Monday, 10 October 2011

The Etymology of a Name

I attended a technical talk today by a person with the unusual surname of Velummylum. Given that his first name (Piragash) sounded like the Tamil rendering of a Sanskrit word ("Prakash" - Light), I looked closer at the surname to see if that was a Tamil word as well.

Tamil has no simple conjunction word for "and". If you wanted to say, "The Ant and the Grasshopper", you would have to say, "Ant-um Grasshopper-um" (with the Tamil equivalents for Ant and Grasshopper substituted, of course).

So Velummylum on first analysis, seemed to be "Velum Mylum" (வேலும் மயிலும்), i.e., the Vel and the Myl. Now Vel (pronounced 'vale') means 'spear' in Tamil and Myl (pronounced 'mayil') means 'peacock'.

"The Spear and the Peacock" may still not mean much to a non-Tamil even when translated, but the symbolism is very clear to a Tamil. They are the symbols of Lord Murugan, the Tamil name for Kartikeya, the warlord god born to Shiva and Parvati to destroy the demon Tarakasura. The spear is his weapon, and the peacock is his mount or vehicle ("Vahana"). Every Hindu god or goddess seems to have a favourite weapon and a particular animal or bird as their mount.

I'm told there is a very famous devotional song "Velum Mayilum Thunai" (Succour of Spear and Peacock), an allegorical appeal to Lord Murugan's protection.

I thought I'd dig around the web for some nice pictures of Murugan. Here's a traditional one, the kind that I would see in shops and homes during my childhood holiday visits to Madurai, where my grandmother lived. The peacock holds down a serpent, symbolic of all kinds of evil in human nature, I guess.

This is the version by Raja Ravi Varma, the famous Indian artist who was influenced by the Dutch portraitist Theodor Jenson. [The fusion of classical Indian and Dutch Impressionist styles made Raja Ravi Varma one of India's greatest artists. As Aatish Taseer rightly observed in the novel "Stranger to History" that I reviewed, the world is richer in its hybrids.] This version shows Murugan in his six-headed form with two consorts and lots of different weapons. The serpent is bigger than before, but the peacock seems to have the situation under control.

Here's a more modern rendition that I really like. I couldn't tell who the artist was, but here's the site I got it from. They missed the serpent, though.

It's the story of my life. I set out to learn about technology, then get drawn into even more interesting research into linguistics, culture, religion and art!

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