On the Vanthiyathevan trail – II

Day 2 was far more interesting than we expected it to be. The beautiful Vadavaaru accompanied us much farther than we thought it would. The first stop on Day 2 was the Thillai Nataraja Temple.

Day 2 – Stop 1 – Thillai Nataraja-Sivakama Sundari Temple – Chidambaram

Not that this temple requires much introduction. Purported to be over 1000 years old, this temple was added on over the centuries, with practically every major dynasty contributing its bit to the construction and architectural style. The grandeur of the temple is awe-inspiring, making you want to spend the entire day inside. Although not exactly a part of the Ponniyin Selval trail, this temple is a must-visit, especially since our journey on Vanthiyathevan’s footsteps actually begins only after this.

Day 2 – Stop 2 – Veeranarayana Perumal-Maragathavalli Temple, Kattumannarkoil

This temple dates back to the time before Sundara Chola. Built by Prince Rajaditya just after the construction of the lake, the temple is quaint and quiet, just how temples should be. It is a simple structure, with an even simpler Sannidhi. The Veeranarayana Perumal though, stands at a massive six feet, a sight to behold.

Day 2 – Stop 3 – Amrithaghateshwara-Vidyujothi Nayaki Temple, Melakadambur

When we first thought of the Kadambur palace, we knew there was a temple in the vicinity. However, initial Google searches only showed us a Kadambur somewhere neat Kumbakonam. While we initially put it on our route map, we quickly realised that there had to be another Kadambur somewhere near the Veeranam lake, for our hero reaches the Kadambur palace almost immediately after his meeting Azhwarkadiyan Nambi at the Veeranarayana Perumal temple at Kattumannarkoil. So, we delved a little deeper and came up with this temple. Situated just off the road in the tiny village of Melakadambur not far from Kattumannarkoil. This Shiva temple’s door was partially closed when we got there, making us wonder if there was anyone around. To our relief, we found a priest who was more than happy to see visitors in the place.

This temple is shaped in the form of a chariot and is clearly a predecessor of the 12th Century Darasuram temple that we visited later in the day. Our guess is that this temple was also built around the 10th Century, towards the end of Sundara Chola’s reign.

Day 2 – Stop 4 – Brihadeeshwara-Brihannayaki Temple, Gangaikoda Cholapuram

The journey from Melakadambur to Gangaikonda Cholapuram was the most beautiful I’ve done in recent years. The road runs right next to the Vadavaaru, that meanders through fields, sometimes widening, sometimes narrowing, teasing it by coming closer and then abruptly moving away, only to come back in some time. The almost 15-km stretch is breathtaking, with vast, green paddy fields and little rivulets dotting the landscape. When we got to the highway, we almost regretting having to leave the Vadavaaru behind.

The Brihadeeshwara temple rises out of the emptiness, welcoming you with its majestic presence. Grand, yet feminine, this temple is a smaller replica of the Thanjavur temple. Built by Rajendra Chola in the 11th Century, this temple aspires to be everything Thanjavur is, but with a feminine grace. There isn’t much left to be said about the temple because several annals have been written about it, including Rajendra’s famous letter to his father from the banks of the Ganga, “I want a Thanjavur.” What we found particularly interesting was that excavations have revealed an underground passage from the temple, probably leading up to the ancient palace, whose remains we still see 2 kilometres away.

Day 2 – Stop 5 – Rajendra’s Palace – Maligaimedu

Maligaimedu is exactly two kilometres from the temple. A protected ASI monument, we still see remains of the foundations of one part of what was supposed to have been the palace of Rajendra Chola. There isn’t much to see there, since most artefacts have been shifted to the museum near the temple. We still felt like taking a look and went there. We didn’t regret it, for what can be better than seeing an excavated site?

Day 2- Stop 6 – Airavateshwara-Periya Nayaki Temple, Darasuram

Built in the 12th Century, this temple represents what we can consider the pinnacle of Chola architecture. In the form of a chariot, the temple boasts of several intricate sculptures, and also a musical staircase that’s not protected by a metal cage to prevent damage by people dancing on it. If only we were more conscious about preserving our priceless heritage!

The day ended with us crashing out at Kumbakonam out of sheer exhaustion at having visited so many places on a single day. The next day would be even more interesting, taking us on what I can only describe as a wild goose chase of temples of which we only had a cursory idea.

On the Vanthiyathevan trail – I

There are vacations. And there are vacations. The first kind are those you plan, you book yourself into a nice resort or hotel, you take a train or a flight and you go. The destination is clear. And so is the plan. And then there are other vacations. You have no idea where you want to go. You’re not sure of what you’ll find where you go. You’re not even sure whether you’ll find anything at all when you get there. And these vacations are the most memorable ones you’ll ever take.

I first read Ponniyin Selvan when I was 17. Caught in the limbo between school and college, barely able to read more than two sentences in Tamil, I picked up the book, encouraged by my grandmother first and my father later. Forty-six pages into the book, I was hooked. Never have I been so enamoured by a novel that I have read it time and again, four times at last count and the fifth in progress. After my third reading in five years I decided I wanted to go to all those places mentioned in the book. Irrespective of its historical accuracy, and inspite of myself, I fell in love. In love with Chola history. In love with the brave Vanthiyathevan and the handsome Arulmozhi. Has I been born during those times, I would probably have wanted to marry one of these men.

This love affair with the Cholas continues. Almost two decades have gone past and I’m still enamoured by the men who built such pieces of art as the Thanjavur temple. This dream of visiting the places on the Vanthiyathevan tail is not a new one, nor is it a solitary one. It is a decade-old dream, shared with Sriram. A dream that we’ve spent a decade discussing and refining. A dream that we’ve spent years trying to make a reality. Somewhere in-between, life happened and the dream didn’t quite materialise. Until this year. When we heard of the Kollidam being full and flowing into the sea after many years, we arrived at an unspoken agreement that we would do it this year. Come what may.

We would have wanted to start our trip on the iconic Adi Thirunaal festival, just like the novel does. But bad planning at our end meant that we could leave only a week later. Not that it mattered. The journey was beautiful nonetheless. We set off from Chennai one bright Friday morning. Our timing was good because the sun was merciful almost through our six-day trip, never getting too hot to handle. After breakfast in Pondicherry, we headed out to Cuddalore, the first of our six-day, multi-city road trip. The Vanthiyathevan trail would have to wait until the next day, when we were done with the minor detour that we were planning to take in Cuddalore.

Day 1 – Stop 1 – Thirupathiripuliyur, Padaleeswara-Periya Nayaki temple

Almost inside Cuddalore town, the Padaleeswara temple at Thirupathiripuliyur dates back to the medieval Cholas (Parantaka I) or even earlier to the later Pallavas. There wasn’t much we could photograph inside the temple because it is maintained and run by the HR&CE and photography banned in most places within the precincts of the temple. We went here because it was on the way and it made sense to visit the temple given its antiquity and importance.

Day 1 – Stop 2 – Devanampattinam, St. David Fort

St. David Fort was the centre of British possessions on the Coromandel Coast until the end of Second Carnatic War, when the French destroyed the fort in a bid to seal their victory against the British. This fort is almost on the sea shore and is currently in ruins. There’s not much that remains of the fort today, except a two-storey building that resembles a house more than a fortress. The building was open when we arrived and a bunch of people sitting there invited us to feel free to explore it. One of the guys there lamented that nobody was even visiting the place, leave alone maintain it, except for a few foreigners who seemed to like visiting old, abandoned ruins. A closer observation shows remains of the rampart walls and a tunnel that probably led out into the sea. I wish we had some access to someone who could tell us more about the fort itself and about whether there is any effort being done at conservation at all.

We also planned to visit Porto Novo or Parangipettai where some remains of old Portuguese buildings dating back to the 18th Century are still around. We learnt that these buildings are now government offices and inaccessible to the public. What’s the point in going if you can’t see anything anyway? So, the Porto Novo plan was dropped and we went ahead to Chidambaram that was to be our stopover on Day 1.

We decided to visit the temple only the next morning as Sriram anyway had work in the city then. We were both exhausted and decided to take a quick nap before deciding what to do in the evening. We learnt from the hotel owner that the Veeranam lake was less than ten minutes away.

Day 1 – Stop 3 – Kattumannarkoil, Veeranarayana Eri

Originally known as the Veeranarayana Eri, the name progressively changed to what we know today as the Veeranam lake. This lake supplies fresh water to much of South Chennai via aqueducts that were constructed in the recent past. The lake however, resembles more a natural waterbody than a manmade one. Constructed by the Prince Rajaditya during the reign of Parantaka II, this extends over about 15 square kilometres and supplies water via 74 aqueducts dating back to over 1000 years ago. Each aqueduct is controlled by a shutter mechanism to control the flow of water from the lake. This lake is supplied by the Vadavaaru river, which is a distributary of the Kollidam. The view of the lake brimming over with water was a joy to behold. We could actually hear the sounds of the waves hitting the lake bund, much like the waves on the shores of the Marina.

Day 1 – Stop 4 – Kattumannarkoil, Vadavaaru River

We knew that the Veeranam lake is watered by the Vadavaaru river. We also knew that the Vadavaaru river plays a significant role in the plot of Ponniyin Selvan. So, how could we skip seeing this river? So, we drove about 17 kilometres, past the Kattumannarkoil town to the banks of the Vadavaaru. It was again brimming over. Perhaps this is why we needed to wait so long to realise our dream? To see the rivers full of water?

When we returned to the hotel that evening, little did we know that the Vadavaaru would accompany us much farther than we thought she would. But that’s another story for another day.

Of democracy and democratic traditions…

There has been a raging debate on the origins of Indian democracy on Twitter ever since I tweeted about Christophe Jaffrelot’s latest Foreign Policy Review Essay, comparing democracy in India and in Pakistan. I strongly recommend that you read Jaffrelot’s article and Nitin Pai’s superb fisking of the essay at The Acorn, before moving on with this blogpost.

The one problem I see with Jaffrelot’s approach to India and its democracy is that he tends to view everything Indian democracy stands for from a western perspective. I am saying this after studying not just his articles and essays, but after having studied under him during my two-year masters at Sciences Po, of which CERI, his parent organization, is a part. First, he believes that all democratic tradition in India is a legacy of the British Raj, without which India would still have been a nation of barbarians who do not know how to rule themselves. He completely discounts the influence of native cultures and traditions, which may be called democratic in the vaguest possible sense. Second, he attributes the success of democracy in India, during his lectures as well as through his writing, to the en masse politicization of the Indian population by the Indian National Congress and the independence movement. The role of other political movements however marginal, tend to be completely ignored, not just by Jaffrelot himself but by most western indologists, including Philip Oldenburg whose book he reviews in Foreign Policy. To them, democracy in India is a western legacy that its people have unquestioningly accepted to the extent that we are today, the world’s largest democracy.

This standpoint is often accepted by many Indians themselves and this acceptance triggered a raging debate about whether democracy was actually Indian in nature. This is where I feel compelled to clarify certain popular misconceptions, prevalent even among the well-read, intellectual elite. My claim is not that democracy as it is practiced today is entirely Indian in nature and we had it all before the British came along and conquered us. My contention is merely that democracy survived and prospered in post-independence India the way it never could in Pakistan because the Indian traditions of pluralism, tolerance and multi-culturalism are derived mainly from certain traditions that may be considered democratic in nature. At this point, it is impossible to ignore the obvious differences between the Indian and the Pakistani State: pluralism vs. monism, federalist union vs. unitary state, non-interference in religion vs. Islamist governance. Viewing the two countries through the politically-correct prism of secularism is neither sensible, nor desirable.

It becomes important, at this juncture to clearly define those democratic traditions, so as to dispel the perception that I claim democracy to be purely Indian in origin. The example of democracy in India that I am personally most familiar with is the “kuda-olai” system of electing village administrative officers. K.A. Nilakanta Shastri explores this system in detail in his two volumes on the Cholas. The books are now out of print and can only be found in colleges and public libraries. This information, unearthed from stone inscriptions in Uttiramerur near Chennai, date back to the 12th Century A.D, especially during Rajaraja’s reign between 985 and 1014 A.D. To put things in perspective, the Chola administrative system pre-dated the famed Magna Carta signed in 1215 A.D. With the signing of the Magna Carta, the western world finally accepted the limitations on the right of the king, whereas in southern India, the system of electing representatives who were governed by rules already existed two hundred years previously.

If we go further back in history, we have archaeological and documentary evidence of tiny clans and even some bigger ones like the Lichchavis of modern-day Nepal, who practised a primitive form of democracy in choosing the leader of their tribe. They are often called “republics” by scholars like Steve Muhlberger to whose work I have linked earlier.

That said, these primitive systems can, by no means, considered a precursor to modern-day democracy because voting was largely restricted to men aged between 18 and 60 years, who in addition, must be land-owners. This constituted approximately 20 percent of the total population, excluding large groups like artisans, laborers, and most importantly, women. However, by that definition, no system predating the universal suffrage movement of the 20th century can be called democratic. Looking for a replica of democracy as we know it today in the Arthashastra or the Manu-Smriti is an entirely pointless exercise because much of what we hold dear today, including human rights, civil liberties, individual freedom and universal suffrage have evolved over the last two hundred years. Not even the famed democratic nation-state of Athens would qualify for that title. The Magna Carta, often considered the precursor to the British writ of haebeas corpus, and to modern democracy was actually devolution of power from the monarch to the feudal lords and not to the “people” as we qualify them today.

Finally, no country can adapt a completely foreign system if it goes against its political ethos, unless founded on complete destruction of earlier cultures and imposition of a new religious, social and political order as in the case of some South American countries. If democracy has succeeded in India, it is because our basic political ethos is not fundamentally different from the one imposed by western-style democracy. While British rule accelerated India’s acceptance of multi-party democracy as the only possible system of governance, it would not have survived the various threats posed, first by the bloody massacres of partition and subsequently by the state of Emergency imposed by Mrs. Gandhi, had that democratic tradition not existed in the first place. It is only intellectually honest to accept that a native discourse in democracy-studies is not an entirely-flawed approach, unlike indologists like Jaffrelot and Oldenburg who seemed determined to negate that influence.

Of democracy and democratic traditions…

Tanjavur

I leave for Tanjavur by car from Srirangam on Thursday morning. A long night on train, a freezing cold air-conditioned coach ensuring I get hardly any sleep and the fact that the train arrives in Trichy at an unearthly 4 AM result in me falling asleep barely fifteen minutes after leaving Srirangam. About 50 minutes after our I fall asleep, my mother shakes me awake, prompting me to look out of the window and says we are almost there. We only just enter the city of Tanjavur and the 13-storey high Vimana of the Big Temple looms majestically on the horizon. The minute I set my eyes on the Vimana, I instantly wake up, forgetting that I haven’t slept properly for more than 24 hours. Our driver, presumably atheist, mutters under his breath about how nobody ever decides to go on a 4-day long pilgrimage from temple to temple. I decide to ignore it and get ahead with the task at hand: that of visiting the famed Big Temple, a decade-old dream, getting more and more irresistible over the last few months.

We stop right in front of the Rajarajan Gopuram, the main entrance. We get out of the car, leaving the driver to park and wait. We offer that he comes in with us. He refuses. Mom and I decide to go ahead. My first reaction on seeing the Gopuram is one of awe. I am awed that someone could construct something so exquisitely beautiful and so immensely grand a thousand years ago. It then strikes me that the temple is celebrating the thousandth year of its consecration in 2010. In fact, that was one of the reasons that took me all the way to the place this year. It’s still early in the morning, about 9 AM. The sun is mild and the skies are blue without a trace of cloud. I decide to make the best of the weather. I enter the first Gopuram and spot the elephant, standing guard over the Lord. I continue my way, telling myself the elephant can wait. The temple beckons. I can’t seem to wait to see the temple itself.

I enter through the second Gopuram and spot the Nandi, blocking my view of the great God. Mom asks me if I want to look around first or enter the temple. She obviously wants to enter it first, but doesn’t want to spoil my enjoyment of the architecture. I decide that there is something so profoundly spiritual about the temple that the priority is darshan. When I enter the sanctum sanctorum, I feel a sense of all-pervading peace, a peace that seemed missing in my life these past months. Something assures me that everything will be ok. Now, I am not particularly religious and ritualistic, but there is something about Tanjavur that makes even the sceptic in me believe. When I left Chennai on Wednesday night, I told myself everything would be ok if I just saw Tanjavur. As I enter the temple the next day, my belief that I will see a silver lining to those dark clouds is only reinforced. I go up the inner prakara and the ardha-mandapa right up to the inner sanctum. What I see leaves me speechless. A Sivalinga, about 20 feet in height I am guessing, looms ahead. There is nothing small about this temple. From the Vimana, to the entrance, to even the Sivalinga itself, everything is massive. It is at this point that I truly realize the meaning of the Tamil saying “Iraivan miga periyavan.” God is unimaginably big. Every sculpture, every carving, ever pillar seems to scream these words out to me. God is omni-present, omnipotent and omniscient. There is a sense of majesty and royalty about Tanjavur that I haven’t encountered in any other temple as yet.

My second reaction, much better thought-out and patiently analysed is that this temple is a masterpiece. I feel a sense of pride in belonging here, to this soil where kings thought of making temples that would last a thousand years. I begin to slowly regain the power of thought and overcome the initial sense of awe. I realize that the very existence of such a structure is symbolic. Men may come and men may go. But certain things are permanent. Like the Tanjavur Big Temple, like the power of the almighty, however we may choose to represent him. I recover and continue my exploration. I wonder if Arulmozhi Varman knew his construction would last so long. I wonder if he knew that a thousand years on, a 28-year old who first discovered his existence through the fictional world of Ponniyin Selvan would wonder what his intentions were in building this. I remember my teenage crush on the fictional Arulmozhi of Kalki’s novel, and wonder how he would have conceived something so beautiful and how difficult it would have been for him to realize that dream.

As I continue to look around, clicking tens of photos from every conceivable angle, while trying desperately to remember the temple plan from my art and architecture course of 7 years ago, I notice that everything about the temple is masculine. Even the intricate carvings that figure on the Vimana have a certain masculinity about them that is impossible to deny. Every stone of the temple seems to reassure the visitor that nothing can happen without the sanction and approval of the God Almighty. “Don’t worry because there is no greater power than me,” he seems to tell me through that structure. I come back to the Nandi Mandapam after taking close to a hundred photos and sit down next to my mother. I turn around and tell her,“I don’t know why Ma, but there is a strange sense of peace that I can feel right now.” My mother smiles and says, “Perhaps it’s His way of assuring you things will be ok!” Maybe. Just maybe.

It’s our heritage dammit!

I had a conversation with someone yesterday that went something like this.

Me: I really want to go back and see Sadras. There is so much more to see in that fort.

X: Sadras? Where is that?

Me: Behind the Kalpakkam Atomic Power station.

X: Oh! That old building? Yeah! I know of it. I have been there…we used to use it as a bar, since you don’t have one inside Kalpakkam!

Me: What the F***?

This kind of an attitude pains me. My heart breaks when I see a part of my history and my culture being used as open-air urinals and bars. Such monuments of historical importance are meant to be valued, cherished and protected. I was always under the impression that it’s only people who were uneducated and uncouth did this kind of thing. But my conversation with X effectively rid me of this perception. I now realize that smart, educated, urban young men (and women) are as ignorant of the value of such historical monuments as the uneducated village youth of my imagination.

Sadras is not the only fort to meet with this fate. Some time ago, there were ads by the Ministry of Tourism, as part of the Incredible India campaign to sensitize people to the value of their heritage. I honestly don’t think that has worked. I myself saw several empty beer bottles, plenty of plastic waste, and graffiti inside the Sadras fort. I remember pointing out a random declaration of love to Sriram and fuming at the mouth about it. I can only hope that at some point in the future, people will stop treating forts like Sadras as urinals and bars and start giving them the respect they really deserve.

After all, they are not just old, ruined buildings. They are a part of our culture and our heritage. They constitute bits and pieces of history using which we can rebuild the story of our past, brick by brick. When will people understand that?

Therukoothu – spontaneous street performance?

The September 21 issue of Outlook carries an article by Shruti Ravindran titled Life’s A Proscenium. If you can read this article, and not take offense, then it means one of two things. Either you have an inordinate amount of tolerance for bullshit, or you have no clue what Therukoothu is all about. In the latter case, Shruti is even more responsible for having created an entirely wrong impression of Therukoothu. Before I go on, check out this justifiably angry piece by Sriram.

Sriram quotes a few lines from Shruti’s article that infuriate and disgust.

“Urban denizens who’ve actually heard of this art form often mistake it for its disreputable half-cousin ‘Therukuttu’ (street performance), unpractised, spontaneous roadside performances that take place during temple festivals—and indeed, the word Therukuttu has also come to mean “making a disgraceful spectacle of oneself in public.”

Several things about this sentence infuriate. First, calling an art form a disreputable half-cousin of another is entirely uncalled for. Secondly, Therukoothu, as the name suggests, is indeed played out on the road. In fact, it is at the origins of the three Tamils (Iyal, Isai, Natakam) and is performed on crossroads (naarchandi in Tamil). The fact that an art form is performed on the street does not demean its worth in any way.

In fact, Bharatanatyam, the much-revered classical dance form of Tamil Nadu has its origins in what was called Sadir Attam or Dasiattam – the dance of the Devadasis. This is precisely why dance as an art form was considered demeaning for a woman from a good family to practice until its popularization by Rukmini Devi Arundale. Devadasis, for a certain period were nothing but courtesans (prostitutes to be blunt), and maintained by the Saraboji Rajas of Tanjavur. Does this mean that all Bharatanatyam dancers today are not worth respecting? Also, Therukoothu is by no means unpractised. Practice sessions for Therukoothu stretch over several days, sometimes weeks or months.

If Therukoothu were indeed the disreputable half-cousin Shruti claims it to be, why would there be organized groups, as Sriram so rightly points out, working tirelessly to promote the dying art? For those who need the stamp of “international recognition”, there is even a course on Therukoothu offered by the Singapore National Arts Council. What more do you need?

This article by Shruti Ravindran is nothing more than a piece of shoddy journalism at best. It simply proves, once again, that journalistic standards are at rock bottom today. If Outlook can allow publication of such an article without editing or verification, it makes me wonder what kind of media we have today. I suggest Shruti look for an alternative career, that has nothing to do with either journalism, art or even writing.

Azhagana Thenmadurai…

The Meenakshi Temple, fragrant strands of jasmine, the three Tamil Sangams…these are what you generally associate with the city of Madurai. And of course, the beautiful and lyrical way in which people there speak the Tamil language we, here in Chennai, are so accustomed to massacring.

But, actually arriving in Madurai in August 2009 is a different matter altogether. The city is still relatively small, and retains much of the old world charm. But, one can’t help but notice that ugly hoardings, plastic waste and unmanageable traffic are an integral part of the city. And to me, it signifies a loss of innocence. A loss of all that was good with small-town Tamil Nadu. It’s been a good seven years since I last visited Madurai. A lot of water has flown under the bridge. Or should I say, a lot of silt has accumulated. For, there is no water in the Vaigai any more. Apparently they only open the dam in April for the Kallazhagar temple festival. Otherwise, it’s just a vast expanse of sand and silt. That’s sad, considering that one of the indications that you had arrived in Madurai was crossing that bridge over the Vaigai, with the river gushing furiously below you.

But, all said and done, it feels good. It feels good to enter a city you know is almost 2000 years old. A city that hosted not one, but three Tamil Sangams. The city that nurtured and developed Muthamizh (edit: the three Tamils, referring to Iyal, Isai, Natakam, as pointed out by Santhakumar in the comment). Because, unlike Chennai, Madurai has a history distinct from the white sahibs. Talking to people there, you realise that although things have changed, they haven’t changed so drastically that you don’t realise the difference. The people are still rather more helpful and less abusive than in Chennai.

The Thirumalai Nayakar Palace still holds the same charm it did all those years ago. It’s still as beautiful, and much cleaner. It is heartening to see that the ASI is finally taking an interest in restoring that beautiful structure. And of course, in keeping the place clean. You cannot see a single plastic bag, or bubble gum, or broken bottles any more. The management makes sure of that.

Life in the city still revolves around the famed corridors of the Meenakshi temple. Yes, the temple is rather commercial now, with the management charging 100 rupees for a special darshan. But, you can still enjoy the stroll in the hallowed corridors, appreciate the nuances of the Silver Hall (analogous to the Golden Hall in Chidambaram), and walk around the famed “Pond of the Golden Lotus”. The only problem is that there was no water in the pond. It had been pumped out a few days earlier for cleaning. The Golden Lotus (Potramarai) is clearly visible. It would have looked much more beautiful had the pond been filled.

I spent a long and exciting weekend in the area. What used to seem like a lifetime of drudgery when I was ten suddenly seems much more exciting now. I want to go back. Go back and see more temples, more palaces, more hills, and more of life. I know I will. The only question is…when?

Bring back the Brits?

That’s what one Mr. Aakar Patel wants us to do. Or at least, wishes they hadn’t left India quite so soon. Check out this phenomenally shortsighted article in the Mint. Or must I say, blindingly Anglophile? I really don’t know how to classify this article. It is one thing to point out that there are problems with governance in India. It is quite another to wish an alien government had stayed sixty years longer than it actually did. Before you read on, read this article by the same person in the International News, a Pakistani site. Also, read this rebuttal by Rohit on his NationalInterest blog.

The problem is that Patel really seems to believe what he says: that the British were benevolent rulers, with India’s best interests at heart; that we could have been better off if the British had stayed another sixty years. I do not dispute the fact the British brought a number of good things to India. Think about the railways, the administrative services, the English language, and you will see what I mean. I agree. We owe much of what we see in India today to the fact that we were ruled for over 400 years by a foreign government.

But think about this. The same government threw our people into prison for the crime of questioning their authority over a country and is, arguably, not theirs. The same government skinned our people alive with the imposing burden of taxes, and denied basic human rights to about one-fifth of humanity. Let us not forget that the British government that gave us a decent system of education also founded whites-only clubs and cricket grounds were boards proudly bore the words, “Dogs and Indians not allowed.” Let us also not forget that, by Patel’s own admission millions of people died in several famines across the country during the rule of the British. And, we would also do well to remember that in the last sixty-two years, the country has not faced a single famine.

This is not to eulogise the Indian government and claim it has done its best. No. It simply means that the government listens to the people who brought it to power, not because governments are inherently noble, but because they know they can be thrown out in the next elections by the same people who elected them. It is this kind of control that gives us the right to express ourselves freely. It is precisely this freedom that has today allowed Patel to even publish something as inherently anti-establishment as this article.

The point here is not to rubbish the contribution of the British to infrastructure development or education in India. But, in acknowledging their positive influences, we must not become so blind to their faults that we wish they had stayed longer. That is extremely dangerous. Blind adoration is never good.

Yes, we Indians are corrupt, inefficient and nepotistic. But, however inefficient we may be, we still hold the right to rule ourselves. Don’t judge us because we are imperfect. Let us make our mistakes, pick ourselves up, and continue on our path to discovering the best way to govern ourselves. Don’t assume someone else knows better because they come from the west of the Caucasus. It would do well for us to remember that the British, the French, the Americans and every other developed country has travelled the path we are treading today. They have made their mistakes, learnt from them and are governing themselves reasonably well today. That might take another century in India. But, let us be. We will learn. Sooner or later.

Time stands still…

…as you enter the three centuries-old Dutch fort at Sadras. I won’t describe the fort for you. Sriram has done it well enough. The fort, built in the 17th Century speaks volumes of a past long dead, an era gone by. I enter the fort and wish I were born in those times. I wish I could live there, experience the life of the times, fight all those wars, save the fort from ruin. I know that’s a crazy thought, but hey! One can dream, right?

I take a look at the ancient cemetery inside the fort. Thankfully, today it is open. As we step in, I feel an easy calm. I forget that I am Amrutha, that I am living in 2009, or even that I am with two others. I forget to speak. The ASI employee who takes us around is generous with his time, and gives us plenty of information. But, I am in a completely different world. I take in what he tells us, complete with the dates and events, but somehow, don’t feel like listening at all. He tells us to approach the main office of the ASI in the Secretariat in Chennai for more information. I am still not impressed. I can only wonder what happened here all those years ago. I can only try to relive those moments.

I take a walk around the fort, following the ASI employee and Sriram. Both seem completely self-assured, almost as if they know this place inside out. They probably do. This is my first time here. I get to the place that was once a kitchen. I see a flight of stairs going up and decide to climb. Sriram is right behind me. We take in the view of the sea from there. At this point, I turn, and see red. Right in front of me, on the dome of the centuries-old warehouse, is graffiti. Some random guy called Suresh has declared his love for someone else in ugly scratches all over the dome. What the heck? Can’t we even respect our heritage? I’ll never understand.

Recovering from the blow, we continue walking around for nearly half an hour, shooting pictures at every conceivable angle, forty-four in all. When we finally finished with the fort, all I felt was marvel at what an old, broken building can do to you. It is, after all, not just a building. It’s a piece of history, beautiful in every way.

The son of Ponni

Yesterday was Adi Perukku. I read not one, but two posts on Ponniyin Selvan. Yes, the novel par excellence by Kalki Krishnamurthy is what first came to my mind when I realized it was the 18th day of the Tamil month of Adi. The thought sent me hurtling back a decade.

I had barely finished by Class 12 exams. My father brought home an armload of Tamil books. The Government of Tamil Nadu had decided to subsidize the works of Kalki Krishnamurthy, to commemorate the birth centenary of the writer. And dad, to his credit, decided to expose me to a world of Tamil literature I was entirely unfamiliar with. I could read Tamil about as well as the current crop of Kollywood heroines can speak it. For those of you who know what that means, it’s like George Bush’s general knowledge, zero!

Dad, being dad, had ambitious plans for me. He laid out the three major works by Kalki in front of me and asked me to choose. Ponniyin Selvan, vigorously recommended by dad, mom, grandmother and a whole army of older relatives occupied the pride of place. Alaiyosai, Kalki’s personal favourite, was somewhere at the bottom of the list. Between these two exalted works lay Sivagamiyin Sabatham. Now, asking me to choose between them was like asking a beginner in English to choose between Charles Dickens and Shakespeare. Both are difficult, each more difficult than the other.

I bravely plunged into the world of Ponniyin Selvan, with mom and grandmother’s encouragements. Dad, for his part, was ready to explain the meaning of Tamil words I did not understand. In hindsight, I suspect that he bit off much more than he could chew. He did not bargain to become the official translator of classical Tamil into Madras Baashai for his darling daughter raised on the banks of the Buckingham Canal. Ok. I am exaggerating…but, truly, my knowledge of Tamil was rivaled only by my (in)ability to do math.

Once I began reading the novel, all was forgotten. My walking, talking Madras Baashai interpreter was troubled for exactly three days. The story was engrossing. It was moving forward at a phenomenal speed. I discovered the Pazhuvettaraiyars, the hero Vandhiyathevan, the beautiful Nandini, the shy Madhuranthakan. History came alive in those words. I suddenly wanted to know more about Anirudha Brahmarayar and the Uttiramerur inscriptions. I wanted to know how Kundavai Prattiyar lived, what the Kudandhai astrologer said. I wanted to visit these exotic places. I wanted to study history. I discovered the romance between Vanathi and Arulmozhi Varman. In the process, I developed a crush on the noble Arulmozhi Varman, long dead. Poor man! Wonder how many teenage girls discovered they had a crush on him! A decade later, I wonder if Rajaraja Cholan was really as noble as Kalki’s Arulmozhi Varman. On second thoughts, I’d rather not know.

It took me nearly a month to finish the five-volume three-thousand-page novel. When I was done, I was incorrigibly spoiled. I was in love; in love with history, with the Chola times. I was in love with the art of writing something so breathtakingly beautiful. I had decided. I was going to study history. I haven’t regretted that decision till date. And yes, I am still in love. I still want to see Uttiramerur, Pazhayarai, Uraiyur, Thanjavur and Gangaikonda Cholapuram. This is a love affair that will probably last all my life.

PS: There is an English translation of Ponniyin Selvan. But, if you can read Tamil even passingly, please read it in the original. I can guarantee the story will take you forward, even if you don’t want to go.