Thursday, December 26, 2019

Garuda Purana and the democratization of knowledge production

The Garuda Purana, composed in Sanskrit, contains 16000 verses, dealing with an incredibly diverse collection of topics.

It covers cosmology, mythology, salvation theory, ethics, Hindu philosophical schools, theory of Yoga, ancestral rites, rivers and geography, types of minerals and stones, testing methods for gems for their quality, listing of plants and herbs, disease symptoms and medicines, astronomy, astrology, architecture, grammar, literature classification etc.

It also includes statecraft and more practical matters such as charity and gift making, economy, thrift, duties of a king, politics, state officials and their roles, and how to appoint officials. Lastly, it also covers personal development and self awareness through Sankhya and Advaita Yoga.

The text is attributed to the legendary sage Vyasa, in the absence of clear authorship. It is believed to have been first composed at least a thousand years ago, with the core being even older. The versions that survive today contain different lengths and different sets of scriptures, pointing to diverse authorship over time as it gained popularity.

Garuda Vahana, at Chennai airport, a beautiful wooden sculpture 
used for temple processions. It is likely from Tanjore.
One of India's unique features is the way in which many of our scriptures co-opt and include multiple authors. Imagine a book, with many chapters by different writers, all of whom help to grow the book continuously over centuries. As it spreads, more chapters appear, more commentaries and discussions take place, and diverse versions grow and become popular in different parts of the land. The closest parallel is a river, with a single origin but which branches into thousands of tributaries, ending in many lakes and ponds, and watering many fertile lands as it goes along. One could also draw a parallel to the way the internet functions, democratizing the production and dissemination of knowledge. In the case of scriptures, the dissemination takes place in thousands of sabhas and temples, where readings and recitations bring different versions to the people. Confusing? Yes. That is the nature of a cooperative effort at knowledge production. But it is also very appealing, that there is no "one book", no single authority.


Monday, December 16, 2019

Curry Leaves chutney (Karuvepallai Thuvaiyal)

The problem with ordering curry leaves online is that you have more leaves than you know what to do with. Meenakshi Ammal came to my rescue with "Cook and See" (Samaithu Paar), the go-to recipe book for all Tamil kitchens.

I made Karuveppalai Thuvaiyal, a thick coarsely ground chutney of curry leaves, tamarind, red chillies, urad dal, mustard and asafoetida. Curry leaves pack a wallop in terms of nutrition. They contain calcium, phosphorous, irons and vitamins (C, A, B, E). But the damn thing can be bitter, so Meenakshi Ammal advises using tender leaves and enough spices to offset it. The asafoetida, tamarind and mustard give it a kick, the red chillies and salt give it bite. I didn't have tender leaves, so I cheated and added a teeny bit of sugar. Shhhhh. No one will know! 

- 4 big handfuls of leaves (only one handful is on the plate in the photo) 
-Marble sized tamarind 8 red chillies 
- 2 teaspoons urad dal 
- 3/4 teaspoon mustard 
- Hing (asafoetida to taste) 

 Wash leaves. Fry chillies, mustard and lentils in oil. Grind with tamarind, salt, hing. 

Pro tip: grind masalas coarsely and then add the leaves to grinder. This one works best if ground by hand on a stone, the old fashioned way. The mixer doesn't quite help with the sort of coarse consistency you want. I ended up doubling the urad dal because I wanted more of that lentil feel. I also added sugar like I said, and a twist of lime because I thought the tamarind was not tamarindy enough. 

If you'd like to learn how to make a range of pickles, preserves and chutneys, we have workshops in Mumbai, Bangalore  and Chennai.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Karaikkal Ammaiyar - The Mother from Karaikkal

Karaikkal Ammaiyar (The Mother from Karaikkal) lived in Tamil Nadu in 6th century. She was a poet-saint, one of the 63 Shaivite Nayanmars. This sculpture is a copper alloy, about 9 inches high, dated during the Chola period (880–1279). . It is now at the Metropolitan Museum.

Karaikkal Ammaiyar belonged to the Chettiar (Nagarathar) community. She was a devotee of Lord Shiva, and said to be very beautiful. On seeing her perform miracles, her husband recognized her divine nature, and worshipped her as a goddess. She left her home, and went to Mount Kailash, on pilgrimage to Lord Shiva's abode. She prayed to Shiva to transform her into a ghoul (gana), one of Shiva's many attendants. Shiva granted her wish, changing her into a wizened old woman.

Thus she became free of the burden of social norms, and spent her life as a free spirit, composing and singing hymns in praise of Shiva. In this sculpture, you can see her holding a pair of cymbals as she sings her own compositions. The sculptor has stayed within the stylistic tradition of Chola art, with fine nose, curved lips, large eyes, square shoulders and slim waist. Thus he maintains her divinity. He has chosen to represent her ghoul transformation by focusing purely on exaggeratedly deformed breasts. He has chosen to represent her mendicant status by giving her only a single garment. And, to show her great age, her ear lobes are sagging with the weight of her ear-ring (a feature of older women).

Beginning in the 6th century in Tamil Nadu, India witnessed a widespread Bhakti movement, where several women rejected the life of a householder, and embraced a life of devotion/renunciation, Examples include Andal from Tamil Vaishnavism of the ninth century, Mahadevi Akka of Karnataka (13th century), Muktabai of Maharashtra (13th century), Mirabai of Rajasthan (16th century), and many more.

Monday, July 1, 2019

The Chettiar adventures in Burma

The village of Kanadukathan is a couple of hours from Madurai in Tamilnadu. If you walk through the village, you will come across streets full of grand palatial homes. These are the mansions of the Chettiar community; built with wealth from their trading and financing businesses around the world. A lot of the wealth came from Burma, which was then part of British India.

The Chettiars had followed the British into Burma in the 1820s. Initially they were small traders and financiers. But the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 provided a golden opportunity for the growth in the fortunes of the Chettiars.

There was a great demand in Europe for rice, and the Suez Canal opened up opportunities for exports of rice from Burma. Burmese cultivators made the most of the opportunity, transitioning from subsistence farming to large scale rice cultivation. Formal bank loans were not available to Burmese agriculturists. The Chettiars provided loans, with and without collateral, for farming activities. But that was not all. They took deposits, remitted funds, discounted bills, bought and sold gold, and provided much of the necessary funding that enabled the rice trade. In other words, they became not just moneylenders, but bankers to the rice trade.

Dr. Sean Turnell, a researcher at Macquarie university says that the Chettiars gave loans to farmers at rates between 9 to 15 percent. When there was no collateral the rate could be upto 25 percent. He further says that these loans were reasonable, given the cost of business and the risks. The Chettiars look almost benign when you compare them with other local moneylenders, particularly Burmese landlords who offered their tenants something called sabape, a loan made "in kind" rather than in cash, at usurious rates of over 100% per annum.

Burma went on to become the "rice bowl" for Europe in the second half of the 1800s and in the 1900s. Exports grew. But as is common among British colonies, the people of Burma had very little share in this prosperity. Rangoon's wealthy elite were foreigners - the British and their Indian merchant partners. As the wealth of the Chettiars grew, they invested in building lavish mansions in their hometowns in Tamil Nadu.

But the global depression of the 1930s badly affected Burma, resulting in the near collapse of paddy prices. Vast tracts of cultivable lands passed to the Chettiars, as farmers defaulted on their loans. It was a time when a wave of anti-foreign sentiment grew in Burma, and the Chettiars were the target of much vilification.

Then came WW-II, and with that, the fortunes of the Chettiars took a further turn for the worse. In 1942, Rangoon fell to the Japanese and the Chettiars fled Burma along with the British, travelling overland from Rangoon to Assam. Many are believed to have perished in the journey.
Eventually the British declared Burma independent in 1948. Although they had rightful title, the Chettiars could not successfully claim compensation from the new government which took over agricultural land. In 1962, when a military coup ended democracy in Burma, they lost their claims, and Burma became just a memory.

The Chettiar mansions remain a lasting legacy of those times, with their Burmese teak and antiquities.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Grave of Emperor Aurangzeb, Khuldabad

From Johnson Album 3, 4, painted 1660-70
Featured in the British Library exhibition,
Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire.
Emperor Aurangzeb - the sixth Mughal ruler - had a long reign of nearly 50 years.

During his rule (1658 to 1707), the Mughal Empire reached its largest extent, covering almost the entire Indian subcontinent. In 1700, India's GDP accounted for one-fourth of world GDP, with textiles playing a major role. Nearly 15% of the population lived in urban centres; it was thus more urban than Europe at the time, or even more urban than British India in the 19th century.

Among the urban centres in the Deccan was Aurangabad. Earlier it was a village called Khadki; but it grew into a city under the patronage of Malik Ambar and the Nizamshahs of Ahmadnagar. When Aurangzeb took over the city, as the Mughal viceroy to the Deccan, he named it Aurangabad.

Aurangzeb spent the last 26 years of his life in an attempt to conquer the Deccan. He died at his military camp in Bhingar, near Ahmadnagar, at the age of 89.

His modest open-air grave in Khuldabad expresses his deep devotion to his Islamic beliefs. He desired in his will that not more than 8 rupees be spent on it - in marked contrast to the ostentatious splendour of the tombs of his predecessors.
Grave of Aurangzeb, painted by William Carptenter between 1850-56, British Library
Aurangzeb's tomb is in the courtyard of the shrine of the Sufi saint Shaikh Burhan-u'd-din Gharib, who was a disciple of Nizamuddin Auliya of Delhi.

The epitaph reads his own couplet in Persian:
Az tila o nuqreh gar saazand gumbad aghniyaa! 
Bar mazaar e maa ghareebaan gumbad e gardun bas ast!
Translation: "The rich may well construct domes of gold and silver on their graves!
For the poor folks like me, the sky is dome enough!" 

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

"Daan Paatra" at Pushkar

Spotted at Pushkar: a collection box (Daan Patra) for Gau Seva (the welfare of cows). A young bull stands next to it, looking quite annoyed with life :)
Holy Cow Container, India -
Rod Waddington from Kergunyah, Australia [CC BY-SA 2.0
(], via Wikimedia Commons
The cow is depicted with a peacock feather decoration for her horns, indicating the linkage of cows with the cowherd God Krishna of the Braj region. The Braj region (Brajbhoomi) is the land associated with Krishna's birth and major events in his life. While there is no official geographical demarcation, it lies more or less within the golden triangle circuit that is popular with tourists. Pushkar is nearby.

The cow is depicted with auspicious symbols (the Om and the Swastika) on her body. She is adorned with jewellery, denoting her special status. Similar decorations can be seen in many Rajasthani miniatures, particularly the Pichhawai paintings depicting Krishna as a cowherd.