Thursday, May 31, 2012

Episode 9: The Counter Curse

In this feature, we outline the chapters of The Legend of Ponnivala as we've laid them out in the animated and print series. The sub-story descriptions are those that occur in each episode, and are drawn from our Teacher's Handbook.

The Queen of Ponnivala still has no children. She is worried and wants to find comfort by visiting two wealthy brothers. Her husband is opposed because ill-will exists between the two families. The determined wife goes anyway. Alas, she is ordered beaten by a guard at her brothers’ palace gate. Angered, the Queen lays a curse on their entire family.

A Barren "Witch" is Spotted

The queen orders the jewelers to come and prepare necklaces for her nieces and nephews. She also has lovely boxes made to carry these and her other lovely gifts. Then, early one morning, she awakens her husband to tell him that she is leaving for her brother’s place. Once more the king again tells her not to go but she is determined. She bravely sets out with a group of servants. After much hardship en route the weary travelers arrive. At that moment the two sisters-in-law of the queen spot the strangers. Asking who they are and why they have come, these ladies discover that their husbands' sister has arrived. Remembering that this woman had been forbidden ever to return to their place they rush back to the palace to warn their husbands. Fearing her evil spells (because she is barren) together they make a plan to hide all the children under some large baskets.

The Sister is Refused Entry to her Natal Home

The palace guard has been instructed to refuse entry to the visiting sister. Instead the gate is locked and she is severely beaten when she knocks on the door. The crying woman calls on Lord Vishnu and asks for a magic fireball. Vishnu asks permission for this from Lord Shiva and when the great god consents, the angry woman receives her fire ball and with it she burns the palace.

The Sister Curses Her Brothers and Kills Their Children

The angry sister kills all fourteen children inside the palace by throwing some magical handfuls of earth in their direction. Finally she erects two stones near the palace and inscribes a curse on them that is to lie on her brother’s family. She also goes to the temple of the fierce goddess Kali. Kali feels sorry for the badly beaten lady and thinks about what she can do to help.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Using Ponnivala in the Classroom

In traditional cultures, the tales people pass on from one generation to the next do more than preserve religious teachings. In fact, most often the religious elements are merely threaded through these stories, with gods and goddesses acting as intercessors in the affairs of humans. The stories themselves become classrooms for everything from political and social standards to regional and cultural history, from mathematics and trading systems to herbology and food lore.

Often, a single unit of study can open the gateway to a flood of teaching ideas on a wide variety of subjects. Take the example of Bonnie Boggs. Bonnie teaches in a two room school in the ranching community of Miles City, Montana. Yet despite the limited resources afforded her in this town of just 9,000, she was awarded the 1995 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science and Mathematics.


In Boggs’ classroom was a terrarium, occupied by two very special assistants: Zsa Zsa the tarantula and Arby the black widow spider. Using these two spiders as the core of her teaching curriculum, Boggs was able to develop, over fourteen years, one of the most innovative teaching plans ever devised.

In “Spider Social Studies,” students research spiders around the globe and learn about the geography and history of those regions. The create fictional lands and try to figure out what spider would live in their made-up environment. Environmental studies and ecology preservation are included in the study.

Her students read Charlotte’s Web as a component of their literature studies, then discuss the advantages, or disadvantages, of being a spider.

She can teach genetics, biology, family life, and diversity. She teaches spelling, vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar through a game she calls “VENOM.” This clever variation on BINGO uses the word VENOM at the top of the card, and replaces the numbers with scientific terms relating to spiders. When a winner has filled a line, they must correctly spell and pronounce the words in the line, further providing a seamless inroad into Latin.

Using a single focal resource; as Boggs has done with her spiders; can not only be an innovative and refreshing change to the normal lesson plan. It can inspire young learners to delve much more deeply into subjects they care about, revealing all sorts of life lessons in things they might otherwise take for granted every day. Our goal with The Legend of Ponnivala is to see teachers use this remarkable legend to accomplish the same ends. Lesson plans are already available to accompany the series, encompassing a variety of subjects, including:

  • History
  • Religion
  • Cultural & Social Studies
  • Mythology & Folklore
  • Political Studies
  • Literature
  • Geography
  • Art & Music
  • Philosophy & Ethics

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Episode 8: A Cruel Curse

In this feature, we outline the chapters of The Legend of Ponnivala as we've laid them out in the animated and print series. The sub-story descriptions are those that occur in each episode, and are drawn from our Teacher's Handbook.

A couple return to their ancestral lands after many years and decide to rebuild the husband’s ancestral palace. They invite a neighboring monarch to the completion celebrations. In turn he honors the pair and names them King and Queen of Ponnivala. But the new Queen suffers from a curse of barrenness and is worried about the future.

A Wondrous Palace Is Built

The newly rich farmer now sends for a thousand stone masons and carpenters to build his palace. It will be a fine building with many rooms. Lord Vishnu is watching from his couch on the milk sea. He decides to descend to earth and help. Invisibly, for every stone the masons lay, Vishnu lays another thousand. In this way their fine palace is quickly constructed.

A Grand Coronation Occurs

The farmer’s wife calls on Lord Vishnu and announces that she wants to perform a major “inauguration” ceremony. Lord Vishnu suggests that all three monarchs of the South (the well-known Chola, Chera and Pandiya kings) be invited. He also announces that he wants to confer a title on the family. A grand ceremony ensues with many honors accorded the new “king” of Ponnivala. Rather tardily, rival clansmen arrive and pay their respects to the three monarchs. The Chola king then tells them that they must give back all the lands that once belonged to the farmer-king’s father. The clansmen agree to do so and quickly leave.

A Tragic Curse: The Queen is Barren

The Chola now turns to the new raja and issues a set of instructions on how to be a wise ruler. Then he leaves for his own territory, hoping that the Ponnivala area will now be ruled with justice and kindness. But the couple lack one vital thing: children. They purchase a pair of fine cows, two handsome horses, and even a male and female pig. But none of these animals bear offspring. Finally the queen grows weary of her barrenness and yearns to visit her natal household. There she can at least see her brother’s children. Her husband is vehemently opposed to this plan. He remembers the way that family “cast them out” at the moment of their marriage. But the queen is determined to go and starts her preparations.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Interesting Similarities in Persian and Hindu Mythology

Compared to other mythologies, ancient Persia’s pantheon of gods seldom receives much attention. But the gods and goddesses of this ancient Middle-Eastern society share many of the attributes common among other Indo-European pantheons. After all, Persia, whose territory at one time would have covered modern-day Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Turkey, was situated between Greece and India, and these three regions shared a great deal of culture, trade, and art with each other.

At the top of the Hindu pantheon, we see three primary gods: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. These are the forces of creator, sustainer, and destroyer, and appear in various incarnations in mythologies around the world. The Persian gods Tiamat, Enkil, and Marduk take on similar roles in their pantheon.

Tiamat was a powerful goddess who was the embodiment of the primordial chaos. She was the mother of the younger gods, against whom she later made war. This is distinct from the role of Brahma, who gave rise not to gods but to humans. In most chaos myths, there is a first separation of the heavens and earth, usually founded on the chaos first forming a primordial sea. In Persia, Tiamat was the primordial sea...the heaven and earth were made from her remains (this is more common in Western threads, like the death of the Norse giant Ymir at the hands of Odin and his brothers). By contrast, Brahma formed the heavens and the earth from the halves of the shell from the golden egg that bore him in the primordial sea.

At a later age, Brahma contested with Vishnu for supremacy, trying to see who was the most powerful of the gods. They called on Shiva to settle the dispute, and this he defeating them both! This is the most direct parallel with the Persian myths, as Enkil, formerly leader of the gods, was unable to defeat Tiamat. He gave the opportunity to the storm god Marduk instead, but Marduk would only accept the challenge if all the gods agreed that he would be their ruler for all time should he prove victorious. After defeating Tiamat there was no doubt that Marduk was indeed the most powerful of the younger gods.

What is fascinating in these two myths is the characters of the two younger gods. Enkil is described as a trickster with a fondness for the foibles of the human race. He is a god of fresh water and purification, and he delights in thwarting the attempts of other gods to interfere with the lives of humans. Marduk, by contrast, is a stern warrior god of the storm. He hurls thunderbolts and his breath is flame. Yet he is also considered wise, meditative, and ascetic. He has four ears and four eyes with which to see and hear in all directions. Many of the attributes of these two gods are considered features of Vishnu and Shiva respectively (although Shiva has only three eyes and two ears). Vishnu often intercedes on the part of people, and enjoys playing tricks and testing them, while Shiva, whose elemental association is fire, is more stern and serious, and is generally more concerned with broader universal issues.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Episode 7: A Thousand Beggars

In this feature, we outline the chapters of The Legend of Ponnivala as we've laid them out in the animated and print series. The sub-story descriptions are those that occur in each episode, and are drawn from our Teacher's Handbook.

A young couple have worked hard to plant their only field and happily watch their maize plants grow tall. But the seed buds on those green stalks do not hold grain. Then one day the wife discovers jewels hidden there instead. Beggars now magically appear as a test. The wife gives generously and so Lord Vishnu replenishes their wealth.

The Rivals Try Another Trick

...but a god counters this effort

The hopeful farmer now begins to check his newly-planted field once a week. After the second week there is nothing, not even a sprout. After the third there are some strong green shoots and after the fourth the field is full of young tender stalks. The rival clansmen see this and are worried that a harvest might be possible after all. So they send their cows in to devour the growing plants. But Lord Vishnu, with a little magic, sees to it that no permanent damage is done. After the tender shoots have been well bent down the clansmen drive the animal herd back to their own lands. The husband soon inspects the field. He is shocked by the trampled stalks but there is no serious harm.

The Insightful Wife Finds Magical Wealth

The next week there are many buds but none have opened. The wife becomes anxious. Unlike her husband she wades deep into the crop and then pinches a bud with her fingernail. Inside she finds a pearl! So she pinches another one. There she finds another jewel. She becomes excited and calls her husband. Together they discover that their planted field has sprouted gems of all kinds!

Bountiful Wealth Acquired...Unexpectedly

The couple now call in laborers to help harvest their field but they only allow these men to cut down the stalks. When the laborers leave the husband calls on Lord Vishnu to help the two of them privately cut each bud from its stalk and break it open. Again Lord Vishnu helps and soon they have filled their harvest baskets with beautiful jewels. They story these baskets inside their home and measure out their new found wealth.

A Doubting Husband and a Saintly Wife

Vishnu is watching their actions and wants to test the couple’s generosity. So he turns a hundred shepherds who are grazing animals nearby into beggars. He sends these “holy men” to the couple’s home to ask for alms. The husband is upset and demands that they be sent away. But the heroine ignores him and starts generously giving the jewels away to the beggars. Somewhat dismayed, the husband decides to go to visit their overlord, the great Chola king, and to take him a token gift. When he returns from this trip the door of the house is stuck shut. Together he and his wife manage to open it, Now, to their surprise, they find that their stash of jewels has been replenished. The heroine recognizes Lord Vishnu’s hand in this beneficence. Together they decide to spend their new-found wealth building a fine palace.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

What is an Avatar?

When James Cameron released his breakthrough film Avatar in 2009, the word “avatar” became a household name. But few people realize what this word actually means. Some argue that it conjures up images of some kind of remote-controlled weapon. Others think of it as a type of robot (as in the case of Andromeda, where the ship’s computer was represented in physical form by an android “avatar” played by Lexa Doig).

Avatar is a Sanskrit word for “incarnation,” and refers frequently in Hindu mythology to the physical incarnations of the gods (particularly Vishnu). In popular culture, an avatar is something that represents the controller in another form; for example, the appearance of Jake Sully as an “avatar” in Na’vi form on Pandora in the movie. Sully isn’t actually incarnated on Pandora. He’s in stasis elsewhere, controlling this avatar with his mind.

Examples appear all over the religious and mythic world, however. It could be said that the god Odin from Norse mythology was an avatar when he appeared as a wandering wizard or an old man on the road, although strictly in such stories he was merely in disguise. Some scholars may even argue that Jesus was an avatar of God, as by definition He was born in earthly form while still retaining his essence as God.

The Hindu god Vishnu appears in a number of avatars throughout history, including as Matsya the fish, Kurma the tortoise, and perhaps most importantly as the hero Krishna. He also appears several times as a beggar or washerman in the Ponnivala story, but here again these are better thought of as disguises than as avatars, because he is not born into these forms but merely assumes their appearance.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Episode 6: Roasted Seeds

In this feature, we outline the chapters of The Legend of Ponnivala as we've laid them out in the animated and print series. The sub-story descriptions are those that occur in each episode, and are drawn from our Teacher's Handbook.

A young wedded couple reclaim one ancestral field from the husband’s clan rivals. These men try to undercut their first harvest by giving them secretly roasted seeds to sow. However the two persevere and Lord Vishnu decides to help them out. The rocky field they have worked so hard to plough are set to spring to life, as if by magic…

The Hero Finds the Old Family Homestead

The couple wander and eventually find the husband’s traditional lands in Ponnivala. They see that the old palace was long ago flattened and ploughed under. The first step is to perform a proper ceremony for the local goddess. She welcomes the attention and blesses them.

Rival Clansmen Dispute Control of the Family's Ancestral Lands

The joy of the newlyweds’ homecoming does not last. The young wife soon detects a problem. She sees a group of rival clansmen approaching lands the couple have identified as theirs. These men are carrying their ploughs. Unsure about how to proceed, the husband leaves to consult the major ruler in the area, a Chola king. That monarch calls the clan rivals to his palace. The overlord then orders them to give the land back to its rightful claimants. But the clansmen protest. A compromise is reached: The son will get back one insignificant field now, and the rest of his lands after the next harvest.

A Cruel Trick is Secretly Engineered by Rivals

The husband returns home and wants to plough his newly acquired land. He tells his wife he is going to borrow a yoke of oxen. He wants to go ask his the clansmen for this but his wife warns him against it. So he goes instead to an allied village to find families that traditionally provided services to his father. He is successful but upon returning home there is a second problem. He has forgotten to ask for planting seed. Again his wife warns him about the clansmen. This time, however, the hopeful farmer goes to them anyway (without telling his wife). Those rivals quietly “toast” the seeds before giving them to him.

The Insightful Wife Notices Her Husband Has Been Tricked

Upon returning home, however, the wife notices the seeds have been pre-cooked. The husband retains his confidence, but she is frightened and refuses to do the traditional woman’s job of planting (she fears the seeds won’t sprout and she’ll end up being held responsible). So the husband does the plowing and the planting both, by himself. But, unexpectedly, the hero is helped by Lord Vishnu who plants one magical seed beside each roasted one. But he doesn’t know this is happening. Assuming they will have a good harvest, the couple now plan to build a small house. Men from a “helper” village come to assist with the work. Their new home is soon complete.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

More On The Boar!

As we’ve been looking all last week at the interesting similarities between the Calydonian Boar Hunt and King Komban in The Legend of Ponnivala, more and more symbolism about this remarkable creature has been coming to light. The boar has long been associated in many old-world cultures with strength and courage. Yet its habits--eating just about anything with a voracious appetite--have also made it a symbol of darkness and fear. A bull or a boar might kill a man, but a bull is unlikely to eat him...a boar just might.

In fortitude and courage the boar is unmatched, and it’s perhaps for this reason that Vishnu chose to take this form for his third avatar, Varaha, in order to battle and subdue the demon Hiranyaksha. Hiranyaksha had taken the earth to the bottom of the cosmic ocean. After battling the demon for a thousand years, Varaha was victorious, and carried the earth between his tusks to place it back in its proper place in the heavens.

In the Mahabharata, the warrior Arjuna is attacked by a boar while he meditates to gain the favour of Lord Shiva. When he and the hunter (Shiva in disguise) shoot the boar at the same time, a fight ensues. That fight turns out to be the blessing Arjuna needs to gain the favour of Lord Shiva and receive the boon he needs.

In episode 24 of The Legend of Ponnivala, the servant Shambuga tells the kings of Ponnivala that the boar Komban is “the god of death himself.” This suggests that the boar might actually be Lord Shiva, or at least a symbol of his destructive power.

But what of other instances where the boar has become a mainstay of traditional culture? Well, if we can consider that there is a parallel between Artemis, the huntress in the Meleager story, and Kali, the goddess who comes to the aid of the hunters by giving the boon of a giant boar/son to the little sow, the mythology becomes quite universal.

For instance, there is a direct correlation between Artemis in Greece and the Roman goddess of the hunt, Diana. To Artemis, the hart (deer) was a sacred animal, but twice she called on a boar to do her dirty work (once to kill Adonis for his infidelity, and again to punish the farmer king Oeneus for neglecting her in the harvest sacrifices).

Diana’s representative animal is the hart, but her precursor from Gaul is another story. The goddess of the Ardennes forest range (covering parts of Belgium, Luxembourg, and France) was a huntress named Arduinna. A true Celtic goddess, Arduinna’s love of the wildwood, her role as protector of hunters and of animals, and her association with purity and the moon, were all adopted into Gallo-Roman mythology and became Diana, under which name she continued to be worshipped by pagan Europeans for centuries. As Arduinna however, her favoured beast was the boar, which she rode on the hunt.

The Norse goddess Freya also kept a boar for company. Freya was the Norse goddess of fertility, love, war, and death (all aspects associated with the other goddesses mentioned above, including Kali). She also ruled over the afterlife field of Folkvangr, where half of those who died in battle were said to end up (the other half went to Valhalla with Odin). Her boar Hildisvini (literally “battle swine”) was a constant companion and a powerful ally in battle. It is also thought that Hildisvini was Freya’s mortal lover, Ottar, in disguise--a notion which prompted Loki to suggest that she was always behaving inappropriately by riding her lover everywhere she went! (This was also an insult to her husband, Óðr, comparing him to a pig.)

Monday, May 21, 2012

Episode 5: A Magical Marriage

In this feature, we outline the chapters of The Legend of Ponnivala as we've laid them out in the animated and print series. The sub-story descriptions are those that occur in each episode, and are drawn from our Teacher's Handbook.

Lord Vishnu tells a hard working shepherd orphan that he is eligible to marry his bosses’ lovely young sister. This god tells the frightened boy his parents were also farmers and arranges a magical forest marriage. But the girl’s family are upset at this match and banish the newlyweds. The couple leave to seek the boy’s ancestral home, Ponnivala.

Trial #2: The Hero is Tested and Bullied for a Second Time

Once the hero is back in his familiar surround Vishnu appears once more, again in disguise and again uses sacred ash to cast a spell. This time he gives him clearer instructions. He is to explain to his “bosses” who he is and how he is related to their sister. Then he is to immediately demand her hand. So the next morning the elder brothers of the lovely girl now find the boy standing in their path again. This time he finds the courage to speak. He tells them that he really the son of a powerful farmer and thus their equal. But the two brothers react badly and give the boy a severe beating for his egotism. He falls unconscious and the men then place a big stone on him, assuming he will die.

Trial #3: The Hero is Tested for a Third Time a helper intervenes

When the shepherd regains consciousness he is still under a huge stone. But now he sees Vishnu standing beside him. He moans and asks the god for help. Vishnu throws magical ash on the brother’s palace and it catches fire. The servants rush out. They ask the two brothers to stop the fire. Suffering themselves now, the two men go to the temple to find help. There they see a beggar (Vishnu in disguise) and address him as a learned man. Gradually Lord Vishnu reasons with the brothers and explains that they really are related to the shepherd boy. The men listen and accept this “revelation.” They then lift the stone off the suffering boy. But these men still refuse to marry their sister to a former palace servant.

The Problem is Resolved and the Marriage Arranged

The old beggar demands that the girl be given to him. The brothers resist. But the wise man points to the fire consuming their palace. They now see they have been “set up” for a bargain. They consent to hand over their sister to the old man in exchange for his promise to stop the fire. He does this and the girl is sent to the edge of the village to meet him where he said he would wait. This god-in-disguise now arranges the wedding in a no-mans-land outside the village in a forest. Only the other gods attend. Once the wedding is over the brothers leave several gifts and signs on the path indicating that their sister is never to return home. Instead she and her husband are now to leave the area entirely. The newlyweds walk away from the village.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Meleager Story and Ponnivala

In a recent post, we discussed the similarities between The Legend of Ponnivala and the Calydonian Boar Hunt from Greek mythology. In both stories, the giant boar was sent to ravage the farmers’ land in revenge for a great insult. And in both stories, twin warriors figure very prominently in the battle (in Ponnivala they’re the heroes, while in the Illiad they’re helpers on the hunt).

There is, however, another set of curious parallels that bears some interesting discussion. One of the reasons Artemis is so insulted by Oeneus’ neglect of a sacrifice is that she is the goddess of the hunt, while he is a farmer. Although in Greek mythology these castes are not always as opposed as they can be in Indian tradition, this parallels the basic reason for the fight between Komban and the kings of Ponnivala. They have stolen a parrot, which provokes the vengeance of the forest princess Viratangal. In the war between the farmers and the hunters, Komban is a major combatant on the side of the hunters.

A similar theme occurs where Atalanta the huntress joins Meleager’s hunt (it’s her arrow that kills the boar). Despite generally accepting her skill, the other farmer/warriors of Calydon don’t trust this forest dweller. In the Roman version it’s assumed it’s because she’s a woman; in the Greek version, hero females who follow Artemis are quite common, and the aversion appears to be because of her caste as hunter. Following the hunt Atalanta is awarded the boar’s hide, which is an insult to Meleager’s farmer uncles. In the ensuing fight the uncles are killed, and their sister, Meleager’s mother, curses him and he dies.

Meleager’s death causes his sisters (called the “Meleagrids”) to weep so profusely that Artemis takes pity on them and turns two of them (Eurymede and Melanippe) into birds. This isn’t a direct parallel, but in Ponnivala the two parrots who live in Tamarai’s nose while she meditates outside Lord Shiva’s chamber also represent an avian pair that has a great deal to do with the fate of the heroes. Their separation at the hands of Ponnar and Shankar is what incites violence between the forest kingdom and the young kings.

Are there other instances in folk tales or myths when differences in occupation or social caste is an underlying force in personal or political conflict? Share your thoughts below!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Episode 4: A Love Match

In this feature, we outline the chapters of The Legend of Ponnivala as we've laid them out in the animated and print series. The sub-story descriptions are those that occur in each episode, and are drawn from our Teacher's Handbook.

A wandering, orphaned boy is adopted by two prosperous and kind farmer-brothers. The boy begins to work for these men as a shepherd. He grows up and then discovers he has fallen in love with the little sister of his two rich masters. But he has no hope of marrying his sweetheart because she stands so far above him, socially.

Refuge Found at Last

The little hero now runs towards a temple he sees on the horizon. On the outskirts of that village he finds a wealthy farmer sitting at the local (Ganesh) temple. The man strikes up a conversation and asks the boy where he is from. Learning that he is an orphan from a farming family he decides to take him in. He is treated kindly for a change. He is offered a bath and food and then hired on as a shepherd. He is treated well and (we learn later) he stays there for some twenty years.

The Hero Falls In Love with a Girl Whose Social Rank is Too High

The boy-hero finally finds refugee with a kind family of rich landowners. He is assigned work as a shepherd and also asked to push a garden swing for his two bosses’ lovely young daughter. The hero notices her charms and gradually falls in love. But the boy does not dare to show his interest. He is a mere worker in the eyes of these powerful farmers. Time passes. He keeps his feelings of affection hidden.

The Hero's True Status is Revealed by a God

The goddess who looks after the boy’s (unknown) former family lands is unhappy. Her temple on earth has not had a good cleaning for twenty years. So she goes to her brother, Lord Vishnu, to seek his advice. Promising to help, Vishnu takes the form of an elderly beggar and visits the shepherd boy at the cattlefold where he sleeps. He now “reveals” that the girl the hero admires is really an appropriate marriage mate (because he is an orphan he doesn’t know about his true parents, who were also local farmer-kings). The shepherd is shocked at this amazing news. At first he drives the mendicant away. Trying a second time, Lord Vishnu casts a spell over the boy. In this way he manages to persuade the humble shepherd/hero to request the hand of the girl he loves, in marriage.

Trial #1: The Hero Summons His Courage, But Fails To Sustain It

The hero, given courage, follows Vishnu to the palace in the early morning and stands on the path where her two elder brothers will soon pass on their way to their local temple to pray. But his steps are tentative. When the men see him he loses his courage to speak out.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Twin Warriors vs. The Giant Boar

In The Legend of Ponnivala, the twin kings Ponnar and Shankar face off against a giant boar named Komban. Komban is the offspring of a little sow who was once brought to Ponnivala as one of the royal animals. When Kunnutaiya and Tamarai set out on their journey to the Gates of Heaven to resolve the matter of their childless state with Lord Shiva, all the barren animals ask them to request a boon of children from the god on their behalf.

The pig, however, falls asleep across their path. In her rush to get moving Tamarai kicks the pig to wake her up. Indignant, the pig curses Tamarai and swears that the son she has will grow into a huge black boar that will ravage the land and kill Tamarai’s sons.

After Tamarai’s sons, the heroes Ponnar and Shankar, have grown, the land is ravaged by the great boar Komban. Komban challenges the young kings, who have stolen a parrot from the neighbouring forest kingdom. Through pitched and very dangerous combat, Komban is killed and his remains divided between the twin heroes of Ponnivala, their sister, Lord Vishnu, the heroes' allies, the little female dog who (almost) kills the boar and their First Minister.

A similar tale is read in Greek mythology in the story of Castor and Pollux. Oeneus of Calydon commits a great insult when he offers a harvest sacrifice to all of the gods except Artemis. Enraged, Artemis sends a giant boar to ravage the fields of Calydon. According to the Illiad, Oeneus calls on his son Meleager to organize a hunting party (which includes, interestingly, the twin warriors Castor and Pollux, Meleager’s cousins). The boar is killed and the meat divided. However, Meleager’s uncles are offended that he has given a greater portion to the huntress Atalanta, and after further combat Meleager kills them, which incites his own mother to curse him.

We’d love to hear your thoughts...can you think of another mythic example where a great beast (not necessarily a boar, though that would be cool) has been unleashed to exact revenge for an insult? Post your comments below.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Dr. Beck Attends Veerashaiva Samaja Meeting in Mississauga

Veerashaiva Samaja of North America Meeting in Mississauga, May 14, 2012

Organizer Vijay Aivalli addresses the audience.
Brenda gave a presentation to about 30 families at a local Catholic school in Mississauga on Mother’s Day at a meeting of the Veerashaiva Samaja of North America. She decided to show a video version of one part of The Legend of Ponnivala called "Gateway to Heaven"; a shortened 30-minute excerpt taken from Series One, Episodes 12 and 13. She chose this because it tells the story of Tamarai’s twenty one year pilgrimage to Lord Shiva’s Council Chambers high in the Himalayas. There she obtains the grant of three very special children from the great Lord himself. She also returns to Ponnivala with a pot of magical water that bestows this wonderful gift of fertility with everyone in the kingdom. All the beings in Ponnivala “capable of drinking water” get pregnant from this moistening after a long spell of barrenness.

Musical prayer to Guru Basavanna
Brenda thought it would be an especially appropriate sub-story to share on Mother’s Day. The video was well received and many people told her how much they had enjoyed the presentation and her brief comments afterwards. In her comments she stressed the correspondence between Arjuna as he prays to Shiva asking for a great weapon of war (the Pashupata) in the Mahabharata and Tamarai who stands in exactly the same spot to ask for sons! One can almost say that Arjuna shows up in this story as a female! And that instead of being given a weapon for fighting war she is gifted three children. These are her “weapon” one might say, as they allow her family line to continue to rule. Her sons will protect her family in the future and her daughter will lend them her magical power.

Yes, the women in this epic are very strong--it is a lovely and very different Mahabharata, a great legend reworked and reinterpreted through a regional lens.

Dr. Beck receives a certificate of appreciation from
event organizer Vijay Aivalli.
Vijay Aivalli was a key organizer of the event. Vijay spoke to the crowd and also presented Brenda with a certificate of appreciation and a small gift. Brenda’s talk was followed by an excellent musical prayer session addressed to Guru Basavanna a 12th century teacher, statesman and social reformer from Karnataka. The crowd was mostly made up of Kannada speakers. The scholarly author Teri Degler also spoke about the life of the female Kannada Shaiva saint Mahadevi Akka towards the end of the evening. Her talk paired nicely with Brenda’s kick-off video. The two presentations blended well together and helped to accentuate the female focus of this Mother’s Day Veerashaiva celebration. The evening ended with an excellent feast made up of authentic Kannada foods.

Episode 3: A Long Exile

In this feature, we outline the chapters of The Legend of Ponnivala as we've laid them out in the animated and print series. The sub-story descriptions are those that occur in each episode, and are drawn from our Teacher's Handbook.

A young orphan is treated badly by his clansmen and is forced to run from place to place. The mistreatment continues no matter where he goes, but the boy is a survivor. He summons his courage and has some successes. Finally he sees a new village with a fine temple on the horizon. Fresh hope rises in this orphan’s heart.

The Hero Suffers as an Abused Homeless Waif

The young orphan is sent from family to family. Each household treats him more cruelly than the last. In one home the wife is the meaner one, in another it is the husband. Some families will not have him at all. Finally the clansmen meet and decide to give him a begging bowl, asking him to beg hereafter for food.

A Child with Magical Strength

Five years pass like this while the poor child suffers in extreme poverty, sometimes working as a shepherd to earn his keep. Finally he becomes strong enough to run away. This basic theme repeats. Finally the boy sees the tower of a lovely temple in the distance. Hope for a good home rises once more in his heart. Eventually the little hero finds firewood in a forest. He ties up a huge bundle and lifts it onto his head. Lord Vishnu helps him lift this awesomely big load. A woman sees him and invites him in but when the husband begins to beat his wife the little hero is frightened and runs still further into the unknown.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Dr. Beck Attends Tamil Studies Conference, University of Toronto

Tamil Studies Conference, University of Toronto, May 11-13, 2012

Presenters (l-r) Gita Pai, Zoe Headley, and S. Ponnarasu
respond to audience questions.
Finding time in her busy schedule, Brenda was able to make it to a couple of Friday afternoon sessions of the 2012 Tamil conference in Toronto. She heard several very interesting speakers who shared a panel that focused on Royal Lineages, History, and Heritage in the Kongu area of Tamilnadu (nearby Madurai was also included). This is exactly the area covered by The Legend of Ponnivala, and so the remarks made by the three speakers (S. Ponnarasu, Zoe Headley, and Gita Pai) were of great interest. The conversation and discussion that followed centered around the importance the people of this area give to a variety of strong mythical themes they feel tie them to the past. Of course this is exactly the kind of material The Legend of Ponnivala weaves around its heroes. After the presentations, several commentators pointed out the way in which images about heritage and culture often become embedded stories. Politicized tales and very grand epithets are often used in this area to glorify the heritage and local roots of certain well-known families and their lineages. All in all, these traditions make for very colourful story telling in Kongunadu!

Prof. Noboru Karashima
As a wrap up to the academic meetings of the day, the distinguished Professor Noboru Karashima gave a talk in the main assembly hall. His very scholarly and very interesting address was about “The Past as Known From Tamil Inscriptions.” Professor Karashima took a very detailed and highly statistical approach to the content of some 28,000 inscriptions ranging in time from the 3rd century BC to the 19th century AD. Particularly striking was the social detail relating to curses detailed in these stone and copper plate records. The consequences said to befall anyone who might wish to subvert a royal decree of a land grant, a gift of gold or the guarantee of various temple services were very severe indeed Traitors were declared as cursed to die young, to have barren wives, to be lower in status than a dog or a pig, to be cast out of the village where they lived, to have their women violated by those of very low status, to have their noses cut off, and more. It is interesting that many specifics linked to these same themes are found embedded in the Ponnivala legend too! There, several characters and communities undergo a similar loss of face, or of respect, honour, and status as a consequence of what could be called similar “social misbehaviours”; situations where someone or some group breaks accepted community norms.

Karasihma was also able to detect the loss of social power among both Vellalars and Brahmins from roughly the 13th century onward. From this point in time onward he was able to point to inscriptional traces that indicated the gradual rise in influence for various additional social groups. These were ambitious and vocal communities who slowly began to insist on their own status and rights. The groups Karashima particularly mentioned were the idangai and valangai (left hand and right hand groups, about whom Dr. Beck has written extensively). Karashima also suggested that several of these groups probably originated, at least in part, from the rising influence of various hill tribes. He also spoke of various merchant groups who began to hire ex-soldiers as guards (the Ainuruvar, Kaikolar and Vaniya Nagaram merchant guilds). Karashima linked this rise in additional social power clusters to a more general breakdown in the power of various great monarchs who had once held the area together. One could term Karashima’s paper a “tour de force.” It provided a fitting end to the scholarly day, and was of great interest to Brenda personally, since the hill tribes of the Kongu region play a vital role in bringing the heroes of the Ponnivala story to their knees toward the end of this legend (her favourite epic tale!).

Odin’s Ravens and Tamarai’s Parrots

In The Legend of Ponnivala, Queen Tamarai must do penance by sitting in meditation for twenty one years before being permitted to take counsel with Lord Shiva. During this protracted meditation, two parrots take up residence in her nose. Before Tamarai awakens the parrots are shooed away by Lord Vishnu, and seek refuge in a forest kingdom under the protection of Viratangal.

The idea of birds nesting in someone’s nose seems a bit strange to Western readers, but there’s some significance to this occurrence when Eastern alchemy is considered. It is believed that when one enters a deep state of meditation, the physical body actually becomes hollow, making a potentially suitable residence for something like a bird (if the meditation is long enough).

Birds often represent some aspect of the spirit or mind in various mythologies, and this is even more important when we realize that many species of parrots mate for life. So it is that the parrot couple, husband and wife, are symbolic of family and marital loyalty. When their bond is disrupted by the capture of the wife-bird by Tamarai’s sons, Ponnar and Shankar, a war results, bringing an end to the family dynasty.

In Norse mythology, Odin; father of the gods and ruler of Asgard; had a pair of ravens named Huginn and Muninn. Their job was to fly around the world during the day and return to Odin in the evening with news of what was happening on Earth (Midgard). Their names mean “thought” and “mind” (or “memory”) respectively, and it’s believed that they represented these aspects of Odin’s daily meditation. While the lord of gods meditated, his thought and mind ventured out to open his consciousness to the goings on of the world under his protection.

Huginn and Muninn also represent the ideas of the fylgia; a supernatural companion that takes animal form in order to accompany a person in relation to their fate or fortune; and hamingja; the personification of the good fortune of a person or family, often in shape-shifting animal form as well. This ties the connection together nicely, as the fortunes of the ruling family of Ponnivala, as well as their enemies, are intimately tied to the treatment and deeds of their close animal companions.

Are there other mythic examples of birds representing these aspects of the mind and spirit in meditation? What about other duties they may be assigned? Share your thoughts below.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Episode 2: A Young Orphan

In this feature, we outline the chapters of The Legend of Ponnivala as we've laid them out in the animated and print series. The sub-story descriptions are those that occur in each episode, and are drawn from our Teacher's Handbook.

Lord Shiva has cursed a farming family to barrenness due to the death of some cows. But then he decides to lessen its impact by creating a little baby and hiding it under some stones. Once found, this baby is adopted and loved. But then the parenting couple die suddenly and the young boy is orphaned.

A Babe is Found!

The child is found when the landowner discovers that one of his cows is not feeding its calf. There seems to be little milk it its udder. Following the cow and questioning the shepherd the landowner finally finds a beautiful baby under a large pile of rocks in his field. The cow with the empty udder had been secretly feeding it. This child shines “like the sun itself.” When the farmer takes it home his wife the wife takes a few minutes to adjust to the idea, asks some questions, and then becomes overjoyed at the prospect of keeping and raising the little infant as her own.

An Orphan Created by His Parents' Death

After only five years of joy, the parents who adopted the little boy both die. The Lord of Death shows them no mercy and they must take the ladder the heaven only hours after they learn of their fate. Their adoring son is left behind. The neighbouring Chola monarch who attends their funeral tries to console him and rebuild his confidence. This ruler gives the clansmen the right to use the lands for a few years, but they have to agree to return these fine fields to the boy when he grows up. As soon as this gentle ruler leaves, however, the clansmen of the boy’s parents begin their abuse. They attack the little hero verbally and beat him physically. Their motive is obvious. They want intimidate him and make sure that the family’s land will become theirs forever. These men quickly destroy the farmer king’s palace and drag the frightened little boy off.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

1st Annual Multicultural Celebration Day at the Kawartha Heights School in Peterborough

Students receiving henna designs.
The Kawartha Heights School has a lot of students whose cultural roots lie in other countries. So they decided to heighten student appreciation of other cultures and their riches by celebrating a Multicultural Day. The event featured Native Canadians and at least 30 countries from around the world. The kids carried national flags and put on a lovely show of dress outfits worn by people in different places, as well as multicultural music and story telling. There was even some henna hand painting for those who wanted to try it. The kids had a ball and everyone was very upbeat about the event.

Priya Govindarajan narrates the Ponnivala story for students.
Our role came in the story telling. Priyadharshini Govindarajan comes from a local family with roots in South India. She worked with us for about two years as an animation artist that helped us to develop our 26 episode animation series. Priya is also a mother of two young boys who attend the Kawartha Heights School. She volunteered to read parts of the Ponnivala story to kids in one of the school rooms. Kids cycled in and out of the room to hear her every twenty minutes, so that most everyone had a chance to hear the stories at some point during the day.

Priya started each session by telling the story in Tamil for about ten minutes. The idea was to expose kids to the sound of a very different language and let them enjoy some of the rhythms and expressions used, before switching to English to explain more thoroughly what was happening. She told a different story for each session and each presentation was accompanied by the projection of pages from our graphic novel series onto a big screen in front of the kids. This way everyone could enjoy the graphics even if they did not understand all the words.

A KHS student enjoying one of our graphic novels.
The kids seemed delighted with the format and with the stories. Afterwards many kids picked up the comic books and started reading them on their own. Where the kids were of different ages and skill levels the older ones--the better readers--read to their “partners.” The best news of all came when the Principal of the school came into the room and told us that she wanted to order the entire set of 26 novels for her school library, as she could see how the kids were enjoying these booklets! Of course we will be happy to provide these. Kawartha Heights is to become the first elementary-middle school in Canada to adapt our materials!

This is a forward-looking school, emphasizing the need for peace between cultures and between nations. Their initiative is to be commended we hope others will follow suit. It was a well planned event and fun was had by all, even by the many friends and parents who also attended the celebration!

~ Dr. Brenda Beck

Dr. Beck giving her presentation to the Multicultural Celebration Day assembly at
Kawartha Heights School in Peterborough, ON.

Naming a Legend

Although there is no "real" place in India called "Ponnivala," we have chosen to use this poetic name to refer to our retelling of this ancient Tamil epic. But how did we arrive at this title?

Traditionally our story is known by the name "The Elder Brothers' Story," which refers to the brothers Ponnar and Shankar, who are the elder brothers of a third triplet: their sister Tangal. The story, however, is vast, and includes the history of the land in which these hero-brothers were born, and their lineage from the founding of their family line with their grandparents Kolatta and Aryanacci.

"Ponnivala" is our unique way of shortening the Tamil word Ponnivalanadu to make it more accessible to English speakers. Deep in the interior of Tamilnadu lies a plain called Kongunadu, through which the Kaveri River flows. Because Ponni is another poetic name for this beautiful river, we've translated the meaning as "The Land Where The Golden Kaveri River Flows."

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Episode 1: In the Beginning

In this feature, we outline the chapters of The Legend of Ponnivala as we've laid them out in the animated and print series. The sub-story descriptions are those that occur in each episode, and are drawn from our Teacher's Handbook.

The goddess Parvati creates nine farmer-brothers. A Chola King gives them land in Ponnivala. Lord Vishnu helps them establish a social contract with people already resident in the area. Then Lord Shiva curses the eldest farmer, due to the accidental death of some cows. The survival of this family hangs in the balance.

The Woman Who Had a Grand Vision

The great goddess Parvati creates 9 brothers who then work hard to bring a lovely and very fertile area under the plough.

The Cloud With a Silver Lining

Lord Vishnu creates a contest. The skilled farmers win and the previous residents (artists and crafts people) lose. Instead of controlling land they must now rely on their well-known creative abilities as “makers of things.” They become carpenters, stone masons, ironsmiths, goldsmiths and the like.

Hard Work Wins Rewards

(or the refugee who found success in a new land)

Drought forces the lead farmer to leave his lands and migrate to find work in a land where there have been good rains. He is successful and the king is pleased. He is rewarded by the king with a land grant where he can homestead and start again.

Think Twice Before You Act

(or do your homework!)

The king’s own lands are brought to ruin by a great drought. He lets loose his cows in hopes they will wander and find food elsewhere. They have tags on their necks and so their story can be understood. But the lead farmer is horrified to find “wild animals” eating his sugarcane. Without proper research he orders a fence built that has sharp spikes. The sacred cows die trying to jump over this fence to appease their hunger. They die and go to heaven where they complain to the great Lord Shiva. Shiva is angered by their story and curses the lead farmer’s family to seven generations of barrenness.

The Gift of a Child

The wife of a large landowner is barren because her husband has been cursed by the gods for his careless actions. The wife learns of this problem and pleads with Lord Shiva for help. Finally this great Lord promises to help her overcome her barrenness.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

What Is The Legend of Ponnivala?

The Legend of Ponnivala is a vast epic story, once widely celebrated in the Kongu region of South India. It is a gem of Tamil storytelling, and a tale normally sung by bards. The Sophia Hilton Foundation of Canada, in association with Soft Science, has produced a twenty-six episode animated DVD series with accompanying print and digital comic books and teaching guides.

The colours and character designs in these short graphic novels present the reader with a new style that is not Manga, not Disney, and not Bollywood. Instead, each page draws inspiration from authentic, traditional Indian folk art. Akin to a regional Mahabharata, this significant and hitherto largely unknown folk epic describes life in medieval South India. Because of the legend’s authenticity, depth, and extensive social significance, this story can be enjoyed at many levels. Building on 45 years of scholarship by Dr. Brenda Beck, it is anticipated that all 26 comic books will hold the interest of kids, families, and even attract academic scholars. In fact, one elementary school student from New Jersey wrote:
I read the entire set of books in 3 days.
The Legend Of Ponnivala was a very interesting, happy, and fascinating story.
I liked the book titled 'The Book Of Fate' the most.
My favorite character was Tamarai. Your stories are excellent.
Thank you for the books.
~ Janani S. (2nd grade), Metuchen, NJ
Locally the epic is known as the Annanmar Kathai, or "The Elder Brothers' Story," and is named for the principal characters of the third generation, the twin brothers Ponnar and Shankar. Like all good folk epics, Ponnivala takes place in the real world, with locations and landmarks that still exist today. Yet its great age (easily over 500 years old) provides a remarkable insight into the society and culture of medieval India, especially as played out in the Kongu region of Tamilnadu.

New releases planned for 2012 include Tamil, Hindi, and French language versions, and “Ponnivala Parcheesi," an educational game intended to provide teachers with fresh comparative material, for use in the classroom or lecture theatre.

These comics (and their video counterparts) provide viewers with a fresh and informative folk perspective on South Asias pre-colonial history. The material also has great mythological and cultural appeal.