Geneva Diaries #14

Indian Mythology, Temples and Spiritual Journeys, Vamana, Jatayu, Servetus, 9/11, Privacy and The New Social Contract


Dear Roger,

We last left off in Goa, the Indo-Portugese paradise with swaying palm tree, blue beaches and white washed churches. At that time, despite Murakami lying besides me, I opted for Dawkins whom I relished but could not complete as (and for a change) many real life adventures lay awaiting. So, leaving Dawkin’s (The God Delusion) incomplete by my bedside, I left Goa for my much awaited spiritual quest.

I travelled from Delhi to the state Of Andhra Pradesh on the south east coast of India. This journey to the south, to my paternal heritage, which was accompanied by the vivid and familiar sounds of my grandmother’s slender long fingers playing the Veena to the music of M.S. Subbulaxmi in the background, to the much revered Hindu Temple devoted to lord Vishnu the preserver (part of the Vedic trinity), a much revered temple and pilgrimage site called Tirupati.

M.S. Subbulakshmi:

Hanuman Chalisa – MS Subbulakshmi:

 See below the sculptures that adorn the journey up the Seven Hills to the temple of Tirupati:

See below what looks uncannily like the sculpture the smiling Cheshire Cat…for where Alice goes Chess follows:

As I may have mentioned to you earlier, my journey from Dawkins and The God Delusion to the spiritual journey was seamless and each piece was enjoyed in its own space. As you may have heard me say before, for me, there has never been a conflict between science and spirituality as I have seen the very religious, the agnostic and the budding atheist existing harmoniously, side by side in my own household. A place where physics and mathematics, history and literature was discussed interspersed with melodic Sanskrit poetry and verses from the Vedas (often recited from sheer memory),  recreating in our own little living room, 5000 miles away, some of the brilliance of Balliol. 

And so, searching for my 101 answers, I embarked upon this journey down south via air and on foot, all alone (me and my ponytail) up the seven hills to the sacred site of this ancient Hindu temple build in 300 AD – Venkateshwara Temple, Tirupati. This external journey, this arduous climb, reflected the spiritual journey/quest within. I was hoping that concentration, silence solitude and an immersion in the symbols (and spectacular sculptures) of my culture would bring me a step closer to resolving the turmoil within. As I passed each landmark, each vibrant expression of my culture, history, mythology, I searched the symbolisms and the stories to better understand and interpret my predicament. I passed the larger than life, 30 foot figure of Hanuman (the monkey god) or “pawan putra”, the god of the wind and prayed that he shelter and protect me as he sends favorable winds in my direction for the journey beyond. 

See sculpture of Hanuman:

Venkateshwara temple:,_Tirumala

The sculptures, and relics of ancient art seemed to come to life cheering me on my way. I passed the exquisite sculpture of Vamana, the fabled diminutive (dwarf) brahmin, and had to pause and stare at the unbelievable handiwork of the sculptor, so perfect was his work that the world blurred and the story unfolded…King MahaBali, the ruler of the grand and beautiful land of Kerala, the just and honest king, the epitome of virtue, much loved by his subjects was not content with being the ruler of the earth and the netherworld and desired to conquer the heavens. The petrified gods fled to Vishnu (the preserver and the patron deity of Tirupati) and begged for help (imagine gods begging for help?). Vishnu realized that despite King MahaBali’s great virtues, the king had been overtaken by the greatest vice of all, the ego, and returns to earth in the form, the Avatar, (yes, the origin of our cyber realities can be traced bak many thousand years to Vedic mythology) of a diminutive brahmin. In Indian mythology we have the gods and the demons playing out their theatrics similar to Greek mythology, but we have a third element, the wily brahmin, who comes in the most simple and humble form and whenever he appears, he inevitably wins the day.  For it is he who wields the pen and it is he who writes the story…(heh, heh, heh). 

Back to the story: King Mahabali had invited all the scholars or “pundits” of the land for a great ceremonial prayer sacrifice or “havan”, upon the completion of which, as was customary, each scholar received a generous gift. However, when it was Vamana’s turn, the king found that he had an empty treasury and was unable to offer a gift. Vamana, the diminutive “pundit” feeling very much slighted asked for three paces of land, one he could cover in three strides. The king, despite being advised against it, and looking at the diminutive form of the brahmin (the diminutive form is representative of the relinquished ego, which of course in our culture portends immeasurable power) laughingly agreed. Vamana then grew gigantic, blocking the sun and the skies, in one stride he took the netherworld, in the second the earth, and asked the king where he should put his foot for the third. The king recognizing his folly and being the good and virtuous king he was, kept his word, and offered his head for Vamana to rest his foot. King MahaBali was pushed down into the netherworld, but Vishnu recognizing his virtuous qualities made him immortal offering to let him rejoin his people on earth once a year post harvest (which is celebrated in Kerala as the Onam festival). This diminutive form, this relinquishment of the ego, was the piece I embraced and charged ahead with renewed vigor and enthusiasm ready to take on the world.

However, my vigor and enthusiasm was short-lived as the next (mis) adventure loomed. As I  embarked upon the climb through the forests up the seven hills in the late afternoon, my taxi driver who dropped me at the base, looked at me ominously nodding his head (I find I do the head nodding quite a bit myself, veddy veddy gud) and said that it would take at least 5 hours to get up and that it would be dark soon. I said veddy veddy gud and thanked him. I was a quarter of the way looking around at the beauty of the forest, the lovely deer and disregarding the looming posters warning of hyenas and other wild life when I found a woman pacing my step. A decoy. She asked me where I was from, upon hearing that I was from far away, she proceeded to ask me if I was traveling alone to which I smiled and replied “YES”. I think I need an official name change to D-O-N-K-E-Y. She laughed and rolled her head back, that was when I saw the fangs. She was none other than Surpanakha, the demoness that harassed Rama during his exile in the forest and had her nose cut off, the sister of the demi-god king Ravana, the story that instigated the grand epic Ramayana! She conveyed my situation to others along the path and I found myself being harassed by (her demon brothers) as I walked up. See the story of Surpanakha below:

It was getting dark, the forest seemed to be closing in and my nani, maternal grandmother, appeared in my vision. My nani, a no nonsense, steely and determined woman, with a face creased with lines of wisdom, was a woman who saw the fires of Partition (of India) first hand, as she had to flee home land and loved ones, secure infants and family, and rebuild all from a handful of saving (as they left Lahore for India). She in my mind embodies common sense and that seems to be the one quality I missed every time I had the option of selecting my choice of gems/attributes I desired for this lifetime. Commonsense seems to come in the “Kullar” or  rustic earthen cup which this Indiana Jones never picks. My holy grail always appears to be in the cup that promises eternal youth and beauty, the diamond encrusted cup, with the promise of everlasting love. But this time the “Kullar” or earthen cup was flung at me by my grandmother and I folded my hand prayed fervently and ran as fast as I could up the mountain.

See below Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade – Choose Wisely:

They couldn’t possibly harass a pious pilgrim with a ponytail, could they??? I also envisioned lord Buddha (who is an avatar of Vishnu whose doorstep I was visiting) resisting the stones and calls as he went from village to village with a begging bowl. The music from the temple atop the mountain floated down and suddenly I found the sky overcast and Jatayu, (the nephew of Garuda, a mythical bird representing speed, strength and prowess found in both Hindu and Buddhist mythology and in the art, architecture of numerous cultures across south east Asia) with his wings spread at my feet. Jatayu is remembered for his noble and selfless act of devotion to Rama and Sita in the Ramayana as he attacks Ravana the demon king as he is abducting Sita and sacrifices his life in the bargain.

See Jatayu below:

Jatayu Nature Park – Kerala:

 In my instance, Jatayu whisked me off my feet and flew me through the forests, the seven hills and deposited me at the last gate leaving me the last 50 steps to climb. Everyone was shocked to see me up the mountain in 2 hours instead of the five looking as crisp, clean and new as when I left; the driver rolled his eyes in disbelief and asked me if I had flown up, little did he know…

The final adventure of course was the next day when we visited another even more ancient temple (completely unplanned for) called Kalahasti.

 A temple a little over two thousand years old, mentioned in Sangam literature and even supposed to have been visited by Sankaracharya. Kalahasti is a Shaivite temple (dedicated to Shiva, the destroyer, and a part of the Vedic trinity) and renowned for the famous Shiva lingam (sacred phallic symbol) also dedicated to Hanuman the son of the wind god or Monkey God; his presence being perceived in the lamps of the inner chambers which seem to flicker without the presence of any wind. The living temple, the richness of its art and sculpture, the sense of being one with my culture was more than I could have asked for in any one trip. 

The temple is also renowned for the deity that represents the consort of lord Shiva (Parvati), and as I proceeded into the dark inner chambers, I saw the very pale outline of what appeared to be an ancient priest, almost one with the temple. The priest shone the lamp into my face smiled knowingly and declared that I had Rahu Rog, I was being chased by Rahu. Yes, the same Rahu of our last few correspondences, the demon that tyrannizes the heavens and periodically swallows the moon (ironically, Purnima means full moon in Sanskrit!). The priest then performed a little prayer on my behalf and chanted some verses but looked at me gravely but sympathetically as I left the inner chambers. I then found myself embraced in the inner chambers of the main deity, the Shiva Lingam, and while the young priest performed a prayer for the worshippers, the high priest in the distance, completed his rituals in front of the main deity. It was when the high priest turned around at stared at me standing right in front from the inner recesses of the chamber, that I thought I saw a sea of emotions and a flicker of recognition (yes you may contribute it to the incense or my legendary imagination), it was as though he was looking at a child from his ship, a sparkling child, one that was forever hanging from the look-out tower, raising yet another false alarm that India was here!  I was after all a child from his community, and I saw him slowly retreat into the shadows as his head bent down. 

The vision of the high priest receding into the darkness with the bent head stayed with me all the way back to Delhi and it was much later that I recognized where I had seen it before…The Cigogne, The story of the Crane!

It follows…Do you wish to hear?



PS: The external journey was truly reflective of the journey within, with the culmination in the inner chamber in the presence of the deity, the deity within.


Dear Purnima,

What a treat to find three of your swirling and mindboggling stories waiting for me this morning when I open my inbox.  Did your fingers spend the entire night dancing over the keyboard ?  Insomnia or creative impulse ?  I can imagine you still asleep this morning trying to recuperate from you night-long orgy of fantasy.

The most fascinating one for me was the Cigogne and the Story of the Crane and how you so deftly wove patterns of ancient mythology into the fabric of current reality – truly masterful !

I’m fascinated by the Siberian Crane and your father’s patient waiting for signs of its arrival and the fact that he included you in this annual quest for the fulfilment of a symbolic ideal.  And those picture of his own special crane are haunting.  Yes, of course, I recognize her, but I also recognize much that is you today in that radiant beauty of yesterday and those deep, penetrating eyes.

And you’re reading Dawkins now as well !  It’s also intriguing to me how you can mingle the symbols and religious figures of your inherent culture with the objective and logical thinking of an atheist.  It reminds me of an episode of House where he is suffering from hallucinations, very real and vivid hallucinations, of the deceased girlfriend of his one and only friend.  He can’t quite put his logical and objective mind around what is happening to him.




Dear Roger,

You must be wondering what I am doing up and writing to you at this late hour. Well, believe it or not, the din of my home has just quietened, and I finally have a few moments to myself (the last mail was spun out in complete chaos). AND, after a long day with the brats, and Fred Figglehorn and The World of Fred/youtube (where I made the fatal error of laughing and so was immediately initiated), I am yearning for adult company and I can’t think of one better than you, its time you created an Avatar that floats around when you are asleep.

Well, I did leave my last email incomplete…pending. The story of the crane needed to be told, so how could I go to sleep?

The Siberian Crane, a magnificent migratory bird, mentioned in my previous emails and one that has captivated the imagination of many people and cultures across Asia, is on the critically endangered list. The bird originates from Siberia and flies thousands of miles across many different terrains to its wintering and breeding grounds in the wetlands in the south The eastern branch of the crane migratory path passes through China, Korea and Japan where its deeply embedded in the myth, poem, art, embroidery/textile, story, sculpture and song and dance. The symbol of the crane stands for luck, long life and happiness. The central branch which flies 5000 kms from western Siberia to Bharatpur (or Keoladeo national Park in Rajasthan) close to my hometown, has not been sighted since 2002. Apart from the long and dangerous flight all the way from Siberia across the Central Asian republics, Afghanistan and Pakistan where it is trapped and shot, over the mighty Himalayan ranges all the way to Rajasthan in India, the loss of habitat (wetlands), human encroachment and poaching, environmental contamination are some reasons for it being pushed to the brink of extinction. There is no instinctive sense of this long migratory route, and so each population of crane has to have learned it from the previous population. Unfortunately, the central population of the Siberian crane that used to visit India has completely vanished, and the young one have no opportunity to learn the route to their winter homeland. See below The Siberian Crane (critically endangered):

And then of course, there is the Tale of the Crane Wife. The popular folk tale being about the crane weaving her feathers into garments and thus having to remain behind on the land as wife.

My tale, a phantastic tale, however started with my last email to you where a charming knight besotted with the Siberian Crane visits the Bharatpur lake just for a fleeting glimpse. Then once upon having gazed at the crane pleads for it to remain, to take on human form and become his wife and partner.

They have a wonderful and vibrant life full of fun, and laughter, completed by a couple of babies who are told that if they believe it, they can fly. The knight dies, the babies are scattered and the Crane flies back to the wintery unapproachable recesses (within herself). However, there is one chirpy chick that is determined to undertake the adventure and wants to fly, fly far, faraway! Before the chick can squawk it wants to fly, before it can hop it wants to fly. It imagines itself as a great grand crane, but it is actually little nemo with a broken wing (in this instance, a faulty internal GPS system). So, one day it leaves with the clan, gets distracted and flies over the passes towards the rainbow. “Ooh, how beautiful is the rainbow”, she thinks as she dives and a twirls and across the passes. The others have been left far behind and only her two babies diving and flipping in tandem follow her. Well, she must not panic, she must act grown up and show the way for now she has young ones to care for. So she flies and she flies and she flies across mountains and oceans and endless oceans and yet again endless oceans when she seems to sight land in the distance. As it nears she sees a lake, “wow a lake so far away, this must be the one my father mentioned”. 

But, she was way, way off course,( that faulty GPS) and grotesquely mistaken. This was NOT a lake, this was a reservoir! There were sign boards up in the air that she ignored that told her so, THIS IS NOT A LAKE, this is Hetch Hetchy reservoir! They landed, tired and hungry looking for some food and shelter, a moment to rest.

It was year 2001 and this was no space odyssey, there was something ominous in the air, the people seemed possessed, gripped by fear, there were cracks of gunfire being broadcast from all channels, the fear mongering was like an incessant beating of drums and loud ear blasting sounds of leaf blowers. The baby chicks ran helter-skelter for shelter among the rocks, then they moved to the bushes and then the trees but there was no respite. We were an unknown species that had landed in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The paranoia of an alien, inscrutable, unidentifiable image suspended in the midst of daily life became glaringly apparent… I had just dashed off to get a box of cereal leaving my shopping cart for a minute, I returned to find everyone under theirs with their eyes beckoning for a swat team, the cheerios flew up into the air like a thousand tiny handcuffs braced for action lol! My indistinguishable accent, a lean and sprightly frame (forever on my skis), my dark locks bouncing wildly on my shoulders, and a deep color that appeared vividly green caused a strike out I guess. The old cranes worried sick inquired, “how have you reached the Land of the handgun, home of the (Amburger, Ambbbuuurger, Hammburrgerrrr) Burger”? Get OUT of there asap, fly east and you will be guided. So, we set off across an incredible endless land mass till we reached the ocean. It was here that we were met by the Cigognes that flew with us wingtip to wingtip across a vast ocean till we saw land again (a vivid image of my last Swissair pilot comes to mind). Here, magically a crystal blue lake appeared out of nowhere and seemed to invite us in, the mountains on all sides seemed to be smiling and we landed smoothly, happily, knowing that we had landed on the lake my father so fondly remembered, we were on our way home. However, the shrill sounds of the reservoir, seemed to echo all the way across the oceans to this pristine lake. The Cigognes who were ever present and everywhere and saw all, shrank back into the shadows with their heads buried in their chests. A vision strangely familiar, one I had just experienced. The high priest in the inner chamber…my last email! I still wonder if it was my mind superimposing the image, perhaps, possibly!



PS: 9/11, Privacy and The New Social Contract: As I continue on my exploration of human nature, I begin to recognize all the signs and see first hand how easily we relinquish all our layers of protection with each onslaught of fear mongering. Somehow this tussle between the all absorbing avaricious State with its looming shadow and the citizen ensnared beneath it all gets explained with every alarm and emergency until we get to the inner sanctum, the inner temple, our sacred space, our core privacy, it is here that we need a roadblock for once that is relinquished we cease to exist as individuals. Is this Brave New World sans privacy portending a new social contract where for the sake of security we agree to relinquish our individuality and submit to being reduced to an agglomeration of data? If we cease to be, what then is the State? For as I mention repeatedly, The State is but human construct and not an omnipresent being.

The Guardian – We need to build a new social contract for the digital age:

Dear Roger,

This is the last and final story, I promise! And yes Back to Servitus and Geneva, Switzerland!

You have to hold my hand as I jump back and forth between Geneva 2009-10 and Geneva 1553: The trial of Servetus. The Spaniard whom I mentioned in my earlier emails was tried by the Genevan Council (under questionable issues of jurisdiction as it cannot be inferred that the crimes he was accused of were committed in the territory of Geneva and denied legal representation despite several requests), convicted of heresy and burned at the stake here in Champel.

Darkness seems to have fallen earlier than usual, the day seems abruptly curtailed. As I peer out with bewildered fascination from behind my sofa onto the main road in Champel I hear crowds stomping through the street carrying burning lamps above their heads, holding pitch forks and axes. Then I look again and see bundles of greenwood neatly tucked under their arms as they get ready for the burning at the stake of the blasphemous Servetus. However, the alarm has been sounded and Servetus is missing, so the crowds are scouring the streets searching for him, searching for me! 

That is when one of the little kids sees a ponytail peeking out of the grand window of my living room and a familiar eye. He is heralded as a hero and I am clasped in chains and brought before the city council for my final verdict. This is when Farel comes onto the scene and says, “Purnima, all we are looking for is an admission”, “just say it”. In the original version, Farel requests Servetus to recant so that a less severe punishment might be imposed, but Servetus sticks to his ideals but begs for a more humane end and not that of the burning at the stake. But here, 500 years later, and to Purnima who so embraces the revolutionary essence of Servetus, Farel poses a different, yet similar question, and asks for a confession instead of a recantation. Farel says, “Purnima, all you need to do is just admit, for once just admit, that YOU ARE AN ALIEN”. “No, absolutely not”, I respond, and hold onto my position. Thus Farel sees no option for me but the burning at the stake and that too with GREEN WOOD…a slow painful death.

As preparations are underway,  I am overcome with grief and struggle to find my voice. Someone says, “she is trying to speak, say something”, and Farel once again turns around to me as I gather my tear chocked voice and ask for one last final wish. “So, you want a last wish”, he says, “sure, what is it, a phone call, a cigarette, a txt”? “No, no” I gasp, all I want is my …”what”, he says? “My, my, my…my lipstick”, I respond with my last breath. Yes, that’s all I asked for, that’s all I would have asked for as I envisioned my body floating up to the heavenly abode…how could I have met Him without any lipstick!?!

The following day of course I ran into Globus and ensured that I did not run out of Dior(D)rama for the next 500 years!

A final goodnight.


Disclaimer : P

All persons, places, events are fictitious; all imputed relationships purely aspirational. There were no men harmed during the penning of the Feminist Manifesto.

Purnima Viswanathan 

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