Sunday, August 31, 2008

Kerala food: Aviyal, Bhima’s own dish, for Onam

Onam, the most famous festival of Kerala is just around the corner. Thiruonam is on the 12th of September. Can a Malayalee (Keralite) think of Onasadhya without aviyal? This famous cooked vegetable ‘salad’ is supposed to have been invented by Bhima.

It is believed that the Pandavas spent a considerable time in Kerala during their year of hiding after the vanavasa (living in the forests) of 12 years. (See Travel: Mist covers the mountain tops)

If they were recognized during that period the cycle of vanavasa and hiding had to be repeated. They had to be very careful to remain incognito. While the other Pandavas were satisfied with living on fruits etc., Bhima’s appetite required more solid food.

One day in desperation, he gathered all the edible vegetables available, cut them up, put them in a vessel and poured some water into it. He added grated coconut, curry leaves, salt, turmeric etc and boiled the pot. He took it off the fire when the water had almost dried up. And, aviyal was born! Possibly it looked something like in the picture below:

Bhima loved it and so did the people during the millenniums that followed. I don't think anyone would dispute that aviyal is Kerala’s favorite vegetable dish.

One could possibly write the recipe for aviyal by looking at the photo. There are no hard and fast rules or rigid list of ingredients. The requirements are vegetables on hand, coconut, turmeric, curry leaves and salt. Add something for sourness if you like. May be a little coconut oil or coconut milk, before taking off the fire.

In short, aviyal is a dish that you blend to your taste with available inputs. Or, if you like, there are many recipes available on the Internet.

Aviyal is great, any time.

Photo by me from Olavipe. Copyright reserved. Click to enlarge.

Also see: Sadhya - a sumptuous Kerala meal

Friday, August 29, 2008

The mayhem in Orissa

The tragic events in Orissa reminded me of something that happened in 1986 on the eve of the Pope’s arrival in Kerala. I was present at a discussion about the impact the visit could have on the different religious groups in the State. There was apprehension that protests might be organized on the contention that the Pontiff’s trip would adversely affect the Hindu interests and feelings.

One middle aged Nair gentleman concluded the dialogue by saying that Hinduism was not a weak entity that could be damaged by the visit of a Pope. He knew the strength of Hinduism. It is a religion or a way of life that is built on solid theological basis. Jesus Christ is believed to have told His chief disciple, ‘Peter, you are the rock on which I shall build my Church’. The wisdom of the Rishis, and the Vedantas form the indestructible foundation of Hinduism.

History stands witness to this. India has been ruled by the Moghuls and the mighty British. The Portuguese, the Dutch and the French dominated pockets in the country for long periods. In spite of all these, Hinduism survived.

Some people claim to be apprehensive about the future of Hinduism. Do they really believe that there is a genuine threat to the religion? In Orissa, out of the 36.7 million people, 94.35% are Hindus. This includes 5.1 million Dalits and 7 million plus Adivasis; they are the underprivileged.

Most of the Dalits and Adivasis live in abject poverty and backwardness. Reportedly, there are instances of them being denied entry into temples. It is doubtful whether they are accepted as true Hindus by the savarnas (upper class). It would appear that the Christian missionaries are mostly working among these oppressed people.

Uplifting the downtrodden through education and other means often pose problems to the vested interests. When the Portuguese were converting low castes in Kerala in the 17th century, protests arose from the upper caste Hindus and Christians. There was nothing religious about that. It caused inconvenience, economically and otherwise, to the savarnas because conversion released avarnas (lower class) from their caste obligations. (See History of conversions to Christianity in Kerala – an overview )

Another significant point is that the Christians, not Muslims, are the second largest religious congregation in Orissa, though their strength is only about 620,000. The Muslim population is even less, and rather subdued. It is the Christians who provide education and other amenities to the backward people, thereby empowering them.

Affiliation to any particular religion is not a prerequisite to be a citizen of India. That is what secularism is all about. And, any citizen of India is free to do what he wants within the bounds of law. That is what democracy means, what the Constitution guarantees. Again, it is the job of the government to enforce law, not that of a citizen or a group. That is known as the rule of law.

Any one who breaks the law should be brought to book. This includes erring missionaries, bogus god men and people who indulge in arson and murder for whatever cause. Those responsible for the killing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader and his four aides last Saturday, whether Naxals or Christians, should be arrested and prosecuted without delay. The same should apply to those who indulged in criminal activities since then. That is the duty of the government.

We have an ancient civilization. Every Indian should be proud of that. But what is happening in Orissa today is making a mockery of our heritage and traditional values.

Very sad indeed!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Serene symbiosis

AS my land lies torn in strife
From Kashmir down to South
Pockets serene still remain
Like Olavipe the village mine
Where the gentle west wind hums
As it blows in from the lake
Over fields and swaying palms
The soul songs of the waves

The photo (copyright reserved) is of the west side of Thekkanattu Parayil, Olavipe, where several dozens of different species of plants and trees thrive in perfect harmony. If only we Indians could do that!

Click on photo to enlarge.

Also see:

Photos of Olavipe Lake

Pristine village: Olavipe photos

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Bangalore aside: Breakfast is free, but pay for coffee

It is generally accepted that bed coffee is what one drinks soon after waking up and breakfast is the first meal of the day. If you drink only a cup of coffee and don’t eat anything with it, can it be considered a breakfast? This question acquired a legal dimension during my short visit to Bangalore on last Sunday-Monday.

Here is the lead up to that development. I caught the early morning Shadabthi from Chennai. In less than 4hours 30minutes the train was nearing Cantonment Station at Bangalore. Almost all the passengers got up and moved to the exits with their baggage. The train slowed down but kept going.

Protests by the passengers were of no use. Many including me had alighted at Cantonment from the Shadabthi on earlier trips. I can’t see any logic in this popular train not stopping at the station which is closer to the Central Business District and some of the older residential areas.

I phoned the driver who was waiting for me at Cantonment Station. He came over to the City Junction and took me to the Club where I was booked.

Considering the quality, the room was quite steeply priced. But as a consolation, all taxes and free breakfast were thrown in. Excellent chicken fried rice, (non-greasy and light) and watered down vodka for dinner, and early to bed.

Since I had to leave at 6AM I had asked Room Service to wake me up at 5AM with a cup of coffee. That was done and the coffee was good.

The problem started while settling the bill. I was charged for the bed coffee. The clerk explained that though breakfast was free bed coffee had to be paid for. I found that amusing and pursued the matter.

My argument was that I was confining my breakfast there to coffee and was abandoning whatever goodies they were serving for the first meal of the day. The other side came up with the counter that I could wait till breakfast service commenced and either take only coffee or eat the fare supplied as well.

The debate, which I felt was of great academic interest, could not be completed be cause of my rush. I paid Rs.5.50 for the coffee and left.

If you were the judge, what would be your verdict? Should I have paid or not?

Also see

Kerala plantations: The bed tea ceremony that was

Nostalgia: The romance of India/Indian Coffee House

Some Clubs of India

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Tulasi the Incomparable

Tulasi - the very name has sanctity about it. One doesn’t call it just ‘basil’ but Holy Basil. Ocimum Sanctum. It is a symbol of purity, divinity and health. Tulasi is believed to be the incarnation of Goddess Lakshmi and therefore incomparable. It is so much a part and parcel of Indian life and culture.

Visualize this scene. First rays of morning sun filtering through the trees around. A lady wearing damp clothes after bath stands in front of the tulasi plant in her house. It could be in the front, or in the nadumuttam (inner courtyard). Droplets of water drip down intermittently from her hair. She waters the plant, stands in front of it in prayer with folded hands and does pradishana (circling around).

A tulasi plant in the rain in an inner courtyard.

That is the routine of many an Indian woman before she gets immersed in the daily chores, pure in body and mind. Apart from the veneration part of it, spending time before tulasi is a healthy practice. Emissions from the plant are said to purify the air around it.

Skanda Purana says, "Just by touching Tulsidevi one's body becomes pure. By praying to her, all diseases practically become removed. If one waters her or makes her wet, the fear of Yamaraja (death personified) is destroyed.” (See and similar sites.)

The medicinal values of Tulasi have been known and used in India for thousands of years. The claimed benefits are far too many to be listed here but one must mention that it is said to reduce blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Vastu also recognizes the importance of tulasi. The plant growing in the vicinity of a house is alleged to have highly positive influence.

I was surprised to learn that tulasi has religious significance in Christianity as well. It is said to have been found at Calvary where Jesus was crucified and near His tomb after the resurrection. Some Churches keep basil near the altar. It is also used in making Holy Water which is supposed to cleanse away sins and guard against evils.

Christians have two saints, father and son, named Basil. Tulasi has a prominent place in the Saint Basil’s Day celebrations.

The homeland of the tulasi is India, where it has been known from Vedic times. Later it spread to other countries. This Queen of Herbs is used for many culinary applications too.

Before concluding I must say this. My sister-in-law Rema (Mrs. Antony Tharakan) makes a delicious tulasi tea. It is a great drink first thing in the morning or just before bed time.

Photos by me from Olavipe. Copyright reserved. Click on them to enlarge.

Also see

Divine Strokes

Friday, August 22, 2008

Drunk on a wasted road

Almost two weeks have passed but the street scene that I saw keeps disturbing me on and off. On the evening of 13th August, while returning from my dentist I stopped at a wine shop in Chennai to pick up a bottle. And there was this young man lying on the pavement near the steps of the outlet. People passed by avoiding him, not bothering one bit.

The youngster appeared to be around 25 years old. He was darkish, and surprisingly handsome. Chiseled features, well combed hair. Even the few days’ growth of beard looked well groomed. His clothes were not too dirty. He certainly was not the usual habitually drunken type.

The lad was blissfully asleep. It did not seem like a drunken stupor. There was a peaceful look on his face, as though he was having a pleasant dream. But certainly he would have consumed a large quantity of alcohol to be in that condition. Perhaps something else too, along with liquor.

What made him do that? A fight with parents? Somehow I felt that he was not married. Sudden loss of job? May be a broken love affair? Possibly he was dreaming of the girl involved. Was she beautiful? To him, she would have been, I suppose.

Whatever the problem was, it would still be there when he woke up, surely with a colossal hangover. Troubles that people face do not just go away. They have to be tackled, sorted out. Hopefully the youngster would have realized that when he became sober and pulled his life together again.

I watched him for a long time, wondering whether I should do something. I could have taken him to a hospital or contacted the police to handle the matter. May be there are social welfare organizations that would take care of cases like these but I was not aware of any.

I did nothing. Just went home.

Whenever I think of the incident, I feel a sense of guilt.

Should I have helped the boy? What do you think?

Also see

Christmas spirit in Kerala

Madras Matters

Thursday, August 21, 2008

A pineapple story, with photos

Plants with fruits.

A close up. The tender leaves at the base of the fruit are reddish. As the
fruit matures, they turn green and the florets will drop off.
The crown on the top of the fruit is used for propagation.

This, in the same field is a dwarf.

This is a garden variety.

A size comparison.

Photo credits: Top three – Rejo. Others by me.

Copyright reserved.

Click on photos to enlarge.

Also see:

Papaya, the health fruit

Water lilies: here is a picture of nature's perfection, imperfection

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Bangalore: Flying in, flying out

I landed at the Bangalore International Airport on Independence Day with a sense of anticipation. It was my first use of the new facility which is about 40km from the city’s Central Business District.

There had been attempts to delay the opening of the airport through protests and court case. The main objection by some sections was that the infrastructural development had not been completed and therefore transit between the city and the airport would be time consuming. The Governor and his Cabinet went ahead anyway and opened the airport.

I had not asked for a car to meet me on arrival. There is a bus from the airport to the city every 30 minutes. This service is run by the Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC) with a large fleet of A/C Volvos and non-A/C vehicles.

The bus bay is less than 100 meters from the terminal. Route maps painted on walls show a choice of 8 convenient routes. I selected Route 5 on a Volvo to get dropped near High Grounds Police Station. The trip took about 45 minutes and cost Rs.125.

(Incidentally, many Bangaloreans would remember the cute High Grounds Police Station building. Well, it is no longer there – demolished for widening the road as part of the inevitable infrastructural development. A pity, I must say.)

For return on Sunday, 17th, I boarded a Volvo at JC Nagar at 3.30 P.M. for my 5.30 P.M. flight. The ticket cost Rs.155; the rate varies according to the destination/boarding point. But the time taken was, again, about 45 minutes.

You can book bus tickets on line and have them delivered to you. Also available is a unique Home Connect service. You can pre-arrange for a taxi to pick you up from or drop you at the chosen bus stop. (Log on to or

Perhaps the reason for the short transit time was both the days I was traveling were holidays. When the widening of roads which is under way is completed, the transfer should be faster. And, certainly the congestion on the road could be reduced if more people switched to buses instead of own vehicles, and the ‘seeing off ceremony’ of relatives and friends accompanying a passenger to send him off is avoided.

Bangalore’s modern airport on 4,000 acres of land has the capacity to handle 11 million passengers annually. What impressed me most was that it has a fully equipped 24x7 medical center, which also provides a state-of-the-art cardiac care ambulance with qualified staff to transfer critical patients to major hospitals.

I noticed a couple of negative points too. The big traffic circles on the road connecting the airport to Highway 7, results in reducing speed and the sharp turns into and out of them are not passenger friendly. This could be easily remedied by having narrower oval or oblong traffic islands or by widening the entry and exit points of the circles.

Again, the boarding gates are on the first floor. The aerobridges are useless for smaller aircrafts. As a result, one has to walk down a flight of steps to board, carrying cabin baggage. Hopefully with the second runway and terminal that are planned, this apparently illogical arrangement would be avoided.

To sum up, Bangalore can be proud of its new International Airport. It is precisely what a fast-growing metropolis needs.

Also see:

Nostalgia: Bangalore again

Nostalgia: The romance of India/Indian Coffee House

Hockey days in Bangalore

Gunboat Jack, a Bangalore hero of the past

Bangalore Memories: Cricket, hockey and the tragedy of Len Dial

The Bangalore that was, 60 years ago!

Bangalore: Of a club, a park and a Chief Secretary couple
Bangalore memories

Monday, August 18, 2008

Popularizing Raja Ravi Varma

The creations of Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906), the great Indian painter, are superb and very popular all over the world. (See Raja Ravi Varma: A Movie on the Royal Painter)

We recently picked up a set of his paintings in the deco art format from an art and craft fair in Chennai. They are set on treated wood and are quite true to the originals. The pieces can be either stood on tables or hung on walls.

According to the suppliers, ‘Deco-painting is a Greek art form which originated during the 17th century.’ Anyway, deco-art was popular during the first half of the 20th century.

What is now available in the market should make copies of Raja Ravi Varma masterpieces available to the common man. The 13x13 cm size we bought costs Rs.100 each. Bigger ones are available also.

My photographs of the pieces are rather poor quality, but nevertheless I am reproducing them below:

Click on images to enlarge.

Friday, August 15, 2008



the People of India shall overcome

the bigots, separatists, communalists, terrorists,

regionalists, sycophants, the corrupt, the self-serving,

external threats, the strife within

and march ahead hand in hand.


Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Visit of a queen

The vigil started at sunset. The four of us – two of the cousins, Paul and Johnny, my brother Jacob, and I – sat on the front veranda, Thekkanattu Parayil., Olavipe, glancing often at a lone plant on the courtyard with great anticipation.

We were waiting for the first bud of the night-blooming Cerus plant to open. It is a rare plant that flowers once in twelve months and only around midnight. The blooms are on the leaves and survive only for a few hours.

The flower is generally known as Nishagandhi in India. The common names include ‘Queen of the Night’. It belongs to the cactus family and grows indoors or outdoors. The leaves are normally planted to propagate the plant.

I had taken the following photo of the bud two days earlier:

The boy who was attending to us would inspect it at regular intervals to see if it had started opening. At about 8.30 pm he gave us the good news. Then I took a series of pictures:

At full bloom the queen looks stunning. The Japanese name for the flower is so appropriate – Gekka Bijin, which means ‘Beautiful Woman Under the Moon’. There was an exotic fragrance as though she was wearing a subtle perfume.

At her moment of glory the queen didn’t know that her life was only for a few short hours. By morning it was like what Omar Khayyam said in the Rubaiyat: ‘Like dew upon the desert’s dusty face lighting an hour or two is gone’. Here is the picture:

But the cycle does not end. In the photo you can see a small bud on the leaf on the right.

Life goes on.

Click on photos to enlarge. Copyright reserved.

Also see: Gardening: More photos of Kerala flowers

Monday, August 11, 2008

Photos: Rains at Olavipe

Photos by me. Copyright reserved.
Click on images to enlarge.
Also see:

Cool stones

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Art: Blue porcelain from Russia

Last week at Olavipe I came across some beauties tucked away in the archives room - the Gzhel porcelain collection my brother Jacob acquired during his stint in Moscow. What makes them unique are the cobalt blue against white background, and the motifs. Each design is handmade, and a work of art.

What I found amazing is that Gzhel porcelain is not just decorative pieces or souvenirs. They are mostly functional household items embedded with beautiful artwork – plates, serving dishes, cups and saucers, mugs, samovars and the like. The range also includes clocks, vodka containers and figurines.

Gzhel is the name of the village where these stunning pieces are crafted. It is about 60km SE of Moscow. High quality white clay is abundant in the area. That apparently was the reason why the people there took up pottery centuries back. It seems that the oldest record relating to this dates back to 1339.

Initially the artisans of Gzhel produced plain or enameled utensils and toys. In course of time they mastered the art of majolica and faience. The cobalt blue and white stream was developed in the 19c and became popular within a short span of time.

The outbreak of the First World War and the subsequent Bolshevik Revolution pushed the Gzhel porcelain industry into a crisis. But it bounced back. Today the masterpieces from Gzhel are admired all over the world and are in great demand.

I took photographs of some of the pieces. They are reproduced below. The copyright is reserved. You can click on them to enlarge.

Also see Divine Strokes

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Kerala: Left, Right and two steps backwards

Kerala has made stunning progress in the fields of literacy and population control. These were achieved through awareness programs and not by coercion. In both fields, the projects have reached self sustaining levels, a pattern where the vast majority of the people pursue the objectives automatically. The current situation is that many schools do not have sufficient students as a result of the family planning program, and face closure.

The Kerala Catholic Bishops Council (KCBC) recently threw a spanner into the works by asking its flock to beget more children to arrest the decline in the Catholic population. One is reminded of the Nazis directing Aryan women to produce as many children as possible to increase the number of true Aryans in Germany. The Church, of course, can argue that it was always against birth control except through restraint.

Almost on the heels of this came the recommendations of the Kerala Law Reforms Commission headed by Justice VR Krishna Iyer that opened up a new controversy. Justice Krishna Iyer, it may be recalled, was a member of Kerala’s first Communist Ministry and held important portfolios. Subsequently he was a Supreme Court Judge (1973-1980). He claims that he was never a Communist but only shared ‘socialist dimensions’ with them.

The Kerala Law Reforms Commission has recommended that a fine of Rs.10000 be imposed on couples with three or more children, along with other severe measures to ensure more effective birth control among the people. In Communist countries, which are usually called People’s Democratic Republics, such steps may go unchallenged. But India is a thriving democracy with a Constitution that ensures Fundamental Rights to its citizens

KCBC was, understandably, among the first to react. It claims that the Law Commission recommendations, if enacted, would infringe on the fundamental rights of the citizens. The Bishops’ organization goes on to say that it stands for responsible parenthood, which means that couples should decide on the size of the family based on their health and financial capabilities. Muslim groups also have protested vehemently against the Law Commission’s views.

I, a person with no formal law education, too feel that the recommendations would infringe on fundamental rights if they are made enforceable. Also, a question that comes to mind is what would be the legal implication if a person denies conjugal rights to his/her spouse in the name of State ordained birth control.


Also see Kerala: Left with empty granaries

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Kerala food: Peechappam, a forgotten item?

How many people make peechappam (it may have other local names) these days? When I asked Velayudhan, our chief cook at Thekkanattu Parayil, Olavipe, to make peechappam, he had to think for a minute to remember the item.

Peechappam is a tender steamed rice cake. The name means squeezed appam. The prepared dough is squeezed in the palm before steaming, and the fingers leave dimples on it. Though easy to make, tasty and versatile, it is lesser known than the other famous Kerala appams like palappam (lace hopper) and idiyappam (string hopper).

Peechappam is an anytime food – breakfast, lunch, dinner. It goes well with pickles, curries, preserves, honey, syrup, and chutney.

A modified version is to make patty shaped stuffed peechappams. There is a large choice of fillings – vegetables, shrimps and other seafood, cheese, corned beef, sliced sausages, chopped bacon rashers or ham and so on. It can be an excellent snack or a full meal.

The basic recipe for peechappam is:
2 cups rice flour
1 cup grated coconut (not too mature). The coconut can be coarse or fine grated, or even ground, according to preference.
Jeera to taste (Powder, crushed or whole)
Salt to taste.

Mix the ingredients in hot water
Squeeze small portions of the dough with fingers. If stuffing is used, place it inside the dough, roll into balls and shape them.
Steam till done. (Note: Over steaming will make the appam hard.)

I have translated the recipe Velayudhan wrote down for me in Malayalam. Photos (copyright reserved) are by Rijo (top) and me. The first one is the traditional peechappam Velayudhan made yesterday. It was more succulent. The stuffed ones were made by an assistant cook today. They are a bit too hard.

Click on the images to enlarge them.


Also see Kerala Food: Breakfast range