Mummies of Egypt – an ancient science and a lasting wonder

Of the original Seven Wonders of the World listed by ancient Greek travellers like Antipater of Sidon and Philo of Byzantium, today only the Great Pyramids of Giza remain. Egypt though continues to draw travellers from across the world for a related attraction – mummies.

The Egyptian God Anubis attending the mummy of Sennedjem

Ancient Egyptians believed that earthly death was the beginning of the person’s journey into the next world. If the person was to live in another world, the body had to survive and to this end was invented the science of mummification. This was a process of preservation of the body – all the internal organs of the dead were removed and put in canopic jars. The body was next covered with a mixture of salt known as natron to remove all moisture. Then the body was wrapped in thin strips of linen, decorated with protective amulets and placed in mummy case or coffins.

Because of the highly expensive and lengthy – the mummification of a single body could take up to 70 days – the process was reserved only for the rich and powerful. However , all Egyptians in those days would be buried with certain goods essential to make the supposed journey to the other world – these would include food, household objects like bowls, grooming tools like combs and other trinkets. The wealthy were of course were expected to make the journey into afterlife in style and hence were buried with jewellery, furniture and later with certain symbolic objects like shabtis and scarabs.

A complete set of canopic jars

No matter how elaborate the burial arrangements, the living however could not expect their responsibilities to diminish – they were  supposed to continue to visit the tomb of their deceased relatives with food and prayers –  talk about the dead not giving up !


RUMI – The Mystic


The other day I managed to beat the alarm.

After lying in bed and staring at the darkness for what seemed an eternity, I decided I might as well enjoy some coffee.

Now fortified with caffeine, I was raring to go. But rather than diving into work, I wanted to do something different – “let me use the early hour”, I thought. As I stared at the wallpaper, I realized a change was long due – soon I was browsing for a suitable replacement.

Rumi has always been a favourite voice for inspirational quotes and images. While I have quite a few of these on my phone, I hunted for an image of good resolution for my wallpaper.

But first a little about the person himself. Jalal-ud-din Rumi was born sometime in first century AD in Balkh – a flourishing centre of arts and learning in Khorasan, north-eastern Iran. Like his father, Rumi became highly respected as a teacher and philosopher, even before he turned 30.


But soon his life was to be turned upside down. At 37, he met a wandering dervish named Shams al-Din Muhammad bin Ali Malikdad Tabrizi and was deeply influenced by the latter’s mystic teachings. However Tabrizi’s fame earned the jealousy of many and the seer left without telling anyone. Though heartbroken at Tabrizi’s disappearance, Rumi was inspired to write Divan Shams Tabrizi, now considered his greatest poetic work. Eventually all of Rumi’s teachings and philosophy came to be compiled in six volumes of Mathnavi, by his loyal disciple, Hesam al-Din Chalabi.

Today Rumi’s words quite often find their way into lists of inspirational sayings and quotes. One reason why they are so popular could be perhaps that even when taken out of context, they do surprisingly well. Then again their essential mysticism means that they lend themselves to varied interpretations – depending on the inner compulsions of the reader. Finally the natural imagery, fluid verses and a sparse symbolism means that despite being translated from Persian, his words glow with hope and generosity across time and space.


Why the Republic Matters

Today India celebrates its 69th Republic Day.


A Republic is understood, technically, as a nation where supreme power is exercised by elected representatives of its people. In India, the President is elected by Members of Parliament and State Legislatures who in turn are elected by the people. Granted the process is circuitous, but at the end of the day, even the highest executive authority in the land cannot govern just because he/she happens to be born into the right family, gender, caste, religion or class.


If the Republic is the temple of Indian democracy, then its reigning deity is none other than the Constitution. The longest written Constitution in the world, this lays down the fundamental rights as well as the duties of Indian citizens.  The Preamble crystallizes the essence of Constitution, laying down for all time to come in clear, ambiguous terms the core principles of the Republic namely, Justice, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

The real message to take home after all the pomp, splendour and self-congratulation is over.


A Walk through Calcutta History

1724 – Calcutta gets its first European Church, built by the Armenians.

The Armenian Church Spire

So, what else is happening across the world in early 1700s ?

In mainland Europe, the War of Spanish Succession pits the Grand Alliance of newly united England and Scotland, the Dutch Republic and Austria against France, the kingdoms of Naples, Sicily and supporters of Philip in Spain.

North America is still a stage of colonial struggles among the British, French and Spanish though the colonialists are facing far more defiance in the southern continent from its original inhabitants and slave communities like Maroons.

St. Andrews Church at a busy Calcutta crossing

Europeans have arrived in Africa in search for trade opportunities and found slaves to be the most lucrative prospect; Australia is still being “discovered” by European explorers while the Qin empire  around this time has made China the biggest economy in the world. In the Indian subcontinent, the Mughal empire is past its prime, 1707 being the year of demise of its last powerful ruler, Aurangzeb.

Fourteen years later Calcutta already has a thriving Armenian community who have the resources to build their first church. As more European traders flock to this hub of trade and commerce at the mouth of the Ganges in eastern India, the city opens out its arms to communities and people from across the world.

The Portuguese Church in Mediterranean colours

And this is what the walk, was all about. Over the course of three and half hours lit by a weak winter Calcutta sun, we explored old churches, temples and synagogues practically hidden by shops and stalls on busy streets but all of them rich repositories of a diverse, multi-cultural ethos that Calcutta is still proud of today.

Gorgeous interiors of the Maghen David Synagogue

Along with the Armenian Church on (ahem !)Armenian Street, we looked up St Andrews Church in Dalhousie Square, the Portuguese Church in the Bara Bazar, the Beth-el Synagogue on Pollock Street, the newly renovated   Maghen David Synagogue on what else !, Synagogue Street, the Saifee Masjid in Chitpur and the remains of the older Fire Temple on Ezra Street. The walk was rounded off with the visit to the Chinese Sea Ip Church on Terita Bazar as well as the Burmese Temple next to Central Avenue.

intricately carved wooden panel at the Sea Ip Church

Cheekily titled, The Walk of the Unfaithful, the tour was conducted by let us go; well-known blogger and guide Rangan Dutta regaled us with facts, legal tangles and trivia about all these heritage structures and the colourful past that they symbolize.

Calcutta – so proud of you! Can’t wait to go back and sign up for another walk…



Talking About Gender Inequality

Apart from a few soft gasps, the room was silent!



This quote from a 1980 UN Report made up the first slide of the Gender Sensitization class that I took yesterday. Though women in most societies do more than men was generally accepted as a fact by my students – themselves all women – when framed in numbers, the very extent of the inequality shocked them into silence.

Over the next two hours, we covered a few theoretical concepts and then moved on to some of  the ways gender was relevant to language, communication and workplace dynamics. Along the way we not only explored various ways, language posits – for example through words like ‘sportsmanship’, ‘penmanship’, ‘right-hand man’ etc –  the male gender as the norm but also how popular psychology concepts like the masculine ‘report’ vs the feminine ‘rapport’ style of communication construct, disseminate and perpetuate gender stereotypes and hence inequality. Eventually we arrived at various gender issues at workplace, ending with the most traumatic of them all, sexual harassment.


Though I tried to keep the lectures as focussed as possible to the course curriculum, the ‘digressions’ were especially enjoyable. We covered possible causes of patriarchy and talked about Gerda Lerner’s social historicist hypothesis in the Creation of Patriarchy. How immensely valuable is such research – using data from anthropology and culture studies, she historicizes patriarchy which eventually frees women from the notion that existing gender inequalities are timeless and universal.


What made the class truly enriching were inputs from my students as well. Kamla Bhasin for example was pointed as one of the foremost feminist voices in the Indian context and at one TED talk, she reveals how patriarchy impacts both genders – oppressing not only women but dehumanizing men as well. What it has done to the third gender, I asked the class to reflect, on their own.

I however not only conclude the class without a mention of the person, who started it all for me – my Gender Studies professor from Jadavpur University, Dr. Indira Choudhuri. I did my best in the last few  minutes of the class to share with my students her erudition, ground-breaking research as well as the sheer dynamism of her personality – while also regretting that as a student more than 20 years ago, I was barely equipped with the experience and sensitivity to optimize my learning from her.

Thankfully we all grow and come to know better – herein lies my hope for society as well!


Ooty Literary Festival 2017

On a Saturday morning pleasantly refreshed by a light drizzle, I drove down the winding hill roads towards Ooty. My destination was the Nilgiris District Library which over two days was hosting the Ooty Literary Fest. Just in its second year, the Fest had already attracted several famous literary names from various parts of India, especially the southern states.


As I parked my car in a corner of the ample Library compound, I could not but help but admire the elegant colonial structure before me. Though founded in 1858, the Nilgiri Library moved into its present building in 1869 which continues to impress with its high Gothic arches and stately Victorian architecture. Its striking red and white exterior conceals a warm interior boasting of wooden flooring and several pieces of claw-footed antique, dark teak furniture.

I proceeded towards the central reading room where a panel discussion on “Feminisms of India” was scheduled to begin shortly and found myself a comfortable chair. The hall soon came alive with discussions of various strands of Indian feminism, expressed through stories, mythology and art. Maharashtrian writer Urmila Pawar described how Dalit women suffer double discrimination while Bama recounted how gendered constructs like “mothering” and “maternal” affection actually shackle women to weakness. Samhita Arni on the other hand talked about various lesser-known versions of Ramayana which explored the predicament of characters like ‘Angad’ and ‘Mandodari’ who bear the brunt of the King Rama’s war on Lanka.


What emerged was the realization how Feminism can be more than a cry for women’s equality – a tool to chisel away at other forms of discrimination like casteism just as it can liberate men from equally oppressive gendered expectations, of “macho-ness” and “masculinity”.

As bell hooks, says

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Hidden Histories…

How little we know of our own history!

In Kerala for a holiday weekend, this realization struck me with wonder and a tinge of regret. In the north Malabar city of Kannur, or the erstwhile Cannanore, is located the Arakkal Museum. Though rather plain looking to eyes used to Mughal glamour and Rajput grandeur, the traditional architecture of the Museum building  – with its low long structure, laterite tiles, gleaming wooden beams within and pearl white walls without – blends beautifully with the palm-fringed verdant landscape.


The Durbar hall of this former Arakkal-kettu or palace complex has now been transformed into the main display area where a visitor can glimpse various objects associated with the royal family, ranging from the original handwritten letter to the East India Company to weapons, utensils, furniture – right down to an antique telephone which still has instructions for use.


What I found most interesting though was the presence of so many women in the photo gallery of the Arakkal rulers. Kerala has a history of matrilineal social instiutions – where lineage passes through the mother. Even then it was more often the eldest male member in the maternal family who would be the real power centre. The Arakkal famly is not only the sole Muslim royal family of Kerala but also has the distinction of having the senior most member – whether a man or a woman – as the ruler. While the male ruler would take on the title of the Ali Raja, the female ruler would be known as Arakkal Beebi.

Queens and female rulers have been less of a novelty in India than mainstream historians would like to believe. And yet only few writers and researchers have bothered to find out how such women negotiated deeply entrenched patriarchal institutions to fight and rule. Who knows, some day the Arakkal royal history may yield fascinating new knowledge not just about the country’s and state’s past but about its women rulers as well.