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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
The Aathichudi is the alphabet primer with which every child in Tamilnadu takes its first step in education. It begins with: ‘A is for ‘Aram chaiya virumbu’. The phrase means ‘Intend to do good’. And this is the first thing that a child is taught. There cannot be a better way to start the journey of life.
And so the Aathichudi goes through the A to Z of Tamil, 108 lines in all, with short moral and practical aphorisms. It spans a wide variety of exhortations from ‘Control your anger’, to ‘Never stop learning’ to ‘Care for your parents’ to ‘Do not forget charity’ to ‘Do not allow suffering’.
If we think the ‘quote a day’ approach is new, let’s think again. The Aathichudi is a pithy moral-science textbook cum self-help book which was penned by the legendary Avvaiyar in the 12th century.
Actually, there was not just one poetess called Avvaiyar (meaning ‘Wise and respected lady’). There were at least three—the first was way back in the Sangam period (BC); the second probably in the 10th century; and the third, the author of the alphabet primer (among many, many other works) lived in the 12th century.
All of them were wise. They talked with kings and walked with common people. They effortlessly defied convention–they did not marry, they traveled alone across the length and breadth of several kingdoms, they advised kings. wrote poetry, and shared their wisdom. They shunned worldly wealth and power. They not only provided a moral compass to people of the time, but most of what they wrote is timeless.
How influential and independent these women were in their times—they were writing, advising, travelling, teaching, judging the literary works of others, acting as negotiators between kings to stop wars. Their works don’t just endure to this day; they are living documents which every adult, youth and child in the state can quote.
A few gems from Konrai Venthan, another of her works:
Oadhalin nandre vethiyarkku ozhukkam: For priests, morality is more important than chanting.
Kutdram paarkkil suttram illai: Finding fault results in loss of relationships.
Kaip porul thannil meip porul kalvi: Education is the real wealth, more than the one in your hands.
Neraa noonbu seer aagaathu: A job not done well is not a job to be proud of.
Valavan aayinum alavu arinthu azhiththu unn: Even the super-rich should spend within limits.
Apart from being known to every school child through the Alphabet Primer, in Tamilnadu, the mass memory of Avvaiyar is, predictably enough, based on a film–one starring KT Sundarambal which was released in 1953. There are many, many stories and myths about the Avvaiyaars—from verbally jousting with Subramania (son of Lord Shiva), to being transformed from an attractive young girl to an old lady in an instant. This last was a result of praying to Ganesha, since Avvaiyar wanted to avoid getting into a marriage and family responsibilities, so that she could focus on her scholarly pursuits. There are besides, several statues across the State, including an imposing one at Marina (though how we know how she looked is not clear to me!). There are many college and educational institutions named after her.
For a long time now, people of Tamilnadu have been remembering her through the Avvai Vizha, an annual festival celebrated around mid-March, which is a gathering of scholars of Tamil and other subjects. This has, in recent times been taken over by the State Government. Besides this, the TN Govt. has instituted the Avvaiyar Award, to be given to ‘one eminent woman who has rendered excellent service in any one field such as Social Reform, Women Development, Communal harmony, Service for Language, Service in various disciplines in Art, Science, Culture, Press, Administration, etc., on the International Women’s Day which is being celebrated on March 8th every year’.
Avvaiyar even has a crater on Venus named after her—Feature 512!
But probably if she is looking down on us, what will please her most is that her work is still being used to lay the basics of literacy and education for children! And though she does not seem to make any explicit references to women empowerment nor set herself up as a role model, she will surely be happy that she is an inspiration for women through the centuries!
On the occasion of International Women’s Day…
‘millennialmatriarchs’ was launched on 8 March, 2018. So this piece marks our third anniversary. Our heartfelt thanks to all those who have supported and encouraged us, and most of all, our kind readers! Mamata and Meena
For the heritage of poetry, philosophy, dharma and wisdom he has left us is beyond all these.
Thiruvalluvar, the revered Tamil poet, whose Thirukural even today is taught in every school in Tamil Nadu, and whose couplets on a range of subjects, from love and family life to economics and politics, are quoted by politicians, movie stars, professors, and common people alike, to clinch any argument.
I am but a poor Tamilian, who can neither read nor write Tamil, and am hence missing out on the riches of one of the world’s most ancient languages. Maybe to make up, I decided to do this blog on Thiruvalluvar on the occasion of Thiruvalluvar Day, Jan 15. The Tamil Nadu government has been observing this day as part of Pongal celebrations for many decades now.
Very little is known about him. Even his name is not certain—his works do not name an author! In fact, the Thirukural as a book itself does not carry a name! The French translator Ariel has referred to it as ‘the book without a name by an author without a name’.
His works have been dated by various scholars from 4th century BC to 5th century AD! In 1935, Govt. of Tamilnadu recognized 35 BC as the Year of Valluvar.
He may have been a Hindu. Equally, he may have been a Jain. Some claim Christian influences in his work. Many scholars hold he was beyond religion. For instance, Mu. Varadarajan says he probably “practiced religious eclecticism, maintained unshakeable faith in dharma but should have rejected religious symbols and superstitious beliefs.”
He may have been a weaver, a farmer, a priest, a drummer or an ‘outcaste’.
What is of moment are his works, especially the Thirukural, a collection of 1330 couplets. Each couplet consists of just seven words (termed ‘kural’), but pithily encapsulates wisdom. The 1330 verses have been divided into three sections by the author: the first is Arathuppaal which gives norms and codes for a virtuous life; the second, Porutpaal deals with the right way of acquiring wealth and expounds the fundamentals of politics and statecraft; the last, Kamathuppaal deals with family life and love in all its manifestations.
While urging you to visit any of the many sites devoted to the Kural and its translations, here is just a taste to whet the appetite:
Many moons ago, my husband and I were on a short trek on the Annapurna Trail. Late one afternoon we reached a small village where we would spend the night. As we sat, enjoying the unmatched feeling of contentment after a beautiful day’s walk, we were joined by a young man. He bowed low, as only the Japanese do, and joined us in quiet contemplation. After a while, in broken English, he asked if we may be so kind as to join him in a small ceremony. We were happy to do so.
The young man led us to a large spreading tree around which was a built platform, and gestured to us to sit. From his backpack he took out a beautiful bowl and a brush, and with fluid movement cleaned the bowl. He then put in it some tea powder and hot water from his flask, and carefully stirred. With a low bow, he respectfully held the bowl in both hands and passed it to my husband, so that he may take a sip. He indicated that the bowl be passed on to me to do the same, and then he did the same when I passed it to him. All this was done in peaceful silence. When we had finished the bowl of tea, he explained, half in words and half by gestures that this was a traditional Japanese tea ceremony and that his guru in Japan had asked him to share it in a beautiful place with the right people. We were humbled that we had the privilege of this sharing amidst the breath-taking majesty of the mountains, the song of birds, and the crisp air.
It was one of the most meaningful and beautiful moments of sharing that we have ever experienced. The memory is vivid even after so many years.
We later discovered that our host had meticulously followed both the form and spirit of the chado or Japanese tea ceremony, an experience that is centred on respect, beauty, and simplicity. As is the tradition, before the ceremony begins, the host and the guests prepare their mind and spirit for the experience by leaving worries behind, and focusing on harmony and tranquility. The rest of the ceremony gently unfolds just as our young friend had done.
The history of the tea ceremony is equally engaging. The tea plant was brought to Japan in the 9th century by a Buddhist monk named Eichū on his return from China, where tea had been in widespread use for centuries. Eichū served the drink to an emperor, and not long after, an imperial decree was issued to start cultivating tea plantations in Japan. Initially tea drinking was limited to the social elite and only later it spread to other levels of Japanese society. It would take another three centuries before tea ceremonies would become a spiritual practice.
In the 15th century, Murata Jukō a Buddhist introduced the four core values of the ceremony–kin, or reverence; kei, respect for food and drink; sei, purity in body and spirit; and ji, calmness and freedom from desire.
In the 16th century, another Buddhist, Sen no Rikyū incorporated the philosophy of Ichi-go ichi-e (‘one time, one meeting’), the idea that each individual encounter should be treasured as such a meeting may never happen again.
Our chance encounter with the Japanese tea ceremony and our host was literally and spiritually “one time, one meeting”.
Tea and rituals related to tea have an important role in Oriental cultures. In China, where tea is said to have originated, one of the first written accounts about the tea ceremonies dates as far back as 1200 years ago, during the Tang Dynasty. The serving of tea was also named cha dao which meant ‘the way of tea’. Attention to tea preparation and serving became the preoccupations of the Chinese tea connoisseurs, which transformed the way tea was regarded by the Chinese.
The Chinese tea ceremony is a blend of the philosophies of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism and is based on the respect for nature and need for peace. The traditional tea ceremonies were described as he which translates as ‘peace’, jing which translates as ‘quiet’, yi which means ‘enjoyment’ and zhen meaning ‘truth’.
The tea ceremony remains one of the most significant traditions, even today, in Chinese weddings. The ceremony is conducted on the day of the wedding and sees the bride and groom respectfully serve tea to their parents, in-laws, and other family members. This symbolises the union of two families, the respect for the elders on both sides, and the elders’ acceptance of the marriage. In Chinese, the expression “drinking a daughter-in-law’s tea” is used to represent a wedding. What a simple but eloquent symbol tea can be.
While Japanese and Chinese poets have written lyrical odes to tea, the British approach to their cuppa is much more “stiff upper lip” and mundane! As William Gladstone said:
If you are cold, tea will warm you; If you are too heated, it will cool you; If you are depressed, it will cheer you; If you are exhausted, it will calm you.
As for India, as with all other things there are myriad versions and preparations of the ubiquitous chai! Every home and every family has its own special brew, and chatting over chai is a national pastime.
In my home, the long morning tea session is an unbroken tradition, complete with a big teapot and numerous cups of ‘English tea.’ It is a time to sip, and savour our little garden while we each peruse the morning papers. It is a comforting and happy way to start a new day. And to remember the words of the Vietnamesespiritual leader, poet, and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh:
Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves—slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future. Live the actual moment. Only this moment is life.
What brought on these ramblings about tea? Every year, since 2005, tea-producing countries have been celebrating International Tea Day on December 15th. The day seeks to draw the attention of governments and citizens around the world to the impact that tea trade has on workers and growers. Last year it was proposed to expand this celebration to all countries around the world and to move the day to May 21st.
December or May, for tea drinkers every day is Tea Day.
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!
There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, ‘It is just as I feared!
Two Owls and a Hen
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard.
No this is not 2020 Corona humour, although it pithily describes one of the fallouts of the lockdown! The verse was written by Edward Lear nearly 200 years ago. Lear is popularly associated with the Limerick, and best known for his A Book of Nonsense, which he also illustrated, that was published 1846.
Limerick is a form of nonsense verse in which the first, second and final lines end with rhyming words, while the third and fourth shorter lines have their own rhyme. In Lear’s limericks the first and last lines usually end with the same word rather than rhyming. For the most part they are truly nonsensical and devoid of any punch line or point.
Interestingly, while he is best remembered for his absurd wit, Edward Lear was a popular and respected painter of his time. Born in London on 12 May 1812, one of 21 children, Lear was forced to start earning a living when he was just 15. This he did by selling his art and by teaching drawing. In 1832 he was employed by the London Zoological Society to illustrate birds, and later went on to work for the Earl of Derby who had a private menagerie on his estate. Lear stayed there until 1836.
Around this time Lear decided to devote himself exclusively to landscape painting (although he continued to write his nonsense verse.) Between 1837 and 1847 he travelled extensively throughout Europe and Asia. After his return to England, Lear’s travel journals were published in several volumes as The Illustrated Travels of a Landscape Painter. Lear eventually settled, with his cat Foss, in Sanremo on the Mediterranean coast at a villa he named Villa Tennyson after Lord Tennyson whom he admired. He continued to paint seriously till the end of his life in 1888.
Edward Lear had a sickly childhood, and also suffered from epilepsy and depression. But in his verses he poked fun at everything, including himself. His irreverent humour, love for the ridiculous, and cooked-up nonsense words were like cocking a snook at the prissiness and orderliness of the Victorian society that he lived in. Also different from the expected upright behaviour which was the norm of the period, the characters in his verses often indulge in absurd and outrageous antics.
His love for silly word play “a perpendicular, spicular, orbicular, quadrangular, circular depth of soft mud”; his weird and wonderful creatures like Moppsikon Floppsikon bear and “diaphanous doorscraper” (stuffed rhino); the characters with names like Quangle-Wangles, Pobbles, and Jumblies remind me of another favourite—Roald Dahl.
I have always loved the nonsense verse of Edward Lear. I remember memorising and reciting The Owl and the Pussycat, perhaps his most famous poem, when I was in school. The words seemed to frisk and gambol just like the characters.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.
We all need a bit of silliness in our lives, especially in these strange days of uncertainty. Today as we celebrate Lear’s birthday as Limerick Day, also marked as Owl and Pussycat Day, here is my humble offering to the memory of Mr Lear!
There was a wicked virus from Wuhan
Who said its time to cause some mayhem
I’ll travel the world for a lark
And make sure they close every park
That villainous virus from Wuhan.
*How pleasant to know Mr. Lear is the title of Lear’s self-portrait in verse.