Sunday, August 07, 2022

Greater Kruger National park trip (Sabi Sands and Timbavati)

South Africa and its famed Kruger national park has been in my dreams for many years. Couple of times I had made detailed plans to go down (including booking campsites in Kruger park one of the times) but due to one reason or the other it never materialized. So all the while I went to Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda etc. South Africa remained a mystery. 

This time I decided to make it a family trip and since this would be Aarav's first Africa trip (though he has had multiple safari experiences in India), we thought of skipping camping and going the lodge route. Also since this would be a once in lifetime event (given the prices of private reserves, unlikely I'm going to repeat it in a jiffy for sure), we decided to open our purse strings a bit. Especially coming as it was after the Covid induced lock downs leading to couple of years worth of travel budget left unused. 

First and foremost was to get the Visa. It seemed more laborious than previously, probably due to the various rule changes due to Covid. Thankfully the Visa is still free for Indians and hence we had to spend only for services at VFS in Dubai. After we submitted a truckload of documents (had to go back once due to the incomplete nature of the said truckload), we got our Visas within a week. First hurdle crossed, it gave us additional impetus to finalize the bookings for which we had paid advances. 

We were clear on a few design principles - we would not do Kruger main park nor do self drive. Primarily this was due to lack of offloading in Kruger and I'm also not a fan of the crowd during winter holidays at Kruger. We wanted something wilder and exclusive - again something helped by the 2-year worth of travel budget savings ! Given that we were spending only 8 days in South Africa given leaves, we did not want to take a chance. 

We decided on Sabi Sands and Timbavati as the two reserves we would want to be in. Both world-famous as the top private concessions of South Africa. Once the reserves were finalized, we had to choose the resorts. After back and forth with friends and forum members of SafariTalk, we decided on Umkumbe at Sabi Sands and Bateleur at Timbavati. The booking process was straightforward and the response and service levels were amazing. 

Since we were flying on 8th July we decided to start anti malarials by 6th. Went with the significantly more expensive Malarone this time given this was Aarav's first malerial prophylactic, and we were not sure how he might react to sun with the other prophylactics. With that out of the way, we excitedly waited for the 8th morning !

8th July 2022

Ubered to Terminal 3 of the Dubai airport for our Emirates direct flight to Johannesburg. With an ETD at 9:55 am and ETA at 4:15 pm in Joburg, we found it to be a great timing with kids even though we lose one full day inflight. Post landing, we were picked by our cousin living in Joburg, and we spend a nice evening at his place playing with his son plus two lovely dogs !

9th July 

Woke up early in the morning to sounds of love birds on the bird feed in the garden. Decided to test my new mirrorless camera Canon R6 in combination with the 300 f2.8 on the lovebirds. After clicking a few test shots, wrapped up all photography gear for the serious work ahead !

After a sumptuous home made break fast, we decided to go to Soweto to the famed Villakazi street housing Mandela House. We spent an hour or so learning about the venerated leader and his wife's lives, struggles and leadership in South African history. Outside, we were presented with local dancers doing a touristy dance routine. 

After Mandela house, we decided to go to the local farmer's market - Fourway Farmer's Market. It has multiple stalls serving delicious piping hot food of varied cuisines. The weather was a lovely 20 degrees, sunny and the whole area had an amazing energy including open air seating and a live band performing. 

Evening was well spent relaxing with family members and having a delicious Indian dinner ordered from a restaurant close to Sandton. 

10th July 

Woke up to a cold Joburg morning with the temperature reading a chilly 6 degrees. Got into the heated truck and were dropped at the Domestic terminal of OR Tambo international airport for our flight to Kruger via Air Link. We boarded the small plane that would take us to Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport - one of the 3 airports through which one can access the massive Greater Kruger National park. 

After a short 45-minute flight, we landed at KMIA airport in Nelspruit. We were welcomed and accosted by our driver booked via Umkumbe themselves. We decided to take some local currency for tips and incidental expenses en route.  Right out of the airport we saw our first interesting sighting - that of a melanistic impala grazing next to the road. 

In less than couple of hours, we reached the Sabi Sands Gate and then in a short while we reached the Umkumbe River Lodge with its well appointed chalets. We were in the large Elephant chalet at the end and next to electric fence. It was a great location since we could see elephants next to our chalet on most days (of course the other side of the electric fence) - and hence the name of the chalet turned out to be quite apt. Off-safari times, my favorite thing to do was sit reading a book, looking over the Sand river, the elephants grazing there, sipping a Windhoek. Or just sit beside the pool deck and enjoy the same view. Water was too cold most of the time for a dip so avoided the swimming. 

We relaxed in the lounge since the chalet was not ready yet given check in time of 2p.m. We had a quick lunch by which time room was ready, and we were escorted to the chalet. We were asked to be ready by 4 p.m for our first South African safari !!  

The very first safari brought us couple of antelopes that were lifers for us - the Kudu and the Nyala - apart from many other plain games like Zebra, Impalas and Blue Wildebeest / Gnu. Just out of the camp, we saw couple of Dagga boys (African buffaloes) - our first of Big Five. The buffaloes were covered in flies and were lazing around. They got up, gave us a bored look and went off in search of food and friends. 

The highlight of the safari was a large herd of elephants at sundown. It was lovely to watch the beautiful African sunset surrounded by the sounds and sights and smells of the herd. That also meant we had ticked off 2 of the Big fives in the first drive. 

Just when we thought we had a great safari to start off our South Africa experience, we found 3 Cheetah brothers preparing to hunt an impala at night close to the border with Londolozi. We followed them for a while but soon they crossed over to Londolozi, and we left them to head back to camp. On the way we saw side striped jackals to add to the night fun. We also heard male lion in the vicinity, but we couldn't track it given it seemed to have crossed over the border. 

Back in camp at around 8 p.m , we had a lovely dinner under the stars around a camp fire. Dinners on all days across the two lodges were amazing - the same can be said in general about food though we had vegetarian. Chef seems to be quite adept at catering to different palates, and we never ever had complaints about quality of food or service - both at Umkumbe and Bateleur. 

We slept off to the sounds of roaring lions from across the Sand river behind the camp. These were thought to be the male lions of the Styx pride who were now in the Mala Mala concession - other side of the sand river. (For all we know it might well have been the Kambula pride resident there also)

11th July

A very cold early morning wake up call at 6 by our guide saw us already fully ready for safari. We had woken up at 5 and was decked up in winter cloths ready to go and have our hot chocolate and cookies. We saw the mists rising up over the sand river - which passes just behind the Umkumbe. You can sip a hot chocolate sitting next to the pool watching the mists rise up from the river along with early rays of the African sun. Few things in the world can match it ! In the mists we could also see presence of elephants in the river, which would be a common occurrence most days we spent at Umkumbe. 

After passing couple of Giraffes who momentarily blocked our path forward, we caught up with the Styx pride. In the early golden rays, we saw the moms playing with the cubs. The male lions who were roaring through the night were not to be found. However, we spent a good 45 minutes in the company of the 15+ lions all around our vehicle. Priceless way to tick off the 3rd of big five at Sabi. 

We returned to the camp before 10 to find elephants all around. There was a herd numbering over 40 of all ages happily munching grass and bush all around the camp and in the river. We had lunch enjoying seeing this amazing sight. As we got ready for evening safari around 4 p.m, they were still in the river bed. 

We heard that there was a male from another pride sleeping in the Umkumbe concession, and so we decided to go and check him out. He was from the Kambula pride from across the river at Mala Mala, one of the largest and well known concessions of Sabi. Since the sub adult was just happy sleeping we left him and went in search of other residents of the bush. 

We soon came across a white rhino grazing in open with sunset approaching. However, the excitement of seeing the Rhino was immediately over shadowed by a radio call mentioning the resident leopardess Sesekele was on the move close by. 

Soon enough another jeep tracked her and informed us about the location of this beautiful adult female leopard. We went in search of her and found her just in time of her scratching a tree with her claws. Soon enough though she decided to move into thick brush, and we lost track of her. 

However, our tracker saw another one behind our jeep stealthily moving - one we never could find again. That mystery would remain as to which it was and where it went ! Most believed it would have been Sesekele's cub. That then was our last 2 of the big five in a span of an hour - leopard and Rhino. 

We went back to the white Rhino and spend some time with it before our sun downers. We had a relaxed night drive which yielded a white tailed mongoose and were back in camp at around 7:30 for a lovely dinner. After putting batteries for charge and ensuring cloth and camera bags were ready for an early morning start, we decided to take an early night. 

12th July

Before we knew, our last full day at Umkumbe had come upon us. We had seen all the Big 5 by now. Plus the Cheetah surprise. The morning safari started with some interesting antelopes - a male Kudu bull and then a steenbok eating leaves pretty close to road. Apart from these, we also saw a Duiker which was quite skittish and far away. The morning safari ended without yielding much else. 

During lunchtime, we heard baboons alarm calling from over the kitchen area. Though we couldn't see the reason for their excitement we knew there was something lurking around. And soon enough as we wrapped up our lunch we saw a big male leopard (the resident Nweti) ambling across the river away from Umkumbe and towards Mala Mala.

For the afternoon, we decided to track the resident Styx pride again. Soon we caught up with the Styx pride who were all lazing around in a grassy open space. We waited for 30 minutes and soon the young ones were up and jumping around, play fighting and climbing onto their sleeping moms. The females seemed curious to follow sound coming from opposite side before realizing it was anti poaching unit members and not any of their beloved prey. We left the Styx pride after an hour and went back to the camp following an uneventful night journey. 

13th July 

In our final morning, we met with a small Elephant herd which had a female with a tusk bent backwards. We spent close to an hour with the herd seeing them feed on grass, bush and then have a drink. 

After leaving the elephants, we were greeted by the pleasurable sight of a white rhino mom and calf peacefully grazing. They came quite close to us - we could almost touch them if we wanted to. It was a great experience to have these creatures hunted for their useless horn by poachers be so comfortable with humans. We also painfully realised they were dehorned to reduce the risk of poaching. Sad to see so many animals butchered for something which is as useless as our finger nails. 

We got back to the camp at around 9:45 and got ourselves busy with packing for our transfer to Timbavati. We had booked transfer through Swift and the driver was prompt in picking us up. We started our drive to Timbavati after settling bills at Umkumbe and leaving tips in envelopes for guide (Sam, an amazingly knowledgeable young guide), trackers and other staff. 

We reached Timbavati around 2 after taking stop to buy some snacks, toothpaste etc and taking some money from ATM. We reached later than expected since there was a long drive after entering Timbavati/Klaserie to Bateleur given the 30 kmph strict speed limit. 

We were greeted at Bateleur by Phillippa & her team with some drinks and wet towel. After explaining to us about the camp and amenities, we were accosted to our tent named Ingwe which means leopard in Shangaan. 

Unlike at Sabi, at Bateleur safaris start early at around 3 p.m. So we did not have much time to enjoy the camp area before our first drive. First drive was mostly spent enjoying the company of 4 tuskers which came at touching distance of our jeep. After clicking some nice snaps of them in late evening light, we had our sundowner. 

After the sundowner, we went on our night drive assisted ably by our tracker Lucky who is one of the best I've seen in Africa over the past decade or so. Just before camp we (lucky) saw a leopard in dry river bed and hence we decided to offroad a bit to get a closer look. (At Timbavati offroading is typically done for only big cats or other interesting sightings). After clicking a few regulation shots of the leopard, we left it to go back to camp. 

It was a lovely dinner under the full moon overlooking the small seasonal river behind Bateleur. 

14th July 

At bateleur there is some light snacks early in the morning before the drive - like yogurt, hot chocolate, cookies, fruits and flakes / muesli. After partaking some in the cold, dark morning we got ready for what would turn out to be one of the most memorable days of safaris.

As we were driving through the main path of Timbavati, from afar we saw a lioness walking on the road. As we approached her, we saw her looking to the sides and soon two other lionesses joined her on the path. As we positioned our vehicle across the road, the 3 of them lay down to relax in beautiful early morning sunshine. As they moved about afterwards, we could see their breath shining in the golden sunrays. The 3 of them soon started roaring for rest of their pride, named Mayambula whose territory overlaps many concessions including Bataleur, Tanda Tula and even part of Kruger. In a breathtaking display of chorus, we were treated to couple of minutes of intense roaring right next to our vehicle. Three full-grown lionesses at their prime, touching distance from yourself and roaring at an insane intensity sends you to extreme of excitement. 

With hearts beating fast, we waited till they walked across our vehicle and went their ways. We waited to see if the rest of the Maymbula pride would join them, but they didn't. 

We did roam around a bit post that but nothing matched the intensity of the morning, and we retired to camp for lunch and sharing the stunning experience with others. 

After a sumptuous lunch, we decided to relax reading a book at the pool deck looking at vervet monkeys in the garden and across the dry river bed. Few of them decided to even enjoy their own reflections in the mirror kept next to the public restrooms at Bataleur. 

We also had the regular Nyalas for company that munches on the grass growing around the tents. 

Afternoon drive was very uneventful, and we saw pretty much nothing - not even plain games, and we were wondering what happened to all the animals. Soon luck changed. We got called into a leopard sighting. Since only two vehicles are allowed we had to be in the queue. When our time came, we were allowed to look for the leopard. She was named Thumbela. Quite an old lady who have had multiple litters. We spotted her in the Rockfig concession over which Bataleur has traverse rights. It was splendid 15-20 minutes of following her as she first tracked and made an attempt at hunting a Steenbok and then royally sat atop a dead tree surveying her kingdom. 

Leaving her and letting the next in line to follow her, we went in search of other animals. The only other interesting sighting was a chameleon in the night drive- a great catch by our tracker lucky. 

15th July

Our last full day at Bataleur was quite uneventful though we did see a large herd of buffaloes and plenty of interesting birds. And late in the evening we bumped into a large herd of white Rhinos numbering over 8 dispersed inside thick brush. We spent some time with them acknowledging the privilege of seeing them roam the open plains unlike their black Rhino cousins who have been nearly poached to extinction in many parts of Africa, all for their useless horns. 

16th July 

The last morning we went searching for the male lions and cubs of Mayambula pride. We tried everything we could, including lucky at one point tracking on foot but alas though we came across fresh scat and urine we never could find the pride. Since we had already done our Big 5 at Bataleur also and had a great time with the lionesses and leopards, we were not unduly unhappy ! We ended the sojourn with a lovely dance by 3 Ostriches very close to the road. And few Giraffes sashaying through the grass lands.

Grass was still quite high for South African winter given late rains and hence one could say the sightings overall was probably not as high as a typical winter especially with regards to the smaller mammals. 

In the afternoon, we said bye to the lovely people at Bataleur and drove back to Johannesburg instead of flying so that we could enjoy having a close look at the Blyde's canyon. The weather was lovely and it was worth spending around 7 hours on the road enjoying the many farmlands, mountain ranges and finally the suburban Johannesburg. 

After spending a lazy evening at home, we flew back to Dubai the next day wrapping up a memorable trip and personally for me stopping the South African jinx which seemed to have had a strong hold over me for past years. The icing on the cake was some brilliant sightings (Big 5 at both Sabi and Timbavati) and spending time with extended family at Joburg ! And to the Ingwes and Ngalas and Nyathis of these beautiful bushes - we will be back ! (Those are Shangaan words for leopards, lions and buffaloes :)

Video of the whole trip can be found here

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Mahabharata : Personal thoughts and comparison with Ramayana

Mahabharata within itself tells about itself - many before has sung , many are singing now, many henceforth shall continue to sing. (Aakhyasanti tataivani itihasam imam bhuvi). A sort of immortality of itself is in many ways seeded within itself, atleast the text aspires for the same. If one were to look at it's genesis and further progress over the past many decades, it becomes clear that the creation has succeeded in this aspiration to a large extent.   

Each of us can look at this creation and find ourselves, stories mirroring our realities. MB itself acknowledges the same when it says -  yadihAsti tadanyatra yannEhAsti na tat kvacit (Adi Parva: 56:33;) - that which exists in this exists elsewhere too, but that which doesn't exist in this does not exist anywhere else. AK Ramanuja says about MB that it is a tradition, not a literary or textual creation alone. And in many ways it has grown into a multi faceted creation that is so intrinsic to many fronts of Indian life - science, theology, politics, philosophy, literature, art, cinema, novel etc.

Mahabharata is quite different from the other large Indian epic of Ramayana on multiple levels. While Ramayana is a straight forward linear story, MB is multi pronged, going in different directions without a clear moral lesson. In Ramayana, what is just and unjust is clear. Rama is just, Ravana is unjust. The just wins in battle against unjust.
In Mahabharata, justice is no one's monopoly. (It itself says, dharmasya tatvam nihitham guhayam - the truth about what is right is hidden deep in the caves). Ramayana is a fight of just Aryans against people who are not part of their "clan" / societies - against a king in a different country, leading to death of that country men, tribals with monkey and bear totems - none of whom are from Ayodhya (the country ruled by Rama). MB is complex because there the fight is among relatives - within a country, within even a house. Vast majority of death also happens among Kshatriyas, within Kuru clan.

Ramayana is triumphant, celebrates victory. MB is tragic with no final, lasting victory. There is nothing to celebrate.
Ramayana is affirmative - it is clear cut in what it wants to convey (definition of maryada purushotham, his embodiment Rama, his way of ensuring justice). MB is interrogative forever asking questions of readers and forcing them to debate answers and arrive at own conclusions.
Ramayana celebrates the embodiment of a perfect man, Rama. No human in MB is an embodiment perfection, including the future godhead Krishna.
Ofcourse there is no mention of MB in Ramayana (Since Ramayana supposedly happens in Treta Yuga, before the yuga in which MB happens). In MB Ramayana is being retold, for the benefit of Yudhishtir during Vana Parva. The context of Rama in MB is not as embodiment of human perfection but as an unlucky king who lost his all and had to spend time in forest. When Yudhishtir during his days of forest dwelling after having lost the gamble (and through that his kingdom, wife and brothers) to Kauravas, asks sages - is there anyone across Yugas who is as unlucky as me? An embodiment of the pinnacle of human misery.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Sacred Groves or Garden of Gods

Many states in India have what are called sacred groves or gardens of the gods. In Kerala they are typically called "Kaavu" for various deities - mostly old tribal deities, goddesses predominantly. In this age when creating gargantuan and mostly ugly places for worship seems to be in vogue, its good to understand how these old gardens (which I find to be the true spiritual abodes) performed a critical ecological function. Most of these groves had evergreen forest patches around, that were left uncut and undisturbed due to the fear and/or respect for the god/goddess believed to be living inside. 

The most important ecosystem service that forest patches like "kaavu" provide is water. They are the points of origin for streams that later join to form rivers. They provide oxygen and sequester carbon, control the micro climate and help precipitate rains (or atleast used to). With ever increasing urbanisation, most of these have now become concretised temples with 1-2 large trees left standing as the last beacon of once beautiful evergreen forest. 

I have been chatting up with people living close to these sacred groves and they say their wells are never dry even in peak summer, they wake up listening to myriad birds and the air is always cool and fresh. I wish these are prioritised over constructing ever larger, newer temples. No god would want to sit in your concrete mansions - they'd rather dance and make love in these sacred groves, truly the garden of gods. I asked mine and she concurs :-)

Tuesday, June 09, 2020

Mahabharata Part 3

War ensues. Almost everyone is killed on both sides in the 18 days of war. On 19th morning, a war which saw most of the janapadas existent in India at that time participate, left not many alive.
The ground was slippery with human flesh and blood. A war which started with (supposedly) 4,000,000 people left less than 15 alive. 7 on Pandava side (Pandavas, Krishna, Satyaki), 3 on Kaurava side (Ashwathama, Kripa and Kritavarma),  Yuyutsu (Half brother of Kauravas but fought from Pandava camp) and Vrishaketu (Karna's son).

One could say Bhishma did survive the war but was fatally wounded. In many ways MB reflects the purposelessness of Bhishma's life. It unmasked an old man who many thought was great but he himself probably had severe insecurities about his greatness. He never rose to the occasion when fate demanded - not on behalf of Amba, not on behalf of Draupadi, not on behalf of Pandavas, not on behalf of Karna, not on behalf of justice. He could have prevented the war - but he ended up being an utter and complete failure.

When Yudhishtir stands atop the ruin of war, corpses being eaten by vultures, his own elder brother Karna dead (he never knew Karna was his elder brother till the end),  he realizes the futility of all wars and how his success is absolutely meaningless.

"Jayoyam ajayakaro jayatasmat parajayah". His famous lament which roughly translates as "at this very moment of success, i realise we won but we lost, this success is ultimately a failure".

Duryodhana had cursed him saying while Duryodhana was king, he ruled a state full of prosperity, happy cries of children, blessed families - husbands, wives & mothers, where as Yudhishtir will inherit a sea of remorse, a country of corpses and an ocean of widows. And thus it happened.

Many wished it didn't happen. At least on Pandava side there was a clear wish to avoid bloodshed, if at all possible. The two people who were dead against not fighting were two women - Draupadi and Kunti. Two feisty characters who stood their ground in a patriarchal society (one could question this general premise since women enjoyed a far more freer existence in these times than years latter in India) and made their sounds heard and words count. One for revenge, the other for justice.

Draupadi had clear reasons for revenge. She was abused and molested by Kauravas in the Hastinapur royal hall in front of so called stalwarts of dharma including Bhishma, Drona and Vidura, not to mention Dhritarashtra, who should have considered her equal to his own daughter. Draupadi, also referred to as Panchali, since she was princess of Panchala (In today's Uttar Pradesh, close to Himalayas), was gambled away by Yudhishtir, her senior most husband. In what would be India's own "Nora moment" ( Nora of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House), she asks if she was gambled before or after Yudhishtir gambled himself and his brothers away in the game of dice against Shakuni (brother of Gandhari). When it was confirmed that the pathetic Yudhishtir had gambled himself before her, Draupadi questions his legal right to put her at stake since he had already become a slave and with that surrendered his right over her. Unfortunately none in the royal court came to her rescue and she was molested in spite of it being illegal and ofcourse adharmic. Some later version of MB says Krishna came to her rescue and gave her a cloth piece to hide herself in, which was of infinite length. Most scholars now agree this was a later addition and not part of the original story. Krishna was not present there and if he was it is highly unlikely Mahabharata war would happened since he would have prevented the unjust treatment of Draupadi, one key factor that played in the final war.

Kunti had lived as a dependent ever since Pandu died. Though she was outwardly respected by all, it was clear no one listened to her after Gandhari became the queen. But revenge was not her driving force. Justice for her sons were. She asks Krishna to not push unequal, unjust negotiations at any cost and exhorts Pandavas to pick arms against their cousins.

Finally though, it is women who loose everything. Gandhari her hundred sons, Draupadi all her sons, most married women their husbands, most children their fathers. Kunti escapes least hurt but loses her first born son Karna who fought from Kaurava side. More importantly the justice she badly wanted came too late for her children and when it did come, there was no meaning nor celebration in the victory.

Jayoyam ajayakaro jayatasmat parajayah....

Sunday, June 07, 2020

Mahabharata : Part 2


The basic story plot has already been explained in the previous parts. But it is the associated discussions that show why MB has become so core to Indian discourses even today. In that sense it is quite different from an Iliad or Odyssey or any other western classic. Many of these are likely only taught in specific courses in universities. However epics in India lives even to this day - across political, cultural, historical, theatrical, cinematic, poetic and pretty much all stages of art. These days there are even attempts to bring MB into the fold of science with varying degrees of success and oftentimes incredulous failures.

When we enter, what I call the "ecosystem" content, which leads the path from Jaya to MB, there is proliferation of myths, local stories, tall tales, clan history, political geography and explanations of local ways of life. Hence even talking about scientific history of MB as such is futile and I would not even try to do so.

Given this, it is still worthwhile to know the overall plot genesis and progress, as confusing as it might get at times.

The Kuru Clan

There was once a king Shantanu who is at the top of Kuru clan pyramid. Shantanu marries a river, Ganga (Yes!). They have a son named Bhishma (actual name Devavrata). Later Shantanu falls in love and also marries Satyavati whose mother is a fish and foster father is a ferry driver. However for this to happen, Devavrata has to promise Satyavati's parents that her son and not himself, will sit on Kuru throne after Shantanu. This gives Devavrata his famous name of Bhishma - the one who makes difficult promises! Oh and by the way, Satyavati's actual father was a king whose semen was dropped in river by a hawk which was carrying it to his original wife, whose father was mountain and mother a river. This dropped semen was responsible for Satyavati's mother being a fish. Satyavati had a pre-marital relation with a sage from whom she had another sage as son, who is Ved Vyas, the first assumed author of Mahabharata (or for more precision,  let us say Jaya). Confusions are typically pardoned at this juncture !

Satyavati had a son named Vichitraveerya, who had to be put upon the Kuru throne in line with Bhishma's pledge to Satyavati's parents. Bhishma steals three girls for him to procreate and thereby progress the Kuru clan (not a lot of feminist ideals then, you see !) These were Amba, Ambika, Ambalika. Amba pleads Bhishma to let her go, since she is in love with another King. Bhishma leaves her but her lover refuses to accept her and she suicides, but not before getting a boon that she will be reborn as a transgender, Shikhandi, who would later become the cause of death of Bhishma in the Mahabharata war.

Meanwhile Vichitraveerya marries Ambika and Ambalika. Unfortunately, he dies without fathering any children with the two queens. Now as per the tradition of the land, Satyavati invites Bhishma to father kids on behalf of his half brother with his half-sister in laws ! But since Bhishma is known never to waver from his pledges, he refuses his step-mom. Instead, she invites Vyasa (her son from her extra marital affair, the author who writes MB/Jaya - probably) who was wandering the forests to father kids with the queens. She asks the two queens to be ready in the night for receiving a man. Queens believe (as per the tradition) Bhishma has agreed and is mentally prepared to receive him at night. However, to their shock they see an uncouth, forest dwelling sage in their bed at night. First it was Ambika, who closes her eyes at the moment of coitus unable to look at her partner. Hence the son born in this union (Dhritarashtra) turns out to be blind.

Next is the turn of Ambalika. She faints at the sight of the sage instead of the prince in her bed. Hence the union produces an offspring (Pandu) who is pale (likely an albino). I'm sorry - I know it's bullshit, but bear with me. We will get to the meaty content in a bit !

Unhappy with the end products from Vyasa's activities, Satyavati asks Ambika to be ready to take him again. This time, Ambika tricked everyone by asking one of her servant maids to be her body double. Voila, Vyasa has an amazing time and the union produces an intelligent human - Vidura who would go on to become the prime minister of Hastinapur. Unfortunately, since he was born of a low class maid (and hence not from the kshatriya /warrior class) , he would never be accorded the respect he is due - and never considered for leadership positions or the throne itself. It's worthwhile to note that everyone defers to his words, especially, the senior most Pandava prince, Yudhishtir, but he cannot take important decisions or define the future of the kingdom or the clan.

Bhishma now arranges brides for the blind Dhritarashtra and pale Pandu, namely Gandhari and Kunti, the former he brought from Afghanistan (Gandhara in those days) not divulging the fact that she would marry a blind man. When Gandhari gets to know that she has been cheated by Bhishma, she ties her eyes with a bandana promising never to open it again. She accepts blindness as a mark of protest - a slap on the face of Bhishma and others who led her to this life of being queen to a blind king.

In due course, Pandu is made king of the Kuru kingdom (albinism over blindness, both albinism and blindness over lack of kshatriya blood)

Soon Dhritarashtra and Gandhari have many sons (the myth says 100 sons, not impossible though unlikely) the eldest one and rightful owner of the throne being Duryodhan. These 100 brothers came to be known as Kauravas (the rightful heirs of Kuru clan). Pandu could not have children with Kunti. Meanwhile he falls in love with another princess named Madri and marries her also (but again no kids). So he takes both queens to a forest with a few trusted lieutenants. They live in the forest for a period of time during which Pandu requests Kunti and Madri to spend time with various sages. Through these "interactions" Kunti gets three sons (Yudhishtir, Bhim and Arjun) and Madri gets two (Nakul and Sahadev). They form the mighty pancha pandavas (The five born of Pandu, though Pandu is not their real father), cousins to Kauravas.

Events leading to war

Multiple events happen over time ; Pandavas are defeated in a gambling match and have to go to forest for 13 years. They lose everything to the wily fox Shakuni (who is the brother of Gandhari and came to stay with her from Kandahar, with the sole motive of destroying the house of Hastinapur as revenge for Bhishma destroying the life of his sister by forcing her to marry a blind man).

Once Pandavas come back they request for land where they could live as kings. When Kauravas refuse to yield land to them, they send Krishna (Their mother Kunti's brother's son, and hence their first cousin) to negotiate with Kauravas. He was given the mandate to even agree for five villages for Pandavas to avoid war. Kauravas reject even that. With no options available in front of them, Pandavas go into the war with Kauravas to get back what they think is rightfully theirs.

Monday, June 01, 2020

300 BCE - 200 CE : Mahabharata (Part 1)

Mahabharata : Introduction, context, historicity

As I have written elsewhere, Mahabharata originated out of what could have been a turf war between cousins in a large chiefdom in Nothern India, that of the Kuru dynasty whose capital was at Hastinapur. The war is supposed to have happened at Kurukshetra, in current Haryana, around 170+ km from Hastinapur. It was fought between sides led by Pandavas (5 brothers and sons of Kunti and Pandu) and Kauravas (innumerable brothers, thought to be around 100, sons of Gandhari and Dhritharashtra) which finally the Pandava side won after 18 days of brutal battle. This is the gist of the overall story.
However, more than the core story itself, it is the impact that this "itihasa" has had on Indian culture, art, history, politics, and overall social narrative that makes it one of its kind. What started of as a 8800 shloka (simplest meaning, verse) long "Jaya" a celebratory poem of victory of Pandavas in the battle sung by charioteers (soothas and magadhas, classes assigned to care for horses and in evening sing paens of kings around the war camp fires) grew to become 25,000 odd shloka Bharata, and finally in its last stage becoming 100,000 shloka strong Mahabharata, which has been among other things called a "most monstrous chaos" by befuddled western scholars.
They can be pardoned for becoming flummoxed by something that is 8 times the size of Iliad and Odyssey put together. (You might want to read what I have written on the same a year back, here).

Mahabharata (here after referred only as MB for efficiency) is not just an epic for Indians. MB itself calls it "itihasa" - meaning "thus it happened", which makes it to mean in simple terms, history. Though there has been debate as to whether any part of MB has real historicity, it has now been more or less accepted by everyone that there indeed was a war that happened in Kurukshetra around 1000-900 BC or slightly latter based on archaeological diggings at main sites and the weapons excavated from the area etc. It is worth noting here that there are some far left historians, atheists and even some western scholars who maintain that nothing of that sort ever happened and it is all pure myth which are no amenable to scientific scholarship. (Personally, in transparency of stating my position, I do not agree with them)

Though I tend to believe the war referred to in Jaya (and by extension in MB)  did happen, it is impossible for the war to have been as grand as it is proclaimed in MB. MB says the Pandava faction had 7 akshauhinis (comparable to platoons in today's military terms) and Kauravas had 11. Each akshauhini is composed of around 2,20,000 people. This in fact means the total war had around 40 lakh people. To have a 4,000,000 strong army, the country should have had around 40 Million people (assuming as high as 10% of the society are in military, which obviously is too high a number). The absurdity of this number hits hard when you realize population of whole of India even in 500 BC (almost 300-500 years after MB) was around ~25 Million. Hence it is fair to say some war happened but not at the grandeur that it is mentioned in the book.

Narrative structure

Narrative structure of MB is probably one of the most complex in any written literature. In many ways it can be attributed to the vast refinements and additions that the text has had in its multi century  development from sometime in 300-400 BCE all the way to 200-300 CE. So its absolutely not clear when did first narration start, who narrated about someone narrating it which was witnessed by someone else who then narrates etc etc. You peel the onion peel by peel - challenge is you don't know where to start because you don't know which is the outer peel, which is the inner one.

Originally, the contexts of narratives are as follows

1. There was once a 12 year yagna (ritualistic sacrifice) being conducted in the forest named Naimisha, into which comes a bard named Ugrashrava. Shaunaka and other rishis present there asks him where from is he coming to which he answers that he is coming from up north after having seen the blessed land of Kurukshetra from where he heard the blessed story of Bharata clan (MB). At the Kuru land there was a snake sacrifice being conducted on behalf of king Janamejaya ( who was son of Prikshit who was son of Abhimanyu, a young war hero who died in MB and was in turn son of one of the Pandavas named Arjuna). Vaishampayan (student of Vyasa, supposed author of MB) had recited the MB there for the audience - this is where Ugrashravas says he heard the story from.

The first narrative structure of MB thus is, as told by Ugrashrava to Shaunaka and other rishis at Naimisha forest.

2. Ugrashrava is not the author. He just hears the story. He hears it from Vyasa's student Vaishampayan. Janamejaya had a grudge against snakes (likely a tribal chiefdom with snake totem as symbol instead of the reptiles itself) who had killed his father Parikshit. The tribals kill Parikshit ,in turn, as revenge for destruction of their forests and land by Parikshit's grand father, Arjuna with the help of Krishna. To avenge this, Janamejaya starts a sarpa satrah (huge sacrifice to kill all snakes, likely symbolically means preparing for a way against the tribal chiefdom). It is said Vaishampayan retells the story to let Janamejaya know the futility of revenge and of war and asking him to let bygones be bygones. Bloodshed begets more bloodshed and in the end no one really wins.

3. Vaishampayan is not the author either. He is just retelling the story written by his guru (teacher) Ved Vyas. Vyas literally means "an editor". Many scholars are clear that there is no way a single authorship can be attributed to something as complex and huge as MB. That too something that developed over 1000s of years unless one assumed Vyas was immortal. Earliest references to authorship of MB (likely Jaya) assumes it was written by someone named Krishna Dwaipayana (literally a black man from an island, likely someone who took birth in one of the many islands in river Ganga or Yamuna) who is assumed to be the first Vyasa (compiler). He likely compiles the victory songs of all the sautas (bards) through whose tongues the story of a major war has survived over the course of 500 +years to form Jaya 8800 shlokas.

Ved Vyas is not only the author but also a participant in the story, which complicates matters even further.

So it is fair to assume Vyas composed the core of MB - but it is worth noting that he taught 5 of his students (including his own son, Shuka) and that the narratives for each was supposedly slightly different. One of the narratives survive to this day (Vaishampayana's), 3 are completely lost (that of Sumantu, Pyla, Shuka) and one has survived partly (Jaimini's). Some of the tribals and scholars believe Jaimini's version had Kauravas as the dharmic (righteous) fighters and not Pandvas. Essentially Pandavas cheated their way to victory !

It's also worth noting that MB is not sruti (its no revelation like vedas, which mantra drashtas, seers, "see" in their minds), its part of Smriti (that which is remembered) and hence human derived.

The other much debated aspect of narrative structure and ownership is one based on class structure prevalent in India at that time. Ugrashrava is soota (one of the lower castes) where as every other narrative is shown as brahmins. It wouldn't have been any miracle if Ugrashrava himself had the narrative ownership since anyways the core of MB were songs of victory that people like him had sung for ages at war tents. This has inspired some scholars atleast to profess that MB originally was literature coming from sub-alterns whose ownership was usurped by the brahmins while putting it into text. It is difficult to prove it one way or the other, but it is nevertheless an important point to note.


Tuesday, May 26, 2020

600-400 BC : Origin & teachings of Budhism and Jainism

563- 483 BC: Budha, the enlightened one. (Note: Both birth and death dates are approximate and also often debated ; latest archaeological findings from Lumbini, his birthplace, posits a much earlier date of around 560 BC than the previously thought 490 BC)

Siddhartha Gautama was born in Lumbini, close to today's Indo-Nepal border, in the royal palace of the kshatriya Shakya clan sometime around 560 BC. India of that time was spiritually open, thriving and was the hotbed of some of the most venerated spiritual thinking for humanity. He would go on to become Budha, the enlightened one. It is said he got enlightenment while meditating under a tree in Bodh Gaya (in today's Bihar in India) at the age of 35. He passed away in Kushinara, in todays Uttar Pradesh in nothern India around 483 BC, at the age of 80, 45 years after he got enlightenment. His impact on Indian and global spiritual sphere would remain almost unassailable. Not only did he collate his ideas of enlightenment and true happiness into what would later become the religion of Budhism, he impacted Vedic thinking of the day. It is obvious that some of his teaching had long lasting impact on Hinduism, starting with some of the ideas in Upanishads especially around renunciation and mokhsa. Fact that Gautama lived at a time Upanishads were being written makes it impossible that there was no give and take of ideas between his teachings and teachings of Upanishads. One might even say his teachings in prakrit (Pali) as against Sanskrit (the language of the Vedic priests) and the huge following of laymen he created in North India inspired Vedic hinduism to change - move from vedic rituals to one of deep contemplation & thinking as evidenced in Upanishads, move to incorporate local myths and languages into vedic fold, and invite its followers to think about life after death - especially the path of moksha as against the path of rebirth. Concept of Karma, was also likely developed during this time through learnings from both Budhism and sanatana dharma.

His core teachings / truths were laid down as  : Suffering exists (it is real and universal), there is a cause for it (attachment), there is an end to suffering (through Nirvana), and eight fold path to attain nirvana (around wisdom, virtue and meditation)

599-527 BC : Vardhamana Mahavir and Jainism

Similar to Gautama, Vardhamana was born into a royal family around 600 BC. As a contemporary of Budha, his teachings have many similarities with Budhism. He established Jainism which a major focus on shramana way of life - life of monks. He was, like Budha, opposed to the ritualistic aspects of Vedic religion of his time. He was also instrumental in further developing concepts of karma and moksha. The ultimate goal behind practicing the teachings of Lord Mahavira is to attain freedom from the cycle of rebirth as human life is representative of pain, misery and vices. According to him, the accumulation of bad karma leads to the repeated cycle of rebirth. He preached that the real path leading to attainment of liberation from the cycle of Karma is through Samyak Darshana (right faith), Samyak Jnana (right knowledge) and Samyak Charitra (right character).

The impact these sages had on Indian spiritual and social space is unique - it touched upon almost all spheres of life - religious, social, class distinctions, royal patronage, women empowerment, non-violence, food preferences (esp vegetarianism which was almost unknown in India till then). Their exchange of ideas with Sanatana Dharma, a.k.a Hinduism, has led to some of the deepest spiritual awakening in India of yore. Some would go to the extend of saying they transformed, albeit indirectly, Hinduism from being a predominantly ritualistic vedic religion to one of deep philosophical thoughts.