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Favourite Places


Prambanan Temple, Chandi Siwa, 7 April 2015  




Trowulan, Bajang Ratu (Sacred), 13 April 2015                                Trowulan, Wringin Lawang (Profane), 13 April 2015



With Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, Yogyakarta 8 April 2015

Civilizations in Embrace

Civilizations in Embrace:The Spread of Ideas and the Transformation of Power. India and Southeast Asia in the Classical Age was published in 2013 by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore, the premier research institution in the world dedicated to Southeast Asia. (Details Available)

The book revisits one of the most extensive examples of the spread of ideas in the history of civilization: the diffusion of Indian religious and political ideas to Southeast Asia before the advent of Islam and European colonialism.  Hindu and Buddhist concepts and symbols of kingship and statecraft helped to legitimize Southeast Asian rulers, and transform the political institutions and authority of Southeast Asia.  But the process of this diffusion was not accompanied by imperialism, political hegemony, or “colonization” as conventionally understood.  This book investigates different explanations of the spread of Indian ideas offered by scholars, including why and how it occurred and what were its key political and institutional outcomes.  It challenges the view that strategic competition is a recurring phenomenon when civilizations encounter each other.  (From the blurb of the book).

The book continues my investigation into the link between art and geopolitics, as outlined in “Monumental Splendours: Journeys into Hindu-Buddhist Temple Art in Southeast Asia”. ( Monumental Splendours is a series of photo blogs about Hindu-Buddhist temple art in Southeast Asia. These blogs record personal journeys into selected sites in Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and Burma. Here is a brief description of the initial project

Monumental Splendoursexamines the three main effects of Indian religious-political ideas and art forms (broadly defined) transmitted to Southeast Asia which helped to define the classical geopolitics of the region. The “diffusion” effect has to be understood in terms of "localisation", a concept proposed by Wolters, and "local genius", proposed by Quaritch Wales. The "legitimation" effect builds on van Leur's "idea of the local initiative" which stresses the functions of Indian religious ideas in legitimizing Southeast Asian kingship and statehood. Champa provides good examples of the legitimation effect involving royal lingas. A more uncertain effect of Indian ideas and art forms is “domination”. That Indian art forms and ideas were brought to Southeast Asia by peaceful means is not doubted, and there is considerable evidence to support the thesis that the internal legitimation of rulers might have been their major effect. But did they also fuel the expansionist ambition of Southeast Asian rulers, as represented in the "chakravartin" concept, through warfare? What role did the transmitted Indian ideas and art forms play in creating the “moral order of the mandalas”, in which the ritualistic, symbolic and transient forms of warfare were supposed to have been more important that “conquest” and colonisation?

A highlight of the book is its elaborate visual part - a photo section with nearly two dozen photographs that illustrate the themes of Localization and Legitimation through the diffusion of art. The photos were mainly about the Hindu-Buddhist temples of Southeast Asia in Borobudur, Champa, Bagan, Angkor, Bali, and Srivijaya (from Chaiya in southern Thailand). These photos were taken by me over a period of ten years. The initial proofs contained several images of ancient Greek temples in Sicily, to illustrate the contrasting process of diffusion of Indian art into Southeast Asia (“Indianization”) and that of Greek art into the Mediterranean (“Hellenization”). But for a variety of reasons, the final manuscript does not contain these Greek temples. But here I present the entire photo section in the proof stage, including the Greek temples of Sicily.


Borobudur - Buddhist Heaven

Built by the Sailendra dynasty in central Java over a period of 80 years in the 9th century AD, Borobudur was "built to resemble a microcosm of the universe and its purpose was to provide a visual image of the teachings of the Buddha and show, in a practical manner, the steps through life that each person must follow to achieve enlightenment. The pilgrim to this shrine would first have been led around the base and shown the friezes, which illustrate the consequences of living in the World of Desire. In this realm ruled by Greed, Envy, and Ignorance, man is a slave to earthly desires and suffers from the illusions that are caused by these unfulfilled yearnings, a state regarded as hell by Buddhists. After completing this circuit, the pilgrim was then led in a clockwise fashion through five levels in a gradual ascension of the pyramid. Here he was shown how to conquer desire and attachment by viewing 1300 panelled friezes that illustrate the life of the Buddha and his previous incarnations. These levels were called the World of Form and correspond to the earthly realm in Buddhist symbology. The passages of both of these realms followed the square shape of the pyramid but above these two lay the World of Formlessness where the right-angled, heavily decorated passages gave way to a round unadorned summit where meditating Buddhas and saints sit in supreme bliss contemplating a view of exquisite beauty. In the centre a bell shaped tower, or stupa, points to heaven, a blissful realm beyond form and concept, known as Nirvana."  Tim Alderson.


Kenya-Masai Mara National Reserve

When I first set my eyes on the lion family on the savannah, my immediate reaction was an immense sigh of relief. Oh my god, these animals are still around for us to see. And that too up so close and personal! It was late afternoon, A refreshingly cool breeze drifted across the lush savannah grass glistening with moisture following a brief spell of rain. April is still the rainy reason. I was on the first day of a three day safari in Maasai Mara, Kenya’s most celebrated wildlife sanctuary and one of Africa’ best. And there I was, within half an hour of entering the park, looking at a family of five lions from my safari vehicle. There were three cubs and their parents. The cubs fed from their mother while the male sat languidly two meters away. Occasionally, a cub would dart across to the male, and climb onto it back, and then return to continue feeding. 

During the next day and half, I would see practically all the animals that Africa is known for, except for the gorillas (they are in Uganda). The list included a total of 15 lions (including 9 adults). Once, on an early morning drive, we saw a single lioness hurry across the trail behind us, heading towards a herd of gazelle not more than 150 meters away.  Another time, just before noon, we saw another lion family, with two males and three cubs, frolicking in the bush. And who could ever forget the sight of a single male African lion fast forwarding deep into the savannah, its sprightly brownish mane marking it out from the soft green and yellow grassy plains. It went about looking which must be prey as a a group of deers were not far way, before disappearing into a bush..


A Taste of the Silk Road: A Personal Journey


During its heydays, when the Tang Dynasty ruled China, the Silk Road was an inhospitable and utterly dangerous place. It nearly cost the most famous pilgrim to travel the road, the 7th century Chinese Monk Xuanzang, his life. Sadly, despite the dramatic improvements in transport and communications, many parts of it are still difficult and unstable. There is Uyghur unrest in China’s Xinjiang province, the site of such major Silk Road stopovers as Hami and Turpan on the north and Khotan (Zeitan) in the south. Taliban menaces the old Silk Road route to India via Afghanistan and Pakistan (Swat Valley). Add Iran, Baghdad, and the Central Asian Republics, and you get the picture.

Yet it is possible to sample the Silk Road, especially the eastern part of of it, from Xi’an to Dunhuang, which is within Chinese territory and very much accessible. It is the next best alternative to going the full distance.

In Xi’an, one can still visit the place where the Silk Road caravan’s took their first steps in the long and hazardous journey. It is now a small park with stone and concrete horses, camels and traders as well as a detailed map of the Silk Road. 


In Search of Shiva

In the Hindu trinity, Shiva is known as the God of destruction, who resides in Mount Kailash in the Himalays, now in the Chinese Tibetan territory. But there was a time when Shiva reigned supreme as the God of protection in ancient Champa, an enterprising trading nation located on the south eastern coast of what is known today as Vietnam. Champa owed its prosperity to its location on the maritime Silk Road that stretched from China to India. But the political beliefs and organisation of its rulers came from India, with Lord Shiva as the official deity of its rulers. Successive Kings of Champa not only sought protection for their kingdom from Lord Shiva, they also claimed personal legitimacy by closely identifying with the deity.

A visit to the Cham Towers that dot the landscape of southern coastal areas of Vietnam (Danang, Binh Dinh, Nha Trang and Phan Rang), and the museums housing Champa artefacts (the most important being the Cham sculpture museum in Danang) attest to this. The main site of Cham civilisation, My Son, is in central Vietnam, which I had visited previously. This time, I was in search of Shiva in the towers of the South, which were built mostly in the last five hundred years of Champa’s tenure as an independent entity.


Monumental Splendours: Journeys into Hindu-Buddhist Temple Art in Southeast Asia.

Pagan and Ava

Monumental Splendours is a series of photo blogs about Hindu-Buddhist temple art in Southeast Asia. These blogs record personal journeys into selected sites in Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and Burma.

The primary purpose of these journeys is to enjoy and revel in the magnificent Hindu-Buddhist temples and their ruins in Southeast Asia. The selection of the sites is a highly personal choice; it’s not meant to convey any ordering of the temple art in terms of their relative historical or cultural importance.


On the Trail of the Buddha: Journeys into Forgotten Buddhist Lands

For those looking for something different in the Asian cultural landscape, Orissa offers an enthralling introduction to a Buddhist civilization that had flourished 2000 years ago, especially between 3rd Century BC and 13th Century AD.

Here, you can scan the horizon atop the very hill from which the great Indian Emperor, Ashoka, witnessed the wanton destruction of the rival Kalinga soldiers and people in the hands of his own invading army. Overcame with remorse, he converted to Buddhism and dispatched missionaries to spread the doctrine of peace and compassion to Southeast Asia and China. In Orissa too, you can visit the ruins of the ancient Buddhist monasteries which the famous Chinese Pilgrim, Xuan Zang, described following his sojourn through eastern India in the 7th century.