India’s Caste System.

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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.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caste_system_in_India

Asian Gothic: Nepal.

If Gothic had been conceived and cultivated in Asia, it would have been under the blessings of Nepal! Reddish and dark subdued colours, fog, carnivorous Gods, elaborate architecture with complex ornaments, stupas with the Buddha’s eyes omnipresent, under the shade of the Himalayan Mountain range, and this terrible memory of the dark 25th of April, 2015 when a massive earthquake stroke the whole country turning everything into ruins and debris. But grief and misery do not belong here and the gods would not have allowed this. The Nepalis are optimist people, modest and decent, working hard to rebuild their fascinating country from its ashes.

Kathmandu is a captivating capital with a magnificent historic (Medieval) centre (Durbar Square). The pavilions and shrines constitute an open-air architectural museum and hidden backstreet courtyards surprise the visitor, same as the vivid festivals and everyday rituals do. The population in Nepal is predominantly Hindu but the Buddhist tradition prevails. Nepal (Lumbini) is the birthplace of Buddha but also home to a wonderful people who warmly receive the traveler and captivate them with their kindness and a smile that comes directly from the heart!

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New Delhi: the Gurunwara Bangla Sahib.

What should really serve as an example to the West is not only how the Indians tolerate but also how they embrace “Otherness”. Despite the fact that almost 80% of the population is Hindu, it comes as a surprise to the traveler how harmoniously they coexist with other ethnic and religious minorities. The secret behind this seems to be the fact that Hinduism is actually NOT a religion: it is a stance and philosophy of life. The Sanatama Dharma (Eternal Law) is rather a fusion of philosophies and traditions based on no particular Holy book or doctrine. And while the West is struggling with the East (and has been doing so ever since the 19th century) and vice versa, while hatred, misunderstanding and two-fold extremism appear to be more heated than ever, in India, conflict is just not an issue!

We discovered the Gurudwara Bangla Sahib near the most prestigious Cartier of New Delhi (Connaught Place). It is one of the most prominent Sikh places of worship, associated with the eighth Sikh Guru, Guru Har Krishan. The Guru resided here in 1664, in a time during a cholera epidemic in Delhi. According to tradition he helped ease the suffering of the locals by offering water from his well. The water is revered as having healing properties and is taken by Sikhs all over the world back to their homes.

The grounds include the Gurudwara, a kitchen, a large (holy) pond, a school and an art gallery. As with all Sikh Gurdwaras, the concept of langar is practiced, and all people, regardless of race or religion may eat in the Gurdwara kitchen (langar hall). The Langar (food) is prepared by gursikhs who work there and also by volunteers who like to help out. At the Gurdwara, visitors are requested to cover their hair and not to wear shoes. Assistance to foreigners and visitors with Guides, head scarves, and shoe-minding service can be found inside the compound and are available free of charge. Anyone can volunteer to help keep the shoes in the shoe-minding room, and cleaning the precincts of the Gurudwara. (Wikipedia).

But what is Sikhism? The Sikh religion was founded by Guru Nanak who was born is 1469. The Guru and his his nine Guru successors set a wonderful example of living spirituality, while yet taking an active and secular part in the social life. Thus, Sikhism is considered among the most recent religions dating back to the 15th century with somewhat 25-28 millions adherents around the world.

Sikhism is all about equality and it emphasizes simran (meditation on the words of the Guru Granth Sahib), that can be expressed musically through kirtan or internally through Nam Japo (repeat God’s name) as a means to feel God’s presence, and to have control over the “Five Thieves” (lust, rage, greed, attachment and conceit). Hand in hand, secular life is considered to be intertwined with the spiritual life.

This pilgrimage site is visited by thousands of people every year-either travelers of followers and is definitely worth the effort to reach!

India, New Delhi: the Akshardham.

Spending on religion on behalf of the governments seems like a rather impossible scenario today, but the Hindus don’t joke when it comes to ritual. The architectural marvel of the Swaminarayan Akshardam goes far beyond any expectation, rising just a bit outside the center of the chaotic Indian capital. Set in a vast 100-acre expanse and inaugurated very recently-only in 2005, it is an exquisite showcase of Indan art, culture and wisdom- tribute to Bhagwan Swaminarayan (1781-1830), a master of intellect and spirituality. “Akshardham” means “the divine abode of the God”, and is dedicated to virtue, devotion, purity, learning and peace. Traditional architecture is echoed not only onto the facade and exteriors but also the indoor marble decorations. 869 peacocks-symbols of beauty and purity, to decorate the interiors and 148 sculpted stone elephants-symbols of might and wisdom are the proud motifs of the edifice. Seated in the center of the Mandir lies the serene 11 ft-high, gold plated murti Bhagwan Swaminarayan, surrounded by 24 Kesha forms of the Divine, sculptures of sadhus and devotees, as well as 500 paramhansas on the pillar tops supporting the circular main chamber. The Akshardham might not be as iconic as the Taj Mahal in Agra is, but can definitely stand as the pride of New Delhi, equal among some of the most significant modern architectural complexes globally…and if the country appears stagnated and struck by poverty and pollution, may it be culture and spirituality that will rise as a glimmer of hope for the future!

 

Notes

 

  • Murti: Any form or embodiment, usually refers to idols or just sculptures of the Indian culture.
  • Sadhu: Religious or ascetic person.
  • Paramhansa: Title of honor addressed to Hindu religious teachers.
  • Photos are not original. Photography is strictly forbidden in the Akshardham site.

India (a short introduction).

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Humans, cows, pigs, and monkeys, rubbish, pollution, dirt everywhere…temples, open markets, endless motion: a chaos by itself in a strange harmony of its own; a shock to the senses…Harsh light, high themperatures, odours; curry succeeded by rotten matter, and then in just a few seconds dung switching into spices again, and then the frangipani flowers..dust everywhere, people driving like crazy-endlessly honking their horns. This is India; a strain to the eye (impossible to fit so sudden alterations of beauty and harshness), a strain to the ear (impossible to deal with the frenzy of noise pollution), a strain to the nose (impossible to tolerate the storming of odours)…and then the people: always smiley – sometimes curious, always gentle and noble in their own way, always humil. Once you strip yourself of your defense mechanisms, you come to realise how little you truly know, and how much there is to learn about this world!

Happy 1396! Nowruz: March 21, 2017. The Iranian New Year’s Eve.

(Shiraz; December 31st, 2015) How strange could this get…December 31st: sitting at a nice restaurant, ready to celebrate New Year’s Eve. The clock strikes 00:00 and ….nothing happens: No fireworks, no bliss, no kissing and wishing around! Just an ordinary night. Iranians do not celebrate New Year’s Eve on the 31st of December! They celebrate it on the 21st of March instead! Nowruz (Persian:  نوروز  , literally “New Day”) is the name of the Iranian New Year. It is of Zoroastrian origin, it has been celebrated over the last 3,000 years and it is the day of the vernal equinox that marks the beginning of spring in the Northern Hemisphere.

Tonight is the night and it is the Iranian New Year’s Eve. The traditional New Year’s Eve dinner is called Haft-Seen. The primary  Haft-Seen items on the table are:

  1. Sabzeh (سبزه) –wheat, barley, mung bean or lentil sprouts growing in a dish – symbolizing rebirth
  2. Samanu(سمنو) –sweet pudding – symbolizing affluence
  3. Senjed(سنجد) – dried Persian Olive – symbolizing love
  4. Seer(سیر) – garlic – symbolizing the medicine and health
  5. Seeb(سیب) – apple – symbolizing beauty
  6. Somaq(سماق) – sumac fruit – symbolizing (the color of) sunrise
  7. Serken(سرکه) – vinegar – symbolizing old age and patience

The following items may also appear on the table as ornaments or for the sake of completeness.

  • A holy book, usually the Holy Qur’an
  • Divan-e Hafez, a Persian poetry book
  • a mirror, represents creation
  • a goldfish in a bowl represents life
  • a low brazier full of fire
  • a lamp
  • sprays of cypress or pine
  • pomegranates
  • painted eggs
  • coins as a symbol of wealth
  • candles for each member of the family
  • a bowl of water
  • wheat or bread

By the way! The Year tonight is…1396!!

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Resources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haft-Seen

Planet Dubai (UAE). دبي

Dubai is a planet in its own Universe. A land of frenetic progress, vanity to the extreme; land of world records, a place that changes every day only to prove that the human potential has no limits. Size matters here, same as height, luxury, speed, ambition.Yes, you can go skiing in the desert, you can admire the dancing fountains, the tallest building in the world (Burj Khalifa) until the next one comes to break the record, you can see the taming of nature in a group of islands in the shape of a miniature world map or that of a gigantic palm tree.

It would take a while for the western eye to get used to the obsession with anything that shines. Dubai is the land where the throne of Globalization lies: untold consumerist activity, malls remaining open until midnight, carefree men, shinny women-covered or not-heavily decorated in the most expensive accessories nonetheless, brands, expensive cars, diamonds everywhere. Does anyone truly work here? Who knows. Workers do, immigrants at most. Dubai really is a paradox: a city-westerner than any European or American city-in the middle of the desert: A city that buried its past in the sand to race among the fastest for the trophies of post-capitalism. But here’s the challenge and here’s the question: Does Dubai suffice to bridge the gaping hole between the East and the West? And if it does, how many “expos” would it take? After all, should this gap between the east and the west ever be bridged to the claim of the western arrogance ever since the 19th century?  Thankfully, the desert is still there; beautiful and original in its myriads of colours. Before you go skiing in Dubai, don’t miss the sunset in the Arabian Desert. Far from the frenzy, as blissful and precious as very few experiences in the middle East.