The Indian flag – a guide to good politics

indian-flag
On 22 July 1947 the tricolour was approved as the Republic of India’s national flag. Over the years of the fight for independence there had been many suggestions of what the flag of India should look like. The final version incorporated ideas from many sources and was designed by Shri. Pingali Venkayya.

Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, who later became India’s second President, described its significance as follows:

“Bhagwa… or the saffron colour denotes renunciation or disinterestedness. Our leaders must be indifferent to material gains and dedicate themselves to their work.

The white in the centre is light, the path of truth to guide our conduct.

The green shows our relation to the soil, our relation to the plant life here, on which all other life depends.

The “Ashoka Chakra” in the centre of the white is the wheel of the law of dharma. Truth or satya, dharma or virtue ought to be the controlling principle of those who work under this flag.

Again, the wheel denotes motion. There is death in stagnation. There is life in movement. India should no more resist change, it must move and go forward. The wheel represents the dynamism of a peaceful change.”

High ideals are embodied in the Indian flag, but how many people remember what it stands for? Perhaps all politicians in India should have to study the flag and pledge that they will dedicate themselves to their work, allow themselves to be guided by truth, be indifferent to material gains, protect the environment and dedicate themselves to dynamic, peaceful change.

A county with such principles not only embodied in its flag but actually living by them would be a force to be reckoned with!

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Why do Tamils paint their cows?

I’ve just been looking back over this blog and noticed the post about Pongal from 2012. If you want to know why Tamils paint their cows you will need to read this! Today is Day 1 of Pongal, so I would like to wish a happy festival to all of my friends who will be celebrating.

In the previous post I mention the beautiful green rice fields after the monsoon. Sadly, there is less rice in the fields this year after a poor monsoon so everyone is hoping that this year things will get back to normal.

Happy Pongal!

 

Gandhi and the Harijans – untouchability in India today

Gandhi loved India, and he loved all Indians.  He was against the idea that any human being was inferior to another and hated the idea of untouchability.  He called the untouchables Harijan, which means “children of God”.  With Independence came laws to end untouchability, but we all know that you can’t change thousands of years of bigotry and hatred overnight and Dalits (untouchables) still have a difficult time in India.  On just one page of The Hindu newspaper on 7th June I found two stories which sadly illustrate the current situation in Tamil Nadu.

clearing the road to Dalit colonyOne report told of how a wall had been built by caste Hindus over 10 years ago to force dalits to take a much longer route to their homes so that they would not pass the caste Hindu houses.  The dalits have been fighting all this time to have the wall removed as it clearly breaches the law.  Things seemed to be moving their way at last and so, six months ago, the caste hindus built a small temple across the road which the dalits wanted to use for access.  After much complaint the authorities have finally sided with the dalits and removed the wall and temple.  In what other country which claims to treat all its citizens equally would it take ten years to have such a simple case of prejudice sorted out?

dalit marriageThe other story is that of 21 year old caste Hindu who fell in love with a dalit boy.  They married last year.  Due to the ‘disgrace’ of such a marriage her father committed suicide.  Her mother claims that the girl was kidnapped and held for ransom by her husband and so she filed a habeas corpus petition to get her daughter back.  The court granted the action and the daughter has gone back to her mother while she decides what she will do.  The young woman says that she is happy with her husband and has faced no problems with her mother-in-law.  The caste issue had not concerned her when she married, but the pressure of her father’s suicide and subsequent violent actions by caste Hindus has left her unsure of what to do for the best.

We have often seen the way higher caste Hindus treat those beneath them and it is one of the things I dislike most about India, but we have also seen the other side of the coin.  We have met many high caste people (and have high caste friends) for whom caste is not an issue.  These tend to be people of a younger generation who have often travelled widely abroad, and who recognise the worth of people based on what they do, not what caste they belong to.  I hope you have also seen my post about Narayanan Krishnan who is high caste yet helps the dalits in his local community.  I am hopeful that as time goes by things will continue to change and that, one day, Gandhi’s dream for the end of untouchabilty will be a reality in India.

A CNN Hero from Madurai

I first came to India through my connection with the Joe Homan charity.  Many westerners, particularly in todays economic climate, say that we should no longer be sending money to India which is now becoming a wealthy country; it is up to the Indians themselves to care for their own poor.

Many people believe that Indians do nothing charitable.  It is true that in the past few gave to those whose ‘karma’ it was to be poor, but the younger generations of emerging India have an emerging social conscience, they are just not in a position yet to do everything for themselves.

Please take a look at this video to see what one person has done in our local city of Madurai (winner of CNN Top 10 Heroes 2010).  People like this need our continued support until India can stand on her own two feet.

Find out more about Narayanan Krishnan here

Narayanan Krishnan

There’s an elephant in the High Street!

Last week I took some of the guests to visit our local town of Dindigul, a great place to see life as it is for millions of Indian people today.  Whilst there we were lucky enough to witness the Masi festival of the local Kottai Mariamman Temple.

The streets were crowded with people there for the opening ceremony of the month long festival.  First of all we came across stalls which were giving away free food – sponsored by local temples or businesses.

Free food!

We then moved into the Palani road.  This is where we usually buy electronic goods, computer equipment, building supplies etc. yet on this day we found it to be a swirling riot of colours, incredible noise and subtle scents.  For me it felt very strange to see the road thronged with people carrying their temple gifts on their heads…

Celebrating the goddess

…or playing their drums for the deity.

Temple drummers

 An incredible mixture of the ancient and modern.  But that was just the beginning!  To our surprise we saw a temple elephant leading the procession.

elephant in the High Street

A beautiful creature decked out in its festival finery and decorative paint.

temple elephant in Dindigul, Tamil Nadu

Three men accompanied the elephant – two on foot and one riding – to ensure that she remained calm and played her role to perfection.

Palani Road, Dindigul with elephantt

As with all temple elephants, this one could be persuaded to pass on her blessing.  All that our guest was required to do was to place 10 rupees in her trunk (which she passed to her mahout) and then bow his head for her to place her trunk on him in blessing.

Blessing from temple elephant

Many people handed their children up to sit on the elephant – either to take a photo or as a blessing – but many of the children were not impressed!

riding the temple elephant, Dindigul

we are not amused!

The amount of time that goes into preparing the elephants robes is impressive.

temple elephants robes, India

We thought we had seen everything and were just about to move on when the car carrying the goddess approached.

Temple car, Palani Road, Dindigul

This was a huge trailer covered in flowers, the bright patters which adorned it were also flowers attached to the superstructure.  The worshippers pushed and jostled and crowded around to get as close as they could to hand over gifts of flowers either at this car or one of the ones following.

Temple car, Tamil Nadu, India

There were thousands of people, each with their small bag of flowers, and the scent was overpowering.  The flowers were to be used by the priests during the day as they offered unbroken puja (worship) to the goddess  for 24 hours, so everyone knew that their flowers would be placed on the shrine at some point during the day.

Goddess of the Kottai Mariamman Temple, Dindigul Tamil Nadu

HIndu priest collecting the flowers

The festival will continue for the rest of this month although the remaining processions will take place at night so that more people can attend – and stop further disruption to one of the busiest streets in Dindigul.

Flowers placed before the Hindu goddess

We consider ourselves incredibly lucky to have stumbled upon such an act of worship in the middle of a bustling town, and to have been treated with such kindness and generosity by all whom we met –both man and beast!

Hindu priest, South India

Hindu temple elephant, Dindigul, Tamil Nadu, South India

For the local newspaper article please see The Hindu

A light by any other name…

Deepawali light

Sorry I’ve been away for so long but I have been experiencing issues with internet connection – one of the joys of living in rural southern India!

Last week saw the whole of India caught up in the four day celebration of Deepawali (shortened to Diwali), the biggest Hindu festival. It is the festival of lights (deep meaning light and avail meaning a row i.e., a row of lights).

The origin of Diwali can be traced back to ancient India, when it was probably an important harvest festival although there are many different legends about how it began. Some believe it is the celebration of the marriage of Lakshmi with Vishnu. In Bengal the festival is dedicated to the worship of Kali. Most people worship Ganesh at home during Diwali as he is a symbol of wisdom and good fortune. Diwali also commemorates the return of Rama with his wife Sita after Rama had been in exile for 14 years. It also remembers how Rama killed the demon-king Ravana, so is a celebration of good overcoming evil. It is said that, to celebrate the safe return of their king, the people of Ayodhya lit the whole kingdom with little clay lamps and set of fireworks.

The first day of the festival, Naraka Chaturdasi, celebrates how Krishna killed the demon king Naraka.

On the second day of the festival, Amavasya, people worship Lakshmi the goddess of wealth. Amavasya also tells the story of Vishnu who defeated the tyrant Bali and banished him to hell. Bali was allowed to return to earth once a year, to light millions of lamps to dispel ignorance and darkness and to spread love and wisdom. It is on the third day of Deepawali — Kartika Shudda Padyami – that Bali steps out of hell and lights the lamps to signify good defeating evil.

The fourth day, Yama Dvitiya, is a family day where sisters invite their brothers to their homes.

So, for four days, all of India (including Athoor village!) celebrated Diwali with lamps and fireworks which are said to be an expression of thanks to the gods for health, wealth, knowledge, peace and prosperity; some say that the sound of the fireworks lets the gods know how thankful people are for the goodness they have received.

So, in all of the stories connected with Diwali, we see good overcoming evil, and there is the hope that this will continue through the next year. There is an expectation that humans have a part to play in this, committing ourselves to doing good deeds to bring us closer to divinity.

During the celebration of Diwali there are lights everywhere, the scent of incense and candles, a feeling of togetherness, hope and joy. And at this time, all around the world there are other people getting ready to celebrate their ‘festival of lights’. The Jews are looking forward to Channukha whilst Advent and Christmas will soon been here for Christians.

All over the world people of different faiths are celebrating together the triumph of good over evil; light dispelling ignorance and darkness; the coming of joy and hope. As a turbulent 2012 draws to a close perhaps we should take time to reflect on all the things which we share in common rather than all the things which divide us.

Diwali lights

The Brahminy Kite

In Hindu mythology all gods have their special vehicles. Vishnu is carried by Garuda, the white headed Brahminy Kite.  It is considered to be very auspicious to see one of these birds so we are incredibly lucky that they are frequent visitors to the lake and we, and our guests, can sit on the veranda and watch the kites riding the thermals or wheeling and diving when they find something to eat.

This kite has discovered a dead turtle which he is enjoying for breakfast!

Brahminy kite with turtle for breakfast

There’s a strange smell in the air. Must be…

 

Jackfruit!

Flower and young fruit growing from a jackfruit trunk

Jackfruit is grown throughout the tropics but is thought to have originated in this area of India, archaeological evidence shows that it was cultivate in India 3,000 years ago – and maybe as long as 6,000 years ago!

It has the largest fruit growing on any tree, weighing up to 80lbs (36kg)!  It can be 3 feet (90cm) long and 20 inches (50cm) in diameter.  It is so big and heavy that it grows directly from the trunk of the tree rather than from a branch.

Mature jackfruit

The fruit can be eaten fresh or sometimes as chips (deep fried like banana chips – if fried in coconut oil the taste is fantastic!).  It has a very strong, pungent scent (hence the title of this post!) but the fruit is sweet and a great source of fibre in your diet.

In India jackfruit wood is used to make the body of a stringed instrument called a veena and drums called kanjira and mridangam.  The best quality jackfruit timber is a beautiful yellow colour with a clear and distinct grain which is used for building houses and making furniture in parts of southern India.  In Hindu ceremonies in Kerala the priest often sits on a polished plank of wood from the jackfruit.  In parts of southeast Asia Buddhist monks use the heartwood of the tree to make a dye for their robes (it is light-brown in colour and mainly used by Buddhists who follow the Thai forest tradition).

During jackfruit season you will see stalls all along the sides of the road selling the fruit to hungry passers-by.  But it’s not only humans who like the taste as you can see from these pictures taken in Thekkady (on the border of Tamil Nadu and Kerala).

This tastes good!

Can I have some?

Police, chicken biriyani and a Hindu god

 

There is just one day a year when I would ask you to not visit us at Lakeside.  This year that day was18th July.  The Sadaiyandi festival.

The path up the hillside

Just five minutes walk from us are two banyan trees.  Beneath one is a statue of Durga, a mother goddess, whom women pray to if they want a child.  Under the other is a statue of Sadaiyandi who is a local protector god.  From the banyan grove there is a steep narrow winding footpath up the hillside to a small cave temple.  Inside are some small statues to various gods including Ganesh who is always a great favourite in south India.  This small cave has been a focus of worship for as long as people can remember.

On the day of the festival at least 40,000 (yes forty thousand!) people travel down our single track road to the grove, most of them climb the hillside to the cave before having a picnic in the grove or down by

The cave temple

the lake.  To describe it as ‘chaotic’ would not be too far from the mark.  Hindu worship is always lively and to have so many people in one place can lead to arguments, accidents on the hillside, pick-pockets, drunkenness – the same as anywhere in the world where huge crowds gather.

To monitor all of this 150 police officers are stationed in the area, a particular focus is down by the lake to make sure no one tries to go swimming after drinking – there have been drownings in past years.  Lakeside hosts the group of 10 or more police Inspectors who have overall charge of the festival, providing them with a chicken biriyani lunch and a place to rest when off duty.  We enjoy it very much as it gives us a chance to get to know them better, and discourages ‘sight-seers’ from the temple!

For us the night before the festival is the most difficult part as there are fireworks and music all night long.

No sleep for us on the night of Sadaiyandi festival!

View from the cave temple

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.