Saturday, December 31, 2011

Best Wishes

Wishing You a Very Happy and Prosperous 

New Year

Monday, December 26, 2011

Mango trees flower

Usually, mango trees bloom in December. An indication that one of them is about to blossom is the light yellowish or pinkish tender leaves that come. They will soon turn dark green.

The flowers have an exotic smell that fills the air during season. A good portion of the blooms fall off particularly if there is rain clouds or rain.

Given below are photos that I took in Chennai and Olavipe. Click on them to enlarge. Copyright is reserved. 

Also please see:

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Dam Business

Dr.Rajan Gurukkal, Vice Chancellor of the Mahatma Gandhi University recently stated that politics improves the intellectual level of a person. Well, after whipping up emotions and creating a near panic situation in the dispute with Tamil Nadu over the Mullaperiyar Dam, the Kerala UDF leaders have called off their agitation. The Communists and BJP who have become practically their political partners are to continue the fight. The by-election to the Kerala Assembly from Piravom is around the corner and they are hoping to get a few more votes with this show. 

The Mullaperiyar Dam was built 116 years back at a height of about 3000 feet above sea level by the British in what is now the Idukki District of Kerala. The purpose was to supply water to the barren districts of Tamil Nadu adjoining the Western Ghats. This is done through watershed cutting and tunnels and pipes. Subsequently, power generation from the diverted water was also taken up.

Actually it was one man’s dedication that made the dam a reality – Major John Pennycuick whom the Madras Presidency Governor had put in charge of the project. But after two coffer dam failures the government withdrew financial support to the plan.

Pennycuick did not give up though. It is said that he sold his estate in England and his wife’s jewellery to fund the construction of the dam. One product that flowed without water then was the local hooch, arrack, which the workers consumed to keep away malaria. In spite of that hundreds of them died of the disease.

When completed, the dam was considered to be one of the great engineering feats performed by man. A large area of Tamil Nadu – Theni, Madurai, Sivaganga and Ramanathapuram districts - started receiving ample supply of water. That changed the lives of the people of those places and Pennycuick became a god to them.

By Jayeshj. Published under

By Captain. Published under

At least one temple was dedicated to the Englishman. Pongal is celebrated for him in some areas. His portrait is revered in many homes and shops. Children are named after him. There is also a place called Pennycuick Peravai. The government put up Pennycuick’s statue in Madurai. When this engineer’s great grandson visited the area in 2002, thousands gathered to welcome and honour him. The people of Tamil Nadu have a deep attachment to Mullaperiyar Dam and Pennycuick. One has to be sensitive to that affection.

In 1886 the Travancore Sate and the British signed a 999 year lease agreement for giving the latter 8000 acres of land for the reservoir and 100 acres for the dam for rent of Rs.40000 per year. This contract became void when India attained independence. After years of negotiation, a new agreement was signed between Kerala and Tamil Nadu in 1970. In that the lease rates were increased to Rs.1 million. Kerala now wants this agreement to be modified.

Kerala’s concern is that the old dam made using stone rubble masonry has weakened mainly because of age and the earthquakes in the area and might burst. If that happens there would be colossal loss of human lives and existing development in Kerala. The movie Dam 999 (which is banned in TN) I believe (haven’t seen it) shows the havoc a dam burst can cause. We know that during World War II the British developed a special type of bomb to demolish two German dams so that the industries downstream would be washed away. The famous 1955 British movie, The Dam Busters shows the details.

Fears about the safety of Mullaperiyar Dam arose in Kerala in 1979 when Macchu – 2 Dam near Morvi town in Gujarat burst due to incessant rains. It is estimated that about 15000 to 25000 people died in that tragedy. From 1990 there have been several earthquakes in Idukki District which could have affected the strength of the dam. Kerala says there have been twenty two earthquakes. According to TN, there have been only four. But the Central Government states that there have been sixteen tremors and the dam is in earthquake prone area.

What Kerala wants is to construct a new dam downstream and till that is completed to reduce the storage level at Mullaperiyar to 120 feet from the present 136 feet. Kerala also promises to provide TN as much water as they are getting now, from the new dam. But what the price of water would be and how the new structure is to be financed and managed is not clear. The present dam, though it is in Kerala is operated and maintained by TN.

Kerala Government is absolutely justified in its concern for the safety of its people. But the way the present government has gone about it is counter productive. The antics and one-upmanship by the Kerala parties over the issue have provoked the Tamilians. Keralites are at the losing end and further problems could arise for people living in Kerala and those Keralites in TN. Going into details would make this a long essay. As the Supreme Court said, “Both parties, instead of dousing the fire, are adding fuel to it.”

This sort of matters should have been discussed quietly and a reasonable agreement reached before publicising it. Perhaps negotiations should have started in 1990. What is the solution now? The Supreme Court? The Prime Minister or the President?

Somebody should put across to TN one basic point. A dam burst would be a one time tragedy for Kerala. But all the areas in TN which have prospered with water from Mullaperiyar would become barren again.
Click on the photos to enlarge.
All pictures from Wikimedia Commons. 

Also please see Remembering grandfather. There may be a connection..

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Putting FDI in retail on hold – sense or nonsense?

What prompted me to write this was reading Yaswant Sinha’s statements about FDI in retail field in an interview published recently in the Deccan Chronicle.

About fifteen or twenty years back when supermarkets came to Cochin there was considerable fear among the small retailers that their business would be affected. The magnitude of this concern spread to more areas when the big shops started selling meat, fish and vegetables too.

What really happened? One chain of supermarkets closed down, obviously due to mismanagement. Unfortunately they did not know Yaswant Sinha’s miracle therapy – send your people outside to learn best management practices in retail. (It would be useful if he can publish a list of places where such training is available to Indian retailers.) Another well-known chain also pulled down its shutters. Some others are doing well of course. Even Reliance and More have entered the scene in a big way. But it has not affected the small retailers.

Take the area where I live in Cochin. Seven years back when we moved to Chennai the place had three or four vegetable shops and a few retail outlets for other goods. We shifted back three months ago. The situation is interesting. Within a radius of less than 1km, there is a Reliance Fresh (with a notice on the front door that they need personnel), around ten vegetable shops and a number of retailers dealing in every imaginable goods from pencils to electronics. All of them seem to be doing well.

We go to Reliance occasionally. The main reason is that there is a good fish stall and a medical shop near Reliance. It also helps us to learn what the new goods on the market are. But it is the corner shop near the house that we depend on mostly. It has almost all the stuff we need for the house. That shop too has grown. Incidentally, women still bring fish home. The cold storages apparently have not affected their business

If Walmart or Morrison’s or Carrefour opens a super shop in the heart of the town not many people are likely to drive in the traffic congestion to do regular shopping there. It is true that the malls which have come up in Cochin seem to be doing well. But mostly, people stick to their local shops where they are known. The habit of buying in large quantities and stocking for a month or so is not common.

Yaswant Sinha says that foreign involvement in retail would mean cultural invasion. Well, the middleman culture would be under threat. That should benefit the farmers and the consumers. As a matter of fact, reading through the whole interview gives one the feeling that FDI is something that Sinha is not really against, though his intention was to justify his party’s stand to oppose it.

If the major international retail chains come to India, they would require people to man the new facilities. It is unlikely that they would grab staff from the existing small outlets. They would recruit according to their set standards and train the personnel. This should certainly create many new job opportunities.

Would the customers have any benefits? Let me give my wife’s and my example. After a recent cataract operation, I had to use different types of eye drops. They are cheaper in the hospital pharmacy by about 20% compared to the medical shops. The same is true about my wife’s diabetic medicines and equipments for taking sugar readings. The reason is that these hospitals buy in volumes and regularly.

Efficient and quantitative buying certainly reduces the cost for the outlet. You might have noticed ads in the media and otherwise by big shops offering commonly used goods cheaper than market prices and MRPs.  

Now, on the political angle. In fact the BJP was for FDI in retail when they were ruling. But that proposal was not pushed through for some reason. Now they are objecting to it because the UPA is trying to implement it. Purely political reason.  

BJP must realize that the party is very important to India. They would be/should be either running the government or sitting the opposition in a responsible manner. Seeing the BJP lining up with the left parties too often these days makes one worried. The Communists have opposed everything good for the country from Quit India to computers. That is why they are where they are today.

Inactivating the Parliament for political reasons – sometimes silly ones – for days at a stretch and wasting the taxpayer’s money is not right. Stay in the Parliament and bring a no confidence motion if the government is really doing something seriously wrong.

That is the true democratic process.

Also please see

Saturday, December 3, 2011

A tree of sorrow and its flowers that are teardrops

Once upon a time in a kingdom in India was a princess. Her name was  Parijathika. She fell in love with the Sun. After years of waiting and pleading, she realized that her wishes were in vain. She committed suicide. From her ashes arose a plant. It grew fast, and started flowering. The plant and its flowers were named parijatham, after the princess. The fragrant blossoms opened only at night so that they won’t have to see the Sun. They fall off in the morning. They are the teardrops of Parijathika.

Parijatham thirumizhi thurannu…. (parijatham flower has opened its royal eyes….) is a famous song that the Malayalis (Mallus) have loved for decades. Though it is a native of Southeast Asia (Pakistan to Thailand) not many people are familiar with parijatham. Actually I don’t even remember seeing one. We have a plant with beautiful white flowers which is locally called parijatham. But it is a day-flowering one. I have given its photo in the post Can you help identify these flowers form Olavipe?

Then, last week I met Prof. Joy Joseph at a luncheon party at the Cochin Suburban Club. He had been the Secretary of Ernakulam District Agri-Horti Society for nine years and has organized several flower shows. I asked him about parijatham. He got me its botanical name Nyctanthes arbor-tristis and said that in English it is called night flowering jasmine. Later on I found that it is also referred to as coral jasmine and tree of sorrow. I believe that arbor-tristis literally means sad tree. It belongs to the Oleaceae family. Parijatham is the Malayalam name. Some of the names in other languages are given in the ‘Labels’ section below.

Well, parijatham is not really a tree. It grows to a height of only a few meters. More like a shrub. The 1-2 inch flowers are beautiful and highly fragrant. Though they fall off in the morning, the aroma lingers in the air for hours. Parijatham is a divine flower and is used for worship by the Hindus and Buddhists. I believe that they are not to be plucked from the shrub. Only the fallen ones are taken.

Apart from the story of the princess falling in love with the Sun, there are two other stories that I came across about its origin. One is that, according to the Puranas, parijatham was found during the Palazhi Madhanam (Churning of the Sea of Milk)

Another episode states that Sri Krishna stole a branch of the parijatham tree from the heavenly garden of Indra. His wives Satyabhama and Rukmini were staying in adjoining houses. Each wanted parijatham to be planted in her garden. Sri Krishna placed the plant in a slanting manner in one garden so that when it grew up the flowering would be over the other garden.     

It is claimed that all parts of parijatham except perhaps its roots have great medicinal value. It is used for gout, piles, dry cough, skin problems, ring worm, intestinal worms, certain gynecological troubles, chronic fever and as purgative. Hair tonic is also made from parijatham.

Parijatham is not to be confused with ‘nishagandhi (Queen of the night or night-blooming Cerus plant). Incidentally, in the post Visit of a queen I have given sequential photographs of a nishagandhi flower opening. Please do have a look at it.

West Bengal State, India and Kanchanaburi Province, Thailand have parijatham as the official State flower.

Click on photos to enlarge.

The ancient painting of Sri Krishna uprooting or planting parijatha is in the public domain and is taken from Wikimedia Commons.

The photos are by  J.M.Garg of Calcutta. 
They are reproduced here from Wikimedia Commons under

Monday, November 28, 2011

Art and Wine

What is art? What is the connection between art and wine? These were some of the questions a few of us discussed some days back. It was at the Art & Wine event at Ramada Resort that was promoted by Paul George (on the right in photo), a well known art connoisseur and business man of Cochin, and Sulu Wines. The opening lamp was lit by Mr. K. Ramachandran Nair (on the left in photo), who has contributed so much for the promotion of art with his galleries.
Perhaps it would be correct to say that art relates to skill, expression and imagination. A portrait is a matter of skill. The artist studies the subject keenly and translates the details to the canvas as perfectly as he can. A few sittings may be required to complete a portrait. Does the final product contain any imagination or expression of the artist? It should not. It would be almost like a photograph. Copying landscape is more or less the same.

An artist of course may use models to create imaginary situations. The pose and expressions of the model/s come with imagination of the artist. An illustration of this can be found in the painting by the great artist Raja Ravi Varma reproduced below:

It portrays the parting of King Pururavas and Apsaras Urvashi. The situation is a sad one. The king is uncertain whether they will ever meet again. Urvashi has a better understanding of what the future would be. The Royal Painter has so brilliantly brought this on the faces of his subjects in the painting.

A photographer is an artist too. He can use methods that are not artificial to transform his subject into a condition that he visualises in his mind. Saying ‘cheese’ is not what I mean. I am thinking of the famous photo of Winston Churchill which Yousuf Karsh took on 30 December 1941 at the Canadian Parliament House premises. The British PM had made a successful speech to the MPs and had come out smiling.

What Karsh wanted was a stern looking Churchill. He set his camera and quickly moved near the PM and pulled the cigar from the man’s mouth. By the time Karsh got back to his camera, Churchill’s face was belligerent. That was how the famous photo of Churchill that came to be known as The Angry Lion was created. Here it is:

When an artist gives expression to what he feels about an object, he does not normally go in for details. See this one:

(Annie Tharakan. Copyright Reserved.)

It is supposed to be sunset. The clouds are not shown in detail. The artist has presented her impression of sunset, and it is beautiful. It was done by my granddaughter Annie Tharakan (please also see  Olakkuda – Palmyra leaf umbrella and The tooth fairy came by...) when she was eight years old. Another painting she did at that time hangs in the office room of the Executive Director of a Chennai company. Unfortunately she does not paint these days.

Some of the paintings exhibited at the Art & Wine event were good. I am giving below one of them. The artist is Linu John.

(Linu John. Copyright Reserved)

Art and wine events are quite common in the West. Tarissa Tiberti, Director of Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art (BGFA) claims that there are “many commonalities of art and wine. They are both subjective, evoke emotion and tend to be very personal.”

I like the name of a string of art classes in the U.S. which says that they hold “creative class for folks who want to learn the basics of acrylic painting in the company of great friends and good wine” – Spirited Art. 

With champagne by Sulu and well known brands of other liquor flowing, the Ramada event was truly spirited art.

Also see Popularizing Raja Ravi Varma

Click on the pictures to enlarge. The Karsh photo and Ravi Varma painting given here are in the public domain

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Gin and tonic

The midday drink of the sahibs when they ruled India was gin and tonic. Whiskey, usually with soda from which the gas is churned out was from sun down onwards. Gin and tonic is still popular in the UK and some other countries but in India very few stick to it or the new innovation, vodka and tonic. The British had a purpose in taking that drink other than alcoholic aspect. The ‘tonic’ is quinine water which prevents/cures malaria and is health wise beneficial in several ways.

I was reminded of quinine while talking to a young Darjeeling girl (she is getting married next month) at a luncheon party last week. We were talking about Darjeeling and she mentioned about the quinine plantations in that area. I didn’t know that India cultivated the medicinal tree chinchona. Quinine is obtained by powdering its bark.  On checking I find that several tropical countries grow this tree for its commercial value.

The story of cinchona and quinine is fascinating. The medicinal value of quinine was first discovered by the Quechua Indians of Peru and Bolivia. If I mention the ailments for which quinine is used, it will take 200 words more. In India it was used mainly for treating malaria and fever. Some of the elder Indian readers might remember C.A.Q. tablets in small dabbas like the ones in which gramophone needles used to come. These were prescribed often, except to pregnant women, for treating fever.

The Jesuits brought the medicine from S. America to Europe. In fact, it was known as “Jesuit Powder”. It is said to have saved thousands of Romans including Popes and Cardinals from Malarial deaths. Doctors in Europe accepted quinine as the most effective anti-malaria medicine. It remained so till the 1940s when chemical substitutes were found. But quinine is still prescribed against Malaria. It is said that the Europeans were able to conquer Africa only because they had this wonder drug against the dreaded disease.

Realizing the value of quinine Peru and neighbouring states proscribed the export of cinchona saplings and seeds during the first half of 19c. The Dutch succeeded in smuggling out the cultivars and established large cinchona plantations in Java. These trees grow to a height of 15-20 meters.  They have white, yellow or pink flowers. The genus has about forty species. Normally they grow in the altitude of 1500 to 3000 meters.

Come World War II and the demand for quinine for use by troops deployed in malaria-risk areas shot up. When Holland was captured by the Germans and Philippines by the Japanese, the Allies ran short of this vital medicine. The US managed to collect whatever quantities of quinine that Costa Rica had. But those supplies came late and were not really sufficient. The British had some supplies from India and other colonies. It is said that the Japanese were not aware of the proper use of quinine. In spite of having large supplies from the Philippines, many Jap soldiers died of malaria. It is a fact that with proper availability and distribution of quinine, the causalities in the Second World War would have been considerably lesser.

Well, continue with gin and tonic if you like it. Alternatively, in some countries there are aperitifs and liqueurs containing quinine, and all over the world many brands of tonic water is available. Malaria is no threat now. But taking limited quantities of quinine (other than by pregnant ladies) is supposed to help from heart to liver to general health.

Also see:
Tropical Medicinal Plants: Thumpa, a vanishing beauty

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Petroleum products manufacturing and pricing policy

There cannot be a single person in India who is happy about the latest increase in petrol prices.  Also, it has in its wake brought some shocking views.

A Division Bench of the Kerala High Court chaired by the Acting Chief Justice has made a statement that the oil companies are trying to choke people with a string and that the citizens should launch protests. In my opinion, the duty of Judges is to look at the legality of the matters that come before them and not to exhort people to start agitations. For fear of Contempt of Court I dare not say anything more.  

First of all, let us understand why price hikes become necessary in the petroleum field. The price of the basic raw material continues to be at a high level even though occasionally there is nominal fall. The oil producing countries decide on the output, usually at a rate that is beneficial to them. This is, one should assume, known to most people.

Recently I heard a politician speak on the TV that even though the price of crude fell by $2 per barrel, the UPA increased the petrol prices. I suppose that the fellow, like many of his colleagues, did not study the subject or even if they tried, are incapable of understanding it.

There was another one, an ex-minister telling The Kerala Assembly that from a high of $118 per barrel of oil the prices have been coming down, but the Government of India keeps increasing the price. This man has either forgotten his economics or he was purposely misleading the others.

We pay for the crude in US dollars. Fall in oil price becomes beneficial to us if the rupee-dollar parity remains steady or tilts in our favour. But look at the situation today. Rupee has slipped against the US currency; it is around Rs.50 per USD now. The calculation should be simple.

There are three ways of buying oil – spot buying, futures trading and contractual arrangement. Futures’ trading which is being increasingly applied to most of the commodities is a tricky business which requires a great deal of expertise. Like in all industries, in the petroleum field also, the efficiency in buying raw materials adds to the profit margin and provides the elbow room for price reduction and competition. Many of the important officials in the nationalized organisations are not specially trained in business management.

The NDA and the UPA whenever they were/are in power have been following the policy of subsidizing the prices of petroleum products. Obviously, vote bank politics are behind this. Subsidy expended in one sector, negatively affects the development of some other sector/s. Finally, when the day of reckoning comes, the quantum of price increase required becomes shockingly high.

Three years back I had written a post titled Tackling the oil crisis. One point I failed mentioning then was that the vehicles should be kept in good condition. Anyway, let us have a look at what could be done to handle the situation:

1. Take a look at the crude oil buying procedure and see whether    improvements can be made. There could be a committee of experts to oversee the details. At what prices other major countries are buying oil and their retail prices should be followed and the details should be publicised through the media. Even though the information is in the public domain, it is not easy for a common man to get it.

2. The Central Government should review the customs duty on oil import and see whether it can be lowered.

3. The sales tax charged by the States should be changed from the present ad valorem system to per unit, say per litre basis. Today each increase in petroleum price is a bumper lottery to the States. They get huge unbudgeted revenue from sales tax. Many States run on income from liquor and petrol.

4. A price escalation formulae should be worked out and implemented, say, every quarter. There could be a similar system which shall apply to taxi and auto rickshaw charges.  

But the real answer is none of these. Large scale corruption in the oil companies cannot be ruled out. Right now, reportedly one of them is into real estate. It is spending large amounts to buy land in several places in the country. It seems that Rs.40 crores have been spent in Kerala itself. The idea it seems, is to build holiday homes for employees. If true, it is shocking.

We have seen the damage the Socialistic (non existent?) pattern of society path has done to the country. Nationalisation, license raj, ruining of a world class airline and so on. The nation should be grateful to Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh for starting the correction process.

Now Manmohan Singh should take the final step – privatize the oil companies. Let there be competition in the market but ensure that no cartel/monopoly comes into existence. The government’s business is governance, not manufacturing goods from condoms to petrol. The BJP should support the Congress in this endeavour, or start the move themselves. Probably both would like to wait till the forthcoming State Assembly elections are over.

The people are likely to accept and agree to this change in policy if the idea that price reduction may be possible is presented to them properly. The only serious objection, if political interests are avoided, would be from the Communists. Well, for eighty years they have been making a lot of noise about many things but have not achieved anything worthwhile. If some private entrepreneurs make some money while supplying goods to the people at cheaper rates, why should anyone bother?

Also see:

Monday, October 31, 2011

Two months of silence – relocation and cataract operation

Well, my keeping quiet on the blogosphere for two months was not because of any mouna vrutha. Such noble undertakings are only for people like our present day ‘Gandhian’ in creaseless clothes.

I was busy with relocating from Chennai to Cochin after seven years, and then a cataract operation. The shifting was really bothersome. The main problem is that one does not know where the things are and that involves quite a bit of searching. Some of my papers are yet to come from Chennai. By the time the computer became operational, it was time for my cataract operation.

The surgery took about fifteen or twenty minutes. One doesn’t even feel it. I was lucky to have Dr. Sandhya Rao doing the procedure. She must be one of the very few FRCS (UK) doctors in the ophthalmic field in India. Very good.

Even though cataract operation is completed a short time, it takes about five weeks for the eyes to become fully operational. I believe that it takes one month for the inserted lens to settle completely. That is a time of regularly using eye drops. Only after that the appropriate spectacles can be prescribed. And getting it made may take two days or so.

But in my case the wait was longer. The operation was done at Vasan Eye Care (they claim to the world’s largest eye care organization) Hospital on the Bypass Road, Cochin. A good place – clean, courteous attention by the staff and you can meet the doctors by appointment

But my problem was with their spectacles section. They made a pair of glasses which didn’t suit me. They were not bothered with my protests. Absolutely discourteous and disinterested people. They didn’t even give me something to read and check my vision. You know, take it or leave it attitude. Of course, I had already paid for it.

To end the cataract story – I went to another optician and got a suitable pair of glasses for half the price. In the process, lost three days. I am keeping the Vasan spectacles as a memento of wasted money.

Anyway, it is nice for me to be back in Cochin – close relatives, old club, good friends, awful roads, impertinent people, mosquitoes and so on.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

“No Pillows, No Blankets”

Yesterday (Aug.23) I took an early morning flight of a major Indian airways from Cochin to Chennai.. Usually there would be the airline chaps to help needy passengers with baggage and checking in. I required assistance because of a back problem. Looked around for support staff. No luck.

A young girl offered to help but she had much luggage. So I thanked her and managed on my on with difficulty. The counter chap said that porter service was available at the Metros only. Just five days earlier I had received this facility at Cochin when I landed from Chennai. Anyway he was kind enough to assure me that he would ask his Chennai office to provide me assistance on landing.

After we took off, I asked one of the hostesses for a pillow. Pat came the answer, “No pillows, no blankets” and she went marching away. No politeness, no apology, not even a smile. My poor back had to suffer the nearly one hour forty minutes ATR flight because of an ill trained and incompetent hostess.

A little while later the hostess came selling ‘you make your own tea’. No coffee. I let her pass. There was nothing to do because I had forgotten to carry a book. Newspapers are too costly for some airlines to provide free. They could at least think of selling them and making a profit. After all, if you can have a roving tea stall on board, why not a moving bookshop? Some major booksellers and several passengers might be interested. But, buy pillows with the profit. They could even rent out pillows at the check in counter.

One had the choice of either keeping the eyes closed, or staring at the two large advertisements (I was on row 3 and could easily see them) for Whyte and Mackay and Black Dog CDs. I suppose that most people know what those really are. But you can’t get them on board. It was too early for Scotch anyway.

The Air India one hour flight I took to Cochin on 18th Aug had pillows and blankets and a pleasant crew. It was almost like the Air India of the good old days. We were served a good solid brunch that was included in the fare which was just Rs.1223. The ‘no pillows’ carrier cost me Rs.2426. One reason I can think of for the higher fare is that they flew me forty minutes longer. Can you fault the logic? Reportedly, this airline is running at a heavy loss for the last five years.

At Chennai Airport baggage collection there was just one porter of this airline. A lady with her little baby and rather heavy baggage was already on to him. I managed on my on, ignoring the back problem.

If you travel by this particular airline it is advisable to carry along a pillow.

Also see  Douglas DC 3, The Dakota

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Monday, August 1, 2011

Creating Gen Next Engineers

The motivation to convert young men and women into efficient technicians on whom the future of the country depends is noble. First requirement for this of course is an engineering college. Take Kerala for instance where there are quite a few of them. As long as friendly politicians are around the necessary clearances don’t pose a problem. Thereafter it is a simple process of accounting, sometimes in the books, sometimes outside them. If you happen to hear the tinkle of money, don’t be surprised.

There has to be a building to run a college. Of course, there is one. In fact a few, if you consider attached structures too. If you see the photos in the college advertisements you might think that you are joining one of the finest educational institutions in the world. It is good to dream sometimes.

The Principal might be a post graduate in engineering. He might be a laid up old man though.  But there are a handful of Bachelors in Engineering on the college staff. One or two of them might have just passed out of that college itself a couple of years back. The others are credited with five or six years experience. That is great. Sometimes teachers from nearby Government Colleges snoop in to take classes. Several other teachers have no engineering degree. Some of the institutions are bright – they share teachers. There are no reports yet of peons and gardeners getting a chance.

A court ordered enquiry into 28 of the 84 private engineering colleges in Kerala has come out with some shocking revelations. God knows what the inspection of the rest of the institutions will reveal. How did this preposterous situation develop? Who are responsible? Surely the money makers, the universities, government, and parents of the students can’t escape the blame.

Finally The Kerala High Court has intervened. No more sanctions for private engineering colleges. All the colleges are to be inspected. Permission of some of the existing ones might be withdrawn. (What will happen to the students of those colleges?) The ultimate verdict will come only after the inspection of the rest of the colleges is also completed.

But imagine the damage that has been already done. Some of the half baked graduates from the existing colleges will be teaching engineering students in future.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

From Venad to World Focus: The Travancore Royal Family

The photo above must have been taken many a decade back. It captures the grandeur of the Travancore Maharaja’s royal carriage in front of Sree Padmanamaswamy Temple, Trivandrum. How does it compare with Sree Chithira Thirunal, the former Maharaja rushing one morning to his deity in an auto rickshaw that I described in The last of the Travancore Maharajas?

Not that it matters for the Travancore Royal Family. The important thing was that the Chief had to present himself before Sree Padmanabha in Ananthashayanam every morning. There is a fine if he fails in this, no matter what the reason for the absence is. It is not fear of the penalty that makes them maintain the routine. It is duty, a matter of honor, something that has been going on for 260 years

What do they do at A Temple of Gold? Pray, of course. But there was something more important. They had to report to Sree Padmanamaswamy the details of all that happened in the kingdom the previous day. During that period they must have been receiving divine guidance on how to manage the affairs of the State.

The story really starts in 1706. At the south western corner of India there was a small kingdom named Venad, stretching from Attingal to Kanyakumari. The capital was Padmanabhapuram. That year, under the Anizham Star was born Marthanda Varma who would succeed his uncle Rama Varma as king under the matrilineal system.

The baby prince did not come into the hostile world around him with a sword in his hand but he was to swirl one almost throughout his life. Raja Rama Varma apparently was not a strong man. There were enemies all around. The Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple was managed by Ettara (eight and a half) Yogam (committee), the half vote being the raja’s. The others included seven Brahmins and one Nair noble family Palliyadi Karanatta Kurup or Azhakath Kurup. Their powerful associates were eight Nair lords known to history as Ettuveettil Pillamar who controlled the vast land holdings of the Temple.

Marthanda Varma survived some assassination attempts. He waited patiently, planned and began striking. He ascended the throne in 1729. One by one the Ettuveettil Pillamar was eliminated. Among the Pottys of Ettara Yogam two were banished from the kingdom and the others were brought down to the ground level to do ordinary priestly duties. The Nair noble man must have been on the Raja’s side because he continued in a responsible position. Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple came under the direct control of the Raja of Venad. In 1730, Marthanda Varma rebuilt the Temple

With Venad stabilized, Marthanda Varma’s armies marched northwards victoriously. One by one the kingdoms fell to him. The Dutch who supported some of the beaten rulers decided on a surprise sea bound attack on the capital Padmanabhapuram in 1741. This is known as the Colachel War. They almost succeeded, reaching the walls of the palace, but in a fierce counter attack Marthanda Varma’s Nair soldiers beat them resoundingly.

Among the Dutch Prisoners of War was one Capt. Delannoy.  (See Delannoy: Dutch sea captain, Maharaja’s army chief, people’s Valia Kappithan.) Marthanda Varma was highly impressed with his skills. He was granted freedom and asked to train the Venad soldiers in modern warfare. He was perhaps the number one military man for Marthanda Varma and his successor Dharma Raja. He also built Nedumkotta, a 48km long fortress along the northern boundary of the kingdom which had, with the Delannoy trained army, expanded to the borders of Cochin. The State was now generally known as Travancore under Marthanda Varma Maharaja.

In 1750, the Maharaja did something unique and incredible. He dedicated himself and his kingdom to Sree Padmanabha in an event known as Thripadidanam. From then on, the entire country belonged to Lord Vishnu (Sree Padmanabha) and the Travancore kings were to be His plenipotentiaries. The submission was all encompassing – the assets of the country and its people including Hindus, Christians, Muslims and even all those who could not go anywhere near the Temple till the Temple Entry Proclamation of1936. He also made a formal change in the official name of all Travancore Maharajas starting with him – it had to begin with the word “Padmanabhadasa” (Servant of Padmanabha).

Marthanda Varma died in 1758. He was succeeded by Karthika Thirunal Rama Varma (1724–1798). He was popularly known as ‘Dharma Raja’ because he was such a just and honorable person who followed the Dharma Sastra. It was during his time that the Mysore attacks on Kerala (Malabar in the north, Cochin and Travancore) came. First it was Hyder Ali and then his son Tippu Sultan.

During the Mysore attacks thousands of Hindus and Christians fled to Travancore from Malabar and northern parts of Cochin. They were given asylum and treated well. First Hyder and Then Tippu demanded return of these people. They also asked for a tribute of 15 lakhs rupees and thirty elephants. The answer was ‘no’ to both.

In December 1789 Tippu attacked Nedumkotta and was beaten back. But subsequently the fort was broken under heavy pressure and the Mysore Army reached Periyar River. While crossing the almost dry river bed, there were sudden heavy floods and Tippu’s forces were almost wiped away. It is said that Travancore had built a bund upriver to prevent water flowing down and it was cut open at the crucial moment to wash off the Mysore soldiers. But Tippu perhaps withdrew because the final Anglo-Mysore war almost on.

Before his death in 1798, Dharma Raja had shifted his capital to Trivandrum from Padmanabhapuram. Years earlier, Aditya Varma Raja of Venad had wanted to build a palace at Trivandrum, but though the matter did not come under their authority, the Ettara Yogam had prevented it. Dharma Raja is known to be the man who set Travancore on the path of development.

Balarama Varma was only 16 years old when he succeeded Dharma Raja. Perhaps because of his age, it would appear that he was the weakest among the Travancore Maharajas. His predecessors had kept a tactful friendly relation with the East India Company. But Velu Thampy, his Dewan (Minister), along with the counterpart in Cochin rebelled against the English. They suffered a series of defeats and finally the Maharaja condemned his minister. Velu Thampy committed suicide. By now the Company had started getting involved in the internal administration of the kingdom.

When Balarama Varma died in 1810 there was no male descendant in the Travancore Royal Family. Gowri Lakshmi Bayi became the Queen. Her position changed to Regent Queen when a male child was born to her.  At her death in 1815, Gowri Parvathy Bayi took over the position.

The boy, Swathi Thirunal Rama Varma was enthroned in 1829. He too was only 16 at that time. He is better known as a king of music for his enduring and enchanting compositions. But he did not ignore his administrative responsibilities. He streamlined the tax system. He started an English school and hospital in Trivandrum.

Travancore was on the path of progress under the next three Maharajas - Uthradom Thirunal,   Ayilyam Thirunal, and Visakham Thirunal. Each one served his people well. Their reforms include abolition of slavery, schools for girls, colleges, the right of low caste women to cover their breasts, promotion of irrigation and pathways, charity hospitals, lunatic asylum, postal services, Census, and vaccination. Visakham Thirunal was the first Indian Royal to be on the Viceroy’s Executive Council.

Sree Moolam Thirunal who ruled from 1885 to 1924 continued with the modernization of Travancore. Several schools and colleges were established during his time. He streamlined the medical services. But his greatest achievement was establishing a Legislative Council which was the first among Indian Native States. Even women were allowed to vote. Of course, the voters list was confined to subjects of certain status.

When Sree Moolam Thirunal died, his nephew and successor Bala Rama Varma, son of Sethu Parvathi Bayi was a minor. Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, the aunt of the boy king took over as Regent Oueen since she was the senior. Hers was a remarkable reign of seven years. Mahatma Gandhi was highly impressed by her when he called on her in 1925. Instead of the usual practice of Brahmin or Nair Dewans, she appointed a Travancore Anglo Indian Christian ME Watts as Dewan.

Travancore progressed much during the Regent’s short reign. Animal sacrifice and Devadassi system were banned soon after she took over. The public was allowed telephone services. Trivandrum glowed with electric lights in 1929. Panchayath system was introduced. One fifth of the State revenue was spent on education. It is a long list. But her most remarkable deed was to amend the Travancore Nair Act to change the matrilineal system to Patrileneal system. Travancore lost much because of the bitter friction that existed between the two Maharanis.

Sree Chithira Thirunal Bala Rama Varma, The last of the Travancore Maharajas ascended the throne in 1931 and Travancore’s march towards progress continued. It must be remembered that he became the Maharaja at the time of deep depression the world over. That was followed by World II. This bachelor gentleman king encouraged industrialization and maintained the progress of the state. It was during his reign that the University of Travancore was started. But what made him world famous was the Temple Entry Proclamation of 1936. Till then, only high caste Hindus could enter the temples. With the new law, the temples of Travancore were opened to all castes.

While his subjects loved the Maharaja, many were against his Dewan Sir CP Ramaswamy Iyer. After alienating the Christians on the educational front, CP mooted, as Indian Independence was nearing, the proposal of Swathanthra Thiruvithamcoor (Travancore as a separate country independent of India). He escaped from the state after being physically wounded in a personal attack.

The Maharaja signed Instrument of Accession to the Indian Union. When the Travancore- Cochin State was formed he was the Rajapramukh (something like Governor) of that entity. It would appear that technically Sree Chithira Thirunal was Majaraja of Travancore till June 30, 1949 because the formal merger with the Indian Union was on July 1, 1949. The Maharaja died on July 19, 1991.

 Aerial photo by
HH Marthanda Varma
Uttradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma never formally became the Maharaja but to the people of erstwhile Travancore, he is almost like one. He fits the role. After all, he is the Padmanabhadasa. Reportedly he once mentioned about selling part of the family property for repairing the Temple. Not a miniscule portion of the Temple treasure was utilized even for that.

How did the treasure grow to what it is today? A good portion of it must have come from the offering of the devotees. There is a view that every year the State budget made a provision to handle famine in case it happened, like in 1919. It appears that if there was no famine the allotted funds went to the Temple. The last Maharaja is believed to have said after seeing part of the Temple cache that Travancore will never have a famine. There was enough to buy any amount of food stuffs.

But the major contribution apparently came from the Royal Family, from their own sources and the offerings and presentations they received from different classes of people during the last three centuries. Whatever that came to them belonged to Sree Padmanabha.

The Malayala Manaora of July 11 (2011) carried a brief article by Dr. Syriac Thomas, former Vice Chancellor of the Mahatma Gandhi University. When Uthradom Thirunal was invited for convocation, he was presented an amount that befits his position. A week later Dr. Syriac Thomas received a receipt from Trustee of Sree Padmanabha Temple stating that the amount was being used for free feeding in the temple for the well being of the college. 

There must be tens of thousands of lawyers ready to argue in court that the Travancore Royal Family has a right over the treasure of Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple. But the Family says that it is not theirs, it belongs to Sree Padmanabha. That is what the politicians, societies and communal leaders who have started making noises about the cache should remember. Surely, the Supreme Court would make a just arrangement keeping in mind that Sree Padmanabha did not sign any Instrument of Accession to the Indian Union. His Kingdoms are different.

In the final count, what can one say about the Travancore Royal Family? Generations of royal people, basically humble and frugal, concerned about the people they ruled over, and always at the feet of Sree Padmanabha mentally.

Glitter of gold and radiance of diamond were not their forte. With the simple white dress, they stand tall, and the world looks on admiringly.

(Click on photos to enlarge.)


Monday, July 4, 2011

A Temple of Gold

Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple, Trivandrum is in the news the world over for its colossal collection of gold and gems. The Kerala High Court had ordered the Kerala State Government to takeover the administration of the shrine. For fear of contempt of Court, I am not saying anything about the judgement.

Fortunately the Supreme Court of India intervened and appointed a seven member team to inspect the assets of the shrine managed by a Trust constituted by the Travancore Royal Family. Reportedly, complete records of what the secret cells contain already exist and that all along the Royal Family and the British were aware of it. But nobody would have estimated that it may be worth around   1,00,00,000 crores rupees. This is sure to upset the estimates given in my post India’s gold stockpile, Kerala’s gold rush

No harm rechecking the temple cache, but as the news spread, the police deputed an Addl. Director General of Police and an armed force to safeguard the valuables. So far, only Lord Padmanabha was doing that job.

What set these events rolling was, according to a TV debate yesterday, the usual Kerala muck - irresponsible trade unionism and unjustifiable monetary gains. What I understood was that there is friction between two trade unions (are they permitted in the Temple?), and a professional is inducing one of them to pursue the case.

According to what was said on TV this man is using Temple premises without rent or for a nominal rent; he had been asked to vacate but refuses. If this is true, the problems have been created for irrelevant and personal reasons.

Whether the Temple belonged to the Royal Family or the Royal Family and the Travancore State belonged to the Temple is an interesting point. After expanding the principality of Venad into the Travancore Kingdom Maharaja Marthanda Varma submitted himself and his State to Lord Padmanabha and in effect turned himself into a plenipotentiary of the Lord.  From that moment till now, the coffers of the Temple has been continuously filled and nothing was taken out.  

I was in Trivandrum during 1947 – 49 and heard this story which not many in the public might be aware of. When the Indian Independence was nearing there was a great deal of apprehension about what would happen to the private wealth of the Royal Family. An important gold and jewellery dealer from Bombay came in a chartered Dakota and took away the ornaments.  

But not a single piece was from the Temple though if the Palace wanted, the entire lot could have been carried away. The Travancore Royal Family’s culture does not permit taking back what it has given. Some of the storage rooms have not been opened for over a century.

Just to conclude the airlift story, what I have heard is that the man who took away the Palace jewellery came back later. He had a full list of the items taken, the market price at which they were sold, and the sales proceeds less his commission.  

The last of the Travancore Maharajas, Sri Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma, after seeing part of the Temple treasure, is reported to have said, “Travancore will never have a famine”. The reason was that wealth was mainly meant to be used to obtain foodstuffs in case of a famine in the Kingdom.

I was shocked to hear V. Muraleedharan, BJP’s Kerala President saying, amongst other things, that the Travancore Royal Family has no right in the treasure. I have not bothered to check from which part of the State he is from. Apparently he does not know the culture of Travancore.

Let this gentleman realize that the Palace has made no claim that the treasure belongs to it. A bit of history also might not be a bad idea. At the beginning of the 18c, the Temple was managed by ettarakoottam, consisting of eight Ettuveettil Pillais and (half) Venad raja.

That Venad raja, Marthanda Varma, defeated the Pillais and took control of Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple. He defeated the Dutch at Colachal. His armies marched northward and created Travancore State. Marthanda Varma Maharaja submitted his kingdom to Lord Vishnu in Ananthashayanam. That was the beginning of the treasure.

Marthanda Varma and his descendants led a frugal life. They never touched the treasure but safeguarded it and made it grow. Muraleedharan should realize that no devotee would have knowingly made offerings if he did not have faith in Sree Padmanabha and Padmanabhadasa.

How the treasure is to be managed in future is a very important matter. A perfectly effective and safe scheme should be formulated. But any proposition without consulting   the Travancore Royal Family and obtaining its approval would be absolutely unjust.