Posts Tagged ‘world_cultures_private_jet’

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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Transported by Angkor: Dispatch 11 from Extraordinary Cultures

Saturday, March 28th, 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 eleventh in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

Buddha faces grace Angkor Thom. Photo: Richard Kurin

Dateline: Cambodia

Siem Riep, Cambodia has grown exponentially with hotels, restaurants and markets to host some two million people a year who visit Angkor, one of the iconic World Heritage Sites and wonders of the world. On the positive side, the scale and quality of Angkor has attracted worldwide support for its preservation. UNESCO, the Chinese, Japanese, Indians, and others run one or another project to restore and conserve this special place. More challenging are the tourists themselves who touch the ruins and trod upon them—learning of Cambodia’s heritage to be sure, but also jeopardizing the site’s future survival.

People usually think of Angkor Wat as the whole of the ancient city, but actually, the wat or particular temple complex built in the 12th century is one part of a much larger series of cities. Indeed, the term “Angkor” is thought to be linguistically derived from the Sanskrit term negara, or city. This ancient urban site and capital for the Khmer, or Cambodian, people, grew and declined from the 9th to the 16th centuries, comprised an area equivalent to that of Los Angeles, and hosted about a million people.

This was far larger than any city or capital in Europe or Asia for its time. This was possible because of hydraulics—the management of the city’s water. Ancient Cambodians figured out how to move the water from surrounding rivers through rice paddy fields and the city itself. Reservoirs, canals, moats, and pools provided for irrigation, drinking water, plumbing, and sewage. Considering the size of the place and the huge annual rainfall, this was no easy task—especially with building materials of wood and stone.

But managing water was more than a matter of public works. It was part of a constructed sacred geography for the forms of Hinduism and Buddhism prevalent during the period. The temples and other precincts of Angkor were laid out in elaborate, symbolic ways. They formed mandalas, or sacred representations of existence. Visiting temples, climbing stone staircases, moving along colonnades, and circumambulating towers were all parts of spiritual journeys.

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Meeting the Huli: Dispatch 10 from Extraordinary Cultures

Friday, March 27th, 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 tenth in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

Dateline: Papua New Guinea

Huli women practicing traditional weaving methods. Photo: Richard Kurin

Huli women practicing traditional weaving methods. Photo: Richard Kurin

Our group arrived in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, and split up in three to explore different parts of New Guinea—one to the Sepik River, one to an area near Mt. Hagen, and one to the Tari Valley in the Southern Highlands. I went with the latter given that a colleague, Steve Feld had done a wonderful series of ethnomusicological recordings in the Bosavi region of the Southern Highlands over the past three decades and published a wonderful set on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.

We arrived after a 90 minute flight on a Dash-8. There was no terminal, only a landing strip. A colorfully attired group of hundreds welcomed us—it was market day. We made our way down and up the adjacent hillside to the Ambua Lodge—named after the yellow ochre used as face paint by the Huli. We were treated to a visit to a nearby village; we watched, learned and listened as women wove fibers into carriers, men fired arrows at banana tree stumps, and demonstrated fire-making techniques.

The next day Huli from different clans demonstrated mumu cooking—placing raw corn, pumpkin, sweet potatoes and other foodstuffs into a backing pit covered with heated rocks. The Huli men—called “wig men” conducted a workshop on the growing, care and use of wigs—a shamanistic practice, and finally held a sing-sing greeting dance. We learned about the role of the clan in the inheritance of garden plots, domestic life, gender relations, and the use of pigs as a specialized form of money—30 pigs being the typical price of a bride. One of the lodge staff, herself a Huli woman told movingly about her own life as a girl and her divorce. Another guide spoke about men’s warfare and weaponry.

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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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