Rhymes for the Times

In times such as we are passing through, poetry is catharsis; it is a way to share emotions and feelings; it represents the triumph of creativity even in difficult situations; it brings a ray of hope and humour, albeit often black.

And so naturally, there have been thousands of poems on COVID all over print media and social media. In fact, the Washington Post focused its annual kids’ poetry writing competition on Corona this year, with “Poetry of the Pandemic” as the theme of their 2021 poetry contest.

Corona Poetry has taken such proportions that there are several appeals against more of the genre.

So this piece will now stop talking about Corona and move on to trivia about other well-known nursery rhymes.

A widely-held belief—though some scholars disagree—is that ‘Ring-A-Ring of Roses’ has its origins in another pandemic, the Great Plague. The ‘roses’ are the red rashes which are a symptom of the disease; the ‘posies’ are the herbs that were carried as a protection against the infection; and the ‘Atishoo, atishoo’ (which at least in my childhood version became ‘husha-busha’!) represents the final sneezing before falling down dead.

But moving on to some poems with non-pandemic associations:

The rhyme ‘There was a little girl, who had a little curl’ is believed to have been written by the famous American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow for his daughter Edith, on a day she was throwing tantrums about having her hair curled. Well, I suppose that is the difference between poets and others—most parents’ reaction to a tantrum is a raised pitch rather than a rhyming verse!

‘Humpty Dumpty’ is very ancient and there are variants all over Europe. This is obviously a riddle whose answer is ‘egg’, but seems to have lost that connotation, especially as most illustrations of the poem clearly show an egg, not leaving any suspense.

‘Tinker, tailor, soldier, spy’ is played with counters, and is supposed to indicate what the child will become when it grows up.

The historical event of the Norse King Olaf destroying the London Bridge in the 11th century probably gave rise to the popular ditty ‘London Bridge is falling down’.

Children across the world wistfully recite ‘Rain, rain go away’ when downpourings stop their games. The poem’s origins go back to ancient Greece, and it is supposed to be a charm to keep rain away.

‘Little Miss Muffet’ was probably written  Dr. Thomas Muffet, an entomologist of the 16th century, who was fascinated by spiders for his daughter Patience. ‘Incy winsy spider’ or ‘Itsy bitsy spider’ the other popular spider-verse was first published around 1910, thought it may be older. It is a ‘finger song’ and children mimic the actions of a spider climbing up and down.

A popular poem about an insect is ‘Ladybird, ladybird fly away home’. It is to be recited when a ladybird lands on your hand or arm, as harming these creatures is supposed to bring bad luck.

 ‘This little pig went to market’ is a toe game played with toddlers while counting off their toes.

While the origins of many nursery rhymes is speculative, the author of ‘Twinkle, twinkle little star’ is known definitively to be Jane Taylor, who published this in 1806. She and her sister Ann were popular nursery-rhyme writers.

And to end, a story about a poem which is not very popular today.

Three wise of Gotham

Went to sea in a bowl.

If the bowl had been stronger

My story would have been longer.

It does not rhyme particularly well, and sounds pretty abrupt. But the origin-story is very interesting. Apparently, in England during the reign of King John (about 800 years back), when the King passed through any road, that road became a public road. Now the King on one of his journeys planned to pass through the village of Gotham. The citizens of that village did not want their village road to become a thoroughfare. So they came up with a strategy. They all decided to start acting completely silly when the King’s advance party came around. So some went in pursuit of a cuckoo, and spread the word that they were doing it to capture it and hence have perpetual summer. Others tried to drown an eel in a pond. The King’s guards were convinced that the villagers were all mad, and advised the King to change his route, which he did. So the ‘mad men’ were actually wise, and saved their village.

If only we could strategize, cooperate and subvert the more unreasonable of the plans of our rulers like this!

–Meena

Maria and her Magic Mushrooms

Source: psychedelicreview.com

I recently read a beautiful poem and I was curious to know more about the poet Maria Sabina. I assumed that she would be a modern poet, but what I discovered was a fascinating story. 

María Sabina Magdalena García was born over a century ago in a community of Mazatec, an indigenous people of Mexico who live in Oaxaca in southern Mexico. Maria Sabina spent her entire life in the remote village of Huautla de Jiménez, up in the Sierra mountains in this area. Maria Sabina belonged to a family of traditional curandera (healers) and shamans. Among many indigenous peoples the healer or shaman has a very important function in the community. It is believed that these healers communicate with this world and that of the gods, and thus have the ability to cure both physical and spiritual conditions, and even predict the future.

The healing ceremonies of the Mazatec included the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms (which they called “holy children”) as a method of contact with divinity. It is said that when Maria was just eight years old she and her sister were sitting under a tree when they noticed some of these mushrooms growing wild, and ingested them. The little girls had a terrifying hallucinatory experience, but during this Maria heard an otherworldly voice that told her about some herbs that would cure her uncle who was very sick at the time. She followed the instructions about where to find these, and the herbs cured her uncle.

The young girl became known in the village as a sabia or wise one. Maria seemed to have intuitively developed a knowledge of the ancient Mazatec rituals and the healing power which was attributed to the ritual intake of a particular species of fungi (Mexican Psilocybe) which grow only in mountain range of Sierra Mazatec.Thus began Maria’s lifelong use of ‘magic mushrooms’ for special healing sessions known as velada. Local people visited Maria not only to be healed physically, but also for spiritual guidance. Under the influence of the hallucinogenic mushrooms she guided the patients through out-of-body experiences that revealed the cure for the illness. She claimed that the mushrooms produced wisdom in her; as she said much later in life “I am the woman who looks inside and examines.”

Maria was totally dedicated to her healing ceremonies with mushrooms that included ritual chanting, tobacco smoke, consumption of mescal (an agave plant), and ointments extracted from medicinal plants. Therapeutic laughter was also a part of the ceremony. The rituals were conducted at night because it was believed that the healer was guided in the journey by the stars. The veladas were held purely for medicinal purposes, to purge illness and heal the sick.

Maria Sabina would have continued to live her life as the local curandera and sabia in her remote mountain village, and she and her practice of magic mushrooms or “holy children” as she called them, would have died unknown to the outside world. But destiny had planned another ending to her story.

In the early 1950s, an American Robert Gordon Wasson and his wife who were interested in ethnobotany were looking at the use of hallucinogenic plants in the rituals of indigenous groups in different parts of the world. As they were travelling in the Mazatec Sierra region, they heard of a famous healer of Huautla. In 1955, they travelled to the remote mountain village, and to gain access to her, pretended that they had come to be treated by Maria Sabina. As a curandera, Sabina would never deny a request for help. By then she was already in her sixties and her ceremonies were not known outside her immediate area. She conducted several veladas using the mushrooms with the foreigners, who also documented the entire experience in photos and recordings. When they returned, they also took back with them samples of the fungi which was identified as Psilocybe Mexicana. The fungus was cultivated in Europe and its primary ingredient, psilocybin, was isolated in 1958 by Albert Hofmann, the discoverer of LSD.

In 1957 Life magazine published an article which chronicled the Wasson’s experiences with Maria and her magic mushrooms. Maria Sabina became famous; people from all over the world began to visit her. By the mid-sixties, at the height of the hippie culture, there was a deluge of visitors to Huautla de Jiménez–media, tourists, artists, intellectuals, anthropologists, researchers, and celebrities (including among others, John Lennon, Walt Disney. Aldous Huxley, and Carlos Castaneda). Sadly, many of these visitors were interested purely in getting high on the magic mushrooms, and psychedelic recreational pursuits, and were disrespectful of local culture and traditions. The wanton rush to gather the mushrooms also eroded the delicate ecological balance of the mountain slopes and forests.  

The unwanted attention completely altered the social dynamics of the community and threatened to destroy an ancient Mazatec tradition. The people of Huautla de Jiminez put the blame on Maria Sabina and accused her profiting from their tradition. Villagers attacked and tried to burn down her house several times; they tried to run her out of the village. The police accused her of being a drug dealer. Maria Sabina was ostracised by her community.

Interestingly, she accepted her fate as if it were pre-determined and had been told to her during one of her ceremonies. But she regretted that she had opened up the ceremony for a foreigner, and felt that the sanctity of the velada had been irredeemably desecrated by the recreational use of her “holy children”. She realised that From the moment the foreigners arrived, the holy children lost their purity. They lost their force. They ruined them.” Later in life she became bitter about her many misfortunes and how others had profited from her name. She spent her last years in abject poverty and malnutrition, and died in a hospital in 1985 at the age of 91 years.

While she may have later attained notoriety for her magic mushrooms, María Sabina is regarded as a sacred figure in Huautla. She is also respected and honoured as one of Mexico’s greatest poets.  She did not know how to read or write; her verses were either spoken or sung like chants in her native dialect. She said that it was not her words that she expressed, but the voice of her ninos santos or holy children who spoke through her. She claimed to see the mushrooms as children dancing around her, singing and playing instruments. She was simply their interpreter and she treated them with great respect. She added cadence to her words and expressed them with her entire body. Her chants were first translated from her native Mazatec into English and, only later, into Spanish.

Sharing the poem that led me to this incredible story.

Cure yourself with the light of the sun and the rays of the moon.
With the sound of the river and the waterfall.
With the swaying of the sea and the fluttering of birds.

Heal yourself with mint, with neem and eucalyptus.

Sweeten yourself with lavender, rosemary, and chamomile.

Hug yourself with the cocoa bean and a touch of cinnamon.

Put love in tea instead of sugar, and take it looking at the stars.

Heal yourself with the kisses that the wind gives you and the hugs of the rain.

Get strong with bare feet on the ground and with everything that is born from it.

Get smarter every day by listening to your intuition, looking at the world with the eye of your forehead.

Jump, dance, sing, so that you live happier.

Heal yourself, with beautiful love, and always remember: you are the medicine.

Today is Earth day. What better way to celebrate than to savour these words and make them our mantra for life and living.

–Mamata

Get that Goat!

Last week, newspapers reported that when the Army Medical Corp Centre at Lucknow marked its Foundation Day, the marching band was led by Munna Havaldar. Mr. Munna is not a man but a goat, serving as a non-commissioned officer in the Regiment. And he is not the first! There has been a Munna Havildar in the regiment since 1951, the title handed down without break from one handsome Marwari goat to the next!

This is in keeping with the tradition of animal mascots that many army regiments, not only in India, but across the world have. Probably a tradition popularized by the British. Today, the British Army has nine animal mascots, from goats to ponies.

The Spanish Legion has its own goat mascot, ‘Odin’. The Bengal Tigress ‘Quintas Durga’, is the mascot for the 5th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment. ‘Chesty XV’ an English Bulldog is a mascot to the US Marine Corps.  The Sri Lankan Light Infantry mascot is an elephant. This is a tradition since 1961, and they are all named after the most famous elephant in Sri Lanken history, ‘Kandula’. ‘Brigadier Sir Nils Olav’ is a King Penguin who is the mascot of the Kings Guard of Norway. Toronto Zoo is home to the Canadian Army’s mascot, ‘Juno’, a female polar bear. ‘Bill the Goat’ is the mascot  of the United States Naval Academy.

Armies have both official and unofficial mascots or pets. Official mascots have a rank, and are maintained at the expense of the State. As with human soldiers, they too can even be promoted and demoted!

For some reason, goats are very popular mascots. In fact, they may be among the first-ever army animal mascots. The Royal Welsh Fusiliers have adopted goats as mascots since the 1770s, starting from the American War of Independence, during the famous Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775, when a wild goat entered the battlefield and led the Royal Fusiliers from the field.

Of course, goats are not very well-behaved or tractable. Lance Corporal William ‘Billy’ Windsor, mascot of 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh, earned a demotion in 2006 when he deviated from the parade he was leading in front of the Queen and tried to head-butt the drummers marching ahead of him.

Which reminds me of another goat which was a mascot not of a Unit in the Army, but of a road in Vastrapur, Ahmedabad. This strip of road (extremely narrow, bumpy and non-straight), lined with shops, parked vehicles, thelas and carts, temples and milling humanity, was a vital one connecting IIM, PRL, ISRO Colony etc. to the ‘other side’.

And it was ruled by a huge goat. He lay down in the middle of the road when he felt like, and all traffic had to flow around him. If he decided to take a walk and charge any pedestrian, they just had to may their way to safer ground. He was fed and pampered by all the shop keepers and denizens of the street. He had his pick of the choicest vegetables and fruits from the carts. If he felt like some sweets, he just had to make his way to one or the other sweet shop in the market. On festival days, he was festooned with garlands and daubed with paint. He was given to smoking, and the paan gallawallahs used to light beedies and put them in his mouth for him to puff at.

Sadly, the goat which gave the road so much character passed away of old age some years ago. Not being an Army Regimental Mascot, he was not replaced.

But thankfully, the road has been widened and smoothed!

–Meena

Feeling Fool-ish?

When we were in school this was the day when we were on high alert—looking over our shoulder, and wary about opening packages and envelopes; while at the same time planning silly pranks to play on family and friends. Whether the attempts on both sides were a hit or a flop, perhaps the highlight was the gleeful shouts of “April Fool”!

Interestingly, this is one day that does not have any specific geographical, cultural or religious significance but it is universally marked by fool-hearted fun and frolic. And yet, it is a day with a long, and somewhat hazy history. While it has been celebrated for many centuries by different cultures, there are several theories about its exact origins. 

Some historians speculate that it may have originated in 16th century Europe when France switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar. Traditionally, the spring equinox which fell around the first of April was thought of as the beginning of the year in the Julian calendar, but in 1582, with the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, January 1 was designated as the start of the new year. As the stories go, it was a while before everyone found out about this change, and adopted it. Those who were ignorant about the change, or who refused to accept it, and continued to celebrate it in March-April were the butt of derision and pranks, and were called ‘April Fools.” One of the popular pranks was to paste a paper fish on their backs, and calling them “poisson d’avril” (April fish), which referred to a young, easily caught fish, symbolising a gullible person.

Other historians feel that its precedents lie even further back to a Greco-Roman festival called Hilaria, honoring Cybele, an ancient Greek Mother of Gods, which was celebrated with parades, masquerades and jokes. In fact most cultures have some kind of festival to mark the end of winter and the return of spring which is marked by the vernal equinox. These “renewal festivals” were an occasion to invert the traditional social order for a day—children could challenge the authority of parents, and servants of masters—and tensions were diffused with boisterous hilarity and playful pranks. Anthropologists see 1 April as a modern form of a renewal festival where forms of behaviour that are normally not allowed (lying, deception, playing pranks) become acceptable, for this one day.

It is only in the 18th century that April Fools’ Day spread through Britain. With time, different parts evolved their own traditions and events to mark the day. In Scotland and Ireland, a popular prank was to send people on phony errands; someone was asked to deliver a sealed message that supposedly requested help. In fact, the message read “Dinna laugh, dinna smile. Hunt the gowk another mile” which translated means “don’t laugh, don’t smile, send the messenger another mile“. Each recipient upon reading it would send the person on to the next person with an identical message. This version of a wild goose chase was called “hunting the gowk” as gowk means a cuckoo bird, which symbolises a fool.

With time, even as its history became more blurred, the spirit of April Fools’ Day spread across the world, triggering challenges to devise and play the most elaborate and outrageous  hoaxes. These were no longer confined to slapstick pranks and juvenile jokes. Newspapers, radio and TV stations and websites also joined the tradition by publishing or broadcasting reporting outrageous reports and news that would convincingly fool their audiences.

One of the best remembered hoax was pulled off by none other than the BBC, which had an old and solid reputation for its reliable reporting. On 1 April 1957, the BBC show Panorama gave the news about a bumper spaghetti harvest in Switzerland and aired a three-minute segment showing people harvesting spaghetti from trees. Viewers were totally taken in; many wrote in asking how they could grow their own spaghetti trees! The BBC even replied: “Place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best!”

In 1962, before the days of colour TV, a ‘technical expert’ on the Swedish national network told the public that viewing its black-and-white broadcasts through nylon stockings would enable them to view these in colour. Many Swedes seriously tried this, ruining many stockings in the effort!

The neighbouring Germans have contributed their bit of April foolery too. In 1994, a Cologne-based radio station ran a story saying that local joggers should keep their speed below ten kilometres an hour so as not to disturb squirrels during mating season; while in 2004, Berlin paper Tageszeitung reported that the American embassy would be relocating to get away from the French embassy across the street.

As the world leap-frogged from print and broadcast to virtual communication, the pranks continued, in more high tech and sophisticated forms. Google became known for its clever annual pranks on its different platforms, cooked up by its best tech minds. It goofed however when it announced the real trial launch of Gmail on 1 April 2004, and everyone thought it was a joke! Last year, April 2020, for the first time since it began its April Fools tradition in 2000, Google did not put up any pranks and jokes, as a mark of respect for the unprecedented Covid situation that the entire world had been plunged into. And Stop Press! It has decided not to do so this year also.

Once upon a time, hoaxes were a once-a-year bit of fun and games, with the guileless gowks running around to carry so-called news. Today with social media flooded 24/7 with news, views, gossip and rumours, it is becoming increasingly difficult to sieve the fake news from the real. We no longer need to wait for April 1, to fool and be fooled. The joke is on gullible us, the always-in-a-rush consumers, who unquestioningly lap it all up, and spread it far and wide. That is not funny; that is foolish. More fool me and more fool you!

–Mamata

The Year of the Ox

As we do in India, the Chinese too use the lunar calendar to designate festivals. The Chinese calendar follows a twelve-year cycle in which the years are identified by twelve animal signs. The animals follow one another in an established order, and are repeated every twelve years: Rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig.

This week is the run up to the Chinese New Year which falls on 12 February this year. This day marks the start of the Year of the Ox. In Chinese element theory, each zodiac sign is associated with one of the five elements: Gold (Metal), Wood, Water, Fire, and Earth. Thus the zodiac sign also carries one of these elements. 2021 is the Year of the Metal Ox

There are several tales in Chinese folklore and mythology that relate how the order of the animals came to be decided. The best known one is story about the great race that the Jade Emperor called for, and how the order in which the animals reached the finale determined their rank in the zodiac. I had shared this story in my post The Year of the Rat on 26 January 2020.

To jump to the end of the story, of the twelve animals who competed in the race, the wily rat effortlessly covered most of the distance by riding on the back of the ox. The strong ox had steadily lumbered on, and crossed the river to the other side, ahead of all the other animals. It was almost at the finishing line when the rat jumped off its back and scurried across, thus being declared the winner. And so it was the Rat is the first sign in the Chinese zodiac, followed by the Ox as the second sign.

 Each animal has particular characteristics and people born in a certain year are believed to take on these characteristics. As per the twelve year cycle, the Ox Years are: 1901, 1913, 1925, 1937, 1949, 1961, 1973, 1985, 1997, 2009, 2021. As demonstrated by the ox in the story, people born in the year of the Ox are said to be strong, reliable and hardworking. They are also calm, patient, methodical, and trustworthy. Although they are not great talkers, they do have strong opinions, and could, on occasion, be stubborn.

In Chinese culture, the Ox is a valued animal not just for these characteristics but also because it plays an important role in agriculture. And there is another story that endorses this.

According to legend, in ancient times the ox was a servant of the Jade Emperor and acted as a messenger between heaven and earth. At that time the earth was barren, and the soil was bare. The people of earth asked the ox to convey a request to the Emperor to grant them some seeds with which to make the earth beautiful. The Jade Emperor agreed to send someone to earth to sow the seeds, but was wondering who to send on this mission. The loyal ox volunteered. The Emperor was not very sure if the ox was up to the task, but the ox assured him that it would faithfully carry out all instructions.

When it was time to go, the Emperor gave the ox seeds of many food grains, with instructions to sow one handful of seeds every three steps. The ox took the seeds and started off. By the time he reached earth, he was a little confused about what he had been told; but he diligently started sowing three handfuls of seeds with every step. As a result, the earth was so overgrown with weeds that the farmers were unable to harvest any crop.    

In despair they asked the Kitchen God to send word to the Jade Emperor about their plight. The Emperor summoned the ox who honestly admitted that he had mixed up the instructions and planted three times as much as he had been instructed to. The Emperor was very angry. He proclaimed that from then on, all oxen would have to work only for the farmers and eat only grass, so as to help keep the fields weed-free. And so the ox left the service of the Emperor and since then has always worked for farmers, and has never stopped eating grass. But the ox has borne its burden with dignity and steadfastly. And the farmers have valued the ox for its hard work and simple nature.

While seeds have always denoted fertility and abundance, fruits also have great significance in Chinese New Year traditions. Fruits are exchanged as gifts that are meant to bring good luck and happiness throughout the year. Different fruits are said to symbolize different things, especially in the Feng Shui tradition.

Apple: Symbolizes good health, peace, and harmony within the household.

Grapes: Symbolize prosperity, wealth, and success.

Orange: Its colour symbolizes gold, and its round shape is believed to bring prosperity and great fortune.

Pineapple: Indicates upcoming wealth, luck, and success in life.

Watermelon: Aside from bringing prosperity, it is also good for the body’s wealth.

Peach: Symbolizes long life, good health, happy relationship, and prosperity.

Mango: Symbolizes sweetness and strength within the family.

Pomelo: Is believed to attract luck and prosperity.

Papaya: Symbolizes prosperity and good health.

Banana: Symbolizes family unity and prosperity.

Pomegranate: Is believed to bring good health and prosperity within the family

Lemon: Symbolizes cleanliness, energy cleaning, and protection.

Coincidentally this is also the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables. So while we may or may not choose to follow the symbolic value of fruits, this is a good year to remind ourselves of the medically proven health benefits; and remember that health is indeed wealth for us and our families. Something that the just past Year of the Rat has demonstrated clearly.  

Here’s to the Year of the Ox! May it give every one of us the health and strength to face each day with fortitude, stamina, and success.   

–Mamata

Save the Paradox!

An impossible creature like the platypus cannot but fascinate.

  • It has the beak of a duck; the tail of a beaver; the feet of an otter.
  • It is a mammal but it lays eggs.
  • It is bio-luminescent–a rare charecteristic for a mammal.
  • It is a rare venomous mammal–the males of the species have a spur on the hind feet which can deliver venom.

No wonder early scientists thought it was a hoax—that the preserved specimen they were shown had been made up by sewing together parts of various animals.

It was certainly an animal which changed world views.

It shook up the scientific world. Robert Persig, the American author and philosopher thought this pointed to the inadequacy of scientific thinking, when he said, “…when the Platypus was discovered, scientists said it was a paradox. But Pirsig’s point was it was never a paradox or an oddity. It didn’t make sense only to the scientists because they viewed the nature of animals according to their own classification, when nature did not have any.” ― Robert M. Pirsig, Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals.

It also shook up the world of religion, with anti-evolutionary theory proponents using it to cast doubt on Darwin and his theories.

The animal is found in Australia and Australia alone. Till recently, the overall conservation status of the platypus was not a matter of very deep concern. But recent reports are throwing up some red flags. Platypus habitat is reported to have shrunk by almost 25% in the last three decades. In the last decade or two, they have not been sighted in some of the areas which they traditionally inhabited. The reasons are not difficult to find—urban sprawl encroaching upon creeks and waterways which are platypus habitats; land clearing; disruption of the natural flow of rivers; building of dams and weirs; erosion of river banks; and unstable climate and increased droughts due to climate change.

Fortunately, conservation scientists don’t think the situation is beyond repair, but feel it is time to sit up and take steps. And let us hope they do! The world cannot lose this creature, for then, where would be our sense of wonder? Where the hope of a world which still holds secrets waiting to be discovered? Of the sense that ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’?

The platypus has inspired its share of lore, legend, stories and poetry. My visit to an aquarium in Australia was the only time I ever saw a platypus. And a story from Native Australian lore re-told there inspired me to write ‘Who Will Rule’, a children’s book brought out by Tulika and translated into many languages.

And to end, a classic platypus poem:

THE PLATYPUS

by: Oliver Herford (1863-1935)

A sad example sets for us: From him we learn how Indecision

Of character provokes Derision.

This vacillating Thing, you see,

Could not decide which he would be,

Fish, Flesh or Fowl, and chose all three.

The scientists were sorely vexed

To classify him; so perplexed

Their brains, that they, with Rage at bay,

Called him a horrid name one day,–

A name that baffles, frights and shocks us,

Ornithorhynchus Paradoxus.

–Meena

Peanuts for Bulls

One of Bangalore’s landmarks is the Dodda Basavana Gudi (Big Bull Temple), which is situated–surprise, surprise, on Bull Temple Road, Basanvangudi, South Bengaluru. It was built by Kempe Gowda, the founder of Bangalore, around 1537. It is dedicated to Nandi, the vahana or mount of Lord Shiva, and the monolithic statue has a height of 4.6 metres and a length of 6.1 metres. This Nandi is probably the biggest in the world.

But where do the peanuts come in? Well, apparently, this was a prolific peanut-growing area many centuries ago. But year after year, a wild bull would rampage through the fields just when they were ready for harvest, and would destroy the crops. Over time, the problem grew so worrisome that the farmers were desperate. They vowed to build a temple dedicated to Nandi if only the bull would stop. They did so, and miraculously, the bull stopped its depredations.

A board at the temple has a slightly different version. According to this, one of the angry farmers whose peanut fields the bull was destroying, hit it with a club. The stunned bull sat down motionless and turned into stone. But then it started to grow and grow! The worried farmers prayed to Lord Shiva. A trident found near the feet of the bull was placed on its head, and at last it stopped growing. The grateful farmers then built a small temple, which was later enlarged by Kempe Gowda.

And in gratitude, farmers also decided to hold an annual peanut fair (Kadalekai Parase) in the area around the temple. It is held on the last Monday of the month of Karthik (that is next Monday, 14 December). Originally, farmers would make an annual visit to Bengaluru to sell their peanuts, but today most sellers here are traders who buy from the farmers and sell. Not only can groundnuts be bought and stored for the year, but peanut connoisseurs will  find a large variety of snacks to choose from–spiced, fried, boiled, roasted and sugar-coated groundnuts.

Not just a tasty snack, groundnuts are good as a source of protein. It is of course a major oil crop—in fact India’s most significant one. The green or dried leaves are used as cattle-feed. Being a leguminous crop, it does the soil good too, by fixing nitrogen. Approximately 85 lakh hectares of agricultural land in India are under groundnut cultivation and the annual production is about 7200 thousand tonnes.  

Well, COVID is bound to interfere with beautiful traditions like the peanut fair, but its importance in our lives will not wane. And hopefully Kadalekai Parase 2021 will give us all our nut-fix!

–Meena

See also: ‘The Worshipful Bull’, https://wordpress.com/post/millennialmatriarchs.com/823

Sankofa

A few days ago my niece asked if, in India, we had a concept or symbol similar to that of Sankofa. This was a new word for me, and as I love to do, I immediately wanted to find out more. What I discovered was beautiful and meaningful.

The concept of Sankofa is derived from King Adinkera of the Akan people of Ghana in West Africa. The word Sankofa is derived from three words in the Akan language: San (return), Ko (go), Fa (look, seek and take). Translated literally it would mean ‘go back or return, and look’. In the Akan dialect this concept is expressed as “se wo were fi na wosan kofa a yenki which means “it is not taboo to go back and fetch what you forgot.”

This reflects the strong belief of the Akan that the past serves as a guide for planning the future. While the Akan believe that there must be forward movement and new learning as time passes, they caution that as the march ahead proceeds, it is the wisdom in learning from the past which ensures a strong future.

Sankofa bird

Visually and symbolically, Sankofa is depicted as a mythical bird with its feet firmly planted forward, or sometimes flying forward (to represent looking or moving ahead), with its head turned backwards (looking to the past). The Sankofa bird is always shown with an egg in its mouth, or as turning back to take an egg off its back. The egg represents the ‘gems’ or knowledge of the past upon which wisdom is based; it also signifies the generation to come that would benefit from that wisdom. Thus, the bird graphically demonstrates the Akan belief that the past serves as a guide for planning the future.

The depiction of the bird as bending its neck with effort, to reach back for the abandoned but precious egg signifies the diligence and effort required to pay due reverence to the past, and give it its proper place in the current scheme of events.

Sankofa teaches us that in order to move forward we must go back to our roots. That does not mean that we remain in the past, but rather we use the lessons and wisdom from that knowledge, and use it to make the best of the present, and a better future. It is a way of looking to the past with the understanding that both the good and the bad have formed the present situation. The concept emphasises the value of learning not only from the good things, but also from the bad things and mistakes of the past so as not to repeat these in the future.

 Sankofa embodies the spirit and attitude of reverence for the past, reverence for one’s ancestors, reverence for one’s history, and reverence for one’s elders. All indigenous cultures across the world have traditionally acknowledged and revered their elders who are regarded as the fount of knowledge, based on experience and wisdom, who can help guide the way. Sadly, in this century there has been an increasing trend to shrug off their wisdom as ‘old wives tales’. Why go to the grandparents when Google Guru has all the answers you need? An interesting contemporary initiative reminds us of the value of this wisdom. 

In July 2007 Nelson Mandela marked his 89th birthday by forming a Council of Elders dedicated to finding new ways to resolve some of the world’s long-running crises, reduce conflict and despair, and foster peace. In his words “They will support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict and inspire hope where there is despair.”

The Elders were visualised as individuals who had “earned international trust” and “a reputation for inclusive, progressive leadership”, but no longer held public office, and were independent of any national government or other vested interest.

The original Elders included India’s Ela Bhatt; Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary-general; Jimmy Carter, the former US president, and Desmond Tutu, the retired South African archbishop. Other members were former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland; Mandela’s wife Graca Machel, a children’s rights campaigner; former Irish president Mary Robinson, and Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen bank, the pioneering micro-credit institution.

A inspiring initiative and much-needed recognition of the need for collective wisdom of the past experience to guide the future of a world besieged with conflict, chaos, and confusion.

Sadly today, across the world, there is a dangerous trend of going back to the past, not so much to learn from it but to choose selectively from it in order to perpetuate what seems convenient to suit the political agenda or religious climate. Alternately there is also the inclination to erase all traces of the past, and build the future on a brand-new slate.

Sankofa is a gentle reminder that if even in our arrogance we overlook the gems from the past, when we come to our senses we should be humble enough to retrace our steps and make amends. As the popular saying goes, those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.

There is no shame in going back to our roots. That is Sankofa, simple yet profound.

Thank you Suparna, for introducing me to Sankofa.

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. Steve Jobs

–Mamata

A Preposterous and Perplexing Beast

Dürer’s 1515 RHINOCERVS Source:https://en.wikipedia.org

In the sixteenth century, trade and merchant ships used to carry plants, spices and exotic animals from the colonial outposts of the ruling powers to Europe. In 1515, among the ship load of gifts despatched by the governor of Portugese India, Alfonso d’Albuquerque, to King Manuel I in Portugal, was a curious animal known by its Gujarati name of genda, and its Indian keeper, named Ocem. This rhino was the first to arrive in Europe since the days of the Roman Empire, and it caused quite a sensation. The animal was examined by scholars and the curious, and letters describing the fantastic creature were sent throughout Europe.

Albrecht Dürer, an artist, mathematician, engraver and painter living in Nuremberg read about this strange animal and based on the description, he began a pen sketch which became a woodcut. Dürer’s 1515 RHINOCERVS became famous. Dürer himself had never seen a rhino and hence his rendering was more fanciful than accurate.

In many ways a rhinoceros is an odd-looking creature. Even its name, literally meaning a creature with a horn on its nose, belies its unusual appearance. Much before Dürer, even for those who had seen a real rhino, its strange form and peculiar characteristics spawned a variety of tales. Tribes in Africa and Asia where the rhinoceros is found in the wild, have their folk tales that imagine how this creature came to be what it is. Here are some abridged versions.

A folk tale of the Tharu people of the Terai grasslands at the foothills of the Himalaya describes how the beast was created by the Hindu god Vishwakarma. He picked the best parts of many animals on earth and stitched them together. His creation had the skin of an elephant, the hooves of a horse, the ears of a hare, the eyes of a crocodile, the brains of a bear, the heart of a lion, and horns like Nandi, Shiva’s bull. Viswakarma creatively twisted, moulded and further modified these parts, even fusing two horns into one. The result was beyond his expectation, a masterpiece of the art of imperfection.

The naturalist and wildlife writer Edward Pritchard Gee recounted an ancient Indian myth that explains the ‘armour plating’ of the rhino. It is said that, once, Lord Krishna decided to use rhinos in place of elephants in battle. However, when the creature, all covered in armour for battle, was brought in, it was found to be too stupid to obey commands. Therefore, it was sent back to the forest. Unfortunately, they forgot to take off its armour—and so it remains until this day.

One African tale tells of how the rhino got its skin. Long long ago, when all the animals were without a skin, God gave each one a needle and told them to sew a skin for themselves. The animals got to work, each creating for themselves beautifully patterned and fitting skins. But Kifam, the first black rhino, was clumsy and short sighted. As he started on his skin, he dropped his needle; so he charged back and forth looking for it, but being short sighted, he could not find it. In frustration, he snatched up a thorn and started stitching, trying to put something together. When he put on his hastily assembled patchwork coat, it hung in wrinkles and folds. The other animals all laughed at him; this made him very cross; he was sure that they had hidden his needle. Since then the rhino charges at everything that crosses his path.   

Another African folktale explains the rhino’s habit of scattering its dung. As the story goes: In days long ago when animals could talk, Elephant always used to tease rhino about his near-sightedness and bad temper. One day Rhino really lost his temper. He challenged Elephant to a contest. The contest was to see who could produce the largest dung heap. Imagine two very large animals and the vast quantities of vegetation they eat, and you can imagine the lot of dung that they both make! But in the contest, Rhino made the larger pile of dung. The elephant was enraged. He attacked the poor rhino with his trunk and tusk and beat him till he cried for mercy. Finally the Elephant stopped the beating but made Rhino promise that he would never again challenge Him—the mighty Lord of the Beasts. Rhino never forgot that dreadful beating, and he is afraid to ever offend Elephant again. And that is why he always kicks at his dung heap, scattering it until it is quite flat, so that it always looks smaller than that of the Elephant.

While Rhino’s looks may be perplexing, it is the Rhino’s survival in the wild which is a   pressing issue for wildlife conservationists. Rhinos also have the unfortunate distinction of being one of the most endangered animals on earth.

Of the world’s five species of rhino, two are found in Africa–the Black Rhino and the White Rhino. The other three species are found in Asia. These are the Greater One-Horned (Indian) Rhino, the Sumatran Rhino and the Javan Rhino. While each of these species faces a different level of threat, some of the common threats that all of them face include poaching for their horn, habitat loss, and extreme climate events like floods and tsunamis.

Around 2010 less than 30,000 rhinos were alive in the wild. The plight of the Rhinoceros was not widely known around the world, and most people didn’t know just how close to total extinction majestic species was. So WWF-South Africa announced World Rhino Day in an effort raise awareness about this beast in peril, in an effort to save the world’s remaining rhinos.

Today this has become an international event. How this came about is another, modern-day, story of two determined and dedicated women.

In mid-2011, Lisa Jane Campbell of Chishakwe Ranch in Zimbabwe was preparing for World Rhino Day. She searched online for ideas and potential collaborators, and found a blog by Rhishja Cota-Larson from Saving Rhinos in the USA. Lisa Jane sent Rhishja an email, and the two found they shared a common goal of protecting rhinos. In the months that followed, they worked together to make World Rhino Day 2011 an international day of celebration of all five species of rhinos, and awareness of the threats that they face. The two continued to work together to promote this day every year.

22 September–World Rhino Day has since grown to become a global phenomenon, uniting NGOs, cause-related organisations, businesses, and concerned members of the public from nearly every corner of the world!

This is my small celebration of this quirky creature with a horn on its nose!

–Mamata

A Tree for all Reasons

The recent festival of Janamashtami brought to mind one of the few poems that I remember well from my school Hindi textbook. The first verse, roughly translates as:

Mother, if this Kadamb tree

image.jpg
Photo credit: Rekha Chhaya

Was on the bank of the Yamuna

I too would sit on its branches

And turn into a Krishna.

For years, in my mind, the Kadamb tree and Krishna were closely associated. This was reinforced by many traditional paintings depicting Krishna and his consort under the shade of what was meant to be a Kadamb tree. I did not see a real Kadamb tree till years later.

We had long wanted to plant a Kadamb tree in our little garden but felt that there would not be enough space for it to grow comfortably. A couple of years ago the huge Rain tree just outside our gate began to dry and decline. We felt that this was a good time and place to plant our Kadamb tree. Watching it grow has led us to learn more about this tree.

The Kadamb (Anthocephalus kadamba, Neolamarckia cadamba) or Burflower tree is indigenous to South and South East Asia. It is a fast-growing tree, especially in its early years, and may reach heights of 15-20 metres. The straight uniform trunk is usually smooth and grey, becoming slightly cracked as the tree ages. The trunk sends out uniform horizontal branches creating an umbrella-shaped crown, and the leaves are alternately arranged and clustered at the ends of the branches.  The light glossy green leaves are oval, and 15 to 30 cm long. They have prominent veins on top and are lightly haired underneath. The tree sheds its leaves to conserve water in areas with a long dry season, but stays evergreen where the dry season is short. The leaves are fed to cattle.

Flowering usually begins when the tree is 4–5 years old; and flowers appear between June and August.  The Kadamb flower that looks like a pom pom is, in fact, a ball of tightly-packed tiny funnel-shaped yellow-orange flowers. They have a sweet fragrance and are used for making perfumes. The flowers are offered in temples, and worn as hair adornments.

This year, with Covid on our minds, the flowers which were usually described as a resembling furry tennis ball have taken on an uncanny resemblance the Corona virus!

The flowers are followed by compound fruit that also resembles the round flower head. The fruit is made up of numerous small fleshy capsules compressed together in a ball. It is relished by monkeys, bats and birds. A single ball may contain almost 8000 seeds. When it turns orange and ripens, the small capsules split apart, releasing a burst of seeds. A single ball may contain almost 8000 seeds which are dispersed by wind and rain. So the cycle of nature continues.

The different parts of the tree are also said to have pharmacological and biological properties that have medicinal value. In traditional medicine the bark is used to cure fever and cough, and juice of the fresh bark to treat inflammation of the eyes. The plant parts are believed to be effective in curing digestive disturbances, parasitic infection, high cholesterol and triglycerides, antibacterial activity, musculoskeletal diseases, fungal infections, cancer and anti-diabetic activity, and find place in Ayurvedic preparations.

For many Indians, it is not so much the botany as the mythology of the tree that fascinates. The Krishna connection is the best known, and this tree where he is said to have rested, romanced, and played his flute, is a recurring motif in poems, stories and paintings. The tree is also referred to as Haripriya or favourite of the God.

But the Kadamb tree also features in many a lore and legend in different parts of India. It is mentioned in the epics and the Puranas as a beautiful shady tree blossoming in the rainy season. The tree lends its name to the Kadamba Dynasty which said to be the first ruling kingdom of Karnataka, with Banavasi as its capital. It was considered a holy tree by the dynasty. The Kadambotsava spring festival is celebrated in honour of the Kadamba kingdom by the Government of Karnataka at Banavasi in February every year. The Kadamba flower was the emblem of Athmallik State, an erstwhile princely state of India, now part of Odisha.

According to another belief, Goddess Durga Devi, an avatar of Devi Parvathi, loved to live amidst Kadamba trees, and her presence is sensed if the koel sings in the Kadamb forest. Hence, the name Kadamba-vana-vasini or Kadamba-vana-nilaye (one who dwells in the Kadamb forest). In Madurai in Tamil Nadu, the Kadamba tree is considered to be the sthalavruksham (tree of the place) and a withered relic of the tree is preserved at Meenakshi Temple. The tree is also associated with a local deity called Kadambariyamman and the place was once said to be a Kadambavanam (Kadamba forest).

The Kadamb is part of the folk lore of many tribal communities, and even now is associated with tribal festivals and rituals. In Madhya Pradesh the festival of Karma or Karam is celebrated with dance and songs in the bright fortnight of the month of Bhado (August-September), during the rainy season. One of its rituals consists of the worship of the Karam or Kadamba tree.  In West Bengal and Odisha, agricultural communities celebrate Kadam festival by planting Kadamb saplings. Tribal communities of Chattisgarh believe that planting Kadamba trees close to lakes, rivers and ponds, brings happiness and prosperity.

In Theravada Buddhism, it is believed that the Kadamb tree was where Sumedha Buddha achieved enlightenment.

From medicine to mythology, the Kadamb has something to offer. As I watch my young Kadamb growing fresh and tall in this rainy season, every new leaf seems to have its own tale to tell. And my friend Rekha and I, like two fond mothers, exchange notes on our respective Kadamb trees. Hers is flowering this year; I will have to wait another year.

–Mamata