Garuda and Hanuman were my favorite characters and i used to get drunk on Amar Chitra Katha books. They had some wonderfully illustrated color pages and text.
So today, i share one such story and support it with a sculpture from Tirukurungudi ( thanks to our latest contributor - Sri Giridharan - who has shared his vast collection of photos - we will feature more of his contributions in the coming weeks). Garuda is so well know not only in India but all over south East Asia - Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam….
The story of Garuda’s birth and deeds is told in the first book of the great epic Mahabharata. Garuda’s father was the creator-rishi Kasyapa. His mother Vinata and her sister Kadru - both gave birth in a strange manner. Vinata laid two eggs and her sister a thousand. In due course the 1000 of Kadru hatched into snakes, anxious that her eggs had still not hatched, in her haste Vinata tried to open one of her eggs. Sadly, the baby was only partially formed - he advised his mother to be patient with the remaining egg, and flew off to be the charioter of the Sun - he is called Urud or Aruna. ( incidentally his sun is our famous Vulture Jataya who valiantly fought Ravana while he kidnapped her in his flying chariot).
The sibling rivalry between Vinata and Kadru was intense. One day both of them saw the divine white horse - Uccaihsravas, which is one of the precious items that emerged from the churning of the milk ocean ( along with Koustubam - the jewel that adornes the chest of Vishnu). Vinata was struck by its fabulous white mane, while the wicked Kadru was jealous of her and tricked her into a bet. She said the white horse had a brown tail, Vinata was sure that it was pure white - and so accepted the bet - if it were brown she and her sons would be enslaved to Kadru. Kadru now sought the help of her snakes sons - who quitely went and covered the tail of the horse - so that next day when both the sisters went to the garden they saw Uccaihsravas with a brown tail ! Vinata had lost the bet and her son was destined to be born into bondage.
Wisned by the experience Vinata waited patiently for her remaining offspring - Garuda first burst forth from his egg, he appeared as a raging inferno equal to the cosmic conflagration that consumes the world at the end of every age. Frightened, the gods begged him for mercy. Garuda, hearing their plea, reduced himself in size and energy.
Resolving to release his mother from this state of bondage, Garuda approached the serpents and asked them what it would take to purchase her freedom. Being mortally scared of Garuda and his powers, the snakes named their price - nothing less than the drink of immortality - elixr of Amrit. It was a superhuman task for the Gods guarded Amrit, since it was the source of their immortality. They had ringed the elixir with a massive fire that covered the sky. They had blocked the way to the elixir with a fierce mechanical contraption of sharp rotating blades. And finally, they had stationed two gigantic poisonous snakes next to the elixir as deadly guardians.
( There is another version of this legend which says the snakes wanted Garuda to bring them the moon whose spots were filled with Amrit)
Now, we take a detour to a offshoot and the sculpture part of this post, before returning to the main plot. As he had just hatched, Garuda was ravishingly hungry, and sought out his mother to feed him. The mother not used to feeding birds, advised him to go to the seashore and find beings to eat - but warned him not to harm any Brahmins and if he did so, he would have a terrible burning sensation in his stomach. Garuda went to the seashore and ingested a whole village of fisher folk - including their animals, houses and all. Suddenly he felt a burning sensation in his belly and realised his folly, he spat out the Brahmin, who requested him to spare his wife ( a fisherwomen!) - Garuda did as his command and went to meet his father Kasyapa for advise on feeding.
Kasyappa advised him to proceed to a lake where an Elephant and a Tortoise were fighting. The tortoise was said to be eighty miles long ! and the elephant one hundred and sixty !! Garuda swooped on them and caught them both in his claws and perched on a huge tree to devour them ( the tree was eight hundred miles high !! wow). However, the weight of all of them broke the branch and to his horror Garuda found many Rishis praying ( tied upside down) on the branch. Lest he harm them, he swiftly caught the branch in his beak, still holding the elephant and the tortoise in his claws, flew to a nearby mountain peak - there he let loose the rishis and finished his meal of the two foes!!!
Now, for the sculpture, adding the Amarchitra Katha shots as well.
This lovely sculpture is from Tirukurngudi - watch the detailing of the strength of Garuda, the elephant and the tortoise and he branch in his beak with the upside down rishi’s. Amazing.
The rest of the legend for those interested to now - Garuda hastened toward the abode of the gods intent on robbing them of their treasure. Knowing of his design, the gods met him in full battle-array. Garuda, however, defeated the entire host and scattered them in all directions. Taking the water of many rivers into his mouth, he extinguished the protective fire the gods had thrown up. Reducing his size, he crept past the rotating blades of their murderous machine. And finally, he mangled the two gigantic serpents they had posted as guards. Taking the pot of elixir, he launched again into the air and headed toward the eagerly waiting serpents.
En route, he encountered Vishnu. Rather than fight, the two exchanged promises. Vishnu promised Garuda the gift of immortality even without drinking from the elixir, and Garuda promised to become Vishnu’s mount.
Flying onward, he met Indra the god of the sky. Another exchange of promises occurred. Garuda promised that once he had delivered the elixir, thus fulfilling the request of the serpents, he would make it possible for Indra to regain possession of the elixir and to take it back to the gods. Indra in turn promised Garuda the serpents as food.
At long last, Garuda alighted in front of the waiting serpents. Placing the elixir on the grass, and thereby liberating his mother Vinata from her servitude, he urged the serpents to perform their religious ablutions before consuming it. As they hurried off to do so, Indra swooped in to make off with the elixir. From that day onward, Garuda was the ally of the gods and the trusty mount of Vishnu, as well as the implacable enemy of snakes, upon whom he preyed at every opportunity.
Thirukurungudi Photos: Mr. Ashok and Mr Giridharan
Tirukoilur Garudan pic: Mr. Sathiyan