Thursday, December 8, 2016

April in Ubud

Ambedo (n). a kind of melancholic trance in which you become completely absorbed in vivid sensory details—raindrops skittering down a window, tall trees leaning in the wind, clouds of cream swirling in your coffee—which leads to a dawning awareness of the haunting fragility of life. (English, obscure)

Hello again.

Let's just say things got complicated, and take it from there, eh? We'll just ignore that five and a half months have passed, and pick up just like—

I was in Ubud, on the island of Bali in Indonesia, for just under a month. Surprisingly (to anyone who doesn't know me) I didn't see the beach once. Rather, I rented a bike and hauled my cookies around the island. Here's a disclaimer, to all of you who want to Eat, Pray, and Love: GET A SCOOTER. I feel slightly betrayed by Julia Roberts and her casual, easy-breezy pedaling around the island, as I hauled my tuchus up those mountains. Bali is hilly as HECK. I was disgusting. Like, darn. Not a cute look.

A favorite moment of mine was meeting the eye of a man biking in the other direction, him having just come up a massive hill and me about to go down it, and rolling our eyes simultaneously at each other. Why the hell didn't we just shell out the extra cash for a scooter? You got me, mate.

I rented a small cottage in a Balinese family complex and took it from there. Since the closest "supermarket" to me was a forty-five minute bike ride away from my house, I spent the month eating cup noodles, chicken nuggets cooked in the toaster, and surprisingly delicious burritos from the local hot spot, Taco Casa. The cottage itself was excellent, and partially open-air. My kitchen and work room/dining room/ living room were roofed, but otherwise open to the elements, which made for some excellent thunderstorm-viewing. There were also at least eight million geckos, which I tried with middling success to befriend, and some ginormous monitor lizards. We got along for the most part; if I promised not to laugh when they fell off the ceiling, or out of trees, or off the fence, they would promise not to scritch-scratch their way across my ceiling at 2am. Let's just say it was a scritchy-scratchy month.

A major highlight of the trip was my trek to Goa Gajah, a temple complex a little ways outside Ubud. This temple is home to some 9th-century Hindu caves, some totally awesome ceremonial baths, and also has a Buddhist temple on the premises. The syncretism present in the temple is astounding, with Buddhist and Hindu iconography blending seamlessly together, and worshipers paying their respects at each site with equal reverence. It's also a tourist hotspot, and just a tip: they will give you the required sarong for visiting the temple inside the gates. You don't have to ride up all sweaty on your bicycle, realize this is the first time in a year you've gone anywhere without a giant wrap, and then panic-buy a sarong from an all-too convincing vendor. Not that I did that. I'm just saying.

Goa Gaja's "Elephant Caves" entrance

I also had the immense pleasure to attend a Kecak and Fire dance while in Ubud, which was a fascinating experience to say the least. Kecak is a kind of Balinese dance/performance art that is performed by a cast and chorus, usually to tell parts of the Ramayana, a Hindu epic poem. It's breathtaking, with about a million candles and a cantor and a chorus of men shouting "kecak, kecak" it's impossible not to get caught up in the moment and movement. What's interesting for me about the Kecak, however, is the fact that the form it exists in today is almost completely different from what was first encountered by Westerners in the early 1900s. It has been adapted, reproduced, and redistributed so many times over that it only exists now as a form of entertainment for tourists, no longer holding any of the power that it did in its first iterations. The fire dance, however, still maintains some of its spiritual components, as it requires the dancer to enter a hypnotic trance before he begins to dance the hot coals. It is performed almost always in combination with a Kecak.

I'm sure you can hear all the questions whirling around in my head by now, thinking about legitimacy and my old nemesis Tourism and all that, but I'm not sure if it's my place to get into that. The funds that tourists pay for the show go to maintaining temple functions and spiritual practices for local residences, plus upkeep and income. Is that so bad? And as for legitimacy, well, I wish I knew more about performing arts to weigh in on that one. Maybe that's for another Watson.

I stayed in Ubud for a little under a month, and I found that month to be frustrating project-wise and complicated soul-wise. Ubud is an artistic and spiritual center in Bali, a serene mix of temples and small shops and endless rice fields, and it was there that much of the weight from losing Gamgam hit me. I got quite sick—nothing dangerous, just drawn-out—and took it as a sign from my body and the universe to take it slow. So I took long walks, worked on my fiction in progress, got local therapeutic healing, read several books, and carefully monitored my emotions. I took several very long and taxing bike trips to temples around Bali, and found very limited material for my project that was strictly conservation-based. As an alternative, I made an effort to talk to and work with Ubud artists who work in the religious and tourist trades of sacred Balinese art. Still, contacts were pretty thin on the ground.

It wasn’t all bad, however—there was a moment when I could feel my heart start to clear. I was sitting under a pagoda at The Agung Rai Museum of Art in the midst of a torrential downpour (I had worn white and walked to town without an umbrella, so I was trapped at the mercy of the elements) and I pressed play on my iPod. Jordan Lee’s acoustic Amazing Grace filled my ears, and I felt a heart-stopping calm come over me, like I could feel every raindrop hit my soul and wash it clean. Things got better from there.

I can't believe that this time last year I was in Kyoto. I've still got some thoughts left on New Zealand, plus the Returner's Conference in Maine and re-entry. They're forthcoming, I promise! Until next time~

Monday, June 6, 2016

India: March in Madras

Hiraeth (n.): the desire or longing to go back to a place that has been so changed that it does not exist anywhere except in one's own mind. (Welsh)

As it turns out, Chennai is a huge center for Christians in India, as it is the place where St. Thomas the apostle (that's right, our friend Doubting Thomas) was martyred. As such it is the home to many, many Christians and lots and lots of relics and cathedrals and all of the things I obsess over.

First up, the Saint Thomas Basilica, known as San Thome to the locals. It's quite a large churchit looks like a lot of the Spanish cathedrals I visited at first glancebut once I stepped inside it became clear that the cathedral took its Portuguese heritage and applied a uniquely Indian spin. The first thing I noticed was the fleet of ceiling fans that bedecked every column, jutting out over the congregation on adapted flying-buttress mounts, incorporating form and function in a way that wouldn't be necessary in Lisbon; likewise the stained glass windows are patterned with large panes of color that coordinate with the mosquito netting.

I made my way up to the altarpiece but was flouted in my academic pursuits because the figure of Jesus, a rare statue that depicts Christ as fully-clothed, had been removed for Lent. This wasn't altogether surprising (at my home church we observe the season by covering our altar's cross with a purple shroud) but it did rather bring a halt to my search. Luckily, there's a museum! Its collection consists of a lot of old stone carvings (both Classical and local styles), some human remains excavated from the San Thome grounds, and a collection of relics from Saint Thomas, Saint Bartholomew, Saint Philomena and Saint Francis Xavier. The museum is also the antechamber to the underground crypt of Saint Thomas (which is air-conditioned!).

Chennai is also home to another monument to Saint Thomas, the Saint Thomas Mount. Located on the top of a hill overlooking Chennai (you can see straight to the ocean,) the altar is built over the place where Saint Thomas was martyred. The church is home to an impressive collection of relics—I counted over sixty different saints—as well as a number of Saint Thomas's personal effects. One of the most notable is the Cross of Saint Thomas, which is said to have been carved by the saint himself and to weep blood. I don't even know how to approach conserving a bleeding stone cross, but luckily for me the stone hasn't bled since 1707. There is also a portrait of the Virgin Mary reportedly painted by Saint Luke that Saint Thomas used for his own personal worship. Suffice it to say that the Mount is home to some heavy-hitting relics.

I also visited a collection of local temples in Chennai, which I'll have to do in bullet points because there is just so much to get through:
Mylapur Temple was undergoing restoration while I was there, but it had no shortage of visitors. Members of the community were participating in the cleaning and maintenance of the common areas, while priests cleaned and cared for the statues behind closed gates. Lots of color, and great smellsI came at lunchtime, when many temples serve a simple meal for visiting pilgrims.
Murugan Temple was under construction at the time I went. The only hall open for worship was a small linoleum-and-fluorescent-lights temporary structure, and I made an offering for the repainting of one of the shrines. The idols and offerings are all being held in a central location until they can be properly installed in their new homes.
Amman Temple, my personal favorite that I visited, is right off the Chennai beach and one of the few places you can catch a breeze in the city. It is also a unique temple-going experience: right from the moment you step through the gates, you are directed on a tiny (one-person-at-a-time, can't-really-turn-around tiny) path that twists up and around the pyramid of the temple, leading you to each statue in turn. It's a bit dizzying, and not for the claustrophobic, but I loved it! I wouldn't recommend it at peak hours, though.
Permar Temple had real live conservation work going on! Way in the back of the temple (I think it took at least twenty minutes to get from one end of the complex to the other) they are conducting a mural conservation project, which is distinct from the routine repainting that most temples undergo every 10-ish years. Of course nobody was there when I was, but it was so neat to see the work in progress!

My final notable stop was to the Government Museum of Chennai, which I visited for its Hindu Sculpture Gallery. At the entrance to the gallery was this notice, translated from the Tamil:
All these images are religious in purpose; with a few exceptions they are designed to remind worshipers of the divine, conceived by Hindu philosophy as the Impersonal Absolute. It is easy today to slip into the mode of seeing the sculptures as works of art: products of great creative minds. While being these, there is a function they fulfill, something governed by a different, though not opposed, set of considerations. The sculptors followed the rules laid down in the Silpa Sastras. These sculptures are the most imperishable art, frozen for the moment...for posterity. They are shaped and formed in the art of creation, and live for [a] moment of specific duration.
A "different, though not opposed, set of considerations." I like it. (And for those who don't know, the Shilpa Shastras are a set of manuals that are the standing authority on Hindu iconographythey are the canon that include rules for proportions, manners of interpretation, composition and even guidelines for architecture.)

On a more personal note: while I was in Chennai I had the pleasure of doing a homestay, trading my solitary travel lifestyle for a temporary family, and it was absolutely wonderful! Living with a series of aunties and uncles (who seemed, more than anything, to be determined to feed me until I burst) provided me with an insider’s look into India and its culture, as a well as a sense of security that I hadn't known I was missing. It also meant that I had an enormous extended network of family and friends that were eager to take me under their wings and send me headlong into daily Indian life. I attended three weddings, went to Easter services and the accompanying massive family gatherings, ate my way through no less than five ceremonial feasts, and participated in the neighborhood children’s spirited celebration of Holi.

I am extremely grateful to all the people who took me under their wings, feeding me idly and masala dosa until I burst, and extending to me their endless kindness. My personal life was a source of great stress for me while I was in India, but because of these people I had a family who was willing to go above and beyond to take care of me. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

Wearing a saree at my first Indian wedding

I spent my last week in India doing a tour of the South and its most sacred places, meaning I was in a new city every day. I took it as a chance to conduct a serious comparative study of the butter chicken masala and na'an of South India (spoiler: Madurai won) but also to have as much information about temples and history and religion and culture thrown at me as possible. Shout out here to my driver, Danielhis AC game was on-point. I don't think I'd have survived a week of above-40C temperatures without him.

I departed Chennai and our first stop was Kancheepuram, where we visited several temples in the town and I participated in my first puja, or fire ceremony. I was blessed by a priest and had red powder smeared on my forehead to represent the goddess, Parvati. In Kancheepuram I also had my first experience of the dangers of summertime temple-visitingsince temple complexes are massive and partially outdoors, the stones heat up to dangerous temperatures and can leave blistering burn welts on your bare feet. I took to carrying a pair of  what I dubbed Temple Socks (patent pending) to protect my poor wimpy feet.

Interestingly, larger temple complexes are much like large cathedrals in that they have a main sanctuary (or "sanctum sanctorum") that houses the main sacred object (i.e., a relic, statue, altar, lingam, tomb, dedication to a local deity or saint) which is the temple's main attraction. Just like in a cathedral, however, there are several smaller annexes (equivalent to chapels) where worshipers can find a fairly standard set of gods and goddesses, like Shiva, Ganesha, Parvati, Murugan, or any number of their various incarnations. There are also marriage halls, multi-purpose meeting rooms, and sometimes even enormous reservoirs for sacred bathing contained within the labyrinthine passages.

Next was Mahabalipuram, which is a small town on the coast that is best known for its archaeological wealth. I visited Arjuna's Penance, a series of carved caves very reminiscent of the Elephanta Caves in Mumbai, but on a much smaller scale. My favorite part was seeing the vague imprint of paint on the ceiling of one of the smaller cavesfor 6th century pigment, that's not a bad paint job! Nearby are the Five Rathas, monolithic mini-temples (I say mini only because Indian temples are HUGE) that tell the story of five brothers fighting for one girl (there's one temple each for the girl and the brothers, with the twins sharing one structure). They are 1,300 years old and carved from sandstone; since they are right off the shoreline, the sea air is slowly but surely eroding them away, and there is as of yet no way to save them from their (eventual) destruction. A little further up the coast is the Shore Temple, which is made from granite and stands only meters from the Bay of Bengal. It's a structural temple (as opposed to monolithic or carved, like the Rathas or Arjuna's Penance) and it has a material advantage over the sandstone structures in the area. It's gorgeous, especially with the sea breeze!

The next day was Pondicherry, which is a beautiful city even further south along the coast. My personal highlights include the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, which I visited to meditate for a few hours. It's absolutely beautiful and equally silent, and it's easy to forget you're in the middle of the city. Next I visited the Sri Manakula Vinayagar temple, which was a shock to the senses after the quiet of the ashram. Not only is it a very, very busy and bright temple, but they. Have. An. Elephant! Named Lakshmi, the elephant is a vessel for Ganesh. For a small fee you can pay to feed the elephant and she will bless you for Ganesh. I have to admit I was too much of a coward and too afraid for my purse to do it, but I did stare adoringly for a while. What are the ethics of taking care of a living vessel of a god? Way above my pay grade, that's for sure.

Then it was off to Tanjore, which was super duper cool! First we waited for the heat of the day to wear off (which was a process that got more essential by the day, I swear) and then we headed to Tanjore Palace, where they have a library of ancient and religious texts from around the world. Cool conservation tidbit: since the library isn't climate-controlled at all, the curators of the collection have lined the glass boxes with a local aromatic wood that keeps bugs from getting into the books. Totally neat! There is also an art gallery inside the palace where I went to go pay my respects to the carvings of godsto my surprise, it is a regular and encouraged practice to touch or rub the statues on display for blessings. My guess is this links back to the "different, though not opposed, set of considerations" that governs sacred sculpture on display in the Chennai Museum; these sculptures, though in an art museum, are somewhere in between the realms of the artistic and the sacred, and their inclusion in the latter means that they are still very much interactive. Our final stop of the day (pro-tip: always visit Indian temples during summer sunsets. It's cool enough to walk around and the buildings glowwin-win!) was Brihadeeswarar Temple, which is enormous and just over a millennium old. While I was there I participated in another puja, and I was given a knotted cord to wear around my wrist to protect me from the evil eye.

The next morning we drove to Trichy, where I burned off my feet and the rest of my legs visiting the Rockfort Temple. Spoiler alert: it's on the top of a mountain. I nearly died. I got to the top of the temple complex (which is built much the same as others, with a progression of temple halls and smaller chapels, but this time the progression was vertical) and I wasn't allowed into the sanctum sanctorum. It wasn't the first time I've been denied entry to a sacred place, and I'm sure it won't be the last, but gosh did my legs hate me for it. Luckily there was a smaller temple to Ganesh further up the mountain, so I hiked up and was rewarded with stunning river valley views, plus a visit to Ganesh at bathtimethe priests periodically bathe the statue with milk, herbs, and other materials to maintain its spiritual purity and care for the god it houses. Next we went to the Srirangam Temple, which honestly redefines everything I have ever said about Indian temples being huge: this one has a city inside of it. It's the largest functioning Hindu temple in the world, and occupies 156 acres of land. I didn't visit all of itnot by a long shotsince there are many parts I am not allowed into and others are uninhabitable for poor wimpy me during the heat of the day. One of the parts I remember best, however, are the relief sculptures covering almost every inch of available wall space in the temple. There are particular sculptures that are treated with similar reverence to the principal statues inside the great halls of the temple, anointed with oils and decorated with colorful powders and flowers, proving that nothing inside these temples is just for decoration.

Later that day we went to Madurai, where I visited the Meenakshi temple, which may have been my favorite temple of the trip. Not only is it mostly covered (my soles wept for joy) but it has so many interesting and varied areas for worship that I was ooh-ing and ah-ing every time I turned a corner. There's the Hall of a Thousand Pillars (spoiler alert: it's 985 pillars), the outer shrine to Meenakshi (I wasn't allowed inside the sanctum), the Hall of the Temple Tree (nandis, celestial lingams, and a golden flagstaff representing humanity and the universe are located here) and a lot more Halls that I didn't get to visit. There's even a museum! Seriously, these places are massive. The part I found most interesting, however, was a repeated pair of sculptures that kept cropping up in almost every part of the temple: Shiva and Kali. The story goes that Shiva and Kali were having a dance competition. Shiva, being the Lord of the Dance, had a distinct advantage and won. Kali, in her anger, grew very hot, and to this day worshipers pelt her statue with ghee (clarified butter) which is meant to cool her down. Not surprisingly this has begun to degrade the statue over the years, and now certain statues of Kali have been ghee-proofed to preserve them. Conservators, fighting the good fight! But what about the story? Are centuries of tradition to be abandoned? And why choose material culture (the statue) over immaterial culture (the ghee throwing)? Is one more important than the other? More unanswerable questions for Lindsay.

My next stop was the island town of Rameswaram, home to the Ramanathaswamy Temple dedicated to Shiva. My guide told me I was lucky—the temple had just been restored for the first time in twelve years in February. All the paint was fresh and bright, and he explained that this is the prime time to come visit a temple, when it's looking its best. The main attractions of the temple are a series of sacred baths that are among the holiest in the country, so there are a lot of wet pilgrims walking the halls. There is also a 3600-year old lingam, created by the goddess Sita, and all interactions with the lingam are facilitated by priests. I often wonder if this is not the reason that so many of these sacred objects have lasted so long; the implementation of a mediator in the form of a priest allows interaction with the object while maintaining its relative safety and minimal exposure to the elements.

Finally I made it to Kanyakumari, the final stop on my tour and the southernmost tip of the Indian subcontinent. First I took a ferry out to Swami Vivekananda Rock, which is a temple on a rock out in the bay off the tip of the peninsula. It has a memorial to Swami Vivekanada, a historical figure who is considered a saint in India for his works spreading Hinduism and nationalism in India and the world, as well as a small shrine to Kanyakumari, the local patron goddess, whose footprint is preserved on the surface of the rock. Next I went back to shore and dipped my feet in the holy waters of the thriveni sangamam (the convergence of three seas—the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean, and the Arabian Sea—is considered very holy and has purification properties) and then made my way to the beach with the rest of the pilgrims to watch the sun set. Not a bad ending to two months in India!

My last night in India at Kanyakumari Beach

So! That's India. I'm so proud of you for reading all of that. My next entry will be about my month in Indonesia. I'm already in New Zealand, with less than a month left on the road, which is more than a little absurd. But here's to ending well!

If I could just keep your attention for a minute more, I'd like to make a quick podcast recommendation. It's called "Museum of Lost Objects," and it's a program about antiquities and sites that have been lost, looted, or destroyed during the conflict in Iraq in Syria. Here's a link if you're interested; I highly recommend it. It's right up my alley—maybe it'll be up yours too.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

India: February in Mumbai and Bangalore

Akihi (n.): listening to directions and then walking off and promptly forgetting them: you've gone akihi. (Hawaiian)

These are my highlights from my two months in India and (some of) what I learned there. It was a pretty tumultuous time in my life, with the death of my great-grandmother and a major part of my application to (and rejection from) NYU taking place, and it's hard to put it all into words, which is part of the reason why I've been avoiding it. Another component is that my time in India was changed greatly from what I had proposed in my original Watson project, and I'm still trying to digest how I feel about that. Not that this year is going at all like I had proposedthat stopped way back in Septemberbut I had to rethink how I was going to approach India more deeply than I have with other places I've visited.

This year I've grown more and more to value my independence. I go everywhere on my own, plan everything by myself, carry all my belongings on my back and spend the majority of my time alone. It's sometimes lonely, but more often very liberating. Empowering, even. But due to tensions in the north of India, my solo female status (and obvious foreign-ness), and other concerns, made this style of travel in India inadvisable. So after a lot of thought and scrambling, I decided to scrap my original plans to trek in the north and head for the south.

I started off with a couple of days in Mumbai/Bombay, and if you've never been before, let me just tell you it is HUGE. Like we're talking mondo colossal, massive, immense, and just generally vast. Monumental. Gargantuan. Brobdingnagian, even. But I had places to be, so I swallowed my overstimulated panic and went about my business. I used a tour service for the four days I was in the city, so I had reliable (and air-conditioned!) transportation to and from sites, plus guides. It was a good way to start.

My fist full day in Mumbai was spent out in the ocean, visiting the Elephanta Caves on Gharapuri Island in Mumbai Harbour. It's reached by taking a small ferry (which, in the heat of the day, was perhaps my favorite part of the trip) and then hiking up the side of the island to the caves. This site (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site) was a very popular Hindu place of worship until the Portuguese landed in the sixteenth century. The gorgeous statues and bas-relief were used as target practice by the Portuguese, and there are still bullets lodged in some of the sacred stone. The elephants for which the caves were named are almost completely destroyed.

An outlying cave on Elephanta Island, carved into the mountainside

Today, the Elephanta Caves are a place of both tourism and local pilgrimage. One of the most sacred pieces of stonework in the caves, a lingam (which is an abstract representation of Shiva/the universe/the union of male and female/the nonduality of reality/you get the picture it's really complex and hard to explain and I think the meaning changes slightly for each individual lingam) was left untouched and is still used for worship to this day. While I was there it was covered in flowers and many people left oil lamps or other offerings. It's pretty fantastic to realize that a place like this exists both practically and successfullya place that's been through so much change but can still be used for some of its original purposes, while showcasing its complicated history. So often the places I visit have chosen to either represent history or continue being a place of worship. Not gonna lie, I drooled a little.

Next stop, Kanheri Caves! Located a little ways outside of Mumbai, in the depths of a wildlife reserve, these caves are very similar to the Elephanta Cavesbut Buddhist. They were not subjected to the same destruction that the Elephanta Caves were, but are not being used for anything other than as a local sightseeing destination. There are one hundred and nine caves in all, and they are not as artistically developed as the five Elephanta Caves, although this is mainly because many of them were meant to serve as living, studying, and meditating quarters. The main caves that are decorated with sculpture, however, are gorgeous. I especially liked the meditation hall, which was designed specifically so that the repeated om would reverberate strongly through the mountain.

Monolithic Buddha outside the main meditation hall (human for size)

Next, I spent a little while in Bangalore/Bengaluru, which is further south and in the center. Known as the Silicon Valley of India, it has a huge concentration of tech companies and is also delightfully located up on a plateau, making its climate a lot more forgiving than elsewhere in India. What I wouldn't give for a Bangalore breeze right now.

It was in Bangalore that I began to really explore the unique way in which Hindu religion interacts with objects. One of my guides in Mumbai described Hinduism as "a religion of objects" which was naturally devastatingly oversimplified but also helpful to keep in mind. As I have delved more deeply into Hindu practices, it has come to my attention that some principles of “conservation” already exist within Hindu culture. For example, in Bangalore I was able to witness the daily cleansing ceremony at the Bull Temple, a ritual that includes cleaning the temple’s gigantic stone bull statue from top to bottom, bathing it in oils, and decorating it with fresh flowers. The religious ceremonies surrounding this ancient statue already take care of it and emphasize cleanliness and preservation of the statue above all else. If the statue were ever to be severely damaged, it would be given a funeral and buried on temple grounds.

Although institutional conservation is a fairly new field in India, Hinduism has already instilled values that take care of sacred material culture. The art that is important to religious functions, like lingam stones or special statues or even certain temple decorations, are given special attention and care. But more on that later.

My third stop was Chennai/Madras, where I spent a month exploring the uniquely diverse spiritual culture of the city. I'll talk about Chennai and my tour of south India in my next post, coming soon!

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Ireland: January in Dublin

Nefelibata (n.): "cloud-walker"; one who lives in the clouds of their own imagination, not obeying the laws or conventions of society. (Portuguese)

Dublin is, in my less-than-humble opinion, a truly excellent city. It meets several of my requirements for excellence, including but not limited to:

  1. A river or sea port
  2. A slightly quirky but mostly efficient public transport system
  3. A historic university campus
  4. A slightly-labyrinthine-but-very-inviting covered market
  5. Multiple Thai restaurants (preferably that deliver)
  6. An improbable yet easy-to-navigate city plan, and
  7. At least one enormous bookstore with an extensive Crime and Thrillers section

Also it didn't hurt that Dublin and Boston are very similar-looking cities.

One of my first site visits was outside of Dublin, however, when I went on a day trip to Newgrange. If you've never heard of it, please please Google it because I won't be able to do it justice in my little blog and it's a veeeery cool place. To start with, it's older than the Stonehenge and the pyramids at Giza (think about it. That's five thousand years, people.) Not much is known about what it was used for, or how it was built, but we have learned a lot by studying the materials it is made from, and it's home to some of the best surviving megalithic art in the world. The most fascinating feature of Newgrange is its connection to the winter solstice; the entrance to the interior of the mound is perfectly aligned with the sun and the surrounding terrain that the first rays of sunlight of the solstice pierce directly into the heart of the chamber within, completely illuminating it.

The re-discovery of Newgrange was made in 1699, when local landowners decided to dig for stones on the site. Until its appropriation by the state in 1890, Newgrange was a site of local curiosity and unrecorded popular tourism. Names are carved into the sacred stones going back hundreds of years, scratched into the walls right alongside prehistoric stone art. Since there are no records of the tomb from the seventeenth century discovery, we have no way of knowing how it may have looked when it was abandoned, and no way of finding out what may have been lost.

Newgrange is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and access is restricted to controlled, guided tours through a nearby information center. Guards protect the grounds during the night, and tours are restricted to small groups. When asked about why security is so tight, our guide responded, "Preservation is only possible with knowledge." She explained that because no rules were made for the site for almost two centuries, much of what we could have learned about Newgrange has been lost and its complete preservation was impossible. Now, with the regulations and security, Newgrange can be maintained at its current state and protected from further damage.

This is all making my developing grudge against tourism seems rather petulant. Essentially, the tourism industry is what makes conserving Newgrange possible; entry fees provide for its upkeep, and selective viewing keeps the site intact.

Back in Dublin town I had lots of places to visit, including the National Museum of Ireland. The Museum has several branches, but I focused my efforts on the Archaeology and Decorative Arts museums. There I had the chance to meet with the conservators in their laboratory and view some of their ongoing treatments as I picked their brains. Some of the most impressive conservation work is being done on book shrines that have been discovered in peat bogs, the great environmental conservator. Book shrines are a type of reliquary, an ornately decorated case that houses pieces of sacred text, such as a gospel, saint's letters, or even a fragment of holy text, and the text inside is revered in the same way a bodily relic might be. They are most often made of metal (or at least the surviving ones are) and decorated with jewels, intricate metalwork, and fine enamels. Their time in the peat bogs has reduced many of them to shadows of their former glory, and conservators are working to stabilize and study these treasures.

With funding being what it is, almost no restoration is done at the NMI beyond that which is done for the sake of stabilization. As many relics and book shrines are missing their "sacred bits" (i.e. they were looted and the relic was discarded, or the more-easily-decomposed pages were lost to time), they have lost any sacred connotations they might have had and are consigned to life as archaeological objects. Sometimes, however, the Museum's sacred objects are lent out for special church services, or for reconsecration. The Museum maintains strong relationships with the historical homes of the objects they safeguard, and provides protection that often would be otherwise be impossible for the original institutions to provide.

My next stop in Dublin was the Chester Beatty Library, which is right next to Dublin Castle (well worth a visit if you're in the area!) and is a total geek-fest if you're a fan of the written word. Which I am. To give you the short version, a man named Chester Beatty loved books. He spent his life collecting the best examples of the written word from around the world, and the fruits of his life's work are now housed in the Library. Its collection is displayed in two permanent exhibitions: "Arts of the Book" and "Sacred Traditions." Guess where I went first.

The upper floor is dedicated to seven world religions (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, Sikhism, and Jainism) and the manifestations of the sacred within the written word. All of these religions have examples of where a book is more than a book, and the written word is just as sacred as any relic. Needless to say I spent several long afternoons there, soaking it all up.

Perhaps the most profound experience I had in Ireland, however, was my trip to the airport. My cab driver, Robert, was a lovely man and keen to learn about why I, an American, was flying to India after living in Ireland. We chatted on the way to the terminal, all about my travels, and he seemed very concerned. "Do your parents know where you are? Did you get all your shots? What do you do when you get sick? Make sure you take your malaria pills." I tried to appease him, saying that this was my eighth month on the road and that I could handle being on my own; he believed me, but barely. We arrived at the airport and as I unloaded my bags he reached into his pocket, taking out a small lacquered pendant of the Virgin Mary. He placed her in my hand and said softly, "Take her with you. I know your parents must be worried with you traveling alone. She'll look after you" and then returned to his cab and drove away. I stood there dumbfounded and crying for a few moments before I remembered myself and shuffled off to check in.

It occurred to me as I stood in line for security that my Madonna is exactly what this project is about. She's not bedecked with jewels or sitting behind bullet-proof glass--who knows where she even comes from--but she is one of my most precious possessions, and her presence makes me feel safe. I bought a silver chain in the airport and I now wear her around my neck, and I'll continue to cherish her. She's important because of the value and spiritual power belief gives her--she doesn't need impressive provenance or the power to move mountains to make her worth taking care of. Rather, she's the manifestation of goodwill and kindness, and a man's faith that an image, no matter how small, can have life-changing impact.

I know I'm a bit behind on these reflections, and I hope to have more up very soon. I'm writing from Indonesia, and I owe you at least one very long post about the two months I just spent in south India. It's absurd to think that I have less than three months left of this project, and even more bewildering to think that I'll soon be back in the U.S. So, here's to the final quarter!

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Inspiration For It All

Ineffable (adj.): unable to be expressed in words. (English)

Growing up, I was privileged enough to live right down the road from one of the best art historians and life-enthusiasts I've ever known: my great grandmother, Marnie Wengren. Gamgam. One of my earliest memories is of a day spent with her in Boston, the first time she brought me to the Museum of Fine Arts. We visited many times over the years, but that day she headed first for the Ancient Egypt exhibition--her favorite. She led me determinedly past the mummies and hieroglyphs, saying there was someone she wanted me to meet. Finally I was placed solemnly in front of an enormous statue of shining black stone: a woman's body with a cat's head.

"This is Bast." She said, like she was introducing an old friend. "Do you know why she's special?" I shook my head.

"Because she has a secret."

She didn't tell me what the secret was, but I've been searching for it ever since. Over the years Gamgam has been a constant presence in my life. She took my sisters and me to the theater, and sent us to art classes--she firmly believed that if anyone is ever really to love art, they have to try their hand at making it too. Tea is always offered, served promptly at four with her signature chocolate chip cookies and proper teacups. She is an unflinching advocate for the Arnold Palmer (half lemonade, half iced tea,) and a formidable opponent at any card game.

I spent endless afternoons of my childhood browsing her bookshelves, poking through her enormous collection of turtle figurines, and contemplating the Gandharan Buddha that sits in her living room. Her apartment smells sweet, like Carmex lip balm and baby powder, and the sunlight drifts gently through half-drawn curtains. As I got older she took me to lectures on Mary Cassat, documentary films, and could lead me through our beloved MFA even as her eyesight was going and she could no longer see the paintings.

Gamgam instilled in me a deep passion to know and seek out the hidden depths of art, searching as earnestly in the gorgeous oil paintings of John Singer Sargent as in the rather absurd-looking computer-painted chicken I made for her when I was eight. It's that passion that has led me to this year of exploration and self-discovery, looking for the sacred in art around the world. She was absolutely thrilled when I got the Watson, and has had her fingers crossed for me as I wait for a decision from NYU. When I got confirmed at sixteen, she gave me the Saint Christopher medal that I wear constantly around my neck; my first sacred object, the token I took with me to my Watson interview and hold every time I'm on a plane. I've given her paintings, she's given me paintbrushes; we've spent hours talking together about my dreams for the future as an art conservator and her memories from when she worked in various museums and traveled the world.

At twenty-two, most of my friends are astonished that I have a great grandmother--she's ninety-nine, for heaven's sake, and she still makes a mean chocolate chip cookie. I knew when I said goodbye to her way back in July that there was a good chance that she wasn't going to be there when I got back. She knew it too. Now, my worst fears are being realized.

Gamgam is dying.

What was a seemingly harmless problem is no longer, and we only have days left with her. And I'm trapped on the other side of the world. I've been gone for almost nine months but this is the furthest from home I've ever felt.

I know she would never have forgiven me if I had waited at home instead of taking this fellowship. She's read every blog post I've written at least eight times, and we've video-chatted regularly while I've been away. I told her I'd be on her doorstep the morning I got home, and we'd talk about my adventures over tea. She is my rock, the force of nature that has always lived just ten minutes down the road, and the inspiration for all of this; I have never contemplated life without her.

On Monday I got to call her, to tell her I love her. I refused to say goodbye. Instead, I told her about my days in India. I complained about the mosquitos, raved about the food. Finally, I asked her if she remembered that day in the Museum, with Bast. When she nodded, I made her a promise.

I promised I'd keep looking for secrets.


Gamgam died while I wrote this entry today. I don't have it in me to change any of these verbs to past-tense. Please keep her and our family in your thoughts and prayers.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Ireland: December in Dingle

Curwhibble (n.): a whatcha-ma-callit; thing-a-ma-bob; whosey-whatsit. (English, obscure)

This post is long overdue and covers oodles of stuff. I ain't even sorry.

Okay, I'm a little sorry. But I'm writing from India! Internet's a bit harder to come by here.

I got to Ireland just before Christmas and spent two weeks exploring the Dingle Peninsula. When it isn't hailing, Dingle is absolutely gorgeous; there are rocky cliffs and beautiful inlets and bays, endless sheep and gently sloping hills. And, as luck would have it, ruins! Well, it wasn't really luck. I did that on purpose. But there are so many ruins that I don't think I could have visited them all even if I had spent the entire year there.

My first stop was Kilmalkedar Church, a Romanesque-style stone church that has lost its roof and is being slowly reclaimed by the greenery. Its holy wells, sundial, Ogham stone and even the church interior are weathered after centuries spent on the coast of Ireland, but the graveyard is still in use and frequented by locals. Kilmalkedar, as it turns out, is a place of pilgrimage--a stop on the Saints Road, which winds its way through the peninsula and stops at various holy sites.

Nearby and another stop on the Saints Road is Gallarus Oratory, a small stone building that was built sometime between the 6th and 12th centuries (I know it's a big window, but that's the fun part of archaeology) and was used as a place of religious devotion and refuge. I visited in the middle of a hurricane, and I can attest to its sturdiness!

Next was the Riasc Monastic Site, which is all that remains of a large community of early Christian monks. All that is left are the low walls of the former buildings of the site, and a couple weathered crosses. Of course, wandering around in places that are so filled with ruins got me thinking about conservation, restoration, and preservation. When I think of ruins I think of abandonment--places that no longer have a use beyond their status as monuments. Although really, these places haven't been abandoned at all. The Saints Road is a popular pilgrimage--some go as far as to call it the Camino of Ireland, and some of its stops have historical ties to other pilgrimages in Europe. Kilmalkedar still serves as an important local landmark; when I was there at least two families came to pay their respects at graves, and it's a well-visited spot on the Saints Road. So who's to say these ruins no longer have a use? They don't seem to be abandoned at all; rather, their purpose has changed over time. And interestingly enough, it's that change that has allowed for their continued existence and use, preserving them through the ages.

I also visited Ardfert Cathedral, which is in Tralee, and has had conservation work done in the past on its stonework. There's even a museum! Of course, since I seem to have developed a distinct ability to visit sites when they're not fully operational or even really open, the museum was thoroughly closed. But there are still outdoor placards with helpful didactics, and yet another graveyard that is a glorious mix of old and new.

Finally I started making my way to Dublin, stopping in Cashel along the way. On the top of the hill overlooking the town is the Rock of Cashel, a castle which not only enormous and beautiful but also home to a very important conservation project in Cormac's Chapel. The chapel is made almost entirely of sandstone in the Romanesque style and is currently the flagship of an effort across Europe to protect and stabilize sandstone structures in wet climates. The humidity and rainy weather in Ireland and other parts of Europe are degrading the stone and introducing microorganisms that further damage the plaster used in wall paintings. Currently efforts are focused on climate control and preventing further deterioration by isolating and protecting the sandstone from the elements, as well as UV irradiation to stop further colonization by microorganisms. In Cormac's Chapel unique wall paintings and carvings have already been lost, but the efforts by conservators will hopefully prevent any further loss in this historic chapel. There are similar projects being implemented in the Rock's Gothic cathedral where there are more wall paintings, but luckily these are not on sandstone and have stood the test of time (and water) better than their Romanesque counterparts.

Next up, January in Dublin. Maybe someday I'll publish a blog post right on time--but today is not that day. Happy six-month blogaversary!

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Kyoto: Departure

Anagnorisis (n.): a moment of critical discovery. (Ancient Greek)

So! I know you were all dying to find out, yes--I did make it into a proper Japanese conservation studio in the end! Shortly before I left Kyoto I had the distinct pleasure of visiting Oka Bokkodo, one of the most prestigious conservation studios in the city. There I was fortunate enough to meet with conservators and generally synthesize what I learned during my various escapades in Japan. Are you ready for a geekfest? Here we go!

Some context: since the end of Word War II, Japan's national government has selected objects of cultural value and titled them “Important Cultural Properties.” Each year National Treasures are chosen from these objects, and they are put on the fast-track for conservation, restoration, and exhibition within Japan. The studios that work on these objects, therefore, have to be incredibly well-qualified; there are only twelve in the country that are allowed to work on National Treasures, and only one that has existed since the inception of the National Treasures program: Oka Bokkodo.

Since the government controls which pieces are worked on and by whom, there is often miscommunication and overlap among conservators working on National Treasures; for instance, the studio working on the wall paintings of a National Treasure building will be different from the studio working on the walls themselves, making for overcomplicated treatments and inefficient distribution of manpower. Likewise there are rules and restrictions placed on conservation studios and how much restoration they can actually do on damaged artworks—inpainting, the post-facto restoration of lost pigment by a conservator and a particularly controversial facet of paintings restoration, has been banned in all conservation studios treating National Treasures because of the potential for inaccurate restoration and the resulting outrage from academics and the public.

These regulations become especially complicated where sacred objects are concerned; sometimes the damaged part of an object can impact its sacredness or worship potential, rendering it corrupted or even useless within a sacred context. For instance, there have been several cases of ancient sacred mandalas with pigment loss that affect their utility in meditation practices. However, when monks bring these works to be restored by the conservation workshops they are turned away—the inpainting that would restore the mandalas to their original sacredness is forbidden by the regulations that the government has imposed. Likewise there have been statues of deities that have lost their eyes or body parts due to material deterioration over time, but these pieces must be forever taken out of commission because their restoration goes against government policy.

I found this conundrum particularly fascinating because I have always been in the pro-conservation camp rather than pro-restoration, believing that stabilization was most important and that restoration would be unfaithful to the history of an object—a similar stance to that of the Japanese government. However, it seems that this stance must be reevaluated case by case for sacred objects, because the difference between conservation and restoration is the difference between death and life for many sacred objects. There is a record of a statue in Kyoto prefecture that, through the materials analysis of conservators, was found to have a head that did not match the rest of its body. The academic community flew into an uproar, and the head was removed and swapped out with a replacement to passify the malcontents. The result was the destruction of the central worship figure for a congregation of thousands, effectively ruining hundreds of years of tradition and terminating a massive source of traffic and income for the temple—but at least the statue was right, wasn't it?

Which brings me to a bit of reflection. I am continually surprised by how broad the reach of this project has turned out to be; it's about art and religion, sure, but it's also about chemistry, anthropology, and economics, and politics. It seems a bit obvious, if I step back and look at the big picture; conservation is essentially the process of preserving culture, carrying on ideas and values in their material form. How could that process not cast a wide net? And religion is so often a point of cultural contention that I don't know how I could think its material manifestation to be without broader consequence. And who knows what I'll find in the next six months? It seems that everywhere I go, I explain my project and the response is “Oh, you've come to the right place—we really need that here.”

I had expected to feel exhausted at this point in the year, having traveled alone for six months and anticipating six more. And I do--I'm tired, and I miss my home and my family, but I also feel inspired and invigorated by the thought of what's still to come. So here's to the next six months--the pitfalls and victories, the long nights in airports and early mornings on mountaintops. I'm so glad to have you along for the ride!

Kyoto: December

Vellichor (n.): the strange wistfulness of a used bookstore, filled with the unknowable passage of time. (English, obsolete)

I'm writing from my flat in Phibsborough, Dublin. Kyoto and I parted ways just before Christmas and I spent the holidays here in Ireland. No snow, but rather a lot of rain--we got the full force of Storm Frank (the most ominous storm name ever) and there was glorious hail and gale-force winds and oodles of water flying sideways. Happy new year, by the way! The first of the year marked the first day of the second half of my Watson, which is more than a little staggering to contemplate.

But, we have some catching up to do! December was another busy month (although now that I think about it, all of my months have been busy) during which I did a bunch of travelling (to Nara, and Tokyo!!) and applied to NYU, and said goodbye to what might now be my favorite city in the world. I'll do my Japan wrap-up in two parts, with this being my review of my travels and the second a reflection on what I learned about conservation in Japan, and my thoughts about moving forward. So, without further ado--

Nara is only about an hour from Kyoto by local train, and is a city best known for its deer. Yes, you read that correctly--deer! Nara is home to a massive, open-air deer park; it's said that the deer are sacred, messengers of local gods, so the animals roam free and are treated with the utmost respect. They're everywhere, though it's surprisingly hard to get a good selfie--I lost a perfectly good map to a deer with the munchies attempting it--but the deer are an excellent cure for frowns. Unless you're fond of maps.

Once one progresses past the incredibly distracting deer, there are several gorgeous and impressive temples, shrines and museums to visit inside the park. I went first to Kofuku-ji, a temple known for its two pagodas and scenic vistas on the outer edge of Nara Park. As it would so happen, I couldn't get in to visit the main temple hall--it's being restored. Ah, sweet irony! I guess I'll have to come back in 2018. But I could get to the National Treasure Museum, which is always a good sign. (This project has done nothing to curb my obsession with treasure. Am I conservator or pirate? That's the real question.)

The fascinating thing about Kofuku-ji's museum is that it's set up very much like a temple; silence is to be kept throughout the premises, and an appropriate level of reverence is to be observed. The museum was established by the Japanese government to protect and display cultural objects on the site where they were once revered before they were destroyed due to anti-Buddhist sentiment in 1874. All of the objects on display are sacred, and the more prominent devotional statues have altars and saisen-bako in front of them. I was one in a long line of people waiting to pray and make offerings in front of a statue of a Kannon, a many-armed Buddhist deity that takes a place of prominence within the museum. The museum's purpose seems to be to conserve and stabilize the objects, rather than restore them to any former shiny glory, but it works; the air is contemplative and respectful, with signage and docents to help any intrepid academic wandering the halls. It also helps along the museum's didactic focus, showing the evolution of Kofuku-ji as both a place of worship and a place of history. In short, A+, would definitely visit again.

Next on my list was Todai-ji, a massive temple that happens to be the largest wooden building in the world. In all seriousness, there is no photo I took that could convey the sheer enormity of this place--and that's nothing compared to the statues within. Among others, Todai-ji houses the world's largest statue of the Daibutsu (Buddha Vairocana), sitting pretty at 15 meters tall and weighing 500 tonnes. And to top it off, it's been around since its casting in 752 CE. If that doesn't make you flip out I don't know what will.

The temple is a huge tourist attraction, of course, and consequently it felt a bit like barely-controlled chaos inside. There were of course saisen-bako in front of each devotional statue, and an area for contemplation and lighting candles, but there were also plenty of tour groups mulling about, shouting and posing for pictures, and a gift shop. (It's really common for temples and shrines to have a shop of some sort on the premises, to sell charms and the like, but they're never in the main hall, and they sell chachkies just as often.) It was odd, and a bit disconcerting; certainly a different feeling from the National Treasure Museum, which just goes to show that context can have just as big an impact on the sense of an object's sacredness as its physical state.

I made a trip back to Nara later in the week to visit the Nara National Museum because it's closed on Mondays. Side rant--if I could just get rid of Sundays and Mondays, it would greatly streamline my project. Of course I value days spent in my pajamas just like anyone else, but seriously! Sundays are what seem to be a universal day off (in Spain you couldn't even go to the supermarket), and then Mondays are no-museum day. The number of times I have showed up at a museum on a Monday all fired up and ready to go and gone home grumpy is absurd. Although perhaps this has more to do with my learning curve and stubbornness than anything else. Anyway.

The museum is host to an impressive collection of Buddhist art and is well-worth a visit if you're ever in the area. Unlike the National Treasure Museum at Kofuku-ji, the environment is secular and most sacred objects are displayed as historical, archaeological, or ethnographic objects. It's also undergoing renovation in its Buddhist Sculpture Hall (damn!) but it had a temporary exhibition on the Nara matsuri, an annual festival involving almost every religious establishment in the city. Huge parades, portable shrines, and massive rituals all over Nara--just my cup of tea.

Next, I made my way to Tokyo! For those of you foolish enough to think that Tokyo and Kyoto are close to each other (read: me), think again. It took a ten hour overnight bus ride to get to Tokyo, and whether it was the sleep deprivation or the sheer enormity of the city, I was completely overwhelmed. I really do hope I get back to do Tokyo its due diligence, since I spent two days in a city I could have spent two years exploring; even as someone who's spending a year abroad visiting new places, my "must-visit" list seems only to be getting longer.

My first stop was the Tokyo National Museum which was very large and also under renovation (did they hear I was coming??) but super cool to visit because they have an entire exhibition dedicated to museum conservation and the maintenance of the permanent collection. It was especially interesting to hear about preventative conservation aimed at earthquake protection--it's not something we really have to worry about back home, but they do it so well (and on such a huge scale!) at the National Museum.

Then things got political, as I moved on to Meiji-jinja, the shrine best known for its connection to Japan's imperial history. The shrine is dedicated to the deified Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken, and is situated within a massive forest in the heart of Tokyo. It's very beautiful and surprisingly quiet for the middle of one of the busiest cities in the world, and I made a beeline for their Treasure Museum. To my surprise it wasn't the statues and relics I've come to expect from treasure museums on shrine/temple/church/synagogue grounds, but rather a small room filled with the personal effects of the Emperor and his wife. Treasure is really an all-inclusive term, I guess! Although at a shrine dedicated to an Emperor and Empress, it makes perfect sense--like keeping the belongings of a patron saint in a church, for pilgrims to visit. Very neat stuff!

My final destination in Tokyo was Yasukuni-jinja, which is known internationally and shrouded in controversy. It's a beautiful shrine, eerily silent and bare, and houses a museum on the grounds, which naturally I couldn't resist. However this is no ordinary museum, for Yasukuni-jinja houses the enshrined spirits of the Japanese war dead serving from 1867 to 1951, and over a thousand convicted war criminals. I was greeted in the foyer of the museum by a perfectly preserved Model 96 15cm Howitzer from 1936, there enshrined "to comfort the noble souls of the war dead." I knew then I was out of my depth, but that I had to go deeper.

There are a few routes one can take through the museum, and unfortunately I only had time for the shortest tour of an hour. I was led through countless rooms lined with infographics and war memorabilia, essentially a history museum explaining the war from the point of view of the Japanese, which needless to say was a new experience. It was overwhelming, to say the least, and I was not mentally prepared to face all this tension on the grounds of a shrine. As I have since discovered, Yasukuni-jinja is still a very controversial site within Japan and the rest of Asia, and it has been continually criticized for its nationalist sentiments since its creation. But as I wandered through the halls, looking at the endless photographs of the war dead, their personal effects, their last letters home, I felt myself completely unable to form a coherent thought, much less cast judgement.

There are conservators who work on those objects, and maintain the museum's collection--what do they think, as they hold the pocket watch of a dead soldier? What is a conserved machine gun's place in a shrine? And how does a restored bomber comfort the souls of the dead? I hope one day to go back and spend more time on the grounds, to read all the signs on the walls and look at the photograph of every soldier. I'll let you form your own opinions about Yasukuni-jinja; honestly, I'm still processing it. But can I just ask that you visit before making any judgement? There are some things that are just too complicated to feel at a distance.

So, that about wraps up my travels in Japan. I know I ended on a rather heavy note, but I also hope it gets you thinking the way it did for me. Hopefully I'll be back someday, to continue the journey I started rather abruptly in October, and one that will stay in my mind for a long time. As it is, I've got just a bit more Japan left for you in the next entry--some Kyoto-specific conservation nerding out, just for you! Until then!