Tag Archives: India

Chithirai Festival – The Wedding

Tirukalyanam – the Great Wedding

At the heart of the Chithirai Festival of course is the wedding of Goddess Meenakshi and Lord Sundareswarar. This being one of the most important festivals in South India, I don’t think there was ever a chance of landing an advance ticket, so it was time to queue.

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Now, while I probably could have sorted one of the reserved tickets for foreign visitors, guess I’m a sucker for queuing for hours in near 40C temps hoping to get a same-day ticket. Well, a couple of buckets of sweat later, I was in.

The ceremony itself was quiet short in the end – barely half an hour. It also turned out to very solemn event – up to the point when the knot was tied that is and then you never saw so much happiness – people were beaming.

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Ceremony over, devotees taking pictures of a televised Goddess Meenakshi and her new husband (at least I think its him)

With ceremonies over and like any good wedding, it was time to get fed. In this case – and on behalf of the deities – it was neighbouring shopkeepers and residents who were feeding the masses and providing free dishes of sweet pongal and biyrani for all.

The Juggernauts

Wedding over then, the newly married couple make several processions around the streets of Madurai – and none grander than the Great Car Festival early the next morning.

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Take two house-sized, hand-carved, wooden chariots – one for him, one for her – each with three to four meter-wide granite wheels, get thousands of energetic locals to haul them at speed through dense crowds – without casualties hopefully – and you’ve got shock-and-awe.

And its not just the two deities and their cars – throw in some jesters and elephants, temple fan-bearers and musicians, the hawkers and the hucksters and now that’s a parade.

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Finally, the two cars return to where they started – not that you could tell from shouts of the crowds that it had been five hours in hot sun (fingers crossed – my first video)

And lastly – spare a thought for the guys from the local electricity company – seems half of Madurai was in the dark while the temple cars went by…

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Time for a Party

The lavishness of Indian weddings is well known, but when it comes to the celestial wedding here in Madurai of two of Hinduism’s principal deities it gets taken to a whole new level.

After ten or so days of events preparing for the wedding, the marriage of Goddess Meenakshi to Lord Sundareswarar takes place tomorrow morning, followed then by days more of related events and celebrations.

With the population of the city said to nearly double for the festival, you could say Madurai is bracing itself.

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Above – while out earlier this evening, I did manage to catch a final procession of the two deities before the wedding – this shot is of Lord Sundareswarar with both priests and police keeping close eye on things.

A funny thing happened…

A funny thing happened in Madurai the other evening – it rained… for a city that’s been parched the last couple of years with failed monsoons and that’s been enduring regular water rationing, there was a certain giddiness in the air when for a couple of hours on Wednesday evening last, the heavens opened.

Even the River Vaigai that runs through the city briefly resembled well, a river… There was of course a full report in the Times of India.

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Btw, yep, I’m back in India – it would seem it is possible afterall, to leave India and get a second back-to-back tourist visa – so hopefully there’ll be a few more posts from these parts yet.

 

A Long Way from Clady

Dotted along Marina Beach in Chennai is a collection of statues erected in 1968 to celebrate the greatest heroes of Tamil literature and culture. If you take a look behind the bus stop at the northernmost end of the beach (just behind the tea stand) you’ll find one such statue – that of a tall bearded European…

Robert CaldwellA plaque reads “Robert Caldwell – The Pioneer Dravidian Linguist of Great Britain (1814 – 1891)” – If the had a little more room on the plinth, they might have added “Born in Clady, County Antrim”.

IdaiyankudiPanoAnd so with Tamil-Irish connections thin on the ground, that’s how I found myself twenty meters up a church tower overlooking the small coastal town of Idaiyankudi boiling alive on probably the hottest, most humid day of the year.

Robert Caldwell was born to Scottish parents in Clady not too far outside Belfast (*1). Although moving to Glasgow as a child, it was while later spending three years training as an artist in Dublin that he decided on a path that would lead him to spending fifty years as a Anglican missionary in this far off corner of India.

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Courtesy Wikipedia maps

Even today, the pleasant coastal town of Idaiyankudi is well off the beaten track but when Caldwell walked 800 miles to get here at the end of 1841 (at a time when most European missionaries rarely left the larger cities) it was off the map. With famines and cholera epidemics always a threat, it certainly wasn’t the easiest posting he could have asked for.

Regarded by his contemporaries as a wildly successful missionary and social reformer in the south of present day Tamil Nadu, the tales of his missionary work alone make for a great read (*2). Ultimately though, as a trained linguist, it was through his study of local languages (needed for his missionary work) that he cemented his stature as a ‘Tamil Hero’ – especially though the publication of one book

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As any student of South Indian languages (the ‘Dravidian‘ languages) will know, Tamil and its language cousins have their own branch of the language family tree separate from northern languages such as Hindi and Urdu. This wasn’t clearly understood though until Caldwell’s book was published (*3) in 1856 when he argued over some 600 pages on how closely related dozens of southern languages were, while also speculating on their origin.

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Commemorative Stamp from Indian Post

The book’s impact went far beyond the world of comparative philology though – by demonstrating the distinctiveness of the languages (and by extension cultures) of the South, it gave a kick-start for south Indian nationalism. It might not have been his intention, but language nationalism remains a big feature of Indian politics right to this day.

And so, Robert Caldwell is buried his wife Eliza at the altar of the church he built in Idaiyankudi – a long way from Clady.

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Grave of Robert Caldwell


*1 – There’s some confusion about Caldwell’s birthplace – his biography says it was only a couple of miles from Belfast and in County Antrim. Wikipedia says much the same but suggests it was in fact the town of Clady in County Derry near Maghera (albeit close to the current border with Antrim) but still nearly forty miles from Belfast. For good measure, it would seem there are at least another half dozen ‘Cladys’ listed as placenames within shouting distance of Belfast. So who knows? (Alas for readers near Claudy, County Derry he’s probably not one of yours.)
*2 – Several biographies are available both online and in-print
*3 – Out of copyright, Caldwell’s “Comparative Grammar” is nowadays available to read online.

The Great Paint Job

When I first arrived in Tamil Nadu back in November, it seemed as if every square inch that could be painted with a politician’s name, slogan, or logo, was painted. In other states it tends to be cement companies that vie for the best spots not so here – at least until the last couple of weeks that is…

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You see, overnight a couple of weeks ago, thousands of acres of labouriously painted signs just disappeared – Gone! Zap! As soon as the upcoming general election was announced, advertising rules kicked in and they had to go – for the sign painters of Tamil Nadu these are boom times. Although, I did manage to snap some of them before they disappeared…

You’ll probably notice a certain similarity between the signs and that’s because the bulk of the signs were for the ruling AIADMK party. That’s the party headed by former Tamil movie star and now Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, J. Jayalalithaa – commonly known as ‘Amma’ (i.e. Mother or அம்மா in Tamil).

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Stay in Tamil Nadu any length of time and its impossible not to bump into ‘Amma’ every corner you turn – whether its the round the clock coverage on TV, her personalised bottles of water, children’s schoolbooks, or government planted tree saplings on the side of the street. Or at least that was the case until election officials got the paint brushes out… Just as well then, that the Chief Minister’s 66th birthday fell back at the end of February.

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As befits someone with a Guinness Book of Records record to her name, this was a quiet a party. With posters and street parties the length and breadth of Tamil Nadu you did get the feeling that it was partly genuine and not entirely part of the pre-election advertising wars.

Anyway, I’ll leave it at that – the starter gun has gone on the election campaign now. With an electorate of 815 million I won’t even pretend to have half a clue of what’s going on. Someone remarked to me that its going to be like a festival every day till voting – guess I’ll just go with the flow…

Update: The New York Times today has an interesting writeup on J. Jayalalithaa (amongst others) and the role she’ll play in the upcoming government formation – http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/13/world/asia/coalition-building-season-in-india.html

Unfinished Business

DCIM102GOPROSo this is as close to the southernmost tip of India that you can easily get to – an island just offshore from the town of Kanyakumari. I was here back in November – but with massive crowds, I couldn’t make it on to the island. Well, I made it this time.

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(There is of course more to see – the island is home to the Vivekanada Memorial – a monument in honour of a re\nowned Hindu spiritual teacher who visited here one time – but the sign did me.)