“Take up one idea”

Hindu pilgrim on her way to a temple. India.

Hindu pilgrim on her way to a temple. India.

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Lesotho, the mountain kingdom

Shepherd. Lesotho

Shepherd. Lesotho

“Khotso, pula, nala”. These three words ( peace, rain, prosperity) greet people as they enter the kingdom of Lesotho, a tiny African country completely surrounded by the Republic of South Africa. The people are called Basotho ( one person is a Mosotho) and the language is sesotho.

Lesotho is a very mountainous country. Only 15% of the land is flat and fertile enough for farming. However, Lesotho is primarily an agricultural country. The country has often been called the “Switzerland of Africa”. It is the only country in the world with all its land rising more than one thousand metres ( 3.280 feet) above sea-level. Thabana Ntlenyana peak up to 3.482 metres ( 11.423 feet). Until recently, it was almost impossible to drive a vehicle through most of Lesotho. Travel accross the mountains was either on foot or on horseback.

Lesotho’s high elevation accounts for its dry climate. The country is virtually free of the tropical diseases ( such as malaria and bilharzia) found in other African countries, and the sun shines for more than 300 days a year. Winters are harsh and the mountain-tops are often snowcapped.

Lesotho is one of the smallest countries in Africa with a total area of 30.355 square kilometres ( 11.720 square miles). It is similar in size to Belgium or the American state of Maryland. Lesotho’s population is about 1.4 million people, most of whom live in small towns and villages. Maseru, the capital, is home to approximately 75 000 people.

In the heart of the country, modern civilization gives way to a biblical way of life. Shepherd boys tend their herds. Distant cow-bells carry an echo over treeless cliffs. Mothers ( and girls) walk great distances each day to fetch water. The only sign of the modern world is an occasional small aircraft flying overhead.

The history of Lesotho goes back literally millions of years, and yet the country itself is very young. ( The country emerged as a nation between 1815 and 1820 under the guidance of the king Moshoeshoenand gained its independance from Great Britain on 4 october 1966.) Fossil footprints left by dinosaurs are visible. They are thought to be over two hundred million years old. The earliest known inhabitants were the Khoisan ( or Bushmen) hunter-gatherers. Skilful painters, they left evidence of their lives in rock paintings. Later, they were replaced by Bantu people during the first millenium of the Christian era. Among all the Bantu groups who lived in southern Africa, the Sotho settled in present Lesotho and adjoining territories of actual South Africa. The Basotho nation was formed by the unification of several clans in the early 19° century by the king Moshoeshoe. Following a series of wars, the basotho lost most of their territory to the Boers but Moshoeshoe appealed to Great Britain for protection and Basutoland became a British protectorate…since its independence in 1966. Since then called Lesotho, the country is a constitutional monarchy, an homogenous nation constituted by almost one ethnic group, the Sotho.

Lesotho is also the African country with the highest percentage of christians ( about 80%). ( Well, many Basotho mix the traditional ancestor worship and christianism !) The first missionaries arrived at the beginning of the 19° century : they were invited by Moshoeshoe to provide advices on foreign affairs, to help to acquire guns, to bring education. They also introduced potatoes, wheat, pigs,… to the local population.

One of the poorest countries in the world, many Basotho are forced to work in South Africa because of the lack of employment. Something like 40 % of Lesotho’s male working population work in the gold and diamond mines. They leave their homes for weeks or months; they return permanently when they retire or are disabled ( tuberculosis). The country is largely dependent on his neighbour for food, clothing, and anything to meet the basic needs of the population. The country boasts few natural resources like water ( there is a series of dams that allow the country to be self-sufficient in electricity and even export power to urban and industrial centres in South Africa), diamonds also. Sheeps being abundant, there is a basis for wool and mohair ( small scale) industry.

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Anarchy in ( muslim) India

Fakir. Ajmer, India.

Fakir. Ajmer, India.

Considered as the anarchists of Islam, fakirs are muslim ( male) wanderers who live on charity and the love of Allah.  They are not magicians who perform “miracles” such as lying on a bed of nails, eating fire, raising bodies,…even if some of them do mortifications.

Most of them are “ajlaf”. They are the descendants of low caste hindus who converted to Islam during the Muslim invasions and the Mughal era ( in the mediaeval times and the following centuries), compelled to do so by poverty or to win the protection of a new lord. They did it by entire castes… or they were seduced by the message of a sufi, a muslim mystic.

Located in the state of Rajasthan ( India), Ajmer is the fakir’s Mecca, the main muslim pilgrimage centre of the subcontinent. They come from all over India, sometimes on foot, to pay homage to Moinuddin Chishti, a sufi master who lived in the 12°-13° centuries. Usually called “Gharib Nawaz” ( the saviour of the poor), many people ( be they muslims or not, be they Indians or not, be they poor or not) gather to the saint mausoleum through the year. During the annual celebration to commemorate the death of the master, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims come to visit his tomb. Even though the presence of the fakirs is forbidden inside the “dargah”, they find this a propitious ground. Indeed, pilgrims are generous : charity is an obligation, the giving of alms one of the five pillars of Islam.

Being followers of the sufi teachings, fakirs believe the Divine doesn’t think, He sees Himself in fraternity, in poverty. So, material riches are illusory as is the world around. As disciples of poverty, the only hierarchy they recognise is that of the heart. Condemned by orthodox Islam, which reproaches their bohemian style of life, their lack of sense of responsibility ( Fakirs don’t work, they have no children. They just wander, beg…and smoke cannabis.), the fakirs disturb. But if they upset preconceived notions, it is so that others do not stay enclosed in their own certainties, so that they question their own beliefs. To go beyond the doctrines, the precepts, the particularisms, because the sufi message is universal.

Fakirs and sufi followers like to join together in burial places around the tomb of the sufi saint. Just to meditate…and smoke as well. Cannabis circulates freely and the fakirs say that smoking the “chillum”, an earthenware pipe, enables them to approach Allah,…and contemplating the Divine is a way to reach the Paradise, “Firdous”.

Such gatherings also signify that death is not the end of life, that there is a dialogue between the world of life and the world of death. So that the deceased may help us ( if we pay homage to them) and the living do not forget them. The past, present and future being joined, distinguishing them is futile.

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Shekhawati, an open museum in India

Façade of a school. Shekhawati region, India.

Façade of a school. Shekhawati region, India.

The semi-desert region of Shekhawati ( in the western state of Rajasthan) is a colourful fantasy having a fascination of its own. An open air museum famous for its plethora of painted “haveli” ( urban mansion). Shekhawati means “the land of Shekha’s clan”. It derives its name from the king Rao Shekha ( 1433-1488), a scion of the ruling family of Jaipur ( then the capital of a powerful kingdom, now the capital of Rajasthan), the Kachhwaha.

The first frescoes were painted at the beginning of the 18° century but most of them have been painted between 1750 and 1930 especially on the walls of “haveli”, but also on the walls of forts, temples and cenotaphs ( the golden age being between 1830 and 1900).That’s the way the rich merchants used to display their wealth. ( Indeed, Shekhawati was one of the routes used by the caravans carrying merchandises between Europe, Africa, the Middle-East  and India, China.) These mansions display a unique architectural style that evolved around the courtyards to ensure safety and privacy of the women folk ( When a man who didn’t belong to the family came in the “haveli”, all the women retired to their rooms) and protection from the heat of the long and harsh summers.

The “haveli”, painted in blue, maroon, yellow, green and indigo have beautiful wall paintings that adorn their walls. The 18° and 19° century wall paintings were largely based on the hindu mythological themes, depicting local legends, animals, portraits, hunting and wrestling scenes and a glimpse of everyday life. At the beginning of the 20° century, new motifs appeared. It was an outcome of the Raj’s influence upon the Indian culture. ( The Raj is the British rule in the Indian sub-continent from 1858 to 1947.) So the traditional Indian miniatures mingled with the naturalism of the western paintings to produce hybrid results. The mythological themes depicting hindu gods, heroes, epics and legends were substituted by European oleographs, lithographs and photographs. Trains, cars, balloons, telephones, gramophones, English men in hunting attires and portraits of the haveli owners were painted all over the walls.

Everything stopped with the development of the railways. Caravans became outdated. So, rich merchant families shifted to Calcutta and Bombay, the commercial centres of India. Now, the “haveli” ( except a few) are neglected by their owners who seldom come back to Shekhawati but refuse to sell their property. That’s where their roots are…and that’s the region where Rani Sati, the tutelary divinity of these businessmen has her main temple.

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India : about sorcery and witchcraft

Traditional healer. Rajasthan, India.

Traditional healer. Rajasthan, India.

The unknown, the unexplainable has always aroused fears in man. This is were the occult fills the bill. For many people in India ( most of the time illiterate people), magic and superstition serve as a ready substitute for knowledge ( unless it is another interpretation of rationality). Even today, the occult is an integral part of the rural conception, especially in backward areas.

Many strange occurences are believed to result from the occult : involuntary singing, compulsive undressing and even young women being lured by the sorcerers for sexual pleasures, huts aflame, appearing of marks on the body,…In rural India, every village has its sorcerers. For fears of occult reprisals, villagers refuse to identify them, but every village has also some exorcists to tackle the evils of sorcery or black magic, to remedy common ailments and treat those possessed by evil spirits.

In towns, sorcerers are believed to live in cremation grounds which are supposed to be haunted by the spirits of the dead and “kacha kalwa”, the spirits of  children buried there. ( Infants are buried in India, not cremated.) The “evil eye” is so dreaded that mothers are always cautious about protecting their children against women who are barren and who might cut a piece of the dress or a lock of hair of a child in order to conceive. It is commonly believed that if this device works and the woman conceives, she does so at the cost of the life of the child on whom her “evil eye” was cast. Crossroads or squares are supposed to be influenced by ghosts and witches and it is at the centre of such crossings that certain offerings are made in twilight or at midnight to ward off evil spirits.

Most hindus believe the ashes of the deceased must be immersed in some sacred river and until this is done, the spirit of the dead haunts his earthly attachments. Among the Bhil, the largest Indian tribe, witchcraft is religion. At the “katha”  ( death commemoration), the Bhil witch doctor dominates the scene in order to rid the surroundings of evil spirits. Indeed, the spirit of the deceased is supposed  to enter his body and through him demand whatever it desires.

Charms and amulets are prepared by traditional healers to protect the people, particularly the children, but also the domestic animals, cars, houses,… Prayers to particular gods and goddesses are offered for the recovery of those ill.

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India : the Bhil tribe

Bhil man. India.

Bhil man. India.

Bhils are the largest tribe in South Asia ( about 13.000.000 people). They live in the Indian states of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Maharashtra and also in Pakistan. There was a time when they were known as fine archers hence their name ( vil = bow). Indeed, Bhil bowmen are mentioned in both the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, the two great epics of India. In the mediaeval times, they were highly regarded as warriors, and the Rajput rulers of Rajasthan relied heavily on them to thwart their enemies… and later the invading Mughals and Marathas. Some scholars even suggest that the Rajputs owe their warrior propensities to their exposure to the Bhil, whom they emulated. The British formed a corps in the 1820s in recognition of the Bhils’ martial tradition.

Although originally food gatherers, they have now taken up small-scale agriculture. They are very poor. To make ends meet, many have become daily workers, low wage earners in cities, in factories,… The literacy rate, particularly among the women, is one of the lowest of any group in India which make them prime targets for exploitation and bonded labour.

Witchcraft and magic are deeply rooted aspects of their culture.

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Islam : about religious fanaticism

Muslim boys in a salafist koranic school. Kachchh region, India.

Muslim boys in a salafist koranic school. Kachchh region, India.

Islam ( as well as other religions) gives people a message of hope and a desire to live in a better world. But when the believers can’t understand the forces that are bringing changes around them ( such as the activities of multinational companies, the use of foreign military might,…), they get confused. Because many have lost faith in the political parties to help them out, they turn to what is familiar to them : their religion, which they understand traditionally. Hence, cultural and religious isolationism is their way to affirm their identity, fundamentalism their way to fight liberalism, capitalism.

Since ever, some Muslims have considered “jihad”( literally holy war) as the sixth pillar of Islam ( I have already written a post about the other pillars of Islam), although it has never been elevated to this status. The concept of “jihad” was the basis for the early expansion of Islam and was carried out very much in the literal sense of the word. ( A similar concept underpinned the Crusades of Europe’s Christians in the mediaeval times.)

Many of the attitudes surrounding western perceptions of Islam are based on fears as to the wider implications of the concept. On the other hand, the word actually derives from an Arabic root meaning basically “to strive”, and many Muslims emphasize a less literal interpretation in terms of a personal spiritual striving against sin to attain greater closeness to Allah.

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