August 23, 2010
A version of the following appeared in DNA on 24th August at http://www.dnaindia.com/opinion/report_the-magnificent-incongruity-of-onam-in-declining-kerala_1427765, and the pdf is at:http://epaper.dnaindia.com/epaperpdf/24082010/23main%20edition-pg10-0.pdf
The magnificent incongruity of Onam
Rajeev Srinivasan laments that the festival has been reduced to a travesty of its true self
The ten days of Onam arrived with multifarious splendors: flower arrangements in courtyards, maidens resplendent in off-white, gold-bordered two-piece saris, grand multi-course vegetarian meals served on banana leaves, boat races, sensuous tiruvatira-kali dances, and new clothes, ona-kodi, for all. The skies cleared post-monsoon, the beginning of the Malayalam year with the month of Chingam/Leo and the land is green and fertile, freshly-washed.
On the tenth day, thiruvonam, August 23rd this year, everyone dressed up to greet the legendary King Mahabali, of whose splendid reign the gods themselves became jealous, so that he was consigned to the underworld, whence he visits his beloved subjects on just this one day.
That is the theory. I wish this were still true in Kerala, but this native son is saddened by the reality. Onam is less and less relevant with each passing year. For starters, it is a harvest festival where there is almost no rice cultivation, or harvests.
Secondly, the old gods are eclipsed. Mahabali may have been compelling in a simpler time, but the post-modern denizens of Kerala may find him naïve: who allows himself to be tricked by a dwarf?
Thirdly, the landscape itself is changing. The infinite vistas of paddy fields are gone; once-free-flowing, perennial rivers – the envy of those not so blessed – are now constrained ribbons in the sand in lean times. What looks like untouched wilderness in the High Ranges is a green desert of monoculture: plantation tea or rubber; it is no rainforest storehouse of genetic variation.
Fourth, despite all the talk of the Kerala model – anthropologist and environmentalist Bill McKibben once wrote stirringly about how Kerala mirrors the US in various indices, at one-seventh the income – the quality of life has deteriorated sharply. It now leads in suicides, alcoholism, and almost certainly in hypocrisy and crimes against women. The matrilineal joint family, a masterful social construct, has fragmented into nuclear families.
And almost all of this deterioration is man-made. While one must not, Canute-like, futilely order the waves to retreat, what has happened in Kerala in just a couple of generations is the very opposite of progress.
Let us remember that this is the fabled Spice Coast, whose riches, especially black pepper, caused the Roman senator Pliny the Younger to complain imperial treasuries were being drained. “Quinqueremes of Nineveh” used to sail to the great ports of Ophir and Muziris, modern-day Poovar and Kodungallur.
British surveyors arriving in Kerala in the 1800s were astonished at the clever use of agricultural implements and techniques such as sowing with a drill plough, crop rotation and propagation from cuttings. This tiny state, watered by 41 rivers, has some of the most fertile and well-watered land in the world. Abandoning agriculture there is a tragedy of the highest order.
The reason there is no rice cultivation in Kerala is that, in an example of the principle of unintended consequences, socialists hiked up agricultural wages. They did it to ensure laborers got a decent wage, but farming became inherently loss-making, and large acreage now lies fallow. Ironically, the farm laborers became destitute, as their jobs simply disappeared. Kerala subsists on rice, vegetables and other produce trucked in from neighboring Tamil Nadu.
As for the old gods of the land, they have been superseded by just one: Mammon. Kerala people hold nothing more precious than their wallets. In fact, Kerala is a cargo-cult, like those South Seas islands in the Pacific, which, after World War I,I became so dependent on goods imported from the US that they literally worship the ships bringing them.
Keralites worship Electronic Fund Transfers, because that is what keeps the state afloat. There is no mysterious ‘Kerala model’ of development: it is a money-order economy surviving on remittances from its sons (slaving away in the deserts of West Asia) and its daughters (slaving away as nurses everywhere).
The very flora and fauna are changing, too. The endemic thumba, celebrated symbol of purity and humility in Malayalam literature, has virtually disappeared. Flowering plants like the ixora and hibiscus yield much less; temperatures have risen. Traditional species of fish are disappearing from the catch both in lakes and the sea.
This once magnificent land, proud of its traditions, has changed beyond recognition. A little ditty, originally written about my father’s ancestral village, is appropriate for all of Kerala today:
Annam nasti, jalam pushti
Kerala is a great land,
The origin of untruth.
No rice, lots of water,
Drunkenness is the big festival.
And oh, the tight-fitting cotton two-piece sari, the set-mundu, a delight on shapely local lasses, has lost out to particularly ill-tailored, polyester salwar-kameez. The set-mundu is only trotted out on festive occasions; it, like Onam, and the local culture that gave us kathakali and the Sanskrit koodiyattam, is fast becoming a museum piece.
June 14, 2010
A version of this appeared in DNA on Jun 15th at:
and here’s the pdf for the full page:
The parlous state of Hindu temples in India
Rajeev Srinivasan believes government has no business running temples into the ground
There was shocking news recently about the collapse of the raja-gopuram of the Sri Kalahasti temple near Tirupati. This is no ordinary temple – it hosts one of the five important Saivite jyotir-lingas, each associated with one of the elements (earth, wind, fire, air and ether). The gopuram was built by Krishnadeva Raya of Vijayanagar in 1516 CE, although the shrine itself is a millennium or two older. Most nations would treat such ancient monuments as a treasured part of its cultural heritage, but not India.
The 150-foot tower, a typical Southern-style vimana with intricate carvings, was damaged by lightning some years ago, yet absolutely nothing was done by the authorities. After the collapse, to add insult to injury, a report by a commission said the tower had “outlived its life”. Would this same logic apply to, say, the Taj Mahal – has that outlived its life? It is the business of the State to maintain its cultural heritage and artifacts. There are reports of similar damage to other temple towers, eg. at Srirangapatna near Mysore.
Then there was the news that the Kerala High Court lambasted the Travancore Devaswom Board for being corrupt and inefficient. The Court observed that Hindu temples are struggling“orphanages”, poorly maintained and falling apart; Hindus are orphans.
Furthermore, a Cochin Devaswom Board official got drunk and vomited within the temple precincts at the Siva temple at Vaikom, necessitating elaborate purification ceremonies. This is also no ordinary temple – a major Saivite shrine, it is also historically important. It was the Vaikom Satyagraha in 1924 that led the way to the dramatic Temple Entry Proclamation in Travancore in 1936. And the official’s ‘punishment’? He was promoted to Vigilance Officer!
All these events point to an abomination in the allegedly secular Indian State – there is no separation of Church (meaning religion) and State, as is the norm in modern nations. The State must be indifferent to religion, and it should not allow religious sentiments to color its actions — the true definition of the term ‘secularism’.
A Devaswom Board is an oxymoron. There should be no involvement of the State in religion, which should be left to individuals and religious groups. In fact, that is so with non-Hindu religions in India – they can run their own affairs with no interference from the government, except for largesse – such as Haj subsidies for Muslims, and Andhra’s own subsidies for Christians to travel to Palestine/Israel on pilgrimage.
On the other hand, Hindu temples are under the control of an interfering State, with disastrous results: they are being destroyed systematically by the rapine and pillage of the malign State. On the one hand, temple offerings are expropriated by the State; yet, the State does not even perform basic maintenance. The offerings, amounting to crores, from large shrines such as Tirupati or Sabarimala, are simply treated as general government revenue, and are not recycled to small, poor temples.
Traditionally, temples were the centers of the community, running cultural events, acting as a focal point for efforts such as water conservation, drought relief, famine avoidance, and so forth. This is in the racial memory of Hindus – and so we contribute whatever we can afford to the temple. The State has found it convenient to appropriate these funds. The pittance that a poor believer donates is grabbed and diverted by the Government!
The malice is obvious in Kerala where the State controls most of the temples through the Devaswom Boards, which, it is said, are infiltrated by atheists and anti-Hindus. It can be seen in the difference between Board temples and others. The latter, private temples belonging often a joint family, are thriving, while the Board-controlled temples are impoverished, falling apart, and finding their lands stolen.
I found this to my chagrin at my own family’s centuries-old temple, which we had handed over to the Travancore Devaswom Board about a hundred years ago. On my previous visit, about five years ago, the temple, while old, was thriving. Today, it is on the verge of being abandoned, thanks to indifference and possibly even malice on the part of the Board: an alleged renovation has been totally botched.
This is, amazingly, a continuation of a colonial-era crime – a British Resident named Munro, a missionary bigot, forced the Maharani of Travancore circa 1819 CE to commingle temple lands with government lands, with the result that a lot of those lands, essential to the income and running of temples, were alienated. Consequently, the 10,000+ temples in Travancore then have now been reduced to a mere 2,000.
Governments have no business interfering in religion. It is a crime against the people of India for the government to ruin these cultural treasures, a common heritage of this nation.
815 words, June 12, 2010
November 12, 2009
May 21, 2009
Published by the Pioneer on May 4:
The news and the images coming out of Sri Lanka are horrendous: 100,000 Tamil civilians trapped on a tiny beach, where cadres of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are making their last stand . The LTTE are using the civilians as shields (according to the Sri Lankan government); and government troops have shelled hospitals and killed thousands of non-combatants this year (according to The Economist quoting human-rights groups and the UNHCR).
The photographs of long-suffering Tamil refugees fleeing the war with nothing more than the clothes on their backs remind us of the curse of the Indian subcontinent: religion- and ethnicity-based conflict, generally leading to the genocide of Hindus. We saw this in 1947 and 1971. Millions of Hindus were ethnically cleansed from Pakistan and Bangladesh then, and the handful remaining are now fleeing newly-Talibanized territories; now they are being driven out of Sri Lanka’s Jaffna and the Eastern Provinces at the fag-end of a brutal civil war.
The LTTE certainly did not expect to fade into oblivion, their leader Velupillai Prabhakaran a fugitive. Only a couple of years ago, the Tigers were rampant, scoring victories on land and sea, and terrorizing Colombo with their makeshift air force. What turned things around? Probably much covert aid from governments, including India’s, wary of the Tigers’ penchant for redrawing boundaries by force (and China’s, fishing in troubled waters).
That, and internal dissension. The turning point was the defection in 2004 of ‘Colonel’ Karuna Amman, formerly LTTE commander in the Eastern Province. The LTTE ran a tight ship, and defectors generally were liquidated, but Karuna – as reported by the Wall Street Journal last year — thrived, and has become a minister, although he is at loggerheads with his erstwhile protégé and now-Chief Minister of the Eastern Province, Pillaiyan.
After sama (negotiations) and dana (give-aways) failed, bheda (creating dissent) worked, and now the Sri Lankans are applying the last of the four tactics of classical Indian stagecraft, danda (punishment). This is an object lesson for India’s pusillanimous politicians who advocate sweet-talk and appeasement of terrorists; and for Obamistas, advocating land-for-peace (India’s land, that is, to be given to Pakistan, so that the ISI would leave the Americans in peace). Pandering does not work, the iron fist does. Crush the terrorists first, then talk to real people.
There is a startling silence in India about the plight of the Sri Lankan Tamils. This has to do with two factors: one is that most of the shrieking banshees in the human-misery cottage-industry do not care about the human rights of Hindus, and Sri Lankan Tamils are about 85% Hindu. Second is that the killing of Rajiv Gandhi by the LTTE, and the incessant noise by the DMK in their favor has genuinely turned off many people. The LTTE’s idea of its Tamil Eelam (they have taken down the maps on their website showing this) consists of north and eastern Lanka, all of Tamil Nadu and Kerala and parts of Karnataka and Andhra: in other words, most of South India. This is comparable to the jihadi wet-dream of a ‘Mughalistan’ consisting of most of North India.
It further appears that this ‘Eelam’ was meant to be a Christian-stan, in fearsome symmetry with ‘Mughalistan’. Let us note in passing that at Partition, missionaries had demanded a Christian-stan consisting of the Northeast, tribal areas of the Central Provinces (Chota Nagpur), and Travancore. Clearly, they have not given up the idea of territorial gains through any means.
The church has a well-known modus operandi. In Rwanda, the church fomented genocide by dividing Hutus and Tutsis – who, to the casual observer, and to the geneticist, appear identical – through claiming that the former were short and dark, and the latter were tall and fair, and that Tutsis were oppressing Hutus. Several Christian godmen and godwomen have been convicted of crimes against humanity for their direct role in massacres of Tutsis.
In India too, the church has fabricated a divide between the alleged ‘Aryans’ and ‘Dravidians’ – tall and fair vs. short and dark, oppressor, oppressed, sound familiar? – which was initially the handiwork of a white padre named Caldwell. It remains an interesting but little-known fact that churchman Max Mueller who invented the entire ‘Aryan’ fiction recanted in later years, admitting he was wrong.
The church has had a dubious role in Sri Lanka too. It is surely curious that most of the famous cadres of the LTTE are Christians (examples include Prabhakaran himself who is a Methodist, Anton Balasingham, the suicide-bomber Dhanu who killed Gandhi). Senior non-Christians in the LTTE, remarkably, have been captured, have died in battle, or been liquidated.
And the LTTE has wiped out all other groups representing the Tamil cause. The very ruthlessness of the LTTE is an indicator of its Semitic thought-process. Buddhists and Hindus have always co-existed peacefully all over Asia – in India, Indonesia, Afghanistan, etc. – until West Asian ideologies appeared. The church, and the LTTE, had no use for moderates or for negotiation.
There is another party with ill-intent in all this: China. As part of their ‘string of pearls’ strategy, they previously supported violent Communist insurgents, but these were wiped out by the Sri Lankan government. Now the Chinese are supplying heavy equipment, including planes and artillery to the army. Their likely objective: the prized deep-water port of Trincomalee, which would help them control shipping in the Indian Ocean, not to mention be a serious problem for India in its own backyard.
But with the apparent demise of the LTTE, the Sri Lankan government should be able to negotiate from a position of strength. Tamils can see that militancy and terrorism has achieved nothing but catastrophe for them. The Sinhalese, if they are wise, will deal magnanimously with their Tamil fellow-countrymen and reconcile with them. They must recognize that Tamils have genuine grievances arising from bumiputra-style discrimination against them for decades. They need to appreciate that the LTTE are not synonymous with Tamils. Then Sri Lanka can become the success story of the subcontinent with its superior health and education record.
September 16, 2007
Rediff took out my little dig at those crass ‘Dravidians’: so I’ve put in
crossout what they deleted. Here is what I originally sent to Rediff, in its entirety.
The purely scientific case for Rama’s Bridge
Rajeev Srinivasan on the unintended consequences of messing with the seas
In these days when we worry about global warming, it takes great chutzpah or ignorance, or both, to proceed with a plan to induce major environmental changes, with uncertain consequences. Fortunately, India’s politicians are amply blessed with both chutzpah and ignorance. When combined with first-class greed, you get black comedies like the Sethu Samudram Project for destroying the remnants of the ancient land-bridge, known as the Rama Sethu or Rama’s Bridge, connecting India and Sri Lanka.
November 17, 2006
Here is an excerpt from the first chapter of the Robert Sewell book, quoting Portuguese and Persian envoys, about the splendor of Vijayanagar. This book should be made compulsory reading for all high school students in India.
An electronic version can be downlooaded for free from http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/3310
which is where I got this excerpt from as well.
I suggest you circulate the book widely. It is a good antidote to the re-toxified textbooks in India.
A Forgotten Empire: Vijayanagar
Introductory remarks — Sources of information — Sketch of history of
Southern India down to A.D. 1336 — A Hindu bulwark against Muhammadan
conquest — The opening date, as given by Nuniz, wrong — “Togao
Mamede” or Muhammad Taghlaq of Delhi — His career and character.
In the year 1336 A.D., during the reign of Edward III. of England,
there occurred in India an event which almost instantaneously changed
the political condition of the entire south. With that date the volume
of ancient history in that tract closes and the modern begins. It is
the epoch of transition from the Old to the New.
This event was the foundation of the city and kingdom of
Vijayanagar. Read the rest of this entry »
November 2, 2006
This column is at http://www.rediff.com/news/2006/nov/13rajeev.htm
There is no point in my reposting it here (unless rediff had edited something out, which they don’t seem to have done.)
I have been intrigued by some of the comments on both parts of this column. Let me say that I was merely celebrating the 50th anniversary of the founding of the southern states. I wasn’t looking to put northern India down: if I were, I’d come straight out and say it, I wouldn’t beat about the bush and be coy. No, I was just observing that the southern states have managed to blunder along and now seem to have a teeny-weeny advantage in a globalized world.
As for language, I have mellowed a bit in my old age, but I have been quite um… shall we say, forceful, in the past on this topic. You can find four previous columns of mine here, and no, I am not going to rehash those arguments. You can believe whatever you want, and that’s fine with me, I am not trying to ‘convert’ anybody:
A small point of fact: there are nineteen or so national languages in India, every one that is printed on a rupee note. They are *all* defined as national languages in the Constitution.
Two languages get a special mention, as ‘official languages’. These are English and Hindi.
Anybody who is not convinced about the economic might of India should really read the voluminous tables in Angus Maddison’s book, which is available for free download on the Web.
Anyone who isn’t convinced of India’s tremendous contributions to intellectual property development should read an old column of mine and follow up on the links: