Canang Sari – What a beautiful way to start a day!

canang sari

A small but beautiful gesture of gratitude towards the gods or the spirits of Nature who make your life comfortable, bountiful; for all the blessings you receive in life. It was quite fascinating to know about the daily offerings called ‘Canang Sari, so well woven into the lives of the people of Bali. Balinese people never fail to make these offerings at the start of the day, I got to know during our recent trip to this enchanted land.
Canang saris are meticulously crafted beautiful trays, made of young leaves of coconut trees or palm trees, full of vibrant flowers, rice crackers, biscuits, incense sticks and so on. It’s hard to miss these colourful, unique leaf trays in front of houses, in shrines, temple premises, on pavements and even on the beaches of Bali! They’re seen everywhere.

While walking on the streets of Bali, you have to take extra care not to step on these beautiful leaf trays with offerings on them. I was quite impressed that  Balinese people find time to thank the spirits by making these simple offerings in their busy mornings. I’m not sure if these trays are readily available in the market with the offerings, still the effort taken in the morning is praiseworthy. I did read somewhere that each colour symbolises a god; red symbolises Brahma, yellow  Mahadeva, blue or green  Vishnu and white Eswara. The word gratitude is fading away into nonexistence and it is indeed great to nurture this trait in our children by practising small daily gestures like these.


Story Tellers

ഓർമ്മച്ചെപ്പ് തുറന്നപ്പോൾ (When the memory chest is wide open….)


“Tell me the facts and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.”~An old Native American proverb

As children, we grew up listening to stories. It is indeed a matter of pride that everyone in the family,the old generation and our generation, excelled in the art of telling stories. Elders and youngsters had their unique ways of spinning and weaving stories. Characters from the epics, classics, folklores, movies, novels came alive and paraded and danced in front of our eyes and inner eyes vividly! Ancestors, members of the family, neighbours, friends, acquaintances were all parts of the stories and they all fascinated us. We were well acquainted with our neighbours and others in the neighbourhood unlike the children today. Sprinkled with speckles of humour they all came into our conversation! Those people whom we have never met got forms and shapes. Such is the power of story telling, of narrative skills! That experience of listening to well narrated stories is beyond description!


picture courtesy: Google

Some of my early memories include the image of my father’s elder sister telling a tale spiced up with a verse. She repeated this same story of a wicked step-mother, every time we were on our Summer vacation and the story never bored us. Another flash of memory that comes to me is my great-grandmother sitting with her long stretched legs ( Oh my! how could she sit like that without bending her back or leaning against a wall!) singing and telling stories…

Then there was this fragment of a memory : the gathering of all the cousins in the spacious ‘poomukham’( living room) and the eldest of the cousins Usha chechi telling us the story of a Malayalam movie, ‘Veendum Prabatham’ (she even sang the songs from the movie while recounting the story). The tragic sequence of events that the good people in the story met with, left me devastated. To hide my tears I struggled to prove that a small fly went into my eye!

None of the cousins was less competent. All were ace story tellers! Each one was good at telling film stories scene by scene event by event. Jaysree chechi and Lathu would come from Madras with Tamil movie stories and Hindi ones. Mohanettan, Rajettan and Induettan would test our patience with all the dramatic details from the movies and other stories and kept us wait with bated breath till the end. Murali had a special talent of inventing stories impromptu. We used to be amazed at his talent! Unniettan who never had the patience to tell a complete story used to focus on the bits and parts, expertly mimicking people leaving us in splits of laughter! In an age when television, mobile phone, computer and all the paraphernalia were unheard of, we children never had a dull moment in our lives. We revelled in the simple joys of childhood.

College days were enriched with Girija chechi’s and Nimmi chechi’s story telling skills. Both were masters of telling movie stories in a very interesting, detailed way. My much awaited monthly weekends during college hostel life turned out to be enjoyable ones watching movies with them and listening to their stories. All that’s simple and ordinary got transformed into extraordinary and special those days. We the siblings also used to weave hundreds of stories and the beautiful realm of imagination knew no boundaries.

Stories! doors to an enchanting land….


And then there was the master story-teller -our Father..The epics Ramayana and Mahabharatha are etched in our hearts with his unique style of story telling. The characters strutted the corridors of our hearts with glory and grace and with Epic magnitude. Karna became my favourite character. Neither Ramananda Sagar’s Ramayana nor Chopra’s Mahabharatha could change the images of those towering forms.

Most of the evenings were a celebration. Stories unfurled like magic carpets and lifted us and took us to magical realms of imagination. Achan opened the doors to a marvelous world; he inculcated and nurtured the habit of observing the surroundings, men and manners; helped us develop a sense of sympathy and empathy, polished our aesthetic sense. He taught us how to appreciate and enjoy a poem or a piece of prose .


My all time favourite story – ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’. (picture borrowed from Google).The impact it had on me as a child was tremendous!

Listening to the tale of ‘The Count Of Monte Cristo’ was an unforgettable experience, so was ‘The Three Musketeers’. We just admired Athos, Porthos, Aramis and d’Artagnan. Joseph Wilmot of ‘Joseph Wilmot : the memoirs of a man servant’ by Reynolds (a novel spread in seven volumes) became a man of flesh and blood and we considered his misfortunes and disappointments as our own! Dinner hour was an impatiently waited time of the day to listen to Joseph’s adventures. Now while looking back, I really appreciate our mother’s immense patience to bear with the marathon story telling evenings…

Achan sometimes used to enact the events in the stories well. When Jonathan got a jolt of fear and cut himself with his razor blade, the moment he realised that Count Dracula was standing behind him with no reflection in the mirror, I too jumped from the bed! Count Dracula, the bat, the lone ship wrapped up in mysterious mist all filled me with an eerie excitement for many days! The blood curdling experience used to be a hot topic of discussion amongst cousins!

Achan introduced us to the wonderful world of literature; both Malayalam and English. He created a magic land for us, which he knew would last for a life time. Probably he thought if his children had to meet with any hardships in their future life, those halcyon childhood days would strengthen them and equip them well to face them all and move forward in life with ease and confidence.

I was made to read ‘Marthandavarma‘, one of the first novels in Malayalam at the age of ten and the language left me baffled. My father told me to go slow and then it would help me to grasp the soul of the novel. And it did…

There were long interesting discussions on literature and current affairs at my mother’s house where my grandmother, grand-uncle all used to take part. All forms of literary works and all humorous stories of people known and unknown were brought to our attention .
The main source of knowledge those days was libraries, curious minds, a keen eye and attentive ears.

”In the end we’ll all become stories.” When I came across this quote of Margaret Atwood, I recalled Achan’s words. He too used to say that everyone becomes a story one day… Let us keep telling stories and let us make good stories…

It was my friend Usha who has enlightened me about this profession called story telling. I read more about professional story tellers and how well this art is gaining popularity nowadays when children live in a virtual world and have no time to read nor parents have time to tell stories… I feel so happy at the revival of this art! And I was thinking of a company of story tellers the family could have launched!!

“Stories have power. They delight, enchant, touch, teach, recall, inspire, motivate, challenge. They help us understand. They imprint a picture on our minds.” ~ Janet Litterland

Spirit houses in Cambodia

The bright and gilded miniature houses on pillars caught my attention, once we came to live in Cambodia. I was quite bemused to see these little temple like structures, in front of houses, shops, office buildings, hotels and so on. These beautiful, ornate structures fascinated me for days and made me curious. Initially I thought these must  be the places of worship of the Cambodians, miniature pagodas. Similar shrines of worship I have seen in Ho Chi Minh City too. The deity would be Bo Dai ( Laughing Buddha ) or Quan Am, a female deity. As you enter a house or a restaurant or a shop in Saigon, you get to see small shrines placed on the floor, decorated with flowers and fruits and incense sticks and what not! When we made Phnom Penh our new home a year ago, (with a heavy heart leaving the beautiful Saigon behind ) I wanted to keep one such little house on pedestal in our house too, as it looked so charming … I was in dire need of a place to keep our many number of Hindu gods and this looked so regal. But soon I came to know that these are the Khmer Spirit Houses and immediately my desire to buy one died!


Cambodian spirit houses of different sizes, colours

The spirit houses are  houses for the spirits, living spaces for the dead ancestors. Khmer people are Buddhists and they believe in life after death and this is one way of appeasing the departed souls.The spirits are given an abode to live outside, so that they would not invade the homes of those who’re alive. Rich or poor is not a matter of concern, they keep one in the courtyards of houses, in front of shops or other buildings . Offerings are kept in the spirit houses in the form of incense sticks, fruits, flowers, water and so on ( again it has puzzled me that I haven’t seen a bird pecking on to the fruits kept for the spirits! )  Even the economically backward Khmer families, having a shabby house in a dilapidated condition, are not stingy when it comes to a well adorned spirit house in their courtyard. My regard for them soared! Each spirit house is unique. Whenever I see a spirit house I feel, I haven’t seen a similar one before. Am sure, following the genocide that has taken place here  restless and wandering souls might be aplenty! They indeed need living spaces!



Ah! What a beautiful abode for the spirits!


A gilded spirit house against rustic simplicity



Spirit houses for sale


For the spirits of the mountains-On the misty mountains of Mondolkiri

And that was just the beginning. I was drawn more and more towards  the customs and traditions of this people, their  culture; a land which was culturally and economically rich at one point of time in history and which has close ties to the culture and traditions of my own land, India. I was feeling a bit ashamed  that before coming here I hardly knew anything about  the rise and fall of a great empire, the ancient Khmer empire.