Ancient or Modern Society

7 minute read

On Day 5 of my Singapore trip (Dec 26 Wed), Abishek and myself visited the Greek Masterpieces from Louvre exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore. This was the largest collection ever to be allowed to be borrowed from the famous Louvre museum in Paris (which you might have heard of from 'The Da Vinci Code' book).

Singapore Day 05 009

The exhibition was so comprehensive that I was amazed. I raised my eyebrows on seeing a 'Sports' section and went on to read stuff like this:

Untranslatable, the word 'agon' denotes a gathering, and more specifically games and competitions, but also struggle, combat and battle, a trial or a debate, and a critical moment even. Personified by a winged man running, the notion underlies the whole of Greek civilization which has been described as 'agonistic' that is founded on the spirit of competition.

Then, I remembered that Olympics Games were started in Olympia, Greece. Duh. But the important thing to note is that they started it in 7th century BC! They gave sports so much importance more than 2500 years ago, and compare it to the situation today in India, except for cricket (My theory is that cricket was made popular because it is the perfect advertiser-friendly game ever, where else will you get a 15-20 second ad break after every few minutes i.e. an over!)

Next, I learned that theater was about politics and way to live, and the audience was paid to attend including their wages for several days since they would have to take off work to attend these plays! Now, that is a truly modern society!

Greek philosopher

There was so much more that I just couldn't digest it all in such a short time: poetry, sports, religion, philosophy - Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, schooling children with 3 teachers on specific areas of life, religion linked to running of the state and city - including patron deities protecting the city such as Athena for Athens, heroes such as Heracles (Roman 'Hercules'), Achilles, Ulysses, Paris, etc., Zeus was King of Gods, there were 12 Olympian Gods including third-generation gods and goddesses, Alexander the Great was the greatest conqueror of all time, Romans stole most of the Greek artifacts since they were obsessed with Greek history and so they made copies of Greek statues and much of what we know about Greece is actually from these Roman copies.

Singapore Day 05 002

A very interesting section of the exhibition was the "Dress like a Greek" section. There were a couple of robes kept, just like the ones you see the Senators wear in 'The Gladiator'. There were directions in a poster on the wall. People took interest in trying it out and taking snaps. I was amazed at how they make everything visual and interactive in Singapore. This idea was a masterstroke in my honest opinion, because it makes something like history that can be so dry to be accessible and understandable for a layman. There were more sections such as a huge wall for kids to write their own sequels to the story of Troy (basically where Odyssey by Homer took off), and there were many hilarious writings by the kids.

Then, on Day 7 (Dec 28 Fri), Chinmay and me visited the KaalaChakra - Wheel of Time : Early Indian Influence in Southeast Asia Exhibition.

Unfortunately, I didn't get much time because I went there just before the closing time. From what I saw, I was amazed to learn how much influence early India had wielded over most of Asia! From religion to language to politics to trade to war to art to architecture to tamil inscriptions to ancient Libraries to even the Ramayana and Mahabharata (Buddhist Thailand have their own version)!

Kaala Chakra

I used to be surprised about Tamil being one of the three official languages of Singapore, especially with the announcements in the subway trains. In this exhibition, I learned that there is a lot of history to it and it's not just because of recent migration of Indians to all over the world. Sometimes, a little knowledge of history and culture can have such practical utility.

On Day 11 (Jan 01 Tue), Abishek, Ashish and me visited the On The Nalanda Trail: Buddhism in India, China and Southeast Asia exhibition.

I have to admit that I'm surprised that I visited so many museums and history exhibitions - I used to find history one of the most boring subjects in school! I guess the presentation has been so good in the museums that they make it interesting. It helps that they choose interesting topics.

Singapore Day 11 010

This exhibition was about the influence of Nalanda University in the spread of Buddhism.

I was surprised to learn about the Nalanda University - there were more than 10,000 students from China, Tibet, Myanmar, Japan, Korea, Sumatra, Java and Sri Lanka. All this in the 5th to 12th centuries! I wonder how they came to even know about such a university when there was no newspapers, television or internet! And they would have had to walk for months or years across forests and mountains to reach this university. And how did they even know the route? In spite of all this, they came to attend this university. Mind-blowing.

The subjects of study varied from Buddhism to Sanskrit grammar, logic, medicine and philosophy. There was an oral exam for admission.

Some of the kings who were patrons included Ashoka, Kanishka, Ming Di (China), Devanampiya (Sri Lanka). There was a map that showed the various edicts erected by Ashoka. There were dots in the India section. I was shocked that one of them was listed as 'Jayanagar'. They were referring to the Ashok Pillar! It's a traffic circle today! I never knew there was such a history behind it. I was embarrassed because it's right down the main street from my home, and I never knew this. And people from all over the world visiting Singapore looking at this map might be thinking that it is some important monument, an important piece of history. Eeeks.

Another interesting aspect was seeing statues from 2-10 century on loan from Indian Museum Kolkata, 8th century paintings from Patna Museum, 11th century bronze statues from National Museum Delhi, and so on. It's ironic that I came from India to Singapore to view artifacts from Indian museums.

It's sad that Nalanda was destroyed by Muslim invasion and abandoned as Buddhism in India lost following gradually.

I also never knew that Buddhism and Hinduism were so interlinked. For example, there was a statue of Siddhartha's birth from his mother Mayadevi with the Shiva and Brahma gods flanking on either side.

Scholars such as Xuanzang and Yijing from China studied and went back, Tao Cheng stayed back - they all came to study monastic practices at Nalanda. The major efforts they undertook were translation of scriptures including Mahayana scriptures and Sanskrit scriptures.

It's amazing how much advanced a university we had in the 5th-12th century. Imagine the possibilities if it still existed today!

It's sad that the only reason Nalanda is in the news these days is because 15 male students tried to barge into the girls hostel in a drunken state on 2008 New Year's Eve at the Nalanda Medical University hostel.

It seems like that we seem to be growing as a society backwards. We're nowhere near the level of advancement that these 'ancient' societies had attained - whether it was politics, sports, society structure or culture and philosophy.

"I would trade all of my technology for an afternoon with Socrates." - Steve jobs in Newsweek, Oct. 29, 2001


Swaroop C H, The Dreamer » Archives » How to defend India? says:

[...] 2. After visiting the Kaala Chakra exhibition, I realized how influential India has really been, especially to most of South East Asia, from [...]

Abishek says:

I couldn't have put it in better words.

The Greek and Buddhist experience was really amazing. Words obviously dont do justice. To add - at the Nalanda Trail, they had displayed, what is believed to be the remains of Gautama Buddha.

I think I'll visit Kaala Chakra this weekend before its gone and maybe stroll by the "freak-horror" show by the river.

‘Everything’s fine till something happens to you’ « churumuri says:

[...] 2. After visiting the Kaala Chakra exhibition, I realized how influential India has really been, especially to most of South East Asia, from [...]

Ranganath.S says:

it's interesting..

py says:

Thank you for sharing about your experiences visiting three different exhibition. I am glad that it seems that you have a nice time in Singapore.

Vineetha says:

Just one word, Wow!!
More words: I am so jealous I feel like waking you up and asking you all about it! If Nalanda existed today, I wouldn't be wondering if Edinburgh is better than Cambridge to study philosophy:)