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Pyramids, Stupas, Tombs and Mausoleums
|by K. Gajendra Singh|
Pyramids like Stupas or Muslim tombs are funerary monuments to honor /preserve memory of the dead or his signs as relics. Such a construction is as old as the belief in after life or even reincarnation. The earliest and the most magnificent pyramids are of ancient Egyptian rulers Pharaohs. (As Third Secretary in Cairo i.e. errand boy in early 1960s, my first post to learn Arabic, I was detailed alternately with the other probationer to take visiting/transiting VIPs and Ambassador’s guests to various pyramids and the rich antiquities museum on Tehrir Square)
If one studies the Egyptian or Pharoanic civilization, one learns that quite a bit has been contributed by the Nubians of Upper Egypt. Many Pharaohs had thick lips and crinkly hair. For the West, Egyptians are bad enough as contributors to Greek civilization and now to claim that the Sudanese might have influenced the Greek and hence the Western Judo-Hellenic Christian civilization is too much to accept. Yes, after the development of civilizations in Mesopotamia and the Nile valley, it filtered to eastern Mediterranean, which became a cradle of civilizations, with exchange of ideas through trade and people. That is how the Greek island of Crete acquired civilizations from where Greek and European civilization emerged.
Unlike Mesopotamia (even now invaded by the Americans for its oil) Egypt with its populated and irrigated area only 3% of the country along river Nile is surrounded by deserts and with no rains remained protected and its monuments are well preserved, buried under dry sand. But lack of communications with other cultures left the ancient Egyptian civilization rather linear in its development and richness.
The achievement of a civilization may be expressed in terms of its best points—moral and ethical, aesthetic, scientific, and, not least, literary. In Mesopotamia legal theory flourished and was sophisticated. Early on, it was expressed in several collections of legal decisions, the so-called codes, of which the best-known and the earliest is the Code of Hammurabi. Throughout these codes recurs the concern of the ruler for the weak, the widow, and the orphan.
There are 25 firsts achieved by Sumerians. These include wheels, the plough, the loom, the potter’s wheels, the brick, and the sail, working with metals and finally writing. Technical accomplishments were perfected in the building of amazingly accurate Ziggurats (temple towers resembling pyramids), with their huge bulk, and in irrigation, both in practical execution and in theoretical calculations. At the beginning of the 3rd millennium BC, an artificial stone often regarded as a forerunner of concrete was in use at Uruk (160 miles south-southeast of modern Baghdad), The ultimate weapon to spread civilizations remains systematic writing.
The ancient Indians by not developing writing and keeping knowledge to Brahmins and family only hindered spread of civilization and keeping the people backward. This genetic trait among policy makers/lawgivers persists even today. That is why the present day rulers (of all castes and religions ) dislike RTI.
Pyramid, a Greek term, is a structure whose outer surfaces are triangular and converge at a single point. The base of a pyramid can be trilateral, quadrilateral, or any polygon shape, meaning that a pyramid has at least three triangular surfaces (at least four faces including the base). The square pyramid, with square base and four triangular outer surfaces, is a common version. A pyramid's design, with the majority of the weight closer to the ground, and with the pyramidion on top means that less material higher up on the pyramid will be pushing down from above. This distribution of weight allowed early civilizations to create stable monumental structures.
For thousands of years, the largest structures on Earth were Egyptian pyramids—first the Red Pyramid in the Dashur Necropolis and then the Great Pyramid of Khufu, both near Cairo, the latter the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still remaining.
The Bent Pyramid near Cairo is unique, and represents a transitional pyramid form believed to have been the result of an engineering crisis encountered during its construction. The Red Pyramid is the world's first true smooth-sided pyramid. Near Cairo at Saqqara, there is the world famous Step pyramid of Djoser, sometimes referred to as the Step Tomb due to its rectangular base. (Earliest Budhist Stupas as at Sanchi and also at Bukhara are tomb like, built over a square raised platform)
Khufu's Pyramid is built entirely of limestone, and is considered an architectural masterpiece. It contains around 1,300,000 blocks ranging in weight from 2.5 tonnes (5,500 lbs) to 15 tonnes (33,000 lbs) and is built on a square base with sides measuring about 230 m (755 ft), covering 13 acres. Its four sides face the four cardinal points precisely and it has an angle of 52degrees. The original height of the Pyramid was 146.5 m (488 ft), but today it is only 137 m (455 ft) high, the 9 m (33 ft) that is missing is due to the theft of the fine quality limestone covering, or casing stones to build houses and Mosques in Cairo. It is still the tallest pyramid.
(India’s nuclear power builder, Dr. Home J. Bhaba, while going around the famous antiquities museum in Cairo in 1963, remarked that perhaps the ancient Egyptians, who transported such big blocks of stones by boat from Aswan, 500 km away, might have tied the wooden boats over them and then floated then in river Nile, to reduce the apparent weight taking advantage of Archimedes principle)
Ancient Egyptians believed in life after death, so the rulers built huge Pyramids, which apart from the desire of the powerful to show off also provided a secret and difficult place to reach inside it where the embalmed dead body with food, real and symbolic figures i.e. the servants etc. were buried. Throughout the sweep of time thieves have tried to infiltrate into Pyramids for the dead bodies of rulers and steal gold and other precious things. Not many succeeded, fortunately. So the embalmed Mummies with magnificent casings of gold and other rich objects of ancient Egyptian civilizations have been unearthed and are displayed in museums in Cairo and elsewhere, stolen by Western conquerors.
But the largest pyramid by volume in the world is the Great Pyramid of Cholula, in the Mexican state of Puebla. Pyramid like structures abound all over central and south America showing great civilizations, like the Incas, also in China and one natural geological formation in Bosnia, unlike Europe which has little of such monumental remains of civilizations.
In Buddhism symbols represented Buddha and Tantras. Sculpture representing Buddha in human form is a Greek contribution through Gandhara art from Afghanistan. Starting from Bactria, Buddhism evolved the concept of Bodhisattva Maitreya as incarnations for attaining Nirvana and return to guide and help the laity. This universal and secular religion found favor with Central Asian Turks and Mongols (also with Uyghursin Xinjiang) when it reached there.
Prophet Mohammed had underlined that God and man are different. (Christians have still not resolved this dilemma fully about the nature of Jesus). Miracles and veneration of dead persons are denounced in Quran (Sura XI, 31).
With the spread of Buddhism Central Asians including Turks and Mongols adopted and assimilated phrases from Buddhism i.e. Sanskrit and Pali words like Nirvana = Nirvana (Nibanna), Dhamma = Dharma, Cindan = Chandan (sandalwood), used for funerary ceremony, Aratna = Ratan, Stup = Stupa, Mandal= Mandala, Chakra = Chakra, Bodhistava = Bodhistav, Bakshi (accountant) = Bhikku/Bhikshu (because a Bhikshu once did accounts for the Mongols in Xinjiang) etc.
An excavation in 1930s at Moghoki Attar mosque in Bukhara, perhaps the oldest surviving mosque in Central Asia, revealed under it ruins of a Zoroastrian temple destroyed by Arabs and an earlier Buddhist temple beneath it. The name Bukhara itself perhaps derives from Vihara. (Tashkent could be from Tashkhund; region of stones in Sanskrit). There are many ruins of Viharas and Stupas in Termez on Amu Darya (Uzbekistan), Merv (Turkmenistan), Afrasiab (Samarkand), Khojand etc in Ferghana valley and around Lake Issik Kul inKyrgyzstan.
Of course in Eastern Turkistan (and Tibet) apart from the ruins, many thousand old Buddhist manuscripts (300 pages found in Merv too) and books were recovered. Buddhist paintings have also been found in Afrasiab and elsewhere in Central Asia. It is not a simple coincidence that after Islam’s arrival all these places became centres of Sufi Islam. From Stupas and Viharas have perhaps emerged sacred tombs, khankahs, darghas and madarsas.
Tombs were not accepted in Arab heartland around Saudi Arabia. But the Persian, Turkish, Asian and African, even Berber Muslims accepted Pirs, Calandars, Sheikhs, Babas, Dervishes and others and their tombs became places of worship. Freedom loving eclectic nomads and others resisted Arab warriors in Sogdiana and Central Asia and their still austere Islam. It was only the modified, personalized and spiritual Islam of Persian Samanids based in Bukhara (Ismail’s tomb looks like a simple Stupa) that was first accepted by Turks and others in Central Asia .To Islam had been added strands of local religions and beliefs .It is this form of Islam that was spread in India mostly by Sufi saints, but also by forced conversions and inducements.
Sufism developed fully by 12th century by which time Arab Islam had been modified and enriched by streams from Persian, Central Asian and other religions, beliefs and philosophies. It was in the heartland of Arab Islam i.e. Baghdad and Aleppo, where Sufis saints Al Hajj (for insisting " Ana Al-haq "- I am the Truth) and Suhrawardy were martyred. Because of Sunni hostility tombs were erected much after the martyrdom of Imam Ali and Imam Hussein in Najaf and Karbala. The Wahhabis/ Salafis remain deadly opposed to Sufism.
The major Sufi Tariqas (ways) had central Asian origin or influence i.e., Qadiriyas, Nakshabandis (many current Turkish leaders are its adherents), Rumi’s dervishes, Bektashis, the patron saint of non-Turkish (mostly Slav), non-Muslim (mostly Christian) born Janissary corps and top Administrators of the Ottoman Empire based on devshirme (slave) system. Turkey’s Shia Alevis’ faith (majority from Turkmen Oghuz tribes) has strands from Christian, Shaman and other beliefs.
Intermingling of Beliefs and Faiths
Human wish to comprehend and experience the Reality is as old as the natural talent to transcend beyond oneself, until this faculty was dimmed by technological afflictions. There are glimpses of it in earliest Aryan writings like Vedas and Avestan, even among Greek philosophers like Orpheus, Pythagoras, Socrates and others. So the environment and tools existed before formal religions evolved or were revealed.
Buddha himself went through the whole gamut of experiments and meditations including Jain like and other austerities, Hindu systems before realizing Nirvana. And his path and method of meditation were modified in east India, Tibet, China and Japan. If Buddhism influenced the evolution of Sufi Islam then Buddhism itself was influenced earlier by other religions and practices.
India’s Sikh religion also known as gurmat, the teachings of the guru, founded by Guru Nanak (1469-1539), combines many elements of Hinduism and Islam. Guru Nanak believed that one could come close to the God through meditation and devotion .God is the true guru and his divine word has come to the humanity through the 10 historical gurus. Their sacred scripture Adi Granth is also called “Guru Granth Saheb“. The Sikh temples are known as gurdwaras, Guru’s door. Many Shi'ites Ghulat groups believe that Ali and the Imams are doors to God. When the Sunni Moghul emperors persecuted the Sikhs and their gurus, Sikh religion took to militancy and those who died for the panth (gurus’ path) became martyrs.
Human beings have evolved many paths to the Reality i.e. various Yoga systems; Tibetan, Zen, Vipassana and other Buddhist Margs, Jewish Kabbalah, Christian Hesychasm, Gurdjief way, Sufi Tariqas and Transcendental Meditation (TM) in modern times for spiritually challenged materialists. The masses accept what the saints and holy men they trust teach them.
The word mosque itself derives from the Arabic masjid, “a place where one prostrates one's self (in front of God).” In earliest times any place could be used for private prayer with correct direction (qiblah, originally Jerusalem, but soon towards Mecca). The community prayer on Fridays, with a collective swearing of allegiance to the community's leadership also strengthens common bonds among all members of the Ummah.
According to some experts, the Quran does not utter a word for or against the representation of living things. But from about the middle of the 8th century a prohibition was formally established. It became a standard feature of Islamic thought, even though the form in which it was expressed varied from absolute to partial. It has been suggested that Islam developed this attitude when it came into contact with other cultures and it was felt that the dreaded idol worship might return. The Qur'an (Sura ix, 31) prohibits the veneration of holy men and saints. In early Islam there was no special embellishment of funerary sites; 'the tombs of the rich and poor are alike'. But the human desire to venerate and by many to be venerated is too old and deep rooted. The first changes occurred through veneration of the tombs of holy persons.
It appears that the construction of commemorative buildings over certain burial places began in the late 9th and 10th centuries especially over those of Shi'ite saints. Then over the tombs, mostly in Iran and Central Asia, of rulers of marginal or semi-independent regions, who often followed non-Sunni beliefs? They were to project status symbols of secular power and were rather ambitious .In contrast, the tombs of holy men were simpler –which went towards satisfying the devotional needs of the population. Generally complex ensembles grew up around the tombs of many saints, like that of the mystic Sufi poet Jalal ud-Din Rumi in Konya, or of Bayazid in Bistam (1313).
Therefore the earliest surviving tombs belong to Shi'ite persona; the shrine of Fatima, sister of the Imam 'Ali ar-Rida at Qum, and that of the Imam Ali in Najaf. The earliest rulers’ tombs are of 'Abbasid Caliphs al-Muntasir (in Samarra in 862), al-Mu'tazz and al-Mohtadi (built as a domed square building enclosed in an octagonal ambulatory) and are better preserved. A feature of royalty mausoleums was its concentration, like the Timurid Shah-i-Zinda ensemble in Samarqand of 14th and 15thcenturies or the Mamluk tombs of Cairo.
Mausoleums were also built to commemorate Biblical persons, companions of the Prophet and scholars, popular heroes and ghazis (fighters for the Faith). From 12th century secular mausoleums proliferated all over the world, in Egypt and Central Asia, northern and north-eastern Iran and Anatolia, and also in India and North Africa. They continue to be built, both for spiritual and secular leaders e.g., Firdausi, Avicenna, Umar Khayyam, the late Agha Khan and the poet-philosopher Iqbal, and particularly imposing structures for Riza Shah Pahlavl, Ataturk and Mohammed Ali Jinnah.
The mausoleum of the Samanids in Bukhara, commonly referred to as the Tomb of Isma'il, was constructed before 943 and consists of a square structure with a large central dome and four small corner ones set over a gallery. Especially noteworthy is the use of bricks to create different patterns in its various parts.
Then of course there are the famous imperial Moghul mausoleums, of Humayun (d. 1556) in Delhi, built of red sandstone and white marble; and the marvel in marble, the Taj Mahal, built in Agra by Emperor Shah Jehan for his favourite queen Mumtaz Mahal. The mausoleum of Akbar (d. 1605) is at Sikandra, and of his son Jehangir (d1627) near Lahore. The word mausoleum comes from the structure built in Asia Minor (Bodrum-Western Turkey) for an Asian ruler, Mausolus by his Queen, around the time Alexander the Great passed that way.
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