The American in Simla

Winter is here; the hedgehog/groundhog had come out, saw its shadow in the clear day and went back into its burrow proclaiming that winter will last another 6 weeks. It may not be so cold in India but then, one of these days, you would go to the fruit vendor and decide to buy apples. The shopkeeper is definite to ask you ‘imported (China) of Simla’? And you ponder. These days many are bound to say ‘imported’, but in earlier times we would not hear that option and end up with the sweet Simla apples. Returning home, a quick bite into the crunchy fruit transports you to the Himachal valleys where it is all grown. Not many would think, how on earth did this fruit end up in India? But one or two may.

History is like traversing one of those twisting roads during your childhood. You turn a corner, to affront an elephant perhaps, or a queer person, or one you fear, a vicious man with a hideous face maybe, sometimes it is a ferocious giant, sometimes it a gentle benevolent person, sometimes it is a wonderful personality, you take one of those sights to heart and remember it for a long time. Some of these many people have shaped our lives, some have sacrificed theirs for us, some have wasted theirs on fruitless dreams or whims, some have lived through selfish periods wasting immense amounts of money and lives…but sometimes you come across a delightful person, one who chose to lead a life so alien to every cell of his body, and this person I have decided to introduce you to is one such.

And that takes me back to the apple. As you bite into an apple, be it in Kerala, Bengal or Bombay, there is a good chance that you may choose the Shimla ‘delicious red’ variety. So what if I were to tell you that it was all the handiwork of that delightful person I am going to introduce and that it originated from America?

But would that be the reason for his greatness and place in history? Not at all, as he gave us much more than that. So without further ado, let me introduce you to the American Christian missionary who came to India over a century ago, liked what he saw and decided that he not only wanted to live here, but become an Indian to the core. He started off as a regular missionary working with lepers and the downtrodden, and then decided that he wanted to become a different type of Christian Yogi living in caves, leading a frugal ascetic life and dressed like one. Later he came out of the caves, married a local Pahadi girl and after becoming a father, somewhere along the way decided that Hinduism fitted his ideals even more, resulting in his and his family’s conversion, a rare occurrence at that time.

But was that all? He also became an ardent freedom fighter in the fight against the British, became a confidante of Gandhiji, and went to jail fighting the cause. Do we know him? Did we ever read about him or study his life? He was lost in those annals of history, actually. In our days of delirious joy after attaining freedom, the gentle American was lost in the dust, as he silently continued his good work in the hills, among the apple trees in his hand-planted orchards of Simla.

Sometimes you come across the most interesting stories purely by chance. This one occurred so, for I was reading a collection of Kushwant Singh’s stories (more on why I was reading his book, was covered in a previous blog about Menon, Singh and Dev Anand) and I saw an article on Simla. In it there was a cryptic remark which said - The eccentric American missionary who converted the whole of the apple-growing valley of Kotgarh to Christianity and then re-converted them back to Hinduism….This was too good to miss, so I got on to the research mode. Want to know what happened? Read on.

For that is the story of Samuel Evans Stokes who went to Kotgarh in 1904 to show the lord’s way to the lost people, or so he believed he was destined to do. And this is the person I will talk about, Satyanand Stokes, a.k.a Samuel Evans stokes (Stokes is the man in the picture, not Lal Bahadur Sastri). Hopefully I have by now caught your attention and hopefully I will keep this interesting. I for one, found his story very engaging.

My desire to get more data on the person lead me to read many newspaper articles and what I read stoked a desire to buy the lone book written about him. I ordered it and it arrived after a longish wait. There was a pleasant surprise in store for me, for it was personally autographed by the author, Asha Sharma, the great granddaughter of Stokes himself.

And thus on a cold and rainy day in Raliegh, I sat to read about our friend Stokes whose life, every minute of it, from the moment after landing on Indian shores was dedicated to India and her people. A rich American, who could have lived his life in luxury, forsook all that. We can now trace his life through the many hundred letters he wrote his mother living back in USA. After all, religion is a choice, social service is a duty, but dedicating your life for a community is yet another thing and that was Stokes. Little did I know until then of his connection to Apple cultivation, the famous Simla apples of today, or his connection to the Messaih of the hills – Satyanand. His destiny was not to sell his family’s elevators (amalgamated into today’s famous Otis Company), this 21 year olds calling was in India where he wanted to work with lepers. He was also the only non-Indian to sign the Congress manifesto in 1921 calling upon Indians to quit government service

Hopefully I have caught your attention.

As the 20th century dawned, the British were well in control in India. The sahibs were holding fort while the freedom fighters led by Gandhiji and many other leaders were turning on the screws. As the dusty hot and humid days took their toll on the not so ruddy composition of the Burra sahib, he retired with his family to the summer capital of the British Raj, in hills of Himachal, to the hills station called Simla (now called Shimla – was it someone slightly inebriated who decided the new pronunciation?). The Queen of the hills had beckoned and the Raj had followed to spend a while in the little town located on the north-west Himalayas at an altitude of 2,128 meters (6,982 ft), draped in forests of pine, rhododendron, and oak, a place that experiences pleasant summers and cold, snowy winters. I have been there and I can tell you, it is one beautiful place.

Well it was a fun place (probably like Las Vegas is viewed today), as they said in those days - The presence of many bachelors and unattached men, as well as the many women passing the hot weather there, gave Simla a reputation for adultery, and at least gossip about adultery: as Rudyard Kipling said in a letter cited by Allen, it had a reputation for "frivolity, gossip and intrigue".

But how did Gandhiji ever come to say – As long as we have an Andrews a Stokes, a Pearson in our midst, so long it will be ungentlemanly on our part to wish every Englishman out of India?

Into this town, marched a young man from America, with a burning desire, to tend to the lepers of Simla. The wealthy elevator making family was indeed worried, would he also catch the disease? Stokes was adamant and took the steamer Haverford in January 1904, bound eastwards. His mind was open and without any set plans. That was to help him, for he lived a very long time indeed at his destination. He chose this path due to a meeting with a Dr Carleton (back home on a furlough) who headed the Newton mission in India. It was an unfortunate point of time, a time when the British Raj had actually decreed that Lepers should be treated equal to criminals.

After spending a sick period on the voyage to Britain, a short stay in Edinburough and finally leaving for Bombay, the cheerful young man landed on Indian shores in Feb of the same year. He reached Sabathu and quickly went about learning the local language. As he worked, he wrote back, and sketched many scenes of the life in Simla. His diet unlike those of the other foreigners who lived there was always rice and dhal. Dr Carelton soon moved him to Kotgarh, 50 miles north of Simla. Just imagine, there were no roads and Sam had to walk that distance demonstrating true ‘missionary zeal’. Finally he reached the place Kotgarh called ‘mistress of the Northern hills’ and later traveled around, trying to master Hindi, which he eventually did. His father sent him $42 every month, but Sam forced himself to use only $10 per month for his lifestyle and he wrote his mother every week (This was to continue for 21 years and the letters are called the harmony hall letters). Sam was also getting irritated with the life of all the other missionaries, for they lived expansive life styles, living in large bungalows with numerous servants, had frequent parties etc which Sam despised. The conversions which they carried out were the poorest of the poor and this was in no way symbolic. Sam’s arguments carried no weight and he was dismissed as young and inexperienced.

And that was when he decided to give up everything, all the luxuries and the very foreignness that excluded him from the masses. Sam’s father gave an ultimatum; he would stop sending money if Sam did not join a formal church organization. Sam had already decided to live a life of poverty and his only distress was that his family did not support his views. Thus he moved to Kotgarh again and started living in a cave like a Sadhu.

But events and calamities were soon to overtake his sojourn, in 1905, an earthquake struck the hills. He offered his services to the Punjab government and was selected. The arduous work took its toll and by the end of the year he became terribly sick, suffering from fevers for close to two months. He was soon back in Sabathu. The illness nearly made him go back to USA, but he did not, even though tickets were booked and money spent.

In Kotgarh, Stokes met elderly and rich Mrs Bates, who supported his idea of a children’s asylum, by offering him a part of her estate. However, Sam had to continue his path of renunciation and went back to the cave to live as he was building the asylum. In Aug 1906, he distributed all his belongings and donned the clothes of a friar. He lived among bears and leopards, using the stream for his ablutions and thus finally the sahib became a sadhu. All he possessed were two pet snakes in his cave.

The Kotgarh mission was doing well on the conversions front, but the results were not good as the converts were severely persecuted by the mainstream. In the meantime, Sam was befriended by a local Brahmin nobleman who explained to him that he was closer to Hindu thought. Stokes was finally getting closer to the upper caste Hindus. One of them was a prominent young Rajput Dhan singh, who impressed by Stokes’s views and explanations wanted to convert. The people of Kotgarh were appalled. They threatened to kill him, so finally Stokes and the boy ran away to Ludhiana where he was converted, the first success of Stokes.

Now you may wonder, the Sahib who became was Sadhu was a Christian Sadhu, right? Yes, In fact he was leading a life very very close to the type led by the Roman Brahmin De Nobili whom I had written about some years ago. Nobili also wanted to lead the rich and upper Hindu class to Christianity, not the lowest classes as others did. Together with Sundar Singh, a devoted companion, they went, village to village, working for the sick and the poor, looking every bit of Indian Sadhus except for the rosary and the cross around their necks, sitting under banyan tress and preaching not the Gita but the New Testament. He would offer medicines to the sick and soon gained respect of the poor. Instead of stale old food, fresh food and buttermilk came to be offered. He had become their Bhagat.

Many years were spent thus, with Stokes working as a social reformer and uplifting the downtrodden. But one fine day in Sept 1912, he decided to renounce his Sadhu life and get married. He married Agnes, a ‘pahari’ Christian girl.

Why did he marry locally? Another reason was his unease with the Indian attitude towards the code of living. They believed that a normal householder cannot live up to the exacting standards set for a sadhu, even when such standards of conduct are deemed as most desirable. He wanted to cut through the double standards practiced by the locals by setting a personal example. Thus he declared: "I shall as far as in me lies become an Indian, marry an Indian girl and, if God gives me sons and daughters, bring them up absolutely as Indians in the matter of life, language, dress and education. I shall try to make my home life, in all aspects, a gospel of what Indian home life should be..." Thus he ended up married a first generation Rajput Christian girl named Agnes.

His work with CF Andrews in getting the involuntary labor system called ‘begar’ abolished was exemplary. In 1920 he clashed with the government over the despicable begar beth practiced by it. Gandhi gave unstinted support to the Stokes struggle. In a message to the people of Simla hill states he said, "You should continue under the guidance of Stokes and suspend all kar and begar to the government and to the state... In your efforts I am with you with all my heart and soul."

Soon Stokes got involved in India’s freedom struggle - After the Congress special session in 1920 at Calcutta, Stokes wrote a series of articles entitled "A Study in Non cooperation". He declared, "(our) Ultimate goal must be absolute swaraj..." Stokes became a full-fledged delegate from Kotgarh to the All India Congress Committee which met at Nagpur in 1920. On July 31, 1921, when foreigners were warned to keep away from the public burning of imported clothes, Stokes along with an English nurse attended a bonfire. But one must admire their courage of conviction for standing up against the unjust regime that was culturally supposed to be their own, and for the whites. Stokes started wearing khadi after that event.

Stokes opposed the attempts of the moderate Indian leaders — who had split from the Congress — to accord a welcome to the Prince of Wales on his visit in November, 1921. He considered it foolish and unmanly for Indians to treat the Prince as their own. The British government was particularly wary of the Punjab city of Lahore where the Congress committee, the Khilafat committee and various Sikh organisations had united in holding anti-government demonstrations to protest against the Prince’s visit there in February. Stokes was the first PPCC member to be detained on December 3 under Section 108. He was eventually sentenced to six months in jail.

This is what Gandhi had to say in an article in Young India on Stokes’ arrest, "This is a unique move on the part of the government. Mr Stokes is an American who has naturalized himself as a British subject, who has made India his home in a manner in which perhaps no other American or Englishman has... But that he should feel with and like an Indian, share his sorrows and throw himself into the struggle, has proved too much for the government. To leave him free to criticise the government was intolerable, so his white skin has proved no protection for him..."

And then, one fine day, in 1932, he converted to Hinduism, in part because he detested the Christian notion of eternal punishment. Samuel Stokes was always interested in theology. He believed that Christ’s message was infinitely more than what the church preached. He could not accept the orthodox view of Christ’s message. To find out the true meaning and purpose of life, he started to read the Hindu scriptures. According to Stokes the Vedanta and Christian concept of salvation if taken together profoundly influenced and modify each other, the Christian experience will preserve individuality and Vedanta will demonstrate the essential unity of the spirit. On 4th September 1932 he and his family embraced Hinduism and changed his name to Satyanand. The writings of Maharishi Swami Dayanand, the founder of Arya Samaj had a lasting impression on Stokes. He became an Arya Samaji and built an Arya Samaj temple on his estate, known as the Paramjyotir Temple.

After that he and his family lead their lives as chaste Hindu’s, following its rules to the word, and this I never understood, even in the segregated policies of the caste system.

So that was Stokes, but what about the apples? Let us get back to Emma Matilda Bates, a widow of an English forest officer, who owned a large tea estate at Thanedhar. Mrs. Bates wanted to sell her estate and go back to England. Stokes bought the estate with the intention of farming. He conducted various experiments in hill farming, but ultimately he was convinced that only fruit growing could transform the economy of this region. In 1914 he went to America with soil samples of his estate and came back with five apple samplings of Red Delicious bought from the famous nursery growers- Stark Brothers of Louisiana. Over the years he propagated and distributed these apple plants amongst the local farmers.

From a small orchard in the Thanedar - Kotgarh belt, Stokes demonstrated how high-quality apples could be produced at altitudes of 4,000-6,000 feet. Since then, Himachal Pradesh has been synonymous with apples, producing Rs 1,500 crore worth of apples each year. Stokes's daughter-in-law, Vidya Stokes, a former minister of the state, now manages most of the family's orchards.

So was Kushwant Singh right? Stokes had converted some of the valley to Christianity but did not convert them back to Hinduism as grandly stated; he only converted himself to an Indian and a Hindu. But it is also interesting to note that Singh was one of the persons who encouraged and helped Asha Sharma in her attempts to complete the book on Stokes.

An American in Gandhi’s India – Asha Sharma
Not a nice man to know - Kushwant singh

Pic – Simla red delicious (Joiebharat), others from the www & courtesy Asha Sharma


Pazhassi Raja’s death – A whodunit

The Pazhassi Raja movie has been running for many months now, and most of you would have seen the movie (By the way - I saw it today). The story has been dissected, talked over many a cup of tea, written about in many articles and blogs and is for all practical purposes done and dusted with and consigned to history where the story belonged. Many of you have come up with your own versions and conclusions to the story of the Kottayam Raja and his times, as well as the other characters, taking one side or the other. But one matter remains unresolved, how did the Rajah actually die? I decided to check this in greater detail. A good read of Nick Balmer’s blog linked here would help jump start the process.

So let us go again to the fateful day - 30th Nov 1805 Pulpalli forest, Thomas Hervey Baber, Karunakara Menon, Capt Clapham his 50 sepoys and 100 kolkars, half of Capt Watson’s police and half of Baber’s staff are out there braving the jungles and tribal guerillas to take on the Pazhassi Raja and his remaining men.

Before we go further, who are the kolkar’s? Well, our old friend
Swmaniatha patter (see my blog on this chap ) comes to the fray again – The skirmishes in the Wynad hills and forests had been on since the late 1790’s, and it was a long and rough period with little success for the Brits. They then took the advice of the Shakuni - Swaminatha Pattar, a minister of the Zamorin of Calicut who came up with yet another bit of wisdom or vile-dom whichever way you put it. In addition to the Bombay based regiments available only after repeated requests, pleas, waits and long arguments, the Malabar based British organized their own land army called 'Kolkars', recruiting mainly from the higher castes, in order to quell the uprising of the hill based kurichiars (later official documents defined them as peons or excise tax collectors which they also were). The Kolkar battalion, somewht like lancers, were under the order of the judge, not subject to any courts martial, and were mainly Nair’s. They did not report to any regular hierarchy (there were some Jamedar’s and Dafedar’s listed though) but were marshaled under Col Watson and were people of great consequence, as stated in British records. Interestingly they were also the forerunners of today’s Malabar police which was formed after the Kolkar’s were officially disbanded. The name Kolkar, I believe, came from their carrying the ‘kol’ the stick or lance (later the lathi). Canara Menon whom we will get to know better later was probably a kolkar to start with and Nick Balmer too alludes to that possibility in one of his blogs.
In the attack, the troops fall upon the Raja and his followers who were camped close to a river in the Wynad jungle. In the ensuing fight and shooting, the Raja is shot, many others run away and the British are victorious. Baber pens a long letter explaining the event to his superiors and praising the acts of Kanara Menon and Subedar Charan in the final skirmish. The Raja is allowed a traditional and honorable cremation by Baber who exhibits true respect for the fallen. But how did the Raja die? Why is this still a controversy?

Nikhil, a friend and fellow blogger asked me this question some months ago. Did the Raja commit suicide by swallowing his ring, did he stab himself with his golden dagger or was he shot? If he was shot, who shot him? Did Kanara Menon shoot him? Did the Sepoys with Capt Clapham shoot him? Or was it Clapham? Some even believe that Thomas Baber shot the Raja to death. I myself had always assumed that he was dead by the time Thomas Baber reached him, shot mortally in the gun fusillade between the two parties and that he was close to death by the time Kanara Menon reached him. But further doubt crept into my mind again while reading Margaret Frenz’s fine book ‘From contact to Conquest’ Transition to British Rule in Malabar, 1790-1805, last week. So let us go back to the forest and the place where all this happened, to find out. As they say, the devil is or should be in the details.

Take a look at the first scenario – The raja killing himself by swallowing his diamond ring. This I believe got into the Malayali mind due to some early movies (1964) which depicted this dramatic form of suicide, which alas is not a quick or practical way to die. It has also been stated to be the cause of Veluthampi Dalawa’s death and again is nothing more than a fable. In any case, ingestion of a ring would take it a few hours to reach the intestines, past the stomach and would I guess, prove at worst to be slightly irritating to the person who swallowed it (a ring would not even cut the linings, a raw diamond might cut the surface a bit here & there) and as you saw the raja was dead in a short while after Clapham, Cheran, Menon & Baber reached the scene. In fact swallowing diamonds & diamond rings have been a popular way of stealing such articles and many of those criminals have been caught & put to justice. A Google check can provide you many examples of people who have swallowed diamond rings & diamonds. KKN Kurup in his book also agrees with the above conclusion though Sreedhara Menon in his book ‘Kerala Charithra Shilpikal’ alludes to this as a possible means of the Raja’s death, commenting however the story to be only ‘popular belief’.

Scenario 2- Could the Raja have killed himself with his golden dagger as the Samurai’s and the Ninja did while facing defeat? Could be even though the knife is described to be a small (possibly god plated or gold ornamental) dagger, though classified as a Katara (Cuttaram as termed by Baber). A small dagger may not have penetrated hard and deep enough to cause immediate death and then again blood would have been reported (or cleaned up) by Baber who pocketed the dagger. But this still remains a likelihood and cannot be ruled out as yet.

Scenario 3 – Did Capt Clapham and his sepoy’s kill the Raja? W.J Wilson who wrote on history of Madras Regiment credits Captain Clapham and his sepoys for killing of Raja. Let us see what Wilson actually stated – “Active operations were recommended at the end of the rain and the disturbance in Wynad and Cotiote was terminated by the death of the Pychy raja who was surprised and killed on the 30th Nov 1805 by a party of the 1st battalion, 4th regiment under Capt Clapham supported by 100 peons under the direction of Mr Baber the sub collector who had accompanied the detachment”.
This then casts a slight cloud over Baber’s own notes who accounts that Subedar Charan’s team carried out the initial firing, but also states the subsequent presence of the kolkars who had reached the scene later, possibly accompanied by Capt Clapham. So let us go over Baber’s notes again.
After proceeding about a mile and a half through very high grass and thick teak forests into the Mysore country, Charen Subedar of Captain Watson’s armed police, who was leading the advanced party suddenly halted and beckoning to me, told me he heard voices. I immediately ran to the spot, and having advanced a few steps, I saw distinctly to the left about ten persons, unsuspecting of danger, on the banks of the Mavila Toda, or Nulla to our left. Although Captain Clapham and the sepoys as well as the greater part of the kolkars, were in the rear, I still deemed it prudent to proceed, apprehensive lest we should be discovered and all hopes of surprise thereby frustrated. I accordingly ordered the advance, which consisted of about thirty men, to dash on, which they accordingly did with great gallantry, with Charen Subedar at their head. In a moment the advance was in the midst of the enemy, fighting most bravely. The contest was but of short duration. Several of the rebels had fallen, whom the kolkars were despatching, and a running fight was kept up after the rest till we could see no more of them.

From one of the rebels of the first party to the left, whom I discovered concealed in the grass, I learnt that the Pyche Raja was amongst those whom we first observed on the banks of the Nulla, and it was only on my return from the pursuit that I learnt that the Raja was amongst the first who had fallen.

So it is now apparent that the raja was shot in the initial volley and was mortally wounded. He was in his last throes when Canara Menon reached him. The shots therefore came from Subedar Cheran’s group, Clapham’s Sepoys or Baber’s kolkar’s. But he was not technically dead, as yet.

Scenario 4 - Kanara Menon. From the various reports, Kanara Menon reached Pazhassi Raja first but the Raja prevented Menon from doing anything to him by pushing his musket on Menon’s breast. According to Baber’s words - It fell to the lot of one of my Cutcherry servants, Canara Menon, to arrest the flight of the Raja, which he did at the hazard of his life (the Raja having put his musket to his breast) and it is worthy of mention that this extraordinary personage, though in the moment of death, called out in the most dignified and commanding manner to the Menon, “Not to approach and defile his person.”

Another problem is the use of ‘his’ twice in the above sentence. If the Raja were holding the musket to Menon’s breast, what earthly need did he have to order him not to approach and defile his – the Raja’s person? He could have shot Menon to death with the musket. Why did he not do it?

So did Canara or Kanara Menon shoot and kill the Raja? Was he armed with a gun? Well, he was a Kolkaran and he did know how to use guns though he has at various times been described as a clerk, as a spy or an emissary and also as Baber’s bodyguard. But let us look at Baber’s words again - Several of the rebels had fallen, whom the kolkars were despatching, and a running fight was kept up after the rest till we could see no more of them.Now what did Baber meant by ‘Several of the rebels had fallen, whom the kolkars were despatching’ – despatching to death? Was Kanara Menon planning to do just that when he reached Pazhassi and the raja seeing all this, uttered his statement of disgust to Menon and ordered him not to touch his body? Food for thought! Frenz and Kurup in their books conclude that Baber possibly credited Menon and Cheran and wrote so to take away the success from the army due to his long standing tussles with them.

Consider what could have happened between the time the Raja uttered his words of disgust to Menon and his eventual death? How could Kanara Menon have arrested the flight of a fallen man whose life was ebbing away? It must have been minutes between the two events. Did Menon obey the Raja’s order? Let us assume he did not, though I would doubt Menon’s courage kill the Raja face to face, under the circumstances. But if this indeed was the case, what did Kanara Menon do (as stated by Baber – to arrest the flight at the hazard of his life) under the same recorded circumstances? He would have just stood there and observed the Raja’s life ebb away, unless of course he eventually dispatched the raja to his death and thus closed the case - which now suddenly looks possible? We shall see.

Finally the tangential possibility - Many other followers of the Raja committed suicide in the preceding and following days and months rather than hand themselves to the British. In the same token, was the Raja threatening suicide by holding the gun to ‘his own’ breast? Did he shoot himself after ordering Menon not to come near him? Using a shotgun after loading it to shoot one self, when one is prone on the floor, weak and close to death, in a battle field is definitely not the easiest thing to do. Or did the Raja just die after the initial shots, with Menon standing in front of him, indecisive, like you see in movies? I believe either of the above could have happened and these seems to be the most natural and satisfying outcomes of the above stalemate. This would however mean that Baber twisted the story somewhat, in support of Menon & Charen, like the ‘Aswathama elephant story and Yudhishtira’ in the Mahabharata.

A pretty miserable muddle right? The personal benefit to T Baber was 2500 pagodas (about 20,000 shillings) from the EIC and possibly the dagger that he retained. Clapham got the waist chain of the Raja. Since Canara Menon & Subedar Charen were also accorded credit, I wonder what monetary compensation they got. The EIC, intent on removing the last vestiges of the raja, sadly built a road right through the Kerala Varma’s property, after his palace was razed to the ground.

But that would not solve the mystery right?

Before we get closer to the answers, a few words on the persona of Karunakara Menon. For those of you who have not seen beyond Jagathis’s portrayal of a bufoonish character in the movie, Kanara Menon was much like the Brigadier Vijayan Menon as portrayed by Malayatoor Ramakrishnan in his Brigadier stories. He was described well in words of another British military officer, who said – Menon is a rough manly fellow, well above middle size, a speaker of many languages including Hindi and Canarese, dressed usually in British military fatigues and a British cap, a sword and a single barreled fowling piece on his shoulder. Popularly known as ‘Kanara menowan’, he was a person who always wanted to be a leader, and around to control any fray.

James Welsh is an interesting chap actually, a man who wrote an eminently readable 900 odd page double volume of his reminiscences, who describes himself modestly as a plain unlettered soldier. He set out to the East Indies in 1790 at the age of 15, as a cadet in the corps. He spent a good initial period fighting the poligars (see my blog on the Kattabomman) and reached Malabar around 1812. It appears that he formed a good relationship with Thomas Baber. Note from the date above that this was well after the Raja’s death. He was introduced to Kanara Menon by Baber and it is Welsh who provided the description to the name – Kananra menowan, in the previous paragraph.

Now do you recall the arms that Menon carried? A sword and a fowling piece were mentioned. Well, as it so happened, this single bore fowling piece which Menon carried with pride turns out to be one wrested away by Menon from the Pazhassi Raja, interesting right? Let us now see what Menon or Baber had to say about the Raja’s death to Welsh, some seven years after the event. So we go back again to the events of Nov 30th, 1805.

Menon is in front of the Raja with the Raja’s musket on his chest. The Raja is commanding Menon to move away. But as you can infer from the above, Menon pushed the gun away that the Raja had kept aimed at his chest, which the rajah discharged nevertheless, much too late. Soon it was hand to hand combat. Menon tried to restrain the Rajah (Note here that Menon would have been bigger than the somewhat short statured raja &planned to take him prisoner), who was struggling in his arms. But it was not to be, for in the heat of the moment, one of Baber’s kolkar’s or Clapham’s sepoys or even a British soldier (One of our people – says Welsh), thinking Menon’s life to be in danger, shot the Rajah again, this time to death. Another Brown Bess ball had finally found its mark.

Is this the final answer? As they ask in “who wants to be millionaire?” Probably not, but satisfactory enough to me. The event has been depicted somewhat differently in the movie, but I assume the script writer and director did not have Welsh’s reminiscences among the 8 or so books they referred.

Interestingly, the shotgun that the raja had, the gun that Menon now possessed was originally taken away by the Rajah from Capt Davidson, whom the Raja had slain in a previous encounter at Panamaram kotta. As it turns out, Menon was later employed by Baber as his native registrar, in Tellichery. He became a close confidante of Baber and his family, accompanying them and dignitaries for their trips. The Kolkar corps rose to fame again, in the suppression of the Moplah rebellions of Malabar.

Malabar manual – W Logan
History of Kerala- Sreedhara Menon
Kerala Shilpikal – Sreedhara menon
From contact to Conquest’ 1790-1805 - Margaret Frenz’
Military Reminiscences – James Welsh

Tail note – The guns carried by the soldiers were the ‘Brown Bess’ muskets, used by the British military between 1722 to 1838, and of all of the versions, the lighter, shorter & cheaper India pattern was supposed to be the most accurate with a range of 175 yards and 75 to 95 percent accuracy. It took about 43 seconds to fire three shots from the 10 pound gun. The standard 3 step loading procedure from prepared paper cartridges containing a 0.75 caliber lead ball and gun powder in an elongated envelope, is as follows: Tear cartridge with teeth and prime the pan directly from the cartridge; Stand the musket and pour the bulk of the powder down the barrel; Reverse the cartridge and use the ramrod to seat the ball and paper envelope onto the powder charge.
This method of using one’s teeth to open the package was to trigger the Sepoy mutiny in 1857. The gun was called a Brown Bessie due to its brown walnut stock. Some historians opine that users allowed it to rust so as to avoid glints & reflections and thus the barrel itself turned brown (or it was russetting) and hence the name. Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem about this shotgun. The kick or recoil of a Brown Bessie was supposedly so hard (worse than a horse’s kick) that if it hit your chest instead of shoulder, even death was possible.

When a one ounce ball from the Brown Bessie hit you, it knocked you flat and you stayed flat with shock, ripped muscles, shattered bones, arteries and nerves, and heavy bleeding. The wounds produced were horrific. This was what would have happened to the Raja, when Menon reached him.

Pics – Soldiers with brown Bessies - Assaye 1803: Wellington's First and 'Bloodiest' Victory By Simon Millar, Peter Dennis

Corrections - The Bown bess was carried by the soldiers & sepoys.  The fowling piece ( used by the Raja and Menon) on the other hand was a heavy bore shotgun, typically used for hunting.

Chennai days – Part 1

The Pycroft’s road of Madras stretches from the Marina beach to Royapetta high road. On one end is situated the Presidency college with its hallowed walls damaged by the shell shot by the German ship Emden, the college where my dad had studied. On the other end is, well sort of to the end, is the Amir mahal – the palace of the Nawab of Arcot. Just off the corner through Gen Patter’s road is the Mount road. Opposite the huge gates of Amir Mahal is the Zambazar police station – Jambajar as Tamilian’s call it. The road is jam (maybe that is how the bazar got its name) packed usually where cattle, cycle rickshaws, auto rickshaws, cars, buses, cycles (motorized and pedaled) and pedestrians compete to find space to nudge through.

The wheezy old bullock is there because nobody wants it. How it reached this market is a matter not worthy of thought, but suffice to say it did. It had (so far) luckily escaped the people who chop such defenseless animals up to make beef fry’s and serve it at places like the Tajmahal Malayalathan hotel down the road. The bullock is busy chomping on the tasty banana leaves and various other leaves left behind by the vegetable market merchants in Zam Bazar. It looks around contently, though somewhat confused with all the hurry exhibited by the teeming public. Sometimes, it glances tiredly at the wailing dog, wondering what the critter is howling for. What it probably did not figure out yet is that the dog has nothing much to munch in a vegetable bazaar. Of course it would have been happy to munch the meat of a deceased bullock, but the bullock did not know that and the dogs wailing language is (sometimes) only understood by its best friend the man, who of course had thrown it out of his house many a moon ago. In the old days it could wail and get some grub, but in the market, who listens? Soon enough, a tramp kid looking for stuff to eat chucked a stone at it and found the mark, only to elicit yet another high pitched whine from the depressed dog, possibly cursing its stars (if it could do that) and meaningless existence..

The police man in full khakhi pants and shirt was another of that depressed lot; he cursed the department for making him wear these clothes in the torrid Madras weather. Large dark patches accentuated his armpits. He thought fondly of his Malayali brethren, the KP or Kerala police at that time wore starched shorts. He smiled thinking of the time when they refused to stand on traffic islands with those huge loose starched shorts and only boxers or hanuman’s underneath, but well, it was at least comfortable and air conditioned. His lathi, shining and swinging around was waiting to lay itself on the back of the hapless tramp kid, but he had run away minutes ago, after seeing the police on beat at the end of the street. The Police man had still not found somebody to give him his ‘something’…The traders were playing truant and other delay tactics. The goons were also on the walkabout but they were more successful with their collections thus showing the policeman who is boss these days, the law and order or the fledgling underworld.

I was at a vantage point, the 4th floor of Ambika nivas, next to my room, perched on the balcony overlooking the busy Pycroft’s road and taking in the activities of that Saturday. A group of girls passed by, all heavily clad in Burkah and possibly Salwar kameez’s underneath, for they had come out of the Amir Mahal palace next door. I wondered what they looked like as I peered left to look into the Amir Mahal itself, it had always captivated me, with its mysterious high walls and try as I did I could not see anything. Again, I muttered, I will go inside Amir Mahal one day, but the prospect of getting across the watchman was daunting.

Krishna Iyer came by with his towel and soap box, enroute the bathrooms and said – kayyilirippu kolam, you are looking at those Burkah clad girls eh? Be careful, if they catch you, they will cut off your – you know what. I told him about my plan to infiltrate Amir mahal, if only to find out what is going on behind those high walls. You see, those were days when I did not know about Nawab’s and palaces and all that stuff, or what lies beneath a burkha.

Mani came by, humming or rather bawling ‘ponal pogattum poda’ in his sonorous voice, jolting me out of my thoughts and stated grandly – ‘saar – your tea and bun’. He was from the Malayali tea shop downstairs and a godsend for us lodge nivasis. Nobody knew where he was from, nether did he. All he remembered was that from his childhood days he had been with the tea shop owner. No memories of his mother or father remain. His life revolved around the lodge and the shops and the police station at Zambazar. But his longstanding desire in life was to marry a woman he had once met in the police station, a lady of low standing brought in during a nocturnal raid.

That Saturday morning was pretty out of the ordinary, actually. It was a bedlam of noise that aroused me, and I was sleeping with open windows to get some breeze into the room. Being the top floor made the room unbearably hot some nights, and the disadvantage of opening the windows was that all the street noise wafted through and into your senses as you drifted into wakefulness, together with the stale smells of rotting vegetables. On a weekend it was worse since the municipality guys never cleaned up till Monday. ‘Rotting cabbage can be pretty miserable, I say’, as Tamilians put it with an ‘I say’ at the end…Today was different. It was not the incessant chatter of the traders or the bawling of the police constables or the vehicular noises, it was the shrill notes of many women that rudely brought me to the world of the living. Looking out of the window and into the Zambajar police station I found that the cops had brought in many prostitutes after a raid and a stiff argument was brewing. Now I won’t get into the details, but the arguments were pretty interesting as they wafted through the pungent market air to the fourth floor where I was stationed.

As I smiled and lit my WD & HO Wills Navycut cigarette, munching the bun and drinking the lovely tea, I thought - Only Rs 50 left of the pittance they called a salary and two weeks still to go. I spent a futile hour thinking how I would get through the month; will I have to take a loan? Maybe ask Iyer or somebody else? Drifting away again, I thought, going into another lazy weekend tangent, why is this tea so good? Do they put traces of opium that I had read Parsi tea stall owners did in the tea shops of Bombay?

Ah, the idle mind is indeed dangerous. See what all I did, while doing nothing, I went to Bombay, tried to get inside the Amir mahal, into the minds of those Burkha clad ladies, into the police station and those whores, into the dogs and bullock’s mind. I sighed, adjusted my Lungi, hoisted my legs on the railings and pushed the chair back…It was time to get back to the final chapters of ‘Atlas Shrugged’ by Ayn Rand. A fascinating book that had been interesting reading for days, reaching its close and I have to try and finish it before lunch. I had a quick wash myself and got dressed for the day.

Iyer came by after his bath and prayers and said, Madhu – let’s go for lunch, why not the Nair mess today? I looked up at him, to make sure he was serious, the idea was brilliant, of course, but lunch there cost over five or six rupees including an omelet, was it a good idea with my depleted savings? I decided wearily to go for it, and we trudged down, through the dark stairwell, meeting Kingston and Joseph on the way. Krishna Iyer’s cheery suggestion was met with enthusiasm by all others and soon we were a foursome headed for the Nair mess. A short 2 mile walk through the Pycroft’s road in Triplicane, to the Wallajah road end of the Chepauk stadium in Madras brought us to Abdullah road. Somewhere in that vicinity is located the famous Nair mess, which we bachelors swore by, those days.

No cooking comes close to that, I tell you, says Jospeh. Even my ammachi cannot make such good dishes, but adds that she makes the best beef fry knowing that you can’t get beef at the Nair mess. Kingston is in another world already, he by the way, is a bank employee, and pretty well to do. Stylish chap who listens to Grand funk rail road and all kinds of rock like Deep purple and Pink Floyd. He had a great amplifier and matching speakers. Some evenings I would spend hours listening to the music in that dimly lit room, where Kingston would be flying away after a few tokes of the weed…Jospeh always warned me, be friendly but don’t get too close to that chap, he is addicted to the weed, you see…I took that seriously, of course, though such things were commonplace in my experiences at the engineering college.

Joseph is an entrepreneur, running an AC repair business, perennially short of orders and resources, always grumbling about the ways of the world. But he is a helpful chap, if you can see what I mean, but that only if he likes you. Now that was the tricky part in my own induction to the lodge and the group.

Coming to Madras after my engineering meant living on my own, though I had umpteen relatives. After staying with my aunt and another ‘cousin ungle’ for a few weeks, and after futile dreams figuring the Anglo Indian girl next door (see my blog covering some of that story), I was soon out hitting the streets trying to find suitable ‘lodge accommodation’.

It was a rather tiring experience, checking out the bachelor sites in Purusuwalkam and Triplicane, the two main centers. Parry’s corner and Royapettah were discarded, they were too expensive. In my endeavors, I found that the Ambika Nivas was rated the highest, the four star place with mosaic floor, single rooms, running water (twice a day that is) and with decent people and non filmi. You may wonder why I said that – for across the road, in the many gullies of Triplicane are the lodges where great director’s like Balachandra Menon and other movie guys lived, places where life was in another zone entirely…an intoxicating environment which I was again strongly advised to avoid.

Ok, so I walked into Ambika nivas (I think this was the lodge pictured in the recent Tamil movie Arai enn 305 il Kadavul), only to see a tough looking Mallu middle aged man at the counter. When I asked him if there was a vacancy, he rudely turned me away stating that the waiting list was many months long. But there was a solution at hand, connections and influence, as they only work, in India. My ‘ungil’s’ deputy knew Joseph. Joseph was the senior most inmate at the lodge and had a ‘voice’ with the lodge owner. Also he had got the mallu manager his job. So a connection was established and I met Jospeh, who fortunately thought I was OK enough. But he warned me, he said jokingly ‘ok, you are an engineer and all that but don’t spoil yourself in this hellhole like all of us, get out after you have established yourself’.

Iyer was a different sort though – serious, god fearing and from Kottayam, he was a decent usman, as we say in Calicut. He was soon to become my close friend. He worked for a big company in Parry’s corner, where I worked as well and we would set out by bus daily, an experience in itself. We would be decently dressed for the office, white shirt and all (I was working for an Iyer company where white shirts were the norm) and struggling to find space in the bus amidst screaming and shouting men and women taking their wares and goods to Pookada flower market near Parrys. The flowers smelt good, but the women did not and their habit of applying oil after their bath meant that our shirts had blotches of brown on them by the time we got to the destination.

As they say fortune favors the brave, in ‘papoka’ (pallavan pokkuvarathu kazhakam) buses, the left side is allocated for women and this side always had one or two empty aisle seats. Sometimes, I would sit half assed on one of those empty seats, usually choosing a young or middle aged female (the older ones were tough they would scream some abuse just as Iyer himself had to hear after he chose to follow my example). I have always got away with it, must be my ‘pleasant – cheery’ face, I suppose. The still standing Iyer would give me warning looks after that experience and always argued with me after getting down stating that he had to hear filthy abuse from a low-caste only once in his life and that too after trying to follow my example.

And then, Iyer and I would trudge into to Hari Nivas in Thambuchetty Street for breakfast, soon to chomp on a delightful dosa and vada and topped off with filter coffee. What a place it was, thinking back today, the traders and their streets, so connected with the right& left handed castes, the Armenians of Armenian street. All that is gone today and the street names had been changed. And then we would be going our separate ways to the office to meet again after office at the lodge for dinner. Burma bazaar (read my blog on that) was a place to spend at lunch time.
Later at night, I would switch on my Keltron transistor and listen to the budding music director Ilayaraja, and his songs from movies like Moodpani and ‘nejathai killathe’. Some evenings were even more interesting, my neighbor knew a popular singer, who would visit and spend a few hours with us regaling all with his lovely voice. Not everybody had a permit (yes, you needed a permit in Madras those days to buy booze – a doctors permit allowing you two bottles of beer or something like that for a month) and those who did would fork in with a bottle of beer and potato chips which we gleefully consumed on the terrace, probably the very same one you see in the ‘kadavul’ movie which I had mentioned earlier, looking at the Madras skyline.The one phone down in the lobby would ring at times and a shout would waft up with the name of the person for whom the call was, we would be rushing down to take it, before it got cut…

Sometimes I think of Theppatti (vatthu petti or matches to Tamilians) Nayar who worked for a match company, and who finally salvaged himself after marrying the owner’s or MD’s daughter…sometimes I think of Krishnan Nair (I am not really sure of his name, my memory is failing a bit) from Ottapalam. What a man that was, an ex railway chap, clerk in a paint company off Mount road, who would bet heavily on horse races and who had four wives ( one in each south Indian state and children from them), believe me I am not bluffing. Some other day, I will tell you more about him. He was probably 55 plus when I knew him and I assure you he would beat tiger (from the woods) at his game, in his prime. Four to Five was his par field and he could go much higher, only he could not afford it and these were real china veedu’s, supported monetarily, not just flings.

As I sit back & think, I marvel at those nostalgic days at Pycroft’s road which is called Bharati Salai these days, of the clean beaches of Marina which were rather nefarious locations on balmy nights, of Royapettah Woodlands hotel which has been razed down and replaced with multiplex theaters, it was also home to many bachelors who lived in the many ‘mansions’ and guest houses, in the middle of these markets, temples, beach and so on…Some days I would go for dinner to the koya place, the mallu tea shop cum hotel Taj mahal where they even had a juke box. I would put in 8 annas and play hindi songs for dinner, and eat ‘porotta with bullseye’ or a biryani…some days when I did not have enough money the eggs would be replaced by sliced tomato and onions. Sometimes it was Ratna café which served the best traditional ‘meals’ with appalams..

It was late in the evening, my reveries are winding down, the bullock wandered away, seeing a shopkeeper throwing away a plantain stem, how easy life is for that animal, eat, sleep, a very rhythmic existence. The dog was curled up in a corner sleeping off the dusk, as only it can, sometimes opening one eye and peering at the teeming public, the boy had run away somewhere, the policeman was back in the station gleefully negotiating a tryst with one of the captured characters.

My thoughts continue to drift, am I going to write about Nair and did I ever go to Amir Mahal? Did I ever meet anybody interesting in my bus travels to Parrys? How about the kid who provided an interesting proposition? What about the midnight event ‘on’ (yes, I did not misspell it) Pycroft’s road? The trip to the smugglers den was written about some years ago (the Burma bazaar story), what about the story connecting Ambika Nivas and Ambika applam? Well, I will get to all or most of them eventually, another day, as the memories surface, one by one.

Some of it is sad, for Kingston died, he fell off a bus one morning on the way to the bank and Joseph died, I do not know how, maybe a broken heart, I lost touch with Iyer and Theepatti nair. The singer still sings, we see him often on TV. But I came across one of those old friends purely by chance, he surfaced in the US, and I think I should check up with him too on some of the characters I talked about.

I do not know if the police station is as it was, or if the market was as it was, for I have not ventured to those places since my days there in the early 80’s. The Wallajah road and stadium names have changed (remember the guy who mentioned them so often in cricket radio commentaries, Anand Satalwad?). My Keltron radio disappeared. I think the Nair mess in Abdullah Street is still there and as popular as it was for people even twitter about it today, they talk about vajram (king fish) fry in Nair mess today.

Triplicane is still the hot spot for footloose bachelors though I doubt if Thomas Pycroft who probably owned many places in Madras once upon a time, ever dreamed that people would remember him to this day, when more illustrious chaps like Thomas Wellesley, who defeated Napoleon and who spent some years in Malabar are not even remembered..

Madras became Chennai, Pycroft gave way to Bharati, Marina became Kamarajar, Mount road became Anna Salai, Royapetta high road I believe is still there, but General patter’s still holds fort, with all the Punjabi run auto spare parts shops. The woodlands hotel became a movie multiplex.

For the historically inclined

Sir Thomas Pycroft, civil servant reached Madras in 1829 and retired after working many years in madras, in 1867, as a distinguished city council member. Strange is the way life goes, Thomas Pycroft was educated in Bath UK, and much later my elder son studied there!! Pycroft later purchased the Anderson gardens and created the Pycrofts garden there. Ambika Nivas and lodge still remains a landmark in the street. The Presidential college still exhibits the place damaged by the Emden shell.

Amir Mahal - In the heart of Chennai is a mahal which is home to a princely family that traces its lineage from the Second Caliph of Islam, Hazrath Omar Bin-Khattab. Not many residents or visitors to the city, as they hurry through the crowded streets of Royapettah, would be aware that beyond the high crimson walls that enclose the wrought iron gates, lie centuries of history. Enter them and you pass through a driveway, flanked by sheds and outhouses, to a huge building in Indo-Saracenic style. This is Amir Mahal, the 14-acre residence of His Highness Nawab Mohammed Abdul Ali Azim Jah, the eighth Prince of Arcot. More than 300 years ago, his ancestor Zulfikar Ali Khan was summoned from Mecca by Emperor Aurangazeb in order to fight against the Marathas. Read more about them in this Hindu article..

Jambazar or Zambazar
Sruthi Sagar explains it pretty well in his blog
It is most famous for its naatu Marundhu kadais (Local medicine shops) and garland shops. It also used to be the haven of dangerous criminals. Adding to this is the Gangai Kondan market for fresh vegetables and the electronic bazar of Richie street which is very very close to Triplicane. This zam bazar is also dotted with shops famous for Biryani. Triplicane is also called the 'Paradise of Bachelors' due to the presence of hundreds of mansions where young men coming from out of the city reside and work.

At one end is the police station, a nice article with a picture

About the mansions of triplicane, check this article out.

Pics – thanks to Hindu

The Bewitching Yakshi

The middle aged Namboothiri (A class of Brahmins in Kerala) was on his way across the fields that warm & sultry summer evening, going from his mana to the neighboring one, only that the other one was some distance away. He was indeed walking the distance and alone. Dusk had approached and he was moving swiftly, muttering the name of the lord under his breath to keep away various evil spirits lurking around. As he walked, a figure appeared from the side path. A voluptuous figure dressed in white, flowing hair, a jasmine wreath on one side of the head approached him. To his eyes, at first look she seemed afraid of the darkening gloom. On second looks he was mesmerized, the jasmine smell was sweet and enticing, and the woman, this fully endowed ‘apsarass’ left nothing more to be desired. Such was her beauty and figure. He stopped transfixed.

The lady softly asked if she could accompany him on the walk as she was terrified to venture on her own, she was a bit too late returning home. As they walked, talking about all kinds of interesting things, in tones and words that had many a meaning, the namboothiri could not resist his carnal urges and started to fantasize. Soon a ‘nalukettu’ appeared on the side of the road. The lady stated that this was her house (the namboothiri could see that it was indeed a noble nair’s tharavad, so he had nothing to fear) and hinted that she would be delighted to spend the evening with the namboothiri at her house, if he so preferred. She offered as a token of the offer (that was the sambandham token of yester years) betel leaves and arecanuts but asked for lime. The Namboothiri could not resist the offer and shared the betel package after offering the lime from his Chunnambu duppi. Soon they reached the doorstep. The lady opened the door and the namboothiri was happy to note that it seemed empty, but for them.

Within seconds after the heavy teak door closed, the beautiful apparition changed to a hideous witch with bloodshot eyes and big monstrous teeth. Much too late the Namboothiri realized that he had been ensnared by a yakshi.

When people went out to look for him the next morning, all they could find were a few rotten teeth stained after many years of betel chewing, a few discolored nails from his feet and hands, and the tuft of his hair, under the tall palm tree on the side of the walking path.

This small narrative above is typically the gist of most old yakshi stories. Of course the story advanced with time, had other variations and the ‘yakshi’ became more mobile and entered modern houses, took other forms and so on. For a teenager, it was the figure of the ‘yakshi’, her hormones on overdrive and the various carnal possibilities and the danger that provided continuing fascination. And soon the storyline was to be seen in books, novels and movies of Kerala. Sometimes the palm tree became a ‘pala’ or ‘murukku’ tree. These yakshis are normally beautiful women with long flowing hair which covers their entire back (it appears that their backs are hollow) and their feet are turned backwards. I understood also that they are able to float or glide through the air. The jasmine flowers were in some stories replaced by ‘pala’ flowers. But I am not narrating any more stories. Let us try to figure out what this is myth is all about.

This is a classic Kerala subject, one who is found in many an old Malayalam novel or movie, dressed in white, wearing jasmine flowers and bewitching men who pass her by with her sweet songs and looks and caressing voice….The yakshi songs of Malayalam films are some of the best to date. As a child, when wandering around the fields and roads in Pallavur, late in the evenings or at night, while crossing tall palm trees I have myself been terrified, knees knocking. We had all spent restless evenings and nights terrified that a Yakshi might catch hold of us, and the older story tellers always had this card up their sleeve when faced with a truant child.

While the Yaksha and Yakshi in North India is the good type, note specifically that the Yakshi in Kerala folklore is not always the benevolent kind, she is actually a blood thirsty woman (usually wronged before her death by an upper class man = so her soul is not resting in peace and is constantly out to take revenge on these men), who can take the form of a lovely lady with a fantastic figure and lure you into her arms. What was the significance of the Jasmine or Pala flowers? What is the connection with the Palm tree? Well some enthusiasts or experts, whichever way you put it say that the smell of these flowers is very sexually stimulating (hence also scattered over the nuptial bed!). It is clear that the tree sprouts flowers that have a heavenly fragrance supposedly exciting to the male senses. Supposedly you can see Yakshi pala or Ezhilam pala trees near Bhagavathy temples? Did somebody work out a solution perhaps to keep the lust in check? There is a version that a Yakshi is usually a Namboothiri, Varasiyar or other ambalavasi woman who dies unmarried.

Later I saw the movie based on the great Malayatoor’s novel ‘yakshi’ though I hardly remembered the story. Many other ‘yakshi’ movies and yakshi songs followed and many a time in my teens, I have looked at the awesome & famous Yakshi nude statue at the Malampuzha dam in Palakkad (She is Yakshi, a divine enchantress, sculpted by Kanai Kunhiraman, a leading Kerala sculptor), imagining various possibilities with the female form. Remember that Palakkad was also the place where there existed plenty of palm trees (pana) and of course many namboothiri mana’s and Illam’s.

The yakshi was terrified of iron and holy books. So if one held up the nail, he was saved. This was the trick used by the Katamattathu katthanar. The story of the Iron ezhuttani scaring away the witch comes from the Missionaries who presumably exemplified the use of the holy book and Biblical methods to scare away the voodoo spirit. The iron nail is reminiscent of the nails used to nail truant men to the stake from ancient times, but nailing the seductress to a Kanjiram tree was supposed trap them for ever! Yakshi’s was later equated to the vampire of the Western tales by the title Rakta rakshassu – which of course became a very popular drama in Kerala (remember Thiraskarani manthram…?). Any idea why young ladies in Kerala (many years ago when they listened to parents, that is) were told never to sleep without undergarments? It is said that if they did so, they would be visited by a Gandharva, and you can imagine the consequences. Well, well…I will leave it at that..

But then, are yakshi’s demons, witches? No – Not really for we have temples for yakshi’s in Kerala. One version (Marlene Pitkow) has it that Yakshi’s are female ghosts of unhappy women who die before having se or before marriage or before giving birth. She is the lalitha or Mohini form in Kathakali. They are also associated with goddess Durga; there are special festivals for yakshi’s on durgashtami. According to some definitions, yakshi’s are the feminine kin of yaksha’s and both yaksha’s and yakshi’s are godly beings, not demons. The reader must again note that I am only covering the Kerala yakshi’s. The name has different meanings in different places.

During the heydays of Jainism in India, Yakshas and Yakshis were worshipped. Then came the brahminism wave and the namboothiris, So was it a brahminical method of luring people away from that older religious cult? It could very well have been. So, it could have been the disorderly erasure of the Jainist and Budhist history of Kerala. Or as an old English historian wrote, just a case of prostitutes luring travelers and ripping them off, documented differently to keep the trade in check?

A person who covered this subject many years ago in his popular novel and later a very popular Movie ‘Yakshi’ is Malayatoor Ramakrishnan. Would you like to know about their fascinating world? He writes in his novel about his fictional trip to the world of yakshi’s

Translation excerpted from Gayatri Devi’s blog. Check here for the full chapter

“Thus it was that lying down I saw the world of yakshi’s.
All around inside you see plants you have never seen before growing. Flowers made of sapphires, emeralds, garnets, and topazes bloom on them. A small stream, just like the ones you have seen, dribbles by with a song. But it is not water that is flowing in it, but molten silver. The grass thicket bending into the brook is not green but crimson in color. Huge dragonflies, each about six feet long and with golden wings fly above the stream. Young yakshi children cross the stream on the back of these dragon flies……….

A big path covered with the most beautiful carpet sewn with the skin of golden fish starts at the edge of the stream. This carpet will never get dirty, its colors will never fade because yakshis do not walk on them. They glide and float over it…….

Yakshis have a test, a rite of passage into adulthood. The candidates have to climb up and slither down a black palm tree made out of cast bronze standing under their blue sun, in the nude, three times. ……….. With this test they become mature yakshis. The queen of yakshis will pronounce the winners into mature yakshis in front of all their peers. The queen will dip her finger in the blood of kings and emperors of the earth stored inside diamond-studded crowns and anoint the adult yakshis.
Milk from the milky way is the staple diet of yakshis. It is stipulated, an unbroken law, that once a year, mature yakshis descend into earth to drink the blood of mortal men. If they break this law, their feet will trip over the golden carpet made out of shiny scales.

I witnessed this strange and magical world two or three times from my bed.

Nevertheless I did not quite understand Gayatri Devi’s remarks about Yakshi’s - ‘Their demonization either speaks of an essential definitional ambiguity about "godliness" or can perhaps be explained by a historicist reading of such texts and events’

The Zamorin, the Bhattathiri and the Yakshi - This one is a slightly different story actually where the yakshi falls in love with the exorcist Bhattathiripad and promises not to harm him. As the story goes, she delivers a girl, and leaves the man. As the old scholar is on his deathbed, he tells the story to his son and asks him to erect a temple for the invisible yakshi daughter and worship her…

Not withstanding all the above, the lovely Yakshi will always be in the minds of the people of Kerala especially those born and brought up there. When you walk those lanes between the fields, and as a mild breeze brings the smell of jasmine mixed with drying paddy, you will always be reminded of the lovely lass with those stupendous mammaries and you would gaze up at the palm tree by the side, and wonder.. the danger will battle with the carnal desires…and then you would sigh and walk on…shrugging off the superstitions, to the concrete home with the modern living room, the TV dishing out the latest soap and then to bring you back to reality, the mobile phone would chirp out the latest ring tune after having finally established a link with its master, the network...


Venattu Yakshikal – K Ramesan Nair
Legend of Kadamattathu Katthanar
Guptan Namboothiri’s story
A modern Vada Yakshi story from LA
Melankode yakshi’s story
The Kadamatom church
The Pynanarkavu Yakshi :
Kalliangattu neeli
Naaga Yakshi temples
Chottanikara Bhagavathy Aithishyam
Thurston also provides some interesting stories about Yakshis

Tail note - And it was while researching this many months ago that I came across a fine writer & blogger Anuradha Warrier, who helped me later on the Krishna Menon subject. See her take on Yakshi, the novel