A Unique Musical Fest: Thyagaraja Aradhana

The Thyagaraja Aradhana held at Thiruvayaru, Tamilnadu, must be one of the most unique, participatory and joyous ways to celebrate the life and music of a great composer. The aradhana is held every year on the anniversary of the passing away of Saint Thyagaraja, and falls on 22nd January this year.

Saint Thyagaraja (1767-1847), one of the Trinity of Carnatic Music, is thought to have composed about 25,000 songs, apart from two musical dramas, the Prahalada Bhakti Vijayam and the Nauka Charitam. However, since the Saint hardly kept any record of his compositions, it is not clear how many songs he did actually compose. Only about 700 are known to us today—thanks not only to the lack of record keeping, but also vagaries of time, natural disasters, etc., which obviously were not kind to the palm leaf notes that his disciples kept.

Thyagaraja was completely immersed in bhakti, in his worship of Lord Rama. It is said that the King of Thanjavur, having heard of Thyagaraja’s musical genius, sent him an invitation to attend his court. The Saint not only rejected the invitation, but composed the song Nidhi Chala Sukhama  (Does wealth bring happiness?) in response!

Coming back to the fascinating history of the Aradhana. Thyagaraja died in 1847 after renouncing the world and taking sanyas. His mortal remains were buried on the banks of the Kaveri. A small monument was built there, but soon felt into neglect. In 1903, two of his disciplines Umayalpuram Krishna Bhagavatar and Sundara Bhagavata, now eminent musicians, made a nostalgia trip to Thirivayaru. They were appalled at the neglect of the memorial, and decided to commemorate the death anniversary of their Guru at the site, so that he could be remembered appropriately, and the Samadhi maintained.

The next year 1904, was when the Aradhana started. In 1905, it became a lavish affair with days of worship, dozens of performances by top-notch artistes, and feeding of the poor etc. While Krishna Bhagavatar and Sundara Bhagavatar were the moving spirits behind the festival, they obviously needed practical men with money and organizing power to see the event through. The brothers Tillaisthanam Narasimha Bhagavatar and Tillaisthanam Panju Bhagavatar stepped in to play these roles. However, the moneyed brothers soon developed disagreements, and by 1906 had formed rival factions which each conducted its own Aradhana! In time, a compromise was reached under which the group following the younger brother began its festival five days before the day of the Aradhana and culminated its celebrations on the day of the Aradhana, while the other group started on the Aradhana day, and went on for four days after.

The factions did dissolve their differences at some point and unite. Whether as two groups or united, one thing brought them together.  Their opposition to women to perform at the Aradhana. At that time, most women who performed in public were devadasis, and the keepers of morality decided they could not have them perform at such a venerable occasion.

Bangalore Nagarathnamma was one of the pre-eminent musicians of the time. She had earned name and fame as a highly gifted artiste. She was a great devotee of Thyagaraja, and felt she owed everything to him—after all, it was renditions of his songs that predominated her concerts and had brought her so much. However, as a woman, she was barred from participating in the Aradhana.

In 1921, Naratahnamma decided that she would dedicate her large wealth to preserving the Saint’s legacy. She bought land around the Samadhi and built up a temple over it. She had an idol of Thygaraja made and installed in front. The temple was consecrated in 1926.

The organizing group of the Aradhana was happy to let her do all this at her own expense. But when it came to performing at the Aradhana, they would not let her. The redoubtable Nagaratnamma decided to start her own Aradhana, which took place at the rear of the temple.This edition featured many women artists and became increasingly popular. She also went to court against the original organizing groups, saying they could not enter the temple because it was hers. While she lost the case, the court designated specific hours of the Aradhana day to her group, and the two other groups.

This was when a bureaucrat stepped in, and for once solved a problem! SY Krishnaswami, ICS, convinced the groups to unite, and in 1941 three rival events merged into one. And an important victory was won—women became part of the festival.

It was also in this year that the practice of singing the five pancharatnas of Thyagaraja as a group-rendering began. This is now the unique feature of the celebration. Five of the Saint’s compositions that were best suited to group singing were selected, so that all artistes could pay their homage to the Saint, unitedly.   A goose-bumping raising experience to see hundreds of people singing together, without any visible coordination.

Do catch it on You Tube.

Happy Thagaraja Aradhana!

–Meena

Changi Quilt

What on earth is that? A fancy quilt bought at some duty-free store at Changi Airport?

No! Changi is an old area of Singapore, and its name is derived from either a tree or creeper which was common there. Changi has two major landmarks– the Airport, which is among the world’s best; and the Changi Prison. The Quilts are associated with the latter.

On Feb 15 1942, Singapore fell to the Japanese and the Allied troops surrendered. Civilians including over 400 women and children were marched to the Changi Prison and interned there. These were women and children who had either not been able to get berths on ships to leave the island before the surrender, or who had consciously chosen not to leave. While the majority of the women were English, there were also women from Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Canada, and the United States. The group included doctors, nurses, secretaries, teachers, as well as home-makers.

The Changi Prison building was designed to hold about 600 inmates, but with this influx, was accommodating about 2,400. The women and children occupied one wing of the building, while the men were put in the other. There was no communication between the two wings, and separated families had no way of knowing if members had survived, how they were, etc.

While some schooling did happen, some of the women were concerned that the children lacked a structure to their lives, and normal activities that would have been a part of their daily schedules outside prison. Elizabeth Ennis, an Army Nurse, along with a young Dutch girl, Trude van Roode, decided to do something about it. They made a group of about 30 girls between the ages of 8 and 13, and started a Girl Guides unit. The activity gave a focus and provided the girls with a purpose and discipline. The girls obviously thought the world of Elizabeth Ennis. On learning of her birthday, they decided to undertake a group-project of making a quilt for her. Each girl contributed to the making of a beautiful quilt, scrounging out fabric, thread and needles—precious commodities—to make hexagonal patches. Each child also embroidered her own name on to it. They put all the patches together and presented the quilt to Elizabeth.

This inspired a Canadian internee, Mrs Ethel Mulvany, a Red Cross representative in Singapore and chosen to be the camp Red Cross representative for the Changi women, with the idea of getting the women to make quilts for the Red Cross. The idea behind this move was ostensibly to alleviate boredom and to boost morale, and to give blankets to the wounded in hospitals. But it was also a means of passing information to men in other camps that the women and children were alive. 

Three quilts were made—one each for the British Red Cross, Australian Red Cross and the Japanese Red Cross. Each quilt had 66 squares.

Changi Quilt
Changi Quilt

Every woman who volunteered to make a square for the quilt was given a piece of plain white cotton– from various sources including flour bags and bed sheets–and was asked to put “something of herself” into the square, and also embroider her name on it. The squares varied in many ways—from the skill levels of the embroiderers, to the designs. While flowers were of course a common theme, there were animals, national symbols, and cartoon characters like Snow White and Pinocchio. Some were very poignant–Trudie von Roode’s square, for instance, shows a waiter and a table laid with lots of food and elegant cutlery, alongside the words ‘It was only a dream’. There were also messages, some which were very personal and understood only by the families concerned. For instance, one woman portrayed a baby rabbit wearing a blue ribbon—probably to inform the husband that a baby boy had been born. There was a level of censorship here too—for instance, the word ‘prison’ had to be unpicked before the quilts could go out.

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The quilts survived the War. The Australian quilt was given to the Australian Red Cross and is on permanent loan to Australia’s War Memorial. The Japanese quilt too is with this War Memorial. The British Quilt is at the British Red Cross UK office.

And thus did some personal histories get recorded and preserved.

–Meena

Gandhi’s Women Warriors: M.S. Subbalakshmi

‘Warrior’ is a word far from the image of M.S., the doyen of Carnatic music, and the personification of spirituality, goodness and gentleness to people across the country and the world. The one who voiced the message of world peace at the UN on the occasion of its 50th anniversary through Kanchi Shankaracharya Shri Chandrasekarendra Saraswathi’s composition, which starts with ‘Maithreem Bhajatha Akila Hrith Jeththreem’—meaning,Serve with Friendship and Humility which will conquer the Hearts of Everyone; and ends with ‘Shreyo Bhooyaath Sakala Janaanaam’—meaning,  May All People of this World be Happy and Prosperous.

But she was indeed a warrior active in the Freedom Movement.  Along with her husband Sadasivam who participated in the first Satyagraha launched by Gandhiji in 1920, she was passionately committed to India’s Independence. She attended several Congress Sessions in the thirties and forties and sang at many of them. Her husband Sadasivam also used to sing at the start of local political meetings–usually songs by the fiery Tamil poet Bharatiyar–to enthuse the crowds and fill them with patriotic fervour. But after he got married to MS, he never sang publically!

MS Amma and Sadasivam were close to Gandhiji, Rajagopalachari, and many other freedom fighters, and were iconic in the South as symbols of the freedom movement.

Gandhiji recognized her ability to raise money for the freedom struggle through her music. She gave several concerts to do this. In 1944, she gave a series of five concerts to raise resources for the Kasturba Memorial Fund. Gandhiji wrote her a letter to thank her for this, signing it in Tamil.

Gandhi MS.Subbalakshmi
Gandhiji’s Letter to MS Subbalakshmi. Google Arts and Culture

In 1947, a few months prior to Independence, M.S Amma received a message from Gandhiji to record one of his favourite bhajans ‘Hari tum haro..’ and send it to him. In keeping with her characteristic humility, Amma did not feel she could do justice to the bhajan as she was unfamiliar with it, and suggested to Gandhiji that someone else should sing it. Gandhiji replied that he would rather have her recite it, than have anyone else sing it! So she did the recording and sent it on immediately. Not long afterwards, Gandhiji passed away. After the announcement of this news on All India Radio, they played her rendition of the bhajan. It is said that M.S. fainted at this point.

She was the first musician to be awarded the Bharat Ratna, and was the first Indian musician to get the Ramon Magsaysay award.

Her generosity and charity saw her support to many other causes through her lifetime.  The Tamil Isai movement—the movement to promote Tamil songs in Carnatic music–was one she was passionate about, and raised a lot of money for.  Her manifold awards included huge cash prizes, most of which she donated. She is said to have given over 200 concerts for charity, and raised over a crore of rupees  (in the sixties and seventies!). The royalties from her recording of Venkatesa Subrabhatam, which rings out every morning in every South India town and village, were written over to the Veda Patasala of the Tirupati Temple. Royalties from many other recordings were given to several other charities. In fact, so deep was her charitable instinct that it depleted her personal wealth considerably, necessitating considerable modification of her lifestyle.

But in the spirit of any of Gandhiji’s warriors, it was others before self for M.S. Amma!

–Meena

All Dolled Up: Golu Festival

When we were young, Navaratri was one of the most exciting festivals. Several reasons: first, it was the only festival which stretched for so many days; then, for the girls, it involved getting dressed up every evening and visiting neighbours, friends and relatives; it meant different interesting prasads every day; and importantly, there was an ‘official’ ban on studying on the day of Saraswathi Puja, when all books, musical instruments etc., had to be kept at the altar.

The highlight of Navaratri for South Indians is Golu, the display of dolls.  The first step involves the putting up of the ‘golu padi’ or steps on which the dolls would be arranged. Some houses had modest 3-step set-ups, while others had up to nine steps (always in odd numbers). Households brought their their engineering skills to full play—sometimes steps were made of trunks ingeniously stacked to form a stair case, and covered with a cloth. Some constructed temporary arrangements from year to year. Others had permanent dismantalable steps which were stored away in some attic and assembled every year.

Popular leaders in Golu. Dusshera Dolls Exhibition

Then the dolls would be unpacked. Wooden ones, clay ones, porcelain ones, you name it. Those whose dresses were worn-out would need new clothes. Others needed a lick of paint or minor repairs. There was a particular order to arranging these dolls, with gods on the top steps, saints and famous people below them, and regular ordinary everyday people and scenes below these. There used to be sets—e.g., village scenes, scenes from the Ramayana, occupations, musicians, etc. Every year, each family also bought a few new dolls.

Golu dolls
Kumbhakaran being woken up. Dusshera Dolls Exhibition.

Below the steps on the floor, would be garden scenes, or most coveted, a ‘thopakulam’ (pond). Again, family ingenuity would come into play here. What container would hold the water (usually a large shallow tub); how it would be concealed (that involved importing a lot of sand or mud into the house!); what would float in it—ducks and other birds, flowers (real or plastic), etc; and the scene around the pond, including benches, trees, people strolling around, and when there was a particularly enthusiastic family, twinkling street lights.

Hi-tech was very much part of the display. Not just the lighting, but setting up elaborate working train sets or car racing-tracks instead of a traditional pond, and running the trains was a favourite.

And then, every day, elaborate rangolies had to be made, as well as prasad including the mandatory sundal (legumes like chana, lobia etc. cooked with coconut etc.).

For the little girls, it was about pulling out all the pattu-pavadais (silk longskirts), reviewing which would be worn on which day, which had grown short and needed to be let out, begging mothers and aunts to buy them blingy ornaments, and deciding whose house to visit when. We also had to prepare songs—every Aunty would ask every visitor to sing, and after the mandatory coy no’s, we would all sing the songs we had prepared. It must have been torturous to the listeners because most of us couldn’t hold a tune to save our lives. But everyone would applaud most politely, and then we would be given our vatala-paaku, fruit and packets of sundal wrapped in newspaper, and depart to the next house. The highlight of course was to savour the sundals—all of them used to taste delicious, partly because there was a limited quantity in the packages we were given.  We would discuss the relative merits of the doll display for days, and neighbourhood reputations were made or unmade based on the displays and sundals.

Such were the excitements of our simple lives. And so are memories made and traditions continued.

–Meena

Both pictures were taken at the Exhibition of Dusshera Dolls, Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath, Bangalore.

A Thousand Flowers Bloom on my Table: Millefiori


When I was young, visits to my father’s office were looked-forward to treats. And one of the things that fascinated me were the beautiful, colourful glass paperweights that lay on the table, doing what they were supposed to do, i.e., keeping papers from flying in the wind created by the fan.

With bright colours and intricate designs, each one was different from the other. And of course, I always wondered how the fantastic shapes got into the glass dome.

It was only recently that poking around in a drawer, I re-discovered one of these. And I decided to read up on them.

Appropriately, the technique is called ‘millefiori’, Italian for ‘thousand flowers’ and is a kind of glass mosaic. The technique was probably invented in ancient Egypt and can be traced back to Ancient Roman Times. Samples have been found dating back to the 5th century. But the process got lost somewhere and was revived only in the 19th century by Murano glass artists. Vincenzo Moretti is credited with this, and is said to have put in years of painstaking trial and error to perfect the art. The term ‘millefiori’ itself first found its place in the Oxford dictionary in 1849. It was around this time that it became a rage in Europe, and factories came up in Italy, France and England, making paperweights, beads and marbles. France was at the center of the blossoming creativity. The Great Exhibition of London in 1851 and the Paris Expo of 1878 gave a fillip to the popularity of this craft. However, the trend petered out in a few decades but some artists still carry forward the tradition, creating works to suit modern sensibilities.

Millefiori paperweight
Millefiori paperweight

The first step in the technique is to create Millefiori canes by layering molten glass of different colours into a pattern in a cylindrical shape. Then the cylinder is pulled by two glassmakers walking away from each other, pulling it to create a long rod. When the rod is sliced, the pattern is seen. Each such slice is called a murine. Many murines are arranged in a pattern and cased in glass, resulting in the beautiful products, ranging from paperweights, vases, rings, pendants, decorative plates, ashtrays and even playing marbles. It is a craft requiring not just an aesthetic sense but also great skills of working with glass, and precision. While flowers are the most common patterns, there are paperweights with geometrical shapes, insects, etc. too.

Today, these weights are collectors’ items, auctioned by the likes of Christie’s.

Alas, the one I have dug out is chipped at the bottom, so unlikely to make me my fortune. But it sure gives me joy every day when I look at it on my table. As precious!

—Meena

Telling Stories on Cloth: Patachitra

Patachitra, from ‘patta’ meaning cloth, and ‘chitra’ meaning picture, is an art form of East India, which tells stories on cloth. Believed to have originated in the 12th century in Odisha, Patachitra traditionally depicts stories of Krishna. So what better way to mark Janmashtami than to talk of Patachitra!

The art probably originated around the Puri Jagannath temple, serving both ritual uses and as souvenirs for devotees visiting the temple.  The pieces depict Lord Jagannath and the other deities of the Puri temple—Subhadra and Bhalabhadra, and temple activities. These are called Badhia paintings. Other themes include the exploits of Krishna as a child (Krishna Leela); Dashavatara (the ten incarnations of Krishna); and scenes from the Geeta Govinda. Some Patachitras are centred on Ganesha, usually depicting him with five heads (Panchamukhi). There are also Ramayana-themed ones, as well as those which are based on Lord Shiva and the stories about him. The art-form is also well-developed in West Bengal with several schools of Patachitra. Here, the Goddess Durga is a very popular theme, along with other mythological tales and folktales.

The Patachitra is not just a painting to be put up and worshipped or admired (or both!). Especially in Bengal, it is often a prop used by itinerant story-tellers called patuas. Some of these paintings are made up of several panels which are kept rolled up. The story teller unfolds the cloth to progress the story, accompanied by songs and verses which narrate the events depicted—the original moving pictures! Such paintings and story-telling are not confined to religious or mythological tales, but extends to contemporary news, juicy scandals, and even messaging for social change!

The paintings are made on strips of cotton cloth prepared by coating the clothing with a mixture of chalk and a special gum made from tamarind seeds. The coating is rubbed using two different kinds of stones to smoothen it. After this, it is dried before the artist starts work. The process results in a leathery surface.

There are specific rules that all Patachitra paintings follow. For instance, paintings are enclosed in borders decorated with flowers and other motifs. Krishna is always painted in blue, while light pink, purple or brown are used to paint Gopis. There are usually no landscapes, distant views or perspectives. Only natural colours—vegetable dyes or mineral colours–are used in Patachitra. The luminescent white comes from ground conch shells.

The master-craftsmen are so skilled that they do not draw outlines of the figures and motifs with pencil or charcoal. They directly paint it on the cloth using fine brushes. After this, the colours are filled in. A single panel may take 5-10 days, while a more elaborate work may take months.

Contemporary artists are now adapting the style to make new products, from saris to bags to decorative items, which can be commercially viable At the forefront of keeping the art form alive is the heritage village of  Raghurajpur in Odisha. About 160 families here practice this art, and even the younger generation, many professionally qualified, follow the tradition and continue to paint.

May their tribe increase!

–Meena

Portrait of a Potato

I am an unabashed and unapologetic potato-worshipper. I was therefore thrilled to learn about a competition called the Potato Photographer of the Year. The inaugural edition of the competition was held in 2020, and the results of the 2021 competition were just announced. And I could see the love and appreciation for the vegetable in the superbly imaginative prize-winning entries. Poems for the eyes!

The Potato Photographer of the Year competition has an eminent panel of judges including photography-great Martin Parr. The prizes will not make your fortune, and come to about £2000 worth of stuff, including a lens kit, camera case, backpack, coveted (by photographers) subscriptions, and a photography workshop. But the good part, apart from celebrating the potato, is that all entry fees (£5 per single entry) are donated to the Trussell Trust, a food bank charity that aims to end food poverty in the UK.

Potato Photo Competition
One of the winners of the Potato Photo Competition 2021!

Prosaically, the potato (Solanum tuberosum) is a tuber. It is an annual plant of the nightshade family. It is native to the Peruvian-Bolivian Andes and is one of the world’s main food crops. It is a great source of Vit C, protein, thiamin, and niacin.

Potatoes were domesticated and cultivated in South America by the Incas as early as 1,800 years ago. Spaniards who invaded South America transported them and introduced them into Europe during the second half of the 16th century. By the end of the 17th century the plant was a major crop in Ireland, and by the end of the 18th century it was being grown in significant quantities in continental Europe, particularly Germany, and in the west of England. The Irish economy became dependent on the potato, and the disastrous failures of the Irish crops in the mid-19th century because of late blight, and the resulting Irish Potato Famine had huge impacts in terms of human life, the economy and demographics.

The potato reached India in the late 16th-early 17th centuries, most likely aboard Portuguese and Dutch ships. Today, India ranks as the world’s third largest potato producing nation—with about 4.9 crore tonnes grown here in 2017. Potato is not only a staple, but a cash crop that provides significant income for farmers, through domestic sales and exports.

Though the potato reached India through the Portuguese and Dutch, it initially remained confined to the Malabar cost. It was the British who were responsible for its spread. The East India Company wanted to replace local vegetables which they thought were of low quality, with superior vegetables, viz, potato—basically because they wanted to have a reliable source for this food which had become part of their staple. So they aggressively evangelized and promoted it in every which way, including giving out the seeds and plants to farmers for free. Apart from a source to supply their own tables, the British also pushed the potato as a panacea for several ills in India. The 1838 records of the Agricultural and Horticultural Society of India states that through growing European-introduced crops such as the potato, “happiness till now unknown in India, will be diffused abroad.” Similarly, the East India Company records that growing potatoes would help “alleviate the Miseries” in India caused by frequent failures of rice crops. So the potato is indeed part of our troubled colonial past.

But to imagine a present without potatoes, I do not want to do!

While the Potato Photographer of the Year celebrates visual depictions of the tuber, the vegetable does not seem to have found much favour from wordsmiths. Poems eulogizing the potato are few and far between. One that I liked was Potatoes by Lucy Adkins.

But names of Indian potatoes are pretty poetic! Kufri Jawahar, Kufri Chandramukhi, Kufri Sutlej, Kufri Bahar, Kufri Anand, Kufri Ashoka, Kufri Pukhraj, Kufri Sindhuri, Kufri Jyoti, Kufri Megha, Kufri Lauvkar and Kufri Swarna are a few. (Kufri, I think must come from the place in Himachal which is a major potato growing area, and the location of Research Station of the Central Potato Research Institute).

Long live the potato, and may we find ways for all our senses to celebrate it!

–Meena

Toy Town

Brilliantly coloured, ingeniously designed, safe, pocket-friendly, environment-friendly, contributing to the livelihoods of craftspeople, and carrying forward a tradition.

Now, how many objects can you say that about? Not too many, sadly.

Which is why Channapatna toys are special.

These wooden toys are made in the town of Channapatna in Karnataka, about mid-way between Bangalore and Mysore. As you pass through this stretch of road, the eyes will be gladdened by shops full of these bright and beautiful toys. And you wish you knew dozens of children to gift them to. In fact, so prevalent is toy making in Channapatna that it is also called Gombegala Ooru, or Toy Town!

Channapatna toys are traditional wooden toys (now given modern design twists), which have been made in this town for over 200 years now. The tradition came here in the time of  Tipu Sultan, who was fascinated by these wooden objects, and invited Persian craftsman to this area to teach the local craftsmen these techniques. Since then, it has remained a part of the livelihood of the people here. Bavas Miyan is credited with having made this happen. He was a master-craftsman who brought a high level of excellence to the craft by incorporating Japanese techniques. Bavas Miyan trained a generation of artisans and helped them perfect their skills.

Traditionally, the toys were made from the wood of the Wrightia tinctoria tree (referred to as aala mara or ivory wood), though today a wider variety of woods, including rosewood, teak and rubber wood are used.

The wood is first carefully seasoned, then cut to the required size. Traditionally, the pieces used to be then cut into spheres, squares or any required shape by hand, but today this is done by lathe. Then it is sand-papered to smoothen it. While it is still on the lathe, the craftsmen hold a lacquer stick to the wood so that the piece gets coated with this, thanks to the heat generated in the turning process. Then the lacquer is spread out smoothly over the whole surface using dried palm leaves, giving the piece a brilliant shine. After this, the toys are decorated with bright colours. Only natural colours are used: from turmeric for yellows to kum kum for reds and katha for browns.

The Channapatna toys have seen their ups and downs, and will continue to do so. The changing preferences with respect to toys, the limited reach and distribution, the need for constant innovation in the sector, the ability of the toy sales to support livelihoods at scale—all of these are challenges. The Government of Karnataka has taken many measures—from setting up an Artisan Training Institute, to supporting marketing and developing schemes to support the craftspeople. Market reach is an area where NGOs and others have been involved, and today, Channapatna toys do reach and are appreciated in many parts of the world.

Channapatna toys are unique—in fact, they have GI (Geographical indicator) status. Having a GI tag means  that the product has a specific geographical origin and has the qualities or reputation that are due to that origin. They enjoy legal protection. So only toys made in Channapatna can be called Channapatna toys.

Gift yourself a Channapatna toy, gift yourself a smile.

And support so many causes, all at one go.

–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

Whistle Away!

Imagine that your school timetable had three periods a week for ‘whistling class!’ What is probably every child’s fantasy is a fact for children who live on La Gomera. No this is not an imaginary land but a real island in the Canary Islands. The island is part of an archipelago in the Atlantic ocean, called The Canaries, located 100 km west of Morocco. The Canary Islands are part of the autonomous communities of Spain. They were originally inhabited by Berbers who were conquered and enslaved by Spanish invaders in the 15th and 16th centuries.  

What sets the island of La Gomera apart is its unique ‘whistling language’ called Silbo Gomero. This is a traditional language which was probably used by the original Berber inhabitants, and then by the indigenous herders for communication among themselves; it was later adopted by local communities who used it as a secret language when threatened by the Spanish invaders. Accounts of 15th century explorers include mention of indigenous people who communicated by whistling. It is believed that these people passed on the language to the first Spanish settlers in the 16th century. Over time the language began to transpose Spanish words from speech into whistling.

Whistling is a perfect way to communicate on the island which is made up of deep valleys and steep ravines, and where houses are located far from each other. When people cannot easily meet face to face, and where written communication is not used, whistling is a way to send the community invitations for feasts, inform of births and deaths, and warn of danger. With favourable wind conditions its sounds could travel up to 3 km. As one of the island’s old whistlers explained “The thing is that here, learning to whistle wasn’t a matter of pleasure. It was an obligation, a necessity. If you didn’t know how to do it, you would have to walk to give a message. And as the houses are far from each other, and there were no roads or phones, whistling was easier than walking.”

Thus evolved a whistling language, officially known as Silbo Gomero, which substitutes whistled sounds that vary by pitch and length for written letters. It is basically the Spanish language in which words are replaced by 2 whistled vowels and 4 consonants. The whistle goes high and low to distinguish one sound from another. The whistle can also be broken to indicate the end of a sentence. In order to amplify the volume as well as to create the necessary distinction the finger is placed in the mouth. Whistling veterans each had their own favoured way to use the finger in the mouth technique—some used only the tip of one or two fingers, some used a finger from each hand, some inserted one bent knuckle into the mouth. But they all knew the language which the whistles produced.

Interestingly Silbo Gomero was a commonly used language on the island until the 1950s. It was used at home and children grew up with it. As with many indigenous languages the use of the language began to decline as native speakers grew old and died, and younger generations began to emigrate; educational institutions gave precedence to the modern Spanish which became the lingua franca of the island. By the 1970s and 80s, there were only a few whistlers remaining. By the end of 1990 there were only about 50 island dwellers who were fluent whistlers, and one entire generation, educated in Spanish, had missed being familiarised of the language.

But linguists and scholars continued to be fascinated by this language. There are a few other whistling languages in the world, among which are the language on the Greek island of Evia, in the town of Kuskoy, eastern Turkey, and in a town of the French Pyrenees. But Silbo Gomera is the one that is still used by the largest community of speakers, and the first one that has been studied in depth.

At end of the 90s there was renewed interest in Silbo. One of the reasons was the initiative to introduce it as a subject at primary school. Since 1999, it has constituted a required subject in the primary and secondary school curriculum. Today children learn it as a second language, where once it may have been the first language they used at home. But the initiative is noteworthy for its attempt at keeping alive a unique  tradition, especially in an age when technology has transformed communication in unimaginable ways.

An important international recognition and step towards its conservation came in 2009, when the Silbo Gomero language was described by UNESCO as “the only whistled language in the world that is fully developed and practiced by a large community,” and added to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

For the few remaining guardians of Silbo Gomera, the whistling language is like the poetry of their island, even though it may not have as much practical use as it used to. They feel “like poetry, whistling does not need to be useful in order to be special and beautiful.”

The island’s initiative to include it in the curriculum is important in that it creates for children a living link to their heritage and history. As one school girl said “It is a way to honour the people that lived here in the past. And to remember where everything came from, that we didn’t start with technology, but from simple beginnings.”

For others it is the fun of learning a “secret” language through which they can communicate. In an age when mobile phones and electronic communication have reached even the remotest parts of the world, the young people of La Gomera are happily adapting to both kinds of communication—Tootle and Tweet!

–Mamata