Posted in Socio-Cultural

The Swamy Photo Shops (Swamy photo kadai)

This is not about photoshop but about shops that sold photos or pictures.

We Indians are way too familiar with photo shops that line our temple streets and the temple towns where framed pictures of Hindu deities of all sizes are painted-printed to be sold for a price to the devout. Practising Hindus revere two relics in the puja (home service or altar): framed pictures from the photo shops and/or ‘vigrahas’ (small stone/metal carvings/sculptures/idols). We inherit some as heirlooms passed over for generations in the family; we go for the latest prints of our deities as well to suit our home decor. There are then the laminated ones for our desktops. There are photographs from temples of the murthis as well. Photo shops cater to our devotional cravings and there are some of us who are even ‘collectors.’ I have friends who boast of collections of Tanjore paintings that have been the rage for some time. Personally for me, the Tanjore art is for aesthetics never for Puja. Nevertheless, I love to browse through these religious photo shops that have a variety to choose from: the black & whites to enameled and embossed works with silver and even gold filigrees. Gods and Goddesses at their finest! I have even feasted my eyes on rarest depictions of Raam, Lakshman, Bharatha, Hanuman in which Raam is not at all looking good! There are antique finishes in photo kadais although now I am not sure whether the faded look is manufactured digitally these days. I wonder where the sepia tinted Lakshmi and Saraswathi from my parents’ home went. The ageing of those pictures was natural lending them an ethereal look. I do now have the Raja Rajeshwari like a reigning queen in my puja, from my in-laws home that has been with the family for over a hundred years. I have not retouched it or tried to restore it. I merely changed the frame as the old teak one had given away and the picture was exposed to damages.

As a Mylaporean, I have spent hours and years walking in the four Mada streets looking at the swami photo shops. Dutifully every morning on way to school I would say a small prayer to all the deities that graced us girls from within the wall of those shops. The frames then were wood. Now what we have for frames is either metal or plastic variant that however comes with a wood finish. Except for the artistically done Tanjore painting that is hoisted over teak frames, none else merits a wood frame these days.

The city has swami photo shops in every locality but it is those in Mylapore that are always special to me. I also have the habit of getting at least a small photo or vigraha from whichever temple town I visit like for a memento. My Puja articles such as bronze/copper diyas, deepa aarthi etc., are from the temple town of Tirupathi. In my parents’ family, always the puja paathiram (articles) for the newly wed were gotten from Alarmel Mangapuram in Keezh Tirupathi even if we daughters of the family were also gifted another set in sterling silver (as ‘seer’) (that we would secure in the bank lockers to use only for our kids). Years of hoarding small framed pictures and vigrahas have added to my collection and now my puja has become a bit staggering! Not really, but I wish I could keep it modest. However, every swamy photo in my puja can tell a story. Nothing was bought over the counter like a commodity. Guruvayurappan came home for instance from Guruvayur, where in 1996 I and my husband gave ‘tulabharam’ to our son in the temple. By the way, the kadai veedhi of Guruvayur is spectacular with the perpetual air of festivity about it !!! A second time, I got a small pair of Kerala kuthuvilakku from the same Guruvayur sannadhi street.

Tirupathi sannadhi street/kadai veedhi was a craze for me when we used to go to the seven hills every year for a darshan. My Mallikarjuna is from Sri Sailam, Kanaka Durga from Vijayawada, Udipi Krishna from Udipi, Mookambika from Kollur, Sharadhamba from Sringeri, Lalithambika from Thirumeeyachur. Satya Narayana was lovingly gifted by my Chithappa (as I observe the Pournami vratham) who also with my Chithi gifted me the first ‘traditional five’ photo: Pillayar, Lakshmi, Saraswathi, Murugan and Perumal. We all start our life (thani kuduthanam) with those basic five in single frame! No business runs in India without these five who are important for success in any and everything. Another prized frame is Lalitha Parameshwari, printed from handdrawn painting by the Sringeri seer. That edition is sold off now. Our Arni Perumal (from the Shiva Vishnu temple of our family whose presiding deity is Perumal, with Shiva in a small sannadhi) is juxtaposed against Tirumala in a framed picture in my puja, due credits for which go to a cousin for his literal photoshop work. I have Varahi from the Varahi homams I attended for years every Amavasya. I have Sarabeshwara again from my chithappa both of which I was discouraged from having. A believer in forgiving gods and never in punishing ones, I went ahead with having them and they are with me for over 15 years now. In the Padikasunathar temple near Kumbakonam, the archaka returned our mint fresh 10 rupee notes after placing them in Shiva’s feat that I framed for puja. Looks as if I am worshiping Gandhi, but then why not. Love him or hate him, he was an exceptional humanbeing. Perhaps not a cult guru but a teacher nevertheless.

There is something in our family puja (in our community) that is not sold in shops, and this the shivaite sign of our family tree representing our Kula deivam. My mother used to do ours in a wood block anointing it with turmeric and vermillion but i decided to paint my in-laws’ heritage in yellow and red symbolically in a piece of wood. This is a distinct mark of our lineage and although now I am trying to wriggle out of these binding roots, I respect and revere them immensely. Our Arni ancestral home is like a repository for aged swami photos handdrawn and/or painted originally supported by teak or rosewood frames. I picture the great grandfathers and their wives and families in this house whenever I visit. The palatial home had once mounted within its high ceilinged, beamed and pillared spaces, original Ravi Vermas. Or perhaps very first copies from an era when colour photographs were still leagues away.

There are connoisseurs of God’s pictures like these. Serious collectors. Like those who go for offbeat Meenakshi Sundareshwara, Kanyakumari, Ma Durga etc . I recall Devi names among other protective avatars during my everyday puja. The deities whose names I chant aloud have surprisingly made their way to my puja. That is how Annapurna reached me from Kashi/Varnasi, and Vaishno Devi reached me from Kashmir. I have even Pashupathinath from Nepal received as gift. These last three are in my puja in middle east. I love looking at puja of friends. I love the oldest/ancient pictures and the inheritance mostly. Tanjore paintings are not really my cup of tea. They do not serve the purpose being ornamental, so far as I am concerned. But I do have two. My chithi chithappa gifted me the baby Krishna for housewarming. My friends gifted Radha Krishna for my son’s wedding. Tanjore art though brings in good vibes.

An important itinerary of my girls gang temple tour is a walk through the mada veedhis or the sannadhi streets of our temple towns, taking stock of framed pictures, antique shops, trivia shops that sold the old parama padham, pallankuzhi etc., the bronze and the copper shops, the claypot shops. I love this kind of nostalgic trips always. With friends, it is even best. It transports me back to the 80s. For Kabali temple utsavam, my grandma used to give me two rupees every year. I used to buy peacock feather from the gypsies with the money. Now i greatly regret it. How many peacocks were forcibly plucked for their feathers! But the thiruvizha kadai veedhi on utsavam days still stays fresh in my memory. The ‘theradi.’

A visit to the temple where I used to frequent every single day of my life until I married washed me over with memories of photo shops. This is still good business as I noted. I walked into one and picked up a bright print on impulse. The shopkeeper asked me if I lived nearby. I said, I did until 28 years ago. Some of my swami pictures are from this shop – the ones that my chithappa gifted. I told the man I used to stop even at this shop everyday for a quick blessing from the divine on my way to school. The owner chuckled saying it was common in those days.

I thought how many small trades India supported. How many varied occupations survived in India, the likes of which you cannot find in any other corner of the globe! How innovative! I think the charm of India is this. I just did not have the heart to move out of the small shop where there was hardly room for more than a couple to browse comfortably. I wanted every single picture of God from the shop! What a beauty is this Sri Rama Seetha Pattabhishegam. I remembered I still did not own one! The dull finish handpainted one was priced at 9k so for the moment I have postponed my swami photo shopping urge. There are many, many more like for instance the Shiva family. The romantic Muruga with Valli Deivanai with the peacock making a beautiful backdrop – a rare angle handpainted frame. Krishna grazing and playing flute. Bala. Lalitha. I loved the different depictions as well, not the conventional always.

Swami photo shop windowshopping reminded me how retail therapy alone is not solution to everything (for bored housewives especially)! At the end of the day. our heart knows what matters. We embrace peace without even knowing it. Most of us underestimate ourselves rating us as materialistic. In the swami photo shop I was thinking like, how i wished i could have one and all of the swamis and a big, big puja and nothing else in life. For a moment, that is the way I felt. My one regret in life is my apartment living where I do not have a puja room. I have to make do with a puja cabinet, that is all. It may be ok, but the swami photo shop reminded me how selfish we are to relegate a mere corner space in our home for our puja. In my parents home as well as old joint family home of in-laws, the puja was a separate room with a door and padlock.

I have decided to repeat the swami photo shop strolls in future at regular intervals. I do not mean in this context the latest showrooms catering to our spiritual needs like the one we have near Kabali temple. I am referring to single standalone swami photo shops that specialize in swami photos and framing. These are another category.

I love the kumkum, chandan shops as well. The archana thattu shops. The glass bangle shops. The flower shops. The thengai mandi. Arisi mandi. Woodpressed oil stores that are now back in business. Coffee bean grinding outlets. Now even Mylapore has deteriorated beyond recognition. Gone is the kind of temple town situated around the tank and temple that we grew up in. Yet those like the swami photo kadais survive against all odds retaining a stubborn foothold in the competitive world where to stay alive is phenomenal. The swami photo kadais are one of the last bits of connection some of us retain with the old world we have lost: that of our parents. I felt such a swell of fulfillment last evening having spent half an hour in a swami photo kadai and an hour and a half in a spiritual store, the kind of which we normally derive from a hearty darshan in temples.

Posted in Socio-Cultural

Malaysia Open House.

Not everything is fine everywhere every time. We can only roughly speak of the average expected scene. Standard deviations characterize every homogenous sample. Statistics is all about this small but strategic variance.

Our time in Malaysia saw us celebrating Diwali in this south east Asian nation: 1997-2001. Exactly two decades before.

Malaysia is a potpourri of cultures. So much diplomacy is involved in maintaining the delicate balance naturally. Three mutually exclusive ethnic groups with nothing in common except for humanity. How do you keep going

There are injustices inherent in the fabric of any society and Malaysia is no exception, but that is made up for with the industriousness of the population. Malaysian citizens make conscious efforts to overcome the differences in the interests of their nation.

Malays, the bhumiputras (going by ironically the sanskrit name) are the sons of the soil who have reservation in universities to government positions. They are licensees for businesses without whose shareholding stake, you cannot run a profitable venture. You can of course keep your malay partner dormant opting to merely transferring a ‘cut’ which is kind of regular practice there. This is how things operate in this country. Indians and Chinese were brought to this tropical nation to work the rubber plantations and palm and tea estates, by the British.

In 1969, Malaysia saw civil war and blood ran like a river in KL, they say. With that our friends told us that they swore never to repeat the bloody saga again. For the motherland’s sake the malaysians decided to go for peace and harmony.

Malaysians interwove new national customs and traditions into their social calendar rug to keep themselves warm and snug in friendship and cordiality. One such invented local and original custom was hosting ‘Open house.’ Not limited to a particular community, all the three ethnic groups of Malaysia viz., Malays, Chinese and Indians would have open house for their major community festival. It meant, the Malays threw open their houses to the public for Eid (called Hari Raya in Malay), chinese for the Chinese new year and the Indians for Deepavali. An open house meant, any stranger could walk in to the host’s place and he/she would be toasted to a feast. Malaysians would have a lavish spread of their native cuisines as also continental to suit every palette. Mostly the open houses began as brunch and extended well into late evenings. In kumpungs or hamlets, the crowd turning out wouldn’t be excessive. You could expect a number. In cities it was always a challenge for the hosts. The chinese and malay open houses were popular for their meat and seafood fare. The Indian homes were famous for namkeens and mithais, our traditional laddoos, jelebis, murukkus etc., apart from the curry masala.

In 1998, we were invited to one such a Diwali open house by an affluent chettiar family in KL. Their extended family were in Bangsar, Wangsa Maju and Klang. As I could not still bring myself to host big parties, I was exempted from having an open house in our place. But the three families did give me a date and once came home together to my utter daze! That was the first time I had to cook for over twenty guests at a time single handedly! Anyway, our chettiar friends’ open house used to be very popular. Queues would form in front of their gates in those days and aunty and uncle would routinely send boys and girls to fetch more groceries and provisions to keep the kitchen fires burning as the crowds would show no signs of relenting! It is only in last five years or so, we have lost touch with these good friends.

Open houses had malays and chinese eating at Indian homes for Diwali, malays and indians eating at the chinese for chinese new year and indians and chinese eating at malays’ for Hari raya (Eid). That somehow always moved me. It was one time the malaysians put aside their differences and got together as one family. That kind of bonhomie, even if forced, was practised with good intentions. It got put paid with years. Despite increasing differences and widening gulf, open houses united malaysians three times an year beyond all doubts and uncertainties.

Never did I see a single fire cracker light up the malaysian skies – their economy was better than ours way back. I am not sure about current scene. Diwalis in Malaysia are more memorable to me for totally different reasons. Malaysian Indian (Tamil) women are very efficient. They would cook up a feast in no time. For Diwali they would start a week earlier and do dozen tins of murukkus and tins of cookies and pastries. The last would be the Indian sweets and other savouries. Diwali day would see cooking grand festival specials. Hospitality thy other name is Malaysia. If you are a non vegetarian, then the sky could be your limit! As a vegetarian I had a tough time in Malaysia, I agree, but Indian homes and restaurants had vegetarian cuisine keeping in mind our veggie sensitivities. Food dissolves many a wall of separation. Food mellows men.

There is also the culture of street food for supper in Malaysia. It is usually by 6 to 8 pm in the evenings -a good time for working staff to together and relax and relieve tensions. This is one time and one place where you can see the dignity of labour preserved: there is no class or community divide in the hour after work, a big takeaway for all of us from all ranks of life.

The Malaysia of 2021 is not the same as the one we left in 2001 say friends. My heart feels heavy hearing this. I hope the open house custom continues to flourish in their green plateaus. Malaysia was the envy of many world nations for preserving communal harmony in those days. Let not that magic go wrong.

In Terengganu my Malay muslim friend (woman) drove me once to a Hindu temple. She did not sit in the car. She came in with me and had a darshan of the deity! Every time she drove to her kumpong near Penang, she would come back with ‘kuihs’ – the steamed sweet dumplings for vegetarian me. So would my hubby’s chinese colleagues who also remembered me when they came across something vegetarian. I received tins and tins of cookies and pastries for chinese new year and hari raya.

The malays were muslims, the indians mostly hindus and the chinese mostly christian. Three totally different ethnic factions with equally different belief systems fused into single entity called Malaysia. Race and tongue hardly mattered in this hearty union. Malays and chinese pierced ‘vel’ in their tongues and body for the Hindu god Muruga in Batu Caves carrying ‘kavadi.’ Diwali and Thai Poosam are national holidays in this islamic nation. Tamil is one of the national languages and also one of the three mediums of instructions. Malay friends used to tell us they were extremely proud of their Hindu ancestry. They do retain many Hindu customs even now. For instance they light the diyas like us hindus for Eid! They have not completely got ridden of their Hindu roots and unlike our Indian muslims, have no problem admitting to their Hindu heritage.

The spirit of festivals lies in sharing and caring, not keeping everything to ourselves. There can be no fun in hurting nature. I have done that in the past. I wouldn’t want to repeat it now. It is ok to revise our stands with age.

Very much critical of the conversion mafia, I spare no words when it comes to condemning terror either. Love for your motherland is love for nature and wildlife, to me.

Visiting places as tourist or guest is different. Living in various and contrasting places is an experience. This gives one a chance to learn and unlearn and relearn things in life. We become aware of our own merits and shortcomings. We also discover others’ pluses and minuses. We discover there is peace and harmony in unity. The universal goodness finally finds a place in your heart. Nothing can stop me from imbibing the best from other cultures. I have tambram friends here whose kids fast for ramzan on their parents’ advice. To that extent we grow spiritually and emotionally when we live in hostile territory (by hostile i mean here a third country than ours). When in comfort zone, we have no reason to consider uncomfortable reality. We forget that millions and millions of Hindus are gainfully employed in middle east. Ask any Indian citizen including orthodox Hindu, he/she will vouch for the safety and security we have come to appreciate in our second home in this part of the world.

This Diwali let us light up our hearts with broadmindedness. I don’t have to feel the same way I felt five years back or even five days back. I can reevaluate my options and review the past. I can make changes. I don’t erase past records because, they are a proof of how I mature into an individual. Self contradiction is natural. My blog is a reflection of my changing moods and revised thoughts.

Posted in Socio-Cultural

When Casteism And Racism Meant Business

Chanced upon this interesting and intriguing argument on casteism and racism prevalent in India and across the world in general, in social media recently. Apparently racism as well as casteism meant economic prosperity to a section of community at the cost of others’ (subjugated). Never thought of it this way until now but then, how come we missed something that was right before our eyes all these years…

Racism in America led to American prosperity with the African blacks brought to the continent as bonded slaves to work their ranches and cotton fields. Cheap labour was also the need of the hour when the great American railway was laid across the country for thousands of miles. It meant, a section of humanity (or was it humanity at all) prospered at the expense of the most vulnerable and gullible.

Same holds true for colonization of most Asian nations and African countries and Latin America by Europeans. Paying bare minimum and extracting maximum became the economic principle for profiteering for which playing the racial card suited best. Substitution of native faiths and belief systems with Abrahamic Christianity and Islam made the colonized develop low self esteem.

India hardly fared better when it came to discrimination among sons of the soil. Whereas the Europeans practised segregation and racism only with the alien they conquered, in India, casteism was thrust upon unsuspecting fellow sons of the soil on basis of birth citing scriptures even as Hindu Dharma remained freewill and not an organized religion. Such a way of life must have only united us more as humans than dividing. I am perplexed that injustice was allowed at all to thrive for millennia. Upper castes hugely benefited by consigning menial and low paying works to the suppressed classes. What are the communities that dwelt in the city center with access to resources such as temple tanks, wells etc., for centuries. There are Agraharas, Vanniya (Baniya) streets, Chetti streets, Mudali streets, etc. typically around any ancient temple (even today). The city/town/village plan was thus devised that the social hierarchy prevailed in the townplanning. Social hierarchy also directly correlated to one’s wealth and landholdings. However the scheduled castes/tribes never were residents of structured city planning in Indian history. Was this not landgrabbing at all, confining the poorest and weakest to the fringes of our civil society. Today we talk of landgrabbing by criminal gangs and vested interestes. Is it really landgrabbing or taking back one’s denied share to prime property. (Here we can find parallels with even reservation in education and government jobs.) Can you find an old mansion that ancestrally belonged to Dalit community in the city center of any of India’s towns or villages or cities. Some hotcake real estate that was in their families for generations like many of us may boast of until today. It has been possible for them to live within city limits only in last 50 years. Bhoodhan movement led by Shri Vinoba Bhave played an effective role in just and equitable redistribution of landholdings to marginal farmers in India’s poorest districts in post-independence era.

Like real estate holdings, education is merely another arena where the privilege of learning was hard fought and won for some communities. Reservation quotas came into force for this reason. But why should that surprise us when even the right to worship had to be legally sanctioned for this lot. The heroes who championed such a noble cause are today character assassinated every single day in our social media, with their good work conveniently brushed under the carpet.

Anyway. Tides are turning. Nature has a way of correcting imbalances with its own checks and readjustments. I am a firm believer in Karma and Dharma. Let not at the same time, asserting and reclaiming one’s rights become justification for vandalization, arson and rowdyism on part of the scheduled communities. Whatever said, one cannot turn back the clock. Frustration and bitterness can well be channelized into beneficial pursuits of development and progress.

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My recommendations:

Twelve year a slave (Hollywood)

Pariyerum Perumal (Tamil)

I respect the way the heroes in these two flicks handled discrimination and injustice and at the same time ensured that they did not get consumed by hate in the process of reclaiming their rights. There is a rare dignity in both of the characters.

Posted in Socio-Cultural

The Hindu Difference

Found on the dashboard of the tuk tuk I hired this morning (a very regular sight in India) :

Needless to say, the autowallah was Hindu. Glittering on his forehead was a bold Kumkum (vermilion) dot over dried sandal paste and Vibhuti (made of incensed wood ash). The picture was one good testimony to the so-called ‘Unity in Diversity’ we practise in India. Of harmony and peace.  Of tolerance and acceptance. Of equality and secularism and mutual respect. The only snag about the framed picture is, this is something that adorns only most Hindu/Hindu managed/run schools, hospitals, hotels, cabs, shops and business establishments. Something that can never be spotted in a christian or muslim institution of whatever kind. Apparently,  secularism and tolerance is one way street in India. Limited and advised and restricted to Hindus. The minorities of India viz., christians and muslims are exempted by all means and secularism loosely translates to ‘majority bashing’ in this nation.

Striking up a conversation with the autowallah, I came to hearing him narrate a story that explained the difference between the Sanathana Dharma (universal faith or Hinduism) and the Abrahamic folds that originated in Middle East (Christianity and Islam).

A ‘sadhu’ watched a scorpion drowning in a pond. He quickly pulled it out of water when he got stung by the poisonous creature. He let out a wail in pain and in the hand movement, the scorpion slipped back into the pond. Unfettered, the sadhu once again took the scorpion out of the pond only to get stung once more by the vicious one. A bystander walked upto the sadhu and asked him, why knowing the scorpion would sting the sadhu decided to take it out of water. Why couldn’t he let it drown.

The sadhu replied that, stinging the hand that saved (or fed) it was scorpion’s DNA. Saving its life still was his human nature knowing and expecting the pain of the sting and venom.

The simple autowallah explained to me how noble Hindu dharma is. We Hindus historically took the pain and miserable suffering in our stride refusing to retaliate even in self-defence. It is only in last few years, you see the Hindu resurgence. Even now we are only in the defensive. The Hindu is sick of being trampled upon and terrorized and betrayed and taken for a ride. The dormant, complacent Hindu is waking up to bitter reality. Unlike the sadhu of the story, the Hindu has no further options to save himself. If he does not strike back, he may have to face extinction.

I told the autowallah, that was super. ‘So I hope you won’t convert if bribed or coerced or terrorized?’ I asked him hopefully. ‘Nope’ he assured me, ‘M’am I know the Abrahamics are predatory but I can take care of myself.’ I need not have worried. The young man came across as a wise and strong individual. ‘If even the Hindus and Buddhists have to rally to protect themselves today, it means the end of the world is nearing’ I told him. He nodded his head in affirmation. ‘I feel good seeing this picture in your three wheeler but I know i will never see it in a christian/muslim cab.’ ‘Sad reality’ he agreed, ‘we Hindus are always the givers and the others are always the takers. Finally there comes a breaking point. This cannot go on forever. When there is no mutual reciprocation, balance will have to be restored. Things have to be set right.’

I bid a happy good bye to the fellow as I alighted from his rocking auto (not a comfortable ride really). My Puja already has a sealed copper urn of Ganga jal (holy water from river Ganga) sitting aside Zam Zam from Mecca that came from an Arab friend. Couldn’t refuse such a gift when it was offered without asking. I thought it was a sign and put it in my Puja. That must have been over ten years back. In spite of criticizing Islam and muslims and Christianity and christians, I cannot bring myself to show disrespect or disparity to Zam Zam treating it any different. I revere both the holy waters in my Puja. The Hindu in me would not allow anything less than that. In every cathedral I came across in Europe and Georgia, neither could I stop myself from saying a prayer to Christ. I asked for His pardon for deriding the faith that He founded. He must guess as to what drives passive Hindus like me to take on our adversaries headlong. Of course, I also asked Jesus to stop Vatican from converting Hindus and other natives forthwith!

 

 

Posted in Socio-Cultural

Shall We Have A Greener Cleaner Hinduism?

44037820_10211907449393979_2846391456896122880_nI originally blogged this in 2013, at least an year before BJP govt of Modi was sworn in after 2014 Lok Sabha elections, so this has nothing to do with current Sabarimala crisis. Reproduced with some ‘edits’

Let us get offended for right reasons. It’s not anyone’s prerogative to harm Mother Nature, and champions of the environmental cause are green warriors, not pseudo liberals.

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April 28, 2013

An ardent Hindu, I am still not blind to how environmentally polluting our ways of worship are.

Everytime i light an oil lamp in my Pooja, i think of the billion homes lighting up the traditional diya all over India morning and evening just like me… and of our million temples lighting millions of lamps for their part….

I am worshiper of the sacred Diya myself – the lamp, the DEEP, the DIYA, the JYOTHI SWAROOP, that which dispels darkness which is supposed to be the manifestation of the very ‘light of knowledge’ we seek…

Still how many of us stop to think, how much we are heating up planet Earth with our religious practices that were perhaps once justified but may not be justifiable in present times… how many degrees we keep adding year after year to our annual average temperature without any second thoughts? India has definitely warmed up  like never before  in last two decades… to which how much exactly is our religious contribution any guess?

I know its next to impossible even for the rational me to stop lighting the ‘diya’  in my home – its unthinkable, inauspicious…  Age old custom, its pretty tough to shake off this practice in a day, granted.  So  i can imagine how others around me must feel like on the issue… and as for our temples that light tens of thousands of lights every single day… what will happen to them without the ‘deep?’

Hinduism without the lit lamps is hard to imagine.  The flame, the ‘jyothi’ is the light of our very own lives.  Everything for us focuses on ‘light’ – the lamp.  After all, our biggest national festival is ‘Diwali’ (Deepavali), the festival of lights.  The lamps are our identity, like the bindhi (the dot) on our women’s forehead and the sari we drape…  How to put off the lamp ever in this nation of ours without a whisper?

So when we have to rethink even about our oil diyas in my opinion, the question of chemical fire crackers does not even arise. A green Diwali and a cleaner chemical-free colourful Holi are the need of the hour. Immersion of painted Ganeshas (Ganesh Visarjan) and Kalis in our water bodies killing the marine life in the belt also has to be stopped forthwith. Is it anti-Hindu when we sound sane and logical.

One keeps hearing of Global Warming everywhere, especially in India.  In my city, even the lower middle class homes can afford at least a single air-conditioner in harsh summers, so think of how much we are heating up planet earth every summer.  Combined with the religious effect, think of the sum total warming up of our immediate ground atmosphere… (Not even taking into account the air pollution owing to vehicular traffic and fuel exhaust here).

So its ridiculous that year after year we must be complaining of erratic monsoons and melting glaciers and deficient rainfall, or in short Climate Change.  Try explaining to our masses,  the heat that must be generated by a billion lamps through out the country for years, for decades, for centuries and their effect on our environment … but this is one country where reasoning never works!

While i am kind of a believer in most of our rituals (i am not saying they are completely meaningless),  which i understand have hidden contexts,  I am increasingly concerned about the harm we are doing to our environment with our rituals.  The rituals mean more to me for the Sanskrit mantras chanted which are supposed to have neuro linguistic and psycho linguistic benefits.  Look at the Yagna here that is using up so much of precious potable water, a scarce product in many arid Indian states that might be reeling under drought wrought in by failed monsoons. (One may come up with argument about bath tubs at homes and hotels).

The Yagnas or the Homas.  No Hindu marriage or housewarming or whatever is complete without this great Hindu religious ritual in which fire plays a major role.  The holy fire I mean.  In our wedding muhurat, the couples have to walk around the holy fire ‘Agni’ for  seven times that will be alight for hours as sanskrit mantras are chanted in chorus by priests …. and for most of our ceremonies like death anniversaries, birthdays for children etc, again the homa fires in the homagunda will be lit for hours raising a big smoke… into which we pour everything from ghee (clarified butter), dried twigs, Nava Dhania (the nine food grains like pulses), flowers, fruits, even silk clothes, coins (gold if you can afford)….  because we believe giving the holy fire these things means our offerings will reach the Gods directly though the Agni medium which is one of the purest, and one of the five major natural elements of Earth (the other four being the air, the earth, the water, the sky)

Not denying i have participated in homams in my own family, but even the staunchest believer in me keeps questioning always why should so much be put to wastage by our religious practices.  Isn’t there a different way?  Can’t our Gods hear our prayers by any other means?  Should our Gods have to be essentially bribed this way?!

One of our greatest temple rituals is ‘Abhishegam/Abhishek.’  This means bathing our ‘Murthis’ (idol or vigrahas) with water, curds, honey, milk, panchaamirtham (made out five fruits), etc after application of oil to the dieties.  Imagine this done to all Hindu deities through out India in thousands and thousands of temples.  After the ‘abhishek’ or’abhishegam’ is complete, we decorate our deities with floral garlands, silk clothes and gold and diamond jewelery.  An Archana‘ follows which means invoking the Lord’s and/or His Missus’ names 108 times or so with floral tributes.  While i until today revel at the darshan of my Mother Goddess and Her Consort Shiva  (and other gods and goddesses as the case may be) in their finest adornments in our temples, i can’t help wondering at all that which go waste in the name of these rituals…

Fortunately, a Hindu mind is trained in a way never to get carried over by superficial adornments of our deities that despite all the finery glittering in temples, we are still able to focus on the One Supreme – for in the bright ‘thejas’ face of the Lord and/or His Missus, we see infinite contentment, happiness, well being, prosperity, wisdom, health, all goodness of the world.   So that’s one thing that eludes me completely…. that despite my skeptical views on temple rituals, i am unable to draw myself away from all this, that i am drawn like a bee to the nector when the abhishegam and archana are complete and when its moment for the ultimate ‘Darshan.’ 

I have stood in hour long queues for ‘darshans’  so who am I kidding.  Yet i wonder, is this the way it is supposed to be, like whether we have reduced it all to one over-powering physical ‘darshan’ – a view of the reigning deity in all His/Her grandeur….

I wonder if its blasphemous to even write like this… but then i am a believer in a forgiving God always, a reasoning God and NEVER IN A PUNISHING GOD.   One of the greatest advantages of being a Hindu is, you can be an atheist and still you are a Hindu!  The very nature of Hinduism which is all encompassing, permits this!

Quote unquote :

……  No two paths need be alike  ……     that one is most a Hindu when one is least a Hindu. Hinduism’s propensity to absorb a multitude of thoughts including even atheism makes it, at times, inscrutable to its own followers….

http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/postkumbh-mela-the-sangam-presents-an-unholy-sight/article4661217.ece

I am not pro-Kumbh and it saddens me terribly to see how we mindlessly pollute the life-giving rivers of our land with our blind beliefs.  Respect and reverence shown to our water sources is best illustrated with maintaining the water bodies clean and the water potable and useful for irrigation purposes for which they are meant.  Rivers are our lifeline.  Millenniums ago, perhaps we could afford the luxury of a Kumbh Mela, but can we in this 21st century wherein  future wars are predicted to be fought over water?

I don’t want to add here how some north Indians dispose off their dead in the flowing Ganga. Its too distressing and gory.  In our families mostly we cremate the dead.  We have completely switched over to electric crematorium at least in cities these days which is a big relief.  Even in our death, we seem to add smoke to our clear skies ….because in villages all over India, the dead of this billion strong nation are cremated with fresh wood cut from trees.  The wealthier you are, the costlier is the wood for your pyre like the sandalwood.

Having blogged about my disgust on use of elephants in our temples only very recently, i wish to make the point once again:

https://vijiravindran.com/2017/02/12/stop-cruelty-to-elephants-in-the-name-of-religion-now/

Elephant habitat has shrunk drastically over years in India. When ‘Ashrams‘ spring up in elephant corridors we do not condemn them because we have the bargaining chip called Tourist Resorts. Finally, we shall wake up when the last Lord Ganesha will vanish for good from our Punya Bhoomi.

After all this i confess, i am a passionate Hindu at heart always….while i believe most of our rituals held some hidden meaning centuries back perhaps, time is now ripe for a revolution to redefine our beliefs in rituals.   What is wrong with self-introspection?

I am for a Green & Eco-friendly Hinduism always if that can be made possible in my lifetime like a miracle somehow.  I deliberately miss lighting my lamp twice a week atleast – my small contribution for a start to keep global warming a bit low.  I wish we could be Eco-Friendly Hindus somehow.

There are many ways we south Indians are eco-friendly by culture.  In our weddings, we still serve feasts on washed banana leaves and not on plates.  The used banana leaves used to be fed to cows in the sheds in olden days.  I am not sure how the used banana leaves are disposed off these days.

To a population that reveres nature so much with worshiping the flora of fauna of the universe, why is not there the realization on the flip side of this ancient culture?

Having said all this, would it be ever possible for me to go 100% green with my faith….  i do not want to lie, the transformation will be tough and testy but can be done step by step over a period of time.  I wish i get encouragement from family and friends.  I wish i could cut down on rituals boldly without being labelled an outcast and keep my faith at heart with just my prayer Mantras ….   the Gods i believe in will be more than happier for the new believing me…

Convincing a billion Hindus around the world on the subject is another impossibility. How anyone should go about it is not clear, because like Christianity or Islam, the world’s oldest faith Hinduism does not have a religious book like the Bible or Quran, does not have a governing body like the Church or the Mosque and has no prophets or messengers from God like The Christ or Mohammad and no religious head like the Pope or the Maulvi….,,, Hindu Dharma is a way of life, way of life for over 6,000 years or perhaps older without all these elaborate set-up or disciplinary control… Sanatana Dharma has no founder, no founding date and is no man’s private or personal invention.

My earnest wish is that Hinduism evolves as it has been doing for centuries, for eons, to a greener way of life, less polluting Mother Earth, less harming Mother Nature.  I appreciate the freedom my faith allows me to think rationally in all circumstances.  At least, ‘a fatwa’ won’t be issued on my head, hopefully!   I am today blogging like this because, Hinduism is still the most tolerant practice in the entire world, its all absorbent, most flexible, and grows with every merciless onslaught, much more powerful and stronger than ever before…

This is a country that celebrates vegetarianism where masses still worship ‘The Tulasi’ (basil) as a goddess, who marry the neem tree to the peepal tree who we think are like gods, who never slaughter the cows that walk on our highways, and who worship even inanimate objects like machine tools and musical instruments and books because they are creations anyway!  I believe my tribe of like-minded Hindus is an ever-growing one.

LET’S NOT ALLOW HINDUISM TO BE TAKEN HOSTAGE BY EMPTY RITUALS THAT HAVE COME TO CONFINE OUR FAITH, ERODING ESSENTIAL SUBSTANCE OVER PERIOD OF TIME AND OBLITERATING THE TRUE ESSENCE OF DHARMA.  HINDUISM IS FAR ABOVE AND MUCH MORE THAN  ALL THAT – AN ENIGMA, A PHENOMENAL EXPERIENCE.

Let us allow Sanatana Dharma the vital lung space it deserves to evolve and flourish without our narrow, crooked-minded and low level of thinking.

JAI HIND!

Posted in Socio-Cultural

Stop Cruelty To Elephants In The Name Of Religion NOW !!!

some 5 elephants, 3 in the front row and 2 behind for Sri Bhagawati temple vela (pooram), cherukulangara, Thrissur – day March 28, 2013
some 5 elephants, 3 in the front row and 2 behind for Sri Bhagawati temple vela (pooram), cherukulangara, Thrissur – day March 28, 2013

(Originally published the 7th of April, 2013 in a private blog . Edited and Reblogged )

I have always been awed by the Pooram festivals of Kerala, my neighbouring state. The most famous one that attracts hordes of both local and foreign tourists is the Pooram Festival of Shri Vadakkunathan Temple in the town of Thrissur. This mega temple festival that falls in the end of the month of March stars over a dozen elephants parading the Temple Deities in hot, merciless summer sun of India to the loudest blares of ‘Pancha Vaadhyam’ – the five traditional desi musical instruments comprising drums and trumpets.

A devout Hindu, i am at loss to comprehend the logic behind this heartless, mindless cruelty inflicted upon these most beautiful and wisest beasts on face of earth, the elephants, in the name of religion.

Imagine what could happen to jumbos trotting barefoot in intense heatwave of over 40 C (over 100 F) with capstans weighing in tonnes on their breaking back, in front of tens of thousands of frenzied crowds to the ear-splitting thumping of the Pancha Vadhyam, with firecrackers bursting nonstop through the celebrations? Won’t the elephants feel claustrophobic in the first place for their size, away from their natural wild habitat?

During one of my trips to Kerala, I could attend the Pooram festival of a very small and beautiful temple in Thrissur – the Bhagwati temple of Cherukulangara.  Even in this small event, some five elephants partook in the festivities.  March was closing with April starting, and already the mercury was rising rather menacingly.

In the evening came the rudest shock: I was in the temple where in the backyards i saw the five elephants with feet chained loosely (the elephants i must admit looked healthy, well fed (which was a small consolation) and were not chained stiff; they could still amble about and i was relieved they did not look alarmed or disturbed. While Shakthi and Shiva are who I look upon like my beloved, respectful and benevolent parents, I wonder whether the same Mother Goddess of mine and the Father would approve of such inhumane torture and cruelty meted out to defenceless elephants in the name of religion in their holy abode.What is this other than man-invented frivolous ritual? )  The elephants were quietly feeding on leaves and fruits and seemed relaxed that somewhat pacified me. Given the hysteric beating of drums and the creaking of loudspeakers in highest decibels, i was slightly agitated. After all it was my first ever LIVE Pooram!   (In Bhagwati temples (Devi temples), Pooram is referred to as ‘Vela.’)

Elephants are mammoth species that subsist on vast swathes of moving space. That is how nature makes them as well as any other wild life: nomadic and free-spirited. How claustrophobic the gentle giants must feel within the confined spaces and congested quarters with granite flooring and barred ventilation, having been ‘tamed’ and ‘taught to obey’ with the ‘tanda’ (stick)?

http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/tp-tamilnadu/heartrending-scenes-mark-burial-of-temple-elephant/article2647127.ece

The time was around 7 pm in the evening and then started the fireworks.  My  heart skipped a beat but maintaining a cautious distance from the elephants I still fixed my gaze on them to check if they were okay.  Thank God a million, the elephants seemed disinterested in the noise, the sound, the fanfare and continued feeding, unperturbed by the 500 wala and the 1000 wala crackers lighting up the skies for the next 1 hour or so.  I went back to my friend’s house in haste and even from a distance of 1 km could hear the bursting of the crackers.

That night my friend, a native of Thrissur, and I were talking of the fate of elephants in the country for a long time.  Mad pachyderms running berserk, going on rampage in our temple towns is not rare today in India especially in the state of Kerala. Under-fed in many cases in unbearable heat conditions, with their ‘mast’ season ignored and mating denied, where and who else can these giants vent their ire on?

What is the point in touting that some of us are vegetarians if we can knowingly inflict so much harm on other living species without an ounce of guilt.

Very few countries in this world are blessed to have elephants as native beasts and India is one such a rare country.  I feel blessed for this reason that ours is this ‘Punya Bhoomi’ where lions, tigers and elephants roam freely perhaps only next to Africa. We are lucky in the sense that in spite of all the self-inflicting damages we do to ourselves, we have a few of them still (luckily)surviving (and even flourishing as in case of Bengal Tigers and Gir Lions) to this date.  The Moghuls, the Maharajahas and the British occupiers have all had their share of trophies and the cheetah is long gone extinct since the British Raj days thanks to relentless hunting.  A few leopards are all we are left with in the extended cat family.  So its the first and foremost duty of every Indian citizen to ensure that these elephants, tigers and lions and  leopards are treated with utmost care lest they might go extinct right in front of our eyes. And in the event of such a worst scenario becoming a reality,  we can not excuse ourselves ever for the deliberate lapses that we never try to correct…  I for one thing cannot imagine an India without elephants… its too much for me…  But the wild life population in India is dwindling at an alarming rate.   Often I wonder, why God did not plant elephants as native species in America and/or Europe where they might be loved and cared for and best looked after (in present times)?

Do we Indians realize what a bountiful gift God has bestowed upon us?  What an insensitive lot we are…

While i have been awed simultaneously by the Pooram festivals i have watched in television over years, somehow it’s always been playing in the back of mind that this madness must stop sooner or later, at any and/or all costs.  Grateful to acknowledge, a good number of Keralites share a similar line of thought as mine. Except perhaps for the temple ‘Devaswoms’ of Kerala and a few oldies, i don’t believe anyone wants this ritual to continue with all their heart. Still it is even more complex now than ever before to draw curtains on this cruel custom as even churches and mosques in ‘God’s own country’ have joined the bandwagon to count on elephants to find an expression for their overt-religiosity.

I have not been to the Mysore Dushshera  either which is held annually in the Mysore Palace Grounds on the final Vijayadhasami day of the 10 day Dushshera Festival  (as Navrathri culminates to the climax closing throughout India), one of our major national/religious festivals.

In the ‘Dubare’ elephant camp in the state of Karnataka, i was told the elephants in the camp would be partaking in the annual Mysore Dushshera.   To be fair to our Forest Department, i concede, the elephants in this camp looked healthier too and well-fed, taking a daily dip in the river Kaveri that flows through these parts.

Later I learned, elephant calves in the forests of Kerala and Karnataka are routinely trapped and captured for the sole purpose of domesticating them to serve in temple festivals and Mysore Dushshera.

I have taken elephant rides in Thekkady and Munnar in Kerala, where domesticated elephants are used for elephant safaris and admit that I have enjoyed these rides.    I was of course told these are the elephants that strayed from the forest cover as young calves.  The ‘kumki’ or the trainer elephants are sometimes used to tame those wild rogue elephants that may stray into neighbouring/bordering villages destroying standing crops.

There is elephant safari even in Singapore Zoo (last heard it is scrapped).  In the zoos of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Doha, Qatar, i was pleased enormously in the first instance to see the Indian elephants enclosures, a natural reaction.  While in Malaysia, the elephants looked happy, in Qatar desert heat, the single lone Indian elephant seemed to be reeling under the extreme temperature and climatic conditions …. it looked so bored that I wanted to touch it and make it feel better … The elephants were gifts from India by the then Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi on her diplomatic visits to these nations.  What a gruesome (!) idea of diplomacy.   Are elephants private properties to be gifted or traded in?

In Mysore zoo, the elephants are faring better, thank god for small mercies.  Perhaps this is the only zoo in India where the elephants are treated fair.  Weather seems to suit them and they are breeding well.   I have no complaints for a change on this zoo.

Even so the typical diet that a domesticated elephant may be fed with is not what it may chew upon in the wild: leaves and twigs and fruits and melons and even barks and shoots from trees and bushes. Instead what do we feed our pet elephant: jaggery balls and coconuts!

In Tamil Nadu, I am aware of some temples hiring elephants for festival season.   As a young girl, I have seen bedecked elephants walking down our streets asking for hand-outs, led by their mahouts.  The unthinkable scene of an elephant walking a busy street can happen only in India, even as cars and scooters ply by without stopping to take a second look…  I don’t know whether to be amused by that or feel sad….

Man-elephant conflict is forever on the rise because the elephant corridor in India is shrinking at an alarming rate and the water holes that are feeding and breeding spots for elephants are fast drying up.  The  beasts therefore have no option than to walk into human habitat foraging for food especially in scorching summers .

Here is an interesting article on an elephant photographer:

http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-features/tp-sundaymagazine/elephant-man/article4590009.ece

I share very much the photographer’s sentiments – like for  him, the elephant is my most favourite beast on planet Earth.  I also worship (!) elephants hahaha because i am a Hindu and to us, all animals and plants and even inanimate objects that help us in our lives are Gods, and elephant is our special god Ganesha Himself and none other!!!  I honestly see such a divinity in cows and elephants – may be because i have been brought up with such beliefs and may be because their benign nature seems to affect and touch my soul …

I can also understand fellow Indians’ emotional, spiritual attachment to elephants – most look at an elephant as a divine creature – which could be our greatest probem! And we are one of those families that still leave milk for snakes in Shakthi temples ! Our love and devotion and REVERENCE  for animals is so very complex, complicated that we are causing them more of  harm and making their existence miserable, a fact we are oblivious  to. The monkey menace in New Delhi and other cities of ours and the wandering cows in highways of India are glaring examples of what blind faith can do to a population.

My sincere wish is that, let the Pooram festivals of Kerala go on from millennium to millennium, but please play up the ‘pancha vaadhyam’  – the 5 musical instruments to the hilt and free the elephants into the wild where they belong !  This is what Lord Ganesha will want you to do, fellow Hindus, Kerala temple Dewaswoms, will you ever get it? The Pooram festival and the hapless trained elephants are big time money-spinners for Kerala tourism. The mahouts have to be educated and weaned off the vocation in a phased manner first followed by rehabilitation. A very complicated and sensitive matter we have here at hands – that which could have repercussions on the thriving of the local economy: a socio-political issue that presupposes a careful strategy on in-depth study and a smooth maneuver.

For those who would like to make parallels between Jallikattu and Elephant tourism: DON’T. It is not fair or equal.

I wish we have legislation introduced in India forbidding training of elephants for religious purposes and processions and ban on elephants from being raised as pets in wealthy homes or from being gifted to foreign countries where their adaptation could prove to be traumatic given the hostile local environment. I wish there is a statute that prevents capture of elephant calves from the wild and one that returns the domesticated tuskers back to where they came from: the wild.

And remember elephants are NOT our toys to play with and use for our amusements.  I am guilty as anyone here for enjoying the song ‘Jiya Jale’ pictured with the elephants in the background… but i wish this cruelty stops forthwith… enough is enough…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jwoSBP_GiuQ

And what is the need to get elephant calves from the wild to be trained by the ‘kumkis?’   Let every single elephant calf or rogue elephant that strays into human habitat in this country be sent right back into the wild. Elephants are very much social creatures that roam about in groups, not ‘lone wolves.’ Separating them from their herds is enough to break their spirit in one swift blow.

Elephants belong in the wild, elephants are very wise, sensitive, sweet creatures… let them have their bit of private space on Planet Earth like you and me…  its their birth right.  Think of the world WITHOUT ELEPHANTS… can you?

_______________________________________________________________________

** This post excludes the serious issue of Elephant poaching, very rampant in Africa and also to some extent in India (or generally Asia). Recommended reading: ‘The tusk that did the damage‘ – a fictional work based on real life events, authored by Tania James.  Poaching for tusks poses the gravest risk to elephants of both Asia and Africa, threatening to drive them down to near extinction in a very short span of time in future – say some 20-30 years. 

** This post neither takes into account the elephant deaths recorded in India due to electric shocks sustained from electrified fences of farmers (thoroughly illegal) and rail accidents in elephant corridors. 

http://indianexpress.com/article/explained/assam-elephants-train-accident-4417752/

** Informative Read: https://www.scribd.com/document/338210912/HABITAT-MANAGEMENT-IN-THE-NILGIRIS-BIOSPHERE-RESERVES-AND-THE-ELEPHANT-RESERVES-OF-SOUTH-INDIA