Vinayaka Chaturthi

August 31 is Vinayaka Chaturthi, the festival of Ganesh, aka Vinayaka, the elephant-headed god who is the son of Shiva and Parvati.


People make large or small images of Ganesh, for their houses, or for neighbourhood displays, and perform ceremonies to invoke the god into the image. Then, because they must do puja every day to the enlivened image, on September 7 all the Ganesh images will be carried to a nearby body of water and ceremoniously thrown in.

There's a joke about this:
A Christian, a Muslim and a Hindu are in a boat together, and it capsizes. The Christian calls out to Jesus and is rescued. The Muslim calls to Allah, and is rescued. The Hindu calls out to Ganesh, who appears before him. The Hindu says, "Help! Can't you see that I don't know how to swim? I'm drowning!" Ganesh says, "Every single year you throw me into the water and watch me sink, and sing happy songs and go away. What makes you think I'm going to help you now?"


Read about the meaning of the festival.

Myths and Legends About Ganesh (in French and English)

Several pages of information about Ganesha, with illustrations.

Listen to a bhajan (hymn) to Ganapati (this is a nice, lively one). And here. And here. (The last link has a whole list of links to tunes and words for bhajans to different deities -- to help people who wish to join together in singing sessions called bhajanas.)

Read a list of Ganesh's names, which express his attributes. My favourite is Lambodara: Big-Bellied. (This site also contains answers to some of your questions about Ganesh, such as, 'why does he have only one tusk; and why does he ride on a rat; and by the way, why does he have an elephant's head?')

Make special recipes for Vinayaka Chaturthi here and here.


Here is a poem about Ganesh from Sanskrit Poetry, translated by Daniel H. H. Ingalls:
May the dancing god Ganesa be your aid,
copied by the guardian elephants of the horizon,
who spring up lightly from the earth that trembles
at the stamping of his feet,
the while with upraised trunk he drinks and then sprays back
like drops of water the great circle of the stars.


Mysteries of Indian Signage

Amenity Cell


Spurred on by Dinesh of Points of Departure, I decided I'd better try to identify the twittering birds I'd been told were called Seven Rishis. Dinesh supplied a picture of the Common Babbler from what looks like a good website: India Birds -- this is the best thing about weblogs -- people with all kinds of expertise tell you things you didn't know...

Anyway, I pulled out my copy of Collins Handguide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent by Michael Woodcock (?!), and decided that we have Quaker Babblers:

Can that be right? ... And I decided, more importantly, to pay better attention to what is in front of my eyes.

Yes, and I will add an earlier description of my perhaps-babbler, who wasn't being very Quakerish at the time -- the last 'another bird' among a series who decided that our windows were dangerous to their young:
For several days birds have been attacking our windows. Our bedroom is being taken care of by a mynah - I saw him fly from the window to a nest in one of the eucalyptus trees. It briefly joined another mynah there, then returned to the fray - a male defending its young. It puffs up to double its size, lets out a ringing series of notes, then flies at the glass, peck peck peck. It sits on the balcony rail for a bit - and has gotten it very dirty, in just three days - then lets out a cry and begins again.

And this morning, in the drawing room, I heard a tap and looked to see a brown spotted dove at the same work. It is so pretty, with its tiny head.

I mind both of these less than the crow which tormented us early every morning for months. That thing was a machine of cruelty, with its huge sharp beak, metallic coloring, sharp claws.

There was another bird which also tried his hand at vanquishing the window - I stood inside watching him one day, he was a soft brown ball of fluff - he would fly at the glass with tail down and wings outstretched, and his claws would get tangled up in his tail, and he would fall to the floor of the balcony, and roll over and over until he got himself detached, and try again with the same result. The third time it happened, it became painful to watch, and I went away.

The High Court

I went along with a friend who had some work at the High Court today. As we were walking along a hallway, I heard someone saying, “Shhhhh!... shhhhh!... shhhhh!...” I looked behind me at a man dressed in white, wearing a wide red gold-braided belt and a small red turban with a gold badge. He was holding up a long decorated silver... what? mace? staff? Behind him walked a judge, in his flowing black robes. As the two of them processed toward the judge’s courtroom, the “shhhhh!... shhhhh!...” sounds caused the lawyers in the hallway, in their flowing black robes, to press back against the walls. As the judge passed each lawyer, he or she pressed hands together in namaste, and bowed.

We went into one of the courtrooms, whose judge had not arrived. Then in a little while we heard “Shhhhh!... shhhhh!...” and the judge entered from a door behind the bench, stood facing the court, did namaste and bowed. The flock of lawyers, looking like big birds to me, crowded around the bench to get the judge’s attention. Then they sat down around a long table piled with books and papers, and the proceedings began. There were a couple of wooden benches against the back wall, behind a wooden railing, for onlookers.

We left after a few minutes and I hurried to keep up with my friend. We walked down one corridor after another, and suddenly we were in the oldest building, all Indo-Saracenic red brick, with scalloped arches and wide balconies. We walked through a four-way intersection of hallways, with a statue of a seated man in the middle. The light was rosy because of the red-brick, and there were arches behind arches, beyond which one could glimpse rooms with stained glass windows glowing, and tree branches beyond the balconies, inside and outside together; and the whole space was full of lawyers in their black gowns. Two of the older ones wore white Mysore turbans. Because I was walking quickly, it appeared to me that a series of screens was sliding aside as I walked, each one framed by another arch, and showing a different view – and then in a minute the vision was over, and we were once again in a more ordinary hall.

Then downstairs, through a gothic arch filled with a high barred gate, so that I said, “Are you taking me to the dungeon?” But then we were outside somehow, walking into a crowd of people holding folders and papers, drinking small plastic cups of coffee, talking and laughing, or looking worried. Normal people and black birds mixed. It was the big world.

Newspaper Stuff

Month-long annual holiday for elephants

200th anniversary of launch of Great Trigonometrical Survey

The Ace of Clubs -- This is the first home of the Madras Club, which is now housed in Moubray's Cupola. It kills me to see such a great building crumbling away:

Black, white and grey

"Search for Form", an exhibition of black and white photographs by G. Venket Ram, capture the splendour of ancient Chola architecture:

Birds and Rishis and Different Varieties of Chaos

We were playing badminton yesterday, when the garden was invaded by a flock of small, shrill, twittery birds which are called Seven Rishis. I don't know why, except that they travel in groups - and not really in sevens. They are fluffy, greyish-brown with paler brown heads, and look very endearing. Whereas the Rishis of mythology were ill-termpered men who would as soon curse you as look at you - and I mean really curse you, to inferior rebirths, or to dying if you have sex...

I looked for something about Durvasa, the most difficult of all rishis, and found this brief look at some of his curses and blessings. And as a bonus, a proverb that I had never heard before:
Durvasa and his disciples went to the river. There is a saying, ''Buffaloes, Brahmins and spinach, have only to see water to be delighted!'' And so Durvasa and his disciples bathed for a long time....
(In Hindu mythology, the Big Dipper is also called Saptarshi, or the Seven Rishis. And of the Seven Rishis, six divorced their wives, who became the Krttika, the Pleiades.)

Joel of Pax Nortona is photographing chaos - and such a beautiful peaceful chaos it is, compared to the images in my head: in addition to the daily chaos of life here -- traffic, disorganisation, small stuff -- there were the two bomb-blasts in Bombay on Monday - pictures in the news of blood-splattered, twisted metal, blending in my mind with so many other such pictures, in more and more parts of the world.

Some Links to Contemporary Indian Artists

Nothing systematic, because I don't know enough about it -- just a few links here and there:

M. F. Husain and his current exhibition at CIMA Gallery, Calcutta


Yusuf Arakkal

Portrait of the Malayalam writer Vaikkam Mohammed Basheer.

Anjolie Ela Menon

Winter Afternoon

S. Nandagopal


S. H. Raza


These links have information on individual artists, and samples of their work:

CIMA Gallery, Kolkata

Art Today Gallery, New Delhi

Gallery Freedom -- a list of artists, and pictures from a gallery show

Vadehra Art Gallery

SPEAR Art Museum
Bollywood's secular image
In the past, Hindi films projected a world without communal or casteist tensions. But the recent spate of Muslim-bashing films leads V. GANGADHAR to wonder what happened to Bollywood's secular image...

"Tu Hindu banega na Mussalman banega, insaan ke aulad tu insaan banega" (You shall be neither a Hindu child nor a Muslim child but will be a human being)...

THUS sang actor Manmohan Krishna after rescuing an abandoned child in B.R. Chopra's 1960s film "Dhool ka Phool". The audience cheered, the film was a hit. In several Hindi films of that era, a Muslim hero Yusuf Khan (Dilip Kumar) sang bhakti songs in temples. The songs were composed by lyricists Shakeel Badayuni or Sahir Ludhianvi, set to music by Naushad Ali and sung by Mohamad Rafi...


I just looked out of the drawing-room window and saw six monkeys walking across the front courtyard -- three adult males and three juveniles. There was nothing to stop them in our compound, but when they reached the wall the neighbour's dog jumped up and began barking furiously. So they all climbed into a eucalyptus tree, where they are sitting close together, grooming each other.

This is not an everyday occurrence -- I wonder where they could have come from. Perhaps the Theosophical Society headquarters, but then they'd have to have crossed the river. The last time we had monkeys in the garden - just two, a mother and child - was about a year ago, and the crows hounded them out pretty quickly. But this group of six might be more than the crows can handle. They're a nuisance (monkeys and crows both!), they steal food, and can be nasty if you try to shoo them off. Which is understandable, I suppose.

A little excitement, and now it's time for tea.

Here is a Death

It happened exactly a year ago: Mary came out to where we sat in cane chairs on the lawn. It was late afternoon, the light was about to fade, mosquitoes had started biting. She said that a woman from the huts near our house had been working at the big construction site down the road, when a brick fell from the top of the building, hit the back of her head and came out the front, over her eye. She died, just like that. She had four small children, only this high. Her husband had sugar - diabetes - and had no strength in his arms and legs. Mary knew him because he went to her church. He had gotten stronger by praying there, but only his woman was able to work, and now she was dead, and who would take care of them? The people of the slum had carried the body home and gathered around. There was a big crowd. The construction company would pay some money to the family.

The next afternoon the drums began beating, and people were whistling and whooping. I stood by the window staring out at the crowd of men, mostly milling or strolling, but some dancing in place with their arms raised. Behind them a van draped with garlands crept along, its rear doors open. Someone sitting inside with the body threw handfuls of flowers on the road. The procession moved very slowly, starting and stopping, while the drums told everyone, 'Here is a death.'

Now the big building is still incomplete, but two weeks ago the workers' slum vanished, virtually overnight. They had been crowded into a corner of a big area of empty land -- fifty acres, government-owned, part of the Adyar River estuary, wetlands never to be built on, home to many species of birds, snakes, mongoose. Now a small tractor is levelling and filling it. Its engine grinds in the background, twenty-four hours a day. So -- more building sites, more deaths perhaps, as the workers clamber over flimsy casuarina-pole scaffoldings. Certainly our own small peace gone.

Mother India

In 1927, an American, Katherine Mayo, wrote a notorious book called Mother India. (There's an edited edition currently in print.) Gandhi called it a drain inspector's report, and one can see why. Mayo went through India and pointed out every sort of defect and disorder, especially with regard to medicine and hygiene. She condemned everything. And it was quite a bestseller: the first edition was published in May 1927; mine (which I bought in a second-hand bookstore for the perversity of it) was the thirteenth printing, in January 1928.

So I pulled it out of my bookshelf yesterday.

I had earlier posted a picture of a stuffed calf hanging from a house front in Mylapore, and speculated that it was meant to keep the cow lactating.

As I was leafing through Mother India, Lo, I found a photograph of another stuffed calf, and this text - you can also appreciate her prose style:
The young milch cow is usually carrying her calf when she is brought to the city. the Hindu dairyman does not want the calf, and his religion forbids him to kill it. So he finds other means to avoid both sin and the costs of keeping. In some sections of the country he will allow it a daily quarter- to half-cup of its mother's milk, because of a religious teaching that he who keeps the calf from the cow will himself suffer in the next life. But the allowance that saves the owner's soul is too small to save the calf who staggers about after its mother on the door-to-door milk route as long as its trembling legs will carry it. When the end comes, the owner skins the little creature, sews the skin together, stuffs it crudely with straw, shoves four sticks up the legs, and, when he goes forth on the morrow driving his cow, carries his handiwork over his shoulder. Then, when he stops at a customer's door to milk, he will plant before the mother the thing that was her calf, to induce her to milk more freely. Or again, in large plants, the new-born calves may be simply tossed upon the morning garbage carts, at the diary door, and carried away to the dumps where they breathe their last among other broken rubbish.

Dr. J. F. Kendrick, of the International Health Board
of the Rockefeller Foundation, a Madras City milk-man,
and his stuffed calf

And here's one more pair of then-and-now pictures:

In the streets of Bombay

And, from yesterday's The Hindu:

cattle on a Chennai road

So... a little ambiguity here. I deplore her attitude, but there is some truth in what Mayo has written. It's pretty interesting stuff, if one can sort out the information from the colour -- the masala.

(And by the way, I read recently - somewhere - that the classic Hindi film Mother India (1938), starring Nargis as a heroic woman who overcomes every sort of adversity, was deliberately so named, to counteract the image of India portrayed in Mayo's book.)

Several Things

Via Wood s Lot: Serving the Guest: A Sufi Cookbook & Art Gallery: A cookbook with essays and anecdotes on the historic and contemporary role of food, cooking, meals and hospitality in Sufism, the mystical tradition of Islam. Featuring a gallery of Islamic art. By Kathleen Seidel.

Thanks to self-winding, a link to Intimate Worlds: Masterpieces of Indian Painting at the Seattle Art Museum, with an interactive section on Krishna. (I think there's something wrong with the card game, though... but there's an audio narrative of stories from Krishna's life, illustrated with details from the beautiful miniature paintings. Good background music.) Thanks, Anna.

Via Open Brackets: After decades, a Sanskrit dictionary grows — and grows — in India
PUNE, India — For three generations, they have compiled and argued, agonized and transcribed — toiling in monastic tedium to turn an intricate 44-letter language into six volumes, so far, of word after long-forgotten word.

They have delved into the grammatical roots of "antahpravesakama" and debated the pun hidden in "anangada."

They’ve done a brain- numbingly complete dissection of "anekakrta."

Now, 55 years after a group of scholars began composing the authoritative dictionary of Sanskrit, the long-dead language of India’s ancient glory, they are almost done — with the first letter....

Via Elsewhere, an interesting blog that I'm dipping into for the first time: Tha Kita Thaka: Postcards From India, by Barbara Henning. Poetry and photographs, with an attractive site design.

Today's New Indian Express has a piece (I couldn't find it online) about Arvind Iyer, a website designer who has done sites for Santosh Sivan, cinematographer (for Mani Ratnam, among others) and director (notably The Terrorist); actor Raghubir Yadav; dancer Anita Ratnam; director Sanjay Leela Bhansali (Devdas -- the glittery remake of 2002, not the classic starring Dilip Kumar); cinematographer Binod Pradhan (Devdas, Parinda, etc.); director Vidhu Vinod Chopra (Parinda, 1942 a Love Story -- which had wonderful music, especially Ek Ladki to Dekha, with lyrics by Javed Akhtar. It was the last film the great R.D. Burman composed for before he died.); costume designer Ashley Rebello; cinematographer Kiran Deohans (Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham); and others. I couldn't find the one for actor Manoj Bajpai, and there's one in the making for the actress Tabu. They're all very beautifully done, at least at first glance.

Krishna's Birthday

Krishna's birthday, also called Janmashtami, Gokulashtami, or Krishna Jayanthi.

Baby Krishna in the South Indian Tanjore style

Krishna is worshipped as a child, a young man, an adult -- but he is perhaps most loved as the mischievous child who grew up in a village of cow-herders. Most of the time they were unaware that he was god, but sometimes he would reveal himself -- and then they would forget again. I wrote this poem based on a story from Krishna's childhood:

Krishna Opens Wide for Yashoda
It was only a little dirt.
The rains had failed that year,
and the child was playing in a courtyard blown with dust.
The women next door made such a fuss,
seeing him put it in his mouth,
she had to slap him, for show.
She said, "Open your mouth this minute!"
He didn't howl, just smiled at her, lips tight.
She pushed her finger between his teeth, but
instead of moist pink, and the small tongue muddied,
she saw the reeling universe.

She saw the reeling universe
instead of moist pink, and the small tongue muddied.
She pushed her finger between his teeth, but
he didn't howl, just smiled at her, lips tight.
She said, "Open your mouth this minute!"
She had to slap him, for show.
Seeing him put it in his mouth,
the women next door made such a fuss,
and the child was playing in a courtyard blown with dust --
the rains had failed that year.
It was only a little dirt.

I first experienced Krishna's birthday as a student, when Tamil friends invited me home. They had decorated the floor with small footprints made of rice flour:
In South India, Janmashtami or Gokulashtami, as it is called, is celebrated with prayers, devotional renditions and offering of fruits and special prasadams to Lord Krishna. People usually observe fast on this day. In the houses, mango leaves are tied to the doorways to mark the auspicious occasion. Colorful floral designs are drawn on the front yard. Inside the house, a small wooden mandapam is erected and decorated with flowers and plantain leaves. An icon of a crawling Krishna in a silver cradle or leaf is placed in the mandapam. In some houses, a typical setting of Gokulam is arranged with mud images of Devaki, Vasudeva with little Krishna perched in a basket on his head, a cow, besides other things related to Krishna's legends. Small foot marks produced by impressions with rice powder mixed with water are believed to symbolically recreate the coming of Krishna into peoples' homes. (from

Stories of Krishna's life from Srimad-Bhagavatam by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (not the greatest prose, but the stories of Krishna's childhood are good ones)

Translations of the Srimad-Bhagavatam (Bhagavata Purana), the main source of Krishna's mythology here and here

(And this looks very interesting: Virtual e-Text Archive of Indic Texts)

send Janmashtami e cards here and here and here.

Gokulashtami recipes here and here. (The second link is to a recipe for shrikhand, a delicious and simple dish that can be eaten any time - try it!)

The Quotidian

I dreamed that Ramesh and I were walking on the road along Marina Beach and Ramesh told me that someone we knew had died of reverse osmosis. I said, “So many people are dying of that lately.”

Mary gave me yesterday's account and today's, along with a shiny five rupee coin. Usually I don't get anything back, it was like a gift. Red chillie powder, green chillies, carrots, tomatoes, cucumber, eggplant - small ones, for sambar. The daily purchase of four or five vegetables.

Sitting in the xerox shop, waiting for my work to be completed. The smells of the men coming in - perfumes and the sharpness of coconut hair oil.

Two women walked down the street smiling. One was holding the other's wrist and talking. They wore bright saris in shades of purple. The shorter one carried a huge empty basket on her head. One hand swung free, the other was held by her companion.

Newspaper Stuff

"Bharat Mata", offset print, 1937, painting by P.S. Ramachandran Rao

From a review of Popular Indian Art: Raja Ravi Varma and The Printed Gods of India, Erwin Neumayer and Christine Schelberger. (The review includes two more illustrations from the independence movement.)

Usha Kris describes a tour of the ancient Roman trade route in South India:
This was during the Sangam age in South India — 200 B.C. to 300 A.D. The arts, crafts and literature flourished. There was plenty. The rivers were free flowing and provided a wonderful means to cross vast stretches of interior Tamizhagam, or the land of the Tamils, that, in those days, included Kerala. It was during this period that the Romans travelled east to India for trade. They came for spices, iron, precious stones, sandalwood, teak and ebony, exotic birds and animals — they even took peacocks back! Indian dancing girls had a special fascination for them, ivory and pearls (found in Tirunelveli), cotton and silk were other items that they were on the look out for. In return, they brought with them pots of gold and silver coins and jewellery, olive oil, wine, blue glass, metal and terracotta artefacts including lamps. Whereas they took back some 120 items, they brought in 30, showing that their need for exporting and trading in Indian goods was high.

As they traded with India through the Sangam period spanning 500 years, they had made many places their home and perfected the route that we had to trace, explore and speculate upon with the evidence that surfaces periodically. Sangam poems such as the "Ahananooru" and "Purananooru" refer to the Romans as "being loud, of coarse speech, wearing shoes, and a somewhat cruel people". .. (more)

Weblog as Place

This is for the fortnightly topic at Ecotone: Writing About Place. Other pieces are linked from here. If the subject interests you, you're welcome to add your link to the Ecotone page.

I think of my weblog as a window; the kind you see in very old paintings, where there is a room with a person in it (me), and then a view of wonderful things, seen only partially, outside. It's the outside - Chennai - India - South Asia - that's important, not the room that holds the window, or the person in the room. Except that the person in the room has manufactured the glass through which you see the view...

I see others' weblogs as windows into their rooms, with their partial and marvellous views beyond. Their doorways ajar, opening onto hidden courtyards. I want to enter those courtyards, see what is just beyond the window's frame. The weblogs that I like most allow me to imagine that I can.

Saint Jerome in his study (Thanks, Maria.)

(Alembic recently wrote about weblogs and place. And look at The World as a Blog and see the lights in so many windows.)

An Ecumenical Wall

This picture is from a wall on Royapettah High Road, near Woodlands Theatre. The green mosque is flanked on the left by the Tamil god Murugan; and on the right by baby Krishna. Just beyond Krishna, outside the frame, Jesus displays his sacred heart.

This painting signifies the high degree of religious tolerance which we enjoy here, unlike in some other parts of India (and the world). It's one of the very good things about Chennai.

I also reminds me of Such a Long Journey, a movie based on Rohinton Mistry's book. The movie stars Roshan Seth as a Parsi in Bombay. In one of the sub-plots, people are always 'making nuisance' - urinating -- against the wall surrounding his apartment building. Seth notices a man who makes religious paintings on the footpath, and collects offererings for a living. He suggests to the man that he come and paint on the wall instead. The man agrees. As soon as the gods are painted no one can urinate there. In fact, the wall becomes a popular shrine, and the painter makes a better living than before.

I don't know if this painting was made for that purpose - it could have been to prevent people from covering it with political slogans and posters. Here's another painting from a nearby side-road, a couple of politicians. They look remarkably untrustworthy -- don't they?


There's a scathing, funny article on Indian (in this case Hindi) TV serials in yesterday's The Hindu newspaper. I've added the notes in italics (and the asterisks are because ever since I posted this I've been getting too many Google referrals for episode guides!):
THE GHAR-ghar-ki-sabun-ki-kahani (Ghar Ghar ki kahani, the Story of Every House, is a popular serial. The addition of sabun, 'soap,' makes it The Soap Opera of Every House.), on national television touched breathtakingly new lows recently. ...

In "K*k*u*s*u*m" (The extra 'k' in K*k*u*s*u*m has been inserted by the producers for numeralogical purposes - to make sure it gets good ratings.), K*k*u*s*u*m's Akhanda Sowbhagyawatiness (See below for explanation) was reinstated by her remarrying Abhay. For the disbelievers amongst us who have not kept abreast with matters of such import, Abhay is K*k*u*s*u*m's first husband - a rich, spoilt boy with eyelashes more luscious than Miss Piggy's - who marries K*k*u*s*u*m only because his horoscope ordains that he will die young and horribly and can only be saved if he is wedded to an Akhanda Sowbhagyawati.

If you don't know what an Akhanda Sowbhagyawati is, you deserve to be drummed out of the Akhil Bharatiya Couch Potatoes Parivar... (The All India Couch Potatoes League)

Now K*k*u*s*u*m is your average middle (mid-dull) class, pavitra-as-driven-paneer (pure-as-driven-white cheese) Miss Goody Two Shoes whose Rin-Ki-Safedi (clean as though washed in Rin soap) character and cloying saccharine sweetness is only less excruciating than her clothes.

Naturally, she is also Miss Akhanda Sowbhagyawati. To cut a 432-episode story short, Abhay treats K*k*u*s*u*m worse than a doormat and she retaliates by marrying the man who was engaged to Abhay's niece. The man, many weary episodes later dies, but not before smearing her mang lavishly with his khoon! (smearing the parting of her hair with his blood: in some parts of India, married women put red powder there.)

How can an Akhanda Sowbhagyawati become a widow? A question that has raged like a forest fire in millions of drawing rooms across the land. Of course she can't.

So to sort that out, Abhay - who has meanwhile married K*k*u*s*u*m's second husband's `bad bitchy' chachi (father's brother's wife) - now gets an incurable tumour in his brain which is great for everyone around because K*k*u*s*u*m can now remarry, ostensibly only to save Abhay's life but actually to preserve her Akhanda Sowbhagyawatiness. ...(more)

Akhanda Sowbhagyawati: In Gujarat, and apparently other parts of the North, married women are addressed in letters as A. Sow. (your name here) -- the unflattering-looking abbreviation of Akhanda Sowbhagyawati, which means something like 'endlessly auspicious.' If a woman is widowed she is henceforward addressed as Ga.Swa. (name) - short for Ganga Swaroop: 'having the form of Ganga', the goddess who is the Ganges River, who has no husband. In the TV serial K*k*u*s*u*m (I haven't seen it, but the ads for it are bad enough), I assume that her horoscope says that she will never be widowed; she will always be Akhanda Sowbhagyawati.

So, this is the stuff which is popular on TV these days.

Independence Day

August 15 is Indian Independence Day.

Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we will redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance .... We end today a period of ill fortune, and India discovers herself again.
Jawaharlal Nehru, Independence Day, 1947

Listen to Nehru's speech

Listen to the National anthem (instrumental)

Read the words (with translation) -- by Rabindranath Tagore

Listen to patriotic songs by Tamil composers A. R. Rahman and Ilayaraja - maybe! I couldn't get the player to work, but the songs are good, so I threw this in anyway.

Send ecards on Indpendence Day
here and here and here.

(I copied the photograph above from a newspaper before I started blogging. Sorry I don't have an attribution for it. And BTW, they're cheering the Indian cricket team during the World Cup -- but I love the picture.)

The cycle rickshaw is parked while its driver sees a movie. It's the afternoon show.

Several Things

Google News India

Three days ago the contractor we just hired to do some work in the garden sprayed pesticide around the atrium inside the house. The next day all the mud-coloured fish in our small pond were dead, and the baby water snake which had gotten into the house somehow a few weeks ago hung limply in the water. In my imagination it had been growing fast, and I expected to run into it whenever I went into the dark atrium at night; but it was only a foot long, and slender, silvery.

The timing was appropriate, because we're going through an upheaval over pesticides right now. An NGO found high levels of pesticides in Coca Cola and Pepsi, and also in bottled mineral water. Pictures of babies deformed by pesticide poisoning are appearing in the newspapers. Many pesticides which are banned in the West are still in everyday use here. There's little regulation. Our groundwater is being poisoned. No one seems to care until something like this happens. Coca Cola and Pepsi have been banned from the Parliament cafeteria (?!), and enquiry commissions are being set up - generally a confirmed ticket to oblivion for any issue. Most people assume that huge bribes will be paid, and the whole thing will soon be forgotten. (Coca Cola -- along with IBM -- was actually thrown out in 1977 -- Coca Cola, I think, because it refused to reveal its proprietary formula, and hence was seen as part of the then-ubiquitous 'foreign hand,' convenient cause of (most) ills. I'd be very surprised if such an extreme action were possible in today's relatively liberalised climate.)

Inspired by all this talk of yoga lately, I pulled out my old copy of B.K.S. Iyengar's Light on Yoga and tried to remember a few things. My inspiration shall not be the spandex-clad practitioners of the moment, but the meditating cat with its mouse disciples (7th c.), from nearby Mahabalipuram:


Raksha Bandhan

August 12 is celebrated by Hindus in North India as Raksha Bandhan. (Nowadays, with greeting card manufacturers working hard to commercialise every day of the year, it may be moving into the South as well.) On Raksha Bandhan, sisters honour their brothers and honorary brothers, and remind them of their responsibility to protect their sisters:
The annual "festival" of Raksha Bandhan ... is marked by a very simple ceremony in which a woman ties a rakhi - which may be a colorful thread, a simple bracelet, or a decorative string - around the wrist of her brother(s). The word "raksha" signifies protection, and "bandhan" is an association signifying an enduring sort of bond; and so, when a woman ties a rakhi around the wrist of her brother, she signifies her loving attachment to him. He, likewise, recognizes the special bonds between them, and by extending his wrist forward, he in fact extends the hand of his protection over her.

The thread-tying ceremony is sometimes preceded by the woman conducting aarti before her brother, so that the blessings of God may be showered upon him, and this is to the accompaniment of her enunciation or chanting of a mantra ...

After the conclusion of the ceremony, she places a sweet in his mouth, and he might return the gesture. The brother bestows a small gift upon his sister, generally in the form of a small sum of money, such as Rupees 51, 101, 251, or 501.(more)
More on Raksha bandhan here.

Send an e-card to your brother on Raksha bandhan here, here or here.

Make your own rakhi.

The Evening Bazaar

I continued reading the BBC's series, Sense of the City, with Orhan Pamuk's piece on Istanbul. I recently read My Name is Red, an amazingly dense book, full of all kinds of things, including a very alive picture of medieval Istanbul. In his BBC piece he says, in part,
... City life, urban life, living in big cities, in fact, is living in a galaxy of unimportant, random, stupid, absurd images. But your look gives a strange, mysterious meaning to these little details of streets, asphalt or cobblestone roads, advertisements, letters, all the little details of bus stops, or chimneys, windows...
Maybe ten years ago, I went shopping with a friend in what was originally called Black Town, i.e., the 'native' quarter of the colonial city. It was later given the more PC name of "George Town." It's still the most densely populated part of Chennai. When I went there I was entranced by the sheer number of things, people, sights -- I tried to evoke it, and ended up with a list as chaotic as the place:
I drove to the Evening Bazaar. This mud, this dung, these potholes filled unevenly with clay, broken brick and bits of stone, these buffaloes, these cycle-rickshaws with their dull bells, ka-klang, ka-klang, this man with wild hair and beard, a dirty cloth over his bare chest, with ragged trousers black with grease, dragging a filthy sack through the muddy streets.

I tried to pass a car parked in the middle of the narrow street, cycles and rickshaws parked haphazardly to its left, a narrow passage to the right, potholed and awash with stagnant rain water. I honked and waved at the driver, but he rowed with his hand like an oar out the window, palm scooped, to say, "Get around me if you can, I'm not moving."

To the right, stone doorsteps descended directly to the broken pavement. A thin old woman crouched on one narrow step to polish a stainless steel pot. I inched along between the bulbous Hindustan Ambassador car on the left and doorsteps, skinny woman, a pot on my right, my head out the window, riding the clutch. A pedestrian squeezed between me and the woman and the building and, freed, turned to wave me on. Then I was also freed to re-enter the human and animal stream.

A woman sat on the pavement with a basket of oranges and papayas and apples, just where I wanted to park. The parking attendant shrugged, and pointed me further down the road. In front of me sat a man on a low stool, selling bricks of incense, samples burning on a charcoal brazier. I got out and walked, skirting puddles, smeared cow dung, people, all the varieties of small and narrow vehicles which could push their way along the throttled roadway. Smells of incense, rose paste, fried snacks, excrement, the flowers in women's hair.

Women speaking Tamil, Gujerati, Hindi, walking in twos and threes, single file at the edge of the road, headed toward vegetables or saris, strewn out on white cloth-covered mats in tiny shops open to the street.

I watched the ground as I wove in and out between parked cycles, motorcycles, cycle rickshaws, auto rickshaws, cows, bullock carts, hand carts. I saw water, mud, potholes, puddles tinted lime green with chemicals, scattered paper, leaves, dung; peoples' feet, bare, sandalled; children in school uniforms with cloth bags of books jumping across the puddles. Once in a while I looked up, to see two Sikhs on a parked motorcycle, getting ready to enter the stream, or a sugar-cane crushing machine daubed with turmeric, sindoor and sandalwood from the Worship of Tools festival; or further up, to the buildings revealed in their original forms, above the level of storefronts and signs, with cement columns, wooden fretwork, barred windows, pipal trees rooted high above the street, springing from cracks in the plaster.

Two old men on a stone step, one with his head thrown back to look at the sky, mouth slack, teeth in chaotic disarray. As I looked at him a whiff of excrement passed my face, as if it came from his open mouth.

A cycle rickshaw passed, an old woman sitting in the back, intently weaving a marigold garland, pulling flowers from a jute bag and swiftly knotting thread to attach them to the rest. Five bullocks in a line made me step hastily aside, the horns of the lead animal spreading beyond its body like hooks to catch the unwary.

Pushcarts with pots of bubbling, spicy chickpeas, small puris, samosas. The smells of food flowers filth. A man makes sandwiches at a stand on the sidewalk: spongy white bread, green chutney, slices of onion, tomato, cucumber, boiled potato. His sandwiches are famous, he does a roaring business. My mouth burns.

Jewelers, sari shops, provision stores, temples, houses, coffee shops, pawnbrokers, sweet shops, aluminum vessels, open sacks of garlic and dried chillies. Helmets, necklaces, belts to be worn by actors portraying gods. It's only silver-plate, 510 rupees.

Packets of mehndi to redden your palms, decorated tear drops to glue to your forehead, jasmine for your hair, silver anklets for your feet, printed saris 100 rupees cheaper than anywhere else in the city.

The temples are closed, they open at four, shop doorways are hung with fading folded palm fronds, with paper garlands. A few days before, the street was full of crushed gourds, their red insides gaping like bloody flesh, thrown into the road with camphor burning on top, to carry away with them the accumulated evil of the year.
The trick, which I have not mastered, is to take a list and turn it into the kind of mysterious, three-dimensonal picture in the mind's eye that Pamuk has achieved with Istanbul.

Kati Patang

There's a Hindi movie called Kati Patang, 'a kite with a broken string.' I think it's a wonderful image.

I divert my attention from Chennai to Lahore because of this article in today's Guardian:
Strings attached: Is a Pakistani kite flying ban purely in the interests of public safety, or are there hard-line religious reasons behind it?

It used to be only the Taliban who so opposed kite flying that they ordered it banned. The extremist mullahs who ruled Afghanistan believed the sight of skies filled with small, paper kites was somehow un-Islamic. On the day the Taliban finally fled Kabul, the kites returned to the skies of the Afghan capital as a symbol of celebration.

Now, to the astonishment of many, the ban has re-emerged in Lahore, the steamy, liberal, cultural heart of Pakistan. Last month, Mian Aamer Mahmood, the head of the city council, ordered a three-month ban on kite flying. Illegal kite flyers, he warned, faced prosecution. The skies above the city's large parks have been empty ever since.

Mr Mahmood's officials insisted the ban was motivated purely by concerns of safety. Kite flying in Pakistan is frequently more a competition than a hobby. Flyers pit their kites against each other in skilled attempts to cut their rival's strings. Bets are occasionally laid, and to gain advantage most flyers buy string which has been specially soaked in a ground-glass and occasionally ground-metal paste that hardens to make the string slice like a knife. Some even use wire strings.

But in the crowded streets of Lahore's old city, the kite strings are as much a liability as an entertainment. City officials say at least 45 people have died of kite-related injuries in the past six months. Many of them were young boys whose wire strings hit electrical power lines, causing short circuits. Occasionally motorcyclists are garrotted by fallen wire strings and dozens of kite flyers sustain serious cuts to their fingers. ...

Already savings are being made, they say. Short circuits caused frequent blackouts in Lahore's antiquated electrical supply and repairs would run to as much as £30,000 every weekend. ...

But others warn there may be a darker side to the decision. Kite flying in Lahore has commonly been associated with the spring festival of Basant, when the city is cloaked in saffron-yellow and crowded with parties, dancing and celebration.

Hard-line religious clerics have long railed against Basant, and the kite-flying that accompanies it, as un-Islamic. In a revealing statement presented to the courts in Lahore at the time of the kite ban, Khawaja Mohammad Afzal, the city's legal adviser, wrote: "The use of fire crackers, music and dance on such occasions is un-Islamic." ...

However, Mr Mahmood and his officials are likely to come to some form of eventual compromise over the kites, that allows the flying to continue but outlaws the dangerous wire and glass-coated strings. Few in Lahore will be ready to countenance Taliban-style rule in their city. (more)

This ambiguity about kite-flying in Lahore has been going on for a long time. Ambiguity in the sense that the people want it; some of the authorities, and conservative religious figures, don't.

Here's what my wonderful book on the culture of Lucknow before the British took it over in 1857, Lucknow: The Last Phase of an Oriental Culture has to say about kite-flying (there's more than this, but it's mostly technical terms and designs for different kinds of kites. And the chauvinistic author naturally claims that kite-flying was first developed in Lucknow):
At the commencement of the British period Khinch, the dragging-pulling style of kite-fighting, was established. It was really begun by small boys who had very little cord and would put their indigence to rights by recklessly cutting down other people's kites. In those days experts would look on them with contempt and keep their kites at a distance. But eventually this art became very popular in kite competitions and many experts sprang up. Today in Lucknow there are scores of people who have frittered away lakhs of rupees on this pursuit and have ruined themselves but have achieved prominence and have become honoured and revered in kite-flying circles.
And here's my own experience of Basant, the Spring Festival, in the Old City of Lahore:
Someone had invited us to join his family's Basant celebration. When we arrived the men went straight to the roof, while the women were ushered into a little room full of the women of the family. Generations lived together in this house, packed in tight. The women were talking and watching a recent family wedding on video. We extricated ourselves in fifteen minutes, but the family women never appeared on the roof. They watched videos, prepared food, talked inside.

The houses in the old city were tightly crowded together, with almost no open space: the population density was about 500 per acre. Thousands of people stood on their flat roofs, flying kites or enjoying the air. Radios blasted out popular songs from films. Kites filled the sky like a shower of confetti. They were shaped like butterflies, in bright colours and patterns, and there were hundreds of them in the air all day long. People ate large meals, danced to the music, called across to their neighbours, four or five stories above the ground.

The kite-strings were coated with ground glass, and people duelled with them, trying to cut other people's kite strings with their own. Each family or group of friends bought many kites in the expectation that some of them would be felled. There was a lot of business of selecting a kite from the stack, attaching the string, making sure the string was correctly wound on the big wooden spools. The person flying the kite was closely observed, encouraged, advised. When a kite was victorious over another, its flying group cheered, and taunted the defeated ones.

I asked if I could fly one, and the young men of the family good-naturedly let me hold the string of a kite that was already aloft. I felt it tug against my hands -- and then it was cut. I watched it fall, and resigned from the field.

In the late afternoon the women carried up containers of food and laid them on a long table, and then retreated inside. We stood around the table, munching and watching the sky.

In the evening the trees were full of crumpled kites.

An article on kite flying in Pakistan, with pictures, including the one above.


(I saw a posting about W. S. Merwin at Mysterium, and thought I'd post my own favourite Merwin poem)


The wet bamboo clacking in the night rain
crying in the darkness whimpering softly
as the hollow columns touch and slide
along each other swaying with the empty
air these are sounds from before there were voices
gestures older than grief from before there was
pain as we know it the impossibly tall
stems are reaching out groping and waving
before longing as we think of it or loss
as we are acquainted with it or feelings
able to recognize the syllables
that might be their own calling out to them
like names in the dark telling them nothing
about loss or about longing nothing
ever about all that has yet to answer

Dept of Unusual News

West Bengal teaches Kamasutra in its fight against AIDS
KOLKATA, AUGUST 6: Lessons in scintillating asanas and mudras. Various ways of hugging, kissing and caressing. Stimulating shower bath. Ways to get a man charged up — and then to give him a premature but pleasurable discharge if he refuses to use a condom.

Four women are listening agog, sometimes seeking clarifications from the teacher. The students are prostitutes from Sonagachi, Kolkata’s biggest red-light area. The teacher is Dr Sacchidananda Sarker, Assistant Director of the West Bengal government’s State AIDS Control Society. And the subject: Kamasutra.

In a lecture hall of the Institute of International Social Development (IISD), in the prim Gariahat locality of South Kolkata, the ancient treatise on love has been co-opted as the latest arsenal in the battle against AIDS...(more)

Sense of the City

Language Hat mentions a BBC series called "Sense of the City: How Cities Inspire Authors." There are two South Asian Cities on the list: Colombo, Sri Lanka, by Romesh Gunesekera (whose novel Reef is beautifully written and haunting); and Lahore, Pakistan, by Bapsi Sidhwa. (Sidhwa's novel, Ice-Candy Man was made into the film 1947: Earth by Deepa Mehta.) Lahore is a great city. I spent 18 months there, and can't forget it.

If you click on the 'Watch and Listen' button in the upper right-and corner, you can hear Sidhwa's commentary, along with snippets of qawwali, Muslim devotional music, in the background.

Some Green Things

At Ecotone, there is a joint blogging project scheduled for August 8, Photographing Place/Green. I'm a day early, so you may not find any links there yet. But here are a few green things from a few Indian places:

in Calcutta

Theosophical Society Headquarters, Chennai

in Lonavla, Maharashtra

More about Adi

I have been learning a lot from keeping this blog - and learning more about what I don't know. I suddenly became aware of the traditional Tamil calendar, and began to look around for information about the current Tamil month, Adi (July 17-August 16 this year). Now, I have learned two more things about it:

I went to get a haircut, and found the beauty parlour completely empty. The woman who cuts my hair said, "It's the season. People try to avoid getting their hair cut at this time."

I assume that this would also be a good time to schedule elective surgery. When I first arrived here I was told that it would be easy to get medical and dental work done on Tuesdays, as many people avoided such things on that day (and hair-cutting? It involves sharp instruments and therefore might be considered risky?)

The second thing I learned was darker. From yesterday's The Hindu (but I think only in the print edition):
It is one thing for adults to take vows and fulfil them, and quite another when a vow is taken in the name of a child. The scene at a temple at Egmore spoke eloquently.

Lemon garlands were being sewed to the skin of a boy on Tuesday, and his eyes brimmed with tears.

Would it bring a shower of good luck for him? Can there not be Adi without pain?

So the character of Adi seems to be one of inauspiciousness and austerities -- no marriages, or at least not until after the new moon; no initiation ceremonies; acts of penance. Why is that? Is there a reason for it in mythology? If anyone who reads this could help me to understand it better, I'd be grateful.

Some Links

An amazing and wonderful clock: Industrious via an amazing website: Frances Pritchett's South Asian Links.

Some links to articles about Chennai's heritage:

S. Muthiah's Madras Miscellany articles in The Hindu newspaper
Heritage articles in The Hindu for all cities (most of the Chennai articles have also been written by S. Muthiah)
Reminiscences of Chennai by Tamil writer Ashokamitran - from Chennaionline, which is an excellent site for all kinds of information about the city
Global Adjustments is a commercial relocation service for foreign families coming to India. Their newsletter often includes articles on Chennai culture and history.

Pictures of Indian Currency Notes, part of a larger site, The World Paper Money, via Dublog

Yes, that is Mahatma Gandhi (no relation), right there on the biggest note of all.

(And by the way: To the person who asked Google for a picture of brinjal: other names for brinjal are eggplant and aubergine.)

Ajith on the Beach

Sometimes the police block the southbound lane of Santhome High Road and divert the traffic to a narrow road that runs along the beach. If you drive on that road and look to the left, you see a wide strip of sand, and the sea, and the big sky. The sand is littered with small heaps of nylon fishing net in pastel colours; rubbish and fish waste and human waste; catamarans. Look right, and see the backs of fairly prosperous houses leading slightly uphill to Santhome High Road. Between you and those buildings, along the whole length of the road, is one continuous slum. It consists of cement houses and thatched huts, almost all one-storey, jammed together. A few Hindu and Christian shrines. A public lavatory (I think) in the shape of a ship. There is no plumbing. There are no trees. The principal colour is sand, except for the women's bright saris and some splashes of paint. Everything bakes in the sun.

I rarely take this road, partly because Santhome High Road is quicker; but mainly because the people of the slum live right on the road. Kids play cricket on the road, young men idle at the edges, women scrub small wads of wet clothes beside buckets of precious water. I feel like an affront, sealed in my air-conditioned car.

One day when the police diverted me there I noticed a sign, by itself on the beach side, which I recognised as a picture of the Tamil film star Ajith:

I like hand-painted signs, which are slowly being superseded by slicker ones. It's interesting to see which film stars feature in (some of) them (almost always men), and how they are portrayed. So I came back a few days later to photograph it. A small group of young men stood on the other side of the road. As I began to photograph the sign they began to discuss me. When I turned back to get into my car, one of them shouted. I turned and saw that he was pointing at another picture of Ajith on the building behind him. I hadn't noticed it, although it was much larger than the roadside sign:

I smiled at them and raised my camera again, and they came over to me. One of them seemed to be reaching for the camera, but when I looked at him questioningly he cupped his hand, palm down, and said, "Shade, shade." He was offering to shade the lens from the sun. I said, "No problem," and began to raise the camera. Then another one suddenly moved toward me, scowling, and waved at me to stop. The first pushed him back gently and said, "No, let her take it." I did, and said, "Thanks," and got into my car. The scowling one said in a mocking voice, "Oh! Nice-a!" making fun of my politeness, as I drove away.

As usual, I was skating on the surface, taking a picture without knowing what it meant. At the time, a little nervous, I didn't even stop to decipher the Tamil. Now I see that the sign announces a branch of the Ajith Kumar fan club (No. 5429). It refers to Ajith as 'Asai Nayagan' which means beloved or desired leader, but which also refers to Ajith's early hit film, Asai, Desire. It names the club's officers.

Were these young men, with no work in the middle of the day, members of the club? What did the fan club actually do? Did its members get to meet their idol? I know that there are thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of fan clubs in this movie-crazy place. When, occasionally, the stars get interested in politics, their fan clubs are ready-made pools of campaign workers. And that is the beginning and the end of what I know about it.

A few of the many Ajith Kumar fan pages on the Net:

Ajith Kumar Fan Page by Jennifer
Ajith Kumar online

Writing About Place

Ecotone: Writing About Place did a group-blogging exercise on the subject of Trees and Place. (I couldn't get my mind around it, somehow, but there are links to lots of good pieces by others.)

Banyan tree, Theosophical Society, Chennai

(Update: And here's a link to ancient trees via Wood s Lot.)

(Update 2: Every South Indian temple has its own tree - the sthala vriksham. The names of each temple's tree are included in the agamas, descriptive texts, for the temple. I'm trying to collect more information about this, for a post later.)

Two Book Reviews

The Circle of Six Seasons: A Selection from Old Tamil, Prakrit and Sanskrit Poetry, Martha Ann Selby, Penguin India:
MARTHA ANN SELBY'S translation of the classical Indian seasonal poetry into English... Selected from old Tamil, Prakrit and Sanskrit, the most ancient literary languages of India, this anthology contains 188 poems ... the outcome of a research project sponsored by the American Institute of Indian Studies, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Office of the Vice-President and Dean of Graduate Studies, the University of Texas, Austin...

The Sanskrit selections are mainly from the Rtusamhara and the Sarngadharapaddhati. And from the Gathasaptasati and the Vajjalagga, the Prakrit poems. The Kuruntokai and the Ainkurunuru are the sources for the Tamil. Beginning with poems from the first century, the anthology spans a period of 14 centuries. The scheme the translator has chosen for organising them is that of the Rtusamhara in which seasons are put in an order beginning with summer and ending with spring...

... though the poems are classified on seasonal basis, they give space (landscapes) the semiotic density that tacks them down to time. For instance, take these Kuruntokai lines on autumn:
He is from that place
where a round stone,
black and pitted,
lies in the green place,
resembling an elephant
washed clean of its dust
in a downpour.
He's made me sick, friend,
and my eyes,
once beautiful as lilies,
now brim only with pallor." ...(more)

Early Tamil Epigraphy: From the Earliest Times to the Sixth Century A.D., Iravatham Mahadevan, Cre-A, Chennai and the Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies, Harvard University:
Tamil is one of the oldest languages with the longest literary and spoken continuity in India. And yet, what puzzled the earlier scholars was, in spite of the literary antiquity of this language, the inscriptions discovered in the Tamil region, were in two different scripts, one in Tamil belonging to the period of the Pallavas i.e. Seventh Century A.D. and the other in Va.t.te.luttu at the time of the P-a.ndyas in Eighth Century A.D. Much more intriguing was the total absence of written records in Tamil before the Seventh Century A.D. Did this mean that Tamil had only an oral tradition before this period? Considering the historical data of such an eminent past found in the Sanga works P-uran-a-n-u-ru and Pa.t.tirrupattu, brought to light by the untiring efforts of the greatest among the Tamil scholars of the last century, Dr. U.Ve Swaminatha Iyer, can one hold the view that the idea of `recording', in whatever form, had never occurred to the Tamil?

This nagging doubt was soon set at nought by the discovery of the As´okan edicts in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu around the turn of the 20th Century....(more)