Monday, 24 November 2014

Step on this Stone inscription, Please!

The artistic ability for composing conventional poems filled with wit and pun seems to have been quite common among ancient Tamils, as read from a popular verse in Viveka Cinthamani, an anonymous classical work in Tamil. The poem, which is in the form of a conversation between a Tamil scholar and an indigenous medical practitioner, reminds the belief of the people on a stone inscription found at Saravanampatti in Coimbatore.

The verse in Viveka Cinthamani introduces a Tamil scholar who meets a traditional medical practitioner and seeks his advice on how to take out a Nerunchi thorn (Tribulus terrestris) lodged in his foot. But, with the pride of being a poet, the Tamil scholar expressed his complaint in a complex language, whose superficial reading would differently mean that he was, instead, bitten by a five-headed cobra while heading to the river!

The Tamil scholar said to the medical practitioner thus:

Mukkaalai Kayyil Eduthu
Moovirandukkku Ekayile
Akkaalai Aynthuthalai Naagam
Aazhnthu kadithathu Kaan

With Mukkaal meaning a staff, Moovirandu, the numeral ‘6’ (Which also means the river as Aaru in Tamil) and Aynthuthalai Naagam, a five-headed cobra (A metaphor for the branches of the thorn in Tribulus terrestris), the Tamil scholar said that the sharp thorns pierced his foot while he was on the way to the river holding his staff.

Nonetheless, the medical practitioner, who too was skilled in composing a similar poem, suggested:

Paththurathan Puththiranin Mithiranin
Saththuruvin Paththiniyin
Kaal Vaanki Thei

With Paththurathan meaning King Dhasaratha as the etymology of his name suggests that he was the possessor of ten chariots, Puthiranin Mithiran  his son Rama’s friend Sukreeva, Saththuruvin Paththini  meaning Sukreeva’s enemy Vaali’s wife and Kaal Vaanki Thei literally meaning ‘Get the foot of Vaali’s wife and brush on the floor !’

But, with the wife of Vaali’s name being ‘Thaarai’, what the native medical practitioner suggested through the phrase ‘Kaal Vaanki’, is just to shorten the long sound ‘Thaa’ in her name into ‘Tha’, Then the word would read ‘Tharai’ meaning earth and not ‘Thaarai’ signifying Vaali’s wife.

Interestingly, in the complex poem, the native medical practitioner just advised the Tamil scholar to rub his foot on earth to get the thorn removed!

Reminding this interesting anecdote, a stone inscription found at Saravanampatti reads that one would get a cure from illness, if the person places his or her leg on the epigraph and meditate for a little time. An oral tradition in Saravanampatti maintains that the epigraph was erected by an indigenous medical practitioner, who provided cure to several diseases to the people of Saravanampatti in the bygone era.

Source: Maruthuvam Sollum Kalvettu – Epigraphist D. Sundaram.

Link to my article in The New Indian Express:

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Throwing Light on Gifts Made to Big Temple

                                                                                                 Photo- S.Kamalakannan   

In contrast to the present age, when some corrupt government officials swindle public money under the pretext of carrying out certain civic works, it is surprising that the king Raja Raja Chola recorded in his stone inscriptions even a little contribution made by a poor kitchen maid for the construction of the majestic Brihadeeswarar Temple in Thanjavur.

Throwing light on this and various other glories of the king, R. Nagaswamy, Former Director, Department of Archaeology, Government of Tamil Nadu, said:

“Raja Raja Chola has mentioned the contribution made by an Adukkalai Pendu (Kitchen maid) in a stone inscription, as he wanted to document even a commoner’s gift to the deity”

Addressing the seven-day exhibition on the Big Temple of Thanjavur in the city, organized by the Coimbatore chapter of INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) on Saturday evening, the octogenarian archeologist pointed out:  
“Based on certain Sanskrit stone inscriptions, I do not agree with the general opinion of many other historians, who say that temples are mere institutions of social and financial administration. I am sure that they were built only for the cause of devotion” he added.

The controversial archeologist, who earned the wrath of several Tamil scholars for his opinion that Tamil got the classical language status only by the assistance of Sanskrit in his book The Mirror of Tamil and Sanskrit, noted:
“A stone inscription in Sanskrit found at Mahabalipuram reads that a king had constructed a temple for the cause of his deep devotion to God. Besides, another inscription provides a piece of information that a king built a shrine so that he would receive the blessings of his departed parents” added Nagaswamy, reciting the lines in Sanskrit.

The archeologist informed that the stone inscription on the construction of the Big Temple was first deciphered by E. Hultzsch, a German indologist and epigraphist in 1886.

“Had Hultzsch not done so, the people would not have known that the shrine was built by Raja Raja Chola” he said.

Listing the contributions made by the public to the construction of the shrine, Nagaswamy noted:

“Raja Raja Chola’s stone inscriptions provide the details of all the gifts made by the public accurately. Helping the king in building the shrine, the devout people of Thanjavur presented him gold, sardonix, emerald and pearl. And the king has recorded their details both in number and quantity. What’s surprising is that the monarch has recorded the value of gold in the ornaments, appraising it both by including and excluding its cotton strings”  

“The king got every detail of the gifts inscribed on stone, since he felt that the wealth donated by the devotees to the God was accounted clearly and the accounts should withstand the test of time”

Shankar Vanavarayar, Convener, INTACH, Coimbatore chapter, welcomed the gathering, Babaji Rajah Bhonsle, Senior prince and hereditary trustee of Thanjavur Big Temple, Vikram Sampath, Executive Director, Indira Gandhi Centre for the Arts, South Zone and Ramachandra Prasad, Co-convener, INTACH, Coimbatore chapter, spoke in the function.

Link to my article in The New Indian Express:

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Bringing the ‘Celestial Dance’ to Coimbatore

                                                                                                                              Photo by Express lensman S.Kamalakannan

As a revolution in the tradition of Kambalathu Naicker community, its folk dance form Devarattam, which is generally performed only on auspicious occasions like weddings and temple festivals, took a radical turn when it was presented by a team of dancers in the funeral of their Guru and veteran dancer ‘Kalaimamani’ Kumararaman mourning his demise on June 8, 2014

Hailing from an agricultural family at Zamin Kodangipatti, a hamlet in Tuticorin district, Kumararaman, a retired headmaster, took efforts to revive the traditional dance form and popularized it by presenting his shows in the Indian Republic Day parade in New Delhi and Wereld Kinderfestival (World Children’s Festival) in the Netherlands.

But, it is no exaggeration that Coimbatoreans felt as if they were at Zamin Kodangipatti, when they enjoyed the performance of Devarattam by Sri Sakka Devi Gramiya Kalai Kuzhu  in memory of Kumararaman here on Sunday evening. Hats off to Aruvi, a city-based art and literary forum for arranging the show

“Reviving the folk dance form, Kumararaman also pioneered the innovation in bringing girls to perform Devarattam, while it was only confined to men” averred Ramraj, a street play artiste and Tamil professor from P.S.G.College of Arts and Science

While reading out an introduction to Devarattam from an article by A.K.Perumal, a scholar in folk arts, he pointed out:

Devarattam is generally performed only in the festival nights of worshipping Jakkamma, the family deity of Kambalathu Naickers”  

Legend has it that the daughter of the sage Kalaikottu Maamunivar asked her father to provide her a boon that she would beget a child without coital relationship with a man. And the sage provided her the fruit ‘Kan Pazham’ (The artistes refer it to a lemon), through which she gave birth to a child. Hence, the descendents of the child, later, came to be called as ‘Kan Pazhathar’ which has got corrupted to ‘Kambalathar’  

A mythology behind Devarattam (The dance of Devas) discloses that the creator God Vishwakarman, made a new percussion instrument called ‘Deva Thunthubi’ and  asked the ‘Devas’ ( celestials) to play on it. As they could not do so, a Pandaram (Priest), whose job is stringing flowers to Gods, played the instrument after worshipping Lord Shiva and the Devas danced to his music. Hence, it came to be called ‘Devarattam

Performed through generations in the villages surrounding Madurai and Tuticorin, the Devarattam is a unique dance form, in which the Arunthathiars, one of the nine clans of Kambalathu Naicker community play the percussion instrument ‘Deva Thunthubi’ (Urumee) while members from the Sillavar clan dance in a row.

Now the dancers get ready to display their skills, as the percussionist rubs his stick on the ‘Deva Thunthubi’ which produces a music resembling the moaning of a wild animal.

The dance that begins with a slow tempo gradually increases its speed and becomes artistically vigorous. With the dancers pausing at a point, the ‘animal moans’ for a silent few seconds. And the little pause provides the dancers a new vigor to rock again. 

Link to my article in The New Indian Express:

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Looking for Lord Perumal’s Tribal Wife

The idioms used by Coimbatoreans in their Kongu Tamil dialect are unique, as they figuratively remark even an act of deceiving as ‘Naamam Saathuthal’ which literally stands for the Vaishnavaite custom of drawing a Naamam (trident mark) on the forehead.  Theologians of the faith say that the mark shows their deep devotion to God, since it represents the feet of Lord Perumal. Nonetheless, the religious mark has a different meaning in the culture of Irulas, who were the aborigines of Coimbatore.  

Reminding the story of Noah’s Ark and the Great Flood from the Bible, the tribal Irulas believe that their origin on earth was after a ravaging flood that destroyed all creatures of the world except Koduvan and his daughter Sambi. It is said that the duo took shelter inside a cave on Kizhavi Malai, a hill near the present day Thudiyalur and were noticed by Mallan and Malli, the creators of the Irula tribe. But, Mallan and Malli later metamorphosed the father and daughter into a young couple, from whom the tribe multiplied.

Though the tribal mythology consists of such supernatural machinery, the painful history of the Irulas losing their unique worship culture can still be heard in their tales.

When the Kongu region came under Vijayanagara rule in 16th century A.D, the kings, in order to spread their official religion Vaishnavism, built Perumal temples in places like Periyanaickenpalayam and Karamadai and brought the Irula tribe into the streamline of their faith.    

At a time when people of the present day worry over a hike in the milk price, it is surprising that the Irulas never milked their cows and believed that a cow’s milk is only for its calf. However, their myth on the arrival of Lord Perumal at Karamadai unfolds that an Irula cowherd was canned after he refused providing milk to the Vaishnavite God.

The tale also informs that one of his cows shed milk on an anthill amidst the Kaarai plants (Canthium parviflorum), after which a temple for Lord Perumal emerged there. It is also interesting to note that the place had earlier got its name ‘Karamadai’ due to the overgrowth of the Kaarai plants.  

The tribal myth discloses that Lord Perumal even fell in love with an Irula girl named Thulasilaampaal. Captivated by her exceptional beauty, the Lord forcibly carried her to His abode. But, on His way back home between Karamadai and Palamalai, the Lord felt something wet on his forehead and understood Thulasilaampaal’s attaining puberty!

The Irulas, who were forced to worship Lord Perumal, still say that the medial red mark on the Lord’s Naamam (Trident mark) is nothing but a drop of Thulasilaampaal’s vaginal discharge of blood!       

Source: Sappe Gokalu – A collection of Irula tribal songs – R.Lakshmanan 

Link to my article in The New Indian Express:

A Vanambadi Poet, Blessed with a Sense of Biting Satire

Senior Vanambadi poet Thenarasan

The Vanambadi poets of Coimbatore, who severely criticized the conventional verse for its strict prosodic rules, were on a priceless mission in taking modern poetry to the masses in 1970s. Addressing social issues in modern verse, the poets strongly believed that their creations would bring a reformation in the society. And one such veteran Vanambadi poet is 77 year old Thenarasan, whose poems are known for his exceptional satire and pleasant rhyme.

“Like all other Vanambadi poets, I too was writing only conventional Tamil verse before my entry into the poetry movement. And it was no easy task to transform myself from a conventional poet to a modern poet. I even felt that the new kind of verse called ‘Puthu Kavithai’ written without prosodic rules was like lass renounced of her beautiful clothes and ornaments” says the Pollachi-based octogenarian poet.

An author of the popular books of poems Vellai Roja and Manvaasal,
Thenarasan’s flair for writing verse is something inseparable from him. He has recently penned two more books of verse Peythu Pazhakiya Mekam (The cloud that is used to rain) and Panikaalam Mudhailya Kavithaikal - The Mist and other poems

The latter, a bilingual work, includes the English rendering of Thenarasan’s poems by his poetry peer Sirpi Balasubramaniam, eminent Vanambadi poet and a two- Sahitya Akademy awardee. A few other verses in the book have been translated by one Muthukumar and Bala, a late Vanambadi poet.

Born in an agriculture family in the hamlet Chellappampalayam near Udumalpet, Thenarasan had his schooling in Gandhi Kalanilayam Higher Secondary School at Pungamuthur, where he later worked as a Tamil teacher.

Sharing his early day interests in poetry, Thenarasan reminisces:

“My teachers Peri.Sivanadiyan and Ki.Venkatasamy, who were also poets, ignited my passion for poetry in my school days. When I was a budding poet, the school provided me an opportunity to read out a poem, welcoming the Tamil scholar Ki.Aa.Pe. Visuvanatham, when he visited our school”

Recalling his days in the Vanambadi poetry movement, Thenarasan points out:

“We, the Vanambadis, were radicals in poetry. We used to conduct our literary meetings as Kavi Raathiris (Nights of poetry) in Coimbatore. Though the pillars of the poetry movement like Puviarasu, Elamurugu and Gnani discussed and debated over ideas of poetry, I would just be an observer”

However, listening to Thenarsan’s poem in a Kaviarangam, the audiences cannot help complimenting his biting satire with a rousing applause.

Parodying a modern day love affair, Thenarasan writes a poem in the voice of an unworldly lover, as he speaks to his lady love, a practical girl:

My dear, dear darling,
You were always practical
Only I was…

When I was planning, dear,
To bring a Kamadhenu to your back-yard
You ran away with a milk-vendor!

My dear darling
I was waiting to take you in a dream-chariot
But you eloped with him
On a rickety old bicycle! 

Link to my article in The New Indian Express:

Saturday, 1 November 2014

A Vinayaga Vikraga Named after George V !

The people of Coimbatore are no exception among the ones from other districts in Tamil Nadu for creating new deities and christening them after appropriate social and political situations. Though atheists of the city ridicule the pious people for giving  funny names to deities, the devotees, unbothered about such comments, still continue worshipping the Almighty, saying that their prayers to the  God provide them solace from all distresses in life

Moreover, with God being the only path to escape pains in life, the people of Coimbatore identified the Omnipresent as their savior from all worldly woes.

For instance, the deity Mariamman, who has different tags attached to Her as ‘Muthu’ Mariamman, ‘Thandu’ Mariamman, ‘Vilayaattu’ Mariamman and so on, later, took a strange avatar as ‘Plague’ Mariamman!  

The people also built shrines for the new deity in several spots of Coimbatore like Sengaadu and Papanaickenpalayam. The Goddess was named so in the belief that She would drive out the deadly disease, which took a heavy toll of human life in the beginning of 20th century. However, with the Goddess’ name being corrupted to ‘Black’ Mariamman now, many in Coimbatore know little about the new deity’s history.  

The outbreak of plague had an influence also in the Kongu Tamil dialect, when elderly people of the yesteryear Coimbatore would curse their enemies as Avan Bethi Blaaku Vanthu Seththupokonum (Let him die of diarrhoea and plague)

Similarly, Lord Ganesha too had different tags to His name.

It may be noted that the elephant-god finds no mention in any of the pieces of the ancient Tamil literature, as He was brought to Tamil Nadu only in 7th century A.D by Paranjothi, the army general to the Pallava king Narasimavarman I. It is said that Paranjothi, who later became one of the 63 apostles of Lord Shiva, brought the idol of Lord Ganesha from Vatapi as a symbol of his victory over the Chalukkya king Pulikesi II.

The deity, who later became popular in the Kongu region too, is being called with different tags as Sidhi Vinayagar, Koopidu Vinayagar and so on.

Interestingly, the Singanallur police station comprises a different shrine for Lord Ganesha, who has been appropriately named as ‘Kaaval’ Vinayagar!  

Over a century ago, the people of Alangiyam, a village near Dharapuram in the Kongu region, erected a stone inscription on the consecration of a Vinayagar temple, but commemorating the coronation of the British King George V!

As the inscription reads that it was erected on 27th of the Tamil month Karthigai in Kaliyuga year 5013, it exactly matches the British king’s coronation on December 12, 1911 in India.

Believe it or not, the deity is appropriately named as ‘Chakravarthy’ Vinayagar!, which means Lord Ganesha, the Emperor!

Source: Pillayarum George Mannarum- Epigraphist D.Sundaram.

Link to my article in The New Indian Express: