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Gods in the manger

india Updated: Apr 23, 2008 23:11 IST
Renuka Narayanan
Renuka Narayanan
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

While the politically fearful (read: history departments) and the politically opportunistic (read: politicians) twist and shout on ‘mythomania’ and the Hindus-in-the-middle (read: most regular people) wonder if they should say, “Excuse me for living,” foreigners happily use our Saraswati for their Lakshmi. Want a supremely ironic example? Even as Indians still squabble about the religious and political correctness of singing Vande Mataram, look at Indonesia, a country with the world’s largest Muslim headcount — well over 200 million, making over 88 per cent of its total population while Indonesian Hindus account for merely 1.81 per cent. And yet Indonesia happily called its national airline ‘Garuda Indonesia’ way back in 1950, making its maiden flight to Mecca in 1956. To add a piquant twist, Garuda’s first aircraft was involved in daring airdashes during the country’s freedom struggle against the Dutch with the day of its first flight on January 26, 1949, later recognised as Garuda Indonesia’s official birthday.

Garuda. An elegant, appropriate name for the national carrier of an ‘old country-young nation’ that ‘secular’ India would have been too squeamish to use although the name is Indian to the last feather. But the Indonesians obviously had no hang-ups. They seem to have looked around in their cultural heritage to see if they had a suitable name handy — and voilà! — they found ‘Garuda’ and used it. One can imagine the debate:

“Well, there’s ‘Simurgh’, the magic bird from Persian tradition, like ‘Ghognous’ from the Arabic and there’s ‘Garuda’ from out in Hindu Bali.”

“But Ghognous and Simurgh, also called Angha or Faghfos, mean the firebird ‘phoenix’ that rises from its own ashes, though it is a wise, benevolent and beautiful bird.”

“And Garuda is actually a vaahan, a celestial bird of transport and has no dying-by-fire associations.”

“Oh, perfect, let’s use that name.”

Oh, India, left looking on.

Now there’s news that Sri Lanka is making money off its ‘Ramayana trails’ that Indians are paying to visit. It would be hilarious if it were not so brilliantly absurd. At this point some Indian historians may well say, “But there are so many versions of the Ramayana. Whose are we to believe?” Perhaps we could be less timorous about taking ownership since the first known text is acknowledged to be the Ramayana of Valmiki? There are theories (but no proof) that there were earlier stories floating about in the oral tradition that ‘Valmiki just put together’. Yes, and the poetry was incidental and the text must at all costs be dishonoured because — you guessed it — it’s in Sanskrit. Now, it may or may not be true about earlier stories being unified by Valmiki, but it also makes you wonder why certain Indian historians are the first to doubt their own cultural paternity.

Meanwhile, there’s only one way to reply to this Lankan commercial coup in a befittingly witty manner. Make a tourist trail out in Tamil Nadu fabricating sites that conjure up the life of Lanka’s greatest hero, Maha Parakramabahu (he of the ‘foe-crushing arms’). Parakramabahu I (the line goes up to Parakramabahu VI) built the great temple and statue of Buddha at Polunnaruva called ‘Lankatilake’, ‘the auspicious mark on the brow of Lanka’. He ruled between 1123 and 1186 CE (six years later out in North India, Prithviraj Chauhan lost the second battle of Tarain to

Mohammed of Ghor in 1192). Parakramabahu overcame civil war, unified three warring kingdoms in Lanka, built schools, hospitals and a huge reservoir still called ‘the Sea of Parakrama’, sailed all the way up the Bay of Bengal to teach the aggressive kings of Myanmar a lesson, helped out his friends, the Pandyas of the Tamil region who ruled from Madurai, and kept up a brisk, prosperous trade with China via the Straits of Sumatra in present-day Indonesia.

It’s fascinating because less than 150 years before Parakramabahu’s reign, Raja Raja Chola I had invaded Sri Lanka in 993 CE. Lanka was freed of Chola rule by King Vijayabahu (d.1100 CE), Parakramabahu’s ancestor. So Lanka had this flip-flop relationship with ‘Dambadiva’ (Jambudvipa) as they still call Bharatvarsh: enemies in one century, best pals in another.

Now by Indian historian logic, everyone has the right to ‘own’ anything except Indians. So since Indians can’t own the Ramayana let us own other people’s heroes instead. Seems a fair swap. If ‘Champagne’ is a region-specific name and no other sparkling white or pink wine may call itself that, that’s their business. But anyone can chip away and use a bit of Brand India. For out here, it’s clearly a case of ‘Ghar ka bhedi Lanka dhaaye’ — the traitor at home burns Lanka — an everlasting judgment on Vibhishana who grassed on his own brother Ravana.

History, oops, myth repeats itself with our historians and politicians who won’t let us either own or operate anything from the shared basket of Indian culture without hurting the sentiments of one community or another.