Archive for January, 2010|Monthly archive page

The Idea Of India Project Update: Towards The City Of Illusions & Past The Mists Of Memory

In The Idea Of India Project on January 31, 2010 at 10:04 am

It is one of my most vivid childhood memories and it now returns to me with the clarity of a stereopticon as I sit here on cold winter’s dawn on a Delhi railway platform waiting to take the 6:00 am Shatabdi Express to Lucknow.

It is the winter of 1972 and my scout troop, returning from a scouting jamboree in the hills of Islamabad, had to abandon the train it was traveling on because of riots in Lahore. With no place to go, we set our gear and bedding down on one of the station platforms and huddled close against the winter night hoping that we could be on our way again the following day. Through the mists of the night I could see train wagons on fire, and men running and shouting slogans that I couldn’t comprehend.

At around midnight, I see the figure of my father emerging from the fog. He was with a friend and I could see that they were looking for me. From about 20 yards my father spots me sitting among my sleeping gear and slowly walks towards me. Are you alright? he asks. Yes, I answer. Do you need anything? he continues. No, I answer. He then pulls out an apple from his coat pocket, places it in my hand, turns without saying anything further and walks away to catch the morning flight back to Karachi.

I remember watching him disappear into the fog, grateful that he did not insist on taking me home and separating me from my group. As the winter cold determinedly teased itself into my bones, I crouched into the desperately inadequate warmth of my jacket and fell asleep. Since then a part of me has believed that I dreamed the entire thing. The other part knows my father well and believes that it was all real.

I would see my father again some 3 days later as he and my mother stood at the Karachi train station to receive me. Two weeks later I would celebrate my seventh birthday.

And now, the dawn in Delhi with its gentle breezes and subtle light, takes me back to that platform in Lahore so many decades ago and that moment where a small child pretended he was an adult and could to face the world. And was allowed to.

I am heading to Lucknow.

Not Quite What It Used To Be Or What Happened To Our Reporters, Reporting And Reasoning

In Journalism, The Daily Discussion on January 30, 2010 at 1:08 pm

The Idea Of India Project Update: On The Graves Of A History, January 28th 2010

In The Idea Of India Project on January 28, 2010 at 9:23 pm

I buy a postcard.

It shows a black and white picture of a large group of local Keralan villagers standing around two tall, confident looking men who clearly do not belong to the local community. The two men, in shirts and pants, look back at the camera with confidence. The villagers however look at the camera with what appears to be confusion, anxiety and simple acquiescence. Its a look I have seen a thousand times in countless photographic ‘documentations’ of ‘subject’ peoples of Africa, Asia and elsewhere.

But this photograph was taken in 1952, well after India’s independence. Ironically, it represents what is perhaps the last great grasp of the colonial era; the formation and creation of the state of Israel.

The post card celebrates the meeting of the Zionist emissaries with Chennamagalam’s indigenous Jewish community, most all of which eventually emigrate to Israel abandoning hundreds of years of their heritage to buy into a unifying Zionist narrative. The castration was largely completed by the 1970s leaving behind nothing more than a few tombstones, and a recently restored synagogue.

I arrived in Chennamangalam not to pursue the story of the Jews, but to see with my own eyes what is perhaps one of the most unusual buildings/monuments in the world; a prime ministerial palace that has a mosque, a church, a synagogue and a hindu temple on its four corners. The building reflected a set of values and world view that today is largely dead. And though the four spiritual buildings remain, they can hardly be described as living. The paths that once linked each of the four spiritual sites to each other are no longer. Each seems to have turned away from the other. Hindutva organizations dominate this area, their banners, wall murals and posters, lining most of the narrow roads that now cut through the forests here. The synagogue itself is basically just a tourist travel destination; cold, artificially perfect, hollow and soulless.

Questions run through my mind; what does it take for a community to simply lift anchor, abandon their past, and fall for an ideal being sold to them from men from across the seas? Why would a 700 year deep community suddenly convince itself that it can find a better life, a truer and more reflective existence, in a land far away? How could they have just left it all?

Perhaps I ask these questions because they are similar to the ones I had asked about another migration – the one where a few million muslims decide that they wanted nothing to do with the 700 odd years of history and heritage they had been responsible for and needed their own separate homeland.

The mirrors of history continue to confound and provoke.

As I walk away from the synagogue the post card held in my hand feels like a clue to a betrayal, a piece of evidence of an act that I can’t help but think of a crime against India and her heritage. Did anyone protest? Did the country simply look away? Was it easy to just disappear, or to allow it? I don’t have the answers but can only remind myself to explore this question further.

And then I see Jonathan Cooks newest piece in The National newspaper. Titled Israel plans to repatriate ‘lost Jewish tribe’ in India it offers some clues to the political and nationalist forces that informed that moment in 1952 when an entire village and community came out to celebrate the arrival of Zionist representatives and had it permanently recorded on film.

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The Idea Of India Project Update: On The Milky Way To A Mosque

In The Idea Of India Project on January 22, 2010 at 11:45 am

The words are beginning to dance in my head, and I can’t stop them from doing so. I am standing at the site of what is purported to be the first mosque built on Indian soil – the Cheraman mosque in the city of Kodungallur, but all that is running through my head is this motto on a nearby high school hoarding:

‘A Milky Way To The Horizon Of Education’

The metaphors, not quite mixed but smashed together, are now starting to take over my imagination, reducing me to a numbskull unable to stop laughing and start concentrating.

The sun is at the perfect angle, this unique mosque in this small city of Kodungallur, a mosque that faces East unlike all other mosques in the world that face West, is perfectly and appropriately lit. I had woken up at 7:00am this morning to make it to this location, my cameras ready, my timing perfect. But I had not anticipated this incredible road sign to a child’s future.

The questions keep coming and with a tone that insists that they are not to be answered, but simply worded to exorcise them!

Is the Milky Way like the highway?

Are there food stops on the way?

What is a horizon doing in space?

Why do I need a Milky Way to get to any horizon?

Do I have to pay tolls?

Is there a horizon in education?

The mind continues to ask foolish questions, and I continue to waste time. I will find no images here. This once lovely little mosque, now rather conventionally rebuilt in cement and tall minarets, will not be photographed. Named for the Keralan king who converted to Islam when he dreamt of the Prophet’s (PBUH) miralce of the moon, this mosque’s location has become impossible to stand in.

I have been reduced to muttering inanities to myself as I make the slow walk of shame back to my hotel.

A map of the complete Kerala Journeys can be seen on an earlier post called The Idea Of India: Project Reports From The Road or on the project page called Progress Reports

The Idea Of India Project Update: The Omnipresent Baba

In The Idea Of India Project on January 22, 2010 at 11:30 am

Baba Farid’s reputation and influence spreads from the regions of Punjab all the way down to the Southern tips of Tamil Nadu.

I visited his main shrine in Pakpattan in what is now Pakistan while pursuing the story of one of the Mumbai attackers Ajmal Kasab

Kasab ironically comes from the land of the people of the Baba, a land known for its deep devotion to this saint, his anti-clerical teachings, his message of universal love and his insistence on the necessity of tolerance as a means to the search for the divine. In fact, Kasab’s home town is called Faridkot – Baba Farid’s town.

There is another Faridkot right across the border in India, and I was there in 2008. Here, Baba Farid’s followers and devotees are almost exclusively Sikh. So much so that Baba Farid has even made it into their most holiest of their books.

Now, in Kanjiramatton, I stand in front of yet another shrine to the saint that Professor Anne Bigelow once called ‘Everybody’s Baba’ for the diversity of people who followed his teachings and came to seek his blessings.

Baba Farid is the third piece of the Sabarimala story, one that I will elaborate in the future. For the moment I am simply amazed that this simple man not only traveled the length and breadth of this land, but left so many, Muslims, Hindus, Sikh, Christians and others, enamored by his teachings and despite the passing of centuries, continue to come to him with love, humility and affection.

A map of the complete Kerala Journeys can be seen on an earlier post called The Idea Of India: Project Reports From The Road or on the project page called Progress Reports

The Idea Of India Project Update: The Trinity Of The Gods

In The Idea Of India Project on January 14, 2010 at 6:24 am

The Chandanakudam festival will not begin until December of this year, but I am heading to this small town because it is site of this unique event. The festival is the only known event where Hindus, Muslims and Christians celebrate and perform the festival rituals together, and explicitly take offerings to and receiving blessings from the caretakers of a mosque, a church and a temple.

The famous and unique Puthurpalli mosque is located here – one of the finest examples of Malabar architecture. The mosque sits in a trinity of religious sites that include the St. Mary Church and the Bhagavati temple.

The festival, begun in 1749, begins at St Mary’s where people of all faiths gather. From there they proceed to the Bhagavati temple and eventually everyone moves to the mosque where the celebrations begin. The Muslim caretakers receive the devotees, handing to the Hindu priests a pot of sandalwood paste and vermilion. The priests use this to apply a tilak on the forehead of the Muslim representatives before being blessed in return.

Many have tried to stop the ritual of the tilak. The local community has refused, arguing that in its generosity and sharing it a symbol of tolerance and mutual respect. And that it is less a religious act and more a human, social and communitarian one.

Next December I will be here to receive my tilak, but in the mean time I am heading to this town to explore the culture and space that gave rise to this beautiful event.

A map of the complete Kerala Journeys can be seen on an earlier post called The Idea Of India: Project Reports From The Road or on the project page called Progress Reports

The Idea Of India Project Update: Where Muslim Warriors Defend & Protect Hindu Gods

In The Idea Of India Project on January 10, 2010 at 2:03 pm

It is perhaps one of the more unique Hindu pilgrimages in India. Its circuit takes the pilgrims through the domains of two Muslim men – a saint and a warrior, who are considered companions and protectors of the deity Ayyappa.

The shrine to Ayyappa lies at the top of a mountain in Sabarimala, but the pilgrims must pay homage to these two men who are his companions. In particular, they must stop at the mosque of the warrior Vavar in the small town of Erumeli and seek his permission and blessings, before proceeding onwards to Sabarimala.

The saint is the Sufi Shaikh Fariduddin whose shrine is also on the pilgrimage route. But more about him in a few adys. For the moment it is this mosque that I travel towards, to participate in the Sabarimal pilgrimage that is taking place here now, and has been going on for about 30 days. There are many legends that surround this festival and I will explore these in further writings.

For the moment, I prepare to leave for this small town in Western Kerala, and join a pilgrimage that has managed to, despite opposition from orthodox groups of all leanings, to bring together Muslims and Hindus in legend and in life.

A map of the complete Kerala Journeys can be seen on an earlier post called The Idea Of India: Project Reports From The Road or on the project page called Progress Reports

The Idea Of India Project Update: The Search For The Bent Cross

In The Idea Of India Project on January 7, 2010 at 4:54 pm

I am searching for the Chapel of the Bent Cross in Cochin’s Matancherry district.

The story goes that in 1635 the Syrian Christians who had forcibly been converted to Roman Catholicism declared their return to their original faith. The Kunan Kurisu Revolt as this is known marked the final divide between the Jacobites and the Catholics. And it was at this small chapel, one that has now become holy to Christians, Muslims and Hindus, that they swore their sacred oath ‘Kunan kurisu satyam anu’ (The Bent Cross is the Truth).

Legend however tells that the cross floated from the sea, and was installed here. One day a Hindu singer named Bhrandan (the crazy one) was asked to come and perform here and the cross bent completely. Nothing anyone could do since would make it unbend. Until the portugese banned it, Hindu singers were frequently invited to sing at Christian shrines.

I walk the streets to find this cross. And much like the rest of this project, I seek not the object of my search, but the pleasure and surprises (visual, intellectual, emotional) along the way.

A map of the complete Kerala Journeys can be seen on an earlier post called The Idea Of India: Project Reports From The Road or on the project page called Progress Reports

Interestingly A War Crime In Any Language Remains A War Crime & The Dead In Any Language Remain Dead

In Essays On Embedded Photojournalism, Israel/Palestine, Journalism, Our Wars on January 4, 2010 at 8:02 pm

From PULSE media.

The Idea of India: Project Work Reports From The Road

In The Idea Of India Project on January 2, 2010 at 7:57 pm

I am being encouraged to write more when on the road. This is something that has previously been impossible for me because I never travel with a laptop and I dislike sitting in public internet cafes for any length of time beyond reading essential email every few days or so.

However, this time around I am in fact traveling with a laptop and will hence attempt to give updates of my journey.

The focus of this next trip for The Idea of India project is on Kerala. This is the first of at least three trips to the state that I hope to make. For those of you who do not know this work, you can read a description of it on the project page.

The map below marks the various locations I expect to travel to and work in. I will update details about each as the work begins, but the map starts to give you an idea of the scope of the Kerala portion of the work.

I will regularly update the posts and you can read not only about a site, shared sacred space, festival or landscape that I am documenting, but perhaps even the sheer mental torture I subject myself to as I struggle to produce images.

Note, you can also follow these posts and work progress on the The Idea of India Project: Progress Reports page.

As I said, this is the first time I am going to attempt this, so please be patient.