This year I was blessed enough to travel a lot. The compass kept pointing to the East. I knew very well that it was mysticism that took me to Asia as well as what we call: “the cultural gap”, that is, this impossibility of deep understanding – despite one’s struggle – of the eastern “otherness”. I happen to come from a country that despite its people’s pride, it suffers lack of identity definition both because of its geography and past. This might be a curse because it bears pathogeny on the one hand, but also a blessing because people from such countries might be somehow closer to crossing at least some “suspicion” over this impossibility on the other hand. Yet, western ideas about normality would prevail in everyone’s mind when a European: How inhumaine does it seem to the western eye to see someone incinerate their wife and arrange business on the phone at the same time, or how awkward is it to believe in 2.500 deities at the same time, consider cows to be sacred but still have them eat from rubish bins, how impossible to deify humans with such ease, love for the sake of institution and not for the sake of this “significant other”, spend half one’s meager income on offerings to the gods… Yeah, things are different to us: God is only one, love is for the one I love, and my enlightened Ego is the centre of the universe. In any case the west has been struggling to understand who this “stranger” who lives in the Eastern end is (usually ending up with nasty “superiority complex” conclusions) ever since the 19th century (and a lot earlier maybe – but let’s not stick to this) but I’m not sure if this goes the other way round. I don’t believe that the Asians ever got obsessed about discovering the West.
What about all this fuss with the god(s)? The West has long asserted its freedom from darkness by negating the existence of God. Humanity is progressing and science is providing answers to everything. We’ve got statistics to explain the human behaviour, technology to take us to other planets, and if God existed, pain, suffering and ugliness should not exist. Poverty and inequality should not exist either and children in the Third World should not be starving. If God created the world then who created God? Excuse me the language but this is all bollocks. The West has never been that ugly and miserable and the celebrated individual has never suffered that much, no matter how strongly it claims the glory and infinite capacity of the Ego. Yes, people in the East are poor but they are not unhappy. The only stain in their lives comes in the face of Globalisation. People in Cambodia would be a lot happier without the US dollar having invaded their market. Beaches in Vietnam would be a lot cleaner without tons of plastic bottles and plastic bags in their sea and their forests would still remain pristine without those massive skyscrapers, neon fun parks and hotel chains to cover western tourism needs in the middle of the jungle. You see, people there before the dollar had their gods and they are still struggling to keep them alive unless they finally succumb to temptation and turn them into cheap folklore for the tourists to take home. God is still important in Asia. One is faced with the love (S)He is embraced with by the people in the glorious temples rising literally from the chaos and anarchy of big cities, and He (or She) is there to structure and organize little communities in the countryside. God is Hope and faith to life, keeping people smiling and appreciating the very little they have, feeling blessed for another day to pass. But God is also another thing: it is the only resistance against this frenzy of malevolent neo-liberal (and neo-conservative at the same time) globality looming above their heads – ready to devour every trace of dignity that’s left to them when going to the supermarket, having to buy chips for 3,5 dollars a packet (average monthly salary in Cambodia is around 340 US). There’s probably a lesson for the rest of us to learn by the Asians. We kept God and philosophy separate. They didn’t. But we have science, we need no lessons to learn.
There’s probably no message to get across in this article – only a few scattered thoughts to share. I keep bringing Yann Martel – a very favorite author to my mind. In “Life of Pi” the little boy in Pondicherry keeps seeking for god in all religions. During a family argument and despite his father’s objections, his mother claims (and forgive me for not reproducing): “Science can give answers about the world around us, but it is religion only that can explain the world within”..
Angkor is a stunning complex of temples found in the North-west of Cambodia, proudly holding the title of the largest religious monument in the world with Angkor Wat in its heart! The ultimate fusion of creative ambition and spiritual devotion are a source of inspiration and profound pride to all Khmers (Lonely Planet, 2010). Construction works are estimated to have started in the early 12th century during the dynasty of King Suriavarman II. Angkor Wat was originally a Hinduist temple dedicated to God Vishnu ( Buddhism is the official religion today). The mountain-temple with its surroundings is a representation of the universe with Mt Meru (home to Gods in Hindu mythology) in its center. A surrounding moat that forms a rectangle of 1,5 km by 1,3km dimensions represents the oceans, while an 800m long series of bas-reliefs depicts in anti-clock-wise direction the celebrated scene of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk (Gods and devils, holding the opposite sides of a gargantuan serpent are churning the oceans to extract the elixir of immortality, in a fierce battle). Angkor Wat, almost as large in expanse as many modern European cities, is not only to be admired for the human architectural and artistic ingenuity, but also for the jungle’s fecundity and power: the muscular embrace of century-old trees have entrapped the walls of the Ta Prohm temple ruins for ever, while the 54 towers of the Bayon temple are decorated with 216 gigantic carved heads of lord Avalokiteshvara glaring down at every angle of the horizon.
It seems that Angkor Wat is more than an emblematic monument appearing on the Cambodian flag, hotels names, beer and water bottles as well as innumerable products on the supermarket shelves. It is a symbol to hold on to, for a people who has gone through a lot: the Khmer Rouge is a dark page in their history, still bleeding as much as the memory of the Nazi concentration camps in Europe, and if the Cambodians are not that smiley as other Asian peoples would be, is because of the memory of famine, a civil war, loads of decades of oppression and political instability in a country that managed to have parliamentary elections only in 2008. They say that quality of life has improved, but food is definitely not to be taken for granted for everyone here, inflation is extremely high and social inequalities very obvious.
This is the most captivating, most picturesque, romantic and chic Vietnamese city – no doubt! The Thu Bon River used to be a glorious international trading port back in the 17th century. Traces of the Chinese, Japanese and European influence are omnipresent – “written” on the splendid, local architecture. We’re in the South now and the visitor can sense the difference in the air between the cities of he North and the Southern ones; communication can be a challenge; hardly do people speak English, but they are easier to approach, more friendly and welcoming. This is a city of good taste: Excellent cafes and restaurants, a very interesting night market, food, crafts, arts and entertainment. Hoi An makes the traveler wish to pay their respects. Walks across the river can be rather annoying at nights – the river banks can get inundated with tourists but the lantern-lit Hoi An streets are not to be missed. The entire Vietnam seems to be an adventure travel experience, but Hoi An is the gentle face of it..
Wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning and don’t miss this miracle unfolding before your eyes! People wake up before the city does (shops, morning shifts etc.) and reach for the Hoan Kiem Lake to meditate, take their morning exercise, play: dance, yoga, cycling, fishing, aerobics, weight lifting, chess, massage! Same at dusk! Children inundate the streets to share their toys or improvised game. Children truly play here. You see, video games and technology have not really reached Vietnam yet. The locals are very humble people, very discreet and hard working. They love animals and respect plants. They seem to be tolerant to the western code and they will respect the visitors if the latter leave their attitude back home. It feels that to the Vietnamese there is ritual in everything. The Hoan Kiem Lake, which means “Sword Restored”, is the liquid heart of the Old Quartier (Lonely Planet 2010) with its tiny but emblematic to the city Thap Rua (Tortoise Tower). There’s a beautiful legend around it: in the 15th century the Gods sent a heavenly sword to the emperor Ly Thai To, which he used to drive the Chinese out of Vietnam. One day while he was resting in the banks of the Hoam Kien lake, a giant tortoise swimming on the surface, grabbed the sword and disappeared into the waters! Now you know why the name!
India is probably the most complex society in the world. The country is growing fast but traditional views that would appear as rather obsolete today still persist. Among those, and when it comes to the caste system –even though outlawed ever since the 1950s –segregation and discrimination are still in place, looming above perceptions about class.
Τhe Caste System, or else Jati System has existed in India for more than 2,000 years with its roots holding in ancient Hinduist traditions. According to those, four distinct social classes constituted society with the Brahmins (Priests and Scholars) in the most prestigious place, followed by the Ksatriyas (Nobles and Warriors), the Vaisyas (bussiness owners) and Shudras (workers and servants). But distinction does not stop there; there is this fifth caste under the name Dalit (or else Untouchables), ostracized from the rest of society, considered impure –not to be touched– limited to heavy undesirable jobs outside the urban centres. The Dalit are disgraceful, suffering their fate, punished for the nasty life they led in their previous incarnation. Themselves, they suffer their stigma, fully aware of their condition, stoically accepting their present as a passage to the next incarnation, longing for the end of their martyrdom. Under no circumstances would a Dalit marry a spouse from another caste or share neither private nor public life with them.
The caste system was written into the laws of the British India during year 1947 and became even more rigid ever since its acquisition of formal institutional status. It was in 1955 when the caste system was outlawed and integration of the Dalits into society became part of governmental planning. In the meanwhile large numbers of the Dalit population had converted into Islam in quest of escape from the stigma.
Since 1950s, the country has enacted many laws and social initiatives to protect and improve the socioeconomic conditions of its lower caste population. A 2003 article in The Telegraph claimed that inter-caste marriage and dating were common in urban India. Indian societal and family relationships are changing because of female literacy and education, women at work, urbanisation, the need for two-income families, and global influences through television. Female role models in politics, academia, journalism, business, and India’s feminist movement have accelerated the change.