Poetry of Light: Three Languages, Three Religions


Happy Deepavali/Diwali! Diwali is popularly known as the “Festival of Lights” — in fact, the word dīpāvali means “row of lamps” in Sanskrit. Deepavali has always been one of my favorite festivals — for me, it marks the beginning of the “holiday season”, with Thanksgiving and Christmas following. I have fond memories of my mom making a rangoli in front of our house, lighting sparklers with my family in the chilly Seattle fall weather, and putting up our Christmas lights (which I guess we should call Diwali lights?) — not to mention delicious food! At my university, we celebrate Diwali with a public puja in our university’s chapel (which I conducted last year!) and a separate celebration with dinner, sparklers, and performances.

This year, I’m co-president of our South Asian Students Association, which puts on the annual Diwali function. Our celebration is in two days, which means I have plenty of other work I could be doing, but instead… I want to share some South Asian devotional poetry (is anyone surprised?).

The following poems are in three different languages (Tamil, Punjabi, and Bengali) and come from three different religious traditions (Hinduism, Sikhism, Islam) but they all deal in different ways with the idea of light, which is what Diwali is all about! I hope you enjoy these poems, and that the light of Diwali guides all our efforts in the year ahead.


The following poems come from a major Tamil text called the Nālāyira Divya Prabandham (Sacred Collection of 4,000 Verses). The Divya Prabandham is an anthology which contains Tamil poems by twelve poet-saints of the 7th-9th centuries CE, who were all all devotees of Vishnu. These poet-saints are called Āḷvārs, means “those who are immersed deep” in love for Vishnu. The Divya Prabandham was compiled by the 10th-century Vaishnava theologian Nathamuni, and its verses are still popular today, sung in musical performances and temple rituals.

This first poem is by the first āḷvār, Poygai Āḷvār, who is believed to have lived around the 7th-8th centuries CE. Scholar Vasudha Narayanan writes that in this poem, Poygai “sang that he was lighting a lamp of adoration and weaving a garland of adoration for Vishnu”. This poem begins on a grand scale, in which the whole world is a lamp lit for Vishnu. The following translations are by Vasudha Narayanan; you can listen to a recitation of this poem here.

வையம் தகளியா வார்கடலே நெய்யாக
வெய்ய கதிரோன் விளக்காக – செய்ய
சுடர் ஆழியான் அடிக்கே சுட்டினேன் சொல் மாலை
இடராழி நீங்குகவே என்று

vaiyam tagaḷiyā vār-kaḍalē neyyāga
veyya kadirōn viḷakkāga – seyya
suḍar āzhiyān aḍikkē suṭṭinēn sol mālai
iḍar-āzhi nīngkugavē enḍru

With the earth as the lamp
the sweeping oceans as the ghee,
and the sun with its fiery rays
as the flame,
I have woven a garland of words
for the feet of the Lord,
who bears the red flaming wheel,
so I can cross the ocean of grief.

Continue reading “Poetry of Light: Three Languages, Three Religions”


It’s Time to Pay Attention to Hindu Nationalism in the United States

This summer, I spent more time than I would have preferred thinking about Hindu nationalism, mainly because of an event called the World Hindu Congress (WHC). The WHC was a conference held from September 7-9 in the suburbs of Chicago, and it was organized by Hindu nationalist groups like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHP-A) and the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh. Although it was billed as a religious gathering for Hindus worldwide, it’s clear based on the organizers and speakers that this event was a platform for Hindu nationalism. For example, one of the speakers was Mohan Bhagwat, head of India’s largest Hindu nationalist organization: calling for “Hindu unity” in his keynote address, he said that “wild dogs” can overpower even a powerful lion, a remark that has sparked controversy in India.

Thankfully, progressive Hindu and South Asian Americans spoke out against the WHC. I’m a member of the Sadhana Coalition of Progressive Hindus, and we are a member of the Coalition for the Defence of the Constitution and Democracy (CDCD), a coalition of South Asian human rights, Muslim, Hindu, Dalit, and secular activist groups. Right before the WHC, we organized a press conference in New York City about the WHC and the dangers of Hindu nationalism more broadly (watch it here). The press conference featured this powerful statement by Swami Agnivesh, a Hindu monk and human rights activist who has suffered multiple physical attacks by Hindu nationalist mobs:

Additionally, Chicago alderman Ameya Pawar released this strong statement against the WHC and its organizers:

Illinois State Senator Ram Villavalam also opposed the WHC, stating that “I do not support any group and/or an event arranged or led by organizations that intimidate minorities, incite discrimination and violence, commit acts of terror based on race or ethnic background, promote hate speech, and/or believe in faith based nationalism.” Even Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who was initially named chairwoman of the WHC, later announced that she would not be attending the conference, describing it as a “partisan Indian political event.” Members of Chicago South Asians for Justice disrupted Bhagwat’s speech during the conference and were met with physical violence from conference attendees, an incident that received front-page coverage in Indian media.

WHC conference attendees’ violent response to protesters. Photographer: Skanda Kadirgamar (source)

To me, Hindu nationalism is just one example of the global rise in right-wing, ultranationalist political movements that are wreaking havoc all over the world; from white supremacist movements in the United States to neo-Nazis in eastern Europe. Obviously, right-wing nationalism and fascism should be opposed wherever and whenever it occurs. However, Hindu nationalism is particularly frustrating (and frightening) for me because, as a Hindu myself, Hindu nationalists claim to be speaking on my behalf.

There are many ways through which Hindu nationalism can be criticized. To begin with, its founders were inspired by the fascist movements of 20th-century Europe, particularly those of Hitler and Mussolini. On a daily basis, Hindu nationalists in India intimidate and attack Indian religious minorities, caste-oppressed groups, and intellectuals (many of whom are Hindus themselves). Hindu nationalism seeks to homogenize Indian society as a whole, subsuming India’s diversity in an upper-caste, patriarchal, north Indian “Hindu” identity. The WHC is a clear example of how Hindu nationalism enjoys ideological and financial support in the United States as well.

Most critiques of Hindu nationalism that I’ve read address it from a moral or cultural argument. Certainly, Hindu nationalism should appall anyone who cares about fundamental human rights or India’s religious and cultural diversity. However, I wanted to approach Hindu nationalism from a slightly different perspective: international security and stability. I wanted to convince American observers who specialize in international relations and Asia-Pacific affairs that they should see Hindu nationalism as their problem, and as an American problem. I wrote this article for The Diplomat a few weeks ago — I’d welcome any (constructive) feedback!

Rising Hindu Nationalism in South Asia: Implications for the United States

It’s time for Washington to take the challenges posed by Hindu nationalism seriously.

August 22, 2018

At the beginning of the month in the northeastern state of Assam, the Indian government effectively stripped 4 million people, mostly Muslims, of their citizenship, branding them as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. The government also announced it will be deporting “illegal” Rohingya refugees, and a politician from India’s ruling party, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), declared that “if these … illegal immigrants do not leave India respectfully, then they should be shot and eliminated.”

Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India’s international image has become more robust, and the United States has designated India as its partner in balancing China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific. However, these recent developments contradict the U.S. vision for India to “strengthen the fabric of stability” in the region. Since Modi’s election in 2014, there has been a significant increase in anti-minority rhetoric and mob violence committed by Hindu nationalist groups against Muslims and other minorities. Although India’s strategic importance has led the U.S. government to largely ignore these domestic issues, the dangerous effects unleashed by Hindu nationalism have had a destabilizing effect in South Asia, compromising India’s ability to play the leading regional role the United States seeks.

In some ways, Hindu nationalism, the political ideology that guides Modi’s BJP party, resembles right-wing nationalist movements around the world, advocating for economic protectionism and increased border security. Its distinguishing factor, though, is its core belief that India’s national identity should be synonymous with a Hindu identity. In a country where a fifth of the population is not Hindu, Hindu nationalism’s hardliners argue that India should become a Hindu state, and have openly incited violence against minorities, particularly Muslims and Christians. For decades, liberal voices in India have spoken out against the values espoused by Hindu nationalists. Now, Hindu nationalism is threatening South Asia’s security and stability.

Read the rest of the article at The Diplomat!

Back to Basics: A Persian Ghazal by Amir Khusrow

This summer, I’ve been interning at a think tank in Washington, D.C, assisting with research on South Asian politics and security issues. With one month left, I’ve enjoyed my time here so far — I really like the other interns, I get to work with some friends from UChicago who graduated a few years before me, and I’ve learned a lot about various issues and developments on the subcontinent, such as the Pakistani elections, the Taliban and Afghan peace process, and India-China relations. I’m also doing some independent research on Hindu nationalism — stay tuned for an upcoming post all about that.

At the same time, though, this is my first experience in a 9-to-5, Monday-to-Friday, office environment. And as much as I enjoy my internship, I have to ask: How do millions of people do this? How do you go to work and also have time for hobbies, reading, exercise… the rest of life? (And sometimes even multiple jobs?!)  I know this is very naive of me, but I really didn’t realize until this summer how much being a student really spoils you in terms of having a fluid schedule. So, that’s been a bit of a reality check.

This summer, I wanted to clear out a significant portion of my 40ish unfinished blog posts… and as you can tell, that hasn’t happened yet. Part of it is due to my internship and time constraints, but I think I’ve also been digging myself into a hole here. Out of my most recent blog posts, most of them are long essay-type posts, with lots of citations and pictures. Whenever I think about writing a new post, I’ve been putting mental pressure on myself that every post has to be long and insightful. However, I just scrolled through my earlier posts from past years, and quite a few of them are short and simple — a song I liked, or a movie I had recently watched. I think I want to return more to that style of blogging, or at least have more of those kinds of posts to balance out the longer essays. This way, I can post more frequently without feeling the pressure to make every single post of mine an intellectual masterpiece. So don’t set your expectations too high, but hopefully I can revive this blog with a more active presence!

With that, I want to share a beautiful ghazal by Amir Khusrow, one of the most renowned poets in the history of the Indian subcontinent. Amir Khusrow was a poet, musician, and scholar who lived from 1253-1325 CE, spending most of his life in Delhi. The son of a Turkic father and Indian mother, he was a prolific poet, renowned for a number of literary and musical innovations. Khusrow is called Tuti-e-Hind (Parrot of India), and he is said to have invented the tabla, sitar, and the entire genre of qawwali. Though these claims don’t have any historical evidence, they speak to just how iconic he is as a cultural figure.

Continue reading “Back to Basics: A Persian Ghazal by Amir Khusrow”

Half a Life in Mughal India: The “Ardhakathanak” of Banarasi Das

Mughal painting from 1615-1618 CE. Source

Imagine sitting down to write the story of your life. Most likely, as you think about what to write, your mind would drift to other autobiographies and memoirs you’ve read. You’d ask yourself: What kinds of incidents did other writers discuss? What kind of literary conventions and styles did they use? Essentially, what was an autobiography supposed to look like?

Now, imagine: what would it be like to write the story of your life if you had no other previous model to follow?

In the winter of 1641, in the grand Mughal city of Agra, a Jain merchant, poet, and philosopher named Banarasi Das faced this exact question.

Banarasi Das lived from 1586-1643 CE in urban north India: mostly in the cities of Jaunpur and Agra. For Jains, a “full” human lifespan is 110 years, and Banarasi wrote his autobiography when he was 55. Thus, he titled his text Ardhakathanak, meaning Half Story (unfortunately, he died two years later).

The Ardhakathanak is the earliest known autobiography written in a South Asian language. It’s a truly fascinating look into what life was like during the peak of the Mughal Empire, from the perspective of a citizen, not a ruler. In this post, I’ll highlight a few sections from Rohini Chowdhury’s translation that stood out to me as particularly interesting or surprising.

Most people identify Saint Augustine’s Confessions as the first-ever autobiography, written around 400 CE in Roman North Africa. In South Asia, the autobiography has a comparatively more recent history. The Baburnama may have been the first autobiography written by someone living in South Asia; it is the journal of Babur (1483–1530 CE), the founder of the Mughal Empire. Babur wrote in Chagatai Turkish about his life in central Asia, and later his invasion of India and establishment of an empire. Babur described India in great detail, but he was essentially writing from the perspective of a foreigner.

While the Ardhakathanak may not be the first autobiography to describe South Asia, it is the first known autobiography written in a South Asian language. Banarasi Das wrote the Ardhakathanak in Braj Bhasha, an ancestor of modern Hindi and one of the major literary languages of northern India before the 19th century. So, who was he? I’ll let him introduce himself:

Introducing Banarasi Das

जैनधर्म श्रीमाल सुबंस | बानारसी नाम नरहंस
तिन मन मांहि बिचारी बात | कहौं आपनी कथा बिख्यात

jain-dharm śrīmāl subans
bānārasī nām nar-hans
tin man māhi bicārī bāt
kahauñ āpnī kathā bikhyāt

A Jain from the noble Shrimal family,
That prince among men, that man called Banarasi,
He thought to himself,
“Let me make my story known to all.” (4)

Continue reading “Half a Life in Mughal India: The “Ardhakathanak” of Banarasi Das”

Rethinking Rama — A Few Thoughts

Back in Chicago! I’m taking a break from unpacking to write this quick blog post on the occasion of Rama Navami, the Hindu festival dedicated to the god Rama. I’m working on a longer, more in-depth piece on Rama and the Ramayana, but I thought I’d just share a couple of thoughts today.

Rama today is a polarizing figure in South Asia and in the diaspora: deeply revered by many, but now also reviled by a growing number of people. On one level, he is essentially the “Eagle Scout of Hindu mythology,” as Philip Lugendorf wittily writes in his essay “The Secret Life of Ramcandra of Ayodhya”: he is “courteous, kind, obedient, brave, clean, and reverent.” Especially in contrast to Krishna, the rule-breaker, love-maker, and fun-haver, Rama is generally seen as the “god of the status quo.” The ideal son, brother, husband, king, friend — for many devout Hindus, Rama encapsulates them all.

At the same time, Rama is seen by many as representing some of the most oppressive and violent aspects of Hindu society. Rama’s treatment of his wife Sita in many versions of the Ramayana — in particular, his repeated testing of her “purity” — has been widely criticized by both modern feminists and authors dating back many centuries. The mutilation of Shurpanakha has been critiqued by some Dalit-Bahujan feminists, who identify the asuras/rakshasas of the Ramayana as representing the lower castes and indigenous people of South Asia. For many Dalit-Bahujan thinkers, Rama is also an embodiment of caste violence and Brahminical supremacy, embodied in Rama’s killing of the shudra Shambuka. In contemporary Indian politics after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the very phrase “Jai Shri Ram” (“Victory to Lord Rama”) has become a symbol for a violent Hindu nationalist movement. I can’t list all the objections to Rama and the Ramayana here, but you get the idea.

So, is Rama a figure to be worshiped, or an oppressive relic of India’s past, to be cast away? I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, in the context of religion, politics, and culture. Simple good/evil binaries do not make sense in most cases, unless we ignore the complexities inherent in every culture. With this mind, I want to share a few examples of literature and scholarship on Rama and the Ramayana that complicate the good/evil binary that we, as humans, instinctively seem to prefer.

1. Rama’s Smile

First, I want to share a brief excerpt from the Ramavataram, the most well-known Tamil retelling of the Ramayana, composed by the 11th-century poet Kamban. I came across this charming stanza on Twitter, in which Sita describes seeing Rama for the first time:

இந்திர நீலம் ஒத்து இருண்ட குஞ்சியும்
சந்திர வதனமும் தாழ்ந்த கைகளும்
சுந்தர மணி வரைத் தோளுமே அல
முந்தி என் உயிரை அம் முறுவல் உண்டதே.

indra nīlam ottu iruṇḍa kuñjiyum
chandra vadaṉamum tāzhnda kaigaḷum
sundara maṇi varai-t tōḷumē ala
mundi en uyirai am muṟuval unḍadē

“His hair was dark, like a deep blue sapphire
His face radiant as the full moon, his arms long and lean
His shoulders, dark and strong, like massive gems, but—
it was his smile that captured my soul.”

Artist: Sanjay Patel (source)

To me, this stanza highlights a Rama which is often neglected: a gentle, loving, compassionate Rama. Instead, the image of Rama we are so often confronted with today is an unsmiling, martial figure, with bow and arrow in hand, ready to slay his foes at any second. Sita’s description of Rama doesn’t shy away from describing his his strong shoulders and long arms, but she adds that what truly captivated her was his smile, nothing else. In my opinion, this image of Rama as a lover — as someone whose most captivating trait is his smile — is rarely, if ever, highlighted.

One reason for this, of course, is that Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) groups have made a concerted effort to make Rama the poster boy for violent, muscular, Hindu nationalism. This wasn’t always the case, though, as this anecdote narrated by Ashis Nandy illustrates:

Once, in course of his only visit to a RSS shakha (branch of a major Hindutva organization), Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi looked around and found on the walls of the shakha portraits of some of the famous martial heroes of Hindutva such as Shivaji and Rana Pratap. Being a devotee of Ram, Gandhi naturally asked, ‘Why have you not put up a portrait of Ram as well?’ Those were not the days of the Ramjanmabhumi movement and the RSS leader showing him around said, ‘No, that we cannot do. Ram is too effeminate to serve our purpose’.

Perhaps what we need in order to counteract Hindutva’s Rama is this more “effeminate”, compassionate, loving Rama. This is the Rama who is loved by some hijras as a symbol of acceptance. This is the Rama who is worshiped by the Rasik Sampraday, a small esoteric sect which worships Rama and Sita as a symbol of ultimate love, just as Radha and Krishna are often worshiped today. This is the Rama who, according to a popular South Indian folktale, expresses his love and gratitude to even a small squirrel who helps build his bridge to Lanka.

Also, if you liked that stanza, you can read more ancient and medieval Tamil poetry here.

2. Three Hundred Ramayanas

I’ve also been revisiting A. K. Ramanujan’s seminal essay, “Three Hundred Ramayanas,” which is now notorious for being banned from Delhi University’s history curriculum under pressure from conservative Hindus and Hindutva groups. Nevertheless, Ramanujan’s essay is definitely worth a look: it’s an eye-opening introduction to the sheer diversity of the Ramayana tradition. Today, when so many of us have grown up with the idea that there is just one, authoritative Ramayana story, whether it’s communicated through Amar Chitra Katha comics or through an anime film, Ramanujan’s essay is a reminder that there is so much more out there! This is one of my favorite anecdotes:

To some extent all later Ramayanas play on the knowledge of previous tellings: they are meta-Ramayanas. I cannot resist repeating my favourite example. In several of the later Ramayanas (such as the Adhyatma Ramayana, sixteenth century), when Rama is exiled, he does not want Sita to go with him into the forest. Sita argues with him. At first she uses the usual arguments: she is his wife, she should share his sufferings, exile herself in his exile and so on. When he still resists the idea, she is furious. She bursts out, ‘Countless Ramayanas have been composed before this. Do you know of one where Sita doesn’t go with Rama to the forest?’ That clinches the argument, and she goes with him (Adhyatma Ramayana 2.4.77-8; see Nath 1913, 39). And as nothing in India occurs uniquely, even this motif appears in more than one Ramayana.

“Three Hundred Ramayanas” shows us that the Ramayana tradition has always been evolving to answer new questions and remain relevant in new contexts. Today, when we ask so many questions of past Ramayanas, and when so many previous retellings of the Ramayana contain material we would rather not pass down to future generations, I think Ramanujan’s essay prompts us to ask: what is stopping us from recreating, reinterpreting, retelling a new Ramayana? If we have a retelling of the Ramayana story that emphasizes values of inclusivity, love, equality, empathy, and justice — does that make it any less of a Ramayana? I think Ramanujan’s answer would be “no.” Check out the essay here.

3. Arshia Sattar on the Ramayana vs. Mahabharata

Arshia Sattar is an Indian translator and author who has written prolifically, and almost exclusively, on the Valmiki Ramayana. I’ve been listening to a few of her lectures on YouTube, and something that struck me recently was her comparison of the Ramayana with South Asia’s other great epic, the Mahabharata:

“In the Mahabharata, you know there are problems. You know that dharma is sukshma (subtle), they tell you that right off the bat. The characters are always talking about dharma, endlessly, and… they’re always doing the wrong thing. Right? They think, think, think, think, think… and then they do the wrong thing. Right? And it’s like, “Well, why did you spend so much time thinking? You bored me!”

[People say] “The Mahabharata has so much moral ambiguity, it’s so difficult to know what is right…” Fair enough, but I think for me why the Ramayana is actually much harder to deal with, and [why] it’s also a much more profound text, is because everybody in the Ramayana does the “right thing,” and it still goes wrong. So what do you do then: when you act from the best part of yourself and you hurt the people you love most? That, to me, is really, really, the challenge of being human. That, to me, expresses the human condition far more poignantly than the idea of “I don’t know what is right and what is wrong.”

In the Ramayana, everybody knows what is right, everybody does the right thing, but it just doesn’t work out! And that, to me, is the life lesson. We can always say, “I did what I thought was right, but then why is the world such a bad place?” So, in that sense, I think the Ramayana is much more profound than the Mahabharata.

For Sattar, the Ramayana’s main dilemma is: what happens when you think you’re doing the right thing, but you end up hurting the people you love most? This, to me, is a very appealing way of viewing the Ramayana. I don’t have a whole lot more to say on this, and I haven’t read any of Sattar’s work yet, but I hope to do so soon.

Like I said, I hope to have a much more coherent piece on Rama and the Ramayana published soon — these are just a few semi-connected thoughts of mine. Let me know what you think!

A Valentine’s Day message from Mecca to the Malabar Coast: “Manikya Malaraya Poovi”

Happy Valentine’s Day (or should I say eid al-hubb) from Rabat, Morocco, where I’ve been studying abroad for the past several weeks! Living in Morocco has been an incredible experience, and I have quite a few posts lined up about what I’ve been learning here about Morocco and myself. For now, though, I just want to share a very short and sweet Malayalam song, called “Manikya Malaraya Poovi.”


This song is from an upcoming Malayalam film titled Oru Adaar Love, but it’s actually an adaptation of a song originally written in 1978 by P.M.A. Jabbar — a Malayali poet who, quite unexpectedly, works as a clerk in a general store in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia! The song belongs to a traditional genre called Mappilla paattu: songs sung by Muslims of the Malabar Coast in northern Kerala on special occasions, such as weddings and family gatherings. The language of Mappilla paattu songs mixes Malayalam with Arabic and other languages such as Persian, Tamil, and Hindi-Urdu. This article states that “the lyrics of Mappila Pattu songs often praise prominent Islamic religious figures, recount anecdotes from the Prophet’s life and recollect historic battles. A leading proponent of the Mappila Pattu tradition was 19th-century poet Moyinkutty Vaidyar, most well known for his battle songs.”

The original song describes the love story of the Prophet Muhammad and Khadijah, his first wife. It begins with describing how “Khadijah sent a representative to the Prophet’s uncle Abu Talib, as a formal proposal, who promptly gave his consent” and ends with Khadijah dressing up for her wedding and the couple receiving divine blessings. The section of the lyrics used in the film song describe the couple’s first meeting, where Khadijah falls in love with Muhammad at first sight. Khadijah herself is a fascinating figure: a wealthy businesswoman in Mecca who was fifteen years older than Muhammad, and first hired him as a business agent before marrying him. She’s one of the most important women in Islam, and was the first person to accept Muhammad’s message, thus becoming the first Muslim.

In the past few days, this song has gone viral in India (17 million views on YouTube as I type this) for a couple of different reasons. Quite simply, the video depicts two students flirting in a crowded hall through glances and gestures. At one point in the video, the lead actress, 18 year-old Priya Prakash Warrier, winks at her love interest, played by Roshan Abdul Rahoof, and people are going crazy over it. (That wink has inspired many, many memes so far.) The song has been described as “an ode to the cheekiness of young love,” one which fits neatly into Indian cinema’s long tradition of romance communicated purely through eye contact.

An article on Scroll.in describes the classic eye-contact scene as such: “man/boy or woman/girl spot each other in a public place and cannot look away any more. They keep staring at each other unmindful of the world around them, communicating their mutual ardour in visual code. The tune plays out in the background. Time freezes and the people and objects around the lovers disappear – the ultimate state of being in love.”

Besides its depiction of young love, however, the song has also sparked controversy. A few Muslim men in Hyderabad felt that it was inappropriate to include this song in a film, because its lyrics describe the love between the Prophet Muhammad and Khadija, his first wife, and they filed a police complaint against the film. Omar Lulu, the director of the film, had this to say: “My mother has always loved this song and it was a part of my growing up… there has been some opposition from some old Muslims in the community. They feel that a love song that is about the Prophet Muhammad and his wife in a film is insulting to Islam. But these people are in a small minority. I think the song is now reaching more people than it did originally.”

Finally, this song is also serving a unique, almost-subversive purpose among parts of Indian society. For the past several years, Hindu nationalist groups have violently protested against Valentine’s Day, arguing that it is “indecent” and against “Indian culture.” These organizations, such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Vishwa Hindu Parishad, choose to conveniently ignore the long history of publicly celebrating love in India. For example, Kalidasa, the most celebrated playwright in all of Sanskrit literature, wrote in the fourth century AD of spring festivals dedicated to Kamadeva, the Hindu god of love. In opposition to the Uttar Pradesh state government’s crackdown on young couples in public (called “anti-Romeo squads”, a pet project of the state’s chief minister Yogi Adityanath), popular writer on Hindu mythology Devdutt Pattanaik pointed out a verse in Valmiki’s Ramayana implying that “a city devoid of lovers in parks [is] a sad city.”

Of course, facts and history don’t matter to right-wing groups; this is evident in the United States as much as it is in India. Hindu nationalists have, in general, exhibited an obsession with controlling love among Indians, whether it is between people of different religions (the infamous “love jihad” hysteria), different castes, different sexualities… basically almost any consenting adults. This Valentine’s Day, many Indians pointed to the popularity of “Manikya Malaraya Poovi” — a film song celebrating young, carefree love, with roots in a traditional Muslim art form — as signifying the type of India they want to belong to. Jignesh Mevani, prominent activist and lawyer, Dalit leader, and politician in the state of Gujarat, tweeted about the song:

Finally, here’s the song itself, with a translation of the lyrics below. I don’t know Malayalam myself, but I was able to piece together something which roughly conveys the message of the song, I think. Let me know if you know of any more accurate translations, and enjoy the song! Happy Valentine’s Day — and eid al-hubb mubarak from Morocco!

māṇikya malarāya pūvi
mahadiyam khadīja bīvi
makkayenna puṇya nāṭṭil
vilasiḍuṁ nāri…

Like a ruby-red flower,
Her highness: Khadijah Bibi.
In the holy city of Mecca,
She lived like a queen.

hāttim-un-nabīye viḷiccu
kaṇḍa nēraṁ khalbinuḷḷil

She called the Seal of the Prophets,
And hired him to lead a trade expedition.
At the first sight,
She fell for him

kaccavaḍavuṁ kayiññ
mutt‌u ṟasūluḷḷa vann
bīvi tuniññ…

After completing his mission,
The Messenger of God returned.
To marry the Prophet
Was Bibi’s desire

“That Krishna is a real gem…” Annamacharya’s “Muddugare Yashoda”

My cousin Parnika is three years old, and even at her young age she’s showing signs of being kind of a genius (in my family’s opinion, at least)! In addition to learning English nursery rhymes at her daycare, her dad has been teaching her Hindi children’s songs (like lakdi ki kathi, which I also learned as a kid), Telugu songs, Muthuswami Dikshitar’s Sanskrit nottuswaras, and even some Tamil songs! When they came over to our house the day after Christmas, she insisted that I accompanied her on violin while she sang some nottuswaras and other songs: Tyagaraja’s vara leela gana lola, Dikshitar’s shakti sahita ganapatim, and a few others… stay tuned for when we hit the concert stage together in a couple years. That same evening, her dad told me about this Telugu song, Muddugare Yashoda. I hadn’t heard it before, but after looking it up I thought I had to make a blog post about it! (I also needed some way to procrastinate on packing before I go study abroad in Morocco this upcoming quarter.)

Muddugare Yashoda is a bright, simple song in Telugu, attributed to the fifteenth-century poet-saint Annamacharya (colloquially called Annamayya). Annamayya lived at the hilltop temple of Tirupati, where he composed thousands of songs to the god Venkateswara. He is largely responsible for pioneering a new poetic genre, the padam, which rapidly spread throughout south India. Around his lifetime, something like thirteen thousand (!) of his poems were inscribed on copper plates and stored in a vault inside the Tirupati temple, where they remained hidden until the twentieth century. Although we no longer know their original melodies, many of Annamayya’s compositions were set to music in the twentieth century, and they’ve become a popular part of the Carnatic repertoire. I’ve written about some of his songs in previous posts. David Shulman and Velcheru Narayana Rao have written extensively about Annamayya and translated many of his compositions; if you’re interested, check out their books God on the Hill: Temple Poems from Tirupati (2005) and When God is a Customer: Telugu Courtesan Songs by Ksetrayya and Others (1994).

Many of Annamayya’s compositions are soaked in shringara (romantic and erotic love), and they’re written from the point of view of a female lover of the god. However, Muddugare Yashoda is quite different from Annamayya’s romantic padams. Instead, this song praises the young Krishna in a unique way; by comparing him to the Nine Gems (navaratna in Sanskrit) that have traditionally been prized across South and Southeast Asia.

The Navaratna (Nine Gems)

As their name suggests, the navaratna are a collection of nine gemstones that have a unique cultural significance in India and beyond. Bear with me as I try to summarize Hindu astrology as briefly as possible. Just like other astrological traditions, Hindu astrology is premised on the idea that celestial bodies can influence our lives (Yes, I’m rolling my eyes too). These are called the navagraha (“nine influencers”), and they’re worshipped as deities: the Sun, the Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn, and the two “lunar nodes.”

It’s believed that wearing certain gems can have an astrological value; they can counteract negative influences from certain planets, and harness positive energy from others. Each of the nine gems in the navaratna group corresponds to a different planet, and when worn together, the grouping was believed to act as a talisman, protecting the wearer from negative energy and attracting positive influences from the heavens. Thus, navaratna jewelry arrangements have been popular since at least the tenth century AD, though the grouping may in fact be much older. Here’s the list of the navaratna and their Telugu names (they’ll be useful later on):

  1. Ruby (māṇikyamu) for the Sun
  2. Pearl (mutyamu) for the Moon
  3. Emerald (pacca, garuḍapacca) for Mercury
  4. Coral (pagaḍamu) for Mars
  5. Topaz/yellow sapphire (puṣyarāgamu) for Jupiter
  6. Diamond (vajramu) for Venus
  7. Blue sapphire (nīlamu, indranīlamu) for Saturn
  8. Hessonite (gōmēdhikamu) for the ascending “lunar node”
  9. Cat’s eye (vaiḍūryamu) for the descending “lunar node”

The navaratna arrangement has traveled widely beyond India, and enjoys significance in Sri Lanka, Thailand, and some parts of Malaysia, Indonesia, and other Southeast Asian countries. In fact, the Order of the Nine Gems (Noppha Rat Ratcha Waraphon) is the highest title granted to Thai citizens by the royal family of Thailand!

The term navaratna also has connotations beyond physical gemstones. It’s been used to describe a group of nine special people in a royal court: the navratna of the Mughal emperor Akbar’s court (a century after Annamayya’s time) included the musician Tansen, the poet Abdul Rahim Khan-i-Khana, and Raja Birbal, the subject of many popular Indian folktales. Navratan korma is a popular north Indian dish that uses nine different vegetables. But anyway, back to the song…

A diagram showing the navaratna on a 19th-century Rajasthani jade pendant. Source

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