Saturday, April 22, 2017

To lose one's soul.....

Slaves are a necessity. In all communities from very ancient times people understood this. So someway or other slaves were brought into the scene and things magically resolved. Dirty work got done, messes got cleared up and things just happened. Maybe not all the slaves were in captivity but being tricked into pacificity with a meagre pay was just as bad.
It maybe justly said that history as we admire it was built with the hands of slaves and shaped with their sweat.... In Africa pyramids were built and the enigmatic sphinx carved out of stone.... People argue that they actually were paid labourers and not slaves. But still you have to admit Egypt had slaves. And who would actually use paid Labour when it's there for free?  In China the great wall spans hundreds of kilometres.. and the cost may have been hundred of slaves demising in exhaustion... Mahenjodaro harappa, had slaves... The Indus valley civilisation artefacts tell us that much. Slaves were captured, slaves were sold, slaves were traded. In Europe rome and Greece were basically dependent on slaves. 
There were white Slaves, black slaves, yellow Slaves, Brown slaves.... The eligibility criteria being, being a human. Then with discovery of America and the colonies, slavery went to America... Transatlantic slave trade was an in thing in business world. Whilst slavery was prohibited in England, English merchants freely participated in slave trade transporting and selling mainly african slaves to the colonies across the great ocean. And in England poor people worked under forced labour conditions which were not very dissimilar to slavery...  And then slavery was abolished in america as well and throughout the world Labour rights movements started. In russia serfs were emancipated.
Today we read "roots", and about the underground railroad,  and visit the horrors of Workhouses with "Dickens".... And sigh that it's so great that the world is a better place today...
But is It? Doesn't slavery exist???
Welcome to the narrative of a life of a slave, from a modern-day slave...
Yes, that's right. I'm a modern-day slave. In other words, I'm an intern doctor in a third world country with the utopian dream of free health to all!
    I work in a medical ward with a total of 55 beds. But in any given date we have between 90 to 100+ patients in the ward. So where do we keep them? Don't ask.
 Because the work load is too much for a single person to handle alone, both interns (that's us) have to work 7 day's a week. And one person stays on call working 24 hrs every other day. So on average I work about 120 hrs and 144 hrs a week. We don't get holidays. Most of the days we are too busy for breakfast or lunch. Actually it's a choice. You either have the breakfast or the lunch, but never both. And we earn about 0.54 $ an hour!! Amounting to between 12$ to 6$ a day.
 But the worst and the most gruelling aspect of the job that I noted was the vindictiveness which was obvious flowing down the hierarchy. This was no fraternity.  This was a cloak and dagger game where your immediate senior is your worst nightmare until it came to the top level. As everybody's underdog,  we had to take all the shit flowing down the hierarchy...
    The fanciful idea of being a romanticized "apprentice of the healer " became more like being the in-ward slave.
And all the while something seemed amiss.. Almost all the senior doctors were surely tempered and grumpy all the while they were in the ward. They shouted at patients, nagged nurses and universally detested us. Morning ward rounds were so demoralizing that I almost always felt like quitting afterwards. At first I thought they were just plain rotten.
And that was when I started suspecting if that's not the whole story.

How do they make a killer out of a human? How do they train soldiers to become perfect lethal machines? The Spartans knew the secret and they boasted of one of the most ruthless armies in the ancient times. From very early childhood thespartan boys were subjected to the most gruelling and ruthless training. And they grew up to be ruthless men, judging by the few accounts of the Spartan Army.
It's a psychological phenomenon that the more harsh your conditions are, the more severe the stress you are subjected to, the more prominent your self preservation instincts become. And your happy part is downplayed until you really find no reason to be legitimately happy about.
  5 months into my internship I was aware of the subtle changes... Tempers started to become less and less flexible. Conversations with 60 + men and women started to become higher exercises in patience. If we couldn't get a straight history we tended to label the patient as possibly psychiatric. And we became less eager to help. The meaner side which offers a higher chance of survival started to show up.
On the outside there was all the glamour of becoming an increasingly experienced intern. But all the time alarm bells were ringing. In the wards some people had started to dump all the shit on the nurses and the minor staff. And the same patient who got shouted at by the consultant tended to get nagged by the interns too. And they smiled rarely (except for the fun pics they posted on fb).
So maybe the gruelling training actually has a say in moulding a man into something else. Something which is capable of handling stresses and reacting to situations but with a poorer handling of more tender of the human temperaments. Something with less empathy and compassion. Which is a formula for an effective soldier or an assassin or a secret service agent or a.... oh well you get the idea. But I wouldn't be quite comfortable knowing that doctors in my country are going through the same soul wrenching training.
And obviously this whole scenario depends on the specific internship station. ie the place u work. In some stations there's less heavy work with more humane colleagues and seniors and then life is better. But for the majority internship is a soul changing experience..
So why doesn't anyone speak up. After all every senior doctor actually rose through this gruelling period. So its not a secret at all. The reason is the need to hand down suffering across the generations with the thought of "I went through it so you have to go through it too"... And the vindictiveness passed on and on.
The interns, the only people who really care about the situation won't speak up out of fear of being denied Medical council registration. They of course have everything to the wise people stay silent and never speak up; bear with the shit of the seniors; and somehow survive the year... only fools fight.
And since nobody is actually embarrased that the health care system in my country is actually dependant upon slaves it shows that slavery is ok.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The dead who defy decay..

Death is a fascinating thing. All the more fascinating because no one knows exactly what happens after death. And no one knows what it's like to die.
Modern science thinks that it has a fair understanding of the physical aspects of death. For example post mortem changes.
We do have a far better understanding of how our mortal remains bloat up and decompose after death, than our ancestors did... Or do we???
Do we really know what happens to a body?
There are bodies which undergo algor mortis (cooling), rigor mortis (rigidity), livor mortis (lividity) and then peacefully bloat up and putrefy. And then there are bodies which become mummified and desiccated or still others which undergo safonication.
But is that all?
Jacinta Marto is a child who is venerated by the Roman catholic church. Having died in 1920 at the age of 9, her body was first exhumed in 1935. Her face was found to be in a remarkable state of preservation having eluded the normal process of decomposition. Bernadette Soubirous is a saint in the roman catholic church who died in 1879 at the age of 35. Her body was exhumed in 1909 in the process of her beatification. It was found to have evaded the process of natural decomposition.
Those are actually just two examples of the so called incorruptible bodies; people whose bodies do not decompose. In Roman Catholicism incorruptibility is one criteria of eligibility for veneration. And they can give you a long list of saints who are incorruptible. And obviously the explanation in Roman Catholicism is divine intervention.
But is it??
Eluding decomposition is more common than we actually think.
In Buddhism for example, there are many examples of monks whose bodies have defied the process of decomposition.
In 2015 January, a 200 year old body of a Buddhist monk was found in Mongolia. It was in a seated meditation posture. The body was in such a remarkable state of preservation, that even the short cropped hair, the fine facial hair and even the facial features were intact.
Perhaps one of the most remarkable cases of defying decomposition is that of Dashi Dorzho Itigilov, a Buryat Buddhist lama of Tibetan Buddhism. He died in 1927, conscious and in deep meditation and left a testament stipulating his body to be exhumed some years later. His body was exhumed several times, but its state of excellent preservation was kept secret by the monks. In 11th September 2002, Russian monks finally exhumed him and went public with the fact.
Itigilov's body was found to be in an excellent state of preservation. Forensic examination gave the conclusion that his body was in the condition of someone who had died 36 hours ago.
Deliberately preserving a body so that it can be venerated is in direct contrast with the original Buddhist doctrine which focused on the impermanence of everything physical. But still there are so many Buddhist mummies. Especially in Japanese and Tibetan Buddhism.
Sokushinbutsu, is a Japanese term which stands for the process of self mummification undertaken by Buddhist monks of Vajrayana order.
The process takes up to a decade with the monk starting on a special diet. This diet gradually starves the body reducing the body fat and moisture content. Herbs, Cycad nuts and sesame are ingested to inhibit (or minimize) gut bacteria load. A tea made of the sap of a poisonous tree, "Toxicodendron vernicifluum" is ingested regularly to repel insects and also to act as an embalming fluid of a kind.
In the Japanese method of Sokushinbutsu, when the monk is ready for death, he goes into deep meditation, and is buried alive in the sitting position in a box with an air tube and a bell. He rings the bell once a day to let the others know that he's alive. And when the bell ceases to ring the air tube is removed. But from those who attempt sokushinbhutsu, only a handful will succeed in making perfect mummies out of their bodies.
A variant of this self mummification process prevalent in Tibet involves a harness connected to the neck and the thigh. The meditator slowly suffocates himself with the harness and brings about his death. The mummy of the monk named "Sangha Tenzin", which was found in North India has undergone self suffocation in this manner.
Another interesting phenomenon associated with death of Tibetan Buddhist monks, is the rainbow body phenomenon. The rainbow body is the result of a certain level of understanding in the Tibetan Buddhism. The body of a meditation master who attains the rainbow body is supposed to dissolve into light upon his death. The metaphysical aspect of the phenomenon is of little concern to our discussion. But what is of immense interest is what allegedly happens to the body.
The body of someone who attains rainbow body, is purported to shrink gradually and eventually altogether disappear, leaving behind only the hair and nails. Some only shrink partially, dramatically reducing the size of the body.
There's a long list of names of lamas who have attained the rainbow body.
For instance Lama Khenpo A Chos, who died in 1998, was supposed to have disappeared completely leaving behind only nails and hair. The incident was investigated by a Jesuit priest, father Francis Tiso.
In 2011, Achuk Lama Rinpoche, died and his body was documented to have shrunk dramatically.
There are many eye witness accounts and recently photographic evidence demonstrating reduction of the body size. But despite everything the phenomenon had not been observed and studied. And unless something is studied properly and concluded as real by a believable body of authority of science, seeing is not believing.
Rainbow bodies could be the actual realization of E=mc2... Or it could just as easily be the result of elaborate body preparation methods of the Tibetans when attending to a diseased lama.
Unless properly studied we can't really say..
Evading decomposition is also reported among some Hindu Yogis and mystics.
The most cited example is that of Yogi Paramahansa Yogananda. He died in 1952 at the age of 59. His body in contrast with the common Indian tradition, was not cremated immediately and kept for more than 20 days. He was given an initial embalming but despite the fact, the mortuary director wrote in a notarized letter that the state of preservation of the body was far more perfect than to be naturally expected under similar circumstances.
But still the fact remains..... he was embalmed.

But obviously, there are bodies that defy decomposition. And definitely not confined to one particular religion. But it may be worth noting that almost all of these so called indecomposable bodies seemed to have belonged to holy men and women of some kind. Men and women who practiced intense mental exercise and meditation. So maybe the state of mind of the dying person has a role in the subsequent state of the body.... For example most of those people may have probably died consciously in a profound state of meditation.
Or maybe the phenomenon is far more common than we actually assume it to be. For obviously, we don't routinely dig up our dead to check for decay.
But for certain, death is fascinating. All the more because we still haven't got a complete understanding of even its physical aspects....

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

JFK- The other side of an idol.

In November 22, 1963, history was created (or destroyed, as many would say in retrospect) in Dealy plaza, Dallas, Texas.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th president of United States was shot dead, presumably by Lee Harvey Oswald.
The world went into shock, and a nation went into mourning. More than 50 years later JFK still continues to be an enigma, an American Lancelot. The public reaction to his assassination was of shock followed by deep despair. Some wept openly.
People loved JFK, and his death sealed that love. Had he lived perhaps, he won't have been remembered as fondly as he is now.
JFK is memorable for many of the initiatives that he actually took during his tenure in office or for which he paved the way.
But is he really the hero that the world believes him to be?
JFK won the presidential polls of 1960, and his term began in 1961 January. His brother Robert Kennedy had started a ruthless battle against organized crime during this time. And some conspiracy theories surrounding JFK's death actually point the finger at the Mafia for his death. But is JFK really the brave Lancelot who fought an impossible war against mafia?
Probably not.....
JFK's father, Joseph Kennedy, had ties with the mafia running back to the bootlegging days. He is supposed to have been close friends with Sam Giancana. And it was through those connections that JFK received financial contribution for his 1960 election from Giancana.
Also the mob may have further helped him secure his win of the west Virginia polls in 1960.
JFK is often cited as a leader who made an exemplary contribution towards world peace. For example he created the peace corps and signed the ban on nuclear tests. He was quite vocal expressing his desire for world peace, as is evident by his numerous speeches on the subject.
But Kennedy's aspirations for world peace seemed to have had noted exceptions for eradicating communism. He was ready to do anything and everything to stop the spread of communism. And something so mundane as human lives and world peace was definitely not going to stop the Kennedy administration stop and think.
Kennedy's term is notable for the failed Bay of Pigs invasion which was backed by the US to overthrow Fidel Castro. It was a complete failure and in fact strengthened the Cuban public support for Castro. Kennedy also sanctioned the numerous schemes and attempts by the CIA to assassinate Castro. Only he maintained opposition in the face of public in anticipation of the negative public opinion it might bring him.
According to his administrative staff, Kennedy dealt with every aspect of foreign policy and he knew everything that was going on. So he was directly responsible for any decisions pertaining to foreign policy.
In 1963 February, as part of the Arab cold war, US backed a coup in Iraq to overthrow and kill the then Iraqi prime minister Abd Al Karim Quasim and establish a Baathist government. The CIA provided the new right wing government with a list of communists and a blood bath followed. Thousands died.
Vietnam was also one of the famous examples of Kennedy's double standards in relation to world peace. Once again stopping the spread of communism was high priority over world peace.
In 1961 Kennedy affirmed his commitment to defend south Vietnam.
The then prevailing Diem regime in South Vietnam had so far been successful in containing the spread of communism. But by late 1962 it had started to become unpopular. So in 1963 November, Diem was assassinated by CIA, just three weeks before JFK himself was killed.
Kennedy in direct contrast to his facade of humanity authorised the use of agent Orange in Vietnam, in 1961. Agent Orange was an herbicide which when sprayed from air, destroyed the vegetation providing cover for the terrorists. Agent Orange as a biological weapon has many adverse effects on humans. But the batch which was used in Vietnam was worse. They were contaminated with TCDD, which has known ability to cause haematological malignancies and birth defects in humans. The contamination was deemed accidental of course.... But the questions remain......
In 1962, under JFK authorisation, Agent Blue, another biological weapon was unleashed on Vietnam. This time there was no pretence.... Agent Blue targeted field crops.
Back home JFK continued to make wonderfully moving speeches on moral and human issues.
Biological and chemical weapons were nothing new to the JFK administration. A biological and chemical weapon experimentation project dubbed project 112, was initiated in 1962. The aim was to measure the effects of biological and chemical weapons on people, plants, animals, insects, vehicles, ships and equipment.
JFK authorised the project with orders that if allegations are made they should prove to be unfounded or unprovable.
The project was so secret that the US denied its existence until 2000 May, when it was exposed by investigative reporter Eric Longabardi.
Some of those experiments were designed to identify US warships' vulnerability to chemical warfare. The experiments were launched from ships and the sailors were mostly unaware that they were being used as human guinea pigs.
Tests were conducted on civilian subjects as well, and included release of aerosols and testing the feasibility of using mosquitoes as vectors.
Apparently informed consent was not high fashion in the '60s.
Kennedy is remembered nowadays as a leader who paved the way to end racial segregation in the US. His tenure is highlighted with memorable milestones of the civil rights movement. He made the problem of segregation into a moral issue in his famous civil rights address, after the incident of "stand in the school house door". But critics argue that he didn't really do all he could have done to end racial segregation. Some even go as far to say that he simply played the role of a safe bystander who was really very reluctant to compromise the white votes of the deep South. But it may be worth remembering that he claimed that he could end housing segregation with one stroke of a pen once he entered white horse. And because of this, activists started to send him pens after he assumed office, because that single stroke of a pen was really slow to come.
But still, despite everything, Kennedy still ranks amongst the all time most popular US presidents..

Monday, May 16, 2016

The covert biological war against South America: what we know and are yet to know

Latin America,
The land of diversity. From the harsh plateaus of Atacama deserts, to the freezing wastes of Andese mountains, and the green wetness of the Amazons, the rippling stipa of the pampas...
The people, black, white, yellow and different shades of brown.. Their festivals and their gods as colourful and diverse as they are.
But behind the carnivals and Miceretas lies the hidden face of Latin America. Poverty and congestion lie not far behind the colourful stage curtains..
For example, Neza-Chalco-Itza in Mexico City is reputed to be the largest slum in the world, with a population density of 80000 per square kilometer. And Peru, Bolivia and Columbia are respectively the top three cocaine producers in the world.
At the other end of the spectrum, Brazil and Mexico are among the largest economies of the world.
Beginning in the 1998, the politics of the Latin American countries took a turn to the left, which the popular media termed the pink tide. Literally beneath its nose, with its anti communist sentiments bordering on paranoia, it was surprising, to say the least, that the US allowed this pink tide to take place.
Or did it??
Since a very long time ago the former Cuban president, Fidel Castro had never minced his words regarding the numerous attempts to kill him. ( 638 according to some sources) But the most interesting thing about these assassination attempts is that at least some of them were executed using biological agents. In other words, US had used biological weapons against Fidel Castro.
Most infamously the CIA used cigars poisoned with botulinum toxin, and also a scuba diving suit infected with tubercle bacilli. But Castro survived all the plots.
The attempts on Fidel Castro are about the only episodes with definitive evidence pointing to US employing bio weapons against Latin America. But lack of good evidence apart, are they the only attempts??
To find the answer, let's travel back in time to 1963 to Dallas, Texas. On November 22nd of that year, in Dealy plaza, Dallas, history was created with the assassination of JFK. Immediately, JFK assassination triggered suspicions of conspiracy. Not the least, because of the gunning down of the alleged assasin Lee Harvey Oswald, by the Texas night club owner Jack Ruby, only two days later.
Jack Ruby was duly arrested and while awaiting trial, in1966, he died from the complications of severely disseminated cancer.
He had cancer in liver, lungs, brain, lymph nodes, pancreas, ribs and vertebrae. In the brain only, there were 8 separate tumors. But he didn't have any in 1964, just two years before.
Dallas deputy Sherriff at that time, Al Maddox, claimed that Ruby had once told him, that he was injected with cancer cells.
Fantasies of a sensationalist?? Possibly, but let's go again to 1964, July.
An eminent orthopaedic surgeon and cancer researcher, Dr.Mary Sherman's brutality murdered mutilated and half burnt body was found in her apartment. Her murder was never solved and probably never will be. But in 1997, a book authored by Ed Haslam, claimed to solve the mystery. The plot summary stating that, Dr.Sherman was working in an undercover project to create a virus which causes cancer. The aim? To kill Fidel Castro.
The book has many scientific flaws and implausible theories. But the fact remains that Dr. Sherman has done research on oncology and also on polio virus.
In both the above incidents, Jack Ruby and Dr. Sherman, the recurring theme is cancer.
Ed Haslam's book has been dismissed as implausible and Jack Ruby's allegations as ravings.
But it is possible that in the light of the above two intriguing incidents in the distant past, new clues may reveal themselves about the use of biological weapons on Latin America.
In 2013, Hugo Chávez, the 64th president of Venezuela, succumbed to cancer. The cancer was first diagnosed in 2011.
Meanwhile in Paraguay, president Fernando Lugo had been diagnosed with Non Hodgkin lymphoma in 2010.
President Christina Fernandez a prominent left wing politician from Argentina, in turn received her diagnosis of thyroid cancer in 2011.
But the situation in Brazil easily suppresses anything. Dilma Rousseff its current left wing president was diagnosed with early stage axillary lymphoma in 2009. Her predecessor, Lula de Silva was diagnosed with malignant tumor of larynx in 2011. Itamar Franco, another past president of Brazil was diagnosed with leukaemia, also in 2011...
Pretty weird? Or should we be asking what's going on?
So obviously, the US didn't just ignore the pink tide. The experiments which possibly began as early as 1960s, ought to have obviously yielded some tangible results by now. And the tangible results may be those diagnoses from 2009 to 2011.
Cancer causing viruses are definitely not fiction. That much we know. For example it is a fairly old discovery that some batches of injectible polio vaccines produced in the US between 1955 and 1961 were contaminated with SV40, a monkey virus. But what is new knowledge is CDC's reluctant acceptance after decades of denial that SV40 is a human polyoma virus. I.e. That it can cause cancer in multiple tissues.
Research data shows that SV40 has been isolated from multiple human cancers. And those researches also indicate a 37% rise in ependymomas, 26% rise in osteogenic sarcomas, 34% rise in bone tumors and a 90% rise in mesotheliomas after exposure to SV40.
So harnessing the power to cause cancer is definitely not fiction.
Cancer is definitely not the only form of biological agent unleashed on south America.
A new virulent strain of HIV which can kill in something like three years was discovered only last year from Cuba. Chance mutation? Or something better than chance? Again its left to speculation.
The Haiti cholera epidemic is another unfortunate event that up to date, has claimed more than 9000 lives. The outbreak started in 2010, after the devastating Haiti earthquake. The strain was identified as originating from south asia. UN officials and the CDC were extremely reluctant to investigate the source. But in 2011, under pressure, the UN relented and discovered that the source of the epidemic was a Nepalese peace keeping force camp.
It could be the poor sanitation and waste disposal of the camp that started the epidemic. But it is equally possible that the virulent cholera strain alien to the latin America was introduced intentionally.
Viruses and diseases against humans is not the only component of biological warfare. Diseases against plant and entomological weapons are also part of the deal.
In 2000, as part of America's war on drugs it formulated a plan to release strains of the fungus 'Fusarium oxysporum' which is herbicidal against coca. The country of focus was Columbia. But the plan had to be pulled out amidst general opposition from regional countries.
As of 2015 US scientists are contemplating the feasibility of dropping certain breeds of caterpillars onto Columbian and Peruvian coca fields.
But the big problem with these agents is that nobody can be sure of their behaviour. After all they are biological organisms. They can easily mutate or even merely adapt into infesting and destroying other crops as well.
So the big brother up north is definitely not going to allow the south be......

Friday, May 6, 2016

The dead who walk...

Haiti, a unique country occupying the eastern part of the island of Hispaniola... Dubbed 'La perle des Antilles' both for its natural beauty and also the vast fortune that it provided to France, it's colonial rulers, Haiti was indeed the wealthiest of French colonies.
Haiti being the only nation in the world established as the result of a successful slave revolt, boasts of having defeated three European super powers. France, Britain and Spain.
But since declaring itself a free nation it has suffered dejection, political isolation, political humiliation and interference from other nations as well as perhaps even bio terrorism.
The Haitian religion or Voodooism is a curious mix of native African religions and Roman Catholicism. And it's got a rich colourful culture with many unique rituals and beliefs. But up until modern times, Haiti was mostly shrouded in mystery and its culture and beliefs were painted in a negative light in the western eye.
In 1915, in response to anti American revolts and threats to the US economic dominance over Haiti, American forces occupied island. That was when strange reports of men (and women) who are raised from death, to be turned into slaves, started to reach the west.
In Haitian Creole, they were called the 'Zombi'.
Haitian legends state that a zombie is a corpse which is reanimated by a wizard that they call 'a bokor'. The zombie thus created is purported to be completely under the control of the bokor.
Reports of such real people who were supposed to have died, but who later walked into their villages, were investigated by researchers. One such notable case is a man named 'Clarivius Narcisse' who was presumed to be dead and buried in 1962. But he returned home 18 years later and claimed that he had been dug up from his grave and forced to work in a sugar cane plantation.
The idea that zombies are really a scientifically explainable phenomenon, had been prevalent from those early times. The most widely circulated theory was that zombies are people who are put into a state of paralysis which resembles death. After that they are buried and the body is later unearthed by the bokor, and revived by another drug. After that the 'dead' man is kept under the absolute control of the bokor by the administration of hallucinogens. The ingredients of the magical concotion are of course kept secret. But they are reputed to contain Puffer fish poison, Datura plant extract, camphor and most gruesomely a newly buried baby's brain.
Wade Davis, one of the proponents insisting on a scientific explanation for the zombies, claims that the active ingredient from the puffer fish, Tetrodotoxin is responsible for the creation of zombies. But this claim had been refuted in 1990s based on results obtained by analytical chemistry.
But although analytical chemistry failed to show positive results for the alleged toxins, the fact remains that the puffer fish poison, Datura etc are definitely used by the bokor.
So can there be a truth in the myth? Is it possible to create a so called zombie by using the above medicines?
Also worth noting is that not just any old person, or even any old bokor can create a zombie. Only the most experienced and the seasoned could do it, and even so, there is no guarantee that you would succeed every time. The same medicines may act differently in the hands of different bokors. So why the big uncertainty??
The puffer fish, is a primarily marine and estuarine fish, which contain the toxin tetrodotoxin. The fish isn't inherently poisonous but the toxin is produced by symbiotic or infective bacteria. So the exact amount of poison in a given puffer fish is difficult to predict. The toxicity varies depending on the species, the geographical locality and the season of the year.
The toxic nature of the Puffer fish is know in other civilizations as well, the Chinese writing about it at around 2000 BC.
But with experience and local knowledge, predicting the toxicity maybe a different matter, thus accounting for the fact that only certain bokors are successful. For example the fish caught in the sea is more poisonous than their counterparts caught in estuaries.
The active ingredient in Puffer fish, tetrodotoxin, can kill in 17 minutes. But death can take up to 4 to 6 hours most commonly. The victim although completely paralyzed, remains in a lucid state until shortly before death. Some victims go into a coma. If the victim survives for 24 hours he usually fully recovers within 2 to 3 days.
According to the legends the presumably dead victim is buried and later dug up and revived by the bokor. Camphor is supposed to be one of the ingredients used for revival. It is interesting to note that camphor, obtained from plants of Lamiaceae family, especially rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), may contain caffeic acid and rosmarinic acid, whic have acetyle choline esterase inhibitors. And although not sufficiently investigated, acetyl choline esterase inhibitors are proposed as anti toxins for tetrodotoxin.
The legends do not stop there and go on to say that powerful medicines are repeatedly given to the zombies to maintain submission.
One such drug is supposed to be obtained from a plant of the genus Datura. Datura is a known hallucinogen with anticholinergic activity.
But here also the toxicity changes among individual plants, from leaf to leaf, from the age of the plant and flowering etc. So to use Datura safely and obtain the desired effects at the same time one has to be extremely experienced.
Another ingredient which is supposed to be used in the making of a zombie is the brain of a recently buried baby. This is the one ingredient which had been subjected to least scientific scrutiny. The infant brain having known chemical difference from the adult brain may indeed be used for its chemical properties.. Or on the other hand, this addition could well be in order to add a touch of mysticism.
Most probably there are yet still more active ingredients which we have never heard about. A secret handed down from one generation of bokors to the other, but eventually as most other ancient magic, dying slowly and getting lost and forgotten in history.
But on the other hand, as some historians tend to argue, the myth of the zombies is just what it is... a myth, conveying the story of Haiti's slavery in metaphorical language..
As usual, we may never know....

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The steel from Serendib.

Damascus, an ancient city with a history running back almost 6000 years before Christ... A city of magic and romance, where civilizations met, displayed their wares, traded, haggled, clashed their swords and sometimes mingled. Damascus is a city which had seen innumerable wars and battles. It had seen the rise and fall of many empires. It had embraced numerous gods only to forget them in due time and worship new gods.
And one legend which still abounds about this city in the near East, is its swords. The Damascus swords had been and still continues to be an object of much speculation. The legendary swords with their blades with the well known rippling pattern, resembling that of flowing water or soft rippling fabric, was a legend.... a mystery..
Stories were abound about the sharpness and the plasticity of the blade. Legends has it that the sword could cut with precision through the barrel of a rifle and through a hair falling across it's blade. It could go through many a battle and slash through bone and flesh and still retain its sharpness. Legends has it that the blade of Saladin himself was of Damascus steel.
The secret of Damascus sword lies in the steel that was used to forge it.
And the story begins many miles due east, in southern India and especially in a small island that they called Serendib.
"..the finest steel for Damascus blades came from Serendib.."
Sri Lanka, as 'Serendib' is better known now, started exporting high quality steel somewhere in the 1st century AD, the production reaching its zenith during the 9th century AD. But how did the ancient Sri Lankans make such fine steel?
The iron age started in Sri Lanka in 1000BC. Little by little Sri Lankans learned to smelt iron from iron containing ores. Initially they used bloomeries, which produced only low carbon high impurity iron of unremarkable quality. But later on they progressed on to use blast furnaces where the stream of air was supplied by bellows.
In Sigiriya, sri Lanka, remains of such ancient blast furnaces have been found. The bellows were made of animal skin and placed in clay containers and an operator work them to keep a constant supply of air.
Blast furnaces developed all over the world and could be defined as the climax of the iron age. Better quality iron with a higher percentage of carbon could be produced this way.
But in Sri Lanka, unlike other areas, high carbon, low impurity steel was being produced even before they had perfected the blast furnace!! So what is the secret?
The discovery was made in a perfectly providential manner in 1988. That year the then reigning government of Sri Lanka embarked on a hydroelectric project centered in the Walawe river basin in Southern Sri Lanka. It involved the construction of 'Samanalawewa Dam' across the Walawe river. The area was not a known archeological site, but an initial field survey revealed a unique archeological discovery.
It was an iron smelting furnace located on the western slopes of the hills, facing south west. Further research revealed almost 80 such sites. Surveys suggested that at one time there could have been almost 3000 smelters in this area.
The furnaces were unique in the true meaning of the word. They were not bloomeries and neither were they blast furnaces.
In fact they were wind driven, actually monsoon wind driven furnaces.
From June to September, monsoon winds sweep inwards to the island from the vast expanse of the Indian ocean. These furnaces took the natural advantage of the monsoon winds to supply a continuous stream of air.
At least one site from 'Samanala wewa' was from as far back as the 3rd century BC. It can be definitely stated that steel of highest quality with low impurities and high carbon percentage was being produced by the 1st century AD. And that is the earliest evidence of high quality steel from south Asia, according to Dr. Jill Julef.
The furnaces were easy to work, because unlike blast furnaces, they required comparatively little man power. So they were cost and energy efficient.
The technical details of the furnaces are also impressive and suggest the broad technical knowledge possessed by the ancient engineers.
Wind, close to the ground level blowing uphill, would reach maximum velocities at the crest, where the furnaces were located. The front wall of the furnace acts as a barrier and splits the stream of air into two layers. The stream that flows up over the top of the furnace roof creates an area of low pressure, which effects the lower layer of air to be sucked into the furnace through the tuyere at the front.
The maximum efficacy of the furnace, depends on the laminar airflow along the tuyere. The airflow has to be in the transition zone between laminar to turbulent. To make sure that this requirement is met, the physical variable called the Reynolds number has to be within a certain range. If we are modern day physicists with complex computation devices we would have to use certain complicated equations to find out the right tuyere diameter and angle to give the appropriate flow speeds assuming that the monsoon wind speeds are more or less fixed.
But more than 2000 years ago the ancient Sri Lankan craftsmen also knew the diameter and the angle which was optimal. It is extraordinary that the modern calculated values of those variables and the actual measurements taken in the field, match together beautifully...
Actual working replicas of the furnaces made by archeologists had been so efficacious that they are presumed to have produced about 10 tons of steel each year.
The carbon source for thus produced steel came from plant material incorporated whilst being produced. This was also different from the more widespread practice of using charcoal as a source for carbon.
Investigations into Damascus steel conducted as recently as 2006 have revealed the presence of carbon nanotubes encasing cementile nanowires. Some specialists claim that this unique nanowire and tube arrangements may have arisen due to the use of plant material for a carbon source.
Steel production in sri Lanka reached its zenith by the 9th century AD. Its reputation as an exporter of the finest steel in the world was well documented in the Islamic world.
But this unique method of steel production seems to have disappeared from the Sri Lankan history by the 11th century AD. This archeological fact may be accounted for by the gradual decline of the ancient rajarata civilization which culminated in the invasion and the subsequent carnage of Kalinga Maga in 1215....
Damascus steel continued to be produced from the steel from south India. But after about 1700 AD, the craft declined until it became another one of the lost arts of the ancient world....

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Buddhism; The philosophy that became a religion.

Buddhism, a philosophy which has its roots in Asia and yet with its unique world view and simplicity continues to attract many followers from around the globe each year; A personification of tranquillity and peace; Saffron robes and calmness.....
The philosophy was born around 2500 years ago in India, 6th century BC. How did it evolve and change over the past 2500 years and is it even the same teaching still?
The story begins in 6th century BC India, an era which could be described as a kind of a religious and philosophical renaissance in India. The Ganges basin where the civilization centred on was undergoing major socio cultural changes. The prevalent Brahminic social divisions and norm codes which severely discriminated the people of so called lower social strata, were beginning to be seen as oppressive. Especially the people of the ruling class who were still considered inferior to Brahmins were beginning to rebel. People were starting to think and question. In what might be called an explosion of knowledge, and innovation, new philosophies came into being. Sources claim that there were 62 religions in the Ganges basin.
Into this melee of spiritualism and philosophy was born a certain child.... destined to be the future lord Buddha.
He probably grew up learning the Vedic teachings of Brahmins. And unlike many he probably sought the meaning of what he was taught. And he probably had a lot of questions, particularly about god. Who is god? Where is he? How does he work his magic? Is it better to love him or fear him?
And he probably didn't get any satisfactory answers..
Living the life of a nobleman he was probably exposed to various learned men. Men who were not Brahmins but philosophers in their own right. Being of unusually curious disposition his interviews with them probably opened our young man's mind to other possibilities.
And so he started his quest to find answers. With time, his questions grew more defined and the requirements of his answers grew more refined. I won't dwell much on how the prince left his castle to find answers and the adventures he had, because adventures they obviously were.. But eventually he found his answers, and Buddhism which is undeniably a great philosophy was born.
Within a short time of its birth, Buddhism spread far and wide. One reason of course was Lord Buddha's emphasis on spreading his teachings far and wide. But in its own right, Buddhism was an attractive philosophy, both to the masses and the nobility. It was new, it was simple, it was different and it didn't rely on an unknown, unseen deity. It gave a new vision that you are responsible for your own fate and that you can as well change it. And most attractively, Buddhism defied the social stratification and discrimination made widespread by Brahmins.
But if truth be said Buddhism was more of a philosophy than a religion. For one thing, there was no deity that you could pray to when in distress. No god to look up, to perform miracles and help you. You were virtually responsible for your own salvation. And the philosophy and the world view was definitely not understood by everyone.
So with time and with the introduction of more attractive religions Buddhism ceased to be the fast spreading philosophy readily embraced by the masses, that it used to be.
But in a certain island nation just south of the southern most tip of the Indian sub continent, it survived. In Sri Lanka, there was the right mix of political and social backgrounds to sustain Buddhism. It was embraced by the royalty. The royal patronage through the centuries guaranteed the safety of Buddhism. Also the fiercely patriotic islanders defied invasions and made sure their culture survived.
But did it really survive? Did Buddhism remain as pure and untainted as we imagine it to be??
Overtime, most obviously practices changed and rituals were established. The philosophy was converted to what would appeal to masses... a religion!!
Rituals like worshipping came into being. Buddhist monks became more focused on literature and gave rise to literary masterpieces which although excellent in an aesthetic sense did little to the teaching of the philosophy. And now... we sri Lankans still have Buddhism... the edited version. We have the religion Buddhism of which we are faithful followers..

The edited version of Buddhism is unique in that it seems to have adopted exactly the rituals that lord Buddha condemned 2500 years ago; the self same rituals that were plentiful in other theistic religions.
For example, Buddhists worship statues of lord Buddha and the 'Bo' trees, "ficus religiosa". Various theologians may try to justify the practice, but there's no denying that lord Buddha himself condemned the practice.
Maybe the primitive impulses of the people always, always revert to safety and protection seeking when concerning things that they consider religious. Maybe that's what happened to Buddhism too.
This may explain the ritual of chanting Buddhist scripture with the hope that it will bring prosperity, good fortune, protection and health.. Scriptures contain the various teachings of Buddhism. So in my opinion, the scriptures deserve to be studied, learned and understood. And to chant them like some magic spells expecting things to happen is to severely degrade their true value.
The same can be said about the practice of tying threads supposed to be sanctified by chanting scriptures to them. I may be wrong but i can't find any evidence of lord Buddha ever having tied such a thread on some disciple as blessing. The practice probably evolved later on with some influence from concurrent practices in Hinduism.

As in any religion, Buddhism also has much to say about death. And one of the main occasions that Buddhists seek out the temple is on the death of a loved one. The current belief is that by doing an alms giving and having the Buddhist priests chant specific scripture, you can add merit to the after life of the diseased person. That is, provided he is born in some low birth where he expects merit. I don't intend to do an in-depth dissertation on the topic. There are theologians who have and will argue to and against this concept time and time again. But once again all i can say is, i can't find any stories of lord Buddha going to some contemporary citizen's funeral to give merit to the afterlife. But I do know that in Hinduism, when someone dies his or her relatives do rituals to help the departed soul attain salvation. No conclusions once again.

Sometimes during the 13th and the 14th century, Sri Lanka saw a renaissance of literature. Under the patronage of learned and scholarly kings, many Buddhists theologians created literary masterpieces. The "jathaka stories" written during the 13th century, supposedly describing the various previous births of lord Buddha is one such masterpiece. But from some point in history these stories started to be taken as facts. Obviously these stories were fables with some moral lesson in them. They were good teaching material to encultivate morals in the people. So the priests often started to base their sermons on these stories. This of course was a good and effective practice and certainly did appeal to the masses. But i can't help wondering if the great doctrine became shadowed due to this diversion. After all Buddhism is not about just storytelling!!
On the other hand, priests with poetic and musical inclinations started to compose their sermons in poetic form and sing them...

Is it too late to salvage the great doctrine? We definitely can't change the rituals. But maybe when enough people start to question, a new generation of truth seekers might be born. A generation trying to salvage the truth from all the misleading decorations. And maybe one of them will succeed!!