The Mural at Paliakara

The Western entrance of the Paliakara Church with the Kalkurisu

III Paliakara

Along the Kayamkullam-Thiruvalla Highway from Thiruvalla town, about a kilometer and a half after the Cross Junction, to your right, lies the Paliakara St. George Orthodox Church. It was an early April evening, as Kurian and I arrived at its gates. The evening prayers had just concluded and the laity dispersed into the church grounds. Kurian rushed to the trustee’s office to ask for the acolyte as we needed to catch him just as he finished his prayers.

It had rained that afternoon and though that was not uncharacteristic at this time of the year, the sky was a persistent gray. From the gates of the church that evening, one could see a gray cumulonimbus that hung heavily, cloaking the town of Thiruvalla. I had spent the early half of the day in Kottayam scanning the records at the Orthodox Theological Seminary, checking for details of churches. Kurian was downstairs talking to one of the Rambans[1], updating himself on the many, less than theological, affairs of the seminary.

I decided to stroll about the seminary campus but the April showers made a leisurely walk impossible, so I walked through the narrow wooden corridors to the museum at the far end of the seminary complex. The Meenachal river curved from the east, cutting into the tall grass, to create a horseshoe route for itself. Even as the rains came down, I men sawed into an old teak damaged by the previous night’s thundershower.

The museum

The room I walked into had suggestions of a museum without quite being one. Sure enough, it had collections of old books, sacred beads and Syriac bibles which were at least a couple of centuries old, ancient urns and photographs of churches and of the many Metropolitans that guided the Eastern Churches of the Malabar. The museum is a rectangular room, with a low roof and uneven wooden flooring. My guide, a student of the seminary looked bored and on occasion ill-informed about the objects. He didn’t seem to mind that I wanted to touch some of the artefacts. Though the presence of antique objects and the dusty interiors suggested something of the nature of its past, the room lacked a salient feature of a museum — the disciplining of space. More than a collection, a museum ought to be a curation of the past, a carving out of that which was, from that which is.

It was my guide’s generosity, however, that led me to a photograph stowed away in the eastern wall of the museum. It is that photograph, discovered in an unkempt museum, that rushed us to Thiruvalla

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Steel umbrella

I was distracted by the kalkurisu in front of the western door of the church[2]. A woman in a pale brown saree stood lighting the oil wicks at the base of the stone cross, but what drew my attention was what seemed like a steel framed umbrella erected above the kalkurisu. There was a slight shower and the woman and the burning wicks were protected from the rain.

As you walk through the poomukham of the western entrance, a vague and yet pungent smell of burnt wicks overtakes your senses. On either side, people crowd around oil lamps. The passage through the poomukham ushers you into the Bishop’s quarters in the southern wing of the hykala. Through the dwarfed door, you notice a neatly prepared bed decorated with consecrated fabric and next to it, the familiar portrait of Parumala Thirumeni[3], one of the most identifiable faces of the Eastern Orthodox tradition in the Syrian Malabar tradition. I saw an old man kneel in front of the portrait, and stepped back into the hykala.

Kurian was waiting for me in the centre of the hykala next to the thookuvilakku. Next to him was the acolyte, a frail old man, with a pronounced moustache. To my right, on the north-west corner, a wooden stair led to what I expected to be the balcony. The low wooden western ceiling constituted the base of the balcony. The rest of the roof was the familiar combination of thick wooden beams supporting a lattice-like network of sloping wooden planks.

A view of the wooden balcony

the wooden balcony

Perhaps the acolyte noticed the direction of my eye, and even before I asked, he informed us that the balcony was sealed. I asked if we could see the Madbaha. He acolyte walked up to the kestroma and vanished behind the Madbahaviri. Kurian and I stood expectantly as the Madbaha was unveiled.      

The Mural

the mural

The mural – blues and reds

The first thing you notice about the magnificent mural of the Madbaha is that the whole composition is constituted by three colours – blue, red and white. The narrative potential of the mural seems to hinge on the combinatory potential of the blues and the reds on a white surface. The narrative is a catalogue of the important episodes of Christ’s life as outlined in the Gospels. Implied in the organization of colours is a hierarchization of the characters in the narrative. In the entire layout, only Christ and Mary (and on one occasion God) are robed in red.

Blue, when used, is often a cloak used to embellish the red robe. In the portions that represent the resurrected Christ, we see him in a white loincloth wrapped in a red cloak. Only on two other occasions, the Baptism and Crucifixion, do we notice a Christ in a white loincloth, devoid of any colour. In contrast, many of the other principal characters, such as the disciples, the patron saint of the Church, St. George, or St. John and Mary of Clopas (in the Crucifixion scene) all appear to be attired in blue robes wrapped in red cloaks. Though the whole visual structure hints at creative conservatism, the reversal of the colours appears to be a deliberation on their narrative potential. The visual narrative is itself arranged around the central iconography of St. George slaying the dragon. This very central image makes it possible for us to distinguish two parts to the mural.

The base of the mural

The base seems to be a rectangular arrangement whose length and breadth is balanced by the central icon of St. George. The base is itself two-tiered, with its upper left portion depicting two important episodes of the Virgin Mary’s life – the Annunciation and the sisterhood of Elizabeth and Mary. The upper sections in the right are constituted by two significant miracles from the Gospels – the resurrection of Lazarus, and the allaying of St. Thomas’ doubt by the resurrected Christ. Here only Thomas is bestowed with a halo. Is it to suggest the linearity of Thomas’s journey from doubt to faith, I wonder. Perhaps it is a reassertion of the role of St. Thomas in the indigenous imagination; to the indigenous mind, St. Thomas’ journey towards faith was crucial enough to be highlighted in the larger narrative scheme.

The characteisation of St. Thomas as unique amongst the disciples

the characterisation of St. Thomas as unique among the apostles

The mural base is also characterized by an attempt at narrative continuity: there appears to be a parallel drawn between St. Thomas’ skepticism and Mary’s skepticism[1]; the news of Mary’s conception is adjacent to the news of John’s conception by the elderly Elizabeth. The base of the mural also prepares the viewer to appreciate the narrative as it continues into its upper tiers.

The upper section

The upper section is divided into two layers. The lower layer is organized around the central episode of the Crucifixion. To the left of the Crucifixion are the crucial episodes of the Nativity and the Adoration of the Magi. To the right are two episodes centered around John’s life. First is the episode of John’s birth: Mary and Joseph praying as Zachariah holds the infant and adjacent to that is the Baptism of Jesus by John. The upper layer is organised around the episode of Mary’s Assumption. The Assumption is flanked by the two stages of Christ’s own journey towards death: the Cross bearing Christ at Golgotha and the Resurrected Christ.

The whole upper section of the mural is an elongated semicircle resting on the rectangular mural base. The episodes were delineated by neat floral frames. This visual demarcation of the episodes does not, however, break the continuity of the larger visual narrative. In many ways, the very fabric of the visual arrangement seemed to be a study of the concomitant inevitabilities of birth and death. Even the circular interplay of the different specimens of reds and blues only appear to re-enforce this point.

Perception is thus a function of proximity. Seen from a distance the mural could very well be treated as a deliberation on the arrangement of reds and blues on a white canvas. Seen as such the iconography may be a mere appendage to the artist’s imagination. The truth is there is really no way of substantiating the logic of the arrangement.

However, as we stand at the kestroma we see that the mural on the Madbaha offers the only bit of colour in the interiority of the church’s structure. Even within the Madbaha, only the eastern wall, which housed the mural exhibited any colour. It appeared as though the mural was the focal point of the imagination that engineered the Paliakara Church.

 

As I had walked through the western doors of the church an hour earlier, I had set my eyes on: the old Bishops’ quarter, robust stone pillars, an elegant thookuvilakku organizing the interior dimensions of the church; and yet amidst all those aspects the Madbaha remains the most majestic.

 

I stood at the door of the church.  The late afternoon shower had ceased and the overwhelming gray had dissipated. The church grounds were deserted. The lone lit wick in the kalkurisu was extinguished by a breeze. A beautiful lavender made its way from the horizon and bled into the fading twilight blue.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1]One of the ranks in the Theological hierarchy just below the Bishop.

[2]The primary entrance of this church.

[3]Translates as the Bishop from Parumala. It is a reference to Geevarghese Mar Gregorious from Parumala, one of the most famous bishop-saints of the Malankara Syrian Church.

[4]Though comparison between Doubting Thomas and the young anxiety of the Virgin Mary is not obvious it reveals the significance of skeptical thought in the larger rubric of Christian mythography. Just as Thomas was skeptical about the news of Christ’s resurrection so was Mary skeptical of Christ’s conception in spite of being a Virgin.

All photographs and text are by Jonathan Varghese, and cannot be reproduced elsewhere. (jonathan.varghese@gmail.com)

Jonathan Varghese is affiliated with the Department English, Lady Shri Ram College, University of Delhi. This is a part of a larger research project on the murals, structure and oral sources for the history of the Nazranis

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Karthikapally: Art and Faith

II Architecture, Research, and Narrative

by Jonathan Varghese

Finding St. Thomas Orthodox Cathedral, Karthikappally, isn’t very difficult if you know what you are looking for. Often the church is identified with the place itself; Karthikappally, a small village in the Alappuzha district of Kerala. The church is in close proximity to the Valiyakulangara Kshethram¹ and Valiyaveedu Sreebhagavathy Kshethram and as such this geographical proximity is nothing peculiar; it is, in fact, a larger symptom of the intersectional quality of faiths in and around this region. The rhythms of the church bells, with the kshethra keerthana² diffusing, impregnating the air forming an invisible canopy of faith at dawn every day.

A view of the Church from the Northern Gates

                                 A view of the church from the northern gate

I, however, reached here on a wet summer evening, when the clouds cloaked the skies just enough to make your shirt stick to the skin and pray for respite. There were no church bells or keerthanas now. It may have been twilight but there was no way of knowing; my watch read half past six.

On that June evening as I walked in through the northern gate of the church³it took me a few minutes to grasp the shape of its structure. The place looked deceptively similar to the structure of a Kshethram, but I was certain that there were going to be a few surprises for me here. When I walked in through the gates, there were a few things I could claim to be certain of: from the archives of the Orthodox Theological Seminary I knew that before it assumed its present shape, the original building had thatched roofs, which eventually came to be replaced by mud tiles. These records also showed me that the original northern and southern walls were as high as conventional church walls.

Standing in front of the real thing though, one realizes how insufficient “records” are. I wondered how could one truly archive the vision and experience of this church.

After the addition of the poomukkam (traditional portico) with an entrance on either side of the church, the walls of the church appeared to be only a few feet high from the ground, giving the impression that the walls are supporting not a church but a magnificently elaborate roofing system.

It is an illusion, of course, engineered by the intricately tiled roofs of the northern and southern portico. In order to truly appreciate the uniqueness of the structure, we need to walk over to the (now sealed) western entrances [4] of the church.

View of the Church from the South-West

Standing there at the western corner it would be impossible not to appreciate this marvelous feat of engineering: the edges of the central roof effortlessly folding underneath the roofs of the northern and southern portico giving the western facade of the church the impression of a singularly colossal triangular arrangement. The plastered texture of the western facade is decorated with three wooden doors and a wooden balcony window placed just above the central door. There are three crucifixes plastered into its surface around the balcony window. The edges of the tiled roofs are decorated by neat wooden carvings, whose shadows add more depth to its surface. To an attentive viewer, the aesthetics of the exterior of the structure, like the western facade, would be an appropriate metaphor for the intersectional nature of the building plan.

As I walked back to the northern entrance, I noticed a flicker of light hovering around six feet above the ground, just outside the northern poomukham. As I approached it, I was surprised to see an oil wick that had survived the lazy monsoon drizzle — but more so to see the source of the oil wick: a kal vilakku[5] placed outside the northern entrance[6]. I looked for clues until I found a stone cross surmounting the vilakku. It retained the morphology of any kshethra vilakku, surviving (I thought) the many attempts at purifying Christianity; the last resilient vestiges of a faith in transition, cloistered from the outside world by a looming dampness.  This lonely lit wickpersuaded me into the yellow-lit insides of the church.

Kal vilakku in front of the Northern poomukham

kal vilakku in front of the northern poomukkam

The northern entrance (the only one open to the public that evening) lead me through the poomukkam to what appeared to be a long corridor which comprised the aisle. It is not too wide and seems to have been designed to lead us into a room, adjacent to the Madbaha[7], that houses the relics of St. Thomas. The room is only a few feet high and its ceiling is a complex network of wood carvings. On its eastern wall is a painting of St. Thomas.

At the foot of the painting, within a glass cubicle case is the relic. However, in spite of its apparent significance of the relic to the church and its legend, the most noticeable thing about the room was also its least likely object. On the southern wall of this room, on the edge where the wooden wall and roof converge was the head of a wild boar. The presence of a wood-carved wild beast in the room that held the relic of the Apostle was quite astonishing.

The room that houses the Relic with the Wild Boar in the South-East corner

 

Nila Vilakku

Nila vilakku

The hykala[8] of the church is organised according to a code that is recurrent in the Nasrani tradition: there is a red carpet that stretches from the Kestroma[9] to the end of the western corner of the church, that divides the floor into the northern and the southern halves. In the centre of the red carpet, equidistant from the northern and the southern walls of the building is the nila vilakku (floor oil lamp). The lamp is an apparent incongruity and like the architecture of the church, it is borrowed from Hindu traditions. With my back to the nila vilakku, I look at the now revealed [10] Madbaha. Unlike the famous St. Mary’s Orthodox Syrian Church, Kottayam or the St. Mary’s Knanaya Church (Kottayam Valiyapally), the altar is bereft of any murals. The Masthaba (high altar) is defined by the characteristic gold and red wooden ornamentation and the carvings on it are as diverse as angel busts and fruits and flowers, in the centre of which, was placed a wooden crucifixion. The whole arrangement seemed to be a study in irony;  standing there in front of the altar I couldn’t comprehend why the crucifixion, the most important feature of the altar, should have looked out of place; as if it were an after-thought, an apologetic addition mitigating an unbridled artisanal imagination.

The Madbaha

The Masthaba in the Madbaha

The Masthaba in the Madbaha

If one were to bear in mind that within the visual and the spiritual aesthetic of the church, the Madbaha is conceived as the principle centre, the one in Karthikapally church is a real oddity.

One notices a dissonance, as though it withheld from complying with the rules of composition. The Madbaha did not seem to replicate the elaborate narrative potential of the rest of the church’s architecture. Looking away from it, we are struck by the complex lattice-like network of wooden beams that supports the tiled roof. At the western end, suspended between the nave and the roof is a wooden balcony which houses the old and (now) dilapidated Bishop’s quarters.

I ascend the wooden stairs in the north-western corner.  About five feet from the landing of a dimly lit square corridor there is a door sealed with the fabled manichitrathazhu.[11] The Bishop’s quarter. The whole place smelled like a wet cloth; the smell of fungus I thought. At the edge of the balcony, which covered almost a third of the nave’s aerial space, an eerie smiling wooden figurine overlooked the nave.

Six animals

Wood Carvings of Animals (4)

 

 

 

 

The most striking aspect of the balcony was its underside or the roof of the western corner of the nave. At the intersections of the wall and the wooden roof, I discovered a peculiar combination of animal wood carvings that embellished the base of the balcony’s structure —  the six animals represented included an elephant, a tiger, a bull, a horse and a house cat nursing its kitten. Wood Carvings of Animals (5)

Seen in isolation these wooden carvings seem to have no place in the interior narrative of the church. However, in the larger context of the building, these carvings, particularly their incongruous quality, typified the essence of the church’s structure. The animals, wild and domesticated, were perhaps suggestive of the indigenous imagination coming to terms with something alien; the machinations of the artisanal lineage absorbing Christianity into the shores of Alappuzha.

Wood Carvings of Animals (3)

Wood Carvings of Animals (1)

 

Wood Carvings of Animals (2)

The seated bishop

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The Karthikapally church is most famous, I was assured, for the discovery of a seated corpse buried near its foundation on the April of 2007. All the pamphlets available in the Trustee’s office spoke of this: a corpse and all the fanfare surrounding such a serendipitous discovery. The seated position suggested that the person buried may have been a Bishop and so after special prayers, the corpse was reburied.

 

 

 

 

The Discovery of the Bishop's corpse

The oil lamp marking the Bishop’s burial site

A dead Bishop should be allowed to rest, everyone agreed. The whole thing was a miracle everyone said. A vilakku (oil lamp) placed on the floor of the southern aisle, marked the celebrated grave of this unknown Bishop. I thought it would have been interesting to know the identity of the Bishop. There was something miserable about the whole affair, I thought; anonymity in death.

The air was still humid as I walked out. I had seen many remarkable things. A church that looks like a temple, the relic of St. Thomas, a fortuitously discovered grave of an anonymous Bishop, kal vilakku, a beautiful brass nilavilakku and, the most remarkable thing about the church, and perhaps its most dubious feature, the wooden animals. As I was leaving the premises of the church I had to admit to myself that the animals of Karthikapally intrigued me.  

 

All photographs and text are by Jonathan Varghese, and cannot be reproduced elsewhere. (jonathan.varghese@gmail.com)

Jonathan Varghese is affiliated with the Department English, Lady Shri Ram College, University of Delhi. This is a part of a larger research project on the murals, structure and oral sources for the history of the Nazranis

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[1]Temple (usually Hindu) in Malayalam.

[2]Devotional songs from the premises of the temple.

[3]The gate opens into the road and is, therefore, the only way to the church premises.

[4]The Church had three doorways but every one of them except the northern entrance was sealed to the public.

[5]Oil lamps carved in stone, usually found in the premises of a Hindu temple.

[6]I subsequently noticed them in front of all the remaining entrances.

[7] The sanctuary, the Altar.

[8] The nave of the church

[9]Where the Vicar conducts the main part of the service. The Kestroma represents the link between the world of the laity (hykala) and the Sanctuary (Madbaha).

[10]The Madbaha (Altar) in the Orthodox Syrian tradition is veiled using a Madbahaviri on all occasions except during service.

[11]A complex locking mechanism that produced a characteristic metallic ring when opened. The use of the lock was often a sign of social status, in this case, it was used on the door of the Bishop’s cabin.

Angamaly: Finding one’s way

The only surving portrait of Mar Thoma I 2

 

I Architecture, Research, and Narrative 

by Jonathan Varghese

Just off the Salem-Kochi Highway is the St. Mary’s Jacobite Syrian Church (declared as a Soonoro Cathedral as recently as 2009 and so alternatively identified as St. Mary’s Soonoro Cathedral). However, as a researcher of old Syrian Christian churches these titles wouldn’t have helped me. I needed to speak the language of the Syrian Christian Malayali[1]and ask for directions to the Angamaly Valiyapally.  Even this wasn’t precise enough since Angamaly had two “Valiyapalli’s” (translated as Big Churches) — the St. Mary’s Jacobite Church and the St. George Syro-Malabar Basilica. I needed to be specific and so I asked for the Yakobapalli, and then, without much delay, I found myself in the South-side entrance of the St. Mary’s Jacobite Church.

This is something that stands out when one seeks out research materials on the Syriac traditions of Kerala – the seeming difficulty with gaining access to your material. One shouldn’t misunderstand this. The Orthodox Theological Seminary, Kottayam is a vast reservoir of information – of theological debates, of the many divisions of the original Syriac traditions, and much litigation around church history- but the information that I sought was very different. I was interested in those aspects of the church that are unavailable in documents, aspects that survive in the oral songs of Marghamkalli, visible and material manifestations of a form of syncretism that I saw as the essence of the Syriac traditions that evolved in the Malabar region.

On this trip, I wanted to study the narratives that are manifest within the walls of the church. When I set out to learn about the Nazrani traditions of Kerala, it wasn’t long before I realised that to study syncretism, I needed to study the church, its structure; that the very being of the church is my library.

I couldn’t enter my ‘library’ without the consent of the ‘librarian’ and I was yet to discover whether, here in Angamaly, that person was the vicar, the acolyte or a trustee of the church. I was told the vicar would take a while, that the trustees were absent and that the acolyte would meet me in a while. Today, my librarian is the acolyte.

Standing at the southern entrance of the church, I decided to busy myself studying its layout.

Kal Kurisu

Kal Kurisu

I walked to the western entrance to encounter the familiar sight of the “kalkurisu” (stone-cross) facing a portico, which looked a little out of place in front of the facade[2] surmounting the western entrance. Nothing remarkable there.

So I moved towards the northern entrance to find it locked but adjacent to the door is the tomb of the former Metropolitan MorKurillos Geevarghese (of Ambattu family).

As I stood, facing the tomb, my eyes caught the script of a strange language inscribed on the wall. It was Syriac, a language that shares a peculiar relationship with the Nazrani tradition.

Syriac Script mounted on the wall

Syriac script mounted on the wall

It is at once hailed as a part of their liturgy; as the historical language that carried their faith across the oceans, but alternately, and rather ironically,is also distanced as a symptom of something alien, as a distasteful metaphor, an unhappy reminder of the very source of the split between the Jacobites and the Orthodox factions.

Procedures for entry

When I walked back to the Southern gate, the acolyte greeted me with a skeptical expression. I explained my intentions: to document and eventually digitize the murals of the church, and his apparent concerns were allayed. However just before I stepped in through the door, he asked me ‘who’ I was. A seemingly redundant question, considering I had just explained myself, but I gave myself a few seconds to decipher his real question: was I from the Orthodox faction?[3]I smiled and assured him that I was from the Syro Malabar (Catholic) faction. He seemed satisfied and urged me on.

When you enter the St. Mary’s Jacobite Syrian Church from the southern gate, your eyes are met by the grand image of the Last Judgement.

Last Judgement above the Northern entrance

Last Judgement above the northern entrance

The five-tiered structure of the painting is peopled by the easily discernable figures of the Christ of the Second Coming, the Archangels, the Bishops and the last layer, closest to the bottom, of sinners.

The structure of the church is its very own narrative. The church is designed to complement the many legends of Christian mythography.

As is characteristic of the Nazrani churches, the floor of the church was divided into two halves, the northern side and the southern side by a red carpet no wider than 3 feet that stretched from the Madbaha (Sanctuary) in the East to the main entrance in the West. During the course of the liturgy (Qurbana), the laity is not allowed to step on this stretch of the church floor – as it is believed that the ancestors of the parish assemble on that stretch during the course of the Qurbana.

For instance, the practice of women standing on the southern side and the men on the northern side was devised keeping in mind the veil (Madbahaviri) that curtained the Madbaha. During the course of the Qurbana, the Madbaha is always unveiled from the left to the right, such that it was women who witnessed the sanctuary before the men– a seeming reiteration of the episode of Christ’s resurrection and his first appearance to women. It is an aspect of the Christian myth that is revisited on every occasion of the Qurbana.

However, what caught my attention is the “thookuvilakku” (hanging lamp) suspended on a brass chain from the ceiling and hanging 3 feet from the floor of the church. It disrupted the continuity of the church’s interior narrative. It was a non-synchronous presence, an aspect borrowed from the Hindus (Nairs), a valuable materialevidence of the syncretism that shaped the rituals of the Nazrani community. The Pazhaya Suriani Palli in Chengannur, the St. Thomas Orthodox Church, Karthikapally and the St. Mary’s Church in Thiruvithamcode, to quote a few, are visible manifestations of this aspect of the Nazrani imagination. They direct our attention to an alternate narrative of social formations in the Malabar region.

 

The thooku vilaku in the centre of the church

The thooku vilaku in the centre of the church

The narrative continues. With my back to the Last Judgement surmounting the northern entrance, just above the southern entrance is a fantastic mural depicting Hell. Unlike the distinctly tiered structure of the previous mural, this one epitomizes the chaos that is Hell.

Hell is peopled by sinners, naked human bodies subject to torture in the hands of green scaly demons. Lucifer overlooks the chaos and at his feet is Judas Iscariot identifiable by the bag of silver coins. The bounds of hell are framed by the mouth of an inverted snake, whose eyes flank the southern entrance of the church. With the Last Judgement to my back and Hell in front of me, I turned to my left towards the sanctuary, the holy Madbaha.

Hell above the southern entrance

Hell above the southern entrance

The Uninitiated

So far, I occupied the nave of the church, often referred to as the hykala. A step higher than the hykala is the kestroma, separating the nave and the altar. I stepped into the kestroma. The acolyte was uneasy and he called out to tell me I shouldn’t step into the Madbaha, that the kestroma was as far as I could go. I assured him that I knew this and that I would wait for the vicar to unveil the Madbaha.

To my left was a mural of what appeared to be an indigenized version of Christ’s debates with the Pharisees. On the right, I found two distinct murals– one with the resurrected Christ visiting his disciple Thomas and another depicting the first appearance of Christ after the crucifixion. The narrative seemed incomplete here. I needed to see the Madbaha to know the full shape of the narrative.

After about an hour of the acolyte’s caution, the vicar appeared. He listened to me and without much delay unveiled the Madbaha. We seemed to agree on the significance of documenting these fading murals. The acolyte was satisfied. The Madbahaviri slowly unveiled, from the left to the right, the shape of the sanctuary.

The Madbaha was rectangular in shape and at the far end was the Masthaba (high altar) supporting a huge wooden cross flanked by several candles. The Masthaba was framed by a highly ornate woodwork painted in red and gold. The wood carvings revealed the familiar floral patterns and suggested the presence of rich mural work behind it. I could not step in, and so photography was impossible from the kestroma. The vicar stepped in and he took the shots of the murals on the three walls surrounding the masthaba.

On the eastern wall of the church (in the Madbaha) behind the Masthaba was the narrative that depicted the life of Mary. The scenes included indigenized versions of Mary visited by Gabriel, the birth of Christ, the Virgin and the Child– a narrative topography that seemed to revisit Mary’s predominant role in Christian mythography. To the left, on the northern wall of the Madbaha is a mural of Adam and Eve’s original sin (Lucifer is a scaly demon emerging from the mouth of what appears to be a hybrid of a snake and a dragon. On the southern wall of the Madbaha is a mural of the Binding of Isaac – the moment of the sacrifice is frozen and Abraham is on the verge of murdering his son.

Adjacent to this, and separated by a window, is a triptych of Christ crucified, his Resurrection and the portrait of Mar Thoma I.

The only surving portrait of Mar Thoma I

The only surviving portrait of Mar Thoma I

This is particularly remarkable. That the Mar Thoma I/Valliya Mar Thoma who was the first native Metropolitan of the Nazrani community should be present in the mural reveals a crucial aspect of the Nazrani imagination – the very procedures of indigenization. Though remarkable, it is not exceptional. On the other hand it is a narrative symptom that can be seen in many of the ancient churches of the Nazrani community –the co-existence of the native and the alien. Even here in this church, owls, peacocks and angels coexist in harmony. Floral motifs, very similar to temple architectures flank the Madbaha.

I step down from the kestroma to the hykala. The walls of the church are empty except for the grand murals on the northern and southern walls. On the insides of the western wall are two huge floral motifs and on the ceiling, the familiar image of the Holy Spirit transfigured into a dove.

There are no saints in the Nazrani tradition. No wall mounted portraits of disciples but once in a while, on the wall is a portrait of a native Bishop or Archdeacon whose tomb is housed by the respective church.

On every occasion of the Qurbana, as the laity assemble here at St. Mary’s, the legends of Mar Thom I are revisited and a window opens to the native imagination. Ironically the church/library is open to the public but access (to the church) is quite another matter. The church as a place of worship is visited but as a site of history is never quite accessed.

Having thanked the vicar and the acolyte I asked, as parting words, for some books/manuals on the history of the church. They were sorry they said; there was nothing.Kal Kurisu 3

 

All photographs and text are by Jonathan Varghese, and cannot be reproduced elsewhere. (jonathan.varghese@gmail.com)

Jonathan Varghese is affiliated with the Department English, Lady Shri Ram College, University of Delhi. This is a part of a larger research project on the murals, structure and oral sources for the history of the Nazranis

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  1. Henceforth I will refer to them as the Nasranis/Nazranis. This is in view of the age-long quarrel between the Jacobite faction and the Orthodox faction of the Syriac traditions that manifested in Kerala. The Jacobite faction (referred to as the Yakoba) claim allegiance to the Syriac Orthodox Church in Antioch while the Orthodox faction wanted to fashion themselves into an autonomous entity in Kerala.
  2. This is a characteristic architectural feature of these churches. The façade is often attributed to Portuguese influence and along with the mud-tiled sloping roofs represented the hybrid aesthetics that is intrinsic to Nazrani churches.
  3. The Malankara church officially split in 1912 on the question of affiliation. The Jacobite Syrian faction wished to be affiliated to Antioch and the Malankara Orthodox faction wished to establish a native Metropolitan for the church. On 3rd July 2017, after many years of litigation and quarrel on these grounds, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Malankara Orthodox Church. Tensions between the factions have risen since the ruling.

 

Various Archives of interest – Gujarat

by Samira Sheikh

 

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From the Vanderbilt University website

 

Starting to write this blog post gave me a startling realization. Although I have been carrying out historical research on Gujarat, in one way or another, since 1994, I can’t think of an archive or library that I can claim to know really well. I am not the kind of historian who has spent months in a dusty regional archive, mastering its cataloguing system and getting friendly, over regular cups of oversweet chai, with the curator. I have visited a number of libraries and archives but never for longer than a few weeks (usually a few days). Nevertheless, there are some archives that are particular favourites.

The Baroda record room

One is the large branch of the Gujarat State Archives in Baroda (Vadodara), which Nandini Bhattacharya wrote about in a recent post. For anything to do with the wealthy and powerful Gaekwad state of Baroda, this archive, formerly known as the Baroda Record Room, is a wonderful resource. Over the winter of 2013 and 2014 I spent a few weeks here to examine records that explained how the Gaekwads came to control, in the early 1800s, the famed Krishna temple complex of Dwarka. I was curious about why the Gaekwads decided to make a bid for Dwarka and the distant Okhamandal peninsula in the westernmost part of Gujarat, which was not even contiguous with the rest of Baroda state. The results of my investigations can be found here.

I only worked on the English documents in this archive, the catalogues of which are in handwritten registers. The archive also contains a substantial collection of land records from the erstwhile Baroda State. While leafing through files of correspondence on the Gaekwads’ bickering with Jamnagar State over pilgrim revenues in Dwarka, I would overhear fascinating snippets of conversation between the then archivist, C.B. Solanki, and petitioners from remote villages who had come to ask for copies of colonial period records. One day a group of Third Gender individuals came in to explain that a well on their property was being disputed by their neighbours. They knew that the well had been granted to them a century ago. Surely the archives would have a record of the grant. Mr. Solanki listened patiently to them, as he did to each petitioner, summoning a peon to fetch the relevant document. Later, when I asked if I could see indexes of the land deeds, he laughed and refused. “You will not understand them,” he said. “They are in here,” tapping his head.

Persian records

The Baroda archives apparently contain a small collection of Persian documents. A catalogue of these manuscripts was published in 1945. In 2014 I was told that none of the manuscripts were in a condition to be examined. I was never able to find out more about them. It is unfortunate if the manuscripts have disintegrated or been otherwise lost as the catalogue lists a number of land deeds and letters containing rich materials for a social history of Baroda. The earliest manuscript, from 1607, is a sanad granting Maulana Bhikhaji Khatib a small allowance for lamp oil. It carries the seal of the chief judge, qazi, of Baroda, Muhammad Ahmad. A number of documents are land or house deeds that show women owning, buying, gifting, and selling property. One from 1625 (serial number 7) records the grant of 40 bighas of land to Bibi Amtul Aziz, wife of Sayyid Shukrallah. Another from 1663 (serial number 22) grants the revenues of Hanspur (Savad village) to the wife of Sada Khan. In 1696, Fatima Bibi sold a house to Sher Khan Taj Khan for Rs. 81 (serial number 31) and in 1702, Bibibu sold a house to Sayyid Pir, son of Vali, for Rs. 150 (serial number 35).

Most names in the Persian catalogue appear to be those of Muslims. But there are a number of exceptions. A deed from 1674 (serial number 24) records that Vania Kuwarji Keshav of Bahadarpur sold a house to Vania Vallabh Sangji for Rs. 51. In 1729, a liquor merchant named Ramsingh Prema secured a document granting him security. In 1768, Madhaji Ganesh bought a house in Baroda for Rs. 125 (serial number 80). In 1771, the subedar of Gujarat bought white paper worth Rs. 201 from Kriparam, a paper merchant of Ahmedabad (serial number 81). A number of documents are letters of invitations to weddings or circumcision ceremonies. A handful are letters between men of affairs of the day.

Of the early documents, relatively few pertain to the Gaekwads. Interestingly, it is only after Lord William Bentinck abolished Persian as the language of official correspondence in 1833 that we see Persian letters exchanged between the Gaekwads and the British. There is a series of letters dating from 1834 to 1844 between Sayajirao II, the Maharaja of Baroda, and British officials including Governors-General Auckland and Ellenborough. In 1842, the Maharaja made a point of congratulating Lord Ellenborough on his recovery of the sandalwood doors of Somnath from Afghanistan. It is a significant loss that all this correspondence is no longer accessible.

There are more collections of Persian records and correspondence from Gujarat in the National Archives of India, in New Delhi. Some of these were explored by Farhat Hasan in 2004. There must be many more in private and public collections throughout Gujarat. There must, equally, be surviving letters in Gujarati and Braj Bhasha. It is interesting, however, that members of the Gujarati Hindu elite valued the art of Persian letterwriting well into the nineteenth century. A number of volumes of elegant correspondence (insha’) and form letters survive that throw light on writing conventions and etiquette. One, by the well-known Ahmedabad writer Bholanath Sarabhai (d. 1886), is titled Ma‘dan al-insha’ (Mine of Elegant Style) and may be found in another of my favourite libraries – the Bhogilal Jesang Institute in Ahmedabad – which will be the subject of another post.

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From “Pictorial tour round India”, John Murdoch LL.D, 1890, British Library on Flickr

 

A neglected area

Letters and epistolography are a neglected area in the history of Gujarat. Hardly anyone has catalogued and worked on such documents. This is in spite of the fact that some of the earliest “form letters” in South Asia are from Gujarat. The celebrated Lekhapaddhati, a collection of Sanskrit letter templates, was compiled in Gujarat in the fourteenth century (and was translated by Pushpa Prasad in 2007). It gives us a splendid picture of epistolary conventions in the centuries prior, and along the way, also of social and political life. It is a great pity to ignore more recent letters, as also documents such as deeds of ownership, sale, gift and so on. Such documents illuminate social history, certainly, but may turn out to have implications for other kinds of stories as well – of gender history, urban configurations, and even exclusivist literary narratives.

This has turned out to be a post about documents I did not see at an archive I only worked at briefly. Perhaps it will interest more dogged researchers to ferret out records before they fall to pieces. They certainly exist, in archives public and private. Oversweet chai may or may not be on offer.

Samira Sheikh teaches history at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, USA. She is writing a book on Gujarat in the eighteenth century. She is the author of Forging a Region: Sultans, Traders and Pilgrims in Gujarat (1200-1500), OUP, 2010, has co-edited An Anthology of Ismaili Literature: A Shi‘i Vision of Islamalong with Kutub Kassam and Hermann Landolt, as well as After Timur Left: Culture and Circulation in Fifteenth-Century North India, with Francesca Orsini, and has published several papers among which are, ‘Jibhabhu’s Rights to Ghee: Land control and vernacular capitalism in Gujarat, circa 1803–10′, Modern Asian Studies 51, 2 (2017) pp. 350–374

 

Princely states and chatter – an overview of the Gujarat state archives

Gujarat State Archives – Northern Division

Maitree Sabnis

 

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From The Illustrated Universal Gazetteer, William Francis Ainsworth, 1860, British Library on Flickr

 

The organization of the archives

The state of Gujarat was formed on the 1st of May, 1960. Prior to 1947, it was the Northern Division of the Bombay Presidency. Administratively, it was divided into three main units, British Gujarat, Political Agencies (Palanpur, Mahikantha, Rewakantha, Kathiawad and the State of Kutch) and the Baroda State. After independence, its boundaries were interspersed with the bordering Bombay State, which was later formed into the state of Maharashtra in the same year as Gujarat. The government of Gujarat took a decision in June 1964 to set up a separate State Archives within the state which was concretised in December 1971 when a separate Department of Archives was set up. The documents focused on the records of the erstwhile Princely States of Gujarat and the records of British Gujarat located in the District offices of the present Gujarat State. The Government of Gujarat has formed two circle offices with a record repository in the city of Vadodara and Rajkot. Five District Offices with Records centers at Jamnagar, Bhavnagar, Porbandar, Junagadh, Mehasana. The head office for this is at Gandhinagar.

Princely states and secretariat records

The records found in the Archives in Gujarat are broadly divided into two distinct series, viz., the records of the former princely states and the secretariat records. The records of princely states comprise manuscripts / Books, volumes and proceedings etc. from 1820 to 1947 A.D. These records contain information regarding the administrative set up of these states; their relations with the British Government and many other issues related to both. Scholars both from India and abroad can visit the archives for academic research purposes. Foreign Scholars are required to produce a letter of introduction from their respective embassies / High Commissions and also from the Universities / Institutions. And the permission should also be taken from the Government of India & State of Gujarat. All applications for permission to consult the records are to be addressed to the Director of Archives and concerned Head of the Offices of respective Record.

The Archives located in the city of Vadodara is known by different names such as Baroda Record Office, Gujarat State Archives, Northern Division or Baroda State Archives. It is located in the heart of the city, in the Kothi complex. The Kothi Complex today houses Collectorate and just opposite to the Collectorate is a building which contains the Records. The Archive office is located next to the record building. There is no separate room for the researcher and hence often the researcher has to share a big partitioned room with other officers.

Working hours

The researcher should not mind the chatter of these officers during the working hours, for often one could listen in to important lessons of life and gain from it. The staff is very cooperative and expects to be given the copy of published work, which then might be proudly displayed and talked about with fresh researchers. The working hours at the Archives are from 11:00 am to 5:30 pm only during the weekdays.

Indexes

The researcher will find four types of indexes, leading to different areas of research:

Baroda Library Registers (Register no. 1 to 10)
Records of Commissioner Kachehri Office (Register no. 11 to 13)
Records of Huzur Political Office (total 973 daftars/potala (bundles) containing a total files of 9904 from 1875 to 1948; it is divided into about 346 Sections)
List of Baroda Residency Records (169 potala containing a total file of 842 volumes from 1770 to 1897)

Types of records

Land revenue administration

The researcher can have access to multitudes of records. For instance, if the researcher wants to work in the field of land revenue administration, they can find records in Marathi, Gujarat as well as English languages. They are both published and unpublished. The regional state of Baroda was divided into four divisions or prants, i.e. Baroda, Navsari, Kadi and Amreli. The records cover all these regions. In case of research in the field of land revenue, the unpublished documents can be divided broadly into these three categories: Sarsuba Office Records, which is further subdivided into Kirkol Branch and Jamabandi Branch; Suba Office Records; and Village Records.

Various issues which these documents cover are: correspondence about revenue matters, applications received from people about their grievances; Government orders passed on Revenue Department; Jamabandi Statements about land Revenue, Taqqavi, remissions etc; Annual reports of the Revenue Departments; Orders passed by the Sarsuba; Government notifications; and statements of rates of land revenue.

Village records

There are a number of published records, which were prepared as a part of the scheme of the erstwhile Baroda government to keep a record of government policies and its implementation. The ‘Village Records’, especially come in handy when one wants to know about the khatedars or the account holders (landholders). The Khatavahi contains records for instance of the total number of khatedars in an area, the size and value of their land holding and the amount of revenue paid, etc. Detailed information of the alienated or rent-free lands can also be discerned from these records.

Jambandi Settlement Reports

The Jambandi Settlement Reports which are in English, are annual reports which threw light on land revenue settlements in various divisions and subdivisions of Baroda state. These reports are published and contain miscellaneous information regarding the day to day affairs, besides throwing an important light on land revenue practices. Besides land revenue, those documents also throw light on matters related to opium and other customs duties, sea customs and salt matters.

 

Maitree Sabnis is Assistant Professor of Modern History, MSU Baroda. Her publications include, ‘Mulukgiri System in the Princely State of Baroda: Context and Concept’,  ‘Women And Business: The Politics Of Sahukari Pedhis in the Nineteenth Century Western India,  ‘The Structure of Law Enforcement in the Princely State of Baroda’,  and  ‘Protesting Colonial Rule: Movements in Nineteenth Century Gujarat’

Strikes in the gold fields and royal inheritance disputes – the Karnataka State Archives

The Distractions of the Archives

Janaki Nair
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‘A Handbook to the Ports on the Coast of India between Calcutta and Bombay, including the Island of Ceylon.’, Herbert Samuel Brown, Mangalore, 1897 from the British Library collection on Flickr

The tryst with dust begins with the dog-eared catalogues, in an untidy row on a rack near the few sets of tables reserved for scholars. The ambient noise and frequent and anxious queries about whether her last meal has been taken (“oota ayitha?”) combine to slowly inure the scholar visiting the Karnataka State Archives to assaults on the senses. KSA has never believed that research must take place in a sequestered environment; the true test of the committed researcher is to remain undistracted and absorbed with the yellowing crumbling pages before her despite the constant shuffle and loud talk around.

The business of settling down to work by the archival staff – opening and closing metal drawers, to the accompaniment of loud comments on the bus ride to work (now happily shifted to the travails of the metro), children’s illnesses, the state of the State – is best ignored by the scholar easing into the normal working of archives. By about 11.30 am, after having sat fidgeting in their cabins, or at their desks, depending on their place in the hierarchy, as staff start drifting away for their morning cup there is a respite when the huge cavernous archives fall briefly silent. Then, vigorous discussion is resumed, within the earshot of scholars, of the price of sites, houses in this fast-growing metropolis. Yet the stacks of files exert their own charm and fascination. And their own set of distractions.

The Kolar Gold Fields – attaching the past to the present

Looking back on my career, I wonder how often that sidetracking from the determined search for paper trails, the tracking of a chronological sequence, has been rewarding. Sometime in 1989, while in the Karnataka State Archives, I came across a reference to a strike in Kolar Gold Fields on April 6, 1930, the very day when Gandhi broke the salt laws. Requisitioning the file transported me immediately to another part of Mysore, to the dark tunnels two kilometres underground where three generations of gold miners had worked. That file, an accidental find, then led me to KGF, to “reattach the past to the present” (as Arlette Farge has put it). I developed a warm association with and a deep understanding of its inhabitants, their sense of the place as both liberating and exploitative.

An inheritance denied

Many such engagements are suddenly enabled when the bundles of files are brought out: disappointment at a trail running dry, elation when, not one, but fifteen fat files related to the debts of the Maharaja of Mysore tell a fascinating tale of women, widowed, driven to insanity, hopeful, being denied their rightful inheritance. We may not have gone looking for these women, but they spring, from the enigmatic shadows of petitions written by those adept at the law, they turn, as if in despair, to the possible new airing that the mere historian may give to their faded, papery presence.

Sensory pleasures of the paper file

Imagine the surprise when, on my recent visit to the Karnataka State Archives, I was warmly welcomed to a completely new way of doing research, since all the files had been digitized. No more that tactility, that direct connection with the past as your turn the yellowing pages, that perpetual acquaintance with dust. Natalie Davis, similarly, laments what we have lost in the process of new technologies of access, which are so much more convenient, and yet deprive us of the file as a sensory object. The petty joys of easier access, of going home with entire bundles of files in your small thumb drive, cannot replace the rewards of that meandering, that slow absorption that marked our own pasts as researchers. In that unexpected, chance encounter with the cantankerous bureaucrat, the frightened peasant, the pious but unhinged woman, that eloquent worker and his “anonymous” note, that which may never become an article or a book, or even a footnote, but yet has enthralled the reader for many hours at the small cramped desk, that encounter will never be the same again.

and of distractions that lead nowhere

I still remember the call I once received from a student who had visited the National Library in Calcutta, where she had found some strikingly relevant materials with which to take her research forward. Her enthusiasm matched that of one who discovered a new vein of gold in the dark, spent, underground. Others may report how their eyes glaze over when they see the long rows of spidery figures, meticulously maintained, on what has been spent on say, education, or on the construction of a building. But it is those who report that they have been distracted by the trial of witches when they were searching for the agricultural labourer, or by the long disquisition on the infirmities of caste when they only wanted access to the education of the artisan or those captivated by the richly embroidered handwriting in the private papers of a businessman, these trails that might lead nowhere, that make the defiantly dull environs of the archives an absorbing and enticing place.

 

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British Library on flickr: Image from ‘A Journey from Madras through the Countries of Mysore, Canara and Malabar’

 

 

 

 

 

Janaki Nair is Professor, Modern History, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her publications include The Promise of the Metropolis: Bangalore’s Twentieth Century, OUP, 2007, Women and Law in Colonial India: A Social History, Kali for Women in collaboration with the National Law School of India University, 1996, Mysore Modern: Rethinking the Region Under Princely Rule, University of Minnesota Press, 2011, and Miners and Millhands: Work, Culture and Politics in Princely Mysore, Sage Publications, 1998. 

G. N. Saibaba on his medical condition and experience in prison, January 18

 

Colleague Dr. G. N. Saibaba’s current condition (described in the latest letter to Prof. Hargopal)

Professor Hargopal ji,
Chairperson
Committee for the Defence and Release of Dr. G.N. Saibaba

I am grateful to you and all the eminent members of the committee for your kind concern about my deteriorating health condition after being lodged in this prison without medical investigations and treatment for the last more than 10 months. I also want to express my deep sense of gratitude to the committee members and all my fellow teachers at my university and various other universities across the country for the concern and consistent help and care given to my family.

Apart from my 90 percent disability and complete wheelchair-bound condition coupled with my severe and fatal multiple ailments, I am also depressed for being wrongly judged without following the basic criminal legal jurisprudence and ignoring the total lack of evidence against me in the false and fabricated case.

My severe disability renders me to face a doubly oppressed condition in the prison, over and above the rigorous punishment intended by the law through this incarceration. You all are aware that I am being subjected to this degrading human condition for being a conscientious teacher and responsible citizen by opposing and writing against the most obnoxious violations of human rights of Adivasis, Dalits and other marginalised sections in our times. As I am not allowed to write the entire picture of my situation, in this letter I restrict myself to my fast deteriorating health condition, though I only refer to my degrading and inhuman condition in passing hints.

At the time when the unfortunate judgement was delivered on March 7, 2017, I was undergoing treatment for acute pancreatitis in Rockland Hospital, New Delhi under the direct medical payment facility of my University. Though the doctors advised me not to travel and continue to take treatment by undergoing laparoscopic cholecystectomy (surgical removal of my gallbladder), I took special permission from the doctors to discharge me from the hospital so that I could attend the court in Gadchiroli for the judgement. The doctors warned me that the non-removal of gall bladder would effect my pancreas which was already infected due to the slippage of stones in my gallbladder into the duct connected from it to the pancreas. A second attack on pancreas would turn to be fatal causing irretrievable jaundice, diabetes and other complications, and failure of the pancreas itself. However, I explained my doctors that I would return to the hospital for the surgery the day after the judgement. Little did I expect that I would be sentenced? I was sure that I would be acquitted from the false and fabricated case for I never did any crime and the evidence on record assured me of that.

After I was imprisoned, I have been continuously suffering from the attacks on my pancreas frequently and reeling with unbearable pain from time to time and with frequent indigestion, loose motions and pangs of stomach-ache. I have lost weight considerably, though I can’t check it as I can’t even stand. Meanwhile, an internal mass bulging developed in my stomach on the left side and it started growing gradually in the last three months. It has been causing severe pain. Any amounts of antibiotics couldn’t subdue it. There are no symptoms of hernia. It could be malignant/ cancerous growth unless ruled out through appropriate medical investigations. The pain from this growth is humanly unbearable. It’s a mystery for myself how I have been still surviving.

You are aware that I was taking treatment for my left brachial plexopathy, three damaged muscles of my left shoulders along with the attendant nerve system at Indian Spinal Injuries Centre, New Delhi. Physiotherapy, hydrotherapy along with occupational therapy combined with electromagnetic modes of TENS and STIMULUS were going on to revive the damaged nerves and the muscles. The treatment came to an abrupt halt with the judgement sending me for rigorous incarceration for life. Without these therapies on daily basis, I will lose my left hand totally. The tests at the Indian Spinal Injuries Centre after months of treatment showed that the nerves and the muscles (two) started responding and reviving. These 10 months of gap in the treatment must have caused relapse of the damage and the revival must have reverted back. I have been suffering from shooting pain in my left hand and left leg day in and day out. There has been no possibility of a physiotherapist available in the prison. If I do some exercises on my own, I am getting a swelling and pain in my left shoulder muscles.

You know about this injury of brachial plexes system of nerves in my left shoulder that happened due to the dragging of me by my left hand from my wheelchair by the police constables at Aheri police station after I was arrested in Delhi and taken by the Gadchiroli police on 9th May 2014. Had I been given treatment within days of the injury, I could have regained my left hand. It was only after 9 months after imprisonment, I was taken to a hospital. It was after a division bench headed by the then Chief Justice of Bombay High Court gave the order to shift me to a private hospital in Nagpur that a proper investigation was done but it was already too late to heal my damaged nerve system. Ever since this injury, I have been living only with my functional right hand, having both my legs totally effected by polio in my childhood.

The damage to my left shoulder further restricted my bodily movements. I was managing myself in a wheelchair including successfully performing my teaching assignments at the university of Delhi. But this injury caused devastating impact on my life as it restricted my wheelchair or to get into my car to go anywhere.

I had submitted all my past medical records at the time of my admission in the prison on 7 March, 2017 following the conviction on the same day to the prison hospital. I have been also submitting my requests for medical investigations and treatment. I have submitted in writing from time to time whenever I suffered chest pain, palpitations in the stomach and chest followed by black outs.

On 5 January 2018, I submitted my latest condition requesting for immediate medical investigations and treatment to the Chief Medical Officer of the prison hospital. I mentioned the following symptoms and ailments in the letter:

1. Serious Heart Condition: I have been suffering from Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy diagnosed earlier.
–Frequent chest pain
–giddiness, systemic Hypertension
–Dyspnoea, on exertion
–Recurrent Syncope – 4 episodes in the last 5 months
–Palpitations in the chest.
2. Gallbladder stones
–Choleclithiasis diagnosed earlier
–advised for Laproscopic Cholecystectomy
–frequent attacks of gall stones on Pancreas.
3. Acute Pancreatitis
–Diagnosed earlier, but treatment left incomplete due to imprisonment.
–Pain in the stomach
–Gas formation
–Palpitations in stomach/ abdomen
–Daily indigestion, loose motions continuously
–Acute pain in the stomach extending to the chest.
4. Bulge of mass on the left side of the stomach
–Painful bulging of cyst like mass of flesh internally
–It started 3 months ago and gradually increasing every day.
— It was told, it could be hernia or malignant/ benign inflammatory growth
not investigated so far.
5. Left Shoulder / Left hand partial immobility with shooting pain
–Earlier diagnosed as Post-polio syndrome with HT, IHD, HOCM, COPD
–Contradictory diagnosis as: Left brachial plexopathy
–three damaged muscles in the left shoulder/ hand: Deltoid, Supraspinatus, Infraspinatus.
–partially damaged muscles: Teres minor, rhomboidus
–shooting pain from shoulder to fingers persisting
–unbearable pain in shoulder if I shift from bed to wheelchair more than 3 times.
–Rotator cuff injury with tearing in supraspinatous tendon.
–Before incarceration after conviction, I was taking regular course in physiotherapy, occupational therapy, hydrotherapy along with electro-magnetic wave therapy called TENS & STIMULUS to the damaged muscles for pain reduction and rejuvenation of damaged muscles and nerves at Indian Spinal Injuries Centre (ISIC), New Delhi every day for two- three hours. With the incarceration, the therapies stopped abruptly.
–Any exercises on my own causing swelling in shoulder muscles with severe pain. Since my left hand doesn’t raise, I can’t do much. The therapies are machine-assisted and assisted by specially trained therapists at ISIC.
6. Sleep Apnoea
It was diagnosed at CARE Hospital, Hyderabad that I was suffering from severe obstructive sleep apnoea. Earlier diagnosed of severe obstructive sleep apnoea
–I am suffering from frequent breaks in sleep
–sleeplessness
–feeling of obstruction in throat
–I was advised to use auto C-PAP machine. And I was practicing the machine for continuous sleep before imprisonment.
7. Postrate Problem
–Pain in anus
–reduced frequency of urination
–difficulty in passing urine, pain in urination
–enlarged postrate. Have been on medication for this.
8. Kidney Stones
–Earlier diagnosed with renal stones / calculus
–Frequency and flow of Urine reduced
–difficulty in passing Urine
–Recurrence of renal calculus treated twice earlier.
9. Frequent Cough and Cold with Fever
–continuous fever with cough and cold in the last 2 months
–chest congestion
–breathlessness, frequent chest pain
–palpitations in chest
10. Muscle Spasms – Cramps
–Severe spasmatic attacks in both hands and left leg
–Paralytic attacks in left hand and left leg
–Spasmatic / cramps in chest and stomach.
11. Bachache
–Severe pain in the bach
–Pain in the vertebra column
12. Bend in the Spine / vertebrae column
–causing severe pain
13. Severe pain in the legs
–twisting pain in the legs
–continuous and constant pain in both legs
–Spasmatic attacks in the legs.
–legs get severely cold.
–I was taking alternative cold and hot pack therapy at home.
14. Bilatral Vocal Cord nodule
–Vocal cord lesion
–pain in speaking
–voice has changed drastically
— 10 months before advised excision biopsy.
15. I need to be investigate for diabetes
16. I need to be investigated for Thyroid problem
17. Eye-sight might have changed. Investigation is required
18. Post-polio syndromes need to be explored to check them and control their growth

Except for the last four problems, all other 14 ailments were either diagnosed or in the process of investigations. You are aware that Tendon Transfer surgery was abandoned for the time being at CARE hospital, Hyderabad for correcting the left shoulder muscle at the eleventh hour by Professor (Dr) Kotwal who came specially for the surgery to Hyderabad from New Delhi. Similarly, an expert/ specialist doctor from Jaipur was to come to Fortis Hospital, New Delhi to check my damaged nerves to connect them in a surgery.

I was taken to the local Government hospital on 23rd August 2017 for sonography test. After the test, I was asked to come again for the diagnosis in the Department of Gastroenterology. I had a very bad experience during this visit. I was totally apprehensive of going to the outside hospital for medical investigations and treatment as I am a 90% disabled person completely bound to a wheelchair. A huge number of security forces accompanied me while untrained police personnel handled me in my wheelchair in an undignified way, to say the least. Firstly, I was terrified to see such a huge police force. The presence of such an armed force terrified hundreds of patients, their attendants, doctors and the Para medical staff including those who were to conduct the test.

At the main gate of the prison, the police personnel literally lifted me by holding my polio-effected legs and damaged left hand and right hand like a dead body or a bag of luggage from my wheelchair and put me in a vehicle. They did this every time I was to be taken at different buildings in the hospital, despite my protests. They simply don’t know how to handle me and my wheelchair because they are not trained for this job. However, I have no complaints against those personnel as I believe that they are not trained paramedical staff to handle a 90% disabled patient with multiple ailments and brittle bones vulnerable to break with a little force applied at them.

Apart from the police personnel not able to handle me properly, I felt humiliated for being lifted like a sack of sand or a dead body. I felt deeply hurt. I lost my self-dignity and bodily integrity. Handling a disabled person’s body with respect and treating him or her as a respectful human being is the law of the land today. It is a moral and ethical question as well. It is part of India’s commitment to international community as India is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Persons with Disabilities. My intention to tell you the story of my humiliation in the hands of the police personnel is not to blame them. They were not even aware that they were not able to handle me like a human being. It was not their mistake. They were not the force supposed to handle me. For the same reason, I never lodged a complaint against the police personnel who dragged me by my left hand and damaged brachial plexes nerve system when I was arrested in May 2014. I have been suffering with enhanced disability in my body over and above the 90% disability I suffered in my childhood due to polio.

For these reasons I have refused to go to the Government hospital for medical investigations and treatment until these circumstances is removed. Now if my polio effected brittle bones fracture, there is no way I can get them healed properly. Again I have to live with more serious disability for the rest of my life. As it is, I am leading a difficult life. I do not want to take any further risk. If something untowards happens, nothing can be retrieved to save my life even if I blame the police personnel (which I don’t want to do in any case).

But my health condition has turned critical. ;I have given in writing to the authorities on 23rd August and 29th August 2017 requesting them to allow my family members, lawyers and a personal doctor of my choice to handle me while taking me to the hospital and during my stay in the hospital for the medical investigations and treatment, which is being done with other prisoners who are not disabled. Why is this not possible in my case?

Meanwhile, in the last four months, my health has deteriorated further and reached a critical stage. I have been tolerating pain and suffering with will power. My critical health condition and bench-mark 90% disability put me in far excess of the sentence of punishment I am asked to suffer. My refusal to the local hospital in the last more than four months is not my own choice. The circumstances created by the custodial conditions imposed on me are responsible. The authorities in control of these conditions have done little to address these circumstances. In fact the law of the land now empowers the Government departments to address these kinds of question. The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016 along with the rules framed for the Act in 2017 empowers the authorities to take all measures to protect the disabled persons from inhuman and degrading treatment. Chapter 1, section 6(1) and 7(1) of this Act make such provisions very clear.

I have suffered a lot in the past more than 10 months. In addition to the severe ailments I have been suffering from, as a disabled person, inaccessible and unfavourable conditions have reduced me to the level of animalistic state removing all human dignity from my person. You are kindly aware that I cannot survive without the assistance of two persons round the clock. I cannot attend to calls of nature on my own. People have to help me to do my daily chores. I can only survive in the specially created environment at home and in my work place. If I could become a successful teacher and ardent researcher in my discipline of study, the credit goes to my family members, colleagues and the University where I work.

The inhuman and degrading treatment that I am compelled to face in the conditions of my incarceration, and the objectification of my body in the hands of the state go against the letter and spirit of the UNCRD and RPD Act, 2016. The values enshrined in these covenant and law emerged out of centuries of enlightened human struggle worldwide. As one of the senior most human rights activists in the country, you can understand me better than anyone else. I have been refusing to be treated inhumanly in my attempt to uphold these cherished human values. This is also because my conscience does not allow me to be treated as an object depriving me of my human dignity. Life is important certainly, but life with human dignity and human values is more important. I hope you appreciate my humble position in this regard.

In these circumstances, I request you and the entire Defence Committee to explore the possibilities to secure my freedom by bringing the falsities and fabrications in the case and the fallacious and incongruous conclusions arrived at in the judicial order without following the principles of criminal legal jurisprudence to the notice of the higher judiciary. I strongly feel that this is the only way out for me to save my life without losing my human dignity and bodily integrity.

I was taken to the Govt. Hospital once again on 17th January 2018, almost 5 months after the first time, though my requests were not looked into. Once again, I became totally helpless. This time, once again I was subjected to similar treatment. The sonography test was repeated and a doctor diagnosed that my gall bladder contained multiple stones. The problems occurring to my pancreas were due to the gall stones. I was told orally by the doctor that I should immediately undergo laparoscopic cholecystectomy. But the doctors refused to examine all other major health problems and ailments by referring me to the relevant Departments. I was told that I would need to go to each Department separately through separate processes. It will take several months to conduct several tests. For example, to examine the real condition of my gallbladder and Pancreas, alone need several tests like CBC, LFT, Serum amylase and lipase and other imaging tests (have to be conducted). Finally they would say that some of the medical investigations and treatment are not available with them and would refer me to J.J. hospital, Mumbai. You are aware that this happened earlier. This piecemeal way of conducting investigations over a period of several months without any co-ordination with the departments of several specialities is common in this hospital. Unfortunately my physical disability and the logistic of carry me to the hospital do not allow this long process to bring any relief to my ailments before they turn fatal. When some of these ailments and left brachial plexus injury developed during my imprisonment as an under trial prisoner, the same hospital stated that the medical investigations and treatment were not available with them.

For the above reasons, a division bench headed by the then Chief Justice of Bombay High Court shifted me to a private hospital in Nagpur, where the medical investigations were available in a suo-moto case based on a report on my health condition in The Hindu in May 2015. After initial treatment, I was sent to Delhi for further treatment as the private hospital referred me due to the lack of facilities with them, on bail under medical grounds. Then I was treated at various hospitals, Fortis, Indian Spinal Injuries Centre, New Delhi and CARE hospital, Hyderabad. The treatment was continuing at the time of the judgement at Rockland Hospital and Indian Spinal Injuries Centre as some of the ailments acquired chronic nature and the pancreas problem arose as a new ailment.
You are also kindly aware that with my 90% disability and multiple ailments I need to be under constant and regular care of the specialist doctors and therapist for my survival and well being. The medical records from all the above mentioned hospitals speak for themselves in this regard. All these medical records are available with my family members. I request the Defence Committee and you to pursue through the medical records and take appropriate decisions.

Given my deteriorating health condition and 90% disability the Defence Committee may consider taking my health condition through the available medical records to the appropriate courts of law for speedy consideration of a bail plea on legal grounds, whenever such a bail plea is taken up by my lawyers at the possible early date.

Once again I thank you and the entire Defence Committee for your concern and help.
With kind regards

(G.N. SAIBABA)
Central Prison
Nagpur.
18th January 2018.