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)

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.


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


Cannanore Days

Burnshire - Cannanore 1944-46

Burma had been taken by the Japanese, Singapore and Malaya had been lost earlier and the trepidation of invasion through the eastern frontier near Assam was paramount in quivering allied hearts. Indians were in two minds, one supporting the Azad Hind massing up in Burma with the Chalo Dilli rally, the other wondering if the British would save them from a potential attack by the Japanese. As towns and villages quaked in fear, the common man was more worried about subsistence and the British apathy at their plight. While Bengal was still in the grips of a terrible famine, Malabar was recovering from a terrible famine coupled with Cholera epidemics.

It was the summer of 1945 - The Vultee Vengeance A35 dive bomber, painted a dirty brown, a frontline aircraft made in Nashville TN USA and now being used grudgingly by the RAF, was getting ready for takeoff at the Cannanore Cantonment grounds airstrip, adjoining its parade ground. This Mark IV V-72, built to British specs, a low-wing, single-engine, triple prop monoplane, powered by an air-cooled radial Wright R-2600-13 Cyclone 14-cylinder engine rated at 1,700 hp, was now revving up. The pilot, a young man from Britain and previously trained on VV bombers in Florida, was by now used to flying this Yankee craft, which interestingly had a center of gravity that seemed a bit off. It was a great drive bomber nevertheless. If one were to look carefully, they would have seen sinister shaped tanks under the wings, and they were most certainly not bombs. The pilot had the canopy open during flight, something you rarely saw them doing with other planes.  

The black kite (Milvus migrans - chakki parunthu), actually muddy brown and not black, with a forked tail, common to the Malabar skies, was not concerned (Black kites are most often seen gliding and soaring on thermals as they search for food. The bird glides effortlessly, changing directions easily swooping down with their legs lowered to snatch small live prey, fish, household refuse and carrion, for which behavior they are known in British military slang as the shite-hawk). The kites were very good and nimble fliers, and it was rare for them to be involved in an aerial accident, as they were very quick for their size and dodged other flying objects easily. It had of late been seeing this new and noisy brown bird for some time now and considered it harmless. Like crows, kites often crossed the path of this new and thundering airplane, one which had a spinning head.

Today was not meant to be. The pilot was surging through for takeoff and just as its wheels left ground, the kite met its spinning propellers. The young pilot felt and heard the heavy thud followed by the sight of a cloud of feathers flying past his cowl gills and across the glass of the cockpit. Bits of it got between the cylinders, and the pilot who had just got airborne, came back to land and have his engine checked. The ground staff had to take all the engine panels off, they saw that the carcass was wedged between the cylinder rows. A grumpy hot and humid hour was spent by them, perched up on stepladders fishing out the blood, guts and feathers. The engine looked fine, and was restarted without any issues.

There was one less kite now in Malabar, but then nobody cared about such things, for it was a time of war. Another kite sitting on the flag pole watched lazily, waiting to peck on the scraps. For that was its life!

The pilot uttered a silent prayer, crossed his fingers for luck and reared for takeoff again, and this time there were no mishaps. The plane was quickly airborne and headed north, towards Kumbala situated a little further up the Arabian Sea coast. Some days he and his team flew to Kumbala, some days it was to Porkal.

What could this plane with the funny tanks be doing in Cannanore? And what was this new hush hush establishment titled CDRE, now teeming with foreign and Indian army scientists as well as civilians in white coats, be tasked with? What experiments were they conducting? What were a bunch of volunteers at a remote Kumbla field, wearing a poncho like overcoat, be waiting hesitantly for? Rain from the skies in the middle of a hot summer? The wait was not long, for soon enough the VV -A31 flight 1340 appeared, after having survived the bird strike.

Even today it is difficult to dredge out the answers, but I will give you some. And for that not only have you got to go to Japanese controlled Manchuria in China, but also a place called Porton Down in Wiltshire - England.

Before and during the Sino-Japanese war, Japanese Imperial Forces had produced various chemical Weapons. Among the CW agents produced were phosgene, mustard, lewisite, hydrogen cyanide, and so on. The Japanese Unit 731 had notoriously used them against the Chinese and the allies feared that faced with reverses at multiple fronts, the Japanese could now use them against the Allied forces lined up on the NE front.

As the 1925 Geneva Protocol permitted the use of chemical warfare in retaliation, the Chemical Defense Experimental Station (CDES) in Britain was authorized to develop offensive chemical warfare research as well as development and the production of chemical warfare agents. The scientists worked with chemicals, combined and separated molecules and compounds, all with one aim - to maim and kill if attacked, of course observing strict secrecy. But could that happen during the 2nd World war? The answer may have been in the affirmative. Then there was the defensive aspect if attacked by the Japanese. So the tests also covered the effect of these chemicals on humans in case of an attack and any potential antidotes.

Winston Churchill cruelly opined that Britain would be stupid if they did not test chemical agents on an illiterate and lesser human race, like India. As it turned out a large number of severe causalities were demonstrated in the tests in 1942-43 up North in India, on both British and Indian subjects. In fact the final decision taken was that if the tests could produce results such as severe blisters and incapacitation (and thereby deemed too dangerous for allied or British servicemen), they should only be conducted in India!

Britain had as we saw, previously tested chemical weapons in India and the first of the test sites was in Rawalpindi, then Devlalli or Deolali near Nasik. The 67th Chemical warfare company which was at first trained for such warfare and equipped with rocket fired gas canisters, was based in Deolali. As the high temperature was causing the MG shells to sweat, they were soon moved to the eastern front. At the same time the RAF were given the responsibility of supporting additional tests on the impact of the poison gas on English troops. Rawalpindi and Deolali were dry, Britain was cold, and the need was to find a tropical location much like the SE Asian jungles. Urgent counter measures and potential retaliation had to be planned.

Porton Down had concluded that a casualty producing dosage could be achieved with sprayed mustard gas. Male participants dressed in khakis were subjected to tests in Madras and it was soon concluded that the whites and black races showed different degrees of resistance, necessitating changes in uniform codes during combat. Thus it was in 1944, that the CDRE (I) headed by JS Anderson was set up in Cannanore where Porton scientists carried out a comprehensive program to test defensive and offensive chemical warfare technology. The war clouds were dark and rolling in, the prospect of a chemical attack was high and volunteers were lined up for tests. It was time now to test protective clothing and land areas with aerially sprayed chemical agents.

The British chemical weapons unit at the Sulur airbase in Coimbatore was deemed unsuitable for the next round of field tests. It was time to relocate the CDRE to another appropriate location and the choice finally rested on Cannanore. The two field ranges where CW tests were conducted were at Kumbala and Porkhal.

I should now divulge the first hand source for the information relating to this project and the so called flight 1340. They originate from the charming, lucid and humorous accounts provided by ‘Danny42c’ in a pilot’s forum. He was one of the pilots (the group leader) assigned to fly the VV 1340 test flights from Cannanore for a 12 month period (Danny is active and close to becoming a centenarian, I have been in correspondence with him for some days now). With due acknowledgment and gratitude to Danny, let me draw from vivid accounts of his stay in the Burnshire (Burnachery) cantonment at Cannanore, and retell his interesting account of that period.

The RAF sent out a batch of fliers to join what was called the flight 1340 (on special Duty) to Cannanore in March 1945 to duplicate a lot of tests with poison gas which had been conducted in England and western Canada. Danny who flew the VV and was involved in the bird hit states - Could this (CW agent) be produced in quantity (at reasonable cost) to spread or spray on open ground in order to deny access to troops as effectively as land mines? Our work at the C.D.R.E. in Cannanore in 1944-1946 was concerned with defenses against liquid Mustard Gas (Dichloro diethyl sulphide) used for the purpose. He continues - Curiously, at about that time (end of '45), my little unit (1340 Flight) was trying the same idea locally in Cannanore (S. India), using the underwing spray tanks that we'd previously used for spraying mustard gas for the Chemical Defense Research Establishment. We sprayed mustard on volunteer squaddies to see if their Gas Capes were any good.

The Cannanore Cantonment came into existence in the 19th century during the British Raj, providing residential facility to both military and civil population (in land which was part of the Arakkal Kingdom until 1909, from whom the British acquired it). That was where the CDRE was billeted. With the establishment of the CDRE(I), a bunch of personnel including a few Brits landed up in Cannanore. They were not the traditional colonial sort, who tarried around in estates or the ICS, they were soldiers and scientists fresh from the gloomy climes of Britain. How would they have found balmy Cannanore?

Danny goes on - Ours was a grimmer task, we were spraying mustard and phosgene gases (for the purpose of evaluating methods of defense, of course). Poison gases were used not just as vapors, but also in heavy liquid form. Droplets on the skin are highly caustic, sprayed on the ground they are persistent and can deny access to an area (for a time) almost as well as land mines. Against vapors, respirators of some sort are the only defense (in UK in the early days of the war everyone had to carry round their own "gas-mask" in its little square cardboard box) but for liquids, "Anti-Gas Capes" were Service issue kit. For those without them who might have been sprayed, RAF Stations had "Decontamination Centers", where you could strip to the buff, have a good shower to wash the stuff off ASAP.

We were allowed to continue our planned trials to completion for a few months after the war, and then we cleaned out the tanks and had a go at the anti-malaria spraying ourselves. We cleaned the tanks and sprayed DDT (think in kerosene solution) on some unsuspecting Indian villages to reduce incidence of malaria. Worked, too - until they found that DDT was toxic.

During the monsoon period, the Cannanore strip was waterlogged and the CDRE attempted to relocate the planes to Sulur, but it did not prove to be a good idea since the distances to Kumbala and Porkhal were just too much. Later, detailed tests were made by this unit on the application of aerial smoke-screens for use in the combined operations in the retaking of Malaya, codenamed Operation Zipper.

It will be unfair of me to paraphrase or reword what Danny wrote about the life in the Cannanore Cant.., simply because his story telling style is captivating, so whatever you read below are his own words. He recounts his days with charming honesty.

When I got there the place was a madhouse, the airfield was still under construction, half mud, half grass and the aircraft were going to be Vengeances. I was to be the CO of the unit, and so they promoted me to Flight Lieutenant and the first aircraft to come in were Mark IV’s, which differed considerably from those I had been flying up at the front. When I found out what my job was going to be, I discovered that it was going to involve a lot of low flying. In fact it had to be very accurate, flying for the most part at heights of only 30 ft. This is a far from enviable job in the Vengeance because of the high angle of attack, especially at low speeds. So as soon as I was able to fly off the airstrip, I started a program of low flying to be able to lay a screen that again was measurable from the ground in the size of the molecules that dropped. We practiced until we became quite proficient. They supplied me with three aircraft and aircrew who had never been on operations, but we succeeded in developing a pretty good unit.

Operational control was vested in the Royal Engineers, in the person of a fatherly old Colonel Philips as the C.O. He was a research scientist and the Cannanore Mess was full of them, Dr. this and Dr. that, as well as a number of medical and veterinary officers who looked after our human and animal guinea-pigs.

The Mess was the old Army Mess, properly built in the '20s on the assumption that the Empire would last forever. But there were very few officer's quarters (amply sufficient for those days, I suppose), and now the Chemical Defense Research Establishment had to accommodate not only their own Army medical, veterinary and administrative officers, but a whole gaggle of civilian experts ("Scientific Officers") as well. The RAF contingent was small, just about 5 or 6. They lived in tents.

Ours were rectangular mini-marquees with much more floor space than in a junior officer's room in an "Expansion Pattern" RAF Mess. The floor was covered with sand, with two or three Afghan rugs - this was comfort indeed. It was furnished on a lavish Indian Army scale: a "Camp Cot Newar" in place of the bedbug-infested charpoys which had served us for the last three years, a wardrobe, a chest of drawers with a mirror, a table and a chair. In any case we were only 100 yds or so from the cliff edge; the tent wall was rolled back in the middle of each (long) side to provide a doorway with a hanging rattan screen which allowed the gentle sea breeze to pass through while excluding most of the insects, inquisitive rats, goats and shite hawks. Permanent ablutions were over the road in the Army camp, but you would tell your "bearer" (when he brought you your morning tea) to bring you a bowl of hot water to shave.

There were communal showers over there too, which the service people always used (but the older, more diffident civilians preferred the privacy of a "camp kit" [folding canvas] bath in their tents). Sanitation was by "thunderbox" - there were no Deep Trench Latrines. No electricity or running water in the tent lines, of course but the permanent camp had both. Cannanore town did not offer much in the way of attractions, but there were the usual bazaars where there would be tailors, shoemakers, barbers and most necessities of life on sale - but not razor blades (or gramophone needles)!

What the town did have was a Portuguese Roman Catholic Church. I cannot remember its name (and now there seems to be a Holy Trinity Cathedral [for a Diocese of Kannur has been created], probably on the same spot). But in my time, there was just a Church with a Portuguese priest; he could speak only Portuguese and Malayalam (which was all that was needed for his flock). But we could attend Mass there on Sundays, for of course it was still the old (Latin) Tridentine Mass, then the absolute standard throughout the world, and as soon as he swung onto the altar, handed his biretta to the server and intoned the "Introibo ad altare Dei", we were off, and might as well have been in our family church back home.

Now, in British India, when two or three Englishmen were gathered together anywhere, the first thing they always did was to build a Club. Cannanore was no exception. At the top end of the (then) town, a wide laterite bluff overlooked a tiny, secluded beach to the north. If today, you look up "Cannanore (Kannur) beaches", you'll find a "Baby Beach". I am fairly certain that this was the Club Beach. Above it, on the top of the bluff, were two or three small hotels and the Cannanore Club. (European club - I think it is the Savoy these days). This was a spacious bungaloid construction with a large horseshoe shaped bar; there must have been a main lounge and several smaller rooms. Certainly there would have been a billiard room (for what Club worthy of the name would be without one), a Music Room and a Card room, though curiously I never remember these. The Club was too small to cater; and had no bedrooms, but that did not matter: both were available at the nearby "decent hotels".

The main attractions of the Club were outdoors. They had one (or two?) hard tennis courts on the landward side, and then there was always the Club Beach. Reached down a rather rough and dangerous flight of narrow steps cut into the rock, it gave us safe swimming (I don't remember any history of shark attacks - but then ignorance is bliss). The Club kept, in the changing rooms, a selection of surf boards for the free use of members. These were nothing like the boards you see in Hawaii or New quay today. They were thin, strong wooden planks only four or five feet long by about fifteen inches wide , but adequate for the surfing on offer. It was a good idea to be on a towel, for in their burrows in the sand there were thousands of minute crabs (from memory, about ¼” across) which would pop out and give you a tiny nip before popping down again.

Now who were the Club Members who were the beneficiaries of all this? I would say that there were very few Europeans permanently resident in Cannanore. A Police Officer, I suppose, maybe a Magistrate or two, a Forestry officer or a high-level railway official. All these would be ipso facto members of the Club. And in the "cool" season (say November - February), their numbers were increased by a strange reverse of the "Hill Station" summer exodus.

All this was changed by the wartime arrival of the CDRE; immediately the number of Service officers (and civilians of officer status) doubled or trebled: all would be eligible for temporary membership of the Club. Curiously, not many applied. I suppose the majority were married, older and staider men, who were quite content with a comfortable life in the Mess, enjoyed the warm sunshine, and a stroll along the Moplah beach in the cool of the evening. Surfing did not appeal.

There was another community of Britons who were, in a sense, "lesser breeds without the Law", the Anglo Indians, and so it was in Cannanore - and everywhere else in India. There is no use railing against the injustice of this; it was simply the way it was and always had been.

My people were housed in the permanent Sergeant's Mess and in the Army barrack blocks (not in tents, as the number of "other ranks" had not increased in proportion to the number of officers and civilians of officer status). They were luckier (?) in that they had slow-turning ceiling fans, which just about stirred up the hot air without producing much cooling. The food in the Army Messes was reasonable - which did not stop the eternal grumbles, but that has always been 'par for the course'.

But what amenities could I offer my people? Well, the Army had set up the "Clover Club" in what had originally been the Regimental Institute, but a piano, a billiard table and a couple of table tennis tables don't take you very far. The ORB records that we organized inter-service football and hockey matches on the airstrip. The CDRE Football team and Hockey team excelled in those days. Off the airstrip, the beach was too narrow and rocky, the only safe beaches were the Club beach (from which they were excluded) and the Moplah Bay beach (the other side of the Fort), where there were miles of sand.

Danny’s Cannanore as you read so far, was an attractive place, replete with golden sands, soft breezes, whispering palms down to the high-water mark - everything a Hollywood producer would want as a location for a 'Tropical Island' film and as the story went, Danny did have another story to tell, relating to a couple of attractive British lassies who arrived from Bangalore and a short and ill-fated romance.

Danny’s flight-1340 related reports can be located in the British archives and purchased for a substantial fee, by those interested. These tests and studies were instrumental in Allied CW plans and many M Gas bottles of British and American manufacture were prepared and stored in the NE sectors for a potential conflict with the Japanese. The British military had thus done its best, faced with the possibility of chemical warfare. The results from Cannanore and Porton helped develop special clothing and masks for the military as well as the public in Britain.

But well, there is a sad aspect to this story. While gas masks were designed and supplied in Britain to the population, and even to British subjects at far flung Singapore to ward off or protect against potential chemical attacks, none were available for the teeming masses in NE India. As one journalist wrote succinctly - “The great masters cowering in well protected bunkers preferred that the children of the Raj, the jewel of their crown, be exposed and perish, if it came to a chemical attack”. Fortunately, no chemical attacks took place and the war came to an end with a Japanese surrender closely following the dropping of atom bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki (a subject I had covered elsewhere).

Danny returned to a dank Britain, did other things in life but still remembers and writes fondly of his warm days from Cannanore.

He replied me wistfully, when I mentioned that I was from Calicut – ‘Never visited Calicut, but flew past it every fortnight on my trips to Cochin (RAF Willingdon Island) from Cannanore (to draw cash to pay my troops). I used to follow the coastline at 1,000’ - 1,500’ so as to get a good look at all the towns on the way.  Always looked an "old-worldly" place to me, with the dhows with their lateen sails in port.  Of course, it had been (and I suppose still is) for hundreds of years the port for the spice traders of Kerala. Memories, memories! Of course, it'll have all been changed from the sleepy backwaters I knew 73 years ago.’

Never go back!

A load of thanks to the honest renderings of Danny42c who recorded his days at Cannanore  
Secret Science: A Century of Poison Warfare and Human Experiments - By Ulf Schmidt
An imperial world at war – ed. Ashley Jackson (Protecting which spaces and bodies? -Susan R Grayzel)
Chemical Warfare - Edward M. Spiers

Photos -
Cannaore cant map Courtesy Kallivalli 
Dannys VV bomber

Special Note – This is a personal account of Danny 42c, in most parts. Not to be copied, rephrased, re-quoted or disseminated, without his written permission