Monday, December 31, 2012

Drinking With the Devil

By Heidi Noroozy

Credit: Morn the Gorn
Gastronomical delight is not something I associate with Leipzig, Germany. At least not when I lived there 30 years ago. Much has changed since then, but in the 1980s, the German Democratic Republic suffered a chronic shortage of exchangeable currency, which meant chronic shortages of nearly everything else. A restaurant meal often began by checking off menu items in conference with the waiter until we hit upon one whose ingredients were available.

But Leipzig also had the Auerbachs Keller, which made up for any hardship. Like Leipzig itself, this underground wine bar is not only steeped in history but positively drenched with it. And much of that history is literary.

The historic tavern opened in 1525 on Grimmaische Straße, just off Leipzig’s marketplace. Its first proprietor was a professor of medicine named Dr. Heinrich Stromer, also known as Dr. Auerbach, a reference to his birthplace in Germany’s Upper Palatinate region. In addition to his academic duties (he was also the rector of Leipzig University), Dr. Auerbach was the personal physician of the Elector of Saxony, a title granted to the German princes who elected the emperor. In gratitude for the doctor’s excellent work, the Elector granted him a license to operate the wine bar.

Almost immediately, a legend became associated with the Auerbachs Keller. A scholar named Dr. Johannes Faust, who had grown bored with life, made a pact with the Devil through the Horned One’s representative, Mephistopheles (aka Mephisto). The Devil agreed to give Dr. Faust access to unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures—but only for the next 24 years (one year for every hour in the day). At the end of the contract term, the scholar would be required to hand over his soul to the Devil.

Faust riding out of the Auerbachs Keller
Credit: Deutsche Fotothek
To convince Dr. Faust of the plan’s merit, Mephisto invited him to an evening of revelry in the underground wine bar of the Auerbachs Keller. At the end of the night, the scholar rode up the stairs on the back of a barrel in a gravity-defying feat of devilish fun.

On the tavern’s 100th anniversary in 1625, two paintings were mounted on the wall, one depicting Faust and Mephisto drinking with students and the other showing Faust riding the barrel.

By the 18th century, the Auerbachs Keller had become a well established hangout for Leipzig University students, and one regular patron went on to become one of Germany’s leading literary figures: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Inspired by the legend during his student days—and perhaps after staring at the paintings of Faust and Mephisto through a wine-induced haze—Goethe later wrote a tragic play titled Faust. He set one scene in his old hangout, where Mephisto and Faust join a group of students in a night of drinking until the revelry turns violent. The Devil’s agent casts a spell on the students, who watch Faust riding out of the tavern on his legendary barrel.

Fasskeller of the Auerbachs Keller
Credit: Bundesarchiv,
Bild 183-1988-0908-307 / CC-BY-SA
Germany is a land of long traditions, so when I arrived in Leipzig over 200 years later, the Auerbachs Keller was still a popular student hangout. It had expanded to include five rooms, each with a distinctive name: Fasskeller (Barrel Cellar), Lutherzimmer (Luther Room), Goethezimmer (Goethe Room), Alt-Leipzig (Old Leipzig), and Großer Keller (Big Cellar). A sixth room, the Mephisto Bar, was added in 1989. There was even a tribute to Goethe’s version of the legend in the form of two bronze sculptures at the entrance, one of Mephisto and Faust and the other of the bewitched students.

My friends and I usually sipped our drinks in the Fasskeller, with its plain wooden tables and paintings of the Faust legend along the walls and ceilings. To my great disappointment, and likely good fortune, I never spotted Mephisto in the flesh. On occasion, however, I did order a glass of Tokaji, the topaz-colored wine from Hungary, which is mentioned in Goethe’s play. After all, when you live in a city so steeped in literary history, it doesn’t hurt to raise a glass to tradition.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Off the Beaten Track: Happy New Year!

Fireworks in Finland
Credit: Neurovelho
The Novel Adventurers wish you health, happiness, good reads, and memorable encounters with new cultures on your travels in 2013!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Legend of a Legend

By Patricia Winton

Photo by David M. Gann
One of the highly touted festivals in Italy is the Partita di Scacchi a Personaggi ViventiChess Game with Live Charactersin Marostica, near Venice. On the second week of September in even-numbered years, the 550 inhabitants don medieval dress and re-enact a local tradition dating from 1454, so the story goes. 

According to the legend, two noblemen, Rinaldo D'Angarano and Vieri da Vallonara, fell in love with Lionora, the beautiful eldest daughter of the local lord, Taddeo Parisio. The two men decided to settle their dispute with a duel, but Taddeo forbade the combat because he revered both men and didn't want to lose either of them. He decreed that they play a game of chess instead, with people as the chess pieces. He had a giant chess board set up in the town square in front of his castle.

Lionora, it seems, was in love with one of the two men, and the approaching match made her very nervous. She confided to a servant that if her chosen lover won, she would put a candle in her window to show that she was happy.

Mirko Vucetich
On September 12, a royal procession led by Taddeo and his court, followed by archers, musicians, flag twirlers, falconers, along with local farmers and the townspeople entered the piazza. The living chess pieces, garbed in black and white, took up positions on the giant board, complete with horses for the knights. The two combatants called out their moves using the local Venetian dialect. Eventually, Vieri won the match. Fireworks and music heralded the finale, and the people celebrated until dawn. A candle burned in Lionora's window.

A storybook ending you say? Exactly. You see this tale doesn't date from 1454 but from 1923 when university students Mirko Vucetich and Francesco Pozza wrote a play called La Partita a Scacchi, The Chess Match. The townspeople performed the play that year, but there wasn't a repeat production until 1954 when the play was again directed by Vucetich. It's been performed every two years since, and the pomp has become so ingrained in the circumstance that many people believeand report onthe event as if it were indeed more than 500 years old instead of slightly more than 50. The event lasts three days, bringing tourists from around the world. The coffers of both the town and local businesses are suitably enriched, and a good time is had by all.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Year of Asian Festivals

By Beth Green

At the end of every year I like to think back on the travel I enjoyed over the previous twelve months and make some general plans for where I’d like to go and what I’d like to see in the next calendar cycle.

Sinulog. Photo by Sidious Sid/
Twenty-twelve was a year of near misses for me in the festivals department. I was lucky enough to visit seven countries this year, but poor planning on my part had me losing out on good music, great photo ops and interesting cultural insights I would have experienced if I had been more diligent about checking holiday and festival calendars for my destinations. So, perhaps that’s one reason that I’m so excited about Sinulog, the religious street dancing festival held in Cebu City, Philippines, every January.

The Sinulog dance pre-dates Christianity in the Philippines; however, converts in Cebu began using the dance to honor the local miracle—the discovery in a burning home of an unburnt image of the baby Jesus 44 years after Magellan brought it here. The same ritual dance has been done for centuries with an added tradition of dressing in costumes to perform it on the festival day of Santo Nino (Jesus). In the 1980s a formal parade was organized, and the event has blossomed into an internationally recognized street festival lasting more than a week.
Sinulog. Photo by Sidious Sid/

In addition to the dancing, among other events, this year’s schedule has choral competitions, a beauty pageant and a parade of giant puppets. I’m also looking forward to the fluvial parade, when flower-bedecked boats navigate the channel between Cebu City and Mactan Island bearing images of the Santo Nino (Read my post on the history of Lapu-Lapu here).
But Sinulog isn’t the only festival I’m hoping to attend this year. With a little searching, I’ve found interesting festivals in Asia for every month of the year ahead. Will I have a chance to attend them all? Probably not. But I do hope to make one or two. Which ones would you most want to go to?

Asian Festivals for 2013

JanuarySinulog. Events begin before the third Sunday in January. (Jan. 20 this year). The festival’s motto is “one beat, one dance, one vision."

A Spring Festival street market. Photo by Beth Green
FebruarySpring Festival. Celebrated in slightly different ways in China, Taiwan, Japan, the Koreas, Vietnam and elsewhere, the lunar new year—or Spring Festival—celebrates the coming of spring and the end of winter darkness with lights, feasting and togetherness. This year, the Year of the Water Snake will begin on Feb. 10.

MarchHoli. Another festival marking the beginning of spring, Holi is a Hindu festival celebrated mostly in India and Nepal but also in Indian communities in Malaysia and Singapore. The most famous—and fun! —part of this ancient celebration is the tossing of powdered dyes. This year, Holi falls on March 27. 

AprilSongkran. The Thai new year doesn’t begin until Songran, the Water Splashing Festival. Held between April 13-15, people celebrating Songkran—and the end of the dry season—bless each other with splashes of water, and visit their families to pay respect to their elders. The water washes away bad luck and opens the floodgates of second chances.

MayWesak. May 27th, 2013 is Wesak, or Buddha’s Birthday (called so even though it actually commemorates the Gautama’s birth, enlightenment and death). Celebrated throughout Asia, Buddhist devotees bring offerings to temples, set captive animals free, and make donations to charities and the poor. It is a national holiday in Malaysia, even though Islam is the state religion.
A Holi celebration in Jaipur, India. Photo by Dan Pelka

JuneDragon Boat Festival. June 12, 2013 is when the Chinese will remember the poet Qu Yuan, who filled his pockets with stones and threw himself from a bridge after he was captured in exile. Nowadays on Dragon Boat Festival, people throw glutinous rice packets in rivers to entice the fish to eat the rice instead of the body of the fallen poet. (No fools, people eat the yummy packets, called zong zi, too.) The Dragon Boats which are raced represent the nine children of the Dragon King who raced to save the beloved poet (some versions of this story say the boats represent the villagers only; I like the dragon kids better).

JulyNadaam. Every midsummer, Mongolian athletes hope for strength and luck while participating in Nadaam, a competition of wrestling, horseback riding and archery. It is held in Ulaanbataar on July 11-13 every year, and, though an ancient tradition, now commemorates the 1921 revolution.

Boryeong Mud Festival. For a quite different type of festival, I’m intrigued by Korea’s Boryeong Mud Festival, also held in July. (July 19-28 in 2013). Festival-goers enjoy the world’s most natural spa treatments by mud bathing, mud sliding and getting mud massages.   

Nadaam. Photo by Julie Laurent/
August—Litang Horse Festival. August is a sleepy month for festivals in Asia, but back in China they always hold the Litang Horse Festival in Sichuan province from Aug. 1-7. Celebrated by the nomadic Tibetan Khampas tribes, it started as a religious festival for monks and has evolved into a chance to do trade as well as compete in horsemanship.

SeptemberTet Trung Thu. This Sept. 19 sees Vietnam’s Tet Trung Thu, the country’s second biggest holiday. In China, the same date on the lunar calendar is called Mid-Autumn Festival. In both countries people have a family gathering, give thanks for their good luck, and pray. In Vietnam, it’s sometimes also called the Children’s Festival, and youngsters wear masks while carrying lanterns in parades.

OctoberUbud Writers & Readers Festival. I couldn't resist looking at the various literary and arts festivals also happening in Asia. For example, I’d love to go to the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. Not only is the destination alone worth the trip, the festival celebrates storytelling in contemporary literature from around the world. This year it will be held on Oct. 2-6. 
Bali. Photo by Beth Green

NovemberLoi Krathong. Celebrated in Thailand, Laos and parts of Burma, Loi Krathong (Nov. 17, 2013) is a chance for people to get rid of bad energy and send their prayers and wishes to the water spirits via floating offerings. Participants launch their “krathong” on water on the full moon. These offerings are folded out of leaves or made from bread and decorated with flowers, incense and a candle.

DecemberDongzhi Festival. As you’ll have noticed, many Asian festivals revolve around the changing of the season. So it’s no surprise that in China the beginning of winter is celebrated too. On Dec. 21, on Dongzhi Festival, Chinese people have different ways to celebrate. In one place I lived, local tradition held that you had to eat dog meat on Dec. 21 so you wouldn’t be cold the rest of the year. A friend from a different part of China shared that his family always made ear-shaped dumplings, to make sure their earlobes wouldn’t get frostbitten in the coming months.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Winter Holiday Mash Up

By Kelly Raftery

This week’s topic is Festivals, but I just cannot seem to get my head around writing about Navruz, Kyrgyzstan’s springtime festival in the same week that saw the tragedy in Newtown.  In my husband’s country, people shivered with no heat or electricity as temperatures dipped to -4 degrees Fahrenheit.  I am sure that springtime seems very far away for most Kyrgyz right now and it just did not seem appropriate to write a light piece about festivals given all that has happened this past week.     
A leaping stag honors my husband's Kyrgyz tribe.

I wanted to tell you a bit about my family’s blended holiday traditions.  Let me start by saying that I am the daughter of a marriage of two different faiths.  My husband was brought up in the Soviet Union (no religion allowed, that would be “opiate of the masses”) and his country today has gone back to its pre-Soviet Islamic roots, but with healthy doses of Kyrgyz animism and realism thrown in.  So, we have our choice of winter holidays to observe.  I grew up with a Santa and Rudolph Christmas (sorry, there was no Christ present) and my husband had a tradition of Father Frost and New Year’s Eve family celebrations.

When we were first married, I relinquished Christmas and converted to New Year’s.  To be quite honest, I have never been a huge fan of Christmas.  I find baking cookies stressful and the emphasis in America on the commercial aspect of the holiday somewhat off-putting. So, as a young married couple, we  would put up the New Year tree a couple of days before Christmas, buy each other small gifts at post-Christmas sales (the best part about not celebrating until a week later!) and just spend a very quiet day at home.  
A clock ornament shows five minutes to midnight on New Year's Eve.
It was after my son was born that we began to celebrate Christmas again, accepting the futility of resisting the 
Cult of Santa Claus.  (Which, now that I think about it,  is probably precisely the same way I ended up celebrating Christmas as a child, as it was not my mother’s tradition.)  In our home, the Jolly Old Elf comes on Christmas Eve for our son, but Daddy’s holiday is New Year’s.  Christmas is the child’s holiday exclusively, as Santa only brings toys for little ones. 

Our tree, when decorated is the same mish mash of holidays--with traditional American ornaments snuggling up against a yurt here, or a camel there.  The Snow Maiden and Father Frost compete with Santa Claus and Rudolph for room in the branches.  A small clock shows hands pointed at five minutes until midnight next to a hearth with stockings hung on Christmas Eve.  The tree is topped not with the traditional star, but with a leaping stag, in honor of my husband’s Kyrgyz tribe.  It is not one set of traditions, but rather a tapestry of different traditions that we have woven over time.  I delight in my son pulling out ornament after ornament, exclaiming, “I love this one!  Look how beautiful!”      

Father Frost and the Snow Maiden hang alongside Santa Claus.
One tradition that I hold dear is our custom of giving.  Not gifts to each other (for in our home, the adults do not receive gifts) but to those less fortunate than ourselves.  My husband and I agree that while we may not have all that we want, we certainly have all that we need and we are all too aware that many worldwide do not have the basic necessities of life.  Every year, my son and I find a wish tree or board and make sure that another child’s desire is fulfilled.  At school, my son carefully chose a small paper snowman with the words, “Winter Coat” and “Snow Boots” written on it.  Picking a name, shopping and wrapping for someone we don’t even know is a key part of our holiday celebration, as much as calling all of my husband’s brothers and sisters and friends is on New Year’s Eve. 

A felt yurt nestles in the branches of the tree.
It is not a traditional winter celebration in any culture, but it is ours and for us, it works. So, mix together Christmas cookies, latkes and manty and what do you get?  My family’s winter holiday in all its glory. 

Wishing each of you  a wonderful holiday season and all the best in the New Year!

Monday, December 24, 2012

Jashneh Sadeh: Chasing Away the Winter Blues

By Heidi Noroozy

Jashneh Sadeh celebration in Tehran
Credit: Farzad J
It’s Christmas Eve and for many people around the world, tomorrow marks the highlight of one of the year’s most festive seasons. With so much holiday cheer to go around, it may be hard to imagine a time when all you want is for spring flowers to replace winter’s snow and for Jack Frost to go nipping at someone else’s nose.

But the winter blues are just around the corner. You can count on it.

The ancient Persians had a remedy for the cabin fever that sets in around the middle of the cold season. They banished the blues with a festival called Jashneh Sadeh, or Celebration of the 100 Days, held on the tenth day of the Iranian month of Bahman, which coincides with January 30 on the Gregorian calendar.

The festival derives its name from the fact that it falls just 50 days and 50 nights before Eid-e Norooz, the Persian New Year festival that marks the first day of spring. I’ve written about that festival in this space before. You can find the post here.

According to Persian legend, the mythological King Hushang established Jashneh Sadeh after a hike in the mountains, where he encountered a poisonous snake and tried to kill it with a stone. But his aim was off and instead of hitting the serpent, the stone struck another rock. A spark flew up and ignited dry underbrush. King Hushang had discovered the art of lighting a fire.

The Zoroastrians took up the tradition and celebrated Jashneh Sadeh as a fire festival. They believed that a bonfire built in midwinter defeated the demons of frost and cold, who turned water to ice and destroyed the roots of life-giving plants. The fire was often built near water or in the temple of Mehr, the guardian of the sun.

Before lighting the bonfire, priests recited the Atash Niayesh, prayers associated with fire. They ignited the sacred flame at sunset and allowed it to burn all night, while the people sang, danced, and feasted through the night. In the morning, women lit torches from the ritual blaze, brought them to their own hearths and built new fires from the one blessed by the priests, spreading the spirit of Jashneh Sadeh throughout the community.

The preparations began the day before the festival, when teenage boys and adult men headed to the mountains to gather wood, a rare resource in the arid parts of Iran. In modern times, with wood even scarcer, the boys (and sometimes girls) go door to door collecting whatever wood they can find, from broken furniture to branches trimmed from backyard fruit trees. They chant the words: “Give me a branch and God will grant you a wish. Refuse me a branch and God will deny your wish.” Sound a bit like trick or treat?

The winter solstice on December 21 may be the longest night of the year, but Iranians consider the night of Jashneh Sadeh to be the coldest. The tenth of Bahman marks the turning point of winter, and the weather will get warmer as spring approaches.

Zoroastrians around the world still celebrate this mid-winter festival as a religious rite. But many secular Iranians have adopted it as a way to connect with their ancient past. For some, the holiday is a time for slaughtering a ritual lamb and sharing food with the poor. I can’t think of a better way to chase away the winter blues.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Off The Beaten Track: Ron Klabunde and The Story Behind Generosity::Feeds

In the spirit of the holiday season and a fresh new year, we feature a guest post from Ron Klabunde, our own personal hero. You'll find out why he's become our hero in just a moment, but to give you some background, Ron, his wife, and three children live in Northern Virginia. They are active outdoor enthusiasts with a passion for life. Apart from their work with Generosity::Feeds and inspiring others in expanding generosity, relationships, and faith, they enjoy rock climbing, skiing, camping, and biking as a family. 

“How do we build sub-economic communities that thrive in the context of a larger economic community that is failing?”

I first began wrestling with this question four years ago with no idea where the answer would lead me and how many people would ultimately be served. It’s like putting together a puzzle without the box cover. Yet, one-by-one, people are being linked across the country in a movement of generosity to help end child hunger in America.

It all began after a meal packaging event where 450 volunteers gathered in Sterling, Virginia, to pack 40,000 meals for children in Haiti. This first event took place in partnership with an international humanitarian relief organization. Following the event, I celebrated the accomplishment with a friend. After applauding our success, he asked, “So what are you going to do to feed children in our community who are going hungry?” This question bugged me. I couldn’t get it off my mind. And I knew the answer would help bring clarity to my much larger question of how to create sub-economic communities that thrive in context of a larger one that is failing.

A year later, we launched our first Generosity::Feeds event, where 600 people from Northern Virginia assembled at a local high school to package 40,000 meals for children in our community. The food was donated to local schools to distribute to children in need. Within weeks, people around the country were contacting us to find out how to bring Generosity::Feeds to their communities.

Recently, we held an event in Bluefield, West Virginia, in which 100 percent of the children are on the free and reduced lunch program. Most of these children live with food insecurity. This means, outside of school hours, they don’t know when they are going to eat or how they are going to get the food. A church in Bluefield envisioned feeding these children, and we partnered with the church to mobilize the community at large to address the issue. When the media got wind of what this small church was doing to serve the community, they provided free advertising. On the day of the event, 10,000 meals were packaged and plans made to run another event. Many of the children and families who helped pack these meals will receive them in the coming months as a healthy solution to their food insecurity.

Generosity::Feeds is now a year old. In this time, a core leadership team has been assembled to facilitate meal packaging events across America. We have also partnered with Jason Strickland and ITL Productions out of Hollywood to bring in celebrity endorsements. In summer 2013, ITL Productions is hosting a Celebrity Generosity::Feeds event in Los Angeles. It will involve a red-carpet photo shoot for the celebrities as they come and work side by side with the community to package 100,000 meals to help feed children in L.A. who live with food insecurity. We are now in the process of identifying local and national sponsors for this growing movement.

When people hear that 10,000 or more meals are packaged in a single hour, they often ask, “how is that possible?” It is actually quite simple.

Prior to an event, we order ingredients in bulk for the meal to be packed. For our Garden Vegetable Soup, for example, we order powdered garlic, powdered chicken broth, dehydrated soup blend, and noodles. Each ingredient is placed in a bin around a funnel. A person stands at each bin with the correct size measuring scoop and pours a leveled scoop of their ingredient through a funnel into a food bag. The bag is then heat sealed and boxed for distribution. Our meals are all-natural and contain no preservatives. This enables us to provide children with a delicious and healthy solution to food insecurity.

This is just the beginning of the story. We understand that charity is only as good as our ability to sustain the recipients’ dignity. In the coming year, by setting up partnerships with established companies and new entrepreneurial businesses, we are working to help families find transitional employment to enter back into sustainable lifestyles.

An incredible picture is forming as people find their place in a growing movement of generosity to help end child hunger and create sustainable futures for families across America. These are just a couple pieces necessary in creating economic communities that thrive through generosity.

I would like to tell you that my wife, children, and I are an ordinary, middle-class family. But apart from a middle-class income, very little is ordinary. Early on in our marriage, we decided to live with margin in our finances, time, relationships, and emotions. This has enabled us to live extraordinary lives. By living below our means, we expand our capacity for generosity. This lifestyle has provided an incredible incubator for developing our family’s relationships, generosity, and faith in God. These core values now overflow into the life of our community and nation. We hope it will have a further ripple effect around the globe.

What do you work for beyond putting food on the table? How can you make 2013 a better place for all of us?

Note: If you would like to bring Generosity::Feeds to your community or have Ron speak to your organization, contact him at

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Georgian Icons

Modern Georgian Icons for sale.
By Edith McClintock

Icons are representations, most commonly paintings, used for prayer and teaching moral and spiritual lessons. They’re widely used in Eastern Orthodox religions and are extremely popular within the Georgian Orthodox Church. Most homes in Georgia display icons in a prayer areaoften twenty or thirty devotional images of Jesus, Mary, St. Nino and the Georgian Orthodox Patriarch covering multiple walls.

Icons are important in Georgian history and the country’s most beautiful and rare cloisonné enamel icons, many previously lost or stolen from Orthodox churches in Georgia and Turkey and dispersed to museums and private collections throughout the world, are now exhibited at the Shalva Amiranashvili Museum of Fine Arts in Tbilisi. The 8th-12th century icons are both great works of art as well as religious relics imbued with nationalistic and religious symbolism and special powers of healing and miraculous events.

On the artistic side, cloisonné is an ancient technique first developed in the Middle East and Ancient Egypt for decorating metalwork such as jewelry. Geometric decorations were formed by soldering silver or gold strips to metal objects to create compartments of enamel or gems in a variety of beautiful colors (see the pectoral jewels of Tutankhamun on left).

In the Byzantine Empire, thinner wires were developed which allowed more detailed representations commonly found in icons. Byzantium icons became a highly developed art form that spread to Italy and Ethiopia and Georgia and beyond. In Georgia, Byzantine techniques were adapted and became a distinctive school, but both Byzantine and Georgian icon styles are represented in the museum.

When a Georgian friend invited me to see the icon exhibit (as she referred to it, although there were plenty of crosses and jewelry too) at the museum, it wasn’t for artistic reasons. Her interest was religious, which is why she thought the church rather than the national government should own and house the icons. She expressed her opinion at great length and volume to our tour guide while I studied the pretty jewelry, sure we’d soon be tossed out of the museum.

Khakhuli triptych,
Georgian & Byzantine cloisonné enamel, 8th-12th Century
We weren’t, and eventually we moved on to the history and symbolism of each icon (usually told with miraculous and nationalistic elements) followed by prayers, although given it was a museum we didn’t light and leave a candle in front of each icon as is the tradition in Georgian churches.

According to the Western Christian cannon, icons in early Christianity were considered graven images and therefore forbidden by the Ten Commandments. However, they also became a tool for teaching illiterate populations and their popularity spread. It wasn’t until the Reformation and Counter-Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries that the popularity of icons in the West declined, although less so within Catholicism.

In contrast, Eastern Orthodoxy teaches that icons have been an important and unchanging part of the church since the beginning and continue to have deep religious significance. Veneration of an icon passes to the original so that kissing an icon of Jesus demonstrates love directly to Jesus himself, not just to the representational gold and cloisonné enamel or paint and woodwork. 

But whether you visit the Museum of Fine Arts in Tbilisi for religious, artistic, or nationalist reasons, you won't be disappointed.

Detail of Khakhuli triptych,
8th-12th Century

Detail of Khakhuli triptych,
8th-12th Century

Ancha Icon of the Savior triptych,
medieval Georgian encaustic (made with hot wax painting)
6th-7th Century

For more, visit my personal website or blog.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Sign of the Times: Symbolizing the Indian Rupee

By Supriya Savkoor
(Credit: Ravindraboopathi)

Recognize any of the following symbols?
€, ¥, $, £, ₦,₮, ₩,฿, ₴, ₫, ₭

I haven’t embedded any secret or scrambled messages in there nor am I cursing at you in Swahili. Rather, these icons represent a handful of currency symbols from around the world. I even threw in the currencies of Mongolia, Laos, and the Ukraine. Not that these relatively small countries aren’t entitled to their money, but I use them as a point of comparison to India, the world’s largest democracy and second most populous country. India’s currency is called the rupee, but for centuries since its inception in the 16th century, the rupee didn’t have an official symbol, and was simply abbreviated as “Rs” in front of the numeric amount, as in Rs20.

Then came spring 2009, when the Indian government announced a contest in search of the ideal symbol. The finance minister suggested whatever new symbol is adopted should reflect the country’s culture and ethos. By summer 2010, some 3,000 entries had poured in (not much, really, when you consider the country’s population of 1.2 billion). Of those 3,000, five were shortlisted. On July 15, 2010, the government made its choice:

Designed by architect and visual communicator, Udaya Kumar, the new symbol combines the Devanagari letter र (pronounced “ra”) and the Latin capital letter for “R” without that vertical bar at the left. Kumar added the parallel lines at the top of the symbol, he said, to denote the tricolors of the Indian flag.

India rolled out the new rupee symbol over the next six to 24 months, first on coins in 2011, then on bills in 2012. Banks started printing the new symbol on checks, shopkeepers on their price tags, and international newspapers within their business pages. Even Apple and Windows computer operating systems updated their code (i.e., Windows 7 and iOS 5 and above) to support the new symbol in different fonts.

And if money talks, the Indian rupee could tell some good stories.

Ancient India, along with ancient China and Lydia (a kingdom in what is modern-day Turkey), was one of the earliest issuers of coins. The term “rupee” comes from the Sanskrit word “rupya,” meaning coin, and “rupa,” meaning silver. In the 15th century, when the Pashtun leader Sher Shah Suri, founder of the Sur Empire in India, introduced the first rupee coin, he based its value on silver. Though the price of silver fell tremendously in the 19th century, successive dynasties and conquerors kept the rupee going, from the Moghuls, the Danish, French, and Portuguese, the English, and right through to Independence and beyond.

A silver rupee from the Mughal Empire,
minted under Akbar's reign (1556
1605). {{PD-1923}}

French Indian rupee from 1938
Banque de L'Indochine, image by India Post)

From the East India Company in 1835 (Credit: Ranjithsiji)

George V on the silver rupee coin from 1918 (Credit: Almazi)

After Independence in 1947, the Indian government replaced King George VI’s mugshot with the Asoka lions, which remains a national symbol.

Many countries and regions use or have used the rupee as their currency as well, including Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Nepal, Burma, Bhutan, the Persian Gulf, East Africa, Italian Somaliland, and on and on.

A Sichuan rupee, struck in Chengdu, for use in Tibet.
(Credit: Clemensmarabu)

Reverse of the Sichuan rupee (Credit: Clemensmarabu)

A Rs100 note from Mauritius (Credit: Avedeus)

A Rs1000 note from Pakistan, with a portait
of founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

(Credit: Adnan Asim)

A pre-2001 Nepalese rupee, with King Bipendra’s portrait,
before the political change from monarchy to republic caused
the government to abolish monarchs’ pictures on currency.
(Credit Bill Clement)

The rupee in the Seychelles

The first rupee coin, made of nickel, issued in Pakistan in 1948
(Credit: Almazi)
The Japanese forged Indian rupee notes in Burma during World War II as part of a propaganda war.

A Burmese Rs10 note issued by the occupying
Japanese Army, circa 1943. (Credit: Bill Clement)
And now, finally, the Indian rupee has a currency symbol. Perhaps the beginning of a glorious new chapter?