27 July 2018

How Old Is That Bike?

While in Cambodia and Laos, I visited temples lorded over by statues of Buddha and decorated with carvings of Hindu deities, natural and mythical animals, dancers and other people engaged in tasks as well as celebrations.

(About the dancers:  Since those carvings are centuries old, many are worn in spots, if not wholly.  A guide told me that much of that wear is caused by visitors' touches.  That made sense when I saw that on some of the dancers, a particular body part--a pair, actually--suffered the most erosion.  As Stuart, who accompanied me on the Grasshopper tour, said, "Stones don't lie.")

What I didn't see, though, were depictions of cyclists.  Of course, I wasn't expecting to see them:  Bicycles, at least as most of us would define them, have been around for a century and a half; the temples have stood for centuries, and even a milennia, longer than that.  

So how is it that a carving of a bicycle was found in the Panchavarnaswamy Temple, built over 1300 years ago in India?

At least, that's what Praveen Mohan, host of the "Phenomenal Travel Videos" Youtube channel, claims to have found. 

Of course, he's not the first person to find an anachronistic depiction of technology:  Sometimes I think one of the reasons why Shakespeare's Julius Caesar isn't taught or performed more often (I confess:  I've never taught it!) is that none of us wants to deal with a smart-aleck student who wonders aloud, "What's a clock doing in this play?"  It's hard to answer that one without sounding like, well, an English teacher.  

(Then again, almost no one ever notices the discrepancy of Hamlet going to study at the University of Halle-Wittenberg, which didn't open its doors until three centuries after the time in which the play is set!)

We all know that Shakespeare is allowed to do things like that because of poetic license or dramatic license or because, well, he's Shakespeare and we're not.  But how does one explain an image of a bicycle in a temple built more than a milennium ago?

Since Mohan made his claim, some have tried to discredit it by saying that the temple is really only a century old.  Such is a possibility when you realize that many temples and cathedrals are not, in fact, "original".  As an example, St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican was built during the 16th Century.  At least, the one standing today dates from that time.  Other structures bearing the same name, however, have stood on that site at least since the 4th Century CE.

So, it could be that the current Panchavarnaswamy Temple is not the "origninal" or first built on the site.  Almost nobody with any knowledge of it, however, believes that this is the case:  It's generally agreed that the temple dates to the 7th Century CE or thereabouts.  

The more logical explanation is that the bicycle depiction was added during a renovation.  According to records, one took place early in the 20th Century, when the bicycle was a common mode of transportation in India as well as its colonial overlord, England. 

That explanation makes sense when you realize that "modern touches" are often added to renovations of ancient sites.  For example, a photo of an "ancient astronaut" on the wall of a medieval Spanish cathedral has circulated for years.  But even Erich von Daniken would have trouble believing that someone in the 12th Century would have depicted something that looks like a modern space explorer.  That "ancient astronaut" was most likely an astronaut:  The image was added during a 1990s renovation.  

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