Saturday, March 29, 2008

SOME REFLECTION AND CONNECTIONS – From India, to Afghanistan and Central Asia

The magnificent Pir Panjal range from Dalhousie.

Having now visited all places mentioned below and connected the road from Calcutta (Kolkotta) through Benares, Bodgaya, Delhi. Agra. Amritsar, Lahore, Taxilla, Peshawar, Kabul, Bamiyan, Herat, Balkh, Termez, Samakand, Tashkent, Shymkent, Turkestan, Ak Su, Taraz, Talass, Tokmak, Bishkek, Issyk Kul, Naryn, Kara Su through to the Chinese border at Torugat, following fairly much the route and, places made famous by Hsuan Tsan the Chinese Buddhist Monk who travelled this way on his marathon journeys from 627 -643 AD.

I had earlier travelled and connected the above route from Herat to Meshad, Bukhara, and from Tashkent the more southern route through Khokand, Feghana, Andijan, Osh to Kashgar, The other from Kabul, through the Khyber Pass to Gilgit and Karakoram pass into China, or the more difficult one from Kabul to Faizabad, Ishkashim, cross the Amu Darya to Khorog, Murghab, and over the 4,655 metre pass of the Pamirs, down to Lake Karakul at 3,914 metre, and then into China.

It was also a pleasure on this trip (July 2007) to connect the route from Taskkent, Shymkent, Turkestan and to discover that the road from Turkestan to Kyzl Orda, where I spent time in 1997, ‘is a strategic place where the caravan roads from Tashkent, Bukhara and Khiva along Atbasar to Western Sberia and over Torgay to Troizk and Orenberg came together’. (Exploring Kazakhstan, Dagmar Schreiber, Caspian Publishing House, Almaty 2006)

Having crossed the Pamirs, Tienshan, Karakoram, Himalaya, Pir Panjal, Dhaula Dhar mountain ranges and crossed and recrossed countless times the great rivers of Syr Daria (Jaxartes), Amu Daris (Oxus),and the Zevershan, Ili, Chu, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Megna, the Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Sutlej, Beas, Indus ( the rivers of the Punjab) and camped by Lakes Issyk Kul, Karakul, Dal, Kagar and the Aral Sea, it helps somewhat to understand the hardship and deprivations the early conquerors, explorers, pilgrims and traders endured. Alexander the Great lost over 30,000 men on a surprise winter crossing of the Hindu Kush by the Khawak Pass. In summer the ascent from the Panjsher Valley is a grind, but to foot soldiers carrying armour it is inconceivable a mighty army crossed this pass in winter. Similarly, the Khardun La at over 18,200 feet in Ladakh,, a salt route from Lahdak in India to Tibet is a daunting challenge by car today, but a crossing by mule, horse or on foot makes the mind boggle.

When I worked in Pakistan, Afghanistan and India, I was fascinated by the mountain river systems. With partition, these mighty rivers had international boundaries pushed on them. Punjab - the land of five rivers were originally referred to as the Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Sutlej and Beas, but with partition, the Beas flows only in India, so to keep the name Punjab correct, Pakistan added a fifth river to replace the Beas, the Indus.

Many trips I have set out on, have been to connect ranges, rivers, passes and valleys that don’t quite make sense on the map. I spent many months in a place named Sidhbari, under the Daula Dhar mountains and close to Dharamsala. Somehow, the town down the road, Kangra, was the most fascinating as it appears on many ancient maps and later became an important feeder to the Silk Road and, some centuries on, to players in the Great Game.,

From Kangra. in 2004, I was able to connect the Kangra valley, with the Kullu, Lahaul and Spiti valleys.

The Dhaular Dhar and the magnificent Pir Panjal, both ranges are the two lesser ranges either protecting, or enticing you to the greater Himalayas

Crossing the two great passes crossed by Alexander Gardiner and Moorcroft, the Kunzum La and the Rohtang La and seeing the mighty Himalayas and the majestic Pir Panjal was inspiring and to note that virtually all the people are of Tibetan stock, and they have preserved the Tibetan way of life remarkably well.

So during the last 30 years, one by one these famous places trod by Alexander the Great, Hsuan Tsang,Timur (Tamerlane) Chengis Khan, Admiral Raisa Ali (the 16th century Turkish Admiral, Marco Polo, and later all those great, and many notorious players in the Great Game, has been a fascinating experience.

Written in July 2007:

Footnote, in February 2008, I visited two remaining places with strong connections to the great game and the silk route, The Chamba and Parvati valleys in Himachal Pradesh. From Dalhousie and in the Chamba Valley, I was able to study the western passess of the Pir Panjal. In 2004 I crossed the Rohtang La which marks the eastern end of the Pir Panjal.

If anyone wants any photos of these places I have quite a collection.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi-Rumi

Empty yourself from worrying
Think of who created the thought
Why do you stay in prison
When the door is wide open

Today I continue about the great city of Balkh and its province or state called Barctria. Th poem above is written by Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi-Rumi, one of my favourite poets since 1976 when I visited Balkh province for the first time. This was where Rumi was born in 1207 AD.
Between 1993 and 1996 when I was working in Afghanistan, I visited Balkh at least 10 times and it was on these journeys I read his poetry through and through, each time understanding a little more of his subtle strands of poetical weavings and powerful writings.

He not only was a great Persian poet but had a deep interest in Persian music, Persian philosophy, Sufi philosophy, and Sufi dance
Known as Mawlānā Jalāl-ad-Dīn Muhammad Balkhī[3] (Persian: محمد بلخى), but known to the English-speaking world simply as Rumi, (September 30, 1207–December 17, 1273), was a 13th century Persian (Tādjīk)[4][5] poet, Islamic jurist, and theologian.[6] Rumi is a descriptive name meaning "the Roman" since he lived most parts of his life in Anatolia which had been part of the Roman Empire until the Seljuq conquest two centuries earlier.

His birthplace and native language both indicate a Persian heritage. Due to quarrels between different dynasties in Khorāṣān, opposition to the Khwarizmid Shahs who were considered devious by Bahā ud-Dīn Wālad (Rumi's father) or fear of the impending Mongol cataclysm, his father decided to migrate westwards. Rumi's family traveled west, first performing the Hajj and eventually settling in the Anatolian city Konya (capital of the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum, now located in Turkey), where he lived most of his life, composed one of the crowning glories of Persian literature and profoundly affected the culture of the area.

He lived most of his life under the Sultanate of Rum, where he produced his worksand died in 1273 CE. He was buried in Konya and his shrine became a place of pilgrimage.Following his death, his followers and his son Sultan Walad founded the Mawlawīyah Sufi Order, also known as the order of the Whirling Dervishes, famous for its Sufi dance known as the samāʿ ceremony.

Rumi's work are written in the new Persian Language. New Persian (also called Dari-Persian or Dari), a widely understood vernacular of Middle Persian, has its linguistic origin in the Fars Province of modern Iran. A Dari-Persian literary renaissance (In the 8th/9th century) started in regions of Sistan, Khorasan and Transoxiana and by the 10th/11th century, it overtook Arabic as the literary and cultural language in the Persian Islamic world. Although Rumi's works were written in Persian, Rumi's importance is considered to transcend national and ethnic borders. His original works are widely read in the original language across the Persian-speaking world. Translations of his works are very popular in South Asian, Turkic, Arab and Western countries. His poetry has influenced Persian literature as well as Urdu, Bengali and Turkish literatures. His poems have been widely translated into many of the world's languages in various formats, and BBC News has described him as the "most popular poet in America".

Rabi'ah of Balkh-Poetess

Rabi'ah wrote her final poems with her blood on the wall of the bathroom until she died. This is the poem she wrote for her beloved Baktash, a Turkish slave.

"Your love caused me to be imprisoned again
My effort to keep this love as a secret was in vain
Love is as a sea with the shores you cannot see
And a wise can never swim in such a sea":

Translated by Manouchehr Saadat Noury: Montreal (Feb 14, 2005)

Rabi'ah's grave is just to the right of the picture. Women come from all over Afghanistan to visit her grave and tie ribbons on a tree growing over her grave, and pray for fertility, to have children and to have a healthy family.

Rabe'a Balkhi (Persian: رابعه بلخی), also called as Rabi'ah bint Kaab Quzdari or Ghozdary (in Persian: رابعه قزداری) , or just as Rabe'ah was most likely the first poetess in the History of Persian Poetry. She was born and died in Balkh, a city today in northern Afghanistan. The exact dates of her birth and death are unknown. But some evidences indicate she lived during the same period that Rudaki, the Father of Persian Poetry, was a court poet to Nasr II of Samanid (914-943).

Her name and biography appear in Jami's Nafahat-ol-Uns, Attar's Mathnaviyat and Aufi's Lubab ul-Albab. She was one of the first Afghan/Persian poets who wrote in modern Persian (Dari). Her father, Kaab, was a governor; when Kaab died, his son Haares, brother of Rabe’eh, became the governor. Haares had a Turkish slave named Baktash, with whom Rabe’eh was secretly in love. At a court party, Haares heard Rabe’eh's secret from Rudaki. He imprisoned Baktash in a well, cut the jugular vein of Rabe’eh and imprisoned her in a bathroom. She wrote her final poems with her blood on the wall of the bathroom until she died. Baktash escaped the well, and as soon as got the news about Rabe’eh, he went to the governor’s office and assassinated Haares. He then committed suicide.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Balkh, a once splendid city

"Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields,
See how these names are fêted by the waving grass
And by the streamers of white cloud
And whispers of wind in the listening sky.
The names of those who in their lives fought for life,
Who wore at their hearts the fire's centre.
Born of the sun, they travelled a short while toward the sun
And left the vivid air signed with their honour."
...........Stephen Spender

The town of Balkh, an ancient city of Afghanistan has a very glorious past. One of the oldest towns in the world, the city is also known as the birthplace of Prophet Zoroaster. The city later on gained wealth and fame as Bactra. Balkh is also known as the home of Rabia Balkhi, the first woman poet of Islamic period. Mauwlana Jalal-ud-din Balkhi (Rumi), the most distinguished Sufi poet of Afghanistan was also born in Balkh. City was also an important trade route in the ancient times. Location of Balkh is in northern Afghanistan , close to Mazar-i-Sharif.

The Green mosque, Masjid Sabz, in Balkh in northern Afghanistan

Arabs arrived in the city during 8th century and marked it as an important trade center. Alexander the Great founded a Greek colony here and later the city was known as Bactria. During the whole period of Alexander the Great, the region was acclaimed for its great wealth and glory. In the early centuries the city was also renowned for its Buddhist monasteries and stupas. Later it attained great importance as the center of Islam. During the rule of the amanid Dynasty about 40 Friday mosques stood within the city. Balkh's glorious history ceased in 1220 A.D. when Genghis Khan invaded the city and and left it with ruins.

In 1850, Balkh became part of the unified kingdom of Afghanistan. The new city is now agricultural and commercial center of the city. Most of the part of the city is now in ruins.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Happy Nowruz

Nowrūz (Persian: نوروز, various local pronunciations and spellings) is the traditional Iranian new year holiday celebrated in Iran, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Albania, Armenia, Georgia, the countries of Central Asia such as Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, as well as among various other Iranian and Turkic people in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Pakistan, India, Northwestern China, the Caucasus, the Crimea,the Balkans and Malaysia and Indonesia.

Nowruz marks the first day of spring and the beginning of the Iranian year as well as the beginning of the Bahá'í year.[1] It is celebrated on the day of the astronomical vernal equinox (start of spring in northern hemisphere), which usually occurs on the March 21st or the previous/following day depending on where it is observed.

As well as being a Zoroastrian holiday, it is also a holy day for adherents of Sufism as well as Bahá'í Faith. In Iran it is also referred to as an Eid festival, although it is not an Islamic feast. Shia Nizari Ismaili muslims, who trace their origins to Iran, celebrate the festival under the name Navroz. In their religious protocol, Navroz is officially recognized as an Eid, as with Eid ul-Fitr and Eid ul-Adha, although it involves a distinct set of religious ceremonies. Alawites also celebrate Nowruz.

The term Nooroz first appeared in Persian records in the second century AD, but it was also an important day during the time of the Achaemenids (c. 648-330 BC), where kings from different nations under the Persian empire used to bring gifts to the emperor (Shahanshah) of Persia on Nowruz.

I have celebrated Nowruz many times in Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Bangladesh and India. It is pro bably celebrated with the most vigor in Mazar I Sharif in Afghanistan, where a huge fertility pole is raised with ribbons tied to it. Each ribbon represents someones prayers.

In Northern Afghanistan the feritliy pole is a pre-Islamic celebration seen as a phallic symbol. Arounf 20 to 21 March, the winter snows starts to melt and the celebrations and prayers are in the hope that the spring will bring plenty of water to nourish the crops and bring fertility to land and people.

Nowruz and the Spring Equinox

In Afghanistan, Nowroz festival is traditionally celebrated for 2 weeks. Preparations for Nowroz start several days beforehand, at least after Chaharshanbe Suri, the last Wednesday before the New Year. Among various traditions and customs, the most important one is :

Haft Mēwa: In Afghanistan, they prepare Haft Mēwa (Seven Fruits) instead of Haft Sin which is common in Iran. Haft Mewa is like a Fruit salad made from 7 different Dried fruits, served in their own syrup. The 7 dried fruits are: Raisin, Senjed (the dried fruit of the oleaster tree), Pistachio, Hazelnut, Prune (dry fruit of Apricot), Walnut and whether Almond or another species of Plum fruit.

Along with other customs and celebrations, normally a Buzkashi tournament is held. The Buzkashi matches take place in northern cities of Afghanistan and in Kabul.
In Mazar I Sharif they play Buskashi for the week following Nowroz

So happy Nowruz. The reason it is so important to me is that my birthday, 21 March, usually coincides with Nowruz. This celebration has certainly brought fertility to my life as I am the proud Father of seven wonderful children.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Afghan Buddha

Afghan Buddha

Hadn’t heard that phrase for a while
”It’s OK mate, she’ll be right”
He said with a broad Maori smile
“Should be home t’murra night.”

As painted girls watched or are they dolls
In the hotel the waitress smiled
Every time she filled my glass
And it was a genuine smile
As she went about here work

Bangkok is like a porcelain shop
After Afghanistan, and I wonder
If they will break like China dolls
If I touch them

The Kalashnikovs are quiet here
Russian, not Chinese, like the dolls
Under the pacific shadow of Buddhism
But in Kabul the rockets reign
And women hide under Burkha
Then the next day its mini-skirts in Bangkok

The sleeping Buddha lies silent
While the Muezzin shouts in Kabul
Burning my eardrums but not my brain
Which is convinced about God
And his love

20 December 1995

I have just returned from Bangkok a city I visited and for the first time in 1975. The most profound effect Bangkok had on me when I passed through in late 1995 after two years in Afghanistan. After the bloodshed and killing I experienced in Afghanistan, Bangkok was so calm. The poem above was written to compare Afghanistan to Bangkok at that tragic juncture in time. Interestingly, Buddhism reached Afghanistan long before it reached Thailand. The dichotomies of this world puzzle me and poetry is the only way I can express it