Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Use of Memories

At times the past gets a sudden grip on me and I recall moments of spontaneous comfort or familiar satisfaction. Often, a nostalgic wave follows and I think of numerous happy experiences that I shared with people. Of large lawns full of flowers in my grandfather’s house. Of warmth and yet more plants in the school of five element acupuncture. Of sunshine streaming into rooms in Delhi and lighting up books and boxes filled with old memories.

Earlier, this would lead me to thoughts like, “I shall never see some of these people again or experience such things again,” with a feeling of regret. But now I realize that if I let the memories seep in to the depths of my spirit and wait, I get shown the next step to this encounter, disconnected though it appears in time and space. I begin to get the feeling that perhaps that it is time I drew back the curtains or brought some flowers into the house or bought a special book or something else for myself.

And then out I go, to new places, meeting new people as I embark upon this. I realize that what I gained from the past was not an emotional memory but a way of appreciating some aspect of Life itself and, in my mind, give thanks to my family and friends for this.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Remembering Fred's Folly (and more)

A couple of years ago, I began interviewing scientists who had done outstanding research in India. The first person I interviewed was Prof. C. Ramakrishnan (generally called CR), who is now professor emeritus at our institute (the Indian Institute of Science). He was a student of Prof. G. N. Ramachandran (popularly called GNR) in Madras University. As a student with GNR, CR had done the calculations that led to the famous Ramachandran Map – India’s most important contribution to modern Biology. For a long time GNR and CR got very little recognition for this work (that was deserving of a Nobel prize to say the least), which has now become a part of every text on protein structure. After some time, people even stopped thinking about how the map was conceived.

After talking to CR, I found myself thinking about another person I knew who had altered the face of protein chemistry in a very matter of fact yet striking way – Fred Richards. As time went by, my appreciation of Fred’s work grew stronger, more so each time I heard a good talk in Biophysics that reminded me of some aspect of his experiments (the last being the talk by Venkatraman Ramakrishnan (Venki) from the MRC Laboratory, a few months ago). Last year, Venki was a visiting professor here and we had an interesting and thought provoking conversation over lunch with him, exchanging notes on people we had known at Yale. All these experiences made me appreciate Fred’s work in a way that I never could as a student, when I was bound up in textbooks.

Fred died last year and though obituaries were published in several well known international journals, there was not a word about him in India. I was saddened by this and recently the urge to write something about Fred’s contributions overcame my reserve to write an uninvited article, and I sat down to write this:

Remembering Fred’s Folly (and more)

Fred Richards passed away quietly in his home in 2009 at the age of eighty three. His passing away was largely unnoticed in India, perhaps because he had won no Nobel prize and he generally didn’t bother with publishing in high profile journals (that Indian science tends to use as a scale of judgement). However, Fred’s work influenced many aspects of the protein science that we know today. Therefore I wished to write a little about Fred’s contributions – not a comprehensive biography, but my thoughts about Fred and his work.

As a graduate student I was a little in awe of Professor Frederic M. Richards (called Fred by one and all). I knew him as the founder chair of our department (Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, termed MB&B, which was founded in 1967) and a Sterling Professor Emeritus of the department. I read several of his papers as they were part of our core courses.

It was only much later, once I began to read and understand Biophysics and think about proteins – what made them stable and how they might function – that I realized how many aspects of this subject Fred’s work impinged upon. These days I often find myself sitting in Biophysics seminars thinking, “But Fred began that!” for his contributions are so fundamental in nature, so diverse in scope and so early in the evolution of the field that they are often no longer referred to.

It was only after I left MB&B and went on to study in other institutions and departments that I realized the uniqueness of this department. MB&B was a place that wove together not just different approaches to studying biological systems but also combined two physically separate buildings (in different parts of the campus) so they functioned as a cohesive whole. The MB&B graduate curriculum was remarkably flexible and unusually well designed in terms of training students; I feel this was largely due to Fred’s foresight, scientific clarity and administrative skill.

When I was a student Fred had already retired, but I would often see him- smiling as he nodded to someone, his head full of ideas and his hands full of equipment. He generally seemed to be enjoying himself immersed in his experiments – a sentiment that was reflected in his autobiographical article “Whatever Happened to the Fun? An autobiographical investigation”. (1) His group at the time was tiny but prolific, comprising very unusual and talented individuals. With great kindness they would periodically invite me to lunch in my early and friendless days at Yale, and regale me with snippets of gossip and stories of yore – my favourite being the lab’s sailing expedition on Sally’s (Fred’s wife’s) barge – where everyone was rolling about on the deck trying not to be sick – except Sally, who stood unaffected, perkily yelling out instructions that no one could put into effect.

Fred began his work on the enzyme bovine pancreatic ribonuclease A (RNAse A) when he was a postdoc with Linderstrøm-Lang at the Carlsberg Labs in Denmark. In 1953, he showed that RNAse A could be specifically cleaved by subtilisin to yield an enzymatically active intermediate, which he went on to purify (2). In 1955, he joined the Department of Biochemistry at Yale and continued these experiments. He showed that the cleavage products (termed RNAse S and S peptide) could not function individually but when mixed together could regain RNAse A-like activity, and suggested (with his customary foresight) that this is how peptide hormones might function in target organs (3). This work pierced through many fuzzy notions that existed about proteins at the time and raised intriguing questions about how proteins attained their final structure and function in solution. This experiment was done before Anfinsen’s classic experiment with ribonuclease. (Footnote A)

Different proteins are made of distinct combinations of twenty basic units (amino acids) and perform diverse functions in a cell. Each protein has a unique structure that is related to its function. Are all these different proteins guided by certain basic principles that dictate their shape and stability? Are experiments using protein crystals (vital for determining high resolution structures) relevant to our understanding of proteins in solutions (their normal milieu)? Fred addressed these questions with some path breaking experiments.

In 1967, Hal Wykoff and Fred solved the structure of RNAse S – this was the second crystal structure of an enzyme to be solved (4, Footnote B).

After determining the crystal structure of RNAse S, Fred went to Oxford on sabbatical. Sally and Fred, along with a crew of two, sailed out from the US to the shores of England in their own boat. In the following period, while Sally explored unexpected English ways, Fred worked in David Phillip’s lab. At this time, he built the optical comparator (called Fred’s Folly or Richard’s box) – a device that helped translate X-ray diffraction data to a physical model of a molecule (5). This device began to be used in all labs studying crystal structures till it was eventually replaced by computer programmes.

Fred then went on to develop new tools to look at protein structure and packing. He described proteins as having an outer, solvent-accessible surface and a well-packed inner core and developed ways to quantify these (6,7). This work shed light on some factors that contribute to protein structure, folding and stability – which ultimately determine how a protein will function in a cell (8). This continues to be an important and little understood area in Biology.

These were just some of Fred’s contributions to science. Equally importantly, he had a tremendous impact on guiding not just graduate students, but the field itself in issues relating to ethics and principles of research. He pushed for complete accessibility to protein structural data that was collected by all scientists in the field – and the Protein Data Base that was established as a result of this continues to be an essential information source world wide.

Fred’s style of functioning was frank, forthright and rock solid. He was large hearted in an understated way. His distinctive (and original) style of speech and tendency to drop off during seminars (due to a medical condition) sometimes made people underestimate his astuteness and keen intelligence. Often times, the audience and speaker would be startled when Fred abruptly awoke from his nap and asked a question that probed the core of the subject being discussed, sometimes bringing forth aspects that no one had thought of before.

I am fortunate to have witnessed Fred in action, if only briefly and peripherally. I realize that his no-nonsense approach had a touch of the visionary, and I appreciate the depth of his work all the more as time goes by. I saw him in 2007, a year and a half before he passed away. He showed us the lab he had set up in the basement of his house (which Sally and he built at the edge of the water in Long Island sound). He was still talking with tremendous enthusiasm about experiments that he was planning to do. This is always how I shall remember him.

Fred liked to work with his hands. (Photograph taken from

Fred (extreme right), Thelma and Johnnie (second and third from the right) were the unchanging components of the Richards lab. (Photograph taken in Guilford, 1998).


A. Anfinsen showed that for small globular proteins, amino acid sequence was sufficient to drive attainment of the native protein structure.

B. To put this in some perspective, the first atomic structure of a protein (myoglobin) was determined using X-ray crystallography at the MRC Laboratory in 1957 and the second (hemoglobin) in 1959. For this work, John Kendrew and Max Perutz were awarded the Nobel prize in Chemistry in 1962.

The first protein enzyme crystal structure (lysozyme) was determined by David Phillip in 1965. This was followed by Hal and Fred’s work on RNAse S.

Recently, Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Thomas Steitz and Ada Yonath were awarded the 2009 Nobel prize in Chemistry for solving the ribosome structure. Interestingly, Tom is faculty at MB&B and Venki (now at the MRC Laboratory) embarked on his first experiments on ribosomes in the lab of Peter Moore, who is professor emeritus at MB&B.


1. Whatever happened to the fun? An autobiographical investigation. Richards FM. Annu Rev Biophys Biomol Struct. 1997; 26:1-25

2. Degradation of ribonuclease by subtilisin. Kalman SM, Linderstrøm-Lang K, Ottesen M, Richards FM. Biochim Biophys Acta. 1955 Feb; 16 (2): 297-9

3. On the enzymatic activity of subtilisin-modified ribonuclease. Richards FM, Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 1958 Feb; 44 (2): 162-6

4. The structure of ribonuclease-S at 3.5 A resolution. Wykoff HW, Hardman KD, Allewell NM, Inagami T, Johnson LN, Richards FM. J Biol Chem. 1967 Sep 10; 242 (17): 3984-8

5. The matching of physical models to three-dimensional electron-density maps: a simple optical device. Richards FM. J Mol Biol. 1968 Oct 14; 37 (1): 225-30

6. The interpretation of protein structures: estimation of static accessibility. Lee B, Richards FM. J Mol Biol. 1971 Feb 14; 55 (3): 379-400

7. Tertiary templates for proteins. Use of packing criteria in the enumeration of allowed sequence for different structural classes. Ponder JW, Richards FM. J Mol Biol. 1987 Feb 20; 193 (4): 775-91

8. Areas, volumes, packing and protein structure. Richards FM. Annu Rev Biophys Bioeng. 1977; 6: 151-76

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Our Prayers

Some time ago, tucked away in a cookbook, I found a prayer that my mother had copied out. Yesterday, while browsing through old books, I found another, of mine.

Prayers have always been an important part of our lives. I was introduced to them perhaps as other children are introduced to bed time stories. While we have Indian prayers that come to mind in all emergencies - powerful spiritual verses, we also have prayers for other times and moods.

I reproduce these two old prayers that at some moment struck a chord somewhere and were carefully put away for the years to come.

O Spring of wisdom, health and wealth
The beauty, the pleasure O the rest
O' master of all and subject to none
The only philanthropic one!
Me be beggar at thy door,
Praying beseechingly from the core
Long I not for worldly gain
Which I feel is dry and vain
Beg I one thing but O' Lord
A loving health to each and all
Grant this boon O' Lord to me
For Thou are love and love is Thee.

Lord, place that priceless jewel in my hands,
The pearl, Content; above all others rare;
Whether my star ascends or steadfast stands
Grant that I keep it bright within my care:
That others, seeing it, may seek and find,
Through Thee, this jewel, a contented mind.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Baby Names (Not for Dames)

Names in India are a big deal. Names often describe the region you come from, your family and possibly your caste. There are various rituals associated with naming. Sometimes astrologers or spiritual gurus are asked to suggest the first letter of the name or the entire name. At times babies are given real names, pet names (nick names) and secret names. This is to ensure an auspicious beginning to a young life. In some regions, traditional names have two versions - the Indian and the Anglicized thus leading to different spellings of the same family name.

In accordance with changing trends, babies may now be given mixed (international) names, old names with new spellings and neo classic names (obtained by poring over Sanskrit dictionaries for nouns that can be suitably transformed). In addition, an unexpected dimension has been added by numerologists and some names have multiple repetitions of the same letter to ensure numerological benefits in life. In light of this is set the poem:

Baby Names

(Not For Dames)


The Ballad of Prithviraj Ddutt

Preludia : The Lament of Prithviraj in A flat

My parents chose my name but

Fate ascertained I be Dutt

Although Dutta was once my name

As my school certificate proclaims.

O fate! What is this cruel curse

That I be called Datta, or worse-

Ddutt, Datt or plain PD

Is there no justice left for me?

(Interlude with a sob)

My parents say they’re not to blame

A Dutt by any other name


pretty much the same.

I take these noble words to heart

And when asked, say with a start

The first name that takes my fancy

Basavaraj, Lingaraj- Nixon or Nancy

(Interlude with a soft (though audible) sigh)

‘Lest no fellow

Share my curse

I now pen down

This little verse

Of Baby Names


Not for Dames.

Major operandi : Approved names for D minor :

There’s Dhanraj, Dhanwantri, Dharmendra (or Dharmender)

Dayanand, Darshan, Devendra (or Devender)

Devaraj, Dushyant and Dhirendra (or Dhirender)

Dasaprakash, Doraiswamy, Dhaniram or Dhurinder.

Nothing beats Dhruv, Dinanath and Deva

Dharana, Dhyana, Dhir are in favour.

Deepak, Deeptiman or just plain Deep

Dhiraj, Dhairyavan, Dinesh and Dileep.


Greco-Roman’s quite the rage

(So let’s ignore Dara, Dharam and Desh)

Instead, there’s - Dictostelium, Discoidium, Dionysius, Darius

Dimou, Dmitrious, Damocles - but that’s precarious.

There’s glamorous hero and valorous villain-

Dhananjay, Dhritarashtra and even Divyadarshan.

Dronacharya, Dashrath, Drupad, Devatman

Perhaps not Durvasa, Dushasan, Duryodhan.

Good Bong names like Delta and Dinku

Debashish, Debdutt, Diponkar, Debu

Debabrata, Daya, Debanjan, Dablu (or W)

Dibakar, Dhruba, Doipayan and Dambushu.

D’s are the only ones

Of which news has come to Delhi.

There may be many others,

You can get them on the telly.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


Samasthiti - holding ourselves steady in a state of equilibrium is where we begin our practice. The first thing I need to do each morning is to remember to leave my problems and thoughts behind. I feel the stiffness around my pelvic region and abdomen lessening as soon as I do this and start focussing within.

In this posture, one has to stand straight, feet together (big toes and ankles touching), flat on the ground. The spine is straight, the legs are stretched upwards from within, hands are stretched but not tight and are placed by the side of the body, palms facing the outer sides of the thighs.

The body is relaxed yet the emphasis is on an upward stretch that begins from the feet. It is a gentle stretch, not a wrenching motion, yet it has a very noticeable effect. The ankle joints have to relax; the stretch continues from the legs, thighs, buttocks to the lower back and all the way up the spine.

With Masterji's help, I try and open the pelvis - the hip bones have to gently move outwards and backwards. The spinal stretch continues upwards, the chest expands. My shoulders go up in tension, to relax them I need to pull up slightly from behind and below the shoulder blades and relax the upper back. When I do this, the shoulders relax, move down and backwards. The neck is stretched but not stiff. Now, I try to apply mulabandha and uddiyanabandha.

It is difficult to remember to keep everything else simultaneously relaxed, it is also hard to make sure the feet stay flat, touching each other on the ground and the weight is evenly balanced. But the attempt to do this posture correctly brings relaxation and lightness and clears the mind, paving the way for the rest of the practice.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Working on the hip joint

I discovered a little while ago that one could try and work on the hip joint (as with every other joint I suppose) from within the joint. The hip joint is a part of the pelvic girdle (made of several fused bones). The outer surface of the hip bone has a deep impression in which the almost spherical head of the thigh bone (femur) fits. The thigh bone is the longest and strongest bone of the body and it is held within the cavity of the hip bone by strong ligaments. This is a ball and socket joint, where the head of the thigh bone is like a ball that can move in the cavity (socket) of the hip bone. This kind of joint allows for a wide range of movement of the leg. That's the anatomy part of it.

I always used to think that this meant that one could move one's leg about the hip in different ways and the movement depended on the condition of the different muscles involved. But recently, during the Yoga practice, I have realized that when Masterji says, "Open the hip joint," one can actually attempt to loosen 'something' inside (ligaments or more muscles around, or both perhaps?) such that the joint feels freer from within. The bones are not in such close proximity any more, the tightness is lessened and the range of movement increases on its own. As the hip joint is involved in so many asanas, for me, focussing on this aspect alters the movement in different postures, in different ways. In several asanas, I often used to determine the final position to be reached by observing the position of the knee joint. I feel now that the position of the knee is often just an indicator of the degree of movement that is being allowed from the hip joint. Pushing the knee further many times will help only to a small extent as the limitation often times is due to stiffness in the hip joint (very easily observable in asanas like Virabhadrasana, Baddhakonasana, Padmasana). Once this opens, the knee automatically moves further.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

My Gardening Resolution

Yesterday, visiting the Muthanna family home reminded me of my resolve to stop basking in the glory of my perennials (which grow, no matter what one does to them, in a place like Bangalore) and begin gardening for real - to grow some seasonal edible stuff up on my terrace.

The Muthannas have a wonderful terrace garden, where they grow all the good things that on their farm are normally nibbled upon by wild elephants, jackals or such like. The terrace garden is a supreme array of crates lined with plastic sheets, which one can observe by standing midway on their staircase (and access by vaulting neatly over the garage- which I didn't attempt, but which their gardener does in a matter of fact way everyday). A profusion of lettuce, tomatoes, ladies finger (okra to those not in India), mint, papaya saplings and more greets one from the roof top.

So- anyway, I re-resolved to begin my venture of a terrace salad-garden (beginning with hauling the soil up all the way and unblocking the non-functional tap connected to the water tank). Also inspiring me was a wonderful little book I discovered this week, called 'The Gardener's Year', by Karel Capek (translated from Czech and published in English in 1931, with suitable illustrations by his brother Joseph). It consists of little chapters on gardening for each month of the year with stray thoughts strewn in for good measure- heaps on soil-humus-manure and other marvels and fascinations for a real or back-seat gardener. Who might a real gardener be? I quote from this book-

"While I was only a remote and distracted onlooker of the accomplished work of gardens, I considered gardeners to be beings of a peculiarly poetic and gentle mind, who cultivate perfumes of flowers listening to the birds singing. Now, when I look at the affair more closely, I find that a real gardener is not a man who cultivates flowers; he is a man who cultivates the soil. He is a creature who digs himself into the earth, and leaves the sight of what is on it to us gaping good-for-nothings. He lives buried in the ground. If he came into the Garden of Eden he would sniff excitedly and say:"Good Lord, what humus!" I think that he would forget to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil; he would rather look round to see how he could manage to take away from the Lord some barrow-loads of paradisaic soil. Or he would discover that the tree of knowledge of good and evil has not round it a nice dishlike bed, and he would begin to mess about with the soil, innocent of what is hanging over his head. "Where are you, Adam?" the Lord would say. "In a moment," the gardener would shout over his shoulder; "I am busy now." And he would go on making his little bed."

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Small Dreams of a Scientist or The Cosmic Dance

(Sorry if it’s gory)

The polyp cluster of the sea
Raised its limbs up high
Ensnaring me effortlessly
As I fell from the sky.

While I thrashed within the fronds
Zooplankton did a dance
Bony fish swayed, devolved to form
Ancient elasmobranch.

And holding me were basking sharks
I could’nt drift away
My eyes burst into little sparks
As I hit a manta ray.

Missed my jugular by an inch
(.4 to be exact)
The stinging blow made me flinch
And then I heard a crack-

A dislocated humerus
-and mine! A cosmic joke..
As I struggled with a diagonal truss
My glenoidal labrum broke.

I watched my cartilage drift away
Form a gradient in steps
Spurred by this act, the manta ray
Began dissection more complex.

As it lashed out I felt twelve bursts
Ribs ground to an osseo-crumb
Eleven and twelve gave way first
Being unattached to my sternum.

In the emerald bay, red pools abound
Blood streams and I cease my action
Meanwhile the water that surrounds
Changes its coefficients of refraction.

Suddenly out flowed the tide
And flung me to the sky
Waiting for vertigo to subside
I was swooped on by a fly.

As I made eye contact with it,
I was outstared by its glance
Against those numerous ommatids
I really had no chance.

Trapped by a giant mutant fly!
A white minus Drosophila
I found, on looking above its eye
‘Twas also Antennapedia.

Flying with steady, practised flaps
We hit a cloud of smoke
I felt my alveoli collapse
As I began to choke.

Much before I saw the anthrax leer
I felt the deadly toxin
In vain the fly’s attempts to veer
We needed Ciprofloxacin.

The fly succumbed, let go of me
I fell through ozone holes
And landed in a magma sea
Of spewing, suffering souls.

I smelt the smoke and heard the hiss
And felt the thermophiles
Slithering up my epiglottis
Like globulets of bile.

As they sucked, they grew in sheen
I felt my fluids drain
Selectively they chose my spleen
But left untouched my brain..

My brain, afloat ‘midst fiery dunes
Swam at a rapid pace
So fast it spun that it was soon
Hurled into outer space.

Whizzing through horizons bright
Felt wild and young and free
And suddenly, distinctly light
As I changed to energy.

Then there it loomed – a giant hole
I guessed (I couldn't see)
Its emptiness outstretched my goal
Vacuity engulfed me.

Then just as sudden it collapsed
Of dirth there was a dirth
Before any more time elapsed
I targeted the Earth.

The polyp cluster of the sea
Raised its limbs up high
Ensnaring me effortlessly
As I fell from the sky.

One Morning

I woke up one morning
To find that my forest had gone

The deer had all scuttled
Before the break of the dawn

Lions that lay by me
Looked utterly weary and worn

The men that came last night
They sang as they cut along

They tore down the forest
Dammed up the river and all

The elephants upstream
Are trapped by a concrete wall

We walked side by side by
The stream that slowly dried

Without food and water, we dropped
And we soundlessly died

We heard they swooped on us
Sold our teeth, also our skin

They couldn’t sell our dreams and
All that was left within

We gathered our souls though we
Couldn’t gather our hides

Took what remained of our spirit
And all that was left of our pride

The dead elephants called us
The deer shrieked and the birds cried

We silently moved till we
Crossed the threshold of pain

To the land where trees stretch
Forever and over again

New Moon!

New moon!

You change the sky to a whole
A sleepy blanket of peace
A promise of wondrous dreams

New moon!

I stand in silence and wait
Till the darkness creeps through
And turns to a midnight blue

New moon!

I feel the darkness you bring
Pick out the stars in my soul
A glimmering of my own

New moon!

Drawn by the spell that you cast
Turning star-filled eyes to you
I feel the quiet seep through

New moon!

Yeshwanthpur Blues

The President flags off a fancy train
On the other side of the open drain
I hear the fishermen’s refrain
The fishes’ eyes are glazed in pain.
I stand there, soakin’ in the rain
Wonderin’ if they’ll come alive again.
But they’re jus’ being cut for curries and stews-
Oh, I got those ol’ Yeshwanthpur blues.

The Taj sets up a swanky shop
They’re going to pull out all the stops
On the roads littered with brooms and mops
Made from remains of slashed tree tops.
Those trees ain’t alive now- they’re just props
For shacks selling balm and our cough drops.
But they can’t stall the pain that begins to ooze-
Oh, I got those ol’ Yeshwanthpur blues.

The Institute raises its gate
And hangs out a fancy chrome plate
Announcing to all the execution date
Of trees, who in their silence wait.
The birds- they have no case to state
Flutter till the lorry sounds abate.
This ain’t the home that they would choose-
Oh, I got those ol’ Yeshwanthpur blues.

The Institute again is in the news
The revered scientist has blown a fuse
He’s hurling chemical abuse
Because he did not get his dues.
That shattered room once held his Muse
She’s fled, leaving behind her shoes.
She looked erudite but was just confused-
Oh, I got those ol’ Yeshwanthpur blues.



These are links to some of my science writing. The links are only accessible in India. The articles are published in Resonance (a science journal published by the Indian Academy of Sciences and Springer) in a column titled 'Face to Face'. They are interviews with scientists who have done outstanding and innovative research in India. These links can only be accessed within India.

1. Viewing Life Through Numbers - a discussion with Dr. C. Ramakrishnan

2. Of Mechanism, Microscopes and Methyl iscocyanate - a discussion with Dr. Sriramachari

3. Going Solo: Adventures in Organic Synthesis - a discussion with Dr. A.V. Rama Rao

4. Turning a New Leaf - a discussion with Dr. H.Y. Mohan Ram

5. The Challenge of Thor - a discussion with Dr. Anil Kakodkar

6. Seismic Rays, Satellites and Sea Winds - a discussion with Dr. Vinod K. Gaur

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Trip To Turkistan

Our trip, planned around interesting-sounding places, led us once more to even more interesting encounters with people. We received warm welcomes from almost everyone we met, in all the places we visited. The people, I think, were the highlight of our trip to Turkey.
We landed in Istanbul on the 1st of July 2009, and were caught in the flurry of people heading towards the trolleys, 2 lira coins in hand (we learned that the euro coins worked as well). As soon as this was done, we headed out of the airport, were hustled into a reserved taxi, packed in like sardines- the four of us with our eight bags and four backpacks along with two other travellers and all their bags - and finally released at the doorstep of Hotel Kupeli in Sultanhamet (the old part of Istanbul).
Our hotel was functional, comfortable, well located - ten to fifteen minutes away form the main touristy area and tram line, on a relatively quiet road. We spent the first evening getting acquainted with our surroundings, exchanging money, activating our cell phone and sniffing out potential dinner options. We finally succumbed to the friendly persuasion of a lanky young waiter who stood at the corner of our hotel road, cheerfully flagging down all tourists. Didn’t regret the decision one bit, though we were tucked onto a table balanced on a narrow pavement and joined midway by one of the numerous alley cats. The food was excellently made and served with distinct pride and delight (this was something we encountered in many parts of Turkey and it was quite heart warming).
We spent our next day and a half wandering around Sultanahmet, visiting the ancient Aya Sofya (originally Santa Sophia- the church of the Divine Wisdom, built in the 6th century AD, converted into a mosque in the 15th century and to a heritage monument in the 20th century by Ataturk) with its magnificent, original mosaics and architectural motifs still intact. We saw the impressive Blue Mosque with its beautifully proportioned exterior and exquisitely decorated interior. From here the path led naturally down to the Arasta Bazaar, where we sat amidst the shopkeepers and ate a pleasant lunch of kofte, stewed beans, salad and bread, and watched the locals having their staple lunch of bread, salad and watermelon. Later, we saw the dervishes whirl, walked in the extensive, well-laid out Grand Bazaar, bought an Anatolian carpet and the most delicious fresh figs, and before we knew it, our time in Istanbul was over.
We left for the airport, just missing rush hour traffic and after several hours of flight delays, found ourselves seated in the comfortable Turkish Airlines plane, heading north by north east, to Erzurum. We chomped on sour cherry cake, gulped down sour cherry juice (Raghavan) and fresh buttermilk (me) and looked out on to the setting sun.
We landed after dark in the crisp, cool night, at an elevation of about 6500 feet. Pulled out our jackets, collected our little strolleys which were packed with a small subset of our belongings for this week’s trip (Uma’s was the heaviest and Raghavan’s the lightest..) Took a taxi into the centre of town, where our hotel stood- Hotel Dilaver- an old, creaky, comfortable business hotel in the centre of town. Our room looked out on to a hillside, which, as were gazing at it, burst suddenly into an arc of fireworks. A magical welcome.
Our bathroom pipes had an air lock and our T.V. and telephone didn’t work, but there were no really major hiccups. The air was fresh and cool, the beds comfortable and we fell soundly asleep only to be awakened by the muezzin’s highly amplified call at 4.30 a.m.
A large and tasty breakfast awaited us at the rooftop dining hall. The visiting German tour group was excitedly heading out to the terrace, plates in hand, while local businessmen were placidly seated close to the food indoors, eating, sipping Turkish tea and smoking cigarettes with apparent satisfaction. We compromised by sitting indoors, close to the windows and gazing out. The day was crisp and clear and we decided to rent a car and explore the valleys and abandoned Georgian monasteries that dotted the landscape. Realized fairly soon that the only receptionist who could speak English was on the night shift and no one in any of the car rental offices could understand a word of English.
Were immensely grateful to Ataturk’s reforms, which led to the replacement of the Arabic script with the Roman, enabling us to read the maps and road signs. Raghavan somehow managed to rent a car, fill it up with petrol, find a guide who led us to the outskirts and off we went along Highway 950, towards Öşkvank to see the huge, abandoned 10th century cathedral (which we took half an hour to find; should have had the sense to just follow the German tour coach). We then drove along small village roads with much of the population staring at us as we went by, onwards to Haho to see a 10th century monastery complex. The scene around us changed gradually from green hilly meadows to bare, stark mountains and valleys, rising and falling abruptly from the roadside. We drove along Tortum Golu (Lake Tortum) – a long, muddy-brown lake with high mountains and deep gorges carved on both sides of its shore. Stopped at the only roadside restaurant we saw, on the lake’s edge, where we had the only food they served- freshly caught river trout fried a crisp brown, bread, a salad of fresh greens and mulberries that they shook off one of the trees.
We returned on a parallel road, driving to Oltu to see the kalesi (citadel) that rose along the western edge of the city. Raghavan and I climbed up to the gates (which were locked) while Papa and Uma tucked into some local chocolate ice cream and lemon ice cream at the foot of the citadel.
Drove back to Erzurum, via the bus station, to get tickets for our onward journey to south- eastern Turkey. This was an unforgettable experience as we were surrounded by touts within seconds of our arrival at the station. I insisted on stopping at a police cell, but it was not much use as the police couldn’t speak English either and finally after randomly narrowing the choice to a specific ‘agent’, we followed him to one of the innumerable private bus counters. After much conversation, most of it unfathomable, we were handed 4 tickets. We returned in exhausted silence punctuated by irritable comments by me (I confess, I was at my unsatvic worst).
A quick wash and a few moments later I was in better spirits as we all trooped out to Meram Cağ Kebap- the recommended restaurant which served the special kebaps that Erzurum is famous for. As if this were not enough, after dinner we struggled down to the helva shop and bought a bag full of helva (Turkish delights)- filled with walnuts, topped with sesame- and chewed the night away.
The next day was grey and cloudy and as we set out from the hotel, it began to rain. We ran towards our destination- the beautiful Seljuk mosque, the Ulu Cami (Great Mosque). While we were waiting at the doorstep, wondering where to leave our shoes, we encountered Noorie- a Lonely Planet mountain guide who had spent some time in India, and who offered to show us around the place. He showed us where to keep our footwear, requested Uma and me to wear scarves and then introduced us to a venerable old man who was in charge of the upkeep of the mosque. This dignified elderly man explained in great detail the architectural style and principles of acoustics and optics and astronomy which went into designing this mosque. Noorie was a willing translator. Erzurum has a number of Seljuk buildings that are typically simple, extremely elegant structures in stone.
After our visit to the mosque, we wandered down to the carpet shop owned by Noorie and his partner (a large man with the appearance of a pleasantly disposed wrestler). Over glasses of fruit tea, we viewed and finally selected two small carpets in deep red cotton and wool full of little woven animals. We walked back to the hotel and ate lunch in a self service restaurant that had a long counter filled with large steel containers of food. This was probably the only time we didn’t order freshly cooked food, and we certainly paid for it. Raghavan began burping at an alarming rate and Papa developed a severe stomach upset that lasted the next five days and which resulted, amongst other things, in our seeing many more petrol pumps and a few more mosques than we had intended to. (Uma and I were perfectly fine).
In the evening we strolled around the town, taking in the old clock tower and several other mosques. Returned to Noorie’s shop where he was to be found playing some board game, to take up his offer of being introduced to some jewellers. Erzurum is also famous for its dark greenish-black amber called jet or oltutaşi, which is very soft when present underground but hardens on contact with air. It is carved, set in silver and made into very lovely jewellery. Uma and I bought some (needless to say) and then we returned to Noorie’s shop to dig into the best baklava in town, as he claimed. It was no mean claim and we finished a kilo of baklava between all of us. The wrestler-carpet selling partner vanished to return with about ten bottles of mineral water, of which we gratefully accepted two. Then after a few more exchanges, which included Papa’s humming the song Noorie from the Hindi film of the same name and Noorie’s extending an invitation to Raghavan to return and stay with him and his family and ski on his brother’s resort (Erzurum has one of the best ski resorts in the region and the city is currently gearing up for the International University contest to be held in 2010), we took leave of them.
We returned to the hotel in the late evening and swore that we couldn’t eat much. We went out soon after to get a quick bite, stopped at a shop whose display windows were full of bee hives and jars of honey. We entered to enquire and had an incredible conversation with the strapping, middle aged man there who flapped his arms and made other suitable signs to explain that he was the premier bee-keeper and honey supplier of the area. I enquired about the bright yellow powdery dots stored in glass jars on the shelves and he explained that it was pollen, it was very good for the stomach when drunk along with honey. (The entire conversation was conducted in Turkish). He then filled a kettle with water, lit up a small stove kept on the floor and set out 4 glasses for us. He filled each glass about a quarter full with thick honey, added a spoonful of pollen, stirred it with a wooden stick, poured in hot water to make a thick, bright yellow drink. We glugged it down; it was tasty- and filling. I ended up buying large amounts of honey and pollen and then we proceeded to look for restaurants listed in the Lonely Planet. Before we realized it, our feet (and stomachs) led us back to Meram Cağ Kebaps, and we promptly settled ourselves there and prepared for our last evening of gluttony (in Erzurum).
Suddenly we heard a voice close to us, speaking in Hindi. We turned to see a small, rotund man who introduced himself as the Registrar of Tabriz University (Iran), currently visiting Turkey with his family. He had apparently studied in India and was obviously delighted to meet Indians, especially a University professor from India. He talked about his student days, enquired about the possibilities of programmes in IISc for visiting students and then with a little bow told us that his car would be at our disposal. We thanked him and said that we were leaving early the following morning. Cards and invitations were exchanged, goodbyes said. His wife gave a very pleasant smile and nod and his two young daughters giggled away continuously. We waved goodbye and then resumed our dinner, under the pleased and watchful eye of the waiter. It was a fitting end to a day filled with unexpected encounters and pleasant surprises.
The next morning we were ready by 6.30 a.m. Gulped down our breakfast, packing away some food for Papa whose stomach upset had reached dreadful proportions. Experienced our usual morning taxi-blues, and almost ran out of time before a driver materialized (after loud and prolonged whistling by the hotel doorman at our insistence). We proceeded steadily to the bus station, stopping at a large number of traffic lights on the way. As soon as we reached, I jumped out with my bag and ran off to locate our bus. Raghavan, Papa and Uma collected the remaining bags and paid off the driver. I returned to find that Raghavan had vanished in a completely different direction. Finally we were reunited and managed to make it to the bus in the nick of time. Luckily the tickets were numbered and we had good seats, towards the front, below the openable hatch of the roof. The seats were comfortable, but the windows were sealed and the A.C. didn’t function much of the time. Our fellow passengers were a variety of locals- many elderly men, an old priest, a few women with children in tow and a sprinkling of young men. People were extremely quiet and courteous and the journey from the hills to the dry plains began uneventfully. It picked up momentum along the way as the bus driver had apparently left two passengers in Erzurum (after waiting for them for ten minutes) and he began to have a heated exchange with his bosses, using two cellphones and almost no hands to steer the bus. To make matters somewhat more disturbing (especially for Uma who had a bird’s eye view of the driver and the road), we were delayed as a large van had bounced off the road and lay completely smashed in the gorge below. In addition, Papa was in a state of mental and physical anguish as the bus didn’t stop anywhere for the first four hours, except to drop and collect passengers. All in all a trying trip, but interesting nevertheless, especially to see the changing scenery and changing composition of the passengers. The hardy, fair complexioned mountain people were replaced by heavily wrapped or veiled Kurdish travellers, clicking their beads or talking softly to each other.
After seven and a half hours (including a brief lunch stop) we reached the ancient city of Diyarbakir, surrounded by five and a half kilometers of towering basalt walls (the second in length after the Great Wall). We reached our hotel- Otel Büyük Kervensaray- a 16th century caravanserai converted into a hotel. It used to house 500 camels and their keepers and now comprises of charming little stone bedrooms around a large, tree-filled open courtyard where meals are served and a huge, clean, sparkling blue swimming pool at the back.
It was a wonderful place to stay, with plenty of old-world atmosphere. There was a huge spread for breakfast each morning - fresh plums, cherries, apricots, slices of watermelon and melon and other fruit (Diyarbakir is well-known for its watermelons which can grow up to 50 kg. in weight), small and tender fresh, raw greens including large bowlfuls of mint and purple basil, three kinds of local bread- fresh and warm still, four kinds of olives, six kinds of peynir (paneer-like cheese), hard boiled eggs coated in spices, slices of roasted eggplant, a large bowl of curd, honey, two kinds of fresh fruit in syrupy preserves, a thick liquid paste of ground sesame and honey, various hot dishes- boiled country eggs in their speckled brown shells, fresh potato chips, a local sausage, peynir cooked in a tangy sauce of fresh tomatoes and pale green peppers, a large pot of şorba (a delicious soup made of lentils, spices and stock), tea, coffee, juice and iced water (very welcome in the dry heat). The breakfast tables would be set in the freshly washed courtyard, with the stone fountain in the backdrop and the ancient gardener doing the rounds, weeding and watering. A lot of sparrows, swallows and other tiny birds would be chirping or flying around.
Here we met the very pleasant, quiet receptionist who handled our valuables (sealed in an envelope) in an open drawer on the basis of trust, the Rough Lonely Planet tour guide, Mehmet (aka Montana) who persistently tried to sell us his tour trips and kilims (traditional woven rugs) - he ran a kilim and carpet shop in the hotel. We also came across the fish sellers just outside the hotel, with their tubs of live fish, who enquired about fish prices in our cities, olive sellers who warned us against pickpockets and the local fruit seller who refused to sell us anything that was not in perfectly prime condition.
We spent a day walking around, exploring the city- its mosques (the Ottoman structures were not as nice as the Seljuk ones we had seen in Erzurum), the ancient Syrian church that housed parts from a 4th century Byzantine sun temple and the markets- selling clothes, textiles, jewellery and all kinds of food. We walked down narrow lanes lined by traditional houses, past veiled women and groups of children engaged in apricot seed fights to the bigger, traffic filled roads that led to the ancient walls and kapis (gates) (including a ‘Hindi Baba’ kapi).
We lunched everyday on fresh bread, olives, cheese and the luscious Mediterranean summer fruit. We dined, the first day in a small local roadside place, where tables were rapidly cleared by the owner’s family who were eating there and places set for us. The next day we went to Selim Amca'nin Sofra Salonu, a somewhat upscale restaurant (the first place we encountered where none of the women donned scarves) and feasted on the only dishes they prepared- baked mutton stuffed with spiced rice and nuts, served with a kind of mild potato raita, a salad of arugula and spring onion leaves in vinegar and followed by Irmik helvasi and hot Turkish tea.
The next morning, after a relaxed breakfast we drove off in the compact Avis car that was delivered to our hotel- out from the Mardin kapi towards the charming honey coloured city of Mardin- carved on a hillside from yellowish sandstone-like rock. We spent much of the day there, strolling along the main road, looking at old mosques, the bustling old market and the beautiful 17th century caravanserai which now functions as a post office.
In the evening we hit the road again, moving on to the tiny hill town of Savur that rose above miles of fields, orchards and deserted areas of land. All of a sudden we were in completely different surroundings- walking up to an ancient house on an isolated hilltop surrounded by nothing but hills all around. This was the home of the distinguished Ozturk family, now being let out to guests. The family was very hospitable and welcoming especially the old lady (very houseproud and accomplished in embroidery and cooking) who was the head of the family and her two daughters in law, Shehnaz and Ayeshe, who did most of the work in the house and took care of us. Huge, wholesome, home-cooked breakfasts and dinners were served to us, and in between meals there were glasses of Turkish tea and excellent Turkish coffee. There were no sounds other than that of the wind and the birds. The sky was a clear blue during the day, flaming to an orangey pink in the evening, gently darkening and then glittering with stars at night. Many hours were happily spent up on the rooftop or sitting on the terrace at tea time or dinner time, eating under the starlit sky.
During the day we drove out to the Tigris river, on the banks of which lay Hasankeyf – a village set in and around rocky caves, with ruins of a mosque and a citadel scattered around. We were stopped by an army post on the way, which politely asked for identification and waved us on. We realized then that we were quite close to the borders with Iraq and Syria.
After walking around amidst the rocks in Hasankeyf, we vetoed the Lonely Planet suggestion of fish at the Tigris, stopped instead for an impromptu lunch after spotting a tiny bakery. The baker gave us unlimited, free bread and his friends rushed out to pull up some chairs and a table for us. We brought out our omnipresent olive packet, bought some peaches and cherries and had a very good meal by the roadside.
We then turned back towards Savur, stopping at Morgabriel on the way. This is a large, 4th century (now restored) Syrian Christian monastery where St. Gabriel is buried. It is a huge and beautiful monastery that is surrounded only by rocks and small hillocks that stretch for miles all round. We also stopped briefly at Midyat where a young boy proudly guided us to the various churches on his bicycle while we drove slowly behind. After visiting one church we decided to call it a day, as it was very hot and Papa was exhausted.
It was our last evening in Savur and we all spent it in different ways: Papa and Uma sat on the roof top, Raghavan went down to the internet café and I watched the women cooking (acted as official food-taster) and chatted with them on an incredible range of subjects using a Turkish-English dictionary.
We had our dinner sitting under the stars and lingering over the home-made şorba, bulgur, stir-fried greens, mixed greens (raw) with walnuts and lime, cucumber and tomato salad with plenty of lime, olive oil and pepper, steamed samosa-like dumplings, choux pastry filled with chocolate cream and topped with chocolate sauce and local red wine. It was a wonderfully relaxing and satisfying experience.
The next morning we took leave of the family; the women waved continuously to us from the top windows till we were out of sight. We drove down narrow roads, trying to reach the bypass to Diyarbakir but somehow didn’t make it. Stopped at villages to ask the way and got invited time and again to tea at people’s houses. We passed beautiful countryside, with hills and then miles of golden fields of harvested wheat. Gradually the area seemed more and more deserted, the road just a stretch of stones and mud. Hoping that we would come across some signs of a real road before our tyres gave way, we suddenly found ourselves trailing a car, whose driver stopped and flagged us down thinking (rightly) that we were unsure of the way. He gave us directions to the highway, saying that he was turning off the road soon, and so we went continued along the unending track in isolation.
Eventually we hit the highway and suddenly a man loomed into our view from nowhere. He wanted to be dropped off at the next village. We obliged and thus made our acquaintance with a fierce-looking peasant covered with mud and hay who clicked his prayer beads continuously and informed us in a loud voice that he was Kurdish, living in Kurdistan. Papa and Uma were quite perturbed, I was mildly amused and Raghavan was unfazed. We dropped him 10 km. further down, opposite a garage. He invited us repeatedly to tea, but we declined as we had to head back and return our car.
We reached Mardin kapi with a sense of homecoming and were soon back at our hotel in Diyarbakir. After our usual lunch, rest and swim, we headed to Uma’s favourite haunt – the bazaar, where Uma bought some embroidered bedcovers and I bought a pair of earrings made of strips of woven gold that came from Trabzon (near the Black Sea).
We ate at our hotel on our last night in Diyarbakir. The courtyard glowed with little yellow lights, the fountains splashed behind us and Mehmet’s attractively displayed kilims stretched out on one side. Our laid back waiter took another of his customary strolls round the large courtyard and paused for a while to switch on some beautiful Turkish folk music, before returning to bring us the menus. The only other diners were seated in a far corner downing glasses of raki and feeling very pleased with the world in general. We tucked into our delicious dinner silently and efficiently.
The next morning we awoke early and on finishing our breakfast, raced to Mehmet’s shop to buy a kilim he had been long persuading us to consider. We then said hurried goodbyes and rushed into the most relaxed taxi on the street. It took the ancient driver a few moments of fumbling in his pocket before he found the key, then we drove straight to the nearest petrol pump to fill up the car, and eventually made our way leisurely to the airport, the driver periodically looking back to glance at Uma and make a particularly pertinent point in the continuous conversation he was carrying on with us in Turkish. Finally we reached the airport where I discovered that I had carried the giant 2 kg. hotel key with me. Fortunately the airport police offered to return it to the hotel.
We returned to Istanbul, to our old haunt where the receptionists were waiting for us with 4 large bowls of complimentary rice pudding. It was covered with nuts and a thick layer of powdered cinnamon and was delicious. Our suitcases had already been moved from the storage area to our rooms and we entered our rooms and collapsed on the beds in relief, doing nothing for a while.
An evening tram ride took us to the Spice Bazaar and the neighbouring areas where we saw a beautiful mosque and a couple of 200 year old shops – Haci Bekir (from where we bought walnut baklava, the man behind the counter came from Erzurum and insisted on giving us all a free round of baklava) and Hafiz Mustafa (where we bought pista lokum and where the ancient owner came up to serve us some incredible almond marzipan-like sweets).
Raghavan had to leave for the University where he was meeting some Turkish professors he had contacted over the internet. The rest of us strolled back to the Spice Bazaar, bought a few more things (nuts, olives, cheeses and miscellaneous gifts). I had a terrific fight with an olive seller who thought I had tasted far too many olives. We then took the tram back and met Raghavan at the hotel.
After that we walked down to our corner restaurant, Ortaklar İskander Kebap, for our final dinner. Said a fond farewell to our waiter friend, Nehjmuddin.
The next morning we decided to visit Arasta Bazaar once more, to buy some ceramics. Decided to skip Topakapi palace and keep it for our next visit (Inshallah, as the Turks would say). We returned to the hotel just to pack our bags and load them into the van, then trundled off to the airport.
We returned to Delhi in much better shape than we had left it, fit as fiddles and toasted to a nutty brown – darker than hazelnuts but lighter than walnuts, just the colour, in fact, of a perfect baklava.
Blue Mosque, Istanbul
Aya Sofya, Istanbul
Cathedral, Oskvank
Tortum Golu
Seljuk architecture, Erzurum
Pollen and honey drink, Erzurum
Meram Cag Kebap, Erzurum
Otel Buyuk Kervensaray, Diyarbakir
Breakfast at Otel Buyuk, Diyarbakir
Post office, Mardin
Baker at Hasankeyf
View from Savur
Dinner at Savur
Farewell to Istanbul

Five Element Acupuncture

There are now several kinds of acupuncture being practiced and I wanted to provide a small bit of information on an old, traditional Chinese style that has helped me – Five Element Acupuncture.

In accordance with the view of ancient Chinese medicine and philosophy, acupuncture views individuals as being comprised of the physical body, the mind and the spirit (soul). The body is divided into ten organs and two functions and imbalances in the functioning of these bring about diseases. Energy flows through organs along certain lines (meridians) in the body. Acupuncture points located along meridians can alter the energy in these organs and can thus be used to cure illnesses or correct imbalances.

Everything within and around us is composed of five basic elements – fire, earth, metal, water and wood. Each element has its own qualities and energy and affects all of nature (including us) in different ways, at different times and to different extents. Imbalances in these elements lead to imbalances of energy and consequently ill health. There is thus a close link between our energy, the energy of our environment and the vital cosmic energy (Qi). Acupuncture tries to restore the balance of the energy flow in a person through manipulating the energy at specific points within the body using needles.

Some of these ideas might be better illustrated through an excerpt from Nora Franglen’s book, ‘Keepers Of The Soul’:

“… My understanding of the powers of this new world of healing into which I had wandered was gradual, a slow awakening upon what was to me, at first, an alien landscape. I started out from the familiar world of physical medicine, in which I had grown up, the world of my body which was so reassuringly there before me, offering solid proof of my existence. I was to find this same body transformed into a shimmering mass of energy, sheltering what I now see as that deepest, most awesome part of me, my soul, and responding to the slightest pressure upon it of that soul. Ills of the body gradually melded with ills of the spirit, the familiar distinction between them now blurred. The needle, I found, could touch my soul as it so obviously touched my body, stirring that soul back to health, as it could the body.

Exactly what part the soul plays in our body’s functioning is of great concern to acupuncture, in contrast to western medicine, where the nature of this relationship, and its relevance to the health or ill-health of the body, is largely ignored, probably because it raises such disquieting questions. In the West, when the spirit is considered to be out of balance, it is said, almost dismissively, to produce that wide and vague category of illnesses labelled as stress-induced, psychosomatic, or, more succinctly, simply as mental. But, on the whole, that is as far as it goes. The close relationship acupuncture accepts sits uneasily within the tight framework within which Western medicine operates.

Such an approach has come to mean more to me than one which, by limiting the body rigidly to its physical role, concentrates almost entirely upon what can be physically measured and thus disregards anything which lies beyond the scope of its parameters. We can indeed choose to concentrate our attention upon the outside of things, for this is the face which is turned towards us, and thus it is possible to pause at the threshold of the physical, refusing to pass beyond that gate of skin and bone where beckon the deeper and more hidden parts of us. We can remain convinced that the physical contains the key to life’s secrets. And then the body becomes a trap, deceiving us by its very solidity and apparent reality into thinking that it holds the answers to all the questions of human health, and that it is only the inadequacy of our measuring methods, which have so far failed us.

But only the physical can be grasped by physical means. Science must always fall silent before that which is not physical within us, for instruments, measurers only of the measurable, cannot by their very nature grasp the immeasurable. And the realm of our soul, unlike that of our body, is immeasurable, although its effects are not. We can measure the heart beat, but can we measure what makes this same heart love? We can measure our physical being, those parts of us which appear, in life, upon the scan, and lie dissected after death upon the laboratory bench, but we cannot measure that something which transforms them into more than just the sum of their physical parts. And this quality is the spirit of life which makes us, in its presence, a person alive and functioning, and in its absence, a corpse.

This understanding gives to the practice of acupuncture a dimension which extends far beyond the sphere of physical medicine, moving into those areas which the fields of psychotherapy and spiritual counseling call their own. Where acupuncture relates to western medicine is in its concept of the physical energies of the various organs, it relates to modern psychotherapeutic practice in its understanding of the differing emotional characteristics which together make up the human being. Where it differs from both is in the fact that, having a clear concept of the soul within the body, it can use the same treatment to treat both. Indeed, it cannot treat one level without treating the others.

In acupuncture, physical health can never be regarded as distinct from mental or spiritual health. A division between what can be analysed by scientific methods and what, like distresses of the spirit or mental unease, cannot, is alien to it. The deep connections which it recognizes between our physical outer being and our inner being weave themselves tightly into every part of its diagnosis and treatment. It is the intimate relationship between these levels of our being whose delicate balance acupuncture accepts as being a determining factor in our health.

In diagnosing, an acupuncturist therefore makes no distinction between those ailments which appear physical in origin (a bad back, a headache) and those which appear to originate at a deeper level within us (heartache, depression, sadness, confusion), for all levels interconnect to form the one being, and all equally reveal the elements’ state of balance or imbalance. Indeed, the deeper ills, by reason of their depth and importance to us, are of particular concern to us, and demand the greater focus of a practitioner.

This is often an area of acupuncture unfamiliar to many who come for treatment, for acupuncture, being apparently a physical form of treatment, using a physical needle to penetrate the body’s surface, might appear to be capable only of treating the physical. It is not obvious to those with no knowledge of acupuncture how this physical needle placed in the body can relieve a patient’s depression or soothe his emotional distress. The ancient Chinese had no trouble in understanding this for they saw all things, and with them mankind, each as being a tiny manifestation of the Dao, the wholeness of all things, and therefore each person as potentially a complete whole in which body and soul merge together and must be treated together. A needle inserted in the body must affect the soul, just as the soul’s distress must affect the body.

There is of course, something which we can call the health of the body, as distinct from the health of the mind or of the spirit, but the relationship between these different levels of health is always close. They cannot be treated in isolation, by sending our soul, as it were, to church and our body to hospital. The soul accompanies the body on its journey to hospital, as the body accompanies the soul to its place of spiritual repose. It is when we ignore this fact that so much unnecessary suffering is caused to those who are sick…”


The excerpt is taken from "Keepers of the Soul: the Five Guardian Elements of Acupuncture". Published by Sofea Acupuncture,

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