Sun Temples and the Growth of Agrarian Society

Transcript of my paper entitled “Sun Temples and the Growth of Agrarian Society” presented at the International Seminar on Archaeology and Language held at Deccan College, Pune.

While there are innumerable events – from the advent of Harappan culture to the first non-Congress government at the center with an absolute majority of its own – that have changed the course of History of India, I would like to draw your attention to another first – The Sun Temple at Multan, now a province in Pakistan.

Though extinct, this temple does exist in the accounts of earlier writers like Hieun Tsang, Istakhri, Ibn Haukal and Idrisi. Multan is in fact derived from the Sanskrit term Mool Sthana, meaning the Original Abode; thus signifying its importance as one of the most revered cradles of ancient Hinduism.

While travelling in India, the Chinese pilgrim Hieun Tsang came across Multan in about 641 AD. He recounts that the state of Mool Sthana was about 667 miles in circuit, with the capital town being about 5 miles round. It was very thickly populated and had rich and fertile soil. He found eight temples in the area, of which the temple dedicated to the Sun was the most magnificent and profusely decorated. Describing the activities at the Multan Sun Temple, Hieun Tsang mentions

The image of the Surya-deva is cast in yellow gold and ornamented with rare gems. Its divine insight is mysteriously manifested and its spiritual power made plain to all. Women play music, light torches, offer flowers and perfumes in its honor. The custom has been continued from the very first. The kings and high families of the five Indies never fail to make their offerings of gems and precious stones to this Deva. They have founded a house of mercy or happiness, in which they provide food, and drink, and medicines for the poor and sick, affording succor and sustenance. Men from all countries come here to offer their prayers; there are always some thousands doing so. On the four sides of the temple are tanks with flowering groves where one can wander about without restraint.

Later accounts about the temple and the city of Multan reaffirm that the Sun Temple had retained its prominence despite the town having been under Muslim rule, with the majority of the population having taken to Islam.  The Sun Temple was still being visited in large numbers by pilgrims from all over India, and probably China. An extract from Muruju-l Zahab of Al Masudi (around 940 AD) mentions

Multan is one of the strongest frontier places of the Musalmans, and around it there are one hundred and twenty thousand towns and villages. In it is the idol also known by the name of Multan. The inhabitants of Sind and India perform pilgrimages to it from the most distant places: they carry money, precious stones, aloe-wood, and all sorts of perfumes there to fulfill their vows. The greatest part of the revenue of the king of Multan is derived from the rich presents brought to the idol of the pure aloe-wood of Kumar, which is of the finest quality, and one mon of which is worth 200 dinars. When the unbelievers march against Multan, and the faithful do not feel themselves strong enough to oppose them, they threaten to break their idol, and their enemies immediately withdraw.

Unfortunately, when Abu Rihan (Al Beruni) visited Multan, neither the temple nor the statue existed. He wrote

A famous idol of theirs was that of Multan, dedicated to the sun, and therefore called Aditya. It was of wood and covered with red Cordovan leather; in its two eyes were two red rubies. It is said to have been made in the last Kritayuga. When Muhammad Ibn Alkasim Ibn Almunaibh conquered Multan, he inquired how the town had become so very flourishing and so many treasures had there been accumulated, and then he found out that this idol was the cause, for there came pilgrims from all sides to visit it. Therefore, he thought it best to have the idol where it was, but he hung a piece of cow’s flesh on its neck by way of mockery. On the same place a mosque was built. When the Karmatians occupied Multan, Jalam Ibn Shaiban, the usurper, broke the idol into pieces and killed its priests… When afterwards the blessed prince Mahmud swept away their rule from those countries, he made again the old mosque the place of Friday worship. 

Having been divested of its entire splendor, gold and other valuables by the Arab conquerors in 712 A.D., the Multan Sun Temple still managed to have survived and continued to be a major Hindu pilgrimage till its first destruction and conversion by the Shiaite Karmatians towards the end of the 10th century. The Shiaites were later displaced by Mohammed Ghori around 1175 A.D. However, thanks to the religious zeal of the Hindus, the Sun Temple was rebuilt and restored again, thereby regaining its eminence as the most important Hindu place of pilgrimage. Al Idrisi recounts

Multan is close upon India; some authors indeed, place it in that country. It equals Mansura in size, and is called “the house of gold.” There is an idol here, which is highly venerated by the Indians, who come on pilgrimages to visit it from the most distant parts of the country, and make offerings of valuables, ornaments, and immense quantities of perfumes. This idol is surrounded by its servants and slaves, who feed and dress upon the produce of these rich offerings. It is in the human form with four sides, and is sitting upon a seat made of bricks and plaster. It is entirely covered with a skin like red morocco, so that only the eyes are visible. Some maintain that the interior is made of wood, but others deny this. However it may be, the body is entirely covered. The eyes are formed of precious stones, and upon its head there is a golden crown set with jewels. It is, as we have said, square, and its arms, below the elbows, seem to be four in number. The temple of this idol is situated in the middle of Multan, in the most frequented bazaar. It is a dome-shaped building. The upper part of the dome is gilded, and the dome and the gates are of great solidity. The columns are very lofty and the walls colored.

The temple continued to attract Hindu pilgrims till 1666 A.D., after which it suffered its final onslaught by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. No trace of the Temple was found when the Sikhs occupied Multan in 1818 A.D. So, when Cunningham first visited Multan In 1853, the very site of the temple was unknown. He however claimed to have found its true location as indicated by the early writers like Istakhri, Ibn Haukal and Idrisi.

However, the objective of this discussion is not merely to establish the existence of this extant sun temple, as it is to bring into focus the relationship between an agrarian society and the sun cult. The Sun Temples can said to be the flag posts of the farming communities. The Sun is not just a source of light, but in fact an epitome of energy. Had it not been for the Sun, we would have had no life on Earth. While our own life and that of other creatures depend on the Sun, we also owe the entire vegetation to it as it is the sustainer of all forms of lives. The early civilizations were soon to realize this and thus the Sun became an object of veneration for the early men. So, it is not astounding that the Sun was one of the primitive Gods together with air, water and earth. Notably, these are all various elements responsible for our very lives.

It is thus not surprising that the first of the sun temples on the Indian soil was located in a pasture land with the river flowing around it. French traveller Thevenot who visited the place in 1666 A.D. mentions

At Multan there is another fort of Gentiles. That town is properly their country, and from there they spread all over the Indies. But we shall speak of them when we come to speak of the other sects. They have in Multan a Pagoda of great consideration. People come here to perform their devotion from all over Multan, Lahore and other countries. I know not the name of the idol that is worshipped here; the face of it is black, and it is clothed in red leather; it has two pearls in place of eyes; and the Emir or Governor of the country, takes the offerings that are presented to it.

Later archaeological exploits by Cunningham found that the ancient fortress of Multan was situated four miles from the left of River Chenab. Originally it stood on an island in the Ravi, which changed its course several centuries ago and in 1872 joined the Chenab 32 miles above Multan. Today, Multan is part of Pakistan and is located on the banks of the Chenab River about 160 kilometers from the archaeological site of Harappa. Like any other contemporary river-valley civilizations of the Bronze Age, the Harappan Civilization too was based on agricultural surplus which in turn supported the development of various cities like Mehrgarh, Harappa, Mohenjo-daro, Dholavira and Lothal or maybe even Multan. In fact the city of Multan itself is located in a bend created by five rivers of central Pakistan. While the River Sutlej separates it from Bahawalpur, the Chenab separates it from Muzaffar Garh. The area around the city is a flat, alluvial plain and is ideal for agriculture, with many citrus and mango farms. There are many canals that cut across the district of Multan, providing water to nearby farms.

Obviously, the sun temples, not only in India, but across the world, are representatives of fully developed agro-communities. Interestingly, in the Indus Valley, archaeologists did not find any architecture that could be recognized as a public place of worship. How can it be that a civilization that flourished for two millennia, over a huge geographical area, had no public place of worship? Is it possible that the people, who built thousands of brick houses, did not a build a single temple?

It is well known fact that in the Vedic culture, claimed by many to be even older than the Harappan civilization, people did worship Surya as well as Ap, Vayu, Prithvi and Aakash, that is, the sun, water, air, earth and sky. Incidentally, these are all natural elements that helped the agriculture communities. Since these are all evident and may not need any particular place for worship, archaeologists concluded that there existed no temple in the Harappan age.

Remarkably, the Harappan civilization has its earliest roots in cultures such as that of Mehrgarh, approximately 6000 BCE and yet according to archaeologists, there were no temples in the area till the beginning of the Christian era. Based on the account in the Chach-nama of Jibawin, Cunningham has placed the founding of the Sun Temple at Multan, believed to be the ancient most sun temple in the Indian subcontinent, to around 500 A.D. Doing this, he simply ignored the account given by Abu Rihan, who relates that the temple and the statue of the Sun, which existed just before his time, were said by the people to be 216,432 years old.

Admittedly, to consider this origin would be irrational, but we should not forget that we have shared knowledge and information through verbal tradition, rather than written documents. This does have the inherent risk of misrepresentation over the years. Moreover, the Indians didn’t go by the Christian calendar as they calculated time or the Kaal in terms of Yuga and Samvatsar. Unfortunately, today the Yuga is an irrelevant concept and hence its misinterpretation is very much possible. The wrong Kaal Nirdharan, or determination of age, may be because of the faulty Kaal Ganana, or the dating system, prevalent today.  Therefore, there is an urgent need to study the Indian or the Vedic system of Time with modern outlook, so that the periods of various events in Indian history, including the dating of Multan Sun Temple, the period of the Ramayana or the Mahabharata era could be established with certainty.

This is not to say that the carbon dating process is incorrect. All I want to say is that this should not be the only consideration while determining the age of any ancient building particularly in the Indian context. I strongly believe that the age of temples in India cannot be determined by the age of the bricks and mortars used for its construction, but it corresponds to the faith of people transcending down the generations. To augment my point, I would bring in focus a Sun Temple at Arasavalli in Andhra Pradesh. Even though this temple is evidently a twenty-first century structure, locals firmly believe it to be from time immortal and claim that it was constructed by none other than Lord Indra himself, whereas the idol was installed by Sage Kashyap. They cite the Indra Pushkani situated nearby to corroborate their belief. Even though the Temple as such has no archaeological importance, it indeed has an antiquity value as it houses an old idol belonging to the 8th century. Any amount of argument about its modern construction falls on deaf ears because for devotees it is the temple that transcends from the Dwapar Yuga.

We should remember that our temples have been part of our culture and tradition. Explaining the concept of tradition, eminent Kannadiga author U.R. Anantamoorthi has put forward an interesting example. He tells us the story of a farmer who owned a sickle. This sickle had been handed to him by his father, who in turn had got it from his father, and so on. So the farmer was proud to inherit this sickle from his forefathers. What if the handle of the sickle had to be replaced once when the original was damaged? What if its blade, too, was replaced when the original had lost its sharpness? Remarkably, a sickle has just these two parts – the handle and the blade. Both of these had been replaced at some point of time. Still, the farmer believed it to be inherited from his forefathers! Is it not true for most of our temples that we date back to past Yugas? What if its idol was stolen? What if its spire collapsed in a natural calamity? What if it was looted and burnt by the raiders? It still remains in the thoughts of the people and hence always retains its glory and reverence.

In conclusion I would like to say that there may be many sun temples like the one at Multan, which are now extant. Fortunately, there are historical evidences available about the Multan Temple, whereas others continue to exist only in our faith and beliefs. Thus, it remains for us to identify and locate such places of worship not by sheer archaeological evidences, but also on the basis of beliefs and faith of people at large.

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Self Identity and the Spirit of Karma Yoga

Transcription of my speech at the International Conference on Identity Studies, Vienna. The talk was delivered on July 28, 2014.

You just heard my name being called – Ranjan Kumar Singh from Takshila Educational Society, India. Yes, it is true that I am Ranjan – Ranjan Kumar Singh; but is that all I am? Does my name projects my identity? Well, the other day I and Robert were amazed to see a name such as Shiva Khalili in our panel. We thought this to be a perfect amalgamation of faith. But some more surprise had been waiting for us for when we met Shiva, we found that she was a lady. In Indian context Shiva is a male’s name. So, name could be misleading. With two Egles –Aleknaite and Eglė Savickaitė – sitting right here, we know that even Egle is not Egle. Certainly, our identity goes beyond our name.

I am here to speak on ‘Self Identity and the Spirit of Karma Yoga’. We have been discussing ‘Identity’ for two days now, but what the heck is this Karma Yoga?

Karma Yoga is doctrine of action proposed by the Vedanta, a philosophical treatise, venerated by the Hindus as their scripture. Explaining its concept, Swami Vivekananda has said, ‘Karma Yoga is purifying the mind by means of work’. In simple words it can be termed as the mindset to do work ‘without any desire to enjoy its fruits thereof’. Although it may seem highly utopian, yet when John F Kennedy, in his inauguration address said, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country’, he was sharing the same Vedantic spirit, though in a much narrower context. In more practical sense Karma Yoga is the disposition ‘to do the best, while being prepared for the worst’. Contrary to our belief, its connotation is secular than religious, because how so hard we may try, we cannot classify work in terms of religion. Although I am part of the panel on Identity and Spirituality, I would like to make it very clear that the Karma Yoga is not a spiritual concept, but a life style.

Life expresses itself in action as death does in inaction. The inevitability of action or work has been beautifully expressed in unequivocal terms in one of the opening verses of Isopnishad, a Vedantic text, ‘There is no alternative to work even if one desires to lead a life of hundred years’. Therefore, one must work throughout the life, so far as one breathes. Work is terminated only when the organism is dead, or to say, it stops responding to the outer world.

There is hardly any choice between ‘to do’ or ‘not to do’; the choice, if ever, lies between doing it willingly or doing it half-heartedly, doing it tirelessly or doing it resignedly, doing it with dexterity or doing it with ineptness. We aspire to the best; why not endeavour for the best? It is our performance that makes our personality. What we do, is a reflection of our own self.

Thus, realization of self is imperative to the disposal of one’s duty effectively. The answer to the question ‘Who am I?’ gives us a clue to the question ‘What do I do?’ or ‘What can I do?’ In other words, our efficiency remains curbed if we have no knowledge of our abilities. The knowledge about ability comes from the awareness of our identity.

So the pertinent question is: Who am I? Obviously I am an Asian; and so is Shiva Khalili. Are we the same? In kindergarten, I was taught: “He is Ram. Ram is a boy. All boys are not Ram” and also “She is Sita. Sita is a girl. All girls are not Sita.” How very correct this is. We all have multiple identities and unique identity, both at the same time. Victoria Perez, present here, has been telling us how her daughter thinks that she is a Mexican, a Russian, an Ukrainian and the Princess, all at the same time. That is how we are!

Because we have several identities, it is but natural that we find ourselves confused. I believe that we all know our apparent duty all too well. Do we try to play father at the office or boss at home? No, we don’t. Yesterday, I had to chair a session and today I am to present a paper. How can my role be the same over these two sessions? Indeed, we all know our roles and can distinguish between them. But when we fail, the problem erupts and so does the suffering. What if I continue to act like the chair person, whereas I have been called here to present a paper? What if I continue to act like a son, whereas my wife wants me to act more like a husband? It is for me to know and realize when I should act like the son of my father and when I should become the husband of my wife. If we are able to maintain this balance, we are sure to have harmony in life. In trying to become more of a husband, I do not have to disassociate myself from my father. In trying to be more of a mother, my wife does not have to detach herself from me. The Bhagavad Gita, the sacred text of the Hindus, advises us to recognize our foremost identity and perform the contextual duty.

We are husband or wife, brother or sister, father or mother, son or daughter, employer or employee, friend or foe, all at the same time. Thus, it is but natural that we find ourselves confused. Yet, isn’t it correct that all such relationships have been created by us? Isn’t it true that all such bonding have been named by us? Yesterday, we heard Hasnije Ilazi say that identities are created. My submission is that identities are not created, but are assumed. It could either be self assumed or presumed by the society. Father, mother, sister, brother, husband, wife, son, daughter, uncle, auntie, in-laws – all are but assumed identities based on the role we have to play and the responsibilities we have to keep. In some cases we have a choice, in others we don’t. I can choose my wife, but not my father. I can choose my in-laws, but not my daughter. It is amazing how many roles we play, all at the same time!

In a play, players are assigned a role that they have to enact. All of them have a different and unique role to play. They are told about it and so they know what they should do or what they should speak. Thus, they know their job perfectly well. There is no cause for confusion and so there is no mix-up. In real life it is different. Since we are not told of our part in as many words, we fail to understand our duty. Think of a scene in which an actor has been pushed on to the stage without his role being assigned. If he is wise, he will adapt himself to the scene and become a part of it. But if he is a dullard, he will spoil the whole show. This is true for life, too. We have all been made to enter the stage without being told what to do. It is up to us to realize our role and do our best so as to blend well with the overall scene.

Unlike the small stage, we are committed to multi-tasking on the world stage. Yes, I am the son of someone, but am I merely that? True, I am the husband of someone, but is that all of me? Certainly, I am the father of someone, but does my role end here?

Any actor would be baffled if he had to play so many roles at the same time. Not only do we have to play so many roles, but we also have to perform them so dexterously that there is absolutely no mess-up. The trick is in knowing what role we have to perform at any given point of time while not forgetting our true identity. I remember, in my childhood I went to see Ram Leela, a folk theatre based on the Ramayana. Unfortunately the actor performing the role of Hanuman, the monkey God, forgot his dialogue and had to be prompted. It so happened that the prompter turned to a different page and read out the dialogues of another character, Ravana. So we had Hanuman speaking the dialogues of Ravana! This created a riot of laughter. None of us wants to be a laughing stock. So, we must know our role and perform it to perfection.

On this world stage we all have been assigned various tasks. We know about some, while we have to realize the others. We have been told about some, while we have to find out about others. How can we perform well, if we do not know who we are? So, this question is important: Who am I? When I ask you, who am I? you will surely take me as an insane, but if I pose this very question to myself, then I would be called a philosopher.

When someone asks me, “What do you do?” my prompt reply is, “I am an author and a film maker.” About twenty years back, when I worked for a daily news paper, I used to introduce myself as a “journalist”. What kind of identity is this that keeps changing? We assume ourselves to be a journalist, an author or a film maker by virtue of our assigned job. Certainly these are not our absolute identities. An absolute identity would not change, whereas an assumed identity would. An absolute identity cannot be taken up or given back at will, whereas an assumed identity can be picked and chosen. The attitude of “pick and choose” often leads us to the tendency of “use and throw”. Most relationship conflicts arise out of this tendency. We “use and throw” our patrons, friends and even spouse at times.

A problem arises when we take our assumed identity to be our absolute identity. What if the person playing the part of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice continues with his act even after the play has come to an end? I remember a neighbor who was a manager in a bank. He was sacked for some reason. He could not adapt to the change and continued to behave as if he still was the manager. This led to many altercations and fights in the bank and ultimately the ill-fated man had to be sent to an asylum. Obviously he had taken his assumed identity as his absolute identity. Most of our identity crisis is caused by our ignorance. When we forget who we are, then we do not know what to do; and we end up doing something wrong. Thus, the realization of self is all the more important.

We cannot give our best if we do not have any idea of our own self. Because of a curse, Hanuman, had forgotten his identity. He sat there hapless and helpless till someone reminded him of his true identity. Once reminded of his real identity, he went on to take the big leap… a leap that could take him across the ocean!

Perhaps we are all waiting for someone to remind us of our true identity, someone to prompt us about our duty. Should we continue to wait till much has been lost? In fact we have become so lazy that we do not want to do anything on our own. We have to be reminded of our duties every now and then.

Think of an office where none of the staff has been assigned a job. What confusion would this create? The situation would be no different even if the staff had been assigned their jobs, but were totally ignorant of it. The world office is a similar place. Its entire staff has been assigned their tasks, but it is for them to realize it. If we keep ourselves ignorant, there will be anarchy and mayhem everywhere. Should we wait to be dictated and let the chaos occur, or should we try to find out our duties and set the world in order? This is for us to decide.

Most conflicts are the result of our assumed identities – I am a Hindu, he is a Muslim. I am an Indian, he is a Pakistani. I am a Catholic, he is a Protestant, and so on and on. Can I not give away my identity as a Christian and adopt Islam? Can I not leave India to settle in Australia? If none of these identities is permanent, then why do we quarrel over it?

A sect of Hindus believes that the God is formless; so do the Muslims. Still the two share hatred between them. Unfortunately, the temples and the mosques, the churches and the synagogues that are the creations of mankind, become the worst enemies of mankind.

We ‘created’ God to give us assurance in times of distress and conflict, but unfortunately the same god has become the cause of our conflicts and leads us to distress. How can someone who fails to realize his own identity recognize the identity of the Almighty? We should and must know that any of these assumed identities is not our absolute identity.

The irony is that we know this all too well and yet fail to realize it and continue to differentiate ourselves as Rama or Rahman, Israelis or Palestinians, Shiites or Sunnis, which merely conceal our absolute identity and divide us in line with our assumed ones.

We must not forget that to discover and maintain our identity requires work. Without it, we get muddled, diluted and eventually ‘washed out’. To quote Lord Buddha: Your purpose in life is to find your purpose and give your whole heart and soul to it.

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My article in Prabhat Khabar

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Leaders win; People lose

Sri Rajnath Singh, President- Bhartiya Janta Party, admitted that winnability of a person was considered while finalizing the candidature and thus virtues were ignored at times. While our leaders win, it the people of India who lose! The present Lok Sabha elections has put this glaring fact back into focus.

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We have been hearing them shouting in the house. We have been seeing them fighting in the house. We have seen them taking bribes for raising questions. We have seen them tearing apart the law papers. We have seen them selling their phone and gas quotas. We have seen them selling their Local Area Development Funds. Now we also see them indulge in peep shows while the house is engaged in debate. This is the kind of people we vote to power; but then this is the kind of people our political parties field in the elections!

The status of the parliamentary institutions has eroded as never before. Its reputation has attained an all time low. Are our political parties bothered? Are we worried? It is indeed a matter of grave concern that while these political parties promise a clean political environment collectively, individually their sole objective is to field…

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An article on AAP

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Change did happen overnight Anna!

I had written this blog in January this year on a skeptical note. The title read ‘Change does not happen overnight Anna!’ The recent results of Delhi Polls have proved me wrong thankfully! It will be good to recall how the things changed for good. Now I can say with pride ‘Change does happen Anna!’ though not overnight, because I know and so do the others that Arvind Kejriwal and his team did put in those extra efforts to make short this historic war. Well done!

Factfully yours

It is good to note that Arvind Kejriwal has asked for suggestions from the general masses. His appeal comes after his meeting with Anna Hazare, so it will not be wrong to believe that this initiative has the approval of the veteran leader. Here is what Kejriwal had to say, “If we do not go for the tour of election bound states, what should we do? Should Anna go for another fast? The government has already indicated if people participation in the movement don’t translate into votes, they don’t care. Some have suggested that we should form our own party. But we neither have the will nor the capacity. This is a people’s movement. The movement was successful because they participated. The people should now suggest the way ahead.”

In spite of this I do not know for certain if Arvind or Anna really wants any suggestions. To invite suggestions…

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Why VISAs are being refused to Indians?

And the latest is Baba Ramdev…. Isn’t it high time that the Foreign Ministry, Government of India looks into the matter? But are we strong enough on the external affairs front?

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My VISA was refused by the UK High Commission in India. In fact, it has been refused for the second time in a row, whereas it had been recommended by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations of which I am a RAC Member; and was forwarded by the Takshila Educational Society, a franchisee of DPS, of which I am the President. The way UK authorities put aside the recommendation from the ICCR is quite surprising and shows the regard it has for the Indian Foreign Office. Needless to say that the diplomatic ties of India with some of the developed nations is at its ebb. Had it not been the case, the refusal of VISAs would not have been a usual affair. The US VISA refusal for Sri Narendra Modi and UK VISA refusal for Sri Salman Khan in recent past are some of the glaring examples.

It was not…

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