Sunday, November 2, 2008

Narayaneeyam and the Lord of Guruvayur

THE FIFTEENTH century Manipravalam poem, Kokasandesam, is one of the earliest texts that refer to the temple of ‘Kuruvayur’ which later became one of the foremost pilgrim centres in Malabar region. It was the reign of Zamorins, who came to power in 12th century with the port city of Kozhikode as their capital, and Guruvayur was on the outer limits of his kingdom and was a strategic location where his forces often used as a transit point during their raids to the southern kingdoms.

The temple and its deity, Krishna, had become quite famous by the end 15th century and early 16th century. Bhakti poet Poonthanam and scholar-poet Melputhur Bhattathirippad were closely associated with the temple and some of the historical information we have on the early days of Guruvayur come from their writings. Poonthanam’s Jnanappana, one of the early Malayalam texts along with Cherusseri Namboodiri’s Krishnagatha and Ezhuthacchan's Adyatma Ramayanam, give us an insight into the development of the bhakti cult in deep-south which all over India had, by then, been spreading a renaissance culture with focus on the language of the common people, unlike the more Brahmanical Sanskrit which held sway in the classical ages. One of the interesting aspects about all three poets is that they belonged to the northern part of Kerala, Cherusseri hailing from a region under the Kottayam Rajah while Poonthanam and Ezhuthacchan lived in the Zamorin kingdom.

One of the specific mentions of the age and time is seen in Narayaneeyam, the great Sanskrit kavya by Melputhur, who ends his poem with a note on ayurarogyasoukhyam, a reference to a Kalidina number which translates into a date in late 16th century according to the Kollam Era that was popular in this region. Since there are references that both poets were contemporaries, we infer that Poonthanam and Melputhur lived in the kingdom of Zamorin in 16th century.

Narayaneeyam is a text that is more pedantic and scholarly, and according to legends the lord of Guruvayur himself had commented he preferred the bhakti of the poor Malayali Brahmin to the vibhakti of the Sanskrit scholar-poet. Surprisingly, we see that Melputhur always held sway in the temple town despite the deep bhakti that we encounter in Poonthanam.

There have been a few attempts to translate Narayaneeyam into Malayalam, one of the well known works being that of C V Vasudeva Bhattathiri. Recently I came across a new translation done in Dravidian metres, Neythiri, executed by Balendu. This is a commendable effort for a variety of reasons, first and foremost being the difficulty of rendering a popular text into our language without losing its musical and poetic elements. As I went through the text I found it was a beautiful rendering of Narayaneeyam in Malaylam and it deserves a better attention from Malayali reading public.

I had a talk with the poet, who hails from Elanhi in Ernakulam and now lives in Bangalore, on his work:

On the poet’s devotion and inspiration to work:

I am a believer in God as a source of Divine justice. More than any of the famous temples I like Gramadevatha. I like the epics as the best purposeful fiction. Krishna is my favourite character. I don’t consider Rama as very significant. I like Ramayanam. I went inside Guruvayur Temple only after writing Neythiri. I have “read” in few sapthahams just to read Bhagavatham.

On Narayaneeyam:

Till 1994 my only encounter with Narayaneeyam was through P.Leela’s rendering. I don’t know Sanskrit. I tried to read Narayaneeyam, but could not make much headway till I joined a group of devotees in 1999 in chanting sessions.

The musical quality attracted me the most. I loved the literary excellence too. As a spiritual work I think Jnaanappana is better.

Idea of translating:

It struck me like a blitzkrieg (October 2002). It was as a means of understanding Narayaneeyam better. My close relatives have always liked my translations. (I know six languages).

On other translations of Narayaneeyam into Malayalam:

I have seen a few translations. I did not see any that was worth talking about. Those which were in the sankrit vrithams had a lot of handicaps. I had seen only one like Neytthiri, in Dravida vrithams, but not before I had actually started mine. Well, I believe it is a sloppy work.

How long it took to complete the work:

Almost three years, from October 2002 to 25th July 2005. Spasmodic is the proper adjective for the process. Or rather like Punartham njatuvela.

What were the problems faced:

Mainly Pattery’s slesham. It is simply un-translatable.

Even Kumaran Asan had spoken about the limitations of our language:

I disagree. He was talking about language in general. Not about Malayalam specific, when he said, innu bhaashayithapoornnam.

As a translator how did you find these limitations:

My work is not exactly a translation. It is Narayaneeyam retold.

Where do you place Narayaneeyam:

Narayaniyam’s place is very high; should be at par with Bhagavatham and Ramayanam. But, it is in Sanskrit

Do you look at your own translation as a contribution to the rich tradition of devotional literature?

Well! Is it not better that I leave it for the readers to answer that. So far many (well known writers, spiritual gurus, and well read public) appreciated the work. Only three persons have pointed out mistakes. One is my wife, the two others had extremely good intentions.(Such good work should be spotless, they said.)

On Thunchan:

Thunchan is my inspiration. I believe Malayalam as a language has not progressed from where he had left it. His works are also punaraakhyaanams, not paribhasha.

What else did you do by way of original writing:

I have published six books for children. Three are collections of stories, two novels, one kuttikkavithakal. One of my stories is a lesson in 4th standard Malayalam text.

Details on the book:
Neythiri, Sahitya Manjari Publications, Onakkur, Ernakulam. Price: Rs.180.
Contact the poet:


chespeak said...

K Govindan Kutty writes:

very good. best wishes for balendu.

i have read narayaneeyam here and there, and found its yamakam etc quite interesting. i have seen many publications giving meaning
of each sloka. panmana rendered it into prose recently.

i began to get a different idea of narayaneeyam when i read kesadipadam slokas with the help of the elaborate elucidation given by b c balakrishnan.
mediocre poetry. contrived metaphor.

when experience is intense and sincere, it does not appear in such a contrived manner.
erudition and devotion are often bad companions.

chespeak said...

K Govindan Kutty writes:

there is a chapter of narayaneeyam popularized through the voice of p leela. i have heard it recited from
many temples. it dwells on a spritual fulfillment, vouchsafing a certain vision of divinity. divinity, naturally,
cannot avoid being human. as bhattatiri describes the shape of divinity from top to toe, his gaze rests on below the hip,and devotes a full four-line stanza to the praise is of the lord's thigh.

the description is pretty elaborate, the soft thigh,
the oily thigh and so on. the thigh is so sensuous(?) that the lord's consort covers it, at a point of time, so that it will
not tempt others. the stanza begins: OOROO CHAROO TAVOROO...

i am sure many of you have heard this stanza sonorously sung, duly amplified at the four gates of many temples.

it is supposed to inspire deep devotion, and strike a new note in poetic imagination. what is that supposed to mean?

if you break it down into comprehensible components,it may mean nothing much more than a verse on being gay.

i am yet to associate an acute interest in the thigh with poetry or spirituality. bhattatiri was a great vendor of words,
exploring new nuances of grammar but it was a good deal of lewd stuff. it was not probably the lord but a sensitive listener who anonymously declared that he would rather have the other poet's devotion than this poet's grammar.
yet we celebrate bhattatiri's thigh-fixation--and many other things--in temples. why?

the other doubt relates to another poem sang with gusto in krishna temples. nheralath rama poduval raised it to sublime heights.i picked up a copy of the work of this utkal poet of the thirteen century from a pavement in front
of a temple. it cost me fifteen rupees. well composed, rising in its effect when sung loudly, laden with what we may call alliterative abuse, enlisting buddha as one of the ten avataras, jayadeva's gitagovindam is a popular recital.
i do not know whether the whole of it is sung in temples or only some sections.

i have not read changampuzha's translation, though i am familiar with his rendering of the lines on the lord caressing the gopis' breasts. jayadeva had his wife padmavati dance to his tunes. it is a different matter that usually it is the other way
round. anyway, it will be useful to examine whether gitagovindam inspires piety or passion. we have been handed down a good deal of literature on the comparability of the union consummated in sex and the communion attained as spiritual bliss.

we may even accept it up to a point. my doubt erupted like a poisonous mushroom when i went to jayadeva's later parts.there he waxes eloquent, naturally with his alliterative obsession, on sex in a very physical, and less than usual, form.

he has a full stanza devoted to the glory of reverse sex. his term is vipareeta rati..

now, when that part of gitagovindam is sung, whether by a venerable nheralath or someone with a more sensuous voice,
whether in the portals of a temple or an unspiritual venue, it cannot inspire any emotion other than what jayadeva intends to
convey--if of course those who hear it know what they hear. why should that be reciteed , almost with a religious fervour,
in places where the visitors and the workers are committed to becoming less willing victims of their libido than elsewhere?
i suppose the answer is that it is sung because it has been sung for a long time.

another answer can be that more people sing it more often because they do not know what it is. interest in the thigh and
reverse sex can morph into spirituality and poetry when cloaked in the inaccessibility of sanskrit.i am not hazarding a conclusion, only raising a doubt in the form of an assertion.

chespeak said...

What makes me wonder is why Melpathur still holds sway? Go to Guruvayur and you are sure to notice it is Melpathur, the Sanskrti poet, much more than Poonthanam, who wrote in our own language, who has edge in the god's precincts even today.

Is it part of a cultural legacy of being subservient to a language which has always been the exclusive preserve of a small group of people, namely the Brahmin? Does it say something about our past, our history?

And by the way, why do we have to look at the descriptions in Melpathur or Jaydeva of rati, as lewd? Has rati been actually alien from culture in any time in our history except when decadence set in at various times, say for example, as a reaction to some real or perceived threat?

N P Chekkutty

chespeak said...

K Govindan Kutty replies:

yes, this melpathur needs a rude re-evaluation. the gentleman's hackneyed metaphor has been elevated to sublime poetry.shorn of its erudite figures of speech, his poetry may seem contrived.

mind you, he compares upanishads to sundaris, not the other way round. that was after he attained salvation in his own time. consider one figure of speech.
he likens the arch of the lord's foot to the archetypal tortoise which held up a sinking earth.

fifteen hundred years after that master of metaphor, kalidasa, for anyone to trot out such puerile figures of speech is a crime. for anyone to purvey it as sublime poetry is abetment.

all this atrocity became possible because sanskrit was held back from the people. that is a historic, also historical, blunder.

yes, poonthanam is such delight, sheer delight. because he is transaparent and immediate, our pundits have bundled him out of the gallery of greatness.i have often felt that one good thing k karunakaran has done is to quote
poonthanam in every conceivable context.


chespeak said...

K Satchidanandan writes:

Like all Indians who have read their literature and seen their temple art, I know that eros and devotion, the sacred and the profane, have gone hand in hand in the tradition we are dealing with here.Look at the erotic sculptures of Khajuraho or Konarak, which are not in Sanskrit and hence accessible to all.It is only the Hindu fundamentalists with their puritanism(rem.the attack on Husain's Saraswati, the criticism of the kiss episode,opposition to Valentine's day etc)-which strangely is a very Western attitude- who have begun to separate what used to be a non-dualistic approach to the spirit-body relationship. The bhaktas saw nothing obscene in Gitagovindam which is a deeply erotic text for many as, for them, it was all part of a larger spiritual whole where the body and its pleasures were no taboo. You find this also in a lot of secular writing as in Sangam love poetry and the Prakrit love poems like those collected in King Hala's Gathasaptasati.(beautifully rendered into English by Arvind Mahrotra in the book Absent Traveller.)Of course one can read these texts in secular ways,or homoerotic ways,(If one has read the anthologies of gay /lesbian writings in India, one can see a lot of legends and mythological tales- even that of the birth of Ayyappa or 'Hari-Hara' in what seems a gay relationship between Vishnu and Siva-also find their place there.)Let us not forget there is a whole tradition of erotic-devotional poetry in India, even outside these texts.(Where would you place Kalidasa's Kumarasambhavam, the 6th Sarga where the love-play between Siva and Paravati on the first night is described in lurid detail? And think too of Kamasutra supposed to have been written by a maharshi and other Indian treatises on sex.A Victorian puritanical approach is not going to help us understand/appreciate these texts that came from a society where the practices of the body were not opposed to the practices of the soul or 'the technologies of the self' -if you want a Foucauldian term- and Gods, eg, Krishna,or Siva, were skilled not only in performing miracles, but in the art of love too.


chespeak said...

K Satchidanandan writes:

Vallathol's well-known poem Bhaktiyum Vibhaktiyum is a critique of the false sophistication of Melpathoor and the simplicity and honesty of Poonthanam that their hero Krishna himself admires.Poonthanam and Cherussery-through Jnanappana and Krishnagatha- were two poets who shaped a new Malayalam idiom that was poetic and at the same time close to spoken language; they absorbed folk modes into their verse structures and even their vocabulary, thus making their idiom sweet and accessible.


chespeak said...

K Govindan Kutty replies;

thanks, satchidanandan, for your learned response. i have nothing against sex nor for its expression in art, or, even in religion.
in a new neuro-aesthetic approach, it may be possible to see delightful convergences.

what i wished to focus was one, the language of prayer, and two, physical details of love play
of the usual and not so usual kind. if certain sex slokas of the revered narayaneeyam
and gitagovindam were recited in a language people know, would they have contributed to the sense of salvation of the people who stand before the deity, hands folded and eyes closed and the lord's name on their lips? or would those naked slokas carried them to certain other planes of pleasure? are they not invoking a false sense of spirituality because they are cloaked in the obscurity of sanskrit?

the next step is to translate them into malayalam and recite equally sonorously.

i shudder to think of the result, though i do believe the language of prayer, which is a very
intimate act, should be a language in which one laughs and cries and screams.

i recall once seeing a short and unsophisticated man with curly hair and swarthy complexion in mookambika temple being asked to repeat an invocation, atoning for the murder of the brahmana.
the man who struggled to repeat it was hardly aware that he was making a confession of a crime he had not committed. translate that prayer into a language known to the
man who says it, and there would be screams of protest.
and those slokas of atonement and admission,
karmavipakaprayschitham karishyami...,
people are asked to recite when they perform the obituary rituals on the stone steps of nila at thirunavaya..

the same nila which you once found being auctioned in your
obituary to vailoppilli...

what would become of those sloka in sanskrit if translated into malayalam and recited for rituals?
karunanidhi once attempted translating some hymns for chanting
in temples under the government's control.
his minister in charge, thamizhkudimagan, was equally enthusiastic. i do not know what eventually came of it. some cynics made a fetish of it by introducing the names of the twosome in one or two temples: along with the lord's name, they also chanted:
muthuvel karunanidhiye potti
thamishkudimagane potti...


chespeak said...

K Satchidanandan writes:

Thanks,KGK,I understand your plea- if I have understood it rightly- for transparency in prayers.You may recall , in many Indian churches Latin has been replaced by the local language for the same reason- that the devotees were blindly repeating what the priest would chant.In fact one of the radical aspects of the Bhakti movement , as you know, was this shift from Sanskrit to the local languages and dialects -a shift with deep social implications, as it empowered the languages and freed them from the hegemony of Sanskrit with very positive literary-linguistic consequences ( Think of all the Bhasha Ramayanas, and the later secular poetry that emerged in the languages of India). I cannot predict how would the pious respond to a Gitagovinda sloka in Malayalam,(we do have the ashtapadi singing in the sopana tradition though in Sanskrit) but Malayalam is not without its own little erotic tradition as in the Venmani poets-that some times went beyond the erotic to the pornographic.Kesadipadavarnanam is common to the Indian Saguna Bhakti tradition: not in the Nirguna tradition- we do not find a Kabir or the Sufis describing the body of God as their gods had no body or gunas.In short I suspect when the body is part of the description , whether in devotional poetry or secular poetry, no organ is spared!