Posts Tagged ‘India’

It has been 46 years since a great novel shook up Malayalam literature – so much so that many critics consider that year as the start of a new era in the genre of Malayalam novel. Yes, I am talking about OV Vijayan’s Khasakkinte Ithihaasam. I was in my late teens when I first read the book and I dismissed it offhand as a book with a defeatist attitude. That was my first brush with the Ithihaasam. Then, over the years, something drew me back to it; there was something magical and surreal about it, which kept making me go back to it. Slowly, over my many re-readings, I somehow fell in love with the book and my appreciation of Vijayan grew each time I took up the book.

Vijayan’s imaginary Khasak was modelled after a real village named Thasrak. This village is just about 15 kms from my hometown Chittur, yet I had never visited the place. Vijayan visited and lived in Thasrak for a short time in 1957 and his novel is based on the lore and people of Thasrak. As I planned a trip to Chittur this time, I decided that I must visit Thasrak.

In preparation, I took up the Ithihaasam once again for yet another reading.  As always, it was provided a different reading experience this time too and new gems popped out of the book and delighted me.  The blue veins of Maimuna continued to excite me, the plight of Kuttaadan Poosaary continued to amuse, the fate of Allaapicha Mollaakka continued to haunt, Ravi’s feather like existence was still beyond me, Chandumuthu with her repeated question tugged at some corner of the heart but what stood out for me this time was the scene of Allaapicha Mollaakka making Kunhaamina promise not to join the new school, which he deemed as competition to him. He first makes her take an oath in the name of Sheikh Thangal, the most revered Islamic figure in Khasak’s lore and then, “to seal all holes”, the Mollaakka asks Kunhaamina to swear by Mariamma, a Hindu Goddess. It is expressed beautifully in the novel in Vijayan’s fantastic language.

For many a year, Thasrak and its role in Malayalam literature was forgotten by the authorities. A couple of years ago, they woke up and decided that something ought to be done. They laid siege to the Njattupura (a small building used to store paddy) that Vijayan had lived in when he was in Thasrak. In the novel, Ravi has his school in the Njattupura. The building itself is said to be more than a hundred years old and thankfully, the mud building is preserved as such. However, an eyesore of a gate has been erected and the courtyard paved with interlocking tiles. The net effect of such changes is to subtract from the overall experience and not to enhance it.

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We met an elderly gentleman named Majeed there who takes care of the Njattupura and shows visitors around the place. He told us that he was four years old when Vijayan visited Thasrak and he told us that almost every one of the characters have passed away, except Maimuna who he said, is in Coimbatore. Going by her age in the novel, she must be pretty old now. He was quite helpful and talked about how the times have changed. He said that Vijayan used to sit in the verandah and sketch. I asked him how he felt of a novel being written about his village and his friends and relatives, especially as I had read that some of the locals had been some reservations on how some people were characterised in the novel. His response was that in any story, some embellishments are to be expected and the Ithihaasam should also be viewed from that perspective.

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He took us to the Arabikkulam (a pond) where Sheikh Thangal, the legendary military commander of Khasak, had thrown the heads of his enemies after beheading them. It is completely covered with weeds now and needs to be restored.

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Right next to the pond is the new mosque. We were told that Allaapicha Mollaakka’s mosque had stood at this very site earlier.

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We walked back to the Njattupura and we could see some of the famed palm trees of Khasaak in the distance. Legend has it that the trees bent down so that the tappers didn’t have to climb up the trees to tap them.

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A visit to Thasrak is a fulfilling experience overall, if you have read the novel. The authorities, as always, could have done a much better job at preserving the ambience of a location that is so important to Malayalam. As I left Thasrak, the two images that stuck in my mind were the closed door of the Njattupura and a headless palm tree. They reminded me of the irreparable loss we have suffered as a society – never again would there be a novel like Khasaakkinte Ithihaasam and even more sadly, never again would we have that innocence in our society wherein a Muslim priest makes his student take an oath in the name of a Hindu Goddess or vice versa.

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Note: Khasakkinte Ithihaasam has been translated into English by OV Vijayan himself and is available under the title “The Legends of Khasak”.

21 May 2012

As it often happens, the places that are the closest are often the ones that are farthest! This has been so with me, in the case of Tippu’s Fort which is located at Palakkad. Palakkad is but 15 Kim’s from my hometown, Chittur, but I have never visited the fort after my schooldays; which, admittedly, was way back. So, I had decided that I would make it to the fort this time around when I went to Chittur.

The fort has been restored quite recently and some of the ramparts that had fallen down have been rebuilt. It dates back to medieval times and was renovated by Hyder Ali (Sultan of Mysore) in 1766, when he was invited there by the king of Palakad to help against an invasion threatened by the Zamorin, the king based in Calicut. Hyder took advantage of the opportunity, realizing the strategic significance of Palakkad. The fort changed hands a few times between the British, Hyder Ali and his son, Tippu Sultan till 1790. The British controlled the fort from 1790 onwards and used it as their base. Even today, the fort is known as “Tippu’s fort” even if Tippu held the fort only for a few years and was not the one that built it. When I thought about it, I was happy that there were at least some monuments left as remembrance for this brave and patriotic son of India.

I have felt that Tippu Sultan has often been sidelined and his role in history underplayed, by vested interests. He was one of the very few kings in South India that realised the threat the East India Company and the British posed. His wars with the British have been well chronicled and even though he succumbed in the end, he remained a thorn in the side of the mighty British for many a year and that too when all the rulers of the neighbouring kingdoms had meekly surrendered, out of cowardice and for personal gains. He had the vision of free India and fought for it, ultimately giving his life. As a true hero, he fell in battle, fighting till the very end.

Yet, he is painted as a religious fanatic, one who was only interested in converting Hindus to Islam. No matter that the first sight that greets you as you walk into his fort in Palakkad is a Hanuman temple – one of the most powerful Hindu gods. This temple is a big favourite with devotees even today. It also does not seem to matter that the very famous Srirangam Temple stands within Tippu’s fort and stronghold at Srirangapatnam and I cannot imagine that it would have been a huge effort for him to mow it down. It is obviously of no significance that it was Tippu that sent money to help the Kanchi Mutt after that Hindu monastery was ransacked by the Hindu Maratha rulers. The list goes on and I am just writing what I have seen and heard and by no means am I an expert. I am sure that his armies would have raped and plundered as is the wont of victorious armies but then, which victor has ever held his forces back after a battle? Even today, in our “cultured” ways, the spoils of war go to the victor.

The fort itself stands on a small hill and there is a large moat surrounding it. In my childhood, I had heard stories that only Tippu’s horse could leap over the moat and when I looked at the size of the moat, I realised that it was just that, a story, given the size of the moat.

There is very little water in the moat today and you enter the fort through a small bridge.

The fort itself is very functional and is built with large granite boulders and limestone. It is of rhomboidal shape shape and has seven bastions with very thick walls. There does not seem to have been much effort spent to make it beautiful in any way. At the main entrance, I saw some decorations on the wall above the door and that was pretty much the only decorative piece I saw in the entire fort.

As you enter, on the right, there is a small idol of Hanuman set into the wall. This has now become a very famous temple and there were many devotees even at mid-morning, when we went in. I was not allowed to photograph the temple itself, in keeping with the recent form of intolerance which denies entry to non-Hindus to temples. I also noticed that the temple itself had a “saffronised” look with the imagery and colours used and even with name of Ram, written in Hindi. Perhaps this is a good indication of who controls this temple and I felt one could easily transport this temple to North India and it would fit in there very well.

In the centre of the fort, there are a few buildings and this must have been where the people that stayed in the fort lived. The buildings do not look as old as the fort and must have been constructed during the times of the British. There is a very well maintained lawn with a couple of large trees.

There is also a stepped well on one side of the courtyard and I learnt from the Information Centre that this well was dug later.

The Information Centre is hosted in an interesting stone building with 28 pillars, which was also constructed later. Unfortunately, there is not much information provided about the fort or the battles that were fought there or the people that lived there. There are some photographs of the restoration and of other places of tourist interest in Kerala.

One of the buildings houses a jail and that was of personal interest to me as my father was imprisoned here for two weeks in 1961 when they were agitating for the implementation of the Land Reforms Act in Kerala. I guess the jail must have been in the same old shabby condition even 50 years back.

There is a walkway that takes you around the wall of the fort and there were some good views all around. One could see that the fort offered a very good defensive position. I was quite disappointed that there were no markings or indications of any of the places of interest within the fort or any details provided about its history. There is a small board at the entrance with a few lines on it but that hardly does justice to the place. It was equally disappointing that there was no mention of Tippu or Hyder or anyone else that lived there. But, the people of Palakkad still honour that valiant son who was the first to rise against the British in South India and call it Tippu’s Fort…..

12 Feb 2010

We started off on the drive to Chikmagalur bright and early in three cars. It took us more than an hour to get out of Bangalore and the drive was more peaceful after that. The first stop of the day was at Halebidu, which is about 170km from Bangalore. Halebidu means old city and in Halebidu the main attraction is the Hoysaleeswara temple, founded by the Hoysala kings. Halebidu was the capital of the Hoysala Empire in the 12th century.

Legend has that in the 12th century, one day a teacher and his disciples were taking a walk in the forest when they came up on a tiger. All the students but a boy named Sala ran away. The teacher called out to Sala to kill (Hoy) the tiger – “Hoy Sala”! The boy killed the tiger and later founded the Hoysala dynasty. They ruled most of Karnataka between the 10th and 14th century and their emblem showcases the incident of Sala killing the tiger. I was impressed to note that an ordinary boy went on to become the king and founded a dynasty that ruled for about 5-6 generations and decided to look more into this after I got back to Bangalore. Wikipedia says that the Hoysalas were rulers of the hills who took advantage of the then political situation to expand their empire. Looks like the legend may not have been really true!

Belur and Halebidu are twin cities and boast of two temples built by the Hoysala kings, which are of note. The Hoysaleeswara temple complex in Halebidu actually consists of two temples – Hoysaleeswara and Kedareeswara. These temples took 195 years of work to build. The two temples are built on a single platform and have very intricate carvings, which show a lot of dedication and skill from the workers. The construction is of sandstone and so it must have been easier to work on, but the detail is amazing.

Stories from Mahabharata, Ramayana etc. are carved into these stones and the temple itself is built on a star shaped platform to provide more surface area for the carvings. The sun was fairly strong but thankfully, there were carpets all round the temple. The interior of the temple was very cool, dark and nice. These temples are dedicated to Siva and there are two idols there. There was a frame that caught my eye at the second sanctorum wherein the idol itself was kept in a poorly lit position whereas the priest was standing upfront in a very visible position to give blessings. It struck me as akin to today’s situation wherein the priests are more important than the gods! A mischievous thought I guess, but I captured it in the camera nevertheless.

The guide we had was at pains to explain how the ancient Indian texts were the first to imagine such modern items as the submarine, missile etc. by pointing out some details from some carvings. It was fairly evident that the sculptors had a good sense of humour as well; or maybe it was the interpretation of the guide. There is one particular carving which shows Siva’s bull (Nandi) carrying both Siva and Parvati; supposedly Nandi is upset at carrying Parvati as he prides himself to be Siva’s vehicle and does not like carrying women around. Hence, he is shown in the sculpture with a slightly raised tail to denote his irritation. The guide was of the view that from ancient times man was above woman and hence this depiction. My view is that this must have been an impish sense of humour at work as ancient India definitely believed in man-woman equality as can be evidenced by the concept of the Ardhanaareeswara. In any case, the image is captured below.

I have always believed that the texts of Mahabharata and Ramayana have tried to portray the world as is and the stories are designed to show that everyone has goodness and badness in them and that even the gods are not above this. Indeed there is no single character in these texts, be it god or man that is without any blemish.  One such incident is that of Rama, the personification of the Righteous Man, using devious means to kill Bali (the king of monkeys) so that his younger brother Sugreeva could become the king and help Rama. Rama is a great hero and an expert warrior; yet he shoots Bali with an arrow in the back, while the latter is engaged in a fist fight with Sugreeva. Clearly, this is not in line with the image of Rama as the epitome of goodness and valour but there has been enough cover provided through other stories (which came later, I feel) which talk about how Bali could be killed only from the back. I found it curious that the sculptors had deemed it fit to capture this image as well. See how Rama shoots an arrow through seven trees on to Bali’s back as he fights Sugreeva.

There are two large bulls also in the temple complex and according to the guide these are the sixth and seventh largest bulls in India. He went on to claim that the one dedicated to Parvati is the most beautiful one in India. I forgot to ask the guide as to why there is a bull dedicated to Parvati given Nandi’s clear displeasure in carrying her around!

The Halebidu temple complex leaves a lasting impression on one with the detail and the fine work on the sculptures.  It is simply amazing and one cannot but be impressed with the skill of the artisans in those days. They did not have the sophisticated tools of today but were able to carve out these masterpieces. The pillars look as if they were carved on a lathe but of course, there were no lathes in those days. You are left with a sense of total awe and wonder at the skill and dedication of these artists.

We left Halebidu with a sense of wonder and a clear feeling that it would have been a tremendous loss had we decided to drop it from the agenda and proceeded straight to Chikmagalur. The Chikmagalur town was about an hour’s drive from Halebidu and we got directions from there to the estate we were staying in. We had booked rooms in a working coffee estate owned by Tata Coffee and we got there in time for lunch with the last leg of the drive being over characteristically bad roads. The rooms were all in one bungalow and we had the whole place to ourselves. Lunch was very nice, especially given the hunger. The rooms were pretty large and very nice.

Towards evening, I went for a walk in the estate by myself. Earlier in the day, Vinod had seen a large snake and he had also added that snakes were very common in coffee estates; this made me extra careful in my walk! The silence was the first thing that came to you as you got away from the buildings of the estate. There were no artificial sounds and to an extent, it was even unsettling. It occurred to me that the busy life in the city might have built this need in me to have signs of human life around me all the time.  This was quite a disturbing thought indeed but nonetheless, I enjoyed my walk through the estate. I soon came upon a person named Nagaraja who was coming down the path. I conversed with him in my broken Kannada and learnt that the air gun he was carrying around was to shoot some bird (I thought it was peacock but I must have been wrong).  The scenery was beautiful even if the light was not very conducive for photography. Ripe coffee beans were a beautiful sight and I could capture some interesting shots.

13 Feb 2010

Early mornings in such locations are always very beautiful and this one was no exception either but I felt a bit lazy and did not venture out. The sit-out in the bungalow faced east and I got an interesting shot as I was playing around with the camera.

I suggested that we visit Kemmangundi and if possible, go to Baba Budanagiri that day. This turned out to be not-so-good an idea as I had not thought about the bad roads and the long journey times. We hired a vehicle that could accommodate all of us and set off for Kemmangundi. The first stop was Kalahatti Falls and we reached there after a tiring drive. The fall itself turned out to be a very small affair with a bridge constructed across. Local people believe that the waters have medicinal properties and can cure illnesses. I was not feeling very well when we got there and did not go near the falls. In addition, there was some local festival going on when we got there and a good sized crowd had gathered.

The festival reminded me of our “Mariyamman Pooja” back home as there were people with decorated idols on their head. The overall ambience was very unsophisticated and hence looked quite innocent and sincere. There were some musical instruments which were very basic and there was no apparent expertise in how they were played and that added to the feel of the event.

The villagers looked very rustic and were not elegantly clothed. Yet, their devotion was very apparent and it was clear that they had simple beliefs. At one point in time, all the ladies squatted down in front of the people carrying the idols and they broke a coconut on the ground. The people with the idols then went around the women sprinkling the water on their heads. It all looked very solemn and there was not much gaiety around. In particular, I noticed one woman who seemed totally lost in her prayer – she continued squatting even after the procession was moving out; she seemed immersed in her own world.

We then proceeded to Kemmangundi, which was another 10 km or so away. The road was pretty bad but the scenery made up for it. Kemmangundi is a small hilltop but the views are fantastic. We also saw several people trekking. We stayed for sometime soaking in the views and then turned back home as most people were played out by then. With the prospect of the long ride back, no one felt like going to Baba Budanagiri – later, I heard that it might have been better to skip Kemmangundi and go there. Rest of the day was spent at the estate in a relaxed fashion although there was a hilarious game of “Lakori” played in-between wherein the boys’ team beat the girls’ team hands down.

14 Feb 2010

I got up early in the morning and went for a long walk and almost reached up to the end of the estate. Once again, the views were most exciting and I experimented with the exposure settings of my camera and got a beautiful shot.

We checked out of the estate after breakfast and proceeded to Belur. Belur was an about an hour’s time from the estate and our objective was to visit the Channakesava Temple, which is also built by the Hoysala kings. This is a smaller temple as compared to the one at Halebidu and took 95 years to complete. This is a temple which is under active use and has a nice courtyard. The temple was built by King Vishnuvardhana in the 12th century.

Interestingly, they first built a prototype of the temple and that took them about 20 years. After successful completion of the prototype, they launched the work on the real one. A picture of the prototype is given below.

As is the case with Halebidu, this temple is also built of soapstone and is littered with intricate carvings. Once again, the detail and quality of work is amazing. The statues are very life like and many stories are told in the sculptures with great eye to details, including facial expressions. Inside the temple, there is a statue of an ideal woman with mathematical proportions – unfortunately, I could not get a photo of that statue due to light and space constraints.  Given below is the one of the most beautiful statues in the complex – a girl putting on ornaments. Parts of the statue are damaged but the quality of the work is pretty visible.

We left Belur with a feeling similar to what we had when we left from Halebidu – wonder and tremendous respect for the skills of those great artists that live in the years gone by and for the wonder that was India.