Ancient or Modern Society?
On Day 5 of my Singapore trip (Dec 26 Wed), Abishek and myself visited
the Greek Masterpieces from Louvre
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).
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
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!
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.
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
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)!
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
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
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
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