Saturday, May 2, 2009


NANU WAS INITIATED into reading, writing and arithmetic at the customary age of five. The Guru chosen for him was a personage of high traditions and great learning, an astrologer and a very well-known man of the place, Chembazanthi Mootha Pillai, a Savarna. Education in those days consisted mainly in learning the simpler
works in Sanskrit, sometimes in Bramhi characters. The student Narayanan was quick to learn, never forgetting what he had learnt. Once the early lessons consisting of Sanskrit Kavyas (poetical works) were over, there were no facilities for further study in that elementary school. Narayanan’s uncles, therefore, continued to teach the nephew at home in their spare time. It was immensely pleasant to teach this highly
intelligent child and Krishnan Vaidiar was often amazed at the precocity of the boy.
There were no schools nearby where the child could continue his studies, while at the same time he was too young to be sent as a boarder to a school several miles away.
And so Narayanan became a cowherd. He enjoyed lonely sojourns in the nearby hills and jungles, while his charges, the cows, calmly grazed and dozed as they chewed their cud. The thoughtful cowherd would be seen perched on cashew trees chanting to himself the slokas (verses) he had learnt, lost in reflection on their relevance to life. Back at home, the studies under uncle Krishna Vaidiar continued, Narayanan bewildering the uncle more and more every day by the quickness of grasp he displayed at every turn.

After some time, the boy was entrusted with the task of ploughing the fields. Absorbed as he was in lofty thoughts and in solving the stubborn riddles of life and sorrow and death, the budding metaphysicist would let the bullocks go where they liked. He could not bother to guide them and could certainly not bring himself to beat them to take a particular path. Nanu The ‘Bhakta’ The indifference he displayed in training himself to become a householder was further manifested in his desire for wandering from place to place. Often would he go away, stay among friends and relatives at different places like Kayikkara, Trivandrum, Anchuthengu, Venniyode, Nedunganda and other places. Living only a few days at a time in each place, he would move on from one place to another, ever restive, never resting. Regular in his baths and prayers, and often in a thoughtful mood, with marks of ashes as emblems of prayers on his brow, his outward appearance highly amused the people. They called him a Bhakta , a devotee of God, in a derogatory tone, suggesting, as is often done about such singular personalities, that here was a crank if ever there was one. The relatives took this to be mere religiosity which would disappear once they could get this Bhakta tied up in wedlock. The barber of the place, who in those days performed the task of marriage-broker, tried his bestto ‘hook’ the youth, only to go away defeated before the rocklike determination of this young man whose bhakti(devotion) was made of sterner stuff than people had bargained for.


As the uncles were still wondering what to make of this queer nephew of theirs who seemed to be living in a spiritual cloud devoid of all desire for worldly pleasures, Nanu disappeared. This time, however, they did not worry over him, assuming quite naturally that he was off again on one of his usual mysterious wanderings. Actually, however, he was suffering from small-pox. Informing not a soul, Nanu retreated into the temple of goddess situated in the midst of a jungle. No regular poojas (worship) were performed there except on specific festival days and so, no one noticed the presence of this patient living all alone in a temple where people never dared to venture after the annual festivals. His temperature rose. The headache was insufferable. The pox appeared in its full intensity. Weakness, thirst, pain and restlessness tortured him. But still he continued to stay in this frightful, lonely place,alone. He somehow managed to take his ritual bath and passed the time in prayer and meditation. At night when darkness hid the marks of small-pox, he would throw a cloth over his head, go to houses where he was not known, get alms and return to the temple. In the midst of all this, hemanaged to memorise a work about spiritual detachment written byMelputtur Narayana Bhattathiri, one of the greatest savants of sixteenth-century Kerala.After 18 days spent in this tapasya,(penance) as it were, he was
cured. He took his bath and returned home. His uncle gladly welcomedthe nephew. But when he saw small-pox marks on the boy’s face, he was alarmed. Nanu’s explanation that he had been suffering from small-pox,and that he had spent the entire period in the precincts of the temple toavoid contagion and being a botheration to others struck the uncle completely dumb. What a perplexing personality has this lad alreadybecome at this young age, mused the uncle! “This youngster who hadtremendous strength of will and great mental powers should not wastehis life as a cowherd and a ploughman. He should be sent for higherstudies,” were the thoughts that passed through his mind at that time.As happens very often in life, an incident occurred in a few days to strengthen this resolve.

Higher Studies

A great scholar as he was, Krishnan Vaidiar was still at a loss to understand a Sanskrit verse he had come across for the first time. Consulting his nephew on the odd chance that the youngster might perhaps be able to catch the meaning, he was highly pleased when Nanu explained the import of the verse with great ease. Then and there, theVaidiar decided that the boy must be sent for higher studies at any cost, and lost no time in making arrangements accordingly.

That was how Narayanan was sent in 1876 to study under Kummanpally Asan, a great scholar, a Savarna again! At the time of his departure, the uncles offered him some money. The boy refused to take it, saying that he had no need for money. Moreover, said he, it was not proper that the uncles should part with him and this money at one and the same time. In the institution Kayamkulam there were other Ezhava youths studying under the same high-caste teacher.

But while the Nair boys stayed in the house of the Asan, the Ezhava disciples had to stay elsewhere. The caste system would not be denied its pound of flesh! There was at that time in Kayamkulam an Ezhava family who was rich and generous and greatly concerned in the educational uplift of their community: the famous house of Varanappalli. It was the custom among rich Ezhava families to host studious lads, thus enabling them to study under the Savarnas where they were forbidden to stay. Varanappalli was one such famous house-cum-hostel, where anumber of Ezhava boys had stayed to study under the KummanpallyAsan. Narayanan found among his hostel mates also some Ezhava youthswho became famous in later years—an inspiring environment for astudious boy.

Nanu Becomes a Chattambi (Monitor)

Two slokas (verses) a day from Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsa Mahakavya were the daily quota of learning in Kummanpally Asan’s Gurukula (teacher’s residence.) A quick grasp of meaning, extreme ease in memorizing, and a tenacious memory induced Nanu to beg his teacher to accelerate the pace of teaching. “At this rate,” said the boy, “I won’t be able to finish my course before I return home and start my routine work.” “All right then,” replied the Guru, “you may learn the slokas I teach your seniors also.” The student started learning what the older students were being taught. The progress he made was so remarkable that the Guru was greatly pleased. When he perceived that this extraordinary boy could explain the meaning of even those verses which were not taught to him, the Asan said, “Well then, you might as well be the monitor(chattambi) and assist me in my task.” Nanu thus rose in status to become “Nanu Chattambi”, a name which stuck to him for some time.

Nanu Chattambi, who found himself to be a respected student in theschool, the pet of his Guru, naturally, became the butt of many practical jokes perpetrated by his less studious companions.Studies, Prayers and Meditation In a house or hostel where a number of students live together, a boy who was fond of solitude and preferred prayers, studies and meditation, to being playful, noisy and mischievous would be singled out as the main target of boyish pranks. Nanu suffered all that in silence.

Fortunately, he had a constant companion in Kunhukunhu Panikkar, a person who could understand, appreciate and admire Nanu’s way of life. They used to read together, recite together, and study together, poetry, philosophy and religious works. Panikkar, who was also the Bhakta’s (devotee’s) room-mate, states that very often when he woke up at night, he used to see Nanu saying his prayers or sitting cross-legged, in meditation.

Meandering among verdurous fields and sylvan landscapes, Nanu used to pluck the leaves of trees and plants, taste them, chew them and even swallow the juice. These experiments in diet provided him with expert knowledge about the edibility or otherwise of forest plants. Later on, this knowledge stood him in good stead when he chose to live as a mendicant in jungles.

In 1879 he had a severe attack of dysentery. His uncle took himhome. Thus the second and last course of regular study under a Guru ended all too abruptly.


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