ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY go on a ‘literature’ trail across India in search of legends behind India’s greatest literary works
From the icy realm of the Himalayas to the banks of great rivers or pilgrimages through the subcontinent to journeys across the seven seas, nature has inspired our sages, scribes and poets from time immemorial. Often exulting in the beauty of their surroundings or moved by their own personal situations of endurance and despair, they have found solace in words and other forms of creative expression. And in the process, geniuses were born and the literary firmament has sparkled with their brilliant works.
Today, as we traverse India in search of stories, our own adventures have unearthed unusual tales. So what is it about a mountain, a river, a bird, a fallen leaf or a passing cloud that can conceive an idea? Are there Muses dancing in the air that trigger off spontaneous prose? Perhaps. We circle some places on the map of literary inspiration that have let poets, writers and travelers inhabit it with their stories and characters; imagined and real.
The Himalayas and the mighty Ganga river have dominated the mindscape of a vast multitude of people for centuries. People come to lose and find themselves in the immense and reverential beauty of the region. In penance and piety, sages and lesser mortals have tapped into founts of inner knowledge and come back forever changed. At Gangotri, we met Swami Sundaranand ji fondly called Clicking Swami for his passion for photography. Stunned by his painstaking efforts and adventurous spirit to capture the glory and document the Himalayas over several decades, we glanced at unimaginable photos of the region across seasons and terrain. His wizened face and light eyes spoke volumes of what he had seen when he first arrived. He dismissed our visit saying, “You have seen nothing… jab main yahan aaya, Gangotri alankrit tha! (When I came here in ’48, Gangotri was a bedecked and bejeweled land. Its beauty dazzled!”
Yet, waking up at the ashram of Mauni Baba (who has taken a vow of silence) to the sight of snow, the Amar Ganga flowing at our feet, mountain goats licking salt off our hands and the Shivling peak towering above, made our arduous trek from Gangotri to Gaumukh and Tapovan feel like a brush with divinity. We couldn’t help but compare the silence of one mystic to the aggrieved curses that leapt off the tongue of another.
One day while going for his morning bath in the Tamasa river, a tributary of the Ganga, Sage Valmiki witnessed a pair of krauncha (Sarus cranes) courting each other. To his horror, the male bird falls to the arrow of a hunter leaving the distraught female flapping her wings and squawking in agony. Moved by her grief, the kind sage utters a spontaneous curse to the hunter in eight-syllabic metre. On regaining composure, the sage meditates on Lord Brahma who explains that the purpose of the incident was to inspire him to write the epic Ramayana for the welfare of mankind in the same anushtup metre. Thus, from shoka (sorrow) was born shloka (verse). Drawing a parallel from the kraunch vadh episode with the separation of Ram and Sita, Valmiki began writing the Ramayana, an epic tale of love and separation. More than anything else, it portrays a deep understanding of birds in ancient India, for today we know that most crane species pair for life.
The story of India’s other great epic, the Mahabharata, is linked to the Vyas Temple in the precincts of Ramnagar Fort. Elaborating on the legend, Pandit Ravi Shankar Pandey told us that Sage Vyas came to Kashi after the Mahabharat war with 18,000 sages in tow. For three days, when they didn’t receive any alms in Benares, an enraged Vyas cursed Kashi as daridra (penniless). Lord Vishwanath objected that no blasphemer had a right to stay in the holy city of Ma Annapoorna, the Goddess of Nourishment. So Vyas gave up Anandvan (as Kashi was called), crossed the Ganga and came to Tapovan on the eastern side. Vyas set up another Kashi, 4km from the fort, called Vyas Kashi. It was here on the sacred banks of the Ganga that he commenced his epic Mahabharat, completing it in Vyas guha at Mana village near Badrinath. Not only did Vyas compile the 18 puranas, he also divided the vedas into four, hence his popular name Veda Vyas (the Dissector of Vedas).
On a bike ride from Goa to Gokarna, we couldn’t stop ourselves from halting every now and then to take in the breathtaking beauty of Karwar coast . The oblique harmony of the casuarina groves, the waves gently lashing on the rocks, a sky painted red by sunset, dolphins leaping in the sea and the almost still waters around our island getaway at Devbagh or stumbling upon private coves in Gokarna were scenes that seemed to capture moments of perfection. Years ago, another young man fell under Karwar’s spell.
Fringed by a forest of casuarinas, broken at one end by the Kali river, the coast was blanketed in a velvet veil. Moonbeams danced on its shimmering waters, the night brooded over motionless forests and the stillness shattered by the sound of oars paddling in the silent stream. A young man rowed the boat, his stupefied eyes taking in the ethereal beauty as he slid to the mouth of the river. It was far into the night, the sea was without a ripple; even the restless murmur of the casuarinas was at rest. As he walked back over the sands, words, phrases, sentences bobbed in his head. On reaching home, he sat at his table and started writing like it was for the very first time…
That 22-year-old man was Rabindranath Tagore, and it was the picturesque town of Karwar that inspired him to write his dramatic poem, Prakritir Pratishodha (Nature’s Revenge), which later became his first play Sanyasi. Tagore visited Karwar in 1882 and stayed with his second brother and district judge Satyendranath Tagore in the bungalow where the Deputy Commissioner’s office now stands. From the literary journey that began in Karwar, Tagore went on to pen several classics and became Asia’s first Nobel laureate.
Tagore dedicated two chapters of his memoirs “My Reminiscences” to this town. Chapter 36 describes his Karwar experience while chapter 37 details how the place enchanted him. This life-changing episode taught him the philosophy of being awed by natural beauty, which formed the central tenet of his literary works. Tagore makes a special mention of Kalinadi River, Sadashivgadh Fort and Karwar beach, duly named after him as Tagore beach. A bust of Tagore at Lighthouse Hill Park (or Tagore Park) bears his literary tribute to Karwar.
The eastern coast is no less inspiring. For Sarojini Naidu, it was the Coromandel Coast that inspired her poem Coromandel Fishers. But there were many other literary gems written here earlier. At its legendary cape, Kanyakumari, we rediscovered stories of patience and longing in the songs of fishermen and the tragic tale of Kumari, the virgin goddess who waited in vain for Lord Shiva to marry her. It was on the same coast at the ancient Chola port of Poompuhar or Kaveripoompattinam where the Cauvery meets the Bay of Bengal, that Jain poet monk Ilango Adigal penned the Tamil epic Silapathikaram or Story of the Anklet.
It traces the journey to the Pandya court of Madurai where the unjust beheading of Kovalan for a theft he did not commit causes his chaste wife Kannagi to wreak havoc upon the kingdom. Madurai was the venue of the great Tamil Sangams or literary conclaves and the Meenakshi Sundareshwarar Temple occupied a central position. To test the literary weight of their work, authors offered their manuscripts on the Sangapalakai (wooden plank) in the Pottramarai kulam or Golden Lotus tank. Those scholastic works that stayed afloat were considered to be of superior quality, while those that sank were not!
In a famous legend when poet saint Thiruvalluvar offered his masterpiece Thirukkural, the plank remained afloat. So, other jealous writers placed the manuscript on the plank with inferior works. Lo and behold, the plank magically shortened, submerging the other manuscripts till only Thirukkural remained. Valluvar Kottam, a 39m tall stone chariot in Chennai’s Nungambakkam area marks a memorial to Thiruvalluvar with a life-size statue of the saint. A bas relief depicts the 133 chapters while the corridor of the adjoining 4,000-seater auditorium has all 1,330 verses etched on its granite pillars.
After travelling past the dust-ridden roads to discover musical rocks (Tintiniya pathar) and the mystical iconic sculpture Rudra Shiva at Tala, we stopped at Ramgarh in a remote corner of northern Chhattisgarh to visit a cave that was supposedly linked to the epic Ramayana. It is said that cave Sita Bengra was once the refuge of Sita and the clefts in the rock were allegedly the Lakshman rekha, the lines of fire drawn by Lakshman. As we clambered over the rock, we learnt another equally enthralling story. The cave which is also touted as the oldest natyashala (amphitheatre) to be excavated in India, holds the key to a fascinating behind-the-scenes story of India’s greatest Sanskrit poet and playwright, Kalidasa.
Legend has it that Vidyottama, the erudite daughter of a king, had spurned many suitors in her quest for an intelligent match for herself. To avenge the humiliation, people got her married to a goodlooking dimwit, a buffalo herder who was seen cutting the very branch on which he sat. Realizing the trickery, Vidyottamā banishes him and asks him to return only after he acquires true knowledge and the answer to her question Asti Kashchid Vāgārthah (Is there anything special in expression?). Ashamed, the shepherd cuts off his tongue to appease goddess Kali, and is subsequently blessed with wisdom. He adopts the name Kalidasa or the Servant of Kali and returns with a good repartee to his wife’s query. His answer Asti (There is), Kashchit (something) and Vāk (speech) triggers the beginning of his journey with words and the creation of his works Kumārsambhava, Raghuvaṃsa and Meghaduta which open with the same words.
Though Kalidasa is famous as one of the navratnas (nine jewels) in the court of Ujjain, he was banished by the king as both men were in love with the same woman. His wanderings brought him from present-day Madhya Pradesh to the caves of Ramgarh where the lovelorn poet allegedly composed the Meghaduta. The lyrical poem has an autobiographical tone where a Yaksha is expelled from the Himalayan kingdom of Alkapuri by Kubera to the remote hillock of ‘Ramagiri’. After eight months in exile, the Yaksha observes a cloud floating northward and implores it to carry his message to his beloved. Through the Yaksha’s entreaty, Kalidasa describes the scenery and the wonderful cities (Ujjain in particular) the cloud will cross on its aerial route to the Himalayas. The amphitheatre was the venue where the lyric poem was staged for the first time.
From the theatre spaces in Chhattisgarh, we headed south to Kerala, where the sandy banks of the Bharatapuzha or Nila river spawned arts like Kalaripayattu and Bharatnatyam, a dance form codified by Lord Shiva and brought to mankind by Sage Bharata. The 16th century bard Thunchaththu Ezhuthachan, regarded as the father of the Malayalam language, lived and taught his disciples in Tirur. Today, his house has been renovated into a serene oasis of learning and open-air school called Thunchan Memorial.
Following a trip to Kaas plateau, Maharashtra’s valley of flowers, we made an impromptu stop at Satara, where we stumbled upon Sajjangad, the final resting place of 17th century saint and social reformer Swami Samarth Ramdas. This hill tract was once called Ashwalayangarh after the tapobhumi (place of penance) of Ashwalayan muni. When the great Maratha Chhatrapati Shivaji secured the 2000 year-old hill fort Parli kila, he organized a conclave for holy men and requested Swami Samarth Ramdas to set up an ashram there. The sage renamed it Sajjangad or “Fort of Good Men” and composed the Dasbodh, an instructional guide to right action. As children rushed down the steps in wild abandon, old men paused to read the couplets en route to the hill shrine.
More recently, our curiosity to visit Shani Shingnapur near Shirdi, led us to an entire village without front doors that outlined Tagore’s almost utopian concept ‘Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high… Into that heaven of freedom my father, let my country awake…’ The people’s unflinching faith in Lord Shani’s protection has enabled them to live without fear of being burgled, robbed or killed! From here, it seemed logical to hop over to Ahmednagar for a quick peek into its famous fort, where the ripples of our Freedom struggle whipped up a storm.
Though the massive fort complex is largely out of bounds to the public, the historic Leaders Block is open to visitors. This was where the British imprisoned Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, Maulana Azad, Govind Vallabh Pant and other prominent national leaders during India’s struggle for independence. It was here in prison that Nehru wrote The Discovery of India, a fitting celebration of this wondrous country and dedicated it to the prisoners of Ahmednagar jail.
India is speckled with such inspiring places and it’s fascinating to learn how they have fired peoples’ imagination to embark on literary and spiritual journeys that further catalyze others in more ways than one.
Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the March 2013 issue of JetWings magazine.