Friday, December 28, 2007

Customs, Traditions, Greetings and Stories

By Vijay Prabhat Kamalakara

Its fascinating how we all dutifully follow customs that we are not even aware exist. There are things we do by habit, and over time most of us have grown so immune to them that we never stop to ask why we are doing them.

Our heads automatically bow when we greet someone, especially someone elder to us. Not to the extent of a Japanese greeting but there is always that subtle hint of servility. Have you ever asked yourself why?

The reasons lie deep in our ancient scriptures, which detail five different ways of greeting a person, the simple Namaste being one of them. The others include rising to welcome a person, touching someone’s feet, and even prostrating fully on the ground. Namaste in Sanskrit literally means I bow to you’. And hence the symbolic bowing that accompanies the gesture. Most of us might not be aware of this literal translation, but we still bow our heads slightly anyway, even when we are saying hello.

There are innumerable such examples where our subconscious minds follow a custom without our being aware of it. I asked my mother why she wears a bindi. She gave me an explanation which seemed to make sense but was very different from the one my grandmother gave, which also made sense. I collected a few more explanations from others and realized there are at least three plausible reasons that seemed most accepted.

One explanation is that it started as a caste mark, with different castes wearing different colours. Even today we see the Iyers and Iyengars sporting two very different marks on their forehead.

Another explanation is based on yogic philosophy. The area between the eyebrows (where the bindi is placed) is believed to be the seat of wisdom. It is believed that during meditation, latent energy from the body rises to the fore-head, with the central point, the bindu, therefore becoming a possible outlet for this energy. The bindi lies between the eyebrows to cool the forehead and retain this potent energy within the human body.

That a bindi symbolizes the mystic third eye and is said to protect you against demons or bad luck, is another explanation.

To my mind, it really doesn’t matter which is the right explanation. There is usually more than one fascinating story behind each custom we follow. We are a country of believers. We believe first, and then find a way to justify the belief. Our vast bed of mythology gives us enough opportunities to come up with creative explanations for any of our idiosyncrasies. So what starts with a very practical objective, might soon attain a mythical and then religious dimensions, as more and more people start practicing it.

All leading to an assortment of customs, mores, festivals, beliefs, and practices, that makes India so culturally rich and colourful. And what fascinates me the most about all this, is the fact that we are all so comfortable following the same customs, often for very different reasons.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Sadras: Or how to ambush a fort in the 21st century

By Kiran Watwani

Once upon a time, a few kilometers away from modern Chennai, was a prosperous weavers’ settlement called Rajanarayanan Pattinam, named after a Sambuvarayar cheiftain 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 cant 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 SadrasSadras is inside the town of Kalpakkam, on East Coast Road, 16 kms from Mahabalipuram, 70 kms south of Chennai.Nearest Airport: ChennaiNearest Rail Hub: Chennai

PPPS: come back soon for pics update!!