Maddy's Ramblings

Jan 5, 2019

The Kongan Pada at Chittur – A study

You may not realize it today, but in the times of yore, the land on the west of the Sahyadri mountain range was a mysterious place for the people on the other side.  The only way to get a view of the other side was if you carted or trudged through the Palghat gap and peered. For the Kongu people just on the eastern edge of the gap, it was the land of the Cheras or Cheranad (It is also an interesting aspect that while most Malayalis refer to Tamilians as Pandi’s, the Palghat usage is Kongan).The mountains were a good barrier and insulated the minor states on the west for a long time, allowing a different culture to evolve. As could be expected a few kings of Tamilakam ventured through the gap to attack and lay siege on border towns. But until Hyder Ali and his marauding army came during the 18th century, the area remained relatively calm, though rearranged now and then through occasional fights and squabbles engineered by local chieftains.  

One can therefore easily understand the exclamation of the author of the 11th century Thiruvalangad plates viewing all of this from the other side - Who else but the supreme Siva would even think of subduing that (Chera) country!

Just on the other side of the gap is Palakkada as termed by the ancient Pallavas or today's Palakkad, an important trading outpost. Many a tussle has been recorded for supremacy or suzerainty over this important location and we have talked about them off and on. But there is one story which deserved special mention, that relating to the advent of a Kongan pada into the plains near Chittur. The word Kongan is the first aspect to be checked. Was it Kongu or was it Gangan? One could clarify that Kongu comprised todays Coimbatore and the southern portion of Salem while Chera (or Cheralam) denoted the Malabar Coast from Calicut southwards. The northern portion of the Salem district formed part of the Ganga country. Most historians believe that the force which crossed over into the area to wage a historical attack was Kongu, while some continue to stress it was Gangan.

Many would wonder when this happened. This is a hotly debated topic with most historians opining that it occurred sometime in the 9th Century while there are a few others who base their argument that it was more recent, perhaps towards the second half of the 17th Century. As usual the paucity of records make a determination very difficult, and the pointers we do have conflict each other, nevertheless we will spend some time on this subject later on in this discussion. The best description of the event itself is provided by the anthropologist LK Anantakrishna Iyer in his seminal work ‘Cochin castes and tribes’ circa 1912 and I will therefore borrow a bit now and then from his text.

The events which led to this attack by the chieftain on the plains is quite interesting. On the edge of the border, is the town of Chittur where the produce of the Kongu desam was sold. Chittur belonged to the nalu desams comprising Chittur, Nallepilli, Tattamangalam, and Pattancheri.

The wealth of the -Kongu Desom chiefly consisted of red chillies, turmeric, coriander, cumin seed, mustard, areca nut, etc. These commodities used to be brought for sale from Kongu Desom to Chittur, and other places in large quantities, laden on the backs of males, asses, bullocks and buffaloes. They took back paddy in return.

Some centuries ago, as it seems, a large caravan of Kongu laden with such commodities was passing through Chittur (headed to the Peruvambu market or thereabouts), the people of the 'four desams’ robbed the Kongans of all their animals and goods, or so said the Kongans. The people of these desams however disagreed with the explanation because what occurred in their version of events, was that a flash flood at the Sokanasini (Bharatapuzha) River had washed away this caravan while crossing a river. The Tamilians leading the caravan instead of stating the facts and blaming nature, chose to lay the blame on the poor villagers of Chittur.

Now there are some other sources mentioning that the Kongu king was actually waiting for such an opportunity to present itself (and so he twisted the story to suit his plans) so that he could attack and conquer these placid and fertile border areas.

The chief of Kongu, on receiving the information felt indignant, and despatched an ultimatum to the Pramanakkars of Chittur, demanding the surrender of the animals and the articles, failing which, it was said, he would overrun the four desams, destroy the houses, and kill all people including women and children. On receiving the ultimatum, the people went to the temple of the Goddess, and there read the ultimatum before the image of the Goddess. It was read by a member of the Chittedath house, in whose custody, it is said, the original document, written in a copper plate, is still preserved. When the document was read and the people prayed to their Goddess in one voice for protection, the Goddess commanded from within the temple that her ‘children’ need not fear and that when the Kongan took steps to enforce his ultimatum, she would protect them.

On receiving no reply to the ultimatum, the Kongan mobilized his men and crossed the Walayar River, the northern boundary of the Chittur Taluk. The information about the crossing of the boundary was first carried to the Chitturians by the Izhuvans of the vicinity, who were up the palmyra trees early in the morning for the purpose of tapping toddy, and they in a body climbed down the trees, and without removing their breast protecting leather straps, tapping knives, mallets and ladders, ran to the four desams all in excitement.

When the information of the crossing of the Walayar by the chief of Kongu was received by the people of the four desams, they repaired to the temple in excitement and consternation, when Lo!  the temple gates opened themselves and a beautiful female form dressed in full battle armor, brandishing a shining sword and shedding a resplendent divine light, suddenly emerged out of the image within and marched off to meet the advancing army of the Kongan, followed by all the brave men among the people. In the battle which ensued the Kongu king was but naturally defeated and killed by the all-powerful Chittur Bhagavati or Bhadrakali.

The place of engagement was some decades ago, marked by a small extent of rocky surface, on which is cut the figure of the Bhagavati’s sword with which the Kongan’s head was cut off. The rock also shows two holes nearly a foot in depth, and six inches in diameter. These holes are pointed out by old people as having been made by the hoofs of the forelegs of the Kongan’s mount, which is described as a magnificent buff-bull, when the animal jumped on to the rock in the excitement caused by the fall of its master from its back slain by the Goddess. The buff-bull was also slain on the spot. The whole of the Kongu army was completely routed, and they stampeded back to their country in utter confusion.

In the course of the battle a few men on the side of the Bhagavati were also killed or wounded, among whom were four, belonging to four ancient families in Chittur, who appear to have been the leaders of the local militia. The dead bodies of these four and the wounded were taken from the field of battle and carried to the town and handed over to the respective families, the procession being led by the Goddess who afterwards commanded the people to celebrate the victory every year, and after entering the temple disappeared into her image within.

The reenactment of the attack and its aftermath, is held on the Monday succeeding the Wednesday which follows new moon in the month of Kumbham (February-March) every year, the Sivarathri night. Let us now take a broad look at some of these rituals (some changes have occurred over time)
Chilambu - The first ritual is the Chilambu where the Nair chieftains receive the letter; gather at the kalari. They then perform a dance and try to appease the goddess. A couple of days after that, a kaniyar or an astrologer is called in to predict the outcome of the war and the festival.

Kummatti - After that comes the kummatti when young men and girls from across the village arrive to take blessings from the goddess and take a pledge to fight for their land. These warriors gather to proceed to the Poovathum Kavu, which is the battleground. At midnight, they come back to the temple in a procession. The fight begins when 101 firecrackers (kathinavedi) are burst. A procession starts from the temple with various groups of people decked out in a war like outfit. On the second day a flag is hoisted to indicate their preparedness for war. In the evening, they set out for war. This is called 'Arippathattu".

All the people assemble at the temple. After three popgun shots, the procession starts. Clad in silk, wearing gold ornaments and trinkets and with a shining sword in hand, the Velichappadu (oracle) goes in front while the people, full of exultation follow him with torches held aloft. At midnight the procession returns to the temple with elephants and chariots.

Kuttikolam - Small girls are dressed up as boys and small boys are dressed up as girls and taken around on the shoulder of their fathers or uncles.

Olavayana - Reading of the Ola - The reading of the ultimatum, transcribed in a piece of cadjan, before the Bhagavati, is one of the essential functions performed on the night of the Kongapada festival every year, and it is always done by a member of the Chittedath family, who dresses himself up in the fashion of a Kongan and acts the part of the Kongu chief.

Advance warning enactment- The advance portion of the day procession of the Kongapada festival is even to this day made up of a number of persons, mostly of the Chetti caste, belonging to the four desams, dressed up in the full toddy-tapping kit of the Izhuvans.

Battle enactment - This battle is enacted on the night of the Kongapada festival as one of its essential functions, accompanied by the beating of numerous Pariah drums, blowing of horns, racing of horses, torch-light processions, besides, of course, the usual mischief-making among the youngsters, but the elders generally control them and stop excesses. In the course of the sham fight, some act as the wounded, some even as the dead and fall down on the field of action. These dead and wounded are immediately taken up and carried by the youngsters to their supposed respective houses in the town accompanied with torch-lights, beating of drums, beating of breasts, and crying and weeping.

No outsider used to be allowed to take part in this sacred function. If an outsider, being possessed with any sudden fit of enthusiasm, attempts to take part in this function, it is said, ‘woe be to him.’

This mock battle function takes place at about 10 o’clock in the night and lasts for two or three hours. At the end of it, the night procession of the festival begins from the battle-field and moves through the Nayar quarters to the temple, where it reaches just before day-break, when there is a display of fireworks. After day-break, the chief of the place or Naduvazhi represented by the Chambath house, accompanied by the people, go to the Goddess’ temple to offer prayers of love and gratitude to the Bhagavati.

Winding down - The festival is wound up by a performance on the following night called ‘ Devendra pallu' in which all the “one hundred Nayars ” of Chittur are supposed to take part under the of the Srikandath Panikkar, whose family were the military instructors and militia leaders of the people of Chittur. The Panikkar’s duty is to train the youths of the 100 houses in the military arts. The performance referred to is, more or less, an exhibition of the bodily prowess of the youths trained by the Panikkar, and at the end of it he receives presents from the Naduvdzhi and one hundred fanams -one fanom for each house- from his pupils. The amount of one hundred fanoms is still paid to him every year, and is defrayed out of the collection made for the Kongapada festival for which the Panikkar’s family is exempted from the payment of all subscriptions. The training of the youths of the place is begun a few weeks before the Kongapada festival in the Kalari (military gymnasium) of the Srikandath Panikkar, and the Panikkar takes a prominent part in all the functions connected with the festival from beginning to end.

The Chittur Nooru Nair appellation points to the existence of the 100 nair families in Chittur naludesam during the event.  Chambath taravad as descendant of the utayvar or local ruler, Thachath, Ambath, Porayath and Yezhuvath taravad as four alliances of taravads addressed as Nalu Veetil Menon (or the four menon’s house) who act as managers. Achurath and Vaddachery taravad are believed to be ministers. Varavoor family who used to be the descendant of vellichapad or local Nayar priest.

And well, the story has an interesting end. The tired Bhagavathi finally settled down for some well-deserved rest on a rock. A few chalukiars lounging around, fortified her with some cooked meat and alcohol which she gladly imbibed, even though they were untouchables and low caste. This is called the Pallu enactment, reenacted by Nairs these days!

As one can imagine, there are a few other details, differences and versions if you go on to study other sources. They are quite relevant and so let us take a look. The name Chittur itself is somewhat recent. It was originally the Naludesam comprising Chittur, Nalleplli, Tattamangalam and Pattancheri. It is said that Tiruttil Achan, the ancestors of the Chandroth Mannadiar were the naduvazi of Naludesam. The western portion of naludesam was known in ancient days as Kodakaranad. The Kodakara Nair was ruling this nadu in those days. In addition, there are titular family names as Pattancheri Achen with pinpoints to the old desavazhis of Naludesam. The name Chittur might have been derived from the fact that the portion of the Anamalai River, which flows through this part, is known by the name Chittar.

A differing explanation is provided by some historians as follows - The Taluk once belonged to the territory of the Palghat Rajas. During this period or sometime in the past, the Kongu army (supported by the Mysore Wodeyars) entered Chittur through Velanthavalam. But the army was defeated by the Nedumperayur with the help of Eranad, Valluvanad and Perumpadappu armies. Chittur was later ceded to the Raja of Cochin for the assistance rendered by him. This supposition many not be quite true though.

A better analysis is provided by Valath. In his recounting of the story, during 71 ME, Rajadhiraja Cholan had sent out some of his surplus goods for sale across the gap. But the traders were unsuccessful since another gang had come just a little earlier and sold similar produce to the locals. After wandering around with no sales, they decided to move towards Pattancheri, crossing the Chittur river. A flash flood washed away a number of the bulls, their loads and people. The few who escaped hastened home and told their leader that they had been robbed by the Naludesam nairs. The Kongu chief came down with his army and camped at the Manali ground. A Paraya woman carried the message of ultimatum and laid it at the Bhagavati temple sanctum door. The priest informed the Chambath mannadiyar and everybody started to get ready for the battle. Many prayed to the goddess whose reply came as an ‘asariri’ confirming that she will take care of them. After the battle which ensued, the Devi washed her bloody sword or ‘val’ in the river (hence the name Walayar river) and relaxed at the ‘ootupara’ where she met the chalukiyars and imbibed their gift of meat and alcohol.

The present day celebration start with the Chilambu or proclamation act, followed by the oracle dance, variola reading, arangu prasnma, ammichari vedi, kummati, Nochi vadi, arippathattu, panan vela, namburi vela, asari vela, kolam,pada marichil, tozhi,  etc. The Palghat raja does come to make a survey the day after and that is the shekhari vela. More events have been added over time such as the father son vela, Malayan kothan vela etc…

Many believe that the Chola kings Aditya Varman generally overran a large part of South India about A.D. 894. Both Pandyans and Cholas then struggled for the mastery, and the latter appear to have driven back the Kongus or Gangas and so freed Kerala, for a time at least, from attack via the Palghat gap, In the Kollam year 93 A.D. (917-918) an expedition (probably of Kongus or Gangas) from Mysore was driven back when attempting an invasion of Kerala via the Palghat gap. Another important input is the existence of the Rajakesari Peruvazhi through the Palghat pass, to Cheranaad.  The inscription on the Thukkachi memorial stone, shows that a Tamil king Rajendra Chola I was involved in the upkeep and repairs of this highway leading to Chera Nadu.

Dating the event presents many a problem – Did it take place in 39ME or 864AD, 71 ME or 866 AD, or later as the Keralolpatti mentions, in the 93 ME or 917-918AD? Is it 896 AD as believed by NM Nampoothiri? Adding to the confusion is that there are so many more dates mentioned by various historians leading us to believe that many an incursion of skirmish took place and one of them was commemorated as the Kongan Pada event.

Strictly speaking the copper leaf ultimatum should have provided us details of the instigator and the time period. But the copper leaf is not available and instead two versions of the cadjun leaf – ola exist with differing dates. The dating is based on the kaliyuga and while one states a date of 1744795 roughly the equivalent of is the date between 1645 or 1648 A.D. equivalent Malayalam Era is Kollam 820 or 823 with the other 1459896 which is almost equivalent to 864 A.D. or ME 39. Interestingly both Olas mention Kochi. This is also quite different from the 71 ME mentioned in various sources.

There is a lot of argument about the usage of the term Kochi in the Ola held by the family, which signifies that Chittur was by then under the suzerainty of Kochi (not gifted after the kongan pada success). The Chittur kovilakom was apaprently the palace where the Amma thampurati of chitrakudam (Cochin Perumpadappu’s original seat was near Vanneri in ponnani) lived.  This kovilakom land was later acquired by the Chambath Mannadiyar. Also to be noted that new seat of the Preumbadappu swaroopam at Kochi as such came into vogue in 15th century (the Cochin dynasty lived in Perumbadappu until 1405). The Goda Varma of the 16th century was perhaps the kota arachar mentioned in the ola and that brings up the fact that it was not so ancient. The aspect of gifting areas to Perumabadappu, valluva konathiri and the Zamorin due to the victories over the kongu or Chola rulers was perhaps never connected, and were victories over a declining Palghat dynasty, but that is a subject we will revisit another day.

In fact KVK Ayyar mentions in one of his later papers thus - Tradition ascribes an invasion to Krishna Deva Raya, but it was repulsed by the Zamorin, who had by that time established his authority as far as Kollengode and Kanam. The next invasion through the Gap way was by Hiranyamurthi Pillai in 1721. He advanced as far as Chittur (in the present U. T. C.): but he was induced to withdraw by a judicious mixture of dana and danda, gifts and blows. The coming and going of the Kongu host are still celebrated in the annual event called Konguppada.

I have my own doubts about this offhand mention by KVK. The only other document which mentions Hiranyamurthi Pillai is by the doyen of Kongu history who after explaining Chera conquests and influence on the Kongu country also provides a description of the Kongan Pada. He starts of explaining that cattle raids were usually a prelude to Tamil warfare tactics. As years went by, attacks on merchants and their goods became the preliminary step. After such an incident, the reigning Kongu king Rajadhiraja (Sundarar?) ordered his minister Hiranyamurthi Pillai who prepared and delivered the ultimatum, to Chittur thorugh a paraya woman Arathi on the 17th of Kumbham in 71 Kollam era (896AD). The story follows the previous course and the place where the buffalo’s head falls is called Pottuadi parai.

One thing is clear, that such an event occurred much later than the 9th century, perhaps closer to the 16th or 17th century (1695 AD is the conclusion of Dr Gopalan Kutty) or even the 18th.There is another question which remains – if the original event took place during the monsoons in July, why is it re-enacted in Feb-March?? 

To conclude, we can only assume that Kongan pada festival perhaps commemorates a more local and separate incident from the past, perhaps closer to the 17th or 18th century when it was under Cochin suzerainty. I will however continue my studies on this topic and provide updates on this page if any...

But well, it is a festive occasion when the men, women and children of all nearby villages congregate to make merry and celebrate. That is the important thing, I suppose.

The Cochin tribes and castes – LK Ananthakrishna Ayyar
Kerala Gazetteers Palghat - CK Kareem
Handbook of Kerala – T Madhava Menon
Cochin State manual – C Achyutha Menon
Malabar Manual – W Logan
Aithihyamala – K Sankunni
Malabar Padanangal – Samoothirinaad – NM Nampoothiri
Kongan Pada, Onam, Toppi – Dr K Gopalankutty
Keralathile Sthalacharitrangal – Palghat – VVK Valath
Oral discussions and clarifications – S Rajendu
Discussions – Arun Narayanan Intach Palakkad
Relations between Malabar and the Tamils – CM Ramachandra Chettiyar (JOMGA Vol 6, 1931-32)
Nature and man in Kerala – KV Krishna Iyer (KM Panikkar shashtyabdapoorthy souvenir)
Maps - courtesy Google maps


Dec 2, 2018

The Travails of a Theban Lawyer

A Greek sailor’s trip to Malabar circa 355-363 AD

Deeply buried in the many layers of ancient history connected to the Malabar West Coast is the story of the Theban lawyer, one that has not been studied in detail as yet by Indian historians. It is an interesting story, but one which has so many contradictions within it that it is quite difficult to dredge out the bits of fact from a good amount of fiction. The problems arise when orally told tales are retold many times over and finally committed to text. Animals become dragons, men become ogres, women become mermaids and unimaginable acts are attributed to barbarian civilizations living far away. To pick up fragments of useful facts from such texts are, as one can imagine, quite tedious. Nevertheless, let us take a look at this adventurous tale which dates back to the beginnings of the Anno Domini era, but for that we have to start with a location in Roman Egypt, named Thebes.

Thebes known to the ancient Egyptians as Waset, was an ancient Egyptian city located east of the Nile about 400 miles south of Cairo, lying within the present day Egyptian city of Luxor on both the banks of the Nile, where the temples of Karnak and Luxor stand. The Assyrians were the first to pillage and plunder the wealthy city of Thebes around 667BC. The Greeks followed with Alexander in the lead but after a relatively peaceful period, successive revolts lay its population open to invasion by Rome. During the Roman occupation, Thebes became part of the Roman province of Thebais. The legend of the Theban legion, some 6000 Romans who converted enmasse to Christianity, if you recall, figures prominently in history. Following this there is indication of the presence of Diocletian’s Roman army in Luxor. Rome’s governance of Egypt was orderly, based on prefects, justice administrators, revenue officers and so on. The metropolis and their local officials shared in the burden of provincial government, especially as related to the transportation of supplies and collection of revenue. And importantly, the main produce of Egypt, that of prime importance to Rome was grain cultivation. More than all that, the Red Sea ports close by were the ones who conducted all the trade with erstwhile India, mainly the trade emporia on her western coast. It is also apparent that the author was not from Greek Thebes for it had lost all importance by then.

Roman legal practices were laborious and the classic law practices demanding and exact. One not keen on such a trade is prone to getting bored with that kind of thing and would but naturally not be able to scale its career ladder. Our hero was one such person, and he was getting tired of being a lawyer and as is evident, he was from the Scholasticus breed, a special class of trained civil servant and lawyers, created after the Emperor Diocletian’s time. Maybe he heard tales of wonder from the world yonder from sailors disembarking after perilous voyages to Malabar, braving the Hippalus monsoon winds.  He heard stories of immense wealth, practices of a land with strange people where spices were grown. Perhaps his imagination was stoked just enough, for he soon decided to forsake his tedious desk job and plan a trip to the land of spices.

We cannot yet be sure that his destination was a port in Malabar. That Rome conducted its trade mainly with Muziris south of Malabar is clear, we have discussed this at length, we discussed the famous Muziris Papyri some years ago. We also noted that winds did change course for long periods now and then and thus a number of Arabian sea ports appeared on India’s West Coast, each going on to become a favorite of a type of trader, all of which we discussed in a previous paper (Hubs of medieval trade) I had written.

The Greeks described Muziris in Periplus thus - Then come Naura and Tyndis, the first markets of Damirica (Limyrike), and then Muziris and Nelcynda, which are now of leading importance. Tyndis is of the Kingdom of Cerobothra; it is a village in plain sight by the sea. Muziris, of the same Kingdom, abounds in ships sent there with cargoes from Arabia, and by the Greeks; it is located on a river, distant from Tyndis by river and sea five hundred stadia, and up the river from the shore twenty stadia. Trade continued to peak with the Romans who followed Greeks though it declined from the mid-3rd century during a crisis period in the Roman Empire, but only to recover in the 4th century.

It was at this juncture that our man Thebes Scholasticus decided to take a trip to India. But before we get to his story let us see how his account comes to light. It appears that he narrated his story to an Egyptian Greek scribe named Palladius who added parts of it to his account of the Brahmins of India. I will not get into the details of why Palladius wrote about Brahmins, needless to say that their (i.e. the ancient chaste Brahmins) lives and methods were a source of immense curiosity since Alexander met some and took one home with him (see my article on Calanus).

What Palladius did was collect a lot of matter from here and there, which included narration from our lawyer and made a booklet titled ‘Palladius on the races of India and the Brahmans’. This booklet if perused in all seriousness would be an ‘avial’ of varying tales (mishmash of various vegetables cooked with coconut – a Kerala delicacy) and second hand information available from disembarking sailors and traders.

Three scholars took to studying the travails of our Theban lawyer in right earnest, the first being the English scholar Duncan Derrett. The second was the French historian Jehan Desanges and the third who studied the above papers and came up with a more detailed analysis was the eminent Sri Lankan Academic, the late Prof DPM Weerakkody. As for me, I am just the lucky person who laid hands on these carefully worked papers and am presently trying to make some sense of all that with a Malabar point of view.

That said, Derrett documenting his findings in 1962, lays his theory on why this Theban lawyers voyage could be dated to the 4th century, and goes on to narrow the travel dates down to 355-363AD. He then establishes that since there is a mention of the land where pepper grows in the text, the destination was Malabar. But there were a number of contradictions too, and these aspects will be looked into a bit later (Note: The main translation of the Greek Palladius text used here, is the one provided by Berghoff).

To get to Malabar in his days, it appears that he had to go to a Red Sea port called Adulis. Covering parts of what is now northern Ethiopia and southern and eastern Eritrea, Aksum was deeply involved in the trade network between India and the Mediterranean (Rome, later Byzantium), exporting ivory, tortoise shell, gold and emeralds, and importing silk and spices. Starting around 100 BC a route from Egypt to India was established, making use of the Red Sea and using monsoon winds to cross the Arabian Sea directly to southern India. The Kingdom of Aksum was ideally located to take advantage of the new trading situation. Adulis soon became the main port for the export of local goods, such as ivory, incense, gold, slaves, and exotic animals. From Adulis, a caravan route to Egypt was established which bypassed the Nile corridor entirely and allowed for goods to reach North Egypt and Alexandria for further movement to consumer centers in Europe. Adulis incidentally, lies 40 miles to the south of the modern day port city of Massawa and near the village of Foro, a sub-zone of Zula in Eritrea. It lies south of Bernice which was also famous for its Indian connections.

And so our man decided to go to Malabar and went to Adulis where there existed a trading Indian community which had its own chieftain. He learned a bit of their language and next decided to sail on to Taprobane or Ceylon. One could of course wonder why he chose Ceylon, though it was well known, it was not yet on the trading map of that era, perhaps he thought he could make a killing, become famous and rich as a pioneer with Ceylon trade. That decision it appears and we shall soon see, was to become a reason for his downfall.

Anyway he found passage in an Indian vessel. An extract from a translation of his original account in Greek, tells us the following. In the company of a "Presbyter" he sailed along and touched in first at Adulis (on the Abyssinian coast), and then at Axume, "where there was even a minor kinglet of the Indians in residence there. There he spent some time and gained a deep acquaintance with them and he wanted to go to the island of Taprobane also where the so-called Macrobioi live.

Let’s stop here for a while since the Theban goes on to explain that the Macrobioi have a long life span of upto 150 years. Was he planning on establishing contact with the Macrobioi to learn their longevity secrets? I can only assume he did not, as a typical lawyer, believe that longevity was due to the oft mentioned reason of the islands salubrious climate and gods will.

The account goes on to mention the 1,000 odd magnetic islands enroute which prevents boats with iron nails from passing and allows only boats using wooden pegs or nails for fastening. He details the island of Taprobane which he has heard about, which had coconut trees, arecanut trees, that they lived on rice, fruit and milk, and had goats. They wear skins round their middles.  The island has no pigs and has five large rivers. All stuff he had heard and most seem right from what we can imagine. But how come he never reached there? Let us continue to pick the threads of the Theban tale for here is where hell breaks loose and the descriptions falls apart…

Continuing on - He found some Indians going by ship from Axume for the purpose of trade, and he tried to get further east. He reached the neighborhood of the people called "Bisadae", the pepper gatherers. That people is very small and weak, they live in caves and the rock and are capable of making their way on precipices because of their acquaintance with the locality, and that is how they gather pepper from the bushes, for the bushes are also stunted as that scholasticus said. The Bisadaes too are stunted little fellows with big hands, unshaven and lank-haired. The rest of the Ethiopians and Indians are black, upstanding fellows and bristly-haired.

Now let’s stop and think. He has sailed with the Indians to reach a pepper gathering locale where tribals deliver the pepper grown in the highlands. Derrett believes it could have been Porkkad or Baccare (Vaikkarai) but the latter could be ruled out since we are talking about pepper which was cultivated only on the west of the Western Ghats. It could also have been any other port but not Muziris, a train of reasoning which we will soon come to terms with.

We see that the Theban lawyer is arrested as soon as he lands. Perhaps the companions of the lawyer explained to the local chieftain that this fellow was planning to move on to Ceylon and had other ulterior motives such as establishing a parallel trading outpost, perhaps it was to usurp their secret to longevity. Anyway he is arrested.

Then, he said, “I was arrested by the local ruler and was tried for daring to enter their country. They did not accept my defense since they did not know the language of our country, nor did I understand the charges they brought against me, for I did not know their language either, but simply by the twisting of the eyes we communicated with each other in recognizable gestures. I came to recognize their accusing remarks from the bloodshot color of their eyes and the savage grinding of their teeth, and guessed the meaning of what they said from their movements. On the other hand, from my trembling and anguish and the paleness of my face, they clearly realized my pitiable state of mind through my physical trepidation."

So I was arrested and was a slave among them for six years, handed over to work in the bake-house. The amount spent by their king was one modius of corn for his whole palace, and I don’t know where it came from. And so, in these six years I was able to interpret a great deal from their language and hence I have got to know the neighboring tribes besides.

I was released from there in the following way: Another king made war on the one who kept me captive, and accused him before the great king who resides in the island of Taprobane, of taking prisoner an important Roman and keeping him in the basest servitude. The king sent a judge, and upon learning the truth of the matter, ordered him to be flayed alive, for doing injury to a Roman, for they respect and fear the Roman Empire very much, thinking that it could even invade their country because of its supreme courage and inventive skill.

With this the Theban bows out from the Palladius text, leaving behind intriguing questions. Where did the ship take the Theban to? Who are the stunted tribal people? Would a Roman be put on kitchen duty for six years, even after he is said to have learnt the local language? Who is the great king of Taprobane and what relations did Ceylon kings have with Malabar or other nearby states? Who are the Besadae? Why is corn mentioned as a meal component in a Malabar palace? Is public flaying a method of punishment in Malabar and thereabouts? What was the local norm of justice considering the Theban was arrested straightaway? Why were the locals or for that matter the great king at Taprobane fearful of the Romans? Why did the Theban not sail on to Taprobane after release? How did he return to Thebes? Was the location on the Eastern side perhaps a place like Puhar where Romans were often destined? Or further up the Bay of Bengal? Let’s now get to the answers.

While Desanges believes the location where the Theban lawyer ended up was close to Assam, mainly due to the mention of the location Bisadae (and the Mekong valley dwarfs), it is more probable that he was captured by one of the hill or forest tribes of ancient Malabar and imprisoned by them. Perhaps he strayed too deep inland to discover the secrets of pepper growing and was picked up by this tribe. Larger principalities had more organized legal structures, were more hospitable to foreigners and punishment such as flaying of the king himself is unlikely. The use of corn is very strange, and there is no mention of rice. This also indicates that he was imprisoned in a remote tribe where they probably used root flour, that too on occasions. The modium measure is approximately a bushel or 15kg, not very much for a large palace kitchen, so it must have been a smaller principality.

There is another aspect to be kept in mind. The train of the Theban lawyer’s discourse is actually interrupted by Palladius and it is Palladius who brings up a description of the Bissadae. The Theban lawyer himself does not mention that he was with the Bissadae, it was an inference by Palladius.

The great king in Taprobane is another misnomer and does not connect up to any event in Cheranaad or Tamilakam. Desanges connects it to the Gupta era from the time of Samudragupta who he believes, was sovereign of both Assam and of the Sinhala people. Though Ceylon was a tributary of sorts, Samudragupta was certainly not resident in Ceylon. Derrett believes it was a Pandyan emperor who was temporarily resident in Ceylon. Weerakkody explains that a ruler named Pandu did indeed attack Lanka in the 5th century (not the 4th) and he slayed the king of Sri Lanka to assume sovereignty. He adds - The Mahavamsa calls him a Tamil (Damila), and later Sinhala traditions call him a Cola. But his name suggests Pandyan nationality.

But then again, there was another connection between a king of Lanka and Malabar, during the Chera rule dating to a couple of centuries earlier. We have knowledge of a certain king called Gajabahu, often identified with Gajabahu, king of Sri Lanka (2nd century CE), who was present at the Pattini festival at Vanchi. But for one of them to get involved in the release of a Roman Egyptian lawyer confined in a hill tribe is very strange. Nevertheless it is not an easy connection for one to come up with, so should have been a real happening. But what if a Chera King was temporarily resident in Lanka at that time? It could be so, though there is only an obtuse possibility reinforced by the use of the ancient term Cherantivu for Lanka (Lanka was known as "Cerantivu' - island of the Cera kings).

That the lawyer strayed into remote territory is clear for there was a presence of Romans not only in the Muziris region, but also near Puhar on the East coast, if at all it was on the other side. His release after six years thus becomes somewhat of a mystery and we have no record of his return home. What could have happened is that a local king sent his emissary to check and had the tribal leader flayed, and the prisoner released.

The lawyer was obviously distraught, and dropped his plans to travel to Taprobane. While one could question in retrospect if such a travel did indeed take place or if such a character existed, most accademics are clear that the language and wording of the original text signify that they did. Perhaps the connection to Taprobane could have been added by Palladius since he must have had some vested interest in suggesting prospective trade links to Taprobane. This story alludes to a potential Roman friendly king who lived there, or for that matter a king who feared Romans and would submit to them.

I should also add here that the entire work of Palladius was actually a submission to somebody much higher up, so Palladius must have been trying to point out that Taparobane is a place to consider for future trade! It is also to be recalled that the Romans were spending a lot of bullion on the India trade and any possibility of cost reduction would have been of interest.

Then again, the entire work of Palladius is in two parts with the first part detailing the Theban lawyer’s voyage was actually setting the stage – explaining the voyage, the risks and the terrain etc and leading on to the second part which covers the Brahmans of India, their ways and philosophy.
A keen reader might ask – How come the Romans, who had dared to endure the rigors and perils of a long voyage to South India, never continued their ventures to Ceylon? The obvious explanation has always been that the South Indian kingdoms effectually prevented and prohibited western merchants from trading directly with the island. But it is also possible that the Romans did not feel the need to go all the way to Sri Lanka as long as its products could be obtained easily and abundantly in the marts of India.

Weerakkody actually comes up with a plausible explanation and points to the 5th century Pandu period - The rise of the Sassanids in Persia and the revival of trade under the Byzantine emperors was matched by the growth in prosperity of Southern China, which now began to increasingly demand the luxury articles that came from the West by sea. Meanwhile, the Western Roman Empire became increasingly harassed by the barbarian invasions. There grew a fresh demand for pearls, spices, and precious stones. The South Indian merchants, who traditionally supplied these commodities to the western merchants, or rather their Axumite middlemen, must have been pressed increasingly for supplies; and it is natural that they should have taken to exploring and exploiting fresh sources. It is probably here that one should look for the background and the purpose of the occupation of Sri Lanka by Pandu and his successors in the mid fifth century A. D. The invaders ruled from Anuradhapura, but their interests penetrated far beyond the northern kingdom.

Derrett’s conclusion is that this was a commercial reconnaissance venture which went wrong. He suggests that the Theban's mission, a commercial reconnaissance, met with reactions on the part of the Axumites amounting to non-cooperation, and on the part of Malabar to downright hostility, preventing his entry into Sri Lanka, which was now becoming a rich entrepot for spices, and resulting in his six year captivity. The king in control of Malabar and Sri Lanka (whom Dérrett assumes to be a Pandya, despite his fourth-century dating of the episode) ordered the Theban's release and the severe punishment of his captor, a local sub-king, from a desire not to disturb relations with Rome and the commercial advantages that had accrued therefrom.

Or it could all be as Beverly Berg muses - No Greek traveler to India came back without a few tall tales, and the Theban scholasticus is no exception. The story of his capture and six years of slavery, working for the local king, is charming and sounds genuine in its simplicity, but captivity was a common romantic motif of the period. The scholasticus may have twisted his experiences a good deal to give his story a romantic plot somewhat like that of Iamboulos islands of the Sun story….

All of this took us back to a time when travel was risky and hugely adventurous. Today the world is at your fingertip, virtually on the computer screen. More developments will come by to make it all even more realistic, but I can assure you that it will be nowhere near what these pioneers experienced. No knowing what was to come, not knowing where you were going, not knowing what to expect and then at the end coming back to narrate that tale to wild eyed listeners. And that is why I love travel and travel a lot….

The Theban Scholasticus and Malabar in c. 355-60: J. Duncan M. Derrett, Journal of the American Oriental Society.
D'axoum à l'assam, aux portes de la chine: le voyage du scholasticus de thèbes (entre 360et 500 après j.c.). Jehan Desanges
Adventures of a Theban lawyer on his way to Sri Lanka: D. P. M. Weerakkody
The letter of Palladius on India: Beverly Berg
Taprobane - D. P. M. Weerakkody
Sri Lanka and the Roman Empire - D. P. M. Weerakkody

Related blogs (click on text to get to the article)

Nov 17, 2018

The Story Of TERLS

TERLS (Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station) – Its genesis

One of our pastimes while at school in Kazhakootam was to go out and watch the rocket launches from nearby Thumba. The clear line of sight from the hills where the Sainik School was located in Kazhakootam allowed us to see those Sodium vapor trails and take our imagination high and sometimes beyond space. Often we would think about the people behind the launch and on weekends, we would hire cycles by the hour to ride out to frolic in the beaches close by and even cycle down to Veli and go close to Pallithua in Thumba. TERLS (later VSSC) and the many other associated organizations and their special staff buses were always around, and were a part of our growing up years. I thought it would be fun to go down that memory lane and dreg out the story of the launch station and the involvement of stalwarts like Bhaba, Sarabhai and so many others who played their parts in its development.

Some years back, I had written about the scientific importance of Travancore while musing about Swati Tirunal and his observatory. We talked about the magnetic equator and why it is important, but I will review it again. The magnetic equator if you did not know passes through N Travancore, and in the 50’s it was close to Quilon (now Kollam), but one which had been meandering a bit South or North over the years. The line joining all the points on earth where the magnetic needle remains flat or horizontal is called the magnetic equator. The magnetic equator differs significantly from the geographic equator. The magnetic equator passes close to Quilon in India, a little north of Trivandrum, Nigeria, Guinea, Brazil, parts of Malaya and Philippines and finally Peru in South America. Its strongest magnetic section lies between India and Borneo. Directly above the magnetic equator, at altitudes of around 110 km in the atmosphere, exists a system of electric currents. Known as the equatorial electro jet, this has always fascinated scientists. The closer you are to the magnetic equator, the better placed you are to study the electro jet. In the early 1960s, there were very few places in the world close to the magnetic equator with adequate infrastructure to support research in this field, Travancore was one.

You know, the Trivandrum in the 70’s was a sedate place. We could cycle out from Kazhakootam to Trivandrum without difficulty. There were not too many vehicles even on the NH 47 highway and the roads within the city were not so difficult to traverse. English movies would come to Sreekumar and Hindi at Apsara. You could walk from Palayam through the university and the stadium to Statue junction, browse at the British council library, trek down the Ayurveda college junction and bypassing the over bridge, down to Thampanur where the railway and bus stations were located. Or you could trudge straight off past the Pazhavangadi Ganapati temple, Sreekandeswaram, the E Fort, the Padmanabha swami temple and end up at the Chalai bazar. You could walk in peace, drink a bonch (lime juice) from a roadside shop or thattu kada if one got thirsty. Even though the food scene was pretty good, be it veg or non veg, the VRR and the NVRR at the railway station stood tall for the connoisseur.

The richer sect would be sipping their drinks at the clubs around Sasthamangalam or at the Mascot hotel. Outsiders would be camped at some of the star hotels in Kovalam where one could spot bikini clad madamma’s and shorts clad sayips. Meander on and you would see lads sitting on low walls, smoking a Charminar or Scissors cigarettes, eyeing lassies passing by and making unwanted comments, especially near the women’s college environs (then sans the tough Louise Ouwerkerk who was once its principal)! In general it was a clean and disciplined place, except when the red flags came out and strikes, morchas, jathas or sit downs were announced, all converging near the secretariat.

Kazhakootam was considered a faraway place by the city crowd and home only to the sainikam’s (the Sainik school cadets). I presume most people had forgotten the ‘ettuveetil pillamar’ by that time, for one of them had been the lord of Kazhakootam. This was all in the 70’s, so now try imagining the Trivandrum of the 60’s!

If one had to start at the very beginning, you should not start with Vikram Sarabhai like most people would. You would actually start with Homi Bhaba. But I will get into his story another day, suffice to state for now that fortunately for us, Bhaba’s and Sarabhai’s life stories crossed when they both returned to India and pursued their scientific interests at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore.  Later, while Bhaba returned to work in his field of Nuclear physics, at Bombay, well-funded by the Tata’s at TIFR, Sarabhai went on to establish the PRL at Ahmedabad, his home town, in order to work on Cosmic rays. The high flying Bhaba quickly established close connections not only at home with Prime Minister Nehru, but also with many eminent scientists all over the globe.

Travancore’s magnetic equator was known already to researchers across the globe. You must note here that in order to study cosmic rays, India is indeed a great location and many a scientist came over just to do that, be it in the southern regions closer to the magnetic equator or the higher altitude locations closer to Kashmir. When RA Millikan, a renowned scientist came over to do some studies in the 40’s, both Bhaba and Sarabhai worked with him, sometimes even borrowing American war planes docked in Bangalore, to fly at high altitudes of 10,000 meters for those tests.  Interestingly Sarabhai had just gotten married and took Mallika along with him to Kashmir during these tests!

Their rapport grew, so also their access to the top educational and research institutions across the globe, generating tremendous goodwill from many top researchers and scientists. Above all, both these brilliant men would teach as visiting professors in elite universities for short periods, providing much exposure to young talent of Indian origin studying there.

During 1954, Sarabhai continued his tests after installing a neutron monitor in Trivandrum. And then it was sometime in 1959 that NASA opened its doors to international cooperation and it made an offer to cooperate in space research with those nations who did not already have a mature space program. In India, the NPL with Krishnan in Delhi had spearheaded India’s space interests, but Sarabhai with his vast connections in France, USA, UK and the USSR found favor with NASA, mainly by working through his friend and mentor, Homi Bhaba who incidentally had by this time become the head of the DAE or Department of Atomic energy. How all that worked out is an interesting story by itself, with a space race of sorts happening in the background between India and Pakistan.

Sarabhai took the initiative by deciding to meet NASA scientists while on a trip to the MIT in the USA. He had two proposals, the first was to create a US - Indian ‘sounding rocket’ program from a launch facility in India near the geomagnetic equator. The idea was that NASA should provide much of the equipment while India would provide the location and the manpower. The second proposal was to have NASA help India establish and operate a satellite tracking and telemetry station. The plan projected Travancore’s unique geographical position, the sounding rocket proposal to study scientific phenomenon over the geomagnetic equator and the telemetry station to ‘close’ gaps in tracking satellites. NASA countered that they would like to discuss these matters with a focused and funded space organization in India rather than Sarabhai’s PRL, a private organization. Krishnan’s NPL did exist but somewhat conveniently for Sarabhai, Krishnan died suddenly and there were only Bhaba and Sarabhai left for NAS to discuss matters with. Nehru provided direction by hinting that if space were to be a priority for India, it would have to be somehow linked to its affluent and influential atomic energy program.

Sarabhai’s PRL was quickly acquired and merged with the DAE which was already well known to the US. By then, the USA had sold 21 tons of heavy water to the DAE, donated books for a library on nuclear energy, and trained and financed over 200 Indians in various nuclear energy facilities in the United States, all through Bhaba’s DAE.

Bhaba was the next to meet up with NASA next in the fall of 1961, visiting Wallops Island. The Americans were a bit reluctant to give rockets to India, quoting a lack of military cooperation between the two countries, unlike Pakistan. Quoting Siddiqui - As a gesture of cooperation, Frutkin agreed to seriously explore the possibility of helping India set up a rocket range. The plan to set up such an organization was already in the offing when Bhabha was being shown through NASA facilities in November but came to fruition early in 1962. The so-called Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) was officially set up on 10 February 1962 on the recommendation of the Prime Minister’s SACC headed by Bhabha. To lead INCOSPAR, Bhabha appointed the only logical choice, Vikram Sarabhai from PRL.

In 1961, The UN also got involved in the dissemination of space related technology with the establishment of COPUOS, then listing 28 nations including India, was given a charter which essentially centered on ‘encouragement and facilitation [of space activities] rather than operation.
Of course, behind all this there was the influence of the cold war - the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations gradually enacted a more proactive intervention into India’s efforts to create a space program, driven by the twin and intertwined fears that India would gradually move closer to the Soviet bloc if not helped by the Americans, or that India would develop an atomic bomb if not diverted into space by the Americans.

NASA had found the idea of establishing a ‘facility for launching of sounding rockets near the geomagnetic equator most desirable,’ especially to study ‘high energy neutrons emitted from the sun during periods of great solar activity and suggested launching sodium vapor payloads built by Indians, to very high altitudes. By tracking the trails of the released (and colored) sodium vapor, scientists would be able to investigate the properties of the upper atmosphere near the geomagnetic equator. NASA would provide the rockets, training for scientists, and additional personnel while INCOSPAR would provide the scientific payloads for both experiments, personnel to operate equipment, and, of course, the launch site.

With the help of American representatives, Sarabhai orchestrated the creation of a working group (one of the three) on the establishment of an international rocket launch facility near the equator. Sarabhai’s proposal of making a UN sponsored facility in India was hastily approved by the Indian government within a span of 2 months. Nehru told the Indian parliament that ‘India has agreed to have a rocket launching station on her territory under U.N auspices for international use’ but that ‘only Indian scientists would carry out the work of the station.

One can always wonder about the haste and detect quickly Pakistani activities which had progressed farther, by then. In fact, as soon as the UN sub-committee announcement for the need for an equatorial launch site was made public, Pakistan (its pioneer was Nobel laureate Abdus Salam – who ironically had failed a mechanical test required by the railway engineers to gain a commission in Indian Railways, and moreover they decided that Salam was too young to compete for the job. He later attended Cambridge with Sarabhai!) announced that it wanted to host the program basing its claim on SUPARCO’s advanced program in cooperation with NASA. They had by June 1961, already launched two Nike-Cajun sounding rockets supplied by NASA (‘Rehbar I’ and ‘Rehbar II’) successfully from Sonmiani, about 56 km northwest of Karachi. Salam also informed NASA that he planned to invite Indian scientists to attend a Space Science symposium to be held in Pakistan the following March in 1962.

A frantic project was launched to zoom in and locate potential sites for the rocket launches. In July 1962, EV Chitnis, a student of Vikram Sarabhai was deputed to make a short list of locations near the magnetic equator. After 200 odd sorties in a Dakota plane, he boiled it all down to a couple of locations.

Now if one were to ask me if Sarabhai’s wife had a hand in all these during the 40’s (they got married in 1942), I would say No! for Sarabhai knew about the magnetic equator even before he met Mallika in the 40’s. Sarabhai was so much taken into Cosmic ray studies would have known about Caldecott and his magnetic experiments during his younger days.But, I can be sure they discussed Travancore, for Mrinalini was from nearby Malabar, the sister of Lakshmi Seghal and a daughter of Calicut’s Ammu Swaminathan. 

When the decision came to choose a single locale, Sarabhai invited two NASA representatives, R.G. Bivins, Jr. and Robert T. Duffy, and Laurence J. Cahill, Jr., the cosmic ray physicist from the University of New Hampshire. Later, Duffy and Cahill personally visited a number of the potential sites in Kerala; the consensus choice was a location within a 25-km radius around the town of Quilon (now Kollam) on the coast, partly because Professor Cahill determined that the center of the equatorial electro-jet is above a point very close to Quilon in Kerala. This was the Vellana thuruthu (White Elephant sandbar) location near Karunagapalli. Thumba was the second choice, and the Americans opined that it was too far from the electrojet.

The final choice between Thumba and Karunagapalli was debated for over two months. Sarabhai affirms that the first choice locale at Vellanathuruth was axed due to its very name and the prospect of it becoming a national joke should things not pan out! PR Pisharody from Palghat who was part of the discussions, recalled - I said: "Vellanathuruthu means `the sandbar of the white elephant." ``Pisharody, why do you want to annoy me?'' asked Sarabhai. "I'll not have it here at any cost! No white elephant. The Government will not like it, the United Nations will not like it. We won't get it through. I can't. Shift it. Find another place."

Thumba (Thumba, they say, gets its name from a medicinal plant with white flowers which once grew in abundance there) was formally chosen in Nov 62 as it satisfied important criteria laid by the sponsors. An airport close by at Trivandrum, the low population density near Trivandrum (both from a safety perspective as well as relocation of people who once lived in that fishing hamlet) and the possibility of quick rescues from the sea in case of booster failures. The intent if you recall was to launch sounding rockets to study the atmosphere, for astronomical studies, metrology and ionospheric studies.

There were other important reasons discussed from the Indian perspective. At that point of time, India was facing famines and were importing food under the US PL480 scheme. Studying the monsoon and its vagaries was also high on the list. As you all know, Trivandrum is where the SW monsoon makes its onset over India. So Thumba was ideal from that aspect too. A person responsible for getting it through the government bureaucracy was Lakshmi Menon (Refer my article on her if you want to get to know her), she too encouraged and supported the setting up of the ISRO in her home state of Kerala. Pattom Thanupillai was the Chief Minister (in 1962) and his interest was to have a place of importance in his capital.

The site selected at Thumba lay between the railway line and the sea coast, covering a distance of about two and a half km and measuring about 600 acres. The three persons who did much to assuage the angst among the local population about to be displaced were the local bishop Rev Peter Bernard Pereira, the Bishop of Trivandrum Victor Vincent Dereere (a Belgian) and the district collector Madhavan Nair. Then again, the fisher folk did not want their church to become a workshop as Sarabhai had originally planned, they eventually settled on allowing its use as a library. Kalam mentions that the prayer room was his first laboratory, while the bishop's room was his design and drawing office. It is believed that the church was originally built by St Xavier after the Parava conversions, later becoming the Magdalene church after a Magdalene statue was washed ashore.

Even though the locale had been decided and construction of the infrastructure had started, things were not easy for Sarabhai. Import difficulties meant that some equipment could not be brought in from the USA. The French CNES agreed to help based on Blamont’s special relationship with Sarabhai. Federov from the Russian Hydro Meteorological Service helped with vibration tables and a helicopter. NASA would provide four Nike-Cajun and nine Nike-Apache rockets, respectively, for each experiment, plus launch trailers, cameras and so on. A number of engineers were trained in NASA, such as R. Aravamudan and D.Easwardas from the DAE’s research center at Trombay; Pramod Kale, A.S. Prakasa Rao, and B. Ramakrishna Rao, all from PRL in Ahmedabad; and A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, a brilliant young engineer from the Aeronautical Development Establishment in Bangalore. There was also H.G.S. Murthy who had just gotten his doctorate from the University of Minnesota where Blamont had been based. Interestingly, they were all trained together with a batch of Pakistani scientists. Eventually, they all returned to India in 1963, ready for the first rocket launch. The facility was called the Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station or TERLS.

I don’t believe any of the returnees were ready for Trivandrum or the primitive facilities at Thumba, after their comfortable tenure at NASA in America. Yes, they had cultural difficulties in the US, but well, it was no different for them in Trivandrum. Perhaps Kalam adjusted quickly, but the others took a while to adjust to the Kerala food and manners. Some Americans accompanied them too, namely Reginald R. Hindle and James F. Andrews, to help with the preparations, as well as a few other NASA employees from its main office in Washington, DC.

Their stay at the Indira Bhavan lodge near the secretariat, their experiments with Kerala food at the railway restaurant - Thampanoor, their riding around in bicycles to go places and get things done, their preparations of launch vehicles and rockets with payloads on the rear carrier and so on have been gleefully recounted in many newspaper articles, especially as connected to Abdul Kalam who went on to become India’s president after a great professional career and spending many years of his life at Thumba.

Ramabhadran (Dan) explains - In the early days, before the Gulf boom, anybody wearing a pant and shirt in Trivandrum was presumed to be a ‘Rocket man’ as the locals wore only a ‘mundu’ (dhoti) and baniyan (vest),”. Kalam would occasionally saunter along to Xavier hotel for his egg roast. “The church was the only solid building. The rest were fishermen’s thatched-roof shelters. So amidst pigeons, sweltering heat, humidity, constant power failures and non-existent roads we set to work to achieve Sarabhai’s catch-phrase plan of ‘leapfrogging technologies’.”  The Europeans after a series of failures had luckily decided to abandon their plan to build an all-European Satellite Launch vehicle. They were scrapping their brand-new satellite tracking and telemetry stations in Australia when Sarabhai sent ‘Buddy’, Murthy and Dan to lay our hands on the equipment. We got them at 10 per cent of the original cost.

Geeta, his wife adds - We would go in the evenings to the Rocket Recreation Club (opposite the Raj bhavan) which Dan and Kalam and some other pioneering young men had set up in an old colonial bungalow called Ingeldine. They enthusiastically converted it into a club with two badminton courts, a table tennis table and a room for cards players. Kalam, like the rest of us, was an enthusiastic badminton player.

On 21st Nov 1963, the first sounding rocket was launched. Many others have written about the great difficulties the group faced in getting the rocket to launch, so I won’t spend too much time on it. It was a fabulous event, but regrettably it did not get too much coverage outside India, with JF Kennedy’s unfortunate assassination occurring the very next day.

On 4 January 1964, a six-member team from the United Nations, representing its Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, arrived on a week-long visit at Sarabhai’s invitation to inspect whether the facilities at Thumba were suitable for official UN sponsorship. The team unanimously recommended to the UN that India’s offer be accepted. This was obviously a blow to the other nations who had been vying for this blessing, particularly, Brazil, Italy, Argentina, and especially, Pakistan. Another factor was enthusiastic support from the Americans, French, and Soviet delegations – especially the Soviets – who saw India rather than Pakistan as a more favorable spot for this kind of activity. On 21 December 1965, at the 20th Session of the UN General Assembly, the international body passed a resolution officially bestowing UN sponsorship of the Indian facility. In return, India offered to dedicate TERLS to the United Nations as a goodwill gesture.

If Thumba and TERLS was a fulfilled dream of Sarabhai, his relationship with Mrinalini suffered, a story which is a sad and complicated one. Bhaba had passed away in 1966, in a mysterious plane crash over Switzerland, Vikram had been tasked with so many more responsibilities. While things were outwardly looking up for TERLS, Sarabhai was under great stress due to a multitude of reasons, his departure from the family chemical business, the issues and rivalry at the DAE with Homi Sethna, his own relationship with Kamala Choudhry and its effects on the running of IIM-A, as well as the creation of ISRO. His special relationship with Indira Gandhi was also trending south. Unfortunately, Sarabhai passed away suddenly in a hotel at Kovalam, an event which is still discussed by those who believe it was unnatural.

After the death of Dr. Vikram Sarabhai on December 30, 1971, TERLS was renamed as VSSC or the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in his honor. The international community also named a crater on the moon after him.

Years later the Indian President Kalam hosted Geetha Aravamudan at the Rose garden in the Rashtrapati Bhavan premises at Delhi and she recounted - Those were wonderful days again when we relived our Trivandrum youth while walking in the Rose Garden or sitting next to the musical fountain sipping the “bonji” he had got specially made. He even served fried potatoes in a small dinner he hosted for us and proudly told me he had taught the cooks to make it the way he liked it.

ISRO a Personal History – Ramabhadran and Geeta Aravamudan
Vikram Sarabhai – Amrita Shah
Science, geography, and nation: the global creation of Thumba - Asif A. Siddiqi
From fishing hamlet to red planet – PV Manoranjan Rao and others
Wings of fire – APJ Abdul Kalam
Almost all the inputs for this article comes from the first three of the references below. Siddiqi’s paper covers much ground and provided many an original input.

Nov 5, 2018

November 05, 2018

Diwali, Bali and Onam

Diwali, Bali and Onam

Their esoteric connections

Diwali is around the corner. But what is it really about? Which legend started the celebration? Why is it that Malayalis do not celebrate Diwali? What are the stories associated with this grand festival? How did the stories evolve? So many questions, I guess…but if you start at the very beginning, you can make some sense of it all. Let’s try.

Navarathri poojas had been underway in most parts of India, including Kerala. Out there in Pallavur, the seven day festival has just concluded, the furious drum beats have subsided to the sporadic taps during the sheeveli, Sridharan has perhaps settled into his well-earned vacation (nowadays he is a busy man, with a yearly sojourn to America conducting, teaching and performing with the Chenda in USA) and making sure his understudy’s were hard at work practicing on their own. The 10 day festivities after nine nights will culminate with Dussera and the next celebration to follow (some 21 days later) is the festival of lights or Deepavali (shortened or anglicized to Diwali) when chirags arrayed all around the house will be filled with oil, and the wicks lit by the children of the family. Sweets will be eaten, games will be played, bright dresses will be worn, songs will be sung, firecrackers will be burst and gods will be venerated. Very popular, Diwali is by now recognized as some kind of a national festival of India. Usually considered a joyous harvest festival, and a celebration of the triumph of good over evil, it is most commonly linked in the North of India with the return of the victorious Rama from Lanka, having defeated Ravana and rescued his beloved Sita.

But eons ago, it had nothing to do with Ramayana or Durga or such well accepted legends followed today. And to check it out one has to go way back, to the most original verses of Rig Veda which can variously be dated to as early as 2000BC or more commonly to 1500BC, well before the advent of Mahabharata, Ramayana and so on, which are relatively modern epics with many new gods and characters. Like everything else, as time elapsed, a number of new concepts merged with the practices of the ancient to create what we consider as Hinduism today. Brahmanism, Vaishnavism and Saivism made their impact and the advent of each resulted in insertion of bits and pieces to the epics and works we peruse today. This complex process took over 3,000 years and it is virtually difficult to trace out the details, a task left to such researchers specializing in theology. An orally passed on set of verses lost their sync (as the ancient version spoken Sanskrit used for these verses gave way to new languages, new script and new words and phrases) and was to some extent modified over time by changing conditions, was committed to text down sometime in the 3rd or 4th Century AD and since then repeatedly commented upon and analyzed.

A number of academics (during British rule) doing their studies on these puranas in India did mess things up a bit with their western concepts intruding into the analysis of something they found very difficult to comprehend, leaving behind inadequate translations which have lost some of the original meaning during what was otherwise painstaking work. Later researchers were either nationalistic or were guided primarily by current religious notions when reworking on these scriptures. But that is not what we started out to discuss, so let me not digress and let us get back to unraveling something of a mystery.

From various sources such as the Bhagavad Gita and the Bhavishya Purana we can gather that in the initial accounts where Indra was the main god, Bali was a great king, much revered. Indra is termed as Vasava in those pages. Bali is a wise sage of unwavering intellect and a teacher, a model man who had attained his goals according to Bhishma, was one who remained serene and not sad and was one who understood reality.

Brahma advises Vasava who was setting out in search of Bali - He remains unseen by us, like the sun that has set. He brightens all the directions. He faithfully sends the rains in due season. That Bali ... He is the Wind, He is the Ocean, He is the Sun, He is the Moon, He is the Fire giving warmth to all creatures. He is the Earth. That is Bali ...

Later on, a serious dialog takes place between the two and it is said that the gist of some of those gets replicated later in the Bhagavad Gita too. Indra states to Bali when they meet: You have understood the reality of existence. You are indeed a wise man, full of wisdom and penance. You see the meaning of the present moment as clearly as you would see a gooseberry in your hand. You have understood thoroughly the working of time. You have mastered all the sciences. You have full control over yourself and thus winning the admiration of all discerning people. By your intellect you have penetrated [the mystery of] this whole universe. Though you move about everywhere you remain free from everything, not getting attached to anything. The lower instincts rajas and tamas do not soil you as you have fully disciplined your senses. You find joy within yourself, free from all unbecoming attachment, free from all resentment. Finding in you a friend of all, free from enmity, possessing a serene mind, my mind is drawn towards you.

But it also becomes apparent that Bali is not quite prepared for negative events and deceit, for in an instruction, Prahlada his grandfather advises him that it is good to practice forbearance (khsama), but there is a limit to this since a king who is always good can be exploited even by his own servants (This may well be one explanation of how Bali lost his kingdom!).What we can also note is Bali’s association with the sun or Virochana, his father and the fact that during his reign there were no classes or castes. It was after his defeat that the Chaturvarna Vyavastha was instituted according to the Mahabharata.
Bali fighting Indra
A version (Taittriya Sanhita) explains a related event but sans Bali, as follows -This earth formerly belonged to the Asuras, while the gods only had as much as a man can see while sitting. When the gods asked for a share in the earth, the Asuras said, ' How much shall we give you?  The gods replied, ' As much as this she-jackal can go round in three steps.' So Indra, assuming the form of a she-jackal, stepped round the earth in three strides. Thus the gods obtained the earth.

We note from Fr Anand’s studies that while the original meeting between Indra and Bali resulted in an extensive dialogue, later texts point of a war which was won by Indra with support from Vishnu, his good friend. While Bali is mentioned in the Mahabharata and the Bhavishya Purana, and there are accounts of his wars with Indra and the next recounting refers to Bali’s encounters with Narayana. So we see that epics now start to drop Indra out totally and mention only his misdeeds against Brahmins, encounters between Vishnu directly with Bali and in later texts through his Vamana avatar with Bali.

In the present version of the extended story, Indra meets and defeats Bali, but Bali obtains additional powers from his teacher Shukracharya and attacks Indra. Defeating Indra, he rules over devaloka. Indira’s mother pleads to Vishnu and he agrees to take birth as her son, the dwarf Vamana. Vamana comes to Bali and requests a boon asking for the three steps as we all know. With the first step he possesses the earth, with the second he takes the heavens and with the third he pushes Bali down into the netherworld.

Thus, as time went Indra gets replaced by Vishnu, Vamana appears as an avatar and the Bali story takes the form which is popular today, depicting Bali as an Asura king. All texts end the story or event with Bali getting exiled to the netherworld but for some strange reason allows his visitation rights annually to visit his subjects. There are other sub plots and stories as well, with the entrance of Yama or Narakasura the lord of death and so on, but let us not get into too many complexities in this study.

In fact the discussions between Vasava and Bali are profound and experts even discern many similarities of text between these and the Bhagavad Gita which was written much later, so also the characters of Arjuna, Krishna and so on. While I can go on to provide a gist of these studies, I prefer not to because I do not understand them fully, not having read the original texts myself and since I do not trust any translation to be an honest one. So let us conclude that according to the scriptures or epics, there once lived a great and honest king, who fell afoul of the gods and was punished. He was kicked down into the dark corners of the universe, but his good deeds resulted in his being allowed to come and visit earth once a year. A great feast (maha-utsava) was also ordained to Bali by Vishņu who was pleased with the gift of the earth. Lord Vishnu makes a proclamation to his people - On the afternoon of the 15th of the Krishņa-paksha of Kārttika, Today is the Rule of Bali, enjoy yourselves. Later in the day we have the solemn worship of Bali and his wife, and alms given in memory of Bali.
Vamana with Bali and Shukracharya

This day of visitation was originally termed the dipa-utsava or Kaumudi and was instituted by Lord Vishnu in honor of the king Mahabali as a maha utsava (mega festival), to be celebrated over just one day, commemorating the great reign of this king. Bali per the accepted tradition was the king of the asuras, and thus the festival become an asura mahotsava. This feast is known as Kaumudi because on this day kumuda flowers are offered to Bali. Hence the first day of the bright half of Karttika is also known as Bali- pratipada.

How did this festival originally meant in commemoration of Bali’s rule get connected to the return of Rama? Perhaps Rama over time replaced Bali as a great king. Note here the similarity between Bali’s return from exile and Rama’s return after an exile. The western parts starting with Maharashtra and down to Kerala celebrate the return of Bali. This perhaps indicates that Bali (and consequently his wife Vindhyavati – Vindya southern mountain range) was a major king in the South West area. Other parts of today’s Bharat celebrate Rama’s return to Ayodhya. Or was it just that the celebration is meant to give the devotee a foretaste of good tidings around the corner (return of Bali) and to serve as an ideal for life here on earth? Bali could thus be the leader of the world to come.

Then again, what if Bali was not a king at all and was just a representation of the sun? His father was Virochana and so that is a pointer. The sun as you know rises and sets daily, and perhaps in the past was seen as going into or setting into a netherworld. What if the three steps were simply meant to signify sunrise, its visible period on an earth hemisphere and the sunset? The movement of the sun annually may also be observed in this connection, as it moves down to the southern hemisphere. The Diwali celebration comes after the autumn equinox. Days become smaller and the sun is seen lesser and lesser. Is that the significance of the departure of Bali into the netherworld, but for a longer duration? Is that why lamps are lit to bring in artificial light? Is the festival of lights thus an offering of lit lamps to the setting Sun-god in the month of Karttika? Is it a way of telling the Sun-god that we need his light, and that we look forward to his return to our hemisphere? Perhaps a practical way to look at it, I suppose.

Tragically nobody remembers the very core of Diwali or the Bali anymore, as prescribed in the many scriptures. The entire celebration has new concepts and stories attached to them. As we now see, the one day celebration ordained by Vishnu in the honor of Bali, an earthly king went on to become a 5 day affair. Today it is an event honoring a number of gods instead. It stretches between the 13th and 15th of the dark half of Kartika and the 1st and 2nd of the bright half (The three days incidentally, is accounted to a request by Bali for a compensatory three days against the three steps). The first set of 3 days is more connected with the world of the dead and the next two or 2½ days a celebration of life in the present world. The first day deals with prayers to please Yama and ward off untimely death, the second relating to worship of wealth (Dhanteras), birthday of Dhanvantari and later the third day is Naraka Chathurdasi, freeing man from the grip of Yama. Then comes the day of honoring ancestors and heralding the arrival of Bali, Lakshmi, much merrymaking and so on. With lamps lit through the Kaumudi festival, it took the practical name Deepavali. Other regional stories connect Diwali to the slaying of Yama Dwitya, slaying of Narakasura, Mahavira’s attainment of Samadhi, Durga or kali etc.
Now let us observe the accounts of the very same story as attached to Kerala. We have studied earlier that Onam follows the dark days of the monsoon, honoring the arrival of Bali. Malayalis are emphatic that Bali is their king, and it has been a time honored event since ancient times (That it was also observed in Madurai and some other Tamil areas is a point to be noted). People who have noticed these events and their connection to Bali in passing, have stopped and wondered about the time gap of approximately a couple of months between these two celebrations (Onam for those who do not know, comes a couple of months ahead of Diwali). Why do we have this gap? We will get to this by studying some regional calendars.

Vamana's 3rd step
The sacred month of Karthika (of the lunar calendar), the 7th or 8th month, typically falls somewhere between the end of October and the beginning of December corresponds to the Tulam month in the Kerala Kollam calendar or the Libra of Gregorain. The Onam festival lasting 3 days occurs in the first month of the Kerala New Year (Chingam) or Malayalam Kollavarsham, which is a solar calendar. In Kerala the official New Year (the Zodiac New Year by the way, is on the day of Vishu, the first day of spring) follows the dark monsoons and the harvest, per the Kollavarsham. Up in the Gujarat regions, looking at the Amanta Calendar (the one used in India for festivals), Kartika is considered to be the first month, the best month and the month of a New Year. It could be a bit mind boggling for the uninitiated, but that is how it is. So to put it all in a nut shell, the arrival of Bali heralds a new year, which for Malayalis is in Chingam and for others up North it is Karthika.

Now would that mean that Bali comes twice to his old kingdom? First in August-Sept to Kerala and later during Diwali? Take your pick, and if you believe in Bali, leave him to the people of Kerala and Maharashtra, since the others have forgotten him. You can also observe that Rama followers are not seen aplenty in Kerala and there is perhaps just one or two Rama temples in Kerala. Siva and Vishnu temples are quite common, but interestingly there is no Vamana temple anywhere! Anyway I guess we should let them celebrate Rama’s victorious return or any other event from the lot above. As you can conclude, we are quite flexible and democratic.

But one aspect is evident, Diwali is or never has been celebrated with gusto in Kerala and now I guess you know the reason. Others explain that Bali is a metaphor for a thanksgiving offering after a bounty of rice harvest during monsoon and the Onam season, while Vishnu is the metaphor of the Kerala sun and summer that precedes the Onam. Then again, you can choose a more practical explanation provided by some who term themselves pragmatic. The Malayalis spend a lot of effort, time and money on Onam and being a practical lot, they will not spend it again on Diwali. That is all it is, according to them. Whatever said and done, leaving aside the myths, lore and legends, most people celebrate Diwali these days. You can see and feel the warm golden glow of the festival season, and many a person gets together, like we all did during the last weekend.

There are some who are a bit curious and one such may ask “so where does Bali reside during the rest of the year”? Well, he was consigned to the netherworld or Patala and that will be the topic of an article presently in progress.

According to Narada who was a rare visitor to Patala - What," exclaimed the sage, "can be compared to Patala, where the Nagas are decorated with brilliant, and beautiful, and pleasure shedding jewels? Who will not delight in Patala, where the lovely daughters of the Daityas and Danavas wander about, fascinating even the most austere; where the rays of the sun diffuse light, and not heat, by day; and where the moon shines, by night, for illumination, not for cold; where the sons of Danu, happy in the enjoyment of delicious viands and strong wines, know not how time passes? There are beautiful groves, and streams, and lakes where the lotus blows; and the skies are resonant with the Kokila's song. Splendid ornaments, fragrant perfumes, rich unguents, the blended music of the lute, and pipe, and tabor; these and many other enjoyments are the common portion of the Danavas, Daityas, and snake-gods, who inhabit the regions of Patala.

That will be our next study destination.

Bali-Life bestowing Offering - Subhash Anand (Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Vol. 74, No. 1/4 (1993), pp.63-84)
Major Hindu festivals, A Christian appreciation (pp 103-132) – Subhash Anand

Pics – Vamana pics from Wikimedia, Indra Bali battle (courtesy Bonhams auction exhibit