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On Epic Poet Kambar

And the Kamba Rasam polemic of polymath Anna

by Sachi Sri Kantha

By any literary scale of evaluation, Kambar was one of the greats...

Ragava Aiyangar deduced that Kambar began his epic Kamba Ramayanam in the year 1178 and completed the work in 1185... Kamba Ramayanam consists of approximately 10,500 quatrains...

September 15th being the 98th birth anniversary of polymath and DMK founder-leader C.N. Annadurai (aka Arignar Anna, 1909-1969), in this essay, I focus my attention on a not-so irrelevant topic: one of Anna’s influential tracts named Kamba Rasam. This I contribute as a component of the continuing series on the broad theme of the DMK’s influence in the politics and culture of Tamils, to mark the 50th anniversary of the DMK’s entry into Tamil Nadu politics and the 40th anniversary of the DMK’s first ascent to power. The title of Anna’s tract, Kamba Rasam, can be literally translated into ‘Kambar’s Soup,’ but in an elegant sense, it means ‘The Taste of Kambar.’ It provides one of the most stinging criticisms of epic poet Kambar’s masterpiece, Kamba Ramayanam, which in his times was referred to as ‘Rama Avathaaram.’

Kumbarasam part 1

If there is one medieval Tamil intellectual for whom I have deepest sympathies, it is for Kambar, the legendary emperor of Tamil poets (Kavi Chakravarthi). By any literary scale of evaluation, Kambar was one of the greats – on par with Publis Vergilius Maro aka Virgil (70 BC – 19 BC), Kalidasa (~ 4th cent.), Omar Khayyam (1048-1131), Dante (1265-1321), Shakespeare (1564-1616), and von Goethe (1749-1832). But will you care to check any decent encyclopedia of world literature? There would be lengthy entries on the six poets I have just noted, but an entry on Kambar will be missing.

Despite Kambar’s lack of recognition in popular English biographical dictionaries and encyclopedias, he does receive passing mention in academic publications which deal with the Ramayana epic (see for example: Desai, 1970; Pollock, 1993).

Why has Kambar been neglected?

Here are my six reasons (which I consider are not exhaustive) why Kambar has been neglected in the reference sources of literary record.

(1) Time and Tamil political power deserted and failed Kambar, who flourished towards the sunset of Chola imperial power. With the downfall of the Chola throne and the concurrent ascent of kings subservient to the Muslim religion, Kambar’s epic lost its sheeen.

(2) Tamil pundits possessed Kambar jealously, without sharing his masterpiece with the Tamil peasants, thus preventing wider dissemination.

(3) Non-Tamil missionaries from Europe (with a few notable exceptions), who came to proselytize in Tamil Nadu and Eelam, though paying lip service to Kambar’s literary masterpiece (Kamba Ramayanam) covertly smeared him.

(4) Tamil converts to Christianity and Islam ignored Kambar since his literary masterpiece extolled the glory of Hinduism.

(5) An influential section of Tamil academics of the 20th century (the foremost being Arignar Anna, the founder-leader of the DMK), who should have known better than the plebians of Tamil Nadu, mocked and maligned Kambar. They preferred to have Tiruvalluvar and Ilanko Adikal as their mascots for veneration.

(6) Those Tamil academics who dipped into the Marxist - Progressive pond of literature portrayed Kambar as a servile poet who merely propagated the orthodox Hinduism of the feudal, land-owning society of medieval times. These academics revelled in paying paen to the poetry of Anna Akhmatova (1888-1966) and Pablo Neruda 1904-1973), which they read in English translation!

Kambar’s Contemporaries

One drawback in the traditional Tamil literature scholarship is that its articulate practitioners failed to evaluate Kambar’s academic virtuosity in light of the contributions of his contemporaries from other cultures. For this evaluation, we need to assemble a list of Kambar’s contemporaries on the international scene. I provide a partial list below.

John of Seville (c.1090 – 1165): Translator of Arabic science treatises into Latin.

Muhammad Al-Idrisi (1100 – 1166): Arabic cartographer and geographer

Bhaskara II (1114 – c.1185): North Indian mathematician, and author of treatises Lilavati and Vija-Ganita which provided full and systematic use of decimal number system. The content of this work soon became known through the Arabs to Western Europe.

Gerard of Cremona (c. 1114 – 1187): scholar-translator of medieval Arabic scientific texts into Latin

Ibn Rushd or Averroes (1126 – 1198): Andalusian-Arab philosopher and physician.

Moses Maimonides (aka Moses ben Maimon, 1135 – 1204): court physician of Sultan Saladin (1138-1193) and foremost medieval Jewish philospher, born in Muslim Spain and settled in Cairo.

Robert of Chester (fl. 1141 – 1150): science author, who translated important Arabic treatises in mathematics and chemistry into Latin.

Alexander Neckham (1157 – 1217): English scientist, who provided notes on the early compass, outside China.

Genghis Khan (1162 – 1227): fearsome Mongol warrior-leader, whose empire stretched from Beijing to the Caspian Sea with borders on the Indus river and Caucasus mountains.

Leonardo Fibonacci of Pisa (c. 1170 – 1240): mathematician and author of Liber abaci introduced the Hindu-Arabic place-valued decimal system and the use of Arabic numerals into Europe.

Kambar’s Period

Kambar’s period has been an issue of controversy for long among Tamil historians. Simon Casie Chitty, in his 1859 anthology [‘The Tamil Plutarch’] on the lives of poets and poetesses of Southern India and Ceylon, noted as follows:

“In one of the commendatory stanzas which is prefixed to the work [i.e., Kamber’s Ramayanam] the year of Saka 808 (AD 886) is specified as the date of its publication by Kamber; but the Rev.Mr. Caldwell, the author of the Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian Languages, rejects this date as spurious from the evidence of certain inscriptions found at Cape Comorin; and in the old Chalukya country, according to which the Chola kings who patronized Kambar lived only in the eleventh century of the Christian era.”

But, Prof.T.P. Meenakshisundaram, providing an addendum to the entry on Kambar to the 1946 revision of ‘The Tamil Plutarch’, inscribed the following inference:

“Some make him [Kambar] a contemporary of Ottakkuttar of the twelfth century. Other scholars conclude that he belonged to the period of Kulottunga III. Purattirattu, an anthology, quotes verses from Ramayanam after its quotations from earlier works like Cintamani, while it does not quote from Ottakkuttar or other later poets. On the basis of one of the verses which give the date of its composition, one may conclude that he lived in the tenth century.”

As opposed to these claims, R. Ragava Aiyangar convincingly suggested that Kambar lived in the second half of the 12th century. Ramachandra Dikshithar of Madras University has concurred that Kambar was a contemporary of King Kulotunga Cholan III, whose reign spanned between 1178 and 1218 (Vidwan M. Rasamanickam, 1947).

Overall, there are two schools of thought on Kambar’s period. One school proposed that Kambar lived in the 9th century, with which the available circumstantial evidence does not tally properly.  Even as recent as 1981, Justice S. Maharajan, who authored a small monograph on Kambar, stated that the 9th century “appears to be the more plausible” period for Kambar. I rather doubt this advanced dating for the simple reason that, in the 9th century, the Chola empire was only in its early stage of ascent, and only the first two kings of the Chola empire have been identified as living in the 9th century, namely Vijayalaya Chola of Suryavamsa (reigning period 848-881) and Athithya Chola (871-907). The first most prominent Chola king was Parantaka Chola I (reigning period 907-940), the son of Athithya Chola and the grandson of Vijayalaya Chola.

Kumbarasam Part 2Though details on Kambar’s personal life are scanty, that he was a native of Thiruvazhundur (Thanjavur district), Tamil Nadu, has been established. The absence of valid personal details on Kambar is understandable. Even much is still debated on the life details of Shakespeare, who post-dated Kambar by almost three centuries. Nevertheless, a wealth of legends have accumulated surrounding Kambar’s somewhat carefree life and that of the doomed love affair his son Ambikapathi had with the Chola King’s daughter Amaravathi. The Ambikapathi and Amaravathi love story is the Tamil equivalent of the Romeo - Juliet story (the children of Capulet and Montague families in Verona), immortalized by Shakespeare, between 1594 and 1597. On the two Tamil movie versions of Ambikapathi’s love story (which brought a visual portrayal of Kambar to Tamils in the 20th century), I plan to write late in the year to mark the 70th anniversary of the first version (that starred singing superstar of that era M.K. Thiyagaraja Bhagavathar as Ambikapathi) and the 50th anniversary of the second version (that starred Sivaji Ganesan as Ambikapathi).

As per the tentative findings painstakingly collated from indirect historical sources relating to Tamil Nadu by Ragava Aiyangar, Kambar may have been born around 1120 and died in 1197. If this is so, this year also marks the 810th anniversary of his death. Ragava Aiyangar deduced that Kambar began his epic Kamba Ramayanam in the year 1178 and completed the work in 1185. Let me do some simple calculation, based on these two dates. Kamba Ramayanam consists of approximately 10,500 quatrains (though Simon Casie Chitty in 1859 had mentioned of “12,016 stanzas”). Some have indicated that the exact number of Kambar’s verses amount to 10,368, because quite a number of quatrains appear to be later insertions, by prankish-minded minor poets.

Just assuming that (1) the round number of 10,500 is a reasonable guess (permitting for a few dozen quatrains which may have been inadvertently lost during the process of transcription from oral tradition to proto-type leaf manuscripts), and (2) the commencement and the completion years are taken into account, it took Kambar a whole 8 years to compose the 10,500 quatrains. This works out to nearly 1,312 quatrains per year, which in turn comes to an average of 4 quatrains per day.

Kambarasam Polemic of Anna and its elicited Rebuttals

I should acknowledge that, as of now, I have not enjoyed the pleasure of reading the entire corpus of Kambar’s ultra 10,000 quatrains. At most, I have been introduced to four or five dozen. But I have read the two volumes of the Kamba Rasam polemic, penned by Anna. Volume 1 of Anna’s Kamba Rasam (96 pages) provides only 13 quatrains (of which 8 are presented in full) that Anna had selected for criticism for their erotic content. Mention is made in the text that 34 quatrains describing the physical attributes of Sita, the heroine, border on eroticism. I have in my possession only the 13th edition of this tract, published in 1970. I’m somewhat uncertain on when the 1st edition of Kamba Rasam appeared in print. If I’m not wrong, I presume the 1st edition of Kamba Rasam should have appeared in the early or mid 1940s, before Anna founded the DMK.

Volume 2 of Anna’s Kamba Rasam (1st edition 1961, 84 pages) presents another 8 quatrains considered to be of an erotic nature, with an added mention that 67 quatrains display such erotic taste. In Volume 2, Anna also informs the readers that his frontal attack on Kambar’s literary taste in Volume 1 elicited three rebuttals from the epic poet’s admirers. These would have appeared between the mid 1940s and 1960. The three rebuttals which Anna had acknowledged were entitled, (1) 'Death Bell to Kamba Rasam' [ Kamba Rasathukku Saavu Mani], (2) 'Head Strike on Kamba Rasam' [Kamba Rasathukku Mandaiyil Adi], and (3) 'A Wedge to Annadurai' [Annathuraikku Aappu]. Of these three, I have in my possession the first named, Kamba Rasathukku Saavu Mani, consisting of only 32 pages. Probably due to the eminence of Anna, the author of this rebuttal identifies himself only with the pseudonym ‘Karpanai Piththan’ [literally translation: ‘Imagination Lover’].

Kumbarasam critiqueThat Anna was a ranking Tamil scholar is not in dispute and, as such, one can be certain that he would have scrutinized the entire corpus of Kamba Ramayanam, before committing himself to pick on Kambar’s penchant for erotic poetry. If this is so, by Anna’s count, one can infer that about 100 quatrains among the total corpus of 10,500 produced by Kambar border on eroticism. Percentage-wise, 100 out of 10,500 equals <1%. As such, even this admirer of DMK's founder-leader has to admit that Anna was way off balance in his frontal attack on Kambar. It may not be inaccurate to consider this as one bad patch in Anna’s stellar career as a reformer of the Tamil literary tradition.

Could it be that this was a mischievous literary prank of Anna's (who never questioned Kambar’s great merit as an epic poet, in his tract) which he undertook to bolster his then provocative political plank of pan-Dravidianism tinged with popular elements of Marxism?

Promotion of the Silappathikaram epic by DMK polymaths

The Silappathikaram epic, composed by poet Ilanko (a Hindu prince turned priest), promoted by Anna and his lieutenants like Karunanidhi, consists of 5,730 lines; and thus, is much shorter in length than Kamba Ramayanam. But, for the promotion of Dravidian politics of the 1940s, it had quite a few merits over Kambar’s epic. At least three can be identified.

First, the Silapathikaram epic predates Kamba Ramayanam by a millenium. Though the mini-entry on Silapathikaram in the Encyclopedia Britannica notes it as“the earliest epic poem in Tamil, written in the 5th–6th century AD by Prince Ilanko Adikal (Ilango Adigal)”, the popular Tamil view attested by the historical evidence drawn from the socio-cultural exchanges between the then-prevailing kingdoms in Tamil Nadu and Ceylon confirms that the Silapathikaram was composed in the 2nd century AD. Thus, the pinnacle of Tamil literary merit could be advanced, from the early Medieval period of Kamba Ramayanam, to the tail-end era of the Roman empire.

Secondly, whereas the plot of Kamba Ramayanam was a borrowed one from the Sanskrit Ramayana of North India composed by epic poet Vaalmiki, the plot of Silappathikaram was indigenous to the Tamil country and spreads over all three traditional Tamil kingdoms – the Chera, Chola and Pandya. Thus, the Silappathikaram story optimally suited the DMK’s then advanced political plank of pan-Dravidianism.

Thirdly, the plot of Silappathikaram was more appealing to the commoners. Unlike the plot of Kamba Ramayanam, which extols the virtues of divine figures and the vices of devilish elements, Silappathikaram’s plot involves average human characters from trading families trapped in a love triangle, and the story line culminateswith the heroine bringing down the Pandyan kingdom’s throne.

These merits of Silappathikaram, in brief, thus contributed to the demotion of Kambar, in preference to Ilanko Adikal, by the DMK idealogues in their literary campaigns which spanned from the 1940s to the mid 1960s.

Sources Consulted

Annadurai, C.N: Kambarasam, 13th ed., Dravida Pannai, Tiruchi, 1970, 96 pp. (in Tamil)

Annadurai, C.N: Kambarasam, part 2, 4th ed., Thooyamalar Pathippakam, Chennai, 1974 [first ed. 1961], 84 pp. (in Tamil)

Casie Chitty, Simon: The Tamil Plutarch – A summary account of the lives of the poets and poetesses of Southern India and Ceylon, Asian Educational Services, New Delhi, 2nd revised edition 1982 [first published 1859, and revised edition 1946], pp.39-42.

Desai, Santosh N: Ramayana – an instrument of historical contact and cultural transmission between India and Asia. Journal of Asian Studies, Nov.1970; vol.30, no.1, pp. 5-20.

Duff, Mabel C: The Chronology of Indian History, Cosmo Publications, Delhi, 1972, p. 283 [the chronology of Chola Kings listed].

Handoo, Jawaharlal: The Cilappatrikaram of Ilanko Atikal; an epic of South India (book review). Asian Folklore Studies, 1997; vol.56, no.2, pp. 430-433.

Karpanai Piththan (pseudonym): Kamba Rasathukku Saavu Mani [Death Bell to Kamba Rasam], Puthumurai VeLLiyeedu, Chennai, not dated, 32 pp. (in Tamil).

Maharajan, S: Kamban, Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, 2nd ed., 1981, 80 pp. 

Pollack, Sheldon: Ramayana and political imagination in India. Journal of Asian Studies, May 1993; vol.52, no.2, pp.261-297.

Rasamanickam, Vidwan M: Kaaviyam Seitha Kavi Arasar, National Publishing Co, Chennai, 1947, pp.97 – 116 (in Tamil)