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Ursula K Le Guin And Her Love Affair With A Seductive Ascetic From South India

Ursula Guin’s fantasy and science fiction worlds were animated with her profound understanding of Indic spirituality. After her passing away, that understanding must be recognised, respected, and celebrated. 

By Aravindan Neelakandan

Ursula K. Le Guin died on January 22 2018, aged 88. That day, while I was recovering from typhoid, I was planning a tour to temples in the Chola province orgainsed by Swarajya as part of Swarajya Heritage tour.

So, five days after the death of this American novelist, I was standing with the group at Airavatesvara temple built by Chola king Rajaraja-II in 12th century CE. Around the temple, in stone walls, the lives of great Nayanmars were sculpted. Each of these holy men and women had a peculiar way of relating himself or herself to Shiva. And each differed from the other immensely – sometimes they were even diametrically opposite. Later, when we stood before a calendar art depiction of all the acts of the Nayanmars, someone in the group asked, “So what exactly should one be like in spirituality? What exactly are these people telling us?”

Sakhya Nayanar a Buddhist every day threw a stone at Shiva Linga. Kungiliya Nayanar tied the rope to his own neck to make the leaning Siva Linga straight again. Both are revered as sacred Nayanmars.: Darasuram Temple (12th century)

The question prompted me to recall a passage from Guin’s novel The Telling (2000). Here, Guin writes from the point of view of a girl with a Hindu name, who has grown up with a completely non-Hindu official education, viewing the spiritual tradition of another planet for knowledge-mining to help the colonisers:

Remembering that passage in that grand Chola temple, it felt almost as if she had described the spiritual basis of the Nayanmars. Consider this. Sundarar asks Shiva to go as his emissary to his lover and Shiva obeys. Viran Minda Nayanar threatens Shiva, the deity himself, with excommunication from Shaivism and Shiva gets concerned, not angry. Shiva comes as labourer and frolics as Vaigai river rages and gets caned by the king.

The so-called rationalists in South India have made fun of all these aspects of Shiva. Ace Dravidianist, E V Ramasamy, told Hindus, “I am not saying you do not worship God. But worship not these deities but worship One God with dignity like Christians and Muslims”. The pseudo-rational Dravidian movement proclaimed that the Periya Puranam – the puranic retelling of the Nayanmars, should be burnt. And here, Ursula, in her science fiction, provides the English-educated, colonised, uprooted Hindus a vision of what actually their religion is all about, if they care to read of course.

Young Ursula Guin Courtesy: Wired

Ursula Guin functioned in a realm dominated by Protestant white males. There were, of course, notable (non-religious) Jewish contributors like Isaac Asimov. And yet, the overarching paradigm that ruled the science fiction world when Guin started writing was that of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP). One can say her science fiction and fantasy, as well as her experiments with poetry, brought a challenging perspective to the world of science fiction.

This challenging perspective that she brought she took from Taoism, Hinduism and native American mythology. And this vastly differs from the Western understanding of the myth of the hero and his quest. Hence, her challenge was refreshing and profound. She was also a Jungian. She considered the Jungian notion of collective unconscious as “a vast common ground on which we can meet, not only rationally, but aesthetically, intuitively, emotionally”. Her 1969 novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, established Ursula Guin as a reputed and established name in the field of science fiction and fantasy. In her introduction to the 1976 reprint, she wrote:

Again, this is something a Hindu not uprooted from her essence knows intuitively. Ursula Guin should have known it.

In her poetry book, Hard Words (1981), she explores the self and existence with the tools of extraordinary images. We see a passionate lover emerging in her shaped by these images and stories. Her ‘Epiphany’ goes thus:

Did you hear?
Mrs Le Guin has found God.
Yes, but she found the wrong one.
Absolutely typical.
Look, there they go together.
Mercy! It’s a colored woman!
Yes, it’s one of those relationships.
They call her Mama Linga (

We are left to wonder who or what is Mama Linga?

Prof Richard D Erlich, a literary critic, in his work on Guin thinks she refers to Kali. As a Hindu, this writer feels she may also be referring to the female part in the Linga – well known in Tamil as Avudai. There are temples where the Avudai Itself is worshipped as Linga, as in the Avudayar temple (Pudukottai district) in Tamil Nadu.

According to epigraphist S Ramachandran, the word Avudai is related to or derived from the Sanskrit word odhyaana. (Origins of Androgynous Godhead, Tamil, Sishri.org) . Interestingly, in her poetry, Ursula Guin speaks of ‘one of those relationships’ with reference to Mama Linga. What is it that she might have meant? Linga is etymologically related to language. In Sri Lalitha Sahasranama, one of the meanings associated with her name ‘Odhyanapitha Nilaya‘ – (she who abides in the Odhyana structure, name 379) – is the manifest word – Vaikari Vak.

Did Ursula Guin in mentioning Mama Linga understood these relationships, perhaps intuitively?

In another poem she says that the ‘little children’ fear the Kali’s day. They ‘weep’ and seek an escape – ‘let it not be till tomorrow’. But the woman in the sleep of the poet goes on ‘drumming until the drumhead breaks’. As the maiden wakes and sees the ‘Kali’s day’ coming, things change:

Mother takes the fear away.
Night is Kali
the god appears between her thighs
stands in beauty, dances, dies.
O Mother, comfort me. (The Night)

To miss the similarity between the poem on Kali written by Swami Vivekananda in 1898 where he sang of her as death and terror and also as the mother, would be difficult. (The whole poem can be read here.)

(L to R) Shiva burns Kama, Shiva as the seductive Bhikshaatana, Shiva as Nataraja

Guin then speaks of Shiva burning Kama – the deity of desire. Again, the deep knowledge of the subtleties and nuances of Hindu spirituality which Ursula Guin had internalised amazes a Hindu and leaves her Western art critic almost baffled. The poet urges Shiva to burn Kama who comes to adore Shiva ‘over the April meadow’

Uncover your third eye,
burn him to ashes
that he may cast no shadow
being with you and before you
hereafter and forever. (Siva and Kama)

There is a beautiful hint here of the understanding of the deeper aspect of Hindu spirituality, and she is not even flaunting. It flows with her words – very Taoist if you like. The burning of Kama makes him cease to be a ‘shadow’ here in the Jungian sense. Kama gets integrated. After being burnt to ashes, he gets resurrected in an integrative manner into the self. Sri Lalitha Sahasranama says that this happens because of the grace of the divine feminine. The goddess becomes the life-resurrecting medicine for Kama after he was burnt by the fire from the third eye of Shiva. In the end, Shiva himself became Kameswara.

With the burning and then integrating of Kama, Shiva becomes the enchanting dance master. A mother of a girl watches him advancing ‘admirably suave’. Then she exclaims ‘O my God! His zipper!/ What is that thing? A cobra?/ It wags at me so sweetly.’ We are reminded of the image of the seductive Bhikshatana here.

They say he uses cannabis.
I wouldn’t trust my daughter
at his school.
O but how sweetly,
sweetly he can dance! (School)

Again, one is reminded of Tamil mystic-devotional literature, with its imagery of the love-intoxicated daughter telling her mother that the paradoxical aspects of Shiva have made her fall madly in love with him. Manickavasakar, a Shaivaite seer (dated between fourth to ninth century CE) sings of Shiva from the point of view of such a girl. “Mother, look at the way my lover dresses/Snake as His ornament/Tiger skin in His hips/Covering Himself in ashes/And Mother, to this form I am madly in love.. Having a woman as part of his body yet an ascetic beggar, Oh! Mother but as he moves away with his begging bowl why my heart aches!” Seems a mother born more than thousand years after the girl confessed her love to Shiva, in a place thousand miles away, is now cautious to guard her daughter. But here already the mother herself is madly in love with Shiva.

According to the puranic narrative, it was after the seductive and handsome Bhikshatana had enchanted their wives, that the enraged rishis sent a tiger to kill Shiva, who made the skin of the very tiger his dress and started dancing.

In Shaiva Siddhanta, the dance and the primeval creative sound principle play an important role. Tirumular says this about the dance:

That Primal Para (Supreme) danced;
Fire held in His hand danced;
His matted locks too danced;
Bliss intoxicated He danced;
With all those celestial eggs, the universe danced;
He danced with Nada (the primal creative sound principle)
The Dance of Nadanta! (Thirumanthiram: 2751)

Now, more than thousand years later, Ursula Guin – in the dance of Shiva – says she wants to be the sound of his drum:

I am the dance you’re dancing
I am the loving tiger
I am the hungry god
You are the drummer, you are the drum
but I am the sound of drumming (A Semi-Centenary Celebration)

And what a dance it is! Everywhere she looks, Ursual Guin sees and feels the dance from his drums:

Sun dance
stone dance
bone dance
one dance
sky dance
bird dance
word dance
I dance (Drums)

And this is Thirumoolar on the dance at Tillai:

Vedas dance
Great Agamas dance
Songs dance
All realms dance
Elements dance
Entire existence dances
With the Nada (creative sound from the drum) He dances
The dance that comes from the Bliss of Knowledge
(Thirumanthiram: 2729)

In South India, as you walk through the semi-darkened halls of centuries old temples, natural light filters onto the stone pillars, showing the gods, goddesses, and suddenly, one sees an act of sexual union – not just between deities but also between humans, and even jesters trying to suck their own genitals. Then suddenly, again, you might see Shiva as Dakshinamurthy – a supreme form of Shiva – teacher of wisdom. One can feel the tantric-yogic harmony. And it is hard to describe it in words. Moving between the romantic loving devotee and the mystic tantric realm, Ursuala’s poetry too has that feel of the pillared corridor in a South Indian temple.

Guin uses the lines from the popular ‘Red Riding Hood’ in her poetry and conveys a terrifying yet not an uncommon tantric imagery involving Shiva and Kali:

Where did I get this middle eye?
So you can see me clear.
Where did I get these extra arms?
To hug me with my dear.
What have I got these big teeth for?
Bite off my head my sweet
And dance upon my body
There where the rivers meet.

Ursula  Guin catches vividly with ambiguous reversals, the enigmatic tantric imagery of Kali dancing on Shiva

And also, Kali dancing on Shiva becomes the act of bringing existence into being.

God’s stomach
rumbles like a drum
when I jump on it
when I dance on his chest he snores
when I dance on his gut he farts
when I dance on his cock he comes
when I dance on his eyes he wakes and all the stones fall down
ashes, ashes
all fall down.
Get up and dance, creation! (Carmagnole of the Thirtieth June)

When adoring Shiva as Pashupati, the poet sees through the eyes of Parvati. The hair of her beloved is uncombed. His hair is not only uncombed but is grey with ashes and it hides the crescent. Old men call him crazy. But why uncombed hair? Because on the uncombed hair falls the river out of the stars. So his lover sings

O my lord I Parvati know myself
daughter of the king of mountains
immortal, when my heart grows heavy
with tenderness thinking of my husband the herdsman
who never combs his hair.

Not able to stand the horrors humanity inflicts on itself and on the nature the child cries. And Kali answers. And she is the Kali from Thillai.

They burned Hiroshima
There was Tillai
The blood burned painfully
That pleased Kali
I seek comfort, mother.
Find it in the ashes.
I seek comfort, mother.
Find it in the bones.
Mother, I am sick at heart.
Come to the drumming at Chidambaram.
Mother, I am sick at heart.
Come to the dancing at Tillai. ( The Dancing at Tillai )

And then Kali explains the mystery – the dance of Shiva to the child :

See where my lord bears drum and flame
his right hand says Be not afraid
his left hand points to the dancing foot
he dances in the heart laid waste
the burning place
river and moon are in his hair
his lifted foot is grace
his lowered foot is sleep
he dances in the center
there, and there, and there,
all time, all space,
the arch of all the stars
contains his splendor

Ursula Guin understood Hindu spirituality in its entirety, with typically easy Hindu ability to move between multiple meanings and layers. And this creates in her a worldview that fills her science-fiction and fantasy world. Naturally, this becomes very relevant in the context of what is happening today, right here. Without exploring that aspect we cannot completely understand Guin and the fire that drove her writings through decades – which is what the next part will deal with.

Source: Swarajya Culture

Featured image: https://en.wikipedia.org


How Prasad Pawar Restored Art Work In Ajanta Caves Without Touching Them

This is the story of a man who has dedicated 27 years of his life studying and digitally restoring the vanishing art work in Ajanta caves.

By Sumati Mehrishi

When Nashik-based photographer, artist, restorer and archivist Prasad Pawar comes across a deteriorating work of art in the Ajanta caves, he finds it hard to relate with the form, and decides to give the painting a new life.

“How can we not do anything when Ajanta is fading and moving towards darkness?” he asks.

Prasad is on a continuing mission. He has dedicated 27 years of his life studying and digitally restoring the vanishing art work in Ajanta caves – heritage that may cease to exist as time goes by.

During these 27 years, the artist has recorded the 2000-year-old paintings, our national treasure, through his cameras, over several visits and revisits to caves 1, 2, 16 and 17. He has studied and restored works of art that have become physically irreparable and have lasted, “miraculously”, for 2,000 years of Indian history, art history, performance of music and dance, philosophy, traditions, painting, skills, styles, colours, life, interaction – 2,000 years of art of storytelling and the tradition of tales.

Prasad says, “At this rate of deterioration, the paintings, India’s oldest known, would not last for more than three generations.”

A collection of his works, ‘Glorious Ajanta’, was displayed recently at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture.

Prasad is ready to go further with “Atta Deep Bhava”, his initiative to help people connect with the recreated works through the original colours, hues and stories, from the caves to galleries in India and outside. At this juncture, he is calm, assertive, more passionate for deeper details and dimensions and more determined to make people aware about what they have viewed inside the four caves in Ajanata, the UNESCO-designated world heritage site in Aurangabad.

On the last day of Glorious Ajanta, when Swarajya visited the IGNCA galleries, Prasad had invited a special guest – National Museum director general B R Mani. Mani took a tour of Prasad’s pioneering work and was left overwhelmed, emotional and impressed. Reproduction of the iconic portraits from Ajanta caves, Padmapani, Vajrapani, Black Princess and many other art work paintings from caves 1, 2, 16 and 17, depicting scenes from the Jataka tales, such as Buddha giving sermons, the serpent form of Bodhisatva, several episodes of Buddhas’ life, appear to the viewer as (physically) restored, their colour and composition visibly saved and reclaimed, remaining as close as possible to the original. No physical touch was involved in this restoration; it is something Mani, himself a noted conservationist involved with the restoring of caves 16 and 17 during the late 1980s and other iconic projects, has never seen before.

“I was part of the team that was examining the deterioration in caves 16 and 17. Parts were destroyed by Italian conservators, who used shellac and other chemicals which were deteriorating the paintings,” Mani says. At that time, according to the veteran conservationist, his team was not only involved in structural conservation and stabilising the rocks, but were putting their minds together on how to control the damage to the paintings. Back then, Prasad was still preparing to get into an art college, when his life would change after examining a portrait from the Ajanta caves.

Looking at the damaged iconic portrait, Black Princess, known for her charm, sensuality, headgear and ornaments, and the restored version, Mani calculates the number of hours Pawar would require to digitally record some of the works in the four caves through photography, given the low light and space limitations, particularly the scenes from the Jataka tales. “It took me a year to photograph a particular Jataka, sir. The sun would move slowly through parts of the painting, every two months. For other works, I would depend on the tripod, the sun and the right timing. Interestingly, parts of art work near the ceiling are in better condition owing to distance from human access, heat and other factors responsible for deterioration,” Prasad adds.

Prasad’s is an eternal journey dedicated to the colour, form and lines of the Jataka tales in the Ajanta caves. He walks, tirelessly, between photographic evidence and tangible reinterpretation of existing heritage – an exercise in restoration that begins on the bindu – of the camera aperture, and grows under research, light and digital restoration in his studio in Nashik. Yet, his appetite for seeing the purest in form is still huge. “Mr Mani and his team have been fortunate to see the paintings in better state. Inhone bahut hee pure material dekha hai (They have seen a very pure material)”, he tells Swarajya.

The documentation and restoration of paintings in Ajanta caves undertaken by Prasad is a story of patience, immense handwork, thousands of hours spent in detailed research of Buddhist traditions and art, and a gruelling process of completing a narrative. “I wanted to see what actually was available in art 2,000 years ago. We have been storing our civilisation in art. Art gives us all the answers we need about those times,” he adds.

Before restoration
After restoration

The exhibition has been put together simply for viewing and awareness. He explains, “Hai kya aur dekhna kya hai in the dark (It’s about what’s available and what’s to be viewed in the dark)”. People who visit Ajanta get the ‘feel’ of being at the monument. They can barely manage to have a cursory look due to the low intensity of light, which, currently, is only 5 lux. They spend nearly 10 minutes on viewing. To appreciate these paintings, a viewer needs to read, register and recall. “At least people who work towards strengthening the Indian art narrative today should be able to spend more time on details in these works that were left for us 2,000 years ago.”

Prasad’s digital restoration work and process primarily seeks recreation and restoring – a meditative process that has given ‘viewing’ of art a new meaning. “There are many stories which I want to decode and know their references. These four caves had paintings and stone work existing simultaneously. This is something unique to the Ajanta caves. Working on them, I get the same bliss, anubhuti, and joy of creation, as any devoted artist gets when he plays the sitar,” he adds.

For 10 years, he has been digitally restoring the art works through a process that involves putting back details missing in the paintings and their parts affected by deterioration. “It is important to store what I photograph. It is important to store what I rework on those photographs. It is done as per scales used in the original paintings and stone works. Sketches are made in pencil. Colours are filled. Everything is stored again,” he adds.

His aim – to complete, place, reunite and reclaim the missing sections through rework on photographic evidence, based on his study of the visual evidence collected over the years. It is a three-fold path. Visual documentation of the art works – done through photography. Photographs (from his abundant collection) are studied and paintings recreated with colour correction. These are restored and documented in consonance with the original – with immense sensitivity.

Where did it all begin? “The realisation came during the first year of college. I was studying art. I came across the famed Padmapani painting and noticed that portions were missing. There were two patches – one on the stomach of the iconic figure, another on the left hand. I approached my lecturer and told him how, as Hindus, we are told that it becomes difficult to connect with a depiction of a god or goddess when it is portions or sections, broken, destroyed or missing. I told him that I would like to complete the form and replace the patches with what the artists of those times would have created or imagined. He said, ‘You are too young’ to think of recreating these.”

This interaction was a trigger. “I went to the caves that are believed to represent scenes from Buddha’s life. The scenes are heavily drawn from the Jataka Tales. My life had changed.”

The paintings left him speechless, and their natural deterioration, dejected. He had two options – to continue feeling dejected while being aware of what he could do for the monument, or to start restoring them for younger generations. “I wanted to preserve Ajanta at any cost,” he adds. How did he afford the equipment? “It has all come from my pocket. I have used cameras as per my needs, from Canon to Hasselblad. I have taken no help from the governments in 27 years.”

Prasad had a broad canvas and original insight from the paintings as his material. Material threw open elements – elements to be shot, elements to be used, to fill scratches, scrapes and stretches of colour, hues and form, elements to be rethought and placed, like missing pieces in a jigsaw that’s 2,000 years old, a jigsaw in which you can arrive around the colours, not on them, a puzzle that requires understanding, observation, perception more than ‘solving’ or mindless and cold ‘fixing’.

The art work that inspired Prasad Pawar to take up the restoration work

Physical restoration was not impossible for Prasad, but it was not feasible. He requested the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), which manages the monument, for permission to photograph the art works for digital restoration. “ASI granted permission for documentation work in 2006. I took permission to work for a few hours and told them that I want to do something. I had a Canon at that time.” It was time to put all the clues and links he had collected over the years, together. “We can’t make an Ajanta today in spite of the tools, time and techniques available. Why? Wo junoon aaj nahin hai (we don’t have that madness today). Back then, those people were guided by one thought – how to help the other person. There was tatva, a system, a sense of sacrifice, surrender, associated with every Jataka. History books tell you a story of a king and queen. The Jatakas go much deeper. You find elements that give you details and more details on the lives of people – a window to how life was in Bharat 2,000 years ago,” he adds.

Prasad’s work rests magnificently on research photography, his travels across the country, interpretations, reinterpretations, recall, memory, consultations from experts worldwide, and intuition. The intuition, it becomes clear when one examines the blown-up reproduction of his work, is not a plain echo left to wander in time and antiquity in Ajanta. It is measured, precise, free and controlled, living and growing continuously in neat resolution – in the endless chain of strokes and layers of painting and digital rework. Intuition came with knowledge, and part of knowledge, with travel. His work gives the viewer a reason to rediscover the power of intuition in art, photography and research photography.

It is the intuition of an artist who can throw himself from the 22 foot camera tripod, back 2,000 years, and paint a narrative of those times, several times over, year after year, even when his hands are busy adjusting the camera lens.

Prasad has been able to immortalise a part of heritage that took birth in a continuous evolution of art, human endeavour and thinking, spread over not decades but centuries, in the Ajanta caves. How did he connect the missing links in the restoration work? He drew the thought, direction, inspiration and clues from the Jataka tales – the basis for his restoration. How would he travel back in time to relate with aesthetics, form, bhaava, messages, intricacies and moods? By travelling. “I had to see what all existed 2,000 years ago – a civilisation through art, as it has been stored, in art. Then, languages. Material and stories on Jataka tales are available in Pali, Brahmi lipi, Sinhali, Marathi, Sanskrit, Tamil and English, but details about the people are missing. How does the raja look? What is he wearing? We need to look into those details. Artists of those times could go into such detailing. I found evidence to connect these dots all over India.”

The artist took a journey across India, covering 35,000km through Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Odisha, Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Rajasthan, to study the colour palette, “the psychology of artists” of the time and to understand how they created characters, situations and scenes. He adds, “When you are looking at art which originated 2,000 years ago, you need to have some evidence to work with. You can go back in memory to a decade. But when you need insight on Vaastukala, ornamentation, clothes, etc, you need evidence. I collected references before beginning the research work on Ajanta and Ellora,” he adds. His circuitous romance with distance and proximity with art works became more intense with travel, so did the cyclic churning of inclusion and conclusion.

Today, the work is being carried out day and night, reducing the distance between the monument, moment and the visitor, the viewer and art, reality and illusion – the illusion that the distant and short viewing of Ajanta would leave many visitors with, the illusion left on the viewer’s mind, like a reverie, in pale glow. How are the colours and hues matched? “The colour correction is done up to the original, as per the placing of Jataka story and the part photographed inside the caves. The distance of the doors and windows and the natural light falling on them is an important factor that helps determine the colour details for recreation and matching. Colour temperature of the lights are checked. The paintings have faded due to various factors. They have turned yellow. Digital correction for better clarity is carried out.”

Why are his projects under Prasad Pawar Foundation significant to Indian art and history? They are a result of an extensive study of art that unravels details on narration, spiritual journeys, people, colours, skin colours, fabric, prints on fabric, ornaments, clothes, material, metals used, weapons, artists, musical instruments, the arts, hierarchies, moods and lives. He has poured the study on the canvas. The dimensions in the Viharas he has photographed in the Ajanta caves and reworked, give you room. They accept the viewer.

Then, Prasad has entered the paintings – not in fantasy self-portraits or in contemporary footprint forced on an ancient canvas. He has entered the paintings and their time with the devotion of a pilgrim, patience of a yogi and perseverance of a student of the arts. He is drawn to the physicality in art – in the kriya, the doing, and grammar. “I work on wood, metal and stone. I wanted to know how a chisel mark culture is made in art dedicated to Buddha. What is the process? I studied the chisel mark. I studied both painting and sculpture. I find bliss in both chisel mark and painting.” He is restoring the unrestored as well as restoring the restored.

Prasad Pawar with the Dalai Lama

He, still, has miles to go. “More than 14,000 square inches of work is over, and 223,200 square inches remains of just cave 1.” Will the exhibition travel? “Yes. I am going to focus on the display of this work and take it to more and more people. I also plan to take it outside India and create a museum in Maharashtra,” adds Pawar.

At the end of his tour, Prasad touches Mani’s feet in a mark of respect to the veteran conservationist. That’s how one of the greatest artists of our times, unsung, in a scene dominated by contemporary expressions and their celebration, counts blessings. Prasad is an artist immersed in Indian art narrative. He is giving back to Indian art history more than what he draws from it, and won’t sit idle while a tangible tradition fades and moves towards darkness. He concludes, “There is no tool to measure spirituality. This is where I am in my work – a state of ananda.

Between the cosmic ‘before’ and ‘after’, between the conservation and recreation, between the several steps in Prasad’s work is a celebration of a civilisation that takes you to second-century BCE. Celebrate what remains and is restored.

Source: Swarajya Culture

How The Nataraja Idol Case Illustrates Dr Nagaswamy’s Contribution

Indian historian and archaeologist Ramachandran Nagaswamy was recently awarded the Padma Bhushan.

By Amar Govindarajan

He is at the heart of that landmark case from back in the day, which involved the return of the Nagaraja idol back to India.

We revisit the case and Dr Nagaswamy’s contribution to its resolution.

History buffs across South India were ecstatic earlier this week – Dr Nagaswamy, the doyen of South Indian archaeology and history, was honoured with a Padma Bhushan, India’s third-highest civilian honour. The 87-year-old historian and scholar has had an illustrious history, including spending many decades with the Archaeological Survey of India. Nagaswamy founded the Tamil Nadu Archaeology Department and served as its director for 22 years.

The recent Padma award to this history icon is a good excuse to revisit a historical case involving a large, exquisitely cast bronze Nataraja belonging to the Chola era, a Canada-based art collector and British courts. Nagaswamy was a key participant in the case, as you will see.

Sometime in 1976, Ramamoorthy, a labourer, was digging out the soil in Pathur, a village in the Kaveri delta district of Thiruvarur. As luck would have it, he discovered a stash of nine Chola bronzes buried on the site he was digging. Instead of reporting the case to the authorities, poor Ramamoorthy got in touch with some people and sold the largest among the idols, the Nataraja, to one Chandran for a measly sum of Rs 200. From there, the bronze appears to have found its way through the smuggling network to London, where it was handed to a London museum renovator to be readied for display in a Canadian museum.

The eventual buyer of the Pathur Nataraja was Bumper Development Corporation from Alberta, Canada. They had paid a princely sum of 250,000 British pounds to acquire the Nataraja from a London dealer called Sherrier, who had produced a false provenance paper for the idol. While the bronze idol was undergoing work, the British police impounded the idol on complaints of theft. It is believed that one of the smugglers who got a raw deal might have tipped off the police.

The British police were then issued a writ by Bumper Development Corporation, who claimed that they had legally acquired the idol. Indian authorities soon got involved and became plaintiffs in the case, saying the bronze was indeed smuggled illegally from India. Indian authorities too appeared to have been tipped off or acquired information as to the origins of Pathur Nataraja and had by now recovered the remaining idols from the stash that Ramamoorthy had discovered.

Among the Indian government’s arguments was to compare the sculptural styles and use the remaining eight bronzes to demonstrate the apparent similarity. All the eight recovered bronzes had been sent to London for the case hearings and along with them went one art historian well-versed in the field. The historian that Indian authorities had sent, was the Tamil Nadu state archaeology department director, and under whom some 25,000 metal images had been registered and studied. As you would have guessed by now, the historian was none other than Dr Nagaswamy.

Against Nagaswamy, Bumper Development Corporation fielded an art historian by the name of Gary Schwindler, then associate professor of art at Ohio University. He was well-known for his PhD dissertation on ‘The Dating Of South Indian Metal Sculptures’. Schwindler’s argument was that while the bronze in contention was indeed a Chola bronze, it was certainly not part of the Pathur group as they were quite different in style.

The judge in the case, Justice Ian Kennedy, now had the duty to study and decide the case on the basis of, among other things, the findings and opinions of the two art historians Nagaswamy and Schwindler.

Schwindler suggested dating the bronzes by comparing the styles with stone sculptures found in temples. The temple sculptures were more accurately dated and if the styles in the Nataraja bronze matched certain temple sculptural styles, then one could reasonably assume the bronze belonged approximately to the same period as the temple.

Nagaswamy, it has been reported, suggested a “more comprehensive approach, using bronzes dated by inscription, bronzes dated by association with temples, comparisons between bronze and stone sculpture, and paleography to build an overall sense of stylistic sequence among Chola bronzes images”.

Three types of scientific fact were considered by the judge as ‘subsidiary evidence’. The first was metallurgical analysis. The plaintiffs wanted to show that both the Pathur Nataraja and the other eight recovered idols had the same metallurgical composition. But the analysis did not help as there was no “established chronological standard” of composition for bronzes.

Entomologists got into the act next, comparing termite runts on the bronzes. Indian authorities wanted to show that both the Nataraja and the other group of idols had similar black marks from termites running across the idols. Soil analysis of fragments still stuck to the bronzes was also tried and compared with the soil at the Pathur site, but this alone couldn’t help arrive at a conclusion as the burial process might have involved soil brought from outside, for example, from river sand.

The judge found Nagaswamy’s arguments persuasive and granted that the Nataraja bronze being contested over was originally from the Pathur temple. The case is even today cited as a great example of a cultural icon being returned to its original owners. The defendants went on to appeal where they were dismissed; in fact, the Court of Appeal awarded the Pathur temple damages of some 1,000 British pounds. The plaintiffs were also awarded costs totalling around 300,000 pounds.

The Nataraja (Photo: Webster-Smalley)

The Pathur Nataraja idol case remains a landmark even today for a number of legal precedents it set. It recognised the temple and the deity, Shiva, as a jurist entity which could sue or be sued. It caused quite a stir in the antiquities market – with the Pathur Nataraja case settled in the temple’s favour, any antique item stolen from a temple could now be claimed back citing this precedent.

The exquisite Pathur Nataraja, which had probably been buried during the Mohammedan invasions of South India, finally returned with much pomp to its former state of glory after many centuries. On 9 August 1991, the idol was handed over to then chief minister of Tamil Nadu Jayalalithaa. The idol was decked with flowers and pujas were conducted. A plan for renovating the Pathur temple was announced. Among those who received mementos from the chief minister on the occasion of the idol’s return was Dr Nagaswamy. His contribution to the case was widely regarded as critical and has been acknowledged so by many directly involved in the case.

Adrian Hamilton, Queen’s Counsel, London, in his written submission to the courts said, “Dr. Nagaswamy has brought to bear unequalled learning and experience in the historical, cultural, and religious aspects of the Chola Empire and the Hindu religion which flourished and which still flourish in Tamilnad and on the understanding of the inscriptions in the temples and on statues.”

The trial court judge made the following remarks: “..Dr. Nagaswamy, who I am satisfied, is an unequalled expert in his subject…Now considering the matter of style, again I prefer the evidence of Dr. Nagaswamy to that of Dr. Schwindler… I am satisfied that Nagaswamy is right in his summary taking the broader feel and treatment of the main points… I am satisfied that stylistic judgements in relation to Medieval Chola bronzes can not be more precisely determined than when Nagaswamy expressed his conclusions in his evidence.”

In the years thereafter, Nagaswamy would go on to accomplish much in his field. The Tamil Nadu government honoured him with a Kalaimamani award for his work on Periyapuranam, a notable Tamil work from the twelfth century. He brought back art performances into temples by organising the first Chidambaram Natyanjali festivals. That the union government has taken this long to recognise this unparalleled scholar is in fact a matter of shame. The Narendra Modi-led government deserves credit and applause for identifying and honouring scholars such as Nagaswamy.

It would be apt to close with a compliment that the Pathur Nataraja case trial judge, Kennedy, paid Dr Nagaswamy.

In the course of his observations, Kennedy had noted that Nagaswamy’s views put in front of the court were passionately held, and that he was a devout Hindu, and that it was easy to sense that Dr Nagaswamy was “deeply offended at the thought that idols of his Gods should be subject of commerce”.

What a wonderful thing it would be if everyone who had the power to protect and preserve India’s heritage could feel as offended about the current state of affairs as Nagaswamy had about Pathur Nataraja’s theft.


The ruined Pathur temple was rebuilt but in a most tragic manner:

“The Tamil Nadu Archaeological Department has lined up and marked all the stones of the old temple for restoration. They had also excavated and found the remains of the temple wall that clearly showed the treasure had indeed been buried in the temple precincts. Only the bronzes were awaited. But soon after they arrived with great fanfare, everything on the site of the temple was bulldozed and a brick and mortar temple raised to house the deities!”

Source: Swarajya Culture

The Amritsar Model: Resurrecting A City’s Heritage For Its People

Amritsar’s magnificent heritage is being resurrected in good measure along with a major initiative to equip it with modern infrastructure.

By Ekta Chauhan

But an integrated development is needed in order to save the city from the clutches of unplanned growth.

The typical Indian approach to heritage management has mostly been limited to monuments, ignoring the areas and communities surrounding them.

Heritage sites are neglected and overcrowded, with inadequate basic services and infrastructure facilities such as water supply, sanitation, roads, etc. Basic amenities like toilets, signage and streets seem to have disappeared. Moreover, there has been a clear lack of institutional capacity and planning to address these problems of historic areas.

This apathy towards India’s heritage was, however, broken by the National Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana (HRIDAY), launched in 2014 by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs. The stated aim of the scheme was to bring together urban planning, economic growth and heritage conservation in an inclusive manner for 12 selected cities.

As the scheme moves into its final leg, Swarajya decided to visit one of the HRIDAY cities, Amritsar, and assess what changes have been brought about to this holy city.

Amritsar centres around Shri Harmandir Sahib (popularly known as the Golden Temple). While it continues to be one of the most important religious and cultural centres for the Sikh community, its built heritage, traditional crafts and city design have been creaking under the weight of fast-paced urbanisation and investment-starved infrastructure and planning.

One could easily see a lack of open public spaces and a dwindling sense of community. The recommendations are, therefore, focussed on rebuilding the city’s glorious past and restoring its dignity across its heritage zones.

The Amritsar HRIDAY city plan, with an outlay of Rs 60 crore, identified five priority heritage zones, keeping in mind the layered history and monuments.

For all the five zones, access and improved mobility have been identified as a central theme and a large number of projects are dedicated to improving the outer and inner roads as well as walkability. While the work for most of the sites is still underway (until November 2018), one can see the impact of the scheme in several pockets of the city.

Facade conservation work is underway at Rambagh Gate.

Rambagh Gate And Its Environs (Zone 4): It is the only surviving gate built by Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Until a few years back, it was completely obscured and encroached upon and one could easily miss it while crossing the chowk in front of it. While the restoration and conservation of the gate and the rooms attached to it are an important part of the project, it goes beyond it to include adaptive reuse and regeneration of the precinct.

The insides of the Rambagh Gate houses a colonial era printing press, which is being restored. The terrace would house a restaurant and is being rebuilt. The work on a “people’s museum” is in its final stage, and would showcase the collective story of Amritsar and the community that lives around the gate.

As part of the landscaping of the roundabout in front of the gate, a table-top crossing has been built at the chowk to ease traffic movement and facilitate pedestrians. However, people in the area, when asked, said they were reluctant to use the new infrastructure as they are not accustomed to it. While some had misgivings about the “modern works”, others expressed hope, especially the shopkeepers, some of whom said the redevelopment of the area would bring in more tourists, and thus added revenue.

Pump house at challis khoo before and after restoration. (source: CRCI)

Chalis Khoo And Pump House (Zone 5): During the British rule, Punjab had received mechanised systems of water sourcing. These canals and the pump house now form an important part of colonial industrial heritage and are key to understanding the evolution of the city and its irrigation system.

The site has 40 wells (khoo) and a large pump house that served as the water source to the city during that period. With time, however, the site lost its utility with its structures lying in a dilapidated state. The idea of restoration, especially at this site, aims at revitalising the structure and creating alternate spaces for recreation and public facilities.

Gol Bagh (Zone 3): This garden is one of the largest public spaces available in the city, but it was out of use due to lack of basic amenities. The area used to be covered with garbage and was being used as a dumping ground.

Jogging track undergoing a revamp at Gol Bagh (source: CRCI)

A boundary wall has been erected around the garden which has provided a sense of security to visitors, especially women. The muddy tracks are now covered with tiles and bricks. The provision of toilets, car parking spaces and lighting has further ensured that people can easily access and enjoy this space.

Roads Leading Up To Harmandir Sahib (Zone 1): This area has undergone a massive facelift in the past few years. One of the most ambitious and successful projects here has been storm water drain management. Until a few years ago, roads leading to the shrine would be regularly clogged with overflowing water from open drains, especially during the rainy season.

Tiles are laid on the road leading to Harmandir Sahib, and open drains are replaced with covered ones.

Most of the old city lanes had open drains, which were regularly clogged or encroached upon by the nearby shops. Under the scheme, 15 kilometres of underground drain pipes were cleaned, and new underground pipes were laid. As all the streets are very narrow, pipes were used to transport waste water outside of the city. As a result of this project, the streets are visibly clean and more pedestrian-friendly, especially for such an important shrine, which is visited by thousands of devotees every day.

One of the major achievements of the scheme has been a shift of focus away from just beautification to bring about people-centric heritage development, and create public spaces to improve the quality of life.

While the city may have made huge strides under the scheme, it still has a long way to go. The old city lanes continue to be occupied by some magnificent heritage buildings (old havelis and shops) albeit in dilapidated state.

Due to pressure of population, the lanes are further shrinking, old buildings being demolished to make way for new ones and residential areas are being used for commercial purposes. There is a dire need to improve and expand public spaces and amenities.

Without an integrated and long-term approach, Amritsar might become victim to unplanned growth, and lose its architecture, tangible and intangible heritage resources, rich past and thus its very soul.

Source: Swarajya Culture

Tyagaraja: What Inspired The Great Saint-Composer?

As we celebrate 250 years of Tyagaraja, who provided a definitive shift to the tradition of Carnatic music, we recall the people, traditions and the entire ecosystem of Tanjavur area that may have inspired him.


By Santhi Pasumarthi

Tyagaraja’s mastery over music and lyrics and his towering genius have inspired many a composer. To this day, the prolific composer’s compositions are a template for others. Born around the same time as the other members of the trinity, in what can be called an epochal time in the history of Carnatic music, he made krithi the mainstay of the tradition. But who could have inspired him? A look at Tyagaraja’s body of work, his biography and the history of the region might give us some pointers.

Influence of the two traditions

To say that ramabhakti permeated his life and compositions is an understatement. The most popular picture of him drawn in his lifetime and other hagiographic pictures portray him as a bard with the tambura in one hand, ‘chirata’ (the small percussion instrument) in the other, and lost in bhakti. As much as he composed those so-called ‘heavyweight’ compositions including the ‘Pancharatnas’, which became the mainstay of the Carnatic tradition, there were not few but many devotional, lyric-centred Divyanama Sankeertanams suitable to be sung at Bhajana-Goshtis that might have come out during his puja, unchavritti and other rituals. The Bhajana Sampradaya tradition started by Sri Bodhendra Sadguru Swami was well-established by his time and its influence can only be expected. While the krithis like ‘Namakusumamula’ and ‘Bhajana seyave’ extol the practice of Namasamkeertanam, Rama Kodandarama (Bhairavi) and Rama Rama Neevaramu showcase it.

Bhagavatamela tradition in and around Tanjavur was also very strong at the time, courtesy the patronage of the Nayaks. Melattur Venkatarama Sastry lived not far before Tyagaraja. Narayanateertha is also associated with this tradition. We can see its influence in his Yakshaganas, which are more of Sangeeta Natakams, namely Prahlada Bhakti Vijayamu and Nauka Charitram.

Musical influences

Tyagaraja pays homage to Narada in Prahlada Bhakti Vijayamu and in a few of his krithis, prominent one being ‘Sri Narada Muni’, where he addresses him as guru (“gururaya”). Purandaradasa too is praised in the form of a padyam, and krithis like Grahabalamemi (inspired by Sakalagrahabala neeve sarasijaksha) show his influence.

He always considered himself a part of the Bhagavata-parampara and sang about it in krithis like ‘Endaro Mahanubhavulu’ and ‘Vidulaku Mrokkeda’. In Seetamma Maayamma, he lists the Bhagavatas starting from Shankara and says “dhara nija bhagavatagresarulevaro varellaru Tyagarajuniki parama bandhavulu manasa” – the foremost Bhagavatas on this earth are very closely related to him.

There are poems on Narayanateertha, Goswami Tulasidas and others in his Yakshaganams. He composed ‘Manasa Sancharare Rame’, probably inspired by Sadashiva Brahmendra’s ‘Manasa Sancharare Brahmani’. The Vibhakti (noun case) too matches except that for Tyagaraja, Rama was the ‘Brahman’.

Bhadrachala Ramadasu

Kancherla Gopanna, popularly known as Bhadrachala Ramadasu, was the other prominent composer who composed on Rama and is referred by Tyagaraja in the krithis ‘Ksheerasagara Shayana’ and ‘Kaligiyunte’. Apart from this, it’s astonishing to see the number of Pallavis shared by the two. Some examples are ‘Etulabrotuvo’ and ‘Etubotivo rama etubrotuvo’, ‘enduku dayaradura’ and ‘enduku dayaradu srirama’, ‘ela nee daya raadu’ and ‘ela daya raade ramayya’ – and we are only talking about the akshara ‘e’. There are other krithis like ‘ramabhadra rara’ and ‘rama rama neevaramu kava ra ra’.

Bammera Pothana

The influence of the great Telugu poet Bammera Pothana and his Bhagavatam is of a completely different kind. Srimadandhra Maha Bhagavatam was Pothana’s penance and occupies a unique place in the consciousness of Telugus. Pothana was a Shaiva who had a vision of Rama while meditating on Shiva. Rama asks him to write Bhagavatam in Telugu and dedicate it to him. Poems like ‘Chetularanga shivuni poojimpadeni noru novvanga hari keerthi nuduvadeni’ showcase his feelings of abheda between Shiva and Vishnu.

Named after the Shiva of Tiruvarur, Tyagaraja not only composed many krithis on Shiva, but used the mudra ‘Tyagaraja Nuta’, which could also imply ‘the one who is praised by Shiva’. Pothana’s Bhagavatam was a Nityaparayana Grantha for him and he seems to have influenced Tyagaraja’s approach towards life. The similarities in the way they led their lives cannot be glossed over as a coincidence. Pothana chose to live the life of a farmer, shunning Rajashrayam, which he proudly proclaimed in the poem ‘balarasalasala navapallavakomala kavyakanyakan’. He says it’s better to be a farmer than to sell his daughter-like work (kavya-kanyaka) to cruel people (kULalu). Sarvagnasinga Bhupala, the local king, is said to have pressurised him to dedicate Bhagavatam to him. Another padyam where he declares his intent forcefully.

immanujaeshvaraadhamula kichchi puraMbulu vaahanaMbulun

sommulun gonni puchchukoni chokki Sareeramu vaasi kaaluchae

sammeTa vraeTulaM baDaka sammatitO hari kichchi cheppe nee

bammera pOtaraajoka@MDu bhaagavataMbu jagaddhitaMbugan.

(Instead of giving it (his work) to kings of the worst kind and get hit by Yama with a hammer, this one called Bammera Pothana willingly gave his Bhagavatam to Hari for the benefit of the world.)

Tyagaraja too was a non-conformist in his own ways and lived on unchavritti and gurudakshina and was well-known to reject royal patronage. In the krithi ‘durmarga charAdhamulanu’, he says that he would not want to trade his ‘paluku boTi’ (lady of speech) with durmargas and his source of wealth was Rama.

durmArga carAdhamulanu dora nIvana jAlarA

dharmAtmaka dhana dhAnya daivamu nIvai uNDaga

paluku bOTini sabhalOna patita mAvanavula kOsagu khalula

neccaTa bogaDa shrIkara tyAgarAja vinuta

This again takes us back to Pothana’s poem where he assures a weeping Saraswati that he will not trade her to Kirata-keechakas (kaaTuka kanTi neeru chanukaTTu payimbaDa).

To showcase some more examples, there is a famous poem from Prahlada Charitram, where Prahlada explains why he cannot pray to anyone other than Vishnu.

mandAra makaranda mAdhuryamuna dElu madhupammu pOvunE madanamulaku

nirmala mandAkinI vIchikala dUgu rAyanca janune tarangiNulaku

lalita rasAla pallava khaadiyai cokku koyila cErunE kuTajamulaku

pUrNEndu candrikA sphurita cakOrakambarugunE sAndra neehAramulaku

ambujOdara divya pAdAravinda cintamAmRta pAna viSEsha matta

cittamE reeti yitarambu jEya nErcu? vinuta guNa Seela, mATalu vEyu nEla!

(A honeybee floating in the nectar of Mandara, will it go to wild jasmine?

A swan gliding on the beautiful Mandakini, can it go to other bodies of water?

A cuckoo used to savouring the tender mango shoots, can it go to a dattura plant?

A chakora bird soaking the moonlight, will it go to frost?

The mind that’s full of the nectar of Vishnu-chintanam, will it ever get fixed on others?)

The famous Tyagaraja krithi in Kalyani Ragam expresses similar thoughts employing comparison and question that is not high on shabdalankara like the poem above but high on arthalankara and philosophical content.

nidhicAla sukhamA rAmuni sannidhi sEva sukhamA nijamuga balku manasA

dadhi navanIta kSIramulu ruciyO dAsharathi dhyAna bhajana sudhArasamu ruciyO

dama shamamanu gangA snAnamu sukhamA kardama durviSaya kUpa snAnamu sukhamA

mamata bandhana yuta narastuti sukhamA surapati tyAgarAja nutuni kIrtana sukhamA

(Does material wealth cause happiness or proximity to Rama?

Do milk and yogurt taste great or the nectar called Rama-dhyana?

Does Ganga-snanam help in controlling mind and body or indulging in the well of sensual pleasures?

Is bondage-causing Narastuti (praising mortals) better or singing the glory of the one praised by Tyagaraja?)

In another well-known poem, Pothana discusses the worthiness of the Indriyas.

kamalAkshu narciMcu karamulu karamulu; SrInAthu varNiMcu jihva jihva

sura rakshakuni jUcu cUDkulu cUDkulu; SEshaSAyiki mrokku Siramu Siramu

vishNu nAkarNiMcu vInulu vInulu; madhuvairi davilina manamu manamu

bhagavaMtu valagonu padamulu padamulu; purushOttamuni mIdi buddhi buddhi

dEvadEvuni jiMtiMcu dinamu dinamu

cakrahastuni brakaTiMcu caduvu caduvu

kuMbhinIdhavu jeppeDi guruDu guruDu

taMDri! hari jErumaniyeDi taMDri taMDri!

(The hands that worship Kamalaksha, the tongue that describes Srinatha!

The looks that savour Surarakshaka, the head that bows to Seshasayi!

The ears that listen to glory of Vishnu, the mind that is fixed on Madhuvairi!

The feet that follow the Bhagavan and the intellect that’s focused on Purushottama!

The day that passes with thoughts of Devadeva, the knowledge that reveals Chakrahasta!

The guru that teaches Kumbhiniidhava (husband of the earth), the father that implores you to reach Hari!

Only these are the ones worthy to be called as such.)

The below Tyagaraja krithi in neelambari ragam is very similar but with added emphasis.

ennaga manasuku rAni pannagashAyi sogasu pannuga ganugonani

kannulElE kannu lElE kaNTi minnulElE

mOhamutO nIlavAri vahana kAntini gErina shrI harini gattukonani

dEhamElE dEhamElE I gEhamElE

sarasija malle tulasi viruvAji pArijAta virulacE bUjincani

karamulElE karamulElE I kApuramulElE

mAlimitO tyAgarAju nElina rAmamUrtini lAlinci pogaDani

nAlikElE nAlikElE sUtra mAlikElE

(What are the eyes that cannot find the lord for?

What is the body that doesn’t tie/attach itself to Srihari for?

What are the hands that do not worship him with lotus, malli and tulasi for?

What is this family life for?

What is the tongue that doesn’t praise the lord that rules over Tyagaraja for?

What is the japamala for?)

A similar thought is seen in Sri Kulasekharazwar’s poem from Mukundamala, wherein he implores his senses to turn to Vishnu.

jihve keertaya keshavam muraripum cheto bhaja shreedharam

paaNidvandva samarchayaachyuta kathaa shrotradvaya tvam shruNu |

krishNam lokaya lochanadvaya harergacChaanghri yugmaalayam

jighra ghraaNa mukundapada tulaseem moordhannamaadhokshajam ||

As we celebrate 250 years of Tyagaraja, who provided a definitive shift to the tradition of Carnatic music, it is worthwhile to remember the people, traditions and the entire ecosystem of Tanjavur area that may have inspired him.

Featured image: An oil painting of Tyagaraja by Pallava Narayanan Kanhangad (Vijayanrajapuram/Wikimedia Commons)

Source: Swarajya Culture

Revisiting ‘Chatrams’: The Indic Dormitories That Were More Than Just That



It is time to realise the cultural capital, actively pursue the cause of the endangered cultural assets that Chatrams are and if possible make them functional again.

By Aravindan Neelakandan

There is a general belief that the institution of social welfare is a European contribution to India. Colonial studies of Indian culture and society repeatedly stereotyped traditional Hinduism as inward-looking, life-negating and hence lacking a social conscience. For almost two centuries colonialists and missionaries indulged in crude stereotyping of Hindus as uncaring for the fellow human beings. This view was further reinforced by scholarly missionary workers like Dr Albert Schweitzer. For him, Hinduism and Buddhism because of their doctrines of Karma and Maya negate life and this world. According to Dr Schweitzer, on the other hand, Christianity affirms the reality of the world along with the human situation in it, which in turn makes social service an ethical obligation for Christendom.

Evangelical propaganda: Christianity alone cares for fellow humanity.

To this day many Indians, intellectuals included, have internalised these views. There are also ideological vested interests – Hindu-phobia that forms part of the academic and political discourse in post-independent India has its roots in colonial aversion to Hinduism and Indian culture. So, while the Vivekananda-Gandhi school rejected and resisted the negative stereotyping of Hindu culture and spirituality by the colonial-evangelical school of social studies, in post-independent India, the dominant Nehruvian-Marxist school, which has a stranglehold on the academic and political narrative, embraced and reinforced the stereotyping for decades.

From the fabricated image of Theresa of Calcutta caring for those dying on the streets of Calcutta, flashed across international media, to movies of Kollywood and Bollywood showing Christian institutions as the only place of solace and hope for the downtrodden victims, the concept of Hindu deficiency in social service has been reinforced again and again.

So what is the truth? For this writer at least, the moment of truth came while reading an obscure ‘Sthala purana’ – the puranic history of a sacred place, of what is now an ordinary village in Tamil Nadu but still the place of a traditional Saivite Math – Thiruvaavaduthurai. The name, in Tamil, means the place where the Goddess Parvati in the form of a cow, made reparations and became one with Siva. The Stala Purana was written in Tamil by a Saivaite seer-poet Swaminatha Munivar, 250-300 years ago. The Sthala purana itself is based on the ‘Go-Mukthi-Kshetra-Mahatmyam’ in the Rudra Samhita of Skanda Purana.

The Sthala Purana has quite a few verses which showcase the way the poet looked at how an ideal society and state should function. In these verses, the poet mentions the kind of social services that should be rendered by both individuals as well as institutions. Here are a few:

When I first read these verses, I considered them as just poetic hyperbole – the product of the imagination of an ideal charity-based society. Even as imagination, the caring for those who in jail, caring for the welfare of the barbers and washermen etc. struck one as very noble deeds, far ahead of the time, not only in India but anywhere in the world. Even more puzzling was the mention of ocular medication. Ophthalmologists – eye doctors in a utopian imagination? That is a bit too much.

But the records of the Thanjore Marathas did speak of ophthalmologists and paediatricians rendering medical services. There were medical professionals stationed in the Chatrams, which were famous in the Chola province that was then under the Marathas, three hundred years ago.

In other words, the poet was not only describing an ideal vision but was also approximating his vision with the day-to-day reality of his times.

In the popular imagination, ‘Chatrams’ are just inn-like service providers to pilgrims. Often they fed the pilgrims free of cost and gave them a place to rest. However, as one looks inside the Chatrams, they turn out to be something far more than just pilgrim inns. They were also centres of learning of various arts and sciences for local students – both Brahmins and non-Brahmins. Chatrams also provided medical services. Primarily, they provided shelter to pilgrims, and also acted as centres where the local people interacted with the pilgrims. Chatrams were thus educational and cultural networks across the pilgrim highway of Thanjavur – the old Chola capital. The highway itself led to Rameswaram – one amongst the most famous pilgrim destinations for Indians.

Though the exhaustive records available to us come from the Thanjavur Maratha period, the concept of Chatrams in Tamil Nadu itself was very old; inscriptions speak of social service institutions like ‘Athula Salai’ or medicine houses for all people from the times of the imperial Cholas.

In the latter half of the eighteenth century, dynasty intrigues and infighting made it possible for the British and Arcot Nawab to exert humiliating control over Thanjavur. By 1776, the kingdom under Thuljaji Bhonsle (1738–1787) had become a vassal of the British. Through the records, one can see how the British progressively choked the Chatrams. By 1799, the British resident-in-charge was reassigning the revenues for the Chatrams, often drastically reducing the financial support and hence the activities. By 1801, Thanjavur king Serfoji II Bhonsle (1777-1832) was writing a letter to the Resident requesting him to permit them to run the Chatrams. The letter provides an extraordinary insight into the manifold welfare activities that the Chatrams were undertaking. Here are a few excerpts from the letter:

A stone elephant in the Mukthalambal Chatram built by Serfoji II

Even the educational institutions which were run, show a remarkable degree of egalitarianism compared to their counterparts anywhere in the world. For example in the ‘Sarva Vidhyalaya’ which was run at Thanjavur (which became Nava Vidhya Kalanidhi Sala in 1807) we know, that in 1785, there were 85 Brahmins who learned Vedic chanting whereas 385 other students studied six languages. The school also employed at least one woman – Chengamma who taught painting and was earning monthly income of four chakras. Later according to another document of the 129 students studying in this residential school there were 20 Brahmins, 27 were from the royal house, six were children of Sepoys, seven Shudras and 46 Maratha boys. The hostel had ten cooks, one accountant, one washerman and one barber. This school was located in, what is today called, the Saraswati Mahal.

The chatrams, this residential school as well as the Saraswati Mahal had many functional relations. For example, an 1827 document records that, 501 inscribing pen tools were sent from one chatram to Saraswati Mahal. Similarly books were lent to the schools run in the chatrams from the Saraswati Mahal.

When I decided to visit a chatram, as part of Swarajya Heritage documentation, I chose the Muktambal Chatram. Muktambal was the lover of Sarfoji II. They were in a live-in relation and she gave birth to two children, both of whom died during child birth. She too was not of good health and died at a very young age. As her last wish, she requested the king that a chatram be created in her name to serve people. By then, the decline of the chatrams had already begun.

But, even then, this chatram served society in diverse ways. This is evidenced by the fact that when the British resident John Fyfe visited this chatram in 1825, he recorded that there were five educational institutions attached to it. There were 641 students studying there and 4020 persons were fed thrice a day. Nine thousand rupees was spent every month for the salaries of those employed by the chatram. English too was part of the curriculum at the chatrams. According to records, a Vellala from Thirunelveli came to this chatram and finished his English studies. He was given Rs 10 when he went back home after his studies. Books from Saraswati Mahal in Thanjavur were lent to this chatram on a regular basis.

Instructions for the management of the chatrams given by Neelakanda Rao Anandha Rao Jadav – one of the ceremonial military officials, in 1838 shows how the chatrams were experiencing increasing financial constraints. Yet, the stress on service to society still remains. Here are the excerpts:

As one travels from Kumbhakonam to where the Mukthambal chatram stands at Orathanadu, one passes through a small village called Thirupalathurai. Inside the Siva temple here, we find a unique structure which is ‘protected’. A board erected by the Tamil Nadu archaeology department says that the structure is a granary of older centuries. It was built by Raghunatha Nayakar (1600-1634) who ruled Thanjavur before the Marathas. The granary has the capacity of 3000 kalams (1 kalam = 96 padi and 1 padi = 14,400 rice grains).

Vishnu incarnated as a fish worshipping Shiva

As one passes through the serpentine roads that lead to the main road to Thanjavur, there is a small blink-and-you-miss village, Thiruchelur. As legend goes, Vishnu, in his first incarnation as a fish, worshiped Siva. A small Ganesha temple at the entrance to the village informs us that the temple had a historical connection to the Cholas and for centuries the villagers used to donate curd to any needy person during the summer months. The Ganesa is called ‘Dharma Ganesa’ and the Mandapam is called ‘Thayir Mandapam’ (or the curd Mandapam’).

From the time of the Cholas, they served the strangers with dignity – this small village.

As one reaches the high way that connects to Thanjavur one finds an intriguing scene. This is a route commonly used by tourists and pilgrims. But those that choose to halt and refresh themselves have nothing but the trees lining the highways for shelter. There is nowhere else they can rest or refresh themselves.

If you are a pilgrim and cannot afford a hotel to stay, then you end up eating on the sides of the highway. What a fall from the chatram days!

The historic irony unfolds further as one moves a little forward, as you see a ruined structure along a small water body – a dilapidated chatram. With some input and intelligent care, this beautiful chatram can still serve its original purpose as effectively as it did in the times in which it was built.

Not a temple but a ruined entrance to the Chatram
Inside the Chatram
A traditional water body by the side of the Chatram.
Chatram sculpture,Thanjavur: Churning of the milk ocean

Though there is today a separate department under the district collector for the upkeep of these chatrams, most of them have been encroached upon with their cultural capital left to erode and vanish.

At the entrance of Thanjavur too, one finds what should have been a chatram, but has sadly been encroached upon. Beautiful depictions like that of the samudram-manthan or the churning of the ocean for nectar being churned, have been left to meeth thier fate thanks to neglect and lack of maintenance. On the way from Thanjavur to Muktalambal Chatram one finds many such chatrams which are becoming extinct right in front of our eyes. And we are answerable to both our ancestors as well as posterity for what we have let happen to them.

Another ruined Chatram on the way to Mukthalambal Chatram
Two more Chatrams on the way to Mukthambal Chatram, Oratha Nadu. All are in various states of ruin and neglect.

As we arrive at the Muktambal chatram, what strikes one first, is the care taken to build it. There is a lot of love and attention here – not just for the deceased beloved of the king but for the Dharmic activities that would go in her name. The king may have wanted to see the love for his beloved resonate in the form of gratitude in every beneficiary of the chatram. The memory of his beloved was honoured with the thankfulness and the happiness of every student who obtained knowledge here, every hungry person who received a meal here.

For a moment, one cannot help but think about that monument which has been flaunted as the symbol of love. But to digress on this tangent would be a ‘secular’ taboo. So let us stay with the Chatram here.

A pale ghost of its past grandeur: Mukthambal Chatram – a real gift of love to benefit humanity !

Today, a private polytechnic institution is running some classes inside. A ghost of what it was intended to be, it shows the slow degradation that traditional institutions underwent under the British and the present regime. A good part of the Chatram is in ruins, what with party flags, left over liquor bottles strewn around and and roofs falling down. But, none of these can destroy the majestic beauty enshrined in the Chatram.

The Chatram is built like a chariot drawn by horsemen.
Just two centuries ago, students came here to quench their thirst for knowledge and travellers came here to be freed of hunger.
Chariot of service

This chatram, this chariot of education, food security and medical services was not run by the steam of surplus created through colonial extermination of other people. It was pulled by the hard work and honestly-earned-money of the local farmers and other communities.

It is interesting to note that while the colonial discourse made Indian culture look like it is otherworldly and hence lacking in social conscience, actual observations by early East India Company officials differed. Here is what Dr John Howison (1797-1859) a high officer associated with East India Company, who had his own cultural prejudices against Hindus, recorded about the Chatram-type institutions in India.

Charm of the Chatram, a sculpture found in Mukthambal Chatram

Chatram institutions show that India not only created institutional social service but created an innovative model that never asked for any obligation, physical or spiritual in return nor did the model depend on surplus created through colonialism. Christian charity, on the other hand, was created through colonial surplus and the rendering of charity enforced on the beneficiaries through theological colonialism. In other words, Hindu social service is totally rooted in this world, aimed at removing the misery and increasing the welfare of humanity (and also all life) in this world. Yet, thanks to the strong propaganda and tyranny of institutional discourse, Hindus too tend to believe that their religion is deficient in ethics and social conscience.

Dr. Edmund Weber, Professor of Comparative Religion at Goethe-University Frankfurt rightly observes:

It is understandable that the British slowly and steadily choked the chatram institutions. It served their colonial and evangelical purposes. In distant Assam again, the network of Sattra has been the backbone of Asom culture. The Sattram institutions came to Assam with the Vaishnavism of Srimanta Sankara Deva (1449-1568). In later Vaishnavaite literature, Baikunthanatha Bhattadeva defined Sattra as the place where the devotee-pilgrims perform religious rites and practice nine-fold devotion. We find that throughout the national freedom movement, from the Bengal partition to the ‘Quit India’ movement, the Sattra institutions and the trustees of the Sattras, the Sattrathikaris helped the freedom movement dynamically. Assamese historian Dr Sagar Barua writes:

Srimanta Sankara Deva and Sattras in Assam

One can even say that the British averted a lot of trouble for them by weakening the chatrams in Tamil Nadu, though their optimal functioning could have prevented the death of millions of Indians during the great famine of 1877. But what baffles one is, the continuous ruthless destruction of these wonderful cultural and social assets in Independent India.

Perhaps such destruction is necessitated by the present Nehruvian-Marxist-Dravidian cabal that continues the colonial-evangelical legacy in our academic, political and cultural spheres. So it becomes important for all those who love India and who belong to the legacy of India’s fight for independence to preserve these endangered cultural assets and if possible make them functional again realising their cultural capital.

PS: I thank Prof Balasubramaniam, who worked in the rare manuscripts section of Saraswati Mahal and also Sri Kannan of Kumbhakonam, without whose help and inputs this trip would not have happened.

This article is part of Swarajya’s series on Indic heritage. If you liked this article and would like us to do more such ones, consider being a sponsor – you can contribute as little as Rs 2,999. Read more here.

Source: Swarajya Culture

How Tirupati Became One Of India’s Richest Temples

What was it that made Tirupati one of India’s richest temples? Could the way temples managed their wealth have something to do with it? 

A study of how the Tirupati temple was managed in the sixteenth century during the time of the late Vijayanagar emperors gives us some clues.

By Amarnath Govindarajan

One of the earliest and most heard arguments in favour of large, wealthy temples has been that they nurture a local ecosystem, provide patronage for merchants and artisans, and generally act as an economic engine of the region. All this, of course, in addition to their original role as places of worship and grand projects of power projection for the reigning monarchs.

The ‘temples as economic engines’ argument, while perfectly valid, has almost never been explained to the general public in detail with data and examples. We attempted to look for ways to do this and found our answer in a paper titled ‘The Economic Function of a Medieval South Indian Temple’ (1960), authored by Burton Stein in The Journal of Asian Studies. Stein was a well-known historian who specialised in India with some notable works on the Vijaynagar and Chola empires. This particular paper that we will now discuss appears to be an adaptation from his PhD thesis on the economic functions of the Tirupati temple.

The paper looks at a crucial period in the history of the Tirupati temple, i.e., from the times of Krishnadevaraya to the fall of the Vijayanagar empire after Achyuta Deva Raya and Sadasiva Raya roughly for a significant part of the sixteenth century (1509-1550). Benefiting from the then newly translated inscriptions (some 1,000 had been translated and published) from the temple complex, the study also maps the flow of money through the local ecosystem and provides a clear picture of the temple economy and management.

Not surprisingly, the paper also notes the very efficient and near-professional management of the temple. Acting both as investing officers and administrators of the temple, it seems as though the seeds for the enormous wealthy status of Tirupati were sown during this crucial period of the great rayas of Vijayanagar. The temple had been receiving endowments from powerful south Indian royalties as early as tenth century, but we will restrict this study to the later Vijayanagar period.

It all began with the most powerful and well-known emperors of Vijayanagar, Krishnadevaraya himself. An ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu, the emperor composed many a work of devotional poetry – the amuktamalyada in particular. During his reign, nearly 20 villages were made over to the Tirupati temple as land grants. A further 90+ villages would be provided as grants to the temple in the next four decades.


Table showing village endowments made to the Tirupati temple from 1509 to 1568 (‘The Economic Function of a Medieval South Indian Temple’)


These land grants came in multiple forms. For crown lands and a tenure type referred to as service tenure, a major portion of the harvest was due to the temple with a minor portion going to the cultivator. There were other forms of grants in which only a specific income from the lands, and not ownership, accrued to the temple. Excepting such grants, the major portion of villages endowed to the temple could be fully managed by the temple authorities.

The other way to give to a temple was through large monetary endowments. Such endowments were usually made in lieu of certain rituals being performed in the name of or on behalf of the donor. The temple had the authority to invest the money and seek returns from it in order to sustain the ritual annually.

The combination of endowed villages and monetary contributions allowed the temple authorities to invest in long-term capital expenditure and nurture an economically vibrant ecosystem around the temple region. Inscriptions cited by the authors of the “Economic Functions…” paper demonstrate how the temple went about doing just this.

Here is an inscription from 1542 AD:

The above offerings of appa-padi (fried rice cakes) are to be costed at six panams (the currency in vogue) each. This would mean the temple would incur a cost of 1,800 panams for producing/procuring the appa-padis necessary and this amount must be generated fully from the capital available of only 15,000 panams, a return of investment of 12 per cent per annum.

The authors of the paper have similarly attempted a calculation of returns on other grants and found that “the average annual return on monetary endowments as measured by the value of the service performed for the money donor was about I0 per cent for the years 1535-47”.

Table showing monetary endowments made to the Tirupati temple from 1509 to 1568 (‘The Economic Function of a Medieval South Indian Temple’)


The temple, it must be remembered, is only one of the beneficiaries of this investment. The land tenure system meant that a good portion of the crop or return generated on temple lands was shared with the cultivator or the village population. So while the temple invested in public goods such as irrigation and tanks, it took back only a portion, even if it were the larger portion, of the returns on such investments, leaving more wealth in the hands of the cultivators. Accounting for the share given to the cultivators, the temple might have seen returns ranging from 10-20 per cent on its investments, a figure that would be difficult to beat in today’s government-run temple ecosystems.

Having studied the available literature of around 1,000 inscriptions, the author points out the nearly professional and proficient manner in which the temple authorities carried out their investments and wealth management. The paper cites how temple functionaries and local merchants continued to make large endowments to the temple over decades – a direct vote of confidence in temple authorities and an investment in the economic ecosystem they operated in. For example, in between 1542 and 1568, state donors constituted only 20 per cent of the total endowments. Citizens and merchants of Tirupati contributed 28 per cent, 8 per cent more than the royals. Temple functionaries contributed 23.5 per cent in the same period. Clearly, it wasn’t always about royal patronage.

The increase in monetary endowments also had something to do with the politics of the time. It is conjectured that the nearly three-fold increase in monetary endowments, mainly from military and state officers, after Krishnadevaraya’s reign could have been the result of vast accumulation of wealth during the victorious campaigns of the emperor in the preceding 20 years.

Once again in the last few years of Krishnadevaraya’s successor and half-brother Achyutadevaraya’s reign, we see a massive spike in endowments by military and state officers who profess loyalty to their emperor. The author of the paper points out that a majority (three quarters of them) of these endowments were made during a period of open conflict for the throne between the emperor Achyuta and Ramaraja, Krishnadevaraya’s son-in-law. Thus, endowments and inscriptions recording such contributions may also have been political statements.

If the state could exploit endowments to make political statements, the temple functionaries and local merchants used endowments for further wealth creation in the temple.

Apart from royal endowments, local merchants and temple functionaries stepped up with contributions in return for which they sought the rights to sell the temple prasada (consecrated food) to visiting pilgrims. Ritual functionaries such as those employed in educational institutions (mathas), temple reciters of sacred Tamil and Sanskrit works, teachers, scholars were eventually dependent on being able to monetise the consecrated food produced in the temples:

Tirupati was South India’s foremost temple under the Rayas, and the royal patronage, apart from other endowments, continuously brought more pilgrims to the temple. There must have naturally been a good demand for the consecrated food, and inscriptions show there was indeed trade based on arrangements and leases:

The ability of the temple to convert consecrated food (which had been paid for by earlier endowments) into money was quite important, leading to the temple functionaries themselves being able to contribute one-fourth of all endowments to the temple between 1509 and 1568.

Thus, between the royals, state donors, temple functionaries, temple villages and pilgrims, the temple was able to get a virtuous cycle of endowment, investment, trade and attractive rituals going. Endowments and land grants allowed the temple to generate large capital that was invested in smaller temples, which would attract more pilgrims. Devotee welfare too seems to have been covered with the building of feeding houses and rest houses.

There is something to be said about the temple functionaries and management during this period of extraordinary growth. More than a 100 villages had been endowed to the temple under the reigns of Krishnadevaraya and Achyutadevaraya. Apart from this, the capital generated from enormous amounts of investments made and new institutions being commissioned must have multiplied the workload of the temple management.

Throughout this century of expansion, the core management of the temple was left to a team of 12, an arrangement that was more than two centuries old by then. Further, as new institutions and responsibilities piled on, the paper notes, a slightly more relaxed and decentralised management structure began to take shape. New institutions were mostly self-managed with their own managers, treasuries and such. The main Tirupati temple appears to have even made permanent endowments to the new institutions, whose returns did not accrue to Tirupati.

When looked at it from four centuries away, the efficient management of over a 100 endowed villages, hundreds of endowments and all the associated trade related to the temple almost seem unbelievable.

It would be impossible to see local merchants and the temple functionaries backing a temple with their own money today – a notable vote of confidence in the temple administration of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Tirupati. Alas, if only some of this could be replicated in the twenty-first century, we may yet save the impressive heritage left to us by the great and the wise.

Source: Swarajya Culture

What Makes A Language ‘Polite’, ‘Poetic’, Or ‘Romantic’?

What decides if a certain language should be perceived as ‘polite’ , and some, more ‘attractive’, and yet others ‘sounding better’.

By Avatans Kumar

“Still I remember how her body lay
Exhausted by our love, her pale cheeks lined
With tumbled lock of hair, and round my neck
The tendrils of her arms she tightly twined;
Held me so close as if she bore within
Her heart concealed some secret deed of sin.”

The poem is not from an English erotica. Nor it is a translation of French, Spanish, Italian, or Farsi love poetry. It is a translation of the eleventh century Kashmiri Sanskrit poet Bilhana’s Chaurpanchashika (The Love Thief) by Richard Gombrich (Love Lyrics). If you are surprised by the fact that this sensuous poem was originally written in Sanskrit, you are not alone as we seldom envision Sanskrit a language of romance. Despite being the language of such masterpiece as Abhigyanshakuntalam, Kamasutra, etc, we rarely hear of Sanskrit being claimed as a ‘romantic’ language.

Such accolades, around our dinner table and in friendly conversations in WhatsApp groups, are reserved primarily for French, Farsi, Spanish, English, Italian, etc. Not to be undone by this, we also hear claims that such and such language is ‘polite’, some more ‘attractive’, and yet some others ‘sound better’.

We recently heard one of the Indian politicians promoting Urdu over Hindi because Urdu, according to him, was a more ‘polite’ language that Hindi. The question we should ask now is how are these claims made? Is there a basis to such claims?

Linguistically speaking, there is nothing in the sound, structure, syntax, or morphology of a language that makes it attractive, romantic, polite or poetic. All languages are governed by rules (of grammar) and have complex sets of structural patterns in syntax, phonology, morphology, etc. In fact, sociolinguist R A Hudson claims, “one of the most solid achievements of linguistics in the twentieth century has been to eliminate the idea (at least among professional linguists) that some language or dialects are inherently ‘better’ than others.”

Linguists do recognise that some varieties of language are ‘considered’ better than others, however, there isn’t anything special about that perceived ‘better’ variety.

Then how do we explain such claims of better-ness?

Language and its relationship with thought, culture, the world-view has always intrigued scholars. In fact, the Vedic scholars, grammarians, and philosophers believed that a universe of objective reality exists solely because human beings can express it through language. Nothing exists without language. Every element, every object, every idea in this world exists because it can be expressed through language.

The Upanishads delve in the relationship between the words and the objects. The Brihadaranyak Upanishad talks about the unity of words and the objects they signify. That is to say the signifier and signified are not physically distinct from each other.

So, if words don’t exist so do the objects they signify. According to the Shatpatha Brahmana, the supreme consciousness Brahman enters into this world with rupa (form) and nama (name) and the world extends as far as rupa and nama extend. Bhartrihari, a fifth century Sanskrit grammarian, postulates four stages of speech.

Vaikhari is the manifest form of speech, the spoken and written form. Madhyama is the unspoken mental state of sound. Pashyanti is the visualised undifferentiated stage. At this stage, differences between the languages do not exist. And finally Para, the fourth stage, is the transcendent absolute stage. At this stage, the distinction between the sound and the object merge and the sound encompasses all the features and qualities of the object.

Similarly, in modern times linguists such as Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf (of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis fame) claim that language determines thought to a very great extent and it does so in many ways. So if one can master all aspects of language, one would have control over thought. Emmitt and Pollock argue that even though people belonging to similar behavioural backgrounds or cultural situations but speaking different languages will have different world-view.

We also know that all human languages are sufficiently capable of representing objective realities around them. Languages also adopt the changes in the environment around them and respond to such changes by creating new modes and terminology to describe them. Languages also use their existing resources to unpack the meaning expressed. For example, the modern concept of ‘computer’ might be expressed as a “machine that does complex calculations” in some non-English languages.

All humans (and societies) have similar sense perceptions of colour. However, they may employ different terms and mechanism in describing those colors. North American women are known to apply more colour distinctions than their male counterparts. Eskimos have dozen or more words for snow while Hindi has just one – barf – which actually means both ice as well as snow. But rest assured that if and when the Gangetic Valley starts getting snowfall on a regular basis Hindi language will develop mechanisms to express this phenomenon.

While Hindi speakers wait for that to happen, they make fine distinction about other things that are around them. Take the example of different preparations of rice – chAval (plain, uncooked rice), bhAt (cooked rice), mURhi (puffed rice), chURa (flattened rice), etc. Similarly, absence of separate words for tomorrow and yesterday in Hindi (it has just one word— kal) does not mean Hindi speakers do not know how to talk about it. Hindi uses verb ending to disambiguate the meaning of the word kal in a given context.

Same can be said of expressions of emotions.

Different cultures, or even different individuals within the same cultural group, may employ different linguistic mechanisms to express feelings. There is no uniformity in the words or phrases used across the cultures in such situations. At the same time the levels of verbal as well as non-verbal communication in expressing emotions also differ across cultures.

Hindi is not known to use explicit words in expressing gratitude, remorse, or even love. However, in Hindi (as in many other languages) using words like dhanyawad in intimate or family situations may even be considered very ‘formal’ (hence indicating distance) to the extent it could be considered ‘overkill’. Famed sociolinguist Braj B Kachru describes the traditional ways expressing gratitude in Hindi as follows:

a. acknowledge one’s good fortune in encountering someone, or receiving that which benefits oneself, and/or

b. praise the person, circumstances, etc. beneficial to oneself.

For example, Hindi:

hamare dhanya bhag jo ap hamari kutiya men padhare

(It is our good fortune that your came to our humble abode)

Simply put, the above is just an elaborate way of saying, “Thanks for coming”. Similarly, Hindi has no equivalent for apology, apologise, or sorry. Apology in Hindi, for a perceived transgression, is sought by asking for forgiveness and/or expressing sorrow or distress. For example:

mujhe bahut khed/afsos hai ki … or … baRe khed/afsos ki bat hai …

(I am very distressed … or … It is a matter of extreme pain/sorrow …)

On the other we also know that Hindi has multiple layers of politeness with three second-person pronoun – tu, tum, and ap. Tu is considered the less polite/informal form whereas ap is the most polite/formal form.

Does that mean English, with no such distinction, is a less polite language?

So how do we reconcile that fact that certain languages are considered attractive, poetic, and polite or downright better that some other languages? The answer may lie in the perception, which is a result various socio-economic factors.

For linguists, there exists no absolute standard of a language unless one is deliberately created as a prescriptive exercise. However, language is one of the most important factors by which social inequality is perpetuated across societies and cultures.

We all know how, consciously or unconsciously, we attribute intelligence, friendliness and other similar virtues with the way one speaks a language. We also know how often we have been proven wrong in our judgments based on someone’s speech. Similarly, with our speech, we humans transmit information about ourselves. This information could be about speaker’s position in the society, level of education, etc.

Language is also used as a symbol of group membership. So, if a language is seen of a higher status, membership to that group may automatically enhance a speaker’s status in the eyes of a hearer.

Similarly, no matter how a hard a speaker may try to impress upon his/her listener with poetic language and rich vocabulary, etc, if his language doesn’t have appropriate social standing, it is going to be an uphill battle. Languages such as English, Spanish, Dutch, French, etc gained ‘attractiveness’ because of the perceived prestige of these languages as associated with their colonial past. They were, and many cases still are, considered languages of power and opportunity. Persian (and Urdu) in India gained similar prestige because it was the preferred language of the Muslin rulers. Knowledge of English and Persian/Urdu in India meant enhanced employment opportunity, which in turn, resulted in economic prosperity and improved social standing.

So a positive view of a society is determined by its socio-economic power. That socio-economic power, in turn, also enhances the positive view of the language spoken by that group.

If people have a positive view of a speech community, chances are they will have a positive view of their language as well. Linguist and Cognitive Scientist Vineeta Chand summarises this very succinctly: “There hasn’t been any research that I know of that has directly exploited the attractiveness of a language and didn’t eventually tie it back to the social evaluation of the speaking community”.

Source: Swarajya Culture

Aryans And Dravidians: An Invention Of Racist Nineteenth Century Scholars

It is ironic that racist European scholars invented history to claim Sanskrit and created two fake races called Aryans and Dravidians as part of that story.

Dr Shiv Shastry

It is more tragic than ironic that Indians have believed this bluff to the extent that political parties have been formed based on a race name cooked up by racist Europeans.

Almost no one in India knows that Sanskrit language documents dating back to 1500 BCE (3,500 years ago) were found in Syria. These “documents” were actually tablets etched in a language called ‘Hurrian’. The documents refer to a treaty signed by the kings of the ‘Mitanni’ Kingdom that lasted for just 200 years in Syria around 1500 BCE.

The Mitanni kings had Sanskrit-based names like ‘Birasena’ (Virasena) – a name present in the Mahabharata), ‘Birya’ (Virya), ‘Subandhu’ (with good kinsmen) etc. The treaty document mentions 35 gods of Hurrian origin and along with that are mentioned the Vedic gods Mitra, Varuna, Indra and the Nasatyas (twin gods). Only in the Rig Veda are the Nasatyas referred to as twins. How this dynasty ruled in Syria around 1500 BCE, 4,000 km from India remains a mystery to this day, but no historian or linguist has any doubt about the links that these documents have with Sanskrit and the Rig Veda.

Here the tale gets more curious, best explained using an example. I will briefly digress at this point and tell a completely imaginary story. Imagine that an explorer finds an old tomb in Egypt, and opens it and finds documents in the French language. France is thousands of kilometers from Egypt and the presence of French documents in an Egyptian tomb would be a mystery.

What should the explorer conclude?

Should he conclude that the French language was first brought to Egypt by people from places like South Africa and after stopping briefly in Egypt, the French speaking people took their language to France? Or should the conclusion be that some visitor from France had brought the French language to Egypt? It would seem logical to conclude that the French language came to Egypt from France and not from South Africa.



What is astounding is that linguists and ‘orientalists’ who examined the Sanskrit Mitanni treaty documents did not link them with India, where Sanskrit was known all over, but instead, claimed that the language had come to Syria with people from Europe, before vanishing completely from Syria and going to India and spreading all over India. Preposterous as this story may sound, there is documentary evidence that this is exactly what was done, and perfectly good explanations as to why this bluff was propagated. I will explain this in some detail, providing the sources.

In 2006, Professor Eckhart Frahm of Yale University in the US published a paper called “Orientalism Assyriology and the Bible”. In this paper, he noted that that for European scholars in the Nineteenth century, history came from two sources. One was the Bible and the other was classical Greece with names like Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Socrates and other names considered iconic in European history. These cozy visions of European history were badly shattered by the archaeological findings in Assyria (Turkey and Northern Iraq) which indicated a very old Assyrian empire, older than Greece and the Bible, with tremendous cities and statues as well as inscriptions in languages that were later deciphered to reveal stories older than the Bible, calling into question many assumptions based on the Bible. There was even an Assyrian inscription that spoke of an ancient flood, a story that struck at the heart of biblical mythology by being reminiscent of the story of Noah and the flood.

The biblical character Noah had an important role in the way Europeans saw themselves. Noah was said to have had three sons, Ham, Shem and Japheth. Ham was cursed by his father Noah when he saw his father naked. Ham’s children were cursed to be slaves. Nineteenth century Europeans assumed that black Africans were ‘Hamites’ or descendants of the accursed Ham, destined to be an inferior race of slaves. The descendants of Shem became the ‘Semites’ (or Shemites), who included the Jews, hated in Europe and who spoke the Semitic languages of the Bible. That left the white Europeans as the descendants of Japheth. It had been assumed that European languages had somehow descended from the biblical languages. Anti-Semitism in Europe demanded that the people of Europe were the race favoured by god as the leading race of people. These illusions were destroyed by the archaeological findings of the Assyrian empire. Europe needed something to reclaim its superior position in history.

The “discovery” of Sanskrit in India and its obvious antiquity that extended to a period earlier than Assyria could not have come at a better time for European scholars and historians. The great development of Sanskrit as a language, and its brilliant grammar combined with its surprising links to European languages came as a breath of fresh air that blew away the despondency of Europeans finding Assyrian history and archaeology that had threatened to topple them from their exalted position as god’s favoured people. No longer did the European descendants of Japheth have to remain beholden to the speakers of Semitic languages. Indo-European languages were a separate superior family of languages with the impressive credentials that Sanskrit had provided as the most ancient and most developed language.

Eckhart Frahm writes of how the discovery of the Vedic words, gods and references in the Mitanni texts of Assyria caused European scholars who were searching for European superiority over the

Semites to declare the findings as proof that Semitic Assyrian greatness could only have come about because of an infusion of superior Aryans from Europe speaking an Aryan language.

One problem remained. If the Aryans were a superior European race, how was their language to be found in its most perfect and developed form in India, and how was it that dark skinned people who were racially thought to be Hamites or other inferior races could be found speaking the tongue of the superior race with a shiny new name “Aryan race”? These troubling questions were addressed by linguists and scholars from Nineteenth and Twentieth century Europe.

In 1853, a man called Arthur de Gobineau wrote an essay entitled “An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races”. Gobineau believed in the inherent superiority of light skinned people. He wrote “..the peoples who are not of white blood approach beauty, but do not attain it. Those who are most akin to us come nearest to beauty ; such are the degenerate Aryan stocks of India and Persia, and the Semitic peoples who are least infected by contact with the black race. As these races recede from the white type, their features and limbs become incorrect in form…

The British, who cultivated a reputation among Indians of being wise and just as removers of prejudice were no less racist in their attitudes as they too joined the European bandwagon. A H Sayce, a British linguist and Assyriologist in 1889 endorsed the views of the racist scholar Dr Penka. Dr Penka said: “the purest blood is found in Scandinavia among the fair-haired, blue-eyed, dolichocephalic Swedes. The pure Aryans, he maintains, are represented only by the North Germans and Scandinavians, a most prolific race, of great stature, muscular strength, energy, and courage, whose splendid natural endowments enabled it to conquer the feebler races to the East, the South, and the West, and to impose its language on the subject peoples”.

Thomas Huxley, a British biologist wrote in 1890: “So far as India is concerned, the internal evidence of the old literature sufficiently proves that the Aryan invaders were “white” men. It is hardly to be doubted that they intermixed with the dark Dravidian aborigines; and that the high-caste Hindoos are what they are in virtue of the Aryan blood which they have inherited, and of the selective influence of their surroundings operating on the mixture.

In other words, Huxley was using scientific journals of his day to propagate a racist theory in which white people could lay claim to Sanskrit and the knowledge of the Vedas by three clever, but fake arguments. The first was that there was “internal evidence” in Sanskrit literature that there were Aryan invaders who were white men. Sanskrit texts have no such references. The second lie is that ‘high-caste Hindoos’ had Aryan blood. The third lie propagated as science was that “Aryan blood” in India got intermixed with that of dark, Dravidian aborigines and this admixture along with the effects of sunshine and the hot weather in India made Aryans dark skinned in India. This racist theory was widely accepted and digested among Europeans long before the name Nazi was invented. There is in fact, no such thing as “Aryan blood” or even Aryan genes although a large number of people now believe both to be true. Such is the effect of a century and a half of racist theories passed off as scholarship.

The Europeans found it necessary to invent a dark skinned race called Dravidians to explain why speakers of Sanskrit, an “Aryan language” of white skinned invaders were found to have dark skin in India. It was because the Aryans mixed with the dark-skinned people who were different, and of a lower sub-human type according to the racial theories of that age.

No one bothered to study the deep links between Sanskrit and the so called Dravidian languages of South India because the “Dravidians” and their language was the language of the inferior people defeated by white man and unconnected (it was imagined) with the “Aryans” and their language. These racist European scholars were willing to admit fair-complexioned Indians into their club of Aryans because that would allow them to claim the origins of Sanskrit, which was the oldest and best developed Indo-European language. However, dark-skinned Indians were inconvenient for this theory. They had to be explained away by some means. So, dark-skinned Indians became Dravidians, a race invented by racist scholars to classify Indians who spoke languages that could not be linked with Indo-European languages. As for those dark-skinned Indians who spoke Indo-European languages such as Bengali, they were explained away as corrupted Aryans caused by admixture with “inferior races”.

Because it had to be proven that the “Aryans” and their superior “Aryan language” came from Europe, the Mitanni documents proved to be a convenient find. A well-known German Assyriologist, Wolfram von Soden noted that the Semitic people of Assyria could never have achieved greatness in those remote early days if they had not been influenced by Aryans coming from the north. Soden is quoted as writing: “...without assuming some Indo-Aryan background. The Semitic Assyrians alone could not have possessed the creative capacity and heroic character necessary to create such a text.” (as the Rig Veda)

In other words the greatness of the history of Assyria would not have been possible if Aryans from Europe have not previously been there as they moved from Europe to India taking their language with them, and finally depositing their language in India as the highly refined and developed Sanskrit language. The Mitanni kingdom was portrayed as a kingdom that was set up along the way by conquering “Aryans” as they moved eastwards from Europe, conquering and subjugating all who came in their path in Syria, Iran and India, leaving behind their superior Indo-European language.

It is ironic that racist European scholars invented history for themselves to claim Sanskrit and created two fake races called Aryans and Dravidians as part of that story. It is more tragic than ironic that Indians have internalised and believed this bluff to the extent that political parties have been formed based on a race name cooked up by racist Europeans. Indians now argue and vigorously dispute the origins, identities and characteristics of Aryans and Dravidians – completely ignorant and blind to the racism of Nineteenth century Europe that created these races to claim Europe as the origin of Indo-European languages.

Source: Swarajya Culture

Ambubachi Festival At Kamakhya: A Worship Of Fertility 


What the Ambubachi festival at Kamakhya is, and what it is not. 

By Jaideep Mazumdar

The doors of the Kamakhya Mandir, situated atop the Nilachal Parvat on the banks of the Brahmaputra river in Assam’s capital, Guwahati, have been shut to devotees for three days. June 22 marks the beginning of the annual Ambubachi festival, which ends when the temple doors will open to the lakhs of devotees gathered there on June 25 (Sunday).

More than 25 lakh devotees from all over India and neighbouring countries have congregated at Nilachal Parvat for the festival, which is often simplistically but mistakenly defined as the “celebration of Maa Kamakhya’s menstruation”. But it is not just that, the festival has a much greater significance.

Kamakhya Mandir is one of the most potent of the 51 Shakti Peeths. According to the Shiva Puran and Yogini Tantra, as well as many other Hindu religious texts, Devi Parvati went to attend a mahayagna organised by her father, Daksha. During the ceremonies, Daksha and other celestial beings started speaking ill of Bhagwan Shiva and unable to bear those insults heaped on her husband, she gave up her life.

A distraught and enraged Bhagwan Shiva picked up devi’s lifeless form and started stomping the whole earth, destroying all that came in his way. The gods then decided that Shiva had to be stopped in order to prevent the destruction of the universe. Bhagwan Vishnu deployed his sudarshan chakra to cut devi’s body into pieces, which fell on various places in the entire Indian subcontinent.

Devi’s yoni (the reproductive organ) fell on the Nilachal Parvat and the Kamakhya Mandir was constructed atop the yoni. There is no idol in this mandir; the garbha griha is a cave inside which a natural spring is worshipped as devi’s yoni. This shrine is associated with fertility and is the seat of tantra. Kamakhya Mandir was intimately associated with the many matriarchal tribes around Nilachal Parvat.

‘Ambubachi’ is derived from the Sanskrit term ambuvachi, which means “issuing forth of water”. The Ambubachi festival marks the beginning of the peak monsoon period when the rivers are in spate and the earth’s waters swell. And this ‘issuing forth of water’ is what is celebrated as the menstruation of Mother Earth. The festival happens in Kamakhya Mandir since this is where devi’s (or Mother Earth’s) yoni is seated and hence it is the focal point of this festival, which is also looked upon as a fertility festival.

Ambubachi is the celebration of the potency of Mother Earth represented and personified by the devi. Shakti and Shiva devotees hold that this is the time to celebrate the gifts of food, shelter and the very life that Mother Earth provides. “This is the time when one simply prays to the devi and celebrates her without asking for any favours from her. Throughout the year, we pray to devi for favours and her blessings. These four days, we just thank her for everything and serve her,” explained Pabindra Prasad Sarma, one of the Dolois (panel of head priests) of the temple.

Though the doors to the Kamakhya Mandir are closed to devotees for three days, the worship of devi inside the temple continues. “Some special rituals are followed and devi is offered flowers and fruits. One reason for barring devotees from entering the temple is that they may ask devi for favours and blessings, and that is not permitted during the three days,”explained Sarma.

The festival coincides with the time when Mother Earth’s fertility is increasing (with the monsoons). According to agricultural science, it is advisable to allow the earth to soak in all the water when the monsoons start before sowing. “Farmlands should, ideally, be allowed to remain undisturbed for a few days at the onset of the monsoons. Sowing after that ensures a healthy crop,” said Amarendra Saikia, a faculty member at Assam Agricultural University.

During the three days of the Ambubachi Mela, farmers also don’t sow or indulge in any other activity in their farmlands. Thus, this festival holds tremendous importance in an agrarian society that India was until not very long ago. “Like all other Hindu festivals and rituals, Ambubachi Mela also has a strong scientific basis,” said Sarma. Adherents of Shiva and Shakti cults also observe the Ambubachi festival in their homes by covering their shrines with a red cloth. Devi and Bhagwan Shiva are worshipped from behind the red curtain or the closed doors of the puja room, but nothing (favours or blessings) is asked from them. They are just thanked for the many gifts of life they have bestowed on mankind.

On the fourth day (25 June this year), the doors of Kamakhya Mandir will reopen after the yoni is given a ritualistic bath and other special ceremonies are performed. Prasad will be distributed to devotees, who also seek the prized angodak – water from the spring that is worshipped as devi’s yoni and angovastra – the red silk cloth that covers the yoni during the period of Ambubachi.

Devi Kamakhya or Kameshwari not only signifies desire (Kamarupa, Kamarupini), but is also worshipped as the very source of human desires and also one who grants devotees what they desire. She is thus desire, as well as its fulfilment.

Image credits: Vikramjit Kakati/Wikimedia Commons

Source: Swarajya Culture