Saturday, July 12, 2008

India beggar amasses coin fortune
By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Calcutta

Laxmi Das
Laxmi Das saved the money for her old age

When 60-year-old Laxmi Das recently deposited her earnings in an Indian bank in Calcutta, it was a bit more than the usual mundane money transfer.

Ms Das handed over 91kg (200lb) of coins - the produce of 44 years of hard begging - enabling her to open an account and qualify for a credit card.

Laxmi began begging near Hatibagan, a busy road junction in northern Calcutta, at the age of 16.

Officials say she could have saved as much as 30,000 rupees ($692).

"She would spend frugally from her daily collection and save the coins. She was very possessive about them," says her sister Asha.

Ms Das saved the coins in iron buckets covered with jute bags at her home in a shanty town near the crossing.

In all, she collected four buckets of coins - of all denominations - some even minted as far back as 1961 and now clearly out of date.

"But we will accept those coins as well because she is poor and needs all our support," said Central Bank of India spokesman Shantanu Neogy.

He says there is a directive from India's Reserve Bank to accept all such outdated coins and reimburse the depositor in full.

'Unique savings'

Ms Das told bank officials that she had stored the coins for when she reached "old age" and needed a pension plan for when she was too old to beg.

Coins in Guwahati
Old Indian coins fetch high prices in Bangladesh (Photo: Subhamoy Bhattacharjee)

She was encouraged to deposit the money by police who feared it could have been stolen from her home.

"It is not safe for her to have the coins in the shanty any more, now that people have come to know," said police officer Baidyanath Saha. "A bank account would be the best option for her unique savings."

Bank officials say they are still counting thousands of her coins and still do not know the exact amount.

They say that there are "a lot of coins to count".

Once her account is eventually opened, officials at the Central Bank of India will give her advice on how to use her money.

Ms Das chose to ignore - or did not know about - a thriving racket in this part of the world in which old Indian coins are smuggled and melted down in Bangladesh to make razor blades that sell for up to seven times their value as coins.

The scam has caused an acute coin shortage in eastern India, forcing government mints to cut down on the amount of metal they now use to make the coins.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Bangladesh's unwanted people

By Mark Dummett
BBC News, Dhaka

Pakistani school girls singing Pakistan's national anthem in Dhaka
Loyalties are divided in the camp

At first glance, Geneva Camp could be any of Dhaka's overcrowded and filthy slums.

But above it flies Pakistan's green flag, with a red strip sewn on the side to represent, I was told, the suffering of the people there.

In the camp's school, the children first sing the Bangladesh national anthem at assembly, and then, after prayers, they belt out Pakistan's. Loyalties are divided.

"When I grow up I want to stay in this country and become a teacher," one girl tells me. But her classmate wants to go to Pakistan. " My grandmother lives in Karachi so I really want to go there," she says.

When I ask a group of youths which cricket team they supported when Pakistan recently played Bangladesh they all replied, "Pakistan".

But did they want to live there? "No, it is far too dangerous. Bangladesh is a peaceful country. We don't have any Taleban here," they said.

'Huge mistake'

Their lessons are in the local language Bengali, but their mother tongue is Urdu, the language of north Indian Islam, which their great-grandparents brought to Bangladesh in 1947 when it was then the eastern wing of Pakistan.

During the partition of India along religious lines, several hundred thousand Muslims, mostly from the Indian state of Bihar, came with them.

They were given houses and jobs by the government, but because they could not speak Bengali, they spent most of their lives apart from their countrymen.

The camp where Pakistanis live in Bangladesh
The refugee camp is filthy and overcrowded

The school's headmaster, Shawkat Ali, has a framed portrait of Pakistan's founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah above his desk.

He says that his grandfather's decision to listen to Jinnah and leave India in 1947 was a huge mistake.

"Our family lost everything when we moved to Pakistan. We lost in India, then we lost in Pakistan, and now we are in Bangladesh," he said.

"We are the beggars on the footpath. Our people are leading a horrible life."

East Pakistan came to a bloody end in 1971 when the Bengali majority demanded greater autonomy for their province and then won a national election.

Pakistan responded by sending in its army. Nine months and a reported three million deaths later it pulled out and Bangladesh became an independent country.

Most Urdu-speakers had supported Pakistan, and some joined the militia responsible for atrocities. Thousands of Urdu-speaking civilians were also killed.

After the war, they were forced to abandon their homes and businesses, and herded into 70 Red Cross camps, awaiting repatriation to Pakistan.

But it only took in about half of them, and today there are 250,000 to 400,000 people still living in these same camps.

Several generations, and often several families, now share the small rooms each was originally given.

Bangladeshis in all but name

Shawkat Ali, the headmaster, is also one of the leaders of the Stranded Pakistanis General Repatriation Committee which calls for Pakistan to take in everyone who wants to go there.

"Our fathers and forefathers gave their blood for the creation of Pakistan. We have opted to go to Pakistan, and we should go there at the earliest," he said.

But many of the younger generation believe that Bangladesh will not help them if they continue to insist they are Pakistanis, and that the calls for repatriation have only made their lives harder.

Community leader Sadakat Khan
Mr Khan says there is no question of returning to Pakistan

Pakistan meanwhile says that it has taken in everyone it had agreed to following the war. It might accept more, but only on "humanitarian grounds".

In any case, many of the younger Urdu-speakers say they are Bangladeshis in all but name.

"There is no question of returning us to Pakistan. We haven't seen that country, we don't know that country, we were born and brought up here and we want to die here in dignity," Sadakat Khan, a community leader said.

He now hopes things will pick up for the Urdu-speakers after winning a historic victory in Bangladesh's Supreme Court last month.

The court ruled that anyone born in the country who did not refer to himself or herself as a "Stranded Pakistani", could vote in this year's upcoming elections.

And if they have the right to vote, Mr Khan says, the Urdu-speakers will then have the right to citizenship, government jobs, medical care, education, land ownership and foreign travel.

"We were deprived of the rights of a state for 36 years, but now we are getting them," he said. "With this ruling, the future of our children has been saved."

He hopes that nearly four decades of life as a stateless, unwanted people has finally come to an end.

'Drowning' elephants rescued Click to see

Residents in a village in eastern India have helped two elephants escape from a well.

There is no commentary on this footage.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

off line with computer problems

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

China rights record examined

When China was awarded the Olympic Games many hoped it would manage to improve its human rights record.

One month before the start of the Beijing games Allan Little examines whether anything has changed.

Hilarious Japanese Library Games

Remember all the fun library visits had in store for you and your friends. Trying to try to stay quiet and whisper as you look through isle after isle of boring old books for something… anything… to make this trip a little more exciting.

Well in Japan, they always make things a little more exciting and a trip to the library is no different.

Enjoy and as always… keep your voices DOWN

Points of Entry

Finding the right concentration technique for your meditation practice means opening as many doors as possible.

By Swami Durgananda

In my early years of meditation, I wasted countless hours wondering which technique to use. The teachers of my lineage offered several basic methods: repeating a mantra, focusing on the space between breaths, witnessing the thoughts. But an early mentor had told me to decide on one technique and stick with it, and I reasoned that if I had to choose one practice, it had better be the right one. So I worried. I worried about which mantra to use, about whether to meditate on the Witness—the observing awareness that remains ever-present through all the fluctuations of our moods and mental states—or follow my breath. I worried about when it was permissible to leave the technique behind and just relax. It wasn't until I stopped making techniques into icons that I began to discover how liberating it can be to work with different practices at different times.

We use techniques in meditation for a very simple reason: Most of us, at least when we begin meditation, need support for the mind. A technique provides a place for the mind to rest while it settles back down into its essential nature. That's all it is really, a kind of cushion. No technique is an end in itself, and no matter which one people use, it will eventually dissolve when their meditation deepens.

I like to think of meditation methods as portals, entry points into the spaciousness that underlies the mind. The inner spaciousness is always there, with its clarity, love, and innate goodness. It is like the sky that suddenly appears over our heads when we step out of the kitchen door after a harried morning and glance upward. The Self, like the sky, is ever present yet hidden by the ceiling and walls of our minds. In approaching the Self, it helps to have a doorway we can comfortably walk through, rather than having to break through the wall of thoughts separating us from our inner space.

Most of us already know which modes of meditation feel most natural. Some people naturally have a visual bent and respond well to practices that work with inner "sights." Others are more kinesthetic, attuned to sensations of energy. There are auditory people, whose inner world opens in response to sound, and people whose practice is kindled by an insight or a feeling.

Once we become aware of how we respond to different perceptual modes, we can often adjust a practice so it works for us. Someone who has a hard time visualizing can work with an image by "feeling" it as energy or as an inner sensation, rather than trying to see it as an object. A highly visual person might get bored with mantra repetition when he focuses on sounding the syllables, but feel the mantra's impact if he visualizes the letters on his inner screen. One person might experience great love when repeating a mantra with a devotional feeling, while a friend's meditation only takes off once she lets go of all props and meditates on pure Awareness. Each person needs to find his or her own way.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about any practice is to keep looking for its subtle essence. Every technique has its own unique feeling, which creates an energy space inside. For example, when repeating a mantra with the breath, a person might feel a sensation of prana (vital force) moving between the throat and the heart, as well as a subtle feeling of expansion or pulsation in the heart space when the mantra syllables "strike" it. Focusing on the space between the breaths, one might begin to feel the breath moving in and out of the heart and notice a subtle expansion of the heart space. One might notice that certain parts of the inner body are activated by a particular practice; the space between the eyebrows, for example, might begin to pulsate when one imagines a flame there. Following the rhythm of the breath might make a person especially aware of the currents of energy flowing through the body.

That energy sensation, or feeling-sense, is the subtle effect of the method and its real essence. It is the feeling-sense a technique creates—rather than the technique itself—that opens the door into the Self. For this reason, one effective way of going deeper in meditation is to keep one's awareness moving "into" the feeling-space created by the practice: into the sensation created by the mantra as its syllables drop into one's consciousness, into the sensation of the breath as it pauses between the inhalation and the exhalation, or into the vividness of the object being visualized.

As we do this, we automatically release ourselves into a subtler level of our being. This release will happen more easily if we can allow ourselves to give up any feeling of separation from the technique. Nearly always, when people have difficulties going deeper into meditation, it is because they are keeping some sort of separation between themselves and their method and between themselves and the goal. The antidote for nearly every problem that arises in meditation is to remember that the meditator, the technique of meditation, and the goal of meditation are one: that within the inner field of Awareness, everything is simply Awareness itself.

Another reason to experiment with techniques is to keep from being stuck in a particular method. Some people can take a single technique and continue with it for a lifetime, going deeper and deeper. Others, however, find that the original practice they learned stops being effective after a time. Some people stick with a practice they learned years ago, even when it no longer helps them go deeper. After a while, when the practice doesn't seem to work for them, they come to feel that they aren't good meditators, or that meditation is just too hard or boring, or even that it comes so easily they miss a feeling of growth. Often their only problem is trying to enter meditation through the wrong doorway or a door that once opened easily but is now stiff on its hinges.

Ultimately no meditation practice is going to work unless you like doing it. This piece of wisdom comes from no less an authority than Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, a text so fundamental that every yogic tradition in India makes it the basis for meditation practice. After listing a string of practices for focusing the mind, Patanjali ended his chapter on concentration by saying, "Concentrate wherever the mind finds satisfaction." How do meditators know the mind is finding satisfaction in a technique? First, they should enjoy it and be able to relax within it. It should give them a feeling of peace. Once they've become familiar with it, the practice should feel natural. If they have to work too hard at it, that may be a sign it is the wrong practice.

Meditators who have received practices through a lineage of enlightened teachers usually find that these practices are especially empowered—infused with an energy that yields relatively quick results as they work with them. Those without a lineage teacher find that the sages of meditation have offered us countless techniques—such as mantras, visualizations, practices of awareness—that open up into the Self as one explores them.

I suggest spending some time experimenting with a particular practice; work with it long enough to get a sense of its subtleties and see how it affects meditation over time. When we clearly understand that a technique is not an end in itself but simply the doorway into the greater Awareness, we can begin to sense which doorway is going to open most easily at a particular moment. Some techniques energize while others kindle love or help quiet an agitated mind.

Of course, we don't want to become technique junkies, flitting from one method to another and never going deeply into any single method. However, playing with different practices helps us get to know ourselves and discover what works best. Everyone's road is unique, and ultimately no one else can tell a person what he or she needs. That's why there aren't any rules about the "best" way to meditate, except that a practice should soothe the restlessness of the mind and make it easier to enter the interior silence. This is discovered only through practice.

Swami Durgananda, a female monk of the Siddha Yoga Meditation lineage, is the author of the forthcoming book, The Heart of Meditation: Pathways to a Deeper Experience (SYDA Foundation), from which this article was excerpted.

Pakistan 'knew of nuclear flight'

Disgraced Pakistani nuclear scientist AQ Khan (undated file photo)
It was a North Korean plane, and the army had complete knowledge about it and the equipment
AQ Khan

Disgraced scientist AQ Khan has said that Pakistan transported nuclear material to North Korea with the full knowledge of the country's army.

In media interviews, he said that the army supervised a flight of centrifuges to Pyongyang in 2000.

At the time, the current President Pervez Musharraf was head of the army.

He has repeatedly stated that no-one apart from Dr Khan had any knowledge of the nuclear transportations which caused international concern.

Dr Khan said that uranium enrichment equipment was sent in a North Korean plane loaded under the supervision of Pakistani security officials.

'Complete knowledge'

The BBC's Barbara Plett, in Islamabad, says that Dr Khan's latest claims contradict a public confession he made in 2004 that he was solely responsible for exporting nuclear technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya.

Our correspondent says that the comments are the most controversial accusations made by Dr Khan since he recently began defending himself in statements to the media.

His remarks also contradict the oft-stated line of the Pakistani government that neither it nor the army had any knowledge of the exports.

"It was a North Korean plane, and the army had complete knowledge about it and the equipment," Dr Khan said.

Pakistan's newly-elected government has relaxed restrictions on Mr Khan, who was put under house arrest in 2004 by the then military leader, President Musharraf.

He is still detained but has begun speaking to the media by telephone.

He said the army must have been aware of the centrifuges exports since it supervised all defence consignments and special flights.

'Extremely embarrassing'

Dr Khan also said the president must have known about the shipment, because he had written about it in his memoirs.

But when pressed he stopped short of directly implicating Mr Musharraf, saying he did not know who specifically was responsible.

The allegations are highly controversial, correspondents say, and could prove extremely embarrassing for the army.

Pervez Musharraf
President Musharraf argues that only AQ Khan knew of the nuclear transfers

President Musharraf's spokesman, Rashid Qureshi, dismissed Dr Khan's claims.

"I can say with full confidence that it is all lies and false statements," he said.

Other government departments - including the army and foreign ministry - declined to comment on Friday.

The retired scientist has spoken increasingly to the media since a new government was elected in Pakistan earlier this year.

When asked why he had taken sole responsibility for the nuclear scandal in 2004, Dr Khan said he had been persuaded that it was in the national interest.

In return, he said, he had been promised complete freedom, but "those promises were not honoured".

Dr Khan also said that he travelled to North Korea in 1999 with a Pakistani general to purchase shoulder-launched missiles.

His wife this week went to the Islamabad High Court in a bid to end restrictions on her husband's movements.

Dr Khan was pardoned by President Musharraf after admitting illegally transferring nuclear secrets to other countries including Libya, Iran and North Korea.

But in recent weeks he has retracted his confession.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Bomb rocks India embassy in Kabul


Aftermath of bomb explosion in Kabul

A suicide bomber has rammed a car full of explosives into the gates of the Indian embassy in the Afghan capital, killing 41 people and injuring 141.

Five embassy personnel were killed - India's defence attache, a senior diplomat and two security guards - as well as an Afghan man.

Five Afghans died at Indonesia's embassy nearby.

No-one has admitted being behind the attack, the deadliest in Kabul since the overthrow of the Taleban in 2001.

Afghanistan has seen a sharp increase in violence, particularly in the south and east - and Taleban militants recently vowed to step up their attacks in the capital.

But the latest blast - in what was supposed to be a secure area of Kabul - will greatly concern Afghan government officials, says the BBC's Martin Patience in Kabul.


Afghan President Hamid Karzai said the attackers wanted to rupture good relations between Afghanistan and India, while the Afghan interior ministry said it believed the attack was carried out "in co-ordination and consultation with an active intelligence service in the region".

It did not specify which intelligence service it suspected of involvement. But in the past, Afghanistan has accused Pakistani agents of being behind a number of attacks on its soil.

In a statement, Pakistan's foreign minister said his country "condemns terrorism in all its forms and manifestations".

India also condemned the "cowardly terrorists' attack", but vowed it would not be deterred from fulfilling its commitment to the government and people of Afghanistan.

India has close ties with Afghanistan and is involved in aid and reconstruction work, including the building of Afghanistan's new parliament.

The US condemned the "needless act of violence", as did the European Union, which described it as a "terrorist attack targeting innocent civilians".

The United Nations envoy to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, said that "in no culture, no country, and no religion is there any excuse or justification for such acts".

'Very afraid'

The bomb exploded as people were queuing for visas at the embassy.

"We were standing in a line to get visas, the police told us to stand on one side, the women were in another line, then suddenly I heard a huge bang and I sat down. I was very afraid," Khan Zaman said.

An injured man at a Kabul hospital

April 2008: Gun attack on parade attended by President Karzai
March 2008: Six people die in car bomb attack on coalition convoy
Jan 2008: Six people killed in Taleban attack on Serena hotel
Dec 2007: At least 13 people killed in a suicide car bombing
Sept 2007: Suicide bomb attack on bus kills 30 Afghan soldiers
June 2007: Bomb attack on Afghan police bus kills up to 35 people

Ali Hassan Fahimi said shrapnel had landed in his office, which is close to the site of the blast.

"It was so strong... and our staff were shocked," he said.

A spokesman for the Afghan defence ministry, Gen Zaher Azimi, told the BBC the attack was "the deadliest since the fall of Taleban" in Kabul.

Another Afghan government spokesman, Zamari Bashari, told the BBC he thought the embassy had been attacked because of India's involvement in the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

He said that the terrorist enemies of Afghanistan wanted such work to stop.

Afghan Foreign Minister Rangeen Dadfar Spanta visited the Indian embassy shortly after the attack, his spokesman said.

"India and Afghanistan have a deep relationship between each other. Such attacks of the enemy will not harm our relations," Mr Spanta told the personnel at the embassy, the spokesman said.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Fly Free

Break the cycle of suffering by embracing stillness.

By Mukti Gray


Soon after I was married, I found myself busier than I'd ever been before. Working two part-time jobs, commuting to acupuncture school, and studying for my state licensing exams, I needed to feel some sense of quiet inside. So I decided to hold the question "Where is rest?"

The answer didn't come to me in words; instead, I discovered that just asking the question elicited a sense of stillness and peace. Once my mind became calm, I could rest in the busyness.

My interest in stillness didn't start, or stop, there. Since childhood, I'd wondered about the words from Psalm 46 that we learned in Sunday school: Be still and know that I am God. So when I began hearing Eastern teachings, I was intrigued by concepts such as samsara (continuous movement) and nirvana (cessation).

In the East, an image that's referred to as the "wheel of samsara" has been used for centuries to depict the continuous cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, and the conditions that cause suffering. The conditions of ego that power the wheel are sometimes called the three poisons. They are desire, or attachment; hatred, or aversion; and ignorance, or illusion. When one's life is lived free of these conditions, one is said to be freed from the wheel of samsara.

In my own experience, the first two conditions, attachment and aversion, are best remedied by addressing the third condition, ignorance. You could say that the root condition of suffering is ignorance of our true nature, ignorance of knowing ourselves as spirit. Attachment and aversion, then, cause day-to-day suffering.

Stillness, I have seen, is both the treatment for ignorance and the ultimate antidote to samsara. When your mind is still, you get a rest from the push-pull energies that drive the ego and cause suffering. In stillness, the energies of attachment and aversion can unwind. The sense of a "me" who desires can relax out of the center of experience and ultimately dissolve. That is the harmonizing quality of stillness.

To get a dose of what life is like divorced from stillness, try this experiment: Think a thought that has "push" energy, such as "I don't want to go to work" or "I don't want to have that difficult conversation." Or think, "That shouldn't be." Now check in with your body. Can you feel it registering aversion? It may feel like there's a hand in your gut, pushing away.

Next, consider a "pull" thought, such as "I want to meet someone who will love me" or "They should do what I want." Hold that thought, and then pay attention to your body. Do you feel a grasping fist in your gut? Tension in your shoulders?

Either way, push or pull, your body beautifully lets you know which thoughts will cause you constriction, inner division, or feelings of separation. It would seem, then, that if you could stop divisive thoughts, you'd be at peace with whatever presents itself in each moment.

But wait... having trouble finding the "off" switch? Yep, thoughts keep coming. The more you try not to think, the more aversion arises. And the more you try not to have divisive thoughts, the more attachment arises. Both efforts take you further away from experiencing peace.

A Better Way

But there is an alternative to push-pull thoughts. Again using your body as a thought meter, feel your gut as you contemplate the phrase "Thoughts simply arise." Let the words permeate your body. Do they make you feel more peaceful, or less so? My guess is that you feel more peaceful. Perhaps you can sense relaxation as you let go of assigning credit or blame for having a particular thought. When you align yourself this way with what life is presenting—with reality—the experience of inner division gives way to peace.

Thoughts themselves don't create division, separation, and suffering. Rather, investing thoughts with belief, identifying with them, and taking them personally are what fuels the wheel of samsara.

When you identify with a thought, that creates a fixed position in time and space—like a star in the night sky. As you identify with more thoughts, you create more fixed positions, until you have an entire constellation of ideas and beliefs. The lines of that constellation continue to grow and overlap, creating something that begins to look solid, like an object. Those fixed points create an illusion of an individual "me," with its own boundaries separating it from the whole.

You can live your whole life in ignorance, not knowing that suffering is a result of believing the thoughts that suggest you are separate from the whole. But if you examine your push-pull thoughts, discover which beliefs you're investing in, and question them, you can slip into stillness and become your own medicine—the perfect antidote to the poisons of ignorance, attachment, and aversion.

What is Stillness?

Connect with the quiet at the center of your whirling energies.

Begin by sitting comfortably. Close your eyes, breathe deeply, and let your body settle, inviting relaxation. Observe your body as you allow it to cease moving. Lean softly into your experience and give it your whole attention.

Now drop this question into the space between your muscles and bones: What is stillness? Let your body experience the answer. Let the body's response wash into every part of you, from the top of your head down to the floor or chair where you are sitting. As your body quiets and softens, notice the stillness gather and settle.

Maintaining a steady and intimate quality of attention, let the stillness widen and let your senses open globally to the outer world. Notice the space of your awareness and let it relax outward. Let sounds in the distance enter the space of your awareness, but don't strain to hear or to make note of them. Notice any sounds that arise closer to you, between the edge of your body and the outer shores of your hearing.

While continuing to soften into stillness, rest a portion of your attention on the surface of your body, allowing it to stop there completely, allowing the stillness saturating you inside and out to soften any sense of boundaries between your body and the outside world.

Let any sense of a "me" who is aware relax out of the center, letting stillness dissolve all attachment, all effort.

Mukti Gray ( teaches meditation and self-inquiry around the country. She's the cofounder, with her husband, Adyashanti, of Open Gate Sangha in San Jose, California.

Would You… Could You… In a Tree?

It is every kid’s dream to one day make the coolest tree house and live in it. In Okinawa, Japan, that dream has become one person’s reality… except they made it a restaurant instead of a home.

japanese-tree-restaurant01 Would You... Could You... In a Tree? picture

Just north of the Okinawa airport on highway 58, the restaurant sits perfectly on top of a massive Gajumaru tree’s huge branches about 20 ft above the ground and looking out over the ocean.

The restaurant has a reputation of being quiet and elegant, while serving some of the best Japanese, Thai, Korean, Chinese and Indian food in all of Okinawa.

tree-house-japan Would You... Could You... In a Tree? picture

Customers have to climb a spiral stairway to get to the restaurant.

Gunmen kill Afghan MP in Kandahar

Assassinated Afghan MP Habibullah Jan
Habibullah Jan was a former military commander in Kandahar

An Afghan member of parliament has been assassinated in Kandahar province, officials have said.

Habibullah Jan was shot dead after visiting an Afghan army base in Zhari district, where Taleban militants have been active, the officials said.

Separately, in Helmand province, officials said 10 Taleban died when their own bomb exploded prematurely.

Elsewhere, US and Afghan officials gave conflicting reports of an air strike which locals said left 22 people dead.

Mr Jan was reported to be the 10th MP to be killed since parliament was elected in 2005, following the expulsion of the Taleban from power.

He was a military commander in the Zhari area, having fought against Soviet occupation in the 1980s, before being elected to parliament.

Police said 10 Taleban militants were killed late on Friday when a roadside bomb they were trying to plant, near the town of Musa Qala, exploded.

They said a militant commander, Mullah Jabar, was among the dead.

Roadside bombs have become an increasingly deadly weapon used by the militants against Afghan and coalition forces in Afghanistan.

Doubts over victims

Meanwhile, Afghan officials said those killed in the US missile attack in eastern Nuristan province were civilians, while the US said only militants were killed.

The US military said in a statement that militants had fired mortars at troops from the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf).

"The militants were moving in two vehicles when coalition attack helicopters were used to destroy [them] killing the combatants," the US statement said.

It said there were no reports of civilian casualties, without giving any other details of militant casualties.

Afghan officials said civilians were in the two vehicles and that 22 people were killed, including a woman and a child.

"The civilians were evacuating the district as they were told by the US-led troops to do so because they wanted to launch an operation against the Taleban," a district chief in Nuristan province, Zia-ul Rahman, said.

There are about 70,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, most of them serving under Nato's Isaf command.

More than 8,000 people were estimated to have been killed in insurgent-related violence in Afghanistan last year - the most since the Taleban were toppled in 2001 - Associated Press news agency said.

Woman in India 'has twins at 70'


Mother and babies in hospital

A woman said to be 70 years of age has given birth to twins in India's northern Uttar Pradesh state after taking IVF treatment.

Omkari Panwar has no birth certificate but if her age is proven it would make her the world's oldest mother.

The twins, a boy and girl both weighing 2lbs, were delivered one month early by Caesarian section.

The couple were so desperate for a male heir that they spent their life savings and took out a bank loan for IVF.

Now, we are very grateful to God, who has answered our prayers
Charam Singh, father of twins

Omkari Panwar already has two daughters and is a grandmother to five children.

"We already have two girls but we wanted a boy so that he could have taken care of our property. This boy and girl are God's greatest gift to us," Omkari said.

Father of the twins, Charam Singh, a farmer in his mid-70s, told ABC News he was very happy.

"The desire for a male child has always been there, but God did not bless us with a male child. Now, we are very grateful to God, who has answered our prayers," he said.

Doctors said the twins were doing fine.

Omkari maintains she was nine years old when the British left India in 1947, which would make her 70.

In December 2006, a 67-year-old Spanish woman gave birth to twins in Barcelona.

A woman said to be 65 gave birth to a boy in India's eastern Orissa state in 2003.

Missing Kashmir, a travelogue on Srinagar and Kashmir

Why what when how who where

dal lake, kashmir
photo by Bhaswaran
When I was going to Srinagar this month (March 2004), I found information on travel to Kashmir to be very scarce. Opinions on how safe it was to go there were divided.

In Kashmir, I discovered stunning scenery and wonderful people. I thought how unfair it is that so few tourists go there. I thought that, once more information about travel to Kashmir becomes available, travellers would be able to make decisions based not on security concerns alone but also on other things that would make them put the security concerns aside.

I am no writer and this shows (beach, how would you like to be commissioned to make a writing trip to Kashmir?). I remember RTodor said she was lacking words to describe how beautiful she found Kashmir to be. I suspect she, too, fell a victim of that sickness: missing Kashmir.

Missing Kashmir

High above the Himalaya Range
photo by maree
On my last day in Delhi, I went to the Dilli Haat for some last minute shopping. I was passing the inevitable carpet salesmen and cut their sales pitch short by saying "I have just got back from Srinagar".

"Come, come, just to talk", I heard back.

So we talked. About Kashmir. About when they were in Kashmir last time (three months ago). About Kashmiri spring and how it is time for them to go back not to miss it. About my stay in Srinagar. About Indian winter games in Gulmarg and how much snow is there right now. About the (very few) books about Kashmir that I found in Delhi (I showed them my book of Kashmiri Pundit cuisine illustrated with family portraits from early 20th centuries). And, of course, about my plans for the next trip to Kashmir.

We were all sharing this sickness: "missing Kashmir".

Give yourself a chance to pick it up, too.

Arrival in Srinagar

Arrival in Srinagar and settling in a hotel or a houseboat (HB) in a low season, with tourist to hosts ratio of around 1 to 30, was an experience not easily forgotten. My fight for independence lasted three hours (from landing to boarding the houseboat) and included:

  • being "rescued" from the airport madness by an angel in the form of a Jeep owner who sweetly whispered in my ear "I will take you to the Dal Lake for Rs 100"
  • a free tour around the Dal Lake and a sight of Nageen Lake where my angel taxi-driver-turned-houseboat-owner (the fallen angel) had his houseboat. Once his deceit was discovered we turned back to the Dal Lake
  • a stop over at InterContinental Hotel Srinagar ("see what prices they charge to compare with my prices"
  • an escape from Mr Fallen Angel and hiring a shikara to see several houseboats on my own
  • a battle of wills on the water between my shikara and some HB-owned boats that were trying to divert us from our course

A tip: a bus transfer between the airport and Srinagar city cost Rs 30 and the bus leaves within 30 min of the arrival of the plane.

Moving around

Along for the ride, 1970
photo by Wanderer22
Once the HB host has you as his hostage (sorry, guest), he will try to offer you different "packages" to see local sights. My advice is to go straight to the Tourist Reception Centre and take all the information, including prices, from there. The TRC is a pathetic site but with extremely helpful people (they have to stay there, no matter what, from 9 am to 6 pm Mon to Sat even if they don’t get any visitors). Some trips are better made by car, some - by autorickshaw and some, such as the trip to the old city, are OK to make by bus (I noted a regular and plentiful bus service in Srinagar).

You can get by a rickshaw even to the airport (but not from) although for the last 2 km between the checkpoint and the terminals you will have to find a lift – I found the people going your way are more than happy to give you a lift, for free.

Beware of hosts offering "package" stays and always check prices with the TRC or tourist taxi stand before agreeing a deal with your host. Once he realises that you are able to obtain information independently he will start quoting realistic prices.

What to do in Srinagar

Information on Srinagar available to tourists dates back to 1985. Since then, no new maps have been printed; however, new Kashmir tourism brochures were printed in 2003. The Tourist Reception Centre has ALL the relevant information and more; you can buy "vintage" (1985) maps there for Rs 3. Little has changed since then.

(My only information source on Srinagar before visiting the Tourist Reception Centre was a set of postcards printed 1985; I was amazed with how the place looked EXACTLY as I imagined it from those postcards.)

Shikaras Dall Lake
photo by ajay7
The main attraction of Srinagar is the Dal Lake, and the life in and around the lakes. Hire a shikara (boat) for an hour, five hours or the whole day (Dal Lake is enormous and is connected to other lakes through canals) and you will see how the Dal Lake residents have lived since many centuries ago: growing vegetables on the plots of land on the lake, running errands on boats, going to school by boats, buying and selling from boats – in fact, the only "boat" that I found lacking was a chai boat.

I got addicted to the shikara trips – laying on pillows, watching boats passing by and enjoying the spring sun. Just tell your boatmen to keep away from salesboats, they can spoil the paradise ("would you like to see some saffron, Madame?".

The old city Srinagar is old. Period. Old and badly maintained. But if you can see through the broken glass, worm-eaten wooden panels and uninhabited, empty and window-less top floors of the 600+ year old houses you will enjoy the sight of a (once) majestic city. My most memorable building in Srinagar was a wooden mosque decorated, inside and outside, with papier-mache. I am told I can only find these in Kashmir and Mongolia.

To visit the old city, hire a guide (the good old TRC again). I paid some Rs 100 for a three hour tour. Not all of them know where Jesus Christ’s tomb is located (that is, if you believe in Jesus Christ, and in that he lived and especially that he lived in Kashmir after resurrection and died there). The building housing the tomb is now permanently closed; the story (as told by my guide) is that the US government wanted to build a bigger and newer building, destroying the whole living and shopping area around the tomb, and leaving its residents homeless. The J&K government responded by simply closing the site.

Mogul gardens are frequently cited as the main attraction of Srinagar but… see a picture before and decide for yourself whether you are interested to go there. I got my curiosity satisfied by visiting just one of the four gardens.

My most favourite pastime in Srinagar was being around people and talking to people.

Srinagar Tips

  1. Don’t book a houseboat (HB) before arrival, especially via Delhi tourist agents; I heard stories of people being ripped off and you don’t have any negotiating power being away and not seeing whether the place seems to be busy or quiet.
  2. Do take your passport when you go there, you may need it for foreigners registration.
  3. Do check in your camera/other batteries if you fly, doesn’t happen always but sometimes they do not allow them in your carry on luggage.
  4. Don’t be discouraged by all the hassle you will get on arrival; after you have settled in an accommodation the life gets much easier.
  5. In the airport you will need to fill in a foreigners registration form which asks your address in Srinagar. I didn’t have one and explained to them that I do not book accom without seeing it first. They insisted on my putting an address and – surprise surprise – there was a HB owner right beside the registration desk. I finally told them one name of a HB I heard before and told them I would look at this one and if I change address I would call them. I took their phone number. Two hours later while I was looking at houseboats that guys from the HB I mentioned found me on the lake and insisted that I go see his boat! (I didn’t).
  6. You will fill another registration form at your hotel/HB and you don’t need to contact the police dept yourself, your host will take care of it.
  7. Do take public bus from the airport to the Tourist Reception Centre (TCR) for Rs 30 thus avoiding being hassled by taxi drivers and HB owners. Distance from the airport to town: 15 km.
  8. From TCR you can take an autorickshaw for Rs 15 to the Dalgate/beginning of Boulevard.
  9. Boulevard of the Dal Lake is the most “central” location for a HB stay, with easy access to Market Road, TCR, tourist taxi stands, restaurants. Boulevard is quite long and don’t agree to a HB without seeing it first and where it is on the Boulevard.
  10. Nageen Lake is quieter and further away from Srinagar city life, and is popular with foreigners for that reason (why???).
  11. Ignore prices in the presentation book of the HB Owner Association (which has an office in the airport and opposite TCR), these are quoted from when they had mass tourism pouring in.
  12. HB owner will offer you help with travel/sightseeing programme. Most likely he will quote a fixed package based on your ability to pay (by his judgement) and not on what it costs him to arrange. Do not agree until you see the TCR people (open 9 to 18 hrs every day) and ask them about real prices and work out real costs. My host offered me a USD fixed package which was more than twice what I subsequently spent.
  13. After you’ve found out real prices your HB will be more than happy to arrange your taxis for you as he wouldn’t want to lose on kickbacks from the taxi drivers… but you won’t pay more than you would have paid if you got yourself transportation from the taxi stand. In fact, he may find travel companions to share costs.
  14. If you are going on a leisurely shikara trip around lakes warn your boatman that you want to keep away from any salesmen otherwise you will be followed all along the Boulevard.
  15. Do expect to be lied to by people in the service business (I like to think that this does not apply to the TCR people).My rule of thumb when bargaining is always get their offer first and then suggest half of it as a starting point; but I am a lazy bargainer and always got the worst marks in my Negotiation class so I am no authority here
  16. Be aware of planned blackouts on Mondays between the sunset and 9:30 pm
  17. Don’t go to the old city without a local accompanying you (my host explained it this way: “if you need to run for cover at least you will know where to run”)
  18. Do wear a headcover if a woman, it is essentially Muslim place
  19. Some prices that seem to apply to Indian tourists as well – OFF SEASON (March):
  • Pony trek with a guide in Pahalgam 3 hr - Rs 300
  • J&K and Sriganar tourist map from TCR - Rs 3
  • Postcards (very old) from a sales boat - Rs 10 each
  • Autorickshaw Dalgate to airport – Rs 70
  • Autorickshaw Dalgate to the old city – Rs 40
  • Bus ride, Dalgate to the old city – Rs 7
  • Tour guide, old city, 3 hrs – Rs 100 (maybe overpaid here)
  • Dinner, an upscale restaurant on Boulevard - Rs 150 average
  • Saffron, 1 gr – Rs 50
  • Kashmiri chillies, dry, a handful from the market – Rs 5
  • HB with breakfast per night – Rs 300
  • Internet, at a shop near Dalgate, 1 hr – Rs 50, 30 min – Rs 30
  • Shikara per hr – Rs 40
  • Tourist taxi prices – see my photo gallery

What are the Kashmiris like?

kashmiri old man
photo by Bhaswaran
To the rest of the world, Kashmiri people are shrewd, calculating, not to be trusted. But do you know what it is to live through a winter, with temperatures below zero for months, in absence of central heating and hot water supply? Survival is your life goal. I find Kashmiris more mature and less "naïve" than other Indians that I met. If try to understand rather than judge, you will see how warm, open, welcoming and witty they are. It’s the attitude, stupid!

Where else do you hear "Thank you. Welcome to Kashmir" from passers-by on the street, people who don’t have a motive to please you except to show their appreciation of your being there? Or is it something to do with the fact that many of them see a foreign tourist only once every few months? A whole new generation of Kashmiris has grown up that missed the days when Kashmir was a popular tourist resort.

When I walked down the street, younger men would talk to me and tell me that they enjoyed speaking English after a several years’ break. Women would simply smile, lacking English ability (it is still common for women NOT to attend school); some of them would invite me to their homes. The smile most precious was received from older men, who were supposed to symbolize retrograde views and fundamentalist traditions – but they didn’t. They, too, were happy to see me.

(The only people who frowned at me, occasionally, were the military: for them I probably represented a public hazard. But even they warmed up when I was making my way back to the airport – they were relieved that the hazard was leaving )

Kashmiri store owners
photo by Sama
I feel more comfortable in places where I don’t stand out; where I can blend in and feel part of the environment rather than to be an outside observer. I also find that this partly depends on the local people: whether they accept me as part of their life or treat me as a short term visitor. What probably made me feel at home in Kashmir was that people didn’t create a barrier between me and them; they were happy to take me "in" as one of theirs and kept asking me how I would like to live in Srinagar and what kind of work I could do there.

Tourists in Srinagar are nowadays mainly Indian; on my HB, apart from me, there was a couple from Hyderabad visiting Kashmir on their honeymoon. Every day (except when I went with them to Pahalgan) they were visiting one or another Hindu temple – how they managed to find so many in an essentially Muslim place (Srinagar is mostly Muslim, Jammu – mostly Hindu)…

BTW prepare to be woken up at 5:20 am by a "Allah-u-Akbar!" - "God is great!" – morning prayer. Eventually I developed some kind of weird morning ritual, waking up with the prayers, reading a book until 7 am when it gets quiet and then going back to sleep.

Touts and beggars

What? Not in our Kashmir. The beggars I saw were very few and in usual places where you will find them all over the world – near religious sites. Not a single child has ever asked me for money, only for a hello or a handshake (sad but true – was a refreshing change from Delhi or Rajastan kids). Touts – I have met a few, not too many, and other people were pushing them away from me, in their effort not to annoy the rare foreign tourist. They were quite protective, actually

Things to do around Srinagar

relaxing at Gulmarg
photo by sunilg
Gulmarg, Pahalgan and Sonemarg are the most popular trekking/sightseeing destinations. All of them can be made as one day trips; you can also stay in these places but if you travel off-season accommodation is scarce.

Gulmarg is a golf resort in summer (the world’s highest golf course) and a ski resort in winter (the tourist office adviser was having hard times trying to explain me what exactly this is like – "you know, si-ki, si-ki" - only when he drew me a picture I understood it was about skis). In early March all-India Winter Games were taking place in Gulmarg. It is a valley (at an altitude of 2,730 meters) surrounded by snow capped mountains.

Pahalgan is a trekking paradise, and, for Hindus, a landmark stopover on a yatra to Amarnath, the Lord Shiva’s residential cave, which takes place each year in July and August. The trip from Pahalgan to the Siva cave takes two to three days; you can go on foot or by a pony. If you decide to visit the Kashmiri valley by pony, be careful: the guides are a little bit possessed.

Sonemarg is yet another trekking destination and is the gateway to the Thajiwas Glacier and several high-altitude Himalayan lakes.

Kashmir Weather

I was in Kashmir in early March. Spring, with its birds, blossoming almond trees, young green grass making its way up through dry brown soil, dazzling sun… in other words, the Russia’s spring having arrived one month too early.

The tourist season is from May to September.

Shopping in Srinagar and Kashmir

In the Srinagar old city, you can buy locally made copperwear, silk saris (strictly for tourists, no Muslim woman would expose her belly button in public) and tweeds (of which they make their comfy long winter coats called "ferin". In Dalgate, there are several shops on the Boulevard including my favourite Tibetan shop where the salesman kept his most valuable stuff tucked away in an old metal box and needed some initial "breaking the ground" before he opened this box for me. I had a Kashmiri embroidered jacket custom made for me in a matter of few hours and at a fraction of the Delhi price. You can pick up shawls (and everything from a pashmina shawl to a pashimina dressing gown) without leaving your houseboat – the salesmen will come to you if you don’t mind their showing up.

Kasmiri kawa tea is a sort of semi-fermented (green but not green-green) tea grown in Kashmir brewed with cinnamon sticks and cardamom seeds, and sometimes with crashed almonds. Kashmiri red chillis are particularly vicious and famous all over India. And, of course, Kashmir is one of the two places in the world where saffron is cultivated.


While on a shikara tour of the lake I heard some distant shooting including the sound of an automatic rifle but this, of course, could have been just the Army training… I asked my boatman but he only smiled quietly and shrugged his shoulders: "dunno". Armed soldiers are seen everywhere but you see them in Ladakh in the same quantities… Indian government does not guarantee the safety of foreign tourists that go to Srinagar… but I have never relied on protection by governments… You simply must accept responsibility for your own safety.

Practical information for your Kashmir journey

  • J&K Government’s website – an excellent (and may be the only) source of information on J&K history, culture, travel. Don’t believe prices at J&K Tourism site; remember - everything is negotiable!!
  • Books are scarce and nearly all of them are "political", according to the helpful Bookworm shop owner. Most of them begin the Kashmir’s story in 1947, as if Kashmir did not exist before that.We found one which starts with early Kashmiri history: Kashmir: Behind the Vale by M J Akbar
  • Kashmiri language is called Koshur.

If you want any Srinagar addresses from my notebook please PM me, I don’t want to be seem advertising for Kashmiri shops. Happy travelling!