Thursday, August 20, 2009

Of Golf and Philosophy

2004 in Malawi

While I was working in Malawi, Southern Africa, I got introduced to the game of golf. By the time I started understanding the game, it was time for me to pack off. I used to go to the Limbe club, started by the English, where I was a member. Accompanied by my son I had practice sessions on Sunday mornings and the early morning wanderings in the golf course were quite refreshing. On other evenings, with friends we used to have a round of beer after a match at Blantyre club.

Unlike Africa, other countries are far too expensive for someone wanting to take up golf as a past time for fun and exercise. Many countries in Africa with bountiful land, beautiful landscapes, good climate and the English legacy are ideally suited for the game. In India, the game used to be reserved for a few of the rich people and to the bureaucrats who always had much leisure.

What prompted me to think of golf was the news of a rather unknown South Korean golfer by name Y.E.Yang overthrowing the great man Tiger Woods, to win the title in the US PGA Championship on last Sunday. Tiger Woods, as anyone remotely connected to any sports will vouch, is one of the greatest and richest sports icons of all time. He was to win his 15th consecutive major championship in this tournament and was quite at the edge of it.

Alas! It was not to be and a David who kept his cool was to defeat this Goliath! Yang, who was two shots adrift of the over night leader Woods held his nerve and went on to win the title by three shots.

I don’t intend to go into the technical aspects of this tournament but to the philosophy of the whole match.

Yang, a rank outsider for the tournament was 37 years old when he became the first Asian male to win one of Golf’s four grand slam events. Till then, he had a lowly 110th rank in the world. He is the son of a vegetable grower and he had not touched a golf club till he was 19. Once he took to the game, he was totally dedicated. He refused to be intimidated by the World no: 1 and showed utter fearlessness when it mattered most.

On winning the title at a time when all pointers were favouring Woods, he said the following:

“I guess the fearlessness comes from the fact that I know, I am doing my dream job.
Everyday, I am living my dream. I also have this mentality where I try my best and leave no regrets. If it does not work out, then that is that. I leave no regrets. So I guess if I do have courage, that is where it comes from”

So, this is my advice to all my young readers including my daughter Lavanya who has just passed out her B.Arch and to my son Mithun who is in the tenth class:

“Have a dream. Try your best and leave no regrets!”

Dubai, 19th August 2009.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Sankaranatha Jyotsar

Sankaranatha Jyotsar ,also known as Sankaranathan Unithiri or Shankar Nath Joshi) was a proud son of Kerala who was the chief astrologer and spiritual advisor to Maharajah Ranjit Singh, the lion of Punjab who single handedly built the great Sikh empire and whose right arm adorned the fabled Koh-i-Nur diamond. There are scant references in our history or other books about this remarkable man who was a courtier in one of the most dazzling royal courts in history.

The only credible and authoritative source about Sankaranatha Jyotsar, I could find from sources outside Kerala, was from the link under the chapter “The Sikhs - Images of a Heritage” written by T.S.Randhawa.

“The other dramatis personae in the court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh were the Fakir Aziz-ud-din, his Foreign Affairs Minister---- Shankar Nath Joshi, the chief astrologer to Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who was from Travancore and returned there when the bloodbaths started at Lahore”

Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839)
Besides the above, the site on Swati Tirunal by Dr.Achyut Sankar also has given a brief biography of the great man.

There is a chapter on Sankaranatha Jyotsar in the Malayalam book by name “Vadakkan Eithihyamala” by Vanidas, Elayavoor, a fine scholar and teacher of Malabar. Much of the information here apparently is from legends sourced from family members. I have relied much on him for the information contained in this post.

Ranjit Singh built a great Sikh empire during the early years of the nineteenth century when the British expanded its territories by conquest or annexation reaching the borders of Punjab.The British could not claim full control over the Indian subcontinent till the fall of Punjab which happened only after the death of Ranjit Singh in 1839. The Second Anglo-Sikh War (1848-49), between the Sikh Empire and the British Empire resulted in the annexation of Punjab which became the North West Frontier Province under the East India Company.


The last decade of the 18th century was one full of fear and insecurity for the people of Malabar. Tippu Sultan was holding his military campaigns for expanding his empire. Many families from Malabar fled to the safer shores of Travancore. Parvathi Amma belonging to the Vengatt Unithiri family of Karivellur and her husband Agni Sharman Nampoothiri of Perinchelloor pattodam Illam were a couple who too were part of this exodus. Parvathi Amma was into last stages of pregnancy and the tedious journey took its toll and she gave birth to a son while resting in a temple for the night.

Sankaranatha was thus born on the 16th of July 1790. His mother was very intelligent and was a scholar in Sanskrit. She wanted her only son to grow up as a learned person. However, the little Sankaranatha was more inclined to playing various games than to attend to his studies. Desperate over this, one day she admonished the son wondering as to how an ass was born in the womb of a horse. Hurt by the remarks, the boy turned a new leaf in his life. He began to show exemplary inquisitiveness in his studies and thus began a life full of learning and wisdom.


He was put under a guru Paliyeri Ezhuthassan, a renowned scholar of the times. He had different teachers for varied subjects like Grammar, Kavya, Alankara, Ayurveda and Jyothisha. He showed great skills beyond his age in learning the subjects and the teachers were often found wanting to answer his doubts.

After his early studies, with the blessings of his teachers, Sankaranatha wanted to pursue higher studies and to travel all over India in pursuit of knowledge by meeting different people. It was difficult for him to get the permission from his mother but his persuasions yielded result as he convinced her of the blessings that would come to the family if he visited Benares and bathed in the Ganges.


Proceeding to Kanchipuram, a city which was the confluence of many scholars, he stayed at the Kamakshi temple. Legend has it that he got an idol of goddess Kamakshi while bathing in the Palar River as per a dream he had the previous night. He knew that the daily worship of the idol would bring all happiness and prosperity.

His journey to Benares was interspersed with visits to many temples and meeting many scholars. Eventually he reached Benares and paid obeisance to Lord Viswanatha and conducted all rituals for the family and the forefathers.

It was at Benares that Sankaranatha started to learn the Vedas in an organized manner. He became a disciple of Varahacharya, a great Vedic scholar of the times. After the studies of the Vedas, he took up his Jyothisha-astrological- lessons in full earnest. His forecasts on the horoscopes were amazingly accurate and these made his fame reach far and wide. Rajahs, local rulers and chieftains sent palanquins to receive him at their residences. Sankaranatha amassed much wealth and used much of the money on philanthropic activities .He constructed an inn by the side of Manikarnika ghat known as Joshi ghat.

Raja Sansar Chand of Kangra

Raja Sansar Chand Katoch of Kangra (1775/1823)–near Dharmasala-by the foot hills of the Himalayas came to Benares and happened to meet Sankaranatha. Greatly impressed by the scholarship and predictive skills of Sankaranatha, the Raja took him to Kangra and appointed him as a scholar in his royal court.

Raja Sansar Chand of Kangra(1765-1823)
Kangra had been annexed by Ranjit Sngh by the treaty of Jwalamukhi in 1810.Ranjit Singh wanted to maintain the relations of cordiality with the Katochs. Till his death in 1823, Sansar Chand was allowed to rule over his territories as a tributary of Lahore. Sansar Chand had two daughters by a concubine, Gulab Dasi and they were married to Ranjit Sngh in 1829. Maharani Mahtab Devi Sahiba one of these daughters committed Sati at the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1839.

Meeting with Ranjit Singh

On one of his visits to Kangra, Ranjit Singh came in contact with Sankaranatha Jyotsar and was impressed about his wisdom and astrological skills. He invited Jyotsar to Lahore and appointed him in his court as the Chief Astrologer. He was also honored by appointing as the head of the scholars of the royal court and as the spiritual advisor to the Maharaja.

Court of Ranjit Singh

At the Lahore court of Ranjit Singh

Sankaranatha used to represent the Maharaja in many of his discussions with the British resident and often won accolades for his diplomatic skills. He was also given some villages as tax free because of the esteem with which he was held by Ranjit Singh. He was living in the palace quarters itself and used to accompany the Maharaja on his tours. In one of the battles of Ranjit Singh with the Afghans, Sankaranatha too accompanied him in military dress. During this outing, he got a wound on his cheek by the enemy’s sword and the scar was to remain on his face till the end. In that battle, the predictions and encouragements of Sankaranatha was of great help to Ranjit Singh and he was showered with many honours and presents on winning the battle.

Arrival at the court of Swati Tirunal

Swathi Tirunal Maharajah of Travancore, having heard about the genius of Sankaranatha Jyotsar wanted him to be brought to his court. Accordingly he requested the British government for the services of Sankaranatha. On receiving the request, Ranjit Singh realized that the honour and recognition that his courtier deserves from his motherland is of utmost importance and hence gave permission for him to leave.

Lord William Bentinck was the Governor General of India (1828 to 1835) at that time and he understood the special qualities of this statesman. Reportedly, he gave a certificate to Sankaranatha for his safe journey from Lahore to Travancore, addressing it as “’Uthama purush, Nirmala budh Joshi Sankaranath, the spiritual advisor of His Highness Ranjit Singh, the Lion of Lahore.”

Swati Tirunal appointed him as the judge of the Sudder court, which was later to become the high court. While serving here, as per wishes of his mother, he married Lakshmi of Cherukara house in Attukal. He served in the position for 8 years with great distinction. The maharajah had once written to Ranjit Singh asserting that it was a great blessing to Travancore to enjoy the services of Sankaranatha.

Maharaja Swati Tirunal of Travancore (1813-46)

Return to Lahore

Under continuous persuasion of Ranjit Singh, Sankaranatha returned to his court in 1835 and served him till his death in 1839. Though he continued to serve the disintegrating and tragedy-struck Sikh empire under Kharak Singh and Sher Singh, he was not comfortable and chose to return to the cooler shores of the south in 1844.

Coming back to Travancore

Hearing about his return, Swati Tirunal again sent for him and he took up the post of Fouzdari commissioner. (The East India Company's Courts were called Sudder Adalat and Fouzdari Adalat which exercised appellate jurisdiction, civil and criminal. These were abolished upon the establishment of the High Court after the crown took over.) His booksWhile he was a great diplomat cum statesman, his knowledge of the Vedas, Upanishads and Vedanta was incomparable. He had written commentaries on various holy texts like Njana Vaasishtam and Devi Bhagavatham. Books named Kasee-khandam and Gowree-thantram are also attributed to him. Many of these books are reportedly at the Manuscripts library of the University of Kerala as mentioned by Dr.Achyut Sankar. Maharajah Swati Tirunal died in 1847 but Sankaranatha Jyotsar continued his services under the illustrious Maharajah Uthram Tirunal with great distinction. The great scholar breathed his last on the 28th day of Thulam in the Malayalam year 1034 while preparing to proceed to the Padmanabha Swamy temple to have darshan of the deity. A trust called Sree Kamakshiyamman Trust has been formed by the members of his family at Karivellur in the Kannur district of Kerala. They unveiled a portrait of the great man on his 215th birthday in 2005. Sadly, I am yet to see a portrait of him which I badly wanted to attach with this post.
Dubai, Independence Day 2009

Thursday, August 06, 2009

A Sage and a Disciple

This vacation for me in Kerala was very subdued with many personal issues warranting my attention. Heavy rains were lashing across Kerala as I had seen only in my younger years. At Palakkad it rained incessantly during July and I was confined to reading in the comforts of our house. This time the books I read were mainly in Malayalam and were biographies or autobiographies some of which I enjoyed considerably.

Among the scores of books I read, some were most enjoyable because of the astounding personalities those covered. Integrity, commitment and simplicity were common traits found in great people and even in ordinary people who did great feats. Some of the books I read included the following:

Manasaasmarami by S.Guptan Nair, renowned writer, critic and teacher.
Katha Ithu Vare by D.Babu Paul, well known civil servant.
Ente Kazhinjakaala Smaranakal by Kumbalathu Sankupillai, politician and social reformer.
Smrithi Darpanam by Prof.Manmadhan, renowned Gandhian.
Sneha theeram Thedi by S.V.Govindan, Vinobha Bhave‘s disciple.
Kavikulaguru PV Krishna Warrier –poet- by Prof.CK Moossad
Thakarnna maniyum nilakkaatha nadavum – on poet Edappally Raghavan Pillai – by Raju Narayana Swami
Pundit Gopalan Nair- Sagely scholar- by P.Rajagopalan.

While each of the above books was inspiring and informative in many ways, I was quite touched to go through the biography of Pundit Gopalan Nair, a sage like teacher and great scholar of Sanskrit and Malayalam. Born in 1870, his productive years were spent as the Headmaster of Kollengode Rajas High School. He lived to the ripe old age of 95 and is best known as the translator and commentator of Sreemad Bhagavatham from Sanskrit to Malayalam. Originally published by Achuthan Nair of the famous Norman printing press, Calicut, it was subsequently taken over by the Guruvayur Devaswom which published it in 10 volumes. Bhagavatham contains the essence of the Vedas, Upanishads and Bhagavath Geetha that a prophetic mind of a Rishi is needed to comment on its various stanzas. Pundit Gopalan Nair, eminently qualified to do this stupendous work took up the assignment in his 80s under the advice of Bharathi Theertha Swamigal of Sringeri. He has also written commentaries on the Brahma Sutra and other holy texts of Hinduism. Dr.Radhakrishnan, as Vice President of the country had attended the centenary celebrations of Kollengode Rajahs High School and had warmly felicitated the octogenarian Gopalan Nair, who had come to the function as a guest. On his 93rd birthday, Dr.Rajendra Prasad, President of India sent the following message of felicitation which reflects the esteem with which he was held during those times.

14th April 1961
I am glad to know that the 93rd birthday of Pundit Gopalan Nair, a celebrated Malayalam writer is being celebrated by the people of Kerala as a public event. On this occasion I send my best wishes and wish many more happy returns to Pundit P Gopalan Nair.

Incidentally, Gopalan Nair was a favourite disciple of Vidwan Ettan Thampuran –PD Manavikraman Rajah- who was the senior Thampuran of Mankavu Kovilakam. He was later to become the Zamorin of Calicut and used to be hailed as Bhoja Rajah because of his encouragement to scholars and poets of the times.

In 1910, Gopalan Nair was working as Malayalam pundit at Rajahs high school owned by Vasudeva Raja of Kollengode. He was a friend of P P Braithwaite, an Englishman who was the Inspector of Schools under the eighth circle comprising Malabar, Kodagu and South Canara. Braithwaite was a remarkably inquisitive European and requested Vasudeva Raja for a personal Malayalam tutor to be sent to him for a year and Pundit Gopalan Nair was assigned with this.

Gopalan Nair left for Cannanore which was the Head quarters of Braithwaite. Braithwaite’s studies went on for 19 months and he came out first in the Malayalam examinations which were conducted after 10 months. Gopalan Nair has often mentioned about his unique relationship with this bright and friendly disciple possessing a serene and balanced mind and attitude.

“While learning Malayalam, Braithwaite was keen to absorb the essence of Vedanta to enable him to read and grasp the Geetha. As such, the mutual affection went on strengthening through our frequent conversations”, so said the guru about the disciple. While mentioning about the Englishman, he used words only like, “best friend, ideal disciple and great thanks-giver. “

Once, Braithwaite visited his Guru’s Kollengode School for one of its anniversaries. He spoke in Malayalam and the audience heard it with rapt attention and reverence which started with the preface, “’Njan gurubhakthiyil uthamanum, sishyanmaaril adhamanum aakunnu.”’- I am supreme in my respect to the guru but am worst as a disciple-

During the Delhi durbar of 1911, honours and recognitions were conferred on many and Braithwaite was appointed as Principal of the college in Ajmer. The disciple wanted the guru to accompany him to Ajmer. However, the household chores did not permit Gopalan Nair to accept the invitation and to follow his student. Braithwaite came to Kollengode to call on the guru’s wife and to take permission to leave for Ajmer.

While Braithwaite was serving in Ajmer, the First World War erupted. Braithwaite accepted the call of the fatherland and joined the army. He used to write letters to Gopalan Nair even from the war fronts. After 18 months of service in the war he was killed in the war and the tragic news came to the guru through Braithwaite’s sister in England.

These brief interludes in the lives of a sage and a disciple were very moving as I read the book. However, my searches through the net did not provide any additional information on P.P.Braithwaite except the following from the National Archives of UK.

Application from Mr P P Braithwaite for the post of Principal of the College for Teachers at Bombay IOR/L/PJ/6/709, File 419 2 Feb 1905

If any of my readers have any supplements to the life of PP Braithwaite, I shall welcome it. He indeed belonged to an era in which the pursuit of knowledge, humility, hard work and dedication were considered great virtues. People like him had greater ideals in life than the common folks of the present day of which I too am a representative.

Dubai, 3rd August 2009.

Reading for Pleasure

– Mario Vargas Llosa’s historical novel “The feast of the goat”- A few years ago, during one of our conversations, my younger bro...