Monday, December 5, 2016

Yule Log, the Dessert and the Tradition

Photo: A homemade Yule log (Bûche de Noël) made of chocolate filled with raspberry jam - the traditional French dessert for Christmas

Yule log is a traditional dessert served during the Christmas season. It is made from sponge cake and ingredients such as chocolate, butter cream, various extracts, and often shaped like a mini Yule log.

Historically Yule was originally celebrated by the Germanic peoples. In Nordic countries, and in some English speaking countries, words equivalent to Yule are used for Christmas. The customs such as Yule singing, Yule goat and Yule boar are linked to the pagan tradition of Yule.

The pagan Yule can be traced to several fourth century communities, even before they were converted to Christianity. They continued many of their original traditions even after conversion, though they underwent many changes in the course of time.

It is not clear if the historical Germanic Yule feast involved ancestor worship and the cult of the dead, as was prevalent in some pagan rituals. However, when the custom fell out, probably in the 1940s, it became just the dessert.

The English historian Henry Bourne (1694-1733) traced the origin of the Yule log to Anglo-Saxon paganism. He noted that the celebration involved burning a log of wood, known by names such as Yule Clog, Gule Block or Christmas Block. Its purpose was to illuminate the house and was symbolic of the return of the Sun and seeking longer duration of daylight.

The custom can also be traced to the folklore of England. According to lore, the Yule log is burned at night on the Christmas Eve. It should burn uninterrupted till only ash is left, because relighting it is considered unlucky. People sit around the fire and narrate stories of ghosts.

While setting fire to the log, people keep silence and make their wishes silently. After this, candles are lit from the fire and placed on a table following which silence can be broken. No other lights must be lit that night. Often a piece of the wood is saved to be lighted along with the next year's log. On the Christmas morning, a leaf or a tree branch is brought home before taking anything out of the house.

In France, where the custom is known as Bûche de Noël, the branch from a fruit bearing tree is circumambulated thrice around the house and blessed with wine, before burning. This custom seems to have been discontinued by a log-shaped cake, known as Bûche de Noël.

Yule log is also similar to Badnjak as in Slavic mythological rituals and other customs such as smearing the log with the blood of fowls or goats. The ash from the log is scattered in gardens and agricultural fields to promote fertility on the New Year's Eve.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Taj Mahal by Moonlight, painting by Charles William Bartlett

Photo: The Taj Mahal by Moonlight (1923), oil on canvas painting by Charles William Bartlett, now located in Honolulu Museum of Art, Hawaii, USA

Charles William Bartlett was an English artist who settled in Hawaii, USA. In 1913, Bartlett along with his wife traveled to South Asia and the Far East during which he visited the Taj Mahal. The painting of the monument depicts it when it was in a state of disrepair and lack of proper maintenance. However, it had enough splendor to inspire him to paint the monument of love.

Ever since the Taj Mahal was built, it has been able to instill in the visitors a sense of emotional attachment with it. Incidentally, it creates different emotions in different people. This painting invokes a sense of lost grandeur as well as a majestic invincibility. Also there is a mystic, eerie atmosphere surrounding it. As it is the view of the monument lit by moonlight, which is a romantic experience to most visitors, the painting also makes the viewer remember her/his loved ones.

The Taj Mahal is a Mughal period mausoleum, constructed mainly with translucent Makrana marble and decorated with inlays of precious and semiprecious gemstones. It is situated on the south bank of the Yamuna River in the Indian city of Agra.

Commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in 1631 in memory of his favorite wife Mumtaz Mahal who died giving birth to their 14th child, construction of the monument began in 1632. The main mausoleum was completed in 1643, work continuing for another ten years till the rest of the complex was completed.

The monument incorporates the architectural and art traditions of earlier Mughal and Persian buildings. It is considered the best example of Mughal Architecture.

The Taj Mahal complex, which has many other buildings, has esthetically landscaped lawns and magnificent gardens. There are several other mausoleums, including those of Jahan's other wives, and a larger tomb near the mausoleum for the favorite servant of Mumtaz.

This UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the seven wonders of the modern world, and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Rabindranath Tagore described it as ‘the tear-drop on the cheek of time’. For many others it is the monument of love. The imperial court documents describe Jahan's inconsolable grief on the death of Mumtaz as the inspiration for the monument.

Soon after the completion of the monument, his son Aurangzeb deposed Shah Jahan and placed him under house arrest at Agra Fort. On his death, Aurangzeb buried in the mausoleum Jahan next to his beloved wife.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Buddha's Hand, an unusual citrus fruit

Photo 1: Buddha's Hand, closed hand-shaped green fruit on semi-dwarf plant

Photo 2: Buddha's Hand, ripe closed hand shaped fruit

Buddha's Hand is a bizarre citron. Its scientific name is Citrus medica var. sarcodactylis, and is a member of the Citrus genus to which lemons, oranges, grapefruit and limes belong.

It’s called Buddha's Hand because of the shape of the fruits that resembles a human hand with fingerlike projections. The origin of this citrus plant, also known as Fingered Citron, is traced to northeast India and China.

The Fingered Citron is an evergreen, large, fast-growing shrub that can grow to a small tree of 3m to 5m height. It has long thorny branches and oblong leaves. Its white flowers have a purple tint and appear in fragrant clusters.

The plant loves temperate climate, and is sensitive to extreme climatic conditions like excessive heat and frost. It can be reproduced from branch cuttings.

Unlike other citrus fruits, Buddha's Hand fruit, looking like a lemon with fingerlike projections, has a sweet aroma. It contains only a very small amount of pulp and negligible juice, and is seedless.

Admired for its unique shape and aroma, the fruit can be eaten raw. It is mainly used in various recipes for its unique flavor, lemony zest and zing, and also to flavor alcoholic beverages. It can be sliced into strips, or chopped and added as special ingredients in sweet breads, cakes, cookies and ice creams.

In traditional medicine, the sliced, dried peel of immature fruits is recommended as a tonic. The fruit is known to help relieve pain and discomfort due to injuries, swellings and bruises and to relieve discomforts related to respiratory diseases, diarrhea, constipation, high blood pressure, heart problems, menstrual issues, etc. (This is no medical advice, consult a doctor).

The fruit is important as a religious offering at Buddhist temples. Buddha prefers fruits with closed fingers, resembling folded hands symbolizing the act of prayer. Some fruits of this plant naturally resemble Buddha's hand symbol and are specially revered. The fruit is a symbol of good fortune, longevity and happiness in China where it is also a traditional offering in temples and given as a New Year gift.

The Fingered Citron is very fragrant and is used in Japan, Korea and China as a perfume for rooms and clothing. It is also grown as an ornamental plant in gardens and in pots placed on porticos and terraces.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation

Photo: St. Gabriel's Greek Orthodox Church in Nazareth

The Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, situated in Nazareth, Israel, is a principal center of Christian pilgrimage. As the name suggests, the place where the church is located is believed to be where the angel Gabriel delivered God’s message to Virgin Mary.

The church, also known as the Church of St. Gabriel, is built over a subterranean spring where Mary was drawing water at the time of the Annunciation, according to the Eastern Orthodox belief. The spring water is still present inside the apse of the church.

The Book of Luke (1:27-35) does not describe the exact location where Gabriel delivered God’s message to Mary, but only mentions Nazareth. However, according to the second century text of James, when the angel addressed her and greeted her she looked around but could see any one. She returned home with the pot of water after which Gabriel appeared before her and informed her about the virgin birth of Jesus.

The church had previously been occupied by the Franciscans and the Greek Catholics. But Zahir al-Umar al-Zaydani, the ruler of Galilee, granted control of the church to the local Arab community of Greek Orthodox faith. Consequently, in 1750, they built a new church just beside the existing one. Since then the Arab Orthodox local council in Nazareth has been running the church.

The original church is believed to have been built during the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine I at the site of a spring that was the only source of water supply to the village of Nazareth.

The water of the spring originates from a mountain known as Jabal as-Sikh and flows underground for 17 meters and emerges in the church. From there it continues to flow 130 meters further to surface at Mary's Well. This was the well from which Mother Mary and boy Jesus used to draw and drink water. But today, there is a nonfunctional structure rebuilt for the millennium celebrations of Nazareth in 2000.

The spring within the old chapel can be accessed from the present church by descending a few steps, and water can be drawn from it.

Another important center of pilgrimage is the Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation built over a cave which is believed to have been the house where Mary lived.

Annunciation, painting by Leonardo da Vinci and Andrea del Verrocchio

Photo: The Annunciation, oil on panel painting by Italian artists Leonardo da Vinci and Andrea del Verrocchio, 1472-1475, 38.6 x 85.4 in (98 × 217 cm), now in Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

The subject of the painting is based on a narrative by Luke according to whom during her betrothal the angel Gabriel sent by God announced to her that she would miraculously conceive through the Holy Spirit and give birth to a son. He told her that the baby was to be named Jesus. The subject has been very popular in Christian Art.

The Annunciation is widely considered the first work of the young Leonardo da Vinci completed in collaboration with his master Andrea del Verrocchio.

Following the established tradition of the times, the painting depicts Gabriel on the left and Virgin Mary on the right with a lectern in between. The architectural setting that opens out onto a landscape does not look to belong to the period when Mary lived. But it was born out of da Vinci’s fantasies of modern architecture, not even of his times, but much ahead.

Some immature visualization can be noticed, for instance, with poplars and pines and the mountains at a distance that seem to be full of greenery which defies logic as the geographical setting of Mary is in the Middle East where such vegetation is unusual.

However, da Vinci’s Annunciation is known for the perfection of linear geometric perspective in art, which later was widely followed by other artists.

In the picture, angel Gabriel is kneeling before Mary while delivering God’s message. He is depicted as draped in rich clothing and holds a Madonna lily. Mary, dressed in equally rich, supple drapery, is shown as was reading, and raises her eyes towards the angel and raises her hand in a gesture of surprise, or rather fear.

When The Annunciation was brought to the Uffizi Gallery from a convent near Florence in 1867, it was credited to Domenico Ghirlandaio, who was also an apprentice of Verrocchio. But later it was established by art experts to be the work of da Vinci in collaboration with Verrocchio.

The painting, as many other paintings depicting Annunciation, shows the angel appearing before Mary at her residence. But some other narratives say that the angel appeared before her when she went to the well to draw water. This well, known as Mary’s Well, is located in an area in Nazareth where there are several other churches and pilgrimage attractions in Nazareth. The well is said to have been a popular watering hole for Arabs for several centuries.

Friday, November 25, 2016

The Plight of Somali Refugees in Dadaab

Photo: “On the edge of the camp, a young girl stands amid the freshly made graves of 70 children, many of whom died of malnutrition”, Oxfam East Africa, photo by Andy Hall, taken on 25 July 2011.

Dadaab is a desert scrubland town in Garissa County of northeast Kenya, bordering Somalia. It houses the world’s largest refugee complex.

In 1991 a coalition of clan-based rebel groups overthrew the dictator Siad Barre and freed the people of Somalia after a decade long civil war. But the clan leaders could not consolidate their gains and reestablish rule of law. Instead, they fought among themselves for power. As the cumulative effect of clan conflicts and civil war, the economy collapsed and life and property became insecure.

It’s 2016. The civil war still continues in Somalia.

Refugees from Somalia began to arrive in Dadaab in 1992 when the camps at Hagadera, Dagahaley and Ifo were setup. In 2011 more camps were added at Ifo II and Kambioos to accommodate people fleeing from drought and famine.

The Dadaab camps are managed by the UNHCR, ably supported by other aid agencies. In the course of time, the complex has grown like a chaotic town full of slums. Refugees live in tents and huts.

To add fuel to fire, the jihadist group Al Shabaab bombed, maimed and killed civilians and others in Somalia. They disrupted and destroyed life and property as never before. And they scored major military victories throughout 2007 and 2008. And they controlled vast swathes of land in southern Somalia. Their brutalities forced many more people to flee to Dadaab.

People coming from Somalia were starving and malnourished. Though, generally, food and other supplies are rationed on priority to children, many of them die due to malnutrition and infections.

In conflicts of this scale, the first casualty is always children, followed by the weak and old aged.

In November 2013, following the attack on Nairobi's Westgate shopping mall by Al Shabaab, Kenya pushed for the repatriation of refugees. Consequently, a tripartite agreement was signed in Mogadishu by Somalia, Kenya and UNHCR to facilitate voluntary repatriation of refugees.

According to the agreement and assisted by the repatriation package, some people have gone back but many of them now want to return to the camps as they find life in the camps far better and more secure than in Somalia.

Following the Garissa University College attack in 2015 by Al Shabaab, the Kenyan government asked UNHCR to repatriate the remaining refugees to their home country. In May 2016, Kenya unilaterally decided to shut down the camps by the end of November 2016.

Kenya alleges that the jihadist group sourced new recruits from Dadaab and that they are using the camps as terrorist training grounds.

However, there has been international pressure on Kenya to allow the refugees to stay in the camps, and the UNHCR regards it as an irresponsible decision by Kenya.

However, the Kenyan government announced on Wednesday that, in response to the UNHCR request, it would extend the deadline to close the camps by six months, adding that voluntary repatriation will continue.

It’s alleged that refugees are coerced to return. A survey revealed that only 25% are willing to return.

The civil war there is still going on in Somalia. The government is struggling to put the failed economy back on rails. Life there is appalling. There are no jobs, no food to eat. Under these conditions, coerced repatriation will only expose the youth to radicalization.

And, forced repatriation violates the refugees’ basic human rights.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Life and Passion of Christ by Gaudenzio Ferrari

Photo: Stories of The Life and Passion of Christ (1513) by Gaudenzio Ferrari, fresco at the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Italy

The picture depicts Ferrari's wall, narrating the Stories of the Life and Passion of Christ, in the Church of Our Lady of the Graces (Santa Maria delle Grazie), a Roman Catholic Church in Italy. The giant fresco admeasuring 82 square meters was completed by Gaudenzio Ferrari, the Italian painter and sculptor of the Renaissance, in 1513. Twenty equal frames narrate the main events in the gospels, in addition to the Crucifixion scene in the center that occupies four frames.

The Biblical scenes depicted in the fresco are briefly as below:

In Annunciation Gabriel announces to Virgin Mary that she would conceive the Son of God and become his mother. The angel also tells her to name him Jesus.

The Nativity of Jesus is the scene after the birth of Jesus, born in Bethlehem during the reign of Herod the Great, the king of Judea.

The Adoration of the Magi shows the visit of the Magi who spotted and followed a new star until they found baby Jesus. They saw him with mother Mary, knelt down before him and paid homage. They also presented him with expensive gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The Flight into Egypt displays Joseph fleeing to Egypt with Mary and infant Jesus after the Magi told them that King Herod planned to kill all the newborns.

The Baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist is the forerunner to the public ministry of Jesus.

The Resurrection of Lazarus of Bethany (Saint Lazarus) is a miracle of Jesus, who resurrects Lazarus four days after his death.

The Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, days before the Last Supper, marks the beginning of his Passion. People crowded around Jesus, believed in him and welcomed him as he entered Jerusalem.

The Last Supper was the last meal shared by Jesus with his Apostles before his crucifixion.

The Washing of the Feet, commemorated on Maundy Friday, shows the event in which Jesus washes the feet of his Apostles.

The Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane refers to the events in the life of Jesus between the Farewell Discourse at the Last Supper and his arrest by the temple guards.

The Arrest of Jesus by the Temple guards in the Garden of Gethsemane was shortly after the Last Supper, and immediately after the kiss of Judas.

The Trial of Jesus at Herod's Court refers to an episode in which Herod Antipas and his soldiers mock at Jesus, and sent him back to Pontius Pilate for the final trial.

The Trial of Jesus at Pilate's Court refers to the final trial of Jesus. Though Pontius Pilate publicly declared that Jesus was innocent, the crowd insisted on his punishment. Pilate then ordered crucifixion of Jesus.

The Flagellation of Christ is a scene in the cycles of the Passion and the Life of Christ.

Ecce Homo (Behold the man), the Latin words used by Pontius Pilate, when he presented Jesus, bound with ropes and crowned with thorns, to a hostile crowd.

Via Dolorosa (The Way of Grief) is a street in the Old City of Jerusalem, the path Jesus walked on his way to Crucifixion.

Preparation of the Cross: Christ falls down after which the cross is prepared to crucify him.

In Crucifixion of Jesus (depicted in the large central frame of the fresco), Jesus was stripped of his clothing and hung between two convicted thieves. The soldiers then cast lots for his clothes.

The Lamentation of Christ shows his friends mourning over his body after Jesus was crucified and his body was removed from the cross.

Christ's Descent into Limbo is the scene where Jesus experienced death and his soul joined the other souls in the realm of the dead, but he descended there as the Saviour of the souls imprisoned there.

The Resurrection of Jesus depicts his rising again from the dead. According to the New Testament, after crucifixion, he was buried in a tomb but God resurrected him from the dead.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Lord of Dance Nataraja, Bronze Sculpture

Photo: Nataraja, the Lord of Dance, a bronze sculpture admeasuring 30 × 22.5 × 7 in (76.2 × 57.2 × 17.8 cm) dated between 950 CE and 1000 CE located at the South and Southeast Asian Art Department, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), USA.

The above photograph of the bronze sculpture depicts Lord Shiva in his cosmic dance pose as Shiva Nataraja, the god of all dance and dramatic arts. Apart from the symbolic meanings of the expressions of his legs, hands, face and other body parts, and the objects held by him, the lord is enclosed in a ring of flames. He is shown as lifting his left leg while balancing himself with the other leg on a dwarf demon that is interpreted as symbolic of ignorance. His flowing, whirling hair on both sides of his head shows the spread of cosmic energy.

You can get the correct but varied interpretations of all the artwork related to Nataraja from various scholars especially from Indian scholars who excelled from 12th century onwards and also scholars from other countries who are specializing in Indology and also Indian art and dance forms.

With slight variations of depiction, Shiva-Nataraja figures can be seen, including in temple art and paintings, mainly from the sixth century onwards. The art and culture of many countries such as Indonesia (Siwa in Bali and Java), Thailand, Cambodia (Nrittesvara), and even some central Asian countries were influenced by this form of dancing Shiva. Nataraja is praised, worshiped and revered as the god who created dance and drama, especially, as this form of Shiva in his dancing style is sculpted as per the Hindu texts such as Natya Shastra (attributed to sage Bharata) that describes various aspects of performing arts.

The style and form for all dancing Shiva depictions is the one at Chidambaram Temple in Tamilnadu. The same form is depicted in several Shiva temples in the southern states of India.

In the area comprising and around today’s Tamil Nadu, around the tenth century, the dancing Shiva became a symbol of royalty, and an unavoidable part of Hindu religious practices and festivals. The Cholas who became a major military and economic power during this period were followers of Shaivism. May be for this reason, rightly or wrongly, the Nataraja Bronzes are often referred to as Chola bronzes.

Some scholars, quoting archeological and other evidences also associate the dancing Shiva to the Pallava dynasty (275 to 897 CE).

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Frederic Leighton: Flaming June

The oil-on-canvas painting, “Flaming June” of size 47x47 inch (1200 mm × 1200 mm), is created by the English artist Sir Frederic Leighton (3 December 1830 - 25 January 1896) in 1895. The art world considers this as Leighton's magnum opus.

Though art critics and historians credit the actresses Dorothy Dene and Marie Lloyd for having modeled for Flaming June, it was most likely the Dorothy Dene, whom Leighton met in her teens. On close examination, it seems some other female figures in his other works also resemble Dene.

According to art historians the Victorian artist was inspired immensely by Michelangelo’s monumental sculpture titled “Night”, which is located in the Medici Tombs in Florence, Italy. Even the pose and posture of the figure seems to have been adapted from the Night.

The painting has been thought as lost forever as it was not seen after 1930 until it was found again in 1962. It was auctioned thereafter, and soon after it was purchased by the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Ponce, Puerto Rico, where it continues to belong to. It is one of the sought after attractions of the museum in Puerto Rico.

The setting for the painting is Mediterranean, with the sun brightly reflecting from the waves of the seawater. It provides the realism of natural light for the figure of the sleeping woman. The transparent clothing in flaming, intense colors and the marble setting around are typical of Leighton's style. Thanks to the light from sunset reflecting, her cheeks appear to blush, even though she is depicted as sleeping.

Though Leighton painted several single female figures in the period just before, Flaming June is outstanding from all others as regards use of rioting colors to explore beauty, imagination, emotions, sleep and dreams. Perhaps this departure from his earlier styles makes Flaming June a timeless piece of art and the most recognizable work of Frederic Leighton.

Some art historians associate a symbolism of the highly poisonous oleander plant’s branch at the top with sleep, dreams and possibly death. It may be recalled that Leighton passed away in 1896, not too distant from the time of painting Flaming June (1895).

Flaming June is one of the most reproduced paintings. The dress and posture of the female figure has been imitated for modeling for magazine covers by famous models and actresses, and it has been endlessly copied on every possible surface of consumer interest.

Monday, November 7, 2016

William Daniell: Gates of the palace at Lucknow

This oil on canvas work, “Gates of the palace at Lucknow” dimensions 89cm x 135cm, was painted in 1801 by the English landscape painter William Daniell (1769–1837).

During that period, the artist, along with his uncle Thomas Daniell, was travelling around India and collaborating for their illustrated work called Oriental Scenery.

The year of the painting “Gates of the palace at Lucknow” relates to the period when Awadh, an independent kingdom with its capital at Lucknow, was ruled by Saadat Ali Khan II (1752-1814). Khan, who was installed by the British as Nawab, signed a treaty with them in 1801, and surrendered a huge chunk of Awadh territory to them.

William Daniell later painted a series of watercolors of many sceneries of the coastline of Britain for the book A Voyage Round Great Britain.