Für Elise – and its enduring mysteries

Many years ago, I picked up a little music box during our travels in Europe, I don’t recall where, and when the little contraption is wound, it plays the Für Elise tune. The tune was interesting and the mechanic in me has never tired of watching the little drum spin when wound up, the comb reeds hitting the bumps on the cylinder thus making music, as the governor fan spins away mysteriously (actually for speed control). Every now and then, as I pass our curio shelf, I would give it a windup and the magnificent tune created by Beethoven would tinkle away to remove any silence in the living room. It is still a part of our collection, even after so many home moves over continents.

This research started with an episode in Malayalam’s Top singer program where a participant sang the song (Januvariyil Viriyum from the movie Akale – it has fabulous songs incidentally) which starts in the scales of the iconic Für Elise. The brilliant Music director M Jayachandran, explains why he composed it so and provides a tantalizing aside that Beethoven perhaps wrote it as a tune of rejection for a girl Elizabeth, who was a chorus singer in his symphony troupe (adding that it could also possibly be for another girl) who rejected him. As the tune had been part of us for so many years, this intrigued me and I decided to check it out, and wow! what a trip it was and the stuff I learnt! I can’t put it all here, but I will pen some highlights anyway!

Have you ever been to Vienna in Austria? Oh! What a glorious city it is, not small in any way and full of cultural history and sights to see (and a great Kerala restaurant which we visited a few times). The memory of our visiting the city in the late 90’s is fading away from my mind, but I remember it as a rich, vibrant and colorful city, teeming with magnificent buildings, the huge Schonbrunn palace, countless museums, beautiful parks, and boulevards. But more than all that, it was home to the prodigal German musician Ludwig Van Beethoven in the last decade of the 18th century and the first two decades of the 19th. Most of his great musical pieces and symphonies were composed in Vienna, at the same time as he was getting afflicted with depressing deafness. Can you imagine a situation where the greatest music composer was creating just those, but not able to hear them fully! Next time you complain about something, try imagining the genius Beethoven’s plight! But added to the tragedy was the sad fact that every single one of the girls he was attached to, rejected a life with him and Beethoven died a bachelor, aged 56!

Beethoven already a piano virtuoso, aged 20, arrived in Vienna in 1792 or thereabouts (He had visited the city earlier in 1787 and perhaps even met Mozart) and after a period of playing and composing music, found some influential patrons, just as Napoleon and his troops were running amok in Austria. As the 19th century dawned, Beethoven was already popular and his music was in great demand.

Around 1798, Beethoven’s hearing started to get affected, followed by bouts of tinnitus. Whether it was otosclerosis, due to a typhus attack, a virus infection, syphilis, due to his habit of dunking his head often in cold water, or a result of his fondness of lead sweetened cheap wine, is still being contested, and the source of another of the many mysteries connected with the prodigy. But he got over his initial fears, still heard quite a bit and went on to compose great music, both short and long pieces. Like any other artist, he had his creative circle and many muses figured in his life, many of whom he was smitten by. As days passed, he flitted from one girl to the other, and some of the pieces he wrote were dedicated to the ladies he fell in love with! In his final years, he became a virtual recluse, quite eccentric, even getting arrested for vagrancy and often under the influence.

But let’s get to the mysterious Für Elise. To start with you have to first understand that it belonged to a class comprising short light & mellow but unpretentious instrumental compositions known as a bagatelle or even a not so demanding albumblatt, or album leaf. Perhaps it was more an album leaf, a little piece written in dedication to a friend or admirer, to be inserted into their album or autograph book, though not intended for publication. Now comes the first of the intriguing parts of the tale, it was never published in his lifetime and found some 40 years after Beethoven’s death, in the personal collection of a lady named Babett Bredl who had nothing to do with him! But naturally, the researcher Ludwig Nohl who discovered it, was mystified.

Nohl a music teacher, published his book New Beethoven letters in 1867. In his book, he titled the piece Für Elise and introduced it to the wide world. As it turned out, Bredel had not allowed Nohl to take the original Beethoven autograph (she confirmed that Nohl saw it though, so it existed), so he copied it and told the world of his findings in his book including the jotting on the autograph which announced: "Für Elise am 27 April zur Erinnerung von L. v. Bthvn "For Elise – April 27, as a remembrance from L von Bthvn". The search for Elise was on and it, of course, started with Bradel. How did she get it?

Babett Bredel, a retired teacher in Munich who had nothing to do with the circle of greats in Vienna, actually obtained it from her illegitimate son Rudolph Schachner who in his youth had become an intimate friend and music partner of a much older Therese von Droßdik nee Malfatti. As it turned out, this Therese was once upon a time, a good friend of Beethoven and that is how she got it from Beethoven. Should have been an open and shut case.

Or so they thought at first till other researchers put on their thinking hats! Was it Therese? Was it one of the many other women Beethoven had his eyes on and was passionate about? Did Nohl misread Beethoven’s terrible handwriting which could have meant Für Therese instead of Für Elise, setting off the hunt? Did Nohl invent the whole story and compose the piece himself? Nohl had mentioned that Theresa’s sister had told him that Beethoven had been interested in marrying Theresa Malfatti, years ago. All very intriguing, right? 

Let’s see and for that, we have to go visit the music scene in Vienna during what was Beethoven’s formative years, his ‘heroic period’. In 1808 Beethoven received an invitation to become music director in Kassel, Germany from Jerome, Napoleon’s brother. This alarmed several of his wealthy Viennese friends, who agreed to guarantee Beethoven an annual salary of 1,400 florins to keep him in Vienna, so he stayed. In 1809, Vienna surrendered to Napoleon in the battle of Wagram, and I am sure Beethoven who once thought the world of Napoleon, was shattered, he quickly composed a piece celebrating Wellington’s victory after the defeated emperor of France sailed to Elba. It was in 1809, as Napoleon was fighting Austrian forces, that Beethoven’s mentor Joseph Hayden passed away.

Beethoven was creating history, however, with his remarkable output, but on a personal front, life was certainly gloomy. As we saw before he was fighting bouts of depression caused by the deafness creeping on him, trying to come to terms with it, and on a personal front, all his liaisons with women he lost his heart to, were resulting in failure mostly due to his slightly lesser social status and because most of the girls he tried to woo were of much higher noble standing.

But the genius and high flying, dark-complexioned, short gent with a crude shaped head and a pockmarked face, bushy eyebrows, a mane of graying uncombed hair, sharp and piercing eyes, uneven temper, and one sporting a relatively unkempt appearance, tried repeatedly to land a permanent partner mostly from among his students, was forever involved in fruitless relationships, eventually finding physical solace only in the cubicles of Vienna’s red streets. While Vienna celebrated his music, sad was his personal story, to say the least.

Almost always, he was attracted to women whose social or marital status were well above his standing and reach. Beethoven continued to try and somewhere, sometime, in 1810, he found one lady for whom he created and dedicated the lovely short piece which we now title Für Elise. It is described as a small work, as lovely as a summer breeze, reminding one of a bird swaying on a tree-top, with a rhythm full of grace, a theme that any child or adult could learn and love.

Magdalena Willman whom he proposed to in the late 18th rejected it saying he was ‘too ugly and half crazy’, Giulietta Gucciardi his dear and fascinating girl, decided that marriage with a count was certainly better. Following them came Josephine, who again went on to marry in her class. But a year later her old husband died and she is rumored to have been having an affair with the pianist. Rumor also has it that her sister Theresa was secretly engaged to Beethoven for some years, but at this time he had some kind of a liaison with a Countess Erdody (she and her friends had helped him get the pension and remain in Vienna) who got expelled from Austria for other reasons. It was at this juncture that the 40-year-old virtuoso got infatuated with and started courting the 18-year-old Theresa Malfatti, his doctor’s daughter. His marriage proposal was promptly turned down.

Did the rumored dinner event where he gifted the now-famous autograph, take place?? Most certainly not, but it is a good tale. As they said - Malfatti served an exceedingly strong punch at the soirée, and Beethoven drank huge quantities of it. So drunk was he that he was unable to play the piece, and in no condition to propose anything to anyone. It seems that Therese made him instead write her name on the title page. He wrote, in almost illegible writing, "Für Therese".

On the rebound, we hear of Bettina von Arnim, then a singer named Amalie Sebald (who called him a tyrant) and an actress named Rahel Levin (surreptitious perhaps – as her lover and later her husband Count Varnhagen was also around) followed. Then came the revelation that Beethoven was seeing Josephine, the sister of Theresa and the juicy rumor that she was pregnant with Beethoven’s daughter! Beethoven dedicated his work to many of these girls, so it is difficult to figure out who he thought the most about. Each theory on the Für Elise dedicatee has its supporters and opponents and I simply enjoyed reading the papers written by Max Unger writing in 1925 who was firmly behind Theresa Malfatti, the theories of Barry Cooper and the new discoveries by Rita Steblin.

Based on the dating of the autograph to 1810, Unger checked out the ladies in Beethoven’s circle at Vienna during that time, only to conclude that the lady favored with Für Elise in 1810 could have been none other than Theresa Malfatti. Secondly, the autograph originated from Theresa Malfatti’s collection. In German script Theresa and Elise look similar, Nohl according to Unger, made an error in the transcription, for the piece was ‘for Theresa’. Kopitz another researcher then wrote that it must have been written for one Elsie Rockl, and that this autograph was later gifted to Theresa Malfatti.

Barry Cooper opined that Elise is a common endearment in German poetry, and so Beethoven would have used that pet name for Theresa, just like he often modified other people’s names, playing with words. Another researcher Johannes Quack suggested that the opening notes refer to the musical notes in the name Elsie.

But Rita Steblin questioned this hypothesis, not accepting a potential ‘transcription error by Nohl’ which Unger had postulated. While establishing that it was indeed composed in the Spring of 1810, she agrees that Beethoven was indeed smitten by Theresa in the spring of 1810 and gifted her many musical pieces. Though Für Elise is written and gifted to one Elsie, Beethoven is getting ready for marriage with Theresa, though by May the project falls through.

Steblin then introduces a child singing prodigy Elsie Barensfeld, all of 14 years in age, who lived right across Theresa Malfatti’s residence, with her master Johann Malzel. Steblin believes that Theresa gave piano lessons to Elsie across the street, and as a novice, Theresa may have asked Beethoven to compose an easy piece for her ward Elsie, who in turn was about to leave Vienna. She returned later, stayed on for another three years with Malzel after which she had to leave again due to police pressure who believed that Malzel would go on to seduce his young tenant and pupil! Before she left, she returned the autograph piece to Theresa. Though not established, it is a plausible theory. Cooper quickly rebutted this theory stating that Elsie was known as Lissette in 1810, so there is no way Beethoven would have addressed the piece to Elsie, instead of Lissette.

It is difficult to really establish if the most likely candidate is Theresa Malfatti as widely accepted or if it is Elsie Barensfeld, but what we do know is that it ended up with Theresa from whom it passed on to Schachner and eventually to Babett Bredel. Thanks to Nohl, the fabulous composition reached the public, or else it may never have surfaced, ever! Oh! I forgot to mention - In 1817 Therese von Malfatti married a Hungarian Baron von Drosdick, who died in a few years; she lived on to the age of 60 and died in 1851.

There are so many more mysteries concerning Beethoven, such as his letter to the immortal beloved, his real relations with Josephine (mother of his rumored daughter), the mysteries involving his brother Kaspar Karl, Karl’s wife Johanna Reiss and their son Karl, who later became the focus of Beethoven’s life and despair till his passing. We also know that Beethoven was not completely deaf, he could hear some frequencies and used many hearing aids and other contraptions during the last decades of his life. During his last years, he even used a wooden rod as an aid when composing, one end of which was placed in the soundbox of the piano and the other held between his teeth! Like his music, his life has so much more to reveal!

But I have to add a little tidbit, if Beethoven had worked further on the Für Elise piece, it may have been composed differently according to Barry Cooper, since Beethoven was planning to publish a collection of his bagatelles in 1822, and he made a number of modifications to the original Für Elise. Would it have sounded better than the Für Elise which we know today? I don’t know all that nor have I heard the revised version being performed, so this dummkoff won’t know! My only connection with pianos and this kind of music is an occasional listening to the greats on CD’s and the radio, as well as a short acquaintance with somebody I hugely respect, another bloke from Palghat, the great Pianist and keyboard player Stephen Devassy.

Close to his death, Beethoven summoned his old acquaintance (the very doctor Malfatti who rebuffed his wedding proposal to Theresa his daughter), who after some hesitation agreed to visit him and prescribed some frozen Roman punch for the stimulation of the illustrious patient's system. But I guess it just gave him some comfort like alcohol usually does. In March, 1827, months after completing his last string quartets, Beethoven died at the age of 56, leaving behind some sketches for a 10th symphony and a letter written to the ‘Immortal Beloved’.

So now, when somebody asks you or mentions Für Elise or you hear somebody hum its tune in a party, put on your wise man’s cap and ask them ‘do you know the mysteries behind the tune’?

I can assure you that 99% of the attendees won’t know and then you can grandly tell them, ‘well, I know now and I know it because there is a crazy fella called Maddy in USA who wastes a lot of otherwise useful time researching such matters and spends the remainder writing about it’.

But do tell them how they can get here and read about it…


Beethoven and Therese von Malfatti - Max Unger and Theodore Baker (The Musical Quarterly, Jan., 1925, Vol. 11, No. 1)
Beethoven's 'Elise': an alternative solution Barry Cooper (The Musical Times, Winter 2014, Vol. 155, No. 1929)
Beethoven's Revisions to 'Für Elise' - Barry Cooper (The Musical Times, Oct., 1984, Vol. 125, No. 1700)
Who was Beethoven's 'Elise'? A new solution to the mystery – Rita Steblin (The Musical Times, Summer 2014, Vol. 155, No. 1927)

Marnie Laird performing Für Elise 

Stephen Devassy performing Für Elise 

Januvariyil song – M Jayachandran 

Flowers top singer episode 326B 


Food for thought

Puranadara Dasa, and Food in Carnatic music

Those who listen to Carnatic music are usually in awe of the creative genius of its Pitamaha (father) Puranadara Dasa, the Kannadiga poet from medieval times. A rich but miserly jeweler, fascinated with music, changes his materialistic outlook after a life-changing event, that was Dasaru or Dasarayya as he is popularly known then going on to lead a mendicant’s life, singing and eating morsels of food provided as alms by the occupants of homesteads he passed by. His purported repertoire of some 475,000 poems extolling Vittala (Lord Krishna) are a testament to his prolific output over a period of some 40 years, to stand foremost among the Bhakti movement poets. 

Let’s first check out the legend about his life and the life-changing event which we mentioned earlier. As the story goes, Srinivasa Nayaka was a wealthy jeweler in Araga, a Malanad village in Shimoga, born around 1484 or thereabouts. He gets married to a pious lady by name Saraswati and they are leading a life, which one would term ‘usual’, i.e. till a poor man visited their rich abode. The man meets first meets the miserly Srinivasa and asks for monetary support to conduct his sons upanayana (thread ceremony). The millionaire jeweler drives him away, after which he meets lady Saraswati, who after listening to the request patiently, replies that she had no money to spare. When the visitor pointed to her heavy nose ring, the lady removes it without any hesitation and gifts it to the poor man, who departs happy and contended. Now, our poor man turns around and goes to Srinivasa to pledge the same nose ring.  As soon as Srinivasa sees it, he recognizes it as his wife’s and after loaning the required money to the poor man, locks up the nose ring in his money chest. He then accosts his wife who is shivering in fright thinking of consequences of having gifted her nose ring to some worthless fellow. The lady decides to end her life drinking poison, but lo and behold, as she is about to sip the poison from the bowl, she sees her nose ring in it and quickly shows it to her husband.

Srinivasa is confused, he hastens back and finds that his locked money chest is still locked, the key is with him and that there is no nose ring in it. In a flash, he realizes or comes to the conclusion that the poor man was none other than Vittala or Krishna who had come to teach him a lesson and wean him away from his bad ways. He goes around looking for him, but he has simply vanished! Chastened, Srinivasa gives up his material life and becomes a wandering bard, a mendicant living off alms and singing poems in praise of the Lord Vishnu, Krishna or Narayana.

Step back a bit, actually after some wandering around for 10 years, he comes across Vyasathirtha, the Rajaguru in the flourishing Vijayanagara empire and learns the fundamentals of music from him, at the ripe age of 40. The guru bestows on him the name Purandaradasa (disciple of the lord of Purandara). The next 40 years are spent by him, traveling the length and breadth of the vast Vijayanagar empire and composing and singing close to half-million songs he is credited with, spending his final years at the capital Hampi. Unfortunately, only some 700 of his poems are known to us today. He is also credited with the structure of early Carnatic music, making its teaching systematic, with graded lessons and the fusion of raaga, laya and bhava. More interesting is the fact that his poems encompassed the daily life and routines he saw around him.

With that said and done, let us take a look at some of his poems which touch upon the food habits of the people in the region. You may wonder why and how I got into this peculiar study, well, some weeks ago, I listened to a nice conversation between Arun and Manjusha concerning organic food, going back to the roots, etc, and wrote about the historic food habits of the people of Malabar. A question about chillies and their origin reminded me of the short poem about chillies written by Puranadara Dasa. When I mentioned this to our music teacher Suchitra Hiraesave, she remarked that there were a few other poems of his where Dasaru mentions food. With Suchi’s help, we traced out a few of them from Dasaru’s collection and I will present them briefly, but only relating to their connections to food.

We will not talk about raaga, taala or anything, but by just looking at the various ingredients, we will try to get a reasonable understanding of the habits of medieval Hindu Kannadiga! Note once again that we will not talk about the compositions, their beauty, or the skill of the poet for there are umpteen sites which will on a simple google search provide you such data. We are just focusing on food in Purandara Dasa’s poems. And something unique to mention, in the Vijayanagar area, they used cotton oil to cook!

Surely other languages and poets have touched upon food and I encourage readers to mention examples from Tamil and Telugu in the comments section from the collections of Thyagaraja, Dikshitar and Shyama Sastry or later day composers. Appalam ittu paar with Ramana Maharshi explaining Vedanta through food, is a classic example, you can listen to Abishek Raghuram’sversion  and read its explanation here. (Thanks Manjusha, for the input!)

I am also not sure if there are any in Malayalam, even in the manipravala (Early Malayalam dialect – a Tamil Sanskrit admixture) poems of Swati Turunal and Irayiamman Thampi. Please excuse me for not providing complete lyrics or full translations here, they are available in various sites, you just need to do a bit of googling.

Ragi Thandira

When you mention Purandara Dasa, the very first composition (the poem which our previous teacher Sunitha taught us) which comes to your mind is Ragee thandeera. (Translation thanks to Raja Thata). Millet or Ragi being the staple food of the Kannadiga villager, Dasaru in this very famous song of his exhorts everybody not to forget the importance of giving alms, and to take care of the have nots. He asks you to ensure that you have stocked enough Ragi to ensure that those who need it, be gifted the grain when they turn up.

Purandara Dasa explains how one should live and in a very charming way he plays with the word “Ragi”. He starts off the song with the common day to day meaning of the word and wakes you up with a jolt with clever uses of similar-sounding words having totally differing meanings, as he gets deeper into the poem. In simple terms, he advises the listener to lead a simple, honest and happy life. Let’s look at the Pallavi as an example and see how we can see the mention of Raagi as food, the word yogyaragi is to be read as yogyar aagi (be upright), similarly bhogyaragi is bhogyar aagi (enjoyer of life) and bhagyavantavaragi is bhagyavantavar aagi (be fortunate).

Raagi thandeera bhikshake, Ragi thandeera, Yogyaraagi, bhoghyaraagi, Bhaagyavanthavaraagi neevu - This roughly translates as - Have you brought Raagi for giving alms, have you brought Raagi, May you be an upright person, May you be one who enjoys, May you be fortunate.

Now think back, the only grain which was eaten in Malabar was rice. But we come to see a different grain popular in Deccan plateau and parts of Tamilakam, especially Carnatic Vijayanagara, that being millet. Finger millet or Raagi is the staple diet of many residents of South Karnataka, especially in the rural areas. Raagi is also used to make roti, idli, dosa and conjee. In the Malnad region of Karnataka, the whole raagi grain is soaked and the milk is extracted to make a dessert known as "keelsa".  If you have lived in Bangalore, you will not forget the Ragi Mudde and the very special way Mudde balls are swallowed whole, a dish that will stave off your hunger for hours! For a while, the millet was consigned as a famine grain eaten by the middle and lower classes, as rice and wheat took over the affluent kitchen, though it is nowadays making a resurgence in Karnataka as a healthy grain.

I am deliberately posting a new wave rendition by Vasu Dixitwhich I liked, Together with the classic MLV version 

Vahova Re Menasina kayi

More interesting is the poem which touches upon a new entrant in the South Indian kitchen brought in by the Portuguese from South America, the Chilly. Pippali or long pepper was, however, native to India and is rarely used these days (perhaps only in nihari stews). As you will see, Dasaru is exhorting people to be careful with the use of this new and celebrated spice, adding that it is all good, but you should not forget your prayers.

The entry of chillies into India is a subject by itself. Expectedly Columbus who thought he was in India after reaching the periphery of North America, came across chillies and thought them to be a relative of the famed Malabar black pepper, and called them chillies (Chilly peppers) just like he termed American natives as Indians. Later, Portuguese sailors from Brazil carried them to Malabar and Goa in the 16th century, popularizing them in South India (Note that Moghul India used mainly the black pepper, not these chillies, until much later). So Dasaru’s poem must have caught its cultivation at its infancy and like those other poems which we read about in my earlier articles relating to Coffee and tea, he warns people not to get addicted to the pungent taste of the new spice and use it in moderation. Today India is one of the largest Chilly producers!

In this song, Dasau says that he has brought the celebrated chilly (then called Goa Mirchi) to eat with the dry raagi roti, he has been watching it grown first as a green fruit, then red and eaten as a celebrated spice. He warns the listener that it is very tasty if one or two are used (crushed), and that it becomes a little bit hotter if a couple more are used; but using two more makes it very very hot, so beware! He adds that it is very useful to the poor, somewhat essential for cooking food; but If bitten raw, it is hot as fire, nevertheless, spice or not - it is important to pray to Purandara Vithala. (Translation – Thanks to Murthy NMG).

The song sung in a Hindustani raga is linked here 

Rama Nama Payasake

This one is a masterpiece, covering a variety of sweet dishes, i.e. desserts intermixed with various gods and morals to prove how sweet a prayer can be! Take a look and decide!

To the sweet dish called Rama, add the sugar called Krishna, and mix the ghee called Vittala, and enjoy the taste in the mouth. After bringing the wheat called single-mindedness, powder it in the mortar called detachment, and adding the buttermilk called innocence, to make thin vermicelli. In the pot called heart, boil the green gram called bhava, make a broth called devotion and serve it on a plate. When we eat it with joy and bliss, and complete it with two burps, think of the blissful God, Purandara Vithala!

Priya sisters render it nicely, the link is here 

Hari Kotta Kalakke Unalilla

In this, he condemns a miser for eating the common dishes of guggari and rice while there was the richer huggi (pudding) and ghee in his home. Guggari by the way is the Bengal gram, in vogue among the poorer classes even today. The poem goes thus - You ate corns (guggariyannava) when you had enough of ghee (tuppa) and rice (huggiyu), You searched for a small coin when all your wealth was vanishing in a moment!

You can hear it here 

Kallu Sakkare Kollidu

Similar to the next number, in this he equates Stone sugar to Lord Krishna. The sweetness of Krishna's name is known only to those who have tasted the sweetness of Kallu sakkare; the name of Sri Krishna itself is as sweet as the kallu sakkare. Buy the sugar candy, for the sweetness of the sugar candy called 'Krishna Nama' is known only to those who have enjoyed that. This sugar candy need not be taken on a bullock cart, it need not be kept filled in gunny bags (for preserving), it is not taxed, and it is the best product which can also give best returns. This sugar candy will always give us profit, will never rot, costs nothing, will not get spoiled by ants, and thus this sugar candy is very popular in the towns. This need not be taken from one market place to another (for sale), this sugar candy makes the buyers' (bhaktas) tongue sweet, and this sugar candy is nothing but Purandara viittala's name!

PB Srinivas’s version here, Dr Rajkumar version sounds better though!

Hannu Bandide Kolliro

In this poem, like the above one, he talks about the person who has come to buy pearls, fruits, honey, but extols the virtues of the pure and genuine Kallu Sakkare - stone sugar, equated to Lord Krishna

R S Ramkanth’s version 

Bhagyada Lakshmi Baramma

The very popular number hummed often by Carnatic aficionados, He asks the lovely queen of Venkata Ramana to let sugar and ghee flow in our homes in streams, just in time for worship on auspicious Friday! Though there are many traditional versions out there, this one is unique – Bhimsen Joshi’s take 

Aroganeya Madellaya

This one is replete with all kinds of food items and showcases either Dasaru’s affluent upbringing or perhaps his time spent at the Vijayanagara palaces.

Oh Lord, in the Brahmanda inside the merumantapa, Devi has set food on golden plates, set with jewels, dazzling like the sooryamandala;  Bhoodevi has offered for you pickles made out of heralae ( citron lemon), nimbu (lime), pepper, cardamom, nellikai (gooseberry), ambatekai (hog plum), lovely mango, bilvamangruli, sondekai (tindora) and tasty papatekai; Sridevi has offered you pappad, sandige (fried vadagam), various curries, ghee, sugar and fruits, fruit salad flavored with camphor and Kasturi (musk); Durgadevi has , within short time, described and offered for you fried atirasa (rice appam), mandige made from jaggery, different kinds of rice preparations, shalyana (kesari) made from thin sevia; Oh Lord please get up and partake your food.

The interesting item in this is the Mandige which is a complex flatbread made with jaggery (other versions exist). In the traditional recipe, wheat flour is kneaded with sugar, ghee, and cardamom and rolled very thin and cooked over an inverted Kadai until crisp. Considering that wheat was probably not that common in the region it may have been made with another flour, I am not sure of this though!

Naivedyava Kollo Narayna Swamy

The translation goes thus - Please accept my offerings oh Lord, I have prepared with utmost care and devotion. It has the balance of all the six tastes (Shadrasa: sweet; salty; bitter; sour; hot (chilli); and Kashaya (astringent). I have prepared Shalyanna (sweet rice); five sweets (Pancha Bhakshyagalu) and nectar drenched heavenly rice. Mentions other delicacies that require special ingredients and careful preparation such as Atirasa with freshly made ghee. Just as you prepare food with care when you offer it as Naivedya (food offering) to God, be sincere, dedicated and have pure intentions when you give to or help fellow human beings.

You hear about mosaru bhatti (curd rice), chitranna (sesame rice), the most ideal sweet – the appam or atirasam and there is the very taste ambode (parippuvada or masala vada)!

V. N. Padmini’s version 

Hasuve Aguttide Amma

The gist of this song is about the childish fuss Krishna makes about food. He wants avalakkai (beaten rice – poha) with jaggery, medium warm, and is insistent that the saru should not be spicy, he would rather prefer it sweet, adding that the ghee should not be watery but thick and solid so he can eat it faster. He does not leave it at that, he wants thick and not watery yogurt. His mother agrees as she is getting the plate ready, at which point Krishna reminds her that his friends have to be fed too, with treats such as banana, jaggery or sugar as well as dry coconut. Mom agrees, but warns that they should not hang out outdoors for too long as wild animals like tigers are roaming around, outside!

Interestingly Dasaru strays from stone sugar which he had been mentioning often and stresses on jaggery, in this poem! For the first time, we hear of the curry as it existed, called Saru or gravy! Saru as Suchitra explains, is made with toor dal, tamarind, salt, jaggery, curry leaves and put Ghee, mustard seeds and hing Vaggarane (tadka) in the end.)

In some other poems, he mentions grits of grain and godduli (plain soup and also what one should not partake in, from his point of view. He condemns the man who eats sour radish and onions, he mentions forbidden items such as garlic, nuggekai (drumsticks), kavadekai, mulangi (radish), gajjari (carrot) and pundipalle. We hear also that the guggari of avaraikaai (flat broad beans) on Ekaadasi, the fortnightly day of fast, was strictly forbidden!

Jyotsna Burde has published an interesting paper on the subject of food habits in medieval Vijayanagar, which may be referred to if you are so inclined. Borrowing from her paper, and with thanks, I can summarize some of the dishes and ingredients, as follows.

Portuguese visitors mention that wheat was indeed around, so also rice, other grains, India corn and a certain amount of barley and beans, moong, pulses and horse-gram. Loads of sweet and sour oranges, and wild brinjals, and other garden stuff were sold in markets. The markets are overflowing with an abundance of fruits, grapes and oranges, limes, pomegranates, jackfruit and mangoes and all very cheap. Rice was the staple food amongst the upper classes, Salyanna salyodana ( Kesari bath) is frequently mentioned. Other rice dishes were chitranna (sesame rice), pakvanna or paramanna (sweet rice) and dadhyanna or mosaru butti (curd rice). Plenty of green vegetables were used, and were usually fried in oil. For seasoning, cumin seeds, black-gram dal, methi (Fenugreek), mustard, black sesame seeds and pepper were used along with ghee. The vegetables were (green) plantains, brinjals, tonde, pumpkin, Heere (sponge gourd), jackfruit, drumsticks and magge (a kind of cucumber). Raw dishes and salads such as krisara, paccadi and kusambhari (Kosambhri) were known. There were varieties of vegetable hotchpotch (Kalasogara) spiced preparations (shaak, melogara) and soups (kattogara, sargal). Many dessert items can be identified and interestingly Sikarane (resembling the modern fruit salad) was prepared from ripe fruits, usually mango and plantains, is frequently mentioned. Dishes of black gram were prepared on certain occasions, and important among these were idlis (iddalige), vade and dosa.

A take away from this culinary journey, in my opinion, is that Carnatic music is not just to be viewed as a form of devotional music but also a testament to the social life in those days! Puranadara Dasa does provide a window into the medieval times and we can view not only the affluence but also the food habits of the masses!

But then again, I am sure you are all hungry now, some may go looking for an Ambode while others would be happy with shali anna, the adventurous may google the recipe for athirasam or sikarane (it is the season for mavina hannu (mango) sikarane now), and the grumpy ones may settle for mosaru anna!

To each his own!


Notes, guidance, explanations and translations provided by Suchitra Hiraesave

Food and Food Habits in Vijayanagara Times - By Jyotsna Burde (The Journal of the Karnatak University, Vol. VII., 1963)

Pics – Karnataka Thali Courtesy Megha’s cooking channel, Vittala temple - Wikimedia

Note – One can conclude that Dasaru was often around the Vittala temple in Hampi - The Ranga Mantapa is one of the main attractions at the Vittala Temple, it is renowned for its 56 musical pillars. These musical pillars are also known as Saptaswara pillars, indicating the musical notes emitted by them. Musical notes can he heard when the pillars are tapped gently. Each main pillar is surrounded by 7 minor pillars and these 7 pillars emit 7 different musical notes from the representative musical instruments.


Paddy’s bus – The Indiaman

The Overlanders and the Hippie trail

A forward from across the seas, of an incredible bus journey, popped up the other day on my phone, promptly delivered by our ever-efficient news delivery man these days – the popular Whatsapp. More forwards came, together with requests to check out and detail the story behind it. The Indiaman was new to me and amusing, and so I got to work on it right away, having nothing better to do at the start of our long weekend. Usually, we would be out, traveling on this Independence Day weekend, but the virus had put paid to all those plans. The story morphed to much more than the bus as it turned out and well, I have to narrate it to you. So, my friends, hop on, strap on your seatbelts, and let’s go for a long ride!

Remember the ancient silk road which we talked about earlier? The was the rough overland route (actually a network of routes) from Constantinople to China. From Istanbul, one could also go west, taking a couple of ferry hops, through Europe, and potentially reach the UK, crossing the Channel. In the same fashion, one could hit the roads and go eastwards and traverse on to Nepal, many popular cities in India, even as southerly as Kovalam and Kanyakumari or through to the beaches of Thailand. The roads are still there and that is the long route we are going to traverse today, learning along the way about Paddy’s Indiaman, Albert, and the Hippie trail.

The ancient road had seen all kinds of traffic, starting with the dromedaries and later the modern Camel, even horses and donkeys at times. I had written about the incredibly resilient ship of the desert, the Camel, a fascinating quadruped. For eons, they ferried man and goods within and from Asia to China and back, pausing at caravanserais, to look through droopy eyes and wryly taking in the new master which was driving them back and forth, that being the man astride. The animal would watch them profit, would see them happy, sad or often fighting for the spoils of trade. As journeys got repeated, it would see changes along the way, new towns, cities and new chieftains, and of course, more fights. Not that it cared!

Soon the Camel got superannuated, for the long trail lost its popularity when man conquered the oceans. New long-distance sea lanes were established and large floating objects manufactured by man, called ships, took over the global trade. The Silk Road fell into disuse, barring short stretches which were now demarcated by national borders and horses took over the shorter distance travel. The only people who traversed it were merchants and many refugees, such as the much-decried gypsies, perhaps Banjaras from Rajasthan who partly curved south to establish the lands of the Kurds and those who moved on to Europe to become the Romanies.

While it was the trunk road connecting India, China, Persia and the Western kingdoms of Asia, it also served to be the route taken by Alexander for his Persian and Asian overtures. Not only did he use it to conquer and establish his kingdoms, he also built settlements all the way through to India, settlements which endured and created strong Indo-Greek kinships. The Silk Road was instrumental in mingling thought, religion, cultures and produce. The silk trade continued to flourish until it was disrupted by the collapse of the Safavid Empire in the 1720s.

Hundreds of years passed, the caravanserais (caravan rest houses) fell into disrepair and became ruins, the roads were by now hardly transport worthy, though gloomily waiting for new travelers. And then the new global wanderers came, a decade following the great war (WW II) and at the start of the Vietnam War. While the first overland expedition was by a bunch of British students who went from the blighty to Singapore in 1956, the first commercial venture Indiaman was started by one Paddy Garrow-Fisher in 1957, well before the Hippie trail became popular.

Strange, the choice of the name, for the Indiaman was actually a term used to depict the many armed, three-masted ocean-going trade ships and there were east Indiamen and west Indiamen, depending on the direction it took from Europe! What Paddy started in Britain was not one of these ocean goers, but an unarmed bus service (in his brochure, he does mention that those ships were his inspiration). Let’s now get to know Paddy and hear his tale.

Paddy, an ex RAF man had served in India and the Middle East, had always been fascinated with India and married Mary, an Indian. After the war, he could be seen traveling between Britain and India as an automobile spare parts salesman (they say he went back and forth on his bike!). As his business grew, he contemplated a larger vehicle plying between Britain and India and hit upon the idea of towing a caravan, but then settled on a bus to lug along his auto spares as well as some paying travelers.

Let’s go back in time for a moment and check how overland travelers did it before Paddy’s bus. Flying by plane was only for the super affluent and sea travel was expensive and time-consuming. There were people who drove from London to Pakistan and it appears that lodges in Asian areas had notice boards that announced travelers and their itinerary, soliciting for passengers who were willing to share the cost.

Paddy purchased a second hand AEC Regal III, the Lama, 9.6 liters diesel engine and all, with Harrington’s (of Hove) coachwork, from Valliant of Ealing and dating to 1949. That was the original Indiaman, overhauled by AEC and adapted to meet the demands of the long trek to India, reducing the seats from 33 to 24, taking out the last row to accommodate luggage and tents/cooking equipment. In April 1957 he drove out (all 12,000 miles, back and forth!) with the first busload of 20 fare-paying passengers to Calcutta. For the few people who dared to join him for the many weeks or months the bus would take to reach Calcutta ( the bus reached Calcutta on June 5th and back in London on Aug 2nd, 16 days behind schedule due to a closure of the Pakistani border to Iran due to an influenza epidemic), it was going to be the journey of a lifetime and the first time a bus ever made it back and forth, soon to be featured on TV and various newsmagazines. This was the start of the magic-bus journeys of the ‘overlanders’ or the bus-packers to India!

And thus, the Indiaman legend was born. Many passengers belonging to the countries down under living in Britain wanted to take a trip only up to India (and sail on to Oz or NZ), but he found no dearth of passengers wanting to go back to London. Adjusting his schedules, he set the plans in such a way that his East-bound journeys started in Autumn and West-bound journeys in Spring. Paddy was incidentally called mashe Paddy (Mashter - master – or teacher/leader in Indian parlance). Since that first trip, all Indiaman drivers were called mashe for master. While his wife Mary accompanied him on the first trip, later Indiamen buses had Indian lady hostesses!

He would charge £167 for the round trip, a bargain price which included not only food and passable accommodation, but sightseeing along the way. He required passengers to be adventurous, willing and cooperative, inoculated and insured, and join only after getting their doctors clearance for the rigors the journey would entail. The Route was from London through to Paris, through the black forest to Munich, Salzburg and Vienna, Zagreb, Belgrade, Sofia, to pause for the fascinating sights, smells, tastes and sounds of Istanbul, thence to Ankara, Adana, Iskenderum, Beirut, Damascus, Amman, the holy lands at Dead Sea, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Baghdad, the sights of Persia at Tehran, Qum, Kerman, Quetta, Panjnad in Pakistan’s Punjab, Lahore, Amritsar, glorious Delhi, Agra and the Taj Mahal, Jaipur and its palaces and finally Bombay (on the Bombay run, otherwise through to Calcutta) where its passengers stepped off gingerly, with creaking knees and cramping bodies.

As times went by, the vehicle was upgraded to a Mandator lorry chassis with an 11.6-liter engine and air brakes. Airconditioning was added, so also automatic lubrication (previous trips required maintenance stops for greasing) and tire inflating (Some deflation was required for desert sand, and once crossed, reinflation for regular roads) equipment. Bottogas cooking equipment, an Espresso unit for coffee and boiled water, etc. were available. A stainless-steel sink was fitted, and ample storage space for the 20 passengers was a prerequisite. Two or sometimes three buses operated in a convoy according to some reports. The trip was usually expected to take 60 days. Peter Moss the Anglo-Indian traveler did the second run, details the trip party in the video linked here and wrote about it, in his book, (which I have not been able to source yet) -The Indiaman: When the Going was good by Land and Sea. Who were the other passengers who frequented these buses? As it appears, they were not just people from down under or Americans and Brits, but also Indian and Pakistani immigrants.

A lovely report on the return trip from Bombay (March 22, 1961 to May 20th 1961) is provided by one W J Kinson in the Marconi Mariner. He states that it started at the Gateway of India with Paddy giving the passengers a pep talk, two days before the trip, and as they meet for the tour. They start with a tour of Bombay, in a 3 bus convoy with 53 passengers, Mary, Paddy’s wife is found adept with bargaining for fruits, etc., they see Ajanta, Ellora, then camp outdoors, sip a bit of whiskey, sleep and swim at the officer’s club in Jaipur, meet the Raja of Bundi, go on to Agra and see the sights at Fatehpur Sikri and the Taj, New Delhi where they even see Egypt’s Col Nasser giving a speech. They stop for a week as many people have caught dysentery, and then proceed on to Punjab, see the Golden temple, through Lahore and to Panjnad, Jacobabad, through the Bolan pass to Quetta, and to Baluchistan. After enduring a dust storm at Bam, they camp outdoors to sleep, cooking dinner over pans and primus stoves. Through to Mahan and Kerman, hit by hail storms, till they reach Yazd. During the run to Isfahan in Persia, Paddy’s bus has a broken spring and passengers are transferred to the other two. Off to Tehran, a 290-mile trip, food on the way is wonderful, they see the peacock throne (a mock-up I presume) and later on, have a row with the police at the border. Off to Tabriz, and into Turkey. Close to one month on the road already! Escorted by the military to Erzurum, and then to Trabzon on the Black sea coast. The next stop is Ankara, and from there on to glorious Istanbul! More breakdowns along the way, axles and spring snap, but there are repair shops. Sofia is next, and into Topola in Yugoslavia, they bypass Zagreb, and enter Graz in Austria, heading for Vienna. From there to Ulm in Germany and next is Paris, then the ferry ride to Britain and finally London, as the second month on the road draws to a close! A trip to remember…

The Indiaman operated throughout the 1960s and quickly many others followed, starting with Swagman (dubbed the Asian greyhound), the Roel, Penn and the silver (the slug) express tours and dozens more. Not to be left behind, brave individuals modified their vehicles to travel on their own and smaller groups modified their vans and some even used modified fire engines. Individual travelers sometimes joined the tour from Istanbul, hearing about it from the notice boards in the famous Lale restaurant (the Pudding shop) near the Blue mosque in Istanbul.

Another of those famous buses which went back and forth was named Albert. This bus made 15 trips between India and UK and some four trips between London and Sydney, it had extras such as a reading and dining room at the lower deck, sleeping bunks, fan heaters and upgraded interiors making it a luxury coach. Albert went on successfully until the routes were blocked. Albert is still around in Australia, but a showpiece.

So that was how the Hippie trail was started, and the world started to take notice. The Hippie Trail quickly got into a full swing, a path followed by many thousands in the mid 60’s through to the 1970s. Until the issues started in Iran, the entire route was quite peaceful and no major issues were reported. Many seeking illumination and peace took these nirvana express buses on the Hippie trail pioneered by Paddy, upon which would later travel many more luminaries. The hippies were those who chucked away their jobs and stated that materialism was bullshit, they wanted to discover or rediscover themselves, attain inner peace and Eastern spirituality was the perfect answer. Indian gurus had already been roaming around in Europe and America propounding Yoga and meditation. Aussies and New Zealander hippies came to Bali in Indonesia and came to India from the other direction.

Oh! They were some travelers, the roads would have muttered, unkempt, long-haired, confused and perpetually searching. Searching for what? They themselves had no idea. Some muttered that they were looking for nirvana, others wanted enlightenment, some just wanted to get away from a rat race, while a few were more enthusiastic about a catalyst which would show them the short cut to nirvana, drugs of all sorts. The Beatles had told them that India had the gurus who would show them the path, the returnees from Kathmandu had told them where the smokes were available.

The road which was once a trader’s domicile thus became the Hippie trail. Vehicles of all types – beat-up cars, double-decker buses, omnibuses, local relics, the popular VW van, American jalopies and what not now descended on the silk route. Now it was the turn of the road to be confused, with an array of badly maintained vehicles and a whole lot of confused people with colorful attire - people with eager and bright eyes moving in the Easterly direction and a lot of tired, disheveled, glassy-eyed characters returning back west! Above all they had little money, going in or coming out, though they were not averse to doing some work along the way, for their upkeep. As these cross-country vehicles crammed the roads, following the buses, some going below sea level into the dead sea area and then driving up to the high mountain passes of the over 12,000-mile round-trip journey, many broke down and never made it with their wrecks littering the route. The "Overlanders," as they were called, cared not.

The caravanserais gave way to Hippie hotels along the entire route where they met and exchanged new ideas, information about new gurus, new beaches, new watering holes, new types of drugs, and most importantly contacts. These new nomads traveled light and were sometimes hardly clothed, decent attire being a thing of the past. Personal hygiene was not important, and they looked unkempt with their long and shaggy hair, and bright ill-fitting clothes purchased along the way, a dead giveaway.

The Turks, the Iranians, the Afghans, the Pakistanis, the Nepalis and Indians took note and laid out a welcome for the new low-heeled tourist, the Hippie, a.k.a the anticonformist beatnik ("Beat" came from the New York underworld slang—the world of hustlers, drug addicts and petty thieves and beat stood for beaten down, downtrodden masses). The hippies wanted to sample everything without inhibitions, offering themselves in the bargain for they had nothing else, they wanted to experience new foods, new religions, new forms of intoxication, new forms of physical movements such as the yoga asana, mental exercises such as meditation and new forms of schooling which involved submission to an Asian Guru who told them at times, to do wild and crazy things. But they did not grumble, protest or refuse. They experienced the new mysticism too. There was one unique characteristic of this new tourist, they loved to interact with the local populace along the way, they wanted to be the Roman in Rome, and wow, how they interacted! They did it well, for all of 20 years!

For us in Kerala the sayip (Sahib) and madamma (Madame), forgotten after the British left, reappeared, but this time around, very inquisitive and affable, willing to do anything and sans any airs! Kovalam was where the Hippie scene soon became active, Ayurveda infused. Beyond the beach, a few who wanted to imbibe the local traditions could be seen here and there in Trivandrum, some even traveling by train and asking curious questions. New tourist hotels sprung up, catering to the foreigner’s needs (of all kinds). Magazines as well as newspapers featured them with marked regularity.   

Dev Anand’s ‘Hare Rama hare Krishna’ was a movie which showed us a bit of the wild scene in Kathmandu and well, the song Dum Maro Dum, became a classic. It was actually based on the story of a Canadian Indian Hippie girl Janice (Jasbir) Dev had met at a party. She did not want to do any film and a frantic search in Bombay resulted in the discovery of our American returned Zeenie baby. The song became a cult hit and batik was in! Ah! Those were some days…

It started to affect us too, for in colleges listening to the music from the west became hip and cool, LP records from Beatles, Joan Baez and the Rolling stones started to spin on the gramophone spindles, replacing Mukesh, Yesudas and Lata. The long-haired unkempt Buddhijeevi (wise man looks) look hit the youth (local appi hippi) and the cross bodied handloom cloth bag, scraggly beard and long hair was a dead giveaway of those characters who could at will launch into quotes from Kafka, Camus and Marx. Dressing started to change, it was at first narrow bottoms, then bell-bottoms giving way to elephant bottoms and to match were those colorful long collared shirts.

Toms took note and we saw the character Appi Hippi in Bobanum Moliyum cartoons regularly on Manorama weekly. Malayalam movies started to feature hippies and wild bars, recall the song Hippigalude nagaram in Postmane kananilla? There were many more.

But then again, we never heard about the Indiaman!

It was not to last, the hippie trail closed in early 1979 when Khomeini's Islamic revolution in Iran took place and later in the same year, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, Overland travel puttered to a stop. Soon it was the era of the Jumbo’s and the 747’s screamed through the skies laden with tourists, now rich enough to afford all that, to destinations like Goa and Thailand.

Whatever happened to Paddy? Garrow-Fisher and the Indiaman ceased operatons about 1970. He passed away in 1975, perhaps a contended man. The original Wood St office is now the home of Tour India Ltd, whilst the original firm is at 37 Fife Road. Although known as Paddy being from Ireland originally, the former RAF man Garrow-Fisher was called Oswald Joseph, as in OJ. Seems he probably had a brother W Garrow-Fisher who designed the twin-engine Cunliffe-Owen Concordia planes, of which one was purchased by the Nawab of Bhopal (Thanks Sludge G for all this information!). Mary passed away in 2009 and the Fishers are survived by their daughter Maureen.

A wise man may wonder, why did these characters travel all the way to India when you could get any of the drugs in London and when there were a number of local Gurus? Yes, many did just that, but a large number took the pilgrimage, the quest to India, something which had to be done in your midlife! In American they have many such traditions, like their spring break trips, perhaps this was for the middle age. My favorite authors who cover these aspects beautifully are Herman Hesse and of course James Michener’s ‘Drifters’. For us Easterners though, these long-haired, free-spirited wanderers were ambassadors of a liberal society we knew little about and it was you, modern nomads, who instilled the desire and hunger to travel and explore, in our own minds! Thank you, my friends!

And one of these days, I will tell you another incredible story, that of an Indian who bicycled to Sweden, to reunite with his wife, a true story.


The hippie trail: A history - By Sharif Gemie, Brian Ireland

Indiaman - Journey of a lifetime  

Photos - Indiaman.101, Google images, etc all original posters acknowledged with many thanks