Happy National Day Singapore!

Singapore turns 49 today! It marks the day on which Singapore separated from Malaysia and started its journey to becoming what it is today. One of the most beautiful cities in the world.

When I had just come to Singapore, I had found it culturally devoid. I had found it to be a very rich corporate jungle which financed fast paced lifestyles. People had seemed to be living in a very mechanical way. Work, tablets, phones, shopping, running, drinking. That was all I could see. Where were extended families, festivals, cultural symbols, religious symbols, old historical buildings, associated folk tales, ancestral stories? Coming from a rich historical and mythological background of a country full of symbols, I found Singapore very dry, to say the least.

After living a better part of an year here, I now understand this island country a tad better. It has a very interesting story of its own. Singapore is a phoenix country. It dies and comes alive, again and again. Being a port, it was always important for nearby countries. It was ruled by many rulers; starting from a South Indian emperors, Malay rulers, European countries, before becoming a British port around two centuries ago. For East India Company, it was a trading port and henceforth the city saw inflow of mainly three ethnic groups which are still predominant in the country: Chinese (74%), Malay (13%) and Indians (9%).

Most of the Chinese living in Singapore had come here during Opium Wars of the 19th Century or during the World War II fleeing the Japanese atrocities on Chinese. Recently, I met a senior Chinese origin Singaporean who told us the story of how he was the youngest in the family,until his older siblings were all killed, but he had managed to escape with his mother from China. Most of the Chinese-origin Singaporeans would have such a family story, though it is very much possible that today’s generation is unaware of it.

Unlike in the 19th century, when Chinese community of Singapore had a strong sense of belonging-ness to the main land and played a major role in Chinese revolution and establishment of the Republic of China, in today’s time the young Chinese origin Singaporeans have developed a national feeling towards their island home. Although, they obviously share the appearance with main land fellas, nothing else really matches. The demeanor, dressing style, etiquette and the spoken dialect-language, everything is different. And a Singaporean would be quick to notice the difference and point out it out while standing in airport check-in line! They want to be different!

The main festivals of the country are predominantly Chinese. I was pleasantly surprised to find the extreme similarities between Indian and Chinese culture and customs. Starting from following the Moon calendar, belief in ghosts and supernatural, respect and prayers for the dead, the ceremonies during birth and marriage are also very similar including the concept of ‘arranged’ marriages!

Horse Year 2014
Horse Year 2014

Yes, the country is filled with symbols. Old, new, of different religions and different customs. You just need to turn away from skyscrapers and shopping malls. You would surely find many interesting symbols representing ancient beliefs!

Traditional Medicine
Traditional Medicine
Multi religion fortune teller!
Multi religion fortune teller!

Today represent’s the day Malaysia expelled Singapore from itself. The current PM’s grandfather, Lee Kuan Yew, the PM at that time, had quoted “For me, it is a moment of anguish. All my life, my whole adult life, I have believed in merger and unity of the two territories.” The same man spent the result of his life in building Singapore what it is now. Have you ever heard of such a story of independence? Being expelled and then becoming great.

I bow to this country for it’s colorful and struggling past and beautiful present and hopefully a much better future for its citizens! Happy National Day to all Singaporeans!

Singapore Flag
Happy National Day

PS: Mentos Singapore comes up with most hilarious videos pointing out the present day issue the country faces. Must watch:

The Nine Unknown Men

Watched Jodha Akhbar on weekend. I can’t believe Rashmi Bansal gave it 4.5 stars. For once, HT was better at giving movie ratings. It is a long melodramatic boring movie. And those of you who like mumbaiya lingo would get really really uncomfortable by all that urdu and decent poetic language by the end of 3.5 hrs (which seemed like eternity). One thing good about the movie is that it is very romantic. But, thats all.

Anyways, so as to escape from assignments and schools, I googled Jodha Bai name controversy and ended up with an interesting read from this site. I especially liked this idea: “One can imagine the extraordinary importance of secret knowledge in the hands of nine men benefiting directly from experiments, studies and documents accumulated over a period of more than 2,000 years. What can have been the aim of these men? Not to allow methods of destruction to fall into the hands of unqualified persons and to pursue knowledge which would benefit mankind. Their numbers would be renewed by co-option, so as to preserve the secrecy of techniques handed down from ancient times.” To think about it, wars have been the main inspiration/motivation for most technological advancement. To save from the risk of creation and mis-use of methods of destruction, Asoka may/mayn’t have created the Secret Society. What interests me is that he, even though a Buddhist himself, didn’t believe that people could be trusted enough to not use technology in evil deeds or that it is inevitable to stop creation even for the reason of destruction. How would it have been had we not hidden the 2000yrs of knowledge pool?

According to occult lore, the Nine Unknown Men are a two millennia-old secret society founded by the Indian Emperor Asoka 273 BC. The legend of The Nine Unknown Men goes back to the time of the Emperor Asoka, who was the grandson of Chandragupta. Ambitious like his ancestor whose achievements he was anxious to complete, he conquered the region of Kalinga which lay between what is now Calcutta and Madras. The Kalingans resisted and lost 100,000 men in the battle. At the sight of this massacre Asoka was overcome and resolved to follow the path of non-violence.

He converted to Buddhism after the massacre, the Emperor founded the society of the Nine to preserve and develop knowledge that would be dangerous to humanity if it fell into the wrong hands. It is said that the Emperor Asoka once aware of the horrors of war, wished to forbid men ever to put their intelligence to evil uses. During his reign natural science, past and present, was vowed to secrecy. Henceforward, and for the next 2,000 years, all researches, ranging from the structure of matter to the techniques employed in collective psychology, were to be hidden behind the mystical mask of a people commonly believed to be exclusively concerned with ecstasy and supernatural phenomena. Asoka founded the most powerful secret society on earth: that of the Nine Unknown Men.

One can imagine the extraordinary importance of secret knowledge in the hands of nine men benefiting directly from experiments, studies and documents accumulated over a period of more than 2,000 years. What can have been the aim of these men? Not to allow methods of destruction to fall into the hands of unqualified persons and to pursue knowledge which would benefit mankind. Their numbers would be renewed by co-option, so as to preserve the secrecy of techniques handed down from ancient times.

Each of the Nine is supposedly responsible for guarding and improving a single book. These books each deal with a different branch of potentially hazardous knowledge. Traditionally, the books are said to cover the following subjects:

The Nine Books

  1. Propaganda and Psychological warfare is a concerted set of messages aimed at influencing the opinions or behavior of large numbers of people. Instead of impartially providing information, propaganda in its most basic sense presents information in order to influence its audience. It is the most dangerous of all sciences, as it is capable of moulding mass opinion. It would enable anyone to govern the whole world.
  2. Physiology is the study of the mechanical, physical, and biochemical functions of living organisms. The book of The Nine included instructions on how to perform the “touch of death (death being caused by a reversal of the nerve-impulse).” One account has Judo being a product of material leaked from this book.
  3. Microbiology, and, according to more recent speculation, Biotechnology. In some versions of the myth, the waters of the Ganges are purified with special microbes designed by the Nine and released into the river at a secret base in the Himalayas. Multitudes of pilgrims, suffering from the most appalling diseases, bathe in them without harming the healthy ones. The sacred waters purify everything. Their strange properties have been attributed to the fact that they contain bacteriophages. But why should these not be formed in the Bramaputra, the Amazon or the Seine?
  4. Alchemy, including the transmutation of metals. In India, there is a persistent rumor that during times of drought or other natural disasters temples and religious organizations receive large quantities of gold from an unknown source. The mystery is further deepened with the fact that the sheer quantity of gold throughout the country in temples and with kings cannot be properly accounted for, seeing that India has few gold mines.
  5. Communication, including communication with extraterrestrials.
  6. Gravitation. Book 6 The Vaiminaka sastra is said to contain the instructions necessary to build a Vimana, sometimes referred to as the “ancient UFOs of India.”
  7. Cosmology, the capacity to travel at enormous speeds through spacetime fabric, and time-travel; including intra- and inter-universal trips.
  8. Light, the capacity to increase and decrease the speed of light, to use it as a weapon by concentrating it in a certain direction etc.
  9. Sociology, including rules concerning the evolution of societies and how to predict their downfall.

Among conspiracy theorists the Nine Unknown is often cited as one of the oldest and most powerful secret societies in the world. Unusually for the conspiracy subculture, the image of the group is largely though not entirely benign. Theosophists also believe the Nine to be a real organization that is working for the good of the world.”

Durga Puja

This year I visited a durga puja pandal and was lucky enough to attend the Sandhi puja, which is performed at the juncture of ashtimi and navmi. During this juncture (the “Sandhikhan”), Durga is worshipped in her Chamunda form. This puja is often shown in Hindi movies, with a pujari rhythmically rotating aarti diye, dhols and shankh in background, and bengali women making peculiar (prolly auspicious) noises. The pandal decorations, puja ceremony, cultural events were very well organised by the DLF Bengali Society, though I didn’t have any prior specimen to compare with because this was my first durga puja, discounting the one 15-20 years ago.

durga puja

While in the pandal, I couldn’t really make out much of what was happening, so came back home to wikipedia and learnt some interesting facts:

  • The worship always depicts Durga with her four children – two daughters Saraswati and Lakshmi, and two sons, the valorous Kartik riding a peacock, and Ganesh, the bringer of success, and occasionally two attendant deities and some banana-tree figures. The above picture is like the one in the olden days, when all five idols would be depicted in a single frame, traditionally called pata.

  • Durga Puja and Kali puja are different, though Kali was born from Durga’s forehead to save heaven and earth from the growing cruelty of the demons. Kali Puja is celebrated on the day of Amavasya, on which Diwali is also celebrated.

  • The most interesting story is related to the original of these celebrations: Durga Puja was apparently observed as far back as 1610 before the founding of Calcutta, by the Sabarno Roy Chaudhuris of Barisha-Behala, the original landowners who negotiated with Job Charnock in 1690. The story goes that after Clive’s victory at the battle of Plassey in 1757, he wanted to make a grand gesture of thanksgiving but the only church in Calcutta, St. Anne’s, had been demolished during the siege of the City. Clive consulted his supporter Nabakrishna Deb, who suggested that he make an offering at the feet of Durga at his house in Sovabazar. As a result, the annual Durga Puja at 36 Nabakrishna Street is still known as Company Puja.

“When the city became wealthy, the new mercantile Bengali elite – the babus, saw Durga Puja as a splendid opportunity for public relations. The ceremony was held in their newly built thakur dalans in increasingly grandiose style. Even today it is impressive in certain private houses, with the arrival of the potters who place Durga inside the thakur dalans, closely followed by the dressers as daker saj.”

It is quite interesting to note how even the most important festival among Bengali Hindus all over the world is so greatly influenced by the cultural impact arising due to the change in social classes in early twentieth century. The rise of mercantile class has played such roles in religion many times in history, a mere change in the style of celebrations is the least one could expect. In fact to quote an example, during the 200 B.C – 300 A.D, India saw a rise of mercantile community with a cause and effect in improved roadways, communications, economic relations with foreign lands. One can see most of the changes in religions Buddhism and Jainism, which were in their heydey in that period. Both the religions were split as per the conflicting needs of the affluent and the improvised and other differences in ideas which lead to forming of two sects in each religion. Romila Thapar clearly states:

” The association of prosperity and power with a religion can sometimes lead to schisms.”

Fortunately, durga puja is not so much about religion. Durga Puja in Bengal is a carnival, where people from all backgrounds, regardless of their religious beliefs, participate and enjoy themselves to the hilt. It was a treat to be a part of such celebrations this year, when irrespective of caste, class, religion, faith or beliefs, people were gathered together in front of Durga’s idol and rocked to the ritual chants during puja.


A History of Fascination

“When we look at a landscape, we do not see what is there, but largely what we think is there… We read landscapes, in other words, we interpret their forms in the light of our own experience and memory, and that of our share cultural memory.”

Robert Macfarlane, the author of my latest love, “Mountains of the Mind” traces a history of the imagination which scrutinizes the ways people have imagined going into the mountains, how they have felt about them and how they have perceived them. From being considered the habitat of the supernatural and the hostile how mountain-worship became the thing of 1900s. 

The fellow climbers would surely be able to associate themselves with these lines from the book:

“The mountains one gazes at, reads about, dreams of and desires are not the mountains one climbs.”

“…The same historically holds for mountains. For centuries they were regarded as useless obstructions – considerable protuberances. now they are numbered among the world’s most exquisite forms, and people are willing to die for love of them.” 

A complete review would follow after I have finished reading the book.

Book: Mountains of the Mind

Author: Robert Macfarlane

Publications: Granta Publications

Available at Landmark in Gurgaon.