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

Saturday, September 23, 2006

A Drive To Shivthar Ghali

Note: Shivthar is a minor river that originates somewhere to the south of Pune. It plunges several hundred feet into the plains of Konkan in a three-stage waterfall. At the very bottom of this fall, called 'Shivthar Ghali', there is a cave where Samarth Ramdas, the 17th century saint used to meditate; and here, he is also believed to have dictated his 'Dasbodh' to disciple and scribe Kalyan Swami.

It is a Sunday during a break in the monsoon. The weather is clear and we are tempted to go on a long drive. The first hour is spent in getting beyond city limits, then one painfully struggles thru Katraj Ghat onto the highway to Satara. Half an hour of driving pleasure and it is time to branch out onto the road to Mahad. The countryside is scenic, with fresh greenery and beds of wild flowers, mostly yellow smithea and cosmas; in the distance are the hill-forts of Purandar, Rajgad and Torna - silhouetted in a very dark blue against the clear sky.

The road condition progressively deteriorates as one approaches Varandha ghat, at the western rim of the Deccan. The views from here are very impressive. The sharply stepped edges of the 'Deccan trap' are hidden in the soft green folds of monsoon vegetation; the Mahabaleshwar plateau appears far to the south, resembling in profile a huge blue ship - with the sharply rising corner of Arthur Seat as its prow; to the north, one can see several seasonal streams plunging down into Konkan and farther away, a chain of hill forts from Raigad to Rajgad. It is a 6 kilometer branch road from the Mahad highway to the bottom of Shivthar Ghali - very harsh conditions for anything more delicate than an SUV!

Shivthar itself is a letdown. The waterfall, though impressive from a distance, is rather skimpy up close. The cave has been converted into a modern shrine - there are near life-size statues of Ramdas and Kalyan Swami and lots of bathroom tiles and plenty of concrete all around. Overall, the place is no longer the meditative retreat it probably was for Ramdas - not really the place to unwind after four full hours of rigorous driving on mostly substandard roads. And it is also very hot - and stifling in the moisture laden air of the coastal plains. We quickly begin the return leg of the journey, up the ghat into the open, free-flowing winds of the Deccan and back home.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

'Satyanarayana' - The Truth

"Once there lived a Brahmin in Mathura, so poor that he had to live by begging. One day, he could not get even a grain of rice as alms; as he sat under a tree lamenting his misfortune, sage Satyanarayana appeared in the guise of a Fakir...."
- a song heard in the Bengali movie: 'Meghe Dhaka Tara'.

Intro Note: Narayana is one of the many names of the God Vishnu.

Satyanarayana ('Satya' + 'Narayana', meaning "True Narayana" or perhaps "Truth personified as Narayana") is a rare name in Kerala, where I grew up. But, among my early childhood memories is a certain 'Satyanarayana Puja' which used to be occasionally performed at our ancestral home by some immigrant priests from Karnataka. An unusual sweet dish called 'Sapatam' (a common dish in Maharashtra where it is known as 'Sheera') used to be prepared and served as 'Prasadam' and we all had to sit around and hear a story about how performing this particular Puja brings great material and spiritual benefits (and also how neglecting it could bring BIG trouble). There also used to be a picture at home of a standing Vishnu (four armed but with 'human complexion' not the usual blue skin) being worshipped by a wealthy looking couple and priests - with a caption 'Satyanarayana Puja'.

Later in life, I came to know that this Puja is very popular in Andhra and Karnataka and also that 'Satyanarayana' is a very common name in those states and to some extent even in Tamil Nadu ('Satyanarayanan'). The Puja setup is pretty much the same - the same kind of sweet, the same story, the narration of which is mandatory and so on... I even came to know a few gentlemen from Northern India and even Bengal named Satyanarayan ('Satyanarain').

The other day, I came to read in 'Banglapedia' about 'Satya Pir' a Sufi deity of Bengal; interestingly, Satya Pir was apparently also known as Satyanarayana among his Hindu devotees. The manner of his worship, as described there, is again, what I had observed in Kerala, quite a surprise; and even more interesting was the amazing level of syncretism and synthesis featured in this Bong cult - Islam, Sufism, Animism and Brahminical Hinduism all mixing into a rich 'sheera'. Here and here are some details.

It is also remarkable that over a period of a few hundred years this cult spread all over India (the Sufi flavor having worn off in transit) and also metamorphosed so as to conform to more orthodox standards of worship (of course, the associated story features a devout-enough Hindu undertaking a commercial voyage by ship, which was something well, unorthodox!). But one doubts if in the South of India, many devotees of Satyanarayana know His Sufi connection.

The above link between Vaishnavism and Sufism was not probably an isolated one. There seem to have been some identification between 'Khwaja Khidr', yet another Sufi deity and Krishna and I remember hearing a mystic bhajan 'O Qalandar Keshava' addressed to Krishna, visualized as a Qalandar, a Sufi mystic. Let me stop on that note.

Note 1: Even the name 'Narayana', for Vishnu is interesting in its own right. A possible derivation for that name would be 'the one related to Nara' (or even 'son of Nara'). Nara means 'man', so 'The Son of Man' could be a very real literal meaning for 'Narayana'. 'Son Of Man', of course, is a very esoteric Semitic epithet of God (and often used to refer to Jesus) so there could be deep connections here between .... well I donno!

Note 2: Here in Pune, there is a 'Sachapir (Satya-pir) Street'. Wonder how the name came about!

Note 3: The name of the prasada dessert 'sapata(m)' very likely derives from 'sabato' ('sabbath') = Saturday; this Puja is said to be best performed on Saturdays ("mandavasare...").

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Visapur And Ravi Varma

We leave Pune early and reach Malavli station (near Lonavla) by train around 8 am. Just over an hour's walk from here (past Bhaja caves) is where the trail to hill fort of Visapur branches off from the main pathway to Lohgad. The latter is a well-beaten and easy track but Visapur sees very few trekkers - part of the reason is that to reach the only entrance at the top, one has to do something approaching rock-climbing (albeit without special equipment) for nearly half an hour; and this climb is up a slender seasonal stream flowing down the hill-side. Mercifully, due to the rocks and boulders having got mysteriously arranged in a climber-friendly manner, the act is more of a strenous workout than a risky adventure.

The top of Visapur is an open laterite plateau with a thickly wooded knoll in the middle. There dont appear to be any shelter anywhere although part of the walls and bastions still stand. We see an annular disk of stone which, we are told, was used to mix the concrete for building the walls (the how of it is not clear to self); an image of Hanuman has been carved onto a stone wall - it is somewhat more than 'life-size' and painted a scarlet red that really jumps out of the black and dripping basalt around it. Much of the plateau is carpeted in seasonal greenery - with a generous sprinkling of tiny blue utricularia flowers (utricularia is a very short-lived insectivorous plant, wonder where its food supply comes from!).

Back in Malavli, we ask around for the litho-press, which Ravi Varma, the famous 19th century painter from Kerala had set up in this village(*). We are directed to a walled compound not far from the railway station - we are also told that the place has shut down 'long ago' and that nobody goes there. The place does not really look deserted; there seem to be some caretaker(s) who still stay(s) in the premises (none is readily visible though) and at the gates there is a board "No Entry. Beware of Fierce Dogs". The compound - it seems several acres in area - is thickly wooded so one can't make out much of the buildings in there. We are tempted to try and find the watchman and to buy our way in. But, we are also running out of time (it is well past midday and we are famished and need to get back to Pune) - so, we decide more details will have to wait for a future trip (and post).

* - Sometime in the 1890's, Ravi Varma and a European partner had set up a Lithographic press in Bombay to churn out affordable prints of his famous paintings; the venture closed down - the Firangi partner is often blamed for this failure. Then the artist moved the setup to Malavli ( the choice of the place seems very strange since it is remote and under-developed, even today), only to abandon it again sometime later - although not before "flooding the country with Calendar art", "making goddesses look very Maharashtrian" and "making the Sari fashionable" (although not the Marathi way of tying the Sari). I am told an art-house movie is being produced by noted director Shaji Karun on Ravi Varma's days in Bombay, the failure of his business and his relationship with a Marathi model - his muse in those troubled days.

Let me wind up with a quote from distant memories of a Hindi lesson we studied at school. It was an article by one Ramesh Sanzgiri (a very Marathi sounding name, that) on Ravi Varma: "When I was a little boy, there used to be a picture of Laxmi and another of Saraswati in our house, both by Ravi Varma. I used to think Laxmi resembled by aunt and Saraswati, my cousin sister. In those days Ravi Varma was very famous - he was as well-known then all over the country as, say, Lata Mangeshkar is today."