Beyond Jurassic park

Jurassic park

 

Fifty million years before the Jurassic period began, the Triassic period existed on the planet. Before that, for more than three hundred million years, seas covered the land that we now call western North America. Two hundred million years ago, at the start of the Jurassic period, the sea bed heaved and buckled under gigantic seismic forces, raising dry land, forcing the seas out and creating the original Jurassic parks. The creation continued for the next hundred and forty-five million years with shallow seas invading from time to time and retreating. Today, it is our priviledge to witness the result —  some of the most stunning landscapes on the planet.

Monument valley by Josef Muench

Monument valley : Arizona-Utah border.     pic.: Josef Muench

This blog is about the rivers , canyons and deserts that make up the region — comprising Southern California, all of Nevada and Arizona, and western Utah.

As a boy, I was fascinated by tales of the wild west of America—the prospectors and the wagon trains, the stage coaches and the cavalry, the Indians and the outlaws, and the lands they lived on. I had heard of the vast Mojave desert, the Colorado river and the great canyon through which it flowed, the deserts that lay on both sides of it – Death valley, the painted desert, the petrified forest, the valley of fire, the Sonoran desert,  and more . I had seen a bit of this landscape in the old western movies that were set in this region.

Many years later, being deputed to work in a large American corporation headquartered in  Orange county, Southern Los Angeles, I was amazed to find the surrounding countryside, with its bald hills and blue skies in December exactly the same as my home town in  Nasik, India . I was also amazed to find some employees of my American associates, returning from week-end forays in the Mojave desert with relics including fossilised teeth of ancient sharks !

I used my weekends to visit the region too, though in more comfort.  I ventured. by small aircraft, far into Nevada and Arizona and the border of Utah, suitably advised by the cognizanti. Flying through the Mojave desert in southern California, I skirted Death valley, lying some 280 feet below sea level on the California-Nevada border, and is the hottest and driest place in North America, I was told. I had no intention of visiting it, especially after being told that it recorded the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth , some time in 1934.

Death valley CA, by Roger469

Death valley : California     pic.: Roger469, wikimedia.org.

I moved on to Las Vegas in Nevada on the border of the Mojave desert. ( It was here that I encountered that curios bush – the tumbleweed – dried, shrivelled into a large ball, broken off at the base, and scuttling across the flat land, driven by the desert winds ).

North east of Las Vegas lay the Valley of fire—a name given to it about a hundred years ago by a traveller who visited it at sunset. Seeing the red sandstone cliffs illuminated by the setting sun, it appeared to  him that the whole valley was on fire!

Valley of fire by K.C.Ken Dooven

Valley of fire :  Arizona .   pic.: K.C.Ken Dooven

Archeologists believe than Man occupied this region over 11,000 years ago, and some traces of his rock art remain to this day. Relics of the most recent inhabitants— Pueblo and Paiute Indians – are also to be seen. Though this has been a desert for some 10,000 years – with summer temperatures exceeding 115 degrees F – it once was a lush land. Streams, thick vegetation and many species of grazing animals have left their mark here.

However, it is in Southern Nevada and further south, that the petrified remains of the 200 million year-old trees are most commonly found. Most famous is the Petrified forest of northern Arizona.Petrified forest by K.C.Ken Dooven

Petrified forest : Arizona.       pic.: K.C.Ken Dooven

Ancient  trees were carried down by rivers, deposited in river beds, covered by sediments , and overrun by shallow seas. They saw the light of day again 190 million years later! This was after the last seas had retreated ( about the time the dinosaurs disappeared ), and the last of the top soil was washed away by erosion. By this time various minerals had percolated their pores, replaced he cellular material with quartz, copper, iron & manganese, virtually turning the trees into stone. The myriad colours of these petrified trees have given the name ‘Painted desert’ to the southern half of the Petrified forest.Painted desert by Mike McKelvey

Painted desert : Arizona.        pic.: Carlos Elmer

However none of these wonders compare with the Grand canyon of northern Arizona which lays bare two billion years of Earth’s geology . I landed on the south rim near Grand canyon village after a scenic flight through a considerable part of the canyon, in a small 8-seater aircraft from Las Vegas.

Flying through the canyon and its numerous connecting canyons, gorges, and gullies, I was reminded of the scenes of the epic film ‘McKenna’s gold’. Some of the ruins of old Navajo habitations remind one of those pictured in the closing moments of the film. Any one 0f those numerous canyons could have been ‘the canyon of gold’!

Navajo dwellings by Josef Muench

Navajo cliff dwellings

At the base of some of these canyons were idyllic waterfalls and lush vegetation . I could make out human habitations here – either small Indian communities or picnic spots for those wanting to get away from civilisation. I was told that Man has occupied these canyons for over 4000 years, the first native Indian tribes being the Havasupai, Hopi and Navajo. While I was on a tour of the south rim of the canyon, enjoying the cool winds blowing through the pygmy pine and juniper forests, I was told that Navajo squaws would use the flexible, fragrant bark of these trees as diapers for their babies – an effective system of re-cycling that was ahead of even our times!

Navajo falls, Hava.. by Ray Manley

Navajo falls, Havasupai Indian reservation, Arizona    pic.:  Ray Manley

It is indeed awesome to see the Rio Colorado ( as the first Spanish explorers called it ) rushing a mile below the canyon rim , dropping 10,000 feet from the mountains to the sea over countless rapids. Even more awesome is the history of the land laid bare for our benefit, depicting its evolution – fossils and all –  one and a half billion years before the first Jurassic parks appeared.

Grand canyon by Herbert Pangborn

Point Imperial, North rim, Grand canyon : Arizona.       pic.: Herbert Pangborn

( Further south, the deserts continue, culminating in the state most representative of the  spirit of America –Texas, the lone star state. It is the subject of my next blog, Stay posted )

 

 

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West of the Bermuda triangle

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Over the years, strange happenings have been reported in that part of the Atlantic ocean between the island of Bimini in the straits of Florida, Miami on the American mainland, and San Juan on the island of Puerto Rico. Strange underwater constructions have also been noticed in this area. Even stranger underwater and underground formations exist in the seas around the Bahamas and all the way to the mainland of the Yucatan in Mexico and southern U.S.A. This blog describes the strange world beneath these seas and the lands they touch.

The  Yucatan peninsula of Mexico is a place steeped in history. Perhaps the most momentous event was the collision with the earth, of a gigantic meteorite about 65 million years ago. The meteorite struck at an oblique angle , hitting what is now the north-west of the Yucatan peninsula and the adjoining sea which forms the gulf of Mexico. The shock waves of searing light and heat swept several continents, dust storms encircled the earth and most life on earth was wiped out. This included the dinosaurs. To this day a bowl in the earth’s crust is discernible in the area where the meteorite struck .

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pic: courtesy National Geographic society

Then the ice ages came and the sea levels dropped. Rain water seeping through the porous limestone that forms much of the topography of this part of the planet. It dissolved parts of it, and formed underground tunnels. Underground rivers ran through these tunnels all the way to the sea. The water in these rivers also seeped through the limestone floor of these tunnels and formed caves and tunnels at a still deeper level. Near Austin in Texas , at the Natural bridge caverns,  one can walk through some of these tunnels, many of them dry, but still exhibiting the process of rain water seepage and underground water run-off.

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Natural Bridge caverns, Texas.  pic: Hugh Mascarenhas

I visited the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico by sea, recently. I made landfall at the small port of Progreso on the northern edge of the Yucatan peninsula . A short drive from the port brought me to some of the strangest features of the region – sinkholes in the earth  (cenotes) that dot the region. These sinkholes are actually collapsed roofs of underground tunnels and caves. There are over 6000 of these sinkholes in the peninsula, and were indicative of the terrain just below my feet .

Tunnels carved by natural forces – rain and sea water – stretch hundreds of kilometres underground, and often meet up with the Caribbean sea and the gulf of Mexico. Accordingly, the water in these flooded underground tunnels is basically alkaline, topped off with fresh rain water. This water can be seen – in crystal clear pools — where the tunnels break through to the open sky.

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Cenote, Yucatan. pic: Hugh Mascarenhas

One would expect the tunnels, running at different levels, to end where the land meets the sea. But apparently they continue running through the sea-bed. To the east of the Yucatan, in the Caribbean sea, lies Cuba, and north-east of Cuba lie the Bahamas. Here the sinkholes are seen again – over 1000 of them on land and in the sea. One can assume that the entire region under the sea and land is riddled with tunnels.

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Bahama blue hole. pic.: courtesy National Geographic magazine

On the American mainland , the picture is no different. The geology of the southern states is primarily limestone. Hence the action of rain water on the soluble limestone has produced vast cave systems that are being studied by a few intrepid explorers. Competing with the Natural bridge caverns of Texas are the Iron hoop cavern of Alabama, the Rumbling falls cave of Tennessee, and Ellison’s cave, Georgia. The entire length of Alabama and Tennessee and of northern Georgia is riddled with underground caves , caverns and pools .

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Rumbling falls cave , Tennessee.  pic: courtesy National Geographic magazine

Perhaps Florida too has similar underground strata  since its geology is primarily limestone and was subject to the rise and fall of sea levels during the ice ages . But since this state has an abundance of water – rain , river and sea – most of these structures are flooded, as may be seen in the Florida everglades.

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Iron hoop cave, Alabama.  pic.: courtesy National Geographic magazine

The vast subterranean cave systems that exist in the extensive region of the western Caribbean, southern United states and the Yucatan peninsula have hardly been explored. Some evidence of human and animal life that once occupied these cave systems, have been found – leading to speculation by some : Does some form of intelligent alien life exist in these labrynths ? And does this partly explain the mysteries of the Bermuda triangle ?

( From the blue holes of the Bahamas and the Yucatan, I will take the reader to the breath-taking deserts and canyons of the western United States, which I had the privilege of visiting some years back . Stay posted . )

Austria — for the sound of music

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Located to the south-east of Germany, the beautiful country of Austria nestles between the Italian alps, the Dinaric alps of erstwhile Yugoslavia, and the plains of Hungary . This largely mountainous country was ruled by the House of Habsburg from 1521 to the start of the first world war in 1918. Unlike other empires, the Austrian, and subsequently Austro-Hungarian empire, flaunted its wealth not in gold and jewels, but in culture, art, music, and the finer things of life. That legacy continues to this day,

The elegance of the palaces of Vienna – Schonbrunn, Hofsburg & Belvedere, among others – bear witness to the fine taste and good living of the austrians under the Habsburgs. I was particularly taken up with the ‘ millions room ‘ of the Schonbrunn palace (picture attached). Within the gilded rosewood frames are 260 original miniature paintings from India , depicting the various aspects of life there during the height of the Mughal empire . Each painting today costs a fortune – if it can be acquired.

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Schonbrunn palace :  the Millions room

Though located far from the great muslim empires of the Saracens and the Ottomans, Austria willy-nilly was drawn into their history over the centuries. It was at the Austrian castle of Durnstein on the Danube river that king Richard the Lion heart of England was imprisoned by the Austrian king Leopold Babenberg, while returning from the third crusade against the Saracens in 1193 A.D.                                                                                                                            Austria , and more particularly Vienna, marked the high water mark of the Ottoman turk advance into Europe. Twice attacked by Suleiman the magnificent in 1529 and 1536, and twice successful in its defence, Vienna has the distinction of saving western Europe from the ottoman juggernaut.

However, the soul of Austria is still Music. Austria was the birthplace of the great composer of waltzes and quadrilles – Johann Strauss, of his son Johann Strauss II — the great composer of polkas and waltzes, and of Wolfgang Mozart—the great composer of symphonies, operas and concertos. The great composers Beethoven & Brahms enriched Vienna with their trios, sonatas, symphonies and lullabies. Further enrichment came from composers  Mahler, Haydn and Gluck. In recent years, the Austrian alps have been the setting for the famous film whose name is given in the masthead of this blog.

In the National gallery of Vienna are displayed the paintings of some of the world’s greatest painters –Van Dyck, Rubens, Rembrandt, Titian, Raphael, Velazquez, Gainsborough and many others.

However, Austria has much more to offer than palaces, art and music, as I discovered to my delight. The alpine ski slopes of the Austrian tyrol, just south of Innsbruck, were twice host to the winter Olympic games. I did make it to the top of the ramp of the Olympic ski-jump , 250 metres above the city of Innnsbruck, and marvelled at the courage of anybody attempting this jump.

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Innsbruck ski slopes

Innsbruck forms part of the border between Austria and Italy . It was  on this border that the oldest known inhabitant of the region was found in 1991, preserved in ice. Oetzi, as this man was subsequently named, was a hunter-gatherer of the copper age and trod this region around 3200 B.C. His person and his belongings gave the world a glimpse of what early life was like in today’s highly developed country.

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                                                                                                                                                   Oetzi (courtesy : South tyrol museum of archeology )

The lush grasses of the Austrian Tyrol – foothills of the Alps – feed the Fleckvieh and Holstein milk cattle whose abundance of milk explains the wide variety of chocolates found in all shapes, sizes, and variants on the store shelves of Austria. The most well-known of these is the Mozart kugel – a chocolate coated marzipan.

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     Austrian cattle :   Fleckvieh breed

Horses also make Austria proud. The performances of Lippizaner ‘dancing’ horses of the Spanish court riding school in Vienna , are a ‘must see’ for anyone visiting this cultural hot-spot. These beautiful and intelligent white horses were all but wiped out during the second world war as Europe was systematically destroyed. Today they are bred near the city of Graz in southern Austria. ( pic of lippizaners).                                                                                          A ‘will see’ for anyone walking the streets of any Austrian city, are the pedigreed pet dogs being proudly paraded by their owners. Austrians are great dog lovers.

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   A Lippizaner

The Austrians are also great lovers of fine liquors and spirits. The vineyards of Austria date back to Roman times. Today, they come out with their stocks of new wine – heuriger — every spring in a delightful custom called ‘ heurigen ‘. A pine branch hung outside a vine-grower’s garden or courtyard informs all and sundry that the new wine is being served – usually in open air surroundings — to the accompaniment of cold meats, cheese, music and much merriment.

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Heurigen

For those desirous of something more robust , Austria is well positioned to offer the famous apricot brandy of Hungary – Barack, and the equally famous blue plum brandy of Yugoslavia – slivovitz.                                                                                                                                                              For gourmets, Austria offers the choicest specialities of the surrounding countries – Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Serbia , in addition to its very own wienerschnitzel , the meal completed with coffee –available in twenty shades or more.

As a nation , Austria appears to be one country of Europe to have had a charmed life . After its long stint under the Habsburgs , Austria was involved in the start of both the great wars of the 20th century. In 1914, the assassination of archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria triggered the first world war. In 1938, Adolf Hitler annexed Austria as a prelude to the start of the second world war a year later.

Yet through it all, Austria has survived as an undivided country – to give the world the finest things of life.

( From the mountains of Austria to the blue holes of the Bahamas and the Americas , the reader will be taken in my next blog . Stay posted. )

Of monks and monarchs : India’s golden age

               ashoka-pillar

As Alexander of Macedonia stood on the banks of the Beas river in north-western India in late 326 B.C., he wept. Because there were no more worlds to conquer ; or so the historians would have us believe. The reality was a bit different.

Earlier that year, over the Jhelum river ( now in Pakistan ), Alexander entered the gates of India — at his cost. The first battles with the small Indian kingdoms of the Pauravas, the Adraistai and the Kathaians, were bruisers. Terrifying to the Greeks was their first encounter with war elephants.

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                               Poros and Alexander : an engraving by Alonzo Chappei

According to the greek biographer Plutarch, the very first battle – with Poros of the Pauravas – ‘ depressed the spirit of the macedonians and made them very unwilling to advance further into India’. Historian Arrian of Nicomedia mentions in his ‘’Anabasis of Alexander’’ that ‘ in the art of war (the Indians) were far superior to the other nations by which Asia was at that time inhabited.’ If the small Indian kingdoms were so difficult to subdue, what fate awaited the greeks when they battled the bigger ones further to the east ?  Especially the powerful kingdom of Magadha on the banks of the Ganges river , with its huge army , its vast reserves of iron, and its hordes of war elephants. ‘The greek soldiers had no stomach for further toils in India’ wrote Arrian.

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                                                                                Chanakya

At this time , an indian in the famous university of Taxila in the gandhara region of Afghanistan (which Alexander had just conquered), was carefully observing Alexander’s every move, his diplomacy and his statecraft . This man was a professor of various disciplines. He was also cunning , scheming, unscrupulous beyond measure and a master strategist . He came from the Indian kingdom of Magadha and his name was Chanakya. It was not long before, according to Arrian, ‘Alexander chided his soldiers for falling prey to all sorts of rumours designed expressly to work upon their fears’. To no avail. Alexander was forced to retreat. Two and a half years later, he was dead.

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                                                                    Chandragupta Maurya

Chanakya was already well on his way to installing his protégé and fellow observer of Alexander  – Chandragupta Maurya — as India’s first empire builder. His capital was Pataliputra in modern day Bihar, and his palace was at Rajgir – the hill of kings — on the banks of the Ganges river.

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                                                     Remains of Rajgir

Sixteen years later, Chandragupta, suitably advised by his chief minister Chanakya, had evicted Alexander’s successor in the east – Seleucus Nikator—from the Indian subcontinent. His empire now stretched from the plains of the Ganges river in the east to the plains of the Indus river in the west, and from south India to northern Afghanistan. The golden age of Indian empire building had begun.

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                               Fly-whisk bearer : sandstone carving , Mauryan period

The strength of the empire lay as much in the moral fibre of the people as in its military might. India already had a rich culture going back two thousand years. Commonly known as the vedic culture, it embodied principles of medicine, health-care, mathematics, astronomy, philosophy and, of course, religion, far ahead of its time. Doubly blessed, India received the ministrations of two great teachers, both born between 599 and 550 B.C. not far from each other in north India.

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                                                                Gautama Buddha

These two aristocrats  – Mahavir and Gautama Buddha – propounded the moral principles of discipline, integrity, honesty, detachment, right intention, thought, and action, care of all living creatures, protection of the environment and many others. These principles, though not presented as directives from any supreme being, were none-the-less being accepted and practiced by a large number of people by the time of Chandragupta. He himself embraced the teachings of Mahavir which had by now evolved into a religion –Jainism.

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                                                                       Mahavir Jain

Ashoka, his grandson by a greek princess, embraced the teachings of Gautama Buddha which had by now evolved into a religion – Buddhism. Ashoka went on to become India’s greatest ruler.The capital on Ashoka’s royal pillars is today India’s national insignia and is featured on the mast-head of this blog.

Naturally, a people following the upright examples of their kings , would bear out the ancient Indian precept  ‘ As is the king, so will be the people ’.  Whenever this precept was in practice , the golden age glittered. Whenever it was forsaken, the glitter faded. Regretably that happened with the death of Askoka around 232 B.C., and continued till 180 B.C. The huge state grants given to monks, monasteries and centres of learning dwindled.

Very fortunately for India, north India fell under the sway of the Kushans of Afghanistan whose most powerful emperor Kanishka embraced Buddhism. This kept the morals of the empire intact until the next flush of the golden age — the advent of the imperial Guptas.

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                                                     A Kushan : Gandhara school of art

The Gupta dynasty and its off-shoots marked the high water point in Indian history . Beginning around 275 A.D., this golden age lasted four hundred years . The lofty principles of Brahmanism, Buddhism and Jainism co-existed. Peace reigned . Foreign trade flourished through both western and eastern ports. Cultural influences flowed in from foreign lands. It was during this period that India’s finest poets, mathematicians, astronomers, philosophers, metal workers, sculptors and painters existed – generously patronized by state grants and donations from wealthy patrons, of whom there were many.

It was around 550 A.D. that one of the great universities of the then known world – Nalanda university —was started, fittingly in the same district as the ancient capital of Magadha in modern day Bihar. So sought after was admission to this university that applicants from countries as distant as China and Japan would stand at its gates to undergo the entrance tests. Regretably, when I stood at the ruins of its gates some years ago, I saw only desolation.

Around this time , art and painting reached its zenith. This is in evidence at the world famous cave monasteries at Ajanta and Bagh in central India. On a recent visit to Ajanta , I found a series of 30 large caves chiseled into solid rock , their roof surfaces smoothened with lime and husk, and paintings made on them using natural pigments. Visibility in the dark interiors of the caves was made possible by reflection of the bright sunlight outside , using mirrors.

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                                                                   Ajanta cave complex

Hundreds of paintings depicting daily life and events of that period, are to be seen. Apparently , even aristocrats of that time often gave up a life of luxury for the ascetism practiced in these centres.

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                     Faces from India’s past: Ajanta caves ( 2nd-4th century A.D. )

By 600 A.D. fissures were appearing in the edifice of the empire. An occasional flicker of its former greatness would appear with the arrival of a competent monarch – like Hashavardhana. But character and moral fibre was on the wane. Rival camps fought for supremacy, wealth and territory — a deplorable trait witnessed time and again, ever since. With the break-up of the empire evident by 672 A.D., the way was open for foreign invaders to pour in. Monasteries were destroyed, treasuries looted, and the great university of Nalanda was burnt to the ground in a last act to obliterate Indian culture such as it was. The invaders moved the capital to Delhi. The golden age of India was over. The dark age – Kaliyug — had begun.

( In Indian perspective, History repeats itself. Hence very little of Indian history was written down and preserved . Yet around twelve hundred years later, another great empire crumbled.  Austria is the subject of my next blog . Stay posted. )

Mentors of the early Romans — The Etruscans

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In 800 B.C. the Italian peninsula was a primitive , thickly forested , sparsely populated land.Then came the migrants — from across the sea and from another continent. They came from the shores of eastern Turkey – the region adjoining ancient Troy. They were led by their king Tyrrhenus. The sea from which they set foot on the Italian peninsula is called the Tyrrhenian sea. They occupied all the land south of the Apennine mountains and north of the Tiber river. This picturesque land they called Etruria. Today, the center of that land is called Tuscany. Its people were the Etruscans.

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Etruscan bridge

They built their cities on hilltops. Being master builders, they raised high walls, towers and arches of stone. They had mastered the art of building bridges – a necessity in the hill country which they occupied. Today if one travels by train from Florence to Rome, one practically traverses the entire length of erstwhile Etruria.  In the late evening one is treated to the enchanting sight of the lights of these hilltop towns and cities twinkling above the vast darkness of the forests and valleys below. One of these cities is Volterra where I had the priviledge of staying for a few weeks . I had work in a manufacturing unit in the valley below – Saline di Volterra. This blog is about the region and its ancient inhabitants.

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Etruscan semi-circular pool

The Etruscans came from a land of cultured and civilized people. They were well versed in the smelting of bronze and iron. Since the region of Etruria had considerable copper and tin deposits – the essential ingredients for the manufacture of bronze — they produced very fine bronze artifacts and weapons in addition to implements of iron which they also mined. They traded these with the Greeks, Carthaginians and Phoenicians who were located just south and east of their land. They put them to good use too in tilling the fertile land they occupied.

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Etruscan bronze

The Etruscans also mined alabaster – a type of gypsum found embedded in the limestone of the region. This mineral is soft and lends itself well to sculpturing. Additionally, it is well coloured, occurring in spotted, veined, clouded, white and even black  form. Today, if one walks the steep and narrow streets of Volterra – a prominent Etruscan center of alabaster carving — one can still see the small workshops where the mined stone is carved by the extraordinarily gifted artisans of that region . ‘ So creative are the machinists here ’, remarked the swiss engineer-manager in the manufacturing unit where I worked ‘ that they cannot understand why two pieces should be made alike ! ‘.

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Etruscan alabaster urn

Strangely however, the Etruscans did not take to carving in marble — though they had the finest marble quarries in all Italy . Carrara marble , from which the great Italian masters of the Renaissance carved their masterpieces , comes from northern Tuscany.

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Marble quarry at Carrara

A short drive from the town of Volterra, through the beautiful Tuscan countryside, brings one to Florence (Firenze) – one of the world’s great centers of art and sculpture. Most visitors to this great cultural center do not include in their itinerary  the town of Fiesole overlooking Florence and built on two hills. This once was the capital city of an Etruscan state and an important military outpost for the defence of Etruria.

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Hilltop town of Fiesole with fields and olive orchards

The region of Tuscany experienced severe volcanic activity in relatively recent geological times . Today the molten magma lies so close to the surface that it heats the rain-fed rivers, called aquifers, flowing underground. Superheated steam is produced under such pressure that it emerges as fumeroles and geysers in some places . For almost two centuries, ingenous Italian engineers  have been harnessing this steam to produce electicity. Drilling rigs have only to dril a few hundred metres into the ground to release the steam. This steam travels under its own pressure to the power plants to run the turbo alternators that produce thousands of kilowatts of electricity daily for the national electricity company ENEL. Such ingenious use of this form of energy results in minimum environmental damage to the beautiful Tuscan environment.

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Fumeroles at Larderello, Tuscany

Though the written language of the Etruscans has still not been fully understood, it is known that at the southern corner of Etruria, in the hilly region surrounding the Tiber river, was a small habitation of latin people in a nondescript collection of mud houses and thatched roofs,

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Etruscan writng

The Etruscans failed to notice the formation of a small city-state on one of the hills in 753 B.C., by a group of latins led by two brothers – Romulus and Remus. This was the Palatine hill and the Etruscans called it Ruma. Though Ruma still had Etruscan kings, the latin people gradually settled the seven hills of this area , and were greatly helped by the more civilised Etruscans to build brick houses, streets, plazas and and urban infrastructure which included drainage. This, by 300 B.C. became the city of Rome from which the latins evicted the Etruscans. One by one the Etruscan towns were annexed by the Romans. The Etruscan cultural and economic power was superimposed with the Roman military power. The decline of the Etruscan state , which started around 500 B.C, was complete in 100 B.C. The Roman civilisation had been ushered in. .

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She-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus

( From the Italian peninsula to the Indian peninsula, from 600 B.C. TO 600 A.D., and from the golden age of Etruscan civilization to the golden age of Indian civilisation , my next blog will take the reader. Stay posted )

 

 

Exotic outpost on the Pacific rim — Malaysia

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It  stretches from the eastern edge of the Bay of Bengal to the outer reaches of the South China sea.  Pristine beaches, exquisite coral reefs,  coastal mangroves, mountainous peaks and misty highlands, tropical rain forests and rivers, exotic flora and fauna, muti-cultured peoples, fusion of cuisines – Malaysia has it all. From the archipelago of Langkawi in the west to the island of Borneo in the east , Malaysia, a land just north of the equator, is split almost in two by the South china sea.

map-of-malaysia

The warm equatorial waters surrounding Malaysia are ideal for the growth of reef building corals. Over 500 species of them are found in the reefs surrounding Malaysia and Borneo.  On my arrival at Kuala Lumpur airport, I was delighted to see a very large aquarium tank with a replication of such a reef – complete with reef fish, of which over 3000 species abound in the waters around Malaysia and Borneo. On land, Malaysia boasts 600 species of birds , 210 species of mammals, 150 species of frogs and 80 species of lizards. Additionally, 140 species of snakes are to be found, both on land and on sea . 40 of these are venomous , including the unusual red headed krait and 4 species of cobra – King, Malayan, monocled, and spitting cobra. A snake temple, started by a Buddhist monk 900 years ago, exists on the island of Penang on Malaysia’s west coast.

red-headed-krait

                                                                         red headed krait

I was on a flight from Taiwan to Singapore. I was not expecting a brief stopover at Kota Kinabalu on the western shore of the island of Borneo in the Malaysian state of Sabah . As the plane made its landing approach, the scene from the air was breath-taking. Below me were islands and lagoons on which stood stilt houses of the locals. On my left,  one of the innumerable rivers of Borneo wound its way to the sea from the impenetrable jungle beyond. And in the cloud-covered distance was Mount Kinabalu which, at 13700 feet, is the highest peak between the Himalayas and New Guinea. I gathered later that this part of the world is virtually the only habitat of the world’s most intelligent great ape – the Orang Outan.

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                                 Kota Kinabalu  lagoon : image courtesy lifeislikethat.com

orang_utan

                                                                        Orang Outan

The aircraft had just crossed the island of Balabac at the southern tip of the Phillipines and the narrow strait that separates it from the northern tip of the Malaysian state of Sabah. It was in these waters — the Sulu sea — that the world’s largest pearl, the Puerta Princesa pearl, weighing 34 kilograms — was recently found . This pearl, found in a giant clam by a Filipino  fisherman, is on exhibition at the Puerta Princesa city hall on Palawan island of the Philippines.

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                                                                 Puerta Princesa pearl

Since Malaysia is located just north of the equator, the climate is typically hot and humid. . However, in the center of the mainland are highlands rising to 5200 feet . These are the Cameron highlands, with a cool and salubrious climate and surroundings of tea estates , orchards, golf courses , waterfalls and lakes . It is a prime holiday resort.

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                                               Tropical rain forests — north Borneo

The island of Penang on Malaysia’s west coast was an important trading hub from the time of the Ming chinese dynasty. Its population is still largely Chinese. However it was the British who, recognizing its strategic importance in the eventual colonization of the Malayan peninsula, constructed their first colonial settlement here in 1786. They then moved on to colonise Malacca and then Singapore.

Apart from the cuisine , the multi-ethnic society of Malaysia has produced a fusion of styles in jewelry, architecture and textiles.

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      Peranakan chinese bridal hairpin : courtesy Asian civilisations museum , Singapore

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                                       Malayasian Batik work : image courtesy shutterstock.com

penang

                                                              Penang :  Ornamental pillar 

It is this western part of Malaysia that is rich in tin deposits. Trade in tin and spices were responsible for the growth of these ports. Malacca in particular was hotly contested – first occupied by the raja of Tamasek in 1440 A.D., captured by the Portugese in 1511, then by the Dutch in 1641, and finally ceded to the British in 1826. Where there were shipping lanes there were pirates. Malacca has been a haven of pirates for centuries . Today , the straits of Malacca continue to be one of the most notorious – with pirate haunts extending all along the coast down to the mangrove swamps of Indonesia.

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                                               Langkawi archipelego — west Malaysia

In the capital city of Kuala Lumpur on the mainland, many man-made wonders – in steel, glass and concrete — are on display. But the one that impressed me most was the multi-ethnic cuisine. The fusion of Indian, Malayan, Bornean, Chinese, Indonesian and  Thai cooking, combined with the Malaysian love of rice and chillies, and the addition of many spices ( going back to the days when Malaysia was an important hub on the maritime silk route ), make Malaysian cuisine one of the most complex and diverse in Asia. The port city of Penang is the food capital of Malaysia. Though Malaysia is a largely muslim country, pork preparations abound , as also preparations of all types of meats and sea-food.

Much of the geology of Malaysia is ancient limestone. These rocks are susceptible to erosion by water . Over millennia, rain water has carved caves – large and small – all over all the territory . The most famous of these caves – the Batu caves – lie 13 kilometres north of Kuala Lumpur. They comprise 3 large caves and several smaller ones. The largest cave, known as the Cathedral cave, houses several hindu temples and shrines. They are administered by a hindu Board of management.

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                                                           Cathedral cave — Batu

All things considered, Malaysia is a ‘must see’ destination on the itinerary of any visitor to south-east Asia. It is well and truly an exotic outpost.

( My last blog was centered on a mysterious people of northern Asia – the scythians . My next blog is on an equally mysterious people of southern Europe–the Etruscans of Italy. Stay posted )

The great scythian surge: the Aryans

                         scythian header pic.          

They came from the north-east corner of Asia, 11,000 years ago . Their lands were the vast steppes between the high Altai mountains bordering Mongolia , the Tianshan mountains bordering the Taklamakan desert and the Pamir mountain range of Kyrgistan. They were the original inhabitants of the country now called Kazakhstan .  Some call them ‘ the Cossacks.’

                                    Map of kazakhstan                               image :  National Geographic society                 

They were the first to domesticate the horse. And the first to invent mounted warfare. They were nomads . Yet their equestrian skills took them far and wide .

Akhal Teke Horse

                                              central asian horse : Akal Teke breed

Over a period of 8000 years the western arm of the Scythian people had crossed the Carpathian and Caucasus mountains , occupied vast lands surrounding the Caspian and Black seas, and ventured into Turkey, Syria and western Iran .

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                                                                      scythian ornament

This blog tracks the migration of the eastern arm of the scythian people ( known to greek historians as the Sakas ), and the history of their eventual occupation of the lands of western India—the region where I live. This land is western Maharashtra , its people are Indo-scythians, and its calendar is the Saka calendar , commencing 78 A.D. when the Sakas in India were at the height of their power.

 

scythian rider

                                                                          scythian rider

The scythians of the east Kazakh steppes were displaced from their homelands south of the Syr Darya ( Jaxartes ) river,  by the Yueh-chi tribes of north-west China , about 2200 years ago.  They migrated south to the lands between the Amur Darya ( Oxus ) river of Uzbekistan and the foot-hills of the Hindu Kush mountain range —  a region now called Afghanistan , thus extinguishing the last embers of Alexander’s fiery conquest of the region . They spoke a language which is the predecessor of a family of indo-european languages . It was called ‘ Arya’ , and those who spoke these languages were called Aryans.

But the scythians were not to be left in peace. The Yueh-chi tribes had congealed into a single powerful kingdom called the Kouei Chouang ( Kushan ). If the Scythians were to migrate further south , they had to slip between the kingdom of the Kushans , the kingdom of Parthia ( eastern Iran ) and the remnants of the Greek kingdom in the Kabul valley.  This they successfully did. And got lucky.

kalash kafir girl   Greek descendant — Kalash kafir girl : Brumboret valley , Afghanistan

Once the Scythians moved out of the north-west provinces of today’s Pakistan and into the fertile lands of the river valley bordering the mountains of Baluchistan, they eventually reached the Indus river delta, they encountered a civilisation that had occupied the territory for over 2000 years. This was the Indus valley civilization .  

Map of Pakistan

                                               Image : National Geographic society

These people , more correctly described today as the Indo-Sarasvati valley civilization, called the Scythians the ‘ari ’ or ‘newcomers’. And the term ’arya’ was coined. In the language  of these people , it meant ‘favourably disposed to the newcomers’. 

Mohenjo Daro

                          village of the Indo-sarasvati civilisation 

The Indo-Sarasvati peoples ranged from the western borders of Iran to the Indo-gangetic plains of India. But the land occupied by the ‘newcomers’ was the land known today as Sind in southern Pakistan. This became ‘Indo-scythia’ or ‘Saka’ to the geographers of that time . It is one of the ironies of history that a vigorously  active people co-existed with a vigorously cerebral people . The interaction was short-lived .

merchant's seal

                              merchant’s seal : circa 1500 B.C.

In just over a century the Sakas moved on . Around 2000 years ago, they moved eastwards from the Indus valley through the salt marshes of the Rann of Kutch and into that part of India known today as Saurashtra  (Gujarat ). Here the indo-scythians settled . They soon occupied parts of eastern Punjab , Rajasthan , Gujarat and northern Maharashtra – the regions that were spared the depredations of the Persian , Greek and Kushan invasions of north-west India.                                     

In the region where I live in northern Maharashtra,  many of the people have features very different from those of the northwest regions of India. Their language is a mix of the Iranian language and the Sanskritic languages of North India.

scytho-indian girl

                                                               scytho-indian girl

There are numerous cave temples in this region, built over a century around the start of the common era . These were also the dwellings of monks of whichever religion prevailed at the time. The Saka kings thought it fit to make donations to these monasteries , no matter what their religious persuasion.

cave I

cave II

        Saka period rock-cut monastery with pillasters of central asian origin : Nasik , W.India

The  Scythians in India were, however, far removed from the open steppes from where they originally came . Much of their new territory was densely forested. There was little scope for their equestrian skills in war. Within a century of their arrival in India , they lost the southern parts of their kingdom to the eastern Indian kingdom of the Satvahanas . And within 300 years thereafter, they lost the  rest of their kingdom to the imperial Gupta kingdom of north india. The great eastern scythian surge had run its course.

( Far to the east and south of the indo-scythian territories , indians of the Gupta and Pallava kingdoms went on to colonise other lands — across the sea . They came not as coquerors but as traders . My next blog relates to one of these lands — Malaysia . Stay posted )