Posted in Culture, Festivals

A story of two Indian festivals

One story, two regions
Today is Rakshabandhan…, or Rakhi, a festival that celebrates the special bond between brothers and sisters. It is celebrated all over India but is a bigger festival in the North. Did you know of a story that connects it with the festival of Onam that is celebrated in South India?

This 7th-8th century carving from Mamallapuram tells a story that connects two different festivals, celebrated in two different times, and in two different parts of the country.

Many, many eons ago, there lived a demon king called Mahabali. This wise and powerful king was a great devotee of Lord Vishnu and he was as popular in the heavens as he was on earth. But Indra, the King of Heaven, was unhappy with Mahabali’s rising power and started feeling insecure about his own position. He complained to Lord Vishnu. Lord Vishnu had to find a way to settle this matter.

It was well known that Mahabali was a very generous king who rarely refused to grant a request. One day, a little man named Vamana came to meet him. He didn’t want much and asked for only as much land as three paces of his feet would cover. It was a strange request, but Mahabali agreed. Miraculously, Vamana grew taller and taller. With one step, he covered the Earth, with the second he covered the sky. He now asked Mahabali where he should place the third step. Mahabali understood that Vamana was none other than Lord Vishnu. So he knelt and offered his own head. Vishnu put his foot on Mahabali’s head and pushed him down to the Netherworld, which now became Mahabali’s Kingdom.

But Mahabali had always been kind and just. So, Vishnu left him with two new boons. He promised that Mahabali would always have his protection. And he also promised that once every year Mahabali would return to Earth and spend time with his beloved subjects. Even today, the state of Kerala celebrates this annual return of Mahabali as the festival of Onam.

Mahabali is responsible for one more Indian festival. Story goes that one day a woman came to meet Mahabali at his palace in the netherworld. She had a grievance. Her husband was always at work and she felt lonely and scared. Mahabali invited her to live in the security of his palace. She moved in and all was well. Mahabali looked upon her as his sister. But very soon, she came up with another grievance. She said she missed her husband and wanted him back. Mahabali promised to make that happen. But who was her husband? The palace watchman. He was always on sentry duty and had no time for her. And that’s when Mahabali remembered Vishnu’s promise of eternal protection. That watchman HAD to be Lord Vishnu himself, quietly keeping watch over him. Mahabali was delighted. This meant that his newfound sister was none other than Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth, and Vishnu’s wife. Between them they had ensured that his kingdom stayed safe and prosperous.

Just as he had promised, Mahabali sent Vishnu back with Lakshmi. On her way out, Lakshmi tore a strip of cloth from her shawl and tied it around Mahabali’s wrist. She promised that the strip would be his protection, and a symbol of her sisterly affection. Mahabali gave her many gifts and sent her on her way.

Colourful threads on sale in the market, just before Rakhi

Even to this day, North India celebrates the festival of Raksha Bandhan, where sisters still tie a length of string around their brother’s wrists as a mark of affection. And the brothers still reciprocate with gifts. Not only the Hindus, but also the Sikhs and Jains celebrate this tradition. This is one of the many stories behind the very charming festival of Rakshabandhan.

Can you identify one more popular story hidden in the panel above? Hint: Southern Cross.

Photo Credits:
1. Bas-relief at the Mamallapuram caves: Courtesy: Neetesh Photography
2. Rakhi threads: Photo by Shriyash Jichkar, courtesy Wikepedia


Posted in Personalities

Prisoner in Cuddalore, Prince in Sweden!

By S.V.Kaushik

History is full of strange twists. Here is one I stumbled upon.

Siege of Cuddalore

About 185 Kms south of  Madras (now Chennai) is the quiet port of Cuddalore, where you can see the ruins of Fort St. David. Back in1783, Cuddalore was far from quiet: The French were entrenched in the Fort and the British army from Madras had besieged it. The French made several raids into the British camp, but could not break the siege. One sortie was led by Sergeant Jean Baptiste Bernadotte. His charge was brave, but he fell wounded, and was captured.


The Siege of Cuddalore, 1783

He was taken prisoner by the British Hanoverian Regiment, commanded by Colonel Christoph von Wangenheim. Wangenheim rather liked the young prisoner: he treated him kindly and arranged for medical help. Soon the war got over; Bernadotte returned to France and Wangenheim to Hanover. They were destined to reunite 2 decades later…

Two decades later

Bernadotte saw a meteoric rise in his career. He fought many battles, faced many challenges, and ultimately became a Marshall of the French Army. By any military standard, his achievement was unique: he enlisted as a Private and ended as a Marshall! He had learnt his lessons well: he remained a soldier’s soldier, demonstrated a principled leadership and treated the vanquished gracefully (perhaps the influence of his Cuddalore experience?). Meanwhile Wangenheim had retired as a Major-General in Hanover.

When Napoleon conquered Germany, Bernadotte was appointed military governor in Hanover (1804). In Hanover, Bernadotte reached out to his old foe-turned-friend, Wangenheim. Wangenheim was overjoyed that the old Sergeant had come to thank him!

Many versions of this story have been written by chroniclers (including some cynics, who say that the whole story is high on emotion but low on facts). I would like to believe that it really happened, since it seems to be in line with the rest of Bernadotte’s character. Our story doesn’t end here….

Napoleon & Bernadotte

Bernadotte was a competent commander who spoke his mind, even if it was unpalatable to his boss Napoleon. This created a strange love-hate relationship between the two. Moreover, Bernadotte had married Desiree Clary, who was Joseph Bonaparte’s sister-in-law. (Joseph was Napoleon’s elder brother). Ordinarily, this would have given Bernadotte extra political mileage, but in this case, it made matters worse! [ It is said that Napoleon had once wanted to marry Desiree; and Napoleon was not above jealousy. Many stories have been woven around this, including a Hollywood movie starring Marlon Brando]. Naturally, Bernadotte was frustrated.

Then suddenly, Lady Luck smiled again at Bernadotte. The aging King Charles XIII of Sweden had no male heir and Sweden was desperate for a King. The Swedish legislators felt that if they could get a “military-man” from even outside Sweden, he would fit the bill. Bernadotte’s name came up and was accepted. The  influential Swedish army supported his candidature, because they remembered his kind treatment of Swedish prisoners of war (Cuddalore influence, again?) in his victorious campaigns.

Coronation of King Charles XIV

 This was a unique moment in history: a foreigner was ELECTED as Crown Prince and heir-apparent to the throne (instead of INHERITING it). Bernadotte approached Emperor Napoleon for his Relieving Order. In all probability, Napoleon was relieved to relieve a “difficult” subordinate. Yet, he tried to extract a final promise that, as Swedish King, he would never oppose Napoleon. Bernadotte refused to commit anything: he would do whatever was needed to protect the Swedes who had elected him! Napoleon yielded, saying “Go, and let our destinies be accomplished”. And so, by destiny, Bernadotte became King Charles XIV John of Sweden.


(L)From Marshall Jean Bernadotte of France to (R) King Charles XIV John of Sweden

Bernadotte kept his word. Although he never sought to confront Napoleon, there were many occasions when Sweden allied itself with enemies of France. But he never attacked France ever. As King, he survived many challenges, but was a largely respected and popular monarch. The present King of Sweden is a scion of the Bernadotte dynasty, which is one of the oldest surviving Royal Houses of Europe today!

What if?

What would have happened if Bernadotte had not survived the charge in Cuddalore?  I do not want to know!

Grateful Acknowledgements: All pictures are kind courtesy of Wikepedia. The Siege of Cuddalore is by Richard Simkin (1890); the Portrait of Marshall Bernadotte is by Joseph Nicolas Juoy and the portrait of King CharlesXIV John is by Francois Gerard (1811)

Posted in Men who made Madras, Personalities

Robert Clive and the Battle of Purasai

By S.V.Kaushik

 I know what you were thinking when you read the title….

  • Really, did Robert Clive fight a battle in Purasai?
  • Was he the Englishman who colonised the place we now call Purasaiwakkam?

My response to the first question is: it all depends on which Purasai you are talking about. And the answer to the second question is: no, that honour goes to another corrupt English Governor called Elihu Yale.  Let me explain.

The place where you go shopping for Diwali, Saraswati Puja, Pongal and just-like-that summa (சும்மா) — the Purasaiwakkam that we Chennai-ites knowwas first taken on lease from the local Moghul Underling, by the Madras Governor Yale.  During the 1680s, British trade in Madras had grown so much that both Fort St. George and the adjacent Black Town (now George Town) were choc-a-bloc. So Yale decided to expand the town by leasing the nearby Purasaiwakkam. It was a nice wooded area with a lot of trees: flowering trees known in Tamil as Purasai. So Purasai-wakkam was simply “The place of Purasai trees”.

Most residents of Purasaiwakkam would find difficulty in describing the Purasai tree to you. That’s because those trees have just vanished from Purasaiwakkam: it is now a concrete jungle where several generations have lived without ever sighting a Purasai. One old resident told me that the only Purasai tree of Purasaiwakkam can be found inside the Gangadeeswarar Temple. Perhaps, it has survived because it is the Stala-Vriksha (holy tree) of the Temple. It is also known as Flame-of-the-forest, or Butea Monosperma. It looks like this:


Butea monosperma

Now you are thinking: enough of this botanical-bluster, where is Clive in all this? Be patient my friend, and I’ll tell you.

Clive Mir Jaffar

Clive after the victory in the Battle of Plassey

 Do you remember Robert Clive’s most famous battle? The Battle of Plassey – where Colonel Clive’s small army defeated the Bengal Nawab’s huge army. Well, “Plassey” is the anglicised version of “Palashi” which was the correct local name of that battlefield. “Palashi” is the Bengali word for …. why, Purasai of course! The place was full of Palashi trees and hence the name Palashi or Plassey.


Plassey Railway Station, now: note the lovely Purasai tree in the background!

Now, Clive’s “small” army had a “large” contingent of “Namma Ooru Veerans” a.k.a. the 1st Madras Regiment.  All these Tamil soldiers of Clive’s expeditionary force, what would they have called this place of Palashi trees? Why, Purasai of course. For them it was the Battle of Purasai, no? Touché!

Grateful acknowledgement: All the pictures in this blog-post are courtesy WIKIPEDIA.


Posted in Men who made Madras, Personalities

The Last Grand Nawab: Wallajah

By S.V. Kaushik

December 2106: India played the 5th Test against England at Chepauk Cricket Stadium. Over a 1300 balls were bowled from the Wallajah End before England was crushed. Ever wondered why the Wallajah End is called Wallajah? Your response would probably be “That’s because, that’s where the Wallajah Road is, Silly!” Yeah, so why is the Wallajah Road called Wallajah? Ah, THAT requires a serious answer. Wallajah Road is so called because that road leads to the Chepauk Palace of the Nawab Wallajah. And who was this Wallajah? To find out, let us travel back in time when the English were far more powerful than they were in the Chepauk stadium last winter.

The Nawab’s full name was: Amir ul Hind, Walla Jah, ‘Umdat ul-Mulk, Asaf ud-Daula, Nawab Muhammad ‘Ali Anwar ud-din Khan Bahadur, Zafar Jang, Sipah-Salar, Sahib us-Saif wal-qalam Mudabbir-i-Umur-i-‘Alam Farzand-i-‘Aziz-az Jan, Biradarbi Jan-barabar [Nawab Jannat Aramgah], Subadar of the Carnatic. When they decided to honour him, there wasn’t enough street for a name so long as that, so they just called it Wallajah Road! Walla Jah, we are told, means “supremely dignified gentleman”.


Indeed, Nawab Wallajah was not only dignified but also a fascinating gentleman. Although he was the legal heir of the 7th Nawab of Arcot (Anwaruddin Khan), he started his career as the 9th Nawab. No, this was not because he chose to work his way up from the bottom. Before he could lay his claim to the throne as the 8th Nawab, Chanda Sahib (a relative) usurped it.  So Chanda Sahib became the de facto 8th Nawab. For 3 years (1749-52) Wallajah battled tooth and nail to dislodge the pretender; and the British supported him (in fact, they supplied all the teeth & nails!). At the end of the war, Wallajah emerged very victorious and Chanda Sahib ended being very dead. Thus Wallajah rose to become the 8th Nawab, after eliminating the contentious pretender (or was it the pretentious contender?).

He shifted his capital from Arcot to Madras, because that’s where his dear friends, the British, lived. How could he forget them? He lovingly built the beautiful Chepauk Palace, very close to the British Fort St. George. (It is said that he wanted to live inside the British Fort St. George, but the English were nervous about the security risk. But they did make a Wallajah-Gate on the Cooum-side of the Fort so that Wallajah could enter freely and hobnob with the British bigwigs).

Life was not easy yet. He fought wars against the Mysore Kings and the Tanjore Mahrattas. The British were his allies; naturally, they were the sole suppliers of all teeth and nails — on credit! Wallajah ended up owing outrageous sums of money for the hardware and outsourced manpower!

Yet, Wallajah did not let petty accounting interfere in his business of noblesse oblige. He contributed to public causes like there was no tomorrow. He built shelters in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, sent Haj pilgrims on his private ships, contributed to mosques and even commissioned the famous Madrasa-E-Azam (Islamic school). His munificence was not restricted to Muslims either. He donated heavily to Srirangam and Triplicane Parthasarathy Temples. He donated land to the Mylapore Kapali Temple for building a Tank. (In the annual Float Festival of that Tank, his descendants still receive the first honour). He also donated land to Christian institutions like Bishop Heber school and St Joseph College in Trichy. Indeed, in charity, he was truly secular— long before  the SECULAR tag became politically fashionable! By now, Wallajah was very, very broke. SECULAR charity needed SECULAR funding. So, he borrowed from all communities: the British, the Armenians and other Indians. SECULAR economics!

By the Treaty of Paris 1763, he was recognised as a King, independent of the Moghul Emperor (it was good to have international certification even in those days).  But it did nothing to change  local Economics. His ultra-deficit financing model would have made even the US Government cringe, but Wallajah was ever full of courtesy and grace. Once an Armenian lender, Shawmier Sultan, came to enforce his dues. Wallajah charmed him into tearing up his promissory note (“My Lord, my claim is but just a little dust on your shoes”). Wallajah responded in kind by gifting the Noomblee village to Shawmier! In victory he showed kindness. When he defeated the Tanjore Mahrattas, his soldiers raided the Tanjore Treasury. To their disappointment they found that everything had been spent in the war— only the personal jewellery of the Queen Mother remained! Wallajah ordered his soldiers to return it to the Queen Mother and treat her like Royalty should be!

Wallajah lived like a King, gave like a King, and died like a King. But he left behind huge debts that made his descendants vulnerable. The British exploited this and took over his kingdom by means fair and foul. They could not completely forget his friendship, however: they allowed his successors to sport the honorary title of ‘Prince of Arcot’ and receive a tax-free pension from the government. That has not changed till date!

His memory lives in names like Wallajah Mosque, Wallajapet, Wallajabad, Wallajah Gate and Wallajah Road. And even a kid will tell you, every other over in the Chepauk Cricket Stadium has to be bowled from the Wallajah end!


Posted in Culture, Men who made Madras, Personalities

Mind your language

Connect the dots… English medium schools, Lord Macaulay, Treaty of Aix-la-Chappelle, Madras university

It’s only been a few days since the government ‘suggested’ the use of Hindi over English in social media platforms. This reminds us of another story, but from a different era – the story of how we ended up making English our own in the first place.

If you are able to read and understand this post, thank Lord Macaulay. He was in India in the 1830s, at a time when the British were beginning to realize that they were just a small handful of men, ruling a vast country of many millions. They really needed help. The local Indians were of little use, because very few of them were exposed to western education at that point in time. And fewer still spoke English.

So the British decided to educate the Indians and use them to govern the country. And this was when an argument broke out. Should the Indians be taught in the vernacular, or in English? It was the raging debate of that time in British India.

Enter Lord Macaulay. He pushed strongly for English to be made the medium of instruction.

‘Whoever knows English has ready access to the vast intellectual wealth, which the wisest nations of the earth have created and hoarded in the course of ninety generations’, he reasoned.Macaulay’s plan was to create a class of Indians, who would serve as interpreters between the British and the millions they governed; a class that would be Indian by birth but British by thought.


It’s been close to two hundred years, and Lord Macaulay’s language of choice still holds strong in India.

Later British administrators recognized that they couldn’t completely ignore native languages. By then they had figured that it was only by teaching local languages that they could get the masses to learn English. Charles Wood, the then secretary of state came out with a plan to overhaul the education system. He made the study of local languages at the primary level compulsory. And he modeled higher education in India completely on the British system. A direct result of his plan was the setting up of 3 universities – the Universities of Calcutta, Bombay and Madras, all modeled on the London University.

So why the brouhaha now? Language has a funny way of being confused with one’s identity and race. They aren’t the same. What Macaulay ‘forgot’ to mention was that until the late 17th century, even in England, the medium of instruction was Latin and not English. Newton wrote his Principia in Latin. Most grammar schools in England were devoted to teaching students Latin and Greek, the classic languages. Some schools even punished students who spoke in English during school hours. So much for ninety generations of English!

As for our tryst with English, it was a matter of sheer chance. Did you know that in 1746, the French defeated the English and captured Madras? The British never really won it back. By then, England and France had been fighting each other for a long time. Finally it must have dawned on them that neither was better than the other. So in 1749, in a small sleepy town called Aix-La-Chappelle, England and France signed a treaty. They agreed to exchange certain territories captured from each other. And just like that, without so much as firing a single shot, Madras came back to the British. If not for that one small twist of fate, the world would probably have benefitted from a chutneyed version of French, instead of English.

Would we have fared better if we had not adopted English as our own? The debate still rages on – in at least a dozen Indian languages.


Posted in Food

Chennai Kaapiright

Connect the dots – Coffee, religion, caste system, trade unions ……

South India obsesses about coffee. Ask any one of our coffee drinkers and they would swear that we have been drinking coffee since the times the Gods walked the Earth, and that babies here go from mother’s milk to filter coffee, overnight. Much as we hate bursting this particular bubble, the truth is that coffee came into India fairly recently – in the early 19th century. And when it came, it wasn’t even love at first sight.

Coffee grew in the middle-east, where it was the drink of a small handful of people. But as it gained more converts, religion sat up and took notice. Islam was the first. The Imams decided that any drink that good HAD to be evil, and banned it. However, coffee soon won them over, and a holy Fatwa quickly gave it religious sanction. It became the drink of saints and Sufi mystics. After that, coffee travelled and eventually reached Venice. Now another religion opposed it. This time round, it was Christianity. Should good Catholics drink a ‘Muslim drink’? It seems Pope Clement VIII tried it, loved it and graciously allowed all good Catholics to drink it too.

Coffee Houses soon became the hot and happening places in Europe. This was where all controversial topics were discussed threadbare. Inefficient kings were roundly scolded and corrupt churches were ripped apart. All this made Charles II very nervous and in 1675 he banned coffee houses in England. But by then, even his ministers were so addicted to coffee that the ban had to be hastily withdrawn. Some looked at coffee as a magic potion and believed it could “Expel Fumes out of the Head and cleanse the English-man’s Stomak of Flegm.” Why the average Englishman had all this strange stuff inside him in the first place, no one knows. Women were conveniently kept out of English coffee houses and naturally, they had a very different viewpoint. “This heathenish liquor made our men impotent!” screamed a woman’s petition against coffee. But there was no looking back for coffee.

It is said that coffee came into India through the efforts of Baba Budan. He travelled all the way to Arabia to find salvation – and found coffee. Initially, coffee did not find many takers here. The Brahmins decided to stand their ground against this invidious new drink. So they took to boycotting coffee houses and speaking long and passionately against coffee. But somewhere along the line, they tumbled headlong in love with coffee. Soon coffee became an indispensible part of a Brahmin household and took its place very comfortably among all the other age old rituals. Just look at the way coffee is served in Tamil Nadu; it comes in a steel davara-tumbler with a rim around the edges, unlike coffee mugs. That simple adaptation allowed persnickety drinkers to safely pour hot coffee straight into their mouths, without letting the tumbler touch their lips.

Today coffee purists swear by ’Kumbakonam Degree Coffee.’ What makes Kumbakonam the coffee Mecca? Truth be told, we don’t have an answer. Kumbakonam grows no coffee, is not particularly famous for its milk and the sugar you buy there is just the same as anywhere else. So how did Kumbakonam become the first name in filter coffee? One wonders if it might have anything to do with Kumbakonam being a temple town, which is lined with many Agraharam houses, which are populated by many Brahmins, who perhaps drink way too much coffee?

During the British rule, there was a popular coffee chain called the India Coffee house. It closed down in the 1950’s, leaving its workers jobless. That’s when Comrade Gopalan Nambiar, a well known Trade Union leader took charge and got the coffee shops transferred to workers co-operatives. He gave it a brand new name – Indian Coffee House. It is still going strong with over 400 branches across the country, but none in Tamil Nadu yet.

Starbucks with its 15000 stores worldwide has now opened its first outlet in Chennai. How will it fare here?

There will surely be some indifference, a bit of skepticism, and a lot of comparison. But for all you know, perhaps a day will come when Starbucks too will feature among Chennai’s age old traditions…


Posted in Culture, Festivals

Akshaya Tritiya

Today marks Akshaya Tritiya, the day when Chennai buys lots of gold, apparently.

But we got to wondering what more this festive occasion could actually signify. We delved into research and came up with quite a few interesting if amusing interpretations of the day.

Gastronomically, Yuddhishtr was presented with the Akshaya Patra ensuring that the Pandavas, especially Bhima who ate everything in sight, would never run out of food.

Theologically, ‘Akshaya’, meaning ‘Eternal’ or ‘Imperishable’ is said to have been the first word God uttered when he set about creating the Big Bang.

Mythologically, we found, today was the day Lord Ganesha and Veda Vyas started writing the Mahabharatha. It also marks the birthday of Lord Parasurama, Lord Vishnu’s sixth incarnation.

Sentimentally, it was when Sudama received material wealth beyond his wildest dreams from his best friend, Lord Krishna.

Economically, today is the day you can bribe Goddess Lakshmi onto your side; buy some gold, breeze through life undefeated with Her next to you. She’s now a gleeful resident of your house, after all, what with all the gold chains and bangles and bracelets and earrings we’ve weighed Her down with.

However, going by analyst talk this year, it seems She’s likely lost out on 12% investment from last year. Shame.

Chronologically, it marks the beginning of the Satya Yuga, the Golden Age.

Astrologically, Akshaya Tritiya marks the third day of the month of Vaishakha, when the sun and moon are in their brightest states of the year. It is a day of prosperity and wealth.

Meteorologically, it is the start of the infamous Madras summer – a time when humidity drapes its sticky self over the city, jigarthanda sellers crop up all over, previously non-existent sweat glands (if that’s possible in Chennai) make merry, and the sun comes out, all guns blazing.

Literally, it is when T.Nagar is packed to the gills, pickpockets merrily trotting alongside harried women, salespeople shouting themselves hoarse to sell that one piece more than their counterparts, and parking is the devil’s nightmare.

And realistically, this is the day when men and women part with their hard-earned money to buy jewellery they’ll later find they don’t really want.

Posted in Culture, Traditions

On Bharatanatyam

The next time you enjoy a Bharatanatyam performance, and are enchanted by the elegant movements and expressions, make sure you thank Lord Brahma. “Why him?” you say. Good thing you asked! Listen to this story:

You see, after the four Vedas were written, Gods and Goddesses realized that the four Vedas were too difficult for the common man to comprehend. It was so highly philosophical, so serious, so austere and oh, so difficult to master. Man had a tough life then, constantly studying. The need for something easier on the mind was strongly felt, and so the Gods came to help. They went to Lord Brahma and appealed to him to create another Veda – one that could be understood by anybody. And Brahma, in all his wisdom, took the words from the Rigveda, the gestures from the Yajurveda, the music from the Samaveda, and the emotions from the Atharvaveda and combined them to form —- the Natyaveda! Lord Brahma gave this newly formed Veda to Sage Bharata, who used this knowledge to write the Natyashaastra, a comprehensive treatise on the science and technique of drama. It is from this venerable text that Bharatanatyam was formed.

While you’re in a mood to give thanks, why not give one to the Devadasi community, and the Chola and Pallava rulers who supported them? These are the people who developed and promoted the classical arts in South India for centuries. Devadasis were girls who were married to a God rather than an ordinary mortal. They were expected to spend their whole lives in the service of the temple and God. These girls grew into highly accomplished women, who knew how to sing, dance, play instruments, and speak Sanskrit—skills they used when they worshipped the Lord.

Bharatanatyam was their art form, and it thrived along with the community—and suffered along with it as well. As the British acquired more and more Indian territory in the 19th century, the rulers who had supported the Devadasis disappeared. These women did not fit in with the Victorian attitudes that came with British rule. A good Victorian woman was expected to stay at home and devote herself to her husband and family. The Devadasis were shocking—- they performed in public and — horror of horrors — took part in politics! They were labeled as little better than loose women, and they were shunned from ‘polite’ society. The community dwindled as it lost its income and its reputation, and the art of Bharatanatyam nearly died out.

“Wait a minute!” you say. “It is obvious that Bharatanatyam did not go the way of the dodo bird. Does this mean there is another person I should be thanking, too?”

You shouldn’t be thanking just one person; you should be thanking the many people who, at the beginning of the 20th century, realized that an important art form was about to die out. The four brothers who made up the Tanjore Quartet helped preserve the art by organizing the basic dance movements into a series of lessons. E. Krishna Iyer promoted Bharatanatyam through his performances. He was a lawyer by training and a dancer by passion, and he firmly believed in preserving the art form. In order to remove the stigma associated with Bharatanatyam dancers, he would dance in the costume of a female dancer! In 1928, he founded the Madras Music Academy in order to promote all the classical arts, and this august institution continues the work till today.

Then there is Rukmini Devi Arundale, who breathed fresh life into Bharathnatyam by improvising upon the existing Padanallur style. This turned into the Kalakshetra style, which in turn became the core curriculum of Kalakshetra, the institution, which she founded in 1936. Slowly, the art form revived and grew. The excellent reputation of Kalakshetra and popularity of Bharatanatyam today is a testament to all these people’s efforts.

The practice of Bharatanatyam today is not the same as it was in the days of the Pallava kingdom. Dancers now tell stories about social issues like addiction and AIDS alongside stories of gods and ancient kings. They are no longer compelled to master Bharatanatyam as Devadasis were, so students today are taught the importance of dedication and discipline as they learn the dance. But the essential aspects of the art form remain the same. Bharatanatyam today, just as it was in the past, gives worship as it tells stories. It is balanced between precise geometric forms and dramatic emotional content. There are now Bharatanatyam dancers performing in every continent, and almost every household in South India has a girl child learning the art form. From almost extinction to complete rejuvenation, Bharathnatyam has danced across the aeons, and lives again.


Posted in Great Places

What do you make of Chennai?


Many years ago, on this day, a city was born. A city called by various names, that grew voraciously and, we believe, well. A city that houses the intelligentsia of the country and one that drives the race for many an invention and innovation. A city that has its roots in strong classical tradition, and yet pushes full steam ahead towards a new tomorrow. A city that delights in contemporary fashion, but is just as comfortable in nine yards of silk. A city where the ancient is revered, yet the modern is welcomed. Strange contradictions indeed. And that is Chennai.

She is but an image of the people who make her. And these people come in all garbs, influencing the character of the areas they lived in.

Look at Georgetown. It started as a market supplying goods to the British, and went by the name of black town. Goods were both produced here, and brought from places near Madras. Cotton, gems and precious stones, silks, tea, sugar, pepper and other spices… even peacocks! The British thought that they looked good on the lawns of their estates.

And this place attracted traders from far and wide. One such person was Coja Petrus.

He came from a far away land called Armenia and became very rich trading here. It is said that at one time, the French who were fighting the British confiscated his considerable property. They promised to return it if he left Madras and came to the French territory of Pondicherry. Coja Petrus refused, deciding to remain loyal to the British, because he had made his money in British territory. A benevolent and God fearing man, he donated generously to Churches here, and also built the bridge over Saidapet, earlier called the Marmalong Bridge.

As before, Georgetown continues to be a traders hub. Crowded, chaotic, colourful and crumbling in parts, but still home to many who call this home and feel Chennai’s pulse is to be found here.

A different place, a different time. An age when dance was confined to temples. When famed musicians sang for hours on end, egged on by a discerning audience; and dance performances were meant for the Gods alone. These dancers, called the Devadasis, were wedded to the Gods, and dedicated their lives to the perfection of their art.

But then, slowly things changed, and the temple dancers became chattels of the rich. This resulted in the dance form itself being looked down upon. It took someone with the grit and determination of Rukmini Devi Arundale, to wipe away the blemish and re-invent this art form, that to many is the face of Chennai today.

Coming from a traditional Brahmin family, 16 year old Rukmini shocked the world by marrying 40 year old Arundale, an Australian at the Theosophical Society. Her association with a Russian ballerina woke her to the world of rhythm and movement. She soon discovered Bharatanatyam, only to learn that it was out of bounds for the elite.

Undaunted, she bullied some renowned teachers into teaching her the art in secre,t and danced for the first time in front of an audience in 1935, changing the image of Bharatanatyam for ever. The tinkling of anklets accompanied by the beat of the Mridungam, continues to be the face of Chennai for many.

The temples continue to flourish, albeit without the presence of Devadasis, and if anything they have only grown in the eyes of many. From Gopurams steeped in antiquity, to roadside shrines, both inspire the same faith in the common man. For many, these temples personify the spirit of Chennai.

But if you thought Chennai was all about Hinduism, think again. As early as 52 AD, a man from a far away land, walked the sands of a beautiful beach in the port town of Mylapore. He spoke of a new God in a new land and left his footprints on the sands of time.

From the humble arrival of St.Thomas, to the British who left behind a cathedral of neo-gothic splendor, Chennai to many is the cradle of Christianity in this part of the world.

Every major religion has left its mark on Chennai. And majestic monuments testify to the diversity of religious belief here. To many, this is the face of Chennai – a haven of spirituality and a stronghold of tradition.

Vibrant, pulsating, frenzied, turbulent and a city on the move, yet haphazard, pot-holed, noisy and polluted – Chennai goes by many faces. From potti kadais to supermarkets, from gypsies hawking beads, to multi-storied gold marts, from seedy cinema halls to the best of multiplexes, Chennai is home to all.

She constantly reinvents herself, she changes her persona to suit you and she is never the same for any two people. Chennai is what you want to make of her.


Posted in Culture, Religion

Of Temples, Gods and Saints …


Temple Gopurams, as integral a part of Chennai  as malli poo, filter kapi and checked lungis. That does not mean they are not found elsewhere – just that they are so evocative of this city. In a city where there are temples everywhere, three stand apart – the Parthasarathi temple in Triplicane, the Kapaleeshwara temple in Mylapore and the Murugan temple in Vadapalani. And what makes then so special? Probably the fact that they have been spoken of by various great saints, commonly feature in pictures of the Chennai skyline or perhaps simply because they are bang in the middle of popular areas in Chennai. Whatever be the reason, these three are rather close to a Chennaiite’s heart, and their festivals draw large crowds.

The Gods housed inside are the big ones –benevolent and awe inspiring. They bless the good and chastise the wicked, and generally go about doing what good Gods do. Lord Krishna is depicted as Parthasarathi, the driver of Arjuna’s chariot in Triplicane. He had sworn not to fight in that mother of all wars at Kurukshetra,  and so he stands there, with only his conch for company, his face scarred by marks of battle. And yes, a resplendent moustache, thick and curling, graces his upper lip. Our men love their moustaches here, and they are a sign of machismo, but a God with one is a bit of a rarity. Then there is Kapali – Lord Shiva the God of destruction, in Mylapore. A mighty God, with a matching temper, he once found his wife Parvathi paying more attention to a dancing peacock than his words. And zap, there she was banished to Earth, to be born a peacock – some believe in the region that’s called Mylapore now! Shiva soon repented and came down to earth to take Parvathi back with him. And legend has it that this incident gave Mylapore its name – Myil being the word for peacock in Tamil. Then there is Muruga in Vedapalani – the God of War, on one hand, and a handsome heartthrob on the other. Called Karthikeya in the North, he is a part of every puja pandal in Bengal, for he is Durga’s son.

What is even more interesting are people who are in some way associated with these temples. There is Pei Alwar, who sang songs in praise of Vishnu and has sung of the temple in Triplicane. This poet was born in Mylapore. The story goes that the saint was born of a flower in a temple tank in that area. Then there was Sivanesan, in Mylapore again – a merchant who wanted to give his beautiful daughter to a wandering minstrel – Thirugnanasambandar. The daughter died of snake bite, and it only needed the saint to visit them and sing a song to Shiva about her, to bring her back to life once more.  And these two share a shrine in the Kapaleeshwara temple till date.  Vadapalani has an equally exotic tale to its credit, that of Annaswami Thambiran. This venerable old man worshipped a picture of Muruga, and whenever he did, he found that he had the ability to foretell the future. And he worked miracles – he set the sick back on their feet, got the jobless into the habit of earning money, and generally made his presence felt. When he passed on, the place he lived in slowly grew into a large Muruga temple, and there it stands till today – attracting the faithful in the thousands.