Sep 21, 2011

From my kitchen and from my Bookshelf

Here is a picture of our breakfast two days ago - fresh tapioca from our backyard. No chemical fertilizers or pesticides were used to produce these tubers. What the heck, we did little other than paying for planting the tapioca cuttings! 10 months later, we are reaping the benefits! 

Did you know that tapioca was first introduced to Kerala by a Travancore king? Sri Visakhom Tirunal Rama Varma (ruled 1880-1885) brought the tuber to Kerala in an effort to alleviate the famines caused by frequent paddy crop failure. Paddy must be one of the most fragile of crops - the least drought or unseasonable rain spells its doom as we all know. So tapioca was a big boon to people at that time.

Which brings me to one of the books I am reading right now - I got this historical titbit from "The Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple" written by Aswathi Tirunal Gowri Lakshmibai. I did not know that there was a such a book until some photographs from it began appearing in the newspapers in connection with recent events. The next time I went to the temple, I asked the staff about the book and got the astonishing answer that there was a counter in the temple itself exclusively for the Malayalam and English editions of the book! You can imagine I didn't lose much time in getting a copy. I bought the Malayalam edition, translated from the original English one by K. Sankaran Namboothiri and K. Jayakumar.

The book makes for some heavy reading, combining mythology, history, arcane religious symbolism and religious philosophy all together in one volume, in very ornate language resembling nineteenth century English novels. It starts with the origin of the temple and makes informed guesses regarding the founder and the founding according to which the temple could be anywhere from 5000 years old. Of course, the present grand form was the contribution of Sri Anizham Tirunal Marthanda Varma whose reign marked the entry of Travancore into the modern age. The author bases her work on several earlier scholarly works, but mainly on the biggest treasure (according to historians!) of the temple. These are the Mathilakam Rekhakal - the thousands of precious palm-leaf scrolls that form the "log book" of the temple since ancient times and have inadvertently become a history book of sorts in a country notorious for its mostly oral historical traditions. Remember studying in school that we have had to learn about the great Indian emperors of yore from the accounts of Chinese, Persian or European travelers? These same scrolls have served Dr. RP Raja (New Light on Swathi Tirunal) when the very existence of Swathi Tirunal was questioned in a writ filed in the High Court in Chennai. Since the temple was intimately connected with the royal family, temple history is also the history of the tiny kingdom. I would say that the temple has had some measure of peace in the post-Independence era as it seems to have been a hotbed of intrigue and power struggles before that.

History aside, the book is valuable in its description of the huge temple itself. I have been there several times and still the descriptions of  many of the rituals and minor deities are new to me. To any uninformed first-time visitor, the temple would be a total puzzle. I remember my first visit in 1996 while I was a student in Thiruvananthapuram. I couldn't make out the proper exit from the inner temple, so I ended up doing a counter-clockwise circumambulation, which is considered sacrilegious! Thankfully, since then I have learned to ask the very helpful temple staff for help when in doubt. The elaborate offerings, traditions and festivities of the temple are laid down clearly in the book and make for fascinating reading, although they must be a real headache to implement. I imagine only the British sovereign family and the Vatican must have more elaborate protocol.
The author takes on a lot in the book - she has to play impartial historian while being a passionate devotee of the deity and being absolutely devoted to her own family which has played the central role in the fortunes of both the state and the temple. I find it interesting that she has let the historian in her be frank about some of her ancestors - stating mildly that they were occasionally not as capable as they should have been in ruling the state or the temple affairs. Since the book is about the temple, the historical portions are as brief as can be made and she apologizes in several places for mentioning the rulers - the profuse apologies become tiresome after a bit! She could've just mentioned it in the Introduction and then left it out altogether. There are photographs of the temple's seevelippura, the kulasekhara mandapam and some of the murals - not available elsewhere since photography is not allowed in the temple.

All in all, it is an excellent study of the iconic temple, a concise textbook of Travancore history and in light of the controversies of the day, makes you believe that history indeed travels in circles! Take it up when you are in the mood for some serious reading only - don't say that I didn't warn you!!!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for your sweet compliments on my blog post! You are so kind :)

    I wish I knew how to cook Indian food!I certainly LOVE the combinations and have always been a fan! I'm off to go look through some of your posts, I finally have some free time today and it's so welcome! :)

    Hugs, Cynthia


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