Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Malik Amber: Founder of Aurangabad

- By Deepa Krishnan

Have you heard the name of Malik Amber?

He is the founder of the city of Aurangabad.
Painting of Malik Amber by Mughal painter Hashim, currently in Victoria and Albert Museum
Malik Ambar was born in Ethopia in 1548 with the name Chapu and was sold into slavery. He was eventually bought by a leading member of the Nizam Shahi court of Ahmadnagar, one of the Deccan sultanates. He rose through sheer personal capability to became a commander of the Nizam Shahi army. By 1600 he had become Regent of the Kingdom, effectively ruling Ahmadnagar until his death in 1626.
Malik Amber's tomb in Khuldabad
He originally founded the city of Khadki in 1610. After his death in 1626, the name was changed to Fatehpur by his son and heir Fateh Khan. When Aurangzeb, the Mughal Emperor invaded Deccan in the year 1653, he made Fatehpur his capital and renamed it as Aurangabad. Since then it is known as Aurangabad.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Narottama Dasa - poet-saint of the Gaudiya Vaishnavism tradition, Bengal

Today I have been listening to the wonderful music of the Bengali Gaudiya Vaishnavas. The golden raspy voice of Srila Prabhupada has been working its magic on me. What a great tradition of poetry and song! Truly India responds to music. Whether Kabir, Nanak, Khusro or Chaitanya, poetry set to music is the underlying unifier that carries complex philosophical messages straight to our hearts.

In search of more information about the Gaudiya Vaishnava philosophy, I came across the work done by the Bhaktivedanta Research Centre in Kolkata. They are researching and documenting the Sanskrit and Bengali literature of Vaishnavism.  The latest document they have recorded and saved is a manuscript published in 1724. It is a copy Prema Bhakti Chandrika by Narottama Dasa Thakur, a 15th Century poet-saint. Narottama Dasa was a contemporary and follower of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Composed in Bengali, Prema Bhakti Chandrika consists of devotional songs. 

Prema Bhakti Chandrika
Narottama Dasa Thakur is credited with popularising the Gaudiya Vaishanava teachings in Bengal. Born in the mid-1400's to a zamindar family in Bangladesh, he was an unusual person in many ways. He was blessed with an eidetic memory - the ability to memorize and recall anything he heard. Drawn to religion, Narottama Dasa travelled to Vrindavan, the birthplace of Lord Krishna. There he met the brothers Rupa Goswami and Sanatana Goswami. They had been sent to Vrindavan by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu to locate and preserve the lost sacred spots of Krishna's mythological birthplace. Rupa Goswami had composed several beautiful works. After visiting Vrindavan, studying the works of Rupa Goswami, and being initiated into Vaishnavism, Narottama Dasa returned to Bengal. 
Narottama Dasa Thakur
The book Prema Bhakti Chandrika is actually based on Rupa Goswami's writings. It contains the essence of Rupa Goswami's works. The book is also therefore called Sri Rupaanuga-Gita.

Narottama Dasa travelled the length and breadth of Bengal, popularising Gaudiya Vaishnavism. He composed many works in Bengali, and initiated a great annual gathering of Vaishnavite followers, called the Kheturi Mahotsava (which continues to be a major festival even today).

The founder of the popular ISKCON movement, Prabhupada, traces his spiritual lineage (guruparampara) to Narottama Dasa. Narottama Dasa's songs are sung even today at the ISCKON centres all over India. Here's a beautiful song of Narottama Dasa, sung by Swami Prabhupada: Just listen to it! It combines the beauty of Bengali folk music with the ecstatic Bhakti of Vaishnavism. Prabhupada says about the songs of Narottama Dasa Thakur, "This sound is above the material platform. It is directly from the spiritual platform. And there is no need of understanding the language. It is just like a thunderburst. Everyone can hear the sound of thunder - there is no misunderstanding. Similarly, these songs are above the material platform, and they crack like thunder within your heart."

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Tribal Terracotta figurines of Gujarat

Gujarat is home to many tribal societies. The Bhils, Choudharies, Dhodias, Konkanas, Halpatis, Garasias etc. follow the custom of offering a 'ghodo' or horse to the gods, on sucessful completion of a milestone, or for prayers answered, or to appease a spirit. 

This custom is seen especially in the Surat district, the Chhotaudaipur area, and the Poshina belt of the Sabarkantha area. 

In the tribal culture, each object has a spirit or essence which may be benevolent or malevolent. Daily occurrences, both good and bad, are often attributed to such spirits. The appeasement of these spirits is sometimes an annual feature or festival, or in some cases, it is based on a specific situation, for example, if a child falls ill, it may be attributed to a spirit. Tribal custom often requires the sacrifice of an animal or bird for such occassions, but these are often too expensive, so these terracotta offerings are used as a substitute. 

Apart from horses, there is also the custom of keeping other things, such as elephants, cows, birds, pots, human figurines etc. There is a wide range, depending on the skill of the craftsman in each tribe's area.

Such offerings - especially dome-shaped figures called dhabu - are also kept near the graves of departed ancestors, in the belief that they will be useful in the afterlife. Offerings can be very small in size, or sometimes large and life-size. 

The process of making the offering is also quite elaborate. First, the family decides that they want to make the offering. Then they contact the kumhar (potter community) to discuss the design, type of offering and the cost. It is not necessary that the potter is in the same villlage or neighbourhood, so people may travel to nearby areas to seek out the potter. 

Once the offering is ready, a band is arranged, and with music playing the procession goes to the potter's house to collect the offering. Certain songs are also sung for these types of occassions. Payment is made to the potter (sometimes cash, sometimes in food or other articles). 

Along with the terracotta offering, the family proceeds to the shrine. They make an offering of fowl, rice, coconuts, local liquor etc at the shrine. For larger occassions, the larger community may also be invited and given a feast. 

Many practices of the tribal cultures of Gujarat have been assimilated into mainstream Hinduism. Similarly, many mainstream Hindu practices are now found in tribal societies. The propitiation and veneration of spirits residing in trees, rivers etc, the prayers to snake-gods, various animal and bird gods, are found both in tribal societies and mainstream Hinduism.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Gujarati architecture - What is an Otla?

On one of my visits to Ahmedabad, I photographed the entrance of a Gujarati merchant house in a traditional neighbourhood. This type of entrance area is called an otla or otta, and it consists of a narrow raised plinth with steps.
The otla acts as a sort of communication zone between outsiders and the residents of the house. Typically in an otla, there is a row of columns supporting a wooden facade. The otla is often carved and decorated profusely, to show the social and economic standing of the household.
The American artist Edwin Lord Weeks painted a lot of otlas when he visited Ahmedabad in the 1890's. Here's a lovely one. The Gujarati love for ornamentation is visible beautifully in this painting. This type of architecture is characterised not only by the profuse nature of the abharana (ornamentation), but also by the continuity - meaning, there is no break in the design, we go from carving to carving and the entire area leaves the mind reeling with the overall impact of the design. There is no time to look at the details....we only see that later, when we come closer to it, and then we marvel even more.
Here is another painting by Lord Edwin Weeks: here also, you can see the profuse ornamentation. But also here we see another feature, a plain lintel beam. Beams are bulky and difficult to hoist, so often they were left uncarved, because they could otherwise be damaged in the process. In such cases, either the beam was left open, or ornamentation was later added using thin carved wooden strips, which were fixed by nails.
By the way, when I walking in one of the pols, I found a house that looks exactly like this one painted by Lord Edwin Weeks :) :) See the similarlity below. I was convinced it was the same house!! Edwin Weeks used to photograph the areas first, and then paint later. So his paintings are quite accurate. 
I have lots of photos of different houses in the pols of Ahmedabad, with otla of different types and colours, carved doors, pillars, beautiful woodwork designs etc. In some houses, the beautiful carved woodwork has been painted over, maybe to make it look well-maintained. But actually the paint obscures the carving. See this once-beautiful house below, now the stairs are crumbling, and the windows have been boarded up with metal sheets. But it still retains its old beauty. There is some fine fern-shaped carving over the doorway.
The otla need not always be such a traditional carved affair. For example, this small house is in a corner, and the otla is about 10 feet wide. However, all the typical architectural and functional characteristics of the otla are there: it is a well-demarcated area, with pillars, serving as a sort of interaction zone between outsiders and insiders. A more modern, art-decoish interpretation of the brackets has been done.
The otla is one of my favourite subjects to photograph and to marvel at. It is a place where in the evening the women of the household sit down and watch the world go by. They chat with neighbours and keep an eye on the children playing. In the past maybe the women of the house stayed inside, but these days we see them often sitting outside and enjoying the evening with family and friends. Next time you walk anywhere, look for the otla and see how it is being used!

With many thanks to Jay Thakkar, whose article on Naqsh helped me find out a lot about Gujarati architecture. 

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A Recipe for Sanketi Chutni-Pudi

The Sanketis are a small community of Brahmins who supposedly migrated from Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu as well as from Trichur district of Kerala, to finally settle in the Mysore province of Karnataka (today they reside in Bangalore, Mysore, Chikmaglur, Hassan and Shimoga). They speak Kannada-infused Tamil in a sweet sing-song style. Since Sanketi names sound more or less like Tamilian or Kannadiga names, you cannot find this community unless you happen to ask someone. They are hidden.

The ingredients for chutni-pudi
This community was reputed for its intellectuals in the traditional vedic learning and produced many experts in Carnatic music, Sanskrit language, etc. Naturally some of them ended up as advisors to the Mysore rulers including Tipu and the Wodeyars. Other Sanketis cultivated arecanut, coconut, betelnut, and banana. More recently, they have taken to English education, with many of them migrating abroad to work as scientists, doctors, researchers etc.

Sanketis are keen eaters  and are said to be fond of competitive eating at weddings! There are folk tales of a favourite character called "Hotte-Baka" who is known for his appetite. 

Here is a recipe for a Sanketi version of that Karnataka favourite, chutni-pudi. Chutni-pudi can be eaten with dosa, idli etc, but also goes fantastically with akki-roti.

  • Kadala bele (chana dal or Bengal gram split and skinned) - 1 cup
  • Uddina bele (urad dal or black gram) - 1/2 cup
  • Togari bele (tuvar dal or pigeon pea splits and skinned) - 1/2 cup
  • Ona menasinakai (dry red chillies) - 6-7
  • Ingu (hing or asafoetida) - a small bit
  • Kari bevu (kadi patta or curry leaves) - one handful
  • Hunase (imli or tamarind) - marble size
  • Ellu (sesame) - 1 teaspoon
  • Copra - as much as you like
  • Oil - 2 tablespoons
With the kadhai (cooking pot) on a low flame, dry roast the kadala bele.
When it is a little roasted, add uddina bele.
After a minute or so, add togari bele.
Now roast all 3 beles together, until you get the nice roasted smell. Keep flame low and be patient, do not over-roast.
Next step, take oil in kadhai, roast the other ingredients except copra (red chillies, curry leaves, tamarind, asafoetida, sesame).
You need to scrape or cut the coconut into smaller bits and fry it in the end for a very little time, just to get the rawness out.
After this, powder all the ingredients, and add salt to taste.
Can use more chillies if you like it spicy.

Ta-da! Mix with oil/ghee and enjoy with idlis, dosas and akki-rotis.

Ekam Sat: One Reality, Many Forms

"Ekam sat vipra bahudha vadanti" says the Rig Veda. "That which exists is One: sages call it by various names." This photo, taken in Varanasi, reminded me of that.

Banaras is Shiva's city, he is everywhere you look. At the souvenir stalls, Shiva is represented in colourful popular art as Gangadhara, bearing the Ganges in his hair. But the stalls also sell pictures of a host of other deities - Kuber the God of Wealth, Hanuman, Rama, Krishna, Durga, Kali, Ganesh, Lakshmi ... there are pictures also of objects such as the Sri Yantra, and there are pictures of godmen and gurus - Sai Baba, Ravidas, and many others. 

Why are there so many deities, gurus, and other pictures? Because Hinduism allows its practitioners to choose whichever form of God that inspires and resonates with them the most. This is the concept of "Ishta Devata" or "Chosen Deity". Here the form itself is not as important as the ultimate goal. While all Hindus agree there is only one Eternal Brahman, or Cosmic Truth, they reach this Brahman through different routes. That route is the Ishta Devata. 

It is difficult to meditate upon an abstract concept. So teachers of meditation tell their pupils to select an Ishta Devata in order to do "Saguna Dhyana" - in this type of meditation the practitioner focuses on the visible aspects of the Ishta Devata. For example, Saguna Dhyana of Vishnu could include meditating one by one on his face, his golden ornaments, his yellow robes etc. You can see this form of meditation being practised by many Bhaktimarga followers. 

For Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, the Goddess Kali was his Ishta Devata. He saw her everywhere and meditated solely upon her. Such meditation - usually also done with a specific mantra chanting (involving the name or the characteristics of the Ishta Devata) - can have powerful effects on the mind. 

From this type of Saguna Dhyana, the practitioner can eventually move to "Nirguna Dhyana", meditation on the abstract. The Ishta Devata provides a sort of gateway, almost. Obviously, it is important to choose an Ishta Devata that resonates most with you. Many families use the concept of kula-devata or family deity as their Ishta Devata. Many people use the face of their spiritual guru as their ishta-devata. There are really no rules or restrictions. Sincerity is important.

The term Ishta Devata should also be understood as a way to define a chosen ideal or goal. For example, in the Yogasutra, Patanjali says: "svadhyayad ishta devata sanprayogah" meaning that self-study and reflection brings you into contact with the desired ideal.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Making the idols for Durga Pooja

Every year, thousands of artisans are involved in making idols of Goddess Durga for Maha Pujo (Durga Puja) in the Hindu month of Ashwin (September to October).

The hay used to create the body
Basic structure of the goddess created with hay on a wooden frame
The hay-body is covered with a mixture of mud-, clay and rice husks, and allowed to dry.

The mud mixture being prepared to coat the hay-bodies
After drying
As this basic structure, dries, the artisans create fingertips, toes, noses and other fine parts. These are fixed onto the dried body, and finally the idol is painted.

The first coat of paint for a beautiful idol
Article written by: Aishwarya Pramod
Photos by: Lavanya Shanbhogue-Arvind

Merchant mansion in Varanasi

While walking from Manikarnika Ghat towards Vishwanath Temple, I saw this lovely house. It has made such beautiful use of maroon, cream-yellow, gold and pink. I went closer and spotted the stylized numeral lettering on the house, which says "1978" in Gujarati script. The house must belong to a Jain or Hindu Gujarati merchant.

Here is a closeup of the previous picture. Notice the half-lotus design on the top centre, which has been highlighted in gold and maroon. The semi-circle arch stucco work has a very Art-Deco feel to it. On the left and right, there is a depiction of a mashaal (torch). On the mashaal too there are lotus designs. There is a small Ganesh idol on top of the doorway, surrounded by carved grape vines: this reflects either Gandhara influence or British influence. European influence can definitely be seen in the capitals: they seem sort of Ionic or Corinthian or something!

The City Palace at Jaipur

City Palace is a complex of palaces, pavillions, gardens and temples spread over several acres, located to the northeast of central Jaipur. It was commissioned by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II in 1729, who wished to shift his capital from Amer to Jaipur, due to water problems and an increase in the population. The City Palace, and in fact the entire city of Jaipur, was planned by an architect from Bengal, Vidyadhar Bhattacharya.

Bhattacharya was guided by the Vaastu Shastra and the Shilpa Shaastras (ancient Hindu treatises on architecture, arts and crafts). But the Palace is also a fusion of Mughal and European styles with Rajput architecture.

Today, part of the Palace is a museum, as well as the residence of the current royal family. The most prominent structures in the complex are the Chandra Mahal, Mubarak Mahal, Mukut Mahal, Maharani's Palace, Shri Govind Dev Temple and the City Palace Museum.