Monday, September 5, 2016

Guwahati Walking Tours - Discovering South Guwahati

Guwahati is known mainly for the Kamakhaya temple. Visitors to the city, also like to visit three other temples – Bashistha, Nobograha and Umananda. Most persons, even those living in Guwahati, are not aware of other places to visit in the city. This post is about places to visit in South Guwahati, which includes Dispur, the capital of Assam.

Walking tour of monuments and places to see in south Guwahati
The image above shows sculpture of a Bhaona figure from the stage used for Sound & Light show at the Shrimanta Shankar Dev Kalakshetra, an important cultural centre located in South Guwahati.

Apart from the Kalakshtra, this visit will take you to a famous temple, the cathedral, some museums, an important cultural centre and to see some wildlife.

So let us start this visit with some general information about South Guwahati. All the places described in this post can be reached easily through public transport of the city – by buses that run along the G.S. road.

GENERAL INFORMATION ABOUT SOUTH GUWAHATI

Guwahati city started on the south bank of Brahmaputra river. In pre-independent India and for a few decades after independence, the whole of the north-east (NE) was part of Assam state and its capital was in Shillong.

In ancient times till around medieval period, it was known as Pragjyotishpura. During British times, it was called Gauhati. Since the NE was important for its tea gardens and timber, Gauhati was an important city for the British because of its river port and its railway station, that linked the north-east to the rest of India.

In 1972, the north-east was divided into different states including Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram. Shillong became the capital of Meghalaya, while Gauhati became the capital of Assam.

In 1973, its name was changed to Guwahati and Assamese Government decided to move its capital to the southern outskirts of Guwahati city, to Dispur.

Guwahati-Shillong road (G.S. road) is one of the main arteries of the city, starting from the Guwahati railway station in Paltan Bazar and going southwards for about 7 miles till Khanapara, where Assam meets Meghalaya and the terrain becomes hilly. The G. S. road in the city has four flyovers.

Coming from Paltan Bazar, the third flyover, Ganeshguri flyover, marks the boundary of old Guwahati and the beginning of Dispur. Thus, south Guwahati starts from Ganeshguri flyover, continues over Six Miles flyover and finishes at Khanapara, where G. S. road joins NH 37.

With the widening of G. S. road and the building of the flyovers, Dispur and Six Miles are no longer considered as outskirts of Guwahati, rather they are part of the main city.

GANESH TEMPLE OF GANESHGURI

I will start my walking tour from the famous Ganesh temple of Ganeshguri. It is located on the road underneath the Ganeshguri flyover, to the right if you are coming from Paltan Bazar.

Walking tour of monuments and places to see in south Guwahati
Ganeshguri has a vibrant market and it has some of the famous restaurants where you can get traditional Assamese food.

Ganesh temple was built here to mark the entry to the city of Kamakhaya, one of the incarnations of Parvati, the consort of lord Shiva. According to the Hindu mythology, Shiva had left for a journey when Ganesh was born. When Shiva came back, he found the boy blocking his way, since the boy did not know his father. In anger, Shiva cut off the head of the boy. Only when Devi told him that he had killed his son, Shiva promised to bring the boy back to life, but in the meantime, animals had taken away boy’s head. Thus, Shiva sent his followers to bring back the head of first baby they could find and his followers brought him back the head of a baby elephant. Since then Ganesh has the head of an elephant.

Thus, the baby Ganesh of the Ganesh temple of Ganeshguri is guarding the entry to his mother’s town.

It is a small temple, with most of its statues being placed outside on its walls. Inside the temple, Ganesh is shown as a natural uncarved rock covered with vermillion. At different religious festivals, this temple and the whole area is crowded with believers.

I am more of a spiritual person and I do not feel particular devotion when I visit temples. Rather, I have an anthropological curiosity to understand the rituals. However, among all the Hindu gods, Ganesh is my favourite since I feel that he represents the unity of man and nature, and asks us to be respectful of the nature.

THE ZOO OF GUWAHATI

The same road of Ganesh temple, on the other side of the flyover will take you to Chandmari and the Guwahati zoo. (BTW, Assamese language lacks the ‘ch” sound of ‘church’, thus Chandmari is pronounced as ‘Sandmari’). To reach the zoo, you should take a bus from the Ganeshguri crossing.

Walking tour of monuments and places to see in south Guwahati
The zoo of Guwahati has a beautiful location, with hills, forests and canals. Some water birds and animals have open enclosures separated by moats so that they can be seen properly without any barriers.

Some enclosures of the zoo give an impression of being a safari park. For example, the elephant enclosure has a small pond at the edge of a dense green forest, and is very beautiful. However, here it is difficult to see the elephants unless they come out of the forest to drink water at the pond. Similarly, the raised up view-platform of the tiger enclosure is a good place to observe these animals, while ensuring visitors' safety.

Unfortunately, most enclosures in the zoo are old fashioned, ugly looking iron grills or nets. Many sign boards are missing and overall maintenance of the zoo seems to be poor.

Assam is full of wildlife and wildlife parks. Compared to that experience, visit to the zoo can feel a big let-down. With a bit of effort, Guwahati can have its own wildlife park inside the zoo, with a better view of the birds and animals. Perhaps, the zoo officials can visit the city wildlife park of Nairobi (Kenya) to get some ideas about how it can be done.

The zoo also needs to make more efforts to teach visitors about importance of nature and how to behave with the animals and birds.

ASSAM STATE ASSEMBLY AND SECRETARIAT

The Assam State Assembly, a short distance away after the Ganeshguri flyover, is not accessible to visitors because of safety concerns. This part of Guwahati is called Dispur. The place has armed police guarding it, so you can just look at it from far away.

Walking tour of monuments and places to see in south Guwahati
Many Assamese are very particular about Dispur being their state capital and not Guwahati. However, it is difficult to tell the boundaries of Dispur. It is just one of the bus stops for the Guwahati buses.

BELTOLA MARKET

The road next to the State Assembly leads to an area of Guwahati called Beltola. The road connecting Beltola to Jayanagar holds a roadside market, especially a vegetable market, every Thursday and Sunday. Farmers and tribals from all around, including the neighbouring Meghalaya, bring their produce to this market. It also provides a glimpse into the wonderful biodiversity of India. You can see tens of variaties of each common vegetable here, something that does not exist in any supermarket.

Walking tour of monuments and places to see in south Guwahati
In my opinion, this market represents a wonderful tradition and hopefully, the authorities will safeguard it and not destroy in their search for soulless ‘development’. The image above shows one of the market stalls at night.

I have read that Beltola was a small kingdom till early twentieth century and it had the palace of its king. However, in spite of asking to a lot of persons, I could not find more about the king of Beltola and his family house. Like so many old traditional heritage houses, replaced by concrete buildings, it is a part of the lost history of Guwahati.

CATHEDRAL OF GUWAHATI

The cathedral of Guwahati is located close to the Six Miles flyover, a short distance after Dispur, on the right side of the road. It is of a recent construction and has a utilitarian architecture, thus it is not very impressive from the outside. Inside, the paintings behind the altar and the coloured glass windows, make it look much better.

Walking tour of monuments and places to see in south Guwahati
The cathedral is venue of a large gathering of the faithful in November each year for the festival of Christ King, when Catholics from all neighbouring cities and towns come here to hold a procession. The image above shows the Christmas lighting at the cathedral.

SHRIMANTA SHANKAR DEV KALAKSHETRA

Kalakshetra is one of the most important cultural centres of Guwahati. Inside, it has different museums, galleries, a daily Sound & Light show about history of Assam and has a rich calendar of cultural events.

Walking tour of monuments and places to see in south Guwahati
Kalakshetra is located in Punjabari, on the road underneath the Six Miles flyover. It is a couple of kilometres from the flyover. Near the flyover, you can get a Punjabari bus which will drop you in front of its entrance.

The idea of setting up of the Kalakshetra was of Bhupen Hazarika, considered to be one of the most important contemporary cultural icons of Assam. It includes a beautiful ethnographic museum and an art gallery with works of contemporary Assamese artists. It also has a small but nice auditorium. The image below is from the ethnographic museum.

Walking tour of monuments and places to see in south Guwahati

Walking tour of monuments and places to see in south Guwahati
The above image is of a sculpture by Dhan Singh Basumaty from the art gallery of Kalakshetra.

During my stay in Guwahati, I was fortunate to be able to watch some wonderful cultural performances in Kalakshetra. Unfortunately, it does not have a proper website with updated information and a calendar of its cultural events. Thus sometimes I found that its beautiful events did not have a big audience, even if they were free, which was a great pity.

SHILPAGRAM

Shilpagram, located close to Kalakshetra is a venue for handicrafts exhibitions and trade fairs. It is a beautifully made structure with nice traditional buildings. It also has a small auditorium and an open air space, often used for music concerts.

The picture below has a singer of the NE music group called Soulmate during a performance in the open air theatre of Shilpagram.

Walking tour of monuments and places to see in south Guwahati
CHINMOY MISSION AND THE FILM MUSEUM

Swami Chinmoy Mission and the Guwahati film museum are both located in the small lane next to Kalakshetra that takes you to Shilpagram.

I am not sure if the film museum is open for visitors. All the times I passed in front of it, it was closed.

KHANAPARA SPORTS COMPLEX

Khanapara sports complex is located on G.S. road, about one kilometre after the Six Miles flyover, on the right side of the road. A couple of times, I saw cultural programmes in the stadium hall of this complex, but never saw it being used for any sports meets.

The grounds of the sports complex are a popular venue for trade fairs, handicrafts shop fairs and Bihu celebrations, like the handloom fair shown in the image below.

Walking tour of monuments and places to see in south Guwahati
SCIENCE MUSEUM

The Science Museum of Guwahati is located on a small side-road of G.S. road on the left side, a little after the new Vivanta Taj hotel building. The science museum is full of things to discover, both for children and for adults.

Some things of the museum are quite low-brow, including the “deforming mirrors”, where you can look at your deformed shapes and laugh at yourself (predictably, the low-brow things are very popular with the visitors!). Other things are more high tech.

Walking tour of monuments and places to see in south Guwahati
Outside the museum, the gardens have many other things to see including an aeroplane and some robust machine models to understand functional mechanics, such as the pulleys in the image below.

Walking tour of monuments and places to see in south Guwahati
VETERINARY GROUNDS

The grounds of the veterinary college of Guwahati, some fifty metres further down the road from the Science Museum are venue for big events such as the republic day parade and the annual horticulture fair.

Walking tour of monuments and places to see in south Guwahati
Every morning and evening, the road near the veterinary grounds is closed to traffic and hundreds of local residents use it for their morning or evening walks. The house of the chief minister of Assam is located on the hill, just behind the veterinary grounds. This area also has the office of the Assam Public State Commission while the veterinary college on the G. S. road has the Khanapara post office.

Finally, the nearby Khanapara-NH crossing has buses, shared taxis and other vehicles for all the major towns of the north-east.

CONCLUSIONS

If you have only a little time for sight-seeing in Guwahati, you can give a miss to most of the places described in this post. However, if possible, you should at least visit Kalakshetra.

Like many cities of India, Guwahati also has antiquated laws regarding photography for entry in many places presented in this tour. Rather than accepting and using the selfie culture and photography for providing free publicity through social networks, they prohibit photography and ask persons with cameras to pay extra. In a world where everybody clicks pictures with their smartphones, is it really logical to ask persons with cameras to pay?

Walking tour of monuments and places to see in south Guwahati
Let me end this visit with a question. The image above has some of the famous Indian scientists from the Science Museum. When I saw the statues shown in this image, I was able to recognise only Raja Ramanna and Homi Bhabha. How many Indian scientists can you recognise in this picture?

If you are looking for information about other places to visit in Guwahati or in the NE, check the list of my blog-posts on this theme on my Travels page.

***

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

A Prayer For India

If you could write just one prayer for India, which prayer would it be? Would it say something about the different religions in India?

This photo-essay is about inter-mixing and co-living of religions in India. It has twenty of my favourite images related to religions from different parts of India.

Let me start with an image - it has a Sadhu, a saffron wearing ascetic. Sadhus wander from place to place, are not bound by caste boundaries and live on alms. A sadhu represents the ancient Indic tradition of spirituality, a personal search for a deeper meaning of life. This picture was clicked at Kamakhaya temple in Guwahati (Assam) in the north-east of India.

Diversity of religions in India - Images by Sunil Deepak
Growing up in a multi-religious India

My religious views have been shaped by my growing up in India, where I was exposed to different religions since childhood. My second image represents the two religions which are important in my family today and it is from Kerala at the southern tip of India. It was clicked in a transport van, and has the icons of Madonna and Ganesh on the dashboard.

Diversity of religions in India - Images by Sunil Deepak
I grew up in a Delhi, where my mostly atheist parents had many friends of different religions. Our extended family was mainly Hindu, though it had some roots that connected to both Sikhism and Islam. I learned about the different manifestations of religions through my extended family, neighbours and friends.

When I was a child, we moved from one rented house to another. For a time, we lived in a predominantly Muslim area, right in front of a Muslim graveyard. Watching the families visiting the graveyard, dressed in all their fineries during Idd festivals, was one of my favourite past times.

It was the time when in my mind, women wearing black burkas were associated with romantic Bollywood films like ‘Chaudhawi ka Chaand’ and ‘Mere Mehboob’, where Hindu heroes thought nothing of masquerading like elderly Muslim ustaad ji and singing shero-shaiyiri, so that they could enter as teachers in the homes of their beloveds.

In another house, which we shared with our Sikh landlord’s family, our terrace overlooked a Methodist church. All the children, including the Pastor’s son, played together. We woke up early in the morning to drink Kacchi lassi on the days of Gurupurab (Sikh religious festivals) and I became familiar with recitations of their sacred book Guru Granth Saheb.

While I was a little afraid of the stern looking wife of the Pastor, I had no problems devouring her Easter cakes. The pastor’s son and the Sikh boys, they all joined me at Holi in throwing balloons full of coloured water on the unsuspecting persons walking on the road below our house.

In yet another house, our next door neighbours were Muslims. While our families were friends, we children played together and shared Idd and Diwali sweets, I never went to a mosque to do prayers with them. Muslim prayers required a complex mix of specific gestures and words which intimidated me. On the other hand, I did go once to a midnight Christmas mass with a Catholic friend.

This pattern of co-living and inter-mixing with persons of different religions has continued all through my life. It has made me understand that religions and beliefs are accidents, determined by our birth in a family and they are not superior or inferior, they are just different ways of approaching the human need for sacred.

The third image is of a roadside shop from Tezpur in Assam, selling pictures of religious icons. The shop was located close to the cathedral and a Hanuman temple, and thus had both Hindu and Christian icons, along with those of other national figures such as Mahatma Gandhi.

Diversity of religions in India - Images by Sunil Deepak
Indic religions

The search for the divine in India is like a tree with roots that go deep into the earth, and with branches going in different directions, pointing to different corners of the sky. Thus, an important part of the sacredness in India is about nature – about the rivers, ponds, trees, animals, birds and the earth.

My fourth image is from Bilaspur district in Chattisgarh in central part of India and has a simple Hindu temple in the middle of a pond. Through sacred ponds and rivers and through rituals like surya namaskar, Indic religions remind me all the time about sacredness of nature.

Diversity of religions in India - Images by Sunil Deepak
I feel that “religion” is an inadequate term to talk about Hinduism. It includes people who identify the God in the nature – in rocks, mountains, trees, rivers, ponds, animals and birds. It includes people who worship a wide variety of Gods – from human forms of Ram, Krishen, Shiv, Durga, Kali, and Brahma, to human-animal forms of Ganesh, Hanuman, Garud and Sheshnaag. It includes people who believe in a different sacred book, sometimes in many books and sometimes in none of them. It also includes people who believe in fire worship (yagna), as well as those who believe in nirankar (formless) all-pervading Paramatma. That is why I prefer to see Hinduism, not as a religion, but as a Sahasradhara, a river of thousand streams.

The next three pictures illustrate three streams of Hinduism. The first is from Karnataka, showing a procession when the deities are carried out of the temple to visit the village, accompanied by characters from the sacred epics of Ramayana, Mahabharata and Bhagwat Puran, which are widely known and even today continue to influence Indian society.

Diversity of religions in India - Images by Sunil Deepak
The second image about Hinduism is from the sun temple in Konark in Odisha on the eastern coast of India, where spirituality is explored through the sexual union on the temple walls. Hinduism recognises different approaches to the sacred including the path of worship, prayers and meditation but also the paths of work (Karmayoga), knowledge (Gyanyoga) and sex (Tantrism).

Diversity of religions in India - Images by Sunil Deepak
The third image is of Ghatotkach icons at Dushhera fair in Kullu in Himachal Pradesh, which represent mountain deities. There are thousands of such local deities in India, whose stories have been woven with the more prevalent figures of Ram, Krishan, Shiv, Durga, Lakshmi, Kali and Saraswati. Thus, the thousand streams of Hinduism keep on coming together and branching out in diverse directions through the inter-mixing of sacred stories and ancient myths in different parts of the country.

Diversity of religions in India - Images by Sunil Deepak
India is also home to hundreds of tribal communities. Nature worship is a central part of religious practices in the tribal communities. They also have many local deities, different from the more prevalent Hindu deities. Some of the tribal deities are part of the “enemies” in the Hindu mythological stories such as the figures of Ravan, Meghnath and Mahishasur. These stories point to a diversity in the way a wide variety of religious beliefs come under the different streams of Hinduism.

Often outsiders, when they read Indic epics and myths, think of these figures as “villains”, similar to the figures of devil or Satan. However, Indic way of thinking looks at them in more complex ways, recognising their positive attributes and often linking their stories to their different reincarnations. For example, during the enactments of Ramayan during the festival of Dusshera, people are sometimes surprised when they discover the Brahmins praying to the effigy of Ravan before it is burned.

Often while talking to friends from western countries, I feel that they look at Hinduism in a narrow way, focusing on a few figures such as those of the sacred Trimurti (Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva) and the sub-divisions of people into castes according to the Varna system. They ignore the thousand streams of Hinduism and their traditions of debate and arguments. They also tend to believe that the only social reforms and movements for greater social justice towards the marginalised Hindu caste groups in India came from the colonial powers and outsiders.

In a different way, some of the more shrill, conservative or radical Hindu groups echo similar kinds of thinking. They are afraid of the diversity of religious ideas of different streams of Hinduism. They ask repeatedly of following the examples of Abrahamic religions with one sacred book, one religious story and one religious leader.

Indic reformers and other Indic religions

Two millenniums ago, social and religious reformers like Gautam Buddha and Bhagwan Mahavir, infused new ideas in the Indic religions. Over the past centuries, other reformers like Basvanappa, Akka Mahadevi, Shrimanta Shankar Dev, Chetanya Mahaprabhu, Meerabai, Sant Gyaneshwar, Sant Ravidas, Baba Nanak and Sant Kabir, have promoted a diversity of religious ideas touching on social harmony and justice in the Indic religions. This movement of social reform continues through more recent spiritual gurus including Swami Vivekanand and Dayanand Saraswati.

Some of these Indic spiritual figures and social reformers are considered as prophets of specific religions including Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. Western way of thinking believes in categorising and emphasising the differences between religions and sects. Indic view of religions, because of the dynamic nature of inter-mixing between them, tends to look at them as different streams flowing in the same direction.

The next six images are about these Indic spiritual and social reformers. The first image is from a street in Gangtok in Sikkim in Himalaya mountains of a Sleeping Buddha and a Buddhist monk. Buddhism continues to be an important religious force in India, especially through its adoption by Dalit caste groups, who see in it as an escape from the caste-oppression.

Diversity of religions in India - Images by Sunil Deepak
The second image has a giant statue of the Jain icon Bahubali from Shravan Belagola in Karnataka. Jainism is characterised by the principles of non-violence and vegetarianism.

Diversity of religions in India - Images by Sunil Deepak
The third image is of a giant statue of Basvanappa, a medieval social reformer and a poet-saint from Bidar district in northern Karnataka. He continues to be a revered figure to millions of persons and promoted a casteless society.

Diversity of religions in India - Images by Sunil Deepak
The fourth image has Gayan-Bayan singers from a Sattriya in Majuli island of Assam. The reformist movement of Namghars and Sattriyas in Assam was launched by a fifteenth century social reformer, Shrimanta Shankar Dev, who had also promoted a casteless society. Like Basvanappa in Karnataka, the ideas and teachings of Shankar Dev continue to have an enormous influence in Assam.

Diversity of religions in India - Images by Sunil Deepak
The fifth image of this group is from Jhira saheb Sikh Gurudwara in Karnataka, where a Sikh granthi distributes the water from a sacred spring to persons of different religions. The Sikh religion emphasises the value of Karmayoga or prayer through action.

Diversity of religions in India - Images by Sunil Deepak
The sixth and last image in this group is that of Swami Vivekananda, whose teachings about revitalising Hinduism had a strong impact in India of the twentieth century.

Diversity of religions in India - Images by Sunil Deepak
These images of spiritual and social reformers of India, are just a tiny example of the wide variety of Indic spiritual beliefs. Some like Basvanappa and Shrimanta Shankar Dev have millions of followers, though they are not considered as separate religions. Others like Buddha, Mahavir and Nanak are considered as prophets of specific religions. In many Indian homes, often you can find icons and statues of many of them.

Religious ideas from other parts of the world

From ancient times, India has been the land of mixing and assimilation of religions, beliefs and cultures.

Over the centuries persecuted people from around the world, such as Jews, Armenians, Parsi (followers of Zarathustra) and Baha’i (followers of Bahai’ullah), came to settle in India, conserving their religious identities and ideas, even while exchanging some ideas with the Indic ideas of sacred.

Wandering mystics, explorers and conquering armies have brought other religious ideas to India including those of Islam and Christianity. Like other arrivals before them, India promotes both conservation of identities and ideas, as well as their inter-mixing with Indic ideas of sacred, thus giving birth to new identities and ideas.

The first ideas of Christianity came to southern coast of India with St. Thomas, more than two thousand years ago, even before there was a Vatican. Colonialism and globalisation in the past centuries have brought different streams of Christianity to India. Thus, while Christians constitute only 2% of Indian population, they are a majority in some states of India and have a strong influence in society through their schools, hospitals and programmes of social development.

I am presenting four of my images about Christianity in India. The first image is of a church in Bidar district in Karnataka. While the priests have a saffron shawl on their shoulders (saffron is traditionally the colour of Hindu ascetics in India), and sit on the floor, the church wall carries symbols of all the different religions.

Diversity of religions in India - Images by Sunil Deepak
The next picture is again from Karnataka in south India, and has a statue of Mother Theresa. She is widely revered by persons of different religions in India.

Diversity of religions in India - Images by Sunil Deepak
The third image is from the Catholic cathedral in Guwahati, which shows two symbols of Shrimanta Shankardev behind the altar – the traditional Assamese head-gear and the cymbols, adapted as Christian symbols.

Diversity of religions in India - Images by Sunil Deepak
The last image about Christianity in India has a Methodist church of the Sumi tribe in Nagaland. As tribes have different languages, even if they belong to the same religion, they can have separate churches. For example, near the church shown in the picture, Chakhesang tribe has their own Methodist church.

Diversity of religions in India - Images by Sunil Deepak
Islam first arrived in India around one thousand years ago and since then has expanded in different parts of India. After Indonesia, India is home to largest number of Muslims in the world.

One important icon of Hindu-Muslim inter-mixing is Bhakt Rahim from 16th century India, who was a minister in the court of Mughal emperor Akbar and at the same time, a writer fluent in Turkish, Persian, Sanskrit and Braj bhasha. Thus while he translated Babarnama, the autobiography of Mughal emperor Babar, from Turkish to Persian, he is also considered a part of Indic social reformers for his devotional dohas (couplets) in Braj bhasha. In these prayers, he used Hindu religious imagery to express himself. For example, look at following doha of Rahim where is uses the word "Hari" to talk about God:

Rahiman gali hai sakri, dujo nahi thaharai
Apu aahai to Hari nahi, Hari to aapun nahin

(Rahim, the street is narrow and two persons can’t pass it together; if I will go inside God cannot, if God enters it, I cannot).

The last three images of this photo-essay are about Islam. The first image shows a group of Hindu labourers working in Char Minar, a Muslim building in Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh. Built by Mohammed Qutb Shah in 1591 to commemorate the end of plague, the ground floor of this building hosts both a mosque and a temple. Similarly, for many Hindu festivals, traditionally the icons are made by Muslim craftsmen.

Diversity of religions in India - Images by Sunil Deepak
The second image of this group has a Baul singer from the north-east of India. The Baul tradition includes both Hindus and Muslims, and is about devotional music sung by wandering mistrels, who travel in the countryside ignoring the religious boundaries.

Diversity of religions in India - Images by Sunil Deepak
The last image of this group is from the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi, that hosts the tomb of a Muslim sufi saint, widely revered by persons of different religions.

Diversity of religions in India - Images by Sunil Deepak
Parsi and Baha’i, the followers of Zarathustra and Bahai’ullah, who came to India from Persia/Iran, are less numerous, but equally important. For example, Delhi hosts the lotus shaped Baha’i temple, the biggest temple of the followers of Bahai’ullah in the world.

Valuing Inter-mixing of Religions in India

A closer look into religious beliefs in India, shows that often, the inter-mixing and blurred boundaries between the religions are more important than the perceived differences. By promoting inter-mixing, we promote understanding and love between people of different religions.

The world today is full of examples of religious hate and misunderstandings. To overcome these divisions, the approach chosen by many countries and persons is that of "respect and tolerance" along with political correctness. The basic idea of this approach is that the religions are different and we should avoid hurting the religious sentiments of others. Therefore, these countries propose to not to put up Christmas trees so as to not offend the non-Christians; they suggest to use words like "Seasons greetings" rather than "Idd greetings", so as to not to offend non-Muslims.

I personally feel that such an approach makes all of us poorer. I prefer the Indian way where we all celebrate all the festivals of all the religions, where we can pray in each other’s praying places, without losing our own cultural and religious identities.

People who believe in the separateness of their religions, they are afraid of such an approach of inter-mixing. India shows that you can still be a Hindu, Muslim, Christian or Sikh, even if you share the religious and sacred ideas, foods and festivals of others.

For this reason, I believe that in India we must learn to value our inter-mixing approach. One way to do it will be by recognising those of us who are mixtures of linguistic, regional, castes and religious identities. For example, I feel that the national census in India should collect information about the different ways we intermix and the number of mixed families in the country.

Religious fundamentalists oppose inter-mixing of religions, Indian approach teaches us to promote it. Children of the mixed families who will have the freedom to choose their religions, will be the ambassadors of inter-religious peace.

Another way to support inter-mixing of religions in India can be by recognising as valuable all those celebrities who are widely known and admired and who are part of inter-religious or inter-caste marriages. For example, Bollywood stars with their multi-religious families, from Sunil Dutt-Nargis and Kishore Kumar-Madhubala, to Shahrukh-Gauri and Saif-Kareena, are examples of religious inter-mixing and joyful co-living not only for India but for the whole world. In a deeply divided world, they are our icons of unity, without losing our individual religious and cultural identities.

Your prayer for India

So to come back to my original question - if you could write just one prayer for India, which kind of prayer would it be?

Will it have different Gods including Ishwar and Allah? Will it be about different prophets such as Buddha, Mohammed, Jesus, Nanak, Mahavir, Zaruthustra and Bahai’ullah? Will it be about different paths leading to one Parmeshwar?

I hope that you will answer yes. I hope you will ask for the one life-force that underlies everything organic and inorganic in the cosmos. I hope that it will be a prayer that will promote peace, love and harmony.

***

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Photography Menace

Have you found yourself in situations where there are more photographers than there are artists at some public cultural events?

Unfortunately, often these photographers are also a little aggressive and they seem to believe that their right to click pictures is more important than the right of the public to watch the cultural event. They want to be in the front to click their pictures and some times they are willing to fight with each other to get the pictures they want.

If you think that I am exagerating, take a look at the picture below. Can you count the number of photographers surrounding the artists in this picture? And do you think that these photographers were really worrying about hundreds of spectators who had gathered in the city square to watch this cultural event?

Warring and uncivilized photographers disturbing public cultural events
Recently, I found myself in the middle of a fight among people wishing to click photographs. Fortunately, I was not involved in the fight, and as soon as I could, I slipped away to a calmer place. But the episode made me think about what had happened, how the world of photography is changing and the feeling that over the next years, probably the things are only going to get worse.

If we are organising a cultural event, I think that it is important to have clear rules so that photographers do not disturb the event. By photographers, I mean both - those with different kinds of digital cameras, as well as those with their smart phones.

THE FIGHT

First let me tell you about the fight that I witnessed. It happened one evening in Schio (pronounced Skio), a tiny town at the foothills of Alps in north-eastern part of Italy, where I live.

The cultural event was about the uniforms of the soldiers of Republic of Venice from 1797. It was almost near its end. I had found a place to stand in one corner of the square near the stairs of an underground parking. A guy with a nice SLR camera had taken position on the stairs, and set up his camera. For the finale of the event, they were going to fire the cannons. More people had joined us, including a lady clicking pictures with her smart phone, since we had a good view of the cannons.

The lady with the smart phone kept on moving from one side to other, to click pictures from different angles. I saw the man with SLR camera standing on the stairs, moving left and right, trying to get a visual of the event and avoiding the lady. After about fifteen minutes, he could not control himself and spoke sharply, "You mind standing still instead of moving all the time and breaking my balls?"

The lady turned towards him, initially shocked and a few moments later, indignant, "How dare you speak to me like that? Behave yourself."

I think that the guy realized that he had crossed a line and had been too rude, but for some time he continued to bluster, while the woman raised her voice and soon her husband, who was standing some distance away, came and joined her. For a moment, I thought that they were going to punch each other, but somehow common sense prevailed and the SLR camera guy backtracked, while the woman moved away.

After another 5 minutes, a couple of men with their smart phones, busy clicking a video, came and took the place vacated by the woman, standing in front of the camera guy. Disgusted, the guy snorted, put away his camera in his bag, left his place on the stairs and moved to an empty area of the square, which did not have a good visual of the event.

After the event, I kept on thinking about the photographers at the event. I was also there with my camera, though I am quite laid back about clicking pictures. If I get the opportunity I am happy to click but if people come and stand in front of me, I usually wait for them to move or change place.

That evening there were hundreds of persons who took pictures. Perhaps, 20% had digital cameras. The other 80% had their smart phones. That evening I was asking myself, if we going towards wars among the photographers?

PHOTOGRAPHY AS A PUBLIC MENACE

I think that photography in public cultural events has become a serious issue that requires the setting up of some clear rules.

In the cities of developed countries of Europe and US, and even in the big cities of less developed countries, the number of people with big SLR cameras and all other kinds of digital cameras is increasing every year. Whenever there is a public cultural event, it becomes a free for all among all the photographers to get good pictures, close ups and innovative angles. Some photographers block the visual of people who have come to watch the performance, standing there in the front as if they are transparent or if they have a special right to go and do as they wish.

I am not including "official photographers" in this list, including videographers, who also block the visuals but at least they do it because they are being paid to do it. In fact official photographers are often in the middle of the performances, moving around, not really bothering about the public.

If the epidemic of different digital cameras was not enough, the proliferation of good cameras in the smart phones and the possibility of sharing "See, I am here" kind of pictures on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, has added another layer of chaos to the discourse.

Now it is not enough to worry about those with digital cameras blocking you, there are literally hundreds more with their smart phones who also want to click pictures. If they have a family member or a friend who is performing in the event, they become impossible to control, jumping around in front, and refusing to move from their places, ready to fight for it if needed.

NEW RULES FOR PUBLIC PHOTOGRAPHY

It seems that the trend of taking pictures and videos and sharing them with our friends and others, is going to spread and get bigger over the coming years. Thus, I think that photography related conflicts are going to become more common.

The good manners' guides do not tell us how to behave in so many situations in today's world like for the use of our mobile phones and  cameras, but if we want to avoid conflicts, we need to define new rules that respect common codes of decency and privacy in public spaces.

Fortunately, lately my interest in photography is on the wane. I had my first digital camera in 2005. For many years I have suffered from clickitis, defined as the irresistible urge to click pictures. I was always looking for opportunities to click pictures. I had my photoblog Chayachitrakar where I posted new pictures every day. It has more than 2000 posts.

Then something changed inside me during 2015 - suddenly I was no longer so compulsive about clicking pictures. In January 2016, I also stopped adding pictures on my photo-blog. Lately I have even been to some cultural events without my camera.

I still take a lot of pictures, but if I can't, it is not such a big deal. Perhaps it is because of this change in my attitude that I can now talk of making of rules to regulate photography.

What do you feel - do you think that photographers are becoming a nuisance at public cultural events?

***

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Doctors and Alternate Sexualities

Note: I had written this article for the newsletter of Xukia, an organisation based in Guwahati, fighting for the rights of LGBTQI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersexual) persons in the north-east of India. The images used in this article are from LGBTQI Pride Parades organized by Xukia and held in Guwahati in 2015 and 2016.

***
GLBTQI Pride Parade, Guwahati, India - Images by Sunil Deepak
It was around 1973-74. I was a medical student. One evening, a close friend from my school days had hesitatingly asked me for advice. He felt attraction towards a male classmate in the university and wanted to know if this meant that he was gay. Probably he had thought that because I was studying medicine, I must know something about it.

I was not sure how to answer him. Yet, I was pleased that he had enough confidence in me to raise that question. I don’t think that it was, and I don’t think that it is, easy to discuss doubts about your sexuality with your close friends.

Till that time, the subject of sexualities had never been raised in our medical studies. In our anatomy class, when he had come to the chapters on sexual organs, our male professor had told us with a knowing smile that we could read those chapters ourselves. I used to think that it will be taught in the final year. I wouldn’t have believed at that time that at undergraduate level, medical students were not taught any thing related to sex, sexuality or genitals.

And, I don’t know how much of it has changed today. Perhaps young doctors can add about their own learnings on sex and sexualities in the medical colleges in India now.

It was a time when many of us went to work after the medical degree, rather than going for a specialisation. So our education system was turning out doctors, who were going to work, and who had never been taught anything about sexuality.

During our clinical studies, we had studied about the health conditions linked to the genital organs, especially sexually transmitted diseases, those that require surgery and those related to child-birth. And that was the end of our sexuality knowledge. Our medical education was linking sexuality exclusively to the ideas of disease conditions, rather than to ideas of pleasure and self-fulfilment.

***

“So what is the opinion of the doctor about it? Is it normal?” Similar questions are common in a variety of situations. When people are not sure about something related to the human body, asking the opinion of the doctors seems like a logical solution.

Rarely people ask themselves if the doctors have the knowledge and training to answer those questions properly. It is difficult to think that doctors, like most other persons in the society, carry the usual prejudices of the society in which they live.

There is limited research in India on the issues of sexualities. Often the research is carried out under the aegis of psychiatry departments, leading to the impression that sexuality is related to psychiatric disturbances.

I could not find any research on attitudes of Indian doctors about alternate sexualities. However, from colleagues, I have heard stories of doctors refusing to see and to treat transgender persons or being rude to them.

***

What are the opinions of Indian doctors about LGBTQ issues?

After the Supreme Court judgement on 11 December 2013, that reinstated section 377 of Indian Penal Code, on 27th December 2013 the Indian Medical Association (IMA) passed a resolution that “homosexuality is a variation of sexual orientation and not a disease”. However, many members of IMA did not agree with this official position.

On 19 January 2014, an ex-president of Indian Psychiatric Society (IPS) said that in India, talking of sex was unnatural and that homosexuals had brought these discussions out on the streets, implying that homosexuals were unnatural. Some days later, on 3 February 2014, the general secretary of IPS said that “Homosexuality is a grey area, entailing confusion and complexity, and black and white comments can't be made on it”. The above statements made by psychiatrists, who are supposed to have greater understanding about sexualities, did provoke some debates. Thus, On 7 February 2014, IPS was forced to issue a statement that “there is no evidence to substantiate that homosexuality is an illness or a disease”.

A recent newspaper story dated 26 July 2015 talked about a group of psychiatrists in Delhi who considered homosexuality as “a condition similar to bipolar disorders and schizophrenia”, to be treated by “conversion therapy” based on electro-shocks. This story provided details of interviews with many doctors.

One doctor claimed to have “helped” more than a thousand persons in “treating” homosexuality and usually charged 1.1 lakh Rs as a “complete package for treatment”. Another clinic claimed to “cure homosexuality” in one month for “only” 2,100 Rs. One doctor blamed the “excess of female hormones in male bodies” for homosexuality, while another talked of a “recessive homosexuality gene”.

Such pseudo-scientific talks, not based on any scientific-evidence, feed on the common prejudices among people. Since doctors and even more so, specialists like psychiatrists, are seen as authority figures, such claims and such services, serve to perpetuate and strengthen stereotypes and prejudices in the society.

Thus, even when official medical bodies make the “right” statements, individual doctors often continue to hold-on to their ideas that do not agree with the official positions.

These newspaper stories were about doctors in Delhi, but are doctors in other cities any better? What about similar doctors and clinics in the North-east? Probably the situation will not be so different.

***

So what should persons do when they want an advice about a sexuality issue from a health professional?

There are many occasions when LGBTQ persons and their families need sensitive and sensible advice from professionals who understand their worlds and their specific needs – such as, when young people are not sure about their orientation or gender, when persons wish to undertake hormonal or surgical treatment for gender reassignment, and when persons want to have families and think of surrogate pregnancy or artificial insemination.

Today a lot of information is available on internet. However, it is not always easy to judge the reliability of this information. It may be too much and sometimes, contradictory. Thus coming to a decision may not be easy and some guidance may be needed. However, I feel that the greatest advantage of internet based information relates to sharing of personal life stories and experiences, and creating peer support groups.

One answer for LGBTQ groups can be to start working on creating a database of responsible and sensitive health professionals in their cities. For example, a group of persons have started a crowd-sourcing work on identifying “Gynaecologists whom we can trust” (#GynaecsWeCanTrust), that provides information in different languages about reliable gynaecologists in different Indian cities.

Some time ago I had visited the office of an Association of transgender persons in Bologna (Italy) called MIT. They were able to convince the local government on the need of having access to experienced psychologists and health professionals. Thus, in their office, the local government had agreed to provide them with professionals, to be available for consultation a few times in a month. Though initially the professionals had limited knowledge and skills about issues related to transgender persons, with time, they were able to gain both.

Hoping for a support from the Government on this issue in India may not be realistic in the short term, but perhaps similar solutions can be explored by GLBT Rights organisations and groups locally with some professionals who have an understanding of these issues.

***
I want to conclude this article with a few images from the LGBTQI Pride Parades held in Guwahati (Assam, India) in 2015-16.

GLBTQI Pride Parade, Guwahati, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

GLBTQI Pride Parade, Guwahati, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

GLBTQI Pride Parade, Guwahati, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

GLBTQI Pride Parade, Guwahati, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

GLBTQI Pride Parade, Guwahati, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

GLBTQI Pride Parade, Guwahati, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

GLBTQI Pride Parade, Guwahati, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

GLBTQI Pride Parade, Guwahati, India - Images by Sunil Deepak

***

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Saving the little hog – Goutam Narayan

I am not an animal lover, I am a conservationist. I have no sentimental attachment to any one animal that I want to save at any cost like the animal lovers do. To save a species, if some animals have to be sacrificed for larger good, that is fine with me”, Goutam had said passionately. Goutam Narayan is known for his work in saving the Pygmy Hog (Porcula salvania) from extinction in the north-west of Assam in India.

Conservationist Goutam Narayan and the pygmy hog

We were visiting the Pygmy Hog Breeding Centre (PHBC) in Basistha in the periphery of Guwahati, of which he is the founder-director. Another breeding centre is located at Potasali near Nameri National Park.

When I had first arrived to live in Guwahati in December 2014, I did not know anyone in this city. However, I had the contacts of Goutam and his wife, Nandita, given to me by my sister. So I had gone to visit them at their home. That was the first time I had heard about Goutam’s work with pygmy hogs. “I want to come and see your work with these hogs”, I had told him. Finally, in January 2016 I had managed to visit it.

WHY SAVE THE PYGMY HOGS?

Goutam thinks that this tiny and shy animal is a very good indicator of the ecological conservation of its local environment, “The big animals like tigers or rhinos, they can thrive in lots of places and even if the environment changes, they can survive. But not the pygmy hogs. They need the specific tall wet grassland plains at the foothills and without it, they will not survive. So when animals like the pygmy hog start disappearing, you know that something is wrong and the environment is getting damaged. It is a sensitive indicator of the change in the environment.

Pigs, hogs, boars and swines are different words used to talk about the animals of the suid family, though usually pig is used for domesticated animals while hogs and boars are used for wild animals.

Conservationist Goutam Narayan and the pygmy hog

The pygmy hog is the smallest suid. The grown adult is about 65 cm long and 25 cm tall, weighing around 8 or 9 kg. It is also a very shy animal so it is very difficult to see in the wild. There was a time when these pygmy hogs were found in several places along the Himalayan foothills at the India-Bhutan border extending westwards to India-Nepal border to eastern parts on Assam-Arunachal Pradesh borders. However, now these animals are almost extinct except for a small area in Manas National Park, which has around 200 pygmy hogs. During the last few years, 94 animals born and raised in Goutam’s breeding centre have been released in Sonai Rupai Wildlife Sanctuary and Orang National Park in Assam.

HOW DID PYGMY BECAME ALMOST EXTINCT?

So what has happened to these pygmy hogs? How had they become extinct? Often the extinction of animals is linked to excessive killings by humans, but that is not the case with the pygmy hogs. Since they are shy animals hiding in the wet grasslands, they are not easy to hunt. Also, they are small, so have little meat to justify their hunting. Rather, their extinction is linked to the destruction of the tall wet grasslands.

They are very finicky animals, they require that tall thatch grass and without it they can not survive. They make their homes underneath a bunch of that grass and if they can not find it then they will have no homes, they will not breed and they will die”, Goutam had explained.

Conservationist Goutam Narayan and the pygmy hog

Goutam is a field biologist and had started with the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) under Salim Ali, the noted Indian ornithologist. Goutam had earlier worked with Bengal Florican (Houbaropsis bengalensis), another endangered species that shares its habitat with the pygmy hog. After working with Bengal Floricans in Manas grasslands he was offered to work with Pygmy Hog Conservation Programme by the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, founded by Gerald Durrell in Jersey, Channel Islands.

The wet grasslands habitat has one of the richest in bio-diversity in India, so it is important to safeguard it. Pygmy hogs are one of the most sensitive indicators of the safeguarding of this habitat. These wet grasslands serve as buffer against floods in rainy season while maintaining high groundwater levels in dry season, indirectly benefiting farming communities living in the fringe areas.

A few years ago, in an interview Goutam had expressed his desires of the changes he would like to see, “I would (like to) banish the indiscriminate dry season burning of grasslands every February and March. I may allow some controlled fire till mid January to clear dried grass debris and to delay the transformation of these successional grasslands into a different habitat but not the highly destructive hot burns. Secondly, I would convert hoards of cattle grazing the grasslands bare and trampling the soil hard into a few high yielding breeds of stall-fed animals. Thirdly, I would transform the mindset of planners who want to construct scores of mega dams on Himalayan rivers. They should instead be planning for ecologically and economically viable smaller alternatives that do not cause flash floods in the grassland plains and downstream areas when water is released from reservoirs, particularly during the monsoons.”

PYGMY HOG CONSERVATION PROGRAMME

In the pygmy hog breeding centre in Guwahati, the hogs are kept in separate enclosures according to the genetic lines. Since their numbers are so small, it is important to ensure the genetic lines to maximise their genetic diversity. Pygmy hog is the only member of the genus Porcula.

The Pygmy Hog Conservation Programme (PHCP) has a significant research component. An important part of the research is genetic and endocrinal studies of the hogs. While we were visiting it we met a researcher Shyamalima Buragohain who is working on PHCP’s collaborative project with CCMB-LaCONES (Laboratory for Conservation of Endangered Species of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad) on the endocrine status of pygmy hogs by studying their excreta.

The breeding programme had started with nine pygmy hogs captured in the Manas National Park in 1996 and in 2013. Over the years, their numbers have slowly increased. When we visited, PHCP had 85 hogs. Every year around 12 hogs are released in protected and restored grasslands under a planned reintroduction project. A pre-release centre has been built in Nameri Tiger Reserve where the animals get used to living in the grasslands in a gradual manner under minimal human contact for 5 months, before being released. At the same time, together with forest authorities, programme for rebuilding the grassland habitats of the hogs are started by controlling the burning of the grass and livestock grazing.

HISTORY OF INTEREST IN SAVING THE PYGMY HOGS

The story of conservation of pygmy hogs is linked to the British colonial history of Assam. A British born tea garden owner and naturalist Edward Pritchard Gee, who had decided to stay in India after 1947, is known for the identification of Golden Langurs and conservation of one horned rhinos in Assam. In 1964 he had written the book “The Wildlife of India” in which he had written that probably the pygmy hog species was already extinct.

The 1971 rediscovery of pygmy hog is credited to another British tea planter from the Jersey island, John Tessier-Yandell. Under his guidance a tea garden manager had found pygmy hogs being sold in a tea garden market near the Barnadi Reserve Forest (now a Wildlife Sanctuary where the pygmy hogs will be released by PHCP in May 2016) in Darrang (now Udalguri) district of north-western Assam and John had written a report that was published in the journal “Animals”. The tea company had set up a small project for the conservation of the pygmy hog, but unfortunately it had failed to maintain these animals in captivity.

Following its rediscovery, during 1970s-80s different surveys had shown the existence of pygmy hogs in different parts of Assam, however these had gradually disappeared with the destruction of the wet grasslands habitats.

The international Wild Pig Specialist Group was setup under the Species Survival Commission (SSC) of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), under William Oliver in 1980. As an acolyte of Gerald Durrell, in whose zoo in Jersey he started working in 1974, William Oliver promoted the role of zoos and captive breeding. For saving the pygmy hogs Oliver had drawn up his first action plan in 1977, but was unable to get the state of Assam and the government of India to agree to protect them properly until 1995, when he had asked Goutam Narayan to join this project.

THE FUTURE

In September 2015, Goutam Narayan has received the International Harry Messel award “in recognition of his pivotal role on leading the Pygmy Hog Conservation Programme in north-eastern India since 1995, thus saving a whole genus from extinction, and his long service to the SSC Wild Pig Specialist Group”.

Conservationist Goutam Narayan and the pygmy hog

Regarding the future of the Pygmy Hog species and its habitat, Goutam is optimistic and says, “Hopefully one day the importance of wild habitats such as the wet grasslands will be recognised for their role in providing significant ecosystem services to the local communities and they will be protected and managed using sensitive indicator species, thereby helping both the highly endangered wildlife and local people. Till that day comes the conservationist should help preserve at least some small pockets of these habitats lest everything is lost!

***

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Ancient Indians, Neanderthals and Denisovans

Recently I was reading the wonderful book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by the Israeli writer Yuval Noah Harari (originally written in Hebrew in 2011, English translation is published by Signal books, UK, 2014). Reading this book reminded me about some of my old thoughts on ancient Indian myths and the prehistoric humans such as the Neanderthals.

Many decades ago, while reading the old Indian sacred stories, I used to wonder if some of the people described in them such as asur, danav, rakshas, and vanar, could have been references to other human species.

This post explores some of those ideas about the non-human persons in the sacred books of Hinduism including Veda, Puranic stories and epics like Ramayan and Mahabharat. I am not claiming any scientific rationale behind these ideas, they are just speculations. The images used in this post are from the north-east of India and show depictions of those persons in the temples, folk-art and folk-plays.

Encounters with diverse human species in Indian mythology

Different human species: Regarding the encounters between the different human species, in his book Yuval Noah Harari has written that:
There were humans long before there was history. Animals much like modern humans first appeared about 2.5 million years ago. But for countless generations they did not stand out from myriad other organisms with which they shared their habitats. …
Homo sapiens, too, belongs to a family. This banal fact used to be one of history’s most closely guarded secrets. Homo sapiens long preferred to view itself as set apart from animals, an orphan bereft of family, lacking siblings or cousins, and most importantly without parents. But that’s just not the case. Like it or not, we are members of a large and particularly noisy family called the great apes. Our closest living relatives include chimpanzees, gorillas and orang utans. The chimpanzees are the closest. Just 6 million years ago, a single female ape had two daughters. One became the ancestor of all chimpanzees, the other is our own grandmother.
Homo sapiens has kept hidden an even more disturbing secret. Not only do we possess an abundance of uncivilised cousins, once upon a time we had quite a few brothers and sisters as well. We are used to thinking about ourselves as the only humans, because for the last 10,000 years, our species has indeed been the only human species around. …
Humans in Europe and western Asia evolved into Homo neanderthalensis, popularly referred to simply as ‘Neanderthals’. .. The more eastern regions of Asia were populated by Homo erectus, ‘Upright man’, who survived there for close to 2 million years, making it the most durable human species ever. .. On the island of Java in Indonesia, lived Homo soloensis. On another Indonesian island – the small island of Flores – archaic humans underwent a process of dwarfing … This unique species, known by scientists as Homo floresiensis, reached a maximum height of only metre and weighed no more than twenty-five kilograms. .. In 2010 another lost sibling was rescued from oblivion, when scientist excavating the Denisova cave in Siberia discovered a fossilised finger bone. Genetic analysis proved that the finger belonged to a previously unknown human species, which was named Homo denisova. … from about 2 million years ago until around 10,000 years ago, the world was home, at one and the same time, to several human species. …(pp 11-20)
European theories of encounters between different people in India: European academics and indologists from 19th century had popularized the theories of Aryan invasion and proposed that people of south India (Dravidians) were pushed southwards by those Aryans coming into India from the west. They had also proposed that fair-skinned Aryans had exploited and subjugated dark skinned indigenous populations of ancient India and forced them into specific caste groups (shudra) or outside the caste system (untouchables). They had argued that groups like Asur and Rakshas described in the ancient Indian tales were actually Dravidians and other indigenous people of India.

These ideas have been widely accepted both in India and internationally. For example, many people believe that the more than three thousand years old Harappa and Mohanjodaro civilizations in the Indus valley had disappeared due to Aryan invasion.

Only during the last couple of decades there have been doubts about the invasion theories since they have not found matching archaeological or documentary evidence or the evidence is non conclusive, to support this theory. However, objective discussions on this theme are sometimes difficult because certain Hindu groups see the Aryan invasion theory as diminishing of their claim to be original inhabitants of India. At the same time, objective discussions are difficult because many leftist scholars see them as efforts to pander to conservative Hindu groups.

Alternative hypothesis of encounters between different human species in Indian myths: However, I used to think that the Puranic stories and myths of ancient Indians could have been orally transmitted stories of the prehistoric humans, who could have travelled from one continent to another over thousands of years, enriching those stories with events from their own lives and passing them on to their younger generations.

So my thought was: what if the asur, danav, pichash, rakshas and vanar of those stories were other species of humans who might have lived on earth at the same time as the Homo sapiens? What if stories like those of the vanar kingdom from which Hanuman comes, which is described in Ramayan, are based upon much older stories from the millennium-long oral traditions and refer to our humanoid ape ancestors from which the different human species took birth and who were our species-cousins?

Encounters with diverse human species in Indian mythology

The Puranic stories talk about the birth of deva (humans) and asur from the same father Brahma and their subsequent fights. Similarly the stories linked to rakshas like that of Ravan, mention the highly developed cultures of these people and their rich cities full of gold (Lanka). I do not think that we can take these stories as literal truths or histories. Indian traditions have looked at, analysed and understood these myths in diverse spiritual and metaphorical ways.

Encounters with diverse human species in Indian mythology

For example, Indian mythologist Devdutt Pattnaik in his book “My Gita” writes of deva and asura as the two children of Brahma, “Though half-brothers, these sons of Brahma do not like each other: the deva fear the asura and the asura hate the deva. … In the Veda, the deva and asura are celestian beings. But in Purana, they are clearly rivals. The Europeans identified asura first as Titans, in line with Greek mythology, and later as demons, in line with Abrahamic mythology. This causes great confusion, as the asura are neither “old gods” nor “forces of evil”. Both old gods and forces of evil are unwanted and need to be excluded, while in the Purana, both are needed …” (p. 79)

To explain the disappearance from earth of all other human species except for the Homo sapiens, wars and genocides have been proposed. However, we can also interpret the old Indian myths as stories of interactions between different human species. Yuval Noah has written about these interactions, "About 70,000 years ago, Sapiens from East Africa spread into Arabian peninsula and from there they quickly overran the entire Eurasian landmass. When Homo sapiens landed in Arabia, most of Eurasia was already settled by other humans. What happened to them? … According to the Interbreeding theory, when Sapiens spread into Neanderthal lands, Sapiens bred with Neanderthals until the two populations merged. If this is the case, then today’s Eurasians are not pure Sapiens." (p. 20)

Can we confirm these ideas?: When the human genome mapping project had come up, I had thought that genome mapping could give the answers about inter-mixing between the different human species. For example, genome studies have shown that 1 to 4 percent of Europeans and Asians have some Neanderthal genes.

Encounters with diverse human species in Indian mythology

Another recent report about a genome study by Sriram Sankararaman of California university and David Reich of Harvard University has shown that a higher than expected percentage of south Asians have genes of the Denisovan species of humans. People of Oceania and Pacific have even higher number of persons with these genes.

Thus, these studies suggest that at least some degree of inter-mixing between human species did take place. However this does not prove that the other people mentioned in Indian myths and ancient books were other human species like Neanderthals and Denisovans.

The continuity of the living oral traditions in India: Another questions I have asked myself is - if it is true that the Indian myths carry memories of the prehistoric encounters between the different human species, are there similar myths and old stories among other cultures and people?

Encounters with diverse human species in Indian mythology

We share many myths with other cultures. For example, the floods of the Genesis Narrative are a common myth in different parts of the world, from Noah in the Bible to Sumerian and Babylonian myths, and the primordial floods described in the Indian myths of Manu.

So why we have not found other myths and stories of encounters between Sapiens and other species of humans? One answer can be that the myths and ancient stories of people could have included stories of encounters between different human species, but those stories are not accessible today. Or that these stories are there but they have not been thought/understood in this way. Another answer can be that the relatively new religions like Christianity and Islam have suppressed many of  the old myths of the oral traditions of the ancient people.

On the other hand, India has had a very strong tradition of keeping alive the oral narratives and customs. For example, a group of persons in Kerala still continues and conserves the tradition of chanting of ancient vedic sounds, whose meanings have been lost with time. Thus, these are living traditions in India and not just things that are found in museums and old manuscripts. Another factor influencing the continuing presence of old stories in India is because Hinduism is composed of hundreds of different belief streams, none of which can claim to be dominant or more legitimate than others, which makes it possible for the acceptance and continuing adaptations and relevance of old myths and sacred stories.

In India the myth-recreation and re-elaboration process is active and ongoing even today. For example, in popular Indian culture public figures like Mahatma Gandhi and Ambedkar, as well as some film actors and politicians, are regularly turned into gods with building of their temples and making of new myths and stories about their exploits.

Perhaps that is how, ancient myths of encounters between different human species could have found resonance in relatively more recent stories of exploitation between different castes, and thus these continue to be woven and used in different ways in contemporary India!

Conclusions: Do ancient Indian myths tell stories about encounters between different human species from prehistorical times? May be one day the technology will be able to provide better answers to such speculative questions. More likely, these will remain speculations.

However, I like the idea that our old Indian myths and stories can remember events from the dawn of the humanity before we had our languages and identities. I like the idea that the archetype chimpanzee grandmother of Yuval Noah Harari is still remembered as the mother of Hanuman in our stories. That our Neanderthal cousins are still there with us as Ravan, Kumbhkaran and Meghnath in the Ramlila plays. That our Denisovan cousins are not lost for ever, they live in the Puranic stories of India.

Encounters with diverse human species in Indian mythology

I think that "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind", is a wonderful book. If Human history interests you, it will give you a lot to think about!

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