Thursday, 26 July 2012

On Tulpas, Guardian Angels, and Figments of the Imagination

     Of the 83 countries I have visited, one of the most memorable, and certainly the one closest in appearance to another planet, was the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. Although it has spent most of its history fighting to prevent itself being incorporated into Tibet, it is essentially Tibetan in culture. It was there that I witnessed the external face of Tantric Buddhism.
     The first stop on our tour of the capital, Thimpu was the Memorial Chörten. It was with a sense of awe that we beheld the beauty of the sanctuary, clean and brightly painted, surrounded by beautifully clipped shrubs. This was a holy place, we were told. No photography was permitted inside. Carefully and respectfully, we removed our shoes and stepped up onto the icy cold floor of this holy of holies.
     Inside stood an unspeakable abomination.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

The Sweating Cross of Madras

     The latest news is that the water dripping from a crucifix in a church in Bombay (I refuse to call it "Mumbai") was found to have resulted from a blocked drain , which caused water to ooze into the wall, and then the wooden crucifix. This is the first time I have heard of one of these dripping/weeping/bleeding crosses/statues/icons being properly investigated, let alone debunked or confirmed. Personally, I seldom show much interest in them. Not only are there many ways such phenomena could be produced, either naturally or by artifice, but they always appear to me to be rather pathetic miracles. It is as if God is using simple tricks to impress simple people. (But then, I might be guilty of intellectual snobbery. After all, God is just as concerned with the simple as with the sophisticated.) In any case, it reminded me of a more complex phenomenon also reported from India. It is an oldie, but goldie, and since it is highly unlikely you will read it anywhere else, I shall publish it here.

Monday, 2 July 2012

A Deep Sea Merman, 1571

     As everybody knows, sea cows - the dugongs of Asia and Australia, and the manatees of Central and South America and the west coast of Africa - were the inspiration for the mermaid legend. They even bear the scientific name, Sirenia, "mermaids", although the classical sirens were bird-women rather than fish-women.
     Let me state, here and now, that this is not a fact, but a "factoid": something which "everybody knows", but is nevertheless false. If mermaids were really sea cows, they wouldn't be attribruted to the western coasts of the British Isles and northern Europe, or to Greece, where belief in them is (was) strongest. They would be treated as strange beings dwelling in distant parts - like the unicorn, which was based on garbled accounts of the Indian rhinoceros. But there is one thing both merfolk and sea cows have in common: they are creatures of the inshore shallows. One place you would never expect them would be the open Atlantic Ocean, with water more than a mile deep.