Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Another Side of the Tale: Vettuvas in The Legend of Ponnivala (Part 3)

In Ponnivala every key character is given a life story, including some kind of magical birth and some kind of honourable end-of-life event as well. Each birth story and each death is different, but all have mythological or fairytale underpinnings (depending on your perspective in these matters). This common thread can be seen in the stories provided for both grandparents, for both parents, and also for all three of the farming grandchildren, the triplets that dominate the story in the third generation.

The twin farmer-kings experience a magical birth and a heroic, magical death. This same generalization also applies to the little sister, Tangal, even though technically she “ascends to heaven in a golden chariot.” She, too, undergoes a life-ending experience, even though she never really dies.

I point to this magical birth and death predictability for all key farmers precisely because this pattern does not hold for even one of the several Vettuva characters described by the same story.

Some might argue that only the heroes, the Vellalar farmers, are honoured with descriptions of their supernatural birth and death events. But the opposite framing of this “difference” makes for an even more interesting interpretation. The Vettuvas are just “naturally” there. If one reads between the lines, they always have been and always will be the earth’s natural beings, the living entities closest to some kind of cosmic energy that simply “is.”

Yes, some Vettuvas (men only) do die in battle with the farmers. But are these “real” human beings or are they rather manifestations of some kind of divine play on the part of the great Hindu divinity, Lord Vishnu? Again a specific series of three separate incidents are seen to lead to a very key outcome. That outcome will be the heroes’ own deaths. There is no need to “kill” Vettuvas. They will always be there and they will always be fierce and proud

Vishnu’s Intervention #1: It is time to mention a very significant sequence of three scenes. The first of these is the symbolic moment where Lord Vishnu is seen leading the Vettuva fighters into battle. He tells these men, “come with me.” He promises to lead them himself. What a stunning moment! This great god is no longer backing the farmers. He has switched sides and now leads the farmers’ enemies into a battle that ends in the Ponnivala heroes’ deaths. The point is not so much to “kill” the Vettuvas as it is to show that the Ponnivala farmers die heroically on their own swords and of their own will.

Vishnu’s Intervention #2: The matter of Vishnu’s intent, as it is revealed to story listeners towards the end of this great epic, is clarified further by two ensuing events. There is a stunning revelation that occurs very near the end of the story, in the middle of the key battle between the Vettuvas and the farmers. This is the moment when Lord Vishnu is seen creating a huge horde of Vettuvas simply by raising his own right hand. These magically created fighters rush onto the battlefield, only to be quickly killed by the twin heroes and their assistant, Shambuga. What is more significant is that the story makes it clear this whole event, and perhaps the whole war, is actually brought on by Lord Vishnu. It is his lila (a kind of divine play). Through this act Lord Vishnu intends to make the twin heroes understand that their own lives will come to an end very soon.

Vishnu is definitely not creating fighters from his raised hand in order to send a signal to the Vettuvas that they will soon be eradicated. Quite the opposite. Vishnu is showing the heroes (the only ones who see this magical action take place) that he can create Vettuvas at any time and they will keep coming and coming, forever! He is telling the heroes that there is no point in fighting on. They must simply make a heroic effort so that they end their lives honorably.

Whether all the magically created Vettuva fighters, who are never named and who behave like one big horde, actually die or not is not very clearly stated. The heroes THINK they have defeated all these men, but they are also very tired. They are eager to quit and wash their swords. Lord Vishnu has encouraged them in this, telling the twins that before they quit they just have to fight for “a few more minutes.”

Vishnu’s Intervention #3: After fighting for a little longer the heroes THINK there are no more Vettuvas around. They are very tired, though unhurt, and they go to wash their bloody swords in a nearby river. While standing in the water a flowered arrow suddenly crosses the younger twin’s chest and carries off his protective thread. The arrow has been shot by Lord Vishnu as he sits on a tree branch just above the flowing water where they stand. Shankar, the twin who has lost his thread immediately understands. He now turns to his brother and says: “This is Lord Vishnu’s signal to us that we must now take our own lives.” The elder twin concurs and they leave the water and climb up to the top of a small hillock nearby. There they throw their swords hilt first, into the ground where each weapon solidly embeds itself, with its sharp blade point reaching upwards towards the sky.

Then the two heroes run forward and with a leap position their bodies so that their swords penetrate their hearts. Vishnu’s purpose has been fulfilled and his mission as guardian of their predetermined 16 years of life on earth has now been completed. Vishnu himself now appears on the dying ground where the heroes’ bodies lie. He takes the souls of the two men (and of their loyal assistant Shambuga who dies by their sides) and carries these in a special little golden box. The Preserver and Protector, Vishnu then quickly flies upward to Lord Shiva’s Council Chambers with his precious cargo.

A word must also be said about the twin heroes' little sister Tangal. She learns of her brothers’ deaths through signs they have left her in her palace. Distressed at the terrible news, Tangal subsequently burns down the family palace and also the separate abode that belongs to her brothers’ wives. After those fires there is a great rain. Ponnivala is reduced to ashes first, and then to swampy nothingness. I'll skip some further events in order to stress the key point of this essay. The end of the story speaks about potential regeneration, but NOT the regeneration of the heroes’ own family. These men and their family line are gone forever. But most significantly, there is no parallel destruction of the forest or of the Vettuvas’ family line. This community, these people, are just “naturally” there forever. To them goes a special kind of honor, the honor of being both “first humans” and also an indestructible class of people that reside on earth “forever.” Who can top that?

[<==Back to Part 2]

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