The Legend of Ponnivala is an Indian story best known in the Tamil language as the Annanmar Kathai (or Tale of the Elder Brothers ). As this popular name indicates, the story is generally thought to feature the courageous exploits of two brave men: Ponnar and Shankar. But looking deer into this great tale, one finds a subtle commentary that offers a telling female perspective on heroism.
The mother and elder heroine is named Tamarai (“lotus woman”). She was born in a lotus blossom from a drop of Lord Shiva's own semen, which fell to earth during his love-play with his wife Parvati. Tamarai is a pillar of strength and determination, and indeed she sits on a high pillar in prayer for twenty one years. Tamarai's life, taken as a whole, closely fits with what Wendy Doniger recognized as the Classic Saiva Cycle of Myth Motifs . To paraphrase Doniger, the basic Saivite story can be outlined as:
1. The Initial Creative Impulse:
There is an initial creation where a female child emerges from Brahma (her male, and only, “parent”). After this emergence, Brahma comes to desire his lovely daughter. She takes the form of a doe and flees, with him chasing in the form of a stag. His seed falls to earth and generates sages and other lifeforms.
2. Shiva's Marriage to the Original Daughter:
Daksha, a “son” of Brahma, gives his daughter Sati in marriage to Shiva. Daksha, however, holds Shiva in very low regard, deriding him for his asceticism (meditation) and lower-class habits. Daksha performances a Vedic sacrifice but refuses to invite Shiva, who in outrage beheads Daksha. The exclusion of her husband causes Sati to burn herself to death in the hope of being reborn to a father she can respect. Shiva is finally admitted to the sacrifice, and replace Daksha's head with that of a goat.
3. Shiva's Wife Undergoes Rebirth:
Shiva, distraught at Sati's death, rescues her body and dances with it in a wild stupor of despair. Then he drops it and goes into a protracted period of meditation. Sati, meanwhile, is reborn as Parvati, and performances tapas; a form of meditation that produces intense spiritual heat; with the intent of regaining Shiva as her husband. Shiva tests her, but she remains steadfast in her devotion until finally he asks her to marry him. After performing tapas himself, Shiva returns to make love to his wife, but they are interrupted by Agni, the god of fire. Parvati is angered by this interruption and curses all the gods' wives to become childless. Agni attempts to drink Shiva's seed, but it is too hot even for him and he deposits it in a river (or pond). The six Kritikkas who are bathing there become pregnant by this seed, and their multiple pregnancies somehow result in the six-headed Murugan, who is widely considered a sort of “unnatural” son of Shiva and Parvati.
Parallels in Part One
Interestingly, Tamarai's story in The Legend of Ponnivala bears striking resemblances to this classic Saivite cycle. A key animal motif in the Saivite cycle is that of the mating deer, which love-energy begins a creation story on earth. In the Annanmar story, Shiva and Parvati likewise disguise themselves as deer in order to make love. When Lord Shiva's seed falls to earth, however, it does not form a vague group of sages and creatures. It forms a single, named girl. Tamarai's mother, desirous of a daughter, was performing tapas at the edge of a pond when this occurred. The god's seed is his gift to her, arriving in the form of a child. When she discovers the miraculous baby in the lotus flower, she adopts her as her own.
It is important to point out that the Annanmar story creatively expands on the original creation image of a mating couple in interesting ways. In addition to Shiva and Parvati's joint parenting project where they create Tamarai, each god is also seen to exercise creative powers on their own. Shiva, for example, creates Tamarai's future husband, Kunnutaiya. Knowing that Kunnutaiya's entire family has been cursed to barrenness (by Shiva himself), Lord Shiva is persuaded by Vishnu to create a child for this farming family. By creating the child himself, Shiva is able to work around his own curse. He places the baby under a pile of heavy rocks in a field, where he can be found, adopted, and cared for. The parallel here is with Brahma creating Sati out of his own flesh – a common mythological theme across many cultures.
But the most significant creative effort in the Annanmar story is that of Parvati, who at the very outset of the tale creates a clan of “first farmers” in the area. She does this with the consent of Lord Shiva, but entirely without his involvement, using her own creative energy to form both the farmers and their wives. Here, instead of a male (Brahma) giving birth asexually to a daughter (Sati), the Annanmar story begins with Parvati, the great female goddess, giving birht asexually to nine sons. This is only one of many hints that point to a set of strong female-oriented subthemes running through the Legend of Ponnivala.
Parallels in Part 2
In the second part of the Saivite cycle the Annanmar story matches with several classical motifs in creative and striking ways. It could have been labeled “Daksha Motif,” in that it is a story that revolves around a father-in-law / son-in-law rivalry, with the female figure done in the middle. In the Annanmar story, we first have to replace the father-in-law with a brother-in-law, which is not a big alteration in terms of family dynamics. Tamarai's parents are naturally absent from the Ponnivala story, with little explanation given for the absence. What we do know is that she is raised by her two substantively older brothers. She is kept confined to the family courtyard, where she plays and swings happily but alone. Kunnutaiya arrives in her world as a waif and orphan who is hired by Tamarai's brothers to work as a shepherd, although among his duties he is to push Tamarai on her swing. This is how they meet and fall in love.
Unfortunately, Kunnutaiya is far below Tamarai's social status. One day, he is encouraged to ask his masters for Tamarai's hand in marriage by Lord Vishnu, who has come to him in the guise of a wandering beggar. On his first attempt, Kunnutaiya is badly beaten by the brothers for even daring to think abuot arranging a match with their lovely sister. Nonetheless, Vishnu sees to it that the marriage happens by blackmailing the brothers with the threat of fire. Under protest they agree to the marriage, provided the wedding take place outside the village boundaries, and without the traditional blessings of the family. Lord Vishnu himself magically supplies all the trimmings and musicians, the ceremony is held in front of an ancient Ganesh temple. Tamarai's family sends a collection of insulting wedding gifts that send the clear message, “leave immediately, and never come back.”
This story of Tamarai's wedding clearly parallels Sati's wedding to Lord Shiva, and the derision her brothers feel for her shepherd groom match well with Daksha's feelings of derision towards Shiva.
After finally arriving and reclaiming Kunnutaiya's inherited lands, Tamarai realizes that she is barren and can not have children, which may be a reflection Shiva and Parvati's lack of children. Her first thought is return to her natal home to see her brothers' children and delight in their happiness, and constantly being sternly warned against doing so by Kunnutaiya she makes the journey with a few servants bearing gifts for her nieces and nephews.
When she arrives, she is met with violence. The guard at the palace door has been ordered to beat her. Shiva supplies her with a fireball, with which she burns her attacker until he backs off. She curses her brothers, who are hiding along with their children in the palace. All fourteen children suddenly die. She then erects a stone marker declaring that no one may take or give a woman in marriage to anyone from the palace, and no one may accept water from the family members there. This act effectively turns her brothers' entire household into outcasts from the community.
After a visit to Kali's temple, the goddess aids Tamarai by effectively coercing her brothers to submit and beg forgiveness. When they do this, Tamarai is supplied with a golden wand with which she resrectects the dead children. If one equates Tamarai's two brothers in the Annanmar story to Daksha's actions in the base myth, these mens' children to Daksha's “sacrifice,” and Tamarai to Lord Shiva, then this story closely parallels the original myth in its structure and intent. The son-in-law wins the contest of wills and his will becomes supreme. But note the significant twist: here again the female is the active party. Tamarai does all the destroying, forgiving and resurrecting.
We know from other aspects of Saivite mythology, it is the fallen goddess Sati who reigns supreme on earth. The locations where the body pieces land are hers (they fall from the disturbance and dancing Shiva's arms). These are the spots where temples dedicated to the goddess have sprung up. But Shiva's lingam can be found (at least figuratively) at each such place too, where it always places itself at her side as a stabilizing force. In this sense the Annanmar story accords very well with a possible greater understanding of Tamarai as a “fallen Sati” – a form of Shiva's wife who has a husband (in this case, Kunnutaiya) living beside her.
Parallels in Part 3
The concept of Tamarai as Sati grows even stronger in the next part of the Annanmar legend. Tamarai returns home to Kunnutaiya after her misadventures at her natal home. He finds her bruised and exhausted, and is outraged that she did not take his advice and stay away from her brothers' palace. He casts her out.
In a deep depression, Tamarai has a huge pillar built, from which she intends to jump to her death. Fortunately, she's stopped in this exercise by Vishnu, who persuades her instead to commit to a list of devout works, upon completion of which she may go to Shiva's Council Chambers and beg for the gift of a child. This she does, and after the long journey to Lord Shiva's Council Chambers, she patiently and devoutly meditates for twenty one years atop a pillar.
Shiva is determined to test Tamarai, and so puts her through seven deaths – a number significant in atonement for each of the seven cows her father-in-law killed (which bought the curse in the first place), as well as for each of the seven generations the family has been cursed to barrenness. It is also significant, as it reflects Sati's own self-murdered death. Even more interestingly, as a prelude to each death, Vishnu builds a sacred fire under Shiva. Here is Vishnu, acting in the role of Daksha, taunting Shiva with the heat of a sacred fire. In his annoyance, Shiva lashes out by killing Tamarai as he had at Daksha's sacrifice.
When Shiva finally agreements to grant Tamarai an audience, he agrees publicly before all the gods that he will grant her a pregnancy by placing three seeds in her womb. This is done by magic, of course, and she is impregnated on the spot with the reincarnated spirits of heroes from the Mahabharata (Bhima and Arjuna), and one girl from the seven sisters known as the Kannimar.
This lifting of a curse of barrenness parallels the Saivite cycle yet again. Recall that Parvati did a long tapas in order to win over Lord Shiva as her husband, and that due to the interruption of Agni, Parvati cursed all the gods to barrenness. When Agni consumed Shiva's seed, however, all the gods became pregnant, and Shiva's seed ended up in a river, eventually to become the six-headed Skanda or Murugan.
Another echo with this part of the story is that, just as the gods all became pregnant in a counter-measure to Parvati's curse, Tamarai returns to Ponnivala with a gift of divine water through which Lord Shiva lifts his curse of barrenness from all the mothers of that kingdom. Humans and animals in Ponnivala have been without children since the course was imposed, but through her punishment Tamarai is able to sprinkle just a few drops on all the females of the kingdom, and they quickly become pregnant.
But sprinkling water over everyone is not the end of the story. Nine months later Tamarai gives birth to twin boys . True, they are not double-headed beings let alone one boy with six heads! But the concept of multiplicity is there in this birth of triplets to the newly fertile queen. Furthermore, the two boys are a bit like Lord Murugan in their personalities. They are young, warlike and eager to enforce a just and moral rule over the land. The youngger twin (the true hero who is beloved by all) carries a spear as his ever-present weapon, just as the beloved Murugan himself carries the golden spear or vel. And Murugan, though said to have six heads, is usually portrayed with only one. It is more like he has a mix of personalities.
The twins in the Annanmar story represent contrastive personalities as well. One is gentle and concerned with justice while the other (the younger) is much more aggressive, violent and intolerant of what he believes to be wrong-doing. There is just a possibility here that the twin heroes of the Annanmar story are like two of the many faces of Lord Murugan himself. Their younger sister Tangal, on the other hand, specifically reincarnates one of the seven Kannimar virgin girls (described as the six Kritikas of the Murugan story; one of whom has a separate fate) who are like Murugan's surrogate mothers. Just like in real life, where older sisters often help raise and care for youngger children, so Tangal is given a sisterly role in relation to her brothers. But there are interesting changes, as is typical in such cases of mythical recycling. In this story Tangal is younger than her brothers and is cared for by them. The Murugan overtones are present in this legend but they are partly hidden. Like so much in this great folk epic, the singer-poets who retell the story assume that their audience is familiar with the most important and culturally ubiquitous Hindu myth cycles. The local poets take liberties with these traditions, playing with these classical relationships in a way that causes their listeners to think, to puzzle, and to dream.