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

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). Nevertheless, folk memory abounds in markers: 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. One begins to get a strong feeling that very little investigation of the musical give and take between Kerala and Karnataka in medieval times has happened.

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 to be 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; 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 - massive walls of granite blocks neatly fitted without mortar, 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 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.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Odin's Eye

This post returns to the 'fragments' pattern.

Bijoya Ray, model for the 'Demure Venus' by her husband Satyajit, passed away last week at age 98, a lifetime after that alluring vision was created. Although I came to know the sad news quite late (via Gyani), I console myself with the belief that I was the last to pay the lady a tribute when she was still around (see the post 'Our Masters and THE Masters' put up here but a few weeks back).

1. ‘Ernakulam Charakkukal’

The old and abandoned ‘Ernakulam Goods’ (in Mal, ‘Ernakulam Charakkukal’) Railway station to the north of the High Court is a remarkable sleepy hollow. Riotously overgrown and maddeningly green, this hundred plus acre site looks every inch, a calm and meditative lung space in the heart of the city. Its Brit-built, stone-arched buildings, now slowly being reclaimed by fig trees and creepers, make for a very Arcadian spectacle. And the piece de resistance to me is this object. When I approached to take the picture, some local youths asked me: “Chettaa, what is that thing?”

One wants to caption the above photo: “This IS a pipe” as an Elder’s answer to their query as well a rejoinder of a tribute to Rene Magritte. For it was indeed used to refill the boilers of steam locos eons ago - an inscription says it was forged in 1927.

I wrote to Gyani with the picture and a question: “Why is that thing bent in such a funny way (indeed every such water filler I can recall had that odd bend)?! It could just as well have been shaped like a walking stick;” And let his sagely-ness have the last word on this business: “I loved that forlorn pipe - so lost in Time that even the reason for its being bent in that way has been forgotten by most folks!”

But there is trouble in this little slice of paradise. No, I am not talking about the odd anti-social element.

All those powerful looking trees are actually under unrelenting attack from a very good-looking serial strangler. Wiki says: the money plant, a pacific island native has become a very serious weed in south Asia – especially in tropical forests.

Old Survives New:

In Tripunithura, there is a curious little edifice with an equally curious name: “Bungalow Palace”. This building has the reputation of being the first ever double storeyed building built in these parts (well, its ground floor is probably no floor at all but a hugely elevated pack of masonry atop which the lone residential floor sits, thus giving the building a double-storeyed look; I repeat, its dimensions are very modest). I remember reading somewhere that the Dutch built it more than 200 years back.

Bungalow Palace is said to have been originally used as the residence of the Maharaja of Cochin when he visited these parts. Then sometime in late 19th century, an increasingly prosperous (or status-minded) king decided on something bigger and statelier and a three-storied structure came up. Here is how it was (an old photograph).

Old timers say that the building was at least 6000 sqft in area, that there was a garden and fountain in front, that the flooring was of imported tiles and so forth. And it was called ‘Puthen Bungalow’( = ‘Brand new Bungalow').

And this is how it has come to look.

The area around Puthen is in active use – a temple, an orphanage and modern residential buildings – but the plot itself, all of 30 meters by 30 meters, has become a tremendously dense jungle (to see it all, one needs a machete). Only the two portions of the walls shown above still stand, everything they once supported has fallen and crumbled and in the former interior of the building, there is only vegetation. Even at noon, the crickets keep up a loud drone and mosquitoes sting the life out of any trespasser (I could not last more than 10 minutes there).

The collapse of the building happened around 20 years back. Many blame the State for this state. However, I also suspect that the building had poor foundations underneath its grandeur and so its fall was inevitable. In contrast, the packed first floor of the old Bungalow has enabled it to survive - and function (it still is in active residential use).

Odin’s Eye:

Rains have played truant. But there are clouds and they assume such crazy forms and patterns that any visit to the Marine Drive is sure to reward you with wonderfully atmospheric views of the Cochin seascape.

The other day, a thick bank of purple clouds lay to the northwest, blocking out the sun totally. And then, a crack shaped like an eye opened up in it just above Vallarpadam island and at that precise instant, the sun dipped in and poured a torrent of molten gold directly over the twin spires of the Vallarpadam church. “Odin’s Eye!(*)”. I took a picture but won’t show it here. For it was a vision deserving only to be described in Words.

‘ 'Shshhi’

As my readers know, I keep returning to Khasak. The other day, I read N S Madhavan’s Marxist analysis of the agrarian economy of Khasak (‘Khasakile Sampadvyavastha’). Then I recalled photographer K R Vinayan once quizzing the author Vijayan himself on the mysterious writer Prince Thiruvankulam (his works form Ravi's collection along with Gita, Rilke, Baudelaire and (populist Mal novelist) Muttathu Varkey).

Yes, Khasakology is a thriving area. People have dug up all kinds of trivia about this fictional village. One more example: Who is the only Christian in Khasak? Answer: the monkey-handler migrant belonging to the Thottian caste named ‘Senthiavu’ (‘Santiago’).

Now, let me briefly ponder a politically wrong question. What is Ravi's caste? The novel once says he is a Nair (someone referring to him as ‘Mashter Moothaaru’). But there is a problem: at least twice he uses the unique Malayalam word ‘shshhi’. Meaning ‘plenty’ or ‘lots’, it is almost exclusively associated with Nampoothiri Brahmins and some castes which are closely associated with them and not with the Nairs of Pattambi area (Ravi’s home territory). But Ravi’s deceased mother does not speak her few lines in the Nampoothiri dialect; his communications to his step-mother is in formal Malayalam indicating the lady was no Mallu at all; and he never speaks to his ailing father in the book.

Question: why did Vijayan choose to make Ravi speak in such a pronounced Savarna fashion?


` (*) – there are many Gods with two eyes (including the Father himself, as he appears in Euro art) and at least one with three. But to my knowledge, Odin is the only one-eyed Jack in the pack (he is also the only top God who actually gets killed without reincarnation or resurrection). Of course, a mind like Goya’s could see a threatening Cyclops there (and a Redon would see a benign one)!

Sunday, May 31, 2015

An 'Oottupura' - to Save and Savor

Note:The Malayalam word ‘Oottupura’ means a refectory or dining hall complex, usually associated with a temple or palace.

I have known this old and massive (approx. 100 ft by 100 ft) building to the north of the Purnathrayeesa temple in Tripunithura for a very long time:

For as long as I can remember, I have heard of the structure being referred to as the ‘abandoned/old Oottupura’. It does stand next to the main Oottupura of the temple (a building very much in active use) separated from the latter by an open ground nearly 40 meters across – a space used as an ‘elephant yard’ by the temple.

Despite its close proximity to the temple, the building's strikingly derelict state had always made it stand quite apart from the well-maintained religious edifices. But I had never bothered to investigate further.

…until a few weeks back. A spell of extreme joblessness on a Sunday afternoon made me do a decco (or maybe recce is better) of the place. Walking around, I noticed that a portion of the massive tiled roof was sagging down, apparently from structural decay.

Peeping in thru a half-open window, I saw several empty beer bottles lying around. From a corner emanated a overpowering stench and incessant squeaking noises – clear indications of a teeming bat population.

I left things at that for the time being and decided to look online.

And here is the gist of what I understood (alibi: my comprehension of legalese is patchy. So, those who want primary sources should go to


A few years back, a court case was fought between the Devaswom Board (a state-controlled but semi-autonomous temple administration body) and the State itself. The Devaswom people want the building to be an integral part of the temple complex (and seek to buttress their claim with the curiously circular sentence: “it is indispensable for the Devaswom Board for its welfare and developments as it is badly in need of it”). The State apparently wants it to be converted into an art gallery (some say, a tribal art gallery). A large proportion of the devotee population backs the Devaswom maybe because they don’t like the idea of a secular art gallery (or maybe that of a tribal art gallery) close to the temple or because they see yet another instance of “the State tries to take over and secularize only Hindu religious property; it doesn’t dare touch the wealth of others”.

Both parties to the dispute agree that the building was indeed an Oottupura. The lawyer representing the State claimed in Court that it was handed over to the Govt. by the Maharaja of Cochin in 1960 for use by the Stationery Department and although that department vacated the premises many years ago (why they did so is not clear), it has remained Sarkari property and that the revenue documents support that ownership claim. The Devaswom says the Maharaja had no authority post 1947 and could not have issued an order giving away the building; however they do claim the Diwan (Chief Minister) handed over the Oottupura to the temple much earlier (1922, pre-Independence). Moreover they say that the revenue documents showing the building as State property are the result of an apparent error they had found and raised years previously and an enquiry was pending on that matter.

Everything said and heard, the court judged: (1) the building is an Oottupura because both parties said it was an Oottupura; and because oottupuras are attached to temples, it is temple property. (2) In 1960, India was a republic and the 'king' had no authority to hand over public property to anybody so it is not clear how the revenue records show it as Government land and this needs to be investigated and (3) if neither party is willing to amicably settle the dispute, they need to fight a full-fledged civil case which can drag on interminably so they had better patch up (4) Until an agreement is reached, no art gallery or anything can be opened there and status quo shall prevail.

My own outsider's take:

The building is not structurally linked to the main Oottupura - looks like it never was. The main entrance to the building appears not to have been from the present elephant yard separating it from the temple complex but from a road on the other side. The doorway on the road is fairly grand and the state emblem of Cochin has been embossed on the wall above. This emblem indicates (not proves) that the building was not conceived as a religious structure but a secular, governmental one (note: needless to say, both parties to one particular court case referring to it as ‘oottupura’ does not in itself make it an oottupura). Elderly residents of the place distinctly recall the building being used around 1950 as a go-down or granary; some even think it had always been a sort of a state-run godown before the Stationary Dept days – like the many ‘pandiyalas’ in places like Mattanchery or Fort Cochin (some of the latter have actually become smart art galleries, thanks to the Biennale) – not a far-fetched thought because the site of the old Tripunithura boat jetty is but a furlong away. It was probably due to the secular nature of the building that the Diwan had to explicitly hand it over to the temple – why he did so and if he really had the authority to do so remains unknown (to self).

My thoughts may be flawed or invalid and may reflect my (real) personal bias towards the art-gallery idea. But one thing is absolutely certain: whatever any law-court or anyone says, the so-called "Status quo" simply cannot hold.

For the Forces of Nature follow a very different set of laws. Here is a glimpse of what they just did to what was a mere kink in the roof but a few days ago..

Yesterday, marshalling more than the usual energy (and a dash of desperation), one searched and found a way to sneak into the dark interiors to survey vast rooms and corridors(*) - and even get up, close and perilously personal with the caved in roof:

But just like the case of the Jewish Cemetery (last post), one realizes that the building is less of a gloomy ruin than a showcase to that most resilient of phenomena - Life. And it is not just the bats; in the wildly overgrown inner quadrangle stands a robust jacktree, laden with fruit. Fallen leaves carpet the corridors and among them, bright scarlet and black millipedes keep their own noiseless tenor. Dense moss coats fallen pillars; creepers rappel up the sagging rafters ....

Thanks, Vimal and Ratheesh.


(*) Even in a quick run-thru, it is clear that serious maintenance work has been done on this building until fairly recently: a few concrete pillars have been planted to bolster the ceiling, the walls have been whitewashed and electric wiring done - of course, the light bulbs and other fittings have been wrenched off by vandals and lie heaped like eggshells in the central courtyard.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

A Cemetery throbs with Life

From the Wiki entry on the 17th century Dutch Master Jacob van Ruidsael :

Ruisdael's landscapes are a polychronic lament for a stable past coupled with an unease for a profoundly unstable future. His 'Jewish Cemetery' pits a rogue natural world against the built environment, which has been overrun by the trees and shrubs surrounding the cemetery.... a lament for past mistakes made that have produced a present-day derelict landscape.

Here is a glimpse of Ruisdael's cemetery (search online for better images):

Another landscape, a banal-looking photo taken a just few hours back by Yours Truly - a wildly overgrown plot of about an acre in the very heart of Ernakulam, just behind St. Teresa's Convent and School. A wall surrounds the plot and to take the picture, one had to scale it with some effort.

What made me take the trouble was the chance discovery of a board there (I have welked past this plot hundreds of times over the last few years but saw the board only today):

From my precarious perch on the wall, I tried hard to push the encroaching creepers off the board but they proved too tenacious. However, one could still read the Hindi text in its entirety: "Jewish Cemetery, Kadavumbhag and Thekkumbhag (actually, 'Kadavumbhagam' and 'Thekkumbhagam' respectively; such mindless Hindification of place names would require Ernakulam to become 'Ernakul'). Under the protection of the Archeology Dept". Of course, no tomb, no inscribed stone slab, nothing was visible; everything rested beneath the vegetation.

Searching online, I gathered that Thekkumbhagam and Kadavumbhagam were the names of two jewish settlements in Ernakulam and synagogues that catered to them; neither synagogue functions now. 'The Hindu' once published an article that says: "The State Department of Archaeology has ... protected the Jewish Cemetery near (the St. Teresas) Convent Junction".

Protected?! I would say yes, the plot certainly has been saved from the attentions of 'developers' (the likes of those who ate up the Jewish cemetery in Mala, for example). And whether one sees here the merciless assault of 'Rogue Nature' on Man's works or a manifestation of 'Mother' Nature's limitless fecundity and regenerative power is entirely up to the individual viewer. I, for one, saw in this cemetery as much Life as I had seen at the Manikarnika Ghat in Kashi - and left with the distinct feeling that those who sleep here must be quite okay with the present state of their resting place.