More nationalist pride


The Thai term benjarong is derived from Sanskrit panchrang for "five colors". It describes a type of pottery still made in Thailand today. It was originally made exclusively for the ceremonial needs of the Thai court, to Thai designs and patterns, in China. Several producers make it in Thailand today, with varying degrees of technical expertise. This one, my newest puppy, about 20 cm high, is by one of the best, Vangtal. The gold is 14K.


The earthly success of the Lims


I spent a better part of the afternoon last night learning about the irreversible nature of time. I was at an exhibition of Qing curio boxes -- an interesting show both on account of the technical mastery required to produce them; and on account of their kinship with the contemporaneous western Wunderkammer collections -- kinship with a difference: instead of collecting, like any other normal people, objects the Chinese curio collectors collected... their miniature effigies.

One could wax philosophical here on the Huntington themes, but a much simpler message forced itself upon me: I discovered that I was too old for the show. The objects were small, behind glass and the light was dim. I squinted at them glasslessly, then through my reading glasses, then in my prescription glasses, finally with the help of a small magnifying glass; yet, from more than half of the displays I had to walk away unsatisfied: I would never catch the details. It was all nothing but blur to me. I have missed, it would seem, the chance to admire them.

I suppose this is what happened to my Taiwanese friends, too. Encouraged -- compelled! -- by their families, teachers, and friends, they went out and were productive: they worked 12-hour a day jobs, saved and economized, and gave birth to numerous children. Now, thirty years of hard work has born its fruit: their children are healthy and tall, intelligent and well educated, and soon they will be loosed upon the world to make their mark upon it. And they have amassed a great deal of property which they will pass on to their children: several apartments in the city, acres of land and houses in the countryside. (Being traditional Chinese they believe in only one store of value: land). But they have grown old and frail; their bodies have acquired the usual long list of chronic complaints; not debilitating, by any means, but enough to make simple comfort a matter of considerable rarity and difficulty. They have lived this otherwise successful life frugally and selflessly, devoid of luxuries and pleasures, without the smallest measure of self-indulgence (except, of course, for food, which was always simple, economic fare). Now, knowing them as closely as I do (as a non-Chinese outsider I am on occasion able to pierce the veil of pretense imposed by the society) I know what few do: how intensely unhappy they have been all these years; how much they have had to sacrifice; how much pleasure and gratification they have delayed, thinking sometimes no doubt that it was temporarily delayed, while it fact it was, as they now well know, like my ability to appreciate Qing curios, foregone; lost never to come back.

Today, their happiness consists in this: at their parents' farm, over the Chinese New Year, four generations of Lims sat down to eat a sumptuous feast: 78 people: 2 parents, 12 children, 62 grandchildren, and -- a sign of things to come, the first shoots of the next generation -- 2 great-grand-children. This was their success. It sounds Biblical. The earth has been populated. The Lim tribe has become an economic power to reckon with. The Lim ancestors have been assured of progeny to sustain them into infinity by their worship1.

Yet, for me, it is hard to tell what my friends have gained through this personally. Millionairies, they still economize. He insists on wearing plastic shoes to work. She will still not send laundry out to wash.

Yet, sitting with their relatives at the jam-packed six tables, eating and talking, they say they are content. This is the warmth of the family, they say; this is their reward. Anyone who knows the Taiwanese knows that being in their company can be nothing but pure pleasure; not only for us, foreigners, I am sure, but, surely, for the Taiwanese themselves. If you didn't know them as I do, you would never know what I do -- and what they seem not to remember on most days -- the cost in self-sacrifice and denial paid for this family warmth.

On the fourth day of the New Year, six nephews and nieces -- all between 18 and 22 -- drop in for a day on my friend, Mr Lim. He spends the morning cooking for them, and the afternoon feeding them, with an expression of absolute delight on his face. "You are their favorite uncle", I say to him, and he beams. He is the traditional ideal male: he lives to feed people. He likes it. If you ask him he will say, and he believes it firmly, that personal happiness is irrelevant.

My grandfather came from a similar background to his: a hard working, farming family of modest means. And he lived his life in a similar manner: relentlessly making a living in order to feed countless mouths; he paid for the project the way Mr Lim is still paying for his: by denying himself simple comforts and pleasures, by never resting and sleeping very little, by putting up with an unhappy marriage, cheap clothes, uncomfortable furniture; in short, by taking nothing for himself out of his life. Men like my grandfather, and Mr Lim, think themselves virtuous; and think virtue to consist in constantly giving and taking nothing in return. Virtue to them is a kind of perpetuum mobile, an economic engine which never stops and runs on empty. It is hard not to admire these wonderful traditional men. But it is also difficult not to feel sad for them.

But perhaps one should not. Their life protects them against one pain at least, the pain of the Chinese curio box. They'll never know what they are missing there; and -- they won't miss it.

Footnote: On the origin of the surname Lin (Lim)

1 During the reign of Shang Zhou, 1154 BC to 1122 BC, the last king of the Shang dynasty (1783 BC to 1122 BC) had 3 of his uncles advising him and his administration. The king's uncles were Bi Gan (also spelled Pi Kan), Qi Zi and Wei Zi. Together the 3 men were known as "The Three Kindhearted Men of Shang" in the kingdom.

Bi Gan was the son of Prince Ding, son of Emperor Shang and, thus, was King Zhou's uncle.

Unfortunately, Zhou was a cruel king and the state's citizens suffered tremendously. His 3 uncles could not persuade him to change his ways. Failing in their duty to advise the king, Wei Zi resigned. Qi Zi faked insanity and was relieved of his post. Only Bi Gan stayed on to continue advising the king to change his ways. “Servants who are afraid of being killed and refrain from telling the truth are not righteous,” he said. This put him in danger of incurring the king's wrath. Bi Gan stayed at the palace for three days and nights to try to persuade the bloodthirsty and immoral king to mend his ways.

The stubborn king would not relent and had his uncle, Bi Gan, arrested for treason. Upon hearing this, his pregnant wife (surname Chen) escaped into the forest to protect her unborn child from death. She knew, in time, the king would execute Bi Gan and his entire family. In the forest the baby was born. Alone with no one to help, she grabbed hold of two trees and gave birth to a baby boy whom she named Jian. When she reached the nearest town, she gave her child the surname Lin (Chinese character depicted by two trees).

Thanks to the efforts of my friends, the spirits of Bi Gan and his son are well taken care of for decades to come.


All I ever needed to know I had learned years back

The stunning decorative porcelains from the Chianlung period show at the National Palace Museum (here) is a chance to a) see old friends, b) see their never before seen friends (who chill their heels in cool dark of the museum storage caverns), c) learn that some friends have twins (having been executed in pairs; sometimes quartets; the NPM has at least two of these, for instance), and above all d) learn that one may go round the world to see everything it has to offer and in the end decide that what he still likes best what he had liked in the beginning.

It is also a chance to learn, thanks to a great educational video -- part of the show -- the 12 step production process:

1. Throw the piece on wheel using wet clay. This produces a surprisingly rough-hewn, fat, lumpy object. In fact, it looks surprisingly like the sort of stuff your friends throw in their weekend pottery class.
2. Let it dry and then carve and grind it (yes!) into final shape. This is what produces the extra-fine, thin walls and elegant shapes. The connoisseur's expression "well potted" does not mean "well-thrown", it means well well carved!
3. Paint the reign mark on the foot of the object.
4. Apply white glaze. (Spray).
5. Let dry and load in the furnace.
6. Fire. (The glaze turns clear, leaving a shiny white body with a clear reign mark).
7. Draw the decor design using charcoal.
8. Apply color glaze and let dry. (The decor design remains visible through the partly transparent glaze).
9. Carve the dry color glaze. There are two options: 1. carve all the way through to the (previously fired) clear gaze underneath. This leaves flat areas which can be painted in later. These will be the roundels for landscape or figurative scenes; or the scrolling colored leaves and flowers. Or 2. carve half-deep. This leaves a fine, barely impressed, somewhat lighter in color barely perceptible pattern which looks like -- well, brocade. (Magnify the two purple objects beneath to see the pattern within the purple "background").
10. Fire to fix the color glaze.
11. Paint the decorative elements (color flowers, landscapes, figurative elements).
12. Fire again to fix the painted decorations.

(The high rates of breakage and failure at every step make flawless pieces literally unique).

Some objects are decorated without the scrolling brocade pattern.

Here is a pair of dishes, top (enamel painting on white glaze) and bottom (brocade pattern yellow with painted scrolling flowers).

The quality of the miniature painting on these pieces is stunning. Enlarge yourself:

Having seen so much pottery everywhere in the world, I remain helpless slave of the detail, technical mastery and rich color of Qing fencai pieces.

In which I am, I suppose, like Ibn Battuta of Tangier, who, having traveled half the world, returned home and for the next 30 years, until his dying day, never left the city of his birth again.

PS. The video and the objects used in its production (and now part of the display at the show) suggest that someone still commands this technique. This could be the Jia Yang Company, of Jing de Zhen, listed in the credits. It has no internet presence.


Concerning the nomadic mind

(Mushroom picking makes a good metaphor for all life projects. How so? Read on).

Imagine going out mushroom picking in an area where you have never picked mushrooms before with a group of experienced locals. Once they enter the forest, they all turn right. What do you do?

If, like yours truly, you have true nomadic instincts, you of course... turn left.

For although the fact that everyone turns right probably indicates that plentiful mushrooms are to be found right and perhaps hardly any left; and to any normal mind this just might seem a strong reason to turn right (“surely, these people know where the mushrooms are”); yet – the fact that everyone turns right also means that there will be stiff competition for any mushrooms found. While, even though by going left instead, the nomadic mind risks finding no mushrooms at all, yet he also gains the chance of leisurely taking 100% of everything he finds (assuming he finds it) -- a far better shot at the jackpot than anyone has on the right hand path. Plus he gains something priceless: freedom from stress: he can afford to stroll slowly, stop to take in the view, etc. He avoids the mad scramble of competition of the right hand path. Surely, it would seem, these benefits are worth the risk of going mushroomless every now and then?

Now, this the universal truth: everywhere and always, the right hand path is overcrowded; too many intelligent, efficient, capable people chase too few opportunities there; as a result there are no opportunities for arbitrage and profit margins are egg-shell-thin. Unless one is much faster and much stronger than everyone else -- and can therefore thrive in competitive, crowded situations -- the profits of the right hand path are simply too meager to be worth their while. For most participants, the right hand path is all work and hardly any reward.

On several occasions, when asked for advice, I tried to explain the nomadic left-hand-path logic to friends who stood before significant life choices (education, profession, migration, business venture, management of family affairs). They nearly always rejected my advice. Often, I could see that they could see the point of my argument. Often, they even thanked me for my brilliant insight. But understanding the logic of a proposition is one thing; trusting it with one’s life is another. My friends' minds were settled minds, farmers' minds. They could understand the logic of my idea, but they could not see it applying to their lives.

I have sometimes thought my friends timid on this account. But that is a silly view: one does not call a snake timid because he crawls into holes, or a monkey timid because she lives in a tree. This is what snakes and monkeys do. Likewise, this is what the settled minds do: they take the right hand path. They cannot help themselves.

Nor is there anything especially heroic about the nomadic mind's persistent preference for the road less traveled. A nomad like myself cannot help himself, either. In the nomad’s risk-taking decision to take the left-hand path there is no heroism at all: this is how his mind works. It takes no courage whatsoever because the decision comes automatically; there is no pride in it; there is hardly any premeditation; it just makes sense. That anyone would turn right boggles and amazes him. The nomad is no more free to go right than the settled mind is to go left. The nomad knows -- just like the Hurons did -- that the strains of the right hand path would emotionally kill him.

Whether the nomadic mind turns out more successful in specific instances depends more on luck than anything else. A nomad who turns left and stumbles upon some chanterelles, will be acclaimed a genius; one who comes up with nothing and starves, or, as is more common, ends up having to eat berries instead, will be deemed a fool. Such views are silly, too: at the time when the choice between the right hand path and the left hand path is made, no one can know how thigns will turn out. The choice is simply this: poor odds of a good payoff versus good odds of a meager one. Which do you take?

To settled minds, the relatively high certainty of the poor pay off, makes the right hand path more attractive. To my mind, the choice is skewed in favor of the left hand path by the fact that the left hand path, being less crowded, is more leisurely. If I do not find the chanterelles, at least I did not have to scramble in search for them.

The bottom line, I suppose, is that the nomad is... a lazy bone.


Seven Against Thebes (15)


Gustave Moreau


Many mysteries surround this strange beast. First: where lay its origins? Does it come from distant peoples, or is he the product of the imagination of Greece and Crete? What kind of beliefs were associated with it? And what does the name “sphinx” mean? We can try to answer some of these questions already.

During the Mycenaean era many foreign sailors visited Egypt. After returning home they told about the wonders they have seen there, especially her great buildings and statues. Nothing like it existed at the time anywhere else on earth. They also reported:

“Near the pyramids there is a great rock, tall, long, reddish in color. The Egyptians expended great labor to carve it in the shape of a reclining lion with the head of a man. His expression is mysterious: he projects divine calm, but he also wears a gentle human smirk, part-sad, part-ironic. The priests say that this is one of the forms assumed by the god of the sun, Ra; it guards the great road west, along which both the sun and the dead depart for the land of mists. Egyptians are much enamored of this creature; and often place many statues of it in long rows on both sides of avenues heading up to important temples. They sometimes say it represents the pharaoh, who combines the power and courage of the lion, king of all animals, with the wisdom of man. These statues are placed at entrances to temples in order to prevent evil spirits from approaching the seats of gods.”

A modern scholar might also add:

The great sphinx near the pyramids was carved on the orders of Pharaoh Khafre, who ruled around the year 2600 B.C. Its dimensions are truly impressive: it is 57 meters long and 20 meters high. It was originally an effigy of the ruler himself, but later became associated with one of the deities of the sun. It was several times buried by the desert sand, even in the times of the pharaohs. There are papyri of two Egyptian kings who ruled around 1400 B.C. in which they report – speaking very poetically – how the sphinx appeared to them in their dreams and asked them to be dug up from the sand and promised them that if they do, they will become pharaohs (both were mere princes at the time of their dreams).

The Egyptian sphinx was nearly always represented with the face of a man; and with the face of a woman only when it represented the principal wife of a pharaoh. Sphinxes with heads of eagles or rams were also sometimes carved. All these sphinxes, regardless of their style, were always considered as good, protective spirits. They were called in Egyptian shespankh, which could be interpreted as “a living statue” and it would seem that the Greek word sphinx is a corrupt form of the Egyptian.

Yet, in Greek, sphinx is feminine. And indeed, on Mycenaean artifacts we see a very different representation of this creature. It is a lion, but with the head of a young woman, and it is – winged! Sphinxes, sometimes appearing in twos, are a frequent element of Mycenaean decoration on gems, seals, vases and tablets of ivory and gold. In the ruins of Mycenae a plaster head of a woman was found; it was of natural size and painted; there are indications that it was part of a larger statue – quite possibly a sphinx. This is all the more interesting because there survive no other examples of large free-standing statuary from those times.

Perhaps, because it was frequently represented as decoration on utilitarian objects, the sphinx did not represent special religious significance on Crete and in the Mycenaean world; and perhaps it was considered auspicious, just as it was in Egypt.

But why was the Mycenaean sphinx represented with a woman’s head and a pair of wings? Further, the Mycenaean sphinx usually wears a special kind of flat head-gear, perhaps a diadem, which is never seen on any Egyptian monuments. For these reasons, the figure of Mycenaean sphinx would seem to have been borrowed not from Egypt but from some other country with which the Mycenaeans might have had close contact. Syria is usually mentioned. It was there that the Egyptian sphinx was transformed and assumed the shape which was to rule forever in Greek art and imagination from Mycenaean times to the end of antiquity.

But this is not the end of the mysteries of the sphinx. We have seen that this creature usually represented good. Yet, we all know the somber myth which represents the sphinx as a bloodthirsty monster, a demon hostile to men. The myth is very ancient, Mycenaean in origin, perhaps even older.

This sphinx did not roam all of Greece. It was associated with only one location. Interestingly, it is not some distant, wild and mountainous land, but a land which in Mycenaean times was densely populated and belonged to the richest. The myth places the sphinx in the vicinity of Thebes! It tells that the monster has selected a rock along the narrow path which lead along the shore of lake Copais from Haliartus to Thebes. The name of this rock was Phicyon. So, some say, perhaps that’s the origin of the monster’s Greek name? Perhaps it was later transformed in the likeness of the verb sfingo, which means “I choke, kill”? But if so, then why does the myth ascribe this particular appearance to the monster associated elsewhere with auspicious forces? Perhaps this bloodthirsty demon was originally nothing but an image of death, which often is represented as a winged monster carrying off its victims’ souls?

Thus, whatever explanation one accepts, it only leads to new questions. The sphinx is a truly mysterious being, not only in legend.

The Theban sphinx attacked and kidnapped young men only (it was, after all, a female monster) but not only in the vicinity of the rock of Phicyon. Sometimes it appeared unexpectedly within the city, too, in broad daylight, in the midst of a crowd. It toyed with its victims, posing first simple riddles and promising:

“If you do not solve the riddle, you will die! But if you solve it, I will kill myself!”

But no one was able to answer even the simplest questions: fear paralyzed the victim’s minds. Within a few short years dozens, perhaps hundreds of young men, died.

Looking at the shield of Polyneices, Adrastus understood well why he’d chosen the sphinx for his emblem. The story of his father’s, Oedipus, famous exploit was famed across all Mycenaean lands. Traveling singers told it frequently by the megaron fireside on long autumn and winter evenings:

Oedipus was a young man, unknown to anyone in Beotia. He walked along the mountain path towards the seven-gated Thebes. He knew that the monstrous sphinx roamed in these parts and he hoped to meet it because Thebans had advertised it across all Mycenaean lands that whoever would kill the monster would receive a great reward: he will be raised to the royal throne, empty now following the tragic death of king Laius, and will marry the queen, his widow.

A lion with a girl’s head barred Oedipus’ path. It said:

“Guess what this is: it is an earthly being; it has four, two and three legs; it is weakest when it uses all four, but strongest when it uses only two!”

Fear did not dim the mind of Oedipus. He replied without hesitation:

“This is quite simple: man!”

And seizing his spear, he leapt at the monster. Others said later than the monster killed itself by jumping into the lake of its own volition.

Oedipus received the reward promised by Thebans. He became king on Cadmea and husband to the beautiful queen, Iocasta. But it was soon to prove that the young man defeated the sphinx to his own tragic detriment, his and his country’s. And this would seem to present another mystery: did Oedipus really defeat the sphinx, or was the monster defeated because it wanted to be defeated – defeated by Oedipus?


Seven Against Thebes (14)


Adrastus King of Argos and Sicyon, Dareios Painter Vase


But let us return to the conversation at Simmias’ bed-side.

Theocritus continued to defend the idea of the protective spirit of Socrates with great enthusiasm. This was understandable: he himself passed for an expert on the business of auguries and oracles. And his opponent, Galaxidoros, did not deny in the least that the future can be guessed at; he merely ridiculed certain naïve ways of understanding how this could be done through signs.

“By themselves”, he continued, “they are trivial; they are but inconclusive evidence by which the powers that be announce their intentions, events barely in the course of shaping themselves, barely approaching the door of the present. But there should not be anything surprising in this; the soothsayer’s art is not supernatural. After all, the cries of sea birds, or tiny clouds in the sky, announce to the sailor the approaching storm.”

From the very beginnings of the human race, and in all parts of the world, things have been that way: there was a certain fear of the future; but also a curiosity; and the impression that the good and evil forces around us can be recognized through certain subtle signs; and if only one could identify and understand these subtle signs… Hence the belief in oracles; and hence great respect for those who could recognize these signs – whether from the flight of birds, or their entrails, or from dreams, or even from – sneezes. It has always been so with all peoples. But what surprises us about Greeks is that in their case these beliefs and practices have coexisted with a critical, inquiring, even contrary mind. It has so often happened among Greeks that within one man one found great intellectual, critical, rational talents and the superstitious belief that gods reveal their intentions and desires through signs or even inner voices. Even Plato himself said that auguries are a bond of friendship between men and gods! Powerful states were sending official embassies to consult the oracle of Apollo in Delphi regarding the most crucial matters of state business. Every town maintained official soothsayers, whose opinions were consulted before any decisions. In every country of Greece there were shrines dedicated to gods and heroes where pilgrims went because there, by diverse methods, future was said to be regularly revealed. Especially many such oracles were found in Beotia, the land in which Thebes was located, and soothsayers like Theocritus enjoyed here particular popularity.

But if the plotters took seriously the soothsaying skills of Theocritus, why did none of them turn to him with the question:

“Will the expedition be successful? Will our friends in Kithairon arrive here safely? Will we be able to liberate our fatherland together?”

These questions must have been foremost in everyone’s mind at Simmias bedside: after all, the turn events were to take that day would influence not only the history of their city, but perhaps also determine whether they themselves lived or died. They thought about it constantly – about it and perhaps about nothing else; and only covered their tension with their pretended curiosity regarding the status of sneezes as potential omens. Perhaps they were simply too afraid to ask, reasoning that whatever happens, it is better not to know in advance, since it is in any case already too late to go back?

Yet another consideration may have worried them, though no one would have mentioned it: the first expedition of seven against Thebes ended in disaster and it had been preceded by very evil omens which, nevertheless, the leader of the expedition chose to ignore. Of course, he could have pointed to other auguries which in fact commanded him to wage war. All of this was reported in various versions in the myths, and drama and poetry presented it ever more colorfully. But if one assumes that behind all the legendary tales there lie indeed some real events from the Mycenaean Era, then one might assume that the first scene of the drama happened more or less like this:

That night, the night on which everything began, Adrastus slept poorly; it was muggy, from somewhere far away wafted in the threatening growls of thunder. The prince kept waking; and whenever he did, the old worry came to him: those strange words whose meaning he was unable to penetrate. They said: you will marry one daughter to a lion, the other – to a boar!

Oracles always spoke the language of metaphor; the art of understanding them lay not in taking the answer verbally, but in discovering the right key for interpretation. Therefore, in this case, does the oracle mean men whose names perhaps are derived from “lion” and “boar”? But there are many such names; besides, such an interpretation seemed much too straightforward. Or does the oracle concern men whose character will be market by the courage and fierceness typical of these animals?

Larissa, the city which Adrastus ruled, lay on a hill, at the edge of the fertile plane of Argos; in later times the city was to take on the name of the surrounding plane, and the name Larissa to become limited to its castle hill alone. Beautiful and fertile Argos lay in the north-east of Peloponnesus. In it there were many principalities, cities and castles, whose lords would have been glad to enter into a marriage alliance with the mighty house of Adrastus, but he was not interested. All his neighbors, the near as well as the far, were constantly at odds – over land, or cattle, or women. Alliances were constantly shifting; there were frequent bloody battles and treacherous raids. Yesterday’s enemies became friends for a day only to plunge their sword in today’s ally’s back tomorrow. Adrastus has done well in this small community; he was considered a very agile operator. But when the time came to marry off his daughters – two for now, the third not yet being of age – a new kind of trouble, one which he did not know how to handle, appeared. Whom to choose for sons in law? There were many candidates and therein lay danger: those rejected might band together and raid Larissan territory. And, besides, one will have to pay two dowries!

For these reasons, Adrastus turned to the Delphic oracle for advice but the advice he received appeared useless. Where was he supposed to look for a lion and boar, kings of wilderness, who might defend their father in law? The prince was very worried; human wits failed him; gods’ word was no help.

Adrastus slept alone, in a room upstairs. The house of the basileus of Larissa was not especially large; it hardly differed from those of some of his subjects. Downstairs was the great hall; it was called megaron. A fire burnt there permanently; at its side the householders ate their meals, made sacrifices to gods, and received guests. Small rooms next to it, and upstairs, served as bedrooms. They were furnished quite simply: animal skins, small stools, chests. One rose early and spent whole days out of doors – working in the fields, herding cattle, hunting, or raiding. But when the dark night descended, one sat at the megaron fireside for many hours, talking, telling ancient tales, and singing. Here was the center of family life on rainy or cold days.

Suddenly, some sort of strange noise woke Adrastus from the torment of half-sleep. He sat up, frightened. Was it armed men trying to break down the gate? Was it fighting? He could hear the clangor of swords against shields, yelling, and cursing. It was not an unusual thing in those days: an unexpected raid by pirates who’d arrived at the shore after dark; for this reason, cities were never built at the shore. Adrastus had repelled many such attacks; and had taken part in many: he was always prepared for a fight. But what frightened him now was the strange silence within the house. Why is no one up? What are the servants doing? Where are the women? Did gods put them all to sleep? Is this – treachery?

Adrastus jumped up, grabbed his sword and shield – weapons had to always be close to one’s side – and leapt downstairs, into the megaron. But the great hall was empty. Even the fire was very low: no one was tending to it. The prince ran outside. There he saw his people: the servants crowded at the gate; others stood on the wall, holding up torches. But no one seemed frightened; on the contrary, there were laughter and joyous cries.

When the prince ran up to the top of the gate, he saw below him two armed men. They faced each other, wearing helmets and chest plate and holding swords and shields at the ready; they looked like two wild animals readying to pounce on each other. Further away there stood their chariots and help. Adrastus saw this in an instant and immediately understood: these two princes had arrived at his gate simultaneously, hoping to find refuge from the approaching storm; then they quarreled over which one had the right to knock on the gate first.

But before he managed to call out to the men before, Adrastus saw something which filled his heart with pious fear and hope: the helmet of one of the men, the shorter one, was decorated with boar’s fangs; on the shield of the other was painted – a reclining lion!

Tydeus was short, stocky, and grim. He resembled a boar. He spoke rarely and tersely. He seemed a terrible barbarian; his speech had a foreign, rasping sound, and his weapons, too, differed from those normally worn by the knights of Mycenae, Tiryns, Thebes or Athens. In fact, he had come from very far away. His fatherland lay in the high and wild mountains which stretched west of Beotia all the way to he sea; it was called Aetolia.

But his descent was magnificent, royal. The cause of his exile was also famed; even before his arrival itinerant beggars and singers passing through Larissa had told the tale of the misfortune which came upon him by the will of gods and fate. These vagabonds told their stories to pay for the place at the megaron fire, a cup of wine, a piece of cake, a place to sleep in the stables at night: they brought the news and gossips, sometimes adding a bit from themselves to make it all more interesting and to earn a better welcome. But if there were no recent news worthy of telling, they retold old stories, singing tales of gods and heroes. Thus, by the time Tydeus retold his story by the megaron fireside, muttering reluctantly – “I killed a relative. Not intentionally. It was on a hunt” – the prince did not learn anything he hadn’t heard already. And he understood immediately, without any need to hear pleas or explanations, what the stranger wanted: pursued by his family, he hoped that perhaps at last here, beyond the sea, he might find a safe welcome and a host who might aid him in performing the sacred ritual of purification to clear him of the stain of innocent blood. And Adrastus was ready to do all this gladly. Here is a prince from a distant land, strong and brave, a son in law indicated by the oracle!

It was Tydeus who was surprised that night then. Despite his natural aloofness, he was unable to hide his surprise when he heard the words:

“Very well. I accept you in my household. I will purify you of your ritual pollution and then I shall return you to the throne in Aetolia which is rightfully yours, by force if I must. And I shall give you my daughter for wife.”

Adrastus then immediately turned to the young man sitting on the other side of the fire; tall and handsome, with regular facial features and lively eyes, he seemed the very opposite of Tydeus. The lord of Larissa said to him:

“As to you, Polyneices, I give my other daughter. And I shall return you to your throne, too. It is justly yours, I know, not your brother’s. I shall return you to your throne first because it will be on my way… because then, together, we shall all set out from your Thebes to Tydeus’ Aetolia!”

There was great pride in the words of the prince of Argos; at the same time, he felt indebted to the oracle, which until so very recently had worried him. How wise and omniscient, and how generous towards his house, is the God of Delphi! The fact that the princes are from far away, and that they are landless, is the best of all gifts he could have ever expected from fate. It will not be necessary to provide the daughters with large dowries: fat cattle and fiery battle stallions can now remain in his stables. Of course, while they remain by his side, the princes will receive land in lease and he will deny them nothing; but only until the time of the expedition comes.

Adrastus was not afraid of the coming war; on the contrary, he was looking forward to it with great joy. He loved adventure and battle, and above all – he loved war booty. And when Polyneices and Tydeus settle at last in their own ancestral palaces, he, Adrastus, will be counted among the most powerful of princes of Greece: three rich lands will be united in his clan: Larissa, Aetolia and Thebes; and Thebes, the famed, rich Thebes most of all!

Nothing that happened in the megaron of Adrastus’s house that night was somehow extraordinary. Exiles from far-away lands often knocked on the doors of powerful men. Usually they were received very hospitably, because this was required by ancient laws of gods and men. Of course, not every exile could count on receiving his host’s daughter in marriage; but this also happened sometimes, if one is to believe myths and epics. After all, marriages were usually contracted mainly with the view towards advancing family business and property. No one asked young girls their opinion; and the young men did not have to worry about the girl’s looks, as long as they were healthy and their dowries good. Love could always be found in some other way – with a war slave, for example.

The shield of Polyneices stood leaning against a wooden post. It was rectangular and very large. Every time more wood was thrown into the fire and the flames leapt up, the concave surface, covered with bronze plate, burnt with a dull red glow. One could then see clearly: the beast represented upon it had only the torso and paws of a lion, but its head was that of a young woman and out of its back there grew powerful bird wings. Thus in the glow of the fire, as the great marital and military plans were hatched in the darkness of the megaron, there lit up and died down by turns that mysterious beast: the Theban sphinx.


I know this fellow

Across a busy street, and down a little alley (aklang with urgent jabbering of hammers), another temple is being aluminum-clad. In the ordination hall, amidst a jumble of half-finished repousse panels, brick, mortar, cement and various vicious-looking builders' tools; and partly obscured by a door (like a naughty student punished to stand in a corner), there stands this head, about four feet high chin to top-of-headdress. It will be a giant statue of a supernatural being. Just what being, I do not know: not a Buddha (wrong sort of face), not an apsara (the headdress is too regal), not a Hindu god (the face is too sweet and too... Thai, while Hindu gods are odd-looking -- presumably Indian, or the best a Thai artist who'd never seen an Indian can imagine one).

This face is so Thai in fact that at first glance I thought it was a portrait of a friend.

This work is quite unique: I have seen few temple statues of this beauty anywhere in Thailand, none at all made within living memory. Further, temple images usually strive for the stiff monumental look -- it is meant to be otherworldly: the creatures which populate Thai Buddhist heaven are not like us (or else we would not need to strive to change ourselves). The only piece which approaches the lively realism of this head that I can think of is the 7th century black soapstone male torso of a Hindu god, discovered in the 19th century in Nakhon Si Thammarat, in the Kra Peninsula, and now housed in the Bangkok National Museum. (It is easily the most beautiful piece there). So, this is a very special work.

I want to know where this head is going. That will be the temple to worship at, obviously.


Temple Silver


Both sides of Wualai Road -- the so called "Silver Street" -- are little alleys packed with silver manufactories. The sound of hammering comes here from every house. Men sit packed tightly, shoulder to shoulder, at small working benches, hammering, soldering, rolling and polishing. The silversmiths are neither a guild nor a caste, but are united by the traditional feudal master-servant relationship -- smiths receive room and board plus a small stipend -- and, for those established in business, intermarriage. They are united enough to undertake joint projects such as lobbying for government subsidies and temple construction. This temple is covered head to toe (except for its roof tile), both inside and outside, with hand wrought aluminum.

The technique known in Thailand as "Lanna Silver" is really nothing but good old repoussé. It works even better with aluminum which is similar in color, far cheaper, softer, and does not need to be heated during hammering (unheated silver often cracks when hammered). Its only downside is that it does not tarnish with age, which is what some of the repousse designs call for, but this effect can be achieved by staining.

Below is a wall panel from the temple, showing half-life-size Rama leading the monkey army against Lanka. The panel is probably 2 meters high by 1.5 meters long.

Here is a three-panel window blind with stories from the Jataka.

Here is a Dutch silversmith (she works in one of the silver factories here) with the temple minder and a bit of outside wall decoration. The peacock is a mystical symbol in many religions. In Christianity he represents the glory of life after death, in Buddhism the sudden unfolding of the mind at the moment of enlightenment.

Here are two life-size heavenly guardians on the outside wall, each side of the window. They are wearing Burmese court dress (as only befits a city with such strong Shan influence).

And here is the entrance to the temple:

Take a look at the doors again: Indra on Erawan on the left, carrying Brahma on his shoulders.

And Vishnu riding Garuda on the right:

And a Ramayana scene in the tympanum:

In Khmer architecture (and all things Khmer are still the cultural model for Thailand), the tympanum is the triangular stone above the door opening, within the arch created by the two entwined nagas (heavenly snakes). In the one below there is a scene from the Ramakhien (the Thai Ramayana): Sita has been kidnapped; Hanuman arrives to tell Rama and Lakshmana of her whereabouts.

And in this, another scene from the Ramakhien, Rama and Sita, reunited, have taken refuge in Hanuman's mouth.

And here is a wall decoration: a man-sized Ganesha, Remover of Obstacles, with his rat vehicle and a bowl of gulab jamun (his favorite sweet).

And here is Indra again, in greater detail:

Uniquely, and perhaps a sign of things to come, this one has been signed. (Enlarge yourself and look on bottom right). Walking back along the main street I saw a similar panel being completed. "How many men did it take to make it?" I asked. "One", was the sly answer. "And how long did it take you?" "A year."

Typically of gender-confusing Thailand, about a fourth of the silversmiths are women.

And here is the tree of life again (a photo from the interior).


PS A friend asks how it is done: One places the sheet of metal (silver/aluminum) on a bed of warm tar, which then sets; and glues to it the desired picture in reverse. One then proceeds to hammer out the outline roughly by pounding with a hammer at the paper picture (and the underlying metal). One then warms the tar, detaches the sheet of aluminum, turns it over, places it on a bed of warm tar again, and, as soon as the tar has set, hammers out the details from the front.


Traditional mural painting is alive in Thailand

I think it was in 2003 that, by complete accident, I stumbled upon this book. While perusing it, I was suddenly seized by a powerful desire to go and see all the mural paintings reproduced in it. The next morning I rented a car and set out on the journey. It lasted four weeks, covered perhaps 4,000 kilometers, visited seventeen different establishments, and culminated in a ramshackle temple in Thonburi, Bangkok, where a small crowning epiphany descended upon me like a fine spring shower.

Everywhere I went I was struck by how much the murals had deteriorated in the fifteen years since the book's publication. They all had, but those in Thonburi especially so. As I looked at them with love and the sweet heart-breaking sadness of regret -- and monks around me chanted their sutra -- I experienced one of those sudden revelations of Dharma: of course the monks do nothing to preserve the murals: that is the very essence of Buddhism, is it not, to know that everything is an illusion, everything passes, and that one must not try to hold onto illusory ephemera. It is well to admire a flower, but it is foolish to regret its wilting.

But, luckily (for us aesthetes), there is a cognitive dissonance at the heart of Thai Buddhism: while the monks know that all art is impermanent, all ritual is waste of time, and all temple building a pain-begging exercise in vanity; they do not teach these facts strenuously. (That, too, is the essence of Buddhism, is it not: to want to teach would mean to strive. This is why Thai monks are generally Savakas (Śrāvaka), that is, they are assumed to receive instructions directly from Lord Buddha himself: not even their teachers bother to teach them).

Thus untaught, ordinary Thai lay believers continue to strive; and, in particular, to strive to build and decorate temples. All of Thailand is abuzz with the noise of construction machinery. A full tithe, in my estimation -- one in ten sites -- is a temple going up.

One is going up nearby. I have been visiting it over the last four years to watch the progress of the work. Currently a Burmese style chambered stupa is being decorated. It has two halls, one lower and one upper. It is dark in the upper hall, and photos mostly do not come out as a result, but here are a few taken recently to give you a flavor of what is going on.

The temple is associated with the royal family and is therefore both richer and more gorgeous than most. Most temples in Thailand are pretty kitchy; but this one, well, this one shows that mural art is not dead in Thailand. Old murals rot, fade and fall away, but what is the big deal with that when new beautiful murals are painted afresh every year?

Here is a view of a section of the upper room.

The hall has entrances in the northern and southern walls; while the eastern and western walls are decorated with full-wall murals. (The view above is of the south-eastern corner of the room: a full painted wall is on the left and the southern entrance just to the right).

The eastern wall, which hosts the main image (its eyes have not yet been "opened" so it is OK to photograph it in any old way), features a view of the Buddhist cosmos: the stupas, floating in the clouds of fragrant ether, each represent a different universe, of which one is ours (with all its eight billion light years and all); and in the center of this multiverse grows the great tree of life. It is, of course, golden.

The western wall represents another heavenly scene: Hindu divinities (including Erawan (in Thai, Airavata in Sanskrit, the thousand-headed white elephant who is the vehicle of Indra, the old god of war) disporting themselves in the flying palaces of the Western Paradise. (Note that the picture is not complete yet and there are still blank spaces).

And here are a few details from the sides. These two are sections of the eastern wall -- they are found under the small side windows located to the right and left of the main mural.

And this is a panel next to the northern door.

The next (and last) photo is different. This one is executed in gold dusted-paint and gold-leaf on black lacquer base. It is a leaf of a double-door leading into the hall. (As it is the external surface of the door, it is covered with sturdy plastic to protect it against gold thieves). Around new year's, I watched the painters -- it was a husband and wife team -- both of them in their fifties, fat, squat, indifferent looking, poorly dressed; for their looks you could have thought they operated a fermented-pork-sausage and booze stand in the village night market-- he painted the images freehand in black; she colored them in gold. The dissonance between their less than ordinary looks -- and unassuming demeanor -- and the incredible work they turned out was really very thought provoking. What is it like to make stuff like this all day? What is it like to then return home to the hovel one lives in and look at oneself the mirror?

Then there the old saw, too: do not judge a book by its cover, though obviously, in this case, you would not go wrong judging the hall by its entrance.


Bathroom Aesthetics (4)

This is a suitable bathroom tile. The first impression is a lot like celadon, but a closer look reveals it is not: there are two layers of glaze: the dull, colored on the bottom (the color is intentionally uneven); and the clear on top. The latter cracks when cooling, producing nifty patterns.

The crackle produces more than a web pattern: it also creates an uneven surface. The effect is a little like cracked eggshell: different sized splinters (flat areas defined by the cracks) are all at a slight angle to each other and the horizontal. This is barefuly perceptible in full daylight, but when ambient light is low, it becomes very obvious that each splinter reflects light at a different angle. This produces a nice effect when you half-close your eyes:

(The light is coming from the garden, through the length of the shady bedroom and into the windowless shower).


Bathroom Aesthetics (3)

But perhaps you do not have an open-air shower. In such a case, you could do a lot worse than install a glass brick window in your indoor bathroom:

Come closer. Take a look:

Can you see how the view from outside is transformed: the slender betel palm stalk, the jumbled greenery, the wooden side-wall of the house -- twisted and jumbled in the bricks' kaleidoscopic eye; and shifting -- now this way, now that -- as you yourself shift on your feet, now a little to the left, now a little to the right? Can you see the little yellow veins in the cocoa wood? And the flashes of green lightning in the bush -- like the green flash in the peacock's tail or in the setting sun over the ocean?

And can you believe the impossible twistiness of the palm-tree stem? It seems to want to tie itself in knots.

The judges say (Radamanthes and all): 9.3 - 9.3 - 9.4 - 9.5 - 9.2 - 9.3 - 9.4