'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Mysterious Emperor, Mysterious Idols

"Aitihyamala is full of resource material for plays, poems, novels,... Read it. Then re-read it. And then, read it once more!" - ONV Kurup

"By the Beard of the Buddha..."

'Pallibana Perumal' was a legendary Perumal - 'emperor' - of ancient Kerala. He reigned around 1000 AD. Here is a portion of an article on him from the evergreen Keralan classic 'Aitihyamala':

"This Perumal, though a Hindu by birth, fell under the influence of some elements and converted to Buddhism. Kiliroor, now a village near Kottayam, was his residence for many years. The Perumal built a Vihara-like temple there and installed a Buddha idol; it showed the master meditating under the Bodhi tree. The long-bearded idol is manifestly that of a hermit. .... Perumal was an ardent Buddhist and tried hard to propagate his new faith among his subjects - and some of them converted out of sheer fear. He was also keen that the priests at the new temple be selected from among Brahmins. Some Brahmins did become priests albeit with great reluctance - they would take a purifying bath after performing the puja to Buddha....

After a while, some Muslims from Mecca came and settled in the area. Their leaders met Perumal with gifts and obtained permission from him to build a mosque. Some Muslim scholars soon established cordial relations with the ruler .... and well, before long, he left Buddhism for Islam. And Perumal was as pious a Muslim as he had been a Buddhist; he would spend most of his time at the mosque studying the Koran.

Though a confirmed Muslim now, Perumal remained devoted to Buddha and would often worship at the Vihara. When some Muslim elders quizzed him about it, he told them that the idol in the Vihara was actually that of Prophet Mohammed. Then the Muslims too started kneeling in prayer and prostrating before the Buddha - a practice that persisted long after the Perumal's passing (*) and even into the early 20th century.... "

Aitihyamala goes on to say: For centuries, Kiliroor remained a Buddhist pocket. But finally, sick of the mockery and ill-treatment from Hindus who lived in the surrounding villages, the people of Kiliroor decided to build a temple of Ayyappa alongside the Buddha shrine. That led to further complications - goddess Kartyayani ( a form of Parvati) revealed to a devout lady called Kothayamma that she would be 'taking over' the newly built temple and that she was okay with Ayyappa too being worshiped there - but only as a subsidiary deity. (Note: At least some serious historians say Kartyayani was a mother goddess revered by Buddhists. However, Wiki, quoting the Amarakosa, says the slightly different(if at all) 'Katyayani' is simply a synonym of Parvati)

I visited Kiliroor last week. The primary intent was to see the 'Bearded Buddha'. The village is located in the backwater district of central Kerala and the terrain is very flat except for a nearly 50 foot high hillock. The Kartyayani temple stands right on top; indeed, what we have there is a religious complex with a host of sub-shrines, including one dedicated to Ayyappa.

Here is a shrine dedicated to the Nagas; it is part of the Kartyayani temple complex:

I asked a few locals about the Buddha. They said the Buddha idol sits in a building that also contains a Krishna subshrine (picture below) but is no longer worshiped or even shown to visitors (no one seemed to know why).

One gentleman said the doorway leading to the Buddha has remained locked for at least 50 years. Another said the Buddha idol is not a proper statue but a relief carving done on a granite wall. There was also disagreement as to which door of the building (at least two appear permanently closed) leads to the Buddha. And as is obvious, the building doesn't look more than a century or two old and so cannot have been the original Vihara.

And yes, no one had anything to say about the Master's beard. Note: I first read the Aitihyamala story of Perumal while in Primary School. But it was only after its umpteenth re-reading last week that I contemplated even the possibility of Buddha sporting a beard - this despite Buddhism being a long-time favorite subject.

Outside the north-western corner of the temple enclosure stands this little edifice, empty and derelict. Wonder what its story could be:

The Idol that got Stuck

Just a kilometer or so from Kiliroor is Thiruvarpu. A varpu is a vast and flat bottomed metal vessel used for large scale cooking and the literal meaning of Thiruvarpu is 'holy varpu'. The place has a Krishna temple and this is its story, again from Aitihyamala (note: the Perumal has no role in this):

Legendary saint Vilwamangalath Swamiyar was traversing our backwaters by boat. At some particular spot, he felt the presence of some holy object lying submerged. He promptly dived in and fished out a beautiful Krishna idol and resumed his journey....

A short while later, Swamiyar wanted to take a leak and asked the boatmen to pull ashore. Now, he faced a problem. It was ritually unclean to pee while holding the idol; putting it down on the bare ground was also sacrilegious (and he didn't want to leave the idol with the boatmen for whatever reason). Swamiyar saw a big varpu lying nearby and put the idol in it and went to ease himself. When he got back, he couldn't lift the idol off the varpu - the two objects had gotten fused together!

Soon, Swamiyar called the local elders over and .... long story short, they built a temple there and installed the idol+varpu composite in the sanctum. And there they remain to this day.

At Thiruvarpu, I stared long and hard into the innter sanctum. The Krishna idol is substantial - about 3 feet tall - but it didn't look as if it stands inside a varpu. But an 'official' temple poster shows the vessel very clearly:

I asked a couple of temple employees about the varpu. One of them said I hadn't looked carefully enough and maybe even if I had, I wouldn't have seen the vessel - the adornments on the idol might have obscured it. The other gentleman said that the varpu exists but only as a 'sankalpa' (=concept). Another devotee wanted to know why someone would come all the way from Cochin to this temple to check out an old cooking pot, to the apparent exclusion of more uplifting concerns.

Thiruvarpu is famous for its 'neypayasam' and claims to be the earliest-opening temple in the entire country - everyday, darshan begins at 2 am. A glass box has been fixed on a wall in the temple enclosure and a tomahawk sits inside. An adjacent inscription goes: "Punctuality is of utmost importance here. If for any reason, the inner sanctum cannot be opened for puja at the appointed hour, use this axe to break thru any obstacle!"

The same gentlemen who had told me about the 'conceptual varpu' said: "By the grace of the Lord, never in history have we had to use that axe"


A piece of news: The sculptures of Subhash Bose park, the subject of our film 'Poo Viriyunnu, Poo Kozhiyunnu' (for new Readers, it is on Youtube - with English subtitles) are being restored and renovated - with just the right amount of fanfare - after a generation of neglect, decay and vandalism. Here is a picture from there:


(*) Aitihyamala goes on to say: One fine morning, the Perumal was nowhere to be seen. The previous evening, he had been seen at the mosque by many worshipers and nobody had an idea what had happened thereafter. Some suspected the Buddhists or Hindus to have bumped him off for his apostasy. Some said he slipped out in disguise and boarded a ship bound for Mecca. And some suspected he received an Assumption - was lifted up straight to heaven.


Note added on 29th Jan 2018: An article by Ajay Shekher, who is an artist and scholar, presents many interesting details (and speculations) about Kiliroor, including a photograph of the metallic Krishna idol that is still under active worship. That it doesn't look like a 'standard' Krishna or Vishnu is obvious - it shows a meditating male figure somewhat like Badrinath. But, meditation apart, it is not proper Buddha either - the figure wears an elaborate crown, not an usnisa. Let me quote a bit from Shekher:

The uniqueness of the temple is the relief of the Buddha inside a shrine now dedicated to Krishna. The idol of Krishna looks like a Yogic Avalokitesvara in Padmasana.... (and the Buddha relief) is on the other side of the wall behind 'Krishna'.

It seems there aren't too many around who have physically seen the Buddha relief - presumably it was openly visible in early 20th century when Aitihyamala was compiled. Shekher's article is silent on the Master's beard; and the Krishna-Avalokiteswara idol is clean-shaven.

Sekher says the temple "must be conserved for the whole humanity who value the life and teachings of the compassionate one". His article also has phrases like "the Sramana past of Kerala and its democratic and egalitarian cultures" and "Brahmanical aversion to a Mlecha (Buddhist) holy place". I am reminded of an old post of mine titled "Buddha, Pizza and India" .

Friday, December 15, 2017

Veda to Bhrantan

An earlier post here on the barber's profession had quoted from a vedic hymn on Agni, the fire god: "Agni eats up forests just as a barber cleans up a beard!". The other day, I saw in the Rigveda: "Ushas, the goddess of dawn, sweeps away darkness just as a barber shaves off unwanted hair".

Back in the 1950s, working well past his 75th birthday, Kerala's great poet Vallathol put together the first ever Malayalam translation of the Rigveda. A copy of this swansong of his - as remarkable a feat of endurance as of scholarship - has just come into my possession.

At a quick glance one observes that some of the most hard-hitting verses in the Rigveda are dedicated to the Aswin twins:

- "O Aswins, moved by the site of your devotee Gotama suffering from thirst, you uprooted and brought a well from far away and tipped it over to bathe him in a bounteous waterfall!"

-"When your mount, the donkey took the form of a she-wolf and approached prince Rijashwa, your devotee, he stole a full hundred sheep from his subjects and slaughtered them to feed her. And when Rijashwa's enraged father Vrishagir smote him with blindness, you restored his eyesight!"

Note: Rijashwa's eagerness to please the wolf is likened to that of a young man's zest to satisfy the cravings of another man's wife - with whom he is having an illicit affair. This is one metaphor even Kalidasa would find hard to beat.

- "When princess Vadhrimati, married to a eunuch, sought your blessings to conceive, you came down in person and sired the noble Hiranyahasta in her" (very Greek, isn't it?)

More on this thread in future posts...

'The Rigged Veda'. That is the name of a chapter in Shashi Tharoor's Great Indian Novel'. I had dismissed that phrase as just another of the empty puns that litter this mostly insufferable novel; but as I have just come to know, the Vedas can be - and indeed have been - seriously rigged by, of all people, their ardent devotees. For example, there is a hymn in the Rigveda dedicated to Agni that has the following straight and punchy interpretation: "O Jataveda (Agni), we shall now press out the Soma juice for you. Have your fill of this potent brew and go burn up our enemies' wealth!"

Here is a bit from an online page that translates the same hymn thus:

"To that Jataveda (one from whom the Vedas are born, the Goddess Durga) we press out the Soma (i.e. Invoke Her ardently); (We invoke that Jataveda) Who consumes by Her Fire of Knowledge (Veda) all the Adversities (within and without) (And frees us from the bondage of the world)"

Note: Durga is not a Vedic deity at all. And also note the additional Vedantic baggage that has been foisted on to the original direct supplication:


A quote:

My biggest disappointment when it comes to India is the education system. It should be far better. I don't want to be critical, but I do want to create higher expectations about it. - Bill Gates

Captain told me the other day: "I was at the Calicut beach and saw a group of lower primary kids being shepherded around the park there by a couple of lady teachers. In the park is a vast and shallow concrete basin with a little water and a dead fountain. A little boy asked a Miss, pointing at the basin: "Is this water drinkable, or is it salty?"

Miss: " This water has to be salty.... they must be pumping it in from the sea!"

Boy: "But then Miss, this water is so still. If it were sea water, should it not go up and down in big waves?"

At this point Captain pauses and asks me. "What would the Miss have said?"

Self: "No idea. But nice question!" Captain: "Whatever, the Miss silently gave the boy a sharp slap and he asked no more questions"


All over India, one finds women named after rivers and the Earth. Men named after mountains or the ocean or the sky are also legion. The other day, I made the acquaintance of a 3 month old girl who has been named 'Vasudhara'; the first and only instance known to me of someone named after a waterfall (Vasudhara falls are beyond Badrinath - a few kilometers past Mana village on the Satopanth trail).


I recently reread an adventure of Naranath Bhrantan, Kerala's crazy master of antiquity. It goes thus:

A certain smart loafer, having heard Bhrantan is great company, asks if he could join him on his wanderings and tags along. They soon come upon a feast being held somewhere. Bhrantan sits down among the guests and is served. His companion follows suit and has his fill as well. "Hey this is cool!" he muses.

They start walking from the feast venue and eventually Bhrantan says: "I am thirsty". "So am I" says his self-appointed friend. They look around and see a metal worker smelting copper. "That will do" says Bhrantan and gathers some molten metal in his cupped palms and drinks it with relish. "You too have it!" he says. Seeing his companion dither, Bhrantan says: "Look here, if you want to live my life, you need not only to eat what I eat but to drink what I drink!"

Some of my colleagues happened to tell me the very next day: "You have lots of generous friends; they give you books, they take you to far off places, they buy you nice gadgets,... why don't you introduce some of them to us, we too could do with some gifts!"

And I heard myself say: "I can happily share my friends with you provided you agree to share my enemies too - I have had several viper-like illwishers. If you can take both sets, it's a deal!"


While on Bhrantan and his admirers, here is another episode:

As part of his ongoing research project, Vimal was exploring the myths surrounding Bhrantan and his siblings, especially, the master craftsman Perunthachan. I went along on his very first field trip last April. The principal objective of that particular trip was to meet Dr. Rajan Chungath, who has spent several years studying - and writing about - folk traditions surrounding Bhrantan and his brothers. We had an appointment at 3 pm but reached Pattambi, Dr. Rajan's hometown by 1. Wondering what to do with the two hours remaining, we thought of Rairanelloor hill, where Bhrantan used to roll up boulders; it was just a few kilometers away so we drove there. Long story short, we had a very hard time trekking to the summit but managed, beating severe dehydration and cramps and the searing heat.

We got to Dr. Chungath's place bang on time. He asks: "You drove down here from Cochin... how did you time your arrival so well?" Vimal says: "We actually arrived here long back. Since we didn't want to disturb you before the appointed time, we decided to take a look at Rairanelloor"

Chungath: "Rairanelloor? What did you do there in this weather?"

Self: "When we reached there, it was just past 1 pm; there was plenty of time, so we just climbed the hill"

Dr. Chungath stares at us in disbelief, then laughs out aloud and says: "You guys are Bhrantan's men, well and truly!"


Ezhattumukham is a scenic spot on the Chalakudy river; the river is broken into several frothing streams by granite hilllocks and they all rejoin a little downstream. On a recent visit there, we spotted this:

The pristine white lumps are diapers, perhaps used, perhaps adult. Many more littered the bank, all spotless. Maybe they were dumped somewhere upstream and the river washed them up here, cleansed.


Thanks to Captain, I recently visited Kozhikode, a city where I spent my first six years. Waves breaking on the Calicut beach and the pier are powerful visual memories from my early childhood. The latter has since turned into what looks like a row of black storks.


A brief exchange I had with a social media friend:

Self: This idea of the a bullet train from Amdavad to Bombay is idiotic. We should be trying to develop the entire network... And what is the goddam point in going from Bombay to Amdavad in 3 hours when to go from Bombay to Blore or Chennai or Hyderabad - all bigger cities than Amdavad - by train will continue to take so many hours more than even intercity buses. Bullet train it seems!

Friend: USA has 2000 active airports. India too needs to get them and get all kinds of planes, big, small, tiny... and all should fly. About time we stopped caring about our trains. Indian Railways is just a job generator and vote bank creator - a means to win elections by doling out government jobs and filling SC/ST quotas!

Sunday, November 05, 2017

From Here and There

A poetic coincidence

Two images, so uncannily reminiscent of one another:

-"Time, thou glorious beam of Light awakening from the depths of the Cosmic Ocean!"

- the song 'Pralayapayodhiyil' by Vayalar from the film 'Mazhakkaru'; my translation.

-"The Edge of Breath, a sliver of Light, polished and burnished by the flow of Time"

- from the poem 'Portrait', by Malini Murali

The Metro, again

Has the Kochi Metro eased traffic congestion? Most folks answer this question in the negative. Along its path, the metro has cluttered roads with pillars and stuff and made construction of flyovers well nigh impossible so some offer the gloomy prediction that traffic woes are actually going to get worse.

However, as I have just discovered, the above question is totally beside the point; the Metro's intent is not to decongest roads. It aims - first and last - to give an alternative and quick means of transport; period. Earlier, no one had a fast way to get across the city. Now, at least some have a choice. To give a similar example, the graded, paid Darshan system at Tirupati does not aim to make things easier for every pilgrim - indeed it might make the wait longer for those who can't pay - but those who do pay will get quick service.

Two ponds

Here are two kulams (home ponds) from Monsoon Kerala - less than a hundred meters apart, they look very different due to the wildly different floating vegetation.

And it is not just the appearance. Shortly after the latter pic was taken, I had to plunge in and pull ashore the scummy raft of weeds - it became an experience reminiscent of what happened to Kuppu Achan on his nocturnal fishing expedition (Khasak).

Stoicism - A desi Parable ( as narrated by eminent poet Sugathakumari; I don't have any comment on it)

On a visit to an arid village in Rajasthan, I asked a laborer engaged in breaking stones:"How long have you been doing this work?"

"As long as I can remember!" He replied. "My father and his father were stone breakers too!"

- "What about your children? Do you not want them to go to school?"

- "I have a son. And he too will break stones for a living."

- "Don't you wish at least for him an easier life?"

- "An easy life? Even Lord Rama had to suffer so much. My son too shall face his karma!"

The unlettered laborer's words, to me, contain the quintessence of the Indian world-view - a world-view that enshrines such a beautifully detached and wholehearted acceptance of Life - the rock-solid foundation of our civilization!

In Dubious Parentage

"Leonardo da Vinci had the good luck to be a bastard. Otherwise, he would have been expected to become a notary like the first born legitimate sons in his family stretching back at least five generations." (from a biography of the great man I happened to look into today - and didn't buy owing to its steep price)

A French Physicist once told me: "Back in 18th century France, the word 'bastard' was an honorific. It was reserved for the king's sons by one of his (acknowledged) mistresses. If you are a bastard in 18th century France, you aren't quite a prince but a very important person nevertheless!"

And here is a bit from the B(ast)ard's 'Troilus and Cressida':

Margarelon: Turn, slave, and fight.

Thersites: What art thou?

Margarelon: A bastard son of Priam's.

Thersites: I am a bastard too; I love bastards..... One bear will not bite another, and wherefore should one bastard? Take heed, the quarrel's most ominous to us ....Farewell, bastard! (exit)

Margarelon: The devil take thee!

Metamorphosis - another parable ( I heard this last month and quote without comment)

A certain Jack was an alcoholic and binge eater. One evening, returning home from the tavern, he passed out at the doorway of his house. He suddenly had a stunning vision. The angel of death had come for his soul: "You Sinner, your present life has been such a waste! You are now dead! But God has granted you another life so you will soon reincarnate as a hen!" Soon, Jack saw he had become hen cooped up in a poultry farm. Remarkably, he could remember every moment of his just concluded human life and his excesses but couldn't tell anyone about his Fall. As he sadly contemplated his new station, Jack could sense something beginning to move in his belly. He heard a voice within say: "Time for you to lay an egg!" Soon, Jack the Hen could sense an egg roll out from within him - it was a pleasantly fulfilling feeling. Soon thereafter, another egg developed within and he/she prepared to let go of it....

Suddenly came a violent blow to the head and the feeling of a fog lifting painfully from the eyes. And the voice of his wife from his former human life rang out, yelling: "Good for nothing scum, you shat all over the doorway!"

A remarkable quote

"Even the villages in Kerala are more beautiful than the cities in Bihar" - Sushil Kumar Modi, BJP leader from Bihar, married to a lady from Kerala.

And this pic has been christened the 'Jyotirlinga' - a criminally bald English translation is 'pillar of light'.

Signing off: My writing efforts are feeling the burden of age. But I am very happy to note I used the word 'thou' for the first ever time today, just a few lines above this.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Maveli and Metro - an Onam Survey

As is well-known, the ancient (and ageless) king Mahabali (Maveli) was banished to the netherworld 'Pathalam' by the gods and visits (or is allowed to visit) his subjects in Kerala every Onam. And as is even better known, the Kochi Metro opened with great fanfare a few months ago.

The following pic came my way on Onam day. I circulated it among friends with a request for a caption.

Here are the responses (those in Mal have been provided with translations).


- "Ithinu Pathalathil stoppundo chetta?!" ("Does this stop at my Pathalam, Bro?!")

- "Kochi pazhaya Kochi allenkilum Maveli pazhaya Maveli thanne!" ("Kochi has come a long way but old Maveli is his old self!" - a parody of a very popular and very daft 'punch-dialog' from the Mammootty film 'Big B')

- "Ithuthanne njan pande swapnam kanda ente Keralam!" ("This is just what I always dreamed for my Kerala!")

- "Golly, this Metro thing wasn't there when I came last... real cool!"

- "Metro Mitram" ( 'sutra'-like in its alliterative pithiness, this caption is open to all sorts of interpretations: "A Friend for our Metro" or "Metro, your friend" and so forth ...)

- "Cool, maan! Should get this to run thru Pathalam too!" .

Note: two respondents have given the above caption. One of them adds: "Should somehow kidnap Sridharan!" (E Sridharan, engineer and bureaucrat has guided the Kochi Metro project almost since inception).

- "Metro comes to Pathalam!"

- "Maveleem kummanadichey!" ("Maveli does a Kummanam!". Explanation: Local politician Kummanam Rajesekharan boarded the inaugural run of the Metro with national leaders in apparent violation of protocol. Trollers coined the word 'kummanadi' for sneaking in anywhere without ticket)

- "And yet it moves (sorry old Gal!)!"

- "Hey, this actually runs,... forward!"

- "Looks like it can take you down to Pathalam in ten seconds flat!"

- "Dey Maveli Metroil!" ("Look, Maveli in our Metro!" - a parody of the title of an old comic audio cassette).

- "Bhagavane, Kummanom kootiyillallo!" ("Gaad, not even Kummanam to be seen!")

- "Thudangiyappozhekkum Poottaaraayo?!" ("Gosh, just started service and already about to shut down,eh?!")

Sunday, August 27, 2017

An August Miscellany

Alternative title: 'Miscellany in August' (What say, Kuro?)

How now, Blue Cow?

Looking out from the Delhi-bound Prayagraj express as it coasted between Aligarh and Ghaziabad one steamy monsoon dawn, I saw an unfamiliar animal - somewhat taller and leaner than a bull, dark coated and well-muscled and with small horns. It was grazing in a freshly planted field.

Here are some Wiki details on the beast, commonly called the nilgai.

For centuries Indian villagers have associated the nilgai with the cow, a sacred animal revered by Hindus, and the name ("gai" means "cow" in Hindi) indicates the similarity they saw with the cow. The nilgai is rarely consumed by Hindus due to its religious significance. Tribes such as the Bishnois traditionally take care of wild animals like the nilgai....

The governments of Bihar, Maharashtra and Uttarakhand have urged the Government of India to declare the nilgai as vermin... As the name "nilgai" appeals to the religious sentiments of Hindus, the Government of Madhya Pradesh has sought to officially rename it as rojad (Hindi for "forest antelope") and the Government of Haryana to rename it as roze in a bid to make their culling acceptable...

Wiki also says the nilgai used to be called the "blue horse" during the time of Aurangzeb. As per the official 21st century image of the emperor, he would rather have called it the "blue cow" and slaughtered it to extinction. And at least from a Malayali viewpoint (the reason for bringing in the Mal angle here will remain unspecified), to call a horned animal any kind of horse is utterly stupid.


New Delhi, which I walked over intensively on the same day, is a strange place. One sees many restaurants, the majority of them quite swanky (in particular, there are about half a dozen in a small shopping center off Pandara road) but none was open during 7 am- 11 am. I was told they start at midday and stay open almost till daybreak. Wonder what it could be about the daily routine - and nightlife - of the city that warrants such timings. Indeed, to my knowledge the only eating place functioning in the above time window in a two kilometer radius of Pandara road operates out of a shed behind a sarkari office with infrastructure limited to a single bench and table and without running water.

(Aside: Must also say it was quite pleasing to see roads named after Bhavabhuti (ancient playwright considered second only to Kalidasa by many) and Copernicus)

Wearily trudging back to the railway station past Connaught place, I saw this figure hovering over a still closed restaurant.

The irony of a dark, winged and hoofed purveyor of illumination struck me. Looking around Wiki, it was a shock to know that ancient Biblical tradition viewed the brilliant Venus or Morning Star not as joyous harbinger of a new day but as a symbol of the tyrannical king Nebuchednezzer and even the Devil himself. The later name Lucifer (="light bringer") rose from this concept.

On Identity

Another Bible, Grady ("the daddy") Booch's textbook on Object Oriented Analysis has this picture: "Every object has a state, behavior and identity"

One morning, at the elephant yard behind Tripunithura temple, I saw a freshly instantiated variant of the third portion of the above triptych:

Khasak and Translation Woes:

"Saar, aarum chaavaatha katha!" that was Kunhamina specifying the type of story she would want to hear from Ravi.

I recall struggling to translate the phrase: "Aarum chaavaatha katha". A literal translation would be "A story in which no one dies" but that's too clumsy. The problem comes from the unique way the genius of Malayalam (equally Tamil) creates an adjective like 'aarum chaavaatha'; English (or Hindi for that matter) has nothing like a counterpart. (*)

"A story without death" would be inappropriately heavy - the reason being that Kunhamina is an as-yet-unlettered ten year old girl. I could identify with her angst about mortality but injecting the abstraction of 'death' would ruin the direct simplicity of her demand.

I ended up with "a story where no one dies!" - strictly speaking, wrong because a story is no location in space. But the translation had brevity - and methought that is about as close as English can get.

After many years of dithering, I have actually bought the English version of Khasak written by Vijayan himself. And here is what the Master has made Kunhamina say: "a story without dying!"


(*) To give another example from the same ballpark (I owe this to old friend Anil), 'pusthakangalilillaatha vivarangal' is the type of phrase routinely said in Malayalam. vivarangal means 'matters' but the two-word phrase can be said in English only as "matters which cannot be found in books"!

Aside: Recently, I saw the Malayalam "akkarekkaavil" translated as "At the temple on the other bank of the river". The translation is bad, and inevitably so! Indeed, 'akkare' only means 'on the other bank' but does not specify the type of the water body involved - it could be a river or a 'kayal'. And to translate 'kaavu' as 'temple' is criminally inadequate. A kaavu is a very specialized Keralan sanctuary and all its character is lost in the bald 'temple'.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Allahabad - Impressions

"Behold the clear, wave-swept waters of the Ganga merge with the surging dark current of the Yamuna in an exuberant confluence that looks over here like a necklace of pearls studded with the odd sapphire, and there like a bouquet of water lilies and deep blue lotuses,... like a skein of swans with the odd raven, .... a moon-dappled meadow, slivers of azure sky glimpsed among shifting milky autumnal clouds and dark serpents slithering over swathes of white ash on Lord Siva's broad chest!"(*)

-Kalidasa in 'Raghuvamsham'

For quite a while, my world line was showing an increasingly worrisome tendency to crumple up and coil into the narrowness of Kerala with one northern outpost after another falling or withering away. Allahabad, mercifully, stayed stubbornly kind and welcoming; so I made a long overdue revisit there - hoping to rekindle old memories and draft fresh notes.

Note: This post cannot do justice to my first encounters with Drambuie, Kahlua, Cointreau, Jagermeister and Amaretto ('Amaratwa') - or for that matter with Limpy, Sleepy, Kuro and Rusty - so let this be their only - and honorable - mention.


Half a day's worth of landscape-gazing as the Duronto express cut thru Madhya Pradesh (Itarsi - Jabalpur - Katni - Satna...)was a reassuring return to the bracing openness of central India. The flanks of the Satpuras were green and tending to lushness with the monsoon having set it in but beyond the Narmada, arid barrenness seemed to persist indefinitely and life appeared harsh among the scattered hamlets. Somewhere, I saw a dozen or so vultures wheeling over an invisible carcass...

Towards Maihar, a tableland slid into view - and stayed; rising to a remarkably consistent height of about 500 feet above the plains we were traversing, its sheer edge kept at our side for a full half hour (let me leave an oxymoron here!). Like battlements of an immense fortress, occasional promontories projected towards us from the main wall-like landform...


On arrival at the huge Allahabad railway station, a strange mural welcoming pilgrims to the Kumbh Mela catches the eye:

Guess: the round-eyed, Jagannath-like figure represents Brihaspati (Jupiter) as he enters the constellation of Simha (Leo, note the lion there). Such a celestial transit, occurring once in 12 years is when the Kumbh is held. Jupiter being made to look like Jagannath (a form of Krishna) is not that big a surprise since traditional astrology often links Vishnu-Krishna to the planet Jupiter - of course, the why of it is not known to me.


Allahabad is a big city in a very advanced stage of urban rot. Terrible roads, non-existent bus service, uncollected garbage, uncontrolled crowds ... But it also appears to have started replacing the noisy, smoky 'fatfati' with electric rickshaws - a slowish but non-polluting public transport workhorse, something a congested metropolis like Cochin or even say, Bangalore or Pune, could very usefully adopt. And Allahabad has retained thousands of cycle rickshaws, some of which look a lifetime old. I would want these to make a comeback in other cities, especially those with level terrain and in old and close-built neighborhoods. IMHO, cycle rickshaws are an instance of 'appropriate technology' (a phrase I have heard being used by Professor-activist RVG Menon) and bringing them back makes far more sense than emptily preaching to citizens about the virtues of cycling.


To reach the Harish Chandra Institute, one has to branch off the Banaras-bound Grand Trunk road and endure 3 kilometers of absolutely godawful driving along Chhatnag road. The day after I landed at the place, a bit of rain fell and vast puddles formed over the worst of potholes. Three days later, there had been hardly any further rain but the puddles remained. I noted with horror, Chhatnag road (like many other roads in the core city) had no proper drains or even open gutters running alongside it.

Let me make a humble suggestion here hoping it would be read by someone wielding decision-making powers.

"HRI could consider adopting the Chhatnag road. Surfacing it would be a good outreach initiative from the elite institution and could set an example to the city as a whole. Perhaps a deal could be struck to the effect that the road be renamed after Harish Chandra.... And in case the above proposal involves too steep costs, the institute could fund digging gutters along this road and name them after the great man; that would send a stronger message than ceremonially renaming a road."

Note: Jhusi falls under the Phoolpur parliamentary constituency that returned Jawaharlal Nehru more than once.


The riverbank of Jhusi, where HRI sprawls over a big, green and well-laid out campus, is believed to have been the site of Pratishthana, capital of the Chandravamsa kings of deep antiquity. As Kalidasa relates in his play Vikramorvaseeyam, this is where King Pururavas pined for Urvasi sitting in a Ganga-facing pavilion of his stately palace. An elevated point on the institute's waterfront has indeed been named after Kalidasa. Viewed from here in summer, one sees a largely dried up riverbed with scattered remnants of funeral pyres. The institute has built a long iron-roofed pandal at 'Kalidasa point' - it looks somewhat like the sheds seen in cremation grounds.


As I walked around the Mughal tombs at Khusro Bagh, a tight group of kids ("urchins" as old-timers would call them) who had been generally fooling around, suddenly got together and barred my way. "Paise do!" - they demanded.

"I don't have much money on me" I protested.

The littlest of the lot said: "No problem. We need only ten rupees".

"Hello, that's a lot!" I said. "And so are we. Can't you see there are six of us?!" he says.

I knew the game was up. "Okay, I'll pay you ten bucks. But I want a pic!".


On M G Road, the artery of Civil Lines, the most developed sector of the city, a nearly ten year old girl put on a show of acrobatics - somersaults, handstands, tight-rope walking etc... - in a bid to entertain a sparse sunday crowd. Nearby, an itinerant barber, whose infrastructure amounted to little more than a chair and a filthy white table-cloth, plied his trade on the open sidewalk.


Google with "scalloped arch" and hundreds of pictures jump at you but I bet you wouldn't find anything quite like the scallops on the "false window frames" below. These are pictures from Khusro Bagh:

Pillar capitals from South Indian temples appear to have received some serious scholarly attention but Mughal pillars appear relatively untouched. Here are a pair.


A very worrisome 'development' in these parts is the proliferation of coaching institutes. Every major intersection in Allahabad has big bill-boards with pictures of some 'Tripathi Sir' or 'Sanjeev Sir' or 'Toufeeq Sir' or dozens of similar miracle-workers who can get your children into the IIT, IIM or AIIMS or thru the bank test or whatever. Among the more in-your-face specimens was a certain 'Master of Conceptual and Magical Chemistry' - no, not an alchemist but a purveyor of 'short cuts' to crack competitive exams. To observe that Harish Chandra was only the brightest star among a galaxy of eminent intellectuals nurtured and enriched by this once-upon-a-time educational hub, one feels immensely sad about a proud tradition getting crushed under the crassest kind of commercialization.


The brighter side: despite all its ills, Allahabad gives the impression of being essentially at peace with itself. There is no noticeable Hindu-Muslim tension in this very mixed city. Even its backwardness does not seem an unmixed curse - the bulk of Allahabad's citizenry seem strangely attuned to (not tiredly resigned to) life among unsurfaced roads, unplastered dwellings and uncollected garbage. They continue to revere (and continue to defile) the two rivers meeting at the sacred Sangam and refer to them with unaffected love as 'Gangaji' and 'Jamunaji'.


All over the city, on empty walls, pillars of flyovers, ... are written, fervent appeals to participate in the 'Clean Ganga' program. Most appeals were signed by a certain 'Dr. Deen'. It looked a great example of 'Muslim-Hindu Bhaichara' - 'Deen' (=faith) is indeed a very Muslim word. Later, one figured out this Deen is short for Dr. Deenanath Shukla, a very Hindu name.


Allahabad has a very good museum:

Have you ever seen a more contended looking pair of lions?

Just compare the pair above with this specimen crouching on the portals of the Napier gallery, Trivandrum:

Here is a Buddha(?) image from Kosambi, near Allahabad. Don't remember seeing the Master in a single 'Mundu' - admittedly tied in a rather non-standard fashion. Note: Roshan Alkazi's concise guide to 'Ancient Indian Costume' doesn't show anything like this garment; As Rekesh has just remarked, "This Buddha mundu doesn't look like a one-piece affair; it doesn't look feasible to wrap a single piece of cloth that way, and have two ends meet in an inverted V.... this is more like how Western teens wrap a jacked around the waist and tie it".

An intricate decorative piece from Bharhut:

And another:

Note: Dwarfs with fantastic flowers and creepers growing out of their mouths are visible among Sanchi carvings too (Sanchi and Bharhut are near-contemporaries - they were made around the time of Jesus with Bharhut marginally older). Although this motif appears to have soon fallen out of fashion in Desi art, it might have inspired the Padmanabha form of Vishnu - just as the snake-parasolled Nagaraja images led to Vishnu's 'Seshasayi' form.

In a piece written very long ago on the stirrup, I had wondered if sites like 'Sanchi, Bharhut ...etc...' might offer evidence for the full foot stirrup having been an Indian invention. Later, at Sanchi, I did see (on the profusely carved gateways to the Stupa) a couple of horsemen with foot stirrups. Allahabad musuem has at least one relief carving from Bharhut showing a horseman... It does not show any trace of stirrups but the rider's foot does not hang like a pure stirrup-less rider's either. A bit odd! (Sadly, despite multiple visits there, I could never see the reassembled Bharhut stupa in the Calcutta Musuem).

A very foreign-looking trumpeter from Bharhut:


And a strange bit of decoration - a hut, some outsized flowers...

Moving past Bharhut, here is a fantastic trio, presumably Bhoota attendants of Shiva from the ancient ruins at Bhumra in Madhya Pradesh (5th century AD):

Mahatma Gandhi in what appears to be half-trousers, pic taken while on a visit to Europe:


A pervert has been striking fear among residents of nearby villages. His 'style': to attack unsuspecting people with a needle and to escape on a motor bike. He has been given a quaint name 'suinochwa'. On closer scrutiny, this Korean-sounding word('sui-no-chwa') literally translates to 'the one who scratches with a needle'; it is a uniquely pithy, Avadhi compound derived from sui (=needle) and 'noch'(=to scratch). A similar example (very different in spirit of course!): medieval poet Tulsidas had the nickname 'Rambolwa' in his childhood - this word, a combination of 'Ram' and 'bol' (=say) means "the one who keeps chanting the name of Ram".


A splendid specimen from a private collection. He can keep Sukumar Babu's Hunkomukho very good company:


Towards the end of my stay, a spell of severe rain hit Allahabad. Here is how the Sangam looked as I set out to catch my train:


I boarded the Prayagraj Express for Delhi and stood for long at the doorway of my coach hoping to catch a glimpse, albeit at midnight, of Kanpur, a city I had never ever seen. As the train rammed thru cascades of persistent rain, for mile after mile, well over the din of the iron wheels - and not to speak of the patter of raindrops - rose, like a tidal wave that never broke, the full-throated calls of trillions of frogs which seemed to have descended from nowhere onto the Uttar Pradesh countryside.


(*)"..... and drifting a bit towards Varanasi, you see the ancient outline of HRI to your left, with its pantry making bad uttapams and near the 'torana', Jang Bahadur's shop, thankfully selling soda. It is related, four rabbits live in one of the houses nearby, and are fond of biscuits .."

Monday, July 10, 2017

"Tap .... Donnng!"

I write this from Harish Chandra Research Institute, Allahabad. As to how I got here (albeit temporarily), mum shall be the word, as of now.

The main building has two wings of unequal size. In the ground floor lobby of the main wing a metallic portrait bust of great mathematician Harish Chandra sits on a wooden pedestal (aside: I am not quite happy with "sits". A bust certainly can't stand; but it can't really sit either - or perch for that matter. "rests" too does not quite cut it). In a corresponding position in the other wing is a somewhat more modest bust of Girdharilal Mehta, who had founded the basic version of the institute around half a century ago. Here is how the former looks.

One evening, I was hanging around the place as usual and happened to walk by the Mehta bust. Out of a sudden fancy, i knocked on it out came a 'dong!' sound. "Oh, I see, the object is hollow!".

I was soon possessed by an urge to check out Harish Chandra too. One part of the brain said "Harish Chandra ought to be solid!" but as a confirmed experimentalist, I had to verify. But to do so, one would need to step over those potato-like pebbles (qn: btw, why do potatoes and pebbles look so uncannily alike?). I waited..

Late at night, when no one was to be seen in the area, I crept up to Harish Chandra and gave a firm knock on the finely sculpted bust ... and it emitted a considerably louder "donnnng!".

Suddenly, I heard someone snap into action with great urgency and was stunned to see a gun-toting security guard emerge from behind the staircase. Caught in the act, I could only mumble a "sorry" and slink away. Note: In hindsight, the guard actually looked more sheepish than aggressive (maybe he had dozed off and woken with a start) and must have been relieved not to see a superior officer.

One recalls another (and somewhat similar in spirit... and well, rather different in outcome..., but let's not get into all that!) episode of 'bust-tapping' from a Pottekkatt story. A writer is invited to speak at a college cultural fest. He starts early enough but happens to stop by at a liquor bar and gets sloshed. Reaching the venue rather late, he approaches the stage from behind. On the way, he passes the green room and sees someone looking like a richly dressed woman emerge. Suitably impressed, the writer greets the 'chap': "Nice makeup. You look the real deal!"; then he goes closer and asks:"and by the way, what you got here, ... coconut shells?" and checks with a firm tap!

And the only comparable international 'literary' episode I could recall in a similar vein is Captain checking out on a big, long 'dharma trumpet' in 'Tintin in Tibet'.