Mar 14


Southeast Asia

Hinduism is the world’s third largest religion (following Christianity and Islam).  However, as the result of foreign influences and other divisions, its practices and beliefs tend to vary slightly between geographic regions or social groups.  The most widely recognized Hindu traditions are often those with the most widely distributed or greatest number of adherents.  A combination of these two factors has likely led to the popularity of the Thaipusam festival celebrated throughout India and other parts of Southeast Asia.

Celebrated by the Tamil (an ancient populace that is now spread primarily across India, Malaysia, and Sri Lanka), Thaipusam is often an opportunity to exhibit one’s religious devotion.  The festival celebrates the story of a battle between two groups of deities, the Suras and Asuras.  The former, having suffered multiple defeats, finally entreated the goddess Parvati (recognized as the source of victory for good over evil).  In assistance, she provided Murugan (her son and the god of war) with a powerful javelin so that he could help the Suras defeat their enemies.  The nature of this tradition, which recognizes the benevolence of Parvati, has led Thaipusam to also serve as a time to seek aid from or express gratitude to the gods.

The traditional practice on Thaipusam is to offer something to the gods in return for their aid.  The offerings are known as kavadi, and in their simplest form involve gifts such as pots of milk.  However, the term kavadi implies much more than a gift, it indicates a burden.  Hindus participating in the festival willingly undertake hardships as proof of their devotion.  This may mean the traditional practice of carrying one’s gift for the gods, usually upon the head, to the temple.  However, many choose to exhibit their faith in a more demanding and somewhat gruesome way.


Kavadi often take the form of body piercings, which can become extremely elaborate.  The simplest forms often involve a rod that extends through the tongue, preventing speech as its bearer proceeds to the temple.  The purpose of such piercings is to serve as a constant reminder of the gods, allowing for complete focus on devotion during the religious holiday.  For those seeking a greater challenge, complex structures of piercings are often created, with longer lances serving as symbols of the javelin given to Murugan according to Hindu tradition.  Even the lightest of burdens, however, demands a great deal from worshipers on Thaipusam; the journey to the temple often requires them to carry their kavadi for several kilometers.


An even more difficult journey awaits practitioners in Malaysia, home to an ancient temple at the Batu Caves.  Hindus bearing kavadi trek up to fifteen kilometers before reaching the religious site, where almost three hundred steps stand between them and the entrance to the caves.  Practitioners carry massive pots of milk and other offerings, often supported by the piercings characteristic of Thaipusam, for hours before they are able to present them to be offered at the temple.  The holiday, during which its observers willingly endure pain and suffering, stands as a rare and unique example of devotion.


Mar 14

Removing Russia from the G8

Russian President Vladimir Putin has always been somewhat unpredictable, seldom taking the course that other world leaders would deem only logical.  His recent decision to intervene in Crimea and ultimately annex the region therefore, considering the nature of moves that Putin has made in the past, should have come as no surprise.  Nevertheless, the brazen act was hard to fathom for many leaders who have come to expect their counterparts, however eccentric, to play within the bounds of certain rules.

Although Putin largely ignored early repercussions, including U.S. sanctions against his inner circle growing in number and severity, the annexation of Crimea is beginning to draw more serious diplomatic responses.  The most notable action, taken by the United States and her most powerful allies, was the ejection of Russia from the G8 (now referred to as the G7).

The G8, a group of industrial powers that met regularly to discuss the future of economic issues, does not technically have authority.  It is a subset of the nations that compromise the G20, the more inclusive group that seeks cooperation between nations on economic policies.  Therefore, exclusion from the G8 does not entirely prevent Russia from influencing the matters that it discusses; nevertheless, it will have a significant impact.

Most immediately, removing Russia from the G8 serves as a diplomatic way of protesting Putin’s recent actions.  Although it will not have immediate effects on the Russian economy, ejection from the G8 has importance in its symbolic meaning.  It illustrates that the remaining G7 nations (the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan) condemn the military-aided annexation of Crimea and will not support such a violation of the expectations for international conduct.  Furthermore, it distances Putin from other leaders and suggests (as his actions already have) that he should not be a representative in a group focused on cooperation between countries.

The decision to remove Russia from future meetings also reinforces the recent approach that the Obama administration has been taking to many international issues, emphasizing long-term, diplomatic consequences over threats of immediate action or military intervention.  While the Russian government has downplayed exclusion by the G7, it has undoubtedly lost valuable opportunities to voice its stance on economic issues at a time when the ruble is already suffering.  Losing influence in economic matters will only further complicate the challenges that Russia is currently facing.

The G7 has left Russia’s reentry into the group on the table, although only by stopping short of explicitly denying that possibility.  In reality, Russia will likely remain alienated from many Western powers for the foreseeable future.  Trust has broken down on both sides of the relationship.  The United States and her allies have grown weary of Russia’s unpredictable actions and disregard for diplomacy, while Putin continues to reference past injustices that he feels the West has committed against Russia.

The Russian stance on relations with the West could lead to a significant drawback when it comes to the G7 suspending Russia.  Putin, a former KGB officer, is largely a product of the Cold War; he feels that his country was slighted by the West and, unfortunately, many Russians agree.  The G7 did not become the G8 (by including Russia) until as recently as 1998; although the Cold War had ended and the Soviet Union had become the Russian Federation, it was excluded from G7 negotiations for a number of years.  This is one of many Western actions that Russians have viewed as an insult, and the re-formation of the G7 reminds many of their anger over such issues.

In this way, Russia’s exclusion could stir feelings of nationalism and bitterness toward the West, helping to justify the the annexation of Crimea (which was separated from Russia when the Soviet Union was dissolved).  Nevertheless, American focus must remain on the long term.  Despite its possible downside, the diplomatic action taken against Russia remains highly preferable to a military response; it will simply require more time to be effective.  Eventually, Russia will recognize its need (particularly economically) to work with other nations.  The resentment that has recently boiled over will be overcome by necessity and present the opportunity for new, diplomatic relations to be formed.  Ultimately, the time required for exclusion from the G8 and other sanctions to take effect will be worthwhile, resulting in stronger and more stable relations with Russia in the future.


Acosta, Jim, and Victoria Eastwood. “U.S., Other Powers Kick Russia out of G8.” CNN. Cable News Network, 01 Jan. 1970. Web. 24 Mar. 2014. <http://www.cnn.com/2014/03/24/politics/obama-europe-trip/>.

Mar 14

Festa de São João

Porto, Portugal

In many nations, culture and religion are closely linked.  Faith is so heavily intertwined with the history of some regions that it has become inseparable from their customs and celebrations.  This is especially common throughout Europe, where Catholicism has become a defining characteristic of many populations.

While some festivals originated from religious practices, many celebrations that were not religious in nature were adapted for the purposes of the Catholic church.  Popular customs were often linked to feast days celebrating the lives of saints and martyrs; this allowed for regional customs to continue unchanged while encouraging recognition of church holidays.  Spiritual leaders hoped that what were previously just annual parties would become religious events with a higher purpose and refined nature.  Although this was the case with many festivals, some remained largely unaltered despite being given a Catholic name.

The Portuguese city of Porto is home to a six-hundred year old street festival.  Festa de São João do Porto was named for Saint John in the 1800s, making it an official, citywide holiday.  Nevertheless, the traditions that predated the festival’s receipt of a new name continued to be practiced with little acknowledgement of their Catholic reinvention.  In fact, many of the city’s favorite practices related to the festival are of pagan rather than Christian origins.

The most notable custom of the day named for Saint John involves hitting others with hammers (made of soft materials to prevent injury) or soft plant stems such as leeks.  Ironically, striking another in this manner is a sign of affection or desire in Porto.  The tradition, which has no link to the holiday’s Catholic namesake, is believed to have descended from pagan customs.


Religious practices that are common to many celebrations of church holidays in Europe are still found in Porto during the festival.  Services are held and followed by traditional processions and parades, and religious icons are often erected outside of homes.  However, the dominant practices and largest attractions of Festa de São João remain secular.  The festival appears to be more of an annual party that happens to fall on Saint John’s feast day than an orchestrated day of devotion or prayer.

Indeed, little of the day seems to be truly planned.  Much of the celebration, although following the precedent of years past, is spontaneous and unscheduled.  Festivities begin in the afternoon of June 23, falling near the summer solstice as another result of early pagan influence.  Revelers take to the streets wielding plastic hammers; vendors set up stalls selling food and wine; a variety of performers entertain the crowds from makeshift stages across the city.  As evening falls, the crowds shift toward the district of Porto known for having the best bars and restaurants, enjoying more food and plentiful wine.  In keeping with the impromptu nature of the festival, firework displays occasionally light up the sky until the grand show takes place at midnight.


While some return home after the fireworks, the majority of Porto continues its party into the following morning.  Many make their way to the nearby beach, building bonfires and swimming in the sea until the sun rises.  Festa de São João has become one of Portugal’s most vibrant celebrations, but its mixed roots make it unique.  It is a celebration of nothing in particular, its nature to be determined by each participant.

Mar 14



Although the Gregorian calendar was widely adopted as the international standard to avoid confusion and eliminate the need for conversion, many cultural festivities still coincide with traditional seasons and astrological signs.  This is especially common with New Year’s celebrations; although the majority of nations formally recognize the beginning of a calendar year on the first of January, many rituals recognizing the new year follow older customs and therefore correspond with other Gregorian dates.

Such is the case with Songkran, the nation-wide New Year’s celebration of Thailand.  Because Thailand did not officially recognize January 1 as the first of the year until 1940, traditional celebrations (originally based on the position of the sun) still take precedence.  Now celebrated between the thirteenth and fifteenth of April, the Songkran festival is a unique tradition particularly because of when it is held.

Mid-April falls at the hottest time of year in Southeast Asia.  Consequently, Songkran typically arrives at the end of Thailand’s dry season and marks the highest temperatures of the year.  As a result, the festival has essentially become a large-scale water fight, with complete strangers dousing one another in the streets.  Most residents, who are given time off from work, and visitors spend the holiday carrying a bucket or a water gun, seizing any opportunity to soak passersby.


While throwing water serves as a friendly, and cooling, gesture in modern celebrations of Songkran, its association with the celebration holds more traditional roots.  In preparation for the new year, it is customary to thoroughly clean one’s home and property.  Public temples and statues of Buddha are also cleaned during Songkran, and an early tradition involved catching water that had been used to clean these religious monuments, then gently pouring it over elders as a sign of respect and blessing.  Younger generations began taking liberties with this practice, until throwing water became the hallmark of Songkran.  Similarly, wet chalk used by monks to write temporary blessings at religious sites is now smeared over strangers in the streets.


Although traditional practices remain, today’s celebrations of Songkran are much better known for revelry than religion.  Temple-goers are far outnumbered by those flocking to the streets and bars.  Beauty and talent pageants have become more popular attractions than statues of Buddha.  Nevertheless, important aspects of Songkran have been preserved.  Many people take the holiday to return to their hometowns, reuniting with family and friends to celebrate the coming year.  Reverence for elders is still highly valued.  Water can still be seen as a sign of cleansing and purification.  And most importantly, the holiday promotes solidarity, bringing complete strangers together in celebration.


This unity extends beyond Thailand, as several other nations in Southeast Asia celebrate Songkran as well (although each has its own name for the holiday).  Water festivals take place in Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, and parts of China and India.  Of course specific traditions and practices vary between nations, but the basic purpose and spirit of Songkran remain unchanged across borders.  Like any celebration of the new year, it is a time of jubilation and hope for the future.

Mar 14

Speaking Softly

In the complex world of diplomacy, governments are almost constantly switching between the use of incentives and threats as they try to gain foreign cooperation.  The United States, as an influential global power, has a stake in a broad range of interrelated issues and therefore must play this game extremely carefully.  Unfortunately, as of late, the U.S. approach to many issues has come under criticism from the American media and public.

Syria has presented an especially difficult situation.  When the Obama administration assured the Assad regime that use of chemical weapons in its ongoing conflict would result in harsh consequences, many assumed that the United States was threatening to intervene militarily.  However, such action would almost entirely undermine the administration’s recent efforts to reduce U.S. involvement in the Middle East.  Entering a new conflict just as American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan have shifted to playing a support role would ensure more years of entanglement.

Therefore, when the Syrian government did launch a chemical attack, the administration chose to resolve the issue diplomatically.  Arrangements were made for the entirety of Syria’s chemical weapon stores to be transported from the country and destroyed.  While this move was likely more practical than a military response, which could not have ensured that chemical weapons would not fall into the wrong hands, many viewed it as taking a weak stance.  Delayed deadlines and other problems in exporting the weapons for destruction drew greater criticism.  The administration, however, stood by its decision.  Now, roughly one third of Syria’s chemical weapons have left the country and the rate of exportation has actually increased.

The issue of chemical weapons in Syria illustrated the effectiveness of a diplomatic approach.  Conflict was avoided and, ultimately, a more favorable outcome was the result.  Nevertheless, critics remain.  Many Americans either prefer or are simply used to the past use of direct intervention by the United States.  Making concessions often raises fears that America will appear to be weaker than in the past, trying to appease other nations out of necessity.  However, the reality is that America can act diplomatically because of its clout.

Theodore Roosevelt’s view on foreign policy is often quoted: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”  This is exactly what the Obama administration has been doing.  America’s capabilities, military or otherwise, are well-known.  There is no need to resort to threats in order to assert dominance; most nations recognize that the military option, last resort or not, is always on the table.  Therefore, it is often more advantageous for U.S. officials to take a less threatening approach.  It prevents formation of the idea that the United States is forcing foreign powers to take certain paths and often makes other governments more receptive or willing to bargain without the U.S. having to give up anything.

This tactic was also evident during recent events in Ukraine.  As protests raged throughout the country, the U.S. refrained from direct involvement, moving to support the Ukrainian opposition indirectly through economic options.  This diplomatic approach prevented supporters of the Ukrainian government, specifically Russia, from having evidence to back their claims that Americans were interfering in Ukraine.  It also avoided the concern that always arises when considering military support for revolutionaries: weapons falling into the hands of extremists.

The diplomatic approach continued to work successfully after the protesters took control of their government.  When Russian forces moved into the Crimean region of Ukraine and asserted control over military bases, the U.S. again refrained from military involvement.  Instead, it threatened to levy sanctions against and freeze the assets of Russian officials responsible for the troop movements.  Furthermore, the Obama administration warned of the economic and trade consequences of such action, and made efforts to build European support.

Again, diplomacy was more successful than a military response would have been.  With the Russian currency suffering and the promise of more economic consequences, Russia began allowing Ukrainian military forces to return to their posts and loosening its grip in the Crimean region.  Although this situation is far from being entirely resolved, the events that have already transpired further support the American administration’s recent approach to such issues.

While military responses will undoubtedly be a necessity in the future, the recent efforts to avoid entering a conflict have proven a beneficial tactic.  The use of force should remain a last resort; in most cases, it is entirely effective as a deterrent alone.  Taking the political approach, although sometimes less popular, is ultimately the lowest risk way of pursuing American interests.


Baker, Peter. “Top Russians Face Sanctions by U.S. for Crimea Crisis.” The New York Times 4 Mar. 2014: A1+. Print.
Cumming-Bruce, Nick. “Syria Speeds Its Deliveries of Chemicals for Disposal.” The New York Times 5 Mar. 2014: A4. Print.
Gordon, Michael R. “Kerry Takes Offer of Aid to Ukraine and Pushes Back at Russian Claims.” The New York Times 5 Mar. 2014: A6. Print.

Mar 14

White Nights and Scarlet Sails

St. Petersburg, Russia

St. Petersburg, once the capital of Russia, was founded in the eighteenth century with the purpose of bridging the gap between the modern and rapidly evolving European nations to its west and the traditional culture of Russia that prevailed to its east.  Although no longer the capital, St. Petersburg still serves as a link between the modern and the traditional.  In an annual festival held between May and June, the city hosts stars renowned for both classical arts and popular music.

Known as The White Nights Festival, the roughly month-long event is a highly orchestrated arts festival of monumental proportions.  It is especially popular for its classical performances, including world-renowned orchestras, opera, and ballet.  Shows are put on twice each day for the duration of the festival, offering attendees a unique opportunity to see a variety of famous works and performers.


While classical arts are on display at the Mariinsky Theatre or Concert Hall, their modern counterparts are hosted in the city’s Palace Square.  This historic site, adjacent to buildings that once housed Russia’s leaders, is converted into an open-air venue for the White Nights Festival.  Popular artists from around the world are invited to perform, and previous festivals have hosted performers of a variety of styles and genres, ranging from Paul McCartney to Shakira.  The Palace Square Stage is another symbol of the two artistic worlds that the White Nights bring together, placing modern artists alongside the Alexander Column, a monument commemorating a very different period of Russia’s past.


The White Nights also include a number of less formal but equally popular events.  As the festivities grew, various districts throughout St. Petersburg began hosting their own carnivals.  In addition to general attractions and celebrations, many districts also emphasize the city’s history, specifically the period of the tsars that utilized St. Petersburg as their capital.  Actors in costume perform both traditional reenactments and artistic interpretations of historical events; similar events also take place on the Palace Square Stage between other events.  Amid the heavy traffic that the White Nights bring are horse-drawn carriages in the eighteenth-century style.  As the city recognizes and celebrates the best of modern artistry, it also gives visitors the opportunity to appreciate its culture and history.

Even after the White Nights Festival begins to wrap up for the year, events continue being held and performances are still given.  The festival season is not strictly defined; nevertheless, most consider it to end with one of the city’s favorite traditions: Scarlet Sails.  The practice evolved from a love story by Russian author Alexander Grin, which bears the same title as the now annual event that it inspired.  The Scarlet Sails have coincided with the end of the school year since the end of the Second World War, and have become a trademark of the White Nights.


The tradition involves ships equipped with vibrant scarlet sails navigating along St. Petersburg’s main waterways.  The display is accompanied by complex fireworks and pyrotechnics as well as the orchestral music and opera that draw many of the White Nights visitors.  It is yet another example of the city’s continuing role as a link between modernity and tradition.

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