Creation is a common theme in all mythologies and even in folklore. Man has been concerned about how we came to be, how the universe was created and the source of all creation since the beginning of time. This is a story told by the Gond tribe, found largely in central India today but whose members were once part of a larger group of people and spread over a much larger land mass.
As the story goes, there once lived a creator. Originally he did not have a name, but over time as the tribes mixed with other groups and their religions, the creator god was given a name. Sometimes he is called Bada Deo, some call him Mahadeo and some Bhagavan. The creator was sitting on a lotus leaf when the idea of creating the world came to him. But how could he build a world with nothing. He thought and realised that he needed clay. But where would he find clay? He looked down but all there was, was water.
So the god rubbed his chest and removed some of the congealed dirt that had gathered there and made a crow. The crow flew around him and asked him where he should perch himself; for there was no land for as far as the eye could see. So the god said to him, get clay.
The crow flew away in search of the clay. He looked everywhere but all he could see was nothing but water. Flying for endless days and endless nights, the crow grew tired and exhausted. Until one day he finally could keep flapping his wings no longer and saw a stump peeking out from the endless sheet of water. He flopped down in relief. But no sooner had caught a breath, a voice accosted him: “Who is this sitting on my claw”, he asked.
The voice belonged to Kekda Mal, the crab. And the crow had landed on his claw. Frightened that the crab would shake him down into the water, the crow began telling him his tale of woe. The crow said that he could not go back without the clay because the god has asked him to get some. With that clay the god would create the world, but there was nothing but water all around cried the crow. Where was the clay?
Kekda Mal said to the crow, “The clay has gone to the nether world and is being eaten up by the earthworm”.
But Kekda Mal assured the crow that since the god had asked for the clay, he would help the crow get it. Kekda Mal dragged the earthworm out of his bed under water and told him what the god had told crow and what the crow had in turn told him. But earthworm was not convinced. The clay was his food, he said so why should he be asked to give it up?
Not one to believe in the powers of persuasion, Kekda Mal caught the earthworm by the neck and squeezed it really hard. Instantly, the earthworm spat out the clay. The crow grabbed it and flew back to Bada Dev. And that is how the world was made.
No, wait! There is more to the story. When the god tried to create the world, he laid out a sheet of clay on the water. But the clay was too thin and the water too ferocious and the clay kept sinking into the netherworld. So the god now called upon Makda Dev, the spider. And the spider spun a web across the sheet of water, the god spread the clay on the web and released all the animals and birds and other living beings on the earth.
Story collected by: Arundhuti Dasgupta
Location: Madhya Pradesh
Image Source: www.ignca.nic.in
Gond Creation myth, Makramal (spider) in the Gond creation Myth
Artist : Kalabai
Medium: Acrylic on canvas – 2′ x3′
Once upon a time, in the kingdom of heaven, Shiva wanted to build a magnificent palace for himself and Parvati. He approached Vishvakarma, the god who is worshipped in many parts of the country as the divine architect, divine carpenter and the god of all arts and crafts.
Shiva knew that there was none except Vishvakarma who could do the job. He had built Indra’s grand palace, Vijayanta; the Pushpak Ratha (chariot) for Kubera and the idol of Lord Jagannath in Puri. He had introduced the science of mechanics and architecture to the gods and had created something of renown in every yuga — in Sat Yuga he built Swarga, in Treta Yuga he built Lanka and in Dwapar Yuga he built Dwarka, the residence of Krishna. He is also believed to have given all gods their names and their ornaments. His name means omnificent – one whose powers of creation are unlimited. In the Rig Veda, Vishvakarma is also known as Tvastar where the marriage of his daughter (Saranyu) to the sun god Surya is described. (RV10.17). He is also said to have sacrificed himself to himself in the Sarvamedha Yagna which was performed for the evolution of the visible world.
At Shiva’s request, Vishvakarma set to work on a palace fit for the divine couple. He spent a lot of time planning and conceptualizing the structure. After all it had to be large; it had to be full of grand structures, planned streets and gardens and; it had to be home to the most exquisite crafts. Vishvakarma used the most lustrous metals and materials at his disposal and he built a palace in a city and a city in a palace and called it Lanka.
Shiva was ecstatic and invited his disciple Ravana to perform the inaugural ceremony. Ravana readily agreed and pleased with his devotee’s actions, Shiva asked him to name the gift he would like to have in return. Smitten by the dazzle of Lanka, Ravana asked for the city as his gift. And thus he came to inhabit the palace that was once meant for Shiva.
Vishvakarma is also said to have given the gods their weapons. The story goes thus: He had a daughter named Sanjna/Saranyu whom he gave in marriage to the Sun god Surya. Sanjna was unable to bear the harsh rays of Surya and appealed to her father for help. Vishvakarma decided to reduce the dazzle of Surya and put him on his lathe machine and cut off his brilliance by one eighth. Fragments of the sun’s rays fell on earth and out of the fiery bits, Vishvakarma created the Sudarshan Chakra for Vishnu, the Trident for Shiva, Kubera’s weapons and Kartikeya’s Lance. Vishvakarma also created Indra’s weapon Vajra (thunderbolt) out of the bones of Dadhichi. Apart from Sanjna Vishvakarma fathered Nala the monkey who possessed some of his father’s skills and built a bridge by floating stones on the sea for Rama and his troops.
In Bengal, Vishvakarma Puja is celebrated on the 17 September every year. The occasion heralds the arrival of the festive season in Bengal, commencing with Durga Puja followed by Lakshmi Puja and Kali Puja /Diwali. As the presiding deity of all crafts, Vishvakarma is worshipped by engineers, architects, ironsmiths and all artisans and craftsmen. Tools used to ply a trade, machines and implements and other things that are used to build, create or produce a good are worshipped on this day. In Kolkata you can see cars adorned with marigold garlands as owners propitiate the engines that power their vehicles. The idol of Vishvakarma is modelled with four hands in each of which he carries a book, a noose, a water-pot and tools. However the deity is said to have faces hands and feet in all directions with which he created the heaven and the earth.
Vishvakarma Puja coincides with “ranna puja” or cooking festival in Bengal which is widely celebrated in the villages and peri-urban areas. On the day preceding the Puja, the kitchen is scrupulously cleaned up, the clay oven is built anew, and new earthen pots are purchased in which multifarious dishes are cooked including different variety of sweets. While the cleaning is done throughout the day by the womenfolk, the cooking is done through the night after fasting during the day. The cooking must be done after a bath. The next morning the oven is not to be lit. The clay oven is worshipped and Puja is offered to the Snake Goddess Manasa. The food cooked during the previous night is offered in Puja. Neighbours and relatives are invited to have the food which must be served cold.
There is a rationale behind the scrupulous cleaning of the kitchen and the clay oven. The monsoon months cause extensive flooding in the villages with water entering the mud houses and snakes sometimes slithering into the houses and coiling up near the warm oven. The cleaning up of the kitchen thus forms an important activity for the safety of the house and therein lies the significance of trying to propitiate Ma Manasa. On the day of the Puja the people in West Bengal also participate in a kite flying festival. Until some years back the kite flying was held on a grand scale with folks of all age groups participating in competitions in different parts of the city. The celebrations have been much scaled down over the years with high rises having taken the place of rooftops of single / double storied buildings and life getting busier and difficult for people.
STORY COLLECTED BY: Sumitra Sen
TEXT SOURCE: Indian Mythology by Veronica Ions, Pouranik Avidhan by Sudhir Chandra Sarkar, Rig Veda
STORY TOLD BY: Inputs for this story came from Sita, Anjali and several others who have worked in my house in Kolkata over the last 39 years
There were seven suns in the creation.
Therefore the globe was very hot.
One and all were upset because of the hotness of seven suns.
One day, the seven Munda brothers conversed,
“The earth is so hot for the seven suns. If we kill the sun, the earth will be calm.”
They shot arrows towards the suns and killed six.
The seventh sun bolted from the arrow of the seventh brother and concealed itself behind the hill.
The entire world was caught in the darkness of the nightfall. The animals and birds in the forest sat in a meeting and decided to get back the light. They explored for light. But where would they get the light without the sun? They were troubled.
The bunny rabbit snooped and heard the worries of the animals and birds.
He said, “There is a sun still thriving, hiding afraid of the human being.
If you call him, he may come back and appear.
Tiger, the king of the forest called the sun.
But the sun did not turn up.
Other birds and animals tried to get the sun by calling him.
But the Sun did not listen to them.
The rooster hesitatingly asked, “May I call once?”
The birds and animals giggled at the rooster.
Tiger, the king said, “Let him try once. Maybe, the sun will come in response to his call.”
Facing towards the hill that the sun had taken shelter behind, the rooster called the sun
Kok re Kak.
The sun seemed to peek out from the other side of the hill.
Encouraged, the rooster called again, Kok re Kok
This time the sun looked up a little more.
The rooster called a third time, Kok re Kok.
Now the whole sun arose out of the hill and looked at the sky.
The sky and earth were bursting with light.
The Munda brothers understood their mistake and started adoring the Sun.
(This is a Munda oral tale collected from the Mayurbhanj district of Odisha. The illustration that goes with the story is based on the Id Tal style of traditional painting practiced by the Saora tribe. The original story is told in Munda language. Dr Mahendra Kumar Mishra, a folklorist who has authored several books on the oral traditions of the tribes of Odisha has translated it into English.)
STORY COLLECTED BY: Mahendra Kumar Mishra
IMAGE CREDIT: Emam Gomanga, a teacher from the Saora tribe who paints in the Id tal style
Dr Mahendra Kumar Mishra is a noted Folklorist of India and is the author of Oral Epics of Kalahandi. He has set up Community Digital Archives in tribal areas in Odisha. He is the initiator of multicultural education in Odisha using folklore in primary schools. Dr Mishra is also the Chief Editor Lokaratna , an e-journal for Folklore Foundation, Bhubaneswar , Orissa in collaboration with the Dspace of Cambridge University, UK and National Folklore Support Center, Chennai. Dr Mishra is also the author of Folktale of Odisha published by the National Book Trust of India. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
The last couple of years have been depressing for all of us who don’t relish being divided and manipulated by people who make a fetish of their racial/cultural purity and aggressively celebrate that purity/exclusivity to the point of causing harm and damage to those they see as the “lesser others”. It’s happening in the US with The Trump promising to “beat” all outsiders, it’s happening in Europe with the rise of far right-wing parties and it is also happening in our country with alarming regularity.
Every time I read these accounts, I am amazed how these demagogues of different affiliations fail to learn from the history of human society — not the history of wars, nor of major political significance, but the stories that make up the humdrum nitty-gritties of ordinary lives.
One only has to look back at myths and rituals across societies to realise that at the point of “end-use” or daily living if you like, we the people have always been syncretic. We borrow stories and heroes and symbols from our neighbours, whoever they may be, mixing tales and rites to cook up a rich medley that can inform our humdrum lives with meaning and serve our fears and insecurities with the comforting blanket of myths and legends.
Two myth and ritual examples from Bengal bear testimony to this “grassroots syncretism”. Both illustrate that when common people are faced with grave risk to life and livelihood, when visceral, gut-wrenching fear seizes the human spirit, we forget our faith-labels. We are united in the same primal urge to be safe and to secure our loved ones. Thus when the villagers of 18th and 19th century Bengal, whether Hindus or Muslims, grappled with the ever-present menace of snakes, both turned to the snake goddess Manasa and propitiated her with common rituals. In parts of East Bengal (now Bangladesh), boat races with songs that extoll the powers of Manasa as well as celebrate the love of Behula-Lokhindor were very popular among the boat-people in the riverine districts. Hindus and Muslims participated in these boat-racing ceremonies during the rainy season when the snakes are at their most threatening. In fact, P K Maity writes in his definitive socio-cultural study on the cult of Manasa that post 1947 many of the boat racing songs in and around Sylhet took on a more pronounced Islamic character as the overwhelming majority of the boatmen who had stayed back were Muslims.
Just as Manasa worship (still practiced in many parts of Bengal) shows how common people can be united in adapting and adopting rituals in the face of a common threat, the legend of Bonbibi in the Sunderbans takes this syncretic impulse even further. This mangrove-covered delta is full of physical dangers but none more fearful than the great Royal Bengal Tiger. In this land of impenetrable forests and treacherous riverine tracts, it is no wonder then that the people who tried to eke out a living – the honey trappers and wood cutters — were united in their awe of the powerful beast that prowled the mangroves.
From their encounters, from the battle for survival between Man and untamed Nature was born the myth of Bonbibi. She is the protector of the people who took on the evil Dokhin Rai and his tiger-army. To the villagers on the fringes of the forest, to the honey-collector and the fisherman, it did not matter whether it was Allah or Durga who was supposed to nourish their spirit with the elixir of true faith. What they needed was an immediate source of security, someone they could access without intermediaries and some symbols that could be of immediate relevance to both the communities. Bonbibi was the answer to their needs; similar to many mother protectors in the Hindu pantheon but her origin can be traced to Medina and a Sufi fakir, both Islamic in character!
Bonbibi is then “imported” from the Holy Land of the Muslims to this piece of Bengal and her mission is to protect all the inhabitants there, both Hindus and Muslims. Bonbibi accompanied by her twin brother, Shah Jongoli , restores a new order in the land after her battle with Dokhin Rai, clearly demarcating the extent of Dokhin Rai’s authority( untamed Nature) as well as defining the limits of what men(irrespective of faith and origin) can access and extract from that great forest. From all the accounts of the Bonbibi “palas”(local theatrical performances), it is not clear to me, at least, whether Dukhey, the young boy in whose defence Bonbibi fights the final epic battle is Hindu or Muslim. But the beauty of this Sunderbans legend is that this detail is immaterial!
The tale of Bonbibi, Dokhin Rai, Dukhey may not be as ancient as other world myths, but the purpose is certainly “mythic’. It is the story of how Man must co-exist with Nature, how we must respect the powers of Nature and the eternal hope of Man that the weak and disenfranchised (Dukhey) can triumph over the greedy and wealthy (Dhona) as there will always be the Divine Protectors who will uphold the righteous. But what adds to the significance of this archetypical myth are the elements that make it transcend the narrow boundaries of any one faith, that make it possible for people from either faith to claim it as their own and celebrate it even today in 21st century through many re-tellings and ritual enactments!
This then is what grassroots syncretism is all about — in the defining moments of birth and death, in the defining principles of how we will manage our symbiotic relationship with Nature, we are united in our strengths as well as our vulnerabilities. If only, we remembered it and nurtured this more, we would leave this world a better place for the coming generations.
The question is – Why was Ganesha’s head severed and replaced with an elephant head?
Was it just an accident that Shiva beheaded Ganesha in the battle, not knowing who he was?
If you look closely at the stories from Indian mythology that refers to severing of the head, it is apparent that severing of the head is a recurring pattern. For instance, the Rig Veda mentions Indra cutting off Dadhyanc’s head. While Shatpath Brahmana narrates how Vishnu’s head was ‘accidently’ cut off when ants gnawed off the strings of a flexed bow on which he was resting his head. The Gods then placed a horse head over Vishnu’s shoulders and named him Hayagriva. Shiva when humiliated by Daksha- his father in law, became furious and severed his head. He later replaced Daksha’s head with a goat head. One can count more than a few examples, that show the severing of human head and replacing it with an animal head is a significant mythological motif. Therefore, one can ascertain that Ganesha’s head being replaced by an elephant head is a deliberate mythological trope.
But what does this pattern symbolize?
Death and rebirth is a persistent motif in sacrificial rituals. It is clearly enacted in the brahmanical rite of passage like Uapanayan, where the young boy initiate has to symbolically pass through the cycle of death and rebirth.
In the upanayana ritual the boy leaves his parental home to go his Guru’s ashram for higher education – but only after he symbolically dies and is reborn as his guru’s child. (This ritual is conducted in a ‘womb hut ‘ or dikshitavimita , where the student ( shishya) is placed doubled up in a fetal position in his guru’s lap). Having performed uapanayana, the boy is considered as dvija or twice born, and this symbolic death is represented by shaving off his hair (rite known as chudakarman) which is equated to the severing of one’s head.
Ganesha is the son of Parvati and not of Shiva. (This is reversed in case of Skanda- Karttikeya who is the son of Shiva, and not of Parvati ) . According to the story- Ganesha took upon himself the role of a loyal guard to Parvati. When Ganesha blocked Shiva’s entry into Parvati’s abode even after learning that Shiva is Parvati’s husband, a battle breaks out and Shiva beheads him. An anguished Parvati reproached Shiva for ‘killing’ her son and Shiva agreed to bring him back to life by attaching a new head to Ganesha’s body. Here Ganesha the son of Parvati dies but is reborn to Shiva as his son, the elephant headed Ganesha. Shiva then establishes Ganesha as the head of his ganas as gananayak. By this process Ganesha completes the cycle of death and rebirth and becomes the son of Shiva and Parvati.
So is there any significance for the elephant head?
Puranic tales provide a variety of accounts to explain this anomaly, including a tale about how Shiva and Parvati assumed the form of elephants and made love and thus giving birth to Ganesha with an elephant head. The most common tale that gained currency is the one in which Shiva severs Ganesha’s head and replaces it with the elephant head. Some tales also ascribe the source of the elephant head to various supernatural elephant entities in Indian mythology, such as Indra’s mount- Airavata, or the demon Gajasura whom Shiva defeated in a battle.
The elephant symbol is well entrenched in the South Asian mythology , and can be traced back to the Mohenjodaro civilization. It symbolizes rain or the water element and is therefore closely linked to agrarian symbols of fertility. Ganesha’s elephant head therefore suggests his primary role as a fertility god. The popular Ganesha festival is primarily a harvest festival, and a celebration of abundance and prosperity. Being a fertility god, sacrifice and initiation are inherent in the character of Ganesha. This again reiterates why severed head motif is central to Ganesha’s identity.
Once there was a wizened old jogi who lived in a forest. He was very virtuous and kind, and there was no soul who received any harm on account of him. One day it so happened that a party of jogis was chasing a cobra in the forest. Fleeing before his hunters, the cobra came to the old jogi to seek refuge with him and said “A party of jogis is chasing me. Please find a way to hide me.” The jogi asked, “Where can I hide a big, giant snake like you?” The snake replied, “Open your mouth wide and I will go inside your belly. Once those searching for me are gone, I will come out.” The kind jogi trusted the snake’s word. He opened his mouth and the cobra went inside his belly.
The jogis chasing the cobra searched around, and went away when they could not find the snake. The cobra was feeling very cool and comfortable inside the jogi’s belly and did not come out. And the belly grew day by day but the cobra forgot all about his promise and remained inside.
One day the jogi was fast asleep and his mouth was wide open. Deciding to enjoy some fresh air, the cobra extended his head from the jogi’s mouth. It so happened that a cat was sitting close-by, and seeing the cobra’s head protrude out of the jogi’s mouth, she crept near stealthily. Striking like lightning, the cat caught the cobra’s head in her mouth and pulled him out whole. With her sharp claws she killed the cobra in no time.
The jogi had now awakened. Seeing the cobra lying he dead highly commended the cat, and said, “Mother Cat, from today onwards you shall be the snake’s enemy. I grant you the freedom. Now you should leave the forest and go and live among humans. Everyone shall eat your leavings and what you jump over no one will eat.*”
Hearing these words, the cat prepared to depart to live among the humans. At the time of departure the jogi stroked the cat and as the fingers of his fingers were smeared with black colour, the cat’s fur was marked with black lines running across its body. From that day every cat has carried a black line and every cat is an enemy of the snake.
(*The jogi with his blessing effectively raised the cat’s status to that of a person. An animal’s leftovers are not fit to be eaten, but a person’s leftovers can be eaten. In Sindh, if a person crosses over or jumps over food it is deemed unfit for human consumption, but it can be eaten if an animal has jumped over it.)
(Translated from the Sindhi by Musharraf Ali Farooqi)
STORY COLLECTED BY: Musharraf Ali Farooqi
STORY TOLD BY: Muhammad Soomar Sheikh of taluka Badin in Lower Sindh
LOCATION: Sindh, Pakistan
Once there lived in Kishtwar, a district in the province of Jammu and Kashmir, a dayan. There are few words in English that capture the meaning of this word, commonly used across nations in the subcontinent (and perhaps beyond) but the closest word would be–demoness or sorceress.
The dayan of Kishtwar is believed to have amazing powers and is on the lookout for men who fail to do the right thing or protect themselves from her. Her dazzling and mesmerising appearance hides an evil and powerful being whose victims are consumed by death in a slow and excruciating manner.
Vijaya Dar, a gifted story teller, who lived in Kashmir for 20 years but has now settled in Coonoor in Tamil Nadu, remembers that, as a child, he and his cousins would be warned: ‘Don’t do that or the dayan of Kishtwar will catch you’. He says he had an uncle who worked with the state government and was posted to Kishtwar for a few years where he began to waste away. He was brought back by his family who were convinced that the dayan had got to him. But his uncle, even though he was treated by the best doctors in Srinagar, failed to survive. It was noticed that ever since he had come back from Kishtwar, a crow would perch itself on the window in the room where he lay. The family was convinced that the dayan had taken the form of a crow and followed him to Srinagar, eating away at his core till the pain and agony consumed his life.
The dayan’s powers are legendary. It is believed that Maharaja Pratap Singh, the Dogra ruler of Kashmir, who was believed to be an enlightened king sought to dispel the myth about her abilities. He summoned the dayan to his Durbar, where he ordered her to demonstrate her powers. She asked him to keep an apple on a table in the middle of the hall. Apparently, after a few moments when the apple was picked up it was found to have been consumed from within leaving the peel intact. There is no record of the event, except in the oral folklore of Kashmir.
As he tells this story Vijaya Dar says that it may have been entirely possible the victims of the dayan died from tubercular consumption or from a cancer but why the creatures were linked only to Kishtwar is not clear.
Story collected by Arundhuti Dasgupta
Story told by: Vijaya Dar
Source: Vijaya Dar who has heard it from family elders
Amongst the many untold stories of Ramayan is the myth of Mahiravan. We find that these stories remain out of the popular people’s narrative either because they were added to the main text later, over a course of time, or are important to a particular region or culture but unimportant for the larger community.
The story goes that after Ravan lost his brave son Indrajeet in the epic battle he was crestfallen. His mother came to see him when he was in this state. She reminded him of what his arrogance had done to his family and how he was wrong to let his ego blind him to the grave error of his ways. Ravan was not willing to listen to anything from anybody.
Before she left him to grieve for his son, alone, his mother asked him to think about another one of his sons (some texts refer to him as brother of Ravan), Mahiravan, who was king of the Patala-loka, or the underworld. Mahiravan had initially decided not to be a part of the battle, as he did not approve of Ravana kidnapping Sita. Mahiravan was the master of occult and a devotee of Goddess Kali. Ravan managed to convince Mahiravan to join him in battle by telling him that if he offered Ram and Lakshman as a sacrifice to the Goddess Kali, she would be happy.
When news of Mahiravan’s entry into Ravan’s battalion reached the army of Ram, there was consternation. Everyone was worried, especially Vibhishan, Ravan’s brother, who knew about Mahiravan’s skill as a sorcerer. He warned everyone about his nephew’s (brother) ability to change form and emphasised on the need to ensure that Ram and Lakshman were guarded well all the time. Hanuman was appointed as guard and told to keep watch so that none got into the cottage of Ram and Lakshman. Hanuman created a shield by his tail, around the cottage where the two were resting.
As expected, Mahiravan tried to break into the cottage. He changed into many different creatures but could not pass through. At last, he assumed the form of Vibhishan and approached Hanuman. He asked to be allowed in as he wanted to ensure that Ram and Lakshman were fine. Hanuman, allowed him to go through, thereby unwittingly breaking his own security shield for the enemy.
As soon as Mahiravan got into the cottage, he cast a spell on both Ram and Lakshman, and took them deep inside the ground. By the time Hanuman and Vibhishan could realise what had happened, the two were gone. Vibhishan was very worried as he knew that Mahiravan was capable of the worst kind of magic which could put the brothers’ lives in danger. He guessed that the two had been taken deep inside the ground in the patala-loka and urged Hanuman to go the same way.
Hanuman did as he was told. It is said that when Hanuman reached the patal-loka, it seemed to be a city by itself, with forts and fortresses and guards at every point. He met many characters who tried to thwart his mission but he managed to cross all hurdles and reach his destination. His adventures in the patal-loka are interesting, but we will not get into the details of it here.
On his way to the patala-loka, Hanuman had heard that Mahiravan was going to sacrifice Ram and Lakshman to the Goddess Kali in return for more occult powers. The myth gets really interesting here. Hanuman decided to go the root of the problem. He takes the form of a small bee and approaches the goddess Kali. He asks her if she wants the blood of Ram. Kali is supposed to have said that she would rather have the blood of Mahiravan, than that of Ram. She then goes on to suggest a way out, which Hanuman whispers into the ears of Ram.
Now the time for the sacrifice drew near. Ram and Lakshman were readied for the ceremony and at the auspicious time, Mahiravan asks Ram to put his head on the sacrificial altar. Ram has a problem; he says that having been a Kshatriya, a warrior, all his life he did not know how to bow in front of anyone, could Mahiravan show him how? Mahiravan was irritated but eager to get on with the sacrifice, places his head on the altar. No sooner had he done that, Hanuman who was hiding behind the idol of Goddess Kali, assumes his original form, takes the sacrificial blade and beheads Mahiravan. Thus Ram and Lakshman were saved. He then offered the blood of Mahiravan to the goddess.
Matters don’t end here. Mahiravan’s wife was pregnant and it is said that when she came to know about the death of her husband, she fought back. There is mayhem and in the commotion that is unleashed, Hanuman’s kick lands on her stomach and out comes the child, Ahiravan, ready to fight. Ahiravan is full of blood and mucous, and tough to get a hold of. Hanuman manages to throw some mud on him and catch him by his limbs. He kills him by smashing him to the ground. Hanuman then carries both Ram and Lakshman back to the battle field.
This myth is found mainly in the Ramayans of the East, especially in the Bengali version by Krittibash, the passage better known as ‘Mahirabonerpala’. The involvement of Goddess Kali and the occult practices find a mention in the epic here. Also, Kali plays a positive role here and asks for the blood of Mahiravan. Many scholars have opined that this story could have been a folktale that was woven into the epic. The changing of forms, sacrifices at the altar of Goddess Kali, etc. are common folktale motifs in the East. The twist of the ‘sacrificer’ getting sacrificed is also a common folktale element, which highlights that gods don’t support their ardent devotees if they take the wrong path. All in all, a very interesting myth.
STORY TOLD BY: Utkarsh Patel
TEXT SOURCE: Krittivasi Ramayan (or Sri Ram Panchali (Bengali: শ্রীরাম পাঁচালী), composed by 15th century Bengali poet Krittibas Ojha, is a translation of the Ramayana into Bengali. This story is found in the chapter, Mahiraboner-pala.
LOCATION: West Bengal
Since time immemorial, ‘Maya’ has been a source of intrigue. Just what is Maya? Is it an elusive illusion, or is it a mirage, which leads an individual to temptation, only to face reality with a harsh lesson and at times quite harsh. Maya has led to many realisations and understanding of it has generally been one-directional, i.e. from the perspective of a story or the lesson learnt. For want of any other way, here is one more perspective of Maya, which was told to Andre Malraux (a French novelist & art theorist) in Varanasi, by a passerby, who forced Malraux to listen to the story. The incident was recorded in Malraux’s ‘Anti Memoirs’, which goes as follows –
Narada, the itinerant divine sage roaming the three worlds, sowing seeds of discord and inveterate experimenter, goes up to Vishnu and demands that ‘Maya’ be explained to him. Vishnu is silent. Narada is not one to be denied. He insists so persistently that the god has to answer him.
‘Maya cannot be explained, it has to be experienced,’ said Vishnu. ‘If you can’t explain what you create, then I won’t believe in you,’ retorts the never-say-die sage. Quickly deserting his serpent couch for the fate of gods in whom humans do not believe is shrouded in uncertainty–Vishnu beckons him to follow.
Walking together, they reach a desert where Vishnu sits down under a tree and exclaims, ‘I am so tired, Narada! Take this lota (a vessel to carry water) and get me some water from that oasis. When you return I will explain Maya to you.’ Eager to plumb the mystery, Narada speeds off to the oasis and finds a well there beside a hut. He calls out, and a lovely girl opens the door. Looking into her eyes, Narada is reminded of the compelling eyes of Vishnu. She invites him in and disappears indoors. Her parents come out and greet the guest, requesting him to rest and eat after his journey through the burning sands before he returns with the lota of water. Thinking of the lovely girl, Narada agrees. Night falls, and they urge him to leave in the cool morning. Awakening in the morning, Narada looks out and sees the girl bathing beside the well. He forgets about the lota of water. He stays on. The parents offer him their daughter’s hand in marriage. Narada accepts, and settles down here. Children arrive; the parents-in-law die; Narada inherits the property. 12 years go by. Suddenly the floods arrive–floods in the desert! His house is washed away. His wife is swept away. Reaching out to clutch her, he loses hold of his children who disappear in the waters. Narada is submerged in the floods and loses consciousness.
Narada awakens, his head pillowed in someone’s lap. Opening his eyes he gazes into the eyes of Vishnu, seated at the desert’s edge under that same tree, those eyes that remind him of his wife’s. ‘Narada,’ asks Vishnu, ‘where is the lota of water?’ Narada asked, ‘You mean, all that happened to me did not happen to me?’ Vishnu smiled his enigmatic smile.
Does that answer your query of Maya? If it doesn’t, then you know why Maya is elusive!
STORY COLLECTED BY Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya
STORY TOLD BY Prof. P. Lal
TEXT SOURCE ‘Anti Memoirs’ by Andre Malraux published in 1967
In Assam, we find a version of the Ramayana known as the Durgavari Giti Ramayana. It is a lyrical composition (giti) by a poet named Durgavar. His work was first published in 1915 by Bisay Chandra Biswasi of Hajo, an ancient place of pilgrimage near Guwahati (Assam).Since then the work has been published by a few others who have primarily drawn upon this text and in 1972, Prabin Chandra Das found a manuscript of one of Durgavar’s cantos (the Ayodhya kanda) which was believed to have been missing until then. Das retrieved it from an Oja family in Hajo.
This story was sung along with the other songs of the Durgavari Ramayana during ojapali performances which are today preserved only among the people of Hajo. Ojapali is a quasi dramatic performing art form where a group of 4-5 singers, besides their leader and chief assistant, recite lyrics from the epics and puranas. The oja leads the performance and Durgavar, most believe, was an oja or leader of an ojapali troupe.
The song begins at the point when Bharata goes back to Ayodhya after informing Rama about Dasharatha’s death. Rama, Sita and Lakshmana set out for Gaya to offer oblations to the deceased king. The brothers ask Sita to wait as they go out to collect fruits for the rituals. Sita whiled away her time playing with sand but, as she sat lost in her thoughts, Dasharatha appeared before her and asked her to offer him an oblation of san (balir pinda). Sita was reluctant but Dasharatha was adamant so she asked the sun, air, the earth and river Phalgu to be her witness. When Rama returned, he did not believe the story. So Sita asked the sun, air, the earth and the river to reveal the truth to her husband. But the devas present in nature refused to do that. However Sita was saved because Dasharatha came down to tell Rama that he had forced Sita to give him balir panda.
Infuriated by the behaviour of the gods, Sita cursed them – the sun, she said, would be devoured by Rahu and the moon by Ketu (both demons) and the river Phagu was banished to flow below the earth. She also cursed the basil plant, the kusha grass and the plantain tree.
A version of Sita’s sand oblation is found in the Garuda Purana, Shiva Mahapurana, the Oriya version of the Mahabharata and the Bengali version of the Ramayana and the Ananda Ramayana. These versions differ slightly from the Durgavari story but they all talk about Sita’s sand oblation to Dasharatha.
Story collected by: Arundhuti Dasgupta
Location: Pan India
Text Source: Prabin Chandra Das, Dugavari:An Assamese Version of the Ramayana; Rama Katha in Tribal and Folk Traditions of India Edited by KS Singh and Birendranath Datta