Geography – Terrain and weather that shapes cultures and customs
When I read O’ Henry’s short story, “Soapy”, I could not understand Soapy’s attempts to get imprisoned for the duration of New York’s winter.
At that time, I was living in the tropical part of India, where winters were mild, offering a much needed respite from the oppressive heat of summer. Having lived only in the tropics, where people went to cooler places to escape the brutal heat of summer, I was unable to understand why anyone would want to escape winter.
Several years later, when chance brought me to the east coast of USA, I was able to hold in my hand – the beautiful crystals of snow as they fell in silent showers, painting the world monochrome. What I also came to experience was the merciless cold, as Old Man Winter breathed down on us during these months.
That’s when I understood Soapy’s desperation. As terrible as the plight of the homeless is in hot climes, the chance of perishing or getting maimed by weather are much lower than that of people living in cold weather, where not having a roof over the head could be fatal in winter.
Upon this realization, I came to think about the influence of geography on our customs and culture, everything – from the clothes we wear to agriculture to home design and construction, are largely dictated by weather and terrain.
Before the comfort of modern amenities, people in cold weather needed a winter larder, because food preservation was crucial to get through the harsh winters; while in tropical regions, with year-round agriculture, food preservation was aimed at saving the excess of seasonal produce.
The same is true for attire. People dress according to the dictates of weather. Closer to the equator, lighter the clothes; closer to the poles, heavier the garments, layered for warmth.
Yet, somewhere along the way, the primary reasons for these practicalities vanished, and daily customs and practices took on religious and cultural fervor.
When the colonial British first landed in India, they mocked the natives for not dressing properly, even as they were shedding their many layers, because they were practically cooking in their heavy garments. Like most of humanity, they were ignorant of the influence of geography on human societies. And of course, what cannot be understood, must be derided.
Thus, if we pare through religious and cultural mind-sets, the turbans are just hats and the veils are just scarves to protect the head against the punishing heat of the sun, rather than hold the sanctity of a religion.
I remember, as a young girl, attending the Sunday Mass with a veil over my head. The women in their sarees, pulled the free end over their heads as veils. It was a little ridiculous, because, we walked bare-headed all the way to the church – the tulle scarf, either folded in our hands or tied loosely around the neck, while our mothers held the free end of the saree loosely in their hands or let it flow freely. As soon as we entered the church, the veils go up, as an air of piety took over. The men of course, were free of all head-cover requirements and walked into the church bare-headed.
I hypothesize, that Israel being an arid place, veils could have been a matter of practicality. Maybe, the Roman Christians decided to borrow some customs from the land of Jesus and gave it a religious coloring. Thousands of years later we follow the custom blindly.
“Vasthu Shasthra”, is an ancient Indian treatise on architectural design, with guidelines for structures to be built in harmony with its natural surroundings. In case of home construction, it recommends that the wood burning earthen-stove in the kitchen, should face a certain direction, with an adjacent window, to make the most of sunlight and ventilation. Similarly, doors and windows should be placed in a way to optimize air-flow. All of this makes sense, if taken in the context of time before the advent of electricity and LPG stoves.
Today, this practical adaptation has devolved into religious superstition and is followed as a ritual. This is just one of the many rules people obey blindly. Imagine, hundreds of unexamined beliefs that has morphed into superstitions – the more ancient the society, the more numerous these beliefs.
Several of these may seem ludicrous to the outsiders, but to the people immersed in the culture, many such customs are sacred, not just because of the religious or the pride factor, but more because of unexamined fears, that stop them from looking into the relevance or usefulness of such practices.
Like sheep, we follow these rituals, bound by irrational fear, so strong, that the first thing that goes wrong – which is bound to happen anyway – would be blamed on lack of adherence to this ritual or that. At that point, this fear would become laden with guilt, further entrenching us in these beliefs.
These are not just illiterate people. There are a considerable number of literates, with high degrees and great jobs, who can’t seem to apply the logic of their education to examine the mountain of misinformation out there – information that may have been relevant to the times, but may have lost its meaning with the passage of time, or certain information that may be useful today, in a modified form.
But shh… we are not supposed to question ancient traditions or the dictates of religion. Is it any wonder that conspiracy theories and urban legends gain a life of their own, becoming powerful influences in our minds? Is it any wonder that we have become so credulous and rigid, imprisoned in our own minds, that we are willing to believe the first outrageous post on social media and accept it, as if it were the, “The Word of God”?
It is time to examine and understand the reasons behind these irrational attitudes, so that we can reclaim the control of our minds from the clutches of fear-mongers who perpetuate and exploit this human weakness. It is time to dust the cobwebs off, of what has diminished into seldom sense – in some cases, just plain non-sense – and polish it back into sharp common sense. Let us temper the runaway emotions with scientific reasoning and rationality.
Let us fire up the neurons, put the grey matter to good use and rediscover the reasons behind our cultures and customs, as we learn about the history and geography of this world.