Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Amazing Grace.

Amazing Grace, one of the most popular hymns of all time, is sure to be appreciated by all those who believe in God, no matter which religion he or she belongs to. It was written by John Newton (1725-1807) in 1772. This article takes a brief look at the song, the poet and the people who supported him.
Newton’s life story is amazing. Son of a ship master, he went out to the sea at the age of 11 with his father. He was forced to join the navy after that and was caught while trying to desert. Later he was exchanged to a slave ship where he faced much travail. But finally he had his own ship that he commanded, and was involved in slave running for some time.
Newton had no religious convictions during his seafaring days though he was born to Anglican parents. There are two versions of how his ‘conversion to Christianity’ came about. One is that his ship ran into a violent storm and was saved because, due to some amazing grace, he suddenly turned to God and prayed. The other is that he fell seriously ill out at sea and eventually pleaded with God to cure him.
The first stanza of Amazing Grace seems to describe this turnaround in the man’s life:
‘Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.’
Newton gave up sailing and took a shore job. During that time he learned several languages. Then he developed the desire to become a minister. A call of God, one could say. Initially the Bishop of York turned down his request. But after a few years of frustration, he was ordained as a priest by the Bishop of Lincoln.
Another stanza of Amazing Grace is appropriate at this point:
‘Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.’
John Thornton, a financier, philanthropist and evangelical layman sponsored Newton as curator of Olney. In his later life Newton was involved in a campaign to abolish slave trade along with William Wilberforce, Member of Parliament, and others.
It was at Olney that Newton wrote the lyrics of Amazing Grace and several other hymns. John Thornton helped to publish them, along with some poems by William Cowper (Cooper?), in a volume titled Olney Hymns.
And, Amazing Grace began to gain popularity. Many church choirs in English speaking parts of the world took up the song. The 20th century saw several recordings of the hymn. It was featured in movies and on the television. In the UK, Amazing Grace attained top ten rating in the charts during the early 1970s, two centuries after it was written!
The concluding stanza of Amazing Grace says:
‘The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine.’
Till then, Amazing Grace will live in the hearts of men and women who have listened t it.

[This is cross-posted from Articles By Abraham Tharakan with some modifications. Visit to download music and for the lyrics. But the lyrics given on that site appear to have some changes form the original. The images are from Wikipedia and in the Public Domain.]

Also see: 

Monday, March 23, 2009

Medicines in a tree

If you are in India during summer and see soft, woolly white material floating in the air, don’t wonder whether it is mist beginning to form. In all likelihood there would be a white silk-cotton tree nearby.

The longish pods sometimes open on the tree and the white fiber that cover the black seeds blow off in the wind. The tree sheds leaves in summer. From a distance, pods would look like brown bats hanging on dead branches.

In Kerala, this tree is known as panjimaram or seemapool. The botanical name is Ceiba pentandra Linn. (Please verify this.) It is also called kapok tree. Some of the names in Indian languages are semal, tella buruga, panji tannaku, shweta shalmali, safed savara, and schwetsimul.

The tree normally grows to a height of more than 50’. While it is young, the bark is green and has thorns, but turns brown as the tree grows older. White flowers bloom on the ends of the branches. There is also a tree of the same family, which has red flowers.

The floss or cotton from the pods is used to stuff mattresses, pillows and cushions. The fiber does not have sufficient strength to be spun into yarn or woven into cloth.

Separating the seeds and the floss is a messy affair. It is done by churning the contents of the pods. At Olavipe we have a man called Outha, a jack of all trades, who is an expert in handling this job. When he is finished with it Outha would look like a faded photograph with the fiber all over him. Not enough to make him look like a snowman though.

Till doing some research yesterday I was under the impression that the only use of this tree is to provide floss for stuffing. That was wrong. The oil from the seeds of kapok tree is used for cooking as well as soap making.

But it seems that the root and bark have several medicinal properties. According to some papers they are useful in managing constipation, urinary retention, tumors, seminal weakness, flatulence, colic, and type II diabetes. It is an aphrodisiac as well.

I was ignorant of the true value of the kapok tree. But not the people of Puerto Rico. It is their national tree.

(A request: Will knowledgeable visitors to the site add and/or correct what is said here? Thank you.)

The drawing on top is from Wikimedia Creative Commons. It is in the public domain. The photos below (copyright reserved) are from Olavipe. Click on them to enlarge.

Also see:

Ixora coccinea (Rubiaceae) - flowers that gods and men love

Friday, March 20, 2009

Two subjects, cuisine and ecology

Continuing with cuisine
In my earlier post, Of cuisine, climate and ketchup I mentioned that ‘English’ vegetables like tomato, cabbage and carrot have become a regular part of the South Indian Cuisine. But other items of foreign origin, like Brussels sprouts, artichokes and broccoli are rarely used. Probably the reasons are limited availability and cost.
Let me jump to ‘thoran’. It is basically a Kerala side-dish eaten with rice. This preparation in which grated or ground coconut is an essential ingredient can be made with several vegetables.
Now, you might wonder what the connection is between, say, Brussels sprouts and ‘thoran’. Incidentally, this vegetable looks like a tiny cabbage. They belong to the same family. Brussels sprout is actually a wild cabbage and is considered to have medicinal properties.

Yesterday I came across an interesting post Brussel Sprouts in the blog Kitchen Reels. It gives the recipe for Brussels sprouts ‘thoran’. A fusion of East and West, indeed. Being from Kerala, ‘thoran’ is a daily affair on our dining table. I have told Annie, my wife, to try it with Brussels sprouts.

Ecology: Where have the hills gone?

On December 18, 2007 I had published a post, Ecology: Vanishing Hills, stressing the dangers of indiscriminate mining and consequently, flattening of our hills.
Today’s Times of India Chennai edition carried a report on the Supreme Court’s three judge Special Forest Bench presided by the Chief Justice is considering a ban on mining in the Aravali Hills spread over Rajasthan and Haryana States.
Indiscriminate mining is playing havoc with the delicate groundwater system in the area and accelerating desertification. No preventive or protective steps like reforestation, it seems, are being taken.
According to the report, the question now appears to be who should pass prohibitory orders, whether the Central Government, State Government or the Court.
Given below are two photos of Aravali Hills:

From Wikimedia Commons under
--> Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5

From Wikimedia Commons under

Click on photos to enlarge

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

More Kerala photos, from Olavipe

An overcast morning.

Coconut trees reflected on water

Crooked branch of a cashew tree.

Photos TP (Copyright reserved.) Click to enlarge.

Also see:

Kerala Photos: Reflections on water 2

Photos: Olavipe blooms

Photos: Deepam (Light)

Monday, March 16, 2009

Of cuisine, climate and ketchup

One man’s bread is another man’s poison. So the saying goes. Here are some random thoughts on the subject.

I suppose cuisines develop and stabilize due to several factors. It could be said that recipes were originally created with grains and vegetables that were locally available. Here the climate plays a part. In South India, only certain things grow. There is not much of seasonal variation.

It is different in the North. For instance, in Delhi the spread on the table varies according to the seasonal availability of vegetables. Maiji, says in her interesting post 'ENGLISH' VEGETABLES (tomatoes, cabbage, cauliflower etc.) were rarely used in South Indian households. In the first half of the 20th century, who would have thought of carrots in sambar?

One of the reasons for the absence of ‘English’ vegetables in the common cuisine then was non-availability. Those days they were cultivated in the cooler climates, such as that of the Nilgiri Hills. Once they became easily obtainable, people introduced them in their daily meals.

Cuisines are dynamic. People are always experimenting for improved or tastier dishes without flouting accepted parameters. Some succeed, but their creations are more often than not used for special occasions. The regular meals usually contain conventional food.

Sometimes we accept imported food ideas. The hamburger is an example of this. It was introduced in the United States of America in the 1880s. Made from beef, they became very popular in a short time. Another well-liked short meal in America is the hotdog, made with sausages.

But among the two, it was the hamburger that conquered India, particularly the younger generation. The reason is the adaptability of the product. It can be made with any meat (with chicken or mutton for those who shun beef) or with vegetables. Hotdogs probably didn’t catch on in India because sausages can’t be made with vegetables.

Talking about adaptability, first we had the simple pancake dosa. Then came the masala dosa filled with potatoes and onions, and sometimes even carrot pieces. Indian Coffee House’s masala dosas have even beetroot. This was followed by cheese dosa, keema dosa, and so on. The Pai brothers of Cochin, I believe, offer about 50 different types of dosas. In Chennai I came across tomato uthappam which resembles a pizza.

Pizza too is a foreign conquest of India. Once a trend is set, there is no stopping it. Even vada pav, which is so popular in Mumbai, has a foreign element. The bread part is certainly post-Portuguese.

Adaptation is fine as long as it blends. But sometimes one comes across atrocities. The other day we bought a parcel of samosas from a famous Chennai eatery. On opening the packet we were shocked to find sachets of tomato sauce instead of the conventional chutney.

Perhaps some people like the combination. I don’t. May be tomorrow it would be idli with tomato ketchup. Who knows?

Also see:

Nostalgia: The romance of India/Indian Coffee House

Britain strikes back at the Empire

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Blue Pottery: Delftware, or Dutchware

An industry dies and from its ashes rises a new one. That is the story of Delftware, the blue and white pottery made in the town of Delft in Southern Holland. The term Delftware has almost become a generic one and is indiscriminately applied to Dutch ware, the pottery from The Netherlands.

While photographing Gzhel porcelain collection at Thekkanattu Parayil, Olavipe for the post Art: Blue porcelain from Russia I had come across some Dutchware. That was how I ended up writing this.

In the early 17th century, Delft was noted for several things. It was the home port of the Dutch East India Company. The area had several breweries but the business was on the decline. The place attracted a number of famous painters. Among them was the local maestro, Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675). The Delft School, as they came to be known, concentrated mainly on local subjects.

A painting of Delft scene by Johannes Vermeer (from Wikipedia) is reproduced below:

The floundering brewing industry was almost wiped out by what is known as Delft Thunderclap. A gunpowder store in Delft exploded, killing many people and causing extensive damage to the town.

That was on October 12, 1654.

Most of the breweries which survived the calamity closed down. Their buildings were taken over by potters. Pottery patterned on Majolica was already being made in Antwerp and other places, probably by migrants from Italy. After the explosion, the industry focus shifted to Delft.

Then a trend of copying the designs on Chinese blue pottery started. They were popular but slowly gave way to designs with local scenes and religious motifs. The products included tiles, jars, plates, clogs, pictorial plates and so on. Three photos (copyright reserved) taken by me from among the pieces we have are reproduced below:

The popularity and iconic status of Delftware can be gauged by the fact that the tailfins of seventeen British Airways planes were painted with design based on Delftware. See the following photo from Wikipedia:

The golden era of Delft as a center for pottery was from mid 17th century till the 1850s.

(Click on photos to enlarge.)

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Kerala Archutecture: Heritage homes

Another photo of
A Kerala Tharavad.

This picture of the Velliara Parayil 'ettukettu' was taken
by Ebbey Tharakan during the years the house was unoccupied.
Copyright reserved.
Click to enlarge.

Monday, March 9, 2009

India’s gold stockpile, Kerala’s gold rush

It is well-known that private gold holdings in India are colossal. Government stock is (according to September 2008 figures) 357.7 tonnes or 3.1% of the country’s forex reserves ( This is comparatively very low. The value keeps changing depending on the fluctuations of the Indian Rupee-US Dollar parity.
But privately held gold in India is estimated at 50,000 tonnes! (Business Line The country could be gold bankers to the world!
The Business Line report reminds us that S. Venkataramanan, the then Governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) had mooted the idea of a Gold Bank way back in 1992 and the then Finance Minister Manmohan Singh had included the proposal in that year’s Central Budget. But a senior official of the RBI shot down the scheme. If implemented, it could have harnessed at least a part of this silent wealth for more meaningful use.
Annually, 700 tonnes of the yellow metal is sold in the country, according to P. Kishore in his column ‘Business Boom’ in today’s Malayala Manorama.
Who buys it?
Kishore says 17% of the gold is gobbled up by the tiny State of Kerala which accounts for about 3% of India’s population. That works out to 119 tonnes of gold. A sovereign coin is 8 gms. The arithmetic is simple. The people of Kerala buy about 15 million sovereigns a year or about half a sovereign per head.
A sovereign costs about Rs.11000 these days!
Good investment? I suppose so. But how many can afford?

Also see  

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Tropical Medicinal Plants: Thumpa, a vanishing beauty

Thumpa (Leucas aspera, Dronapushpi, Gumma Bhaji, Karukansoli, pansi-pansi, paysi-paysi, sipsipan, sula-sulasihan) is part of my childhood memories in Kerala, India. The plant can grow up to a height of two feet depending on the species. The bell-like flowers are normally white. In fact, in Malayalam, the native tongue of Kerala, thumpa flower is a synonym for pure white.

Thumpa used to grow wild all over the place. Even children knew it had medicinal value. The most common usage was in case of any skin problems. If you touch a poisonous weed or plant and there are itching and/or skin eruptions, take a few thumpa leaves, crush them in your hand and apply to the affected part. The relief is almost immediate.

The medicinal properties of Leucas aspera are accepted in all the areas where the 100 species of the plant grows (Indian Subcontinent, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, China, Pacific Islands, South America, and Africa). The main uses of the plant are in treating psoriasis and other skin conditions, painful swellings, snake bites, insect stings, and coughs and colds. It is said that a decoction made from the plant hastens menstruation.

In some countries, Leucas aspera is used as a fragrant herb in cooking. It is also a natural insecticide. In Kerala, the plant is burnt to ward off mosquitoes.

What used to grow wild in our area and many parts of Kerala started disappearing about four decades back. We found that the use of chemical manure and pesticides was the cause. About twenty five years back we shifted back to organic farming. The thumpa plants returned to the scene as you can see in the photographs I took in Olavipe.

Click on photos to enlarge. Copyright reserved.

Leucas aspera can also be cultivated commercially. Seeds can be ordered online. Dry, sandy soil and full sunlight are required. The suggested planting distance is 12 to 15 inches apart. You could also have a few clusters of Leucas aspera in your garden, either on the ground or in pots.

These are great plants to have in the vicinity residential houses.

Also see: Amorphophallus, a medicinal plant with unique flower

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Heritage: Kerala High Court saves historic churches

Whichever religion one might belong to, nobody would deny that the many centuries old Twin Churches of Ramapuram, Kerala, are beautiful. And there is so much of history behind them.

The Church wanted to demolish them and build a new church. There were widespread protests including from this blog (Churches on demolition line.). Finally the Kerala Government declared them to be heritage structures and brought them under the control of Archaeology Department, thereby preventing demolition.

The Church appealed against this order to the Kerala High Court. Earlier this week the HC ruled in favour of the Government and all those believe that heritage monuments should be preserved. It is not known whether the Church will go for further appeals.

It is difficult to understand the Church policy of demolishing old structures. I don’t recall hearing about an ancient temple or mosque being razed to ground to build a new one. The money spent on new churches to replace old ones could be utilized more meaningfully.

Nearer my home, the 1791Thycattussarry Church (A historic church is no more.) has been renovated. See photos below:

Old structure.

After renovation.

A saving grace here is that the architect has managed to retain some of the ethos. But lost in the process are the ‘Mondalam’ (picture below),

and more sadly, the beautiful frescoes that adorned the inside of the old building.

The next structure in line for the Church bulldozers is the Parayil Family’s 1861private oratory at Velliara (picture below).

Naturally, we have objected.