"The Ramayana does not belong to any one moment in history for it has its own history which lies embedded in the many versions which were woven around
"The Ramayana does not belong to any one moment in history for it has its own history which lies embedded in the many versions which were woven around the theme at different times and places." - Romila Thapar
The Ramayana and the Mahabharata are the great epics of India. Of these the Ramayana, though smaller, is the older one – and surprisingly widespread not only in India but across Asia right up to Japan. It boasts of astonishing regional varieties in the narrative, while keeping the core tale intact – a sure sign that it has spread as an oral narrative, and is a composite of various myths; some universal, some local.
Dr. Azeez Tharuvana, a native of the hilly Wayanad region of northern Kerala in India has done his doctoral research in tribal studies. A part of it was about the astonishing varieties of the Ramayana myth, popular among the tribes of the region. This book is a compendium of those tales in part; it also explores the spread of Ramayana across India and Asia.
There would be hardly an Indian who does not know the epic – about the hero Rama and his wife Sita, who is kidnapped by the demon king of Sri Lanka, Ravana. Rama along with his brother Lakshmana and the monkey army led by Hanuman reach Lanka by building a bund across the sea. In a fierce battle, Rama kills Ravana and his kin and rescues Sita.
In a devastating sequel to the epic, Rama abandons Sita because doubts are raised about her chastity while in Ravana’s captivity. Left in the forest to die, she is rescued by the sage Valmiki (the author of the epic, incidentally) and gives birth to twins in his ashram. Later on, Rama with his army confronts the children without knowing they are his; they defeat him when all is revealed. Rama apologises to Sita and asks her to return to the palace. She refuses and the ground opens up and swallows her.
In the tribal retellings, this whole story is superimposed on Wayanad, with Rama, Sita and Ravana all being converted into local tribals: the locations are in and around the area (for example, Ayodhya is in Irippu near Kodagu and Valmiki’s ashram is in Ashramam Kolli in Wayanad itself). There are also interesting bits of local colour, such as a lake in Ponkuzhi being created out of Sita’s tears and Jatayatta Kavu being the exact place where Sita disappeared into the earth. (The place name, literally translated, means “the grove where the hair became detached”. It is believed that as Sita went down, Rama tried to hold on to her hair which came off in his hand – again, not part of Valmiki’s epic.)
We also find tribal gods participating in the story. In many sub-narratives, they work as intercessors and are awarded special privileges by the Vedic gods (this may be a later attempt to legitimise or subsume the local religion). Even the origin myths of the tribes are mishmashed into the corpus of the Vedic myths. In one interesting myth, the origin of the slave status of the Adiya tribe is described to be handiwork of three “devious lords”, who cheated their king into parting with his land and then frightened them all into submission – this seems too much like history! (I have a very good guess on who those “devious lords” are.)
Dr. Azeez’s version of the historical origin of these myths is that they were imposed by the Aryan settlers who moved into this area. This, I don’t subscribe to fully. In my opinion, it was a bit of give and take between the settlers and the original inhabitants. Ramayana is a composite made up of myths from all over – and not necessarily only India, as the second part of the book (where the Ramayana tradition across India and Asia is explored) demonstrates.
And what a kaleidoscopic view it is! From Buddhist Ramayanas where Rama is the incarnation of the Bodhisattva; to Jain versions where he is a Tirthankara; to Islamic tellings where he is a sultan of sorts (in one Kerala Muslim version, all the characters speak Malabar Muslim lingo!): and from Tibet to China to Malaysia to Thailand and all the way across to Japan – the tale of this prince and his consort continues to entertain generation after generation.
Postscript: Currently efforts are on in India by Hindu fundamentalists to freeze this story in time and space, reinforce the image of Rama as an incarnation of Vishnu, and change myth into dogma – rather like what happened with Jesus. Sad....more
Kuttikrishna Marar takes many of the characters and episodes of the great epic and analyses them in theiGreat analysis of the Mahabharata.
Kuttikrishna Marar takes many of the characters and episodes of the great epic and analyses them in their literary context. This type of analysis, where no external factors are brought into play other than the clues provided in the text itself, enthralled me when I first read it in my early twenties. I don't remember much to give a detailed review here - which shows it is high time for a re-read....more
Parayi Pettu Panthiru Kulam (The Twelve Castes Born of the Parayi[Pariah Woman]) is well-known and loved legend in Kerala, even though it may be unknown to the majorityParayi Pettu Panthiru Kulam (The Twelve Castes Born of the Parayi[Pariah Woman]) is well-known and loved legend in Kerala, even though it may be unknown to the majority of non-Keralites.
The story goes like this. Vararuchi, a Brahmin scholar of the court of King Vikramaditya, was forced to marry a Parayi through the vagaries of fate (it is an interesting story - I would recommend Aithihyamala, The Garland Of Legends by Kottarathil Sankunny, now available in English translation, to anybody interested: it contains this legend along with many others). Thus become outcaste, the Brahmin set out on a tour of Kerala along with his wife. In the course of their travels, the girl became pregnant and had to give birth by the roadside. Vararuchi asked one question: Does the child have a mouth? When his wife replied in the affirmative, he told her: Then leave the child. If God has given it a mouth, He will feed it.
This happened eleven times. On her twelfth delivery, eager to keep her child, the girl lied and said that the child had no mouth. Vararuchi then allowed her to take it along. But her lie to the revered Brahmin became the truth, and the child's mouth disappeared - and it died. Vararuchi then set this infant up on a hill as a deity and called him Vayillakkunnilappan ("The-Deity-with-No-Mouth-on-the-Mountain").
The other eleven children were adopted by people belonging to different castes, ranging from Brahmin to Pariah: they all lived in harmony, and came together every year to do the funeral rites of their father. In one story, they are all revealed as incarnations of Lord Vishnu.
I have loved this story as a child: it is beautiful, and shows that all human beings are expressions of the same Godhead. In this book, Dr. Rajan Chungath has done a fantastic job of tracing the roots of the legend, and locating the families who consider themselves as descendants of these mythical characters and the various locales they are purported to have lived in. Of course, it is highly unlikely that there is any amount of historical truth in these stories, but they are fascinating, all the same. It gives one glimpse into the Kerala in the mists of the past.
One day, I am planning to visit all these places....more