A little over an hour’s drive from Joypur in Bankura district ( West Bengal, India) where we were vacationing, The Gangani ravines are known as Bengal’s very own Grand Canyon. A remnant of the last Ice age and the glacial activities at that time (anywhere up to two million years ago), the carved rock formations offer a breathtaking sight. As if to provide some relief to the frozen cliff and ravines, the river Shilabati meanders lazily below.
An interesting Legend links Gangani to the great Indian epic Mahabharata.
It is said that after the Pandava brothers lost the game of dice to their cousins the Kauravas, they were exiled for twelve years in the forests. During this period, they reached these lands which were being terrorized by the demon Bakasura. The villagers had to provide a huge quantity of food along with a human every day to the demon to ensure that the land was not ravaged. On hearing of this, Bheem, the second brother of the Pandava clan, offered to go with the food the following day.
Now Bheem was strong and well trained but it remained uncertain if he could take on the might of the powerful demon. But in the epic battle that ensued, Bheem displayed frightful ferocity and slayed Bakasura. The crumpled land and ravines remain a testimony to that.
I stood there and looked at the ravines and the land formation below.
As I wore the geological lens, I could visualize how the weathering through millennia might have created those interesting carvings and structures which I was witness to.
As I changed the lens and wore the mythological one, I could well nigh hear the roars and sounds of that titanic conflict with the adversaries slugging it out over days.
It is fascinating how our beliefs about what we are witness to can be so much based on the viewing lens we choose to wear.
Sometime back, at a two-day Leadership Development program that I was running for Larsen and Toubro Ltd (a heavy engineering and multi-business conglomerate in India), a participant came to me during one of the breaks and said:
“All these techniques which we are learning seem to be of little value to me. I am faced with a different kind of problem. My boss has a strong controlling impulse. It is usually his way or the highway. It seems to me he believes this mindset is what has helped him reach his current position. So even if I try, there is never a win/win situation for my boss vis a vis me. What should I do?”
@ L & T Workshop
As I stood there listening to him, several thoughts came to mind. I asked him whether he was okay to delve into the issue some more.
We need to start exploring. We need to ask, ‘What is that which our ‘controlling boss’ would really like to control and change?’ And even more important, ‘What is that we ourselves are willing to let go?’ For ‘letting go’ could be the start of getting back in control.
Could we try and meet the ‘control freak’ half away down? For instance, certain relationships and one to one interactions could still be kept under our control. This realization itself can give us a sense of empowerment.
Could we ‘let go’ by avoiding reacting when we are being pushed to accept the controller’s point of view? Acknowledge what we have been told and then explain what we plan to do, why we have decided so and that we are willing to take full responsibility of the outcome.
The above exploration would allow us to create our action steps in the matter, thus elevating our own control of the situation.
‘Becoming a leader’ does not arise from knowing techniques or aping what we see great leaders do as they exercise leadership effectively in varied situations. Leadership and Performance is very little about what we know, it is almost all about how we see. ‘How we see’ comes from our ability to shift our perception through developing a contextual framework for our own selves.
“Language of Man here is defeated by the language of stone.” – Rabindranath Tagore
A visit to Puri in Odisha can never be complete without a trip to the Konark Sun temple. Having paid our homage to Lord Jagannath in that iconic Puri temple in the morning hours, we had the afternoon available for going to Konark.
A surprisingly good infrastructure exists in terms of road access from Puri as well as the upkeep of the Konark Sun temple complex. Getting down from the car in front of the long walkway, I had my first glimpse of the famous temple in the distance. The tiled pathway, overlooking gardens and the Konark temple information Centre (which incidentally has a wonderful audio-visual show about the temple and its origins) lead to the temple.
Standing there, as I looked at the ruined structure, my mind’s eye brought in the vision of an enormous chariot with its giant wheels and horses, a resplendent Sun seated as the charioteer, taking flight across the sky. The word Konark in Sanskrit is a sandhi, a combination of two words: Koṇa, which signifies a corner andArka which refers to the Hindu Sun God, Surya. Built out of stone seven and a half centuries back, the temple is an intricately carved, giant chariot of Surya, replete with ornaments, twenty-four giant wheels and pulled by seven horses. Throughout history, different cultures and lands have referred to ‘crossing the seven seas’ for a travel around the world. In India, it is called, ‘Saat Samundar Paar’. Did the seven-horse drawn chariot of the Sun God signify that it had the motive power to circumvent the world?
The temple external walls are sculpted with intricate and jewelry like miniature details. The carvings range from Hindu Gods and Goddesses, nymphlike apsaras, nature inspired motifs, day to day living and cultural activities of people ( Artha and Dharma) , animals, birds and sea creatures along with some depictions of the life and times of the king. Ernst Binfirld Havell, the English art historian and author, writes that the Konark temple is “one of the grandest examples of Indian sculpture extant“, adding that they express “as much fire and passion as the greatest European art” such as that found in Venice.
As I looked at the lengthening shadows of an evening sun, I envisioned the year 1756 AD when Vice Admiral Charles Watson of the East India Company navy accompanied by Robert Clive, was rushing to Calcutta to take back Fort William recently captured by the Bengal Nawab, Siraj Ud Daulah. Spotting the Black Pagoda, as the Konark Sun Temple was known then, along with the White Pagoda, the Jagannath temple near the then coastline ( which has since receded), Watson would surely have been relieved that their destination at the mouth of the Bay of Bengal was near.
History indicates that the Konark Sun temple was destroyed by invasions and natural calamities. Over time it ceased to attract the pious and the faithful. And like the other famous Hindu temple at Angkor Wat in present day Cambodia, the Sun temple too disappeared under dense forests for a long time prior to being rediscovered.
What remains most intriguing however is the highly erotic sculptures interspersed amongst the aforementioned carvings. As I stood there looking at the sculptures, it seemed that eroticism held sway over all else. The carved in stone figurines displayed sexual engagements and coitus in varying positions. I saw several of the chariot wheels depicting different sexual postures. What I found astonishing was the uninhibited depictions of polyandry, polygamy and lesbianism.
As I walked way, I was beset with several thought trains, trying to make sense of such brazen display of sexuality in a temple made to worship the Sun.
Was the displayed eroticism a deliberate attempt to increase sexual activity amongst the population in the 13th century? I had read somewhere that Buddhism, the prevailing religion in the land of Kalinga, preached abstinence which over the centuries, had led to a declining population. Had the King thus ordered the seductive carvings to stimulate carnal desires in his subjects?
Could it be that the depictions were a result of the sexual longings of the thousands of artisans tasked to work on the temple carvings for twelve long years, away from home and family?
Or were the erotic creations deliberate to strengthen the spiritual and divine belief of the devotees coming to the temple? Was the seemingly random display of eroticism, scattered amongst other displays of Gods, nature and public life motifs, a trigger for the observer to choose his/ her path between ‘dark’ attractions of sensuality and depravity vis a vis the brightness of spirituality?
Finally, could the differing displays be based on the age-old belief that each one of us would attain Moksha (release from the cycle of rebirth), that final desired state, only once we have fulfilled all our earthly duties and participated in the cycles of Dharma viz. spirituality, Artha viz. wealth and Kama viz. sexual pleasures?
Does the Konark Sun temple offer a perspective of our life as ‘lived in the moment’, cycling as we do through Dharma, Artha and Kama without the attachments of what is right or wrong, good or bad?
Back in Puri, I was watching the Sunrise next morning from the balcony of my hotel room.
Sitting there, as I soaked in the solitude, the morphing hues of the sunlight, the occasional bird chirps and their flights, I seemed to sense that all was well with my world.
As the sun rose in the sky, that solitary boat on the calm waters, seemed to be following the light. The sight brought to mind those immortal words of the Beatles:
My younger daughter Piya’s wedding was being celebrated.
The interesting thing was that though I have participated in several Bengali weddings, including my own. over the years, this one was providing me a refreshing ‘stand and stare’ perspective of the goings-on. Was this because this was ostensibly the last big event in the family? Or was it because of my acquiring a more relaxed and less impatient mindset with advancing age? I remained unsure.
The Tubri firecracker of Bengal has no real parallel elsewhere. When lit, the small round earthen pot emanates a gentle gurgling sound with tiny sparks coming out of the hole. The intensity increases with the colourful sparkles streaming up to great heights, accompanied by the rising crescendo of the combustion sound.
Like the Tubri, the Bengali Wedding too starts as a gentle symphony of fun and bonhomie which then blooms into a larger-than-life event showcased through a riot of colour, lights, feasting, and rituals.
Ai Buro Bhat, that Bachelorette and Rice event. The last ‘big meal’ of the would-be bride as a bachelor!
It is a much-awaited ritual and the wedding bell starts to ring as family and friends gather to bless the bride-to-be. A sumptuous meal awaits her and the others present. Ranging as it does from fish and meat dishes, fried foods to Mishti, the traditional Bengali sweets. A fun event replete with jokes, reminiscences by the elders, and banter.
The blessing…..as my nonagenarian ( 90 years old) mother blows the conch shell
Ai Buro Bhat
The pre-wedding evening gets packed with four events.
The Mehndi event is all about creating exquisite body art through the application of Mehndi or Henna. An event in which the bride-to-be and other ladies participate. As the evening progresses, Mehndi, that red-orange stain applied on the palms and hands, keeps on darkening! It is said that the darker the mehndi, the more would be love in the air.
Those exquisite designs
Ashirbaad, the Bengali pre-wedding ceremony, is all about blessing the would-be couple. The ritual is symbolized by parents and senior family members putting dhaan, rice husk and dubyo, trefoil leaves on the heads of the to-be-weds, along with exchanging gifts of gold jewellery, clothes, and sweets.
Sangeet literally means music. The Sangeet event with its music and dance, is a celebration of the wedding union and bonding. Everyone is expected to let one’s hair down and shake a leg. Be it through impromptu jiving or a choreographed dance performance.
Let’s waltz into the future….
Shall we jive?
Shake a leg
Rock n’ roll!
And finally, it is about that one ring that signifies a resolve to join together in life’s journey. The Engagement ring ceremony.
Comes the Bengali Wedding Day when the bride and the groom tie the knot.
The morning starts with the Gaye Holud ritual. Gaye Holud is all about smearing turmeric paste on the bride’s face and body. The ‘groom smeared’ turmeric is brought for the bride by the groom’s family members. Apart from being considered a beautifying and brightening agent, turmeric symbolizes healthy relationships for the future.
The Bengali wedding has the practice of exchanging attractively packaged gifts. The bridegroom’s family members bring these along with the bowl of turmeric paste for the gaye holud. All those brightly decorated tatta trays, containing as they do clothes, gifts and accessories, are a visual delight. Apart from the sheer creative effort to make them, Tatta trays are supposed to bring with them abundant blessings and good wishes.
Totto ……. can you spot the decked-up fish?
Bor Boron is all about formally welcoming the groom to the wedding. The Bor, Groom arrives with his bor jatri entourage (On his wedding day, Piyush the groom, and all the others had to come through a heavy downpour!). The bride’s mother does Boron viz. blesses and welcomes the groom at the entrance with a kula, bamboo winnow accompanied by the sounds of Uludhwani, before the latter is escorted to the Chhadnatola, the wedding mandap.
Quintessential Bengali bride
Subho Dhristi is that first exchange of glances between the bride and the groom. Carried on a pidi, a wooden stool, seven times around the standing groom, the bride keeps her face covered with paan patta. betel leaves before slowly revealing her face for that auspicious glance.
Prelude to Shubho Drishti
Comes the Mala Bodol in which the bride and the groom garland each other thrice, the Sampradan in which the father ‘hands over’ his daughter, the bride, to the groom and the Anjali in which the groom holds the bride’s hands from behind as they offer khoi, puffed rice to the sacred yagna fire.
The evening is still young … so photo opportunity, some dancing, good food, and drinks for all!
The evening is young!
Let’s make some noise!
Next morning and it is time for the bittersweet custom of Bidaye. The bride bids farewell to her parents and other family members as she gets ready to accompany her newly wedded husband to his home.
Let’s go home.
As the Bride reaches her new abode, she is welcomed by her mother-in-law with Arati, a ritual meant to bring in light. She steps into an Alta (red dye) filled tray and then walks onto a white cloth. Those alta laced red footprints on the cloth are supposed to herald Goddess Lakshmi into the household.
It is the day of the Bou Bhaat and the wedding reception.
Bou Bhaat literally means bride’s feast. It signifies two things. As the bride settles down in her new home, it is time for the bhat Kapor ritual in which she is offered a new saree and jewellery by her newly wedded husband signifying that he takes responsibility for her food and clothes from now on. The bride then serves rice to all family members implying that she is now part of the household.
In the evening, the groom’s family invites all family members and friends to a preetibhoj or a gala dinner. The bride’s family, the kone jatri , are guests of honour at this reception.
Welcome to our beginning!
The wedding cake
Guests @ the Gala Dinner
What does the future hold in store?
As an observer of the wedding events and rituals, I sensed how the Bengali Wedding has been able to maintain vibrancy and relevance by imbibing popular parts from elsewhere. The Sangeet custom is an import from Punjab and North India. The Mehndi tradition is from the Middle East and according to some sources, was brought into North India by the Moghuls. Over the years, it has become part of Bengali weddings too. The wedding cake, with its origins in ancient Rome, has always been part of wedding traditions in Europe. It has become increasingly popular in Indian and Bengali weddings. An eclectic blend of these customs from elsewhere with the traditional Bengali ones made the whole event a fascinating one for me.
Piya and Piyush’s wedding also made me recall the few lines I had penned about a Bengali wedding of a century back in my book, The Chronicler of the Hooghly and other stories:
“Thoughts and memories coalesced.
Malati looking at Dipen shyly from under her ghomta, saree drawn over eyes, on their wedding night during shubha drishti.
Malati being raised higher and higher by her brothers in fun to prevent Dipen from garlanding her easily during their wedding.”
I was left with the realisation that even though our society and the collective mindset have changed beyond recognition over the last hundred years, somewhere, somehow the glue of our customs and rituals has provided a reassuring continuity.
The long orange strip unfurled from the small roll at the end and then snaked across the entire wall. It changed colour from deep to light orange before morphing into a green strip and finally ending with a tiny four-inch blue coloured block at the end.
I was looking at a timeline representation of the start of life on earth, about three and a half billion years ago, culminating with the appearance of us humans two hundred thousand years back. That blue-coloured block highlighted the minuscule period ( around 0.006% of total ) that we humans have existed on mother earth as compared to all life.
I was at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History on a recent visit to Washington DC. Though the museum carries the same name as the more well-known American Museum of Natural History in New York, I was finding the format and the presentation refreshingly different.
As I looked at the representation, I was intrigued to see the periods of mass extinction that have taken place in the planet’s living history. There seem to have occurred around five major extinction events since earth cradled life. These were when between fifty to ninety-five percent of all living species died out. I got particularly interested in two such events.
The first was the one that led to the demise of the dinosaurs. I sat watching a video of what might have happened sixty-six million years back when the age of the dinosaurs ended. A large meteor comes hurtling from outer space and hits earth in the Mexican coastal region. The impact kills all life on land and sea for thousands of kilometers all around, its explosive power equivalent to billions of atomic bombs going off at the same time. And as if that is not enough, giant tsunamis and billions of tons of vaporized asteroid and terrestrial debris spew up into the atmosphere, envelop the earth and block out sunlight for years. Photosynthesis all over the world gets seriously impeded and the global climate alters leading to large-scale death of flora and subsequently the herbivores and carnivores going up the food chain.
It is estimated that three-quarters of all life on earth perished during what is today known as the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event. But the event also led to an interesting development. The age of the mammals commenced. Being smaller in size and with less need for sustenance, the surviving mammals who had existed on the peripheries during the dinosaur age got the planet to themselves and started flourishing. The evolutionary path over several subsequent million years took the necessary steps toward modern humans with the ability to walk on two legs.
Writes Rick Potts, the Director of Smithsonian Institute’s Human Origins Program, “East Africa was a setting in foment—one conducive to migrations across Africa during the period when Homo sapiens arose. It seems to have been an ideal setting for the mixing of genes from migrating populations widely spread across the continent. The implication is that the human genome arose in Africa. Everyone is African, and yet not from any one part of Africa.”
The second extinction event that intrigued me was the one in which the human species more or less vanished around seventy thousand years ago. Estimates range from a few hundred to a thousand humans who remained to fend for themselves in a dangerous world. The event is generally linked to a super volcanic eruption named Toba which went off in Indonesia and spewed a colossal amount of ash, debris and vapour into the atmosphere. The Sun got dimmed for years disrupting seasons, choking rivers and killing all vegetation in large parts of the planet.
Says Science writer Sam Kean, “There’s in fact evidence that the average temperature dropped 20-plus degrees in some spots,” after which the great grassy plains of Africa may have shrunk way back, keeping the small bands of humans small and hungry for hundreds, if not thousands of more years.So we almost vanished.”
As I continued to look at that unfurling orange strip and read about the extinction events, I found it indeed amazing how the present world stands dwarfed by close to eight billion of us humans. Even though our footprint remains that tiny blue coloured four-inch block on the timeline representation of life. The probability numbers about a meteor hitting or a super volcano erupting remain minuscule and clearly in our favour because of our small timeline footprint. But within that insignificant (fleeting?) footprint, we have managed to subjugate every other species, harnessing both flora and fauna to our needs. We have mastered science and technology in wondrous ways, improving our lot in every way conceivable. Be it food, be it energy, be it resources, be it our understanding of the Universe.
But could it be that we are willy nilly walking on the extinction pathway of our own making? Stemming from our sheer numbers and our continued actions to reorder and realign nature to our own needs. Vulnerability to increased incidences of diseases and viruses. Vulnerability to our own selves as we fight for scarce resources. Vulnerability from the very technology which we believe we have harnessed.
Scientists and environmentalists are raising the alarm that we may be already at the extinction tipping point arising from global warming and climate change. A tipping point that might lead to the mass extinction of more than half of humanity with the collapse of social, political and economic structures. Once the tipping point is breached, the world could witness accelerating global warming and climate change with no way to control. Simulation studies point to an overall ecological disaster and collapse leading to the mass extinction of a large number of flora and fauna species; more than a million species are on track to go extinct in the coming decades. Would this be Judgment Day for Humanity and its cradle planet?
It seems to me that we have been plain lucky. There really is no certainty of our continuing the domination of the world beyond the so very tiny and fleeting ‘blue block four-inch’ period that we have done so. If our luck was to change, we might just have an epitaph written about us by someone in the distant future. Like the way we have written one about the dinosaurs.
Standing there I was left wondering whether we are creating the right luck for us.
Man who gave you life, man who gave you home Man who gave you all you desire? All you do is blight, all you do is waste Don’t you see the ash of your fire? Our mother’s crying, our mother’s dying Our mother’s cancer is true Mother we belied, mother we defiled May your human child’s end be good for you
I built me a castle With dragons and kings And I’d ride off with them As I stood by my window And looked out on those……
I walked leisurely on the pedestrian path.
Walkers and tourists milled around me, like me all moving at a leisurely pace. No one seemed to be in a hurry. A family led by Dad with the son on his shoulders passes me in the opposite direction. Just in front, a group of giggling young women were taking a barrage of selfies. It seemed one or the other was not satisfied with the result, be it one’s expression or the way the long cables and the end tower showed up in the photo. A quick joint review, some more giggles and someone in the group would volunteer to take a new selfie. I watched this microcosm of humanity flowing around me.
It was a beautiful sunny morning which had prompted us to venture out on a spot of sightseeing. I was on the pedestrian walkway of the legendary Brooklyn Bridge. Below me on both sides were the motorways with cars and SUVs moving in either direction between lower Manhattan and Brooklyn.
One had glorious views of the New York skyline as well as the leisurely flow of the East River below. To the right one could spot Governor’s Island and in the distance the Statue of Liberty. But as I stood looking around, my mind’s eye wandered off to another unforgettable vision involving the Brooklyn bridge. Powerful searchlights frantically flashing, sounds of helicopters, people jumping off the bridge into the waters below as a terrified News Reporter announces that all of us are going to die! One of the most emotional scenes from the blockbuster ‘I am Legend’ in which scientist Robert Neville (Will Smith) tries to evacuate his wife and daughter from pandemic ridden Manhattan, only to see them die as another helicopter crashes into theirs in the chaos. In the background, the Brooklyn Bridge is being blown up by military aircraft to contain the spread of the disease.
An iconic film showing visuals of an iconic bridge.
A hundred and forty years old structure, the Brooklyn Bridge was the world’s first and longest steel-wire suspension bridge at the time of its opening. What further distinguishes the bridge are the pair of gothic towers standing tall on either side, holding the steel wires in place. Legend has it that when the lead engineer and architect Washington Roebling, became sick and bedridden, his wife Emily, who knew nothing about engineering or architecture, took over the project. For the next ten years, till the project got done, she studied Engineering design and project management on her own and became the first person to cross the bridge upon completion. The following was said about Emily and the Brooklyn bridge:
“…an everlasting monument to the self-sacrificing devotion of a woman and of her capacity for that higher education from which she has been too long disbarred.”
A sad reminder of the fact that during Emily’s time, women were not allowed into Engineering institutions in the US.
Having walked the mile long stretch of the Bridge, we stepped onto the roads of Brooklyn. The neighbourhood in which Neil Diamond had grown up six decades back. With his baritone voice and wonderful songwriting capabilities, Neil Diamond has been my favourite pop and country musician and singer since youth. The singer reminisces about his childhood in that wonderful number, ‘Brooklyn Roads’:
‘Two floors above the butcher First door on the right Life filled to the brim As I stood by my window And I looked out of those Brooklyn Roads……’
The place we were walking through had the curious name of DUMBO. I was left wondering whether it had anything to do with Disney’s Dumbo the flying elephant. Or was it about some presumed dumb folks who might have resided there in the past?
‘And report cards I was always Afraid to show
Mama’d come to school And as I’d sit there softly crying Teacher’d say, “He’s just not trying He’s got a good head if he’d apply it” But you know yourself It’s always somewhere else’
I learnt that DUMBO was really the short nomenclature for ‘Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass’. Ironically, the neighbourhood today is home to a large number of technology start-up companies with the earlier warehouses on the riverfront converted into quaint eating houses and pubs overlooking the waters.
A bridge, a musician and a neighbourhood came together as legends for me that morning. They came with tales that were anecdotal, possibly unverifiable but nonetheless remain ingrained in my mind.
The water cascaded down the black granite sides, flowing as rivulets before disappearing into the small squarish void in the center. As I looked at the flowing water, juxtaposed feelings pulled in different directions. A feeling of melancholy and sadness about the flow of our lives which was perhaps never to return. But also a feeling of peace and acceptance, an emotional cleansing about all that was not right, maybe would never be right.
From the corner of my eyes, I could see the Oculus, that majestic steel ribbed white wings about to soar up into the skies. The reflections on the nearby glass towers seemed to be heralding a brighter, more vibrant tomorrow. A tomorrow in which peace and acceptance might run the winning lap.
I was at the site of the two World Trade Center towers in Manhattan which had gone down in the September eleventh attack more than two decades back. The black granite square pools with flowing, falling water had been built as memorials to that event. The Oculus served as the integrated transportation hub built for the Path and Subway trains.
As I stood there in contemplation, the place was a tranquil and serene island in the midst of high energy Manhattan life. Did the flowing water suggest a life force embryo just below the surface? That somehow brought into our thoughts those who had perished in the attack, their names etched on the sides serving as the only reminder? Or was it that the simplicity of the slow cascades into the void which could never be filled (as per the memorial architect Michael Arad) allowed their ‘absence (from our living world) to be made visible’?
My memory went back to that day decades ago.
It was evening. I was in the office and had called a colleague to discuss an operational issue when he excitedly mentioned about a disaster in which an aircraft had crashed into one of the World Trade Center (WTC) towers in New York. We spoke about the incident for a couple of minutes and wondered about the low probability of an aircraft crashing into a building.
Returning home after office, I switched on the TV only to see the news headlines flashing all over, ‘AMERICA UNDER ATTACK!’ In the interim, a second aircraft also carrying passengers had slammed into a second WTC tower. Burning from the aviation fuel of the colliding aircrafts, both the towers collapsed. A third aircraft had crashed into Pentagon, the US Defence headquarters in Washington DC. Due to the time zone difference, what was evening for me was really morning hours on the US Eastern seaboard where the attacks were taking place. Close to three thousand people died in the attacks.
What seemed at that point in time a senseless act of violence led to a fundamental shift in the way US saw the world and how its foreign policy would come to be defined. Over the next two decades, US would engage in conflicts aimed at crushing terrorism in various parts of the globe. From demolishing Osama Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan to the Iraq invasion and removal of Saddam Hussein to confronting the self-styled Islamic State in Syria.
I think of our world today. The actors have changed, the issues have shifted but the conflicts remain.
A couple of days back, I heard the tragic news of the Texas shooting in which a teenager Salvador Ramos armed with a gun entered an elementary school and senselessly shot and killed nineteen children and two adults. The carnage was a deadly reminder that even the world’s most powerful nation is unable to protect its children in their innocence.
My granddaughter has been going to a play school. She loves going there. For us, the school is a safe haven that nurtures. I agonise when I think of what might be passing through the minds of the parents and grandparents of those children whose lives were so brutally snuffed out even before they got the chance to blossom. Like me they too would have had complete faith in the safety and security of their child in school.
I muse. What is that which leads to some folks inflicting injury and death on others? I sense that this arises from an extreme psychologically aberrant mindset. A mindset which shifts into viciousness from its inability to accept ‘we versus they’ differences. So it was with Osama Bin Laden, so it is with Salvador Ramos.
An all-powerful state like the US does possess the weapons and technology to wage war against the enemy without.
But does it possess the conviction and resolve to change the mindset of the enemy within?
Apollo, son of Zeus and one of the major Olympian deities, is the God of voyages.
The Apollo space program got its name from the image of Apollo riding his chariot across the sun.
It was the sheer audacity of President Kennedy’s speech in September 1962 which launched the Apollo program. A speech in which he declared, “We choose to go to the moon, 240,000 miles away using a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out–then we must be bold.”
A speech that was made based on US’s first manned space flight a year earlier (Alan Shephard, May 1961). A speech that shifted the goal post from near-earth space fights to a manned flight to the moon within the decade.
It was July 20th 1969 and humanity had come together as one. The Apollo Space program had succeeded in placing Man on the moon. Humanity had finally left its cradle. As a school kid, I accompanied my father to the US Information Services (USIS) center near Mandi House in Delhi. A crowd that milled around was gaping at a full size model of the Lunar Module which had successfully landed on the moon, allowing astronaut Neil Armstrong to step onto the lunar surface and utter those famous words, “ That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for Mankind”. These words, successfully relayed over radio stations all around the world, were uniting Mankind like never before. As a child, I could sense that from the manner strangers were excitedly speaking to each other as they pointed to features of the lunar craft named Eagle. Going to school over the next few days, I recall the exhilarating discussions of my classmates vying with each other about how many newspaper cuttings of the momentous event and the grainy photos they had managed to cut out and paste into their scrapbooks.
The other day, I did a day excursion to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. For me the trip was a pilgrimage, growing up as I had in the sixties and seventies. When Space travel and Moon landings were what our dreams were made of. When our imaginations were fuelled by the stories of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein.
As I stood looking at the full-scale exhibit of the Saturn V Rocket that had powered the Apollo missions as well as the replica of the spacecraft that had successfully carried astronauts to the moon and back more than half a century ago, deep emotions stirred within me.
In the sixties when computing, communication and control systems were so rudimentary, I realised the awesomeness of the belief and effort that not only used brute rocket force to hurtle a spacecraft with astronauts beyond earth’s gravity, it could also deploy fine navigational controls to land the lunar module onto the moon surface and then lift off with the astronauts to dock with the orbiting command module before bringing them back to earth. It was the sheer cowboy-like bravado and risk of a journey into the unknown that had brought up the emotions.
NASA Command & Control center for the Apollo missions
Which brings me to the story of Artemis. In mythology, Artemis, the Goddess of the Moon and daughter of Zeus, is the twin sister of Apollo.
An apt name for Humanity’s next phase of exploring the unknown depths of space. Artemis is all about NASA’s vision to return to the moon after half a century. Artemis would deploy the cutting-edge technological advancements in computing, communications, robotics and materials of this century to not only put men and women on the moon but take them on manned flights to Mars and beyond. The Artemis vision incorporates sustainability, international cooperation and involvement of a plethora of private sub-contractors for developing innovative mission equipment and processes.
The following is an extract from the US Presidential Memorandum on reinvigorating America’s Human Space Exploration program:
“Lead an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system and to bring back to Earth new knowledge and opportunities. Beginning with missions beyond low-Earth orbit, the United States will lead the return of humans to the Moon for long-term exploration and utilization, followed by human missions to Mars and other destinations.”
The Artemis initiative envisages the use of a powerful Space Launch System, the Orion spacecraft, a lunar space station similar to the International Space Station called the Gateway circling the moon, reusable human landing systems onto the lunar surface as well as a lunar basecamp. An initiative designed to leverage experience, technologies and mindset from Man’s return to the moon in 2024, to eventually make the quantum leap to Mars and beyond.
In the words of NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, “Pushing the boundaries of space exploration, science, and technology once again, America is on the verge of exploring more of the Moon than ever before. This new era of lunar exploration is called Artemis. Named after the twin sister of Apollo, she is the Goddess of the Moon, and we are the Artemis Generation.”
Could it be that Man’s destiny to the stars remains inexorably linked to the son and daughter of Zeus?
In Learning…….. Shakti Ghosal
Acknowledgment: ‘The ARTEMIS Plan – NASA’s lunar exploration program overview’, Sept. 2020
In mythology, Niflheim was a land of primordial ice and cold, with Élivágarand Hvergelmir, the frozen rivers from which arose all other rivers of the world.
According to legends, Niflheim was the primordial region that was born out of two realms. The Ginnungagap, the home of ice and the Muspelheim, the home of fire. Between these two realms of cold and heat, the world got created as ice mixed with fire. Niflheim became the abode of Hel, the goddess daughter of Loki (remember the estranged brother of Thor from the Avengers!), and her subjects.
As my flight cruised over Greenland, I watched the morning rays streaming, glistening and bouncing off the frozen land. A quote of Albert Schweitzer came to mind.
“As the sun makes ice melt, kindness causes misunderstanding, mistrust, and hostility to evaporate.”
But is the melting ice really improving understanding and trust in the world I mused.
From my aircraft window, I could spot the rivers formed by the melting Greenland Ice Sheet.
Greenland’s glaciers, in existence for millions of years, have now suddenly begun to rapidly retreat and thin. Scientists have concluded that the Greenland ice sheet is in the throes of irreversible ice loss. Paleoclimatic evidence indicates that even a mere 2 °C of global warming could endanger the Greenland glaciers leading to a sea-level rise of six meters. Large swathes of inhabited coasts and islands in the United States, Europe as well as densely populated regions of Bangla Desh and India would go underwater.
My thoughts about Greenland, its melting glaciers and the impact on Humanity were interrupted by the flight steward politely asking me about my choice of breakfast. Looking up at him and then around me, I seemed to be in a cocoon far removed from the impact of global warming playing out below. But were I and my co travellers really in a cocoon or were we shutting our minds to the inevitable? I was left wondering.
Did you know that close to four centuries ago, on 22nd March 1635 AD, the Peacock Throne was inaugurated by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan and unveiled to the world?
Did you know that the Peacock Throne took seven years to build and cost twice as much as the world-famous Taj Mahal, made as it was of solid gold, diamonds and pearls? Kohinoor, one of the largest cut diamonds in the world weighing more than one hundred and five carats, today takes pride of place in the British crown jewels but was originally part of the Peacock Throne. In some ways, the inauguration of the Peacock Throne represented the zenith of the Mughal empire.
The Peacock Throne remains a masterpiece of Moghul creation, unsurpassed in opulence and extravagance before or after. The throne creator and master goldsmith Said Gilani wrote this couplet on the occasion of the throne’s inauguration.
“Towards India he turned his reins quickly and went in all glory,
Driving like the blowing wind, dapple-grey steed swift as lightning. With bounty and liberality, he returned to the capital; Round his stirrups were the heavens and angels round his reins. A thousand thanks! The beauty of the world has revived
With the early glory of the throne of multi-coloured gems“
A century later in 1739, the Mughal Empire’s decline was precipitated by its defeat at the hands of the Iranian ruler Nader Shah. What had attracted Nader Shah were stories of the Peacock Throne and the wealth of the Mughal empire. Interestingly, it was again on 22nd March 1739 AD that the Mughal capital of Delhi witnessed one of its worst mass killings and slaughter. As the invader Nader Shah ordered Qatl-e-Aam, an estimated twenty thousand men, women and children were butchered in a spell of six hours- the single bloodiest massacre in the shortest time in recorded history. In many ways this sacking of the much-venerated capital city represented the demise of the Mughal empire.
And what happened to the magnificent Peacock Throne? Well, it along with other treasures was taken away by Nader Shah and his army as they went back to Iran. The total wealth carried in today’s value terms was a stupendous eleven billion dollars.
The throne then disappeared! It is rumoured of being dismantled and literally destroyed after Nader Shah’s assassination in 1747, most of the gold and precious stones looted. It is also said that parts of the Peacock throne were used in the construction of the Persian emperor’s Sun throne.
Fascinating is it not that the zenith and the demise of the Mughal Empire in India are linked to the Peacock Throne and the date 22nd March.