South Asia

The Last Lost Kingdom

Lost kingdoms, sequestered civilizations and isolated tribes interconnect fact and fiction, illusion and reality, and imagination and substance. 21st century means of communication, observation, archiving, analyses and publication should ensure the boredom of knowing it all. But hidden gems such as the former Himalayan kingdom of Lo remain untouched.

Nicole Crowder’s photo editing is a stunning exhibition of controlled talent.

A fortress in the sky, the last forbidden kingdom of Tibetan culture.

Nicole Crowder:

Sheltered by some of the highest mountains in the world — Annapurna and Dhaulagiri — and bordering China on the Tibetan plateau, hides an ancient kingdom called Mustang, or Land of Lo. The kingdom is often confused with the mythical Shangri-La. The capital of the Mustang kingdom, Lo Manthang, is home to the Loba people, and its walled city is considered by some scholars to be the best preserved medieval fortress in the world. It is a candidate to become a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Thanks in part to its ancestral location — and because it has been forbidden to foreigners until as recently as 1992 — Mustang has retained its ancient culture. Though its capital is located in Nepal, it is one of the last strongholds of traditional Tibetan life left in the world. It remains a restricted region that is difficult to access. Foreigners must obtain special permits and pay high rates to visit it.

Photographer David Rengel visited the region recently to document the culture and observe its long-preserved way of life. Part of the project was realized while he began filming a documentary alongside producer and director by Larry Levene called “The Last Lost Kingdom” for the production company Es.Docu.

The lower part of Mustang yields more moist land and is rich in vegetation, while the more arid land in upper Mustang makes agricultural life a bit harder.

For centuries, caravans roamed the Kali Gandaki gorge between regions of Tibet, China and India with salt, yak wool, cereals, dried meat, spices and other goods on the so-called Salt Road. A road is being built along this route that will directly connect Mustang with China. When the road is completed, it will become one of the most accessible corridors of the Himalayas, and Mustang’s inhabitants’ lives may rapidly change with the influx of foreigners. Many of the young Loba people are waiting expectantly and anxiously for the road’s completion, but many older residents are hesitant about what it will mean for their culture and identity.

The Indo-Pakistani Caste System: multi-hued Smarties!

Transcript of Dr. Ramaswamy’s radio interview on Caste in South Asia

Hello, Claire Herringstone for the weekly Asia Today.

Our guest on tonight’s program is Dr. Ramaswamy, social anthropologist from Madras University, whom we’ll be interviewing for our viewers on the subject of untouchables within the South Asian caste system.

“Dr. Ramaswamy, good evening and thank you for joining us.”

“Good evening, and thank you for inviting me.”

Hen-henh. The first question is — how did a country with such fine philosophical roots end up with something like the caste system?”

“Caste is an old, established institution, almost as old as history. Gautam Buddha opened temples to all castes, so even before Christ, it was well entrenched in India. It’s hard to say whether the migrant Caucasian tribes brought caste with them, or whether the social structure of the Aryans of the Saraswati was already based on caste. According to the Rg Veda, Purush, the primal man, destroyed himself to create a human society. The Brahmin priests sprang from his head, the warrior Kshatriyas from his hands, the land-tilling Sudras from his thighs, and the untouchables from his feet.”

“Indeed, but surely there must be something more than history and religious mythology to enforce it?”

“Yes. Manu’s Laws as they are commonly referred to in the West greatly reinforced the caste system.”

“When was that?”

“About two thousand years ago. Even then, Indian craftsmanship was highly valued beyond its borders. India was renowned as an exporter of the highest quality weapons steel at that time.”

“Could you tell our listeners a little more about that?”

“What the West today calls Damascus steel, and is unable to duplicate.  The ingots of this exceptional steel were exported to Persia and the Middle East, where sword-smiths fashioned blades whose cleaving power and flexibility held the Crusaders in awe. Sir Walter Scott’s description of the cutting power of Saladin’s sword in The Talisman is a good illustration. In fact, the pre-Islamic Arab word for sword was Muhannad, meaning from Hind. Thus, at that time, the skills of India’s craftsmen had placed the Indian economy in a unique position in the world. So the Indian leadership was keen to ensure the continuity of these techniques. It was considered that skills were best passed on from father to son. Encouragement soon became edict. A caste-based society further reinforced this institution by adding scriptural and scholarly justification, further empowering the ruling class.”

“Most illuminating, Doctor. In India, there’s been this name change. Mahatma Gandhi called untouchables Harijans, and they call themselves Dalits. Why is that?”

“I myself am a Dalit, and we prefer it to Harijan which we consider to have been condescending, and untouchable, or backward, which is an insult.”

“Are Dalits, then, a separate race?”

“Yes and no.”

“How’s that? Sounds like a typically Indian response!”

“I object to that. It’s an anthropologist’s informal way of saying ‘to a certain extent yes’. Indian academics prefer not to speak pompously with laypersons! Anyway, Dr Ambedkar’s research proved genetic similarities between the highest and lowest castes in Maharashtra State.”

“So how do you account for the genetic similarities between the highest and lowest castes?”

“Victors have always raped the subjugated, and India’s states and chiefdoms were forever fighting each other — that’s one reason. Then there were concubines, and love matches. Over the centuries, India’s myriad states of varying sizes saw periods in which they came under a central empire and times when they receded from its grasp. Thrones regularly changed occupants while dynasties waxed and waned. The losers either vanished into mendicant yogi orders, or disappeared into the impure bastis of the untouchables. Thus it is that among the chuhras, lowest on the rung, there are those who talk of royal lineage. The oldest of these are descendants of royal families who escaped conquering blades that sought to eliminate dynastic lines. They are the Chuhra Choudhry leaders of today, and over the centuries, have been inter-marrying with other chuhras.”

“So caste does have something to do with wealth and fortune!”

“Although caste may appear to be almost genetically fixed, it can be won, lost and reinstated by force and fortune. It is also an overlap of geography, race, profession and politico-military power. In Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh, Jatt farmers were considered Sudras. However, the British historian, Colonel Todd attributed Rajput origins to them.  This places them in the Kshatrya warrior caste. Up until the rise of Sikhism in the Punjab, Jatts were lower than Rajputs. With the evolution of Sikhism as a militant force, their status rose. In the eighteenth century, as a result of Banda Bahadur’s revolt against the Mughals, Punjabi Jatts assumed the status of Kshatryas, for the simple reason that they exchanged their ploughshares for swords. Tribes that had jealously claimed loftier origins were content to pass themselves off as Jatts rather than Rajputs. Conversely, at the height of Muslim power in India, tribal bards invented fantastic Arab and Central Asian origins for their chiefs. Muslim Arains claimed to be from Iran, whereas as Hindus, they were Kumbhos and claimed Rajput origin which society in general denied them anyway. If, by some freak accident of history, a region had come under Chuhra rule, these very tribes would have started claiming Chuhra origin. Maybe that is why India has this proverb “the buffalo belongs to him who wields the staff.”

 “But the Sikhs and Muslims have no caste!”

“Their religions don’t recognize it, but their communities practice it. Despite calling itself an Islamic Republic, Pakistan practices caste! So do the Christians, especially the ones in the South.”

“And why’s that, Doctor?”

“Because, it is India’s curse, with which we are all tainted. On the other hand, as Deepa Kandaswamy says, the West suffers from race and class.”

“Indeed. Could you tell our listeners a little more?”

“Chuhras converted to Sikhism are called Mazhabis, full fledged members of the warrior brotherhood that served the British and now serve India in its armed forces. Chuhra converts to Muslims who remained serfs are called Mussalies, and often with a change in fortune, assume the tribal names of their former masters. Those that managed to leave serfdom took the titles Sheikh and Khwaja, which were the titles of the highborn Muslim missionaries from the Middle East or Central Asia who converted them. Chuhras converting to Christianity took the family name of the British missionary who converted them. Thus it is that in India and Pakistan are found Sheiks who would scandalize an Arab, Smiths and Johnsons who would shock an Anglo-Saxon— we are indeed, a multi-hued nation, like a packet of smarties!”;

Badlu Ram could reduce India-Pakistan Tensions

Left to itself, moral uprightness can degenerate into joyless self-righteousness or intolerance of the opinions and behavior of others. It can shrivel into a dead end of blood drenched eloquence. The presence or absence of music and the type of music to which a society responds draws a thin red line between the balance of its degree of righteousness and self-righteousness. Cultural continuity, and the intensity of its practice can be studied in components of society that seek to preserve its status quo even at the risk of life and limb, which is one way to describe an army.


Punjab Regiment L to R :  Pakistan, undivided & India :;;

Let’s take a look at the symptomatic evolution of war marches of India and Pakistan considering that India seems to be heading Pakistan’s way.

Like all warlike cultures, India and Pakistan, whose regiments were divided only sixty-seven years ago, cherish their war songs they don’t sing, since of course they are neither sissies nor mirasi minstrels!

The exception is the Indian Army’s Assam Rifles which owes a debt to Captain Manjit Singh, a Christian officer born in Jammu, graduated from Madras University, an ace hockey player and the guiding genius behind the Badlu Ram ka badan song.

The light-hearted words reflect the dashing merriment expected of young officers close to their troops, enjoying their chota pegs. A rifleman, eyeing up a pretty girl, was put on pack drill for neglecting to clean his rifle.;×250.jpg

Enter Badlu Ram, who died in the ‘Japan Waar’, but the quartermaster was smart, didn’t declare his death and kept drawing rations in his name! The refrain, acknowledges that while Badlu Ram’s body is under the earth, his rations are still drawn— 100 years Hallelujah— bang on John Brown’s body! And here it is:

This lilting march says that at least Assamese warriors do not take themselves too seriously, in accordance with General Ingle’s advice in A Soldier’s Prayer for his Son. Even their battle cry is neither religious nor nationalistic— Rhino charge!

A choice uncharacteristic of India and Pakistan whose battlefield losses indiscriminately come under Martyred and not Killed in Action, with both countries seeking to claim the self-righteous high ground.

For example, musically, one cannot disassociate the Pakistan Army from Ae Mard e mujahid Ja’ag zara Although secular India might allow regiments to keep their religious battle cries such as Bol na’ara Haidari, Bolé so Nihal and Jai Ma Kali, their marching songs enshrine cheerless nationalism, such as Qadam Qadam,, the delightful exception being the Madras Regiment’s Bollywoodian Suhana Safar aur yeh Mausam Rangeen veer Madrasi!

But it was not always so glum.

From Sepoy to Subedar: the memoirs of Subedar Sita Ram Pande (1873), reveal that the Bengal native Infantry, formed of Punjabis, Pathans and Uttar Pradeshis, used to sing Kabhi sukh kabhi dukh, angrez ka naukar— sometimes pleasure, sometimes pain, a servant of the English!

The Karnatic Regiment went even further, singing of Queen Victoria being a “very good man…”

The pre-partition, undivided elite Punjab Regiment marched to the pederastic, Zakhmi Dil, which means Wounded Heart. John Masters in Bugles and a Tiger writes of “one of the most famous of Pathan songs, the ‘Zakhmi Dil’ (‘Wounded Heart’) begins with the words, ‘There’s a boy across the river with a bottom like a peach, but, alas, I cannot swim”.

Alpha males have always flirted with homosexual phrases and conduct to flaunt their heterosexuality like sportsmen patting each other’s bottoms. Soldiers of elite units are no different.

Take into account Le Boudin, anthem of the French Foreign Legion, in time and space as far apart from India and Pakistan as it could be.

The prelude refers to a round-bottomed bum-boy getting sodomized in the priest’s tent, and closes with Hey round-bottom, drop your trousers, censored in public in the interests of lofty political correctness!

The South Asian constituents of a five thousand year old tradition have been successfully battered by self-righteousness. The obscurantist wind that suffocated fifty centuries of renowned tradition has become a tsunami. It has spawned mass murder in Pakistan and not to be outdone, India’s restless zealots also threaten to lead its secularism astray. .

Badlu Ram is a gust of fresh mountain air to ease the suffocation and touch base with a balanced past. India and Pakistan should be bellowing their lungs out singing Badlu Ram ka Badan.

Thank you, Major Manjit Singh.

How the British are still Rewarding Punjab — in the UK!

My friend and course-mate Colonel Qaiser Rashid sent me one of Ayaz Amir’s recent articles.

Mr Ayaz Amir, is an excellent writer whose sense of outraged justice over the treatment of Pakistan’s Christian minority has received my gratitude in writing. His nifty penmanship alone makes him worth reading while his ideas are food for thought.

How The British Rewarded Punjab is just such an idea, published in The News on November 14, which did feed my thoughts on the remembrance of Punjabi World War I Victoria Cross recipients during the commemoration ceremonies of that War. My thoughts were well fed, though perhaps in a direction not forseen by Ayaz Amir Sahib. Unless he wished to inspire debate on an open subject.

“The soldiers in question, who were undoubtedly heroes, were fighting not for India but for the greater glory of the British Empire.”

The fine article then goes on to cite historical reasons for downplaying the achievements of these hereditary warriors.

Now that is a pity.

These soldiers were neither fighting for India nor for the British Empire. They were Rajputs, Jats, Pashtuns, Dogras, Maharathas, Garhwalis, Gurkhas — Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus and Christians — you name it! Every fighting brand nurtured in the sub-continent for the duration of its history was eager to prove its mettle in pursuit of its ancestral tradition.

Closer to home are the two Victoria Cross recipients from Pothohar, both proud Rajputs, an assertion which implicitly acknowledges their Hindu Kshatriya roots, and the dharmic justification for The Way of the Warrior. When their ancestors became Muslim, they saw no conflict of interest in continuing this tradition within the framework of their chosen belief system.

And that is what led around 350 million soldiers to fight in both World Wars.

Plus the rewards.

Agricultural land in the Punjab opened up by the canal irrigation system neither belonged to the Joneses nor the Khanses, Singhses or the Mallses. Accordingly, the gora generously allotted land in recognition of services rendered at the peril of their lives to warriors considered superior to their own (not a bad promotional point …!).

On this issue at least, Indians and Pakistanis don’t fight each other!

Led by Urdu, Hindi and Marathi speakers, the urban, educated class bitterly criticizes Punjabis for not coming to the aid of the Urdu and Maharashtri speaking leadership of the 1857 War of Independence. Debauched or inept leaders had been propelled to the forefront of events by rebel Sepoys who even called Bahadur Shah Zafar “Ohé Budhae” when he hesitated to accept the honour being bestowed upon him.

I really don’t know since I wasn’t there but a gora called William Dalrymple told me that one!

The Punjabi disdain for the 1857 War of Independence (the odd chieftain apart) has its own justification.

Firstly, the leadership was as poor as the excellent illustration in Satyajit Ray’s movie, The Chess Players. The Punjabis could see no reason to shed their blood in order to restore decadence.

Secondly, from 1758-1761 the Maharathas attacked and plundered the Punjab, demanding their one-fourth share — chauth — from its farmers.

Whatever level of literacy Punjabis might have has never adversely affected their memories!

Thirdly, during the Sikh Wars of 1845-1849, nearly two thirds of the Order of Battle on the British side consisted of Uttar Pradesh soldiers known to the Punjabis as poorbiyas. They are remembered for eating leftovers of the British to kick their Punjabi brethrens’ bootyas.

A decade later, their squeals for help from a people whom they were convinced had dysfunctional memories fell on deaf ears, just as the Punjabi Sirdars’ badrak roars of help were ignored by their Maharatha and UP brethren.

Their belief system notwithstanding, South Asian warriors have fought through the ages for whoever offered them decent employment, good leadership and a chance to practice their dharma.

They fought for Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Christian employers.

They fought within the sub-continent and outside of it.

Husseini Brahmins are Mohyal Brahmins, like Sanjay Dutt, who are supposed to have been the guardians of the bait-ul-mal treasury at the Battle of Karbala — October 10, 680 — that involved Hazrats Hassan and Hussein!

And at the end of the day, the real reward is being reaped by around five million South Asian immigrants in Britain — 1.5 immigrant per active warrior in both World Wars. Now that’s what I call a reward!

These warriors were neither traitors, nor stupid little brown men exploited by a colonial power for a fistful of rupees and hot dal roti. They maintained the finest manly traditions of Indo-European culture and improved their family fortunes at sword-point and at the peril of their lives.

Let us honourably remember them as they and their highly educated descendants would prefer and not as a platform for political determinism.

First Indian Warrior to receive the Victoria Cross in France, World War I

Victoria Cross

The Victoria Cross is Britain’s highest military award for conspicuous battlefield gallantry.November 23, 1914, Battle of Festubert, France.Undeterred by bullets and grenades ripping the night sky, twice wounded in the head and once in the arm, the Indian army Naik (Corporal) steadily moved forward with tactical perfection as part of the first trench raid of World War II. As written in Philip Mason’s authoritative A Matter of Honour, the blood drenched Naik single-handedly bayoneted five Germans and survived to become the first Indian warrior to receive the Victoria Cross on French soil.

The Germans died for their fatherland in a cold, hostile land at the hands of a diminutive fighter from a faraway land.The Hindu Kshatriya hereditary warrior followed the dharma of his caste.

He was from the northeast Indian region of Garwhal, whose clans are as renowned for their battlefield ferocity as for being law-abiding.

Naik Darwan Singh Negi of the 1st Battalion of 39th Garhwal Rifles served with honor and conspicuous gallantry..
While receiving the Victoria Cross on December 5, 1914, he was asked if he wished for something.
He asked for a school in his district, Chamoli.
The request was granted.
Negi served until 1924, obtaining the rank of Subedar (Warrant Officer), when he took premature retirement, devoting his time to uplift his underdeveloped district in a backward region. He helped war widows, opened a school in his village and got the authorities to provide road and rail links to his village.
On 24 June 1950, he died peacefully of natural causes, in Kafarteer Village, Uttar Pradesh, India.

Lest We Forget

It is worth remembering today that 3.5 million Indo-Pakistani soldiers fought for Western democracy, gaining 38 Victoria and George crosses.

That’s one warrior’s life paying the fare for approximately two South Asian immigrants enjoying democracy in the UK!

The Victoria Cross is the British Army’s highest decoration for conspicuous battlefield gallantry. Its first South Asian recipient was Sepoy Khudadad Khan – Belgium, World War I.

Subadar Khudadad Khan (1888–1971), VC, 10th Baluch Regiment

Subadar Khudadad Khan (1888–1971), VC, 10th Baluch Regiment

by Henry Charles Bevan-Petman

Khudadad Khan was the first Indian soldier to win the Victoria Cross after eligibility for the award was extended to Indian officers and men of the Indian Army in 1911. In common with half of the men in his regiment, the 129th Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis, Khudadad Khan was a Pathan from north-west India (now Pakistan).

As part of 7th Indian (Ferozepore) Brigade, the 129th Baluchis arrived in France from Egypt during September 1914. While serving in the regiment’s machine-gun detachment on 31 October 1914, ‘at Hollebecke, Belgium, the British officer in charge of the detachment having been wounded, and the other gun put out of action by a shell, Sepoy Khudadad, though himself wounded, remained working his gun until all the other five men of the gun detachment had been killed’ (‘The London Gazette’, 7 December 1914). Khudadad was decorated with the award by George V in January 1915.

The South Asian Equalizer

Samuel Colt, the founder of Colt’s Manufacturing Company, died in 1862. Eleven years after his death, the M1873 .45 single action Army SAA Mod P revolver ensured his posterity. It was known as the Peacemaker, and the Equalizer that won the West, even though history records an unequal contest. Had Samuel Colt been an Indian, he would have been called Samir Kalloo and his Equalizer a katori bowl of mouth-watering, belch-inducing lamb trotters, or payas as rightfully known.

Kala Hotel in Yakki Gate, run by the famous Kala Pehelwan following his retirement from kushti wrestling was known to Lahore’s select foodies.

Kala Hotel had a long, narrow dining hall of bare, smooth cement. There were tables for four at each side, covered with tacked down plastic. The walls had pictures of the Holy Ka’aba, a few saints’ shrines, and bulging-eyed, bare-chested and mustachioed wrestlers from Kala Pehelwan’s family holding decorated gurze maces . Some of the pictures were draped with tinsel garlands. Punjabi music played to the kahrewa beat of dholak, mirdhang and k’tara /iktara.

At the entrance to the dining hall, facing the street, were the huge deg pots and para’at trays of lamb payas, siri-payas or lamb’s head and trotters, liver and kidney, heart-liver-lungs and superb free range chicken chargha!

The meat was personally selected by the pehelwan every day, and the cooking was also supervised by him. It was said that all the cooks and waiters remained in a state of pre-prayer ritual wash known as vuzoo —ensured by the Pehelwan. When they smiled, you could see the stain of the walnut bark dandasa with which they had cleaned their teeth. Their clothes looked fresh, and they smelled of soap. Discreet incense sticks were lit in the corners. Underneath every table was an empty kerosene oil tin. Every table had a notice: PATRONS ARE REQUESTED TO THROW THEIR BONES IN THE TINS BELOW THE TABLE AND NOT ON THE FLOOR.

The discriminating clientele ranged from lawyers acocuntants and police officers to haard-core gangsters and day labourers of all castes and religions living in Lahore.

The classless impact of payas could be felt to the bone.

Yet, there was a wide gap between the street and the household. For cooking payas took at least twelve hours, if not more. In some homes they were cooked regularly, in others, a takeaway dish. There was a choice of being dependent or independent at the high price of twelve hours labour!

Then in 1964, Sheikh Abdul Razzak, of Sialkote’s, Majestic  company took pity on the households which neither had an army of servants nor a surplus of women. The Majestic pressure cooker, by uniting the street and the home with a single, classless dish, took democratization a step further. Households could buy raw payas in the morning and pressure cook them for lunch in as much time as it took to prepare a simple meat and veg curry. If they wanted the traditional taste of slow cooking, they could always buy payas.

Choice, after all, is a component of liberty.

The democratizing effect of payas can be traced to the end of the 18th century. During the beginning of the Mughal empire’s decline, Urdu flourished and the aristocracy, after a night of poetry and dance spectacles, enjoyed paya / nihari in the early hours of the morning and then slept off their hangovers! Payas, throwaway hoofs which the poor retrieved to nourish themselves had, by dint of talented hard work, become a gourmet delicacy that made it to the tables of the aristocracy. In their consumption, sensory pleasure superseded class.

In Lahore of the seventies karigars from Old Lahore moved to establishments in the suburbs, or opened their own, further narrowing the gap between social class and availability.

The final democratization came through press freedom.

Competing TV stations broadcast programs in which mediagenic chefs brought their skills into living rooms from which the kitchen was only short, dedicated step away. And there it rests, except that although the elephant has gone through the gate, its tail is stuck.

Like meteorology, democratization being an ongoing and imprecise process in the developing world, the taste of payas slow cooked by a karigar or a dedicated home-maker remains unmatched as an Equalizer. A lesson for politicians tripping over each other in dedicated power-grabs.

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