Varanasi and Sarnath

The city of Varanasi is probably the most important place in India to Hindus, whilst the ruins of Sarnath, some 10km away, mark the remains of a site of great importance to Buddhists. I stayed there for three days, some 8 years ago.
Dasaswamedh Ghat, Varanasi. Taken from the top of the steps (ghats). The River Ganges is the holiest river to Hindus, and Varanasi is the one of the holiest cities. Previously named Benares (and often so still called) and Kashi (City of Life), it is visited by Hindus in their millions who come to bathe in the Ganges to purify their souls. In a final journey, many are cremated here and their ashes cast into the river, believing that this will help to achieve liberation from rebirth.

The river Ganges from Dasaswamedh Ghat, Varanasi.

Stalls on the ghats at Varanasi. Varanasi never seems less than vibrant and colourful.

And another stall near the ghats.

Down at the ghats I was trailed by this cheerful young rogue demanding money to have his photo taken or to show me the sights or sell me souvenirs or lead me to stalls where I could purchase to my heart’s content or…whatever.

 

Street scene in Varanasi. The church in the middle distance is Saint Thomas’. This was taken quite early in the morning when I was on my way to the ghats. Early afternoon as I was returning, it was packed solid, traffic completely unable to move.

 

 

10km outside Varanasi lie the ruins of Sarnath. After the Buddha had achieved enlightenment at Bodhgaya, he came to Sarnarth – a walk of some 250kms or so, through what would have been highly dangerous country then – to seek out his former companions and in the Deer Park there he gave his first sermon, on the turning of the wheel of law. This comprises the Buddha’s path to Enlightenment: the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold path and the Middle Way. In the 3rd century BC, the emperor Ashoka, a convert to Buddhism after witnessing the terrible carnage of a war he had unleashed, built stupas and monasteries here as well as an engraved pillar. These survived until the end of the 12th century when they were destroyed during the Muslim invasions and not rediscovered until 1834 by a British archaeological team.

This altar stone in the ruins of Sarnath) is still being used by pilgrims for pujas.

Dhamekh Stupa at Sarnath . This solid cylindrical tower, 33m in height, supposedly marks the place where the Buddha gave his first sermon. The base is stone, covered in delicate carvings, and the upper part brick.

 

Carvings adorning the base of the Dhamekh Stupa.

A Shared Humanity

‘The world knows nothing of its greatest men’ goes the old saying. Or women, of course, since it is men who tend to write these things. I may have alluded to this before.

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I was reading a blog post by Rajiv earlier today, on the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, and we swapped a couple of comments, the result of which decided me to write this short post. You can read Rajiv’s post here: Partition in the Punjab

Those of us who did not live through that time, cannot really imagine the full horror of it all. The figures alone are dreadful.

14 million people were displaced, forced to move from their homes to either what remained India or became East or West Pakistan, by any means of transport available, frequently on foot. Those that survived the journey, frequently one of tremendous hardship, carried memories that were often too dreadful to relate.

Most lost their possessions.

Families were split apart and separated, many of them never to meet again.

Millions of refugees.

Up to 1 million were killed in what were effectively religious killings – the actual figure is unknown. Trains were set on fire, men and women, adults and children, lost their lives in what became a frenzy of killing.

Much, of course, has been written of this over the years, and the blame placed on many shoulders. The British were extremely culpable in this case, mainly through neglect and thoughtlessness. Those that assumed power in India and Pakistan need to take their share of the blame, too.

But the world, as I remarked at the start of this post, knows nothing of its greatest men. Or, in this case, its greatest men and women, or at least very little of them.

On both sides of the new borders, whilst most people succumbed to fear and many to hatred, whilst innocent lives were taken and dreadful acts carried out, there were many, many people who sheltered and saved those of other religions who had been their friends and neighbours before, often at great personal risk.

They gained nothing from it, but simply displayed their common humanity.

I have read of a few examples of this, a few stories from both sides of that border, and I have seen it mentioned briefly in documentaries.

But now, before the last players in that tragedy finally pass away, it would be marvellous if there could be a concerted effort to collect these stories and record them, as an inspiring example of people reaching out to each other across what is, once again, becoming a depressingly familiar religious divide, and, most importantly, remembering and commemorating their bravery.

Comments, anyone?

This was a writing exercise I did some while back. The premise was to find a couple of unrelated articles or adverts in a magazine or newspaper, and make up a piece of fiction from them.

I found an article about women delaying having children due to career choices, sitting serendipitously next to a piece about child brides. I know there is a bit of a connection there, but I couldn’t resist it.

Those who follow me will realise that this was written entirely tongue-in-cheek!

But, does anyone have any strong opinions on the suitability of treating this subject with humour?

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Dear diary.

Goodness me, it’s been a busy day. So much has been happening that I might almost forget who I am! Perhaps I need to remind myself; my name is Elizabeth Wilson, and I’m ten years old. Well, ten and three quarters, really. Very nearly eleven. Anyway, we had the careers teacher talking to us in our class, today. It’s never too early, she said.

So, we talked about careers. Well, in these enlightened times, we’re now being told: ‘Delay marriage until you’re sixteen, and get a career.’ Quite a turn around, eh? Sixteen! I’m sure I don’t know what my mum is going to say. I mean, a career is all well and good, but while I’m out being a career girl, she’ll be at home and all broody for grandchildren and worried that she’s heading towards her thirties and in the meantime all her friends will be cooing over their grandchildren.

I say that I don’t know what Mum is going to say, but that’s not actually true. I can hear her now; ‘It’s not natural, all this waiting. It’s a woman’s duty to have children – it’s her function, after all, both biologically and socially. What would happen if all you girls said you were off to have careers, rather than getting married and having children? Society would collapse, that’s what would happen. It would just consist of old people, and who would look after them?’

Plus, of course, I don’t want to leave it for too long; my biological clock is ticking and I’m not getting any younger.

But on the other hand, I could be in a responsible, well-paid post by the time I’m sixteen. Really, a whole world of experience is going to be opening up for my generation that my Mum could only dream about. In a way, it is no less than the final emancipation of women, and how exciting is that?

It was so much more than just a talk about careers, though. It has helped me to understand that there is more to life than just getting married and pleasing a husband. Just because I will be a woman, doesn’t mean that I am not an individual in my own right. We dare to say that the days of being owned by men, of being their mere playthings, are well and truly over!

And, I’ve got an interview already! The Mayor needs a new mistress; it’s only a two year contract, but it will be good experience and could perhaps be a stepping stone to something better. He’s big and fat, but rich as Croesus, and apparently he’s very good in bed, which is a bit of a bonus.

Perhaps, in a way, it’s a bit of a compromise. I’m sure that my parents will be pleased.

How India Changed an Englishman

I wrote a piece for The Good Men Project, about my time in India and how I came to write Making friends with the Crocodile’. Sushi Menon kindly edited it to make it readable, and gave it a title, and you can find it here:

How India Changed An Englishman

Making Friends with the Crocodile cover

Oh heavens, why on earth did I follow that blog?

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Every now and again I get unfollowed. And every now and again I unfollow a blog. Is it a big deal? Should it be a big deal?

At first, it can seem hurtful to find that someone has unfollowed you on any sort of social media, but really it shouldn’t be. Somehow, I find that I now follow a huge number of blogs, most of which I love, and I do wish I had more time available to read them more fully and comment on them, but I don’t. This means that every now and again I sacrifice one for the common good.

But, never without good reason.

First up, one thing that does irritate me, is when I visit and read a blog, leave a response – sometimes a quite lengthy one – and never receive any sort of reply. One blog that I initially followed was like this, and when I had left several comments that were never even acknowledged, I went through their comments strings and found that they could not be bothered to reply to anyone.

Instant unfollow. I dislike rudeness.

What other reasons?

Okay, so maybe I was attracted to your blog initially by the posts about cuddly kittens and home baking, but now the focus of your posts has shifted to motor vehicle maintenance and origami, and I feel my interest is waning. It’s time to move on. Don’t take it badly – what we had was good, but we all grow and develop and change over the years, and what was once right for both of us now leaves at least one of us empty. I wish you well, but I’m leaving you for another.

A little like the above, perhaps I found your blog through a particular post that interested me, but since then it seems that every post is on subjects that don’t. I’m sorry, I gave it a few months, I gave it a good try, but it’s just not doing it for me. Bye bye.

I unfollowed one blog because every post was a long moan about other people. Sorry, there was no pleasure to be had in reading that one.

Perhaps I notice that where your blog was originally full of carefully argued points and good language, it has become home now to foul-mouthed polemics and crude language in general. Hmm, perhaps you should take this one personally. I won’t be the only one to leave.

So, every now and again I see that my own number of followers has fallen, and that I’ve been unfollowed. My reaction? I do wonder whether I have written something boring or offensive, and occasionally re-read a few of my posts in that light. That’s okay, it’s constructive and encourages me to think about what I’m doing.

Perhaps we should all hope to get unfollowed every now and again, just to make us focus constructively on our posts.

 

Pitfalls for Writers – no.6: Historical Accuracy

 

‘Dear Mr. Author.

Whilst reading your book ‘Oh what fun and laughter we had during the time the Black Death wiped out our village’ the other day, I was disappointed to notice that you mentioned July 23rd 1449 as having been a sunny day in your fictitious village. From the descriptions you provide, you have clearly located said village a little to the south of present day Norwich, and my extensive researches prove that July 23rd 1449 would have been a rainy day there.

Yours disgruntledly,

A Pedant.’

How accurate do you need to be, as a writer, with historical facts?

If you are writing a non-fiction book, you have to be scrupulously accurate, no matter what subject it is.

End of.

On the other hand, if you are writing fiction, you have a certain amount of leeway. First of all, though, it is worth saying that if you sell enough copies of your book you will eventually attract correspondents like the fellow above. Is that something to worry about? Only if they get to know where you live, perhaps. Otherwise, send them a nice reply, thanking them for their diligence, and assuring them that you will correct your dreadful fault in the next edition. On the other hand:

‘Dear Mr Author.

The Black Death was actually sweeping the country in 1349, not 1449.

Yours smugly,

A Historian.’

This time, you’ve screwed up.

And yes, it matters.

Very minor inaccuracies are bound to slip through, and very few people will notice them. And if they do, they will not think anything of them.

Except for Arthur Pedant, of course.

The big things are another matter. Imagine reading a novel set in the days around the Russian Revolution, and then the author tells you that the Bolsheviks rose up against the state in 1927 instead of 1917. Or that they were led in the beginning by Stalin. Immediately, the author’s credibility has evaporated, as has their story.

Because the reader no longer believes the author, and they no longer accept their story.

The moral here, then, is don’t skimp on the research!

It is possible to radically change the facts of history, but the difference is that to do this the author must present it as the whole point of the story. In steampunk novels, the whole history of Victorian Britain is altered, but the reader accepts this as it is the premise behind the genre. It is seen not as a mistake, but as a narrative invention.

In many science fiction novels, the premise is a future that is the result of a different history than that which actually happened. For example, the Germans won the Second World War, or of different worlds or dimensions in which history diverges from the accepted version. Again, this is accepted by the reader, as it is the premise that the story is set on.

It is possible to break this rule, but to do so the author has to break it in such a way that it is quickly obvious that they have done it deliberately, and not by mistake.

One might, for example, set a novel in Victorian England that is not steampunk – a detective story, perhaps – but in which Queen Victoria is assassinated in 1860. As this is something that no one could possibly put in by accident, it will be seen as part of the invented narrative and accepted.

Well, probably. Where is Arthur Pedant?

Libya – Leptis Magna

Libya certainly seems to have suffered more than its fair share of misfortune over the years.

I was there in 1988 for six months – not that I’m suggesting that was one of their misfortunes – which should have been a good opportunity to get to know one of those countries that chose to be rather secretive and closed off to the outside world. It didn’t work out that way, of course.

As Westerners, we found it very hard to penetrate Libyan society and, to be honest, we really didn’t try that hard. There were almost no opportunities for socialising with local people, we were regarded with great suspicion by the authorities (although so were most of the general population, of course), and so we ended up in our enclaves even more than is usual in most ex-patriot societies.

But despite that, I discovered that the majority of the Libyans I did meet were wonderful, warm-hearted people. A few were slimeballs, but the same goes for the Westerners – many were great folk, but a few of them were also slimeballs, including the so-called friend who amused himself one evening by spiking my drinks with near-neat alcohol, knowing I was driving home afterwards. If by any freak of chance you ever read this, Shaun, you really are a shit.

It was always said that, as unpleasant and bad as Gaddafi undoubtedly was, there were others around him who were even more seriously dangerous and unhinged. Unfortunately, it seems that a number of them and their colleagues are still wreaking havoc in the country, along with the twisted followers of Isis and various other militias.

But the purpose of this post is to put up some photos that I took in Leptis Magna, which was a huge Roman city a couple of thousand years ago, and is located on the Mediterranean coast near the town of al Khums, some 125 km east of Tripoli. It is the largest extant Roman city outside of Turkey, and is a Unesco designated World Heritage site. I had visited Rome in the past, and I was astonished to see the extent of the remains at this site, which easily dwarfed those in the Roman capital.

Libya was certainly a place where I generally felt uncomfortable taking photos, and so I took very few other than these ones. The quality of the photographs, though, are generally very poor, I’m afraid, since all I took with me was an incredibly cheap camera. I was warned that there was a good chance that anything you took into Libya might get confiscated or simply stolen. The prints have also faded badly over time, and so these are presented purely for general interest.

I do have some more photos of Leptis Magna somewhere, which might be in better condition, so I will try to hunt them out for another time.

Leptis Magna is another one of those ancient sites that is under threat of destruction by the fanatics of Isis, and although I have followed quite a few threads on the internet, I am unable to find out whether there has been any actual destruction there yet. What I do know is that a group of very brave Libyans have formed a kind of militia to protect the ruins. I can only hope that they, and the ruins, are all well.

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Roman  Amphitheatre

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Roman basilica – converted to a church in the fourth century AD

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Roman baths

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Along a Roman street…

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Through doorways and buildings…

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…and along another Roman street.

The Travel Bug bit me – part 1

Travelling! My first inclination to travel to remote regions came from my Grandmother, when I was probably six or seven years old, despite the fact that she had never travelled very far at all in her whole life. In fact, I don’t think that she ever left England.

But she would tell me stories of China, inducing images of Emperors and pig-tailed mandarins, peasants and bandits, and this was coupled with a children’s book; an encyclopaedia I presume, with grainy, black and white pictures of strange scenery. It was extremely evocative, although at the time I did not understand that. I was just excited by the mysterious, the strange and the unknown.  I was hooked, and wanted to go there! Ever since then, the places where I’ve most wanted to travel, other than Britain and Europe, have almost all been in Asia.

The list of places that I have at the moment that I would like to visit, are almost exclusively Asian.

Yes, she has a lot to answer for, that sweet old lady.

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When I was a teenager, I began to use maps, although in rather an ad hoc, hit and miss manner.

They were there for me when I was really stuck, or I just wanted to know in which general direction something lay. It would be a very long time before I began to use them in a skillful way, able to predict the exact lie of the land, navigate in the fog or the dark, or find my way through complicated landscapes with the map and compass. And, do you know, since I’ve learned to do that, I often feel as though I’ve actually lost something rather magical, although I don’t suppose that I can blame it all on that. The maps that I was using as a teenager would tend to be the Bartholomew’s Touring Maps, small scale with little detail. I would feel, as I headed along a Cornish footpath, that I only knew roughly where I was going. It always felt like an adventure; an exploration.

Now, I need to be more and more remote before I can get that feeling, and even then it does not always work. Some ten years ago, I spent a couple of weeks in Ladakh, in the Himalaya in the far north of India, and I was surprised at just how easy all of my walking was. Setting off with map and compass, I always knew exactly where I was, only confused at times by the multiplicity of tracks criss-crossing the landscape. Even then, reference to mountains and villages with map and compass would invariably allow me to set my position.

That doesn’t mean that I wanted to get lost, just that there was a small part of me that said ‘even this is all tame!’ Equally, I can be put off, when using a map, by the knowledge that over the interesting looking ridge that I am heading for, there lies a motorway or building estate, and so I then spend ages trying to plot a route that I try to get perfect, rather than simply heading off in the direction that I want to go and exploring as I go, correcting my course as I travel.

Nothing can tempt me more than a track leading tantalisingly into the distance, perhaps meandering through Mediterranean scrub towards a notch in the skyline, perhaps leading through a glowing archway of trees. Even now, when using map and compass to navigate, I often have to resist the temptation to ignore the map and head off to follow an interesting looking track. I think that this must be a part of my ‘I wonder what’s over the other side of the hill?’ nature. It’s another reason why I’ve never been able to lie on a beach – apart from the fact that this seems a particularly pointless pastime in any case. Any time that I’ve tried it, it never seems to be more than a couple of minutes before I begin to think ‘What’s round that cliff, I wonder?’ or ‘If I head back up the river, I think I might find a way through those hills.’ And then I just have to go to find out.

There are plenty of other things that can destroy a sense of adventure in travelling, other than over-familiarity with maps, of course. I remember the shock and the sense of let-down I received in Germany about 35 years ago, when I spent the best part of a morning struggling up an ill-defined track through thick woodland to the top of a berg in the Black Forest (I was using a tiny touring map at the time, which showed main roads at best). My elation at arriving at the top and surveying the panorama of hills and mountains around me was completely destroyed within a minute, as a coach roared up the other side of the hill, came to a halt a few feet away from me, and then disgorged about 30 Japanese tourists. They spent about two minutes firing off photographs of everything in sight, including myself, before leaping back on board the coach, roaring off down the hill and leaving me gob-smacked in the sudden silence and slowly settling dust.

 

Writer’s something or other

I began work on a new story, but it hit the buffers very quickly. I suspect that there were several reasons for this, but probably the primary reason is that it was the wrong story at the wrong time. Having published ‘Making Friends with the Crocodile’ and feeling a little flat afterwards, I took the conventional advice to get stuck into writing again immediately and, thinking that I knew exactly which story I wanted to write (out of my lists of ideas, notes and vague drafts), and exactly how the opening chapters of said story should go, just jumped straight in and started writing.

Thud.

After the first, long, chapter I read it back and just thought ‘Oh good grief, this is so turgid!’

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I didn’t feel like re-writing it, though. And I certainly didn’t feel like ploughing on and editing an even long clump of turgidity later. It just wasn’t working for me.

It simply wasn’t the story that I wanted to tell at the moment. It wasn’t the setting that I wanted to use, and I didn’t feel any empathy with the protagonist. Not a good start, really.

So I kicked the cat* and drank a few beers and went for a long walk.

As a result of doing all of that and clearing my head somewhat,  I am now trying out something that is almost alien for me, and that is planning a novel.

I have a setting that I have been meaning to use in a novel, and which I have used occasionally in short stories, which I enjoy writing about. I have characters with whom I can empathise. I even have a plot that I’m rather pleased with. All in all, it feels a lot more hopeful.

And something else that is rather fun: in ‘Making Friends with the Crocodile’ I had to create a fictitious town and village, but because of the story line I did not need to concern myself too much with the geography of either. For the new Work In Progress, I need much more. I need careful and elaborate maps of a fictitious town in the foothills of northern India (yup, India again!), which is all part of the plan. I need to map its roads and houses, shops and hotels. I need to decide where to put the forests and rivers and lakes and fields.

I’ve even started a brand new notebook for this!

It will probably be difficult for me to resist the temptation to just start writing, but at the moment I intend to wait until I have a finished plan that I think covers everything.

Naturally, I’ll let you know how it goes.

*Not actually true. No cats were harmed in the writing of this blog post.

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Bodhgaya (1)

I spent a total of 2 months in Bodhgaya, Bihar, but I seemed to end up with surprisingly few photographs of the town and surrounding countryside. Here are a selection of them, though, and I may put a few more up sometime soon. Hence the somewhat tentative ‘part one’ in the title.

mahabodhi temple

 Bodhgaya is a world heritage site, because the Mahabodhi Temple was built at the site where the Buddha is supposed to have achieved enlightenment, some 2500 years ago. The original temple was built by the emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC. The current temple dates from the 11th century AD, and was restored in 1882 by the Burmese. Surrounded by the usual frenetic Northern Indian crowds, and visited by a huge number of pilgrims and visitors, the temple and grounds still manage to somehow achieve an unbelievably peaceful ambience.

 

The Bhodi tree at the Mahabodhi Temple. It is a third generation descendant of the tree under which the Buddha is supposed to have achieved enlightenment.

 

Thai temple, Bodhgaya. As well as the Mahabodhi Temple, Bodhgaya also has temples built by virtually every country with a sizeable Buddhist population. As befits the place where the Buddha originally achieved enlightenment, it is an active Buddhist centre with many charitable projects set up and running.

 

Dawn over Sujata Village, Bodhgaya. This was often the view that greeted me when I walked across the dry bed of the River Phalgu from Bodhgaya to the village of Sujata, in the cool of the morning. A rich reward for getting up early!


Hindu temples on the edge of Sujata Village.

Fields in Sujata Village. In the vast majority of Indian villages, fields are still worked by hand or with animal labour. here is no exception.

Farms at the edge of Bodhgaya. Although Bihar is the most corrupt, poverty-ridden state in India, sitting at the bottom of the table in almost any set of statistics that you may care to consult, the land appears lush and fertile, supporting a strong agriculture.

And whilst we’re on a rural theme…a street corner in Bodhgaya.

 

Monks heading for morning puja (ceremony) in Sujata.

Temple door in Bodhgaya.

Dawn in Bodhgaya. The moslems are heading for the mosque, whilst most of the others are heading for work, for puja at Hindu or Buddhist temples, or to find breakfast.

I was after breakfast.