Posts Tagged ‘smithsonian tours’

India: Dispatch 13 from Extraordinary Cultures Tour

Wednesday, April 1st, 2009

Richard Kurin is the Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture here at the Smithsonian Institution. He is a cultural anthropologist specializing in the study of knowledge systems, folk arts, museums, and development. He is currently Study Leader on our Extraordinary Cultures – An Epic Journey Around the World tour, and will be blogging periodically while traveling. This post is thirteenth in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

Dateline: Agra, Part I

The stunning Taj Mahal Photo: Richard Kurin

The stunning Taj Mahal. Photo: Richard Kurin

It’s always great to see the Taj Mahal—even if you’ve seen it a dozen times before. I saw it first in 1970, and it still takes my breath away. The Taj is a UNESCO World Heritage site, annually attracting millions of visitors; our tour takes us through the gardens into the mausoleum and onto the terrace overlooking the Yamuna River.

The Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, who ruled much of northern India in the mid-17th century, had the Taj built as a memorial for his beloved wife Mumtaz, who died giving birth to her 14th child. The Mughals had enormous wealth and strongly supported a varied musical, culinary, artisanal, and religious culture still with us today. Shah Jahan used native materials and craftsmen, but also brought in those from Persia and Central Asia. He built an architectural wonder out of white Makran marble, with a bulbous dome and flowing ornamentation of inlaid precious stones. Well positioned with surrounding gardens to simulate paradise, it is remarkable for its proportion and for its exact symmetry—save for one feature. It was built by Shah Jahan to house only one grave at its center—that of Mumtaz. Shah Jahan was overthrown by his zealous and fanatical son Aurangzeb, held under house arrest, and later buried alongside his long departed wife. His added grave throws off the symmetry of the memorial!

Photo: Linda Currie

The Taj has long been under threat of the deleterious effects of urban pollution, of opportunists prying out the inlaid stones, of visitors defacing the building and grounds, and of too many tourists wearing down the stone work. A number of steps have been taken over the decades to protect this world treasure—reducing pollution, allowing only electric powered vehicles near the site, and so on. Everyone who has visited the Taj Mahal and might visit it in the future will applaud such measures. We have too little beauty and too much ugliness in the world; we need to preserve what beauty there is, and encourage its ongoing creation.

This post is thirteenth in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

Click here to learn more about travel to India.

Bhutan: Dispatch 12 from Extraordinary Cultures Tour

Wednesday, April 1st, 2009

Richard Kurin is the Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture here at the Smithsonian Institution. He is a cultural anthropologist specializing in the study of knowledge systems, folk arts, museums, and development. He is currently Study Leader on our Extraordinary Cultures – An Epic Journey Around the World tour, and will be blogging periodically while traveling. This post is twelfth in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

Dateline: Bhutan

Young Bhutanese monks. Photo: Amy Kotkin

Young Bhutanese monks. Photo: Amy Kotkin

Tonight we dined with Her Majesty Ashi Dorgi Wangmo Wangchuck, a Queen of Bhutan. She was extremely gracious and a lovely host who greeted each one of our group personally and presided over a performance by the Royal Academy of Performing Arts.

She is one of four sisters who married the 4th King of Bhutan and is from the family whose ancestor unified Bhutan centuries ago. She has supported grassroots causes in Bhutan through her Tarayana Foundation. She also recently edited and contributed to a recent book on Bhutanese poetry. Needless to say, our travelers were thrilled to meet her.

Her Majesty also chaired the committee advising on Bhutan’s participation in the 2008 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. That program brought more than 100 scholars, monks, artisans, dancers, musicians, architects and builders, cooks, archers and other cultural exemplars to the National Mall in Washington to perform and demonstrate their traditions to more than one million grateful visitors. That delegation was led by the Prince and came as Bhutan was making the transition to a democracy by planning its first election and the coronation of the King’s successor.

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Australia and Aborigines: Dispatch 9 from Extraordinary Cultures Tour

Thursday, March 26th, 2009

Richard Kurin is the Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture here at the Smithsonian Institution. He is a cultural anthropologist specializing in the study of knowledge systems, folk arts, museums, and development. He is currently Study Leader on our Extraordinary Cultures – An Epic Journey Around the World tour, and will be blogging periodically while traveling. This post is ninth in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

Dateline: Australia

Kangaroo with joey in her pouch. There are an estimated 60 million kangaroos in Australia—where they are often regarded as vermin. Photo: Richard Kurin

Kangaroo with joey in her pouch. There are an estimated 60 million kangaroos in Australia—where they are often regarded as vermin. Photo: Richard Kurin

Australia’s northeast coast is a tropical rainforest, part of the state of Queensland, and home to a number of Aboriginal peoples and those of the Torres Straits. The Smithsonian has had a strong fellowship program with Queensland and a recent history of scholarly and professional exchange. The head of the Woodford Folk Festival was a fellow at the Smithsonian, I’ve collaborated with the museum studies program at the University of Queensland, and a number of tropical biologists have gone back and forth between the Great Barrier Reef and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in an effort to understand the formation, vitality and challenges to coral reefs.

Our group meets Malcolm Turner, the director of operations for the Great Barrier Reef, who explains the ecology and conservation issues for the largest living thing on the planet. He tells the group that cyclones, fresh water run-off, and most importantly, global warming, are threatening the reef, as it heads out for a day of snorkeling, diving, and just enjoyment of this natural treasure.

Aborigines Harold Taley and Shaun Creek give our travelers a brief introduction to Aboriginal use of the natural flora. Harold has our group marvel at the soapy cleanser made from leaves; he demonstrates nut-cracking, and the use of various medicinal herbs and vines. Our folks are very impressed with the obvious knowledge embedded in aboriginal ways. Shaun then shows us how he plays the didgeridoo—typically made from eucalyptus naturally hollowed out by termites. On this wind instrument he produces a sound that resonates deeply, seems so primordial, almost mystical.

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Maori Lifeways: Dispatch 8 from Extraordinary Cultures Tour

Tuesday, March 24th, 2009

Richard Kurin is the Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture here at the Smithsonian Institution. He is a cultural anthropologist specializing in the study of knowledge systems, folk arts, museums, and development. He is currently Study Leader on our Extraordinary Cultures – An Epic Journey Around the World tour, and will be blogging periodically while traveling. This post is eighth in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

Dateline: New Zealand

A Maori dancer in the typical warrior pose, with bulging eyes and oustretched tounge. Photo: Richard Kurin

A Maori dancer in the typical warrior pose, with bulging eyes and oustretched tongue. Photo: Richard Kurin

We arrived in Hamilton, New Zealand on the north island and had a stunning drive through the greener than green countryside of farms, cows, and sheep to Rotorua. Rotorua is a center of Maori culture and home of thermal springs that have drawn tourists since the late 1800s. The springs are fed by volcanic activity—New Zealand is on the Pacific “ring of fire” and this region is particularly susceptible to earthquakes and eruptions. Geysers shoot up and steam emerges from fissures in this crater lake town.

Our group is literally herded to supper by two sheep dogs and their handlers. Yelps, barks and whistles keep us moving along—there’s some “bah” “bahing” in recognition of our role. We dine in a building devoted to the 19th century baths—where people the world over came for “the cure.” Instead of being subjected to the somewhat bizarre sulfur water and electric shock therapy of the past, we are nonetheless electrified by the presentation of Te Taru White.

Taru is the former head of Te Papa, the National Museum of New Zealand and now leads the Maori Authority and the Te Puia Institute. He helped the Smithsonian develop its concept of the National Museum of the American Indian. He joined us on the National Mall in Washington in 2004 for the dramatic opening of that museum and was kind enough to host me in New Zealand when I did a lecture tour of the country. Taru and I move our heads together to touch our noses—the traditional Maori greeting, or hongi—which signifies the sharing of breath, or life.

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Moai and Mana: Dispatch 6 from Extraordinary Cultures Tour

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

Richard Kurin is the Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture here at the Smithsonian Institution. He is a cultural anthropologist specializing in the study of knowledge systems, folk arts, museums, and development. He is currently Study Leader on our Extraordinary Cultures – An Epic Journey Around the World tour, and will be blogging periodically while traveling. This post is sixth in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

Moai with concrete eyes. Photo: Richard Kurin

Moai with concrete eyes. Photo: Richard Kurin

Dateline: Easter Island

Easter Island’s moai were enspirited with mana, or power, that would flow to members of the ancestral tribe once eyes were added to the statues. A few years ago, the Rapa Nui council of elders decided to add eyes, not of coral, but of cement, to one of the statues so that people could view and take photographs of a completed moai. The image is striking and indeed awesome.

Patricia, so knowledgeable, anticipates our question. How come all the moai don’t have eyes? She tells us that since the eyes completed the representation, they were regarded as especially powerful. None have been found for the hundreds of statues found on the island. Hundreds of sets of eyes may have been buried—hidden away tfor protection at the time of island upheaval. Alternatively they could have been thrown into the sea—either to save them or destroy them.

The group hikes up to Orongo at the Rano Kau volcano, the edge of Easter Island, but the center of the birdman cult. You really feel like you are at the edge of the world, given the wide panorama of the ocean.

The spiritual belief of the birdman cult grew as the making of statues and the economy declined. Mana was still important, thought to come not from the moai, but from a designated “birdman.” Warriors from different tribes would compete in an annual contest. The goal was to swim out to a small islet where birds annually nested, collect the first egg, and then swim back across the channel, climb the cliff, and bring the egg back fully intact. Seeing the rough, rocky channel, one can appreciate the danger involved and the skill needed for the task. The winner was designated the “birdman;” his tribe would then be the ruling tribe for the year, and his chief the paramount chief of the island. The birdman himself would have to live in isolation for the year—as his power was too strong for his fellow humans.

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