Ramayana before Kamban in TamilNadu

Did The Ramayana exist in Tamil land, much before the undisputed monarch of tamil poets – Kavichchakravarthy Kambar composed his Ramavatharam. Of course yes – for the sanskrit original of Valmiki must have been quite popular,but was there any references in Tamil and if so would there be any sculptures to support them ? We are going to analyse this a little further in today’s post.

Historians and linguists have been debating the time of the great poet Kamban, for all his 12000 verses, he overcame poetic tradition of those days, by failing to sing one on any major King or clan. He sings of a friend and patron – Sadaiyappa Vallal once every 1000 verses, but then there are no clear pointers to his period as well. So the date of Kambar varies from the 9th C CE to the 12th C CE, with more pointers to 12th C CE>

The work of Kambar, though, based on the original Sanskrit verson of Valmiki, its not a pure translation. The greatness in the man, not only showed in his masterly use of the power of the tamil language, he also used his poetic license to alter a few key scenes, maybe to suit the changed landscape – considering the time elapsed between the original Sanskrit version and also the regional variants and preferences. Today, we are going to see one such variant.

Thanks to Dhivakar sir, HariKrishnan sir, Shankar ( ps egroup), Anna Kannan and Geetha madam for their support / ideas / content. Thanks to Arvind for the photographs.

The Panel is from our favorite – Pullamanagai Brahmapureerswarar, the temple is dated stylistically to the early chola period and has inscriptions of Parantaka Chola I ( 907 to 953 CE).

Before, we go into the details of the panel, lets go to the story and the two versions. The story we are going to see today is that of Ahalya.

Ahalya – wiki

Crux of the plot :Brahma creates a beautiful woman. Indra lusts on her and wants to marry her, he doesn’t succeed and she ends up as the wife of a great sage – Gautama muni. But that doesn’t stop him from trying and finally, he tries deceit, by taking the form of her husband and tries to seduce her. The problem is, Ahalya did see through his disguise, but…

Let’s, see what the Sanskrit version of Valmiki got to say about this episode.

muni veSam sahasraakSam vij~naaya raghuna.ndana |
matim cakaara durmedhaa deva raaja kutuuhalaat

“Oh, Rama, the legatee of Raghu, though knowing him as the Thousand-eyed Indra in the guise of her husband Gautama, she is inclined to have intercourse ill-advisedly, only to satisfy the impassion of the King of Gods

Her thinking is: ‘This is none but Indra in the guise of my husband, for my husband never asks me like this nor he violates times… I heard that Indra is seeking me for a long time… and when King of Gods expresses such a desire, it cannot be refused… let him have it…

mama ruupam samaasthaaya kR^itavaan asi dur.hmate |
akartavyam idam yasmaat viphalaH tvam bhaviSyati ||

‘Oh, dirty-minded Indra, taking hold of my form you have effectuated this unacceptable deed, whereby you shall become infecund.’ Thus, Gautama cursed Indra

tathaa shaptvaa ca vai shakram bhaaryaam api ca shaptavaan |
iha varSa sahasraaNi bahuuni nivaSisyasi || 1-48-29
vaayu bhakSaa niraahaaraa tapyantii bhasma shaayinii |
adR^ishyaa sarva bhuutaanaam aashrame asmin vaSisyasi ||

On cursing Indra thus the sage cursed even his wife saying, ‘you shall tarry here for many thousands of years to come without food and consuming air alone, and unseen by all beings you shall live on in this hermitage while contritely recumbent in dust.

yadaa tu etat vanam ghoram raamo dasharatha aatmajaH |
aagamiSyati durdharSaH tadaa puutaa bhaviSyas

‘When that unassailable son of Dasharatha, namely Rama, arrives at this squalid forest, for it will be henceforth rendered so along with you, then you will be purified.


tasya aatithyena dur.hvR^itte lobha moha vivarjitaa |
mat sakaashe mudaa yuktaa svam vapuH dhaarayiSyasi

‘On your welcoming Rama, oh, ill-behaved woman, you will be divested of your greed and craze in which you lingered so far, and then you will assume your own body and then you can be in my proximity, rejoicingly.’ Thus, Sage Gautama cursed his wife Ahalya

The operative phrases which we need to see here is the actual curse : ‘unseen by all beings’ ,’contritely recumbent in dust’, you will assume your own body

No where is there any mention of her turning into stone !!

Now, lets see the tamil version of kamban, we have already seen the story enough,we go to the operative verses – the actual curse.

“vilai magal anaiya neeyum, kal iyal aathi” endraan. karungal aai, marunga veezhvaal.

Meaning, for your acts, you are condemned to become like a stone.

Great saints are blessed with infinite wisdom and love, and so he went on to tell her, when she will be relieved of her curse.

“pizhaithu porutthal endrum periyavar kadane, anbaal
azhaltharung kadavul annaai! mudivu itharkku aruluga!” enna
thazaithu vandu imirum thann thaath dasarathan enbaan,
kazal – thugal kathuva, intha kal uruvath tavirthi “

As Ahalya fell, she asks thus of her husband : its the duty of great souls, to forgive, you became like the lord who burnt with his third eye and by his smile ( reference to the tripurantaka panel !!), now do tell me how this curse will end. To which Gomathi rishi, says, you will stay thus till the one with the radiant garland comes, he Dasaratha Rama will resurrect you, when the dust of his blessed feet fall on you, your stone form will go, and you will become yourself again.

Was this Kamban’s extrapolation or was the legend prevalent much before? Thanks to Harikrishnan sir’s post ( please see the link below)

Rama – Sangam ref

We note a beautiful reference to the curse clearly mentioning that she was turned to stone from the Sangam work Paripadal. Regarding dates of the Sangam works see this link

Paripadal period

Verse 19 of paripAdal, by nappaNNanAr is on Lord Murugan and describes the pilgrimage of devotees from Madurai to that ancient shrine, Thirupparam-kundram. The poet goes on to describe the various activities of the devotees on the way to the temple. A few devotees get into an art gallery on the way and gather around different paintings displayed there and discuss spiritedly among themselves, about what is portrayed in the paintings. A particular painting has the image of a cat, a woman, a sage in rage and a rock. The devotees comment, ‘indhiran pUsai’ ;This cat is Indra. ‘ivaL agaligai,’ This is Ahalyä. ‘ivan sendra kavudhaman,’ This sage is Gautama, who was away (at that time). ‘sinan uRa, kal uru ondriya padi idhu,’ And this rock is (nothing but) Ahalyä transformed by the curse of the sage. This painting shows how she was transformed into a rock

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Now, back to our sculptural panel. Its another miniature master piece for Pullamangai, you can clearly see the three main players in the panel. From left to right ( of the panel) – Lakshmana, Rama and Ahalya.

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Now comes the clincher – in the panel is Rama’s right foot and we are going to see it in mighty closeup after we read this superb composition from Kamban.
…..
mai vannathu arakki poril, mazhai vannathu annale! un
kai vannam anguk kanden, kaal vannam inguk kanden.”

oh, cloud colored one, i saw your hands work when you fought the black ( eye liner) colored demoness, but here i see you foot work !!

This is a clear pointer that Ahalya was resurrected when Rama’s toe hit the rock.

Lets get back to the panel.

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The Pullamangai sculpture is part of the base stones of the Vimana and the latest date for this Vimana is 953 CE, and the portrayal clearly show the curse of Ahalya to turn to stone had taken firm root by then. Was valmiki unclear in the actual wording of the curse, did he mean that she be turned to stone as well. But one thing is clear, that she was turned to stone was part of tamil folkore as early as in the late sangam period as evidenced by the Paripadal verse.

Before we end, the last verse of Kamban – talks of Rama’s hand work. What event does that depict and is there a sculpture for that in pullamangai as well? We should see shortly.

Garudanin Kathai – Thirukurungudi

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….
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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.
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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.
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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

An Unique Panel – Fire in the Kandhava forest…Cambodia

Today we are going to see a very rare and unique sculpture panel from Banteay srei in Cambodia. This is quite a revelation to me, since i had never heard of this story and thanks to this amazing sculpture, i had to dwell deep into the recesses of the mahabaratha to pick up this interesting legend – and present to you this…. The legend of Kandava Dahanam or Burning of the Kandava forest.

As usual we see the legend ( quite lengthy but interesting and very essential to truly appreciate the great sculpture that follows)

The legend starts thus. Vaisampayana is narrating the epic – Once Krishna and Arjuna are met by a Brahman who asks them for Alms – or food to be more particular. The two master marksmen, ask him what kind of food that he
wants, but are shocked when he asks for the entire Kandhava Forest. They soon realise that its no common old man but Agni who has been reduced to such a state.

Despite who it is, they want to know why Agni can’t eat /destroy the forest on his own and more so why he needs to destroy the forest. Agni then goes on tell them the story of the great King Swetaki.

Wanting to crown his achievements the great King wants to conduct a string of sacrifices spreading over a number of years. The priests are given generous gifts and they begin the great sacrifice – but pretty soon they realise that the sheer effort involved is too great and sitting in front of the fire and smoke for so many years is not possible …they leave the sacrifce half done. Enraged Swetaki tries all he can to get others to come and complete the sacrifice but with no luck. Finally he tries once again to reason with the priests and they in jest told him to seek Rudra ( Shiva) to assist him to complete the sacrifices.

Enraged, Swetaki decides to do that as well – he undergoes severe penances, giving up food for months and standing upright with arms raised for ages. Pleased Shiva appears and asks him his wish – when Swetaki asks him to assist in helping him finish the sacrifices, Shiva tests his resolve some more – and instructs him to do a special sacrifice by himself – for 12 uninterrupted years, he had to pour Ghee into fire and lead a life of extreme austerity.

Swetaki completes that as well and returns to Shiva – who is much pleased and instructs Sage Duruvasa to assist in completing his sacrifices. Duruvasa helped him to complete the task and at the apt time, Swetaki ascended to the heavens.

But this left one problem – having been fed a diet of Ghee for 12 years by such a great King, Agni the God of fire became over weight but he could also eat of anyone else – so slowly he began to loose his shine and energy. He appealed to Lord Shiva for help and the lord showed him the the bad demons of who resided in the Khadava forest –
directing him to satiate his hunger on the enemies of the Gods and that will help his regain his vigor.

But when Agni tried to consume the forest there came a small problem. Takshaka, the chief of the Nagas ( snakes) who dwell in the forest was a friend of Indra and hence had his protection. Everytime Agni tried to consume the forest Indra would bring in Varuna ( the god of water/rains) and quench Agni and protect his friend.

Thus Agni sought the help of Krishna and Arjuna to help keep out Indra and Varuna. Jointly they attacked the Kandava forest.

Arjuna – invoking his excellent weapons, prevented that shower of rain by Indra, by means of a shower of his own weapons – he soon covered the forest of Khandava with innumerable arrows like the moon covering the atmosphere with a thick fog. When the sky above that forest was thus covered with the arrows of Arjuna no living creature could then escape from below. And it so happened that while that forest was burning, Takshaka, the chief of the Nagas, was not there, having gone at that time to the field of Kurukshetra. But Aswasena, the mighty son of Takshaka, was there. He made great efforts to escape from that fire; but confined by Arjuna’s shafts he succeeded not in finding a way. It was then that his mother, the daughter of a snake, determined to save him by swallowing him first. She first swallowed his head and then was swallowing his tail. And desirous of saving her son, the sea-snake rose (up from the earth) while still employed in swallowing her son’s tail.

But Arjuna as soon as he beheld her escaping, severed her head from her body by means of a sharp and keen-edged arrow. Indra saw all this, and desiring to save his friend’s son, the wielder of the thunderbolt, by raising a violent wind, deprived Arjuna of consciousness. During those few moments, Aswasena succeeded in effecting his escape. Beholding that manifestation of the power of illusion, and deceived by that snake, Arjuna was much enraged. He forthwith cut every animal seeking to escape by the skies, into two, three, or more pieces.

The chief of the celestials also, seeing Arjuna in anger, sought to fight with him, and hurled his own fierce weapons, covering the wide expanse of the firmament. Then the winds, making a loud roar and agitating all the oceans, brought together masses of clouds in the sky, charged with torrents of rain. Those masses of clouds began to
vomit thunder and terrible flashes of lightning charged with the thunderclap. Then Arjuna possessing a knowledge of all means, hurled the excellent weapon called Vayavya with proper mantras to dispel those clouds. With that weapon the energy and force of Indra’s thunderbolt and of those clouds were destroyed. And the torrents of rain with
which those clouds were charged were all dried up, and the lightning that played amongst them was also destroyed. Within a moment the sky was cleared of dust and darkness, and a delicious, cool breeze began to blow and the disc of the sun resumed its normal state.

Then the eater of clarified butter (Agni), glad because none could baffle him, assumed various forms, and sprinkled over with the fat exuded by the bodies of creatures, blazed forth with all his flames, filling the universe with his roar. Then numerous birds of the Garuda tribe bearing excellent feathers, beholding that the forest was protected by Krishna and Arjuna, descended filled with pride, from the upper skies, desirous of striking those heroes with their thunderlike
wings, beaks and claws. Innumerable Nagas also, with faces emitting fire descending from high, approached Arjuna, vomiting the most virulent poison all the while. Beholding them approach, Arjuna cut them into pieces by means of arrows steeped in the fire of his own wrath. Then those birds and snakes, deprived of life, fell into the burning element below. And there came also, desirous of battle, innumerable Asuras with Gandharvas and Yakshas and Rakshasas and Nagas sending forth terrific yells. Armed with machines vomiting from their throats (mouths?) iron balls and bullets, and catapults for propelling huge stones, and rockets, they approached to strike Krishna and Partha, their energy and strength increased by wrath.

But though they rained a perfect shower of weapons, Arjuna addressing them reproachfully, struck off their heads with his own sharp arrows. That slayer of foes, Krishna, also, endued with great energy, made a great slaughter with his discus. Many Asuras of immeasurable might, pierced with Arjuna’s arrows and smitten with the force of Vishnu’s
discus, became motionless like waifs and strays stranded on the bank by the violence of the waves. Then Indra , the lord of the celestials, riding on his white elephant, rushed at those heroes, and taking up his thunderbolt which could never go in vain, hurled it with great force. And the slayer of Asuras said unto the gods, ‘These two are slain.’ Beholding the fierce thunderbolt about to be hurled by their chief, the celestials all took up their respective weapons.

But he was to be proved wrong ….

Now – a long story, but have not seen this depicted in any sculptures in India till date – but finding this in Banteay Srei stumped me.

What a beautiful, intricate and faithful reproduction of the legend. right from indra on his airavatam – discharging his thunder bolt – to his faithful varuna – depicted by the swelling water under him – to the roof of arrows – holding up the deluge – the escape of awsena, krishna on one side with his discus, arjuna on other with his bow – the forest beings, deers, antelope, rabbits, the flocks of different kinds of birds trying to fly and escape.

an amazing panel.



Divinely inspired

Sculpture is divinely inspired. How better to explain these two sculptures in the Arjuna ratha ( one of the five rathas in the Mahabalipuram cluster).
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Look at how an elephant rider ( is it Indra the lord of the devas or it is Muruga) – but to just see the skill of artist to have been able to conceptualize this composition, an elephant rider in front profile and to execute it to such perfection, is incredible. Such is the wisdom the ancients that they could bring such finesse into their art.
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The ladies standing next to them, simply blow you away. How else to describe, that classical lines, divine proportions, that slightly angled profile, bent waist, flexed knee, hand gently caressing her locks, the other one enchantingly resting on her waist, the youthful exuberance of her face and lastly the sensuous smile. Is this a figment of the sculptors imagination or did the divine apsaras themselves come down to earth to witness this spectacle and stopped to strike a pose for this sculptor.
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( the last image is from varalaaru.com. Would request serious tamil enthusiasts to please visit their site. its an open university on sculpture)

The three headed Elephant, Airavatham

The proverbial white elephant is an actual reality in Indian literature. This noble creature is the vehicle of the King of the Devas ( celestials)…Indra …. a la Zeus with his Thunderbolt. Not only is he white but has 33 heads.

Here is a depiction from a mural painting …

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Though there are other white elephants.. the Airawatam ( Erawan in thai/cambodian culture )is said to be the most powerful of all. Described as a huge elephant with silvery white body of 33 heads, each head has 7long ivory tusks. Each of his tusk is 16 million meters long, so huge that it can house 7 large lotus ponds, within each tusk also live thousands of angels and their servants.

This massive modern sculpture greets visitors at the entrance of the Erwan Museum in Thailand.

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Without doubt its almost impossible depict this creature in stone…and hence quite rare to see the full version of Erawan elephant with 33 heads, instead, many artists prefer to draw Erawan as a 3 headed elephant instead.

The Irrawaddy River in thailand is also named after Erawan …

We find the workship of indra and airavatam among the temples of ankor,
prasat preau, siam reap …

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In india some wonderful depictions exist…. in a cave at Bhaja not far from Mumbai that was the site of a Buddhist monastery – there is a stone relief carving showing Indra, king of the gods.

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He is seated upon Airavata with his thunderbolt in hand …in somnathpur.

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In The famous chola murals of tanjore big temple…there is airavatham…oh thats the subject of an entire new post….

Whats amazing is that the indian sculptor restricted to just one head while his cambodian couterpart depicts him with three heads.