Tamil Title : மூன்று சரித்திரக் கதைகள் (Moondru Sarithirak Kathaigal)
Author : Jeyamohan
Translator : Si.Su
1. Dream about the Gigantic Carpet
In the later part of the fourteenth century, due to the growing demand for carpets woven from coconut fibre among the royalty of Hellenistic countries, history records the industrial renaissance in the regions from Kulachal to Kochi and the formation of a new class of Barons who rose to power and prosperity, giving endless troubles to the Kings of Travancore. The art of coir-plaiting was imparted to fetuses still in the womb. Even a separate caste called ‘Kaniyaan’ was appointed to shape their fingers as needed through suitable magical spells. It is noted that it was common for newborns to be interlocked to the coir and their fingers automatically started weaving. The womb-world’s quaint colours escalated the artistic value of the carpets, creating a sensation among Parisian art connoisseurs. The Greek traveler Herodotus noted that the export wealth created by the coirs impressed with the birdsongs, waterbends and skyblues of the land where glades, rivers and the sea blended, exceeded even the sales of black pepper at a point. One among the various unbelievable accounts that he had penned down in his book of travelogues is about the excessive enthusiasm of a Baron who got the opportunity to weave a colossal carpet, probably to adorn the floors of the central cathedral in the city of Kiev. His name noted as ‘Yaapan’ by Herodotus can be corrected as Ayyappan. Prof. Achutha Kuruppu of the Trivandrum University mentions in one of his obscure research notes that this Ayyappan must have been the popularly known coir-baron ‘Ayyappan Maarthaandam’ and he could have ruled the land between the Agastyakut range and the Arabian sea.
Legend has it that Ayyappan followed the dominant method of the day used for focusing and sharpening the skills of artisans, and disabled the locomotion, speech and hearing of the carpet-weaving children; he also seduced and trapped the spirits of ancestors hovering in the darkness of jungles through the ‘Pulluvan’* songs and inhabited them in the fingers of the children. A folk song describes how the carpets woven at a daemonic pace by the children possessed by the ancestors, curled and ebbed like ocean waves. It is said that from the knots woven by thousands of tiny fingers arose strange letters, which formed undecipherable sentences by themselves; they got distorted and reborn and thus mysteriously proliferated themselves.
The children got so immersed in weaving that at one point they became indistinguishable from the colorful paintings of the carpet and vanished into it. Thus the miracle of the self-weaving carpet took place. When the carpet was woven till the required width, Ayyappan Martandam ordered to stop production. But all the organs of the children excepting their fingers had been dead. When they tried to recapture the spirits of the ancestors to release them back to the forests through magical spells, the spirits dodged them by entering into the dark recesses of the carpet. Angered and fearful, Martandam ordered for the weaving fingers to be chopped and the children destroyed. The sworded warriors, who hunted through the marvelous carpet, got illusioned and lost among the thousand myriad images and finally got entrapped in the carpet as images themselves. As the images dissolved into one another and faces filled up in waves, the carpet was ebbing and spreading on all four directions: ‘Like the spreading of spilt water’- says the folk song. The carpet spread and expanded over Ayyappan Maartandam and the warriors and palaces and the lanes of carpet traders and over the Anantapadmanabaswamy temple. It reached the Arabian Sea in the west and the Agastyakut range in the east and expanded beyond them. It was believed for a long time that the carpet was still expanding, taking in the blue light-beams from the depths of ocean-beds and by blending into the green darkness of dense tropical forests. By the eighteenth century this seashore and mountain valley were totally forgotten. One can quote a later-day romantic poet’s words: ‘the colossal carpet spread by nature for the almighty powers of the sky to rest their worthy feet in,’ as the sole literary reference about these lush forests. Though pragmatists consider it as just a dream of the carpet-weaving children, I’ve heard in my young years from young carpet-weavers that weaving became easier for them whenever they sang this song.
2. The Corpse-Fort Mystery
On the Nagercoil-Thiruvanathapuram road is the town of Thakkalai. Many might have seen the nearby Padmanabhapuram Fort and Palace in Tamil feature-films. On the way to Thiruvattaru from there, near a village called Kumarapuram, one can still spot another fort and the ruins of a destroyed palace on a hill-top. It is called ‘Corpsefort’. Surrounded by rubber forests on all four sides, it is steeped in silence.
The Travancore royal Pundit ‘Achchu Mooththathu’s’ disorganized notes- history and tradition were not considered different in this period- contain references to this fort. Before the period of Maharaja Martandavarma (1729), many parts of Travancore were ruled by independent barons who proclaimed themselves kings. One among them, a certain Baron Paaraikkal Udayan Thambi of Kumarapuram Coast (it seems he had titled himself Avittam Thirunal Balarama Varma Maharaja) had apparently built it. Comprising a beautiful façade, gated patio, assembly hall and auditorium, the palace was full of wondrous carvings made of pure white-teak, rosewood and sandalwood. It required twelve years of labour under the leadership of the Chief Architect Kochchu Caaththan of Ponnumangalam. It used to be called ‘Kumarapuram Amma Veedu’* then. According to oral history, Balaramavarma Maharaja took two virgins in (matrimonial) alms from the southern sect of the ‘Ponmanai’ household. The time period may have been approximately two centuries before Martandavarma Maharaja. But time-scale and all are recent things. In those days time stood stagnant.
From traditional legends we have come to know that the Maharaja, lying in the bedchamber with his queens at night, panicked on sensing a quaint voice that was trying to speak to him, the queens too heard it and screamed and the voice became the cause of a huge alarm. The voice was sometimes an emotional outcry, sometimes a rambling, and sometimes a silent incantation. It was neither a male voice nor a female voice. Infact it is noted categorically that it was not a voice emanating from any human throat at all. By placing an oracle, Anantha Narayana Pothi discovered the presence of malevolent spirits. The astrologers remarked that the spirits of the pulayar* field-hands who had fallen and died while working the fields were given sacrificial offerings on this hill and that the voices belonged to those spirits who had come expecting the offerings and felt deceived. Elaborate sacrifices and magico-occult rites were conducted. Ancestor worship, family-deity worship, exorcising worship and Caathan* worship too were carried out. But the voice still continued to be heard in the bedchamber. Kochchu Caaththan was summoned and interrogated. He was accused of faulty selection of the site. It was divined that some subtle daemonic pathway has been disrupted by this building. It was recalled how the same occurrence to another king near Kayamkulam had once destroyed his entire lineage. Sentenced to be impaled on the stake and tied to a boundary stone, Kochchu Caaththan begged for a day’s respite. He promised to detect the flaw and correct it within that time. Since there was none else who knew the nuances of buildings, he was granted permission.
All night long, Kochchu Caaththan roamed the building and by dawn he cracked the conundrum with an exclamation. According to the notes and calculations he had written down later on palm-leaf (these have been compiled later as ‘Padmanabha Shilparatnavali’ in Sanskrit by a descendant named Ananthan Muthacari and was inaugurated at the court of Maharaja Swathi Thirunaal. Eight copies of the book still exist at the Sri Swati Museum) the following is what had happened. There are about twenty villages, fields, markets and countless settlements around the Kumarapuram hill. The sounds arising from these regions get reflected back and forth between the rocks and fort walls, before getting channeled through the main yard of the palace and finally reverberate inside the bedchamber. As the ceiling of the bedchamber is concave like a bowl, these vibrations get amplified into clear sounds that sometimes even morph into words. On the orders of the Maharaja to stop that immediately, the pathway to the fort was bent in two places by raising walls following Caaththan’s plan. The pleased maharaja honoured Caaththan by bestowing on him the title of ‘Muththathu,’* a length of virali silk and a bracelet. But after some days, the king who was engrossed in the amorous essence of a performance of the Nala-Damayanti tale, heard the harmony of the song being penetrated and shattered by the same dissonant sound again. Shaken, he called Caaththan and ordered him to eliminate it. The palace and fort were redesigned again.
The ministers and prime dignitaries murmured that it had become difficult to enter and exit and often they lost their way, but none attempted to inform the maharaja about this. The maharaja barely came out of the palace owing to security reasons. Whether it was the peculiarity of the landscape or the peculiarity of the palace, that inauspicious sound never ceased and kept on resounding somewhere or the other. So the fort was redesigned 888 times. (It can’t be denied that this is a kind of folk calculation. 888 is nothing but an inauspicious number according to tradition). The pathway to the fort thus became complicated and turned into an insolvable maze. Entering and exiting became a matter of sheer luck. Worsening it, the Chief Architect, laughing within himself in a heightened state of lunacy, continued to alter the walls again and again. Only much later did the maharaja notice with dread that his councilors, servants and soldiers were laughing and crying, going in circles in a half-mad state, not knowing the direction. Only when he ventured outdoors did he realize what a huge task it turned out be. The sole indicator for the outward exit remained that noise from the town. But since the chief architect had scattered it so haphazardly, if he set out with it as the reference point and reached the spot after many days of walking, tired and worn out, lying exhausted, it would start sounding from the exact opposite direction. Except for encounters with any of his ministers or guards roaming the convoluted corridors in a half-mad state just like himself, the uninterrupted journey continued incessantly without purpose or destination. Heirs and generals came seeking the Maharaja. Everyone who entered got trapped in the fort. Since the Maharaja’s remains were unavailable for performing his last rites and nobody who pursued it ever returned, and since the right of the heir was void according to the scriptures if the ancestors’ rites of passage were not fulfilled in a proper funeral ceremony, anarchy prevailed for a long time. Then by a resolution of the priestly assembly, the entire Kumarapuram Amma Veedu Fort itself was envisaged as a relic-urn and the rightful ceremonies were fulfilled. With that, the fort became a sacred family emblem. It became a customary rule for the Kumarapuram rulers to comport their deaths inside the fort. As legends proliferated, the essence of the highest goals in human life was considered to be present at the heart of the fort and it was ruled that the kings should follow their forefathers into the fort, traversing the mathematical passages into the centre where they had reached and attain liberation. Generation after generation, the rulers of this lineage used to assign their heirs to the throne before taking to the forests in renunciation, and had been walking into oblivion inside this enormous relic-urn. Many generations later, it is written that a maharaja who was undauntedly traveling towards the centre met another person who looked exactly like him, and who was searching his way out and that after mutual introductions they suddenly burst into rib-breaking laughter; this is written in the ballad composed by the popular satirical poet Maninarayana Chakkiyar. Achchu Muththathu writes that in the 1750’s Martanda Varma Kulasekara Perumal Maharaja, who had brought the entire Travancore state under a single umbrella, had completely destroyed the clan of the Kumarapuram barony along with the fort and brought it all to an end. It is not known why the name ‘Corpsefort’ has come to denote this place, as it is called now. It may be due to the profusion of skeletons found in the ruins of the fort.
3. The Story that has to be told in Thirteen Ways
In 1952, Lord Thomas F. Thorston of London Yorkshire, before he died at the age of ninety, entrusted to his heir and disciple F.Parkinson, the responsibility of decoding the puzzle that had been poking, scarring and tormenting the depths of his psyche throughout his lifetime. Thus Parkinson happened to visit India and become world-famous by formulating his ‘Formal Multiplicity’ theory. Lord Thorston, who worked as the surveyor of the Pechippaarai mountain range in the princely state of Travancore in British India for eight years from 1880, was caught for the theft and sales of state rifles and banished to England, never to return back. He reached his deathbed, bound by life, never to come back to India, but craving for the day he could do so. Lord Thorston disclosed in his deathbed that the rifles were never really sold and related the following facts. The rifles were paid as a price to have contact with the women of an unapproachable, warlike aboriginal tribe inhabiting the primeval mountain peaks. The first volume of the Travancore State Manual states that these rifles were used in tribal revolts and caused heavy damages and later, by a full-fledged attack, the entire generation of this tribe was scattered and destroyed.
The bodily beauty of the aboriginal women and their unusual way of sexual intercourse which was maddeningly ecstatic, even to the level of shattering sanity, was talked about excitedly among the British those days, almost with the diabolical aesthetics of fairy tales. The fact that Lord Thorston was the only white man, who, after a long effort and huge expenditure, could get that extraordinary and dangerous experience through a mason named Raman Nair, was disclosed only after seventy two years, on his deathbed. But it also has to be noted that he never tried to translate into words, the intensity of that experience, which made him incapable of approaching any other woman for the rest of his life. One of the foremost conditions for intercourse, apart from the gun was that, the women with whom he had intercourse with were never allowed to be seen. Thorston was led through the unbroken darkness of a no-moon night to the mountain peak and was exchanged naked to the aborigines at the bank of a stream and led by them to a village hut and handed over to the woman there. Even before the intense night of solely tactile conversations was over, he was consumed by a burning fever and returned in a half-mad state, to recline in sick-bed for an entire week, looming lost among the maniacal world of feminine images which revealed their presence only through the sense of touch. As his desires were aroused again, he was taken to the mountain again. During the thirteenth visit, he was caught, punished and deported to London, where he reconstructed his life in a different way. And yet, a thorn was pricking him constantly.
He had to spend eight years in the sanatorium for mental illness, as a result of his efforts to decode, classify and understand the experience. As time moved on and experiences were left behind farther and farther away, they converged into a point, which lent him clarity. He came to understand that all those experiences were actually thirteen dimensions of the same experience and that it was all just one instance and that an instance was always only a moment. In a journey penetrating through a colossal human crowd, he understood that his experience was that of a moment’s friction causing a fleeting sensation that would be lost irretractably amongst the endless wave of human bodies. This consciousness led him to believe that, from that drop of sensation, he could fetch back and recreate the entire experience. The remaining thirty years of his solitude was spent on reconstructing that experience. The intensity collected drop by drop through thirty years of solitude made possible, a sudden knowledge which sprang at one instant: On all the thirteen turns, he had united with the same woman. The portrait of that face which he delicately inscribed with black lines on a pitch-black canvas can be considered only among the artistic successes of the world. What appears to the ordinary glance as a blank black screen with nothing else visible in it, opens up slowly to life under the glance which fastens its heart intensely on it. That F.Parkinson was struck by a dream of that face and that it demolished his mental frame, were important reasons for his visit to India. Thus he undertook it for a purpose other than the unfulfilled last wish of Lord Thorston to seek and discover the connective thread behind the face. But F.Parkinson was a pure pragmatic. His rationalist mind frame refused to give any magical connotations to the miraculous quality of the intercourse and sought answers in anthropology. It made him conclude that those tribes had stagnated at some strata of the ape-man evolution and still followed the ape’s intercourse habits upto some level. His empirical research led to the next level, where he studied the Pechippaarai survey notes, official records, letters, and Robinson Jeffrey (the Canadian anthropologist who wrote the famous research book, ‘The Decline Of Nayar Dominance’), Rev.Fr.Joseph Gullon (his research on aborigines has been compiled into seven books) and N.Sivasankaran Nair with whose help he could advance further.
F.Parkinson, having discovered that the aboriginal tribes had settled on the opposite slope of Pechippaarai in the area of Thadikkaarankonam and had embraced Christianity, rubber cultivation etc. and become totally modernized, scattered, spread and grown, continued to research them and came up with surprising facts. They were worshipping thirteen different white apostles who had possessed their mothers in their dreams. Thus F.Parkinson discovered the thirteen forms of Thorston’s lover and Thorston’s thirteen forms, simultaneously, in India. The theory containing the complex definitions and formulae that he created to compensate for the inconsistency of this mathematics later became famous as the Theory of Formal Multiplicity.
But today this theory has drowned and disappeared under the huge wave of the structuralist human studies of Claude Levis Strauss etc.
*Pulluvan – belonging to a caste of oracles who draw diagrams on the floor accompanied by music and dancing to summon or appease spirits.
* Kumarapuram Amma Veedu- lit. Kumarapuram Maternal House, indication of a matrimonial alliance within a matrilineal caste.
* Pulayar – An untouchable caste often treated as serfs
*Caaththan- a folk deity
* Muththathu – Senior or Chief
(First published in Subamangala, 1994; From the Short-story collection, Aayiram Kaal Mandapam.)