Valmiki and Kampan: Two Ahalyas
Obviously, these hundreds of tellings differ from one another. I have come to prefer the word tellings to the usual terms versions or variants because the latter terms can and typically do imply that there is an invariant, an original or Ur-text – usually Valmiki’s Sanskrit Ramayana, the earliest and most prestigious of them all. But as we shall see, it is not always Valmiki’s narrative that is carried from one language to another.
It would be useful to make some distinctions before we begin. The tradition itself distinguishes between the Rama story (ramakatha) and texts composed by a specific person – Valmiki, Kampan or Krttivasa, for example. Though many of the latter are popularly called Ramayanas (like Kamparamayanam), few texts actually bear the title Ramayana; they are given titles like Iramavataram (The Incarnation of Rama), Ramcaritmanas (The Lake of the Acts of Rama), Ramakien (The Story of Rama) and so on. Their relations to the Rama story as told by Valmiki also vary. This traditional distinction between katha (story) and kavya (poem) parallels the French one between sujet and récit or the English one between story and discourse (Chatman 1978). It is also analogous to the distinction between a sentence and a speech act. The story may be the same in two tellings but the discourse may be vastly different. Even the structure and sequence of events may be the same but the style, details, tone and texture – and therefore the import – may be vastly different.
Here are two tellings of the ‘same’ episode which occur at the same point in the sequence of the narrative. The first is from the first book (Balakanda) of Valmiki’s Sanskrit Ramayana; the second from the first canto (Palakantam) of Kampan’s Iramavataram in Tamil. Both narrate the story of Ahalya.
The Ahalya episode: Valmiki
Seeing Mithila, Janaka’s white
and dazzling city, all the sages
cried out in praise, ‘Wonderful!
Raghava, sighting on the outskirts
of Mithila an ashram, ancient,
unpeopled and lovely, asked the sage,
‘What is this holy place,
so like an ashram but without a hermit?
Master, I’d like to hear: whose was it?’
Hearing Raghava’s words, the great sage
Visvamitra, man of fire,
expert in words answered, ‘Listen,
Raghava, I’ll tell you whose ashram
this was and how it was cursed
by a great man in anger.
It was great Gautama’s, this ashram
that reminds you of heaven, worshipped
even by the gods. Long ago, with Ahalya
he practised tapas4 here
for countless years. Once, knowing that Gautama
was away, Indra (called Thousand Eyes),
Saci’s husband, took on the likeness
of the sage and said to Ahalya:
“Men pursuing their desire do not wait
for the proper season, O you who
have a perfect body. Making love
with you: that’s what I want.
That waist of yours is lovely.”
She knew it was Indra of the Thousand Eyes
in the guise of the sage. Yet she,
wrong-headed woman, made up her mind,
excited, curious about the king
of the gods.
And then, her inner being satisfied,
she said to the god, “I’m satisfied, king
of the gods. Go quickly from here.
O giver of honour, lover, protect
yourself and me.”
And Indra smiled and said to Ahalya,
“Woman of lovely hips, I am
very content. I’ll go the way I came.”
Thus after making love, he came out
of the hut made of leaves.
And, O Rama, as he hurried away,
nervous about Gautama and flustered,
he caught sight of Gautama coming in,
the great sage, unassailable
by gods and anti-gods,
empowered by his tapas, still wet
with the water of the river
he’d bathed in, blazing like fire,
with kusa grass and kindling
in his hands.
Seeing him, the king of the gods was
terror-struck, his face drained of colour.
The sage, facing Thousand Eyes now dressed
as the sage, the one rich in virtue
and the other with none,
spoke to him in anger: “You took my form,
you fool, and did this that should never
be done. Therefore you will lose your testicles.”
At once, they fell to the ground, they fell
even as the great sage spoke
his words in anger to Thousand Eyes.
Having cursed Indra, he then cursed
Ahalya: “You, you will dwell here
many thousands of years, eating the air,
without food, rolling in ash,
and burning invisible to all creatures.
When Rama, unassailable son
of Dasaratha, comes to this terrible
wilderness, you will become pure,
you woman of no virtue,
you will be cleansed of lust and confusion.
Filled then with joy, you’ll wear again
your form in my presence.” And saying
this to that woman of bad conduct,
blazing Gautama abandoned
the ashram and did his tapas
on a beautiful Himalayan peak,
haunt of celestial singers and
Emasculated Indra then
spoke to the gods led by Agni
attended by the sages
and the celestial singers.
“I’ve only done this work on behalf
of the gods, putting great Gautama
in a rage, blocking his tapas.
He has emasculated me
and rejected her in anger.
Through this great outburst
of curses, I’ve robbed him
of his tapas. Therefore
great gods, sages and celestial singers,
help me, helper of the gods,
to regain my testicles.” And the gods,
led by Agni, listened to Indra
of the Hundred Sacrifices and went
with the Marut hosts
to the divine ancestors and said,
“Some time ago, Indra, infatuated,
ravished the sage’s wife
and was then emasculated
by the sage’s curse. Indra,
king of gods, destroyer of cities,
is now angry with the gods.
This ram has testicles
but great Indra has lost his.
So take the ram’s testicles
and quickly graft them onto Indra.
A castrated ram will give you
supreme satisfaction and will be
a source of pleasure.
People who offer it
will have endless fruit.
You will give them your plenty.”
Having heard Agni’s words,
the ancestors got together
and ripped off the ram’s testicles
and applied them then to Indra