Of the seven cantos of Valmiki’s Ramayanam (six of Kamban’s Iramavataram), the Sundara Kandam is the one whose name it is not easy to explain. It seems to have nothing to do with either the subject matter (like “Boyhood,” “War,” “Afterword”) or the location (Ayodhya, Aranya, Kishkindha). The attempt to link it with the Sundarbans is unconvincing. “Sundara” is supposed to be one of the names of Hanuman, but this name as that of Hanuman does not occur anywhere in the Ramayana itself and, as the editor of the critical edition points out, the word Sundara itself occurs only once in this kanda, VI: ix: 15 and there too with no particular significance. Tulsi Das who gives the name “Lanka Kand” to Valmiki’s Yuddha Kandam retains the name Sundara for the canto dealing with Hanuman’s exploits. It may be that he agrees with those who think that of all the divisions of the epic this is particularly sundara, beautiful.
In an epic devoted to the exploits of Rama, here is a whole book where Rama appears only towards the end. The chief actors in it are Hanuman and Sita, and next to them Ravana and his crew. Hanuman dominates the scenes both physically and spiritually a veritable colossus. Sita, Patience on a monument (except for a brief moment), not smiling at but enduring her grief, is the very pattern of faith, hope and charity, “these three.” Her gratitude to Hanuman, so admirably expressed, repays a hundredfold all his heroic adventures on her and her husband’s behalf. Her scorn of Ravana shows the stuff of which she is made. As for Hanuman, one understands after reading this canto how he comes to be worshipped by a whole lot of devotees as hardly less than Rama, why the Sundara Kandam in the Sanskrit original is specially chosen for parayanam, a daily recitation.
An oft-quoted passage in the Sanskrit original is where Hanuman seeing Mandodari in Ravana’s bedroom jumps with joy under the impression that he has at last found Sita.
And the leader of the ape host was so deliriously happy that he slapped his shoulders, kissed his tail, shouted for joy, indulged in antics, sang and stalked about with stately pace, climbed up pillars and jumped down, true to his monkey nature (Raghunathan’s translation).
Kamban will have none of this. His Hanuman sees Mandodari not sleeping in the same room with Ravana but alone.
Seeing a sleeper in this state
Whose bright body
Put to shame the brilliance
Of the jewelled lamps,
Hanuman doubted if this could be
And the grief within him burnt his heart
As he said,
“I had lost the gain my birth had brought
And apart from that
If this is Sita who has abandoned
Her high birth and chastity,
Then gone today is Rama’s fame
And its lustre
As well as this city of Lanka
And its Titans.”
Both Valmiki’s Hanuman and Kamban’s make a momentary mistake from which they recover. But the immediate reaction to the mistake is different in the two cases---more natural in Valmiki’s, more idealised in Kamban’s.
In describing Hanuman’s search for Sita, Kamban gives vent to his penchant for describing the anguishes of love-lorn women for their absent lovers or husbands, in this case Ravana. Valmiki does not expatiate on this like Kamban. As Hanuman scrutinises the faces of the numerous women in Ravana’s harem, and looks at them sleeping, their clothes disarrayed, he is assailed in Valmiki by the doubt whether this is not on his part highly improper. How can he look at any woman in this fashion, particularly as, being asleep, she cannot defend herself from his rude gaze? Valmiki’s Hanuman argues within himself and comes to the conclusion that after all if search for a woman is to be made, it should be made only among women, not a herd of deer, and without a proper look how can the search yield any fruit? It is not, says Hanuman, the look that matters but the motive prompting the look. In Kamban this question is not raised.
In the meeting between Ravana and Hanuman, Kamban excels himself by letting his fancy roam free of the original Sanskrit. While in Valmiki, Ravana does not deign to talk to Hanuman directly, in Kamban he makes solicitous enquiries of Hanuman regarding Vali, and is told with a laugh:
“Fear not, Titan. The fierce Vali
Left the earth and went to heaven;
He won’t come back, nor will his tail”
----the tail with which Vali had once bound the Titan tight and carried him across the sky, from north to south, east to west, as a young lad might carry a kitten! Ravana pretends not to understand the scornful irony of
“He won’t come back, not will his tail,”
and proceeds to sneer at the monkeys who had tamely submitted to Rama the slayer of their former king.
“You have made yourselves the slaves of one
Whose arrow killed your matchless chief!
How this redounds to your glory!
And how like a woman should the earth
As in Valmiki so in Kamban, the pomp and pageantry of Ravana are set out at considerable length, and the contrast drawn between this outward parade and the inner emptiness. How formidable would Ravana have been if only his virtue had been equal to his might!
In dealing with Indrajit, Kamban endows him with a personality of his own. In Valmiki, Indrajit sets out to capture Hanuman as ordered by his father, and after walking reverently round him. But in Kamban, it is Indrajit who offers himself for the task, And in doing so he does not mince his words:
“You never, O King, think of what is right,
Get hurt and then lament.
Knowing this monkey’s might all through
Sent rows and rows of men to fight him.
Is it not you that have decimated
And killed all the Rakshasa clan?
This, purely Kamban’s invention, prepares us for the even more spirited words which Indrajit uses against his father later in the Yuddha Kandam, asking him even at that late stage to give up Sita and get reconciled to Rama, so that valuable lives may be saved.
Where Valmiki takes only a few slokas in which to describe Hanuman’s successive fights with the Kinkaras, Jambumali, the army chiefts’ sons, Aksha Kumar and Indrajit, Kamban spreads himself out. He positively revels in the pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war. He seems never to get tired of enumerating the various weapons carried by the thousands of soliders, the rivers of blood and the mountains of corpses. And amidst them all it Hanuman functioning like a typhoon or (a favourite figure of Kamban’s) the Fire of Dissolution!
Kamban’s artistry is to be seen in the varied metres he uses, the slow deliberateness when he needs it, the swift staccato movements when he needs them. The havoc wrought by Hanuman setting fire to Lanka, and the racing and chasing which follow by a whole lot of people running berserk under the command of their irate tyrant are among the finest things in Tamil dramatic verse. This is where the lyrical in Kamban scores heavily over the purely epical, stately and staid in Valmiki.
Once Sita has been located, and Ravana’s resources ascertained by seeing him in his court, Hanuman has only one thought, viz. to get back to Rama quickly with the news. The matter becomes all the more urgent in view of Sita’s threat that she would end her life at the end of a month if by then she receives no news or help form her husband. When Hanuman has to tell his waiting friends what he could do and saw in Lanka, Kamban writes
That manly hero spoke at length
Of Sita’s chastity, patience and penance
And the clinching jewel she had given him;
But too shy to indulge in self- praise
Said nothing of his fight with the Rakshasas
Or the burning of Lanka before he left.
In the original Sanskrit, Hanuman sets forth his exploits in a long sarga, holding back nothing, either regarding the fight with the Rakshasas or the burning of Lanka. Moreover he suggests to his companions that they should all go with him to Lanka, rescue Sita and take her to Rama. It is a suggestion with which the prince Angada agrees. But the old and wise Jambavan dissuades them saying
“We were ordered to search the great southern quarter; but neither the king of the apes nor the wise Rama told us to bring Sita with us. Raghava, that tiger among men, keeping in mind the dignity of his own race, would hardly like the idea of Sita being brought back by us some-how. Having vowed in the presence of the apechiefs that he would himself win back Sita, how could that king go back on his word?”
This question of Rama’s dignity had been raised earlier by Sita, and Hanuman had seen the point and agreed with her. The great Srinivasa Sastri who, in his lectures on the Ramayana, citing instances of Hanuman’s strange amnesia---the curse which the Rishis tormented by him in his boyhood had imposed on him--- fails to notice this further instance of the working of that curse. Kamban quite rightly avoids all this in his rendering.
Indeed Kamban’s description of the activities of Hanuman immediately after the burning of Lanka is masterly in its brevity and matter-of-factness. Hanuman’s obsession now is to get back to Rama as quickly as possible with the news of his discovery, and the urgency of rescuing Sita by Rama himself. That is why there is no reference to the mischief of the monkeys in the Madhuvana in Kamban’s version, although both the Valmiki Ramayanam and the Adhyatma Ramayanam mention it. U.V. Swaminatha Aiyer points out that the Tamil verses setting forth this exploit in some versions of the text not only contradict what Kamban says regarding Hanuman’s desire for expeditiousness, but the language of these verses is quite inferior to what is authentically Kamban’s, and that these verses do not find a place in the oldest of the Mss. They are not in the main body of the Kazhakam edition and I have deliberately not translated them, although Gopalakrishnamachariar includes them in his text.
On the other hand, 25 stanzas in the Kazhakam edition in chapter XI (nos. 13 to 37), not considered as authentic either by Gopalakrishnamachariar or in the Swaminatha Aiyer edition, are for that reason not included by me in my rendering of this chapter.
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