Musings on Ravana During ‘Ramayana Masa’ (Month of Ramayana)
Ravana, it would be generally agreed, was an arch villain, deserving the kind of felling he got at the hands of Sree Rama, but in the vast repertoire of Kerala’s Kathakali he was the ultimate as an enchanting lover, in comparison with whom all other epic heroes and anti-heroes pale into insignificance.
In a month when Malayalee homes everywhere may be reverberating with the sound of ritual reading of Ezhuthassan’s ‘Adhdhyatma Ramayana’ from beginning to end, it may be found inappropriate, at least by some, if the fallen villain of Ramayana is hailed in any way.
But that is precisely what one may do after going through that portion of the attakatha ‘Karthaveerya Vijayam,’ by Puthiyickal Thampan, that gives out, undoubtedly, one of the most celebrated and most alluring passages of sringara in the entire corpus of Kathakali.
Even in those attakathas that basically have violence or killings as the main theme there are remarkable sequences of sringara that compete with similar ones in non-violent attakathas like Nala Charitam, Kalyana Sougandhikam, Uttara Swayamvaram etc. Cases in point are the love talk of Dharmaputrar and Panchali in Kirmeera Vadham, Bhiman and Panchali in Kalyana Sougandhikam, Nalan and Damayanthi in Nalacharitam, Arjunan and Subhadra in Subhadraharanam and Bhiman and Hidimbi in Baka Vadham. Even Ravana appears in a couple of other attakathas too in sringara segments, as with Mandodari in Bali Vijayam and, in a less complimentary nature, with Sita in Thorana Yuddham. In the last he is depicted as a dandy, Azhakiya Ravanan, which, it would appear, was an image drawn more on the model of Shakthibhadra’s Kootiyattam play Aascharyachoodamani than on Valmiki Ramayana.
Well known as Kamala Dalam, the sringara sequence in Karthaveerya Vijayam, that comes out on top, relates to an endearing conversation between Ravana and his wife Mandodari, obviously after an intimate session. A tired Mandodari is shown as dozing off with her head in the lap of Ravana, the latter stroking her tresses, but her restlessness and rapid eye movements indicate that there is something bothering her. At last she wakes up with a start and sits apart, skulking.
Intrigued by her behaviour, Ravana gently asks her:
Kamala dala lochane, mama jeeva nayike
Kimapi nahi kaaranam kalahamathi nathoona
Karabhoru ninnudaya charana thalirana njan
Karalirariyunnathalloru pizhayoru naal
Tharunangi, neeyozhinjoru tharunimarilum
Parithozhamilla mama, paribhavamenthaho?
Valarunnu maramaal, thalarunnu dehavum
Kalaka kalaham, priye! kalabhavara gamane!
Thelika mayi maanasam kulirmulakal punaruvan
Thalimamathil varika nee kalamridula vachane!
Padanaduvil vadathoru udalaho mamakam
Madumalar saram kondu podiyunnu paaram
Chadulamizhi ninnudeyadimalaril veenuzha-
nnadimappedunnenne nee vediiyaruthu nadhe!
(Oh my lotus-eyed beauty, the core of my being, as far as I know there is no reason for you to feel agitated. I swear at your feet that I do not find happiness in any woman other than you. Tell me what is bothering you. Whatever it is, give it up and let us continue with our enjoyment. I have a physique that never gets tired in the field of battle. But it is getting crumbled because of ardour for you).
When, on stage, Ravana makes a move to fall at her feet, Mandodari, in haste, prevents him from doing so. Though the kalaham is over, Ravana does not know yet the reason for the agitation in Mandodari’s mind. He pleads her to come out with it, whatever it be.
Mandodari, still bashful, at last opens her mind. “Veera kelka,” listen hero, she tells him how she saw him in her dream: “aarame sura narimarodum koodi nere kandithu nadha, ninne njan/ Deviyaam Urvasiye gahdamayi punarnn aavolam adharavum nukarnnu nee/ Niveeharanam cheyvan thuniyumbol para/Maavila hridayaya yunarnnu njan.” She was so agitated when she saw him in amorous company in the garden with heavenly beauties. And when she saw him proceeding to disrobe Urvashi, she could stand it no more.
It was the surprised, disdainful reply from Ravana that shows a facet of his character: “Dasiyakum Urvasiyilaasa mama cheruvatho?” Do you think I am a person who will fall for a dasi like Urvasi?
This egotistical but wholesome trait in Ravana may be noticed in many other instances in the Sundara Kanda of Valmiki Ramayana which deals with the glorious sights and sounds of his Lanka, as seen and heard by a wonder-struck Hanuman. It is indeed a mind-boggling description of a golden, radiant city, with well laid out main thoroughfares (suvibhaktha mahapathaam), spires and buildings going to the height of Mount Kailas (buildings half a yojana --four miles-- long and one yojana – eight miles—in height), golden, gem-studded archways and stairways and what not. This was so gorgeous a city that Hanuman thought: ‘This is heaven, this is devaloka, the city of Indra’ (iyam swarga, iyam devaloka, iyam bhavet indrasa puri).
In keeping with this general ambience, the Ashoka vana, where Sita was kept, too was a garden of incomparable beauty. Apart from a variety of flowering plants and fruit-bearing trees, from many of which golden lamps were hung, it contained ponds, lakes, statues of various animals, all together ‘pleasing to the eye and the senses.’
The same was true of the palace of Ravana where, in an excellent golden hall, Hanuman felt that just remaining there filled one’s heart with happiness (manah samhlaada jananiim), caused a fair complexion (prasaadiniim varnasyaapi), removed all sorrows (shoka naashaniim ) and generated a feeling of well being (samjananiim iva sriyah).
It was to the Ashoka vana that Ravana makes his grand entry in an attempt to persuade Sita to be his wife. He does not come alone, he comes with a retinue of a hundred of his young, beautiful wives, an eye-catching procession that Hanuman likens to Indra followed by Deva and Gandharva women (deva gandharvayoshitah mahendram). Many of them carry golden lamps, hand fans, golden water jugs etc that add to the general lustre of the place.
Ravana makes his forceful pleas, promises Sita that he would not touch her unless she reciprocates and explains what all she would gain from being the ‘foremost among his wives’ (agraa mahishi).
Sita naturally repudiates all his overtures and tells him that her continued captivity would mean doom for him and his country as Rama was sure to strike, and strike hard.
It is indeed a study in great contrast to consider Ravana’s words to Sita in their final meeting before the war and Rama’s words to her in their first meeting after the war (as in the Sundara Kanda, Sarga 18, and Yuddha Kanda, Sarga 115, of Valmiki Ramayana). A whole lot of undercurrent issues like morality, ethics, conjugal relationships, racial pride, social criticism and feminism, and more, may be found in them if one searches wide and deep.
Let us consider Ravana first. Variously calling her Seethe, Vaidehi, Visalakshi, Sarva Loka Manohari, Charusmithe etc, he tells her that Lord Brahma (his great grandfather), seems to have created her and then stopped making any more women of such beauty. In a bid to justify his abduction of her, he tells her that taking women belonging to others or abduction by force are not at all considered unrighteous things in the rakshasa kula.
“O, queen of my heart, give up your fears. Believe in me and instead of being in grief come with love. Do not be absorbed in sorrow like this.
“Single plait (of hair), ground as bed, dirty clothes, fasting, all these are not at all suitable for you.
"O timid one! Whatever gems that have been brought by force, all those, my kingdom and also myself belong to you."
"O charmful lady! Conquering the entire earth together with a chain of various cities, for your sake, I can give to King Janaka.
"In this world I do not see another one who is equally matched to me. See my very great power.
"Desire me! Now let your best decoration be made. Bedeck your body with ornaments of great brilliance. I will be happy to see you with such adornment.
"You may gift away land or wealth according to your wish. Act freely, with confidence, in any matter. And issue orders without any fear.
"O beautiful one! What can you do with Rama, clad in tatters, with lost hope of victory, with fortune gone, roaming in the forests, observing austerities and sleeping on the ground. I doubt if Rama is alive or not.
"O, one with black hair! My women and apsaras, who are the best among the three worlds, will serve you like the goddess of wealth."
"O, Seetha! Rama is not equal to me by austerity (tapasaa), not equal by might (balaena), not equal by strength (vikramaih), not equal by wealth (dhanena), not equal by brilliance (tejasaa) and not equal by fame (yashasaapi)."
And now consider Rama’s words, spoken when he meets Sita for the first time after her abduction:
“Seeing Sita, who stood before him bowing low, Rama began to express his feelings as follows:
"You are won back by me, after conquering the enemy in the battle-field, my dear lady! That which is to be done through human effort, has been accomplished by me.
"I have come to the end of my indignation, my outrage has been completely requited and the enemy has been wiped out, all at once, by me.
"Now, my manly strength has been seen by all, I have fulfilled my promise. Today, I am the master of myself.
"The wrong done to you, when you were taken away by a fickle-minded demon, which was ordained by destiny, has been corrected by me as a human being.
"I, wanting to uphold honour, have done this particular act, which ought to be done by a man, in killing Ravana and thus wiping away the insult meted out to me.
"Let it be known to you that this endeavour in the shape of war, which has been successfully carried through due to the strength of my friends, was not undertaken for your sake. Let there be prosperity to you! This was done by me in order to keep up my good conduct and to wipe off the evil-speaking from all sides as well as the insinuation on my own illustrious dynasty.
"You, with a suspicion arisen on your character (praapta chaaritra sandeha), standing in front of me, are extremely disagreeable to me, even as light to one who is suffering from poor eye-sight.
"O Seetha! That is why I am permitting you now: Go wherever you like (gachcha yatheshtam). All these ten directions (tetaah dasha disha) are open to you, my dear lady! There is no work to be done for me, by you.
"Which noble man (tejaswi pumaan), born in an illustrious race (aadadyaat kule) will take back a woman who lived in another's abode (puragrithoshtitham) with an eager mind?
"While mentioning greatly about my lineage, how can I accept again you who were harassed in Ravana's lap (while being borne away by him) and who were seen (by him) with evil looks?"
"You were won by me with that end in view (viz. the retrieval of my lost honour). The honour has been restored by me. For me, there is no intense attachment in you. You may go wherever you like from here.
"O gracious lady! Therefore, this has been spoken by me today, with a resolved mind (krita buddhinaa). Set you mind on Lakshmana or Bharata, as per your ease (lakshmane vatha bharate kuru buddhim yathasukham). Otherwise, set your mind either on Shatrughna or on Sugreeva or on Vibhishana the demon (satrughne vatha sugrive rakshase va vibhisane) or according to your own comfort (yatha va sukhamatmanah).”
(One wonders why Rama gave such a wild choice for Sita: to choose Lakshmana or Bharata or Sathrughna or even Sugreeva or Vibhishana as consort. Valmiki is silent on that. So also are scholars on scriptures).
Severely indicting Rama for these ‘barbed words’ that pierced her heart, a publicly humiliated Sita, who was trembling like a creeper hit by the trunk of an elephant (gajendra hastabhihateva vallari) asked Lakshmana to prepare a pyre for her (chitaam me kuru saumitre) as that was the only solution before her. ‘Smitten as I am with false blames I no longer wish to survive’ (mithya apavaadopahataa na aham jiivitumutsahe).
When all is said and done, there are two lingering doubts in my mind.. While Rama’s ‘barbed words’ to Sita and her taunting reply before her jump into the pyre formed a very crucial part of the Yuddha Kanda of Valmiki Ramayana, why was it that Thunchathu Ramanujan Ezhuthassan chose to totally, repeat totally, eclipse these exchanges in his version of the epic, Adhdhyatma Ramayana?
The second doubt is whether in my wrinkled old age I am becoming at least a part-time fan of that great grandson of Lord Brahma.
(Note: All quotes of Ramayana from Valmiki Ramayana and English translation of it by K M K Murthy, quote of Kamala Dalam from Kathakaliyile Rasavicharam by Chavara Appukkuttan Pillai)