Saturday, June 10, 2006

Memories of Tanjore

(Written in January 2006, this write-up has remained in my hard disk for quite long! Discovered it today while searching for some other file.)

I look around and can see many fragments of Tanjore at home even as I write this. The huge gold-raked painting of Lord Rama’s crowning ceremony, the brass idols in the puja, the colourful straw mat in the main hall, the veena in the music room, the smell of vathal kuzhambu and rasam emanating from the kitchen… tangible and intangible keepsakes from Tanjore reminding us that the district, 345 km away from Chennai, means more than its 3300 sq km area. To us, Tanjore is a concept, rich in culture and traditions; a heritage that has been handed down to us meticulously even though our family relocated to Chennai almost three generations back.

All Tanjorians, deep within their hearts, are proud of their nativity. I grew up listening to the elders at home, especially my grandfather, talk fondly of Thanjavur… the land of temples, art, culture and agriculture. Incidentally, when old-timers talk of Thanjavur, they don’t refer only to its current domain but the composite of the present day districts of Thanjavur, Nagapattinam and Thiruvarur. Every time I visit Tanjore it only rejuvenates the spark of pride which I too foster in my heart!

Last year, the district faced an onslaught of heavy rains. Yet when I visited in the end of December 2005, it was a picture of absolute beauty, like the calm after a storm. Every pond, lake, canal and river was brimful of water, and the fields were lush green and heavy with the paddy crop waiting to be harvested. It was so picturesque and fantastic that I just could not help penning this down as soon as I returned.

Words can’t do justice to the marvel that is Tanjore, but nevertheless, let me give it a try!

Multi-faceted Tanjore

The Tanjore landscape features paddy fields as far as the eye can see, swaying and dancing with the wind despite the heaviness of the grains. The earthy smell and down-to-earth beauty of the irrigation canals and the motherly river Cauvery unselfishly soothe the battered nerves of the city-dweller.

Tanjore was once the abode of great Indian kings, including the Cholas, Pandiyas, Vijayanagar Kings, Nayaks and Marathas. The kings, especially the Cholas, have left behind a legacy of huge, exquisitely sculpted temples, a rich and diverse culture, and effective man-made irrigation infrastructure such as canals, which are still functional today.

The Tanjore Big Temple (Brihadiswara temple) still stands evidence to the grandeur of the Chola rule. A World Heritage Monument, the Vimana [1] of the temple stands 60.96 m high, and it is believed that the shadow of the crest never falls on the ground! Even today people flock to the Tanjore district to visit the ancient temples, including the Navagraha temples dedicated to the nine planets.

Tanjore maintains its repute as a centre of learning, culture and craft, famous for bejewelled Tanjore paintings, fine silk-finished straw mats, bell metal castings, musical instruments, pith work and bronze sculptures. Notable as an educational landmark is Raja Serfoji’s Saraswathi Mahal Library which holds numerous ancient manuscripts.

Tanjore is a haven for classical artists. It was the birthplace of many of South India’s famous musicians and dancers, including the acclaimed Trinity of Carnatic Music and the Quartet of Bharathanatyam. Numerous art forms from music to street plays are practiced in Tanjore. The classical music festival held every January at Thiruvaiyaru, the birthplace of Saint Thyagaraja, draws thousands of music enthusiasts from all over the World. The Bhagavathar Mela held at Melattur draws similar crowds.

Tanjore is also famous for its rich cuisine, which is not unnatural considering that the region is the rice bowl of Tamilnadu. Although it is commonly said that Tanjorians will be content with vathal kuzhambu (sun-dried vegetables in tamarind-based gravy) and sutta appalam (roasted papad), in reality they are quite finicky about their food and enjoy every part of the meal. Drawing from a huge repertoire of recipes, a complete Tanjorian meal is a pretty wide spread. Of course, these days such multi-course meals are served only on festive occasions!

Coming to think of it, Tanjore is also notorious for certain things such as the sarcastic and satirical sense of humour of the natives, cruelty towards bulls (in some parts of Tanjore, they trim off the ears and horns of the bulls in the belief that it will make them rough and tough), and so on. Let’s say selective perception comes into play and reinforces only the positive points in my mind !

[1] Tower of the temple

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Nethi, Nethi...

I was lucky to have studied in a college that allowed us to also study one "general elective" (a subject offered by other academic departments), every semester. So, the fact that I was a student of the computer science department did not prevent me from taking up other subjects offered by departments like social sciences, botany, English, and Sanskrit. One such course which I did was 'Upanishads'. And I must say it was one of the most interesting courses I've ever done.

In most classes, I would not even jot down any notes, because after all, a subject like Upanishads is all about uptake and application. At the end of the six months, only those lessons that had an impact on me would remain in my memory and influence my behaviour. Other lessons would be of no use, even if they are recorded with pen and paper.

Even today, if I close my eyes and recollect, I can almost hear our soft-spoken professor explaining some of life's greatest truths... and if I (and perhaps the other students too) can remember them even today, four years later, it is probably because of the simple way in which he used to explain the concepts, choosing the best metaphors and analogies from the ancient texts.

I'd like to share some of the most profound of these lessons with you...

1) Understanding the Upanishads or Vedanta, it is believed, is all about understanding and realising our oneness with the Brahman, or Supreme Spirit. Yet, in all these ancient texts, none of the greatest saints and teachers have been able to describe this Supreme Spirit. Is he a blue coloured God or is he one with matted locks, does he wear a pitambara or is he robed in deer skin? Oh, and should we refer to the Brahman as 'He' or 'She' - perhaps 'It' or 'That' would be more appropriate? No such descriptions. And no beginning or end either. At the very least have they been able to describe the experience of realising or beholding the Supreme Spirit. Again no! The most that they have been able to do is negate what the Supreme Spirit is not. Therefore, the Upanishads are full of negations saying the Brahman is not like this or that. "Na ithi, na ithi."

2) Advaita explains a concept known as "Rajju Sarpa Braanthihi" - A person who sees a rope in the darkness quickly mistakes it to be a snake. That's an illusion created by darkness. Similarly, lack of knowledge makes us believe the World, this life, our emotions, everything to be real, while all these are but the play of "Maya". When enlightenment dawns, we realise, like the man who realises when the light is switched on that it is indeed a rope and not a snake, that this life is but Maya. The only true thing is the Brahman, and we are but fragments of it. "Tat twam asi" - "You are that."

3) One of the most beautiful analogies given by our teacher was this: light a lamp, cover it with a pot which has many holes in it, and place this setup in a dark room. You will then see spots of light all over the room. And depending on the distance of the hole from the light, the spots created by it, will be light or dark, small or big. That's how we living creatures are as well. We may be short or tall, fair or dark, fat or skinny, but ultimately the truth remains that we are all nothing but manifestations of the same Universal Spirit.

Wow! Yahoo's CEO is paid $1!!!

No, I did not forget the million after the 1! Yahoo has shrunk its CEO's annual salary from $600,000 to $1. Curious?

Check out the article in today's Economic Times...