Jan 142020
 

Today is Maghi (or some variant), in many parts of the Indian subcontinent and SE Asia. It is an annual festival on the first day of the month of Magha in the Bikrami calendar, when the sun enters the sign of Makara or Capricorn. The eve of Maghi is called Lohri (http://www.bookofdaystales.com/lohri/ ). It is one of the seasonal gatherings of the Sikhs, and is celebrated at Muktsar in the memory of forty Sikh martyrs (Chalis Mukte), who once deserted the tenth and last human Guru of Sikhism, Guru Gobind Singh at Anandpur Sahib, but later rejoined the Guru and died while fighting the Mughal Empire army led by Wazir Khan in 1705. Sikhs make a pilgrimage to the site of this Sikh-Muslim war, and take a dip in the sacred water tanks of Muktsar. A fair (mela) called the Mela Maghi is held at Muktsar Sahib every year in memory of the forty Sikh martyrs. Before this tradition started to commemorate the Sikh martyrs, the festival was observed and mentioned by Guru Amar Das, the third Guru of Sikhism.

Makar Sankranti (or Pongal) is celebrated on this date in other parts of the Indian subcontinent by Hindus, always on the first day of the month of Magha in the Bikrami calendar. Hindus bathe in the Ganges or if that is not possible, in some other river, rivulet, canal or pond.

Maghi is celebrated by eating kheer such as roh di kheer which is an old dish in which rice is cooked in sugarcane juice. The dish is prepared in the evening before Maghi and is kept overnight to cool. It is served cold next morning on Maghi with red-pepper mixed curd. In some parts of Punjab, it is also traditional to eat kichdi (rice and moong beans) mixed with lentils, or raw sugarcane and jaggery.

Here’s a great video on preparing roh di kheer in a traditional Punjabi kitchen:

Dec 152019
 

Today is the birthday (37CE) of the Roman emperor Nero (Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), the last Roman emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. He was adopted by his great-uncle Claudius (on the urging of his mother Agrippina the Younger), who was Claudius’ fourth wife, and became Claudius’ heir and successor. Agrippina may have hastened Nero’s inheritance by poisoning Claudius, but the evidence is not clear. Nero became emperor at the age of 16, and during the early years of his reign, Nero was content to be guided by his mother, his tutor Lucius Annaeus Seneca, and his Praetorian prefect Sextus Afranius Burrus. There is no question that Agrippina was a scheming, powerful woman, and her ambition seems to have been to rule Rome by making sure her son became emperor at a young age, so that she could hold sway as dowager. After five years of this, however, Nero had her killed so that he could rule in his own right.

I had to mull things over for several years before deciding in favor of celebrating Nero on his birthday because I have a tacit rule against posting about unpleasant people. In reviewing Nero’s life and career carefully, I have decided to give him his moment in the sun, not because he was a wonderful man and emperor, but because he was not all bad, and he was certainly not as bad as history paints him. He was about average for his time and culture.  The main contemporary historians, Suetonius, Tacitus, and Cassio Dio associate Nero’s rule with tyranny and extravagance. They offer overwhelmingly negative assessments of his personality and reign. Tacitus, for example, claims that the Roman people thought him compulsive and corrupt. Suetonius reports that many Romans believed that the Great Fire of Rome http://www.bookofdaystales.com/great-fire-of-rome/  was instigated by Nero to clear the way for his planned palatial complex, the Domus Aurea.

If you read my post on the fire you will see that I believe that Tacitus tried to be even handed about Nero and the fire, although his dislike of him shows through.  He does acknowledge that the legend of Nero playing the lyre whilst the city burned was certainly false, and he notes that he opened up his own personal lands for the dispossessed, and prevented the price gouging of food in the aftermath of the fire to protect the poor. Yet Tacitus also seems to accept the belief that Nero had the fire started so that he could rebuild the city to his own liking, including a massive palatial structure and gardens.  According to Tacitus, Nero was said to have seized Christians as scapegoats for the fire and burned them alive, seemingly motivated not by public justice but by personal cruelty.

Modern judgment of Nero is more measured.  There is evidence of his popularity among the Roman commoners, especially in the eastern provinces of the Empire, where a popular legend arose that Nero had not died and would return. At least three leaders of short-lived, failed rebellions presented themselves as “Nero reborn” to enlist popular support. It seems to be the case that Nero made many enemies among the ruling classes, but was mostly liked by the average citizens.  It is not average citizens who write histories, however, nor do they have great influence over the opinions of high-born historians.

After his mother’s death, Nero started to play a more active and independent role in government and foreign policy. During his reign, general Corbulo conducted a successful war and negotiated peace with the Parthian Empire. His general Suetonius Paulinus crushed a major revolt in Britain, led by the Iceni queen, Boudica. In 59, Prasutagus, leader of the Iceni, and a client king of Rome’s during Claudius’ reign, died. The client state arrangement was unlikely to survive the death of Claudius. Prasutagus’ will leaving control of the Iceni to his wife Boudica was denied, and, when procurator Catus Decianus scourged Boudica and raped her daughters, the Iceni revolted. They were joined by the Trinovantes, and their uprising became the most significant provincial rebellion of the 1st century CE. Under Boudica the towns of Camulodunum (Colchester), Londinium (London) and Verulamium (St Albans) were burned and a substantial percentage of legion infantry killed. Suetonius Paulinus, governor of Britannia, assembled his remaining forces, defeated the Britons, and restored order. But for a while Nero considered abandoning the province. Julius Classicianus replaced Decianus as procurator. Classicianus advised Nero to replace Paulinus, who continued to punish the population even after the rebellion was over. Nero decided to adopt a more lenient approach to governing the province, and appointed a new governor, Petronius Turpilianus.

Nero focused much of his attention on diplomacy, trade and the cultural life of the empire, ordering theatres built and promoting athletic games. He made public appearances as an actor, poet, musician and charioteer. In the eyes of traditionalists, this undermined the dignity and authority of his person, status, and office. His extravagant, empire-wide program of public and private works was funded by an increase in taxes that was much resented by the upper classes. In contrast, his populist style of rule remained very popular among the lower classes of Rome and the provinces until his death and beyond. Various plots against his life were revealed; the ringleaders, most of them Nero’s own courtiers, were executed.

In 68 CE, Vindex, governor of the Gaulish territory Gallia Lugdunensis, rebelled. He was supported by Galba, the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis. Vindex’s revolt failed in its immediate aim, but Nero fled Rome when Rome’s discontented civil and military authorities chose Galba as emperor. Nero fled Rome with the intention of going to the port of Ostia and, from there, to take a fleet to one of the still-loyal eastern provinces. According to Suetonius, Nero abandoned the idea when some army officers openly refused to obey his commands, responding with a line from Virgil’s Aeneid: “Is it so dreadful a thing then to die?” Nero then toyed with the idea of fleeing to Parthia, throwing himself upon the mercy of Galba, or appealing to the people and begging them to pardon him for his past offences “and if he could not soften their hearts, to entreat them at least to allow him the prefecture of Egypt”. Suetonius reports that the text of this speech was later found in Nero’s writing desk, but that he dared not give it from fear of being torn to pieces before he could reach the Forum.

Nero returned to Rome and spent the evening in the palace. After sleeping, he awoke at about midnight to find the palace guard had left. Dispatching messages to his friends’ palace chambers for them to come, he received no answers. Upon going to their chambers personally, he found them all abandoned. When he called for a gladiator or anyone else adept with a sword to kill him, no one appeared. He shouted, “Have I neither friend nor foe?” and ran out as if to throw himself into the Tiber. Returning, Nero sought a place where he could hide and collect his thoughts. An imperial freedman, Phaon, offered his villa, located 4 mi (6.4 km) outside the city. Travelling in disguise, Nero and four loyal freedmen, Epaphroditos, Phaon, Neophytus, and Sporus, reached the villa, where Nero ordered them to dig a grave for him.

At this time, a courier arrived with a report that the Senate had declared Nero a public enemy, that it was their intention to execute him by beating him to death, and that armed men had been sent to apprehend him for the act to take place in the Roman Forum. The Senate actually was still reluctant and deliberating on the right course of action, as Nero was the last member of the Julio-Claudian family. Indeed, most of the senators had served the imperial family all their lives and felt a sense of loyalty to the deified bloodline, if not to Nero himself. The men actually had the goal of returning Nero back to the Senate, where the Senate hoped to work out a compromise with the rebelling governors that would preserve Nero’s life, so that at least a future heir to the dynasty could be produced. Nero, however, did not know this, and at the news brought by the courier, he prepared himself for suicide, pacing up and down muttering Qualis artifex pereo (“What an artist dies in me”). Losing his nerve, he begged one of his companions to set an example by killing himself first.

At last, the sound of approaching horsemen drove Nero to face the end. However, he still could not bring himself to take his own life but instead he forced his private secretary, Epaphroditos, to do the deed. When one of the horsemen entered and saw that Nero was dying, he attempted to stop the bleeding, but efforts to save Nero’s life were unsuccessful. Nero’s final words were “Too late! This is fidelity!” He died on 9th June 68, the anniversary of the death of his wife, Octavia, and was buried in the Mausoleum of the Domitii Ahenobarbi, in what is now the Villa Borghese (Pincian Hill) area of Rome. His death ended the Julio-Claudian dynasty, sparking a brief period of civil wars known as the Year of the Four Emperors.

It is the third Sunday of Advent today (2019), so I have hauled out this quasi-recipe from when I was living in Lombardy at this time of year.  Lentils were common in ancient Rome, and this would have worked for Nero’s chefs:

I had no idea what to make for dinner this evening, so I went out to the market to get some ideas. By chance I found a piece of meat called “reale di vitello” which is obviously veal, but I had no idea what cut. A lot of digging eventually uncovered the fact that “reale,” which can mean “real” or “royal,” is a cut of veal similar to chuck in beef. So I treated it the same way with slow braising. To make it suitable for Christmas I used a braising stock laced with allspice and ginger. For accompaniment I made lentils with the usual additions – mushrooms and leeks – but I added sultanas, as well as some allspice, ginger, and hot pepper. It’s just a spur of the moment thing, but may give you some ideas.

May 282018
 

Today is Republic Day in Nepal commemorating the creation of the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal on May 28th, 2008. The establishment of the republic put an end to civil strife that had lasted for years. For some reason, today is (or was) a republican holiday in many nations. I’ve posted about 2 of them already:

http://www.bookofdaystales.com/first-republic-armenia/

http://www.bookofdaystales.com/azerbaijan-republic-day/

Modern Nepal was created in 1768, when Prithvi Narayan Shah conquered the Kathmandu Valley and formed a unified country from a number of small independent states (which continue to maintain separate ethnicities). In 1846, maharaja Jung Bahadur Rana founded the Rana dynasty that ruled the country until 1951. Prime Minister and other government positions were made hereditary and the monarch had no real power. Dissatisfaction with the Rana regime led to the 1951 revolution which ended the Rana oligarchy. Initially Nepal was a constitutional monarchy, but in 1960 King Mahendra suspended the constitution and became an absolute monarch. When his son Birendra ascended to the throne, he carried out some democratic reforms.

In 1991, the first elected government of Nepal in 32 years was formed. However, the new government’s policy led to an economic crisis. Civil strife of the early 1990s eventually transformed into a full-scale civil war. As a result of the war, Nepal was proclaimed a republic on May 28, 2008. This put an end to the 240-year-old monarchy.

To mark this day the government of Nepal declared the day a public holiday. The main Republic Day celebration is held in the national capital, Kathmandu, at the Sainik Manch in Tudikhel. There are parades and dancing, and the president gives a speech celebrating Nepal’s unity in diversity and rich cultural heritage.

I visited Nepal earlier this month and did take in the fact that it is an extraordinarily diverse nation in many key respects. It is a predominantly Hindu country, but there are plenty of Buddhist shrines and temples, as well as a sprinkling of mosques. I did not see any Christian churches, but I am sure they exist. The people I spoke to were perfectly tolerant of all religious views. They were equally proud of the ethnic diversity of the country, which may not seem especially obvious to tourists. It was obvious to me in the manner in which the people dressed (especially the women) which was quite markedly different from region to region, and also in regional foods (which was a key element of my visit). You can’t really speak of Nepali cuisine because it is so regionally diverse, and because there are many influences from other cultures. There is a great deal of overlap between the dishes of Nepal and both Tibet and northern India, for example. Here’s a small gallery of some of the dishes I had:

The most widespread dish throughout Nepal is dal baht (lentil-rice) Dal bhat is a staple in India, where it originates, and at its most basic is steamed rice and thick lentil soup — served separately, but you pour the lentils over the rice. Although the name is universal, it is certainly not one dish. The dal (lentils) can be cooked with onion, garlic, ginger, hot pepper, tomatoes, or tamarind, and it may contain herbs and spices such as coriander, garam masala, cumin, and turmeric. Recipes vary by season, locality, ethnic group and family. In some regions, dal bhat is served with roti or chapatis (flatbread). Dal bhat is often served with vegetable tarkari or torkari (तरकारी in Nepali), with yogurt, or with a curry made of chicken, goat meat or fish. You can expect a small portion of pickle (achar) as well. When I ate dal bhat in little local restaurants, I got whatever accompaniments were on hand at the time.

The trick here is to cook the lentils in Nepali style, which, itself is impossible to generalize about. However, I will say that Nepali lentils are commonly cooked with fewer spices than in India. Turmeric is very common, as are garlic, ginger, and onions. More pungent spices are less common, but I was always asked if I wanted my dal “spicy” (that is, with red peppers).

Dec 082016
 

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Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in the Roman Catholic tradition and is an extremely important day in the church and in Catholic countries in general. Here in Italy and in Argentina it is a national holiday, and it is a day of obligation in the church. According to the teaching of the Catholic Church, Mary could not have been worthy of the Virgin Birth unless she herself was free of Original Sin. That means that, although Mary was conceived in the normal way, her conception was “immaculate” (i.e. free from sin). This makes no sense to me whatsoever, but I understand why it is an important dogma for the church. It’s what happens when people start applying logic to faith. Personally, I think the dogma of the Virgin Birth (let alone the whole Bethlehem tale), was invented by the early church to make sense of actual events versus Hebrew prophecy. The Immaculate Conception is one more brick in the wall.

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The Immaculate Conception is commonly mistaken to be the conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb which is a complete misunderstanding of the dogma, which refers only to Mary and her mother. Although the belief that Mary was sinless and conceived immaculately has been widely held since Late Antiquity, the doctrine was not dogmatically defined until 1854, by Pope Pius IX in his papal bull Ineffabilis Deus.

A feast of the Conception of the Most Holy and All Pure Mother of God was celebrated in Syria on 8 December perhaps as early as the 5th century. Note that her Greek title of achrantos (spotless, immaculate, all-pure) refers to her supposed perpetual holiness, not specifically to the holiness of her conception. Mary’s complete sinlessness and concomitant exemption from any taint from the first moment of her existence was a doctrine familiar to Greek theologians of Byzantium. Beginning with St. Gregory Nazianzen, his explanation of the “purification” of Jesus and Mary at the circumcision (Luke 2:22) prompted him to consider the primary meaning of “purification” in Christology (and by extension in Mariology) to refer to a perfectly sinless nature that manifested itself in glory in a moment of grace (e.g., Jesus at his Baptism). St. Gregory Nazianzen designated Mary as “prokathartheisa (prepurified).” Gregory likely attempted to solve the riddle of the Purification of Jesus and Mary in the Temple through considering the human natures of Jesus and Mary as equally holy and therefore both purified in this manner of grace and glory. Gregory’s doctrines surrounding Mary’s purification were likely related to the burgeoning commemoration of the Mother of God in and around Constantinople very close to the date of Christmas. Nazianzen’s title of Mary at the Annunciation as “prepurified” was subsequently adopted by all theologians interested in his Mariology to justify the Byzantine equivalent of the Immaculate Conception. The public celebration of the “Conception of St. Ann [i.e., of the Theotokos in her womb]” was becoming popular. After this period, the “purification” of the perfect natures of Jesus and Mary would not only mean moments of grace and glory at the Incarnation and Baptism and other public Byzantine liturgical feasts, but purification was eventually associated with the feast of Mary’s very conception (along with her Presentation in the Temple as a toddler) by Orthodox authors of the early 2nd  millennium (e.g., St. Nicholas Cabasilas and Joseph Bryennius).

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Enough theology. Today is a big day in the church as well as in the secular culture of Catholic countries. I get a day off work, and in Argentina today was the official start of Christmas celebrations in Argentina, even though we are well into Advent. Here’s a gallery from Immaculate Conception 2013 in Buenos Aires. The church of the Immaculate Conception was just a few blocks from my apartment in san Telmo, and each year they have an evening mass on this day preceded by a procession around the church carrying an image of the Virgin and accompanied by an assortment of people, including young girls in white and street musicians.

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In Buenos Aires on this date I always made the Argentine/Italian lentil stew guiso de lentejas. You really don’t need a recipe; I never use one. The main thing is that the lentils have to simmer with at least one pig’s foot. Pork is not common in Buenos Aires most of the year because beef is king. But at Christmas pork is traditional (including whole roast pig on Christmas Eve). Start by soaking some lentils overnight in cold water. Drain them and put them in a pot with at least one pig’s trotter. Bring to a boil and simmer until the lentils are almost fully cooked. Then add chopped bell pepper, chopped onions (or leeks), a can of whole tomatoes, and season with oregano, salt, and pepper. You should also add a few pork sausages of your choice. Continue simmering for about 40 minutes, until the vegetables and sausages are cooked. The thing about this soup/stew is that the meat and vegetables should be served as is with the lentils in deep bowls. Don’t cut any of the meats up. It’s meant to look like a traffic accident. My pictures tell the story.

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