Jun 112015


On this date in 1184 BCE, according to the calculations of the Greek mathematician and polymath Eratosthenes, Troy was sacked and burned, thus ending the Trojan War. I wouldn’t say that we can be confident of this dating given that most likely the Trojan War, as described by Homer, never happened (or did not happen as recorded in Iliad and Odyssey), and given that Eratosthenes was using highly dubious historical sources. But the date was the starting point of Eratosthenes’ historical chronology which does have considerable value when we get to events nearer his time. So, why not celebrate it?

According to ancient Greek narratives, the Trojan War was waged against the city of Troy by the Achaeans (Greeks) after Paris of Troy took Helen from her husband Menelaus king of Sparta. The war is one of the most important events in Greek legend and has been narrated through many works of Greek literature, most notably through Homer’s Iliad. The Iliad relates a part of the last year of the siege of Troy; the Odyssey describes the journey home of Odysseus, one of the war’s heroes. Other parts of the war are described in a cycle of epic poems, which have survived through fragments. Episodes from the war provided material for Greek tragedy and other works of Greek literature, and for Roman poets including Virgil and Ovid. There is also a wealth of art from ancient Greece to modern times depicting scenes of the war.


The war originated from a quarrel between the goddesses Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite, after Eris, the goddess of strife and discord, gave them a golden apple, sometimes known as the Apple of Discord, marked “for the fairest”. Zeus sent the goddesses to Paris, who judged that Aphrodite, as the “fairest”, should receive the apple. In exchange, Aphrodite made Helen (the most beautiful of all women and wife of Menelaus), fall in love with Paris, who took her to Troy. Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and the brother of Helen’s husband Menelaus, led an expedition of Achaean troops to Troy and besieged the city for ten years because of Paris’ insult. After the deaths of many heroes, including the Achaeans Achilles and Ajax, and the Trojans Hector and Paris, the city fell to the ruse of the Trojan Horse. The Achaeans slaughtered the Trojans (except for some of the women and children whom they kept or sold as slaves) and desecrated the temples, thus earning the gods’ wrath. Few of the Achaeans returned safely to their homes and many founded colonies in distant shores. The Romans later traced their origin to Aeneas, one of the Trojans, who was said to have led the surviving Trojans to modern-day Italy.

The end of the war and the sack of Troy came with one final famous plan. Odysseus devised a giant hollow wooden horse, an animal that was sacred to the Trojans. It was built by Epeius and guided by Athena, made from the wood of a cornel tree grove sacred to Apollo, with the inscription:

The Greeks dedicate this thank-offering to Athena for their return home.

A line in the Aeneid became proverbial: “Beware of Greeks, especially when bearing gifts” or simply “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.”


The hollow horse was filled with soldiers led by Odysseus. The rest of the army burned the camp and sailed for Tenedos. When the Trojans discovered that the Greeks were gone, believing the war was over, they “joyfully dragged the horse inside the city”, while they debated what to do with it. Some thought they ought to hurl it down from the rocks, others thought they should burn it, while others said they ought to dedicate it to Athena.


Both Cassandra and Laocoön warned against keeping the horse. While Cassandra had been given the gift of prophecy by Apollo, she was also cursed by Apollo never to be believed. Serpents then came out of the sea and devoured Laocoön and his sons, a portent which so alarmed the followers of Aeneas that they withdrew to Ida. The Trojans decided to keep the horse and turned to a night of mad revelry and celebration. Sinon, an Achaean spy, signaled the fleet stationed at Tenedos when “it was midnight and the clear moon was rising” and the soldiers from inside the horse emerged and killed the guards.

The Achaeans entered the city and killed the sleeping population. A great massacre followed which continued into the day.

   Blood ran in torrents, drenched was all the earth,
   As Trojans and their alien helpers died.
   Here were men lying quelled by bitter death
   All up and down the city in their blood.

The Trojans, fueled with desperation, fought back fiercely, despite being disorganized and leaderless. With the fighting at its height, some put on fallen enemies’ armor and launched surprise counterattacks in the chaotic street fighting. Other defenders hurled down roof tiles and anything else heavy on the rampaging attackers. The outlook was grim though, and eventually the remaining defenders were destroyed along with the whole city.


Antenor, who had given hospitality to Menelaus and Odysseus when they asked for the return of Helen, and who had advocated so, was spared, along with his family. Aeneas took his father on his back and fled, and, according to Apollodorus, was allowed to go because of his piety. This was the incident that begins Virgil’s Latin epic, the Aeneid, concerning the founding of Rome (thus linking ancient Rome with ancient Greece). The Greeks then burned the city and divided the spoils.

The ancient Greeks treated the Trojan War as an historical event which had taken place in the 13th or 12th century BCE, and believed that Troy was located in modern-day Turkey near the Dardanelles. As of the mid-19th century, both the war and the city were widely believed to be non-historical. In 1868, however, the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann met Frank Calvert, who convinced Schliemann that Troy was at Hissarlik and Schliemann took over Calvert’s excavations on property belonging to Calvert; this claim is now accepted by most scholars. Schliemann is credited with being a pioneer in modern archeology although his methods were extremely crude – he used dynamite when he was frustrated at not being able to get to the lowest levels (VII and below) which he believed contained classic Troy. He, like 19th century archeologists, was interested only in valuable artifacts and so destroyed an untold wealth of information.  Here’s Schliemann’s wife wearing jewelry recovered from Troy:


Whether there is any historical reality behind the Homeric Trojan War is an open question. Many scholars believe that there is a historical core to the tale, though this may simply mean that the Homeric stories are a fusion of various tales of sieges and expeditions by Mycenaean Greeks during the Bronze Age. Those who believe that the stories of the Trojan War are derived from a specific historical conflict usually date it to the 12th or 11th centuries BCE, often preferring the dates given by Eratosthenes, 1194–1184 BC, which roughly correspond with archaeological evidence of a catastrophic burning of Troy VII. After Troy VII was burned it was not occupied for 500 years.

There are no hard data on specific dishes eaten in this region in the 12th century. Archeology gives us the usual assemblage: pork, beef, lamb, fish, cereals, legumes, olive oil, and wine. Coriander is a common spice. So here is a recreated dish of baked fish in wine and coriander. The Mediterranean was teeming with fish in this era and was an important source of protein. You can use any firm white fish. The ancient Greeks were known to have enjoyed using vinegar and other sour agents in their cooking.


Baked Fish with Coriander


4 thick cod steaks
2 tbsp coriander seeds
white wine vinegar
olive oil


Preheat the oven to 350°F

Spread the coriander seeds in one layer in a heavy skillet over medium high heat and toast them for 10 minutes, stirring continuously. Cool and then grind them in a coffee grinder or mortar and pestle (more traditional). Mix with salt to taste.

Douse the cod steaks with extra virgin olive oil on both sides then rub the coriander in, also on both sides.

Oil a covered baking dish and arrange the cod steaks in it, being careful not to place them too close together. Cover and bake for 20-25 minutes, testing to make sure they are cooked towards the end. Do not overcook.

Serve sprinkled with vinegar, with white beans.

Serves 4

Apr 032014


Today is the birthday (1781) of Swaminarayan , also known as Sahajanand Swami, the central figure in a modern sect of Hinduism known as Swaminarayan Hinduism, a form of Vaishnavism.  Swaminarayan was born in Chhapaiya, in Uttar Pradesh province, a village near Ayodhya, in a Hindi speaking region in India. He was born in the Brahmin caste of Sarvariya and was named Ghanshyam Pande by his parents. The birth of Swaminarayan coincided with the Hindu festival of Rama Navami, celebrating the birth of Rama. He is said to have mastered Hindu scriptures including the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Puranas, the Ramayana, and the Mahabharata by the age of seven.


After the death of his parents, Ghanshyam Pande left his home on 29 June 1792 at the age of 11. He took the name Nilkanth Varni while on his journey. Nilkanth Varni travelled across India and parts of Nepal in search of an ashram, or hermitage, that practiced what he considered a correct understanding of Vedanta, Samkhya, Yoga, and Pancaratra, the four primary schools of Hindu philosophy. To find such an ashram, Nilkanth Varni asked the following five questions on the basic Vaishnava Vedanta categories (words in parenthesis are rough approximations):

What is Jiva? (soul)

What is Ishvara? (lord/god)

What is Maya? (delusion)

What is Brahman? (true self)

What is Para Brahman? (absolute truth)

While on his journey, Nilkanth Varni mastered Astanga yoga (eightfold yoga) in a span of 9 months under the guidance of an aged yogic master named Gopal Yogi. In Nepal, it is said that he met King Rana Bahadur Shah and cured him of a stomach illness. As a result, the king freed all the ascetics he had imprisoned. Nilkanth Varni visited the Jagannath Temple in Puri as well as temples in Badrinath, Rameshwaram, Nashik, Dwarka and Pandharpur.

In 1799, after a seven year journey, Nilkanth’s travels as a yogi eventually ended in Loj, a village in the Junagadh district of Gujarat. In Loj, Nilkanth Varni met Muktanand Swami, a senior disciple of Ramanand Swami. Muktanand Swami, who was twenty-two years older than Nilkanth, answered the five questions to Nilkanth’s satisfaction. Nilkanth decided to stay for the opportunity to meet Ramanand Swami, whom he met a few months after his arrival in Gujarat.


According to the sect, Nilkanth’s understanding of the concepts of the pancha-tattvas (five eternal elements), together with his mental and physical discipline, inspired senior sadhus (ascetics) of Ramanand Swami. Nilkanth Varni received sannyasa initiation (complete renunciation of the material) from Ramanand Swami on 20 October 1800, and with it was granted the names Sahajanand Swami and Narayan Muni to signify his new status.

At the age of 21, Sahajanand Swami was appointed successor to Ramanand Swami as the leader of the Uddhav Sampraday (sect) by Ramanand Swami, prior to his death. The Uddhav Sampraday henceforth came to be known as the Swaminarayan Sampraday. According to contemporary sources he proclaimed the worship of one sole deity, Krishna or Narayana. He considered Krishna to be his own I??a-devat? (cherished deity) even though he rejected the more licentious aspects of Krishna worship of his day in favor of a mood of a more puritanical character as had been true of Krishna worship in earlier eras

Sahajanand Swami was later known as Swaminarayan after the mantra he taught at a gathering, in Faneni, a fortnight after the death of Ramanand Swami. He gave his followers a new mantra, known as the Swaminarayan mantra, to repeat in their rituals: the six syllables Swa-mi-na-ra-ya-n. When chanting this mantra, some devotees went into samadhi (a form of trance), also called maha-samadhi (great trance) and claimed that they could see their personal gods. Swaminarayan also became known by the names Ghanshyam Maharaj, Shreeji Maharaj, Hari Krishna Maharaj and Shri Hari. As early as 1804, Swaminarayan, who was reported to have performed miracles, was described as a manifestation of God in the first work (Yama Danda) written by a disciple, Nishkulanand Swami.

Swaminarayan encouraged his followers to combine devotion and dharma to lead a pious life. Using Hindu texts and rituals to form the base of his organization, Swaminarayan founded what in later centuries would become a global organization with strong Gujarati roots. He was particularly strict on the separation of sexes in temples. Swaminarayan was against the consumption of meat, alcohol or drugs, adultery, suicide, animal sacrifices, criminal activities, and the appeasement of ghosts and tantric rituals. He forbade alcohol consumption even for medicinal purposes.  He proclaimed that four elements needed to be conquered for ultimate salvation: dharma (order), bhakti (devotion), gnana (knowledge) and vairagya (detachment).

After assuming the leadership of the Sampraday, Swaminarayan worked to assist the poor by distributing food and drinking water. He undertook several social service projects and opened almshouses for the poor. Swaminarayan organized food and water relief to people during times of drought.


Swaminarayan was also an advocate of women’s rights, to some extent. To counter the practice of sati (self-immolation by a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre), Swaminarayan argued that, as human life was given by God it could be taken only by God, and that sati had no Vedic sanction. He went to the extent of calling sati nothing but suicide. Swaminarayan offered parents help with dowry expenses to discourage female infanticide, calling infanticide a sin.

In case of widows, Swaminarayan directed those who could not follow the path of chastity to remarry. However he did also lay down strict rules for women which included them being under the control of male members of the family. Swaminarayan restricted widows to live always under the control of male members of their family and prohibited them from receiving any education from any man excepting their nearest relations.

The Swaminarayan faith has been linked to patriarchal class structures that subjugate women. Members of the faith are defensive of the fact that some practices seem to restrict women, and make gender equality in leadership impossible. However, while many would assert that Swaminarayan Hinduism serves a patriarchal agenda, which attempts to keep women in certain roles, Swaminarayan himself, despite considerable criticism from those in his own contemporary society, insisted that education was the inherent right of all people. At that time, influential and wealthy individuals educated their girls through private and personal tuition. Hence many male followers of Swaminarayan made arrangements to educate their female family members. The literacy rate among females began to increase, and they were able to give discourses on spiritual subjects. Within the sect, Swaminarayan is considered a pioneer of education of females in India.

Swaminarayan was against animal sacrifices as carried out by Brahmin priests during Vedic rituals, such as yajnas (fire sacrifices), influenced by the Kaula and Vama Marg cults. The priests consumed “sanctified” prasad (food offered to deities) in the form of meat of these animals. To solve this problem, Swaminarayan conducted several large scale yajnas involving priests from Varanasi. These did not have animal sacrifices and were conducted in strict accordance with Vedic scriptures. Swaminarayan was successful in reinstating ahimsa (non-violence towards animals) through several such large scale yajnas that did not involve meat. Swaminarayan stressed lacto-vegetarianism among his followers and forbade meat consumption.


Some historians believe that Swaminarayan worked towards ending the caste system, allowing everyone into the Swaminarayan Sampraday. However he did not approve of complete social leveling. He instructed his paramhansas (spiritual leaders) to collect alms from all sections of society and appointed people from the lower strata of society as his personal attendants. Members of the lower castes were attracted to the movement as it improved their social status. Swaminarayan would eat along with the lower Rajput and Khati castes but not any lower. He established separate places of worship for the lower caste population where they were in large numbers. However, Dalits, the lowest in the caste system, were always formally excluded from Swaminarayan temples.

It is said that Swaminarayan dispelled the notion that moksha (salvation) was not attainable by everyone. He taught that the soul is neither male nor female. Swaminarayan dismissed caste as irrelevant to the soul’s status before God, though in practice caste distinctions remained visible among them though reduced in complexity. Even now, however, for the vast majority of Gujarat’s lower-caste population, the sect is off limits.


Swaminarayan ordered the construction of several Hindu temples and installed the images of various deities such as Nara-Narayana, Laxminarayan, Radha Krishna, Radha Ramana and Revati-Baldevji. The images in the temples built by Swaminarayan provide evidence of the priority of Krishna. The first temple Swaminarayan constructed was in Ahmedabad in 1822, with the land for construction given by the British Imperial Government. Following a request of devotees from Bhuj, Swaminarayan asked his follower Vaishnavananand Swami to build a temple there. Following planning, construction commenced in 1822, and the temple was built within a year. A temple in Vadtal followed in 1824, a temple in Dholera in 1826, a temple in Junagadh in 1828 and a temple in Gadhada, also in 1828. By the time of his death, Swaminarayan had also ordered construction of temples in Muli, Dholka and Jetalpur.

Swaminarayan promulgated general Hindu texts. He held the Bhagavata Purana in high authority. However, there are many texts written by Swaminarayan or his followers that are regarded as shastras or scriptures within the Swaminarayan sect. Notable scriptures throughout the sect include the Shikshapatri and the Vachanamrut.

Swaminarayan wrote the Shikshapatri on 11 February 1826. While the original Sanskrit manuscript is not available, it was translated into Gujarati by Nityanand Swami under the direction of Swaminarayan and is revered in the sect as a book of social laws that his followers should follow. A commentary on the practice and understanding of dharma, it is a small booklet containing 212 Sanskrit verses, outlining the basic tenets that Swaminarayan believed his followers should uphold in order to live a well-disciplined and moral life. The oldest copy of this text is preserved at the Bodleian Library of Oxford University and it is one of the very few presented by Sahajanand Swami himself. Acharya Tejendraprasad of Ahmedabad has indicated in a letter that he is not aware of any copy from the hand of Sahajanand older than this text.


Swaminarayan’s philosophical, social and practical teachings are contained in the Vachanamrut, a collection of dialogues recorded by five followers from his spoken words. The Vachanamrut is the scripture most commonly used in the Swaminarayan sect. It contains views on dharma (moral order), jnana (understanding of the nature of the self), vairagya (detachment from material pleasure), and bhakti (pure, selfless devotion to God), the four essentials Hindu scriptures describe as necessary for a jiva (soul) to attain moksha (salvation).

Swaminarayan strove to maintain good relationships with people of other religions, sometimes meeting prominent leaders. His followers cut across religious boundaries, including people of Muslim and Parsi backgrounds. Swaminarayan’s personal attendants included Khoja Muslims. In Kathiawad, many Muslims wore kanthi necklaces given by Swaminarayan. He also had a meeting with Reginald Heber, Lord Bishop of Calcutta and a leader of Christians in India at the time. Bishop Heber mentions in his account of the meeting that about two hundred disciples of Swaminarayan accompanied him as his bodyguards mounted on horses carrying matchlocks and swords. Bishop Heber himself had about a hundred horse guards accompanying him (fifty horses and fifty muskets) and mentioned that it was humiliating for him to see two religious leaders meeting at the head of two small armies, his being the smaller contingent. As a result of the meeting, both leaders gained mutual respect for one another.

Swaminarayan enjoyed a good relationship with the British Imperial Government. The first temple he built, in Ahmedabad, was built on 5,000 acres (20 km2) of land given by the government. The British officers gave it a 101 gun salute when it was opened. It was in an 1825 meeting with Reginald Heber that Swaminarayan is said to have intimated that he was a manifestation of Krishna. In 1830, Swaminarayan had a meeting with Sir John Malcolm, Governor of Bombay (1827 -1830). According to Malcolm, Swaminarayan had helped bring some stability to a lawless region. It was during this meeting with Malcolm that Swaminarayan gave him the copy of the Shikshapatri currently housed in the Bodleian Library. Swaminarayan also encouraged the British Governor James Walker to implement strong measures to stop the practice of sati.

In 1830, Swaminarayan gathered his followers and announced his departure. He later died on 1 June 1830, and it is believed by followers that, at the time of his death, Swaminarayan left Earth for Akshardham, his abode. He was cremated according to Hindu rites at Lakshmi Wadi in Gadhada.


Chutneys are a very important component of meals throughout India.  Westerners usually know only of chutneys that are cooked and bottled, but there are dozens of common chutneys that are made fresh daily and which act as dipping sauces or condiments.  Probably the best known is coriander chutney, made by blending coriander leaves with herbs and spices.  You can also make this chutney using half and half coriander and mint leaves.  Another favorite of mine is mint leaves blended with plain yoghurt.  It is customary to serve 3 or 4 chutneys with a meal, some sweet, some fiery hot.


Coriander (cilantro) Chutney


1 cup finely chopped coriander leaves
6 to 7 cloves finely chopped garlic
3 tsp sugar
3 tsp lemon juice
4 to 5 green chilies
A small piece of ginger
½ tsp turmeric powder
Salt to taste


Grind the ingredients in a blender.   Add a little water and grind again.

Serve chilled.