Friday, May 14, 2010

Thirur, the Other Capital of Kerala

Ripe mangoes falling down, birds and squirrels feeding on it, small children running to get a mango that just fell down in the passing winds. In the spacious lawn under the huge mango trees are the young and old, some relishing the sweet native mangoes. The mother mango tree looks down pleased. This is Thunchan Parambu, at Thirur in Malappuram district of Kerala. Where the old world charm of Kerala comes back, this was how a people took the bounties of nature few decades back. No more, they fell the trees for houses, offices, sold or or auctioned the mangoes for a pittance. This is the place where the Atchan, father, of Ezhuthu, Malayalam literature, Ezhuthachan, is believed to have been born and wrote. It is thus the cultural capital of the Malayali people. The vast area of the memorial has a subdued ambience, a soothing meditative quality, despite its location close to the small town. Students sit and study scattered here and there, thankfully the place is not yet crowded. Visitors walk silently through the beautiful lawns with only the chirruping of birds to accompany.

A discernible peace this, not easy to find in these days where boastful institutions and threatening buildings are the order. The rural landscape , harmonious buildings, all merge in to each other at Thunchan Parambu. It also reflects on the people behind. Though, one feels sad that the kind of predominance ought to have been given to this place is wanting. Just across the borders the way Tamilnadu honors poet-saint Thiru Valluar is a comparison. What Ezhuthachan too demands. That not many know about Thiru Valluar in Kerala, despite the composite Tamil past, despite the high content of Malayalam usages in Thirukkural, is something that deserves attention. The usual problems of Kerala as they say, but as it seems things are changing.

Poet-saint Thunchath Ramanujan Ezhuthachan, is one from the many in India who sang about Lord Ram, Tulasidasa, Kambar were all there, and the Adhyatma Ramayanam in Malayalam is more than a story, it has embedded in it great mystical revelations. Ezhuthachan wrote that in a unique way, as being told by a bird, Kili, called it ‘Kilipatu’ bird song. This it seems is a Parrot, which talks. And at Thunchan Parambu one can see a huge bird built of granite. The most popular work of Ezhuthachan is Harinama Keerthanam, what is a short rendering in the name of Hari, generally believed to be Lord Vishnu, whose chanting was part of Kerala culture till recently, it still continues in a small population. This is also a work with great wisdom and Ezhuthachan tells that it is accessible to all: low castes, women in their monthly periods, what is an oblique reference to the monopoly priestly Hinduism of the day. Where it was forbidden for low castes to learn the Vedas, Ved means knowledge. Shutting down the doors of knowledge, and these were all considered polluting by the rigid Vedic religion, rudiments of the belief still exist.

Thunchan Parambu is close to Thirur railway station on the Shorannur – Mangalapuram line and is not far from the Karippur International Airport. Nearest railway junction is Palakad, which has a beautiful railway station. Thiroor is an unassuming town with many pilgrim spots, mainly Hindu also Muslim, scattered around. This site of Thunchan Parambu is believed to be the same location where the great seer’s house was in the 16 th century and where the great renderings flowed. The place now has a Saraswathy Mandapam, for the Goddess of Learning Saraswathy, and during the Navaratri days young children are initiated in to the world of learning here, what is a unique Kerala tradition during Vijaya Dasami. It is also the time when the martial people were initiated, but this has almost ceased.

Thousands come here for the ritual called Vidyarambham when the Acharyas give the first words of formal learning, this is normally done writing in a silver plate with rice with the little fingers of tiny tots. The children obviously try to shake away from the prison of learning, and a lot of weeping can be seen, children are free by birth but human society binds them down by their learning is what can be said poetically. This Centre has a library of rare manuscripts, a light and sound show, auditorium and resting places. The picture gallery presents a well researched panel of Kerala culture and traditions, what can be very useful for students with a serious interest in these areas.

The ‘Kanjiram’, nux vomica, tree in the compound is celebrated and together with the parrot myth it is a metaphor of the inherent oneness of all beings, the parrot that sang the wisdom and the tree that gave the shade. The tree stands near a pond which must have been a household pond of the family. It is a practice in Kerala to have household ponds and wells, it was an advanced civilization from before the days of piped water and amenities. Eating mangoes falling down and watching the squirrels and birds having a feast one can sit at the place for hours and rejuvenate one self. No crowds of tourists, so far. The huge granite parrot and the iron stylus that was used by the poet, to write on palm leaf from before paper was invented, are land marks and the general terrain on the banks of the Nila is in tune with the Thunchan Parambu.

The Thunchan Memmorial Trust that runs the facility ought to get more support from the people that this becomes a better place with better amenities. In a state that underwent colonization at two levels, one priestly and another European, the crafty taking advantage of both, language and native culture are no more symbols of pride in Kerala. Aimed at revitalizing these this place has meanings beyond tourism and travel. Perhaps one could pay homage to the poet-saint had there been a place for that, for this is a place of sublime spirituality. An spot where one can light incense sticks, sit and meditate, wish that too comes. Many graceful politicians and beurocrats have helped in this venture, not the other kind so far. Many of the facilities are from donations that came from devotees and patrons and that is a tribute to Ezhuthachan, a light house in the Sidha tradition from south India. From the liberal faith of the Sidha traditions Kerala had undergone changes and Ezhuthachan was perhaps a turning point. Middlemen between man and god are not inevitable, that was a crucial message in the great works. That myth had damaged a people for long. Thunchan Parambu has a message, very much relevant for today’s Malayali.

The pictures, except the one of Palakkad railway station, mine, are from various sources.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Some Muslim Saints in Peninsular India

Before religions became water tight compartments there were times when the saints were respected, whatever their professed faiths. The story of Sant Kabir is well known, when Muslims and Hindus fought for his dead body both claiming it as theri own, body turned to flowers as believed and they both shared the flowers. The Durgah Sharif of Sufi saint Moinudeen Chisti at Ajmer is world famous. In south India there are innumerable saints from the Islamic faith who were laid to rest at various places. People throng these places, cutting across religious barriers. In the coastal belts of Kerala and Tamilnadu there are many such places variously called Durga sheriff, Pallivasal and Khabarstan. Interestingly many of the teachings of these saints, some of them from centuries before and dating from the days of the Prophet himself, transcend the radical and monotheistic Islamic tenets of today. There are verses they wrote which talk about life and spirituality almost on similar lines as the Sidhas, ancient saints of south India. No wonder in that as Islam was in Kerala long before it reached many of todays so called Islamic countries. And early Islam in India had least of pan-national Arab orientation, what now predominates.

The Bhima Palli in coastal Thiruvananthapuram, Sheik Peer Mohammed Sahib Durga at Thuckalai and Attinkara Pallivasal are some of these. Bhima Palli is believed to be the burial place of a close relative of the Prophet, a niece, and attracts large number of pilgrims both from Muslims and Hindus. The Urs festival, when the saints are believed to have merged in god, where people bring flowers, chaddar, pots of coins covered with sandal paste, etc is the major event here. The burial place of Kalladi Mastan, a sufi saint who lived in the recent past, is a sought after place within the mosque complex. In fact this ancient mosque has many rituals where the local temples are also connected, some of the Muslim saints, though saints do not have religion, who were linked to this place are also the Gurus of some famous Hindu saints. Kerala just across the Arabian sea was having trade relations with Arabia from ancient times, that from before the Islamic faith was born, how we find some of the most ancient mosques in Kerala. Many of these are built just like Hindu temples though now being replaced by Arab looking structures and minarams. The ancient Cheraman mosque at Kodungalloor was recently rebuilt this way when several others continue to retain their old grace and simplicity.

The Thuckalai durgah of Sheikh Peer Mohammed sahib, on the road to Kanyakumari from Thiruvananthapuram, is where the mystic left his mortal body as believed. Peer Mohammed sahib, fondly called "Appa", as they call "Garib Nawaz" at Ajmer, is revered by all in the region and annual festivities attract huge crowds mainly from Tamilnadu and Kerala. This saint who is believed to have lived few centuries before has innumerable stories about his doing other worldly acts. The local people believe that Peer Mohammed sahib, who earlier remained at Peermedu in Kerala, after whom the place got the name, and before that at Tenkasi in Tamilnadu, came to Thuckalai during the days of Travancore kings . There are stories that tell how he made the arrogant people in the area, including the kings, humble by some small gestures. One of these pertains to the building of the fort wall, which had to be changed after the saint got involved. A simple unassuming ascetic who used to roam around he is supposed to have been happy with children and playing with them. The final day of demise was also with them and he chose a unique way of parting, with only the children knowing it and their making it a play. It is here that the durga now stands, nearby is the khabar of another person, a Hindu follower. There are views that pure Islam allows only the worship of all pervading supreme god head, Allah, as some one told at the mosque. But that is an abstraction that only few can reach. Human beings are different and they need their own beliefs in tune with their capacities. At another level it is possible to fathom all as one, what is possible for the blessed and the mystics. Everything has its place, man needs to be humble to take it.

The Attikara Pallivasal near the famous pilgrim town Thiruchendoor on the eastern coast is another interesting place with the burial places of two saints, presumably husband and wife, in the coastal plains. These Muslim saints came to India from Arabia to spread the words of the prophet as believed. Some consider it as an old Hindu goddess, and the differences hardly matter to the people. Islam must have been a liberating force at a point of time, with the rigidity of caste and priestly hold in Hinduism, and such changes are possible. Islam disallows middlemen, priests between man and god is notable. Attinkarai Thai, or mother on the river bank as the people call her, was named Fathima and both Hindus and Muslims come here in their search for solace. It is on the banks of a seasonal river which once must have been perennial. The ancient looking mosque here used to be a place where mentally disturbed people used to come and stay for healing. This practice is reduced now due to some government regulations but the crowds of pilgrims come throughout the year. People light incense sticks and bring flowers to be placed on the tomb and some also put green blankets on the tomb. Giving alms to the poor is mandatory here and almost every pilgrim does that. Attinkara Palli Vasal is reachable from Thirunelveli from where there are regular buses to the place. There are comfortable places to stay at reasonable rates and the place attracts a lot of pilgrims from Kerala.

There is another interesting mosque which looks just like a temple at Pottal Puthur, near Tenkasi in Tamilnadu. The huge granite structure looks like a temple and is likely to have been a Hindu temple in ancient times and the rituals here are almost similar to those in Hindu temples. These are simple folks who live around and the Hindu – Muslim divide found in other places in India are invisible here. The pilgrims who come here offer oil for the wick lamps and also incense sticks and some give brass lamps as an offering. Indeed it is one place where the borders between two faiths, Hinduism and Islam, melt away. Watering the trees in the mosque compound , water taken from a nearby river and carried on head, is a major ritual here. Large number of people can be seen doing this ritual, very eco-friendly that in a water scarce region. The use of sandal paste in the rituals is another feature here that sounds like Hinduism. It is another matter that these were once areas with Jainism and Budhism and both have disappeared. In fact many if the Hindu temples must have been Jain or Budhist at some point of time. Some other faiths earlier, as time moves on faiths change is a reality. The Nagerkoil temple nearby was Jain shrine as late as a century back as history tells.

Pictures: One from top, Thuckalai Durga, two, Bhima Palli mosque, three, Pottal Puthur and four and five, collecting water and a girl carrying water from the river at Pottal Puthur mosque

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Kasargod – Laterite Country

Standing at Bekal, the huge laterite built fort near Kasargod, you think of the bygone days, the soldiers of Tippu Sultan, the uniformed British sailors, long lost sounds of marching orders. Now it is silent, the Archeological Survey of India looks after the ruined fort being given a face lift. The watch towers here give a breath taking view of the coast, the sickle shaped beach with palm trees can be seen up to great distances. Obviously a reason why the fort was built here, it is also shielded by natural rock formations. Bekal is grooming up to be the most sought after tourism destination of the far north of Kerala. There is a corporation floated to promote tourism here, the lawns and amenities tell about some work going on. These are laterite plains and the myriad uses of laterite here makes one wonder, temples, houses and other buildings made from laterite are beautiful. Some of the ancient ponds with intricately laid laterite sides are artistic creations that call for preservation. At Bekal the fort makes profuse use of this material from the pre-concrete era, with massive structures that makes one spell bound. There are step wells for drinking water, of course now dead, ammunition depots, secret caves and hide outs for attack and defense, all made of laterite. The door opening to the sea is still intact and must have seen several gun salutes and cannon fires.

The coastal plains of Kolathunad, the old name of the region, have the Kannada and Malayalam cultures melting in to each other. The theyyams, dance dramas, of the temples here are famous and the Islamic and Hindu beliefs co-exist with great resilience. The people show unusual grace and humility and are in general cautious of those from the south, this except at the hills on the east where the settlers from south have taken over. Once part of Mahodayapuram, the Cheras ruling from Kodungalloor as Perumals, it later came under various dynasties including those from Karnataka, the Nayakas. Later Hyder Ali and Tippu Sultan took over, till they were defeated by the British. It was these two, Tippu and the British, who added many features to the fort as believed. Like the spaces for cannon fire, tiled bungalows and sea facing entrances. The Nayars here trace their ancestry to the Perumal era martial lords. Muslims speak both Malayalam and Kannada and also another dialect. One can see name boards in Kannada all over and the population at many places are mostly Kannadigas. The rich green plains of South Kanara are just across the borders and the terrain is contiguous. The coastal marshes and mangroves of Kasargod are luxuries that the rest of Kerala lost out, but south Kanara retains. As ancient Kerala is believed to be from Kanyakumari to Gokarnam, the changes show the wars and annexations in between.

The larger Kerala culture can be predominantly seen and the universal traits of Kerala, as among the Nayars, are likely to be from the Chera past, though many assimilations must have taken place since. There is also a flourishing Theeya community. In a strange connection the influence of the Tulu culture here has reached across Kerala and the Padmanabhaswamy temple, in the far south at Thiruvananthapuram, has Tulu Brahmins as priests. Perhaps these are traces from the days of the Vijayanagara empire that once held sway over the local kingdoms of Kerala. Due to some curious historical links the Travancore kings adopt from the royalty here, Kolathunad, when without heirs. Kasargod has its unique features and the Malayalam spoken here is difficult for others, more so that of the Muslims. The name Kasaragod , as some scholars maintain, is from Kasara, nux vomica tree called Kanjiram in Malayalam. Perhaps this was a forest of the tree as the nearby town is called Kanhangad, which came from Kanjirakad as some say. The place finds mention in most ancient Hindu works and the nearby Ezhimalai, also called Elimalai, is a land mark. Even the Portuguese sailor Vasco da Gama took this coastal hill shaped like a rat, hence the name eli-mala, for his voyage to Kozhikkode, as the travel records tell.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Kovalam - From Maharajas to Tourists

Those days there was only one hotel at the Kovalam beach, or that is the blurred image in my mind. I as a kid visited Kovalam way back in the 1960s with family, no idea why they took me there. The sparkling sea waves lashing the rocks gave an unforgettable scene. This hotel, I feel, is the present Sea Rock. But it has lost all identity in an over populated crowd of hotels now. Kovalam was always dear to me, when studying and working away from Kerala I used to spend a part of my vacation at Kovalam, lying that I am going back. Having a beer and tuna at the beach hotels, that was in the eightees. The way Kovalam changes is amazing, every year it grows. The palm groves are no more visible, only buildings, crowds, but then that is how life is.

Kovalam was originally a pilgrim spot, where people worshipped ancestors on the black moon day of Karkidakam, when it was called Avadu Thurai. The place was also famous as the birth place of Kovalam Kavikal, considered mile stones of ancient Malayalam language. Then it became the place where the Travancore kings went on holiday and during the British period also the European officers. It was in the seventees that the place became a haven for the then breed of hippies. Back packers arrived in their hordes and a sub-culture of anarchy thrives, with it drugs, drinks and women. Kovalam became an island in the conservative Kerala society. Liberal values got mixed with the vices, later to balance. But the native is still not a sought after species at Kovalam, it has its own religion and rituals.

Kovalam beach is always in vibrant mood and the small bay formation and the hillocks add to the charm. One can swim in the sea for most part of the year, where often the same tourists come almost every year, like migratory birds. There are unique features in Kovalam and many hotel boys and owners get married to foreigners, many own land here and have made it their home. The relationship is enduring, simple villagers love the tourists and as a German friend once told me, it is a search for authenticity that drives westerners. Their culture has become too fake, appearences alone matter now, how places like Kovalam with genuine people beckon them. I have made many friends at Kovalam and one of them now runs an art gallery cum cafe at the junction. The sketches he do on the nearby bay of Vizhinjam are cute. But the one friend I always talk about is another English man, I met him in 1985 perhaps. An young artist from Birmingham, who worked for ten months every year and spend two months at Kovalam. He had come to identify with the local people and talked about tourists in third person.

Do you know why these ladies and men lie down on the beach, he once asked me, I said tanning, sun bathing, and he said no. It is to show off their bodies he said, it is a kind of reverse voyeurism, he added. I said what is wrong, god has made beautiful bodies to enjoy what is wrong if they show it. And for the local people, from a severely conservative society, this is a major attraction for them. Seeing the semi-clad men and women, before the arrival of the pornography sites in the internet this was an escape for the sex starved people. For in south India to show off body parts for women can be a serious offense, it is always neatly packed in sarees. So the only option for the natives is to see these blondes, how they crowd the beach. It is not quite natural, all animals have such rights, but that is how human social values are. So Kovalam has its functions, and for puritans to say that it is all indecent is an amount of self denial, some of them peep, some stare, some stand and watch for minutes. And those from liberal cultures realize how precious there wares are. But Kovalam does have its negatives, like the money power of tourists making the native sub-human, the differential sexual freedom for foreigners and natives, the begging culture of native traders and vendors who try to please the foreigner and look down at the local people. But end of the day what endures is the sparkling waters of the sea, the infectious joy that everyone shares on the beach where the cultures melt.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Sabarimala - Fusion at the Forest Hills

Come December and this one place becomes a melting pot, of people from all southern states. Others come too but the presence is predominantly of the four southern sisters, call it Dravidian if you wish.Dravidian is from Thiru Avidam, as some scholars tell, meaning the sacred place, though much misunderstood. It is the territory of the saivite Sidhas, saints. Clad in black and chanting they come to Sabarimala from all over and the place reverberates with the calls of ‘Swami Saranam’. Announcements in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam echo in the forest hills. It is the abode of the rain forest god, Ayyappa, within the Periyar Wild Life Sanctuary in Kerala. Within the thick forests nestles the small temple town, opened once a year. At other times it is restored back to the wild animals: tigers, leopards, wild elephants, assorted others. They open the temple at few other times too, but it remains closed for most of the year. In the December cold and mist it is a trip that gives one energy for a year. One can see endangered wild life, like lion tailed macaques, also other monkeys, boar, flying squirrel, and also wild elephants at times.

This is a unique place which makes one see for real the Hindu dictum of all life as one family, as said in ‘Vasudhaiva Kudumbakam’, every living thing is god. Even the animals are called by the honorific term ‘Swamy’, thus the donkeys brought as drought animals here, called Kazhutha in Malayalam and Tamil, are ‘Kazhutha Swamy’. The police posted here, who get some privileges like wearing khakhi casuals, are ‘Police Swamy’. Every one, with out any possibility of showing their class, caste or position, get addressed as ‘Swamy’ as well. It is seeing the god in everything and everyone. That is the core concept of the ‘Ayyappa’ belief. It is a lot of freedom, to wear the dress one feels like, or just enough to keep modesty. If a classless society is a dream in Communism, it is for real here. It is also a place where the deep ecology debates are in practice, altruistic concerns for life around a part of life. There are places where one feeds to wild animals, though it is rare to see this in practice, seen all over in Tamilnadu where monkeys are seen fed at forest temples.

Long back the shrine was inside a dense jungle and trips of unarmed pilgrims to the forest shrine was then a matter of life and death. Family members waited with alarm at home till the pilgrims returned. But rarely do wild animals attack them, the devotees of what is perhaps their gods too. Presently there are well laid roads and facilities, but till fifty years back this was different and the place had meager facilities and lot of wild animals. But the forests have shrunk and the region has gone under massive monoculture plantations of rubber, it is no more cold here and the river is dammed. This adds to the general warming of the climate. The management of the temple is by the Devaswom Board, a body of petty politicians, but is for couple of years now under a Commissioner, a creative IAS cadre officer, appointed by a Court of Law. The results are visible and the general face lift that the temple received raises questions about who should manage the place. There are amble facilities like free drinking water for pilgrims and general discipline are visible.

The forest shrine on a hill top can be approached after a dip in the holy river Pampa, the hill gods look down on the hordes of pilgrims that flock here. The traditional baggage is a two headed cloth bag called ‘Irumudi’ which is filled with the worship materials like coconuts, rice, camphor, incense and other things. Originally this must have been the luggage for survival in the long haul. The ‘irumudi’ is ritually carried on head, whatever the status of the devotee. The climb to the hills is hard and the hills are steep and rocky. The trip is not for everyone, only those who follow a rigorous daily schedule of following a certain life style for forty one days shall qualify to visit the shrine. The pilgrims come from far and wide and to them it is a return to nature trip. Sabarimala pilgrims from various sttates can be seen cooking food, eating and taking rest at the road sides and this is indeed an escape from the routine. Those without the rigour of month long penance and restraints and those without the Irumudi are not permitted to enter at the holy entrance, called sacred eighteen steps. It is an ascetic life that the deity here represents and the protocols try to preserve that dignity. There can be questions of whys, like why not women, why vegetarianism, why the caste Brahmin control, but these are questions best left to the saints.

It is the rainforest hills, springs abound even today, where, it is believed, the saintly Ayyappa sat on penance and there is a belief that the lady Sabari, after whom the hill shrine is named, waits nearby as goddess Sabari for taking his hand in union. But this union can happen only when the place has no fresh visitors, as agreed upon between Ayyappa and Sabari. With millions coming in every year bringing more and more people this is still not possible, as the legend tells. There are theories that this was once a Budhist shrine, going by the chants and other rituals, but presently the rites are the right of a Nampoothiri priest, as in most other temples in Kerala. The nominal authority of a local royal family called Pandalam Raja, originally linked to the Pandya kings as believed, remains over the temple whose representative still sits at the place. The place also has a unique story of Hindu – Muslim brotherhood and a Muslim place of worship is also there in front of the temple. This is of ‘Vavar’, a close aide of the warrior Ayyappa as believed, whose descendants come and sit at the allotted place at the shrine during festivals and are piously honored by the pilgrims. The ‘Kadutha Swamy’ linked to a martial family, is also having their place at the shrine, several other families have their nominal rights at this temple.

A trip to the trekker’s god inside the forests is indeed a return to nature, in a fast life modern culture. In the 1950s the wood temple caught fire or was set on fire by miscreants. Later it was rebuilt with granite and copper and then the fame brought in huge numbers of people. As legend tells Ayyappa is born of Lord Siva and Lord Hari, the Vishnu principle, it can be assumed that this was an order which brought together the clashing Saiva – Vaishnava sects of the Hindu belief. Like Muslims and Hindus now, this too needs as Ayyappa. South India it seems was predominantly Saivaite till the Vaishnava – Jain, Budhist beliefs came in the recent past. The southern western ghats of India, one of the world’s richest zones of biodiversity, has its own cultures and beliefs and Sabarimala retains a part of that vibrant model.