Friday, November 25, 2016

Traditional Transgender Communities in India

Indian parliament is debating a bill on the rights of transgender persons. In 2016 it is being discussed in Loksabha, the lower house of parliament. However, some groups of transgender persons (TGPs) are opposing parts of this bill, arguing that it will harm their rights.

Recently a press conference was organised in Delhi about the TG bill. Representatives of TGPs from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Puducherry, Haryana and Delhi were present. This article tries to understand their main concerns. (Below, an image from the press conference).

Before we talk about the concerns of traditional TGP communities in India, it is necessary to understand what kind of communities are these.

TRADITIONAL TRANSGENDER COMMUNITIES IN INDIA

Different sacred texts of Indic religions provide examples and stories of TGPs including the Ardhnarishwar avatar of Shiva, the Mohini avatar of Vishnu during the churning of oceans for the nectar of immortality and the episodes from Mahabharat where Arjun becomes a woman called Brihannala and the story of Irvan during the Kurukshetra war.

While ancient texts illustrate traditional attitudes and practices regarding gender and sexuality, societies do not always behave according to those ancient ideas. The attitudes towards TGPs in today's India include giving them specific social and cultural roles in circumscribed areas such as weddings, child-birth and traditional theatre, while at the same time excluding them from mainstream community lives. Some of them are sex workers, which is often used against them for their further marginalisation and exploitation.

There have been a few examples of transgender persons assuming power and playing important social roles in medieval India such as Malik Kafur, a military general of Alauddin Khilji, and Malik Sarvar and his adopted son Malik Qaranfal (known as Mubarak Shah), who ruled Jaunpur in what is now Uttar Pradesh in the 14th century. However, these can only be considered as exceptions that prove the rule of social marginalisation of TGPs in India. In the post-independence period, many TGPs have broken out of the societal boundaries to study and to take up different professions, but again, they are still a small minority among the TGPs.

"Traditional TGPs Communities"  of male-to-female (MtF) persons came up to deal with their exclusion from mainstream community lives. In different parts of India the traditional TGP communities share many similarities but are also different. These are led by senior TGPs, who may be called Guru. The members of communities also identify each other through family kinship-names such as nani, dadi, mother and sisters. Such TGP communities have specific names such as Haveli or Dera, used by their members.

Though the ancient Indic stories also include female-to-male (FtM) persons such as the Shikhandi story in Mahabharat, FtM persons are less visible in India and are not part of the traditional communities.

Different parts of India have different terms about TGPs including Hijra/Hijda, Kinnar, Kothi, Aravani, Khusra, Pavaiya, Maada and Jogappa. These terms may be used in different ways in different parts of India.

There is limited documentation and understanding about the lives of TGPs in the traditional communities. Often the documentation and understanding come from persons trained in the western/modern analytical methodologies rather than from persons who have grown up in the TGP-communities with a consequent distortion of what they understand and how they explain it.

Not all the TGPs in India live as members of these traditional communities, many of them live outside. Considering the huge amount of discrimination and violence faced by TGPs, I feel that even larger number of TGPs may be hidden in their families. However I have been unable to find any studies or even estimates of the percentage of TGPs living in traditional communities and outside these.

The traditional TGP communities of MtF persons are organised in family clans with state and regional level structures. The proposed bill has prompted the coming together of these communities to form a national level body. Male transgender persons (FtM) are also participating in the building of the all India TGP organisation.

A national meeting of the TGP communities from different states is being planned in Madhya Pradesh in December 2016, where the constitution of the All India organisation will be formalised.

TRANSGENDER PERSONS IN INDIA

The national census conducted in 2011, for the first time, collected separate data on transgender persons. According to this data, there were 4.8 lakhs (a little less than half a million) transgender persons in India including 11% of children. Around 56% of them could read and write, though literacy rates varied between different states. For example, around 68% of TGPs in Maharashtra could read and write while in Rajasthan the percentage went down to 48%.

Considering that many TGPs remain hidden in their families to avoid societal prejudice and discrimination, actual number of TGPs in India is likely to be much higher.

Most of the data regarding TGPs collected in the 2011 census has not yet been analysed. This data can provide us with important information about the lives of TGPs such as - how many of them reach old age, how many of them have university degrees and how many of them live in communities with other TGPs. I think that organisations active in the areas of human rights and in more specific issues of Queer rights need to take this up with the Census department of Government of India so that the details of this data are released. 

BILL ON THE RIGHTS OF TGP  IN THE INDIAN PARLIAMENT

The bill was originally presented in the Upper House of Indian Parliament (Rajya Sabha) by the DMK leader Tiruchi Siva on 12th December 2014. After some modifications this private bill was passed by Rajya Sabha on 24th April 2015. The bill approved by Rajya Sabha was presented in the lower house of the Parliament (Lok Sabha) on 26 February 2016. Since then, after consultations with various bodies another version of this bill has been developed.

All India Transgender Persons’ Organisation was happy with the initial version of the bill introduced in 2014. They felt that the amendments introduced in the version passed by Rajya Sabha had diluted some of their rights, but they still accepted and supported that bill. However, they express strong opposition to some of the changes introduced in the present version of bill being discussed in Lok Sabha.

Government officials have assured them that after the end of the on-going winter session of the parliament, a national level meeting will be organised in Delhi where all the different groups of TG persons will be invited for discussions on the proposed bill.

CONCERNS OF TRADITIONAL TGP COMMUNITIES REGARDING THE RIGHTS OF TGP BILL

The main concerns about the proposed bill are as follows:

Representation of the TG communities: TG persons feel that Government has consulted only NGOs about the bill. In their opinion, NGOs get funding for and are focused only on HIV prevention and they do not understand what it means to be a TG person and all the different issues that are part of their lives in traditional TG communities. Therefore, TG persons ask for direct representation in consultations with Government of India.

The Bill is against the traditional TG communities: Often TG persons, including children, are abandoned or forced out of their families. Working adults, when they decide to come out with their TG identity, they lose their jobs. The traditional TGP communities take care of and provide emotional support, peer support, help and advice to them. They feel that the proposed bill negates and criminalises these roles of the traditional communities.

Traditionally TG persons have not had opportunities for education and proper employment, while over centuries they have developed social roles such as Badhai system where they visit families during marriages and other happy occasions such as birth of children.

While better opportunities for education and employment of children and young TG persons are welcome steps in the proposed bill, making traditional activities such as Badhai as illegal is not the right answer. TG communities already have children and young persons who are going to school and who want to take up proper professions. However the older TG persons who are not educated and do not have professional skills, how will they survive if they can not take part in their traditional activities and if their traditional communities are seen as illegal?

The bill proposes punishment and jail for persons who will discriminate against TG persons. However they point out that among those who harass and exploit the TG persons, police persons are the biggest perpetrators. Thus they ask how will this anti-discrimination work?

The bill proposes jail for TGPs found begging on the streets. Such provisions ignore the prejudice, discrimination, oppression and exploitation faced by TG persons from the police. Such laws will increase the police harassment against TG persons because they can be simply picked up from streets.

Promoting work and empowerment of TG persons: The original version of the bill included incentives to private companies for employing TG persons. They feel that this was a useful provision and should be maintained.
Definitions of TG Persons in the Bill: The proposed bill also has some definitions which are problematic. For example, references to half-man and half-woman (Ardhnarishwar) are taken from ancient texts such as Mahabharat, which are metaphorical and not related to real TG persons.

A related issue is the lack of the words such as Hijra and Kinnar in the proposed bill. The bill does not use these traditional words and ignores their meanings and significance to the traditional TG communities in India.

COMMENTS

I think that the concerns of All India TGPs Organisation raise three kinds of issues:

(i) The first is a practical issue regarding lives of adolescent, young adults and older TG persons who have grown up in traditional communities outside the mainstream society and who feel threatened by the measures proposed in the Bill, because it increases the risks for their criminalisation, oppression, exploitation and marginalisation.

The measures proposing the right of TG children to live in their families, to study, to work and to live lives with dignity are important and should be promoted but without penalising those who have grown up and live in the margins of the mainstream communities.

In my opinion, traditional TGP communities are a societal response to their marginalisation. Families when they decide to expel and exclude their child with gender dysphoria, they call upon these traditional communities to take away those children. Children should have a right to live in a loving and caring atmosphere in their own families. However, the social change will not come just because a new law is made. Declaring traditional communities as unwanted and unwelcome will mean removing their existing social support system.  Thus, there has to be an adequate period of transition.

(ii) A second issue is more cultural. Traditional communities that have developed over centuries, provide specific roles of peer support, guidance, emotional support and sustenance for TGPs. Little is known or understood about these roles. Promoting their dismantling and declaring them as unwanted, without understanding the kind of support and services they provide, does not seem to me  to be a good idea.

Thus, I believe that there is an urgent need for research and studies in TGPs issues conducted by transgender persons themselves including persons who live in traditional communities. It is also important to develop adequate research methodologies which do not view everything only from western/modern analytical frameworks but which give equal importance of ideas and understandings of persons in the traditional TGP communities.

(iii) A third issue is about the role of the public institutions. As the TG persons complain about their exploitation by the police, similar complaints are also made about gender-based violence and other issues related to marginalised population groups. Measures are needed to promote institutional changes in the police and judicial system.

One way to promote institutional change in the police could be to nominate a local group of TG persons as expert-advisers for their local police stations, so that they have opportunities for regular interaction with police to inform them and to sensitise them on TG issues. However, this would also require opportunities for training of TG persons to play this role.

CONCLUSIONS

While traditional TGP communities have a long history, TGP movement in India is just beginning. I plead my own limited knowledge about the issues. From what I have understood, TGPs are divided in different groups including traditional communities, other persons outside the communities, some persons in or working with NGOs and the silent and hidden group of people who remain in their families.

These different groups may share many common goals but they also have significant differences. Building a national organisation in which these different groups can join together to share their common goals and make a joint fight for their rights would probably be a long-drawn process. In this sense, formation of All India Organisation of Traditional Communities of TGPs should be seen as an important first step.


Note: Apart from one picture from the press conference (second from the top), all the remaining images used in this post are from the North-East Queer Pride Parades 2015-16 held in Guwahati (Assam, India).

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Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Games We Used To Play

A visit to the Jan Jaati Sanghralaya (Tribal Museum) of Bhopal (Madhya Pradesh, India) brought back the memories of my childhood. If anyone had asked me what kind of games do the tribal children in India play, I wouldn’t have known what to answer. I was surprised that most of the tribal games shown in this museum are the same games that I had played while growing up in the Delhi of 1950s and 1960s.

This post presents images of the traditional games played by children in India before the TV and video-games culture took over our lives. The images of this post come from the Tribal Museum of Bhopal as well as from other parts of India. Let me start this post with an image that I love. It is of a simple innocent game - a girl playing with a balloon. I love it because, in it the girl has been dressed in a sari like an adult, but she is still a child and she expresses the innocent joy of her childhood in her play. 
Games played in ancient India

References to games where players use a dice are found in the ancient Hindu texts of Rigveda and Mahabharat. The war of Kurukshetra, the central event of Mahabharat, starts from a game of Chausar, a dice-based board game, in which the elder Pandav brothers, Yudhisthir, bets on his wife Draupadi.

17th precept of Buddha in Brahmajala Sutta written in ancient Pali language advices the followers to avoid playing games and thus provides a list of common games played in India the BCE era. The image below shows the English translation of this text along with the descriptions of different games.

A bass relief sculpture from the Buddhist stupa ruins from 2nd century BCE in Bhahut village of Satna district in Madhya Pradesh shows persons playing a chausar or chaupad like game with the dice.
Both the above pictures are from Bharata - @Dauhshanti

Thus, ancient Indians had different kinds of popular games. You will find echoes of many of those games in those described below, with which I had grown up.

Traditional Indian Games

Most of these games do not require any special equipment. Sometimes they include a ball made from scraps of old clothes. Some games require stones of different shapes. Often the game-boards are designed on the ground with chalk or a brick.

In my childhood, we used dark coloured smooth tamarind seeds as the dice, by cleaving the seeds into two, so that one side is white and the other is dark. Thus, if you throw six pieces of tamarind half-seeds, you can count the seeds which land on their backs with the white part up.

So come with me on this journey of discovering the traditional Indian games. If you have an opportunity to visit Bhopal, do not forget to visit the amazing Jan Jaati museum with its rich exposition of colours and arts of tribal India. If you can't visit it, you can get a glimpse of its wonders at the museum website.

Poshamba or Poshampa

In the tribal museum they call it Poshamba, we used to call it Poshampa. In this game two kids form a
gate with their hands and sing a small ditty while the other children pass underneath. The ditty is: “Poshampa bhai poshampa, dakuon ne kya kiya, sau rupaye ki ghadi churayi, ab to jail mein jana padega” (Poshampa brother poshampa, what did the bandits do, robbed a 100 Rs watch, now they must go to jail). As the ditty finishes, the kid under the arms-gate is caught and has to choose between two words like allu-baigan (potato-egg plant) or sona-chandi (gold-silver) and depending upon the choice, s/he has to go behind one of the gate-kids and make a queue. Like this, all the kids are divided into 2 teams who will have a final round of pulling each other till one side falls. The image above from the tribal museum shows the final moment of the tug of war.

Chaktak Gondra or Ghoda Badam Shahi or Kokla-Chhipaki

The tribal museum calls it "Chaktak Gondra" and informs that the cities children call it "Ghoda
Badam Shahi". However, we used to call it "Kokla-chhipaki". In this game a child playing Ghoda (horse) holds a cloth and sings a ditty while s/he goes around other children sitting in a ring. The ditty says, “Kokla chhipaki jumme raat aayi re, jeda aage pichhe dekhe uski shamat aayi re” (Friday night of the hidden Kokla has come, whosoever will look behind, will be punished).

If any child tries to look back, Ghoda can hit that child with the cloth. While walking around, Ghoda quietly puts the cloth behind one of the sitting children. If Ghoda can complete one round without the sitting child being aware of the cloth at his back, Ghoda can beat that child with the cloth. Next, the child who was beaten becomes the Ghoda and the whole thing is repeated.

Thus the child playing Ghoda has to be vigilant and cunning, keeping a poker-face so that the sitting children do not realise that the cloth has been left behind one of them.

Pitthu

Kids are divided into 2 teams. Five or seven flat stones are placed one above the other in the centre of the space.

A kid from team one has to throw the ball so as to break the stone-tower. While kids of the second team need to collect the ball and throw it so that it hits one of the kids of first team, the other team needs to rebuild the broken tower without being hit. If the first team manages to complete the tower without getting hit by the ball then they have 1 pitthu in their account. If they are unable to complete the tower and get hit, then it is second team’s turn to throw the ball. The team with larger number of completed towers (pitthu) wins the game.

This was one of my favourite games in the school. I remember playing it with my classmates of primary school, early in the morning before the classes started.

Budawa or Lansangada or Dag-Dabeli

This is one game that I found in the tribal museum with which I was not familiar, because it requires
tree-climbing. One kid plays the stick-guard. Other children throw the stick as far as possible and while the guard goes to pick the stick, they all must climb on the tree. The guard brings back the stick, draws a circle around the tree and puts the stick in the circle. The children from the tree have to get down, pick up the stick and climb back without getting caught by the guard.

The tribal museum of Bhopal has two beautiful installations on this game, shown in the images on the right and below.
Gondiva or the stilts game

As the name suggests, it requires racing or dancing on the stilts. It is popular among Balga, Saharia and some other tribal groups. I was also unfamiliar with this game.
Gilli-Danda or Gulli-danda

This game requires a short piece of spindle shaped wood called Gilli or Gulli and a wooden stick called Danda. One kid hits the corner of Gilli with the stick and as it jumps up, hits it as far as possible. The other children have to catch the Gilli before it touches the ground. If they manage to catch it, it is their turn to play the game. If they can't catch it, the first player continues to hit the Gilli and go around.

This was also very popular when I was a child. However, I was not very good at it so I did not play it often.
Machhali Pakadia or Kekada Pakadia

This game is played by the tribal children in the coastal areas where they have to catch (Pakadia) a Machhali (fish) or a Kekada (crab) in the bamboo basket. I remember seeing children playing it in a river in West Bengal during my childhood, and I remember having tried in vain to catch a small fish with the basket. Thus this game is also unknown to the city kids.
Chaupad or Chausar

This is the ancient Indian game described in Mahabharat. It is played with 12 or 16 pawns and seems to be similar to a checker game popular in Europe (for example, in Italy they call it Dama). It is a strategy game like chess. However I had never played it as a child.
We did play a simpler version of a game with such a board and dice that is similar to Ludo. It is said that the British took Ludo to Europe from India in the 17th or 18th century.

Jhula or the swing

This simple game needs at least three children. One child sits cross-legged and holds his/her feet, while the other two hold the sitting child by his/her elbows and then swing him/her till s/he looses the grip on his/her feet and or opens her legs and touches the ground.
Ghite

This game is played with 5-7 small round stones called ghite (singular Ghita). The player keeps one stone in his/her hand, throws it up in the air and in the mean time, picks up the stones in the centre, catching back the stone-in-the-air. If the stone-in-the-air falls down, the player loses the game. It becomes slowly complex – you start by picking one ghita at a time and then increase the number of stones to be picked or you need to do some specific movements while picking the stones. This game is played mainly by girls.

An easier version of this game uses a ball, which is thrown up in air, while the player collects the stones.
Gadi

Village children often play with small wooden or bamboo carts (Gadi), pulling them around the village roads. Sometimes, the moving wheels action a stick which drums on the wood and makes a sound.

Usually these require larger spaces that are harder to find in the cities. In addition, in cities we do not use carts. Thus, while I had seen these in the villages, I had never played with them.
Carrom board

This game requires a special wooden board and special wooden round pieces called Goti. The Gotis are of two colours, white and black. In addition, there is a red Goti called the queen. The game is played by two or four players, divided into two teams, one black team and one white team. You need to hit the Gotis of your colour on the board till they fall in the holes on the corner of the board. The team that manages to get the red Goti wins the game.
I loved this game and remember playing it even while I grew up and was studying medicine. Many years later, I had bought a carrom board and taken it to Italy to play it with my son.

Ghar-Ghar or House-house

This game is usually played by young girls, where they play act to be ladies of the house, who cook and do household chores and make tea for the guests. They usually create a small separate space for playing it. In the image below, the two children sitting on the roadside, were playing it wrapped under a sari.
I remember playing it with my sister when I was around 5 years old and she was 3. We used to create our space between the charpaies, the light beds with wooden legs and woven with cord. These beds are laid out at night for sleeping and put up against the walls during the day to save space. I think that this game is a way for children to understand family relationships and gender roles, as during the play we used to mimic the exchanges between the adults of our families.

Kabbaddi

This game is also played by two teams. A person, the attacker, from one team has to go to the other side while repeating kabbaddi, kabbaddi, to touch a player of opposition and then run back to his own side while continuing to repeat kabbaddi-kabbaddi without a break. The other team has to avoid getting touched and if someone gets touched then they try to catch the attacker and not let him go back to his side. Every touch accompanied by safe return to your side earns your team one point.

In the image below, the guy in green dress is the attacker who has entered the space of the yellow side and is trying to touch someone of their team.
This game is played by older kids, both girls and boys, though more popular among boys. India has different state level and national level championships of this game. It is very popular in rural areas.

Conclusions

The Jan Jaati tribal museum of Bhopal is a beautiful place and merits a visit. I was really impressed by their beautiful art installations and the quality of tribal handicrafts. Their section on the tribal games is small but is very interesting, as you can guess from the images above.

Visiting the games room of the Tribal Museum brought back so many memories of childhood games and I was surprised that after more than fifty years I still remembered the words of some of the ditties used with those games.

Are you aware of games played by tribal groups in other parts of the world? Are there any games that are similar to the one described above? I feel that the origins of some of these games probably go back to our prehistoric ancestors and thus it is possible that ancient humans, as they spread out from their homelands, they took some of these games with them to different corners of the world.

Let me conclude this photo-essay with two pictures - first image is of a kite carrying the colours of the Indian flag. During the month of August, in the midst of the monsoon winds and especially around 15 August, the independence day of India, a lot of children and adults like to fly kites.
The second image is that of Biscopewalla (Biscope man), which can't be called a real game but was a way of entertainment during my childhood to watch some moving images and imagine ourselves in a cinema hall before there was any TV or video-games.

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Monday, November 14, 2016

Among the believers - Religion As Soul-Poison

The 2015 documentary film “Among the believers” by Hemal Trivedi (India) and Mohammed Ali Naqvi (Pakistan) is about a charismatic teacher and his students in a Madrassa (a traditional Islamic school) at a historic mosque, Lal Masjid (Red mosque) of
Islamabad in Pakistan.

The film explores how beliefs about a “pure and true” form of Islam and how teachings of these beliefs in traditional Islamic schools are affecting the society in Pakistan.

Film’s People

“Among the believers” focuses on three stories related to the madrassa of Red Mosque - Abdul Aziz Ghazi, referred to as Maulana Aziz, and two of his students – a 12 year old boy called Talha and a 12 year old girl Zarina.

Maulana Aziz, a kindly looking tall man who speaks smilingly and gently, is convinced about the need for following the teachings of Islam in a pure and true form. For him this means that Pakistan must have Sharia law, ban music and other un-Islamic practices, enforce veils for girls and women and wage Jihad, the sacred fight against the infidels. Thus, in his madrassa school, young children mostly from poor families, must start learning the Muslim sacred book Quran and listen to his sermons about the pious Islamic lives they all must lead.

Talha is a gentle looking boy with a shy smile. He likes cricket and Shahid Afridi and would like to watch the cricket match on TV but he knows that this is against the teachings of Islam as taught in his madrassa. He lacks confidence and during the exam about his skills in remembering and reciting the verses of Quran, he bursts in tears.

Zarina is beautiful looking girl from a poor family in a village. She explains that she was
going to a local branch of Red Mosque madrassa but she was unhappy in the school and thus, ran away and came back to home. She says that girls were kept prisoners in the school, given little to eat and forced to cover themselves in veil. “I am a young girl, why should I cover myself with veil?”, she asks. Her village headman, a man who had not been able to complete his education because of family poverty, has started a school and Zarina starts going to this school.

In contraposition to these three stories is Dr Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy, a Pakistani nuclear scientist and activist who had taught in universities abroad and who argues about the harm caused by this kind of conservative Islamic thinking.

Issues raised in the film

The film presents the ideas of Maulana Aziz through his interviews and through observations of the madrassa life, both in Red Mosque as well as, in some branches in the countryside, and how these ideas are leading to a war against ordinary citizens of Pakistan, forcing them to accept increasing Islamisation of their society.

One of the first scenes of the film shows a 5 or 6 years old young boy, whom Maulana Aziz introduces as a child from a poor family, whose father had left them and his mother had brought him to the madrassa. Maulana Aziz asks the child, “What do you want to become when you grow up?” The child hesitates and then with a timid smile says, “Mujahid” (a jihadi fighter).

To show the lessons he has learned in the school, the child slowly stands up and then suddenly changes his expression and the tone of his voice, his hand moving up and down like a knife, cutting the air in front with precise strokes as he recites, “Look at the sacrifices of the martyrs of the Red Mosque. We will destroy you if you will attack us. You are infidel, you cannot enter here. You cannot conquer us. And if you dare to enter here, we will destroy you in the name of Jihad."



The transformation of a shy child into a hard faced fanatic mirroring the expression and voice of his teachers, is one of the most chilling scenes in the film, showing how small children can be indoctrinated till they are filled with hate, willing to destroy themselves and ready to kill all those who are perceived different.

In another scene, in a Madrassa branch school in countryside, the local cleric tells the poor family of a young boy that learning Quran will ensure that 10 members of the family who are in dojakh (hell) can go to jannat (paradise) and that Allah will put a crown full of diamonds and jewels on the heads of his parents.

Zarina’s story presents hope for the attitudes of her father and the village head, who believe in modern education for their girls. When a woman comes to ask for 14 year old Zarina’s hand in marriage with her son, her father says that the girl is too young and he would like her to continue studying for 2-4 more years. However, as Islamist militants force the closure of their village school, Zarina’s father decides to get her married. Zarina tries to say that she is too young but the decision has already been taken. The desolate expressions of young Zarina putting on make up and dressing up for her marriage are haunting. The end credits explain that Zarina is already a mother of a baby girl.

However, it is Talha’s story which despaired me most. As the film moves, the shy, cricket loving gentle boy gets converted into a believer of the pure Islam as taught by Maulana Aziz. After a terrorist attack in December 2014 in a school in Pashawar which killed 136 children, Talha’s father comes to take the boy away from the madrassa. However, Talha refuses to leave. “They call us terrorists, but we are only killing the infidels and safeguarding Islam as asked by Quran, how can we be terrorists?”, he calmly asks. The end credits explain that Talha is continuing his studies in a senior madrassa.

The film explains the origin of conservative islamism through the Mujahideen movement in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the 1980s through support from USA to fight the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The film includes some clips showing the American president Ronald Reagan talking and shaking hands with Islamist fighters and thanking them for fighting against the Soviets. After the Soviets left, Americans withdrew their direct support but the Islamists found other supporters and funders and continued their activities. One of these supporters and funders who had also visited Red Mosque was Osama Bin Laden.

The film also touches on the destruction and raid inside the Red Mosque in July 2007, when Maulana Aziz had tried to escape by hiding in a veil. He was jailed for 2 years. Since then he has been out and his groups have been linked to different suicide bombings and terrorist attacks, including the attack on the Peshawar school mentioned above. In one of the final scenes of the film, Maulana Aziz refuses to condemn the attack on the school, “They did it for their religion, how can I condemn it?”

You can watch the trailer of Among the Believers on Youtube.

Film’s team

Both Hemal Trivedi and Mohammed Ali Naqvi deserve congratulations for having succeeded in going inside Red Mosque, talking to Maulana Aziz and giving glimpses of the process used in brain-washing of young impressionable minds who will lay down their lives in suicide and terrorist attacks.

Through the story of Zarina, her parents and her village headman, the film provides a glimpse into the lives of ordinary persons who do not share these ideals. One of the co-producers of the film, Musharraf Shah, had lost four of his nephews in the massacre of the school children in Peshawar, the film is dedicated to their memory.

In an interview to Indie Wire in 2015, Trivedi had explained the genesis of the idea of making this film:
“In 2008, I lost a friend in the Mumbai terror attacks, a series of massacres carried out by Islamic militants. After the attacks, my heart was full of anger and hate for the perpetrators of the crime, who were found to be Pakistanis. To make sense of my anger, I started digging deeper into the root causes of these attacks…
I travelled to Pakistan in 2009 to document the depths of Pakistan’s ideological divide. By then, my lifelong misconceptions about Pakistan had completely unravelled. My co-director on “Among the Believers” is a talented Pakistani Muslim filmmaker, Mohammed Naqvi, and most of our incredible crew are Pakistani Muslims as well…
Protecting our crew’s physical safety was an ongoing challenge. Throughout the five and a half years of production, members of our crew narrowly escaped bomb blasts and experienced several close encounters with gunfights. We also received several death threats and were tracked by intelligence agencies.
As a woman, a Hindu and an Indian, I faced different risks during production. When we first started filming, I visited the Red Mosque several times disguised as a Muslim. A trusted contact warned me that, in doing so, I was risking my life. These realities limited my access to some of our shoots. During those times, my co-director Mohammed Naqvi stood in for the both of us. I was so fortunate to have a local Pakistani crew that was willing to risk their lives to shoot the footage for my film. This is very significant, given the historical mistrust between Indians and Pakistanis.”
"Among the Believers" has been shown in more than 50 film festivals across different continents (including the Goa Film Festival in India in 2015) and has won 12 awards. Making such films is not without its dangers. The directors of the film have received death threats.

Comments

It is a scary film since it makes you understand how difficult it can be to fight against and to the change the mentality of boys and girls who grow up surrounded by ideals of hate, suicide and killings in the name of religion. It is also important to see how the religious fundamentalism is harming the Pakistani society itself and affecting the lives of millions of young girls and boys in that country. Along with feelings of fear and disgust, I could not help feeling pity for those boys and girls in the traditional Islamist madrassas, who have no way to defend themselves against this kind of hateful teachings.

The film glosses over some of the key issues in terms of links between persons coming out of these madrassa and India. For example, the film never mentions the role of Pakistani army and ISI in maintaining and supporting the radical Islamists in Pakistan after the departure of Soviets from Afghanistan and the withdrawal of American support because they were used for waging war against India in Kashmir and elsewhere.

While different persons in the film express their anguish at the havoc wreaked by terrorists in Pakistan, the film also glosses over decades of silent acceptation and support these institutions and persons must have received as long as their targets were in other countries, especially in India.

Now that the religious conservatives nurtured to create terror in India and Afghanistan have turned inwards towards Pakistani society, as well as their spread towards ISIS and other terrorist networks affecting middle east, Europe and US, suddenly the whole world is asking about the role of traditional madrassas in Pakistan. Recent films and novels, often equate Pakistan with terrorism. Would Pakistan government, army and ISI understand the need to eradicate these structures and if yes, would they have the power to do so, are questions that do not have any answers yet.

The one hour and 22 minutes long film is definitely worth a watch, both to understand the kind of persons who come out of the radical Islamist schools, as well as to see how ordinary people in Pakistan are also being affected by it.

Most mainstream media usually try to ignore or down-play anything related to radical Islamists. This is done both, for not promoting Islamophobia and for not provoking negative stereotypes against ordinary Muslims. However, as the film shows, the spread of conservative Islamist ideology is a great danger to the ordinary Muslims themselves. Other countries and people considered infidels risk terrorism and will need to fight the terrorist attacks. However, Muslims themselves risk much more - losing their culture, their arts, their education, their professions, their daily lives and their ordinary freedoms, under the spread of radical Islamist ideology. It does not target only the non-believers, it also creates divisions among Muslims themselves and attacks all those who do not belong to the acceptable forms of Islamic beliefs.

This film has been banned in Pakistan. Please consider signing the petition on Change.org for showing this film in Pakistan. I also think that the film needs to be shown widely in India for promoting a debate about the impact of influencing young vulnerable minds and how to make sure that we do not allow spread of such ideologies, not just among Muslims, but among all the religions.

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Monday, October 24, 2016

Discovering Mumbai: Kanheri Caves

Few persons visiting India’s commercial capital Mumbai have heard of the Kanheri caves. Even less seem to have visited it. This post is about this forgotten jewel of Mumbai that deserves to be seen.



Kanheri caves are rock-cut Buddhist caves in the Borivali suburb of Mumbai. References to king Yajna Satakarni in one of the cave inscriptions shows that its oldest parts date back to at least 2nd century BCE. It was one of the most prosperous Buddhist monk communities, functioning actively for a period of more than a thousand years.

Modern Mumbai is composed of 7 islands that were merged together through land reclamation in the 19th century. Before the merger, Borivali and the Kanheri caves were part of the Salsette island.

Rock-cut Caves in India

Carving rocky hills to create caves for human dwellings in India started about 2,500 years ago. One of the oldest rock-cut caves in India are at Udaygiri near Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh, dating back to 5 century BCE. Among the twenty caves of Udaygiri, 1 is dedicated to Jainism while the remaining 19 caves are dedicated to Hindu Gods. Some other rock-cut caves, such as the Pandava Caves in Panchmarhi, also seem to be equally old.

Other caves in India older than the rock-cut caves, such as the prehistoric Bhimbetaka caves near Bhopal (Madhya Pradesh), are natural caves.

The rock-cut caves were carved mainly for Buddhist and Jainist monks. They were built over periods of centuries. On the other hand, rock-cut structures linked with Hinduism are usually temples, such as the temple complex in Mahabalipuram in eastern coast of south India dating back to about 700 BCE. This could have been because Hinduism mostly has individuals or small groups in search of God and spirituality, while it lacks centralised monastic orders and therefore, did not need a large number of caves in one place for the monks.

Many Hindu temples contain “Garbhgriha” (Womb caves) where the deities are placed. In many old temples, like in the Kamakhaya temple in Guwahati (Assam), such Garbhgrihas are rock-cut structures. Though the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) was created in 1861 under the British colonial rule, it has not been able to carry out precise dating of most of these structures. Thus, usually the information available regarding these ancient rock-cut caves is based only on myths and popular stories.

Buddhist Caves in Maharashtra, India

The tradition of carving out caves in rocks and hills for creating Buddhist monasteries probably started after the death of Gautam Buddha. Except for the Saspol caves in Kashmir, all the other well-known Buddhist cut-rock caves are located in the state of Maharashtra in central-west part of India. These include the famous Ajanta and Ellora caves from 3rd century BCE.

A total of 27 significant Buddhist caves have been identified in Maharashtra.  Five of these caves are in Mumbai – Elephanta (Gharapuri), Jogeshwari, Mahakali, Mandapeshwar and Kanheri; while another 8 caves are close to Mumbai, going towards Lonavla and Pune - Bhaja, Karla, Bedse, Ghorawadi, Lenyadri, Shelarwadi and Shirwal.

The presence of these caves in Maharashtra indicates that from 5th century BCE till about early medieval times, there were a lot of flourishing communities of Buddhist monks in this part of India. These seemed to have close relationships with the seafaring trading communities.

Why did rock-cut Buddhist monasteries remain circumscribed only to central-western parts of India? Why there were no similar Buddhist monasteries in other parts of India? Was it linked to the coastal trade routes from the west coast of India? Was it a geological issue that other parts did not have rocks suitable for making caves? Was it because the artisans involved in making the caves were concentrated only in this part of India? Perhaps some experts can answer this question.

Reaching Kanheri Caves

Kanheri Caves can be reached easily through the public transport of Mumbai. Borivali local train station is just a couple of kilometres away. From the train station, a 20 minutes walk or frequent buses bring you to the entrance of Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP), the wild-life park of Mumbai. A shuttle bus service connects the entrance gate to the Kanheri caves, around 6 km away inside SGNP.

If you come with your own vehicle you have to pay the vehicle entry fee at the entrance gate while the tickets for entering the Kanheri caves are sold near the caves-entrance.

Kanheri Caves

The name Kanheri comes from two words - Kanha or Krishna (Black) and Giri (mountain). The name refers to Kanha hill with the dark coloured basaltic rocks common in this area. Basaltic rocks are formed from volcanic lava. The darker coarse grain basaltic rock, as found in Kanheri, is also called Gabbro or the Black Granite.

There are 109 rock-cut caves in Kanheri. The earliest caves date back to 2nd century BCE while the most recent caves are from 1000 CE. It seems that these caves were part of a thriving learning centre, where student monks came to study the teachings of Buddha. It was also used as a resting and storage point for the seafaring traders.

Most of these caves were used as living rooms for individuals. These are mostly small caves without any specific adornments and have a rock platform to be used for sitting and sleeping. The area also has some bigger halls closer to the entrance, which were used for prayers and meetings.

The first cave close to the entrance has pillars similar to those found at Elephanta. However, this two storied cave was never completed, probably due to some defect in the rock structure. (Image below)



The second cave is divided into three parts, each hosting a stupa. Each of these stupas is accompanied by rock-cut sculptures of Buddha, almost all of them in the Vyakhyana mudra. For example, the sculpture near the first stupa has a sitting Buddha in Vyakhana mudra, holding a lotus and with two lions at his feet. Two guards stand behind him along with two flying gandharvas. One of the walls has a large beautiful statue of Avalokiteshwara form of Buddha. (a part of Cave 2 in the image below)



The third cave from the entrance is the most beautiful. It has an entrance gate with guard-sculptures.



Entrance leads to a courtyard and then a covered anteroom with giant Buddha statues on the two side walls.



The anteroom walls also have sculptures of some couples, who probably donated money for the construction of this temple. These were rich merchants of the area and thus, these sculptures give an idea of local society of that period. Both men and women seem to be given equal importance and both are wearing loin clothes and jewellery while upper parts of their bodies are uncovered. They all wear a head-gear and they have something on their shoulders connected to their head-gear, perhaps for holding a clothe covering their backs? They are not wearing any kind of footwear. (image below)



The main hall of the cave temple is spacious - 26 metres long, 12 metres wide and 15 metres high, with pillars on the side walls. The roof of the hall shows the signs of the wooden rafters, which covered it originally. A 5 metres high stupa stands closer to the deep end of the hall. An inscription found in this hall explains that the hall was built in 2nd century BCE.



Another important cave is cave 11, located at a higher level above the entrance caves. It is known as Darbar cave. Around 20 metres wide and 8 metres deep, it has rows of low rock-benches.



Some persons believe that this was a teaching area and thus consider Kanheri as a learning centre. Others think that it was a meeting room, perhaps used for a Buddhist council meeting. It has a covered verandah with 8 pillars and two cisterns on the sides. 

When I saw it, I thought that it resembled a hostel mess. But it also has some beautiful sculptures on its walls, and I think that an eating room was unlikely to host beautiful sculptures. So I don't know if it could have been an eating place, with kitchens and store rooms around the main hall and the two water cisterns. To confirm it we need to check if there are signs of fires in the rooms used as kitchens.

One of the Buddha sculpture has Buddha shown sitting with his feet on the ground - I had never seen a similar statue of Buddha before. (In the image below)



Recently (January 2016) another group of 7 caves was discovered not far from the Kanheri complex in the forest surrounding it. Further excavations of this area is awaited to understand the role of these caves.

Inscriptions in Kanheri Caves

There are more than 70 inscriptions in Kanheri. Three scripts have been used in these inscriptions – Brahmi, Devnagari and Pahlavi. The inscriptions provide information about local rulers such as Vashishtiputra Satakarni, about the supervisors, artisans and artists who worked here, and general information such as a list of local birds. Most common inscriptions are about the gifts of caves and cisterns by the rich merchants of nearby towns such as Sopara and Kalyan.

One of the caves has an inscription about a “Tooth cave”. It is thought that this cave temporarily hosted a tooth, a relic of Buddha, which was later placed in a big stupa near the great temple hall. More recent excavations of this stupa did not show any tooth, though a brass plate was found. It is thought that the tooth was removed from the stupa in some earlier excavations. It is not clear if this tooth relic was in any way related to the famous tooth relic in a stupa in Sri Lanka. According to some experts, the brass plate found in Kanheri refers to 494-95 BCE and thus propose it as the oldest rock-cut Buddhist caves in India.

The image below shows one of the epigraphs near the Darbar hall (cave 11). Close to the epigraph is a bass-relief showing a strange figure which reminded me of the bull horns. I wondered if it was linked to Pashupati Nath (Shiva) worship or if it could be linked to the Pashupati seals found in Indus valley (image below).



Water Collection and Conservation Systems of Kanheri

A water stream flows between the northern and southern hills of Kanheri. One of the inscription mentions the construction of a dam for the collection of water. However, the caves are on the higher parts of the southern hill and thus going down to collect water from the stream must have been difficult. For this reason, as well to answer the water needs of a large number of persons, a detailed water collection and conservation system was designed in Kanheri including a network of canals and cisterns, as shown in the image below.



I visited Kanheri around the end of the dry season and was surprised to find that many cisterns of the monastery were full of water. This traditional knowledge of water collection and conservation seems to have been lost from many rural communities of India which face regular droughts and water-shortages.

Some Specific Things to See in Kanheri

There were a few other things in Kanheri caves which struck me as interesting. These included the numerous steps carved in the rocks for going from one place to another. Some of these were very long. These seemed like snakes winding on the rock surfaces.



Another curious find were small holes in the surface of rocks on the top of the hills, as shown in the image below. When I saw them I thought that they were holes above the cisterns for a ritual use similar to the stepwell of Santa Cristina in Sardinia island of Italy. However on closer look, these were not deep holes and were closed at the bottom. I wondered if these holes were made for fixing the bamboo umbrella stands to avoid the sun or may be for fixing poles for hanging out the washed clothes for drying.



Views of the Borivali high rise buildings from the top of the hills, behind the dense forests surrounding the Kanheri rock caves, were beautiful.



Conclusions

I have been to the more famous Elephanta caves on an island near the Gateway of India. It has a beautiful Trimurti scultpure. However, Elephanta does not have the rugged beauty of Kanheri. I was really surprised by this visit because I was not expecting to see such a vast and imposing structure with such beautiful sculptures.

I have not yet visited the other three rock-cut Buddhist caves in Mumbai and and if they are half as beautiful as Kanheri, it will be worthwhile to go and look for them. 

The large number of caves in and around modern Mumbai also means that this area was already inhabited many centuries before the British came and developed the city of Bombay in the 19th century.

If you live in or are only visiting Mumbai and are interested in the rich Indian cultural heritage, do visit Kanheri.



Acknowledgements

I found some useful archaeological information about the caves in an article by Saurabh on the Indian History and Architecture website.

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