Some chairs are never empty
Memories sit on them…
Some chairs are never empty
Memories sit on them…
The black–hooded oriole (Oriolus xanthornus) or manjakkili as we call it in Malayalam is considered a harbinger of Onam, the harvest festival of Kerala. Generally a few of them are spotted in the months of July to September. Since the bird appears close to the festival, it is called Onakkili as well. With their striking bright and golden yellow plumage they are a sign of prosperity! Surprisingly during my visits in November-December in the past few years, I get glimpses of the bird at Anakkara. Times have changed, climate has changed and the migratory birds have changed their times too. Contradictory to the old concept, every day is an Onam, a day of bounty for Keralites. The bird knows it doesn’t have to wait for Onam to remind people that days of plenty are round the corner!
I could click a fairly decent photo of the bird sitting atop our mango tree this August; a satisfying experience compared to many of those failed attempts in the past. I haven’t seen a camera shy bird like the oriole! She is as fast as lightning and a trickster too. She charms you with her distinct call from secret hideouts and flashes her gold to lure you, then vanishes! Just like the golden deer Maricha that enchanted Sita, the golden bird is bewitching. Unlike other winged friends who visit our Kousthubham premises, Manjakkili has no scruples regarding punctuality!
How can I not share Emily Dickinson’s Oriole here! Who can give a more vivid and vibrant picture of the bird! I don’t know if you have to read between the lines or whether there are many different layers of meanings; to me the poet talks about the bird Oriole.
One of the ones that Midas touched,
Who failed to touch us all,
Was that confiding prodigal,
The blissful oriole.
It is no exaggeration that the bird is extravagantly touched by Midas! A proven prodigal, the dazzling bird can easily be mistaken for an alighting mine. And Emily aptly calls the Oriole the meteor of birds. Both the references of Jason and Midas perfectly blend in with the Oriole.
So drunk, he disavows it
With badinage divine;
So dazzling, we mistake him
For an alighting mine.
A pleader, a dissembler,
An epicure, a thief, —
Betimes an oratorio,
An ecstasy in chief;
The bird is called an epicure, a thief and a dissembler! What a trickster he is! He keeps your hopes afire and then hides in thick foliage, giving fiery glimpses only. It bewilders me when Emily blames the bird for cheating of ‘an entire attar’ (Does the bird stand for someone who came into her life like a flash of lightning and then left suddenly?) or is it ‘altar’ instead of ‘attar’ as the church imagery is obvious- ‘Jesuit of orchards’ and ‘oratorio’- Doubtlessly the bird has a divine aura.
He cheats as he enchants
Of an entire attar
For his decamping wants.
Like a regal and pompous court musician, he comes sings and leaves the scene. I am convinced of his decamping wants from my experience too!
The splendor of a Burmah,
The meteor of birds,
Departing like a pageant
Of ballads and of bards.
I never thought that Jason sought
For any golden fleece;
But then I am a rural man,
With thoughts that make for peace.
But if there were a Jason,
Tradition suffer me
Behold his lost emolument
Upon the apple-tree.
I wanted to tell Emily that Jason could look for his golden fleece on our mango tree as well. Somehow I draw parallels between the apple trees of Emily and other American poets with our mango trees. Whether it is ‘when a drop fell on the apple tree’ or Frost’s ‘After Apple-picking’ I tend to make comparisons..
During my recent trip to Wayanad, a hill station in Kerala I met this cousin of the black hooded oriole, sitting on the bamboo plant like an orange torch ablaze! could it be the the Baltimore Oriole? My excitement made the capture out of focus and shaky.
A couple of photos clicked a few years ago. Seen in the second picture is the black-naped oriole that visits Anakkara sometimes.
Concluding with another beautiful Oriole song from Emily which states a larger truth. It is not the music, but the fashion of the ear that attires the music. Whether the music you hear is divine or common is left to your choice. The divine music is not from the tree but it is within you.
To hear an Oriole sing
May be a common thing —
Or only a divine.
It is not of the Bird
Who sings the same, unheard,
As unto Crowd —
The Fashion of the Ear
Attireth that it hear
In Dun, or fair —
So whether it be Rune,
Or whether it be none
Is of within.
The “Tune is in the Tree —”
The Skeptic — showeth me —
“No Sir! In Thee!”
Let us look forward to many tuneful and divine melodies as September dawns. May the music change colours from dun to fair as we listen! Unheard music may be sweeter!
This obsession for lotus, ‘the queenliest of flowers’ has been rekindled once I was relocated to the South East Asian region. The abundance of the flower filled me with boundless joy! Lotus was considered divine and not so common in my childhood days, yet through pictures, poems and songs the flower became familiar. My child ego took great pride in sketching elaborate lotus flowers standing erect in the blue waters and it was a joyful task filling the petals with rich pink, and painting the broad leaves bright green and the waters deep blue, from where the flower rises proudly. Very much alike the example of the single story that Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche recounts in her Ted Talks, my art was not based on a real experience; the sketches were purely based on imagination and copies of the pictures I have seen. Water lilies were common then, but lotus flower was not so commonly seen. The existence of white or blue lotuses were unimaginable those days! Nevertheless, the famous legendary blue lotus of our village was a fascinating myth.
Blue Lotus has a dreamy aura about it. There is something magical and mystical in the name. The blue lotus that appears in Egyptian culture and Greek mythology could be the blue water lily; Nymphaea caerulea (Egyptian lotus, blue water lily, sacred water lily) or Nymphaea nouchali (Blue star water lily which is the National flower of Sri Lanka) and not Lotus flower, Nelumbo nucifera ( Indian lotus, national flower of India and Vietnam). Thus I came to the conclusion that Blue Lotus is scientifically water lily and symbolically blue lotus.
Buddhism has close association with the flower lotus just as Hinduism does. In Buddhism lotus is a symbol of purity and spiritual awakening. The flower rises pure and fragrant above the muddy waters. In Buddhist art and literature lotus motifs are highly symbolic. A fully bloomed flower symbolises enlightenment where as the one in bud form shows a period before enlightenment. Different coloured lotus also has different symbolism. Lotus motifs are present in mandalas and chakras too. My long association with the Cambodian and Vietnamese cultures drew me more towards learning the significance of this flower.
Apart from the spiritual aspect, lotus and water lilies play a major role in the everyday life of the layman. Both are widely used in South Asian kitchens. In Khmer and Vietnamese cuisine water lilies are used in soups and salads. Lotus tea and Blue lotus tea are widely available in Vietnam. Both the flowers are renowned for medicinal properties too.
Blue lotus tea
In Egyptian culture the blue lotus is associated with rebirth. Very much alike the Hindu mythology the Sun and Lotus have close connection in Egyptian mythology too. In Hindu mythology Lotus is Sun’s beloved; Lotus has no existence without the Sun. During the churning of the ocean goddess Lakshmi comes out standing on the lotus where as in Egyptian mythology sun god Ra, the creator, emerged from the primeval waters sitting on a lotus. Like Sun who disappears at night and comes back to life in the morning, the lotus flower re-emerges from water everyday. Per contra, most of the water lilies bloom at night hence called the beloved of the Moon.
A painting inspired by the mystical and mysterious Blue Lotus of my village
Scholars say that the blue lotus is widely depicted on the walls, pillars, thrones, papyrus scrolls and head dresses of the pharaohs of ancient Egypt. The bloom was known as the Sacred Lily of the Nile. I read an interesting article by Kirsten Cowart where the restorative powers of this sacred flower is mentioned.
An Egyptian lady surrounded and adorned by blue lotuses. The flowers resemble water lilies here.
Egyptian murals and carvings portraying men and women indulging in revels, holding bunches of blue lotuses and smelling them could be a hint on the intoxicating properties of the flower. The god of Healing power and Perfume, Nefertem holds bunches of blue lotus and he offers this to Ra, the sun god to sooth his pain.
It seems the flower has properties to calm the nerves and brain. Homer in his Odyssey mentions about Odysseus’ men who fall into a blissful forgetfulness after munching the lotus flower and fruits. He had to drag his men back to the ship and tie them to the rowing benches to resume their voyage back home. I wonder whether it is the blue lotus that has enchanted and ensnared the Greek heroes.
In Tennyson’s ‘The Lotus Eaters’ he weaves the story around the same isle where Ulysses ( Odysseus) and his mariners had spent time. The enchanted flower the Lotus eaters of the island offered them had the power to change their minds. The mariners wanted to linger on that dreamy island forever. They come to the conclusion that ‘slumber is more sweet than toil.
My Blue Lotus has an entirely different shade of blue. The blue lotus I have heard and wondered about right form my early childhood is one of its kind, a faith or a myth associated with a temple in our village.
The serene temple premises
The story that intrigued us as children is about a sacred bloom called neelathamara (നീലത്താമര) . Those who keep a coin on the steps of the sanctum sanctorum of a nearby temple, with a wish in their heart, would be blessed to see a bloom in the temple pond the next morning. This would be a sign that the wish is going to be fulfilled. The unique flower is known as Neelathamara the malayalam equivalent of Blue Lotus. Neela thamara sounds more royal and desirable than chengazhineer poovu another mediocre name for the bloom.
The practice still continues but with changing times not many venture this divine intervention for personal favours. The flower is exclusively used for certain special auspicious rituals and sacred rites (കലശം,പ്രതിഷ്ഠ) in other temples, such as idol installation or for the glorification of the deity. The divine flower blooms in the morning in one of the deep rock pits on either side of the pond, provided the money is kept on the temple steps the previous evening.
stones that stood the test of time
My visit to the temple was after a long interval of more than ten years. Previous visit was with my father and for no reason I have never been there after he left us to the heavenly abode. The day we went, we were told that neelathamara was abloom that day as a temple in a distant district needed the flower for an auspicious occasion, but we missed the chance to see the sacred flower.
The temple pond
The kokkarni or the deep rock pit at the side of the pond
The 300 year temple in our little hamlet was always referred as Manokkavu, a shortened and colloquial version of Malamalkavu (മലമൽക്കാവ്). The temple sits on a hillock hence the name, the temple on the hill… It is quite interesting when my daughter told me that there is place called Manukau in Auckland!
When there’s too much rains that threaten a function to be held in a household or when there’s a need for rains for the crops to grow, people in my village offer a ‘koottupayasam‘ (കൂട്ടുപായസം) or a sweet rice dish to the temple deity and their woes are taken care of. A koottupayasam or ‘ada’ (അട) was a usual offering that my grandmother used to do then. The devotees are never disappointed as Lord Ayyappa always heard their prayers.
The story of the Neelathamara has remained mysterious and fascinated our minds. Am still curious about the appearance of the flower. The blue lotus like the blue moon has nothing blue about it, I understand. This same Blue lotus has been the theme of a famous Malayalam film, based on the story of the veteran writer M.T Vasudevan Nair from our nearby village. In the early part of this century the film was remade to become a huge hit once again. Even though Malamalkkavu is already well reputed as one of the two major schools of Thayambaka, the Percussion music in Kerala, the temple that is nestled in an unknown corner of Palakkad district earned more fame through M.T’s story, Lal Jose’s and Late Yousafali Kecheri’s films based on the story.
Yours truly and her mother in front of the age-old ootupura
Certain beliefs have no scientific explanations and Neelathamara remains an enigma. The simple and good hearted souls of this small village has deep faith and great pride in their powerful deity and this miraculous flower.
Here they come! The energetic, electrifying dancing gods of our Valluvanad or South Malabar. With the accompaniment of the pulsating ‘chenda’ or the booming drums and the loud cling clang of the cymbals they shake the earth with their frenzied steps. Our culturally rich and vibrant Valluvanad resonates with festival tunes during the Malayalam months Makaram, Kumbham and Meenam.
Soon after the paddy harvest the empty stubble fields set the stage for the many ritualistic folk art performers who pay respect to the local deities. Rituals and customs are entwined with the village life and the small festivals are a post harvest celebration and are conducted to bring blessings and prosperity to the village. The dust, the heat, the cheer, the shouts, the zeal and the colours make the barren paddy fields a kaelidoscope.
The heady scent of frangipani garlands worn around the oracles (velichapadu), the tinkling sounds of the heavy ritual ornaments, the brandishing sabres and the vigorous dancing steps of the velichapad, karinkali, parathira, poothan, thira et al fill the festive air with excitement.
This year it all started with our annual family pooja called Ariprapattu…
One day and one night of sacred rituals, offerings, music etc are observed. This is to please the family goddess for her blessings and the welfare of the family members.
The hooked sword and the brass belt with small bells of the velichapad is kept ready on his peeddam or four-legged stool.
The frangipani flower garland of the velichapad
The intricate design called Kalam made of natural organic powders.
The brass ‘vaalkkanadi’ that represents the goddess
A blog on Tet, the Vietnamese new year was on its way in February along with vibrant pictures, but a very bad eye infection stopped me from posting it. Seasons change in the wink of an eye! It is the Uttarayana period, the period starting from Capricorn Zodiac (Makara Rashi) up to Gemini Zodiac (Mithuna Raasi). As per Hindu beliefs gods are awake during this period as those six months are considered a single day for them. Uttarayana is also referred as Devayana. Since it is the daytime for Gods, many auspicious ceremonies and rituals are performed during this period to appease them.
Soon after Tet I visited a Kerala that was writhing under the scorching sun. Now is the time for small village festivals.
Harvesters have come and conquered our small village Anakkara too!
Bales of hay waiting for the tractors
Fields are bare and dry and the Ashokas and the Golden Showers try their best to splash a little colour here and there. They hardly know the riot of colour that the festivals are going to bring!
The most exciting part of the small ‘velas‘ in and around our Anakkara is the various ritualistic folk art performances. Unlike ‘pooram‘ a slightly bigger festival where decked up elephants are an integral part, velas lack the grace and pomp of the elephants. Various village communities are in charge of different dancing gods. After Makara koythu (the harvest in the month Makaram) bales of hay are scattered here and there. Harvesting machines have reached our Anakkara too. Pottammel vela starts with the oracle or Choppan, as he is known to us, making a grand entry walking all the way to the temple pausing in front of houses, dancing and blessing the village folk waiting on the way.
Choppan (the oracle clad in red) of our desham walks to the temple through the village roads. In front of their houses devotees wait patiently for the choppan irakkam. He walks up and down in a trance like state. He is the mediator between the deity and the devotees. Once he reaches the temple premises he would move in frenzied steps and makes predictions.
I haven’t seen a parathira, poothan or thira for a very long time. After many years I did see them all, as glorious as before and I realised that some of them can still fill me with awe and fear.
Parathira or Parapoothan dances with swaying, rhythmic steps
Adorned in red black and white attire, both the Parathiras have similar brass breast plates but different head gear; one has peacock feather hair where as the other one has long hair made of bamboo or plantain trunk. I have to learn more about them.
The fierce and fearsome Karinkali!
”Beware!Beware! His flashing eyes his floating hair…Close your eyes in holy dread!” ~Coleridge
They come stomping the village roads and the stubble fields! Smeared with charcoal paste and wearing a heart shaped head gear decorated with young coconut leaves the Karinkali takes the onlookers by storm. This awe inspiring black goddess is a ritualistic performance by a particular community.
Thira wearing the decorated head gears engraved with the goddess figure is not fearsome. They are a happy bunch! The animated, friendly and bouncy thira performers are a treat for the eyes.
Our ‘desham’ witnessed a colourful Theyyam procession too this year. Theyyams are not common in South Malabar; this was just to add some colours to the festival. The festival season comes to an end before Vishu, that marks the start of the harvest year, the beginning of agricultural activities.
THE MOON was but a chin of gold
A night or two ago,
And now she turns her perfect face
Upon the world below.
Her forehead is of amplest blond;
Her cheek like beryl stone;
Her eye unto the summer dew
The likest I have known.
The Moon shines so brightly through Emily’s lines. The full moon of this month looked bigger and brighter. The benevolence that a silent moon scatters all around soothes the soul. The Moon can never be harsh like the Sun and nothing can equal the charm and magic of a moonlit night. It was a childhood pastime to sit with our father in the front yard and look up excitedly at the vast night sky to identify some of the stars such as the spoon shaped Saptarshis (the seven sages), the three bright stars in a row that we used to call Trimurtis (the triad of gods)…a playful learning time that we used to enjoy thoroughly. We were too small then to know that these seven stars together is an asterism known as the Big Dipper or the Plough and is the brightest in the Great Bear constellation and the Trimurtis or the Orion’s Belt is an asterism in the Orion constellation. The focus then was on who would first find and locate the stars with names or who would spot a planet, a star that does not twinkle. Such were the simple joys and moments of pride of childhood days.
When did I last see a beautiful starlit sky? I don’t remember. Anakkara sky looks so far away and Saigon sky is too dull now…My childhood sky was so close I could reach up and spot every single star. Now the only star I see is the bright one who watches me from up above. It jogged my memory when I came across a quote that says ‘In the end we’ll all become stories’. Achan always used to say this. He never said someone would become a memory…Memories that are interlaced with so many stories so that everyday you recall one story or another.
That was some mooning over the past, again. But definitely not like the lengthy rambling one on the blue moon and the rest. (https://rethyravi.wordpress.com/2015/08/04/blue-moon-a-broken-toe-some-moon-musings/)
For the love of Emily (again) : a few thoughts on ‘What mystery pervades a well…’
This is our well back home; so much like Emily’s well…still, glassy, calm!
What mystery pervades a well!
That water lives so far –
A neighbor from another world
Residing in a jar
Whose limit none has ever seen,
But just his lid of glass –
Like looking every time you please
In an abyss’s face!
The grass does not appear afraid,
I often wonder he
Can stand so close and look so bold
At what is awe to me.
Related somehow they may be,
The sedge stands near the sea –
Where he is floorless
And does no timidity betray
But nature is a stranger yet:
The ones that cite her most
Have never passed her haunted house,
Nor simplified her ghost.
To pity those that know her not
Is helped by the regret
That those who know her, know her less
The nearer her they get. ~Emily Dickinson
A neighbour who resides in a jar! Who else (but Dickinson) could have imagined Water in a well as a neighbour! Here’s a mild reminder and warning that this neighbour from another world is not as simple a neighbour as you think. He is apparently a man with a calm and composed countenance, but below that ‘lid of glass’ he may be fathomless! So beware of him.
Looking at the Well’s face is like looking at an abyss that demands awe. The poet warns us not to plunge into the well attracted by the superficial calm. To her surprise the slender and weak looking grass has the courage to stand so close to this neighbour and ‘look so bold’ at ‘what is awe to her’! The grass is somewhat similar to the sedge that grows near the ‘floorless’ sea.
Nature is still a stranger, says Emily. Nobody has understood the complexities of mother Nature.Those who boast that they know her have never encountered her complex face, and those who know her and love her better (like the poet) realise as they get closer to Her that their knowledge is insufficient.
The well at Anakkara
In resplendent colours Dickinson has painted Nature in her poems. She has personified Nature and all that’s Nature’s. Her matchless imagery and aphorism surprise us! Myriad things under the sun ranging from sunsets, sunrises, birds, insects and simple joys of life danced on her palette and this artist par excellence transformed them all to richly coloured, vibrant paintings. The mysterious ‘well’ here is full of conflicting images of Nature. Mother Nature is both benevolent and intimidating. This one is all paradoxes, pathos, oxymorons and awe inspiring images. To me this evoked images of the sacred river Alph that flows to the sunless sea in Kubla Khan’s Xanadu; haunting, gothic!
”Such, such are the joys… on the echoing green”
Green bee-eaters basking in the evening sun, a milk white egret in the backdrop
Echoing Silence and Green
Anakkara was brimming and echoing with green this November! There seems to have a drastic change in the usual pattern and terrain of our little village over the last few years. A troop of thick overgrown bushes, fox-tail grass and wild creepers with small flowers joined together and invaded both the sides of our narrow asphalt village road. Another new usurper is the White Feather grass, which we used to consider a native of Palghat ! These foreigners too have taken over patches of uncultivated paddy fields and happily camped on Anakkara soil. The motto of our Anakkara has now become ‘Go wild and green’.
In spite of all these, Anakkara is still enchanting with her lush green luxury.
creepers and climbers growing wild on the roadsides
Apart from the commonly seen white egrets, pond herons, Asian Open bills, cormorants some new visitors are coming to Anakkara nowadays. I could spot the Red wattled lapwings in the paddy fields right in front of our home this November. It is a joy to relish the beauty of these fields in the mornings and evenings, with all these winged friends foraging there.
Asian open bill
Red wattled Lapwing, a new visitor!
Fly like a swan!
snow white egrets in a playful mood
The paddy fields in front of home
The magical charm is not diminished a bit despite the growth of these weeds and bushes. Anakkara is still a beautiful land!