You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Indian’ tag.

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In the past we have looked at Chinese goose ewers: here is a lovely vessel from a very different tradition–this gander-shaped vessel was made in Northern India during the Mogul Dynasty (ca. 16th century).  Look at the elegant sinuous curve of the striding bird and the reptilian grace of the piece.  The bird has a bit of the goose’s comic personality mixed in with the striking powerful feel of the whole piece.

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Last week’s post concerning the ancient Greek oracle of Zeus at Dodona made me curious whether there are any black pigeons or doves (for, according to myth, the first oracle at Dodona was a black talking dove which flew from Thebes). This is a black Indian fantail pigeon, and while there are no indications that the bird can talk it is a gorgeous animal. Look at how selective breeding has given the domesticated fantail a beautiful peacock spread of black feathers and silky ornate foot feathers!

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Once people have done something for the first time, it becomes much easier to do it again and again in novel ways.  I mention this, because, just this week, the great nation of India tested their own scaled-down and scaled-back prototype version of a space shuttle.  ISRO (The India Space Research Organization) fired a 7m-scale model lander about 70km (43 miles) into the atmosphere from a spaceport in took off from Andhra Pradesh.  The craft was launched atop a HS9 solid rocket booster. It is unclear whether the organization has recovered the prototype or not.

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The Indian spaceplane program is proceeding on a tiny budget which would make NASA (or even SpaceX) wince. The little prototype cost the equivalent of $14 million dollars. However the Indian government has big plans: within 15 years they hope to build a full scale Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV-TD) capable of repeatedly going into orbit and then returning through Earth’s atmosphere to land safely.  Since NASA has been working on projects very different from spaceplanes, I am glad to see that somebody else is still working on the concept.  I will be extremely curious to watch the progress of this Indian offspring of the original shuttle program which was such a triumphant and tragic centerpiece of space exploration during my childhood.

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A Map of the Kingdom of Oudh

A Map of the Kingdom of Oudh

The region which was once Oudh is a fertile portion of Northern India located in the contemporary province of Uttar Pradesh. The name is an anglicisation of the name “Awadh” which in turn is derived from the older name “Ayodhya,” the quasi-mythical capital city of Lord Rama (eponymous hero of the Ramayana).   During the age of the Mughals, Awadh was an important province run by different Nawabs (governors) on behalf of the Mughal emperor. In the 18th century, the authority of the Mughals waned and the position of Nawab became a hereditary feudal one.  The Nawabs of Awadh were a Persian Shia Muslim dynasty from Nishapur and they were renowned for their wealth and culture, however their (real) power was short-lived. In the latter half of the 18th century, the East India Company manipulated Oudh into serving as a buffer state against the Mughals and a de-facto treasury for their projects and adventures in northern India.

Portrait of Ghazi-ud-din Haidar, King of Oudh (Robert Home, ca. 1819, oil on canvas)

Portrait of Ghazi-ud-din Haidar, King of Oudh (Robert Home, ca. 1819, oil on canvas)

In 1819 the East India Company granted the Nawabs of Oudh permission to rule as independent kings. Anyone interested in power should immediately be able to spot the problem with that sentence: real authority was in the hands of the East India Company. However the delighted new king had a royal crown created for himself (designed by a British artist, Robert Home who painted portraits in the various courts of India). Here then is the crown of Oudh. Although it was a real object made of actual gold and jewels (unlike say, the Dutch crown, made of foil and fish paste) the crown of Oudh was a British stage prop meant to further disconnect Oudh from the last of the Mughals. By 1856, these theatrical machinations became too much for the British, and they dispensed with the Nawabs in order to rule the region directly.  Yet the stagecraft of politics are a funny business—by annexing Oudh outright instead of running it through decadent puppet kings, the British precipitated the Indian Rebellion of 1857 (A.K.A. the First Indian War of Independence).

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Crown of Bahadur Shah II (circa 1825-50)

Crown of Bahadur Shah II (circa 1825-50)

Here is the crown of Bahadur Shah II, the last Mughal emperor who lived from 1775 – 1862. The Mughals were the most powerful Indian dynasty since the (quasi-mythical) empire of Ashoka the Great and they ruled over almost the entirety of the subcontinent for three centuries, however the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century were a bad time for them and their empire had blown apart into feuding principalities (and the remainder of Mughal lands was truly run by the East India Company).

Bahadur Shah II (August Schoefft, ca. 1854, oil on canvas)

Bahadur Shah II (August Schoefft, ca. 1854, oil on canvas)

Bahadur Shah II was an apt poet, calligrapher, and artist, however he was poor emperor. His father Akbar Shah II had preferred that a more warlike younger son, Mirza Jahangir, should take the throne, but the East Indian Company exiled bellicose prince so that Bahadur Shah II became Emperor in 1837.

The Red Fort in Delhi India

The Red Fort in Delhi India

Although Bahadur truly only ruled the Red Fort—the Mughal palace in Dehli, he was chosen as the nominal head of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 which had started as a mutiny by sepys (Indian troops fighting for the British) but grew into a powerful rebellion to throw the East India Company out of power in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, northern Madhya Pradesh, and Delhi.  The rebellion did succeed in getting rid of the East India Company which was dissolved in 1858.  The British army crushed the revolt and turned authority over India directly to the British crown. After the emperor and his sons were captured, a British calvalry captain named Hodson had Bahadar Shah II’s sons beheaded and then presented the severed heads to the emperor as a mocking Nowrūz day gift.  Upon being presented with this ghastly present, the emperor famously and nonsensically said, “Praise be to Allah, that descendents of Timur always come in front of their fathers in this way.” He was then exiled to Rangoon and the Mughal dynasty was extinguished.  His emerald and gold crown today belongs to the Queen of England who keeps it in her royal collection.

Capture of the King of Delhi by Captain Hodson (steel engraving)

Capture of the King of Delhi by Captain Hodson (steel engraving)

Acoma Pueblo, the most famous Keresan pueblo and the oldest inhabited town in the USA

Acoma Pueblo, the most famous Keresan pueblo and the oldest inhabited town in the USA

When the Spanish arrived in what is now New Mexico and Arizona they found the Pueblo people farming corn, squash, and beans on the dry land.  These native people built villages made up of interconnected multi-storied adobe buildings.  Although different Pueblo groups shared cultural affinity in terms of lifestyle, the languages of different groups and the religious beliefs–were so dissimilar that the Pueblos probably came from diverse backgrounds.

"Corn Dawn Mother" by Marti Fenton

“Corn Dawn Mother” by Marti Fenton

One group, the Keresan Puebloes, believed that all people come originally from Shipap, a realm beneath the ground ruled by the benevolent goddess Iyatiku, who is an underworld goddess, a mother goddess, and a corn goddess all at once.  People emerge from this structured underworld when they are born and they then make their way through the hard arid world.  To help her children through mortal life, Iyatiku annually rips out her own heart and tears it into four pieces which she scatters to the north, south, east, and west where the fragments grow into maize.  Despite Iyatiku’s sacrifice and her care, people do not last in this world: they are murdered or starved or broken.  They grow old and die.  When this happens, they return once more to Iyatiku’s arms in the Shipap, the realm beneath the world where they wait to someday be born again.  
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A Black Smoker Geothermal Vent

A Black Smoker Geothermal Vent

The African Plate and the Indo-Australian Plate meet together deep beneath the surface of the Indian Ocean in a long line of tectonic divergence known as the Central Indian Ridge (CIR).  As new seafloor is created hydrothermal vents pour out molten hot fluids rich with minerals and an alien landscape is formed.  The hot minerals precipitate to form high cylindrical chimneys called smokers and strange communities of life form along these structures.  This ecosystem is entirely based upon chemosynthetic archaea (ancient one-celled life forms which take energy directly from the oxidation of inorganic compounds).  Great communities of eyeless shrimp, giant tubeworms, and annelids support themselves on the archaea.  Among the strange creatures is a very weird gastropod mollusk, the scaly-foot snail (Crysomallon squamiferum), which is different from every other mollusk (and indeed every other animal) because of the material it uses for its bizarre scale-mail armor.

The Scaly Foot Gastropod (Crysomallon squamiferum)

The Scaly Foot Gastropod (Crysomallon squamiferum)

The scaly foot gastropod has an armored foot which is covered in little scales made of iron sulfides.  Additionally the deep-sea snail has a triple layer shell.  The outermost shell layer is composed of iron sulfides, the middle is a thick protein coat, and the inner shell layer is composed of aragonite (a calcium carbonate).

I wish I could tell you more about the habits of this snail but since it is found in super heated water at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, it has not been extensively studied.  However, The US military is interested in the creature as a possible inspiration for next generation composite military armor so maybe we will all learn more about the scaly foot snail.

Detail of the Foot Armor of Crysomallon squamiferum

Detail of the Foot Armor of Crysomallon squamiferum

The First Thanksgiving?

When I was growing up, the Thanksgiving story was simpler.  It revolved around the pilgrims landing in Plymouth and nearly dying of famine and sickness.   They were saved when a helpful native named Squanto taught them how to fish and plant maize (and convinced the Wampanoag tribe to ally with the puritans instead of destroying them).  It never really occurred to me to ask how such a helpful Native-American happened to be on the scene–speaking English, no less.  Where did he learn that?  It turns out that Squanto’s travels to arrive at Plymouth (which was originally his birthplace of Patuxet) were far more epic and heart-rending than those undertaken by the pilgrims.

Squanto’s original name was Tisquantum and he was born in the Patuxet tribe, probably in the 1580’s or 1590’s (there are lots of approximate dates and words like “probably” in Squanto’s biography).   Many historians believe that Tisquantum was taken from North America to England in 1605 by George, Weymouth and then, after spending his youth being “kept” by Sir Ferdinando Gorges, returned with explorer John Smith in 1614.  It is possible that Squanto was separated from a wife and child when he was coerced to Europe, and it is also possible that he had an English wife and children. What is certain is that Tisquantum was one of a group of 27 Native Americans kidnapped by Captain Thomas Hunt in 1614. A devious and cruel slaver, Hunt intended to sell the North Americans for £20 apiece in Malaga, Spain.  Tisquantum escaped–possibly thanks to help from Spanish Friars with whom he lived until 1618.   The friars tried to convert Tisquantum during the time that he lived with them, but his heart yearned for home, and, when the opportunity to travel back to the New World came, he shipped back across the ocean to assist in setting up the Newfoundland colony at Cuper’s Cove (a fur-trading colony set up in 1610).

Recognized by former associates, Tisquantum/Squanto was enlisted to map and explore the New England coast with Thomas Derner.  Finally, in 1619 Tisquantum made it back to his village at Patuxet.  But when he got there he was in for a horrific surprise.  The village had been wiped out by plague (either smallpox or viral hepatitis) and everyone he knew was dead.  Bleached skeletons lay among the fruit bushes and tumbled-down shelters.   Less than a tenth of the original inhabitants of the region survived and what was once a thriving society lay empty and desolate.

As the last of the Patuxets, Squanto moved in with the remnants of a neighboring tribe, the Wampanoags.  Tisquantum told them of the power and strength of the English. When the pilgrims showed up in 1620, he was under house arrest but he was quickly enlisted to translate the negotiations.  Thanks to his accounts of English power, the settlers came to a favorable arrangement with the Wampanoags (although it was obvious that the English were in ragged shape since many had died and the remainder had been reduced to grave robbing from the dead Patuxets).

Massasoit, Chief of the Wampanoags, and his warriors

Squanto was released by the Wampanoags and moved in with the pilgrims. He taught them to properly fertilize their grain so it would grow in New England’s sandy soil.  He showed them how to plant maize and fish for local fish and eels.  He helped them hunt and negotiate with the Wampanoags.  Yet he remained an outsider in the Pilgrim community.  Through abusive threats he earned the enmity of the Wampanoags who became convinced he was trying to usurp the chieftan’s place.  They demanded the pilgrims hand him over for execution but he was saved by the unexpected arrival of the ship Fortune, which provided the pilgrims with a pretext for ignoring the Wampanoag demands.    By the end of his life he was in an ambiguous position—considered an outsider by both groups dwelling in what had been his home.  During a treaty meeting with the Wampanoag he came down with “Indian fever” and began bleeding through his nose (some historians speculate that he was poisoned by the angry Wampanoags).   Squanto was buried in an unmarked grave—after crossing the ocean many times and moving back and forth between different cultures he was at last united with his tribe.

Old-timey Olympics?

The Olympics is continually remade to reflect contemporary taste.  Sports which were once important are gradually abandoned.  Exciting new sports which appeal to younger audiences (or boring old sports which appeal to wealthier audiences) are tried out.  For example, the 2016 Olympics in Rio will feature two new sports—rugby sevens and golf (which has repeatedly been part of the Olympics in the past—and has repeatedly been dropped because it is an unwatchable festival of abject tedium).  The extent to which things have gradually changed becomes apparent when one looks back at the canceled sports of yesteryear, many of which are so anachronistic they seem like Monty Python gags.  The Economist illustrates the point with this delightful chart which features live pigeon shooting, javelin free style, and pistol dueling for teams (!?).  One of the discontinued sports which sounded most exciting to me was club swinging which conjures heady images of hirsute cavepersons belaboring each other with wooden cudgels. Was this the original sport?

Club Swinging?

Alas, my research into club swinging has revealed that the sport was not the Neanderthal free-for-all for which I was hoping (nor even some sort of amoral 70’s party event).  Apparently the “clubs” are those weird elongated bowling pin things that jugglers use.  The club swinger would take these objects and whirl them about his head and trunk in a discipline which combined saber-dancing, juggling, gymnastics, and just plain looking ridiculous. The sport had such a circus appearance that it gave rise to rumors that juggling was once an Olympics sport (which it never was).  Club swinging was also known as Indian club swinging because gifted participants apparently looked like they were taking part in some intricately choreographed Native American ritual.  In the fullness of time club swinging devolved into rhythmic gymnastics, that strange pseudo sport where a young Bulgarian dances and tumbles with a ribbon on a stick (which always makes my poor father apoplectic when he sees it on TV).

Club Swinging

Rhythmic Gymnastics

Club swinging was only a medal event at two Olympics festivals—the Saint Louis Olympics of 1904 and the Los Angeles Olympics of 1932.  Both of these Olympics were dominated by Americans because, in the age before cheap jet travel, the Olympics were not nearly as International as they now are.

“Smokey” the mascot of the 1932 Olympic Games

The 1932 Olympics took place at the high point (or low point?) of the Great Depression and underlines the sad exigencies of those times.  The gold medalist in club swinging was George Roth, an unemployed gymnast who was hit particularly hard by that economic catastrophe (in fact the Guardian reports that he once went 15 days without eating—so he probably looked like today’s gymnasts).  Roth embodied Baron de Coubertin’s ideal of unpaid amateur sports to an unwholesome degree: as soon as he was awarded with his gold medal he left the stadium and sadly hitchhiked home.

George Roth, the last Olympic gold medalist in Club Swinging

Statue of an Apsara Dancing(Unknown artist, Uttar Pradesh, India, Early 12th century)

In both Hindu and Buddhist mythology a group of beautiful & ethereal female spirits inhabit the skies.  These elegant beings are known as apsaras.  They are lesser goddesses of water and clouds.  In classical Indian literature apsaras are often portrayed dancing seductively in the courts of the gods or married to ganharvas—nature spirits who play celestial music for the gods. Both groups of entities are particularly connected with the court of Indra, the god of the skies and storm, and also king of the gods (although that title is less absolute in Hinduism than in other cosmologies).

Rambha Apsara (Kishan Soni, 2012, oil on canvas)

In many myths, apsaras are cast as supporting characters.  They are roughly analogous to nymphs and naiads in Greek mythology or angels in Abrahamic myths.  Indra constantly felt threatened by great ascetics who amassed titanic spiritual and magical power through physical austerity.  One of his favorite ways of dealing with these powerful yogis was to send apsaras to seduce them—which is why many heroes of Indian myth have a sexy apsara as a mother and a crazed hermit as a father!  In addition to being masterful dancers apsaras could alter their form at will (although I can’t think of any story where they were anything other than beautiful).  They also ruled over the vicissitudes of gaming and gambling.

The apsara Menaka seduces the sage Viswamitra

Apsaras can be recognized because of their tiny waists and their pronounced feminine attributes.  Usually they are pictured dancing gracefully, clad (or partially clad) in lovely silk skirts and bedecked with gold jewelry and precious gems.  Often they are gamboling in the skies or playing in the water.  Additionally apsaras tend to be crowned with gorgeous ornate headdresses.

Apsara (stone relief carving at Angkor Wat)

Sculptures of apsaras are frequently a principle component of classical Indian temples and the gorgeous undulating female forms remain a mainstay of Indian art.  These celestial dancers were also particularly esteemed in Southeast Asia. Classical art and architecture from Indonesia, Cambodia, and Laos frequently features the lovely spirits.  Recently a controversy has broken out in the Cambodian community involving contemporary paintings of apsaras which some critics deem too racy for refined tastes.  Ascetics beware!

 

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