Tag Archives: hanuman

Suvarnamaccha

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There is a limestone isthmus between two tiny islands – Rameshwaram and Mannar – that once connected the Indian peninsula and Sri Lanka, by foot and for half a century even by rail. No bridge, made by nature, by people or by their machines, has been able to remain standing, holding these two points together. Cyclones, such as the 1964 one which turned Dhanushkodi in Tamil Nadu’s far south into the ghost town and another one dated to 1480, have overwhelmed every attempt with a watery erasure.

There happen to be dugongs in these waters – those gentle, sea grass-grazing creatures which many believe led centuries of cabin-fevered seafarers to experience visions of mermaids.

Many Ramayanas recount the episode in which Hanuman and his army of vanaras, men and god-kings (and at least one squirrel) build a bridge of boulders to Lanka, and some believe that this isthmus was the result of this endeavour. In certain Ramayanas, particularly those that come from South East Asia, the marauding army finds its constructions sabotaged. Each day, the bridge extends through their labour, cutting further into the sea and closer to the other side. Each night, it retracts. Hanuman watches closely and discovers a bevy of mermaids removing the boulders by darkness, working as efficiently as his own legion. They are led by Suvarnamaccha, whose name contains the words for “gold” and “fish”. She is impossible to look away from – everything about her, from her commanding presence to the alluring curve of her caudal fin, dazzles. It is clear that this waters are her dominion. She refuses to engage with him. Until she does.

What begins as a bureaucratic quarrel becomes love, or something like it. Suvarnamaccha notices how gorgeous the opponent is; Hanuman registers her desire, and with it, his own. There is a wildness in both of them, humming within their human consciousness, and which they each recognize in the other. Suvarnamaccha calls her army of fish-tailed women away from their task. The bridge is completed, and prepares to bear the weight of Hanuman’s legion as they cross the sea to arrive in Lanka, in search of a kidnapped queen. When Hanuman asks her why the mermaids had kept dismantling the bridge, Suvarnamaccha tells him that she is a daughter of Ravana, the kidnapper king who has more faces than a hall of mirrors.

This brings me to an interlude, and to a merging of tellings. This is what I imagine Suvarnamaccha did for her sister, in the renditions of the epic in which incest becomes the knotty underside of the embroidery. That sister (this is a kinship that is not necessarily consanguine) was the one whose mother was Ravana’s chief consort Mandodari. I imagine Mandodari somewhere in the innermost chambers of her palace, giving birth as silently and secretly as she can. She had meant to end her life when she consumed the grail of milk-mingled blood from a chthonic sacrifice; instead, she had become pregnant with a progeny cursed to bring about the king’s downfall. I imagine Mandodari walking alone to the shore, where she sets her newborn into a lined basket and lowers it into the water with a prayer. There is nowhere on this island that her daughter will not be found, and killed. The baby-bearing basket is swept into the currents. I imagine Suvarnamaccha coaxing the tides with her tail, gently leading her sister to a land where she will be discovered, and named by the king who would become her father as Sita.

Let us return to Suvarnamaccha who becomes pregnant too, later in this mythos, entwined underwater with the charming and devastating Hanuman.

Did he love her? When we consider how myths have been recorded across millennia, it becomes clear how rarely the question gets asked. And how much less frequently the answer has mattered to those who tell this story, or many like it.

In the South East Asian Ramayanas, Thai and Khmer among them, Hanuman is far from the celibate that most Hindu traditions hold him to be (but there is a Suvarchala, whose mother was shadow and father was sun, with whom he had a sexless marriage, as enshrined in a temple in Telangana). Jain beliefs also name among his wives Anangakusuma and Lankasundari.

His lovers and spouses are numerous, and he has at least one other child who is part-piscine, though born through stranger means. Upon burning Lanka – some time after leaving Suvarnamaccha – Hanuman plunges into the sea to cool his own flaming body, and a drop of his perspiration falls into the mouth of an unnamed makara, a mythical sea creature that itself is part-aquatic and part-terrestrial. Makardhwaja is cut out of his mother’s belly when she is caught by fishers in Patala-lokam, the netherworld, and becomes a warrior.

In the separate stories of Macchanu and Makardhwaja, they both meet their father – they both battle him, knowing or not knowing their lineage but bound by loyalties far more meaningful than blood. But what becomes of their mothers, or the memory of them? Does Makardhwaja ever learn his mother’s name, the one who became entangled in a net and was sliced open for meat? Does Macchanu ever visit the gulf of his birth, to meet Suvarnamaccha somewhere in its depths and swirl with her in her realm? Surely she is there, in some configuration of a story made of water, and therefore unable to be razed by fire: golden-tailed and ageless, the sunlight glinting on her scales when she surfaces from time to time out of the sea that carries the sky’s reflection, and peers up at the clouds to see if she can catch a glimpse of another tail – simian, strong and ever so slightly charred.

An edited version was published in The Indian Express’ Diwali 2019 special edition.

The Venus Flytrap: Forgotten Wives

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The sudden thunderstorm that had broken over Srikalahasti the previous afternoon didn’t come back with us. Driving down a highway still bemirrored with mirages, I contemplated it with pleasure: a storm with neither aftermath nor announcement, one too stubborn to be tamed or tempted home. Nothing in the landscape showed how it had come and gone. The heatwave slipped me into a nap, waking to the sound of directions being asked for. At a point just before where the Arani river flows from Andhra Pradesh into Tamil Nadu – but how would you know except if you looked on a map, proving again how borders are arbitrary? – the village of Surutapalli stakes its place. An intoxicated Shiva had fallen asleep here, having tasted some of the halahala arrested in his throat. People come to see him in slumber, but stranger still to me was the alcove in which Dakshinamurthy sat. South-facing and tree-canopied here as elsewhere, except with one unusual element: on his left thigh, his wife.

I asked the priest for her name, and it was Gowri. Supplicants approach the couple from the west, and both their faces tilt toward the same. She without complete mythology, known only as consort. How marvellous sometimes to learn, how much more marvellous at other times to imagine.

As I dive deeper into a book I’m writing about mermaids (specifically, about the lost and little-known) I find that I have unexpected company from another book finished long ago, which had its origins in the Ramayana. Hanuman, that god who has a bit of the trickster in him, which somehow makes his loyalty even deeper. He is usually understood as celibate, but in South East Asian renditions of the epic, his partner is Suvannamaccha, whose name means “golden fish”. Each morning as they attempted to build the bridge to Lanka, the vanara army found their work had been destroyed, the rocks returned to the sea. One night, they discovered the mermaids dismantling it. Their leader was the lovely Suvannamaccha, whose father was Ravana. She and Hanuman must part almost as quickly as they fell in love, but their child is yet another hybrid: fish-tailed, simian-faced.

Then there are Ganesha’s three wives: Riddhi, Siddhi and Buddhi. Here, we like to think of him as the child, Pillaiyar. But even when depicted as a spouse in North India, he’s shown with only two of his own. But which two?

The worlds of both gods and men are full of forgotten wives.

As I put the finishing touches to this column, the almost-full moon is mottled by clouds. There is the odd coruscation of lightning. Rain is coming after all, but in its own time – who knows if it heeded my invitation or only its own whims? And I remember another forgotten consort: the Rig-Vedic agricultural goddess Sita’s husband Parjanya, lord of rain. Before Rama, there was rain. I think of an adorable stone tablet in that temple in Surutapalli, of the footprints of the exiled queen Sita’s children, water collecting mysteriously in the indentations of baby toes.

May all that needs quenching in us – our thirsts, our desires, our curiosities – be quenched.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 11th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Handful Of Syncretism

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In June of 2008, when Barack Obama was still a presidential hopeful, TIME Magazine published a photograph in which, palm over palm, the candidate held a mélange of metal trinkets. The magazine called them his “lucky charms”, and they included an open bangle that had belonged to a US soldier in Iraq, an icon of the Madonna and child, and a tiny statuette of Hanuman.

            As his two-term tenure as President of the United States comes to end, Obama emptied out his pockets again for a special interview on Youtube. As was widely reported in the Indian press, the monkey god figurine is one he still carries everywhere. I remembered this from 2008; that had been the year that Hanuman had become a vivid presence in my own life, and indeed was the emissary through whom I befriended my muse of many years, Sita. But the tone of the recent coverage bothered me.

            These are the talismans that Obama chose to display during that video interview: a gift of rosary beads from Pope Francis, with a pendant of Christ on the cross; a shiny poker chip that a burly biker gave him while he was on the campaign trail prior to his first election; an Ethiopian Coptic cross, origin mysterious; a Buddha statuette, a monk’s present; and, of course, the Hanuman, given to him by ‘a woman’.

            Taken together, these amulets are a handful of syncretism. Gifts given to a leader as totems perhaps of blessing and protection but more importantly, of responsibility. He carries them on his person the way auto-drivers paste Ganesha-Jesus-mosque stickers on their front windows or on their handlebar cabins. One trinket on its own would only be a personal fetish, but a collection amounts to much more, symbolically and otherwise. And in the current national climate, there’s something just a little saddening about the media focus on that Hanuman statuette. The Buddha too, lest we forget, is just as Indian in origin. Those rosary beads are a part of the worship of millions of citizens. And what, since we’re jousting, could be more secular than a poker chip, representative of the gamble each of us takes on life, every single day?

            Obama may or may not attach spiritual significance to the talismans he carries – and it is his prerogative to discuss this or not. But what he certainly shares openly is that each of these objects was given to him by a specific person – a pope, a monk, an undescribed woman – and reaching for them reminds him of his commitment to people. How successful he has been at this commitment and whether he has acted on it meaningfully in his time in power is a matter of argument. But the least there is to learn here is that one must believe one can do more than try. And when we seek to touch the divine, by any name we call it, let us not overlook that among its marvellous, and certainly, imitable qualities is the one known (not without basis) as ‘humanity’.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 21st. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.