Tuesday, September 13, 2016

From ‘Finding the Demon’s Fiddle. On the Trail of the Ravanhatta’ by Patrick Jered

So many worlds, so much to do, so little done, such things to be.
-          Alfred Lord Tennyson

I met a man who lost his mind
In some lost place, I had to find
‘Follow me,’ the wise man said
But he walked behind
-          L. Cohen, Teachers

The musical instrument created by Ravana – certainly the wickedest demon in all of Hindu scripture – has been employed for hundreds of years by a sect of nomadic priests called Bhopas. They play the instrument as part of their liturgy, to accompany themselves singing the praises of Pabuji, an obscure god. Bhopa priests have been almost the exclusive guardians of the ravanhatta for more than half a millennium.

….an eminent and highly respected musicologist, Professor Joep Bor…….. he said, …he was about to publish a major piece of research, tracking the history of bowed instruments back to ancient India, and to the ravanhattha itself. ……He had become convinced, he said, that it was the earliest bowed instrument still in existence, and as such could be considered a direct ancestor of the violin and all other bowed instruments…….Temples in India, he explained, were crammed with carvings of all manner of musicians with clear depictions of their instruments, but unfortunately very few were clearly of bowed instruments. The problem, it seemed, was that bowed instruments had long been associated with the vulgar pleasures of the so-called lower castes. Even the exquisite Indian box-violin, the sarangi, had only recently been accepted as a classical instrument……as for evidence in literature, the best place to look would be in Sri Lankan or South Indian Tamil documents. There was a wealth of Tamil literature that had never been translated into Hindi, let alone into a European language……..

In the West, the noises associated with the clearing of one’s tubes in readiness to spit are considered to be socially unacceptable. However, noisily blowing a slug of snot into a piece of paper, even in the middle of a busy restaurant, is considered quite normal. In the Netherlands it has recently become acceptable – almost de rigeur – to use a toothpick after eating at a restaurant, as long as you use one hand to shield the proceedings from the casual observer, and to avoid flicking stringy bits of meat into their eyes…….In some cultures belching loudly at the conclusion of a good meal is considered complimentary to the host. In ultra-polite Japan, one would never dream of eating soba noodles without copious amounts of slurping, while in polite Indian society this would be unthinkably rude.

……Lawrence Durrell states that loneliness and time are, ‘those two companions without whom no journey can yield us anything.’

If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost;
that is where they should be.
Now put the foundations under them.
D. H. Thoreau

……..the most celebrated par painter of all time, Sri Lal Joshi ……He is regarded as an oracle of knowledge about Pabuji worship, and his pars are considered to be singularly powerful. …his eldest son has a burgeoning international reputation…….

The epic of Pabuji is a long and complex tale of heroism and valour, passion and revenge, that takes place in feudal Marwar in the early 14th century. The epic takes 36 hours for a Bhopa to recite…….

By the 14th century, the Sri Lankans (as they are now known) had already been keeping detailed historical chronicles for many hundreds of years. The Mahavamsa chronicle begins to record Sri Lankan history around the 3rd century BCE. There is no historical record of a ruler of Lanka called Ravana in the days of Pabuji.

There is a considerable body of evidence pointing to the likelihood that Pabuji is not merely a mythological character but that he was also a historical figure…….there is credible evidence to suggest that Pabuji Rathore not only existed, but actually did introduce camels into what is now called Rajasthan……..At the start of the fourteenth century, camels were not entirely unknown in India. Muslim invaders like Mahmud Ghazni and Ala-ud-din Khilji were known to have used camels as beasts of burden during their earlier incursions into Hindustan. But the rarity of camels is indicated by the fat that Ibn Battuta presented one as a gift to the Delhi ruler Muhammed Tughluq (1325-1351). At the time it was regarded as a most curious creature.
So in Pabuji’s day, camels were known in India, but were considered to be wildly exotic, alien beasts. However, shortly after the time of Pabuji, camel herding became widespread in the Thar Desert region surrounding Pabuji’s court at Kolu. And it is no coincidence that Pabuji’s faithful follower Harmal, who had been sent on the sortie to locate the camels in ‘Lanka’ …was son of a Raika tribesman…….Since the days of Pabuji, the Raika tribes have been the traditional camel herders of the region, and the semi-nomadic Raika are, to this day, Pabuji’s most devoted worshippers………John Smith intriguingly mentioned that some Bhopas believed that ‘Lanka’ was somewhere to the west of the Indus River, in what is now Pakistan………Ravana…….Bhopa priests generally do believe that the ravanhattha ………was invented by the demon

The next morning in the grey dawn, the Englishmen rose up and shook the sand of Jeypore from his feet …wondering whether a year in Jeypore would be sufficient to exhaust its interest ……
Rudyard Kipling

There is a crack, a crack, in everything
That’s how the light gets in
L. Cohen

Only a monotheistic religion like Christianity can really be monodiabolistic. Hinduism has too many gods for a single devil to be able to handle. But it has many demons. The Rakshasas were an entire race of demons………They would kill for pleasure and devour human flesh. They would defile the Vedic offerings of priests and lure children away…..the biggest and baddest demon of them all was Ravana……

Ravana …….meets his end at the conclusion of the orthodox Hindu scripture the Ramayana – long before the Epic of Pabuji takes place; a couple of thousand years earlier. In its simplest terms, the Ramayana is a fable of good prevailing over evil, although in that very Indian fashion, there is a gray area where good is not always completely good, and bad not always entirely bad.

……..earlier than the 3rd century BCE, burial was the custom in the South.

Bhopal revealed itself to be a laid-back, unhurried place hugging the curves of the lakes. Banyans and lazy old palm trees swayed and rustled in the breeze. People strolled along the promenade, not particularly going anywhere. It was unusual to see people walking for pleasure in India. Were it not for the high density of minarets, I might well have believed I was in the region of Nice or St Tropez. It had all the charm of a Mediterranean town with a promenade to rival the Boulevard des Anglais.

Tamal, like all drivers I have encountered in India, considers a road map to be an interesting curiosity printed solely for the amusement of foreigners.

In Europe the place would most likely be considered as a site of considerable historical and archaeological interest. In India, it is just another site of yet another hill settlement, littered with the religious detritus of another age.

The smashing of coconuts and bisecting of pumpkins and watermelons at Indian temples was introduced to replace the breaking of human skulls and beheadings when such practices were outlawed a couple of hundred years ago. The basic idea, Uttra told me was that in order to be granted something from the cosmos, you first had to give something to it, in order to maintain the cosmic equilibrium. At the Kalighat temple in Kolkata, where one of the toes of the goddess Kali is believed to be preserved, a boy was sacrificed every day for hundreds of years as an offering. Nowadays its only young goats that have their throats cut at Kalighat.

The first Westerner to write about Pabuji, studied and translated Charan poetry in the early 20th century. His name was Luigi Pio Tessitori, an Italian scholar……….His influence in Rajasthan is enormous…..Charan poetry was written in the ancient Marwari language of Dingal. Its unclear if Dingal ever existed as an independent language outside the martial epics of the Charan.

….The Taj Mahal……the most damning criticism…..came from Aldous Huxley……He deconstructed the Taj with his knowledge of architecture - …..sneering that, ‘the marble is only a veneer over cheaper masonry, not solid’. But he particularly hated the minarets…… ‘…..are among the ugliest structures ever erected by human hands.’….final word on the matter was, ‘….it seems to be that anyone who professes an ardent admiration for the Taj must look at it without having any standards of excellence in his mind.’

…if you lie down with dogs…..you get up with fleas….

Oddly, the people I encountered who trumpeted the virtues of the caste system always seemed to be at the top of it.

Professor Bor…..argues convincingly that the playing bow has its origins in India, and that ravanhattha is the decendent of one of the very earliest of bowed instruments….he presents a startling photograph of a wall carving from the Agastyeshvara temple in Southern India clearly depicting a figure playing an instrument almost identical to a modern-day ravanhattha. The carving has been dated at 10th-to-13th century. To be depicted in a temple, the instrument must surely have had a long-established position in society…….who knows what descriptions are still hidden away in the wealth of early southern Indian Tamil literature.

Once the epic had been set to music, as Komal Kothari believed, it became very difficult to alter. A story that is recited can be easily modified by the teller, as the oral Ramayana had, producing a plethora of different versions. But words that fit to music are much more difficult to change, especially if they rely on rhymes to carry the song. And so the versions of the Epic of Pabuji as sung by different Bhopa families from different parts of Rajasthan remained virtually identical for half a millennium.

I found it an intriguing idea that the demonic origins of the ravanhattha might be the source of the western apocrypha associating the violin with the devil……The earliest clear association I could find between the devil and the violin concerned the Italian violin virtuoso and composer Giuseppe Tartini. In 1713 Tartini had described having a vivid dream in which he made a pact with the devil, trading his soul for the Devil’s favour. During the dream, the devil had played a remarkable piece of music on Tartini’s violin. When the composer awoke, he did his best to write the piece down. The resulting sonata, The Devil’s Trill – a technically challenging piece for the violin – was a great success, although Tartini believed his notation barely did justice to the music the devil had actually performed.……So the western association between Lucifer and the fiddle – as far as I could discern – is most likely no more than three hundred or so years old, with no obvious origin in Indian mythology. However, the western association between the devil and music stretches back much further than this. In mediaeval Europe a chord, the so-called ‘devli’s interval’ or triton, was banned by the early Christian church since it was believed to call up unmentionable (i.e. sexual) impulses (i.e. the devil) in the listener. Not surprisingly, the discordant triton – diabolus in musica – is frequently used in Jazz. Jimi Hendrix based the opening riff of Purple Haze around one.

He looks with curiosity at the long, narrow aluminium case………but doesn’t ask whats inside. In some ways he’s a very atypical Indian. Complete strangers have asked me in the street what it contains…..

And, when you want something,
all the universe conspires in helping you achieve it.
Paulo Coehlo, The Alchemist

In Rajasthan there are degrees of gods. The so-called ‘folk gods’ like Pabuji, of whom there are many, have a more immediate place in the lives of ordinary people than the big hitters like Shiva and Vishnu. Folk gods have a similar role to that of saints in Roman Catholicism: they intervene in the small, personal things in life.

Then a large, jovial man thundered into the room; one of those people whose good-natured presence overrides everything around them, and puts everyone at ease…….Pabuji epic…..a story that was not widely known……had been passed down in his family for hundreds of years and it concerned an ancestor of his, one Saira Bhargani……..In the 14th century, Saira Bhargani was a landowner and trader living on the edge of a village called Lankiye, to the west of Umerkot in what is now Pakistan. Saira had a herd of camels, which had been imported from a distant land. At that time very few camels had crossed the Thar Desert into what is now Western Rajasthan, and they were considered to be very rare and exotic creatures over there. Even in Sindh province, where Saira lived, camels were uncommonly seen, and having a whole herd of them was the mark of a rich man with business interests involving the trade routes to the Middle-East and North Africa.
One day, …….the son of a Rajput……Pabuji Rathore – a rustler – had crossed the Thar Desert  from his brother’s kingdom at Kolu, and had made off with a few of Saira’s best breeding camels……Saira …assembled a posse of his best men and they gave chase………Both Saira and Pabuji….agreed to……fight on human terms, man-to-man…….Among Pabuji’s retinue was a Charan poet by the name of Channan… a break in the battle was declared to permit the two combatants to rest……..the wily Charan…..swapped around their turbans where they lay beside the lake……. Neither noticed he had put on his opponents turban………the act of wearing another man’s turban was the equivalent of swearing a blood-oath of allegiance. It would be unthinkable to wield arms against one another under such circumstances. The battle was halted and the two men embraced…..There was still, however, a problem left to be solved: the stolen camels. What could Pabuji give to his newly made brother…..in exchange for the camels…..so it was agreed….The Charan and his descendents would be given to Saira Bhargani in exchange for the camels…Professor Mehar ….had read…..even to this day, a sub-caste of Charan poets were associated with Muslim Sindhi nobles…..the Charan were traditionally Hindus. People wondered how it came about that Hindu poets would sing the praises of Muslims……So that was the true story of how Pabuji introduced camels to Rajasthan, said Professor Mehar. The story related by the Bhopa priests of Pabuji travelling to Lanka, defeating Ravana, and taking his camels was clearly nonsense. …..The story had been written by a Charan poet…attached to the Rathore family. How could he write of Pabuji as a camel rustler…….Professor Mehar told me there was also a saying among Raika tribesmen…. ‘It means, When a camel is unhappy it looks towards Lanka’. We all think of home when we are unhappy, he said, but this was a mispronounciation that had crept in ……The camels looked westwards, towards Lankiye……not southwards towards Sri Lanka………the basic story sounded perfectly plausible…….

If I could change just one small thing about India it would have to be the litter.

Colombo has a smell all of its own. It’s a dark, earthy, fertile smell…..Its the smell of soil that can scarcely restrain itself from letting things grow. Its jungles and vegetation mixed with a saline-and-ozone hint of the seashore.

It is expressly forbidden to climb Kailash, and in modern times this has never happened. Modern apocrypha states that nobody who has ascended the mountain has ever been seen again.

The history surrounding Ravana’s lingam at Trincomalee takes a couple of fascinating twists…. The existence of a Shiva temple on Swami Rock at Trincomalee has been well documented down the centuries ….There has certainly been a temple ……rebuilt at least a couple of times – on Swami Rock for thousands of years, and it is believed to have been one of the oldest sites of continuous worship anywhere in the world. That continuous worship came to an end in 1624.
Despite its isolated location, cut off from most of Ceylon by dense jungle, the strategic importance of Trincomalee as a military base had long been recognized by the seafaring imperialist nations ……Horatio Nelson …..considered Trincomalee …….to be the finest natural harbor in the world….The Portugese had been in control of much of Ceylon since the early 16th century….the Portugese were notoriously intolerant of all religions besides Catholicism, and regarded the worshippers of Shiva as savage heathen…the presence of a Shiva temple – known as the Temple of a Thousand Columns – on Swami Rock……was well known to be one of the richest in all of Asia ……The Temple ……was razed to the ground and its shattered pillars and masonry were thrown over the cliffs into the sea, or were re-used in the construction of the Portugese fort. The lingam given to Ravana, the object of worship at the temple for eons, went missing

In 1950, shortly after the decision had been taken to rebuild the temple, some workmen digging a well …..unearthed …..An image of Shiva……one of the finest examples of Hindu metal casting in existence. Another image of Shiva was one of the oldest and probably Mongolian in origin.

…..Wilson went diving….in the waters off Swami Rock…noticed a carved stone pillar on the seabed….The pillar proved to be a lingam of great antiquity, and was soon authenticated as Ravana’s long-lost lingam. It was also restored to the newly built temple on Swami Rock. ….Ravana’s ancient lingam – bestowed upon him by Shiva shortly after he had invented the ravanhattha, carried by him from Mount Kailash to the Kingdom of Lanka, revered for thousands of years by the inhabitants of Lanka, dumped in the sea by the Portugese, and retrieved hundreds of years later by Mike Wilson – was still housed at the Koneswaram temple on Swami Rock at Trincomalee

The truth is beyond letters and words and books.
-          The Lankavatara Sutra

…everybody in Sri Lanka seems to be very good-looking.

The Sri Lankans have always been a remarkably literate nation, leaving detailed records of their history…In the 5th century, a Buddhist monk named Mahathera Mahanama began to collect historical records and compile them into a single volume which became known as the Mahavamsa (Great Chronicle of Ceylon). The Mahavamsa begins in the 3rd century BCE. This extensive work, written in the Pali language, was added to by later monks …..forming a historical record spanning more than two thousand years. The later chronicle became known as the Culavamsa. The Mahavamsa mentions a religious site on Swami Rock during the rule of King Mahasena in the 3rd century CE, when Trincomalee was still called Gokarna.

….Sri Lankans are just so disarmingly polite and friendly.

Most of Sri Lanka is immaculately clean and tidy.

….in folklore and Hindu scripture, ‘Lanka’ has never been one of the many names that Sri Lanka has actually possessed…The only place in Sri Lanka, notes Sankalia, that has ever been known as Lanka (or Illankurai in Tamil) is a tiny and ancient port, still in existence, on the North East coast, just to the South of Trincomalee.

…..Samuel White Baker. He concluded that: ‘Bathing is a great enjoyment but the pleasure in such a country is destroyed by the knowledge that sharks are on the lookout for you in the sea, and crocodiles in the rivers and tanks…’

….I had found no genuinely old references to the existence of any historical ruler of Sri Lanka by the name of Ravana….The Mahavamsa chronicle makes no mention of him. The chronicle admittedly records Sri Lankan history from only 300 BCE onwards. But surely some passing reference should have been made to such an important historical figure …..The later Culavamsa chronicle mentions Ravana only passingly as a figure in the Ramayana. In fact, it is not until about the seventeenth century that Ravana is independently mentioned in Sri Lankan literature at all……the Ramayana really does not occupy anything like the position in the collective consciousness of the Sinhalese as it does for the Tamils and Indians in general.

But the Ramayana does have a place in the oral folk traditions of the Sri Lankans. In rural communities the ancient occult ritual the Kohomba Kankariya, or Devil Dance, has been performed for more than fifteen hundred years…..During the rites, various oracl folk-tales are recited, including parts of the Ramayana. In this folk-Ramayana, Ravana is presented in quite a positive light…..for many Sri Lankans, the status of Ravana as an evil demon is merely the spin put on the tale by the victors in an ancient conflict.

Demon worship has a long history in Sri Lanka. There are two definitive books on the subject…..neither of which even mentions Ravana among the many demons worshipped, appeased, and feared on the island…….

…..the Lankavatara Sutra…..its one of the central scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism…..the Ravana mentioned in the Sutra – who invited the Lord Buddha to Sri Lanka -  is rather different from the demon of Hindu mythology….it is believed to have been written down around 2-300 CE… the first Chinese translation was made in 420 CE….the Lankavatara Sutra travelled with missionary monks from Sri Lanka to India where it was translated into Sanskrit….several Chinese translations were made between 420 and 704….and most of which contain the so-called ‘Ravana chapter’ ….. The Lankavatara Sutra was the only text that Bodhidharma considered to be absolutely essential. His teaching of it became the basis of what would become known as Ch’an Buddhism – Ch’an being derived from the Pali word for trance, dhyana. Ch’an Buddhism later travelled from China, via South East Asia, to Japan. In Kore it became known as Son; in Japan, as Zen. The Lankavatara Sutra is the very foundation of Zen Buddhism……the deplorable condition of the Chinese monks at the monastery on Mount Sung…..Bodhidharma taught them a series of martial exercises……on Mount Sung was the famous Southern Shaolin monastery…..the Shaolin monks honed and perfected the movements they were taught, developing the various styles of kung fu…..Shaolin kung fu travelled to Japan…..where it was simplified and shaped into what was called Shorin-ryu (Shaolin) karate - …..Bodhidharma is also revered by students of kung fu and karate as the founder of their martial arts….the Ravana chapter ….is present in all but one of the earliest Chinese translations, which make it 4th century at the latest…..the earliest existing written version of the Ramayana dates only from around the 11th century, more than 600 years after the earliest written version of the Lankavatara Sutra. One of the earliest references to the existence of a written Ramayana was by Xuan Zang in the mid-7th century

Indians have a national genius for subsuming, for integrating, for assimilating, on all kinds of levels.

Jesus said, ‘Have you discovered, then, the beginning, that you look for the end?’
The Gnostic Gospel of Thomas

As we weave our way around Jaipur picking up passengers, it moves from standing room to scarcely breathing room only. But there is none of the irritation that you might expect to encounter in a crowded bus or train in Europe. People in India are used to being crammed together into small spaces and always remain good natured in such situations.

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