Monday, October 16, 2006


Banganga in Walkeshwar is dotted with little temples, so it kept my camera busy. Of all the photos I clicked, though, this is the one that made me most curious.

A Shiva temple, with a turtle?

The turtle, of course, is the second incarnation of Vishnu. So what's Vishnu doing in a Shiva temple, I asked myself.

And then I realised - Vishnu is praying to Shiva! This is the legend from the Shiva Purana, when the gods and the demons churned the ocean for nectar. When the sea spewed the deadly poison halahala, the gods despaired and even Vishnu the turtle could not bear the fumes.

Here is the turtle's prayer to Shiva:

"O Creator with Fire in your mouth, the Earth your feet, Time your motion, the Sky your navel, the Wind your breath, the Sun your eyes! Only you can save us from the halahala!".

A persuasive prayer indeed! And as many of us know, Shiva quaffed the poison, which turned his neck blue, earning him the name Neelakantha.

But did you know? A few drops of the poison dribbled from his lips, says the Shiva Purana, to be shared by serpents and scorpions to be their venom. If you'd like to read the original story, try Ramesh Menon's 'Siva - the Siva Purana retold'. It's fascinating.

In the district of Kanchi, near Chennai, there's a village called Tirukkachur. Literally, Turtle Village. The village temple is 1200 years old, and in the temple, there's a sculpture of Vishnu as turtle, praying to Shiva.

Can you see the four-armed Vishnu, with the rounded turtle lower half?

Amazing, this country of mine, where legends endure in stone...

(Published in the Hindustan Times HT Cafe May 25th)

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Of men and ships

Since we seem to be talking about the Portuguese - this is the kind of ship in which Francis Alemida sailed into Bombay port, one morning in 1509. It was large enough to be stable in heavy seas, and roomy enough to carry provisions for long voyages.

Interestingly, the Portguese word for this kind of ship is nao, identical to the Hindi nao, which comes from the Sanskrit nauh, meaning boat. Not only in Portuguese and Hindi - the word for boat or ship is amazingly similar in Welsh (noe), Greek (naus), Armenian (nav), Old Irish (nau), and Old Norse (nor).

Linguists agree that the original source of such common words were the Proto-Indo-Europeans, a group of people who lived 5500 years ago (the time scale is much debated!). They were pastoral nomads, who had domesticated the horse (eqwos).

The cow (Proto-Indo-European 'gwous') played a central role, both in mythology and reglion. Aside: the Sanskrit word for cow is go or gow.

The origin and migration of the Proto-Indo-Europeans is a subject of much dispute - did they migrate from Europe to Asia, or from Asia to Europe? Scholars can't seem to agree. But the history of these words continues to fascinate.

- Deepa

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Vada pao and more...

So... We clicked this photo one evening at Fort. This is Bombay's trademark vada pao. Made of potatoes and bread, it's an Indian burger with guess what, a Portuguese twist!

Huh? Portuguese, you ask?

Thing is, Bombay wouldn't have any vada pao if it were not for the Portuguese. The Portuguese brought both bread AND potatoes to India, having acquired them first from South America.

Pao was actually brought to Bombay by migrant bakers from the Saligao and Siolim, two small villages in Goa, which was one of the main settlements of the Portuguese (long sentence? :D).

Did you know that Pao and Batata are Portuguese words?

Many Hindi and Portuguese words are similar. Ananas (pineapple) and
ananas, almirah (cupboard) and armario, kameez (shirt) and camisa, chaabi (key) and chave...

In fact, Bombay's very name is Portuguese!

In 1509, the Portuguese explorer and trader Francis Almeida's ship sailed into the island's deep natural harbour.

The Portuguese called it Bom Bahia (good bay) because it was b

OK, back to vada pao - here's a recipe if you're wondering what it tastes like. The recipes for the chutneys that go with it are also there.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Speaking of cattle

[Inspired by a bullock-cart sighting at Flora Fountain - see previous post]

The long-legged white-grey bullocks you see in Mumbai are variants of the Hallikar breed. Hallikars or Amrit Mahals were originally military animals, used in Tipu Sultan's army to pull his gun carriages and other army equipage. They were popular because of their stamina, and were reputed to be able to march nearly 50 miles in a day. Hallikars are bred by families which have specialised in them over several generations.
Another long-legged bullock is the Khillar, India's "horse among cattle". Khillars are racing bullocks, and are also used in Maharashtra's sugarcane fields.
But of India's 26 indigenous breeds of cattle, the Ongole and the Kankrej seem the most interesting to me.
The Ongole, for it's roots in mythology - The Ongole has inspired several statues of Lord Shiva's bull Nandi. Here is a picture of an Ongole bull, so you can see what I mean. See the short stumpy horns, the broad face, the ears and the body shape?

And I like the Kankrej for historical reasons - because the Kankrej, a hardy breed from Gujarat, features in the Harappan seal of the Indus Valley Civilisation.

If you ever go to the Prince of Wales Museum near the Gateway of India, don't miss their Indus Valley Civilisation exhibit.

- Deepa

Friday, October 06, 2006

Bullock carts and cocktails

I saw this bullock-cart at Flora Fountain, in the heart of the Fort business district.

He's delivering sugarcane to the local Rasvanti Gruhs (Juice Houses). My favourite is a small shop near Regal, next to Sachin Tendulkar's restaurant, where you can get fresh sugarcane juice, crushed and iced. Sometimes they add lime and ginger, to give the drink a neat little twist.

If you want something a little stronger, try Ganna Singh - it's an innovative cocktail that one clever little local restaurant has come up with. White rum and fresh sugarcane juice - how does that sound? (Ganna is Hindi for sugarcane).
Personally speaking, I'll stick to rum and coke, but maybe you're more adventurous than I am!

Sugarcane is grown locally in Maharashtra, in co-operatives using contract farming (more on that later).

(Published in the Hindustan Times HT Cafe May 25th)

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Flour Power

In the side-lanes of Mumbai, you might chance upon this sight - a woman waiting at the grinding mill.

This lady has bought whole grain from the market, removed the stones and chaff, and has now brought it to the local flour mill for grinding. She's sitting there, watching the proceedings and making sure every grain is accounted for. And of course, this way, she can decide how much bran to keep. So chappaties taste different in each household, with varying textures and thicknesses.

I used to buy Pilsbury flour, but my mum's chappatis were always better than mine, so like her, I switched to the local flour mill too (hers are still better, though!).

Before the advent of flour mills, women ground wheat at home, in circular stone grinders called chakkis. Not an easy job, as you can imagine, but good exercise for the waist!

As a matter of fact, there's a yoga posture called Chakki Chalana Asana (Turning the Mill). It is specially effective for women - it tones the pelvis and waist, helps relieve lower back pain, and is recommended as an effective pre-natal and post-natal practice. Want to try it? :)

- Deepa

Saturday at Horniman Circle

They were three sisters, rag pickers.

While my guests were busy admiring the architecture, I coaxed the three into posing for me.
The third sister was camera-shy, but relaxed when I spoke in Tamil.

Where do you live, I asked them. They said, "We live in Matunga Dharavi, and you?"

And in an instant, what started out as an interview, memsahib talking to commoner, became a conversation among equals.

I was going to wear my environmental hat, and ask them about recycling, waste hazards and self-help groups. Instead, we spent the time chatting about our families and roots and life in the city of Mumbai.

I was richer for it.

- Deepa

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Secret Treasure

If, like me, you have driven past the Asiatic Library, admiring the graceful columns, I'll let you in on a little piece of trivia:

The Asiatic Library houses one of the only two known original copies of Dante's Divine Comedy. The other copy is in Milan.

In 1930, Mussolini offered one million pounds for the book, but the society refused. The book is a gift to the society by Monstuart Elphinstone, Governor of Bombay

In 2002, the Italian Minister for Culture visited the Asiatic Library, and confirmed that the book was in better shape than the one in Milan.

- Deepa