Tuesday, 19 July 2011


Ruins are a strange thing. We are enchanted by buildings built long ago, as much as for what it says about civilizations long past as it is about admiring the buildings or what remains of them. Remains is a key word, as often not much remains, lone columns standing like the sun-bleached bones of a long dead animal picked clean by carnivores. This analogy is particularly accurate with many churches made from the ruins of classical buildings, like columns from the temple of Artemis (one of the seven wonders of the Ancient World) used in the construction of the Aya Sofia in Istanbul. 
All that remains of the temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient World.
What remains requires us to use our imagination, to remake the scene of a busy building as it may have been 1,000, 2,000 or even 5,000 years ago. It seems odd that we marvel at buildings made by our forebears that are many times smaller in stature to buildings built today. It is more the wondering how and why primitive people made certain buildings and structures is as, if not more important than the buildings or ruins themselves. Stonehenge is one such ruin where imagination and asking questions may produce more wonderment than gazing on the remains themselves. The first glimpse of Stonehenge is when you are approaching it down one of the motorways that frame it. It’s instantly recognizable, familiar, understated. It’s no Angkor Wat or Taj Mahal, merely a humble collection of undecorated rocks on a hill on rolling farmland in Wiltshire.  Ancient burial mounds can be seen in the surroundings on the hills around it. There is a sense that Stonehenge looks the same as it did 2000 years ago, although I’m not sure if that is the case.

Understated but still awe-inspiring
Stonehenge may be one of the world’s most recognizable sites but that doesn’t stop the haters. A pile of rocks surrounded by a traffic island some say. Others would talk about its small stature (the replica at my work is taller). Indeed, the value of Stonehenge was not always recognized. Even until recent time, people were chipping off pieces of rock and carving their name into them. One man was caught bashing away at one of the stones with a sledgehammer. There were plans to build a rail-line right through the site- an official defended the decision by saying Stonehenge was “entirely out of repair and not the slightest use to anyone”. There were reports that an American buyer wanted to buy the stones, ship them to the States and re-erect them as a tourist attraction. Stonehenge was not protected until the 1920s. By this time, roads had been built close to it (but not as close as some people would have you believe). Buildings close to it were removed and the site was gifted to the National Trust. The significance of Stonehenge was belatedly realized, just in time to protect it.  
Another view
The haters miss the point of Stonehenge and other such sites. It was produced by a culture that left no written records. How did they move heavy stones from a Welsh quarry hundreds of kilometers away? Why did they choose to erect them there? Why did they bother? What was it made for? Despite years of speculation, the questions regarding why and how Stonehenge and other similar stone circles were made are no closer to be answered. No-one is really sure what Stonehenge is or was. Was it a Druid temple, guide for aliens, a celestial calendar, a town, a gate, a burial ground, a healing ground or a place of worship? All have been proposed but all we know was that the stones are arranged in a way that they had some sort of a relationship with the sun and the seasons. Its design allows a celestial observatory function, which might have allowed prediction of eclipses, solstices, equinox and other celestial events. The best guess of the function of Stonehenge is that it use was multi-faceted, sometimes acting as a temple, sometimes a place of healing, sometimes a cemetery and always as some sort of a celestial calendar.
The site was probably not associated with druids, despite what neo-druids would argue. Neo-druids are advocates of neo-paganism and new age beliefs, who came to revere Stonehenge as a site of religious significance, believing that it was a site used by the original druids. The historian Ronald Hutton remarked that “it was a great and potentially uncomfortable, irony that modern Druids arrived in Stonehenge just as archaeologists were evicting the ancient Druids from it”. The neo-druids have held fast in claiming connections to Stonehenge, with Stonehenge Free Festivals held at the site between 1972 and 1984, when it was stopped after a series of serious incidents involving the police, the so-called Battle of the Beanfield. After this battle, access to the stones was stopped for several years and is now only allowed when on guided tours or during the summer and winter solstices or the spring and autumn equinoxes. In fact, even the neo-druidism movement that celebrates the summer solstice at Stonehenge has, most likely, been hi-jacked by people whose only purpose of attending is the unusual experience of being able to get loaded among the stones.
One of the things I learnt in England is that Stonehenge is not necessarily unique. It is unusual in that it is taller than other existing stone circles, and the lintel stones (the stones that “cap” the monument are held in place using mortise and tenon joints are unique, at least in surviving stone circles) but stone circles of Stonehenge’s ilk were relatively common around Neolithic Britain. A kind of sister site to Stonehenge is Avebury, 25 kilometres from Stonehenge, which is an older and much larger stone circle (it is the largest stone circle in Europe). Avebury lacks the relative completeness of Stonehenge (I use completeness lightly as many of Stonehenge’s stones have  disappeared) and the dramatic hanging stones but 100 stones still stand in the circle that surrounds the village of Avebury. It is also less touristy than Stonehenge. Sheep graze in the fields the stones lie in and you can walk around, touch and even sit on some of the stones. 
Sheep graze among Avebury's stones.
Europe’s largest burial mound, Silbury Hill, is close by and may have been a component of a greater Avebury complex. Men toiled building both Silbury Hill and a ditch that surrounds Avebury itself, using red-deer antlers as their digging implements. The function of Avebury is still unclear, with as many ideas existing about its function as there were for Stonehenge. Our audio guide mentioned something about a study that found that seeds germinated here produced higher than average yields. The reason given was something new-agey like ionic disequilibrium or something. Similarly, people were using dowsing rods in the belief that they can detect psychic emissions in the area. The audio guide ambitiously suggested that this could be a cure for world starvation (ignoring the fact that we already have an excess of food in the world, it’s just transportation that prevents us from feeding everyone). The building of Avebury around 2600 BC has been attributed to the druids, the Phoenicians and as a monument to honour King Arthur.  It has even been suggested that Native Americans had built the megalithic monuments in Britain.

Avebury’s stone circle is several kilometers in diameter, enclosing an area of over 100 hectares. Many of the stones remain buried in the earth; others have long been demolished for use in other projects.  With the rise of Christianity, stone circles were viewed throughout the Middle Ages as being the work of the devil; hence many stones were pushed over or otherwise destroyed. This apparently stopped after a falling stone crushed one unfortunate; his body was found in 1938, lost during the war and then re-found again in the 1990s. This may have discouraged the villagers from pulling down the stones. Certainly, the pulling of stones stopped and it has been speculated that the man’s death was seen as either a warning or retribution from the devil himself.  Stones left standing acquired names like the Devil’s Chair or the Devil’s Brand iron. 
In the devil's chair
By the 17th and 18th Centuries, the destruction of the stones increased. Obviously, the villagers no longer feared the devil. This time, many were destroyed by lighting a fire around the stone, pouring cold water on them and then attacking weak points of the stone with a sledgehammer. The stone fragments were then used in buildings in the local village, a village that grew over time to the extent that houses were now among the stones themselves. By the late 19th Century, the idea that Avebury was something worth preserving was gaining momentum. The site was bought and protected by two men of influence, initially by Sir John Luddock who bought the site when he learnt that a large portion of the remaining circle was to be removed to make way for new housing and subsequently by Alexander Keiller, a man who improbably was a marmalade heir, who removed many of the houses that lay near the stones and started excavations that uncovered many of the buried stones. He gifted the land to the National Trust in the 1940s, thus preserving it for future generations.

View of the stone circle
Stonehenge and Avebury pose many questions, with many of them unlikely to be ever answered. Will people 5,000 years from now stand before one of the ruins of our buildings and ask what was this for? What would people think were the purpose of vast sports stadiums, edifices of extravagance that some are, if they were to be rediscovered 5,000 years from now with no written clue as to their use. People would probably be as unlikely to guess correctly their proper usage as we are at ascertaining the role of stone circles in Neolithic Britain.

Monday, 18 July 2011


Guinea Pigs in Peru, spiders in Cambodia, anything that moves or used to in China. The food choices of people from many countries intrigue us, even as much of our diet intrigues or offends other cultures. A guy arrested in Korea recently who stole from foreigner’s apartments said he could easily find foreigner’s apartments because they smelt like cheese (in this case, he meant both the foreigner and their abode). If you were to ask the average westerner what it is that Koreans eat, I bet that dog meat would come high on their list of answers. And its true, dog meat is something that Koreans, especially males, do eat occasionally. Korea’s reputation of being the land of the nervous dog ignores the fact that dog is commonly eaten throughout much of the world. For example, dogs have been seen as a major source of protein throughout the Pacific, ever since people left Taiwan and started one of humankind’s greatest migrations. No large mammals exist on any of these islands, bar one’s close to Australia, so the dog was valued for its taste and protein value. Its fur and teeth could be used for decoration, clothing and ornaments, its bones for tools and implements. Dogs are still eaten in South East Asia, throughout China where it is eaten during the winter months, as it is believed to generate heat and promote bodily warmth. Dog was even on the menu of Chinese astronauts. In Ghana, it is eaten in a courtship stew provided by a king to his royal lineage. In Germany, it has been eaten commonly in times of turmoil. In Poland, dogs are rendered into lard that is said to be good for the lungs. Parts of Switzerland are known to produce dog jerky and sausage. In Mexico, breeds were developed by the Mexicans to be used as a food source. And so on. Most countries have some history of eating dog, yet South Korea is the country most associated with the eating of dog, the gold standard of canine consumption.

Despite the widespread use of dogs as a source of protein, many of the world’s inhabitants are strongly opposed to eating it. In Islam and Judaism, the consumption of dog meat is forbidden, Some would argue that it is also taboo for Christians, although most Christians are of a belief that the New Testament scriptures supersede the Old Testament and allow consumption of foods like pork and shellfish considered unclean by Jews and Muslims. Regardless, the elevated position of dogs in the West is shown by the fact that we don’t consume dogs, or cats for that matter, (although during the Blitz in London, cats were euphemistically called roof rabbits and commonly eaten). In Keith Thomas’s, Man and the Natural World, three features are mentioned that elevate dogs (and cats) above other animals; they were allowed and indeed encouraged to enter homes and churches, they were given individual personal names, and that there was a strong taboo against their consumption.

Even though dog has and still is commonly eaten around the world, cultural imperialism has led for cries to stop the eating of those animals elevated to a special status in the West (namely cats, dogs and horses). Many Asian countries have banned the consumption of dog meat, including Korea who somehow has managed to acquire and bear the brunt of the dog eating moniker. In 2003, the BBC claimed that around 5,000 restaurants served dog and that around 100,000 tons of dog meat are consumed annually in South Korea.
What's for dinner? Beef or Dog?
 While dog meat is eaten and has been eaten in Korea for millennia, it does not form a major part of the diet. It does have a long tradition, with dog bones found in Neolithic settlements clearly used as food. A wall painting from the 4th Century AD depicts a slaughtered dog in a storehouse.  It is a summertime dish, (interesting the opposite of China where it is seen as a winter dish) and is most often eaten in the form of bosingtang or dog soup, usually by men looking for a boost in stamina (code for prolonged sexual prowess, one of many alleged aphrodisiacs in Korea).  Alternatively, it can be eaten boiled or consumed in a drink, gaesoju where a dog’s penis is often added for extra ‘stamina’. With the rise in Western medicine, people are starting to doubt the veracity of the aphrodisiac properties attributed to dog meat. Not Kim Sung Il, the former North Korean dictator, who reputedly ate 7 dog penises a day as both a youth elixir and as a way to cope with the harem of young girls he kept.

Dog Soup
While many Koreans have tried dog meat, only a small proportion of Koreans eat it regularly. However, it is an emotive issue, with many disparate views. Some Koreans want it banned outright, others don’t eat it but support the rights of others to enjoy it and some want to actively promote the consumption of dog meat. If prompted, most men and some boys would admit to have sampled Fido. Most women and girls however screw up their nose at the thought of eating dog and a growing number of Koreans are opposed to the practice. 59% of Koreans under 30 said that they would not eat dog, 62% said that they saw dogs as pets first, food second. A possible reason for this is dogs are becoming more popular as pets, especially the lap dogs, perfectly sized pets for Korean apartments. A special breed of dog (nureongi) has been developed for eating in Korea that differs from other pet dogs, including dogs like the esteemed Jindo (designated Korea’s 53rd national treasure in 1962). To further dissociate these dogs from the pets now commonly kept by Koreans, they are known as ddong-gae, meaning "shit dog", which refers to the common stray dogs' habit of eating feces. These dogs are generally considered by Koreans to be "mutts", "mongrels", or "curs" and are not normally allowed into the home.

A Jindo: National treasure #53
I have never tried dog. I could have a James Frey moment here and embellish a story about how I had a piece of meat in my mouth and didn’t have the strength to follow through with my conviction but that’s just not true. Before I arrived in the country, eating dog was one of the things I had wanted to try. I considered it a cultural rite of passage, shedding part of my colonial baggage in the process. I imagined how my honour would grow in the minds of those Koreans present, a foreigner embracing something that foreigners are supposed to express anger or shock at. I imagined it to be an activity hidden away, where the participation in this culinary delight was only achieved through belonging to clandestine underground groups, only joined through an intense initiation testing my resolve and dedication to the cause before letting me enter the inner chamber. I imagined secret handshakes and passwords were needed to obtain the elixir of canine moonshine. However, these doggie clan meetings unfortunately appeared to be a myth, nothing more than a trailer played out in the cinema of my mind. The truth is less sexy. Koreans are a little hesitant to talk about eating dog with foreigners, no doubt aware that many foreigners are vehemently opposed to the practice. Under pressure from international protests before the Seoul Olympics held in 1988, dog meat was banned and it still has no legal status as a food unlike say beef, poultry or pork. The South Korean government at that time asked butchers to not hang dog carcasses in windows and asked its citizens to limit the eating of dog in front of foreigners, pleas that were reiterated before and during the 2002 Football World cup jointly held in Korea and Japan.

My reasons for not eating dog in the end didn’t have anything to do with them being man’s best friend. I find such thinking to smack of cultural imperialism. After all, we as westerners indulge in eating beef (undesirable for Hindus) and pork (similarly for Muslims and Jews). One of the worst examples of this cultural elitism was during the 2002 World Cup co-hosted by South Korea. The organizers put some pressure on the South Korean government to stop the consumption of dogs with Brigitte Bardot calling for a boycott of the games unless a total ban on dog meat was strictly enforced. Imagine if Indian groups came to America and called for McDonalds to stop using beef in its burgers (Interestingly,  in India, McDonalds doesn’t sell Big Macs, it sells chicken burgers like the Maharaja burger to avoid offending the Hindu majority).
Nor could I use the too cute excuse. I’ve watched Bambi and still enjoy venison. And I couldn’t use the how can you eat a pet reason as coming from the south of New Zealand it was common for kids to have lambs which one week were playmates called Lamb chop and then the next week end up as Christmas dinner. In the end, it came down to two things. The first and most important fact was that I didn’t like how the animals were killed (or might have been killed). The traditional way to kill dogs is to slowly strangle the dog to death while beating it with hammers. This was believed to add more adrenaline to the meat, therefore increasing its all important  stamina quotient. A friend described how she used to admire a dog that lived in her apartment complex but was worried how it never seemed to be walked. She awoke one morning to a terrible noise, which sounded like a child being beaten. She ran downstairs to discover that it wasn’t a child that was being beaten but the dog she had been concerned about. It was strung up in a tree and three old men were beating it with hammers. Being a person of strong conviction, she immediately ran over and managed to delay the dog’s imminent death. Her boyfriend was able to phone the police in the interim who arrived in due time. When they arrived, they spoke to the three dog beaters and seemed to come to some sort of an agreement. They then came over to the couple and explained that while what the old men did was wrong and illegal, in Confucian style they had to defer to their elderly age and ask respectfully that they allow them to continue the beating of the unfortunate mutt albeit in a different place away from a residential complex. Apparently, dogs killed for commercial consumption are not treated in this manner and are killed in a similar manner to sheep in the west, with an electric jot to the head.

On the way to the table.
The second reason and my personal nail in the coffin of canine eating was a conversation I had with my mother-in-law. She had watched a BBC documentary that went undercover at dog farms around Korea. What struck her (and me in her retelling of the documentary) was that while the dog farmers saw the animals as a food commodity, the dogs themselves acted and looked like dogs. They still wagged their tails when approached and were playful towards their farmers. This image of a playful dog wagging its tail shortly before being hang from a tree and beaten was hard to shake. Maybe I couldn’t shake my cultural background after all, no matter how virile it might make me.