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sonian forest

Sonian Forest - 1

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Sonian Forest - 3

Sonian Forest - 4

Sonian Forest - 5

Sonian Forest - 6

The Sonian Forest (Zoniënwoud, Forêt de Soignes) stretches south of Brussels in vast tracts of cathedral-like beechwood, not unlike the Klever Reichswald, except the city's proximity is felt in some rudely dissecting highways.

Part of the Sonian Forest is the old forest-arboretum of Groenendaal, which contains some impressive trees from all corners of the world. This is also the site of the ancient Groenendael Priory, once home to Jan van Ruysbroeck.

A walking-paced documentary / promo film about the forest is 'Forêt en Ville' (in French/Dutch).


Long under the radar, this 'side project' with members including Colin Newman (Wire) and Robin Rimbaud (Scanner, here on guitar) has already churned out four albums since their debut EP. Githead makes hypnotic guitar pop with a post-rock twist - art pop as one of their album titles branded it - combining deep droning grooves, spun-out jams and lyrics by turns dreamy and caustic. Fellow veterans Yo La Tengo might be an unlikely reference.

A few highlights: from 'To Have And To Hold' and 'This Is A Cause (These Are Effects)' via 'Option Paralysis' (whose pre-crisis lyrics ask: "Our new crisis / Is it conscience or control?") and 'Drive By' (with its exasperated refrain: "You are overloaded in your inbox today, you understand nothing in your inbox today") to 'Take Off', from their standout album 'Landing' (2009).

And that's all before 2014's pleasantly rough-edged 'Waiting For a Sign'.

be passers-by

The massive gate to the Mughal ghost-palace of Fatehpur Sikri, the Buland Darwaza, contains a curious Christian inscription - or rather, an Islamic inscription quoting Jesus:

Jesus, son of Mary (on whom be peace) said: "The world is a bridge, pass over it but build no houses upon it. He who hopes for a day may hope for eternity; but the world endures but an hour. Spend it in prayer, for the rest is unseen."

This saying is part of a surprisingly large body of Jesus wisdom in Islamic literature; Jesus who is after all an important Muslem prophet who features prominently in the Quran. In 'The Muslem Jesus', Tarif Khalidi collected some 300 sayings and stories ascribed to Jesus. The oldest sayings in the collection, which Khalidi dubs the Muslem Gospel, date back to the second century AH. From this Islamic perspective Jesus emerges as a rather composite character who diverges from the Biblical Christ and is variously portrayed as a wandering ascetic, a wonder doctor and a devout proto-Muslem.

Buland Darwaza, Fatehpur Sikri, India

The bridge simile occurs twice in 'The Muslem Jesus', most famously by Al-Ghazali (logion 220), but prior to that in a saying from Ibn Qutayba (logion 99), though Khalidi adds that it "is ascribed to al-Hasan Al-Basri by al-Mubarrad (d.285/898), a contemporary of Ibn Qutayba."

Christ said: "The world is a bridge. Cross this bridge but do not build upon it."

From here, the saying, or motif has been connected to the Gospel of Thomas, logion 42, the shortest and among the most mysterious in this non-canonical gospel, which leaves the bridge unmentioned but merely states:

Jesus said: "Be passers-by."

The Gospel ascribed to the Apostle Thomas (who in an unrelated legend was said to have travelled as far as India and introduced Christianity there) was discovered as part of the Coptic Nag Hammadi collection. Its Gnostic and often puzzling sayings ("These are the secret words which the living Jesus spoke") have been the source of endless comment, as they reveal a Jesus very different from the Biblical one, more akin in fact to the Muslem ascetic.

In today's Wikipedia parlance, "some scholars believe" that the Gospel of Thomas betrays Buddhist influences - though the same has been said about Manichean, Zoroastrian, Neoplatonic and many other strands in the religious tapestry of the Middle East circa first century.

Intriguingly, however, it would suggest that this particular image of transience and detachment came full circle in sixteen centuries, from unknown Eastern origins, recorded by an early Christian, spread back east by Muslems and preserved in stone by an emperor famed for his religious tolerance.

the mind made a swing

Between the poles of the conscious and the unconscious, there has the mind made a swing:
Thereon hang all beings and all worlds, and that swing never ceases its sway.
Millions of beings are there: the sun and the moon in their courses are there:
Millions of ages pass, and the swing goes on.
All swing! the sky and the earth and the air and the water; and the Lord Himself taking form:
And the sight of this has made Kabir a servant.

- Kabir, from 'Songs Of Kabir' (online / pdf) translated by Rabindranath Tagore (1915).

Kabir, the fifteenth century mystical poet from Benares (Varanasi) who claimed to be both "the child of Allah and of Ram", but also stressed that God was to be found "neither in Kaaba nor in Kailash". As Evelyn Underhill wrote in her introduction to the volume:

Living at the moment in which the impassioned poetry and deep philosophy of the great Persian mystics, Attar, Sadi, Jalalu'ddin Rumi, and Hafiz, were exercising a powerful influence on the religious thought of India, he dreamed of reconciling this intense and personal Mohammedan mysticism with the traditional theology of Brahmanism.

In this poem (#16), the dazzling imagery of infinity and the primacy of the mind (even God is suspended from the mind's swing) are deeply Vedantic, while the image of a cosmic swing appears to have been a favorite of Kabir, and he returned to it in different variations. But even though his swing might be "held by the cords of love", it doesn't take away from the rebellious, anti-dogmatic nature of his poetry. Here's another, more confrontational poem (#42), which exposes the two religious institutions of Hinduism and Islam in one fell swoop:

There is nothing but water at the holy bathing places; and I know that they are useless, for I have bathed in them.
The images are all lifeless, they cannot speak; I know, for I have cried aloud to them.
The Purana and the Koran are mere words; lifting up the curtain, I have seen.
Kabir gives utterance to the words of experience; and he knows very well that all other things are untrue.

After his death, legend has it that a sectarian fight took place over Kabir's dead body. Underhill comments, with a hint of sarcasm:

His fate has been that of many revealers of Reality. A hater of religious exclusivism, and seeking above all things to initiate men into the liberty of the children of God, his followers have honoured his memory by re-erecting in a new place the barriers which he laboured to cast down. But his wonderful songs survive, the spontaneous expressions of his vision and his love; and it is by these, not by the didactic teachings associated with his name, that he makes his immortal appeal to the heart.

crown of thorns

Doornenkroon / Crown of Thorns - 1

Doornenkroon / Crown of Thorns - 2

Behold, a modern miracle: Christ in the Drain Pipe, with a crown of thorns that beatifies this standard issue hostile architecture.

Seen in Rotterdam.


Svetoslav Roerich - Pilgrims

One more Roerich, titled 'Pilgrims' - this one by Svetoslav Roerich, son of Nicholas, who continued painting in a similar vein, though perhaps more fully 'Indianized'.

Seen at the Bharat Kala Bhavan, the BHU art museum, Varanasi.

study of mountains

Nicholas Roerich - Study of Mountains

Nicholas Roerich - Study of Mountains 1

Nicholas Roerich - Study of Mountains 2

Nicholas Roerich - Study of Mountains 3

Nicholas Roerich - Study of Mountains 4

The dozen or so versions of 'Study of Mountains' represent Russian painter Nicholas Roerich's mystical visions of the Himalaya peaks at their starkest, barest essence: planes and textures of dizzying color and light. They command the strange fascination of primordial, never-before-seen landscapes.

These paintings are part of a staggering body of work: Roerich painted the Himalayas hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand times, besides writing extensively about their landscape, cultures and religions, and founding a research institute devoted to their study. In the 1920s he undertook an Asian expedition of several years, traversing the Himalayas on all sides, before settling in Naggar, in the Kullu valley, India. He was also the originator of the Roerich Pact, symbolized by the Banner of Peace, an international treaty to protect cultural treasures.

Banner of Peace - Roerich Memorial Trust - Naggar

From his early work inspired by Russian Orthodox iconography, many of Roerich's paintings depict religious scenes, and his later work reflects his growing fascination for Eastern religions, as well as his search for a synthesis of Eastern and Western thought. In the 'Banners of the East' series (1924), for instance, he treated religious and mythological figures from different Eurasian traditions, including 'Tsong-kha-pa', 'Laozi', 'Mohammed the Prophet' and 'Mother of the World'.

His Himalaya paintings often show remote monasteries and solitary pilgrims, heightening the landscape's grandeur and austerity through the contrast with these puny figures and precarious man-made structures. (Besides, in the early 20th century they also had documentary value. Many of his paintings depict real places, actual peaks and passes, and along with his writings served as records of his expeditions.)

But increasingly the explicitly religious symbols seem to become details in the vast empty landscape - an inscription scratched on rock, a temple ruin on a mountain top, a divine shape in a cloud. The mountains themselves now become the subjects of devotion, as Roerich attempts to capture the original awe from which religions sprang.

Thus the series of 'Study of Mountains' can be seen as a kind of culmination of his Himalaya fascination: 'emptied', leaving all human presence behind, concentrating purely on the timeless, forbidding landscape with its jagged peaks, velvety slopes and giddy colors.

Their execution is minimalistic as well. These works were done in tempera on cardboard, and - hard to see on reproductions - often the rough grey board shows through the paint, or it's even left bare to create the texture and shading of sheer mountain rock. In a way they're also studies of color, variations of the typical Roerich palette with no green and slightly jarring blue and pink and orange, and with that striking brightness that reminds of the color explosions in Tibetan art, which always seem the result of the lack of oxygen at such high altitude.

Still, the peculiar power of these paintings is difficult to describe. In his classic horror story 'At the Mountains of Madness' (1931), H.P. Lovecraft repeatedly refers to "the strange and disturbing Asian paintings of Nicholas Roerich", appropriating that "something hauntingly Roerich-like" for his own "mountainous mystery".

Rabindranath Tagore, in a letter to Roerich, declared: "When a picture is great we should not be able to say what it is, and yet we should see it and know."

While Roerich himself wrote in a poem titled 'In Vain' (1918):

Unresponsive, the stones stand dumb.
Cold in the meadows they glisten and
Shimmer. Cold are the clouds.
They fold themselves in a furrow. They pass
Into the endless. They know, they are silent,
And guard.

naggar deodars

Naggar - 1

Naggar - 2

Naggar - 3

Naggar - 4

Naggar - 5

Naggar - 6

Naggar - 7

Naggar - 8

On the lower mountain slope, the village and ancient regional capital of Naggar presides over the Kullu Valley in Himachal Pradesh, surrounded by orchards and forests of majestic deodars, the Himalaya cedars whose name derives from the Sanskrit devadāru, tree/wood of the gods.

rishikesh ads

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Rishikesh - 7

The town of Rishikesh lies in the Himalaya foothills, where the river Ganges comes flowing out of the mountains. Since gaining fame in the West as the retreat of a certain British pop group in 1968, the "yoga capital of the world" has seen an ever-expanding spiritual health industry, with gigantic ashrams dotting the river banks. According to Wikipedia (entry sanitized today; its source advertorial is still available) The Times of India, "the place is charged with spiritual energy."

varanasi dawn

Varanasi Asi Ghat - 1

Varanasi Asi Ghat - 2

Varanasi Asi Ghat - 3

Varanasi Asi Ghat - 4

Varanasi Asi Ghat - 5

Varanasi Asi Ghat - 6

Varanasi, formerly Benares, also Kashi, the Hindu holy city has since time immemorial worshipped the river goddess Ganga from its ghats. Not surprisingly, the most auspicious time for puja has always been at dawn, when the heat, dust, noise and pollution have not yet crowded out the river's serenity. Above is Asi Ghat.