Last evening (5th April 2011), Prabha Sridevan, retired Justice of the High Court of Madras and who like Mortimer Rumpole’s Phillida Erskine-Brown, I refer to as the Portia of our city, delivered a talk at the Sanskrit College on the above subject. It was a lecture held under the auspices of an endowment in the memory of Dr S Jayashri, a scholar and multi-faceted personality.

Prabha began with a quote from the Bhagavatam describing the Govardhana episode wherein the Lord protected his people from a deluge. She then gave various instances from the classics in Tamil and Sanskrit. I did not take notes and so this is a random recollection of what was said.

Kautilya’s Arthasastra deals in great detail with disaster mitigation. The palace had to have a granary for grains that could be disbursed when there was a famine. Relocation of people could be thought of when there was a disaster such as a flood or a famine. Interestingly, Kautilya also deals with man-made disasters such as fire accidents. It was forbidden to light fires inside a house (I assume that the kitchen was in the backyard) and those who worked with fire were to be all allocated housing in a common area. This was also perhaps an early example of zoning. This was contrasted to what happened in Bhopal where the Union Carbide factory was in the middle of a poor neighbourhood. It was the task of the officer in charge of the town to visit the houses regularly and check if this rule was being followed. Huge jars of water had to be stored in areas prone to fire accidents. The speaker drew a parallel with the Upahaar fire tragedy in Delhi where fire-fighting equipment was not available in the vicinity. Kautilya also states that Indra and Ganga were to be propitiated regularly to avoid water-borne crisis. Temples were also sources of succour during disasters.

Kalhana’s Raja Tarangini speaks of instances when floods and droughts hit the Kashmir valley and the measures taken by the rulers to mitigate the problems. One king talked of taking his own life during a drought. His wife meditated and immediately a flock of pigeons fell on every home in the kingdom. These were eaten by the people to tide over the famine.

Interestingly, both Kautilya and Kalhana speak of disasters occurring when the kings deviated from Dharma.

A moving depiction was given of the evacuation of Dwaraka just before the ocean rose up to swallow it. There was an order in which the people left, along with their belongings.

In Tamil, the speaker gave details of how in Tiruvizhimizhalai the saints Sambandar and Appar sang songs during a famine for which the Lord gave them one gold coin for every verse and they used this to feed the people. Was this not similar to the conducting of rock concerts today for collecting funds for natural disasters in Ethiopia and other places asked Prabha.

She gave an enthralling account of the Pittukku Mann Sumanda Kathai from the Tiruvilaiyadal wherein a flood is contained by the building of a bund. There are references in Tamil classics of when a flood occurred at a particular town or village as well. Some examples of this were given.

The panchangam is also a source of information on probability of disasters for it speaks of tides, scarcity of rainfall and of floods. But today the reading of this has become entirely oriented to superstitions.

Just as it is today, even then it was seen as the duty of the state to offer relief to those afflicted by any disaster. Though the records are scanty, we can see that floods and droughts were the most frequently documented, followed by epidemics, earthquakes and fires.

The talk ended with the story of Idaikadar Siddhar. He could identify when a famine would strike his village. So he built a house whose walls were made of grain and trained his goats to feed on the arka plant which thrives even if there is no water. The drought hit the village but his goats battened on arka. But the plant caused a skin irritation for which they rubbed themselves against the walls of the house causing grain to be dislodged. This grain was collected by the people of the village and so nobody starved.

The nine planets became curious to see how this village was surviving.They called on the Siddhar who fed them and lulled them to sleep. While they dozed he rearranged their positions so that they became favourable for rains to fall. By the time they woke up, the land was fertile once more!

We need Idaikadars in every street I guess.

It was an entertaining talk and the speaker’s mastery over Sanskrit, Tamil and English was obvious. Mosquitoes it would appear are overly fond of Sanskrit for the college is obviously a favoured haunt.