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.

Posted in Great Places, Personalities

What did they see in Chennai?

‘Chennai is a grand city where tradition and modernity co-exist. Well, that’s what everyone says, the guides… the books… the articles… generally every Chennai-vaasi. And that probably is also the impression that most visitors carry back with them today. But what about those who visited many eons ago? Many have come to these shores across centuries, some to visit, some to stay on. How might this city or have looked to them? And what images did they carry back of this place? Let us stretch our imagination a bit and find out in their own words… shall we?

My Lord, You have sent me to this strange land so far away from my own. I can see a skyline dotted with beautiful conical towers which seem to be the local places of worship. There is no dearth of Gods here – there seem to be millions of them, and each also seems to go by a million different names…The people are friendly and are willing to listen when I talk of a different faith. Naturally there is also some resistance to my  presence here, but at least the local king is willing to lend me a ear.  I doubted your word once, but will not do that again. I know you will give me the strength and wisdom, to preach your message here…’

And so it happened. St Thomas, an apostle of Jesus Christ arrived in India in the year 52 AD. He walked through the Southern Peninsula after landing on the coast of Kerala, and reached the place that is called Chennai today.  His message appealed to the local king. But some of his ministers did not take to this very well, and in 72 AD, he was martyred at a place that is now known as the St Thomas Mount. But by then, he had sowed the seeds of Christianity here in India – centuries before it was even accepted as a religion in the western world. In fact, Syrian Christians in Kerala are considered to be among the oldest followers of Christianity in the world.

The common phrase ‘Doubting Thomas’ owes its origins to the story of St Thomas doubting the resurrection of Jesus Christ and refusing to believe till he actually touched Jesus’ wounds with his own hands.

Let’s cut to another age, to another vistor…

‘I have been walking around this strange land and observing its people for some days now. I am most surprised by the fact that people do not lock their doors at all. It seems it is an insult to the king if people need to lock doors. And what a way they have to drink water! I tried it too and it went right through my nose. And can you believe it, there are times in the day when people refuse to take up anything important because the hour is considered inauspicious? They won’t even accept money! But the strangest thing about these people is that they make their Gods dark and their demons fair. So many things here that I do not understand!…’

Marco Polo the Venetian traveler visited the shores of Mylapore in the 13th century, and left a detailed account of the land, the people and their customs. Many of the customs he observed are living traditions, that we still see in practice. It was the time before the arrival of Western settlers and before the Muslim religion reached here. Hindu rituals and ceremonies had reached a peak, and the concepts of purity, casteism and untouchability were presumably fairly prevalent. As for the Gods, yes, they were dark initially, because we are a dark people, and we made our gods in our likeness. But things changed as colour consciousness set in and slowly, our gods became fairer. Of course, today, they have a peaches and cream complexion, perfect teeth and are no way like us!

Miguel Pedro Gonzales— that’s my name. I own a ship and came here because I can buy spices from here. I visited a pepper farm the other day. Dios, I could hardly believe my eyes. Pepper grew thick on the creepers. Black Gold they are called in Europe, and they sell like hot cakes. Only these pesky English men are a problem. We raised the price of pepper a teeny little bit, and they are refusing to buy. Stingy buggers. They say they will find their own route to India and buy their own pepper from here. I really don’t think they can. We are the Masters of the Sea, and they don’t have a chance of reaching here. We will still control pepper trade. As for the locals – what about them really?…’

 The Portuguese arrived here in 1523, but this arrival was more like an inquisition than a peaceful settlement. Their superior Naval capabilities put them in control of the spice trade with the west, and they came here to consolidate that position further. They built their Fort at Santhome and built the Luz Church here, which today is the oldest surviving church in the city. There is an interesting though unconfirmed story that one of the key catalysts for the English East India company to set sail for India was a nominal but an arbitrary increase in the price of pepper in the western markets effected by the Portuguese!

The English did come here eventually, and were masters of half the world in times to come. But what might have been their thoughts about this city in those early days?

‘God deliver me from this land. It’s blazing hot, and my top hats and long sleeved coats are no help to me. Here I am, William T. Smithers, working for the East India Company, posted in Fort St. George. We have collected all the goods from the Black Town, just outside of the fort, and I am waiting for our ships to come and load it in. It is the best Calico cloth I have ever seen and bought at an excellent price too! The mosquitoes are a menace here, and worse still are the peacocks and their raucous cries. We have about fifty of them in here, awaiting the ship. They are going to England, to grace the lawns of the large estates there. Poor creatures—they will surely die in the cold there. As for me, what I want is a large glass of lager, cold lager, with condensation beading the outside of the glass, and the bubbles bursting lazily on the top. Will this land ever get the benefits of ice?…’

 Though this hero is imaginary, we can safely presume his thoughts are all true. Peacocks were taken to England for the purpose mentioned, but they lived and adapted to the cold there. They are still to be found in England. As for ice, yes, it too came to India, all the way form New England in the U.S.A.. Henry Tudor had the brainwave of supplying ice to Europeans in hot countries, and made a fair success of exporting blocks of ice. Remember, we are talking pre-refrigeration era, and the enterprise made sense. The outcome of this enterprise was a new landmark in Chennai where this imported Ice was stored  –  the Ice House, now called the Vivekanandar Illam.

And that friends, is one account of Chennai as it was seen by those who ventured here from lands far far away – some liked it, some did not, some prophesied its future, others were totally off the mark – but they all left a legacy behind. So let’s raise a toast to them, and say “Hats off, gentlemen, we owe you”.


Posted in Religion

Temples in Mylapore, Triplicane, Adyar, and Thiruvanmiyur

Chennai has hundreds of temples to boast of, each accompanied by a host of wonderful traditions and intriguing myths. And hidden amongst the many well known temples are stories of lesser known temples or lesser known stories of what at one time were important temples. This article covers some such stories, and as with all such stories based on faith, it would be hard to separate individual interpretations from the beliefs of a larger community. Stories tend to change with each teller and there never seems to be a right or a wrong version when it comes to faith…

Thulakkathamman Temple, Triplicane

Are you familiar with Goddess Thulakkathamman? Probably not. But walk across the bylanes of Triplicane and you might just end up at a 300 hundred year old temple dedicated to this Goddess.

Speak to the temple priest and the story you will get to hear is that this idol was found by a local Muslim boy, and then the Goddess subsequently appeared to him in his dreams. ‘Thulakkan’ being a local slang to refer to Muslims in those days, the deity promptly acquired the name of Thulakkathamman, loosely translating to ‘Muslim Goddess’.  The temple is frequented by people of many faiths today, and the deity like most ‘Amman’ temples is considered extremely powerful, and capable of ridding one of all evils.

Velleswara Temple, Mylapore

Built a few centuries ago, the Velleswara temple tells us the story of a saint called Shukracharya who became a teacher of the demons. It is believed that long ago, Bali, the King of Asuras (Demons), had the heavens and earth under his possession. When the gods approached Lord Vishnu for help, he disguised himself as a Brahmin named Vamana and decided to take the three worlds as alms from the Asura King in three footsteps. The wise sage Shukracharya over heard the plan and rushed to warn the King. But Bali was a man of his word and surrendered his kingdom to Vamana whole heartedly. Shukracharya was taken aback and angered by the pride of King Bali and just as Bali was about to seal the promise by symbolically pouring out water from his vase, Shukracharya shrank himself and sat on the spout of the vase. Vamana then simply picked a straw of hay that lay on the ground, and directing it up the spout, poked the left eye of the sage. And that left Shukracharya blind in one eye. Shukracharya felt insulted and prayed deeply to Lord Shiva, who, pleased with his devotion, appeared before him and gave him back his sight. The Velleswara temple commemorates this penance of Shukracharya. It is interesting to note that this temple houses idols of both Shiva and Vishnu, which while not unique is fairly uncommon.

Marundeeswar Temple – Triplicane

This ancient temple dates back at least to the 7th century. ‘Murundeeswarar’ translates to ‘the lord of medicine’ and this temple is dedicted to Lod Shiva, worshipped here as a divine physician. And the temple has an impressive list of associations cutting across Hindu eras. Sage Agastya the all powerful sage who practiced Herbal medicine is believed to have been introduced into the mysteries of the herbal world in this very place by Lord Shiva himself.  Tirugnanasambandar, the ardent devotee of Lord Shiva is believed to have visited this temple and sung the praises here, as is Arunagirinathar the 15th century poet from Thiruvannamalai. Sage Valmiki the author of the epic Ramayana is said to have been blessed by Shiva here and hence the place started being known as Thiruvalmikiyur, gradually changing to the current ‘Thiruvanmyur’.

Mundakanniamman Temple, Mylapore

Like many other temples dedicated to ‘Amman’ this temple also plays host to many practices seen as ‘mystic’ by the west. From fire-walking to body piercing, you see it all here during the festive months. This is also the place devotees come to, to get cured of chicken pox and measles. This temple is believed to have been built around an idol that was found among snake pits, and worshippers soon took to the practice of ‘feeding’ the snakes. And though there are no snakes here today, the practice continues and people still leave raw eggs and milk at a dead tree within the temple that might have once been home to snakes. An interesting story that you would get to hear in this temple is about why the main shrine does not have a permanent roof over it. It seems many have tried putting a roof over the idol, and each time it has come down in haste. So people believe that the Goddess here considers the sky to be her roof and will not allow any other structure over her head. So till date, the idol is kept in a thatched temporary structure.




Posted in Personalities, Religion

The city of St. Thomas

Chennai, a study in contrasts, where IT coexists with cottage industry, modern glass buildings live cheek by jowl with agraharams and orchids are sold along with the ubiquitous jasmine. So it really comes as no surprise that temple bells and church bells unite in their call for prayers. And as much as temples contribute to Chennai, so do its many churches. But how did Christianity come to Chennai? The long saga of Christianity began when St. Thomas, an apostle, picked a chit which had Asia written on it, and so had to come here to spread the word of his God.

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This apostle made Chennai his home and preached here, staking claim to the title of the founder of Christianity in India. It is not insignificant that Christianity came to India with him, in 52 AD, much before it was even recognized as a religion in the west. Thomas lived in what is today called Parangi malai, or Little Mount, in a cave and prayed and preached from there. Till date, one can see the cave with its spring, which Thomas brought forth to help the people who were suffering due to drought. There is an imprint of a hand on the wall there, which people believe is the apostle’s. The site where he was killed, on St. Thomas’ Mount, is a land mark today, for there is a small but beautiful Portuguese church standing there. It houses a cross, which is said to have bled, and a secret passage which connects it to the cave in Little Mount. All these stories lend an aura of mysticism to the place. Today, it is the best spot to have an uninterrupted view of the busy Chennai airport, and the city beyond. The small church on St. Thomas Mount is a memorial to this man who came from so far away to preach a new religion in a strange land, driven solely by the force of this conviction.

A long drive leads you through some of Chennai’s busiest roads and to Santhome, the place where the basilica of the same name stands, with its tall white spire visible for miles around. This breath taking white Gothic basilica is a monument to Saint Thomas again, and is said to be built over the remains of the apostle. His body was brought down and buried here before it was disinterred by the Portuguese and taken away to Spain. They constructed a small church here, which was later rebuilt by the British a century ago. The beautiful stained glass behind the altar shows St. Thomas touching Christ’s wounds. According to legend, St. Thomas was the original Doubting Thomas. It seems he refused to believe Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, and said he would believe it only if he saw and touched the wounds on Christ’s body. He did, and the relic in the crypt below the Basilica has a fragment of a bone from his hand, that believers say touched the wounds on the body of Jesus Christ.

The skyline of Chennai today is a medley of buildings – temples, churches and of late, multi storied IT hubs. But the story of St Thomas, who came way back in 52 AD, still stands tall. Many powers came after him and the architects of Christianity in India have been many – the Portugese, Dutch, Danish, French, Armenians, British … and each invariably built towering monuments to their faith, many of which still dot Chennai’s skyline. The Luz Church, Armenian Church, St Mary’s Church at the Fort, St Andrew’s Kirk, are just some beautiful examples. A drive past these surviving monuments is an enjoyable experience that helps you reflect upon the city, its history and the common stereotypes associated with it in a new light.


Posted in Food

Spicy Tales

GrandspiceCinnamon, cardamom, saffron, coriander, chilli, cloves and pepper –common names in an Indian kitchen today, and internationally known too, as flavouring for food. Every chef, and housewife as well, knows that a pinch of this and a small fistful of that, in the right proportions, can raise food from the mundane to the sublime. Listen to their stories, and you will know that spices can not only tickle your taste buds, but also provoke your grey cells!

The nutty tale of nutmeg goes way back in History, when the Europeans were coming in droves, eager to colonize new places and find new things to take back home. One among them, the Dutch, hit upon a bonus in the East Indies. When they were busy, looking for precious stones, land and gold, they found — the nutmeg. It became a popular spice in Europe, and that was it. They turned the whole place into one large nutmeg plantation and set a new rule in place. “No native is allowed to grow nutmeg.” And they gave terrible punishments to those who flouted the rule.

Time went by and the Dutch made their millions, monopolizing nutmeg trade. But, maintaining that monopoly meant that they had to police the little islands of the Indian Ocean, making sure that the natives did not grow the spice and sell it off to other Europeans who also scouted the area regularly. This is the story of one such a group, entrusted with the job of making sure that nutmeg grew only in the White Man’s plantations. One day, when they were sailing by an island, they saw something that made them furious. They saw nutmeg trees! They went to the next island, and saw more nutmeg trees! One island after another, all of them had the banned tree growing on it. Enraged by the disobedience of the natives, the Dutch inflicted cruel punishments on all of them.

At their next stop, they saw more nutmeg trees, and by now, the Dutch men were tired of handing out punishments. So, they asked an old native, “Why did you disobey us and plant these trees here?” And the venerable old man replied, “We did not plant them, sir. Birds eat the nutmeg fruit and fly over these islands. And where their droppings fall, new plants grow.” So much confusion and pain, all because of bird droppings!

This peppery tale has an international take. It was a spice over which countries fought and killed, kingdoms tottered and empires were built. And many made their millions with it too!

In the pre-refrigeration days, the Europeans had to preserve meat and the only way to do so was to dredge it in salt. But when this meat was cooked, it was way too salty to eat. Something had to be added to it to improve its flavour, and pepper was the best thing they could use. Chilli was not really an alternative, for it was too fiery for the European palate. So pepper became a necessity to the Europeans.

It was the Portuguese who first came to India for pepper. And they did take a lot of it! At one point, they became a little greedy and hiked the price of pepper by a very small amount, something like three pence a pound. You see, pepper was so expensive and precious those days that it was sold by the corn. Not everyone could afford it; it was reserved only for those with heavy wallets.

The price rise did nothing to make the British happy. They decided to come to India and take pepper by themselves, and so the East India Company was formed, and the rest is history. Of course, this is only one angle to the colonization story, but doubtless, a spicy angle. After independence, India is the biggest player in the world pepper market. The finest Indian pepper is grown in the monsoon forests of the Malabar Coast in Kerala. Each house in Kerala grows pepper creepers, trailing up their coconut palms and jackfruit trees. All extras are sold to pepper cooperatives which play the world market.

Our tangy tale involves – no, not tomato ketchup, but our very own tamarind, without which no South Indian meal is complete. What is South India without sambar and rasam, both of which are tamarind based? Drive down any highway and you will invariably see that it is bordered by tamarind trees. Stories abound of tamarind trees harbouring ghosts and most villages have one or two of these trees to give it the necessary shade, and the necessary goose bumps!! At the end of all this, one could be forgiven for thinking that the tamarind was a local tree. Far from it actually. The tree itself is of African origin, and the name came from the Arabic “Tamar Hindi”, which means Indian date, from the date-like appearance of the dried pulp. Born in Africa, named in Arabia and eaten in India —- globalization indeed.

Our smelly tale involves — asafetida. An essential ingredient in Indian food, a spice with medicinal properties – asafetida is all this and more. It literally means ‘stinking gum’, but a pinch of it can work wonders for the food. No rasam is a rasam without asafetida. Much as the Indians liked it, the British had the last word. They called it ‘Devils Dung’, perhaps because of its obnoxious smell. One man’s flavouring, another man’s olfactory assault?

Spices, as you can see, have gone places indeed. The poem may say “Sugar and spice, and all things nice……..” but spices do have a long history behind them and not all of it is nice. There is no denying their need in the culinary field, and indeed, food would be so bland and colourless without them. What is gravy without the rich yellow glow of turmeric, or a pullav without the red strands of saffron? Viva spices.

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