Om Tat Sat

November 20, 2018

(Posted in Facebook on 10th August.)

When Vinoba composed the inter-religious hymn Om tat sat, did he have to take permission from the cultural authorities or issue apologies? Thankfully, no. We first heard this at the Vedchchi ashram of Narayan Desai, sung by about 30 people of various nationalities, languages, colours and races. Later we’ve been hearing this at all Gandhian meetings. This is a huge legacy of the Gandhian movement. Our daughter taught this song to our village kids and it is one of their big favourites. Here is her rendition. Posting this in solidarity with all artists who refuse to cow down to abuses and threats.

Dhyanavanam – A unique experience

January 1, 2017

An entirely new experience was in store for us last week. We had gone for a training workshop, organised by Dr.Raja and Kalpana, the couple who work in Gandhigram University, and have become close family friends over the last few years. This time, the training was held outside the University campus, at Dhyana Vanam, an ashram nearby.

Dhyana Vanam is run by Father Korko Moses – a saffron-clad Jesuit Priest. He manages the ashram, spread over 6.5 acres, mostly alone and with the occasional help of priests who come for training. It has been 5 years since the area has received decent rains; the adjoining dam is dry; yet, there is a bit of greenery left. The mercy of the small showers that morning had added a glow to the green.

Father Korko lives a simple, monastic life. His bedroom offered a sight that I’ve never come across. In the room, built as a pyramidal structure, there was a cot, over 4 feet tall, and a thin mattress over it; there was a makeshift bathroom at one corner. There was nothing else in that room.

“For the first time, I am seeing a room with no material objects,” I commented.
“A few of my possessions are in the office,” he clarified.

The program started after four girls lighted a lamp, and Mahirl Malar sang a song from Thirumurai.

In the large hall, where the program was held, there were pictures of Dalai Lama, Vivekananda, Francis of Assisi, Rumi, Mahavira and other spiritual leaders. He shared with the children, an outline about each of them. There was a picture of Jesus, seated in Padmasana. He said he sees Jesus as a Siddha saint.

Father Korko considers Swami Sadhananda Giri to be his Guru, and has spent many years in Bengal, learning Yoga from him. This Catholic priest has also assumed another name – Swami Saranananda. He has written a book, Yesu Nama Japam in Bengali, and has translated it into English and Tamil.

There is a separate hall for meditation, set amidst serene surroundings. The wall facing the door, has in its middle, a picture which brings together symbols of 12 different religions. On top of it is, inscribed in bold fonts, the Tamil phrase from Thirmoolar, “There is but one religion, and one god.” In the middle of the picture, the figure of a meditating saint is seen.

Founders of all religions attained an enlightened state after deep meditation, says Father Korko.

In front of the picture, Gita, Bible and Koran, are placed open. On the book shelf in the room, several copies of these scriptures were present.

On the first day evening, the 30 children, aged between 10 and 15, quietly sat through a 1-hour session of bhakti songs, the multi-religious song of Vinoba Bhave, meditation, reading of a passage from Bible (related to the couplets from Thirukkural that we saw that day). Father Korko briefed the children about the 12 religions represented in the central picture. He told stories of Buddha.

The meditation ended with an ‘arati’ for the central picture.

We assembled again, at 6am the next morning. After a few physical exercises, we had another round of meditation and singing for an hour. This time, instead of Bible, Father Korko chose a few passages from Gita, and asked me to read aloud. Dr.Raja sang the song of peace, ‘Shanti nilva vendum.’

Later, when I cited Dharmananda Kosambi, who in his well researched and reverent work on Buddha, disputes some of the popular tales as improbable, Father Korko agreed, “Yes, they are myths. Myths are built around all prophets within a few years. These myths are useful to explain their philosophies.”

In between our training sessions, he taught the children Korean dance. They were thrilled.

When Nedya took a session on birds, the children could easily appreciate the connection between people and nature.

The task of taking classes based on Thirukkural was now simplified. In a way, it seemed redundant. When children could see righteousness and love personified by a simple man, right in front of them, what is there to express through words.

The children were split into small groups and sent into the village, to visit at least 5 houses, converse and mingle with the villagers. At some houses, dogs barked at them; at a couple of houses, people did the barking; but largely, people were friendly, invited them inside and offered them something to eat. Though the drought has robbed them of all revenues and jobs, there is moisture left in their hearts.

There is nobody willing or trained, yet, to take over the Dhyana Vanam from Father Korko, and, though he is not someone to be too fussed about future, his longing for a potential successor can be sensed. He feels that this place will be more ideal for seekers than devotees. Though there is no organisational resistance to his work, there doesn’t seem to be any great support either. He travels abroad every year to conduct meditation sessions, and also conducts retreats at the ashram. He raises sufficient funds for running the ashram through these activities. He also holds alcohol de-addiction camps.

He wanted to learn the song on Shiva (Oli valar vilakke) that Mahirl had sung. He asked her to sing again, and recorded it, and noted down the lyrics. He opined that the raga of the song must be Ananda Bhairavi. We didn’t know for sure, who the author was (Thirumaaligaithevar). He took us to his library. The library had the entire collection of Thirumurai in over 20 volumes. He also had the complete collection of Max Muller’s works on Eastern sacred texts. Having left for Bengal at the age of 18, and having spent 38 years of his life there, he felt that he couldn’t gain sufficient exposure to Tamil works.

At the end of the two days, during the feedback session, one young girl mentioned, “I asked the Father if Hindus can read Bible. He said yes. I liked it very much.”

That openness and appreciation for other thoughts is one of the key insights the children would have gained in those two days.

Tomato soup for the soul

October 20, 2014

(A repost from my Facebook)

Last Friday, Mahirl gave each of us a bowl with a spoon and a spoonful of tomato soup. All of us are used to getting from her, empty bowls, feigning to see whatever she says is there. So, some real soup did surprise me.

Later, heard from mom that Mahirl herself crushed a couple of tomatoes, added some jeera, pepper, corn flour and salt, climbed a chair, and, with her small arms, stirred the soup on a stove. It was truly tasty.

All this, to celebrate Malala’s Nobel prize win.


Mahirl, as Malala, in a fancy dress show, when she was going to school last year.

Also read:

Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and Malala Yousafzai

Malala, Ghaffar Khan and a little boy in Thiruvananthapuram

Expelled from a dream!

January 28, 2013

My daughter, Mahirl, didn’t like something that I told her to do or not do.

“Appa, I am going to expel you from my dreams,” she threatened.

“Oh, really! Go ahead.”

“Amma,” she turned to her mom, “I will replace Appa with you.”

My wife was thrilled.

“In my dream last night, Appa was falling off the sofa,” Mahirl said, with an earnest smile. “Now you will fall instead of Appa.”

Talking in the train

September 30, 2012

It has become almost inevitable that I meet somebody interesting on the train….and almost always, they avail of the senior citizen concession. Not that they never existed before; but I probably never looked or I was travelling in AC coaches.

Two weeks ago, on the way to Madurai, it was an affable old lady, going alone to see her ailing sister. Frequently distracted by a voluble, returning-from-Abudhabi woman, boldly travelling alone to Tirunelveli with a toddler and tonnes of luggage, she told me, her mom-in-law had a principle of not marrying off her sons to anybody from Tirunelveli or Salem (they were roguish – ராங்கிகள் ). Teachers were also ineligible. They never live with their in-laws. She was neither. She said she wasn’t biased and gets along well with her daughter-in-law working in a software firm. Except that she retires to her lonely room at 4pm and stays there chanting and sleeping. For being being a stoic listener, she shared with me a few of the famed Manapparai murukkus and gave me a ride in her hired auto to my destination.

Yesterday, it was an elderly gentleman, sitting opposite to us, next to the window, which had the fire exit. The conversation started in Tamil when he said all windows should be made fire-exits. Then, I heard him speak in a very familiar-but-unfamiliar tongue to his wife. I asked him, which language it was. Sanskrit. He is on a mission to make everybody speak Sanskrit. His 50 odd students can all speak fluently in Sanskrit. In Sanskrit, hardly 5% are vedas and other religious material; 95% is knowledge. It has everything from metallurgy to nuclear physics. With dedicated effort, you can master Sanskrit in 1.5 years since it runs in our blood.

He said, the village that just passed by, has a rare Sanskrit name(Virinchipuram…Google threw this up for Virinchi and Tamil lexicon has this from Kamban’s Ramayana : வேதங்கண்ணிய பொருளெல்லாம் விரிஞ்சனே யீந்தான்). The villagers wouldn’t know the significance, ofcourse. Even nowadays, all baby names are in Sanskrit. He had chosen a beautiful Sanskrit name for his daughter, from Lalitha Sahasranamam.

I couldn’t suppress my reply, with my hand caressing our daughter’s head: We have kept a pure Tamil name for her. Mahirl Malar.

There was a nice breeze blowing through the window. The vast stretches of greenery, outside the window, were lovely. He decided to notice their loveliness and started watching them give way to a long range of mountains.

He turned inside when Mahirl offered him a cake. Then, when we talked, it was about the bus route to Perur, where he had to go to.

Growing old

December 23, 2011

She is still puzzled by the riddle of why
Nehru maama didn’t turn up for his birthday party.

“Appa, will Nehru maama never come paa?”

“He won’t daa”

“Will Gandhi thaathaa too not come?”

mmmhmm…I shook my head.

“Will they come only on TV? Why paa?”

“Yes da. They grew very old.
And so, they left the earth.”

“Appa, if you grow old,
will you also leave the earth?”


“You should never leave me and go anywhere.


Earlier on Nov 14th (from my Facebook update):

We had quite a tough time cajoling Mahirl to go to school today – ‘Appa, I don’t want to go to this Nehru maamaa’s birthday party. I dont want to meet him.’  No, this is no hidden message for the Nehru-Gandhi family.

I know no fear – Bharathi

October 26, 2011

I have no fear,
I have no fear,
I know no fear.

When united
the world stands
against me,
I have no fear,
I have no fear,
I know no fear.

When rubbish
I am dismissed as,
and trashed,
I have no fear,
I have no fear,
I know no fear.

When a life
of begging
I must resort to,
I have no fear,
I have no fear,
I know no fear.

When everything
I love
is lost,
I have no fear,
I have no fear,
I know no fear.

When the eyes
of pretty women
pierce me,
I have no fear,
I have no fear,
I know no fear.

When I am fed
poison by my
closest friends,
I have no fear,
I have no fear,
I know no fear.

When an army arrives
with spears
smeared with flesh,
I have no fear,
I have no fear,
I know no fear.

When the sky
shatters and descends
on my head,
I have no fear,
I have no fear,
I know no fear.


My translation of the song “Achamillai achamillai” by Bharathi.

On this Diwali day, I am inspired to do this translation, thanks to Mahirl Malar ( my 3-year old daughter). Last night, she was refusing to step of the house, in fear of crackers. I told her to recite ‘Achamillai’ song, everytime she hears a loud burst. She started doing that in her inimitable way, and tone, with wild gestures of bravery. Voila:  she dragged me down for a walk to watch the big boys having a blast.

Is a rose a rose till it is called a rose?

January 7, 2011

A loose ball, the first of a spell,

if bowled by a Steyn,

is termed a teaser.

The same ball, by a lesser mortal,

if despatched over the ropes,

is called a loosener.

The prank of our naughty daughter,

when in a good mood,

earns her a hug and a kiss.

The same prank, on another day,

when in a great hurry,

I told her not to fuss.

She wonders.

The pilgrimage of an atheist

December 31, 2010


– Let us go on a short tour to Thanjavur.

On hearing this, my wife must have thought that I was playing out a cruel joke. The Thanjavur that we knew of had nothing but temples. Temples? and me, a staunch atheist? Two months ago, when I had to visit Guruvayoor with the family, I happily stayed outside listening to a Carnatic music concert. My facebook update, immediately afterwards: ‘After many years, the mortal Kannan agreed to descend on a temple premises and to Guruvayur, no less. His immortal namesake has turned semi-modern, allowing entry for salwar-clad women. But men – they still have to appear shirtless in all their flabby splendour and sweaty odour. At the end, both had it our way, with the blasphemous me, barred entry and banished outside with a bag of cellphones.’

But Thanjavur is a different story. The historic, cultural and aesthetic aspects hold enough appeal for me to overrule the atheistic objections.   Apart from a sudden history-itch created by renewed interest in Tamil literature and inspiration from the travelogues of the renowned Tamil writer, Jeyamohan, another reason why we chose Thanjavur, was because we thought that not many others would make that choice during the December holidays. Surprisingly, most hotels in Thanjavur, seemed to be full. I managed to book us on a low-end hotel which, however, had good reviews on Tripadvisor. We started from home (Bangalore) at 3pm. And, spent another hour hunting for pant-type Pampers for Mahirl Malar (மகிழ்மலர்), my 2-year-old daughter, rushing from Reliance to Spencers to Foodworld and finally finding the right-sized diapers at an unlikely little place in Koramangala. So, it was almost 4pm, when I, irritatedly, stepped up on the accelerator of our Honda City, in anticipation of atleast an 8-hour drive. I have a history of doing a bit of sleep-driving after 10.

The drive till Namakkal was smooth. After Namakkal, the roads were getting increasingly rugged. The big temple at Thanjavur has survived the fury of a thousand years. The roads to Thanjavur have succumbed to the smile of a single monsoon. I fought off the worn-off roads and the sleep-induced driving errors to reach Trichy. Thankfully, the roads after Trichy, were good enough to carry us safely to the desolate streets of Thanjavur. We woke the guards up, in the haunted-looking hotel, and checked into a stuffy room. The AC was working and the bathroom was decent. There were only a few mosquitoes. What more can we ask for? The next day, we found accommodation at a better hotel and shifted there.

The Thanjavur Palace, built by Nayak rulers in 1550 AD and expanded by the Marathas, has been converted into multiple pockets of interest. There are multiple versions of Natarajas and Ammans in the bronze statues…I wasnt expert enough to spend time and spot the subtle differences that must have been present, and more so, when there is a 2-year-old demanding attention. We also spent a lot of time, experimenting with the new Nikkor lens (55-300mm) and capturing Mahirl in a myriad poses, than in seeing the statues. The palace tower, almost resembled a temple gopuram, and interestingly, the stairs to the higher levels were open for the tourists. The narrow stairs made me wonder how the fat rajahs would have made their way up.

There were paintings, there were kitchen utensils and various other everyday articles, which assume importance only because of their age and their royal owners. The 6-foot mirror of the kings, still reflected the same-old me.

The must-see place within the palace is the Saraswati Mahal library, conceived by the Nayak kings in the 16th century and nourished by the Marathas, particularly, Maharaja Serfoji during early 18th century. The collection of over 54000 books is awesome – ranging from ancient Tamil manuscripts to the then modern European books. Samuel Johnson’s dictionary caught my eyes. I was blown away when I saw a Tamil-English dictionary printed in the 1810s (I think this was the first Tamil-English dictionary, published in 1779 by Fabricius and Breithaupt, missionaries at Madras). I was earlier thinking that the Mirlon-Winslow dictionary, published in 1862, was a phenomenal work.

Saraswati Mahal library has also published a few books from its collections. I bought 2 volumes of தனிப்பாடல் திரட்டு,  containing rare singles from an ancient past, and 3 huge, yet incomplete, volumes of Tholkappiya uraikothu (தொல்காப்பிய உரைக்கொத்து) ,  compilation of the interpretations of different authors (இளம்பூரணர், நச்சினார்க்கினியர், சேனாவரையர், etc) for the verses of Tholkappiyam, a grammar book possibly 1500-2000 years old. We also picked up a cookery book with recipes from the Maratha royal kitchen.

The one lingering memory is that of a lady in a nightie, at the entrance of a rather ruined house at an isolated corner of the palace compound, running after a child. When I enquired the guard, he told me that the descendants of the Maratha royal family still live there. Oh, so, this lady could have been a queen but for our independence and democracy!

The Big Temple (Brahadeeswara Temple) was a bit of a disappointment when I saw it first. It is a monstrous structure but still a poor imitation of the mythical tower in my mind, grown impossibly tall.​ Once I came to terms with reality, I could realize what a magnificent achievement it was, for Rajaraja Chola, in 1010 AD. I dont have anything new to say about the temple that is not already available on the internet. The temple is located in the middle of a spacious compound and the lawns were inviting and well-maintained. It was pleasing to see and hear a few kids taking lessons from an ‘othuvar’ (ஓதுவார்) on the ancient Tamil songs from Thevaram (தேவாரம்).

Between these two visits, we went to Thiruvaiyaru (திருவையாறு) and Darasuram (தாராசுரம்).

We rushed through the Panchanadeeswarar/ Aiyarrapar temple at Thiruvaiyaru. This is another large Chola temple, much older than the Thanjavur Big Temple. Mahirl was excited to see the elephant there given a bath. The huge beast was lying sideways on the floor and was being scrubbed with different equipments, including a knife, by 6-7 people. It, however, seemed to be serenely enjoying the bath.

The memorial for Thyagaraja was located by the Cauvery river. The small place on the banks outside the memorial is where the Thyagaraja Aaradhana happens every year – that day it was hosting a ‘gilli’ match spiced up by some heated arguments; the teams had a good mixture of adults and boys. Young and old ladies, were taking bath in Cauvery, in true Tamil Cinema style, oblivious of the roving eyes of the visitors and the players. We were treated to some lovely music by two old men, singing  ‘Endaro mahanubhavulu’, the famous Thyagaraja krithi. Our visit was fulfilled, when Mahirl started clapping her hands rhythmically, in vintage style, like a veteran vidhwan.

Cauvery tailed us as we drove towards Kumbakonam. On the other side, a lush green carpet was rolling along. December is a great month to visit the rice-belt of Tamilnadu, with the paddy fields offering an experience that is no less to that of the elegant Chola architecture. At a joint, where the river met the road, Mahirl gleefully got into the river, with the water only upto her knee-high, and refused to be drawn out for the next couple of hours.

Darasuram is on the outskirts of Kumbakonam. After seeing the Thanjavur Temple, this gopuram looked miniscule from outside. But when we went in, it was splendid. The intricate carvings allover the temple, on the pillars, on the walls, on the ceiling, were fascinating. ,The Airavatesvara Temple, built by Rajaraja Chola II in the 12th century, is, with its splendid sculptures, far more beautiful than even the Big Temple.

Darasuram has a small Saurashtrian population, adjoining the temple, who moved there 2 centuries back and have formed an industrious silk-weaving community. We were lured to visit one of their houses, and were shown how the silk sarees are weaved. It involves quite a painstaking effort, lasting for over 7 days, to make one saree. Sitting in front of a giant silk-loom, the ladies have to pedal, bend forward and pull a guiding lever from one extreme to the other, and then again pedal. This goes on and on. Impressed by the effort involved, I decided to lighten my wallet, with the full knowledge that I was being subjected to an extremely effective sales pitch.

After heading back to Thanjavur, we shifted base to Pudukkottai. Our first visit was to Sittannavasal, the Pandya-Jain cave temple from 7th century AD. The mural/fresco paintings on the ceilings are stunning. The government employee, incharge of the cave, is an enthusiastic fellow who has made unusual efforts to understand the paintings and explains them to the visitors. He also demonstrated a curious, magical, case of acoustic resonance, when we could hear a musical echo only when he breathed at a particular frequency.

The next day, we went to Thirumayam. Thirumayam is unique for housing twin temples – one for Vishnu and the other for Shiva. There is also a fort built by Sethupathi Vijaya Ragunatha Thevar in 1687. It is one of the few forts that has remained fairly intact. The fort is majestic but I was baffled as to what it was protecting except some empty space. They must have kept weapons and other precious treasure inside. Oomai thurai or Chinna Marudhu (there are different narrations) is believed to have hidden here, before being taken captive by the British.

Going through Google Maps, w e then decided to take a route from Pudukkottai via Manappaarai, so that we could avoid the Trichy-Musiri stretch. While risky, it turned to be a great decision. Terrific roads through deserted fields till Manappaarai. More fortuitously, two places, which we had reluctantly decided to skip due to lack of time, were right on the way: Kudimiyanmalai (குடுமியான்மலை) and Kodumbalur (கொடும்பாளூர்).

Kudumiyanmalai turned out to be the highlight of the trip. The temple was closed by the time we reached there. The guard, volunteered to take us around the temple and even brought the key for a cave temple. The two halls at the front of the temple are adorned with numerous sculptures and carvings. Life-sized and alive with expressions, beautiful and nuanced . The first hall, supposedly had 1000 pillars, and all of them with carvings. The Hanuman and other vanara sculptures in the hall seemed to be attracting quite a lot of monkeys!


All along the walls of the temples, there are inscriptions in old Tamil. There are also some acclaimed musical inscriptions, which apparently provide some of the missing links to ancient Tamil music. There were two huge beehives above the musical inscriptions…the bees humming the inscribed notes and guarding them from the wicked gaze of humans. The guard, acted as our guide, and showed us a few more carvings (bas-reliefs, I learn now) in the folds of the adjoining hill. Unless he showed them, there is no way, we could have spotted those at that height. Then, he opened the cave temple, for us to enter and marvel at it in pitch dark. With the help of the camera flash, we could see some lovely sculptures there too.

The cave temple and the musical inscriptions are timed to be from the 7th century, with possible contributions at different periods from the Pandyas, Pallavas and Cholas. The following links give more details and photos:

Our final stop was Kodumbalur, where Muvar Kovil (மூவர் கோயில்) is present. There are now, only two temples, that have survived the ravage of time. But the remains of the other temple can be seen. As per the ASI website, “A Sanskrit inscription on the central vimana clearly asserts that Bhuti Vikramakesari, an Irukkuvel chief built the three shrines. He named the central shrine after himself and the two flanking ones after his queens viz. Karrali and Varaguna. Regarding the dating of Bhuti Vikramakesari’s rule there are two opinions among scholars. One opinion is that he was contemporary to Chola king Aditya I (AD 871-907) and the other opined that he was a contemporary of Sundara Chola (AD957-973) and his son Aditya II (AD 960-965).”


In 4 days, we had a peek into a glorious past . I now feel small ahead of the thousands of years that we have traversed. I doubt, if any foreign tour, which we keep planning and deferring, could have given this satisfaction. Hopefully, some memories will remain with Mahirl and keep her interest in our culture and literature alive, as she grows. Being an atheist, in no way, impacted my appreciation for the lasting architectural achievements of our ancestors, which are impossible to replicate in this modern era when we have automated tools and machinery at our disposal. The next time we get 4 days, we know how best to plan a quick historical tour.

A trip to Coimbatore

October 25, 2010

Cross-Posting some updates from my Facebook, done during my weekend trip to Coimbatore:


There is an old world charm in getting off a train at Coimbatore, saying a sweet no to the drivers’ polite ‘saar auto?’, waiting alone for a bus, next to an open drain, gazing at the colorful sky-at-dawn and boarding a bus playing an old Raja song. The Blackberry, at the tip of my thumb, seems so anachronistic.


Took Mahirl out, yesterday, on her first bus ride around my old city, hoping to see it brand new through her curious eyes. Shortly, after watching a lovely peacock stroll by and a few white storks fly along, she dozed off. Then the city too wore a sleepy look. Only the broad, elevated, pedestrian path, laced with brown… and yellow slabs, looked new. A car vroomed past the bus, on the pedestrian walkway.