Sikhs and Kerala Floods


Offering free meals to anyone and everyone is a great Sikh tradition known as  of Langar (लंगर).  It  has remained a core part of the Sikh faith from inception.  Every Sikh temple or Gurdwara (गुरुद्वारा ) around the world offers people a free meal at any time regardless of sex, colour or religion. There are no rituals involved and everyone eats together. The aim is to inculcate the feeling of equality amongst all, a Sikh teaching around equality.

When the state of Kerala faced disastrous floods in August 2018, Sikh volunteers from the UK- based philanthropist group – Khalsa Aid – reached Kerala and setup a Langar at Kochi for some 3,000 people.  On seeing the plight of the people, they expanded the Langar relief to serve 13,000 people twice a day.

These Sikh volunteers, joined hands with Kochi administration, took over the kitchen at Rajiv Gandhi Indoor Stadium at Kochi, where the aid materials were pouring in.  Food supplies and cereals like wheat, rice, vegetables poured in, but with no one to cook a meal.  The Sikh volunteers purchased  spices and utensils, took over the kitchen at the stadium and kept  the kitchen fires going.  The food from this kitchen was distributed at various relief camps for the needy.

Hardly any media or social media showed the contribution of the Sikh volunteers in bringing succour to the flood affected.  The Kerala Government and administrative officials seemed ignorant about the contribution of the Sikh volunteers as there was hardly any gratitude expressed for these volunteers.

Let us now turn a few pages of Kerala history to 1923.

As per the caste system prevalent in Kerala (then broadly divided into Malabar, Cochin and Travancore kingdoms) and the rest of India of that time, low-caste Hindus were not allowed entry into the temples.  They were not even allowed even to walk on the roads that led to the temples.

In the Kakinada meet of the Congress Party in 1923, TK Madhavan presented a report citing the discrimination that the depressed caste people were facing in Kerala and need to abolish untouchabiity – a practice in which some lower caste people are kept at a distance, denied of social equality and made to suffer from some disabilities for their touch, is considered to be contaminating or polluting the higher caste people.

In Kerala, a committee was formed comprising people of different castes to fight untouchability.  Satyagraha movement began on 30th March 1924 at the Mahadeva Temple, at Vaikom town in Travancore, which denied entry of lower caste people – mostly Ezhavas.  Satyagraha  is a form of nonviolent resistance or civil resistance and the term was coined and developed by Mahatma Gandhi to oust the British from India.  People who offered satyagraha are called Satyagrahis .  The Satyagrahis in batches entered the temple and were arrested by the police.

On 1st October 1924, a group of forward castes Hindus marched in a procession and submitted a petition to the Regent Maharani Sethulakshmi Bai of Travancore with approximately 25000 signatures for allowing entry to the temple for everyone.

On 23rd November 1925, all the gates of the temple were opened to Hindus except the Eastern gate.  In 1928, backward castes got  the right to walk on public roads leading to all temples in Travancore.  This was the first time that an organised movement was conducted on such a massive scale for the basic rights of the untouchables and other backward castes in Kerala.

As the sathyagraha commenced in 1923, a few Sikh volunteers reached Vaikom in support of the demonstrators. They established a Langar there to feed the Sathyagrahis.  How they reached Vaikom from Punjab in those days with a scant railway network and how they cooked food for Keralites who only ate rice got to be researched.


This is an archived image of the Sikh volunteers with Ezhavas sathyagrahis.

After successfully completing the Satyagraha and after the Temple Entry Proclamation, some of the Sikhs remained in Vaikom. Some Ezhava youth were attracted to the concepts of the Sikhism.  It is believed that many Ezhavas joined the religion. Many families later returned to Hinduism and the number of Sikh Ezhavas dwindled.

In Sikhism, the practice of the Langar. believed to have been started by the first Sikh Guru, Guru Nanak. The concept of Langar was prevalent in Punjab from the 12th Century – from the time of Baba Farid and Sufi saints.  Guru Angad, the second Guru institutionalised it for all Sikh temples.  Guru Amar Das, the third Guru established langar as a prominent institution, and required people to dine together irrespective of their caste and social rank. He insisted on all those who visited him attend laṅgar before they could speak to him.

From the beginning till date, Sikhs have followed the words of their Gurus and have been rendering yeoman service to humanity by providing food not only in their places of worship, but also to the needy wherever and whenever it is required.

Hats off to the spirit and commitment of this great community of Sikhs. 

 

 

 

‘Kerala Model’ Disaster Management


Disaster struck Kerala in August 2018 in the form of  heavy rains, which created floods and landslides causing  unprecedented damage to the people, property and ecology.  The tragedy struck Kerala just prior to Onam festival to welcome the mythological  king of Kerala – Mahabali.  I am reminded of the Onam song ‘മാവേലി നാട് വാണീടും കാലം, മനുഷ്യരെല്ലാരും ഒന്നു പോലെ’ (When Mahabali ruled, the people where all together).  When the tragedy struck causing havoc to human life, the people of Kerala, irrespective of their faith or religion came together to save fellow humans.

What are the lessons to be learnt from the way this tragedy was handles at all levels – from federal  government to the local village administration to the last man standing.


Youth Power
.     The youth of Kerala were the first to emerge and organise themselves into small groups and bring succour to those affected.  They forgot their well known political rivalries and united to show that they can surmount any tragedies.  Girls and boys – all put their hands on deck, working day and night – to organise rescue and relief.

Political Strength.            The ruling coalition and the opposition – all came together to work with a single aim to bring succour to the flood affected people of Kerala.  The strength of the grass-root organs of all political parties showed their mettle in bringing relief to the people.    Only one political party and its various outfits did not play their part and they have been ‘trolled out’ in the social media.

Religious Organisation.  Various religious organisations and institutions opened their gates to accommodate all those displaced by the tragedy.  Muslims were reported to be cleaning Hindu temples and Christians taking shelter in temples and mosques – the list is endless.


Supermen Fishermen
.      The role played by the fishermen of Kerala in rescuing the people – especially in the hilly areas where they would have never dreamt of taking their boats – would be etched in gold in Kerala’s history.  They were poor fishermen, who left their families near the seashore and ventured inland to save their brethren without caring for their personal safety and without even asking for any compensation for their loss of livelihood and damage to their boats.


State Machinery
.             Unlike what was seen in other Indian states, the state machinery from Members of Parliament, Members of Legislative Assembly, District Collectors – all were out in full force to help the victims.  Some of them were seen physically handling rescued persons and rescue materials.  The role played by two women District Collectors – Ms TV Anupama, in-charge of Thrissur, and Ms K Vasuki, in-charge of Thiruvananthapuram – needs a special mention.  The leadership of the Chief Minister Mr Pinarayi Vijayan proved that he is a man with a vision and a good leader by  maintaining a cool head and providing necessary instructions in ensuring that no stone was left unturned in providing relief to the flood affected.  It is no wonder that he is nicknamed ഇരട്ട-ചങ്കൻ (Iratta-Chankan) meaning man with double hearts.

Local Government.         Kerala state has a well established local government at City/ Town/ Village levels.    They were the first to organise rescue efforts without awaiting any orders from the top.  They worked in tandem with the Armed Forces, National Disaster Management Force (NDRF). Kerala Police, Fire Force and various other agencies.   They provided helpful terrain and water-flow information to the rescue teams, provided guides and all other possible assistance.


Role of Media
.   The Malyalam media played their part well in informing people about the floods, passing information about people stranded at various places and rescue efforts in progress.  National English and Hindi media might not have had adequate interest in Kerala, but after a few days they also pitched in.  It is pertinent to mention here that in the early days of the flood, various international media houses gave more airtime to cover floods in Kerala than the Indian English and Hindi channels.

Social Media.     The social media had a very positive impact on the rescue missions being undertaken.  Victims could communicate with the rescue teams and people outside and was of immense help.  The social media ensured connectivity with the world community, especially with many Keralites working or settled abroad, wishing to know the status of their near and dear ones.  There were a few cases of rumour mongering reported and the state police has already registered cases to deal with them.

Federal Government.     The role played by the Central Government calls for some retrospection.  When monetary and material aid started flowing from many countries with sizeable Keralite work force, the Central Government refused to accept it.  The Central Government initially granted 100 Crore which was later revised to 500 Crore – a tiny portion of the money needed for rehabilitation of the flood affected.  The Union Food Minister wanted the state to pay for the food grains released, but later, succumbing to the pressures of Kerala’s political leadership, the decision was reversed.  It might be the first time in Indian history that various persons and business houses and many state governments and organisations have donated much more than the money given by the Central Government for disaster rehabilitation.     Is it all because the ruling party has hardly any presence in the state?


That was the Kerala model of disaster management.  There is a need to iron out many folds and deficiencies, but the common folks in Kerala have risen up to the occasion.  An Indian Army officer undertaking rescue operations said “I did not see any victims; all I saw were Heroes.”

The HEROES are the people of Kerala.

 

 

A Symbol of Religious Harmony: St Mary’s Church & Sri Bhagavathy Temple of Manarcaudu

During the first week of September 2017, I visited our ancestral home at Kottayam in Kerala State of India.  The last time I was at our ancestral home in the month of September was in 1971, prior to my joining the Sainik (Military) School at the age of nine.

St Mary’s Church in Manarcaudu village, the village adjacent to ours, celebrates the feast of the Nativity of Virgin Mary on September 8. The first eight days of September   are observed as Eight Day Lent by the devotees. This occasion attracts thousands of pilgrims from all religions, Hindus, Muslims and Christians.

On the sixth day of the Lent, a historic procession called Raaza is taken out.  The Raaza is accompanied by traditional drums of Kerala – Chendamelam and caparisoned elephants.  Thousands of devotees from far and wide participate in the celebrations, carrying Muthukkuda (Royal Umbrellas), lavishly decorated umbrellas with silk parasols and silver crosses.

On the seventh day of the Lent, the ceremony of Nada Thurakkal (opening of the sanctum sanctorum) is held.  This enables the devotees to have Darshan (Holy Viewing) and venerate the Holy portrait of holy Mother Mary with child Jesus in her hand.  Such ‘darshan’ of the portrait is then closed after a week.

On the eight day of the Lent, Pachor (a sweet dish made from rice, milk and jaggery), prepared by the church, is offered to all devotees.  In the evening of the eight- day lent, the culmination of the festival is marked  by a spectacular display of fireworks. After the fireworks, parish members perform traditional art forms like Margam Kali –  a group dance  by women – and Parichamuttu Kali –  a martial dance by men – with songs  tracing their origins to the evangelistic activity of St Thomas.

A granite cross known as Kalkurisu (Stone Cross) is located at the rear side of the church.  Lighting candles around this stone cross is an important ritual in this church.  Many  of the devotees who come to the church to take part in the Eight Day Lent, after taking a ritual bath, roll themselves on the ground around the cross and light candles there.  It is believed to have a miraculous cure.

There are two ponds next to the church, one on the northern side for women and on the western side for men.  Taking bath in these ponds is believed to have miraculous healing powers.

In the centre of the hall of the Church burns the Kedavilakku (the eternal lamp or lamp that is never put out).

The rituals, the structural architecture, traditions and customs, all point to the natural amalgamation Indian Hindu culture with the Christian belief that the Syrian Christians of Kerala follow.  Christianity in Kerala is believed to have been established by St Thomas, a disciple of Christ, in the first century.

Rev. Joseph Pit, an Anglican Missionary who visited the church in 1836 was surprised to find a large crowd of pilgrims in the church and its premises.  He chronicled that “I heard that some Christians observed a special lent for a week in the name of St. Mary in Manarcaudu. They observed it in the church by avoiding certain items of food, taking daily bath and by attempting to make themselves holy….. More than 2000 pilgrims had assembled in the church and its premises.”

 

 

About 400 meters from the St Mary’s Church is the Sri Bhagavathy (Goddess) Temple.  According to local folklore, St Mary and the Bhagavathy are sisters.  At the temple’s annual festival, the priests carry the Goddess around the village on top of an elephant to receive offerings from the people. The Goddess on this journey stops at the Church to meet her sister Mother Mary.  When the Goddess arrives at the church to meet her sister, the congregation of the church receive the Goddess and makes a donation to the temple – money and a tin of oil for the temple lamps.

The devotees coming to Manarcaudu, the Hindus pray at the church and the Christians at the Temple for the blessings of Mother Mary and the Bhagavathy.  They believe that the pilgrimage is incomplete without a visit to both the sisters.

 

The Indian Digital Revolution

During my visit to our village in Kerala in August-September 2017, I observed an  increased use of cellphones and lack of verbal communication among family members and also among friends.  A family on a dinner at a posh restaurant, all the family members were glued to their mobile devices.  If it was the aim of the outing, it would have been better at home.  The relatives at homes I visited, the scene was no different – each one busy with their devices – smiling at times – may be enjoying the very same joke or watching the very same video clip, with hardly any verbal communication.  Wouldn’t it be better in case the same was shared by all?

Another notable aspect was the absence of laptop or desktop computers at home.  Obviously the modern cellphone does have much more capabilities than the computer, but it reduces the possibilities of parental monitoring.  Fast and cheap data connectivity, at a fraction of a cost as compared to Canada, appears to be the major factor driving children to over-use their cellphone.  The Indian parents care too much for their children – they pay for both the cellphone and the monthly bills of their children.  Some parents take ‘pride’ in the digital abilities of their young kids and flaunt their kid’s latest cellphone.  Could be that some parent is today looking out to be first proud parent of the school to provide iPhone X.

Everyone, at home, travelling or at places of leisure, were all too busy swiping continuously on their mobile devices.  They were obviously not reading, but only glancing which is given out by the frequency of their swipes.

The next causality of this ‘digital revolution’ is reading.  No one seemed interested in paperback books, newspapers or periodicals.  They appear more interested in sharing or forwarding what they received.  The comments posted on social media are mostly solitary words.  If someone does not read, how can you expect him/her to write?

The ‘sharing and forwarding’ syndrome has nipped creativity in the children and in the youth.  The most appreciated video clips are of those children mimicking the movie superstars.  Mimicry seems to have become accepted as an art form in Kerala and is the most sternly competed event in the Youth Festivals organised by the schools and also at the district and state level competitions.  Most TV Channels air at least a couple of mimcry shows with children as young as Kindergarten kids to grandparents as participants.  There are hardly any show to explore the creative talent of the kids and the youth.

Kerala homes about two decades ago had a gravel spread  courtyard with a little garden.  Every morning the courtyard was swept clean of the fallen leaves.  Today there is neither the gravel spread courtyard nor the garden.  The courtyards have all been tiled or concreted and the gardens have been replaced by potted plants – some even the artificial ones.  No one appears to have time and energy to get up early morning to sweep away the fallen leaves.  Further, most fruit trees that adorned the area in front of the homes have been felled.  Where are the leaves to fall now?

In our growing days, it was the duty of all the children at home to ensure that the courtyard was kept clean and the garden tended to.  As both our parents were school teachers, we had to do the hard work to keep the home beautiful.  Nowadays the parents want their children to study all the time and do not want them dirtying their hands.  Obviously there is some disconnect.

Two days after I landed in Kerala, the morning newspaper carried the frontline news about the Blue Whale Game, an Internet game that claimed the life of college student.  The game allegedly consists of a series of tasks assigned to players by administrators during a 50-day period, ending with the challenge requiring the player to commit suicide like the beached whales.

The parents of the victim claimed that before ending his life, their son did not behave normal and also carved some initials on his body.  The victim’s mother said that there were signs that he was taking up the life-risking challenges that Blue Whale administrators ask its users to perform.  The victim is believed to have jumped into a river though he did not know how to swim and had to be rescued.  In April, once the victim is said to have  asked his mother, “What if I die? Will you be upset?”. Two weeks later he committed suicide and before ending his life, he had  watched a number of horror movies.

The administrators or curators of the game are in the lookout for kids who visit sites carrying suicidal content or the kids ‘googling’ issues like suicide, self inflicted injuries, etc.  The administrator now sends in an invite to join.    Once a kid gets in touch with the administrator, he is given a new challenge each day. Then children are supposed to take a photo or video to prove that the challenge is completed.

When kids accept the game, the administrator gets some personal information from them or they extract images and video clips from their device. In case children want to leave or terminate the game, the administrator threatens with exposure or harm to their family. On the fiftieth day, the administrator instructs the participant on how to commit a suicide.

When I discussed this subject with the parents, everyone seem to carry a misconception that “Our children are God fearing and respectful to their parents. They will never visit such sites.”  No one appeared concerned about it and the news channels carried the news accompanied by verbose discussions by the so called ‘experts’ for a day.  Barring a few, most participants in the channel discussions brushed it off as a onetime phenomenon.  The clerics blamed it on lack of prayers and fear of God among youth.

The need for parent-child communication needs no further elaboration.  Please read my earlier Blogpost on the subject by clicking here.  The parents need to set an example by curtailing the use of their mobile devices at homes, especially when children are present.

The parents got to talk to their kid about the game.  The aim being to find out as to whether it has already taken root in the child’ school.  In case of any indication, it is best to inform the school about it.  The parents need to be aware of mood and behavioural changes of their children and got to go for professional advice to deal with the situation.  The quacks and clergy are obviously not the answer to your child’s problems.

To Sir Without Love

‘Sir’ is a term for addressing males who have been given certain honours or titles (such as knights and baronets) in Commonwealth Countries and is strictly governed by law and custom. The term is also commonly used as a respectful way to address a commissioned military officer – surely not civilians. Equivalent term in the feminine gender would be ‘madam’ and a young woman, girl, or unmarried woman may be addressed ‘miss’. A knighted woman or baronetess is a ‘Dame’ and a ‘Lady’ would be the wife of a knight or baronet.

In Kottayam, Kerala, there is a girls’ school called Baker Memorial Girls High School. The school was established by Amelia Dorothea Baker (1820-1904) of the Church Missionary Society (CMS). Miss Baker married John Johnson, another CMS missionary, who passed away in 1846. Miss Baker remained in-charge of the school in Kottayam till 1855. Her two sisters married CMS missionaries and three daughters of her brother Henry Baker Jr became teachers at the very same school. (Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, edited by Gerald H Anderson, Page 336)

The school today stands as a memorial to celebrate the efforts of the three generations of missionaries who dedicated their lives for the empowerment of the women of Kottayam through education. The common folk of Kottayam until my student days called it as Miss Baker School. Remember, it was during the British Raj and everyone addressed the founder headmistress of the school, very respectfully, as ‘Miss Baker’. Today, could any student in the very same school address their teacher ‘Miss Anita?’ I have often heard them addressing their teacher as Anita Miss (I could never make out as to what Miss Anita ‘missed’!)

On joining Sainik School, Amaravathi Nagar, Tamil Nadu in Grade 5 in 1971, our first Class-Master was Mr MJ Raman, our Mathematics teacher. We were about 25 of us from Kerala and only one could understand English and the rest 24 of us knew only Malayalam. In the first class Mr Raman issued us all the books, stationary, etc and briefed us in English and surely I did not get much of what he said.

We then had an English class by Mr KG Warrier. He asked us something like “Who asked you to do it?” in his Oxford accent and the boy who knew a bit of English promptly replied “Raman Sir told us to do it.” Mr Warrier now said “I know that Dr CV Raman was knighted, but did not know that Mr MJ Raman was also knighted. You all will address your teachers as ‘Mister’ or ‘Miss’ followed by their surnames.” Those words were imprinted on our young minds and through all these decades until now, we have always revered our teachers but invariably addressed them as ‘Mister’ or ‘Miss’, orally and in writing. Culturally, in Kerala as well as the rest of India, these modes of address have undergone a ‘mutation’. Today, it would be sacrilege for a college student to address his professor as ‘Mister Singh’

Please Click Here to read Blog-Posts about our teachers at Sainik School Amatavathi Nagar https://rejinces.net/category/sainik-school/

In Canadian high schools, students mostly address their teachers as ‘Mister’ or ‘Miss’ followed by their surnames. In the universities, some professors during their introduction class would specify their requirement. Some want to be addressed in the traditional manner and many with their first names or even shortened first names.

While interacting with an Indian immigrant teacher in Canada, he said he felt uncomfortable when the students addressed him as ‘Mr George.’ He had taught in a college in India for over two decades and everyone addressed his as ‘Sir’ and he felt that the Canadian students are disrespecting their teachers by not addressing them as ‘Sir.’

Addressing male teachers as ‘Sir’ and all females irrespective of marital status as ‘Miss’ shows a massive status disparity and sexism of previous years. According to Times Educational Supplement, ‘Sir’ was first used in Sixteenth Century classrooms when male teachers of a lower social standing were attempting to reinforce their authority among largely upper-class boys. ‘Miss’ (surely not anywhere near the status of ‘Sir’) is largely a Victorian era creation when women were pressurised to give up work after they married, with a number of schools only hiring single female teachers.

In the Dutch education system, children address teachers by their first name, using ‘juf’ or ‘juffrouw’ as a title for a female and ‘meester’ for a male teacher. Australians address their teachers as Mr/Mrs/Ms and surname. Sometimes if a teacher has a long or difficult-to-pronounce name, it is shortened to Mr PK, etc.

In Finland, it’s first names or even nick-names with teachers, no titles or surnames. The whole society there is very informal. French kids use the terms ‘maîtresse’ and ‘maître’ for female and male teachers respectively, meaning simply ‘teacher’. German students address teachers by using ‘Herr/Frau’ and surname, using ‘Sie’ as the polite form (Herr Schmidt, Koennen Sie…).

How do you wish to address your teachers? How do you wish your children addressed their teachers?

പഴങ്കഞ്ഞി (Pazhankanji)

Pazhankanji – fermented previous day’s cooked rice soaked in plain water – was served every morning at our home while we were growing up.  It was mostly accompanied by a pickle or ഉപ്പുമാങ്ങ  (Uppumanga) chutney.  Uppumanga is pickled tender mangoes in  brine.  After harvesting the tender mangos, generally in March-April, they are washed clean, dried and put into a large china-clay pitcher called a ഭരണി  (Bharani) with  brine and lot of fresh green chillies.  The mangos are now left to pickle up and is used to make chutney, with or without coconut, during the monsoons (June till September).  At that time availability of vegetables from our farmland around the house would deplete as new saplings would have been planted with the commencement of monsoons.  Obviously they would be growing up to yield their produce.

Amma used to make chutney with the Uppumanga and the accompanying chillies by grinding it with the small red onions and grated coconut.  She also used it to prepare prawn curry with it. I relished the brine from the Bharani which had the flavour of both the mango and the chili.  My brothers too loved it and obviously it was a strict ‘no-no’ for us to dip our hands into the Bharani as it would spoil the Uppumanga  Amma treasured.  Our hands would be dirty or wet and she did not want the mangos to be infected with fungus.  She had a special തവി(Thavi), a large ladle made of  half shell of a coconut with a long handle made from coconut wood, to take out the mangoes.

Amma cooked every morning prior to leaving to the school where she taught and in the evening on return.  The rice for the dinner was cooked in the evening and I observed that she always cooked an extra cup of rice.  On inquiry, she said it is for the guests who might come calling on in the evening.  In those days the last trip of the bus to Kottayam town was at 7 PM and all relatives who came over had to spend the night at our home.  Our home was about 20 km from our ancestral village as our father moved there next to Amma’s school so that she could spend more time at home and with us children.

Any rice left over after dinner was placed in an earthen pot soaked in water and left to ferment overnight at room temperature.  We did not have a fridge by then and hence this was the only way to store the leftover rice.  Next morning it was served as Pazhankanji. It really tasted a lot better when one had it using a spoon made out of a Jack-Fruit leaf as shown in the image above.  In case poor and hungry people came calling, they would be served this.   If any of it was still left, it was put in the feed for the cows we reared.

As per Ayurveda and common popular belief,  consuming Pazhankanji has the  following advantages:-

  • Rich in B6 and B12 Vitamins.
  • Easy to digest and hence the body feels less tired and one feels fresh throughout the day.
  • Beneficial bacteria get produced in abundance for the body.
  • Excessive heat retained in the body overnight is relieved .
  • Reduces constipation as this is very fibrous..
  • It is said to lower blood pressure and hypertension subsides appreciably.
  • This removes allergy induced problems and also skin-related ailments.
  • It removes all types of ulcers in the body.
  • It helps in maintaining youthful and radiant look.
  • Consuming this is believed to reduce craving for tea or coffee.

From where does the rice, known as കുത്തരി  (Kuththari), to make this divine Pazhankanji come from?

Rice from our paddy field after harvesting is stocked in പത്താഴം (Pathazham), a large wooden box.  About 50 kg of this raw harvested rice it is taken out and boiled in the evening in a large copper vessel  until the husk break open a little.  This is left overnight and next morning it is drained and sun dried on a തഴപ്പായ് (Thazhappay) – a mat of 12 feet by 30 feet made from the leaves of screw pine.  We children had to be sentries for the rice being dried in the sun to ensure that the brood of fowls we reared did not feast on the rice and also to shoo away the crows.  Another task was to turn the rice over using our hands and feet to ensure exposing of the entire rice to the sun to facilitate even drying.  In case one spotted a rain bearing cloud, one had to alert every member of the household to come out to pack up the rice and the mat.  In case they got wet, fungus infection was a sure shot thing in humid Kerala.  The only other task one was permitted during this sentry duty was to read a book.

After about two to three such rounds of sun drying was complete, the rice used to be packed in gunny bags and had to be transported to the rice mill for de-husking operation.  Our eldest brother was the mission commander and he used to hire a hand cart and we siblings used to load it up and push the cart to the mill with our eldest brother manning the controls of the hand cart in front.  At the rice mill, the semi-polished rice would emerge out through a chute, the outer husk through another and the edible Bran – തവിട് (Thavidu) through another.  We had to collect these in different gunny bags and load them up in the hand cart.  After paying up the mill owner was the return journey home.  The inedible husk was used as fuel to be burned with firewood to boil the next lot of raw rice and the bran found its way to the cows’ feed.

A part of the rice husk was burned and the residue was sieved and to the fine powder.  Salt, powdered pepper and cloves were added to this to form ഉമ്മിക്കരി (Umikkari). This was used as tooth powder by all of us.  I was least surprised by the advertisements of modern toothpaste manufacturers claiming that they have all the ingredients that made up our Ummikkari in their product.

In the earlier days, when I was a little child, prior to the establishment of the rice mill, Amma would hire women folk to do the de-husking operation in an ഉരൽ (Ural).  Ural is a stone cylinder about two feet tall and two feet in diameter.  On the top surface, a hole, six inch in diameter and depth is chiseled out to hold rice.  There is a five feet tall baton made of hardwood, with a metallic cover at the base, which is lifted up and pounded on the material inside the hole.  Perfecting the art of not spilling the contents while pounding is developed over time – to start with for any learner, the speed of pounding is a bit slow, but with practice, the speed really picks up.  In my younger days I have seen two ladies doing this in tandem.  Real precision timing and coordination is required for each pounding, else it could spell disaster.

With the advent of modern household appliances like grinders, fridges. mixies, etc and availability of pre-prepared, sorted  and cleaned rice and various other products have surely reduced the workload, but the taste of the natural rice still lingers on my taste buds.  The fridges for sure have made Pazhankanji a history, even in our home.

All Creatures Great and Small

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.               Cecil F. Alexander

This was a hymn we sang at the morning assembly at our school.  During my vacation in Kerala in April 2017, these lines came back to my mind as I took a stroll through the farmland behind our home.  Three small but great creatures caught my attention.  They are not great because the Lord God made them all, but because they were my companions as I grew up as a child.

The very first is the Antlion.  It  is surely neither an ant nor a lion, else a little three year old kid could not have played with them.  The Antlion is called so because it feeds on ants and hence is like a ‘lion’ for the ants. In Malayalam it is called കുഴിയാന – Kuzhiyana – meaning an elephant in a pit.  It is surely not an elephant, but its hump looks like that of an elephant and it did live in a conical pit.  In North America, Antlions are called ‘doodlebugs’, because of the doodles they leave on the sand while looking for a suitable spot to dig its pit.  It is in fact the larval form of a dragonfly.

A fully developed Antlion is about a centimeter long, with a larval  life cycle similar to that of a caterpillar.  At the end of the larva stage, it spins a cocoon and after a few days an adult a dragonfly emerges.

Antlions like to set their pits in places where it is dry and where the soil particles are loose and small. They dig a circular, funnel-shaped pit and hide at the bottom of it. When an unsuspecting ant  falls into the pit, the Antlion grabs it with its jaws. The prey cannot escape the pit because the wall is crumbly.  As the prey tries to climb up, the grainy wall crumbles down.

Antlion with its bean-shaped body and ant like head appear to  move rearwards.  As a child, I used to locate Antlions’  pits and blow the sand away with my mouth.  As the sand blew away, exposing the Antlion, it would further dig deep down to escape until I caught it.  The Antlions caught would be stored in an empty matchbox.  After a few of these creatures were caught, I used to line them up like elephants paraded during Thrissur Pooram.  The Thrissur Pooram is held in the city of Thrissur in central Kerala (India) and is a cultural highlight that is unique in its pageantry, magnitude and participation. 30  elephants are paraded on this occasion, attired  with the traditional Nettipattam (golden headdress), decorative bells and ornaments, decorated umbrellas, palm leaves and peacock feathers, and beautifully-crafted kolam (paintings).

The Antlions grow into dragonflies and would flutter around in search of insects, their staple food.  As a kid, I chased and caught a few of them and tied a small thread to their tails so as to control them and make them take short flights.  Then I would prompt the dragonfly to pick up small pebbles and increased the size of the stones until the dragonfly could lift no more.  This sadistic game ended with the death of the dragonfly, when it severed its head from its torso.

The next creature is the dangerous  നീർ – Neer – The Red Weaver Ants .  They are found in the tropical forests of Africa, Australia and the Solomon Islands. In India I have found them only in Kerala.  All animals, insects, birds and humans are scared of them because of the painful bite they inflict.  They are very aggressive territorial ants and tend to be very aggressive and responsive to disturbance.  They have a vice like grip and tremendous strength while inflicting a painful slicing bite.  With the bite they spray formic acid into the resulting wounds.

They are seen in almost all fruit trees in our farmland, mainly the  mango and  jackfruit trees.  They are natural insect killers as they feast on the fruit flies that hover around these trees.  It takes a few minutes for a fruit fly to find a suitable spot on the mango and inject her eggs under the skin of the fruit and make the fruit rot.  The weaver ants on these trees chase them away or capture them. When other insects, squirrels or birds detect the scent of weaver ants, they prefer to stay away.

The only catch is that when one needs to climb these trees to get the fruits down.  Then one has to apply a strong insect repellent – usually kerosene – and carry a bag full of ash.  As one climbs up the tree, ash is spread all around to keep these weaver ants at bay.

These weaver ants are famous for the elaborate treetop nests they build. They are champions of cooperation when it comes to building a nest.   They build nests by stitching five to ten leaves together using larval silk.  They first find a suitable location on a treetop and then bend down the leaves and place them in a tent like shape.  Holding down such leaves demand the force of a thousand ants, each drawing down with all his might and the others fasten the joints to build a spacious nest that protects their colony from impending danger of predators.

Using precise coordination, the weaver ants create very strong ant chains by linking legs to pull and bend leaves into desired tent like positions. Then they  glue them with silk.  The silk comes from their own larvae.  The adults carry larvae in their jaws and squeeze them gently so that the larvae secrete a drop of silk on one end of the leaf edges. The ants then carry the larvae along the entire length of the leaf edges, squeezing as they go, using the larvae like living bottles of glue, until the edges of the leaves are stuck together from end to end.

Weaver ants live in a highly organized, co-operative society, where every individual has a role to play in the survival of the entire colony. Their jobs are based on their physique and they execute the tasks with utmost sincerity and discipline. Those in charge of food bring anything edible back to their colony to feed other ants.  They also have a workers army who construct the nests and repair them and very aggressively protect the nests filled with ants and their eggs.

As a child, I used to stand next to the mango tree and observe these ants at work.  I used to talk to them, reporting what all happened at home.  This time I did watch them curiously, but had nothing to talk to them.

Photographs Courtesy Sherrin Koduvath