Jul 082015
 

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On this date in 1497 Dom Vasco da Gama, 1st Count of Vidigueira, a Portuguese explorer, set out on his first voyage to India thus becoming the first European to reach India by sea, linking Europe and Asia for the first time by ocean route, as well as the Atlantic and the Indian oceans entirely and definitively, and in this way, the West and the Orient.

Da Gama’s discovery was of major significance and opened the way for an age of global imperialism and for the Portuguese and others to establish long-lasting colonial empires in Asia (which you may consider fortunate or unfortunate). The route meant that the Portuguese would not need to cross the highly disputed Mediterranean nor the dangerous Arabian Peninsula, because the whole voyage could be made by sea. The sum of the distances covered in the outward and return voyages made this expedition the longest ocean voyage ever made until then, far longer than a full voyage around the world by way of the Equator.

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One century after the discovery, European powers such as England, the Netherlands and France were finally able to challenge and break Portugal’s monopoly and naval supremacy in the Cape Route around Africa, the Indian Ocean and in the Far East, opening a new era of European imperialism in the East.

After decades of sailors trying to reach the Indies with thousands of lives and dozens of vessels lost in shipwrecks and attacks, da Gama landed in Calicut on 20 May 1498. Reaching the legendary Indian spice routes unopposed helped the Portuguese Empire improve its economy that, until da Gama’s discovery, was based mainly on trading along northern and coastal West Africa. The spices obtained were mostly pepper and cinnamon at first, but soon included other products, all new to Europe and leading to a commercial monopoly for several decades.

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Da Gama’s fleet of four ships had a crew of 170 men when it set out from Lisbon. The navigators included Portugal’s most experienced, Pero de Alenquer, Pedro Escobar, João de Coimbra, and Afonso Gonçalves. It is not known for certain how many people were in each ship’s crew but approximately 55 returned, and two ships were lost. Two of the vessels were newly built for the voyage, possibly a caravel and a supply boat.

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The four ships were:

The São Gabriel, commanded by Vasco da Gama; a carrack of 178 tons, length 27 m, width 8.5 m, draft 2.3 m, sails of 372 m²

The São Rafael, whose commander was his brother Paulo da Gama; similar dimensions to the São Gabriel

The caravel Berrio, slightly smaller than the former two (later renamed São Miguel), commanded by Nicolau Coelho

A storage ship of unknown name, commanded by Gonçalo Nunes, later lost near the Bay of São Brás, along the east coast of Africa.

It is astonishing to imagine the small size of these vessels for a journey of such magnitude and danger. You wouldn’t get me to set sail in one, except maybe on a calm lake in June.

The expedition set sail from Lisbon on 8 July 1497. It followed the route pioneered by earlier explorers along the coast of Africa via Tenerife and the Cape Verde Islands. After reaching the coast of present day Sierra Leone, da Gama took a course south into the open ocean, crossing the Equator and seeking the South Atlantic westerlies that Bartolomeu Dias had discovered in 1487. This course proved successful and on 4 November 1497, the expedition made landfall on the African coast. For over three months the ships had sailed more than 10,000 kilometres (6,000 mi) of open ocean, by far the longest journey out of sight of land made by that time by Europeans.

By 16 December, the fleet had passed the Great Fish River (Eastern Cape, South Africa) – where Dias had turned back – and sailed into waters previously unknown to Europeans. With Christmas pending, da Gama and his crew gave the coast they were passing the name Natal, which carried the connotation of “birth of Christ” in Portuguese.

Vasco da Gama spent 2 to 29 March 1498 in the vicinity of Mozambique Island. Arab-controlled territory on the East African coast was an integral part of the network of trade in the Indian Ocean. Fearing the local population would be hostile to Christians, da Gama impersonated a Muslim and gained audience with the Sultan of Mozambique. With the paltry trade goods he had to offer, da Gama was unable to provide a suitable gift to the ruler and soon the local populace became suspicious of da Gama and his men. Forced by a hostile crowd to flee Mozambique, da Gama departed the harbor, firing his cannons into the city in retaliation.

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In the vicinity of modern Kenya, the expedition resorted to piracy, looting Arab merchant ships – generally unarmed trading vessels without heavy cannons. The Portuguese became the first known Europeans to visit the port of Mombasa 7th to 13 April 1498, but were met with hostility and soon departed.

Da Gama continued north, arriving at the friendlier port of Malindi on 14 April 1498 – whose leaders were then in conflict with those of Mombasa – and there the expedition first noted evidence of Indian traders. Da Gama and his crew contracted the services of a pilot whose knowledge of the monsoon winds allowed him to bring the expedition the rest of the way to Calicut, located on the southwest coast of India. Sources differ over the identity of the pilot, calling him variously a Christian, a Muslim, and a Gujarati. One traditional story describes the pilot as the famous Arab navigator Ibn Majid, but other contemporaneous accounts place Majid elsewhere, and it is now believed he could not have been near the vicinity at the time. Also, none of the Portuguese historians of the time mention Ibn Majid. Vasco da Gama left Malindi for India on 24 April 1498.

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The fleet arrived in Kappadu near Calicut, India, on 20 May 1498. The King of Calicut, the Samudiri (Zamorin), who was at that time staying in his second capital at Ponnani, returned to Calicut on hearing the news of the foreign fleet’s arrival. The navigator was received with traditional hospitality, including a grand procession of at least 3,000 armed Nairs, but an interview with the Zamorin failed to produce any concrete results. The presents that da Gama sent to the Zamorin as gifts from Dom Manuel—four cloaks of scarlet cloth, six hats, four branches of corals, twelve almasares, a box with seven brass vessels, a chest of sugar, two barrels of oil and a cask of honey—were trivial, and failed to impress. While Zamorin’s officials wondered at why there was no gold or silver, the Muslim merchants who considered da Gama their rival suggested that the latter was only an ordinary pirate and not a royal ambassador.

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Da Gama’s request for permission to leave a factor behind him in charge of the merchandise he could not sell was turned down by the King, who insisted that da Gama pay customs duty—preferably in gold—like any other trader, which strained the relation between the two. Annoyed by this, da Gama carried a few Nairs and sixteen fishermen (mukkuva) off with him by force. Nevertheless, da Gama’s expedition was successful beyond all reasonable expectation, bringing back cargo that was worth sixty times the cost of the expedition. His path would be followed up thereafter by yearly Portuguese India Armadas. The spice trade would prove to be a major asset to the Portuguese royal treasury and the sea route broke the monopoly of Asian Silk Road traders.

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Vindaloo is an Indian curry, popular in the region of Goa (and now worldwide), which evolved under many influences from a popular Portuguese pork stew made with wine and garlic, imported by Portuguese sailors. The word “vindaloo” is a corruption of the Portuguese “carne de vinha d’alhos” (meat in wine and garlic). The dish was adapted in India to local ingredients and tastes. There was no wine in India, but Franciscan priests fermented wine vinegar from local palm wine. Local ingredients like tamarind, black pepper, cinnamon, and cardamom were also incorporated along with chile peppers – a legacy of Portugal’s global empire – imported to India from the Americas.

Nowadays vindaloo is well known across Europe and the Western world but has become a rather generic curry with a little more heat than most, but otherwise undistinguished. I prefer to make mine with the sourness of vinegar and tamarind prominent, although I will admit to using commercial vindaloo pastes suitably doctored. Pork is still common in Goa because the Goanese were converted to Christianity and, therefore, had no prohibitions against it.

I suggest the following recipe from memory. Vary the spices as you see fit but make sure you include tamarind.

©Pork Vindaloo

Place in a food processor 1 cup of white wine vinegar, a 2″ piece of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped, 1 teaspoon of lightly roasted cumin seeds, 1 teaspoon of poppy seeds, 10 whole black peppercorns, 6 red chiles (fresh or dried), 4 whole cloves, 1 tablespoon of tamarind paste, 1 teaspoon of ground turmeric, 8 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped, ½ cup of vegetable oil, 1 teaspoon of black mustard seeds, and 1 stick of cinnamon (Malabar if you can get it) broken in pieces. Pulse until you have a smooth paste.

Place the paste in a sealable bag along with 1 kg of pork cut into cubes. Boneless pork shoulder is cheap and works well. It can be reasonably, but not too, fatty. Seal up the bag leaving a small air hole. Squeeze out as much air as possible and then seal completely. Shake the bag around so that the pork is fully coated with the marinade and refrigerate over night.

Jan 062015
 

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Today is Epiphany. In Western Christianity, the feast commemorates principally (but not solely) the visit of the Magi to the Christ child in Bethlehem. Eastern Christians commemorate the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, seen as his manifestation to the world as the Son of God. These differences are reflected in the ways in which the feast is celebrated in East and West, liturgically and secularly. In some traditions Epiphany represents the start of the Carnival season (sometimes called the Epiphany season) as an extension of Christmas, lasting until Ash Wednesday

Although the Magi are often referred to as “kings,” as in the carol “We Three Kings”, a better translation of the original Greek, magoi, is magician. In this case, given that they were following a star to Bethlehem it may be better to think of them astrologers. The story of their journey (Matthew 2:1-12 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew%202&version=ESV ) makes no mention of their number. The assumption that there were three of them stems from the fact that they brought three gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh (assigning one gift to each). But there could have been 2 or 10 of them bearing the gifts jointly. They are usually given the names Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar, with increasingly elaborate tales told about their lives. Of course, none of this is Biblical.

On the Feast of the Epiphany in some parts of central Europe the priest, wearing white vestments, blesses Epiphany water, frankincense, gold, and chalk. The chalk is used to write the initials of the three magi over the doors of churches and homes. The letters stand for the initials of the Magi, and also the phrase Christus mansionem benedicat, which translates as “may Christ bless the house”.

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Today in Eastern Orthodox churches, the emphasis of this feast is on the shining forth and revelation of Jesus Christ as the Messiah and Second Person of the Trinity at the time of his baptism. It is also celebrated because, according to tradition, the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River by John the Baptist marked one of only two occasions when all three Persons of the Trinity manifested themselves simultaneously to humanity: God the Father by speaking through the clouds, God the Son being baptized in the river, and God the Holy Spirit in the shape of a dove descending from heaven (the other occasion was the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor). Thus the holy day is considered to be a Trinitarian feast.

Epiphany is celebrated with a wide array of customs around the world. There are way too many traditional customs for me to recount here, so I’ll mention a few.

In much of Latin America (including Argentina), the day is called “Día de los Reyes” (The Day of Kings) or some variant, commemorating the arrival of the Magi to confirm Jesus as son of God. The night of January 5 into the morning of January 6 is known as “Noche de Reyes” (The Night of Kings) and children leave their shoes by the door, along with grass and water for the camels. In the morning of January 6, they get a present, usually sweet things filling their shoes. In times past, Día de los Reyes was the day for presents and not Christmas Day. My sisters and I used to do this as children in Buenos Aires, and so I did it when I lived there even though I am an adult. Even now gift giving is not a major element of Christmas in Argentina. But the tradition of Santa at Christmas in Latin American countries in general has slowly become more common. On January 6, a version of “Rosca de Reyes” (a ring-shaped Epiphany cake) is eaten. These are more commonly bought at bakeries rather than made at home.

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The Dutch and Flemish call this day Driekoningen, while German speakers call it Dreikönigstag (Three Kings’ Day). In the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and neighboring Germany, children in groups of three (symbolizing the three kings) proceed in costume from house to house while singing songs typical for the occasion, and receiving a coin or some sweets at each door. They may each carry a paper lantern symbolizing the star. In some places, especially Holland, these troops gather for competitions and present their skits/songs for an audience. As in Belgium, Koningentaart (Kings’ tart), puff pastry with almond filling, is prepared with a black bean hidden inside. Whoever finds the bean in his or her piece is king or queen for the day. A more typically Dutch version is Koningenbrood, or Kings’ bread. Another Low Countries tradition on Epiphany is to open up doors and windows to let good luck in for the coming year.

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In England Epiphany, where it is still celebrated, has adopted the customs once traditional for Twelfth Night (see http://www.bookofdaystales.com/twelfth-night/ ) The Twelfth Cake has migrated, for example. Unique to English tradition is that other items were sometimes included in the cake besides the bean and pea. Whoever found the clove was the villain, the twig, the fool, and the rag, the tart. Anything spicy or hot, like ginger snaps and spiced ale, was considered proper Twelfth Night fare, recalling the costly spices brought by the Wise Men. Another English Epiphany dessert was the jam tart, but made into a six-point star for the occasion to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem, and thus called Epiphany tart. The discerning English cook sometimes tried to use thirteen different colored jams on the tart on this day for luck, creating a dessert with the appearance of stained glass.

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In France people share one of two types of king cake. In the northern half of France and Belgium the cake is called a galette des Rois, and is a round, flat, and golden cake made with flake pastry and often filled with frangipane, fruit, or chocolate.

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In the south, in Provence, and in the south-west, a crown-shaped cake or brioche filled with fruit called a gâteau des Rois is eaten. Both types of cake contain a charm, usually a porcelain or plastic figurine, called a fève (bean in French). The cake is cut by the youngest (and therefore most innocent) person at the table to assure that the recipient of the bean is random. The person who gets the piece of cake with the trinket becomes “king” or “queen” and wears a paper crown provided with the cake. This person has a choice between offering a beverage to everyone around the table (usually a sparkling wine or champagne), or volunteering to host the next king cake at their home. Originally this custom was performed every Sunday until Lent.

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In parts of southern India, Epiphany is called the Three Kings Festival and is celebrated in front of the local church like a fair. Families come together and cook sweet rice porridge called Pongal. This day marks the close of the Advent and Christmas season and people remove the cribs and nativity sets at home. In Goa Epiphany may be locally known by its Portuguese name Festa dos Reis. Celebrations include a widely Panjim. Other popular Epiphany processions are held in Chandor. Here three young boys in regal robes and splendid crowns descend the nearby hill of Our Lady of Mercy on horseback towards the main church where a three-hour festival Mass is celebrated. The route before them is decorated with streamers, palm leaves and balloons with the smallest children present lining the way, shouting greetings to the Kings. The Kings are traditionally chosen, one each, from Chandor’s three hamlets of Kott, Cavorim and Gurdolim, whose residents helped build the Chandor church in 1645.

Epiphany, The THree KIngs arrive in Salcete, Goa, India

In the past the kings were chosen only from among high-caste families, but since 1946 the celebration has been open to all. Participation is still expensive as it involves getting a horse, costumes, and providing a lavish buffet to the community afterwards, in all totaling some 100,000 rupees (about US$2,250) per king. This is undertaken gladly since having son serve as a king is considered a great honor and a blessing on the family.

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The Saint Thomas Christians of Kerala State, Epiphany is known by its Syriac name Denha. Saint Thomas Christians, like other Eastern Christians, celebrate Denha as a great feast to commemorate the Baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan. The liturgical season Denhakalam (“Weeks of Epiphany”) commemorates the second revelation at the Baptism and the subsequent public life of Jesus. Denha is celebrated on January 6 by the Syro-Malabar Church, the largest Church of the Thomas Christians, in two ways – Pindiperunnal (“Plantain trunk feast”) and Rakkuliperunal (“Feast with a night bath”).

The Irish call Epiphany the Feast of the Epiphany or traditionally Little Christmas or “Women’s Christmas” (Irish: Nollaig na mBan). On the feast of the Three Kings, women traditionally rested and celebrated for themselves after the cooking and work of the Christmas holidays. The custom was for women to gather on this day for a special meal, but on the occasion of Epiphany accompanied by wine, to honor the Miracle at the Wedding at Cana.[citation needed] Today, women may dine at a restaurant or gather in a pub in the evening. They may also receive gifts from children, grandchildren or other family members on this day. Other Epiphany customs, which symbolize the end of the Christmas season, are popular in Ireland, such as the burning the sprigs of Christmas holly in the fireplace which have been used as decorations during the past twelve days.

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These are king cakes of the type locally called “French style” on display at the chain bakery/restaurant “La Madeline” branch in Carrollton, New Orleans. They come with cardboard “crowns” to be worn by whoever gets the slice with the token and becomes monarch of the event.

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In Louisiana, Epiphany is the beginning of the Carnival season, during which it is customary to bake King Cakes, similar to the Rosca mentioned above. It is round in shape, filled with cinnamon, glazed white, and coated in traditional carnival color sanding sugar. The person who finds the doll (or bean) must provide the next king cake. The interval between Epiphany and Mardi Gras is sometimes known as “king cake season”, and many may be consumed during this period. The Carnival season begins on King’s Day (Epiphany), and there are many traditions associated with that day in Louisiana and along the Catholic coasts of Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. King cakes are first sold then, Carnival krewes begin having their balls on that date, and the first New Orleans krewe parades in street cars that night.

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Tarpon Springs, Florida is known for elaborate religious ceremonies related to the Greek Orthodox Church, the most notable being the Epiphany celebration. The Metropolitan of Atlanta usually presides over the blessings, sometimes joined by the Archbishop of America. The blessings conclude with the ceremonial throwing of a wooden cross into the city’s Spring Bayou, and boys ages 16 to 18 diving in to retrieve it. Whoever recovers the cross is said to be blessed for a full year. Following the blessings, the celebration moves to the Sponge Docks where food and music are made part of the festivities. Tarpon Springs has given itself the nickname Epiphany City.The celebration attracts Greek Americans from across the country, and the city’s population is known to triple in size for that day.

In Manitou Springs, Colorado, Epiphany is marked by the Great Fruitcake Toss. Fruitcakes are thrown, participants dress as kings, fools, etc., and competitions are held for the farthest throw, the most creative projectile device, etc. As with customs in other countries, the fruitcake toss is a sort of festive symbolic leave-taking of the Christmas holidays until next year, but with humorous twist, since fruitcake (although the traditional Christmas bread of America, England and other English speaking nations) is considered in the United States with a certain degree of derision, and is the source of many jokes. I do understand why, however. U.S. fruitcake is vile. Not unlike U.S. beer, also vile –pallid and tasteless.. No one in the U.S. who has tasted my (English) fruitcake objects. Don’t get me started.

I gave a recipe for Twelfth cake yesterday which can be used for an Epiphany cake too.  In most countries I know of people buy them from bakers.  So here’s a little gallery.

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Oct 022013
 

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Today is the birthday (1869) of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, usually known as ‘Mahatma’ (Sanskrit for ‘great soul’ or ‘venerable’), Indian leader and proponent of civil disobedience and pacifism as a means of revolution. Gandhi was the preeminent leader of Indian nationalism in British-ruled India. Employing non-violent resistance to colonialism, Gandhi led India to independence, and inspired movements for civil rights and freedom across the world. In 2007, the United Nations General Assembly declared Gandhi’s birthday, 2 October, as the International Day of Non-Violence. In India the day is commemorated as Gandhi Jayanti, a national holiday.

Gandhi was born and raised in a Hindu, merchant caste family in Gujarat on the west coast of India. At 13 years old Gandhi was married to 14 year old Kasturbai Makhanji in an arranged child marriage, according to the custom of the region at the time. Recalling the day of their marriage, he once said, “As we didn’t know much about marriage, for us it meant only wearing new clothes, eating sweets and playing with relatives.” In 1885, when Gandhi was 15, the couple’s first child was born, but survived only a few days.  They went on to have four more children, all sons.

A portrait of Mahatma Gandhi when he was seven years old.

In 1888, Gandhi traveled to London to study law, and trained as a barrister at the Inner Temple. Curiously, it was his time in England that first stirred his interest in Indian spirituality. He had made a vow to his mother, in the presence of a Jain monk, to observe the precepts of abstinence from meat and alcohol as well as from promiscuity while in England. But he had a hard job surviving on his landlady’s bland vegetables until he found a vegetarian restaurant in London, which in turn led him to the Vegetarian Society. Some of the vegetarians he met were members of the Theosophical Society which was devoted to the study of Buddhist and Hindu literature. They encouraged Gandhi to join them in reading the Bhagavad Gita both in translation as well as in the original. A tremendous irony that Gandhi was led to Indian spiritual traditions by Englishmen.

Gandhi was called to the bar in June 1891 and then left London for India, where he learned that his mother had died while he was in England and that his family had kept the news from him. His attempts at establishing a law practice in Bombay failed because he was too shy to speak up in court. He returned to his home to make a modest living drafting petitions for litigants, but he was forced to close it when he ran afoul of a British officer. In 1893, he accepted a year-long contract from Dada Abdulla & Co., an Indian firm, in the Colony of Natal in South Africa, then part of the British Empire.

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Gandhi was 24 when he arrived in Pretoria to work as a legal representative for the Muslim Indian Traders based there. He spent 21 years in South Africa, where he developed his political views and political leadership skills. At the time Indians in South Africa consisted largely of wealthy Muslims, who employed Gandhi as a lawyer, and impoverished Hindu indentured laborers with very limited rights. Gandhi considered them all to be Indians, taking a lifetime view that “Indian-ness” transcended religion and caste. He believed he could bridge historic differences, especially regarding religion, and he took that belief back to India where he tried to implement it. The South African experience exposed Gandhi to social and political issues that he was unaware of. He realized he was out of contact with the enormous complexities of religious and cultural life in India, and believed he understood India by getting to know and leading Indians in South Africa.

In South Africa, Gandhi faced the discrimination directed at all people of color there. Once he was thrown off a train at Pietermaritzburg after refusing to move from the first-class. On another occasion he was beaten by the driver of a stagecoach for refusing to move to make room for a European passenger. Such events were a turning point in Gandhi’s life and awakened him to social injustice, prompting his move to social activism. After witnessing racism, prejudice and injustice against Indians in South Africa, Gandhi began to question his place in society and his people’s standing in the British Empire. He also began developing his ideas concerning non-violent action and civil disobedience often in the face of threatened violence against him by white settlers.

After his return to India in 1915, he set about organizing peasants, farmers, and urban laborers to protest against excessive land-tax and discrimination. Assuming leadership of the Indian National Congress in 1921, Gandhi led nationwide campaigns for easing poverty, expanding women’s rights, building religious and ethnic amity, and ending the status of the untouchables. In the process he evolved his own concept of Swaraj or self-rule.

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Gandhi’s first major achievements came in 1918 with the Champaran and Kheda agitations of Bihar and Gujarat. The Champaran agitation pitted the local peasantry against their largely British landlords who were backed by the local administration. The peasantry was forced to grow Indigo, a cash crop whose demand had been declining over two decades, and were forced to sell their crops to the planters at a fixed price. Unhappy with this, the peasantry appealed to Gandhi at his ashram in Ahmedabad. Pursuing a strategy of non-violent protest, Gandhi took the administration by surprise and won concessions from the authorities.

In 1918, Kheda was hit by floods and famine and the peasantry was demanding relief from taxes. Gandhi moved his headquarters to Nadiad, organizing scores of supporters and fresh volunteers from the region. Using non-co-operation as a technique, Gandhi initiated a signature campaign whereby peasants pledged non-payment of revenue even under the threat of confiscation of land. A social boycott of mamlatdars and talatdars (Indian revenue officials within the district) accompanied the agitation. Gandhi worked hard to win public support for the agitation across the country. For five months, the administration refused but finally at the end of May 1918, the Government gave way on important provisions and relaxed the conditions of payment of revenue tax until the famine ended.

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In 1920, Gandhi had the base of support to employ non-co-operation, non-violence, and peaceful resistance as his weapons in the struggle against the British Raj. His wide popularity among both Hindus and Muslims greatly enhanced his leadership possible  He even convinced the extremists within the Muslims to support peaceful non-co-operation. The spark that ignited a national protest was overwhelming anger at the Jallianwala Bagh massacre (or Amritsar massacre) of hundreds of peaceful civilian demonstrators by British troops in the Punjab. Many Britons celebrated the action as necessary to prevent another violent uprising similar to the Rebellion of 1857. Gandhi criticized both the actions of the British Raj and the retaliatory violence of Indians. He authored the resolution offering condolences to British civilian victims and condemning the riots which, after initial opposition in the party, was accepted following Gandhi’s emotional speech advocating his principle that all violence was evil and could not be justified.

After the massacre and subsequent violence, Gandhi began to focus on winning complete self-government and control of all Indian government institutions, maturing soon into his concept of Swaraj or complete individual, spiritual, and political independence. During this period, Gandhi claimed to be a “highly orthodox Hindu” and in January 1921 during a speech at a temple in Vadtal, he spoke of the relevance of non-co-operation to Hindu Dharma, “At this holy place, I declare, if you want to protect your ‘Hindu Dharma,’ non-cooperation is first as well as the last lesson you must learn up.”

Gandhi famously led Indians in challenging the British-imposed salt tax with the Dandi Salt March in 1930. He was joined by thousands of Indians as he marched the 388 kilometers (241 mi) from Ahmedabad to Dandi in Gujarat to make salt himself. This campaign was one of his most successful at upsetting British hold on India. Britain responded by imprisoning over 60,000 people.

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Gandhi strongly favored the emancipation of women, and once said that “women have come to look upon me as one of themselves.” He opposed purdah, child marriage, untouchability, and the extreme oppression of Hindu widows. He especially recruited women to participate in the salt tax campaigns and the boycott of foreign products. Gandhi’s success in enlisting women in his campaigns, including the salt tax campaign, anti-untouchability campaign, and the peasant movement, gave many women a new self-confidence and dignity in the mainstream of Indian public life as well as bolstering popular support for his campaigns.

Gandhi’s vision of a free India based on religious pluralism, however, was challenged in the early 1940s by a new Muslim nationalism which was demanding a separate Muslim homeland carved out of India. Eventually, in August 1947, Britain granted independence, and the British Indian Empire was partitioned into two dominions, a Hindu-majority India and Muslim Pakistan.  As many displaced Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs made their way to their new lands, religious violence broke out, especially in the Punjab and Bengal. Gandhi did not participate in the official celebrations of independence in Delhi and instead visited the affected areas, attempting to provide solace. In the months following, he undertook several “fasts unto death” to promote religious harmony. The last of these, undertaken on 12 January 1948 at age 78, also had the indirect goal of pressuring India to pay out some cash assets owed to Pakistan. Some Hindu Indians thought Gandhi was too accommodating to Muslims, however. Among them was Nathuram Godse, a Hindu nationalist, who assassinated Gandhi on 30 January 1948 by firing three bullets into his chest at point-blank range.

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Although Gandhi was not the originator of the principle of non-violence, he was the first to apply it in the political field on a large scale. The concepts of nonviolence (ahimsa) and nonresistance have a long history in Indian religious thought and have had many revivals in Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Jewish and Christian contexts. Gandhi explains his philosophy and way of life in his autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Some of his remarks are widely quoted: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” and “There are many causes that I am prepared to die for but no causes that I am prepared to kill for.”

Gujarati cuisine, from Gandhi’s home state, is primarily vegetarian (despite having an extensive coastline for seafood) due to the influence of Jainism and Hinduism. The typical Gujarati main meal consists of roti (flatbread), dahl (lentils), rice, and some kind of curried vegetables, with a few side dishes and condiments. Gujarati cuisine varies widely in flavor and heat, depending on a given family’s tastes as well as the region of Gujarat they are from. Many Gujarati dishes are distinctively sweet, salty, and spicy at the same time.

Traditionally Indian dishes from all regions were flavored using various combinations of spices, giving each dish a unique taste. It used to be very difficult to get many of the necessary ingredients in Europe and North America, but with increasing populations of Indian and Pakistani immigrants there now it is much easier to make authentic curries. Gone are the bad old days when a cook had to rely on something generic labeled “curry powder.”  This culinary atrocity should not be confused with blends and pastes that are available nowadays that replicate spice combinations from various regions of India. Many of these are very good and, in fact, are now widely used in Indian kitchens, although purists still blend their own.

Here is my recipe for dry potato curry which is a personal favorite. The secret lies in the repeated boiling dry of the pan which infuses the potatoes with the spices and gives them a crisp coating in the end. Garam masala is essential for this dish. It is a blend of spices that can be found in good supermarkets or online. You can also make this curry with a mix of cauliflower and potato, or peas and potato.

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Dry Potato Curry

Ingredients:

30 g ghee or clarified butter (or vegetable oil)
½ tsp mustard seeds
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 tbsps coriander
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp paprika
1 ½ tsps salt, or to taste
4 -6 potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 tbsp garam masala
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp chopped cilantro or scallions

Instructions:

Use a large heavy skillet.  Heat the ghee over medium heat. Fry the mustard seeds until they pop.

Add the onion, coriander, turmeric, paprika, and salt and fry for 2 to 3 minutes or until the onions are soft.

Add the potatoes and about ¼ cup of water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, and let boil dry. Add another ¼ cup of water and repeat the process.  Do this three times or more until the potatoes are cooked through. Stir the potatoes periodically during the cooking process to prevent sticking. At the very end sprinkle the potatoes with the garam masala, add lemon juice, and stir well over high heat.

Garnish with chopped cilantro (or scallions) and serve.

Serves 6 or more as a side dish

Jun 142013
 

Nilakantha Somayaji   Nilak Tantrasamgraha
Today is the birthday of Kellular Nilakantha Somayaji brilliant mathematician and astronomer from South Malabar in India – one of a growing number of non-Western scholars who are being “discovered” by modern academicians and accorded their due as forerunners of the so-called Enlightenment in the West (see my post on Ibn Khaldoun: May 27).  I am reminded of a much loved blogger, Pip Wilson, whose Book of Days provided me much information on anniversaries before it went belly up.  Instead of the Euro-centric expression “when Captain Cook discovered the SE coast of Australia,” he would write “when aborigines discovered Captain Cook.”

We know quite a few details about Nilakantha’s life because he was, unlike his contemporaries, careful to document many autobiographical details.  So, for example, he notes in Siddhanta-darpana that he was born on Kali-day 1,660,181 which works out to 14th June 1444. His date of death is not known, but one commentator says he was at least 100 years old when he died.  Nilakantha was born into a Namputiri Brahmin family which came from South Malabar in Kerala, in the south of India. The family followed the Ashvalayana sutra which was a manual of sacrificial ceremonies in the Rigveda, a collection of Vedic hymns. He worshipped the personified deity Soma who was the “master of plants” and the healer of disease. This explains the name Somayaji which means he was from a family qualified to conduct the Soma sacrificial rituals, and probably at some time in his life went through a series of these rituals to earn the title.

In Nilakantha’s time the study of astronomy was one of the six orthodox Hindu sacred teachings, and so lay somewhere between what we would call astronomy and astrology today.  Studying the motions of the planets was not simply a scientific investigation, but a means of predicting and setting the times and dates for significant rituals and life events.  He became a member of the now famous Kerala School of Astronomy and Mathematics which flourished between the 14th and 16th centuries, and which produced a number of significant mathematical findings well before they were discovered in the West.  These findings never found their way outside of Kerala at the time, however, although there are occasional far-fetched speculations that they reached the West via traders.

In all, Nilakantha wrote 10 treatises on astronomy and mathematical computation, a few of which have survived. The most extensive is the Tantrasamgraha, completed in 1501, which consists of 432 verses in Sanskrit divided into eight chapters, and which spawned a number of commentaries, also extant.  The work, plus commentaries, shows the depths of the mathematical accomplishments of the Kerala School, including Nilakantha’s model for the motions of the planets Mercury and Venus. His equations remained the most accurate until the time of Johannes Kepler in the 17th century. He was very close to describing a heliocentric view of the solar system.  His model has Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn orbiting the sun, but has the sun orbiting the earth.  The work also includes a wealth of information on topics ranging from the prediction of lunar and solar eclipses, to accurate calculations of the solar calendar, along with descriptions of the mathematics needed to arrive at their conclusions.  Among these latter are algebraic and geometric theorems that form the basis for differential and integral calculus, although the Kerala School never got that far. Much of the mathematics in the treatise predates Western discoveries in these fields by 200 years.

Several other of Nilakantha’s works survive although they are much shorter.  Among them is the Aryabhatiyabhasya which is a commentary on the astronomical calculations of Aryabhata. In this work Nilakantha refers to two eclipses which he observed, the first on 6 March 1467 and the second on 28 July 1501 at Anantaksetra. Nilakantha also refers in the Aryabhatiyabhasya to other works which he wrote such as the Grahanirnaya on eclipses which have not survived.  The Western world of mathematics and science is finally giving credit to pioneers in their fields in the non-Western world. It is well overdue for the general public also to accept the fact that the Western world has made many significant discoveries in these fields but was by no means the first for many of them.  Nilakantha Samayaji should be as well known a name as Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton.

Kerala was the center of the spice trade for millennia and, as such, has a rich and diverse cuisine to this day, including both vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes.  Here is a simple vegetarian curry with spices and coconut milk. It would normally be served with anywhere up to 10 or more dishes with rice as part of a large family dinner.

Kerala Vegetable Curry

Ingredients

1lb (½ k) potatoes peeled and diced
½ cup (75 g) peas
½ cup (75 g)  carrot peeled and diced
1 large onion thinly sliced
5 green chiles cut into thin slivers
¼ tsp (1 g) powdered cloves
1 tsp (5 g) powdered cinnamon
1 tbsp (15 g) grated fresh ginger
2 tbsp coconut oil
1 cup (2.4 dl) coconut milk
ground black pepper and salt to taste

Instructions:

Put all the ingredients except the coconut milk and coconut oil into a heavy cooking pot.

Add 3/4 cup water. Bring to a boil.

Cover the pot and simmer on medium heat for 5 to 10 minutes.  The potatoes should be cooked but still firm.

Remove the lid and continue cooking until there is barely any liquid left.

Add the coconut milk and simmer over a low flame for 2 minutes.

Add the coconut oil, stir to mix and serve.

Serves 4 to 6 (as part of a larger set of dishes)