Archives for category: Hinduism

Stephanie Bahramian: My name is Stephanie Bahramian. I am an M.S. student in geography where my main interests lie in planning and sustainability. I am also learning GIS as I like to map data, and I will likely do my masters project in GIS and planning. I am also very much concerned with international issues, probably more so than domestic. As the developing world seeks to attain the standards of living of those of the West, they risk developing in such a way that can compromise and deplete their own resources. Therefore, sustainable development is my primary area of study. My reason for coming on this trip to India was quite simply that I love India. I had also failed to get to this part of Kerala on my previous two trips to the state, and I found the itinerary very well designed.

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I have noticed a shift in recent years of those living in several western countries seeking to know more about more traditional medicines such as Chinese, Ayurveda, herbal, homeopathy etc.  At the same time I was suspecting a reverse move from those in the developing world embracing more heartily allopathy than their own traditional medicines.

This past summer, I had several medicine students from China and Taiwan, and they indeed confirmed that their studies were almost devoid of Chinese medicine and that their scant knowledge of it depended on their access while growing up, or if their families were regular users of acupuncture, Chinese medicinal treatments and the like.

This trip further convinced me of this shift. Every modern person or professional I  met on our travels in India admitted to preferring using allopathy to seeking tradtional Ayurvedic treatments. The reason everytime, was quite simply that people did not want to wait to feel better, even though they were fully aware that Ayurvedic treatments would give them the most long-term benefits! The practitioners, too, said this was the main reason if not sole as Ayurvedic treatments do not have side effects.

I have been practicing Ayurveda for many years, but access to it in the US is poor, so I decided to deepen my knowledge of it in the two weeks we were travelling. It helped that I was actually sick due mainly to the heavy travelling to India shortly after a tiring semester. I visited several Ayurvedic doctors of varying experience, did three types of treatments and am using numerous herbal treatments from teas to hygiene products to treatments for more chronic ailments.  There are definitely varying degrees of expertise among the practitioners and the types of locales to get treatments and consultations. One young woman had a

Roots and herbs at an Ayurveda shop

Roots and herbs at an Ayurveda shop

little cubby hole attached to just as small of a place where her family sold hundreds of Ayurvedic treatments; she was the doctor of the family. Another slightly larger pharmacy also had a cubby hole where one could get free consultations just like the last place, but this was a chain shop where the young woman there had not long graduated an Ayurvedic college and who considered this a good first job before eventually one day having her own private practice, something that would require her having built a reputation in order to operate well.

The next place I went to was to a private Ayurvedic doctor that I found through one of our contacts during our lectures. She had been practicing many years and received me in her home, gave me a cup of tea and consulted with me for about 45 minutes. She refused to take any money, which was very uncomfortable for me, but I realized that it would have been just as uncomfortable for her had I insisted in handing her some. I also had no clue as to how much to pay anyway. I was pleased that all practitioners had agreed with what was first  “prescribed” and so trusted the additional treatments that were suggested (there was no prescription per se).

As for the distribution of medicines, some came from the Ayurvedic pharmacies and some from raw medicinal shops, which were basically tiny cramped warehouses of dried herbs and fruits and barks and heaven knows what else. These places were less abundant and not so easy to find. Everything cost pennies to buy so, clearly accessible to the masses, something that is contrary to here in the US. Anything non-conventional in medicine in this country is either costly and/or not covered by insurances.  Free consultations are also almost unheard of. I loved the way everything was wrapped up in newspaper and natural fiber string (coir?!).

This brings me to my final point, and that is about the Ayurvedic school that I visited. Even guidebooks are now saying that one can no longer visit them. As I

The Kerala Ayurveda College

The Kerala Ayurveda College

was with an Indian student, I was able to have a quick look around and ask some questions. Ayurveda has been an open sharing of knowledge forever, probably since the beginning some 5000 years ago, but in recent times, this knowledge had been used and profited from by Western countries like our own, and the recent trend in patenting components of nature is threatening the very industry. As a result, Indians are now getting suspicious of foreigners and quite rightly so if we have been thieving and claiming ownership of something that was never needed to be owned before.  The school I visited was in the center of town and was government-run with an attached pharmacy for all to get their medicines. I felt a lot of hostility there and decided to go elsewhere for my meds. It was not clear if being sick made the people grouchy or if my being the only foreigner evoked the animosity, so I decided to focus on other things.

The rooftop housed many potted plants with plaques with names in Sanskrit, the language of Ayurveda, Malayalam, the language of Kerala, and, of course, the botanical name in Latin.  I was not allowed to take a picture so I refrained…We stopped a young man who told us that he was in his first year and in his class of 70 students, there were only 12 men. He said this was typical, which jibed with information I had been getting from numerous sources, that this was predominantly a woman’s profession; it is one that does not generate a large income typically. It can be completed in 5 years, including a 6-month practicum. I asked another gentleman about foreigners studying at the school. He said that everyone must learn Sanskrit and to pass an entrance exam. There are two places reserved for outsiders that one must interview for but one cannot pay directly for. The foreign government must pay for the studies. I suspected there was no bursars office on campus and could safely assume that the US government would NOT pay for me to go to school there.  I removed it from my bucket list. Otherwise one can attend a private Ayurvedic school. Had there been more time, I would have researched these just to complete my preliminary understanding of the field of Ayurveda.

Ayurveda is not medicine per se; it is a way of life and encompasses elements such as correct breathing, posture, movements and attitude. One does not need to wait to get sick to take Ayurvedic treatments and ideally should be taking concoctions to help balance the body before it gets sick. We in the West are just beginning to recognize this. What a pity that Indians are turning away from a piece of their very identity that others of us are discovering is a wisdom to be valued and cherised.

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David Kideckel:

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Theyyam. None of the students have taken it upon themselves to blog about Theyyam, the ritual that we saw at the campus of Kerala University on the evening of Thursday, Jan 3. Perhaps they feel the experience indescribable and I can understand that.  Still I wanted to go on a bit about Theyyam and our role in it. Shaji Varkey in a message to us describes the ritual that we will see, Puthiya Bhagavathy Theyyam. This is a ritual found mainly in North Malabar and is performed in temples, sacred groves, and households. It is much less commercialized than the famous Kerala dance form, Kathakali. Theyyam artists mostly belong to the subaltern classes. A performing Theyyam becomes god incarnate and therefore carries much respect, even though off stage, he is poor and socially ostracized. Theyyam requires thorough training from childhood in use of percussion instruments, makeup, mask design, dance, recital of songs and art work on young palmshoots.

The meaning of the ritual: The female Theyyam, Puthiya Bhagavathy was born from the third eye of Lord Siva. Her mission was to heal the Devas (those who live in heaven) when they were afflicted with small pox. Later she was sent to earth to heal human beings and her six brothers. The brothers were killed by Asuras (the evil gods). Puthiya Bhagavathy, in a fit of rage, kills the Asuras and sets fire to their fort.  Bhagavathy’s power multiplies when she kills a Brahmana and drinks his blood. She was requested to perform a homa (ritual sacrifice) at Moolacherry family. When she found that the mantras (ritual chants) that the family head (Name-Moolacherry Kurup) recited were faulty, she threw his son-in-law into the raging fire. Repenting his fault, Kurup instituted a temple for the Bhagavathy.

The Experience of Theyyam: Everyone was tired today at the University campus. Today was the first day of theme group work so the morning was very busy.

Taking a break and waiting for Theyyam

Taking a break and waiting for Theyyam

Nate, April, and Teige even returned direct to the U from their group and waited a few hours for the rest of us. Meanwhile, I herded everyone else to the Thampanoor bus stand and got them on a public bus (an experience in itself) out to Kariavattom. Then we heard a nuanced lecture from sociologist, Meena Pillai, on Kerala gender, before it was off to Theyyam.

With funds provided specifically by the CCSU Anthropology department, our group had commissioned the performance of this Theyyam and a troupe of five Theyyam artists and ther attendants had travelled some 400 km from Kannur in north Kerala to perform. By the time we arrived at 3:30 at the area in front of the Men Researcher’s Hostel, we were late to see the first phase of the ritual, begun an hour previous.  The Theyyam group consisted of six or seven men. When we got there, they were busy making a decorative skirt for the god from fresh palm leaves and many other decorations for the coming ritual. The breast -plate that would help transfigure the dancer into the female god caused a bit of comment, but mainly our people were looking dragged out. When I told them that the ritual would last until 8 or 9 in the evening, there was almost an audible groan. I foreclosed a rebellion by giving them the option to take some time off tomorrow, instead of leaving early tonight. So people agreed and then milled around…some visited the hostel to see how the young researchers lived while a bunch of folks took off with a KU student and Arun Zacharaiah to find some food in a neighborhood near the campus.

The god's raiments are made anew

The god’s raiments are made anew

It was at this time that the artists took the materials they had been working on to behind the neighboring building near the offices of the International Center for Kerala Studies. It was here that intense preparation of them would commence and the actual ritual performed. Our students and many Malayali students, university staff, and others (even police), also began to show up to observe the quickening preparations. Arun showed up with a bunch of food…oranges, bananas of a few different varieties including my favorite red banana, kapopazham. There was lots of water to drink as well.

We sat on the steps eating while members of the Theyyam group continued to prepare the ritual materials. Meanwhile a number of large bats slowly and ominously crossed the sky above us. Soon particular attention began to be focused on the making-up and dressing of the god-to-be. He lay on stage while an attendant applied layers of face make-up. The intricate patterns of whorls and dots and lines created an angry visage. As more and different layers and items began to be added on the man-god,

The god begins to emerge

The god begins to emerge

people began to crowd around him as if drawn by magnetism and devotion. The costuming was so elaborate and ritualized, as each item like ankle bells and rice grains on the god’s arms, was added one after the other. I began to feel a bit uncertain, though, when around the middle of the god a square armature was constructed of the four torches that had been soaking in a bucket of coconut oil. They were going to light these torches, though the god would be protected by the freshness of the palm shoot skirt that was not likely to catch fire, or so I thought.

As the sky was darkening, seemingly out of nowhere appeared three drummers and began the intense cadence of the chenda drums that were to begin the ritual

Chenda drummers beat out a furious rhythm

Chenda drummers beat out a furious rhythm

and then accompany the god’s dance. The drumming was fiercer than I had ever heard previously the many times I heard chenda performed, but after drumming for about ten minutes straight came to an abrupt stop. Silence and darkness overtook all of us, now waiting quietly in anticipation of the god and her. Little by little new items were added to the god’s appearance and then at last the elaborate headdress was attached and the torches surrounding the god’s body were lit as were the candles on top of the headdress, and the drumming began again.

The god aflame

Bhaghavathy in her splendor

Now, the god began her dance, alternately jumping and spinning to the sounds of drums and cymbals. The bells on her ankles kept furious time as Baghavathy swirled and traced the margins of the performance area with her footsteps. The fire on the torches and the drumming and the movement of the god were overwhelming. I remember crying out in emotion until someone tapped me on the shoulder to remind me of the decorum demanded of this sacred event. The torch fires ate away at the grass skirt of the god so a retainer continually walked near the dancing god to sprinkle water on its arms and on the grass skirt to keep down the flames. The dancing and drumming went on without stopping for close to half an hour. All of the fifty or so of us observing I think, were overcome with awe. Then as the torches died out one by one, the transfigured god ceased her dance and began to wish blessings on those of us who had witnessed her transformation. People lined up to deposit a few rupees in the god’s hand, who then shouted out more formulaic blessings on us and our houses. Most of the CCSU group came to be personally blessed by the transfigured god, and the success of our trip was further assured by the power of the transfigured deity.

As the ceremony ended Shaji Varkey said a few words of thanks to the Theyyam group for their activities on our behalf and also thanked CCSU for sponsoring the event. It turns out that this was the first time ever that Theyyam had been held at the Kariavattom campus, so that made us particularly proud. With the performance over, we walked a back path on campus to the front gate, crossed the still-busy street and waited together with Shaji and Arun for the bus to Trivandrum. We were fortunate to catch a “Fast Passenger” that had empty seats for most of us, and we travelled largely in silence back to the Thampanoor bus stand. None of us who witnessed this incredible ceremony are likely to be the same again.

Zoila Espinoza:

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Today the CCSU group visited a Hindu temple that has many statues of deities in both human and animal form. The relationship between these forms, I assumed, was sensuous. The people in the temple worshipped with great intensity and devotion. They seemed to concentrate their mental and physical forces on proper thoughts to help improve the circumstances of their lives. In the temple there are a number of statues of women devotees who hold plates of vegetables in their open hands. Perhaps these symbols are based on common human beliefs that restrict the eating of certain sacred plants and animals. Such symbols possibly convey the essential identities of particular human groups, so as to facilitate their survival. They do this by decreasing the autonomy of the individual in favor of that of the group, by encouraging certain kinds of daily interactions based on voluntary commitments instead of force. In the temple we heard occasional loud explosions. These were charges of gunpowder for which people paid to have set off.  We believed this was either to ward off evil spirits or celebrate good luck. Perhaps this practice is analogous in meaning to certain rituals in Latin American cultures. For example, when I was ill as a child, my mother used to rub an egg together with a yellow spice over my body so that the egg would absorb all the evil. I was also impressed at the contrast of the wealth of some temples and the widespread poverty we saw. For example, a few days earlier we visited Trivandrum’s main temple, Sri Padmanabhaswamy, in which was recently discovered an estimated fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of gold (BBC July, 2011). Why can’t some of this money be used to help the poor inhabitants?