DP Photo Challenge: Intricate
Hammurabi’s Code is intricate. First, it is a set of laws written in the ancient Akkadian language, in a cuneiform script. Second, it is carved on an upright stone stele the size of a person and curved in the shape of a fingertip. Third, it consists of 282 separate rules, and penalties for breaking the rules. Close to 4,000 years ago in Babylon, Hammurabi’s Code laid down the law for everything from stealing your neighbor’s goat, to “surprising” your neighbor’s wife in bed, to how much a ferry boat hire for a day should cost, to the fine for harboring someone else’s female slave in your house and not telling him she was there.
The rules are not only intricate, they are also fairly harsh. If a son hits his father, the son’s hand is lopped off. If you sleep with and “surprise” your neighbor’s wife, or his betrothed virgin child-wife, you get tied up and tossed into the Euphrates and drowned, or they bury you to the waist in sand, so you can’t run away, then stone you to death. Matthew in the Christian New Testament says: “You have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’” Whether he knew it or not, Matthew was citing Hammurabi 2000 years earlier. Welcome to civilization.
At about the same time in India, a fairly advanced Bronze-Age culture was creating some pretty big waves in the Indus Valley. And over in Egypt, the Pyramids at Giza were already built and sparkling with fresh paint and great glory. The Indus Valley, along with Mesopotamia (where Babylon lies), and Egypt are now called the Cradle of Civilization. Once iron was discovered, and more powerful weapons could be made, there was a giant arms race. There was constant warfare. Things change, and everything stays the same. I reckon I’m telling you nothing new here.
I just wanted to give you an idea of where things came from and how far we’ve come, as an animal on planet Earth. Apparently, not that far. I’m guessing from that point (4,000 years ago), humans were already sitting on top of the food chain. Not quite as solidly, nor in as comfortable a chair as we sit at the dining table today, maybe. But still, on top, and we were eating everything with a face that moved. We’d already invented bartering, as well as inventing money, and were busily selling scorpions and cockroaches as delicacies in your local roadside market for a fraction of a shekel each.
We’d also become rather artistic. Apparently, when the basic needs are met—food, shelter, clothing—and we have laws in place to keep those pesky slave stealers and goat buggerers out of our lives, we have time to create art. The fine art of coloring textiles has been around for quite a while. Not as long, perhaps, as eating scorpions dipped in honey for dessert, but quite a while.
Once the white cotton had been stained various colors—iron red, turquoise blue, boysenberry purple—the next step was creating designs in other colors to apply on the fabric. The oldest and most labor-intensive method, perhaps, is woodblock printing. This process was used throughout East Asia, and some believe it may have originated in China in the ancient past. No one knows for certain when or where. But where there’s art, there is culture.
The idea of the woodblock print is this: you take a chunk of wood and carve the face of it into some design that you like. You carve a handle on the back to hold with your hand. Then you dip the face into the dye and “stamp” the design onto the cloth by positioning the block, then tapping it to transfer the dye from the block design to the fabric. You do this again and again down the length and width of the fabric. A very labor-intensive, and “intricate,” method of printing on textiles. But very effective, and if you believe some artists, the only method by which some designs can be created. You can use one block for one part of the design or color, another block for another part of the design and color. And create very intricate designs in different colors, and patterns.
Flash forward a few thousand years:
“Why in the world would you buy that thing?” Shakti, my new yoga buddy, asks.
“Why not?” I say.
“What are you going to do with it?”
“Hang it on my wall. Stick it on a bookshelf.”
“I don’t get it,” she says.
We are in Rishikesh. The yoga Mecca of the world. Any yogi worth his mat takes a pilgrimage at some point in his life to Rishikesh, a tiny town resting on the shores either side of the sacred Ganga River (Ganges) in the Valley of the Saints at the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains. This is the place where the Beatles came all those years ago to visit Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, to discover what was what with the universe and everything beyond. I’m pretty sure they didn’t find the answer they were looking for, but they did find inspiration, and the sitar, here in Rishikesh. Their next albums wreaked with Rishikesh-inspired blues. It would take me almost a decade later to arrive my first time in India to search for the same answers. Spoiler: If you haven’t heard by now, the answer is… 42.
Shakti and I stand at a shop where they sell ancient wooden cow bells; Satya Sai Baba nag champa incense; and used, discarded woodblocks once employed to print fine designs on saris of silk. Shakti views them as garbage, to be tossed out with the mango peels. I see a piece of fine art, sheathed in history and tradition. A marvelous sculpture of wood that would look perfect next to my (never-used) opium pipe carved from bone in the form of an open-mouthed dragon, purchased in Cambodia.
I met Shakti at the yoga ashram where I’m staying in Rishikesh. She is the most limber person I have ever seen. She can sit with both legs stretched out to the side, bend foreword, and touch her chest and forehead to the floor. I’m in awe because forward bends are my weak spot. After years of (OK, not that diligent) practice, I still can’t bend forward and touch my chest to my thighs. Some people I know simply plop down into that position, no problem. It’s not a difficult pose, it’s just that my body has some aversion to doing it. An innate tightness in my hip or back or legs that disallows it. If I tried it with my legs out to the side like Shakti, I’d break my pelvis. I can stand on my head, I can twist 90 degrees, I can bend backwards. But forward bend—just not happening. I have heard some yogis say it took them like five years to master a certain pose. But forward bend? Come on, god.
Shakti’s disgust for rubbish did not faze me in the slightest. I bought that woodblock. It has a certain heaviness, it harbors nuances of color left from the printing process, it almost feels soft. I also stocked up on some Sai Baba nag champa incense at a fraction of the cost you’d buy it anywhere outside of India. It’s the only incense I burn. A very pleasing aroma: sweet, light, airy. From ancient times, most cultures used some form of incense for sacred rites, and for healing. For a very long time, frankincense was worth more than gold. That’s why wise men riding camels and bearing gifts sometimes offered it. The Queen of Sheba got rich shipping it by way of the Frankincense Trail out of the Arabian peninsula, where she ruled.
In Hammurabi’s Babylon, life was intricate. People fought wars, people sold goods, people took slaves, people committed crimes, people found love, people lived about as long as we do today. And in religious ceremonies in Babylon, incense was offered every day to appease their gods. Apparently, as intricate as the world is, there is nothing new here.
Find other challenge photos here: Intricate