A Re-Look at the Deccan of the 16th Century

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The 16th century, so important in the history of Goa, was a complex and turbulent time for the whole of the Deccan. Its history, including architectural history, is however often looked at only through the prism of religious relations and divides; ‘Hindu architecture’ and ‘Muslim architecture’ are terms still in use in popular writing and college courses. Richard M. Eaton and Phillip B. Wagoner have made a valiant attempt to get beyond these simplistic divisions with their new book, ‘Power, Memory and Architecture: Contested Sites on India’s Deccan Plateau, 1300-1600’ (OUP, 2014), which is a study of the syncretic and historicist approach to architecture in sixteenth-century Deccan.

The study focuses on the towns of Kalyana, Raichur and Warangal (all located close to the borders that today separate Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh), as opposed to the capital cities of the time, like Bijapur and Vijayanagara. It makes many useful points, of which I will just touch two.

The first is to do with the way these towns were fought over. Kalyana was the former capital of the long-dead Chalukya Empire (10th-12th centuries), the overlords of the Kadambas of Goa; Raichur was the heart of a fertile river valley; while Warangal was the capital of the vanished Kakatiya kingdom (12th-14th centuries), a successor of the Chalukyas. The fight over them was not just of conquering the territory but also about appropriation of legacy, especially in the case of Kalyana, revered as an ancient seat of empire. Not only did the Deccan Sultanates and Vijayanagara fight a series of wars over the physical control of Kalyana, they also, in often identical ways, declared themselves the inheritors of Kalyana’s Chalukya glory. Towards this end, Vijayanagara’s emperor Rama Raya had a new genealogy created for his family, which made them descendants of the Chalukyas. He also relocated various bits of Chalukya architecture, including many pillars – easy to move, great in number and very recognizable – and an entire stepped tank, to his own capital. Relocating pillars was popular with Bijapur too, but Sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah II also built a new palace at Kalyana around an existing Chalukya-era shrine, thus amalgamating the two edifices, while a new gate of Sultan Ali Adil Shah’s fort in Bijapur had an ornate lintel from a Chalukya temple inserted below a new one carrying a Persian inscription about the Sultan.

In other words, these kings were trying to display — or invent — links with past power, and thus legitimise themselves by creating a sense of continuity. This architectural co-option from an empire that had been dead for some five hundred years, and by rulers of different kingdoms and faiths, show a long-lasting memory of power in the religion, and also how ideas of power dominated those of religion.

A second major point made by this study challenges the idea of a religious divide in the Deccan. Theidea of such a divide was actually born, according to the authors, only in twentieth-century writings. What the historical record shows instead is a complex encounter between two literary-cultural systems, the Persian (of the Delhi Sultanate) and the Sanskritic (of the Chalukyas), which transcended religion. For example, twentieth-century popular wisdom notwithstanding, the conquest of the Deccan by the Delhi Sultanate actually left most existing shrines (Brahmanical, Jain, Buddhist, and others) undisturbed, or even supported, as in the case of the repair of a Shiva temple in Kalyana by Mohammed bin Tughlaq in 1326. Only those connected to resistance were destroyed, like the chief temple of Warangal whose Kakatiya king opposed Tughlaq and was defeated. This practise matches local tradition, as seen in the Manosollasa, a twelfth century Chalukya text attributed to the king Someshvara III, which recommended that a conquering king should destroy his enemy’s temple.

Eaton and Wagoner end with the mention of a new children’s park that has been set up around the site of this chief temple in Warangal; it contains a toy train with coaches that are shaped like geese. Near it are four grand gates that belonged to the old temple, also adorned with geese motifs. But, the authors mention almost ruefully, while these ancient geese stood for ‘water, fertility, and an agrarian-based prosperity’, the modern ones represent a ‘more profit-oriented sort of prosperity’.

But isn’t this profit-oriented prosperity of today more socially inclusive than that of the ancient Kakatiyas? This small touch of nostalgia for the pre-Persian past actually echoes the attitude of current Indian governments, who will restore and popularise ‘Hindu’ sites, and use them to propagate a Hindutva version of history, e.g. at Vijayanagara. And it is unfortunately also fostered by the very limited discussion of caste and class in the book. There is only some mention of the rigid social hierarchies enforced by the Chalukyas, which led to the radical Virashaiva movement;while the Kakatiyasare described as belonging to the ‘lowest (sudra) section’ of society and as more egalitarian than the Sanskritic Chalukyas. But there is nothing about how traditional caste structures were affected by the new Persianate culture, and the new society that must have resulted.

So, while this attempt by Eaton and Wagoner to unravel the Deccan’s past is of great value, especially for challenging the idea of immutable religious divides, there is scope for more work to understand the social divides and underpinnings of power.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 30 July, 2015)

Ironies of history: October 14 and the Jains of Palitana

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October 14 was the anniversary of the conversion of Dr Ambedkar and 5 million others, mainly Dalits, to Buddhism in 1956. And not the Buddhism of monastery-based ritualism, nor the self-focussed meditation so fashionable nowadays, but a socially revolutionary ideology committed to the struggle against caste. A Buddhism that is much closer to the original, if one goes by the works of scholars like the Kosambis, Kancha Ilaiah, Romila Thapar, and Ambedkar himself.

Thousands of pilgrims travelled to Nagpur last week, some on foot, to commemorate this historic event. Meanwhile, Jainism – age-old sibling of Buddhism – was also making news, but in a different direction. Various newspapers, national and international, reported that the town of Palitana in Gujarat proposes to ban the consumption of meat and fish within the town limits. This will be the first case of a vegetarian town, not just in India but in the world. Even more notable is that fact that the majority of people in Palitana are normal eaters or meatarians (to use a term – coined, as far as I know, by Kancha Ilaiah – better than the disparaging and brahmanical ‘non-vegetarian’), and are against the proposal. But their objection may be overruled. Why? Because of Palitana’s many Jain temples, apparently. Jains comprise a largely floating minority of a few thousand in the town (Soot on the Melting Pot, Outlook, July 21, 2014), but that has not deterred some of the monks from putting forth this proposal, and the authorities from taking it seriously. First the temple district was declared vegetarian, now they want the whole city.

The Jains were strongly against bloodshed even in Mahavira’s time 2500 years ago, but there is no record of them forcing their ideas on anybody. Buddhism and Jainism were born at a time of change in the subcontinent, when tribal republics were replaced by kingdoms, millets by rice, and bronze by iron. These material changes instigated changes in thinking, with many new philosophies arising simultaneously. Some, like Vedanta, were brahmanical, but many like Buddhism, Jainism, and the Lokayata and Ajivika ideas, were severely critical of the Brahmins, the Vedas, and caste. They became known – in Ashokan inscriptions and elsewhere – as the shamana philosophies (shramana in Sanskrit), which meant of those who work, or labour. Of all of them, Buddhism was the most successful in its reach, perhaps because it was a Middle Way, between the superstitious mumbo-jumbo of the brahmins of the time and the stark materialism of the Lokayatas, and also between the colossal consumption by Vedic yagnas and the extreme asceticism of the Jains.

Mahavira followed the 4 rules preached by his predecessor Parshva: no violence, no property, no stealing, and no lies; and added a fifth, celibacy. Like the other shamana philosophies, Jainism welcomed all irrespective of background; one of Mahavira’s first disciples is said, according to some accounts, to have been not just a woman but also a prostitute. And one of the reasons why many joined – as they have joined other new faiths since, including Christianity in Goa – was to escape caste.

Change, the Buddha had warned, is irrevocable. The shamana philosophies mostly died out in the subcontinent after the cosmopolitan era of the Mauryas and Kushanas. Buddhism and Jainism were attacked in many places; Chola kings boast in inscriptions of wiping out the heterodox shamanas.

Shankaracharya’s followers are said to have attacked them too, followed by the Ghurid armies. But D D Kosambi argues that these attacks were not the real reason for the disappearance of Buddhism from the land of its birth (The Decline of Buddhism in India, in Exasperating Essays, 1957), for it had already disappeared into the ivory towers of intellectualism. Supported by kingly grants in quasi-universities, the monks had long given up the struggle for social change. The burning of the monasteries was only a formal end.

Jainism meanwhile became restricted to the trading community. The rule against violence became all-important over time, making it difficult for farmers and other workers to join, for even activities like ploughing were considered violence. But merchants were welcome, even very wealthy ones, which means that the rule against owning property was ignored. So, while Buddhism vanished, Jainism thrived.

Or did it? If what’s happening at Palitana can be called Jainism, then it is a brahmanical Jainism very far from its roots. For this proposal means discrimination of a violent kind, especially targetting Muslims (25% of Palitana) and non-dominant castes. It’s about denying poor people the most affordable sources of protein in their diet. It’s about casteism in the name of Jainism.

The obsession with non-violence took Jainism away from common folk a long time ago. Where else would it go then, but closer to the dominant castes and their practices, including idol-worship, the belief in living gods, and grand temples? And also casteism. On a visit to the huge and ornate Jain temple at Ranakpur some years ago, I was myself witness to a poor Adivasi family being first refused food at the free bhojanalaya of the temple, and then, when a Jain friend objected, being served food on the ground, while other diners sat at tables. That treatment embodied violence to that family and to the original tenets of Jainism, just as what is proposed in Palitana today.

It would be really silly to expect that anything can remain unchanged 2500 years later. But, on the anniversary of the conversion led by Dr Ambedkar, Palitana is indeed a lesson in irony. For, while Jainism seems to have well and truly died in the embrace of a virulent brahmanism, the Buddha’s Dhamma has been reborn for contemporary times, as radical and socially-embracing as in its heyday.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 22 October, 2014)

The Name of Sant Sohirobanath

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The recent renaming of the Government College of Pernem, as the Sant Sohirobanath Ambiye College of Art and Commerce, throws up several issues. Jason Keith Fernandes discussed some a few days ago (‘Sant Sohirobanath and the Secular Death’), including how this use of the name of a Hindu and Saraswat religious figure for a government institution is both an attack on secularism and a continuing of the hegemony of the Saraswat caste in public spaces in Goa, thereby identifying the ‘true’ Goan as a Saraswat.

But that’s not all. Who is this Sant Sohirobanath, in the first place? For those like myself who had never heard of him, an exhaustive internet search does not reveal much; a measly 600 ‘hits’ when I first looked, which jumped up to about 2000 a couple of days later. Most of these led to articles talking about the renaming and the recent festival celebrating his 300th anniversary. There were also two books of a non-scholarly and religious type, one describing Sohirobanath as a Great Yogi and a ‘leading luminary’ of the Nath Panth sect, while the other just mentions him in passing as a Sant who on being harassed threatens the harasser that he will be burnt alive; the threat is fulfilled. One online article speaks of two books containing his poetry. Besides this are just few mentions in blogs on Marathi poetry.

There is no link to any scholarly book or article on the man. As for Wikipedia — which is not a source of reliable information, but at least reflective of popular understanding — he is not mentioned anywhere on that humongous site, not even on the pages about Hinduism, Goa, Sants, or the Nath Panth.

Enquiries at the history department of Goa University and the Goa Central Library reveal that there are no works of history which mention this supposedly historical figure. All they have are some compilations of his verses, some of which also briefly describe his life.

But what’s wrong in being little known, one might ask; there must be millions of deserving people unnamed on Wikipedia. True, but how many have government institutions named after them? Governments name and rename public institutions usually after people with some public standing, and for a reason. Belatedly remembering Savitribai Phule, more than 60 years after the Pune University was set up, reflects the need of the Maharashtra government to display respect for this pioneering educationist from the Bahujan Samaj, a woman who defied the gender and caste norms of her time as well the idea – still current – that it is only the progressive elements from the dominant castes and classes who found educational institutions. That Maharashtra remains the land of Khairlanjis and other caste atrocities, where Dalit and bahujan samaj women still have to fight for education and dignity, shows that the gesture is only lip-service to the cause.

What is the gesture being made by the Goa government in this renaming? Here we have someone who, from all available sources, was a member of the privileged Saraswat community who joined the religious sect called the Nath Panth and wrote spiritual verses, in which he ‘distilled the wisdom’ of the Vedas and the Upanishads.

Is this adequate qualification for a 21st-century educational institution being named after one? Perhaps, when you look at some of ours. Not only do most of our schools, colleges and universities fall far short of the touted ideals of education, many already excel at pandering to Hindu religious beliefs, with the organization of brahmanical Hindu festivals within the campus, and upper caste Hindu religious icons permanently installed there. And the less said about their predilection for quietly side-stepping reservation quotas, therein further disadvantaging OBC and SC/ST applicants, the better. This step is in fact an open admission of their quasi-brahmanical tendencies.

And the problem is not only the lack of even-handedness. Would it be all right if the Goa government were to name the next college after a Christian or Muslim religious figure, or indeed a coast guard ship as the Ave Maria-14, as they recently did? India is in fact the proof that overt religiosity does not lead to anything very positive, for this home of 33 crore gods, along with unlimited godmen, shrines, pilgrimages, and rituals, is also the site of the most wretched mass deprivation and casteist violence. One reason for this is that brahmanical Hinduism is one with casteism, as Dr. Ambedkar pointed out so many years ago. But even with the other religions, public religious symbolism tends to caricature local religio-ethnic beliefs in a reductive manner, and strengthen the conservative and regressive sections of the community. True secularism does not mean that the government panders to all, but that it stays away from all public religiosity.

The government and its supporters are busy congratulating each other for the discovery of their unknown sant. And well they might, for his lack of renown means that he can now be fleshed out in exactly the manner desired. We can expect expanded hagiographies in the days to come, a manufacture of ‘heritage’ as it were. Already a glorification is on, with the use of the term ‘saint’ instead of ‘sant’, even though the words do not mean the same thing. The English word either means a person of high morals, or a Christian spiritual figure who is not just fervently religious but also dead. India however abounds with living sants who are not necessarily very saintly either. The word sant is thus far better translated as devotee, or religious figure, or even god-man. But Sant Sohirobanath was a ‘saint of wisdom’, we are told!

Projects of renaming are in general about strengthening elite hegemony, without making any change in content, e.g. without improving the quality of or access to education. Sant Sohirobanath may have been one among thousands of sants produced by this subcontinent, but today his name is important for the promotion of Hinduism, and the hegemony of the Saraswats, along with religiosity, social conservatism, and some new history of the made-to-order kind.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 29 August, 2014)

What Government Demolishes Homes in the Pouring Rain?

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What kind of government demolishes homes in the pouring rain? A government that is confident that the chattering classes will not be bothered. It is not only the Parrikar government that is to be condemned for an attack on the very lives of people, especially the aged, ill, and children among them, whose houses were recently bulldozed in Baina, Vasco, during the downpours of July. One child in Baina was 6 days old, according to a newspaper report, just home for the first time from the Chicalim nursing home, when his house was demolished. Now his mother, weak after a tough delivery, is ill and cannot care for the baby who huddles in his grandmother’s arms under a tarpaulin sheet.

The responsibility for this lies not just on the administration, but us well-off folk, secure in our warm dry homes, along with of course the media we pay for, who, as veteran Goan journalist Govind Potekar pointed out recently, give reams of attention to proclamations for and against bikinis, but hardly any time or space to an atrocity against the poor.

In the few discussions on the topic, the consensus in Goa seems to be that while it should not have been done in the rains, it had to be done. They repeat the government claim that the houses were within the high tide line and ‘demolitions were done to protect the people’. What an oxymoron! And as environmentalist Claude Alvares asked, why haven’t we heard of the demolition of the big bungalows and hotels that are also within the CRZ? Why take action only against the poorest and most vulnerable?

Well, the answer is that that’s what we’re good at. And we bolster this tendency by tons of unsubstantiated reportage about how such informal settlements harbour criminals and anti-social elements. It is not that we really believe this rubbish; any fool in this country knows that the real criminals are to be found not there, but in much more secure and protected and even lavish homes, which are never demolished.

But it is not that we are always so uncaring. An example of a different response was that met by the Campa Cola Compound case in Bombay. This large upper-class and illegal apartment complex in the plush Worli area was condoned for years, even after an order for demolition. And when the Campa Cola issue was discussed in the media – which was frequently – one could see the genuine sympathy of the reporters for the bank managers and businessmen who were losing their flats and penthouses, even though they had chosen to buy them in a building with no municipal clearance. Contrast this to the Baina settlement, which was demolished less than 2 months after the people were given notice; the demolition was described by many press reports as Parrikar’s ‘cleaning-up drive’, implying that the residents are some kind of dirt.

The lack of empathy goes well with a lack of intelligence. These settlements don’t come up anyhow. A popular upper-caste adjective for them is ‘squatter’, which implies people just settling down freely on a spot and making it their own. But slums in Goa and India are not squatter settlements, for they are paid for right from the word go. Nobody can sit for half an hour anywhere in an Indian city without being questioned by the cops. Nor do slums come up anywhere, but usually on waste or wet lands unfit for development — a major reason for allowing them is thus also about making the land ready for other real estate projects.

The pattern – perfected in Mumbai but visible in Goa as well – is of the new settlement being laid out in advance by local agents in cahoots with the authorities, then sold to homeless buyers, usually migrants. Huge amounts of money are paid by the buyers for water, electricity, and other facilities, legal or otherwise. Everything happens in broad daylight, with the full knowledge of the local authorities, including the police, and the payments that are made are part of the oily system of graft on which the bureaucracy thrives. And so homes are built and lived in for a while, with local problems of water seepage and soft soil being dealt with by the settlers. And then one fine day the houses are broken and the people thrown out, the nicely-solidified and dry land is used for other things, while everybody else looks shocked and wonders who allowed them there. And the cycle goes on.

Slum-dwellers are vote-banks, is the other complaint of the middle-class, it’s the politicians who back them. This again is a perversion of the truth – as though these settlers are beneficiaries instead of victims. The real problem is that the politicians don’t back these settlers; that they don’t oppose this extortionist cycle which keeps people insecure and dependent.

Slums are not caused by the poor. They are caused by bad urban policies, which give no importance to public housing. In other words, they are caused by the rich and the powerful who make our policies and rules; they are caused by us. If you want to employ people — domestic workers, drivers, sweepers, watchmen, errand-boys, gardeners, labourers, doing all the hard or dirty work of every kind – but you don’t want to pay them enough to afford the market rates of rent, and those people have no other options but to take your low-paying job, and the government just twiddles its thumbs in the meanwhile, what do you expect?

Most civilised societies in the 20th century realised that basic public housing was one of the jobs that cannot be left to the profit-driven real estate industry; it has to be handled by the government. But we have yet to still learn that in Goa, where the government has land for all kinds of money-making projects, including posh vacation homes which are used for 2 weeks in the year, but not for mass housing. In fact, the Parrikar government has just announced that those who got land illegally for SEZ’s – criminals, in other words — will be allowed to keep 30% of it! Why – because Goa has “enough” land, apparently. Why can’t we then build cheap rental housing? Or create schemes where people can buy small serviced plots, on a low monthly payments, and build their own houses? Surely it’s not that difficult to plan and implement, unless one envisages all land as reserved for either cronies or profit-spinning enterprises.

Goa has all kinds of bhaile, or outsiders – tourists, hoteliers, real estate developers, moneyed folk who like the slower life. But the most maligned, in word and deed, is the one that contributes the most, viz. the labourers. Can Goa do without migrant workers for even one day? Isn’t it then time that we started thinking about how to develop a more equitable, inclusive and civic-conscious society, rather than following the inhuman traditions of Indian metropoli?

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 14 July, 2014)

Rewriting History, in the Past and Today

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History, they say, is written by the victors. In other words, not just written, but rewritten, or manufactured at will. I recently came across an interesting essay on an example of this by the historian Hermann Kulke, where he discusses the origins of the Sringeri Matha in the hills of western Karnataka, not very far from Goa.

For those who have not heard of it, the Sringeri Matha (mathas are monastic establishments for brahmins) has been a site of brahmanical prestige and royal endowments for the last 600 years. It was gifted with land and permitted to function as a mini-state by the Vijayanagara kings, then by their successors the Ikkeri Nayakas, followed by the Sultans Haidar and Tipu of Mysore, and finally even the British. The quasi-rule of the Matha over the region may have ended post-1947, but this has been compensated with the wider spread of brahmanical beliefs and practises in the populace; Sringeri is thus a prominent religious site for Hindus in south India today. And the region of Sringeri remains very dominated by brahmins as well, with many old agraharas (brahmin settlements) still in existence, and still owning large tracts of land.

Popular tradition gives us two origin stories about Sringeri – one, that the Matha was established around 800 CE by the Advaita philosopher Shankara (also known as Adi Shankara or Adi Shankaracharya), as one of 4 great mathas in the subcontinent; and two, that Vidyaranya, a 14th century mahant of the Matha, played a crucial role in the founding of the Vijayanagara empire. As the story goes, Harihara and Bukka, the two Sangama brothers known as the founders of Vijayanagara, first converted to Islam under the Delhi Sultanate, but were then converted to Hinduism by Vidyaranya who also guided them in the establishment of their kingdom.

Kulke however questions all this in his essay, ‘Maharajas, Mahants and Historians: Reflections on the Historiography of early Vijayanagara and Sringeri’ (1993). With respect to the origin of Sringeri, he points out that the only mention of Sringeri before the 14th century is not as a matha, but as an important Jain centre. (There are still some Jain shrines here, as well as big ones like Mudibidri and Karkala not far away.) The mention of Sringeri as a centre of Shaivism begins only from the rise of the kingdom of Vijayanagara in the mid-14th century. Even so it is mentioned first, in the first half of the century, as only a sacred site where the Vijayanagara kings held a ‘victory festival’. It gets mention as a matha only towards the end of the same century, with the Vijayanagara kings as major benefactors. And, although there are many inscriptions speaking of it from the first half of the 14th century, none of them mention Adi Shankara. His name also appears only at the end of the century in the writings of the mahant Vidyaranya.

It thus seems certain that the Matha was not in existence before the 14th century, so the question of its founding in the 9th century does not arise. And the link to Adi Shankara seems to have been deliberately made to add to the glory of the institution.

As for the 2nd story, Kulke mentions an earlier exposé by Henry Heras S. J., which pointed out that the earliest mention of the mahant Vidyaranya’s role in the founding of the Vijayanagara empire dates to even later, the 16th century. And this is interestingly first mentioned in the records of, not Vijayanagara, but Sringeri. This was a time when the great Tuluva kings of Vijayanagara, Krishnadevaraya and Achyutadevaraya, had shifted their patronage to the temple of Tirupati; Kulke sees it as an attempt by Sringeri to revive its own importance within the empire.

Thus, concludes Kulke, it was probably not Vidyaranya of Sringeri who established Vijayanagara, but the opposite: the kings of Vijayanagara appear to be the patrons of a new matha at Sringeri!

It is not really surprising that even today, despite this published evidence to the contrary, the Sringeri Matha continues to be linked to Adi Shankara, not just on its own website but on government websites as well. The myth after all fits well into the Hindu-ising and brahmanising project of the Indian elites, giving as it does a greater ancestry to brahmanical dominance of the region, and also erasing the history of heterodox sects like Jainism, also any other belief systems. Voilá – Sringeri was always and originally ‘Hindu’! The story of Adi Shankara’s 4 mathas situated across today’s India also feeds into the nationalist idea of the subcontinent being one identifiable and connected place from time immemorial; it also aids in the construction of Hinduism as monolithic and brahmanical.

Such a manufacture of history is not new to us in today’s Goa either. We have the ongoing demonising of the Portuguese era, the attempts to push back the origins of Nagri Konkani, and the continual attempt to ignore our Islamicate and bahujan past, and to portray Goa as a Hindu and brahmin land. The stories are all around us, whether it’s the ad nauseum repetition of the myth of the hyper-brahmin Parashurama, or the glorification of any available non-Goan brahmin like Sant Sohirobanath or Shyama Prasad Mukerjee, or even the propagation of brand-new myths, as in one Panjim school which teaches that the original name of the village of Aggaçaim was Agastyapura, after the sage Agastya who visited there in some distant past that only they know about.

As can be seen at Sringeri though, the truth is not just liberating but much more interesting than all this drivel. All we need to do is fight for it.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 7 May, 2015)

Sardesai and the Progress of Casteism

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Flinging some rice around is a practice fairly common in South Asian weddings. But recently at a GSB wedding in Goa, I was witness to a new and bigger ritual of waste, in which rice was repeatedly poured over the heads of a number of GSB couples seated in a line; the poured rice resulted in messy heaps trodden underfoot all around. When I expressed disgust at the waste of grain, a GSB friend was quick with reassurance: don’t worry, the sweepers will take it home later. It’s never wasted.

So, another Indian tradition. Just like the made snana of Karnataka where lower castes are expected to roll in brahmin left-overs, or the old tradition in some Maharashtra villages where the wedding feasts were followed by the remaining food being heaped on leaf plates and thrown out of the gates; the lower castes were expected to wait outside and pick up the leftovers from the mud (Namdeo Nimgade, In the Tiger’s Shadow: the Autobiography of an Ambedkarite, 2011), this is another of those great caste traditions where brahmins emphasize their superiority by forcing others to eat their dirt.

And this is the same ‘highly progressive’ GSB community that prominent journalist Rajdeep Sardesai has been tweeting about. For those not in the know, Sardesai’s tweet, after Parrikar and Prabhu joined Modi’s cabinet, went like this: ‘Big day for my Goa. Two GSBs, both talented politicians become full cabinet ministers. Saraswat pride!’

The negative feedback this attracted did not deter him, and he went on to write a piece in the Hindustan Times defending his position, which is that pride in caste is not casteism. It is worth quoting that piece here.

‘“GSB”, explains Sardesai, ‘refers to the Gaud Saraswat Brahmins, a tiny, but highly progressive community of fish-eating Brahmins that I belong to which nestles along the Konkan coast, across Maharashtra, Goa, through to parts of Karnataka. In his valuable book Saraswats, Chandrakant Keni traces the history of the Saraswat community, of the migration from Kashmir, of how they faced oppression from the conquering Portuguese, how they zealously held onto their family traditions and village deities, and placed a premium on education as a path to upward mobility.’

Sardesai then goes on to speak of how GSBs have ‘contributed enormously to the country’ despite their small numbers, and concludes by saying that the induction of Parrikar and Prabhu shows that is now ‘space for merit in a caste-driven cabinet’ (http://www.hindustantimes.com/comment/rajdeepsardesai/identity-is-not-always-destiny/, accessed on 19/11/2014).

So we have it on the authority of a GSB himself that GSBs are progressive, meritorious and pro-education. And what is the criteria for this judgement? That they eat fish, marry other brahmins, and ‘contribute enormously’ by holding most of the top jobs in Goa? Or perhaps, looking at the field of education, it is their silence while laws on reservation – i.e. on affirmative action to create a more inclusive society – are flouted? We have had numerous worthies from the GSB community sitting in high places in Goa’s education system, not just professors and top University officials, but also the last Chief Minister, also the Education Minister, even as reservation rules are being brazenly flouted all around. The result in Goa University, where faculty reservations are supposed to be close to 50%, is that out of more than 150 existing teaching posts, not even 5 are reserved. The situation appears no better in most colleges. But perhaps that is what Sardesai means when he says that the GSBs used education for upward mobility?

Because otherwise, as Kaustubh Naik asks (http://goansufi.in/rajdeep-your-caste-is-showing/, accessed on 19/11/2014), ‘when you are the only community having access to education and knowledge systems and thus denying the right to education to rest of the communities, aren’t you the only one who’s going to ride on the path of upward mobility? It’s like running the race alone or with fellow racers who are handicapped by social structure which you’ve ensured remains intact for centuries and then claiming victory?’

And oppressed too – isn’t it nice to learn that those at the top of the caste hierarchy, those who dominated the village communities, controlled the most fertile lands and the biggest money-spinning temples, employing bonded tenants, servants and also hereditary slave labour (D D Kosambi, Myth and Reality, 1962), were also oppressed by the Portuguese?

Unfortunately though, this is contradicted by the historical record which shows that the biggest GSBs in fact prospered under the Portuguese. According to Raghuraman Trichur (Refiguring Goa: From Trading Post to Tourism Destination, 2013), it was in the 17th and 18th centuries that the GSBs consolidated their position as the dominant economic class in colonial Goa, many being actively engaged in trade, creating great individual fortunes and even financing the colonial government. ‘Prominent business families in Goa such as the Camotins, Dempos, Naiques, Navelcars, Kenis, etc., some of whom are business leaders today, accumulated their fortunes during this period. The relationship between the Portuguese Estado do ĺndia, the native merchants and the landed gentry was such that one could not survive without the other’ (page 37). Some GSBs, with the family names of Sinay, Prabu, Pai, Shet, and Gad, were also important state revenue farmers for generations.

According to Sardesai, caste pride is not casteism; the first is harmless, while the second means discrimination and atrocities. But caste pride of the upper castes is actually the blatant falsification of history and the twisting of contemporary realities, all in order to pretend that caste privilege and oppression do not exist; it is the fuel for discrimination and atrocities.

Sardesai’s opinions may be dismissed as arrogant foolishness by some. But the fact that he is speaking not in his living room but in a national newspaper is a sign of the wretched backwardness of India. Here the savarnas can rewrite history and re-invent the meanings of words like ‘merit’ and ‘progressive’, even as they continue to trample food into the ground and expect others to eat it.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 20 November, 2014)

O Tiracol, O Goa: Thoughts Towards a ‘Quarta Corrente’

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Tiracol has the potential to be a watershed moment for Goa. But only if it is accompanied by a deeper reflection on the underlying streams of thought about Goa’s political status, and drawing of linkages.  Goa being currently a part of India, today we are no longer at that trisection thinking whether Goa be back under Portuguese rule, or be part of India, or separate from Portugal and India. So, can there be a fourth political location – a stream of thought that would do justice and be transformative for Goa?  As Goa witnesses its 70th Revolution Day, it is time for introspection.

Occasionally some voices still question the basis of Goa’s integration into India. They assert that it was not liberation and wonder therefore whether anything can be built on what was essentially an improper foundation of Goa. Then there are the freedom fighters – those who fought for freedom from Portuguese rule and for its integration into the existing UN Member-State, namely India, which Goa is geographically contiguous with. Their narratives bristle with the brutalities that they, and many a Goans who dared raise a black flag to the Portuguese, endured. A citizenship encompassing freedom of association and expression, and self-determination was denied. Then there were those who felt that Goa was no space for any kind of ‘foreign’ rule, Portuguese or Indian, and needed to come into its own. Their argument was mainly hinged on a Goan identity with required political and administrative reforms that would be affirmed and not racially despised by the Portuguese as in the Acto Colonial.

But as we hark back, to look forward, we cannot forget that there was no such thing as Goa as we know it today, until the Portuguese set up shop in various bits of territory along the west coast from 1498. These territories formed part of various kingdoms ranging from the Deccan Sultanate of Adil Shah to that of Vijayanagara, and small feudatories of the Marathas and the Mughals. It is only under the Portuguese rule and administration of the Estado da Índia Portuguesa, albeit for different periods of time, that these various territories and peoples were brought within a single political, social and economic entity. This marks a distinct political history from that of formerly British India. To that extent, a different socio-political economic culture evolved in Goa.

Hence concerns that are raised in Goa start from a different politico-cultural location from that of mainland India. For instance, in Goa, articulations and responses to family laws come from a location where Goa has a semblance of an uniform civil code which is a legacy of the Portuguese rule, whereas arguments over family laws in India come from a location where there is a spread of religion-wise family laws. So also, Goa has already had a version of free port and could speak from that position when India was entering globalization mode.

Along with the politically different past, Goa also stands at a different juncture due to an overlay of many other factors such as size, geography, and its attendant possibilities, that underwrite this difference. This different juncture is manifested in for example, the way in which gender discrimination at or before birth occurs. Not in Goa, female infanticide involving the popping of gooseberries, to take away the life of a new born female child, as heard of in some parts of India. It manifests in selective abortion of female foetuses, pronouncedly in Goa’s urban areas. So also casteism, is present, but rarely manifests as brazen separate sitting arrangements or untouchability, or recurring rapes and murders of Dalits. Hence, given the different location, a different kind of focus for planning and governance is called for.

There have been articulations galore about Goa’s streams plainly flowing and merging into a huge subcontinental mess that is ever so unwieldy to manage. This is seen as giving an edge for big transnational corporate Leading Hotels to wedge their way and rule the roost. So, if not part of India, is it about a separate Goa, where a Senhor Antonio will travel from one part of a village to another in his Machilla, just to assert his power over other human beings? And at another level, in today’s context, maybe scouring the forests of Goa and other places for mining wealth in every sense of the term, gliding on hellitourism (helicopter tourism)?

A separate Goa is imagined as one without those who are pejoratively called ‘ghanttis’, which is facilitated by Goa’s integration into India. So how many here are ready to pull up their trousers/sarees, go work in the fields, sweep the roads of Goa, provide domestic services in other people’s homes?

A local speaker from Tiracol at a recent protest rally over the land grab for the golf course took the gathering back in time. He paid his respects to Goa’s first Chief Minister Dayanand Bandodkar, who had done honours to the persons who cultivated, tilled and cared for the land, by enacting the mundkar and agricultural tenancy laws. Could something like this possibly have come about, had Goa been a separate entity? Or would the Senhor Antonios still be holding sway? Perhaps transformed into capitalists of today? So do we want a special status that would help rewrite this feudal legacy?

As we brainstorm about the Quarta Corrente – the fourth stream of thought, a question that also surfaces is how does Goa retain its unique identity within a global frenzy of extortionist trade and land appropriation by powerful big business?  “Goa is not for sale to the highest bidder”, Dr. Francisco Colaco categorically pronounced at the same rally in Tiracol. Simultaneously, the voice of Mr. Richard Trumka, the President of one of America’s largest politically active trade unions in the United States, echoed, “Our Government belongs not to the highest corporate bidder, but to the working people who make our country run”. He was speaking in the context of thrusting of the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement.

Goa’s working people who make it run must design and shape Goa’s destiny and give concrete shape to the quarta corrente. It would perhaps be about a special status but not one that will provide the dominant powers in Goa a tool to further penetrate class, caste, gender, creed-based and other discriminative power.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 18 June, 2015)

Illegally Legal or Legally Illegal?

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It is necessary to dissect what is called ‘legal’ and what is called ‘illegal’ where many an action is increasingly being taken by the State in the garb of legality in Goa.

Flashback May 4, 1886: Near the Haymarket square in Chicago, there is a meeting to up the cause of greater power and economic security for working people and to up the ante against the poignant disregard for the eight hour work day norm. As a speaker is winding up his speech, police march into the area and order the crowd to disperse, at which point a bomb is thrown at the police and the police fire.The mayhem that follows leaves police as also civilians dead and wounded . The labour activists are charged and convicted for inciting, though it is not at all clear who threw the bomb. But inciting or pushing labour to public actions and strikes due to unfair wages and working terms is not considered incitement.


Flashback April 16, 1963: Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his famous letter from Birmingham Jail to his fellow clergymen, after he was imprisoned there for what he called the non-violent action of creating a tension for shaking people out of their complacency about racism “We should never forget that everything that Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal’”. King Jr. was referring to the legality of Adolf Hitler in that the latter legally unleashed the genocidal holocaust against Jews. He was acting under emergency measures which he himself had made law after he legally and democratically assumed power and arrogated to himself the power to make whatever law he desires.

History the world over is replete with instances where the law enforcement has always erred in favour of the powerful. But India had to be different. Why? Because it gave to “ourselves” and to the world a Constitution, where not just equality but substantive equality had to be the norm, so if one had to inevitably err, it was to err on the side of justice, and on the side of sustainable development and intergenerational equity. Even the Courts were required to be courts of equity apart from following the enacted law.

But in the present of May, 2015: Police register an FIR against unknown people for criminal trespass. So Domnic de Tiracol, among others, become the potential accused. His crime: Alerting villagers about bouncers who are come to protest and resisting the bulldozers from cutting trees in tenanted property to create an access for the golf course cum resort project of Leading Hotels Pvt. Ltd.. Domnic de Tiracol was forcibly dispossessed of his tenancy rights. So the State had recognized the kicking of the bull-dozer as a crime, an illegality and had ‘legally’ provided a couple of requisite licences for the Project which were founded on a sale deed of properties which actually tenants including Domnic were deemed owners of. Domnic was not made a party to the sale deed. He is now no more. He passed away on 10th July, following a massive heart attack resulting from the stress caused by the Golf Course project where he saw his land being ravaged under his very eyes. But in the eyes of the law, he was sought to be painted as a criminal trespasser.

25 May 2015 The Chief Minister of Goa is quoted as saying “We are supporting the golf course as the investor has taken all the required permission.” Consequently, we need to affirmatively state that even if an entity has all the permissions for a project, it cannot be automatically implied that it is legal and therefore deserving of support? How come they call it legal? What about the misrepresentation on the basis of which permissions are granted? What about the fact that the Government authorities contrive to categorically pose the permissions alleged to be fraudulently secured as the basis of the ‘rights’ of corporations over human beings who live on the land and off the land?

The Leading Hotels’ Golf course cum resort project is mired in the muck of seeming legality. The seeming legality of a sale deed, which is conveying ownership of land, which could not have been sold by the vendors in the first place. The seeming legality of pepping up the environment “from barren to beautiful” when there are trees galore which the project sought permissions to cut down! The seeming legality of fast pacing a project because it will generate large revenue and jobs. This, when the evaluation study of the large revenue generation schemes points to 30 additional jobs for a golf course in another part of India with the whopping large revenue generation scheme assistance!

A raft of measures has been taken by successive Government not just to somehow enable the project to function, but to proactively support it. The support ranges from advocating financial assistance for the projects from the Central Government, to the extent of a whopping sum of crores, to ‘accomodating’ , nay driving, the Regional Plan on the basis of these projects.

In a situation where there is a long aroused anger where people are likely to lose their dwellings, their livelihoods, and their cultural moorings, and the very social fabric of their village on account of the takeover of almost their entire village by Leading Hotels, the conflicts can only exacerbate. If the subsidy sought by Leading Hotels under the Union Tourism Ministry’s large revenue generation scheme is granted to them, on the basis of State approval, again on false projections of meeting the legal requirements, it will not be long before Goa will be on its knees with a begging bowl seeking bailouts and find itself in a far more piquant situation than Greece is in the present day.

Any megaproject that hides behind a veneer of legality, needs to be immediately ripped apart, before any damage at all is done. Corporations’ “rights” to set up a megaproject cannot take precedence over human rights. We cannot anymore continue with the logic of letting corporations cause wanton destruction of lives and livelihoods under the cover of having obtained all required approvals and proceeded. This, when the so-called Government approvals are themselves founded on illegal representations!


(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 16 July, 2015. This is an edited version)

Local Identity, Global Architecture

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A thorny question faces a number of parishes in Goa where the congregation has outgrown the existing churches. Some are more than willing to tear down, or drastically modify, their old churches to build bigger ones. Others are horrified at such proposals and argue that these churches, like the one in Nuvem, are part of the unique architectural heritage of Goa.

But what makes the architecture of churchesin Goa exceptional? When and how did the characteristically Goan church appear, if there is, indeed, a distinctly Goan style of church architecture? This is the subject of Whitewash, Red Stone: A History of Church Architecture in Goa (Yoda Press, 2011), a book by Paulo Varela Gomes, former professor of architectural history at the University of Coimbra, Portugal. The book traces the history of church architecture in Goa from its beginnings in the sixteenth century to the twentieth century.

Gomes documents three major stages on the development of church architecture in Goa. The first was the influence of European late medieval period, of which the church Our Lady of Rosary (still standing) in Old Goa, is an example. The Second phase was the influence of European Renaissance on church architecture of Goa, of which the two great examples are the Sé Cathedral (begun 1564, consecrated 1652) and the Jesuit church Bom Jesus (begun 1594, consecrated in 1605). The third major stage of the evolution of church architecture that Gomes identifies is from the late seventeenth century onwards when the specific form of the Goan church building emerged.

Although scholars like Jose Pereira (1995) and Antonio Nunes Pereira (2010) have focussed on the influence of Baroque and Renaissance styles on Goan churches respectively, it is Gomes’ attention on the emergence of specifically Goan church that is most critical to understanding the history of religious architecture in Goa. He argues that the advent of a Goan church form was the result of the deliberate attempt by the ‘native’ Catholic elites, especially the Brahmin and the Chardo clergy, to assert their identity as separate; as much from the metropolitan Portuguese, as the rest of non-Christian India. This reference to caste is refreshing, as caste politics is not often discussed in architectural history.

Gomes claims that the assertion of difference was born from the desire of the ‘native’ elites to assert themselves against the other elites in the territory – i.e. the metropolitan Portuguese, and the Luso-descedentes. The erection of monuments proved one way through which the ‘native’ elites could affirm their presence and relevance in the territory.
According to Gomes, the architecture of churches after seventeenth century had “far less Portuguese influence than one would be led to believe” (p.4). Regarding the multiple influences on the evolution of Goan Churches he writes, “It is true that, analysing the buildings in parts (…), one can see Portuguese wall composition, Flemish vaulting or ornament, Bijapuri tower design, Konkan stucco pattern and ornamental design, etc. But the churches as overall buildings did not result from the sum of their constitutive parts. The builders and patrons knew how they wanted a Catholic church to look and how they wanted it to be experienced…” (p.6). What was going on is that the ‘native’ builders and patrons were engaged in intelligent articulation of architecture to further their claim over it.

The book allows us to appreciate the evolution of various components of the church architecture, including the uniqueness of its setting, the plan type, its external form, its interior elevation, its material and construction, and their decorative elements.

There is no doubt that Whitewash, Red Stone is a very important work. The book allows us to see that the Goan churches were able to assimilate global ideas and elements to create a unique local architecture, especially because many of these churches were built and financed by ‘native’ Goan elites. More importantly, in participating in a European language of architecture, they were also contributing to a European architecture.This is to say, they were producing European-ness in their buildings, and producing themselves as Europeans. Gomes claims that even in the twentieth century, despite the rise of neo-classical and modern styles, the churches in Goa continued to maintain Goan-Catholic identity forged in the seventeenth and eighteenth century because architecture was a way of maintaining their own identity from the rest of the world.

The lack of visual explanations seems to be a common weakness in most books on architectural history and Whitewash, Red Stone is no different. Although the book is geared towards academic readers, many Goans who use and manage local churches, like Nuvem, must read the book to know how special these churches are and not be in tearing hurry to pull these buildings down. But would merely savings the monument be enough? Probably not! As Gomes rightly asserts that the Goan churches are landscape monuments and they are not comprehensible without the territory in which they were built. So, shoving a monstrous new building next to a historic monument would also be insensitive.

(First published in The Goan Everyday, dt: 21 June, 2015)

Sterile Neighbourhoods

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While walking around with some friends in Dona Paula, our discussion veered to its architecture. We started comparing buildings, appreciating some but more often bemoaned the fact that for the most part they were loud, gaudy, and, at times, completely out of scale. Most of the buildings in Dona Paula are large single-family bungalows, with high compound walls and even bigger gates, intended to symbolize the wealth of the patron within. While one bungalow was trying to impress with over sized column and pediment, the other went overboard with decorative railings and ugly pergolas. As we moved along, we came across a series of contemporary row-houses marked by sleek lines of horizontal and vertical planes. For a change, my companions approved of the work. I remained skeptical,also evasive about the reason for my continued criticism. Nevertheless, I had a feeling that,given the context, my own work as an architect would not have been very different. Why then was I critical of the wealthy neighborhood of Dona Paula?  Why did I find it sanitized, even sterile?

It was not long after that the reason for my cynicism in Dona Paula was made obvious through an architectural encounter on the outskirts of Goa Velha. Standing on the old highway was a small two storied, light yellow building with bright red column pilasters complimented by the red of its steeply sloping roofs; a narrow and linear building, modest in its aesthetics and ordinary in terms of its finishes.Yet it drew my attention because it seemed peculiarly slim and imposing. What made this architecture interesting was that the linearity of the building was a direct result of the shape of the plot on which it stood. The design of the steep sloping roof seemed to achieve historical reference to the Portuguese period architecture, an attempt which many famed architects fail.

At the risk of being unfair, let us agitate the frame of aesthetics in comparing the building in Goa-Velha to its wealthier counterparts in Dona Paula. What stands out is that apart from satisfying the basic requirement of achieving functional as much as constructional complexity, the building in Goa-Velha has also been able to articulate itself boldly. Its attempt at style is far more than mere cosmetics. This is worth appreciating because style is mostly synonymous with the rich. It is ironic that even if the rich present themselves as ordinary, it is deemed a matter of style. The building in Goa Velha, on the contrary, makes a valiant statement of style considering its restrained access to resources.

However, apart from architectural aesthetics, Dona Paula seems to be plagued by other fundamental issues. One of these is its collective urban design.Ideal neighborhoods are definitely not created by treating the development area like a large chocolate cake and dividing it into standard pieces of plots.The British architect and urban designer Leon Krier seems to have articulated a solution to ensure that the nature of sub-division does not lead to boring and repetitive built environment. In his development of Poundbury, in 1990’s, an urban extension to the city of Dorchester in England, Krier achieved diversity by clubbing together plots of various sizes, shapes and orientation, to design new urban neighborhoods. The strategy was simple but effective. The variety of plot sizes ensures interesting non-standard building designs. Apart from variations in plan layouts, the dissimilarity of plot sizes also guarantees an assortment of buildings in terms of height and massing. This also ensures that architects have different design challenges in different plots.

However, in Dona Paula, each bungalow tries to achieve its “bungalowness”, by expressing the myriad tastes of their bourgeois owners. The overall effect is unpleasant, that of urban kitsch. The non-implementation of urban design guidelines and the lack of diversity in plots make it difficult for the locality to come together as a neighborhood. One wonders whether this is inspite of Dona-Paula being a home to wealthy patrons, or because of it.

But on the other hand, although the row-houses in Dona-Paula provided a relief from the continuous change of architectural expression as seen in other parts, the problem is that they were all identical and therefore boring because it denied thematic variations in each plot. In a well-designed neighborhood the buildings can be similar but not the same. The learning, therefore, seem to be that in order to achieve a cohesive but interesting neighborhood, there is a need for common unity in the urban design of the area, while simultaneously allowing for eclecticism at the individual building level.

Rather than the vulgar display of money through individual projects, places like Dona Paula require visual coherence in their architecture. Until then it will remain sanitized, sterile and boring. Architecture in Dona Paula is evidence that money can’t buy taste.

(First published in The Goan Everyday, dt: 21 June, 2015)