How to cure chicken-pox – The Muttaiamma festival

Fire pot for Muttaiamma

This festival, which lasts for four days, is specific only to the two villages closest to where we live – Athoor and Akkarapatti – and two days ago was the main day for celebrating.  The festival is in honour of ‘Chicken Mother’, the goddess who is believed to be able to cure you of illness, particularly of chicken-pox.  (In Tamil ‘muttai’ means egg and ‘amma’ means mother).  Regardless of your views on the Hindu pantheon (see my earlier post about Ganesh) there was a great deal of devotion and spirituality on display at this festival.

I was privileged to be invited along to join the celebrations and share in a family meal afterwards.

This is a family festival, as are all Indian celebrations, and these children have the day off school to attend.

An extra day off school!

Each village closes its school for the local festivals but have to make up the time elsewhere so that all schools are open for the same number of days during the year.

In the evening the goddess will be paraded around the village in this vehicle, and those who have taken part will share in a special dish made from seven varieties of rice, dhal and beans.

Bathing in the river

But first the main participants will bathe in the local river (the level rather low now that summer is here!) with their family supporters looking on and drummers creating a rhythmic backing.

Each participant carries a clay pot of fire from the river to the temple, over a kilometre away.  To create the fire they burn neem wood and ghee (clarified butter).

The pots are carried in the bare hands – no gloves – and everyone is milling around to try to stay close to family and friends. 

There seems to be no such thing a ‘health and safety’ at a celebration like this!

 It takes incredible devotion to carry two of these pots at the same time.

Circling the temple

 All of those carrying the pots (both men and women) wear garlands of flowers.  Once they reach the centre of the village they walk once around the temple before going inside.

Inside the temple

 The interior of the temple is very hot and filled with smoke (hence the poor quality of the picture!).  The pots are taken to the altar for a blessing and then the people move back outside.

This pot is being carried by Satish who works for us at Lakeside. 

To show her devotion this woman is being rolled along the ground around the temple.  I don’t know if she was rolled all the way from the river or just at the temple – I had varying explanations!

As you can see, her clothing is wet.  This is not just from the river but because we had our first rain of the year that day too – a very auspicious sign for the festival.

Using neem leaves to protect from burns

There are obviously burn injuries during the festival where people brush up against the pots, or just from carrying them.  The burns are treated with crushed neem leaves; this man is using neem leaves to carry his pot (he has probably already burned his hands). 

The neem is a large tree (growing up to 35 metres tall) and is valued for its medicinal properties – hence its use at the festival of a healing goddess.

The pots are carried from the temple to the other side of the village where they are floated on ponds.

As evening draws nearer this family are watching the father take the pot down to the water.  The Sirumalai hills make a perfect backdrop.

This young boy has just recovered (or maybe just recovering?) from an illness, possibly chicken-pox, and has been painted to attract the mother-goddess’ attention and to ask for her healing.  He is wearing bundles of neem leaves.

The pots are carried into the water and carefully floated on the surface.

If you look closely you can just see our ‘little blue boy’ on the right hand side of the picture.

The paint is washed off of the boy by his father whilst prayers are said for his recovery and in thanks to the goddess.

After releasing their pots the participants have a final ritual bath in the water.

Offerings to Muttaiamma

 To see the pots floating on the water in the gathering dusk is a truly beautiful sight.


“Man lives freely only by his readiness to die” – the Gandhi Memorial Museum, Madurai

Yesterday I took some of our guests (who are staying at Lakeside as part of one of our tours) on a trip to the city of Madurai.  As it is only 1 hour from here it makes a great excursion for the day, enabling people to come back and stay in the peaceful surroundings here rather than in a busy (and noisy) city hotel. 

Meenakshi Temple, Madurai

 Madurai features in all tours of southern India, its main feature being the famous Meenakshi temple.  The history of the city stretches back to at least the 3rd century BC when Megasthanes the Greek visited Madurai, later to be followed by other Greeks and Romans who established trade with the Pandyan Kings.  Madurai has a rich and varied history, finally falling under the rule of the British in 1781 and now a part of Independent India.

Throughout the history of Madurai there are very few examples of women ruling as they were not thought suitable to succeed to the throne, but one famous Queen was Rani Mangammal who ruled for 18 years during a very difficult period at the end of the 17th century.  She faced, with almost no outside help, the armies of Emperor Aurangzeb, paying a tribute but by doing so also being able to regain some of the lands lost by previous kings.  She developed and repaired irrigation systems and roads and built many public buildings as well as a palace for herself (circa 1670)).  This building became the home of the British Collectors of Madurai (the Collector in India is a very influential post which still exists today).  In 1955 the palace and about 13 acres of land were given by the Tamil Nadu State Government to the All India Gandhi Smarak Nidhi (Hindi – Gandhi Memorial Trust) to be used as the Gandhi Memorial Museum which was opened in 1959 by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. (There are four other Gandhi Museums in India).

Gandhi Memorial Museum (Rani Mangammal Palace)

 Apart from the temple (which I’ll tell you more about in another post), the Gandhi Memorial Museum is a ‘must see’ and our current guests, like all other English visitors we have taken there, were much moved by the experience.

The Museum is effectively divided into two sections.  The first depicts India’s struggle for freedom, starting with the arrival of the British to trade and chronicling the rule of the Raj with all its cruelties towards the Indian people.  At the heart of this display is the history of the people who fought for freedom across the centuries, leading up to the role of Gandhi in the Independence Movement.  As a British citizen you feel ashamed of what happened (although it was no different from what happened in other colonies ruled by the British or other nations).  It is quite difficult to move through this section reading of the atrocities with an Indian national standing by your side.  But the overwhelming reaction of the Indian people to you is so positive – they love the British and see themselves as our friends, quite often remarking on all of the good things that were brought to India during the Raj and which now form a British heritage which is one of the foundation stones of the modern India.  It is really quite humbling.

“Non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as cooperation with good”  – Mahtma Gandhi

This section of the museum is so full of information to read that your brain is already suffering overload when you reach the section dedicated to Gandhi.  It is probably not a bad idea to leave and get a coffee (or have lunch) then come back refreshed for this equally moving display of manuscripts, photos, paintings, sculptures, and quotations of Gandhi along with copies of many of his letters.  The life of Gandhi is portrayed through 124 photographs and the carefully selected notes with them give a deeper understanding of this remarkable man.  Also in the collection are 14 original artefacts used by Gandhi including his glasses, a pair of his sandals and the blood stained dhoti which he was wearing when he was assassinated (the cloth is sealed in a vacuum in a class case).

“Man lives freely only by his readiness to die, if need be, at the hands of his brother, never by killing him”  – Mahatma Gandhi

As you exit the museum there is a display of people who have taken on board the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and used them to mould their own political beliefs and actions – including Martin Luther King Jr who spent a month in India and visited the museum, and also President Obama who recently visited India and spoke of his admiration and respect for Gandhi.

I really do recommend a visit to the museum if you are ever in Madurai.

“We must become the change we want to see”  – Mahatma Gandhi

Statue of Gandhi outside the Museum

Yellow browed bulbul at her nest

I love the spring with its promise of new life. This female yellow browed bulbul is sitting at her nest awaiting the birth of a new generation. The picture was taken just outside Thekkady whilst I was accompanying some guests on one of our tours.

The bird is about 7 cm long and is found in the hills and mountains of the Western Ghats, just below the forest canopy where it feeds mainly on insects and berries. She will probably have a clutch of 3 eggs in her nest which would have taken about a week to build. The eggs, which will be pale pink or white and speckled with reddish brown, will be incubated for about 13 days. The babies will then be fed on soft insects, berries and caterpillars for a further 13 days before they fledge and leave the nest.

Ganesh shrine – puja for the elephant headed god

Ganesh is one of the most popular, if not the most popular, god worshipeDedicating the shrined by Hindus here in Tamil Nadu. At Lakeside we have provided a shrine to Ganesh, and this is frequently used by drivers, Indian guests and, of course, our staff.

The statue was made by a local potter and consecrated by a local priest. The puja (worship) for the consecration was attended by ourselves, our staff, and some of the guests who were staying at Lakeside as part of one of our tours.

At the start of the ceremony for the consecration of the statue incense sticks were lit and waved in front of Ganesh before being placed on the altar. A bell was rung which signified the presence of the god then a cockerel was sacrificed (later to be taken and eaten by the priest). It was killed quickly by cutting its throat which is the same way that chickens are killed here for food. Some of the blood from the cockerel was placed on each corner of the shrine.

A coconut was broken and the milk sprinkled onto the statue by the priest, Pete and myself. Then everyone present had a tilaka (spot made with yellow and red paste) put on their forehead and were given coconut, banana and sweet pongal rice to eat from a banana leaf.

So who is Ganesh and why is he so special?

In Hindu mythology Ganesh is the son of the gods Shiva and Parvati with a human body (symbolising Maya, or the earthly existence of humans) and an elephant head (symbolising the Atma or soul). The elephants head shows wisdom and the trunk symbolises the sacred sound Om which is used during meditation and is believed to be the sound heard at the creation of the universe and so symbolises cosmic reality.

Ganesh has four hands: in the upper right he carries a goad to help him encourage people forward on the eternal path of life and to remove obstacles from their way; his upper left hand holds a noose to capture and remove all difficulties from the path. His lower right hand holds his broken tusk which he used as a pen to write the Mahabharata, and his final hand holds a rosary to remind worshipers that they should be continually pursuing knowledge. He holds a laddoo (sweet) in his trunk to remind people to seek the sweetness of the Atma.

The elephant ears show that Ganesh is always willing to listen to any petition, the snake around his waist represents energy in all its forms.

Ganesh is the bringer of success and the destroyer of evil and obstacles as well as being worshipped as the god of wisdom, education, knowledge and wealth. He is seen riding a mouse which shows his humility.

There are almost as many views of the Hindu belief in a pantheon of gods as there are gods themselves. Some westerners find it hard to reconcile a religion with so many different deities, all with human characteristics, with their own monotheistic faiths and so discount Hinduism as primitive idol worship. However, you can talk with many Hindus who explain their belief in a transcendent power beyond the universe called Brahman. Brahman is so overwhelmingly powerful that it is impossible for mere humans to understand him/it and so all of the Hindu gods are just aspects of this Brahman to help us understand. A Hindu can worship a particular god when they wish to approach a particular aspect of the supreme being – maybe seeing Brahman as a father figure, or a mother, or a king.

One could argue that this is similar to monotheistic faiths who describe their God in many different ways such as Compassionate, King etc – both aspects of one god but helping us to understand him more deeply. It could also be argued that the Christian Trinity has similarities to the Hindu belief as it is a belief in one true god but showing his different characteristics – creator, saviour, guide and comforter.

Whatever your view of Hinduism and its many gods I know that, for me personally, living here amongst the people of Tamil Nadu has been a real eye-opener.

Bonnet macaques – Indias little gremlins!

I recently accompanied some guests on one of our tours, and during that time we visited Thekkady which is on the border of the Periyar Wildlife Park; but you don’t have to go into the park to see wildlife!

On my hotel balcony!

Right outside our hotel was a troop of bonnet macaque which get their name from the tuft of hair on the top of their head which looks a bit like a hat. These monkies can only be found in India. They sometimes eat small invertebrates like worms and insects, they even chase flying grasshoppers; they are also keen on fruits and nuts, seed, cereals and flowers. They have little fear of humans where the two species live closely side by side and the macaque has a reputation of being a nuisance – stealing food, getting into houses and causing damage etc. Of course it doesn’t help that tourists often encourage them by feeding them!

Troop of Bonnet Macaqure monkies, Kerala

From what we could see this appears to be the season for the bonnet macaques to give birth as there were a number of very young babies, (just a few days old). Females give birth to just one young at a time, and the baby has the distinct look of a gremlin about it!.

From the supposed age of the younger female and her behaviour I would guess that she is the one year old daughter of the mother in the following photos. She was very proud and possessive of her new little brother and spent a lot of time watching how her mother handled him before trying it herself. The best way to learn how to be a good mum before she grows up!

One could almost imagine these two mothers at a ‘mothers and babies club’ back in the UK!

Harvesting rice today – Indias Industrial Revolution

The other day I stopped to watch a field of rice being harvested (the first of three crops which these fertile fields will yield this year).  As I watched I couldn’t help but be reminded of the time I used to teach history in English schools, in particular the Industrial Revolution in the UK.

In the second half of the 18th century in Britain there were sudden economic and technological developments which meant that a new economy based on machinery and manufacturing took the place of the traditional economy based on agriculture.  The process of political and social change happened over a period of 150 years (give or take a few!) with new innovations in industry, an expanding economy and trade, and an accumulation of capital wealth.

What really set these changes in motion were new energy sources and materials, new machinery and technologies as well as better roads and transport systems.  Many people migrated from the countryside to look for new jobs in the cities as the new factories replaced the old cottage industries.  As the changes brought new wealth and a new way of life they also brought problems with the growth of urban areas, a rising population and sudden internal migration.

Growth was rapid from the introduction of coke smelting in Coalbrookdale by Abraham Darby in 1709 which really ‘kick-started the Industrial Revolution’.  In 1813 there were more people employed in industry than in agriculture for the first time in England.  Between 1831 and 1852 industrial production in Britain doubled, then doubled again between 1852 and 1880.

Why am I telling you this? Well, apart from the time scale I could re-write the above to describe India today.

I have only lived in Tamil Nadu for 3 years yet I can see the parallels between life here today and the British Industrial Revolution.  When we first arrived at Lakeside most of the local rice was harvested by hand, now it is rare to see a woman doing this back-breaking work and the fields are quickly stripped bare by large combine harvesters.  They can do in less than an hour what a woman could do in a day.  Whilst this is obviously good progress in one sense, what happens to the daily labourer who is no longer required?  With no social security times can be hard.  Their children though are migrating to the towns and cities with their new technologies and job opportunities and so hope to send money home to support their families.

The young see the expanding economy and are eager for political reform and a fair share of wealth.  These are all factors which played a part in the British Industrial Revolution, but which are happening here at an accelerated pace; what took a decade to happen in the UK seems to be happening in a year here! 

It really is an exciting time to be in India!

The bishops bird!

Lakeside is a great place for bird watching. As the lake drops during the year new land appears which is a great attraction to migrating birds.

Two days ago I saw woolly necked stork for the first time this year. These birds are resident in Tamil Nadu but not commonly seen so I see it as a great privilege to have a small flock arrive at ‘our’ lake.

The Woolly-necked Stork is a large bird around 85 cm tall. It is a beautiful shimmering black with black ‘skull cap’, white neck and white lower belly. There are traces of dark green and purple shades in its feathers, and the whole bird is set off with striking long red legs. Juvenile birds have the same colouring but are a duller versions of the adult.

The storks were given their scientific name of Ciconia episcopus, because their black bodies, white collars and black skull-caps make them look like religious clerics (the general term for bishop is Episcopal).

These birds fly like other stork species with outstretched necks which gives a feeling of size and power. They soar on thermals to enable it to carry their large bodies over long distances.

These storks like flooded fields, marshlands and lakes – so they must feel pretty much at home here! They eat fish, frogs, reptiles, molluscs, crabs, large insects etc.

I hope the few birds we have here will grow in number and that they may nest here this year. That would be a sight to see!