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

Thursday, August 08, 2013


Pazhoor is a village adjacent to the small town of Piravom in Ernakulam district, Kerala. Here, the swift-flowing Muvattupuzha river, deflected and twisted by a cluster of lateriate hillocks, flows directly eastwards for a short distance (only very few Keralan rivers show this Purvavahini behavior; another instance is the Chalakudy river near Vainthala).

Even by Kerala standards, Pazhoor is picturesque - the east-bound river bifurcates and rejoins, forming an islet that is partially sand bed, partially verdant grove; the banks are densely green; the southern bank is hilly and on a stretch of level ground right at the edge stands the Perunthrikovil Siva temple.

My first visit to Pazhoor happened on an afternoon. The weather was sporadically drizzly after a few days of persistently heavy rains. The river was a turbulent torrent and near its banks, whirlspools and eddies spiralled like galaxies. An elderly and frail-looking boatman sat idle in a small boat at the ghat near the temple. I thought of a trip across and asked him the fare. "Whatever!" he said vaguely. I hopped on and sat at the bow.

"Want to row?" asked the boatman, pointing at a spare oar. I was excited at this first ever opportunity. "Should one row on both sides alternately or...".

He had a crisp answer: "Do whatever you want. The control will be with me!". And it was. Despite the vigorous current, despite my haphazard beginner's efforts, the boat unerringly reached the ghat on the other bank and having picked up a couple more passengers, dropped me back near the temple.

Today I was there again. The river had swollen further and was almost brimful and the islet lay mostly submerged. The ferry was not operational. I sat for a while at the ghat, contemplating the coffee brown waters and rafts of plastic junk swimming by. The temple was quiet, except for some gentle Ashtapadi music being played on its public address system. Even as the day faded, the western sky cleared up briefly; a flash of evening sunshine burst forth and ignited the copper-plated temple kodimaram (flagpost) in a crimson flare.

The Myths


The Perunthrikovil temple is legendary - the 'Aitihyamala' devotes two separate articles to it, one more than to any other temple it describes. The foundation myth: funding its construction won for a wealthy young Brahmin, faced with imminent death as per his horoscope, a full reprieve and a long life. The temple apart, there are legends about many local worthies - and especially a blessed family of Kaniyars (astrologers) who still live nearby.

A fraction of the Pazhoor legends are enumerated in the list: "Pazhooril Pathu Bhagyam" (Ten ways in which Fortune favored Pazhoor). I will mention only one here: "Lucky, the Pazhoor Thachan was not a Nambuthiri Brahmin!". The story goes thus:

The Thachan (architect) who built the temple gained great appreciation for his work and contracts came from far and wide. As per the caste practices of the times, while working on a temple, a Thachan had to wear the Brahminical sacred thread. Since this particular Thachan was busy with work on some temple or the other, he had a thread on almost always.

Once, he was traveling by boat near Aleppey on some assignment when the king of Ambalapuzha, a Nambuthiri (Keralan History records at least a few Brahmin royal families), came by in another boat. On seeing the elegant and threaded Thachan, the king mistook him for an eminent Brahmin and saluting him, asked his name. A fateful detail here: the king was a stammerer.

The Thachan recognized the king. He reverentially stood up and answered: "M-m-me, th-th-thachan from P-p-pazhoor!" (for the thachan too suffered from stammering).

The king felt doubly insulted. On the one hand he had mistakenly saluted a man of lower caste and on top of that, the same low caste man had made fun of his speech defect. Kim bahuna? A fell stroke of the regal sword killed the poor architect.

In those days, Brahmahatya, the murder of a Brahmin was said to be the worst possible crime. Even worse, the murdered Brahmin would become a ghost of the nastiest sort and haunt the place for generations. So, since the Thachan was only a Thachan, the king of Ambalapuzha did not commit brahmahatya and the local people did not have to suffer from a Brahmarakshasa; ergo, it was a big piece of good fortune that the Thachan was not a Nambuthiri.

Of course, the story is absurd: The king killed the Thachan knowing fully well he was not a Nambuthiri; if he were one, no killing would have happened. Either way, Brahmahatya was not even a possibility and so the village of Pazhoor had no need for any exceptional luck. Needless to say, what the hapless Thachan's family felt about the whole business has gone unrecorded.

But God saw the truth - and did not wait: just as the Thachan fell lifeless, an incorporeal voice rang out from the inner sanctum of Perunthrikovil: "My Thachan's death pains me; as a mark of my love for him, I want the number of circumambulations done during the Siveli rituals reduced from three (the norm) to one!". This practice is apparently still followed at the temple. Of course, one wants to ask: "Is that all?!"; but myths - and gods - are like that only!

Aside: The Aitihyamala traces the history of the Ambalapuzha royal family to a Nambuthiri youth who hired a troop of Nair mercenaries to kill off other Brahmin families in his village and seize their property. Then why the fuss over the possibility of a single Brahmahatya?

The Temple:


On the outer walls of the circular inner sanctum are sculptural figures (each a little over a meter tall) including a couple of Yakshis (one holding on to a tree, the other with a looking glass), Parasurama, Rama, Krishna and so forth. The highlight among the lot are two emaciated ascetics in extravagantly contorted, dance-like poses. Their veins are prominent like those of Gandharan 'Fasting Buddha' statues; their skinny faces with pointy beards look vaguely Tao(?); and they wear skimpy cloth girdles that are not tightly secured and hang slack - and are explicitly shown to have failed in their primary function.

The walls between the sculptures are filled with murals. Most of them are badly faded but even among the handful that have survived are some curious specimens: (1) Ardhanariswara playing a little Kaliveena, a humble folk-fiddle( a bit like the Yeti playing a bagpipe, that!); a tiny devotee is shown worhipping the divine musician and the latter frowns back quizzically. (2) Vishnu sits on the snake-sofa (his 'Purnathrayeesa' pose from Tripunithura) and (surprise!) plays the flute. (3) Some more of Vishnu's adventures - Narasimha, Trivikrama,... (4) A divinity that I could not identify sits crosslegged on a lotus with a small idol in his lap (5)Four young fellows, three with blue skin, perform Ayudha puja to a bow and quiver (6) A glaring Ganapati, of the sort that is supposed to ward off the evil eye (7) Siva in his six-armed Mrityunjaya form sits on a lotus and pours potfulls of Amrit on his own head (Aside: I find the whole concept weird. Siva has already conquered Death. Then why does he need to selfishly keep bathing himself with the nectar of immortality? Is it a "Heal thyself!" message to the devotee?).

And there are trick carvings galore on the wooden ceiling of the passage leading into the inner enclosure - an elephant-buffalo double image, a group of monkeys in a complex knot, the challenge to the onlooker being to count the monkeys,.... A superbly executed wooden Garuda with an elephant and a tortoise in his talons hangs from the ceiling of the Balikalpura. One of the celestial eagle's wings is missing. Legend has it that when it was just finished, the statue tried to fly off and the sculptor quickly grabbed his chisel and slashed off a wing.

Not everything about the temple is great art - or even art. Adjacent to the plain and neat main Nadappura (a portico leading into the inner enclosure) of the temple, a new concrete nadappura has been built for no readily visible reason except that folks sponsored its construction (the pillars show several names prominently). To put it very mildly, this new object is an eyesore.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Qutub and Mister Tim

The travel writing of Tim MacKintosh Smith has been one of my recent 'discoveries'.

1. On approaching the Qutub Minar, MacKintosh Smith wrote thus ("The Hall of a Thousand Columns"):

From a distance, it could almost be a work of nature, perhaps the defoliated trunk of a giant redwood; as you approach, it grows, faster and bigger than perspective should permit; and then, the details come into focus - alternating sharp and rounded ribs, balconies melting geometrically into stalactites, broad bands of calligraphy ...

And here is what Yours Truly recorded a couple of years back, right here (the post titled 'Delhi - 2'):

From afar (the Metro line), the near-millennium old tower looks stumpy and clumsy of design. A two-kilometer walk from the Qutub station gets one up close and personal with the monument and now, with the higher storeys greatly foreshortened, its proportions turn amazingly graceful. Among the five stages, the lower three - fluted, faced with red sandstone and with balconies, intricate designs and calligraphy - are undoubtedly far more beautiful than the top two (those two have suffered from medieval restoration attempts). Indeed, the latter look like a pair of rooks from a cheap set of chessmen...


2. Mackintosh Smith has more to say on the Qutb: of the most exciting surfaces in Indo-Muslim architecture. Robert Byron, in one of his rare crass moments, dismissed it as 'Indian and painstaking'. REaching the base of the Minar, I wished I could bring him back and make him eat his words beneath the triumphant fanface of flutes, flanges and cornices.... Ibn Batuta said correctly that the Qutb was "without equal in the lands of Islam".

And I had written - with considerably less authority and panache:

"It was curious to see at the Qutb ornament in the Seljuk style carved out of stone instead of stucco. The virtue goes out of it in this other material; it becomes Indian and painstaking, and loses its freedom." - that was Robert Byron in 'Oxiana'. I have not seen Seljuk architecture.... (and) I can't dispute a Master's verdict. But I loved the Qutub, at least the lower three floors, loss of freedom and whatever!


3. In this segment, let me quote myself first:

Another enigmatic building here is the sad stump of the Alai Minar. Alauddin Khilji had planned it to be twice as tall as the Qutub but the project evidently did not get anywhere much (aside: if it did, Qutub Minar would have become ... well, Qutub Minor). The massive walls of Alai, to my surprise, have no neat masonry - no proper bricks or stone blocks - only randomly shaped stones embedded in mortar. Maybe the Qutub too has such a chaotic interior within its neat sandstone coat; maybe even the Taj Mahal, for all its marbly splendor. Indeed, if Wiki got it right, this rubble masonry resists earthquakes better than 'unit masonry'!

And let the last word on this be Mister Tim Sir's:

"Ala al Din.. wished to build in the western courtyard an even bigger minaret, but had completed only a third of it by the time of his death... My field of vision was filled by the rubble stump of the aborted mega minar, rising on its plinth like a gigantic flan-mould on a baking tray. It lacked the opulently carved freestone casing of the Qutb Minar and the crevices in its flanged surface were perches for brilliant green parrots... .

Martin (artist Martin Yeoman. He illustrates and cover-designs M'Smiths travelogs) was looking underwhelmed: "But it's all a con, I mean, these buildings aren't solid stone. They are just rubble with a skin on top."

"Ah, never judge a book by its cover..."

He wasn't listening. "Are they all like that?"

I nodded. "What, even the Taj Mahal?"

"Even the Taj Mahal!"


Note: And like Ibn Batuta did, M'Smith wanted to measure the Iron Pillar with his head scarf. A fence put up by the Archeological Survey botched his plans, just as it put paid to my own hopes of using my two-meter armspan to grasp the object in a backwards embrace.

I also thank M'Smith for introducing me to the Mishkal Masjid, Kozhikode - one of the most remarkable of Keralan buildings (am judging from pictures), one that I even did not know existed till the other day!