August 19, 2008

The Omkareshwara Temple in Madikeri

“Joy, we need to reach the temple before sundown,” I shouted over the din as the bus groaned up an incline in Madikeri. “Hopefully we will. There’s still time,” Joy said, looking at his watch, then at the fading light outside the window. The bus slowed down to let honking traffic pass. We had rushed back from Abbey Falls and had hoped to make it to the Omkareshwara temple before the light dropped for the day.

It was a busy evening in Madikeri, the capital of Kodagu (also known as Coorg), a district of Karnataka State. Of the crowd we passed on our way to the Omkareshwara temple most were young and motorbikes were their preferred mode of transport. “Raja’s Seat is the only entertainment in the evenings around here,” Joy told me as the bus slowed down to pass groups of youths and families making their way to Raja’s Seat to watch musical fountains seemingly spout coloured water to loud rhythmic music. Raja’s Seat was to be our last stop for the day after Omkareshwara before heading back for the night to the Club Mahindra facility in Galibeedu, the tour sponsors. Abbey Falls was crowded. It was there that Joy gave us a short lesson in coffee beans as we walked back to the bus, pausing every now and then to look at coffee beans growing on either side of the cemented path. As the bus pulled away I looked forward to the quiet of the temple.

At 1,170 metres above sea level it’s inevitable that Madikeri’s inhabitants will have made their homes along the rising gradient of hilly terrain. In the distance Madikeri gives the appearance of a terraced farm of roofs. And it was these undulating roads that bore our bus to the Omkareshwara temple just as sunlight began to drop behind the hills. It didn’t help that we had descended by a fair bit to get to the temple, and in the distance electric lights had begun to flicker up in the hills that ringed the temple. As dusk loomed fading light turned patches of vegetation in the hills to a deep shade of green.

As we made to get off the bus at a bifurcation in the road where a certain Timmiah had his house the driver backed up the slope to make a turn so he could park the bus and wait out our return. As he struggled to negotiate the turn in the narrow road horns sounded behind him. He braked. And the horns fell silent. Inch by inch, helped by Manju, his teenaged assistant, directing him from the outside he began to maneuver the bus into position, grumbling all along. He had a long day at the wheel, first Bhagamandala, then Talacauvery before returning to the base at Galibeedu for lunch, and followed by Abbey Falls, and now Omkareshwara. There was an edge to his voice as he barked at Manju, his eye outside the bus. Traffic began to bunch up behind him; drivers patiently waiting for the bus to hold its position just long enough so they could pass it.

By then we were hurrying down a mud path that led past the pond fronting the temple before walking in a single file along a parapet that overlooked the pond where two small boats lay anchored together. I cannot remember the colours for there was no Sun to bounce off them. The late evening cast the environs in an ethereal tinge of blue in the still waters, dispensing the calm of an open sky that December day last year.

Two beggars on either side of the entrance stood in silence, hands outstretched. In the lengthening greys they seemed as much a part of the surroundings as the temple.

We took off our footwear outside the entrance to the temple before walking through the main door. For the benefit of devotees visiting the temple pooja timings in Kannada and English painted in white on a metal sheet were nailed to the wooden door that opened into a courtyard of sorts, circling the temple in the middle.

On entering the door a room on a raised platform displayed a board in Kannada and English. It was the office of the Parpathigar.

A middle-aged man in a woolen sweater sat at a wooden table, pen in hand. A yellow bulb hung overhead. On the wall behind him a calendar depicting Goddess Lakshmi seated in a lotus flower hung beside a Ajanta Quartz wall clock donated by Pandian Enterprises based out of Madikeri. The wall calendar was gifted by Vinayaka Enterprises, advertised as ‘Exclusive ACC Cement Dealers’. However the portion at the bottom where month-wise calendar leaves are stapled was empty, indicating the calendar was an old one, now retained for the picture of the deity worshipped in India as the Goddess of wealth and prosperity.

A tiny scrap of paper stuck at the staple where month-wise calendar leaves are ripped off at the end of the month to display the next one showed the calendar as having been issued in this century. The last digit indicating the year was missing. All over the empty space someone had noted scraps of information in blue pen, possibly contact numbers, addresses and the like. Until this information remained relevant and was not transferred to a notepad or a diary it served as another reason to keep the calendar on the wall. With a little over three weeks to go for the year the calendar would possibly make way for a new one, issued by any of the many privately run enterprises that abound in Madikeri, and advertised prominently on the calendar, and ensured visibility for the entire year. In households across India calendars of deities later transform into framed pictures that find their way into prayer rooms where they’re worshipped through year after year.

For a Parpathigar I thought the office with the lone man at the desk writing under a yellow bulb was nondescript to say the least but then the Parpathigars no longer figure as prominently now as they once did during the reign of the Kings when they performed important tasks in the administration of justice, civil as well as criminal. The Mysore State Gazetteer records the Administration of Justice in the erstwhile State of Coorg thus: ‘On the Criminal side, Gauda of a village was authorized to reprimand and admonish the offenders for minor offenses. The Parpathigars had powers to confine offenders for ten days. All other offenders deserving higher punishment were sent to Subedar who had power to confine offenders for 30 days.’ After Coorg surrendered to the British in 1834, the ‘Parpathigars or Naik Subedars were invested with powers (as defined by the Coorg Courts Act, Act XXV of 1861) to try suits of money or immovable property of the value not exceeding Rs. 50/-'.

Apparently Parpathigars also functioned as Civil Administrators when they were not a part of the Administration of Justice. Writing about her father’s uncle who once functioned as a Parpathigar at the Omkareshwara temple, Deepa Bhasthi, a blogger from Madikeri, is reminded of an incident involving her grand-uncle when she, her mother and the maid resolve to move an old grinding stone from her front-yard to the garden three years ago. After many years of use having inflicted wear and tear upon the grinding stone it eventually came to serve as a seating place in her front-yard where Deepa “spent many an evening there reading and getting bitten by mosquitos.” Reminded of how it came into her possession, Deepa writes, “One of my ancestors was a very good administrator, the Parpathigar, at the Omkareshwara temple that I have written about. The king was once very pleased with his work and asked what he wanted as a reward.”

Apparently he asked for very little. To this day it must rankle Deepa for she writes, “(Her grand-uncle was) so content with his life that all he asked for (from the king) was a cot to sleep on and a grinding stone to help in the kitchen! Can you believe the absurdity? I mean, there was so much he could have asked for!

The erstwhile reward now rests in her redesigned garden, among terracotta horses, and shells.

Bells peal as devotees who’ve come in before us walk across the courtyard to the temple and climb the steps to where bells hang at the entrance, ringing them before paying obeisance to Lord Shiva. We follow behind, walking through the short, arched passage before pausing where it opens into the temple courtyard. Images of Garuda and Hanuman grace opposite sides of the wall where the passage arches overhead before depositing us under the sky. I take a picture of Garuda. I’ve been intrigued by Garuda since the time I was a child.

Kodagu (also known as Coorg) changed hands several times in its history. The earliest recorded history of Kodagu from the 9th and the 10th Centuries speaks of the Changalavas governing the East and a part of the North of Kodagu in addition to the Hunsur taluka in Mysore as a feudatory for the Gangas of Talakkadu who, after two centuries in power, eventually met their match in the Cholas in the 11th Century. The Cholas then ceded power to the Hoysalas in the 12th Century who survived early challenges to their supremacy mounted by the Changalavas when they held out for independence after the fall of the Cholas but before long the Hoysalas subdued them in 1174 AD, turning them into vassals. The Hoysalas rule came to an end with their defeat by the Vijayanagara Empire in the 14th Century and the Changalavas then subordinated to the mighty empire. However, the Vijayanagara Empire was not to last. Betrayed by two Muslim commanders, the Gilani brothers, at the battle of Talikot in 1565, the Vijayanagara Empire went into decline with its defeat at the hands of the Muslim rulers of the five Deccan Sultanates of Ahmednagar, Bijapur, Golconda, Berar, and Bidar who joined hands against the Vijayanagara Empire. The victorious Islamic Deccan Sultanates then laid waste to the glorious empire the remains of whose resplendent architecture can still be glimpsed at Hampi, an inner suburb of the Empire, architecture that had little or no parallel in the world then and possibly now. Hampi is now a World Heritage Site.

Mysore was soon to descend into a state of flux after the battle of Talikot. Srirangapatna was a viceroyalty in the Vijayanagara Empire, overseeing the vassal states of Talakad and Mysore, the latter ruled by the Wodeyars. Though the Vijayanagara Empire weakened considerably after the battle of Talikot in 1565, it still retained a hold over Srirangapatna via the Viceroy, Rangaraya, but its days were numbered in the face of an emboldened vassal state of Mysore. In 1610 the Raja (King) of Mysore dethroned the Vijayanagara Viceroy of Srirangapatna and moved his capital from Mysore to Srirangapatna. Eventually he would turn his attention to the Changalava hold over Kodagu, starting with Piriyapatna (Periapatam), the capital of the Changalava kings that Piriya Raja built in 1589 and named after himself. Facing imminent defeat at the hands of the Raja of Mysore, the last of the Changalava kings, Vira Raja, put his wives and children to death before himself falling in the defence of his capital Piriyapatna in 1644.

With the Changalava dynasty having come to an end, Kodagu now lay open to conquest by Mysore. It didn’t happen because the Raja of Mysore was occupied with fighting off enemies elsewhere, so it was left to a prince of the Ikkri or the Bednur family, said to be related to the Changalavas, to take the reins of Kodagu (Coorg), and a steady succession of his descendants ensured his dynasty remained the Rajas of Kodagu until the year 1834 when the British deposed them. Long before then, in 1681 the capital was moved to Madikeri from Piriyapatna (needs to be confirmed) by Muddu Raja. Before it came to be known as Madikeri it was known as Muddurajakeri.

The dynasty probably suffered as much from internal strife as from Tipu Sultan until his death at the hands of the British in 1799.

It was in 1820, 14 years before the Coorg rulers were deposed by the British that the then king, Linga Raja, built the Omkareshwar temple at Madikeri. In my travels across the country I’ve been intrigued by the origins of temples, more so those dedicated to Lord Shiva. And it was from the temple priest that I learnt of the reason behind the construction of the Omkareshwar temple.

The elder of the two priests spoke softly in the dialect of Dakshin Kannada. It’s been years since I last actively conversed in the dialect, the tone and style having escaped my ears in the time since then. So when the elderly priest, Shivram Bhat, spoke I had difficulty picking up certain expressions. Other times I strained to pick his voice in the backdrop of devotional songs ringing through the temple.

“The king, Linga Raja, killed a brahmin,” he said.

“Why did he kill the brahmin,” I asked, alarmed at the turn the story of the origin of the Omkareshwar temple was now taking.

“He desired a brahmin girl (apparently as a daughter-in-law though some accounts suggest he wanted to marry her). However her father, a poor brahmin man, refused to give his daughter away in marriage, and Linga Raja, infuriated at the refusal had the innocent brahmin man tortured and killed at this very spot.”

The brahmin priest paused. Outside, the shadows had lengthened. Bells pealed near where the three of us stood, away from the entrance to the sanctum sanctorum.

I watch devotees run their hand over the arathi (lamp) and bring it to their eyes in acceptance of the light blessed by the almighty. Then they drop coins as offerings in a plate holding the lighted lamp. A few dip their finger in the small container of kumkum (red vermillion) and apply it to their forehead between the brows, at the spot considered to be home to wisdom.

“Then?” I prompt the priest.

“On killing a brahmin he acquired the brahma hatya dosha and began to get nightmares, falling off his throne and the like. It was relentless. Then he was advised to seek redemption by building this temple,” he completed. It is believed that the soul of a murdered brahmin will take the form of a ‘Brahmarakshasa’ and torment the murderer until he seeks redemption.

The Shivalinga now worshipped in the temple has its origins in Kashi. Among the many Shivalingas in Kashi five are considered the most sacred, and Omkareshwara is one of them. Praying to Omkareshwara is thus believed to rid the sinner of the tormenting ‘Brahmarakshasa’. Linga Raja (also known as Lingarajendra) installed the Shivalinga from Kashi in the temple where we now stood, seeking redemption for his sin. Linga Raja was known for the terror he inflicted on his citizens.

Looking around I’m struck by the absence of a mandapa or the pillared hall common to temple architecture in India for, it is in the pillared hall (mandapa) that devotees congregate for prayers. The entrance to the doorway that leads to the garbha-griha or the sanctum sanctorum where the deity resides is reached through the pillared hall. Typically a circumambulation passage encloses the garbha-griha, the devotees using it to circle the garbha-griha as they pray, symbolically circling the universe and indicating the soul has no beginning nor an end. However the mandapa is consipicuous by its absence here, and the entrance to the doorway is instead reached through a verandah-shaped enclosure running along the sides.

“What are those images,” I ask the priest, pointing to the walls making up the outer precinct of the temple, enclosing a courtyard, also known as a prakaram. A yellow bulb hangs over a window and two images flank it. I cannot make them out clearly from where I stand. More images abound along the length of the prakaram.

“They depict stories of the gods, the gods themselves, and events from our epics,” he replies.

Through the main entrance to the courtyard I catch the lights in the pond outside, lights from the hills surrounding the tank reflecting in the water. And as if on cue the priest says, “The pond is a sight to watch during the ‘teppotsava’ when the deity is paraded in the boats you saw anchored in the pond as you entered the temple. The whole place lights up. Large numbers of people gather at the time. The ‘teppotsava’ takes place in Kartik Masa.”

Kartik Masa is usually the eighth lunar month of the Hindu calendar. Depending on the beginning of the year it can vary from being the first month as with the Gujarathis or the seventh month as in the Bangla calendar.

The elderly priest, Shivram Bhat, is from Vitla near Mangalore in Dakshina Kannada having come to the Omkareshwara temple in 1976 to take up priestly duties at the temple. The younger priest, Gopalkrishna Bhat, is from Puttur. He was formerly with the Kukke Subramanya temple before he coming here. The Kukke Subramanya temple is 105 kms. from Mangalore.

The elder of the priests looks in my direction and says in Kannada, “Brahmandra antey kanathdalla.” (You look to be a brahmin).

I smile before replying, “Yes.”

“Are you Haveega,” he asks me. Havyaka (or Haveega) is a sub-sect of brahmins professing the Advaita philosophy of Shankaracharya, and are mostly to be found in Uttara Kannada and Dakshina Kannada. Kodagu borders Dakshin Kannada.

“No, not a Havyaka. I’m a Vaishnava,” I reply before clarifying further, “a Madhva.” Madhvas are a brahmin sub-sect who profess to the school of Hindu philosophy known as Dvaita. It was originally propounded by Madhvacharya in the 13th Century.

The priest then points to royal inscriptions for me to read. “They’re written in halle Kannada (Old Kannada),” he says.

I nod and look up at the inscriptions before admitting, “I cannot read the script.” The devotional song playing on the tape soothes me even as it drowns his voice when the pitch rises in praise of the lord. Then we walk up to a window a few steps to my right. He pauses in front of it and points to the bars in the window before placing his finger on what appears to be a cut in one of the bars. “This is the King’s seal,” he explains.

I strain my eyes in trying to make sense of the royal seal on the window bar. It is a tiny seal etched in metal. The bars of the window are made of Panchaloha, an alloy of five metals (gold, silver, brass, copper, and iron). Pancha is five in Indian, and Panchaloha has a sacred significance, used in the construction of temple icons.

I can barely make out the royal seal in the dim light as I bend to take a picture. The temple bell sounds again like it has in the time I’ve been here. More devotees make their way in to pay obeisance to the deity, each with a wish and prayer on the lips, a cycle that has no end, and nor a beginning – only a present.

Note: This is Part Four of my Coorg Diaries. Read Part I, Part II, and Part III posted earlier. This is Part Four of my Coorg Diaries . This is Part Four of my Coorg Diaries .

August 02, 2008

Musicians at a Wedding Down South

Before the advent of ‘marriage halls’ (known as Kalyana Mantap) most Indian marriages used be conducted at the home of the bride, the others at temples. I attended several such marriages as a child. It helped that I had several aunts from either side of my family, resulting in a succession of marriages over the years.

Weeks before the wedding date, relatives from near and far, usually women, traveling long distances, having left their working husbands behind, would gather at the home of the bride. And then would commence a very enjoyable time with the household turning into a bee hive of activity as preparations for the marriage began in earnest. With sweets being central to wedding preparations, a whole variety of them, it was only natural that I would, along with sundry other cousins keep a close watch on the large tins they were stored in, raiding them at the first unguarded opportunity that presented itself. The elders even if they knew of our capers did not let on.

In the evenings the house rang to devotional songs with neighbours joining in as the women took turns singing songs, much laughter interspersing playful ribbing as reluctant singers were prodded into giving voice to their vocals.

The shamiana (pavilion), chairs, flower arrangements, horse carriages, cooks, and the wedding band used to be arranged for in advance. I took a fascination to the music band (also known as a brass band or procession band), attracted to their tidy uniforms often a bright red, and shiny epaulettes and shoes, marching in formation while playing gleaming musical instruments, often a mix of clarinets, trumpets, and saxophones.

Widely employed during weddings, brass bands lead the procession (also known as ‘baarat’) as the groom makes his way to the wedding venue on the female of a horse, known as ghodi. The male of the horse is called ghoda. Also, the night before the wedding the brass band leads the bride’s side of the family in a procession to the groom’s house to escort the groom for the milni ceremony.

The repertoire of early brass bands was Indian classical music, largely raga based, rendered with a mix of shehnais, dholaks, and the harmonium among others. With the advent of film songs popularizing wedding sequences in Hindi films, brass bands added films songs to their repertoire.

Over time ‘marriage halls’ began to make their presence felt, essentially shifting the preparations out of the house and to a commercial venue. Flower arrangements, brass band, seating arrangements, food, and even accommodation are now available as services for a fee.

Each time I attend a wedding I look for the musicians, which I suspect is more for their outfits than their ability with the musical instruments. However this time around last year the five musicians I met in Bangalore during the wedding were clad in simple clothes: shirts and white dhotis. It might have to do with the instruments they were playing. I cannot imagine a clarinet or a saxophone with a dhoti.

Of the group two played the dholak, one was on the harmonium, while the other two played the shehnai, an ancient Indian wind instrument. The shehnai (also spelled shenai) is rarely played solo. It is usually accompanied by another shehnai. While one holds a drone the other exults in a succession of subtleties, flowing richly.

Ustad Bismillah Khan, the legendary shehnai exponent, came to be synonymous with the shehnai and no Indian marriage is deemed complete without the shehnai making its presence felt with its soulful tunes that reflect the seriousness of the occasion even as it exuberates in the joyousness of the event, alternating between smiles and the tears streaming down the cheeks of the bride as she prepares to leave her parents’ home for that of her husband, a separation that distinguishes between the two phases of life in the Indian scheme of things.

Inching closer to the hand operated harmonium I noticed on the bellows a company label showing a map of undivided India, indicating the harmonium was manufactured before India’s partition in 1947. It is very likely that it was rolled out in 1944, the year R. Annaihya started Bharath Harmonium Works near Balapet Square, Bangalore.

Along with the harmonium the now yellowing label has survived over sixty years, enduring the daily rigour on the musician’s circuit. It cannot but be a testimony to the care lavished on the harmonium over the years.

Bharath Harmonium Works still operates out of the same place it first started, manufacturing a range of musical instruments, even the telephone number is the same as that on the original label except for the prefixes occasioned by a growing Bangalore population. The third generation now runs the place.

I spoke with Yashpal, the grandson of the founder, R. Annaihya. He told me that along with his brothers he took over daily operations at the manufacturing unit after his father passed away. He does not remember much of the old days except that his grandfather worked under Hanif, a Muslim musician he credits with introducing the harmonium to Bangalore. I can only guess what he might mean by this because he does not recollect any details beyond this except to say that Hanif, on finding that harmonium was not in use in Bangalore, maybe also elsewhere in Karnataka State, “took four carpenters to Bombay somewhere in 1888-1890 to train in the art of making the harmonium.”

He does not recollect the exact year his grandfather went to work for Hanif. “It must be somewhere between 1930-34,” he said, arriving at the date backwards from 1944, the year his grandfather, R. Annaihya, started his own company, Bharath Harmonium Works, after working for Hanif for “ten years or so”.

R. Annaihya passed away in 1992, leaving behind a legacy whose future now appears increasingly bleak.

“I may not continue this much longer,” Yashpal said, indicating that Bharath Harmonium Works faces imminent closure. “I function with a lone carpenter,” he explained before continuing, “Hardly anyone wants to learn the craft now.”

The hall resounds to the tunes of the shehnai while the harmonium keeps up a steady drone. Strangely I cannot recollect the harmonium player use the keys, only the external bellows, depressing them rhythmically, forcing the air into the internal bellows, expanding them as they push against the reeds to produce the characteristic sound of the harmonium. Actually I cannot recollect seeing keys on that harmonium either. I’m not sure if they had any.

I sit on the side watching them play in concert. They hail from Tamilnadu, traveling from wedding to wedding. July is an auspicious month for weddings in the Hindu calendar.

“This is a busy month for us,” the shehnai player leans over and tells me, smiling as he returns it to his lips, straining on it as the tunes fill the large hall.

Note: The post has spawned an interesting debate on whether the instrument shown in the pictures above is a Shehnai or a Nadaswaram or if using both interchangeably is correct.

The Nadaswaram is also referred as Nagaswaram or Nagasvara (the name probably owing its origins to the Pungi that snake charmers use, Nag is Indian for Cobra). However the Pungi is much smaller. One school of music lovers will insist that Nagaswaram is the correct name, and not Nadaswaram. If the Pungi origin is true then they make a valid point.

The Nadaswaram itself is not of uniform length across its constructs. A shorter version of Nadaswaram is known as Mukhavina. There’s yet another length of the Nagaswaram that is known as the Timiri, and another version that is known as the Bari. The Nagaswaram that functions as a drone is also known as the Ottu. In each case the length differs. However the variations do not matter insofar as knowing the instrument as Nagaswaram among the people of South India.

But to the North of India, Nagaswaram is seen as a variation of the Shehnai just as the Mukhavina, the Timiri, the Bari, and the Ottu are seen as variations of the Nagaswaram and/or differing in nomenclature where applicable.

The instrument that South Indians know as the Nadaswaram the North Indians will identify as the Shehnai, else as belonging to the Shehnai group. It’s a common construct insofar as both are wind instruments, using bamboo reeds, the number of reeds could differ between them just as their lengths differ among themselves, their use during weddings, and they’re both played in a drone-'active' pairing.

With the Shehnai there is no consistency in the number of openings either, ranging from six to nine, but they’re the Shehnai just the same.

Down South the Shehnai is known as the Hindustani music counterpart of Carnatic music. Up North the Nagaswaram is known as the Carnatic music counterpart of Hindustani music.

Out West, the Shehnai and hence the Nagaswaram will be seen as a variation of the Clarinet, and vice versa.

Once variations come into the picture the original name ends up being a generic name, just the way the Nagaswaram/Nadaswarsam became a generic name for the Timri, the Bari, the Ottu, and the Mukhvina, just as the Shehnai probably became a generic name for the Nagaswaram, or possibly the other way round depending on which came first.

This makes me curious to know which of these three came first. Does anyone know for certain? Grist for another North – South debate? :)