Friday, March 14, 2014

Village Views from Tamilnadu

Well, it is a temple door, intricately carved and at least fifteen feet tall. These are unique to south India where palaces and temples had such big doors. No human effort in those days would have opened it, save a push by elephants, perhaps why these metal projections are there. Dating from an age before the modern wars, when making war was no sin, next door enemies fought for cattle, paddy and gold it was all necessary. The images carved are all from myriad shapes, very often these may have some sweet erotic postures hidden in between. These are relics from a past when love making was no big sin. The rural areas of Tamilnadu, just across the hills that separate the two states, have their subdued charm. It is far removed from the mad rush that over populated Kerala carry and its values of fake western adaptations.
The little girl who watched as I clicked a picture of the village ambiance was amused, more, was curious who this is. Perhaps she could make out that this man is from the other side of the hills, Malayalathan some of them call it. Every house has its 'kolam' a ritual drawing done in front, every morning, it is part of Tamil culture since ages. Perhaps Kerala had this too at some point in time but has since lost to western cultural homogenization. And the series of houses had the bicycles kept ready, that is the major means of transport among these unassuming people. Majority are farmers and the river nearby makes the region fertile, an ancient canal winds through the paddy fields and hillocks. The fields are all rich with various crops and paddy is a major crop.  

Come evening and the shop keepers and vendors line up on both sides with with a profusion of eatables, drinks. They sell ginger coffee, boiled peas, tender root of palm trees, so on. The towns and villages here always have the ubiquitous vendor of palm drinks, padhani they call it. This is sold in leaf made cups and if one takes a over doze it may cause a amount of intoxication. One can devour fresh fish caught from the river fried on make shift hearths and also a series of meat shops who sell soup. It is all priced at reasonable rates and the people crowd around. It is also an occasion for socializing. The shops selling alcoholic drinks, written in big letters 'Bar' sell choice drinks and one can have an assorted variety of items to go with. From eggs, fish, lever, mixtures, friend nuts of an immense variety, and here too the difference is indeed big. In Kerala usually there
shall not be any variety of food in bars, they just gulp down the hard drink and run away, like having a quickie.  By the road sides you get fruits of various hues and also egg preparations. The shops offer poratta - sett a mix of chicken with gravy and wheat bread called paratta. Some of the shops offer biryani, a rice and meat dish popular and mostly sold by Muslim community shops. But history says that the chief local deity several centuries back used to love the very same dish, rice with meat. Who knows about what all happened interim, as beliefs came and left and many got mixed up and assimilated. Here the soup is sold in bowls and one can also have a plate of fried lever to go with. The people who throng the place are occasionally  coming out from the bar and it is only proper that one takes care. For these are regions where people a get fierce and fight for what to others look silly. A politically volatile community they can get inflamed if the leader is ridiculed. And the response shall not be the one expects in such cases.

It is majority Hindus here, only a very small portion are converted to Christianity, again unlike Kerala where a huge population did and they have their own subculture. The gods are not all vegetarian and up in the hills there are temples where they offer meat and drinks as offerings. For a people who partake meat and drinks it is only proper that they offer their gods the same.Though there are strictly vegetarian Gods, where the Brahmin priests alone are allowed to enter. The other temples have more freedom and one can do the rituals oneself, the untouchability is not there, all castes are welcome. Of course the vegetarian Brahmin caste seldom come here as they consider it polluting and keep a safe distance. Even if they come for festivals they keep away from the meat and drinks ass they are consider it low in status, so also the gods. With all due honor for vegetarianism and the health benefits, spiritual benefits, one cannot also make it an obsession driving people to guilt for what is their traditional diet. The notions that only vegetarian gods are good as some powerful groups  maintain and the meat eaters are frowned upon is unhealthy. It is all in the mind, and it is also a dynamics of social power politics.   Poor folks majority shift to less menacing gods. How the conversions take place, when one's  Gods are captured, as some of them think, the people flock elsewhere. 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Neeleswaram: Chaliya Porattu

Away from the fast pace life is the serene ambiance of Neeleswaram, Kasargod. At the northern most periphery of Kerala the town is named after Neelakanda, Lord Siva. In this palm fringed land of paddy fields, laterite hills and Theyyams there is a palpable peace. And as if to tell what she is Neeleswaram has a literal forest right in the middle of the town, the Mannanpurathu Kavu. An ancient Sacred Grove spread over several acres, with a picture perfect pond lined with laterite. Here people can be seen taking rest inside the cool shades of the thick forests. Most of it is wild, no one disturbs, save stray animals.

Basically a Hindu town, with some acculturate Muslims, it is a simple unassuming people here. The only Christian community presence, harbingers of 'development', in the region is in the hills towards the Karnataka borders where settlers have made a Kottayam complete with the values and life styles.  The gigantic trees in many of the Kavus, Sacred Groves, here point to the ecosystem in olden days. Presently it is laterite hills all over and the laterite is profusely used in buildings, the temples, houses, all, and the ponds made of laterite in the region show great craftsmanship. Sandwiched between the forest hills of Kodagu, South Kanara and the seas Kasargod has its rare charm. May be the region underwent lateritization, through wrong interventions, in what was once a rain forest ecosystem. And there is a general decadence though, perhaps due to the break up of the traditional agrarian economy.        

And it is here that the Chaliya Porattu festival takes place. It is a privilege of the Chaliya community, who can abuse anyone that day, including the gods. Poratu, a kind of  fancy dress parade, has its customary criticism of all. No one objects. Poratu starts at the Chaliya community Goddess temple. The Padma Saliyas, now called Chaliyas, are traditional weavers. Industrial production has weakened them is obvious but they are catching up.  And the Porattu is staged in between the Siva temple and the Goddess temple, street plays that the community members enact could be the oldest dramas in the land.

It is not religious in the normal sense, they dress up in great variety, use a language what could be termed immoral at other temples, are free to ridicule any community or people on this occasion. The God himself is ridiculed as of no use. Coming in front of the temple, at times drunk, and chiding is not seen elsewhere. It also has a taste of the famous Bharani festival at Kodugalloor, though the language is much less hard. The sexual overtones make the womenfolk blush, men jeer.  No sins here, no satvic pretensions. They all celebrate the no hold barred attitude for a day.    

They appear one after other, the hardy Muslim butcher with the goat; the money lusty Kongini Brahmins; always dancing, scantily clad white woman; the ever complaining potter’s wife; the khakhi clad policeman; the range is quite exhaustive. It is a big crowd that assembles and this includes the local heavy weights like the olden day rajas, nobility, all of whom get attacked. The woman balloon seller comes and complains that someone helped fill air in the balloon, and then pumped in and filled her too, now she is herself a balloon and not able to walk. She is dressed miserably pregnant.

Another batch of youth, dressed as fashionable girls, displays their under bellies, also carry placards that say ‘wear your sarees to cover the under belly, not display it, or expose and  enjoy, then don’t shout peedanam’.  The Muslim butcher is asked by the dhoti clad Kongini Brahmins to get out ‘Edo Maple, Erangu Porathu,  Ithu Ngade Kovilu’, to get out from the temple premises, and the Moplah, Muslim, is pretty furious and tells ‘ 'Edo Kongini Pattare, Rahasyamayi Pothirachy Thinna Karyam Nammalu Vilichu Parayum, Mundandiri Avide’ That is, you Kongini Pattar, I will shout about your secret beef eating habits, or shut up’. So on the Poratu goes, what makes one think of obvious parallels in real life, and it is a time of merry making, fun and gaiety.

It is a faith of another kind, not ostracism and denials. It tells one about the play of life, the actors are all there, recreated. And no wonder the place has a strong presence of Communists, whose religiosity is quite secular and popular, they drink and eat meat and the local deities are many of them similar in habits. Though the major temples are all mostly Satvic. How often  the temples here see fights, one group representing the satvic model and the other rajasic, the Poratu is from the latter school. In a sense it is a Hindutwa versus Communist Hindu tussle that. They don't seem to fight here at Neelewswaram, may be afraid that it will sound like another Porattu. Time they honor each other, be at peace, both are needed. This land of Theyyams, it seems, refuses to be tamed, they have their weird ways that do not fit in to the conventional Hindu paradigms of faith. Or that of other religions. And that perhaps retains the easy going nature friendly culture here, also the ecosystem, unlike elsewhere in Kerala.

The lone white woman with colored hair, exposed thighs and a smattering of English has an urge for too much love, as she says, and is always carrying a hand held fan, its too hot she says. When another group comes with a lawn mower and offers free service, to clear the over grown under growth if any, as they announce. What else can one do but laugh, when the elite women blush, older women smile showing the toothless gums. Poratu is mischievous and as of now no moral police have come to take action, only the fake police is there, hope it goes on, what is life without some fun. And an occasional mix up happens when some of them, having had one drink too many, enacts their own Porattu. Others explain, that is Porattu alright, but not Chaliya Porattu.  But close near there are old palaces now in ruins, which point to the historic changes, post-colonial disregard to heritage. Neeleswaram was the seat of a small kingdom, from the many in Kolathunadu of north Kerala, what was one from the federal structure of the western coast till the arrival of the Muslim invaders, like Hyder Ali of Mysore and the Europeans. But the ruling values and royalty fairly retained positions till the British period, general decay affecting all institutions later. And the Porattu continues unaffected.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Fernandez and the Violin

It was a sultry summer noon at the beach. Usually crowded in the evenings there were not many people around. A fiercely mustached man  with his bird cage, a fortune teller, walked around in the sun, looking for clients.  The lone ice cream vendor with his mobile cycle shop was sitting at the band stand. Couple of people slept inside as the hot winds blew the beach sands all around.

Sea was calm and far away in the outer sea one could see a ship in anchor, another boat nearby. Eagles floated around high above in the skies, watching the land below. Some boys on a bike came and left, perhaps those slipping off from class at the nearby college. A police jeep came, took a round, left. No one got out, such was the heat. Another family came in a car, may be mother, father and adult children, they too took to the shades of the band stand.  

And then he came, a clean man ever smiling, in graying old pants, shirt ducked in, a faded belt tied around,
and carrying a violin. The case of the violin was far too old, but he kept it dear as could be guessed. He came silently, sat near the ice-cream vendor, they made some small talk. After a while slowly the man stood up, came to the centre of the band stand and started playing the violin.

He played it well, swaying, as if Yehudi Menuhin in concert at a city hall, as the lashing sea waves gave the symphony. It went on for some time, then he stopped, and holding the violin approached each one around. He did not beg, just stood there, his eyes mischievously asking for small change. When someone gave he smiled, when someone did not give then also he smiled, fine, no complaints. Again went and sat near the friend, the ice cream vendor.    

Later he went out from the band stand looking for more clients. There were a pair of lovers sitting close to the sea under an umbrella, and some boys were playing in the waves and his aim was to entertain them. As he moved away I asked the ice cream vendor, who is that man. That is a very rich man, his name Fernandez. Owns a villa in the city and estates but will not take anything from home.

His wife and children are all very rich as well, they are in the United States as someone tells, he said. An Anglo-Indian he comes every day, sings and collects the donations, then goes to the nearby bar, takes his quota of drinks and takes food. Returns back to the beach and till evening he entertains the people, gets what they give. I looked towards the sea where he went, he was trying to play for the love birds, who seemed not very keen though.  But he has no complaints. Left adding one more to the beautiful people met in this life. 

Monday, January 7, 2013

Musings on Womanhood and India

In  the year circa 2013 looking up from down south Delhi is showing paradoxes. Cruelty to women come as a routine, though we have a progressive regime in power, a pious lady, that an Italian by birth, is in charge of the ruling party. Seen here being fed cakes on her birthday, but through a poster, all that the fan can achieve. This purdah clad Muslim woman is one among the millions of Indians who love her. And in Delhi member of a minority community, or so called, is the Prime Minister. What more can we do, ask the man on the street. But they call Delhi now the 'rape capital' and the stories media celebrate are repulsive. As waves of persecuting women appear in news who can stand silently. The questions are obviously intriguing, how come, is it the whole backlog of inhibitions and denials suddenly exploding after the communications revolution. Or is it the cell phones, internet and social networks, triggering vices in a conservative society. Or is it still a counter reaction to the glorification of all past traditions that the political Hindu fold unleashed in the immediate past. Though well meaning it had its traps. Or all of these  together, anyway, as it is the scene is depressing.

And as some of the feminist writers scream aloud about the ugly Indian male the drift in gender distance is growing by the day. Men fear women and vice versa, no sane society can exist that way. They have genuine concerns, just as India's dalits, tribals, there are chronic issues that the India polity refuses to acknowledge. And some of the women writers do get poignant, but given the general trend these end up mostly as cries in the wilderness. Kalpana Sharma, a leading name, has been writing in the mainstream 'Hindu' newspaper for long, with concrete data, of how women in India are a prejudiced lot. There are reports of female infanticide, dowry related persecution, skewed male - female ratios, but the facts remain looked at with disdain. Kalpana's writings in the 'Hindu' did not make much impact even among the Hindus. Perhaps the ruling faith has its own limitations, that is not to say that the other faiths are exemplary, all religions have bias towards women, tell the feminists. But things are changing with the new internet revolution and women so far closed behind iron curtains of custom and faith are breaking doors and speaking out. A cleansing is in order, pent up neurosis shall get cured.

It seems days of the Amazonian women are coming back. Perhaps the legendary Nayar women, to take a native model. The internet and cell phone are breaking barriers and apart from the freedom it gives, also the options of anonymity, the flood of porn material is also breaking open ground. Human beings too have instincts and one sex trying to attract the opposite is a natural urge, no clergy can stop that. But religion with its ideas of sin from the middle ages has pushed healthy, natural sexuality under the carpet. And now the relatively open sexual values of the west are creeping in to the conservative Indian society. Many of these sites may be healthy but some are plain sick. What ca trigger violence in young delinquent people. Some of the placards at the Delhi meet of girls shouted that they shall decide whom to share their bodies with. The violence to womanhood at the Delhi gang rape can make people insane. And that means the volcano is erupting, and that creates shocks in a conservative society. The new dress codes young women have adopted of late, from the west, are indeed provocative in a society denied normal sex for ages. And as if to add there are also archaic colonial laws that linger on, without change. What takes male - female interaction outside marriage taboo, given the sickness of the almost all male police force it gets creepy. And the past process of decolonization, through the native resurgence, sadly, became counter productive in the immediate past, it became regressive. And the scene in general shows threats of future anarchy unless  properly channelized.

Not that Delhi alone is the accused, spread over India random cases of persecution are being reported. Apart from the media psychology of taking in news that sells at a point of time, they run for advertisement revenue and news is just a bait, there are wrong messages being sent out. Soon women may run away from those Indian men going abroad, packs of Indian men are prowling upon women as gang rapes are the current fashion, or so we are told. Within India in a strange mindset the tourists are permitted to wear what they wish and scantly clad women can be seen across the country. Their self dependence, freedom are attractive to the new generation and naturally so.   The denial of Indian society applies only to the desi women. But looking back far the native Indian, call it Hindu, idiom was never this bleak. The caste prejudices too seems to come from the near past. For the tribals are hardly affected by these values. The gods were almost all with wives, some more than one and many far more. So the drift seems from some where in the middle ages, when the present model of Hinduism came to hold sway. So also with the great Rishis, saints, most of whom had wives, so the contemporary concepts of Brahmacharya, Satvic life, no idea how much of these are subverted by vested interests, seems not very old. May be it is time for a change, Sanathan Dharma has always adapted to change.

In any case honor for women cannot be looked at as a feminist concern, for women give birth to, nurture, men and women, the new generations. Women driven neurotic shall mold a generation that is neurotic as well. How thinkers tell that the ills of the country are linked to status of women. Even the present ecological catastrophe. The unnatural curbs on male - female relations and the notions of sin attached to the physical functions of the human body are counter productive and a stage has come when these cannot wait to be redefined. It is only proper that the society cures itself of the sickness, where the Saints have a big role to play. This not the ones who make money and fame by parroting old phrases but those who can relate to the society and its hidden problems. They have enough material available if they are to go by ancient traditions and practices. There are rudiments of healthy practices in India where women are honored in native idiom. Perhaps from before the incoming Semitic faiths also influenced the native faith. And there are parallels. The rituals of Mother Goddess worship, with young girls carrying sprouting seeds come from this list of innumerable cults of India's agrarian past. There were also celebrations of girls coming of age, puberty, where sexuality was no sin. All these got lost in between, bringing in a potent mix of unhealthy trends, both imported and native. Gang rapes have their genesis, it is in a sense the sickness of a society that appeared in a few morbid men. While calling for exemplary punishments this angle cannot be ignored.    

Back in Kerala, where too a series of molestation and rape reports are in the news, the ruffle of the once stagnant equilibrium is visible. Chronic morbidity is showing up, it was so far hidden and far too may cases of inter-family sexual violence are also making head lines. Indeed the very fabric of the holy culture seems breaking up and for those concerned they cannot look away.  The silent suffering of women is no more confined to kitchens. A more healthy male - female relationship, a more healthy sexuality are indeed required and that has to get socio-religious sanction. Where the Acharyas shall have to shed their surplus fat and scholarship and look anew at  society and scriptures. Times are changing, not doing that shall mean distorted ideas of freedom taking over the new generations, what cannot be stopped as the information highways are open and cannot be barricaded. Self denials and pretensions may not stand scrutiny before the new generations and it is only proper that legitimate ways are evolved. The Mother Goddess indeed seems angry and clinging on to past formulas of all is well may not help. For India with her sublime spirituality body centred approaches may be anathema but disowning it is also anomalous. Man and woman are inseparable let there be no distancing there, one affects the other, the Indian society itself needs to heal in this matter. That in no way belittles its greatness.              

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Rajahmundry Musings

River Godavari at Rajahmundry is wide, five kilometers at places. The other end of the railway bridge over the river cannot be seen. Beneath the bridge, a little towards the east, is the famous Pushkar ghats. Where, in twelve years, the Pushkar festival is celebrated. There are many temples on the banks, one to Mother Godavari which is believed to be the Holy Ganges, and ascetics take rest here and there. Few Brahmin priests, amusingly young and dynamic men, sit under the banyan tree and look for devotees to guide them do the rituals. It is believed auspicious to do that here. The summers are hot in the Deccan, those selling sugar cane juice, fruit juices, butter milk are all busy. Hawkers sell odd items to those sitting in the shades. Come Pushkar, tells a local friend, the place gets filled with saints from across India, mostly from the Himalayas. Those not seen for most of the year come out, it is the mystique of India.

The bathers at the ghats are in bliss, the passengers from a train above looks down and waves, children wave back. This bridge is the second longest in Asia said some one, there are three here and the first one was built by the British. The British daring is indeed amazing, where the Indians were hesitant they dashed in, made dams, bridges, roads, plantations, railways. But perhaps the Indians seldom wanted the rivers and the nature's processes disturbed.
The region of Rajahmundry was with the Muslim rulers when the British arrived, everyone had their contribution to what is modern Rajahmundry. The mosaic of Indian culture gets richer drawing from all. It was once Rajah Mahendri tells some scholars. The place saw a major uprising against the British forest taxes and statues of Alluri Sita Rama Raju who lead the rebellion are all around. Rajahmundry is also having a coveted place in the history of Telugu literature and is home to Adikavi Nannaya.It is home to many great saints and pilgrim centres.

The highways are deserted once noon sets in, the peak summers see only stray people.
The palm leaf roofed toddy sellers are ubiquitous. They help cool the body and give a boost, it is a grace of the Telugu land that they are allowed to function freely. It is a healthy drink, natural. These tiny shops are open from early mornings and customers come and get their fill. It is another Telugu delicacy it seems to drink butter milk with hot rice soup, Kanjivellam in common parlance, the water from boiled
rice. There are umpteen other dishes native to the Andhra region though the term Andhra is now loaded. With Telengana, another region in present Andhra Pradesh, on war path demanding a separate state. But these are issues that sprout and then subside, either way. Divisions can be created in any society and within any system, only need is to high light smaller issues.

It is an irony of history that it was an Andhra man who triggered the movement for linguistic states in India, Potti Sreeramulu. Modern inter state, intra-state disputes in India have their own chemistry and it is not easy to figure out who is right and who wrong. But the fact remains that the calls for development are not always logical in the long term, what is least developed may end up winners, given the evil effects of development as today, but who cares. Not damming the Godavari upstream may be a blessing, perhaps, not an injustice. But such theory may not have any takers. For those who want to escape the choking metros of India, anarchic and maddening, the rural interiors are a solace but those in villages are jealous of the city folks. Amusing that.

For interior Rajahmundry the ambiance of native harmony is visible. Wild palms, mangoes, cashew plantations, large farms, the views are enchanting. Mango season sees the fruit all over, ingenious devices to carry it are invented. The rural houses are still a majority with palm leaf roof, which keep the space cool. No rush to go concrete and fancy mansions are least found, what has become a tragedy elsewhere in south India where the resources like sand, wood and granite are now almost exhausted. Nature mauled up. Good if they learn lessons from those who went ahead. In tune with the spirit of Andhra Pradesh was an Ashram, near Madhurapudi off the airport road. With its self supporting farm and simple life style one is suddenly taken aback. Indeed the spirit of Sanathan Dharma lives on, with no effort to build huge buildings, craving for big fame, these are Saints of another making, as here. It is Sundaran Swamy who runs this Ashram, with no airs whatsoever. From morning to evening people flock to the Swami, with diseases, life crisis, also they drop in just to bow down, and the deserted road is always with a fleet of cars.

At the Ashram one gets to see software professionals cleaning cow sheds, big businessmen sweeping floors, and no wonder the Swamy in simple loin cloth himself does all that. The children who study staying there, from all communities as no barriers are there, have to do all these as well. Honor for work, any work, goes a long way in life as the Swamy seems to believe. It is mainly healing that the Swamy and small band of youth mainly do, that based on Sidha principles. It seems curing cases given up everywhere are normal here. The Swamy learned it all from great mystics, Sidhas. Some of them living in the Western Ghats, is also widely traveled in the Himalayas. Sidha traditions are common heritage of the south, though alive mainly in Tamilnadu and partly Kerala. Historical changes altered the scene. These are oasis in an otherwise bleak healing scenario in India. Healing in Sidha tradition is indeed not just medicines as a patient said, obviously Sidhas mean much more than a physician. For the patients from far and wide it is treatment at nominal costs, even free. Big names of politics, business, film stars all flock here, but once in they are commoners, else no place here, simple. They celebrate occasions like the birth day of the Swami when love and devotion over flow.

This town with many temples, some of them unique, it is idyllic living with no fuss. The simple auto rickshaws designed to carry three accommodate fifteen here and that is a mind set. And for those in and around Rajahmundry it is a God send, this ascetic. It is a refuge they can run to when in crisis, no matter what. Perhaps these are divine plans, for this simple man in his seventies is originally from Kodungalloor, Kerala. The holy town, once capital of the imperial Cheras. The Swami tells that his ancestors were court physicians and Gurus of Travancore royalty. Who moved north at some time, but he has not much praise for the modern trends in Kerala as he often comes with disciples to Sabarimala. The deeper, profound wisdom of Hindu faith remains unrealized and worse is at times getting distorted, misused, he tells. Times shall change he tells, once a government comes to power which honors the true spiritual paradigm.

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