Gond Ramayani: Ramayan in tribal comic format

I found my first Gond story in a Gond painting exhibition by Indra Gandhi National Centre of the Arts in Bangalore. The series of paintings, in ten by ten feet frames, was a graphic narrative like I’d never seen before. And I was wowed.

It’s Ramayana, I exclaimed, a story I knew, peering to understand the visuals and corroborate it with the story my grandmother had told me ages ago. The story I’d seen again in Ramananda Sagar’s Ramayana TV series which was inspired by the Awadhi text Ramacharitra Manas written by Goswami Tulsidas. However, I couldn’t decipher the visual story. It didn’t collaborate with the Ramayana tale I knew. The one I considered the right one. Curious and fascinated, I contacted IGNCA, started to research on this unusual Gond version, emailed people, called scholars, read books and piece by piece constructed the story that is sung by the bards of Gond, where Ram isn’t the main hero. And so I build up the whole story. Or atleast a version of it. For I’m a storyteller too.

Have you heard the story where Lakshmana is the real hero in Ramayana? And Ram, that ideal husband and king is but a side character who orders his younger brother to fetch his dice for a game and then blames him for trying to sleep with his wife. I hadn’t.

So I’m going to retell one of the Gond Ramayani tales to you.

Continue reading “Gond Ramayani: Ramayan in tribal comic format”

Did Jesus backpack through India?

Hemis Monastery stands inside a gorge, a lone ranger surrounded by vast swathes of red and brown mountains, bare valleys peppered with poplar trees and a vivid blue sky. I reach the courtyard of the monastery after a steep climb, my city lungs working overtime in the thin Ladakhi air, wondering how it would’ve felt for a young and lost Jesus Christ to have walked this very path more than two thousand years ago.

DSC02314The rumours of Jesus’s visit to India, which are still being passionately argued upon with a documentary made a decade ago, were started by two gentlemen much before internet became the fighting ground of conspiracies. Louis Jacol
liot, a French barrister who lived several years in India between 1865-1869, wrote ‘La Bible Dans I’Inde’ (The Bible in India) where he compared the accounts of the life of Krishna, one of the prominent Hindu avatars of Vishnu, with that of Jesus Christ in the Gospels and concluded that there were far too many similarities in both these accounts and hence they were of the same person.

Continue reading “Did Jesus backpack through India?”

Shantala, the Hoysala queen

“This is the most famous sculpture of the Chennakeshava temple,” says the guide, pointing at a voluptuous dancer, etched in the ceiling of the entrance. “Shantala, King Vishnuvardhana’s main queen, built the surrounding spaces of this temple. She was a genius at mathematics and a gifted dancer and musician.” The details, as far as our eyes, shaded from the sharp sun, can see, are astoundingly minute, created patiently by a talented sculptor working with soapstone. From the folds of her jewel-encrusted mini dress, to the leaves of the flowering tree that encompass her, and the way that she stands, her hedonistic body shaped S with a Barbie-thin waist, the sculptor’s imagination is vivid and full of grace. Even though she holds a mirror, in front of her, her face is more thoughtful than vain. Shantala’s figure comes repeatedly in the world famous Belur temple, in Karnataka, one of the finest creations of the Hoysala Kingdom, built in 1117 CE. Her legends have been immortalized in a book by KV Iyer called Natyarani Shantala, which was also televised recently.

The story goes that she was the talented daughter of a general in the Hoysala kingdom. She used to be such a good dancer that the Chalukya king threatened the Hoysala kingdom with a war, just to see her dance (for she would have to offer a sacred dance at the Lakshmi temple before the war). When King Vishnuvardhana first saw her dance, planned meticulously by his grandmother so he would fall for the girl and marry, he instantly fell for her. She refused the marriage, since both she and her best friend Lakshmi had danced together and she was a Jain while the king was a Vaishnava. To appease her, the king married not only her and Lakshmi, so they stay together as co-wives, but also five other girls from the same community. And he also let her keep her faith. King Vishnuvardhana made her his main queen, and she helped him in the administration of the kingdom as well as building temples around their capital city of Belur.

However, not everything was all right. Even after many years of marriage, she couldn’t produce a male heir for the kingdom and though she requested multiple times, her husband refused to denounce her and take on Lakshmi who was pregnant at the time, as his main queen. To get out of the way of her pregnant best friend and the husband she loved, she killed herself by jumping off Shivaganga, a tall hill near Bangalore, ruled by men and monkeys together. Continue reading “Shantala, the Hoysala queen”

Why are we so afraid of dying?

When I wrote this blog on death, sometime last year, I was sitting in a cancer treatment hospital. It was clean, official and bustling. It even had a coffee shop where doctors and families of patients and patients themselves came to get a caffeine shot before they head back to the patient they were overseeing. Like any normal office or mall, except it wasn’t.

There was a silent sea of fear that moved in waves, it moved from faces and bodies that walked and talked and saw reports and desperately waited for the doctors to arrive. The trepidation remained behind floundering smiles, a squeeze of a hand or an awkward attempt to fill a silence with an anecdote. Behind every silent glance, itching fingers that opened a touchscreen phone again and again, to look at it blankly, or a bored face waiting for yet another day to get over, there was fear. For all of them had someone from their family, someone who they loved, strapped in one of those rooms above, fighting with death.

There was guilt in those faces that waited, guilt for the fact that they were healthy while their child, spouse or parent was battling with that dreaded disease. The anecdotes that floated in the coffee shop were about doctors,  other deaths, other cancers and newly learnt medical jargon. And everywhere hung the unknown questions. What will happen today? God, please don’t let her go away.


I’ve written about it many times before (here in relation to immortality which I explored in the second part of Anantya’s series and here where I spoke about rituals around death, maybe a little unfairly), to the point of being morbid myself. But for most part, it’s in a scholarly way. Not like people through of it in this hospital (or any other place where they see death up close). Why is life so short and death so sudden and mysterious? Why can’t you connect with someone who you spend your life with in death? Why do they suddenly disappear? What happens when we die? Where do we go? Do the unbelievers who don’t have any multistoried apartments booked in any of the offered heavens go to hell? Is hell a desert or darkness with nothingness? What’s that fear? Is it the fear of unknown or the fear of things we cannot control, or a fear that someone might not be there for you, leaving an emotional or financial vacuum behind that will never be filled? A hole in your heart? What is the fear??

Everyone is waiting, either to take their loved ones back home, party and survive for a few more decades, or to get that final shock. But it’s the fear that gets to us all. The fear of death of our loved ones. The fear that we’ll lose them. For that’s something we’ve not understood or fully realized. That’s something that we cannot prepare ourselves for, that’s something we cannot provide for them. That’s a journey which everyone takes alone.

Death. Cannot be controlled, hand held, or won over. Everyone loses to her in the end. Everyone fails to find answers about her. She’s mysterious, alluring, fearful and scary. And her stroke is powerful. Nothing will save you from her. Nothing. Nada.

Image source

Dona Paula and her lovers

Seven kilometers from Panaji, Goa’s capital city, as the moonlight hits the crashing waves at the rocky Dona Paula beach, an apparition rises, floating to the shores, crying in its anguish. She’s a lady, stately and elegant, wandering and lost, gliding on the rocky shores of the hammer-shaped headland that divides the Zuari and Mandovi estuaries, the two major rivers of Goa. She’s naked and wears nothing but a shiny pearl necklace that glitters around her neck. Her long hair whip and gasp, constantly in motion, like the waves she glides on. She walks up the steps, reaching the viewpoint so popular with tourists during the day, and cries out in pain, a silent scream that dissolves in the crashing of the sea.

Two whitewashed statues, ravaged by the salty air, stand by the bay. Even through the corroded marble, the two lovers look away, one to the east, one to the west. I imagine Paula to be a soft spoken, polite and cultured Portuguese. The official story says she was part of an extremely affluent family, the daughter of the Portuguese Viceroy of Jaffnapatnam, in Sri Lanka. Her family arrived in Goa in 1644 which is when she married Dom Antonio Souto Maior and became Paula Amaral Antonio de Souto Maior. She was a kind woman, who helped the villagers and worked for the betterment of the local peole. So much so that when she died, the fishermen renamed their village after her. Her tombstone, says the same version, lies in what is now the official residence of the Governor of Goa, at the westernmost tip of Dona Paula. In the Chapel at the Governor’s Palace at Raj Bhawan, she lies. There on her tombstone, is an inscription in Portuguese by her inconsolable husband, who begs those who might read it to pray for the salvation of her soul. Which makes me question. What would such a kind hearted, generous lady would’ve done to need the blessing of salvation from strangers till eternity? What crime has she committed that she hasn’t been able to find peace in more than three hundred years? dp

(image source)

Continue reading “Dona Paula and her lovers”

Tantric Tales: A documentary, real life stories and an occult quiz

The occult quiz is back by popular demand! This time, it’s the kind people at The Beehive who’ve owned up everything tantrism and will be hosting it at The Humming Tree, probably the coolest place in the city to hang out at. We will talk about Cult of Chaos, do an occult quiz (with prizes), a documentary on witch hunting in India and finally, the thing I’m most looking forward to: Everyone who comes there, the audience, the barman, the friends and family, will all sit in a circle and tell a real life story they’ve heard about paranormal, supernatural and tantrism.

VENUE: The Humming Tree, Indiranagar, Bangalore
DATE: 26 April, 2015
TIME: 4-8pm

So come, listen to occult stories! It’s going to be fun. Here’s the fabulous invite made by Aakanksha.

Chillli lemon Beehive final


Exploring the supernatural with Shweta Taneja
author of ‘Cult of Chaos’
In this session of The Beehive, we will explore some secrets of dark magic, tantrism and cults that exist at the fringes of our society with a documentary on witch hunting, a quiz and trivia session and a discussion on tantrism with author Shweta Taneja whose new book, Cult of Chaos has been published by Harper Collins India.
4.00 pm – Documentary
5.00 pm – Trivia and Quiz
6.00 pm – Discussion on Tantrism and Cult of Chaos by Shweta Taneja
6.30 pm – Book Reading by Shweta Taneja
7.00 pm – Story Sharing Circle
We invite all of you to be a part of this and share with us your own personal experiences or stories that you’ve heard from your mother about what happened to your aunt’s daughter’s brother-in law when he was travelling through the Western Ghats on a full moon night.. or the one about the neighbour who took a swim in the village pond and was possessed by the spirits living in the old peepal tree, where she hung her clothes. The best story will get a signed copy by the author!
———————————————The Humming Tree is a concept Live Music and Arts Venue (operating as a bar/café as well) opened in June, 2013 and located in Bangalore, India.———————————————

The Beehive is a participatory gathering of all the wonderful pool of talents, dreams, hopes, skills and innovations. We all share, we all learn, we all love. Every month, ‘The Beehive’, at The Humming Tree brings something new.


See you all there this Sunday!

Six kinds of people you meet at book clubs in Delhi

‘You’re everywhere,’ cried a guy who came to three of my Meetups in Delhi over the same weekend. Yes, I was. Two weeks in Delhi and I wanted to meet, chat and listen in to what the crowd in the capital city was reading. What kind of book was it buying and what kind of writing was it pondering on. And I wanted to tell them about my book, my writing experiences and the crazies I’d learnt.

So I met four different book clubs, did a lecture at Jesus and Mary College and at National Institute of Fashion Technology and mostly met all ages of people and had a ball. Plus discovered that I’m sticking to running for fitness on my own. (Thanks Kay, for that!) But it was fun, to meet all kinds of people in Delhi. The kinds who read books, the kinds who write them, the ones who sell them or publish or market them and the ones who love to talk about books without really sitting cozily with one. Here are the kind of people I met in Delhi’s book clubs.

The curious kinds

They are the ones that come to meetings/gatherings to listen in. They’re usually open to ideas, exchanging information, helpful, impressionable and actually hear things you might be saying (reason you have to stop saying vague things you’ve been saying all your life). They want to know you, your book, as well as how you wrote it. They have a lot of questions and are open to ideas.

The gifting types

The whole reason they’re there at the meeting or gathering or panel or even your own book launch is to come up to you and give you their own work. A signed copy of their work or an excerpt. That’s it. They’re not there to listen or even to talk or to read, but to promote their own written work. Well, I appreciate gifts in any form, especially books!

The selfie hogs

Oh yeah, they’ve attacked the book clubs too. They won’t buy your book (probably don’t buy any books really), but would want to get a photo of themselves with you to post online and boast and who knows what else?

The excuse types

They feel slightly guilty at coming at a do without picking up the author’s book. (Perfectly okay, since you might not actually like the said book) But the excuse-breed, gives you reasons why they’re not picking up your book. Reasons like ‘I don’t have money today. I will order it online.’ or ‘It’s cheaper online. I’ll order it there.’ Or they’ll just smile, and sneak out without saying bye. Even though they had the most questions in the session.

The smugs

They are the kings and queens of the world. They already know everything, even though they’re attending a writers’ session. They come loaded with preconceived notions about the writing, publishing and marketing process (having not gone through it). Their questions are usually hidden assumptions, pandering to a need to be proven right. ‘You put the ‘Mature readers’ cover to sell the book, right?’ ‘You have a connection in the industry right?’ ‘It must be easier to sell a book if you’re a girl/boy/drag queen/naked.’ Oh, and they never buy the book.

The naysayers

The ones who feel nothing is right in the industry of writing and publishing. No one buys books, no one publishes the right kind of books. No one is sensible out there. Someone should buy Indian author books, someone should publish amazing books, someone should. And no, they don’t buy the book either.

Oh, well. It’s Delhi after all. 🙂 Here are a few photos of the various thingummies I did.

Know of any other Delhi book-reading kinds? Type away below.





Three breasts and their stories

Everything to do with a woman’s breasts is taboo in our society, even though most of us have drunk milk from our mother’s breasts for the first year of our lives. The word ‘breast’ itself is a bleep on Indian television and cleavage mostly is blurred.

I had attended a theatre workshop some years back, women only, where the lady conducting it asked all of us to hide our body part which represented the word ‘shame’. All of us, Indian, speaking different languages, put hands across our breasts.

Like with all things, the ones that are most shameful or taboo are also the most attractive, desired in pornography, in Bollywood films and giggle-worthy MMSes in our Parliament. Breasts have become a complex symbol that combines both our sexuality and shame, something that we desire highly (both men and women) and at the same time are shamed by.

The three breasted goddess at Meenakshi Temple, Madurai

This brings us to the first story I have for you, a hair-raising story of shaming breasts that I read thanks to an artist who shared something recently on Facebook. It’s the story of Nangeli, a dalit woman who lived in early 19th century in Cherthala. And unlike the stories I retell, this one is based in history and not myth, or in oral history as is the case with most past things one hears. In 19th century, the kings of Travancore had a breast tax on dalit women, called mulakkaram, which was to be paid by dalit women so that they could cover their breasts. The bigger the size of their breasts, the more the tax was to cover them up. Upper caste women could cover their bodies, without needing to pay any money to the state.

Continue reading “Three breasts and their stories”

Yogini, menstrual blood and its power

When I first opened a Facebook page for Anantya Tantrist, the female tantrik protagonist of my fantasy series, I got a well-meaning advice from a ‘friend’ who informed me that Anantya can’t be a tantrik. His reasoning? Tantriks are all males. Women at best are support systems for them or their muses or powers.

As is the style of social media, he was quite confident about his uninformed opinion, calling it a fact. I politely asked him if he had heard of yoginis. He sort of had. ‘Aren’t they supernatural deities?’ he asked. Hmm, yes, I answered, and no.

Though mentioned in the Vedas as tantrics and even rishikas, centuries of patriarchal stronghold on written traditions have erased yoginis and their legacy from collective consciousness of our mythology. We don’t know much about these women, these yoginis, though there are a few international scholars who are trying to fish out texts and oral mentions in our collective histories. Some scholars call them accomplished sorceresses, some think they are the female versions of yogis, or women who are mistresses of yoga. They’re known across the world as celibate nuns, enlightened women, white magic witches, healers, saints, women who have mindpowers or siddhis. Women who are powerful, and independent and usually stand outside the traditional boundaries of patriarchy.

In today’s times, no one knows much about them. Discovered as recent is The Chaunsath Yogini temple, which stands in Hirapur, a small hamlet near Bhuvaneshwar, Orissa, is forgotten. I have to ask multiple rickshaws, who don’t know where it is. Locally, it’s known as the Mahamaya temple. Even though it’s a festive week, there is no one here except me and my husband who has been dragged along.

The temple itself is a surprise.It was discovered in a jungle in 1953, by a archeologist. None of the locals regarded it with any importance. It’s a circular shaped structure of stones, small and cozy. Inside is open to the sky. They say that the place is so powerful that no ceiling is needed to protect its power. Small, delicately carved images of the sixty four yoginis, created with black chlorite stone, stand in quiet contemplation inside, each a feet high, their hairstyles unique, breasts and body shape enhanced. There’s no sanctum sanctorum, nothing to protect them. Outside is a long flat platform, where the caretaker whispers dramatically, they used to sacrifice animals and even humans to tantric practices. I’ve never heard about this cult before, so I research. Continue reading “Yogini, menstrual blood and its power”

Why tantriks sit on top of a dead body on a new moon night and meditate

I don’t like death. I cringe everyday when I read about it in the newspaper. It happens to a stranger, unexpected, when you’re just eating a burger in a café. It happens after a prolonged, wearisome illness. It shockingly and violently happened to those little innocent children in Peshawar last month. I cringe every time I read about death, in newspapers, on social media. There’s no escaping it.

When I shifted to a new city, away from my family, each time the phone would ring, my first thought would be of something bad that has happened to my family back home, usually death in all its possible scenarios. Always anticipating bad news.

Near my house, I once saw a man lying askew in a corner. He smelt rotten; flies hovered over him. The cops didn’t touch the cadaver, as if the dead can cause death to the living, waiting for the hearse, the corpse pickers, the professionals to come and pick them up. For we all feel like that, that somehow death would catch us unaware, like a really bad cold.

Then I visited the Manikarnikaghat in Banaras, one of the main banks of the River Ganges, where about five to ten dead bodies are burnt every minute, and I was strangely attracted and repulsed by the place. I stood there, tightly hugging myself, looking at people in the business of cremation and how they went about their work – fetching logs, putting them efficiently on to the silk covered body, smashing the spine to break the corpse if it didn’t burn well – all with an ease of writing emails or throwing garbage. And I saw the others, the living, who stood on the sidelines as well, some involved, some bystanders like me, standing there. As if we were watching someone fight, or as if it was an accident on the road. Death both fascinates and repulses the living. It also causes fear and all kinds of superstitions.

While researching on my tantric fantasy, Cult of Chaos, I came across a dreadful tantrik ritual related to death, which was both awful and intriguing. Called Shava Sadhana, it is whispered about in conversations as if the very act of talking about it might bring in bad luck (and fatality) to the person. It’s practiced in a graveyard, on a new moon night. The sadhaka (the one meditating) is supposed to go through rigid rituals and then sit on top of a corpse all night, meditating all alone. Not any corpse, it has to be a fresh, complete, and unharmed one.

There’s a reason here for doing something that is obviously shocking. Tantrism believes that you have to set yourself free from the shackles of society, and its morality and religion. Started in medieval times in protest to the puritanical Brahminical religion which was ridden with racism, casteism and dogma, the tantrik activity accepted anyone into their folds as a student and encouraged them to unlearn everything they had learnt growing up in a society and become like an infant again. Like a baby who can eat her own shit or human meat without any judgment, drink her own pee and doesn’t think of nakedness as anything but there.

Shava Sadhana is in many ways the culmination of the tantric philosophy. It’s about touching and exploring that one thing you so fear – death – and the one thing you feel is impure – a dead body. All night, sitting on top of a corpse, realising you’re alone in your death, that dying is the supreme truth. That all of us have to go through it. Alone. And in that way, try and purge your fear of death.

I recreated the ritual in a scene in my tantrik fantasy, Cult of Chaos. Even though I took a lot of liberties in terms of rituals, there was one feeling that I got from it, which I think was true to the ritual. When Anantya Tantrist, the tantrik detective in the book, sat with a corpse touching her naked body, she (and I with her) felt alive. We touched the clammy, cold flesh of the dead and we could feel the blood pounding in our veins and hearts, could feel the way our lungs filled with oxygen, could feel life coursing its way through us. Being with a corpse also made her (and me with her) realise the ultimate truth – that she’s mortal and she’s going to pop off soon enough. As will I.

As will all of those I know. For all humans go that way. Experiencing the ritual, the scene, with my character was so powerful that it still remains with me. It is one of the most brutally truthful scenes I’ve written. My fears of death are still very much alive, especially death of my loved ones, but I can see it not as a disease that can somehow, somewhere be avoided, but as the truth, that will come to us all one day. No matter how much we fear it.

Cult of Chaos, Harper Collins; Rs 350.

First published in Dailyo.in