Greek Buddhism

The story of Greek Buddhism seems to be largely forgotten except when events such as the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas hit the public’s consciousness. When The Family and I chased after a remnant of the neglected Indo-Greek cultures across a flooded river near Bhopal, I had not seen the magnificent schist statue of the Buddha in the National Museum in Delhi (featured photo). The history of the Gandhara kingdom is well documented, widely researched, easy to find, and seldom referred to. In these unsettled days the story is worth keeping in mind.

The Gandhara kingdom was centred around Peshawar and Taxila, and in the period between about 200 BCE and 600 CE it was the meeting place of three cultures: the Greek, the Indian, and the Persian. It was part of the Mauryan empire. The Emperor Ashok was introduced to governance as the satrap of Gandhara, during the reign of his grandfather, Chandragupta the founder of the empire. Buddhism came to Gandhara (and to the rest of empire) with the conversion of Ashoka. The influx of Greek artists and artisans to Central Asia which started after Alexander’s conquests settled into a constant exchange during the Seleucid dynasty, with spillage into the Mauryan empire.

The Indo-Greek melding which created the style we call Gandhara arose during the 1st century CE, during the reign of Kushan kings. Standing Buddha from Gandhara ca 2nd century CE, National Museum, delhi The featured photo is of a magnificent example of this style. Another one which I liked is the plaster statue of the standing Buddha pictured here. The Kushan kings traded with Rome, and the influence of the imperial Roman style is clear in both the statues. The faces of the Buddhas and the flowing dresses remind me of the flowing robes of 2nd century Roman sculpture, and the faces of Apollo. The statues were often painted and occasionally gilded, but I could not see any trace of paint on the ones I examined.

Bodhisattva from Gandhara ca 2nd century CE, National Museum, Delhi

The head of a Bodhisattva that you see above was striking (in spite of being badly lit). The label did not say much beyond the fact that this is dated to the 2nd century CE. A little search later convinced me that this must be a representation of the Maitreya. He seems to have been very popular in the Gandhara tradition, perhaps almost as much as Gautama. The Maitreya sports a mustache in all the pictures that I saw.

The ascension to the throne of the Kushan Emperor Kanishka, who ruled during the period these three artifact were made, dates the beginning of the Saka calendar, the official calendar of the Indian state. Kanishka’s empire extended as far east as Pataliputra and northwards up to Turfan in present day Xinjiang province. Trade with Rome in this period opened up the silk route and is said to be responsible for the spread of Buddhism into China.

I understand that "most of the archaeological finds of Gandhara art have been the result of casual discovery or clandestine treasure hunts". This explains the lack of provenance that I noticed in the labels in the museum. In the absence of modern field data, expert opinions on the history of Gandhara art diverge from each other. Unfortunately, this is a part of the world where the major archaeological sites of Peshawar, Taxila, and Swat valley in Pakistan and Jalalabad, Hadda and Bamiyan in Afghanistan have become less accessible. New scholarly expeditions seem to be unlikely in my lifetime. The full story of the flowering of an Afghan-Greek-Iranian-Indian melding will only emerge in a gentler future.

Mohenjo-daro: a Different Vision

A non-artist like me thinks of animals as they are normally shown in photos or paintings. This iconography, the way of representing animals, differs only slightly across the Eurasian continent; cheetahs painted by Delacroix differ slightly from those shown in Mughal miniatures. But when you come across a representation from a entirely different culture, you realize with a shock that there are other ways of seeing. The four and half thousand year old tiny terracotta head of a bull that you can see in the featured photo shocked me, when I recognized what I was looking at. This was, literally, an eye opener.

The Family and I were in Delhi for a baking hot weekend, and took refuge in the Indian Museum one afternoon. I had wanted to go there for long, and The Family wanted to go back and see the Indus Valley galleries. At its peak, this civilization spread far beyond the core Indus river valley, to cover a region from Afghanistan to modern day Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat in India, and supported a population of about five million people. The high period of the civilization is usually taken to be 2600 to 1600 BCE. All the photos you see in this post are of artifacts from this era.

Oxen from the Indus civilization, National Museum, Delhi

The representation of oxen, widely observed farm animals, are beautiful. They emphasize the massive power of the beasts. It is remarkable that this degree of beautiful modelling is visible in a tiny piece which is less than 4 cms in size. That is the larger piece. The smaller one is a little larger than a cm!

If we persist in thinking about the Indus civilization in terms of land area and land routes, it is blindness on our part. The Indus people were sea farers. Water trade between Indus cities played a major role in commerce and full-fledged ports for sea-going vessels have also been excavated in Gujarat. I saw a seal (larger than life sized picture here) with clearly marine motifs: a starfish surrounded by fish, an eel and seaweed.

Two indus figurines, National Museum, DelhiWhen I first looked at the little figure which you see at the top of this image, I thought it was a deer or an antelope. The Family read the label and exclaimed "Rhino!" Indeed it is, as you can see from the horn sprouting from its forehead. The massive body is the second, and relatively minor, clue. The other figure is a farm animal, as you can see from the decorative strips of cloth draped across its back. It took me a while to figure out what the prominent snout and large ears tell us. Do you recognize it?

Another fact about this four to five thousand year old civilization which we may forget is that the towns and villages of that time were situated in the middle of cleared forests. The large-scale clearing of forests in India has happened within living memory. My parents remember seeing herds of antelope from a passing train, or a leopard slinking away from the headlights of a car. The Indus civilization left reminders of its highly forested environment in numerous tiny terra cotta figures of wild animals. The armadillo you see in the photo above is just one example.

The collection of the National Museum is vast, and we spent more than a couple of hours just peering at the tiny terra cotta seals and figurines in the part of the museum which deals with the Indus valley civilization. It will take us the reminder of our lifetime to walk through this museum.

Pictures at an Exhibition

I’d never been to the National Museum in Delhi, although it had been on my bucket list for years. For over fifteen years, The Family has had a false memory of the place being very small. So when we had a weekend in Delhi together, we took a couple of hours to walk through a small part of it.

One of the galleries which we visited was of miniature paintings. It is an enormous collection. The range dwarfs every other collection I’ve seen. The beautiful Jain manuscript of which the featured photo is a detail was a style I’d not seen before. I don’t know much about Jain mythology, but it seems to have remarkable parallels to Buddhism, while also being different. The dreams of the mothers is part of the common lore. This was painted on paper in the 16th century CE. The paper and paint are remarkably uniform. Photography is freely allowed in the museum, but then the glass in front of most paintings makes them hard to capture. Some part of the uneven colouration in these photos is due to reflections from the glass.

This picture of the emperor Jahangir is unusual in many ways. Emperor Jehangir with a picture of the Madonna, National Museum, DelhiAlthough Roman Catholic orders were seen in the tolerant Mughal courts from the early 16th century CE, paintings with Christian subjects remained uncommon. This 17th century painting is even more so in that it shows the emperor himself with a picture of the Madonna. There are probably three or four such paintings of the Mughal emperors with the Madonna. I also found this painting a little different from most Mughal miniatures in the very subdued palette: very muted and dark colours.

Another of the paintings which caught my eye was a Persian miniature. It was a fairly common kind of painting, with many different identifiable birds, animals and flowers. Detail from a Persian Miniature, National Museum, DelhiThe reason it caught my eye was the picture of a rose-ringed parakeet (Psittacula krameri). This parakeet is said to have been found in large parts of India and modern-day Pakistan, Burma, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, as well as in a wide swathe across the northern part of sub-Saharan Africa and the Gulf. Although there are reported sightings in Iran, it is not usually said to be part of the ancestral range of this bird. Is this painting perhaps proof that it was found in Iran already in the 15th century CE?

I’m afraid The Family and I are not very good museum-goers. We weave back and forth through the galleries and talk too much about things like this.

Strike a gong

On recent visits to Delhi I’ve managed to catch up with This Niece who’s studying architecture. When I told her about dinners at the India Habitat Center, she said she wanted to come with me the next time I went. So one hot afternoon this weekend we went for lunch at the IHC.

Mad dogs and Englishmen
Go out in the midday sun.
The smallest Malay rabbit
Deplores this stupid habit.
In Hong-Kong
They strike a gong and
Fire off a noonday gun
To reprimand each inmate
Who’s in late
—Noel Coward (1931)

While the rest of Delhi was baking in the super-40 temperature, there was a breeze through the linked atria of the centre. As we walked through them, The Family and I looked at the organizations which have their offices there: Housing Development and Finance, The Energy and Resources Institute, the NCR planning Board, are part of an interesting set of environment, planning and development organizations which sit there.

The radical building from the early nineties is typical of the architectural practice of Joseph Allen Stein: the brick facade broken by the tiny accents of coloured tiles whose differences mark which atrium you are in, and the remarkable melding of inside and outside. This Niece walked around exclaiming about this feature and that: the framework with sunscreens which you see overhead (featured photo) came in for several comments. The Family remarked on how that lets in enough light for plants to grow by. We stood and watched a group of young people preparing a stage for a play in a sunken amphitheatre built into one of the atria. Eventually we left when we ran out of water to drink.

A Green Mantis

Sometimes when I pass by a hedge I look down at the leaves, hoping to see an interesting insect. This small green mantis counts as one. As you can guess from the photo, it is a tiny insect.

You can identify it as a mantis by its triangular head and the bulging compound eyes on the sides of the head. If you look closely, you can see three grey dots on the head between these large eyes; they are the three simple eyes which these animals also have. The spiny grasping forelegs cannot be seen, presumably they are hidden below its body.

A mantis has to be a gardener’s friend. It eats other insects almost constantly, and is effective in controlling pests in a garden. If they were not so common in India, gardeners would probably buy them by box-loads and release them. It could be less dangerous than pumping a garden full of poisonous chemicals in order to kill insects. Unfortunately they also eat up all the probiotic insects: the ones that help to pollinate plants, for example. Still, it is better than pesticides.

Green jewel bugs

If you are the kind of person who looks closely at leaves and trees now and then, it won’t be long before you start seeing the aptly named green jewel bug everywhere. It is widely spread across continental Asia. I see it in gardens all the time. So I was not going to post the featured photo.

But there is something interesting about these true bugs: apparently they are not found in the islands of Indonesia, Philippines, Sri Lanka and Japan. The photo you see above was taken in South Andaman near the Mount Harriet National Park. I wanted to put on record the fact that there are islands where it can now be seen. Whether it flew or was carried there by winds, or was introduced inadvertently by humans is unclear. Interestingly, the upper parts of its legs are orange, whereas the ones I’ve seen before all had green or black legs. There seems to be quite a bit of variation in form, size, and colour in this species, so I’m not sure how significant this colouration is.

It is fairly easy to photograph these, and other, metallic shield bugs. They are easily seen on upper surfaces of leaves, branches and flowers. They do not hide the moment they spot the huge eye of a camera looking at them. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that they can release bad-smelling chemicals when attacked, and therefore are not good things for predators to eat.

Above Delhi

I was so tired of travelling in the last two weeks that I stopped packing my camera. So, when I found myself sleeping on the seventeenth floor of a hotel in central Delhi, I was not really prepared to take a photo of my unusual location.

Why unusual? Because Delhi is largely made of low buildings, which race across two neighbouring states, assimilating villages like the Borg. Only central Delhi grows upwards. The profits involved in building high in this tiny area are such that the stringent rules about safety in an earthquake-prone area do not deter builders.

My hotel room was deep with a narrow floor-to-ceiling window. Many lights needed to be kept on constantly to make it liveable. The thick heat-retaining walls required more electricity to cool it. Like all modern hotels, the structure was completely sealed off from the external world. The yellow and red buildings which you can see in the featured photo seem to be similar in spirit (although window air conditioners in some of them are incongruous). The building with hexagonal openings on alternate floors is a bureaucratic nod to "Indian" design which gone out of fashion.

Every building I could see went up beyond seven floors. I counted eleven floors and more in many of them. I was in one which went up beyond twenty. Delhi is definitely growing up!

The birds we saw in Bhitarkanika

We were in Bitarkanika National Park on 19 and 20 March. Everyone said that it was pretty late in the season and our sightings would be minimal. It was true that most of the winter migrants had left. Still the area is so rich in bird life that in three outings in the small area between Khola and Dangamal villages we saw eighty two species. Eighty one of them are listed here. The one I haven’t yet been able to identify is the slate and red bird in the photo below.

Contrary to the advise of some experienced birdwatchers, I’d expected this. My confidence was based on the comprehensive checklist published a decade ago which was a result of G.V. Gopi’s thesis work. This work listed a very large number of endemic species. Gopi put me in touch with the people whom he met during his field work, and that helped us enormously.

We had several lifers (marked in bold) and saw a few of the species which are globally threatened (marked with a star). Some of the birds I have written about in other posts; they are linked. Interestingly, every species we saw is included in Gopi’s checklist!

Unknown bird near Khola village, Bhitarkanika, Odisha

  1. Little Cormorant: Phalacrocorax niger
  2. * Darter: Anhinga melanogaster
  3. Little Egret: Egretta garzetta
  4. Purple Heron: Ardea purpurea
  5. Large Egret: Casmerodius albus
  6. Median Egret: Mesophoyx intermedia
  7. Cattle Egret: Bulbulcus ibis
  8. Indian Pond Heron: Ardeola grayii
  9. Striated heron: Butorides striatus (formerly Little Green Heron)
  10. Asian Openbilled Stork: Anasomus oscitans
  11. * Lesser Adjutant Stork: Leptopilus javanicus
  12. Lesser Whistling-duck: Dendrocygna javanica
  13. White-bellied Sea-eagle: Heliaeetus leucogaster
  14. Short-toed Snake-eagle: Circaetus gallicus
  15. Red Jungle Fowl: Gallus gallus
  16. Slaty-breasted Rail: Gallialus striatus (formerly Blue-breasted Rail)
  17. White-breasted Waterhen: Amaurornis phoenucurus
  18. Bronze-winged Jacana: Metopidius indicus
  19. Pacific Golden Plover: Pluvialis fulva
  20. Kentish Plover: Charadrius alexandrinus
  21. Lesser Sand Plover: Charadrius mongolus
  22. Red-wattled Lapwing: Vanellus indicus
  23. Whimbrel: Numenius phaeopus
  24. Spotted Redshank: Tringa erythropus
  25. Common Redshank: Tringa tetanus
  26. Marsh Sandpiper: Tringa stagnatilis
  27. Green Sandpiper: Tringa ochropus
  28. Wood Sandpiper: Tringa glareola
  29. Terek’s Sandpiper: Tringa terek
  30. Common Sandpiper: Tringa hypoleucos
  31. Little Stint: Calidris minuta
  32. Black-winged Stilt: Himantopus himantopus
  33. Blue Rock Pigeon: Columba livia
  34. Spotted Dove: Streptopilia chinensis
  35. Eurasian Collared Dove: Streptopilia decaocto
  36. Emerald Dove: Cahlcophaps indica
  37. Orange-breasted Green Pigeon: Treron bicincta
  38. Rose-ringed Parakeet: Psittacula krameri
  39. Indian cuckoo: Cuculus micropterus
  40. Large Green-billed Malkoha: Phaenicophaeus viridirostris
  41. Greater Coucal: Centropus sinensis
  42. Spotted Owlet: Athene brama
  43. House Swift: Apus affinis
  44. Small Blue Kingfisher: Alcedo atthis
  45. Lesser Pied Kingfisher: Ceryle rudis
  46. Stork-billed Kingfisher: Halcyon capensis
  47. * Brown-winged Kingfisher: Halcyon amauroptera
  48. White-breasted Kingfisher: Halcyon smyrnensis
  49. Black-capped Kingfisher: Halcyon pileata
  50. Collared Kingfisher: Todiramphus chloris
  51. Green Bee-eater: Merops orientalis (formerly Small bee eater)
  52. Chestnut-headed Bee-eater: Merops leschenaulti
  53. Common Hoopoe: Upupa epops
  54. Indian Grey Hornbill: Ocyceros birostris
  55. Coppersmith Barbet: Megalaima haemacephala
  56. Grey-headed Woodpecker: Picus canus (formerly Black-naped Green Woodpecker)
  57. Lesser Goldenback Woodpecker: Dinopium benghalense
  58. * Mangrove Pitta: Pitta megarhyncha
  59. Common swallow: Hiruno rustica
  60. Yellow Wagtail: Motacilla flava
  61. Red-whiskered Bulbul: Pycnonotus jocosus
  62. Red-vented Bulbul: Pycnonotus cafer
  63. Common Iora: Aegithina tiphia
  64. Oriental Magpie Robin: Copsychus saularis
  65. Black Redstart: Phoenicurus ochruros
  66. Jungle Babbler: Turdoides striatus
  67. Pin-striped Tit Babbler: Macronous gularis (formerly Yellow-breasted Babbler)
  68. Red-capped Babbler: Timalia pileata
  69. Yellow-bellied Prinia: Prinia flaviventris
  70. Purple-rumped Sunbird: Nectarina zeylonica
  71. Purple Sunbird: Nectarina asiatica
  72. House Sparrow: Passer domesticus
  73. Asian Pied Starling: Sturnus contra
  74. Chestnut-tailed Starling: Sturnus malabaricus (formerly Grey-headed Starling)
  75. Common Myna: Acridotheres tristis
  76. Jungle Myna: Acridotheres fuscus
  77. Black-headed Oriole: Oriolus xanthornus
  78. Black Drongo: Dicrurus macrocerus
  79. Rufous Treepie : Dendrocitta vagabunda (formerly Indian Treepie)
  80. Eastern Jungle Crow: Corvus macrorhynchos
  81. Common Crow: Corvus splendens

The list leaves out birds which we heard but did not see. These include not only the ubiquitous Indian Koel and the Common Hawk-Cuckoo (more widely known as the Brain Fever bird, due to its call), but also a couple of owls and a nightjar.

Guide map to Bhitarkanika National Park, OdishaBhitarkanika has several avian habitats. The area that we visited (coloured red in the map here) is reputed to be best for kingfishers and the pitta. Closer to the sea one should see the gulls and terns which we missed completely. There are also multiple viewing season. The time we visited is the leanest. Soon after the end of the monsoon one should be able to see herons nesting. The winter months will bring in the migrants, so loved by bird watchers in India. All this is in addition to the views of saltwater crocodiles, sea turtles and monitor lizards which this place is famous for.

I end this post with a mention of the most unlikely sight we saw: a monitor lizard being harried by a flock of Green Bee-eaters. The monitor lizard was probably interrupted in its search for eggs in the nests which the Bee-eaters build on the ground. These birds do not usually flock. They came together to harry the lizard, and successfully drover it away. I was so taken up by the events that I forgot I had a camera. You see wonderful things when you are in a forest.

The Real India

Ideas take a long time to ripen. Around the beginning of the century half the human population finally moved into cities. Ripe to overripe takes a short time; I now read that by the end of this decade about two thirds of India’s population will probably move to cities. This thought struck me as I moved very slowly through traffic in a smaller city in India.

What is smaller? A population about halfway between that of Barcelona and Madrid, and a bit more than a tenth of Mumbai’s is what passes for small here. The tremendous growth of cities means that space is scarce. Land use patterns are the same as before, so housing, work and leisure districts have each become denser. Many more people then need to move between these areas, so transport is the big new problem.

Flying in to Patna after a decade, tremendous changes are visible. Great efforts have been made to manage traffic in the central part of the town. Extensive systems of flyovers are portals between the east and west of the town. The centre still gets crowded, but no more so than a decade ago.

It is in one of the older parts of the city that I took this photo. The variety of traffic on the road amazed me. The man walking down the middle of the road is moving faster than the average speed of other vehicles. The slowdown in caused mainly by hawkers parking carts full of merchandise in the middle of the road, or, as in the photo, trying to push it against the traffic!

The boatmen of Bhitarkanika

When I talked to people in Bhitarkanika and heard about boats I imagined little things like the one above. My imagination was influenced by photos of birders in Mangalajodi, which is the hot birding destination in Odisha. Imagining an open boat, I was little concerned about the weather. The temperature had started reaching record highs across the country even before Holi. As it turned out, it was only moderately hot when we reached Bhitarkanika. That, and the fact that bird-watching avoids the hot afternoon, meant that we had fairly comfortable weather.

Tourist boats of Bhitarkanika National Park, Odisha

Due to my preconceptions, the first sight of the boats of Bhitarkanika (photo above) was shocking. They are large, with a two person crew, and capable of carrying more than ten passengers. They have a passenger cabin and an upper deck. Interestingly, they also have a head. We decided that sitting in the cabin would restrict our view of the birds, so we climbed up to the deck and leaned on the cabin. The crew handed us cushions and told us to sit on the roof of the cabin. We did that, and can certify that it is a very comfortable way to navigate the tidal creeks of Bhitarkanika while looking out for birds.

Small boats like the one in the featured photo are used by the locals to travel short distances. Occasionally we saw a man standing in one of these boats, poling himself along a stream. We also saw, once, two men in such a boat, letting out a fishing net.

Boatman of Bhitarkanika National Park, Odisha

This part of Odisha is poor. While great strides have been made in the last decade or so in bringing schools and primary health care to the people in this region, their income levels have not risen much. Direct employees of the forest department, even temporary workers, are much better off than those who are not government employees. The crew of the boat we were on (one of them is in the photo above) spent time foraging at the edge of the forest, but our wildlife guide did not bother to. This low level of income results in poorly maintained boat engines. There must be expertise out in the wide world on cheap and easy to maintain boat engines with low emission. I would definitely love to hear about it.