Rama and Hanuman fighting Ravana, an album painting on paper, c1820. Tanjore or Trichinopoly, Tamil Nadu, India, (Wikipedia)
Snapshot
  • For those political Dravidianists-cum-Tamil ‘aficionados’ who peddle bogus theories delinking Sri Rama from Tamil consciousness, here is evidence to the contrary.

There is a myth created by the British, continued by DMK-oriented Dravidianist politicians and perpetuated by a new generation of North-India-based liberals that Tamil Nadu has an aversion for Sri Rama or that He is venerated very little here.

Nothing could be farther away from the truth.

Valmiki the Adikavi as Ratnakara the robber: his encounter with the sages, Kumbhakonam Valmiki the Adikavi as Ratnakara the robber: his encounter with the sages, Kumbhakonam

Here are just two instances from different aspects of social life in Tamil Nadu to show how Sri Rama is integral to Tamil life.

John Pandiyan, a Devendrakula Vellalar community leader from Southern Tamil Nadu, was meeting Thol Thirumavallavan, a Hindu-hating leader, a few years back with their cadre assembled. John Pandiyan told their cadre that the two leaders were like ‘Rama and Lakshmana’.

Then there is the popular movie ‘Singham’ by director Hari. The villain’s brother threatens the police officer, asking if he knows whose brother he was. The spontaneous reply in the screenplay was, “Why should I care? Are you the brother of Rama, Lakshmana, that everyone should know?”

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(And remember those movies where, for ideological reasons, Rama is intentionally played as the villain, even when directed by the likes of Mani Ratnam or acted by superstars like Rajini, and the movies flop?)

Most of the Hindu families in Tamil Nadu will have at least one ‘Ramaswamy’ in three generations (grandfather-father-son).

Yes. In Tamil Nadu, writing ‘Sri Ramajeyam’ every morning has been an abiding habit — a fantastic exercise to keep your handwriting steady and beautiful, combining it with spirituality — another cultural element we are now losing out, like the daily feeding of the crow.

How is it that Sri Rama is loved so much in Tamil Nadu despite all the fabrications of Aryan-Dravidian being floated by colonialists, academicians and politicians so intensely for two centuries?

The ‘mentions’ of Sri Rama that one finds in Sangam literature are enlightening in this regard. There are two references and both speak of narratives not found in Valmiki Ramayana and both show how integrated Ramayana itself was to the society.

The first reference is that of a Tamil king who had had brilliant victories over his enemies. He gave the royal ornaments of those defeated kings to a poet, who in turn delivered them to his family as well as distributed some among his kith and kin. As the relatives and his family people had never seen ornaments like that, they started wearing them wrongly; and how was this described?

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That they behaved “like the monkeys who got the ornaments dropped by Sita when she was abducted” when they started to adorn themselves with the jewels, not knowing where to wear each jewel. There is a song about this in Puranaanooru (378).

The second reference is even more beautiful and is important for reasons that will become apparent.

A hero had left his village to pursue his career. His lover was awaiting his return. So every day, she could be seen waiting and watching the road for the return of her beloved. The villagers naturally started gossiping.

Eventually, the hero returned and when the lovers got united, all those gossipers fell silent. And how was this described? That when Sri Rama was planning the attack under this magnificent tree in Kodikarai, the birds residing in the tree were constantly chirping. At one point, Sri Rama just looked up at them signalling them to remain silent. And silent went the birds, just like how the gossipers became silent! (Ahananooru, 70).

Liberation of Ahalya by Sri Rama, Kumbakonam Liberation of Ahalya by Sri Rama, Kumbakonam

One can see that if Ramayana events (both of which are not mentioned in the Valmiki Ramayana and yet adore Sri Rama so positively), were to be mentioned in such a manner to explain the day-to-day events of Tamils, how integral the Rama tradition should have been to Tamil life even during the Sangam time.

Recently, a pop-mythologist tried to show how, while Ramayana was male-centred, Tamil epics like Silapathikaram were centred around women. Unfortunately, what the pop-mythologist seemed to be ignorant of is the fact that in the Ramayana itself, the great poet-seer Valmiki terms the kavya Ramayana as ‘Sitayas charitam mahat’.

What is more, in Silapathikaram, supposedly written by a Jain monk, Illango Adigal, Ramayana runs as a subtle thread. So, when Kovalan, the hero, had to leave the city of Pukhar along with his wife Kannagi, we are told that the city people got distressed and the city became desolate ‘like Ayodhya after Rama left ’.

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When Kovalan gets counselled as he faces tough times, it was by citing Ramayana, which says that even the Divine Rama had to live in exile, lose his wife and face suffering, that he is comforted. Then again, when the couple, along with a saintly character, pass through the rural settlement of cowherds, the women of the village sang the praise of Vishnu and danced.

In this song, Rama is placed in the context of other avatars of Vishnu and hailed by the dancing cowherd women thus:

He who measured all the three worlds with His two feet, with that feet turning red, He along with His brother walked in the forest, ultimately destroying the ancient Lanka. What (lowly) ears are those which have not heard of such greatness of our Lord. 

At a deeper level, Sita had already hinted to Hanuman that with the fire of her feminine energy, she could destroy Lanka herself, but she had remained silent only because She wanted Sri Rama to come and conquer Ravana.

Then, when Ravana set fire to Hanuman’s tail and the news reached Sita, she appealed to Agni and Agni not only did not harm Hanuman but Lanka got burnt instead.

In the Silapathikaram, likewise, Kannagi remained almost a silent but strong presence in terms of action until Kovalan was killed in an unjust manner. Then, she summons Agni to burn the city without harming the “Brahmins, cows, the old, the children and the good people”.

Draupadi, the principal mover of Mahabharata, was also born of fire. The common deeper element that unites the Mahabharata, Ramayana and Silapathikaram, is that in all these stories, the women associated with fire play a crucial role, and in all these, the “Divine Feminine” explodes against the structures that intentionally or otherwise violate Dharma.

While the Sangam literature mentions events not mentioned by Valmiki in his Ramayana, Illango has clearly recorded that the Avatarhood of Rama and His worship was very well established in South India — among all sections of the society — especially the cattle-herding community.

By the sixth century CE, we know that the South Indian emperors of various dynasties had started modelling themselves after Sri Rama. Kapila Vastyayan has explained how Ramayana played a great role in influencing the moral authority of the South Indian emperors.

We also find — in the ruins of Vishnu temples of fifth century CE of the Gupta-era depictions of Ramayana episodes in South India — the Chalukyas (fifth to eighth centuries CE) modelling themselves after Sri Rama.

Pulakesi, in his Aihole inscription, is found quoting a Valmiki Ramayana verse. The sons of Pulakesi of Western and Eastern Chalukya dynasties also made Rama their role model. The same is also true of Narasimhavarma Pallavan of Tamil Nadu.

Kulasekhara Aazhwar (9th century CE), traditionally considered a Chera king, has sung lullabies for Sri Rama — some of the sweetest poetry written in the language. Since then for centuries Tamil mothers have identified their own children with Rama as they sing these songs to this day.

The Aazhwar, according to traditional accounts, used to get so emotional hearing the recital of Ramayana that when the portion describing Rama going in search of Sita came, he ordered his own army to be ‘sent in support of Sri Rama’.

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With the ascendancy of the imperial Cholas, Rama was not only the role model but also one of their ancestors. The Cholas considered themselves as coming in the line of the Raghu clan of Kshatriyas.

Their naval expeditions were compared to the march of Sri Rama. Chola king Parantaka-I was called Sangrama Raghava because of his conquest of Sri Lanka. His son Aditya-I had the title Kothanda Rama. An inscription praising the expedition of Rajaraja compares it with that of Sri Rama’s travels.

In the Adikesava Perumal temple, an inscription records that Rajendra Chola donated an areca garden to Sita, as a wedding gift, on the occasion of her marriage to Rama, whom the inscription addresses as Thiru Ayodhyi Chakravarthi .

Ayodhya, indeed, seems to have been much loved and cherished by Tamils. In Uttiramerur under Parantaka Chola's reign, there was a temple for 'Ayodhya Perumal' - the lord of Ayodhya.

And his queen, Seyyabhuvana Sundara Maniyar, gifted a lamp to the Raghava temple, which was called Thiru Ayodhi (auspicious Ayodhya). The Chola period also reinforced the sacred oneness of India by constructing two temples at Manimangalam in Tamil Nadu — one temple for ‘our Master Lord of Dwaraka’ (Thiruvaragapathi Emperuman) and ‘our Master Lord of auspicious Ayodhya’ (Thiruayodhi Emperuman).

At the famous Eri-Katha Ramar (Rama who protected the lake) temple of Chengalpattu, the Chola inscription calls the lord as “Ayodhya Perumal” or Lord of Ayodhya.

Many historians consider that the tradition of Hanuman worship rose to prominence only with Hindu resistance to alien invasions. While there is truth in it, independently too, Hanuman has been honoured with a separate shrine in Kanchi during the period of Rajaraja.

So, when through Kamban Ramayana the grandeur of Tamil language reached a peak that few classics that humanity has created have ever reached, it was only natural that Tamil should reach its most sublime height only through the telling of the greatness of Sri Rama Avatara.

The Vijayanagara emperors, as well as later chieftain offshoots of the empire, were also enamoured by Sri Rama. What should be noted here is that it was not the ‘divine right of kings’ being derived by associating themselves with Sri Rama but the subordination of royal power to Dharma, which, in turn, was the power of the powerless.

Thus, in the famous Hazara Rama temple depiction of the Ramayana, we find the narration starting with the panel where Dasaratha gets cursed by the blind old parents of Shravana, who was accidentally killed by the king.

Hazara Rama temple at Hampi: Ramayana always subordinates the power of a king before <i>Dharma</i>. Hazara Rama temple at Hampi: Ramayana always subordinates the power of a king before Dharma.

In Southern Travancore, the famous Iyyavazhi movement of the 18th century, initiated by Iyya Vaikundar, fought against both social stagnation and colonial proselytizing.

Considered as the incarnation of Vishnu by his followers, Iyya Vaikundar employed Ramayana along with Mahabharatha as a framework to criticise the missionaries as well as caste-supremacists.

Ravana would be destroyed not just by the arrow of Rama but also by the power of the suffering Sita, it was pointed out. Here, Ravana became the symbol of insensitivity to the suffering of the people.

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With the Ramayana being the subordination of the king’s authority, power and even personal pleasure, before the voice of the voiceless, one should consider the sustained influence of Ramayana as one of the basic foundational principles of Hindu civilisation and the Indian nation — as Dharma reigning over the temporal authority.

It is no wonder that Sri Rama is hated by corrupt politicians of Dravidian racism even as the people of Tamil Nadu have the love of Sri Rama built into their very being.

References:

  • Kapila Vatsyayan, 'The Ramayana theme in the visual arts of South and Southeast Asia' in 'The Ramayana Revisited' (Ed. Mandakratna Bose), Oxford University Press, 2004, pp.335-54
  • K V Raman & T Padmaja, 'Rama traditions and temples in Tamil Nadu', in 'Indian Epic Values: Ramayaṇa and Its Impact Proceedings of the 8th International Ramayaṇa Conference, Leuven, 6-8 July 1991, (Ed.Gilbert Pollet), 1995, pp.81-8

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