Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The twelve children of a woman of low birth


This is based on the famous book, Aitihyamaala (A Garland of Folktales), by Kottaratthil Sankunni. The original is in Malayalam. I am not aware, if any complete translation exists in English.

The stories, just over 120 of them on a few less than 900 printed pages, are based on folklore originating in Kerala. None of them are likely to be mere works of imagination. Traces can be found even now of the some of the characters in each story.

This is particularly true of the above story. It is an amazing tale of twelve families, each belonging to a different caste, all of whom, strangely originating as children of the same parents.

The story talks about a king, Vikramaditya, and a Brahmin poet in his court by name Vararuci. There were several other Vikramadityas. But, it was the Vikramaditya of Ujjain in the Madhya Pradesh State of India, who had nine famous poets, termed as the nine jewels (nava ratnas), among whom the name of Vararuci finds mention. (Kalidasa was the most famous among them.) Because of this we assume that the Vikramaditya is the famous emperor based in Ujjain. This Vikramaditya is recorded in Indian History as having lived in the 1st century BC.

We have two main characters in the story, a high born Brahmin and a woman of low caste, known by the name of Paraya. Members of that caste make a living by selling articles woven out of bamboo stem and reeds.

We want to get into Ramayanam, soon. The following story has some bearing on the famous works of Valmiki, considered to be the first among early poetry.

Poet Vararuchi

King Vikramaditya was the ruler of the land. He was himself highly learned and was a patron of scholars and artistes of various types. One among the scholars in his court was a poor Brahmin by name Vararuchi. The king used to enjoy scholarly debates with this highly learned friend of his. True to his fame, Vararuchi was well versed in various fields of science and proficient in all the important works of ancient learning.

The great puzzle

One day the king suddenly had a thought. True, Ramayana is to be considered the best among early poetry. But then, which particular verse among the 24,000 stanzas in Ramayana (the famous work of Valmiki) stands out among all? The king lost no time in asking his dear friend, the best among scholars, Vararuchi.

The poor Brahmin was perplexed. The whole of Ramayana is to be considered equally good. Is there any part in it that can be considered better than the rest? He expressed his thoughts aloud, by way of a reply to the king.

That was not the type of answer king Vikramaditya had expected from the scholarly Brahmin. The king’s disappointment turned into instantaneous anger. He retorted in a loud voice. “I give you 41 days. You may go anywhere and ask anyone you please. But, do not think of coming back without finding a satisfactory answer.”

The exile

Once the king had spoken, there was no argument about it. May be, because of the close friendship between the two, Vararuchi could have lingered on until the king’s anger cooled down. But, he was too proud to beg for pardon. Moreover, his scholarship was in question. So, Vararuchi wasted no time to step out of the palace.

But, where could he go? He was so used to the good days in the palace that he knew nothing of life outside. He had learnt no other way of livelihood, except by the patronage of the king. Vararuchi started moving in search of great scholars of the land and even outside. Walking was the only method of getting from place to place. He would go looking for scholars from morning till noon. Then, he would go to the nearest house of Brahmins and hope to get some food for lunch. Then, again, he would continue with his search for learned men until dark. Then, he would retire to the house of any Brahmin nearby. He would eat whatever dinner that was offered and sleep there until next morning.

Vararuchi, thus, went from place to place and asked many of the men of learning of the time. “Which verse, you ask? Why, are not all the verses of Ramayana equally important?” Of course, that was what Vararuchi also had thought, until his king had asked that question. Then, right or wrong, he had to find an answer that would appeal to the mind of his mentor king.

The agony

Forty days passed this way. As the days progressed Vararuchi became more and more distressed. He had travelled far and wide for the purpose and had met a large number of noted scholars. Yet, he could get no satisfactory answer. What would happen to him? How would he continue to live, without the royal patronage?

Vikramaditya was, in the meanwhile, equally tormented in mind. It was too rash on his part to order the poor Brahmin out. How was he surviving outside the palace? What was going to happen to himself without the enjoyable daily debates and discussions, if Vararuchi failed to return?

(To be continued)

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