Articles and Reviews

Friday, May 28, 2004

Indian Folk Epics:The Story of Manteswamy

Of the twin oral epics of Kannada, while Male Madeshwara is the first, Manteswamy is the second; and there are many similarities between the two. Both Madeshwara and Manteswamy are cult-heroes, and both, being contemporaries, might have come down to the South from Kalyana, the centre of Veerashaivism, in the north. The long journey that Manteswamy undertook to spread 'true' Sharana religion, the problems he faced while making his cult popular, and the varied ways in which he succeeded against his religious foes – all these are narrated dramatically in this epic.

The singers of this epic are called 'Neelagaararu' or 'Tambooriyavaru.' 'Tamburi' means a simple string instrument to the accompaniment of which the epic or parts of it are sung. This epic was collected first by Dr. G S. Paramashivayya in 1973; and it contained 6410 lines. Later, the single-narrator version was collected by Dr. Hi. Chi. Boralingayya in 1997. This version (published by Kannada University, Hampi, Karnataka, India) runs to 27500 lines – the longest among the Kannada oral epics collected so far. Text: Excluding the initial 'Prayer' and the final 'Conclusion,' the epic contains eight parts (a part or canto is called 'saalu' in Kannada).

The outline of the story is as follows: Manteswamy is 'Self-born,' 'the Supreme Light,' and the creator of the whole world. Once he goes to Kalyana, the city of Veerashaiva Sharanas, like a leper to test their devotion. He puts them to varied tests and exposes their sham and hypocrisy. There he meets one Rachappaaji, who becomes his first disciple. Manteswamy wanders far and wide with his disciple and attracts a huge following. Those who were very powerful in those days (14/15th century) were the 'Panchalas' or Smiths. Manteswamy wins them also to his cult and forces them to offer him 'iron' in the form of alms. Finally, being unwilling to see the Age of Kali in which Evil is going to triumph, he appoints Siddappaaji, his eldest disciple, as his successor and descends to the underworld.

All the major incidents of this long narrative can be grouped under two heads: Tests and Opposition. In other words, while one strand of the narrative consists of persons and Systems tested by Manteswamy, the other strand consists of those persons and communities who opposed him and the principles of his cult. The most important incident in the first group of Tests is "The Episode of the City of Kalyana." The way in which in this section Manteswamy tests the followers of the newly founded (in the 12th century) Veerashaivism by Basaveshwara can be viewed as 'the critique of the newly founded sect from a Dalit point of view.' Basaveshwara's socio-political Movement of the 12th century was a revolutionary humanitarian movement, directed against the Varnashrama-system of the Vedic religion. However, as it got institutionalised in the succeeding centuries, it also absorbed some of the characteristics of the same system that it opposed, and established its own hierarchy and ritualistic practices. In course of time, the new Movement got established as a 'Counter System,' and it is this hierarchical institutionalisation of the Veerashaiva Movement that this part of the epic finds fault with. In this section, after most of the new converts ('Sharanas') fail in his tests, Manteswamy declares them as 'hypocrites' unworthy of the Movement. The only true devotees, according to him, are the converts from the lower classes / castes. Also, this incident throws light on the conflict, inherent in Veerashaivism, as to whether the Linga to be worn by every Sharana is a symbol or a principle or an object in truth.

Another part of the epic in this category of 'Tests' is called " the Episode of Phalaaradayya." ('Phalaaradayya' means 'one who comes for dinner') Once, Manteswamy goes to a poor but true Sharana called Madivala Maachayya (Maachayya the washerman); and, in order to test his Faith, he demands that he be fed as dinner the flesh of a boy between seven and nine years. The true devotees that they are, Maachayya and his wife kill their only son who fits that description, cook his flesh, and feed the Guest. The Guest, Manteswamy, is pleased with their devotion, brings the boy back to life, and blesses his devotees.

Those that initially oppose Manteswamy and his cult belong to the farming and Smith community, which makes us understand the nature of opposition and resistance faced by a new cult in a society which had already been crowded with Pan-Indian as well as local religions, sects and cults. The 'alms of iron' demanded by Manteswamy from the Smith community may suggest the importance of their profession – smithy, in a land of constant wars and violence. The most moving and dramatic story in the entire epic is the one of Kempachari. Initially, because of his vanity and opposition to him, Manteswamy imprisons him in a dark cave , infested with snakes and lizards, for 12 years. After 12 years, when he comes out of the cave, he is totally a transformed man in body and spirit; and then onwards he is called Siddappaaji. This incident suggests that, unless one meditates and suffers for long, one cannot be a Yogi.

Intertextuality: 1 Kempachari becoming Siddappaaji is a variation of the very old myth of Valmiki, the first Sanskrit poet who wrote Ramayana. It is said that Valmiki was initially a hunter, who, after being advised by divine sages, meditated for long in the name of Rama. He was so preoccupied in his meditation that an anthill grew around him; and after 12 years he came out of the anthill as a sage-poet. ('Valmika' in Sahskrit means 'anthill'.) 2 The motif of 'Son's Sacrifice' is as old as the Old Testament in which we are told of Abraham sacrificing his son Issac to obey the commands of God. Variations of this motif are found in the myths and legends of all South Indian languages. 3 The introductory part of this epic narrates a 'creation myth' which is a variation of the 'Cosmic Egg' myth.

The epic Manteswamy is a treasure-house: it contains varied features such as lyrics (which can be – and are being – sung independently), parables and fairy tales, proverbs and puzzles. Perhaps, we have to understand an oral epic not as a single genre but as a composition that brings together different genres and varied forms of expression.

For Further Reading: (1) A. K. Ramanujan, "Introduction," Speaking Of Shiva. Penguin Classics, 1973. (2) Ed. G. N. Devy, Painted Words. Penguin Books India, 2002.



pravin said...

very beautiful, we need to write more about Manteswamy,
thanks, pravin

sriharsha said...

There is a bueatiful song sung by a prof(i dont remeber his name, he genearlly comes to EtV harate)