Ravana is one of the most fascinating characters in the epic traditions of the world. His uniqueness comes form the tact he is not merely a villain but also a highly accomplished character in arts and learning. Ravana's accomplishment make him a most distinct villain in the epic tradition of the world. The different essays that are brought together in this volume bring out this greatness in the character of Ravana. The essays also show how the tradition of Ramayana exits in different forms and with different meaning in various parts of south Asia and South East Asia. But the one constant feature in all these traditions, as the essays show, is the nature of accomplishment that is associated with the character of Ravana. The essays in this volume consists of lectures, commentaries and research works that have been carried out especially since 20th century the present till the present times. The essays also remind us of the fact that analysis of the Ramayana would remain incomplete without considering the role of ravana in making possible the subtlety and grandeur that the epic is infused with.
Jnanpith awardee Indira Goswami is widely known for her literary writings and her research on the Ramayanas. Her research in comparative Ramayana was one of the early works in the field in the 1960s. Her study Ramayana from Ganga to Brahmaputra was widely acclaimed. A celebrated fiction writer, Indira Goswami has been writing since the 1960s. Some of her famous novels include neelkanthi Braj (The Blue Necked Braja), Datal hantir une Khowa Howda (The Moth Eaten howdah), Mamore Dhara Taruwal (The Rusted Sword, which won her the Sahitya Akademi Award, 1982) and chinnamaster Mahuhtu (The Man from Chinnamasta) beside others. Presently, she is completing her new novel thengfakhri based on the life of a fiery woman revenue collector of the Bodo community of Assam during the colonial period.
Writer, translator and researcher, Manjeet Baruah is currently a research scholar in cultural history of Assam at Delhi University . He is also associated with Women's Studies & Development Centre, Delhi University , in research and teaching. His Short stories, research paper, translations and books have been published by Indian literature, Social Action, ICHR, Rupa & Co., Muse India and others. His documentation of life and works of Indira Goswami was recently Published to critical acclaim. His current research include oral traditions and gender in the brahmaputra Valley of Assam and women’s workers in the tea plantations of Assam.
Ravana, in many versions of the Ramayana, features in the dual role of villain and hero rolled into one. This is what is unique about him. Valmiki, for one, has revealed many of his commendable qualities along with the darker side of his persona. Most of the poets in the regional languages are keen to exhaust the fascinating potential of Ravana's story in their linguistic expressions so as to capture the interest of the respective audiences within their own cultural milieu. For example, in the Assamese Ramayana of Madhava Kandali, one of the earliest versions composed in the Indo- Aryan languages during the fourteenth century, the poet depicts Ravana incorporating the likings and inclinations of the common people into his conscious self while speculating the course of his own actions. It is interesting that seven hundred years ago, this great poet of Assam was able to instill a natural style of epic narrative, which became eventually a paradigm for other contemporary poets who realized its worth. He declared:
"Infinite are the variety of rasas. Their mysteries can never be unraveled. Like birds flying with the strength of their own wings, the poets sustain themselves with their own inspiration, and sometimes with the inspiration of others. These are my words, mundane, temporal, not of the Gods. Their shortcomings, I pray, may be condoned."
Madhava Kandali depicted marvelous scenes in Ravana's palace. For instance, when Hanuman goes inside the inner sanctuary of Ravana and enters the latter's boudoir, he witnesses the exquisite beauty and grandeur of his surroundings. He sees all that Ravana had gathered together from his ventures into the three worlds. After their exhaustive midnight carousels the women of the palace are depicted sleeping blissfully on their golden beds. Many of them curl around their mridangams, imagining they are embracing their dear husbands! Their ornaments have fallen from their necks. The feet of one are placed on the body of another. Some are lying in poses of dancing that highlight their shapely thighs and legs. Some embrace Ravana in their sleep as if vines were entangled to a great tree. And other women are attached to him like lightning upon a mountain of death.
Descriptions of the battlefield are always fascinating in Madhava Kandali's Ramayana, as expected of epic narrative. Even when he dies Ravana's women come rushing to his side to express their insurmountable bereavement. Ten of them passionately kiss the pale lips of his ten heads lying on the dust. They fall on his chest, place his powerful arms around their own bodies, cover his face with their matted hair. The lamentations of Ravana's beloved wife Mandodari are supremely poetical. All these intense emotional expressions of the women for their slain lord refute the conventional contention of Ravana being a demonic exploiter of the female sex.
Kandali also shows that in Golden Lanka, all the citizens are contented with Ravana's rule.
The extent of Ravana's scholarship has been highlighted by many poets, especially his knowledge of the Vedas. This was evident in the air of Lanka wherein the Vedadhwani was heard at all times. He was also a great exponent of classical music. The range of his wisdom knew no bounds. In the Ashoka Garden, when Ravana attempts to persuade Sita to marry him, she appeals to his conscience and his knowledge of the three worlds: "O Ravana! You are the beloved of Brahma and the grandchild of Sage Pulasti. You are the master of fourteen shastras. Who knows dharma and adharma better than you?"
But it appears that Tulsidas had some amount of reservation regarding Ravana, the arch enemy of his lord and master, Sri Rama. At every step he was conscious of the defaults of Ravana and would not refrain from expressing his critical opinion. Tulsidas never hesitated even to ridicule the great might of Ravana in incidents like Angad snatching away the crown from Ravana's head; Hanuman slapping Ravana and making him unconscious; Jambaban kicking him and throwing him out of his chariot on the battlefield. Tulsidas, influenced by Prasanna Raghavanatak, ridicules Ravana with reference to his visit to King Janaka's court when the demon king is called upon to break the dhanush (bow) of Lord Shiva, but he fails miserably and departs humiliated; and hearing of his failure, Mandodari also berates him strongly for taking part in a foolish venture.
The legends and landmarks concerning Ravana and his island-kingdom are found all over India and Sri Lanka. Even in Assam, references to Ravana and Lanka are widely circulated in the myriad a widely circulated aphorisms, folk tales and popular myths prevalent in the indigenous culture. These tales are often found in different imaginative forms in journals and magazines as charming topics of discussion.
Once when I happened to be visiting Sri Lanka, I came across an interesting story about Ravana in one of their national dailies, Silumina. A Buddhist monk named Siddharta Medankara from the Portugal Temple at Beligama in Central Sri Lanka, had claimed knowledge about the preservation of the body of the warrior-king on top of a mountain in the island. The body was supposed to be in excellent condition. The monk had come across the reference while browsing through some old palm-leaf records in a monastery. It was said that after his fatal battle with Sri Rama, Ravana's followers had carried his slain body to the mountain, embalming and preserving it for eternity. The road to the particular spot was accessible only through a secret tunnel. I am not quite sure whether this unique story was followed to its conclusion, whether any enthusiast succeeded in finding the embalmed, resplendent body of the great antagonist, and ultimately, devotee, of Sri Rama. I can only conclude by saying that wherever the Ramayana has been read and meditated upon, varied interpretations have sprouted like blossoming plants in a garden.
In this anthology of essays I have been delighted to bring together a number of erudite and interesting interpretations on the subjects of Ravana by eminent scholars like Srinivasa Sastry, Masti Venkatesha Iyengar, and a modern scholar and poet like Dr. Rupendra Guha Majumdar who has presented his remarkably original perception regarding the visual representation of Ravana in folk and urban illustrations of the epic. Dr. Majumdar, with inputs from his wife, Dr. Karabi M.G. Majumdar and myself, has also translated into English a small portion of the Lankakanda of Madhava Kandali's Ramayana that I am very glad to include in this edition.
I can only hope that our readers will gain both knowledge and pleasure from their association with this book, which has focused, somewhat unconventionally, on the greatest and most colourful epic villain in world literature.
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