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Living with the Babongo Pygmies of Central Africa in Gabon

A life in the margins of society-Foraging, hunting, dance, music, spirituality, poverty and discrimination.........Ramdas Iyer

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My quest to seek ancient cultures and its people has become more difficult since globalization took root these past two decades. What made ancient tribes and communities very special; their myths, traditions, rituals, garb and house building techniques are fast disappearing. The yeoman's effort of anthropologists to preserve some of the hundreds of tongues that are becoming extinct every day, music and verbal traditions have been praiseworthy.
The Babongo “Forest people,” or Pygmies, inhabit the rainforest of Gabon in West Africa and have an estimated population of around twelve thousand people. The landscape embedding the Babongo villages is characterized by dense tropical rainforest intersected by large river courses, rugged terrain and by hot and humid climate. Access to the villages requires the crossing of the broad Ngounié River by pirogue or embarking on the local ferry which is occasionally out of order. Once on the other side, when transport is available we followed logging roads, crossing numerous precarious wooden bridges. The access road has been carved through the forest canopy by an Asian logging company operating in the area and is maintained only where passage of logging trucks is needed. At the river crossing the watercourse represents the physical divide between forest-dependent, hunter-gatherer communities and the cash economy led “modern” world. After crossing the river communication is cut back to the minimum - phone, radio and TV signals get weaker the deeper one ventures into the jungle. Soon, the only “connection” rest with the sounds and smells of the forest occasionally fended by roaring logging engines. Babongo people have been occupying these areas for centuries, although migrations occurred during colonial times.
It was late in the day when after 10 hours driving through muddy logging roads, dangerously weak bridges built hastily over fast waters, we were approaching some pygmy settlements deep inside the Waka Forest, a 26000 Sq.KM rain forest turned into a National Park in the 90's. Marcel Bombe a Pygmy leader who escorted me along with Antonio Anoro of Gabon Untouched my tour leader and friend, Paul Mbombe a Bantu Bwiti Shaman, and I stopped in front of the tallest and largest tree we had seen that day in utter amazement. Paul and Marcel immediately proceeded to approach the mighty tree( Moutambi-the unsurpassed one) to pray to their god Komba, the supreme creator of everything. Added, they also invoked Jengi, the spirit of the forest. I joined them in their reverence to a great tree which is not too different from our own Hindu worship of Banyan, Peepal and need trees.As we looked up at the canopy, a large Blue Morpho (morpho pelides) butterfly circled above our heads. Paul mumbled to me that this was a forest spirit and would choose to sit on his lips shortly. Lo and behold within a few seconds the butterfly chose to sit on Paul's lips for a while and eventually flew away. The spirituality of this moment can be questionable to some but the event was nevertheless real. I was utterly shocked by this event which well documented by Antonio who was having fun with the camera whilst we were praying. Marcel was moved by that event and bestowed on me the pygmy name Moutambi, which is how everyone addresses me till this date in Gabon.

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Getting here was not easy. Heavy rains, much to my dismay had stopped us from visiting another settlement at a different location, which was more remote requiring porters and an 8 hour uphill trek. Antonio reached out to his friend the great Tatayo, master of Iboga medicine in Libreville. Tatayo dispatched Marcel Bombe, chief delegate of all indigenous people (pygmies) in Gabon, Congo and Cameroon to come to our rescue. Marcel, a very small, slight fellow with sparkling eyes traveled for 10 hours, using buses and share taxis to reach us in our lodge located on the banks of the Ngonie river in Fugamou, where we waited patiently. In the course of waiting for him we called for a taxi to take us to dinner to a 'western "restaurant. The taxi that arrived was a late model SUV much to our surprise. The driver a well groomed and well spoken personality joined us for 'Pizza" a southern European mainstay poorly attempted in central Gabon. Paul Mbombe is a well built Bantu shaman and fearless. His father was a government functionary who was assassinated in a purge by the dictatorship of Gabon a decade ago. He asked the taxi driver if he was spying on us on behalf of the secret police.The driver replied that they are aware of a Spaniard, American and Gabonese checking into the local hotel and the hotel personnel were instructed to keep tabs on us and yes he was indeed assigned to us. The conversation eventually turned cordial, yet the policeman asked us to visit the precinct the next day to register since we were going into territory not quite policed. In the interim Marcel arrived from Libreville tired yet eager to escort us the next morning. He set about organizing a Toyota pickup that would take us into the forest along with Bantu businessmen who traded with the pygmies.

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Like in most of Central Africa, indigenous peoples, the so-called ‘Pygmies’ are often treated as second-class citizens. Few have birth certificates or identity cards; they lack access to education or healthcare and are frequently subject to exploitation and mishandling when exposed to the “outside world”. Like other indigenous peoples scattered across the Congo Basin, the Babongo have a unique and rich knowledge of the natural resources on which they depend. The practice of Bwiti rituals and the use of Iboga, a powerful hallucinogenic root bark, lie at the heart of Babongo culture, and make members of the tribe renowned for their spiritual and healing powers. The Babongo are surrounded by Bantu people, some of whom regard the first peoples as little better than animals. Babongo people are generally independent of formal authority and they keep their own traditions and decision-making structures. The Babongo have a powerful reputation as sorcerers, and inspire awe in the Bantu neighbors for their knowledge of the forest and of the Ibogha - the sacred plant central to their beliefs and rituals. Exposed to outside forces and authorities, the Babongo are struggling to retain their identity and traditional institutions. When living in the jungle, their hunting skills and knowledge of fauna and flora are unmatched. When exposed to the cash economy or drawn outside the forest, the Babongo risk losing not only their most valuable skills but also their own sense of history, culture and identity (BBC, 2008). The Babongo are hunter-gatherers and live substantially off wild resources in the forest. They usually hunt using wire traps, nets, bows and arrows or guns, often loaned from Bantu neighbors in return for a portion of the valuable bush meat they catch. Men also fish and gather honey from wild bees. Since some years, because of the unsuccessful policy to settle them engaged by mostly all the states in the region, Babongo Women people sometimes grow banana, maize, manioc, peanuts and sweet potatoes on small slash and burn patches. Children catch crabs and freshwater prawns. At the time of our visit the elephants had wreaked havoc on their manioc plants.

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The earliest known reference to a Pygmy—a "dancing dwarf of the god from the land of spirits"—is found in a letter written around 2276 B.C. by Pharaoh Pepi II to the leader of an Egyptian trade expedition up the Nile. In the Iliad, Homer invoked mythical warfare between Pygmies and a flock of cranes to describe the intensity of a charge by the Trojan army. In the fifth century B.C., the Greek historian Herodotus wrote of a Persian explorer who saw "dwarfish people, who used clothing made from the palm tree" at a spot along the West African coast.
More than two millennia passed before the French-American explorer Paul du Chaillu published the first modern account of Pygmies. "Their eyes had an untamable wildness about them that struck me as very remarkable," he wrote in 1867. In In Darkest Africa, published in 1890, the explorer Henry Stanley wrote of meeting a Pygmy couple ("In him was a mimicked dignity, as of Adam; in her the womanliness of a miniature Eve"). In 1904, several Pygmies were brought to live in the anthropology exhibit at the St. Louis World's Fair. Two years later, a Congo Pygmy named Ota Benga was housed temporarily at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City—and then exhibited, briefly and controversially, at the Bronx Zoo.

There is no one Babongo language, but three. In the central regions variations of Tsogho are spoken, in the South East it is the same but with Teke and Kaning’i as the starting languages. Interpretations of these vary between groups dependent on historical and cultural differences such as contact with Bantu speaking neighbors. Only a very few speak broken French. As a result we had a Bantu and pygmy in our group to be able to communicate and exchange ideas. Pygmy to Bantu to French to English

As far as it is possible to tell the Babongo have always been hunter gatherers living in bands of up to twenty people, a situation suiting a traditionally nomadic lifestyle in a bio-diverse environment. Some Babongo are famed for using nets in their hunting activities, snaring bush meat to complement the plant stuffs provided by Babongo women and their knowledge of rain forest flora. The Babongo have historically traded with Bantu farmers exchanging forest goods such as honey and meat for metal tools and guns to aid them in their hunting. Though in some respects this relationships has proved advantageous for the Babongo it has also left them open to exploitation at the hands of the Bantu as a recent UNICEF report shows.
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The Bantu often do not share the Babongo’s view of themselves as the first people of the earth, yet they are often fearful of them. The Babongo are renowned sorcerers and boast a vibrant animistic tradition called ‘Bwiti’ which centres around the use of the psychedelic Iboga plant which some Bwiti experts believe to be the tree of knowledge. According to the Babongo, Iboga can facilitate soothsaying, healing, and communion with the dead by liberating the soul of the body for a time.
Our journey was getting fraught with serious problems. Many of the bridges, seven in total, did not have wooden slats to make river crossings. We scampered for lumber often substituting with ones in front of us for use in the rear. At that moment I had given up all hopes of moving ahead, especially with the thought of our pickup truck plunging into the river. The 5 pygmy passengers who had hailed us along the way immediately got to work collecting logs for our move forward leaving me holding my heart in my hand.( see video link).
Driving through thick vegetation I realized that it will not be too long before the vegetation completely swallows this ever narrowing road. Out of nowhere I could see children rushing from a far away village towards the car. The sound of our vehicle had given this quiet corner some excitement about the arrival of strangers. Suddenly we were surrounded by two dozen adults and children looking at us with large eyes. The young children became extremely shy as I emerged from the vehicle and actually started looking down trying to avoid my eyes.They were delighted to see us and I was ecstatic to finally meet the pygmies in their heartland.
A fact not lost to us was the knowledge that that this was also Marcel Bombe's home village from which he had left as a child to the city. His mud house consisting of three rooms was made available to us during our stay. Since we arrived in darkness, I could not quite understand the layout of the village. Other than our headlamps the only other source of light was a powerful tree resin used by the locals to illuminate the darkness that surrounded us.
As we settled down the villagers arrived to come and watch us go about our ways like a movie that was playing in front of them. The chief welcomed us and helped unload all our supplies and the many gifts that we had come to exchange with them. Congyani, our neighbor and a very determined and aggressive lady was assigned the role of caretaker. She washed vessels, brought water and prepared our meager meals. The chief asked us not to leave our area for the evening since the village was having a ceremony in the communal hut. It is a well known fact that pygmies keep their rituals secretive and only show the outside world a decoy version of the real thing. Later that night a series of chimpanzee hoots and shrills were made by the villagers which penetrated the quiet darkness of this mountain village. Upon investigation I was told that they were gathered in a ceremony involving the spirits of wisdom from the chimpanzees. The chimpanzee howls were so amazing that when I came home I read up on the evolution of the communication sounds of the pygmies.They were one of the progenerators of spoken languages as we use them today
"When hunters are getting themselves fired up for the Duiker hunt. They clap and do a call-and-response type of chant. Louis Sarno, an American who has been living with the Pygmies for more than 25 years, explains: “It’s a hunting song that calls out to the forest spirits asking for success, although the song is more about the musical rhythm than the actual words.”
The night passed with hundreds of cockroaches and an occasional rodent scurrying on the floor. Being tired, I quietly closed my eyes, quite horrified but yet managed to get some sleep in an unpleasant surrounding. Not a fan of extreme darkness, I had brought with me battery operated bulbs that hangs with a carabiner that kept burning all night. This kept the creepy crawlers on their defensive!.
The village was a large clearing in the middle of the forest. I suppose this village must be in existence for at least 20 years, it was clean and unpolluted except for their waste lagoon that ultimately melds with the rainwater. With over twenty homes I expected the population to be under 100 while another nearby village constituted another 20 homes. Walking past each family and meeting members of their families took up most of the morning.These villages were set up during colonial times when pygmies were 'encouraged' to set up settlements near logging roads.
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A formal meeting was arranged with the villagers regarding the purpose of our visit. As an exploited people the villagers were always on alert often demanding exorbitant 'gifts' in return for access to their village , their rituals and dances. All the men and women were gathered along with my contingent of Antonio, Marcel and Paul. With drama and fanfare our pygmy friend Marcel Mombe introduced me to the gathering." Our fathers were pygmies, our fore fathers are pygmies and we are now the proud Babongo. Among us is a visitor who has crossed two oceans, several rivers and forests to come to visit us. He must be a pygmy too since the universe was begun by pygmies. Let us show our hospitality to him. We have brought gifts for all to show our gratitude.....'.
Outside the hut were two strong men carrying two basket loads of gifts, almost worth $300, one for the men folk and other for the women. An equality system that had been established by the forest dwellers long before the west thought that it may be a necessity.
Each basket contained two 5 liter bottles of palm wine, three bottles of Pernod Pastis( Anise liqueur), 12 packs of soda and beer, two cases of cigarettes, match boxes, cooking oil, rice, sugar and candy for the children. Thereafter Congyani, the leader of the women's contingent expressed her dissatisfaction at the gifts offered. Knowing this is the normal course of negotiation, a bucket was brought in, another bottle of palm wine emptied into it and served to the women, who then excitedly started lighting up cigarettes and began warming up to our gestures of reconciliation.
The men had two factions, one reasonable and the other with a completely out of control leader. He mentioned that BBC was there a few months ago and gave them a lot of money and what we have brought in those baskets was an insult. Again the negotiations went back and forth with Paul using his Bantu skills and position explaining to them that the BBC is a rich organization whereas M0utambi( myself), here was acting on his own capabilities. He went on to describe a large hunt versus a small hunt as an analogy. Yearning to lay their hands on the alcohol the men agreed reluctantly .A few CFAs( Central African Francs) exchanged hands that amounted to a few dollars.
Within a matter of two hours the whole village including anyone over 12 years of age were drunk and happy. The women started getting dressed and for two hours gave us an amazing performance of drum and dance. It was expected that the men would do the same after dusk but they conducted a very interesting ceremony with initiated boys performing a ceremony for us. The men still held back and agreed to perform late in the night. These initiated performers who also take the iboga root as a trance inducer can dance all night but nothing in reality happened; the recalcitrant faction did not put out. Around midnight Paul Mbombe an Nganga master gathered the willing and we had music, storytelling and Bwiti dancing all night but with less fanfare. Sleep was scarce that night.
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With rain clouds looming, we decided to get out of there lest we get stuck in the forested gauntlet that we had to cross, especially those scary bridges. The send off was very warm especially with all the villagers coming to say goodbye.
On reflecting on my trip the following thoughts came to my mind. If this were 100 years ago, entering their realm and disturbing their quiet life of oneness with nature would have been a gross violation. But today with resettlement, commercial mixing with Bantu villages and the need for modern produces of convenience our trip should have been one that they should have accepted wholeheartedly, especially given that we were encouraging them to practice their culture which has been on the wane. Instead they behaved like spoiled children with ridiculous demands, with the ones with access to the outside world acting as adults on their behalf. It was sad to see their plight. Their land was being deforested steadily, they had no access to schools or health care, while alcoholism was not common they imbibed it with no constraints.
Commercial logging is rapidly depleting Gabon’s rain forest with thirty percent already cleared. As a result of the vast roads bulldozed through the forest many Babongo have experienced the traditionally damaging effects of contact with the outside world, disease, violence and 'governmentality'. Mortality rates have risen as the result of deforestation whilst the governmental contribution has been to begin a resettlement program to move the Babongo to villages beside the roads flayed from the forest. Here, considered as the backward remnant of Gabonese society, the Babongo suffer discrimination in the form of pitiful levels of access to healthcare and education. In socio-economic and political spheres, the Babongo people are not seen as equal to the Bantu villagers. They rely on the farmers for trade opportunities. They exchange some of their primary goods (fruits, wild nuts, medicinal plants etc.) for money and industrial goods. The farmers are the Babongo's only connection to the Gabonese bureaucracies. Because of this, they often work as indentured servants to the farmers.
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Gabon covers an area of approximately 26.7 million hectares and maintains some of the largest remaining rain forest in West Africa. Although the actual extent of forest cover is unknown, experts estimate between 17-22 million hectares, or 85% of the total land mass (Christy et al 2003). Indigenous hunter-gatherer communities (known variously as the Baka, Bakoya, Bagama, Babongo, Akoa, etc.) are located throughout Gabon, and include numerous ethnic groups separated by locality, language and culture. According to the most recent census (Massandé 2005), the Pygmy populations number as many as 20,005 out of a total national population of approximately 1,400,000 (previous estimates 7,000-10,000).

Despite the threat of assimilation there are hopes that the Babongo have a brighter future than the negative developments of recent years may suggest. Logging is being rapidly restricted as national parks are established across the country to encourage eco-tourism. Efforts are being made to enable the Babongo to take their future into their own hands given this potentially beneficial transition. One way in which this is being attempted is through the innovative grassroots use of Participatory mapping technologies which have allowed some Babongo groups to commune and mark out their traditional territories, safe guarding them for future generations.
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The End
contact info: riyerr@aol.com
WWW.RAMDASIYERPHOTOGRAPHY.COM

Sources:
Smithsonian Magazine: Pygmies Plight By Paul Raffaele, DEC 2008
National Geographic/ BBC
Gabon Untouched NGO: Antonio Anoro

PHOTO GALLERY:
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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 18:10 Archived in Gabon Tagged antonio untouched gabon ramdas iyer pygmies babongo iboga bwiti gabon- anoro Comments (3)

A night with a Headhunting Tribe in their Longhouse- Borneo

Among the Kayan Dayaks of lower Kalimantan (Borneo)....................Ramdas Iyer

sunny 99 °F

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A big fan of Joseph Conrad's "Lord Jim", Borneo had always stuck in my mind as the ultimate frontier. In 1838, British adventurer James Brooke arrived to find the Sultan of Brunei fending off rebellion from warlike inland tribes. Sarawak ( Malaysian Borneo) was in chaos. Brooke put down the rebellion, and was made Governor of Sarawak in 1841, with the title of Rajah. This event led Rudyard Kipling to create" Man Who would be King" and Conrad" Lord Jim"; two colonial classics that ring in me as an amateur historian and adventurer.
Borneo is the third largest island in the world after Greenland and New Guinea. Straddling the equator, it covers 750,000 square kilometers (290,000 square miles), more than twice the area of the British Isles or more than Texas and Louisiana combined, and measures about 1290 kilometers (800 miles) from north to south and 800 kilometers (500 miles) from east to west. The northern 25 percent is occupied the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, and the Islamic sultanate of Brunei; and the southern 75 percent is occupied by the Indonesian state of Kalimantan.
My penchant for Island cultures has resulted in a few articles involving island cultures in this magazine: Madagascar, Bali, Papua New Guinea and nine articles covering Indonesian islands including Borneo.
Borneo is part of an archipelago called the Greater Sunda Islands. It is thinly populated and covered by mountains and rain forests. Most of the cities and towns are along the coast. The soil is poor. Large areas of the coast are made up of marshes and mangrove swamps. Most of the interior consists of rugged mountains interspersed with deep gorges. This area is laced with clear and whiskey-colored streams. The highest point 13,455-foot-high Mount Kinabulu in Sabah. In Kalimantan few areas rise above 3,000 feet. The highest point, in the central range there is 9,582 feet.
The rain forest on Borneo covers an area about the size of France
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In 1996 I landed in Banjarmasin, Kalimantan ( Indonesian Borneo) with great visions of seeing long houses, Dayak head hunters and raw jungle infested with proboscis monkeys and Orangutans. Much to my naiveté and ill preparedness (I was an expat serving in India and did not have the right resources, including internet which was in its infancy, to plan) I ended up with coastal communities who were totally Islamic and displayed little ferocity from those mentioned in Victorian tales of yore.
Despite these shortcomings I made my way to the pier straight from the airport and negotiated with some seedy folks to travel the mighty Barito river that flowed 400 km into the dark interior. I wanted to see long houses but they were 4 days away and my short trip did not allow me, nor was I adventurous then to partake on a perilous journey such as that. After 6 hours in the water facing the most thunderous rain storms ever experienced while on a boat, I finally arrived at a place were there a few proboscis monkeys. With my basic 35mm Pentax SLR I captured whatever that moved with a blur in the wetness of the surrounding rain forest.

Later next day an interesting sight in the streets of Balikpapan led me to a small art shop where a native Dayak was selling his Mandau- hunting sword. It was made of amazing metalwork, its hilt bone finely embossed ( human femurs were used at times) with its finely woven rattan handles frayed after a few years of use. The shop keeper arranged for a trade and worked on it that night to 're-rattan' the handle and varnish it. I would never know if any heads were taken with it, but the highly designed entrails separator at the top section of the sword with gold embossed design was enough for Indonesian customs officials in Djakarta from trying to prevent me from removing a national treasure. ( Photos attached)
But that experience left me longing for an adventure that would get me to the long houses, Dayaks and their interesting villages. Why Dayaks ? you may wonder. I have a morbid fascination for cannibals, head hunters and mortuary rituals. In my previous articles in Travellerspoint, I have elaborated on cannibalism and head hunting in Irian Jaya and Papua New guinea, funeral traditions in Sulawesi, Bali, Iran, India and Madagascar. Here I will attempt to combine headhunting practices alongside interesting funeral traditions of the Dayak people.
The Dayak or Dyak are a people indigenous to Borneo. It is a loose term for over 200 riverine and hill-dwelling ethnic subgroups, located principally in the interior of Borneo, each with its own dialect, customs, laws, territory and culture, although common distinguishing traits are readily identifiable. Dayak languages are categorized as part of the Austronesian languages in Asia. The Dayak were animist in belief; however many converted to Christianity, and some to Islam more recently. Estimates for the Dayak population range from 2 to 4 million. Dayak population estimated at about four million spread over the four Indonesian provinces in Kalimantan / Borneo, the Malaysian territories of Sabah and Sarawak and Brunei Darussalam.
In the past, anthropologists described the Dayak as the "legendary natives of Borneo" who lived in longhouse and engaged in head-hunting. Today, they form a small minority, the loser in an era of swift change and modernization.
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In 2015, a good two decades later I finally returned to Kalimantan. This time, after an elaborate photographic trip to record the wonderful Orangutans in Tanjung Putung, I allowed myself to reach the interior.
The Beconsu puyan dayaks live a good 6 hours upstream on the Lamandau river from the river town of Pankulunbun, where boats to Tanjung Putung National Park travel on the Sekoyner river. Like all rivers near the coast, the Lamandau is close to half a kilometer wide and slowly closes in to about 200 meters upstream where we were headed. I was surprised to see the small 4 seater speed boat, something Pierce Brosnan used to navigate the canals of Saigon in the pursuit of world order. All our luggage , gasoline tanks and my angry Dayak guide sat on the bow of this boat. After two noisy hours on the wide river we arrived at a small village where I had lunch at a small Islamic restaurant. Some rice and chicken with a warm soda. My young guide and I went shopping for grocery along the river market, vegetables etc since we were expected to cook our own food. Another 4 hours of passing boats laden with hardwood timber( the interior was getting deforested at an alarming rate with the forests being replaced by palm oil plantations. The impact on the wild life and especially the Orangutan population has been a ecological disaster.
In the past deforestation in Borneo was historically low due to infertile soils, unfavorable climate, and the presence of disease. Deforestation only began in earnest during the mid-twentieth century. Industrial logging rose in the 1970s as Malaysia depleted its peninsular forests, and former Indonesian strongman President Suharto distributed large tracts of forest to cement political relationships with army generals. Thus, logging expanded significantly in the 1980s, with logging roads providing access to remote lands for settlers and developers.
Logging in Borneo in the 1980s and 1990s was some of the most intensive the world has ever seen, with 60–240 cubic meters of wood being harvested per hectare versus 23 cubic meters per hectare in the Amazon. In Kalimantan for example, some 80% of lowlands went to timber concessions, including virtually all its mangrove forests. By the late 1980s, it became clear that Indonesia and Malaysia were facing a problem of timber crisis due to over-logging. Demand from timber mills was far-outstripping log production in both Malaysia and Indonesia.
The Borneo mountain rainforests lie in the central highlands of the island, above the 1,000 meters (3,300 ft) elevation. These areas represent habitat for many endangered species; orangutans, pygmy elephants and rare endemics such as the elusive Hose's civet. The Bornean orangutan has been a critically endangered species since 2016.
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As well as Borneo's importance in biodiversity conservation and as a carbon sink, the forests have significance for water security and food sovereignty for local communities of indigenous peoples. About an hour from our destination we hit some serious rapids making it unsafe for me to travel. So the "captain" decided to unload my guide and I on the river bank, where we had to walk half a mile while he guided the boat through amazing skill through the rocky rapids, to pick us up a while later.
We disembarked onto a pallet sized pier and climbed the banks to hit the main road of the Dayak village of Bokonsu. It is perhaps one of the few villages along the river which still has a traditional longhouse that is still owned by the village chief Pak Dinson. The longhouse had been built by his great grandfather around the turn of the century when Dayaks lived like the fabled tribe as described by Conrad.

For me just being in the compound where the long house was surrounded by crypts of many family members from the 19th century, stacked in wooden boxes, was simply fascinating. A central pole, with a special box traditionally signified that the bones of the enemies were kept there to bring power to the village. Since I had arrived early the long house was empty but for a couple of young girls. Unable to contain my excitement I walked around all the burial crypts and shot some nice photographs. The leader of the village also the owner of the long house was a formidable looking Dayak, Chief Dinson welcomed me into his home as soon as he arrived from his job as a security guard in a plantation. As long houses go, the one in Bakonsu was relatively small. Perhaps 200 feet long and 40 feet wide, with an attached structure that serves as a latter-day kitchen. The entire floor was matted with reed mats with a few windows throwing very little light into the structure. There was no cross ventilation inside and it was quite hot and humid inside with no electricity but for a weak bulb powered by a 2 x 2 ft solar panel by days sunlight. There was not a hint of a breeze anywhere.
Many Bornean people have traditionally lived in longhouses that hold up to a 150 people and are like a village under one roof. In the center of house is a common room off which the rooms of the house radiate, sort of like side streets off of a main square. The rooms are connected by a common veranda or porch. The kitchen is divided from the main room by a wall and in the corner an area, where women slept. Men often slept outside. There were traditionally no windows. In the old days there were no possessions except for some large pots used for storing and fermenting.
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I was given a thin mattress and a mosquito net which my guide erected for me , trapping some specimens inside that I had to swat during the night. The only access to this tall long house was a notched wooden plank, which traditionally is lifted up at night like a ship's gang plank. This was done to prevent headhunting raids by neighboring enemies. I cannot imagine a life in the jungle with enemies constantly prowling to take your head. The very fact that they lived in a longhouse made me realize that this kind of structure was purely an arrangement for security. It was a fortress on dry land to stymie head hunting raids.

I was not quite sure what to expect and how the evening was going to pass after sun down. My guide was busy chopping vegetables and cooking some chicken in the wood burning stoves in the adjacent structure. Of course with no running water but river water had been pumped into a giant overhead tank by a village owned diesel pump that sat on a barge by the small pier. I suspect all houses had their own wells since the water table was quite high in the area. In the meanwhile my boatman's wife was preparing his meal in the kitchen too. She had traveled with us for this very purpose perhaps including the provision of other spousal benefits.
Around 7:00 PM people started walking into the house, the women in sarong, some men wearing a lunghi while others were wearing a regular trouser and shirt: their Sunday best. None spoke English but as they were gathering and greeting each other a small gamelan ensemble had also assembled in a corner. It ceased to be a quiet corner anymore. The clanging of cymbals and the striking of the badegong drums was a bit cacophonous, until the rice wine arrived to numb ones senses.
I was finally told that I am going to receive the customary Dayak welcome. Potong pontan is a welcoming ceremony in which guest are given a machete by the village chief and asked to cut through plants placed at the entrance of the village to purge evil spirits. As they hack away the guests explain why they are visiting. Likewise I recollect visiting Wae Rebo, a village perched at an altitude of 4000 ft in Flores (Nusa Tenggara). After an 8 hour trek, I was shown the house of the chief (Manggarai clan) where he conducted a brief ceremony to request his ancestors for my permission to visit and that I will be kept away from harm.
Pak Dinson's family made me wear full native garb, turban included. They then seated me on a special 'throne" and thereafter the assemblage of a half a dozen women tied strings on my wrist to reflect their affection and to offer protection. A few decades ago, while seated on this makeshift throne, I would have been impressed by the rows of decorated skulls of fallen enemies hanging from the roof and corner, skull racks. Today all I could see was a few Hornbill skulls since the government has banned the exposition of human body parts.
Skulls from headhunting raids have traditionally been displayed in longhouses. Some longhouses today still have heads hanging from the ceiling as relics of their glorious past. The most recent ones are Japanese heads taken in World War II. In the mid 40s there was a spike in the number of head hunting occurrences as the Allies encouraged any means to defeat the Japanese. There was another increase in the 60s when the Indonesian government, fearing the spread of communism, encouraged the head hunting of Chinese immigrants. Headhunting is believed to still be practiced in some remote areas.

Head hunting was a Dayak was part and parcel of their religious rites. Births and “ naming,’’ marriages and burials, not to mention less important events, cannot be properly celebrated unless the heads of a few enemies, more or less, have been secured to grace the festivities or solemnities.
Heads taken in headhunting raids brought glory to the warrior who collected them and good luck to their village. They were usually preserved and worshiped in special rituals. Head-hunting rituals are needed for spiritual benefits such as for agriculture (rice) and the building of a new house (longhouse). Certain parts of the body—the heart, brains, blood and liver—was believed to bring power to those who consumed them. Some Dayaks of Sarawak used to eat the palms of their enemies. Cutting out the heart, it was believed, destroys the evil that is believed to reside in that organ.
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I was given a buffalo horn and each man and woman of the village took turns to pour rice wine into my horn. After 10 such passes, I gracefully stumbled out of my royal perch. As the attached photographs show, I was dancing with the women and men in a slow trance inducing dance, augmented by the cacophony of the pentatonic beat of the ensemble.
This moment could have been very touristy except that I was the only person there and quietly decided to go native. The women, were very flirtatious right under the noses of their husbands. I was quite surprised. While I have seen some beautiful Dayak women in photographs, I was not quite lucky since my female admirers were mostly machete wielding plantation workers.

Henry Keppel wrote in “Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido for the Suppression of Piracy” in the early 1840s: “We were fortunate in visiting these Dyaks during one of their grand festivals in the evening; dancing, singing, and drinking were going on in various parts of the village. In one house there was a grand fete, in which the women danced with the men. The dress of the women was simple and, curious — a light jacket open in front, and a short petticoat not coming below the knees, fitting close, was hung round with jingling bits of brass, which kept “making music'* wherever they went. The movement was like all other native dances — graceful, but monotonous. There were four men, two of them bearing human skulls, and two the fresh heads of pigs; the women bore wax-lights, or yellow rice on brass dishes. They danced in line, moving backwards and forwards, and carrying the heads and dishes in both hands; the graceful part was the manner in which they half turned the body to the right and left, looking over their shoulders and holding the heads in the opposite direction, as if they were in momentary expectation of someone coming up behind to snatch the nasty relic from them. At times the women knelt down in a group, with the men leaning over them. After all, the music was not the only thing wanting to make one imagine oneself at the opera. The necklaces of the women were chiefly of teeth — bears' the most common — human the most prized. In an interior house at one end were collected the relics of the tribe. These consisted of several round-looking stones, two deer's heads, and other inferior trumpery. The stones turn black if the tribe is to be beaten in war, and red if to be victorious: any one touching them would be sure to die; if lost, the tribe would be ruined."
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The rice wine was quite potent and I was afraid of either being too familiar with the women or simply collapse from my knees suffering from the inability to bear the weight of my drunken frame. The very thought of having to climb down the notched ladder for a toilet break was quite unimaginable. Late in the evening I sat alone with Dinson the formidable looking chief ( who is now reduced to be the Head of security at a Chinese owned plantation)sat with me and traded war stories. While many of his stories were passed on by his forebears he had personally been involved with the rest of the village in a major battle with the Madurese people. He proudly produced his mandau, which had 5 notches to my guide's three. A notch is a score and I leave the rest to your imagination.

"This story needs to be told as every male over 25 was involved in this battle with the Madurese people in 2001. Madura is famous throughout Indonesia as a place to leave. Its poor soil and lack of industry make staying generally a one-way ticket to poverty. Many ethnic Madurese now live in eastern Java, but in the 1950s they began going to Borneo as well, some under government-sponsored “transmigration” schemes, others under their own steam. Migration was seen as a way to develop the jungles of the “land of rivers” and to relieve population pressures elsewhere in Indonesia. It was also a way to consolidate the government's hold on its restive regions.
Barren Madura is not much of a place for agriculture, so the newcomers tend to be laborers or traders. They have not mixed well. All ethnic groups in Central Kalimantan complain about the Madurese: they say they are aggressive, they try to encroach on land, they cheat and steal, and quickly get violent in disputes over women. Say a good word about a Madurese in Borneo and it might cost you your head.
For their part, most Dayaks retain adat, their traditional culture. This involves a reverence for ancestors and looks back to Borneo's past as a land of head-hunters in a perpetual state of war with one another. Heads were once needed to sanctify a new common house and in a host of other ceremonies. Dutch colonialists eventually persuaded the Dayaks to use buffalo heads instead. The practice of beheading humans was said to have virtually died out, until 1997.
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The latest battlefield, near Pangalunbun the capital, in the long war between indigenous Dayaks and Madurese migrants, the warriors with their traditional mandau swords swap tales of eating human liver. The heads, livers and hearts of their victims have magical properties, they say. Beheading is their traditional way of killing their enemies, state-of-the-art magic their secret weapon.

The Madurese in Pankalanbun area have all gone or been killed now, but until February 2001 the town was around 60% Madurese. They were relatively prosperous, but aware of the violence Madurese had faced in West Kalimantan. In all this the government, as usual in Indonesia, has mostly been absent. A Dayak who has put on a red headband has declared that he is at war. And according to tradition, once at war he must kill someone and drink the victim's blood." writes the Economist magazine.

Late that night I was back in my mosquito net battling the remaining hungry mosquitoes. Morning came without much rest and it was time to leave. While Dinson had left early, he came back to wish us good bye and gave me something I still possess with great nostalgia: the head of a giant hornbill. These hornbill heads are used in Dayak's head dresses as their main ornament. He had no enemy skulls to give me since they were all either hidden or left inside the ceramic urn in the front of the house.
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We left the longhouse on a walk around the village. Beautiful dayak rice granaries, some overgrown with weed. A couple of long houses were in deep decay. I met smiling people wherever I went until such time I reached the rivers bank to make my 4hour journey back down stream. My excitement was not quite over as I my guide pointed out to an ancestor's totem planted by the river. the interred bones were on an ceramic urn 60 feet from the ground- far away from any spirit seeking enemies.
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The End

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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 16:24 Archived in Indonesia Tagged indonesia borneo longhouse kalimantan ramdas iyer dayaks pankalunbun mandau Comments (3)

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

Environmental & Conservation issues of the "Eighth Continent"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The End

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

Meditating my way along the Silk Route and Holy India.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • ( "Regular meditation opens the avenues of

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

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

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

Searching for Oriental carpets along the Silk Routes of Iran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)

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

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

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CARPET MAKING

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NOMADIC LIFE

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BAZAAR AT TABRIZ

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CARPET MUSEUM OF IRAN, TEHRAN

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

Funeral Traditions of Zoroastrians In Iran and India

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)

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

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

Where the Elephants Rule in the Botswananian Bush

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Funeral Masquerade Dance of the Dogon, Mali

A vanishing tradition of a fascinating people by Ramdas Iyer

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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.
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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.
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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.
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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).
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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.
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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.

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

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