Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Tribute to the Distinguished Japanese Tamil Scholar

Noboru Karashima
While many of the present day college and university professors take their jobs as a 'repose' for the 'rest' of lifetime after their 'herculean tasks' in obtaining academic research degrees, it is surprising how the distinguished Japanese Tamil scholar and historian, Prof Noboru Karashima, who passed away recently, had dedicated his entire life in researching thousands of stone inscriptions and threw new light on the history of medieval South India.

Noboru Karashima's first research article on the two kinds of villages the Alloors and Eesaanamangalams, which he penned in 1966, threw new light on the structure of feudalism during the Chola period in 10th and 11th centuries. By deciphering and researching a number of inscriptions, Karashima opined that the people in Alloors, the non-Brahmins, had joint ownership of agricultural lands, while the individuals in Eesaanamangalams, the Brahmin colonies, held the same separately. Because, the Chola kings brought the Brahmins from outside and donated them the Eesaanimangalams. The kings also provided each Brahmin individual a piece of land” informed eminent archeologist Y.Subbarayalu, who had worked with Noboru Karashima for many decades in India and abroad.

Karashima, a recipient of Padma Shri award, was a professor Emeritus at the University of Tokya and Taisho University. He was author of the books A Concise History of South India, South Indian History and Society, South Indian History in Transition and many more.

Paying tributes to his departed archeology peer in a meeting organized by Thamizhnadu Kalai Ilapkkiya Perumandram in the city recently, Subbarayalu pointed out:

Karashima was planning to visit Coimbatore in January, 2016 and go to Ooty, his favorite hill station, and from there to Mysore and Chennai to meet his friends. But his wish didn't come true ”

R. Poongundran, another veteran archeologist and former Assistant Director, Tamil Nadu Archeology Department,averred:

The research articles penned by Karashima were scientific. They throw light on the social life, ecology and economic conditions of ancient Tamil Nadu under Cholas. His book A Concise History of South India is a comprehensive work after K.A Nilakanta Sastri's A History of South

Explaining the educational system in Japan during the student days of Karashima, Subbarayalu noted that the country excelled in all fields as her people studied all sciences only through their mother tongue.

Karashima earlier penned his research articles even on the history of Tamil Nadu only in Japanese. Nevertheless, for the first time, he presented a research paper in English only at the First World Tamil Conference, held in Kuala Lumpur in 1966” said Subbarayalu.

Remembering his last communication with Karashima, Subbarayalu worried:

I received Karashima's email on October 18 regarding a symposium to be held in Japan. But I never imagined that would be his last communication to me. I later learned that he was hospitalized for about a month and breathed his last on November 26” 

Link to my article in The New Indian Express: http://epaper.newindianexpress.com/c/7551793 

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Remembering the Plague-hit Kovai's Angel of Mercy

A file photo of Mercy Paul, the first woman doctor of Coimbatore, with her daughter Primela Mary and grand children

Sadagopachari, a son of an orthodox Jeeyar ( A preacher of Vaishnavism) of Tirunelveli, one day, became Arthur Paul!. Had the man, who pursued education in the famed St. Joseph's College, Trichy in the 19th century, not embraced Christianity, Coimbatore could not have seen its first woman doctor Mercy Paul, who was none other than his daughter.

Because, in the orthodox Hindu society, girls had little opportunity to pursue even formal school education. My grandfather Sadagopachari was even driven out of home after he embraced Christianity ” recalls 70 year old Primela Mary, a retired physics teacher from G.R.G.Matriculation Hr.Sec.School and the daughter of Coimbatore's first woman doctor. Primela Mary was also a recipient of Dr. Radhakrishnan state award for the best teacher.

Mercy Paul, who was born in 1905, came to Coimbatore around 1929 as an L.M.P ( Licentiate Medical Practitioner, since there was no M.B.B.S then).

Fondly called as 'Paul Doctoramma' by the then Coimbatoreans, Mercy Paul pursued her education in the Christian Medical College and Hospital, Vellore, under its founder Dr. Ida.S. Scudder, an American medical missionary-turned physician, who championed the cause of women by founding the exclusive medical school for girls.

Reminding Portia's quote The quality of mercy is not strained ... from William Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice, Mercy's love for mankind made her serve and save the people from plague when the city witnessed the outbreak of the deadly disease.

Nonetheless, the physician, who saved hundreds of human lives from the jaws of death, could not get a chance even to pay the last rites to her father Arthur Paul when he passed away in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh, as there was little transport facility in the past.

An inconsolable woman, when she later decided to leave Coimbatore, it was Diwan Bahadur C.S. Rathina Sabhapathy Mudaliar, the municipal chairman of Coimbatore, advised her to continue her service here” recalls Primela.

In contrast to the modern age, where most corporate hospitals cheat and fleece patients, Paul doctoramma was devoted to serve people and demanded no fees from them.

I remember an occasion when some parents rushed their child to our home, saying that it had swallowed a coin. However, within a few minutes I could see them shed tears of joy and look up to my mother after she removed the foreign object from the little one's stomach. Though my mother served in the municipal hospitals of Coimbatore, which were called Solakada Mukku Aaspathiri and Devangapettai Aaspathiri, she never loved a luxurious life. She felt no dissimilarities, when the rich, seeking her medical service, took her to their posh bungalows in cars and the poor to their huts on bullock carts “ Primela reminisces. 

Source: Ida Scudder, the Angel of Mercy – By Primela Mary  

Link to my article in The New Indian Express http://epaper.newindianexpress.com/c/6675223

A Trip into the Ancient South under the Cholas

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Kambar, Kongunadu's Friend or Foe ?

Thanipadal Thiratttu, an old collection of classical Tamil poetry, contains a verse on Kongunadu, which is attributed to the great Tamil poet Kambar. However, if the people of the Kongu region read it, they will certainly condemn the famed bard, as the poem portrays their land in poor light.

The verse points out that all streams and rivers in the Kongu region being dirty, emanated the odor of mud. The uneven lands, full of stones and thorns. Crudely named villages suffixed in 'Patti' and 'Thotti'. Kambanchoru ( A meal in bulrush millet), the regular food of the people and the men bearing 'unfashionable' names like 'Bomman' and 'Thimman'. Worse still, the poem describes the Kongu girls as 'dogs' and 'devils' and tells a reader never to imagine leading a life in such a dark region called Kongunadu.

Nevertheless, eminent historian and epigraphist Pulavar Se. Rasu, in his new book Kongunadum Kambaraum, disagrees with the opinion and asserts that Kambar could not have written such a song, but any 'Vambar' ( A person who intentionally provokes others) must have done it !

Citing references from various pieces of classical Tamil literature, Rasu says that the water of river Bhavani had the fragrance of sandal and river Noyyal has been described as 'Manakkum Kanchi Maanadhi' ( The fragrant Noyyal). As the water in these two rivers was once as clear as crystal, even the ornaments, which the girls lost while swimming, were visible in the depth of the rivers, when viewed even from the surface!

Kambar, who penned the work Mangala Vazhthu, an auspicious, long lyric, which is recited in the wedding ceremonies of the Kongu Vellalar community, Eaer Ezhupathu, a collection of 70 songs admiring the occupation of agriculture and so on, had high regards for the people of Kongunadu.

Moreover, with its popularity, the poet's masterpiece Kambaramayana, had two different impacts on the literary world of Kongunadu.

Emperuman Kavirayar, a 17th century Tamil poet, rewrote the Kambaramayana in a simple language, setting to the music played on 'Thakkai' a traditional percussion instrument of Kongunadu and appropriately titled his work as 'Thakkai Ramayanam'. On the other hand, while Ramayana portrayed the Lankan king Ravana as the villain in the epic, Pulavar Kuzhandhai, an eminent Tamil scholar and a rationalist thinker of the Kongu region, made Ravana as the hero of his literary work Eravana Kaviyam, which was banned in 1948. However, after over a period of over two decades, the ban was lifted in 1971.

Like Kambar admiring the philanthropist Sadayappa Vallal in his Ramayana, Emperuman Kavirayar too lauds a Kongu local ruler Aththappa Nallathambi Kangeyan, a philanthropist, who commissioned the poet to compose the Thakkai Ramayanam.

Admiring the value of the work, T.A.Muthusamy Konar, the first historian of Kongunadu, once expressed his wish to publish the literature and advertised in his monthly journal Viveka Diwakaran that whoever brought him the palm leaf manuscript of Thakkai Ramayanam, he would reward him with Rs 10 !

Source: Kongunadum Kambarum – Pulavar Se. Rasu, former head, department of epigraphy and archaeology, Tamil University,Thanjavur. 

Link to my article in The New Indian Express : http://epaper.newindianexpress.com/c/6596964 

Monday, 14 September 2015

The Purana of Kongunadu's Conventional Agriculture

It is doubtless that no other literary work in the world has glorified agriculture as much as Thirukural. And the people of the ancient Tamil land had high regards for the farmers' service to mankind , as read from a couplet in the great work, which points out that even ascetics would long for their wants, if farmers failed to till their lands. Though the Tamil classic dedicates an exclusive chapter on farming and its key role in shaping mankind, the credit of authoring a comprehensive work on agriculture goes to a 19th century Tamil poet from the Kongu region.

According to a tale in Greek mythology, Hades, the king of the underworld, fell in love with Persephone, the beautiful daughter of Demeter, and abducted her to his dark land. Though it was a common belief that one who ate anything in the underworld could not reach the earth again, Persephone, unable to bear the pangs of hunger, tasted and swallowed six seeds of pomegranate in the land of Hades. As she did so, the logic behind the tale informs that Persephone must live the first six months in the underworld and the following six months on earth.

When Persephone appeared on earth, the planet witnessed blooming of flowers and growing of crops, as the joy of her mother Demeter, the Goddess of vegetation, knew no bounds. However, when the time came for Persephone to bid adieu to earth, Demeter worried a lot and the earth turned unproductive. Legend has it that this was the reason behind seasonal changes.

But, the Vellala Puranam, a literary work on agriculture by Mahavidwan Kandasamy Kavirayar, links the origin of agriculture with Hindu mythology.

Kandasamy Kavirayar, who was born at Veerachi Mangalam near Dharapuram in the Kongu region, penned the work in the 19th century. The book was first published in 1907 at Nithya Kalyanasundaram Printing Press in Erode by Naa. Muthusami Pulavar, who was also a traditional medical practitioner and astrologer in Kongarpalayam.

Though Vellala Puranam narrates the legend of Marabalan or Vellalan, the first agriculturist said to be born from river Ganga, flowing from the matted hair of Lord Shiva, the work admires the virtues of farming and provides information on everything related to agriculture like suitable seasons for cultivating crops, methods of irrigation and so on. Being a handbook even for today's organic farming, Vellala Puranam provides valuable information on a variety of traditional agricultural equipment and the use of manure to improve the soil's fertility.

The book, which consists of 1373 songs under 29 chapters, says that Marabalan was married to Aintree the daughter of Indira and Tharaniyavathi, the daughter of Kubera in heaven.

Vellala Puranam notes that the four-faced God Brahma created Marabalan to save human beings from hunger and his descendants spread across the world as agriculturists.

However, noted epigraphist and Kongu historian R.Jegadeesan says:

With the portrayal of people ploughing lands in the lyrics of Pathitrupaththu, a Sangam period work and the excavation of rain-fed grains in places like Kodumanal and Porunthal, the history of agriculture in the Kongu region dates back to the later years of the Neolithic period, when people experienced the transition from nomadic life to settled community life”

Sources: 1) Vellala Puranam – Mahavidwan Kandasamy Kavirayar,
2) Kongu Kalanjiyam - Volume II 

Link to my article in The New Indian Express : http://epaper.newindianexpress.com/c/6527533 

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Monkey’s Worship Made Shiva ‘Sukreeswara’

Sukreesawarar Temple
Tirupur, which is now popularly called ‘The Dollar city’, accommodates a great number of migrant labourers from various states of the country by providing them job opportunities in its numerous knit-wear units. With its stupendous economic growth (Despite at the cost of its natural environment) in the recent years, Tirupur soon developed into a much-sought after destination for lucrative income.  And it is surprising that the present day knit city, which was once a nondescript village in Palladam Taluk, rose to the heights of a district and brought the latter under it. Nevertheless, few in the modern day Tirupur know the glory of its tiny locality Sarkar Periyapalayam, which, several centuries ago, flourished as a famous trade town.  And the evidence for its historical eminence is available as inscriptions on the walls of the Sukreeswarar Temple.
Though the temple is called ‘Kurakkuthali’ from the lines Kongil, Kurupil, Kurakkuthaliyai…, as the Shaivite poet Sundarar praises it in his literature Tevaram, the history of the shrine is shrouded in myths. Legend has it that the temple got its name as ‘Sukreeswarar Kovil’ after Sugriva, the king of monkeys, who carried a Shiva linga, rested it at a place and relaxed for a while. But, as he could not lift the linga from the place again, it is said he worshipped Lord Shiva there. Hence, like Patteeswara , Magudeeswara and so on, a new Eswara  appeared at Sarkar Periyapalayam as Sukreeswara  !
Throwing light on the trade activities of a large merchant guild at Sarkar Periyapalayam, whose name is mentioned as Mukundhanur in an epigraph, an inscription spread on the entire large wall of the shrine unfolds how the traders planned the expenses to conduct the temple festival Vaikasi Thiruvizha to worship the deity Kurakkuthali Nayanar. Interestingly, expressing their consent, as many as 64 merchants have ‘signed’ their names on the inscription. While four of them have given their signatures in the ancient Vatezhuthu (Rounded script) the rest have done it in Tamil script. The four merchants had hailed from ‘Malaimandalam’ which refers to the present day Kerala.  
Poongundran, former assistant director, Tamil Nadu Archeology Department, says:
“The inscription, which contains both Vatttezhuthu and Tamil scripts, throws light on the gradual development of Tamil orthography in ancient times”  
Taking a history enthusiast to the world of trade in ancient times, the inscription details the names of different commodities and the customs duty on their exports and imports.
Besides, the it also informs the names of the merchants with their native towns as Urayurudayaan Periyyayya Devan, Pandimandalathu Sundarapandiyapurathu Siriyapillai ,  Eralapurathu Vyapari Koothan Kannan and so on. 
Pointing out the mention of the place ‘Eralapuram’ in the inscription, Poongundran informs it is none other than today’s Ernakulam in Kerala!

Source: Kongil Kurakkuthali – Sukreeswarar Kovil – Epigraphist D. Sundaram

Saturday, 1 August 2015

The Kongu Woman who Triggered the Protest against Alcohol

Though a treat in wine has become undesirably inevitable even in family functions these days, it is shocking that the 'alcoholic culture' has seen its development even in a school girl's alleged consumption of liquor, which caused her to make flutter in the city some days ago. Adding fuel to the fire, when the news hit the headlines, comments poured into social networks like Facebook and WhatsApp. Interestingly, a commentator remarked that progressive thinkers and feminists should only be happy about the incident misinterpreting women's liberty as nothing but their liberty in consuming liquor on par with men!

Despite the history of consuming liquor dating back to several centuries and proofs on women drinking toddy found in ancient pieces of Tamil literature, consuming liquor in the present day brings harm to both men and women. And no progressive thinker or a feminist can demand equal rights for women in consuming liquor rather than seeking a total ban on it.
While the TASMAC outlets sell Indian Made Foreign Liquor today, the 56th song in Purnanuru, a Sangam period literature informs that the ladies in the palace of the Pandya king served him the 'fragrant cool wine brought in fine ships by the Greeks'. Though the song stands witness to the trade ties between ancient Tamils and Greeks, it throws light on the opulent lives of the Sangam age kings.

It is an old story that the Kongu chieftain Adhiyaman presenting poetess Avvayar a rare species of 'Nellikani' (emblica officinalis) - the fruit believed to provide ailment free longer life. However, a Tamil teacher will be stranded at the very first line of the 235th poem in Purananuru, since Avvayar states in it that Adhiyaman had also offered her toddy to drink!

What's more, noted Tamil writer Perumal Murugan, in one of the chapters from his controversial novel Madhorubhagan, portrays the fiction's hero Kali sharing toddy with her mother, as they discuss a family affair during a calm night.

Though many farmers associations have been demanding to lift the ban on toddy, claiming it as a non-toxicant drink, the total ban on abolishing alcohol, irrespective of it being toddy or IMFL, seems gaining moment with the demise of Gandhian activist Sasi Perumal on Friday. It may be noted that he died during his protest to shift a TASMAC outlet located in the proximity of educational institutions and places of worship at Marthandam in Kanyakumari district.

Several decades ago, in Gandhiji's non-cooperative movement, even women from the Kongu region played a key role in abolishing alcohol by picketing plenty of toddy shops. As the agitation gained momentum, even other Congress leaders Madhan Mohan Malavia and C.Sankaran Nair suggested Gandhiji to give up the protest.

However, Gandhiji is said to have told them thus:

“It is not in my hands. I have to discuss this with two women crusaders against alcohol in Erode”
The one is Nagammal, wife of Periyar E.V. Ramasamy and the other Kannammal, his younger sister!

Sources: 1) Purananuru, 2) Madhorubhagan – Perumal Murugan, 3) Muzhu Madhuvilakku Adhuve Namathu Ilakku – R. Ravikumar

Link to my article in The New Indian Express : http://epaper.newindianexpress.com/555928/The-New-Indian-Express-Coimbatore/02082015#page/3/1

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Arthanareeswara, End this Epidemic Called 'Caste'

Named as Arthanareeswara, Lord Shiva reflects His left part of the body as His consort Parvathi - a symbol for the deity's deep love for His wife and vice versa. As learned from the devotional pieces of literature like Thevaram and Thiruchengottu Puranam, Goddess Parvathi had performed penance in popular holy places like Kedarnath, Kasi, Kanchi and Thiruvannamalai to obtain a boon to become permanently a part of Her husband. And the people of the Kongu region can take pride that the 'holiest' place, where Parvathi could, at last, obtain the boon was Thiruchengode in the Namakkal district.
Mentioned as ' Thirukodimaada Chengundrur' in various pieces of ancient Tamil literature, the town is popular for its Arthanareeswarar Temple, a hill shrine, which inspired many devotional poets to sing paeans on it. Observing an incident from the great Tamil epic Silapathikaram, Arumpatha Urayasiriar, a well-known commentator on the epic, pointed out that its heroine Kannagi came to the hill Neduvel Kundram, which is none other than Thiruchengode, after setting Madurai on fire.
Linking the Lord's relationship with Kongunadu, Arthanareeswarar Kuravanji, another literary work penned by the 17th century Kongu woman poet Poongothai, mentions Shiva and Parvathi of Thiruchengode as 'Kongar Desar' and 'Mohanangi' respectively.
Thiruchengode, which means 'a holy, red, mountain peak' looks like a snake when viewed from the plains. Therefore, it got its other names as 'Nagasalam', 'Nagagiri' and 'Uragagiri'. Celebrated Tamil Bhakthi poet Arunagirinathar, known for his devotional poem Thirupugazh, calls Thiruchengode as 'Nagasalam' in his literary works Kanthar Anuboothi and Kandhar Alangaram.
However, archeologists and historians opine that Thiruchengode was a tribal hill shrine once, since the Naga Vazhipadu or worshipping snakes had been a culture with ancient tribes. They contend that even the carving of the 60 feet 'Aadhisedan' ( chief of the serpents) on the hill shrine is nothing but the remnant of the tribal culture.
The temple at Thiruchengode, besides its popularity in such pieces of literature, recently became a spot of cultural politics after noted Tamil writer Perumal Murugan was hounded by Hindutva and caste outfits, as he had said in his novel Madhorubhagan that childless women of Thiruchengode once indulged in consensual sex at the Arthanareeswarar Temple in order to get conceived.

And for the second time, the shrine's name has hit the headlines of newspapers, after Gokulraj, a Dalit engineering graduate, was abducted when he was with a caste Hindu girl Swathi at Sri Arthanareeswarar temple and later allegedly murdered by a nine-member gang.

It is said that popular Shaivite Tamil poet Thirugnana Sambanthar, while staying in Thiruchengode during a winter season, witnessed all his apostles fell ill and sang a hymn in praise of Lord Arthanareeshwara that made the malady disappear from the entire town.

Nonetheless, the prayer today to the Lord is “ Arthanareeswara, End this Epidemic Called 'Caste'

Waking up the Village Dawn by her Auspicious Music

In Tamil Nadu, there are hardly any festivals that begin without the auspicious notes played in the traditional musical instruments Thavil and Nadaswaram. And, blessed is a hamlet near Pollachi, as it wakes up everyday to the auspicious crescendo of Nadaswaram when a woman musician regularly practises playing it in her home early in the morning.
“ Though it is rare for people to come across women playing the Nadaswaram, I don't think gender has anything to do with music” says M.N. Kaleeswari, the 41 year old Nadaswaram artiste.
Clad in her dark green silk saree, she presented her performance in the consecration of her village's Amaneeswarar Temple, which is one of the ancient shrines of Coimbatore.
“ Playing Nadasawaram gives me pleasure and tranquility. And the joy, which I cannot express in words, is something felt only by playing the instrument” avers Kaleeswari.
Hailing from a traditional music family in Pollachi, Kaleeswari studied only up to class VIII. Nevertheless, her father Murugesan, who was a Thavil vidhwan, encouraged her to learn Nadaswaram.
“ My flair for music is something innate, as I was a passionate listener to songs on the radio even while I was a girl. And wherever there was a Cutchery in the agricultural town, my father used to take me with him. Sitting in the front row, I would keenly observe the intricacies in the Nadaswaram music. When I was 10 years old, my father enrolled me as a student under Nanjappa Gopalswamy, a popular Nadaswaram vidwan in Zamin Uthukuli ” she recalls.

The Amaneeswarar Temple at Devanampalayam
Kaleeswari points out that a thorough vocal practice in Sarali Varisai, the fundamentals of Carnatic music, is mandatory for learning Nadaswaram. Reminding the lines of the lyric Eazhu Swarangalukkul Eththanai Paadal..., she notes that all ragas are nowhere but within these seven swaras.

I did my first performance with my teacher at Pollachi, when I was 20 years old. The audience were at a surprise on watching, for the first time, a girl perform the Nadaswaram. However, with my love for the instrumental music, I had little hesitation to present my maiden performance” she reminisces.

Her father Murugesan's passion for the traditional music, can be felt in his making Kaleeswari a Nadaswaram vidwan. He had not worried that he had no sons to continue his line.

What's more, my father also gave me in marriage to Nataraj, a Thavil Vidhwan in Devanampalayam, so that we both could continue our family's music tradition ” she informs.

Sharing her favourite old film songs that she plays in Nadasawaram, Kaleeswari notes:

We play the Mangala Isai ( Auspicious music) in weddings, temple consecrations, ear boring and puberty ceremonies. In a number of weddings, I have enthralled the audience by playing the lyrics that match situations like 'Poomudipal Intha Poonguzhali' during 'Manapen Azhaippu' and 'Olimayamana Ethirkalam En Ullathil Therikirathu' soon after the 'Muhurtham'”

Like her father, Kaleeswari and Nataraj also want their family's music tradition to continue. And they teach it for their nephew, since the couple has no children. 

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Discovering Roots of Vaishnavism in the Sangam Age

Epigraphist D. Sundaram and archeologist R. Poongundran deciphering the stone inscription at the Perumal temple in Vadachitoor

Discovering Roots of Vaishnavism in the Sangam Age

According to the popular story The Tower of Babel in the Old Testament, when human beings wanted to live together and attempted to build a city and a tower reaching up to the heavens, the Lord, by making each of the people speak a different language, prevented them from reaching the heavens. And it is surprising that such a desire of man to link earth with heaven can be seen even at a village Vaishnavite temple in Coimbatore.

The tall pole, which is called Garuda Kambam, erected vertically in front of the temple, is a symbol of man's wish to connect earth with the heavens” explained R.Poongundran, eminent archeologist and former Assistant director of Tamil Nadu Archeology Department.

Poongundran and epigraphist D.Sundaram were recently at a Perumal temple in Vadachittoor near Pollachi for deciphering a few stone inscriptions on the shrine's wall. As the temple is gearing up for the consecration shortly, the villagers invited the duo to decrypt the stone inscriptions and trace the history of the shrine.

As the inscriptions were covered in thick lime-mortar paste for ages, the epigraphists cleaned and deciphered them.

An inscription reads that the Mahamandapa of the shrine was built in the Kali Yuga year 4969. As Kali Yuga begins 3101 years ago, subtracting it from 4969, we arrive at the answer that the shrine was built in 1868. Though it is a Vaishnavite temple with Lord Perumal being its deity, the epigraph notes that the Mahamandapa was built by one 'Kumarasamy Gounden' ” informed Sundaram.

Describing the entry of Vishnu cult in the Kongu region being nothing but the comeback of the social life in Mullai, one of the five Sangam period landscapes, Poongundran explained:

The ancient Tamils of Mullai ( Forests) engaged in the occupation of cattle rearing and worshiped the deity Mayon, who is now identified with Lord Krishna, believed to be an avatar of Vishnu or Perumal”

Deciphering another inscription on the wall of Thayar Sannithi ( The abode of Lakshmi, the Mother Goddess of all creatures protected by Lord Perumal) at the temple, Sundaram noted:

According to an inscription the Thayar Sannithi could have been built by one 'Veeramuthu Mudhali' . The epigraph also states that it was consecrated in 1848 ”

Quoting the lines Kongum, Kudanthayum, Kottiyoorum Engum Thirinthu Vilayadum Enmakan... from Nalayira Divya Prapantham, a collection of 4000 Tamil verses composed by the 12 Vaishnavite Azhwars, Poongundran points out:

Vaishnavism takes its roots from the social life of the ancient Mullai land Tamils. And the movement's popularity is wide in the Kongu region, which is known for its cattle wealth” added Poongundran. 

Link to my article in The New Indian Express : http://epaper.newindianexpress.com/c/5549598 

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Revisiting the Shrine of Karamadai Ranganatha

The mothers of yesteryear Coimbatore had a strategy to feed their adamant little children by playfully threatening them that the Dasari ( Religious mendicant) of Karamadai Ranganathar Temple, who would visit every house in the locality with his huge Theepandham ( Flambeau), would whisk away the little ones, if they refused to eat food. Appropriately, the Dasari too would be seen frightening, clad in short drawers with strings of small bells tied to his wrists and ankles. Sporting a big Namam ( A Vaishnavite religious mark) on his forehead, he would look possessed, as he chanted Govindha Parak ! Govindha Parak !and danced in front of the house.
Though such Dasaris of Lord Ranganatha are hardly seen nowadays in the city, the annual festival of the Arulmigu Aranganathasamy Temple is held in fervor with the participation of a sea of devotees at Karamadai every year. And the grand festival was over last week.
On the origin of the shrine, legend has it that a cow from the herd of an Irula tribesman shed its milk on an anthill amidst the Kaarai plants (Canthium parviflorum), after which a temple for Lord Ranganatha emerged there. It is also interesting to note the etymology behind Karamadai, which literally means a water channel near the abounding Kaarai plants.
Nevertheless, history informs that the temple was constructed by the Vaishnavite Vijayanagara kings, who, like their Shaivite counterparts, wanted to exploit the forest wealth of Coimbatore's aboriginal Irula tribe by making them embrace their 'official' religion. With the Western Ghats being around 10 km from the temple, the Vijayanagara kings named the hills surrounding the shrine as 'Ranganathar Mudi', 'Perumal Mudi' and so on. What's more, they made even the tribal deity Pettathamman as the wife of Lord Ranganatha.
Decades ago, the devotees of Coimbatore practised a culture of worshipping the Dasaris of Lord Ranganatha by offering Kavalam ( Plantain fruits cut up into small slices, and mixed with sugar, jaggery, fried grain or beaten rice) into their mouths. The Dasaris, who would eat a little of the Kavalam, spit the remainder into the hands of the devotees, which the latter, unimaginably, ate in the superstition that it would cure them of all diseases !

It may be noted that popular Tamil writer Perumal Murugan was hounded by the Hindutva and caste outfits, since he had said in his novel Madhorubhagan that childless women in Thiruchengode indulge in consensual sex at the Arthanareewarar Temple in order to get conceived . But, it is surprising to know that the same practice was said to be in vogue at Karamadai Ranganathar temple too, as noted anthropologist and ethnographer Edgar Thurston recorded on pages 147 and 148 of his book Omens and Superstitions in Southern India thus:
Some people say that, many years ago, barren women used to take a vow to visit the temple at the time of the festival, and, after offering Kavalam, have sexual intercourse with the Dhasaris. The temple authorities, however, profess ignorance of this practice”

Compiled by : B. Meenakshi Sundaram
Sources: 1) Sappe Gokalu – A collection of Irula tribal songs – R. Lakshmanan
                2) Omens and Superstitions in Southern India - Edgar Thurston
                3) Naali - A documentary film on the Irula tribe - R.Murugavel, R. Lakshmanan and    Ashok

Link to my article in The New Indian Express :http://epaper.newindianexpress.com/c/4731591

Saturday, 17 January 2015

A Greeting, which Became the Village

Jayakumar, a resident of Kothavadi, a village near Kinathukadavu, regularly offers food to a mother and her child. But to the surprise of everyone, the duo is not alive today and they just stand as images on a hero stone near his house today.

Pointing at the hero stone, Jayakumar says:

“The woman, whom the people of Kothavadi call as Ottalamman, one day appeared in my dream and asked me food for her child”

Ever since the dream, Jayakumar has been performing Pooja for the memorial and ‘offering’ food to the duo. The hero stone, which portrays the mother and child, also contains the images of two bulls being in the posture of hitting the woman with their horns.

According to an oral tradition in Kothavadi, the hero stone was erected in memory of a woman from a Boyer community, who was killed by the bulls while grazing them on the meadow. With Ottar meaning members of the Boyer community, the villagers say that the female deity has been suitably named as Ottalamman. However, another tale prevalent in the village maintains that the hero stone was erected to honour a pregnant woman, who died after the attack of a bull while she was on the way to a farmland, carrying lunch to her husband.

Ancient Tamils of the Kongu region followed the tradition of erecting hero stones in memory of the warriors, who were killed in the battle for redeeming their village’s cattle from an enemy troop. Such memorials were also set up to honour the village guards, who met their end by fighting against tigers. Being suitably called as Pulikuththi Kall, the memorials can still be seen in the localities like Irugur and Pattanam on the outskirts of Coimbatore.

But, it is interesting that such ‘hero stones’ were also erected in memory of women.

“In ancient Kongunadu people erected ‘hero stones’ for women, who ended their lives by jumping into their husbands’ funeral pyre. Reminding the cruel practice called Sati, the memorials were called Maasatikals. Moreover, hero stones were also erected to honour the women, who met their doom in pregnancy. And such a memorial is the Ottalamman’s” Explains epigraphist D.Sundaram, who dates the hero stone to a period between 16th and 19th century.

The village Kothavadi got its name after the Chera king Ravi Kothai. Explaining the etymology behind the name, a resident of Kothavadi informs that the people’s greeting the king as ‘Kothai Vaazhi’ (May you prosper, King Kothai) has got corrupted to Kothavadi! 

However, the people will be glad, if their hamlet is renamed as ‘Annadurai Vaazhi’, since Mayilsamy Annadurai, the project director of Chandrayan, is the native of Kothavadi!  

 Link to my article in The New Indian Express: http://epaper.newindianexpress.com/c/4297617

Friday, 16 January 2015

An Art Critic, Poet and Film Maker

 Photo S.Kamalakannan
The first pieces of art, which Monikhaa an art critic, poet and documentary film maker, came across in her life, were the pencil sketches of yesteryear actors Gemini Ganesan, Lakshmi, Bharathi and so on, as her mother, who was an art teacher, drew them.

“I still remember the images drawn by my mother Kamala, which looked like vintage black and white photos” she recalls.
An Assistant professor in the Department of Visual Communications, Avinashilingam Deemed University for Women, Monikhaa is also a passionate writer. Her monthly column Naveenathuvam – Kizhakkum Merkkum (Modernism – East and West) appeared for around two years in Theeranathi, a literary magazine of the popular Tamil periodical Kumudham. Besides, she has penned a book of Tamil poems Thikku Thulaithozhiththal (Losing directions) and made a documentary film Azhagin Elimai on noted Tamil writer R.Chudamani 
Sharing her early day interests in art, Monikhaa reminisces:   

“The first pieces of art, which held me spellbound, were the illustrations by artist Maniam for the celebrated Tamil novel Ponniyin Selvan. Done by using the India Ink, Maniam’s appropriate and lively illustrations for the scenes in the historical novel would be so realistic”

Involved in drawing similar realistic images on one morning, Monikhaa even forgot that the day was her English examination and had to rush to school being late.

“But, I had always been a class topper in all my academic studies” she informs.  

Despite a native of Pollachi, Monikhaa had her studies in Government College of Fine Arts in Chennai and Maharaja Sayajirao University of Barado, where she bagged a gold medal for academic excellence.   
Also spending around ten years in New York, Monikhaa says that her days in the US provided her an opportunity to study the original paintings of popular artists like Picasso, Vincent van Gogh and Leonardo da Vinci

“While in India people show little concern for art, I was surprised to come across that each art work exhibited at the museums in New York is accompanied with its detailed background”

Substantiating her point that most in the country hardly show any interest in revisiting the past, Monikhaa, a passionate lover of antiquities, recalls how the illiterate people in Chennai used to call a museum in Egmore as ‘Seththa College’ or ‘The College for the dead’ ! 
The art critic, who presented her research papers in the symposia conducted at various places in India and abroad, says that she has a great flair for studying Jain art.
Recalling the records found in various pieces of literature on the Shaivite king Koon Pandiyan’s impaling a total of 8000 Tamil Jains in Madurai, Monikhaa even explains the cruel scene from the picture of a sculpture. 

“Though much in Tamil literature including the masterpieces like Silapathikaram, Neelakesi and  Soolamani were the contributions by Jain scholars, it is sad that even in museums the statuettes of Jain Tirtankaras are not given importance on par with the Chola bronzes” she rues.  

Link to my article in The New Indian Express:http://epaper.newindianexpress.com/c/4291191

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Ayirai Malai, Aivar Malai, Ayyar Malai!

The cave, where once the Jain monks stayed atop the hill Aivar Malai near Palani, is now a shelter for bats, snakes and other venomous reptiles. As few people dare to enter the cave, it is difficult, even to the locals, to say definitely where the path inside the cave leads to. However, the bas-reliefs of the Tirtankaras and the stone inscriptions found on the face of the cave throw light on the popularity of Jain culture in the Kongu region around 12 centuries ago.  

Despite the hill being called ‘Aivar Malai’ it is a corruption of ‘Ayirai Malai’ as this was how it is mentioned in Pathitru Paththu, a compilation of poems sung on Chera kings of the Sangam period. Moreover, a stone inscription found on the mountain also mentions the hill as ‘Ayirai Malai’

While praising the Chera king Palyaanai Chelkezhu Kuttuvan, Sangam age Tamil poet Paalai Gauthamanar, admires him as ‘The monarch of Ayirai Hill’ and informs that the king also worshipped Ayirai, the female deity, after whom the hill was named.  The Tamil lexicon of the University of Madras also informs that Ayirai Malai is the name of a hill in the Chera country, nine miles west of Palani, now called Aivar-malai
Though the hill contains the bas-reliefs of as many as 16 Tirtankaras, locals call them as Yudhisthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula and Sahadeva - the Pancha Pandavas or the five sons in Mahabharatha! They also say that the hill was named as ‘Aivar Malai’ since it was once a hideout for the ‘five’ Pandavas!

But, the stone inscriptions in ancient Tamil Vattezhuththu found below the bas-reliefs call the Tirtankaras as ‘Ayirai Malai Thevars’. With the Tamil expression ‘Palli’ itself meaning a Jain school, the mention of certain places as ‘Sri Vadapalli’ and ‘Sri Ayyapalli’ throws light on the existence of Jain schools around the hill. Moreover, the inscriptions have also recorded the names of certain Jain school students who made the bas-reliefs. Interestingly, the mention of a female Jain school student as ‘Avvananthi Kurathiyaar’ and her woman teacher as ‘Pattini Kurathiyaar’ throws light on the excellence of Jain Tamil women in education.  

A mountain spring at Aivar Malai
Emerging against the Vedic religion’s barbaric practices of sacrificing animals in Yagnas and discriminating people based on birth, Jainism became popular in the country including the Kongu region. But, unable to bear its fame, Shaivism, a Hindu sect, shrouded the Jain history in its Puranas and incorporated even the Jain Tirtankaras as Hindu deities.

Similarly, it was easy for Hinduism to associate Ayirai Malai with Pancha Pandavas by cleverly using the place name’s corruption from ‘Ayirai Malai’ to ‘Aivar Malai’ Perhaps, in future it may even be called as ‘Ayyar Malai’ after a new tale that Brahmins  meditated on the hill !  

Source- Aivar Malai – Epigraphist D.Sundaram 

Link to my article in The New Indian Express: http://epaper.newindianexpress.com/c/4188243