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.

 

Mount Everest as seen from Drukair2 PLW edit.jpg

 

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

BhirMound.JPG

 

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

 

 

 

 

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Canada Slim and the Borders

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 11 November 2017

As one travels around the world a person discovers that there are arbitrary lines drawn across landscapes and charts and maps that define what is Here and what is to be considered There, and there are arbitrary lines drawn between classes and positions in our everyday societies.

Mankind has done this lineal division with matters large and small for millennia, whether it has been defining the limits of a landowner´s property demarcated by some creek or stone fence to the determination of a border being a river or a mountain range or some parallel of latitude or longitude that is only visible on a political map or geographer´s globe.

Mankind has even extended such boundaries upon the oceans beyond our shorelines and in the skies above our heads.

And soldiers and civilians have died to defend these lines in the sand.

This definition of what is ours versus what is not ours determines where we live, where we work, where we fish and hunt, and where we sail and fly.

And those with power determine the location of those without it, and they determine the extent of what territory they shall possess and dominate.

Those that call themselves our governments consider the land upon which we reside theirs to do with as they see fit, taking it from us if they so desire.

Taxes are considered rent for the privilege of being allowed to live upon the territory.

And what the government giveth, it can surely taketh away.

All that a person possesses can be taken away if justification warrants it, regardless of the justification´s validity.

In turn, we expect our governments to provide for our needs or at least enable us to have the illusion of taking care of our own needs.

We as humans think of ourselves as superior to the animal kingdom, yet what we mark as our territories is differently assessed by the instincts of the beasts and birds.

A bird does not care if a wall divides one human settlement from another.

It simply flies where it will.

A bear does not care if it was you who planted cabbages in a piece of ground claiming the cabbage patch as your own, for when it is hungry it sees no boundaries between your piece of civilization and the wild.

Polar Bear - Alaska (cropped).jpg

So we will kill those who take without asking, be they beast or fellow human beings.

Those with power will, if they can, take what they will, regardless of your needs or wishes in the matter.

This may cause some to defend what they regard as theirs and who believe that they and they alone have the right to this.

Such is how war began and, though modern times may be couched in different mannerisms of speech and behaviour, this is how wars begin and continue.

Where a country draws the line between what belongs to it and what belongs to others has been the source of much of what defines its history and its heritage.

The lines we define, define us.

The separation, for example, of Canada from the United States makes the almost insignificant Detroit River that separates Windsor, Ontario, Canada, from Detroit, Michigan, USA, a river of great importance that not only defines territory, but, in the minds of both Americans and Canadians, this wee stream also separates American culture from Canadian culture.

Do the trout that navigate the polluted waters know or care at what point in the river mankind has decided what is American and what is Canadian?

This definition of what is each country´s territory versus what is not, has created odd borders that make little sense but for various reasons continue in the fashion that they do, resulting in strange segregated territories such as enclaves and exclaves, no man´s land and disputed territories.

Ordinary places become extraordinary in No Man´s Land.

Such in-between places remind us how dependent we are on borders: that somehow our sense of order and certainty would be lost without them.

I don´t have an easy relationship with borders, geographical or psychological.

I have been searched, prodded, poked, delayed, detained, denied, again and again and again, for having the temerity, the colossal nerve, to cross a few feet, mere metres of land.

I have been devalued, disrespected and discredited when I have suggested that the freedom of self expression must not be limited to whatever limits others have determined it must be.

What right do I have to determine what my place in society is?

Who the hell do I think I am?

Borders are bureaucratic faultlines, imperious and unwelcoming.

Their existence is a hostile act of exclusion.

Borders are far more than lines of exclusion – their profusion reflects the varied nature of people´s political and cultural choices.

By the restriction of free movement, by the refusal of self expression, we are denied a world of choices and possibilities.

Borders often make no sense, except to the ones that have defined the borders.

An enclave is a territory, or a part of a territory, that is entirely surrounded by the territory of one other state.

Territorial waters have the same sovereign attributes as land, and enclaves may therefore exist within territorial waters.

File:Flag of the Vatican City.svg

Above: Flag of the Vatican City

So, for example, Vatican City and San Marino could be considered enclaves.

Flag of San Marino

Above: The flag of San Marino

An exclave is a portion of a state or territory geographically separated from the main part by surrounding alien territory (of one or more states).

So, for example, the French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, just off the coast of the Canadian province of Newfoundland, are an exclave.

Location of Saint Pierre and Miquelon

For simplicity´s sake, an enclave is closer to its national territory than an exclave is.

Geographically speaking, there are 22 bits of Belgium scattered in odd profusion within the Netherlands and eight bits of the Netherlands scattered within Belgium.

These hodge-podge areas are called Baarle-Nassau and Baarle-Hertog.

Travel to Asia.

Along the India-Bangladesh frontier there are over 200 enclaves of either Bangladeshi territory surrounded by India or Indian territory surrounded by Bangladesh.

The Hindi name for these enclaves is chitmahals (paper palaces).

To further make a silly situation an act of pure folly, Upan Chowki Bhaini, at 53 square metres one of the smallest enclaves in the world, is an enclave inside another enclave, what geographers call a counter-enclave.

Above: The India – Bangladesh border. Indian territory is pink, Bangladeshi territory is blue.

Switzerland and its neighbours are also not immune from such complexity.

File:Flag of Switzerland (Pantone).svg

I just need to follow the Rhine River from my home in Landschlacht towards the town of Schaffhausen to find the closest enclave, Büsingen am Hochrhein, a German town completely surrounded by Switzerland.

Location of Büsingen in detail.svg

Or I can travel south into Canton Ticino and find myself in the town of Campione d´Italia, Italian territory surrounded by Switzerland.

(I have visited both.)

To add further confusion, as an example, the Canadian Embassy in Bern is not on Swiss territory but is Canadian.

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

US military bases are American territory regardless of where they happen to be, so to visit the United States Naval Base in Guantanomo, Cuba, I would need permission from the US not Cuba even though it is located there.

Seal of Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.svg

Embassies, consulates and military bases are considered extraterritorial property of the countries that maintain them.

This can also be extended to memorials, such as the Vimy Memorial in France is Canadian territory, the land underneath the John F. Kennedy Memorial in Runnymede, England, is American territory, or the Suvorov Memorial near Göschenen, Switzerland isn´t Swiss but Russian.

Bildergebnis für suvorov monument switzerland

Where the borders of a territory should be has been a subject of controversy and conflict for millennia.

Historically speaking, our trip to Como, Italy, this past summer could have been a trip to Como, Switzerland….

 

Como, Italy, 2 August 2017

In 2010, a motion in Switzerland´s Parliament by members of the nationalist Swiss People´s Party (SVP) requested the admission of adjacent territories to the Swiss Confederation: the German state of Baden-Württemberg (Population: 10 Million); the Austrian state of Vorarlberg (Population: 360,000); the Italian provinces of Bolzano, Como, Varese and Aosta (Population: 500,000; 580,000; 860,000; 125,000) and the French departments of Savoie, Haut Savoie, Ain, Jura and Alsace (Population: 405,000, 705,000; 405,000; 570,000; 250,000).

Bildergebnis für proposal for a greater switzerland by the swiss people’s party

The motion proposed to offer these territories the “Swiss model of sovereignty” as an alternative to a “creeping accession” of Switzerland to the “centralist” European Union.

Now, at first glance this proposal might appear ridiculous, but we need to consider a number of things before we outrightly dismiss this notion.

There are a number of territories within the European Union member states who wish to leave the EU in view of the ongoing European debt crisis.

Switzerland, with some exceptions, has generally formed its federation through alliance with neighbouring cantons who broke away from countries that had formerly dominated them, voted to join the Confederation and through agreements between the Confederation and the dominant nations, these territories became Swiss.

When Ticino chose to become part of the Swiss Confederation in 1798, the people of Campione d´Italia chose to remain part of the Italian province of Lombardy.

Map of Switzerland, location of Ticino highlighted

Above: Ticino (multicoloured), in Switzerland

In 1848, during the wars of Italian reunification, Campione petitioned Switzerland for annexation, but this was rejected due to the Swiss desire to maintain neutrality (a stance the Swiss have maintained since 1815).

Campione has remained Italian territory ever since.

In 1918 after the First World War, a referendum was held in Büsingen in which 96% of voters chose to become part of Switzerland.

However it never happened as Switzerland could not offer anything suitable that Germany desired.

Büsingen remains German.

File:Flag of Germany.svg

Above: The flag of Germany

In a 1919 referendum, 81% of the people of Vorarlberg voted to join Switzerland, but the effort failed because of the ambivalent position of the Swiss government and the opposition of the Allied powers.

In 1967, the German enclave of Verenahof, consisting of just three houses and fewer than a dozen people became part of Switzerland (Canton Schaffhausen) in exchange for an equal amount of Swiss territory ceded over to Germany.

Above: Today, Verenahof is nothing more than a street name.

A poll by ORF Radio in 2008 reported that half the population of Vorarlberg would be in favour of joining Switzerland.

ORF logo.svg

The 2010 Greater Switzerland Motion was widely seen as anti-EU rheotric rather than a serious proposal.

In a following statement, the Swiss Federal Council (the executive heads of government and state in Switzerland) recommended the motion´s rejection, describing the motion as a “provocation”.

The Council argued that adoption of this motion would be considered an unfriendly act by the countries surrounding Switzerland, and that it would also be at odds with international law, which in the government´s view did not provide for a right to secession except in exceptional circumstances.

(This latter argument is the crux of the problem between Spain and Catalonia at present.)

Senyera

Above: The flag of Catalonia

(See Canada Slim and the Birth of a Nation of this blog for discussion of the Catalonian desire for independence from Spain.)

Understandably, the topic attracted the attention of the European media.

The media went on to report a high level of apparent popular support for joining Switzerland in the proposed territories.

In Como, an online poll in June 2010 by the La Provincia di Como newspapers found 74% of the 2,500 respondents in favour of accession to Switzerland, which the local regionalist party Lega Lombarda has long been advocating.

Another online poll by the south German Südkurier newspaper found that almost 70% of respondents replied “Yes, the Swiss are closer to us in outlook.” to a question whether the state of Baden-Württemberg should join Switzerland.

The Südkurier noted that seldom had a topic generated so much activity by its readership.

The Lombard eco-nationalist party Domá Nunch proposed an integration between Switzerland and the Italian-border area of Insubria (the former Duchy of Milano) in order to join into a new confederation.

In Sardinia, the Associazione Sardegna Canton Maritimo was formed in April 2014 with the aim of advocating Sardinia´s secession from Italy and becoming a maritime canton of Switzerland.

Die Welt in June 2014, based on an OECD study, published an article arguing that southern Germany is more similar to Switzerland than to northern or eastern Germany.

(My wife would agree with this assessment.

We have lived in both southern and northern Germany before relocating to the Swiss Canton of Thurgau.

Map of Switzerland, location of Thurgau highlighted

Above: Thurgau (multicoloured) in Switzerland

As a Canadian I did not feel the differences as keenly as she, a south German, did.

She feels more at home in Canton Thurgau in northern Switzerland than she did when we lived in the state of Niedersachsen in northern Germany)

In the wake of the Die Welt article, there were once again reports of high levels of support for accession to Switzerland in southern Germany.

Schwäbische Zeitung reported that 86% of respondents in an online survey expressed approval for accession.

Also in 2014, there were reports of a movement in Südtirol / Trentino-Alto Adige proposing annexation by Switzerland.

The 6th Global Forum Südtirol, held that year in Bolzen / Bolzano, was dedicated to the question.

As alien residents of Switzerland travelling in Italy, seeking to discover what makes Italy Italia, we are feeling rather conflicted, for we have directly experienced both the advantages and disadvantages of living in the Swiss Confederation.

To be fair to those in favour of accession into Switzerland, I understand the attractiveness of the idea, for Switzerland is unique in that its Cantons enjoy a large amount of autonomy as individual parts of an allied federation than do German states or Italian provinces do as part of their federal systems.

Otherwise Switzerland would not have remained a united confederation considering how it is comprised of Swiss German speakers, French speakers, Italian speakers and Rumansch speakers.

Though the languages of Switzerland are not quite as equally respected or universally spoken as they should be, still one retains the feeling that one can speak French and still be Swiss or speak Italian and still be Swiss, despite Swiss German dominating the nation.

So Ticino is Swiss though the Ticinese speak Italian.

Romandie, the French name for the French-speaking Cantons of Switzerland (Suisse), is Swiss though they speak French.

(For a discussion of the languages of Switzerland, please see Sympathy for the dialect of this blog.)

Perhaps the Province of Como might be better off joining the Swiss Confederation than remaining in the Italian Republic, but I have to ask….

It is clear there are certainly gains to this proposal, but what would be lost?

Do the residents of Büsingen, surrounded by Switzerland, feel German?

Do the residents of Campione, surrounded by Switzerland, feel Italian?

Can a person feel a nationality?

I grew up as an Anglophone Canadian in Francophone Québec.

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Above: The flag of Québec

Should my allegiance be for the province that raised me or for the country where English is geographically dominant?

By moving to Switzerland, have I become less Canadian?

Would Como be less Italian if it joined Switzerland?

The attraction for us as Swiss residents in visiting Como is that it isn´t Switzerland.

In Switzerland we live by Swiss expectations.

We travel outside Switzerland because we need places that allow our thoughts and feelings to roam unimpeded by Swiss expectations.

We don´t live in Italy, so, as long as we don´t violate Italian laws, we are free to express ourselves as individually as we wish, for we know we aren´t Italian nor necessarily wish to be Italian.

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Above: The flag of Italy

Which poses other questions….

Does living in Switzerland make me Swiss?

Does not living in Canada make me less Canadian?

Or is Switzerland too set in its ways to acknowledge those not born in Switzerland as being Swiss?

Am I too set in my ways to be anything else but Canadian in spite of where I may live?

There is an illusionary idea that life outside our borders must be different because it is outside our borders, thus we create for ourselves the desire for a world that is not totally known or understood, that has the capacity to surprise us, disregarding a common humanity that shouldn´t require borders to organise itself.

My fear is that if a place like Como sweeps away its Italian past than the world may be deprived of what makes Como Italian.

Above: The lakefront of Como

Or is identity determined more by regional culture as opposed to federal territory?

Would the Comaschi become less Comaschi if Como left Italy?

Are nations only bordered divisions?

Are they linguistic collectives?

Or are they something more?

Would life be better for Como if it joined Switzerland?

Imagine how different history might have been had Como already been part of Switzerland.

We wandered the streets of Como thinking how Italian everything was.

But is Como Italian or something unique of itself?

Is New York City American?

Clockwise, from top: Midtown Manhattan, Times Square, the Unisphere in Queens, the Brooklyn Bridge, Lower Manhattan with One World Trade Center, Central Park, the headquarters of the United Nations, and the Statue of Liberty

Is London English?

London montage. Clicking on an image in the picture causes the browser to load the appropriate article.

Is Landschlacht Swiss?

We wandered, much walking in very hot and humid conditions, to the Educational Silk Museum of Como, which manages to simultaneously be exhaustive and incomprehensible.

The Museum is “dedicated to the production of silk….the one industry that has held the centre of this historic city in a productive embrace since the 1800s”.

The visitor sees all stages of silk production: silkworm rearing, reeling (the unwinding of silk coccoons into threads), silk throwing (the twisting of the silk to make it more amenable to design), weaving (the design pattern), measurement and testing, dyeing (colour application to the design), printing and finishing.

Those of a technical bent might enjoy the various mechanisms on display, as might those deeply into the mechanics of fashion production, but the Museum lacks a universal appeal.

It took us an hour of hard walking to reach the Museum.

We were finished our tour of the Museum in 15 minutes.

It remains, despite its best efforts, a local industrial Museum.

The Museum is too focused on what makes it Comaschi rather than what is universally appealing to everyone.

We are told that the mulberry tree – the silkworm diet – can be found widespread among the foothills of the Alps.

Above: Mulberry Tree, Vincent van Gogh, 1889

We are informed that after diseases devastated Italian silkworm breeding in the 1800s silkworm eggs were needed to be imported once again from Asian countries (Japan, in particular), and carefully selected to guarantee resistance to disease.

Above: Silkworm egg, Micrographica, 1665

We are reassured that silkworm production is now quite scientific and that today´s producing countries (China, India, Brazil, Uzbekistan, Thailand, Japan and Vietnam) are able to rear silkworms all year round.

But what is lacking is an explanation of what makes Como silk production unique and an exploration of the fascinating history of silk production.

As long ago as Roman times the West has coveted silk from the East.

For centuries, the first great trade route, from out of the heart of China into the mountains of central Asia, across northern Afghanistan and the plains of Iran into Kurdish Turkey to the shores of the Mediterranean, has brought silk from the Orient to Europe.

The Great Silk Road, stretching over 7,000 miles, requiring many months of hard travelling, crossing many borders, has always been a journey of great adventure, filled with drama and spectacle, whether it has been accomplished by bus or donkey cart, train or plane, jeep or camel.

The visitor, if afforded glimpses of what makes silk production so universal, could then be led to the understanding of what makes silk production so special an endeavour.

The Museum could stand as a testament to the glory of Como silk production if it were made clearer as to what makes Como silk production so unique besides just having been done in Como.

The Museum could be a perfect testimony of the wisdom of the adage “Think globally. Act locally.”, if it somehow would show both the diversity of silk production origins along with the uniqueness of producing it in Como.

The Museum could transcend borders while highlighting what makes Como special.

It does not.

Instead the visitor is left with a collection of machinery to decipher and extract, with difficulty, some sort of personal meaning.

Perhaps this is what I am feeling when I consider Como.

I don´t want Como to become just one part of a collection of Cantons.

Neither do I want its uniqueness to go unappreciated by the rest of Italy.

But rather I think that the Italian government needs to remind its varied regions of how appreciated their regional differences are while reminding those regions that Italy would not be truly a united Italy without this variety.

(This failure to do just what I have described is the seed of further conflict that will arise between Spain and its reluctant province of Catalonia.)

Borders divide people, but wisely used, borders could also tie places and people together in a common humanity.

I like dreaming.

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Sources: Wikipedia / Google / Alastair Bonnett, Off the Map: Lost Spaces, Invisible Cities, Forgotten Islands, Feral Places, and What They Tell Us about the World / Museo didattico della Seta, Guide to the Educational Silk Museum of Como / Colin Thubron, Shadow of the Silk Road

(For another perspective on borders, please see Borderline Obsessive of this blog.)

Canada Slim and the Great Explorer

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 24 August 2017

Let me begin with an apology or two.

Much time has gone by since I started this blog and I feel like a negligent parent towards this activity and the few folks who read this blog.

Life has been busy and it has been complicated, but let´s try to recapture the muse and endeavour to be both consistent and passionate about my writing once again.

Truth be told, one never knows how much time one actually has.

So, for those who have missed this blog I apologise for taking so long to return back to this activity.

As well, as I no longer possess a personal home computer those who read this blog today will find that I am forced to return to writing without the inclusion of photographs at this time, but I hope to add them at a future date.

Musical genius Jimi Hendrix once asked:

Jimi Hendrix 1967.png

“Are you experienced?”.

When we are reunited with old friends or family members we often ask them:

“How have you’ve been?”

“Where have you’ve been?”

Lately I have rediscovered a passion for Sherlock Holmes that has made me consider both how I, like many people, see but do not observe, and how the past is not as removed from the present as might be first thought.

(Regarding the world’s and my evolution into Holmesian fandom, see Canada Slim and the Bimetallic Question of this blog.)

Through my reading and teaching I am beginning to see travelling from perspectives I had not previously considered.

(For more about the benefits of travel, see The Great Adventure of this blog.)

London, England, 1 April 1894

“Holmes!”, I cried.

“Is it really you?

Can it indeed be that you are alive?

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Is it possible that you succeeded in climbing out of that awful abyss?”

…”I had no serious difficulty in getting out of it, for the very simple reason that I never was in it…

…We (Holmes and Moriarty) tottered upon the brink of the (Reichenbach) Falls….

I slipped through his grip…and over he went….

The instant that the Professor had disappeared it struck me what a really extraordinary lucky chance Fate had placed in my way. 

I knew that Moriarty was not the only man who had sworn my death. 

There were at least three others whose desire for vegeance upon me would only be increased by the death of their leader. 

They were all most dangerous men. 

One or other would certainly get me. 

On the other hand, if all the world was convinced that I was dead they would take liberties, these men. 

They would lay themselves open, and sooner or later I could destroy them. 

Then it would be time for me to announce that I was still in the land of the living….

Several times during the last three years I have taken up my pen to write to you, but always I feared lest your affectionate regard for me should tempt you to some indiscretion which would betray my secret….

You may have read of the remarkable explorations of a Norwegian named Sigerson, but I am sure that it never occurred to you that you were receiving news of your friend…”

(Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventure of the Empty House)

(See Canada Slim and the Final Problem for details as to how Holmes and Moriarty – and many years later I –  came to be at Reichenbach Falls, near Meiringen.)

Holmes escaped, and for the next three years, a period which Sherlockians call “the Great Hiatus”, Holmes travelled the world.

It is implied, in Doyle’s The Adventure of the Empty House, through Holmes’ mention of several places in Asia – all British imperial hotspots – that Holmes was working as a secret agent for the British government.

(James Bond of the Victorian age?)

Doyle gave the reader a wealth of intriguing hints about what Holmes was up to in those three years.

Despite the story’s historic Victorian setting, Doyle also wove into his fiction up-to-the-minute global issues into Holmes’ adventures.

Holmes said he posed as a Norwegian explorer named Sigerson.

Perhaps “Sigerson” was inspired by the real life Swedish explorer Sven Hedin?

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Above: Sven Hedin in 1910

I am inspired to write about Hedin for a number of reasons:

I want to show that we are all a product of those who came before us, not just genetically, but emotionally and spiritually as well.

I want to show that even great men and women are often swept up in the current of their times and often make bad decisions with the best intentions.

Hedin inspired a local writer and poet who in turn has inspired me in my writing this past year.

Sven Anders Hedin (1865 – 1952) was a Swedish geographer, topographer, explorer, photographer, travel writer and illustrator of his own works.

During four expeditions to Central Asia, Hedin made the Transhimalaya known to the West and located the sources of the Brahmaputra, Indus and Sutlej Rivers.

Hedin also mapped Lake Lop Nur and the remains of cities, grave sites and the Great Wall of China in the deserts of the Tarim Basin.

In his book From Pole to Pole, Hedin describes a journey through Asia and Europe between the late 1880s and the early 1900s, visited Istanbul, the Caucasus, India, China, Asiatic Russia and Japan.

On some levels I can relate to Hedin.

At 15 years of age, Stockholm resident Hedin witnessed the triumphal return of the Arctic Explorer Adolf Eric Nordenskiold after his first navigation of the Northern Sea Route.

Hedin describes the experience in his book My Life as an Explorer:

“On 24 April 1880, the steamer Vega sailed into Stockholm harbour. 

The entire city was illuminated. 

The buildings around the harbour glowed in the light of innumerable lamps and torches. 

Gas flames depicted the constellations of Vega on the castle.

Amidst this sea of light the famous ship glided into the harbour.

I was standing on the Sondermalm heights with my parents and siblings, from which we had a great view. 

I was gripped by great nervous tension. 

I will remember this day until I die, as it was decisive for my future.

Thunderous jubliation resounded from quays, streets, windows and rooftops.

“That is how I want to return home some day.”, I thought to myself.

I was 15 as well on 14 May 1980 when a distant relative sent me the birthday present of a three-year subscription to National Geographic.

Logo of the National Geographic Society

Seeing pictures of faraway places with strange-sounding names, reading of the exploits of a young man sailing around the world and another walking across the USA, and seeing that there still remained a world of adventure and experience beyond the dairy farms and ploughrow fields, beyond Mount Maple and the busy highway outside my yard, beyond the isolation of the tiny parish of St. Philippe d’Argenteuil de la Paroisse de St. Jerusalem, I began to plot my escape.

Especially motivating was the story of Peter Jenkins who left his house on the East Coast of America, walked down to New Orleans and then over to the West Coast.

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Like Patrick Fermor who walked from England to Istanbul, or Laurie Lee who walked from the security of the Cotswolds to Spain, Jenkins followed the call of the road not knowing where it would lead beyond the notion of “Here’s a point on the map. I’ll go here.”

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Above: Patrick Fermor, 1966

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I could, if brave enough, throw a backpack on my shoulders and simply go.

Only later in life would I begin to realise that fame such as that achieved by Hedin and his hero Nordenskiold, or recognition the likes of Jenkins, Fermor or Lee requires an organised campaign almost akin to Hannibal crossing the Alps.

In my own adventures I realised that wide renown was never as important to me as the actual experience of travelling.

Chances are strong that I shall not long be remembered after these words are read, for I set no new records, made little publicity and have been content to simply write down my feelings and observations that someone might read and enjoy.

But without restless folks like Hedin, Jenkins, Fermor and Lee, I might have remained feeling limited to my origins and would have settled for a life of quiet desperation.

Without the accounts of folks like these I might not have been inspired to try my hand at writing.

And though there are those who cannot see beyond the 50-something tall, slightly overweight, balding barista and freelance teacher, I still see potential yet untapped.

I hope.

Hedin learned to seize opportunity where he could.

After graduating from high school in 1885, Hedin accepted an offer to accompany the student Erhard Sandgren as his private tutor to Baku, Azerbaijan, where Erhard’s father was working as an engineer in the oil fields of Robert Nobel.

Torre de la Doncella, Baku, Azerbaiyán, 2016-09-26, DD 08.jpg

Above: Maiden Tower, Baku, Azerbaijan

While in Baku, Hedin began to study languages: Latin, French, German, Persian, Russian, English and Tatar.

He would later learn several Persian dialects as well as Turkish, Kyrgyz, Mongolian, Tibetan and some Chinese.

In 1886, Hedin left Baku for Iran, travelling by paddle steamer over the Caspian Sea, riding through the Alborz Range to Teheran, Esfahan, Shiraz and the harbour city of Bushehr.

Hedin then took a ship up the Tigris River to Baghdad, returning to Tehran via Kermanshah and then travelling through the Caucasus and over the Black Sea to Istanbul, then finally returning to Sweden.

He then published a book about these travels entitled Through Persia, Mesopotamia and the Caucasus.

Hedin then returned to his studies, learning geology, mineralogy, zoology and Latin in Stockholm, Uppsala and Berlin.

In 1890 Hedin acted as interpreter and vice-consul to a Swedish legation to Iran, where he would meet and accompany the Shah of Iran on a climb up Mount Damavand.

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He then travelled the Silk Road via the cities of Mashhad, Ashgabat, Bukhara, Samarkand, Tashkent and Kashgar to the western outskirts of the Taklamakan Desert.

On the trip home, Hedin visited the grave of the Russian Asian scholar Nikolai Przhevalsky in Karakol on the shore of Lake Issyk Kul.

Nikolay Przhevalsky photoportrait and signature.jpg

Hedin published the books King Oscar’s Legation to the Shah of Persia in 1890 and Through Khorasan and Turkestan about this journey.

After completing his doctorate in Halle, Hedin was encouraged to become throughly acquainted with all branches of geographic science and its methodologies so that he could become a fully qualified explorer, but:

“I was not up to this challenge.

I had gotten out onto the wild routes of Asia too early.

I had perceived too much of the splendour and magnificence of the Orient, the silence of the deserts and the loneliness of long journeys.

I could not get used to the idea of spending a long period of time back in school.”

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Hedin went against what remains very European thinking…the idea that a person cannot pursue his dreams without qualifications.

Hedin still remained dedicated to become an explorer.

He was attracted to the idea of travelling to the last mysterious portions of Asia and filling in the gaps by mapping areas completely unknown in Europe.

From 1893 to 1897, Hedin left Stockholm, travelling via St. Petersburg and Tashkent to the Pamir Mountains.

Several attempts to climb the 7,546-metre/24,757-foot high Muztagata Glacier were unsuccessful.

Muztagh Ata Xinjiang China.jpg

Hedin then tried to cross the Taklamakan Desert, but his water supply was insufficient resulting in the deaths of seven camels and two escorts.

(In 2000, Bruno Baumann travelled Hedin’s route and concluded that it is impossible for a camel caravan travelling in the springtime to carry enough water for both camels and travellers.)

Taklamakan desert.jpg

Hedin’s ruthless behaviour and obsessive urge to complete his research would earn him massive criticism.

After a stopover in Kashgar, Hedin visited the 1,500-year-old abandoned cities of Dandan Oilik and Kara Dung, northeast of Khotan in the Taklamakan Desert.

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He then discovered Lake Bosten, one of the largest inland bodies of water in Central Asia.

Bosten-Lake (Bosten-See), Xinjiang, China, 87.00E, 42.00N.jpg

Hedin mapped Lake Kara-Koshun then travelled across northern Tibet and China to Beijing and returned to Stockholm via Mongolia and Russia.

From 1899 to 1902, Hedin navigated the Yarkand, Tarim and Kaidu Rivers and found the Lake of Lop Nur, where he discovered the ruins of the lost city of Loulan.

From upper left: roof of the Jokhang Temple; Norbulingka monastery main gate; Potala Palace; Wheel of Dharma and prayer wheels (bottom), Jokhang; satellite picture of Lhasa

Above: Scenes of Lhasa

He attempted to reach the forbidden city of Lhasa and explored India.

This expedition resulted in 1,149 pages of maps of newly discovered lands.

Between 1905 and 1908, Hedin investigated the Central Iranian desert basins, the western highlands of Tibet and the Transhimalaya.

Hedin visited the Dalai Lama in the cloistered city of Tashilhunpo in Shigatse.

ashi Lhunpo Monastery

Hedin was the first European to reach the Kailash Region, including sacred Lake Manasarovar and Mount Kailash – the midpoint of the Earth according to Buddhist and Hindu mythology.

Kailash north.JPG

The most important goal of the expedition was the search for the sources of the Indus and the Brahmaputra Rivers, both of which Hedin found.

From India, he returned via Japan and Russia to Stockholm.

In 1923, Hedin travelled to Beijing via the USA – where he visited the Grand Canyon – and Japan.

Grand Canyon view from Pima Point 2010.jpg

He then travelled with Frans August Larson (aka “the Duke of Mongolia”) in a Dodge automobile from Beijing through Mongolia via Ulaanbataar to Ulan-Ude and from there across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway to Moscow.

Between 1927 (Hedin was already 65.) and 1935, Hedin led the International Sino-Swedish Expedition which investigated the meteorological, topographic and prehistoric situation in Mongolia, the Gobi Desert and Xinjiang.

Above: Envelope of a letter from Hedin to his sister Alma with Chinese stamps issued on the occasion of the Sino-Swedish Expedition

Hedin was joined by eight Swedes, a Dane, ten Chinese, thirteen Germans (including local young man Fritz Mühlenweg), 66 camel riders and 30 soldiers.

Above: Fritz Mühlenweg in later years

Hedin described the Expedition as a peripatetic university in which the participating scientists worked almost independently, while he – like a local manager – negotiated with local authorities, made decisions, organised whatever was necessary, raised funds and recorded the route followed.

He gave these archaeologists, astronomers, botanists, geographers, geologists, meteorologists and zoologists the opportunity to participate in the Expedition while carrying out research in their areas of speciality.

Hedin was a prolific writer:

His publications amounted to some 30,000 pages, with 2,500 drawings and watercolors, films and many photographs.

And this doesn´t include his 25 volumes of travel and expedition notes and 145 volumes of diaries he regularly maintained between 1930 and 1952, totalling 8,257 pages.

Hedin´s expeditions laid the foundations for a precise mapping of Central Asia.

He was one of the first European scientific explorers to employ indigenous scientists and research assistants on his expeditions.

Even though Hedin was a man of small stature, with a bookish, bespectacled appearance, Hedin nevertheless proved himself a determined explorer, surviving several close brushes with death from hostile forces and the elements over his long career.

His scientific documentation and popular travelogues, illustrated with his own photographs, paintings and drawings, his adventure stories for young readers and his lecture tours abroad made him world famous.

(In the months after his return from the Sino-Swedish Expedition, Hedin held 111 lectures in 91 German cities as well as 19 lectures in other countries.

To accomplish this lecture tour, Hedin covered a stretch of road as long as the Equator, 23,000 km/14,000 miles by train and 17,000 km/11,000 miles by car – in a time period of only five months.)

With all his travels, Hedin never married and had no children.

Hedin remains a controversial figure and not only because of his fatal adventures in the Taklamakan Desert.

Even though Hedin would gain fame and glory for his accomplishments as an explorer and would be ceremoniously honoured by King and Shah, Czar and Kaiser, Viceroy and Emperor, Pope and President, Chancellor and Dictator, Hedin was often criticised for his political leanings.

Some historians claim that Hedin was a child of the 19th century unable and unwilling to align his thinking and actions according to the demands of the 20th century.

Others criticised Hedin for making his exclusive knowledge of Central Asia not only available to the Swedish government but to any government, including those of Chiang Kai-Shek and Adolf Hitler.

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Hedin was a monarchist and was against democracy in Sweden, believing that democracy weakened national defence and military preparedness.

Hedin felt Russia was the greatest danger to Europe and Asia with its desire to dominate and control territories outside its borders, and so felt that Germany was Europe´s best defence against Russian expansionism.

Hedin viewed World War I as a struggle of the German race against Russia and particularly admired German Kaiser Wilhelm II, whom he even visited in his exile in the Netherlands.

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Hedin´s conservative and pro-German views eventually translated into sympathy for the Third Reich.

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Hedin saw Hitler´s rise to power as a revival of German fortunes and welcomed its challenge against Soviet Communism.

Hedin supported the Nazis in his journalistic activities.

Although Hedin was not a National Socialist (Nazi), his incredible naivete and gullibility as well as his hope that Nazi Germany would protect Scandinavia from invasion by the Soviet Union, brought Hedin in dangerous proximity to Nazis who exploited him as an author, destroying his reputation and put him into social and scientific isolation.

Even after the collapse of the Third Reich, Hedin did not regret his collaboration with the Nazis, because this cooperation had made it possible for Hedin to rescue numerous Nazi victims from execution or death in extermination camps.

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Much of what happened in the early days of Nazi rule had his approval, but Hedin was not an entirely uncritical supporter of the Nazis.

He attempted to convince the German government to relent in its antireligious and antisemetic campaigns.

Hedin requested pardons for people condemned to death and for mercy, release and permission to leave the country for people interned in prisons or concentration camps.

Hedin tried to save over 100 deported Jews and Norwegians as well as acted on behalf of Norwegian activists.

Hedin died at Stockholm in 1952.

Among the many honours paid to Hedin by numerous countries, a glacier (the Sven Hedin Glacier), a lunar crater, a species of flower, a species of beetle and a species of butterfly, fossil discoveries as well as streets and squares have been named after him.

There is a permanent exhibition on Hedin and his expeditions in the Stockholm Ethnographic Museum and a memorial plaque dedicated to Hedin can be found in the Adolf Frederick Church.

In Swedish, it reads:

“Asia´s unknown expanses were his world.  Sweden remained his home.”

Flag of Sweden

Is it any wonder that folks like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Fritz Mühlenweg were so impressed by this little Swede who opened up the big world?

I wonder…

Would Hedin have explored and written so much had he been blessed with a wife and children?

Modern explorers like the aforementioned Peter Jenkins and train travelogue author Paul Theroux sacrificed their marriages to their wanderlust.

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Above: Paul Theroux, 2008

I wonder…

Were I not married or if I had never married would I still be travelling?

Would I have been a more prolific writer had I explored roads and paths not taken?

Fritz Mühlenweg, after his travels in Mongolia, would meet and marry a woman and raise a family and beat back his wanderlust by writing and painting the Lake of Constance region he loved.

Like Mühlenweg, I too have travelled a wee bit in my younger days and married and settled by the Lake of Constance.

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Is the cure for my own wanderlust that burns within my blood to write about where I have settled?

I wonder…

Sources: Wikipedia / Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of the Empty House”

 

Big Yellow Taxi

Landschlacht, Switzerland, Ides of March 2017

These are interesting times we live in, where nothing seems as certain as it once was.

Uncertainty as to whether foreign governments can determine other national elections…

Increased irrationality and xenophobia and hate crimes against folks whose only offence is the appearance of being different…

Wars that never end, from the ancient conflict between the Koreas that was resolved by uneasy ceasefire but without a peace treaty, to Afghanistan whose location and lithium cause empires to clash, to Syria so divided and torn apart causing untold millions to become adrift in modern diaspora, Africa where bloodshed is constant but media attention is scarce…

The most public nation on Earth run by an administration whose only real goal seems to be the total erasure of any achievements the previous administration might have accomplished…

Flag of the United States

Brazil: where governments change and prison conditions worsen…

Flag of Brazil

Turkey: a land of wonderful people ruled over by a government that seems desperate for the world to view the country in the completely opposite way…

Flag of Turkey

Israel: fighting for its rights of self-determination while denying the same rights of those caught within its reach…

Centered blue star within a horizontal triband

India: a land of unlimited potential yet prisoner of past values incompatible with the democracy it would like to be…

Horizontal tricolor flag bearing, from top to bottom, deep saffron, white, and green horizontal bands. In the centre of the white band is a navy-blue wheel with 24 spokes.

A world where profit is more important than people, short-term gain more valuable than long-term consequence…

"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.

Interesting times.

And it is these interesting times that find me re-evaluating the behaviour of the routine traveller and why this type of person may be more deserving of respect than is often shown him…

A routine traveller is that kind of person who, regardless of a world that has so much to offer visitors, will not visit any other location than the one to which he returns to, again and again, year after year.

This kind of routine traveller tends to be found amongst the older population.

My biological father will drive down from Canada to Florida once a year, following the exact same route, stay at the same motels and eat at the same restaurants he slept in and ate at before, return to the same trailer by the same beach and do the same things he did before, vacation after vacation, year after year.

An elderly lady student of mine travels from Switzerland to Spain once every seven weeks and lives in Barcelona for a week, remaining in her apartment except to visit familiar places and familiar faces.

22@ district, Sagrada Família, Camp Nou stadium, The Castle of the Three Dragons, Palau Nacional, W Barcelona hotel and beach

And the only thing that would dissuade them from changing their routine would be circumstances beyond their control, like ill health or acts of God or government.

For much of my life I have mocked this kind of traveller.

I have wanted to explore the planet and visit faraway places with strange sounding names.

I have loved the sound of ship horns, train whistles, plane engines…

RMS Titanic 3.jpg

I have loved discovering new sights and smells, meeting new people with different perspectives, learning anew just how much I have yet to learn, every day a new discovery, every moment a new adventure.

And that inner child, with eyes wide open with excitement and wonder, never really disappeared from within me.

But as I age I feel I am beginning to understand the routine traveller more, for there is something comforting in the familiar.

My father and my student had made wiser financial investments than I ever had or ever will so they have managed to build themselves second homes in other locales outside their countries of regular residence.

My wife and I, limited like most by time and money, have not even considered the lifestyle of the routine travelling retiree just yet.

But I am beginning to see their point of view.

Last month the wife and I visited the Zürich Zoo and I found myself, to my own amused astonishment, expressing a desire to retire one day in walking distance of a zoo with an annual membership and spend my final days sitting on benches watching the animals obliviously engage in their natural routines.

ZooZürich Eingang.jpg

I could see myself spending hours watching monkeys climb and swing, penguins march, peacocks strut, elephants calmly forage for food, owls stare back at me unblinkingly, bird song filling my ears, animal odors filling my nose, the solid concrete beneath my feet, the endless activity and colourful wonders of nature in myriad form.

Schimpanse Zoo Leipzig.jpg

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I can imagine worse ways of spending my last days.

There must be something comforting about going away to a place oft-visited, to once again shop in familiar markets, to take familiar strolls that never require a map, to rediscover the pleasure of a favourite café, to browse again in a well-loved bookshop, to feel at home in a place that isn`t home.

Above: Café Terrace at Night, Vincent van Gogh

I am a married man, for better or worse, so I am unable to simply abandon everything and hit the road as I once did.

I, like most, am bound by schedules and obligations and responsibilities and it is an adjustment, a rut, quite easy to mold oneself to, with its security and certainty in a world not so secure, not so certain.

Time is precious – as is health –  and the unreligious know that we only get one life, so there should be more to life than spending one`s youth working for unappreciative others than finding oneself struggling painfully to maintain a sliver of dignity in a health care centre just waiting to die.

Yet if this be fate then few will avoid it.

As much as I long to see more of a world so vast and unexplored, I think what might attract me to a life of a routine traveller is the increasing realisation that change is inevitable so it is important to appreciate what we’ve got before it is gone, before it is no longer available.

My father at Jacksonville Beach, my student in Barcelona… are comforted by the false security of the familiar getaway.

Images from top, left to right: Jacksonville Beach Pier, water tower, Jacksonville Beach City Hall, Sea Walk Pavilion, Adventure Landing, Jacksonville Beach

No matter how much their lives have changed back in Canada or in Switzerland, the trailer by the beach abides, the apartment in Barcelona is waiting.

But I am not yet ready for a trailer by the sea or an apartment in another city, for what I want to do in the few precious leisure moments afforded me at present, though I am limited by money, I want to step outside as often as possible and explore and re-explore the outdoors within my reach.

While it still lasts…while I still can.

For the newspapers and the media suggest that things might not last.

America has convinced itself that running a pipeline next to a major supply of fresh water is somehow a good idea.

Around the globe, forests are denuded, holes scar the Earth in Man’s mad search for scarce resources, waste is dumped into rivers and oceans with no thought or compassion as to what dwells under the surface or the consequences these actions will have for generations to come.

We rattle our sabres, stockpile our nukes, cry out for war and blindly fight for invisible gods under ever-changing banners, staggering drunk down the road towards our destruction while applauding ourselves for our cleverness.

Nuclear War: Nuclear weapon test, 1954

How long will the forest beyond the village of Landschlacht stand?

How long will seagulls and ducks swim in the clear waters of the Lake of Constance?

How long will the waves crash upon the shores of Jacksonville without dead fish and rotting carcasses polluting the sands?

How long will Barcelona’s streets be filled with music before the sound of marching militia boots tramp over the assumed tranquility?

How long will mothers fear the future for their newborns, teenagers feel the rage of a legacy cheated, the workman groan under the weight of his duties, the elderly too weary to care?

Too many questions…

I still want to explore the planet, but I no longer mock the man who embraces the familiar.

For the routine traveller may be lacking in courage or curiosity, but he is wise in his appreciation of the moment.

The routine traveller abides.

I take some comfort in that.

 

“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot

With a pink hotel, a boutique and a swinging hot spot….

…They took all the trees and put them in a tree museum

Then they charged the people a dollar and a half just to see ’em….

…Hey farmer, farmer, put away that DDT.

Give me spots on my apples but leave me the birds and the bees please….

…Late last night I heard the screen door slam

And a big yellow taxi come and take away my old man

Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve gone ’till it’s gone…”

Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi”, Ladies of the Canyon, 1970

Big Yellow Taxi - Joni Mitchell.jpg

Louis Armstrong What a Wonderful World.jpg

A Revolution of One: The Power of Passion

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 14 March 2017

Pick up a newspaper.

Read a book.

Explore the Internet.

And the thinking man is left with one conclusion…

There is much that is wrong in the world: disease, division, war, terror, discrimination, denied opportunities, environmental degradation and pollution, a scarcity of water, unequal distribution of resources, hunger and starvation, a lack of education, corruption and bad governance, the abuse of human rights including slavery and torture, global warming – the list seems endless.

So, where to begin?

Be the change you desire.

“I said, ‘Somebody should do something about that.’.

Then I realised…I am somebody.”(Lily Tomlin)

Lily Tomlin at the 2014 Kennedy Center Honors

“Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it.

Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

Goethe (Stieler 1828).jpg

You only need one thing to start making a difference in the world: passion.

Passion gives you the bravery to stand up and start speaking out.

Passion will keep you going, despite insults and threats and the passage of time and the responses received.

There is much about the 1998 film The Mask of Zorro I like: sword fighting, romance, action, love, loyalty, the triumph of good against evil, superb acting performances, a gripping plot, magnificient scenery, exciting music, humourous moments….

In short, it was a film that deserved its financial and critical success.

A dimly-lit figure sporting a rapier, a black costume with a flowing Spanish cape, a flat-brimmed black gaucho hat, and a black cowl sackcloth mask that covers the top of the head from eye level stands with the film's title: THE MASK OF ZORRO in white font. He is silhouetted against a red hue fading to black at the top with the star billing of ANTONIO BANDERAS and ANTHONY HOPKINS.

But for me there is a scene that stands out…

Don Diego De La Vega (aka Zorro) had been unmasked, his wife killed, his home destroyed, his daughter taken and his freedom denied by the departing corrupt governor Don Rafael Montero.

Twenty years later, Montero returns as a civilian determined to regain power and De La Vega escapes from prison.

De La Vega enconters a thief, Alejandro Murrieta, and agrees to groom Murrieta to become the new Zorro.

De La Vega needs to discover Montero’s plans so he convinces Murrieta to pose as a visiting nobleman named Don Alejandro del Castillo y Garcia while attending a party at Montero’s hacienda.

Don Alejandro tells Montero that the reason he is visiting him is that he had heard that Montero was a man of vision.

Montero asks Don Alejandro if he is also a man of vision.

Alejandro responds with:

“I am a man in search of a vision.”

Without a vision, without passion, change will not happen.

What are the issues you feel passionately about?

What really (pardon the vulgarity that follows) pisses you off?

What do you want to change?

Find something YOU wholeheartedly believe in.

The great changes that have happened in the world were accomplished by individuals of passion, whether these changes were negative or positive.

Names are easy to recall.

Pick up a newspaper, read a book, explore the Internet and you will notice that the one binding theme of the individuals spearheading the changes is passion, regardless of the endeavour, regardless of the person’s other attributes, regardless if the cause is just or morally reprehensible.

The most evil of men achieved their infamous accomplishments because they were passionate about what they believed.

The most remarkable of men who have made great positive social and political changes were men possessed of passion.

History is filled with countless examples of this principle of passion: revolutionary leaders, dictators, philosophers, writers, political leaders, scientists, inventors, financial moguls…from George Washington to Che Guevara; from Alexander of Macedonia, Napoleon of Ajaccio, Adolf of Austria to more modern examples of Gaddafi, Kim, Putin and Xi; from Moses to Muhammad, from Buddha to Jesus and others who spoke of the divine that lies beyond our mortal understanding; from Marx to Proust, from Hemingway to Hesse, from Gandhi to Mandela, from Curie to Edison to Steve Jobs, from the first founders of financial empires to the modern entrepreneurs – the changes they wrought, for evil or for good, would never have happened had they not been men and women of passion.

Let’s look at the most blatant example of this passion dominating the headlines of the moment.

Trump won the US election, not because he was better qualified, not because he was more moral or talented.

Donald Trump official portrait.jpg

Those who chose him as President did so for he had more passion (or at least, bluster) than his chief competitor Hillary Clinton.

Hillary Clinton official Secretary of State portrait crop.jpg

For though Hillary was better qualified, somewhat more moral, certainly as talented as the Donald in clawing her way to the top, I believe she lost because she forgot the cardinal rule:

Facts and figures impress, but it is passion that persuades.

Had the Democrats not outmanuevered Sanders out of primary contention, I believe his passion for change would have beaten Trump.

Bernie Sanders.jpg

I am not convinced that Trump was the wisest decision for America or for the world, nor do I believe that he will be the change that America desperately needs, but like any good salesman Trump understood that you can convince anyone of anything if you sound as if you believe it too.

Hate as I do the right wing elements that seem to dominate the world, they impress me with the passion they exhibit to defend their hateful rheotric.

Bill O'Reilly at the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia (cropped).jpg

Above: Political commentator Bill O’Reilly

Folks like Bill O’Reilly or Alex Jones or Tomi Lahren are an offense to the ear, the heart and the conscience, but folks willingly listen to them because their passion is persuasive.

Alex Jones thumbs up.jpg

Above: Radio host Alex Jones

Obama standing with his arms folded and smiling

President Obama has his faults – ask O’Reilly, Jones or Lahren, they will gladly detail them – but he remains a man of both passion and compassion, intelligence and class, courage and conviction, and for this he maintains my respect.

Tomi Lahren by Gage Skidmore.jpg

Above: Political commentator Tomi Lahren

Trump’s bluster mimics these qualities but never duplicates them.

For quality of character will always be the defining karma of a man.

But Trump is President, not by virtue of his character but in spite of it.

Passion persuades.

But what is passion?

How can passion be developed?

“In my experience, passion doesn’t always pop up and accost you with a raging fervor.

Passion can start in a much gentler way.

My own passion started with a sense of unease, a feeling of being weirded out.

When this feeling refused to go away, I began to look deeper, to try to find out what was going on.”

(Lucy-Anne Holmes, How to Start a Revolution)

“The life of the mind should be open to all who want to commit themselves to the time and energy it demands….

There are many ordinary men and women who have never gone to a university.

Many workingmen are self-taught intellectuals.

They devote their free time to serious reading and discussion.

Their limitations stem more from a lack of method than a lack of intelligence….

I noticed how much satisfaction some people got out of going beyond self-discovery to discovery of something important or beautiful or powerful or fascintating about the world.

Self-fulfillment consists of finding and filling their “hole in the world”….

Such people have discovered a particular question, problem, issue, person, task or puzzle that is theirs.

It intrigues them, challenges them, amuses them, enchants them, bedevils them – and they love it.”

(Ronald Gross, The Independent Scholar’s Handbook)

This is passion.

“Those who have looked closely at the lives and work of individuals who have found their “hole in the world” have realised that talent is not simply given or “found”….

Talent is a product people create, rather than a gift they receive.

Talent is the retrospective acknowledgement that a person has identified and intensively pursued his work.

Any person can discover and develop the unique potential for talented behaviour which each of us possesses.

The secret is to focus on the field of activity that you find compelling and relate all your random experience to it.

This leads to accomplishment, expertise, self-education and recognition as being talented.”

(Ronald Gross, The Independent Scholar’s Handbook)

For these people, they have found their passion.

“I enjoy these people’s enthusiasms.

They have something to tell us about how to live a full life.”

(Henry Doering, The World Almanac Book of Buffs, Masters, Mavens and Uncommon Experts)

“I will not wait till I have converted the whole society to my view but will straightaway make a beginning with myself.”

(Mohandas Gandhi, Constructive Workers’ Conference, 24 January 1946)

The face of Gandhi in old age—smiling, wearing glasses, and with a white sash over his right shoulder

Above: Mohandas “Mahatma” Karamchand Gandhi, Indian independence leader (1869 – 1948)

If there is one universal fact of life that can be proven beyond any shadow of a doubt, it is that a single person can bring change.

Change – even the greatest change – begins with a single person.

Change begins the moment that person begins it.

If you mean to make a difference in the world, you cannot wait for others to begin the change.

You cannot wait even for your own changes to become widespread or universal.

Begin the project, no matter how ambitious, with yourself.

Begin now.

Sources: Alan Axelrod, Gandhi CEO / Henry Doering, The World Almanac Book of Buffs, Masters, Mavens and Uncommon Experts / Ronald Gross, The Independent Scholar’s Handbook / Lucy-Anne Holmes, How to Start a Revolution / Michael Norton, 365 Ways to Change the World / Wikipedia

 

 

 

 

 

Bleeding Beautiful

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 28 February 2017

There are friends and stories that remain in the back of your mind that sometimes require some dramatic moment to have their memory come rushing to your forethoughts.

Such is the case of my Indian friend Sumit, originally of Orissa Province, India, and now Canadian resident of Ontario.

I have known him only for three years, but his friendship is such that constant communication between us is unnecessary, for ours is a friendship that does not need to be constantly voiced to be assured of its constancy.

We met while we were both seeking to improve our German in evening courses across the lake in Konstanz and have remained friends ever since.

Rheintorturm, a section of the former city wall of Konstanz at Lake Constance

I have watched him struggle and succeed against racial profiling, unequal employment opportunities, uncertain prospects and unhappy losses in his family.

Last contact with him a while ago, he spoke with joy about his newborn son, his satisfaction with his Canadian employer and his hopes for the future.

As with all those who have chosen to call me “friend” it is with the greatest pleasure that I greet his communications and listen with rapt attention to his tales of my home and native land from his non-native perspective.

It is a rare moment when a bus ride from Landschlacht through Kreuzlingen to Konstanz does not bring back to me recollections of Sumit riding his bicycle along the same route.

His friendship is such that he will be the sole reason that I will include Toronto in my itinerary when I return again to Canada for a visit.

From top left: Downtown Toronto featuring the CN Tower and Financial District from the Toronto Harbour, City Hall, the Ontario Legislative Building, Casa Loma, Prince Edward Viaduct, and the Scarborough Bluffs

His laugh, his humor, his unique perspective on issues, all are missed.

He is missed.

Sumit dominates my thoughts this week when I read of recent events in Kansas.

Olathe, Kansas, USA, 22 February 2017

In my own personal travels in America I have visited at least 40 States.

Flag of the United States

By happenstance, and like most tourists American or foreign, Kansas is one of those States that somehow seems to get overlooked, which is a shame.

Flag of Kansas

For Kansas is surprising.

The vast, rolling prairies of Kansas, blanketed by wheat, battered by tornadoes, ignored by many, is said to be the Home on the Range (the state song) of some of the friendliest folks you could possibly hope to meet.

The Sunflower State, 32nd in population, 15th in area, the 34th to join the Union, birthplace of avatrix Amelia Earhart (1897 – 1937), jazzman Charlie Parker (1920 – 1955), actress Annette Bening (born 1958), songstress Melissa Etheridge (born 1961) and silent film legend Joseph Frank “Buster” Keaton (1895 – 1966), Kansas is famous for Turkey Red wheat, being the first State to start prohibition, and the fictional residence of Dorothy and Toto (of The Wizard of Oz (1939) fame).

Earhart.jpg

Portrait of Charlie Parker in 1947.jpg

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Kansas has historically been a place people pass through – Spanish conquistador Francisco Vazquez de Coranado (1510 – 1554) seeking the rich civilization of the Quivira, cowboys driving cattle, pioneers following the Santa Fe Trail, the Pony Express delivering mail, railroads transporting goods and people, carloads of college kids heading to Colorado ski slopes…

The buffalo are gone, as are the native Kansa tribe who were forcibly relocated to Oklahoma in 1873.

One might argue that it was in Kansas that the US Civil War really began, for the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which allowed settlers to vote for or against slavery, triggered Bleeding Kansas – a term coined by Republican New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley – violent political confrontations that gave a glimpse of how impossible compromise without conflict would be, how inevitable Civil War would become.

Reynolds's Political Map of the United States 1856.jpg

Above: Reynold’s 1856 map showing free and slave states, Kansas in white in the middle

In October 1855, abolitionist John Brown (1800 – 1857) came to Kansas to fight slavery.

John Brown by Levin Handy, 1890-1910.jpg

On 21 November 1855, the Wakarusa War began when abolitionist/Free-Stater Charles Dow was shot by a pro-slavery settler.

On 6 December Free Stater Thomas Barber is shot and killed near Lawrence.

On 21 May 1856, Missourians invade Lawrence and burn down the Free State Hotel, destroy two newspaper offices and ransack homes and stores.

In response, Republican Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts took to the floor of the US Senate in Washington DC to denounce the threat of slavery in Kansas and humiliate its supporters.

Sumner had devoted his enormous energies to the destruction of the Slave Power – the efforts of slave owners to take control of the federal government and ensure the survival and expansion of slavery.

In his The Crime against Kansas speech, Sumner ridiculed the honour of elderly South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler, portraying Butler’s pro-slavery agenda towards Kansas with the raping of a virgin and characterizing his affection for it in sexual and graphic terms.

The next day Butler’s cousin, the South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks, nearly killed Sumner on the Senate floor of the Senate with a heavy cane, deepening the North-South split.

Violence continued to increase.

Ohio abolitionist John Brown led his sons and followers to plan the murder of settlers who spoke in favour of slavery.

On the night of 24 May, at the proslavery settlement of Pottawatomie Creek, Brown’s group seized five pro-slavery men from their homes and hacked them to death with broadswords.

Brown and his men escaped and began plotting a full scale slave insurrection to take place at Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act, which had created from unorganised native lands the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, permitted residency by US citizens who would decide the region’s slavery status and seek admission to the Union as States.

Immigrants supporting both sides of the question arrived in Kansas to establish residency and gain the right to vote.

Kansas Territory officials were appointed by the pro-slavery administration of US President Franklin Pierce (1804 – 1869)(14th US President 1853 – 1857) and thousands of non-resident pro-slavery Missourians entered Kansas with the goal of winning elections, sometimes capturing them by fraud and intimidation.

Portrait of Franklin Pierce by Mathew Brady

In response, Northern abolitionist elements flooded Kansas with free-soilers. 

Anti-slavery Kansas residents wrote the first Kansas Constitution and elected the Free State legislature in Topeka, in direct opposition to the pro-slavery government in Lecompton.

In April 1856, a Congressional committee arrived in Lecompton to investigate voting fraud and found the elections had been improperly elected by non-residents.

President Pierce refused recognition of the committee’s findings and continue to authorise the pro-slavery legislature, which the Free State people called the Bogus Legislature.

On 4 July 1856, proclamations of President Pierce led to 500 US Army troops arriving in Topeka from Fort Leavenworth and Fort Riley.

With cannons pointed at Constitution Hall, they ordered the disperal of the Free State Legislature.

In August 1856, thousands of pro-slavery men formed into armies and marched into Kansas.

That same month, Brown and his followers engaged 400 pro-slavery soldiers in the Battle of Osawatomie.

Hostilities raged for another two months until Brown departed Kansas and a new territorial governor John Geary took office and managed to prevail upon both sides for peace.

This fragile peace was often broken by intermittent violent outbreaks for two more years.

By 1859 approximately 56 people would die violently in Bleeding Kansas.

The American Civil War commenced in 1861.

Over time, the rip-roaring open range would evolve to become some of the most productive wheatlands in the world, while aviation industries would become big moneymakers for the State as well.

For the tourist, there are some tourist attractions in the State.

In northwest Kansas on route 24 is Nicodemus – the oldest African American settlement west of the Mississippi.

Founded in 1877 by black American settlers seeking the promised land, this lonely but friendly village of 25 souls has five historic buildings and a single isolated parking meter.

Nearby Hays has the Fort Hays Historical Site and the domed Sternberg Museum of Natural History with an unusual fish-within-a-fish fossil and animated dinosaurs.

Old Fort Hays HABS cover sheet KS1.jpg

To the south between Dodge City and Wichita, Hutchinson‘s Cosmosphere and Space Center is an out-of-this-world collection of rockets, space gear and warheads.

Kansas Cosmosphere 2003.jpg

Here visitors can see the original Apollo 13, a nuclear warhead that had been found rotting in an Alabama warehouse and cool Soviet cosmonaut outfits.

In Wichita, the birthplace of both Pizza Hut and the Coleman lantern, the visitor can touch a tornado, visit a traditional Wichita grass house and revisit the Wild West in Old Cowtown.

The Exploration Place-Wichita, Kansas-June 2013.jpg

Above: Wichita’s Exploration Place

Lawrence, the nicest city in Kansas, has America’s only intertribal university (where Olympian athlete Jim Thorpe studied) and Teller’s Restaurant, transformed from a bank, offers bathrooms inside a vault.

Lawrence is famous for the University of Kansas and the many famous folks who once resided here (ex: activist Erin Brokovich, author William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch), basketballer Wilt Chamberlain, Senator Bob Dole, author Frank Harris (My Life and Loves), scientist/diet pioneer Elmer “Mr. Vitamin” McCollum, Canadian-born basketball inventor James Naismith, author Sara Paretsky (V.I. Warshawski crime series), actor Paul Rudd (Ant-Man), just to name a few…)

Official seal of Lawrence, Kansas

Topeka, the state capital, has the unassuming Brown vs Board of Education Historic Site (which shows the story of the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case which banned segration in US schools), the impressively domed State Capitol (housing a famous mural of John Brown) and the Menninger Foundation (a leader in mental health treatment which displays a collection of old mechanical restraints).

Dodge City revels in its infamous Wild West past with its Boot Hill Museum and Front Street cemetery, jail and saloon, where enactments regularly held invoke the memory of Wyatt Earp (1848 – 1929) and Bat Masterson (1853 – 1921), gunslingers, buffalo hunters, card sharks and brothel keepers.

Above: Wyatt Earp (seated) and Bat Masterson (standing)

Abilene, where once cussin’ cowboys and huge herds of Texas longhorns ended their trip up the Chisholm Trail, the visitor can now find the boyhood home of former President Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower (1890 – 1969)(34th US President, 1953 – 1961) and the Greyhound (the dogs not the buses) Hall of Fame.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, White House photo portrait, February 1959.jpg

Lindsborg flaunts its Swedish roots, while the large Mennonite communities around Hillsboro are descendants of Russian immigrants who brought the Turkey Red strain of wheat to the Great Plains where it thrived despite harsh conditions.

But Olathe in northeastern Kansas, a stone’s throw away from both Lawrence and the twin cities of Kansas City on the Kansas-Missouri border, seems to escape the notice of most folks.

Flag of Olathe, Kansas

In the spring of 1857, Dr. John T. Barton rode to the centre of Johnson County and staked two quarter sections of land.

Barton later described his ride to friends:

“…the prairie was covered with verbena and other wild flowers.

I kept thinking the land was beautiful and that I should name the place Beautiful.”

Barton asked a Shawnee interpreter how to say beautiful in his native tongue.

The interpreter responded, “Olathe”.

Olathe saw violence during the days of Bleeding Kansas and much conflict during the American Civil War.

On 7 September 1862, Confederate guerrillas from Missouri led by William Quantrill surprised the military post (located on the public square where a company of more than 125 Union troops, most of them recruits) and the residents of Olathe, killing a half dozen men, robbed numerous businesses and homes, forced the Union troops to surrender and compelling them to swear an oath forbidding them to take up arms against the Confederacy, and destroying most of the city.

Quantrill would again raid the city on 21 August 1863, en route to Lawrence (where he would massacre over 164 civilians) and later Olathe would suffer a third raid by Confederate Major General Sterling Price and his force of 10,000 men as they retreated south on 25 October 1864 just before the Battle of Marais des Cygnes.

Kansas militia would occupy Olathe until August 1865.

Olathe served as a stop on the Oregon Trail, the California Trail and the Santa Fe Trail, so catering to travellers was the main source of income for local stores and businesses.

The Mahaffie House, a popular resupply point of wagons headed westward, is today a registered historical site maintained by the City of Olathe.

1100 Kansas City Rd., Olathe, KS J.B. Mahaffie House.jpg

The staff wears period costumes, while stagecoach rides and farm animals make the site a favourite attraction for young and old.

Visitors can participate in Civil War enactments, Wild West Days and other activities.

In the 1950s, the construction of the Interstate Highway System, the I-35 linked Olathe with nearby Kansas City, resulting in tremendous commercial and residential growth that still continues.

In 2008, the US Census Bureau ranked Olathe as the 24th fastest-growing city in America, while CNN/Money and Money magazine ranked Olathe #11 in its list of the 100 Best Cities to Live in the United States.

Winters are cold, summers hot and humid in Olathe.

Folks in Olathe are fairly well educated with 35 elementary schools, 9 middle schools, 4 high schools, the MidAmerica Nazarene University and the Kansas State School for the Deaf.

Olathe is home to many companies, including Honeywell, Husqvarna, Aldi, Garmin, Grundfos and the Farmers Insurance Group (this latter though based in LA has more Farmers employees here than anywhere else in the US).

Olathe has also produced a few notable people like Hollywood actor Charles Buddy Rogers (lead actor in Wings – the first picture to win an Academy Award – America’s boyfriend and 3rd/final husband of America’s Sweetheart, Canadian-born Mary Pickford), actor Willie Ames (of TV’s Eight is Enough and Charles in Charge), NFL footballers Jonathan Quinn and Darren Sproles, as well as prominent Communist leader and 1936/1940 US Presidential candidate Earl Browder.

Olathe is now famous for four other names: Adam Purinton, 51, and his victims – Srinivas Kuchibhotla, 32, who died; his friend Alok Madasani who was injured; and Ian Grillot, 24, who had tried to stop Purinton’s violence, also injured.

Adam Purinton

Above: Adam Purinton, suspected shooter

From left: Srinivas Kuchibhotla, who died; Alok Madasani, who was injured; and Ian Grillot, also injured

From left: Srinivas Kuchibhotia, who died; Alok Madasani, who was injured; Ian Grillot, also injured

Last Wednesday night at 2103 East 151st Street in South Olathe – one of  three chain locations – Austins Bar and Grill“serving up great food and spirits since 1987”, known for its “world famous chicken tenders”, “sports, spirits, steaks”, smoked pulled pork. BBQ sauce, Napa slaw (cole slaw from the Napa Valley?) and baked beans, was offering its Wednesday night $7.00 special: chicken fried steak smothered in gravy and served with garlic mashed potatoes and sweet corn.

Austins Bar and Grill

Austins Bar & Grill in Olathe

The place was packed, as folks were watching the University of Kansas (Lawrence) Jayhawks basketball team, coached by Bill Self, play at home against Fort Worth’s TCU (Texas Christian University) Horned Frogs.

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Kansasans were hoping that the Jayhawks continue their 13-game winning streak.

(Final score: U of K – 87, TCU – 68)

Kuchibhotia and Madasani both worked at the US technology company Garmin.

Logo von Garmin

Garmin is a multinational, founded by Gary Burrell and Min Kao in 1989 from Lenexa, Kansas, with its international HQ in Schaffhausen, Switzerland and its American HQ right there in Olathe.

Garmin is known for its specialization in GPS tech development for its wearable use in automotive, marine, outdoor and sports activities.

Kuchibhotia and Madasani were regulars at Austin’s Bar and Grill where they enjoyed sharing a drink after work.

Purinton, another customer, began shouting racial slurs and told the two men that they did not belong in America.

Madasani told the BBC:

“This guy just randomly comes up and starts pointing fingers.

We knew something was wrong.

He said, ‘Which country are you from? Are you here illegally?’ “

Purinton was thrown out, but, according to Olathe Police, he returned with a gun.

A bystander told the Kansas City Star that Puriton shouted: “Get out of my country.” just before opening fire, killing Kuchibhota and wounding Madasani.

Grillot hid under a table when the shooting began, counted the gunman’s shots, then pursued Purinton, mistaking thinking he was out of bullets.

Grillot was shot in the hand and the chest.

Grillot, speaking from his hospital bed to local KMBC TV news, brushed aside any suggestions that he was a hero:

“It wasn’t right and I didn’t want the gentleman to potentially go after somebody else.

I was just doing what anyone should have done for another human being.

It’s not about where he’s from or his ethnicity.

We’re all humans.

So I just felt I did what was naturally right to do.”

Madasani later visited Grillot to thank him.

Purinton fled on foot.

Thousands of Indian tech workers have come to the United States under the H1-B program, which grants skilled foreign workers temporary visas.

Kuchibhota’s wife, Sunayana Dumala, had grown anxious about racial hatred after the election of Donald Trump, but she said Srinivas was dedicated to their life in the United States and to his job as an engineer.

In this undated photo provided by Kranti Shalia, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, right, poses for photo with his wife Sunayana Dumala in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Sunayana began to lose sleep after the election in November, fearful that the couple would suffer hate crimes in the country they called home.

“I was so worried I just couldn’t sleep.”, Sunayana told the BBC.

“I was talking to Srini and I was like, ‘Will we be safe in this country?’

He would say ‘Nani, Nani, don’t worry. We will be OK. We will be OK.’ “

They discussed whether they should return to India but, in the end, she decided that if they minded their own business, nobody would harm them.

Many immigrants in the US have been voicing anxiety since the rise of President Trump, who has ordered restrictions on immigration and a sped-up deportation process for undocumented immigrants.

A potential tightening of the H1-B program has raised concerns in India where many young people dream of studying or working in the United States.

Sunayana last saw her husband that morning when he left for work.

“I was still taking my shower as he was passing from the hall and he said goodbye.”

Srinivas had worked late two nights already that week and so she texted him to ask if he would bring some work home so they could have tea together.

He said yes and told her he would be home at 7 pm.

At 8 pm Sunayana began to get worried and started calling friends, including Madasani’s wife.

Sunayana heard something about a shooting at a bar and she phoned her husband over and over again.

A friend came to the house with news.

Sunayana wanted to rush to the hospital but collapsed in the garage.

She waited at the house until two policemen arrived.

“They asked me my name, Srini’s name, his date of birth.

Then they told me those words and they just said it so simply.

They said they were sorry.”

Srini was from the Indian city of Hyderabad, where his parents still live.

A montage of images related to Hyderabad city

Sunayana said her husband “loved America” and came to the country “full of dreams”.

Sunayana described how her husband had recently bought a car for his father.

“He was so happy and so proud about it.”

Srini had worked at Rockwell Collins, an avionics and IT systems company in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, before joining Garmin in 2014.

“Just last week we drove to Iowa to see our friends and their new baby.

When we came back, he was working in the car while I was driving.

That’s how much he loved working.

He personally wanted to do so much for this country.”

Purinton was arrested five hours later at an Applebee’s restaurant just over the state border, 80 miles / 130 km away in Clinton, Missouri.

He told a staff member at the dining chain that he needed a place to hide because he had killed two Middle Eastern men.

A barman there tipped off police that he had a customer who had admitted shooting two men.

Police officers arrived to detain the suspect.

Purinton has been charged with premeditated first degree murder and two counts of attempted first degree murder.

Olathe Police Chef Steve Menke has declined to comment on the reports of racial abuse, but said his force was working with the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) “to investigate any and all aspects of this horrific crime”.

The FBI have reported a rise in hate crimes in the US since Trump’s nomination as Republican candidate for the US Presidency.

Last October, two men were charged with hate crimes in Richmond, California, after being accused of beating a Sikh man and using a knife to cut his hair, which was unshorn by religious mandate.

The Olathe killing has dominated news bulletins and social media  in India.

Horizontal tricolor flag bearing, from top to bottom, deep saffron, white, and green horizontal bands. In the centre of the white band is a navy-blue wheel with 24 spokes.

Above: The flag of India

Indian actor Siddharth Narayan tweeted to his 2.6 million followers:

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“Don’t be shocked!

Be angry!

Trump is spreading hate. 

This is a hate crime.

RIP Srinivas Kuchibhotia.”

Shashi Tharoor, an Indian lawmaker and former diplomat, tweeted:

“The vicious racism unleashed in some quarters in the US claims more innocent victims, who happen to be Indian.”

Back in Hyderabad, Madasani’s father, also an engineer, Jaganmohan Reddy, called the Olethe shooting a hate crime and said that his family was “in a state of shock.”

Reddy said he did not know whether he would ask Madasani and another son living in the States to leave the country.

“We have to think it over.

My sons are not new to America.

They have been staying there for the last 10 to 12 years.

This is a new situation, and they are the best judges.”

Srini’s parents, Madhusuhan and Vardhini Rao, were too stunned by news of his death to comment, the Associated Press reported.

The Indian External Affairs Ministry sent two Indian consulate officials from Houston and Dallas to meet Madasani in Olethe and to arrange the repatriation of Srini’s body back to Hyderabad.

Dhruva Jaishankar, a foreign policy fellow at Brookings India in New Delhi, said that an isolated incident like Olethe would not affect the relationship between America and India, but if there were more attacks against Indians, or if the US is perceived to not be taking such cases seriously, there could be a problem.

Jay Kansara, Director of Government Relations at the Hindu American Foundation, an advocacy group in Washington, called for the shooting to be investigated as a hate crime.

“Anything less will be an injustice to the victims and their families.”

The US Embassy in New Delhi condemned the shooting.

“The United States is a nation of immigrants and welcomes people from across the world to visit, work, study, and live.”, said Charge d’Affaires Mary Kay Carlson.

“US authorities will investigate thoroughly and prosecute the case, though we recognise that justice is small consolation to families in grief.”

Nani flew to India to be with her husband’s family.

She is “devastated” by Srini’s death.

She plans to return to the US, but she said her husband would be “everywhere”.

“His clothes, his side of the sink, the way he used to brush, shower.

His daily prayers in that room, preparing his favourite food.

It will be tough eating without him.”

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 27 February 2017

As I learn more about the shooting in Olethe, I feel fear for my friend Sumit and his family in Canada.

Flag of Canada

For as liberal and welcoming as Canada appears by comparison with the United States at present, hate crimes also exist and continue to rise there as well.

For reasons that escape me there are a minority of Canadians who agree with the fear and paranoia that has managed to seep across the border from Trump´s America.

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Sumit is a faithful husband, good father, true friend and hard dedicated worker.

I pray for his and his family’s safety and am almost confident that my worries have little basis in reality.

Almost.

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Above: Liberty Enlightening the World, New York City, USA

Sources: “Olathe shooting: Murder charge after Indian man killed in bar”, BBC News, 24 February 2017

“Olathe shooting: My husband loved America, says widow”, BBC News, 25 February 2017

“Indian foreign minister shocked by Kansas shooting”, New York Times, 25-26 February 2017

Lonely Planet USA / Wikipedia / http://www.austinsbarandgrill.com

 

The Last Sigh

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 4 January 2017

Outside my window, upon the streets of this wee hamlet, the snow remains.

Beneath the snow nature sleeps, awaiting the resurrection of spring.

Yet life continues nonetheless…

Cows and sheep graze beneath the snow for succulent grass.

Birds continue their happy carefree melodies.

Humans scurry and hurry about, seeking sustenance and comfort in a world so cold, earning their daily bread as best they can, hoping that in the continuance of life, a reason for living might be found.

Granada, Spain, 2 January 1492

“They are yours, O King, since Allah decrees it.”

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Above: Emir Muhammad XII (aka Boabdil)(1460 – 1533)

With these words Boabdil, ruler of Granada, handed the keys to the city to King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castille, after a virtually bloodless siege that had lasted nine months.

The last Moorish stronghold in Spain surrendered to the might of the Spanish Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella.

The Moors, who had arrived in Spain in 711, were finally defeated.

The gates of Grenada were thrown open and Ferdinand entered, bearing the great silver cross he had carried throughout his liberation of Spain from Moorish rule.

Boabdil rode out through the gates of Grenada with his entourage, never to return.

Reaching a lofty spur of the Alpujarras, he stopped to gaze back at the fabulous city he had lost.

As he turned to his mother who rode at his side, a tear escaped him.

But instead of the sympathy he expected, his mother addressed him with contempt:

“You do well to weep like a woman for what you could not defend like a man.”

The rocky ridge from which Boabdil had his lost look at Grenada has henceforth been called El Ultimo Suspiro del Moro – the Last Sigh of the Moor.

Vatican City, Papal States, 3 January 1521

Giovanni di Lorenzo de Medici is tired of these doubting upstarts, especially one particular German priest.

He, his Holiness Pope Leo X, had directed the Vicar General of the Augustine Order to impose silence upon his monks.

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Above: Pope Leo X (1475 – 1521)

Yet Martin Luther would not cease his prattling.

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Above: Martin Luther (1483 – 1546)

Then this troublesome German priest has the effrontery to contact his Holiness directly trying to educate the Church on how this institution established by the Son of God Himself was in error in its ways.

Luther is summoned to Rome.

But does he obey?

No.

Instead the Church has to summon Cardinal Cajetan (1469 – 1534) to travel to Augsburg and meet with this upstart monk.

Above: Cardinal Cajetan (on the left in red, standing before the book), Martin Luther (on the right), October 1518

A papal Bull is sent requiring all Christians to believe in the Pope´s power to grant indulgences.

Does Luther retract his 95 Theses?

No.

A year, an entire year, of endless fruitless negotiations with this stubborn German, but in typical German stubbornness and conviction of his being right regardless of risk or reasons against it, Luther will not budge.

His Holiness sends yet another Bull, condemning at least 41 propositions of Luther´s teachings.

Above: The Exsurge Domine (1521), from Pope Leo X

Luther publicly burns the damned thing.

Enough.

This German is an unpleasant taste in the mouth of the Church and thus let him be cast out.

Emperor Charles V has been directed to take energetic measures against heresy.

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Above: Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1519 – 1556)

The Church needs money.

The Church needs foreign aid.

It cannot be distracted nor dissuaded from its causes just and holy and ordained by God through his holy representative the Pope.

Christ must be glorified and His temporal power extended.

Let St. Peter´s and Rome demonstrate the glory of God.

Ornate building in the early morning with a giant order of columns beneath a Latin inscription, fourteen statues on the roofline, and large dome on top.

Let Ferrara, Parma and Piacenza take their rightful place within these Papal States.

Let us enjoy the Papacy since God has given it to us.

Indulgences are the will of God and let no one challenge the will of God.

Let Luther be excommunicated.

Above: The Decet Romanum Pontificem, the Papal Bull of Pope Leo X, excommunicating Martin Luther from the Catholic Church

Berkeley, California, USA, 29 December 2016

Huston Smith is dead.

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Above: Huston Smith (1919 – 2016)

Huston, a renowned scholar of religion who pursued his own enlightenment wherever he could, died at home, age 97.

Professor Smith was best known for The Religions of Man, (later retitled The World´s Religions) a standard textbook in college comparative religion classes, which examines the world´s major faiths as well as those of indigenous peoples, observing that all express the indescribable Absolute…

 

 

“If, then, we are to be true to our own faith, we must attend to others when they speak, as deeply and as alertly as we hope they will attend to us.

If we take the world´s enduring religions at their best, we discover the distilled wisdom of the human race.”

Professor Smith had an interest in religion that transceded the academic.

In his joyful pursuit of enlightenment – to “turn our flashes of insight into abiding light” – Smith meditated with Tibetan Buddhist monks, practiced yoga with Hindu holy men, whirled with ecstatic Sufi Islamic dervishes, chewed peyote with Mexican indigenous people and celebrated the Jewish Sabbath with a daughter who had converted to Judaism.

Above: Buddhist Boudhanath Stupa, Kathmandu, Nepal

Above: Hindu goddess Shiva performing yoga, Karnataka, India

Above: Whirling Dervishes, Rumi Fest 2007

Above: Peyote drummer (1927)

Above: Jewish Shabbat praying with Shabbat candles

Smith was born to Methodist missionaries on 31 May 1919 in Suzhou, China.

The family soon moved to the ancient walled city Zang Zok, a “cauldron of different faiths”.

Smith decided to be a missionary and his parents sent him to Central Methodist University in Lafayette, Missouri.

Smith was ordained a Methodist missionary but soon realised that he had no desire to “Christianise the world”.

Smith would rather teach than preach.

Professor Smith joined campaigns for civil rights in the 1960s and for a more tolerant understanding of Islam in the 2000s.

Despite his liberal views, Smith argues that science might not totally explain natural phenomena.

Smith clung to Methodism while criticizing its dogma.

He prayed in Arabic to Mecca five times a day.

Above: The Kaaba in Mecca – the direction of prayer and the destination of pilgrimage for Muslims all over the world

His favourite prayer was written by a nine-year-old boy whose mother had found it scribbled on a piece of paper beside his bed.

“Dear God,

I´m doing the best I can.”

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Above: Michelangelo´s The Creation of Adam, The Sistine Chapel, St. Peter´s Basilica, Vatican City (1512)

Sources: Wikipedia / Douglas Martin and Dennis Hevesi, The International New York Times, 3 January 2017