carried away, literally by the ton, and are today scattered through the museums of a dozen countries. Peter Hopkirk tells the story of the intrepid men who, at great personal risk, led these long-range archaeological raids, incurring the undying wrath of the Chinese.

After visiting the fascinating oases I set about to visit the spectacular World Heritage site of ‘Bezeklik Caves” which was the victim of two German archeologists, as described by Hopkirk. In 1900 these state-sponsored treasure hunters not only removed the scrolls and paintings but stripped the wall murals painted on an earthen base by cutting them into nice squares with German precision to eventually transfer them to The Museum of Indian Art in Berlin where they are now displayed. I visited the site to see a few of the 77 cave galleries now open to the public. Paintings from the time when Buddhism entered Chinese Turkistan in the 1st century AD until the end of the Tang Dynasty in the 8th Century AD were simply removed and whisked away . The distant Chinese government in Beijing never really had a strong control over this are during the Qing dynasty and the province itself( Sinkiang) was under the watchful eyes of British India and Tsarist Russia waiting for an opportunity to relieve China of this land.
With so much history in this area to discuss about, I will leave it for the reader to follow up on the Bezeklik caves, the Karez irrigation system and the Gaochang, the ancient capital of the Uighars.

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 15:55 Archived in China Tagged desert buddhism road silk xinjiang turpan uyghur taklimakan Comments (3)

Life, Death and Salvation along the Water's Edge: India

Experiences along the Ganges River in Varanasi, India

sunny 95 °F


The ancient city of Varanasi (Kasi) has been the ultimate pilgrimage spot for Hindus for ages. Varanasi is the oldest living city in the world. These few lines by Mark Twain say it all: "Benares( a British corruption of Varanasi) is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together". Hindus believe that dying along the Ganges in Kasi would enable the soul to attain Moksha (liberation) from the cycle of birth and re-birth. The river Ganges according to Hindu mythology flows from the hair of Lord Shiva seated in the Himalayas.

Born a Hindu, I have always had a special place for Kasi( Varanasi )in my heart. Growing up in a traditional Brahmin family, I often heard of tales about men and women leaving their family lives to spend the reminder of their life in Kasi seeking spirituality, self-reflection, meditation and atonement. Like a visit to Mecca most Hindus would like to bathe in its waters at least once in their lifetime.

My short trip to Kasi in 1998 was interesting but not eventful due to heavy rains that submerged most of the bathing Ghats( steps leading to the river). Coincidently on the day I was being rowed along the river banks where cremations were conducted, my mother’s only sister passed away, and I was thinking of her!. In 2011 I set out seek out the “real” Kasi where learned men once wandered in their loin cloths, where devotees by the thousands traveled for miles to bathe in the sacred waters of the Dashwamedh Ghat, to watch the burning pyres of the Manikarnika Ghats or simply revel in the joy and reverie of pilgrims enjoying themselves in the holy city. As a traveler I was trying to see through my mind’s eye the concept of Kasi, a land of spirituality. Those with no knowledge of its history will only witness a dirty and polluted river city with hordes of people.


Early western visitors to this place were so fascinated that they waxed eloquent for many years about the greatness of India. George Harrison did his bit too!. India like the rest of the world is changing fast, leaving behind age old traditions, facing corruption and seeking a more material existence. In this scenario I am attempting here to focus on three important events experienced during my three day stay that were amazing and thought provoking.

My sister Ranee, brother-in-law Dave and I were staying at a wonderful haveli( nobleman’s home) on the banks of the Asi Ghats. This hotel, Ganges View, is very well known amongst the literati where small classic music concerts are common place daily . While we were enjoying the broad river view from our second floor terrace, there was a commotion and there arrived a man with a flowing beard , penetrating eyes and wearing the handloom outfit of a cultured man. He was followed by an entourage of bureaucrats, policemen and the like trying to appease him. Later that evening I stopped the gentleman as he was passing by and inquired about all the fuss over him. It turned out that he was 80 years old, was an IAS( elite Indian Administrative Service) officer from the Uttar Pradesh cadre, a former Cabinet secretary and “Minister” at the Indian High Commission in London. He mentioned that he was visiting with his family to do the annual rites for his parents who lived and died by the river Ganges for over 50 years. He continued that he was from a well to do Brahmin family from South India and after he had graduated from college and the IAS his parents decided that their only son was in a good station in life and they removed themselves from the material world and retired to an ashram, where they meditated, studied and did charitable work until mother Ganges took them into their fold. What makes it more interesting is that this gentleman’s one son is the Editor of a major US weekly magazine and an ex NYU professor, his American wife a contributor to Wall Street Journal and the other son is the Editor of India’s oldest National Newspaper,both educated in Oxford University, were all there with their families. He was also thankful that he served India when corruption was not an issue and politics did not prevent progress. It is a great story of an illustrous family connected deeply to Varanasi and the river ganges.

The second experience was absolutely surreal. We were walking along a quiet section of Asi Ghat at night . The Ghats are very busy during the day with pilgrims and vendors but at night it quiets down only with an occasional stray dog barking, or a small group of elders discussing the rotten state of politics or a group of young men laughing and lollygagging. Near the river bank in a dark obscure corner we saw a man sitting in the lotus position completely covered from head to toe in white cloth with a clean copper bowl of Ganges water next to him. We observed him for some time and realized that he was in deep meditation. I later read that “Covering the whole body above the crown chakra( skull) activates, what the yogis call the sarasu and it is from here that the soul is said to descend into the child at birth or leave when cremated.. Sarasu is also a huge energy field. By covering the head, the energy is retained to help the inner fire build.”
We were completely blown by this sight. One needs to be there to understand the gravity of the moment and not being an Indian did not deter Dave from appreciating the moment. The next morning I was up by 5:30 AM ,a time of intense activity amongst the ritualists and the purists along the banks of the river and there I saw the same slender figure in white cloth saying his morning prayers under the Peepal tree to Lord Siva. (see the picture of a slender figure doing Puja under a tree)


The last experience that I am about to write was one of extreme sadness and raised the question of belief over propriety. It was around 11:00 Am as we approached Dashwamedh Ghat after a long walk along the 80 or so bathing Ghats on the river bank. The sun was shining bright and the temperature was hovering around 95 F. Close to the water the activities were numerous: pilgrims performing ritual dips, families taking a plunge fully clothed, local children playing, an occasional dog or monkey trying to grab some food offerings to the river, Brahmin priests conducting family prayers, barbers shaving heads of pilgrims who have vowed that as a sacrifice to Ganga. Amidst all these activities was a very old man, quite infirm, curled up on the steps writhing gently with very little sound coming out of him. Each lap of a wave would briefly inundate him with water. I realized that he was dying and was left there to die. We were distraught and did not know what to do and ended up inquiring about his condition to a nearby vendor of religious articles. He mentioned that many poor people leave their very old and infirm to die here since they have no money to cremate them and hope that the river will consume him . While we were shocked, all the activities around him were going on as though nothing happened. Full of guilt we walked away so as not to interfere with this cruel form of euthanasia. Filled with curiosity we came back an hour later to realize that he was not there anymore. We only hoped that one of the many volunteer /NGO took care of him. I searched the web for articles similar to what we had seen and found none.


The water’s edge of Varanasi, where Buddha preached and Tulsi Das composed the Hindu epic Ramayana is still a place filled with wonderment; of life, of meditation, of sacrifices, of learning and the corruption of the body and its aftermath. It brings out emotions of love, sympathy, empathy, devotion, agony ,grief and misery.


Posted by Ramdas Iyer 14:15 Archived in India Tagged ganges varanasi ganga kasi beneras Comments (4)

The Funeral Masquerade Dance of the Dogon, Mali

A vanishing tradition of a fascinating people by Ramdas Iyer


Any visitor to our house will appreciate my large collection of African art: especially that of the Dogon people. West Africa is such a rich cultural place that rapid Islamization, past Christian conversions and pressures of a modern world, I imagine, will soon dilute this richness. Self ordained as a world traveler I was searching hard to find an untouched part of Africa to travel to and decided on Mali, home to the Bambara, Dogon, Bobo, Bozo, Songhai and Arabic tribes like the Tuaregs. My biggest fear was to obtain permission for Arjuna to miss school for 2 weeks in order undertake this adventure: the Principal at Randolph High acquiesced.

The Dogon live on the Bandigara Escarpment, a sandstone cliff up to 1640 ft high stretching 90 miles on the Sahel desert. A world heritage site for its unique cultural achievements, the escarpment is 500 miles from Bamako, the capital. These villages were established around 900 AD as a result of the collective refusal of the Dogon people to convert to Islam. The escarpment gave protection from frequent Islamic slave raids common in West Africa until the late 17th Century.

The 4X4 Toyota land Cruiser was well suited for the rough sandy tracks that led us to the escarpments. The scenery was absolutely stunning with semi arid grasslands, sandy desert, Baobab trees, rocky out crops with small villages amidst. Over the years the Dogon had descended from the escarpment and set up villages 50 miles around it. While they were still the Dogon, the real deal was awaiting us a few miles ahead. Mali is perhaps one of the poorest countries on Earth, yet the people express their joy of life through art found in everyday objects like knives, catapults, combs, seats, hoes, pots and pans. While my birth place India is culturally rich I do not see art in day to day implements and tools. I often wondered why this was the case and my conclusion is this: The Dogon has no centralized Government but live in villages composed of patrilineages and extended families whose head is the senior male descendent of the common ancestor. Having no kings or local warlords to hold the villagers in servitude and render them extremely poor like the villagers in India, social art blossomed to unparalleled levels. In fact cubism and modernism in art “invented” by Picasso, Kandinsky et al have been attributed to their exposure to West African art.
I can keep going on and on and will now come to the point of the “Funeral masquerade dance of the Dogon”. We were approaching the village of Yuga-Piri, set at about 500 feet above the ground. We were welcomed by the head man and a meal of goat and millets was arranged by our guide Mama Kona. Most of the masks in our home are those from this funeral dance. So I asked the headman if one such dance could be arranged. It was about 11:00 AM and he negotiated a price of $150 to be paid to the village and that it could only happen around 2:00 PM since all the dancers were working the fields below. So we had our meal and reed mats with dirty pillows were laid out under a makeshift roof for us to rest till the dance. This village was spectacular in beauty and cascaded down the cliff like a fairy tale land. Around 1:00 PM drummers stood in various corners of the cliff and started drumming to summon the field hands to the head mans hut. Within a matter of 45 minutes we could see all the elders wearing Indigo cloth come out of their abodes and stand in the “Navel”of the village, an area cleared for dance with a central rockpile built conically surrounded by trees with the high cliffs on one side and the endless Sahel desert below. (The Sahel is scrub desert that slowly becomes white sandy desert another 200 miles out. The Sahel supports more than 90% of the sub-Saharan people because of its ability to support some plants, trees and grass for livestock.). The drummers and the bell bearers started their unique trance inducing beat.
Soon the dancers numbering over 35 poured out on all sides. It was simply unbelievable that these great people would perform one of their sacred funeral rite dances for Arjuna and me. The village Ogon-shaman, blessed the site and blessed the dancers. A jury of a dozen elders stood in a straight line to ensure correctness of protocol and dance proceedings, with long sticks in hand. They could correct any errors made during the dance with a gentle tap of their sticks on the dancer. The dance began with ritual storytelling and more and more characters entering the arena. They were walking, shaking, hopping, swaying rhythmically that I was running around trying to photograph one of the greatest events I have ever witnessed. Arjuna was perched on a high rock enjoying with utter fascination. Men on stilts wearing wooden breasts, hunters, animals, spirits and forebears were all in the story. This Dama ritual essentially leads the souls of the departed to their final resting place. During a real funeral the masqueraders would dance on the deceased rooftops, throughout the village and the areas around the village to settle the spirits of the dead. Sometimes there are mock battles with the spirits who come to disturb the proceedings.
I cannot explain the joy I felt to be a part of this great ritual which was unfortunately being performed for a tourist. These dances are performed annually and the headman thanked me for giving them an opportunity to practice. The privilege of dancing is granted by a headman only if the dancer exhibits certain moral values. So becoming a dancer is one of the great social achievements of a Dogon Male. (There is a BBC documentary about a young man trying hard to be a Dogon dancer).
All the masks used were actually carved by each dancer. I wondered how they could fit snugly on their head during all their gyrations, but found out that they secured them with their teeth while dancing. These ritual masks are kept in caves located on the cliffs high above the village where their ancestors are placed. I also found out that prior to the dance, between11:00 AM and 2:00 PM the ritual ground was prepared for the dance with sacrifices and requests made to the spirits for their consent of this dance for Arjuna and me.
I was so taken by the whole event that I purchased a dance mask worn by one of them for $200, a large sum of money in Mali. The mask was so big that it would not fit in any of our soft duffels. That evening I had someone hacksaw it in half which I reassembled back home.

Hope the Dogon keeps their traditions. Islamic leaders want to rid them of their Pagan rituals. More Dogons are converting to Islam every day and these dances will soon only be found on the stages of Paris and New York. Arjuna and I are blessed.


Posted by Ramdas Iyer 08:58 Archived in Mali Tagged africa mali dogon ramdas iyer Comments (7)

Citadels of Khorezm, Central Asia : Land of the Aryans

Where the seeds of Hinduism and Zoroastrinism were sown: Islam and Buddhism propagated.........by Ramdas Iyer

I was dropped off at the Uzbekistan border check post about 100 km from Bukhara, by my driver and wonderful guide Salim. The no man’s land created during the split of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan after the Soviet disintegration,was almost 2 km long. Having to lug ones gear this far was bad enough but the prospect of being assaulted and robbed was not too far either in this lawless land.This entire length was occupied by Iranian trucks carrying goods from Iran into land locked Central Asia through Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan towards Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan and into Xinjiang province of China. The two youthful soldiers on the Turkmenistan border, one of the most unpredictable ”stans” upon seeing me started talking about Indian movies and making crude remarks about Aishwarya Rai, India’s legendary movie star. They were however nice and informed me after repeated calls to the Command post that I cannot enter the country for 2 days, since the President was touring the border areas. The fate of the Iranian drivers also rested in Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov’s hands or rather his restless feet.

With great disappointment I had to turn back to Uzbekistan where I had learnt to deal with the Uzbek soldiers who had strip searched me just a week ago at the Termez-Tajik border. Fortunately I had a multiple entry Visa. Using one of the Iranian driver’s satellite phones I was fortunate to reach Salim in Bukhara who agreed to pick me up . Resting in the only roadside restaurant at the border I was surprised that the owner absolutely refused to accept payment for my tea and soup. That was only because he had pumped gas for a living in Elizabeth, NJ a few years ago now an obscure border post seemed to be his calling.
DSC_0373.jpgView from the high citadel

View from the high citadel

Through Turkmenistan I was going to reach Khiva, the legendary Silk Road City( read the Great game by Peter Hopkirk) near where Turkmenistan, Iran and Uzbekistan come together. Salim would not risk taking his car through the Kyzl Kum Desert( the 11th largest Desert in the world at 288000 sq.km) instead put me in a taxi to travel the 400 km to Urgench& Khiva. It seemed that I had finally lost touch with my handlers and my guardians were awaiting me at the Turkmenistan border to take me to Khiva. While disappointed about not seeing the great Aryan city of Merv in Turkmenistan, I whipped my lonely planet only to realize that I would be passing through the legendary Khorezm area. The most ancient archaeological monuments of Khorezm belong to Neolith epoch ( 6th Century BC). The Greek scientist Gerodot named these earths the country of thousand fortresses. During archeological excavations it was revealed that in 10th century BC there were irrigation canals in length not less than 300 km. Archeologists are still struggling with a riddle of the ancient cities which were found in waterless desert, naming Khoresm “the second Egypt”. There is evidence to consider Khoresm to be the native land of Zoroastrism. In the sacred book of Zoroastrians’ "Avesta" Khoresm was named “Aryanama..Land of the Aryans” Geographically the western areas of modern Uzbekistan, and also northern Turkmenistan and Aral Sea banks were parts of ancient Khorezm. The first written sources (519 BC) mention Khoresm as the state grasped by Persian governor Dariy I.

Khorezm is the birthplace of Zoroaster ( founder of Zoroastrianism), where the Avesta (the collection of sacred books of ancient Iranian religion, which dominated in near and Middle East prior to Arabian conquest of 8th Century AD )and the Rig Veda the holy text of the Vedic Indians were written( in Sanskrit), home of Al-Jibr founder of Algebra, where Al Beruni, the most original polymath the Islamic world had ever known was born and at times worked with Ibn Sina, the most famous Hellenistic-Islamic philosopher in Urgench.

My taxi driver was familiar with the many citadels in the area and we drove around for a few hours seeing and photographing a multitude of mud citadels, some built in the 3rd century BC. The history of this area rings of Aryan migration from the Steppes from 2500-1500 BC, beginnings of Zoroastrianism and dominance of Persia until 300 BC, of Hellenistic armies sweeping through the area in 325 BC, multiple invasion by Arabs in the 8th Century and the subsequent fleeing of Zoroastrians to Penjakent in Tajikistan, Mongol invasions and lastly the spread of the Soviets into this region during Stalin’s regime.
Split between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, this area was untouched and was saved by Russian archeologists who did yeoman’s work restoring some of the great citadels like Ayaz Kala and Toprak kala. The Ayaz kala is a huge citadel with towering mud-brick rise dramatically from the surrounding plains. They were built on the edge of the Kizilkum Desert at different points between the fourth century B.C. and the seventh century A.D. as a means of protection from nomad raids. Within the forts are the remains of palaces and traces of the local agricultural population have been found in the surrounding areas. Abandoned for 1,300 years, the fortresses were rediscovered in the 1940s by the Russian archaeologist S.P. Tolstov.
The Ayaz kala is credited with being occupied by the Kushan kings of India. History being so complicated in this region, one needs to note that Kushans were a people hailing from Central Asia and settling in the Greaco- Bactrian area of Balkh, Afganistan.The Kushan Empire was originally formed during the 1st and early 2nd centuries AD. The Kushans expanded rapidly across the northern part of the Indian Subcontinent at least as far as Sarnath near Varanasi (Benares) where inscriptions have been found dated to the first few years of era of the most famous Kushan ruler, Kanishka which apparently began about 127 AD with Mathura, India as his capital..
They had diplomatic contacts with the Roman Empire, Sassanid Persia and Han China. While much philosophy, art, and science was created within its borders, the only textual record we have of the empire's history today comes from inscriptions and accounts in other languages, particularly Chinese. The Empire declined from the 3rd century and fell to the Sassanid (Persian)and Gupta Empires. In fact I had a hair rising experience seeing the western most Buddhist Stupa erected by Kanishka II near Termez around the 2nd century AD. The Kushans spoke in Pali and Sanskrit and practiced Buddhism and sometimes Zoroastrinism.

With all this history swirling in my mind, I climbed the tall citadel(300 meters) with only the howling winds of the desert. I must confess that I was genuinely scared. The cold desert, extreme loneliness, a paranormal fear of the unknown together with my belongings in a taxi nearly a kilometer away was not a very comfortable feeling. I imagined the forebears of our Vedic culture passing through this area as nomads and delivering incantations in Sanskrit and Farsi to ward of the Djinns: verisimilar to the fear that was pervading me. The thought of the great king Kanishka, responsible for spreading Buddhism to Central Asia and China standing at this great citadel peering into the splintered Persian empire as a multitude of warring Greaco-Bactrian Satrapies, was an ephiphany. I walked through the ramparts, the battlements and the remains of palaces. Nowhere in my travels had I seen such an imposing and remote citadel reaching back into time.( my recent visit to the Acropolis was a contemporary site of Ayaz Kala, another 6th century BC citadel is another such place).
After covering a few of the hundreds of fortresses, many in disrepair, I drove to Urgench crossing the mighty Oxus River on a pontoon bridge. Alexander crossed the Oxus 600 km upstream at Termez in the Uzbek, Afghanistan border, also the route taken by USSR to invade Afghanistan that I had recently visited. Urgench was a dusty and dirty bazaar town and just the thought of the great Al-Jibr , Al Beruni and Ibn Sina living here was simply incomprehensible.
For a history buff there is no place like central Asia where great cultures, powerful empires and great religions were born.

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 15:14 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged fortress persia hindu khoresm zoroastrinism uzbek avesta rig-veda Comments (0)

A Trek deep into Dani Country, Papua

Papua Journal Volume 4


After a poor night's sleep with insects creeping under the floor of my hut, I woke up to perfect morning light with clean, crisp air, a body of fog in the river valley below and a surrealistic cannibal village under my feet. The photos attached display the beauty of the valley. All the men folk were working the grounds while the women folk were grooming their children under the sun. Sweet potatoes, their primary diet, were cooking in an underground hearth, the pigs had already been released to their stockades (from the family bedroom) and I was watching everything in silent fascination.

After morning ablutions, a scary experience where a misstep could have hurtled me down a deep ravine,a wonderful breakfast of eggs and bread, we set off on our 7-hour trek for the day. Good Byes to the Kilease clan was brief as the elders were beginning to fight for sharing the fees even before we departed.They are a bellicose people, easily provoked by external stimuli involving property and women. They literally get on each other’s face with or without the Stone Age hoe that is their main agricultural tool. I did mention that the Dani, Lani, Korowai, Kombai, Asmat and other peoples of the Island are stone age tribes, since all their implements were made of stone until recently and still in use. (I bought a couple of hoes from the chief).

The climb was getting arduous despite the porters carrying everything including my camera. On a mere nod they would have lifted me too. I regret not noting their names but all four of them were very pleasant but for one grouch who always kept to himself and never communicated. White Water Rivers were hurtling below and periodically we crossed bridges built only of wood and tree vines over great heights. This was Indiana Jones country for me. No nails, no metal but pure archaic engineering (see photo). Along the way we saw several villages but would not trespass them since Scorpio knew where to go and what to avoid.
One particular meeting was with a pair of Papuans who were returning home after trading tobacco for penis gourds. They proudly showed the long gourds, which were teased while growing to become straight, long, and broad enough to hold a Negroid penis. While I inspected them I was tempted to smell the gourd but suddenly realized with great alarm that there could have been a "fitting" prior to the purchase. These travellers had nothing but a bag made of hemp holding some tobacco, some sweet potatoes and their body decorations. They demonstrated their nasal bone ornaments that they always carry lest they have to attend a function of great importance. All Papuan males have pierced septum to accommodate boars’ teeth ornaments. Large ones being rarer these days, the longer the bone the more sophisticated the wearer. After bidding farewell to them we ascended to greater heights were the clouds seem to hug the crown of the mountain ridges.
Scorpio suddenly swept me aside and made me crawl on the high grass and observe an amazing hunt. A local bird hunter actually shot a flying bird with his arrow at 50 yards and while in flight. I could not believe my eyes. Imagine that your only diet consisted of sweet potatoes and an occasional bird stew of an animal in flight downed with the most rudimentary tool-a bamboo bow and arrow.


After several magnificent vistas and vertical meters, we were about to enter a village to call our home for the night. Being squarely in the tropics sunrise was 6:00 AM and sunset its numerical counterpart in the evening. I was given my customary private hut but this time on an elevated platform because a major stream was only a few yards away. Within a span of 5 minutes several young children and many maimed village elders sat outside my hut trying to get cigarettes or medicines and sell me some trinkets. The first woman that approached me, topless of course (No Bridgette Bardot folks!) raised both her palms in the way the pope would do as you approach him. I was wondering if she was bestowing a blessing on me, but it turned out to be a typical Papuan greeting to indicate war loses (I noticed that several digits of her fingers were missing in both hands). I have seen too many lepers in India with such loss of digits but I was told she was not a leper but a person who was mourning death(s) in her family. What? I thought!. Then came a middle-aged man with a cigarette between his forefinger and thumb, of course with all his digits missing ,worn to the nub. Upon further inquiry, I was told that the each digit was sawn off to mourn the loss of a sibling or parent in a tribal war. I saw many have them had only two complete fingers in both hands. With regular pitched battles in the past family losses were so heavy that most Papuans over the age of 50 ( born in the 1940’s and 1950’s)had severely maimed bodies.
The next morning with mostly naked people all around me, I was least conscious when I disrobed and washed myself in the stream. I found a spot upstream from the pigs and the ladies washing their sweet potatoes. I was very tempted to wear a gourd and walk about but better judgment prevented me from doing so. A noble savage imitated by an urban literate is tantamount to blasphemy.
IMGP4387.jpgIMGP4376.jpgIMGP4363.jpgIMGP4361.jpgWishing a hunter good night

Wishing a hunter good night


Posted by Ramdas Iyer 17:00 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

Reformed "Head-Hunters" of Baliem Valley, Papua, Indonesia

Over the Jungle and into the Land of the Dani People......................Ramdas Iyer

Approaching the age of 50 one wonders if the time for hard adventure becomes limited. So I decided to embark to places not easily accessible or to have perceived difficulties. Papua has always been on my scope: an isolated Eden with amazing anthropological treasures. My frequent visits to the Met in New York especially to enjoy its ethnographic art and particularly the Michael Rockefeller collection from Papua, has often left me yearning to visit the place. As a young man, I had read about how Michael Rockefeller, the son of VP Nelson Rockefeller a Peace Corps worker and a collector of artifacts for the Peabody Museum at Yale university was attacked and cannibalized by the Asmat people of Papua.


So in December of 2006 I flew into Jayapura on a hopper flight from Jakarta to Sulawesi, Timor, Biak Island and finally Jayapura. On this flight I met a young and rather scared Indian engineer who was on his way from Bangalore to Biak. He was to spend 6 months in a trailer with 2 other Indians working for ISRO, the Indian Space agency that uses that location for geo-tracking its satellites. The thought of a Hindu boy, religious and a sworn vegetarian in the wilds of the south pacific in the midst of newly reformed cannibals was indeed a testimony to globalization.
The last leg from Biak into Jayapura consisted of a visual explosion of verdant forest canopy for miles on end. Being home to the second largest rainforest after Brazil, my fantasy of naked cannibals ( not necassarily)in Penis gourds, slithery vipers and constrictors of every size, color and maiming ability was coming close to reality. However Jaypura was a disappointment. It was modernizing fast with Internet access, slow traffic, commercialization but also thankfully the telephone exchange from where I had an opportunity to call home from, where my wife was wondering if I was having my tryst with spear tips.

Unlike New Guinea its ethnic cousin, Papua is still wild and exciting. Until WWII it was a Dutch colony. The Dutch having given Indonesia to its people wanted to maintain Irian Jaya ( Western Papua) as its territory. Finally after a hard fought UN resolution in 1962 it became a state under Indonesia. The locals are still fighting for independence often leading to foreigners being restrained from visiting several parts of this island, the world’s second largest. New Guinea on the other hand was under Australian protection until 1975.

Japanese forces occupied Jayapura known as Hollandia, a very tiny Dutch Indies town at that time, in 1942, only to be driven away by Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s troops. He established Hollandia as his HQ until the conquest of Philippines in1945. Over 500,000 US troops had made amphibious landings in its shores during WWII.

The first peril of travelling had already hit me. My local agent was bitter with the main agent based out of Bali because he was short changed for this trip. He was supposed to pack all our cooking material and supplies for a our 5 day trek and escort me by hopper flight to the Baliem Valley, home of the stone-age Dani people. Instead he bought lots of noodles, biscuits, oil, salt etc. and packed me off alone to the land of the infamous cannibals. Like most interior flights this flight was operated by Dutch missionaries and as guessed a Fokker propeller aircraft. The tiny airport had no tourists but consisted of different ethnic Indonesians trying to get a foothold into this mysterious land. One of the passengers seemed to have a brief case that was moving periodically. It turned out to be a gagged piglet slung on a rope like a brief case.

Until 1961 cannibalism was rampant in Papua. The Dani were only discovered in 1938 only after the advent of flight.
They did not come in contact with other people on account of the fact that the highlands had 150 miles of virtually impassable territory and there was no available food for explorers to eat on the way. They were discovered
Their history is one of violence for the sake of violence. Every one of the hundreds of villages that dot the mountainous country embarks on ritual pitched battles on a regular basis with the sole intention of insulting their enemy by either maiming or killing them. The main reason for cannibalism was not for dietary purposes but for the capture of their spirits. This enmity over the centuries led to isolated village groups with slightly different customs, language and body decorations; an anthropologist’s laboratory. My Dani guide Scorpio, was orphaned at a tender age when his father was gored during such a fight with a spear.
The last cases of cannibalism were only recently recorded. In 1968 two missionaries (Australian Stan Dole and American Phil Masters) were chopped and eaten. During Christmas 1974, four Dutch families were killed and eaten by aborigines in the Jayawijaya Mountains near Wamena. The last known case was a killing of a priest and his twelve companions. It allegedly happened because they tried to ban the aborigines from hunting for skulls and they burnt their fetishes. This tragic event happened in 1976.

Upon arrival at this tiny airport into a town set in a green valley, I was received by a stocky aboriginal man with a red feather hair dress- I believe it was jungle rooster, and a large toothy grin and broad aboriginal nose; I had delivered myself to the Dani. My worries quickly evaporated upon meeting Scorpio, dressed like a Texas Ranger ready for a mission in Helmund Province. I was pleased.

A glimpse of the market at Wamena was enough to keep my interest peeked for the next one week I would spend on this Island. Every man over the age of 40 was naked, with a headdress and penis gourd ranging from a curled 6” specimen to a vine teased 14” long lance. The younger ones were all in modern but dirty t-shirts given by missionaries. Yes, Christianity is very big here. I am sure they imagined Jesus on the cross with a penis gourd! The women were all dressed and seemed to do the bulk of physical labor. They were selling tobacco leaves, vegetables, roots and some conveniences like flashlights from China, Aspirin etc. Of course Papuans did not use currency until recently and maintained their wealth in pigs. I witnessed a massive pig pulled out of the earth from an underground hearth and the local abbotoir cum chef was selling pieces from a walk in pit.
We walked to the hotel, a small arboreal retreat from where we prepared to assault the Highlands of the Dani with 4 porters, guide and a chef who took cooking lessons from me, periodically. It was different from his usual cuisine I wondered: cilantro and spleen, lettuce with liver and some basil for the brains. The rest I will continue in my next volume.

Ramdas IyerZ

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 17:00 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

Nomads of the Sahel Desert of Mali

Observations while travelling from Bamako to Timbuktu by 4X4............... Ramdas Iyer, Author


“My father was a nomad, his father was a nomad, I am a nomad, my children will be nomads,” said Inaka*, who was not sure of his age but looked to be in his fifties. “This is the life of my ancestors. This is the life that we know. We like it.”
Thousands of nomads pepper this western tip of the Sahara desert and most share Inaka’s perspective. For centuries, they have subjected themselves to the oft-bitter whims of nature, without real connections to society. They have lived off their camels, goats and sheep, depending upon them for everything from food to transportation. And they have survived!!.
While visiting Mali in 2007, I was a budding photojournalist, trying to see Saharan Africa and its people from behind the lens. However time and further investigation has proven that the nomads I met and photographed during my brief sojourn were within the past 5 years facing the worst drought to hit Saharan Africa thereby making this write up, from a time when life was more stable for them The Tuaregs of the Timbuktu region and the Bobo of the Burkina Faso/ Northern Mali region are the most affected. While my pictures illustrate their typical way of life, my write-up along with information culled from various sources will truly show the impact of weather on a distinct culture lost to most of us in the west. I saw a similar situation in the Thar desert region of India earlier this year, but the Indian sense of fatality seems to keep the nomads of India in a much higher spiritual place when compared to their African bretheren.
The Fulani of Mali almost have 850,000 to 1,000,000 people in their tribe. The Fulani tribe is the largest nomadic community in the world scattered in six nations of West Africa. Arjuna and I had the pleasure of visiting one such family, where the women folk were left behind in Mopti by their wealthier spouses pursuing their herding techniques and creating a semi-nomadic lifestyle often found with rise in income.
The Tuareg tribe are more commonly called the ‘blue men of the desert, which is derived from their attire of indigo robes and turbans. I am sure you have noticed Arjuna in his Indigo costume whilst visiting the nomads. They are an ancient migratory group still known for their pure desert existence. The Tuareg tribe with their camel-caravans inhabits the desert regions of Mali.

The Sahel is a belt of land which runs for 5,000 KM through six mainly French-speaking West African countries; Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta), Niger and Chad. Situated between the 10 and 50 cm annual rainfall lines, it is a region of semi-arid steppe country bordering the Sahara desert and is inhabited largely by nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples, a group of stockbreeders who have dominated much of the Sahara and the Sahel for some 800 years.
One survey gives the total population of the Sahel as six million of whom two-thirds are nomadic, but all figures need to be treated with caution, especially after the effects of drought, famine, local wars and large-scale migration.
The traditional Sahelian economy is based entirely upon nomadic pastoralism. Herd numbers are normally limited by the extent of grazing areas: cattle are concentrated around wells during the dry season and move out to the Sahel grassland once the harshest conditions have abated.
One interesting fact I learnt was that the Fulani herders drove cattle for every other cattle owner. Which meant that a non-nomad would, for a fee, release his cattle to the Fulani for fattening and returning after a few months. This way, the Fulani were better off than most nomads and were famous for their blankets and their beaten gold earrings (See Photo)
Traditional nomadic and semi-nomadic life involves living in a delicate balance with the land and with water, a balance quite removed from the concepts of commercial cropping, stock marketing and taxation. Even so, famine and drought have always been a recurring problem in the Sahel and until recently nomads have reared as much stock as could be supported in order to protect themselves against a bad year. In good years when stock numbers were high the nomads loaned animals to farmers, reclaiming them in times of hardship.
Colonial rule led to the growth of the coastal towns in West Africa and this in turn led to a rising demand for meat, which was supplied by the pastoralists; however colonial policy also altered the ecological balance of the Sahel by introducing a money economy and also veterinary and medical facilities.

Survived. As the photographs of my travel illustrate these nomads with a ratio of 2:1 livestock to human roam around sparse green belts looking for grazing ground. Our encounters with them were always very educational. The ones that walked or rode in mules were more impoverished than the ones on camels and driving heads of cattle.
While in Timbuktu we received camel trains arriving from Taoudenne, 500 KM from there, carrying huge 40 kg slabs of salt, we also saw the same salt loaded on to mules further inland in Dogon Country, completing the supply chain: another nomadic pursuit.
At each nomadic camp, the women would set out for hours looking for water with their gourd pots: a sight that seemed destined for African photo journalism. Their brightly printed clothing and their colorful bead necklaces contrasted with the stark background of the Sahel. (See photos)
But they have paid a price for their conscious disconnection from the modern world. They are among the world’s poorest people, unable to educate and provide health care for their children, continually scratching to make it through one more day, always one drought away from seeing their animals and families wiped out.
In many ways, their lives mirror those of Africans who live in the villages, towns and cities of the world’s poorest continent. The difference is that many of those Africans long for an economic escape from a torturous existence. Most nomads say they do not.

They are content in this land of thorn trees and murderous heat, where the ground is sprinkled with the bones of burros. Brutal sandstorms rise up in seconds. Squealing children, hungry for play, tumble over sand dunes at sunset.
They follow water and grass, sometimes travel with another family member, and generally move every couple of weeks. A month in one area is an eternity.

The End
Emailme at ( riyerr@aol.com)


Posted by Ramdas Iyer 18:33 Archived in Mali Tagged africa sahara mali nomads tuareg tribes bobo Comments (2)

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