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

Friday, July 29, 2005


That is the name of the presiding deity of a small hilltop shrine in north-interior Kerala. The name means 'The Mouth-less Lord of the Hill(-shrine)'; the 'y' in the spelling is optional and is an artefact of Malayalam phonetics; any similarity, vague or otherwise with allegedly tongue-twisting names like 'Nahasapeemapetilon' is purely accidental; there is nothing troublesome to the tongue in this 'Mallu' name, if one knows the lingo that is (As an aside, I am reminded of a (very decent) Western travel guide to India which refers to 'Gangaikondacholapuram' as a terrible challenge to pronounce!)!

Just like any other temple-site, there is a legend associated with this place; indeed this story is but a small fragment from a vast cycle of legends, myths and folklore called 'Parayipettu Panthirukulam' (well, there we go again!). Once in the distant past, a certain couple, a scholarly brahmin husband and his even more gifted 'low-born' wife, chose a life of continuous travel (probably it was the husband's unilateral choice!). Whenever a baby was born to them, the husband would ask: "does the child have a mouth?"; the wife would answer "yes" and the husband would immediately abandon the child saying "the One who gave it the mouth will give something to fill it as well!". Finally, eleven children having been thus abandoned, the hapless mother lied, to save her twelfth born from an unknown future: "he has no mouth" and then, the new-born's mouth sealed up on its own! The father 'seated' (buried?) the child on top of a hill nearby; and the couple resumed their journey...

The place came to be known as the abode of the "mouth-less Lord" (each of his elder siblings were found and brought up by various people and all of them came to be known to posterity for their brilliance, piety, wit and great works - they include 'Perunthachan', the legendary master-craftsman, 'Pakkanar', a Dalit of legendary wisdom, 'Thiruppan Azhwar', a mystic-poet of Srirangam in Tamil Nadu,...). One could add here, the (mysteriously ruthless) father of them all, was a half-brother to King Vikramaditya of the 'Vetala' story cycle - and that is yet another trip!

I paid a visit to the Mouth-less Lord's abode last week. One could see two temples there - dedicated to Siva, who the Lord seems to have got identified with (the how of it is not obvious) and to his consort, Shakti. It was occasionally drizzly and very gloomy - a monsoon late afternoon; there were very few people about. Neither temple seems to have any 'marker' of the original site where the Lord was 'seated'.

Beyond the temples, the hill slopes down; I found a narrow trail threading tree-filled, darkly green compounds - it eventually opened out, past a pond, into a stretch of freshly planted rice paddies... It would have been nice to have gone walkabout into those realms; but the impending night-fall - and more deep purple clouds were piling up above - and the prospect getting stranded there made me retreat.

On the bus back home, with the steady monsoon rain hammering away on the shuttered windows, I reflected: a couple of hours previously, when I had asked another passenger where to get down from the bus to reach the temple, he had asked back: "Are you going to the temple?". "er, meet someone near there" - I had answered, rather clumsily.

Monday, July 18, 2005

The Cola Realm - Journal

Jan 30, 2004:

We leave our home in Chennai early and hit the East Coast Highway as the sun just rises from the Bay of Bengal. At the toll booth, the international feel is unmistakable as the attendant slips in a fresh newspaper along with the bill and wishes a "happy journey!" (the toll is international as well). the sea shimmers, grey-green and then blue, a breeze wafts in and the car cruises along at a religiously maintained 60 kmph speed; As a neo-convert to driving, it feels good to grip the wheel in its leather cover and be in control and good to see that the mileage is above 20 km to a liter of petrol.

Pondicherry is reached in 3 hours and a mess of cycles and two wheelers envelopes us. the pleasure part is over; it is a normal highway hereafter. Cuddalore and Chidambaram pass us by; the road turns inland and its quality dips alarmingly. The smaller the town, the more congested it is in these parts; no bypasses, no direction boards, one-ways which lead you into dead ends.

It gets warmer and sultrier; the gold-tinged green of ripening paddy fields unfurls all around; patches of it are already under harvest. We pass Mayiladuthurai, Seerkazhi, Vaitheeswarankoil, Tribhuvanam - small, dusty tired looking towns ( but each one of them has a huge temple). Speeds of even 30 kmph are mostly unattainable as clumsy tractor trailers loaded with harvest clog the road.

Kumbakonam is finally reached (8 hours flat for 300 km); This would be our base camp for the next two days. The hotel is decent; the room has a 'manual' displayed prominently: "How to be a good Hindu?" - the instructions include a carefully balanced mixture of Saiva and Vaishnava practices.

The 6 km drive to Darasuram takes half an hour as the narrow roads are being relaid (at rush hour) for a big fest due in March. Kumbakonam is old (perhaps even ancient) and cluttered with temples of all shapes and sizes (it also used to be Math super-wiz Ramanujan's hometown). It is on the banks of the Kaveri, a not very wide sluggish stream here, since it has lost much of the water to its major distributary Kollidam a little upstream.

The 'Airavateswara' temple at Darasuram (1100 AD) has an unfortunate, construction site feel. Restoration is in progress, workers toil, cement dust in the air... The temple is rich in sculpture (mostly miniatures on pillars and running friezes on the 'base' of the edifice). A grand pyramidal vimana caps the sannidhi. An elderly priest shows us some more, larger sculpture - the statue of Kannapa Nayanar, a devout hunter who offered his eyes to the lord ("look at his smart sandals!"), a sensuous goddess image (" note her manicured nails!") and more. Another goddess image on the ruddy sandstone sannidhi wall is draped in a bright green silk sari and actively worshipped.

A more modern (17th century?) masonry gopuram stands derelict outside the temple enclosure. There is also a 'Nandi Mandapa' with an arched and domed pavilion over it - perhaps a reminder of the Maratha presence in these parts (17th - 19th century).

Note: I have come to know that Carl Sagan's celebrated science serial 'Cosmos' (a huge source of inspiration to me in much younger days), has a few seconds worth of footage shot inside the Darasuram temple. It is a bit of puzzle why Sagan chose this particular (not all that well-known) site to frame his remarks on ancient Indian cosmogony.

We paused at the Nageswara temple in the heart of Kumbakonam for a brief dekko. The granite walls of the sanctum are of 9th century make - profusely inscribed with splendidly crafted near life size human figures. Above is a garishly colored superstructure which could fit any modern roadside shrine; this overlay of unabashed kitsch on authentic antiquity makes for a strangely interesting spectacle. A sad discordant note is struck by a pvc pipe that runs right across the ancient walls.

Jan 31, 2004:
We drive to Tanjavur past more rice paddies, the road twists and winds thru small villages, several of which seem Muslim dominated; the traffic is utterly chaotic; we see a two wheeler caught under a bus and people standing around and two men lying prone and very still and still bleeding...

Tanjavur is a biggish town with more than its share of civic mess; we pick our way thru the conjested lanes and suddenly the pyramidal vimana of the 'Big Temple' (built by Rajaraja, the greatest Chola around 1000 AD) appears, thrusting over the ramshackle skyline of the town. This colossal tower, sparsely carved, severely geometric, dominates everything in the vicinity (*). The principal object of worship in the temple is a dozen foot shivalingam. The 'paal abhishekam' is a spectacle - pots and pots of milk is poured from above and explodes on the massive and starkly black granite lingam. A bronze statue of Rajaraja stands, hands folded, facing the Lord (there seems to be some controversy whether it is indeed a contemporary portrait). The best sculpture in the temple is sadly, out-of-bounds to the public. A vast open space surrounds the core temple and is in turn enclosed by fortress-like walls and a moat. The temple owns an aged female elephant and we pay the handler 10 bucks and get snapped standing next to it, the elephant 'salutes' as the camera flashes and one feels sorry for it.

At the Maratha palace and art gallery, we see a library of centuries old manuscripts and spectacular millennium old sculpture and chola bronzes unearthed from grand sounding places - Tiruvidaimarudur, Tiruvenkadu, Kulashekharanallur,.. The 'Gajasamhara', a near lifesize black stone sculpture of shiva frozen in frenzied death-dance, tearing an elephant-demon asunder. 'Vrishabhavahana', Shiva in a languid pose, apparently leaning on to his bull (the bull is missing) with his feet intertwined; parvati stands beside him in a similar pose; the twosome reminds one of the poses struck by salman and madhuri in posters of "Hum Aapke Hai Koun?". More academically, the style in which the matted locks of Shiva are tied up - like an elaborate turban - is a surprise. Indeed there is quite a range of coiffure in shiva images of those times - the usual elaborate 'jatamakuta', the fiery crown of Bhairava, the almost 'Bob Marley dreadlocks' style in the 'Bhikshatana' version and then, this unusual 'turban'.

We drive on further to sleepy Tribhuvanam, which has yet another ancient Chola - temple dedicated to Shiva as 'Sharabheshwara' - the 'book' gives the name of this temple as 'Kampahareswara' (here one sees many human figures carved on the 'Vimana' - the Vimana of the big temple in Tanjavur has only designs and patterns and that at Gangaikondacholapuram has but very little statuary - and thus seems to foreshadow the later gopurams which are thick with sculpture). We also visit nearby Tiruvidaimarudur which has a somewhat newer (400 years types) - again Shiva - temple which is of vast size with massive walls, labyrinthine passages and enclosures; in the cavernous inner spaces, it is quite cool even in the afternoon. The Nandi bull facing the main sanctum is nearly 20 feet tall; Brahmin boys sporting the traditional shikha sit clustered near the Nandi and recite some holy formulae.

Back at Kumbakonam, we see the vast tank where in march, millions will take a holy dip (no water now, the bed being prepared with fresh sand and families are picnicking out there).

Feb 1, 2004:
We leave Kumbakonam and hit the Chennai highway; a misty dawn. The road is decent, the terrain flat, we cross the wide and water-starved (this is a drought year) Kollidam river over two very long bridges and by 8 reach Gangaikondacholapuram, named after Rajendra, Rajaraja's son, who brought water from ganga to consecrate a newly built temple here. The temple itself is huge - the central vimana tower is only slightly smaller than the tanjavur one but unlike the hard angular profile of the latter, is smoothly curvaceous and as the cliche goes, the female counterpart to it (though its unique bell-curve profile is also vaguely phallic).

There is much well-above-life-size sculpture on the temple walls - often overpoweringly 'present'. One wonders how these carvings would have looked and felt if they were fully 3-dimensional, stand-alone entities - not part of walls and pillars (and thus parts of a larger architecture). This observation perhaps applies to most ancient Indian sculpture (exceptions like 'priest king' and 'dancing girl' of Mohenjo Daro, the lion capital of Sarnath or the Didarganj 'Yakshi' are few and far between). Even the magnificent Chola bronzes are expected to be viewed primarily frontally and are thus, say, "two and a half D".

We drive down a mud road about 2-3 kilometers to where Rajendra Chola's palace stood. Only the brick foundations exist and they don't cover more than 3-4000 sq. ft - just a big bungalow. Rather odd, one feels, that a guy who built such a massive temple did not do anything much for himself. there is an open-air museum near there with stone sculpture and inscribed stone slabs laid about. Hardly anyone about; a shady mango grove stands nearby; bamboo thickets.. Bird voices punctuate the silence. Bathed in the morning sunshine, the temple Vimana appears to float over the tree-line.

The next stage of the journey is easily the most scenic. The road is straight; Tamarind trees line the road and the foliage forms a feathery green vault above; a canal full of water lilies runs alongside. Paddy fields stretch away on both sides with occasional clumps of teak trees; the landscape is picture perfect. However the ground reality is totally dominated by crater-like potholes which make driving an adventure. Occasionally, a bus comes screaming at us and we scaramble off the road in mortal fear. Paddy is laid thick and we have plow thru it sometimes for hundreds of meters at a stretch. And, this is a State Highway! The 35 km to Chidambaram takes an hour and a half. Somewhere in the middle of it, we ask a passerby whether the road is so bad all the way. He says everyday he gets to hear the question from someone or the other and that the government had better do something. And he adds the road would get much better towards the end. It does not.

It is a profound relief when temple gopurams appear in the distance. The Chidambaram temple marks the spot where Siva performed his Nataraja dance originally - an immensity of gopurams, walls, shrines, subshrines, pillared halls, corridors, holy ponds, quadrangles.... At the very core of all this buildup is the sheer void of the 'Ether Lingam' - the subtle (non-)essence of the mystery, 'rahasyam' of Chidambaram. Stern 'Dikshitar' Brahmins, sticklers for tradition, run the show here. Their womenfolk in 18 cubit Iyer sarees (many of whom are quite slender and willowy, as opposed to their generally hefty men) are part of the spectacle.

It is almost midday now. the rest of our journey (4 hours or so) is smooth and low-key. We reach the east coast highway and coast along at 20 km per liter, homeward bound.

(*) I sense a certain resemblance between the Brihadiswara Vimana and the (reputedly much more ancient) Mahabodhi temple at Bodh Gaya.

A Trip To The Realm of The Colas - Prelude

Having read a very lyrical and nostalgic account of a trip to the Chola country in Tamil Nadu here, I am tempted to post my own (more prosaic) journals of a trip to the same part of the world (the next post). Here is a short introductory note:

My familiarity with the Cholas began with a fully illustrated Amar Chitra Katha volume on Rajaraja Chola I read while at school - the story packed enough heroism, action, intrigue and romance to have stayed in my mind all these years. In the Kerala History textbooks we had to 'mug' at school, the Chola kings were more alien invaders than great conquerors; but the grand impression made by the Amar Chitra Katha illustrations persisted. Many years later, I chanced upon a dusty copy of Nilakanta Sastry's magnum opus, 'Colas' in the Madras University Publications Division. Although I never read this work thoroughly, it made me draw up a list of places one ought to visit sometime.

After further years of delays, we finally managed a quick drive thru Tanjavur and its neighborhood, where the millennium-old memories of the Cholas continue to have a strong presence. In the next post, I reproduce three entries from a travel diary, keyed in in early 2004.

Our hectic tour took in bits and pieces of Kumbakonam, Tanjavur, Gangaikondacholapuram and a couple of more places thereabouts. We could not visit places like 'Nartamalai' and 'Kodumbalur' which had been on my check-list. 'Pazhayarai' and 'Kodikarai', recreated beautifully by 'Yossarian', were unfortunately not known to self then - being at best, semi-literate in Tamil, I have never read 'Ponniyin Selvan'. All these places have to wait for a future journey (and post).

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The Ustad's Evidence

I just had a post here on how I had to struggle with my own name; there I had observed the North Indian style of pronouncing my name would lead to writing my name in English characters as 'Nand Kumar' or 'Nandkumar' (actually the former is not quite right since the name is a compound - 'samaasam' - and NOT a mere join - 'sandhi' of two words and hence should be written as a single word in any case) with no 'a' in the middle.

Anyways, thanks to old pal Ravindra, I just got to listen to a Thumri in Bhairavi sung by Bade Ghulam Ali Khan; the way the Master, a robust Punjabi (pardon the cliche, but it is absolutely apt here) and thus as Northern as a Northie can possibly get, keeps articulating the refrain of the Thumri can only be transliterated as "Suniyo Nandakumar!". The 'a' in the middle is certainly as clearly pronounced as the one after the first 'n'.

So, one probably need not appeal to an unfortunate 18th century Bengali Zamindar and to Bengali phonetics to justify the way my name is in English.

A speculative remark: it appears that chopping off the 'a' at the end of a Sanskrit word can be done naturally only if the last letter is 'ya', 'ra', 'la' and perhaps 'na' and 'ma' (and that too only when it is at the end of a compound word). I guess that is what Bong phonetics does. So, 'Kumara' can become 'Kumar' but 'Nanda' stays that way and does not turn into 'Nand'. This is of course, a bit of gas!

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Coming To Terms With My Name

Sunil Laxman has an interesting post on the oddity of Malayali names and that has prompted this post on my own name. Yes, I am basically 'Mallu'; the name 'Nandakumar', though now old-fashioned, has no obvious oddity and has a reasonably clear and simple derivation. Even then,...

I need to briefly introduce a certain manager I used to work for once upon a time. He was called 'Infy' (behind his back; for it was not his name. He was no Mallu). The reason for the epithet - oh yes, it had NOTHING to with 'Infosys' either. It was short for 'infinite loop'! - was his very pronounced tendency to get into an infinitely repetitive mode whenever he saw or imagined any difference of opinion with anybody. Infy would often get into this mode in serious business discussions and respond to diverse attempts from different viewpoints to differ even slightly with him by steadfastly repeating verbatim whatever he had said in the previous 'iteration'. And he would do this with metronomic efficiency and ruthlessness until the adversary (or the victim) gave up the argument (or on life). This unique trait of his extended to various other spheres of activity as well and he was held in much fear. But even this redoubtable character met his match - of all things, in this name of mine, thus...

Infy would send me some official email spelling my userid (same as my name: nandakumar) thus: nandkumar@... The mail would bounce since the middle 'a' was skipped. Then he would call me to his cabin and ask me to spell my name, describe how strange that 'a' feels to him and how in the 'North' the name is spelt 'Nand Kumar' or 'Nandkumar' and why that is correct and so on. He would ask me why my name has no 'h' ("In the South they put an 'h' - arbitratily in many names; actually you guys pronounce the letter 'Hetch', don't you?") and finally, he would note down the 'wrong' spelling for future use, only to repeat the entire act within a few days and give me practically the same lecture on how my name is wrong. Finally, one day, something seemed to have snapped within the well-oiled machine; Infy was heard, his voice sounding rather vexed, from a few cubicles away: "Arey, Nandkumar! what is your name?"

Nandakumar, a rather common name among Keralans born in the span of a generation (1950-1975 approx) is not Mallu in origin or spelling/pronunciation. It is a variant of a compound Sanskrit name for Krishna formed of two parts 'nanda:' and 'kumara:'; due to its Sanskrit origins, it is an all-India name. No Mallu born before 1900 had this name; it is an import in that sense. As for the spelling/pronuncitaion, the authentic Mallu way to put it would be 'Nandakumaran' (the last 'n' is a south Dravidian masculine marker). The proper Northern spelling would have been 'Nandkumar'. Infy apparently had his facts right - the way my name is spelt is neither here nor there.

the scenario became more complex more recently when I casually searched the index of 'Britannica' for my name - I did it out of sheer joblessness. And surprise(!), it was there and spelt my way too: 'Nandakumar'. There was an 18th century Bengali, who was an exact namesake of mine. This chap tried to create some minor trouble (in the form of corruption allegations) for Warren Hastings, then GuvGeneral of India, and for his troubles, was promptly finished off on trumped up charges by the latter's henchmen.

The Bengali pronunciation often retains the 'a's the end of Sanskrit words or names unlike say, Hindi- Punjabi, which chop them off. For example, Bongs have names like 'Prashanta' (where the last 'a' appears to a Hindiwallah as an add-on whereas it is the latter who has actually done some chopping). The 'Nanda' part of my name follows this pattern. But the Bongs do not appear to be doing this 'a retention' consistently. They do not spell/pronounce 'kumar' as 'kumara' as they probably should have. Indeed, Sri Lankans, who have some common linguistic ancestry with Bengalis (in the form of a shared Pali inheritance), do have names like (cricketer) 'Pushpakumara'. And it is not as if Bongs trim the 'a' at the end always; sometimes they do not: as in 'Vivekananda', a compound name like 'Nandakumar'. So, if at all there is a problem with my name, the 'fault' lies with Bong phonetics.

I could perhaps have told Infy I have a Bengali name with an authentic Bengali spelling. For a self-declared North Indian like him (actually, he hailed from somewhere on the Maharashtra-Karnataka border - at best, well, a borderline case!), a Bengali name might just have felt 'cooler' (or at least less of an irritation) than a Mallu one; in view of the powers he wielded, that was perhaps a chance worth taking!

Tuesday, July 05, 2005


The Monsoon has brought a spell of steady to intermittent showers and grey to purple skies which has lasted 10 days and counting.

Potholes have opened up all over the roads, even the newly relaid ones. Wonder why most potholes are circular - at certain strategic spots, they form intricate clusters of circles which make navigation a genuine challenge; but whatever be the size and depth of individual potholes, most are shaped like, well, portholes (I guess the two words do not exactly rhyme :)).

Maybe the explanation for the circularity of potholes is: because 'crop rings' are well, rings (groan!).