Word Origin: Android

We have all heard the word android. Google made a huge splash when they launched the operating system Android for mobiles and tablets. Though many mobile companies launched Android phones, Samsung created a wave with its Galaxy series which posed stiff competition to Apple. All this has made us think that Android is the new tech word, coined by perhaps Google. But this idea is wrong.

 

The word Android was in existence about 1000 years ago and means ‘like man.’ It is formed by the Greek words ‘andro’ meaning man and ‘eides’ meaning ‘form or shape.’ In the 12th century St Albertus Magnus created an automaton which was like a human and called it android. In modern terms, we can say that he created the first robot. Yes, Android was the name of the first robot.

Though St Albertus is now regarded as one of the greatest scientist, people in his era thought of him as a magician and alchemist. Literature of his time says that he used angels from the netherworld and the powers of the philosopher’s stone to create metals and material unknown to this world. He then chose the metals according to the stars and planets. With them he built the android. Some reports say this automaton, for which St Albertus worked for thirty years, could speak, think and some believe that it even had a soul. This invention wasn’t to live long. St Albertus’ student St Thomas Aquinas destroyed it, for he thought it was a tool of satan and blasphemous.

 

With this origin, no doubt the word was later used for things like robots, before the term robot took over. Android finds mentions in US Patents in as early as 1863, with reference to small human-like toy automatons. It was popularised in 1886, by French author Auguste Villiers de I’Isle-Adam in his science-fiction book, The Future Eve. The story is about a fictional scientist Edison who builds a mechanical woman called Halady. The android Halady is not only beautiful, but is also intelligent and has a strong personality. Another character Lord Ewald is close to suicide because of his fiancé Alicia Clary, who he says is physically perfect but is emotionally and intellectually empty. It is then that Edison suggests the idea of an android to Ewald. The scientist creates Halady, who looks exactly like Alicia, but is without her personality. Ewald falls in love with the android and goes away with her. Before they can get home, the ship they are travelling in sinks, killing Ewald and destroying the android, Halady.

Jack Williamson

 

Later English science-fiction writers used the term starting with Jack Williamson, who used the term in his 1936 series The Cometeers, published as a series in a magazine, and later made into a novel. But in 1921, the word robot was introduced by Karel Capek in his play, ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots. This term was used in place of androids.

 

Now, there is a distinction between androids and robots. This distinction was brought by Edmond Hamilton’s sci-fi series Captain Future. He said that mechanical automatons were robots, but those with flesh or resembling humans in performance were androids. For instance, the Rajnikanth look-a-like automaton in the Tamil film Endhiran, and Shahrukh Khan look-a-like in RaOne are androids. So is Robin William’s character in Bicentennial Man. But RoboCop who has a mechanical body and the likes are robots.

Coming back to the now popular meaning of android, which is the mobile operating system, it staretd in a small company called Android Inc, in California in 2003. Google acquired this company in 2005 and founded the Open Hnadset Alliance, a consortium of 86 hardware, software and telecommunications companies. Android was launched into the market in 2008.

 

Now, we know Android, by what Google has popularised it as. Philip K Dick, the author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep coined the word Andy. But we now know Andy as the little green man which is the icon of Android. The novelist wrote, “The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words.” The tech companies seem to have achieved it to a great extent.

Political correctness is sometimes lame

Ever changing terminology tells us how to refer to people with disability, but heartwarming words don’t automatically guarantee a change in attitude.

 

In Barfi!, the hero, played by Ranbir Kapoor, is referred to as goonga-behera, or ‘dumb and deaf’. So what is the politically correct term for him: ‘hearing and speech impaired’, ‘auditory challenged’, ‘disabled’, ‘differently abled’, or the more recent, ‘person with disability’?

 

In the film, the rude ‘dumb and deaf’ makes sense as it is a loud policeman calling him that. But how much of a consolation is heartwarming terminology for people with disability?

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Prof R Rajaram, the first Indian with cerebral palsy to earn a PhD in English, believes there is a strong case for sensitive phrasing. “It makes a crucial difference. Such terms not only raise the level of consciousness of those who are unaware, but also helps acknowledge the self esteem of the challenged person,” he told Talk.

 

The use of incorrect terms gives a sense of superiority to the speaker, which is uncalled for. Social worker Tara Ramkumar agrees. “Words and their connotations have an impact. A change in the vocabulary can bring in social change,” she says.

 

While this is the standard view among educated disabled people in urban areas, we also came across some exceptions. For instance, when Talk recently interviewed the mother of H N Girisha, London Paralympics silver medallist in highjump, she referred to him in Kannada as a ‘kunta,’ which translates to ‘lame’. His brother too used the word. Here was a world-class athlete from a Hassan village, whose closest relatives continue to call him ‘lame’ even after his glorious high jump win, simply because they are unaware of the concept of political correctness.

 

G K Mahantesh, founder of Samarthanam, an organisation that has trained hundred of people with disability for BPO jobs, says, “In villages, a short person may be called kulla or gidda.”

 

Outsiders may find such words crude and insensitive, but there is no insult intended. Mahantesh says the lack of awareness is one problem, but there is also the difficulty of coining politically correct words in the regional languages.”

 

Prof Rajaram suggests TV soaps should take up the cause and sensitise people in the regional languages. Bangalore-based writer Deepa Bhasti, who has an impairment in her hand, doesn’t care what people call her. Her classmates in school called her handicapped, but it never affected her spirit, she says.

 

“In government records, people with disability are still referred to as handicapped. The word doesn’t make a difference and the main thing is how people treat you,” she says. She believes she is ‘normal’, and gives credit to her mother, who treated her as normal, and asked her to do her work on her own. “Even if it was the simplest of things like tying shoe laces, I had to do it myself. If I said I couldn’t, she would ask me to find a way,” she says.

 

The TV programme Satyamev Jayate had an episode dedicated to people with disability. One of the participants found the politically correct word “differently abled” patronising. He preferred to be called ‘disabled’.

 

A similar sentiment was voiced most famously by Bill Veeck, an American baseball team owner, whose 1962 autobiography is titled I’m Not Handicapped; I’m Crippled. He writes, “You will notice I always use the term ‘cripple.’ It isn’t a word you normally hear, is it? It has become customary, in our euphemistic world, to describe us cripples as ‘handicapped’… Webster defines ‘handicapped’ as ‘to place at a disadvantage’. I don’t believe I am. I believe I can do anything that anybody else can do that doesn’t involve quick sprints, high jumps and a fast buckand- wing. And so, although I am crippled, I am not handicapped.”

 

Many times, those who use the right words may not necessarily have empathetic feelings towards those with disability. “I have seen people use the correct words when they are on stage. As soon as they are off, they show scant regard to people with disability. More than using the right words, they have to be considerate,” says P K Paul, founder of IDL Foundation, which works with blind people.

 

Both Paul and Samarthana’s Mahantesh vote for the use of politically correct terms, but their organisations continue to use the word ‘blind’. Paul’s organisation has a band called IDL Blind Band. He says: “Blind is a universal word. We cannot change it. It is better to use it for a group than for an individual.”

 

Samarthanam is organising a cricket event, the ‘T20 World Cup for the Blind’. “Everywhere the word is used, even in government records. So, we’ve stuck to it,” he says.

 

A blogger who calls himself Bock the Robber says new euphemisms often gain negative connotations with time. One of his posts says: “Banning particular words won’t change anything. The word ‘retarded’ was originally a well-intended euphemism to replace ‘slow’ but it gradually acquired pejorative overtones. So will all the new terms that replace it, because the problem lies inside people’s minds, not in the words they use.”

 

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What is political correctness?

 

It refers to terms that attempt to describe people in the most neutral and objective way possible. The ‘correct’ terms try to soften words or phrases considered offensive or humiliating.

 

Why should we use the politically right terms?

 

Some words could hurt and bring down the selfesteem of people with disability. Use the politically correct word unless the person you are addressing asks you not to. This is a way of showing respect.

 

Inside a baby-making unit

Garment workers trying to overcome financial difficulties are a majority among surrogate mothers. Talk meets pregnant women who display an unsentimental acceptance of their job: delivering children for others.

 

When we set out to visit the centre housing surrogate mothers in Rajarajeshwari Nagar, off Mysore Road, Bangalore, we only had a vague address. Every time we asked for the phone number of the centre, the coordinator of Shrushti Global Medicare and Research Foundation turned us down. That was to maintain confidentiality, and we were soon to understand the importance of confidentiality in the business of surrogacy.

 

What we knew: we had to get to a bluecoloured house with a glass front. When we finally located the place, we realised it wasn’t exactly a house; it resembled a corporate office with a glass façade. The guard wouldn’t let us in before we had spoken to his boss over the phone.

 

Once we got in, it was clear it was no ‘home’. For all practical purposes, it was a professionally run office, with beds in place of cubicles. The women were there simply to do a job: deliver babies.

HIRE A WOMB: At Shrushti, in Rajarajeshwari Nagar, Bangalore, surrogates lead a confined existence during their pregnancy. They receive good care and nutrition, and get to rest for the first time in many years. Pic by Ramesh H S

 

The three-storey building holds about 30 women who have rented out their wombs. The surrogate mothers are housed on all three floors. The ground floor has a living room, and a kitchen that doubles up as a recreation room. Each floor has about 20 beds in two rows, and looks like a dormitory. Every bed has the same hospital-style blue sheet and blanket. Two narrow, long tables, arranged in an L-shape, are used for dining, and playing carroms. A water dispenser and a wooden cabinet with steel plates and tumblers stand in a corner. Pictures of nursing mothers are hung on every wall.

 

Life at a surrogate motherhood centre is insulated from the rough and burly of the outside world. The women step out only for periodic tests and scans. Their families can visit them, but only at the clinic, and not at Shrushti.

 

When the guard announced that someone from a newspaper had come for a story, a surrogate mother called out to the rest. The women whispered among themselves that the boss might scold them if they didn’t talk to the reporter. It was a school scene where students are scared of the principal, and do whatever he orders.

 

But then, their ‘boss’ was not so bad after all. When a surrogate mother called out to him, he told her she was under no compulsion to talk or get herself photographed. The women could speak only if they wished to, and refuse the photography request.

 

The women are clear why they are there: to earn money and get out of a financial crunch. “Our womb is for hire,” said Sunita (29), in a matter-of-fact tone. Before coming here, she used to work in a garment factory where she was paid Rs 3,000 a month. Interestingly, a majority of surrogate mothers here are garment factory workers. Tired of poor working conditions, they find a new opportunity in surrogacy. After a woman gives birth, she gets Rs 2 lakh, and a gift worth Rs 30,000.

 

Since conception, Sunita has received a month salary of Rs 3,000, and the parents she is helping pay for her stay and food. “With the money I will pay off my debts, and try to secure the future of my sons,” said the mother of two.

 

While she is here, her husband and mother look after her children. Sunita sounds pragmatic when she says, “I know the child in my womb is not mine. I am just helping a couple who are in turn helping me financially.”

While confined within the walls of the centre, surrogate mothers kill time by playing carom. Pic by Ramesh H S

 

The counselling sessions provided by the centre seem to have worked. I expected at least Madhu to have some emotional attachment to the child she was carrying, but she bluntly says she feels no such bonding.

 

Madhu (24) was married when she was fifteen and bore two sons. Four years ago, one of her sons died. The seven-yearold banged his head into Madhu’s sewing machine, and died of a blood clot in the brain. “We tried to save him, for which we took a loan of Rs 2 lakh,” she said. Madhu borrowed from a pawn broker who charged her 10 per cent interest every month. Her husband works as a security guard and earns Rs 5,000 a month. Madhu is a tailor who used to earn about Rs 3,000 a month.

 

“Our earnings are spent on running the house, and part of it goes towards the interest. With our income, we will never be able to pay off the principal, and so I chose to be a surrogate mother. I know the child is not mine, and don’t want to keep it,” she says.

 

Many surrogate mothers here say they feel distanced from the children they are going to deliver. “We have opted for this pregnancy to better the lives of our own children. Why would we want to keep this child with us?” asks Sunita, pointing to her bulge.

 

Within these walls, there are no apprehensions of caste and creed. Nagaratna (30) is a Brahmin priest’s wife, and doesn’t care what caste the child in her womb comes from. “I have spoken to the parents over the phone. I don’t know much about them,” she says. Her husband works in a temple, and she used to work as a sales assistant in a pharmacy. She hopes to save the money for her 13-year-old daughter.

 

While the commercialisation of surrogacy stares us in the face, we cannot deny it is helping childless couples on the one hand, and poor women in need of money on the other. But, despite their clinical acceptance, ethical and emotional dilemmas arise.

 

Surrogate mothers come from social backgrounds where awareness about what they are going through is low. Many in their family circles have never heard of medically assisted reproduction. Sometimes, people suspect the surrogate mother has had sex with the recipient father. A pregnant woman raises many eyebrows, especially if she is a widow, or abandoned by her husband.

 

“After my husband’s death, I have been struggling to make ends meet by working in a garment factory. When a colleague told me about surrogacy, I took it up. I could certainly not live in my locality with this bulge. People would have talked ill about me,” says Kaveri.

 

She has not even told her brothers. “I had to tell my mother because I wanted her to stay with my two children. My brothers will not understand,” she says, but without any visible despair.

 

The mothers want to keep surrogacy hidden from their biological children. “When they see us, they understand there is a baby in my womb. They expect it to be a sibling. My children are told I have gone out to work and am living in a hostel. That is not a lie, in any case,” says Kaveri.

 

In the case of Nagaratna, whose daughter is 13, dressing up the truth is not so easy. “We haven’t told her anything. But she has somehow figured it out. I will someday talk to her about it,” says the priest’s wife. The mothers are satisfied with the conditions of the place they are housed in, which they find more comfortable than their own homes. Pramila, who came here as a surrogate mother, gave birth to twins two months ago, and has stayed back to work as the warden of the centre. “I like it here,” she says, beaming. She has her weekends off, when she goes home to visit her husband and son.

 

Many hope not to go back to their previous lives. “Life is tough in a garment factory,” says Kaveri. She wants to start a small business of her own. “While we are here, we do a beautician’s course. I hope I can put those skills to good use,” she says.

 

The centre follows a strict diet for the mothers, with fruits and milk. Both vegetarian and non-vegetarian food is served. The food is nutritious, and usually better than what they could afford during their own pregnancies. The freedom from toil is valued, too. It is for the first time in many years that the women are given care, and allowed to relax.

 

(All names are changed)

 

You can also read the story at http://talkmag.in/cms/trends/item/205-inside-a-baby-making-unit

Word Origin: Awesome

What if we were to say God is awful? Some centuries ago, it would not be offensive. In fact, it would have been the most appropriate word to use. The story of words in the family of awe is, as we say these days, awesome!

 

The word awe entered the English language around the 13th century from the Old Norse word agi, meaning ‘fright’ or ‘terror’. The verb ‘to awe’ meant something that instils reverential wonder or fear.

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The original meaning of awful was ‘something full of awe’, or ‘something that needs to be respected and feared’. Only someone like God could be awful. Over the years the word was used so much, and even for trivial things, that it came to denote something really bad. Perhaps awful was used for something so bad that it made one fear or despise it. With awful losing its original meaning, a new word had to take its place. It was then that awesome was used in its place.

 

In fact, awesome entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 1598. Not surprisingly, back then, the meaning was different. Awesome meant someone feeling awe rather than someone inspiring it. It could have been used like this: ‘I saw the bolt of lightning, and I was awesome.’ In the 1630s, awestruck entered the dictionary, which denoted someone filled with reverential fear. It was not long before awesome could be used with a new meaning. In 1664, a Presbyterian sermoniser wrote, “The sight of his cross is more awesome than the weight of it.” This is the first recorded appearance of the word in its non-traditional meaning, according to journalist Robert Lane Greene, who wrote about it in More Intelligent Life magazine.

 

In 20th century translations of the Bible, awesome was used to describe God. There are many verses in the Old Testament where God is, well, awesome. For instance, Psalm 68 has a verse which says, “You are awesome, God, in your sanctuaries.”

 

In the meantime, the change in the usage of awesome had already begun. A 1980 bestseller The Official Preppy Handbook, a tongue-in-cheek guide to ‘preppy’ (American slang for graduate student) life, was one of the first to give sanction to the current usage of the word. It defined awesome as ‘terrific or great’. Within no time, this meaning took over, and soon was being used all over the US for anything remotely good.

 

Awesome in this new form, hit the Indian shores with the BPO industry. Along with their American accents, young trainees also picked up American words, with awesome being considered one of the trendier ones. Radio jockeys at the new FM stations started using the word frequently for anything even mildy good. These days, TV channels are using awesomeness to describe either themselves or their programmes, in an (awful!) attempt to make the noun form of the word stylish. But recently, an advertising campaign of a clothing brand had hoardings all over that used familiar buzzwords like dude, and awesome, but with ironic overtones, perhaps signalling that their cool quotient is now dipping.

 

You can also read the post at http://talkmag.in/cms/columns/keywords/item/210-awesome

Ganesha Worldwide

This most popular of Hindu Gods is also perhaps the most widely travelled, reaching as far as Japan. Savie Karnel on the many Vinayakas there are, including a female one

 

Once, while visiting a Muslim family in their home, I was surprised to see a one-foot high idol of Ganesha on a corner table. When I asked the woman of the house about it, she replied, “He is a stylish God. I like to have him around.” She was referring to the fluid artistry of the image, something Ganesha seems to lend himself to quite easily. When I looked at the statue, the deity seemed to smile, the way he always does. We rarely see an image of Ganehsa where he appears angry.

 

I have also noticed that children find it easier to relate to Ganesha than other gods, perhaps, because of the many stories where he is shown as a naughty and smart kid. Every mother wants a son as obedient as Ganesha, who fought with Shiva and was willing to be beheaded to abide by his mother. Fathers too want a child like Ganesha, who considered his parents his universe. Every child looks up at the sky and wonders if he too could eat tons of sweets and then ride home on a mouse, pausing only to whack the moon on the cheek because it dared to laugh at him.

 

But was Ganesha always like this? Some scholars don’t think so. They claim that the current image of Ganesha was developed during the Gupta period around 4th century AD. The Gupta kings brought in Brahmanical influences in the predominant Jain and Buddhist society of the time. While doing so, they incorporated the elephant-headed God worshipped by some cults.

 

At the cave temples of Udaygiri in Madhya Pradesh, known for the first temples to be built, one sees hewn Ganeshas on the walls of the cave. In contrast with the panel of intricately designed avatars of Vishnu sculpted in giant sizes by the Vaishnavite Guptas, the Ganesha carving is rough and without any details. Perhaps, these are the earliest images of Ganesha, when he was being raised to the level of a Hindu God.

The earliest known carving of Ganesha, at Udaygiri Caves, near Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh

 

In his book, Ganesa’s Rise to Prominence in Sanskrit Literature, historian Ludo Rocher says there is no mention of Ganesha in Vedic literature. The Rig Veda has references to Ganapati, meaning leader of the people. This, Rocher says, does not refer to the modern Ganesha, but is a title of Brahaspati or Jupiter, the teacher of the gods. The Puranic stories and myths may have been later additions.

 

Later in the 9th century AD, Shankaracharya included Ganesha in the five primary deities of the Smartha tradition, which further popularised Ganesha.

 

While Ganesha is also called Vigneshwara or Vinayaka, the lord of obstacles—one capable of placing or removing them—ancient texts show the name has a more curious origin. In ancient Hindu mythology, Vinayaka referred to four troublesome demons who created obstacles and problems. The four Vinayakas were merged into one Vinayaka and elevated to the status of one God, says H Heras in his book, The Problem of Ganapati. In Mahayana Buddhism, Vinayaka appears both as a deity and as a demon. As a Buddhist God, he is shown dancing, while as a demon he is shown being trampled by Mahakala or Shiva.

 

The Buddhists took Ganesha to Japan, where he is called Kangiten. Here he is also called Binayaka-ten, the evil one who creates discord and obstacles. They believe that when pleased, he bestows good fortune, prosperity and wealth. While many pray to him for wealth, the young pray to him for success in love. Kangiten is as also shown as a couple embracing each other. An image of a male and a female elephant-headed pair standing and embracing each other is used to represent Kangiten.

 

The female form of the elephant- headed God is also seen in some temples in India and is called Vinayaki. I saw one such sculpture in the 10th century Chausath Yogini temple in Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh. Here, Vinayaki represents one of the forms of the Goddess Shakti. The image is also found in most other Chausath Yogini temples in the country.

Vinayaki, the female form of Ganesha at the Chausath Yogii Temple, in Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh

 

The female form of Ganesha is also found at the Thanumalayan Swamy Temple in Suchindram, in Tamil Nadu’s Kanyakumari district. In Madurai, the female form is worshipped as Vyaghrapada Ganeshani, where the image has an elephant head, a female human body and tiger feet. In Tibet, she is worshipped as Gajanani.

While some call Vinayaki the consort of Ganesha, other scholars hold her as an independent goddess. The earliest evidence of a female Ganesha is a terracotta plaque found at Raigarh in Rajhasthan, which dates to the first century. P K Agarwal in his book Goddess Vinayaki, the Female Ganesa, points to Puranic references to her. The Matsya Purana mentions Vinayaki as one of the two hundred celestial mothers created by Shiva to kill the demon Andhaka.

Perhaps it is the unique quality of Ganesha that he can take any form and yet make us feel secure and protected. While a trader places him on a pedestal and feels assured of profits, a driver keeps the Lord of Obstacles on his dashboard and feels he is certain to have a safe journey.

 

You can also read the story at http://talkmag.in/cms/trends/item/181-ganesha-worldwide

Word origin: Mouse

The thieving rodent that became an electronic device

 

The mouse, as we all know, is the vehicle of Ganesha in Indian mythology. Interestingly, the English word is derived from the Sanskrit word for mouse, mushaka. This Sanskrit word was is in turn derived from another word of the same lan- guage, mus, which means to steal. Since rodents steal food and grain from humans, they must have got the name. Old English too used mus, before the word became mouse in the 12thcentury.

 

The ancient Romans used mus for all rodents large and small. They differentiated between mice and rats with the usage of big and little. The mouse was called mus max- imus (big mouse) and the rat mus minimus(little mouse). Greek, Latin and Old Persian too use variations of mus.

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In modern English, the word is often used for anything that resembles a mouse. In the 1800s,it was used in nautical jargon to refer to abulge of rope on a ship because it looked like a mouse. This bulge which prevented the ropes tied to mast from slipping away was also called the stay mouse. The word was later used to denote a black eye caused by a blow!

 

Mouse was used for a com- puter device in the 1960s. The first documented evidence for the use of mouse for the computer pointer is in Bill English’s 1965 publication, Computer Aided Display Control. Two years earlier, English had assisted Douglas Engelbart in inventing the device.

 

Since the invention resem- bled the mouse, they gave it the name. The earliest mouse was a block of wood with two wheels, three buttons on top and a wire which resembled the tail of a mouse. During a demo, Engelbart once said, “I don’t know why we call it a mouse. It started that way, and we never did change it.” He even called the cursor a bug, but this word didn’t become popular.

 

Engelbart has invented the mouse to help navigate through the oNLine System (NLS) a pre- cursor of the Internet. But his patent for the mouse expired before the device gained popularity in the 1980s. Engelbart didn’t get widespread recognition or royalties for his invention.

 

Engelbart’s assistant Bill English joined Xerox Corp and helped build the mouse there. Xerox became the first company to sell a computer with a mouse in 1981. The term mouse for the device became part of the English language only in 1984, when Apple made it standard equip- ment with its original Macintosh. With the introduction of Microsoft Windows and the advent of the Internet, the word entered common parlance.

 

Mouse has now become an integral part not only of English but all languages. Many of us may not be able to distinguish between a rat and a mouse, but we surely know the difference between a keyboard and a mouse.

 

You can also read the article at http://talkmag.in/cms/columns/keywords/item/185-mouse

Why Mary wears a saree?

 

St Mary’s festival is one Catholic festival that keeps Christians rooted to their non Christian-roots.

The most special thing about St Mary’s feast is that it has nothing to do with cakes, pine trees or creatures from a foreign land. It is one Catholic festival that keeps Christians rooted to their non Christian-roots.

Perhaps, there’s something about Mary that lets people change her and adapt her to suit local ways.  While she replaces Goddess Athena in Europe, she wears a saree to substitute Devi Amman for the Tamils in Bangalore. Towards India’s West coast and parts of Karnataka her birthday is celebrated as a harvest festival.

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The image of Mary at St Mary’s Basilica in Bangalore. Pic by Ramesh H S 

 

I have lived in three different parts of Karnataka, and noticed that each region adds its own flavour to the feast of Nativity of Mary.

 

I grew up in the coastal town of Karwar. When I was little I waited for the feast, for it gave kids permission to run around in the paddy fields and pluck flowers from wild plants.

 

Here, just like in Bangalore, the festivities began from August 31st, nine days before the actual feast. The evenings preceding September 8th were marked with prayers in the church. But for the children, the preparations for the evening prayers would begin early in the morning.

 

Before we left for school, we went around fields and empty plots looking for flowers, and sometimes snooped around others’ gardens to steal flowers. Those with roses in their gardens had to be up earlier to ward off the tiny thieves.

 

After decorating our plates with the collected flowers and sprinkling some water on it, we left for school. In the evening in the church it was more about competition — of peeping into others’ plates to see what flowers they had got. After the prayers, the kids flocked around Mary’s statue to shower the flowers on her, while the elders sang a Konkani song in the background. The hymn too had very native lyrics like: “Tomorrow, where will we find these sevantige (chrysanthemum) and aboli (crossandra) flowers.”

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pic courtesy: mangalorean.com

 

On the final day, dressed in our finest, we went for the special prayers in the morning. Mary’s statue was taken in a procession from the church to a paddy field, where the service was conducted. The largest field in my village belonged to a Hindu. He graciously allowed the congregation to assemble there every year to celebrate the harvest festival.

 

People thanked Mary for the crop and prayed for a better yield next year. The new corn was blessed and stalks distributed to each member gathered there. The grains were then put into the ‘payasam’ prepared that day. The meal was non-vegetarian.

 

Bereft of the knowledge that someone in Rome had decided the day of September 8th, we believed our grandmother’s tale that when Mary was born, the harvest was sumptuous and the land was filled with flowers, and that is why the day was chosen. The local Hindus too celebrated their harvest festival around the same time, some days after Krishna Janmashtami.

 

I later learnt that in the 15th century, the Portuguese converted the Hindus in Goa to Christianity. They then continued to persecute the native converts, for even minor lapses. Many of the new converts then escaped to neighbouring Karnataka, but retained their language, Konkani. These converted Christians missed the Hindu festivals and traditions. So, they clubbed the Hindu traditions with Christian festivals.

 

When I moved to Mangalore for my studies, I noticed that the festival was much grander here. All the Christian schools and colleges declared it a holiday. The kids showered flowers here too and the new corn was blessed. There was just one difference. Here the feast cooked was all vegetarian, with families strictly not eating or cooking anything non-veg that day.

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The feast mass in progress at a church in Mangalore. pic courtesy: mangalorean.com

 

Perhaps because of its proximity to Kerala, the Mangalorean meal is more like Onam Sadhya, with an odd number of vegetables. That is, the number of vegetables cooked were three, seven or eleven. The Konkani speaking Catholics carried on this tradition wherever they went.

 

The harvest festival is celebrated in Bangalore too, wherever there is a population from Karnataka’s coastal region. When I moved to Bangalore, I was surprised to see Mary in a silk saree and not in the usual white and blue robe. These days she wears a fancy embroidered saree with sequins too. People here gift sarees to the church and bookings for the day the saree is to be draped, is done in advance. Sometimes the dates are booked for over a year. This practice is akin to gifting sarees for the local goddesses in temples. The Dravidians have Devi Amman or other local deities. After their conversion to Christianity, Mary took the goddess’ place.

 

The history of St Mary’s Basilica goes back to the 17th century when people from Tamil Nadu came to Bangalore. They found the land fertile and began sowing paddy. The rice is said to be very white. So the place (present Shivajinagar) came to be known as ‘Billi Akki Palli,’ which translates into the village of white rice.

 

The Tamil Christians built a thatched roof and called it the Chapel of ‘Kannikai Matha.’ Later in the 18th century the construction of the church began, but the structure was pulled down during communal riots in 1832. After some years when a plague hit, people flocked to the church to pray. It is believed that the plague vanished from the vicinity of the church. The people began to call Mary ‘Annai Arokiamarie,’ or Our Lady of Good Health. The church was rebuilt in 1882 and consecrated on 8th September that year.  From then on the feast is a huge affair in Shivajinagar with a grand car procession in the evening.

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