Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Defining Progress

Photo: Benjamin

What is progress? Does it mean production of more machines or better machines? Does ability to buy more or the mere availability of options constitute progress? Although "progress" is heavily used in generic term, it is very difficult to define it in true sense.

Broadly speaking progress means moving forward, but it is vital that we know the difference between moving towards a better place to that of end of cliff. For more than 90 percent of human history man has been a hunter-gatherer. But in past couple of hundreds of years we have taken a huge leap whether it's in terms of social, economic or industrial level. It's like running a marathon without looking back or front, just running as fast as possible to reach the destination. But problem is he doesn't know where the end line is and ends up running in an endless loop exhausting himself to death.

Our growth in terms of science and technology has been exponential but the core nature of human behaviour hasn't changed much since stone age. What separates us from that of other animals is our inquisitive nature. We don't just stop at knowing how things work but we have a need to know why. And this has acted as a double edged sword to us since we are now in a position where we are too powerful for our own good. Unfortunately we are in a state where what we do not only effects humankind but the entire planet.

If we were to look at history, a common trait witnessed is that civilizations thrived when natural resources were in abundance. And the moment there was scarcity, survival depended on spreading the settlement to the further corners of the world were those requirements were met. Otherwise leading to the downfall of the entire civilization in a short period. But current scenario is very different than ancient times because today we are one civilization. There is no segregation like -Roman civilization or Indus valley or Mesopotamian civilization, if we go down then entire human species are at stake. And soon we will find that we have no more place to spread to (unless you are counting on moving to different planet), which leaves us in a very critical crossroad.

With our limited resources and unlimited needs we are on the brink of losing balance. It is easier to think that solution to any problem is - money. All you got to do is earn more and buy more, but sadly it is not as simple- much like water lilies. When we see a pond full of lilies it is very pleasing to the eyes but do you know that they kill fishes and pretty much everything else in the pond? They grow at alarming rate if not monitored, cut-off sunlight and oxygen supply leading to the death of other living organisms.

When was the last time you bought something you never intended? Don't worry you are just one among the millions, victims of a planned trap- a materialistic culture built by investors and business moguls across the world who make sure you keep spending. Which has led to the problem of overproduction and over-consumption which like water lilies looks alluring from outside but when unmonitored what it does is eat up the entire civilization.

There is nothing wrong with being materialistic but it is important that you know what is it that you want, otherwise you would be just chasing wind but at a far greater peril to the world. If we are indeed the most intelligent species on the planet then why are we ignoring the problems we are facing? Unless of course we accept that we are selfish in nature, and that we don't care if future of our species is in jeopardy.

Progress doesn't mean building bigger houses or buying faster cars, it means evolving to realize what is it we really want. Final goal is never to have lot of money, it is what you want once you have that money. So in that sense progress means different things to different people. But essentially progress should make you feel happy. And that is the question you should ask yourself before undertaking any step towards "progress". Real progress would be to reform ourselves, fight against that inner animal nature and evolve into better human beings.

"Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man."
                                                                                                                       ― C.S. Lewis

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

My Travel Bucket List


I love travelling and the list of places I would like to visit keeps growing at an alarming rate! Every place has something to offer and every journey has something to teach. I broadly categorize any place into two kinds-
1. A place which needs to be soaked in, to grasp it's true essence.
For example beauty of Goa doesn't lie in a single fort or beach, but it's in the way you live there and the entire experience.

2. Visual treat.
Something which is so stunning that it takes your breath away in just one look like Taj Mahal.

Now, the list below is my version of  must-visit places under second category  -

1. Aurora, Arctic 

Named after the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora is one the nature's most spectacular phenomenon. This brilliant display of vivid colors rippling through the night sky is caused by collision of electrically charged particles in polar regions. And even though I have extremely low tolerance to cold, a trip to arctic zone is worth it to watch these heavenly skies!

Photo: trond

2. Grand Canyon, Arizona , USA

Carved over thousands of years by the Colorado River, the Grand Canyon is famous for its visually overwhelming size and intricate colorful landscape. The massive rock walls span for over 200 miles. It would be pretty cool to sit on the edge of the cliff and watch sunset!

Photo: paul

3. Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Although I am not a very religious person, there is something alluring about a religious site. Spread over 500 acre site Angkor Wat is one of the largest religious monument in the world. Originally dedicated to Hindu god Vishnu by Khmer King Suryavarman II, it gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple over the course of time. I think what attracts me the most about the place is to visit the largest Hindu temple outside India. It's like meeting a long lost sibling who grew up to be different, yet shares a bond untouched by time..

Photo: christian junker

4. Great barrier Reef, Australia

My lack of swimming skills doesn't stop me from wanting to peek at the largest collection of coral reefs in the world. Spanning over 1,400 miles, it is the world's biggest single structure made by living organisms and can be even seen from outer space! So many colors and life forms nourished by magnanimous oceans..

Photo: richard

5. Pyramids of Giza, Egypt

Pyramids are one of the most enthralling and mysterious structures on the world. An ingenious masterpiece which blends architecture, astronomy and mathematics in a perfect balance. In fact, I was so captivated by it that after I left astronomy I wanted to pursue archaeology!


6. Madagascar, Africa

You cannot be a wildlife lover and not want to go an African safari! But the islands of Madagascar are a world apart, it's almost pre-historic. Madagascar’s isolation from the African continent 165 million years ago has resulted in the evolution of its animals and plants into what they are today. Some of these species are extinct from the world and can only be found in Madagascar. Going to Madagascar is like stepping into a time machine..

Photo: Frank

7. Kyoto, Japan

If I weren't born in India, then next on list would have been Japan. People who know me would know how obsessive I am with "Sakura" or cherry blossom. Unlike Tokyo, Kyoto is synonymous with ancient temples, tea ceremony masters, traditional ryokan inns and centuries-old craftsmanship. Maybe take the liberty to dress up as kimono-clad geisha and walk carelessly through the streets of Kyoto watching the beautiful sakura flowers dancing in the wind.

Photo: Annie

8. Door to Hell, Turkmenistan

It may not sound like a perfect travel destination, but this eternal fire is exactly what appeals to me! It has a very interesting story, in 1971 few engineers thought they found oil field site. After they started drilling they found it to be gas, and the ground beneath the drilling region collapsed into a wide crater. Expecting dangerous releases of poisonous gases from the cavern into nearby towns, the engineers thought it best to burn the gas off. But guess what, it happened to be one of the world's largest reserve of natural gas and hence is burning to this day! So now you got a crater of fire in the middle of desert burning day in and day out for more than four decades! It does seems to have a touch of devil if you ask me :D

Photo: stefan

9. Himalayas

No matter where I travel, at the end I shall come home to the abode of snow, mystical dwelling place of gods- to the eternal beauty Himalayas. It has stood testimony to time long before human race was born and it will remain so for another eternity. Visit Lhasa (Tibet). No one returns empty handed from Himalayas, you always come back with a part of you which was lost long back..


"We travel not to escape life, but for life not to escape us." 


Wednesday, 13 January 2016

The Drop Box

Photo: MD Hasibul Haque
Have you ever looked at someone and felt so small that you could bury yourself underground?! Something like that happened to me today when I watched a documentary about "The Drop Box". It tells the story of South Korean pastor Lee Jong-rak and his efforts to save lives of abandoned children - specifically ones with disability. 

I did expect the film to be a little grim considering the theme but what I didn't expect was under what circumstances this shelter was opened by the couple. Their second child Eun-man was born with extreme deformity, physical and mental. He is around 27 yrs old, still bed ridden and only blinks. For 14 years after Eun-man was born Mr.Lee and his wife Chun-ja spent most of their time in hospital and met other children who were abandoned because of their disability. So guess what, along with their son they brought home 4 more kids! How could anyone do that? I mean, I understand that a parents love (which on such occasions often falters), but to take care of another 4 kids?! And that was just the beginning...one thing led to another and as the word spread they found newborn babies dumped outside their door! Eventually they had to make a functional unit called "drop box" where person (usually teenage girls) can keep the baby and a bell would alert them. 

As the video progressed and they showed all the babies they are looking after, you can't help but wonder where do they get the courage to carry on something like this. And mind you it is not supported by all. There are lot of people who feel that such a place encourages people to abandon their babies easily and run away from responsibility. Because drop box ensures total anonymity as opposed to other institutes. But Mr.Lee believes that people who come to him are coming as their last resort and most of them would have been dead if not for "drop box".

I don't know whether this concept works for good or bad in long run but I know some of these kids are alive and happy because someone decided they deserve a chance. One of the kids who has his right hand missing and barely any fingers was narrating his experience at school. Apparently other kids used to make fun of him, even abuse him initially. But slowly once he stood his ground, they came around and now he has lot of friends and enjoys going to school! It may not seem like a big story right now but truth is our childhood always effects the kind of person we choose to become. And he could find that support and love at right age.

I have often heard people complain that they are not rich enough to help less fortunate. But funnily, those whom I find helping are not rich -at least financially. Money is so alluring, you never realize how much is enough. But why stop at money? Those who have the will always find a way to extend that helping hands to others. 

So imagine my predicament when I spent the whole day cribbing about my knee pain only to see a child with Down's syndrome smiling gleefully at camera- just because he got the big scoop of ice cream! 

What Mr. Lee said at the end really made an impression on me. He said, "People say that those babies were abandoned by their parents, they'll probably live miserably. Why not leave them to die? But I don't believe that's true. Through them I learnt about the dignity of valuable life. Also, just because these children were abandoned doesn't mean they will be miserable. They can be happy."

I was left speechless, I felt like a person who just realized he had a billion rupees deposited in his safe deposit and had completely forgotten about it! Life throws at us so many challenges which at times feels downright unfair but what we forget is there is always someone in worse situation and smiling at you warm-heartedly. Life is precious and so much bigger than me and you. But we never know whose life we touch and how it changes their course of journey. So the least you can do is smile and force yourself to look at the brighter side of the situation. 

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Khajuraho - Enigmatic Temples Of Ancient India

Kandariya Mahadev temple
After soaking ourselves in lavish palaces of Udaipur and walking through majestic Mughal era, we headed towards ours next destination - Khajuraho. I still can't remember why we had picked this place, I mean all we knew was there were few temples which were very famous for their sculptures. It crossed our mind only because we had to cross Madhya Pradesh and we were looking for some tourist stop. So to be honest, had it not been a road trip we would have never visited Khajuraho and that would have been a biggest loss of my life!

You see with places like Udaipur, Agra or Delhi, I knew what was awaiting (even though we made sure we didn't google about any of the places we were planning to visit), but Khajuraho was more like an wild card entry. I was deeply apprehensive about travelling through isolated countrysides of M.P (thanks to some rumors about the place being not safe) and even more worried if the place was worth the risk. But let me make this crystal clear, the place is a gem! I was completely taken by surprise by it's beauty.

Lakshmana temple
The sculptures of Khajuraho are mind blowing! Enormous, gracious and fascinating images of varied categories have been lavishly chiseled both on the interior and exterior walls of the huge mountain like temples. No space on the walls of some of the temples has been left without significant sculptures. The patient hands of the craftsmen have transformed even the mundane chores to exquisite art, like depicting a maiden stretching her limbs in the morning, another wriggling water out of her hair after bath, a lady taking thorn out of her foot.

Sculptures on the wall of Lakshmana temple
Although the place is widely popular for it's erotic sculptors, it occupies only 10% of the entire work! The sculptors basically show every aspect of human life and only difference is, unlike other places these people were not ashamed to show their erotic side. Apart from erotic there are court scenes, scenes of battle and advice to the citizens of the kingdom.

Some of the temples are dedicated to Hindu deities while some to Jainism. They are divided into three broad groups, Western Group, the Eastern Group and the Southern Group. Most popular among which is Western Group, which is largest and has the some of the well preserved temples like Kandariya Mahadev temple (Shiva), Lakshmana temple (Vishnu), Vishwanatha temple (Shiva) and Devi Jagadambdi temple (Parvati). These temples are breathtakingly beautiful.

Also, the amazing thing about these temples are that they were not built using mortar: the stones were put together with mortise and tenon joints and they were held in place by gravity! It is built using inter-locking system which requires very precise joints. But beauty of this style is that if needed the entire temple can be dismantled and reassembled like a Lego block!

Another important tip is don't visit the temples without a guide. We tried doing that as guides were quite expensive (starting price Rs 500!), but we soon realized that it's useless without someone telling us what we are supposed to be looking at. And what's even more surprising was I expected "Indian" guide wont be able to deal with this topic in mature way and things may get awkward. Once again, I was completely wrong. Even though the place in filled with erotic theme, in entire town I didn't find a single person behaving in inappropriate manner. In fact, the township is so safe that even at night we could walk around without any trouble.

Temple influenced by Hinduism, Jainism and Islam

Sculptures on the wall of kandariya Mahadev temple
Intricate work on the ceiling on Kandariya temple
From the moment I have laid eyes on those temples I have been in awe of it, we were literally gawking! You just can't escape the enchantment of these temples. Regardless of what scene the sculptures depict, every image is so sublime and sensual that you can't stop thinking how in the world anyone could capture beauty such effortlessly. You could actually see yourself in that era as if magically transported under a spell.

But I have to agree that these temples are quite scandalous! I think they only managed to survive because by 16th century the place had lost all importance and was lost to the outside world. Over the centuries, vegetation and forests overgrew, took over the temples until it was rediscovered by Captain T.S Burt in 1838 (imagine look on his face when he saw these sculptures for first time!).

The temples of Khajuraho are really a great enigma. The question remains, why were these erotic figures made in the place of worship? Some say it is to test the sincerity and concentration of the devotees. But many believe that these temples are evidence to a time when sex was not looked down upon, it was not an act of mere enjoyment of body but for the soul as well, bringing man close to God. To have these figures on the walls of temple means that society was open to it and it had the approval of religion. Quite contradictory to current scenario isn't it? In fact, our father of nation- Mahatma Gandhi wanted these temples destroyed. He felt they were "indecent and embarrassing", but thankfully Rabindranath Tagore intervened, saying it was insane to even think of destroying something so incredible.

I am glad that the monument has survived centuries of harsh environment (both natural and human) because they are truly unique. You would never find what you see in these temples anywhere else in the world- past , present or future. To have what they have, so beautifully and elegantly and that too on temple walls! These temples lay testimony for the time which was indeed very different from our own. Just when you think you have figured out India, it reveals a whole new chapter...