Saturday, 9 August 2014

What a Pallava

The rampant lions, grinning and growling, most in states if sexual arousal, decorating the outside walls of temples, such as those at the Kanchi Kailasanathar (the oldest structure in Kanchipuram) or being used as ornate pillars, to support structures, are appealing as well as sending a strong message to those who could read the signs. 
Pallava lion at temple in Kanchipuram
The Pallava kings built temples to honour the gods but also reminded their subjects of their authority and influence, by including carvings representing themselves in the decoration. The lion was the symbol of the Pallava kings and can be seen on their coinage as well as their buildings.
Pallava coinage from c 650 AD
the lion and the bull were the symbols of the dynasty
This self-depiction is no stranger than wealthy European donors ensuring that they were included in religious paintings, like Jan van Eyck’s portrait, Madonna of Chancellor Rolin, where Rolin (the then Chancellor of Burgundy) is depicted as being of equal stature to the Madonna, or the self-aggrandisement of Anne Boleyn when she insisted that she had her and Henry VIII’s initials carved into the ceilings of Hampton Court Palace to celebrate their marriage (it probably made some courtiers snicker, as the initials spelled out “HA HA HA”), or the giant statues in ancient Egypt created for Ramesses II on his temples at Abu Simbel where he used huge images of himself as a god to demonstrate his power to the Nubians and other tribes who lived to the south in Africa.

Ramesses II statue at Abu Simnel
Like Ramesses’ huge statues staring south towards his enemies, the lions on the Pallava built temples are a form of branding.

Pallava lion at Mamallapuram
Carved out of a single rock
As were elephant and temples behind it
Most humans desire a sense of belonging – be that as part of a family, a community, a nation or as an employee. Our guide in Chennai was a devout Tamil Hindu. He was very disparaging of “modern” religions – the Hindu religion is recognised by many as the oldest, significant, practicing religion in the world. What was equally impactful was his attitude towards other races as well as creeds – his animosity towards the British for what they had done by taking control of India and exploiting its resources was almost palpable (and yet he did not seem to equate the fact that we had come from London and hence were probable the descendants of the oppressors).

British Army Polo Team, Hyderabad mid 19th century
Army officers and Indian princes
I can understand his anger – I too dislike bullies and those who exploit others. However, his credulous belief in some distortions of history, to support his own bias, was concerning. He was convinced that the reason the British called the original settlement, established by Francis Day, “Madras”, was because of the cruel joy the British took delight taking advantage of a local king. Day acquired a plot of land in August 1639 off Damarla Venkatapathy Nayak, the ruler of the Vandavasi region, on which to build a warehouse and a factory on behalf of the British East India Company. Our guide’s version of the story is that the ruler agreed to part with his land on condition that the British named their settlement in honour of his father, Damarla Chennappa Nayakudu. The British felt that this Indian noble was such an idiot to agree to hand over his valuable territory without any tangible reward that he must be mad. Hence the British named the land “mad ras” (ras being a local word for a ruler) to belittle and humiliate the ruler and his people. THis story does not stand up to inspection, as the deeds for the land transfer on which the fortified town that became Madras were built refers to the fishing Village of Madraspattinam, which pre-dated the British name as well as another area called Chennai, where the French were based, to provide the location. in 1996 the name was changed from Madras to Chennai - the toponomy of the name Chennai is still in dispute.

Water being delivered on the streets of modern Chennai
An even more far fetched explanation for the areas name is that the British established the largest prison and courts of law in India in the town and hence it was the place where Mad rascals, abbreviated to “Mad ras” were locked up. Certainly, the University Campus dedicated solely to Law and the high courts are impressive. However, having a town so full of imprisoned criminals that it was worthy naming it after them seems, to me, to be highly unlikely. 

Madras High Court and Law College 1899

Another explanation is that the Portuguese, who were the first to arrive in the area in 1522, referred to the settlement they established as Madre de Deus. They had built a church, called Madre de Deus, near the natural harbour where they first landed. The preeminent Roman Catholic church in the formerly Portuguese area of Madras has changed significantly since then. It is now Santhome Church, the site of international pilgrimage as "Doubting Thomas", one of only 3 of Christ's named Apostles with a known location for his death and burial, has his shrine in the Basilica beneath the main church. According to tradition, Thomas was killed in 72 AD by Hindus who disliked his conversion of their fellows, although Marco Polo claimed that he was shot by a fowler, with a poor aim, who had been shooting peacocks.
Santhome Church exterior, Chennai
Perhaps I am a Doubting Thomas as I don't agree with our guide's explanation. Personally I believe that the name originates from the pre-existing fishing village and hence pre-dates all colonial arrivals, the Portuguese connection appeals to me, as the proposed explanations are messy, unclear and rouse strong feelings.  We often say “What a Palava” when things are complicated or difficult. This is supposed to originate from the Portuguese word “palavra” meaning discussion or parly. It apparently originates from discussions with West African natives and Portuguese traders, but I wonder if it also describes people’s talks with locals in the lands that once were ruled by the Pallava kings in India.

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