Mongols or Turks?

18 Apr

The road was long and bumpy but then, oh my, you come over a ridge and see this, the 10th/11th-century monastery church of Marmashen, close to the border with Turkey. Despite continual invasions, the Armenians would not stop building gorgeous churches with big, beautiful cupolas, magnets for marauding armies, but they found ways to hide them in the landscape. I know in this photo it looks pretty widely visible, but if you are on any of the roads around here (and they are on the path of the ancient routes), this church never shows up on the horizon.

It is actually a cluster of three churches, or, now, three and a half.

They weren’t entirely safe from marauders, of course. You have to imagine trembling monks in the upper chambers of the main church and taunting soldiers below, figuring out how to get to them. At some point in the 12th or 13th centuries probably, one invader walked between two of the churches, looking for a way into the main one. He decided he would make his own ladder up to the window by hacking footholes in the wall, or so my guide said.

(My exchange with the guide.)

Guide: You can see how the Turk cut into wall so that he could climb up and kill the monks.

Me: Are you sure it was a Turk?

Guide: Yes.

Me. But there really is no way to know, is there? It could have been a Mongol.

Guide: It was not a Mongol.

Me: If it was done in the 12th century, I agree, it was probably a Seljuk Turk. If it was done in the 13th, it would have been a Mongol. But there’s no way to know when it was done.

Guide: It was a Turk.

Me: Why are you so sure?

Guide: Because the priest says so, and he knows better than you or me.

Me: Do you think maybe the priest doesn’t like Turks?

Guide: Well, don’t worry, we don’t like Mongols either.

(I later found out that the beautiful inscription in old Armenian into which these holes were hacked records the restoration of the monastery in 1225, so the hacking was done sometime after that. The Mongols strike again!)


When it comes to making holy oil, the Armenians don’t fool around.

17 Apr

All these ingredients go into it, but the proportions are a secret. If you click on the pics you can see what the stuff is.

What elephants look and sound like when they forage freely in the wild.

16 Apr

After a while, the elephants lost patience. They gathered, 6 of them, in a flat area closer to us, and then made as if to charge. When your guide takes off running for his life it is a good idea to follow his example.


Click on picture to enlarge.

Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, Kerala, India.

Joy in the Sri Meenakshi temple, Madurai.

14 Apr

There is no better instance in the world, I think, of a living “pagan” religion. Hinduism has over 3 million (million!) gods. The works of sculpture found in the older temples are occasionally very ancient–even as old as the 7th century. They are of astounding quality. And yet they are being used. Devotees douse the gods in butter and oil and ashes, priests envelop them in the thick smoke of incense, and they are periodically dressed and redressed. Flowers and candles are placed in the hands of the gods. Here is a patient but enlivened figure in the temple at Tirunelveli.

Every evening in the Sri Meenakshi temple at Madurai, a Shiva statue is carried in state and inducted into the nuptial chamber of Meenakshi, who awaits him in her shrine. Music blares all around. After the statue is carried over some lotus flowers that have been consecrated with holy water, devotees rush to touch the wet ground trodden on by the god. (I didn’t photograph or video-record that ritual; I just wanted to experience it.)

I consider it a signature of pantheistic religions that they are open. Open to new gods, clearly, and also open to new comers. In extreme contrast to the experience of mosques, whose main space is closed to women and where non-muslims tread only under special permission, the Indian temple is open to all. There is no missionary zeal, no furrowed brow asking, “Are you in or are you out?” For someone in this world, you are already in whether you know it or not. You are smiled at, wreathed, daubed on the forehead. There is a general smiling quality that is palpable. People are there to make the gods happy and are happy themselves. Periodically, there are musical outbursts, little very noisy bands of players passing through the halls. People are involved in the proceedings, but they also just hang out in the temples, en famille. I felt pure joy inside each temple complex I visited.

The bigger temples are fronted by a bazaar of shops where you can buy things to offer to the gods. This is the best mall I’ve ever seen.

(Click on any image to see more glorious detail.)

The image I will take away with me (I didn’t photograph it) is from the Alagarh temple outside Madurai. A brahmin priest came to cense and throw perfumed water on a group of gods, while music blared, drums quickened, and cymbals clashed behind him. He was pampering them, making them happy. It was a ritual act, but it had nothing of the quality of ritual that I know from my own background or from any other religious setting I know. It was as if he was playing with very lovable children, children he worships. It was clear there was a moment of communication. The gods were being lovely and demanding and and the priest was responding with infinite indulgence, throwing his head back, his eyes closed, his mouth near laughter, as if to say, “Oh, you adorables, you know I’ll give you everything you want!”

Well-positioned monkey in line to receive offerings, Tirupparamkunram temple, Madurai.

14 Apr

Click on picture to enlarge.

The tip of the subcontinent.

9 Apr

We reached the southern tip of India, where the waters of three seas swirl together:  Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean, and Bay of Bengal.  The highway just goes right to the water and then stops. Here is our driver Vinayan at the end (or beginning) of the road. That arrow points north.

When you approach the tip of a pointy continent it is not just the waters that meet. Wind comes from all directions, and the Indians are harnessing it.

The tip of the continent is a major pilgrimage destination for Indians from all over the subcontinent. The great statue of the legendary Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar (his dates range from 2nd century BC to 7th century AD) occupies an island directly facing the tip.  The colossal statue was unveiled on January 1, 2000, though soon it will be forgotten just how new it is. On the island next to it is the memorial to Swami Vivekananda, a late 19th century guru, who swam to this island and had a moment of enlightenment. That building was unveiled in 1970 (!!). Ghandi also came here and meditated for 3 days, and his memorial is also on the water, in the other direction.

Among the crowds gathered at the water (many of whom plunge in for a three-ocean cleanse), we discerned different northerners: Rajasthanis, Kashmiris, and Punjabis. Everyone was in an excellent mood.

Making temple statues with power tools, Kerala, India.

9 Apr

The use and display of works of art in India work against the earnest art historian. Ancient statues are doused in oil and pelted with ash, but sometimes they aren’t old at all. Types persist over centuries, making it difficult for all but the experts to date them even within spans of hundreds of years. So imagine my joy in looking out the car window and seeing a real workshop in full swing.

Excuse the blur but I just glimpsed it. Stop the car! Let’s say hello to the craftsmen.

The tools are new but the process is the same as it ever was and the results are iconographically recognizable. Or at least I think they are…

Here is a charming detail from an 18th century painting on glass in the palace at Trivandrum, India.

9 Apr

Funky modernist chapels and churches of Kerala, India

9 Apr

It is a dissertation waiting to be written! Here is a nudge towards a thesis. Only the Christian churches looked like this. It was a distinct phenomenon. It was as if they were saying, look how different we are from the dark Hindu temples, which accumulate unfathomably over time, their sculptures layered with oil and ash and perfume. I heard more than once that the Christian faith, with its message of the importance of every human soul, has attracted many people from the lower rungs of society looking for an escape from the Hindu caste system. These clean, upbeat, modernist buildings carry a message: you can keep going to the traditional Hindu temples with their layerings, repetitions, and rituals, and never see change, or you can come to the Church, fresh and clean, and come into a new life.


Substitutions work.

29 Mar

These towers along the main bay of Doha all went up in the last ten years. Qataris are quite used to them and are happy to drive their shiny SUVs through them.

But the Qatari government also understood that people need places to congregate in. To spend leisure time in (there is a lot of it here). On foot.  And not just malls. So they have created two major and hugely successful traditional spaces:  an “old” souk and a sort of waterfront area with galleries, restaurants, and even an amphitheater, called Qatara.

An 80s-90s souk existed where the new one is, but it was too modern and ugly. It was functional, with concrete walls. So they replaced the old modern with the new antique: a labyrinthine souk in the old style, with sand colored, rough walls (actually still concrete beneath the surface treatment). They actually paid the shop owners a subsidy to vacate the premises while the back to the future update happened, then they moved them back in and said, “Proceed!” And they did:

The thing is, people really use the new old souk. It is not just a touristy thing. We were in the minority. People enjoy the personal shopping and the local flavor. Locals enjoy sitting in the nearby restaurants smoking a shisha and gossiping (as I imagine they were doing). In one sense they are tourists in their own land:  they too want to know what it’s like to sit in a souk. I smoked a shisha and did some gossiping too. That thing that has been happening in souks since time immemorial was happening here:  locals and foreigners rub shoulders.  (They don’t in malls.) It was the same with Qatara: in the evening the place was awash in locals promenading with their friends and families. It doesn’t matter that these are ersatz “old centers.” If you look closely at any “authentic” souk, say the gold souk of Istanbul, all its parts have been renovated at one point or another. It has electricity now. All functioning souks are new antiques. By that logic you can just invent one out of whole cloth. If you put the right shops in it and the people really come, you’ve got a souk. Give this a few years and it will be as authentic as any in the Middle East.

This is what is lacking in Abu Dhabi. Man lives not on SUVs and malls alone. If you are inventing whole cities out of the desert, you need to (re)create the traditional spaces too. Otherwise the city never quite comes together.