Oct 23, 2011

Kung Fu and Kanchipuram -the secret connection

Kanchipuram. A small old temple-town in South India that always bustles with Hindu pilgrimage tourists and that is known for its silk saris. Kung Fu. A Chinese martial art that is practiced for self-defense and mental strength, primarily by the Buddhist monks at the Shaolin monastery in China. What could be common to Kanchipuram and Kung Fu? Nothing at all?! You should think again, or should flip some historical accounts- well, not Indian, but Chinese or Japanese accounts! What could that secret connection be??

When you think of Buddhism, all that comes up in mind is the Buddha, in a meditative pose, sometimes with long earlobes and tiny, wide eyes. Oftentimes red-robed, head-shaven peaceful Chinese monks also cross the mind. Contrary to this, Buddha was actually an Indian Prince, and we know this fact. However, seldom would we dare to think that Buddhism had its flourishing times in Tamil Nadu! (What?? Most of the Tamilians were Buddhists?!Is this what you’re thinking right now?) In fact two out of the Five Great Epics in Tamil (Aymperumkaapiyangal) were on Buddhism (none of those were on Hinduism!). Between the 3rd and 6th centuries AD, Buddhism was at its height in Tamil Nadu, and thus it splashed some beautiful hues on the vast and elaborate canvas of Tamil and South India’s history. As centuries rolled on, people started embracing different religions and thus culture and literary works evolved along. Now there is literally no trace of Buddhism here. Well, now what would be even more surprising is to know that a Tamil Prince from Pallava dynasty in Kanchipuram was the 28th father of the Buddha line, and also the Zen master, who taught Kung Fu (Shaolinquan) martial arts to China!

You might have known that the world-famous shore temple in Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu was built by the Pallava king Narasimhavarman. But we have forgotten another mighty one from the Pallava heir line- Bodhidharman. He was born in Kanchipuram as the third son to the Pallava King. After wearing the red robe and becoming a Buddhist monk, he travelled the seas for 3 years and reached China during the 4th-5th centuries AD. He was the 28th patriarch of Buddhism, with the lineage tracing back to Gautama Buddha himself. In most of the art forms- be it Chinese, Japanese or Vietnamese- he is portrayed to be a profusely bearded and ill-tempered person always, as opposed to the tranquil-looking Gautama Buddha. After being in Liang dynasty in Southern China, he proceeded north, where he taught Shaolin Kung Fu martial art techniques to the monks in the Shaolin monastery. Staring at a wall, he continuously meditated for 9 years in a cave near Mt. Song (which is a famous holy pilgrimage spot in China today). After that he died at the banks of Luo River when he was around 150 years of age. Some claim the death was natural, some say his leg atrophied after the long meditation, and some say he was a victim of a mass execution!

One of the most intriguing incidents happened when an official in the kingdom spotted Bodhidharma walking on a mountain, three years after his death. When questioned, he claimed to be returning “home”, and also predicted the impending death of the Kingdom’s ruler. He also noticed him carrying one sandal in his hand. Bodhidharma’s prediction came true soon after that; and when his tomb was dug open, all that remained was the other sandal!

Bodhidharma was the first patriarch of Zen. According to Zen, you become a Buddha (you attain enlightenment) when you attain “self-realization”. It also emphasizes that Zen is a special transmission out of scriptures, and cannot be “taught” by anyone. All that someone could teach is just the method to achieve Zen.

Japanese Daruma doll & Tamil Chettiar dolls

While China, Japan, Vietnam and other countries revere and follow Bodhidharma, Japan has intertwined him with its culture and tradition. Daruma dolls are the famous hollow, round, red-colored Japanese dolls that depict Bodhidharma. These dolls are believed to bring luck, and have been in place since the 18th century in Japan. The interesting thing is that the eyes of the doll are just blank when sold. After someone buys it, one eye is drawn in black, upon making a wish. Once the wish is fulfilled, the other eye is supposed to be drawn. Moreover, these dolls always return to an upright position when tilted, symbolizing persistence (oh yes, these are very similar to the good old “Chettiar dolls” and the bobblehead “Thalayaati bommai” of our tradition that you threw out, when you dusted your store-room last year!). It’s a pity, when it’s a big tradition in Japan to reminisce and celebrate a great man from our land while here we are crazy about buying those Chinese “Laughing Buddha” dolls for homes!

Had we remembered Bodhidharma’s work and recognized him to be from our land much earlier, it would be of no surprise if the Hollywood blockbuster animation movie Kung Fu Panda’s plot was set in Kanchipuram- as if Po, the panda amuses with its usual antics while roaming in the quaint streets of Kanchipuram, intermittently uttering Tamil words and fighting atop the grand golden gopurams of Kanchi Kamakshi temple! This could be difficult to imagine for a few, but such a thing would have been definitely adorable, in its very original form. Well, anyways, that’s a trivial offshoot of a much more humongous yearning.

Now what’s the “secret connection”? The Enlightened Niche blog takes pride to be the truth-revealing “Dragon Scroll” here. But there is no “secret” connection. This whole thing has been a well-known fact to the rest of the world. It’s just us, who forgot a great soul from our land, failed to recognize him, his life and his work, and let him out of our history.  Know not who to complain. Sheer indifference perhaps.

Sep 3, 2011

The lost world of ‘Kumari Kandam’ –Revisited and relived.

Year 2065. I suddenly wake up after a sound sleep. I rise from my comfy Nexcruzer bed that makes constant motions to guide a peaceful sleep. I see that it’s already 9 in the morning, and I didn't realize that it’s so late. My Adaptive Room-Ambience-Conditioner also had to be blamed since it had continuously adjusted the room temperature and lightings over the night, based on my tiredness- calculating that I needed a long sleep. It was definitely a tough and tiring Friday, yesterday. I quickly rise up and walk to my multi-utility LED TV/Computer panel and switch it off, to see through it and peek outside of my bedroom.

Sunlight is reflected by all the steel-clad skyscrapers around my apartment in the 148th floor. Squinting my eyes, I see flocks of tourists and local people accompanied by their kids board into a Street-zoomer transit vehicle. The glass surface of all the sides of the street-zoomer displays a Flash-X video ad of something called “Trip to the legendary Kumari Kandam”. Within seconds, the whole ad is neatly repeated in Tamil. Apparently it’s a shuttle service to a lost continent called Kumari Kandam or Lemuria continent which submerged into the Indian Ocean over thousands of years ago. The whole world has been going gaga about this place since recently. Remembering that my Emerald Corporate universal benefits card already entitles me to take this trip, I get ready quickly and wait for the next street zoomer to arrive.  

As I board the 09:42 street-zoomer, I see that there are almost 400 people seated already, each of them seeming very excited about their trip to this lost land. Within seconds as I board the vehicle, my RFID zoomer-pass beeps automatically and I reach to a free seat nearby. Having no idea about what this place is, I join the bandwagon just to experience the fad with the rest of the crazy people in the world. Apparently it’s a two-hour journey, and it was just two minutes ago when I learnt that the street-zoomer would stop to a conduit which would lead to a Kumari Kandam Submarine. As I sit back with my fingers crossed about this trip, a 3D laser show (over dry ice) organized inside the street-zoomer starts up with a historical introduction of this lost continent:

There had been many legendary cities that today’s world has lost in time. Some of those were the city of Atlantis, and the city of Dwaraka that is mentioned in Mahabharata. But out of all these, there existed one huge land mass to the south of today’s Indian peninsula extending from Kanyakumari in the north, and its sides touching as far to the west as Madagascar and as far to the east as Australia. This huge continent of the Tamil people was called Kumari Kandam or the Lemuria continent that was swallowed by the seas, and eventually lost forever.

Hundreds of thousand years ago, continents started drifting, and different continents were formed. And after a much long time, the earliest human beings were born on the earth about 400,000 years ago. During the end of the last Ice age, earth’s temperature started rising, large icy masses and glaciers started melting, and thus sea levels started rising. During this period, 12000 years ago, India's Dravidian peninsula was swallowed by the ever rising seas. Various oceanographic researches have shown that the sea level in the Indian peninsula has risen by 100 meters within the past 14,500 years. There had been three major episodes of sea level fluctuations resulting in the submergence of the Kumari continent which existed to the south of Kanya Kumari (About 14,500 years ago, Sri Lanka was connected with Peninsular India!)

The area had been ruled by the Pandya kings, and there are lots of scattered literary evidences to this lost land of the Tamils. As per Adiyarkunallar, a huge landmass extending from Kanyakumari to a distance of 700 kavatams (unknown, obsolete unit) got sunken in the sea. During this civilization, Kumari Kandam land was divided into 49 territories (nadu). It had mountain ranges, and also had two main rivers- Pahruli and Kumari. "
[The historical show continues]
"The earliest civilization that we know of today is the Sumerian civilization established in Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq) around 4000 BC. After this were the Egyptian civilization, and then the Indus valley civilization. But the Tamil civilization around Kumari Kandam had been much earlier than this, which would put it to the first in the time scale of civilization of mankind. What is even more interesting is that, many world-renowned researchers also claim to have deciphered the Indus script to be Tamil12

As per Nakkirar’s Iraiyanaar Akaporul the three Tamil Sangams (Academies of Tamil poets) functioned for 9990 odd years! 

Click to enlarge

However, very sadly, all that is extant today is the Tamil literature works from the third Sangam. Everything else is lost in the sea, and in time; the people of the civilization were swallowed by the seas. It’s a tragedy of a huge magnitude. The quality of life of the ancient Tamils in Kumari Kandam should have been extraordinarily sublime". As I got myself submerged into the poignant historical introduction of the magnificent lost continent, the 3D show suddenly went off, and the street-zoomer stopped to a sudden halt. An announcement followed: However, fortunately, some significant parts of the Kumari Kandam have been preserved and restored, thanks to technological advancements, and most importantly because of the vision, perseverance and passion of some individuals- a trip to the magnificent world of Kumari Kandam is possible today! Please follow the signs and walk towards the front.

It’s been exactly two hours now, and along with the rest of the crowd, I walk into the conduit that leads to the Kumari Kandam submarine, with a melancholic mood and a heavy heart. Within seconds, the huge submarine with its fully transparent walls starts moving slowly inside Indian Ocean’s dark blue waters. With a deep sigh, I lean on the glass wall of the submarine with my hands pressed on it. As I unblinkingly stare through the glass wall, I start encountering places that I couldn’t have ever imagined in my life- height of magnificence- treasure haven – quaintly exotic palaces, temples, and squares. Some portions of the submarine’s glass walls are overlaid with Augmented Reality (AR), rendering how magnificent this place could have been, lively with ancient Tamilians, in the richest of ancient Tamil tradition! As I stare breathlessly, my jaws drop, and I’m inexplicably pulled into the world of first Tamil Sangam era on the Kumari Kandam…

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