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 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 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 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.