Personalities: Kavichakravarthi Kamban

cover pic, Kamba Ramayanam, Dr. H. V Hande [2].

After having the privilege of publishing this sublime essay on Andal Devi, it is only appropriate to devote this post to Kamban, the emperor of poetry and devotee of Nammalwar.

Background

Kamban was born in Thiruvazhundur in the Thanjavur area of the Chola kingdom. Multiple scholars and historians place him in the 9th century CE, while others trace Kamban to the 12th-13th century CE. A 9th century birth may locate Kamban after Adi Sankara and before Sri Ramanujacharya, while the latter date places him after the two great Acharyas. In any event, Kamban belongs to the third great wave of Tamizh literature that started with the Sangam period (dated before the Common Era), followed by the widespread impact of Bhakti literature of the Alwars and Nayanmars between the 6th-9th century CE [4] (noting that many trace the start of the Alwars to a few thousand years ago or to the early part of the 1st millennium). The are many popular stories about how Kamban got his name. It has been mentioned that Kamban’s father, Athavan was a priest, although some claim that he was a temple drummer. Growing up within a temple environment would have aided his learning of Hindu scriptures and contributed to his expertise in both Sanskrit and Tamizh. It is known without doubt that his patron was Sadayappan Vallal (possibly a landlord or chieftain) of Thiruvennainallur as he is acknowledged several times in Kamban’s works. Kamban was a devotee of Nammalwar and his Kula Deivam (family deity) was Sri Narasimha. It is said that he finalized his Ramavataram Mahakavyam in Srirangam and presented the கம்ப ராமாயணம் to the world. The story of how this divine poem came about is a quintessentially Indian one.

There were other literary luminaries in the Kamban era include Ottakuttan and Pugazhendi. The story [3] goes that Ottakuttan, a poet in the Chola court was a noted critic of poetry and a master of the prevailing norms of grammar, syntax, and prosody. None were able to challenge this ‘tyranny’ until Kamban emerged as a literary rival whose brilliance would transcend prevailing conventions. Kamban soon established himself as the leading poet in the royal court. Both poets were challenged with the task of putting the Ramayana to Tamizh verse. The days went by and Ottakuttan worked away industriously while Kamban appeared to be taking his own sweet time to get started.

One day, the King queried them about their progress and Kamban’s response was that he was now working on the Rama Setu story. Ottakuttan felt that this was impossible and challenged him to recite a verse from that portion, which Kamban did. Did Kamban’s genius produce that beautiful verse impromptu to stun the listeners, or was the entire Ramayana embedded in Kamban’s consciousness all the time? In any case, Ottakuttan challenged the use of the word ‘thumi’ for ‘droplet’ instead of ‘thuli’. Kamban’s response was that it was part of popular usage. To verify Kamban’s claim, the trio traveled to the town where they saw and heard a shepherd maid churning curd using ‘thumi’ to refer to a drop of curd, and vanish thereafter. Was ‘thumi’ already part of popular usage, or did, as Ottakuttan felt, Mother Saraswati arrive in the guise of a shepherd maid to support Kamban’s invention and protect the sacred work that he would soon be gifting to the world?

The legend has a beautiful ending. A frustrated Ottakuttan tore up his grammatically and syntactically perfect work. How could one hope to compete with Devi Saraswati’s son? Kamban arrives at Ottakuttan’s house to find his ‘Uttara Ramayanam’ intact. He gets Ottakuttan’s permission to include it as the final canto of his work. Their diverse literary approaches are harmonized, and this Tamizh unity dissolves any rivalry to serve the higher cause of dharma. Scholars mention that in addition to Valimiki’s Ramayana, Kalidasa’s Raghuvamsa may have been the other Sanskrit source studied by Kamban to compose his masterpiece. Thus Kamban’s Ramavataram also embodies the unity of Sanskrit and Tamizh Kaviyam [5].

“Kamba Ramayanam was composed by him about the eight hundred and eighties and according to the procedure of those days was recited by him for approval to an audience of the literary elite — a sort of Academy of Letters — assembled in Srirangam in the month of Panguni (March-April) of the year 807 of the Salivahana Sakabda (885 a.d.) on the full-moon day when the star Uttaram was in the ascendant.” [4].

Kamba Ramyanam Mandapam. credit for pic: thehindu.com

The original Ramavataram [1] contains more than 10,000 verses (40,000 lines) and is divided into six Kandams that are further subdivided into several padalams.

  • Bala Kandam
  • Ayodhya Kandam
  • Aranya Kandam
  • Kishkinda Kandam
  • Sundara Kandam
  • Yuddha Kandam

The composition uses nearly 100 variations of Tamizh metres: Kali, Viruttum, and Turai [5]. Kamban’s composition ends with the return of Sri Rama and Devi Sita to Ayodhya after the victory over Ravana. It occupies the pride of place in Tamizh poetry and literature, and influenced Tamizh, Indian, and Asian art, aesthetics, and literature over centuries. For this monumental contribution, Kamban is rightly hailed as Kavichakravarthi, the emperor of poetry.

This brief post merely recalls some findings of many great Indian scholars of Sanskrit and Tamizh who immersed themselves in Kamban’s Ramavataram for decades.

Achievements

At least four other works have been attributed to Kamban including Saraswati Antadi, Sadagopar Antadi, Silaiyezhupathu, and Aerezhupathu. Not surprisingly, his Ramayanam overshadows these contributions and the remainder of the post focuses on this work.

Indic scholars have noted the importance of context in the literary works of India [7]. Kavyas were not secular poem fragments written in a top-down manner for ivory-tower intellectuals like it is in Europe. Kavyas are extraordinary multi-layered integral works that transcend the mundane and resonate with a variety of audiences [2], and the Kamba Ramayanam has to be viewed in this context. By the 9th century, Sri Ramachandra Murthi and Mother Sita of Adikavi Valmiki were beloved deities of the Tamizhs and all of India and parts of Asia. They are mentioned with reverence in Tamizh literature right from the ancient Silapatikaram and Manimekalai. Songs composed by Alwar Saints further elevated their place in the minds of the ordinary Tamizh.  It would appear that Tamizh literature had already reached its peak. However, Kamban took Tamizh to a different level.

It appeared as if all the potentialities of the language had been thoroughly exploited before Kamban’s arrival. But, in spite of these handicaps, Kamban’s genius gave to the language fresh powers of articulation and made it serve the pure perfection of poetry… whose intense poetic genius broke the accepted moulds of grammar and who invented patterns of verbal harmonics which far transcended the conventional scales..”  – S. Maharajan.

The Ramavataram Mahakavyam is first and foremost a work of dharma. Starting from the latter half of the 9th century and until the 13th century, the Tamizhs were at the peak of their economic, cultural, and military prosperity during the long rule of the great Chola dynasty. The vast ocean space around the east coast of India, Sri Lanka, and South East Asia were coming under Tamizh suzerainty. Commentator and author A. S. Gnanasambandan’s views [6, 8] suggest that an unbridled material and artistic progress also brought along undesirable behavioral changes across the society, from king to commoner. Sita Devi was always the epitome of virtue and an exemplar for women and queens. Kamban’s work reinforced the need for kings and men to look up to Rama’s conduct and emulate Sri Ramachandra who was devoted only to Sita Devi. More generally, an excessive focus on Artha and Kama in the society has to be moderated by re-emphasizing Dharma and Moksha. A dry Tamizh translation of Sage Valmiki’s Sanskrit kavya was unlikely to produce the impact required to stir and elevate the consciousness of a people. Just as Mahavishnu’s avatar descends down to earth from time to time in diverse forms to restore dharma, so too, it seems, will the transcendental Kavya of Ramayana be recreated with Shraddha and retold for the spiritual benefit of many generations.

Kamban’s Kosala leaps out of the pages as they depict his vision of a dharmic Tamizh land; the king was guided by dharma; women were blessed with wealth and lasting education; everyone was a scholar there; the country was prosperous and its people were generous, and beautiful because their external beauty mirrored their inner culture. “The people of Kosala did not live illusory lives” – H.V. Hande [2]. As India makes rapid material progress in the 21st century, it becomes doubly important to not lose its dharmic mooring. Tamil Nadu needs Kamba Ramayanam today more than ever.

Ramavataram is not a translation of Valmiki Ramayana. Indeed, all the great poet-saints of India knew the ineffectiveness and loss in transmission that occurs when we try to translate prior works across languages [4]. This is especially true of Sanskrit kavyas, which are rich in dharmic non-translatable keywords [7].  Kamban’s work is an original masterpiece that is full of Rama Bhakti. It is built on and celebrates Rishi Valmiki’s work in Sanskrit, the devabhasha. Kamban’s Tamizh are the blessings of Mother Saraswati and therefore it is not surprising that a true seeker will be able to find embedded within its exquisite Tamizh, the nuanced concepts of enlightenment, the purusharthas and the wisdom of the Upanishads.

“[Kamban] has not merely taken his theme from the greatest of Samskrit epics but has followed it in almost every detail step by step. He has himself challenged comparison, though in all humility, with the first of Samskrit poets, and yet not one of the critics who have compared his work with that of Valmiki has ever denied him place among the greatest poets of the world. It is now for the larger critical audience of India and of the rest of the world to appraise Kamban’s work and adjudge to him his proper place among the sons of Saraswati.” – V Venkatesa Subramanya Iyer [4].

How does Kamban himself view his work and Sage Valmiki’s? Kamban’s preface verses translated below reveal the humility and Shraddha with which an enlightened master like Kamban approached the Ramayana in order to compose his own verses.

My efforts to narrate the story of the flawless and victorious Rama can be compared to the efforts of a cat reaching the roaring ocean of milk and trying to drink it all up. Rama’s arrows are as infallible as the curse of the learned. The history of this great Rama was written by Sage Valmeeki. While his poem has been widely acclaimed as the best in the country, I, the humblest of the humble, have dared to compose my own verses. In spite of the worldly humiliation that I might suffer and the consequent blemish that I might attract, if I have composed these verses, it is solely because of my earnest desire to show to the world the greatness of the divine poem composed by Valmeeki, who has mastered the art of flawless poetic creation.”- H. V. Hande [2].

The entire cosmos joyfully and vividly participates in the Kamba Ramayanam. The very first verse contains a profound exposition of the Hindu dharmic worldview, invoking and surrendering to god (as cosmos and human) who in an endless divine play creates and resides in the universe, protects, and dissolves it. Popular commentator Suki Sivam notes here that Kamban does not use the word ‘padaitthal’ that would indicate an external agency, but the phrase ‘thaam ula aakkalum’ that is consistent with Vedic cosmology.

உலகம் யாவையும் தாம் உள ஆக்கலும்
நிலை பெறுத்தலும் நீக்கலும் நீங்கலா
அலகு இலா விளையாட்டு உடையார் அவர்
தலைவர் அன்னவர்க்கே சரண் நாங்களே  -[1]

This profound concept is discussed in different ways in various Kandams. For example, the responses of Rama are so human at times that it initially puzzles others.  In the Yuddha Kandam, upon seeing the seemingly lifeless body of Ilakkuvan (Lakshmana) on the battlefield, Rama becomes agitated and overcome by a sense of failure and grief; he is rendered speechless and swoons. The Devas are distraught after witnessing this scene. Their response as they unravel this puzzle enlightens the listeners about god’s divine game (leelai) and the nature of ultimate reality.

அண்டம் பலவும்; அனைத்து உயிரும்,
அகத்தும் புறத்தும் உள ஆக்கி,
உண்டும் உமிழ்ந்தும், அளந்து இடந்தும்,
உள்ளும் புறத்தும் உளை ஆகிக்
கொண்டு, சிலம்பிதன் வாயின்
நூலால் இயையக் கூடு இயற்றி,
பண்டும் இன்றும் அமைக்கின்ற
படியை ஒருவாய் பரமேட்டி!

… [1]

O Lord Vishnu, you had swallowed all the worlds and all beings and brought
them out later. You had kept them within and without, measured them, dug them out
and remained in and out of them. You emulate the spider which spins its web with
a thin thread produced from its mouth. You keep on indulging in these acts
perennially. O Lord, sorrow really never overtakes you. Your sufferings are only
your pleasant pranks! To those who do not understand all this, your sufferings will
cause agony which can be relieved only at your will. You have no beginning, middle
or end. You appear as if you can be discerned by one’s senses, but in reality it is not
so…” – translation [2].

Kamban’s use of the spider web metaphor brings home a fundamental Vedantic principle: “there is one Ultimate Reality that is Supreme Consciousness and that there is nothing independent of this reality. This Ultimate Reality is the raw material that turns itself into the universe…” – Rajiv Malhotra. Seers and Swadeshi scholars have used this metaphor for Ishwara or Brahman as the material as well as efficient cause of the universe [7].

Unless one is touched by the bliss of Rama Bhakti and realizes these truths in Kamban’s work, merely intellectualizing the Ramavataram, limiting its contribution to literary wizardry, or pulling verses out of context to prove the superiority or inferiority of some Sampradaya or language is an exercise in futility. The Ramayana is not just a socio-political text as seen by the materialist lens of western academia, but an integral, transmundane “magnificent work that is aligned to the ultimate purpose of life” [9].

Some favorite verses of the Tamizhs

A Verse from the Ayodhya Kandam

Kamban finds it impossible to express the infinite beauty and grace of Rama in a limited number of verses and expresses his anguish at this limitation [6].

வெய்யோன் ஒளி தன்மேனியில் விரிசோதியின் மறையப்

பொய்யோ எனும் இடையாளொடும் இளையானொடும், போனான்-

“மையோ, மரகதமோ, மறிகடலோ, மழை முகிலோ,

ஐயோ, இவன் வடிவு!” என்பதோர் அழியா அழகு உடையான்.  [1]

“Maiyyo, Maragathamo, Marikadalo, Mazhai Muhilo, Aiyyoo… ivan vaidivu!” – Is the dark Rama like the Mai (kohl) or the solid emerald, the ocean waves, or the dark vaporous clouds, alas, … no element in nature can completely express his beauty.

Hanuman’s first words to Rama after returning from Lanka.

Mihai Paadal

Over time, many extraneous verses (about 2000) crept into the Ramavataram, and were later considered to be ‘Mihai Paadal’. Many of these verses are beautiful in their own right, such as this description of a key character of the Ramayana that is recited to this day in many Tamizh households. The simple and pleasant task of identifying this powerful deity is left to the reader.

அஞ்சிலே ஒன்று பெற்றான், அஞ்சிலே ஒன்றைத் தாவி
அஞ்சிலே ஒன்று ஆறு ஆக ஆரியர்காக ஏகி
அஞ்சிலே ஒன்று பெற்ற அணங்கைக் கண்டு அயலார் ஊரில்
அஞ்சிலே ஒன்றை வைத்தான் அவன் நம்மை அளித்துக் காப்பான்

He who was born from one of the five crossed over one of the five

and made a path through one of the five for the noble prince (Arya)

to the city and find the one who was born from one of the five

where he ‘let loose’/’set’ one of the five. He will always protect us.

Legacy

Kamban’s profound and exquisite verses naturally produced several generations of commentators and Tamizh scholars. It is said in Tamizh that even an inanimate object in Kamban’s house can recite poetry! Thousand years later, he inspired scholar-warriors from Tamil Nadu to selflessly participate in the Indian freedom movement of the 20th century. There have been many Ramayana works in Tamizh before and after, but it is Kamba Ramayanam and its lessons of dharma, karuna, prema, achara, and Bhakti that has remained in the Tamizh consciousness.

1910. Freedom fighter V. Venkatesa Subramanya Aiyar is in a London hotel, being tracked by the British police for his involvement in revolutionary activities aimed at overthrowing the colonial British Raj. To make a quick night escape to Amsterdam, he abandons most belongings, taking only the bare essentials. This includes a copy of the Kamba Ramayanam, a work he would later write a brilliant commentary on. -[4].

Kamban’s influence on Tamizh art and literature lasts to this day. The lyrical beauty of his verses, as well as the underlying Hindu cosmology are discussed. Reciting the verses from Kamba Ramayanam or a discourse is an art form that can be pleasing to the ear and spiritually healing and remains popular among diverse audiences from Madurai to San Jose, California, to Sydney, Australia.

Quotes

“[Kamban] has been adjudged by his contemporaries, no mean judges of poetry, as the Emperor of the Realms of Poesy — a title which every succeeding generation in the Tamil country has been but confirming ever since.” – V Venkatesa Suramanya Iyer [4].

with the birth of Kamba Ramayana the whole future of Tamil poetry was altered, and this masterpiece has been exercising the most profound impact upon the poetic sensibility of the Tamils during the last eleven centuries. A long series of learned men have been thrilling the masses, from the time of Kamban down to our own, with recitations from, and exposition of the Kamba Ramayana.”. – S. Maharajan [3].

Influence on Art and Culture

Dr R. Nagaswamy has studied Kamban’s impact on Indian sculpture from the 10th century CE [5]: “his picturisation of Hanuman as the very incarnation of Vinaya, is a noteworthy feature of Kamban in his Tamil Ramayana. That this picturisation of Hanuman is found in all bronzes of 10th and 11th century A.D. shows the impact of Kamban’s concept of Hanuman on contemporary art and religious motifs. This also indicates that Kamban should have lived in 9th century A.D.

Tholpavakoothu, the shadow-puppet play enacted in a few Kali temples in the Palakkadu District of Kerala is based on characters from the Ramayana, using the Kamba Ramayanam text as the basis for the performance. Similarly, the Nang Yai/Nang Talung shadow puppetry art of Thailand also includes scenes from the Thai Ramayana (Ramakien) that may have been influenced by Kamban’s work. One can also find the influence of Kamban’s work in Sinhala literature of the 19th century [5].

Tholpava koothu shadow puppet Ramayana show (21).jpg
Tholpavakoothu. By Suyash Dwivedi Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Kamban’s mastery over simile, metaphor, and delightful alliteration has left generations in awe. For example, in the Kishkinda Kandam, popular speaker Suki Sivam mentions how the words literally bound, leap, and skip inside a joyous Anjaneya as he announces the arrival of  Rama and Lakshmana to King Sugriva after his first meeting with the brothers.

மண் உளார், விண்ணுளார்,
மாறு உளார், வேறு உளார்,
எண் உளார், இயலுளார்,
இசை உளார், திசை உளார்
கண் உளார் ஆயினார்;
பகை உளார், கழிநெடும்
புண் உளார் ஆருயிர்க்கு
அமிழ்தமே போல் உளார்…[1]

Kamban’s Tamizh, like an intricately carved kovil, is an aesthetic delight that a superficial reader can get lost in, and thereby miss out on a darisanam of Sri Ramachandra Murthi, a primary purpose of Ramavataram [6]. For example, a most talked-about ‘annalum nokkinaan, avalum nokkinaal’ verse in popular culture occurs in the Bala Kandam, vividly describing the meeting of the eyes and hearts of Sri Rama and Mother Sita in Mithila before the Sita-Rama Kalyanam. This and a few other events in the Ramavataram are not part of the Valmiki Ramayana but are included in the later 16th century Awadhi epic Ramacharitamanas of Sant Goswami Tulsidas.

எண் அரும் நலத்தினாள்
இனையள் நின்றுழி,
கண்ணொடு கண் இணை
கவ்வி, ஒன்றை ஒன்று
உண்ணவும், நிலை பெறாது
உணர்வும் ஒன்றிட,
அண்ணலும் நோக்கினான்!
அவளும் நோக்கினாள். [1]

This is not the materialistic “love at first sight” of Indian movies and teen novels. The verses are full of Sringara, and ultimately  subordinated to the highest Vedic truth. Kamban draws in the listener, and the verses gradually transform and elevate their consciousness into successively higher realms, beyond sensory gratification and aesthetic delight, and finally, the transcendental nature of that meeting can be realized. This is a divine, cosmic reunion of Mahavishnu and Mahalakshmi [6].

மருங்கு இலா நங்கையும்,
வசை இல் ஐயனும்,
ஒருங்கிய இரண்டு உடற்கு
உயிர் ஒன்று ஆயினார்,
கருங் கடல் பள்ளியில்
கலவி நீங்கிப் போய்ப்
பிரிந்தவர் கூடினால்,
பேசல் வேண்டுமோ. [1]

Multiple traditions in Tamil Nadu are attributed to the influence of the Ramayanam. After the victory over Ravana, Anjaneya is sent by Sri Rama to share the news with Mother Sita. It is said that even the most powerful and wise Hanuman was rendered speechless in his happiness and wrote ‘ஸ்ரீராமஜெயம்’ (Sri Rama Jayam) on the ground to convey the news of Rama’s victory to Mother Sita. To this day, many Tamizhs continue the practice of writing this sacred phrase several times in their notebooks. Upon hearing this news, Sitamma realized that she had no precious jewels to reward Hanuman; instead she plucked and presented some betel leaves to Hanuman, and this tradition continues to this day in the form of offering betel leaf garlands to Anjaneya Swami. The Sundara Kandam that describes the successful quest of Hanuman to locate Mother Sita has a special place in all our hearts and reciting it properly with devotion is of great benefit. As long as Kamba Ramayanam is recited, discussed, and listened to with Shraddha, Tamizh and dharma will never die in Tamil Nadu.

pic credit: www.dattapeetham.org
References

[1] கம்ப ராமாயணம். Kambar. Pustaka Digital Media. 2016.

[2] Kamba Ramayanam: An English Prose Rendering. Dr. H. V. Hande. Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1996.

[3] Makers of Indian Literature: Kamban. S. Maharajan. Sahitya Akademi, 1972.

[4] Kamba Ramayanam – A Study. With Translations in Verse or Poetic Prose of Over Four of the Original Poems. Varaganeri Venkatesa Subramanya Aiyar. Delhi Tamil Sangam. 1950.

[5] The Ramayana Tradition in Asia. Papers presented at the International Seminar on The Ramayana Tradition in Asia. New Delhi. Edited by V. Raghavan. Sahitya Akademi. 1980.

[6] Kamba Ramayanam. Tamil Discourse by Sri Suki Sivam. Madurai. Circa 2001.

[7] Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism. Rajiv Malhotra. Harper Collins. 2011.

[8] A Reliable Guide to Kamban: Review of ‘Kamban—Putiya Parvai’ (Critical Study in Tamil) by A.S. Gnanasambandan. Prema Nandakumar. Indian Literature, vol. 29 (5). 1986.

[9] Reclaiming Ramayana: Disentangling the Discourses (Reclaiming Sanskrit Series Book 3). Manjushree Hegde. Infinity Foundation India.  2018.

Acknowledgments

Thanks to TCP and ICP authors and editor for their invaluable feedback.

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