Lost Cities – Xanadu

Today I bring you the first instalment of my series of posts on “Lost Cities”. I would like to let you know right from the beginning that the term “lost city” is applied loosely here. As you will see throughout the different posts these are not always locations that are physically lost or not found. In many cases, I use this term to refer to places that used to stand tall. These were often centres of power, the core to long gone civilisations and empires. Therefore, as long as you keep that in mind, we are good to go. Why have I chosen these sites? Well, the answer is different for each of them. This is a fairly popular topic I guess in terms of public history – I am sure you have seen a documentary somewhere. But I think what draw me to look into these locations was not that populist approach, but my inner Indiana Jones looking for adventures that I am very unlikely to have in real life. Every archaeologist and history dreams (I Think…I Certainly Do!) of finding something forgotten and buried down into oblivion in the annals of our past. Now, I am in no position of doing great discoveries, so I only have left the stories of this places. And sometimes, a story is all you need…

XANADU

Xanadu, actually named Shangdu means upper capital. This was in fact the summer capital of the Mongol leader Kublai Khan and the Yuan dynasty. It used to be home to 100.000 people until its destruction by an invading army of the Ming dynasty. The razing of Xanadu took place during the reign of the last Yuan Emperor and Khagan of the Mongol Empire: Toghon Temur in 1369. Sadly, and due to very extreme deterioration, all we have left are just the bases of the outline of the walls. What is left of these measures 2200 square metres, and the layout goes a bit like this. The walls and measurements I have just given you are part of the outer city, then they would have had an inner city held within the walls, with a palace which would have been around 550m in length. You know…Small! In any case, the current location of this site is actually in Zhenglan Banner (Mongolia).

I know this seems like a bit of a pessimistic note to start this post on, but I wanted you to feel the devastation from the beginning. And then, hopefully you will understand why Xanadu was such a symbol and why it had to be destroyed as an act of war – I am sure in any case that’s what the Ming forces thought to themselves in the process of trashing the place, anyway. So, what else do we know about Xanadu?  The city’s original name was Kaiping and was designed by the Chinese architect and adviser Liu Bingzhong or Liu Kan for the Yuan dynasty. The project started in 1252 and finished by 1256. Just a decade after the works were finished the famous Venetian Marco Polo visited the renown city. He actually called it Chandu, or Xandu; in fact, it seems the name change to Shangdu happened in 1264, which would explain the vocabulary used by Marco Polo. In the Travels of Marco Polo (Book 1, chapter 61 specifically for Xanadu, read the rest just for fun!), he goes at great length to explain his adventures around the old region of Cathay, and we find extensive information on Xanadu as an imperial city. He describes it as being an opulent, remarkable city. The palace, he says, is built with marble, gilded decorations all over, and then, he also mentions a second palace, also known as the Cane Palace where the Khan lived alongside in the main marbled residence… I think the evidence speak for themselves. In essence, Xanadu was a massive hub connecting trade for China in the north of “Cathay”. However, as the Mongol domains expanded, its location lost importance as the capital of the kingdom, and instead it was refashioned as an imperial city of high status by the mid 14th century.

Well, curiously enough, the city regained its former name after the Ming destroyed and occupied the area of Xanadu: they torched the remains of Liu’s creation and renamed it Kaiping. The site remained unoccupied and uncared for hundreds of years. Luckily the UNESCO decided to finally inscribe it in the list of World Heritage as of 2012. Like many sites that are abandoned and left to fend for themselves much destruction has been done to the archaeological record by the locals. In fact, it is reported notoriously that a lot of the stone work and marble of the city was repurposed for houses more recently in the town of Dolon Nor. As of today, not much other than the outline of the walls is left, though and effort for restoration and preservation of the site has been carried out since 2002.

Now, you will be thinking, what specifically pushed the Ming forces to destroy such a city, when it was no longer the capital? Granted its status was indeed very high and it was still an important symbol of the Yuan dynasty, but the treatment it received was pretty harsh. Perhaps it will start making more sense if I told you that, the down fall of Xanadu came as a result of the Red Turban Rebellion. The roots of the rebellion were many, although they mostly had to do with the economic and environmental problems link together caused by the constant flooding of the Yellow River, bouts of the Black Death and the very high expenses required to maintain such a vast empire. Not a good scenario. It also helps knowing that the Red Turban army was formed by Guo Zixing and his followers were members of the White Lotus society

…And before you start thinking we are suddenly in a Wuxia movie, I will tell you what that means. The White Lotus crew were essentially a political and religious movement, with basis in Dharmic religions as well as Persian Gnosticism. With their strict codes of conduct that resonated with the issues described earlier that the empire was facing, they quickly started becoming the champions of the injustices performed by the Mongols in their own lands, and as every rebellious group they did part take and a few demonstrations. The Mongol administration pick on this quickly and proceeded to ban them, and thus the White Lotus became a secret society of sorts. What I haven’t told you yet is that the vast majority of the members of this organisation were Han Chinese, therefore causing complications here not just in terms of religiosity but also ethnicity and cultural status. The Yuan dynasty saw a variety of religions amongst their ranks, including an increase in the number of followers of Islam in China, whilst the state never officially converted to the doctrine this caused some social dissent. Kublai Khan himself eventually established Tibetan Buddhism as the de facto state religion. Nonetheless, he particularly favoured the Sakya sect; a move that he did in part to have an advantage in his conquest of the Tibet area. Sadly, as a result of this favouritism the rest of religious movements in the Mongol empire lost importance, which caused once again social anxieties amongst the people, particularly the ordinary folk. This only contributed more to the escalation of things if we consider that during Mongol rule the “Han” or the previous Jin dynasty were all divided as a separate class in their feudal system and the decorum that they had received in previous rule was dismissed. So, in essence, the Han Chinese were super bitter. As the Red Turban Rebellion gained momentum, the White Lotus society became an incredibly favourable basis for their desire to overthrow the established system, and from here on, the story is pretty obvious to follow: all you need is the numbers and will to raise in arms, and soon your have a whole bloody war. To their great advantage, the mid 14th century saw a moment of great instability amongst the Mongols who were too busy fighting themselves over a very far stretch territory. So, by the time the Ming forces made it to Xanadu, little was left of the former glory of the empire this wonderful city had helped to build. Razed to the ground as is raided by Genghis reborn himself, Xanadu crumbled and set itself to sleep.

The British Museum – through the Lens of a Camera pt. 2

This is a continuation of my blog update from yesterday. The images you will see here are taken my by myself-probably very clumsy, in my walk around the British Museum on the 31st August 2015.

Through Asia: Oriental Cultures in the British Museum

So here I have gone around the rooms regarding China, Korea, Japan, and the India. I have taken pictures of several deities, heavenly guardians and other protective spirits, following the pattern that I had accidentally promoted through my Assyrian images. The are a couple of things that are included such as the crown that do not quite fit in with the theme – but what cultural historian with an art background in depictions of power would I be if i neglected that gilded silver beauty… When fitting I have taken pictures of things that perhaps we have catered for in the blog this year-like the japanese picture below. So have a look and enjoy it.

Louhan: in glazed stoneware from the Hebei Province, China (907-1125 AD)
Louhan: in glazed stoneware from the Hebei Province, China (907-1125 AD).

 

(Another glazed stoneware Chinese figure)
(Another glazed stoneware Chinese figure).

 

Ming dinasty stoneware figure from judgement group - 16th Century
Ming dynasty stoneware figure from judgement group – 16th Century.

 

Ming dinasty stoneware figure from judgement group - 16th Century
Ming dynasty stoneware figure from judgement group – 16th Century.

 

"Painted pottery tomb guardian", North China, tang dynasty 7th-8th Century AD
“Painted pottery tomb guardian”, North China, tang dynasty 7th-8th Century AD.

 

Glazed pottery group from North China during the Tang dynasty, 8th Century AD
Glazed pottery group from North China during the Tang dynasty, 8th Century AD.

 

"Sandstone figure of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara" Northern Qi dynasty, AD 550-577
“Sandstone figure of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara” Northern Qi dynasty, AD 550-577.

 

Brahma, South India, Tamil Nadu AD 1001-1050
Brahma, South India, Tamil Nadu AD 1001-1050.

 

Gilt silver crown from the late Ming early Qing period (17th Century)
Gilt silver crown from the late Ming early Qing period (17th Century).

 

Shiva dakshinamurti, South India, Tamil Nadu, Chola dynasty, late 10th Century
Shiva dakshinamurti, South India, Tamil Nadu, Chola dynasty, late 10th Century.

 

"Ambika, the Jain Mother Goddess" Dhar, Paramara dynasty (CE 1084)
“Ambika, the Jain Mother Goddess” Dhar, Paramara dynasty (CE 1084).

 

Vahara, the boar god - Vishnu's incarnation 12th Century
Vahara, the boar god – Vishnu’s incarnation
12th Century.

 

"Shiva and Parvati", Orissa, 12-13th Century
“Shiva and Parvati”, Orissa, 12-13th Century.

 

"Amitabha Buddha" - the buddha of infinite light- statue in marble, found in the Hebei Province (China), from the Sui dynasty from AD 581-618.
“Amitabha Buddha” – the buddha of infinite light- statue in marble, found in the Hebei Province (China), from the Sui dynasty from AD 581-618.

 

"cloisonne enamel figure of a Tibetan Lama, seated on a lotus base" Qing dynasty, early 19th century
“cloisonne enamel figure of a Tibetan Lama, seated on a lotus base” Qing dynasty, early 19th century.

 

Statue of Kudara Kannon, from Japan. Copy from the original statue by the temple of Nara made for the British Museum in 1930. (the original statue is from the c.600 AD).
Statue of Kudara Kannon, from Japan. Copy from the original statue by the temple of Nara made for the British Museum in 1930. (The original statue is from the c.600 AD).

 

IMAG0428_BURST002[1]
“Entertainers in Niwaka Festiva”l by Kitagawa Utamaro (c. 1753 – 31 October 1806). Colour print from 1793.
 

Depiction of the guardians of the Buddhist realm. Joseon period, Korea, 1796-1820.
Depiction of the guardians of the Buddhist realm. Joseon period, Korea, 1796-1820.

 

Polynesia & the Barkcloth

As we were walking by, my father made me aware that they had brought some items from Polynesia, including the Barkcloth for a little while to the BM…And obviously we had to go have a look! Here are some pics of the items I found most interesting. The masks are particularly awesome!

 

pa'u (woman's skirt) an example of barkcloth decorated with ula'ula, or red plant dyes
pa’u (woman’s skirt) an example of barkcloth from Hawaii decorated with ula’ula, or red plant dyes.

 

Kovave mask - worn by male initiates from the Elema people from the Gulf region of Papua New Guinea, and used to call out the spirits of the bush. Early 1880s - in barkcloth too!
Kovave mask – worn by male initiates from the Elema people from the Gulf region of Papua New Guinea, and used to call out the spirits of the bush. Early 1880s – in barkcloth too!

 

Kavat from the Baining people (New Britain, Papua New Guinea). Mask to attract the spirits of the forest that this people depended on for harvesting, hunting and war. 1970s.
Kavat from the Baining people (New Britain, Papua New Guinea). Mask to attract the spirits of the forest that this people depended on for harvesting, hunting and war. 1970s.

 

Barkcloth headdresses used by the warriors of Papua New Guinea
Barkcloth headdresses used by the warriors of Papua New Guinea.

 

Kua'ula - use for men's loincloth in the 1700s (Hawaii).
Kua’ula – use for men’s loincloth in the 1700s (Hawaii).

Incest and Royalty: The Reasons and the Effects

Jokes about inbreeding and incest are common in discussions about royalty, for non-historians such jokes can actually be some of the basis of their knowledge about royalty. However why royalty decided to choose incestuous unions and what the effects of such unions are less considered. This is despite incest and inbreeding being apparent across the world and history.

So why did royalty decide to marry relatives? The most simple and common answer was political stability. The offspring of two relatives who had strong individual claims to the throne would have an even stronger claim themselves, which theoretically should lead to an easier pass over of power. This was apparent with Incan emperors who went to the extreme of marrying their sisters, those who had the next best claim, to produce heirs. Thai kings married their half-sisters instead of their full blood sisters for the same reason. Such actions were not restricted to brother-sister marriages. Emperor Claudius married his niece Agrippa the Younger to strengthen his own claim as emperor. In Europe, many royals married cousins, although some, the Habsburgs in particular would have even more incestuous unions to strengthen their dynasties and political stability. Philip II of Spain married his niece Anne of Austria as his fourth wife. Of his three previous marriages one had been to his first cousin and one to his first cousin once removed, only Elizabeth of Valois was more distantly related. Philip IV of Spain married his niece Mariana of Austria and produced the sickly Charles II. While it did produce stability it did have ill effects on their health. However it is important to realise it was not a guarantee of political stability as infighting still would happen within families. The Ptolemy dynasty of Pharaohs is one example, instead of killing rival claimants from other families; they would often kill family members who were claimants.

Another, less common, reason for inbreeding was the ‘sacredness’ that such offspring would have this. This is apparent in societies where royalty were considered to be gods. For Pharaohs, incest meant that the sacred blood line was kept pure, which considering the emphasis placed on Pharaohs being gods was extremely useful. This was to the extent that in Cleopatra’s family tree only six individuals make up her sixteen great grandparents. In Hawaii inbreeding was preferred and sometimes even obligated for royalty. The child of two full blood siblings was considered to have the highest ‘mana’, meaning the most sacred. Avuncular relations, those between an aunt/nephew or uncle/niece were also accepted for similar reasons.

There was also the case that by a certain point with European royalty that almost everyone was related due to such a small pool of people who were considered eligible. However the effects of inbreeding were lessened somewhat as unions were not always within the first degrees of relation. For instance Henry VIII was related to all his wives however he was no closer than third cousins with any of his wives and in the case of Anne of Cleves they were ninth cousins.

The basis of many jokes about royalty and incest are that of the effects they have on the offspring of royalty. Surprisingly there does not always seem to be as many ill effects as one would imagine, especially in the case of brother-sister offspring. Although in some countries there may have been due to reliance on oral history which could mean such issues may not have been recorded. However there are two prominent cases of how disastrous inbreeding could be on health. The first is that of Tutankhamun who has been proved to be the product of incest. Work on his mummified body has shown that images of him in his tomb were far from accurate of what he looked like. Physically he had a club foot, which would have prevented him being able to stand independently; severely limiting activities as a Pharaoh he should’ve been able to participate in such as chariot racing. He also had an extreme overbite and what has been described as ‘feminine hips’. He also suffered from conditions such as Kohler’s disease and epilepsy. These problems are thought to have hastened his early death.

The second is the Habsburg family. While as previously mentioned above, intermarriage was practiced by all the European royal families, the Habsburgs took it up a notch. Family members married other close family members, such as their first cousins and as mentioned above there were several avuncular marriages. Such inbreeding led to the infamous Habsburg jaw which caused severe pain and a number of medical issues that made simple tasks such as eating difficult for those who were inflicted with it such as Charles V and Ferdinand I. The Habsburg jaw can still be seen in the Spanish royal family today, although in a much less exaggerated form. However the real victim of Habsburg inbreeding was Charles II of Spain, whose numerous difficulties are thought to have been the result of this inbreeding. He was unable to speak till the age of four and walk until he was eight. He is now believed to have suffered from two genetic disorders: combined pituitary hormone deficiency and distal renal tubular acidosis both of which do not allow the body to properly function. He was also infertile and failed to produce an heir which led to the extinction of the senior branch of the Habsburg family.

Incest was practised widely across the world by royal families, although the reasons and to what extent such incest was practised varies. Similarly the effects that inbreeding had on royalty has also varied, which somewhat challenges our preconceived ideas of what the results would be. Thankfully royalty these days generally don’t practise such close consanguinity.

The Faiths of 500,000 British Citizens – Part 4: The Baha’i Faith

As you might know already, this month has been totally dedicated to the study of religious history. So far everything that has been covered, was closely linked with the Christian traditions and belief throughout time. This made me think about the situation of religious belief in general in the UK, and so I did some research on census and polls on religious practices of the British people. It was interesting though to find out that the second largest group of the population of the Uk according to the survey results is the one corresponding to those that consider to not have a religious affiliation whatsoever. Interesting, yes, but not surprising. What did surprise me and interested my, due to my own ignorance, is that almost 500,000 people in the Isles are part of religions that most of the people have not even heard about, and yet they are quite significant and outstanding in the rest of the world, especially in the Middle East. For this reason today, I am introducing you to these four faiths: Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism and the Baha’i Faith. In this brief introduction I will present you some of the basic details about their beliefs and practices, places of worship, rituals and their place in the modern world.

Continue reading “The Faiths of 500,000 British Citizens – Part 4: The Baha’i Faith”

The Faiths of 500,000 British Citizens – Part 3: Jainism

As you might know already, this month has been totally dedicated to the study of religious history. So far everything that has been covered, was closely linked with the Christian traditions and belief throughout time. This made me think about the situation of religious belief in general in the UK, and so I did some research on census and polls on religious practices of the British people. It was interesting though to find out that the second largest group of the population of the Uk according to the survey results is the one corresponding to those that consider to not have a religious affiliation whatsoever. Interesting, yes, but not surprising. What did surprise me and interested my, due to my own ignorance, is that almost 500,000 people in the Isles are part of religions that most of the people have not even heard about, and yet they are quite significant and outstanding in the rest of the world, especially in the Middle East. For this reason today, I am introducing you to these four faiths: Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism and the Baha’i Faith. In this brief introduction I will present you some of the basic details about their beliefs and practices, places of worship, rituals and their place in the modern world.

Jainism

This faith has traditionally been seeing as an extreme version of aesthetic behaviour, combined with a life style that follows a very restricted diet and a somehow almost pathological ideal of non-violence. But let’s try to leave the stereotypes on the side and understand the nature of this religion. It seems that Jainism emerged in the north of India during what some scholars call the Vedic period (sometime between the 1100 and 150 BC). Most of the sources suggest that the practice was consolidated by the 8th/7th century BC, being the basin of river Ganges its cradle. From a western point of view it was a man called Mahavira the founder of the religion, but for the Jains he was just another of the many teachers and preachers they have had. There are also different sects of Jainism, the most relevant being the Svetambara and Digambara, being the last one more traditional and strict.

The Jains , it is true, follow the path of amisha (non-violence). The believe that every living form, including plants and animals, have a soul (jiva), and that these souls are attached to the rules of Karma. For them , the Karma is a physical substance that affects everything. There are two types of Karma, harming and non-harming. Due to this, and as the universe works in a action-reaction system, violence against anything can only produce “bad” karma, hence their pacifist ideas. Also, the Jains belief in a set of rules that are important for their development and achievement of enlightenment. These are the Three Jewels: right knowledge, right faith and conduct. For them, faith is not blind belief but the correct disposition to view and understand things. In this way, enlightenment is achieved by the following: non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, celibacy, and non-materialism. Also, it is considered that those that are enlighten have achieved to get rid off harmful karma. The Jains, belief that there is even a step afterwards enlightenment which they called deliverance where not only bad karma, but good karma have expired and therefore the being exists in perfect harmony.  Finally, Jainism promoted the idea of rebirth. Nonetheless, the next life form adopted by the jiva depends strongly on the mental state and karma of the deceased creature before the soul departs from its physical form.

The Jains have, as many other faiths, a sacred calendar and places, but most of them vary depending on the different sects. nonetheless, they have some common elements. For example, all the Jains have a day devoted to silence called Maunekadasi, which falls the eleventh day of the month of Margasirsa (western november/december). They also celebrate the birthday of Mahavira (13th apr./march) which is regarded as a public expression of their  religious adherence. Also, pilgrimages are very important, especially for lay people as they allow them to become ascetic in a sense for a period of time. Most of the sites visited during such a journey are related to places where the foremakers reached enlightenment, or sites that are linked with any other aesthetic process. For the Svetambara sect the holy places are located in Gujara and Rajasthan, as well as Maharashtra. For the Digambara, however, the most important place of pilgrimage is in Karnataka. In addition, the Jains have a tendency to practice fasting in different degrees and ways.

What is the place of Jainism in the Modern World?

As we have already seen with the previous faiths treated during the last days, Jainism has gone through some changes in the new age. It has to be considered that, despite being relatively well-known, the Jains only constitute a 0.41% of the total population of India, and there are only 3000 followers elsewhere in the world. So, in order to prevail, they need to adapt, and so different perceptions have modified the faith lately. The main issue is perhaps the development of two different lines of practice. There is an orthodox side of Jainism, which is mainly performed in its motherland, and there is a neo-orthodox path which is the one that incorporate most of the changes. For the “neo-jains” science and religion go side-by-side. Their progressive ideas still accept vegetarianism as their lifestyle, as well as non-violence, but they have given importance to other aspects of religious practice, such as meditation . Also they seem to have freed themselves from the metaphysical complications of their belief, and adopted a relativist view of life. Furthermore, they do not believe that Jainism should follow a set of rituals, nor do they promote a division in sects.

To conclude, I would like to quote Paul Dundas in here, in order to explain better why the Jains do still have an impact in the modern world and why their faith is still popular;

“It is the capacity of Jains to adapt themselves to changing circumstances while remaining true to certain principles viewed as eternally valid which is one of the clues to the tenacity of their religion and mode of life over two and a half millennia”

If you would like to know more about the Jains, you can check some of the following resources:

Dundas, P., The Jains (London and New York, 1992)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/jainism/– BBC website about the faith.

Von Glasenapp, H., Jainism: an Indian Religion of Salvation (Dehli, 1999)

AND TO KNOW ABOUT THE FOLLOWERS OF THE BAHA’I FAITH KEEP AN EYE ON THE UPDATE FOR TOMORROW!

The Faiths of 500,000 British Citizens – Part 2: Zoroastrianism

As you might know already, this month has been totally dedicated to the study of religious history. So far everything that has been covered, was closely linked with the Christian traditions and belief throughout time. This made me think about the situation of religious belief in general in the UK, and so I did some research on census and polls on religious practices of the British people. It was interesting though to find out that the second largest group of the population of the Uk according to the survey results is the one corresponding to those that consider to not have a religious affiliation whatsoever. Interesting, yes, but not surprising. What did surprise me and interested my, due to my own ignorance, is that almost 500,000 people in the Isles are part of religions that most of the people have not even heard about, and yet they are quite significant and outstanding in the rest of the world, especially in the Middle East. For this reason today, I am introducing you to these four faiths: Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism and the Baha’i Faith. In this brief introduction I will present you some of the basic details about their beliefs and practices, places of worship, rituals and their place in the modern world.

Zoroastrianism

This religion is meant to be one of the oldest in the history of mankind. Presumably it was originated about 3500 years ago, during the Bronze Age in the Asian steppes. It had a huge impact in the Iranian culture, as well as in some parts of india, especially in the northern lands of the country. Also it has influenced many later faiths such as Mahayana Buddhism. In the west the religion was spread and known thanks to Greek knowledge on the founder of the religion: Zoroaster, or Zarathustra. The scripture that compiles their beliefs and practices is known as the Yasna.

Zoroaster’s religion was an adaptation of old pagan Iranian pastoral beliefs. The ancient cult was dedicated to the worship of nature gods, especially of water and fire, which were the main needs for these semi-nomadic agriculturists and farmers. They also believed in something called asha: the natural force that ensured existence. Through worship men not only benefited from the gifts nature provided them with, but they also became part of the process and connected with the divine. These ancient beliefs were incorporated into Zoroaster’s idea of one only god called Ahura Mazda, who functioned with the help of the Holy Immortals (which were spiritual attainments of god based on the old deities). In addition Zarathustra incorporated the “bad guy” of the religion, Angra Manyu, a being opposite to Mazda. In this way the faith imbued itself with a sense of dualism. There were good qualities that god portrayed and that human beings should attempt to develop, such as virtue, honesty, truth and courage. These concepts formed the ashavan, while everything of a chaotic nature was attached to the concept of druh, related to Angrra Manyu.

In the first days of the religion’s existence, and due to the nature of its worshippers, the places dedicated for praying needed to be simple and mobile. For this reason, the Iranian nomads used something called pavi: a small rectangular altar slightly elevated from the ground level, which they created from whatever they could find. Once the belief adopted its more developed form, prayers and other ceremonies started to take place in temples, usually identified as fire temples. Although there is not much known about these sites, Parsi legends tell us that there are many Zoroastrian fires still burning in their places of worship, but the most significant one is perhaps the Udvada Atash-Behram. About their ritual practices it is known that the Zoroastrians celebrate the Khordad Sal, or Zoroaster’s birthday. For this festivity they get together in their fire temples and make perform communal prayers, which is something unusual as the Zoroastrian practices and prayers are meant to be individual. They also have an initiation ritual called Navjote, and they perform weddings and funerary rites.

What is the place of Zoroastrianism in the Modern World?

In 2006 there were registered on a world scale 190,000 followers of Zoroaster’s faith. However, their beliefs had to undergo a process (or rather I should say the process to a certain degree is still undergoing) to adapt themselves to the changing new times. Since the 19th century western scholars and religious figures have been attacking the doctrine. On top of that the Zoroastrians found themselves in an uncomfortable situation, where different followers had different opinions on what Zoroaster’s actual teachings were or how they should be applied. In addition, one of the largest groups of the believers, the Parsi, introduced some changes in their actual practices, allowing a reasonable degree of syncretism and assimilation of other religious practices, mainly Christianity, Hinduism and Guru teachings.

One could consider then that Zoroastrianism is under threat. The dispersion of the Parsi community to other parts of the world, mainly overseas to the areas that used to belong to the British Empire, and great Britain itself, has not contributed to the situation and debate about how the religion should be regulated and organised is still ongoing. Nonetheless, this one is not the only practice with such a problem. Nowadays, there is not one single religious belief that is not under threat due to the changes in mankind’s way of life and sociopolitical affairs. For the population of the 21st century being religious, of any kind can become a stigma. Hopefully, through the understanding of religious practices, and the different faiths tolerance would spread and take over, and put an end to such madness.

In the meantime, I hope I have not confuse you too much with the Zoroastrian practices and that you have learned to appreciate the uniqueness of their ideas. To know more about the teachings of Zoroaster you can check the following resources:

Boyce, N., Zoroastrians: their Religious Beliefs and Practices (London and New york, 1979)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/zoroastrian/- BBC website on this faith

AND TO KNOW ABOUT THE JAINS AND FOLLOWERS OF THE BAHA’I FAITH KEEP AN EYE ON THE FOLLOWING UPDATES FOR TOMORROW AND WEDNESDAY!

 

The Faiths of 500,000 British Citizens – Part 1: The Sikh People

As you might know already, this month has been totally dedicated to the study of religious history. So far everything that has been covered, was closely linked with the Christian traditions and belief throughout time. This made me think about the situation of religious belief in general in the UK, and so I did some research on census and polls on religious practices of the British people. It was interesting though to  find out that the second largest group of the population of the Uk  according to the survey results is the one corresponding to those that consider to not have a religious affiliation whatsoever. Interesting, yes, but not surprising. What did surprise me and interested my, due to my own ignorance, is that almost 500,000 people in the British Isles are part of religions that most of the people have not even heard about, and yet they are quite significant and outstanding in the rest of the world,  especially in the Middle East. For this reason today, I am introducing you to these four faiths: Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism and the Baha’i Faith. In this brief introduction I will present you some of the basic details about their beliefs and practices, places of worship, rituals and their place in the modern world.

Sikhism

This religion had its origins about 500 years ago in the Punjab region, India. Its founder is known as Guru Nanak Dev. It has influences from other religions, especially Hinduism and Islam, and it send a universal message of love and peace.

The Sikhs belief that there is only one God and that Truth is its name (Ikk oan kar sat nam), and this being has no physical form therefore, there are no representations of it. The Gurus are inspired by God and they teach the rest of the community, but they are not worshipped. Their holy scriptures are compiled in what is called the Guru Grant, which include the daily prayers. The ideal that Sikhism follows is the union of all religions, races, no matter what backgrounds these would have.

Despite of the individual factor being a very important part of the practice of this faith, the Sikh have very strong family and community values. They are hard-workers that belief in the dignity of labour, equality of all people, and the importance of service: providing for each other. The also refuse the use of any type of toxins or drugs (unless recommended by doctors), as well as the performance of any sort of ritual sacrifice. In addition, a very curios characteristic of these people is that, unlike many other Indians, they are active eaters of any kind of meat. Finally, there is a common element to all the Sikh which is their surname. For the males is Singh, meaning lion or lion-hearted, while for the females is Kaur (princess), and it is ment to resemble their courage and hard-working values. Also, it is a common practice to wear a steel bracelet, not cut your hair,  and in the case of males to wear turbans and beards.

Their preferred place of worship is called the Golden Temple, located in Amritsar (Punjab). Nonetheless, their meeting can take place in any gurudwara (anywhere were there is a Guru Grant). The five Takhts are also important as they are the seats of temporal authority. About their festivities, we know that just like in the Christian Faith, they perform initiation rituals (Amrit), marriage celebrations (Anand Karaj) and funerals. In addition, they have a religious calendar which include the following feasts. Baisakhi is their version of the New Year, which takes place some time in April and is usually celebrated as a mass congregation in the Golden Temple. They also celebrate the day in which Guru Hargobund was released from prison with a group of fifty-two Hindu princes. This event is commemorated about the same time than Christmas and it is called Bandi Chhor. In addition, they also celebrate the birthdays of their ten gurus.

What is the place of the Sikh in the Modern World?

Nowadays there are about twelve million of Sikh in the world, most of them living in India. It has to be highlighted the remarkable number of Sikh related with the military. This is likely connected with the long persecution that the Islamic population of the area launched against these people. As a result they armed themselves for self-defence. Their military tradition carried on under British government, as the Sikh fought in both the First and Second World War. Nonetheless, repression of the faith’s followers carried on during and after the British occupation of India. The massacre of 1919 after the prohibition of the celebration of the Sikh new Year serves as an example, in the same way that the violent violation of the Golden Temple in 1984 by the Indian armed forces as a result of what is known as the Operation Blue Star, ordered by Indira Gandhi who was the ruler of the state of India at the time.

As a result of the many political tensions between the Hindus, Muslims and Sikh people in the area of Punjab, many Sikh had no other choice but to leave their homeland and find refuge elsewhere, mainly in the states that where once part of the British Empire. This obviously helped to spread the faith to other parts of the world, becoming more and more popular. It is surprising how despite of being a faith very attached to its homeland and origins, it is at the same time a stable religion, and not only stable but a growing one. This might be due to the fact that, indeed, the values of the Sikh are flexible, and tolerant. Their beliefs and practices have positive views linked with many current issues such as racism, sexism and religious intolerance, which perhaps provide people with hope for a change in mankind’s attitude.

To Know more about the Sikh take a look to the following sources:

Kaur Singh, N-G., Sikhism: World Religions, (1993, New York)

http://www.sikhs.org/– website of the Sikh people and their beliefs

http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/sikhism/ – BBC section on this faith.

ANDDDD TO KNOW ABOUT THE ZOROASTRIANS, JAINS AND FOLLOWERS OF THE BAHA’I FAITH KEEP AN EYE ON THE FOLLOWING UPDATES! and for a heads up here is the link about the census and polls:

http://www.humanism.org.uk/campaigns/religion-and-belief-surveys-statistics