Thursday, September 21, 2006


Karagre vasate Laksmih
Karamule Sarasvati
Karamadhye tu Govindah prabhate karadarsanam

“Lakshmi resides in the fingertips, Sarasvati in the base of the fingers and Vishnu the centre of the palm. Therefore look at your hand first thing in the morning.”

It struck me recently that here in India, we greet God and each other pretty much the same way. With a namaste, a namaskara, namaskar, namashkar or namaskaram, depending on which part of the country we are from. This thought crossed my mind when I saw two Western celebrities doing namaste – Goldie Hawn in a chat show and poor, beleaguered Michael Jackson as he walked out of the courtroom. In both cases, the gesture was awkward, stilted, the way a sari looks on Western women even when draped on one as gorgeous as Elizabeth Hurley. And so I wondered, what is the significance of a gesture that is almost second nature to most of us and is used elsewhere in the world only while praying?

“I bow to you.”
Actually, we don’t really have to look very far for the meaning because it’s all there in that one word. Namaste or Namaskara. And it is the first part of the word that is the most important. “Nama” which is the same as “namah” as used in so many mantras including the panchakshara - “Om namahshivaya”. The larger, broader meaning of nama or namah is taken to be “I bow down to”, “I pay homage to” or “I venerate”. But this comes from the fact that “nama” is the coming together of two words - “Na”, which means “that which is not” and “ma” which means “mine” or “I”. So, the literal meaning of nama would be 'not I' or “not mine”. So, by saying “nama”, the implication is that by negating myself, by that I am nothing, I am acknowledging you are of prime importance. And thus, I pay homage you, bow down to you, revere you. When we say it to God, it also means I worship you. (“te” in namaste means “you” (I bow down to you) and “kara” in namaskara means “doing”.)
Can you think of a more beautiful way of greeting another human being? Firstly, it is the ultimate gesture of humility, the keeping aside of ego and arrogance that comes in the way of so many of our interaction. Then, it recognizes and honors the fact that in each one of us there is something good, something worthy of respect, even something divine. All said in one simple gesture and one word.
So, now we know what the words namaste or namaskara mean. But why do we fold the hands together?
Hand talk
Before answering that question, a small voyage to reacquaint ourselves with our hands. Human civilization would not be what it is without them. In Ayurveda, the hands are classified as one of the 5 organs of action. And they are – stunning, complex organs with which not only do we build and create but also express ourselves with. (By the way, one of the main differences between us and apes and chimpanzees is that we do not use our hands for locomotion.) Our hands move and form into a million different gestures to show love and power and anger and despair and defiance and failure and triumph. We make love and war, cook and eat, mock and insult, applaud and bless, even kill with our hands. The New York stock exchange could not function without them. Music, art and literature would not have been possible without them. And the delicate, intricate swirls and whorls of lines on each of our fingertips make every single one of us unique and like no other human being on this planet. Think about it – right at this very minute, there are at least 6 billion sets of fingerprints, every one of them different from all the other 5, 999, 999, 999!
But perhaps the most spectacular avatar of our hands is as an organ of touch. The human hand contains about 100,000 nerves, of at least 20 different kinds - 8 related to movement, carrying commands from the spine and 12 receive various touch sensations. Each our fingertips have about 3,000 nerve receptors, just under the surface of the skin. Our trunks have about the same as one fingertip! (Source : A Primer on Touch By Elise Hancock) Divided into specialist functions to tell us fire from ice, a baby’s cheek from sandpaper, granite from cotton wool, rain from dry sand. Collaborating with the brain to make our fingers so magically dexterous, so sensitive, so intelligent that they can weave fabric fine enough to pass through a ring, make the flute imitate the rippling of mountain stream, a drum talk the language of raindrops, reattach nerves finer than a human hair, transplant sunlight shimmering on water on to a canvas. And make a deaf person hear, a mute speak and a blind see….
And so, it is only expected that our ancients designed an entire system of healing of the mind, body and spirit, using the hands, especially the fingers to form “mudras”….

The de-stress mudra
The word “mudra” means “gesture”, but it also means “seal”, especially in yoga.
Swami Satyananda Saraswati of the Bihar School of Yoga says, “The Kulavarna tantra traces the word mudra to the root “mudh” meaning to delight or pleasure and dravay which means to draw forth. Mudras, “by creating barriers within the body,” “redirect the energy which is normally dissipated outwards” inwards. And the anjali mudra is no different. It is also known as the namaskara mudra. Because that is exactly how the hands are placed – folded together in a namaskara and placed in the centre of the chest with both the thumbs gently pressing against the sternum. It is said that when we thus join our hands, we close or complete (seal) an energy circuit between the hands and the brain, creating a deeply meditative state. Which is why the anjali mudra is considered a relaxing mudra, reducing stress and anxiety and calming you down gently and beautifully.
But don’t take my word for it. Try this. Sit in a comfortable position and relax completely, shutting your eyes and focusing on your breathing. Then, just slowly bring your hands together in a namaste, pressing them firmly but gently against each other, making sure the fingers are matched and there is no gap between them. You need not place your hands in the centre of your chest and this is not the actual mudra, but you will immediately feel a sense of calming down, of something releasing within you….
Which leaves us with the unanswered question. Why do we fold our hands the way we do in a namaste? To tell you the truth, I didn’t find a really satisfactory answer in all the research that I did. So, I will offer you my own theory. In ancient Indian wisdom, each finger has a symbolic meaning. For example, in Ayurveda, each of the 5 fingers are conduits of the 5 elements – the angushta or thumb for space, the forefinger or tarjari for air, the middle finger or madhyama for fire, the ring finger or anamika for water and the little finger or kanishta for earth. In yoga, according to Swami Satyananda Saraswati, “the small, middle and ring finger respectively represent the 3 gunas – tamas (inertia), rajas (action and creativity) and sattwa (luminosity and harmony). In order for consciousness to pass from ignorance to knowledge, these 3 states must be transcended. The index finger represents the individual consciousness or jivatama, while the thumb symbolises the supreme consciousness.” Our hands are our lifeline - our means of survival, expression and the conduit through which we experience the world around us. Our hands also are our identity card – you can change your name, but your fingerprints are as indelible and unique as your DNA.
So, you could say that in our hands is contained the universe, the sum and substance of what we are. Therefore, when we join our hands together in a “namaskara”, we not only say, “I bow down to you”, but that “along with my ego, I submit to you all that I am and have.”
So, to you my dear readers, I say today, “Namaskara”.

Payasam - Food of the gods and the worlds oldest dessert...

Milk - not just the earth’s first sattvic food, but also the most complete food, nutritionally speaking. And the source of other wonder foods like curd, buttermilk and ghee. Rice - one of the first foods of the earth, so much so that in Sanskrit, the word for food and cooked rice is the same – “anna”. So, when you combine the two with sugar or jaggery and ghee and slow cook for hours, what do you get? A result so heavenly that it is food fit for the gods! We mortals call it payasam. Kshirika in Sanskrit. Kheer in North India. Naturally, India’s association with it goes back to...well, at least to the Ramayana. When the childless King Dashratha was performing the putra yameshti yagya to plead for progeny, a divine purusha appeared holding a golden pot of payasam, which he gave to the king. On the advice of sage Vasistha, Dashratha distributed the payasam among his queens. According to one version, all three of them got a share, but before she could eat hers, an eagle swooped down and took away Sumitra’s share. So Kaushalya and Kaikeyi each gave her half theirs. Soon, the news that all the three queens were with child filled the kingdom of Ayodhya with joy! The scene of King Dashratha distributing the payasam to his queens is part of the fabulous sculptured panels of the fabulous Chola temples in Tamil Nadu.
And so, payasam is a universal offering to the gods all over India. From Kashmir to Kanyakumari. In temple, mosque, church and gurudwara, sometimes a sacred ritual thousands of years old. And often so delicious that its fame makes the devotees flock as much for darshan of the deity as for a potion of this earthly ambrosia. Today, we take a slow boat down the river of this divine food…

“Payasannapriya” meaning She who loves payasam. That is how the Devi is described in the Lalithashasranama. And so it is only befitting that there should be a temple dedicated to her called Kheer Bhawani! Situated in the Tulla Mula village just 27 kms from Srinagar, surrounded by beautiful chinar trees, this temple is one of Kashmir’s most sacred Hindu shrines, its antiquity going back to the time when, as the story goes, Lord Rama prayed here during his vanvas. Twice a year, thousands of devotees gather here, once in June to celebrate the Kheer Bhawani festival and then during all 9 nights of Navarati, a tradition among the Kashmiri pundits. But how did the temple get its name? Because of the kheer and milk that devotees offer to the Goddess, pouring it into the serene sacred waters on which the temple complex is built. It is said that the waters change colour to warn of imminent disaster!

One of Islam’s holiest spots is the dargah or tomb of the famous Sufi saint, Khwaja Moin-ud-din Chishti in Ajmer. Built over 3 centuries, the great shrine of marble, silver, gold was completed by Akbar’s father, Humayun. But the dargah became famous as Akbar’s favorite place of worship, who would often vow to make the 150 km journey from Agra to Ajmer on foot if a wish was fulfilled or a mission successfully completed. Like he did when he conquered Chittor in 1568. After reaching the dargah, he ordered the construction of a massive cauldron or “deg”. With a circumference of over 10 feet, it could hold 4,480 kgs of rice and was placed west of the main door or Buland Darwaza. 50 years later, his son, Jahangir, for whose birth he prayed at this very dargah, added a smaller one of half the capacity. Since then, every year, during the Urs festival marking the death anniversary of the saint, it is in these massive degs that the dargah’s famous kheer is made. Rice, ghee, milk, sugar and dry fruits are cooked together to become the dargah’s tabarruk or blessing and served to all pilgrims. Such is the rush that it is called the “looting of the kheer” because the degs are emptied within a matter of minutes, devotees even jumping into them to scrape whatever kheer remains at the bottom!

What else would abound in God’s own country but God’s own food? Not only do mortals quaff it in prodigious quantities at every possible opportunity but some of Kerala’s most famous payasams are made in …of course in its temples, but also in many of the churches as well!
Mulanthuruthy in Ernakulam district. Where the ancient Mar Thoman Syrian Orthodox Church stands, established in the early part of 12th century. Every year, payasam is an integral part of the annual celebrations of the church. A small portion is blessed, mixed with the rest and served to all the parishioners at the feast. Also in the Ernakulam district is St. Antony’s Church and the festival to mark St. Joseph’s Day is so famous that the church is known as St. Joseph’s Church. Thousands attend the festival, many to feast particularly on the delicious kadum payasam. Wealthy devotees “sponsor” and pay for the payasam, which incidentally ‘keeps’ for a year without spoiling – till the next feast!

Which brings us to Kerala’s famous temple payasams. The payasams at the Guruvayur and Sabrimalai temples are famous enough, but the one made at Sri Krishna Temple in Ambalappuzha near Alleppey has a wonderful story attached to it. Lord Krishna once appeared as a sage to the king of the region and challenged him to a game of chess. The king accepted the challenge, agreeing to the sage’s condition that that the prize should be decided before the game. The rishi’s prize, in case he won, was what seemed to be just a few grains of rice. He asked that one grain of rice be placed in the first square of the chessboard and then each subsequent square would have double the number of grains of the previous one. Whatever number of rice grains would thus fit on the chessboard would be his.
The king agreed – he had to because his opponent wanted nothing else. Naturally the rishi won. But when the king started adding the grains, he realized how he had underestimated his opponent. The number of rice grains multiplied in geometric progression and the “few grains of rice” finally beacme 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 grains, amounting to trillions of tons of rice! The king realised that even if he got all the rice in his kingdom and the adjacent ones, there was no way he could pay up. Seeing the king’s consternation, Lord Krishna revealed himself and put the king out of his misery by allowing the debt to be paid off over time – as free payasam to pilgrims. And so the famous paal payasam of the Ambalappuzha Sri Krishna temple is made and distributed as prasadam everyday to this very day! (Source :


And finally, what is often called the world’s oldest payasam. If the Jagannatha Temple in Puri, Orissa is one of our most ancient, famous and sacred temples, the prasadam made there is equally so – so much so that it is called “mahaprasadam”. Every single day, hundreds of temple cooks and their assistants, working on 752 chulas in a kitchen that sprawls over 2500 sq. ft, cook an awesome 100 different dishes, enough to feed at least 10,000 people! Everything from steamed rice to dals and vegetables and a mind-boggling array of sweets including one named after Lord Jagannatha himself! And of course, payasam or bhat payasa . Kurma Dasa, celebrity gourmet chef and who is called 'Australia's Vegetarian Guru', found the original recipe for it, one that hasn’t changed in two thousand years. Here it is….

2 tablespoons ghee
3/4 cup long grained rice, washed and dried1/2 bay leaf2 litres milk1/2 cup ground rock sugar, or raw sugar 1/4 cup currants1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom seedsone pin-head quantity of pure cooking camphor (optional)1 tablespoon toasted nuts for garnish

Heat the ghee in a heavy pot over medium heat, and toast the rice for a minute.
Add the bay leaf and milk. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until reduced to half its original volume.
Add sugar, currants, and cardamom, and simmer the mixture until it reaches one fourth of its original volume, and is thick and creamy.
Stir in the optional camphor, and cool to room temperature, or refrigerate until chilled.
Serve garnished with the toasted nuts.

Grateful thanks to Mr. Kurma Dasa -, Elizabeth Ninan