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Archive for April, 2010

Two weekends ago, I visited the ancient town of Chidambaram (Tamil Nadu) with its over 1500 year old temple. It was my first visit since I was five years old.   I had for long wanted to touch base with my roots – my mother’s family hails from there – and now, gratifyingly, I was not only back but also had my young son with me as travel partner.

The drive down from Chennai was exciting in more ways than one. We were discovering the Tamil Nadu countryside. The luminous-green of never-ending paddy fields, set off by the more brooding shades of fecund coconut and date palm fronds. Continuous habitations, with tiny temples in neatly-swept compounds demarcating the end of one village and the beginning of the next; even the tiniest temple sporting an elaborate gopuram (tower), decorated with brightly painted figures of humans, animals and gods. The sacredness – and unpredictability – of agricultural activity, commemorated by little brick shelters in the midst of fields housing protective deities. And, every now and again, close to the road, life-size painted clay figures of white horses (symbolic of the god Ayanaar, protector of village communities), white cows, and brown muscular moustachioed men brandishing fearsome broad-bladed swords – thanksgiving offerings to the gods.

As we sped past unpronounceably named villages and towns, and flowing backwaters dotted with little islands and fishing boats flying colourful flags, I tried to communicate something of my childhood memories of Chidambaram to my son. For as long as I can remember, I have ‘felt’ Chidambaram in my life, in a tactile sort of way. My mother ‘brought’ Chidambaram with her to her married home.  She always celebrated all the annual Nataraja festivals, each with specially cooked delicious food-offerings associated with it. Our living room always had a  panchaloha (blend of five metals) icon of Nataraja in the exquisite ananda tandava pose, with his consort Sivakami on his left,  sculpted by the official sthapatis (sculptors) of the temple and sanctified there before becoming a family possession.  And every month, a little pale blue fragrant envelope arrived by “book post”, with my mother’s maiden name on it handwritten in Tamil and English. The envelopes had red and yellow stains on them, stains that were promptly transferred onto our foreheads on the evening of their arrival. These envelopes brought my mother tiny packets of holy kumkum (vermillion) and vibhuti (ash). They were from the monthly prayer offerings made to Lord Nataraja on behalf of our family, by Umanatha Dikshitar, a priest/custodian of the temple, whose family had been associated with my mother’s family for centuries. The prayers were also in reciprocity for the annual donations to the temple that my mother sent unfailingly. In addition, she always responded to requests for donations towards special celebrations or major repairs to the temple. I knew that Umanatha Dikshitar was some kind of ‘family priest’ that my mother had inherited, like the rest of her natal kin group, and I had often wondered if she was encouraging parasitism and mumbo-jumbo through her donations. But the significance of our family’s relationship with the Dikshitars – with steady donations as its core – came home to me only during this visit.

The Dikshitars have always been the collective owners and custodians of the Chidambaram Nataraja temple. Once reputed to have numbered 3000, and now reduced to 350 families, the Dikshitars believe that they arrived in Chidambaram from Mount Kailash, along with Lord Nataraja himself, as his personal staff. Through the ages, they have managed the temple – set in 40 acres of its own land – raising the revenues for its upkeep, carrying out daily maintenance of the premises and periodic repairs and restoration of the structure, conducting the many elaborate poojas (prayer rituals) that take place every day, and organizing periodic festival celebrations in honour of Nataraja.

Their collective ownership of the temple is institutionalized through endogamous marriages (Dikshitars are allowed to marry only within the community, hence all the families are related to each other). Since only married sons can become officiating priests – which in turn entitles them to become equal members of the collectivity and earn a share of the revenues -, universal and early marriage is the norm. The governance of the temple is conducted by regularly elected committees, in which all the families are represented by rotation. Similarly, daily poojas are conducted by a team of six Dikshitars drawn from six families, again by rotation. It is said that, given the principle of equality on which the community members function in relation to each other, at committee meetings no single person can arrogate to himself the position of Chair. Hence the temple store keeper – invariably a salaried outsider – is requested to step in to conduct meetings!

The Dikshitars have historically safeguarded their autonomy in matters of temple governance by never accepting land or cash grants from any single external agency. Rather, they built a core of hereditarily enduring relationships with ‘patrons’ who made periodic and annual donations to the temple; and they supplemented these revenues with one-off donations from visitors to the temple. This invisible and unarticulated web of one-on-one relationships between priests and worshippers has been the hallmark of the Chidambaram temple. Through the last 15 centuries, the entitlements and conventions of the Dikshitars were scrupulously respected, first by the various princely dynasties – Chola, Pandya, Vijayanagar – that ruled the region successively, then by the British, and finally by the Supreme Court of independent India.

Some implications of this tradition of collective ownership come across imperceptibly to the modern day visitor. As we took off our shoes to enter the temple, we were struck by the cleanliness, quiet, and lack of chaos along the approach to the temple gate. There were no beggars with outstretched palms, no shopkeepers loudly soliciting clients for purchase of customary pooja offerings (flowers, incense, coconut, betel leaves), and no keepers of shoes in competition with one another. The man under whose awning we left our footwear matter-of-factly handed over a plastic token and went back to what he was doing.

Already in some state of culture shock, we entered the temple precincts through the western gate gopuram, with its soaring ceiling and 108 panels of complex Bharata Natyam dance poses sculpted into the stone walls on either side. It was nearly noon, and the open-to-the-sky stone floors of the first open prakara (layer/courtyard) singed our feet. But under the gopuram and, again, continuing inward into the main temple through layer after layer of broad and richly sculpted stone corridors until we came to the icon of Nataraja in the inner sanctum, it felt cool and breezy, like being by the sea-side. And it was scrupulously clean underfoot. No litter anywhere, even of dried flowers. Nor dampness. And the place was serene. No touts trying to hustle worshippers, no officious temple employees shouting instructions. The congregation of worshippers appeared calm and disciplined and there was no shoving and pushing. In the inner sanctum, the six priests were going about their pooja duties in dignified silence, watched by the congregation.

We came out of the temple at its other end, to the steps leading to the sparklingly clean waters of the Sivaganga temple tank. The ancient stone paving of the outer courtyard looked to be in good condition. We couldn’t help commenting to our escort Venkatesa Dikshitar, Umanatha’s son, on the general air of good maintenance. He confirmed that temple maintenance was the personal and direct responsibility of the Dikshitars themselves, put into daily practice by the rotating team of six priests with the help of hired staff. To us, as visitors, it was also evidence of the good use to which donations to the temple are being put.

Later, Umanatha Dikshitar – now a genial patriarch surrounded by six strapping sons, all officiating as priests – spoke to us about the temple, its history, and pattern of governance…the struggle of the Dikshitars to retain the temple’s autonomy in the face of State attempts at interference and control…the decision of his sons to dedicate their lives to Nataraja’s service even after receiving a modern education…

The feeling of home-coming with which he and his family welcomed us on our arrival, the loving way in which they embraced me and my son as continuing strands in the gossamer web of our centuries-old relationship, the unselfconsciousness with which they urged us to feel at home in their unbelievably spartan house, the delicious and generous meal that the women of the family served us on large banana leaves placed on the cool floor… made our visit truly heartwarming and memorable.

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I have the good fortune to be staying for a few weeks in a rented apartment on the road that leads to the Kalakshetra, Sanskrit for Temple of the Arts. Kalakshetra is a conservatory in Chennai that trains young women and men in the classical performing arts. It was set up in 1936 by Rukmini Arundale, a young educated Tamil Brahmin woman who broke out of Hindu Brahmin orthodoxy by marrying an Irishman, George Arundale, and then going on to dream and realize her vision of restoring societal respect for the classical performing arts of south India.

In the princely states of pre-British southern India, the classical arts had flourished under royal patronage, and were performed and nurtured within the region’s magnificent temples. With colonialism and the decline of the princely states, and the rise of a brash new moneyed class, performing artists – mainly women – came to be cast into an exploitative mould, and accorded an ‘unclean’ status. And the arts themselves no longer seen fit for the entry of well-born women and men.

In the modernizing India of the early twentieth century, the Kalakshetra Foundation became the leader in the movement to emancipate the performing arts from social prejudice. In the last nearly 75 years of its existence, the conservatory has trained generations of talented women and men in classical dance and music, and has acquired a formidable reputation for the purity of its dance style.

As a new resident of the city, I know that I am in the vicinity of the Kalakshetra – my road is called Kalakshetra Road – but have no clue that it is just a stone’s throw away from me. All I have seen so far of my surroundings during a couple of bumpy autorickshaw rides, is a labyrinth of narrow winding streets choked with speeding traffic.

An exploration on foot early in my stay leads me to an old tired gate with a sign-board announcing Kalakshetra. Never mind that the instructions on observing a ‘modest’ dress code as a condition for entry (fully covered legs for both men and women etc.), are more prominently displayed than any information/map of the campus. All I can glimpse are clean, broad, tree-lined metalled lanes leading tantalizingly into leafy distances…enough to intrigue me. But I cannot enter; this evening my son is with me and he is in shorts, and the security guard at the gate looks at him balefully as if at someone in a state of total undress.

The next day I walk up to the campus and am let in, of course, appropriately clad. I am instantly charmed. Although the vegetation does not look lush, it is wild and untended, in a way that makes it very natural and appealing. A few simple signboards point the way to ‘theatre’, ‘school of arts’, and ‘administration’… Beyond that things are left unsaid… an invitation to explore…I am drawn to this simplicity and spareness, and am ready to overlook the dress code and jaundice-eyed security guard. There are flowering trees everywhere, filling the stillness of the hot summer evening with a heady fragrance.

Inhaling deeply and finding myself slipping into a calm and relaxed frame of mind, I wander on. I soon near the sound of voices singing – two female and one male voice – to the musical accompaniment of a shruti (drone) box, and hands beating out the taala (rhythm). I instantly recognize it as a Carnatic-style varnam (Sanskrit for depiction/elaboration), Jalajakshi, in raga Hamsadhwani. It is being sung competently and briskly, and the lilt and rhythm are infectious. I break into song too, singing along with the voices, as my feet quicken in the direction of the music. I come to the sort of sight that I would expect only in a place like Kalakshetra (perhaps Shantiniketan, too, the arts university in sylvan surroundings founded by the poet Rabindranath Tagore in Bengal, early in the last century).

I have come abreast of a compound with several large trees. Beneath each tree is a huge smooth concrete disk polished to a shine, with a small raised concrete stool at one end, probably for the teacher. Sitting on one of these low circular platforms under generously overhanging branches, are the three singers. I silently place myself behind a tree outside the gate leading into the compound, so as not to distract them or appear to be a voyeur. But I needn’t have worried. They are totally absorbed in what they are doing, their faces raised in earnest concentration, as they give fulsome expression to their voices. I continue to sing along unselfconsciously, joyous to be making up an unintended and invisible foursome…The words and notes are tumbling out of me, and I note with some surprise that I am not making any mistakes, even though I must have been 8 or 9 years old when I learnt this varnam from my music teacher. My mind flashes back to all those decades ago when I sat through classes as a reluctant student… and I wonder bemusedly if this ability to recall ancient words and notes means that I will be lucky to escape Alzheimer’s in my old age!

But what amazes me even more is this momentary experience of peace and silent community enveloping me like a soft piece of old cotton fabric…The lane on which I am standing is deserted and for all I know we could be the only four persons in this part of the campus. All around me is total silence… other than the almost undiscernible sounds of rustling leaves, and birds winding down for the day… and, of course, the singing voices. I feel a sense of connectedness – with those three persons, with the notes of the raga, with the words of the varnam (words which, by the way, I do not understand to this date, since it is in Telugu a language I do not know and which is the language in which most Carnatic music compositions are written, but no music teacher in south India ever explains the meanings of the words that one is expected to sing with feeling!).

The varnam ends. And I move on, grateful for the interlude. Is there more of the same behind the next tree?

My aimless wandering has by now brought me to a little tree-lined path with tiny houses along one side, each set in an open unpaved compound. The dry leaves that carpet the ground everywhere in the campus (the summer in many parts of India is a Fall season) have here been swept into little piles, and I notice that every pile has been lit….the effect is almost Diwali-like… Dozens of little fires dancing in the growing dusk…a calm silence… air thinly suffused with the smoke from the fires… the burning leaves letting out a fragrance that is interesting and not wholly unpleasant.

It is a surreal scenario, because there are still no human beings in sight. The houses along the path look like staff quarters. But where are the residents? My ears pick up the soft sound of a woman singing, and I slow down my stride. From the house just ahead of me, I can hear the brisk rhythmic wood-on-wood click of the nattuvangam – the wooden stick with which the accompanying singer beats out the rhythm for the dancer. By now I can glimpse the dancer through the window netting. She is quite clearly in practice…her face shows some strain, her body wobbles ever so slightly as she corrects her posture, and she is looking for approval from someone sitting opposite her.

I turn into another lane, of what seems to be a row of teaching buildings. Here I am able to more closely observe the structure of the classrooms. Each is an independent building, consisting of a single spacious room with large windows all around that are set deeply into the walls and shaded by overhanging tiled eaves, a clever device to keep the sun out and let the breezes in. A powerful, mellifluous voice comes floating out to the lane. In one of the rooms, a young woman is practicing music by herself to the accompaniment of her electronic drone instrument. She is walking around the room, her face a picture of acute concentration, and she is practicing a particularly difficult phrase, going over it again and again in the quest for perfection. She notices me outside listening to her, and rewards me – and herself, because she is clearly beginning to get the phrase right and she knows that she is singing well – with the tiniest of smiles… Just looking at her, lost in her own world and singing in one of the most beautiful voices I have ever heard, feels inexplicably therapeutic. Her hair is carelessly twisted up and held in place, her face streaked with the day’s quota of heat and grime, her kurta (tunic) crumpled and tired. But her voice, and the look of total absorption on her face transform her into a stunning beauty. I am privileged to witness a candid performance, without stage, mikes and make-up…

By now the dusk is growing deeper and it is time for me to think of heading back home. I pass by one more classroom where another young woman is practicing her singing. I allow the sound to simply wash over me…my heart is already full. As yet, no lights have come on anywhere on the campus…. just the stillness of dusk… the little dancing fires everywhere… the faint veil of fragrant smoke… the flowering trees, by now beginning to look formless and in shadow, but obligingly giving out their heady bouquet.

I know that I shall be back.

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Pichavaram mangroves

For most of us Indian coastal city-slickers, mangroves are nature’s protective mechanisms in the tropics that work to human advantage by maintaining the balance between sea and shoreline. Never mind that what we actually see of them along our city shorelines is their ruthless decimation in the interests of land reclamation for ever more apartment buildings. Those that survive are festooned with filthy plastic bags, rags and other urban wastes, and swamped in the stench of rotting human excreta and stagnant mosquito breeding grounds.

Mangrove ‘forests’ are distant phenomena for us. Until Amitav Ghosh brought alive the tidal islands and fragile eco-system of the Sunderbans, and the even more vulnerable lives of its human settlers in his exquisitely crafted book The Hungry Tide, most of us of the older generation probably never went beyond associating the largest mangrove forest in the world with the Royal Bengal Tiger. With tigers and lions rapidly becoming extinct in India, young IPL cricket fans may be forgiven if they think that Sourav Ganguly is the only Royal Bengal Tiger.

Well, I had the surprise of my life when, on a recent nostalgic journey to the ancient temple town of Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu, one of the cities of my ancestors, I discovered that the second largest mangrove forests in the world were just 15 km. away! Funny thing is, I have grown up on stories of Chidambaram: its ancient Siva-Nataraja Temple, the exquisite Tamil poetry that it inspired, and the modern university that stands on land endowed by my grandfather. My story-teller was my mother:  she was born there, graduated from its university, and celebrates all the Nataraja festivals wherever in the world she may be.  But I had never ever heard her mention the mangrove forests!

Quite clearly, the grand 1500 year-old temple – that uniquely and exquisitely celebrates the rhythm of the cosmos symbolized by Siva’s Ananda Tandava (dance of bliss) in the same breath that it reminds devotees that God is formless (the Chidambara Rahasiyam) – is so overwhelming, that one has to have a singular environmental focus to discover that Chidambaram is severally blessed and sacred.

After our visit to the Temple, we drove down a narrow winding country road with cropland stretching away on either side, until we arrived at the village of Killai, the final human habitation before the mangroves. We were pleasantly surprised to find our car stopped by a villager manning a crude ‘toll’ gate, receipt book in hand. He pointed to a sign-board on the house wall behind him that announces that the village is the official custodian of the local environment; it also requests visitors to observe simple norms of environmental protection. Our local guide told us that the village uses the revenue from tourists to keep the environs clean.

A short walk from the car to the jetty brings us to an incredible vista. A gigantic expanse of water stretches up to the horizon reflecting the cloudless blue sky, the surface rippling with tiny waves. Rising out of the water are several brilliant green islands, thick with glistening trees.  Here and there we can see that the ‘lake’ gives way to winding canals lined by thickly forested banks. What is peculiar, not only about the  the scene before us, but also about the jetty where we stand,  is the total silence.  And this, despite the presence of several people, including children, waiting their turn for the boats.  I realize that I have not seen a single vendor hawking foodstuff or souvenirs, nor indeed any eatery since we left Chidambaram city.  By now we can’t wait to get into our boat to explore this silent and seemingly timeless landscape.

Pichavaram is the ancient name given to the roughly 3000 acres of wetlands that lie between the land and the sea in this part of central Tamil Nadu. Here, a network of over 4000 gently flowing canals loop around nearly 1500 islands of dense mangroves. These are backwaters, into which the sea flows and ebbs with the tide, mixing saline water with the fresh waters of the Vellar and Coleroon rivers that flow into the sea near here. Together they form a unique estuarine eco-system that supports several species of mangroves and marine life, and local and migratory birds. Thickly leaved trees grow tall and strong here, their dense roots firmly wedged in just a few feet of water and silt. The strange sight of huge brilliant-white patches in the glistening green foliage proves to be white nesting water birds.

We drift down the canals in our rowing boat steered by a local fisherman. Even the softly lapping oars seem intrusive in the silence of the canals, and we rest oars every now and again – to marvel at the dense crisscrossing of roots, witness the awesome flight of a cormorant, egret, heron, or any of the numerous birds from out of the undergrowth… But mostly just to soak in the stillness of this altogether different world that we have entered. The heat of the fierce mid-afternoon April sun is totally neutralized by the delicious breeze that comes calling across the water expanse. And as the evening sky lights up the water with shades of orange and pink, the feeling of being suspended in time is total.

It is hard to fly high for very long in India without coming back to earth with a thud. As we near the jetty, we notice the intrusive telecommunications and electricity towers on the banks that we had missed in our earlier eagerness to set sail. Our boatman tells us that the vibrations from these towers have pushed the birds deeper into the undergrowth. He remembers a time – before the high tension wires came along – when the tree tops were even thicker than they are now with sitting birds.

These development disasters notwithstanding, the Tamil Nadu government is also doing some good things here. It has terminated the permissions given earlier to resorts and eateries. So, although the abandoned buildings of some erstwhile resort give the shores a shabby look, one feels grateful that there are no human beings populating them. A conscious policy of afforestation and conservation is slowly improving the density and spread of the forest. Forgotten traditional fishing practices that protected against overexploitation of marine resources, and earlier kept local fishing communities self-sufficient, are gradually being revived among the native communities and taught to new settlers. The cutting of mangrove trees for firewood by both old and new residents, and the commercialization of prawn fishing by new settlers in the area, is also being addressed.
(For more on this, see “Fishing by turns”, by S. Subramanian of the Fisherfolk Organisation for Advancement, Chennai.  http://icsf.net/icsf2006/uploads/publications/samudra/pdf/english/issue_20/art09.pdf)

In all the centuries that the magnificent Nataraja temple has stood in nearby Chidambaram, there has been no record of tsunami-like waves or cyclonic storms causing damage to the region. Even the recent tsunami that devastated vast stretches of the Tamil Nadu coastline found that in Pichavaram its fury was blunted and its power neutralized by the firm wall of criss-crossing roots that the mangroves support. There is still a long way to go for the full regeneration of the Pichavaram forest, and even now the local mangrove species teeter precariously between ‘vulnerable’ and ‘endangered’ status.  In the meanwhile, one hopes that the pristine beauty of the region does not prompt unthinking tourism promotion strategies such as entertainment “festivals” –  in the name of  ‘raising revenues for environmental protection’ –   that might flood the gentle waters with loud and boorish city crowds.

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