Sunday, August 31, 2008

Trivia of Epical Proportions

Two of India’s most fascinating stories – Ramayan and Mahabharat – thrive on repetition. Right from the time we hear it from our grandparents to the time we are subjected to the Ekta Kapoor version, there is no suspense element in the stories. We know exactly what is going to happen, how, when and where. We are in it to track our favourite characters and their antics. And repeated viewings / hearings only make the associations stronger and lead to more layers being unearthed.

For example, my favourite story (sub-story?) of Mahabharat is the part about Abhimanyu. Here is this foetus who hears his father explain to his mother how to enter the Chakravyuha. Obviously, the technique was not breathtakingly interesting stuff and his mother falls asleep – and so does he along with her – and the unborn child never gets to know how to break out of it. As a teenager and a hero in the battle of Kurukshetra, he offers to break into the Chakravyuha. Inside the vyuha, he is trapped all alone and fights the seven Kaurava maharathis (Karna, Duryodhan, Duhshasan, Dronacharya, Kripacharya, Ashwathama, Jayadrath) valiantly before being killed.

Now, there’s more to this story.
We know that Abhimanyu did not know how to come out of the Chakravyuha, but how come none of the Paandavs managed to follow him inside? Arjun was engaged in a battle elsewhere. But the other four brothers were thwarted by Jayadrath. And what gave Jayadrath such powers that he managed to beat them? Jayadrath had been given a boon by Lord Shiv that he would be able to defeat all the Paandavs except Arjun for one day. Just one. And Jayadrath encashed that boon on that day, when Abhimanyu was killed.
End of story? Not quite.
On hearing of Abhimanyu’s death, Arjun put the blame squarely on Jayadrath and vowed to kill him the very next day before sunset. Or else, he would self-immolate. Now this caused huge hope in the Kaurav camp. Dronacharya summarised that if they managed to protect Jayadrath for that one day, the Paandavs would lose Arjun and that would be the end of their campaign. So, Jayadrath was hidden inside a Shuchi-vyuha (eye of a needle) inside a Chakravyuha. And in a day of battle like no other, Arjun made a mad rush towards Jayadrath. However, when it became obvious that he wouldn’t reach him before sunset, Krishna did a trick and covered the sun. Thinking it was the sunset, Jayadrath jumped out of his chariot and ran up to Arjun, exhorting him to immolate himself. Seeing the defenceless jerk, Krishna uncovered the sun and there was still an over of play left. Arjun hit a six and chopped his head off in one clean shot of an arrow.
All’s well that ends well? Yes, but one twist was still left.
Jayadrath’s father had blessed his son once by saying that if any person causing Jayadrath’s head to fall to the ground would have his own head broken into a thousand pieces. Lovely. So what does Arjun do? He cuts off Jayadrath’s head with one arrow and with six more arrows, he transported the severed head several hundred miles away, where his father was sitting in meditation and dropped it on his lap. Jayadrath’s father saw his son’s head on lap and stood up in shock, causing the head to fall on the ground. And his own head shattered into a hundred pieces.
This one small plot has enough twists, turns, dilemmas, solutions, bravery and bravado to last us a lifetime. Is it possible to learn something from the mother’s womb? Was it ethical to for seven warriors to gang up against a teenaged boy? Why was it necessary for Arjun to make a promise that could have killed him? How could Krishna cover the sun when he promised not to interfere in the battle?

Bengalis are fortunate enough to have access to a brilliant man’s translation of the two epics. Rajshekhar Basu (also known by his nom-de-plume, Parashuram) had a lucid writing style and he transcreated the two epics wonderfully. Generations of Bengalis brushed up their childhood memories of the two epics with these two volumes and continuously returned to them for both the seamless narration and the gripping storylines held great appeal.

Recently, I bought two books on the two epics, which were summarised readings of the two along with a collection of trivia. Trivia is something that I am inexhorably drawn towards. On top of that, there are enough references in these two epics to our socio-cultural history to make them quite addictive.

For example, the dyansty of Ram is documented from 63 generations before him and had Harishchandra (he of truthfulness and Dadasaheb Phalke fame) among the earlier kings. It also had a king by the name of Mandhata (estd 3458 BC) and that is why, extremely old things in Bengali are referred to as Mandhatar aamol (the age of Mandhata)!

Raam and Sita got married when he was thirteen and she was six! They remained in Ayodhya for about 12 years before their exile and in exile for about 14 years. This means, Ram became the king at the age of 39 and ruled for about 30 years before he passed away.

Interestingly, the North Indian view of the world (as it existed beyond the Vindhyas) was quite partisan. The inhabitants of Kishkindhya (present day Bellary district of Karnataka) were monkeys and the inhabitants of Lanka were demons. Even if you are an Indian cricket fan and have seen this often enough, it does strike you as rather demeaning to the Lankans!

The geographical coordinates of Mahabharat are also firmly entrenched around the Delhi NCR. For services rendered in teaching the Hastinapur princes, Dronacharya was given a village on the outskirts of the capital. People started calling it Guru Gaon before DLF and Ansal made the Mall Mile and it became famous as Gurgawan!

In a last ditch attempt to avoid war, the ultimate do-gooder Yudhishthir asked for five villages for the five brothers (which Duryodhan rejected by saying he won't give "enough earth to cover a needle head" without war). The five villages were the eminently recognisable Indraprastha, Sonepat, Panipat and Baghpat while the fifth one is relatively unknown Tilpat.

The two most important parts of the two epics - the two wars lasted only about 18 days each. The Mahabharat war has been documented more accurately with a day-wise casualty list, while the Ramayan war is less accurate but now signposted with festivals. The first day of the Durga Puja (Mahalaya) is when Ram invoked the goddess for her blessings when the battle got really tough and ten days later, he KO'ed Raavan on Dussehra / Vijaya Dashami (before returning to Ayodhya couple of weeks later on Diwali).

And the details... the five Paandavs had codenames for each other when they were in exile (Jay, Jayanta, Vijay, Jayatsen, Jayadwal). The five brothers assumed names when they were hiding in King Viraat's court (Kanka, Ballab, Brihannala, Granthik and Tantipal). Even their conches had names (Anantavijay, Poundra, Debdatta, Sughosh, Manipushpak). Wow! Not to mention that each of them had one overwhelming sin, for which they were unable to reach heaven alive. Even the super-virtuous Yudhishthir had to go through a tour of hell for that one itsy-bitsy-teenie-weenie-yellow-polka-dotted sin that he did!

You know about that, don't you?


Anonymous said...

Very interesting read! Which books are tell

Ps: please do post more often.. :)

Goofy Mumma said...

You have an amazing memory!

kochab said...

As usual this is a wonderful post, I have read both epics (in thier english version of course) many times, but never thought of these. By the way, I found your blog by way of MadMomma and read a few of your past posts and found them brilliant, so I decided to pass on the Brilliant Webblog award to you!

Anonymous said...

Very nice read - I actually keep copies of Amar Chitra Katha versions as a refresher - and used to tell and retell the stories to my kids.

Itchingtowrite said...

WOW!! that was neat!

Prithi Shetty said...

Ah, the ending with suspense ! Can't bear it.

So what was Yudhishthir's "that one itsy-bitsy-teenie-weenie-yellow-polka-dotted sin" ?

Dipta Chaudhuri said...

@ Anon: Linked. But the books are in Bengali.

@ Prithi: You don't know how Dronacharya was killed?

Prithi Shetty said...

Gwad I think I am loosing all my memory. But it would be great if you could tell it ? That way we can get another interesting post from you :)

vimsical said...

Really fascinating post. Our mythology is so rich. I have forever been fascinated by it. There is so much 'material' there than what we are exposed to in the concised versions passed on to us. Finally have laid my hands on Ashok Banker's version of Ramayan and needless to say that it makes interesting read. I was also blown away by the details, the names of flags, conches, chariots in Ratan Thiyam's play Chakravyuha(haven't been fortunate to watch the play, have read it). I wish i could read Bangla to enjoy the books you listed.

Hope to read more from you.

rahi said...

hey man don't act like those ekta kapoor serials. why is it that u have hid that detail about yudhistra's sin at the end. please do write abt it.

and lemme tell u i m super impressed by ur eye for detail. i m already impressed by ur writing style

Tania said...

Nice read.I was abig fan of mahabharat.I read all about the characters in amar chitra katha.
I did not know about the codenames and the conches.
Prithi-check this out

Smita said...

wow! interesting & engrossing post.

My interest in Mahabharata is quite recent and it developed afetr finishing "The Palace of Illusions" by Chitra Banjerjee Divakaruni. It is a fantastic read and is Mah from teh point of view of Panchali. Do read it, am sure you'll like it.

Never knew Ram & Sita got mrrd so early.

PS Adding you to my blog roll :)

ss said...

Wow - interesting trivia. I wish the books were in English. Would love to read them!

I know, I know yudhishtra's tiny sin!
putting hand up like Hermione Granger
Bhima killed Ashwatthama the elephant and told Drona. Drona thought it was his son(also named AShwatthama) who was killed and asked Yudhishtra for confirmation since he knew Yudhishtra never lied. Yudhistra said, "Yes, Ashwathama is dad" and mentioned "the elephant" under his breath so Drona wouldn't hear. So Drona was given the truth but not the whole truth - equivalent to a lie!

Am I right?

Sunshine said...

Amazing read.. Did not know about these details till I stumbled here. Could you possibly suggest books for epic reads in English? I would love to brush up on my history.

Indian Home Maker said...

This was really interesting:) Very informative too.
We grew up on Amar Chitra Katha and grew to love the epics as literary classics, specially Mahabharata.
Yudhishter's sin was announcing Ashwatthama (the elephant) had died so that Drona's heart will break? That was worse than lying, because he knew Drona would never doubt his word! How come giving away his wife while gambling was not considered a sin?
I just didn't like Panchali being declared a sinner for loving Arjuna more... You must read Panchali's Mahabharata (with a twist)by C B Divakaruni.

Bit Hawk said...

Nice trivia collection. Knew many of them, but had forgotten over a period of time. Thanks for reminding! :)

Goli said...

This is very interesting, I loved reading this post. By any chance do you follow, I came across that site and really found it very interesting.


S. Krishnamoorthy said...

Wonderful posting.
Enjoyed it thoroughly.
S. Krishnamoorthy (from USA)

thequark said...

My lesser known favorite parts of the epics :

Ramayan: Ram needed a highly qualified pundit to officiate the yagn before his war on terror could be launched. How could he find a learned brahmin amongst monkeys. So instead of using he summons Ravan who was one of the highest skills around. And being a true noble learned person hi obliged.

Mahabharat: Barbareek is one of the forgotten hero in Mahabharat probably because greatness of his story lies in not participating in the war. Barbareek was a warrior supreme than Pandavs and Kauravs combined and he had pledged to help the weaker side. Krishna knew he would support Kauravs On a planned chance encounter so he took guise of a brahmin and challenged Barbareek to show his skills. Barbareek claimed he would mark everything he wants to target with first arrow and then destroy all of them in one go with second one (sounds more like Java's garbage collection algorithm). Krishna challenged him to destroy all leaves of the tree. When the task was done, Krishna pulled lateral thinking hat on his head and said one of the leaves still remains under my foot so you have failed. He shows Barbareek his true form and asks for his head.

Barbareek requested his head to be put on a mountain (in Kurukshetra? or some near by hill perhaps) from where he could watch all proceedings of the war. His wish was obliged and when Pandavs won the war they met Barbareek to request his verdict on man of the match. Barbareek said it has to be Krishn. Pandavs were puzzled how could 12th man win! And thats when Barbareek gave a stud max answer: All I could see was it was Krishn who was killing and it was Krishn who was getting killed.

Anonymous said...

nah, Barbareek had the boon from Goddess Durga to be victorious in any fight + he had 3 mighty arrow given by Shiv ji .. Lord Krishn hide one leaf under his foot and barbareek arrow revolved around Lord Krishn ..and then Barbareek put that arrow close to Lord Krishn feet for respect and all . Krishn got impressed and asked him "who you think is your Guru" . Barbareek said "it's you my Lord" , then Krishn asked for Guru Dakshina and asked for his head .

Abhishek Mukherjee, BSc MStat said...

Krishna covering the Sun just before Jayadrath's death was possibly the glorified version of a REAL solar eclipse, as was Hanuman's hiding the Sun in his armpit when he was carrying back Gandhamadan (which contained Vishalyakarani, Mritasanjeevani, Suvarnakarani and Sandhani).

Abhishek Mukherjee, BSc MStat said...

Eclipse or otherwise, I think Krishna did keep his promise. He didn't interfere with the battle. He simply covered the Sun, which is definitely not a part of the Sun. One might agree that the Kauravas might have gone for a bad-light appeal, but as we know, the battle went deep into that night...