Values for survival: Vanishing homelands Bangladesh and Venice

I first became aware of the presence of climate refugees from Bangladesh in Venice, Italy, through a remark, Amitav Ghosh made in his book “The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable” from 2016. There the Indian-US-American novelist notes that Bengali was the second most heard langauge in Venice, due to the many merchants and shop clerks originally from Bangladesh and other Indian regions.

Why Venice? Ghosh suspects that “coastal people” seek refuge in other coastal towns, making the lagoon city Venice a preferable destination for Bangladeshis in Europe. While this seems like a convincing argument, and makes for a poetic story within the overall climate narrative of his book, I am a bit skeptical of this observation. While it is certainly true that the Bangladeshi community ranges among the ten largest migrant communities in Italy – with numbers anywhere between 146.000 and 400.000 – I have not found any indication that Bangladeshis were more likely to settle in Venice than other major cities like Rome or Milan. Venice has a long history of migration and currently an estimated 15% migrant citizens. Whether Ghosh’s observation is accurate or not, it is clear that the inhabitants of both places, Bangladesh and Venice, have a shared history and possibly understanding and knowledge of floodings.

image by H. Mamataz from “Vanishing Homelands”

The Oral History project “Vanishing Homelands”, that was realized by journalist and documentary film maker George Kurian, migration acitvist Hasna Hena Mamataz and architect Marco Moretto for the 17. Biennale di Venezia, brings the two communities together: native Venetians and migrated Bangladeshis. I find the project to be a great example of comparative urbanism and a very fine piece of climate journalism. The three authors practice the same approach, I am pursuing with this project: to connect communities challenged by climate change in different parts of the globe through shared experiences and biographical and cultural backgrounds. I am very thankful to their work, as it shows quite lively, how – to use George Kurian’s words – we can try to “meet each other respectfully as equals, and how can we interact meaningfully, to find values for survival?”

Image by V. Rossi and G. Moretto from “Vanishing Homelands”

Their text focuses on biographical reports and the immediate experience of flooding, economic hardship and flight, omiting any furtherer analysis or speculation, how this shared experience can create political solidarity and emancipation. This seems like the natural next step, to formulate a supra-national alliance of front line communities like the Bangladeshi and the Venetians based on and building on journalistic work like the one by Kurian, Mamataz and Moretto.

The full text of Vanishing Homelands is available here. All images are from the text.

Churning the Ocean of Milk

In Hindu cosmology there are seven oceans. One of the is the Ocean of milk. In one of the most colorful episods of hindu scripture, the Samudra Manthana, the devas (gods) and asuras (demi-gods) team up to churn the ocean of milk to gain the nectar of immortality. The whole enterprise includes the uprooting of a mountain, a giant snake, lethal poison and an array of herbs and spices. Eventually the nectar of immortality is brought up from the sea and seized by the devas.

Devi – the universal truth resides deep in the ocean

The Devi Upanishad is one of 19 sanskrit texts that lay out the philosophical concept of Hinduism. Written somtime before 1400 CE, the text describes the goddess Devi as the highest principle, and the ultimate truth in the universe. According to this text the “highest principle” was born in the oceans and whoever wants to follow the “truth”, needs to “know the water”. These are the first seven verses of the text:

All the gods stood around Devi and asked: "Who  art  thou,  0  great  goddess?" to  which she  replied, "I  resemble  in  form  Brahman,  from  me  emanates the  world  which  has  the  Spirit  of  Prakrti  and  Purusa,  I  am empty  and  not  empty,  I  am  delight  and  non-delight,  I  am knowledge  and  ignorance,  I  am  Brahman  and  not  Brahman, I  am  the  five  perishable  and  imperishable  elements,  I  am the  whole  world,  I  am  the  Veda  and  not  the  Veda,  I  am knowledge  and  ignorance,  I  am  not  born  and  am  born,  I  am below,  above,  and  horizontal,  I  walk  about  with  the  Rudras and  Vasus,  and  the  Adityas  and  Visvadevas.  I  carry  both Mitra  and  Varuna,  Indra  and  Agni,  both  the  Asvins,  I  hold Soma,  Tvastr,  Pusan  and  Bhaga,  I  hold  the  broad-stepping Visnu,  Brahman,  and  Prajapati,  I  give  the  money  for  a  good  purpose  to  the  sacrificer  who  offers  oblations  and  pours out  soma-juice,  I  am  living  in  every  country,  I  confer wealth,  I  produce  at  first  the  father  of  this  world,  my  birth- place is  in  the  water  inside  the  sea,  who  knows  the water  obtains the  abode  of  Devi."

(Quotes from Gustav Oppert: The Original Inhabitants of Bharatavasa or India, 1893) 

Matsya / मत्स्य

Vishnu, disguised as the fish Matsya, saves Manu from the flood.

When the flood begins, Manu boards the boat and then prays to the fish Matsya for assistance. The fish then appears and ties the boat to a horn that has grown on its head. It uses the serpent Vasuki as the rope to tie the boat to its horn. The fish then tows this boat to safety and takes Manu to the highest and driest point left on the earth.

There is also a yoga position called Matsyana, the fish:

India; approxamitely 3. Century AD; Hindu; Animals; Story

The Lord Krishna in the Golden City

The painting (circa 1585) depicts the blue-skinned Krishna, an incarnation of the Hindu God Vishnu, enthroned on a golden palace and surrounded by his kinsmen in the Golden City Dwarka.

The mythical city Dwarka, also known as Dvārakā or Dvāravatī (Sanskrit द्वारका “the gated [city]”), one of the seven holy cities for Hindus, is believed to have sunken beneath the Arab Sea. Since the late 1980s scientists have been searching for it’s remains off the coast of Gujarat. There is also a modern city on the coast with the same name, Dwarka.

द्वारका – Dwarka, the Gated City

The sea, which had been beating against the shores, suddenly broke the boundary that was imposed on it by nature. The sea rushed into the city. It coursed through the streets of the beautiful city. The sea covered up everything in the city. I saw the beautiful buildings becoming submerged one by one. In a matter of a few moments it was all over. The sea had now become as placid as a lake. There was no trace of the city. Dvaraka was just a name; just a memory.

Mausala Parva of Mahabharata

The sacred city appears in various Hindu and Budhist scriptures. It is believed to be the home of Krishna and have been submerged upon Krishna’s death. Today a modern city called Dwarka exists in the Arab Sea.

India; 3. Century BCE; Hindu, Hindu; Literature; City: Dwarka