ANAMIKA

'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Friday, February 25, 2011

'He of the Two Horns'

In recent weeks, I read a bit about Mohenjodaro and stuff, a very old interest rekindled by a visit to the National Museum in Delhi.

There is this mysterious Indus seal showing a three headed male human figure sitting cross-legged with animals in attendance. Here it is: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Shiva_Pashupati.jpg. Several scholars have claimed it to be a proto-Siva in his Pasupati (lord of the beasts) form. That he is ithyphallic supports this claim. But this view is not universally accepted and is sometimes even opposed on an ideological plane as a Hindu Nationalist attempt to appropriate Indus into Hinduism. I am not into taking sides in this quarrel; but I do find a view from the 'other' side interesting, trying to identify this mysterious figure with 'Zulqarnain', a mid-eastern legendary hero. This theory is based on an extravagant pair of horns that he wears (or have sprouted from his head).

Wiki defines 'Zulqarnain' thus: "a (heroic) figure mentioned in the Qur'an, the sacred scripture of Islam, where he is described as a great and righteous ruler who built a long wall that keeps Gog and Magog from attacking the people who he met on his journey to the east (ie, the rising of the sun).... According to a classical interpretation, the name is due to his having reached the two 'Horns' of the Sun, east and west, where it rises and where it sets" during his campaign...

Wiki goes on to say: "Arabic ذو القرنين ḏū al-qarnayni literally translates to "possesor of the two horns". ذو ḏū means "owner". The construction is semantically weakened, however, and a better translation would be "having, possessing, endowed with".[3] القرنين al-qarnayni is the definite genitive dual of قرن qarnu "horn"; thus, "he who is endowed with the two horns".".

Secular scholars have identified Zulqarnain with either Alexander the Great or Cyrus the Great; both these guys lived in the first few centuries BC and post-date the Mohenjodaro seal by a good two millennia. So, the theory that it is him on the seal is certainly non-standard.

I have a further question: Does Zulqarnain refer to 'two horns' or 'both horns'? I don't know if Arabic has a word for 'both' (Hindi for example as 'donon' for 'both' and the Sanskrit 'ubhayam' also probably has a similar meaning. My own Malayalam has no such specific word). Whatever, 'both' makes better sense (irrespective of whether the horns refer to some abstraction or to cranial protuberances). Indeed, having a single horn can be a defining characteristic of some being (the unicorn or the Indian rhino); having three horns is defining enough as well (the 'triceratops'); but two is the 'default' number of horns and saying 'the one with two horns' is too weak and vague for a definition, just like saying someone is 'two-eyed' (a silly Mallu film from the early 1990's has a thug character 'Two-eyed Kuttappan'; the hero of the story mocks the thug specifically for his idiotic nickname - before thrashing the lights out of him). So, imo, 'the one who has (acquired) BOTH horns (of the Sun or whosever)' sounds a lot correcter than 'the one with two horns'.

Somewhere during this exploration, I was reminded of Moses. The famous statue of the formidable prophet by Michelangelo has several peculiarities, the most documented being those little horns (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michelangelo%27s_Moses). Enough has already been written how the Mosaic horns were the product of a mis-translation. Aside: The horns notwithstanding, the most remarkable thing about the statue is that Michelangelo has bestowed upon Moses a very generous amount of clothing, including a sort of 'baniyan'!

Although such a possibility is not inconceivable, I don't know of any speculations identifying Zulqarnain with Moses. However, while searching for such theories, I found the following episode, adapted from the Scripture.

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Prophet Moses had grown old. The angel of Death came to fetch him. The two fought and Moses bashed up the angel, who went and complained to God: "Lord, when I asked Moses to drop everything and come with me, he refused to lie down and die - and gave me a black eye!"

God the Father spoke to Moses: "Fine. Put your palm on the back of an ox and as many hairs as come under it, you will live for that many years!"

Moses asked: "And after that, what happens, My Lord?"

God said: "Death"

And Moses said: "Enough! Take me right away!"
...

And when Moses had been taken away, God the Father said: "I made him an offer he couldn't accept!"

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Note: this episode is rather similar in spirit to a legendary Keralan Hero trying to get goddess Kali to tweak his lifespan (I wrote about it sometime back).

Zulqarnain is quite an uncommon given name. I know of only two guys with it - both are Pakistanis; coincidentally, both have played for the Pakistan cricket team; and remarkably, both are wicket-keepers. One was active in the mid-1980s and the other quite recently. The earlier Zul was short, stocky and bearded; the latter, tall, lean and usually clean-shaven. Both had very short careers with the national team. Zul-1 appears prominently in photos of the Pak cricket team celebrating the Australasia cup (THAT last ball six match) and Zul-2 was prominently in the news for some high-risk whistle-blowing against match-fixers but is now totally out of the limelight.

Update (February 2012): Parallel to Ramzan-Ramadhan-Ramadan, an alternative spelling of Zulqarnain could be Dhulqarnain/Dulqarnain. This implies that the name of up and coming Malayalam film star Dulqar Salman may be a derivative of this Arabic name. But 'Nitpicker' feels the name 'Dulqar' could be a mistake since Dulqarnain ought to be analyzed as "Dul + Qarnain" and not "Dulqar + Nain".

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Bishnupur

A photo showing a stretch of laterite terrain, gently undulating. In no apparent order, stood a few brick-built structures; all were about the same size and had the same plan - a square base surmounted by a sort of dome, not hemispherical but paraboloidal. The picture came with a question as to the function of those buildings. One ventured: "Not sure, but they look like tombs, you know, like those Qutub Shahi tombs in Hyde." And then came the answer: "They are not tombs but temples, all dedicated to Krishna! And the place is Bishnupur, not all that far from your Cal!"

The other day, I was feeling bored. Then I remembered Bishnupur and checked online and saw there were seats free on the Rupasi Bangla Express leaving Howrah early next day; that was that.

The train started on time but ran into severe fog and took nearly 3 hours to reach Kharagpur. Thereon, the weather cleared up and warmed up (and the surrounding countryside grew more rustic). The sun was blazing away when I got down at Bishnupur at 11 (proper winter and proper summer the very same day at pretty much the same place!).

Very brief history: Bishnupur was the capital of the Malla kings, who were Vishnu-Krishna-Radha devotees and built these temples starting from around 1600 AD to around 1800. The temples are of either brick masonry or laterite (abundant in the area); some have laterite plinths and brick superstructures. The laterite temples usually had white stucco coats - most of which have worn off with time. Some brick temples are profusely embellished with terracotta reliefs. They also incorporate structural arches formed with special wedge-shaped bricks.

Let me first issue a couple of warnings to those who want to go to Bishnupur. The Archeological Survey's guide book has a map which is accurate with shapes and orientations but has the distances off-scale by a factor of almost 3! And mid-Feb is not the time to visit the place, unless one plans to be there in the morning or evening. I ended up being on my feet continuously for 5 hours and some in the hottest part of the day and towards the end, was beginning to cramp up and feel faint. There is another reason to avoid my kind of day-trip from Cal. Red is the dominant color of all these temples and it can acquire a magical hue in twilight. And midday glare is hardly the right kind of illumination for examining *anything*.

About half a dozen of the temples are clumped within a quarter kilometer radius (the ones in the photo mentioned above) and located to the south of a vast lake called Lal-Bandh. And there are well over a dozen more of impressive ones (more impressive than the ones in the cluster). But they are strung out in a 3-4 km arc along the eastern rim of the town (the railway line is its western limit); several are located among modern dwellings and need a certain amount of asking around to reach. Pictures of all temples mentioned below can be seen on the Wikitravel page on Bishnupur.

Impressions:

1. 'Ras Manch' is said to be a kind of permanent 'festival pandal' with a square laterite plinth, thick brick pillars and a curious pyramidal roof - indeed, the pandals made at Belur Math for the various Pujas have a similar outward appearance. But then the Manch is very different - there is no hall within but only narrow passages among the pillars and walls. In there, it was refreshingly cool.

2. The 17th century 'Shyam Raya' temple has a square plan, a central pinnacle and 4 auxiliary towers at the 4 corners. This plan is called the 'pancharatna' (5 jewels). In front-view, with the central pinnacle and two flanking towers, the building has an unmistakable latin-church look. This may not really be an accident because the Portuguese had built a church at Bandel (only 150 km away) in 1599 and that could have influenced the Mallas. In that case, the Mallas deserve credit for being the only Indian Natives to adapt European religious architecture to achieve something really non-trivial - Konkani temples, with their long halls and bell towers are, to me, more imitation-European than creative.

Note: The other temples in Bishnupur have only the central pinnacle. The much more modern Dakshineswar temple in Cal has 9 pinnacles - a central summit surrounded by two concentric squares of towers, a style called a navaratna (9 jewels) - and when I first saw it a year ago, I had thought it looked very 'churchy' and recorded the impression in an earlier post here.

3. The 'Jod-Bangla' temple is remarkable for its shape - a scaled up copy in brick of a pair of thatched huts standing abreast. The walls are covered with impressive terracotta reliefs. The Avataras, Krishna's adventures and escapades... Then there are hunting scenes, other genre scenes. Then one sees Ganesha, Kartikeya, Vishnu himself riding Garuda all engaged in single combat with human looking adversaries (the only violent Ganesha I have seen, apart from some specimens in Ganesh-Utsav pandals in Maharashtra). Ducks, lions and elephants are recurring motifs; somewhere I saw a badly done camel too.

It was probably Howard Roark who said the classical Greek architecture is not really great but fundamentally flawed in that it merely reworked in stone, patterns earlier developed in and for another very different medium - timber (I have not read 'Fountainhead' properly; whatever of it that I did read was not particularly likable either). By the same token, the Jor-Bangla is no big deal, copying in brick+terracotta the mud-built and straw-thatched shrines from a more distant past. Very personally speaking, this temple brought back distant memories of a house of made of chocolate and biscuits which I had read in some European fairy tale.

The above 3 buildings apart, most Bishnupur temples are of the square plan - paraboloidal pinnacle type. But overall, this place has a near-unparalleled range of religious architectural designs - even the complex at Pattadakal, though much richer in art, has less architectural variety.

4. I also saw two 'unrestored' temples - with grass and even gnarled trees having sprouted from all over their structures. There was something very romantic about them and I think it would be a good idea and a non-trivial challenge to preserve them in their present state (retain the trees but ensure that they don't collapse the temples) - am reminded of the photo of a colossal Buddha face from Angkor Wat being 'strangled' by the roots of a fig tree.

5. Two 'chariot shrines', one standing next to a bigger temple in the above cluster, one alone, next to a small pond, among hutments. Both are scaled down copies of single-pinnacle temples and are around 6-8 feet in height. These have wheels meant to give the chariot look but they never seem to have been movable - the wheels are too small and few in number for that. There is a mystery here: on the one hand, there are full and grand temples - like the Konark temple or the Airavateswara temple at Darasuram - which are decorated with wheels and made to look like chariots; and on the other hand, there are proper 'rathas' (many of which are in the South) built like temples but with big and massive wheels which allow them to be actually pulled around by devotees. So, rather than make temples that can move or attach wheels as pure decorations to big and static temples, why did these guys build miniature temples with non-functional wheels?

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Bishnupur is an underdeveloped and dusty rural backwater. The roads are narrow, irregular and poorly surfaced with open drains and gutters and heaps of rubbish all over (the worst being mixtures of shaving cream and human hair heaped near the many barber shops). Beneath some of the sparse tree population sit crowds of clay images, including stylized Bankura horses(*); these seem to be in active worship. Stray dogs abound, many in particularly wretched health (and I nearly stepped on the carcass of a freshly-stillborn pup) but mercifully there are no filthy pigs. The town has a large number of ponds (including the Lal-Bandh, named after a legendary royal concubine by name Lal Bai, who committed suicide in it) - encroached upon by weeds, their banks strewn with decaying remnants of recently held pujas. Right thru the day, one sees women walking home from a dip, draped in dripping sarees. This recurrent picture has no sensual lyricism about it or soft folds of greenery to frame it (as was the case in Satyajit Ray's 'Ashani Sanket') - just harsh, impoverished everyday reality.

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(*) - the famous 'Bankura horses' (Bishnupur is in the Bankura district) look very similar to the equally stylized Ayyanar horses of Tamil Nadu but are usually smaller in size and are seldom colored. Let me also record a personal memory with clay horses. Long ago, there used to be a children's book 'Dul-dul, the magic clay horse' (inspired by Bankura?). I never read or possessed it but do remember asking Pop, showing him the cover - 'This horse looks like an ass!'

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

'The Loop' - Published!

The latest on 'The Loop': it was released as a book a few months ago by Writers' Workshop, Kolkata.
The details are here: http://writersworkshopindia.com/modules/booklists/singlelink.php?cid=3&lid=772

Continuing some earlier posts on the work, I record some responses already generated by the book.
As for how it has sold, jump to the end of this post.

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- "Quite a remarkable book. Read it fascinatedly in a single sitting. Great stuff!"

- "Very accurate in its recreation of modern corporate reality. It ought to be brought out as a low-cost edition so it could be used as a serious case-study in Business schools"

- "Awfully bad. A depressing, joyless story! As literature, it fails on every conceivable count - pretentious parodies of masterpieces, a slew of ham-fisted allusions, clunky dialog, irritatingly pedantic footnotes and above all, an overpowering stench of self-pity. The author evidently takes himself too seriously!"

- "A real double success - a truly humorous story on the one hand and a searing look at the perils and ups and downs of students in academia/younger people in the corporate world. Look forward to more!"

- "An amazingly articulate work! I approached it with a lot of apprehension but am now a fan, plain and simple! I need to congratulate not only the author but the publishers too, they have identified and backed a real talent."

- "A total dud, dead in water I would say. Sadly, you (the author) think the work is a masterpiece - it reminds me of how a she-monkey would cling to its dead child's carcass and won't let go! Well, it is not all bad, the book has a nice and pithy name. But that IS that!"

- "The story has got a real flow of its own - grips you tight and the pace never slackens till the end. I liked the unusual format too - it leaves so much for the reader to recreate, to ponder. Some serious talent!"

- "I enjoyed 'The Loop'; but it is not for everyone. Begins with a bang - the Hercules adventure, marvelously recreated. Then things meander through a rather banal contemporary story which really does not add much to the prologue -less is more, as they say! And it lacks drama - there are no exciting twists..."

- "It kept me wide awake till I finished. Amazing narration, no Olympian tragedies but banal, little 'Duhkhas' of day-to-day Human existence. For a serious spiritual seeker, there is plenty to contemplate in this work!"

- "I could not get beyond page 20. I hated the footnotes - they are so patronizing, like "Come, let me teach you what 'algorithm' means!" Get a life, people know more than you think they know!... And the first episode was a show of sickening masochism. Come, s***w me, types - Very Indian!"

- "Really lives up to the initial promise - even 'a story where nobody dies' call tell us one hell of a lot!"

- "The same old, boring story - the rat-race, the suffering. What's new?"
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About the sales: The publisher informs me "perhaps a couple" of copies have been sold.
For Readers who might just want to know more, I can be reached at 'theloopauthoratgmaildotcom'.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

"Where To?"

"Where to next, Maashe?" asked Madhavan Nair (draining off his glass).

"WHERE TO?! That's precisely the question I too have been pondering, all these years!" Ravi replied.

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Recently, I was at home in Kerala. My Old Man asked me to fish out 'Legends of Khasak' from our chaotic library. "I think I should read it." he says: "Tried so many times but somehow never progressed much. Once more!".

Finding the severely worn book took a while. I opened it 'generally' and saw the above lines. "Spot on!" I said to myself(*)

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A scholar-critic asked me the other day: "What would you say is the unifying theme of your blog?"

My answer went thus: "Each post begins with something and goes on to some other things and so on. Indeed, not only does each post digress a lot; each post, in itself, is a digression - but I dunno from what main theme. Like ... there is this big banyan tree in the Shalimar Botanical Garden. You see only branches and their branches and so on spreading all over the place, but there is no main body - it probably withered away long ago..."

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Over last weekend I watched nearly half a dozen Ray movies (won't even name them). With each movie, I felt a progressively more intense urge to smoke. And late yesterday night, the craving got so overpowering I stole to a colleague's desk and flicked a fag. Lighting the damn thing entailed further adventures which I won't relate.

Thus, I stole my first cigarette - not in teenage from Pop's pocket as chaps of my generation normally did but in middle age from someone half a generation younger. My Readers, this confession is likely to stay a secret between you and me. I doubt if the affected party will ever know. He is very unlikely to read this post - and I won't tell him!

And thus, the journey continues. "Change is the only constant" does not quite apply to mine. For example, after all these years, I still like my drink - shaken or stirred (although I don't quite go as far as one of our truly eminent scientists who declared on his homepage: "I drink only once a day, and I always enjoy it!").

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(*) Keralites sometimes employ a home-spun divination technique: open some holy text at random and read the first line (or from the seventh letter on the seventh line) on that page; for a generation and a half of Mallus, Khasak has not been any less holy than any other text.