Monday, May 28, 2012


Already from far away, we are drawn by the image of the Holy Mountain. It is like the spire of a Temple, or a Cathedral. Symbolically, it is the axis of the universe. Everything seems to be drawn towards this focal point. The road seems to draw us towards the mountain. For me the landscape is always a spiritual sign. The landscape reminds us that the spiritual reality has to be incarnated into the every-day, embodied in the forms that we see around us. The earth is the body of God.


The Holy Mountain has a personality of its own, that reminds us of the different moods that colour each person's character. In a way these different faces of the mountain relate to the different seasons of the year.  The mountain reflects the colours of the sky, but also the different shades that predominate in the terrestrial landscape When the fields are dry, and the soil has the warm flesh like folds of the human body, then the mountain seems to lift these naked barren aspects of the soil, like a voice crying to the flaming sky . Everything burns with the passionate spirit of spring and summer.


There is a relationship between the mountain and the shrine The shrine is like a window through which we can see and understand the significance of the mountain. In a way, the shrine represents the microcosm--it is on the human scale of the worshipper  The mountain, on the other hand is like a finger that points to a cosmic dimension. Here the shrine is dedicated to Ganapathi who is the guardian of the fields. He is a popular deity who speaks to the hearts of the peasants who work the land around the base of the mountain. Seen from one angle, one can notice that the form of the mountain is not unlike that of the seated, earthy figure of Ganapati.

The Mountain can be circumambulated. In that way it is like a primordial sculpture, which can be seen from different angles as we approach it from different perspectives. But the landscape that is related to the mountain also reminds us of the different seasons. It is the link between earth and sky. In the mountain we see how the moods of the sky effect the different moods of the landscape, and particularly the fields that lie at the base of the mountain. This images tries to picture the season of rains, when the great rock that points up towards the sky, becomes the recipient of the gift of life giving waters that flow down to irrigate the land beneath the mountain. This in fact is the basis for the ancient myth of the way in which the Shiva gave the Ganga to renew the earth which was parched as a result of a terrible drought  The myth of the 'descent of the River Ganges' is represented in one of the earliest monolythic masterpieces of Indian Classical art on the rock face of the temple complex on the seashore at Mahaballipuram


Shiva Ganga, the Holy Mountain that is not far from where we live in Silvepura, is a place that we have often visited as a family, and I have represented it in landscapes based on views of the mountain taken from different sides  This face of the mountain is related, according to local tradition, to the image of Ganapatti, the Lord of earth spirits (Ganas) who are associated with the Hindu deity Shiva.  In fact from ancient times Shiva has been associated with mountains, and storms. In that way Shiva can be compared to the ancient Hebrew belief in the archangel Michael, who is also often linked to the manifestation of the Divine that takes place on mountains, like Mount Sinai in the Biblical tradition.
A group interested in the forest as having a language of its own, went into the forest in Wyanad to gather impressions. These were given form through poetry, but also installations, using objects that had been gathered from the forest.

I can’t hold
                                                                The shadows and the sunlight,
                                                                The spaces and the stillness ,
                                                                The slight stir of movement
                                                                Or the sounds of  falling ripeness.

                                                                I can’t hold
                                                                The order of disorder
                                                                And the mingling of meetings
                                                                Layer upon layer,
                                                                Side by pulsing side.

                                                                I gather just some syllables
                                                                That alone mean nothing
                                                                But when together
                                                                Sing a world.


A workshop was held in the Wyanad on the way in which language uses metaphors derived from the landscape. We met in the home of Baby and Shirly, and a short walk from their home were paddy fields leading down to a stream. On the other side of the stream was the forest. This movement from cultivated land to the forest wilderness has been understand in Indian thought as the distinction between Nadu and Kadu.  Visually it was the contrast of open spaces with the vertical pattern of fields leading down to the stream, and on the other side the vertical tall tree trunks of the forest reaching up to the sky.


In the fields there was a rich profusion of plants, like Arac nut plantations, next to Banana and ginger. The paddy had mostly been harvested but there were a few plots in which the golden ears of the rice were bent down with the weight of plenty. I was reminded of the images of Samuel Palmer, celebrating the fruitfulness of the earth.  A lone scare crow waved its ragged sleaves at the many paddy birds (egrets) that dotted the fields with white specks, clustered around buffaloes wallowing in the pools.


In between the cultivated fields were patches of untamed growth in which wild flowers blossomed. The names of these plants were known to the primal settlers of this land like the Adiyars, Paniyars, Vedas, and Jaina Kurubas. This last tribe who are closest in many ways to the forest, having in the past made their livelihood from collecting honey, are generally landless. It was set in a village of this tribe that Baby had written a play around the Guda hut which is constructed when a girl comes of age, and where she is confined until the village is able to organize a celebration to welcome her into the tribal community.


The wild flowers of the pasture land remind us of a biodiversity that extends back into the forest itself where we find a rich profusion of many different types of plant life. In fact one could say that the forest as a habitat for wild creatures, is characterized by this kind of biodiversity which is different from the mono crops of the plantations that were created after the forest had been cleared.


In the borderline area between cultivated land and the forest wilderness we find sacred sites which mark the transition from culture to nature. Here by the stream that flows between the paddy fields and the forest, there is a small spirit house, similar to the spirit dwelling places that are to be found elsewhere in the Western Ghats, dedicated to the wild presences like serpents, which inhabit the forest or sacred grove.


Beside the simple conical structure of the spirit house we can see also the ant mound which is also a kind of proto temple, coming up from the ground itself, and representing the energies of nature that are also essential for the fertility of the land. In fact these spirit homes are like the Kshetra pala structures that we find in the villages of Karnataka, that are also often connected with anthills, and represent the presence of primal energies of the wild.


Looking across the terraced fields which are held in a sort of bowl between the coffee and arrack nut plantations on the one side, and the forest on the other, the conical roof of the spirit dwelling, and the spreading branches of the ancient tree, a left over of the forest under whose protection the spirits of the wild still remain, the landscape has a focus in the sacred place of the shrine.

Crossing over the little stream (a tributary of the Kabanni river), we enter into the forest. Here in ancient times the Vani tribe ruled, being the traditional lords of the forest, who were hunters. We went through the forest to the site of an ancient fort where the Vani tribe had their seat. The legend goes that one day a prince coming from the plains near Calicut ventured into this part of the Wyanad on a hunt, and met a princess of the Vani tribe, who was very bold. In fact the Vani tribe was matriarchal, and the women of the tribe had an initiative which was not to be found among the plains folk. She fell in love with the handsome prince of the plains, and proposed to marry him. He agreed, and messages were sent to his Father that a marriage would be celebrated here in the forest, to which he and his courtiers were invited. The king of the plains was furious, and got together with two other neighbouring kings, and came to the Wyanad ostensibly to attend the wedding. They were met by Vani leaders, and the welcoming small drums used for feasts were played. However, hidden in the forest was the army that the three kings of the plains had mustered, and soon the great war drums were heard, as they came out to attack the Vanis, who were unprepared, and quickly fled from the invading army. The princess who had offered her hand in marriage to the prince from the plains felt deeply insulted, and decided to become a Jaina nun. She used one of her diamond ear rings to commission a small Jaina temple to be built on the site of the Vani fort, while throwing the other diamond ring into a well in the forest. The little Jaina temple that was constructed, probably around the 12th century, resembles the chaitya model of shrine as we see carved out of a solid lump of stone in Mahaballipuram on the Tamilnad coast. One might suggest that this model of a barrel roofed structure goes back to tribal dwelling places, like the Toda houses in the Nilgiri hills,  which were also functioning as holy dairies for buffalo herdsmen. The detailing of these stone structures, made in this case out of soap stone which must have been brought here from Karnataka, show that the original model for these forms was a wooden building, probably with a thatched roof.

The forest path is like a track that circumambulates  the sacred grove which was the primordial site of the temple, often dedicated to the Feminine deity of the forest—Vana devi, or the Paniyar and Adiyar goddess Mali. This goddess figures very much in the myths of this region, whose fearful aspect is supposed to have terrified the first human couple, made out of clay, so that they became alive,  animated through their fear to run away from the awesome presence of the dark wilderness. Here life is itself related to the spirit of fear, or holy dread, which transforms inanimate nature into  self-conscious life.



Jainism and Buddhism which have a deep respect for life, seem to have evolved out of the primal cultures of the forest peoples. The very term ‘Palli’ which is applied to the sacred place, goes back to the early tribal republics of the South. It was this primal faith system that was displaced by the Brahmanic religion that was associated with the three Lords of the Adiyar creation story, who came to visit the king Mavalli (Maha balli), and stole from him the land. These three kings, or Lords, who appear again in the legend of the Vani tribe, have been associated with a Trinitarian figure which later came to be understood as the three deities of the Brahmanic tradition: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. It is significant that this ancient shrine of Peri-Velliyamba is now being converted into a temple dedicated to Shiva.


When we first visited this shrine in the forest around fifteen years ago, there was no enclosing wall around the temple, as it has now been constructed. All that was here in a clearing in the forest, was a kind of mound, probably what was left over of an earth fort that had been built by the Vani, with a surrounding deep ditch, to protect the settlement from elephants, and other dangerous denizens of the forest. But now a process of sanskritization associated with a Hindu rightist ideology, is appropriating these ancient holy places that originally had their roots in tribal, or Buddhist culture. The same process can be noted in the pilgrimage centre of Ayappan further south in Kerala.


When we visited this part of Wyanad a couple of years ago, we saw a couple of Jaina temples that are lying in ruins not far from here. This shows that Jainism was quite widespread in this region bordering on Karnataka, where also the Hoysala dynasty had close links to Jainism that dominated the religious traditions of the South.


Sitting in the enclosed space which has been constructed around the old Jaina shrine, Jane and I reflected on the forest. I was sketching, but Jane wrote down her thoughts:
I can gather a fragment
And put it in my bag.
A stick or stone or seed.
I can pick, carry, shift and shunt
Things from there to here.

I can make a decoration
And arrange the shapes and colours
But I can’t hold the forest
Even in my mind.