Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Death rites

Krishna Mutt, Mahendra Hills, Secunderabad

It is my mother's thithi today. But the arrangements have gone awry: the purohit who was to have conducted the ceremony has gone to Saroor Nagar instead and there is no one here to do the shraadha. The alternative was to come back on amavasya and do it, and we were almost resigned to it but an alternative had been arranged quite fortuitously. I'm glad.
The pains we take to set the dead to rest, across cultures... Energy, resources and propulsion for the journey forward, good vibes and a plea to let go of us as we let go of them.
My mother's funeral was the first time I looked at death rites with any attention. Since then I have become better informed about what happens to the body and spirit as they part, why these rituals are done, what they mean. The ceremony today is bound to be a cursory one, truncated perhaps, a 'sankshipta' affair in keeping with our modern tendency to have done. I don't know enough to judge, but let's see if we can compensate the haste of the ritual with intention.
It turned out ok in the end. The replacement acharya was conscientious and my father did what was needed with as much devotion as he could manage - he doesn't really have much patience with this sort of thing, although his sense of responsibility is bolstered a bit by the earnestness with which my sister and I approach it. The mutt's kitchen managed, at short notice, to feed us as well.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Gadbad, Gadbad!

I mentioned recently my travel to the coast of Karnataka? It was for this story, published in Outlook Traveller, December 2012.

Incidentally I was supposed to go to the other coast but Cyclone Nilam had her say and suddenly altered plans saw me doing this wonderful jaunt. All good.

All Pretty On The Western Front

Apart from the wonderful Udupi food and the marvellous array of seafood that the western coast of India is known for, there is another kind of culinary offering – one that had escaped my notice till I actually landed there. It mystified me at first. If an ice cream proclaimed itself to be ‘Gadbad’ Ice Cream, what might it do to my insides? With a six-day trip ahead of me, I let it go in Mangalore (regret!), eyed it again on Kaup Beach and then gave in to sample it in Karwar.

This is a vertical sundae, a concoction invented in Mangalore. In a tall glass, they lay a bed of fruit salad, pile up three scoops of ice cream in any flavours you fancy, sprinkle it with dry fruits and tutti-frutti and, to finish up, pour some honey and vividly coloured syrup all around. A bit of everything. It occurred as I was eating it that it wasn’t a half-bad description of my own jaunt up the coast of Karnataka. With Mangalore at the base, a dollop each of Udupi, Murudeshwara and Gokarna, garnished with beaches and temples, flavoured everywhere with the salt of sea breeze. It was very gadbad.

Mangalore was full of contrasts. Wearing the look of a blasé city but a scratch or two reveals the town – and its history. First we decided to be obeisance to Goddess Mangala Devi, who gives the city its name. An old temple (some say 9th, some say 10th century) still half-wearing its Dussehra finery – festivities this temple is famous for. Then a visit to Lord Kadri Manjunatha was called for. This is an 11th century temple built over in several layers. On the side, through the slats in the window, I peeped at a truly magnificent bronze idol of Trilokeshwara. Should it be in a museum, lit and well displayed, or better thus, viewed through a narrow aperture, preserving a quaint mystery and installed in a consecrated space?

The sun dipped and we headed to the shores at Panambur beach, where the Mangalore Port is located. Children squealed in delight, young men thundered up and down the sand on hired ponies, and gaggles of girls dunked each other in the water. I bought myself a cone of bhel puri and saw the sun off.

The next day was devoted to the temple town of Udupi, the history and lore of which are steeped with references to Madhvacharya, the 13th century philosopher-saint who propounded the Dvaita school of Indian philosophy. This was hallowed turf for me; a veritable Mecca for the community I hail from, and I’d never been. So basking under what I hoped was the benign approval of now-deceased grandparents, I went.

Car Street Road is where it’s all at. In a close cluster – amidst a bustling market selling everything from flowers to cool drinks, puja essentials to curios – the temples. The ancient Chandramoulishwara temple and the Ananteshwara temples are traditionally understood to have first dibs on your attention – you must visit these before you visit the main Krishna temple. There are stories and legends told about everything, and there is the curious case of the west-facing idol. The story goes that the poet-saint Kanakadasa was not allowed entry into the shrine by the upper-class priests and so stood outside singing songs of praise. Pleased with his devotion, Krishna turned west to face him even as the wall developed a crack. So darshan here is sought through a small window called Kanakana kindi. A rather splendid view it is too: a small idol adorned with a ‘vajra kavacha’, armour studded with diamonds.  Around the temples stand the eight muttas – temple administrative systems, if you will – that take care of the Krishna temple in turn. The whole street is redolent with a culture that is now shrinking.

Free lunch is offered at the temple and I found my way to the large dining room at lunch time. Long rows of people seated on the floor for a lovely meal of rice, chutney, sambhar, saaru and buttermilk. A massive container of rice came pushed in a trolley, huge vats of liquid carried up and down the line by two men, efficiently dispensing the broth. “Yellinda ma neevu?” I got asked again and again, “where are you from?” The curiosity deepened to friendliness every time I responded in Kannada. My neighbours guided me through the meal, assuring me there was saaru to come when I wondered how to allocate my rice, and graciously took their leave as I still lingered over my plate.

The temples visited, we headed to the sea at Malpe Beach. At the entrance, a large statue of Mahatma Gandhi loomed on the horizon. In the afternoon light, the Mahatma looked forlorn – but no doubt I was letting my own pessimism about the state of the nation carry me away. Sufficient numbers of enthusiastic locals gambolled in the water but we left them to take a ferry 6km across to St Mary’s Island, one of four small uninhabited islands that are geologically very significant. Huge columns of basaltic lava are strewn across the island and are stunning indeed. Vasco da Gama is supposed to have stopped here on his way from Portugal to Kozhikode and given it its name.

Back at Malpe, I called for a chai and a fortifying sandwich, and we also made time for one other stop – the extremely beautiful Kaup beach. I don’t know if the beach coloured the mood or if it was the mood that enriched the beach – but it seems now to be painted in my memories with hues of gold, blue and purple. There is a noble lighthouse here that was built in 1901 and it carries layers of memory. On the rocks, young people sat quietly appreciative, talking in low tones and walked down the rough stairs before it became too dark to see.

We were doing a longish haul the following day and heading all the way to Murudeshwara, 165km from Mangalore. The erstwhile NH 17 is now called NH 66 – not quite the legend its American counterpart is but an interesting enough road. The highway goes from Kochi to Mumbai and serves the entire coast of Karnataka. Scenic mostly… dotted by a series of bridges over canals formed by the backwaters, lined with coconut trees, paddy fields and broad leaved sal. The road does not, for the most part, hug the coast – although the tang of the sea is never far away.

But a little beyond halfway, suddenly the blue comes into view and you know you’re in the very beautiful Maravanthe stretch. We stopped for lunch at a resort here, which gave us the advantages of open views of the water along as well as a thatched roof over our heads. A little further, fisherfolk busied themselves with their nets, their colourful boats lined up high on the sand. I was squinting in the hot afternoon sun, feeling a little sorry that we should not have come upon this peaceful spot when it was a bit cooler. But that was only till I hitched up my trousers and let the waves come to me, caressing as they retreated. The sea has that quality, I find, of altering your perspective. It was no longer too hot, and with thousands of crabs milling about their hidey holes and sandpipers roosting in the rocks, it was absolutely the perfect time to be in Maravanthe.

Along the road, we came upon a dramatic picture frame – the waves crashed to the left and to the right, winding her way in languorous bends, the Souparnika river. An auspicious river that supposedly absorbs the goodness of 64 medicinal plants and herbs as it flows – a dip in these waters, therefore, is believed to be marvellously curative. I remember my mother insisting that her skin turned a beautiful golden when she bathed in the Souparnika… but there was no easy access to the water at this point and I regretfully gave up the idea of bringing home one bottle of its magic.

Soon we were at the bustling temple town of Murudeshwara. Dozens of buses at the local bus stop, taxi stands in the narrow main street, shops, tourists, eateries, lodges. The beach isn’t the cleanest by any means – the tourists keep to one side and the fisherfolk occupy the other. However, there are two features that tower over the town – one, the 20-storied raja gopuram to the Murudeshwara temple, about 237ft tall that needs you to crane your neck all the way if you’re standing at the entrance; and two, a 123ft sculpture of Shiva that dominates the landscape from miles away. The Murudeshwara shrine itself is old, linked to the convoluted legend of Ravana and the atma linga, but the temple has been constructed over the past decades through the efforts of local businessman and philanthropist R.N. Shetty; the sculpture, one of the tallest in India, is his vision as well.

There is a wonderful opportunity for underwater adventure at Murudeshwara. The lovely dive site of Netrani is 20km off the coast from here – and the lure was irresistible. The next morning saw us chugging along in the motor boat listening to a basic primer on scuba diving. The coral island of Netrani is a beautiful spot with a visibility of 15-20m and I was excited. Soon I was kitted out with the cylinder fastened to my back and I learned to my dismay that I was expected to fall into the water with a back flip – oddly enough, the aspect that scared me the most. Still, that was accomplished without a hiccup, and my instructor and I descended slowly. It didn’t seem so drastically different from snorkelling at first but the pressure started building in my ears and I knew I was definitely under water. We went down to about 12m. Vast schools of fish, fascinatingly coloured, marine life along the floor, corals, anemone… I saw other divers, hand-signalled ok for the underwater cameras and looked about avidly. A mere half-hour in a completely different element. I loved it but it did make me appreciate air and the fact that I was designed for it.

We moved up north to Gokarna next – which seemed to be the point where, culturally,  Karnataka melded into Goa. The beach shacks were more geared to the European palate, the beach shops had an eye firmly on the foreign tourist market. We stayed at an interesting little place called Namasta Yoga Farm, which is run by German Oliver Miguel. My cottage had a gorgeous yoga deck framed by orange curtains and I succumbed at once to the temptation of twelve rounds of Surya Namaskars.

The beaches here are beautiful: Om, with its undulating shape, and Kudle, so popular with the foreign tourists. Perhaps the name bestows a certain quietude to people who visit Om, because towards evening even the gambollers sauntered over to the rocks and fell to quiet meditation. Journey’s end but I fear it’s given me a taste for the sea that my land-locked city will struggle to assuage.
The story, with additional information, is also up here.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Mahiya ve...

Last year, when Coke Studio Season 5 ended, I was so keen to blog about it, discuss the songs I loved. But it would have been an elaborate post and I put it off and it never happened. This is not THAT post but this song, which I’ve heard a few times today, would have been part of it.

Farhad Humayun (of Overload) singing Mahi. He puts a lot of feeling into it and the orchestration – Coke Studio meeting Shankar Tucker, to my mind – is outstanding.

Mahi! Mahi! Mahi! kookaan…


And since I brought it up and this is a rains-y song as well, Shankar Tucker's Night Monsoon:

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Kal ki baat

I came across this years ago:

"Procrastination," she said, "is the root of all your sorrow."
I don't know what that big word means; I'll look it up tomorrow.

And we are still where we were. Sigh.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012


I was on assignment on the Karnataka Coast last month and had a double mishap. My old enemy - wet rock. I knew I shouldn't step on it. Indeed, it was only a very testing grope but a huge wave knocked me over and down I went -- my poor knees were bruised and sore for days. And alas, my camera got a wetting too. And now it opens but it is clearly not its old self.

What I should have done, according the all-knowing ones on the internet is: remove the battery, remove the card and RINSE THE CAMERA IN FRESH WATER! Then let it dry out till infinity, and then tried it out. Now I see the logical sense of this, but even had I known, I doubt I could have carried out something as counter-intuitive as this. I dried everything as best as I could, put the battery back and gave it a go. Now I may have ruined it forever. Salt water, they all agree, is DEATH.

I didn't mind so much then but am feeling awfully nostalgic now.
Well, at least my knees recovered nicely.

Bulla, ki jaana main kaun?

Certain words have come into my life since I found my Guru. 'Perception' is one of them. I cannot claim to understand it - after all, what I make of it is only in keeping with my present level of perception. But it changes as I change, takes on deeper meaning, layers and layers as I go.

It's been a lifetime of second hand knowledge - the science text book says this, this poet says that. This philosopher believes this, this genius claims that, the mystic poet says this is so... looking this way and that, cocking my ears at this idea, that thought... listening to those who seem to know... but, at the end of the day, hearsay, hearsay. What do I know? Not very much. I'm just taking other people's word for everything.

I tend to believe some people more than others. About our spiritual nature, across centuries, across lands, across scores of mytics, the same refrain. I tend to believe them. But I do not know.

In his latest blog post, Sadhguru says:

The whole process of what we are referring to as ‘Adiyogi’, what we are referring to as ‘Shiva’, is just this – perception, perception. The hooded cobra is just the symbol of the highest level of insight because traditionally and symbolically, it was always believed that a snake knows more about everything that is happening than any other creature, including the human being. Because he has no ears, he doesn’t listen to other people’s gossip, it is all direct perception. The whole system of yoga is just this. It does not matter who said it — Veda said this, Gita said this, Krishna said this, Buddha said that – Great! We will bow down to you, but we do not believe you. We want to know it. And this is the nature of the snake. He has no access to local gossip.
Local gossip! Hah, that's a fine put-down for every single voice in my head.