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A Monumental City

Do you know there are 160 monuments in DC? Nope, neither did I and I call this city my home! The city also hosts 17 Smithsonian museums and together the monuments and museums offer us unprecedented access to history and art. This weekend Tarun and I set out to see a couple of monuments and revisit one of our favorite museums - The Sackler Gallery of Art. We parked by the Potomac river and walked over to the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial and then to the Korean War Veterans Memorial. Each inspired us in its own way.

The MLK memorial reminded me of Mahatma Gandhi. MLK was a great admirer of Gandhi and many of his words echo Gandhi's peace-loving sentiments. In today's acrimonious political scene, this quote on an adjacent wall gave me hope that justice will always prevail.

The Stone of Hope contains a 30' statue of MLK Jr. and overlooks the Potomac River. It is carved by the Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin. The inscription is from the famous "I have a dream" speech.

My camera caught an interesting glimpse of the MLK memorial flanking the Jefferson Memorial, two stalwarts from different eras looking over each other.

Across the street is the Korean War Veterans Memorial. Set in an unassuming garden at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, it has statues of a platoon from the different branches of the armed forces - fourteen from the U.S. Army, three from the Marine Corps, one from the Navy Corpsman, and one from the Air Force Forward Air Observer. These 7' statues are so astonishingly lifelike in their details, that you half expect them to suddenly take motion.

628,000 soldiers from 22 countries died in the Korean War. 2,500 of their faces are blasted into the surface of the granite wall that sits on one side of this memorial. As we walked past the wall, these faces tugged at our hearts and reminded us of the enormous sacrifices made by veterans and their families.

Our next stop was the Sackler Gallery of Art, part of the Freer-Sackler complex housing Asian art. Today's exhibits transported us to the Qajar dynasty in Iran and took us on a tour of Buddhist art through the ages.

Iranian history offers us a rich brocade of culture, politics, food, jewels, and art. The Qajar dynasty ruled from 1794 to 1925. In the early years, their reign was depicted through paintings and towards the end through photographs. The Qajar rulers introduced their subjects to western traditions of education, science, and technology. They thrived for over a century before acceding power and territory - such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia - to the Russians.

The lighting in the exhibit gallery was low and I couldn't take good pictures. Here's the anchor painting of Prince Ahmad Shah and his cabinet from the Sackler website. Ahmad Shah was the last of the Qajar rulers and he was only 11 years old when he was named regent by the Grand Majlis. My father-in-law was a member of a club called "Majlis" in the 80s in Calcutta, reminding me of the intricate connections in language and culture between the Persians and Indians.

The next exhibit was called "Encountering the Buddha: Art and Practice Across Asia".

As I entered the replica of a Tibetan shrine, I was engulfed in Buddhist chants that warmed the soul. The high bass and rhythmic chanting took me to a level of peace and quietude that I rarely experience in a city like DC.

Buddhism spread from India (from the city I was born) to Southeast Asia and the Far East in the 5th century BC and the accompanying art transitioned from the typical posture of the Buddha to this wall of many Buddhas in China. Seeing art from centuries ago inspired awe and humility.

Our final stop was called "Feast your Eyes: A Taste for Luxury in Ancient Iran ".

The ancient Iranians were the first people to eat meals with multiple courses. They were also know for their wines and rich desserts. The wine-making tradition in Iran dates back 7,000 years ago, as evidenced by residue in jars from the Neolithic era now housed at University of Pennsylvania. Shiraz is an ancient wine producing region in Iran and I was excited at the possibility that we drink wine whose genetic roots date back to the ancient times! I researched this thought and discovered that even though legend says that a 13th century knight brought Persian vine from the Crusades to establish the Syrah (aka Shiraz) line in the Rhone Valley, DNA testing has proven a lack of connection with ancient Iran.

This exhibit has many artifacts from ancient Iranian banquets, including intricately designed dishes and wine goblets. One that caught my attention was this gold pitcher or "ewer". It is inscribed with the name of the ruler and carved with images of peacocks and peahens. Even though Islam discouraged the show of wealth, the Sasanian emperors certainly indulged in luxury while feasting.

As we ended our tour of the museum, we noticed the sculpture in the stairwell called "Monkeys Grasp for the Moon". Made of 21 pieces of wood, each unit represents monkey written in a different language. This sculpture is based on a Chinese lore in which monkeys link to each other by their legs and tails to grasp the moon. What's not to like about this concept!

In the Enid A. Haupt garden outside Sackler, we found ourselves surrounded by what looked like peace lily plants but we knew that they cannot survive in the punishing heat of DC. A sign told us they are "Dhobi" plants, indigenous to India. The flowers look like washed clothes hanging on a line, so their name derives from the word "dhobi" which means washerman in Hindi.

Enriched by inspiring words, humbled by veterans, and awed by ancient art and culture, I returned home convinced that DC remains my favorite city in the universe.

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