Canada Slim and the Mandir of Nose Hill

Landschlacht, Switzerland, Tuesday 21 May 2019

This Sunday in Switzerland some folks will attend services in either a Reformed Church or a Roman Catholic Church and both groups will call themselves Christian.

 

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And as the Earth spins around the Sun, from the Dark Continent of Africa to the Canadian tundra, Christians will kneel on this day to receive the elements of their own version of the eternal Eucharist as written in the Bible that speaks of how God sent His Son whose sacrifice somehow saved our wretched souls and whose resurrection conquered death for all of us, despite death being our destiny.

 

 

In Jerusalem and parts of the planet where the Great Diaspora has led them over centuries, others, wrapped in the prayer shawls that their ancestors wore in the desert, recite the Torah, as their Rabbi lovingly guides a wand across sacred text that Yahweh spoke to His Chosen People.

 

 

And within the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, and anywhere where the Qu’ran reigns the mind, five times a day, the faithful prostrate themselves towards Mecca, towards Mohammed’s holy city, and show their devotion to Allah, who also remains God the Father of Christianity and Yahweh of the Jews and yet is unrecognizable as the same God of Abraham said to be the originator of all three great religions.

 

 

Same deity, different names, different practices, same intolerance too often seen by those who claim this deity as their own.

 

 

In a tiny house by the Ganges River at the foot of the Himalayas, a Hindu Swami will not speak today, but will continue his devotional silence that, with the exception of three days each year, he has kept for years.

 

 

In Yangon, the monks of Shwedagon sit alone and together with the eternal in the tranquil silence and privacy of their Buddhist shrine, as do the Zen monks in Kyoto, spending most of the day sitting immovable in the lotus position, as they seek to plumb with absolute absorption the Buddha-nature that lies at the centre of their being.

 

 

What a freaky fellowship, an odd misplaced madness, this is, this seeking of something divine that defies description or definition, voices raised in desperate disparate ways, sacrificing precious life to a God of life that cannot be proven not to exist.

Such strange ethereal harmony, each faith claiming superiority over every other belief, no individual religion understanding the others, and yet united in lifting their voices to the heavens in the hopes that what binds the universe will spare a moment for those who are naught more than carbonated stardust.

 

Are the faithful foolish or the unbelieving unredeemable?

 

We cannot know.

 

All we can do is try and listen carefully, with full attention to each voice as it in its turn addresses the divine that lies within and without us.

 

Religions wrap the globe in their comfort, with histories stretching back into the forgotten mists of time, that still motivates more people today than ever before.

Nothing unites us more nor divides us more than religion does.

 

 

Who should we follow?

What should we believe?

 

Should Christians worship in ornate cathedrals bedecked with icons or consider even steeples divine desecrations?

How should Muslims decide between Sunni and Shi’ite or feel about Sufism?

Must a Jew be orthodox to call himself a true Jew?

And let us wonder as Buddhists ponder different traditions of Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana philosophies.

 

Millions live by a faith.

More than three quarters of the world’s population consider that they belong to a religion, however little or much they do about it.

Communities of people who share practices and beliefs gather in special buildings for worship or meditation and seek to live lives in special ways in the world.

Whether we care to acknowledge it or not, religion has been the resource and inspiration for virtually all the most enduring art, architecture, music, drama, dance and poetry that the world has known, in search and expression of that which endures when all else passes away.

 

 

We must decide if faith has relevance in these digital days, our modern minds, our computerized lives.

 

As every religion mixes universal truths with local peculiarities we must lift out the former from the latter and embrace that which speaks to what  is generically human in us all.

 

This is not easy for the irreverent, for religion is rich in rites and laden in legends.

This is not simple for those whose lives are reigned by rationalism, for the claim that the universal principles of faith are more important than rites and rituals is like contending that the trunk of a tree is more important than the branches, leaves or roots of that tree.

I know that when I seek to understand the religious impulse, that I myself lack, this is akin to trying to comprehend the incomprehensible.

 

The mind that is mine struggles to grasp how Hindu’s holy Kali Temple in Calcutta revers two million cows to the point of nuisance while fakirs offer their bodies to bedbugs as sacrifice.

 

 

I find myself conflicted between the stillness of Bethlehem and department stores blaring “Silent Night” from stereos above plastic reindeer and overweight Santas.

 

 

I seek to define the divine amidst images of crucified Christs and chocolate bunnies and Easter eggs.

 

 

I wallow in a mire of confusion as to how Crusades can be Christian or Jihads holy, or how a God of love co-exists with witch slaughter in Salem, monkey trials in Tennessee and Grand Inquisitions in Spain.

 

 

I, like billions before me and aeons after me, seek the meaning to my existence in the hope that my short span of life has worth.

 

I am reminded of a Faustian fable of a man who climbed to the top of a mountain and seized hold of the Truth.

Satan, suspecting sedition from this mortal upstart, directed a demon to tail the determined seeker.

When the demon reported with alarm the man’s success, Satan was not in the least bothered by the bulletin.

Don’t worry.“, Satan yawned.

I will tempt him to institutionalize the Truth.

 

 

The empowering theological and metaphysical truth of faith is inspirational, but the religious institutions built around this truth are often not.

Religion is constituted of people with their inbuilt frailities, vices and virtues.

When the vices get compounded by masses, the results are horrifying to the point where one might suggest that faith should be left outside the hands of humanity.

But faith without the faithful would have left no mark upon humanity’s history, for better or for worse.

Had faith remained as only aloof disembodied insight and had not embraced institutions and rituals, then faith could not have established traction on history or upon men’s souls.

What is important is to not get lost in the smoke and ceremony of rite and ritual, but instead we need to sift religion for the truths they try to preserve, the wisdom that maintains our world.

 

 

As T.S. Eliot so wisely phrased it:

Where is the knowledge that is lost in information?

Where is the wisdom that is lost in knowledge?

 

Eliot in 1934 by Lady Ottoline Morrell

Above: Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888 – 1965)

 

I categorically reject the premise that one religion is superior to another, for it is this comparison that is the most odious aspect of all institutions, for, as Arnold Toynbee observed:

There is no one alive today who knows enough to say with confidence whether one religion has been greater than all others.

 

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Above: Arnold Toynbee (1852 – 1883)

 

It must be admitted that though I seek to embrace the world, I am incorrigibly myself and I know that the tale I am about to tell might be quite differently written had I been a Burmese Buddhist, a Turkish Muslim, a Nepalese Hindu, a Serbian Orthodox, a Swiss Catholic or a Polish Jew instead of a Canadian humanist with delusions of fluency.

 

Vertical triband (red, white, red) with a red maple leaf in the centre

 

We live in a world of wonders.

Lands across the planet are our neighbours, China is around the corner, the Middle East is our backyard, my younger colleagues and close companions with backpacks go everywhere, while I – who often remain at home in this wee hamlet of Landschlacht – have access to an endless parade of books and videos and visitors from abroad.

It isn’t so much that East meets West as it is humanity is being flung at one another, hurled across distances at jet speed, information invading our impatient intelligence within the breath between atoms.

 

"The Blue Marble" photograph of Earth, taken by the Apollo 17 mission. The Arabian peninsula, Africa and Madagascar lie in the upper half of the disc, whereas Antarctica is at the bottom.

 

Diogenes, twenty-five hundred years ago, exclaimed:

I am not an Athenian or a Greek but a citizen of the world.

 

Above: Diogenes (412 – 323 BC)

 

Today we have the possibility to not only think of ourselves by the nations we found ourselves born in, but rather we have the opportunity to judge our heartbeat by the pulse of the planet.

We need to understand the faiths of others if we are to meet them as allies or antagonists, so that we can avoid military engagement through diplomacy.

We need to understand one another through our faiths so we can enjoy the world vision it offers us.

 

 

Or put another way….

What do they know of England, who only England know?

 

Location of England (dark green) – in Europe (green & dark grey) – in the United Kingdom (green)

 

How can we truly understand our beliefs if we never question them by comparison with others?

How truly enriching our lives become when we truly understand what belonging means to the Japanese, to sense with a Burmese grandmother what passes in life and what endures, to comprehend with the Hindu that our personalities mask the Infinite within, to follow the paradox of a Zen monk who assures you that everything is sacred but refrains from acts that are unholy, to feel the comfort that confession offers the devout Catholic….

For as language opens the mind to understanding other people, faith enlarges the heart to compassion and love for humanity.

 

True faith, not a dull habit but a living passion, confronts the individual with the momentous wisdom that life can offer.

Faith calls a soul to the highest adventure, a journey across the landscape of the human spirit.

It is the siren call to confront reality as it is, to master the self.

It is a lonely journey, a personal quest….

 

A sharpened edge of a razor, hard to traverse,

A difficult path is this – the poets declare!

(Alfred Toynbee, Civilization on Trial)

 

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Los Alamos, New Mexico, 16 July 1945

Today is the day that the chain reaction of scientific discoveries that began at the University of Chicago and focused here at Site Y has reached the final culmination.

 

 

No one has been more instrumental in this project’s achievement than the director of the Los Alamos Project, Robert Oppenheimer.

All eyes are upon him closely this morning.

 

Head and shoulders portrait

Above: Robert Oppenheimer (1904 – 1967)

 

He grew tenser as the last seconds ticked off.

He scarcely breathed.

He held on to a post to steady himself.

When the announcer shouted “Now!”, there came this tremendous burst of light, followed by the deep-growling roar of the explosion, his face relaxed in an expression of tremendous relief.”

The first atomic bomb is a success.

 

 

What flashed through Oppenheimer’s mind during those moments were two lines from the Bhagavad-Gita in which the speaker is God:

I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds;

Waiting that hour that ripens to their doom.

 

Photograph of a bronze chariot. The discourse of Krishna and Arjuna in Kurukshetra is the Bhagavad Gita.

(The Bhagavad Gita is a discourse between Krishna and Arjuna set in a chariot at the start of the Mahabharata War.)

 

Thus began an age in which violence and peace continue to confront each other more fatefully than ever before.

 

In India, Gandhi’s name became, in the middle of the 20th century, the counterpoint to those of Stalin and Hitler, but not just for the British withdrawl from the Subcontinent in peace, but, more importantly, for his lowering a barrier even more formidable than that of race in America.

Gandhi renamed India’s untouchables harijan – God’s people – and raised them to human stature.

In doing so, Gandhi provided the non-violent strategy and the inspiration for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s civil rights movement in the United States.

Gandhi’s inspiration was revealed in his autobiography:

Such power as I possess for working in the political field has derived from my experiments in the spiritual field.

Truth is the sovereign principle and the Bhagavad-Gita is the book par excellence for the knowledge of truth.

 

Studio photograph of Mohandas K. Gandhi, London, 1931.

Above: “Mahatma“(“the Venerable“) Mohandas Gandhi (1869 – 1948)

 

On a grey day in October 2017, a stone’s throw from the grim North Circular, that drab ring road that encircles London’s northern suburbs of Neasden, I would follow my curiosity and thirst for truth eternal to a Hindu temple.

A temple both alien and appropriate in the homeland of English, in the heart of an empire that once dominated my own birth country of Canada and whose sovereign remains our head of state, from a religion with roots in the land of India – that living coalition of religions and languages where one billion congregate and of which 80% call themselves Hindu – with 30 million adherants dispersed throughout the world.

On that day I would visit the largest traditional Hindu temple outside India (as recognized by Guinness World Records), Neasden’s 8th Wonder of the World, the Crown Jewel of Hinduism, one of Reader’s Digest‘s 70 Wonders of the Modern World, Time Out London‘s Seven Wonders….

The BAPS Shri Swamirayan Mandir Hindu temple.

It would not make me a Hindu nor make me feel any more knowledgeable about Hinduism than I felt before, but, nevertheless, my morning visit left impressions with me that still remain….

 

London Temple.jpg

 

London, England, 26 October 2017

Shri Swaminarayan was not my first visit to a Hindu temple (and I have a feeling that it won’t be my last), for on a visit to Singapore in the spring of 2014, en route to the Perth wedding of friends in Western Australia, I visited Sri Mariamman Temple, paradoxically located in the Lion City’s Chinatown district.

Sri Mariamman is the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore and I still remember the temple’s incredible, brightly coloured gopuram (tower) above the entrance, covered in kitsch plaster images of Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver and (Oppenheimer’s) Shiva the Destroyer, as sacred cow sculptures graze the boundary walls.

 

 

I had a three-day stopover in Singapore and in the process of trying to cram so much into my consciousness in a very short time Sri Mariammen is a blurred memory amongst many that I saw during my short sojourn in the city-state.

I recall also seeing the Peranakan Museum, the Raffles Hotel, the Chinatown Heritage Centre, the Buddha Tooth Relic Museum, the Taoist Temple of Heavenly Happiness (Thian Hock Temp), Little India, Changi Prison, the Night Safari, Sentosa Island and Pulau Ubin.

I remember Little India, not for the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple with images of Kali, wearing a garland of skulls and ripping out the insides of her victims, but rather for the Bismallah Biryani Restaurant’s mutton kebab.

Hindu temples in Singapore were, for me at the time of my visit, only part of a tightly squeezed adventure and a list of must-sees rather than research for right or righteous religion.

 

 

(Thinking of Singapore and Perth I see future posts about them….)

 

I might not have bothered with London’s BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Manhir at all had not my wife purchased for us two London Passes, offering free entry to over 60 attractions, as well as free public transport on buses, tubes and trains, and strongly suggested I use mine as much as possible during the days of the medical conference she would attend that week.

Today would be the first day that I would view London unaccompanied by my spouse during the week.

 

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It was not my first visit to London….

 

 

(I had spent a couple of days on my own in 1995, mostly walking along the Thames rather than doing much exploring as a lack of money dogged my days then.

I spent a day and an evening in 2010 with my good friend Iain and his beautiful companion – now his spouse since the aforementioned Perth wedding – Samantha, visiting Greenwich Observatory and seeing the show Avenue Q in the Theatre District, with time to enjoy life walking well and dining fine.)

 

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But this was the first time I would attempt to deliberately explore London on my own without having to worry excessively about money.

I approached the Project alphabetically from the pages of the London Pass Guide.

As the ArcelorMittal Orbit (London’s tallest sculpture), the All Hallows by the Tower Church (where William Penn was baptized, John Quincy Adams was married and Archbishop William Laud was buried), Apsley House (with the oldest surviving grand piano in the UK) and the Arsenal Stadium Tour & Museum – (Football was never so crucial a sport to me as Canadian ice hockey or American baseball.)(Iain, an Everton fan, would never have forgiven me such a sacrilege.) – didn’t strike me as “must-see-before-I-die” / bucket list attractions, BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Manhir seemed the place to start.

 

 

And I must admit the attraction was attractively described:

BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir is a masterpiece of traditional Hindu design and exquisite Indian workmanship in the heart of London. 

Using 5,000 tonnes of Italian and Indian marble and the finest Bulgarian limestone, it was hand-carved in India before being assembled in London in just 2.5 years. 

Since it opened in 1995, this renowned place of worship has attracted over 400,000 visitors every year. 

Come and marvel at the intricate carvings, experience a traditional Hindu prayer ceremony, or learn about the world’s oldest living faith.

 

 

I took the Tube from our hotel’s neighbourhood way out to Stonebridge Park Station and wandered lost for an hour until I reached Neasden in the London Borough of Brent.

 

Stonebridge Park station, London Transport - geograph.org.uk - 879904.jpg

 

It may seem at first thought that Neasden is an unusual spot for a Hindu temple, but then Neasden has always been an unusual spot in its own right.

Neasden’s name meant “nose hill” and referred to the small promontory at the western end of the Dollis Hill Ridge upon which the hamlet sat.

The countryside hamlet land was once owned by St. Paul’s Cathedral and consisted of only several small buildings around a green near the site of the present Neasden roundabout until the mid-19th century.

In 1823 Neasden was no more than a “retired hamlet” with six cottages, four large farms, a pub and a smithy gathered around the green.

 

The Brent Reservoir (aka the Welsh Harp Reservoir from the name of the aforementioned pub) between Henden and Wembley Park, that straddles the boundary between the Boroughs of Brent and Barnet, was completed in 1835 and was breached in 1841.

The breaking of the dam on the River Brent resulted in folks dying and many fields and meadows under water.

Today the Brent Reservoir is a biological Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and home to the great crested grebe, the gadwall, the shoveler, the common pochard, the tufted duck and the common tern, as well as eight species of warbler – a total of 253 species of bird life.

As well the Reservoir possesses 31 species of butterfly, 15 species of dragonflies and is also the residence of grey squirrels, red foxes and bats.

In 1960 the Reservoir hosted the Women’s European Rowing Championships.

Today the Welsh Harp Open Space surely sees not only rowboats and sailboats but those of the Hindu faith enjoying the magic of this unglamourous corner of suburban tranquillity.

 

 

(Not fishermen though, as fishing is strictly forbidden.)

 

In 1873 Neasden had a populace of 110 and the horse was the main form of transport.

As London grew, the demand for horses in the capital soared, so in the second half of the 19th century Neasden farms focused on rearing and providing horses for the City.

Town work was exhausting and unhealthy for the horses….

 

Two Nokota horses standing in open grassland with rolling hills and trees visible in the background.

 

(It ain’t so wonderful for humans either.)

 

In 1886 the RSPCA formed a committee to set up the Home of Rest for Horses with grounds in Neasden, where, for a small fee, town horses were allowed to graze in the open for a few weeks.

 

The urbanization of Neasden began with the arrival of the railway.

The first railway running through Neasden was opened for goods traffic in 1868 with passenger services following soon after.

 

Neasden station building 2012.JPG

 

In the 1890s change led to a conscious effort to create a village atmosphere.

At this time, the Spotted Dog became a social centre for local people.

By 1891 Neasden had a population of 930, half of whom lived in the village.

Despite the presence of the village in the west, it was the London end that grew fastest.

 

In 1893 the Great Central Railway got permission to join up its main line from Nottingham with the Metropolitan.

The Great Central set up a depot south of the line at Neasden and built houses for its workers.

 

 

The Great Central village was a “singularly isolated and self-contained community” with its own school and single shop, Branch No. 1 of the North West London Co-operative Society.

It is now part of a conservation area.

There was considerable sporting rivalry between the two railway estates and a football match was played every Good Friday.

By the 1930s the two railways employed over 1,000 men.

 

 

Neasden Hospital was built in 1894 and closed in 1986.

 

Apart from the railways, Neasden was dominated by agriculture until just before the First World War.

In 1911, Neasden’s population had swelled to 2,074.

By 1913, light industry at Church End had spread up Neasden Lane as far as the station.

 

In the 1920s, the building of the North Circular Road, a main arterial route round London, brought another wave of development.

It opened in 1923.

 

 

The 1924 British Empire Exhibition led to road improvements and the introduction of new bus services.

Together with the North Circular Road, it paved the way for a new residential suburb at Neasden.

The last farm in Neasden was built over in 1935.

The Ritz Cinema opened in 1935, and Neasden Shopping Parade was opened in 1936, considered then to be the most up-to-date in the area.

All of Neasden’s older houses were demolished during this period, except for The Grange.

The Spotted Dog was rebuilt in mock-Tudor style.

Industries sprung up in the south of the area, and by 1949, Neasden’s population was over 13,000.

 

The Post Office Research Station was located nearby in Dollis Hill.

 

 

There the Colossus computers, among the world’s first, were built in 1943-1944, and underneath them the Paddock Wartime Cabinet Rooms had been constructed in 1939.

 

Colossus.jpg

 

Neasden Power Station, which was built to provide power for the Metropolitan Railway, was closed and demolished in 1968.

 

The post-war history of Neasden is one of steady decline.

Local traffic congestion problems necessitated the building of an underpass on the North Circular Road that effectively cut Neasden in half and had a disastrous effect on the shopping centre by making pedestrian access to it difficult.

The decline in industry through the 1970s also contributed to the area’s decline.

 

But nonetheless Neasden has somehow survived, largely due to a succession of vibrant immigrant communities keeping the local economy afloat.

 

Neasden Depot continues to be the main storage and maintenance depot for the London Underground’s Metropolitan line (and is also used by trains of the Jubilee line).

It is London Underground’s largest depot and as such it is a major local employer.

The Grange Tavern (previously called The Old Spotted Dog) on Neasden Lane was closed in the 1990s and demolished to make way for a block of flats, bringing to an end the inn that had stood there for around two centuries.

Another old pub, The Pantiles, which stood on the North Circular Road was converted into a McDonald’s restaurant.

 

The Swedish furniture retailer, IKEA opened its second UK outlet in Neasden in 1988.

 

Ikea logo.svg

On 14 July 1993, in an MI5 anti-terrorist operation, a Provisional IRA man was arrested in his car on Crest Road carrying a 20 lb bomb.

It came just over a year after the Staples Corner bombing just over 500 yards away, which devastated the junction.

 

 

In 1995, Neasden became the unlikely home of the biggest Hindu temple outside India: the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, known locally as the Neasden Temple.

 

In 2004, the shopping centre area was partially redeveloped by the Council in an effort to reverse its fortunes.

The Grange, which had housed a museum about the people of Brent, was closed by the Council in 2005.

The 2004 redevelopment proved to be unpopular with local businesses, as it changed the layouts of parking, thus forcing customers and local trade to pass by due to the parking restrictions of the redevelopment.

Neasden was once nicknamed “the loneliest village in London” and “God’s own borough“.

Neasden has achieved considerable notoriety thanks to the British satirical magazine, Private Eye.

Since early in its history (when the magazine was actually printed in Neasden) the magazine has used Neasden as an exemplar of the suburban environment in pieces parodying current events, personalities, and social mores (for example, the University of Neasden).

Spoof sports reports in the magazine usually feature the perennially unsuccessful football team, Neasden F.C. with their manager, “ashen-faced” Ron Knee and their only two supporters, Sid and Doris Bonkers.

 

Image result for private eye magazine images

 

Neasden was one of the locations in the TV documentary Metro-land.

In it, Sir John Betjeman described Neasden as “home of the gnome and the average citizen” (the former a reference to the preponderance of gnome statuettes in suburban front gardens, but possibly also a nod in the direction of the Eye’s fictional proprietor, Lord Gnome).

Background music was provided by William Rushton’s recording of Neasden (1972):

(“Neasden

You won’t be sorry that you breezed in.“)

 

Title card with the title "Metro-land with John Betjeman" in mock Edwardian script - yellow on a deep red background.

 

In a celebrated spoof of the Early Music phenomenon which grew enormously in the late 1960s, Neasden was selected by BBC Radiophonic Workshop composer David Cain as the home of a fictional ensemble dedicated to historically-informed performances on authentic musical instruments from an indeterminate number of centuries ago.

It was thus that in 1968, listeners to BBC Radio 3 were given a recital by the Schola Polyphonica Neasdeniensis whose members performed on the equally fictional Shagbut, Minikin and Flemish Clackett.

 

BBC.svg

 

Athletico Neasden was an amateur football team of mostly Jewish players, which played in the Maccabi (Southern) Football League in the 1970s and 1980s and were named after the place, though they didn’t actually play in the area.

The team eventually merged with North West Warriors to form North West Neasden.

 

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David Sutherland’s children’s novel A Black Hole in Neasden reveals a gateway to another planet in a Neasden back garden.

 

Diana Evans’s 2006 novel 26a details the experiences of twin girls of Nigerian and British descent growing up in Neasden.

Willie Hamilton reported in ‘My Queen and I‘ that the Victorian Order medals were made on a production line in Neasden from used railway lines.

 

A bronze cross pattée bearing the crown of Saint Edward surmounted by a lion with the inscription FOR VALOUR. A crimson ribbon is attached

 

A pirate radio station, Dread Broadcasting Corporation, credited as Britain’s first black music radio station, was broadcast from a Neasden garden between 1981 – 1984.

 

In the Dangermouse episode “Planet of the Machines“, Dangermouse and Penfold arrive back in Neasden from the planet in the Baron’s space time machine.

 

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Konnie Huq and Matt Cooke from BBC TV present the Your News programme from Neasden.

 

So all of this begs the question:

 

What in the name of Krishna is a Hindu temple doing here?

 

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Perhaps there is wisdom to be found in the old Hindu proverb:

The lotus blooms in splendour, but its roots lie in the dirt.

 

Sacred lotus Nelumbo nucifera.jpg

 

Let me be frank.

Neasden is a glum place, especially after the glamour of the City has been seen, thus the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir seems to rise majestically above the dismal, between-the-world-wars housing like a welcome oasis of sight.

So sudden and grandiose does the Mandir appear that the viewer wonders whether it is a mirage, a shimmering dream, conjured up by one’s overactive imagination.

Here in London’s loneliest village is an experience of India’s glorious tradition and faith, a legacy that seems to have evolved over millennia rather than appearing miraculously on the landscape in a mere 30 months.

 

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Since the Mandir opened in 1995, this renowned place of worship has attracted over half a million visitors a year.

The inventory of visitors, including your humble blogger, has incorporated prime ministers and presidents, royalty and religious leaders, artists and industrialists, school children and journalists, the devout and the merely curious.

 

It is impossible to catalogue all the appelations, emotions, inspirations and experiences that this Mandir has evoked.

On a personal profound level, the Mandir is a pavilion of peace and promise, a dissolver of disquiet, a messenger dispelling misunderstanding, a statement of hope and faith for the future.

 

Image result for baps shri swaminarayan mandir london photos

 

I am fascinated by the power of belief and teamwork and the spirit of volunteerism that made the Mandir possible.

In June 1970, the first BAPS Mandir in Britain opened in a converted disused church in Islington, North London, by Yogji Maharaj.

In 1982, having outgrown the Islington temple, the congregation moved to a small former warehouse in Neasden.

The present Mandir was designed by Pramukh Swami, a 92-year-old Indian sadhu (holy man) and is made of 2,828 tonnes of Bulgarian limestone and 2,000 tonnes of Italian marble, which was first shipped to India to be carved by a team of 1,526 sculptors.

 

Pramukh Swami Maharaj, 2010

Above: Pramukh Swami (1921 – 2016)

 

It was built and funded entirely by the Hindu community.

The entire project took five years, although the Neasden construction itself was completed in a mere 30 months.

 

In November 1992, the temple recorded the largest concrete pour in the United Kingdom, when 4,500 tons were put down in 24 hours to create a foundation mat 1.8 metres / 6 feet thick.

The first stone was laid in June 1993.

Two years later, the Mandir was complete.

 

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Designed according to the Shilpa-Shastras, a Vedic text that develops Hindu architecture to metaphorically represent the different attributes of God, it was constructed almost entirely from Indian marble, Italian marble, Sardinian granite and Bulgarian limestone.

No iron or steel was used in the construction, a unique feature for a modern building in the UK.

From the conceptual design and vision of Pramukh Swami, the architect C. B. Sompura and his team created the Mandir entirely from stone.

 

It is a shikharbaddha (or pinnacled) mandir:

Seven-tiered pinnacles topped by golden spires crowd the roofline, complemented by five ribbed domes.

The temple is noted for its profusely carved cantilevered central dome.

Inside, serpentine ribbons of stone link the columns into arches, creating a sense of levitation.

Light cream Vartza limestone from Bulgaria was chosen for the exterior, and for the interior, Italian Carrara marble supplemented by Indian Ambaji marble.

The Bulgarian and Italian stone were shipped to the port of Kandla in Gujarat, where most of the carving was eventually completed, by over 1,500 craftsmen in a workshop specially set up for the project.

More than 26,300 individually numbered stones pieces were shipped back to London and the building was assembled like a giant three-dimensional jigsaw.

 

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The Mandir was inaugurated on 20 August 1995 by Pramukh Swami Maharaj, the spiritual leader of BAPS – the organisation behind the temple.

The entire Mandir complex represents an act of faith and collective effort.

Inspired by Pramukh Swami Maharaj, more than 1,000 volunteers worked on the building, and many more contributed and solicited donations, or organised sponsored walks and other activities.

Children raised money by collecting aluminium cans and foil for recycling – the biggest can collection in English history – 7 million cans collected by 1,500 children.

 

The Mandir serves as the centre of worship.

Directly beneath each of the seven pinnacles seen from the outside is a shrine.

Each of these seven shrines houses murtis (sacred images) within altars.

Each murti is revered like God in person and devoutly attended to each day by the sadhus (monks) who live in the temple ashram.

 

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Beneath the Mandir is the permanent exhibition ‘Understanding Hinduism‘.

Through 3-D dioramas, paintings, tableaux and traditional craftwork, it provides an insight into the wisdom and values of Hinduism.

Visitors can learn about the origin, beliefs and contribution of Hindu seers, and how this ancient religion is being practised today through traditions, such as the BAPS Swaminarayan Sampraday.

 

The Mandir is open to people of all faiths and none.

Entrance is free, except to the ‘Understanding Hinduism‘ exhibition where there is a £2 fee, which was covered by the London Pass.

 

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(A note about BAPS….

Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushottam Sanstha (BAPS) (Bocāsanvāsī Akshar Purushottam Sansthā) is a Hindu religious and social organization within the Swaminarayan branch of Hinduism.

BAPS was established on 5 June 1907 by Shastriji Maharaj after leaving the Vadtal Gadi of the Swaminarayan Sampraday.

It was formed on the founder’s interpretation that Swaminarayan was to remain present on Earth through a lineage of Gunatit Gurus (or Akshar) dating all the way back to Gunatitanand Swami – one of Swaminarayan’s prominent devotees.

Gunatitanand Swami was succeeded by Bhagatji Maharaj, Shastriji Maharaj, Yogiji Maharaj, Pramukh Swami Maharaj and Mahant Swami Maharaj.

Due to the organizational emphasis on the Akshar Purushottam doctrine, it essentially forms the organization’s middle name.

The fundamental beliefs of BAPS include the spiritual guidance through the living Akshar (or Guru) who is believed to have attained oneness with Swaminarayan.

Mahant Swami Maharaj is the current Guru and the president of the organization.

As a global, well-established Hindu organization, BAPS actively engages in a range of endeavors aimed at spirituality, character-building, and human welfare.

The activities span religious, cultural, social, and humanitarian domains.

Through these activities, it aims to preserve Indian culture, ideals of Hindu faith, family unity, selfless service, interfaith harmony and peaceful coexistence.

55,000 volunteers and 3,300 temples serve 3,300 communities around the world.

As of August 2018, BAPS has approximately 1,560 saints (or sadhus), among the most saints in one sanstha in Hinduism.

As part of its efforts towards community outreach, BAPS also engages in a host of humanitarian and charitable endeavors, by which its volunteers serve neighbors and communities.

With total assets of 17.5 billion USD, BAPS is able to contribute to a lot of welfare and public service works.

Through BAPS Charities, a non-profit aid organization, BAPS has spearheaded a number of projects around the world in the arenas of healthcare, education, environmental causes and community-building campaigns.)

 

BAPS Logo with the symbol of Akshar Deri

 

For the Hindu community, the Mandir is a unifying force that installs pride and dignity with a zeal to serve society.

Every week, hundreds of faithful devotees, young and old alike, gather for prayers and services.

The annual Diwali and New Year’s festivals are witnessed by thousands of devotees and well-wishers.

Diwali is a spectacular celebration that falls in the month of November, a festival of lights and fireworks that celebrates the triumph of good over evil.

Every year 35,000 children visit the Mandir.

 

 

What exactly is a Mandir, you ask?

A Mandir is a Hindu place of worship, literally a place where the mind becomes still and the soul floats freely to seek the source of life, bliss and meaning, a place to pause for a moment to pray, reflect and absorb the peaceful ambiance.

 

 

The problem is that the Mandir is a place that takes religion seriously, and though it is listed as a tourist attraction, the Mandir is anything but one.

Here, there is no pandering to curiosity seekers.

It is not a place to go rifling through the Hindu faith to light on what has shock value, for the focus on what is bizarre and outside one’s experience is the crudest kind of vulgarization of faith.

Behind the ceremony and ritual, we seek what is of deepest concern to ourselves, that search for the essential similarity in human nature.

Hinduism is, like true faith, like other religions, not a dull habit but a raging fever, a pounding pulse that gives its adherants all that is startling about life itself.

 

The Mandir in the suburbs of Neasden is as unbelievable to the eyes as a garden in the Sahara.

This spectacular edifice, this the largest Hindu temple outside India, includes seven spires (shikhars), six domes, 193 pillars and 55 different ceiling designs.

The Mandir‘s visual splendour and tranquil atmosphere have spontaneously generated poetic expressions and sentiments.

The media have dubbed the Mandir as “hallucinogenic” and described the profuse carvings as “frothy milk on a cappuccino“.

Deities and motifs representing the Hindu faith spring from the ceilings, walls and windows.

The impressive monument is supported by a 1,070-foot long pageant of extraordinary stone elephants and a 610-foot long ornately carved outer wall.

The Narayan Sarovar, a water body that embraces the monument on three sides, gives the Mandir an aura of a traditional place of pilgrimage.

The Mandir is entered through the richly carved portico of the Grand Haveli (cultural complex), welcoming you into a majestic wooden courtyard with soaring teak columns and oak panels.

Elegant peacocks, delicate lotus flowers and royal elephants beckon in greeting, with the carpet designed to compliment the motifs.

 

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Wood for the Haveli was sourced from sustainable forests, and for each tree felled, ten saplings were planted.

The Haveli Prayer Hall is a pillar-less assembly area that measures 2,750 square metres and seats over 2,500 worshippers.

The Hall incorporates environment-friendly features such as light wells, energy-saving lighting and a heat exchanger which uses thermal energy dissipated by the congregation to heat other parts of the complex.

Here is the venue for weekly assemblies and regular festivals.

 

 

The heart of the Mandir is its murtis (the sacred images of the deities who are revered as living gods), ritually infused with the presence of the divine.

Hindus worship murtis to express and enhance their loving relationship with that which is holy.

Murtis are the soul of the Mandir, making it a sacred place of worhsip wherein God resides – the home of God.

 

 

The shrine’s foundations are His feet, the pillars His knees, the inner sanctum His stomach, the throne His heart, the murti His soul, the shikhars His shoulders, the bell His tongue, the lamp His breath, the lion His nose, the windows His ears, the ringed stone on the shikhar His neck, the golden pot His head and the flags His hair.

The entire Mandir is revered as a divine manifestation.

In total, there are 11 shrines with 17 murtis, including Ganesh, Hanuman and Swaminarayan – this last to whom the Mandir is dedicated.

 

The murtis are ritually served by dedicated sadhus (monks) who live in the Mandir.

Before sunrise, the murtis are awakened by the sadhus and the shrine doors opened for the first of five daily artis (prayers), the Mangala Arti.

 

 

An arti is a ritual wherein a specific prayer is recited to a poetic format with music while the sadhus wave a lighted lamp in front of the murtis.

The sadhus recite some shlokas (prayers), serve the murtis, offer them food and bathe them and close the shrine doors.

Feeding and bathing of the murtis continues throughout the day.

 

The shrines are opened again for the second aarti, the Shangar Arti, and remain open from 0900 to approximately 1100, when the shrines are closed and offered thal (hymns).

At 1145, the shrines are opened for the midday arti, the Rajbhog Arti, and the thal is recited before the murtis.

The shrines are closed after this to allow the murtis to rest during the afternoon.

The shrines reopen at 1600 until 1830 for darshan.

 

 

The Sandhya Arti (sunset arti) follows at 1900.

Thereafter, a selection of prayers are recited by the devotees including dhun (where the names of God are chanted and verses of praise are sung).

The shrines are closed again for approximately one hour so they can be offered their final meal by the sadhus.

The murtis are then prepared for the night and adorned in their evening attire by the sadhus.

The shrines are opened a final time for the Shayan Arti (night-time arti) with the lights dimmed and music lowered.

The devotees recite a few hymns, gently sending the murtis to sleep, before the shrines are finally closed for the night.

 

The elaborately carved pillars, friezes, ornate ceilings and the magnificent dome provide an aesthetic and elevating atmosphere to the sanctum sanctorum of the Mandir.

 

 

The murtis of the Mandir – Bhagwan Swaminarayan, Guru Parampara, the avatars of Sanatan Dharma, Shri Akshar-Purushottam Maharaj, Shri Radha-Krishna, Shri Sita-Ram, Shri Shiv-Parvati, Shri Ganeshji and Shri Hanumanji – exude a heavenly calm and beauty.

 

Don’t despair if you can’t decipher who is who and what is what, for, to understand all of this, one needs to be steeped in Hindu history and Indian heritage.

 

 

Here prayers are whispered, songs of praise are heightened and the soul rejoices beyond the frontiers of mundane existence to experience the divine peace of God.

It is a nucleus of socio-spiritual activities for the benefit and elevation of individuals, families and society.

It inspires a society free from violence, crime and addiction.

It infuses people with a spirit of selfless service, to live in tune with God and in harmony with humanity.

 

Or at least these are the Mandir’s intentions.

 

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An hour of lost and bewildered walking finally led me to a procession of French teenagers who were scrutinized carefully by the burly security that met us.

 

Here at 105 Brentfield Road, as in most places that devote time and attention to unearthly divinity, apparently God has a strict dress code that must be adhered to before you will be allowed to worship Him.

Clothing must be respectable, respectful.

Shorts and skirts must be below knee-length and footwear removed upon entering the Mandir complex.

No one smokes on the premises.

Video and photography are forbidden upon entry.

Mobile phones must be turned off and no food or beverages are allowed on the premises.

 

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By the time I reach the security shed where backpacks are stored upon long shelves and make my way into the Mandir I am immediately summoned by personnel into the Prayer Hall where row upon row of folding chairs support a large collection of English senior citizens let loose here on this most unusual excursion.

The film is agonizingly long and as I am not officially a part of this senior set, despite the balding pate and silver mane that is mine, I extrude myself as quietly as I can and find myself lining up to enter the Inner Sanctum with the aforementioned French and some Indian devotees.

 

Hindu worship (puja) involves images (murtis), prayers (mantras) and diagrams of the universe (yantras).

The simplest yantra is a circle within a square within a rectangle, with four gates to represent the four directions of the universe.

Hindu temples are based on this design, although still open to endless additions and variations in decoration.

Central to worship is the icon, or sacred image, which together with the temple, is believed to both house and represent a manifestation of God.

An icon can be worshipped at home or in a temple.

Most Hindu worship at home more often and the majority of Hindu homes have a shrine, where at certain times different members of the family make offerings and say prayers.

Most Hindus worship individually, not in a communal service.

Worship involves mantras (vibrating sounds that summon the murti) and prasad (the offering of gifts).

While many prayers and offerings are made for the fulfillment of wishes, the ultimate objective is the offering of the self to become one with God.

Central to this worship is darshan (seeing and being in the presence of the central murti).

 

 

The best time to visit the Mandir is just before 1145, when the rajbhog arti ceremony is performed.

Lit candles are waved in front of the embodiments of the murtis, accompanied by a musical prayer performed by drums, bells, gongs and a conch shell.

 

It is truly a haunting and uplifting experience.

 

Abhishek is the ancient Hindu practice of pouring water over the sacred image of God to honour Him and to attain His blessings.

In this Mandir, abhishek of the sacred image of Nilkanth Varni (or Bhagwan Swaminarayan) is performed daily to the chanting of Vedic verses, including the ancient prayer of peace (the Shanti Paath) and the recital of the 108 auspicious and liberating names of Varni (the Janmangal Namavali), in a ceremony that lasts 15 minutes.

The abhishek is done by devotees on days of special significance to them or to seek blessings for personal reasons.

 

 

The Abhishek Mandap is a marble chamber on the lower floor of the Mandir, housing the sacred image of Shri Nilkanth Varni, the teenage form of Bhagwan Swaminarayan to whom the Mandir is dedicated.

The chamber is clad in Brazilian and Italian marble and embellished with intricate traditional designs.

At the chamber’s heart lies the murti of Varni in gilded brass.

He is depicted in mid-step, emaciated, yet looking calm and resolute.

With matted hair and a small gutko (handwritten manuscript of excerpts from sacred texts) wrapped in a kerchief around his neck, Varni is wearing nothing but his loincloth tied at the waist by a jute cord.

In his left hand, Varni carries a dand (a wooden staff) and a kamandalu (a drinking pot made from dry gourd), both common marks of Hindu ascetism.

 

 

Who was Varni?

After renouncing his home at the tender age of 11, Bhagwan Swaminarayan embarked upon an epic journey of spiritual awakening that took him around India, into Nepal and Tibet, and through Myanmar and Bangladesh.

During this time, he became to be known as Nilkanth Varni.

Barefoot and alone, Nilkanth walked almost 8,000 miles over seven years, blessing the land and liberating numerous spiritual aspirants along the way.

Carrying no maps, no food and no money, Varni crossed raging rivers, faced ferocious animals and survived the freezing heights of the Himalayas.

His solitary journey is a story of courage, kindness and enlightenment, and the inspiration for the naming of the Mandir.

 

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But can the non-believer understand Hinduism?

I have tried and what I have concluded is the following….

 

Hinduism is the world’s oldest ongoing living religion, practised as early as 6500 BC.

It has, unlike Christianity or Islam, no one single founder, but is rather a collective of experiences of ancient seers over the centuries.

According to Hinduism’s adherents, Hinduism teaches one to see the presence of God in everything and thus honour the whole of creation.

You can find God in the world of everyday affairs as readily as anywhere else.

 

Shiva

 

With this perspective, there are no heathens nor enemies.

Many Hindus acknowledge Christ as a divine man, while believing that there have been many as such, including Rama, Krishna and the Buddha.

 

Everyone, even Canada Slim your humble blogger, has the right to evolve spiritually and will, at some time, realise the truth.

 

Hindus believe that souls are not limited to one life – many lives offer many chances for spiritual elevation.

 

 

Like many religions, this faith has rigorous rules.

People are responsible for every action they perform, through the Law of Karma.

 

Hindus believe in one supreme, all-powerful God, the Creator, who has a divine form, is immanent (eternal), transcedent and the grantor of spiritual liberation (moksha).

Jews, Christians and Muslims view the worship of God in the form of one chosen ideal.

Hindus view and represent God in innumerable forms.

 

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Each form (avatar) is but a symbol that points to something beyond.

No one form can truly encapsulate God’s actual nature, so an entire array is needed to complete the picture of God’s aspects and manifestations.

Each representation’s vocation is to introduce the human heart to what it represents but what it itself is not.

Though each representation points equally to God, the Hindu devotee tends to form a lifetime attachment to one, the ishta, the form of the divine the devotee wishes to adopt.

This worship of sacred images of God is called murti puja.

After all, love assumes different nuances according to the relationship involved.

 

Hindus believe in Karma that the soul reaps fruit – good or bad – which is experienced either in this life or in future lives.

They believe in reincarnation (punar-janma), that the soul is immortal, repeatedly born and reborn in one of millions of lifeforms until it attains spiritual liberation (moksha).

Moksha is the release of the soul from this perpetual cycle of births and deaths, remaining eternally in the blissful presence of God.

 

 

Dharma is how we choose to live our lives according to divine law, which values service, sacrifice, humility, duty, devotion, purpose, fidelity, respect and integrity among other positive practices and virtues.

This divine law is believed to be revealed by the authority of the Vedic scriptures, the four Vedas – the Samhita, the Brahmana, the Aranyaka and the Upanishad.

And in a model of efficiency these are encapsulated in the Shikshapatri, a book of moral conduct in 212 succinct Sanskrit verses.

 

 

In a nutshell of simplicity:

  • Do not steal.
  • Do not eat meat.
  • Do not consume alcohol or other intoxicants.
  • Do not commit adultery.
  • Maintain purity of conduct.

 

Hindus claim a proud heritage:

  • the world’s first university (700 BC), Takshashila, India
  • the invention of the Zero, which makes the binary system and computers possible
  • the invention of the decimal system
  • the invention of geometry and trigonometry
  • the value of pi – the ratio of the circumference and diameter of a circle
  • the prior formulation of the Pythagorean Theorem (which says that the square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle equals the sum of the square of the two sides)  (For me, mathematics is as arcane and mysterious as faith.)
  • a theory of the revolution of the Earth 1,000 years before Copernicus
  • a formulation of the law of gravity 1,200 years before Newton
  • an idea of the smallest and largest measures of time from a kratl (34,000th of a second) to a kalpa (4.32 billion years)
  • the practice of surgery 2,600 years ago with 125 types of surgical instruments for 300 different operations

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I did not leave the Mandir of London as a convert to Hinduism, but what my visit showed me was worth the effort.

 

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Life holds more than what one is experiencing now.

People need to live for something which makes life worthwhile, a quest for meaning and value beyond oneself.

Life holds other possibilities beyond our own experience.

 

Hinduism holds that underlying the human self and animating it is a reservoir of being that never dies, is never exhausted and is unrestricted in consciousness and bliss.

Hinduism sees the mind’s hidden continents as stretching to infinity, infinite in being, infinite in awareness, infinite in joy.

Hindus believe that there are multiple paths to God, each calling for a distinctive mode of travel, each starting from the kind of person one is.

 

Lakshmi

 

We all play the roles our personalities dictate, cast in this moment in the greatest of all tragi-comedies, the drama of life itself in which we are all simultaneously co-authors and actors, powered less by reason than by emotion.

To find meaning in this drama, in the mystery of existence, is life’s final and fascinating challenge.

Life is a training ground for the human spirit.

The world is the soul’s gymnasium, both a school and a training field.

 

Hindus believe that the world is lila, God’s plan, that the goal of life is life itself.

 

The various major religions are alternate paths to the same goal to find meaning to our lives beyond ourselves.

The various religions are but different languages through which God, should God exist, speaks to the human heart.

 

Truth is one.

Sages call truth by different names.

 

Differences in culture, history, geography and temperament all make for diverse starting points.

Is life not more interesting as a result of its infinite variety in endless combinations?

 

I may not always understand that which is out of my experience, but the benefits of trying to go beyond my experience are boundless.

 

 

Sources: Wikipedia / Google / Understanding Hinduism Exhibition Guidebook, BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir / John Bowker, World Religions: The Great Faiths Explored and Explained / Rachel Howard and Bill Nash, Secret London: An Unusual Guide / Huston Smith, The World’s Religions / The Bhagavad-Gita

 

 

 

 

Canada Slim and the Pirates of Teguise

Landschlacht, Switzerland, Sunday 5 May 2019

Imagine the perfect holiday.

Perhaps it is an active one spent hiking and windsurfing.

Perhaps you are a culture vulture mesmerized by museums and attracted to artefacts of days gone by.

Or perhaps you long for a lengthy siesta where your hardest decision is how much sunscreen to wear today.

 

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The Canary Islands have what you want, however you want it, but being all things to all people means this is a place of contradictions.

 

The Islands lie off the coast of Africa yet they are European.

 

The Canary Islands form a Spanish archipelago and the southernmost autonomous community of Spain located in the Atlantic Ocean, 100 kilometres (62 miles) west of Morocco at the closest point.

The Canary Islands, which are also known informally as the Canaries, are among the outermost regions (OMR) of the European Union proper.

It is also one of the eight regions with special consideration of historical nationality recognized as such by the Spanish Government.

The Canary Islands belong to the African Plate, like the Spanish cities of Ceuta and Melilla on the African mainland.

 

Location of the Canary Islands within Spain

 

The seven main islands are (from largest to smallest in area) Tenerife, Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria, Lanzarote, La Palma, La Gomera and El Hierro.

The archipelago includes much smaller islands and islets: La Graciosa, Alegranza, Isla de Lobos, Montaña Clara, Roque del Oeste and Roque del Este.

It also includes a series of adjacent roques (those of Salmor, Fasnia, Bonanza, Garachico and Anaga).

 

In ancient times, the island chain was often referred to as “the Fortunate Isles“.

But delving into Canarian history the casual observer has to ponder the question:

Fortunate for whom?

 

Historically, the Canary Islands have been considered a bridge between four continents: Africa, North America, South America and Europe.

And it has been their strategic location that has been both a blessing and a curse to those who have chosen to make the Islands their home.

 

Flag of Canary Islands

Above: Flag of the Canary Islands

 

The archipelago’s beaches, climate and important natural attractions, especially Maspalomas in Gran Canaria and Teide National Park and Mount Teide (a World Heritage Site) in Tenerife (the third tallest volcano in the world measured from its base on the ocean floor), make it a major tourist destination with over 12 million visitors per year, especially Tenerife, Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura and Lanzarote.

 

 

Imagine living on an island where more people around you are tourists than residents.

 

Tourists are, by their very nature, selfish in that the pleasure principle dominates their every thought.

Most care nothing about those who reside there except in how the locals cater to their needs.

 

There is nothing new under the sun.

 

 

The islands have a subtropical climate, with long hot summers and moderately warm winters.

The precipitation levels and the level of maritime moderation vary depending on location and elevation.

Green areas as well as desert exist on the archipelago.

Rain seems rare and snow something never seen.

 

Due to their location above the temperature inversion layer, the high mountains of these islands are ideal for astronomical observation.

For this reason, two professional observatories, Teide Observatory on the island of Tenerife and Roque de los Muchachos Observatory on the island of La Palma, have been built on the islands.

 

The day sky is cloudless.

The night sky stretches to infinity and beyond.

The horizon beckons with promise.

 

 

So it may be reasonable to assume that piracy has existed for as long as the oceans were plied for commerce.

 

Piracy is an act of robbery or criminal violence by ship or boat-borne attackers upon another ship or a coastal area, typically with the goal of stealing cargo and other valuable items or properties.

Those who engage in acts of piracy are called pirates.

Privateering uses similar methods to piracy, but the captain acts under orders of the state authorizing the capture of merchant ships belonging to an enemy nation, making it a legitimate form of war-like activity by non-state actors.

 

 

Due to the strategic situation of this Spanish archipelago as a crossroads of maritime routes and commercial bridge between Europe, Africa and America, this was one of the places on the planet with the greatest pirate presence.

In the Canary Islands, the following stand out:

  • The attacks and continuous looting of Berber, English, French and Dutch corsairs
  • The presence of pirates from this archipelago who made their incursions into the Caribbean.
  • Pirates and corsairs, such as François Le Clerc, Jacques de Sores, Francis Drake, Pieter van der Does, Murat Reis and Horacio Nelson, attacked the islands.
  • Among those born in the archipelago who stands out above all is Amaro Pargo, whom the monarch Felipe V of Spain frequently benefited from his commercial incursions.

 

During the time of the Spanish Empire, the Canaries were the main stopover for Spanish galleons – galleons seeking to be laiden with treasure – on their way to the Americas, which came south to catch the prevailing northeasterly trade winds.

 

 

Sailing off the coast of Africa the closest of the Canaries to be reached is the Island of Lanzerote and thus it became the first Canary Island to be settled.

 

Lanzerote is the northernmost and easternmost of the autonomous Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean.

It is located approximately only 125 kilometres (78 miles) off the north coast of Africa and 1,000 kilometres (621 miles) from the Iberian Peninsula.

Covering 845.94 square kilometres (326.62 square miles), Lanzarote is the fourth largest of the islands in the archipelago.

With 149,183 inhabitants, it is the third most populous Canary Island, after Tenerife and Gran Canaria.

Located in the centre-west of the island is Timanfaya National Park, one of its main attractions.

The island was declared a biosphere reserve by UNESCO in 1993.

The island’s capital is Arrecife.

 

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The Phoenicians may have visited or settled there, though no material evidence survives.

The first known record came from Roman author Pliny the Elder in the encyclopaedia Naturalis Historia on an expedition to the Canary Islands.

The names of the islands (then called Insulae Fortunatae or the “Fortunate Isles“) were recorded as Junonia (Fuerteventura), Canaria (Gran Canaria), Ninguaria (Tenerife), Junonia Major (La Palma), Pluvialia (El Hierro), and Capraria (La Gomera).

Lanzarote and Fuerteventura, the two easternmost Canary Islands, were only mentioned as the archipelago of the “purple islands“.

The Roman poet Lucan and the Greek astronomer and geographer Ptolemy gave their precise locations.

 

 

Several archaeological expeditions have uncovered the prehistoric settlement at the archaeologic site of El Bebedero in the village of Teguise.

In one of those expeditions, by a team from the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and a team from the University of Zaragoza, yielded about 100 Roman potsherds, nine pieces of metal, and one piece of glass.

The artefacts were found in strata dated between the 1st and 4th centuries.

They show that Romans did trade with the Canarians, though there is no evidence of settlements.

Lanzarote was previously settled by the Majos tribe of the Guanches, though the Romans did not mention them.

 

 

Guanches were the aboriginal inhabitants of the Canary Islands.

In 2017, the first genome-wide data from the Guanches confirmed a North African origin and that they were genetically most similar to modern North African Berber peoples of the nearby North African mainland.

It is believed that they migrated to the archipelago around 1000 BC or perhaps earlier.

The Guanches were the only native people known to have lived in the  region before the arrival of Europeans, as there is no evidence that the other archipelagos (Azores, Cape Verde, Madeira) were inhabited before Europeans arrived.

After the Spanish conquest of the Canaries they were ethnically and culturally absorbed by Spanish settlers, although elements of their culture survive to this day, intermixed within Canarian customs and traditions such as Silbo (the whistled language of La Gomera Island).

 

 

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Canary Islands were ignored until 999, when the Arabs arrived at the island which they dubbed al-Djezir al-Khalida (among other names).

An account of the Guanche population may have been made around AD 1150 by the Arab geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi in the Nuzhatul Mushtaq, a book he wrote for King Roger II of Sicily, in which al-Idrisi reports a journey in the Atlantic Ocean made by the Mugharrarin (“the adventurers“), a family of Andalusian seafarers from Lisbon.

The only surviving version of this book, kept at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, and first translated by Pierre Amédée Jaubert, reports that, after having reached an area of “sticky and stinking waters“, the Mugharrarin moved back and first reached an uninhabited island (Madeira or Hierro), where they found “a huge quantity of sheep, which its meat was bitter and inedible” and, then, “continued southward” and reached another island where they were soon surrounded by barks and brought to “a village whose inhabitants were often fair haired with long and flaxen hair and the women of a rare beauty“.

Among the villagers, one did speak Arabic and asked them where they came from.

Then the king of the village ordered them to bring them back to the continent where they were surprised to be welcomed by Berbers.

Apart from the marvelous and fanciful content of this history, this account would suggest that Guanches had sporadic contacts with populations from the mainland.

Al-Idrisi also described the Guanche men as tall and of a reddish-brown complexion.

During the 14th century, the Guanches are presumed to have had other contacts with Balearic seafarers from Spain, suggested by the presence of Balearic artifacts found on several of the Canary Islands.

 

Map of the Balearic Islands

Above: (in red) The Balearic Islands

 

In 1336, a ship arrived from Lisbon under the guidance of Genoese navigator Lancelotto Malocello, who used the alias “Lanzarote da Framqua“.

A fort was later built in the area of Montaña de Guanapay near today’s Teguise.

 

 

Castilian slaving expeditions in 1385 and 1393 seized hundreds of Guanches and sold them in Spain, initiating the slave trade in the islands.

 

Where there is profit to be found on the open seas there will be those who will seek to claim it.

Slavery and piracy differ only in that the plunder of the former is the lives of human beings.

The violence used by both is indistinguishable from the other.

 

French explorer Jean de Béthencourt arrived in 1402, heading a private expedition under Castilian auspices.

Bethencourt first visited the south of Lanzarote at Playa de Papagayo, and the French overran the island within a matter of months.

 

Above: Jean de Béthencourt (1362 – 1425)

 

The island lacked mountains and gorges to serve as hideouts for the remaining Guanche population and so many Guanches were taken away as slaves.

Only 300 Guanche men were said to have remained.

 

The Castilian conquest of the Canary Islands began in 1402, with the expedition of Jean de Béthencourt and Gadifer de la Salle (1340 – 1415) to the island of Lanzarote.

Gadifer would invade Lanzarote and Fuerteventura with ease since many of the aboriginals, faced with issues of starvation and poor agriculture, would surrender to Spanish rule.

 

 

At the southern end of the Yaiza municipality, the first European settlement in the Canary Islands appeared in 1402 in the area known as El Rubicón, where the conquest of the Archipelago began.

In this place, the Cathedral of Saint Martial of Limoges was built.

The cathedral was destroyed by English pirates in the 16th century.

The diocese was moved in 1483 to Las Palmas de Gran Canaria (Roman Catholic Diocese of Canarias).

 

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In 1404, the Castilians (with the support of the King of Castile) came and fought the local Guanches who were further decimated.

The islands of Fuerteventura and El Hierro were later similarly conquered.

 

In 1477, a decision by the royal council of Castile confirmed a grant of Lanzarote and Fuerteventura, with the smaller islands of Ferro and Gomera to the Castilian nobles Herrera, who held their fief until the end of the 18th century.

In 1585, the Ottoman admiral Murat Reis temporarily seized Lanzarote.

In the 17th century, pirates raided the island and took 1,000 inhabitants into slavery in Cueva de los Verdes.

 

From 1730 to 1736, the island was hit by a series of volcanic eruptions, producing 32 new volcanoes in a stretch of 18 kilometres (11 miles).

The priest of Yaiza, Don Andrés Lorenzo Curbelo, documented the eruption in detail until 1731.

Lava covered a quarter of the island’s surface, including the most fertile soil and 11 villages.

100 smaller volcanoes were located in the area called Montañas del Fuego, the “Mountains of Fire“.

 

 

In 1768, drought affected the deforested island and winter rains did not fall.

Much of the population was forced to emigrate to Cuba and the Americas, including a group which formed a significant addition to the Spanish settlers in Texas at San Antonio de Bexar in 1731.

 

 

Another volcanic eruption occurred within the range of Tiagua in 1824, which was less violent than the major eruption between 1730 and 1736.

Thus the island has become a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve protected site.

 

According to a report in the Financial Times, this status was endangered by a local corruption scandal.

Since May 2009, police have arrested the former president of Lanzarote, the former mayor of Arrecife and more than 20 politicians and businessmen in connection with illegal building permits along Lanzarote’s coastline.

UNESCO has threatened to revoke Lanzarote’s Biosphere Reserve status, “if the developments are not respecting local needs and are impacting on the environment“.

The President of the Cabildo of Lanzarote denied “any threat to Lanzarote’s UNESCO status“.

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Piracy upon the open sea beside the shores of Lanzarote may be a thing of the past but greed remains eternal.

 

 

Teguise, Lanzarote, Canary Islands, Sunday 1 December 2018

As described in a previous post of this blog, my wife and I arrived on the island and drove from the airport near the island capital of Arrecife to the resort town of Costa Teguise where we overnighted for the entirety of our stay on Lanzarote.

(Please see Canada Slim and the Royal Retreat of this blog.)

 

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Above: Lanzarote Airport

 

Our previous research gleaned that Sunday was market day in Teguise so soon after we checked into our hotel we quickly headed here.

 

Teguise, also known as La Villa de Teguise, is a village in the Municipality of Teguise in the north central part of the Island, 12 km north of Arrecife.

Here North Africa meets Spanish pueblo.

Like no other place on Lanzarote, it has preserved its historic appearance to this day.

It is an intriguing mini-oasis of low buildings set around a central plaza and surrounded by the bare plains of central Lanzarote.

The small old town forms a compact whole that impresses in its uniformity.

The Andalusian style of southern Spain sets the tone.

 

Plaza Mayor

 

The outwardly simple, white houses have high, carved wooden portals and large shutters in front of the windows.

The former capital was built in the 15th century for fear of pirate raids in the middle of the island, right at the foot of the striking Montana de Guanapay.

Built in the Spanish colonial style, it presents a magnificent ensemble of stylish churches and monasteries, harmonious squares, magnificent old houses and quiet streets.

Old town Teguise has been a listed heritage site for over twenty years and is the jewel of Lanzarote.

It is considered one of the best preserved settlement centers of the Canaries.

As of 1 January 2018 the village’s population was 1,776.

 

The town was founded in 1418 and served as the capital of the Kingdom of the Canary Islands from 1425 to 1448 and as capital of Lanzarote until the capital was moved to Arrecife in 1852.

Teguise is said to have been founded by Maciot – the successor of the aforementioned Jean de Béthencourt – who is rumoured to have lived here with Princess Teguise, the daughter of the Guanche King Guadarfia.

 

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Various convents were founded and the town prospered.

But with prosperity came other problems, including pirates who plundered the town several times.

 

Although the strategic location of the city was favorable – protected to the north by the Famara reef, in addition to the Castillo de Santa Bárbara enthroned above the city, a broad overview in all directions, the following centuries were marked by numerous bloody pirate attacks, undoubtedly reactions to the brutal raids of Teguise’s feudal lords, who had previously deported thousands of Berbers to slavery on the African coasts.

Teguise went through hard times and was said to be no more than a miserable village with thatched huts.

 

In 1586, Algerian pirates stormed the city under their infamous leader Morato Arráez and put down everything that stood in their way.

The Callejon de Sangre (Blood Alley) behind the parish church recalls this terrible tragedy.

 

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In 1618, plundering Berber hordes burnt down the city completely, enslaving much of the island’s population.

As a result, Teguise’s historic buildings were increasingly economically unattractive for most of the late 17th and 18th centuries.

 

And this is why, in 1852, the up-and-coming port city of Arrecife was named the new capital of the island, while Teguise evolved into the open-air museum that it still represents today.

 

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Firmly on the tourist trail, there are several shops here selling flowing garments and handmade jewellery, plus restaurants, bars and a handful of monuments testifying to the fact that the town once was the capital.

This is a town of spacious squares and well-kept cobblestone streets lined with beautifully restored houses that testify to Teguise’s former glory.

For a stroll, however, you should choose a really sunny day, because Teguise is located in a relatively uncomfortable island corner, namely on a cold and draughty plateau.

During the week, Teguise is a quiet place, ideal for a leisurely stroll through the streets.

 

Sunday is all about the huge folksy market that takes place here every week.

It is a day of flourishing handicrafts in the market with throngs of tourists shopping and gorging themselves into a satiated stupor and locals lounging beneath a gentle breeze and a warm sun.

Throughout the entire old town, stands are close to one other, in between streams of visitors from the whole island crowded here for this one moment in time, the bars and restaurants bursting in an exuberant mood.

A day for dancing, if being leisurely was not so tempting.

 

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What strikes the visitor to Teguise Market the most is the foreign feel of the artists, the arts and crafts, the ecological and esoteric scene.

Various shops around the two central squares offer natural products, jewelery, antiques and so on – certainly not only because Teguise is so “beautiful“, but above all for tangible commercial reasons, because during the big Sunday market, the city is always very well attended.

 

But as well Canarian culture has a focus in Teguise.

Thus, the former capital of the island is considered the place of origin of the timples, the traditional guitar-like string instruments of Canarios, of which an exhibition in the Palacio Spinola proudly praises in the central square of Teguise.

 

 

The timple is a traditional 5-string plucked string instrument of the Canary Islands.

On La Palma Island and in the north of the island of Tenerife, many timple players omit the fifth (D) string, in order to play the timple as a four-string ukulele, though this is considered less traditional by players and advocates of the five-string version.

The players of the four-string style, in return, say that they are simply playing the timple in the old-fashioned way from before the time when a fifth string was introduced in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century.

Timple players (timplistas) of note are Benito Cabrera from Lanzarote, José Antonio Ramos, Totoyo Millares, and Germán López from Gran Canaria, and Pedro Izquierdo from Tenerife.

 

Antonio Lemes Hernández, at Calle Flores 8, is one of the last to build the famous Canarian guitars.

He also supplies many music groups in other Canary Islands.

Various sizes are produced, from the mini-model to the contratimple.

The Cabildo de Lanzarote, through its Departments of Culture and Industry, has recognized Antonio Lemes Hernández for his involvement of more than half a century in the production of timples.

Lemes, a craftsman from Teguise, has been building timples since he was very small.

He himself recognizes that:

“I have not done anything else, all my life making timples.
I made them out of cardboard as a child.

We brushed them and made them from that material, but of course, I made them and broke them, I did not have a teacher.” 

So he perfected his technique.

And to transform the wood….
I used to make them from polisandro, moral, mahogany, and the lid, which is always made of pine.

The important thing is that it is good wood so that they can tune well.

 

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Sixty years after his first contact with the timple, Antonio’s hands continue to mold, giving life to the sound camel .

To play what is the treasure of Lanzerote music.

 

Antonio Lemes Hernández, popularly known as Lolo, was born in the stately Villa de Teguise.

As a child he learned the technique of woodworking in the School of Crafts of Teguise, although it was his carpenter companion, Antonio de León Bonilla, who had some knowledge of the timple, who taught him to shape the sound camel.

Little by little, Antonio became fond of this instrument, so today his works are highly valued and requested, some to make sound alone or at parties and others are conservative and wish to possess a timble like a real jewel in private storage.

 

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Antonio Lemes has always been linked to the world of music.

In his youth he was part of the famous orchestra of Teguise known as Lira and Lido and he was also a part of cultural institutions such as Rancho de Pascuas de Teguise.

 

At present, Antonio Lemes enjoys his retirement, although as he can not stand idly by, so every day he goes to his workshop located on Flores Street, where he continues to practice the work that made him fall in love as a child, the construction of the timple.

 

In 2016, the Guagime Folkloric Association of Tahíche showed him public recognition by giving him their highest award, the ‘Silver Insignia‘, for his dedication to the development of the timple.

 

 

The eclectic church, the Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe skulks in the town square.

Constructed in the mid-15th century, it has been rebuilt many times that it feels like the divine is in a perpetual state of confusion

Inside neo-Gothic furnishings surround a statue of the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe, but it was afternoon when we arrived in Teguise, so we were forced to imagine the scene rather than witness it for ourselves.

 

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On the opposite side of the square stands the Palacio Spinola.

The light of God facing the darkness of man.

 

The Palacio, completed after half a century in 1780, is beautiful with a small patio and a well.

It now doubles as both a museum and the official residence of the Canary Islands government.

It too was closed by the time we decided we wanted to visit it.

 

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This impressive edifice is host to the Casa del Timple – a museum dedicated to the small guitar like instrument which plays a big role in local folklore and tradtional music.

 

The building was renovated during the 1970´s by the ubiquitous César Manrique- and provides the perfect opportunity to step back in time and sample the lifestyle of an affluent nobleman in 18th century Lanzarote, whilst also learning more about the role of the timple in island life.

 

César Manrique

Above: César Manrique (1919 – 1992)

(“For me, Lanzarote was the most beautiful place on Earth, so I made it a point to show Lanzarote to the world.“)

(More on this amazing man in a future post….)

 

Today, echoes of the glorious past still resonate through Teguise´s cobbled streets – which are home to some fantastic old buildings and a wealth of colonial architecture that cannot be found anywhere else on Lanzarote.

Making La Villa, as it is known locally, one of the best-preserved historic centers in the whole of the Canary Islands.

Many of these buildings are now private residences and are therefore hidden away from public gaze behind green wooden shutters.

But the house-museum at the Palacio Spinola is open to the public.

 

The Palacio Spinola is located in the heart of Teguise in the Plaza de San Miguel – also known locally as the Plaza de Leones because of the two statues of lions that stand guard opposite the entrance to the Palace.

Construction on the building started in 1730 – the same year that the south of the island was subjected to a six-year volcanic eruption that forged the national park at Timanfaya.

These eruptions obviously disrupted life on Lanzarote and the building of the Palacio took another fifty years to complete.

The Palacio was originally known as the Inquisitors House – as it was once the HQ of the Holy Inquisition.

From the middle of the 18th Century it became home to the Feo Peraza family, the best known of whom was the policitican Jose Feo Armas.

But by 1895 the Palacio had passed into the hands of the wealthy Spinola family.

The impressive frontage of the building with its six huge windows enclosed by intricately carved wooden shutters is a clear indication of the prosperity of the original owners.

 

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You needed serious money to afford this sort of opulence in the early 18th century.

 

Visitors walk through a formal entrance way, tiled with volcanic stone – where a small admission charge of €3 is made (free for children under 12 years) – and they are then free to explore the passageways and patios of the Palacio with the help of a basic printed guide which outlines the function of each room.

Amongst the most fascinating of these are the kitchens, with a chimney arrangement that is open to the elements in order to carry away cooking smoke, a latticed viewing gallery that overlooks the two main salons, or living rooms, a massive dining room with seating for thirty two guests and a small private family chapel, featuring an intricately carved wooden altar.

Throughout the Palacio, modern paintings by local artists, such as Aguilar, are juxtaposed with antique and reproduction furniture.

The exterior of the building is equally impressive, as long passageways lead visitors out into a delightful courtyard area that houses two stately old Canarian palm trees as well as a variety of flowering plants such as hibiscus and strelitza as well as an array of colourful succulents.

Here, visitors can observe the giant wooden door guarding the entranceway – built to a height that would allow both a horse and rider to enter unhindered.

 

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The Palacio Spinola isn’t huge – comprising eleven rooms in total, so it will probably only occupy an hour or so of your time at best, but it is an extremely well preserved example of 18th century architecture.

And who knows – you might even bump into a modern day grandee.

As the Palacio Spinola is also now the official residence of the President of the Canary Islands when he is visiting Lanzarote.

 

Fernando Clavijo 2015 (cropped).jpg

Above: Fernando Clavijo Batlle, current President of the Canary Islands

 

 

Towering over the town is the Castillo de Santa Bárbara, built in the early 16th century on top of the 452-metre (1,480 foot) high Guanapay Peak and provides a view almost over the entire island.

Visible from afar, the fortress Santa Bárbara perches on a bare crater ridge above Teguise.

A real mini “knight’s castle” with massive masonry, drawbridge and small round towers awaits the visitor.

Inside, a pirate museum has been housed here for several years.

 

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The Museo de la Pirateria (Pirate Museum) has an exhibition that deals with an almost existential theme for Teguise and is also good for children.

With cartoon figures, picture stories, dioramas, historical signs and museum relics, the city’s hard times come to life again.

Excerpts from pirate films with six galleys from 1586 under Morato Arráez who conquers the castle and leaves Teguise with 200 prisoners, including the wife and daughter of the city commander Marquis Agustin Herrera y Rojas, for which Arráez finally receives 20,000 ducats for their ransom.

 

For me, Teguise, and most especially the Pirate Museum of Castle Bárbara, struck me as incongruous and felt somehow wrong.

 

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Teguise had made a fortune from the slave trade until it was punished by Africans from whose populations these slaves had come.

The mercantile nature of the town, exhibited on a Christian day that is supposed to be free of commerce and labour, though less barbaric than former times, still resonates in the overpriced restaurants with substandard food and at the overvalued merchandise stalls where the buyer need be aware of deals done deceptively.

 

The Pirate Museum bothers me intensely, for it seems inherently callous to make profit from all the pain and violence committed by these bandits of the sea, celebrated and packaged glamourously for children’s consumption.

Pirates have always been and shall always be bloodthirsty bastards unable and unwilling to earn a honest day’s labour for the bread on the table.

How many hardworking families lost all that they had, including their lives, at the gory bloody hands of murderous, torturing and raping pirates?

And yet we have given pirates a mythical mystique of free men thirsting for liberty outside the confines of society.

We have made legends out of murderers, rapists and thievies and have given them colourful sobriquets like Blackbeard and Calico Jack.

 

Above: Pirate Cemetery, Île Sainte Marie, Madagascar

 

Beginning with Captain Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates, piracy has become a celebrated cause since 1724.

 

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Since then we have had Long John Silver of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Captain Hook as Peter Pan‘s aristocratic villain of J.M. Barrie’s play, and the sea stories of Rafael Sabatini.

These have led to films like Captain Blood, The Black Swan, and, of course, the immensely popular Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

 

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Somehow we have brainwashed ourselves with glamourous images of men walking the plank, being marooned, buried treasure, wooden legs and black eye patches, Jolly Roger flags and parrots squawking “pieces of eight, pieces of eight“.

Somehow we have come to warmly embrace and bring to life a seagoing world, befuddled twixt fact and fantasy, favouring felons of murderous, greedy, untrustworthy character, addicted to violence, crime committed casually, consciousness lacking conscience.

Somehow we don’t see unarmed fathers and sons viciously attacked, but instead we see elegant choreographed duels and sword fights, and not the bloody encounters where merciless men hack innocents down with axe and cutlass.

Real pirates bore little resemblance to Errol Flynn or Johnny Depp.

 

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Above: Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, Pirates of the Caribbean

 

And women aboard ship were rarer than chocolate truffles at a homeless shelter despite what Hollywood would have you believe with their lovely heroines playing a key role in the outcomes of their films.

 

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Pirates are a frequent topic in fiction and, in their Caribbean incarnation, are associated with certain stereotypical manners of speaking and dress, most of them wholly fictional:

Nearly all our notions of their behavior come from the golden age of fictional piracy, which reached its zenith in 1881 with the appearance of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

 

 

Hugely influential in shaping the popular conception of pirates, Captain Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Pirates, published in London in 1724, is the prime source for the biographies of many well known pirates of the Golden Age.

The book gives a mythical status to pirates, with naval historian David Cordingly writing:

It has been said, and there seems no reason to question this, that Captain Johnson created the modern conception of pirates.

Such as a person costumed like the character of Captain Jack Sparrow, Johnny Depp’s lead role in the Pirates of the Caribbean film series.

 

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Some inventions of pirate culture such as “walking the plank“–in which a bound captive is forced to walk off a board extending over the sea–were popularized by J. M. Barrie’s novel, Peter Pan, where the fictional pirate Captain Hook and his crew helped define the fictional pirate archetype.

 

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English actor Robert Newton’s portrayal of Long John Silver in Disney’s 1950 film adaptation of Treasure Island also helped define the modern rendition of a pirate, including the stereotypical West Country “pirate accent“.

 

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Other influences include Sinbad the Sailor and the recent Pirates of the Caribbean films have helped rekindle modern interest in piracy and have performed well at the box office.

 

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The video game Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag also revolves around pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy.

 

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The classic Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera The Pirates of Penzance focuses on The Pirate King and his hapless band of pirates.

 

 

Many sports teams use “pirate” or a related term such as “raider” or “buccaneer” as their nickname, based on these popular stereotypes of pirates.

 

Such teams include the Pittsburgh Pirates, who acquired their nickname in 1891 after “pirating” a player from another team.

 

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The Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, both in the National Football League, also use pirate-related nicknames.

 

Oakland Raiders logo

Tampa Bay Buccaneers logo

 

In the early 21st century, seaborne piracy against transport vessels remains a significant issue (with estimated worldwide losses of US$16 billion per year in 2004), particularly in the waters between the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, off the Somali coast, and also in the Strait of Malacca and Singapore.

 

Today, pirates armed with automatic weapons, such as assault rifles, and machine guns, grenades and rocket propelled grenades use small motorboats to attack and board ships, a tactic that takes advantage of the small number of crew members on modern cargo vessels and transport ships.

They also use larger vessels, known as “mother ships“, to supply the smaller motorboats.

 

Above: Somalian pirates

 

The international community is facing many challenges in bringing modern pirates to justice, as these attacks often occur in international waters.

Some nations have used their naval forces to protect private ships from pirate attacks and to pursue pirates, and some private vessels use armed security guards, high-pressure water cannons, or sound cannons to repel boarders, and use radar to avoid potential threats.

 

Piracy in the 21st century has taken place in a number of waters around the world, including the Gulf of Guinea, Strait of Malacca, Indian Ocean, and Falcon Lake.

 

Due to the crisis in Venezuela, issues of piracy returned to the Caribbean in the 2010s, with the increase of pirates being compared to piracy off the coast of Somalia due to the similar socioeconomic origins.

In 2016, former fishermen became pirates, appearing in the state of Sucre, with attacks happening almost daily and multiple killings occurring.

By 2018 as Venezuelans became more desperate, fears arose that Venezuelan pirates would spread throughout Caribbean waters.

 

Above: Gasoline smugglers, Limon River, Zulia State, Venezuela

 

Piracy on Falcon Lake involves crime at the border between the United States and Mexico on Falcon Lake.

The lake is a 100-kilometre-long (60 mi) reservoir constructed in 1954 and is a known drug smuggling route.

A turf war between rival drug cartels for control of the lake began in March 2010 and has led to a series of armed robberies and shooting incidents.

All of the attacks were credited to the Los Zetas cartel and occurred primarily on the Mexican side of the reservoir but within sight of the Texas coast.

The so-called pirates operate “fleets” of small boats designed to seize fishermen and smuggle drugs.

While the events have been referred to colloquially as piracy, all the waters of Falcon Lake are considered either US or Mexican territorial waters and therefore are not technically piracy under Article 101 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

 

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Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea affects a number of countries in West Africa as well as the wider international community.

By 2011, it had become an issue of global concern.

Pirates in the Gulf of Guinea are often part of heavily armed criminal enterprises, who employ violent methods to steal oil cargo.

In 2012, the International Maritime Bureau, Oceans Beyond Piracy and the Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Program reported that the number of vessels attacks by West African pirates had reached a world high, with 966 seafarers attacked during the year.

 

Piracy in the Gulf of Guinea has evolved over the first decade of the century.

For some time, smaller ships shuttling employees and materials belonging to the oil companies with any involvement in oil exploration had been at risk in Nigeria.

Over time, pirates became more aggressive and better armed.

 

Above: The Gulf of Guinea

 

As of 2014, pirate attacks in West Africa mainly occur in territorial waters, terminals and harbours rather than in the high seas.

This incident pattern has hindered intervention by international naval forces.

 

Pirates in the region operate a well-funded criminal industry, which includes established supply networks.

They are often part of heavily armed and sophisticated criminal enterprises, who increasingly use motherships to launch their attacks.

The local pirates’ overall aim is to steal oil cargo.

As such, they do not attach much importance to holding crew members and non-oil cargo and vessels for ransom.

 

Additionally, pirates in the Gulf of Guinea are especially noted for their violent modus operandi, which frequently involves the kidnapping, torture and shooting of crewmen.

The increasingly violent methods used by these groups is believed to be part of a conscious “business model” adopted by them, in which violence and intimidation plays a major role.

 

By 2010, 45, and, by 2011, 64 incidents were reported to the United Nations’ International Maritime Organization (UN – IMO).

 

However, many events go unreported.

 

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Piracy acts interfere with the legitimate trading interests of the affected countries that include Benin, Togo, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

As an example, trade of Benin’s major port, the Port of Cotonou, was reported in 2012 to have dropped by 70%.

The cost of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea due to stolen goods, security, and insurance has been estimated to be about $2 billion.

According to the Control Risks Group, pirate attacks in the Gulf of Guinea had by mid-November 2013 maintained a steady level of around 100 attempted hijackings in the year, a close second behind Southeast Asia.

 

Piracy in the Indian Ocean has been a threat to international shipping since the second phase of the civil war in Somalia in the early 21st century.

Since 2005, many international organizations have expressed concern over the rise in acts of piracy.

Piracy impeded the delivery of shipments and increased shipping expenses, costing an estimated $6.6 to $6.9 billion a year in global trade according to Oceans Beyond Piracy (OBP).

 

 

According to the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), a veritable industry of profiteers also arose around the piracy.

Insurance companies significantly increased their profits from the pirate attacks as insurance companies hiked rate premiums in response.

 

Combined Task Force 150, a multinational coalition task force, took on the role of fighting the piracy by establishing a Maritime Security Patrol Area (MSPA) within the Gulf of Aden and Guardafui Channel.

By September 2012, the heyday of piracy in the Indian Ocean was reportedly over.

 

 

According to the International Maritime Bureau, pirate attacks had by October 2012 dropped to a six-year low, with only one ship attacked in the third quarter compared to thirty-six during the same period in 2011

 

By December 2013, the US Office of Naval Intelligence reported that only 9 vessels had been attacked during the year by the pirates, with zero successful hijackings.

 

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Control Risks attributed this 90% decline in pirate activity from the corresponding period in 2012 to the adoption of best management practices by vessel owners and crews, armed private security onboard ships, a significant naval presence and the development of onshore security forces.

 

Pirates in the Strait of Malacca near Indonesia are normally armed with guns, knives, or machetes.

Many reports on attacks could have gone unreported because the companies are scared of the pirates attacking them more often because the company told the authorities.

The pirates in this area also attack ships during the night.

If vessels sound an alarm, the pirates usually leave without confronting the crew.

Pirates in the Singapore Straits attack at night, while ships are underway or anchored.

 

 

According to the Control Risks Group, pirate attacks in the Strait of Malacca had by mid-November 2013 reached a world high, surpassing those in the Gulf of Guinea.

 

 

I am all for generating income to feed a family and I realize that Teguise is highly dependent on tourism to feed theirs.

But a community that claims to be Christian should not be making a market day out of a day of rest and religious reflection.

 

I am all for having a museum that portrays reality historically accurate, but I find it objectionable to package criminal barbarity as a fun day out with the kids.

Piracy in all of its horror is not something that should be forgotten, but neither should it be glamorized nor sanitizied as entertainment for children.

 

Perhaps being a tourist is all about ignoring the realities of life, escaping from life.

But nothing is learned from life or travel if all we choose to see is only pleasureable.

 

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Teguise is a beautiful town worth visiting but it has forgotten what value truly is.

Heritage is not a commodity to be sold at the expense of faith.

Heritage is not a commodity to be sold at the expense of truth.

 

When houses of worship are ignored on a day of faith to increase a merchant’s profits….

When violent crime is packaged to sell tickets to children….

Then a community has sold its soul for filthy lucre.

 

I liked the streets of the town and the warm sunshine after the cold and damp of Switzerland, but I longed for real people uninterested in garnering money or attention from visitors.

Real folks content with living life on their own terms rather than that dictated by others.

 

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The aforementioned timple maker Antonio Lemes Hernandez is one.

Don Pillimpo is another.

 

On the access road from Mozaga, diagonally across from the petrol station, there is a house with a garden full of original sculptures, everyday and art objects, children’s toys, teddy bears and dolls.

 

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Pillimpo, who is actually known as José Garcia Martin, is constantly expanding and changing his unusual collection, the children of Teguise bring him their discarded toys, new color paintings enliven the large sculptures, unusual compositions call out for the viewer to notice.

 

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This strange collection of statues frequently stops passers by in their tracks.

Cars pause in the road whilst their passengers stare.

Pedestrians stop to browse the chaotic display of figurines.

The colour of the statues change frequently, shades of grey, green and pale pink.

 

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The house is referred to as the Casa Museo Mara Mao after the statue holding this name up.

The front door is generally open, although it is said the artist is shy about being photographed and doesn’t like people entering his garden.

Rogue dolls’ heads daubed with paint and teddy bears chained to the tree  have been embraced into this artist’s eclectic display.

In his 60’s Don Pillimpo is free to use his quirky imagination for everyone to wonder at.

Thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, pass the Pillimpo figurine park every year, but few people know the name of this artist.

 

Speechlessness, astonishment, amusement and helplessness is felt by those who pass by Pillimpos’s garden, as well as rejection, a sad shaking of the head, indifference, even fear.

But if you ask someone about these characters, who makes them, if they have any meaning, why Pillimpo dresses them in new colors over and over again, you only hear shrugs.

Maybe because it is not easy to approach the creator of this chaotic world?

 

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Because the God of this Garden, of these saint sculptures, dolls, teddy bears, plush moose, Santa Clauses and action toy monsters with names like “Cloverfield” or “Zombie Spawn” does not show his world to the audience?

Pillimpo does not want to explain his world.

This world is dominated by larger than life figures of sand and cement, and the iconography reminds all those who grew up in the Christian context of saints that in the midst of society children have become disposable victims.

 

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I never saw a greater balance between order and chaos, kitsch and authenticity.“, wrote a Spanish admirer of Pillimpos art on his blog.

Horrible.  I do not like it.  It’s just too heavy for me.“, an island-renowned German artist described his feelings about Pillimpo’s work.

Another artist looks at Pillimpos’s work from his own perspective of usual order and harmony:

So if my garden should look like this then you can instruct me!

 

So, is this art?

 

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Art is a human cultural product, the result of a creative process.

The artwork is usually at the end of this process, but can also be the process itself.

Admiration, as such, is essential to art, but this does not have to be immediate in time and can only be the result of gaining knowledge.” is one definition of art according to Wikipedia.

 

Perception, imagination and intuition are some of the requirements for the artistic process.

Pillimpo’s creativity and imagination are innate to him, he says.

A gift from God that he believes in, for which he is grateful.

He emphasizes this again and again.

He knows his art is not universally loved.

In their opinion, I disturb the cityscape.“, says Pillimpo.

 

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But they can not easily get rid of the man.

Thank God.

 

The land is his property.

The house in which he lives, and which is also inhabited by his creatures inside him, belongs to him.

He built it with his own hands.

No problem for the skilled bricklayer, who was born over half a century ago in his grandfather’s house near Teguise.

 

A hard time was the time of his youth, he recalls, and speaks of his mother, who gave birth to five more children, three girls and two boys.

Even as a young boy, Pillimpo had a thriving imagination.

Every morning, as he gazed at the sunbeams that filtered through the holes and cracks in the meagerly plastered walls, he was fascinated by the play of light and shadow and the forms his imagination accepted.

Too high reaching dreams for a boy from poverty, on Lanzarote, where at times, water was valuable, food scarce and schooling almost impossible.

Although little José could go to school, it was not fun for him.

When you come into the world, God has already given you all the skills you should have.

He gave me imagination.

 

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Pillimpo leaves the subject quickly behind, almost as fast as the questions – about the meaning of his characters, whether he gives them names, why he always wraps them in new colors and how often he does that, where do the toys come from and why does his art matter – come flying at him.

It’s as if he does not hear these questions right.

He mentions that he gets the toys from local children.

He is happy when they look into his garden as they hold their parents’ hands and proudly point to their old teddy bear.

A special meaning?

Do his characters have names?

Names?  What names ?  No, they have no names.

As for the colours, I change, because I just enjoy it.

I love colors and I love all these things.“, says Pillimpo.

 

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And, with that, the explanation is done for him.

Pillimpo goes into the house.

When he comes back, he has a magazine in his hand.

He leafs a bit until he finds what he’s looking for and then proudly shows an article about himself with many photos of his sculpture park and a poem.

He reads it aloud.

The interviewers are silent.

They go home but their thoughts remain in this other world for a long time.

In Pillimpos’s world.

 

In Pillimpos’s world, toys cast out of children’s rooms find a new home, new appreciation and attention.

A new place where they are admired or pitied.

Here, childlike feelings return to the adult.

No viewer can escape the power of this mixture of chaos and order, kitsch and originality.

 

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Who is this man and why does he do what he does?

It is futile to ask others.

Nobody really knows anything about him.

There are only stories, rumours, now and then a grin.

 

Pillimpo began to scrape drawings in the sand with a stick and form figures out of loam, sand and water.

He often sits for hours, giving free rein to his imagination.

 

Not everyone likes that, but his mother had understood.

She had protected him, even defended his “quirks” from others, and did not laugh when he started to make music and dreamed of becoming an actor.

 

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Pillimpo speaks of his dreams only to those able to exchange views with a true philosopher.

I would like to speak with a great thinker, so maybe I can know if I’m right in my views or if I’m a bit of a fool.“, he says seriously.

 

I cannot help but compare and contrast the Pirate Museum with the garden of Don Pillimpo.

 

The former forms the fantastic from facts best forgotten in the frentic thirst for profits.

The latter at no cost leaves a legacy of nostalgia for the children we once were.

 

The Museum claims to be history but it is not.

The garden makes no claims about being art but it is.

 

Teguise, for me, will never be about El Mercadillo (the name of this Sunday market) or the Castillo Santa Bárbara, despite how both dominate the attention.

Teguise is instead quiet humble pride whispered from a timple workshop and an eclectic sculpture garden.

 

And this is something no pirate could ever take from me.

 

 

Sources: Wikipedia / Google / Lonely Planet Canary Islands / DK Eyewitness Canary Islands / Eberhard Fohrer, Lanzarote / http://www.lanzarote37.net / https://lanzaroteinfomration.co.uk