Posted in Culture, Festivals

A story of two Indian festivals

One story, two regions
Today is Rakshabandhan, or Rakhi, a festival that celebrates the special bond between brothers and sisters. It is celebrated all over India but is a bigger festival in the North. Did you know of a story that connects it with the festival of Onam that is celebrated in South India?

This 7th-8th century carving from Mamallapuram tells a story that connects two different festivals, celebrated in two different times, and in two different parts of the country.

Many, many eons ago, there lived a demon king called Mahabali. This wise and powerful king was a great devotee of Lord Vishnu and he was as popular in the heavens as he was on earth. But Indra, the King of Heaven, was unhappy with Mahabali’s rising power and started feeling insecure about his own position. He complained to Lord Vishnu. Lord Vishnu had to find a way to settle this matter.

It was well known that Mahabali was a very generous king who rarely refused to grant a request. One day, a little man named Vamana came to meet him. He didn’t want much and asked for only as much land as three paces of his feet would cover. It was a strange request, but Mahabali agreed. Miraculously, Vamana grew taller and taller. With one step, he covered the Earth, with the second he covered the sky. He now asked Mahabali where he should place the third step. Mahabali understood that Vamana was none other than Lord Vishnu. So he knelt and offered his own head. Vishnu put his foot on Mahabali’s head and pushed him down to the Netherworld, which now became Mahabali’s Kingdom.

But Mahabali had always been kind and just. So, Vishnu left him with two new boons. He promised that Mahabali would always have his protection. And he also promised that once every year Mahabali would return to Earth and spend time with his beloved subjects. Even today, the state of Kerala celebrates this annual return of Mahabali as the festival of Onam.

Mahabali is responsible for one more Indian festival. Story goes that one day a woman came to meet Mahabali at his palace in the netherworld. She had a grievance. Her husband was always at work and she felt lonely and scared. Mahabali invited her to live in the security of his palace. She moved in and all was well. Mahabali looked upon her as his sister. But very soon, she came up with another grievance. She said she missed her husband and wanted him back. Mahabali promised to make that happen. But who was her husband? The palace watchman. He was always on sentry duty and had no time for her. And that’s when Mahabali remembered Vishnu’s promise of eternal protection. That watchman HAD to be Lord Vishnu himself, quietly keeping watch over him. Mahabali was delighted. This meant that his newfound sister was none other than Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth, and Vishnu’s wife. Between them they had ensured that his kingdom stayed safe and prosperous.

Just as he had promised, Mahabali sent Vishnu back with Lakshmi. On her way out, Lakshmi tore a strip of cloth from her shawl and tied it around Mahabali’s wrist. She promised that the strip would be his protection, and a symbol of her sisterly affection. Mahabali gave her many gifts and sent her on her way.

Colourful threads on sale in the market, just before Rakhi

Even to this day, North India celebrates the festival of Raksha Bandhan, where sisters still tie a length of string around their brother’s wrists as a mark of affection. And the brothers still reciprocate with gifts. Not only the Hindus, but also the Sikhs and Jains celebrate this tradition. This is one of the many stories behind the very charming festival of Rakshabandhan.

Can you identify one more popular story hidden in the panel above? Hint: Southern Cross.

Photo Credits:
1. Bas-relief at the Mamallapuram caves: Courtesy: Neetesh Photography
2. Rakhi threads: Photo by Shriyash Jichkar, courtesy Wikepedia


Posted in Personalities

Prisoner in Cuddalore, Prince in Sweden!

By S.V.Kaushik

History is full of strange twists. Here is one I stumbled upon.

Siege of Cuddalore

About 185 Kms south of  Madras (now Chennai) is the quiet port of Cuddalore, where you can see the ruins of Fort St. David. Back in1783, Cuddalore was far from quiet: The French were entrenched in the Fort and the British army from Madras had besieged it. The French made several raids into the British camp, but could not break the siege. One sortie was led by Sergeant Jean Baptiste Bernadotte. His charge was brave, but he fell wounded, and was captured.


The Siege of Cuddalore, 1783

He was taken prisoner by the British Hanoverian Regiment, commanded by Colonel Christoph von Wangenheim. Wangenheim rather liked the young prisoner: he treated him kindly and arranged for medical help. Soon the war got over; Bernadotte returned to France and Wangenheim to Hanover. They were destined to reunite 2 decades later…

Two decades later

Bernadotte saw a meteoric rise in his career. He fought many battles, faced many challenges, and ultimately became a Marshall of the French Army. By any military standard, his achievement was unique: he enlisted as a Private and ended as a Marshall! He had learnt his lessons well: he remained a soldier’s soldier, demonstrated a principled leadership and treated the vanquished gracefully (perhaps the influence of his Cuddalore experience?). Meanwhile Wangenheim had retired as a Major-General in Hanover.

When Napoleon conquered Germany, Bernadotte was appointed military governor in Hanover (1804). In Hanover, Bernadotte reached out to his old foe-turned-friend, Wangenheim. Wangenheim was overjoyed that the old Sergeant had come to thank him!

Many versions of this story have been written by chroniclers (including some cynics, who say that the whole story is high on emotion but low on facts). I would like to believe that it really happened, since it seems to be in line with the rest of Bernadotte’s character. Our story doesn’t end here….

Napoleon & Bernadotte

Bernadotte was a competent commander who spoke his mind, even if it was unpalatable to his boss Napoleon. This created a strange love-hate relationship between the two. Moreover, Bernadotte had married Desiree Clary, who was Joseph Bonaparte’s sister-in-law. (Joseph was Napoleon’s elder brother). Ordinarily, this would have given Bernadotte extra political mileage, but in this case, it made matters worse! [ It is said that Napoleon had once wanted to marry Desiree; and Napoleon was not above jealousy. Many stories have been woven around this, including a Hollywood movie starring Marlon Brando]. Naturally, Bernadotte was frustrated.

Then suddenly, Lady Luck smiled again at Bernadotte. The aging King Charles XIII of Sweden had no male heir and Sweden was desperate for a King. The Swedish legislators felt that if they could get a “military-man” from even outside Sweden, he would fit the bill. Bernadotte’s name came up and was accepted. The  influential Swedish army supported his candidature, because they remembered his kind treatment of Swedish prisoners of war (Cuddalore influence, again?) in his victorious campaigns.

Coronation of King Charles XIV

 This was a unique moment in history: a foreigner was ELECTED as Crown Prince and heir-apparent to the throne (instead of INHERITING it). Bernadotte approached Emperor Napoleon for his Relieving Order. In all probability, Napoleon was relieved to relieve a “difficult” subordinate. Yet, he tried to extract a final promise that, as Swedish King, he would never oppose Napoleon. Bernadotte refused to commit anything: he would do whatever was needed to protect the Swedes who had elected him! Napoleon yielded, saying “Go, and let our destinies be accomplished”. And so, by destiny, Bernadotte became King Charles XIV John of Sweden.


(L)From Marshall Jean Bernadotte of France to (R) King Charles XIV John of Sweden

Bernadotte kept his word. Although he never sought to confront Napoleon, there were many occasions when Sweden allied itself with enemies of France. But he never attacked France ever. As King, he survived many challenges, but was a largely respected and popular monarch. The present King of Sweden is a scion of the Bernadotte dynasty, which is one of the oldest surviving Royal Houses of Europe today!

What if?

What would have happened if Bernadotte had not survived the charge in Cuddalore?  I do not want to know!

Grateful Acknowledgements: All pictures are kind courtesy of Wikepedia. The Siege of Cuddalore is by Richard Simkin (1890); the Portrait of Marshall Bernadotte is by Joseph Nicolas Juoy and the portrait of King CharlesXIV John is by Francois Gerard (1811)

Posted in Men who made Madras, Personalities

Robert Clive and the Battle of Purasai

By S.V.Kaushik

 I know what you were thinking when you read the title….

  • Really, did Robert Clive fight a battle in Purasai?
  • Was he the Englishman who colonised the place we now call Purasaiwakkam?

My response to the first question is: it all depends on which Purasai you are talking about. And the answer to the second question is: no, that honour goes to another corrupt English Governor called Elihu Yale.  Let me explain.

The place where you go shopping for Diwali, Saraswati Puja, Pongal and just-like-that summa (சும்மா) — the Purasaiwakkam that we Chennai-ites knowwas first taken on lease from the local Moghul Underling, by the Madras Governor Yale.  During the 1680s, British trade in Madras had grown so much that both Fort St. George and the adjacent Black Town (now George Town) were choc-a-bloc. So Yale decided to expand the town by leasing the nearby Purasaiwakkam. It was a nice wooded area with a lot of trees: flowering trees known in Tamil as Purasai. So Purasai-wakkam was simply “The place of Purasai trees”.

Most residents of Purasaiwakkam would find difficulty in describing the Purasai tree to you. That’s because those trees have just vanished from Purasaiwakkam: it is now a concrete jungle where several generations have lived without ever sighting a Purasai. One old resident told me that the only Purasai tree of Purasaiwakkam can be found inside the Gangadeeswarar Temple. Perhaps, it has survived because it is the Stala-Vriksha (holy tree) of the Temple. It is also known as Flame-of-the-forest, or Butea Monosperma. It looks like this:


Butea monosperma

Now you are thinking: enough of this botanical-bluster, where is Clive in all this? Be patient my friend, and I’ll tell you.

Clive Mir Jaffar

Clive after the victory in the Battle of Plassey

 Do you remember Robert Clive’s most famous battle? The Battle of Plassey – where Colonel Clive’s small army defeated the Bengal Nawab’s huge army. Well, “Plassey” is the anglicised version of “Palashi” which was the correct local name of that battlefield. “Palashi” is the Bengali word for …. why, Purasai of course! The place was full of Palashi trees and hence the name Palashi or Plassey.


Plassey Railway Station, now: note the lovely Purasai tree in the background!

Now, Clive’s “small” army had a “large” contingent of “Namma Ooru Veerans” a.k.a. the 1st Madras Regiment.  All these Tamil soldiers of Clive’s expeditionary force, what would they have called this place of Palashi trees? Why, Purasai of course. For them it was the Battle of Purasai, no? Touché!

Grateful acknowledgement: All the pictures in this blog-post are courtesy WIKIPEDIA.