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Kerala History Archives - Page 2 of 6 - varnamvarnam | Page 2
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Tag Archives | Kerala History

Saving Megalithic sites

Recently, a new protected area was declared in the Jordan Valley to protect megalithic structures dating back to 3000 BCE. Similar megalithic structures exist near Thrissur in Kerala, but their situation is not as good.

No one has so far protected and preserved any of the ‘kodakkal’ or umbrella stone of megalithic culture found in different places of Malappuram district. Many of them found in Kilikkallingal in Kavanur panchayat near Areekode have already been destroyed either by treasure hunters or by callous quarrying of the laterite.

“When I started my study, I found over two dozen ‘kodakkals’ at Kilikkallingal alone. But unfortunately, now we can find remains of hardly half-a-dozen megaliths there,” said V.P. Devadas, associate professor of history at NSS College, Manjeri, who heads a UGC-aided study on ‘Megaliths of Kerala.

‘Kodakkal’ is a unique mushroom-shaped megalithic burial monument of Kerala. “Nowhere else in the world is this kind of megalithic burial site found,” he said.[No care for Megalithic burial sites]

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Gama's Eastern Christians

An iconic scene during the Portuguese arrival in Malabar in 1498 is when the ex-convict Joao Nunes stepped into land and met two Moors from Tunis. The Moors greeted the ex-convict, “The Devil take you! What bought you here.” He replied, “We came to seek Christians and spices”.

While the Portuguese search for a direct trade route to India bypassing the Muslims is well known, less mentioned is this search for Christians. They searched for the Eastern Christians in Africa and India and interestingly found them everywhere they looked. They also encountered Muslims; encounters which did not go well. The joyous news of the discovery of Eastern Christians was duly reported to Dom Manuel.

Vasco da Gama’s king, Dom Manuel, over a period had developed a messianic streak, due to the death of a large number of people who had preceded him. He believed that he was chosen by the Holy Spirit to confront the powerful. He wanted to take over the Holy Land and destroy Mecca to claim the title — the Emperor of the East. But he could not do it alone: to attack the Egyptian Mamluks, for instance, he needed help and for this the lost Christian kingdoms of Asia could become useful.

To understand this Portuguese obsession with finding Eastern Christians, we need to go along with Vasco da Gama on his first Voyage to Malabar and experience his encounters with people of other faiths.

In Search of Christians

(Prester John)

After navigating the Cape, the fleet reached Mozambique Island in March 1498 where men belonging to the “sect of Mohammed” told them that Eastern Christians lived on a nearby island. The other half of the island where the Christians lived was populated by Moors and there were constant battles among them. Then they were told that Prester John — the mythical Christian king — lived nearby in the interior and he could be reached by a camel trip. Though they were happy to hear about Prester John, they did not attempt to visit him.

During a conversation, the Sultan of Mozambique asked Nicolau Coelho, one of the captains in Gama’s fleet, about Turkey and their religious books. Then Coelho realized that the Sultan had assumed them to be Turks and not Christians. The Portuguese wanted to conceal their identity since they did not know how the reaction would be. Hence for celebrating mass, they would go off to an island.

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Indian History Carnival – 21

The Indian History Carnival, published on the 15th of every month, is a collection of posts related to Indian history and archaeology.

  1. Sukumar has a hypothesis about the Indus valley women: unmarried women wore bangles only in one arm, whereas married women wore bangles in both arms. He wants help with this symbology associated with bangles and marital status.
  2. R Nandakumar writes about this visit to the Harappan site of Lothal.
  3. That of course, leaves out the famous ‘dock’, a very big and very neat rectangular depression, now looking more like a vast, shallow tank. If it really was a ship-building place/port, it would have held several dozens of vessels the size of modern mechanized fishing boats.

  4. Manish Khamesra visited the Chittaurgarh Fort and tells us the history behind it.
  5. Sometimes I wonder who among the rulers of Mewar, was most powerful. Was it Maharana Pratap? We all are aware of his defiant resistance to Akbar. Or, was it Maharana Sanga or Sangram Singh? He was once very close to rule Delhi. It was his miscalculation that Babur, being a foreigner, will leave Delhi after plundering and looting it, that cost him the throne of Delhi. Recently, I read in detail about Maharana Kumbhakaran or Kumbha, and I was forced to include his name also in this list.

  6. Murali Ramavarma has the story of Sankaranatha Jyotsar, who served as the the chief astrologer and spiritual advisor to Maharajah Ranjit Singh:
  7. Under continuous persuasion of Ranjit Singh, Sankaranatha returned to his court in 1835 and served him till his death in 1839. Though he continued to serve the disintegrating and tragedy-struck Sikh empire under Kharak Singh and Sher Singh, he was not comfortable and chose to return to the cooler shores of the south in 1844.

  8. Till 1890, the British were respected in the North-East. Feanor, explains how that changed.
  9. The most popular man in Manipur ordered his troops to fire upon the British, who then withdrew to the Residency. The Senapati’s troops attacked the Residency, whereupon Quinton was forced to sue for peace. He, Grimwood and three military officers went to the palace to negotiate. By now, the atmosphere was vitiated, and an angry soldier mortally wounded Grimwood. Realising that if they were to be hanged for a penny, they might as well hang for a pound, the Manipuris beheaded Quinton, attacked the Gurkhas, and chased all the British out of the kingdom.

  10. Since Jinnah, Nehru, the British and partition are hot topics, 2ndlook examines three scenarios— a federal India, two nations, many nations — that could have happened in 1947.

f you find any posts related to Indian history published in the past one month, please send it to jk AT varnam DOT org. Please send me links which are similar to the ones posted, in terms of content.The next carnival will be up on Oct 15th.

See Also: Previous Carnivals

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How old are our mantras?

The Michael Wood documentary, The Story of India, which was telecast in six parts on PBS mentioned something interesting in the very first episode. Wood talked about the Out of Africa theory – the migration of humans 70,000 years back, from Africa along the shores of Arabian Sea into South India – and mentioned that all non-Africans in the world are descendents of these Indians. Nothing new in that.

Going in search of clues left by those ancient migrants in South India, he arrived at the house of a Kerala brahmin who is teaching his son mantras the way it has been done for millenia. Wood then shows the 2006 athirathram – a 12 day vedic ceremony – and mentions that certain sounds recited in this ceremony takes years to learn but have no meaning. When brahmins were asked for meaning, they did not know. They simply knew that it was handed down.

Since man is a speaking animal, we have always assumed that any word man says is in language, but some of those mantras are not in any known language. Hence these sounds, which are still recited today, are considered to have evolved before human speech.

Of Birds and Humans

Frits Staal of UC Berkeley  thought that the claim that mantras are older than language was “preposterous.” In 1975 he helped finance an athirathram, which had not been conducted since 1956 due to financial constraints. Analyzing the sounds he came to the conclusion that mantras could belong to a pre-language era since:

  • Mantras are language independent: Anything in language can be translated whereas mantras remain the same in all languages.
  • Mantras, even though they seem to be in a language like Sanskrit, are not used for their meaning.
  • Mantras follow patterns, like refrain, which is not seen in language.

The clincher for the pre-language theory came when the sound patterns were analyzed to find the nearest equivalent in nature. The technique followed was like this: He took a mantra like Jaimintya Gramageyagana (45.2.1) which goes:

vo no ha bu / idam idam pura ha bu / pra va pra
vas ia ia ha yi / nina ninava tarn u vo ha bu / stiisa vi
sakhtaia Ya ha vi / dramutalyayi / o vi la /

It was split into patterns like AB / CB / DE/.. where A = vo no and B = ha bu. Comparing it to bird songs, it was found that the patterns were similar and such patterns were not found any where else.

As a side effect, by comparing the patterns of mantras and certain birds, it is possible to find which birds influenced the mantras. There is research which found patterns in the composition of Igor Stravinsky and a bird usually found in the region where he worked. Thus some of the mantra sounds were found to be inspired by the songs of Blyth’s Reed Warbler and Whitethroat – two birds which migrate to India.

There are examples of bird-human interaction in Vedas and Upanishads. Some vedic chools have been named after birds — like kausika after the owl or taittiriya after the partridge. D. D. Kosambi believed that Vedic clans were totemic. Then there is the story of Satyakama Jabala in Chandogya Upanishad who:
Text not available

Critiques

Having established this similarity between bird song and mantra, the theory then takes off with a life of its own. There are vedic rituals for making rain and curing illness and similarly birds sing for building nests or attracting females; there are rituals and bird songs for various occasions. Then it was also found that bird sing – believe it or not – just for pleasure. So Staal extends the theory to say that, similar to skiing, dancing and music, mantras and rituals too are done for pleasure.

Between Staal’s athirathram in 1975 and Wood’s in 2006, one was held in 1990 near Thrissur which I attended  for a day. This athirathram, which was extensively covered in Malayalam newspapers, was highly respectful and the words I heard were not “playful” or “pleasurable.” I can understand singing for pleasure, but am yet to meet a priest who said, “it’s a weekend and raining outside, let’s do a ganapati homam for pleasure.”

Prof. Staal thinks that not just the sounds, but rituals too are meaningless. But Wood writes that mantras, “work on emotions, the physiology, and the nervous system.” According to Wood, these rituals are a away of achieving heightened mental and physical state. So I am not sure if this research is of the Ganesha phallus quality. If you have seen any paper or book by anyone else, please leave a comment.

Postscript: Kosambi’s concept that Vedic clans were named after animals was criticized inThe Early Brahmanical System of Gotra and Pravara (Purusottama Pandita, John Brough). They wrote that it is equivalent to saying an Englishman with the surname Fox belongs to a totemic clan of that animal.  Instead they suggest that the bird name could have come from the clan name.

Reference:
Michael Wood has a companion book to the program. More details can be found in Staal’s paper, Mantras and Bird Songs, in which one quoted sentence reads: “there are mechanisms in existence which reinforce economical perfection in motor skills independently of the attainment of the ultimate biological goal in whose pursuit the learned movement is developed.” Staal’s book on this topic is available in limited preview mode in Google Books.

[serialposts]

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The Kerala School and Lord of Guruvayoor

All Malayalees know Melpathur Narayana Bhattithiri (1559-1632 ) and his famous composition — Narayaneeyam — still sung in Guruvayoor temple. The immediate story that comes to mind is his tiff with his contemporary Poonthanam, whose judge turned out to be Guruvayoorappan

While Melpathur was composing Narayaneeyam in Sanskrit, Poonthanam was writing Jnanapana in Malayalam. This was a time when Malayalam was considered inferior to Sanskrit. When Poonthanam went to show his poem to Melpathur, he refused to see it; treating him like a groundling, Melpathur asked Poonthanam to learn Sanskrit.

The next day, Melpathur came to sing ten slokas of Narayaneeyam before Guruvayoorappan and he met a boy who found many mistakes in his composition. The boy vanished and a celestial voice announced, “Poonthanam’s bhakthi (devotion) is more pleasing to me than Melpathur’s vibhakthi (learning or knowledge in Sanskrit grammar)”.

So goes the legend.

Is there any truth to this story or is it something which which was written to show that Malayalam was as good as Sanskrit? Would a Sanskrit scholar like Melpathur make mistakes in his composition.? What we know is two pieces of information about Melpathur from which we will have to deduce information.

While Narayaneeyam is Melpathur’s most famous composition, he also wrote sreepaada saptati in praise of Bhagavathi, Manameyodayam on Mimamsa, and Kriyakramam on nambudiri rituals. Less known is the fact that Melpathur was connected to the Kerala school of mathematics. Melpathur was the student of Achyuta Pisharati (c. 1550-1621) who was the student of Jyestadeva, the author of yuktibhasha. Melpathur is not know for astronomical models or mathematical proofs but, according to Wikipedia, for Prkriya-sarvawom, which sets forth an axiomatic system elaborating on the classical system of Panini. This is believed to be written in sixty days[1].

Kerala School of Mathematics(teachers and students)

So would a person, who understood Panini, be sloppy with his work? Maybe. Sreedhara Menon, in his Survey of Kerala History, writes about Revathi Pattathanam, an annual assembly of scholars held in Calicut. Those who displayed exceptional knowledge in debates were awarded the title Bhatta. Melpathur was denied the Bhatta title six times before he won it eventually[1].

There is little information about Poonthanam’s later life, but much more about Melpathur and his royal patrons. But we don’t know anything Melpathur’s first drafts of Narayaneeyam and so it is hard to pin down the narrative historically.

Though Poonthanam’s Jnanappana too is still sung in houses in Kerala, the title of father of Malayalam goes to Thunchatthu Ezhutachan — a contemporary of Poonthanam and Melpathur — who translated Ramayana, and Mahabharata and standardized the Malayalam alphabet [2].

References:

[1] A Sreedhara Menon, A Survey of Kerala History
[2] S. Ramanath Aiyar, A Brief Sketch of Travancore, the Model State of India

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