Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Another Side of the Tale: Vettuvas in The Legend of Ponnivala (Part 4)

The story of the Vettuvas would not be complete without discussing further the fact that the forest princess. Viratangal, has a key pet. This is a huge forest boar named Komban. Komban is very big and he is magical. He is also very black and he has a huge set of sharp tusks. Viratangal feeds him like a baby, offering him a huge pile of rice each day. Komban is loyal and loving until one day, soon after the farmers capture a Vettuva parrot, he decides he must help protect the princess, her brothers and their beloved forest. Komban decides to join in protecting the Vettuva homeland by attacking the farmers' fields. Digging up farmers' lush crops with its tusks is, of course, a wild boar’s favourite pastime.

 Komban just goes a little bit further. He also digs up the dam that holds back the waters of the farmers' irrigation tank. And he tears down the gate leading their lovely flower garden. Komban also terrorizes the family gardener and write a declaration of war on his back (just as any magical boar might do)! In this way Komban is partially human. He talks and reasons like a human and in some ways he behaves like one too. Komban goes to the Vettuva temple in the forest to ask the goddess Kali’s blessings before he sets out to destroy the farmers' fields. He also knows that circling the temple in a counterclockwise direction will bring bad luck on his enemies. So he walks around Kali’s temple deliberately in this contrary fashion.

Komban, the great wild boar that lives in Ponnivala's forested hills, is a magician and a sinister yogin par excellence. Although not depicted as such in the animated series, in the original tale he meditates in a cave and wears a ring in his navel, rather like Nath Yogi cult members used to wear rings in their ears. He is said to have a star on his tongue, attesting to his astrological links. He has a ring of flowers on his tail, perhaps suggesting that his lie will end in a contrary kind of sacrifice (most black, sacrificial animals wear a flower garland on their necks). And when Komban is finally killed by the heroes, he is speared through the heart, as are the heroes themselves at a later point. Vishnu now appears in disguise as a washerman, just after Komban’s corpse has been cut up. He asks the elder of the twin brothers for the boar’s head. Still acting in disguise, Vishnu gets his way. He says he will take it to his pregnant wife (who is likely Bhudevi). Vishnu’s own avatar, Varaha, is widely known in Hindu mythology to have rescued Bhudevi from the earth with his tusks as part of a wider earth renewal strategy.

Komban’s head is thus deeply implicated in an undercurrent of mythology that features both death and reconstruction. And remember it is the Vettuvas, and not the farmers, whose lives are linked to that of Komban. He is their “pet.” Through his grand sacrifice they too seem receive some kind of perpetual resurrection, a perpetual life that includes the cleansing and renewal of their beloved forest homeland. It is also the place where wild rivers run clear and free, in contrast to the farmlands below where water is dammed in great tanks and channeled through irrigation canals.

Water is just one more symbolic dimension of the broader farmer/hunter contrast laid out here. Water in the hills gurgles (speaks) and flows happily as does the great Ganges as it falls to earth from Lord Shiva’s Himalayan abode, Kailasa. Water on the plains is languid in its flow or confined and stagnant (altogether quiet). Who would not be proud to be associated, in the Ponnivala story, with a lovely forested abode that speaks to freedom, coolness and lush natural growth?

One more interesting point about Komban and the Vettuvas is the great antiquity of their symbolic connection. New rock art findings from both South and Middle India clearly show that the wild boar has been a sacred animal for tribal groups at least since the Mesolithic period, a period we cannot easily date but that easily precedes all written and inscriptional records available for South India. In this sense, too, the Vettuvas can claim a symbolic and magical link to the most ancient feature of all in this great story, a divine and well-tusked wild boar. Interestingly, several rock art images seem to depict the back hairs of a wild boar as bearing special importance.

And in the Ponnivala story, the heroes’ assistant Shambuga deliberately and bravely creeps into Komban’s dark cave just to pull out some of his back hairs! It's just another very ancient tradition relating to the wild boar thus seems to persist in this story.

And finally, the animation artist chose (on his own and without historical research) to represent the Vettuva’s palace as eight sided (octagonal).

According to Indus valley historians this was the favoured shape for Dasa forts (the people the Aryans found living in this "cradle of Indian civilization" area (now in Pakistan) when they began to arrive there from the North some four millennia ago. This is a fanciful connection perhaps, but also an indication of how traces of deep historical memories possibly still haunt the Ponnivala story today. The reference is the Vettuva palace alone. 

No other palace; neither the one belonging to the Chola king nor the one belonging to the farmers; has this unique shape. All these other buildings are built from a square ground plan. In the case of the farmers' palace this is clear from a shot of its interior courtyard, a floor plan very typical in the Kongu region.

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