In 1957, the first democratically elected Communist government took office in Kerala. By 1960, the people of Kerala were willing to do anything, including voyages across the open ocean in dhows to get away from the state and find employment. A recent Malayalam movie, Pathemari(Dhow), is the story of one such man, Narayanan, who takes such a voyage from Kerala to Khor Fakkan in the United Arab Emirates. Unlike the African slave trade, these men willingly took a journey to an unknown land to become indentured servants. The movie is a realistic portrayal of the life of the early Gulf Malayalis and one of the best performances by Mammootty (who is also a board member of the Communist party-run Kairali TV)
Spices were transported from the East, both by camel caravans and dhows crossing the ocean. The dhows would take the goods to Basra, Jiddah, Muscat or Aqaba and from there camel caravans took them to Alexandria and Levant. These traders did not movie goods just to the West, they went as far as China and Indonesia. In the movie, a young Narayanan boards a dhow owned by a person called ‘Launch Velayudhan’, (based on a real-life person, who died few years back) who is in the business of transporting goods to the Middle East, as well as people who want to escape poverty.
The dhows reached their destination due to the clockwork predictability of the monsoon. From May to August, the summer monsoons blows out from the southwest and fades away by September. From November to March, the winter monsoons blew from the northeast bringing traders and religious fanatics to India. This switch of direction across a large body of water is unique.
But the Arab, Persian, and Indian dhows* could well manage this, with their huge lateen rigs lying as close as 55 to 60 degrees in the direction of the soft northeast headwind—sailing right into it, in other words.† This is almost as good as a modern yacht and a considerable technical achievement. The importance of it was that India’s southwestern Malabar coast could be reached from southern Arabia by sailing a straight-line course, even if it did involve the discomfort of what seamen call “sailing to weather.”
Despite the occasional ferocity of the southwest wind, the discovery of the monsoonal system, which so easily favored trip planning, nevertheless liberated navigators from sailing too often against the elements.1 So the Indian Ocean did not—at least to the same degree as other large bodies of water—have to wait until the age of steam to unite it. [Monsoon]
In the Malay Muslim courts of the archipelago, literary traditions now transmitted using Arabic script continued to reflect deep-seated Hindu-Buddhist roots. The Malay version of the Ramayana, Hikayat Seri Rama, is believed to have been committed to writing between the 13th and 15th centuries. One of the oldest Malay manuscripts in this country – and probably the oldest known illuminated Malay manuscript – is a copy of the Hikayat Seri Rama now held in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, which was in the possession of Archbishop Laud in 1635. The Malay version originated not from the classical Ramayana of Valmiki, but from popular oral versions widely spread over southern India.
But perhaps we are the ones preoccupied with it. The importance of Islam to Tipu’s reign continues to be debated, often viciously, in South Asian academia and popular culture. Certain Hindu fundamentalists and conservatives portray him as a Muslim bigot who does not deserve the reputation for anti-colonial nationalism he has been given in an influential strain of nationalist history-writing. Without a doubt, Tipu oppressed some native Christian and Hindu communities, which he suspected of collaborating with his British enemies. But ‘jihad’ is a poor, and politically dangerous, way to characterize his policies. He fought Muslim rulers like the Nizam of Hyderabad, and sought alliances with non-Muslim states such as France. He may have been ruthless, but he was hardly the archetypal Islamist war-monger of neo-con nightmares.
Chaya Babu has a review of Gaiutra Bahadur’s book Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture which is about Bahadur’s great grandmother who left India in 1903 to the Carribean.
This is in the preface, before a story of the women who knowingly or unwittingly became the nexus of a brutal system of indentured servitude, imperialism, and stringent patriarchy. Bahadur provides further context of what migration for such purposes did for Indians – stripping them of caste, community, companionship, and all other structures that formed the base of their lives on the subcontinent. With this, they were given the name “coolie,” defining them primarily by their collective status as menial workers, a marker of identity that evolved to an ethnic slur and stuck with their descendants.
As it is stated in the grantha, the Pangi Achan (nephew of elayachan edam thampuran), Kelu achan of Pulikkel edam and a few of the important regional heads travelled to Coimbatore to meet the Sankara Raja who gave them known emissaries to accompany them to Srirangam (Mysore – Srirangapatanam) to meet the Dalawa there. From there they were redirected to meet Hyder Ali who was the Faujedar or commander in chief of the infantry at Dindigul, nearer to Palghat. Hyder then deputed his brother-in-law Muquadam Ali with his forces to Palghat. This resulted in a severe war with the Zamorin’s forces in Feb 1758 where the Mysore forces were victorious. Muqadam Ali’s forces withdrew after collecting their compensation by way of gold melted out of the ornaments worn by the Emoor bhagavathi (the tutelary deity of the Palghat Achans), as rakshabhogam (equivalent of 12,000 old Viraraya fanams). The Zamorin it is said (not in this grantha though, but in British records) apparently sued for peace by promising to pay 12,00,000 fanams as reparation.
The next carnival will be up on June 15th. Please send your nominations by e-mail to varnam.blog @gmail. Thanks Fëanor for his nominations.
In 1941, a British official in Chennai received an anonymous letter which claimed that Subhas Chandra Bose had returned to India and was living in the premises of Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple. The letter was forwarded to the dewan Sir C P Ramaswamy Iyer who immediately put a close watch around the area.
The letter, received by British officials in Calcutta and passed on to Murphy, said “Bose is in the near vicinity of Sree Anantha Padmanabha of Travancore and still further in the Rameswaram side..It then continued ‘he (Bose) has gone to find out the truth of Lord Sree Krishna’s teaching.'”
According to a docket in the Kerala State Archives, on seeing the letter, the then British Resident for the Madras State, Lieutenant Colonel G P Murphy, forwarded a copy of it to Dewan of Travancore Sir C P Ramaswamy Iyer requesting to “closely watch” the area around the grand temple.
The request was immediately complied with but no clue whatsoever of the possible visit of the Netaji, as Bose is endearingly called by his followers and admirers, was found around the temple complex.[British wanted Padmanabha temple watched for Subhas Bose]
PS: The Economic Times article claims that “The Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple was built in the 18th century by King Marthanda Varma of the Travancore royal lineage”. They are off by more than a millenia.
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).
manasa-taramgini has an interesting post which goes into the question of illiteracy of Indo-Aryans. This TED talk will provide a good introduction to the subject.
Indeed when one analyzes the early brAhmI inscriptions from megalithic sites in India and Lanka they routine co-occur with graffiti. The dravidianist Mahadevan claims that the use of these symbols especially in sites in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Lanka means that the Indus people were Dravidians – they continued to use the script after being pushed South by the Arya-s. What he seems to conveniently forget is that brAhmI, which is also found in these inscriptions to encode Tamil, is also used to encode Indo-Aryan languages and was primarily developed for the latter.
The book takes you through the excavations of stupas spread across the terai region on the border of India and Nepal towards the end of late 19th century. A stupa that lies in the estate that belonged to an English family is discovered by accident and then carefully excavated by the owner of the estate. All the finds of the excavation that included stone caskets with bone relics and a whole lot of items in precious metals, stones and gems are recorded and shared with the archeological authorities of that time. One of the caskets has an inscription on it that went around the world for an interpretation and is commonly believed to say that the bone relics belong to the Buddha himself, a part of the relics received by his kinsmen when they were divided into 8 parts.
We are all familiar with Buddha’s biography. But did you know that there was a less familiar version in Ariyapariyesanā Sutta without the trappings of the melodramatic one? Jayarava has a post on this
Another interesting thing about this passage is that his mother and father — mātāpita — are unwilling witnesses to his leaving. He doesn’t sneak out at night, there is no servant, no horse, none of the rich symbolism of later times. Notice in particular that his mother is present. The Buddha’s mother seems not to have died in childbirth in this account. The stories of her death were presumably part of some important legendary strand that is not unlike the sanctity attached to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Though early Buddhists rejected most notions of Brahmanical ritual purity this is not true of later Buddhists.
Since the major news of the month is the discovery of staggering wealth in the underground cellars of Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple, here is a backgrounder from offstumped.
The first is the covenant from 1949 that was entered into by the states of Travancore and Cochin. In that covenant is clearly described the manner in which the Trust of the Padmanabhaswamy Temple will be managed.
The second and perhaps most pertinent to the current debate is an extensive piece in the Chicago Tribune from May 1932 on Gold exports from India to Britain which specifically describes both the manner in which wealth was contributed to the Temple in Thiruvananthapuram as well as an estimate on both the annual value of the contributions and the total wealth in the vault.
Stone masons were employed to cut the large boulder into required size and the mathilakam records states that Nair and Ezhava labourers toiled for days to get the large boulder to the worksite near Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple. A large cart with huge wooden wheels was made for the purpose of transportation and the stone was hauled by elephants. A new road was made by the labourers, connecting the granite quarry to the temple. The road running through Poojappura, Karamana, Aranoor, Chalai and connecting to Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple is still in use. A small guild of stone masons was located near the quarry and they were assigned the task of hewing granite blocks into required size for making the pillars and roof slabs. The descendants of these masons still live there.
Vasco was destined for Cochin, some eight weeks later, and was by then very sick. It became clear that he was dreadfully ill, and rumors swirled around the Portuguese bureaucracy. Questions like who would take over and what their responsibilities were going to be, bounced back and forth. The interesting question was what his ailment was all about. Some said it was malaria and some said nothing. But later studies point out that he had contracted anthrax.
If you find interesting blog posts on Indian history, please send it to varnam.blog @gmail or as a tweet to @varnam_blog. The next carnival will be up on Aug 15th.
(Image via KCHR)
The picture shown above is the broken rim of a pot found at the Muziris Heritage site at Pattanam, Kerala. The words, written in Tamil-Brahmi, read “a ma na” which means a Jaina and attests to the fact that Jainism was present in Kerala in the second century CE.
Mr. Cherian, who is also Director of KCHR, said the discovery “excites me as an excavator because it was for the first time we are getting direct evidence relating to a religious system or faith in Kerala.” The pot might have belonged to a Jaina monk. The broken rim with the script was found at a depth of two metres in trench 29 in the early historical layer which “by our stratigraphic understanding could belong to third-second CE period,” he said. The associated finds included amphora sherds, iron nails, and beads among others.
In a trial trench laid earlier at Pattanam by Professor V. Selvakumar, Assistant Professor, Department of Archaeology and Epigraphy, Tamil University, Thanjavur and K.P. Shajan of KCHR, a pot-sherd with the Tamil-Brahmi letters reading “ur pa ve o” was found. Later, another Tamil-Brahmi script with the letters “ca ta [n]” was found.[Tamil-Brahmi script found at Pattanam in Kerala (H/T Nikhil, Dr. Cheriyan)]
Recently, a new protected area was declared in the Jordan Valley to protect megalithic structures dating back to 3000 BCE. Similar megalithic structures exist near Thrissur in Kerala, but their situation is not as good.
No one has so far protected and preserved any of the ‘kodakkal’ or umbrella stone of megalithic culture found in different places of Malappuram district. Many of them found in Kilikkallingal in Kavanur panchayat near Areekode have already been destroyed either by treasure hunters or by callous quarrying of the laterite.
“When I started my study, I found over two dozen ‘kodakkals’ at Kilikkallingal alone. But unfortunately, now we can find remains of hardly half-a-dozen megaliths there,” said V.P. Devadas, associate professor of history at NSS College, Manjeri, who heads a UGC-aided study on ‘Megaliths of Kerala.
‘Kodakkal’ is a unique mushroom-shaped megalithic burial monument of Kerala. “Nowhere else in the world is this kind of megalithic burial site found,” he said.[No care for Megalithic burial sites]
An iconic scene during the Portuguese arrival in Malabar in 1498 is when the ex-convict Joao Nunes stepped into land and met two Moors from Tunis. The Moors greeted the ex-convict, “The Devil take you! What bought you here.” He replied, “We came to seek Christians and spices”.
While the Portuguese search for a direct trade route to India bypassing the Muslims is well known, less mentioned is this search for Christians. They searched for the Eastern Christians in Africa and India and interestingly found them everywhere they looked. They also encountered Muslims; encounters which did not go well. The joyous news of the discovery of Eastern Christians was duly reported to Dom Manuel.
Vasco da Gama’s king, Dom Manuel, over a period had developed a messianic streak, due to the death of a large number of people who had preceded him. He believed that he was chosen by the Holy Spirit to confront the powerful. He wanted to take over the Holy Land and destroy Mecca to claim the title — the Emperor of the East. But he could not do it alone: to attack the Egyptian Mamluks, for instance, he needed help and for this the lost Christian kingdoms of Asia could become useful.
To understand this Portuguese obsession with finding Eastern Christians, we need to go along with Vasco da Gama on his first Voyage to Malabar and experience his encounters with people of other faiths.
In Search of Christians
After navigating the Cape, the fleet reached Mozambique Island in March 1498 where men belonging to the “sect of Mohammed” told them that Eastern Christians lived on a nearby island. The other half of the island where the Christians lived was populated by Moors and there were constant battles among them. Then they were told that Prester John — the mythical Christian king — lived nearby in the interior and he could be reached by a camel trip. Though they were happy to hear about Prester John, they did not attempt to visit him.
During a conversation, the Sultan of Mozambique asked Nicolau Coelho, one of the captains in Gama’s fleet, about Turkey and their religious books. Then Coelho realized that the Sultan had assumed them to be Turks and not Christians. The Portuguese wanted to conceal their identity since they did not know how the reaction would be. Hence for celebrating mass, they would go off to an island. Continue reading “Gama's Eastern Christians”→
The Indian History Carnival, published on the 15th of every month, is a collection of posts related to Indian history and archaeology.
Sukumar has a hypothesis about the Indus valley women: unmarried women wore bangles only in one arm, whereas married women wore bangles in both arms. He wants help with this symbology associated with bangles and marital status.
That of course, leaves out the famous ‘dock’, a very big and very neat rectangular depression, now looking more like a vast, shallow tank. If it really was a ship-building place/port, it would have held several dozens of vessels the size of modern mechanized fishing boats.
Sometimes I wonder who among the rulers of Mewar, was most powerful. Was it Maharana Pratap? We all are aware of his defiant resistance to Akbar. Or, was it Maharana Sanga or Sangram Singh? He was once very close to rule Delhi. It was his miscalculation that Babur, being a foreigner, will leave Delhi after plundering and looting it, that cost him the throne of Delhi. Recently, I read in detail about Maharana Kumbhakaran or Kumbha, and I was forced to include his name also in this list.
Under continuous persuasion of Ranjit Singh, Sankaranatha returned to his court in 1835 and served him till his death in 1839. Though he continued to serve the disintegrating and tragedy-struck Sikh empire under Kharak Singh and Sher Singh, he was not comfortable and chose to return to the cooler shores of the south in 1844.
The most popular man in Manipur ordered his troops to fire upon the British, who then withdrew to the Residency. The Senapati’s troops attacked the Residency, whereupon Quinton was forced to sue for peace. He, Grimwood and three military officers went to the palace to negotiate. By now, the atmosphere was vitiated, and an angry soldier mortally wounded Grimwood. Realising that if they were to be hanged for a penny, they might as well hang for a pound, the Manipuris beheaded Quinton, attacked the Gurkhas, and chased all the British out of the kingdom.
Since Jinnah, Nehru, the British and partition are hot topics, 2ndlook examines three scenarios— a federal India, two nations, many nations — that could have happened in 1947.
f you find any posts related to Indian history published in the past one month, please send it to jk AT varnam DOT org. Please send me links which are similar to the ones posted, in terms of content.The next carnival will be up on Oct 15th.
See Also: Previous Carnivals
Going in search of clues left by those ancient migrants in South India, he arrived at the house of a Kerala brahmin who is teaching his son mantras the way it has been done for millenia. Wood then shows the 2006 athirathram – a 12 day vedic ceremony – and mentions that certain sounds recited in this ceremony takes years to learn but have no meaning. When brahmins were asked for meaning, they did not know. They simply knew that it was handed down.
Since man is a speaking animal, we have always assumed that any word man says is in language, but some of those mantras are not in any known language. Hence these sounds, which are still recited today, are considered to have evolved before human speech. Of Birds and Humans
Frits Staal of UC Berkeley thought that the claim that mantras are older than language was “preposterous.” In 1975 he helped finance an athirathram, which had not been conducted since 1956 due to financial constraints. Analyzing the sounds he came to the conclusion that mantras could belong to a pre-language era since:
Mantras are language independent: Anything in language can be translated whereas mantras remain the same in all languages.
Mantras, even though they seem to be in a language like Sanskrit, are not used for their meaning.
Mantras follow patterns, like refrain, which is not seen in language.
The clincher for the pre-language theory came when the sound patterns were analyzed to find the nearest equivalent in nature. The technique followed was like this: He took a mantra like Jaimintya Gramageyagana (45.2.1) which goes:
vo no ha bu / idam idam pura ha bu / pra va pra
vas ia ia ha yi / nina ninava tarn u vo ha bu / stiisa vi sakhtaia Ya ha vi / dramutalyayi / o vi la /
It was split into patterns like AB / CB / DE/.. where A = vo no and B = ha bu. Comparing it to bird songs, it was found that the patterns were similar and such patterns were not found any where else.
As a side effect, by comparing the patterns of mantras and certain birds, it is possible to find which birds influenced the mantras. There is research which found patterns in the composition of Igor Stravinsky and a bird usually found in the region where he worked. Thus some of the mantra sounds were found to be inspired by the songs of Blyth’s Reed Warbler and Whitethroat – two birds which migrate to India.
There are examples of bird-human interaction in Vedas and Upanishads. Some vedic chools have been named after birds — like kausika after the owl or taittiriya after the partridge. D. D. Kosambi believed that Vedic clans were totemic. Then there is the story of Satyakama Jabala in Chandogya Upanishad who: Critiques
Having established this similarity between bird song and mantra, the theory then takes off with a life of its own. There are vedic rituals for making rain and curing illness and similarly birds sing for building nests or attracting females; there are rituals and bird songs for various occasions. Then it was also found that bird sing – believe it or not – just for pleasure. So Staal extends the theory to say that, similar to skiing, dancing and music, mantras and rituals too are done for pleasure.
Between Staal’s athirathram in 1975 and Wood’s in 2006, one was held in 1990 near Thrissur which I attended for a day. This athirathram, which was extensively covered in Malayalam newspapers, was highly respectful and the words I heard were not “playful” or “pleasurable.” I can understand singing for pleasure, but am yet to meet a priest who said, “it’s a weekend and raining outside, let’s do a ganapati homam for pleasure.”
Prof. Staal thinks that not just the sounds, but rituals too are meaningless. But Wood writes that mantras, “work on emotions, the physiology, and the nervous system.” According to Wood, these rituals are a away of achieving heightened mental and physical state. So I am not sure if this research is of the Ganesha phallus quality. If you have seen any paper or book by anyone else, please leave a comment. Postscript: Kosambi’s concept that Vedic clans were named after animals was criticized inThe Early Brahmanical System of Gotra and Pravara (Purusottama Pandita, John Brough). They wrote that it is equivalent to saying an Englishman with the surname Fox belongs to a totemic clan of that animal. Instead they suggest that the bird name could have come from the clan name.
Reference: Michael Wood has a companion book to the program. More details can be found in Staal’s paper, Mantras and Bird Songs, in which one quoted sentence reads: “there are mechanisms in existence which reinforce economical perfection in motor skills independently of the attainment of the ultimate biological goal in whose pursuit the learned movement is developed.” Staal’s book on this topic is available in limited preview mode in Google Books.