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Have a picnic in a living world

Tateru Nino

Where can you go to see a sea dragon, read art books, have your fortune told, and play music, all in the one spot? Well, Svarga in Second Life certainly has all of this. And that's not all you can do in this wonderful simulation.

The most wonderful things about Svarga don't show on the surface. You can roam the island for hours and still miss details - such as the variety of underground spaces. As with most virtual world sites, words and pictures don't do it justice -- which is part of what virtual worlds are all about.

Gallery: Second Life Places - Svarga | 21 Photos

Getting to Svarga is easy: if you're reading this with your Second Life viewer or a web-browser, just click here for the teleport link. Otherwise search on Svarga and teleport to the search result.

Either way, you arrive on a small island with a gazebo. Parked beside the gazebo is a small vehicle capable of seating two avatars, which runs a tour of Svarga. If it's away, it's giving one of its five minute tours -- wait for a few minutes and it will show up again. The tour is offered in eight languages and provides an overview of Svarga's features.

Having completed the tour (or if you are merely impatient or independent), you may either cross the water to the main island, or use the handy pyramid which offers a teleport directly to the Svarga store.

Svarga (स्वर्ग) is the Hindi name of a set of heavenly worlds where the righteous live in comparative paradise -- in some Slavic religions, Svarga is Heaven, and the home of Svarog, the fire god.

Svarga's terrain is gorgeous. Weathered peaks jut out of an eroded caldera, with watercourses running through the caldera and five islands surrounding the main island. The rock is well textured, greens and grays and browns with subtle patterns of a variety of fossils. Even underwater, these textures continue.

But it's not just the terrain that makes Svarga so popular. There are buildings in multiple styles, as if several different cultures lived here over time. Damaged pillars and large slabs of stone lie wrecked to the south, near a plaza and fountain in a newer style and in excellent condition. Another building some distance away combines Tudor-like woodwork with Moroccan detailing and conical towers without any of those structures looking out of place. But the dominant buildings are the central tower, the mountaintop gazebos, and the flying walkways. These are in a style I can only describe as Svargan.

And in all this, we have not yet mentioned the ecology of Svarga. That is the greatest work of its creator, Laukosargas Svarog. It's an artificial ecosystem. Walking around Svarga, you watch bees pollinate flowers, flowers releasing pollen and seeds, birds eating excess seeds, owls and bats flying at night. The thriving trees, grasses, ferns, flowers and fungi are all planted by 'nature' - their seeds blow in the Second Life wind, and only germinate if they land in a compatible place. Their welfare depends on sun, rainfall, and the type of soil they're in, just as it does in the physical world. The bees and birds survive only if there are enough flowers and seeds for them.

This type of semi-random ... well, organic planting gives Svarga a verisimilitude that a more planned environment has to work hard to achieve. Svarga feels more alive than many places.

Svarga is full of detail. The Tudor-and-Moroccan building hosts Elven percussion and woodwind instruments, which you and your friends can play. You select which of a range of rhythms your character plays. Individually, it's fun - as a group, you can jam. It's a way to jam without really knowing any music.

In the central tower, accessible only by the walkways (or by flying), is a reading room. It contains books with some of the art and photography of Second Life, and is well worth exploring. There's also a relaxing room above that, accessible only by flying.

On the southwest island, there's a picnic spot with mushroom chairs. The spot is a field totally full of gorgeous flowers, up to your ankles or even higher. On the northeast island, there's a platform which makes music from conversations heard on that platform.

A meditation chamber flies in the sky above Svarga, and you can ride a shuttle to it. Shuttle call buttons are outside the central tower, and on the platform on the northeast island. Sit anywhere on the floor in the meditation chamber and your Avatar will lie down and relax. Use Mouselook (first person) mode to watch the particle displays in the ceiling of the chamber, and listen to the relaxing music.

There's a beautiful underground grotto to find, and in another underground area, you can find a Confucian Oracle. Above ground, a campfire has been left unattended except for a rag doll. There's a hammock in a small gazebo which makes a great place to sit and chat with friends.

Also, look for the sea dragon (which we loved!), for waterfalls which can't be seen from the paths, for a second child's toy (the rag doll being the first), and for the odd little vortices in strange places.

Along with all of those good things, we have only a very few quibbles.

While there are birdseed vendors in various places in Svarga, and placing the seed on the ground is supposed to lure some of the Svarga birds. It never did for us, which may have been simply because it was the wrong time of day (late evening), or because the birds were full -- but it was trifle disappointing.

The sea dragon is static. In any other sim, this really wouldn't matter at all. But Svarga lulls you into certain mild suspension of disbelief with its subtle artificial life and motion, and the motionless sea dragon doesn't fit in.

Some of the underground tunnels aren't large enough for you and your camera. You can easily travel them in Mouselook mode, but not in Second Life's standard third-person camera mode - you end up with your camera behind the wall.

Svarga is a wonderful place to visit. Seek out all the interesting little nooks and crannies, then sit back and enjoy the ambiance of this amazingly detailed virtual place.

Gallery: Second Life Places - Svarga | 21 Photos

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