About Jaya

Jaya Jha is an entrepreneur, a techie, a writer and a poet. She was born and brought up in various towns of Bihar and Jharkhand. A graduate of IIT Kanpur and IIM Lucknow, she realized early on that the corporate world was not her cup of tea. In 2008, she started Pothi.com, one of the first print-on-demand publishing platform in India. She currently lives in Bangalore and divides her time between writing and working on her company's latest product InstaScribe (http://instascribe.com) with a vision to make it the best e-book creation tool. Blog: https://jayajha.wordpress.com Twitter: @jayajha Facebook: http://facebook.com/MovingOnTheBook

Lies, Damn Lies, and Institutions

If you take a tour with a guide in Rome or Vatican, they will tell you a nifty tale about the source of the worldly power of the papacy in Rome. The first Christian Roman emperor Constantine (bless him!) shifted his capital to Byzantium (later Constantinople) in the 4th century and left Rome to the Pope, they will tell you. It is easy to believe. The first Christian emperor is likely to have the zeal of a newly converted. A donation to the Church was in order, right?

There is one big glitch though. And a few associated “minor” ones! The big one is this. Throughout the middle ages, Roman Catholic Church claimed the same story based on a document called Donation of Constantine, through which the emperor had supposedly donated Rome (and Western Roman Empire!) to the Pope. During the time of Renaissance, though, the document was proved to be a forgery. The forgery was perhaps done in the 8th century when an actual “donation” did come to the Pope from Pepin – the King of Franks (who was a usurper and whose kingship was legitimized by the approval and blessing of two successive Popes!). But not secure in their position, they perhaps felt the need to invoke the “ancient” Constantine to give legitimacy to this new donation. We don’t like to believe in anything unless somebody in past believed in it too, right? I say these Europeans are indeed Indians!

There are a few more reasons to not believe in the story. For example, Constantine wasn’t a Christian at the time he shifted the capital and this donation happened. He had proven himself tolerant towards Christianity with the Edict of Milan, which granted Christians the freedom to practice their religion and put a stop to their persecution. But he continued to patronize paganism and wasn’t baptized until he was on his deathbed (pious reasons have been discovered for this delay, but let’s not get into ecclesiastical debates here).

Constantine also didn’t seem to have any intention of giving away any part of his empire to anyone. A while before Constantine, Roman Empire had been divided into two parts – Eastern and Western – for administrative convenience. Otherwise, the empire had become too big to be managed by one emperor. So they had started having two co-emperors. Constantine had a co-emperor too. Until the partnership soured and he finally fought, defeated and killed his co-emperor to become the sole emperor of the empire. He is credited with unifying the Roman Empire again, not for chipping it off. The emperors that followed him also didn’t want to cede anything. Although ultimately they had to. Western Roman Empire was to collapse.

Finally, Bishop of Rome in the 4th century was not what Pope today is. He wasn’t the sole supreme leader of the Christian world. He was one of the bishops. Even among the important patriarchs, he was one of the five. In time Islam ran over the territory of three of them, Roman and Greek church parted ways, a lot of political, military and religious maneuvering happened before Rome and the papacy became the supreme symbols of Christianity (umm – just Catholicism actually).

Today the Vatican is this cute, little country sitting in the middle of Rome. Technically a theocracy, where visitor’s access is limited to only designated areas and where only Catholics can find work, it doesn’t invite outcries of bigotry or protests against “reservation” or “discrimination”. It is a harmless tourist destination, a nice eccentric piece of toy country to have. But even until the middle of 20th century, the papacy wasn’t this avuncular, harmless-looking institution. It was actively involved in the temporal politics of Italy. The compromise of leaving Vatican to them in return for them not claiming much else was arrived at by Mussolini. I suppose we could call Vatican a Donation of Mussolini.

For several hundred years now, the Rome (now the Vatican) hasn’t invoked the Donation of Constantine. But for almost 1000 years now we have known that they engaged in a forgery like that. Don’t you wonder how an institution with claims on superior spirituality survived such blatant disregard for right and wrong in pursuit of material greed? How did it not crumble under the revelation?

Well, it didn’t. It survived and it flourished. It conquered and it killed. Make what you will of human nature from this. But this is how things are with many more powerful institutions. With many powerful people too.

Time to stop wondering about how political parties, companies, and powerful individuals survive all the scandals and outrageously irresponsible behavior they engage in. There is something natural about their survival.

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आप फ़रमायें

हम तो जब वो पावर में आएंगे
तब उनपर भी सवाल उठाएंगे।
आप फ़रमायें,
कैसे हुक़ूमत बदलने पर आप
आज के दिन को कल रात
और रात को दिन बताएंगे?

सफ़ल कलम

एक कलम थी
बड़ी सफ़ल थी।
सब उसका लिखा पढ़ते थे
बड़ी वाहवाहियाँ करते थे।

एक दिन वो मुझे मिली,
कोई घमंडी भी नहीं लगी।
तो हिम्मत करके मैंने पूछा,
“बहन, कैसे ऐसा करती हो?
ज़ुल्मों का रोना भरती हो,
लेकिन ज़ुल्मी भी उसपर फ़िदा हैं,
मैं नहीं पूरा बाज़ार गवाह है।”

सुनकर वो हँसी,
हंसी थी बड़ी तीखी।
और मेरे सवाल पर
वो आश्चर्यचकित नहीं थी।
“तुम्हें राज़ अपना बताती हूँ।
पूछी है पते की बात तुमने,
तुमसे नहीं छिपाती हूँ।
व्यथाओं पर आहें भरना
सबको अच्छा लगता है।
आहें भर कर ज़ुल्मी भी
ख़ुद को हमदर्द समझता है।
पर क्या देखा नहीं तुमने,
मैने कभी इंसाफ़ नहीं मांगा।
व्यथाएं सुनाई बस
बदलाव नहीं मांगा।
अगर मांगा होता तो
आहें भरने वालों के
रास्ते में आती।
उनका दिन ख़राब होता
नींदें उड़ जाती।

कोई नहीं होता फिर
जो आहें भरता।
ना ही कोई होता
कि वाहवाहियां करता।
सफ़लता फिर मेरी
गोद में ना आती।
स्याही छिन जाती मेरी
मैं मार दी जाती।”

मेरा भौंचक्का चेहरा देख
वो फिर ज़ोर से हंसी।
और हंसते-हंसते यों ही
अपने रास्ते चल दी।

Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash

Snippets from Sri Lanka Trip

Dress Code Like No Other

The religious places all over the world have their dress codes and I don’t care enough about religions to complain about them. But Sri Lankans are the most bull-headed about its literal implementation, more than any other place I have been to till now (to their credit they hassle men and women alike – no sexism there!). In most other places they stop you only if your dress is blatantly improper and don’t get offended by every centimeter of departure from the prescribed length! Not in Sri Lanka. Their definition of covering the shoulders includes covering the upper arms too. This was the part I was not prepared for and had to go around with a jacket on my shoulders on the first day (it was HOT and HUMID!) and then a towel (Because, unlike what you would expect in tourist places, there weren’t even any vendors around selling stoles or sarongs to the trapped tourists)!

While at most places covering upper arms and a below-the-knee dress or trouser was enough, in Dambulla you were required to cover the legs all the way up to the ankles (there was also a totally unnecessary and super unpleasant encounter with a culture-supremacist uncle there, but I will skip the details). At Isurumuniya temple in Anuradhapura, there was a diktat against wearing black or dark-colored clothes. You should wear white! Our driver told us that they don’t impose that restriction on tourists and thankfully he was right. They didn’t bother me about my black shirt (perhaps it was compensated by my super white skirt).

Finally, hats and shoes have to come off almost everywhere. And the stupas, as they were being built, seemed to have gotten into a competition with their predecessors; so they kept getting bigger and bigger. Just to go around them, you have to walk over the stone-paved surfaces for a long time. At other times it is sand you are walking on. While scattered here and there may be some carpets, they are not available with any reliable frequency and they might also get dangerously hot besides being prickly depending on the material used. Not wearing socks proved daft. Did I burn my soles or what!

Taking all this into account, here are the suggested best practices:

  1. Wear full-length clothes. While below the knee works at most places, you never know where they decide to become more competitively pious and demand longer clothes.
  2. Cover upper arms. Perfectly modest, but sleeveless dress or shirt is not enough.
  3. Wear socks even if the heat doesn’t encourage it and even if your shoes don’t demand it. Your soles will thank you for it.
  4. Wear shoes that are easy to remove and put back on.
  5. Wear white or light-colored clothes. They would anyway be more comfortable in the heat. But even if worry about dirt tempts you towards black clothes, don’t give in.

Hindi in Sri Lanka via…?

The first site we visited was the fort at Yapahuwa and the person at the ticket counter immediately started talking in Hindi. He was pretty fluent too, unlike the waiter serving us our first meal in Italy. So, this time I managed to ask how he learned Hindi. It turned out that he had worked in Dubai for ten years and an obvious outcome was learning Hindi!

We also came across other people who could communicate a bit in broken Hindi.

Ancient Hygiene-awareness

Sri Lankans have been hygiene-aware for a long time, it seems. Urinal and lavatory stones in monasteries, lavatories & septic tanks in palaces and an ancient hospital speak to that. Urinal stones were the most decorated elements in some monasteries. Apparently to show the monks’ contempt for worldly beauty!

On and off the Tourist Map

Given the limited time, we decided to stick to the area called “Ancient Cities” for touristic purposes – specifically Anuradhapura, Mihintale, Polonnaruwa, Yapahuwa, Sigiriya, and Dambulla.

  • Anuradhapura was the capital of the main Singhalese kingdoms from few centuries BC until 10th century AD.
  • At that point, Cholas conquered them and ruled the kingdom briefly. They shifted the capital to Polonnaruwa. When a Singhalese king ousted them, he continued to rule from Polonnaruwa.
  • After 13th-century the capital shifted again, and then through the usual complicated processes of successions, divisions, and assimilations different kingdoms and dynasties came, slowly capitulated first to the Portuguese, then to the Dutch and finally to the British.
  • The last native kingdom remaining was Kandyan kingdom, with its capital in Kandy. It succumbed to the British in the 19th century. Among other things, they had patronized the already existing monastery at Dambulla and there are a bunch of cave paintings and statues there from the Kandyan period.
  • Mihintale is a place near Anuradhapura, where Mahinda (Emperor Ashoka’s son who took Buddhism to Sri Lanka) is supposed to have met the Sri Lankan king who converted to Buddhism – Devnampiya Tissa.
  • Yapahuwa was the capital for a short period in the 13th century, and currently has the ruins of the fortified city.
  • We were planning to visit Ritigala too but skipped it because of lack of time. It houses an ancient monastery and is supposed to be the place from where Hanuman jumped back over the sea to reach Lord Rama after finding out the whereabouts of Sita.

Anuradhapura and Mihintale do not seem to be on the main tourist circuit. So, tourists are outdone in number by the local pilgrims. But these places have some of the oldest sights Sri Lanka has to offer to the history-lovers.

The ancient cities of Sri Lanka also boast of early expertise in water management and irrigation system. They were already pretty advanced in centuries before Christ. We saw Nuwara Wewa which is a tank built in 1st century BC and covers an area of 1200+ hectares. Two other tanks in Anuradhapura area are also spread over hundreds of hectares. Parakram Samudra in Polonnurawa is 2000+ hectares. The tanks and canals powered irrigation system was the backbone of this ancient civilization.

Other places on our list were more likely to be on typical tourist itineraries. But the most common places on tourist radar – Kandy and then the beaches in South – were not on our list this time. We didn’t have enough time. So, hopefully, there will be another trip!

Museum at Anuradhapura was sadly closed for renovation, but those at Sigiriya and Polonnaruwa were useful. If you take guides there, they would usually skip museums. But if you have time, visiting the museums is highly recommended. Dambulla Museum is a hidden gem, which most people don’t visit. But it is well-organized and gives just the right amount of information about Sri Lankan wall paintings through the ages. It also sets the right context before you visit Dambulla caves.

The Buddhist Country

Sri Lanka is an interesting country in that it has been Buddhist for a long time (since 4th century BC). Hinduism had a strong influence and the big Tamil minority continues to be mostly Hindu. There still are tribes whose faith is pre-Buddhist and there are also Muslim and Catholic minorities. But if there is a country that can lay claim to the longest, sustained Buddhist tradition, it would be Sri Lanka. The Buddhists have also diligently maintained the written history of the island (although those histories delve into fantasies too often to be comfortable to modern minds, but dealing with that is the fate of historians all over the world). Not only is the island, then, a rich source for Buddhist history, but also, given the strong Indian connection, for reconstructing the history of India. We would never have known that those inscriptions strewn all over the Indian subcontinent were from Emperor Ashoka, but for a Sri Lankan Buddhist source that mentioned that Devnampiya Piyadasi (the name mentioned in those inscriptions) was Ashoka himself.

Tourist Experiences

In terms of tourist facilities, even Sri Lanka outdoes India. Usable toilets were easy to find. Although at some places, toilets for foreigners and locals were separate. Presumably to maintain better ones for the foreigners who paid a much higher price for the tickets. This segregation was uncomfortable, but hey, the toilets were clean and even had toilet paper available most of the times.

We had booked one taxi for all three days. So, we do not have any other experience of dealing with local taxis. But this one was a good experience. Unlike most tourist taxis in India, the driver was not trying to cut corners. Not only was he proactive in taking us to all the planned sights, he was equally comfortable with any additions and modifications. Not having to be on your toes all the time makes the experience so much better.

The experience with guides was mixed. In Mihintale, our homestay host was also a guide and we took him along because apart from his belief in the levitation abilities of Buddha and Mahinda, his knowledge of history seemed to be all right. He showed us all the sights and explained the finds in detail. In Yapahuwa there was limited number of things to see and we didn’t look for a guide.

In Anuradhapura and Polonnurawa, we spent almost an entire day each. So, we didn’t take a guide. Using our own research and the information available on the sites, we had a satisfactory experience. In Sigiriya, since we wanted to finish it quickly, we looked for a guide. Our driver was, by then, aware that we liked “going deep” and tried to arrange for a guide who would do that. That proved to be a counter-productive! They put forward a guide, an elderly man, who claimed to have a relevant university degree and assured us that he would explain it all to us. He also charged heftily. But he was worse than any guide we have ever had. We didn’t do much more than climbing up and down the hill with him. We got more information from the boards at the site and the museum we visited later. He didn’t show us even what we saw other non-university-graduate guides showing people. Next time we must warn any well-meaning drivers against looking for elite guides!

At Anuradhapura and Polonnurawa, the ticket price of Indian passport holders (perhaps for all SAARC countries) was half than that of other foreigners. It is always a good idea to ask if there is a discount, before purchasing the tickets.

Local food was good and mostly cheap. Our driver did a good job of taking us to nice places.

VISA and Currency

For Indians, you can apply for an ETA online. It is issued quickly and is valid for six months from the date of issue. Within a 30-day period in those six months, you can enter the country twice. ETA is as good as a VISA in the sense that you don’t have to separately get a VISA on arrival. You can go straight to the immigration queue.

Changing INR to Sri Lankan Rupee (LKR) is almost not possible. So, if you are depending on currency exchange, it is better to carry dollars. The exchange rate at the airport was the best and all the counters there had the same rate. At the places we visited, there weren’t many shops with clear signs for currency exchange, but it was possible to do it. Our driver guided us on that.

Almost every service we had booked in advance (taxi and homestays quoted prices in dollars and they were happy to accept dollars too). At some of the major sights (Anuradhapura and Polonnurawa), you can also pay for the tickets in dollars. But for other expenses, we stuck to converted LKR.

If you are depending on ATMs, be sure to withdraw money in major cities and towns. Along the highways or in smaller places, ATMs didn’t seem to be easily available. Credit card acceptance is limited in many of these places.