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

Sunday, November 22, 2015

What this November has Earned

Note: The title above is a translation of the Malayalam 'Novemberinte Nettam'


At the entrance to the Thattekkad Bird Sanctuary is a small garden frequented by butterflies. Stone slabs with pictures and names of butterflies have been kept around the place. One of them:

The name Jezebel caught the eye, as did the Mal equivalent: "Vilasini".

Jezebel is the Anglicized transliteration of the Hebrew אִיזָבֶל ('Izevel/'Izavel), She was a foreign-born queen of Ahab, King of Israel in Old Testament days. In these times of intolerance and discussions on intolerance, it would be interesting to know more about her and she earned the wrath of God. Wiki:

Jezebel went so far as to require that her (alien) religion should be the national religion of Israel. She organized and maintained guilds of prophets, 450 of god Baal, and 400 of Asherah. She also destroyed such prophets of Israel as she could reach....

Her intolerance met its match in the zeal of Elijah, prophet of the *real* God:

Elijah ordered people to seize the prophets of Baal and Asherah, and they were all slaughtered. The superiority of Elijah and of his God and the slaughter of the 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah, fired the vengeance of Jezebel. Elijah fled for his life to the wilderness, where he mourned the devotion of Israel to Baal and the lack of worshipers of Israel's God.

Long story short (read Wiki for more salacious details): "For these transgressions against the God and people of Israel, Jezebel met a gruesome death - thrown out of a window by members of her own court retinue, and the flesh of her corpse eaten by stray dogs."

Of course, her false Gods had no power to give the same treatment to Elijah.

Jezebel became associated with false prophets. In some interpretations, her dressing in finery and putting on makeup led to the association of the use of cosmetics with "painted women" or prostitutes.

So just like what happened to Lilith, a fiercely patriarchal society and its vengeful God turned a disobedient and proud woman into the embodiment of Evil.

It is a surprise why a rather moderately colored and innocuous-looking butterfly came to be named after the fiercely regal Jezebel; but Vilasini (which can imply 'graceful seductress') certainly is an interesting, albeit partial, translation. It sure is a lot truer than Desi turned American redneck Dinesh D'Souza saying somewhere that "'Nandini' means 'Holy Cow'"

Equally curiously, Jezebel/'Izavel has nothing much to do with 'Isabella'. The latter is the Latin equivalent of 'Elisabeth'. One notes in passing that to go from the la-sa-ba of Elisabeth to the sa-ba-la of Isabella is quite a bit of phonetic mangling.


The Brahmini ('krishna') kite is not exactly a rare bird. But in the zoo adjoining the Thattekkad butterfly garden, one can see nearly half dozen of these birds kept thus:

And right next to the kites is a 'Simhavalan' confined to a 10 foot square cage. I would spare my readers a pic thereof.


'Amritavarshini' in Ethiopia:

A promotional video often played these days on the Safari TV channel has visuals of an arid Ethiopian village with a presumably indigenous folk song playing over. The tune is just what one would call 'Amritavarshini ragam'( a nice film example is Ilayaraja's 'thoongatha vizhikal randu'). The correspondence is not really surprising. ... varshini is one of the simple pentatonic melodies (5 notes up the frequency scale and the same 5 notes down) and folk music across the globe favors such melodic patterns over ones with more notes - and more complex permutations among these notes. But this particular raga is associated with rains in Karnatic tradition and it sounds very curious (although by no means incongruous) in a desert setting. And yes, I remember hearing (long back) a set of folk songs from the Sahara desert country of Mali, all set to raga Megh - another pentatonic melody that can create the atmosphere of rains as per the Hindustani tradition.


A Vote that went waste:

A few days ago, elections were held to local governing bodies in Kerala. I didn’t vote because (a) my name was not on the rolls and (b) I had never bothered to get myself enrolled. But this story is not about my being apolitical or otherwise but about an election I actually participated in long ago. The trigger: A candidate in some ward of a nearby village scored a clean zero.

As I had written here sometime ago, the school where I studied used to conduct elections on party basis and they were fiercely fought affairs, the main contestants being SFI (left-backed) and KSU (congress affiliated). In our 10th standard batch, there was a three way election – a certain Stanley (a committed SFI chap), Anil (backed by KSU but whose ideology was little more than “I too want a slice of the pie”) and Ramesh (an independent). Stanley had been the leader the previous year.

The day before the election, they each addressed the batch in a soapbox session.

Ramesh the independent went first: “Friends, I am not a politician. I don’t promise strikes and shutting down the school like them; that is not our game, we are here to study. But if elected, I will take up all your academic and other difficulties energetically and interface with the management. Please vote for me”

Stanley: “Comrades, try to see one thing: has there been a single instance where any of your genuine issues was addressed by the management without our raising it vigorously, and if the need arose, shutting down the school?! I am sorry to say this but I pity you Ramesh, for toeing the line of the powers that be! Comrades, I promise to be with you, to fight for you straining every sinew of mine, to ensure that you get the best! I won’t be neutral in any issue concerning you and anybody else. I am one among you, I am totally biased in your favour, I am yours!”

Anil: “I agree with Stanley and not Ramesh, if the need arises, we have to agitate. But since Stanley has had his chance, let me have mine. Please vote for me!”

The votes were cast and the counting began in front of the whole batch. The first vote taken out went to Ramesh and there was a general murmur of surprise. The next vote went to Stanley, then Stanley, again Stanley,….

It was a landslide. Anil picked up some crumbs. Ramesh did not add to his tally.

I came face to face with a somewhat crestfallen Ramesh shortly thereafter. He said: “I had a feeling at least you would vote for me. I know you did not because my sole vote was mine.” I had no answer. I did not admit it then but I realized instantly that I had wasted my vote. Sorry Ramesh (he is the only one in this note whose name has been accurately retained)!


I sign off with impressions from a clay modeling and sculpture workshop for collegians that I got to watch over the last week:

Sunday, November 01, 2015


It so happened that a link to the song ‘Lilith’ by Greek singer Nena Venetsanou came my way(*). The name of the song sounded vaguely familiar but I first tried listening to it – and got seriously hooked.

Still under the spell of the Venetsanou’s rich, plaintive voice and the song's hauntingly dreamy flow, I went to the Wiki page on Lilith. With surprise, I realized I had been there just a few months back (and my fading memory had retained but the frailest shadow thereof).


Lilith (Hebrew: לִילִית‎ Lîlîṯ) is a Hebrew name for a figure in Jewish mythology, generally thought to be in part derived from a far earlier class of female demons in Mesopotemian religion.

In Jewish folklore, Lilith becomes Adam's first wife, who was created at the same time and from the same earth as Adam. This contrasts with Eve, who was created from one of Adam's ribs. The legend was greatly developed during the Middle ages - in the 13th century writings of Rabbi Isaac ben Jacob ha-Cohen, Lilith left Adam after she refused to become subservient to him and then would not return to the Garden of Eden after she coupled with the archangel Samael. The resulting Lilith legend is still commonly used as source material in modern Western culture, literature, fantasy, and horror.

So, Lilith is either the original femme fatale or the primordial Feminist icon or both.

Without quoting online sources, let us note that the mid-Eastern Lilith metamorphosed into our own ‘Lalita’. The latter of course, goes by the full name of ‘Lalita Tripurasundari’ and is one of the most benevolent and glorious of the 10 Mahavidya forms of the Divine Mother. Perhaps the most heartfelt paean to her is the Muthiah Bhagavathar krithi ‘Himagiri Tanaye’. Note: the Lilith-Lalita change parallels the Ishtar-Tara story. Of course, a dissenting voice just told me: "this kind of theorizing is like saying Homer wrote the Mahabharata before Indians appropriated it!"

India has traditionally been less fearful of the Female then Israel (“the Jews hated and feared the sexual power of Woman, embodied in the figure of Lilith and demonized it” as an online source put it) but we certainly have retained memories of the original fear of our middle-Eastern forerunners. Indeed, in several Kathakali dramas, Lalita refers to the appearance of an evil demoness as a bewitchingly beautiful woman - Lalitas feature in ‘Kharavadham’, Kirmeeravadham’, …. See here:

Further searching led me to another version of Venetasanou’s song with animated versions of (mostly) pre-Raphaelite paintings:

The visuals rekindled memories of poems learnt and forgotten in a long lost innocent dream time …. Before I sink further into Lethe, let me capture some images from ‘The fairies’ by William Allingham-


Up the airy mountain Down the rushy glen, We dare not go hunting


Wee folk, good folk, Trooping all together; Green jacket, red cap, And white owl's feather. Down along the rocky shore Some make their home, They live on crispy pancakes Of yellow tide-foam; Some in the reeds Of the black mountain-lake, With frogs for their watch-dogs, All night awake.


With a bridge of white mist Columbkill he crosses, …… Or going up with music, On cold starry nights, To sup with the Queen, Of the gay Northern Lights.

Note: As a child, I had memorized a good portion of this poem and would sing it in a tune borrowed from the old Hindi film classic: ‘Aajaa sanam madhur chaandni mein hum…’


And yes, ‘Dream Love’ - we will always have ‘Dream Love’ by Christina Rossetti, sister of Dante Gabriel, a prime mover of the pre-Raphaelite moevemnt.


Young Love lies sleeping In May-time of the year, Among the lilies, Lapped in the tender light:


Soft moss the pillow For O, a softer cheek; Broad leaves cast shadow Upon the heavy eyes: There winds and waters Grow lulled and scarcely speak; There twilight lingers The longest in the skies.

Young Love lies dreaming; But who shall tell the dream? A perfect sunlight On rustling forest tips; Or perfect moonlight Upon a rippling stream; Or perfect silence, Or song of cherished lips.


Young Love lies dreaming Till summer days are gone, Dreaming and drowsing Away to perfect sleep: He sees the beauty Sun hath not looked upon, And tastes the fountain Unutterably deep.

Him perfect music Doth hush unto his rest, And through the pauses The perfect silence calms:


Young Love lies drowsing Away to poppied death; Cool shadows deepen Across the sleeping face......


And here is a 'triptych': A traditional Keralan Hindu 'Nilavilakku' and an equally traditional Keralan Christian ‘Deepastambham’ with entwined serpents at the top (**) flank the Lady herself, as visualized by John Collier.

And I can imagine at least some of my Readers admonishing me: "Lilith? Don't be Sillith!"


(*) Thanks, Malini.

(**) Thanks, Rekesh.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Straying into Theater ...

A month or so back, I happened to pass by the premises where Prof. C.S Jayaram and actor Mr. Kalesh were conducting a theater workshop for a pretty large group of collegians. They roped me in as an assistant and I ended up seeing a lot of action...

The highlight:

"All of you just disperse in this hall, take positions apart from one another, think hard for a couple of minutes and assume the persona of ANY character you could think of and simply act out that character. No interactions among you, each one of you should simply inhabit the character you choose and just be that for the next 10 minutes. The others don't exist, each one of you should be in a world of his/her own."

Within minutes, the participants had settled into their respective self-chosen roles - one became visually challenged, another a beggar, a newspaper vendor, a prof, a toddler, whatever - and they seemed to melt into their roles, oblivious of what others were up to. Then, Jayaram Sir told me to simply walk among them, silently. I did so and within a minute, I could feel myself become a visitor to an art gallery or an installation. One began to gaze at each character with intensity and intent, subjecting each to the kind of scrutiny that would be strictly out of bounds in normal society....

I noticed with some surprise that two of the students had chosen to be hookers. One stood, leaning on to a wall pretty much like a classical salabhanjika. The other paced up and down teasingly, fetchingly. As I walked past the latter, our eyes met and... she gave me the eye.


A short play was staged to mark the conclusion of the workshop. I was asked to make a shock appearance as a hunter, whose behavior and antics were modeled on Batman's Joker(*). His appearance was a curious mix of hawk-nosed Mephistopheles and the filthy-bearded Kaattaalan of Keralan classic Nalacharitam (someone else thought it was Veerappan squeezed into Shikari Shambhu)

Whatever, the character reminded me of the phrase coined by Comte de Lautremont (Isidore-Lucien Ducasse) and which I first heard from Jayaram Sir himself: "the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella!"


Artist Nambuthiri was recently honored at a function held in Tripunithura. A documentary film on him by Shaji Karun was also screened. Though interestingly titled ('Ner(u) Vara', which could mean 'straight line'or 'lines of truth') and incorporating a poignant meditation on a stone Nandi sculpture at Mahabalipuram, the doc was not quite up to the usual Shaji class. Anyways, at the end of it all, as the crowd melted away, the veteran artist paused for a moment to contemplate the vacant hall - and I shot him:


Thanks to Malini, I have just come to know about the so-called Master of Hakendover and his wooden sculpture, "The Repentance of St. Peter":

The Rijksmuseum description of this work, executed around 1400, mentions its distinctly modern appearance, especially the striking composition with diagonal planes and converging cubes (Braque?). But one can also see herein a throbbing mix of drama and trauma that harks back to the famous marble group Laocoon (carved around the time of Christ). It is a matter of detail that Laocoon was not dug up until the 16th century and Hakendover might not have known of it. Whatever, I don't recall ever seeing a work quite like this.


Let me close this post with another picture that marks the ongoing dalliance with theater:


(*) for example, as he snares a peacock, the hunter would sing raucously:

"Vaayo Mayilannaa! Thaayo.... Mayilennaa!!"

(hard to translate but approximately, "Come away, dear bro Peacock, be generous to me ..... with your rich Oil!")

The hunter about to wring oil out of his putative brother, the peacock, is actually in pretty good company. For example, in a TV ad for some spice/masala, veteran actor Mamukkoya tells a bemused-looking rooster with great warmth: "Anne njammalu fry aakkaan puggaa. Anakku beshmonnoollaalo?!" (translation: "We gonna fry you nicely; you fine with it, right?". In a more literary instance, Old Santiago tells the marlin pulling him deeper into the sea (I am retranslating a Mal translation): "You are like my brother, noble fish, and I got plenty respect and love for you. And by sundown, I am gonna fix you for good!".

Come to think of it, killing has, at a very primal level, a fratricidal element. The primordial murder was brother killing brother whether it is Cain vs. Abel or Indra vs. Vritra. And the same theme reaches its highest pitch in the Arjuna - Karna showdown. Fraternal love and murderous rage appear poles of a horseshoe magnet... indeed, they are closer, maybe even the same thing.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Bernoulli, Drums and Tails

Bernoulli in Kochi(?)

The autumn of 1912. The big ocean liner ‘Olympic’ was cruising in the high seas when the much smaller ship ‘Hawke’ approached fast along a parallel trajectory. The two ships were a few hundred meters apart when something shocking happened: ‘Hawke’ suddenly veered from her path and seemingly drawn by an irresistible force, went straight at ‘Olympic’ and despite the best efforts of her crew to steer her away, rammed the liner. The damage to the ‘Olympic’ was severe. An enquiry held the captain of ‘Olympic’ responsible for the accident…. But the true reason lay in the real and very powerful attraction that can occur between ships at sea. It is but a fairly simple instance of the Bernoulli’s principle, an important basic result from fluid and gas dynamics….

Examples of Bernoulli-driven phenomena abound. Indeed, a fairly moderate water current of 1 meter/ sec can exert a potentially fatal pull of 30 kilogram weight on a man. A train running at a mere 50 km/hour can pull someone standing by the track with a force of 8 kilogram weight. But despite all the evidence, most people don’t seem to know nearly enough about this principle. So….

That was a slightly edited sample from Yakov Perelman’s ‘Physics for Entertainment’ (Malayalam version).

There is a lot of debate online and elsewhere about last week’s Fort Kochi boat collision that took 10 lives. But I saw no one pondering/approaching experts with this question: Did (a lack of proper awareness of) Bernoulli play a major role in this disaster? Was it all about the poor shape of the ferry that sank and the negligence of the crew?

Drums that Sing and Drums that Talk

S K Pottekkat’s short novel ‘Kabeena’ was where I first heard about the African ‘Drum Telegraph’ – use of drums to relay messages over very long distances. But the best description (known to me) of this unique technology is again due to old Yakov P (who also tells us that using drums for communication was not a uniquely African innovation; it was known to Polynesians and Central Americans):

In 1915, British archaeologist Hazelden was visiting the town of Ibada deep inside Nigeria. Throughout the day, he could hear drum beats from far and near keep up a persistent background noise. One morning, he saw some local Africans clustered in a heated and animated discussion. On enquiring, he was told: “A message arrived just now: Big ship carrying white people sank, many died”. Hazeldon did not take what he heard seriously but three days later, he was stunned to receive a cable on the sinking of the ‘Lusitania’. The Africans had heard the news right; and they had got it relayed down an immense chain of drummers stretching all the way to Cairo in Egypt from Ibada; moreover, the drummers belonged to different tribes who often spoke mutually unintelligible languages - and some of these tribes were even engaged in war with one another!

My reason for quoting Perelman on drums is as follows:

In the last post here, I put up a visual of an idakka player sculpture from Hampi and speculated a bit about the historical evolution of this much-loved Keralan drum. A few days back, I encountered, with some surprise, in a DK volume on musical instruments, the Japanese drum ‘tsuzumi’: “a small waisted drum; the player grips with one hand the cords that join the wide heads and squeezes or releases the cords to vary the note” (very like the Idakka, but smaller).

And right next to the tsuzumi was the picture of another cord-adjusted drum, this time from Africa: “The Kalengo from Nigeria is renowned for its ability to ‘talk’; the cords enable the drummer to raise and lower the note and the drum produces the sounds of a typically tonal African language (in tonal languages, the pitch at which it is uttered determines the meaning of a word)”.

And searching Wiki, one found the article: ‘Talking Drum’.

John F Carrington, in his 1949 book The Talking Drums of Africa explained how African drummers were able to communicate complex messages over vast distances. Using low tones referred to as male and higher female tones, the drummer communicates through the phrases and pauses, which can travel upwards of 4–5 miles. This process may take eight times longer than communicating a normal sentence but was effective for telling neighboring villages of possible attacks or ceremonies. He found that to each short word which was beaten on the drums was added an extra phrase, which would be redundant in speech but provided context to the core drum signal. For example, the message "Come back home" might be translated by the drummers as: "Make your feet come back the way they went, make your legs come back the way they went, plant your feet and your legs below, in the village which belongs to us"(**)

So, one could sum up: with adjustable drumheads, our idakka sings while its African cousin talks(***).

A Tale of Tails

Thanks to someone I have often mentioned here, I have known Sukumar Ray’s nonsense masterpiece ‘Abol Tabol’ for a very long time. Although my Bengali is too ill-equipped to enjoy Sukumar’s richly idiomatic and idiosyncratic verse, I have come to know one of his most distinguished creations fairly well - Sri. Hunkomukho Hyangla, he of the eternally grumpy disposition and blessed with a remarkable pair of identical tails. And just the other day, (thanks to Prof. C.S.Jayaram) I encountered the contemporary Italian artist Tullio Pericoli and a rather curious drawing of his showing a beaked Humpty-Dumpty like figure perched atop a big 'A'. Although curious affinities to Bosch, Bruegel and some other medieval surrealish (not surrealist, since surrealism, as a movement, is only about a century old) Masters were felt, I was most struck by the pair of tails the figure possesses. Here are both Herr Hunko and the unnamed Tullio apparition, placed side by side.


(*) Wikipedia has quite a bit to say about the Olympic-Hawke collision but never mentions Bernoulli.

(**) In a vague sense, all that stuff reminds me of the curious language of ‘Tlon, Uqbar and Orbis Tertius’, a language with only impersonal verbs and no nouns and that expresses “Moon rose over the river” as “Upward behind the on-streaming, it mooned”

(***) Perelman also shows us the picture of a (curiously black-skinned) Fijian (Polynesian) 'drum communicator' in action. His instrument is a big object carved out of a log and it does not seem to have frequency adjusting cords and stuff. Perhaps this drum achieves tonal variations when struck at different spots - like the 'musical pillars' seen in several South Indian stone temples.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Hampi - Gallery

This post is a compilation of images of art, gathered from all over the Vijayanagar ruins around Hampi.

The principal sites are - Achyuta temple, Vitthala temple, Virupaksha temple, Palace ruins - especially, the grand mandapa named 'Mahanavami Dibba' and the Hajara Rama temple. And there are many minor sites scattered all over the place. The sculptures, most of them reliefs and running friezes, number in the thousands and collectively form quite a pageant of divinities, dancers, martial and regal spectacle, everyday life, fauna - and a tiny pinch of erotica.

I don't give the precise location of each image shown below - neither do I attempt to arrange them chronologically. Indeed, some pictures are composites of images gathered from divers locations. My limited intent was a quest for oddities, specifically with Kerala connections.

The Kerala slant springs from a feeling that historic exchanges between Kerala on the one hand and Vijayanagara in particular and Karnataka in general have not been adequately studied - even by professionals(the give and take between the far north of Kerala and the adjoining Tulunad region of Karnataka is well known and I am referring to something broader here). Nevertheless, pieces of evidence abound: the association of Malayalis from all over Kerala with the Mookambika temple that lies well over a hundred kilometers inside Karnataka goes back centuries. The name Pampa is shared by both Tungabhadra and a major Keralan river - such repeating place names often a point to major migrations (consider how so many American places are named after European cities). As was noted here long back, the enthroned Vishnu idol of Tripunithura temple, halfway down Kerala bears an uncanny resemblance to a grand sandstone sculpture at Badami and Hoysala sculptures from Somnathpur. And I recently heard the story of master sculptor Jakkanacharya and noted how patterns therein resurface in Keralan myths - not only those associated with our own Michelangelo, Perunthachan (*). Finally, on the wall of a subway under Majestic, Bangalore, I saw a painting of a composite elephant-buffalo figure (the two beasts share one head); one guesses it was copied from some sculpture in a Karnataka temple but an elegant execution of the same design, carved in rosewood, can be seen on the ceiling of the several centuries old Pazhoor temple near Cochin(**).

Long enough preamble that, so, here we go with the main story:

Dancers and Musicians

Observe the percussionist accompanying the dandiya dancers. What does he play, the maddalam or the mridangam? I have always wondered about the connection between these instruments - in childhood, I used to confuse between the two. Webpages say the mridangam evolved from the maddalam, that the primary difference between the two is in the decibel level and so forth (listing the differences between them has been an MA(Music) examination question at the MG University in Kerala). I can't add anything to that but one thing is clear. The Hampi musicians always fix the maddalam/mridangam to their waist (as is done by modern Keralan maddalam players and Manipuri dancer-gymnasts) rather than hang it from the neck. See the chap below for instance. Even in his damaged state, the straps for fixing the drum to his waist are clear:

Some Keralan musicologists have written that the maddalam used to be hung from the player's neck until early 20th century; then, the pioneer Venkichan Swami got the idea of the waist fix - and he had to face considerable hostility and even threats of physical violence from the then purists until his innovation carried the day. I just am beginning to doubt them a bit.

Here is a composite image. To the left, a chap with Keralan Nair hairstyle(*) plays an ilathalam (cymbals); to this day, most ilathalam players in Kerala percussion ensembles are from the Nair community. To the right is someone playing an instrument shaped somewhat like the Keralan 'Timila' but with a stick. Despite such abundant evidence, the musical give and take between Kerala and Karnataka in medieval times seems only poorly documented, let alone studied in depth.

Note: I don't recall seeing a single 'chenda' anywhere among the Hampi carvings. And if my readers think I am imagining things, here is a musician playing Kerala's very own Idakka! Everything, the tension-adjusting mechanism to the stick to even the decorative thread spools, about the modern day Idakka can be seen in this possibly 500 year old sculpture. Note: at a bit of a stretch, even the above 'timila' guy could be taken as playing the idakka.


Note(August 1, 2015): Take a look at this very interesting page on Halebeedu sculptures , that predate Hampi by a good 2 centuries:

There are three pictures of celestial-looking bejeweled figures playing the idakka - to be precise, a drum that looks very like the modern idakka but of slightly smaller size. And to add a further dash of mystery, two of them appear to play the drum with fingers and the third uses a short stick!



Depictions of cavalry, elephant and even camel as well as horse, abound on the running reliefs on several temple plinths and on the walls of the Mahanavami Dibba. Here are three horsemen, including one firing a Parthian shot.

Muslim immigrants in Vijayanagara were intermediaries in the thriving trade in war horses. Here is a sample from the dozens, nay hundreds of such figures in Hampi. Note: Several of the horse traders appear as friendly caricatures.

A hunting scene, as lively as any of the far more famous Mughal paintings on the same theme:

Two wrestlers with vaguely oriental features in quite a tangle:


A sample from the hundreds of episodes from the Ramayana illustrated all over, and especially at the Hajara Rama temple. Rama takes aim at an adversary riding on an attendant's shoulder:

I have always been quite puzzled that Kerala murals show Rama during his Vanavasa as an armored prince and not in the forest dweller's traditional 'tree bark' garb. Here is he, receiving Sita's message, dressed in royal manner. Needless to say, I am tempted to see connection between Kerala mural paintings and Vijayanagara sculpture; or maybe it was a pan-India convention to show Rama as a prince, whatever be his material circumstances.

Here is a pensive Siva(?) riding a scorpion!:

A triumphant Bheema returns with the Saugandhika flower:


As was said above, erotic carvings are rare in Hampi. Here is Kama and his consort Rati - quite an amorous couple, perhaps harking back to Hinayana Buddhist cave art:

On the main gopuram of the Virupaksha temple are a few fairly explicit sculptures (they are not very prominent, but I saw some Firangis had spotted them - and were photographing them with great interest). Let me also mention two very weird pillar carvings: one features a tiger and a human figure and the shows a male figure wearing nothing other than a Phrygian cap-like headgear(***) and .... well, enough! Quite a shock they gave, when one stumbled upon them among all kinds of proper religious art.

A strange trio of a monkey, a dwarf and the mythical Garuda, united in their dalliance with serpents:

This post concludes with some more specimens. Who says India has no tradition of cartooning?!


(*) Just like Perunthachan, Jakkanachari got involved in some nasty competition with his smarter son. In the climactic episode of their competition, the son gently pokes at an idol the master had claimed as his own magnum opus and it cracks, dirty water issues and a toad jumps out - and the father cuts off his right arm in shame. This story line (the arm cutting apart) is repeated to the T in the Keralan legend of how sage Kapila came in disguise and saved the trustees of the temple at Vennimala from installing a defective Vishnu idol. Of course, Jakkanachari gets back his arm by divine grace and, although it is not clear if he ever made up with his son, the overall story is a happy improvement over Perunthachan decapitating his son in a fit of jealous rage!

(**) Here is the crudely done elephant-buffalo drawing at 'Majestic'.

(***) The diversity in headgear, hairstyle, apparel, ... in Hampi art is a subject worth serious study!

Friday, July 17, 2015

Hampi - the Setting

Visually,the 300 kilometre plus journey from Bangalore to Hampi begins promisingly with smoothly eroded elephant-like rocky hills near Dobspet. Thereon, the pleasantly typical interior Karnataka features come and go - vast coconut groves around Sira, Chitradurga with rows of windmills perched atop rolling hills, scrub forests at Sivapura, stretches of bright red soil with a smattering of pale green vegetation and flecked with flocks of sheep towards Hospet.... But none of it prepares one for the climax as granite grips the landscape - sheer cliffs, massive tors, precariously poised clusters (usually with the largest boulders at the top); and filling the flat interludes in this rugged drama, the glorious emerald of banana plantations alternates with the subtly different hues of sugarcane fields and stands of coconut palms; and then there is the human contribution of a monumental nature - granite blocks neatly fitted without mortar into massive walls, bars and slabs of granite assembled into post and lintel pandals that stand everywhere and especially at the edges of the steepest cliffs, gopurams with crumbling brick masonry superstructures perched atop granite bases, pillared porticos looking uncannily Grecian from afar with distance obscuring the decorative work and emphasizing their elegant stasis ....

Getting down at the little Hampi bus stand, one walks down the ancient, pillar-lined thoroughfare leading to the Virupaksha temple and wanders on to the adjoining Hampi village, a closely built up 200 meter square of dwellings and guest houses and narrow lanes and restaurants serving all sorts of continental dishes to a largely Firangi clientele. To the north is the bathing ghat and ferry station on the turbulent Tungabhadra. Across the river are ranges of pile after pile of more granite boulders.... The sun goes down and one hurries up the Matanga Parvata hill to watch the rock formations go from grey to brown to golden to honey and back to brown and then slowly settle into masses of calm darkness under a sky densely studded with stars. Back at the village, one watches a herd of cattle peacefully settle to chew the cud in front of the temple gopuram. A few dozen pilgrims prepare to spend the night in the open, stone paved temple courtyard. The cool night wraps itself in deep silence, save for the occasional grunt of a lone bull patrolling the desolate lanes...

Following an interesting observation from Ratheesh, I give the above picture the caption 'Eldorado'. The word is said to mean both 'Golden City' and 'Golden Man' in Spanish. Take a closer look among the rocks and you see a golden human figure in a languid pose.


Some more vignettes gathered while tramping around Hampi ...

A 40 foot 'Ganesh' stands guard over the river near the Achyutha temple (Viewers, he faces your left and is of the rare 'valampiri' form), a natural polylithic formation way bigger than the ironically named chickpea (kadale kalu) Ganesha, a magnificent 15 foot man-made monolithic masterpiece.

Note: I doubt if the natural Ganesh above has ever been observed by someone else. Long ago, on a trek from Munnar, I saw another valampiri Ganapathi, hundreds of feet tall, etched on the rocky north face of Mount Anaimudi (and discernible only when the Sun lights it from a certain angle); and to my knowledge, that vision was without precedent.

On the boulder-strewn bank of the river a short way downstream from the village is a stand of tamarind trees. A lovely, life-size, painted face casts a sad gaze on the surroundings. Take a look. Whose is it?

Here and there, pilgrims have left little votive piles of bricks, slabs of slate and granite. Compare them with what Nature has stacked up just beyond....

A big fig tree has several stone piles in its shade and from its branches hang vaguely sinister bundles of cloth...

As I pick my way down the rapidly darkening upper slopes of Matanga hill post sunset, a familiar fragrance spikes the bracing air - a lone jasmine bush silently spreads its gentle sweetness. I recall an old Mal film song about a secret amorous tryst between a mischievous breeze and a wild jasmine....

The environs of Hampi is said to have been a monkey heartland for ages but I did not see too many of them. But there is plenty of fauna: the kilometres-long walls and rocks teem with squirrels and big lizards that we call 'arana' in Malayalam sunbathe upon the boulders. Among birds, the tittiri with its 'did-he-do-it?' call is ubiquitous and the occasional peacock struts his stuff. But nothing compares to the nearly one foot long millipedes patiently working their way up the rocks. A few were spotted feasting silently on a mango peel...

Anegundi village, that lies across Tungabhadra is said to have been the original site of Vijayanagara. A kitschy statue of Krishnadeva Raya welcomes you to the village - in his cumerband is stuck a sword shaped like a hockey stick. Only a few Muslim-style arches(*) and overgrown walls remain of the Aramane (royal palace). The derelict state of the building reminded me of Tripunithura's fallen palace Puthen Bungalow.

In this predominantly Hindu village is a tiny cluster of Muslim homes; among them I saw a quaint little shrine, painted in an interesting blend of green and saffron. I was about to move on taking it to be yet another dargah when its principal object of worship caught the attention.

Thanks to Wiki, I now know the name is Changdev or Raja Vagh Savar (= Tiger Rider), a saint/hero who lived a millennium ago in Yamanuru near Belgaum and is to this day equally venerated by Hindus and Muslims. In Maharashtra, he is said to have competed with and come second best to Jnaneswar (setting out to meet Changdev, who came riding his tiger and cracking a cobra as whip, Jnaneswar is said to have made a brick wall fly, with him riding it). Whatever, all he needs is a shave to turn into Kerala's own Ayyappa (and the cult of Ayyappa has a strong enough Muslim flavour to satisfy devotees of Changdev).

Let me sign off from this post with a remark on the history of Hampi (some more impressionistic details will follow as the next post):

Post the fateful battle of Talikota (1565), the victorious armies of the Bahmani Sultans are said to have camped for months at Vijayanagara and systematically depopulated and destroyed what was one of the biggest and richest cities in the World in a horrendous orgy of violence and loot. But although the sack was an unspeakable horror even by the awful standards of its times, its often emphasized rabidly anti-Hindu, Jihadi angle (several writers, from the very partisan medieval chronicler Ferishta, who exults in the misfortune of the 'infidels', to the 19th century Brit Sewell to Sir Vidiya Naipaul agree on this) appears a big exaggeration, if not an outright invention. Indeed, the major classical temples in Hampi are profusely carved, the number of sculptures on their walls and pillars running easily into thousands and I don't recall seeing a single defaced human figure among them (unlike, say, the sculptural figures with smashed faces on the temple pillars 'reused' in the mosque adjoining Qutub Minar). The monolithic Narasimha might now be arm-less but the damage may well have been due to natural erosion - and his face still retains its original awesome majesty. And Hampi has no mosque or idgah or any other kind of Islamic structure that invaders of North India often built atop demolished temples. Yes, the superstructures of most temple gopurams do show severe damage but that could be due to the lower durability of brick masonry and stucco work as opposed to solid granite - and lack of regular maintenance due to the city getting abandoned. Only foundations - and sometimes less - of the palaces stand but that could again be due to brick having been the primary medium of construction; or maybe the invaders actually demolished them thoroughly in that most secular of causes, the search for hidden gold(**).


(*) To my knowledge, Vijayanagar Hindu architecture always eschewed the proper structural arch formed with wedge-shaped stones. The ruined bridge across a now dried up limb of Tungabhadra (it looks more like an aqueduct now) and the Bhima Gate near Hampi (vaguely reminiscent of the lion gate at Mycenae(?)) have arches but they are corbel arches (also called cantilever arches or even false arches). Picture below. But even in its ruined state, the Aramane has several largely intact proper brick-built arches. Remarkably, the false arch was used by Indian builders from Indus times - it can be seen even in the ruins of Mohanjodaro!

(**)Most temples around Hampi do not have idols any longer. A plausible explanation is that when the Bahmani hordes approached, temple custodians made off with them (even Kerala tradition relates that trustees of the temples at Guruvayur and some other major northern temples had escaped to the south with the idols when Tipu Sultan invaded Malabar). I am biased towards this explanation as opposed to the one which says the invaders smashed the idols, sparing every other bit of sculpture.