Hidden Histories…

How little we know of our own history!

In Kerala for a holiday weekend, this realization struck me with wonder and a tinge of regret. In the north Malabar city of Kannur, or the erstwhile Cannanore, is located the Arakkal Museum. Though rather plain looking to eyes used to Mughal glamour and Rajput grandeur, the traditional architecture of the Museum building  – with its low long structure, laterite tiles, gleaming wooden beams within and pearl white walls without – blends beautifully with the palm-fringed verdant landscape.

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The Durbar hall of this former Arakkal-kettu or palace complex has now been transformed into the main display area where a visitor can glimpse various objects associated with the royal family, ranging from the original handwritten letter to the East India Company to weapons, utensils, furniture – right down to an antique telephone which still has instructions for use.

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What I found most interesting though was the presence of so many women in the photo gallery of the Arakkal rulers. Kerala has a history of matrilineal social instiutions – where lineage passes through the mother. Even then it was more often the eldest male member in the maternal family who would be the real power centre. The Arakkal famly is not only the sole Muslim royal family of Kerala but also has the distinction of having the senior most member – whether a man or a woman – as the ruler. While the male ruler would take on the title of the Ali Raja, the female ruler would be known as Arakkal Beebi.

Queens and female rulers have been less of a novelty in India than mainstream historians would like to believe. And yet only few writers and researchers have bothered to find out how such women negotiated deeply entrenched patriarchal institutions to fight and rule. Who knows, some day the Arakkal royal history may yield fascinating new knowledge not just about the country’s and state’s past but about its women rulers as well.

 

 

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“MY MOTORCYCLE TRIP…..”

Quiet and gentle, Udita is an eighth grader of our Feeling Bookerish with Kids club and is a keen outdoors girl. Here is a blog post by her…

 

“Pack your bags, we are going for a motorcycle trip!”

One fine day, my dad stunned me with these words. So there we were on the road on 14th may 2017 – doing a trip from Bareilly to Puh via Dehradun, Rohru and Sangla Valley. As we advanced, the gentle slopes of Himachal Pradesh were replaced by tall, rocky, cliff mountains.

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On the road!

The way was full of ups and downs – both literally and figuratively. We had a flat tyre, the chain of our bike came off and, to top it all, we even had a bad tumble. Thankfully none of us got hurt. We had to stop at many shops since it was raining. But the friendliness of people everywhere lifted our hearts – they always helped us out with information about the places ahead.

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Making friends along the way…

At times, the roads were really smooth but then quite bad at some places. At Sangla Valley, we enjoyed the local cuisine of the hills. After we returned, on 20th may 2017, I was so tired that I could barely walk.

There was so much I learnt from this trip. – India is beautiful. Live in the moment and enjoy life. Dare to take challenges in life. Many  difficult situations will arise along the way but don’t back down, laugh a lot and keep moving ahead with a positive attitude!

 

A Peek into Toda Culture

The winding uphill path suddenly opened out to a wide grassy plateau-like feature. We had arrived at a Toda village – the chief reason why I had signed up for this 14 km hike in the first place.

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The Todas are an indigenous tribe of the Nilgiri hills in southern India. They are originally a pastoral community, even though the modern day members are steadily settling down to agriculture and small businesses. Regular contact with civilization has eroded many socio-cultural practices, like fraternal polyandry as well as much of their distinctive language. Paradoxically though certain aspects of their culture have become disproportionately popular – like their shawls brightly embroidered in red and white as well as their signature jewellery – indeed in recent times a rising awareness about the need to conserve their habitat has actually led to new construction of their typical oval, half-barrel-shaped hutments.

No such structures were in sight here, though. But as several Toda men and women milled about on the grassland and even performed a traditional rhythmic dance, my gaze travelled to a secluded grove lined with stones, in which their temple was housed.

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The Toda religion is as distinctive as their temple. In keeping with the central position of the buffalo in Toda culture, their religious head is the priest-milkman who tends the sacred buffalo and apparently, lives under numerous strictures, including leaving behind his family for the time he acts as the keeper of the sacred dairy.  Again we did not get to see either the priest or the animal – instead the organized merry-making concluded with a highly animated visit to the busy Toda handicrafts stall and then finally the customary felicitation of the village headman by the hike organizers.

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As we started back, I could not help feeling that this brief, superficial interaction was not exactly what I had in mind when I had set out for the hike. But then, I realized that a deeper engagement with their culture based on long meaningful conversations and preceded by a good deal of reading was the stuff of serious research, lifelong study and dedication – and surely this ancient people deserved no less!

Through the forest trail

A ten km hike – did you say? I pushed my brains to some extreme calculations – alright, if the morning walk with my dog amounts to roughly one and a half kilometre, then multiply that into…mmm….a little more than six times?! And yet even after such mental calisthenics, I was no nearer to gauging how the hike would turn out in reality.

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When I had first looked up the word ‘zen’, I had found that one of meanings was a state of such complete absorption in a particular experience that there was no place for doubt or anxiety. Something similar happened in the hike – both my physical and emotional faculties were so deeply immersed in the sights, sounds, smells and texture of the forests that we passed through, that nothing else mattered – not the undone laundry at home, unreplied mails, pressing work deadlines or long pending appointment with my hair stylist.

The soft forest floor which sprung ever so gently under our steps, the myriad shades of green all around us, the refreshing scent of pine and ever so many kinds of bird calls – chirps, trills, whistles and even the occasional outburst of the laughing thrush…all this engaged my senses so entirely that at the end of three hours – including a couple of ten-minute breaks – I returned to the everyday world with mixed feelings – looking forward to a hot, three-course meal but also concerned for the sanctity and the vitality of these sylvan Nilgiri slopes.

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Eye of the Crocus

Famous for warming up any dish or drink with its intense colour and delicate aroma, Saffron is undoubtedly the most attractive of spices. And the fact that it is the most expensive too, only adds to its luxury quotient.

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Saffron’s exorbitant value owes directly to the fact that it takes over two hundred thousand stigmas from around seventy thousand Crocus sativus flowers – grown in roughly the size of a football field  – to yield just a pound of saffron ! Fortunately a little of the good stuff goes a long way – you need only a few threads of this to add the rich red colour and honeyed aroma to a family meal.

While Iran today accounts more than 90% of the world’s saffron production, good quality spice also comes from other Meditteranean regions of Greece, Morocco, Azerbaijan, Spain and Italy as well as the Kashmir valley in India.

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A parting tip before you buy saffron – check for red threads with orange tips. If the threads lack the orange tips, avoid them as they may be dyed.

While saffron has been used in cosmetics, medicines, fabric dyes and even pesticides in different cultures, today it is most coveted for its power to transform the simplest of dishes into food fit for the Gods. So dust off your recipe book and see what you can make from this most gorgeous of spices.

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A Sip of the White Peony

At a time when the world is looking for ways to de-stress, the good ol’ cuppa has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity. Green tea especially is known to be rich in anti-oxidants and hence to boost the natural immunity of the human body.

But which tea is the most flavoursome? The one grown on the mist-laden slopes of Indian Himalayas, many would agree – more specifically the Darjeeling variety, known as the ‘Champagne of Teas’ for its aroma and delicate body.

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Photo courtesy: makaibariteam.wordpress.com

And if that is so, some connoisseurs would point out that the equivalent of a Dom Perignon in the tea world would then probably be Makaibari. Shadowed by the third highest mountain peak of the world, the Kanchendzonga, Makaibari is a premier tea estate in North Bengal, India. Comprising over 250 hectares of Camelia Sinesis on slopes ranging between 700 m and 1500 meters of the majestic Himalayas, this plantation has several firsts to its credit – the most significant are being the wold’s first tea factory in 1859 as well as attaining the world’s first organic certification for a tea garden in 1988.

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Away from the world of statistics, I prepared for myself a cup of Makaibari Bai Mu Dan or White Peony tea. The brew had a pale green colour  – almost white – and it was subdued on the palate with a mild honeyed aftertaste. And though I failed to recognize the aroma of “soft peony and mown hay”, as mentioned on the cover, I realized that my gaze had already drifted to the straggling geranium bushes in my flower beds whose shadows in the gathering dusk appeared like slightly drunk,  swaying caterpillers on the garden wall – happily, the tea was doing its work!

One in the Other

Yesterday at a friend’s place, I spotted a set of nesting dolls – a series of dolls of decreasing size, the smaller fitting into the larger. Since she had just returned from a trip to Russia, they could only be the country’s famous Matryoshka dolls.

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While I had come across such sets in museums and living rooms before, looking up its history never occurred to me. So I turned to the internet and found a delightful blog detailing the probable origins of this form of folk art. It appears the Chinese were the first to come up with nesting boxes which eventually gave way to crafts based on the basic premise of one hollow structure encompassing another. The Japanese too have their tradition of kokeshi and daruma dolls which draw on its ancient mythology as well as tradition of Zen Buddhism.

The first nesting dolls to be made in Russia were apparently by a folk artist named Sergei Maliutin assisted by Vassily Zviozdochkin with the support of Savva Mamontov, a wealthy patron of the arts. Eventually the craft of making these dolls spread to East Europe and other parts of the continent.

Today, nesting dolls come in an attractive variety of sizes and themes – while mythology and folk culture remains the traditional models, modern artists are drawing on politics and pop culture too to give nesting dolls a contemporary edge.

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My imagination however began ranging further – what is the reason behind the timeless popularity of these nesting dolls? Is it because they are painted in bright colourful patterns, depict matronly women to appeal to the infant in us or perhaps because they symbolize one of the fundamental truths of the universe – that life can be known only by peeling off its many layers – one after another…