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'Youth: The Balakandam of Kampan’s Ramayana' book review: Beyond kings and sages

An engaging and insightful translation, even for those familiar with multiple versions of Rama’s story

Published: 19th June 2022 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 18th June 2022 07:51 PM   |  A+A-

Youth: The Balakandam of Kampan’s Ramayana

Youth: The Balakandam of Kampan’s Ramayana

Express News Service

In the Tamil epic Ramavataram, the 12th-century poet Kampan lists the various emperors attending Rama and Sita’s weddings. Along with the Cholas, Marathas, and Sindhis, there are also Chinese and Muslim kings! This is one of the many instances where Kampan’s work diverges from Valmiki’s Ramayana, on which it is based.

Blake Wentworth, who has translated the epic’s first section Balakandam into English as Youth, writes: “Kampan was the first to compose a Ramayana in an Indian vernacular... If the poem is not read with the Tamil political landscape in mind, we cannot appreciate all that Kampan achieved.”

He notes that the text was so influential that it transcended religious lines, serving as a model for Muslim poet Umaruppulavar’s 17th-century epic Cirappuranam (The Prophet’s Holy Life). While stories from the Ramayana have permeated pop-culture through folk retellings, plays, TV, schoolbooks, etc., reading source texts is a remarkably different experience. Besides, as a North Indian, I have mostly encountered Valmiki and Tulsidas’ versions of the epic, so Kampan’s rendition is a revelation.

The epic’s first section is as much about the common folk and landscapes as the Ramayana’s protagonists or mythological tales. It begins with a rhapsody on Kosala kingdom’s rural idyll, where fertile fields, fresh produce, ponds, vegetation, and animals abound.

An account of Ayodhya’s grandeur follows: its “soaring mansions and turrets that scrape the clouds”, “golden walls higher than a snowy mountain range, firm as the truth”, and residents with “blooming smiles” and “endless joy”. Reading between these hyperbolic lines gives insights into how people lived, the land they inhabited, what they ate, and what they idealised.

Kampan’s utopia is remarkably egalitarian. “Since no one is singled out as unlearned,” he writes, “there are no masters of knowledge, and no one there to judge them. Since everyone possesses every treasured wealth no one goes without, and there is no class of owners.” Yet, this egalitarianism does not extend to women. “Is there anything more foolish than a woman, sweet words like ambrosia, long eyes like poison?” he declares. He does not laud Ayodhya’s citizens as brave and truthful.

Instead, he says, “No enemies challenge the land in war, so bravery is never clear, lies are never told, so the value of truth is never plain.” Kampan’s metaphors are equally elaborate and interesting. He claims that in the land of Videha, women’s eyes resemble fish, prompting herons to peck at their reflections as they pluck weeds in flooded rice fields. His descriptions are often lush with sexuality. He compares dancers’ breasts to “soaring peaks which press so close together they could crush a single thread” and women’s “love-mounds” to cobras’ hoods and chariot daises.

There are elaborate accounts of lovers courting, making love, fighting, drinking toddy, and having a good time getting high. Amid the sundry descriptions, plot points like the wedding of Rama and Sita, slaying of the demon Tataka, Rama turning the cursed Ahalya from stone to flesh, and Parashu Rama testing Rama’s strength seem like interludes. But these are no less evocative. In the Balakandam, there is barely a hint of the exile, wars, and tribulations that Rama and his family will eventually endure. Wentworth’s introduction to the translation contextualises the work, its influence, and the socio-political dimensions of Kampan’s world well. However, it can be academic and dry at times. In contrast, his translation is accessible and engaging. The endnotes, rich with annotations and context, helped me better appreciate the poem and its nuances.



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