Indonesian Batik

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Batik is a pan-Southeast Asian artform often associated with Muslim communities. It is a technique that involves wax-resist dyeing on a cloth, where the artist applies wax, following a desired pattern, through an instrument called canting. This is done prior to soaking the cloth to a dye solution in order to achieve color/s. The wax is then melted later on with hot water, revealing the difference between the dyed and the undyed portions. The appeal of this traditional art has become so influential and far-reaching that it has successfully found a place in mainstream fashion.

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A batik master artist from Mirota Batik shop in historic Jogjakarta

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A male batik artist spotted in the village inside the Jogjakarta Kraton (palace complex)

Indonesian Batik is considered to be the best, and it has been inscribed as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2009. It utilizes various motifs and inspirations not only from Islamic designs but also from Hindu-Buddhist, European, Chinese and even local ones, illustrating the cultural syncretism manifesting in the country.

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Various Indonesian Batik on display in one of the cloth shops along Malioboro street in Jogjakarta center.

As with other heritage textiles, the batik also plays an important role throughout the entire life cycle of an Indonesian, from life to death, making it a truly national icon. Every October 2nd, Indonesia celebrates “Batik Day”, commemorating the momentous day that the Indonesian Batik was added to the prestigious list.

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Arguing for Historic Elim, South Africa

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One of the most pleasant surprises that we experienced in South Africa was when we decided to make a stop at a historic town, declared as a national monument, on the way to the Boland region from The Republic of Swellendam.

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Elim, a Moravian mission station established by German missionaries in 1824, retains much of its original textures, scoring high both in authenticity and integrity. Backdropped by the Capefold mountains, this quaint town is one of the few remaining ones in South Africa still owned and managed by the church. Here are five things to definitely love about Elim:

ONE. Technological Advancement: The white churh’s 1757-built clock is regarded as one of the oldest working public clocks in the country. It is also ran by a long mechanism driving the two clockfaces mounted on both gables of the building, making it the only clock with an axle length of 26m there is to find.

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TWO. Town Planning and Vernacular Architecture: Its central axis leading directly to the church, which is flanked by two rows of nearly identical single-storey houses, is a delightfully neat sight. These houses differ a lot from the more ubiquitous Cape Dutch gabled houses. The carefully carried out town planning is not hard to notice.

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THREE. Memorial to a Historical Event: In front of the town’s library, which is housed at the former school building, is the only monument dedicated to freed African slaves in South Africa. It was ereceted in 1938, four years after the abolition of slavery in the Cape.

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FOUR. Engineering Feat and Water Control: Elim is home to the oldest functioning watermill in South Africa, which is also declared as a national monument on its own right in 1974.

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FIVE. Intangible Cultural Heritage: Renowned for its uniform thatched roofs, which are reminiscent to those found in Friesland in Germany, its residents are considered to be some of the best thatchers in the world. Utilitizing only restios locally found in the region, this aspect of Elim is clearly its most distinct living tradition that has been passed down from one generation to the next.

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All these elements, together with the fact that there were no other tourists roaming around when we were there, made our three-hour stay in Elim very memorable and fulfilling. Also, while there is no German-built colonial space listed yet as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the potential of Elim to be one is quite promising and is something that South Africa should consider.

Anuradhapura: the Soul of Buddhist Sri Lanka

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Hunting for World Heritage Sites has gone beyond just visiting and seeing sites. Rather, it has become more of experiencing them. Hence, in the Anuradhapura vs Polonnaruwa debate, clearly, I would have to give it to the former. Yes, I am in the minority block.

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The first capital of Sri Lanka remains very much alive today, attracting more faithful pilgrims than tourists. Its significance appears to outlive most of the other later historic sites. While most of the key monuments here are dagobas (local term for stupas) and the variety of architecture is not as diverse as that of Polonnaruwa’s, there is a great amount of history in each of them that is made more special by the reverence that the people have continuously attach to them. In fact, the age of the original monuments here would rival those Buddhist monuments in India, which was really surprising to find out. Not only are these dagobas some of the tallest monuments ever seen in the ancient world, moreover, they also stand as pillars as to why Anuradhapura is given the title “Sacred City”, and not just “Ancient City” as in the case of Polonnaruwa and even Sigiriya. There are two other sacred cities in Sri Lanka which we were fortunate to check out: the Sacred City of Kandy — also a WHS– and the Sacred City of Tissamaharama.

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The 2,000-y.o. Sri Jaya Mahabodhi tree is the most sacred component of the city and it sits right at the center. It is a direct descendant of the Mahabodhi tree in Bodhgaya where the Buddha sat under as he attained enlightenment. From there, the glaringly white Ruwanwelisaya dagoba is a short walk away, passing through the Mahalohapaya ruins. Currently, it stands as the tallest dagoba in the country after the finial of the more massive, red brick Jetavana dagoba broke off. To see the rest, it was, however, wise to hire a tuk-tuk.

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As a place mostly composed of dagobas, it is perhaps the best area to study this architectural style — from the ruined remains of the Dakhina dagoba to the carefully restored Mirisawetiya dagoba nearby, from the vatadage-styled Thuparamaya dagoba (the oldest and one of the smallest) to the ongoing construction of the modern Victory stupa, which will be the tallest once it will be finished.

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We also managed to visit some of the farthest sites such as the Isurumuniya vihara, which required a separate entrance fee. This vihara is considered as one of the oldest monuments in the city and we enjoyed talking to one of the resident monks there about the history of the site. He even kindly tied pirith nulas around our wrists, wherein I was able to record on video the chanting performed along with it.

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Half a mile away is the Vessagiri, an ancient rock shelter for monks. It features Brahmi inscriptions and faint traces of ancient frescoes that can only make sense with the help of a guide.

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A pleasant bonus was when our driver also took us inside the former citadel to check a few ruins including the Dalada maligawa, the former shrine housing the sacred tooth relic. That time, there was also a local herbalist who was gathering various plants for his concoctions. A photo I took of him while doing his thing among the ruins is probably one of my favorite shots.

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It took us a little less than 6 hours to see most of the sites included in this World Heritage Site, and I cannot say I was not impressed.

 

 

Old and Sacred: The Bodhi Tree

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The Bodhi tree was the old fig tree under which Prince Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment in 623BC in Bodh Gaya in Bihar, India. While the original tree does not exist anymore, there are several trees that are believed to have directly come from the sacred Bodhi tree. Among them, two trees play very central roles in the Buddhist faith and are highly revered by devotees for their close connection to the life of the historic Buddha. These ancient sacred trees are the Mahabodhi tree in Bodh Gaya and the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi tree in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.

The Mahabodhi tree in Bodh Gaya is regarded to mark the same spot where the original Bodhi tree used to stand. It is regarded as the Axis Mundi, or the Navel of the World, among Buddhists, and it is their holiest site. While the age of the tree is not certain, inscriptions nearby reveal that Emperor Ashoka, who converted to Buddhism in 263BC after the Kalinga War, installed the Diamond Throne beside the sacred tree and erected a stone fence around them in 250BC.

 

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The Mahabodhi tree encased in stone railings at the Mahabodhi Temple Complex, India

 

The Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi tree in the ancient city of Anuradhapura, on the other hand, is considered to be the oldest documented planted tree by a person. The cutting from the original Bohdi tree was brought to and planted in Sri Lanka by the daughter of Ashoka, Princess Sangamitta, in 288BC. Anuradhapura, the capital of the first Kingdom of Ceylon, eventually developed and grew around the sacred tree.

 

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The Sri Jaya Maha Bodhi tree in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

 

Spreading Buddhism has always been accompanied by the distribution of Bodhi trees, as symbolic bridges in bringing the believers closer to the faith and to the Buddha. A direct descendant of the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi tree was also planted at the southeastern side of the Borobudur temple in Java, Indonesia. The sapling was brought and planted by Narada Mahathera, a visiting Theravadan Buddhist monk from Colombo, in 1934 as part of his mission to revive Buddhism in the now predominantly Islamic country.

 

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The Bodhi tree beside the Borobudur temple, Indonesia

 

The earliest representation of the original Bodhi tree can be found at one of the ornate gates (toranas) of the Great Stupa of Sanchi in Mahadya Pradesh, India. Created in 100AD, the rock carving also shows the structures built around the tree that were commissioned by Ashoka. The Great Stupa is the oldest standing stone structure in the Subcontinent and is part of a bigger Buddhist monastic complex believed to have been constructed on the orders of Ashoka himself.

 

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The Bodhi tree depicted at the Great Stupa in Sanchi, India

 

The Mahabodhi Temple Complex at Bodh Gaya, the Sacred City of Anuradhapura, the Buddhist Monuments at Sanchi, and the Borobudur Temple Compounds are all UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

 

 

 

 

Tiong Bahru, a Thought on Heritage

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Singapore’s first public housing project surprisingly retains the textures of the then emerging international style and Art Deco movements in architecture. Tiong Bahru is a true heritage spot and an exceptional example of a planned urban space that is still glossed over by most who visit this bustling city in a garden.

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There are two reasons that I can think of for this:  the area hardly makes it to guidebooks, which sadly reflects the truth that what gets written in the pages are simply those that the writers just want others to see and know and there have been cases that they do NOT really know enough; and, more importantly, modern architectural movements still rarely appeal to many in ways colonial Straits shophouses do, as in the cases of Chinatown, Kampong Glam or Little India. It seems that the lack of “romance” and “ancientness” around the former hinder the interest of the average person towards them.

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In an advanced city now known for its modern marvels, how much attention and appreciation can really be accorded to the last remaining built-heritage around? It seems that turn of the 20th-century architecture suffers the most undervaluation and apathy, and Tiong Bahru’s case illustrates this phenomenon clearly.

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But how did I get there, to begin with? A friend took me there primarily for the food offering in Tiong Bahru market — which is amazing! The buildings were really a big surprise to me as I did not know anything about them beforehand.

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The Historical City of Maybod

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With the recent inscription of historic city of Yazd as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I am not quite sure how Maybod, another silk road desert city in the same region, would be able to position itself differently and subsequently provide a fresh perspective or OUV to the prestigious list.

 

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Narin castle and the old city of Maybod

 

 

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A dome of the Shah Abbassi caravanserai

 

Highlights of the old oasis city include the 2,000 year old Narin castle, an intact ice house, working qanats, a few badgirs (wind catchers), what is perhaps the most beautiful dovecote in all of Persia, and the Shah Abassi caravanserai, which also happens to be a component of the Persian Caravanserai – TWHS and quite possibly a part of the Silk Route – TWHS of Iran as well.

 

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An Ab anbar (water reservoir) that is supplied by a qanat running under it

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A covered well fed by a qanat at the center of the Shah Abbassi caravanserai

 

Interestingly, I have observed that inscribing a site more than once seems to be something that Iran enjoys doing. This can be seen with the following: Pasargadae – Persian Garden; Yazd – Persian Garden – Persian Qanat; Bam – Persian Qanat; as well as many others still brewing in the tentative list. Maybod can easily be reached as part of a regular day tour offered in Yazd.

The Persian Garden

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In our trip in May 2017, we ticked off three: Fin garden in Kashan, the ancient garden in Pasargadae, and Eram garden in Shiraz. We also had a fair glimpse of Chehel Sotun garden in Esfahan from its gates. Generally, it is imperative to visit at least one Persian garden in any visit to Iran and it is not hard to find one, although only nine are inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites (WHS). However, after having seen India’s Persian gardens earlier in 2015, which were adopted by the Moghuls using no less than Persian artisans, how should we appreciate the Persian gardens from the country where the tradition originated?

 

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Kashan’s Fin garden

 

We visited Bag-e Fin on a Friday, which was not the best day to be a tourist in Iran since it is their weekend. Expecting tranquility and peace in the oldest functioning Persian garden in the world that was built in 1590, what welcomed us was a garden fully packed with locals picnicking and groups occupying every known space inside. Sadly, knowing that we enjoy taking photos, the experience did not turn out the way we expected it to be. If there was any consolation, however,  at least the waters were flowing, all the fountains were working, the pools were not empty, and the water source, the Solomon’s spring (a qanat opening that also feeds water to the T-Listed Tepe Sialk), can be publicly seen at the back. There were other attractions inside (ridiculously with separate entry fees!), but we no longer bothered giving them a try due to the long queues. Another thing that impressed me was that the garden is surrounded by thick and high mud walls typical in the desert region.

 

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Pasargadae’s ancient Persian garden

 

The 6th century BC-built ancient garden of Pasargadae is in ruins. Only the remains of the stone layout, watercourses, and fountain pools are left. One can only then re-imagine how the garden might have looked like during its heyday out of these relics — a leisurely activity that my good friend found difficult to enjoy. The garden was the realization of Cyrus the Great’s desire to recreate paradise on earth. The river that cuts through the capital used to supply the water needed for the garden via canals. We, however, did not see any tourists who paid any attention or interest in the ruins of the garden. This is despite the fact that the garden is an interesting case: while the garden is a WHS in its own right, it also happens to be located inside another WHS, Pasargadae (as a testimony to the first capital of the Persian empire). The inscription of the Pasargadae garden, ultimately, is a nod to the provenance of the Persian gardening tradition. The presence of a signage explaining this, as well as visual re-creations of the garden, might prove beneficial to visitors.

 

 

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Shiraz’s Eram garden

 

Bag-e Eram, which is now managed by a local university, is bigger than the one in Kashan, allowing more spaces for roaming around. The Qavam pavilion, which serves as the backdrop of the garden, is a pleasant work of art and architecture from the Qajar period. What we enjoyed the most there was the abundance of many local plants and trees, some were even in bloom during our visit. The only sad thing about Eram was that the water courses and fountains were dry, something that has been reported to be the case for quite some time now. A friend we traveled with from Yazd to Shiraz just had to compare it with the Bag-e Shahzadeh in Mahan, which has an abundant water supply despite being in the Lut desert region. Nevertheless, Bag-e Eram was the redemption we needed to truly experience a Persian garden eventually.

 

 

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India: Taj Mahal’s Persian Garden

 

Assessment: while there are more to appreciate in the Persian gardens in India (the Taj Mahal and Humayun’s Tomb, for example), the pleasure derived in visiting the Persian gardens in Iran lies in the fact that they represent the pure form of this gardening tradition that reflects Persian philosophy and ingenuity, mainly in their mastery in the use of water for the gardens’ survival and aesthetics. Overall, the Persian gardens are humble, modest and unpretentious gardens. I, however, cannot imagine having the need to visit more than what we have seen — 3 was more than enough to get a proper feel of what this UNESCO WHS has to offer.