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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Posted in Traditions

Chennai’s Wonder-wear -The Saree

“While in Rome, do what the Romans do.” And when in Chennai, you cannot go wrong with a saree. Look around you and the ubiquitous saree is everywhere, carried with elan by women of all ages and hues. If you were to look for a place that would be a testimony to the resilience of this garment, Chennai would be at the forefront.

The young and the old sport it, each in their own style. The older women wear it with the nonchalance of long practice and the younger mince along in this attire they are experimenting with, giving it new twists and avataars that their fertile minds conjure up. But neither gives up on the saree. From boardrooms to treadmills to operation theatres, most Indian women wear it with Panache and find no discomfort in the process.

Ranging in length from six yards on to as much as ten yards, the fabric goes on a woman’s body, and stays in place without a stitch to hold things together. Perhaps this was why a top designer, when asked how the saree stayed in place, replied with a mischievous grin: “Meditation and sheer will power.” It does seem a mystery to the uninitiated, but to those in the know, a saree is comfortable attire, and one that whispers elegance and ethnicity.

And if you thought a garment couldn’t get any simpler, think again. There are over 20 commonly practiced ways of draping the saree. Depending on which region or community you belong to, you will drape your saree differently. And walk into a saree shop and you will first be hit by the sheer variety, that is even before you get down to the colours and the motifs.

Perhaps the best place to see all about sarees is in a wedding hall. Kanchipurams rule the roost, of course, and there can be no missing the quick assessing glances that go around the hall. Truly, a saree is a symbol, and each has many stories to tell. For instance, walk down the roads of Chennai, and the saree cognoscenti will tell you which nine yard clad lady is an Iyengar and which is an Iyer. Identifying Mangalagiris, Narayanpets and Pochampallis can be done with one hand tied behind the back, and the style of wearing is a dead give-away of your caste. Borders speak volumes. Large gold borders indicate rich upper class wearers, and a mango or peacock motif on the border is meant for a younger wearer. White has a lot of negative connotations in the South, and dark colours, specifically rich reds and maroons are considered auspicious. Black to some is inauspicious, and to some is very auspicious.

The origins of a saree go back far into the past, but this length of material seemed to have a way of adapting to changing circumstances and to every kind of material that was in fashion – cotton, silk, jute and a variety of synthetics. Innovations in weaving and printing techniques have given the saree a whole new vocabulary, but there are still dozens of places where the saree creating technique is the same as was done a couple of hundred years ago.

There is this fascinating story of the Kodali Karuppur saree. There is only one of its kind in India now. Apparently, it was woven for the Mahratta royalty in Tanjore and used techniques of weaving, painting and printing – all in one saree. So special were these sarees to the Mahratta kings of Tanjore that they stored it in the palaces and gave it as gifts to those who pleased them, and nobody else got to wear them.

And then there are the glorious Paithani sarees of Maharashtra. Woven of lustrous silk with rich jari borders, there is a romantic story attached to these sarees. Since the saree was so opulent, only kings and royalty could afford to wear it. The story goes that there were special families who alone had the right to grow their nails long and slit it lengthwise into thin sections, rather like a comb with very fine teeth. Gold from the royal treasure would be beaten into fine sheets, and these special people would run their nails through it, cutting the gold into thin wires, which would then be woven into the silks. Such families do not exist now, but the sarees are still available, and many of them are heirlooms, so sumptuous are they.

The Gharchola of Gujarati wedding fame is a red silken saree, with a checked pattern on it and each box has traditional motifs woven into it –mango, elephant, swastika, kalash or parrots. A person in the know would only need to look at the pallu of a traditional Kancheepuram to authenticate it – the pallu is woven separately and attached and the line is visible. So too would a Bengali be able to identify a handwoven Tangail – the interlocking design at the pallu being a dead give-away. There are Lucknavi sarees in cotton and silk, exquisitely embroidered, and all done by hand. There is the Gadhwal, a cotton saree with a silk border, woven separately and attached together. And there is the Bandhani, dotted to glory, each dot a work of intense labour. A simple bandhani can stop at a meager 2000 to 5000 knots, while a truly inspired bandhani can go up to three lakhs of dots. And if you remember that each dot is the result of the cloth being hand tied into a small packet, tightly, and then dyed, the saree transcends into the level of art. At the other end of the spectrum is the Kerala Kasavu, an off white and gold affair, exquisite in its simplicity.

Sarees are constantly reinventing themselves and quirks in them come and go, while classics stay on for ever. If one saree shop in Chennai came up with a saree that had over fifty thousand colours on it in a mass of psychedelic checks. another came up with a built in cell phone pouch, in matching or toning shades. And recently, one shop has come up with a saree which has a quotation woven into it! Despite predictions of dying an unsung death, the saree continues to flourish in Chennai,

Did we say you cannot go wrong with a saree in Chennai? Well that is oversimplifying things a bit. To get it perfectly right, takes years of persistent effort. No, we are referring to the art of weaving sarees, we are only talking about picking the right saree for the right occasion. But we say once again, when in Chennai, go for the saree. Just pick a colour that pleases your eye, a material that feels comfortable, and a budget that suits your pocket, and you are ready to go!

Posted in Festivals, Food, Traditions

Sundal and suchlike

We’ve just seen the end of one festival. Kolu padis are being dismantled, dolls are getting packed away, fancy lights disconnected and friends and relatives will again be relegated to the background of busy daily life. The city is limping back to reality after a surfeit of sundal and holidays. Good food, renewed ties among the family and friends, and a time to thank a higher power – such is the spirit of Navaratri.

But ever asked yourself, why Navaratri and why a kolu?

Some believe that this festival commemorates the battle between Goddess Durga and the demon Mahishasura. Mahishasura had somehow managed to get himself a boon; that he would be killed by no one. Not man, not God, not demon. And with that, he marched straight into heaven and threatened the Gods. The canny Gods did some quick thinking and found a loophole. The boon didn’t say any thing about not being killed by a woman!

So they created Goddess Durga, gave her their most powerful weapons and sent her off to kill the ruthless Demon. A terrible combat broke out and continued for nine long days. Finally, on the tenth day, Durga pinned Mahishasura down with her foot and cut off his head with her sword.

And today, this is celebrated all over the country in one way or another. Here in South India, this battle is recalled every year during the Navaratri. The Goddess comes down to fight and the Gods too come to Earth to cheer her on. And almost every house sets up an elaborate kolu, arranging colourful idols of Gods on each step, making sure they get a nice ringside seat in the battle.

Kolus have come a long way. They still tell stories, but not just of Gods and goddesses. They unabashedly show off the family’s travels, hint at their political affiliations, and end up being a commentary on everything from their financial status to their child’s latest class project. So sitting quietly in the midst of all the Gods, you may very well spot Thomas the train or the Incredible Hulk.

You will invariably spot a pair of crudely finished but beautifully decked up wooden dolls in a corner of the kolu. They are called the Marapachis. These were said to be gifts given by a girl’s father to his daughter, who, at the time of her marriage would typically have been a child herself. Today, many households take pride in the Marapachi as an heirloom.

And what about Sundal? Why should this simple delicacy be so closely associated with Navaratri? Most customs begin with a very simple story. And one such story swears that sundal was offered to appease the Navagrahas or the nine planets, each of whom has a taste for a particular variety of grain. And it is these grains that were used in preparing the offering. One could prepare any dish using the grains -vada, payasam, puttu, chikki, murukku… However, ten days is a long time to sustain elaborate cooking. Perhaps that’s how the humble sundal came to stay? Easy to make, easy on the pocket and easy to pack as a give away?

Come Ayudha Pooja, and it is difficult to miss the sandal paste adorning office equipment and machinery. Cars, autos and trucks are ‘dressed’ in their finest and do the rounds of the city, horns blaring. It’s a moot point if it started this way. One story says that the Pandavas retrieved their weapons, so long hidden on a treetop, and worshipped them before moving on. Another says that Goddess Durga fervently prayed to the weapons which came in so handy in her battle against the demon. In today’s context, weapons have given way to the tools that help people in their daily lives. So everything, from the dosa grinder to the gaming console gets smeared with a dollop of sandal paste.

But like every other Indian festival, this one too means different things to people living in different parts of the country. In the North, Dusshera is a festival celebrating the victory of Lord Rama over Ravana. Ravana is the villain in this story and paid the price for abducting Rama’s wife. Elsewhere, in the Bastar district, it is Ravana who is the hero. He is, they claim, every bit as wise, versatile and capable as Rama. Moreover, he was a great devotee of Shiva and was loved by the people he ruled. So in Bastar, they celebrate Ravana. In Bengal, people celebrate the Goddess’ victory over Mahishasura. Many look upon her as the daughter who has returned to her father’s house for some rest and relaxation. When it is time for her to go back, on the day of the visarjan, everyone turns out to bid farewell to her, and there is a palpable air of sorrow and loss over the place. On the other hand, in Gujarat, they dance their way through the Navratri. It’s the time when you can spot men and women wearing their finest and boogying away to pulsating music.

Different names, different styles, different stories, even different Gods! Only the holidays coincide. Whichever story you subscribe to, and however you celebrate it, this festival marks the victory of good over evil. So …Viva Navaratri!

Posted in Festivals

Tales of Diwali and Deepavali

The last of the crackers have been burst. The haze is beginning to lift, and the noise levels are considerably lower compared to the previous week. And as you pack those decorative lights and the fancy ‘diyas’ away for re-use next year, you might just wonder why these elements have come to be so closely associated with this festival. Why do you burst crackers during Diwali at all?

Diwali, like many other Indian festivals, also has a pan-India following. But Diwali to some and Deepawali to others, the festival is celebrated for very different reasons in different parts of the country, and on different dates too.

In Northern India, it is believed that it was on this new moon day of the Kartika month, that Lord Ram returned to Ayodhya after vanquishing Ravana. The citizens of Ayodhya decorated the entire city with the earthen lamps and illuminated it like never before. This symbolic practice continues in houses all over India. And noisy firecrackers are just the best way of letting the world know that you are celebrating.

One view says that since Lord Ram traveled from South India to his kingdom in the North, the festival is celebrated a day earlier in the South.

Other legends ascribe an entirely different reason for the celebration of the festival in the south. Celebrated as ‘Naraka Chaturdasi’ one day before the Diwali in the North, the festival commemorates the killing of the demon Narakasura, by Sathyabhama, Lord krishna’s wife. So while the Diwali celebrations for North Indians essentially start in the evening, people of Tamil Nadu celebrate the festival early in the morning. Small lamps are lit all around the house and after a special puja for Lord Krishna or Lord Vishnu, children burst firecrackers, celebrating the defeat of the demon.

But why the early hour, you might ask. Some believe that the demon was killed in the morning, while others believe it falls in line with the practice of that period of the day before sunrise (called the Brahma Muhurtham) as being considered the most auspicious.

The concept of Good and bad, is always relative and contextual, especially so when it comes to myths and legends. As you move from one end of the country to another, the roles of the hero, villain, and the anti-hero in these legends often get seen in different lights.

Take the interesting Diwali legend of King Bali.Though known to be an extremely just and righteous ruler, he was of a demonic lineage and therefore, had to be slayed. Lord Vishnu did the deed in his incarnation as the dwarf, ‘Vamana’, the day after Diwali, now celebrated as ‘Balipadyami’

However, Bali was a popular king, and according to legend, he visits his beloved people at least once a year, during the Onam festival. People in his kingdom of Kerala celebrate this festival by decorating their homes to welcome him. So while one part of the country celebrates the slaying of the demon Mahabali during this period, another celebrates his return.

Gambling is another custom that most North Indian homes enthusiastically take part in, during Diwali. It is believed that goddess Parvati played dice with her husband, Lord Shiva on this day and it is hence believed that whosoever gambles on Diwali night would prosper throughout the year. So invite your friends home, and engage in some flush and rummy, and you could give it some legitimacy by claiming to be partaking in Diwali rituals!

Many North Indian business communities start their financial year on the day after Diwali. It is believed that Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth emerged from the ocean of milk on this day and merchants symbolically open new account books on Diwali. Tamil New year falls on a different day that is in no way linked to Diwali. Solar, Lunar, Luni-solar calendars – all have a following in different parts of India, making the same day auspicious or extremely inauspicious depending on which state you are in. But then that is another story…

Diwali may actually be many different festivals being celebrated under the same banner. Contradicting stories, different customs and different days –  the strength of our society’s fabric must surely have something to do with our comfort levels with such diversity. As long as they all celebrate the victory of good over evil, and bring in some festive cheer, each to his own, and we seem happy to leave it at that…

Posted in Great Places, Religion

A Story to die for …

By Vaishna Roy

I was in Tranquebar a few weeks ago. Incidentally, Tranquebar, the site of an old Danish fort, is a story in itself. And deserves its own post. But let me first tell you this quaint story.

A few kilometres from Tranquebar, I noticed great big hotels in the middle of what seemed like nothing more than a village. Curious, I checked with the cab driver, who told me that the place was called Tirukkadaiyur and that it had a temple where couples celebrated their shashtiapthapoorthi (a spouse’s 60th birthday) or sadabhishekam (80th birthday). That’s all he seemed to know.

So, I poked around a bit and found the sweetest story ever.

Once upon a time, many many eons ago, when the gods roamed between heaven and earth freely, making occasional forays into hell as well, there was a holy sage who did not have any children. He prayed to Shiva long and hard, and Shiva obligingly appeared before him. (As he markedly does not these days). He agreed to grant the sage an offspring but, as was the wont of gods those days, he made things a tad difficult. He asked the sage to choose between a son who would live a long and healthy life but would be a bit of an ass. Or a smart, intelligent boy who would live only till the age of 16.

The sage, having little patience for fools, chose the latter and accordingly Markandeya was born to him. The boy was perfect in all ways. He grew up an ardent devotee of Shiva, and worshipped the lingam devotedly.

The day Markandaya turned 16, Yama, the god of death, duly came calling but the boy ran away. He ran hard and fast to the Shiva lingam and threw himself around it. Hugging it hard, he refused to go away quietly with Yama. The disgusted Yama threw his noose around the boy, but it obviously landed around the lingam as well. Now, it was Shiva’s turn to be furious. He emerged out of the lingam and kicked Yama with his left foot, trapping him under and refused to let go.

The defeat of death itself caused utter chaos in the cosmos. There cannot be life without death! Ultimately, after much worship and placation, Shiva agreed to let Yama go, provided he allowed Markandeya eternal life. The deal was duly signed.

The temple at Tirukkadaiyur celebrates this myth, and has a lingam that reportedly has the marks of a noose around it. And because it is the place where Death was temporarily defeated, it is the temple where people go to celebrate their 60th and 80th birthdays. As a thanksgiving for their longevity.

If I had known the story then, I would have made the detour to visit the temple. Unfortunately, I drove past in a hurry. Well, no matter. Tranquebar is always worth another visit, especially now that Neemrana has this gorgeous heritage resort there. And next time, I have the added attraction of this 11th century Chola temple at Tirukkadaiyur to draw me there.

Note: Tranquebar is 279 km south of Chennai, about a six-hour drive down a very pleasant NH45A. You reach this temple town just about 10 minutes short of Tranquebar.

Posted in Great Places


By Vaishna Roy

Once upon a time, a few kilometers away from modern Chennai, was a prosperous weavers’ settlement called Rajanarayanan Pattinam, named after a Sambuvarayar chieftain who ruled the area. The Vijayanagara empire called it Sadiravasagan Pattinam (a reference to the local deity). People began to refer to it as Sadurangapattinam, and then Sadirai. And then the English came, with their penchant and need for anglicizing Indian names and lives, called it Sadras. For the past 200 years the name has remained unchanged, but few Indians know of Sadras or it’s fort.

The Sadras fort is not a tourist attraction. It is not mentioned in the ‘Must-See-in-Tamil Nadu’ lists. Families don’t go there to picnic. College students don’t go there to discuss the meaning of life. Lovers don’t go there to be alone. Poets don’t go there for inspiration. And I can’t imagine why. In my experience, it’s an excellent place to spend a vacant afternoon. I shall elucidate why.

One can’t call reaching this fort an adventure (like the forts of Sivaji that almost always demand an uphill trek) but getting inside it isn’t as simple as it could be. This ASI-protected monument has no watchman. Or rather he was missing in action the weekend my friends and I decided to visit the fort. He’d been gone for a few days now as the nearby shop-owners revealed (someone attributed his absence to an extended drinking session in near-by Pondicherry), and when the oblivious police next door to the fort was consulted, they said he must have gone home for lunch, and that it wasn’t locked anyway (it was a Saturday, and the fort is supposed to be shut on Mondays only) and that we could enter. But it was locked.

But we were young… Strong of body and agile of limb, light of heart and sharp of mind… so bravely, we went forth – to break into the fort.

We soon found out we didn’t need to be young or strong or agile or light to enter. But being ‘sharp’, one of us noticed that the barbed wire had been cut a few feet left of the first big gate. So we had now entered the restricted area of cow excreta and weeds. There was another gate now (flanked by two not-so-splendid cannons), much easier to scale (even for a 5 footer like me), but being ‘agile of limb’ (and over-zealous in our exploits) we decided to find a way to get in, the proper ‘intruder’ way.
And immediately failed miserably. Not even the tallest and most athletic amongst us could scale the lowest aberration (holes) we found in the moss-ridden fort wall. But do the young and restless ever give up?! No sir, they do not, sir! So with an “AAOOGAA” (war cry) onwards we marched.

We went round the fort, braving the warm sea breeze, resisting the incredible temptation of the inviting waves (within splashing distance), and skipping over more excreta, and we found another ‘aberration’. Nature must have been on our side in this battle because although this one was high as well, there were also sorts of wide-apart and irregular rock-steps that we managed to stretch and use as foothold. The ambush had begun and one-by-one, we trooped silently into enemy territory (albeit abandoned).

And what a territory it is. My first thought was that it would be an excellent place to throw a party! Nobody else seems to like it anyway; it would be an incredible spot for a theme party – you could have a Spook Fest at night or a Battleground Bash by day! Seriously though, it’s massive and can truly feed your imagination, but as a fort, it’s not really spectacular. But there’s something impressive about the huge empty granary and eerie chambers with shafts of light boldly gate-crashing the slightly damp atmosphere; the stables with ghosts of their former occupants mingling with the salty breeze; the corridors leading to secret underground passages where many a plot has probably been hatched; the cemetery and the stone inscriptions leaving you to imagine the valiant lives of those that died protecting the fort… Well, it’s history may not actually be that romantic. The fort was a weavers’ settlement, inherited from the Carnatic rulers by Dutch traders who manufactured and exported muslin from here around 400 years ago. In 1818, the British pooped the party and took over the fort, and razed it. What remains is in ruins, but there’s such a quality about ruins that makes them so irresistible to story-hunters. Especially since the Archaeological Survey of India has recently found some ‘treasure’ underneath the rubble.

The ASI’s excavations have uncovered some exciting stuff like some bluish-green bottles… intact! They also found smoking pipes made in Holland, Chinese porcelain, some stone tiles and coins belonging to the East India Company. Who knows what a visit to the Sadras fort can lead to? Especially for children.
There’s a lovely tamarind tree and nobody to stop you from feasting on it. There are some stone benches around the same area, near the entrance, incase you want to rest your feet while the more ‘agile of limb’ discover the many delights of the medieval elephant mount (my personal favourite part of the complex) If only the ASI could see the magic like we could!

Nevertheless, the Sadras fort and it’s varied charms give tourists, as well as locals of Tamil Nadu, a place to truly get away – into a place and time left to your imagination; where only you can see, with your mind’s eye, the lives of people that once dwelt the ground you walk on; and who are eternally bound to this foreign land, 6 feet under the tempting tamarinds.

PS: After Sadras:
Once you’re done with exploring the fort, you should hop across the road on to the beach for a quick hello in response to the ocean’s inviting waves. I insist. It’s a great way to cool off and it’s quality time with nature’s incredible power to lighten your shoulders. I highly recommend getting completely drenched; and also holding any children, that may accompany you, really tight!

If you have some more time, do make a quick trip to nearby Mahabalipuram and it’s famous (and much better preserved) Pallavan architecture. I recommend Moonrakers or any of the other restaurants in Mahabalipuram for lunch because there isn’t much cooked food to eat near Sadras, although you can buy packaged snacks near the fort.

PPS: How to get to Sadras
Sadras is inside the town of Kalpakkam, on East Coast Road, 16 kms from Mahabalipuram, 70 kms south of Chennai.
Nearest Airport: Chennai
Nearest Rail Hub: Chennai


Posted in Festivals

Sundal and sundry matters

Photo: Jayanth Visweswaran (
Photo: Jayanth Visweswaran (

Cool mornings, balmy evenings and the fragrance of parijaatham in the air – This last month was a festive time in namma Chennai. The dolls were out, golu padis (steps)were fixed up, silk sarees were aired out and recipe books consulted for sundal. The city wore an air of expectancy and there was a feel of unrestrained joy- such is the spirit of Navaratri.

But have you ever asked yourself, why a golu?  Why all this for this particular festival?

Well, every family seems to have their own reasons for keeping a golu. Many say it is to celebrate the fight of the Goddess Durga against the demon Mahishasura. But again, the question arises, why keep a golu? Apparently, this fight was very important because Mahishasura was a great warrior and there was a feeling that Goddess Durga may have met her match. So the Gods united to give the goddess their most potent weapons and she is said to have carried them with her to battle. All of them came down to Earth to witness this great battle. This is symbolically represented by the people of Tamil Nadu by keeping a golu wherein all Gods are present. Again, this agrees with the way a golu is organised, with the gods on the on the topmost padi (step), followed by the ten avatars of Vishnu, the spiritual heads, then the temporal heads and finally common people.

Have you paid attention to the wooden, distinctly ugly Marapacchi dolls in a corner? Earlier made of Red Sanders, these wooden dolls come from Tirupati, and always in a pair. It was a gift given by a girl’s father to their daughter, who, at the time of marriage would have been a child herself. Perhaps in those days, when there were no cameras to click the occasion, a doll dressed in all finery would have been a good memory of the most important day in the bride’s life. Further, the wood was said to have medical properties, and was ground into a paste and used. Today, it stands as a keepsake and many households take pride in the Marapacchi as an heirloom.

And what about Sundal? Why should this simple delicacy be so closely associated with this period of the year? Most customs stem from a simple story and grow over the years into some pretty heavy stuff. One theory postulates that sundal was offered to appease the Navagrahas ( celestial star spirits), who are associated with nine varieties of grains. These grains were used in preparing the offering, and one could prepare any dish using the grains –vadas, kheer, puttu, chikki, murukku… However, ten days is a long time to sustain exotic food and so the humble sundal came to stay. Easy to make, easy on the pocket, fairly light on the stomach and easy to pack as a giveaway – all of these could have contributed to ensure that the humble sundal came to stay.

The Ayudha Pooja, now means sandal paste in new designs adorning all appliances and cars, autos and trucks “dressed” in their best and making the rounds of the city, horns blaring. It’s a moot point if it had started this way. One legend says that it was the time when the Pandavas retrieved their weapons, so long hidden on a treetop, and worshipped them before moving on. Another says that Goddess Durga prayed to the weapons she had gotten from the Gods after she had killed the demon, and so the practice began.

Navratri is celebrated very differently across India and for different reasons too. For a Tamilian, more than anything else, it symbolizes the victory of good over evil or new beginnings on Saraswati Pooja day, including education and fine arts. In the north India, Dussehra is a festival celebrating the victory of Lord Rama over Ravana. Ravana is the villain of this version and paid the price for abducting Rama’s wife. Elsewhere, in places like the Bastar district, it is Ravana who is the hero. He is, they claim, every bit as learned, versatile and capable as Rama. Moreover, he was a great devotee of Shiva and was loved by the people he ruled. So in Bastar, they celebrate Ravana. In Bengal, during Dussehra, people celebrate the Goddess killing Mahishasura. Many also look upon her as the daughter who has returned to her father’s house for some rest and relaxation. When she leaves to go back to her husband, Shiva’s home, the whole city turns out to bid farewell and after her departure, there is a palpable air of sorrow and loss over the place.

Photo: Hamsini Hariharan
Photo: Hamsini Hariharan

Most of these stories do converge, but the emphasis on particular stories varies across the country. Different styles, different reasons, whatever, let’s celebrate the differences and celebrate the festival. Viva Navaratri!