Wednesday, August 4, 2010

#40. Food Draupadi Cooked

Food Draupadi Cooked
I have been exploring for some time as to what food was cooked during the time of Mahabharat. Or to be more exact what food did Draupadi cook for her five healthy husbands including one who was a glutton. I will tell an apocryphal story about Bhim at the end. For the present, let us explore what foodstuff was available during the period 1500-1000 BC which is the approximate period of the story of Mahabharat.
Flesh of various animals was of course available in plenty. Deer and ducks were the favourite hunt. Other birds like partridges and quails (teetar and bater) are available in plenty in the country even now so it should be available even then. Krishna was shot dead by mistake by the arrow of a professional hunter who lived on what he could get and kill in the forest in the daytime to be sold in the market later in the day. Salt was there, but probably of the mineral variety. The area now in Pakistan has salt hills. Among other condiments and spices, India has been a source of cinnamon, mace, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom, pepper and turmeric in the spice trade with the west for ages, and those should have been there at that time also. But the real question which bothered me was about the cereals. Well, wheat farming spread to Asia about 4,000 BC. Simple domestic grinding stone was probably there for making wheat flour. Unleavened or non-yeasted chapati is made in India even today. Rice is native to India and has been there for 10,000 years., so are cucumbers and gourds including small Indian gourd known as parval. Among the minor millets, sorghum (jowar) is a more recent introduction to the country. . But barley (jau), bajra, kodo, kutki and saawaan should have been very much there. A vaidic writing mentions barley and rice as “two immortal sons of heaven.” Maize was developed in Mexico about 7000 years ago, but it is said that it has spread to Asia only about 5 centuries ago. Whatever be the case, parched grain was quite popular and it could have been used as a snack. Sugarcane is also a native of India. So gur or jaggery would have been there. Honey was known. Milk and milk products were there.
Goat was domesticated long time back, from the time settlements came into being in place of nomadic existence. As for deep and shallow frying, and lacing dal, chapati and rice with fragrant fat, butter and ghee (clarified butter) are milk products. The other source of oil was mustard oil which reportedly has been in the country for over 3000 years. Green peas, masoor and kesari have been in India since 1800 BC to 2000 BC. So have probably chick peas (chana) and pigeon peas (arhar). Wild tubers (kand-mool) including wild onions and fruits like muskmelon or cantaloupe were there and some green vegetables. Garlic and water melon were probably not there. Banana, a native of Malaysia, is mentioned in the Buddhist Pali writings of 6th century BC. This also may have been there. At least Alexander took it from India in 327 BC. This could have been there during Mahabharat times. Among other fruits wild mango, wild berries (ber), and wood apple (bel or sriphal). Tamarind is a native of tropical Africa, but has come to India long long ago. It also was there probably in wild conditions, but whether its use as a souring agent was known at that time or not, I haven’t been able to find out.
So the menu is complete. The normal menu of Draupadi contained plenty of animal or bird flesh cooked with ghee or oil, rice, dal, chapati laced with butter, and the curries spiced with the basic condiments like onions, turmeric, pepper, cloves, and of course, salt. For vegetables, gourd, cucumber and tubers. For the dessert, yoghurt with honey or gur, and sweets like wheat flour mixed with gur syrup and deep fried. And kheer or payas sweetened with gur (milk pudding). Come to think of it, the menu has hardly changed over the millennia for an average Indian.
And what was vanvaas or exile which the Pandavas had to undergo after losing in the gamble where the dice were loaded, courtesy Shakuni? Even now in the tribal areas of Central India, forest adjoins the habitation, so Pandavas must have gone a little away from the habitation, in the forest area, maybe in the fringe and not very deep inside.
It is interesting to remember that the Portuguese brought to India potato, tomato, cauliflower, tobacco and surprise of surprise, red chillies. Another surprise item which has probably been brought by the Europeans to India is pumpkin, which is a native of South and Central America. Good old days in the conservative Brahman family of ours, if you ate vegetables like cauliflower and tomatoes, you had to do penance. This included some rituals including eating a small amount of cow dung. Most priests were satisfied if you touched it with your lips! One story that my uncle (bless his soul) used to relate of his young days was that of a kinsman who had to undergo such penance in the presence of a priest, and as the priest was also a kinsman, after the penance when they went to his house people saw the same vegetables being cooked at his home. Soybean as a source of edible oil came to India only after independence and sunflower even later.
Now the joke. It is said that a sage gave a blessing to Bhim that Bhim will eat and Shakuni will shit. Once Bhim ate an entire tree. Imagine the distress Shakuni was in next morning!

#39. Mahabharat: The Greatest Tragedy Ever Quilled

Mahabharat: The Greatest Tragedy Ever Quilled

People talk of Greek tragedies. After reading and reading for 65 years I have come to the conclusion that there is no greater tragedy written in the history of mankind than our own Mahabharat. Nor was there any story ever told of more epic dimensions. Let us get down to the barest outlines. The characters are human, vibrant, and full of foibles. Not as weak as they are in Ramayan as they are all idealistic in the latter. Anyway my idea is not to compare the two great epics but to talk about Mahabharat. Do you know that in Indian homes womenfolk were not supposed to read Mahabharat. They were of course supposed to know Sunderkand of Tulsi's Ramcharitmanas by heart. This was about Sita in Ashokvan in the captivity of Ravan. The reason was simple. All the women in Mahabharat are amoral and independent: Ganga killed her seven children by drowning, Kunti had 4 children born out of wedlock, Draupadi had five husbands, and Krishna had a harem to beat any Mogul empereor. Draupadi was proud and insulting, and she paid for it by being stripped in front of everybody and ultimately rescued by Krishna, and she in turn never combed her hair till she washed her hair with the blood of the person who dared disrobe her. This was done for Draupadi by Bhima, but she had her heart on Arjun as compared to all his brothers. Which conservative household in India would like their daughters and daughters-in-law to go through such stories and get ideas? And the end of the story. The battle of Kurukshetra lasted for 18 days. Kauravas started with 11 akshauhini and Pandavas with 7. Each akshauhini is a chaturangini force consisting of charioteers, horsemen, elephants and foot soldiers. The total comes to a mind-boggling 2,18,700 in an akshauhini (if you include mahouts and chariot drivers the figure comes to 2,62,440) and the total of Kaurav and Pandav forces to be a mind-boggling figure of about 47 lakh. This is obviously an exaggerated figure, and has to be discounted. My own guess is that they started with armies of 75 and 50 thousand. But at the end of eighteen days you were left with only a handful. The one hundred Kauravas were finished, all the army on both sides almost completely wiped out, and Draupadi's five children (by five respective husbands) treacherously killed by Ashwatthama. And the Pandavas. Ultimately Abhimanyu's wife begets a child who was born dead and was brought to life by Krishna (blue baby?). Parikshit. Come to the ancestors. In their last days Kunti, Dhritrashtra and company started living deep in the forests, and then one day they all perished in the jungle fire. Pandavas perished on the way to don't know where in the Himalayas. Only Yudhishthira stayed alive, and went to golok which means he died some time later, though peacefully. And the worst was to come to Krishna. His clan fought among themselves and perished. At that time the sea rose in height and submerged the kingdom (it is proved now by undersea archaeological remains) which Krishna had built so assiduously over the years away from Mathura where he was troubled by the frequent incursions by Jarasandh. He entrusted his womenfolk to Arjun. On to way to a safe hideout, the caravan was attacked by bandits. Arjun was confident that he could beat back the entire horde by his famous Gandiva. But lo and behold, he couldn't even string his bow. And almost half of the ladies were looted away right in front of his eyes. And Krishna: forlorn, dejected, alone was sitting under a tree where he was killed by the arrow of a professional hunter. After the Pandavas left for Himalayas the throne went to Parikshit who it seems was killed by snake bite. Not true because he was probably killed by Nag tribals. And his son Janmejaya had a Nag-yagya, which would mean that he hunted and killed whichever member of Naag community he found. I remember, in Chhota Nagpur area of Bihar (now Jharkhand) there are some Nagvanshi Kshatriya who were landlords and minor ruling princes. To sum up, whenever I think of Mahabharat, it fills me with sadness and sometimes moves me to tears. Which tragedy can equal this great epic of ours? To end the story on a farcical note. To think that Devilals and Chautalas are the descendants of the same Kauravas and Pandavas!

(This was originally published in the e-magazine SAWF)

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

#38. The Mahabharat War Widows

The Mahabharat War Widows
The battle of Mahabharat lasted for 18 days. The Pandavas had seven akshauhini and the Kauravas 11 akshauhini army. An akshuhini is a chaturangini army consisiting of 21870 chariots, equal number of elephants, 65610 horse-mounted warriors, and 1,09,350 infantry (in the proportion of 1:1: 3:5). According to this, the Kaurvas had about 24 lakh and Pandavas about 15.31 lakh, totaling almost 40 lakh soldiers. I don’t believe that such large number gathered at ‘Dharmkshetre Kurukshetre’. My best guess is about 75 thousand and 50 thousand. It was 1500 B.C. and conceiving such large number of warriors in Aryavarta is an absurdity. The total population of Aryavarta at that time should not be more than 5-6 lakh.
2. The entire armies were annihilated. It is interesting to note that on the Pandava’s side, the survivors, apart from five Pandavas were Krishna, Satyaki and Yuyutsu, and on the Kaurva’s side Kripacharya, Kritavarma, and Ashwatthama. The total comes to 11!
3. The Yadava clan in Dwarka fought among themselves, and whole clan was wiped out (Remember the Nepalese royalty which was assassinated en bloc at one go by the heir apparent himself!). Krishna entrusted the ladies of Dwarka (including his own consorts) to Arjun to take them safely to Indraprastha. On the way the group was resting at a place. Some robbers came and tried to forcibly take away the womenfolk.. Arjun challenged them, and tried to string his bow Gandiva. He could not, he was too old weak to string his famous bow. And in front of Arjun’s eyes, the robbers took away almost half of the women accompanying him. The balance could anyhow reach Indraprastha. The point I am making is that a very large number of widows gathered at Indraprastha, and also at the various small principalities spread throughout Aryavarta. What happened to them? There is a brief mention in Mahabharat that after the battle was over, Yudhishthira ordered proper cremation of dead soldiers. One does not know what would have happened to a large number of those maimed, as it is mentioned that the total force on both the sides perished, which is very improbable. About widows, there is mention that Yudhishthira ordered that they should be looked after properly. What actually happened to them? Polygamy was prevalent, and many would have become wives to the already married. What about the older women. There must have been created a large force of ladies whose status was no better than that of slaves.
4. The other point that has bothered me is the logistics during the time of the battle. The armies came from different places, some near some far. I have tried to place the various principalities to their locations in Aryavarta. It is an approximate and imperfect exercise, and I am open to correction.
Gandhara: Afghanistan. Gandhari and his brother Shakuni came from here.
Madra, Kekay, Sindhu: Pakistan, mainly in the Indus valley.
Dwarka, Avanti, Saurashtra: Gujarat
Matsya: Rajasthan
Panchal: Bihar. Draupadi came from here. That is why she is known as Panchali.
Vatsa: Bundelkand in U.P.?
Chedi: Northern M.P.
Kashi: Eastern U.P.
Kosala: North-central U.P. (Faizabad )
Mall, Magadha: Bihar.
Anga: Bengal.
It must have taken them week to 10 days to reach Kurukshetra (in modern Haryana). Even after the armies reached the battleground, a few days were spent in arranging the armies (sort of dress rehearsal). So the provision had to be arranged for about a month. It is not out of place to mention here that one of the main reasons the Marathas lost the Third Battle of Panipat was that the Afghans blocked their supply lines, and they were forced to fight or face the rebellion among their own people.
5. Each army which reached Kurukshetra must have carried a lot of provision with them. I don’t know where did such large gathering of fighting forces got the firewood. And then there was forage for the horses of horsemen and chariots. Sadly the numbers in the armies depleted very quickly during the battle, and proportionately, the need for provision as well as firewood.

Monday, August 2, 2010

#37. Don't Miss This Rainy Season

Every year lakhs of trees are planted in the month of July as part of Van Mahotsav, but the results have never been encouraging, the mortality bring more than 90%. Obviously we need some other measures to plant more trees. I am told that in Chamoli district (Uttarakhand) when a bride goes to the husband’s place after marriage, she plants a tree in her father’s place, and it is the responsibility of her parents and brothers to maintain that plant. This is an imaginative way to add one more tree to the environs.
Several pretexts can be found to plant trees. At a number of places Smriti vans have been developed where a person can plant a tree in the memory of his near and dear ones who are no more. He has to give a small amount to the organisation for meeting the cost of the plant and the upkeep of the tree, at least till it is big enough to fend for itself. Elsewhere in this blogsite, I have added a small write-up on Nakshatra Van where some trees have been associated wirh the birth Nakshatra of the person and it is concerned auspicious and beneficial for the person to plant a tree of the variety. This can be done collectively as well, and Nakshatra Van can be developed with plants earmarked for the 27 stars, ( At another place I have added a write-up listing trees suitable for planting in Central India/ Gwalior (
Recently in Dainik Bhaskar, Pt. Pushkar Raj has listed trees according to Rashis of Hindu astrlogy (not Nakshatrs). The list as given by him is as follows:
  1. Mesh and Sinha: kadamba and ashuplalak ashok (Probably he means Polyalthis longifolia, as the tree is also known by the name Ashupal).
  2. Vrishabh and Tula: Yagyiya or Brahmavriksha or Palash (Butea monosperma).
  3. Mithun and Dhanu: Ashupalak
  4. Karka, Makar and Kumbh: Gamhiri (He probably means Gamhar_Gmelina arborea) or Sriparni (Is it Bael_ Aegele marmelos?)
  5. Vrishchik and Kanya: Mango
  6. Meen: Vatvriksha_ Ficus benghalensis
He has also mentioned that in Shivadharma Purana (5/118-121) it is said that the Shiv Garden should be beautified with:
-Bilva (Bael or Aegle marmelos)
-Chameli ( Jasminum grandiflorum or J. officinale)
- Vijai
- - Rajark (Could be aak_Callotropsis gigantea)
- -Karvir
- -Kamal (lotus)
- Kuljak
- -Punnag
- -Nag
- -Bakul (Maulshri)
- -Ashok (Saraca asoca)
- Utpal
- _Champa (Michelia champak). Could also mean Plumeria.
- -Kadli (Banana)
- -Hemguthap
Panditji has used Sanskrit words. I have tried to mention the common devnagri names wherever I knew. I will welcome if for other names somebody helps out.
I have been searching for a list of non-browsable trees for a long time. Up to now I have found the following trees belonging to the category:
Karanj ( Pongammia pinnata)
Teak (Tectona grandis)
Laxmi Taru (Simaroba glauca)
Chiraul (Haloptelea integrifolia)
Kanair_Thevetia bush
With roaming cattle the bane of our towns and even cities, these could be tried. I would welcome addition from any body in the list.
So, plant a sapling this rainy season. You will be happy to see it grow. What does it matter if it is not within the homestead, but around your house, in some park or roadside! And remember, please see it through. You will have to water it for 2 years, especially during summer. Good luck.