INGULFED

In Shanghai

Archive for hindu

Cool off the Press: Mixed Blessings — سلم مشكلة

For the original, from the Sunday Magazine of The Express Tribune in Karachi, Pakistan: click here.


I wanted to peek through the locked gates, to look into the sanctuary and enter the house of the dead. I read the engraving by the walkway — UNEQUAL IN LIFE, ALL LIE EQUAL IN DEATH — while birds flitted about the cornice. I wasn’t sure if I smelled something, faint, pungent, unrecognisable. But it was time to go. Sacred Zoroastrian Towers of Silence were not built to be ogled.

There are two such structures in central Karachi, dating back to over a hundred years ago. The small Tower known as the “Ghadialy Dokhma,” along a ridge studded with green trees, was consecrated in 1847 and the bigger Tower, known as the “Anjuman Dokhma” was consecrated in 1875. The Tower of Silence or dokhma is a perfectly white cylinder with a flat top but for a rounded lip that juts up above the entrance. Inside, bodies are laid out under the open roof to decompose by the powers of nature.

Bones fall through a grate into a well below. “People don’t like to build houses here.” A Parsi friend indicated the barren plot below the ridge. “The smell.”

Until 1999, there were vultures on the Indian subcontinent. But in the next ten years, as a result of feeding on cattle treated with a particular chemical called diclofenac, they were nearly completely annihilated. In India, some form of solar contraption is now used to “evaporate the body,” as our guide said — some reports say they are mirrors that focus the sunlight, others whisper of something more complex. No one is allowed inside the Towers of Silence but those trusted with its upkeep, so there’s no way of knowing what lies beyond those raised white walls. The birds, it seems, are there just to look.

The term ‘Parsi’ is today used interchangeably with “Zoroastrian”, though it traces its roots to the Fars or Pars Province in south-west Iran but today only those who fled to the Indian subcontinent in the seventh and eight centuries are referred to as Parsis. Numbering only in the low thousands, the Parsi community is nonetheless thriving and prominent, distinctly less affected by extremist attacks than other religious minorities in Pakistan.

In Karachi, Parsi, Hindu, Sikh, and Christian are all within striking distance — er, short drives — of each other. Though its inhabitants are almost entirely Muslim, Karachi’s demography reflects the gravitation of myriad immigrant populations to this Sindhi city by the sea, now one of the world’s top five most populous. This genealogy extends back through nations and empires, including the country’s own provinces, that existed long before Pakistan — and it is by no means forgotten. In one corner of a house, the cook speaks Sindhi to the maid. Downstairs, the driver jokes with a guard in Pashto. An obstacle to Pakistani unity, then — though by no means to its heart and spirit — is perhaps that too much is remembered.

The monumental mausoleum of Abdullah Shah Ghazi looks out over Clifton beach from its hilltop on Khayaban-e-Firdousi street. Crowned by two solid green flags, the exterior is entirely navy-blue tile and patterns of thick, white zigzags. In 2010, a double suicide bombing claimed several lives. Still, all day and night, past the defunct metal detector and cursory pat-downs, crowds leave their shoes below and climb to the shrine to pray to the eighth century mystic saint, under whose aegis, many believe, tropical disasters have spared Karachi for more than a millennium. My friend, a born and raised Karachiite, seemed nervous. “Don’t tell my dad we went here.”

One Hindu mandir, hides quietly down a small street near Jail Roundabout, albeit marked with colorful paint and a white dome peeking up over the mute blue walls. The gatekeeper wrenched open the latch and followed us with watchful eyes as we shuffled in. We took off our shoes and walked past the glittery, foil swastikas on the walls into a small shrine, dim and crowded with the stems and smells of leftover offerings.

Twenty minutes away through the city’s infamous traffic are the gates to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. A catholic man with a dark, happy face guarded the entrance with a dog that looked delighted to nap with its head on its paws. The man’s name was Diego Rodriguez and he welcomed us onto the impressive grounds of the gothic church, in front of which rise the stately staircases of a white marble monument. We couldn’t go in, though — the church is closed except for Sunday mass because of two recent attacks. “It is sad,” said Diego.

Rumours were that a synagogue would be near the Bhimpura Old Town, but we never found it. Wikipedia says it may have survived until the 1980s. Diversity, too, has its bounds.

I remembered the plaque that stood at the foot of the newest Tower of Silence. Unequal in life. There is a kind of inequality stitched to the heart of this city, a hand extended to some, and withdrawn from the grasp of others. But there was more written on that marble slab, in letters accented with black ink: NO SPECIAL PLACE FOR ANYONE. NO MINE, NO THINE, NO HIS, NO HERS, ALL INSEPARABLE AND INDISTINGUISHABLE, SLEEP SIDE BY SIDE, PARTNERS AND EQUALS. Sure, these words honoured the idyll of death, but men in Karachi also stand side by side.

We walked back onto the street, a Jewish tourist and his Muslim host. We nodded to pedestrians in passing, Baloch, Sindhis, Hindus, Christians, Sikhs. At least, they might have been — I had no idea. Perhaps they didn’t either.

Originally published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, August 14th, 2011.


Pictures from Pakistan here.

Advertisements

Pieces: Singapore

Crisp, starched plastic Singapore Dollars in hand, we looked for food past Temple Street and Mosque Street, not far from Church Street and right around the corner from Synagogue Street. Chinatown, they told me, feels a lot like parts of China, and street signs in Chinese marked places of cultural/gastronomic heritage. Everywhere else, plaques read in Tamil, Malay, Chinese and English. We snagged some pork buns and a juice made from pressed chestnuts and pounds of sugar and kept walking.

I have never been anywhere that looks like Singapore. As an American traveler, I am guilty of a (common?) perversion: grungy, impoverished, chaotic — these kinds of superficies (outward appearance, not extraordinary fishes) connect most immediately to my internal GPS. Moonscapes and tuk-tuk laden dirt roads, I admit, make the quickest work of readjusting my perspective, and forcing me to realize I am somewhere else. (It was more than 100 days in the Emirates before something clicked and I thought, hey wait, I am not living in America anymore.) But Singapore has all this power for recalibration without so simple a contrast: Red lanterns hanging from cables shout China; building facades with white balconies like the Carolinas line straight streets in pastel colors like Nicaragua; laws and public workers keep the roads cleaner than in Germany. And from all that, I didn’t imagine that I was in those countries, I knew that I was somewhere else, and I was hit, two minutes out of the cab, with the sense of a new place.

In 1819, The East India Company decided it would be nice to set up shop in Singapore. The local Orang Laut (“Sea People”) — still present living the traditional nomadic life in islands off of Indonesia — began to be boxed out. In 1867, the island became the latest of British Colonies in Southeast Asia and assumed the role of a naval base and a formidable financial hub for the entire region. In terms of sheer tonnage handled, Singapore’s harbor is now the busiest in the world.

It can hardly be contested that Singapore’s success in acquiring international investment is among the fastest and most complete — spanning markets of fashion, architecture, banking, and, and, and… — in modern history. Today’s citizens have done well. The capital certainly feels more comfortable in this glossy skin than do those of the UAE’s emirates. Some of the culture spans the Southeast-Middle East divide: unending patronage of malls, tinted gold in the light of haute profile retail; two Vertu stores within 500 feet, both selling sixty-thousand dollar BlackBerrys caked in white diamonds. (“The network isn’t very good,” said the attendant Jean-Charles. “You’ll want to keep your iPhone.”)

Only mints.

In this commercial milieu, where old five-star hotels guard the river like stalwarts of delicious colonialism (no hard feelings here), the 48-hour western traveler does not expect (aside from the pungent, inescapable smell of durian) bursts of enormous multicultural richness. In a country famous for its law and order — at the top of the list: no gum chewing — surprises seem unlikely. But they abound. As opposed to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, where financial centers watered with oil revenue have sprung from nothing in the desert, Singapore’s explosion pushed many things out. The growth, however, like in the Emirates, has brought many other things in. As reflected in the tetralingual metro signs, Singapore doesn’t interact with different pieces of the world — it is different pieces of the world.

Durian, durian, and more durian.

In 1827, Naraina Pillai founded the first Hindu Temple in Singapore, built impressively in the Dravidian style . Aside from the constant tourists (take off your shoes outside), the Sri Mariamman Temple (Tamil:ஸ்ரீ மாரியம்மன் கோவில்; Chinese: 马里安曼兴都庙; Malay: Kuil Sri Mariamman) is mainly visited by South Indian Tamils. Just down South Bridge Road from our Chinatown hostel, we could hear music bursting from the door in rhythms and scales I felt have had little to no interaction with western musical consciousness. The gopuram tower rose in a six-tiered pyramid above the entrance, a heavy wooden door studded with golden bells. Each tier was crowded with painted, brighter-than-life statuettes of dieties.

Inside, three musicians listened to each other — improvised, maybe — while candles were lit. Strong flavors of incense. A huge drum hung from one man’s neck, to be hit with a thin stick that curved at the end; another struck tubular bells; the last wove melodies through percussive pa! kattak! on a reeded instrument a little like an oboe. I slumped down against a pillar. Other tourists milled about the temple courtyard. The musicians didn’t seem to know that we were there.

Listen below:

Later that night, after picking dishes from several of the Chinese street stands (everything from oysters to spicy beef to pigs’ feet) before hitting the clubs of Clark Quay, we went to drunkly press our luck at the Marina Bay Sands casino (no free drinks, disastrously un-Atlantic City-like). Wikipedia has this to say about the place:

The resort features a 2,561-room hotel, a 1,300,000-square-foot (121,000 m2) convention-exhibition centre, the 800,000-square-foot (74,000 m2) The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands mall, an iconic ArtScience museum, two large theatres, seven “celebrity chef” restaurants, two floating Crystal Pavilions, an ice skating rink, and the world’s largest atrium casino with 500 tables and 1,600 slot machines. The complex is topped by a 1,115-foot-long SkyPark with a capacity of 3,900 people and a 500 foot infinity swimming pool, set on top of the world’s largest public cantilevered platform, which overhangs the north tower by 220 feet.

The view from the top, 656 feet above the Singapore Strait, is stunning in the dark. Everything looks crisp, the lights from the Marina are bright and clear, and house beats pulse from the speakers of the rooftop bar KU DÉ TA. Drinks were far too expensive, so I went down to the casino floor, and promptly lost 150 crisp dollars at $25 minimum blackjack.


More pictures from Singapore here: Singapore — சிங்கப்பூர் — 新加坡 — سنغافورة

Mixed Blessings — كراتشي

The town of Karachi is made of many things. For three days, I was one of them — a rare Jew in a the world’s third largest city where almost everyone can style themselves a minority in some way. There are those that seek to destroy everything “different” from themselves — the sadly frequent bombings and killings. Except for them, everyone is awesome, every corner of the city has its own new secrets.

There are Catholic churches, Sikh shrines, Hindu temples, the memory of a synagogue, and Zoroastrian fire temples, not far from the Towers of Silence where the dead are left to decompose naturally in focused sunlight.

[Annoyingly, this story has been submitted elsewhere and cannot be published here in good conscience. Until we can give up on “conscientiousness”, I offer only a poor abridgment below. In order to read the full story with everything you ever wanted to know about Karachi but didn’t know to ask (unless you know things to ask): send an email to INGULFED at GMAIL dot COM with a sentence including the words “fondue”, “Pakistan”, and “Sammy Davis, Jr.”.]


Hindu Temple

Tower of Silence

Old Tower of Silence, 1849

St. Patrick's Cathedral

Sikh Shrine, Abudullah Shah Ghazi Mazar

The Lunar Eclipse

— with USA, — rush Israel?

More pictures from pakistan here.

%d bloggers like this: