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VOLUME 2 , ISSUE 16 March 2011

Pal Pandi: For Birds’ Sake Plus: The Sword Makers of Thirupachi Galapagos Adventure Traditional Bone Setters

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Contents March 2011 | Issue No. 16 Editor

Dr. Nandini Murali


03 Celebrating Helen Keller through Dance COVER STORY

Assisted by

Ezhil Elango Media Relations Officer Coordinator

Joel Powel Abraham Sivakasi Projects Abroad Pvt. Ltd., Reporters and Designers:

Carina Ringive Chiara Podbeilski Christine Grandy-Dick Elisa Cohen Federica Presutto Gabriel Webber Laila Alonso-Huarte Marie Nahmias Mathias Helseth Sandy Benkimoun Simone Okkels Stella Brikey Stine Hornbeck Yukihiro Ota Zinzi Boonstra


MADURAI MESSENGER No. 17, T.P.K Road Pasumalai Madurai – 625004 Tamil Nadu India Tel. 0452-2370269 Cover Picture & Design:

Simone Okkels Carina Ringive

05 09 11 13 15

Pal Pandi: A Bird’s Best Friend MAKING A DIFFERENCE

Widening the Circle of Hope PEOPLE

Blood Matters EDUCATION


The Sari Takes Centre Stage ISSUES

17 19 21 24

Madurai Vizha: A Slice of Madurai SPIRITUALITY

The Mountain Path CULTURE

Native Nostradmuses Truth is Always Stranger than Fiction TRADITION

26 28 30 31 32

The Bonesetters of Poosanampatti The Blunt Edge of Metalwork FILM REVIEW

One Second can Change Your Life SPORTS

Cricket Fever TIME OUT

Galapagos Adventure


Madurai Messenger March 2011

Celebrating Helen Keller through Dance A famous Zen aphorism says that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. One such student was Helen Keller and the teacher, the “miracle worker” who transformed her life, was Anne Sullivan. One of the most iconic women of all time, the story of Helen Keller and her struggle to overcome her double burden of being vision and hearing impaired is inspired and inspiring. The inspirational factor was compelling enough for US-based Odissi exponent Dr Chitra Krishnamurti to weave together a kaleidoscopic tapestry of the life and times of Helen Keller. The warp and weft of the weave were dance (Odissi), drama, narration, DVD presentation and archival footage. The audience in the packed Lakshmi Sundaram Auditorium in Madurai watched spellbound as the eight-member troupe of Nrityalaya School of Indian Classical Odissi Dance, Washington DC, paid a tribute to one woman’s quest to triumph over her limitations. The performance was hosted by Aravind Eye Care Systems, the wellknown eye care providers. “The dark and silent world of the blind-deaf has a lot of parallels with the world of dance. Like the deaf-blind, we dancers also communicate through abhinaya (mime). I was intrigued by Helen Keller’s ability to impart so much of happiness to others. While researching on her life and times, I realised that Keller’s ability to touch and see was enhanced so much that she could ‘feel the applause and ‘smell’ flowers and birds. I was ‘crazy’ enough to embark on the project,” recalls Dr Chitra Krishnamurti, who studied the dance form with Odissi stalwarts Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra and Sanjuktha Panigrahi. Dr Chitra Krishnamurti directed and choreographed the 1 hour 45 minutes’ riveting performance. The show was impeccably presented by Mr. Krishna Murti (Chiitra’s husband). Spurred by the spirit of her students who assured her, “If you are ‘crazy’ to do this, we are a band of ‘crazy’ girls behind you,” the teacher and students set upon the task of recreating the life of Helen Keller. Incidentally, Dr Chitra Krishnamurti, a biochemist, is Deputy Director, Office of Research Training and Minority Health, National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, Bethesda, Maryland, USA. Most of the dancers are first generation Indian Americans. The opening scene was an invocation in the traditional Odissi style. As the performance unfolded it captured significant moments in Helen Keller’s life. These included young Helen’s turbulent childhood (played admirably by the petite Kosha Parekh) and the arrival of Anne Sullivan, which was a turning point in Helen’s life. The scenes were interspersed with snippets of little-known information about Helen Keller’s life. For instance, it was the well-known scientist Alexander Graham Bell who suggested to Helen’s father that he contact the Perkins Institute for the Blind (where Anne Sullivan was teaching). Readers of Helen Keller’s autobiography The Story of my Life will recall that the ‘great day’ in her life was the arrival of Anne Sullivan and it culminated in Helen’s realisation of the connection between word, meaning and object. Dancers Chitra Krishnamurti (Anne Sullivan) and Kosha Parekh (young Helen) recreated the magic moment when Anne Sullivan enables Helen acquire the connection between the word water, the feel of water (the famous hand pump scene), and the word w-a-t-e-r as spelt by Sullivan into Helen’s hand. Indeed, the thematic motif of the performance was the forging of a beautiful relationship between the teacher and the taught. Helen was four years old when Sullivan entered her life. When a curious Helen asks Sullivan who she is, Sullivan finger spells “t-e-a-c-h-e-r.” Helen was 56 when Sullivan died and until then she reverentially addressed her as “teacher.” The audience shared the joyous transformation in Helen’s life orchestrated by Anne Sullivan. One of my favourite scenes is Helen Keller’s graduation ceremony at Radcliff College—making her the first deaf-blind person to graduate magna cum laude. The poignant moment was recreated with sensitivity and insight by the dancers. “The relationship between Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan is similar to the guru-sishya relationship in the Indian tradition,” says Dr. Neeraja Balachandar, who played the role of the older Helen, in a stellar performance. She, incidentally, is a doctor of medicine who is doing her PhD in Neurosciences at Johns Hopkins University. A major challenge she had to negotiate while preparing for the part was learning to “dissociate movement and sight and learn to look past a person, which for sighted individuals is so normal,” says Dr Neeraja Balachandar. “If you can enjoy the sun and flowers and music when there is nothing except darkness and silence, you have proved the Mys-



EDITOR’S CORNER tic sense,” wrote Helen Keller. The scene where the dancers portray Helen’s ability to appreciate dawn, noon, dusk, and night, and at the end of it experience a state of oneness with the cosmos, vindicated Helen’s mystic vision. Helen Keller was a friend of the legendary modern dancer Martha Graham. The scene where Martha Graham enables Helen to understand what “jumping” is all about was powerful and evocative. Helen’s mysticism once again emerges when she compares “jumping” to a “mind” and “thought.” The finale of the performance was a multicultural dance sequence that symbolised the many countries Helen Keller visited to champion the cause of the visual and hearing challenged people. The dancers (Chitra Krishnamurti, Kosha Parekh, Neeraja Balachandar, Aditi Kolhekar, Anjana Mohanty, Maanasi Mistry, Sanchari, and Neha Agarwal) portrayed Helen Keller’s crusade for an inclusive world without barriers and boundaries through imaginative and exuberant use of multicultural dances. These included Japanese (fan dance), modern dance (Martha Graham), Spanish (Flamenco), South African (mine dance), England (the country dance) and India (dandiya of Gujarat). Mary Munson, an American in the audience who had met Helen Keller, remarked that meeting her was like being in a “powerful presence of energy.” That was the very energy that flowed through dancers who were mere instruments in unfolding the life of a truly remarkable woman.

Dr. Nandini Murali Editor

Madurai Messenger


March 2011

Pal Pandi: A Bird’s Best Friend Christine Grandy-Dick profiles Pal pandi, the well-known bird watcher of Koonthankulam, whose life is all about the countless acts of love and compassion that have enriched the lives of his winged friends. For this grassroots avian activist, birds are not just another life-form, but imbued with the Sacred Spirit that permeates the Universe. Christine Grandy-Dick Munich, Germany

Koonthangulam is a tiny sparsely populated village in south Tamil Nadu, 38 km away from Tirunelveli, on the banks of Tamiraparani River. The area comprises Koonthankulam and Kadankulam irrigation tanks which are part of a network of 132 freshwater and rain-fed irrigation tanks in the district. Thanks to the ancient tradition of harvesting rainfall and water from mountains and rivers, Koonthangulam attracts thousands of migratory birds every year from the northwestern hemisphere. It is the largest sanctuary for migratory breeding birds in south India.

A Heritage of Conservation

The village is unique in several aspects. It enjoys a 200-year-old unbroken tradition of community participation and involvement in the conservation of the thousands of migratory birds that flock here annually from as far away as Siberia and Mongolia, as well as other parts of India. Around 232 different species of migratory birds visit Koonthangulam every year, including the rare bar-headed goose from Siberia and the flamingos from the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat (the only other breeding and nesting place in India for the flamingo ). Some of the other migratory birds which regularly visit Koonthangulam are the Pintail Duck, Spotted Sand Piper, Green Sand Piper, Green Shank, Coot, and Common Teal from Siberia; the White Stork from Germany; and the Common Sand Piper from the Lower part of Ladakh. Migratory birds start coming by the end of December and fly away to their northern homes by June or July.

Palpandi: Bird Talk Koonthankulam sanctuary is actively protected and managed by the village community. The local people take a keen interest in protecting this sanctuary and they live together in total symbiotic harmony. Birds coming to the backyards of

the people in the village are protected enthusiastically and regarded as harbingers of luck. The excreta of birds and silt from the tanks is collected by villagers in the summer and applied as fertiliser (guano) to their fields. All villagers




The Call of the Wild

Pal pandi is the youngest of 14 siblings in a rather poor family. Even as a young child, birds fascinated him. For instance, he often rescued injured birds on his way to school. None of his other siblings shared his natural interest in birds and they often chided him for “wasting time”! His family instead advised him to concentrate on his studies, as he was a good student! Pal pandi’s inspiration for his lifelong interest in Nature was his teacher in Class 8 who told the students that the reduced rainfall in the village was because trees were being felled indiscriminately. Pal pandi immediately swung into action and planted trees. In addition he became aware of the fact that birds were drawn to Koonthangulam because the availability of water and the green canopy of the trees that made ideal nesting grounds. As a youngster, Pandi caught fish in the freshwater streams to feed the birds. He also unfailingly rescued fledgling birds which had fallen from the trees, nursed them back to health and set them free. Of course his father disliked his son’s interest in birds as the family found it difficult to make ends meet. On the other hand, because there was no money to buy a bicycle, Pandi had the opportunity to watch the wonders of nature as he walked to school and back. One day he observed the food gathering habits of ants. He was fascinated by their teamwork. “Why can’t people plan like ants”? he wondered.

protect the birds, their nests and fledglings. Fallen chicks are taken care of in the rescue centre until they are able to fly on their own. Anyone disturbing the nests is punished by having their head shaved or being paraded in public on a donkey. People do not even burst firecrackers during the Hindu festival of Diwali because the sound of crackers would drive away the winged visitors. In recent years, however, Koonthangulam has also become synonymous with

Pal pandi, a resident of the village who has dedicated his life to the cause of the winged visitors. As soon as I catch a glimpse of Pal pandi’s eyes, I am attracted by their mysterious power. His rugged face reminds me of a weather beaten rock. I anxiously try to scan his face for the interplay of shadow and light in the life of this passionate bird watcher. My search was easy because once Pal pandi began to talk about his lifelong fascination with birds his story just flowed like a river in spate…

Pal pandi finished Class 10 and unfortunately he could not pursue his dreams of further education because of the family’s financial situation. Saddened that his father turned down his request for a notebook, Pal pandi ran away from home to Bombay, in search of work. After a series of misadventures, he returned home. A few months later, his father himself sent him to Bombay with a friend to enable his son find suitable employment there.

A Different Life

Pal pandi spent six years in Bombay working as a newspaper boy, and later at a well-known detergent company in Gujarat. By then he was married to 19-year-old Vallithai and had two chil-

Madurai Messenger March 2011

dren. Interestingly, Vallithai shared his passion for birds. Although they had a comfortable life in Gujarat, Vallithai insisted that they must go back to their village where they could revive their passion for birds. She suggested that with his knowledge of birds and nature he could be a Nature guide. The suggestion was irresistible. In 1984, Pal pandi and his family retuned to Koonthangulam. Life in Koonthankulam was a contrast to their comfortable life in Gujarat. But what they lost in monetary terms was made up by the company of birds that gave them an opportunity to show their love, and to have it reciprocated in turn. It was around this time that Pal pandi met the famous ornithologist Salim Ali in Koonthangulam. Initially Pandi had no idea of the legendary reputation of the ornithologist. “I remember him as short bearded man with glasses,” recalls Pandi. Impressed by Pandi’s knowledge on the nesting behaviour of migratory birds, Dr Ali told his students that “He (Pandi) is another Salim Ali in the making.” Another unforgettable event in Pandi’s life was his chance encounter with USbased wildlife photographer Murray. Murray visited Koonthangulam on a wildlife photography trip and employed

Pal pandi as his guide on a daily wage of Rs. 5. One day while watching flamingos from a slight elevation, Murray lost his balance. He fell down and was seriously injured. Pandi and Vallithai nursed him back to health in their home. Vallithai even mortgaged her jewellery to buy the kind of food their guest liked— bread, jam and honey.

Surrogate Parents

Vallithai and Pal pandi shared a relationship with the birds that resembled the bonding between parents and their children. Despite their precarious financial situation, they always had money to feed their birds. Their focus was on rescuing and rehabilitating wounded fledglings that had fallen off the trees due to strong winds or heavy rain. Often these birds had their trachea or windpipe injured and would be bleeding profusely. Vallithai and Pal pandi employed a resuscitation technique in which they filled their mouths with water and transferred it into the beaks of the fledgling birds. In another instance, Vallithai even pledged her jewellery to pay off the debts incurred in buying huge quantities of fish to feed the voracious and ever-hungry pelican chicks! Over the years, as a result of close contact with birds, Vallithai was infected with bird flu which aggravated her ex-

Flamingos in Vijaya Narayanam Tank

isting cardiac disorder for which she underwent surgery. Her doctor advised her to stay away from the birds. Vallithai was resolute. “We all will die of something. I can’t resist caring for our birds,” said the stoic Vallithai. Before she died in 2008, she made her husband promise that he would continue his work with the birds. In order to make it possible for him to devote his undivided attention to birds, she insisted that he marry one of her friends who had been widowed early in life. Pandi’s lyrical song, sung in his inimitable rustic tone, about the trees the couple planted together, and the poem “you can buy a lot with money but not a mother,” that figures poignantly in a documentary on Vallithai’s life, are heart rending. In 2009 Pal pandi co-authored a book Diary on the Nesting Behaviour of Indian Birds with naturalist Chinna Sathan. The colourful book contains 300 beautiful photographs along with 50 sketches and is a valuable resource about Koonthankulam. Pal pandi is much sought after for his avian expertise by researchers, ornithologists and bird watchers. During our visit, a zoology professor from Sivakasi accompa-



COVER STORY nied by his students was engaged in an animated discussion with the bird watcher about the unique features of the sanctuary.

A Walking Avian Encyclopaedia

Pal pandi is a walking encyclopaedia on birds. He takes us on a short walk to a watery expanse which is a breeding site for flamingos. Even from a distance it is easy to spot these distinctive birds. The slender pinkish-white birds with stiletto-like legs look transfixed in yogic postures. We peer through the binoculars and the beauty of these avian species fills us with a wordless wonder. Simultaneously he points to several ground nesting species of birds and rattles off their names effortlessly! Pal pandi is as methodical and organised in his work as any qualified ornithologist. Every day before sun rise he prepares a daily check list of birds and notes down in meticulous detail the various species of birds he spots, along with details of their nests, eggs (if any), and the colour and shape of the males and females. “A good bird watcher must be sensitive to all details about birds: their pattern of building nests, nest building sites, colour and shape of eggs, feeding habits, and differences between male and female,” says Pal pandi. He also regrets the fact that many self-styled bird watchers lack the field experience of spotting birds in their natural habitat. “Can you call yourself a bird watcher by just looking at pictures of birds?” he asks in a disappointed tone.

abdominal cavity and sutures it. For a few weeks thereafter, he places the wounded pelican on a sack and takes maximum care to ward off bacterial and other sources of infection. The sutures are gradually absorbed into the bird’s body. In a few days, the bird is ready to fly away to freedom! Yet what astonishes Pal pandi is that the birds which he has treated, unfailingly return the following summer, knock at Pal pandi’s door and express their gratitude with cawing, shrieking, and other displays of affection! Currently Pandi has rescued 2632 injured birds, nursed them back to health and set them free… to soar into the blue expanse… Yet despite Pal pandi’s legendary bonding with birds, he is still poorly paid. In 1989, when he joined the Forest Department, he was paid Rs. 8 on a daily basis! In 1997 when Koonthakulam was declared a sanctuary, his pay was hiked to Rs. 17 per day and since 2010 he is on a permanent monthly salary of Rs. 5000. In fact Pal pandi himself regrets that his lack of higher education has often been a disadvantage. He cites several instances of scientists and researchers exploiting his immense wealth of knowledge about birds often in return for a paltry payment, and worse, as is most common, without even acknowledging his contributions! Pal pandi is the recipient of numerous awards that recognise his contribution to the conservation of birds. These in-

clude accolades from the Institute for Restoration of Natural Environment (2005), Green Honour (2006) from the World Wildlife Fund, a listing in the Directory of Environmental Resource Persons in Tamil Nadu (2008), recognition from the Rotary Club (2009) and a special mention in a brochure released by the brochure Ministry of Environment and Forests. Sometimes he attends schools on the occasion of a world environmental day to practise feeding storks with the kids and singing his poems, or introduces an exhibition in nature photography. In March 2011, he will receive an award for the best documentary (about his wife, titled Vallithai) at the South African Film Festival. Pal pandi, the avian activist, is forever exploring new avenues to keep the sacred flame of his passion for birds alive. He often interacts with school students to spread awareness about an ecologically centred way of living. As we leave the sanctuary we notice 15-year-old Pasupathi lingering near us. Like most children in Koonthangulam, Pasupathi too bonds naturally with the birds. Yet one hopes that Pasupathi would have the undeniable advantage of education to further his zeal and commitment towards avian conservation. When that happens, Pal pandi would be as happy as the millions of winged visitors of Koonthangulam!

A Fellowship of Souls

If love is extending yourself and expanding your boundaries for another person, Pal pandi’s life vindicates this sublime truth. For instance, Pal pandi learnt first aid from a veterinarian to take care of wounded birds, Today he splints the bones of wounded birds with banana bark and applies a mixture of limestone and chalk to the injured part. When a pelican is hurt by falling from a tree, these massive birds often rupture their stomach. With the dexterity of a skilled surgeon, Pal pandi reinstates the ruptured intestines back into the Koonthankulam Tank Avian Oasis

Madurai Messenger


March 2011

Widening the Circle of Hope Mathias Helseth meets E Ramalingam, Founder, Nivethan Trust, which works towards making a difference in the lives of children with thalassemia, an inherited blood disorder.

Mathias Helseth Oslo, Norway

After a fifteen-minute drive from the Madurai Messenger office in Pasumalai, we were in Tallakulam, looking for the office of Nivethan Trust, a non-profit organisation founded by E. Ramalingam, a computer salesman. After wandering around the area for some time, we at last found a person who could point us in the right direction. As we walked into the building, we were directed down into the basement where five or six people were working. Right from the start, I got the impression that the man we were interviewing was very busy and since we had failed to meet at the time we had agreed on, we simply had to wait as Ramalingam went about his business, rushing back and forth from one place to another. Eventually he found the time to talk about his work for children with thalassemia and Nivethan Trust, which he founded in 2006.

sequences. For Ramalingam that was a turning point. He decided to make children with thalassemia one of the main focuses in his work for society. E. Ramalingam and the other volunteers have been involved with social work for ten years, between making a salary and his personal life, but it was not until 2006 that he registered his organisation. By doing so he was able to reach out to more people, and raise awareness on several thalassemia-related issues which had not been highlighted earlier. Currently Nivethan Trust consists of about ten volunteers with support from friends, family, blood donors, and hospitals. They are now reaching for higher

goals than ever before, and they are doing so with confidence and an ambition to succeed. A child suffering from thalassemia major has symptoms such as vomiting, paleness, fatigue, shortness of breath, slow growth, yellow discoloration of the skin, and dark urine. If these signs are present, their parents will hopefully take a trip to the Apollo hospitals in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, where Nivethan Trust has instructed doctors to tell the patient’s family about their organisation and what they do, since there are a lot of families which cannot afford the treatment without financial assistance. E. Ramalingam is now trying to raise

A Turning Point

One day when E. Ramalingam was reading the newspaper, he stumbled upon an article about thalassemia. He did not know what thalassemia was at that time, but was touched by the story. He was concerned by his own lack of awareness about the subject as well as those of most people in Madurai. The article told a story about a thalassemia major patient who was lucky enough to have been cured of the lethal disease by an Italian doctor, Lawrence Faulkner. The doctor had performed bone marrow transplantation and the patient lived a normal life without fear of catching an infection or missing a blood transfusion, which would eventually have fatal con-

Thalassemic children and their parents




the disease and the treatment to caregivers and pateints. The volunteers deal with a lot of families which often have minimum resources, and hence even transporting them to blood transfusions can be very difficult. Since some of the families are not able to take any time off from work, they are often too late for treatment, and the patients are often severely ill by the time they get there. Nivethan Trust is starting the year with great ambitions, and with a certainty that they will be able to reach the goals they have set for themselves. But they need help from others—blood donors, donations, and other volunteers—to make it happen. The lack of knowledge of thalassemia and blood donation is a big obstacle in their way, but with the right information, and the right channels to deliver it, it is possible that this will be a dream come true. awareness of the disease and his trust on a bigger scale through an official organisation.

Action with a Vision

Nivethan Trust organises blood transfusions every week to treat their 43 patients, and also supplies medicines to the hospital, since they are not allowed to hand it out themselves. With treatment, a patient’s life expectancy would be approximately twenty years, but Ramalingam’s plan is to keep the patients alive with a permanent cure (bone marrow transplant) when Nivethan Trust acquires the means to do so. One of the problems is that there are few who are willing to donate blood. Largely due to lack of awareness, many

believe that there are severe side effects due to blood donation, when in reality there are only some rare and minor side effects such as dizziness or lightheadedness. Although irrational, the fear is an inevitable result of not being provided with reliable and accurate information. E. Ramalingam is trying to change this attitude. Therefore one of his main initiatives concerning children with thalassemia is to raise awareness of the disease, and simple but effective ways to address it. The trust visits families of the patients and provides them the much needed information about the disease. They also interact with the kids and offer them small presents to make them feel good, but mainly the volunteers act as translators for the doctor who explain

When I asked E. Ramalingam why he and the other volunteers started the programme for children with thalassemia, he simply answered, “It was necessary.” And it is hard to argue with him. Raising awareness around a disease which nobody knows much about, with a treatment which is missing its foundation because of myths, a goal of reaching out to twenty additional patients every year, arranging three bone marrow transplantations (with help from the Cure 2 Children foundation), and providing information to all the patients’ families, in addition to providing information about the disease through different media—Nivethan Trust is doing their part.

Thalassemia Thalassemia is an inherited blood disease, which causes the body to produce less haemoglobin than it needs. Haemoglobin carries oxygen from the lungs around the body, so if not treated, the patient will die within a year or two. The cure for thalassemia is bone marrow transplantation; if this is not possible the patient will need blood transfusions every month, or more often. The patient will also need kelfer tablets, to reduce the iron in the blood.

Madurai Messenger


March 2011

Blood Matters Mathias Helseth meets V. M. Jose, a veteran blood donor who has donated blood 152 times! The philanthropist believes that blood donation should be purely voluntary, born of compassion and a desire to help others; and not being paid either in cash or kind for donating blood. Mathias Helseth Oslo, Norway

Jose received a phone call from the parents of a newborn baby with jaundice. The baby was in desperate need of a blood transfusion, but Jose had been strictly prohibited from donating blood. The doctors had told him that it was too much of a risk, considering his age and his physical state. He disregarded the warnings from the doctors and went out to help the worried family and their new born baby, convinced that there would be no significant consequences for his health. V. M. Jose attended his first blood donation camp in 1972 without knowing why he was donating blood. He grabbed the opportunity purely out of curiosity. Through in-depth conversations with doctors at the camp, he learnt about the necessity of blood donation and man-

aged to put it all into perspective. After he donated blood for the first time, little did he know that he would do so 152 times, until 2009. Since his first encounter with a blood donation camp, and after his first blood donation, Jose has been devoted to the cause. He started working for the Madurai District Red Cross Society (MDRCS), organising blood donors and blood donation camps in Madurai district, with the intention of giving the people an honest and logical explanation of blood donation. He continues to give talks at schools and colleges, thus gaining more blood donors and volunteers. Jose is an atheist. But that does not make any difference as to why he is devoted to the blood donation cause. Some time back, a speech by EVR Periyar, the social reformer, made him re-evaluate his faith. One sentence inspired him

to separate himself from the superstitions surrounding blood donation, and not be affected by illogical hearsay: “Knowledge born of rationalisation, is real knowledge.” Jose is trying to share his knowledge about blood donation with as many people as possible, and to address the many myths that have sprung up because of lack of knowledge. Jose and the MDRCS organise fifty blood donation camps every year in various places, and they have three thousand enlisted blood donors. The blood they obtain is donated to the Government Rajaji hospital in Madurai “because they deal with the poor”, as Jose puts it. MDRCS receives guidance from doctors, and financial and practical help from volunteers, friends and family. Jose confesses with a sly smile that he does not have to make any money, because his wife makes enough from being a principal! As a result Jose is free to make his work for MDRCS his full time job. Thalassemia is a disease where blood transfusions are needed every three weeks or so. There are various complications for a thalassemia patient receiving blood from a number of different donors. Jose therefore arranged for every thalassemia patient on his list to have three or four personal donors. This means that the donors will donate blood every two or three months to the same patient who is spared of some of the serious side effects of regular blood transfusions. Currently MDRCS has sixty thalassemia patients on their list.

Madurai District Red Cross Society headquarters



PEOPLE V. M. Jose is now the secretary of the Madurai District Red Cross Society. He has donated around 76 litres of blood during his life of sixty-two years, and has also agreed to donate his body to science after his death. He made his last official blood donation on the 15th of August, 2008. He is living proof that blood donations from a healthy person are risk-free.

V.M. Jose at his office Whenever an accident victim in Madurai was in need of blood transfusion, the doctors often asked the relatives to donate blood. According to Jose, this posed many problems. For example, some relatives might have good intentions at the time of donation, but later often asked for something in return, which the patient often found difficult to refuse. Another problem the govern-

ment faced was that that as blood donors received money for their services, some donors donated a lot more blood than they were capable of, because of their desperate need of money. Jose is clear that blood donation should be voluntary; born out of compassion for patients in need. He is against the idea of paid blood donation.

Missing one kidney, and at the age of sixty years, Jose’s last, and unofficial, blood donation had no side effects. He told me that with so many patients on his list, he does not follow them up to see how they are doing after the donation. This meant, to my disappointment, he did not know what was the condition of the new-born with jaundice. But after a while one of Jose’s coworkers whispered to us that she had accidentally met the mother of the child on the street. The mother had told her that the child was doing fine, and she was more than grateful for what Jose and the Madurai District Red Cross Society had done for her child.

Quotes Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. ~World Health Organization, 1948 The greatest wealth is health. ~Virgil Sickness comes on horseback but departs on foot. ~Dutch Proverb, sometimes attributed to William C. Hazlitt A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book. ~Irish Proverb The best six doctors anywhere And no one can deny it Are sunshine, water, rest, and air Exercise and diet. These six will gladly you attend If only you are willing Your mind they’ll ease Your will they’ll mend And charge you not a shilling. ~Nursery rhyme quoted by Wayne Fields, What the River Knows, 1990

Madurai Messenger


March 2011

Q for Quality TVS Lakshmi School, Madurai, recently hosted the National Convention on Students’ Quality Control Circle, 2011. They want to make “world class citizens.” What does that mean? Stella Brikey spent two days at Lakshmi School and spoke to a cross section of participants. Stella Brikey Hamburg, Germany

“If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children.” –Mahatma Gandhi Religion tells us that the quality of all people is the same. Mr. Jadish Gandhi, Chairman, World Council for Total Quality and Excellence in Education and Founder, City Montessori School, Lucknow, however, argues the opposite: “The quality of a person depends on their education. If one child is made a ‘Total Quality’ person he or she can change the world and unite it. Otherwise, the child will become a ‘curse for human society.’” Sharp words! Nevertheless, 1,200 students from all over India participated in the National Convention on Quality Circle (QC) from January 18 to 20, 2011, in Madurai. QC is poised to build fundamental traits of character, teamwork, unity, honesty, compassion, courage and positive temperament among the participants. It is a forum for the thinking youth and educational institutions who believe in shap-

ing the attitudes and personality of their students, rather than imparting formal education alone. But is it really possible to “build” a character and “produce” a perfect person?

How to “build character”

I entered the lobby of Lakshmi Vidya Sanghaam in Veerapanchan, which hosted the mega-event. It is a beautiful eco-friendly school with a big playground including a sprawling park with green trees, colorful bushes and flowers—and a lucky mascot, the elephant. But actually, a “Total Quality Person” needs no luck. “We practiced our skit about ‘overuse of plastics’ for one year,” says Vishnu Somakumar (14) from Vidyalaya Sr. Sec. and Jr. College, Chennai. So, for one year he was involved in such productive activities instead of watching TV, being on Facebook or meeting friends. Just for seven minutes on stage. In front of an audience consisting of the jury, the students, the staff, and journalists— around 1,500 people. Not surprisingly, Vishnu and his five classmates gave an outstanding performance. “We are very proud of ourselves. It is such a great honour to be here,” said the boy with the big glasses whose behavior is like that of an adult. He speaks loudly and hauntingly and avoids smiling, when he describes the meaning of his skit:

Dr.. Jagdish Gandhi and Dr. Vineeta Kamran want to create “wold class citizens”.

“I think the main problem in Indian society is political corruption. But we should take small steps in changing the world be-

cause even small steps locally can have great consequences globally. Students are the future so they should do something to change the whole country.”

The perfect Kid

Obviously, Vishnu is absolutely committed to the mantras of QC. With his fancy suit on, you can already see him sitting in the Indian Parliament! But that is not what he wants to do. “I want to become a doctor because he is saving other lives and he can be proud of himself,” he says, and his eyes start to glow. “The students on stage are the ‘Quality Managers’ of tomorrow,” Jagdish Gandhi says. Several of the quality management theories may also be taken forward into practical applications. Maybe in 2011, the proposals of Vishnu’s group will become reality on India’s campuses. Not surprisingly, the students have pride on their faces. But isn’t it hard to be a TQP—especially for 10 to 16 year-olds?

“Facebook is bad!”

I meet some girls (15-16) from Gobindgarh Public School, Punjab, after their presentation on cyber addiction. They are wearing red blazers with white sashes and looking excited. “It was so much fun,” gushes one girl. “We are so proud of ourselves!” And our school is proud of us too.” In their performance, they vehemently criticised Facebook. Are they serious – or did they just repeat the mantras of success? I dig deeper: “Do you have a computer?” “YES! YES! YES! All of us a have a computer, an iPod, a TV …”



EDUCATION They admitted that they were addicted to the PC and Internet and used it several hours a day and were always online! The consequences were serious. “We were cut off socially. We had no time for studies any more. We no longer spent any time with our parents and our friends. Our marks went down. Our willingness to learn suffered. Now that we have cut down on online time, we perform better at school and are not addicted any more.” I am intrigued. When I ask them whether it was tough to be so self-controlled and to be a Total Quality Person, their response surprised me. “No! It’s fine to be a QP and we don’t feel any pressure. It is fun! One day, I want to become an IAS Officer!” The rules are strict. Not every student can take part into the convention. Only the “crème de la crème” of each school gets chosen by their teachers. All of them speak fluent English. Otherwise, you have no chance. They use terms like “Pride of Human Race” or “Potential Light of the world” to repeat the mantras of the QC. All of them have the same aim: first to become a TQP and after a Total Quality Manager (TQM).

A Bash for the Brain

Some of them travelled all the way from Maharashtra or Uttar Pradesh to Madurai. The bus journey takes 24 hours. Some of them have never been so far away from home. And, for most of them it is the most exciting experience in their life so far. I watch a competition of primary levels (10 – 12) who made art from waste. All of them are little masterpieces! A girl with green watercolor on her face tells me: “I create a zoo - this is a lion and this is a tiger. I made them from coconuts.” I am impressed. One day, she could become the next Freida Carlo. “QC greatly benefits the children,”,says Shobhana Ramachandhran, Convention Chairperson, “because right from a young age they develop analytical ability, their thinking gets honed and presentation skills improve.” For the first time, Madurai is the stage for these brain-rattling sessions. I am really impressed. These students are self-motivated agents of social change. They are passionately convinced of their performances and the ideals of QC. “India has the largest youth force in the world,” Dr. Jagdish Gandhi said. QC

QC Milestones World Council for Total Quality and Excellence was formed for the purpose of global promotion of Students Quality Control Circles as an integral part of Total Quality Management in academics. The development in Japan after the World War II can definitely be attributed to the philosophy of TQM. It aims at institutionalising techniques and training methodologies for excellence in education in order to build Total Quality People. At TVS Schools this movement was started in 1997 to empower staff and students. Each year, numerous problems are identified by students and staff and they are solved using the quality tools and techniques. wants to empower the Youth to take decisions based on information and help them think and analyse to build a powerful nation – a “thinking youth”. Vineeta Kamran, Executive Director, World Council for Total Quality and Excellence in Education, said that the objective of the convention was to “catch them young and innocent and instill within them the need for total quality”. And to my mind, they brought home the bacon!

Dr. Jagdish Gandhi: A Lighthouse for Students Stella Brikey profiles Jagdish Gandhi, chairman of Quality Circles and an ambassador of peace. In January 2011, he was in Madurai and 1,200 students from all over the country gathered under his inspiritual gaze

Dr. Jagdish Gandhi and Dr. Vineeta Kamran

Some call him a saint. Some call him a guru. But one thing is sure: Dr. Jagdish Gandhi (76), Chairman, World Council for Total Quality and Excellence in Education and Founder, City Montessori School Lucknow, is the star guest of the National Convention on Quality Circles in Madurai.

Dr. Gandhi. Gandhi is wearing a dark blue draft and a figured tie with two golden rings on his fingers. Just before the interview begins, he gives me a brochure of the QC to present his ideals: “If one child is inspired, he can change the world and unite it!”

Today, he will give one of his rare interviews. “My belief is that the world’s future peace and prosperity, and the quality of business as well as of personal lives, will depend critically on the way in which we educate our children,” says

Inspired by the spiritually based revolutionary work of Mahatma Gandhi, whose surname he adopted when Gandhi was assassinated in 1948, Jagdish Gandhi’s vision was to create a school that would enhance the lives of its stu-

Madurai Messenger

EDUCATION/ EVENTS dents by teaching what he calls the four pillars of education: knowledge, wisdom, spiritual perception, and eloquent speech. In 1992, inspired by insights gathered while visiting Japan, Gandhi developed the concept of Student Quality Control Circles (SQCCs) and implemented them in his school. Dr Jagdish Gandhi was born on November 10, 1936, in a poor family in the Barsauli village in district Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh, India. Influenced greatly by Mahatma Gandhi, Vinoba Bhave and other leaders of the Independence movement, a young and idealistic Jagdish Gandhi ventured in 1959 to create a new mindset through education. With just five children on roll, no personal wealth, and the equivalent of Rs.300 in borrowed capital, the motivated Dr Gandhi began his own personal experiment in Lucknow, India, some fifty one years ago in the name of City Montessori School. Today City Montessori School (CMS) is the world’s largest school with over 37,000 pupils. CMS has also been awarded the highly prestigious UNESCO Prize for Peace Education 2002 - the only school in the world to be honored with this award. CMS also organises 27 international events as part of its unique educational philosophy and hundreds of thousands of children from all over the world participate in these events every year. The CMS educational model believes that a “school must be the lighthouse of society” and believes that nurturing spiritual awareness in children must be the central focus of all educational activities. It has grown into a veritable school of thought, impacting schools and educational organisations worldwide. Many schools acknowledge that they have been inspired to follow the CMS example and several emulate CMS educational practices and approach. At TVS Schools, this movement started in 1997 to empower staff and students. Systematic training is given to staff facilitators and students. Each year, numerous problems are identified by students and staff and they are solved using the quality tools and techniques. “At the National Convention on Students Quality Circle I was visibly able to see the fruits of our labor in keeping with the vision of the TVS Schools,” says Dr Gandhi. Insofar, his trip to Madurai was a complete success!

March 2011

The Sari Takes Centre stage! Carina Ringive watches a fashion show in a wellknown city college and concludes that despite the impacts of the globalised fashion industry, the sari, the symbol of the Indian woman, is here to stay.

Beautifully dressed guests at the fashion show Carine Ringive Copenhagen, Denmark

A meeting with Indian fashion Exploring the streets of Madurai from the back seat of a bumping rickshaw is an eye opener. The first thing I noticed are the vibrant colours of people’s clothes that shine through clouds of dust. Also obvious is the lavish use of glittering gold jewellry by Indian women and their long plaits that almost touch the ground! The most common garment used by the Indian woman is the sari. It varies from one region to another, but the traditional guidelines in draping the sari remain the same. This led me to wonder: Are there current trends in Indian fashion and how is individualism shown

through the clothes? In order to explore this question, I went to the Fatima College, Mary Land, Madurai, where students created a fashion show, ‘Fashion industry: Product & design development’. The college is a Catholic minority institution with only women students.

Fifty saris and a pair of jeans It’s Wednesday, February 2, 10 pm, and the Fatima College is filled with women in bright colourful saris waiting excitedly to watch the fashion show. Until globalisation in the 1990s, fashion shows in India were confined only to the metros. Interestingly, in the consumerist postglobalised world of the 1990s, fashion shows have become common even in remote towns and villages in India. Feminists, however object to fashion



EVENTS who you are. In spite of the different colours of the saris, from a Western perspective the designs often look quite alike. But according to Dr. R. Latha, individualism plays a huge role in India as well. The individual’s personality is shown through the choice of colours, the quality of the fabric and the way the women choose to drape it. Some women prefer to cover their whole body, while others like to show a little skin. It might look the same to Western eyes, but not to an Indian.

Recycling and Barbie as a role model

The models’ happiness shines through on the stage shows on the grounds that they portray women as objects.

girls. It added a Western touch to the show.

According to the Fatima College homepage, one of the ground values is to empower the women to be responsible citizens and help them to create and invent ideas through fashion. Posters such as ‘Stitch your ideas into reality’ decorate the big walls in the hall. This is a modern trend and the women see the show as a positive development.

Dr. R. Latha, the head of Home Science and Fashion Technology, Fatima College, is the person behind the show. According to her, there are definite shifts that are obvious in Indian fashion.

The light flashes and girls in beautiful saris and dazzling accessories walk down the stage to the background tunes of Bollywood music. Suddenly what caught my eye was a girl in a pair of jeans among the traditionally dressed

“It’s important to dress functionally. On some occasions it’s more comfortable to wear Western-inspired clothes, such as jeans and a t-shirt. But the sari is a part of the Indian culture and it’s certainly here to stay,” she says. In Western countries, style is very important in order to express individualism. What you wear tells the story of

Proud women showing thier portfolios with ideas for children’s clothes

In the meantime, the audience witnesses a special competition between different colleges in the big hall at Fatima College. Which student has made the best designs for children’s clothes? Walking around looking at the creative ideas, you generally see small princessinspired dresses and portfolios with pictures such as Barbie, Britney Spears and other Western role models. Finally, however, something new and interesting pops up. For instance, a shiny dress made beautifully out of used caramel paper and old plastic juice cartons was eye catching. A smiling student explains that the choice of recycling material underscored the designer’s and user’s commitment to eco-friendliness. It might even become a trend just like picking up second hand vintage clothes and accessories, most of them branded, or finding used clothes at flea markets, has become in the Western world. Seeing an Indian fashion show is an intense and indescribable experience. Based on the designs from the show, the fashion among the south Indian people is a mix between the traditions of India and some new inspiration from the West. While such a trend is obvious in Indian fashion today, it seems to grow in two different directions: one that’s Western-inspired and one that retains the traditional values. But will the Western influence take over a globalised world? Dr. R. Latha is optimistic that it will not be so. The sari is still going strong and is here to stay.

Madurai Messenger March 2011

Madurai Vizha: A Slice of Madurai Chiara Podbielski visits Madurai Vizha, the three-day cultural extravaganza organised by the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII), Madurai, and finds that it widened her cultural horizons and enabled her to glimpse local traditions and heritage of this ancient city. Chiara Podbielski Milano, Italy

That Madurai has a considerable tourism attraction potential is undeniable. What is not so evident is the way in which this potential has been exploited. So what better time than now to make things change? To finally show to the rest of the world what a fascinating place Madurai is, some relevant steps need to be taken. In a world where information spreads at the speed of light through the Internet, a new web site was the perfect answer. It says: “we need change now, and we need it fast!” This is the reason why on January 28, 2010, Madurai Collector C. Kamaraj launched this new powerful tool (www., created by Gaurie Gupta. The web site is neat, iconographic and full of simple but very important information on various aspects of Madurai. It was exactly what was

needed to showcase the splendour of Madurai, to attract foreign tourists and to introduce them to the city. Dr Uma Kannan, Convener of the Tourism, Art and Cultural Panel of the Confederation of Indian Industry, (CII), Madurai Zone, reiterated that the website has been designed not only to reach tourists, but also to sensitise the citizens of Madurai to their own culture and traditions. It will serve as a research tool to researchers. For the youth it is particularly important to understand and be rooted in their tradition and heritage, to osmotically absorb the essence, foster it and transmit it to the next generation and foreign visitors. According to Dr Uma Kannan it is all too easy for young people of today to lose sight of their heritage in the wave of globalisation that is currently sweeping across the world. We live in a culturally diverse society, which is rapidly chang-

ing and diversifying. We need to combine western technology with eastern philosophy. The best way to preserve ones tradition is to practice it, appreciation of fine arts refines a person, says Dr. Uma Kannan. A confluence between the old and the new is what is needed. One of the objectives of Madurai Vizha was to showcase the cultural highlights of Madurai and to encourage and create new markets and value for the artists and folk performers. Artists need to be appreciated and recognized. People skilled at traditional forms of arts and crafts are “living treasures”. The performing arts are an integral part of a culture. Sadly, it is this aspect that is at risk of being eroded in the onslaught of mindless modernisation and virtual entertainment. From the standpoint of the practitioners and the general public it is a loss. Hence we need to reclaim



EVENTS and retrieve our lost heritage before it altogetherdisappears. “Heritage education contributes to human development and advancement and enhances human personality, values, culture and tradition are all great human assets which pay back with high interest to society and the individual” says Dr. Kannan. These underlying concerns provided a perfect backdrop to host Madurai Vizha, a three-day commemorative art and culture festival of Madurai, an initiative of CII, Madurai on Janaury 28-30, 2011 at the Gandhi Museum. It was inaugurated by Mr. C. Kamaraj. Some of the key motifs were diversity, history, heritage and art. For three days the Gandhi Memorial Museum’s grounds resembled a carnival. It was a riot of colours and visitors experienced traditional cuisine, games, handcrafts and colourful textiles and art.

The programme included food courts throughout the day, lucky draws with lots of exciting prizes, screening of Madurai-based old films, screening of the biopic ‘Gandhi’, martial arts performances, debates in Tamil, interaction with Tamil scholars, storytelling by senior citizens, a photography exhibition and a cookery contest. For an Italian tourist like me, Madurai Vizha was a perfect slice of Madurai. It was a great opportunity to immerse myself for a few hours in the Indian multi-sensory culture. Especially after walking in the dusty city for a few days, it felt like jumping into a refreshing sea and finally being able to see all the colorful fish that one could earlier watch only from the outside! Initially on my arrival in Madurai I was overwhelmed by the strangeness of the people and the city, but the curiosity and excitement inevitably pushed me deeper into a complete cultural immersion that I certainly value and cherish.

School children performing folk dance

It’s difficult not to become fascinated with a culture so different from one’s own. What was encouraging was that this great charm was contagious and had both the foreign visitors and the locals in its spell. Local traditions are among the biggest push factors for tourists but it is very hard for an outsider to catch a glimpse of this routine. Madurai Vizha was a Belgian Mirror that reflected and captured the nuances and subtleties of the multifaceted culture of one of the oldest cities on earth.

Madurai Messenger


March 2011

The Mountain Path The Indian mystical tradition is diverse. Federica Presutto meets Pandian and Sevuga Moorthy, two mystics in the Siddhar tradition of Tamil Nadu in Siddhar Malai, near Karaikudi. She talks to them about their journey as mystics along the Sacred Path towards enlightenment—a long, slow and arduous process.

Federica Presutto Milano, Italy

About 50 years back, twenty-fouryear-old Pandian was handsome, selfconfident and had just graduated as a teacher. He was walking on the streets of Madurai and the blue sky above him was as bright as his future. What Pandian didn’t know was that something was going to happen—something that would change his life forever.

The Call Pandian had never seen the man before. He was poorly dressed with just a piece of white cotton around his waist. The man approached him on the street and whispered: “There is a big hut under the mountain called siddhar malai,. Let us meet there tomorrow night.” His voice was calm and steady at the same time and there was a peaceful light shining in his eyes. Strangely, Pandian didn’t feel afraid of him. The only thing he could answer was, “Yes.”

seconds lost sense of space and time. He lost awareness of his body. He found himself in a new, unknown dimension. When he ‘awoke’ the hut was empty, except for the elderly man who said to him: “In your previous life you were one of us, a siddhar, and your journey as a siddhar isn’t finished yet.”

Who am I? Pandian stops talking and smiles. He is 73 years now. His eyes radiate a light that makes me feel safe and comfortable. He wears only a simple white piece of cotton cloth around his waist. We are sitting in his home in the sleepy rural village of Singampunari: two hours away from the hustle and bustle of Madurai. In front of us there is a table with biscuits, candies and a big bottle of red soda – it’s his welcome party for me. He talks of the three pillars of the Siddha tradition: Thavam, a very deep kind of

meditation, Sadhana, or spiritual practice, and Pranayama, a yogic breathing method. These words are the coordinates that can explain where siddhars are located on the religious map of India. Siddhars are mystics who can extend their lifetime with their daily practice of Thavam, Sadhana, and Pranayama. Even after the death of their bodies they are immortal. Their souls live forever. One well known instance of this kind of miracle is Swami Sivananda Paramahamsa, the founder of siddha samaj, who lived between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and introduced siddha practices and teachings in the USA. Pandian shows me his picture and tells me that he is his inspiration and master. The Siddhars lead a simple life. They dress modestly and eat only vegetarian food. “We are what we eat,” Pandian explains. “Eating animal meat makes you act like an animal. And, much more im-

Inside the hut it was so dark that initially Pandian could only feel the heat of human bodies. After a while, he heard the sound of breathing: the rhythmical sound of deep inhales and exhales filling the shadows. When his eyes became used to darkness, 50 men appeared: they were almost naked and sat in the lotus yogic pose. As soon as they saw him, they shouted at him to go away. In front of them, an older man ordered them to keep silent with just a slight movement of his right hand. “Sit down, Pandian, and meditate with us.” Pandian obeyed completely. It was the first time that Pandian tried meditation. He closed his eyes and after few

Sevuga Moorthi: Walking a difficult path



SPIRITUALITY portant, we must pay respect to all living creatures.”

tery, which can last longer if you learn to breathe.”

Pandian’s siddharhood did not prevent him from leading a normal life. He was married and became the headmaster in a school in his village Sokkalingapuram, near Karaikudi. He was a highly respected teacher. In recognition of his outstanding services as a teacher he was awarded the Best Teacher Award on September 5, (Teacher’s Day) 1996 by the former president of India, Shankar Dayal Sharma.

Listening to Pandian, the secret of a long and healthy life sounds simple: control your breathing. I am curious to know the average life span of a siddhar. Pandian shows me a picture of a man in his living room. “This siddha died when he was 900 years old”.

Pandian remembers that night very well. “When the president saw me wearing this cotton cloth, he asked his secretary if he (Pandian) was the awardee!

“Your mother calls you daughter. Your brother calls you sister. Your husband calls you wife. But you are always the same person. This is God”.

“But as soon as he looked into my eyes, he asked me to bless him, calling me ‘Guru Maharaja’ - king of gurus.’”

Another Way of Being

And what about God? Pandian seemed to me the right person to ask such existential questions.

Inhale, Exhale

Pandian says goodbye to us in a modest way that shrouds his being in holiness: “I’m still practicing to become a good siddhar. It’s a journey of a lifetime.”

“I wake up at three o’clock every morning and meditate until six,” Pandian answers my question about his daily routine. “Now that I’m retired, I have much more time to concentrate on my practices. In the middle of the morning I take a one-hour nap. Then from six to nine p.m. I meditate again. After meditation I feel more energetic and focussed. At the age of 50, a man is full of wrinkles... But look at my skin!”

On the contrary, Sevuga Moorthi, the other siddhar we meet in the village of Singampunari, is very self-confident of his siddharhood: he looks at us with a deep gaze that seems much more like that of a Bollywood actor than a holy man. He welcomes us into the rural home where he lives with his wife Meena and his two daughters, Kaviya (8) and Dharavika (11).

He really looks younger than his age. “Every day,” Pandian continues, “a normal man loses 24,000 breaths because he is not able to breathe the right way. Breath is our energy. Our soul is our bat-

For somebody like me, who grew up in a Catholic Christian country, it sounds strange that a holy man has his own family. He is 44 years old and studied acupuncture. But this practice doesn’t interest him anymore. He now earns a livelihood by curing the people of the village with herbs and secret siddhar medications. “I’m also able to do black magic, but only in extreme cases. If a person is going to die, for example, I can bring him back to life.”

Pandian: The Way of the Warrior

Sevuga Moorthi became siddhar at the age of 15. “I started to meditate and through

meditation I found a link with Swami Sivananda Paramahamsa,” –the same swami that Pandian venerates. Talking to him, I discover more similarities between the young and the old siddhar, even though they seem so different. Sevuga Moorthi also wakes up every morning at three o’clock and meditates for three hours. “All of us siddhars meditate at the same time to be connected and we meditate facing North to benefit from electromagnetic energy”. After that, he lives a normal life. He takes his daughters to school on his motorbike, eats vegetarian food, and helps the people in his village. I ask Sevuga Moorthi an existential question: What is the meaning of life? “Our lives are like a dream,” he answers. “When you become a siddhar you wake up”. In response to my question as to what is meditation, he said, “Meditation expands the soul.” The two most important places for siddhars in and around the village are the temple dedicated to Muthu Vaduga Nathar, the first important siddhar in the area, and the Siddhar Malai, the holy mountain where siddhas are buried. Unfortunately, it is impossible to visit the burial place of siddhars for it is believed that they are better kept as a secret to avoid vandalism. On the other hand, the temple is easily accessible. It is situated right in the middle of the village and open every day from 6 to 11 am and from 4 pm to 9 pm. The best time to visit is in the middle of August, when a big festival dedicated to Muthu Vaduga Nathar is celebrated. He lived 200 years ago and was the first siddhar who went to the mountain to meditate. When he came back he started teaching meditation techniques. That’s why everybody here calls him simply ‘Vathiyar’ – the teacher. Despite the fact that he lived 200 years back, in the Siddhar tradition he still is a living presence.

Madurai Messenger


March 2011

Native Nostradmuses Stella Brikey meets some fortune tellers in Madurai and excitedly listened to what a parrot, a palmist, a nadi astrologer, and a man who rolled cowrie shells told her about her future, present and past … While still in a dilemma of whether to believe or not to believe, she is however, certain of one thing: a peek into one’s future is a lot of fun!

The Nadi Reader searches for “my personal palm leaf.” Can I trust him? Stella Brikey Hamburg, Germany

India, the land of myths and miracles. Nowhere else you can find such a mix of different fortune tellers and magicians. The area around the legendary Meenakshi Temple in Madurai is a place where you can come across palmists, fortune telling parrots and Nadi readers —around 1000 astrologers work here! Are all of them genuine? How can you identify a good fortune teller?

Day one: Passing an alley full of beggars with outstretched hands, I arrive at the great Alagar Temple, a 20 km one-hour drive by car from Madurai. The whole area is ruled by capricious monkeys who take law into their own hands! Someone told me about a man with a magical rat who lives here. I find the “legend” dozing in the shadow of a tree with no leaves, next to some beggars. When I ask for his services, he just grumbles: “I feel sick. Come back tomorrow.”

The Palmist

Day two: I arrive at a rather strange temple: the Kattunaiyakar, temple of goddess Jakkamma and god Pandi, located at the “dark side of Madurai”—an area full of sex workers, alcoholics and criminals. Leaving my shoes in the car, I enter the temple. It is hard to walk because hundreds of devotees are lying, sitting, eating and sleeping everywhere! I pass some stalls where you can buy offer-



CULTURE ings for Pandi—alcohol and cigarettes! By touching the temple wall, a woman falls into a trance and started to scream: Pandi “came into her” or possessed her. Next to her, some men shave the heads of boys, a ritual done for various reasons. The whole area is full of black hair. And

and become a doctor. They will always come back to this place and work as a fortune teller. My ancestors were chosen 5000 years ago. It is our destiny.” For six months Mrs. Kaliamman goes to work while her husband cares for the children. Afterwards they alternate. She loves her job. But the Kattunaiyakar temple is not a safe place. Guide books warn most foreigners to stay away away . Kaliamman has fifty clients every day. She is the cheapest fortune teller I’ve met in Madurai. “I am not looking for the money. I work for God,” she says and disappears in the crowd. Authenticity: +++ Credibility: ++ Price: ++++

The Prophecies of the Parrot Kaliamman has “the power of God Pandi” in her tongue. mud. And I am barefoot. On the left, I see a sheet full of goat heads. They are still jerking. “You should not come here alone or after dark”, the Projects Abroad coordinator warned me. Immediately, a dark-skinned old woman in a yellow sari speaks to me. Kaliamman (40) is a palmist. She is willing to tell me my future for Rs. 20. I agree. She takes my right hand and starts to “read”: “The planet situation is very bad for your horoscope. You had a very unfortunate time and a lot of trouble in your job in the last year. That is why you came to India.” (Direct hit!) She goes on: “You should not marry because you have a lot of trouble with your current partner. You need to find another man. Afterwards you will get more than five children and become very happy.” Goddess Jakkamma gives Kaliamman the power to know about my future, present and past: “Whatever I say will happen because I have his power in my tongue.” And she has no choice. “I am a member of the caste of fortune tellers. My father was a fortune teller. My grandfather was a fortune teller. My grandchildren will become fortune tellers – even if they go to university

Paneer Selvam (48) works near the Kattunaiyakar temple. His working place: a little hut in front of an empty shop. His medium: a green parrot. Paneer is dressed in an orange dhoti. His upper back is naked and he sports a tattoo of a snake on his arm. He pretends to be very busy. “Rs. 50, Rs. 50,” he says instead of, “Nice to meet you.” I agree and sit down. I have to tell him my name and my age. He immediately starts to drum and begins to coax his parrot to step out of the cage. Meanwhile a lot of people come to watch us. Paneer then opens his parrot’s cage and tells him my name. The parrot chooses a card: Kali, the goddess of death. “You will become greatly successful in future,” Paneer interprets. “You planned your trip to India very well. Kali says that you will find great opportunities abroad and in future you will do business overseas. This experience will offer you a good job. In 30 days you will get an appointment and become very successful!” Afterwards I have to choose a card: Kali – I choose the same as the parrot. Paneer is excited: “You will have a good life with your family. You will get married overseas – but it is not your current boyfriend!” Interesting, but why should I trust a trained parrot? It is just a bird!

“Every god has his special vehicle to talk to people,” Paneer explains. “Pandi speaks to me with a parrot. I paid Rs. 3000 for a trained one. I started my career when I was 17 years old. I am very happy with my job.” “Whatever you do, your job is your God!” Authenticity: ++ Credibility: + Price: +++

Cowrie Shells and Destiny Day three: After a one-hour ride by car from Madurai, I arrive in a small village, searching for a famous fortune teller with a rat. The village is not connected to any bus station. But in every thatched house there is a TV! In front of a small house I meet an old man with a red turban and ask him for the man with the rat. “He is not here,” Subbaiya Nayakkan (66) says. “But you are a lucky girl because you just met the best fortune teller of Madurai – me! Some people travel over a hundred kilometers to see me. I am only here for one day. Come, take a seat!” How could I decline? Before we start, I have to buy some leaves, incense sticks, and sugar for him. Subbaiya Nayakkan, who actually works as a watchman, kindles an incense stick. I have to tell him my name and my age. He then throws some bright cowrie shells and starts to speak: “This time is a bad time for you. Your body is very weak. In the next three days you will become very ill. (Wrong!) Do not do always what other people tell you. You need to be your own boss. Right now, you are in a ‘Zigzag’ moment. You want to do something big? Take it slow. It is better to keep what you have. In the last three years you were very successful but one person interrupted it! (Right!) From now on, you have to hold the power in your hands!” I am really impressed because a lot of what he told me is true. But what if he sees a bad future of someone – will he tell him? “I will,” Subbaiya says. “But I also help the people and tell them what to do. Many come back again to hear my advice.”

Madurai Messenger March 2011

Translated from Tamil, Nadi means ‘to come in search of.’ An expert Nadi reader can accurately read your past, present, and future inscribed in these ancient palm leaves. It is amazing that a person will only get her or his leaf read when it’s predestined at that point in their lives. It is not that everyone’s lives are in these leaves. Nadi astrologers are certain that only a certain number of souls’ future predictions are in the palm leaves. Like Nostradamus, these predictions are written in verses, and it’s up to the Nadi astrologer to interpret these to the best of his or her understanding. Subbaiya is “the best astrologer in Madurai.” Is he able to forsee a person’s death? “Once I told someone that he will die very soon, probably in an accident. And it happened. I do not hide anything.” What about his own future? “I am 66 years old. When I was born, a fortune teller told my parents that I will become ill when I am 83 and will die at 91.” Authenticity: ++++ Credibility: +++ Price: ++++

The Nadi Astrologer Day four: I was able to get an appointment with a Nadi astrologer. Nadi astrology is also known as palm leaf astrology. I’d read about this online and not all reviews had been good. Bharathiraja is one of the most famous Nadi astrologers in Madurai. I expect a lot! Nadi astrology is a form of astrology based on the information written on ancient sacred palm leaves thousands of years ago, allegedly by Hindu sages such as Agasthya. The principle of this astrology was made famous by astrologers around the Vaideeswaran Koil Temple, which is near Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu. Even today Nadi palm leaf reading is still practiced by their descendants.

Bharathiraja lives in a beautiful green house close to the river. He does not look like a guru or a wise man. Wearing a blue shirt, he looks more like an ordinary person. No incense sticks. No trappings of an astrologer. But his mobile rings all the time. He asks for my left hand thumb print, my name and my date of birth. Bharathiraja then asks a series of questions (Is your father still alive? Are you the first child? Does your mom work in a school?) based on the verses on the leaf in order to find the correct match. These questions, as he told me, are to be answered only with a yes or no. The interview takes around ten minutes. After some time he immediately stops and start to speak: “The name of your mother is PETRA. (Right!) The name of your father is CHRISTIAN. (Right!) Your name is STELLA. (Right!) This is your palm leaf!” Thereupon, I have to leave his office for 45 minutes. He wants to copy the palm leaf for me on a note pad. Afterwards, he read my palm leaf out: (+Right, - Wrong) - You are the first child of Christian and Petra. + - Your parents are still alive. + - You have one sister who is studying. + - You work as a reporter. + - You had a bad time for the last three years. - You had a lot of trouble and you were worried about your job. +

- You have problems with your boyfriend. - The problem in your job was a colleague. + - At the age of 28 you will become very successful. - You will have a big car and a big house. - At the age of 35 you will become spiritual and go to church. - Your father is wearing glasses. + - At the age of 32 to 35 you will get married. - Your husband and you will become very happy. - You will live like a queen at the age of 75. - You will die at the age of 82. I have to pay Rs. 500. Actually, I am a little bit disappointed because Bharathiraja asked me so many questions which I answered with “no”. Yet he uncannily told me the names of parents. “Eighty percent of my clients get their exact leaf which has been written 6000 years ago”, Bharathiraja says. I just search for the leaves and read it out for them.” Did anyone ever call him a liar? “I never talk about my work to a person who does not want to hear it. People come voluntarily.” Authenticity: ++ Credibility: ++ Price: + To believe or not to believe—that is my dilemma! The predictions of the fortune tellers were either accurate or completely wrong. Sometimes I was disappointed. At other times I was shocked by their accuracy: one of them even knew the names of my parents! All of them knew that I had a lot of trouble in my job. Coincidence? Accurate guesses? Yet my overall impression is that one should not blindly believe fortune tellers. Like any interpretative science, its accuracy depends on the person who makes the prediction. As in any profession, even in fortune telling there are genuine people and those who are ready to take gullible people for a ride! Therefore to brand all fortune tellers as negative would be unfair. But one thing is certain: fortune telling is a lot of fun!




Truth is always Stranger than Fiction Simone Okkels is fascinated as she watches thoku, a traditional method of treatment of diseases and ailments using a pipe in progress. She is willing to suspend her disbelief and concede that while many things are too strange to believe, nothing is too strange that it cannot happen! Simone Okkels Aalborg, Denmark

Thoku. The word may be short, but it covers a long tradition of an ancient type of medicine. Thoku is a well-kept secret: before I saw it with my own eyes, I didn’t know anything about it. No books or pages on the world wide web discuss the method. But in the small village of Nakkalapatti, next to Usilai in South India, Pandia Rajan has a small clinic. It was here, for the first time, I both saw and was told about the Thoku treatment. As we approch the clinic we come in, as the last group of patients are about to be treated. It is early noon, and patients normally come between 7 and 10 a.m. They sit outside the clinic on a concrete bench waiting for their turn. Both doctor and patients have fasted before they meet up at the clinic. It is necessary, because it is a treatment where the doctor removes bones, stones or foreign matter from the stomachs of the patients through a pipe. The pipe, almost 20cm long, is the main instrument of the treatment. It is made from different kinds of metals merged together. Gold, silver, iron and copper. It is believed that the metals can interact with the metal atoms flowing in our bloodstream, helping in the healing of the patients. The doctor places the pipe in the mouth of the patient, holding on the back of their neck to know excactly how far the pipe can go, and positions the pipe right at the start of the gullet. He will then blow air into the empty stomach to expand it and then suck until all the foreign objects are out. Then he washes the pipe in a small well

and rinses it with some fluid disinfectant. The treatment is done quickly, no anaesthetics needed. It doesn’t hurt, it is just unpleasant and some have to vomit afterwards. But even though it is not very painful it can be dangerous. Every sixth month Pandia Rajan visits a doctor at a hospital to be checked for various diseases. Tuberculosis, cancer, colds, and even AIDS. If the pipe should accidentally scratch a small wound in the patient’s throat, Pandia could be infected too and even transfer the disease to other patients. He takes his precautions and never works if he doesn’t feel well. This is also the reason why he also fasts like the patients before clinic hours. If the food would possibly contain any germs, he avoids it by simply waiting to eat until after work. The sun shines down upon the patients as Pandia walks his rounds. One by one the patients are relieved from their stomach aches, vomiting, nausea and even personality changes. In India it is common to belive in the superstitious. If someone is jealous at a person at work or wants to mesmerize someone, they can go to certain astrologists to buy black ink-powder. The customer can then mix the powder into their victim’s food or drinks without them knowing about it. The powder will stay in their system and clutter up, which is believed to give personality changes or a sort of power over the person affected. It is a very expensive way to get revenge, around 1000-2000 Rs for the powder only, but not so uncommon: it is seen at the Thoku clinic often. The third patient shows us his hands. He holds a small, black, stone-like thing and pieces of bone in his palms: objects which, seconds ago, were lying in his

stomach. The small, black, stone-like things are black magic, and the patient tells us that he has gotten worse for months, acting out of his normal behaviour and having trouble at work or feeling sick. He believes it is because of the black magic, and already feels better. Most patients hold pieces of bone in their hands after the treatment, but a few others also have the black ink in them. One only has a flower stuck in the throat. The flower is not rotten or at all digested. I briefly wonder how this is possible, but Pandia is now finished with his patients and gathers them around. He and the patients form a circle in the yard and Pandia blesses them one by one, before he accepts payments. The price varies according to the result. If it was pieces of bone the price will be between 10-20 Rs. In case it was black magic the price is higher, around 60 Rs. If Pandia doesn’t find anything he won’t charge the patient. Also, if the patient’s got no change, he will accept 5 Rs as well. Sometimes he has even given patients money for the bus ride home, he tells us. Two women come by with their children. The method is not only for adults, but also for kids. The treatment is the same. One of the kids vomits afterwards, discovering pieces of chicken bone in her mother’s hand. The other kid only had some tomato stuck in the throat. Once again I wonder why it isn’t more digested and why one would visit a clinic to remove digestable food from one’s body. But now, when clinic hours are over, we can finally get our curiosity about the doctor himself satisfied.

Madurai Messenger March 2011

”I didn’t mean to become a Thoku practitioner. I graduated from my Bacholor of Arts studies in my youth, but couldn’t get a job. When my father passed away, many of his customers still came by the clinic to get treatments. They asked me why I didn’t carry on the tradition.” At some point he decided to pick up his father’s profession and now he has been working at the clinic for 20 years. Before his father passed away he had taught the techniques of Thoku to his son. But Pandia was never really interrested. His father was deeply stressed by his work and drank himself to death. Pandia didn’t want to end up the same way. But he won’t. At the age of 48, he has decided to retire in five years’ time. At that time his immune system will not be as strong any more and there will be too great risks involved in the daily Thoku treatments. As we speak to Pandia a few patients come by. They don’t have stomach aches or personality changes. Instead, one of the women explains that there is something in her ear. Maybe a bug or an insect. Pandia grabs her ear and holds it in the sunlight. There is nothing, he says. Then he explain to us, that not only does he treat traditional Thoku, but he also treats ear and nose problems. He walks into his house and comes back with a smaller version of the Thoku pipe. ”This one is for things stuck in the ears,” he tells us. If a patient, mostly

A Black Magic Ink taken from stomach using the pipe shown in the next picture children, has something stuck in their nose, he won’t use the pipe but a stick to get the object out. Pandia is not only a Thoku practitoner, but also a ear, nose and throat doctor in some ways. He is glad to help his community and he even greets cuctomers from other parts of the country. He doesn’t do any advertising for his clinic; the patients hear about him from friends or family who have been treated or knew his father. His clinic survives because of the good reputation and his willingness to help.

When I arrive home the same night as I had visited the clinic in Nakkalapatti I talk to an acquaintance of mine in Madurai. She tells me she once visited a Thoku clinic with her daughter. Her experience was a little different from mine. I came there, knowing nothing, having my doubts throughout the treatment – was he hiding something in his pipe or hands, maybe in the well? But leaving, believing that this type of traditional medicine was the real thing. The patients convinced me and so did Mr. Pandia Rajan. My acquaintance believes that it is all a scam. I don’t know what to think any more. The method was so foreign to me, so old-fashioned and completely different from all hospital treatments I have ever heard of or even tried. But that is the thing about traditional medicine. It is the same ancient method carried on by families, generation after generation, not changing and not being affected by modern science. It is far from what we Westerners are used to. Thoku is still a bit of a mystery to me. The secret is still not completely revealed. I think maybe one has to try it to be sure. In all businesses there are frauds, but India is a place of belief and I wouldn’t wonder if magic does happen here.

Traditional Pipe to Eliminate Thoku




The Bone Setters of Poosanampatti Simone Okkels watches K. Suruliappan and his team of bone setters in the village of Poosanampatti, near Theni, mend broken bones with nothing but the wisdom of their hands, herbal medicines , slings and sheaths made of bamboo and cloth. While she is not sure if she would submit to it, she is nevertheless convinced that there is something sacred about this traditional system of healing. As for the clients who avail of the services, they do so because of its affordability and efficacy. Simone Okkels Aalborg, Denmark

As far as the eye can see, there are stretches of green fields. Theni District in Madurai is a cradle of fertile land. As the colours of nature rush by our car, we get closer to our destination-the small village of Poosanampatti. The main attractions in the village are its many bone-setting clinics which get around 1000 patients every day from all over the state. K. Suruliappan is one of the best and most respected bone setters of South India. People here don’t see many Westerners. They stare at us when we step out of the car. Kids follow us down the street to the clinic of K. Suruliappan. On our way we see people with bandages, some cleaner than others. Outside the clinic there is a line of people. People

who need treatment gather here to get relief from their pain. What makes it more difficult for them is that they cannot afford to stay away from their jobs.

An Ancient System of Healing We enter Suruliappan’s clinic. It is a small room not much bigger than a common tea-room, but much more crowded. Three bone setters sit on the floor, welcoming patients and ourselves. There are 20 physicians and assistants who form the team. There are shelves with cloth and bandages for different kinds of injuries. On the floor are baskets for used bandages, but many just lie around. On wooden benches inside, patients awaiting their turn can sit and watch others under-

going treatment.. The treatment itself does not take more than five minutes. Sometimes less. The bone setters specialise in setting fractures, dislocations and sprains. It is an ancient method included in the traditional Indian system of medicine, ‘Ayurveda’. Bone Setting, or Puthur Kattu in Tamil, was developed many hundreds of years ago by the Siddha monks in Tamil Nadu. They discovered the techniques to help the soldiers who fought in the battles between the British and the Indians in the 18th century. It is a rather crude method as no Xrays or anaesthetics are used. The practitioners rely on the touch of their hands. With their fingers they explore and identify the area in the body where the patient feels pain. Then they tuck and pull the limbs and joints involved, sometimes with popping, crisp sounds of bones relocating. Afterwards, they use different kinds of bandages or slings made from bamboo, cloth and sheaths. Many clinics also use herbal ointments or oils which they apply both on external wounds and beneath the bandages to speed up the healing process. In Suruliappan’s clinic they only use a sulphanin-based ointment for open wounds. All fractures, both simple and complex, are treated simply by applying deep pressure of their hands and the support of a sling.

A Healing Art We stand in the middle of the clinic. Most patients are brave, not letting a single moan slip from their lips. Others, mostly the young, cry and scream. A small boy, no more than seven years old, is forced down on the floor. The physi-

Madurai Messenger March 2011

cian grabs his arm and then violently jerks it around. The cries stop, the arm is fixed, and the doctors, joking with each other to lighten the mood, tie it up in bamboo and cloth. The bamboo is donated to the clinic by the farmers of the area. The clinic recycles bamboo from patient to patient, and has stock worth Rs. 6000 stacked against the walls. Suruliappan answers our questions between clients. He is the chief physician. Being a practitioner of a traditional healing art, he has no certificates or qualifications from an institute to boast about. The method is no longer a secret kept in the families of the Bone Setters, but are shared with the skilled and truly interested. Like many others, K. Suruliappan learnt the skills of bone setting from his father, whom learned from his father. Here, experience weighs heavier than science, and the bone setters believe in their ancient and time-honoured methods. “If people don’t believe in it when they come in, they will when they walk out.” K. Suruliappan knows that some patients have doubts about the traditional healing methods because of modern science. Some opt for this because they cannot afford the services of a hospital. At Suruliappan’s clinic, treatment costs between Rs. 20-30. The bone setters are in this business not for money, but for the sake of the community and their forefathers.

As we speak to Suruliappan, an old lady with swollen hands comes in. He looks at her, pulls her fingers and tells her sons to take her to the hospital. There is no part of the body he cannot fix, except for the kneecap, but when people come in with swellings not related to the skeleton, he sends them to a hospital.

Cost Effective Treatment One of the patients can’t walk by himself; he leans against two men. No matter how big the injury, the patients have to visit the clinic. The practitioners don’t make home visits because they need all their different equipment. Even though patients are in great pain, many

of them choose the bone setters instead of the modern hospital. They do so not only because of the price difference, but also because the traditional method works. At a physician’s or chiropractor, a patient can come for months, several times a week and get only short term relief. Usually here they come back two to five times, but for more complex fractures they come back over a month’s time.

A Conscious Choice A brave boy of 14 years is back the second time. He broke a toe and chose to go to Suruliappan right away instead of a hospital, because Suruliappan fixed his other foot just a month ago. He was scared the first time, but now he knows it works and swallows the pain with pride and knowledge. Knowledge and experience are the basis in traditional medicine. As we leave the clinic, we feel we have witnessed something sacred. This ancient method has survived and managed to thrive despite the supremacy of modern medicine because of the skill of the bone setters and the belief of the people. I’m not sure if I would have the courage to put my broken bones in the hands of the bone setters, but for the many people who flock to Poosanampatti, it is a clear and conscious choice.

A Patient Shows his Injured Leg




The Blunt Edge of Metalwork Gabriel Webber visits Thirupachi, a village near Madurai famous for its handmade swords and sickles. He meets 76-year-old Balu Chamy Asari, the oldest sword-maker in Thirupachi, whose son expects to be the last generation to run the business.

Gabriel Webber London, UK

About an hour outside of Madurai, the flurry of the city dies away and life becomes more traditional. A funeral is taking place by the roadside. School pupils stop and stare at the group of foreigners driving past. Even in the workshop which was our destination, small children and their mothers shyly peeped round the curtains at their visitors. Thirupachi village, next to Madurai, is synonymous with hand-made swords and sickles.

A Hereditary Art

Balu Chamy Asari learnt metalwork from his father, and passed on the skill to his son Vijaya Kumar (32). Together, they forge six gleaming new swords and knives every day in a small workshop buzzing with all stages of the process: the hammering out of strips of iron into blades; the carving of the wooden grips and handles; the temperature-treatment of the knives to ensure strength and prevent brittleness. While most of the products are made to a standard size, a regular knife being about 40cm long and taking two hours to make, the

workshop also accepts special orders – recently, they broke their own record by fashioning an 18ft sword for use on a statue in the nearby temple. To manufacture a knife takes around two hours, and usually involves at least four people. Beating plain pieces of metal into shape requires two men to wield a sizeable hammer, and one of them must then sharpen the resulting blade using a stone. One man heats and cools the piece to make it hard-wearing, while another shapes and decorates the handles which are added to the final product. It is not merely a family-owned

Madurai Messenger March 2011

traditionally occupied as ironsmiths. In the 1800s, the Maruthu Pandiyar brothers commissioned weapons from Thirupachi to use in their battle against the British army, and even today, there are sporadic orders from rich mansionowners for decorative swords, it being a sign of wealth and taste to display such items in glass cases in one’s home. Vijaya Kumar studied the craft of metalwork between the ages of 13 and 18, but his own children are now studying hard at school, and he is “not encouraging” them to join the family business. He lamented the “low profits” that the firm is making, and predicts that a day will come very soon when “the trade will be no more.” business; knife-making requires teamwork and co-operation throughout the entire process.

A Hazardous Occupation

The operation is not without its hazards. Vijaya Kumar spoke candidly about the “many accidents” that have occurred. Flying sparks have entered eyes, jagged pieces of metal have been propelled across the room, and red hot blades are unsafe at the best of times. Balu Chamy Asari and his son, however, are more worried about economic risks than physical ones. While the mechanisation and efficiency of agriculture is the aim of many charities and politicians across India, it has put the knife industry into what is expected to be a terminal downturn: a farmer with a tractor or combine harvester no longer needs a hand-tool for gathering crops. (It is worth noting that Vijaya Kumar’s products have some other markets as well:

“Gangsters and local rowdies will sometimes buy knives,” he explained, “but usually just for protection, because gun sales are restricted. Only a few come here wanting to kill.” For this latter group of clients, a specific model of weapon optimised for “throwing and killing” is very much sought-after.) A further stumbling block is the availability of raw materials. The craftsmen take pride in using the very best quality metal, but this comes at a cost. Obtaining charcoal, of which huge amounts are required to keep a fire burning all day long, is also difficult; in fact, it is often necessary to resort to fetching handfuls of leftover ash from home-cooked meals, thus giving the family’s female members a small role in the business in which they otherwise take no part.

At Crossroads

Historically, there was much more work, often more illustrious than simply furnishing farmers with equipment. The surname ‘Asari’ relates to a caste

Nevertheless, for the present, the workshop continues to produce and sell swords and knives of all shapes and sizes, some fetching up to Rs. 650. The craftsmen consider themselves to have a special edge over the 15 competing establishments in the village, the “main difference” being that all their products are heated in a fire and then immediately cooled in water, giving them a particular strength. Another advantage is the ownership of a compressed air machine, used in place of large leather bellows as an energy-saving device when the electricity is working. Finally, the clay oven is shaped with three small humps on top, representing the prongs of a trident, and a traditional way of bringing luck and blessing upon the enterprise. For at least some of these reasons, Balu Chamy Asari and family continue to receive customised orders from all parts of the Madurai area, and at least for the moment, they are resisting the onslaught of the tractor.

I am proud of the fact that I never invented weapons to kill. -Thomas A. Edison




One Second Can Change Your Life Epiphany or a moment of awakening can come at any time and any place. For Aron Ralston, the hero of the film 127 Hours, all it takes for him to re-evaluate his life and reconsider his perspectives, is being trapped all alone in a boulder. But do we need such near-death experiences to help us re-live our lives meaningfully, wonders Stine Hornbeck. Stine Pil Hornbeck Copenhagen, Denmark

Take a look at your life. Do you appreciate every day as if it were the last? Do you tell family and friends how important they are for you? Are you enjoying the moments life gives you? This is what Aron Ralston, the main character of the film 127 Hours, discovers when he is trapped by a boulder in a canyon. To make matters worse, he is all alone. Director Daniel Boyle is back again with another new mind-blowing movie after his Oscar winning Slumdog Millionaire. 127 Hours is a true story of a real-life mountaineer Aron Ralston (James Franco), a selfish adventurer who doesn’t give much attention to the people around him. On his trip to the canyon he has an accidental fall and a boulder crushes his arm and traps him in an isolated canyon in the middle of nowhere. The movie explores Aron’s desperate attempts to break free. This sudden break in his busy and stressful life and his engagement with thoughts of his own impending death makes him reflect on his life and purpose and the choices he has made at various stages of his life. He realises rather painfully that he has not given his family enough attention; has taken for granted his girlfriend; and has forgotten to appreciate the small things in life. For a nightmare that lasts 127 hours, Ralston struggles, while he slowly discovers a new view of life. Simultaneously he discovers within himself a strong will and courage and finds the wherewithal to extricate himself. Aron thus orchestrates his own rescue.

It’s Oscar time! Daniel Boyle’s movie is again Oscar nominated eight times, including best director, best actor, best screenplay, and two Golden Globes. It is amazing to see how Daniel Boyle in this low budget movie, with simple technique, can create such an intense and fascinating story. The entire story takes place in the canyon, with a single camera and one person. Of course there are some short flashbacks when Aron looks back on his life. During these interludes we get to know his background—his family, friends and places he has visited. Although the flashback technique is also widely used in Slumdog Millionaire, I found it put to a different use in this film. It is easier for most people to identify themselves with Aron Raston than with the hero in Slumdog Millionaire.

Aron Ralston is a contemporary person. Through the film, Boyle highlights the awakening of Aron Raston—a person so caught up in the busyness of life that he forgets to stand still for a moment and enjoy and appreciate his many blessings. Only when he gets trapped in the canyon does he realise his mistake in life and the wrong choices he has made and therefore regrets. But do we really have to be close to death to understand the real meaning of life and to appreciate people around us? That is a question the movie prods us to consider. After seeing Slumdog Millionarie which I admired, I had great expectations from yet another Danny Boyle film. Fortunately, this is a masterpiece—a “must see” for all ages.

Madurai Messenger


March 2011

Cricket Fever India is gearing up to be the co-host of the 10th Cricket World Cup, and excitement has swept the length and breadth of the country.

Gabriel Webber London, UK

One hundred and ninety years ago, a group of British sailors from the East India Company gathered near the harbour in the town of Khambat, Gujarat, and played cricket – the first ever such match anywhere in the country. Since then, the sport has become India’s de facto national game, and has even been described as “Asia’s new-found religion” by the BBC in England. But as well as being a religion, it’s a shopkeeper’s dream. Jayanth (29) owns New Gupta Sports, and he’s expecting a huge boom in business during the impending Cricket World Cup. “Demand will start when the matches start, and it will increase in line with India’s victory.” The factories are already struggling to cope with the requirements, stores’ profit margins have already been reduced, and if Jayanth’s prediction that India will win the 2011 tournament is correct, then there will certainly be a rush on the market. Jayanth seems to speak with some authority. He plays for the Madurai District, 1st Division, and seemed to be an expert on all things cricket. “The Indian team this year is very well-balanced,” he explained, “This year, we have both youth and experience.” Things definitely look more promising than they did for the 2010 Cup, when India was knocked out in the first round and New Gupta Sports suffered a two-thirds decline in sales of cricket items. “Cricket is a religion here,” confirmed Jayanth, “and it binds you emotionally. People were too miserable to play.” As much as Jayanth expected 2011 to be a particularly exciting year, his com-

petitor M. Parasuram – owner of the United Sports Company with branches in Madurai and Chennai – was not quite so enthused. His shops have been open since 1955, he has lived through many Cricket World Cups and expects the feverish interest to infect everybody regardless of the team’s performance. “Students will concentrate on nothing else but the matches,” he says, “until school is over, and then they will all come here to buy cricket bats and cricket balls.” Mr Parasuram considers the broadcasting of games to provide a particular boost to his business; previously, his branch in Chennai – a city where there is an actual World Cup stadium – had done significantly better business during the period, but with the advent of television, the excitement touches people in Madurai as well.

live, as was his friend Saravana Kumar (18), who also expected his own country to triumph. The pair play cricket after school every day, throughout the year – and the forthcoming school holidays, starting in April, are expected to help the sports shops’ business further. Just a few metres away from the duo, a Cricket Academy was in full swing, with coaches busily coaching a number of players including one state-level competitor. They too were fully expecting an Indian victory. Whether or not these predictions – about the national team’s progress and about the business opportunities afforded by the tournament – will be vindicated is yet to be seen. However, it is certainly clear that India’s 190-year obsession with cricket is still nowhere near being ‘caught out’.

On the fringes of the city, there is a large sports ground where the equipment sold by these shops is used to the full; people of all ages and all levels of skill play cricket there in every spare moment. Satham Hussein is 17 years old, and was absolutely convinced that India would win this year’s cup: in his own words, “Good players and a good team.” He was planning to watch every game screened Mr. Parasuram at his Sport Shop




Galapagos Adventure For most of us, the Galapagos Islands are synonymous with Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution. When Christine Grandy-Dick volunteered in Nature Conservancy in 2010 for Jatun Sacha, an NGO on San Cristobal—an island in the Galapagos archipelago, 1000 miles west off the Ecuador coastline—she got insight into a World Heritage Site and an opportunity to explore the most significant places on her own. Christine Grandy-Dick Munich, Germany

Nature Conservation in Jatun Sacha is strenuous – because of swarms of mosquitoes, temperatures over 30°C, high humidity (98 percent), heavy rainfall for hours, and mould in the sleeping shanties. Why am I doing this? Plain curiosity and, of course, an interest in how people from other countries protect their livelihoods and how we can all work together.

Conservation in Galapagos

In the drier north of San Cristobal, our main enemy is mora, a fast growing bush introduced by settlers. Its stem is covered by a dull layer of white, used to protect itself from parasites. It takes soil, water, light and space away from the endemic plants. The goal of Galapagos Conservation is to produce enough food themselves for all inhabitants – inclusive of tourists – and not be forced to import foreign groceries. In the past, thousands of explorers and invaders, as well as domestic animals, gradually disturbed the native flora and fauna. In addition to these problems, a lack of freshwater affects people, agriculture, tourism, and the animals. These are important to preserve the fragile ecological balance of nature. Jatun Sacha tries to stem the growth and proliferation of mora by planting several trees beside it so that eventually the plant dies because of insufficient light. The problem, however, is that mora grows rapidly and worse, invasive imported vegetation is spread by birds that eat their fruits and it is hard to overlook this fact. As a result the endemic flora is endangered. Another serious problem is that of modern windmills which are on the flight path of birds and

bats and are a potential hazard to these winged creatures. After grinding some machetes, we cut down piles of invasive plants like the prickly mora, which we dried in the sun. We worked fully covered and in a mosquito hat that caused us to perspire in the high humidity. We planted endemic plants in the hope that they would multiply rapidly. We did so by chipping off the lower branches and transplanting them to a place with ample space, light, fertile soil—and of course, far away from the reach of the mora! I did this with another endemic plant, manzanillo, the favourite food of the Galapagos Turtle but very poisonous to humans. We used the same strategy with “Poison Apple,” another favorite of the turtle! On Jatun Sacha Station we cultivate them and deliver the adult plants to the Conservatory La Guapagera, San Cristobal, a 45-minute drive from Jatun Sacha, where the very few turtles from the northern tip of this island are collected, raised and finally set free on Espanola Island. Here they are safe from humans and domestic animals like dogs, goats, sheep, donkeys and cattle. To transplant manzanillo from Jatun Sacha to the Galapagos Turtle Conservancy, we dig small patches 15cm deep to transfer the young crop, and we also de-weed edthe place. Over shady boardwalks you eas-

ily reach straying reptiles and the airy boxes for the babies. One is lying on his back, flapping with four feet. No one helps to turn it back because that would ruin its lessons in independence. Wild heroin grew in our garden – once explored by an adventurous former volunteer with horrible consequences! In addition there are different kinds of papaya –– which are well distributed by seed-feeding and dispersing pigs. The skin of the fruit is slashed lengthwise, the sap containing antioxidants is collected and sold in pharmacies for a high price. We also have laurel, actually from the Madeira Island (west of Europe in the Atlantic Ocean), which has a restricted growth in certain areas because of the fast growing eucalyptus and acacia. The symbiotic relationship between plants and insects has positive effects on the natural balance.

Madurai Messenger March 2011

oughly in the sun. We then roasted them over fire, ground them to powder and brewed it in a filter for a heavenly delicious coffee!

Avian Delights

On the miconia trail - the name refers to the endemic miconia tree - right near the station, we wanted to find out the habitat preferences of the various birds and their feeding habits. During day time we took notes about the weather conditions, and later took photographs to identify the differences in beak forms, colours and lengths of tails with the help of books on birds. We spotted greywhite mockingbirds, and light green woodpecker finches. The latter is one of the 13 species discovered by biologist Charles Darwin. We also spotted two kinds of Ani – the smooth-billed and groove-billed, but unfortunately sitting either on the Mora or sweet smelling endemic acacia.

For example, insects feed on the scattered butterfly eggs on leaves which are harmful to the plants, and by doing so protect them. Banana trees, originally from Indonesia, grow so rapidly that you can hew the entire trunk to harvest its fruits. At that stage, they have already sprouted fresh shoots above the soil which can easily be transplanted into a different place where they produce new roots. The sweet sap of the fallen trees provides milk or yeast. Besides it acts as a processor which speeds up the accumulation of compost, a process that would otherwise take about five months. Additionally we find herbal remedies in this place for illnesses like gastritis and kidney disease. For throat-ache we pick up leaves to make into a brew for gargling. Some invasive plants are allowed especially when their seeds are so big that they cannot be distributed either by the birds or the wind. The reddish cedar, used for making furniture, is cut only when in bloom. Some native trees just grow 2cm a year; most invasive ones grow much faster.

We make our own coffee on the plantation. The species cultivated are Arabica and Robusta. Harvest is June to October. We had a first hand experience of making coffee from start to finish. From small red berries, we took out only the little white kernels and dried them thor-

On our Friday hike, we climbed the 600m high El Junco, an extinct volcano, and enjoyed the sight of the misty clouds floating through the highlands. In between juicy green vegetation and a freshwater lagoons is situated a greenhouse where volunteers can plant tomatoes in the 45°C heat inside, but without the annoyance of mosquitoes! Another marvelous place to visit is Puerto Chino Beach, a 20-minute walk from La Galapaguera, the Turtle Conserva-



TIME OUT tory, where white sand and turquoisegreen, bathtub-warm water embrace you. You can spot brown pelicans, black predatory frigate birds (while mating, males inflate a huge red pouch on the front of the neck), red light-foot crabs and millions of black crabs, crawling quickly in what looks like a quaint sideways ballet, and perfectly poised rocks perched high where sealions take a nap in hidden crevices.

Save the Turtle

Thanks to a persistent but sensitive conservation effort since 1959, the Charles Darwin Research and Conservation area on Santa Cruz Island took up the challenging task of protecting and conserving the almost extinct species of the Galapagos Turtle. Three- to fiveyear-old baby turtles, whose eggs were warmed with lamps before hatching – the temperature decide the gender (males need higher temperatures)—are set free on the islands of Isabela and Espanola. To study their shell-pattern is a science in itself. Famous “Lonesome George” hides in the cooler thicket today. He is the last one of his kind, has suffered much on the remote Pinta Island from domestic animals and has gone through numerous attempts at mating without success. In the nineteenth century, his ancestors suffered inconceivable torture aboard hundreds of ships, where they were killed and sold as fresh meat to the sailors on board. At any time, five of the nine still existing subspecies of Elephantopus Turtle populate one of the five volcanoes on Isabela Island because the terrain was grown together later in geology and the reptiles couldn’t overcome the lava fields in between. The population was saved from settlers and domestic animals. Orange-siena-coloured land iguanas flourish again after they almost vanished right at this place next to Cerro Dragon in the 1960s. They now also find a new home in Santiago and Isabella. The foundation conducts numerous projects with schools and also interfaces with shops, who donate a certain amount of sale earnings. While snorkeling at Kickers Rock, surrounded by flocks of tropical fishes in all conceivable patterns, it was awesome to spy meandering sharks in the depths!

At Lobos Bay of San Cristobal, two black sea lion cubs played with the divers and hundreds of noisy gulls like bluefooted boobies circled the coarse coastline of Santa Cruz and “Corona del Diabolo,” a circled rock formation like a fantasybackdrop echoed with the sounds of the yellow-eyed masked boobies. At sunset on Isabella, dolphins rush along with your speed ferry for a race, before Brown Pelicans with shimmering steel blue tail feathers fight for sardines in shallow water at dusk. Giant turtles drowse half-sunken in lush green swampy ponds in more remote hinterland. Isn’t this something to dream of? On the islet “Las Tintoreras” you easily burn the soles of your feet on bizarre hot lava formations covered in white lichen. After mating in November, hundreds of female marine iguanas dig holes in the hot sand to deposit their eggs. When hatched, the babies are forced to seek their food themselves in the early morning while their fathers take a rest in a nearby bay. Some iguanas are so camouflaged that you can you even stumble over them if you are not careful. Some are aggressive and press their forehead against each other, beating their tails onto the ground like little crocodiles. With their white bellies and sculptured postures with upright spikes along the spine, frozen in position for hours, they remind you of an evolutionary archetype. Beware, for you are watched by tiny Galapagos Penguins, as small as soft toys…

Facts Book titled “Logbuch Ecuador & Gala pagos” by Christine Grandy-Dick traveling 2 ½ month through Ecuador with colour photographs available in German www.pb-book ISBN 978-3-86805-770-6

Content • Winter in Amsterdam • Bonaire/Venezuela (unwilling bond age) • Quito-Spanishschool • Volcano-hiking Imbabura, Corazon, Cotopaxi, Guagua Pichincha, Cay ambe • Rio Cuyabeno Rainforest ReserveExpedition • Pululahua Geobotanical Reserve and Parque Nacional Cotopaxi on horse back • Galapagos-volunteering and own experiences • Epilogue

Sponsored by:

For Private Circulation Only

Printed at Bell Printers Pvt. Ltd.,


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