On Stones and Shells

Of Stones and Shells


Partha Desikan


The rain, which falls on a mountain and flows as a river on to the sea, carries mementos throughout its course. Boulders and smaller pieces of rock accompany it in the beginning. Smaller and still smaller rocks and rounded pebbles go with the flow afterwards. Still smaller pebbles and sand accompany it right up to the time of its mingling with the sea. Sand and dissolved salts accompany it into the sea. Magical processes involving the living exuberance of the sea convert some of the sea-deposits into various shells, which include the pearl oysters and the corals.


Our ancestors learnt to decorate themselves and the icons of their deities with noble metal jewellery having gem insets. These gems could either be selectively concentrated rock gems from land or selectively created pearls and corals from the sea. The gems from nonliving rocks and from the bowels of the earth, when shaped properly by nature or artificially, have the ability to capture light and throw it out in beautiful patterns of brilliance. The ones from the sea glow beautifully and dully or are just beautiful and do not glow.


Sanskrit has individual names for different gemstones, but also two common names for all of them, mani and ratna. It has got individual names for pearl and coral, mukta and pravala. Vyasa talks of an ocean of milk in the dhyaana sloka of Sri Vishnu Sahasranama which occurs in the anushasana parva of Mahabharata. His ocean does not have coral beds. But pearls it certainly seems to abound with, to delight, decorate and illuminate Bhagavan, if Bhagavan would care to be illuminated. See, listen to and feel the pearls and the white-gemstone-look-alikes through Vyasa’s imagery: White is the theme colour everywhere except for the bluish glory that Bhagavan is! In fact, Bhagavan too should appear bright white in this setting, Om namo bhagavate Vasudevaya!


In the region of (adjoining) the Milky Ocean, where the sand glistens like the purest of gems (manis), Sri Mukunda is seated on a throne/seat decorated with garlands of pearls, himself too decked with pearls glistening almost like crystalline quartz gems, while being blissfully bathed by pure, plentiful, nectarine, pearly shower sprays from the ocean. Mukunda is holding in his hands ari (the chakra), nalina (the lotus), gada (the club )and shankha (the conch).


The ocean, Bhagavan’s asana and Bhagavan himself give a mani-mukta Seva (Darshan).

How appropriate that the nalina flower too should have joined the weapon group comprising the circular discus spinning out to cut the enemy down, the fiery conch sending out its threatening message through a spiral path and the club that is swirled in an arc before being dispatched at the enemy! Its petals too unfold from the bud centripetally starting from the outermost members, when the Sun of Bhagavan’s vision shines on it. The hand holding the lotus is not for dushkritvinasha, but for sadhuparitrana. Holding the lotus in the gap between the thumb and the index finger, the palm is displayed to the devotees and all sadhus in abhayamudra.

If the milky ocean is in Manimukta mode, like the Milky way spiraling and sparkling in the sky, a poet can see sphatika manis and muktas also in any majestic river in flow.

Imagine pristine sunlight falling at the base and on the body of a waterfall location, especially where the fall from a few thousand feet above sea level makes the fall foam as it touches base. While a number of falls in our country and elsewhere would qualify for the above description, one whose photograph you can see in the link


must have been seen by a poet long long ago when he named it straightaway in Tamil manimuthaaru (mani+muthu+aaru) the river of gems and pearls! Manimuthar(u) has its source in the dense jungles of the Eastern slopes of the Western Ghats in Tirunelveli District. Its source is known as Senguttheri (vertical lake) at a height of 1300 metres above mean sea level, from which it meanders through jungles and crags and level ground only to a distance of about 9 km, before merging with the famous Tamraparni. river. While Manimuthar itself is fed after reaching the ground by two smaller tributaries, it is recognized as a major tributary of the Tamraparni.. The name Manimukta Nadi has been given also to a small stream near Vriddhachalam, also in Tamilnadu but further north, which constitutes a pilgrimage spot along with the temple of Sri Vriddhachaleswarar.


Parents in Northern and Eastern India who name their daughters Manimukta may either be thinking of the legendary Nagaratna after it is released by a Naga or must be hoping that their child will be able to display her intelligence or keep it to herself as the situation demands.


We have looked at the combination of Mani the mineral gem with one shell-gem, namely Mukta, the pearl. What about the other shell-gem, Pravala, the coral? What is meant by Manipravala?

Manipravalam was a style of speaking developed in the Cheranadu area of South India, where persons well versed in both Tamil and Sanskrit, spoke with the word order of Tamil and following Tamil grammar substantially, but mixing a number of Sanskrit words as the context required. It continues to be used in Vaishnavite religious discourse and literature in all of Tamil Nadu and Malayalam literary works in Kerala. Various hagiographies on the life of the Vaishnava saint Ramanuja were written in Manipravalam. Vaishnavites thus skilled were also called Ubhayavedantis. The language of Kramadeepikas and Attaprakarams, which lay down the rules and regulations for some Malayali dramatic performances, is considerably influenced by the composite literary dialect of Manipravalam.

Tamil language was the language of the Chera region at the time of Manipravalam’s genesis and use, and its introduction caused a significant transition from Tamil to pre- Malayalam in Kerala. Mani-pravalam literally means ruby-coral, where Mani means ruby in Tamil and any gem in Sanskrit, while Pravalam means Coral in Sanskrit. Malayalam/Tamil is referred to as ruby and Sanskrit as coral. Since Tamil Vattezhuttu did not have characters to represent some Sanskrit sounds, letters from the Grantha script, which had been developed for handling Sanskrit, were used to represent them. Regional words and grammatical endings were written using Vattezhuttu, and Sanskrit words were written using Grantha. A parallel literary tradition existed during the period that derived inspiration from the Tamil poetic tradition, known by the name paattu. Leelathilakam, a work on grammar and rhetoric, written in the last quarter of the 14th century in Kerala, discusses the relationship between Manipravalam and Paattu as poetic forms. It lays special emphasis on the types of words that blend harmoniously. It advises that the rules of Sanskrit prosody should be followed in Manipravalam poetry.

The advent of the Manipravalam style of writing, where letters of the Grantha script coexisted with the traditional Vattezhuttu letters, made it easier for people in Kerala to accept a new Grantha-based script aarya ezhuttu, which subsequently became the modern Malayalam script.

Is it not interesting that pearl combined with white mineral gems to create a name for a water fall and river on the Eastern slope of the Western ghats, and coral combined with a red mineral gem on the western side of the same mountain range to name a different kind of flow, of a spoken and written language blend?


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