Category Archives: Gods and religions

ATTUKAL PONGALA, PALM LANDS AND JOHN MARY

Pongala in progress

A sea of women returning from Pongala

ALL IN GOOD FAITH

I first met John Mary in the mid nineties, when he was the Chief News Editor at New Indian Express,Trivandrum. I remember him as a bearded, cheerful and peaceful man living with his children and charming Brahmin wife, not far away from his office near Sasthamangalam. Indeed, he and his wife have gracefully played hosts on many weekends to our motley bunch of friends. The food was generous and the ambience lovely. We shared a potpourri of friends including writers, journalists, movie technicians, doctors, builders, photographers, pensioners, assorted adventurers and career drinkers.

Those days, other than the now extinct Country Club, our favourite hunting ground was a quaint, crumbling old place called Palm Lands, a stone’s throw away from the Government Secretariat. There were about twenty five private rooms with attached baths, all occupied by individuals on the way up, stagnant or washed out, as one may see it. There were also some refugees, as in all cities, who needed a temporary camp before launching their next pursuits. Whole families of toddy cats lived above the wooden ceilings, coming out to play in the trees on full moon nights. Yes, Palm Lands had its Sharks, Sheikhs and Good Samaritans.

Palm Lands comprised of a group of century old, single storied tiled buildings. There were long verandas and big windows with folding wooden shutters, typical of colonial Kerala architecture. The grounds were large, with parking area, palm trees, an ancient mango tree and a particularly large almond tree. The courtyard was almost always littered with fallen leaves and twigs broken off by the wind. Dusty cars and bikes were parked carelessly. An old woman of dubious past came from the notorious nearby slum and swept the courtyard and verandas when it suited her. She would also buy us cigarettes and bottled soda for small considerations. Palm Lands was indeed prime nostalgia material. During its heydays Palm Lands was the residence of people’s representatives belonging to Sree Moolam Praja Sabha, an ineffective flatterers’ assembly put together by the King of Travancore.

Coming back to John Mary, my friend with whom I have never had a cross word, he used to visit Palm Lands most Sundays, when the gang gathered to discuss anything from movies and literature to legalisation of prostitution and accepting gay people into mainstream life. We had a couple of retired army officers in our fold and the window sills would be lined with rum bottles. Brand names like Hercules, Contessa, Buccaneer, Old Monk, Christian Brothers, Old Port, Negro, Black Panther and Celebration mixed freely with water, soda and on special occasions, tender coconut water. (Believe me, there is no greater soothing mixer in the world than the last mentioned, lending palatability and respectability to the harshest paint remover ever imbibed by man).

John was a very soft spoken person and was very up to date with happenings around the world. Driving up in his new Maruti Suzuki, which few of us could dream of owning, he usually came with a container of delicious home cooked food and a bottle of ‘good something’ that the rest of us wouldn’t waste our money on. When we ran out of essential supplies, he would be the first volunteer to jump behind my dated, noisy Enfield and venture out for replenishments. It was a great pleasure to be with him, because he was not your standard paparazzi, freeloading and fouling up everything in range.

As one gets older, the bush that you beat around becomes more elaborate and denser. Right now, mine is as big as a medium sized tiger sanctuary, and of course, as is the general rule, without any tigers. This miserably wet, cold English morning, I am brought to remember John again after more than a decade. My good friend Najeeb Arcadia has forwarded me a link on Attukal Pongaala. The article dated 02/03/2010 is published on the BBC News site and is authored by a certain John Mary. Coming from Trivandrum, it can not be anyone other than my long lost friend. I also assume that there is no other John Mary in south India whose article will be accepted by BBC.

The BBC Article

Being an original native of Trivandrum, I can claim that I have more than a rough idea of the Attukal Pongala festival. Going through John Mary’s article, I wish to elaborate on the following points.

The Hindu deities and schools of worship can be more or less classified as Vaishnavite, Shaivite and Shaktheya, being respectively based on Vishnu, Shiva and Shakthi. The last mentioned, is feminine and is the material representation of all universal power. Shakthi in several different forms is symbolized in all Hindu schools of faith, whether Vaishnavite or Shivaite. She is Saraswathi, Lakshmi, Parvathi, Maha Kaali, Ganga and Kannaki of the Tamil legend (in her later spiritual form). ‘Bhagavan’ and ‘Bhagavathi’ broadly represents male and female forms of Hindu divinity. In short, any male deity can be addressed as Bhagavan and any female deity can be Bhagavathi. The deity at Attukal temple is widely believed to be a manifestation of Kannaki. Tantrik rites practiced at a particular temple determine the particular manifestation (or form or ‘bhava’) of the Bhagavathi enshrined therein. The statement in the article that Attukal Bhagavathi is an incarnation of Saraswathy and Kali needs to be examined. These two forms stand farthest apart in the manifestations of Shakthi. Shakthi in plain translation comes out as power. (Here I am not ignoring the Bengali concept of Kali also being the God of Knowledge, the story of Kalidasa etc. But Attukal is nearer to Adi Shankara and too far south. The rites of worship at Attukal, as far as I know, are of a ‘satwika bhava’, suitable for a calmer deity).

The article states that the women devotees ‘howl shrilly’ at the culmination of this religious event. I find the same an unfortunate choice of words. One howls in pain and anger. Howling is also associated with dogs and wolves. The peculiar sound made by women devotees is a form of yodelling. In south Indian Hindu tradition, it is an auspicious vocalisation associated with temples, weddings, births of babies and the crowning of kings. It is definitely not howling. In vernacular, this rather high pitched call is known as ‘kurava’ and can be heard a long distance away, which may well be the purpose.

Pongala is not a meal. It best describes the moment when the cooked rice and jaggery boil over the brim of the cooking pot. The offering may also include other sweet concoctions and rice cakes.

As John Mary mentions, Pongala was indeed not as elaborate thirty ago. It was mostly the domain of the working class women of old. (Read labour class. Fifty years ago not even 1% of educated women from middle and upper class families worked). But today, one will find the rich and poor, young and old, natives and pilgrims from far away at Attukal. You will need them all to make up three million women on a single day in a single town at the same temple. The Guinness Book of Records vouches for the fact.

In the past, most paddy farming communities had their harvest deities. These deities were briefly enshrined and worshipped in temporary temples called ‘Mudippuras’. When not worshipped, for the rest of the year, the deities were kept safely in the landlords’ matriarchal houses. It is judged that long ago, Attukal deity too was a Mudippura goddess. When the growing cities swallowed up all the paddy fields, the harvest festivals came to an end. Some affluent households made permanent temples for these family deities as a mark of respect and to preserve the traditions. The Mudippura temple at Jagathy, Trivandrum is another classic example.

Notes:

In this little write up here, I am not attempting to correct a respected and senior journalist like John Mary. All I want is to add a couple of notes of my own. One may read John’s  original material at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/8544038.stm

I haven’t seen or heard from John in twelve years or so and would love to hear from him. I hope he is doing well at what he does best.

My maternal grand father’s elder brother, a certain Mr Sthanu Pillai, from a small township called Neyyattinkara in the outskirts of Trivandrum was the House Manager at Palm Lands during its glory days as the residence of the King’s ‘sycophant parliamentarians’.

All the last occupants were thrown out and Palm Lands was demolished about seven or eight years ago. I can not blame the real owners of the property for doing so, because it was a pot of gold from the point of view of real estate developers. But while it lasted it was one of the last bastions of free thinkers and loving friends in an otherwise uncaring city. Today, it is truly prime nostalgia material for a few dozens like me.

The official website of Attukal Temple is http://www.attukal.org/

I have heard some weird pronunciations for Attukal Pongala. It is best read as ‘Aattukaal Ponkaala’.

Picture courtesy, www.keralakaumudi.com

Any suggestions for additions or corrections to this post are welcome. Cheers.

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GODDESS KALI IN STILETTOS

Come Kali, Klum Heidi

Come Kali, Klum Heidi

 

Come Kali, Klum Heidi

It was a little after five o’clock, Monday morning, on the third of November, 2008. London was cold and a sharp autumn wind was blowing. I was waiting for an early train with a paper cup of coffee and a free Metro Newspaper picked up from the kiosk. Balancing the coffee mug on a handrail, I was trying to flip through the paper with the wind trying to snatch it away from me. A photo with a brief note on page 12 caught my attention.

 

The picture showed a woman dressed up as the Hindu goddess Kali, complete with wild hair, blue body paint, costume jewellery, an oriental crown, plastic skulls tied around the waist and to top it all, wearing golden stilettos. She was shown as carrying the traditional weapons and also the customary severed head in one of her eight hands. The write-up next to the picture informed me that there was a Halloween party in New York and that the person dressed up as Kali is the German supermodel Heidi Klum.

 

On Heidi Klum: The web info on Heidi Klum says that she is tall, blond and all of thirty five years old. She married twice, once to hair dresser Ric Pipino and currently to the Nigerian soul singer Sealhenry Olusegun Kwassi Olumide Adelo Samuel, better known as Seal. Other than appearing on the covers of magazines like ELLE and Vogue, Heidi has modelled for Jordache, Volkswagen and the sexy lingerie brand Victoria’s Secrets. Though not known for her acting skills, she has appeared in quite a few TV shows and also done some cameos in movies. Rather than the content between her ears her vital statistics has earned her a comfortable living. To have a better idea of her priorities, she once famousely told Oprah Winfrey that she was first attracted to her second husband after seeing the impressive bulge in his bicycle shorts (Oprah Winfrey Show, 25th October, 2007). 

 

About Metro, Britain’s Urban Newspaper: Metro calls itself a publishing phenomenon. First published in 1999, Metro greets 1.3 million commuters every morning across the UK in cities like Bath, Birmingham, Brighton, Bristol, Cardiff, Derby, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Nottingham, Newcastle and Sheffield. Because of its immense exposure, Metro must be capable of demanding good advertising revenue and hence, its copies are distributed free. If literate and visually unimpaired, there is no way a commuter can avoid the Metro each morning. So it would be safe to say that about a million people saw the blonde bimbo dressed as Goddess Kali. I confess that I am a Metro addict myself and even make it a point to get the issues that I miss on my off days.

 

A little about Kali herself: She takes her name from the Sanskrit root word Kaal, meaning ‘time’, which takes away ego from all living souls. She is the goddess that brings death to man’s empty ego, prompting him to think of his being as something that is well beyond his mortal body. Despite her fearsome form, she is also the most compassionate of the different forms of the Mother Goddess. A slayer of demons, both real and spiritual, she is also known as ‘Bhayam-kari’, or the one who causes fear (to the evil). She is perceived as the daughter of Lord Siva, created from his immense righteous anger. Millions and millions of Hindus around the world worship her as their Mother Goddess.

 

Klum and Kali: It is no surprise that the flippant Fraulein Klum saw Kali as prime scary material for her Halloween dress-up. Her mind might still have been working at the same levels of reasoning that she used in finding her second husband. The Hindus of UK and Europe being generally a peaceful lot, they must have let the matter ride. Had Kali been an icon of one of the less tolerant religions, Fraulein Klum would indeed have looked very blue, without help from the paintwork.

 

All said and nothing done, I would advise her to tread with a level of caution, the next time she chances to visit the vast sub-continent. It is quite surprising that firebrand Hindu organisations like Bajrang Dal and Shiv Sena have not noticed her antics yet. She may end up getting more scared than her Halloween guests. To begin with, Heidi could come out with a simple apology, though the damage has been done for good.

 

Note: Recently, Dilip Singh Rana, the giant Indian wrestler was in the news. Over seven feet tall, this former labourer, policeman and power lifter is now signed on by WWE, a show wrestling organisation. Interestingly, this man fights under the name “The Great Khali”. ‘Khali’, in Hindi and most related languages means ‘finish, close, terminate, empty’ etc. So, his ring name can be roughly translated as ‘The Great Finisher or perhaps Terminator’. Of late, his publicity desk hinted that his name derives from Goddess Kali, for her destructive powers. I doubt if the brave Singh is willing to tell that to an audience in India. It might indeed be ‘Khali’ for the big Punjabi.

The Bomb in Kabul

 

As the week began, a car laden with explosives was driven into the Indian Embassy in Kabul. Now, almost two days later, most governments and the UN has condemned the attack. The investigating agencies have so far cleared The Divorced Women’s Association of Mumbai, The Bee Watcher’s Council, Save Street Dogs Forum, Greater Mexican Flamenco Troup and a few other similar bodies from the suspects’ list. Curiously, where no one has come forward claiming responsibility, the Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gillani was quick to deny any involvement of his country, though most of the Taliban and Al Qaeda warlords are on working holidays in Pakistan’s North West. It is common knowledge that while the ordinary Pak soldier is trying to shoo them away to keep the US happy, ISI, the Pakistani secret service is leaking the army moves to the terrorists well in advance.

 

Prominently figuring among the list of organisations that have not commented are various Muslim Associations of International Brotherhood, the Hamaz, the PLO, Hezbolla, the SIMI, Lashkar-e-Tayiba, the local Muslim Political Groups and their hundreds of publications and electronic media. It may be noted that this was the same group that had nothing to say when the Taliban blew up the Bamyan Buddhas under orders of Mullah Mohammed Omar.

 

Though I am straying from the subject, here I would like to comment briefly that Bamyan, till a thousand years ago was part of the ancient Hindu and Indian Kingdom of Gandhara where Hindu and Buddhist monasteries thrived and lived in harmony. Bamyan also formed part of the famed silk route. Recently it has emerged that the earliest recorded use of oil paint was found in the Buddhist murals of Bamyan caves. The Moslem conquerors later occupied the area and set about destroying all traces of other cultures and religions, as they have almost always done, wherever they have gone, given the opportunity.

 

Coming back to Kabul, India is among the forefront of nations that are committed to rebuilding Afghanistan. India has pledged $750 million for the purpose. Also, hundreds of Indian engineers, technicians, medical staff and other workers are labouring full time in the country. Other than having a stable and democratic neighbour, it is quite easy to see that India has no great military or political ambition in Kabul. But unfortunately stability and democracy are two words most hated by militant Islam. An irresponsible coward or a brainwashed idiot or both, in a bomb laden car has taken a few dozen lives, including that of women and children. Why is it that the self-righteous and hypocrite Islamic websites such as www.nicheoftruth.org/ got nothing to say about it? Is it because the hands that fund the bombs are the same as the ones that fund the facades, propaganda and justifications?

 

Now in my early fifties, I grew up in a quite neighbourhood in India where Hindus and Moslems lived together as families that loved each other. The Ummas send us great brass vessels of Biryani for Id and our Ammas sent huge containers of hot Payasam in return during the harvest festival of Onam. Umma or Amma, they both meant mother. One of my favourite teachers was a Moslem and his son my best friend, to this day. I played in the same hockey league team as my father had, with dearly loved and brilliantly talented Moslem team mates, some of them good enough to play for India. I grew up reading and admiring Vaikkom Mohammed Basheer and listening to Mohammed Rafi. There were many Moslem families I could go to and demand a meal. A Moslem gentleman, who loves me like a son, taught me to drive a car and ride a bike without accepting any rewards.

 

I have an appeal to all my friends, from all religions. Accept the truths. Respect history. Stop listening to the extremists. This world has enough space for a hundred more peaceful ideologies, no matter how cranky, including Scientology. Tomorrow, there should be enough humour left in this world to accept Lord Xenu and Saint Cruise, his rock, upon whom He built His faith. Any belief that is easily insulted or readily scarred is immature and shall not stand the test of time or the scrutiny of reason. I believe that all my good Moslem friends will stand with me in my views. I have always loved them and respected them. Where are the kind Sufi Saints and their eternal verses?

 

AN UPDATE: On 08/10/2009, a second bomb has gone off outside the Indian Embassy with twelve people dead and eighty wounded. It is much less than the 44 deaths and 147 wounded because the suicide bomber could not drive through the fortified barriers. Till September 2009 India has spent $1260 million dollars in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. The publicised aim of this expenditure is to help a neighbour. The hidden purpose is to appease the millions of Moslems in India. All this money would have been better spent in exterminating the Pakistan based jihadists in Kashmir and the China backed insurgents in the North East Frontier. Why does India insist on pumping water into a volcano? It can bloody well implode into its grand destiny.

 

Notes:

For the history of Bamiyan, see

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhas_of_Bamyan#History

For photos of Bamiyan, visit

http://www.geocities.com/sidneysee/gallery.htm

For Scientology, browse

http://www.scientology.org/index.html

When Islam wrote to me

It had been going on for some time. Every week I received at least a couple of letters that told me of the greatness of Islam and the wonderful Moslem way of life. For some reason, these letters always arrived at my personal email address, evading the spam blockers.  The writers’ names included James Joseph, Arun Gopal, Vinod Nair, David Gabriel, Lakshmi Sharma and many more. All these names are readily recognised as either Christian or Hindu. Though all of them addressed me as ‘Loving Brother’ or ‘Dearest Prithvi’, I had no idea who these incredibly nice people were.

 

In September 2005, when Kurt Westergaard drew those naughty cartoons in Jyllands-Posten, the frequency of these letters increased. It was so, every time something controversial happened concerning Islam. These letters told me how the Dutch do not allow mosques and how Moslems are persecuted in Denmark. They went on to tell me how the prophet, a very kind man, forgave a Jew who threw rubbish at him every day. He even forgave some women who killed his uncle. The Prophet indeed must have been a very compassionate man. At that point, I was very happy to leave matters as they were.

 

The scene now shifts to London. I was between jobs and had plenty of time to wander the streets, looking for writing material. All of four months had passed since Jyllands-Posten had published Westergaard’s cartoons. Out of the blue, the Moslem youth in London became inflamed by the Danish cartoons. In stark contrast, the brothers in London were no where as peaceful as the upper caste Hindus and church going Christians who extolled the virtues of Universal Islamic Love through their persistent emails. They shouted slogans demanding death to all infidels. They yelled that there is no space on this earth for Christians, Jews and Hindus. The placards they carried had phrases such as BEHEAD THOSE WHO INSULT ISLAM; EUROPE YOU WILL PAY, DEMOLITION IS ON THE WAY; EUROPE IS THE CANCER, ISLAM IS THE ANSWER etc. The most striking was one which read FREEDOM, GO TO HELL, obviously targeting the freedom of press in Denmark among other things. Some of the protesting men had their faces covered, just like their women. Yes, it happened in a city like London. If my beloved reader is interested in seeing some of the press photos, I suggest you visit the following link. www.snopes.com/photos/politics/muslimprotest.asp

 

It was a cold February night and I reached home very late after seeing the protests. Instead of going to bed straight away, I carefully examined all the emails of brotherly love that I had received in the past. All of them originated from web service providers based in the Arabian Gulf. Obviously it was not just the protesters who had their faces covered. I wrote replies to two of those addresses that night. To the first, I asked if he supported his brothers who went berserk on London streets. I also asked him if it was fair to do so in a country that had given them refuge from their own brothers in their own lands. If they don’t like it, why do they stay in the cool comforts of a Kafir land? I wrote to the second mailer that I indeed admired him for his love of Islam, despite his chaste Hindu background, made obvious by his upper caste Hindu name. Was Islam indeed that powerful, I asked him.

 

What followed was a nightmare. On one side, I received a steady deluge of hate mail, accusing me of supporting Jews and American imperialists. I was told that his brothers would be visiting my London address any day to teach me a lesson or two. On the other side, from the second mailer, I received several invitations to study more of the greatness of Islam. All he needed was my address, so that he could send me several precious books based on Islamic love, life and religion. Needless to say, I abandoned my email address after a couple of weeks. I would not even mind confessing that I was a little scared. Somewhere else on these pages, I have openly admitted that I am not a very courageous man.

 

Curiosity aroused, I also rather desperately wanted to find out what Westergaard had indeed done to spark off such ire. I found his sketches on a website and they were indeed the work of a very talented cartoonist. I have no comments about the actual motives or lack of motives behind the drawings. These days you can see them at the link below and reach your own judgement. www.zombietime.com/mohammed_image_archive/jyllands-posten_cartoons/

 

My further enquiries led me to the discovery that the Danish are wonderfully generous people who did allow Moslems to build mosques and their own burial grounds. Like the British, they gave them the freedom to follow their beliefs and speak their minds, the same freedom that made a protester carry the slogan ‘FREEDOM GO TO HELL’ in London.

 

To conclude the matter, I belong to a Hindu tradition, in existence a good four thousand years before Islam, where our three hundred and thirty million gods (yes, that is right) live in perfect harmony. There is plenty of space for a few more from any religion. Kerala, my beautiful state back in India, has hundreds of mosques, churches and other places of worship donated by our generous Hindu kings. Once a while, when one of our cartoonists chooses to sketch a Hindu god or two, we have a good laugh. If some half baked idiot does take it seriously, as in the issue with that excellent artist M F Hussein, we have a just legal system that steps in to pull the foolscaps over the low-brows. Cheers.

 

Note: Islam’s own medieval-era manuscripts carried pictures of the Prophet till the hardhats banned it later. You can find a selection at the following link.

www.zombietime.com/mohammed_image_archive/