Monday, December 28, 2009

Kanchi Mahaperiyava's exposition of "Sri Subrahmanyaya Namaste"

In June 1961, Paramacharya was camping at Devakottai (in Pudukkottai district of Tamil Nadu). He was in deep penance for several weeks, not talking or even communicating by gesture. One could not know if he even heard the devotees' words. One morning, some people from nearby Ariyakkudi (‘Nagarathar’) had their darshan of Him, and in the course of their talks, it came out that Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar, the famous carnatic musician, and known simply as ‘Ariyakkudi’, was currently in Karaikkudi. To the surprise of every one, Paramacharya signaled to them, asking if they can bring Ariyakkudi over to meet Him. They agreed and left. That afternoon by three o'clock, Ariyakkudi was at the camp. He was so excited and tense, as Paramacharya had asked to meet him in the midst of his 'kashta mounam' (vow of rigorous silence).
Is not Paramacharya known for His simplicity? So His accommodation at the camp was very simple. His room was on the garden side of a small house. Devotees had to have His darshan through a small window, after passing through dirt and bushes. May be that was His way of admonishing those of us who have grown used to the luxuries of life. On being informed that Ariyakkudi had arrived, Paramacharya signaled to bring him to the rear window. He came, and paid obeisance by falling full stretch at His feet. That was it. To every one's joy, Paramacharya opened His mouth and started talking in a torrent.

"Heard of your receiving the Rashtrapathi award. You would have walked on a red carpet, and been honored in a gathering of eminent persons. But me, I have made you walk on stones and bush and made you sit in a dinghy room. "Why I called you is, I long have had a desire to listen to 'Shri Subrahmanyaya namasthe' rendered perfectly. On hearing you are around, the desire has re-surfaced. Perfect rendition means both the music and the lyrics (sangeetham and sahityam). Many people disfigure the words of Sanskrit and Telugu kirtanas to the extent that we wish they never sang. "The music part (swaras), the rhythm part and the 'sahitya chandas' – what is called 'chandam' in Tamil - would be given for most songs.

The proper way to split and combine words would also be given. The musician has to take care to synchronize the music, rhythm and chandas and split and combine the words correctly so as not to spoil the meaning. The compositions of good composers definitely allow this (padham pirichu padaradhu) but many musicians simply concentrate on the music and rhythm, and ignore the meaning, sometimes leading to ridiculous meanings!

"Even in this song 'Shri Subrahmanyaya namasthe', we have a line 'guruguhayagnana dwanta savithre'. This must be split as 'guruguhaaya agnana dwanta savithre' i.e. 'the one who is the sun for the darkness of ignorance'. Some sing it as 'guruguhaya..... gnana dwanta savitre', ' one who is the sun for the darkness of knowledge'!

"I do not know if you sing the kriti 'Sankaracharyam' (Sri Subbarama Sastri's Sankarabharanam kriti), but Veena Dhanamma's family, Semmangudi Seenu, MS sing this. There is a line 'paramadvaita sthapana leelam' – means 'one who so easily, like a game, founded the great advaita philosophy' - it is to be sung with stress on the 'A' of 'Advaita' (Paramacharya sings
this line) to give the intended meaning. If we really cared, we can, even without proper training, sing with proper meaning. Those I mentioned above also sing properly. But those who do not care, stretch the 'parama' and then sing 'dwaita sthapana leelam', converting the Advaita Acharya to Dwaita Acharya! (laughs heartily for a long time)

"No doubt, in music, there is no Dvaita - Advaita difference. Only music is important. And music makes the mind of the singer into unison with the song - the protagonist of the song. That is why, 'Shri Subrahmanyaya namasthe' is attached to you - a Vaishnavite - or you are attached to it! I have heard you sing that song. I do not have to say anything about your musical ability; and the sahitya part too you do correctly. Which is why I have called you here. "In my dharbar there is only stones and bushes. There is no accompaniment, not even sruti. But please do sing that kriti for me, in spite of all these.” When Paramacharya stopped his torrent, Ariyakkudi was in tears. He prostrated once again, and said "there is no other prestige for me than to be asked by 'periyava' to sing, and singing for periyava. I have no words to express the magnanimity of Periyava, considering me as somebody and giving me this chance. Periyava’s grace has to fill in for the sruti and accompaniment and enable me to sing to the level I am expected to” and readied himself to begin the song.

Paramacharya asked "the raga of this kriti is said to be Kambodhi, but the name given in books is Kambhoji, right?" When Ariyakkudi said yes, Paramacharya continued, "Many of us know Kambhojam is Cambodia (in S E Asia), and that Bharat culture had taken deep roots there. If we inferred that Kambhoji is a raga 'imported' from that place, researchers like Sambamurthy (the late Prof P Sambamurthy) disagree. Cambodians might have imported many things from us, but not we, far advanced in civilization, from them; definitely not in music, where we were much advanced whereas they had mostly folk music.

Then why the name 'Kambhoji'? "I have a thought here - there is another place called 'Kambhojam along India's northern border. Kalidasa, no ordinary poet and quite knowledgeable too, tells Yasha to go this way and that in his 'megha sandesam' – good enough to plot a map! In his Raghuvamsam, describing Raghu's invasions and victories, he has mentioned one 'Kambhojam', beyond the Indus and along the Himalayas. From this, we deduce that, within the extended India (akand Bharat), there was one Kambhojam near the Hindukush mountains. May be our Kambodhi raga was from this place? "Many ragas are named after places, right? Sourashtram, Navarasa kannada, even Kannada, Sindhu Bhairavi, Yamuna Kalyani, like this Kambodhi might have come from Kambhojam region.

"Researchers say ragas like Mohanam and Kambhoji have been around in most civilizations from time immemorial. Later, may be the raga was given the name of the place that 'polished' it well.
“Kedaram is a place in the Himalayas - you know Kedarnath. Gowla – Gowda region - Bengal. We have ragas in both names, and even Kedaragowla. But all three ragas have been in South Indian music - how? May be the names came from musicans who 'specialized' in these ragas and came from those regions?

People in general, musicians in particular, are referred to with their native places. For instance Ariyakkudi means you! From this, can we say that some of these rags - Kedaram, Gowla, Kannada, Kambhoji etc. - were popularized by musicians from these regions? "Are you interested in research into ancient music?" Ariyakkudi replied "Not much". "But you have set Tiruppavai to tune! But unlike for Devaram songs, tunes have not been specified for Tiruppavai songs, and those whose who recited, did not use a tune. Since only Brahmins have been reciting Divyaprabhandham songs, they have recited only with a kind of up-down delivery (Ethal-Irakkal prasam).

“You set the tune for Tiruppavai according to your manodharma (imagination)?"

"To the best of my little ability" replied ariyakudi.

"But it has become the standard and accepted and sung by other vidwans as well! It seems our ancient ragas have been preserved in their original form (roopam) only in the Devaram songs. Just as the Vedas have been preserved to a note by the Vaidikas through generations, the Odhuvamurthis have preserved Devaram songs - not just the lyrics, but the tunes too. What was a service to devotion, has also been a service to music! The ragas Sankarabharanam, Neelambari, Bhairavi etc. have all been identified as different 'pann's. This list includes Sowrashtra, Kedaragowla, Kambodhi also. Kambodhi used to be called 'ThakkEsi' or something like that. Kambodhi is not a mela raga?" "No. Harikambhoji is the mela raga; Kambhoji is its janya raga" "But Kambodhi is more famous! Just like the son being more famous than the father. Some other janya ragas too are like this?" "Yes, Bhairavi is a janya raga, derived from Natabhairavi"

"OK, you sing. I have been wasting time in useless chat preventing you from doing what you came for!"

Ariyakkudi rendered the song "ShrI subrahmanyAya namasthE" - a rare musical feast. Even without sruti or accompaniments, it still was wholesome. Paramacharya listened to the song with full concentration, eyes closed. Then, "Only because you sang alone (no sruti/accompanists) the song came out with all its beauty. And the words were crystal clear. I say 'thrupthOsmi' (Totally satisfied). Please sing once more - you know why? I will give you the meaning line by line, you stop after every line. Not that you do not know; but let me have the pleasure of dissolving my mind in Sri Dikshitar's lyrical beauty for some more time! More over, others here can also learn the meaning and beauty behind the creations of geniuses."

Ariyakkudi sang one more, this time line-by-line and our Paramacharya gave detailed commentry on the Dikshitar Kriti “Sri Subhramanyaya Namaste”.

Paramacharya further tells Ariyakkudi and the gathering at large, "I'm happy to see that you, coming from a good guru-sishya parampara, are preserving good music. You must also bring up good disciples and keep the tradition going. A Brahmin, having learnt Veda, has a compulsory duty to teach atleast one more person (athyApanam). This can apply to other sastras and arts
too. "One more point about musicians. You should sing the Telugu and Sanskrit kirtanas fully aware of their meaning. It is not fair to say that Tamil songs alone are enough. Great composers in this country have created hundreds of Telugu and Sanskrit songs of much musical and lyrical beauty. If we ignore them, the loss is ours. Do not defend by saying, 'I do not understand them!' - if only we desire, do we not spend time and energy on all sorts of useless things? If musicians dedicate themselves to pure music and proper rendition of words without losing the 'osandha artha visEsham', language can not be a barrier. Now that you are #1 in the music world, do your best towards this. May Subrahmanya's Grace be with you in this endeavor."

NB : Acharya’s commentary for the Kriti is available with me. Those who are interested please let me know.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Temple Visit – Kundrathur

I recently visited two temples at Kundrathur which is about 28 kms from Chennai located in the middle of Pallavaram, Poonamalee and Porur. The Nageswarar temple is the one dedicated to Lord Shiva and the other one is the famous temple for Lord Subramanya or Muruga. The Murugan temple is on the hillock with all serenity and you will get fresh Oxygen here without the city pollutions and can recharge your soul. You will be surprised to know that this town is also the birth place of Saint Poet Sekkizhar who is the author of the famous “Periya Puranam” which is considered as an important epic in Tamil literature. The poem narrates the life of the 63 Nayanmars or Saivite devotees of Lord Shiva. If there has to be a temple shot in films, filmmakers head to Kundrathur for its multi step entrance and its mountainous view. Films like Vijay’s 'Nenjinilae', Simbu’s 'Kadhal Azhivathilai', the latest 'Azhagar Malai' and TV serial 'Kolangal' and 'Velan' have been shot here. Finds interesting?!! please read on to know more about the temples of Kundrathur.

Nageswarar Temple

The Nageswarar temple is more than 800 years old. The Lord is known as Nageswarar since he is being worshipped by Adi Sesha the foremost and king of all snakes and his consort is known as Kamakshi. This temple is believed to be built by Sekkizhar. This is considered the Raagu sthalam of the Navagraha Temples around Chennai. The temple and its tank are clean and well maintained. This place is also called as “Vada Thirunageswaram” i.e. temple similar to the Tirunageswarm temple near Kumbakonam.

The Thondai Nadu was divided into 24 sections and it was in the division known as “Puliyur Kottam” - Kundrathur - that Sekkizhar Swamikal was born. He was known as Arul Mozhith Thevar. Kulothunga II was ruling the Chola dynasty at that time. He had heard the adage “Thondai vala nadu sandror udaithu”. The plentiful land of Thondai Nadu abounds with scholars. He wanted to test the validity of this statement and also to identify the best of scholars living there. He therefore sent a Palmyra leaf to the land, containing three questions, for the scholars to answer.

The three questions were:

Which is loftier than the hills?
Which is vast than the ocean?
Which is greater than the world?

These questions did their rounds among the scholars and they found it difficult to answer. Finally when it came to Sekkizhar, he answered all the three of them, from the great work, Tirukkural.

The Kural that answered the first question, is “More lofty than a mountain will be the greatness of that man, who without swerving form his proper state, controls himself.” (Kural 124).Sekkizhar quoted the answer from Tirukkural for the second one also “If we weigh the excellence of a benefit which is conferred without weighing the return, it is larger than the sea.” (Kural 103) For the third question, ‘Which is greater than the world,’ he gave the answer, “A favour conferred in the time of need, though it be small is much larger than the world.” (Kural 102)

The questions could not have been answered more appropriately. This incident is mentioned by Kamban, the poet of poets, in his ‘Erezhubadhu.’ “Mannil, Kadalil, Malayil peridhena enni ezhudhik koduththa etrrakai” he says. The hand that wrote the thoughtful answers of which is greater than the world, the hills and the ocean. Kulothunga II realised the greatness of Sekkizhar and honoured him with the title ‘Uthama Chola Pallavan.’ Sekkizhar became the minister of the King. He worshipped Lord Shiva in Then Thiru Nageswaram, near Kumbakonam. The temple tank is known as Surya Pushkarani since it has the distinction of Sun having his holy dip in it. The Champaka tree became the sthala vrksha, since Parvathi did her penance under the tree for uniting with her Lord in the ‘Ardhanareeswara’ form. Sekkizhar installed a Lingam in Kundrathur and consecrated a temple there, in all respects similar to the one in Then Thiru Nageswaram - with a temple tank called Surya Pushkarani and the Champaka tree as the sthala vrksha. Therefore, the temple, which in all respects is a replica of the original temple, is called Vada Nageswaram. The direct rays of Sun fall on the presiding deity in the month of Masi, on 18, 19, 20, 21 and 22.


The wedding festival of the Lord and Devi is celebrated on the full moon day of the month Chithrai followed by Brahmotsavam for 10 days. In the following month, Vaikasi, birthday of Sekkizhar is celebrated on the star Pusam. The temple underwent many changes and additions during the coming years. The 24-stone mantapa, the massive wall around the prakara were later additions. In the year 1944, the Raja gopuram and also the gopuram on the sanctum sanctorum were constructed. The Rajagopuram, Vimanam over the sanctum sanctorum of Lord and Devi, dwaja stambam, the temple kitchen, the compound wall, etc., were renovated in 1972. There are 46 stone inscriptions in the temple. Significant among them are the ones of Kulothunga Chola III (1178-1218 AD), Rajendra Chola III (1246-1271 AD), Sundara Pandiyan (1251-1271 AD) Maravarman Kulasekara Pandiyan I (1268-1311 AD), Harihara Rayar I (1509-1592 AD) Sriranga Devarayar (1582-1592 AD) etc., covering a period of more than 500 years.

Kundrathur Murugan Temple

Kundrathur as the name implies this is a small village surrounded by hills. The Murugan temple is situated at the top of a small hill and 75+ steps leads to the temple. On climbing the steps “Valansuzhi Vinayagar” sannidhi stands first and having a dharshan of vinayagar in just a few steps one can enter the murugar shrine. Another Vinayagar Sannidhi can be seen here under a villva tree. This is a small hill temple for Lord Subramanya or Muruga with His two consorts built by King Klothunga Chola - II. Legend has it that Lord Muruga stayed in the hill on an auspicious day during His travel from Thirupporur to Thiruthani.

This place is also known as South Thanigai since Lord Subramaniar is sitting in the direction of north facing Thanigai and this is the only Murugan temple in Tamilnadu where the God is facing north. In the moolasthanam subramanyar stays with his consorts valli and devayani. The other specialty being that Lord Subramaniar can be seen with only one Goddess at a time though He is present with both of His consorts. The Saint Poet ‘Arunagirinathar” has visited this temple and has sung “Thiripugazh” on the Kunrathur murugan. The temple celebrate karthigai deepam in a grand manner and deepam will be lit on the hill temple. Kartikai asterism each month is considered sacred here. Skanda sashti in the month of Aippasi and “Padi Utsavam” in the month of Vaikasi are the main festivals celebrated here. In the inner praharam Shivan, Amman, and Vinayagar can be seen. In the outer praharam bhairavar, navagrahas, nagalingam under a peepal tree,dhaksinamurthy and durgai have separate sannidhis.

In addition to the above two temples there is a temple for Vishnu known as “Thiru Ooraga perumal” and a temple dedicated to the Saint “Sekkizhar”.

You will definitely like to visit next once more after having darshan at Kundrathur.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

108 Divine Names of Hanuman

Yesterday was “Hanumath Jayanthi” i.e. In Tamilnadu Maruti is believed to have born on Margazhi, Amavaysa in the “Moola” star. Brahmasri Sengalipuram Anantharama Deekshitar in his book “Jaya Mangala Stotram" has given a guideline as to how to perform the Pooja. The pooja period is for 45 days. If a person carries out this Hanumat Pooja with sincerity all his wishes will be fulfilled. This declaration is given by Sri Deekshitar. The famous artist “Vinu” had portrayed “Jaya Hanuman” (See picture below) and the same got the blessings of Kanchi Mahaperiyava Jagadguru Sri Chandrasekhara Saraswathi. So many people have benefitted after doing this pooja. I have also referred to many earlier who have given their sincere feedback that they have attained immense benefit by doing this pooja. I have heard Sri Deekshitar and other stalwarts telling that simply by reading the “Sundara Kandam” of Ramayana any hindrances in their mission/objective will be removed and will attain their wish. Also Samarta Ramadass established lots of temples for Hanuman to bring unity among people and to ward-off any ill effects. The picture is available in Giri Trading or in any leading Pooja Stores. (if u need any help do let me know). In the Hanumat pooja one has to chant 108 divine names of “Hanuman”.

The divine names with meaning is given below :

Name = Meaning (Please add 'OM' in the beginning and "Namaha" at the end)

Anjaneyaya = Son of Anjana
Mahaveeraya = Most Valiant
Hanumate = Puffy Cheeks
Marutatmajaya = Most beloved like gems
Tatva-gnana-pradaya = Granter of wisdom
Sitadevi-mudra-pradayakaya = Deliverer of the ring to Sita
Asoka-vanika-chetre = Destroyer of Ashoka Grove
Sarva-maya-vibanjanaya = Destroyer of all illusions
Sarva-bhanda-vimoktare = Liberates from all bondings
Raksho-vidhwansa-karakaya = Slayer of demons
Para-vidya-pariharaya = Destroyer of enemie's wisdom
Para-shaurya-vinashanaya = Destroyer of enemie's valour
Para-mantra-nirakartre = Acceptor of Rama's mantra only
Para-yantra-prabhedakaya = Destroyer of enemie's missions
Sarva-graha-nivashine = Killer of evil effects of planets
Bheema-sena-sahayakrute = Helper of Bheema
Sarva-dhuka-haraya = Reliever of all agonies
Sarva-loka-charine = Wanderer
Manojavaya = Speed like wind
Parijatha-taru-moolasthaya = Resides under the parijata tree
Sarva-mantra-swaroopavate = Possessor of all hymns
Sarva-tantra-swaroopine = Shape of all hymns
Sarva-yantratmakaya = Dweller in all yantras
Kapeeshwaraya = Lord of the monkeys
Mahakayaya = Gigantic
Sarva-roga-haraya= Reliever of all ailments
Prabhave = Popular Lord
Batna-siddhikaraya = Granter of strength
Sarva-vidya-sampat-pradayakaya = Granter of knowledge and wisdom
Kapi-sena-nayakaya = Chief of the monkey army
Bhavishya-chaturananaya = Aware of future happenings
Kumara-brahmacharine = Youthful bachelor
Ratna-kundala-deeptimate = Wearing gem studded ear-rings
Chanchaladwala, sanabdwa-lambamana shikhojwalaya = Glittering and long tail suspended above the head
Ghandarva-vidya-tatvagnana = Exponent in the art of celestials
Mahabala-parakramaya = Of great strength
Kara-griha-vimoktre = One who frees from imprisonment
Shrinkhala-bandha-mochakaya = Reliever from a chain of distresses
Sagarotharakaya = Leapt across the ocean
Pragnaya = Scholar
Rama-dhootaya = Ambassador of rama
Pratapavate = Known for valour
Vanaraya = Monkey god
Kesari-sutaya = Son of kesari
Sita-shoka-nivaranaya = Destroyer of sita's sorrow
Anjana-garbha-sambhootaya = Born of anjana
Balarka-sadrisha-nanaya = Like the rising sun
Vibheeshana-priyakaraya = Beloved of vibheeshana
Dashagreeva-kulantakaya = Slayer of the ten headed ravana's race
Lakshmana pranadatre = Reviver of lakshmana's life
Vajrakaya = Sturdy like metal
Mahadhyutay = Most radiant
Chiranjeevine = Eternal being
Rama-bhaktaya = Devoted to rama
Daityakarya-vidhyatakaya = Destroyer of all demonic activities
Akshahantri = Slayer of Aksha
Kalanabhaya = Controller of time
Kanchanabhaya = Golden hued body
Pancha-vaktraya = Five faced
Maha-tapase = Great meditator
Lankinee-bhanjanaya = Slayer of lankini
Shrimate = Revered
Simhikaprana-bhanjanaya = Slayer of simhika
Gandhamadhana-shailasthaya = Dweller of gandhamadhana mount
Lankapura-vidahakaya = He who burnt lanka
Sugreeva-sachivaya = Minister of Sugreeva
Dheeraya = Valiant
Shooraya = Bold
Daithya-kulantakaya = Destroyer of demons
Sura-architaya = Worshipped by Celestials
Mahatejase = Most radiant
Rama-choodamani-pradaya = Deliverer of Rama's Ring
Kamaroopine = Changing form at will
Pingalakshaya = Pink-eyed
Vardhi-mainaka-poojitaya = Worshipped by mainaka hill
Kabalikrita-martanda-mandalaya = Swallower of the Sun
Vijite-indriyaya = Controller of the senses
Rama-Sugreeva-sandhatre = Mediator between Rama and Sugreeva
Maha-ravana-mardhanaya = Slayer of the Ravana
Sphatikabhaya = Crystal Clear
Vagadheekshaya = Lord of Spokes-people
Nava-vyakriti-panditaya = Skilful Scholar
Chatur-bahave = Four armed
Deenabandhave = Protector of the downtrodden
Mahatmane = Supreme Being
Bhaktavatsalaya = Protector of devotees
Sanjeevana-nagahatre = Bearer of Sanjeevani mount
Shuchaye = Chaste
Vagmine = Spokesman
Dhrudda-vrataya = Strong willed mediator
Kalanemi-pramathanaya = Slayer of Kalanemi
Hari-markata-markataya = Lord of monkeys
Dantaya = Calm
Shantaya = Very composed
Prasanna-atmane = Cheerful
Shata-kantta-mada-pahate = Destroyer of Shatakantta's arrogance
Yogine = Saint
Ramakatha-lolaya = Loves listening to Rama's story
Sitan-veshana-panditaya = Skilful in finding Sita's whereabouts
Vajra-nakhaya = Strong nailed
Rudraveerya-samudbhavaya = Born of Shiva
Indrajit-prahitamogha-brahmastra-vinivarakaya = Destroyer of the effect of Indrajit's Brahmastra
Partha-dhwajagra-samvasine = Having foremost place on Arjuna's Flag
Shara-panjara-bhedakaya = Destroyer of the nest made of arrows
Dasha-bahave = Ten armed
Loka-poojyaya = Worshipped by the universe
Jambavatpreeti Vardhanaya = Winning Jambavan's love
Sita-sameta Ramapada-seva Dhurandharaya = Always engrossed in Rama's service

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Magic of Dabbawala

I recently attended a programme titled “The magic of the dabbawala” (thanks to my friend Deepak Menon) organized by National HRD Network (Chennai Chapter) at Hotel Savera, on 27th November 2009. The lecture was given by Mr. Manish Tripathi who is the Chairman of the Dabbawala Foundation. When he entered the meeting hall with his ‘dabba’ and said “Good Evening Chennai” he sets the tone for the programme which was full of wits and humour. Though the English came with chaste Marathi dialect we can enjoy the programme as he kept on pulling the legs of the MBA graduates when he compared the dabawala with that of an ordinary organization. The BBC has produced a documentary on dabbawalas, and Prince Charles, during his visit to India, visited them and even invited them for his marriage. Owing to the tremendous publicity, some of the dabbawalas were invited to give guest lectures in top business schools of India, which is very unusual. Most remarkably in the eyes of many Westerners, the success of the dabbawala trade has involved no advanced technology. Quiet amazing isn’t it? Want to know how the dabbawala system works please read on…

The Statistics of dabbawalas

· History : Started in 1880
· Average Literacy Rate of employees : 8th Grade Schooling
· Average Area Coverage : 60 Km per Tiffin Box
· Employee Strength : 5000
· No. of Dabbas / Tiffins Boxes : 2,00,000 Tiffin Boxes per day
· No. of transactions : 10 Million Transactions per month
· Time taken for delivery : 3 hours
· Cost of Service : Rs. 250/- to Rs. 350/- per month

The History

This service was originated in 1880. The origin of the Dabbawalas lunch delivery service dates back to the 1890s during the British raj. At that time, people from various communities migrated to Mumbai for work. As there were no canteens or fast food centers then, if working people did not bring their lunch from home, they had to go hungry and invariably, lunch would not be ready when they left home for work. Besides, different communities had different tastes and preferences which could only be satisfied by a home-cooked meal.

Recognizing the need, in 1890, Mahadeo Havaji Bachche, started a lunch delivery service with about 100 men. For his enterprise, Mahadeo recruited youth from the villages neighboring Mumbai, who were involved in agricultural work. They were willing to come as the income they got from agriculture was not enough to support their large families, and they had no education or skills to get work in the city. In 1930, he informally attempted to unionize the dabbawallas. Later a charitable trust was registered in 1956 under the name of Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers Trust. The commercial arm of this trust was registered in 1968 as Mumbai Tiffin Box Supplier's Association. The present President of the association is Sopan Laxman Mare. Nowadays, the service often includes cooking of foods in addition to the delivery.

Their mission is to serve their customers -- who are mainly office goers -- by delivering their lunch boxes at their doorstep on time. They have 5,000 people on their payroll to ensure the prompt delivery of lunchboxes within Mumbai; these 'dabbawalas' travel by local trains and use bicycles or walk to reach every nook and corner of Mumbai. The lunch boxes are delivered exactly at 12.30 pm. Later, the empty boxes are collected and taken back to the homes, catering services or hotels before 5 pm. In fact, the next time you forget to strap on your watch before leaving for office, don't be surprised to find it in the lunchbox container brought by the dabbawala from your home! On an average, every tiffin box changes hands four times and travels 60-70 kilometres in its journey to reach its eventual destination. Each box is differentiated and sorted along the route on the basis of markings on the lid, which give an indication of the source as well as the destination address.

Although the service remains essentially low-tech, with the barefoot delivery men as the prime movers, the dabbawalas have started to embrace technology, and now allow booking for delivery through SMS. An on-line poll on the web site ensures that customer feedback is given pride of place. The success of the system depends on teamwork and time management. Such is the dedication and commitment of the barely literate and barefoot delivery men (there are only a few delivery women) who form links in the extensive delivery chain, that there is no system of documentation at all.

A simple colour coding system doubles as an ID system for the destination and recipient. There are no multiple elaborate layers of management either — just three layers. Each dabbawala is also required to contribute a minimum capital in kind, in the form of two bicycles, a wooden crate for the tiffins, white cotton kurta-pyjamas, and the white trademark Gandhi cap (topi). The return on capital is ensured by monthly division of the earnings of each unit.

The service is uninterrupted even on the days of severe weather such as Mumbai's characteristic monsoons. The local dabbawalas at the receiving and the sending ends are known to the customers personally, so that there is no question of lack of trust. Also, they are well accustomed to the local areas they cater to, which allows them to access any destination with ease. Occasionally, people communicate between home and work by putting messages inside the boxes. However, this was more common before the accessibility of instant telecommunications.
The brand ambassador of “Dabbawalas” none other than Prince Charles!

Six Sigma Rating

The efficiency of the process has earned the dabbawalas a six-sigma rating from Forbes magazine. The Six Sigma quality certification was established by the International Quality Federation in 1986, to judge the quality standards of an organisation. According to an article published in Forbes magazine in 1998, “one mistake for every eight million” deliveries constitute Six Sigma quality standards. The Six-sigma rating means that they have a 99.99 % efficiency in delivering the lunch-boxes to the right people. That put them on the list of Six Sigma rated companies, along with multinationals like Motorola and GE. Achieving this rating was no mean feat, considering that the Dabbawalas did not use any technology or paperwork, and that most of them were illiterate or semiliterate. Apart from Forbes, the Dabbawalas have aroused the interest of many other international organizations, media and academia.

The logistics of how the dabba is delivered

A collecting dabbawala, usually on bicycle, collects dabbas from homes or from the dabba makers. The dabbas have some sort of distinguishing mark on them, such as a color or symbol. The dabbawala then takes them to a designated sorting place, where he and other collecting dabbawalas sort (and sometimes bundle) the lunch boxes into groups. The grouped boxes are put in the coaches of trains, with markings to identify the destination of the box (usually there is a designated car for the boxes). The markings include the rail station to unload the boxes and the building address where the box has to be delivered. At each station, boxes are handed over to a local dabbawala, who delivers them. The empty boxes, after lunch, are again collected and sent back to the respective houses.

i) The first dabbawala picks up the tiffin from home and takes it to the nearest railway station.
ii) The second dabbawalla sorts out the dabbas at the railway station according to destination and puts them in the luggage carriage.
iii) The third one travels with the dabbas to the railway stations nearest to the destinations.
iv) The fourth one picks up dabbas from the railway station and drops them of at the offices. The process is reversed in the evenings.

Decoding the dabba

The dabbawalas adopt a colour coding system to ensure the dabbas are picked and delivered at the correct destinations. The reverse of dabba is normally painted with codes. See the following picture to know how the coding system is followed.

Dabbawala Disciplines
"Error is horror," is the operational motto. In the event of a dabbawala meeting with an accident en-route, alternative arrangements are made to deliver the lunch boxes. For example, in a group of 30 dabbawalas catering to an area, five people act as redundant members; it is these members who take on the responsibility of delivering the dabbas in case of any untoward happenings.

The dabbawalas must be extremely disciplined. Consuming alcohol while on duty attracts a fine of Rs 1,000. Unwarranted absenteeism is not tolerated and is treated with a similar fine.

Every dabbawalla gets a weekly off, usually on Sunday.

The “Gandhi cap” serves as a potent symbol of identification in the crowded railway stations. Not wearing the cap attracts a fine of Rs 25. In fact, Richard Branson, the maverick businessman who is never shy to promote himself and the Virgin brand, donned a Gandhi topi and dhoti (the dabbawalas' signature dress code), during the launch of Virgin's inaugural flights to Mumbai.

There are no specific selection criteria like age, sex or religion; however, women dabbawals are very few in number. The antecedents of the candidates are thoroughly verified and a new employee is taken into the fold for a six-month probation. After that period, the employment is regularised with a salary of Rs 5,000 a month.

Dabbawala and the Management perspective :

The dabbawalas are a prime example of management guru Michael Porter's Five Forces Theory at work.

Porter's theories, which are the basis for classical management principles, define the scope and nature of competition a company faces to attain leadership. Surprisingly, the dabbawalas are following these very principles in spite of their ignorance of the same.

i. Threat of new entrants:

According to Porter, the threat of new entrants is dangerous to any organisation as it can take away the market share the organisation enjoys. Started in 1880, the experience curve of the 125-year-old dabbawala service serves as a huge entry barrier for potential competitors. Besides, it would be difficult to replicate this supply chain network that uses Mumbai's jam-packed local trains as its backbone.

ii. Current competition:

Porter's five forces theory states that strategy is determined by a unique combination of activities that deliver a different value proposition than competitors or the same value proposition in a better way. The dabbawalas do face competition from fast food joints as well as office canteens. However, since neither of these serve home food, the dabbawalas' core offering remains unchallenged. They have also tied up with many catering services and hotels to cater to the vast number of office goers.

iii. Bargaining power of buyers:

The delivery rates of the dabbawalas are so nominal (about Rs 250 – Rs. 300 per month) that one simply wouldn't bargain any further. Also, their current monopoly negates any scope of bargaining on the part of their customers. Thus, we encounter a perfect win-win combination for the customers as well as the dabbawalas.

iv. Bargaining power of sellers:

The dabbawalas use minimum infrastructure and practically no technology, hence they are not dependent on suppliers. Since they are a service-oriented organisation, they are not dependent on sellers to buy their product. Hence, sellers do not assume any prominence as would be the case in a product-oriented company. The strategy map framework in Porter's theory allows companies to identify and link together the critical internal processes and human, information and organisation capital that deliver the value proposition differently or better. Human capital is the greatest driving force in the dabbawala community; as a result, they are not dependent on suppliers or technology, thus negating the seller's power in the equation.

v. Threat of a new substitute product or service:

As substitutes to home cooked food are not seen as a viable alternative in the Indian scenario, the threat to the dabbawala service is not an issue at least in the foreseeable future. This gives them a leeway to probably expand their already existing network into newer cities as demand increases in these places as well.
Learnings from Dabbawalas – What they say :
"As management students, there was a lot that we learnt from this lecture," says Karthik A J, a first year management student at NITIE. "The belief that technology is indispensable to solve complex problems was shattered. FMCGs and other industries can learn a lot from the simple supply chain logistics and efficient reverse logistics (transfer of empty lunch boxes to the source location)," he adds.
The concept of multi-level coding (colour coding on the lunch boxes for identification) and reverse logistics can be implemented in industries as diverse as soft drinks (where logistics becomes an important aspect, transporting the filled bottles to retailers and collecting empty bottles back to the plants), pharmaceuticals and other FMCG areas. For example, can the bar coding mechanism (a computerised format) which is prevalent and expensive, be simplified with just colour/ number coding? In small and medium scale organisations where bar coding systems would require a lot of resources, these systems can prove to be very efficient and cost effective. Moreover, the dependence on technology could be drastically reduced.

The learnings for a working executive are enormous too. Managers and executives alike spend a lot of their valuable time learning various concepts in people and time management. Newer mechanisms like Customer Relationship Management, etc, have been developed to assist executives in the same. But, in the midst of implementing technology and IT, basic principles in people management, sustainable relationship development and customer satisfaction have lost their meaning. Our friendly dabbawallas are a perfect example of an important principle of both business and management -- the thirst to serve customers in a simple yet effective fashion without falling into the technology trap. I think this is an aspect which needs to be re-learnt and implemented in any organisation today.

The most enduring lesson that we learnt was to put the customer ahead of everything else. It is said that when Prince Charles expressed a desire to meet them during his visit in 2003, the dabbawallas requested him to schedule the meeting such that it did not interfere with their mid-day delivery timings!!!.


Mumbai dabbawallas by Kiran Raveendran, ICFAI
What you can learn from a dabbawalla – Harsha Venkatesh
Dabbawala - Wikipedia,
Official website of Dabbawalas