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The King and the Clown in South Indian Myth and Poetry

The King and the Clown in South Indian Myth and Poetry

by David Dean Shulman

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The author discusses the tragi-comic aspect of Chola kingship in relation to other Indian expressions of comedy, such as the Vidiisaka of Sanskrit drama, folk tales of the jester Tenali Rama, and clowns of the South Indian shadow-puppet theaters. The symbolism of the king emerges as part of a wider range of major symbolic figures—Brahmins, courtesans, and the


The author discusses the tragi-comic aspect of Chola kingship in relation to other Indian expressions of comedy, such as the Vidiisaka of Sanskrit drama, folk tales of the jester Tenali Rama, and clowns of the South Indian shadow-puppet theaters. The symbolism of the king emerges as part of a wider range of major symbolic figures—Brahmins, courtesans, and the tragic" bandits and warrior-heroes.

Originally published in 1986.

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The King and the Clown in South Indian Myth and Poetry

By David Dean Shulman


Copyright © 1985 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05457-5


Introduction: Labyrinths and Mirrors

I. Kolam: The Reality at the Threshold

One lives with hidden presences. Here is the village street, heavy with sun, hard beneath the feet; on either side, ancient wooden houses, thatched roofs, wide verandas supported by square beams. Before you enter this pyal, you step over a labyrinth fashioned from rice powder at the threshold — kolam in Tamil Nadu, rangoli further north. The mistress of the house, or a daughter, or perhaps a trusted servant, has laid out this pattern upon arising in the morning: she may have selected a traditional design of geometric shapes intertwined, or, if her intentions are more elaborate, two peacocks, perhaps, emerging from a maze (see Figure 1). One cannot enter the house without passing through this man-made focus of auspicious forces, which sets up a protective screen before the home. Of course, one cannot see the screen itself, but only its focal point at the threshold, the point at which it emerges into form — a complex form at that, carefully planned and executed, a reflection of some inner labyrinth externalized here at the boundary, the line dividing the inner and the outer, the pure from the chaotic. The boundary is dangerous: a division in the heart. A wholeness has been shattered so that creation can take place.

The kolam is a sign; also both less and more than a sign. As the day progresses, it will be worn away by the many feet entering or leaving the house. The rice powder mingles with the dust of the street; the sign fails to retain its true form. Nor is it intended to do so, any more than are the great stone temples which look so much more stable and enduring: they too will be abandoned when the moment of their usefulness has passed; they are built not to last but to capture the momentary, unpredictable reality of the unseen. For temple and kolam both express a sense of the real as that which is hidden and yet held in external form. Both open up toward invisible but palpably sensed powers. Both hold these powers in partial, always temporary control. Both mark a transition, and suggest a movement. Like any vessel of divinity, they are tirthas — points of crossing. They simultaneously contain and obscure: imbued with power in their own right, they point beyond themselves to the wholeness of the divine.

Why place a labyrinth at the gateway? The inner paths of the mind are no less tortuous and no less permeable by the unknown. Space and consciousness intersect at the threshold of divinity. This is the shared dimension of experience never lacking in South India: the beyond keeps breaking in upon the present; it can never be ignored. This is the land of the unseen: just as the Vedic sacrifice, most practical and earthy of rites — at once grisly and sensuous — is said to produce "unseen fruits" (adrsta), so the South Indian landscape issues into the invisible. Every object is pregnant with possibilities: the most ordinary is the most subject to sudden, emotion-laden transformation. That old cowherd, sitting beside a muddy pool, is the hidden saint Tirumular; that Untouchable hunter, jingling the bells on his ankles to warn you away from his polluting presence, is none other than the great god Siva, playing his never-ending game of hide-and-seek with the world. Indeed, the world is this game of his: open your eyes, and you may behold him in a new disguise.

The game is not a simple one: when Siva is your playmate, you can never play by the rules, or even truly understand them. Your divine opponent is a cheat, the game is rigged against you, your loss and your frustration are expressed in the reality of pain. For all that, it is for the most part a bewitchingly beautiful game, and a highly serious one — replete with emotion, infused with the poetry of divine forms, absorbing to the point of enslavement, dramatic in its turns of fortune, its crossings of the borders. And it never ends: only by a supreme effort of the will could you disengage yourself from it and set off alone on another path, free at last of the game — and at the end of that other way, too, you would still encounter the god. Out or in, in myth or in meditation, light or shadow, one moves toward the same hidden, wholly real, unlimited source. In effect, one always stands on a threshold: whichever way one turns, infinity stretches just beyond.

The following pages seek to pursue and to define further this inner world of feeling and ideas as it existed and developed in the minds of men and women in medieval South India. My assumption — for that is what it is — is that this internal world was intimately related, in many important ways, to the outer reality in which it flourished; yet this book will not attempt to analyze these relations per se. At most, I hope to suggest something of the direction such an analysis could take, and to point to certain implications that our study of the symbolic and conceptual orders might have for our understanding of the institutional structures and social dynamics of this civilization. Nevertheless, it remains important to reaffirm the conviction of linkage. Indeed, this is not simply a heuristic assumption projected from the outside on to the culture we are investigating; rather, it appears as a cardinal principle of that very culture. From the time of the ancient "Cankam" poetry (the first centuries A.D.), the Tamilians have divided the world into "inner" (akam) and "outer" (puram) categories. The first deals with the more private realm of love, in all its emotional variety and instability, and is always anonymous, that is, expressed through stock symbolic types, lyrical, with a marked propensity for nocturnal images and delicate, often blurring lines; the second sings of the world of action, especially kingly virtues and heroic deeds, which tend to flash through a clearly lit world of daytime, of myth, of objectified realities and specific, named actors. The first springs from the experience of the family and the home, the second from the royal courts and the battlefield. The two divisions form a single poetry, and they share similar structures; some poems — especially those dealing with various marginal types of special interest to us, such as we find in the Kalittokai collection — deliberately confuse the categories. Moreover, both divisions draw upon conventional "outer" features — landscapes characterized by specific distinguishing elements — to suggest inner states of mind and feeling. In a sense, classic Tamil poetics proceeds from our assumption: the outer and the inner, "fact" and feeling, "reality" and fantasy, may be distinguished but never finally divorced. One feels or imagines or perceives in direct relation to the reality in which one is nurtured and lives: a reality at once physically concrete (the soil, vegetation, fauna, and climate of the surrounding landscape) and socially compelling (the human environment specific to any given place). There is a boundary here between "out" and "in," but, as with the kolam, it is a permeable border. Everything hinges upon the relation. In the more prosaic terms of our modern theories: we construct our reality even as it constructs us.

Yet to state the matter in this way is at once too simple and too narrow. No doubt we must distinguish, within the "inner" domain, a conceptual order from a symbolic order, and — by no means a simple parallel to this division — conscious and articulate from unconscious or only partially conscious layers. But beyond this, we must stress the semantic dimension of social reality, inner and outer, for both realms offer expressions of the culture's search for meaning. This, too — the study of the range of cultural meanings that major texts embody and suggest — will occupy our attention. One can hardly aim for wholeness in such an endeavor; huge areas will remain in shadow, awaiting further studies and hands more skilled than mine. To reduce the task to proportions not wholly daunting — to forge, as it were, a wedge with which to begin — I have concentrated on the symbolism of prominent social types, above all on those directly related to the political order. My hope is that in exploring the political iconography of medieval South India, the following essay will shed light on certain of the fundamental issues, ordering principles, and creative tensions at work in this civilization as a whole.

How, then, are we to proceed? We must, it seems to me, attempt to generalize and abstract from a basis in concrete, expressive features available to us in various areas. Let us return for a moment to our village street: have we learned anything from our reverie? We have sensed, perhaps, a certain dynamism and tension, an urge to transformation; an open-endedness in principle; the presence of permeable and self-conscious boundaries; a gamelike attitude toward life; a fondness for the mysterious and the unseen; a predilection for labyrinthine imagery, for the complex and the fluid. We shall find these features recurring in many contexts. But they need to be far more closely defined, their parameters mapped out systematically, their relative importance and interrelations assessed through an analysis of their repeated occurrence. Searching for such consistent components of the inner universe, I have turned to the symbolism of social types as one area where inner and outer intersect. This choice involves a deliberate turning away from the sources traditionally beloved of all historians of South India, that is, the epigraphic record, the meager chronicles, and the not less meager references in the works of foreign visitors. Above all, it is the inscriptions — invariably dated and appearing in a specific, definable place and context — that have served the great historians who have tried to piece together a "factual" history of South India. But to reconstruct the social universe of this region in medieval times on the basis of the surviving inscriptions is somewhat like attempting to depict the tenor and concerns of modern American life by studying a haphazard collection of clippings from the back pages of the daily newspapers: the information is surely relevant to the culture, but the picture that emerges could be at best only a distorted and highly fragmentary one. This is no attempt to denigrate the enormous importance of the inscriptions for our understanding of this area; and we, too, shall refer to inscriptions in the course of the following pages. But our main sources are of another kind, so far hardly utilized for the study of South Indian history: the copious literary documents of the period, in the classical languages of the South (above all, Tamil and Sanskrit). These sources, be they polished works such as Kampan's Tamil version of the Ramayana or the parani war poems of the Chola court poets, or popular creations such as the literature of ballads and folk epics, may not give us reliable dates or hard "factual" material; they do, however, offer a wealth of invaluable data on all aspects of the social and cultural life of the traditional South, and above all on its world view or views. A close analysis of selected passages linked by our thematic concerns may enable us to draw a new picture of South Indian society in the light of its symbolic and conceptual systems.

Our primary concern will be with the Tamil area, during a period that I have called, with deliberate vagueness, "medieval." This period covers roughly a millennium, from the post-Cankam centuries (Pallava times) into the Vijayanagar rule, that is, from approximately the seventh to the seventeenth centuries. Clearly, this is much too long a period to be seen as a single unit, and I have no wish to suggest a nonexistent homogeneity either in historical, structural features or in the related symbolic systems. Nevertheless, there is, I believe, reason to posit an underlying cultural continuity, perhaps most obvious in the symbolic order articulated by our texts. South Indian social symbolism seems at times to be imbued with an innate conservatism, especially when linked to a crystallized, formally defined ideology. Indeed, the continuities may stretch as far back as the Vedic materials on kingship. I have, therefore, not hesitated to juxtapose texts taken from different periods, and even in some cases from widely separated areas, although the transformations in context, and in the symbolic forms themselves, remain in all such cases a factor for analysis. Even classical texts from the North Indian Sanskrit tradition have been utilized when relevant to our concerns; in particular, the two epics, and later puranic texts, are often crucial to an understanding of the distinctive South Indian developments. Moreover, although our conclusions are limited to the area and period mentioned, they are not, it would seem, irrelevant to the study of other Indian places and times: this author, for his part, sees no great divide between North and South, and the parallels with the ancient, including even Vedic, patterns are often very striking.

This said, the main focus of these pages can nevertheless be further narrowed and defined to the Chola period (mid-ninth century to late thirteenth century) and the Chola heartland of the Kaveri delta (especially present-day Tanjore District). There are several reasons for this emphasis. For one thing, this is the part of South India where I am most at home, and which I most deeply love. The flat, radiantly green terrain of endless paddy fields, dotted here and there by the towering gopuras of the shrines — many of them Chola foundations, usually claiming to lie astride an imaginary mountain connecting them to heaven, and beside a subterranean river leading down to the worlds of serpents, demons, and the dead — seems imbued for me with the stuff of my karmic memories, vasanas.

Such considerations aside, it remains true that in symbolic terms the Chola period was a moment of immense significance for South India. The Chola kings are, even now, far more than a faded memory of lost glories: they convey still the living sense, which certainly transcends their peculiar moment in history, of a civilization approaching its own limits, living out to the fullest possible extent the rich interplay of its internal design. Culturally, the period marks a classical apogee in literature, painting, architecture, religious and philosophical speculation. We shall say more in a moment about the great wealth of documentation from this period. But also in other areas, notably those of state building, military campaigns, economic activity, and social integration, the Chola period was clearly a high point of medieval South Indian history. Chola armies ranged over the whole southern part of the subcontinent (one expedition, during the reign of Rajendra I, reached the banks of the Ganges); Chola mariners sailed against Southeast Asian kingdoms. Chola embassies were sent to China; international trade flourished under the Chola aegis. More significantly, in a long-term view, the structural patterns and sociopolitical dynamics which were first solidly established during earlier, especially Pallava times, attained their fullest expression under the Cholas. This applies, for example, to the nature of the king-Brahmin alliance; the related pattern of interdependence between Brahmin and peasant (especially the higher peasant castes such as the Velalas); the function of endowment (royal gift-giving, dana), as a constituent feature of kingship; the organization of the army and its use in predatory raiding; the intimate association of the political order with the great pilgrimage temples and various networks of local shrines; the functioning of the village communities, with their different kinds of assemblies (the non-Brahmin ur, Brahmin sabha, and, toward the end of the Chola period, the supralocal periyanatu assemblies); the self-definition of an orthodox Hindu community in relation to the heroic figures of bhakti devotionalism, on the one hand, and to the clearly excluded communities of Buddhists and Jains, on the other. All of these features, though existing in institutionalized form prior to the great Chola kings, were consolidated and fully developed during their reign.

At the same time, important changes occurred. The historical center of Tamil culture shifted, for these centuries, from the Tontai area further north and the Pantiya realm in the far south, to the Kaveri heartland. A new level of social and cultural integration was attained, as we shall see from its symbolic articulation in major works. The inherent dynamism of South Indian society was liberated in new, far-reaching forms. In the arts, a profound measure of reflexivity, self-awareness, and self-confidence became evident.


Excerpted from The King and the Clown in South Indian Myth and Poetry by David Dean Shulman. Copyright © 1985 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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