Sunday, 23 March 2014

Nordrhein-Westfalen - The Map of Germany

Germany never ceases to surprise me!  Although, I've spent a lot of time travelling in other big European countries, like France, Italy, the UK and Spain - Germany remains fairly unknown to me, as I'm sure it does to many tourists and adventurers. Every time I do visit Germany, it reminds me how interesting and beautiful this country is and it always surprises me that I've forgotten this, since my last trip!

I've chosen to start my learning experience of Germany with the most populous state (or Land) - Nordrhein-Westfalen, known as North Rhine-Westphalia in English.  I've chosen the German name for this Land because, well, it seems weird to anglicize the names of German regions in our globalised 21st century. 

In the wake of the Crimean crisis, there has been a video by Frank Reed which has been doing the rounds on Facebook and Twitter and shows a 'time lapse' map of Europe and how Europe's borders have changed over the last ten centuries.  I've taken the embed from Frank's YouTube account and, if you watch the video below and concentrate on what is modern-day Germany, you'll be dazzled by the historical map of Germany, which looks like someone spilt their coffee all over the central area of the map of Europe!

Germany's history is complicated and the array of kingdoms, principalities, duchies and electorates that populated the pre-1871 map of Germany is simply overwhelming.  It reminds me a bit of 19th-century India, which was a complex collection of princely states and agencies, before India became independent and most of these states were merged into larger Indian ones.

The German Empire in 1871
It was a similar process in Germany in 1871 - when Bismarck united all of the German states except Austria.  Like the Middle Kingdom in China, Prussia had slowly been pulling smaller German states into its sphere of influence and it's no coincidence, perhaps, that the new leader of the German Empire or Reich was Wilhelm I, King of Prussia. 

Although both the Rhineland and Westphalia had been parts of Prussia, before Germany united, it surprised me to learn that Nordrhein-Westfalen was very much an invention of the British, in a curious merger called Operation Marriage.  After World War Two and the defeat of the Nazis, the Allied powers divided Germany into spheres of influence.

The Soviet Union dominated Brandenburg and the Kingdom of Saxony, what was to become The German Democratic Republic (GDR) aka, East Germany.  The United States dominated Bavaria and the strategic industrial Rhineland was divided between Britain and France.  The British administrators merged their northern Rhineland with the historic Westphalia province and North Rhine-Westphalia was born!

Roman province of Germania Inferior
Nordrhein includes many of the famous Rhineland cities most people would have heard of - including Cologne, Dusseldorf and Bonn.  It also contains the industrial cities of the Rhine/Ruhr confluence, such as Duisberg and Essen.  The Rhineland was the frontier of the Roman Empire with Roman outposts like Colonia (Cologne/Koln) protecting Germania Inferior from the savage tribes living in the misty forests of what is now Westphalia and Saxony. 

Westphalia (meaning 'western plain') is much harder to define - whilst it also has a lot of industry in the Ruhr valley centring around Dortmund, Nordrhein-Westfalen's third biggest city, it seems a lot more rural to me and more obscure, than the famous Rhineland area.  There was also once an Eastphalia (Ostfalen) but this seems to have faded into the wider Saxon Länder.   

Modern Westphalia also includes the former principality of Lippe - a small independent state that managed to remain outside the Kingdom of Prussia, but joined the German federation in 1871 and was added to Nordrhein-Westfalen by the British in 1947.  

I'm really looking forward to learning more about Nordrhein-Westfalen and Germany, over the coming weeks.  If you'd like to join me on this learning journey, please like the Facebook page connected to this blog and you'll get regular updates, as I publish the results of my learning!

Image credits:

All images are taken from Wikipedia and have been shared for re-use without copyright.   

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Maharashtra - The Final Word

It's been great fun learning about Maharashtra but, after more than two months focusing on this part of the world, I feel it's finally time to move on. 

During my time researching Maharashtra, I learned about Pancha Ganapati, a festival in honour of the Hindu deity Ganesh.  I also did some research on vegetarianism and levels of meat consumption around the world.  I blogged about the political significance of 'name-changing' (Bombay/Mumbai etc) in India and elsewhere.  I reviewed Khandekar's Yayati, perhaps the greatest Marathi novel ever written, as well as Rohinton's Booker-shortlisted novel, Such a Long Journey.  I learned how to make pakora, Moong dhal and Bombay Vegetable CurryI watched ten Bollywood movies and read numerous books, in my attempt to understand Maharashtra and India.  In a new strand of my blogging repertoire, I explained some of the key words/concepts that I'd come across, whilst learning about Maharashtra.

As always, there were many topics I didn't have time to delve into - so if you'd like to pick up the blogging/research 'baton' on Maharashtra, I would recommend the following extra topics:

The ethics of going on Safari
Indian demographics - comparing population growth with China
The Parsis
Hindutva ideology
The Indian middle class
India's space programme
Indian TV
The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (aka the Hare Krishnas)
Indian universities
Car ownership

The Final word on Slums

Dharavi, Mumbai's biggest slum by Akshay Mahajan
Despite the fact that I sometimes blog about places with terrible human rights' records - I always try to focus on a positive learning journey, which helps me understand the motivations of the society I'm blogging about and gives me an appreciation of their cultural achievements and relationship with the wider world.  In my last blog post, The Final Word - I have a tendency to pick up on slightly more negative aspects of the place I'm blogging about.

For example, whilst blogging about Liberia, my final word was on Press freedom - or the lack of it - with Korea, I blogged about Basketball diplomacy and how sport can't answer all of our political questions. 

Whilst I was researching Maharashtra, something that really struck me was reading about Dharavi, one of India's biggest slums.  I realise that slums aren't specifically an Indian problem and exist all over the world, however I'm interested in finding out more about slums and I'm using Maharashtra and this 'Final word' as a starting point for future research.

Dharavi, Mumbai's biggest slum by Akshay Mahajan
As I understand it, the word 'slum' usually describes an 'unofficial' area of a city that has grown up due to migration (or sometimes immigration), where large numbers of people live in close proximity to each other, without proper services or sanitization.  In English, we also use words like 'shanty town' and 'ghetto' to describe these areas of a city, so I guess I already started my research on slums, when I blogged about the Jewish ghetto of Venice back in February 2011. 

Slum areas are notorious for high levels of crime and outbreaks of disease.  As they're not officially sanctioned, authorities have a tenuous sense of responsibility to the people who live in these areas.  Whilst slums generally come about as a temporary response to a city's rapidly increasing population, many slums, like Dharavi, have been around for more than 100 years and could hardly be considered to be 'temporary'. 

Although we usually associate slums with countries like India, Brazil, Mexico and parts of Africa - there are slums all over the world and in countries that we might not immediately think of.  For example, I was surprised to learn that the percentage of people living in slums in China (about 30% according to the UN's recent 'habitat report'), is more or less the same as in India.  Yemen had the highest percentage of its urban population living in slums in Asia in 2007 (77%) and even a prosperous country, like Saudi Arabia has an urban slum population of around 20%. 

Indian slums like Dharavi and the favelas of Brazil are well-known to the world, but I sense that there are a lot of 'hidden' slums around the world, that aren't so well-known, as they don't grab the newspaper headlines.

Dharavi, Mumbai's biggest slum by Akshay Mahajan
What to do about slums is an interesting question.  After years of official neglect, authorities can suddenly take quite an interest in redeveloping slum areas - especially 19th century slums like Dharavi which now find themselves, in the 21st century, on prime real estate. 

In the interests of 'progress', the authorities tear down the slums and replace them with modern buildings and facilities - whilst this all sounds very nice and progressive, slum-dwellers rarely benefit from the redevelopment of slum areas and are often relocated to a 'newer' slum on the outskirts of the city, far from the expensive real estate of the city centre!   The impact this has on the local community, third or fourth generation slum-dwellers, can be devastating.

When I was in Beijing two years ago, we visited a very traditional area of the city which the government would like to tear down and replace with modern buildings.  Whilst the old buildings have such inconveniences as outdoor/communal toilets and small living spaces, the area has a real sense of community that would be difficult to replicate in the outer suburb that the government would like people to move to.  I can see the dilemma that most people would have - a new apartment with modern conveniences might seem very attractive, even if it takes an hour to get there on the bus from the city centre!

Image credits:

For this blog post I wanted to highlight the work of Akshay Mahajan who is a photo journalist, originally from Pune in Maharashtra.  Akshay has done a series of photos in Dharavi and captures the beauty of the slum, as well as its ugliness.  You can see more of his photos here.  Thanks Akshay for sharing these images with us, using the Creative Commons license. 

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Maharashtra - Key Concepts

I always come across interesting words and phrases, when I'm doing research for my blog posts. I thought this time I should blog about some of these, especially as Indian culture provides us with a wealth of concepts, physical items and new words, many of which have been borrowed into English. I've decided to call this strand of my blog 'key concepts', which cover all bases: words and phrases, as well as new concepts. 

Tying the Kushti by Tyabji
Kushti - I came across this word whilst I was reading Rohinton Mistry's Such a Long Journey and it means the sacred girdle of Zoroastrianism, which practitioners tie three times around their waist before prayer. We also have the word cushty in English, which means 'great' or 'brilliant', eg. 'What do you think of my new car?' 'Cushty!'  I wonder if there is a relation between the word, as it's used in English and the Zoroastrian girdle?

Paan - Rohinton's novel also features a 'paan-wallah' or 'paan seller' and paan was a new concept for me. There are different varieties of Paan but it's basically a combination of Areca nut or tobacco, wrapped in betel leaves, which is then chewed creating a juice that is mildly narcotic. The paan-wallah in Rohinton's novel works opposite the local bordello and specialises in virility-enhancing paan, a kind of natural Viagra! Betel-chewing is common across East Asia. By all accounts, paan users spend a lot of time spitting out a bright red liquid, which leaves technicolour stains on any surface it hits!  This anti-social aspect of paan consumption has led to anti-spitting campaigns in places like Mumbai.

कोई बात नहीं - Shahrukh Khan
Koi baat nahi - कोई बात नहीं - I heard this useful Hindi phrase a few times, when I was watching the Bollywood movie, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. As they get into more and more difficult situations during their trip to Europe, the main character, played by Shahrukh Khan tells the character played by Kajol 'Koi baat nahi, señorita' meaning 'it's okay, señorita'. Koi baat nahi literally translates as 'a thing not' or 'nothing' and can also be used to say 'you're welcome' like French 'de rien', Spanish 'de nada' or Russian 'ничего' (nichevo)

Tilak - from my reading of VS Khandekar's Yayati, I learned the word 'tilak' which can refer to the facial markings of Hinduism, such as the long line, usually drawn with a coloured paste, from the place where the eyebrows meet, to the end of the nose, popular with Shaivites (worshippers of Shiva). Tilaks can show a person's caste, marital status or which sect they belong to. We're probably more familiar in Europe with the 'Bindi' which is a kind of circular dot worn by Indian women on their forehead between their eyes. I guess Bindi is a kind of tilak, although Bindi are usually stuck on (powder or jewels) rather than painted.

Distributor of Holy Thread by Meena Kadri
Darshan or Darśana - from the Sanskrit दर्शन is a concept which is difficult to describe in English. It comes from Hinduism and literally means 'sight'. It refers to the spiritual act of seeing a deity, but it's perhaps more than seeing, with an element of understanding and blessing that is bestowed on the 'seer'.

The closest European concept I can think of is 'epiphany' which also relates to a spiritual moment of seeing and understanding. The seeing/visual element of Hinduism interests me, as I'm quite a visual person and it's perhaps one of the reasons I find India and Hinduism very stimulating. It also explains the psychedelic nature of Bollywood movies with all of their colour and movement, where the visual elements are elevated to an art form in themselves.

Image credits:

The image of the priest teaching a young boy how to tie his kushti is from Wikimedia Commons - you see more information on this file here.   

The image of Madame Tussaud's wax model of Shahrukh Khan was taken by me. You can see more of my photos on my Flickr photostream

The image of the man with a prominent red tilak is by Flickr member, Meena Kadri who is originally from New Zealand.  Meena has an amazing collection of Indian photos which you can see on her photostream.  She also has a pretty cool website