Saturday, May 12, 2012


According to general belief, the name of Coromandel coast is derived from the Tamil “ Cholamandalam” or “land of Cholas”.  Wikipedia says: 

The land of the Chola dynasty was called Cholamandalam in Tamil, literally translated as The realm of the Cholas, from which Coromandel is derived. Another research shows that the coast along the Chola country was called Cholamandalam which was later corrupted to Coromandel by the Europeans. According to The Periplus of the Erythr├Žan Sea by Wilfred Harvey Schoff, the Chola coast was derived from the native Tamil name Chola-mandalam, from which the Portuguese derived our modern word Coromandel

The CarnaticChronology” written by Charles Philip Brown and published in 1868 however provides the following explanation (page 68) digging into old records of the Dutch, dated 1623.

"Coromandel" is first named under this date in the Dutch accounts of India. Coromandel was the Dutch spelling of Kurumanil, that is, "Blacksand," a fishing village a little north of Madras. Among Europeans the entire coast has acquired this name, which also has been changed by pedantry into Kuru-mandalam (land of the Kurus; which it never was)  The name Coromandel as denoting a region is wholly unknown to the natives.
The latter explanation sounds more logical to me.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

The argumentative Brahmin

Dr. Rev John W Dulles, a Christian missionary, set out from America one day in the year 1850 and arrived in Madras 130 days later. His avowed objective was to spread the gospel of Christ and liberate the poor masses out of their misery. He spent 4 years in India, mainly in the South, and later published a book called “Life in India” in which “he sought to show how he the missionary reached the shores of Southern India; what sights and sounds greeted him on landing; how Hindus lived, acted, and worshipped; in what ways they were approached by the missionary; and what were the effects of his labours among them.” 

As can be seen from the narration below ( pages 174-179 of the book), the conversion of the natives was not an easy task. The Hindus had an exasperating habit of countering every argument with a metaphor and make the poor missionary throw up his hands in despair. 

Here is Rev Dulles describing one of his meetings: (I urge you to read this with a humorous bent of mind and  not to take sides). 

You reach a favourable spot, and take your stand on some slight elevation—a housestep, a plank, or a block of wood or stone. The passing throng stops to hear what the padre has to say. Some rude fellows try to make sport; but the respectable old gentleman with the big turban and white robe bids them be silent, or go about their business. The coolie with a load on his head and the drops of perspiration standing on his brow, and the scholar with his books under his arm, the shop-keeper, the mechanic, and even a Brahmin or two, stop to listen to your discourse. 

Your theme is the folly of idolatry; you expose its absurdity and impiety, you deride the senseless block in the temple just before you, and ask them why immortal, soul-possessing men should bow down to a soulless, senseless, tongueless idol. The coolie grins; the carpenter nods approbation. "Why, indeed!" says the bazaar-man; "this is the iron age." "It is our folly," exclaims the scholar.

"But," asks the stout, oily Brahmin at your right, "do you not believe that God is everywhere?"


"Then, if he is everywhere, is he not in the idol? And if he is in the idol, shall we not worship him as in the idol? It is not the idol, but God in the idol that we worship." 

The poor coolie did not before know how philosophic a thing idolatry was, and nods his approbation; so do others. 

This logic, however, does not satisfy you. You remark that if, because God is everywhere, he is to be worshipped as in the idol, for the same reason they must worship every stone in the street, every tree in the tope, (grove,) every dog in the street, and even the polluted leather shoes to which they would not touch a finger. Moreover, if God be everywhere, and hence in the idol, why is it that you, my Lord Brahmin, must be called, after the image has been made, to bring the god into it with your Prana Prathishta? Truly it is a waste of money to pay you for thus getting the god in, when he is already there." 

The coolie and his fellows smile again at this cut at the Brahmin. He, however, is in no wise disconcerted. "Ah!" says he, "you are labouring under the mistaken idea that we worship the stone. Are we fools? Do we not know that stone is stone, and God is God? Idiots may worship blocks—we do not. But where is God? Will you show him to us? Who can see him? How, then, shall the unthinking mob, the untaught, grovelling mass, worship him whom they see not? The idea of an unseen, intangible God is too abstract for them; they cannot grasp it. Devotion will die unless we give the vulgar mind something actual on which to rest. Therefore we give them idols. The mind is concentrated on this, and thence ascends to God."

Rev Dulles then describes another incident involving one of his brethren.

An account of a conversation of a missionary in Bengal with a Brahmin, whom he fell in with while preaching, gives a good idea of their mode of argumentation, and also of the importance of understanding their belief, that we may not be put to silence by them. 

The missionary, in answer to the question, "What do you preach here?" replied, "We teach the knowledge of the true God." 

"Who is he? I am God, "said the Hindu.

The missionary thought it would be an easy matter to confuse him, but he soon discovered his mistake. "This is very extraordinary," said he; "are you the Almighty?" 

"No," he replied: "had I created the sun I should be almighty; but that I have not done."

"How can you pretend to be God, if you are not almighty?" 

"This question shows your ignorance. What do you see here?" said the Brahmin, pointing to the Ganges. 


"And what is in this vessel?" at the same time pouring out a little into a cup. 

"This is water, likewise."

"What is the difference between this water and the Ganges?"  

"There is none," replied the missionary. 

"Oh! I see a great difference; that water carries ships, this does not; God is almighty; I am only a part of the Godhead, and therefore I am not almighty; and yet I am God, just as these drops in the cup are real water." 

"According to your teaching," said the missionary, "God is divided into many thousand portions; one is in me, another in you." 

"Oh!" said the Brahmin, "this remark is owing to your ignorance. How many suns do you see in the sky?" 

"Only one." 

"But if you fill a thousand vessels, what do you see in each?" 

"The image of the sun." 

"But if you see the image of the sun in so many thousand vessels, does it prove that there are a thousand suns in the firmament! No; there is only one sun in the heavens, and it is reflected a thousand times in the water. 
So likewise there is but one God, and his image and brightness are reflected in every human being." 

The missionary, instead of trying to point out the falsity of the comparison, wished to touch his conscience.

"God," he continued, "is holy; are you holy?"

"I am not," replied the Brahmin, "I am doing many things that are wrong, and that I know to be wrong."

"How, then, can you say that you are God?"

"Oh!" said the Hindu, "I see that you need a little more intellect to be put into your head before you can argue with us. God is fire—fire is the purest element in creation; but if you throw dirt upon it, a bad odour will arise; this is not the fault of the fire, but of that which is thrown upon it. Thus God in me is perfectly pure, but he is surrounded by matter, (that is, by the material, corporeal body;)  he does not desire sin, he hates it; the sin arises from matter." 

Dr Rev Dulles then concludes: 

It is often a shorter and surer way to answer these sophistical pantheists and transcendentalists with ridicule. To argue with them is an endless undertaking; a good-humoured cut at their pretensions is far more efficacious; and if it be a fair hit, will secure to yourself a hearing and the sympathy of the audience.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

The Madras Hawker

“The Leisure Hour” in its issue of  June 16, 1853 (page 385) has this charming description of a “Madras Hawker” and how he manages to sell his goodies to the lady of the house, with the connivance of the servants of the house. 

Visiting hours are over at Madras by 2 pm, and the mess dinners are usually at three. At this juncture, the lady of the house, worn out with the excessive heat of the afternoon, will generally be found reclining listlessly upon a sofa, fanning herself: the weather being too oppressive even to read, the last book from the circulating library has perhaps dropped upon the floor, and there lies unheeded and unread. A victim to ennui, she is just dozing off, and the native ayah has been summoned to fan her mistress with a cuseus fan, when, lo! this listless state of apathy is agreeably broken in upon by the cry of, "Hawker, maam! very good things to-day, maam!"

 The ayah is immediately despatched into the verandah to summon the hawker into her mistress's presence. In comes the hawker, all smiles and salaams, redolent with sandal-wood and other perfumes, and his moustache shining with the best Rowlands' macassar (which he has purloined from his stock-in-trade, making good the deficit j with common cocoa-nut oil); his nose is surmounted with three gaily-coloured streaks, one green, one yellow, one red, and in addition to these  he has sometimes a brilliant wafer stuck between his eyebrows: these are symbols of his high caste, for the hawker always is, or always pretends to be, a lineal descendant from the highest Brahmin families. 

As regards his costume, our hawker is the beau ideal of Indian dandyism; his under-coats are finest silk, his nether garments cambric, whilst his long surtout, which fits tightly to the body and arms, is made of the finest flowered book muslin. The coolies that carry his boxes are not quite so elegantly clad; but these plebeians are only permitted to deposit their loads on the flue rattan matting, when they are expelled from the house, as much to their own satisfaction as to that of anybody else, for they immediately indulge in a much loved siesta, and, stretched beneath the shade of some mango trees, snore away the hour occupied by their employer in profitable bargains.

Meanwhile the hawker, having seated himself, undoes the cording of one of his three boxes, which he then opens. Click goes the lock with a loud spring, and up flies the cover, exposing to the anxious gaze of the lady-patroness the hidden treasures within. The hawker seats himself tailor fashion, and extracting a rupee from his moneybags, hits it against the lock until its clear silver tones ring again. This he does, as he will tell you, for custom's sake. Now servants who have interests at stake in this identical custom linger about the ante-chambers, peep through doors and windows, and listen, so that not a fraction be lost; occasionally too they compare notes, and not infrequently disagree in their reckonings.

"Now, hawker," asks the lady, "what have you got to sell to-day"

The hawker, who has a very good colloquial knowledge of English, invariably replies: "Very fine things, marm," and then, carefully unpacking the first trunk, these "very fine things" are one by one exposed to view.

"Fine book-muslin, marm; two rupees a yard." Of course two rupees is about ten times the value of the article displayed; but then, like all orientals, the hawker must be beat down, and as he has occasionally caught the unwary at his first offer, he thinks he loses nothing by making exorbitant demands.

The book-muslin is passed over as not required, and then comes jaconet, dimities, cambric, polampoors, silks, satins, palmarinocs—in short, a little of all things, including scents, soaps, hair oils, and even curry-combs and brushes for horses. Whenever anything is purchased, and the terms cannot be agreed upon, then the hawker conciliates the lady of the house by telling her that it shall be sold for whatever "missus pleases," and then the ayah is referred to as a kind of umpire, who usually, of course, decides in favour of the hawker, from the simple fact that the more money he gets the greater her share of the custom is likely to be.

The first box has now been emptied, and the hawker has only sold to the amount of about thirty rupees. He shakes his head and murmurs audibly as he replaces the things, that it is very bad gain for him to-day, forgetful perhaps that fifteen out of the thirty rupees have been net profit to him. 

The second box is next opened, and the baby screams with delight, for the hawker craftily displays the worst commodities first, shrewdly calculating that, if he can sell any of these, he is pretty sure of disposing of the others. What an assortment of toys does the hawker reveal! Dolls with eyes that open and shut, whole regiments of mounted cavalry carefully boxed up, ill-grown trees and houses, shepherds and sheep, lions, tigers, and all four-footed animals living on peaceable terms together, all within the precincts of large empty wafer boxes; and, best of all, a ready-cooked dinner for baby, comprising fictitious joints and turkeys. The small darling turns crimson with delight as the fond mamma pays the hawker for three or four of the largest boxes, and then the child and its treasures are handed over to the care of the amah (nurse) in the bed-room,' and the mother has at least purchased a few minutes' tranquility. Under the toys there are laces; under the laces, ribbons; under the ribbons, note-paper and ivory fans; and then a miscellaneous collection of goods, such as The Keepsake for 1831, the Souvenir for 1823, a view of London previous to the great fire, and a book or two of the fashions in 1779.

Upon the whole, the hawker makes unexceptionable bargains, so he displays more alacrity in undoing the third box, and it is now mamma's turn to play the child. "Oh, what a love of a dress!" exclaims the lady, as some Costly ball-dress catches her eye. The hawker perceives the admiration and turns it to account; and we are much mistaken in the man if he does not earn cent, per cent, by the bargain. Then come artificial flowers, Trichinopoly gold chains, and other jewellery; so that if the lady of the house be a Barra Bebee Sahib, or the wife of a wealthy civilian, he has sold to the amount of a thousand rupees before closing and strapping the last box; and if only a subaltern's lady, why a month's pay may be set aside for that evening's divertissement. 

His business thus transacted to his satisfaction, the coolies are again burdened, and the boxes are heavier, for the cash far outweighs the goods disposed of. The hawker makes his salaams and withdraws, and two minutes after a frightful wrangling is heard in the compound; the twenty servants, like so many vultures, have pounced upon their prey; the sturdy coolies are waylaid. 

One would think from the noise that there was murder being committed; but this is only paish (Tamul for talk). No Frenchman could compete with them for gestures. Suddenly there is a .lull, for the parties have agreed to treat under a banian tree; the boxes are placed upon the ground, and the disputants squat round them. After five minutes' mild argument, in which the hawker vainly endeavours to persuade his listeners into a belief that he has been rather a loser than otherwise by the bargain, he offers them one-tenth of what the servants, according to established usage, have a right to expect. This offer is received with violent acclamations, and a perfect roaring ensues, until eventually the hawker is compelled to comply with the usage, whereupon he is suffered to depart, and the servants get up a small scene amongst themselves about the proportioning of the said profits.

(Read the full piece here)

Indians and Guinness

As I’ve said before, the Olympic motto of “Citius, Altius, Fortius” was not written keeping Indians in mind, and we shouldn’t make asses of ourselves by attempting to jump longer or higher, run faster or dive deeper. Leave such trivial and mundane pursuits to lesser mortals.

What we should try to do is get into the Guinness Book of records for such activities as growing the longest nails, sporting the longest nose hair or sitting in the same position for 26 years.

Take Guinness Rishi, described in this article. He recently tried to get into the books as the world’s worst-losing politician by garnering zero votes in a municipal election. Unfortunately, his wife played a trick on him and got some 30 people to vote for him, just to deprive him of the record. But his records include most continuous time riding a motor scooter (1,001 hours with two accomplices); producer of the world's smallest Koran, even though he's Hindu; fastest consumption of ketchup, though he said, "I hate ketchup"; and most flag tattoos on his body (officially 220, although he's added 146 since then), including several across his forehead, cheeks, chin.

Guinness Ravi, the article points out, epitomizes India’s obsession with Guinness records.
Although every country has its share of glory seekers, India has really taken to this particular form of chest thumping. Guinness says applications from India are up 178% over the last five years, making it the world's third-most active nation of wannabes, after the U.S. and Britain, with actual records up almost fourfold. Guinness has just appointed a Mumbai-based representative to manage the crowds of record seekers, with plans to open a full office next year.

Among recent Indian records: most consecutive yoga positions on a motorcycle (23), most Mohandas Gandhi look-alikes photographed (485), most earthworms swallowed (200), longest ear hair (7 inches).

Most earthworms swallowed? Why do Indians want to do bizarre things? 

"Everyone wants their 15 minutes of fame," said Tharaileth Koshy Oommen, a sociologist at New Delhi's Schumacher Center for Development, a civic group. "People feel once they have world-level recognition, they'll get more recognition back home. It's a kind of anxiety."

But Guinness Ravi puts it honestly:

"I'm not tall enough, I'm not the best dressed, I don't wear the biggest turban to stand out in a crowd of millions," he said. "To be different and get recognized, I have little choice but to keep trying to break records, or else I'll be forgotten."

Somehow that seems to make sense.