Sketching brightly colored birds at the zoo. The great Indian hornbill (left) has a bright yellow beak and head. The saddle-billed stork (right) is no bore either, with its red and yellow snout and beak.
Today we travel back in time, some 3500 years into the past. The location is the outskirts of a small village near the bank of a little rivulet in northern India. We stand outside the hut of Astrakaaraja, the local weapon-smith. After much persuasion, he has agreed to teach us the time-tested art of arrow making.
“Listen carefully”, Astrakaaraja says, “If you do not follow the rules explicitly laid down in the scriptures, your arrows will be worthless. They will not even pierce the flesh of a rabbit.” He then goes on to explain, meticulously showing us every step in vivid detail.
“First, you must find the perfect shaft. This does not come easily.The best shafts may be obtained from the branches of the ambuja (Indian oak) tree, such as the one here”, he says and proceeds to carefully pick up one shaft from a pile near him.
“The shaft must first be checked for straightness. A curved arrow is as useful as a broken wooden sword” so saying, he places one end of the arrow on the thumb of his outstretched left arm. Balancing the other end at the tip, he looks down the length of the shaft. “If the arrow is only minimally bent, one can straighten it by heating it a little in the fire. But you must be careful, too much heat and the shaft will be burnt and will crumble.”
Then, like the experienced hand that he is, Astrakaaraja proceeds to the next step. “This is the most important one – the fixing of the arrow head”, he cautions us. “This is how the arrow gets its potency and strength. An arrow without a head is like a snake without its teeth – dead.”
Our simile-and-metaphor-embracing friend then starts the painstaking process of adding the arrow head. First, one end of the shaft is carefully chiseled to form a groove. Then, Astrakaaraja opens his little pouch of arrow heads and picks one made of flint among several others fashioned in metal or stone. He seems to keep these pre-prepared heads just for demonstrations like these. He matches the chosen arrow head with the groove he has just made.
“The groove must be a little smaller than the head, otherwise it will fall out.” Once he is satisfied with the dimensions, he proceeds to fix the head in place using torn out animal skins and sinew. He pulls at it several times to make sure it is intact.
To the other end of the shaft, our friend carefully fastens some (presumably chicken) feathers on all sides. One quick look up and down the shaft and he is satisfied. He hands the arrow to us with a hint of a smile. “You are lucky I had all the materials with me. Just looking for the right arrow head could take you days. Obtaining stocks of the correct shafts could take a month’s journey to the mountains. Even then you are not certain of finding them.”
“Here, you can keep this arrow as a token of my respect. I hope you have learnt something from me. You may now leave.”, cautions Astrakaaraja, with some apprehension. Seeing his stern demeanor and the terrible looking weapons he has handy, we’d better be going on our way!
The ‘Seemantham’ function is a common traditional South Indian (Tamil, Telugu and Kannada) ritual celebrating the arrival of a couple’s (usually) first child. The function is performed in the odd months of pregnancy (3rd, 5th, 7th or 9th).The idea is to invoke various Hindu gods to bless the couple and baby with trouble-free delivery and a prosperous long life.
There are three components to this function:
- The Valaikaappu (lit. valai = bangle + kaapu = protection) function is first performed by the mother-to-be’s mother (or in-laws if convenient). The mother-to-be is given several bangles (made of either glass, gold or silver) to wear on her two wrists. It is believed that the sounds of these bangles clinging onto each other will reach the womb and make the baby happy.
- The Udakashanti (lit. udaka = water + shanti = peace) function: This is a common Hindu ritual that is performed to invoke various nature gods. It begins with an invocation to Lord Ganesha, the elephant-headed deity, who is considered to be the remover of obstacles. This is followed by a puja (prayer) involving a kalasam (a vessel containing water and decorated with flowers and mango leaves) and chanting of hymns from the Krishna Yajur Veda. The water in the kalasam is symbolically meant to represent water from the river Ganga (in India) which is one of the most holy rivers for the Hindus. Varuna (the god of the oceans and waters) is invoked to purify the parents-to-be and help them with a trouble-free delivery. The water from the kalasam is then sprinkled on the couple by guests, symbolizing their good wishes. The deity Vishnu (considered the preserver of the universe) is finally invoked to bless the couple with good health. Following this, a small homam (type of puja) is performed with offerings to Agni, the god of fire and light. The couple is then considered to have attained the goodwill of Agni so that they are filled with confidence and courage on this new journey.
- The seemantham is the final ceremony wherein the water (considered to contain the blessings of the water god Varuna) is poured over the mother-to-be. Finally, the goddesses Lakshmi (goddess of prosperity) and Saraswati (goddess of wisdom) are invoked to bestow the child with both prosperity and intellect.
The entire ceremony lasts about 2-2.5 hours. Traditionally, the Seemantham function was performed for all children, but it is nowadays common to perform this function only for the first child.
Quick sketch (~2 hrs) of two big cats at the zoo. The Jaguar (left) and Indian leopard (right) look nearly identical. The main difference between them is in the spots on their coats. The jaguar has a ring with a dot in it while the leopard has only rings.
Quick sketch (<1.5 hrs) of an Indian elephant at the zoo. In comparison with its African counterpart, the Indian elephant is smaller in size with less flappy ears and a lighter tusk.
Rama’s wrath. Watercolor on paper (7″x10″).
rAma, the hero of the great epic the Ramayana,was a prince in the kingdom of koshala (modern day Uttar Pradesh/ Bihar). He was once summoned by the mighty sage vishwAmitra (also called Kaushika) to help him defeat some troublesome demons. One such was the terrible thAtaka, a female ogress with the strength of a thousand elephants. She tortured the people of the forest and prevented the sages from performing their austerities. Such was rAma’s prowess with the bow that he loosed a single shaft and pierced thAtaka in the chest to end her life.
The episode occurs in the Bala Kanda book of the Ramayana (Sarga/ Chapter 26).
Indra and Vritra. Studies (Top row) in ink and gouache, about 9″x12″ each. Painting (bottom row), oil on paper, 11″x15″.
The episode of Indra fighting the demonic vritra that appears in the rig veda has numerous parallels in other ancient cultures (Hittite, Eastern European).The serpentine vritra swallowed all the waters, causing draught to the land. Seeing this, the king of the devas Indra, brimming with confidence and the soma drink, takes him on with his divine weapon (the vajra or thunderbolt), astride the mighty airAvata (the king of elephants). The fight lasts long but vritra is utterly vanquished in the end.
This aspect of Indra and the very form of vritra have undergone significant changes over the millenia, to attain the foms they have in modern Hinduism. Nonetheless, they refer to an ancient time when songs of valour and courage occupied the minds of the common-folk and battles with mighty enemies captured their imagination.