Stories from Inscriptions: Profound Real-life Tales from Hindu Cultural History

Stories from Inscriptions

One of the interesting stories mentioned in Sandeep Balakrishna’s Stories From Inscriptions: Profound Real-life Tales from Hindu Cultural History comes from a village called Hebbale near Hassan in Karnataka. The story is about the contribution Hebbale made to our sacred tradition of pilgrimages.

This contribution was unique because it was done when Turkish invaders enforced jizya. According to a contemporary of Jehangir, the purpose of imposing jizya on kafirs is their humiliation. The humiliation was amplified by putting a pilgrim tax, and the one enforced on pilgrims going to Kashi and Prayag was the highest. According to a copper inscription from 1279 CE, king Vira Narasimha offered the land revenues of 645 varahas from Hebbale to pilgrims to Varanasi. Among those, 402 varahas were jizya to the Turkish tax collector. The remaining was for the maintenance of Sri Visweshwara temple. 

What makes this story interesting is this: Vira Narasimha was an adherent of the Jaina philosophy. So why would a Jaina Hoysala king pay jizya on behalf of Hindu pilgrims from Karnataka visiting Varanasi? 

Sandeep’s book is a collection of 15 such stories based on inscriptions. These stories were previously unknown except to scholars. This book is meant for the general audience and is written in the style of popular narrative history. The purpose is to introduce incidents from our past as narrated by kings, businessmen, bards, and warriors in their own words. These stories come from Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Tamil Nadu and span a timeline from the 9th century CE up to the 17th century CE.

The stories are organized by various themes mentioned at the beginning of each story. For example, one story is about a wealthy merchant Hatia, who purchased three marketplaces. The revenue from these marketplaces was provided as a permanent endowment to three deities at a temple complex. This story reveals political, social, and economic conditions during that time. History was boring in school because we were taught random dates, wars, and the number of trees planted by various kings. The book goes beyond that and gives us context into the country’s state at that time.

This book does three things. First, it shows how Bharat was unified as a civilization state. Second, it refutes many narratives about how uncultured and backward we were till the invaders and colonizers civilized us. Finally, it reveals many aspects of our culture we were unaware of.

Civilization State

Why did Vira Narasimha fund pilgrimages to Kashi and Prayag.? The answer is simple: Vira Narasimha understood Bharat as a civilization nation. Pilgrimages united the nation, and visit to a holy place was a religious duty. Even before modern transportation systems arrived, people traveled long distances for this purpose. Vira Narasimha’s grant covered payments to the staff of the Sri Visveshwara Temple, its maintenance, and various sevas. Apart from the Kashi pilgrims hailing from Narasimha’s dominions, his grant money was primarily used by strangers in a city he would never meet. It was his dharma, and he performed it.

It was not just Kashi and Prayag that were pilgrimage destinations. Inscriptions in Gujarat at the Bhillamāladeva temple mention visitors from Madurai, Ramanathapuram, Tirunelveli, Thanjavur, Tiruchirapalli, Ceylon, Orissa, Vengi, Jodhpur, Alwar, Bharatpur, Gujarat, and Malava. Diffusion of culture occurred due to business relations as well. For example, when there was a dispute between Karnataka-desa and Maratha-desa, it was resolved by a businessman from Kerala. Due to this, a temple was built in the Hoysala style architecture by the descendants of a Malayali businessman.

This book is a gem because it bluntly refutes narratives like “Indians had no sense of history.” Instead, evidence from these inscriptions reveals “an extraordinarily intricate system of administration and governance, a robust military machinery, a Dharma-based jurisprudence, a well-oiled and stable social order and a sprawling economic system bursting with material abundance. Moreover, there was a high degree of administrative sophistication where priority was placed on the human element.”

These fundamental values that united the country are seen in all these inscriptions. We see a world in which truth, dharma, compassion, sacrifice, loyalty, and heroism are admired. We see “donating cows is extolled, temple-building is revered, learning and scholarship are prized and patronized, reverence and respect for women are held paramount, people who die while protecting the honor of women are commemorated with tombstones, valor and death in battle are celebrated, delivering justice based on Dharmic precedents are hailed, composing, singing, and discoursing on our sacred literature are venerated, works of public welfare are supported and praised, and even the most minor act of piety is explicitly recognized and eulogized.”

This richness was not limited to culture. I learned a lot about the maturity of village administration. Our villages provided civilizational sustenance and cultural preservation while the country was being invaded and looted. Village administrations were autonomous entities responsible for managing all aspects of the village. They could administer justice; they had well-defined courts of justice in which the central ruling authority rarely interfered. In return, they deposited annual revenues to the king and prevented anarchy. Annual elections prevented monopolies and concentration of power. Every transaction was written down to the last detail and publicly ratified through voice and in writing.

INdia that is Bharat
India that is Bharat

In his book, India, that is Bharat: Coloniality, Civilisation, Constitution, J Sai Deepak defines the word ‘Coloniality’. This is the process by which the colonizer advances the goal through complete domination of the culture and worldview of the colonized society. This is what the British did to us. Even after they left, Communist party members masquerading as historians used the same ideas, rules, and tools to “civilize” us. This is how we get narratives like Buddhism and Jainism were rebellions against ‘Brahminical hegemony’ or India was not a nation until the British showed up. To understand our past, we must replace the colonial lens with an indigenous lens. This book is a perfect example of that.

These inscriptions enhance our understanding of the vibrancy of our culture and traditions. Despite enormous challenges posed by invaders and colonizers, we survived the invasion of our lands, relentless pressure to abandon our religion, enslavement, and brutal violence. The historical writings gathered in this collection provide abundant evidence of the philosophical roots that built and sustained our civilization and the values that this philosophy birthed and were upheld by our people.

The Thrissur Riot of 1921

Vadakkumnathan Shiva Temple at the center of Thrissur Town (Photo by author)

February 27, 1921, was a tense day in Thrissur town in Kerala. Around 3 PM, around 1500 Christians loyal to the British government, accompanied by the police superintendent, officers, and constables, started a ‘royal loyalty’ procession to publicly demonstrate support for the British Government. Starting near the East market, they moved to a mosque near the Southern gate of Vadakkumnathan temple.

This march was not benign. It would complicate the relations between the British, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians. Within days mobs would be waiting for instructions to burn Thrissur to the ground like Lanka. Just a few months later, the relationship among the Hindus and Muslims would transform. Was this the starting point of the Mappila lahala of 1921? How did the Thrissur riot, which has mostly remained unheard, resolve eventually? Why did this event not become prominent? This article goes into the history of this unheard event.

To understand the events of Thrissur on that day in February, we have to go back a month. It all starts in Malabar in the north of Kerala.

Malabar, January – February 1921

From January 1921, Advocate K Madhavan Nair had an enormous responsibility. He had come back from Nagpur Congress of December 1920 where it was decided to combine the princely states of Malabar, Cochin, and Travancore to form a state called Kerala. As a follow-up, Congress expanded its activities and formed both Congress and Khilafat committees in Malabar. This was due to Gandhi’s strategy of elevating the Khilafat movement as a thank you note for the support he got in previously failed attempts to become a national leader. Following a Congress committee meeting in Kozhikode on January 1921, Madhavan Nair took on the challenge along with Advocate U. Gopala Menon, who had put a lot of effort in Khilafat activities.

District Collector E. F. Thomas sensed that this would not end well. He had extensive knowledge of Eranad taluk and knew the dynamics among the people. He warned that the Khilafat movement would cause the uneducated Mappilas turning not just against the British, but also against the Hindu landlords. This would cause disruption of peace, and also of the loss of life. Fear is typically more of a perception than an actual threat, but what raised his awareness was the association of a person named Variamkunnan Ahmad Haji, who was from a family known to be traditionally associated with such incidents. Another red flag for him was the association of lawyers, like K. Madhavan Nair, who had given up their profession to join this Congress-Khilafat movement.

Ernad Taluk where the 1921 Hindu genocide happened

Thomas decided: these meetings had to stop. K Madhavan Nair or Gopala Menon or Variamkunnan Ahmad Haji, should not be allowed to speak.

This edict surprised Madhavan Nair. He had never heard of this man called Variamkunnan Ahmad Haji. Also, though the Congress-Khilafat committees were active for a few months, there was no violence. This was also a time when the Maulvis were giving speeches exhorting Hindu-Muslim unity. Though these speeches would control violence, Madhavan Nair agreed with the fear expressed by Thomas about the Mappilas. He thought that the District Collector was influenced partially by truth and partially by rumors.

Thomas wanted to enforce curfew in the entire region. He asked for permission from the Madras Government, but they replied saying it suffices to ban specific meetings. Thomas decided that if that’s the case, he would do so.

Madhavan Nair felt that this high-handed approach was going to inflame the situation. He felt that if people did not have a channel to vent out, it would cause disaster. Harassing suspects and leaders and imprisoning and beating them up, was just going to trigger a bigger catastrophe. He took on the District Collector by organizing Khilafat meetings in Parappur on February 14th, Thanoor on the 15th, and Kozhikode on the 16th.

They also invited Yakub Hussain from Madras for the Kozhikode meeting. Yakub Hussain had been a member of the Madras Legislative Council and city corporation. He had also visited England in 1919 as a member of the All India Khilafat Conference and met some Bolsheviks. He came back with the opinion that Bolshevism was the last hope for India.

Since Yakkub Hussain was arriving on the 15th, which was one day earlier than the Kozhikode meeting, Madhavan Nair invited him to the meeting on the 15th too. He went with Gopala Menon and received Yakkub Hussain at Thirur station. On their way, they received information that the meeting scheduled for that day at Thanoor was banned by the Government. The organizers of the Thanoor meeting asked Madhavan Nair for guidance. Thousands were gathered there. They also had spent a lot of money to get people — around 20,000 —- from faraway places to come and attend.

Madhavan Nair was clear – the meeting cannot happen.

Since the Thanoor event was canceled, Madhavan Nair, Gopala Menon, and Yakub Hussain focused on the steps for the next day’s events at Kozhikode. They decided that Yakub Hussain should speak about maintaining peace even when the Government was preventing these meetings from happening. Madhavan Nair argued that if a leader disobeys the law, how can he then convince the followers from maintaining the law. It was then decided that Yakub Hussain alone would break the law and speak at the meeting, while others would comply with Thomas’ edict.

The Kozhikode meeting too did not happen. By noon the next day, Madhavan Nair, Yakub Hussain, Gopala Menon, and a Moitheen Koya were taken by the police to Collector E. F. Thomas, the head of Malabar police Mr. Hitchcock and the Government advocate Govinda Menon. All these people would play a major role in the events to happen later in the year. This was their stage entry.

Thomas looked troubled. Maybe he was upset by the idea that command by the powerful Collector was disregarded by an ordinary Indian. Mr. Thomas read the charges against them and asked if they were planning to disobey. Yakub Hussain told Thomas about this plan to speak about non-violence. He also mentioned that the others in the room would obey the rules. Thomas asked what was the guarantee that they would obey. Madhavan Nair replied that their word was the guarantee.

Thomas gave them one hour to re-think, but they did not change their stance. They were sentenced to 6 months in prison. Thus, instead of speaking to a large audience in Kozhikode, they spent the evening in Kozhikode jail and were sent to Kannoor the next day. This would then trigger a set of events that would result in a tense situation in Thrissur.

Thrissur, February 1921

In Thrissur, a meeting was held on the 16th to commend the bravery of the arrested Congress and Khilafat members. Hearing this, a group of Christians, who supported the British disrupted the meeting and burned down the benches and chairs. The procession by these royal supporters on the 27th was a continuation of this. The Congress and Khilafat committees observed 17 February as the day of protest. Shops were closed, students boycotted classes, and lawyers refused to attend court. In various public meetings, speakers denounced the authorities.

On 26th February, four Muslims of Eranad— Pottayil Kunjahammed, Pottayil Abubaker, V.V.Hassan Kutti Sahib, and Kallarakkal Ahmed — were arrested and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for refusing to abstain from political meetings and delivering speeches. This followed the same pattern as the case with Madhavan Nair and Yakub Hussain. Enraged Mappilas gathered in large numbers, armed with knives and sticks at a Calicut mosque. The mob dispersed only after a two-hour confrontation with the District Magistrate and police.

It was amid this tense situation that Christians took out the loyalty procession supporting the British on February 27th in Thrissur. Muslims stopped this loyalist procession, and a fight broke out. The marchers burned four Muslim houses and destroyed many houses and shops along their path. The police remained a mute spectator. By around 5:30 pm, the procession reached a hospital and to an audience comprising prominent citizens, a lawyer gave a speech on the need for devotion to the royals. Following this loyalty procession, the Muslims and Hindus formed one group against the Christian loyalists.

Dr. A. R. Menon of Thrissur realized that something had to be done to protect the Hindus. He gathered around 600 people to stay and protect Hindu homes. Christians did the same for their homes.

Dr. Menon watched the next day on how the situation would turn out the next day. He was pulling the load of an ox and walking on eggshells. Schools and shops remained closed. People converged at Thekkinkad Maidan and the situation started turning tense. The Diwan arrived and along with that, the police started firing blanks at people. People responded with stones. Seeing that the situation was going out of control, the Diwan started pacifying the people. Dr. Menon gave a speech on how women were insulted and after that people dispersed. A crisis was averted.

The loyalty people stuck again and decided that they would attack their countrymen to prove allegiance to a foreign ruler. The loyalty people had support from the Government and had to show this visibly. They attacked homes and shops. They destroyed bank records. They threw firecrackers filled with glass pieces and nails.

Soon people started leaving Thrissur town. Around 1500 women and children took available transportation to other parts of the state. With a shortage of food and other essential goods, this seemed like a better plan. Finally, the Hindus came up with a plan – get Mapillas from Malabar to deal with the issue.

It is not clear who sent the telegram. The Mapillas, who were incensed with the arrest of Khilafat members, soon arrived in the thousands from Malabar at Thrissur railway station. Most of them did not even buy tickets. They stayed at an inn near the Thiruvambady temple. On hearing this the Diwan and the Resident also reached the town in the morning. By noon around British reserve police also reached there. By then around 1800 Mapillas chanting Allahu Akbar took a procession around the town, drowning the town with their voice.

It was a tense situation. All that was left was to just light the match. The mob waited to hear instructions to destroy the town. Dr. A R Menon knew that his beloved town stood on the precipice of destruction. He along with Marayi Krishna Menon held these people back. The Resident and Diwan held a meeting with the concerned parties. The Mapillas were soon pacified and sent back. A huge disaster was averted. Before leaving, they took out a victory procession, chanting Allahu Akbar, and went to the railway station.


While reading accounts of the Mappila lahala, the Thrissur riot does not come up a lot. This is a critical missed story in almost all narratives because it raises many unpleasant questions. Three events were going on at the same time – revolts against landlords, the Khilafat movement, and the Non-Cooperation Movement. If for example, Mappila lahala was primarily a revolt against landlords according to Communist narratives why did the Mappilas come en masse to Thrissur based on the request of Hindu landlords? If the Congress-Khilafat movement unified the Hindus and Muslims, why was there a genocide and massive conversion of Hindus a few months later? That too in Malabar, from where these Mappilas came from? What was the differentiating factor?

One account written about this time by Gopalan Nair mentions this – “There was a feeling in Malabar that Yakub Hassan episode was the turning point in the Khilafat movement and it was from about that point that the attitude of the Khilafat became deadly hostile and aggressive”. Just see what happened at Malegaon a month later.


  1. Malabar Kalaapam – K Madhavan Nair
  2. Khilafat Smaranakal – M. Brahmadattan Namboothirippad
  3. Islam and Nationalism in India: South Indian contexts by M.T.Ansari
  4. The Mappilla Rebellion, 1921: Peasant Revolt in Malabar by Robert L. Hardgrave, Jr

Sanskrit Notes: Order of Words

Rudraksha by Kinshuk Sunil (flickr
Rudraksha by Kinshuk Sunil (flickr)

One of the interesting features of Sanskrit is that, in a sentence, the order of the words don’t matter. You can switch them around and the meaning remains the same.
Take for example a sentence like, Rama is going to the forest. You can’t say, “Rama going forest.” You need the “is” and “to the” to make sense of the sentence. The “is going” indicates that it is one person who is doing the action. Now, “to the forest” indicates that the forest is the object of the action.
In simple Sanskrit, you would write it like this
रामः वानमं गाच्छति
It reads, “Ramah vanam gachati”,  When you say “Ramah”, it indicates one Rama. A forest is “vana”, but in the sentence, we wrote it as “vanam”. That indicates, it is the object of Rama’s destination. The “ti” at the end of “gacchati” indicates that it is one Rama who is going (not two)”. If there were many Ramas, it would have become “gacchanti”. Thus the “is going” and “to the” are built into the words themselves.
This makes it interesting. Now you can write

  • गाच्छति रामः वानमं
  • गाच्छति वानमं रामः
  • वानमं गाच्छति रामः

All these sentences mean the same even though the order of words are switched around. Since each word has the part which maintains its relationship to the verb, the order does not matter. Due to this, in poetry, you can switch words around to fit the meter. In Hindu tradition, almost everything is written in poetry form and this made it easier for an oral society to remember anything forever.
Here is a complicated sentence
भारत ! यदा यदा धर्मस्य ग्लानिः अधर्मस्य अब्युधानं च भवति तदा अहम् आत्मानं सृजामि
Take those words and resequence them and apply the sandhi rules, and you get the following verse from chapter 4 of Gita

यदा यदा हि धर्मस्य ग्लानिर्भवति भारत ।
अभ्युत्थानमधर्मस्य तदात्मानं सृजाम्यहम् ॥४-७॥

Here is an exercise. Try the “Rama is going to the forest” in your mother tongue and see how it behaves. Does it work the same in Dravidian languages and Indo-European languages? In Malayalam, it behaves exactly the same as in Sanskrit. In Hindi, it does not.

  • Based on the lectures of Varun Khanna at Chinmaya International Foundation
  • Gitapravesha by Samskrita Bharati

Was Buddhism a social reformation of Hinduism?

Hinduism and Buddhism by Ananda CoomaraswamyThere is an academic notion that Buddha was not just a religious teacher, but a social critic and a revolutionary social theorist. He is also considered a social reformer who challenged the Brahmin orthodoxy. Buddha also reacted against the social structure made up of the four castes, which denied individual autonomy and human freedom.
This narrative fits well with the notion of a linear process where a new system differentiates from an existing system. It is similar to how Martin Luther reformed the ritualistic Catholicism and how Christianity came out of Judaism. But was Buddhism a social reformation of Hinduism?
According to Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, it was not. In his book, Hinduism and Buddhism, he writes that the distinction can be found only by people who study Buddhism superficially. A student with deep knowledge will not. According to him, there is nothing he could find which could be called as social reform or a protest against the caste system. Instead, AKC says  Buddha can be called a reformer because he had discovered the ancient ways of the awakened. The Buddha also praised the Brahmins who remembered the old path of the contemplatives that led to Brahma.
Both the Upanishads and Buddhist doctrines were born in the forest where they continued with purity. As time passed, the Brahmins moved to the courts and got corrupted by power, grandeur, and rituals. They became Brahmins by birth as opposed to those who knew Brahma.
The intention of both sets of doctrines was to restore the truths that were known before. The problem is that people admire Buddhism for what it is not and what scholars think Buddha should have said.
At the same time, there is selective suppression of what Buddha said. In lectures by American Buddhists, there is rarely a mention of reincarnation or supernatural powers. The talks mostly revolve around contemplative practices. These techniques are popular in the Western world; in a recent podcast, may high achievers admitted to following the practice.  It is lucrative to remove “otherworldly mumbo-jumbo” from Buddhism and sell it as “mindfulness”. This does not mean that the Buddha did not advocate mindfulness. For him, it was not something you carried in your pocket and used occasionally. Mindfulness was part of life and he warned against doing things absent-mindedly. Buddha believed in reincarnation too. Siddhartha Gautama was seventh in a series of prophetic incarnations.
When it comes to the discussion of the Self, there is little distinction to be found between the two traditions (“for those who have attained, there is naught dearer than the self”, “the Self is the lord of the self and its goal”, says the Buddha). Both traditions are experiential and understanding the concepts logically was insufficient. The goal was to transcend the senses and experience the Self. Like in the Upanishads, the goal of an Arhat is brahma-bhutena-atmana or “with the self that is Brahma-become”. The question which leads to that answer is quite familiar: By which self (kena-atmana) does one attain the Brahma world? Take a look at the first line of Kena Upanishad and see what it says. Buddha also discovered early on that what is now known as cogito ergo sum is delusional and proposed anatmya or the non-existence of permanent ego.
The concept of Brahman is achieved by a process of elimination. No one can define what Brahman is; it is defined by saying neti neti (not this, not this). In Buddhist tradition, the physical and mental factors are analyzed, perceived and observed. Finally, the observer separates from the thoughts and feelings and says, “That is not my self”. In the Upanishad tradition, we know our senses say what the reality is. Finally, we transcend that reality and reach a state where we perceive other states of existence. The Autobiography of a Yogi and Sri M’s book details various experiences that a spiritual person passes through.
Another imagery that is common in both traditions is that of the chariot and charioteer. Through various techniques, both traditions help us understand the Self and what the Self is not. In both traditions, we are not wanderers guided by events like a ship in a storm, but beings capable of knowing the Self and experiencing it.

Lessons from Panchatantra – Artha

The evil jackal Damanaka meets the innocent bull Sañjīvaka. Indian painting, 1610.
The evil jackal Damanaka meets the innocent bull Sañjīvaka. Indian painting, 1610.

In the first book of Panchatantra, the merchant Vardhamana sets off from the city of Mahilaropya and has to abandon his bull, Sañjīvaka in the forest. This triggers a set of events involving a lion, Pingalaka, and two jackals, Karataka and Damanaka. Vardhamana considered various career paths and settled on inter-regional trade. In Panchatantra, Vardhamana is a role model, a man who had achieved great wealth due to his karma. A dharmic trader has to offer charity, donations, and construction of religious and civic amenities.
Besides becoming rich, a dharmic person has to generate additional wealth as well.

What has not been obtained should be obtained. What has been obtained, should be kept secure. What is kept secure, should be augmented and expended on the deserving. Even wealth that is protected according to the practices of the world can be suddenly lost due to various calamities. If wealth cannot be used when the occasion for it arises, then it is just as good as not having earned it. Therefore, protection, increase and use of the earned wealth should be done (Natural Enmity: Reflections on the Niti and Rasa of the Pancatantra [Book 1])

This is illustrated using the example of collyrium (anjanam or kohl) and an ant hill. When you have a dabba of collyrium, a small quantity is used daily.  Soon, the dabba becomes empty. Contrast that with the ant hill. Every day, the ant contributes a little, but over time, it becomes – well, an ant hill. The niti shastra, advocates saving money and building capital. At the same time, it advocates against hoarding because all it takes is a natural calamity to destroy it.
Natural Enmity: Reflections on the Niti and Rasa of the Pancatantra [Book 1] by Ashay Naik quotes
upārjitānām arthānāṃ tyāga eva hi rakṣaṇaṃ|
taḍāgodarasaṃsthānāṃ parīvāha ivāṃbhasāma||
[3.1] In order to protect the wealth that has been gained, one must let go of it like the outflow of water that is stagnant in a tank. Hoarded money is comparable to stagnant water – it becomes the harbinger of dregs and diseases. Like water, money should be constantly in circulation.
arthair arthā nibadhyante gajair iva mahāgajāḥ|
na hi anarthavatā śakyaṃ vāṇijyaṃ kartuṃ īhayā||
[3.2] Wealth attaches itself to wealth just as giant elephants to each other. Without outlay of capital, it is not feasible to practice commerce assiduously. Use money to make money. Wealth attracts wealth as – we have a nice ancient metaphor here – elephants attach to other elephants.
Panchatantra adds two more aspects of money management to the existing thought. Till those times, it was considered that one should acquire and protect wealth. But Panchatantra argues that one should consider the application and augmentation of wealth as well. Vanijya, cannot happen without capital investment.
In socialist India, before the economy was opened up in the early 90s, being wealthy had a bad connotation. Popular culture showcased the wealthy as people surrounded by henchmen and molls, roaring with laughter without any purpose who took special fascination to poor blind mothers. In Kerala, we took it one step further. These villains built their houses next to a pool housing hungry crocodiles, into which the hero would be dunked.
Gaining wealth is not bad. As per our tradition, it is part of one of the four purusharthas, along with dharma, kama, and moksha. The testimony to that is the graph below

The global contribution to world's GDP by major economies from 1 CE to 2003 CE according to Angus Maddison's estimates.[65] Up until the early 18th century, China and India were the two largest economies by GDP output.
The global contribution to world’s GDP by major economies from 1 CE to 2003 CE according to Angus Maddison’s estimates. Up until the early 18th century, China and India were the two largest economies by GDP output.

The graph shows the global contribution to world’s GDP by major economies from 1 CE to 2003 CE according to Angus Maddison’s estimates. Up until the early 18th century, China and India were the two largest economies by GDP output.
Once the enlightened Europeans took over, it was a disaster. This disaster was prolonged in 1947 by a family, who had no grounding in dharma. Vishnu Sharma wrote the Panchatantra to educate the foolish sons of a king. If only the fools, who crashed the country into a ditch had read any of this.

Apprenticed to a Himalayan Master by Sri M

Western scholars and Indian scholars obsessed with western interpretations have tried to explain the evolution of the philosophy of Sanatana Dharma using Western terminology. Apparently, initially it was naturalistic and anthropomorphic polytheism which then gradually yielded to monotheism and later to monism. Max Müller suggested that there was a transitory state called henotheism between polytheism and monotheism. But all this terminology is alien to dharmic thought and it is outright silly to refer to such terms. Even a person like Prof. Vinay Lal in his terrible course on Indian diaspora mentions that when Hindus don’t have concepts like these, it is ridiculous to talk about Hinduism using those concepts.
If you read such introductory books on Hinduism, they will mention that the Vedas were sruti, revealed to sages who followed their saadhana. Less mentioned is the fact that there were a large number of people who had unique experiences by following the many practices available as part of the tradition. Such people did not live only in the ancient past, there are many who live amongst us, who have attained higher states of spiritual existence. Some of them live in the holy places in the Himalayas, some live among the mango men. Some demonstrate their siddhis, others don’t.
Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramhansa Yogananda revealed the life of a seeker and the many spiritual souls he met along the way. Living With the Himalayan Masters by Swami Rama was another one. Apprenticed to a Himalayan Master (A Yogi’s Autobiography) is interesting because the yogi was born as a Deccani Muslim – Mumtaz Ali Khan – in Trivandrum in 1948. At the age of nine, when he was just walking in his house, he saw a stranger standing under the jackfruit tree in the compound. As the boy approached him, the stranger asked if he remembered anything and boy replied in the negative. The stranger then said that years later, he would remember everything and went away.
Two years later, he experienced kevala kumbhaka and along with it tremendous happiness. As he grew up, he met various people who suggested books (on Vedanta, Upanishads, Gita, Yoga, Kudalini) and taught him yogic practices. Among the people whom he met in Kerala included a tea shop owner turned saint, a naked lady on the beach, and a Sufi saint. At the age of 19, he left for the Himalayas and while wandering around Badrinath, he went to a cave where he met the person whom he had seen at the age of nine in Trivandrum. He spent the next three years traveling with his guru in the Himalayas, after which he returned back to Kerala where he still lives.
In the introduction of the book, the author mentions that he had many unique experiences of which many would be unbelievable. This book includes topics  like meeting beings from another planet and walking through doors. Books by other spiritual gurus too contain such unbelievable anecdotes. What is fascinating about the book is the way it reveals what a spiritual country India still is. All way from Kerala to the Himalayas, there is a culture which transcends language and unites the nation. There are many gurus teaching in many traditions in the free flowing marketplace of ideas without the fear of blasphemy. Even before the British invented a nation called India, there existed an India where an 8th century Malayali named Shankara could travel, learn and teach. That India is very much alive in M’s book.
Postscript: I have never met the author nor listened to any of his teachings. Just chanced upon the book while browsing the spirituality section of a bookstore.

Abraham Eraly's Facile Spring

Abraham Eraly has a new book on the Gupta period which is considered a Golden Age in Indian history. There are two reviews of The First Spring.  The first review by Bibek Debroy has Eraly’s theory on why this period was considered as the Golden Age.

First, Buddhist (and Jain) ethics emphasised equity and access and human enterprise. “Fatalism” had not set in. Second, agriculture went through a transformation. There was monetisation, capital formation and trade, with increase in literacy. Third, guilds provided skills and their standardisation, and testing and certification of goods and services. They also regulated prices and working conditions of labourers. Fourth, kings had contractual obligations, not a divine right to rule. More importantly, s/he possessed executive duties of ensuring domestic and external security, with almost no legislative powers and limited dispute resolution powers. “One of the most laudable aspects of the political developments of the classical age was the robust growth of village self-government in many parts of India.” To use today’s jargon, we had better governance and decentralisation, with optimal provision of public goods and services. Fifth, there was urbanisation, not a retreat into a rural Arcadia. Sixth, cross-fertilisation led to innovation and experimentation. Seventh, rigidities of caste had not set in. Individually and in isolation, each of these propositions is plausible and known. Taken together, they represent a coherent story of why civilisations rise (and fall). The reversal into dark ages is explained by a reversal of each of these trends. Though not an Eraly estimate, there are rear-casts that between 500 BC and 500 AD, India had a per capita income of about $150. That made it one of the richest regions of the world.[Lessons From The Golden Age (H/T Yashwant)]

Eraly is a believer of the Aryan Invasion Theory and has romantic notions of Buddhism. His analysis of Vedas is based on translations by Wendy Doniger and so his observations have to be taken with quintals of salt. Nayanjot Lahiri’s review bursts Eraly’s balloon.

Eraly’s new book brings more than a millennium within the ambit of ‘Classical India’. This makes the scope of The First Spring highly ambitious, including in it India’s sprawling landscape, polity and society, economy and everyday life, philosophy and literature, even arts and religion, across 1,300 years and more.
Unfortunately, this is compromised by unsubstantiated generalisations, by an ignorance of archaeology and the kind of information it has yielded on many of the issues examined here, and by a complete disregard for some segments of the India it claims to describe.
Anyone with a working knowledge of ancient India would be appalled, for instance, by the book’s characterisation of classical Indian civilisation as essentially Buddhist. Is this a reaction to what Eraly supposes to be a “common misconception that it was a Hindu civilisation”? He should know that such labels are no longer used to characterise Indian history and, certainly, the millennium he examines was neither Buddhist nor Hindu but one marked by multiple religious traditions. Mathura is one example where there were Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu practices besides the worship of fertility deities. Nagarjunakonda is another instance of religious heterogeneity, with over 30 Buddhist establishments, 19 Hindu temples and some medieval Jain places of worship.
Eraly ignores the evidence of archaeology, goes for unproven generalisations, and doesn’t include the Northeast in his narrative.
Similarly, if Eraly had cared to look at the details of ordinary living that have emerged from excavations in the Gangetic plains, he’d find it difficult to believe that the Aryans “changed farming techniques” and introduced iron there. Rice began to be cultivated in the Gangetic alluvium in the 7th millennium BC and communities with broad-based farming patterns were flourishing there from the early 2nd millennium BC onwards. If the area did not have to wait for the putative Aryans for the consolidation of its agricultural base, neither did it require them for producing metallic iron, which was used there from the middle of the 2nd millennium BC itself.
Eraly’s description of cities also ignores archaeology, including the splendid ruins of urban Taxila, the most extensively excavated urban landscape of ancient India. Even when he describes Ujjain, he does not say anything about the town plan and building tradition that various seasons of digging has revealed.
These, though, are just the small things that Eraly so often forgets to mention. The most serious lacuna is that a big chunk of India, from Assam to Nagaland, is missing from the narrative. You wouldn’t know from the book that the epigraphs of the kings of Assam, for instance, have been extensively used to reconstruct the agricultural practices and the settlement pattern of the Brahmaputra valley or that there are Gupta type architectural remains near Tezpur. Nor would you learn about Tripura, not even about the presence of Buddhism there, otherwise so central to this book, as the relics of the Buddhist stupa at Shyam Sunder Tilla so dramatically reveal.
This is a book which aspires to have a reach. Alas, that aspirational reach exceeds its author’s intellectual grasp.[Facile Spring (H/T Yashwant)]

In Pragati: Secrets of the cellars

(Flickr: jynxzero)

The 8th century CE was a period of Hindu resurgence in Kerala. Adi Sankara, who wrote about Advaita with literary force and philosophic depth lived during this period. The Tamil poets—Saiva nayanars and Vaishnava azhvars—created large volumes of influential devotional literature and triggered a popular mass movement. Economically these were prosperous times due to extensive external trade. Devotion coupled with wealth resulted in a spurt of temple construction; rulers and lay people considered the construction and protection of temples as an essential social responsibility and donated generously.
Though the original shrine may have been built in the 6th century, it is during this period that we hear about Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple for the first time in Thiruvaimozhi of Nammazhvar. In ten verses Nammazhwar describes Thiruvananthapuram, one of the 108 sacred sites for Vaishnavites, as one which has “lots of trees, lots of fragrant flowers, and most beautiful gardens” and called it Ananthapura implying it was enclosed by walls. He also describes the idol of Vishnu as reclining on the venomous Adisesha, exactly the same way see him today.
Over the next millennia, Sri Padmanabhaswamy would see prosperity, war, and invasions—both domestic and foreign. Initially he was part of a small kingdom, but that small kingdom, under the leadership of a visionary king would grow to become one of the three major kingdoms of Kerala, encompassing not just South Kerala, but parts of Tamil Nadu as well. Eventually the kingdom would belong to him. He would also accumulate staggering amounts of wealth over centuries; a humbled Dutch captain and a powerful British Resident would among the many who would go before him with their offerings. The story of how this wealth came to be and how it was safely guarded by the priests and the royal family for all these years is inseparable from the history of Kerala.
Source of wealth

In Cleopatra, a life, Stacy Schiff recounts how Egyptian temples stood at the center of religious and commercial life with the temple priest also moonlighting as a reed merchant. Such a system did not exist in Kerala. Its temples were never known for odious extravagance or opulence. Many other ancient kingdoms accumulated wealth by invading and plundering their neighbours, but according to historians, Sri Padmanabhaswamy’s cellars do not contain war booty. Then how did the temple accumulate so much wealth?
After the mention of the temple in the 8th-9th century by Nammazhwar, there is not much information for another three centuries. Around the 12th century, Venad, a small Kollam-based kingdom became an independent entity and Sri Kotha Keralavarma (1125 – 1155 CE) started the reconstruction of the temple which would go on for another six centuries. During this period, we hear about donations to the temple for the first time: silver by a nobleman in 1183 CE and ten golden lamps by Parantaka Pandya. Veera Keralavarma, ruler of Venad (1344 – 1350 CE), donated vast amounts of land and about 3000 pieces of gold to the temple in response to him being responsible for the death of a few Brahmins.
The current wealth has been retrieved from some of the six cellars around the sanctum sanctorum. These cellars existed around 550 years ago and there is mention of ornaments being retrieved from the cellars to decorate the painting of the king of Venad during that period. In 1686 CE, the temple was gutted by fire and there was no worship for three decades but the priceless valuables remained safe in the cellar. Just two years before the fire, Umayamma Rani, who would later flee due to an attack by a Mughal invader, donated various ornaments and silk to the temple. It is mentioned that such donations were moved to the cellar for safe keeping. When various kings ascended the throne, they too donated gold and other precious stones to Sri Padmanabhaswamy.
In the 17th century, the pettiness of the kings of small territories came quite handy to the Dutch who devoured Kochi, Kollam and various other kingdoms. Interfering in the internal affairs and exploiting the difference of opinion among the kings was the Dutch policy and by this they could eventually control the whole of Kerala and the lucrative spice trade. During this period, Travancore was whipsawed by a poor economy and constant conflict between temple administrators and noblemen.
This was a feud which had started at least a century earlier. Rules for managing the temples of Kerala were set as early as the 9th century when various noblemen met in Paravur. In 12th century, the committee which managed Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple used to frequently get together to make decisions, but the relationship between the king and the temple administrators was not always cordial. In the 17th century, during the time of Adityavarma (1672 – 1677 CE), a group of eight noblemen under the direct supervision of the king was responsible for the temple management. The temple administrators divided the temple property into eight and gave them to Nair chieftains for revenue collection. Soon a feud started with with the king’s men on one side and the rest of the administrators on the other side leading to a brief closure of the temple.
All this leads to the resolute and brilliant Marthandavarma, the founder of the kingdom of Travancore as well the person responsible for the the current state of the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple. During this period of strife, Marthandavarma annexed the smaller kingdoms around Venad to create Travancore. He defeated the Dutch in the Battle of Kolachel in 1741, sixteen years before the Battle of Plassey. For India of that period, this was a distinction of some weight. The Dutch agreed to support the king in his fight against other European powers and the commander of the Dutch forces, Eustachius De Lannoy, became the commander-in-chief of the Travancore armed forces. De Lannoy too made donations to the temple and it is possible that the Dutch coins and the Belgium cut-glasses came from him.
Marthandavarma also embarked on a construction spree at the temple. The repairs and the construction of the buildings around it started in 1731 and was completed two years later. The current temple structure and the sanctum sanctorum were built during his period. Some of the underground cellars were strengthened with the aim of keeping the temple wealth safe from fire. In 1733, the idol of Sri Padmanabhaswamy was reconstructed using saligram silas (Ammonite fossils) bought from Gandaki River in Nepal. The construction of the temple tower which had started in 1566 CE, reached five stories high during this period and would be completed during the time of his successor. He also made arrangements for the main festival to be conducted twice a year.
This visionary king in a unique historical and spiritual move surrendered all his riches and the kingdom he built to the family deity on January 3, 1750 CE; he and his successors would rule the kingdom with the official designation of Padmanabhadasa or devotee of the deity. That arrangement continues till today.
Donations would continue to flow even during the British reign with the Resident offering generously to the temple. In 1932, when Chitra Thirunal ascended the throne, one of his first acts was to open these cellars and estimate the wealth; it was calculated to be around one crore rupees. If the temple had so much wealth, how did it survive looting by the insiders and the invaders? Appropriation of temple wealth was considered as one of the five great sins prescribed by the Dharmasastras and it may have prevented the looting of the temple by the administrators.
Though Mahmud of Ghazni, the Mughals and Tipu Sultan did not reach South Kerala, various Islamic invaders did attack Venad. In the 14th century, there is mention of Muslim invasion into the region and how it was spoiled by Iravi Ravivarma. Another successor, Adityavarma, who was responsible for constructing the Krishna temple and protective shelters for cows in 1374 CE too repelled such attacks. In 1690, a person referred to as “Mughal Sardar” attacked the southern border of Venad causing the regent Umayamma Rani to flee. Kottayam Kerala Varma who had come on pilgrimage from Malabar defeated this adventurer.
On record
Since it does not contain war booty, did all the wealth, found in the underground cellars come via offerings by various devotees, kings, queens, and traders? Besides the temple inscriptions and royal decrees, the most detailed records of the assets come from what is known as the ‘Mathilakam records’ which are about 100,000 palm leaves stored in thousands of bundles, in the Kerala Archives. Some of these records were published, but a vast majority of them remain unwrapped; an effort was launched in 2009 to publish the rest, but the plan was abandoned in 2011 as the government does not employ anyone who can read the ancient script.
This is disappointing, since the royals kept meticulous records and if we could read them we would know the source of the Roman and Napoleonic era gold coins, Venetian ducats and drachmas as well as the solid gold idols of Sri Krishna and Vishnu. It could also help solve another mystery: In 1766, the Zamorin’s entourage fled from Malabar to Travancore, presumably after emptying the Calicut treasury, to escape the pillage of Haider Ali. The Zamorin took his own life than surrender. It is possible that some of that wealth reached Travancore treasury. If the records don’t mention this, an inventory of the items would reveal if there is any truth to this.
The discovery of the the wealth has caused various experts to advance theories on its origins including some indulging in imagination. Usually absence of facts causes myth to be created, but in this case speculation and hoary propaganda is unwarranted since the source of the wealth is well documented. If the government cannot find a specialist to translate the royal records, it should have them carefully digitised and published online, so that the job can be crowdsourced.
(The author wishes to thank Manmadhan Ullatil (for pointing out the Calicut link), Lakshmi Srinivas, Nikhil Narayanan, R N Iyengar and @NR_Tatvamasi for sharing information. This article was published in Aug 2011 issue of Pragati)

  • A Sreedhara Menon, ;A survey of Kerala history(Sahitya Pravarthaka Co-operative Society [Sales Dept.]; National Book Stall, 1967).

Marxists and Museums

Now that wealth of staggering proportions has been found in Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple, various suggestions have come up on what to do with it. Some want it to be taken over and used for “social good” while others want it in a museum while there is no case for monetizing this treasure or confiscating it.
One point is missing in this debate: religion. The artifacts found in the cellars were offerings made to Sree Padmanabhaswamy by devotees and there is no reason to detach it and place it in a secular setting. In this Op-Ed piece P. Parameshwaran looks into why communists are obsessed with turning devotional items into museum pieces and where it has led them.

High profile Marxist academicians of Kerala have been taking very keen interest in the sensitive issue of the new findings in the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple. Most of the party leaders have been prudently reticent, obviously for fear of public anger. What the intellectual giants want is to keep all the valuable articles found in the temple vaults in a state museum, for public exhibition. There is nothing unexpected about this, because for them religion, temple and spirituality are all meaningless and dangerous superstitions. Of course the large followers of the party are not with them in this anti-religious attitude. But the intellectuals are a different class. They hardly communicate with the masses, as they still live in an ivory tower of irrelevant theories and obsolete ideologies.
This is neither a new phenomenon nor something peculiar to Kerala or Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple. This is inherent in the communist psyche all over the world. They have put in practice this ideology which prescribes places of worship and religious and devotional items to be exhibited as artefacts in museums. This has happened in the Soviet Union and communist China (both in the mainland and in Tibet). But, in the twists and turns of history in the communist countries the entire process has been since reversed and instead of sacred places turning into museums the party itself has become a big museum, while temples and churches have emerged more powerful than ever.[Marxists as museum pieces via Michel Danino]

Preserving Vedic Chanting

(Photo via Ujjwol Lamichhane)

If you have played the party game called “Pass the Secret”, you will know that by the time the message reaches back to you, it would have been distorted beyond recognition.  But for many millennia, the Vedic hymns were memorized and handed down by word of mouth and the contents were preserved intact. The actual wording, intonation and pronounciation had to be perfect and for this the Vedic seers created a system to prevent alteration.
At Huffington Post, Suhag Shukla explains this system

To ensure that the Vedas remained unchanged in content, intonation, and inflection, a number of techniques of recitation with increasing complexity and difficulty were developed, including Jatapata.
The first is Samhita, the simplest form of recitation that approaches the mantra as it is, for example,”the sky is blue” (abcd). Next is Padha, where each word is broken down, as in, “the/sky/is/blue” (a/b/c/d). Krama, the third technique, adds the first real level of difficulty into the recitation through a pattern of “the sky/sky is/is blue” (ab/bc/cd). Jatapata, the first of the more challenging, alternates between a repetitious interposing and transposing of words to create a pattern of “the sky sky the the sky/sky is is sky sky is/is blue blue is is blue” (abbaab/bccbbc/cddccd). Between Jatapata and the last technique are six other techniques (called Mala, Shikha, Rekha, Dvaja, Danda and Ratha) that again are built-in combinations and permutations that have ensured that the order and words of the Vedas remain unchanged. The ultimate and most complex technique is called Ghanam. Its mind-boggling backwards and forwards pattern is, “the sky sky the the sky is is sky the the sky is/sky is is sky sky is blue blue is sky is blue” (abbaabccbaabc/bccbbcddcbcd).[Peeling Back the Layers of Sanskrit and Vedic Chanting]