kiskiKAHANI (the Ramayana Project)

300 Ramayanas and Counting . . .
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Three hundred Ramayanas

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Thus the opening sections of each major work set into motion the harmonics of the whole poem, presaging themes and a pattern of images. Kampan’s Tamil text begins very differently. One can convey it best by citing a few stanzas.

The River


The cloud, wearing white

on white like Siva

making beautiful the sky

on his way from the sea


grew dark


as the face of the Lord

who wears with pride

on his right the Goddess

of the scented breasts. [2]


Mistaking the Himalayan dawn

for a range of gold,

the clouds let down chains

and chains of gleaming rain.


They pour like a generous giver

giving all he has,

remembering and reckoning

all he has. [15]


It floods, it runs over

its continents like the fame

of a great king, upright,

infallible, reigning by the Laws

under cool royal umbrellas. [16]


Concubines caressing

their lovers’ hair, their lovers’

bodies, their lovers’ limbs,


take away whole hills

of wealth yet keep little

in their spendthrift hands


as they move on: so too

the waters flow from the peaks

to the valleys,


beginning high and reaching low. [17]


The flood carrying all before it

like merchants, caravans

loaded with gold, pearls,

peacock feathers and rows

of white tusk and fragrant woods. [18]


Bending to a curve, the river,

surface coloured by petals,

gold yellow pollen, honey,

the ochre flow of elephant lust,

looked much like a rainbow. [19]


Ravaging hillsides, uprooting trees,

covered with fallen leaves all over,

the waters came,


like a monkey clan

facing restless seas

looking for a bridge. [20]


Thick-faced proud elephants

ranged with foaming cavalier horses

filling the air with the noise of war,


raising banners,

the flood rushes

as for a battle with the sea. [22]


Stream of numberless kings

in the line of the Sun,

continuous in virtue:


the river branches into deltas,

mother’s milk to all lives

on the salt sea-surrounded land. [23]


Scattering a robber camp on the hills

with a rain of arrows,


the scared women beating their bellies

and gathering bow and arrow as they run,


the waters assault villages

like the armies of a king. [25]


Stealing milk and buttermilk,

guzzling on warm ghee and butter

straight from the pots on the ropes,


leaning the marutam tree on the kuruntam,

carrying away the clothes and bracelets

of goatherd girls at water games,


like Krsna dancing

on the spotted snake,

the waters are naughty. [26]


Turning forest into slope,

field into wilderness,

seashore into fertile land,


changing boundaries,

exchanging landscapes,

the reckless waters


roared on like the pasts

that hurry close on the heels

of lives. [28]


Born of Himalayan stone

and mingling with the seas,

it spreads, ceaselessly various,


one and many at once,


like that Original

even the measureless Vedas

cannot measure with words. [30]


Through pollen-dripping groves,

clumps of champak,

lotus pools,


water places with new sands,

flowering fields cross-fenced

with creepers,


like a life filling

and emptying

a variety of bodies,


the river flows on. [31]8

This passage is unique to Kampan; it is not found in Valmiki. It describes the waters as they are gathered by clouds from the seas and come down in rain and flow as floods of the Sarayu river down to Ayodhya, the capital of Rama’s kingdom. Through it, Kampan introduces all his themes and emphases, even his characters, his concern with fertility themes (implicit in Valmiki), the whole dynasty of Rama’s ancestors and his vision of bhakti through the Ramayana.

Note the variety of themes introduced through the similes and allusions, each aspect of the water symbolising an aspect of the Ramayana story itself and representing a portion of the Ramayana universe (for example, monkeys), picking up as it goes along characteristic Tamil traditions not to be found anywhere else, like the five landscapes of classical Tamil poetry. The emphasis on water itself, the source of life and fertility, is also an explicit part of the Tamil literary tradition. The Kural – the so-called Bible of the Tamils, a didactic work on the ends and means of the good life – opens with a passage on god and follows it up immediately with a great ode in celebration of the rains (Tirukkural 2).

Another point of difference among Ramayanas is the intensity of focus on a major character. Valmiki focuses on Rama and his history in his opening sections; Vimalasuri’s Jain Ramayana and the Thai epic focus not on Rama but on the genealogy and adventures of Ravana; the Kannada village telling focuses on Sita, her birth, her wedding, her trials. Some later extensions like the Adbhuta Ramayana and the Tamil story of Satakantharavana even give Sita a heroic character: when the ten-headed Ravana is killed, another appears with a hundred heads: Rama cannot handle this new menace so it is Sita who goes to war and slays the new demon (see Shulman 1979). The Santals, a tribe known for their extensive oral traditions, even conceive of Sita as unfaithful – to the shock and horror of any Hindu bred on Valmiki or Kampan, she is seduced both by Ravana and by Laksmana. In South-east Asian texts, as we saw earlier, Hanuman is not the celibate devotee with a monkey face but a ladies’ man who figures in many love episodes. In Kampan and Tulsi, Rama is a god; in the Jain texts, he is only an evolved Jain man who is in his last birth and so does not even kill Ravana. In the latter, Ravana is a noble hero fated by his karma to fall for Sita and bring death upon himself while he is in other texts an overweening demon. Thus in the conception of every major character there are radical differences, so different indeed that one conception is quite abhorrent to those who hold another. We may add to these many more: elaborations on the reason why Sita is banished, the miraculous creation of Sita’s second son and the final reunion of Rama and Sita. Every one of these occurs in more than one text, in more than one textual community (Hindu, Jain or Buddhist), in more than one region.

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