BY Jaya Prakash
I trace my family roots to Malabar in modern
Kerala. Malabar which was once part of the
Madras Presidency, was brought into the State of
Kerala when India became independent. Kerala
of those days had a fairly complicated system of
what one might refer to as castes. My ancestors
belonged to the Nair caste. Right until the
middle of the 20th Century, the social fabric of
the Nair community in Kerala was substantially
woven within a tharavad or joint family. Within
it, the matrilineal system of inheritance was
prevalent. The head of the household was a
senior member of the tharavad who acted not
only as the custodian of the family wealth but
very often took on the role of educator. He,
together with other older members of the
family, imparted religious and cultural values
to the children of the family. Usually at the
end of the day and just before lamps were put
out, the grandfather or the uncle would gather
children around him and recite stories from the
Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the Puranas.
This tradition of oral transmission of stories went
on for generations, coupled with occasional
visits to watch performances of Kathakali,
Ottamthullal, Mohiniyattam, and other dance
forms as well as to listen to concerts of Carnatic
music rendered by stalwarts of the day.
It was this environment which my father left in 1940
to seek a new life in Singapore.
My mother was born in Malaya. Her father went to
Malaya in 1920 and was one of the early planters of
rubber in Perak State. He returned to India in 1929 to
get married. He brought his wife with him to start a
new life together in a rubber estate in Kuala Kangsar.
I was born in Kuala Kangsar but brought up in
Singapore. In my home, after evening prayers, my
father regaled me and my siblings with various
stories from the same Indian epics which his elders
in Kerala had recounted to him. In the same way,
when I went to visit my maternal grandparents in
Kuala Kangsar, my grandfather would gather the
children around and recite stories either from
memory or from Malayalam books which he kept
carefully on a side shelf in the sitting room.
My memories of early childhood are full of scenes
of my father and mother sitting comfortably in bed
or at the sitting area having us children close by and
telling us one story after another from the Hindu epics.
Thus the foundation of my interest in Hindu festivals
was put in place very early in my life.
When I started to visit India in early adulthood,
my interest in Hindu temples and in Malayalee
festivals connected with the Hindu religion began
to take substantial form. I started to put together the
various pieces of the jigsaw which comprise Hindu
philosophy. I read more about Indian festivals and
how they impacted daily lives. As I read, I yearned to
visit the various locations mentioned in the folklore
recited to me in years past.
This book portrays images from some of the journeys
which I undertook to understand how the Hindu
religion is practised around India. The journeys,
done over five years, gave me an insight not only
into the social fabric which people like my father
were born into and brought up in, but also into the
larger framework of the philosophy and practice of
Hinduism which united a large population of people
speaking different languages, eating different food
and generally living different lives.
The pages which follow do not give a complete
picture of Indian festivals or Hindu philosophies.
However, they give a flavour of the might, majesty
and reach of a philosophy which pervades India
and holds its adherents together. India has absorbed
people of many religious faiths. There is space for
everyone to practise not just his religion but also, if he
is a Hindu, to celebrate a festival in accordance with
his understanding of what that festival is meant to mark.
I hope that in some way, this book portrays the richness
of lives as they are lived in India whatever maybe the
economic or social circumstance of the individual.
Through my explorative journeys, I learnt a lot
about the religion I was born into and the traditions
and practices relating to it. Most of all, during each
trip, the impact of the explosion of colour, texture,
smell and taste brought spiritual stillness within me.