17 – Temple, City

This record of a period of my travel has had me in two places: the colonial city, and the temple town. Both, it would seem, are expressions of nostalgia: one in sentiment (mostly my own) and the other in, quite obviously, religion.

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The Indian Museum of Calcutta – a fine example of colonial heritage: roman building, boring exhibits, and an exquisite (and the largest in the world) collection of Indo-Greek Buddhist Gandharan sculpture utterly dead, literally ossified, behind its glass.

The streets of Calcutta have an indefinable charm. Kolkata, Kalighat, the dark goddess’ city, is strangely a city of light: everywhere there are blue and white lights entwined round the street lights, matching the blue and the white of the painted railings, walls and the streetlights themselves. The charm is not just in the light. One cannot say why the streets speak back to you, but when you do hear it, it is a quietly building yell, a basenote of sweetness cutting through the noise of the obviously tattered edges too limp, with humidity, to susurrate loud enough to cover the joy.

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In the distance, the Howrah Bridge, dominating the low rise city.

Coming in on the train, I was immediately confronted by the Howrah bridge: finding companions for the taxi ride to town, the ferry ghat was closed, and arguing, or collective bargaining, for a decent taxi price ended up in us sweeping across the Hooghly and down into the town. Finding ourselves at a loss for cheap rooms, I proposed to my one remaining companion that we try for the Fairlawn Hotel, an old colonial holdover on Sudder Street, the traveller’s ghetto of Cal. The hotel may have helped contribute to the above sentiments: it was definitely faded in its glory, with pictures of the Royal Family everywhere, newspaper cuttings showing the famous people who had graced the hotel, tribal artifacts from the North East, slowly turning ceiling fans, cheap cold beer, and a dead British hostess whose lingering influence hung over the place like a protective cobra hood.

The food of Bengal is exquisite: bitter vegetables, perfect rice, sweet fresh water fish, boneless sea fish steamed in mustard paste within a banana leaf. Finding a packed family place a stones throw from the hotel was lovely. I spent the rest of the day sweltering in the Indian Museum, which was interesting for its architecture, as the oldest public museum in India, all Ionic columns, and for its excellent and extensive collection of Gandharan sculpture: moustachioed bodhisattvas, Buddhas with their exquisite hair piled on top of their heads, and some very interesting ‘middle class’ sculptures of day to day life rendered into the Jakatas, stories of Bodhisattvas previous lives. The evening was a gimlet at Peter Cat, a bar where the staff all laboured under turbans, and I felt like I was in the opening of the Temple of Doom.

The heat of the next day was almost intolerable, pushing down with humidity. Pushing through, I crossed the Maidan, a large green park made by flattening villages for the guns of Fort William. This piece of colonial heritage, I had not realised, was still an infantry base of the Indian army, and therefore completely closed off. But my efforts were not in vain, meeting as I did some semi-wild horses that were roaming the Maidan; I assume they were normally yoked to tourist traps (ha) but not needed in the summer.

Upon entering the city from its green park lungs again, I spotted a church, paid my 10 rupees entrance fee and almost screamed with delight on parsing the grave stones. Here was the final resting place of James Achilles Kirkpatrick, he of White Mughals, and who I had pursued through Hyderabad a few years ago. Having no one to eulogise to, I was confined to taking a photograph and sitting in contemplation, not of the mysteries of the trinity, but of the strange coincidences of history that would bring me randomly to a man I consider close to a personal hero.

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Kirkpatrick’s grave, making no reference to his wife and children, or his likely conversion to Islam. Stuck in church marble forever.

Hiking north, I entered the leafy centre of Calcutta, BBD Bagh, formerly Dalhousie Square, and made my sweaty way round to what I had actually come to see, the Writers’ Building. A squat mass of colonial assertion, it has a quality as of something entirely Roman: here, in the new province, we show what, and how powerful, our architecture is. Fronted by the three column orders, and with sculptural renderings of the standard stuff, arts, commerce, science, complete with both Indian and European practitioners, its statement is undeniable: work with us and we can build these columns, this idea, manage these riches, together, but, but, you always have to remember who is in charge, and its we who brought these columns, this idea, and will ultimately take these riches. Fittingly, the building is currently being hollowed out, having served its present usefulness to the state government, the old offices of the Honourable East India presumably being given air conditioning and more power points. They’ve left the facade intact though, as a reminder, or a curse.

While sitting, sweating, and observing the building, I wrote a poem, and then gandered at its independence history; there is a statue of three men outside, who, in 1930, broke into the building, and shot the, apparently, cruel inspector of prisons. There followed a brief gun battle and the assured immortality of these men. Indeed the square over which Writers’ presides, and hence the neighbourhood, is now named after their initials: BBD Bagh. To be a nationalist is to live forever.

And yet the empire lives on, in my hotel, and in the thoroughly clement experience I had meeting a friend, being taken for phenomenal Bengali food, and then driven to the cathedral, for its pre-Raphaelite stained glass, and their beautiful home. My next stop was Kalighat, the temple that gives Calcutta (Kolkata) its name, a riot of priests, flower throwing, and standing on scaffolding to get a look at the Goddess. It was weird to me that my final experience of the city would be this colourful and baffling Hindu experience (as ever the tikka blessing on my forehead melted in my sweat), but I was saved from poetic strangeness by my hosts: the bus station was close to a club one was interviewing for. And there I was, back on the safer ground of a 150 year old swimming club, sipping a beer, and feeling that colonial nostalgia with full force. But I was to find that the weirdness of Kalighat was also a form of nostalgia too, just not one I could access easily.

***

Thoughts on the facade of the Writers’ Building, Calcutta

There are so many columns in my head,

I think, propping eyes open,

making my brain a portico,

my mouth the door, to temple, palace, or

sucking in heated air, buildings there to impress,

converse wholly with the oppressive heat.

 

Do I need to be Samson

to break down the things my head has built,

all Corinthian and fluted,

but only bricks behind stucco,

not marble, and rooted only a few feet,

I hope, not set in concrete;

 

perhaps shaving my thick hair might help…

 

I’ve always assumed

great liberation in growing,

the libidinous libationary side

of myself made chthonic

by the creep of my hair

to entangle the columns,

grow thicker than

acanthus

protrude from cracks

peep round ionic skirts

make doric hazed at the edge.

 

Thats it – the round column of this certainty

have no edge,

and the edges of things

is where their true nature lies.

 

I hope I have the strength

to collapse them into each other

make the edged, upright, roman

slide into itself,

made edgeless, one, then nothing.

***

Puri is Brighton and Varanasi’s very uptight child. The night bus was a little jolty, the roads in Bengal and Odisha not being the world’s best, and I was rudely awoken by the bus attendants realising I was still behind the curtain of my sleeper birth; we were two hours early. I reached a budget hotel, and then conked out for a few hours.

The beach, what gives this place half its fame, is a fascinating blend of Bengali holiday makers and those trying to sell them things: camel rides and candy-floss mostly. I walked the sandy and blustery couple of kilometres down the beach, revelling in cooling my feet in the warm ocean for the first time since landing. My destination was the Jagganath temple, the reason for the town’s strange ambience: a supremely holy site dedicated to a representation of Shiva (as Lord Jagganath, or Juggernaut) turned into a tourist extravaganza. The old part of town is equal doses of sweet shops, tourist handicraft traps, astrologers and endless wee temples, shrines and pilgrim rest houses. I knew I wasn’t going to be allowed into the main temple precinct, not being a Hindu, but I had read it was possible to overwatch the temple from buildings built next to its walls. This however, proved a forlorn hope, the temple square having been recently renovated and extended out (you could see the concrete scars and sheer cut offs on the buildings around). So much for that. The height of the shikhara was definitely impressive, dominating the space above the high walls, but somewhat underwhelming for not being able to see it in the architectural context of it.

I wandered back to my hotel through the town and beach alternately, often accosted by locals: it seems Puri was once a great foreign tourist town, but they have tapered off in recent years. Dinner was a place billed as authentic Odia cuisine, which was excellent: vegetables and papaya boiled into the dal, and salty fish curry.

Stumbled through the heat to Konark the next day, a great sun temple built to look as a simply giant chariot. The main reason I came, the sculptures of the horses pulling this chariot, were very impressive, E B Havell, the greatest colonial art historian, calling them the prime example of Indian figurative, mimetic art. His argument was that the artists of sub-continental traditions strived to extend their artistic vision beyond the merely mimetic, and achieve greater representative clarity by expressing what they could visualise, and not what they saw. Those of the colonial period who claimed that Indian art was inferior to European due to its non-mimetic nature, need only to look to Konark, according to Havell. And he was right. The horses, while a little later than anything from Greece or Rome, are every bit as impressive in their execution as Augustus’ equine statue on the Palatine or the Baroque vision of the Trevi fountain, visibly straining against the bit to pull the huge temple behind them.

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Straining

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Quite a large load to pull…

The rest of the temple was a riot of intricate and erotic carving, with images of Vishnu dominating the deity quotient, and absolutely fascinating vignettes of daily life, hunting, and much sex. As at Khujuraho many years ago, my guide could not offer a thoroughly convincing explanation of the prevalence of sexual motifs, other than unblushingly saying it was all just for tantric religious reasons. Indeed, we were joined as we wondered round by a baba newly down from Rishikesh, who was intrigued by what my guide was expounding (an entire numerical history of Indian religion, the reason for gates at cardinal directions, the notion of temple as map of the universe etc. etc.) but his English wasn’t good enough for me to question him beyond his commitment to Brahmacarya, or the power derived in youth from celibacy, and his opinion of the frankly acrobatic sculptures going on behind us.

 

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Not the most egregious examples, nor the least.

The frankness, and frank joy, with which the sculptures where expressed made me think again on an old chestnut: the puritan morality of India now has many sources, notably Islam and the Victorians, but given the huge emphasis on the rejection of sex, or at least celibacy, as far back as the Upanishads, where did this simple love of its representation, and, presuming by extension, the act itself, come from? The temples that are famous for erotic representations, Konark, Khujuraho and some Nepali temples, bear no geographical, temporal, cultural or political unifiers. The rejection was never the disgust of Mani, though Buddhism’s strange demonisation of the vagina definitely influenced him, but the counterpoise of course is the general sensuality of temple representations, where they are not outright erotic. It must then be a rejection of the rejection, as, if it is just the development tantra it is too public, not the hidden meanings that discipline implies. Call it a last hurrah, before the euphemism and double speak of the times down to today.

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The avatars of Vishnu, representing the splitting of time – Kalki in the middle, still to come.

***

Bhubaneswar, the capital of Odisha, is a frankly charming town, which the locals I spoke to were justly proud of. Apparently laid out by a German fellow at the turn of the century, it is quite green, and has impressive roads. But this is not why it is famous. Literally the temple city, it has, in its old part, over 100 temples scattered round, and some being truly gorgeous little architectural gems.

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Beautiful temple…

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…after temple…

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…after temple…

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…after temple.

Also it contains some remarkable Jain cave monasteries within the city limits, one carved to look like a lions mouth, but really comes off as something from Indiana Jones.

 

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AH!

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Damn, I left my whip and pistol at home

But that was not what I came for, that was the airport. However, getting a taxi to my overpriced hotel, I was offered a tour, again overpriced, that would take in Dhauli, a place I had kind of given up on seeing. This was the site, apparently, of Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism, but more accurately it is the site of the ur-rock edict, the one that makes it all fall into place. Here Ashoka decried the necessity of war, and seems, uniquely, to mean it. Of course, the fact that his empire fell apart after his death due to this pacifistic policy should probably be, and has been, taken as an ill omen to chakravartin who hopes that his world conquering would lead to peace. However, this does not deny the sheer epicness of the thought he had, and the idiosyncratic nature of his decision to place it in rock for the world, and specifically those who his last battle was against, to see.

 

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The first Japanese peace stupa in India at Dhauli, fulfilling the millenarian pledge of a Japanese sect. Space age architecture is de rigueur if you’re fulfilling prophecy.

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The elephant of Buddhism

The edict contains two clauses specific to Odisha (or Kalinga, as it was called) about the protection afforded by Ashoka’s state to certain groups of priests, and these replace, in a wonderful epigraphic, archaeologic, and historical symmetry, the clauses in other edicts that speak of his conversion after the war in Kalinga. It was hidden for a very long time, until rediscovered by a British officer, which seems strange, as the rock has a fairly large elephant, representing Buddhism, sticking out the top. But then Buddhism itself was forgot in this land. And thats my nostalgia.

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Why do I try and see myself in ancient history?

(On the way back, my driver, seeing I was something of a history buff, smiled conspiratorially and asked if I wanted to see yet another temple [this was having passed already many, many of the 100. It was hot, but I agreed. And was pleasantly surprised. A quiet road off the highway led to an even quieter village, arrayed around a pond with a shrine in the centre. Next to the pond is one of very few temples in India dedicated to the 64 Yoginis, female manifestations of shakti, or power. This temple was charming, round, without a roof, and presided over by friendly [male] Brahmins, who became friendlier after I donated 100 rupees for a Durga puja ceremony. All 64 Yoginis are represented as idols around the edge of the temple, and the ASI guide proceeded to name them all for me. A female Ganesh was the weirdest one. I didn’t want to leave, this being the quietest and most interesting temple I had seen in a while, but my driver was waiting, and I had a plane to catch the next morning.)

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Peaceful

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Unique female manifestation of Ganesh

***

Hyderbad airport was far busier than I’ve ever seen it, having had to pass through it three times in my life now. It felt more exuberant and lively, even if its marble and Western edges had frayed a little (three plugs I tried were dead); this was, strangely, my first sense of the business India I had been reading about for years, that confident, strutting, cosmopolitan and English-speaking side of the country, so far removed from me, in that it bore both resemblances to a former time in my life, and is never prevalent in the towns of tourists and travellers I end up frequenting while here. Delhi mutes all things, so I couldn’t even feel in Gurgaon what I did in the airport.

Landing in Chennai was hot. Really hot, I, having forgotten what humidity was, wearing boots and socks. I spent my time there pushing round what remained of the old fort, it again having been transformed into an Indian Army base, but this time with a museum! The only artefact of real interest was a medal awarded the city of Madras for weathering a Japanese bombardment, something I didn’t know had happened. Most of the fort was closed off, and its old, and very Anglican looking church, was closed. But I was to get my dose of churches.

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How the British won: iron canons and Mediterranean  architecture?

My host, a good friend and Shia Muslim, acquiesced to my strange wish to see everything associated with St. Thomas in the city, notably his tomb (body unfortunately somehow in Italy), the church over which, Santhome, made a big deal about its relation with Santiago and St Peters, also built over apostle’s graves, and the site of his martyrdom. This is a big pilgrim’s hill in the south of the city, whose stairs I climbed in the early evening fug, and, it cannot be denied though dehydration was definitely an issue, it did have some kind of feeling about it that I have only experienced at Christian sites, like Peter’s, or the ruins of the strange octagonal church said to have housed St Phillip the Apostle’s body at Heriapolis in Anatolia. Perhaps its because I came up in the tradition, and had the rituals laid out, if not substantiated, for me from a young age. This belies the harsh feeling of incomprehension I still get when trying to test Christianity for its clarity, but when it comes to historical interest, there is none more fascinating or thrilling. Maybe its my nostalgia for the certainties of childhood. Thomas’ particular site was made the more interesting by its immaculate night time views of the megacity spread below, and the hurried faith of those piling into the shrine for a quick prayer before it closed up.

I took a cab to meet my host and was shown one of only two Shia mosques and Imambara in the city. Getting out of the car was interesting, I was arrested by the smell of roasting meat and the uncomprehending stares of those denizens of the few dense alleys I had to walk to reach the mosque. My hosts family where lovely, fed me excellent food, and, I think and hope, appreciated my endless questions on Shiism. But there’s another for our nostalgia, to rerun the heat of Karbala, to think of what the world could have been, what the Imam might have done. And, in a twist, nostalgia for the future when the Hidden Imam makes himself known again.

***

From Chennai I raced across Tamil Nadu, first to Tanjore, or Thanjuvur, as it goes by now. Here is a temple, the centre of an ideology, and something I have thought about a lot: aryanisation. From here, a thousand years ago, spread an architecture and religion, two thousand years old by then, that has influenced polities from Madurai to the Philippines. Why, or more precisely, what power does this creed have. Sure, the Chola state at its apogee, the building of the main Tanjore temple, was a naval and administrative power unrivalled, but why exactly this version, this religion, this veneration of a holy land some hundreds of dusty kilometres north?

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Well proportioned…

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Until you see its gates – this the “Defeat of Kerala” gate

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Long shaded walkways built by various “Prime Ministers” of the Chola and later Nayak states

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Searching for a lucky lizard behind the temple. Spotting the camouflaged beast was meant to grant you a good day… unless you spent too much of the day looking for it!

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Me and a giant Nandi – the guide insisted

Unfortunately Tanjore was pretty short on answers: I had my impressions of Chola power firmly retrenched by the scale and beauty of the temple, but the answers I sought remained locked in the heat haze. The palace, the other attraction of the town, held fewer answers still, but to its own enigmas: why was there a huge whale carcass in the attic of its old arsenal? (No clue) How many tiny museums of creepy rows of European porcelain figures did it contain? (2, both for some reason on different tickets to the main entrance ticket) Can I get bored of South Indian bronze galleries? (No, unless they are unventilated) I moved on.

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One whale carcass, far from home.

Swiftly, as it turned out. Madurai was a another temple town, but this time the temple was behind high walls, and its history was less important than Tanjore. What it was though, was an entire city, surround the shrine, with covered shopping colonnades, repair masons and a giant hidden cow shed I discovered out back. But I had decided, given that I could store my backpack for two rupees in the temple left luggage, that I would push on out that evening, waiting many, many hours in the bus station for the government bus to Ooty, a hill station.

The bus was something close to a hell, with hellishly loud Tamil songs played to keep the driver, and all the passengers, awake. The lights may have gone out, but the sound system keeps on running. I also had to change buses in the middle of the night, despite it being apparently a direct bus, and this driver kept the tunes off. Until we were twenty minutes out of town of course, and then they were on again in full force, on a speaker system with much greater decibels. And then the bus started rising in the hills and I began to freeze in the linens I had had to wear to keep from boiling earlier in the day.

But Ooty, a place of supreme rest and beauty, was worth it to reach. I could cook food, have a cheap hostel bed, and company for the first time in what felt like a while. It is one of the beautiful places of the world, and it looks like a tropical Scotland. And there again is my nostalgia.

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16 – Belief

Please forgive the length and lyric nature of this post – what is narrated here is history, but also a very personal experience.

Bumping across the dusty plains of Bihar, watching the swaying of the ripe wheat in the fields, endless women in varicoloured saris treading the bunds, pumping water, or threshing by the side of the road, and gazing up at the abrupt, juttingly arid sandstone hills that are the only thing that breaks the monotony of the landscape. I had come to visit one of these, the creepily titled Vulture Peak, which, despite its name, is one of the most venerated places on earth: this was the Buddha’s preferred meditation spot and the place where delivered some of his most revered sermons.

The town of Rajgir, the capital of the old Magadhan empire, is surrounded by seven hills, of which Vulture Peak is one. It is, like everything in Bihar, dusty, poor, and subtly whiffs of past grandeur. It is most famous, in India, now for a hot-spring dedicated to Durga and Kali. Here the priests will ask you your parents names and insinuate ill fortune for them if not paid the required one hundred rupees for chanting a verse from the Veda while pouring some thermal water on your cupped hands. This process is repeated quite a few times, by any Brahmin in soaked dhoti and sacred cord who can reach your hands to cup them, so sorry Mum and Dad.

However, while this place’s original raison d’être would likely have been the presence of this rather rare phenomena, it became famous as the capital of the empire that later scared Alexander’s silver shields into asking to go home, and world renowned for its homing of the Buddha, so that is what I set out to look for.

On the first day, having arrived in a rickety bus from my overnight train to Gaya, the largest local rail junction, I engaged a thonga, a two-wheeled horse drawn carriage, driven by a man who, stoically wrought, never asked my name, and I never enquired of his. I choose the most threadbare I could amongst the few plying the bus stand trade, reckoning he’d know the best ways round. His horse, an old, totally broken roan was a quiescent and obedient as any i’ve ever seen; indeed I thought about reproving the driver for his use of his bamboo and string crop, until I realised that all he was doing was providing encouragement, keeping the flies off the horse, and occasionally scratching its back under the harness.

The first buddhist sites strike you as you leave and enter town from all directions: temples and guesthouses for many different countries. Seeing inside a Japanese temple first and then driving past a Thai one, I was struck by how far removed Buddhism is now from its cradle.

The, apparently, Cyclopean (but restored by the bloody Archeological survey of India with mortar) walls of the town encompass a far larger site than the current town, indeed they seemed to enclose most of the rather broad valley between the enclosing hills. This place was once the dead centre of India, the lucky early capital of an empire that was to keep on rising. I’ve always been intrigued as to why the Buddha came here: the stories tell of the king, Bimbisara’s, generosity to the Buddha, granting him lands to build the first monastery and, when his son Ajatashatru overthrew and imprisoned him, requesting that his jail, a structure that is still extant, be placed so he could see Vulture Peak and the Buddha and his disciples ascent and descent to the city.

It does have the makings of a Zion: an unprepossessing sacred place of water in a land of dust. But there is one thing added, that is, it was the centre of an empire, Rome not Judea. And this is why, I think, the Buddha was drawn here: unlike Jesus he was not just a prophet but also a canny political mind. Now the degree to which I read this is obviously coloured by my previous experience and knowledge, but I can’t help but see mara, the illusion of the world, through the constructs of my own mind. The Buddha was (or is, if you follow Japanese weirdness) not the son of a king, but the elected oligarchic head of a tribal confederation: thus his caste was kshatriya, warrior and ruler, and he would have been trained and treated as such, but his upbringing would have been full of intrigues not of the court, but of this semi-republic. There is also no doubt that the Buddha was deeply fond of his people; a potential reading of his northward passage to die at Lumbini (his birthplace) the closing of a circle, but it also seems to me that he wanted to go home. We still don’t know where Kapilavastu, the capital where he spent his youth, is, there being two candidates and the archeological evidence inconclusive. However, in his time at Rajgir he would have seen Ajatashatru gobbling up the smaller republics around him, like Bimbisara before him, who, despite his later devotion to the Buddha was also something of an empire builder. But Ajatashatru, Alexander to Bimbisara’s Phillip, went further, conquering all the way to the coast, and aimed for the Ganges river delta, I guess likely to control the nascent incense trade from Assam. He also started to conquer over the river, near to the kingdom of the Shakyas, Buddha’s clan. Ajatashatru was also a devotee of the Buddha, indeed received the larger proportion of his ashes, and likely convened the first Buddhist Council, to allow the preservation of the Buddha’s teachings. The Buddha was heading home to die in his homeland and head off its invasion, which, indeed, he did. Ajatashatru never conquered the Shakya lands, and even his empire’s later versions have appeared to have left this land alone.

However, Buddhism’s long associations with temporal power was to have lasting effects: Emperor Ashoka, and Chinese and Japanese and Korean emperors through the ages, are unlikely candidates for promulgating a religion that preaches renunciation and the impermanence of all worldly things. But the accommodation found with Bimbisara and Ajatashatru: be good to Buddhists, especially monks, give them land, and don’t kill the Buddha’s relatives, is actually quite a lenient programme for imperial rule, more so indeed than the Church in Europe. The moral element is removed completely, and at the leaders conscience to enforce. But enforced it has been, because of the faith in the Buddha’s programme that its simple reasoning inspired.

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A monk awaits the enliftenment of the chairlift

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Chairlift to heaven

One of the places most thrumming with that faith is Vulture Peak. Indian tourists go for, and my driver insisted I try, the rickety, varicoloured chairlift, that takes its sweet time in the sun to take you to the very top and a standard Japanese Shanti (peace) stupa, indeed it is a carbon copy of the one in Battersea Park in London. I found out later, however, that this was the first such stupa, built by a Japanese sect in both the hope of convincing the world that nuclear weapons were a bad idea, and in fulfilment of a prophecy that Buddhism would be brought back to the land of its birth by this sect. The pagoda, a temple hall to the side, contained a bored looking fellow beating a drum and reciting the mantra of this sect, which, while giving a solemnity to the whole experience, was somewhat ruined by the long justification written on the wall saying that though the Buddha explicitly forbade drums (who knew!) it was good that it was being beaten because of something the master of the sect had said. Anyway, it didn’t interest me much, except as a shade from the sun, as the grammar of Japanese worship is something alien to me and because what I had come to see was further down the hill and so I looked around for a vantage point, as I couldn’t see my goal.

Out of the dream of reality, mara gave me pause. At first I thought I was hallucinating, but there, over the edge of the hill from a very small Japanese shrine, was the sound of a mantra, hovering on the edge of my comprehension. I snapped out of it and realised that it was what looked like a group of monks in a cave, surmounted by mounds of prayer flags. That must be my goal.

I hiked in the sun, having eaten very little, down through the trees. Thing became slightly surreal, every bend in the path either taking me away from the hill, which I now knew to be Vulture Peak, and making me desperate, or the chanting coming into and out of dim earshot, like something from a bad film, or a mental breakdown. Or a religious experience, thought those always struck me as a combination of the two. I was sweating out all my water, and was on the spare bottle I had brought, with two already down. Eventually I was completely swallowed by the trees and so fearful I had missed the turning in my stupor; at this rate I thought my strength would fail me before I reached my tiny pilgrimages end, and ignominiously at that. However, I stuck to the path and my belief was rewarded: a turn off, unsigned, miraculous.

As I laboured up, someone popped up beside me from nowhere, and unsmilingly told me that this was Ananda’s cave, indicating what looked like a pile of rocks. Ananda! The buddhist I have always identified with most. Behind the rocks was a natural cave, shaded by a thick tree, and deserted save for small streamers of incense smoke, sluggishly wafting in the heat. I sat down heavily and pondered, and then wrote a poem. Ananda once asked the Buddha if he would become enlightened, and the Buddha told him no. Ananda, suitably miffed, being both the Buddha’s cousin and one of his first disciples, asked why, given that he had memorised everything the Buddha had ever said, loved him, and was ready for his release. The Buddha replied that Ananda had too much knowledge, and too little practice, and his knowledge would burden him, disallowing his enlightenment. With that, I can truly identify. I crawled on my hands and knees and hid the poem dedicated to Ananda, in a cleft in the rock of the cave to the left of his shrine. If he is still in samsara, I hope one day he reads it. But the gesture felt right, felt good. I am not normally one for feeling this kind of connection, but, under in that shaded cave, out of the sun, I pleaded with reality that my knowledge would not be for nought, and that, though I knew enlightenment was far from me, that I could at least use myself for some kind of good. We’ll see how that goes…

Leaving the sanctuary of the cave, I was again blinded by the sun, but fortified enough by the rest to continue on up the hill. Here I must make a confession: this hill was tiny, an outcrop only about a hundred metres tall, separated from the main massif. The path up it was perhaps only 600 metres long, but felt, under the unrelenting sun, to be an ordeal of passing grandeur. Onwards and upwards, I was now overtaking struggling Japanese tourists, old women mostly. Another cave, this time of the Buddha, and I watched more Japanese, must be generous, pilgrims not tourists despite their silly hats, packing away the groundsheets they had been praying and chanting on: this was the group I had heard, lead by a cadre of heavily tattooed and orange clad monks in cool sunglasses. The Buddha’s meditation cave, while larger, for some reason did not hold to me the fasciation of Ananda’s: I paid respects by inclining my head, no more.

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The peak above the cave of the Buddha

Upwards, and finally on the surprisingly flat top of the hill. This was due to, as I was informed by a sign, the presence of a monastery here, attested by the Chinese monk-travellers. Ruined now of course, but, wonder of wonders, rebuilt. Less than a century of pilgrims had taken the stones of the ruins, random pieces of construction, naturally occurring rocks and organised them into hundreds of stupas across the Peak. I was strangely moved by this occurrence, an act of veneration completely anonymous, and in these stones precariousness, completely in keeping with the principles of impermanence. Despite my hope they would last, all seemed destined to be knocked down in one monsoon storm or other.

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Hand made stupas

I climbed the final few steps to the actual peak. It is shaped like a vulture’s beak, a strangely cruel shape for so peaceful a place. At the summit is a square brick shrine, unroofed, where the Buddha preached. The views out across the plain, over the hills that defended the city, the haze, and the bright blazing white of the Jain shrines* that dot the landscape was breathtaking. The Japanese, overseen by their monks, where chanting and circumambulating the shrine with a huge cloth, that they then proceeded to fold up and place under the two statues of the buddha in dharmachakra mudra (teaching, or turning the wheel of law pose), both of which were heaving under the amounts of offerings. They also covered the larger statue in another coating of gold leaf, a curious custom, but it is here that it is believed that the most sacred sutra in the East Asian canon, the Lotus Sutra, was delivered here, indeed it says it in the sutra’s opening lines. An Indian monk behind me began to lecture some older middle class Indian women in Hindi on a portable amp. The murmuring of the Japanese, taking photographs and giving offerings having finished their chanting, the mercifully quietly delivered lecture, and the still beating sun, had an almost soporific effect. Suddenly I was struck. Staring at the statues, out over the plain, I knew this man had existed and that what he had spoken was true. I’d thought this before, but never with such force, never confronted myself with the actual veracity of it. Ananda’s curse: I’d always treated my belief as separate, my knowledge, the philosophy, as inviolated by something so bare as faith. All at once I realised why Buddhism is a religion, and not just a mode of thought.

I circumambulated the shrine once, auspiciously clockwise, and then headed down the hill, distracted. My thonga was waiting, and, in the late afternoon sun, when the roads were emptier heading back to town, hearing just the clop of hooves and the very light stirring of the scrubby brush, in the quiet between the cars, I closed my eyes and attempted to meditate. But I kept coming back with the thought that this was an historical soundscape, or from the rushing urgency and blaring horns of a tourist jeep.

The last stop before town was the bamboo grove, the site of the original monastery of the Buddha and the first piece of land gifted him by Bimbisara. It is now a well tended rose garden, with a dirty tank, manmade pond, in the middle. And facing this pond, a statue of the buddha. Ah well. But behind it, miraculously, at this, the epicentre of the Buddha’s early teaching, was something I had missed. It was an artistic reference to early Buddhism, the earliest representation of the Buddha, as an empty throne shaded by a parasol, not the serene Greek Apollo he became. So here, at the very start, was nothing, the impermanent body faded. So very very apt.

That night I slept soundly, worn beyond belief by the day.

***

The next day I visited Nalanda, one of the oldest universities in the world, a foundation with roots back to just after the death of the Buddha, and with its oldest structure (a huge stupa dedicated to a disciple of the Buddha) built by Ashoka. It was given its present architectural form by the Gupta period, the 5th and 6th centuries CE and added to periodically until its utter destruction in at the turn of the 1200s by a squadron Muhammad of Khilji, one of the first muslim invaders of north India, dispatched with the sole mission of burning it to the ground. As my guide was eager to keep repeating to me, it burned for a month, its libraries were so vast. Its a very special place, huge stupa mounds and monasteries set in a park among farmland and sleepy villages, and the extant remains are likely to be just one part of a much larger complex; again, despite its nowhere looking nature now, this part of Bihar was once a pulsing organ of the world.

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Back of ruined temple, Nalanda

As I was wondering the ruins, my guide having run off to see his mother to hospital apparently and perhaps (if I’m being uncharitable) overly compensated by me for his acting skill, reflections came on why this place was considered so dangerous to Islam’s progress that it needed to be so utterly destroyed. The Arabs in the earlier part of the conquest had relished the libraries they came across; indeed it is now almost a well worn cliche amongst globalist liberals like me to tell of the origins of the European Renaissance among the translation houses of Palermo and Baghdad. Why was Buddhism so dangerous?

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Remains of Ashokan stupa and Gupta-period votive stupas

One answer: Buddhism, like Islam, was a religion that attempted to, on the terms handed it by earlier developments, develop a response to the human condition that was both internally and externally coherent and logical. Thus was its evangelism justified, for Islam as the true faith of the god of Abraham, and Buddhism as the one way to end samsara. Indeed, by the time Khilji’s Afghans burnt Nalanda it was apparently a decayed institution, both by comparison of accounts of Chinese monks, and the archeological evidence.** This was due to the steady decline of Buddhism in its homeland, brought about by a Hindu retrenchment that, I would argue, was perversely seeded during the Gupta period’s recording, ossifying and disseminating of the previously malleable stories and theologies of the epics and treatises that came to be the textual basis of Hinduism: the Mahabharata, including the Bhagavad Gita, the Ramayana, Kama Sutra, Arthashastra, Agamas, Puranas and others. Put simply, what occurred next was an India-wide suppression of Buddhistic ideas, at the core of which was an ultimate rejection of the primacy of gods, and, crucially of reality itself. This contrasted with the essential Hindu view, recently codified, that reality was a functional ground of all things, including the gods. The degree to which these philosophical niceties where separated into different forms of worship by people is, as with all questions of historical elision, likely small, Buddhism having adopted certain parts of Hinduism, like Yakashas, tree spirits, and the intercessional powers of the Boddhisatvas, and Buddha having been made an incarnation of Vishnu. But Buddhism died, or was killed, nonetheless.

The power in its essential idea, that all things are impermanent, gods, kings, caste, self, everything, will obviously appear antithetical to the continuance of any business as usual, but its emancipatory power was obviously traded off in its early years, as above. The same might be said of Islam in India, which, despite its (post-Kharijite) emphasis on universality, became worked into the caste system. No religion retains its founders form on earth, no matter how canny those founders are. Thus it takes some belief to make sure we retain as much good as possible from them, and that all the knowledge of the Anandas of this world doesn’t go to seed, and merely plant the garden. It must be tended, and, at its core, the empty throne.

 

 

 

 

* Mahavira, the 24th and final Jain enlightened person, or tirthankara, river-ford maker, also spent time in Rajgir, at around the same time as the Buddha. The traditions and stories accruing to the place and its kings share some similarities and some differences in each tradition, to me weirdly reinforcing the potential historical veracity of these personages and at least some of the history narrated above. My second stop on the thonga ride was a dolls house museum, showing, in crazy Hornby 00 or barbie dream house detail, take your pick, the stories and enlightenment of all 24 tirthankaras. In each scene was piled glass jewels, huge number of fake trees or elaborate architectural constructs. The Jains have given me some of my weirdest experiences in India, and their religion does not cease its fascination, but I came to find the Buddha, not Mahavira.

** For this whole section I am indebted to Charles Allen’s Ashoka: The Lost Emperor, the book that sparked my interest in ancient Indian history.

15 – Outsider

Usually when I travel, I try and position myself to have some idea of what it is I will be seeing. Often as not these assumptions are either blown away or flattened by what I actually encounter, but its nice to have the knowledge beforehand of the things I might encounter. it keeps me safe. Perhaps too safe. So this time I have almost no knowledge, save what is native to me, and little plan; again I have been blown away and flattened.

Lucknow, as a city and a place I knew so little about, struck me as the closest I would find to Vienna in India: the people are highly concerned with their old culture, the former imperium is stamped on both the architecture and the culture of the place, and the food is beyond belief. Of course it comes with the usual litany of Indianess stamped across my comparison: the hellish traffic, the noise, the urban press that most European cities are devoid of. But I could not shake my underlying belief that this is a gentle, genteel place.

However, like all places that have those qualities, they are usually born of extreme violence in the past: the Residency’s bullet scarring and cannonade damage testifies to that. However, hidden in that, now eerily if pleasantly serene, battlefield was an interesting sight: a mosque within the grounds, built for a dowager noble of the court, had received far less battering than the buildings around it, indeed was still mostly intact. All I could see was a single small bore shot hole in its three domes. The degree to which it had been rebuilt I could not know, but lithographs in the museum described a broadly similar shape to its domes just after the siege, minus some battle-scarred minarets, which I would like to believe where damaged in misfire, due to the mosque’s proximity to the main residency building. As such we can see a situation in which the attackers, I think, and I hope, decided to avoid deliberately targeting a Muslim religious building: here then, an example of that Ganga-Yamuna culture so lionised, of Hindus and Muslims living together, and then fighting together against an alien outsider. Oh how I love the Congress version of history, because I want to believe it.

I wonder then, what the new occupants of the state house in Lucknow will make of all this. I arrived a day after the, shall we say, outspoken Hindutva proponent, and chief priest of an eastern UP temple, Yogi Adityanath, (read violent, riot inciting chauvinist) was sworn in as chief minister of the state. I felt the bite of the new regime, but in the most round about way: my inability to try one of the most famous kebabs in the city, due to a shortage of meat from the forced closure of slaughter houses. One of the previous incumbents, Mayawati, made her mark on the city with a huge, useless park, dedicated to Ambedkar, intellectual hero to the Dalits, and personal hero of mine, for both writing the constitution and summing up some of my own intellectual conflicts in “The Buddha or Karl Marx?”.  It really was quite pretty, when we went to visit it at night, but, also, forebodingly dark and unilluminated in the face of what Brahminical conjuring this part of the country will have to endure in this government’s tenure. There was little trace of the malice and tensions you sometimes feel in divided cities, that I have even felt in certain pubs at home; perhaps that will change.

Syncretism, it appears, is becoming anathema, where once, it is argued, it was ubiquitous. This might be because it is easier to tell stories of the things known, and not the things outside. But that is also false. Perhaps it is the leap into the unknown, this travelling without a map, that makes ideas of mixing so distant: most people would want a plan, not a dusty trail, and missed trains. But, again, perhaps I lionise too much.

Inside the Shia shrines across Lucknow are huge and elaborate paper representations of Hussein’s shrine at Karbala, Iraq, a place that is meant to be so renowned for its peace that a person of any religion may walk its pilgrim trail. The likelihood of going to Iraq anytime soon is limited though, and thus it becomes a metaphor of the sweetest type: a personal one. I would love to go to Karbala, and thus I see the limits of my comfort, of the humanitas I profess to have. My comfort extends further than most, I think, but yes it does have its limits. But where, between here and Karbala do I find them? Maybe its in this lack of fore-knowledge, this unplanned pushing, that I can finally push myself too far, and know where I will end up.

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From the roof of the Bada Imambara (Shrine of Hussein) one can see for miles. But to get there you have to pass through a labyrinth. The architecture in Lucknow even has a sense of humour.

 

14 – Metropolis

Delhi is a city of contradictions. That is a statement that is trite as it comes, but it cliched nature conveys its essential truth. The extremities on show here are almost unbearable; the inside is truly inside, clean, like the inside of a body, the outside relegated to a position more foreign than anything else possible, like seeing your blood welling out of a wound. Behind the high, high walls lie trees, ordered lawn or jungle, but at least green; the roads are red with betel juice stains, thick with pollution, deadened with traffic, and thronged with so so so many humans, of all walks, but very few actually walking, life lived openly in the auto-rickshaw, on the motorbike, closed in the Uber or the fancy SUV.

I wonder what the superhero of this megalopolis would look like. With no need to reach heights, for there are no tall buildings in Delhi, flight is unnecessary, ruling, at a stroke, Hanuman and Superman out. The ultra violence inspired by the city’s history and present would shade into the hero, though Iron Man and Batman’s gratuitous displays of wealth would go unnoticed amongst the hyper-wealthy here, and their trauma rendered mild in comparison to the capacity for misery this city has displayed, and subsequently absorbed. No such patriotic pastiche as Captain America could live unchallenged in this land of questions and endless politics, and Thor, or Krishna, or the more outre religious figures render themselves untenable in a place of belief in such myriad, and yet singular in its perforation of everything, forms.

No I think its something more akin to the Hulk: deformed by pollution, and completely fine, pleasant even, on the surface, but underneath, roiling, wretched, redeemable.

***

The national museum was just that, too national. The reason I went, to gaze on the exquisite seal art of Harappa, and its fantastically advanced pottery, proved fulfilling enough to me. However, to be baldly told by the audioguide that all representations of men somehow represented Shiva, or a statue of a women the Devi, a pottery phallus a shiva linga, was too much. Far from merely incorrect, these interpretations of the material evidence of the Indus civilisation are damaging, a politicisation of the oldest human experience of urban collectivity, one the seems devoid of violent hierarchy, and redolent in creativity, trade and rosy tints. The precision of the intaglio work on the undecipherable seal stones they used to mark goods travelling to Babylon and Sumer speaks volumes: this is confidence, this is what looks to us a dawn, to them something that had existed comfortably for near a millennia.

Beyond that, endless galleries of indecipherable statues, ethnic costumes, dust filled halls (having to duck under several restorers ladders to look for the woodwork gallery was interesting, especially when they didn’t see me, and I had to dodge bits of falling ceiling plaster) and a huge collection of undeniably sumptuous miniature paintings. It felt tired, not the battleground of ideology I thought it would be. Perhaps the renovation will give it the facelift it needs to be the shiny centre proving the Hindutva version of history to be forever true.

The only emotional moment of the whole thing was reading Ashoka’s Girnar Rock Edict, a cast of which was placed out front of the museum, so not even original; likewise my emotion felt synthetic, contradictory, the sentiments to human care and animal welfare laid out two millennia ago, ringing hollow against the present age. Why should we believe in progress: my unwillingness to indulge nationalism does not mean that I am free of the want for golden ages myself.

Why do I believe, when I wander Lodi Gardens, or the multi-coloured, multi-faithed streets of the old Shahjahanabad, that somehow harmony was the preserve of my ancestors and not me and mine? Did things get too quickly wrought, the expediency of a continual turnover of new rulers and rules dictating accommodation? I have in the past called this the “Sultan of Bijapur’s Problem”, how does one of evangelical religion attempt to rule a populace of a different creed, and I think the expediency of rule factors into it greatly. Successful rulers were aware of this, and would only use vilification as a justification for the exigency of war. Only, as now, when there are settled and tested polities, do insidious ways of rule based on forced perceptions of difference actually make sense; when war is unlikely and your survival unthreatened, only then do you consolidate by turning your own populace into a self-inflicting device.

But again, thats a half-truth, and entirely my way of watching history unfold. I watch from cities, from the seats of power, not the countryside, where the scrabble of the day is given to local and narrower understandings of the way of the world. And neither one is correct, its just that, well, Enkiddu went with Gilgamesh back to the city, abandoning the wilds in favour of what would be my civilisation. The question might be whether the people of the Indus valley had a similar way of viewing things, and, despite their undecipherable language, I would guess probably yes.

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Tughlukabad, the great stone fortress to the south of Delhi, forced to abandonment by lack of water, is illustrative here. As an aside, the lack of people is not often attributed to aqueous reasons, but to a curse from the Sufi Nizammuddin Auliya, stones from whose settlement where used to build the fort. The curse was to the effect that Tughlak’s children would be forced to abandon the fort and its only inhabitants would be goatherds and bandits. So it gave me a thrill to be wandering the ruins and be told by someone, who popped up from nowhere, that I shouldn’t go any further, that it was dangerous and there might be people out to get me, so i turned on my heel and was almost immediately confronted by a goat. A priceless tingle ran down me, that connection to history that I crave.

The fort itself though is singularly impressive, lumps of masonry so large they haven’t been plundered for any of Delhi’s other cities, a nine and half long perimeter wall of a thickness I haven’t seen in any other pre-gunpowder fortification, ostensibly as a defence against the mongols. It was never needed, as the Turks in Tughlak’s army, and successor Delhi sultans, where almost as effective at cavalry tactics as the mongols, and so didn’t face the same challenge as non-cavalry based armies. But these walls also speak of something else, as does the mini fortification that surrounds Tughlak’s tomb, adjoining the fort. They were not trying to keep something out, but rather trying to keep the civilisation in, hem the whole city into a walled structure, and not let out the power, the prestige, the sheer history present in building another city on the Yamuna floodplain.

So Delhi is a city that is trying to keep its civilisation, and failing, its walls being broken down by capital and the sheer mass of people pushing in. What rises from this is yet another city of skyscrapers and the unholy symmetry of modern neo-liberal architecture, and one that is likely as cursed as Tughlakabad is. There are no heroes left to save it from itself, other than its own history.

13 – Pillar

There is no pleasure in traveling. It is more an occasion for spiritual testing. If we understand by culture the exercise of our most intimate sense—that of eternity—then we travel for culture.

  • Camus

Now, I have no idea if this is a load of balls or not – but it does have a certain ring to it, albeit one firmly ensconced in the French academy. I suppose I’m looking for something very specific when I go to; but not the infinite, the finite, the quantifiable experience, the very real feeling of being somewhere different, and trying to feel what it truly is like there.

The dichotomy is evident: you cannot find the infinite at home, and you cannot truly feel a place, filtered as it is by you reading a different page of the book of the world than the chapter and verse you’ve been reciting since the cradle. But then why do we turn the page and go on our way?

To be honest i’m terrible at seeking infinite: when I go in search of history its not the infinite variability of the human experience that I find laid bare, but the stories of the exact individuals that were present in a place, no matter how far removed they might be from me.

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Gawp

I could only gawp and marvel at the Ashoka pillar in Feroz Shah’s fort, on the old banks of the Yamuna. The river has shifted away from its old course, the method by which he floated the massive piece of stone, one single piece, from where it had fallen over upriver. The pillar itself, covered round, and half way up, in the alien language of Ashoka’s moral precepts and commandments, had been graffitied by countless ages, to make it intelligible. I spied Sanskrit, apparently relating the unknown artefact to Vishnu, Hindi, Arabic (Bismillah etc.), two huge, crude Shiva tridents, an artistically rendered and well proportioned elephant. Trying to make sense of the thing, its meaning, meant marking it, not letting it sit undisturbed.

Its history had a reality to it that you don’t find in museums, with the neat white labels, the nationalistic explanations. Indeed the huge structure at which summit the pillar sat was filled with dark cells, made exquisite through the burning of incense to propitiate the djinn of Delhi, endless pages of notebooks tacked to the walls with what I assume where prayers, flower petal offerings everywhere, and the startled eyes of holy men and supplicants staring out at me, sat higher than the mosque of victory next door. The place lived, capped by this ancient monolith, meaning far more than monolithic versions of history, or of religion. Its not that, because I’ve read on the Mauryas, this place meant something just to me. It meant and still means something to many people; and yet I cannot get over the fact that Ashoka is shouting through the ages at me, and it felt like just me, he himself having dictated the alien script above. And Feroz Shah, marvelling at this strange relic of a heathen past, saw fit, again, to raise it as a monument to his conquest higher than the mosque that was meant to be his purpose.

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Startled by eagles

Standing at the this coal-face of history, this rich seam of experience, I felt that emotion I, one, feels so rarely: of sheer connectedness, the shivering truth that wonder at the past, present and future, binds. No matter that the people I know and can picture are all aristocratic rulers, those whose names lived: I felt a connection too to the labourers who saved, floated and raised this monument, who would have wondered at it, trying to comprehend it; the brahmins brought to speculate on it, calling it Vishnu’s walking staff; the worshippers at the mosque reminded of the great history of the venerable earth before certain events in Arabia; the men who were there for a while on the top while I was, taking in the site, and unable to understand the English I was using to try and engage them. All looked up, and all had a reason to wonder.

Oblivious to it all, the sun passed over the pillar as it had for two thousand three hundred years. The birds flew pell mell, uncaring: a host of eagles had startled the pigeons. They flew around the pillar, around and around, and away.

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Let’s not forget: history is still living. Its just that it lives apart from most of us now.

12 – Wooz

There is something painfully ironic about vaccinations. Using a sterile and wraithlike version of a potent enemy we can protect ourselves against the real thing: I have four of these revenants swimming in my blood right now, making me feel like I can sense my arteries and veins, the white-knight blood cells rising to the challenge, adapting to defeat this weak foe. It must be like watching gatling guns spray bow wielding samurai, or that scene in Zulu where a few bolt action rifles take down unfortunately faceless hordes.

I feel real woozy though, so it must be that the impotent fifth column is having some effect…

I wonder at this medicine, but not at the mechanisation of the metaphor. Perhaps it is far too easy to assume victory when our technology is just better. But are we winning this war against disease by testing ourselves against weaker versions of it? I would not for a minute advocate larger doses of live viruses, nor am I some crazy anti-vaxxer (my sore arms prove it…) And yet, in each instance, the samurai martial ethic won out in the blazing fashion of the Japanese Empire, and the Zulus won back a part of a state. Likewise antibiotics, which are more like an attempted precision drone strike against certain parts of the infecting entity, but which lose their efficacy the more you use them, and, perversely, the more accurate they become, to potentially disastrous consequences, and at least morally questionable ones.

Did we, and by this I mean exclusively the imperial facets of the West, learn nothing from that perceived moment of superiority? Apparently the only lesson learned is to try, try, try again, but this time the fight maybe with the live viruses of revolutionary fervour without, and nationalism (a product, I could argue, of the almost hideous ease and complacency with which the imperial project was carried out) infecting within.

This seems wrong though, to equate these outside historical instances with contemporary mores, and making the latter, ha, more virulent. Yet I cannot help but wonder at Yeats’s gyres, his repeating patterns of history. While overtly focussed on the West (what was ‘dark’ about the ages Baghdad spent in its prime I will never understand [except the slavery, which is everywhere, all the time]), it is hard not to argue for the somewhat repetitive nature of events, where things are kin and kind to those that have happened, occurred or manifested before. We look down a deep well of collective experience, and can only bring up water. Indeed, historical precedent is de rigueur in most societies: Chinese emperors finding justifications in the chronicles of Zhou exploits, saints in the life of Christ and the law in its own previous paradigms.

So looking to the past then, what are the white blood cells, that must come from within, against the widening of the gyre, the parlous pushing out, murdering, excluding of people? The panacea used to be democracy, thought that looks to be in a right state right about now. Education? Given enough time, money and thought, we could breed and condition a generation of Newtons, apparently. But those resources are in eternal lack. No, I look for something different, as these viruses swim through my veins, and that is power. And one type of power specifically: that of love, compassion, virtue. Humans can convince themselves of a great many things, but the look on Michael Caine’s face always betrayed, to me, horror. I don’t know how the Imperial forces felt crushing the Ezo Republic, but I can’t imagine it was glee. It is power, to make those in more potent positions feel regret. It is power, conscripts firing above to miss their targets. It is power, in that push back. The power of who are normally termed the powerless, sure, but power nonetheless. The power in shame, quite lacking on a certain Hill right now, but sure as the sun to return.

***

Anyway, enough mixed metaphors. Denatured viruses swim through me to insulate me against Asia, apparently. I leave in three days.

11 – Failure

Did I fail?

Could I fail?

Was it me who failed?

What is failure? There is an assumption made, I think, by this late capitalistic society, that happiness is not relative, but internal; if you cannot find it, it is a fault within, not without, because your every inner whim can be fulfilled. You have infinite choice, and this bounded infinity represents the pinnacle of human achievement: the perfection of human beings by their own will. How Nietzschean…

However, failure, failure to achieve happiness, is most often not an internal issue, nor one of will. Is will served by medication? The internal problem may be treated, but the relative outside one remains unsolved, and insoluble, by the assumption that business as normal is the basis for all understandings and actions. That is, your inner turmoil is just that, yours, and inner. Don’t inflict it on me, madman. Sit raving at the back of the bus, and few will ask my problems, most will pass by (I have include myself, sadly, in the latter category; I rave and wail and beat my chest inside…).

Thus, my failure to work out what makes me truly happy, what purpose I should have to achieve that, is a unique failure of myself, on my part. And too right, too. Over-reaching introspection has brought me to this impasse. My external conditions have been more than conducive to the creation of a universe of choices for me. I suppose I expected, and feared, my dharma pushing me down one, so took a backseat to analyse my destiny’s progress. But this is against the sentiment of the age, which is to launch a rocket-ship of self off into this universe, chart in hand, and planet in mind. If you burn up or fall into a black-hole, so be it, sad though it is; at least you tried.

I can only imagine the wrenching effect the discovery of new worlds would have had; the fact that our European ideology of boundless possibility only exists with the refutation of churches and the rejection of kings in new and unsullied space is not negligible. Who are you, was a question, not asked with great urgency by most, as they had not the time or energy. Do I, in reneging on that duty now sully them, their toil, their terrible received opinions, somehow?

My actions are potentially limitless, but they feel constrained. That I needed to be moving towards something, that it was to fail to not have a destination in mind, was not something I was aware of. Indeed, the infinite choice my individual self could make I think occluded this possibility in my mind. I mean, I will not fail the way those previous generations could – barring some catastrophe, I will not starve. But my psychological self, my individuality, is apparently now contingent on the choices I make, and have made, rather than on some deeper idea. How to act in the world and remain unsullied by it: a question for Buddha or the quisling Gandhi – hardly role models of robust, muscular action. Indeed both rejected the idea of goal as instrumental, and the Buddha would call it sin for believing that any mark I make could be good, true, and lasting.

Oh well… lets see if I can live.

10 – Novus

Hades: Why do we build the wall?/ my children, my children…

Cerberus [Chorus]: The wall keeps out the enemy…the enemy is poverty / and we build the wall to keep us free / Thats why we build the wall / We build the wall to keep us free.”

– Anais Mitchell, Why We Build The Wall

I kept on circling back, moving falcon-like through the city, always with a birds-eye view on my offline map, to Karlskirche, that huge baroque pile. Masterpiece is not an overly attributed word in the case of this fantasia on taking and breaking classical themes. This is the legacy of the want for new Rome writ large: fronted by two huge Trajan-esque columns showing swirling spirals of Hapsburg and Christian themes, myriad squared circles and lyrical compositions in pilaster orders, and my favourite baroque motif, that of the broken arch, the keystone removed, the ultimate mastery of a complete form, a statement of eschatological end-times, that what is, will one day no longer be, and you better believe it.*

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My interest was most piqued by an insight from my host: that this church, this defiant dome, decorous and almost gross in its statement, would have dominated the new walls to the south, would have always been visible to the Janissaries as they lay in their besieging trenches. I can imagine it peeking massively over the complex jungle of star fortifications, redoubts, bastions and cruel artillery. 1683. What an odd year for the tide to be turned, back and yet ebb it did, and the gyre closed for the Hapsburg, for Danubia, for nations, for European dominance; it opens, yawning wide, on the old desert, the endless steppe, hidden mountains, the inland sea. Annus mirabilis.

The strangest thing though: it turned out not to be true. The church was finished in 1737, but the metaphor is too neat, made more so by its apocryphal nature.

We passed our own one of those. An annus mirabilis. We turned the tide back, opened the gyre on ourselves. The tide may have looked like a golden one, but still, it is stemmed. And our culture opens itself up, becomes wider and the distances greater between ourselves. We are shouting over walls at one another, great star-fortifications, being furiously built. We can still see each other’s churches, temples, museums, libraries poking over the top. But the canons just get loaded again, with shot of greater and greater precision, the redoubts become more fearsome.

And who benefits from this building? From the inability to be human to one another, to be subject to the guttural horror of potential canister shot from everyone? The emperors. The Topkapi still holds treasures beyond count, prophet’s swords to be drawn at the dawn; the Karlskirche, the imperial church, is still festooned in silver, a great gold Hebrew phrase poised above the altar as if naming this God can give an even greater sense of control over a world he has deemed fit to end.

The same thought occurred to me watching the new-years fireworks through a whisky fuzz. I hope the end times are as colourful as this, at least. Standing on Calton Hill observing the north of the city for the first time on a Hogmanay eve, there were scores of smaller displays stretching out towards the water, the closest I’ve ever seen to my imaginings of battle played out in my city. Of course battle is not like that, sound of trumpet and musket rattle and all those lies: its a messy, horrible business. Thats what, above all my education, imparted to me: avoid battles.

I hate the assault on these fortresses. I lose so much of myself. But this year, if the end times, the widening gyre, the ceremony of innocence drowned, are upon us, perhaps I must join battle. Build supply and communication trenches, load my own artillery and rally myself for assault. But above all I must keep my eyes fixed on the church above, the mosque, the apartment, the skyscraper, the federal, imperial, corporate edifice, as apocryphal as the goodness in them might be. Don’t think about the walls, just take them down, take them down, take them down.

* The church itself offered an interesting insight as to its direction and dedication. I wondered in just before an evening concert, bypassing the normal odiousness of paying the Catholic Church, and picked up the only leaflet on evident display – a life and times of the last Hapsburg empire, Charles. Not the namesake of the Church, but venerated nonetheless. The pamphlet, in simpering tones, outlined how he had been betrayed by the Parliament in the creation of the Austrian Republic, those same iron countenances on display outside and strangely at odds with the theatre set Ringstrasse setting of the parliament building. Charles then tried to claim Hungary’s crown, as his empire was dismembered by the Allies. He lost Prague, the golden city, to a successful Czech Republic; he lost great swathes of Galicia and Poland. He lost the hard won Balkans. The last Hapsburg emperor, the leaflet was at great pains to tell me, was a man for peace, for a united Europe. Strangely, I got the feeling that he believed Europe was best united under a double-eagle, and that his want for peace was mere war-exhaustion. But in a year of imperial what-ifs, I’m inclined to take it more leniently: a Hapsburg in Vienna may have reduced the chances of a Germany resurgent under a sick Austrian savant. But who am I to say? The pamphlet ended with, as theses are wont, a prayer: pray to saint Charles, for the protection of imperial authority everywhere… and the peace won through it.

9 – Home

A growth myth. A gross myth. Agro-smith. Hmmm…

So its cold here, and damp. Further north I suppose, the sky itself is colder. Its the same as it was, but then I had yet to do my faint and usual heart-lift ritual of cycling across George IV bridge and then flying down the mound. My city is pretty at this time of year, all dolled up to make the grey less, the sky a more fitting church for this lighted altar. The lights are more ferocious this year, read as either a greater shout against our collective winter, or a desperate advert for the acquisitive motive that this time of year promotes. A huge illumined cathedral on George Street pulsates in time to electro-ceilidh, and we searched in vain for the place everyone was looking, for a band in the centre, for what everyone was pointing their phone at. In the middle all we could find was an ouroboros of two drunk middle aged women reeling; the phones were pointed at the pointlessly throbbing lights, fleeting record of the endless fight of Ahura Mazda.

This is home. The one I remember, all fallen leaves and the halfway house between an uncomfortable nostalgia and a comfortable compulsion to leave.

There is some idea that travel will make us change. For me it forces me inward, down to myself, the thing I always feel slipping when I’m in my family home, when I’m lonely. But do I, in the word so fabled, grow? Am I actually made better by being a nomad, seeking those smells so different from the cold mulch and warm bread of my home? If I choose no roots, no heirs, no fruit, do I gain by it? Or am I lost to moksha, not even attempting to be a householder first?

Finding the macrocosm in the smallest unit, myself, and my sophistic solipsisms, might seem unwarranted, these questions being the preserve of the comfortable, but in the end I am the only test-bed I have. And I cannot deny my own comfort, the guilt that comes from being able to think in such terms, the blood-guilt of generations of labourers before me: those who built my house, tilled the land from where I achieve sustenance. We are told, in no uncertain terms, that the reasons for the stormy sea of the world is lack of growth: with growth, all problems would be swept aside, a rising tide, a larger pie etcetera etcetera. (This, echoing friend Piketty, to say never mind the gluttons who get the extra helping of pie, or those in sleek yachts with fibreglass hulls and not overcrowded Zodiacs, or grass-woven coracles…) When I travel, I, according to the blank gaps in my amusingly titled Curriculum Vitae, have no growth; this can only be achieved, in this life, by employment, the use of my labour, the exercise of my head in placing more blocks on the pristine white towers of my already overbearing education. Its almost as if I do not think when I am not doing something to enrich others; its almost as if the world sits still when economic indicators show that it is. Both of these fallacies are demonstrably untrue.

But again that guilt. The livelihoods of most are dependent on those indicators, even if they probably shouldn’t be. Who am I to pronounce in such a manner the ordering of things? I, who, sitting at home doing nothing, do nothing. Here to forfend me, I continue these travails of the mind and the rhythm of the typed finger, and I continue on roads until I desert myself, or my imperial mind makes a desert, calls it peace, and dwells there until I can hear the angels.

Next stop Vienna. Imperial fantasy and hopeless heart of our burning Europe.

George Street, Edinburgh

8 – Breach

berlin-wall-50th-annivers-010So, what next? For me, the furthest north and furthest east: Maine. For this country flicking past my window, growing sparer by the minute and sparser by the mile? I can see the spires of brick-built churches, with muscular mid-victorian designs that reflect those of home. I can see industry, so much, stretching so far; the woods, lakes, rivers and ponds farther. It is cold.

New England is a small stretch of sanity, though, born of seafood and good company, before I am dragged magnetically back to the arrhythmically beating heart of New York, uplifting and crushing; liberal eye, and place of soaring gold palace; dreams to be rained out, catastrophes made whole.

This is a real city. In other places in America I have not struggled with the grammar of the urban landscape, as I have with Indian and Middle Eastern conurbations, but merely to find the poetry in it. I don’t like skyscrapers, on the whole they are just clutter, mental, helial, and physical, and in other towns they have seemed brutal, unnecessary, injunctions against the sky. Here though, here, they draw the eye up, uplifting the gaze to far distant embellishments, grand achievements as fragile as gothic clerestories, just to grind it back to the gritty pavement. I can find myself floating along in affluence in the east upper 70s, and then be confronted by someone asking for money to eat. Perhaps its just that America’s huge variations, hugeness itself, is found in this city most manifest, and, despite myself, I am still in awe of it.

All men are made equal until they can build taller than the others; Fountainhead, Trump, whoever, it doesn’t matter, this city, all cities if we follow Simmel and Mill, will make you assert your distinction, your individuality. That is, until we are all the same in the heavenly city. Manhattan though has no gates to welcome the faithful, only bridges and underground rail, and it is already made of glass and studded with more precious stones than John could have conceived.

And now I have to ask myself the hardest question of all: what do I do? Once more unto the breach, and the walls are all up and obvious now. But in the story of the Dutch boy and the dyke, it took one person to repair the wall; we know that East Germany’s nemesis came not from one David Hasselhoff concert or the mistaken announcement of one bumbling DDR official, but the entire city rising against a visible symbol of oppression.

Where is the visible edifice I can contemplate and revile? I don’t find it in the old targets, cathedral frontages and the imperial faces of western governmental institutions, nor the new: Trump tower is just too crass to bring down. The revolutionary’s targets are ideal now: literally, the mental barriers to common consciousness should be weaker now more than ever, and if we know the only altruists destined to violence are the terrorists, then now is the time to strike hard at virtual and ideational targets, the great, beloved facades that have weathered so much. We bring the rain, the reign of words and a rationality of an expressed humanist and planetary morality; despite it all, now is not the time for relativism. We need a rallying cry, and I can think of no better than: rhea, philos, agape. Change, brotherhood, compassion to all. No wait, I can do better: the human and the human-space above all. Better: Karuna, candid, can do! Humans, humans, humans. Earth, Earth, Earth.

But are small gestures enough? I marched for Europe, much good it did me; Union Square station is festooned with rainbow-hued post-it notes expressing solidarity, fucktrumpism, and an articulated, 3-inch by 3-inch, rage. If the rights of corporations are placed above this, us, we, ants in the glass city, will probably deserve it. No, don’t think that. The colony is greater than the Queen, but it is not in their nature to question it. We can still smash glass structures, break out of false Yerusalem, leave the cave. The battlecry so far, This Is Not Normal, is as nostalgic as Make X-Value Y-Value Again. Both imply conservation points, while embracing change: the fundamental disconnect of politics, conservative and liberal, socialist and Marxist. All we have done so far, all the philosophers, all those who ache in the night for knowledge, smell sophia on their sheets, ease themselves by writing verses, all they have done is interpret history. The point is to live. The point is to run with it. Never be that boat borne back, never. Its all we had, its all we truly have, but memory is a conditioned state, and, like all things, must pass.

But, in answer to my question, and in violation of my principles, I must, for now, keep being Ananda, and keep thinking. The past is coming: humans of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but everything you thought could be true!