On the footsteps of the Thevan

Not Shivaji’s Periya Thevar nor Satyaraj’s Balu Thevan but the one and only Kalki’s Vanthiya Thevan. To me, he is the quintessential, Tamil hero, flawed but endearing. Ever since having the 5 volumes read out to me as a kid, I have dreamed of making a trip to all the places Vanthiathevan went through in this historical fiction. Finally, two winter’s ago, I decided to fulfill that dream. Naturally, such a decision called for a careful re-reading of the text while mapping all the places and of course such a course is doomed to fail. First, there was the time crunch, which resulted in delegation of the project to my mom. Second, the difficulty in accurately identifying said places, what with many of the old towns acquiring new names and not unique ones either. And finally, although modern modes of transportation ensures that the year long journey that Vandiyathevan took in the book, can be considerably shortened, only the possession of Hermione’s Time Turner would have enabled me to finish the trip in the three days I had at my disposal. So bowing down to the pressure of realism, we decided to just do Thanjavur.

Apart from the Ponniyin Selvan reference, the other images that Thanjavur conjures up are those of jeweled paintings and rich Tamil literary heritage. However, I was completely unaware of its Maratha heritage.  It turns out that a descendant of Shivaji* put down his roots way down south in Thanjavur, ousting the Nayaks, who were the remnants of the once powerful Vijayanagara Empire. These latter day dynasts, integrated Telugu and Sanskrit into the cultural outpouring from the area.

We reached this culturally rich town, late at night to the accompaniment of loud horns and dense exhausts from all kinds of vehicles stuck in a back to back traffic congestion that can only be rivaled by Chennai at non-peak hours. We stayed at the Oriental Towers which is not precisely the center of the town, but close enough to most of the places we wanted to be. The hotel lobby is huge, very well maintained, but incredibly ill lit. I think they took the idea of recessed lighting to new depths**. However, the staff was really very efficient and courteous, setting us up in our room quickly and efficiently despite the late hour. The room was spacious, neat and the bathroom was clean. They set up a truckle bed for us, which was a bit rickety, but acceptable. The only problem was the bed linens, which were well worn and one of them tore as I put my food through it. But the housekeeping was accommodating and gave us new (er) sheets.

We woke up early next day to a foggy morning and had breakfast at the adjoining restaurant.

foggy morning out the hotel window. Periya Kovil in the distance

foggy morning out the hotel window. Periya Kovil in the distance

I am sure the food was tasty, it was Chettinad cuisine, but was too spicy for my Chennai mouth. So with burning mouths and hungry stomachs we made our way to the Brihadeeswara Temple or Periya Kovil.

Periya Kovil, which is perhaps the centermost site of attraction in Thanjavur, is a UNESCO world heritage centre and thanks to this distinction, is incredibly well maintained. I have not seen a better kept temple in all of TN***, with hardly any trash littering the site and more importantly no paan stains. Even more significant was the fact that they have wheelchairs available for rent at the temple for the mobility challenged. But like all good things, this comes with a caveat too. The wheelchair is something from perhaps the first generation of wheelchairs. This one had two large wheels at the back legs and two pointy stubs at the front, such that the only way to wheel the wheelchair, was to tilt the chair and its occupant on to its back wheels while pushing the whole contraption forward. Given that the chair was made of wrought iron or something equally heavy, it required a body builder to wield it! But thankfully this was India, so there was no dearth of said body builders, or at least men strong enough to push a 100 ton wheelchair with a 10 ton occupant for a reasonable price.

Having safely navigated the wheelchair situation we entered the main entrance with its impressive Gopuram whose walls were engraved with essays about the building of the Temple, none of which we could decipher even though it was written in Tamil.

Gopuram Vaasal inscriptions. See if you can make out what it says

Gopuram Vaasal inscriptions. See if you can make out what it says

The Gopuram itself is incredibly huge and wonderfully sculpted. It was the Grand Canyon of south Indian temple Gopurams, so high that looking up at it gave me a crick in the neck, so could only get pictures of it in parts.

Rajarajan Gopuram

Rajarajan Gopuram

This main Gopuram leads to an inner entrance which is in direct line with the Nandi Mandabam and the Brihadeeswarar sannidhi. Keeping in line with the colossal scale of the temple, the Nandi is equally huge and imposing, apparently carved of one single rock.

Inner Gopuram

Inner Gopuram



view of Rajarajan Gopuram from Nandi Mandabam

view of Rajarajan Gopuram from Nandi Mandabam

The Brihadeeswarar Sannidhi, true to its name is the tallest one in the complex. The outside walls are filled with carvings of various Gods and Goddesses not to mention dancers in various Bharatnatayam poses.

Brihadeeswarar Sannidhi

Brihadeeswarar Sannidhi


Side view of the Brihadeeswarar sannidhi

IMG_6607 IMG_6608 IMG_6609

The Lingam inside is also big enough that you can see it all the way from the entrance. The inside however is quite dark, which I am guessing is that way so as to preserve the old murals and carvings that adorn the walls and ceiling of the  premises.

Glimpse of Ayyan from the entrance.

Glimpse of Ayyan from the entrance.

Faded Chola fresco at the side of the main entrance to Brihadeeswarar sannidhi

Faded Chola fresco at the side of the main entrance to Brihadeeswarar sannidhi

Chola sculpture at the side of the main entrance to Brihadeeswarar sannidhi

Chola sculpture at the side of the main entrance to Brihadeeswarar sannidhi

Not to be outdone, Thayaar sannidhi is equally grandiose and what was most impressive for me was Amman’s fashion statement. The saree was draped around her most artistically.

Amman in all her glory

Amman in all her glory

But what was the most impressive for me was the Aaradhanai Mandabam. All along the outer walls of the temple complex is this many pillared corridor, filled with murals depicting various stories from the Siva puranam (Thiruvilayaadal) originally of Chola origin, painted sometime in the 1000-1100 A.D. By the time the Nayakars came along in the 1500-1600s, these murals had faded and corroded away due to the soot from the oil lamps lit along the corridor. The Nayakars hence, painted over these murals thus adding their touch to this piece of heritage. Not to be outdone, the Marathas in the late 1600 to mid 1700, erected Lingams all along the corridors thus sealing the confluence of the three dynasties for eternity. The Archaeological survey of India, sometime in the 1930s discovered these frescoes/murals and found the two layers of chola/nayaka paintings. They apparently used a unique technique**** to remove the Nayaka layer and mounted it on to fiberglass stands and it now stands in the museum that is within the temple complex. Thus we can see the Chola murals and the Maratha lingams in the Aradhanai Mandabam.

Confluence of the three dynasties of Thanjavur

Confluence of the three dynasties of Thanjavur

Thus ended our trip of the Periya Kovil. Our visit to the Palace, Saraswathi Mahal library and Water Tower, to come soon. Here is the link to my pictures of all the murals. Please add comments if you know what is being depicted or correct my comments. http://www.flickr.com/photos/95381240@N08/8689535683/in/set-72157633373847110/

* his half-brother in fact, at least according to Wiki

** pun intended ;)

*** OK so all of TN, that I have seen.

**** here is the Hindu article that says more about this http://hindu.com/thehindu/fr/2003/02/28/stories/2003022801300600.htm

The Indian tree- Conclusion

(contd. from  here and here)

But some changes were not so subtle. People started to change. They were no more the mannerly people of Shigaguao, but they started to ask questions. Why should we do this and not that? what is the meaning of this practice? Why should my sister stay home, while I have to go into the wild? Why does my brother get all the good food that I make ? Why don’t I get to keep the game I hunt for my family but share it with others? Why? Why? Why? But there was no one to answer them. Or rather, the answer they got was not satisfying enough. The old ones simply said, because this is how it has always been which was not very satisfying and there was no other answer to be got.

The questions finally reached the ears of the King. He was kneeling in front of the altar as he always did these days when a whisper on a wind brought him the words of some young acolytes talking in an adjacent passage.

“…How can there be no more? How can we offend the Spirt Gods at this juncture?”

“I don’t know. The merchant only told me there is no fresh meat as the people of the city have decided to keep their game for themselves this year.”

“We must tell the King. This is atrocious!”

“But how will the King help when all he does is try to get answers from silence?”

The King didn’t wait to hear anymore. He had heard quite enough, really and realized that somethings can’t be achieved by just waiting. He knew the Manitou would grant wishes, but not answer questions. But he knew where to get the answers now. And so he went.

He went all the way to the marshy lands in the outskirts of his kingdom, on the banks of the lake. He went to Shawnee’s wigwam. He went to the Stranger. But of course he didn’t go alone, he was the King after all and so his cortege, his court, his ministers, and a lot of his people who were curious to know what was going on, also went with him. Thus it was that a year later, almost to the hour when she had first seen the Stranger, did Shawnee once again see a stranger walking toward her on the ice. And before she could think, “Oh not another one!” she realized it was not one at all but many. A very many, indeed!

Now Shawnee, like most of the King’s subjects had never actually seen the King. Once long ago, when she was only a young bride, a fair had come to the marshy lands. Well the fair had come to the fair cities of the kingdom and was on its way out when its path lead it to the marshy lands. Seeing the eagerness of the people here, some of the artists, pitched their tents and showed off their talents. One of them was a man who could create magic with chalk. He could draw anything and make it almost come to life. When he started taking requests from his awestruck audience, the first request he took was Shawnee’s. “The King”, she blurted out enthusiastically, “show us the King as he is in his palace”. And the man had. He drew the King, in his kingly robes, surrounded by his courtiers, and holding his staff with the large ruby glinting at one end. And that is what Shawnee saw that day as the King walked towards her wigwam. The ruby, catching the first rays of the Sun as it peeked out of the overcast sky, glinted at her just like it had glinted all those years ago in the man’s drawing. Fascinated, she watched as the King drew closer to her and asked her if she had seen the Stranger. Not knowing what to say (and afraid she would say the wrong thing), she simply pointed to her door and stood aside. “Yato Keca!” (that means change, you know, in Cahokian) thought Shawnee, “when a King comes to a Stranger, there is definitely Yato Keca in the wind!”

“So you have come to see me, O King”, said the Stranger. “And I thought you of all people would never do so”.

There was a gasp that ran through the crowd at these words. Some of gasp expressed anger and some awe, even though they all said “Look how a stranger addresses a King!”

“And yet, somehow I think you were expecting me, Stranger”, said the King, drowning out the gasp.

The Stranger simled a strange smile and moved and somehow the way seemed to clear out and he and the King were once more on the lake path with the crowds falling back. “And may a stranger enquire as to the reason for a King’s visit?”

” You know, Stranger! You have raised a lot of questions, I think perhaps, it is time for you to raise some answers too”

The laugh that came next, the people remember to this day. When the wind blows and the bare, stiff trees bend at their waist, the creek of their knees and the scratch of their many stiff fingers on the icy ground, is the sound of that laugh. It starts as a rustle and ends in a howl and by the time this ended, the people were left chilled.

“You still have to ask, O King?” the Stranger’s voice boomed. He tapped the King gently on the shoulder and said, ” If you have to ask, you will never know. It is not an answer given, but found.” And he laughed again. Or maybe, it was just the wind that picked up. No one could ever tell with any certainty. All they remembered later was that the fog had moved out of the lake and on to the shore and the Sun had long gone back to hide behind the clouds. By the time the wind dropped and the fog cleared, all they could see was the King standing next to a big gnarly tree. A tree no one seemed to have noticed before, and yet must have been there a long time going by the way its roots had dug deep into the earth and the branches were bent over the waters of the lake.

“Yato Keca!” Shawnee said out loud this time. And she had a great big smile on her face, like she had solved the biggest puzzle she had ever been set. And the King looked at her with dawning comprehension and smiled back . “Yato Keca”, he nodded and walked back. And from that day forth, the King learned to listen to the questions and find the answers within him and to be brave enough to change things as they needed.

And that tree is right there still, you see? It stands to this day on the banks of the lake, going from bare to fragrant with flowers to leafy to bare again. As constant as change itself. And that is what the Cahokians of those days knew for a fact, that nothing lasts and nothing can resist Yato Keca, that Indian tree.

Of Full Meals and Feather Beds-Chidambaram Part III

As we did not want another “continental” meal, we decided to try out some other restaurants in the vicinity. My trusty little guide book* from Fodor’s suggested we try the Hotel Annapurna “multi cuisine”. Apparently the meals were to die for.

This is a part of the Hotel Sharadaram that is near the bus station in the city about 15 min walk from the temple. We of course took the car and pulled up at quite a distinguished entrance, although at this point anything without peeling paint would have looked distinguished to our eyes. We entered a typical South Indian restaurant scene : steel topped tables, plastic chairs, waiters bustling about, the paan chewing manager/cashier ensconced in his elevated pedestal behind a wooden podium overseeing the whole chaos with an almost bored expression**. As I approached this demi-god to ask for a table, one of the ubiquitous waiters popped up in front of me like a jack-in-the-box and said ” A/c a madam?” and before I could reply, said, ” ippadi vaanga madam”. Since I figured anything was better than standing in everybody’s way, we rushed to follow our little guide. He opened the glass double doors on the other side of the entrance and I was met with a blast of cold air. After refusing what apparently was prime spots right under the blasting A/C we chose one as far as we possibly could, right next to one of the large windows looking out at a pretty little garden at the back of the hotel. It was a relatively quiet time and the waiter, doorman, manager*** were all clustered around us waiting with bated breath for our orders. Unable to take the pressure, my dad decided to escape to the restroom, followed quickly by my mom. Finally, my parents decided to have full meals****, but as I wanted to test the authenticity of the “multi cuisine” label, I ordered the vegetarian chow mien. The meals arrived in time, steaming hot, with fragrances that made your mouth water. It was not until they were half way through the thair sadam, did the chow mein make its appearance. Word to the wise, if your meal takes way too long to get to the table, you can guarentee you will be dissappointed. Infact the longer it takes the greater the dissappointment. My chow mein was noodles with boiled vegetables, with maggie masala drizzled on top. I managed to salvage my dining experience, however, by appropriating my parents’s icecream sundae by claiming the age-old adage that old people should not eat ice-cream.

After such a sumptuous meal, of course they wanted to take a siesta, but the thought of sharing your bed with the mosquitos somehow didnt appeal to them. So I thought why not try for a room where we were, in Hotel Sharadaram? I had already called earlier in the week to see if they had any rooms available and they had said no, but I thought maybe seeing us in person might make all the difference. So I put on my most pathetic orphan-cast-upon-the-world look and approached the front desk. They still had no rooms. Seeing the disappointment on my dad’s face, however, the kind lady asked doubtfully if we would perhaps care for a suite? Until then I was unaware of the existence of suites and further enquiry led to the information that a suite gets you the added luxury of a center table with TV, but a standard double room with AC gets only two double beds and a night stand. How could we refuse? So suite it was.

Compared to Hotel Akshaya, Sharadaram was bright and sunshiny with wide stairs , decent size elevator, wide windows and if not exactly clean smelling at least not musty smelling rooms. In fact our suite had a balcony, which thrilled my mom because she could now wash some clothes and hang them out to dry, but disappointed me as it looked on to the bus stand. Notwithstanding these minor deficiencies the room was quite roomy (heh heh), the bathroom clean and the bed linen well washed and free of cigarette smoke. Moreover, the staff were super helpful and efficient. Our hot water geyser did not work and they immediately called in an electrician and fixed it for us and even got us hot water from the next room, in case we needed it in the meantime. So while my dad had a nice long siesta nap, my mom and I went back to the Periya Kovil, to be tourists this time.

We also made the trip to Thillai Kalli Amman temple that day, through the worst roads I have yet had the misfortune to travel. As if driving over potholes was not enough, we had to squeeze our little Indica over the bushes and boulders over the side of the road to make way for the huge busses carrying truck loads of red clad Amman devotees. It turned out that we were visiting an Amman temple in the middle of some major season, so not only the way but the entire temple was filled to the brim with devotees clad in red, dipped in red and spewing red all over the place. I have no recollection of actually seeing the idol or any other aspect of the temple other than leaping over paan stains, escaping being scorched by the fiercely burning oil lamps on the floor while all the while avoiding bumping into people clutching Neem leaves. After all these misadventures I was so happy to get back to the lovely hotel room in Sharadaram which for all it overlooked the bus stand, had a cosy, clean bed and nary a mosquito in sight.

* Yes, I am a tamizhacchi from Tamil Nadu and I needed a guide book, so sue me :P

** You might see his clone at any Saravana Bhavan (including the ones abroad) and they all have the same identical expression. Like they are having an out of body experience and I for one think that look ought to be patented.

*** This was a different one. He wore a suit and had the most gracious expression.

**** Ahhh…what can I say about that full meals: it had 2 kuzhambus, 1 rasam, 2 curries, 1 kootu, unlimited applam and vadam and rice, thair, thogaiyal, pickle, chappathi and sabzi, 1 banana, coffee or tea and ice cream sundae.

Vinn Uyer Gopurum: Chidambaram-Part II

Most Christians, it is said,  prefer to go to the same church all their lives and if they move, then pick one in the new city and stick to that. Not so with most Hindus I know. The more temples we visit on a regular basis, the better we feel about it. But although I have visited many temples, when I think of praying or am in want of serenity and peace I always look to the one temple that we used to visit as a family when we were kids. No other temple gives me that uplifting feeling of being in the presence of something greater than humankind, the feeling of being protected, an almost proprietary feeling*. So when I undertook this journey, it was more for the historical and architectural significance of the temple than to fulfill any spiritual need.

Despite the filth surrounding the temple and the extremely aggressive beggars near the gates, a sight of the Gopuram

was enough to assure me that there was plenty of material here to quench my architectural fervor and fill up my camera’s memory card. There was some renovation going on, and so they had dug up the path from the entrance to the first gopuram, but as it was Kovil premises, footwear was not permitted. So we had to trudge on sharp stones and powdered gravel while dodging paan spit stains and dog/cat/cow urine and fecal matter on our soft, recently pedicured feet. All this looking down, I missed the first entrance and its Gopuram before I looked up.

But once I was in, the view was stunning. Everywhere one turns there were

walls covered in statues, or murals, floors with painted, intricate kolams and row upon row of pillars. It is impossible to describe the inside of the temple as it is almost too overwhelming to take in any details, you only have the impression of vastness. The first Praharam, or circle you enter is called the Raja Sabai and houses the Ayiram Kaal Mandabam. It is purported that the Chola Kings had their anointing and crowning ceremony here. It is also the last place the Utsava Murthy (procession deity) and the “divine slipper”** is taken around before the God retires to bed for the night. It holds the Siva Ganga tank and the point from which you can see all the four Gopurams in one go.

The next concentric circle is the Deva Sabai as it includes the abodes of the other deities including the Lord’s children and more significantly for me, Patanjali and Vyaghrapada (the snake and tiger rishis for the irreverent). It is significant for me, because it was at this Sannidhi that the attendant Dikshitar shattered my most cherished historical anecdote***.

In NandanAr Charitram of my memory, moved by Nandan’s pathos filled song of being unable to obtain the Lord’s darshan because of the Nandi blocking his sight, the Lord in turn moves the Nandi a few feet to the side in Chidambaram thus enabling Darshan and hence mukthi for Nandan. Thus in Chidambaram Kovil, so my memory told me, I will see the Nandi not directly in front of the God, but to the side. Only problem was that in Chidambaram, each Gopura vAsal lead to a praharam which ended in a huge Nandi in a cage in front of the Ayyan Sannidhi. I asked my mom which one was The Nandi and after thinking for a few minutes she confidently points to the one at the east Gopura vAsal and says this has to be it and goes into complicated explanations in which astronomy, shastras and folklore butted heads indiscriminately. Getting thoroughly confused, I finally screwed up courage and asked the Dikshitar at the above mentioned shrine **** the Nandi question. He listened to me blankly and said without batting an eyelid that Thirupunkoor was the place Nandanar  got his first darshan, thanks to the displaced Nandi and Chidambaram was where he attained mukhti. As I was just about to refute this blasphemy, my mother, the traitor, chips in and says “Oh yes! that is why they say “Thirupunkoor ill saayntha nandi”” like she had known it all along!

But I am getting ahead of myself. In the morning while trying to take in the enormity of the architectural marvel that was the temple, I was told we were getting late to witness what we came for i.e., to me boring, puja. But boy was I wrong!

The minute one enters the Kanaka Sabai, there is a perceptible change in the mood. While in the outer praharams, it is all about loitering people with cameras or just loiters (including a few bored dogs and cows) the inner praharam is all business. The first thing you see is the crowd concentrated towards the entrance of the Chit Sabhai. But they don’t overwhelm you like in other temples, possibly because, instead of the raucous noise of a crowd or shlokas blaring from a megaphone, you hear a group of Dikshitars reciting the Vedas in perfect cadence. Because the group is large and the rendering is in perfect unison, there is no need for sound amplification and the effect is entirely spiritual. Moreover at specific times during the day’s puja, the Oduvaars circle around and blow the Conch and Pambai at each entrance to the Chit Sabhai while singing the Thevaram and ending with a “Sivane, Sivane” in unison. The combined effect of the chanted Vedas and the musical Thevaram is nothing if not surreal. It gives a new meaning and vigor to the age-old puja vidanam practices, that are a little too stale for my jaded senses. I spent a blissful 3 hours attending the religious events of the day that included the Spatika and Maragatha Lingam Abhishekam. I must say I was a little disappointed by the Chitambaram Rahasiyam, but that could be because I had hyped it up a lot in my mind that nothing short of scintillating lights and fireworks would have satisfied me.

After witnessing the Archanai, Aaradhanai and Neivadyam, we made our way to the Govindaraja Perumal sannidhi to be underwhelmed and shortchanged on the Kalkandu and Prasadam. But I can’t really blame them as Koothanar is a tough act to follow. We then ascended the Natana Sabai and saw the UgraThandavar. Legend has it that in a dance face-off with UmaiyaL, Nataraja won the contest by lifting his leg and touching his head with his big toe. Upset at losing the competition, the goddess packed up and left to her own abode, which is now the Tillai KaLi Amman temple. Legend goes on to say that to appease the goddess, Nataraja has decreed that the spiritual brownie points that one receives from visiting the Periya Kovil in Chidambaram can only be actualized after the person has also visited Tillai KaLi temple before leaving the town. But since it was close to lunch time and we were more interested in calories in the present life than brownie points for future ones, we headed out in search of food.

* I realize this partiality is tainted by nostalgia but whatever the cause, the feeling is honest enough.

** I am sure there is an authentic sanskrit term for this, I am just too bored to Wiki it.

*** Oh don’t nitpick. What is mythology for one is history to another!

**** Mainly he was the only one who seemed approachable and free at that time. Besides he didn’t seem like he would solicit us for money like all the other Dikshitars were only too keen on doing.

Kaana Vendamo- Chidambaram-Part I

Setting out from Chennai, in a hired car with driver, is perhaps the best way to explore nearby areas. It gives you the flexibility of stopping where you want, and also of picking your own route. We set out on a bright sunny, winter’s day and went through Pondy, so as to be able to incorporate a siesta during the journey. We stayed at a guest house, right in the middle of “downtown” Pondy called Meeranjali. It was the best decision that day. First of all a little about the guest house: Clean, quite and ultra helpful hosts. It is only a few streets away from the ocean front and less from the Nehru park and so ideally situated for tourists. But being in a residential part of town it is in a very quite neighbourhood and so perfect for a good night’s sleep (or afternoon for that matter!).

After a quick lunch at a local restaurant, a quicker tour of the Ashram and the Vinayakar temple and a protracted tour of the few local shops and a gigantic nap, we headed out straight for the first big stop of the tour: Chidambaram. For anyone born in a shaivaite, Tamil family and raised on a healthy dose of Nandanar charitram and bharatanatyam classes, Thillia needs no introduction. For everyone else, there is this.

Earlier in the week, I had done my research of the local hotels near the temple, called a few and booked a room in the Akshaya Hotel as the guy who picked up the phone had the best manners*. But when calling him on the way out of Pondy to confirm our arrival, like a true follower of Murphy’s law, he told me very politely that we no longer had the room.  Recovering from my mild panic attack and after making sure my co-travellers were  not similarly affected, I proceeded to employ the 4 arts of persuasion exemplified by Tyagayya’s Rama** and finally got to him. Ok, he said, he can get us a room, but the third bed will only be a mattress on the ground. By this time I would have agreed for just the plain floor. So all through the bone rattling ride through the state highways, I kept muttering to myself “there will be mattress” and after a really long 5 hour journey we turned into a tiny lane across from the temple. It was dark and dusty and bustling. By the time we got to the main desk from the car, I had sneezed 10 times, bumped into 5 different bell boys and walked into various furniture. But the front desk guy was polite, made us wait another 20 mins and finally squeezed us and our luggage into an impossibly tiny lift that took us the three floors to our room. And the room…What can I say about a room that has the stale smell of cigarette smoke and a layer of fine dust on the floor and an A/C unit that makes so much noise, it is like living in the engine of an exceptionally old lorry? I suppose I could have said “wow” but I was afraid if I opened my mouth the mosquitos would get in. But to give him credit, he did bring the mattress and more stale, cigarette-smoke smelly linen and made me a bed on the dust filled floor. We were so sore from the journey, we plonked ourselves on our respective beds and slept. Next morning, as we wanted to catch the early pooja, we woke up bright and early, me with a sore throat, the others with other sore body parts. I decided to brush my teeth in the basin that was conveniently situated just outside the bathroom, while one of us had a shower. Water clogged the basin. On the third call, the guy came to fix it and flooded the floor with used water from the basin and left to get a bucket and mop to clean it up, the basin was still un-fixed. An hour later, after two of us had taken our showers and narrowly missed skidding on the wet floor and a few intrepid mosquitos had laid their eggs on the basin water, he came to clean it up. To give the manager his due, he did offer us the use of the empty room next door, so one of us at least was spared the torture of tiptoeing over dirty water. Miraculously, we were only 10 min late for the free breakfast buffet of “continental breakfast-vegetarian”. Which included pongal, vadai, fruit salad (banana and pomegranate), bread toast and choice of coffee, tea or one fruit juice (grape or pomegranate)***. The good thing about this was we made up for lost time and quickly walked across to the Temple.

* Honestly, if you had been barked at over the phone, you would know how important a simple, mild “hello” could be!

** SAma, DAna, Bheda, Dhandam: gentle persuasion, bribery (in my case in form of words), threat and finally punishment. Only I went in the reverse order.

*** I believe the regular breakfast did not have include the bread and the fruit salad.

Odu Kaali Veedu Marantha*

My childhood was spent in TN, but that was just a location, background for all my memories. These memories are of attending school, studying, dancing, fighting with siblings/ friends/teachers/parents, devouring the local library books and generally taking life so seriously as to refuse to go out with my parents on any cultural/function gatherings. For that incredibly stupid attitude I paid the price of knowing absolutely nothing about my home town or state, other than what was in text books. This was not such a great handicap for the young, self-absorbed me, for I had the unshakeable faith in my attitude that entrenched, narrow-minded people have. But my enviable self-composure was shattered when I left that home town and settled in foreign land amongst foreign people who all then proceeded to ask me about myself and my home land. In the beginning I imparted my imperfect knowledge as pearls of wisdom until inevitably, and in an incredibly short time, I reached a point where I had exhausted all my knowledge and knew no more. From then to now, it has been a steady foray into the depths of my ignorance and the result is, I have decided to visit one place that is outside of my usual close family-relatives-shopping mall route every time I go back home.  As far as resolutions go this one was pretty successful. This past trip, I managed to “do” 2 cities in TN and visited a whole other state**!! So I have started this new “page” in my blog to tell you all about it. Yay, you!

* runny-legs forgets home

**Ok, so not ALL of it, but one big city.

Many Ramayanas

A book of essays edited by Paula Richman and published by Oxford India. I can’t remember where I heard of this book first, but I do remember it was something to do with some controversy in Delhi University about removing this book from their syllabus under right-wing pressure *.

I grew up during the dark ages in the deep south when, at least our house had not succumbed to the attraction of owning any means of electronic (or do I mean electrical?!) entertainment**.My earliest memories of my childhood are of my paternal grandmother telling us stories from the Puranas, interspersed with folk songs purportedly sung by the main characters. I also remember later on having my idea of the “facts” of the story challenged by my mother but just ignored these by attributing it to her blind adherence to her “maikay” version. But since I had heard my grandmother’s version first, I of course took that to be the authentic version. I also did not care much, because, well which self-respecting, “strong, independent woman of the world” would ever identify herself with the wimpy Mythili when there was the far stronger Drupadi just a yuga away? Then I found this book. Now I wish I knew all the languages and scripts so I can go read the originals of all the many Ramayanas.

This book is divided into three parts, each dealing with one aspect of there being many Ramayans. This book doesn’t actually give you the story in each of the many versions, but attempts (and quite successfully) to highlight the major differences in the many versions and discusses the impact of these variations on social, political and cultural leanings of the South Asian diaspora. Most of the essays were originally presented as papers in conferences. I am not sure if it is this reason; the need to not just be informative but also entertaining enough to keep the attention of listeners, but the essays have a very gripping quality. I have rarely encountered socio-political essays that have been so interesting as to want to finish the whole essay in one sitting.

The first part, which deals with differences in the major written versions of this epic, has three essays which help in setting up the tone of the whole book. The main one being the essay by A.K.Ramanujan titled 300 Ramayanas, around which this whole book is structured. It is an exemplary essay that pushes home the point of this book: that there is no one major text after which all the rest are just variations on theme. All these are different viewpoints of a set of events. How there are significantly different versions of any event in history depending on who you talk to, just so these different Ramayanas tell different viewpoints of the major events in Rama, Sita and Ravana’s life. My point of being entertaining and gripping is also evident in this essay as it begins and ends with a “parable” that apart from being entertaining also serves to drive home the point. The last essay in this part by Frank E. Reynolds, deals with the Buddhist versions prevalent in Thailand and compares it to the Hindu version. The major differences being idealogical; it purposes Rama as an earlier birth of the Buddha, and Ravana’s abduction of Sita is an exemplar of the birth that is caught in the eternal circle of Karma and drawn inexorably towards its own destruction. I found this very interesting not only because of the philosophical overtones in it but also by a curious “incidence”. I don’t know if this is true in all Hindu philosophies***, but the Buddha is considered as one of the avatars of  Shri Vishnu and here in the Buddhist Rama Jataka, Rama is considered the rebirth precursor of the Buddha!

The second part emphasizes how the different tellings are not only an attempt at reconciling the “inconsistencies” in the major Hindu epic, but are also the sole method of communication for an oppressed part of society. The reconciliation part is evident in written works and the essay comparing Kampan’s Ramavatharam and Valmiki’s Ramayan is brilliant. Not only does it deal with comparing writing styles but also with the perception of Rama. David Shulman, contents that while for Kampan, the Rama in Ramavatharam is God himself, for Valmiki he is God in human form, so part God, part human. Kampan’s Rama’s  harsh treatment of Sita after the fall of Lanka and Sita’s accusation of adharma is an allegory for the Lord’s fickleness in dealing with his bhakhtas and the latter’s remonstrations for mercy. But Valmiki’s Rama, being part human is never completely in touch with his divine nature (amenensis, Shulman calls it) and needs to be reminded of it by the Gods. Thus Sita’s trial by fire, is the catalyst that brings the Gods down to earth to remind Rama of who He and Sita really are.

The other essays of note in this category are the ones dealing with oral traditions. The Telugu women’s folk songs, as discussed by Velcheru Narayana Rao, brought back nostalgic memories for me of my grandmother’s songs. These telugu songs talk of women centric issues in the Ramayana with hardly any mention of the major events like the war etc. It talks of Kausalya’s pregnancy (apparently she gave birth standing up!), Lakshmana’s laugh, Kausalya’s mediation with Rama on Sita’s behalf, basically a good old saas-bahu story. I only wish it had more information about the songs sung by dalit women and also an appendix or citation of where these songs and their translation could be purchased. The other essay dealing with performance arts is the one by Stuart H. Blackburn, about shadow puppeteers in Kerala. Blackburn’s love and empathy for the puppeteers shines through in the brilliant essay written with so much humor and insight, that you can’t help but start looking for tickets to India to go watch their performance live. But unfortunately (thanks to my brief google search) this art form seems to be on the decline with not many patrons  coming forward to support it.

The last segment called “Tellings as commentary and call to action” suffers from the mere fact of following the previous section. I mean seriously, what can top vertical birthing and “neelam” jokes? But despite this, Paula Richman and Ramdas Lamb’s essays on Periyaar and the Raamnaamis was quite interesting****. The only thing I knew about Periyaar was that I turn left at his statue to get to the main road to go to college and that he once said, “paapan thotathu malligai um manakkum” which my father would quote every time my mother threaded jasmine blossoms from our yard. Thanks to Richman, I now know what a charismatic and gifted orator he was. He was witty and rousing and knew everything about crowd pleasing long before Martin Luther King Jr. ” had a dream” and Obama came up with “Change we can believe in”. Ramdas Lamb’s essay on the origin of the Raamnaami sect and the change that Ramcharitmanas brought to their social consciousness is an interesting read, but what I liked best was the qawwali style “takkars” that seems to have risen up from these bhajan sessions. If I can’t take in the shadow puppet shows of Kerala, these “takkars” should be doable.

Anyway, to finally end this looong review, it is a great book. Get it from flipkart for ~ Rs. 300, or amazon for ~$30. It should generate some interesting topics for discussion, if nothing else.

* I really don’t know much more than this. I am not even sure there was much of a controversy. So please to not throw literary stones at my figurative self :(

** In the said dark ages, these were called “transistor radio” much, much later came the TV.  If you think I have dated myself here, you are wrong, wrong, wrong!

*** It was not true in our house. Our golu padi dasavatharam set was conspicuously lacking short, bald, big-bellied statues with serene smiles.

**** It also contains essays by Philip Lutgendorf and Patricia Mumme. The only interesting thing about the former is that he is a professor of south asian studies in Iowa and his course involves watching bollywood movies. So while I was dissecting live cockroaches and sticking impossibly small pieces of X-ray films under their digestive tract, these guys are watching Sholay. There is NO justice in the world, NONE!


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