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Volume 4, Issue 49
Awakening India: The Legacy of Swami Vivekananda Plus: Gandhi Niketan Ashram: Keeping Alive the Mahatmaâ€™s Ideals
Youth at the Crossroads
Editor Selina Joseph
January 2014 | Issue No. 49
Copy Editor Bhuvana Venkatesh Journalism Coordinators B. Pooja
EDITOR’S CORNER 01
Youth at the Crossroads
The youth of a nation are the trustees of posterity
COVER STORY Designer & Technical Support
Awakening India: The Legacy of Swami Vivekananda
- Benjamin Disraeli
08 Reporters & Photographers Audrey Durgairajan Michael Van Waveren Isak Adolfsson
yOUNG aCHIEVER 14
Haruko Kawabe Julie Larsen
Gandhi Niketan Ashram: Keeping Alive the Mahatma’s Ideals
Aiming Sky High ORDINARY PEOPLE, EXTRAORDINARY LIVES
Driven by Benevolence PLACES
Gandhi Memorial Museum: A Slice of History SPOTLIGHT
22 Cover Photograph
Sabarimala Pilgrimage: A Lesson in Self-discipline for Youth
Suriya Prakash R.P.
VILLAGE VOICES 26 Sivakasi Projects Abroad Pvt. Ltd., Contact:
FILM REVIEW 30
firstname.lastname@example.org MADURAI MESSENGER
Madurai – 625004
That is why we have chosen ‘Swami Vivekananda’ and the relevance of his teachings and philosophy to the present times as our January 2014 cover story. We hope that our young readers will be motivated by this great spiritual leader and reformer, who established the Ramakrishna Mutt with the mission of helping and guiding young people, by assuaging their doubts and fears. We trust that many young readers will be inspired by the Swami’s message of dedication, courage, sacrifice and service and will be spurred on to lead more meaningful lives.
An Unexpected Confluence FIRST IMPRESSIONS
No. 17, T.P.K Road
Thiruvedagam: God’s Own Village
‘National Youth Day’ falls on January 12th every year, the birth anniversary of Hindu reformer and patriot Swami Vivekananda, a fact which is not very well known to the present-day youth in India. With his clarion call to Indians, ‘Arise, awake,’ Swami Vivekananda was the forerunner of the Indian Nationalist Movement, way back in the latter part of the 19th century. His writings and books sowed the seeds of nationalism, influencing many of the freedom fighters in the 20th century including Sri Aurobindo Ghose and Mahatma Gandhi. Swami Vivekananda often addressed the youth in his books and writings, reiterating, “Youth life is the most precious life. Youth is the best time. The way in which you utilize this period will decide the nature of coming years that lie ahead of you.” At present, around 78% of the country’s population is less than 40 years of age. The social and political turmoil in India has impacted the youth also, who of late, are devoid of any role models with good values, leading to a situation where many youngsters have been involved in a spate of horrific crimes. The onslaught of globalization and consumerism has led to a shift from collectivism to individualism, which has further alienated the youth and made them indifferent to the myriad problems ailing Indian society.
Awakening to a New World Amid Chaos, Unexpected Kindness From Fuzziness to Curiosity A Long-awaited Homecoming
Selina Joseph Editor
Madurai Messenger Cover Story January 2014
“We have to be pure in body, mind and word. We should not have any relationship with women, because all women are the manifestation of the Divine Mother”
The Legacy of Swami Vivekananda Mahatma Gandhi and B.R Ambedkar, are two examples of those who brought about sweeping changes in the socio-political fabric of India. But there were many people before them who were also responsible for sowing the seeds of change by awakening the spirit of patriotism. Swami Vivekananda, the first Hindu ascetic to travel across the world and speak about spirituality, was also the initiator of many social changes in India. Text: Audrey Durgairajan Photos: Suriya Prakash R.P.
A beacon of hope - Swami Samahitananda’s role is to give spiritual guidance to the troubled youth
(ascetics) and work as volunteers for the welfare of society. Only men can join this monastic life which necessitates them to renounce their family and worldly attachments and to follow two major rules: chastity and poverty. Swami Samahitananda (45) explained: “We have to be pure in body, mind and word. We should not have any relationship with women, because all women are the manifestation of the Divine Mother”. Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa himself was married to Sarada Devi, whose portrait adorns the walls of the Mutt along with those of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda. Like many marriages in 19th century India, she was only five years old at the time of her betrothal. However, Ramakrishna embraced sanyasa and hence his wife became his main follower. Long after his death, Sarada Devi continued to teach the philosophy of Sri Ramakrishna.
The Ramakrishna Mutt, an abode of tranquility in today’s turbulent times
Ramakrishna Mutt On the Reserve Line Road in Madurai, there exists only one place to give you relaxation and consolation. This is the Ramakrishna Mutt, named after Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, the great 19th century saint of Bengal who was the spiritual guru of Swami Vivekananda. The place was built in 1987 for the devotees, who prior to this had to visit
the centre in Rameswaram, the only one to propagate the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna in the extreme southern part of the country. They are now ten such organizations which are run all over India, employing 70 to 80 doctors, 20 to 30 scientists and 300 to 400 engineers approximately. All of them are swamijis
The Ramakrishna order stresses on a simple life of brotherhood, but even in this community a hierarchy exists: for ten years, students wear white clothes, learn about themselves and about their spirituality. After this transition in life, they become swamis and are allowed to wear saffron robes, this colour denoting self-sacrifice.
The Beginning Swami Vivekananda was the main disciple of Ramakrishna and the most well-known. At eighteen years of age, Narendra Nath Datta (Swami Vivekananda’s real name) was assailed by doubts about the existence of God. Looking for an answer, he came to the Kali temple in Dakshineswar and met his mentor Sri Ramakrishna who was a priest there. He asked him: “Sir, have you seen God?” Sri Ramakrishna’s reply to the young Narendra was most unexpected, “Yes, I have. I see him as clearly as I see you, only in a more intense sense.” After the sudden death of his father, Narendra took the responsibility of his entire family. He was struggling and not able to find a house for himself. It was around the same time that his mentor fell ill, which was diagnosed as throat cancer by doctors. All his disciples took turns in nursing the master in a rented villa in Cossipore. After few months Narendra finally joined them as their leader. When Sri Ramakrishna passed away, fifteen of his disciples started a new monastic life under the leadership of Narendra who became Swami Vivekananda.
The first Ramakrishna Mutt was set up by Swami Vivekananda; similarly, Ramakrishna Missions were set up across the country. Both these two organizations were created with different roles: while the Ramakrishna Mission concentrates on activities such as education, health protection through its free homeopathy dispensaries, carrying out relief work in time of natural calamities as well as doing charity services to the poor, the Ramakrishna Mutts concentrate on providing spiritual guidance. Swami Samahitananda takes care of the latter part. While each monk at the Ramakrishna Mutt has his particular duty, the role of this Swami is to guide and help people to find permanent answers to their problems. In his words,“these people don’t need to be blessed, but just speak about their personal problem. Because in this world you cannot say how you are suffering even to your closest friends, they will laugh at you. Inside the temple, if they open their hearts, most of their problems will reduce. We just tell them: ‘God is there, so pray’. Sometimes few words are enough to console.”
Madurai Messenger Cover Story January 2014
Inspiring words and thoughts - the bookstore inside the Ramakrishna Mutt which sells the books of Swami Vivekananda
Swami Vivekananda, human beings have to learn about themselves, this is the only way to know their own limits. Before believing in God, they have to believe in themselves, this is the key to success. This knowledge allows one to be mentally as well as physically strong. To him:”All power is within you. You can do anything and everything. Believe in that. Do not believe that you are weak; do not believe that you are half-crazy lunatics, as most of us do nowadays. Stand up and express the divinity within you.” This message is not only given to visitors to the temple, but to the students and housewives who come to the library. They spend their day discovering the message of Swami Vivekananda and his disciples.
Contemporary legacy of Swami Vivekananda 4
To Swami Vivekananda, all religions said the same, that God is unselfishness. “Are you unselfish? That is the question. If you are, you will be perfect without reading a single religious book, without going into a single church or temple” What is religion? In these modern times, spirituality is one of the most misunderstood concepts. This is where the Ramakrishna Mutt plays an important role. When Swami Vivekananda came to Chicago to speak about Hinduism at the Parliament of World Religions in September 1893, the commencement of his speech, “brothers and sisters of America” earned him a standing ovation from the crowd. At that time, nobody in America had heard about Hinduism, as the majority were Christians. So, he turned the question in this way, “Who is God?” To him, all religions said the same, that God is unselfishness.“Are you unselfish? That is the question. If you are, you will be perfect without reading a single religious book, without going into a single church or temple.” In other words humans have to strive to be perfect and religion has to help them in this way.
But most of the time, when a problem crops up, human beings show their animal qualities, and forget that the mind is divine. Living a family life, not disturbing others, this is normal human life. But the divine qualities are what the Mutt’s students are learning which generally each and every human being should learn: Unselfishness. Renunciation and service to others. This is pure religion, as Swami Vivekananda said, “Doctrines, or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms are but secondary details”.
Catching Them Young Though the message of Swami Vivekananda was expounded more than a hundred years ago, it still continues to be relevant today and still attracts people, such as Mrs Chitra Janardhanan (65), the director of the primary school
run by the Mutt. When she came first to the Ramakrishna Mutt ten years ago, she didn’t know about Swami Vivekananda’s principles. She just came out of curiosity and with her idea of what education should be. She was so confident and strong that the Swamijis give her the complete responsibility of taking care of the 500 children at the primary school. Like the other workers, Mrs Janardhanan is a volunteer who is really passionate about her tasks at the Ramakrishna Mutt. As an educationist, she thinks lessons and spirituality should be taught at the same place in order to give each child a better perspective and principles for his/her future life. This is also what many parents want for their children but have no time for, especially since in many households both parents are employed. This maybe why many people, particularly young people come to the Ramakrishna Mutt, to find their own answers there. Some of them are really desperate because of unemployment, family problems or monetary problems. Talking to them about spirituality will not eradicate all their problems, but just give them solace. According to
But the teachings of Swami Vivekananda are not only about an individual’s success and happiness. A 150 years after Narendra Nath Datta’s birth, his speeches continue to be a reference for Indians, indeed for all people. R. Srinivasan, Professor at SASTRA University in Thanjavur, is an ardent follower of Swami Vivekananda’s way of life. At the age of 16, Srinivasan had an “encounter” with the famous Swami on the Vivekananda Rock Memorial in Kanyakumari, where he bought a book Arise, Awake. A revelation as well as a revolution for the then teenage boy, following which he decided to interact with the Ramakrishna Mission schools in Thiruvedagam and Trichy which teach the principles of the Swami. At present besides being an academician, he is a social activist too. His tasks are not only dedicated to his researches, but also on ways to help society. His daily work starts with taking care of his parents, and includes meditation on humanity from different perspectives. At the SASTRA University in Thanjavur, he has introduced many new elective courses. So this semester he will teach management to nearly 60 students. During his free time, he
Swami Samahitananda takes his role as spiritual guide seriously
is engaged in a Gandhian association which is trying to propagate the use of recycled material in clothing. Professor Srinivasan has chosen to dedicate his life to others and to his country, in accordance with Swami Vivekananda, “the salvation of India, therefore, depends on the strength of the individual, and the realization by each man of the divinity within.” Every human being must be rid of their fears and should be able to contribute to society; this is why Prof.
Moulding young minds to the Swami’s ideals - Mrs Chitra Janardhanan, the Director of the primary school
Srinivasan, a native of Madurai, comes to the Ramakrishna Mutt whenever his academic activities allow him some free time. In the beginning, he was invited by one of the swamajis as a guest, but now he participates in conferences,”my specialization is on Swami Vivekananda, on Tamil Nadu, I don’t speak about spiritualism to the students because the Swamijis will take care of this part. And I’m also not that much competent to articulate his spiritual message, but the social message for youth and students, it’s the part that I care about.”
Madurai Messenger Cover Story January 2014
More than just lessons - these young primary school students are also exposed to spiritual and moral values
According to the professor, this message is still relevant to Indian society, but unfortunately this is not a well-known fact among the youth. As Prof. Srinivasan did, students still come and buy some books about Swami Vivekananda. But this process is not natural since, even if many young people are familiar with the portrait, the name of Swami Vivekananda and his mission in America, they are mostly ignorant about the Swami’s message of social change. For this reason, the Professor tries to interact with them and proposes to introduce some new courses on the “Role of Indian Women” for example. On his expectation for India, Swami Vivekananda was concerned about the empowerment of women. He compared society with a bird, each wing symbolizing men and women, “there is no chance of the welfare of the world unless the condition of women is improved. It is not possible for a bird to fly on one wing.” During his travels to America, Swami Vivekananda was struggling, without any money; he finally got much needed help from many prominent women. They accommodated him, provided him food and helped him to
Universal appeal - the Ramakrishna Mutt in Madurai
Many young people come to the Ramakrishna Mutt, to find their own way there. Some of them are really desperate because of unemployment, family problems or monetary problems. Talking to them about spirituality will not eradicate all their problems, but just give them solace meet some important personalities at the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago. This event made him think about the condition of women in his own country as he pointed out, “It is very difficult to understand why in this country [India] so much difference is made between men and women, whereas Vedanta declares that one and the same conscious Self is present in all beings. You always criticize the women, but say what have you done for their uplift? Writing down Smritis etc., and binding them by hard rules, the men have turned the women into manufacturing machines! If you do not raise the women, who are living embodiment of the Divine Mother, don’t think that you have any other way to rise.” Could these observations have been influenced by
his travels to America, and the women’s liberation movement in the West? Maybe, but there were women who may have impacted his thinking, such as Sarada Devi, Sri Ramakrishna’s wife, and Sister Nivedita, the spiritual daughter of Swami Vivekananda. Sister Nivedita became an inspiration for the famous Tamil poet Subramanya Bharathi, who called her “his guru”.
Inspiration to India, Past and Future Not only women, but Swami Vivekananda’s writings on justice, equality, and the caste system too were a source of inspiration for the freedom fighters in the 20th century. Swami Vivekananda urged the Indians to do away with narrow nationalism and to place and judge all problems with an international perspective. He exhorted
them to bring reform on national lines and fight for national integration. All these ideas spread widely throughout India, either directly through him, or through his books. The British who tried to crackdown by taking away many of Swami’s Vivekananda books and writings were however, not completely able to understand the connection between the ideas, spirituality and philosophy of Swami Vivekananda and the struggle for freedom. Mahatma Gandhi, Sri Aurobindo, Jawaharlal Nehru were all inspired by Swami Vivekananda’s message and his desire to see a spiritually and nationalistically awakened India.
January 12, 2014, the 151th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda will be celebrated as ‘National Youth Day’ to convey to the youth that Swami Vivekananda is still relevant because his teaching is not just about the awakening of a person in particular but about a whole nation, above all about India. In this aim, the task of this wise man is not finished, as in his own words, “for my own part I will be incarnated two hundred times, if that is necessary, to do this work amongst my people that I have undertaken”
Even if many young people are familiar with the portrait, the name of Swami Vivekananda and his mission in America, they are mostly ignorant about the Swami’s message of social change
Heralding a religious awakening - the Sri Ramakrishna Temple inside the Mutt
Madurai Messenger Institution January 2014
Gandhi Niketan Ashram:
Learning leadership skills - students of the Gandhi Niketan Ashram Primary School participate in the mock parliament
Keeping Alive the Mahatma’s Ideals Michael Van Waveren visits the Gandhi Niketan Ashram in T Kallupatti to see for himself how the teachings of the Mahatma with regard to the economic development of the rural masses are being kept alive through education and empowerment at the grass roots Text and Photos: Michael Van Waveren Netherlands
opportunities for them to have a The ashram school still better life but it also shows the people concentrates on the of the surrounding villages the path children of poor families to self-sustainability, by giving them the necessary life skills to provide for in rural areas, who would themselves and their families. otherwise be bereft of a suitable education. Guiding Spirit “I knew the founder very well when Not only does it provide I was a child and still a pupil here,” opportunities for them to the present headmaster of the school have a better life but it also G.Muthuramalingam tells me. “Very often he came from Madras to shows the people of the Kallupatti to see all of us. Whenever he surrounding villages the came here, he brought us vegetables path to self-sustainability and biscuits. We played with him, as if
Mahatma Gandhi’s ideals are at the core of activities at the Gandhi Niketan Ashram
andhi is one of those few people who live on long after death. His presence can still be felt in many different aspects of life. His ideas about non-violence, truthfulness and self-discipline are an inspiration to all, especially in India where he is revered with an almost godlike status. Gandhi’s vision for India to become self-reliant was based on the concept of ‘Swadeshi’ - the attainment of self-sustainability and empowerment of the rural people of India. It was one of his ways of passive resistance, which became an inspiration to many freedom fighters who chose to lay
down their arms and began to emulate the Mahatma. They started the task of mobilising the support of the people through education.
G Muthuramalingam, Headmaster of the Gandhi Niketan Ashram Higher Secondary School
Tryst with the Mahatma G. Venkatachalapathy was one of these freedom fighters, who would have remained unguided but for a chance meeting with the Mahatma. In what he would call ‘the most important night of my life’ in 1930, at the tender age of 21, Venkatachalapathy met Mahatma Gandhi. They spent some time together in deep conversation and after this, Venkatachalapathy was a changed
man. He decided that he would devote himself to Gandhi for the rest of his life and work according to the principles of the Mahatma.
Founder of Gandhi Niketan Ashram, G Venkatachalapathy
He became a schoolteacher. For ten years, this was his main occupation. But he had bigger aspirations. In 1940, he founded the Gandh Niketan Ashram, which was initially started as
a place to train the freedom fighters who had responded to Gandhiji’s call for a non-violent struggle (satyagraha) against British rule. Later, it became a model for Gandhian principles and true to its ideals, the ashram school still concentrates on the children of poor families in rural areas, who would otherwise be bereft of a suitable education. Not only does it provide
we were friends. He was friendly with everybody. He never scolded anyone. He was very kind and patient.” Venkatachalapathy helped a lot of people, particularly those from the lower socio-economic classes. He would visit the rural areas, offering all sorts of assistance to the people who lived there. He would offer aid to improve the roads or conduct medical camps. While providing all of these services, he would preach Gandhian principles to the people in the villages. The headmaster goes on. “He was a
Madurai Messenger Institution January 2014
man of simplicity who only wore khadi, Gandhi’s favourite clothing. Though he was rich, he was simple in dress and habits. He did not live a luxurious lifestyle. He gave all his money to the poor, and used his money to develop the school.”
Afterwards, all the children grouped in the field for their yoga exercises. The boys marched to their spots, accompanied by drums and wearing stern faces. It was very different from what I had ever seen in my country.
Daily Life and Activities
The ashram features two libraries and several buildings which are used for special purposes. One of the latter is the cottage which was home to Dr. J. C. Kumarappa, an eminent economist who pioneered ‘Gandhian Economics’, a branch of economics that focuses on the development of rural areas to eradicate poverty and backwardness. It aims at economic self-sufficiency without an emphasis on material pursuits or compromising human development. The house, which was designed by the economist himself, has low windows and a high roof which makes it an ideal place where the staff can do their daily morning meditation. There is also another building, known as the ‘Gandhi Mandapam’, which was the first building ever to be constructed in the compound by the founder himself. It is used every morning at 5:30 for prayers and meditation by the pupils who stay in the school. Inside the white hall is a bronze bust of Gandhi which he autographed, whose likeness is such that a visitor feels that he is staring into the Mahatma’s face.
The ashram is an enormous place. It began as a small school with only two teachers, but has grown to become a full-fledged educational hub, teaching over 4,000 children. It features both a primary school and a higher secondary school, so that pupils, both boarders and day scholars, can study up to the twelfth standard.
When you enter the school, what strikes you immediately is the happiness and contentment of the children. “They feel free here,” the Headmaster of the Primary School Mr Nagajothi tells me. “We never use corporal punishment to discipline them. And if any child has a problem or gets hurt, he or she may come to me directly at my office. If there is an injury, I will take the child to the hospital myself. We are all equal here.” In the primary school, there are 22 classrooms where lessons are in session during my visit. The children learn all kinds of subjects, but the school is trying to concentrate on English. One of the women teachers, K. Vanitha (30) tells me that teaching in English has increased. “We are dealing with children from rural families. Usually, their parents are not educated, so they do not speak a word of English. It is a big challenge for us, but there is progress.” The ashram school concentrates on the rural villages in its surrounding areas in particular, so whatever curriculum they have is tuned to the needs of these children. For the families of the children, this is the road to empowerment.
Innovative Ideas Different methods are adopted while teaching the young children serious subjects. At the time of my visit, since the Indian elections were approaching, the school decided to organise a mock parliament for the children. The children
Sowing the seeds of Gandhian Economics - the hut inside the Gandhi Niketan Ashram where JC Kumarappa lived
Tech savvy - students at the computer centre of the Gandhi Niketan Ashram Higher Secondary School
held parliament sessions, learning about the ins and outs of politics, even holding elections and going around the classes to canvass for votes! It was clear they had a lot of fun doing this exercise. I attended a session and saw a prime minister taking the oath of office with his new cabinet behind him. The children were very serious about it. That’s what you call good teaching. Then there is the higher secondary school, which is much bigger and imposing, with the capacity to handle more than two thousand students. A new wing is being added, financed by A fit body in a healthy mind students play basketball at the Gandhi Niketan Ashram Higher Secondary School playground
the many donations it receives from wealthy people across Tamil Nadu and beyond. They could be old students or supporters of the Gandhian cause. The ashram can use this money wisely, as it continues its steady growth. Behind the higher secondary, long fields give room to various areas to play sports. As there are many pupils in the school, it was quite a sight. Almost every sport is played here, from basketball and catch-me-if-you-can to more traditional Indian games for the outdoors. It was filled with activity.
Every Friday morning, all the children and the teachers assemble in the main hall for a communal prayer and meditation. It was quite a sight to see 2,000 children reciting in perfect unison in calm silence, listening to the sound of the prayers and the songs. You could feel the energy in the hall. Afterwards, the orator told moral stories about Rama, one of India’s greatest heroes.
Community Services The school is only one part of the ashram. A majority of the ashram’s activities consist of community services. The list of their achievements is extensive. They have conducted medical camps in most of the villages in the area. The headmaster explained
to me that a recent one was targeted specifically at people with low vision. The ashram sent questionnaires to 42 villages, asking who needed aid in the area. Later an ophthalmologist was sent to the houses to conduct eye checkups and diagnose the diseases or defects and offer proper medical advice. The ashram also identifies the dayto-day problems of the villagers and provides solutions to each of them. “We have even made ‘a poor man’s fridge’ for the villagers,” the headmaster tells me in his office. “It costs us only 25 rupees and uses no electricity. It looks like a fridge, but it is made of mud. By pouring a little water in it, it can preserve fruits for 10 days.” The ashram has also improved the air quality in the villages, by developing and distributing special stoves that produce far less smoke and are more efficient at burning wood. As part of the Gandhian philosophy, the ashram gives training in all kinds of crafts. Besides training the local villagers in sustainable farming and agricultural practices, people from all ages can learn crafts like making little teddy bears for children, purses for retail sale, leather shoes, metalwork, etc. These products are sold in stores in the ashram and the people who did the work receive most of the money. So training and a way of earning a livelihood are both provided here.
Working with a Vision In charge of community development is Nanda (33). He has only recently started his work in the ashram but has experience through his past work for organisations like the People Power Movement and the Trust for Village Self-Governance. “I believe that I can help the government,” he tells me late at night, as we sit in one of the ashram houses. “We have a distant dream, and we are marching towards it.” Nanda’s vision for community development is three-fold. First, he aims at reviving agriculture, for which he plans to use the grounds of the ashram. People will be taught how to grow crops, which they can then teach in their villages. Second, he wants to produce more compost, to increase the fertility of the lands. The ashram has enough manure in the form of dung from the cows. Lastly, he wants to work with the villages and develop them individually. Empowering the women of the community is an important agenda. “We have to find a solution then and there, from within the village itself. We cannot expect a solution to come from outside its boundaries or assume that some law passed in Chennai will help. It must come from within.” Explaining his ideals, he says: “I personally have strong faith that we can build a good social structure which includes
Madurai Messenger Institution January 2014
Interview with Dr. R. Venkataswami, President of the Gandhiniketan Ashram, who is also a pioneer hand and plastic surgeon Dr. Venkataswami, what do you exactly do at the ashram?
The Gandhi Mandapam, the first building at the Gandhi Niketan Ashram, built by the founder G Venkatachalapathy himself
economic opportunity. When you search for truth or a goal, you constantly look for something that explains it all together. For me, the truth is working towards a society where the local government is stronger. Working towards a society where the local economy is stronger. Working towards a society where the decisions taken by the people at the grassroots are heard. That makes a big difference.” There are many organisations which try to better the world, but the way in which it is done differs. Nanda has a different vision: “Ultimately, looking from the spiritual standpoint which is so important for the people in India, we see that going against something is not going to help us in the long term. You can’t say ‘no’ to this, or ‘no’ to that all the time. We must say ‘yes’. ‘Yes’ means constructive work. ‘Yes’ means decentralized governments. ‘Yes’ means decentralized economy. That is where life is happening. So we believe that we cannot commit our whole life by saying ‘no’ to something.”
Gandhian Philosophy Gandhi, who in his lifetime, had taken up the cause of the lowest social classes or the ‘harijans’ had said that if he could reincarnate on earth, he would’ve liked to come back as an untouchable. Caste discrimination against these communities is still prevalent, especially in the rural areas. The Gandhi Niketan School promotes the idea of equality of all castes and religions, where people are
not judged based on who their parents are, but on their actions. “We treat all religions as equal here,” Nanda tells me, “because we believe in the very deep understanding that all religions are true. Like different rivers all flow together to the same sea, all religions lead to the same truth.” Thus, they accept every child, and give the same aid to every villager who is in need of it. “The caste system in Tamil Nadu is the main reason for the arrest of our growth,” the headmaster told me sternly.
The ashram, in tune with its Gandhian principles, urges the people to say no to alcohol, which is a major reason for domestic abuse. Vanitha, one of the teachers in the primary school, told me that whenever a child misbehaves, it is usually because of a problematic home situation. Whenever the ashram sends people to enquire about the problem, it is mostly found to have been caused by fights stirred up by a drinking father. It is quite destructive for the mind of a child. Gandhi always wanted to not have mass production, but production by the masses. The ashram does this by teaching people various crafts, which they can use to earn a livelihood. The ashram also promotes an education system which is based less on a rigid syllabus and is more about empowering the children to have their own voice and teaching them a wide variety of subjects. The mock parliament for example taught the children to come
forward and speak before a group. A teacher told me that removing the fear of the children to speak up for themselves was one of the main goals. Hygiene is another big part of Gandhian principles. Every evening, the pupils clean the whole school, sweeping the lanes together and scrubbing the classrooms. Even the teachers participate in this cleaning to keep the school spic and span. This also teaches the children how to take care of their environment and be responsible adults. The empowerment of women is another big goal. Especially in village communities, they are prone to suppression and not aware of the opportunities they might have. For them, there are courses in knitting and leatherwork so that they can learn a craft, and provide for their families. Lastly but not least, is one of Gandhi’s most famous ideals: non-violence. The school does not resort to corporal punishment whenever the students are mischievous, but tries to solve the problem in a more holistic manner. If there is a problem, people from the ashram will come to the village and negotiate with whoever is involved, to make sure that the problem is solved. “Only when the children are mischievous, even though their home situation is good, then we will resort to small punishments,” says Vanitha. “The stick is never used in this school! We use it only to write on the boards in class, or to ring the bell.”
Well, as president of the ashram since 2006, I have charge over the overall activities of the institution with the help of my colleagues in the managing committee. My aim is to take the institution forward to achieve the objectives as envisaged by the founder. There are three core areas: one, making the ashram the nerve centre of the surrounding villages, taking care of the village industries, village activities, general celebrations, community contacts and providing and updating the infrastructure. For this we have to mobilise funds which I am able to achieve to some extent with our contacts in Chennai. Two, the Primary School, and three, the Higher Secondary School. The activities and needs of the above three are suggested by me. I spend the afternoon interacting with the head masters and the central office through Skype and telephone.
How exactly has the ashram changed during the last few decades? I can speak for the last 8 years. When we took over, we had lot of challenges to face. We had to strengthen the financial status. We had to upgrade the facilities for the schools. In the school, we have developed various facilities which are on par with any school in the most developed urban areas. We concentrate on quality academic education, leading to some very good results. Since 2005, we have steadily been getting 98 to 100 pass percentage in exams.
What do you consider the future of the ashram to be like? Do you expect it to grow? The future is very bright. We plan to expand our academic activities in the form of an Arts and Science College. We want to start old age homes. We would like to promote Gandhian tourism. The house where JC
Kumarappa lived will be converted into a museum. Centring that we would like to create a Gandhian study centre and promote folk arts. We plan to attract tourists who visit Gandhi Museum at Madurai. We plan to develop various training programmes to impart skills to the unemployed rural youth. To me, the sky is the limit but providence should help us to get human resources to translate this vision into a reality.
Do you think that the ashram is still relevant in these times of globalization? Certainly it is more relevant now than in the olden days. With globalization and exploitation by the advanced countries, the Gandhian way is the only way to save our nation. Our activities may be a tiny part at the national level but it gives immense satisfaction to us. We like to keep our corner clean.
The HM told me that the growth of the school has reduced the special care for the children that he seemed to value. What are your thoughts on this? Certainly the school has grown. Similarly the faculty is also more in number. We exhort the faculty to bestow attention on each individual student. Each teacher develops contact with families of his or her class children. Of course this needs constant attention. We are optimistic that our children are more confident when they step out of the school.
Do you yourself apply Gandhi’s principles in your life? Certainly I believe in them. I may not wear hand woven cloth always, but my wants are minimal- I lead a simple life. I look after all my daily needs. My schooling at Ramakrishna Mission School has instilled in me the value of service to the needy and a sense of nationalism. It is these that have propelled me to take up the presidentship of the ashram.
Your father-in-law, the founder of the Gandhi Niketan Ashram, was quite a man. Can you tell us more about him? I’ll put it this way. He was not my fatherin-law. He was not my relative. He belongs to the country. That’s how he lived, without personal attachment. All his time was devoted to the rural areas. Physically, he was a very impressive and tall figure. He was very warm. He would never gossip or argue with others. And he always appreciated the positive points of an individual. So people flocked around him. He was a good writer, and started his career as a teacher. Do you know why he became a teacher? When he was imprisoned during the independence struggle, he met a political prisoner from Bengal, who had been convicted and was to be hanged in a few weeks’ time. But that man was very cheerful and communicative. So the founder asked him, “You’re going to be hanged in a week or two and still you’re so cheerful?” The prisoner answered, “This courage was given to me by my teacher”. That spurred him to become a teacher. So he joined the teacher training institute near Madurai. The priest in charge of the institute took an interest in him and asked him why he wanted to teach, after having been in prison, etc. The founder said, “This is the only way by which we can develop our generation and drive the British away.” Impressed, the priest, an Englishman, became very close to the founder and gave him all his blessings and support.
Madurai Messenger Young Achiever January 2014
Aiming Sky High
He became the Tamil Nadu State champion and a medallist at the national level when he was only 14 years old, which encouraged his interest in shooting and made him eager to learn more. Since then, he has been winning medals in each category; sub junior, junior and senior level
Ever since shooter Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore won an individual silver medal at the 2004 Olympics, the first Indian sportsperson to do so in 104 years, many youngsters buoyed by his success, have taken up rifle shooting. Haruko Kawabe chats to one such rising shooting star at the Madurai Rifle Club Text and Photos: Haruko Kawabe
Holding his own - Sarvesh is very confident even while competing with senior shooters in the national team
Setting his sights on success - despite his young age, V Sarvesh is very focussed on his shooting
The target arena at the Madurai Rifle Club where Sarvesh and the other shooters practise
here were 3 young shooters at the Madurai Rifle Club that evening, weighed down by their heavy gear and boots. Holding rifles that looked too heavy for them, they all wore serious faces, eyes intensely focussed on a circle of less than 60 centimetres kept 10 meters away. Rifle shooting is one of the most popular sports in India. The country has recently produced quite a few Olympic medallists from among its national
shooters. The sport, in which shooters use rifles to shoot a target and compete for a score, requires very strong powers of concentration and the physical stamina to stand for long hours. It is these attributes which have made V. Sarvesh Swaroop Shankar one of the rising stars in rifle shooting at the age of just 16 years. When we arrived at the Madurai Rifle Club, he was quietly preparing for practice. His
precociousness and sinewy body made us forget his young age. As we watched him practise, physically and mentally totally immersed in his shooting without losing his concentration even a little, we realised that this ability to totally shut out others and his physical strength hides the naivety of youthfulness.
Young Achiever From his childhood, Sarvesh has looked upon his father S Velshankar as his role
model. He used to follow his father around wherever he went and tried to do the many things that his father did such as yoga, meditation and rifle shooting. He was only 8 years old when he took up rifle shooting. “This age was the best time for him to start rifle shooting,” his brother, V. Suraj Sundara Shankar tells us. ‘‘At that age, he started to get interested in everything happening around him. Rifle shooting is a sport where shooters improve themselves by finding out their
mistakes and correcting themselves. So the most important quality for a rifle shooter is to be mentally strong.’’ A shooter should mentally be prepared to choose what to remember or forget. Since Sarvesh started shooting at an age when he was just beginning to notice things and develop his interests, he was able to improve his shooting. When he was 12 years old, he became the youngest shooter in the Indian
national team. He became the Tamil Nadu State champion and a medallist at the national level when he was only 14 years old, which encouraged his interest in shooting and made him eager to learn more. Since then, he has been winning medals in each category; sub junior, junior and senior level. Last year, he won six medals (two gold, one silver and three bronze) at the 56th National Shooting Championships held in New Delhi and one of them was in the senior category,
Madurai Messenger Young Achiever January 2014
while he also won an individual silver medal in the 57th National Shooting Championships held in December 2013. People are proud of him because no other shooter from Tamil Nadu has won an individual medal in a national event. One of the gold medals he won in 2012 was in a team event where 3 shooters from Tamil Nadu participated.
averaged that of any other shooter in the Indian national team. Being in the Indian team also ensures that he gets more training from national and international coaches for competitions, enabling him to improve and gain more experience in shooting. However, Sarvesh points out that all is not cushy - there are also certain limiting factors which shooters have to overcome while pursing their passion. Though there are many talented shooters in Madurai and all over India, their talents and potential remain undiscovered due to the high cost involved in rifle shooting. The gun alone cost around Rs. 2,00,000, and shooters also have to shell out on the ammunition which they use, which costs around Rs. 800 per day. So the members in the Madurai Rifle Club opine that, “If the Government steps forward to help these young shooters, we can encourage more talented shooters at this club.” If the state government is willing to support these shooters, they might be able to reach the Olympics without hindrance.
Juggling Studies and Shooting
His shooting practice starts in the evening every day because during the daytime he attends school, where he is in the twelfth standard. He goes to school by 8.30 a.m. and studies with other students. As in Tamil Nadu the12th standard is the last year in school at the end of which a government board examination decides what the students will do in the future, Sarvesh cannot concentrate only on rifle shooting. Even if the school does give him permission, it restricts his participation only to national level shooting competitions. When he comes back home after school, it is already at 5 or 5.30 p.m. After that, he practises rifle shooting as long as his time permits. He hardly has ample time to practice his shooting every day, but on Sundays, he tries to make up for this by practising more. But Sunday is also the day when the Madurai Rifle Club is active, when all the shooters practice intensely. Sarvesh talks with the other shooters and teaches them, which helps them to improve together. Sarvesh is not without rivals. Shooters such as Navdeep Singh Rathore and Aadhesh (who like Sarvesh, is also from Tamil Nadu) are older and have more experience because they, unlike him, can practise regularly. But Sarvesh is confident that he can surpass them. The competitions he attends also act as a learning experience for him as he watches his rivals and learns from their mistakes/successes.
The Pressures of Preparation Preparing for a competition puts a lot of pressure on Sarvesh, as he could be competing on behalf of the Madurai Rifle Club or the state of Tamil Nadu, or
Hitting the bull’s eye is no easy task and requires a shooter to be mentally strong and focussed
Sarvesh feels the physical stress especially in the air rifle and 3 position events. In the air rifle event, each shooter has to shoot 60 shots within a limited time. They have to plan and control themselves in the race against time. In the 3 position event, a shooter has to shoot 40 shots for each position. It takes about three hours and is the toughest event in any shooting competition sometimes even on behalf of India. Even if he is only 16 years old, his age does not matter in the field of sports. How does he bear up under the enormous strain? Sarvesh told us that he relaxes his mind by doing meditation, which also helps him to deal with the enormous amount of pressure before a competition. His coach does not force him to win medals and just tells him to do his best. Even Sarvesh, who is such a tough shooter, feels the physical stress especially in the air rifle and 3 position events. In the air rifle event, each shooter has to shoot 60 shots within a limited time. They have to plan and control themselves in the race against time. In the 3 position event, a shooter has to shoot 40 shots for each position. It takes about three hours and is the toughest event in any shooting
Path to Glory Sarvesh’s aim is to win international medals and make India proud. “I wish every young person to do his or her best in their field. Believe in yourself,” are his words of advice to other young shooters. His ultimate dream is to become an Olympic champion. Sarvesh has already secured a place in the team for the 2014 Junior Olympics which are slated to take place in China and is looking forward to better his achievements and win glory for India.
competition. Mental preparation is very crucial for maintaining concentration during a competition. But these endeavours have borne fruit and brought him laurels - he was very happy and proud when he won the gold medal in the International Junior Competition at Suhl in Germany in 2012. All his classmates and friends came to see him and congratulate him on his triumph. ‘‘It was one of the best moments of my sporting life,’’ he says.
Shooters’ Voices Sarvesh is trying to join the Indian national shooting team for international events also. He cannot join every international event because the National Rifle Association has said that he is underage although his scores have
Role model - V Sarvesh poses with his rifle at the Madurai Rifle Club
Sarvesh points out that all is not cushy - there are also certain limiting factors which shooters have to overcome while pursing their passion. Though there are many talented shooters in Madurai and all over India, their talents and potential remain undiscovered due to the high cost involved in rifle shooting
“I also like other sports like yoga, skating, and silambattam…’’ he says. Once he puts his rifle down and starts chatting with the other young shooters, his childlike and innocent nature comes through. Although Sarvesh is only 16 years old, he is keen to represent Tamil Nadu and India. His strong-mindedness and determination definitely make him a role model for young people in India and across the world.
Madurai Messenger Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives January 2014
Driven by Benevolence Japanese national Haruko Kawabe interviews an auto rickshaw driver who has involved himself in little acts of charity and comes away mightily impressed by his willingness to go out of his way to help the needy despite his own struggles with poverty and deception by his near and dear ones Text and Photo: Haruko Kawabe Japan
etting down from the autorickshaw, I look back at the retreating rickshaw driver. I wonder about him. Most of the auto rickshaw drivers seem nondescript, ordinary people whose driving style and conversation define who they are. But not so J. Seemon Rayappan (43) whose acts of charity and ferrying poor people for free sets him apart from his tribe. What is the secret behind his outlook?
Hard Times Seemon Rayappan was born in Dindigul, which is about one hour away from Madurai. His parents were too poor to educate him and therefore, sent him to his aunt in Madurai. She looked after him like his mother. After he finished 10th standard, he started riding a tricycle (load rickshaw) for around five years in Madurai. When he was 18 years old, he got married to a girl from an orphanage. When his aunt asked him if he wanted to get married to a girl raised in an orphanage, Simon unhesitatingly answered, ‘’Yes, I will marry the girl.’’ His wife, who is 2 years younger than him, lost her parents at such an early age that she didn’t even know her own name. The Swedish foundation that raised her gave her a name but everyone called her ‘Pappa’ which means ‘baby’ in Tamil. Though he was happy to marry the girl chosen by his aunt, it led to some problems in his marital life as his wife Pappa could not adjust to living in a joint family. The couple had 2 sons who are 23 years old and 21 years old respectively. After
they were born, Seemon separated from his aunt’s family and chose to live in a nuclear family. Sometimes the fact that he was married to a woman from an orphanage had repercussions on Seemon’s other relationships, for instance, his community people avoided him, did not talk to him or even invite him for any of their family functions. If his own troubles did not seem enough, his mother also faced problems and was cheated of her share of the family property by her brothers, Seemon’s uncles. Seemon’s aunt had relinquished her right to the share of the property as she had enough money and she told them to give her money to Seemon’s mother. However, the uncles cajoled his mother into giving them the money, saying that, ‘’they will get good jobs and provide for her.” The poor woman was innocent; she believed their promises and signed the papers. After that, they left her in the lurch, without helping her.
However, at that time, he realised the truth of the Biblical saying, ‘as you sow, so shall you reap’. He realised at that point that if people do something wrong, there will also be a time when they will have to pay for it. “If people do good to others, they can be happy”, he says, adding that the incident was a turning point in his life.
As an auto rickshaw driver Seemon started driving an auto rickshaw 17 years ago when he was 26 years old. His aunt was the one who bought him the first auto rickshaw and asked him to earn a living as a driver. But just five years later, he was forced to sell the auto rickshaw to fund his ailing father’s medical treatment. Thereafter, he started working at a clothes factory in Tirupur for ten years.
Two years ago when he came back to Madurai, he wanted to start working again as an auto rickshaw driver. So he sold all the jewels he had bought for his wife and with the money he had saved in Tirupur, he bought another auto rickshaw.
Seemon was furious with his uncles and refused to meet them, even when one these uncles fell very ill and was in a critical condition. However, everyone in his family persuaded him to go to see the uncle. Seemon said that despite the rancour and ill-feeling that he felt, he spoke with his uncle in the presence of his other relatives. Two days later, his uncle passed away. Seemon went back when he heard the news of the death.
A year ago, while he was taking a man who he knew as a regular customer in his auto rickshaw, the man suddenly asked him about his sons, whether they were studying and so on. ‘‘Actually I’m struggling to educate them. It’s difficult for me to pay for my sons’ studies…’’ he answered. The man immediately offered Seemon Rs 50,000 and asked him to educate his sons with the money.
Good Samaritan - auto rickshaw driver J. Seemon Rayappan’s happiness lies in the blessings he receives from the people he helps
When one of the boys passed the B.Ed (Bachelors of Education) entrance examination and got a seat through merit for which he had to pay much less fees, the generous man helped Seemon by giving him Rs 30,000. That extraordinary person was a retired teacher, S.Ganapathy, who became Seemon’s inspiration.
Inspiration and Guide This teacher’s generosity inspired Seemon to start doing something similar himself. Wherever he is driving his auto rickshaw and sees people who look like that they are at a loss about what to do, he immediately stops his rickshaw and calls them. He lets them have a seat and gives money to them. Then he asks them to eat. ‘’Even if they cannot understand what I am saying, they will be so happy when they see the money and I tell them to eat”, he says. If any of them want to go somewhere, Seemon takes them there for free. When pregnant women take his rickshaw, he never demands a certain fare. If they are going to the government hospital, he does not take money at all but if they are going to a
private hospital, he asks them to pay whatever they can. He does not demand anything. Seemon says that these little acts of charity give him immense happiness, especially when the people he takes in his rickshaw always tell him, ‘’God bless you and your family.” “This blessing makes my life happy and it is enough for me,” he says. His charity extends not only to giving money to people who are in a difficult situation but also to encourage other customers to be charitable themselves. For example, when families take his auto rickshaw to go shopping for wedding purchases for their son or daughter, Seemon always tells them “if you have a wedding in your family, try, before the wedding, to give a dress to someone who needs it. Then you and your family will be blessed.” He also tells every person he meets, “in your life, just once, give food to a poor person, then your life will be good’’.
Beneficence of God He told us about an incident which occurred the day before the interview when one of the tyres of his rickshaw got punctured. If he had driven the rickshaw at that moment, he might have caused
an accident. But he couldn’t because his autorickshaw refused to move. ‘‘It was God who made my vehicle stop and helped me to notice that the tire had a blowout,” he says. He is a very Godfearing man and he always prays to God what about he wants. Recently it emerged that his wife, who has a sister, came to know that she also has a brother living in Chennai. She has plans to go there to see him soon. Seemon believes that none of this is a coincidence but that it is a sign of God’s benevolence and protection. Meeting a man of such profound kindness enthralled us. Though his life has not always been easy, he overcame the obstacles and has found happiness in the little acts of charity he does. ‘’Happiness and sadness are not permanent. If you are sad today, you will be happy tomorrow,” he says. The difficult path which he has trod bears out the truth of these words. His little acts of kindness will touch people’s hearts, make them warm, and will continue to help many people. ‘‘I will drive my auto rickshaw as long as my health is fine,” he says as he signs off.
Madurai Messenger Places January 2014
Gandhi Memorial Museum:
The museum has some impressive memorabilia in its possession, like Gandhi’s sandals, a pillow, a blanket and a shawl Gandhi wore when he visited the Buckingham Palace, in U.K. The most interesting and attention grabbing object is a blood stained cloth worn by Gandhi the day he was assassinated
A Slice of History Isak Adolfsson pays a visit to the Gandhi Museum, one of the most popular tourist attractions in Madurai city which, besides giving visitors an insight into Indian history, also has some special memorabilia connected with the Mahatma Text and Photos: Isak Adolfsson
A personal touch - the museum contains several memorabilia of the Mahatma including his slippers and the cutlery used by him
judicial guarantees fed dissatisfaction by itself. Lala Lajpat Rai, an extremist freedom fighter said, “Therefore, it was no surprise that there could be no willing co- operation between a foreign Government and a subject people.” As a response, the Indian National Congress saw its birth in 1885. The demand for independence increased when Bengal was divided on October 10, 1905, which was seen as an attempt to weaken the unity of the freedom movement.
“He (Gandhi) stopped at the thresholds of the huts of the thousands of the disposed, dressed like one of their own. He spoke to them in their own language; here was living truth at last, and not quotations from books.” 20
- Inscription at the entrance to the Gandhi Memorial Museum, Madurai.
adurai, the ancient seat of Tamil language and culture, held a special place in the Mahatma’s heart. It was during his visit to the city on September 22, 1921 that Gandhi, moved by the utter poverty that he saw, shed his Western attire and started wearing the loin cloth, which had been hitherto identified with the landless peasants. The dress adopted by Gandhi so that he could identify himself with ‘the poorest of the poor’ later became an iconic symbol of the Mahatma and his teachings. The place where this unexpected sartorial metamorphosis took place became one of the five cities in India where Gandhi Sanghralayas (museums) were set up. Entering the Gandhi Memorial Museum I find that it offers more than just groove displays one after another: there are carefully detailed displays including quite a few anecdotes, a selection of Gandhi’s belongings, letters written by Gandhi and a photo exhibition on his life. Clearly, the Gandhi Museum is not your usual museum.
Gandhi and Dandi
Honouring the Mahatma - the building the Gandhi Museum is housed in was originally the Tamukkam Palace of Rani Mangammal, a ruler of the Nayak dynasty
The story of subjugation A special exhibition in one part of the museum offers you valuable insights into Indian history, especially the British Raj and India’s struggle for independence. We learn that the first European traders to India were the Portugese in 1498 and that they started trade in spices in the seventeen century. By defeating the Nawab of Bengal at the Battle of Plassey in 1757, the British obtained de facto control of India. From then on till 1857, when the control
of the Indian Provinces passed to the Crown, the East India Company would exploit India by its tax excesses and by having a monopoly on certain selected goods. This oppression resulted in the revolt of 1857, which is also known as the First War of Independence. India would come into direct British administration in 1858, giving the Indian people no rights or protection by law. “An Englishman could kill an Indian, and need not to answer for it” as one display states. This total lack of
Gandhi returned from South Africa in 1915 and within a few years, the oppression he saw in India would increase. The Rowlatt Act of 1919 deprived Indians of their right to judicial proceedings and any Indian could be put in jail without trial. The museum later tells the story of Gandhi’s activism, including the famous Salt Satyagraha or the Dandi March in 1930 and how India, after a long struggle, was finally granted independence on August 15, 1947.
Array of artifacts There are a few displays showing pictures of different body parts of Gandhi. A collage of his legs: “They tramped India”; a collage of his hands: “The hands that blessed millions”; a collage of his head: “The creative genius”. The museum has some impressive memorabilia in its possession, like Gandhi’s sandals, a pillow, a blanket and a shawl Gandhi wore when he visited the Buckingham
Palace, in U.K. The most interesting and attention grabbing object is a blood stained cloth worn by Gandhi the day he was assassinated. We sit down to chat with the Museum’s Administrative Officer, K.R. Nanda Rao, who gives us a brief history of the museum. After Gandhi was assassinated, a committee, which wanted to spread the philosophy of Gandhi, was created. Their work resulted in the opening of five museums all around India. The museums are found in Delhi, Mumbai, Patna, Wardha and Madurai. It was a natural choice that the Tamil Nadu based museum would be located in Madurai. Gandhi made seven visits to Madurai in
total. He visited Madurai in 1919, during his protest against The Rowlatt Act, and gathered the youth to win their sympathy for the decolonization of India. It was also, as already mentioned, after his visit to Madurai in 1921 that Gandhi adopted the loin cloth. In another significant visit to Madurai in 1934, Gandhi refused to enter the Sri Meenakshi Amman temple until the lower castes were allowed to enter the temple. Gandhi had, undoubtedly, a strong connection with Madurai. Even some of his ashes were buried in the museum’s memorial park. A visit to the Gandhi Memorial Museum will let you take part in that connection.
A strong bond - a plaque displays the dates and occasions when Gandhi visited Madurai
Madurai Messenger Spotlight January 2014
The devotee’s guru puts the mala usually made of rudraksha beads which signifies renunciation of material temptations, around the devotee’s neck at a ceremony in a temple. This ritual is the start of the 41-day period of vratham and therefore signifies allegiance and total dedication to Lord Ayyappan. Devotees start the physical preparation consisting of practicing to walk without footwear, sleeping on the floor without mattress or cushions, bathing only in cold water
A Lesson in Self-Discipline for Youth In an age of instant gratification and self-indulgence, how do youngers learn discipline and self-control, even if it is for a short time? Noemie Halioua talks to a few young men who are making the pilgrimage to Sabarimala to find out how these youngsters forgo even the basic comforts during the 48-day period of vratham which is mandatory for all Text and photos: Noemie Halioua France
Flocking of the faithful - the Sabarimala Temple in Kerala where thousands of pilgrims converge every year
Venerated - Manikandan, who later became Lord Ayyappan, is shown astride the tiger
As he grew up, Manikandan’s intelligence, strength and superhuman wisdom impressed his guru who recognised this as a proof of his divine birth and concluded that Manikandan is, indeed, a god
and December 26), Makara vilakku (January 14 or “Makara Sankranthi”), Vishu (April 14) and the first six days of each month in the Malayalam calendar.
wami saranam ... Ayyappa! is the cry that rents the air as swarms of young men in black sarongs, wearing blue/black/ochre shawls get down from a van on their way to offer worship at the world famous Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai. I am intrigued by their presence, as I am by their strange language which I recognise as not being Tamil. Who are they and what is the pilgrimage that they are undertaking?
All these young men, I am told, are Sabarimala pilgrims. Sabarimala is a place in Kerala which is the annual meeting ground of hundreds of such young men. It is one of the world’s largest annual pilgrimages, where religions, castes or nationalities don’t really matter. People travel from all over the world to reach the holy place in Sabarimala: the shrine of Lord Ayyappan. This temple opens its doors very rarely, only on the days of the Mandalapooja (usually between November 15
Sabarimala is said to be the place where Lord Ayyappan, who is venerated in Tamil Nadu as the second most important deity after Lord Murugan, meditated after killing the powerful female demon Mahishi. For this reason, the pilgrimage to Sabarimala is very important in south India.
Lord Ayyappan The story of Lord Ayyappan, born out of the union of Shiva and Vishnu (in the form of Mohini), can be traced to the rule of Raja Rajasekhara, a childless king, who found the child in the forest and took him back to the palace. The king and
his queen, overjoyed to finally have found an heir to the kingdom, named the child ‘Manikandan’ as the child, when found, was wearing a resplendent gold chain around his neck. As he grew up, Manikandan’s intelligence, strength and superhuman wisdom impressed his guru who recognised this as a proof of his divine birth and concluded that Manikandan is, indeed, a god. The diwan who wanted to delegitimize Manikandan’s claim to the throne as the older son, instigated the queen, saying that it is not good to give the throne to a child who came from the forests. The queen blinded by devotion to her own son, pretended to have a stomach ache, for which the wily royal doctor who had been bribed, prescribed tigress’s milk as a cure. Ayyappan was trapped into undertaking this Herculean task in the hope that he would be eaten by wild animals. Helped by Lord Shiva, Ayyappan braved many difficulties in the forests including the slaying of Mahishi but finally returned safe to the palace with the tigress. The king, realizing the treachery of the diwan and acknowledging the child’s divinity told Manikandan that he wished to build a temple in his honour. The arrow that Manikandan launched to mark the location of the temple landed on Sabari. Instructing the king to build the temple at Sabari, Manikandan then disappeared. King Rajasekhara, later on the advice of sage Agasthya, laid the foundation stone of the temple and Sabarimala was established.
Madurai Messenger Spotlight January 2014
These restrictions are part of the logic of abstinence and renunciation of physical comforts which affect both the psychological and physical preparedness of the devotees for the pilgrimage. These practices mirror those of the ageold Hindu ascetics to cleanse the body and divert the mind from worldly concerns to make them more pure and closer to god
personal decision. For him, this pilgrimage is more convenient than others because it is based on a defined and relatively short period (48 days) that makes it easier for a young person who is delving into the sanctity of the event for the first time, without the possible apprehension that he may give up. During the interview, he confesses that although the first time is seen as the most difficult because of the strict restrictions, that is precisely why black is the color of clothes for novices: to protect them from demons and evil thoughts. Every devotee finds some of the rules more difficult to follow than the others; for example, Jegan tells us, “Sleeping on the ground is what is most difficult for me. Sleeping on the floor without a pillow or mat is the most painful.” Depending on seniority, the clothing differs: it is black for the first five years, ochre and blue for the guru. These restrictions do not prevent many young people from engaging with energy in the Sabarimala pilgrimage. Also, except for young girls who have not attained puberty and women who have not reached menopause, women are totally banned from making the pilgrimage. Once the 41-day preparation period is completed, the pilgrimage begins after a special pooja.
No shortcuts to Lord Ayyappan devotees follow stringent rules with regard to food, clothing and daily habits during the 41-day vratham period
Pride and a Promise for the Future
The Pilgrimage The pilgrimage to Sabarimala may well be open to all faiths, but a devotee should be ready to undergo hardship and an intense preparation, which requires real commitment. This is because Lord Manikandan (Ayyappan), had stated emphatically that he would grace only those devotees who offer darshan after observing forty-one days’vratham (penance for religious observance) that involves strict abstinence from family desires and tastes; the devotees are expected to adhere to a way of life akin to that of a brahmachari (celibate person), constantly reflecting on the goodness of life. Therefore, the preparations are very stringent. In the first step, the devotee’s house is purified in which the whole house is washed and a holy mixture of oil and cow dung is applied. This is followed by the first decisive ritual in the commitment to the Sabarimala pilgrimage, in which the devotee receives the mala or necklace as a reminder of the gold chain around the neck of Manikandan when the king discovered him in the forest. The devotee’s guru puts the mala usually made of rudraksha beads which signifies renunciation of material temptations, around the devotee’s neck at a ceremony in a temple. This ritual is the start of the 41-day period of vratham and therefore signifies allegiance and total dedication to Lord Ayyappan. After that, devotees start the physical preparation consisting of practicing to walk
without footwear, sleeping on the floor without mattress or cushions, bathing only in cold water. These are essential as devotees have to deal with extreme conditions while going to Sabarimala, including walking barefoot over mountainous and forested areas. They should not only abstain from eating non-vegetarian food including eggs, drinking alcoholic beverages and tobacco but also refrain from using all kinds of chemical products used for shower gel or drugs. Smearing the body and hair with oil is also not recommended for devotees. These restrictions are part of the logic of abstinence and renunciation of physical comforts which affect both the psychological and physical preparedness of the devotees for the pilgrimage. These practices mirror those of the age-old Hindu ascetics to cleanse the body and divert the mind from worldly concerns to make them more pure and closer to god. The spirit of renunciation has one sole goal: enabling a devotee to eschew his physical needs and comforts so that his whole self is attuned to only one thing, Lord Ayyappan.
First Timer’s Confessions A young Hindu named Jegan (22), from Madurai is making the pilgrimage to Sabarimala for the first time. This decision was influenced by the other men in his family and his colleagues who have all made this leap of devotion to Ayyappan. He insists, however, that the influence of his family members and peers in his decision has not been felt as a pressure but rather as an informed choice and a very
Young people who voluntarily engage in this religious journey are driven by devotion and the desire to seek the blessings of Lord Ayyappan.
Every devotee finds some of the rules more difficult to follow than the others; for example, Jegan tells us, “Sleeping on the ground is what is most difficult for me. Sleeping on the floor without a pillow or mat is the most painful”
Commitment to this pilgrimage among boys is seen as a turning point to adult life and usually happens most commonly around 18 years of age. Often, other male family members, friends or colleagues instil in the young devotee the desire to accomplish the pilgrimage which is also seen as an act of pride; the guru is also an important figure in the decision making for nothing can be done without his consent. A devotee who is on his maiden pilgrimage to Sabarimala is called ‘Kanni Ayyappan’ and enjoys a special status. For example, he dresses in black as this colour is the symbol of protection against the demons. Though the restrictions are difficult, they do not in any way undermine the willingness of many youth. Their commitment is guided by several different motives: some are motivated by the idea of becoming rich, others by the idea of recovery from an illness of one of their relatives. On the other hand, what is common to all these devotees is the hope that this pilgrimage to Lord Ayyappan will initiate successful and happy events.
Though the restrictions are difficult, they do not in any way undermine the willingness of many youth
The pilgrimage ends on January 14 (Makara Sankranthi day) when the light or makara jyothi, which is regarded as a sign from Lord Ayyappan himself, is visible on the mountain. This date is also the start of the Pongal festival and heralds spring in Tamil Nadu. Similar to people making important resolutions for the New Year in Western culture, the culmination of the pilgrimage promises to the young devotees the start of a new, more pure life with the blessings of Lord Ayyappan. Determined devotee - Jagan who is making his first pilgrimage to Sabarimala
Madurai Messenger Village Voices January 2014
Development not indicated on the cards - astrologer and temple priest S Gopalakrishnan (foreground right) is one of the many prognosticators in Thiruvedagam
God’s Own Village Haruko Kawabe wanders around the temple town of Thiruvedagam and is astonished to find that the future of this tiny village seems to lie in the hands of its women, who are far ahead of their male counterparts in terms of education and employment and are very vocal about their problems and the basic facilities that their village is in dire need of Text and Photos: Haruko Kawabe Japan
mall but solemn, the Edaganatheswarar Temple stands in the middle of the village. In silence, as though the proximity of the Gods to the village people soothes their souls. The life of this village is synonymous with the temple. Many people from all over the world come to worship at the temple though the village itself is still underdeveloped in terms of facilities and infrastructure.
Place There are 1,000 houses in Thiruvedagam, located 32 km northwest of Madurai, all clustered around the Edaganatheswarar Temple. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, the temple which is a symbol of the village was built by the Pandyan king Arikesari Nedumaran who ruled Madurai about 1,500 years ago. However, at that time, Jainism was popular in the area, leading to trouble between the Hindus and the Jains in which the Hindus won. However, while the temple is mainly Hindu, it allowed both the communities to visit and pray. Peacock feathers which denote Jainism are engraved on two pillars, showing that the Jains were also allowed to visit there with leniency.
Central attraction - the Edaganatheswarar Temple in Thiruvedagam attracts devotees from all over the world
When we visited the temple, several Hindus came to pray, carrying tiny baskets filled with fruits and flowers, joining their hands in prayer and sitting straight in silence. After giving their
The temple is open to everyone between 6 a.m. and noon, and between 4.30 p.m. and 8 p.m. When I say ‘’everyone’’, it is literally so, as unlike in other temples, even foreigners like me can go into the sanctum sanctorum votive offerings, they received holy ash from the priest which they applied on their forehead and throat. The temple is open to everyone between 6 a.m. and noon, and between 4.30 p.m. and 8 p.m. When I say ‘’everyone’’, it is literally so, as unlike in other temples, even foreigners like me can go into the sanctum sanctorum - this is the specialty of the temple. Also, there is no rule such as women have to wear sari, men have to wear only dhoti. ‘’Everyone is equal before God. God is good to everyone,’’ says S. Gopala Krishnan (62), who has been the temple priest for 44 years. About 500 people visit the temple every day, from not only this village but also from all parts of India and the world. The temple has many smaller shrines, each dedicated to a different god, each of whom has a special
benefit - worshippers pray to each god depending on their needs. It is said that when people find obstacles in getting married, they come here and pray, and soon after they get married. Thiruvedagam is as famous as Kashi which all Hindus are supposed to visit at least once in their lifetime.
People ‘’Women are more educated than men here,’’ said village inhabitant N.Iswarya (22). She is employed in a private company in Madurai. The village has one government middle school where children can study up to 8th standard. Men usually don’t study much and prefer to work after finishing 8th standard, most commonly as drivers. There is no college, but many girls leave the village to go to Madurai to pursue their higher studies and to look
for a good job. According to Iswarya, women in this village are very forward looking, most of them motivated by the notion of being educated and independent. Once a year, a two-day meeting is conducted for women, in which every girl who is over 20 years of age takes part. They discuss many issues about the village. ‘’This place needs to develop fundamental infrastructure,’’ Iswarya points out. During the weekends, for the young women, movies seem to be the most popular form of entertainment, though they have to go to the theatre in a nearby village, while the most common past time for the young men is playing cricket. They also love sitting and chatting with neighbours. Most of the inhabitants’ families have lived in the village for generations so they all know each other well. The village is also famous for its astrologers. Like many other visitors to the village, I was thrilled when astrologer G. Naganathan asked me to extend my palm and I listened eagerly as he foretold my future.
Madurai Messenger Village Voices January 2014
schemes, there is no plan to build a hospital or pharmacy in the village though this is the most urgently felt need. The village people feel the neglect in this area a lot especially in times of medical emergencies. They hope that the government will take counter measures before something disastrous occurs.
Bold and ambitious - women of Thiruvedagam are more modern in outlook than their male counterparts and are more educated too
There is no college, but many girls leave the village to go to Madurai to pursue their higher studies and to look for a good job. According to Iswarya, women in this village are very forward looking, most of them motivated by the notion of being educated and independent Production The village is economically supported by the people who work as farmers, construction workers and drivers. Traditionally, agriculture is still predominant in the village and the most commonly grown crop is arecanut. The people also cultivate flowers which are used by the pilgrims to offer at the temple. Women work as hard as men. While the women are equally employed as the men, it could be that the women here have more opportunities as they are more educated. The state government also extends support to the village through its various schemes. Just four months prior to the interview, the government had opened a self-employment centre in this village
which has a library and offers training in vocational skills where the villagers can learn tailoring or appalam-making. This centre is very useful to the people, particularly the men who didn’t have a chance of studying above the secondary school level and who are hesitant to go out of the village due to the lack of education. This place gives them the training and skills to support their families and develop the village.
Problems The women were very forthcoming when asked about the drawbacks which the village faces. They complained about a lot of problems. The most serious one is the lack of medical facilities - the village does not even have a pharmacy. It is surprising that the nearest hospital is 10
km away. When children get sick, they have to take them there. ‘‘If someone is poisoned, he will die before we can take him to the hospital…’’, they said. We walked around the village and we noticed that the village neither has a restaurant nor a hotel although many people from all over the world visit the Edaganatheswarar Temple. People say that there is no police station and no bus facility after 10 p.m. Compared to its historical importance and background, commercial development and activities have not yet made any inroads here. Women were vocal about their demands, ‘’I want a good clothes shop in this village. We have to go all the way to Madurai to buy clothes!’’ In the village where the women are so educated and independent, there were many such voices.
Two young students K. Hari Vignesh (12) and K. Mohana Priya (10) study at the Panchayat Union Middle School at Thiruvedagam. ‘‘We really like the village because there are many places to pray and many people visit this village for that.’’ The Vaigai River, which cuts across the village on its way to the Bay of Bengal, seems to be their favourite haunt. They often go to the river and play with their friends there. They also like Teacher’s Day and Children’s Day celebrations at their school because on Teacher’s Day, they give teachers biscuits while on Children’s Day they get chocolates. These lovely children spoke to us about their dreams for the future. K. Hari Vignesh wants to be a policeman while K. Mohana Priya wants to be a teacher. She would like to work as a teacher in this village. Both of them said that their generation must take up the responsibility of dealing with problems in the future.
Prospects & Promise
Edaganatheswarar Temple is wellloved by people, from adults to children in the village, in India, and around the world. Everybody here talks about the temple and is proud of its fame. Just like the temple, the people here also welcomed us and were very hospitable to us. Moreover, I was enthralled by the beauty and grace of the women, born and raised in the village. They work, rear their children, make meals, wash clothes and so on, which tells us how hard working they are.
The lack of proper medical facilities requires government intervention immediately. While the government is presently financially supporting the villagers by giving money to pregnant women and for marriages through its
When we were leaving, the villagers gave us some sweets as a souvenir. The warmth of the temple and the people makes me want to go back there again.
The most serious problem is the lack of medical facilities - the village does not even have a pharmacy. It is surprising that the nearest hospital is 10 km away. When children get sick, they have to take them there. People say that there is no police station and no bus facility after 10 p.m. Compared to its historical importance and background, commercial development and activities have not yet made any inroads here
At the feet of God - everyone including foreigners are allowed to enter the sanctum sanctorum of the Edaganatheswarar Temple at Thiruvedagam
Madurai Messenger Film Review January 2014
An Unexpected Confluence How can we transform our lives? How, by choosing the supremacy of truth, can we bring about change? These complex issues form the quest of both The Making of the Mahatma and Lage Raho Munna Bhai. Noemie Halioua explores the essence of these two movies and concludes that though the protagonists, Gandhi and the fictional Munna Bhai are as different from each other as chalk is from cheese, ultimately they spread the same subtle message Text : Noemie Halioua France
Lage Raho Munna Bhai Director: Rajkumar Hirani Cast: Boman Irani, Sanjay Dutt, Arshad Warsi, Vidya Balan Language: Hindi Year: 2006
The Making of the Mahatma Director: Shyam Benegal Cast: Rajat Kapur, Pallavi Joshi, Keith Stevenson,
Language: English Year: 1996
he Making of the Mahatma, a joint Indo-South African film released in 1996, tells the story of the transformation of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, a barrister in South Africa with a thriving practice, into Mahatma Gandhi, freedom fighter and champion of the downtrodden, who is revered by Indians as the ‘father of the nation.’ Munna meanwhile, is the zany hero of the romantic comedy Lage Raho Munna Bhai directed by Rajkumar Hirani, released in 2006. Both the movies belong to different genres and are indeed, worlds apart. Gandhi was a historical figure of the twentieth century whose principles were to have far-reaching consequences on world history and humanity; while Munna, a fictional character set in the twenty-first century, is a minor gangster. The only tenuous link that binds both these films together is the principle of non-violent struggle, adopted by Gandhi in his fight against British rule in India. Lage Raho Munna Bhai explores the relevance of this principle through the eyes of its hero Munna Bhai.
Lage Raho Munna Bhai
The question at the heart of this movie is the close relationship between love and truth. Is it okay to lie for love? Can we love a person who lies? It is certain that Munna’s lies are not mean to hurt his beloved; Munna does not intend to set a trap. This is the crux of the problem around which the story evolves
In Lage Raho Munna Bhai, the sequel to the wildly popular Munna Bhai, M.B.B.S., Munna’s story begins like most Bollywood movies where Munna Bhai falls madly in love with a radio jockey Janvi whose programme ‘Good Morning Mumbai’ he listens to every morning. In one such programme, she conducts a quiz on Gandhi’s life. Munna Bhai (Munna), who is desperate to meet the object of his affections, participates and wins by malpractice. He begins to woo Janvi, who believes Munna’s story that he is a professor of history and an expert on
The appearance of Gandhi, which sometimes tests the limits of reality, becomes a metaphor for Munna’s conscience, even if he does not always listen to its basic message: do not forget that the truth always triumphs Gandhian principles. Munna who begins to study Gandhi’s life and principles in depth to give credence to this lie, starts having regular apparitions of Gandhi who chides him for his falsehoods. Things take a complicated turn when Munna’s gangster boss appropriates Janvi’s house, instigated by his astrologer. How this is all solved through the adoption of ‘Gandhigiri’ (Gandhian principles) forms the crux of the story. Step by step, Munna Bhai, his boss and his friends have a change of heart spurred by love and the vision of Gandhi himself. The question at the heart of this movie is the close relationship between love and truth. Is it okay to lie for love? Can we love a person who lies? It is certain that Munna’s lies are not mean to hurt his beloved; Munna does not intend to set a trap. This is the crux of the problem around which the story evolves. Throughout Lage Raho Munna Bhai, we see many droll situations and some fantastic events. Munna comes across
Madurai Messenger Film Review January 2014
From Fuzziness to Curiosity
The film traces the 21 years that Gandhi spent in the country during which he would use his training as a lawyer to fight for the rights of the indentured labourers, most of them of Indian origin, till his return to India in 1915 and the incidents, both personal and professional, which would shape his philosophy
as a very endearing character whose sincerity in love creates empathy among the viewers, so much so that we get carried away by his tribulations and do not see the time passing. This story, about the crossroads of love and friendship, shows how the ideals of Gandhi can be relevant in today’s Indian society. Munna Bhai can do anything for love, including lying which is the antithesis of Gandhian principles. The appearance of Gandhi, which sometimes tests the limits of reality, becomes a metaphor for Munna’s conscience, even if he does not always listen to its basic message: do not forget that the truth always triumphs. This film highlights the teachings of Gandhi and the difficulty and rigor involved in such a way of life. It shows that to follow Gandhi’s ideals means sacrificing one’s desire; devoting one’s life completely to the truth, irrespective of the consequences that such action would result in. And yet the movie deals with the principles of Gandhi at a very superficial level and is a pale reflection of the complexity involved in conducting a war without violence.
Despite being slightly bewildered by a city which seems constantly in motion, Julie Larsen seems very determined to jump right into her Madurai adventure, as her enthusiasm to attend the mid-night Christmas service on the day just after her arrival shows Text and Photos: Julie Larsen Denmark
A riot of colours - a stack of sarees in a textile shop
verything felt at first frantic and blurry. I have always wanted to travel to India and I knew it would be colourful, different and challenging, but I think India is a country you need to experience with your own eyes to obtain an actual impression. When I arrived in Madurai, I could finally breathe a sigh of relief. I could relax after a stressful journey with several stopovers because I had reached my destination: Madurai. It was a quiet, warm and almost a silent evening when I arrived and I was greeted by a welcoming host family who all looked at me with curious eyes.
The Making of the Mahatma In The Making of the Mahatma, we see how Gandhi, through his first hand experience of racial discrimination and bias, left his thriving law practice to champion the rights of the indentured coolies in South Africa, an event that would result in him returning to India to lead the freedom struggle. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi arrived in South Africa as a legal representative for the Indian Muslim traders of Pretoria, just after completing his studies at London, a shy young man. The film traces the 21 years that Gandhi spent in the country during which he would use his training as a lawyer to fight for the rights of the indentured labourers, most of them of Indian origin, till his return to India in 1915 and the incidents, both personal and professional, which would shape his philosophy. This is a part of Gandhi’s life that history hardly makes any mention of. To most Indians, the story of Gandhi as part of history books is only about his
non-violent struggle against the British Empire. This movie comes back to the beginning of the story of how the principles of Gandhi were born. Thus, despite the hostility of the British government which imprisoned and executed many Indians, Gandhi insisted that the Indians adopt non - violence to achieve independence. This is a lesson of friendship towards the enemy, whatever the consequences, because for Gandhi, “the weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” This is why the hero of Hirani’s movie, Munna Bhai decides not to blame his attacker. Thus, this is where both these otherwise seemingly contradictory movies converge. Both the films reinforce the fact that Gandhi’s philosophy can be closely related to our daily lives with its stress on qualities such as truth and respect for others. It is a philosophy that does not merely remain on paper but one that can be used as a guide for concrete action and good and can lead to a world where humanity is peaceful with itself.
The quiet night does not last though and I soon found out how busy the city is during the day time. The city is constantly in motion. The traffic is hectic and always moving, except when the buses or rickshaws have to pick up new customers in the dusty surroundings. To cross the road seemed very frightening in the beginning and my first attempt to cross it on my own did result in a couple of cars using their horns, but in the end I made it safely to the other side. Though the nature of the traffic did not surprise because it was so similar to the traffic in Nepal, the business of the traffic does surprise me everywhere I go in Madurai.
In a Whirl of Colours During my second day, I was invited to attend a Christmas church service by my host family and I gladly accepted the offer. The church ceremony was so colourful with all the beautiful saris and jasmine flowers in the women’s hair. You can see the saris everywhere here in India, but that moment was special because of the number of women wearing saris - it was like a colourful ocean in motion when the women clapped their hands. As I sat there in the church, it almost felt like celebrating Christmas at home, which is one thing that I did not expect to have in common with my host family. After this event I was in a strangely uplifted mood because I felt that I had come to know a little bit of India.
Beating the Blurriness I still feel that everything around me is a bit blurry and I am sure that in some moments and situations I will have that feeling even when I have been here for a longer time. But to
As I sat there in the church, it almost felt like celebrating Christmas at home, which is one thing that I did not expect to have in common with my host family. After this event I was in a strangely uplifted mood because I felt that I had come to know a little bit of India avoid the blurriness, I am going to jump right into becoming acquainted with India. I have only come to know a little bit of what India can offer and I am sure that there is plenty for me to discover and to be grateful for. The saying “do not judge a book by its cover”, is exactly what I am going to do: I will open my eyes and keep discovering India until the blurriness disappears and the true beauty of India appears.
Madurai Messenger First Impressions January 2014
Amid Chaos, Unexpected Kindness
Awakening to A Different World
Unsure of what to expect on her first visit to India, Alice Markham-Cantor writes that her initial misgivings about not being able to adjust to Madurai’s small-town conservatism were offset by the kindness extended to her by the local people
Noemie Halioua dwells on the myriad colours of Madurai, so different from the ‘drabness’ of her hometown Paris and on how the city has taught her to live according to the Gandhian way of life, in simplicity and peaceful coexistence with others
Text and Photos: Alice Markham-Cantor
Text and Photos: Noemie Halioua
y first day in Madurai - I wasn’t sure what to expect. My preconception of India was a mental car-crash of spicy food, brightly-colored saris, stories of gang rape, and oppressive heat. This mixed together with Bollywood films and constant warnings from friends - “don’t trust anyone with your bags” and “don’t get on any buses” - until the only thing I was sure of was that I’d experience some industrial-strength culture shock. To be fair, my culture shock was slightly lessened by the week I spent in Kathmandu just prior to flying into Madurai. Both cities lack traffic laws or lights, leaving the streets to transform from places of transportation to fullfledged battlefields. In both you can hear the undulating music of Indian pop songs emanating from tiny taxis or autorickshaws, and in both, I was constantly stared at and charged extra money.
A clash of past and present But Madurai has its own charm. Walking into the city streets, the heat attaches to you like a second skin. Brilliantly-colored clothes and flowers appear like gorgeous splashes of paint on a dusty brown canvas. Dogs and cows roam free in front of modern clothing stores, flinging flies into the air with each swish of a tail. The calls of insects and car horns mix with the cawing of crows and the rumbling of the railway, inviting you to imagine the city as a place where the past and present meet, each fighting for ground.
A natural harmony - people in India don’t mind sharing their space with animals, some of which like these cows are regarded as ‘sacred’
People, people everywhere - crowds such as these can seem intimidating to a foreigner in the first few days
I wasn’t sure how well I would adjust to the hold past traditions have on Madurai; buses segregate women and men, and it is totally not appropriate for women to do many of the things that men can, such as wear short pants and walk after dark. If I am to be honest, I don’t think I will ever entirely adjust. However, while the treatment of women cannot be ignored, neither can the kindness of every local I met.
Bowled over by benignity My second morning in Madurai, I was running across the street, trying to avoid being hit by motorbikes and auto rickshaws, and my cell phone fell out of my pocket. A man picked it up and chased after me down the street to return it with a smile and a few heavily accented words of English. This was just my first taste of the warm welcome Madurai offered, and I began to realize that the culture shock would be eased by the factor I had not included in my expectations: the people themselves.
spectrum of colours greets my first glimpse of the city of Madurai - a world apart from the tedium of the greys and the mundane activities which I have become accustomed to in my hometown, Paris. As I look upon a strange new land with vibrant colours all around me - the bright yellow of the sun and the orange of the curry - it feels as if my eyes had been blindfolded for many days and have finally been opened. At first, I felt a little out of place but after that, I really started to feel that I don’t want to leave. Arriving in India, I began to ponder over its vast differences from Paris and I am astonished at the colours, the flora and fauna and the way that animals seem to live in peaceful coexistence with human beings. No animal is harmed here. In France, stray dogs are killed because they don’t have the opportunity to be adopted, unlike here. Monkeys (sometimes), squirrels, cats, pigs and cows roam around peacefully on the streets. Also, flowers, trees and bushes seem to grow wild between the houses. In India, people don’t interfere with nature. Here, humans share their territory with nature and live with her like a sister; people here don’t lock her up like a slave inside four walls.
Another way of looking at the world In the eyes of a Westerner, many of these differences seem strange
As I look upon a strange new land with vibrant colours all around me - the bright yellow of the sun and the orange of the curry - it feels as if my eyes had been blindfolded for many days and have finally been opened and almost frightening, posing risks and dangers. Though the Indian people and nature are closely linked, I also think of the diseases that the community could be exposed to by this. The differences are reflected in so many areas – in the morning, the alarm of the I-phone is replaced by the crowing of the rooster, while the bright rays of the sun make the popular UV spaces of Paris where synthetic UV rays are used by people wishing to get a tan, totally redundant here. The food is natural and not contaminated.
Remembering Gandhi’s principles Madurai has also taught me to discover and live unitedly with others. Staying in Madurai, I am repeatedly reminded of one of the fundamental principles of Gandhi’s philosophy : to be content with what we have, to give importance only to our primary needs, not to be greedy for wealth, to concentrate only on the essentials. And that includes caring about other people, even if they are totally different from me. I was happy to rediscover myself by seeing and experiencing a new culture.
irst mpressions January 2014
A Long-awaited Homecoming ith the bonds of friendship and kinship with ndians making her no stranger to the country’s culture, Valentina branati has absolutely no problems in adjusting to her life in adurai except for the inability to communicate with all those whom she met here, she regretfully reveals Text and Photos: Valentina Ebranati Italy
his is my first time in India or should I put it in a better way, the first time that I have actually stepped on Indian soil. I’ve been traveling in the north of the Indian sub continent, to Nepal and south to Sri Lanka but never have undertaken the journey of my life: the one to India.
Familiar customs India and its culture have already in fact become very familiar to me little by little due to their assimilation into my family and also as a result of the bonds of friendships. Besides the Italian culture into which I was born, I was keen that I shouldn’t lose the Indian part of me. And so I steeped myself in the Indian way of dressing and cooking, apart from reading and studying its ancient traditions, with my most recent discoveries being Hindi pop music and films. I live near the town of Florence in Tuscany, one of the most beautiful regions of Italy and I work in the local University but I must admit that my everyday life is made up of dressing in kurtis, cooking super spicy biryanis and singing Hindi pop songs as well.
Dream comes true I have been organizing my plans to travel to India many times but each time something happened due to which I had to delay or put it off, even though it was never my intention to come here as a
mere tourist: I wanted to be part of the every day life. So finally, after several false starts, I had the chance to leave my home country - my special moment had arrived! I must admit that when the airplane was landing in Mumbai with all its shining lights, the first stop of my journey, I was so excited, I could hear my own heart beat...telling me that I was actually arriving in India! Then, once in Madurai, from hour to hour the dream turns into reality: I meet my wonderful host family, walk to the center of the town, go to the holy Meenakshi Temple and the crowded small markets, eat meals on banana leaf, make an effort to talk and listen to everybody, including the street fortune teller with his cute green parrot that picks up the tarot cards, even if I don’t understand a word of Tamil. And last but not the least...is the thrill of wearing my beautiful Indian clothes that most of the year sit all folded inside the wardrobe!
Amazing and exciting Everything is exactly how I had expected it to be, with one difference, now it is no more a movie, it is my daily life and I don’t want to miss one minute of this great experience. Step by step, I discover something new that I didn’t know before and most things are amazing and exciting. Of course there are certain negative aspects and even things that I would never get used to (the continuous noise of the vehicular horns in the street, for
A heady feeling - women carry clay pots with sprouts on their heads at a temple festival
last but not the least...is the thrill of wearing my beautiful Indian clothes that most of the year sit all folded inside the wardrobe! example) but the thing that I regret most is not being able to talk to the people, all kinds of people, from the woman who sells hair pieces, to the girls joining the procession of women carrying clay pots of sprouts on their heads - one of the most enduring images that I will keep in my heart forever.
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