The greatest city you've never heard of

12 April 2017 | Hampi, INDIA

Its name is Vijayanagar, and it was the capital of the largest and most powerful empire in the history of South India. Portuguese and Persian visitors alike agreed: the metropolis had no equal anywhere in the world. In the 1400s and 1500s, it was one of Planet Earth's biggest, too.

But in 1565, it was destroyed--and systematically plundered, burned, and defaced for up to twelve whole months. Today it is mostly ruins in the middle of boulder country, but its continued importance to millions of Hindu nationalists would be hard to overstate. Of course, nationalists here like nationalists everywhere may be up to their usual tricks: comic-book-izing otherwise complicated history in order to buoy up their political narrative. In this case, that means peddling a possibly superficial Hindu-versus-Muslim scenario.

Even after the travesty of its utter destruction, Vijayanagar's remains in and around the modern-day village of Hampi in Karnataka are out of this world incredible. NP mini-lecture forthcoming.

BELOW, from top to bottom: (1) Vijayanagar country; (2) the famous and absolutely unique "stone chariot" shrine; (3) local boys synchronize their jump into the Tungabhadra River; (4) the most unlikely tree on earth?; and (5) monkeys are a common sight among the ruins.

Where an emperor starved himself to death

10 April 2017 | Shravanabelagola, INDIA

The first "great" emperor in Indian history--Chandragupta Maurya, who may have actually met Alexander the "Great" in Taxila--took down Magadha and the Nandas, beat the Greeks, and controlled territory from southern Afghanistan and Baluchistan to Bengal, from the Himalayas to the edges of Tamil country in India's deep South. His army was described as having 600,000 troops, plus almost 10,000 war elephants.

Previously, when Alexander showed up in India, his men convinced him that their quest for world domination should end there. Why? Because intelligence had reached them about the Nandas' army. Alexander turned around. The Greeks went home.

The army that ended Alexander's run is the one that Chandragupta took down.

And how does the story of India's first true emperor end?

With his conversion to Jainism, his abdication of the throne, the life of an ascetic, and his eventual voluntary death-by-starvation.

NP mini-lecture forthcoming, filmed from the spot where the first Mauryan ruler carried out his ritual-suicide.

ABOVE: The thousand-year-old 57-foot monolithic statue of the Jain kevalin Bahubali.

BELOW, TOP: Atop Vindhyagiri, the tallest of the two hills overlooking Shvaranabelagola. The other hill, on the other side of the water tank, is Chandragiri, where Chandragupta is said to have lived as an ascetic and died according to sallekhana.

BELOW, BOTTOM: Tommy sketches in the Jain temple atop Vindhyagiri, against the walls surrounding the thousand-year-old 57-foot monolithic statue of the kevalinBahubali.

In old Madras

3 April 2017 | Chennai, INDIA

One of the great battles in Indian (and, arguably, world history) took place not far from this spot: the Battle of Adyar. Ever heard of it? Don't worry--most haven't.

A few miles south of here, the Adyar River empties into the Bay of Bengal. It was after fording the Adyar that a couple hundred French-trained infantrymen, tired from marching all the way from Pondicherry, broke the lines of a (vastly) numerically superior local army--that of the Nawab of the Carnatic. Two hundred infantry--versus ten thousand cavalry.

The Nawab's forces scattered. And just like that, the military apparatus coercively propping up every Indian state on the subcontinent faced an existential threat in the form of the heretofore relatively harmless European "companies."

NP mini-lecture forthcoming.

Overland from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal

28 March 2017 | Pondicherry, INDIA

In formerly French Pondicherry, not far from the statue of the (in)famous Joseph Francois Dupleix.

Having driven from one coast to the other, we'll now motor back using a northerly route. Arabian Sea, here we come (back)!

In Tamil country's "temple city"

25 March 2017 | Madurai (Tamil Nadu), INDIA

Roman coins--in abundance--have been found here, some bearing the face of Augustus Caesar.

Meanwhile, one of India's most significant temples (dedicated to an incarnation of Parvati, consort of Shiva) continues to draw thousands of visitors every day (maybe every hour) to a site said to have been ruled over by Shiva and his Pandya princess bride.

BELOW: From a rooftop I got a pretty good view of the temple described above--where I filmed part of a mini-lecture on the Pandyas. I filmed another mini-lecture in the (dried-up) Vaigai River, where I made a few friends.

India is the world's #2 tea producer...

23 March 2017 | Munnar (Kerala), INDIA

...just behind China. Yet tea has been around in China for millenia, but in India for less than two hundred years.

Not until the British East India Company hired an awesomely-named gardener to infiltrate China's closely-guarded tea secrets could they pull off the greatest corporate heist in history. NP mini-lecture to come.

Vasco da Gama first laid eyes on India here

18 March 2017 | Fort Kochi (Kerala), INDIA

Despite some epic failures, he still returned home with cargo that would bring in 6,000% profits. More significantly, his voyage to India arguably represented just as much of a historical watershed as Columbus's had five years earlier.

The result? The Spanish, thanks to Columbus, went West and changed the world. The Portuguese, thanks to da Gama, went East and changed the world.

One of hundreds of launch sites...

3 March 2017 | Vung Tao, VIETNAM

...for the "boat people" escaping Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam--an immigrant catastrophe that was a legacy of French colonialism, massive U.S. intervention, and communism applied in the non-theoretical world.

(Incidentally, today's refugee crisis is much worse, a result of strikingly similar circumstances).

Nine thousand skulls...

1 March 2017 | Phnom Penh, CAMBODIA this one site alone (representing less than half of those murdered at this particular "killing field") stand as a testament to Khmer Rouge brutality--yet another 20th-century communist disaster.

The stone leftovers of Angkor

24 February 2017 | Siem Reap, CAMBODIA

Incredibly, so-called "Angkor Wat" is just a small part of the giant religious network of complexes left over from the medieval city of Angkor. Meanwhile, those enormous stone buildings were themselves just one small part of the far more extensive urban sprawl that was the old Khmer capital--once one of the largest cities on Earth.

Garuda: the Hindu symbol of a Buddhist country

18 February 2017 | Bangkok, THAILAND

I find it interesting that Garuda, the bird-man who serves as Vishnu'a winged mount--in other words, a Hindu figure--should serve as the national symbol not just for Buddhist Thailand but also Muslim Indonesia.

The representation of Garuda below adorns the wall surrounding the Grand Palace in Bangkok.

What you may not expect to see in a Buddhist temple:

18 February 2017 | Bangkok, THAILAND

The ruins of Ayutthaya...

16 February 2017 | Ayutthaya, THAILAND

...are much more extensive than I was expecting! The network of temples, complexes, palaces, and waterways really demands several days to truly see it all (though most people make this a day trip from Bangkok). We rented bicycles and spent all day exploring--one of my best memories so far. Sarah broke her toe a few days ago on an old staircase but preferred the bikes to walking.

Filmed most of a mini-lecture here, with the ruins as backdrop. The Ayutthaya period represents an essential part of the Thai state's "national story" (if there is such a thing). In the 1400s-1700s, this was one of the greatest cities on earth. But an aggressive new Burmese dynasty quickly and suddenly ended Ayutthaya's bid at Rama Rajya.

Land of the Thai--whatever that means

11 February 2017 | Bangkok, THAILAND

We've arrived in Thailand. In the picture below we travel by river taxi--the river being the Chao Phraya, the great waterway along which Tai peoples settled a thousand years ago, mixing in with and displacing much of the local population. Eventually this river's basin would become the center of a great Thai empire centered at Ayutthaya (also on the river), and today Thailand's sprawling "new" capital (since 1782) sits astride the Chao Phraya's banks, too.

In Thailand I plan to film a NP mini-lecture on the origin of the Thai people (and what it means to be "Thai," as opposed to "un-Thai," an important distinction to the regime here), among a couple other topics.

The many faces of Penang Island

7 February 2017 | Georgetown, MALAYSIA

We ferried into Georgetown, the city the British built on Penang island--their very first foothold in Southeast Asia, established in the late 1700s. Of course, the Brits would go on to exert control over much of the rest of peninsular Malaysia, plus a large slice of northern Borneo and beyond, but it all started right here.

In my opinion, the greatest British legacy in Malaysia is Malaysia itself--more specifically: its borders, which have no historical precedent. Malaysia was always an amalgam of polities and even stateless societies; modern Malaysia is largely a British geographical construct.

But another British legacy? The large Chinese and Indian populations in Malaysia. The Chinese were encouraged by the British to be enterprising in Malaya's ports (and they came by the thousands), while the Indians arrived for much the same reasons, and as cheap labor from British India, and as convicts. Nowhere is this significant demographic impact more apparent, perhaps, than in Penang. Much of Georgetown is one big Chinatown. Meanwhile, a sizable, mostly south-Indian population also lives here, their temples dotting the urban landscape (indeed, the day we were there, the great festival of thaipusam was taking place--which meant most of our ferry-mates were Indians on their way to the festivities, some of their heads shaved and powdered to demonstrate they were active participants).

BELOW: Ferry to Georgetown.

ABOVE: Hanging out on Chew Jetty, at the edge of a large Chinese neighborhood on stilts.

Roti prata (by another name)

3 February 2017 | Parai, MALAYSIA

This blog wouldn't be complete if I didn't include one picture of a roti prata outing. Here in Malaysia they call it roti cenai (prata is the Singapore name) but it's the same delicious, layered, stretchy, greasy bread dipped in a variety of curries.

Another mosque on the beach

31 January 2017 | Melaka, MALAYSIA

Two NP mini-lectures finished in Melaka (forthcoming). It was a particularly hot, humid day--and the kids wanted some beach time. We were informed by everyone that there was no beach in Melaka.

So we walked toward the ocean. How can there be no beach in Melaka? I refused to believe it.

We arrived at a bridge and crossed it, passing over a marsh devoid of people (though home to some sort of They were crawling in the mud like some strange missing link). The bridge led to a massive construction site. On the other side of that:

Looks like a beach to me!

What's more, next to our little beach was a breathtaking masjid on stilts, veritably hovering over the water. Cool find, especially since one of the videos I made today dealt with Islam's spread in the region. Now this mosque features in the background.

Massive Murugan

30 January 2017 | Kuala Lumpur, MALAYSIA

Spent a few hours visiting Batu Caves, on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. Back when we were at Prambanan in Java, I had my two oldest kids write up 400-word essays on the Trimurti; and since Prambanan was dedicated in particular to Shiva, this time I assigned them a short essay on the connection between Shiva and the giant statue guarding the caves.

They did well. The statue, they discovered, is the largest statue of Murugan (also known as Kartikeya) in the world. Popular in South India, Murugan is the son of the great and powerful Shiva (god of destruction and transformation) and his consort, Parvati. There's much more to the story than that, including the origin of sati (my son learned the meaning of "self-immolation") as well as a classic father-and-son falling out--all of which they wrote about in their essays. Will and Kasia: good work!

TOP: Murugan stands serene watch over the busy entrance to Batu Caves.
SECOND: View inside, after climbing the first set of stairs and entering the main chasm.
THIRD: Light spills through one of several openings in the limestone high above us.
BOTTOM: Back outside, Will records his observations in his notebook.

A Tale of Two Kingdoms

26 January 2017 | Yogyakarta, INDONESIA

We spent the last couple days visiting two astounding religious (and political) sites dating back to the early medieval period: Borobudur, begun in the late 700s, and Prambanan, built in the 800s. Borobudur may be the largest Buddhist structure on earth, meant to be the centerpiece of devotion for (and a demonstration of the piety of) the Sailendra Dynasty then ruling much of the Indonesian archipelago. It is an awesome sight. I filmed half of an NP mini-lecture there.

Today was spent at a rival site. Yes: a site literally built to rival Buddhist Borobudur (and its royal patrons), to set the Hindu Sanjaya Dynasty apart from the Sailendras (and to lend to the Sanjayas that all-important legitimacy, as ever). Thus was born Prambanan, the largest Hindu temple in Southeast Asia. I filmed here, too; video coming.

This religio-political rivalry thereby produced two of the greatest structures to be erected anywhere on the planet at the time, just a few miles away from each other, in the middle of the Javan jungle.

My family voted on which was more impressive. Sarah, Tommy, and I voted Borobudur. Will, Kasia, and June picked Prambanan = a 3-3 tie. And so the great rivalry continues.

TOP: The top of Borobudur, the great stupa made up of scores of other stupas--an organic whole that transforms into a perfect mandala when seen from the sky above.

BOTTOM: Once surrounded by scores of other, smaller temples, this massive Hindu site is devoted to Shiva first and foremost, but the entire Trimurti (Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu) enjoy large central temples.

There's a mosque on the beach

23 January 2017 | Ngabaran, INDONESIA

Drove two hours south of Yogyakarta to an off-the-beaten-track beach called Ngabaran, home to both Hindu and Muslim sacred sites. One NP mini-lecture on the spread of Islam in Indonesia forthcoming. Also filmed a mini-lecture on the (both successful and fantastically failed) Mongol invasion of Java, also forthcoming.

The Old and the Older in Jakarta

14 January 2017 | Jakarta, INDONESIA

Spent some time exploring Indonesia's sprawling capital, including a few hours in Old Batavia as well as in Jakarta's less-often-visited Chinatown, a presence indicative, perhaps of an even older influence.

Where the Dutch once ruled, in Old Batavia.
A great wall in Old Batavia.
Still seaworthy in Jakarta's old harbor.
My kids walk the plank in the old harbor.
Some of Chinatown's more mouth-watering delicacies. These are frogs, naturally.

Educational Graffiti

12 January 2017 | Seoul, KOREA

Korean graffiti artists deliver a who's-who of Korean history, starting with Sejong and the near-indomitable Admiral Yi, who almost single-handedly saved Korea from two Japanese invasions.

And next to Yi...who else? Scroll down.

Two Japanese invasions + the Korean War + a modern industrial economy

10 January 2017 | Seoul, KOREA

= only scattered remnants of what was.

BELOW: a reconstruction of a reconstruction of the original southern gate of Seoul, a patch of the past now completely surrounded by modernity. Meanwhile (below that), old Sejong "the Great" looks on approvingly?

How does one family stay in power for five hundred years?

9 January 2017 | Seoul, KOREA

In a pre-industrial world? Isolationism, for one. If that means some serious brutality here and there, the powers that be are typically willing to pay that price. In the 1860s, ten thousand Koreans who'd embraced a foreign faith found that out the hard way on the banks of the Han River. NP mini-lecture on this (and the French attempt at reprisal) forthcoming.

The mass execution took place on the spot from which I took this picture of the river (now a park where kids play basketball and old men fish). The second photo: a Catholic shrine (yep, that's a Catholic shrine) to those murdered by the Joseon regime, a beautiful but fairly empty place more or less hidden behind a sprawl of buildings.

Ground Zero: Urakami Cathedral, Nagasaki

14 November 2016 | Nagasaki, JAPAN

The most destructive weapon ever employed (in war) in human history: the plutonium bomb detonated above Nagasaki. Ground Zero was the Urakami Cathedral (St. Mary's), where several hundred worshippers were attending mass the moment the blast occurred. This wall portion and a few other stark ruins are all that are left.

One Bomb = a third of Hiroshima's population incinerated

11 November 2016 | Hiroshima, JAPAN

...and two-thirds of its buildings destroyed or rendered unusable.

Interesting, too, that (a) the most destructive weapon ever used during war was deployed against civilians, both times, and (2) the most destructive weapon ever used during war was deployed by a country whose people consider it the most free, most humane, most liberty-loving on earth. Something's not right here.

And the more you look into the bomb, the more you wish you hadn't.

Turns out, it wasn't even necessary. Americans are spoon-fed a narrative dating back to the 40s, one that claims the bombs were what finally compelled Japan to surrender, that without the bombs a million Americans would have died in a Japanese-home-island invasion, etc. We've all heard these arguments. But Japan knew it had lost months before the bombs, and the Japanese had approached the Americans about conditional surrender multiple times. The war was over, especially since American bombers had been wreaking havoc on over sixty Japanese cities (civilian centers), killing hundreds of thousands of non-combatants, for months. Game over.

Don't believe me? How about the mastermind of the American firebombing campaign, Air Force General Curtis LeMay? His take: "The war would have been over in two weeks... The atomic bomb had nothing to do with the end of the war at all."

Or you might value the opinion of Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet; the man probably knew a thing or two. His view: "The Japanese had, in fact, already sued for peace... The atomic bomb played no decisive part, from a purely military standpoint, in the defeat of Japan."

Need more? There are the findings of the U.S.-backed United States Strategic Bombing Survey (1946), for starters: "Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts, and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey's opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated."

Maybe the bigger question today is this: Why do we feel the need to make excuses for the vaporizing/boiling alive/incineration of hundreds of thousands of innocent Japanese men, women, and children?

Red pill, blue pill.

The day a tenth of Japan's total Christian population perished

8 November 2016 | Shimabara, JAPAN

The last great event before Japan's Christians were forced underground for 250 years: the Shimabara Rebellion of 1637-38. I visited the site of the revolt today. Stunning Shimabara Castle (pictured below) was besieged by the rebels for a time, after which they in turn were besieged about 15 miles down the coast in Hara Castle.

To put the rebellion down, the Tokugawa Shogunate sent an army to Shimabara bigger than any European state could have mustered at the time; in the end, they outnumbered the rebels six-to-one--yet it still took three months of siege, starvation, and bombardment by the anti-Catholic Dutch to finally quell the revolt.

Burning alive, beheadings, and deportations followed.

[NOTE: the title of this post could work just as well for 9 August, 1945, when around a tenth of all Japanese Christians were either incinerated instantly or died later as a result of a single atomic blast--a bomb dropped, ironically, by an allegedly "Christian" nation on Japan's most Christian city; ground zero for the drop: the Urakami district, Nagasaki's most heavily-Christian district and home to East Asia's largest church, completely destroyed. Most Nagasaki Christians died in this last great U.S. bombing.]

BELOW: The castle entrance--which I had to include on account of the fantastic forest-covered hills in the background. Rugged Japan is covered in them.

BELOW: View from the top of the castle.

Miyamoto Musashi: Greatest Swordsman Ever?

6 November 2016 | Miyamoto (Okayama Prefecture), JAPAN

Visited the grave of Miyamoto Musashi (d. 1645), possibly the greatest swordsman to ever live--anywhere. Over sixty one-on-one duels, some to the death, all victories (and usually over in seconds).

He also happened to participate (probably) in several of the most transformative battles in Japanese history.

Musashi--and the era he lived through--is the subject of my latest NP mini-lecture.

RIGHT: The grave (one of them; the other is on Kyushu) of Musashi.

BELOW: This shrine, dedicated to Musashi, sits next to his gravesite. I dropped my phone and shattered its screen right here.

The Sign You Don't Want to See...

4 November 2016 | Sekigahara, JAPAN

...when you walk into a deep, dark Japanese forest on the mountains around Sekigahara.

In Japan, But Russia on the Horizon

1 November 2016 | Wakkanai, JAPAN

Spent a frigid day on the extreme northern tip of Hokkaido. Why did I come here? Just off this coast is where Korean Air Flight 007 went down after being attacked by Soviet fighter jets. Fisherman from Wakkanai who were out for the daily catch saw the flash, heard the boom, and could smell fuel in the air. A 1980s Cuban Missile Crisis scenario; NP mini-lecture coming.

Tomorrow I head to southern Hokkaido to make a video about the Ainu.

Photos, from top to bottom: (1) picturesque ruins, (2) view from Wakkanai's northern edge (if you look hard you can see Rishiri Island with its extinct volcano), (3) the most oft-mended wall-flap in the world?, (4) the long, icy road--which I walked for miles.

Beheading Mongols = Vengeance Cometh!

30 October 2016 | Fujisawa, JAPAN

I walked the beach at Fujisawa today. These days people surf and play volleyball here. I wonder if they know that during the military-government-led Kamakura period, this was an execution ground. There were lots and lots of big, black crows on the beach, perched on turned-over boats or just wandering in packs away from the water; have they and their ancestors haunted these sands for a thousand years, when they were originally drawn by fresh meat?

This is where five Mongol envoys lost their heads in 1275. A few years later, the Kamakura bakufu chopped off the heads of five more Mongol envoys. It had been pretty well established at that point that if you mistreat (or kill) a Mongol envoy, a terrible revenge will follow (entire cities--indeed, countries--could attest to this). In this case, the Mongol response was the largest overseas assault ever launched to that time.

I knew that the original Mongol envoys' graves were located at a local Buddhist (Nichiren) temple. The sources I had pointed me in the wrong direction, however, and I ended up in a different temple--an incredible place, very large, with perfectly manicured gardens decorated with scores of stone statues. When I asked the attending priest about the Mongols, he seemed confused, but eventually his eyes lit up ("Mongol!" he exclaimed); I quickly produced GoogleMaps on my phone, zoomed in to the neighborhood, and was grateful when he pointed to another temple, on the other side of the hill, tucked away in a little neighborhood.

A few wrong turns later I was there. This temple was pristine like the first, but devoid of people and much smaller. I wandered through the place for a while, past a massive bell hanging impressively underneath an elaborate wooden roof and through a well-kept garden. Suddenly there were hundreds of graves, packed together, and in the back against the wall there was a plaque that was a little bigger than the rest--and underneath it five stone figures. This was it: the grave of the five beheaded Mongols, hidden away from any tourist track.

I filmed the last part of one of my NP mini-lectures right in front of it, chatted with a monk who subsequently wandered in, then snapped this picture. For a history nerd like me, this was an exciting find.

In Japan's First "Permanent" Capital

28 October 2016 | Nara, JAPAN

Whisked through Osaka with just enough time to visit the city's great castle before heading to Nara, where I walked almost 20 miles all over the city in order to complete another NP video. This is a town that demands several full days at the very least, but all I've got is an afternoon.

Tomorrow: Ise and the Grand Shrine.

Nara Park and environs is filled with deer--all more or less tame. People are petting them, feeding them "deer cookies," and watching where they step. I snapped this photo unaware that the deer behind me was getting frisky.

A Little Serenity on a Rainy Day

25 October 2016 | Kyoto, JAPAN

Spent the day in Kyoto, Japan's imperial capital for a thousand years. This Shinto shrine (name: Shimogamo) predates Kyoto's capital status by several centuries, however. I took this in the outer courtyard, just before it stopped raining. A few minutes later I recorded a segment in this same courtyard for an upcoming video on the Heian Period.

Kobe from the mountainside

24 October 2016 | Kobe, JAPAN

World's skinniest house?

23 October 2016 | Kobe, JAPAN

I love these skinny Japanese buildings. They're everywhere. Some are houses, some are high-rise apartments or 20-floor office buildings. More to come, I'm sure.

What does a 12-year-old do at a Japanese fortress? Castle steps, headphones, music...

23 October 2016 | Akashi, JAPAN

Kobe at Night

22 October 2016 | Kobe, JAPAN

Marching Across America

22 October 2016 | Kobe, JAPAN

This summer we survived a 12-week, living-in-a-tent, 15,000-mile road trip across much of North America. In this video, my kids provide a sampling of the places we visited:

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