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Saturday, January 29, 2000

The Blessings We Seek..

The Blessings We Seek: A photo essay on the fascinating variety of sacred places where people seek blessings -- in hallowed caves, at holy rivers and shrines; and also in the many houses of worship -- all steeped in history and holy legend. The location for this essay is India -- inarguably, the most religiously diverse society on Earth today.

Let's start with the Lotus Temple -- a stunning piece of architecture completed in 1986, it attracts more visitors annually than the Taj Mahal. It is the mother temple of the Baha'i faith in the Subcontinent (seen here photographed in New Delhi, 2004).

Warning: editorial diversion: It's one thing to talk about religious tolerance and the underlying sameness of all the world's religions but another to put it into practice. How many of us are at a mosque, temple or church that is not our "own"? How many of us are reading (with an open mind) texts from different religious traditions, and, perhaps, even trying to attempt "foreign" religious practices?

The sad fact is, however, that we are caught in a bit of a trap -- while intellectual notions of religious tolerance are attractive, strict adherence to our own religious tradition generally implies rejection of the "other" -- meaning negation of the other "book", the other "spiritual intermediary", the other "beliefs and practices", the other "house of worship" and so on.

And, thus religion, as can be historically seen (and currently observed), has unfortunately served to divide man into incompatible islands of belief, fortified by the thick walls of religious dogma, that face off in perpetual ideological antagonism rather than bringing about any real hope of peace or promised religious utopia to the confused lot that is mankind.

Against this backdrop, the Baha'i Faith's  top 3 beliefs: Unity of God, Unity of religion and Unity of humankind are truly progressive but followed only by the faith's miniscule population of about 7 million worldwide compared to the billions of "religious traditionalists". It is comforting, however, to know that of the tens of millions of visitors to the Lotus Temple, the vast majority are non Baha'is. What is not comforting is the fact that followers of such a noble faith should face stiff persecution; especially in the land of their founder and the rest of the Middle East where Baha'i's are considered apostates from Islam and not followers of a separate religion.

Moving from one temple to the next -- this time at the holy lake of Pushkar [photos taken in 2004], site of a rare temple to the Creator in the Hindu Trinity. Surrounded by hundreds of other temples, the site is rich in legend and visited by millions of pilgrims. This scenic lake is in the arid state of Rajasthan, surrounded by the Aravalli Hills where faith has been severely tested -- many of the temples in the area having been destroyed by the Mughul emperor Aurangzeb (considered by some to be the 'Hitler' of his time) in the 17th century -- but now thriving once again as a popular pilgrimage site (read about this lake in Wikipedia).

Near Pushkar, is the Sufi shrine of Ajmer-e-Sharif dedicated to Gharib Nawaz (benefactor of the poor), Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti. This is probably the most renowned Sufi site in the Subcontinent and is visited by Hindus and Muslims alike in keeping with the syncretic tradition of this mystical branch of Islam. The shrine was famously visited by the Mughal Emperor Akbar on foot in 1562 -- and he received the blessings he sought: a son who would later become Jehangir. The Sufi strain of Islam has done more to develop inter-faith understanding than any other.

Haridwar, like Ajmer, is also a pilgrimage site -- it is in the "top 10" of holy places for Hindus and marks the descent of the sacred Ganges into the plains of Northen India. It is very much a temple town and the evening "Aarti" at the Ghats is an unforgettable experience -- throngs of devotees, chanting devotional songs, and the lighting of prayer lamps -- all make for a spiritually electric atmosphere (seen here in photos taken in 2004).

Now over to Buddhism -- a religion based on the teachings of Siddharth Gautam; it not a theistic path but focuses on developing a true understanding of human nature and the cause of suffering; and, explores the path of meditation to achieve liberation from the cycle of human suffering. While traveling in Northeastern India in 2005, I came across the Buddhist Salugara Monastery. This is a Tibetan-run institution (website) that offers classes in Buddhist philosophy and culture; another example of how Tibetan culture is thriving outside of Tibet rather than inside it -- like the Bahai's,  they are persecuted for their beliefs and way of life in their historical homeland.

Farther South in the state of Tamil Nadu, dated to the 7th century, is the UNESCO World Heritage site of Mahabalipuram. This site consists of carved granite monoliths -- temples, sculptures and other monuments depicting various aspects of Hindu legend.

Devotees can receive blessings at the coastal temple town of Mahabalipuram from a granite elephant (center) but, as also as shown [upper left], from a live temple elephant at the many temples in the nearby town of Kanchipuram today.

Also carved from stone, but in Western India, are the Ellora Caves; these are again a world heritage site. Dating from the 7th century, the caves consist of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain temples. As such, they represent a tremendous symbol of religious co-existence and harmony among these three faiths.

Not so harmonius, however, as depicted in the upper right corner of the collage, is a picture of the Raghunath Temple in Jammu (Jammu & Kashmir State). Unfortunately, this photograph (taken in 2004) shows armed guards at the bunkers in the front of the temple. The reason they are there is to prevent a repeat of the terrorist attacks that occurred in 2002 which killed many innocent devotees (see article on attacks) because of their faith.

Finally, back to the West Coast of India -- the idyllic state of Goa. It was Francis Xavier who was the first Jesuit to arrive in India in 1542 (the pictures shown are from the St. Francis Xavier church in Goa taken in 2005). The Jesuits are a society of the Catholic Church whose mission is to propagate the doctrine of their faith worldwide. Besides organizing conversions of the local populace, Xavier also requested, what was then in vogue in Europe, the establishment of an Inquisition in Goa (see Goa Inquisition). Xavier's request was granted; and from the time the Inquisition started (in 1560) to when it was (thankfully) abolished in 1812, thousands of people in Goa had been persecuted and hundreds of Hindu temples destroyed.

For all the blessings we seek, perhaps the greatest should be the blessing of peaceful coexistence. And, our first step in deserving this blessing needs to go beyond striving for "tolerance"; and, instead, reaching for acceptance -- acceptance of diversity in creed and religious thought and the rejection of religious supremicism.

Saturday, January 22, 2000

A Forgotten World: Landscape Vistas in Medium Format

How soon we forget: it wasn't too long ago that photographers craved cameras that delivered large, richly detailed, beautifully exposed, pieces of celluloid. It was a highly anticipated ritual to bring a roll of negatives to the developer's and subsequently await the 4 to 7 days that it took to deliver prints or positives.

Medium Format was intermediate between "small format" [now known as "full-frame" or 35 mm] and "large format" [huge cameras requiring sheet film]. Medium format had the advantage of portability as well as convenience (use of roll film (120 or 220 sized) instead of sheet film). However, the big plus over 35mm was that the medium format negative was at least 2.7x the area of full-frame negatives. 'At least' because medium format typically came in several sizes: 6x4.5, 6x6, 6x7 and 6x8. Medium format cameras delivered incredible detail and were favored by many photographers and professionals who found "full frame" (35 mm) negatives to be inadequate (and APS was seen as virtually useless).

Shooting landscapes with medium format, therefore, was a very special way to capture the detail and grandeur of nature and the following images were taken when film and medium format were very much alive. I took all the following images in medium format at the turn of the millenium; the negatives/positives were taken on 6x4.5 or 6x8 equipment and then scanned.

First a series on the Canadian Rockies (Banff):

After mountains, lakes and glaciers, here's some more from Canada featuring lakes, woods and of course, Niagara Falls:

In Europe, what could offer a more tempting landscape opportunity than the fabled Dolomites of Northern Italy and the world-renowned Swiss Alps:

Closer to home in the US, Vermont in Autumn and Arizona anytime of the year make for unforgettable vistas of color and light:

Can today's digital cameras produce spectacular landscapes? Of course they can. But the magic captured on the the lush expanse of medium format celluloid can perhaps never be equaled.

Thursday, January 20, 2000

The Wild Dogs & Cats You Don't Know

Think of wild dogs and cats and perhaps an ill-behaved pet comes to mind -- but, their truly wild, as in jungle-dwelling. cousins do exist: the wild dog and the jungle cat.

The Indian Wild Dog is an endangered species of canid found in India and Southeast Asia. It belongs to a genus different than the familiar canis and differs from them in both teeth structure (fewer number of molars) and mammaries (greater number of teats).

In behavior, the Indian wild dog matches the African -- highly social; they hunt in well-coordinated packs to tire out their prey before disemboweling them, and let their pups eat first (compare to wolves). However, their behavioral similarities do not result from shared genetics -- African wild dogs are more closely related to wolves and coyotes while Indian wild dogs are closer to jackals.

Compared to the endangered wild dog [all photographs taken at Bandipur National Park], jungle cats, are classified as "Least Concern" and have greater distribution and higher numbers.

This cat is twice the size of your average "fluffy" at home. Looking like a miniature lynx, the jungle cat is a great hunter and stalker.

Although a common predator in many parts of the world, it's nevertheless facing pressures from hybridization (with domestic cats), persecution, and habitat loss. At Sultanpur National Park where these photographs were taken, they can be seen regularly if you're incredibly quiet and patient.

Tuesday, January 4, 2000

Wild Ass

Wild Ass (Indian Wild Ass Wikipedia Article) is an endangered equid found in the desert region of Western India.

Wild Ass is classified as "Endangered" but fortunately their numbers are increasing since having hit a low of ~300 in the 1960's. They live in herds with the alpha male (seen above) controlling a harem of mares and their young. Their behavioral antics are riveting -- the stallions fight for dominance and thus gain rights over the harem.

Seen here is the alpha male [center] with mares and foals [left and right]. The wild ass is a handsome equid with a subtle beige color blending in with the sand of the desert.

A closer look at the alpha shows bite and scratch marks no doubt sustained in dominance bouts with competitors.

The stallion can hit speeds of almost 50 miles per hour and can easily outrun a safari jeep.

The wild ass in gallop showing all four feet off the ground -- this male is a powerful runner and a magnificent representative of the horse family that roams free in its natural habitat.

Monday, January 3, 2000

Striped Carnivores

The thylacine or tiger wolf has been extinct since the early 1900's; this carnivorous marsupial was shot to extinction in Australia and Tasmania. However, there are other striped carnivores that still live.

Among them is the Striped Hyena (photographed here in June 2005 at Velavadar National Park). This is a nocturnal scavenger classified as "Near Threatened" because of sustained population declines.

A monogamous species, the striped hyena is widely distributed across Africa, the Middle East and the Indian Subcontinent. In the grasslands of Western India, where these photographs were taken, it was superbly camouflaged and while initially sitting still, it took quick evasive action when realizing it had been sighted.

Inarguably, the most famous striped carnivore is not a hyena but a big cat:

Seen here in April of the same year but at Jim Corbett National Park is the Bengal Tiger. Corbett National Park is an excellent and extremely popular location for wildlife observation. This was my first tiger in the wild.

With demand from Chinese traditional "medicine" rising, the poaching of these huge carnivores is increasing and their numbers have dwindled to the point that their classification is now "Endangered" with the largest population in the wild found in India. This particular individual was found unexpectedly in the brush near a kill.

Sunday, January 2, 2000

The Taj

Visiting the Taj Mahal in 2005, I was looking at ways to capture a different perspective on this ancient monument known for its beautiful symmetry and flawless architecture. The first thing that strikes a visitor to the Taj is that it is larger, grander and more stunning in real life than any picture can convey.

The story of the Taj is well known (see wikipedia article); completed in the 1600's by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jehan in honor of his wife Mumtaz Mahal, it represents the epitome of Islamic architecture in India.

A wide-angle lens is a must to capture the grandeur and sheer majesty of the structure and every facet affords a different perspective that makes you question if all of them are of the same building. Here, for example, the dome of the Taj is invisible. Instead, the fine calligraphy and delicate engravings in the white marble stand out.

The architectural wonders don't stop at the Taj; also remarkable are the Great Gate and, as shown here, the adjoining mosque.

Lastly, a final perspective on the Taj -- here shown with the dome partially showing but with 2 of the 4 minarets. All photos were taken on slide film, scanned and converted to monochrome.

Saturday, January 1, 2000

Cultural Portraits

The Siddi are African Indians (Indians of African descent) who live in small communities in Southern and Western India (Siddi Wikipedia Article). These youth in the picture are from a village adjoining Gir National Forest, last bastion of the Lion outside Africa -- the Asiatic Lion which previously roamed from Greece through Persia and India.

A friendly bunch, these boys stopped their game of cricket to talk and pose for photographs during a visit to the area in 2006. They represent the descendents of a community that has adapted and thrived in their new home.

Further North, in the Kashmir valley, Gondolas ply on Dal Lake reflecting serenity:

Shikara on Dal Lake

However, in Sumbal, the ancient Nandkishore Temple now abandoned with the exodus of the Pundits from the Valley has been stoned and damaged by militants:

Nearby some youth, oblivious of the trouble, enjoy a dip in the water:

Kashmiri youth in Sumbal

Hopefully the next generation can foster the harmony that once existed in this area.