We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors

The record of the exact year is lost but it is now estimated to be somewhere before or around 3700 BCE.

It was not a lone event as it probably occurred in several coastal settlements across the human inhabited world.

No, it was not a lone event. But they were likely lone figures, separated by geography. And they were, more or less, alone in their quest.

I can just see them. Feet apart, hands on their hips, erect figures standing on their beaches, gazing out at the heaving, moving body of water in front of them.

They had no name for it yet. The water body I mean. But they wondered what lay beyond the point they could see with their naked eyes.

The water body yielded their daily food. So, they revered it. Yet, fearing the unknown, they never ventured further than their little rafts could take them.

Until one lone figure or several around the globe gathered the courage to go where no human had ventured before.

This then was how the raft made way to the boat. At least, that’s the way I always see it each time I, a lone figure, stand on the shores gazing out at a vast ocean.

And each time I do so, I am filled with awe at the sheer courage of our ancestors.

Some years ago I saw a Tamil movie, Dasavatharam*. The film was nothing much to write home about but the picturisation of one song, Kallai Mattum Kandal*, mesmerized me. Here’s a YouTube video of the song. Do take a few minutes and watch it. And then, I have a few questions for you.


I wonder how many of you felt the exact same way I always do when I watch the clip.

Did your heart beat in sympathy for a man sacrificing his life but refusing to give up his belief in his God?

I found a Yoruba* proverb that says,

If we stand tall it is because we stand on the shoulders of many ancestors.

That’s the sentiment I felt when I saw the picturisation of this song.

For non-Tamil speaking readers, allow me to explain. The words Kallai Mattum Kandal mean you can’t ever realize God if you have only seen the stone. By now, of course, you must have understood that the song depicts the clash between worshippers of Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva in ancient India.


If today, the Saivite and Vaishnavite sects coexist in peace in India, isn’t it because of the courage of one set of ancestors who fought so bravely for their freedom to believe?

And yes, let’s not forget the courage of another set who must have equally fought for the philosophy of ‘live and let live’.

There was one more reason why the song mesmerized me.

Did you notice the seafaring prowess of that ancient community? Were you awestruck, like I was, at the sight of the boat caravan making its way down a river to the sea?

I am filled with the same awed feeling when I gaze upon snow clad mountains and wonder at the sheer bravery of the first humans who attempted traversing such daunting terrain.

The Himalayan range surrounding Manali - Image by Lata Subramanian
The Himalayan range surrounding Manali – Image by Lata Subramanian

In 2014, I visited Ankor Wat. Strolling through some of those ancient temples, I felt as if those engraved stones were speaking to me.

Ankor Wat frieze - Image by Lata Subramanian
Ankor Wat frieze – Image by Lata Subramanian

I was in a distant land, Cambodia. But the stones were telling me another story.

Did my ancestors travel here hundreds of years ago? Did they help the Cambodian people build their beautiful temples, dedicated to the same Gods worshipped in India?

Frieze on Ankor Wat temple - Image by Lata Subramanian
Frieze on Ankor Wat temple – Image by Lata Subramanian

I came away with more questions than answers.

Those questions were answered only today when I googled and found an article Across space and time* in The Hindu online. The article says, “the inscriptions on the walls of the temples in Cambodia frequently refer to Indian scholars and priests settling in Cambodia, often on invitation from the king. Some of these scholars were the direct disciples of Adi Sankara in South India.”

Those stones did speak to me. They spoke of my Indian ancestors leaving home and hearth to venture across to a foreign land.

To discover. To learn. To teach. To leave a legacy.

Today, we stand on the shoulders of all those people who went before us.

Across the seas. Across the mountains. Across cultures of language and beliefs.

We need to acknowledge that and give ancestor veneration a whole new meaning.



Featured Image Credit: Glimpse of Ankor Wat Temple – Image by Lata Subramanian

*Dasavatharam – meaning ‘ten avatars’.

*Kallai Mattum KandalThe words mean you can’t ever realize God if you only seen the stone. The song depicts the clash between worshippers of Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva in ancient India.

*Yoruba – a member of an African people of SW Nigeria and Benin. Yoruba is an official language of Nigeria, with over 16 million speakers.

*Across space and timePrema Kasturi, S. Suresh. The Hindu, March 9, 2009.


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