Friday, August 20, 2004


Damn! I got beat to this post by John Snow. The U.S. Treasury Secretary came out and said on Friday morning that the oil price rise is a bubble! Big deal, I said that earlier this week, when CNBC started touting their “how the average investor can capitalize on rising oil price” specials. When the “average investor” gets to the table, you know the market is ripe for plucking!

Friday we saw yet another record in the price of a barrel of crude oil, as it topped $49 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Suddenly $50 a barrel is a very real possibility and the talk has moved to $60.

Consider this: Oil has risen over 50% in the past year. Much of that gain I see as unjustified. Sure, there is all the talk about India and China guzzling down all the oil, but that is really a lot of baloney. China was definitely running its engine on all cylinders last year and the year before. If anything, it is tapping the brakes on the economic engine now, by tightening credit and flexing policy muscles.

At least in some circles higher oil prices are being explained as a function of higher-than expected global demand, tight supplies, an increased risk of terror attacks and the decline in efficiency in production as the oil industry's infrastructure ages. That is excellent sop to feed the press, but it ain’t flyin here!

Sure, global demand is high, but look at supply – it is at record levels too. The current level of global inventory is about 300 million barrels.

Fear about reduced output capacity is also unjustified. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which pumps out about 40% of the world's oil, has some 2.1 million barrels per day of excess production capacity. Moreover, oil producers continue to pump out oil at higher levels than before.

The threat of terror attacks is the only factor, I see as having some justification; but even terrorist actions tend to be localized and they seldom cut supplies drastically. At the present time a hefty fear premium has been built into the price of oil. That’s bid up prices $10 or more higher than where supply and demand intersect. The market cannot bear this premium for too long and it has to come down at some point.

In case you are wondering why the economy has not caved in as it did in the 1980s…. Well, for one inflation is not a threat – not enough to feed through the oil prices and destabilize the economy. Oil prices, adjusted for inflation, aren't as high as the early 1980s. There are indications that the current environment is fed primarily by speculators looking to make a buck now that other markets have grown ploddy.

That brings us to Yukos. Well, it looks like the company might go belly up after all. The Russian government is unlikely to forgive its sins, but they are unlikely to shut off the supply completely. Russia needs the cash that Yukos' oil generates. In all likelihood Yukos will be sold to another smaller Russian oil company or to a multi-national that can re-equip it and start pumping oil with a short turnaround.

In short, its time you short the market and pocketed your profits, cause this is as far as this ride goes!

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Kocchu Karyangallude Tamburaan

Another blog that owes its existence to comments by Kuts and the whole train of thought set off by Narayanan's recounting of Kerala history.

Narayanan and I got into this discussion about how pervasive Hindu (for want of a better label) symbolism had become in Kerala. “'God’s own country'” was once the bastion of '“the most excellent law,”' he said.

In case you did not get that bit, Buddhism is also called the faith of “the most excellent law.”

This came as a revelation to me – for having spent most of my life in Bombay, I am not particularly aware of the rest of the country. Sensing a hesitation, Narayanan began plying me with examples.

“"What do you know of Karumadikuttan?”"

"That, he is an especially dark-skinned boy?”"

He brushed aside my attempt at corny humour.

"“Karumadikuttan, is a statue of Buddha near Ambalapuzha. It is at least ten centuries old. And it is not the only marker Buddhism left behind.”"

He went on to list a litany of objects and edifices, most of which I don’t remember (a couple of neat Bacardis can do that to you). But he did provide the spark that lit the fuse.

My search led me to see the history of Kerala, and indeed Western and Southern India, in a very different light.

Among the first truly organized theological groups to reach, what is today Kerala, were the Jains. They predated the Buddhist missions of Emperor Ashoka by at least a hundred and fifty years.

Jainism’s big push south came around 300 BC, under the patronage of Emperor Chandragupta Maurya (321-297 BC) and a Jain monk - Bhadrabahu. Jainism, apparently had a strong and broad-based following. Many Hindu temples in Kerala today, began their life as Jain shrines ostensibly.

The chief prathista of Kudalmanikkam Temple near Irinjalakuda in Trissur District is for all intents and purposes is Lord Rama`s younger brother Bharata. However, I’ve read that it was originally a shrine dedicated to Bharateshwara, a Jain saint. A Bhagavati Kshetram near Perumbavur still features the carved images of Paraswanta, Mahavira and Padmavati.

Buddhism formally came to the South of India through the missions sent out by Emperor Ashoka. The Emperor`s son Mahindra headed a Buddhist mission to Sri Lanka. For more than 700 years, Buddhism flourished in Kerala. The Paliyam Copper plate of the Ay King, Varaguna (885-925AD) shows that at least in South Kerala, Buddhists continued to enjoy royal patronage well until 1000 AD.

They say, there is ample archeological evidence that many Hindu temples were once Buddhist shrines. Among the ones counted on this list are Vadakkunathan Khsetram in Trissur and the Kurumba Bhagawathi temple in Kannur. Buddhist statuary and iconography have been discovered in close proximity of Hindu temples in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. In the coastal districts of Kerala, especially Allapuzha, they are unearthed with alarming frequency. This is also the seat of Karumadikuttan.

Almost every town with the word “pally (palli)” attached to its name was almost certainly a Buddhist center. The word palli is associated with the Christian church in Kerala today, but the word has its origin in the Buddhist word for a center of learning. Hence the persistence of names like Pallikudam, Kanjirappalli and Villiappally.

So what caused Jainism and Buddhism to disappear? The Hindu Revival championed by Adi Shankara is of Kaladi is offered as the primary reason.

But, that is a simplistic answer. Over a period Buddhism lost its royal patrons, who likely switched their allegiance to Hinduism. Maybe the royals resented the growing economic power of the monks, or the fact that the lands belonging to the monasteries could not be taxed or simply that they represented an alternate powerbase. Whatever the reason, by the turn of the first millennium, Hinduism was on the resurgence in Kerala.

History offers a date around 700-800 AD for the arrival of Vedic Brahmins in Kerala. They travelled along the West coast, likely by invitation from a Kadamba King. The name of King Udaya Varman of Mooshika dynasty is associated with the settling of 237 Brahmin families in Kerala. One lore recounts how six outstanding Brahmins defeated Buddhist monks in public debates and established the intellectual supremacy of Hinduism. Tales of the genius of Shankaracharya also serve to reinforce the legend of “superiority.”

By this time Hinduism also found powerful patrons in the Kulashekara kings of the Second Chera Empire. The royal patronage of Brahmins brought about radical changes in the social, political and cultural landscape of Kerala.

Communities living on the soil like the Ezhavas, most likely Buddhists once, were absorbed into Hindu fold. The Ezhavas are themselves a very interesting people. Until the advent of Hindu revival and the emergence of Nairs, they were the dominant social group in Kerala. They were originally immigrants from Ezham, (Tamil for island) likely Sri Lanka. The original sons of the soil, were no doubt, buried under tons of soil, or lots of toil in any event.

Returning to our story – the old Gods were not thrown away. Those that could be, were co-opted into the emerging Hindu fold like Bharateshwara and numerous Bhagavatis. Others objects of worship like the Sarpangal and Bhramharakshas were relocated away from temples and outside the Pradikshina-patham, but were still revered and paid homage to.

With established social mores and a system of education hard-wired into the social structure, the Buddhists were not a walkover. For almost a thousand years they had provided religious and social guidance to the people. Buddha (and Buddhist ideals) continued to be worshipped for a while. Even today, say some, Sastha or Ayyappa, is a Hindu veneer on Buddha. It is easy to make that leap - Swami Sharanam sounds remarkably like Buddham Charanam!

(Caveat: Most of the information here is from what I have read (online, books and journals), and the jottings I have made over the months from talking to people who seem to know a great deal about this issue. I make no claims about its source or accuracy – just my take on how I have come to understand my slice of history. And yes, I apologize for the rip off title. Apologies to Arundhati Roy.)

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Bryn Athyn Cathedral

Halfway, stands a church
Large scraggy walls,
Imposing façade,
A bell tower that would do
Nebuchadnezzar proud.
I like to run my finger
Across the wrinkled stone.
Resting my cheek
Against the cool wall,
Smelling the wetness,
Communing to the soul
Of the stone.
I am petrified!

(-from God’s House on King)

I wrote that on a wet afternoon in late fall standing across from the church on King Ave in Columbus many years ago.

I've always liked the vast quietness of old churches and cathedrals. I like the silence and peace insulated from the noise and misery of the world outside. I like the hushed footfalls that echo in the haloed gloom and how whispers amplify themselves within the stone walls. I like to look up to the feathery heights of the vaulted ceiling, supported by carved wooden beams— airy, yet enduring. I like the way the light dribbles through the thick, plain glass wrought high above in myriad petals, and yet how it transforms the coloured panes into a radiant screen.

I scarcely pass by an opportunity to visit an old church. I am not into flashy monstrosities that are filled with people. I prefer the quiet ones trod by few feet. My favourite is the old cathedral in Exeter in the South of England. Though, my fondness has grown in recent years for one not far from where I live these days.

Stumbling across the cathedral was a stroke of luck. I was hunting covered bridges in Montgomery and Bucks counties a few years ago. It was one of those quaint projects I assign myself from time to time. I was driving across Bryn Athyn when I saw the spire rise over the treetops. I was smitten.

I remember the first visit, my footfalls softly echoing as I crossed the length of the church and towards the altar. At the far end, the chancel was cast in a purple haze created by daylight filtering through red and blue stained-glass windows. Later, as I sat and listened, an old chant rose from a side chapel where a priest was saying mass. It punctuated the silence, emphasizing the solemnity of reverence and glory.

Bryn Aythn (Welsh for Hill of Cohesion) Cathedral is built in the Gothic-Romanesque style. Work started in 1913 and it took more than 30 years to complete. When the project was completed, the Great Depression was still raging and the principal patron, John Pitcairn, I am told, commissioned the Glencairn House next door just to keep the workers employed. That is a beautiful edifice too. Its quaint charm heightened by a cloistered garden with a Moorish fountain set in the center and a Julietesque balcony overlooking it.

I have come back many times to walk the grounds and the surrounding landscape, which is almost as beautiful as the cathedral itself. And I try to bring back as many people as possible to its joys.

Bryn Athyn Cathedral, Bryn Athyn, PA
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