Saturday, March 05, 2005

The supernatural element in Tamil epics

'Research' is an interesting terminology in the context of the Tamil literary environment, with a tremendous bandwidth of its own. Any essay, whether dealing with an innocuous subject like 'Vegetables in Cankam literature' or something apparently more complex like the one on the 'Minimalism in Tamil poetry between 1211 AD and 2002 AD (both years inclusive)', would automatically become a research paper when printed elegantly and published in hard cover. With a floor limit of three thousand words and nothing prescribed for the ceiling, it is mandatory for such a publication to be printed only for half the length of the printed page, the other being left out for meticulously listing out the reference works, context specific or otherwise.

It is interesting to observe that in a way the rich and continued literary tradition that prevails in Tamil for the past two thousand years and more can also be blamed for this. The Tamil environment literally has not undergone significant topographical changes during this long period and the same is largely true in the case of the flora, fauna and the masses too. Start querying the heritage database with any random search pattern and there scrolls on your visual and mental screens thousands of rows of information, sorted out or assorted, virtually on anything animate and inanimate that makes the rich Tamil scene.

I am so dumbstruck with researches of this kind that if I am forced to read one such thesis, I humbly receive the same, read through a few pages as fast as I can and then return it in all politeness.

Dr.Magharibath's 'Aimperum kAppiyankaLil iyaRkai iRantha kURukaL' (The supernatural elements in the five great Tamil epics') caught my attention because of the phrase 'iyaRkai iRantha kURukal'. Being unaware this means the plain vanilla flavoured 'super natural', I was wondering whether 'iyaRkai iRantha' could be something connected intrinsically with environmental pollution or the Tamil fondness for axing down Mother Nature by felling trees and blocking the highways when they frenzy into a rebellious mood. I also had a strange suspicion that this could be all about the anti traditional Tamil way of martyrdom in the battlefield with the enemy's spear piercing the heroic Tamil warriors in their chest and not at their back.

To my pleasant surprise, I found this book is all about the things dear to my heart - gods, ghosts and goblins.

As I have no intention to explain in detail in the next 1200 words about the lengthy Tamil literary tradition, let me zip and share the information in the next few lines.

CilappathikAram, ManimEkalai, CIvaka ChinthAmaNi, VaLayApathi and KundalakEsi are collectively known as 'Aimperum kAppiyankaL', or the 'Five great epics' in Tamil. These were written during the sunset years of the Cankam era, the period of which is still a subject for debate among the hot-blooded Tamil scholars. Of the five epics, two, namely VaLayApathi and KundalakEsi have fallen prey to the Tamil moth over the years and we are now left with the remaining three only.

And Dr.Magharibath has the knack of narrating in an interesting manner about the super natural entities and fascinating occurrences in these three epics, without making the narrative appear like a page from the Sensex quotes.

All these epics are about the life of ancient Tamils - kings, urban traders and commoners alike, who practiced a religion with integral Vedic components and fortified with the attributes of the then emerging Jainism and Buddhism.

In CilappathikAram, MaNimEkalai and ChinthAmaNi numerous gods, goddesses, goblins and inhabitants of the overcrowded Heaven come down at regular intervals to interact with the human beings. This interaction is used mainly as a literary technique to narrate the story in flash backs or through foretelling. The ghost Dakini, the goblin Chathukka Bootham, the extra terrestrial beings Eriyanki VAnavan ('the one with a robe on fire'), kurankkuk kai vAnavan ('the one with the monkey's paw'), and KAyachandikai are some of these.

Incidentally, the short story collection with a lengthy title 'Idakini pEykaLum.....' by the late lamented author friend of mine, Gopikrishnan rang a bell in my mind about the ghost Dakini some time back.

Dakini came down Dr.Maharibath's book to announce that she plays a guest role towards the close of the narrative in CilappathikAram, though her name may not appearing in the title cards scrolling up at the end.

In CilappathikAram, a Brahmin woman MAlathi breast-feeds an infant, mothered by a friend of hers. The child dies while being fed, not due to any contamination of the container or contents but quite inexplicably, perhaps choked. The poor MAlathi, panic stricken and tragic ridden visits all the temples in the city fervently praying the gods and goddesses to resurrect the baby.

She also visits the temple of PAcAnda ChAththan (a Buddhist God assimilated into Hinduism later) where she encounters Ms.Dakini, a beautiful ghost whose dietary habits mandate that her daily diet should consist of nourishment in the form of fresh human flesh procured from the cemeteries of ChakravaLak kOttam. Dakini who is yet to have her breakfast, accuses Malathi that she is worthless and as such ChAththan will not answer her prayers for reviving the infant. She also snatches the baby's corpse from the arms of MAlathi, goes into darkness and devours it with relish.

The story of CilappathikAram then goes on to narrate about how the god ChAththan takes the form of the dead infant and goes home to live an earthly life which includes a marriage and its consummation. This narrative stream occurs in the 'kanAth thiRam uraiththa kAthai' ('The chapter on the interpretation of dreams') in the epic.

Dr.Maharibath observes that even the society of the Tamil ghosts was caste based to the core. While vAlans belong to the upper strata of the ghosts along with kULi and pAsam, the downtrodden were the kazhuthu. The upper caste ghosts in addition to their use of the caste system as a vehicle of oppression of kazhuthtu, also made these minians as their standard mode of transport, like the old man in Sindbad tales.

Besides Indran, PAcAnda ChAththan, MathurApathi, MaNimEkalA, ThEvathilakai, ChampApathi who are referred by their names, there are also other gods and goddesses who derive their identification by their residential or occupational status like kAnuRai Theivam (the forester), vAnurRai Theivam (the one with an address in the paradise) and the Eval Theivam (the Commander) appearing at the right and not so right moments and performing the vanishing trick regularly thereafter in the epics. In fact, the goddess MaNimEkala is instrumental in steering the story of the epic MaNimekalai forward at a fast pace.

Maharibath also observes that except for Indran and PAcAnda ChAthan, all other divine entities in the epics are feminine. This 'reverse gender bias' may as well become the subject of another research paper.

The goblin Chathukka Bootham ('the Booth in the Chowk', for the benefit of the Hinglish readers) is reported to be a permanent resident of the Goblin Square in the city of PUmpukAr and in charge of moral policing of the urban populace. With a dietary habit slightly different from that of Dakini, CB beats to pulp those going astray in the moral plane and then makes a neat meal of them to save humanity. A person who committed perjury by telling the court that a certain woman was immoral chanced to go near the CB Square and was immediately caught by CB. KOvalan, the protagonist of CilappathikAram walks into the square with humble pleas to CB to release the captive and take his life instead. CB valiantly declares that it would always prefer a wretched sinner for its breakfast or meal or dinner as the case may be, rather than having a noble person like KOvalan as its prey and proceeds to do justice to its square meal for the day.

As the afore mentioned CB is not a glutton and its eating is a fallout of its meting out justice, it appears to have plenty of time at its disposal which CB uses efficiently by being the self appointed sentry at the garden of the ever fresh flowers. This garden was set up exclusively for the comfortable stay of the gods and goddesses who descend on earth to take part in the spring festivities. With still some more time left at its disposal, apparently thru meticulous time management, CB also regularly delivers sermons (as narrated in MaNimEkalai) perched in its pulpit on the square breathing fundamentalist fire and brimstone urging woman not to worship any god other than their husbands and declaring that only then their chastity will be considered to be in tact.

While CB is busy moral policing thus, vinjayars, another category of heavenly entities also permeate the epic scene with gusto. To our great relief, the vinjaiyars are human clones with all that is good and bad inherent in their personality. The only additional attribute applicable for them is their ability to fly at will. And they fly and sin quite fast. Vinjayars hijack beautiful earthly damsels and molest them while on flight. They roam around the towns during festival times like their wingless human counterparts and are cursed by the human seers to wander around with an elephantine appetite that never gets satiated. They also on some occasions become love sick pining for the company of the humans of the opposite sex and even enter into the holy wedlock. As such the vinjayars occupy a broad bandwidth of the literary spectrum - from the ever-hungry KAyachaNdikai in MaNimEkalai to the charming GAndharuvathaththai who marries CEvakan, the protagonist of ChinthAmaNi.

Dr.Maharibath in all humbleness observes, "The goddess ChampApathi is referred to in the epics as the elderly one. It is beyond my comprehension to understand whether the gods and goddesses also undergo the aging process". Such humility appears to be a rare trait in today's wonderland of academicia where the functionaries become assertive on the word go and switch on their neurons thereafter. (While on the subject, I remember the reference to an elderly god in the Cankam epic 'KuRunthokai' - 'manRa arAththa pEm muthir katavuL').

In CilappathikAram, in the penultimate Act Mathuraik kANdam, the heroine KaNNaki burns down the metropolis of Mathurai, the capital of the PANdiya kingdom as her husband KOvalan was executed by the PANdiya king on a trumped up charge. The portions of the epic in this Act, which narrate the exit of the king goblin, the Brahmin goblin, the merchant goblin and the agriculturist goblin (arasa bUtham, aNthaNa bUtham, vaNika bUtam, vELaN bUtam) from the city are plain 'insertions into the original text', observes Dr.Maharibath. Dr.VEnkatasAmi NAttAr, an erudite Tamil scholar also concurs with her in his treatise on CilappathikAram.

It is a matter of interest that in comparison to CilappathikAram and MaNimEkalai, Chintamani is absolutely goblin free.

Back to PAcAnda ChAththan. Maharibath mentions - "ChAththan, a god in human form is brought up as an ordinary human being, marries and enjoys conjugal bliss for eight years. Then he discloses his divine origins and leaves for his designated abode, the temple. He also instructs his erstwhile wife ThEvanthi to visit the temple to continues his sexual relationship with her".

This observation appears to be wrong and could have arisen due to Dr.Maharibath picking up in isolation 'kOttaththu nE vA ena uraiththu nInkuthalum' ("Come to my temple", said he and left) without reading it along with the lines which follow, mentioning that ThEvanthi goes to the temple to pray for his return to her.

I strongly recommend this book as a must read for those attempting to pen magical realism in Tamil and also those who attempt reading it, to enable an easy and effortless levitatation in the literary space.


An introduction to the Tamil book -

'Aimperum kAppiyankaLil iyaRkai iRantha kURukaL' - by Dr.S.K.Maharibath. Published by MuppuLLi Pathippakam, 24, Giri Nagar, RamApuram, Chennai 600 089

An abridged version of this article was published in 'Book Review' (New Delhi, India) in the October 2004 issue.