Thursday 30 November 2017

Train journey in Europe left me thinking if we’re ready to embrace diversity

Humans carry the baggage of their multiple identities, creating a complex matrix of intersectionality, which exposes their privileges and disadvantages. Diversity is necessary for celebrating differences in our society, and human interaction allows one to grasp this diversity, to embrace others despite the differences in cultural, racial, ethnic, religious and caste, rather than fearing and hating them, writes Swati Kamble in The Ladies Finger. Read on: 

I am a Dalit woman and a marginalised women’s rights activist-researcher, born and raised in a slum in Mumbai. I am doing a PhD abroad now. I am in a heterosexual-married companionship with an upper middle class white man in a wealthy western European country. One can gauge my intersectional identity, my disadvantages, and privileges in every term I have used to describe myself.

The term ‘intersectionality’, with its genesis embedded in black women’s struggle for their rights, has sharpened my critical perspectives so I can now view the web of interconnected identities that make an individual either privileged or vulnerable. My perspectives on individuals, their privileges and disadvantages, widen with every new experience.

Two such incidences occurred recently as I was traveling to Ghent from the Brussels airport.

On the train to Ghent, I saw two little girls, about three and five, sitting with their mother on a seat opposite mine. The girls were playfully singing something. When I paid close attention, I heard “Daddy finger, daddy finger, where are you… Here I am, here I am, how do you do?” I was amused to hear that these young girls were reciting the same rhyme that my four-year-old nephew Menander from Mumbai recites. I know for the fact that in Europe it is not very common among kids to learn English rhymes unless they are raised in a multicultural household or they are Indians. I was curious and I asked the mother, “Excuse me, where do you come from?”

Only when I asked the question did I realise how deeply engrossed in thought she was. She also looked concerned. She said to me in broken English, “I am Albanie (Albanian), I am sorry I am confused,” she worriedly said, I figured. She explained to me, “I have to go to Luxembourg, but I was given a wrong direction. Only after I got on to the train, I realised it’s a wrong train.”

I asked her where she lives in Belgium. She told me she lived in a camp in Belgium for the past five months, but now she was traveling to Luxembourg, and that because of the confusion of the train route she will not have a connecting bus in Luxembourg to get to her destination. This time I looked around. The woman was carrying two bulky bags without wheels, which meant she would have to carry them. In addition to that, she had a baby stroller for the little girl and a handbag. I realised she had every reason to be worried. She was travelling with two little girls, with very heavy bags and nobody else to assist her. I further asked her, for what reasons she had come to Belgium. I thought she may be a war-affected minority from Kosovo. But she said she had escaped an abusive husband and had fled the country with her two girls to seek asylum in Belgium. We started to chat a little more. When I asked her about the rhyme the girls were singing, she said they learned it in the camp on YouTube. It amused me to see how YouTube has brought people of different cultures together. While my nephew in India enjoys watching ‘Masha and the bear’ in Russian, a friend’s daughters in Belgium relish watching Kannada animation rhymes ‘Veeri veeri gummadi paddu’, so much so that my friend could recite it without knowing the meaning.

The Albanian young mother asked me if I was Indian and if I knew Mother Teresa. She told me that Mother Teresa was Albanian and had lived in India. She told me, as a child she would look at the Indian sisters (nuns) who came to Albanian churches in her city. While we were talking, it was time for her to change the train. I told her I was going to help her with the bags. As the train stopped, I dropped the bags on the platform and helped her to get the girls off of the train safely. In that moment I realised it was not enough to just have dropped the bags on the platform, as she it would have been difficult for her to pull those bags down the stairs. Additionally, she had a stroller and two very young girls who were quite afraid of the automated train doors. In the previous ride, the doors had almost closed down on the little girls. I rushed to the compartment to get my bag to get off the train but the automated train door closed before I could rush back.

As the train moved away from the platform, I was heartbroken to see the image of a distressed mother standing with heavy bags and two little girls clinging to her. The weight of her intersecting identity as a refugee woman from a poor European country with a recent history of war, who has fled an abusive relationship was heavier than those bags. I felt sad that I could not help her more. While my husband waited at Ghent station to receive and embrace me lovingly, she had to flee her country to escape the brutalities of her husband — being a survivor of domestic abuse myself in a previous relationship, I found her to be an embodiment of a strong courageous woman; a survivor. I was sad that I didn’t ask her for her name or any other details.

On the next station, it was time for me to get off the train and get on a connecting train to Ghent. I went up the escalator to the platform where the train would come. On my way up I saw a tall young black man struggling with two big bags, one piece of handbag and a plastic bag, descending from the escalator to get to another platform. I had a déjà vu from my early student days when I too travelled to Europe with heavy bags using public transport. I know well the impulse that one has in packing a slice of one’s home s/he is leaving behind to head to the land of promises. In that time, it was announced that my train had changed platforms. I descended the escalator hurriedly, only to encounter the young black man rushing with his heavy bags again. I decided to give him a hand with one of his bags so he and I would both walk with a bag in each hand. I asked him where he was going. Since he too was headed to Ghent, it was convenient. I helped him get his bags on the train and once inside the train, we stood talking.

Wole is from Nigeria. He had gone to Nigeria for two months on holiday and was returning back to Ghent, where he came seven years ago. Wole has a masters degree in political science but came to Belgium to make a living, in search of better opportunities. Having spent seven years working part-time as a cook, he wants to leave the hustle and bustle of a European city. Wole has a four-year-old daughter whom he wants to raise in Nigeria. Life here in Europe is too demanding, he says. But as we came near Ghent, he said, “Man, I missed Ghent”. The city he made his home for seven years and clearly developed a bond with has not given him much to stick for a while longer.

We spoke a lot about global politics, about how people judge other individuals based on outer appearances — skin colour, faith, sexual orientation. And how these prejudices have taken away humanity in this era of technology, where we are globally connected and are closer than ever, where social networking strives to bring humans together, yet we are engulfed with differences that set us apart.

The two incidences on the train taught me a lot. I experienced how reaching out to fellow humans enriches you; teaches you about life in more ways than one.

Humans carry the baggage of their multiple identities, creating a complex matrix of intersectionality, which exposes their privileges and disadvantages. Diversity is necessary for celebrating differences in our society, and human interaction allows one to grasp this diversity, to embrace others despite the differences in cultural, racial, ethnic, religious and caste, rather than fearing and hating them. These interactions have the tremendous power to connect people in a world that is wounded and oozing from violence, hatred, and fear — the fear of others, who, despite all the differences, share a common thread of humanity.

I’m left with some questions. The fact that I, an Indian in a foreign land can encounter an Albanian and  a Nigerian in a single trip, shows how ‘glocal’ we have become. But are we ready to embrace this diversity? To recognise the beauty and wealth it brings? Are we willing to prepare for a world order that responds to diverse individual needs? Are we willing to create a safe haven for everybody to coexist happily and meaningfully? Accepting the difference rather than tolerating it? I wish for that world, now more than ever.

Bengaluru realtors who swallowed lakes: Prestige, Bagmane, Sobha and 62 others named

Many real estate firms have been named in the lake encroachment report submitted in Karnataka Legislative Assembly.

Several real estate firms are now under the scanner after a committee headed by Karnataka Assembly Speaker KB Koliward presented an extensive report in the Karnataka Legislative Assembly that revealed that over 10,000 acres of lake area has been encorached in and around Bengaluru. The report suggests demolition or takeover of properties like apartments that were built by private companies and allotting the properties to the same companies on a lease agreement.

The report states that 10,785 acres or around 18% of lake area has been encroached in 1,547 lakes in the two districts and also names over 75 companies in a list of offenders. This includes some of Bengaluru biggest realtors like Prestige Developers, Sobha Limited and Bagmane Group.

Revenue Minister Kagodu Thimmappa disclosed in the Legislative Assembly that the district administration in Bengaluru was yet to file suo moto cases against encroachers. The Minister also said that there are provisions for filing criminal cases against encroachers of lakes.

The Bengaluru Development Authority is the biggest offender.

Nandi Infrastructure Corridor Enterprises (NICE) 7 acres 6 guntas, Kengeri

The NICE group had earlier planned to construct the first of seven townships near Kengeri under the Bangalore-Mysore Infrastructure Corridor Project (BMICP).

(Below is a list of real estate companies executing projects in and around former lakes and lake beds in Bengaluru. Of the total project, some guntas have been encroached upon according to the Koliwad report. The report does not name any specific project, but only names of builders).

Prestige Developers - 33 acres 18 guntas, Varthur. According to the report 4 guntas has been encroached on, plot empty.

Oasis Apartments - 15 acres 38 guntas, Varthur.

DS Max Apartment - 105 acres 18 guntas, Bidarahalli- 6 guntas encroached, labour shed constructed.

Sobha Apartments - 18 acres 6 guntas, Begur- less than 3 guntas, compound built.

Government Ashraya Scheme - 79 acres 32 guntas, Begur, Bengaluru South Taluk

The Ashraya Scheme provides temporary homes for children before safe houses are found for adoption.

Bagmane Group - 14 acres 24 guntas, KR Puram- More than 10 guntas, compound and fenced houses built.

ST Bed Layout - 49 acres 11 guntas, Srinivagilu, Bengaluru South Taluk.

ST Bed Layout in Srinivagilu is a housing colony

Enzyme Tech Park - 136 acres 30 guntas, Begur, Bengaluru South Taluk.

Enzyme Tech Park in Koramangala is home to a chain of business operations

Adarsh Developers - 42 acres 23 guntas, Varthur- Less than one gunta.

Chandrika Soap Factory - 57 acres 26 guntas, Kacharakanhalli, Bengaluru North Taluk- Just a little above one gunta.

The Chandrika Soap Factory in Kacharakanhalli has already been in the news for contributing to turning the Kacharakanahalli  lake into a landfill

Advaith Apartments - 124 acres 25 guntas, Begur, Bengaluru South Taluk- Less than 125 guntas.

Advaith Apartments constructed a residential apartment in New Tippasandra

Brigade Developers - 13 acres 11 guntas, Bidarahalli- 16 guntas encroached.

Apartment Complex and Oberoi Company - 99 acres 33 guntas Kodigehalli, Bengaluru North Additional Taluk- Less than 25 guntas encroached in the front of the apartment, and less than 150 guntas in another empty site.

Oberoi Company constructed a residential apartment complex in Kodigehalli

Gordon View Apartment - 32 acres 16 guntas, KR Puram- Almost 9 guntas encroached upon says the report.

A residential apartment in KR Puram.

Ashwini Enterprises - 30 acres 37 guntas, Binnamangala- Encroachment detail not clear.

(Source: TNM)

The Trump-Russia story is coming together. Here's how to make sense of it

The news is coming so fast and furious, from so many sources and in so many fragments, that it takes more than a scorecard to keep up with the Trump-Russia connection. It takes a timeline -- a "map," if you will, of where events and names and dates and deeds converge into a story that makes sense of the incredible scandal of the 2016 election and now of the Trump Administration.

For years Steve Harper produced timelines for the cases he argued or defended in court as a successful litigator. Retired now from practicing law, Harper has turned his experience, talent, and curiosity to monitoring for the bizarre and entangled ties between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump and the murky world of Russian oligarchs, state officials, hackers, spies, and Republican operatives. You can check out the over 700 entries right here. But for an overview -- and some specifics -- of recent developments, I called up Steve to give us a sense of the emerging story.     
Bill Moyers: You're the consummate trial lawyer with a celebrated reputation for summing up the closing argument for the jury, but from our work together on the timeline I know you also have the instincts of a journalist. So write the lede to the story this far: What's the most important thing for us to know about the Trump/Russia connection as of today?

Steven Harper: Everything the Trump campaign told you about the connections between Trump and Russia was a lie.

Go on.
Well, there are a number of different dimensions to the issue, but let's just take the easiest one. The other day The Washington Post published a very good article that said for all of Trump's denials during the campaign of any connections between him, his campaign and Russia, it turns out there were 31 interactions. And there were 19 meetings. Furthermore, what Trump and his people have been doing since then is everything they can to keep the public from being aware of the truth. And this feeds into the obstruction story.

How so?
Up to and including the firing of James Comey, Trump did everything he could to try to shut down, slow down or stop the investigation. First, he tried to shut down the investigation of Mike Flynn. Then it turned out that Mike Flynn is probably just a piece of a much larger problem, which is Russia. Trump admitted to the Russian ambassador and to the Russian foreign minister shortly after he fired Comey that now he's got some relief from the Russia problem -- in other words, Comey's gone! But what's happened since then is the continuing effort to interfere with the investigation, even in the form of tweets -- all of which sure look a lot to me like witness intimidation for some of the key players in the saga.

And then there's a third component, which is in a way the most insidious -- the willingness of the congressional GOP to be complicit in all of this. We're talking now about a prescription for disaster for democracy. It's all part of the same story. If you think about it, every single person who has said something about there being no connection between Trump and Russia during the campaign has been caught in a lie about it. Even with this fellow George Papadopoulos, the talking point immediately became, "Well, he didn't get in trouble for anything that he did, he got in trouble for lying to federal investigators." Sure, and what was he lying to federal investigators about? About whether or not there were any contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia. And that's the part that everybody glosses over in terms of the talking points on the Republican side.

George Papadopoulos was the youngest of Trump's foreign policy team and not a prominent public figure. Now Trump loyalists say he wasn't taken all that seriously by the campaign.
That's another remarkable thing, of course -- all the policy advisers all of a sudden are relegated to the status of low-level, unpaid volunteers, even though they sat in a meeting of foreign policy advisers with the presidential candidate himself early on. When they turn out to be suspects in this investigation, they all drop to the bottom of the heap, and it's as if Trump had never heard of any of them.

It's usual in a case like this to move the paramount figures to the expendable list, no?
Oh sure, absolutely, and I fully expect before this is over, you're going to get to a point where Donald Trump will say, "Oh, yeah, Donald Jr. -- you know he was only my son for a very limited period of time." It's absurd. And it started with Paul Manafort -- the same Manafort who actually delivered decisive delegates to Trump during a crucial period of the campaign. When the heat was turned on Manafort, they all said: "Oh, well, he played a limited role for a limited period of time." Yeah, he was only manager of the campaign, how about that?

Perhaps Trump, who aspired to be a great American president, will confess: "And I was just a real estate guy." [laughter] Robert Mueller is moving quickly with the investigation now. We have new news almost every day. What's the most recent development that strikes you as most important?
Three different strands have now begun to coalesce. There's a core strand running through it that I call the "follow the money" strand. Perhaps most of what happened throughout the campaign, if you view it from Vladimir Putin's side of the transaction, looks quite reasonable and makes a great deal of sense. Putin wants to eliminate sanctions on Russia, both because they affect him personally in a financial way and because they affect his country's economy in a big way. So you dangle in front of Trump the prospect of a Trump Tower in Moscow. We always knew that Trump wanted a Trump Tower in Moscow, because Trump told us he did. But what we didn't know was that during the campaign, the Trump organization was actively negotiating for such a development.

But two other strands have come together, and we need to understand them for all this to become a cogent narrative. The second strand involves political operatives. It turns out we're hearing about people like George Papadopoulos, who obviously was in communication with the Russians, and that strand is now probably taking Mueller -- certainly taking me -- further up the food chain. Papadopoulos implicated Sam Clovis, the former co-chairman of the campaign. And with people like Stephen Miller and Hope Hicks, you're getting right to the inner circle of the Trump campaign. All of a sudden last year, these low-level underlings, as they are now being described to us, were getting remarkable access, and they're getting responses from within the campaign. They're not sending emails off into cyberspace that no one ever answers; they're hearing back from some of these higher-ups.

And the third strand is what I would call the "digital strand." Cambridge Analytica, the Kushners, WikiLeaks -- they've started coming together in a very dramatic fashion over the past two or three weeks. Pundits say they keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. Well, didn't John McCain say, "This is a centipede. I guarantee you there will be more shoes to drop." It seems as though there is just no limit to the number of shoes that keep dropping in this thing. Everyone thought the big bombshell was the June 9 meeting and the Don Jr. emails that had set up that meeting in Trump Tower relating to dirt the Russians were promising on Hillary Clinton. And then we just get this even more stunning series of interactions and communications and exchanges that show the people that Kushner hired to run the digital campaign going to WikiLeaks, and reveal Don Jr. having direct Twitter communications with WikiLeaks about Clinton documents. It's just remarkable. If all of this had hit at the same time, it would have been blockbuster, but because of the dribbling out of it, no one focuses on the extent to which some of these three strands coalesce. And they sometimes coalesce around what I call very hot dates in the timeline.

Let's pause right there. There's a beginning to a story like this. So I hope you're reading a new book out this week by Luke Harding, once the Moscow correspondent for The Guardian of London. The title is Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money and how the Russians Helped Donald Trump Win. Have you been following coverage of the book?
Yes. I haven't read it yet, but I've read a couple of excerpts and summaries of certain portions of it.

Harding, who's a very experienced reporter, quotes the British ex-spy, Christopher Steele, who worked in Russia for years and compiled that notorious dossier on Trump that mysteriously appeared last year. He quotes Steele saying that "Russian intelligence has been secretly cultivating Trump for years." As you and I discussed in August, Trump appears to have attracted the attention of Soviet intelligence as far back as 1987, on his first visit to Moscow -- a visit arranged by the top level of the Soviet diplomatic service, with the assistance of the KGB. 

Trump was of course looking for business in Russia. If you go to Trump's own book, The Art of the Deal, he acknowledges "talking about building a large luxury hotel across the street from the Kremlin in partnership with the Soviet government." And he quotes a letter he got from the Soviet ambassador to Washington saying the Soviet state agency for international tourism is inquiring about his interest in that partnership. Now, one has to ask: There were lots of ambitious real estate moguls looking for deals with Russia in the mid-'80s; why did they select Donald Trump?
And that's the $64,000 question. It's very interesting and Harding notes this as well, and it also was an early entry on our timeline -- that in 1988, when Trump came back from the Soviet Union, he first made noises about wanting to run for president. Which brings us back to the second strand developing in this story, which is the personal contacts, the personal operatives, involved in a pretty straightforward if not classic Russian intelligence operation. Russian agents -- the recruiters -- look for soft spots in their target -- in this case, the US -- and those soft spots become points of penetration. The Russians must have been astonished at how they achieved penetration in Trump's circle -- astonished at the success that they were having across many different fronts simultaneously.

I remember from my own experience in Washington in the '60s that the Russians were always trying to find "soft targets" -- American citizens -- who were drawn to that sort of relationship.
And what could be a softer target for a guy like Putin than a guy who measures the world and everyone's self-worth in dollars?

Much of what Harding reports in his book is circumstantial, but it adds up to what is fairly damning evidence. You're the lawyer -- how much can circumstantial evidence be introduced in an argument in a trial?
Plenty. There are lots of people sitting in jail who were convicted on circumstantial evidence. In fact, how often is it that there is actually what you would call eyewitness or direct evidence of criminal behavior, except in a situation where you can get one of the co-conspirators to turn state's evidence and squeal on the others? People talk about circumstantial evidence as if there's something terrible about it. Circumstantial evidence is the way most people go about proving their cases, whether they're civil or criminal cases. And what separates circumstantial from direct evidence isn't even all that clear. Would you say that the email exchanges between Donald Trump Jr. and the lawyer who was supposed to come to Trump Tower with dirt on Hillary Clinton were circumstantial evidence or direct evidence? It's certainly direct evidence of Donald Trump Jr.'s intent when he says, "If you have what you say you have, in terms of dirt on Clinton, I love it."

Some people keep saying there's there's no collusion. Trump's favorite expression is "No collusion. No collusion. No collusion." All right, let's talk about something else. Let's talk about something the law recognizes as conspiracy or "aiding and abetting." Let's talk about a conspiracy to obstruct justice. In that respect, Trump's own tweets become evidence. So it's not as clear as I think some of the talking-head pundits would like to make it, that no collusion means the end of the inquiry. That's just wrong.

Suppose the circumstantial or direct evidence prove to be true; does it have to be out-and-out treason for Trump and his team's actions to be impeachable offenses?
No. In all likelihood, treason may be the toughest thing of all to prove, because treason, at least in a technical legal sense, requires that you're actually at war. And a decent defense could be for Trump that there's been no declaration of war, so whatever was going on you're never going to get it past the threshold of treason. There are still plenty of legal bases for concluding that Trump has some serious problems. One would be the election laws, including the financing of elections. It's pretty clear you can't accept help from a foreign government in order to win an election, and it seems pretty clear, at least to me, that if they weren't actually using the help -- and that's a big if; I think they were, based on some of the things that I've seen -- there's certainly ample evidence that they were willing to be participating in whatever help anybody would give them to help Trump win the election.

The second category -- apart from election laws and related finance laws -- would be aiding and abetting computer theft insofar as there were illegal hacks into the DNC computers, and WikiLeaks and/or the Trump campaign knew that that happened, knew the hacks were illegal and knew they were willing to do everything they could to take advantage of it in order to help Trump win the election. That's another fertile ground for illegality.

And the third category would of course be what I think will ultimately turn out to be the easiest to prove: the obstruction issues, relating to some of the behavior that we already know that George Papadopoulos, for one, engaged in when he lied to investigators about the nature of the connections between Trump and Russia.

On the money issue, The Atlantic magazine published a very strong piece last week by Bob Bauer, in which he argues that Donald Trump Jr.'s private Twitter correspondence with WikiLeaks provides evidence of criminal violations of federal campaign finance rules which prohibit foreign spending in American elections, as you pointed out. He reminds us that those rules disallow contributions, donations or "anything of value" provided by a foreign national to sway an election. Those rules also bar a campaign from offering substantial assistance to a foreign national engaged in spending on American races. 

Here's a direct quote from Bauer's article: "Trump Jr.'s messages not only powerfully support the case that the Trump campaign violated these rules, but they also compound the campaign's vulnerability to aiding and abetting liability under the general criminal laws for assisting a foreign national in violating a spending ban. … The facts and circumstances here are without precedent in the history of campaign finance enforcement, and it's hard to imagine that any truly neutral analyst informed about the law would conclude otherwise." 

So he concludes that Trump and his campaign face a "whopping legal problem."
I agree with him completely. And here we reach one of what I call "the hot dates" when all these strands coalesce. You have these September-October email exchanges between Don Jr. and WikiLeaks. But now listen to what else you have: On Oct. 12, [Trump's friend and former adviser] Roger Stone tells NBC that he has a backchannel communication with WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks' private message to Don Jr. suggests that Trump publicize the Clinton documents from WikiLeaks. Fifteen minutes later Trump Sr. tweets about those WikiLeaks documents. That's on one day. This is all on Oct. 12. And two days after that, Don Jr. tweets the very WikiLeaks link that WikiLeaks had already suggested that they publicize. That's one point where these strands coalesce. My point is that Bauer's case is even stronger than he may realize when you look at what you and I have called circumstantial evidence of what other things were happening, and how other layers of action were behaving at the same time.

As you know, American intelligence has identified WikiLeaks as a conduit for information that Russian operatives stole from Democrats during the 2016 presidential campaign, and now of course it seems there was a connection between WikiLeaks and the Trump campaign, as you've just outlined it. What do we know about why the Russian government would choose WikiLeaks to release information hacked from Hillary Clinton's computers?
I think it was an outlet that would ensure publicity, maximum publicity. It's a notorious organization. And I think if you want bad stuff to get out there and you want everybody to notice it, WikiLeaks would be the way to do it.

Donald Trump, Jr. greets his father, then-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, during the town hall debate at Washington University on October 9, 2016, in St Louis, Missouri. (Photo: Rick Wilking-Pool / Getty Images)
Donald Trump Jr. reportedly has released all of his correspondence with WikiLeaks. Does this indicate his lawyers don't think it is incriminating?
I think it is probably more likely the case that his lawyers assume that it's going to come out eventually anyway. So the best way to do it is to sort of dribble these things out, hope for an intervening scandal, like Al Franken groping somebody or Roy Moore upsetting the Alabama election, and then let the mind of the body politic move on to something different. The good news is that Robert Mueller is not going to be distracted by the intervening events, and he'll put all this together.

But how significant is it that when Donald Trump Jr. had all of this information from WikiLeaks, it's now being reported that he looked around the campaign to see if he could find someone who would act on WikiLeaks' information, and it doesn't seem that anyone responded? His appeals seem to have fallen on deaf ears.
What makes you think no one responded? The fact that there's no email trail doesn't necessarily mean that there wasn't a response. We know, for example, that what was happening throughout the campaign were interactions and conversations and discussions in which certainly one of the topics included granting Russia relief from sanctions. I don't conclude that because an email response to Donald Jr. has yet to make its way into the public domain, nothing happened.

So when Donald Trump on Oct. 10, tells the crowd at a campaign rally, "I love WikiLeaks," and accuses the press of not picking up on what WikiLeaks was publishing, he knew WikiLeaks had dirt on Clinton, where it came from, and he wanted to get it out.
You would think so. And I'm most happy, frankly, that Mueller has such an extraordinary team of talented lawyers working with him, because the case from the prosecutor's side is a dream in terms lending itself to a coherent, cogent narrative that strikes me as a really damning case.

Is Julian Assange of WikiLeaks in any danger of facing US prosecution?
Not as long as he stays in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Let's assume he will stay out of the country for a while. I suppose Trump could pardon him.

Is there any way that Assange could be viewed as an agent of a foreign power at this point, or is he just a rogue player?
My opinion is that during the election, he was an agent acting for the benefit for Trump. He claims that he wasn't dealing with Russian documents. I find that difficult to believe. And certainly, as you said, the US intelligence community is of the view that WikiLeaks was the vehicle through which Russia distributed and disseminated its hacked documents. And I think he's clearly acting on behalf of interests that are Russian interests.

What do you make of Assange and WikiLeaks urging Donald Trump Jr. to suggest to his father that if he loses the election, he should contest the election? What was that about?
Chaos. I think the goal was chaos. That's what takes me back to believing that at some level Russia was behind what WikiLeaks was proposing. Because for Putin there are two ways for him to improve Russia's standing. One is to figure out a way to bring his country up. One easy way would be to get some relief from the sanctions. But an equally powerful way to do it is to bring Western democracies, especially America, down. So what better way to foment chaos than a postelection trauma, if you will, in which Trump is contesting election results in various states and doing all of the things he certainly would have been capable of doing? And of course, WikiLeaks feeds right into Trump's soft spot by suggesting, in that same email that you just mentioned, that this could be good for him too, particularly if what he really wants to do is launch a new media network. So it all fits.

What do you make of the fact that Donald Trump Jr. did not report to the FBI that WikiLeaks was soliciting him last year? Does that put him legally at risk?
The mere failure to report doesn't, but it certainly adds to the question about what Trump Jr.'s true motives and the motives of the Trump campaign were in pursuing the information WikiLeaks was offering. Now, let me give you something else to think about, and see if your reaction causes you some of the heartburn it causes me.

In June of last year -- quite a month, no? -- there was another "hot date." Jared Kushner -- Trump's son-in-law and close adviser -- assumed control of the digital campaign and hired the firm Cambridge Analytica. We talked about Cambridge Analytica a moment ago. Well, Cambridge Analytica's vice president had been Steve Bannon. And about the same time that Kushner hired Cambridge Analytica, the CEO of Cambridge Analytica is reaching out to WikiLeaks with an offer to help disseminate hacked documents.

And then you get to July 22 and WikiLeaks is releasing hacked documents. In August, George Papadopoulos is continuing to push Russia on the campaign team, Roger Stone is continuing to talk about his communications with Assange and WikiLeaks (and it certainly looks as if Stone is predicting more WikiLeaks releases of documents) and the daughter of the part-owner of Cambridge Analytica, Rebekah Mercer -- who is also a Trump donor -- tells its CEO to reach out to WikiLeaks too. And then Donald Jr.'s email exchange with WikiLeaks comes in September. See what I mean? There's a ramping up of the process that culminates in those email exchanges that Don Jr. had with WikiLeaks and that becomes, I think, an important narrative to understanding the story.

I need some Tums. [laughter]
It's good and bad, I guess -- getting mired in all these details. The good news is we learn more facts. The bad news is we learn more facts -- and it may not be possible for Americans to put it all together and conclude that anything significant happened, when actually there's a grave threat to democracy.

Let me pause right there. As Josh Marshall points out at Talking Points Memo, the Justice Department is directly overseeing Mueller's investigation. It has absolute power over the inquiry. Meaning that Mueller is now investigating his overseers. Isn't that certain to have some impact on the process?
I don't think so. Let me tell you why. I think the only thing that will affect the process, and this is the thing frankly that I fear more than anything else, will be if Trump fires Mueller. We know Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself. If he should resign, that would be a great victory for Trump, who could then appoint someone else as an acting attorney general who could then fire Mueller. Otherwise, the ball bounces to Rod Rosenstein. Rosenstein's been on record a couple of times saying that he hasn't seen any basis for firing Mueller. And at this point, I have competing views of Rosenstein in general, but I think on this issue, he realizes that his personal interest and his professional interest and even the country's interest requires that if Trump were to issue an order to fire Mueller or even if he were to try to interfere with Mueller's investigation in some way, allowing him to do so will be a very bad thing for Rosenstein personally. I don't think he'll do it.

There's a precedent for this, of course. Nixon went ahead and fired the special prosecutor investigating Watergate.
Yes, but he had to go through [Attorney General] Richardson and [Deputy Attorney General] Ruckelshaus to do it. Trump would have to fire Rosenstein, then he'd have to fire an associate attorney general named Rachel Brand, who -- based on everything everything I've read about her -- would likely balk and not be inclined to follow an order unless she were satisfied that there was in fact good cause to do it.

What might provoke Trump to risk everything -- firestorm, constitutional crisis, even impeachment -- to fire Mueller?
I think he'll do it if he thinks that things are getting too close. I think he's already been close to doing it in the past. And I think at some point, and I think it's probably a question of when [not if], he will fire Mueller. I really fear that's what's going to happen. And of course the irony is that for the amount of time Mueller has spent on the job, he's achieved remarkable results. He's working very quickly, very efficiently. The median life of a special counsel is just under two years. The average is three years. The Iran-Contra investigation went for six and a half years. Whitewater went for more than eight years. The Valerie Plame NSA leak went for two years. We're what? Just five months in?

And Mueller's already obtained two indictments and one guilty plea.

The indictments are for Paul Manafort and Rick Gates. But the indictments are not related to the Trump/Russia connection, are they?
I think the answer to that is it remains to be seen. That's clearly the way the Trump people are going to continue to try to spin it. But step back for a minute and think about the fact that a campaign manager [Paul Manafort] for a presidential candidate [Donald Trump] has been indicted for money laundering, tax evasion and all sorts of other wrongdoing arising from his work for Ukraine, where Putin and Russia were fomenting trouble. And shortly after he became the manager of the campaign, as we've learned, he was also offering to provide special briefings to a Ukrainian oligarch with whom he'd had business dealings. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see at some point some of these things merge into one another.

You mentioned earlier that a new series of Trump advisers are under scrutiny. Hope Hicks is one of them. She's perhaps the closest staffer to Donald Trump. Not even 30 yet, keeps a low profile, been with him a long time, apparently spends more time with the president than anyone else on the White House team. We've learned Mueller wants to talk to her. What have you learned about her and what can she add to this?
She can add a lot, I suspect. And I suspect that Mueller thinks so too, because as you say, she's as close to the inner circle as you can get. She was also present at two really key points in this story -- and many others, I could add. One in connection with what ultimately led to the firing of James Comey in May of 2017 -- she was around for that. And as you may recall, we now have learned that it turns out that Trump had dictated to Stephen Miller, another close aide, what was apparently a four-page rant, or screed, of his real reasons for wanting to fire James Comey. So it's hard to imagine that Hope Hicks wasn't somehow involved in, or at least aware of, what was going on that weekend in Bedminster, New Jersey, when Trump was pouring his rage into that letter.

She was also aboard Air Force One -- and maybe the lesson is you just never want to be on Air Force One with Donald Trump -- when they were coming back from Europe, and Trump, as we learned much later, had a hand, a very heavy hand, in drafting a very misleading statement about what had transpired at that June 9, 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Don Jr., Manafort, Kushner and some Russians with ties to the Kremlin. Hope Hicks reportedly was advocating on behalf of transparency, but it appears that she lost out. And that's just what we know Ms. Hicks was involved in. Who knows what else she was involved in and participated in, but I suspect a lot.

I also think she's got a bit of problem because Carter Page revealed that she had been copied on those messages about what he had learned in Russia, or what he was planning to learn in Russia, when she had denied adamantly there had been no Trump campaign contacts with Russia. So she's got a bit of a consistency issue there, it would seem.

You mentioned Carter Page. He and George Papadopoulos traveled the world, apparently representing themselves as able to speak for the Trump campaign, even though the Trump campaign later said they weren't. You've tracked down many instances of Papadopoulos in particular speaking to foreign leaders on behalf of Trump. Why is that important?
Well, he's given extraordinary access to some very high-level people. He was giving speeches in which he was representing himself as being able to speak on behalf of Trump at least with respect to certain policies. And you know, it's hard for me to imagine that he gets that kind of access unless there's some credibility to what he's saying about what his actual role in the campaign is. And of course we all know from the infamous photo taken at the Trump International Hotel that Papadopoulos was one of a handful of people seated at the table with Jeff Sessions and Donald Trump as Sessions presided over a meeting about Trump's foreign policy and Trump told the group that he didn't "want to go to 'World War III' over Ukraine."

And I believe that's what started the process of making clear to everybody who was on Trump's foreign policy team that easing relations with Russia by easing sanctions, would be something that Trump would be open to. And I think a lot of what happens afterward you can fit into this broader framework of the question: What is Putin's angle in all this? Well, Putin's angle in all this is if he can get the Russian sanctions lifted, he's a winner. And if Trump will help him do that, great. And even if Trump can't help him, even if Trump doesn't win the election, it can't hurt that he's created some chaos in a Western democracy, which clearly is what he intended and what happened.

You mentioned Jeff Sessions. In his testimony to Congress last week, Sessions said it's hard for him to remember meeting with, and conversations about, the Russians because the Trump campaign was in constant chaos. The fact that the campaign was in chaos certainly seems accurate, but would his excuse play at all in a trial?
No. And remember what Steve Schmidt, who was involved in John McCain's campaign, said? He said he hopes that Jeff Sessions never gets a puppy because he's not going to remember to feed it, he's not going to remember to get it watered, he's not going to remember to let it out. That puppy's just going to be in terrible trouble.

But what's interesting about Sessions to me is this: What Sessions said in his recent statements was, I haven't remembered that Papadopoulos raised the issue of Trump meeting with Putin or members of the campaign meeting with representatives of Putin until I read about it in the news reports. But now that I've read about it, now I remember, and listen -- I pushed back really hard and I said that it would not be appropriate for anyone to be meeting with a representative of a foreign government. All of the sudden, it's like the light has gone on in Jeff Sessions' head. Now, you have a situation sometimes in trials where a witness in a previous setting had sworn that he couldn't remember something. And then six months or a year later, all of a sudden they have this epiphany and the memories came flooding out. And there's something counterintuitive about somebody who says they remember more now about a specific event than they did a year earlier when asked about that same specific event. That just doesn't play well with most juries.

And bear in mind, too, something else about Sessions that's worth remembering that I doubt would necessarily be obvious to non-lawyers. Going into those Senate hearings, going into each one of those hearings, Sessions had to know that he was going to be asked about all of this stuff. And he had to know that he needed to be as familiar as he could be with whatever he could learn so that what he gave was truthful, straightforward, candid and ultimately something that the public and Congress would believe. And yet despite that, at each subsequent appearance, somehow there's something new and the attorney general of the United States shrugs his shoulders and says, "Oh, I guess I did know that."

My problem is, I want Sessions to hang on. I don't want him not to be attorney general yet, because the minute that Sessions resigns or Trump fires him, then you have the door open to an acting attorney general, and I don't want to live to see Scott Pruitt [head of the Environmental Protection Agency] or [former New York mayor and Trump ally] Rudy Giuliani become acting attorney general, which is something that Trump could do without even Senate confirmation. It doesn't even have to be those two guys, because we know Trump has a plethora of cronies who will do whatever he says, because Trump says that's what he wants, and if Trump says he wants Mueller fired, that to me is the disaster scenario for the country.

So, to sum up for now: What's the most innocent explanation for everything we know? What if all of this was simply Trump's inexperienced people trying to establish diplomatic rapport with the Russians and hoping to reset America's connection with Moscow?
Well, the most innocent explanation would be a level of incompetence and ignorance and stupidity that I honestly don't think anyone could credibly believe, because the most innocent explanation is that Russia was launching a very sophisticated, multipronged intelligence operation and succeeded, but they succeeded because of the blind ambition and greed of the Trump organization coupled with a lack of judgment and intelligence and a fundamental failure to take into regard anything that would remotely look like patriotism when it came to the defense of democracy, subjugating all of that to the need to win. That's the most innocent explanation. And I just don't think all of them are that stupid.

So what's the most damning explanation for everything we know?
The most damning explanation is that the Russians launched a sophisticated intelligence operation. They found willing partners up and down the line throughout the Trump organization. And up and down throughout the Trump organization, as the details of that intelligence operation became known, the participants lied about it, lied about its existence, lied about their personal involvement in it and now they are all facing serious criminal jeopardy as a result.

One more: I assume most people believe Russia's interference in the election last year is a bad thing, a serious offense, but is it possible that by treating Vladimir Putin and his cronies as an existential threat, we're playing directly into Putin's hands and making him appear a more significant figure in the world than he really is?
Well, he's already achieved that, but the problem is, what's the alternative? Back in January, John McCain and Lindsey Graham were on national television acknowledging the seriousness of the Russian interference. McCain called it the cyber equivalent of "an act of war." And if you acknowledge and recognize the existential threat, do you sit back and let the let the next thing happen in 2018 that Vladimir Putin wants to do? Remember, we have elections coming up next year. The uniform view of US intelligence is unambiguous, and if you don't view it as an existential threat then you're willing, I think, to sacrifice democracy.

We keep hearing, "Yeah, but Trump was still legitimately elected, he won the election fair and square." Now we're realizing that that may not even be true. I don't personally believe that to be true anymore. I rankle every time somebody says he won fair and square, because that's become less obvious every day. So the last line of defense would be, "Well, even if he didn't win fair and square, he's our president, so we've got to sit back and let whatever Putin's going to do to us continue to happen because we don't want our response to raise his standing in the world." Well, I would submit it raises Putin's standing in the world even more to have an accomplice in the White House.

Thank you, Steve Harper.

(Source: Truthout)

p.s. Bill Moyers is the managing editor of Moyers & Company and

The borders of freedom: Blasphemy and the press in Pakistan

In Pakistan, a blasphemy accusation is a public instance of being tossed beyond that boundary; if one escapes alive, one is still likely to lose one's voice. For a journalist, life without a voice equals death itself, writes Rafia Zakaria, the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan, and Veil, in the CNN. Read on: 

On August 13, a day before Pakistan turned 70, I received a Facebook message from a Pakistan-based journalist and colleague.

"Please help me report this," he said, linking to the Facebook page of a religious leader in Pakistan. In the post, written in Urdu, the leader accuses him of insulting a renowned 11th Century Sunni Muslim saint during an appearance on a privately owned Pakistani television channel.

In response, the leader demanded action from the Pakistani state and made a number of insults directed at the journalist, many of which were seconded by comments from some of the page's 180,000 odd followers.

The post, along with its accusation and incitement to punish, has never been removed.

The journalist at whom the message was directed was right to worry. Journalists, constantly in the public eye, are easy targets for Pakistan's vague and lethal blasphemy laws, which criminalize any statement that is "defamatory" to Islam, religious texts, the holy prophet or anyone associated with him. The laws are a relic of the colonial era, their bite made dramatically worse by military rulers and others seeking to woo the religious right and silence any potential opposition.

Pakistan is ranked seven out of the 12 most dangerous countries in the world by the Committee to Protect Journalists' "2017 Impunity Index." Together, these 12 countries account for 80% of the unsolved murders of journalists occurring in the last 10 years.

None of this is news in Pakistan, where journalists have long been subject to high levels of violence when dissenting against state policies or draconian and orthodox interpretations of Islam espoused by extremist elements. As Americans well know, a free and impartial media is essential to democracy and a bulwark against extremism of all kinds. The dire situation of Pakistani journalists is the canary in the mine for the world's fight against terror of all kinds.

Pakistan's constitution does establish freedom of the press, but it is a frail freedom, circumscribed by laws that protect Islam and the security and defense of the country.

There are official curbs on speech and unofficial ones. Officially, the press is free in Pakistan, but the individuals who constitute it are not. Pakistan's blasphemy laws dangle like the sword of Damocles over journalists who report on issues that can irk religious conservatives, the military or the powerful strongmen who regularly rob the country's coffers, any one of whom can orchestrate an accusation that can put an end to talk of those issues -- or to lives.

But the blasphemy laws are not the only tool in the government's persecution kit. In early October, Shabbir Siham, an Islamabad-based journalist with the Daily Times, was indicted on terrorism charges by the Anti-Terrorism Court in the Pakistani province of Gilgit-Baltistan. Days prior to receiving the summons from the court, Siham had written a newspaper column critical of members serving in the regional assembly. Like the blasphemy statute, Pakistan's Anti-Terrorism Act defines terrorism very broadly and includes "creating a sense of fear and insecurity in society" and can thus be applied to actual terrorists but also journalists like Siham who criticize government officials.

Others, like Taha Siddiqui, Pakistan bureau chief for the Delhi-based World is One News, have been investigated under Pakistan's cybercrime crackdown law: Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill 2015.

While Siddiqui, whose harassment began in May of this year, is not yet charged, another journalist, Zafarullah Achakzai, was arrested and charged in July of this year under the same law. He had posted a Facebook comment questioning whether a particular military deployment was adequately doing its job after a suicide bombing had occurred in the area.

Like the anti-terror laws, the Electronic Crimes Bill creates broad categories of crimes related to "cyberterrorism," hence allowing the government and military unchecked powers to threaten, intimidate and charge online speech and make it the basis for prosecutions, including those of journalists like Achakzai.

But persecution is not limited to lone journalists. In 2014, blasphemy charges were leveled at Pakistan's right of center television channel Geo TV, after a morning program re-enacted the wedding of its female host during which they played a religious hymn recounting the wedding of the prophet's daughter. This upset some people who felt the host was in fact pretending to be the prophet's daughter, a re-enactment not viewed as permissible by many Sunni Muslims.

The ensuing outcry led to blasphemy charges against the owner of Geo TV and the show's male and female hosts. Later that year, the owner was sentenced in absentia to 26 years in prison, a sentence bound, in the words of Amnesty International, to have "a chilling effect" on media freedom in Pakistan.

The case involving Geo TV is instructive because commentators alleged that the real reason for going after the channel was not the show's use of the hymn, but rather an opportunity for members of Pakistan's military intelligentsia to send a message.

Not long before the allegations, Geo TV had courted their ire when a top anchor and journalist openly accused military intelligence of being the masterminds behind an attack perpetrated on him. Not long after, PEMRA, Pakistan's broadcast regulatory body, announced it would be pursuing legal measures against the channel for "bringing Inter-Services Intelligence into disrepute and harming the national interest." The blasphemy allegation was simply a means of reminding the station of the power of Pakistan's deep state and the consequences of infuriating the very powerful men who control it.

As Americans can see within their own context of tolerance and permissibility, unofficial curbs on speech define the normal boundaries within which dissent can take place. In Pakistan, a blasphemy accusation is a public instance of being tossed beyond that boundary; if one escapes alive, one is still likely to lose one's voice. For a journalist, life without a voice equals death itself.

Why Americans call Turkey 'Turkey'

"Turkey" the bird is native to North America. But "turkey" the word is a geographic mess—a tribute to the vagaries of colonial trade and conquest, writes Zach Goldhammer in the Atlantic. Read on:

Within the turkey lies the tangled history of the world.

OK, not quite. But not far off, either.

"Turkey" the bird is native to North America. But "turkey" the word is a geographic mess—a tribute to the vagaries of colonial trade and conquest. As you might have suspected, the English term for the avian creature likely comes from Turkey the country. Or, more precisely, from Turkish merchants in the 15th and 16th centuries.

How exactly the word "turkey" made its way into the English language is in dispute. The linguist Mario Pei theorized that more than five centuries ago, Turks from the commercial hub of Constantinople (which the Ottomans conquered in the mid-15th century) sold wild fowl from Guinea in West Africa to European markets, leading the English to refer to the bird as “turkey cock” or “turkey coq” (coq being French for “rooster”), and eventually “turkey” for short. When British settlers arrived in Massachusetts, they applied the same terms to the wild fowl they spotted in the New World, even though the birds were a different species than their African counterparts.

The etymology expert Mark Forsyth, meanwhile, claims that Turkish traders brought guinea fowl to England from Madagascar, off the coast of southeast Africa, and that Spanish conquistadors then introduced American fowl to Europe, where they were conflated with the “turkeys” from Madagascar. Dan Jurafsky, another linguist, argues that Europeans imported guinea fowl from Ethiopia (which was sometimes mixed up with India) via the Mamluk Turks, and then confused the birds with North American fowl shipped across the Atlantic by the Portuguese.

Here’s where things get even more bewildering. Turkey, which has no native turkeys, does not call turkey "turkey." The Turks “knew the bird wasn’t theirs,” Forsyth explains, so they “made a completely different mistake and called it a hindi, because they thought the bird was probably Indian.” They weren't alone. The French originally called the American bird poulet d’Inde (literally “chicken from India”), which has since been abbreviated to dinde, and similar terms exist in languages ranging from Polish to Hebrew to Catalan. Then there’s the oddly specific Dutch word kalkoen, which, as a contraction of Calicut-hoen, literally means “hen from Calicut,” a major Indian commercial center at the time. These names may have arisen from the mistaken belief at the time that the New World was the Indies, or the sense that the turkey trade passed through India.

So what is the bird called in India? It may be hindi in Turkey, but in Hindi it’s ṭarki. Some Indian dialects, however, use the word piru or peru, the latter being how the Portuguese refer to the American fowl, which is not native to Peru but may have become popular in Portugal as Spanish and Portuguese explorers conquered the New World. The expansion of Western colonialism only complicated matters: Malaysians call turkey ayam blander (“Dutch chicken”), while Cambodians opt for moan barang (“French chicken”).

Then there are the turkey truthers and linguistic revisionists. In the early 1990s, for instance, a debate broke out in the “letter to the editor” section of The New York Times over the possible Hebrew origins of the word "turkey." On December 13, 1992, Rabbi Harold M. Kamsler suggested (as a follow-up to a Thanksgiving-themed piece titled “One Strange Bird”) that the New World fowl received its English name from Christopher Columbus’s interpreter, Luis de Torres, a Jewish convert to Catholicism. In an October 12, 1492 letter to a friend in Spain, de Torres had referred to the American bird he encountered as a tuki, the word for “peacock” in ancient Hebrew and “parrot” in modern Hebrew (a more dubious version of this story claims that Columbus himself was a Jew who hid his identity in the aftermath of the Spanish Inquisition but drew on his lineage to christen the fowl).
The guinea fowl (left) vs.the North American turkey (Wikipedia)

Kamsler’s letter, however, was met with a firm rebuttal from the president of the Association for the Study of Jewish Languages, David L Gold. “Rabbi Kamsler's explanation, not original with him, is an old yarn spun in uninformed Jewish circles,” Gold wrote. “Along with countless other pseudoscientific claims about supposed Hebrew influence on English and other languages, the myth of the Hebrew origin of ‘turkey’ was quietly exploded in volume 2 of Jewish Linguistic Studies (1990).”

The turkey’s scientific name doesn't make much more sense than its vernacular one. Its binomial nomenclature, Meleagris gallopavo, is a hodgepodge. The first name comes from a Greek myth in which the goddess Artemis turned the grieving sisters of the slain Meleager into guinea fowls. The second name is a portmanteau: Gallo is derived from the Latin word for rooster, gallus, while pavo is the Latin word for peacock. So, effectively, the official name for a turkey is guinea-fowl-rooster-peacock.

Reflecting on his interview with Mario Pei, NPR’s Robert Krulwich noted that “for 500 years now, this altogether American, very gallant if not particularly intelligent animal has never once been given an American name.” But the turkey does have many authentically American names—Americans just choose not to use them. After all, pre-Aztec and Aztec peoples domesticated the turkey more than a millennium before Columbus reached the New World (the Aztecs called the bird huehxolotl). There are numerous Native American words for the bird, including the Blackfoot term omahksipi’kssii, which literally means “big bird.” It’s a bit vague, sure, but it certainly beats guinea-fowl-rooster-peacock.

Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring, at last

The crown prince has big plans for his society, writes Thomas L. Friedman in the NYT. Read on: 

I never thought I’d live long enough to write this sentence: The most significant reform process underway anywhere in the Middle East today is in Saudi Arabia. Yes, you read that right. Though I came here at the start of Saudi winter, I found the country going through its own Arab Spring, Saudi style.

Unlike the other Arab Springs — all of which emerged bottom up and failed miserably, except in Tunisia — this one is led from the top down by the country’s 32-year-old crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and, if it succeeds, it will not only change the character of Saudi Arabia but the tone and tenor of Islam across the globe. Only a fool would predict its success — but only a fool would not root for it.

To better understand it I flew to Riyadh to interview the crown prince, known as “M.B.S.,” who had not spoken about the extraordinary events here of early November, when his government arrested scores of Saudi princes and businessmen on charges of corruption and threw them into a makeshift gilded jail — the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton — until they agreed to surrender their ill-gotten gains. You don’t see that every day.

We met at night at his family’s ornate adobe-walled palace in Ouja, north of Riyadh. M.B.S. spoke in English, while his brother, Prince Khalid, the new Saudi ambassador to the U.S., and several senior ministers shared different lamb dishes and spiced the conversation. After nearly four hours together, I surrendered at 1:15 a.m. to M.B.S.’s youth, pointing out that I was exactly twice his age. It’s been a long, long time, though, since any Arab leader wore me out with a fire hose of new ideas about transforming his country.

We started with the obvious question: What’s happening at the Ritz? And was this his power play to eliminate his family and private sector rivals before his ailing father, King Salman, turns the keys of the kingdom over to him?

It’s “ludicrous,” he said, to suggest that this anticorruption campaign was a power grab. He pointed out that many prominent members of the Ritz crowd had already publicly pledged allegiance to him and his reforms, and that “a majority of the royal family” is already behind him. This is what happened, he said: “Our country has suffered a lot from corruption from the 1980s until today. The calculation of our experts is that roughly 10 percent of all government spending was siphoned off by corruption each year, from the top levels to the bottom. Over the years the government launched more than one ‘war on corruption’ and they all failed. Why? Because they all started from the bottom up.”

So when his father, who has never been tainted by corruption charges during his nearly five decades as governor of Riyadh, ascended to the throne in 2015 (at a time of falling oil prices), he vowed to put a stop to it all, M.B.S. said:

“My father saw that there is no way we can stay in the G-20 and grow with this level of corruption. In early 2015, one of his first orders to his team was to collect all the information about corruption — at the top. This team worked for two years until they collected the most accurate information, and then they came up with about 200 names.”

The Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh. Credit Faisal Al Nasser/Reuters
When all the data was ready, the public prosecutor, Saud al-Mojib, took action, M.B.S. said, explaining that each suspected billionaire or prince was arrested and given two choices: “We show them all the files that we have and as soon as they see those about 95 percent agree to a settlement,” which means signing over cash or shares of their business to the Saudi state treasury.

“About 1 percent,” he added, “are able to prove they are clean and their case is dropped right there. About 4 percent say they are not corrupt and with their lawyers want to go to court. Under Saudi law, the public prosecutor is independent. We cannot interfere with his job — the king can dismiss him, but he is driving the process … We have experts making sure no businesses are bankrupted in the process” — to avoid causing unemployment.

“How much money are they recovering?” I asked.

The public prosecutor says it could eventually “be around $100 billion in settlements,” said M.B.S.

There is no way, he added, to root out all corruption from top to the bottom, “So you have to send a signal, and the signal going forward now is, ‘You will not escape.’ And we are already seeing the impact,” like people writing on social media, “I called my middle man and he doesn’t answer.” Saudi business people who paid bribes to get services done by bureaucrats are not being prosecuted, explained M.B.S. “It’s those who shook the money out of the government” — by overcharging and getting kickbacks.

The stakes are high for M.B.S. in this anticorruption drive. If the public feels that he is truly purging corruption that was sapping the system and doing so in a way that is transparent and makes clear to future Saudi and foreign investors that the rule of law will prevail, it will really instill a lot of new confidence in the system. But if the process ends up feeling arbitrary, bullying and opaque, aimed more at aggregating power for power’s sake and unchecked by any rule of law, it will end up instilling fear that will unnerve Saudi and foreign investors in ways the country can’t afford.

King Salman praying at Quba mosque in Medina, Saudi Arabia, this month. Credit Reuters
But one thing I know for sure: Not a single Saudi I spoke to here over three days expressed anything other than effusive support for this anticorruption drive. The Saudi silent majority is clearly fed up with the injustice of so many princes and billionaires ripping off their country. While foreigners, like me, were inquiring about the legal framework for this operation, the mood among Saudis I spoke with was: “Just turn them all upside down, shake the money out of their pockets and don’t stop shaking them until it’s all out!”

But guess what? This anticorruption drive is only the second-most unusual and important initiative launched by M.B.S. The first is to bring Saudi Islam back to its more open and modern orientation — whence it diverted in 1979. That is, back to what M.B.S. described to a recent global investment conference here as a “moderate, balanced Islam that is open to the world and to all religions and all traditions and peoples.”

I know that year well. I started my career as a reporter in the Middle East in Beirut in 1979, and so much of the region that I have covered since was shaped by the three big events of that year: the takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Saudi puritanical extremists — who denounced the Saudi ruling family as corrupt, impious sellouts to Western values; the Iranian Islamic revolution; and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

These three events together freaked out the Saudi ruling family at the time, and prompted it to try to shore up its legitimacy by allowing its Wahhabi clerics to impose a much more austere Islam on the society and by launching a worldwide competition with Iran’s ayatollahs over who could export more fundamentalist Islam. It didn’t help that the U.S. tried to leverage this trend by using Islamist fighters against Russia in Afghanistan. In all, it pushed Islam globally way to the right and helped nurture 9/11.

Men entering Alrajhi Mosque for noon prayer last month. Credit Tasneem Alsultan for The New York Times
A lawyer by training, who rose up in his family’s education-social welfare foundation, M.B.S. is on a mission to bring Saudi Islam back to the center. He has not only curbed the authority of the once feared Saudi religious police to berate a woman for not covering every inch of her skin, he has also let women drive. And unlike any Saudi leader before him, he has taken the hard-liners on ideologically. As one U.S.-educated 28-year-old Saudi woman told me: M.B.S. “uses a different language. He says, ‘We are going to destroy extremism.’ He’s not sugar-coating. That is reassuring to me that the change is real.”

Indeed, M.B.S. instructed me: “Do not write that we are ‘reinterpreting’ Islam — we are ‘restoring’ Islam to its origins — and our biggest tools are the Prophet’s practices and [daily life in] Saudi Arabia before 1979.” At the time of the Prophet Muhammad, he argued, there were musical theaters, there was mixing between men and women, there was respect for Christians and Jews in Arabia. “The first commercial judge in Medina was a woman!” So if the Prophet embraced all of this, M.B.S. asked, “Do you mean the Prophet was not a Muslim?”

Then one of his ministers got out his cellphone and shared with me pictures and YouTube videos of Saudi Arabia in the 1950s — women without heads covered, wearing skirts and walking with men in public, as well as concerts and cinemas. It was still a traditional and modest place, but not one where fun had been outlawed, which is what happened after 1979.

If this virus of an antipluralistic, misogynistic Islam that came out of Saudi Arabia in 1979 can be reversed by Saudi Arabia, it would drive moderation across the Muslim world and surely be welcomed here where 65 percent of the population is under 30.

One middle-age Saudi banker said to me: “My generation was held hostage by 1979. I know now that my kids will not be hostages.” Added a 28-year-old Saudi woman social entrepreneur: “Ten years ago when we talked about music in Riyadh it meant buying a CD — now it is about the concert next month and what ticket are you buying and which of your friends will go with you.”

Participants at the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh, in October.
Credit Tasneem Alsultan for The New York Times
Saudi Arabia would have a very long way to go before it approached anything like Western standards for free speech and women’s rights. But as someone who has been coming here for almost 30 years, it blew my mind to learn that you can hear Western classical music concerts in Riyadh now, that country singer Toby Keith held a men-only concert here in September, where he even sang with a Saudi, and that Lebanese soprano Hiba Tawaji will be among the first woman singers to perform a women-only concert here on Dec. 6. And M.B.S told me, it was just decided that women will be able to go to stadiums and attend soccer games. The Saudi clerics have completely acquiesced.

The Saudi education minister chimed in that among a broad set of education reforms, he’s redoing and digitizing all textbooks, sending 1,700 Saudi teachers each year to world-class schools in places like Finland to upgrade their skills, announcing that for the first time Saudi girls will have physical education classes in public schools and this year adding an hour to the Saudi school day for kids to explore their passions in science and social issues, under a teacher’s supervision, with their own projects.

So many of these reforms were so long overdue it’s ridiculous. Better late than never, though.

On foreign policy, M.B.S. would not discuss the strange goings on with Prime Minister Saad Hariri of Lebanon coming to Saudi Arabia and announcing his resignation, seemingly under Saudi pressure, and now returning to Beirut and rescinding that resignation. He simply insisted that the bottom line of the whole affair is that Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, is not going to continue providing political cover for a Lebanese government that is essentially controlled by the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah militia, which is essentially controlled by Tehran.

He insisted that the Saudi-backed war in Yemen, which has been a humanitarian nightmare, was tilting in the direction of the pro-Saudi legitimate government there, which, he said is now in control of 85 percent of the country, but given the fact that pro-Iranian Houthi rebels, who hold the rest, launched a missile at Riyadh airport, anything less than 100 percent is still problematic.

His general view seemed to be that with the backing of the Trump administration — he praised President Trump as “the right person at the right time” — the Saudis and their Arab allies were slowly building a coalition to stand up to Iran. I am skeptical. The dysfunction and rivalries within the Sunni Arab world generally have prevented forming a unified front up to now, which is why Iran indirectly controls four Arab capitals today — Damascus, Sana, Baghdad and Beirut. That Iranian over-reach is one reason M.B.S. was scathing about Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Iran’s “supreme leader is the new Hitler of the Middle East,” said M.B.S. “But we learned from Europe that appeasement doesn’t work. We don’t want the new Hitler in Iran to repeat what happened in Europe in the Middle East.” What matters most, though, is what Saudi Arabia does at home to build its strength and economy.

But can M.B.S. and his team see this through? Again, I make no predictions. He has his flaws that he will have to control, insiders here tell me. They include relying on a very tight circle of advisers who don’t always challenge him sufficiently, and a tendency to start too many things that don’t get finished. There’s a whole list. But guess what? Perfect is not on the menu here. Someone had to do this job — wrench Saudi Arabia into the 21st century — and M.B.S. stepped up. I, for one, am rooting for him to succeed in his reform efforts.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. Credit Fayez Nureldine/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
And so are a lot of young Saudis. There was something a 30-year-old Saudi woman social entrepreneur said to me that stuck in my ear. “We are privileged to be the generation that has seen the before and the after.” The previous generation of Saudi women, she explained, could never imagine a day when a woman could drive and the coming generation will never be able to imagine a day when a woman couldn’t.

“But I will always remember not being able to drive,” she told me. And the fact that starting in June that will never again be so “gives me so much hope. It proves to me that anything is possible — that this is a time of opportunity. We have seen things change and we are young enough to make the transition.”

This reform push is giving the youth here a new pride in their country, almost a new identity, which many of them clearly relish. Being a Saudi student in post-9/11 America, young Saudis confess, is to always feel you are being looked at as a potential terrorist or someone who comes from a country locked in the Stone Age.

Now they have a young leader who is driving religious and economic reform, who talks the language of high tech, and whose biggest sin may be that he wants to go too fast. Most ministers are now in their 40s — and not 60s. And with the suffocating hand of a puritanical Islam being lifted, it’s giving them a chance to think afresh about their country and their identity as Saudis.

“We need to restore our culture to what it was before the [Islamic] radical culture took over,” a Saudi woman friend who works with an N.G.O. said to me. ”`We have 13 regions in this country, and they each have a different cuisine. But nobody knows that. Did you know that? But I never saw one Saudi dish go global. It is time for us to embrace who we are and who we were.”

Alas, who Saudi Arabia is also includes a large cohort of older, more rural, more traditional Saudis, and pulling them into the 21st century will be a challenge. But that’s in part why every senior bureaucrat is working crazy hours now. They know M.B.S. can call them on the phone at any of those hours to find out if something he wanted done is getting done. I told him his work habits reminded me of a line in the play “Hamilton,” when the chorus asks: Why does he always work like “he’s running out of time.”

“Because,” said M.B.S., ``I fear that the day I die I am going to die without accomplishing what I have in my mind. Life is too short and a lot of things can happen, and I am really keen to see it with my own eyes — and that is why I am in a hurry.”

Wednesday 29 November 2017

Lankan diaries: Polonnaruwa - the royal ancient city

After Sigiriya Rock Fortress hike, the driver insisted that we go on a bullock cart safari to a village and have lunch there. He wanted us to visit Polonnaruwa the next day, but we didn’t budge. We didn’t want to skip the place on that day. So, after lunch we went to Polonnaruwa. On the way, we saw a small monitor lizard crossing the road and I was lucky to get a click of it!

Monitor lizard crossing the road
In Polonnaruwa, we paid full amount of Rs 1,925 (SAARC nation fee) for each person. We didn’t get any 30% discount mentioned in the itinerary! Our driver stopped a guide who was on his way home and asked us to hire him to show around the ruins.

We hired that local guide for Rs 1,500 and he took us around in our van to show most of the important places. His English was pretty good, and we enjoyed digging into the history of Polonnaruwa.

Archaeological Museum
First, the guide took us to the Archaeological Museum, which was right next to the ticket office, and gave us a brief introduction to what we were supposed to see outside. We felt that was indeed a great idea to visit the museum before heading to the city to see the ruins. Since we had missed Sigiriya museum, we didn’t want to miss anything here!

The rooms in the museum are interconnected, each dedicated to a particular theme. They have miniature models of buildings and temples helping us know how they would have looked in their glorious days.

Rise and fall of the medieval capital
Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka’s splendid medieval capital, replaced Anuradhapura in the 10th century. It was a thriving commercial and religious centre of Sri Lanka. South Indian rulers Cholas chose Polonnaruwa as their new capital and moved the capital from Anuradhapura. Reason?  The guide gave us two: One, it was a strategically better and safe place from the attacks of Ruhunu Sinhalese rulers in the south-east. Second, it had fewer mosquitos compared to Anuradhapura!

Around 1070, the Sinhalese kingdom ousted the Chola rulers and captured the city. The city saw three great Sinhalese rulers. King Vijayabahu I who defeated the Cholas retained Polonnaruwa as his capital. During his rule, Polonnaruwa saw its golden period and reached its highest glory.

Later, King Parakramabahu I (1153-86) built several big buildings, parks and a large (25 sq km) water tank which.

Then came the third and the last ruler, King Nisanka Malla (1187-96). Though he tried to match his ancestors’ achievements, he ended up bankrupting the kingdom!

By the early 13th century, the glory completely faded and the city was abandoned. The capital was moved to the western side of the island where Colombo is today.

The vastness of the ancient city 
The ruins of the ancient city are on the east shore of the large water tank, Topa Wewa Lake, or Parakrama Samudraya - the Sea of Parakrama - built by King Parakramabahu I.

Palace buildings and clusters of dozens of dagobas, temples and various other religious buildings are within a rectangle of city walls.

Several historic buildings are scattered to the north of the main complex, outside the city walls and close to the main road to Habarana and Dambulla.

Parakrama Samudraya 
After seeing the museum we headed towards the ruins in our van. The vehicle moved over the banks of Parakrama Samudraya built by King Parakramabahu. This largest ancient man-made rainwater reservoir in the island country dominates the western part of the Polonnaruwa district. The vast reservoir that covers an area of around 2,500 hectares has a capacity to store around 134 million cubic metres of water. It is not only the lifeline to the agricultural activities of Polonnaruwa and surrounding places, but also to the wildlife of the nearby Habarana forest area.

Parakrama Samudraya built by King Parakramabahu
The guide informed us that the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, which had extended 122 hectares, spreading out to a distance of 5 km from north to south and 3 km from east to west, gets the cool breeze from this lake.

The statue of King Parakramabahu/ Sage Pulasti 
On the Southern side of the lake, there’s a rock carved statue of a man of noble disposition holding a stack of manuscripts. The guide said that the identification of the statue is difficult as different people interpret it differently.

Some archaeologists say that 3.5 metre tall sculpture is of King Parakramabahu. While some others argue that it’s the image of sage Pulasti, after whom the city was named as Pulastinagara.

Pulastinagara is the Pali word of the Sinhala name Polonnaruwa.

Vishvamitra in the Rig Veda (IIII.53.16) mentions about sage Pulasti, who was regarded as the progenitor of Ravana and Kubera. He says his city, Pulasti-Pura, was located in ancient Sri Lanka.

Whoever it is, the man standing in tribhanga style, holds a palm-leaf book in his outstretched arms, has a gently swelling stomach, upper torso is bare, while a knotted sheer garment is seen wrapped around the lower body. 

The Royal Palace 
Next we went to see the Royal Palace of King Parakramabahu in the ancient city. The 7-storied building might have been once richly decorated.

The Royal Palace of King Parakramabahu
The ruins of the remaining walls are so thick, around 3 metre, that we were quite amazed to see them intact.
Thick walls of the palace
The seven-storied building contained numerous pillared rooms, including banqueting and dancing halls, all timbered, stuccoed and painted. The guide said that the various small rooms supported by 30-50 columns once were filled with the treasure. We agreed, because some of the rooms are so tiny and compact that only wealth or grains could be filled in them and nothing else!

Bathroom and toilet in the palace
Some of the walls that are left have holes to hold floor beams. The beams might have been made of wood. The palace was lit and the wooden beams were burnt to ashes, informed the guide, showing us some black spots on the wall as burnt marks!

The Council Chamber  
Across the way we went to see the beautiful King Nissanka Malla Council Chamber also known as Royal Audience Hall. Beautiful because it’s embellished with lion portals, graceful pillars and a moonstone - a delicately carved stepping stone at the entrance.

King Nissanka Malla's Council Chamber
Two beautifully carved lions on the stairs of each side welcome the visitors inside the hall.

Two beautifully carved lions on the stairs of each side
This Hall is one of the best-preserved structures in the ancient citadel. The walls have beautifully carved elephants and interestingly, each elephant is different in position and style.

Beautifully carved elephants on the walls
The hall has 48 columns and each is inscribed with the councillors' titles, to indicate everyone's assigned place in the meeting room. The titles include princes, queens, generals and even merchants!

There’s an inscribed stone lion which marks the location of the king's throne. Maybe it was a part of the throne, if not the throne itself.
Board instructing not to sit on the King's Lion Throne
Though the structural techniques here are very much similar to Anuradhapura, here they have used lime mortar. It enabled them to build huge and massive brick structures of various dimensions that were never before tried.

Kumara Pokuna
A little further there’s a royal bath or king’s swimming pool called Kumara Pokuna. The water was filled with green algae and we were quite astonished to see how fresh water was led into the water with crocodile-mouth shaped spouts!

The Sacred Centre
Our next stop was at the Sacred Centre. It compounds some beautiful ruins within a raised platform. We were told that this part consists some most important relics like Vatadage, Hatadage and Atadage, besides other beautiful ruins.

The Sacred Quadrangle
Satmahal Prasada
Before entering the Vatadage, we stopped first at Satmahal Prasada. What’s so unique about this building is it’s in a seven-storied, square stepped pyramid shape. Though only the first six-storeys remain, it’s still quite impressive. Similar temples can be found in Thailand like Wat Cham Thewi temple and Vat Kukut temple at Lamphun built in the 8th century.

Seven-storied, square stepped pyramid shaped Satmahal Prasada
Though the identity and the purpose of this building is yet to be proved, some chronicles mention that King Parakramabahu had built a stupa in the area and some scholars argue that the building was in fact this stupa! A similar building discovered in Anuradhapura is known as Nakha Vehera.

Whatever be the purpose, the building is quite impressive.

Gal Potha 
Just next to the Hetadage and Satmahal Prasada there’s a massive stone slab. Construction workers were busy cementing the place around it as I was clicking the pics.

26-ft stone slab Gal Potha 

The 26-ft stone slab is called as Gal Potha, in which King Nissankamalla had his remarkable deeds recorded on it. The inscription not only mentions about his wars with Dravidian invaders from South India, but also about his genealogy.

The inscription itself says that the slab of stone was brought to the location from Mihintale. Besides throwing light on the ruler’s achievements, the stone slab also reveals the evolution of the Sinhala script.
Two stone carved Elephants sprinkling water on Goddess Lakshmi
There are two stone carved Elephants sprinkling water on Goddess Lakshmi, the Hindu Goddess of Prosperity, on the side of Gal Potha, indicating the king’s family or harem had some queen belonging to Hinduism!

We next stepped into the Vatadage, a circular relic house, with an exceptional elegance and beauty quite typical of its kind.

Vatadage is a general architectural term, not a specific place-name. It means a stupa, erected upon a circular platform, and enclosed by a two-part roof. The top part of the roof is conical or bell-shaped, and the lower part is an annular surrounding eave. The roof is supported on pillars. The building has symmetrical entrances at each of the four cardinal directions.

The outer circle is very tastefully ornamented with petalled flowers. All the four entrances are flanked by a pair of guard stones and intricately carved moonstones.

A seven-hooded Nagaraja upholds an elaborate floral stem and a pot of plenty, attended by ganas at his feet, in a very beautiful guard stone which stands at the eastern entrance to the Vatadage. The design symbolizes prosperity. It’s a belief that the guard stone Nagaraja continues to protect the Vatadage from bad influences over the centuries.

The moonstones have three major bands or circles. The outer band displays hamsas, the middle band displays elephants and the inner band displays horses. The earlier moonstones found at Anuradhapura have lions and bulls, whereas, they are not to be seen here!

Historians give two reasons for the omission of lions and bulls. For Hindus, bulls are sacred, as it’s considered to be the sacred vehicle of Lord Shiva and they would not tread and not allow Buddhists or anyone else to trample on the sacred animal. Secondly, they might have not included the lion, as it’s the national symbol of Sinhalese and they wouldn’t want to trample on it!

The Vatadage
The stairs leading to the centre at the four entrances are beautifully carved. The risers of the stairs are decorated by dancing dwarves. At the head of each flight is a statue of meditating Buddha. The seated Buddhas are placed in each of the four cardinal directions.

The eastern entrance is not only the most complete, but also the most beautiful of the four cardinal entrances to the Vatadage.

We next went to the Hatadage built by Nissankamalla. The inscription at the entrance mentions that it was constructed by Nissankamalla.

Nissankamalla's inscription
The king, a Tamil prince, had married the princess of Polonnaruwa. After ascending the throne, he undertook vigorous measures to glorify his reign, both at home and in military expeditions abroad, which is revealed by his several inscriptions around.

Though there’s only lower storey, the building originally had two-storeys. It is believed that it housed a tooth relic of the Buddha.

There’s a weathered frieze on the wall in the building thought to be the oldest pictorial representation of Bharat Natyam, the classical South Indian dance form.

Buddha statue in Hatadage
The building also has a statue of standing Buddha which is little ok, while the other two statues are in a very bad shape and require repair.

This temple is deliberately aligned with the Vatadage. Its central Buddha looks directly across to the northern directional Buddha of the latter shrine!

Atadage is an enlarged version of Hatadage built by King Vijayabahu. Having liberated Sri Lanka from the Dravidian invaders, King Vijayabahu setup his capital at Polonnaruwa and built the Atadage so that the sacred tooth relic of Buddha and the Bowl relic could be deposited. The ground floor was the image house.
The Atadage also housed the Sacred Tooth Relic and the Bowl Relic of Buddha. Atadage is also embellished with fine carvings.

Image House or Thuparama
Thuparama, a brick-built gedige or vaulted shrine is in excellent condition. This oldest image house goes back to the reign of King Vijayabahu the first (1055-1110 AD).

Limestone statues in the shrine of Thuparamaya
A brick base is about one meter high with three projections that once carried an image of Buddha, which is now simply a pile of bricks. The stone images in the Thuparama date back to the Anuradhapura period.

The Thuparama image house originally enshrined a large seated Buddha, now lost, that has been replaced by several ancient limestone statues.
Cutout windows in the shrine
The inner shrine of Thuparama is still completely enclosed by its original vaulted brick roof. The place is illuminated only by natural light from the cutout windows and by the flickering light of devotional candles and oil-lamps. The thickness of the walls accounts for the ancient shrine's excellent condition.

Nissanka Lata Mandapaya 
Nissanka Lata Mandapaya was built by King Nissankamalla. It’s an innovative work of art depicting the splendour of classical architecture.

Nissanka Lata Mandapaya built by King Nissankamalla
Historians believe that the pavilion was used for chanting Buddha’s teaching while the inscription at the pavilion reveals that the king used to listen to the chanting of pirith, i.e., Buddhist blessings.

Pavilion is surrounded by Buddhist railings
The pavilion is surrounded by Buddhist railings, houses a bubble shaped small dagoba, without its upper part, while it is carved out of stone in the centre. Maybe the stone carved stupa used to hold the relic casket during pirith chanting.

Shiva Devale 1 & 2 
Though there are two temples dedicated to Lord Shiva in the ancient city, we visited only one (Devale 2), while we just saw the other one (Devale 1) from a distance.

Past the north gate of the citadel is the 11th century Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Shiva built entirely of stone. There’s a stone carved lingam in the sanctum and the statue of Nandi in front of the temple.

This is the oldest Hindu shrine in Polonnaruwa, dating back to early ruling years of South Indian Chola dynasty (around 1070) when they established the city. The inscription mentions that it’s a memorial to one of the queens of the Chola emperor Rajaraja I (985-1014 AD), who conquered Anuradhapura and built the Brihadeshvara Temple in Thanjavur.

Potgul Vehera 
Around 100 metres south of the statue of King Parakramabahu, outside the Royal Garden of Nandana Uyana, there’s Potgul Vehera or the Library Monastery.

A central square terrace houses the principal monument, a circular shrine or library where the sacred books were deposited. It is surrounded by four small dagobas.

Historians feel that the library also doubled up as an auditorium on occasions to read the books, read the tenets of Buddhism and chant the blessings called Pirith.

Pabalu Vehera
Our next stop was at Pabalu Vehera. This is another typical dagoba, dating back to King Parakramabahu I (1153-1186). It’s believed that this stupa was constructed during the late Anuradhapura period and enlarged during the Polonnaruwa period. This is the third largest dagoba in Polonnaruwa, and is in excellent condition.

The stupa is surrounded by four image houses located in the cardinal points. The limestone statues of Buddha are sculpted in different postures.

Rankoth Vehera
Later, we walked towards Rankoth Vehera built by King Nissankamalla which is the largest dagoba in Polonnaruwa. We saw a monk resting under the shade of a tree near the stupa.

The architecture of this dagoba is similar to the traditions of early stupas built in Anuradhapura. But the shape of the dome is quite flattened, compared to the stupas in Anuradhapura.

Rankoth Vehera built by King Nissankamalla is the largest dagoba in Polonnaruwa
The enormous dagoba, measuring 180 ft. tall and 550 ft. in girth, belongs to the Alahana Pirivena monastery complex. Around the enormous dagoba are image houses and flower alters set in the wide sand terrace surrounding the stupa. At the four central points are Vahalkadasa or front entrance enclosures built of brick, with four flights of steps providing admission to devotees.

Image house
The inscription on the stone-seat in front of the dagoba says that King Nissankamalla used to supervise the construction of the Rankoth Vehera. Another inscription on the platform to the south narrates that King Nissankamalla used to worship the dagoba from the pavilion.

There’s a splendid Buddhist shrine called Lankatilaka in the ancient city. Built by Parakramabahu I the impressive shrine displays a colossal, standing Buddha in a narrow but very tall two massive 16m-high walls that are introduced by five-storey-high pylons.

"Lankatilaka" means "Ornament of Lanka”. With elaborate carvings this building is a vaulted shrine called gedige. Though the statue doesn’t have a head, it still looks magestical. If there was a head, maybe it would have measured 14m tall! During the emperor’s rule, the tall statue might have had its own mysterious and otherworldly aura as it towered above the worshiper. The feelings of awe and reverence, that this image must have induced, are appropriate to the Mahayana concept of Buddha as a divine figure - a concept that would have seemed heretical to the orthodox Theravadins, who regarded the Great Teacher as a human being.

The exterior walls are decorated with stucco figures and architectural models. On the right balustrade Nagini, the female counterpart of Nagaraja, stands as a guard stone. Though Naga images are common in the guard stones, such images are found in balustrades only in this shrine.

Kiri Vehera
Kiri Vehera is just ahead of Lankatilaka. The milk-white shrine was named Kiri Vehera by archaelogists for its exterior of gleaming white when they discovered it amidst the overgrown jungles. Kiri Vehera in Sinhalese means “milk coloured stupa”. It was built by Queen Subhadra, a consort of King Parakramabahu.

Perhaps Kiri Vehera is not only the best preserved dagobas in Polonnaruwa, but also one of the best of Sri Lanka’s dagobas.

The excavation not only revealed a three-chambered relic bloc, but also unearthed many mounds which were originally minor stupas containing the corporeal remains of the royal family and the prelates of the monastery.

Gal Viharaya 
We went much further and parked the vehicle at a designated parking area and walked towards Gal Viharaya. We met several Lankans dressed in white robes approaching the place. After showing the tickets at the counter, we quenched our thirst by drinking water at the facility set up there.
Gal Viharaya is also called the Rock Temple. It is unparallel among such ancient monastic edifices, as it houses a group of colossal Buddha statues carved out of a granite boulder. The group has of four beautiful Buddhas in perfect condition, cut from one long slab of granite.

Meditating Buddha: The Meditating Buddha is the leftmost, as we face the Gal Viharaya, of the four sculptures. The Buddha sits in meditation within a shallowly-carved niche that is framed by a makara torana behind his torso, a scalloped arch above his head, and architectural pavilions around the arch. His oval head is sensitively carved, yet aloof and abstracted. His legs are folded in meditation, his hands in dhyana mudra. The base of his lotus throne is decorated with alternating trisulas and lions.

The leftmost statue as we face the site
Meditating Buddha: The meditating Buddha with attendants is the second statue from the left as we face the site. Still enclosed by its original rock-cave, as well as some modern wire cages, this is the earliest statue at Gal Viharaya.

Enclosed by its original rock-cave, as well as some modern wire cages, this is the earliest statue at Gal Viharaya
Standing Buddha: This is the second statue from the right. It is 23 ft tall. His arms-crossed posture is unusual and has a sad facial expression. Historians feel that the facial expression of Buddha shows his supreme compassion towards the suffering. The figure stands upon a lotus throne. His subtle bend at the waist, that is consistent with his turned-out left foot, is admirable.

The arms-crossed posture is unusual
Reclining Buddha: This is the rightmost figure at Gal Viharaya. The whole statue is 46 ft long, perhaps not coincidentally the height of the colossal standing Buddha at Lankatilaka. His face, seen in close-up here, is serene and peaceful, resting his head upon a bolster. The natural striations of the rock have been used to good effect in order to indicate the subtle folds of the Buddha's gown. The head rests on the right palm, while the left hand is stretched along the left side of the body. The dent on the pillow caused by the weight of the head and the slightly drawn angle in the left leg adds life to the superb rock carved work of poise and balance. Probably this statue represents the Buddha in gentle Parinirvana, although it has also been interpreted as simply a sleeping Buddha.

The Buddha in gentle Parinirvana
My little one was in no mood to leave the place and was in a happy mood running around. After seeing the statues, we just went and sat near a small pond filled with lotus flowers in front of the Gal Viharaya. The size of the lotus flowers in the pond was unusually bigger than the ones we had seen in other parts of Lanka!

Lotus pond
Monkey Kingdom
Polonnaruwa has been in limelight ever since the Hollywood movie “Monkey Kingdom” was released in 2015. The movie, documenting the life of a troop of wild toque-macaque monkeys locally known as “Rilaw”, was entirely shot around the ancient city of Polonnaruwa.

Adieu to the Ancient City
After a long and tiring day, it was time to say adieu to the Ancient City. The guide realized that Alex was unable to communicate with us in decent English and told us that it’s unfortunate that such a driver had accompanied us…

After Polonnaruwa, Alex said he would check with his friends about Minneriya jeep safari and would take there the next day. He insisted we do a body massage at his friend’s place and took us there, but we refused his offer. He dropped us back to the hotel in Sigiriya and left the place for the day.