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Origins and architecture of the Taj Mahal

Wednesday, April 30, 2008
The Taj Mahal represents the finest and most sophisticated example of Mughal architecture. Its origins lie in the moving circumstances of its commission and the culture and history of an Islamic Mughal empire's rule of large parts of India.

The distraught Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan commissioned the mausoleum upon the death of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Today it is one of the most famous and recognisable buildings in the world and while the white domed marble mausoleum is the most familiar part of the monument, the Taj Mahal is an extensive complex of buildings and gardens that extends over 22.44 Hectares[a] and includes subsidiary tombs, waterworks infrastructure, the small town of 'Taj Ganji' and a 'moonlight garden' to the north of the river. Construction began in 1632 CE, (1041 AH), on the south bank of the River Yamuna in Agra, India and was completed in 1648 CE (1058 AH). The design was conceived as both an earthly replica of the house of Mumtaz in paradise and an instrument of propaganda for the emperor.

Who designed the Taj Mahal is unclear; although it is known that a large team of designers and craftsmen were responsible with Jahan himself taking an active role. Ustad Ahmad Lahauri is considered the most likely candidate as the principal designer.

Diwali

Thursday, April 24, 2008
Diwali, or Deepawali, is also called Tihar and Swanti in Nepal, Markiscarali is a major Indian and Nepalese festive holiday, and a significant festival in Hinduism, Sikhism and Jainism. Many legends are associated with Diwali. Today it is celebrated by Hindus, Jains and Sikhs across the globe as the "Festival of Light," where the lights or lamps signify victory of good over the evil within every human being. The festival is also celebrated by Buddhists of Nepal, particularly the Newar Buddhists.

According to one theory Diwali may have originated as a harvest festival, marking the last harvest of the year before winter. In an agrarian society this results in businessmen closing accounts, and beginning a new accounting year. The deity of wealth in Hinduism, goddess Lakshmi is therefore thanked on this day and everyone prays for a good year ahead. This is the common factor in Diwali celebrations all over the Indian subcontinent.

In Northern India it is the homecoming of King Rama of Ayodhya after a 14-year exile in the forest. The people of Ayodhya (the capital of his kingdom) welcomed Rama by lighting rows (avali) of lamps (deepa), thus its name, Deepawali, or simply shortened as Diwali. Southern India marks it as the day Lord Krishna defeated the demon Narakasura. In western India it is also in honor of the day King Bali went to rule the nether-world by the order of Vishnu. (There is another festival 'Onam' which is celebrated in Kerala around the month of August to mark this legend). Diwali comes in the month of October or November.

In Jainism it marks the nirvana of Lord Mahavira, which occurred on Oct. 15, 527 B.C. The Sikhs have always celebrated Diwali; however, its significance for Sikhs increased when, on this day, the Sixth Guru, Guru Hargobind Ji, was freed from imprisonment along with 52 Hindu Kings (political prisoners) whom he had arranged to be released as well. In India, Diwali is now considered to be a national festival, and the aesthetic aspect of the festival is enjoyed by most Indians regardless of faith.

Vishu

Wednesday, April 23, 2008
Vishu is astronomical New Year day festival held in the state of Kerala in South India. Similar festivals are celebrated in Punjab and Assam, in India, around the first day in the Hindu month of Medam (April - May). This occasion signifies the Sun's transit to the zodiac Mesha Mesha Raasi (first zodiac sign) as per Indian astrological calculations. Vishu is also considered as the harvest festival of Kerala and thus the importance of this day to all Malayalees. In Assam this day is called Bihu, in Punjab Baisakhi (originally Vaishakhi) and in TamilNadu Tamil Puthandu or Vishu punyakalam. The word "Vishu" in Sanskrit means "equal". Therefore Vishu is more probably denoting one of the equinox days.

Although Vishu (first of Medam) is the astronomical new year day of Kerala, the official Malayalam new year falls on the first month of Chingam (August - September).

The festival is marked with offerings to the divine called Vishukkani. The offerings consist of a ritual arrangement in the puja room of auspicious articles like raw rice, fresh linen, golden cucumber, betel leaves, arecanut, metal mirror, the yellow flowers konna (Cassia fistula), and a holy text and coins, in a bell metal vessel called uruli. A lighted bell metal lamp called nilavilakku is also placed alongside. This arrangement is completed the previous night. On the day of Vishu, the custom is to wake up at dawn and go to the puja room with the eyes closed so that the Vishukkani is the first sight of the new season. Since the occasion marks the beginning of Malayalam New Year, it is also considered auspicious to read verses from Hindu Holy book Ramayanam after seeing the "Vishukkani". It is also believed by some that the page of the Ramayanam to which you open up will have a bearing on your life in the coming year. Devotees also throng the well-known temples like Sabarimala Ayyappan Temple, Guruvayur Sree Krishna temple to have a "Vishukkani Kazhcha" on the early hours of "Vishu" day.

Kani Konna (Cassia fistula), Kerala's regional flower, is a popular vishukanni"Vishu" is celebrated with more fanfare and vigour in North Kerala as compared to other parts of Kerala. Bursting crackers is part and parcel of the celebration especially for children. Elders gift firecrackers to children and every child vie with each other to make a world of their own. The smell of the lingering smell of the fire crackers on a Vishu morning is a long cherished nostalgic memory of any Malayalee. The people wear new clothes (Puthukodi) for the occasion and the elders of the family distribute tokens of money, called Vishukkaineetam, to the children, servants and tenants. People carry on this custom believing that in this way, their children will be blessed with prosperity in the future.

Vishu is also a day of feasting, wherein the edibles consist of roughly equal proportions of salty, sweet, sour and bitter items. Feast items include Veppampoorasam (a bitter preparation of neem) and Mampazhapachadi (a sour mango soup).

Chhath

Tuesday, April 22, 2008
Chhath or Dala Chhath is a Hindu festival, unique to Bihar state, India and Terai, Nepal. This festival is also celebrated in the northeast region of India, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and some parts of Chhattisgarh.

Chhath is a festival dedicated to the Sun God, considered to be a means to thank the sun for bestowing the bounties of life in earth and fulfilling particular wishes. Worship of the sun has been practiced in different parts of India, and the world from time immemorial. Worship of sun has been described in the Rig Veda, the oldest Hindu scriptures, and hymns praying to the sun in the Vedas are found.

In the ancient epic Mahabharata, references to worshipping of the sun by Draupadi, wife of the Pandavas, are found. It was believed that worshipping of the sun would help cure a variety of diseases, including leprosy, and also ensure longevity and prosperity of the family members, friends, and elders. It is also believed that Chhath was started by the great Danveer (alms giver) Karna, sired by the Sun God, who became a great warrior and fought against the Pandavas in the Mahabharata war.

Also called Dala Chhath - it is an ancient and major festival. It is celebrated twice a year: once in the summers (May-July), called the Chaiti Chhath, and once in the winters (September-November)around a week after Deepawali, called the Kartik Chhath. The latter is more popular because winters are the usual festive season in North India, and Chhath being an ardous observance, requiring the worshippers to fast without water for more than 24 hours, is easier to undertake in the Indian winters.

Indus Valley Civilization

Tuesday, April 8, 2008
The Indus Valley civilization, one of the oldest in the world, dates back at least 5,000 years. This civilization was partly located in North India and in the Indus and Ghaggar-Hakra river valleys primarily in Sindh province of Pakistan, extending westward into Balochistan province. Though the civilization was located in the North, the scripts identified at the archaeological site was found to be Proto-Dravidian. Around 1800 BCE, signs of a gradual decline began to emerge, and by around 1700 BCE, most of the cities were abandoned.

Maurya and Gupta Empires

Towards the end of the Iron Age, the Maurya Empire arose from the kingdom of Magadha. By 316 BCE the empire had fully occupied Northwestern India, defeating and conquering the satraps left by Alexander. At its greatest extent under Ashoka the Great, the Empire stretched to the north along the natural boundaries of the Himalayas, and to the east stretching into what is now Assam. To the west, it reached beyond modern Pakistan and significant portions of what is now Afghanistan, including the modern Herat and Kandahar provinces. The Empire was expanded into India's central and southern regions by Emperor Bindusara, but it excluded a small portion of unexplored tribal and forested regions near Kalinga. After the decline of empire around 185 BCE, the Sunga dynasty came to prominence in North India. The Guptas established the next great empire, the Gupta Empire in North India around 320 AD.The time of the Gupta Empire is referred to as Golden Age of India in science, mathematics, astronomy, religion and Indian philosophy. The peace and prosperity created under leadership of Guptas enabled the pursuit of scientific and artistic endeavors.

Mughal Empire

The Mughal Empire ruled most of the Indian subcontinent from the early 16th to the mid-19th centuries, with its capital at Delhi. At the height of its power, around 1700, it controlled most of the subcontinent and parts of what is now Afghanistan. Its population at that time has been estimated as between 110 and 130 million, over a territory of over 4 million km. It reached its height under Akbar the Great, and its power began to decline after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707. The empire rapidly declined after 1725 and was replaced by the Maratha Empire as the pre-eminent power in South Asia.

Protection at home, preaching abroad

Friday, April 4, 2008
In clear disregard for the ongoing multilateral negotiations, the United States is attempting to protect its already heavily fortified agriculture further. The House of Representatives passed the US Farm Bill 2007 in July, proposing 286 billion dollars of support for American farmers over the next five years. Devinder Sharma on the implications.

As a child I had always wondered as to why a pigeon shut its eyes when it sees a cat. After all, how naïve or stupid depending on how you perceive the act, can the pigeons be to think that a visible threat to its life, which is as sure as death, can be simply warded-off by keeping eyes wide shut.

I gave up as I grew up. But now I realise that the educated elite, especially if they happen to be macro-economists or trade negotiators are a step ahead of pigeons. While pigeons meet a gory end, trade negotiators and economists are clever enough to escape by ensuring that the axe falls on the poor and marginalized.

No wonder, as the trade negotiators from 150 member countries of World Trade Organisation (WTO) assemble at Geneva to resume negotiations, I am told the 'mood' seems to be upbeat and 'just right'. There are enough indications that developing country negotiators will brush aside all threats to agriculture and industrial sector and instead join the rich and industrialised countries to sing paeans of virtues in favour of what is known to be an unequal and unjust multilateral trade regime.

It sure is an unequal world. In clear disregard for the ongoing multilateral negotiations, the United States has thrown yet another protective ring around its heavily fortified agriculture. Knowing that the developing country negotiators are weak-kneed and lack the courage to even raise their voice, the House of Representatives has passed the US Farm Bill 2007 on 27 July. This prompted the House Agriculture Chair Colin Peterson (Democrat) to say: "I want to write a Farm Bill that's good for (American) agriculture. If somebody wants to sue us (at the WTO), we've got a lot of lawyers in Washington."

Although the notorious Bill awaits clearance from the US Senate, it proposes that American farmers receive a federal support of US $ 286 billion over the next five years. Irrespective of the volatility of the global markets, and the advantages of 'free market' economy that the macro-economists in the developing world never feel tired of reiterating, the US farmers have preferred to rely on government support. While the US is forcing the developing world to turn its agriculture 'competitive' by removing all safety nets for farmers, it does exactly the opposite at home.



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