Thursday, 27 April 2017

The Prince of Ayodhaya & Ramayana

The stories about Rama, the prince of Ayodhaya in north India, trace their roots in the oral traditions of antiquity. From India, the stories of Rama spread to neighbouring countries. Even today, the echoes of the stories about Rama's life are part of living cultural traditions of India, Nepal, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.


This post presents some of my favourite images related to Ramayana, the story of Rama.

Rama's Story

The central theme of Rama's story is that of obedience and respect of the parents. The widespread enduring popularity of this story after so many centuries continues to surprise people.

Rama was a prince, the eldest son of king Dasharath of Ayodhaya in north India. He married princess Sita.


However when the time came for Rama to become the king of Ayodhaya, there was a problem. His step-mother Kekayi wanted her son Bharat to be the king.

King Dashrath had three wives. Kekayi was his youngest wife. She asked the king to send Rama to exile for 14 years and in his place, install Bharat as the king of Ayodhaya. The old king was bound to Kakayi by an old vow and was forced to accept her request, even if he felt that it was unjust.

Rama assured his father that he will obey and live in exile for 14 years. His wife Sita and another borther, Laxman, decided to follow him in his exile. The old king died. Bharat, who was away and did not know what had happened, came back to Ayodhaya and discovered that he was supposed to be the king. He refused and instead went to the forest to seek Rama and asked him to come back.

However, Rama said that he had promised their father to live in exile for 14 years and he can not break his promise. Thus, Bharat went back to Ayodhaya and governed it as a caretaker king, waiting for Rama to come back.


In the forest, Sita was kidnapped by the Rakshas king Ravan. With the help of the Ape king Sugriva, his Ape army and the Ape warrior Hanuman, Rama foght with Ravan and killed him. In the mean time 14 years had passed and thus, Rama returned to Ayodhaya and became the king.

Other Characters from Ramayana

While the images above are about Prince Rama, his Sita and his younger brother Laxman, below you will find some images of other characters in Ramayana.

Rakshas king Ravan: People unfamiliar with Indian way of reasoning, think of the Ravan as a kind of demon. However, in Ramayana, Ravan is also a learned Brahmin and there is a tradition to praying to him. The image of Ravana below is from Kalakshetra in Guwahati (India).


Hanuman and the Ape army: Hanuman is the chief helper and supporter of Rama. He is the son of the wind god and can fly. He is also considered as the patron saint and defender of unmarried young men, to whom he teaches celibacy. The image of Hanuman below is from a Ramlila procession in old Delhi (India).

Here is  another image of Hanuman from a Kathakkali performance in Bologna (Italy).

Jatayu Garuda: The Garuda bird named Jatayu is a friend of Rama in the forest. He tries to save Sita from the kidnapping. Below you will find images of his sculptures from Assam (India) and Bangkok (Thailand). Garuda is also the name of the Indonesian airlines.


Kevat, the boat man: Ramayana has different characters of simple tribal persons such as Kevat, the boat man, who play an important role in the story. During Rama's exile from Ayodhaya, Kevat organises their crossing of the river Sarayu. The image below has Kevat and Prince Rama from a Ramlila in a village in Gurgaon, not far from Delhi (India).


Rama's Stories in Different Languages

The oral history traditions of India credit a sage-poet called Valmiki for having written the first version of Ramayana. Valmiki's Ramayana was written in the ancient Indic language Sanskrit and has 24,000 sholokas (verses) divided into seven chapters.

Another version of Ramayana written in Avadhi, a dialect of Hindi, in the 16th century called "Ram Charit Manas" made it more accessible to common persons. This was written by Tulsidas Goswami. It is commonly read aloud in village squares and along the rivers in different parts of India. The image below is from Varanasi where Ram Charit Manas is being recited on the banks of river Ganges.


Each language of India has its own version of Ramayana. For example, Shri Ranganatha Ramayana in Telugu, Katha Ramayana in Assamese, Tulsi Krita Ramayana in Gujarati and Dandi Ramayana in Oriya.

Outside India, Indoensia has Kakawin Ramayana, Thailand has Ramakien, Cambodia has Reamker, Laos has Phra Lak Phra Lam, Myanmar has Yamayana and Sri Lanka has Janakiharan. In Nepal, the Dashain festival celebrating the win of Rama and the defeat of Ravan is the most important religious event in their calendar.

In Thailand, the kings take on the name of Rama and the ancient capital of Thailand was called Ayutthaya. Many Asian countries have living traditions of presenting the Ramayana stories through dance, theatre, puppets and other art forms. The image below has Rama, Sita and Laxman from Thailand.


In India, many Hindu homes have a copy of Ramcharit Manas. In villages there are traditions of singing parts of Ramayana during festive occasions. In autumn each year, India celebrates the ten days of Dusshera, symbolising the ten days of war between Rama and Ravan, described in Ramayana. During these ten days, towns and villages organise popular plays called Ramlila, to present the story of Ramayana. Most images of Rama in this post are from these Ramlila celebrations.

The tenth day of Dusshera, coincides with the death of Ravan, and is celebrated as Vijaya Dakshmi. Twenty days later, the return of Rama to his kingdom in Ayodhaya is celebrated as Diwali, the festival of lights.

Even the other Indic religions, including Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism include references to the stories of Rama. For example, the stories about Buddha describe him as a prince of Ishvaku dynasty, the dynasty of Rama in Ramayana.

Perhaps the first oral traditions of Ramayana had started when the urban settlements and agriculture were still new and the memories of ancient hunter-gatherer societies was still alive. Rama's exile in the forest to the hunter-gatherer way of living must have touched deep feelings of identification in the persons.


Thus, the story of Rama, a tradition going back at least a few thousand years ago, still continues to resonate with millions of persons around different countries. Rama is considered an Avatar of Vishnu and Ramayana is part of the sacred texts of India. Even today persons in rural India greet each other with a "Ram-Ram" and say goodbye with a "Jai Ramji ki". The name of Rama was also there in the last words of Mahatma Gandhi when he was shot and killed, he died saying "Hey Ram".

Conclusions

As a child, I grew up in the narrow streets of Old Delhi. Reading the stories of Ramayana in a children's magazine called "Chandamama" and listening to the chowpais (verses) of Ram Charit Manas in community readings in the neighbourhood.

Why did Rama's story had such a deep impact on the communities in India and other Asian countries? One of the reasons could be that its values - love and respect for the parents, obedience, respect for brothers, were all values necessary for the survival of agricultural societies based on extended family systems. Thus, the story found acceptance in different countries of Asia. (Another image of Thailand Ramayana below).


Another aspect of Ramayana is the understanding about the spiritual dimension of life along with renunciation of material comforts and living in isolation, which is also seen in Prince Gautama's abandonment of his palace and his wanderings in the forest to become Buddha. Material comforts versus renunciation is a common and enduring theme of different Indic religions, sacred stories and mythologies.

Ramayana and the story of the prince of Ayodhaya has survived for centuries, growing like a tree with a common root but branches going in different directions.


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Tuesday, 25 April 2017

The Beautiful Twin Castles of Duino

Duino is a tiny town in the north-east of Italy. It is famous for its two castles built close to each other on the rocky cliffs along the Bay of Trieste - a new castle and the ruins of an old castle. It is an amazing place.


Duino is not very far from Miramare castle of Trieste, close to Italy's border with Slovenia and Austria. If you are visiting this part of Italy, do not miss a visit to these beautiful castles.

Brief History of the Duino Castles

The first castle of Duino was built in the 10th century while the second castle was built in 14th century. The second castle was built on a nearby cliff which had the ruins of a Roman tower. Today the old castle is reduced to ruins, while over the centuries the new castle has expanded with new buildings.

Over the years, the castle belonged to Walsee family, Hapsburg family, von Hofer family and the present owners, Thurn and Taxis family. Since 2003, the castle has been opened to public.


In 1911-12 the well known romantic poet Rainer Maria Rilke stayed here and started writing his famous "Elegies of Duino".

The castle is a mixture of styles and periods. It was damaged during the first World War and then renovated. During the second World War, the castle was occupied by the Germans.

Bunkers of the Duino Castle

Underneath the castle a long cave was excavated in 1943 by the forced labour of the German army. The entrance to this cave is hidden in the park outside the castle. This 18 meters deep and 400 sq. meters long cave was used as a bunker by the Germans during the II World War. A canon was placed here facing the bay of Trieste.


In the summer of 1944, a training course for the Italian under-officials was organised in this bunker. The diary kept by the students of this course gives an idea of the life in the bunker in those days. The image below presents an illustration from that diary showing a march of the German soldiers.


Visiting the bunker means going up and down a large number of stairs, but it is worth it.

Visiting the Duino Castle

The castle is full of rooms showing rich tapestries, brocades, period furniture, art objects from different parts of the world, violins, books and other things of the previous owners.


Its walls have many portraits of persons from the European noble families.


The castle includes a tower with rooms at the top and the possibility of visiting the rooftop terrace from where you can see the whole castle as well as the surrounding areas and the bay of Trieste.


The tower hosts a museum and exhibitions. When we visited it had an exhibition of Rilke and on the life in the early days of 20th century which led to the first world war. The image below shows a part of the castle seen from the rooftop terrace of the tower.


Gardens of the Duino Castle

The castle has gardens at different levels, going up and down, full of fountains and sculptures.


The Old Castle of Duino

A path from the garden of the castle goes towards the ruins of the old castle, hugging the rocks of the cliff with the sea below.


Entry to the old castle ruins is forbidden. It does look very dangerous and, at the same time, very romantic!


Legend of the White Lady of Duino

There is an old legend according to which, long time back a cruel man had pushed his wife down into the sea from the cliffs of Duino and God had turned that woman into a small white island. This is the legend of the Dama Bianca (white lady) island close to the cliffs of Duino.


Holidays in Duino

Dunio can be a wonderful place for holidays. It has many hotels. The whole area is full of hiking, fishing and cycling tracks. For example, you can follow the walking track named after Rilke, where the poet had received the inspiration for the first line of his Duino Elegies during a walk.

There are many places to visit nearby including Cernizza forest, Fisherman's village and San Giovanni in Tuba basilica.


There is also a beach close to Duino castle. People also go out for boating and canoeing in the Bay of Trieste.


Conclusions

Like the Miramare castle of the Hapsburg family, the castle of Duino is a tiny jewel surrounded by the green creepers and emerald blue waters of the bay of Trieste. The ruins of the old castle on the rocky cliffs of Duino are absolutely amazing. If you are visiting this part of Italy, do not miss Duino!

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Thursday, 20 April 2017

The Old World Charm of Fort Kochi

Fort Kochi with its mixture of Kerala, Portuguese, Dutch and British traditions, and flavoured by an enchanting sea coast, is one of the most charming places in South India. Staying in Fort Kochi is pleasantly disorienting - a traditional mix of Indian culture, colours and spices is transplanted against the backdrop of colonial architecture.


This first part of a post on Fort Kochi focuses on general information, seaside and religious places to visit. The second part of this post will look at art, culture and day-trips opportunities in Fort Kochi.

Brief History of Kochi

The Malabar coast in the western side of south India was a famous maritime centre even before the Roman empire. Artifacts from 2500 BCE found in what was ancient Sumer, mention the famous port of Muziris on the Malabar coast. Kochi (Cochin) is a part of that maritime tradition. In its culture and in its people, it carries the signs of intermingling of people from distant lands over thousands of years.


Kochi was the site of the first European settlement in India when the Portuguese arrived here in 1503 and were given permission to establish their trading post. Gradually, over the next decades, the Portuguese became very powerful and came to control even the king of Kochi.

In 1663 Kochi came under the Dutch rule. The Dutch were defeated by the Mysore king Hyder Ali in 1773. In 1814 Kochi came under the British and remained under them till India's independence in 1947.

Sea trade of spices was an important part of activities of the Europeans. They all created their trading warehouses in Fort Kochi and in the neighbouring Mattancherry, small seaside areas in the city of Kochi.

Staying in Fort Kochi

Fort Kochi with its colonial architecture, old houses and quaint streets is a fascinating place for holidays. It is full of small and big hotels as well as home-stays.


Restaurants here offer a wide variety of eating choices. And, the seaside promenade offers leisurely walks along the sea. My favourite places for eating out in Fort Kochi included Annapurna near the bus stand for vegetarian food, Rossetta Wood Castle on Rose street for north Indian and Tandoori cooking, and the Tibetan restaurant near Santa Cruz Basilica for their momos (dumplings), noodles and soups.

However, if you like a beer with your food, the choices are rather limited outside the big hotels. The only place for a beer that I discovered was the XL restaurant on Rose Street near the sea. There is a wine and liquor store behind the XL restaurant, but it is a seedy looking place.

Kochi international airport is about 50 km from For Kochi while the main railway station is in the twin city of Ernakulam. The most convenient way to reach Fort Kochi from the airport is to take the orange-coloured AC bus of KSRTC starting from the airport.

Seaside Walk and Monuments

The huge cantilevered Chinese fishing nets along the sea coast are a symbol of Fort Kochi. These were introduced in Kochi around the end of 14th century. I have also seen similar home-made systems of fishing nets in Assam in the north-east of India. With seagulls and other birds hoping to get some of the fish caught by the fishermen, this area is usually full of persons clicking pictures.


Close to the Chinese fishing nets starts a promenade along the sea-coast, where you can admire the sea waves breaking against the boulders, beautiful sunsets and a refreshing breeze for most of the day. At the same time, you can also admire the seaside colonial houses, many of which have been restored beautifully.

Along the seaside promenade, you can see some remains of the old Fort Emanuel built by the Portuguese in the 16th century. An old canon marks this place (in the image below).


A little further down from the ruins of Fort Emanuel, there is the Dutch cemetery. The place looks abandoned and the cemetery gate is locked. However, along the cemetery wall, some persons have placed some stones, from where you can still see inside the cemetery (in the image below).


Along the seaside promenade, there are a couple of small beaches, usually very crowded on the weekends. However, the sea is often very rough and swimming here is not advised. Though some persons do take bath here but they usually stick close to the beach.


Along the seaside promenade, there is a beautiful art installation called Fish Cemetery to create awareness about the environment and pollution (in the image below).


Along the promenade, in the evenings, the local families come out for a walk. Roadside stalls along the promenade sell ice creams and trinkets, as well as, pineapples and mangoes dipped in spicey sauces.

Churches, Temples, Synagogues and Mosques of Fort Kochi

Christianity in Kerala dates back to Roman times. The old Christians have their own traditions rooted in the local culture and include groups like Syrian-Malabar, Jacobites and Orthodox Syrians. For example, the image below shows a traditional Christian shrine at Mattancherry, not far from Fort Kochi, that shares some symbols and rituals with other Indic religions.


The European colonizers brought their own churches to Kochi. St. Francis church is very close to the seaside in Fort Kochi. On this place, the first church was built by St Xavier in the 16th century. The Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama was buried here for a few years, before his body was exhumed and taken to Portugal. This is one of the most important pilgrimage centres for Christians (in the image below).


Santa Cruz Cathedral, about 250 metres inland from St Francis church, is a beautiful building in neo-gothic style (in the image below). Its old 15th century building was destroyed and the present building is from late 19th century. The paintings behind the altar of the present building are by Br Antonio Moscheni from Bergamo (Italy).


The Santa Cruz Cathedral includes an outer chapel painted in Turkish-blue colour.


Fort Kochi also has some traditional Syrian-Malabar and Orthodox churches like the St. Paul church shown below.


The most important Hindu temples are at Mattancherry along the sea, a few kilometres from Fort Kochi. Till the 1930s, entry to the traditional Kerala temples was restricted to Brahmins. Now, all Hindus are allowed inside the temples, though there are areas where non-Brahmins can not visit.



All visitors have to remove their shoes and sandals to enter the temple. Men have to enter bare-chested in the traditional temples, thus they are also asked to remove their shirts. Inside these temples, no photography is allowed. Non-Hindus are also not allowed inside the old temples.

The image below shows the Bhagwathi temple in Mattancherry (the image below was clicked from outside the temple)

Malabar Jews are the oldest groups of Jews in India. Some say that they came here during the time of king Solomon. There are 12th century documents confirming the presence of Jews in this area. Another big group of Jews arrived here in 16th century after their expulsion from Spain. Now most of the Jews of Fort Kochi have migrated to Israel. However, Mattancherry near Fort Kochi still has the Jewish Synagogue surrounded by the old houses of the Jews.

The clock-tower of the Jewish Synagogue has four clocks - each with the numbers written on it in different styles (in the image below).


Fort Kochi also has a number of beautiful Muslim mosques.


If you look out of the window of the Dutch Palace in Mattancherry you can see a Hindu temple, a Jewish Synagogue and a Muslim mosque, all located close together.

Conclusions

I loved my holidays in Fort Kochi. In a way, with its ambiance, it reminded me of my visits to different seaside towns across the world. I loved taking long slow walks on the seaside promenade, sitting near the sea and talking to strangers or reading or simply soaking in the lovely breeze. I am looking forward to going back there.


This first part of the post on Fort Kochi focused on general information, seaside and religious places to visit. The second part of this post will look at art, culture and day-trips opportunities in Fort Kochi.

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Monday, 17 April 2017

Easter in Art & Sculpture

The Christian festival of Easter is about the crucifixion and death of Jesus, followed by resurrection. In this post, I am looking at depiction of the Easter in the art and sculpture from different parts of the world.


Easter in Art

Most of the examples of art and sculpture about Easter that I could find in my image-archives are about the crucifixion and death of Jesus expressing his suffering and the grief of his family and followers. Art and sculpture about resurrection are much less common.

Probably it is because pain, death, sorrow and grief are stronger and deeper emotions compared to the joy and happiness, and thus are preferred as themes for art and sculpture.

Crucifixion in Art & Sculpture

First take a look at three sculptures of crucifixion. All the three sculptures are in wood and are from the Metropolitan Art Collection of Bologna (Italy). The sculptors of these statues are not known. All the three are from medieval period and from churches around Bologna.

The first sculpture has an older and patrician looking Jesus, his face is serene and his body is well-filled out.


The second sculpture has an older looking and emaciated Jesus. His face is lined with pain, his ribs are visible and the way his hands are placed, it underlines his suffering.


The third sculpture has a younger and pale looking Jesus with a wisp of beard. Though his face looks serene, the thick rope like red blood falling down from his body is reminds me of the violence shown in Tarrantino films.


Thus, though all the three sculptors depicted the same theme, the personal sensibility of each of them influenced the way it was done. The three sculptures evoke slightly different emotions.

Grief of the Family & Followers

After the death of Jesus, his body was brought down from the cross. His mother Mary and his friends and followers including Mary Magdalene surrounded his body, stricken with grief. They prepared his body for burial. This scene has been imagined and depicted by sculptors and artists numerous times.

The first is a detail from a 1335 altar-piece painted in Jacopino-style from the National Gallery of Art in Bologna. It has the crying Mary dressed in black like a nun, holding the body of her son with blood on his forehead, a reminder of the crown of spines that was put there.


The second is a 1462 altar-piece by Michele di Matteo from the National Gallery of Art in Bologna. In it, Mary holding the dead body of Jesus is in the centre. A black shawl with a blue border covers Mary's head and body while her dress is blood red. Both Mary and Jesus are shown as old.


The third is a 1506 painting by Lorenzo Costa from the National Gallery of Art in Bologna. It has two men who are preparing the body of Jesus for the burial. A young looking Mary, her face more serene here, seems to be telling them to be more careful.


The next is a group of early 16th century terracotta statues by Alfonso Lombardi at the St Peter's church in Bologna. The sculpture is called "Compianto" and shows mother Mary and other persons standing around and looking with sorrow at the dead body of Jesus.


The last image in this group is another "Compianto". This one is from Santa Maria della Vita church in Bologna. This group of seven terracotta figures is from 15th century and is the opera of sculptor Niccola dell'Arca. This is one of my favourite sculptures.


In this work the women, especially mother Mary and Mary Magdalene, are showing their grief openly, both seem to be screaming. Among the local persons in Bologna the two figures are known as the "Ugly Marias of Bologna". I like this sculpture because it is rooted in more human emotions.


Pieta of Michelangelo

The most famous depictions of the death of Jesus is in the marble sculpture "Pieta" by Michelangelo. Sculpted in 1499 for the funeral monument of a cardinal, it is now housed in the St Peter's Cathedral in the Vatican. The sculpture has a very young and beautiful looking Mary holding the body of Jesus in her arms. In the triangular shaped sculpture, with the tip of the triangle at Mary's head, the body sizes are not very proportionate. The marks of the crucifixion-nails on the body of Jesus are small and easy to miss.

"Pieta" was taken to New York World Fair in 1964. It was severely damaged by a mentally disturbed person in 1972. Though I had seen it from close in 1982, at that time I had not taken any pictures of the statue. Some years ago it was placed behind a bullet-proof glass and is difficult to photograph now.

However, there are different copies of Pieta in different countries - below I am presenting some of those.

The first is a small replica of Pieta from a tomb in Verrano cemetery of Rome.


The second is an exact official replica of Pieta from the Cathedral of Brazilia in Brazil. Made for the visit of Pope John Paul II in Brazil in 1989, like the original it is made in marble. It is 1.74 metres high and weighs around 600 kg.


The third is 8.8 metres high giant replica of Pieta from the Cathedral of Kohima in Nagaland in the north-east of India.


The last is another replica of Pieta from a church in Munnar district in Kerala in south India. This picture was taken from a moving bus.


Resurrection

Easter and the resurrection of Jesus are usually represented in symbolic way through the Easter eggs, Easter bunny and Easter doves. Compared to the crucifixion and death of Jesus, art and sculptures about his resurrection are not less frequent.

The next image is of a 1450 painting by Antonio Vivarini from the National Gallery of Art in Bologna. It shows a pale looking Jesus with blond hair, standing up in the coffin, showing the marks of the crucifixion nails on his body. Behind him the blue skies with white clouds and the greenery on the hills suggest the joy of the nature at his resurrection even if the overall mood of the painting is somber.


Conclusion

To conclude this collection of images of art and sculptures related to Easter, the last image of this post is from the Holy Sepulcher church in Jerusalem. This church is made at the place where Jesus was crucified (Galgotha) and later, buried. The image shows the "stone of anointing", where the body of Jesus was laid out and prepared for the burial (also shown in the image on the wall behind the stone).


For the examples of art and sculpture from Italy, most of the images are from Bologna (Italy), where I have lived for many decades.

Wishing you all a Happy Easter.

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