Monday, December 13, 2010

Our trip through India

Early this month, Ellen and I had a chance to tour the "Golden Triangle" of NW India--Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur. We were, of course, looking for any and all things pre-1600, but that didn't deter us from enjoying the post-SCA period Mughal and Rajasthani art and architecture.

We started off the trip in Delhi, where we visited Humayun's tomb, built in the 1570--the first "garden tomb" in India, bringing in the Persian "charbagh" style gardens, and a template for designs that you continue to see developed throughout the Mughal period and later. The charbagh style garden was supposed to represent the gardens of paradise, depicted as a square divided by the four heavenly rivers.


The local red sandstone is a feature that will be popping up time and again, and is one of the things that makes this and other constructions in the area so eye-poppingly unique.


The complex builds on traditional Persian and Central Asian architectural styles, showing a remarkable appreciation for mathematics and geometry, particularly in the way it uses perspective. As my wife said, "It is great to photograph a building that knows how to work it!"

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Humayun is actually buried beneath the central dome. There are 150 cenotaphs scattered around the tomb complex, indicating later burials. However, there is no indication as to who is actually buried under any of them. It is assumed that they were Mughal nobility, but nobody seems certain.

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There is another large tomb in the charbagh for, of all people, his barber; or so tradition states. We don't know who is there, but the tomb can be dated to the 1590s. The common story is that it was built for Humayun's barber and confidant--after all, you had to trust the person whom you allowed with a razor that close to the royal throat!

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Humayun's tomb is part of a larger complex was built next to (and inclusive of) the octagonal tomb of previous Delhi sultan Isa Khan Nyazi, which has been on the site since 1547.

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The complex was meant to be visited; a portion was set aside with quarters where travelers could stay, known as the "arabserai" ("serai" indicates a location to stay--whether inn, fort, harem, etc.). This is a common feature of many Indo-Islamic complexes.

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From the tomb for the second Mughal emperor, we headed back in time with the Qutb Minar complex. This World Heritage site was built in 1192 by Qutbu'd-Din Aibak to celebrate Mohammed Ghori's triumph over the Hindu rajputs.


It reused stones from various local temples that were dismantled by the conquering Islamic forces. The images of deities were often defaced except where they would not be seen--of course, with the subsequent erosion of the temple, many of those have come to light.


Besides being one of the oldest examples of Indo-Islamic architecture, the minaret is the highest stone tower in India. It was built in stages. After the first storey, the next three were added by Qutbu'd-Din's successor, Samsu'd-Din Iltutmish. After the top storey was destroyed in a lightning strike, it was replaced and a fifth storey added by Firoz Shah Tughlaq in 1368. Later repairs were conducted in 1503 and 1803, with some further back-and-forth renovations during the period of the British Raj.


A second tower was begun by Ala ud din Khilji in 1311 which would have exceeded the original minaret, but it was never completed.


The congregational mosque (Qubbat-ul-Islam) that was built as part of the complex is not in such great shape, but the borrowed stone is great for a sample of traditional Hindu (specifically Jain) temple architectural features.

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In addition, there is an iron pillar erected in the center of the mosque that was brought from elsewhere. It is dated to the 4th century and mentions a king "Chandra", generally thought to be Chandragupta II. It is remarkable in that it has not rusted away--experts are unsure of how it was made, given its size and apparent metallurgical consistency.

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Next up, Agra and Fathepur Sikri!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Interesting times

So, anyone who watches the news in Thailand knows that we are going through some interesting times out here. I prefer not to comment on the political situation, but we are safe (though the protests start about a half mile from our apartment), and we can neither hear nor see anything that the news is telling us about. Most of the activity seems to be happening in other places (we can't even see the barricades from here).

For more information, we recommend:
Bangkok Post
The Nation
Tulsathit's Twitter Page

For the official information for US citizens:
U.S. Embassy in Bangkok
NOTE: If you are living in Bangkok you can sign up to get messages from the embassy for all US citizens. I recommend that all US citizens abroad register with the local US embassy in case of local emergency.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Growing the SCA in Thailand

So how does one become responsible for starting a new branch of the SCA in a foreign country? I'm not 100% sure, but we're going to try to find out!

As many of you know, our new friend, known in the SCA as Saito Takauji, moved into the area back in January, and we've been hanging out and talking about things SCA. However, in contact with the Barony of the Far West, we learned of a group of Thai larpers that are interested in going from foam swords to something more substantial. And look at how they came decked out!

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We had our first meeting the other day, and started getting them some basic practice in what needs to be done. We need to get some rattan, now, and some armor, clothing, and, well, figure out where we are.

The closest group is in Japan. However, that's a baronial group, and if this really gets going, we need to figure out what is best for our Thai compatriots. If they want royalty, honors, etc., then is it better for them to be a part of the West Kingdom, based on the West coast of the US, or the Kingdom of Lochac, based in Australia. Lochac is definitely closer, but there aren't any groups near us. On the other hand, I don't know when the last royal visit to Japan was--not a problem for people who travel to the US regularly.

Of course, this may not be in our hands, so we'll see what the BoD says. In the meantime, we'll just do what we can to get our soon-to-be incipient Canton of the Golden Plains up and running!

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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Seoul, Korea

Pop music, video games, green architecture, and centuries of history, all packed into 21st century city--that's what we found in Seoul, Korea.

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Although we had both been looking forward to it, we had no idea what to expect in Seoul. It is definitely a city on the move, with a blend of history and technology.

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One of the palaces we checked out was Deoksugung. It was built as a mansion sometime in the 14th or 15th century, and was used as a royal residence after the Japanese invaded and burned down the palaces in the late 16th century.

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They still do the changing of the guards at several palaces; this practice has actually been resurrected based on documented evidence. They do it several times a day, and, since there is no more Korean royalty, it is done mainly as a cultural exhibition.

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Another palace we visited was Changgeonggun. There, we were treated to a reenactment of a royal banquet, complete with the "king" coming in on a litter born by his servants.

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We even got into the act. There were stations set up on the weekends where you could try historical Korean costume, or hanbok, and have your picture taken.

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Besides this historical displays, we also found modern performance arts groups, like the one below. This martial arts comedy was performed in front of the National Museum, and its slapstick comedy is pretty self-explanatory.

Food is also a draw in Korea. This is, after all, the home of Korean BBQ; plates of raw meat and possibly other items) are brougth out to your table, where you have your own grill. It cooks right in front of you, and you have a variety of choices as to what to eat it with, once it is ready.

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Of course, it isn't all about meat. In fact, since Buddhism had long had a strong presence in Korea (and is still the official religion of the state, though many Koreans are Christian), there are are many vegetarian restaurants that recreate the food from Buddhist monasteries. Of course, it isn't in the meager portions one might expect in an austere religious institution.

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After dinner, Seoul is still wired, and people might go out for coffee or alcohol. Our friends took us out to a wonderful little hole in the wall that served dongdongju, a Korean unfiltered rice liquor. It is not uncommon for people to go out drinking and stay up so late that, rather than going home, they will just go into work. There are plenty of stories of people having beds in their offices so that they can be at work on time.

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That, in brief, was Seoul. We spent plenty of time taking it in, and didn't have nearly enough time. There was a breathtaking sense of history in all of the palaces, museums, and reenactments; and yet there was also a sense of the modern, future city. There were examples of new, green technology in use in architecture that were really incredible in their scale. This is definitely a city that has one foot in the past and the other firmly planted in the future.

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Sunday, May 3, 2009

Pi Mai in Laos

Laos. A country shrouded in mystery. Though briefly during the Cold War its name was splashed across the headlines, I doubt most people remember it today. Nestled along the Mekong valley beneath verdant carst peaks, it rests chiefly between Vietnam and Thailand, sharing borders with Burma, China, and Cambodia. A communist country, still pock-marked with unexploded ordinance left from bitter fighting, it would hardly seem like the ideal vacation spot.

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Yet Communism seems to have done nothing to dull the open friendliness of the Lao people. Perhaps, as has been said, Communism was just not designed for the agricultural lifestyle of the average Lao. Whatever the reason, Laos is an amazingly relaxed country, even in the "big city" Luang Prabang.

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The ancient capital city of Laos is today an ideal spot to just unwind. Most of the people still make their living in an agricultural economy, though commercialism is coming in along with the "falang" as word of Laos spreads. Still, there is plenty of traditional culture in Luang Prabang, which is a city of temples--the oldest founded in the 16th century.

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We were there with friends whom Ellen had met online. Peter had been to Luang Prabang several times before, and two years ago made reservations for his own family and friends at the Apsara, a cozy little place on the Nam Kan river-side. He then asked friends to join him--and a few of us did.

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The reservations were deliberately made for Pi Mai, the Lao new year (their version of Songkran).

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As in Thailand, Songkran is a water festival. Water fights erupt everywhere, and going out means getting wet. Not that this is an objectionable thing in the heat of the day. Still, we were rotating through clothes to keep dry.

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Everyone gets involved in the water fights in Laos, which started early--there were already kids hitting passing tuktuks and motorcycles as early as Friday before the official festivities.

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Foreigners, including Westerners ("falang," the Lao term for the Thai word "farang," but used more amongst foreigners themselves than by the Lao), Thai, and others were everywhere. Thai tourists often came as much for the merit making activities as anything else--such as getting up early in the morning to give alms to the monks as they parade through the city.

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In both Thai and Laos, where the people are intimately connected with the rivers, streams, and canals, water holds an especially prominent place. This seems doubly true along the Mekong, where it seems that ancient practices are mingled with Buddhist ritual.

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For instance, instead of building the sand chedis in the temple grounds, along the Mekong the people build sand (or mud) chedis along the river. It is a busy family gathering, and many of the chedis are built directly on the riverbank, with a small channel dug between the chedi and the water. This apparently allows for the spirit of the river, usually envisioned as a naga, to come or go from the chedi.

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There is also a festival of salting the clouds. Handmade rockets are launched from a bamboo platform. They are supposed to help encourage the rain. Here you can see one going off:

Pi Mai lasts for much longer in Luang Prabang than in Thailand, and there are numerous little festivals. One of the local villages, known for their silk, had a small ceremony and festival.


Local or regional worthies were invited as guests of honor, who were welcomed in style. After a long speech (in which I have no idea what was said), there were various dances performed by men and women, apparently from the local area.

Despite the local atmosphere (it was mostly Lao there), the tourist papparazzi were there in force.


Besides the local festivals, people also take the time just to go out. We spent some time up at the local waterfalls--a beautiful area.

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They even have an Asian bear rescue center.

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The waterfall itself is beautiful, but the smooth cascades below were even moreso.

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Granted, the hike to the top was probably more than we had bargained on, but the view was incredible.

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Unfortunately, going down wasn't nearly as peaceful! A steep gradiant with little to no real trail. We started leapfrogging down--the person in front helping the people in back, etc.

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After coming back down, we headed towards some of the pools where swimming was allowed. The best had a tree leaning out that one could swing from before splashing into the pool below.

Back in the "big city," there is a carnival atmosphere on the outskirts, complete with dart games and bumper cars. Although perhaps driving around in a vehicle connected to an electric grid in the middle of a thunder storm might not have been the best idea ever.


Later in the week, there is a beauty pageant, followed by a parade with all of the contestants and anyone else who wants to join in.

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The real center of the festivities, though, is the Prabang (or Pabang)--the royal Buddha.

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It is taken to a local temple, where it is installed so that people may pour water over it in a ritual of cleansing. It is believed that this will help make merit for the people doing it, allowing them to get closer to their goal of attaining Buddhahood themselves.

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Unfortunately, that ceremony was to take place the day after we were to leave. Still, we had a wonderful time, and I definitely look forward to returning some day, even if it is just to sit by the river and watch the sunset.

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