Thursday, June 28, 2012

Episode 19: Independence Won

In this feature, we outline the chapters of The Legend of Ponnivala as we've laid them out in the animated and print series. The sub-story descriptions are those that occur in each episode, and are drawn from our Teacher's Handbook.

A neighbouring monarch demands tribute from Ponnivala’s two rulers, but only one brother is willing to pay up. When he arrives with the required gifts he is jailed in a move designed to force the other brother to appear. When this brother does arrive, the cunning King tries many more tricks. Eventually the two brothers overthrow him in battle and Ponnivala’s independence is won.

The Humble, Tribute-Paying Elder Brother Is Thrown In Jail!

As a consequence the elder sibling takes the humbling gift to the Chola palace by himself, accompanied only by the loyal family assistant. The great king accepts the payment but he is not happy. He has not won the submission of the younger twin, the one he really wants to humiliate. So he develops his own scheme and throws the elder twin in jail. The king reasons that when the younger twin gets word of this he will come to his palace in search of his missing brother. Back at the palace the younger sister has a dream in which she learns that the brother who took the tribute to the Chola has been jailed there. She tells her other brother who angrily takes off to rescue his twin.

The Younger Brother Rides To His Elder’s Rescue

The young king rides at full speed towards the Chola’s palace. When the younger king arrives he finds the assistant still waiting patiently outside the palace. He knows nothing of the “jailing” story. He stops to vent some of his anger on him. Meanwhile the Chola, knowing that the younger twin is prone to violence, gets worried. So decides to pretend that nothing is wrong. He releases his brother and prepares a feast. Pretending that he wants to honor the elder brother he decorates him by putting rings on his toes, seating him on a throne, and so forth. But, in fact, there are several more tricks up this monarch’s sleeve. He is not willing to let the younger brother “off the hook.”

The Dishonest King Attempts Many Kinds of Treachery

First the Chola king tries to poison his two guests while offering them a pretentious palace "feast." Foiled by a cat (an envoy of Lord Vishnu) the Chola then tries another trick. This time he hopes to get them to sit on a chair that has been cunningly tied over a deep pit and is designed to dump its occupant into that hole. But one of the Chola’s own sons falls into that deep hole instead. Finally the Chola proposes a trip to a mountain shrine near by. Eventually he traps the two brothers there, stranding them on a high cliff. He helps them climb up by providing a long ladder, but then pulls it way. Then the Chola runs gleefully back to his palace, believing his “enemy-guests” will die on the isolated mountain. But the two heroes are not ready to give up. As usual they call on Lord Vishnu for help once more. The Lord starts to fly towards earth.

Lord Vishnu Rescues the Heroes From A Lonely Mountain Top

Vishnu rescues the stranded royal twins from the top of the cliff where they are stranded. He appears to them as a beggar with very long hair, walking along a path at the foot of that cliff. Hearing the two stranded me call out, the beggar then braids his hair and throws his magically long plaits up to them. The two men scramble down those braids readily. As soon as they are “free,” however, they have only one thought: They want to attack the Chola king in revenge. An all out fight ensues.

A Battle Royal With The King Which the Heroes Win

The heroes are without their horses. So they run at full speed towards the Chola’s palace. When arrive both the wicked Chola king and the angry clansmen are inside the palace gates. There is a major attack by the skilful heroes and their huge assistant. At the end of the scuffle the Chola king lies dead, along with all of the rival clansmen who initially brought their complaint to him. The twins return home victorious. They have now freed themselves from the requirement to show submission to an onerous overlord. Peace reigns throughout the kingdom.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Episode 18: An Overlord Angered

In this feature, we outline the chapters of The Legend of Ponnivala as we've laid them out in the animated and print series. The sub-story descriptions are those that occur in each episode, and are drawn from our Teacher's Handbook.

Two brother-heroes who rule Ponnivala together set off on a campaign to shame their clansmen for past wrongs committed against their now-deceased parents. Those clansmen and their families are forced into exile, but they cleverly complain to the neighboring Chola king. Informed that Ponnivala has not paid tribute for years, that king soon demands his due.

The Twin Heroes Attack Their Rivals’ School-age Sons

The twin brothers racing their horses towards the land of their clan rivals. Following on foot (with magical speed) is their powerful assistant. When these three men find the clansmen's village they quickly locate its single room school house. There they tie up the horses, enter the one-room building, and sit down at the back of the class. Of course, they are soon noticed. The children react with anger at the presumption of the visitors and a row begins. The younger brother, with help from the powerful assistant, wreaks havoc inside the school. But the elder brother stands to one side. After much beating and whipping, all the young boys in the class are tied together in sets of two. Then they are forced out the schoolhouse door and told to run home. Of course they can only hobble.

A Group of School Boys Are Humiliated And Their Families Exiled

The school boys’ mothers soon notice a strange-looking group of kids running towards them. They call their husbands who have just returned from the fields for lunch. Everyone who sees the state of these poor children feels horrified and insulted. The men from each child’s family run to the school and try to attack the challengers with sticks. But they do not win. Instead, the heroes beat them back. As the situation worsens the heroes throw the entire set of residents out of their village. Forced into exile by the unwelcome visitors, these victimized families set out from their own village as refugees. They quickly develop a plan. They will find refuge with the overlord of the entire South (the Chola king). Then they will submit their complaint about mistreatment to him.

The Exiled Families Cleverly Enlist A Superior King’s Backing

The clansmen find the Chola’s palace. As they meet the king, several spokespersons for the group cleverly remind the great monarch that the two young boy-rulers from Ponnivala have not delivered the traditional tribute to him even once since their parents’ death. Angered, the Chola sends an envoy to the twin brothers’ palace to demand immediate payment. But the envoys are stopped at the river by aggressive palace animals. Frightened, they leave their message with a maid who is filling water pots there, and return quickly to the Chola's home territory. The palace maid brings the two king brothers news of the great Chola's demands. But they disagree on how to handle this new challenge. The younger brother refuses to humiliate himself by taking a symbolic tribute payment to their overlord. By contrast, the elder feels it must be done. He agrees to go.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Episode 17: Chastity Forever

In this feature, we outline the chapters of The Legend of Ponnivala as we've laid them out in the animated and print series. The sub-story descriptions are those that occur in each episode, and are drawn from our Teacher's Handbook.

The two sons of Ponnivala’s King and Queen reluctantly agree to take wives. But wanting to focus on the defence of their family’s honor, they leave their wives locked away. Meanwhile their unmarried sister continues to live in the family palace with them. When their aging parents die the two boys become the area’s new rulers.

A Very Strange Wedding Occurs

The big wedding day is arranged. The two girls that are being held in waiting as the brides (see episode #10) are returned from their “stone” forms to flesh and blood for the event. The wedding is “simple” by Indian standards and quickly completed. Most important is the fact that neither groom sees his wife’s face during the ceremony. Furthermore, they never touch, as silver “finger extensions” are used at the point when a couple would normally link hands. The younger twin stays only the minimal amount of time at the event. Soon afterwards the two wives are "jailed" in a remote and very plain palace. There they live alone and are forced to spin endless hanks of cotton thread day after day

The Parents Make Their Death-Bed Wishes Known

Meanwhile the twin brothers return to a pleasant and carefree life in their much grander palace. In particular, they pass the time by playing dice with Lord Vishnu, who descends from heaven to visit them for just this purpose. The two young men also gradually begin to concern themselves with the affairs of their parent's kingdom. Foreseeing their own death, this kind and gentle senior couple now counsel their sons. They ask them to refrain from pursuing any grudges. They request that they be wise, gentle and calm rulers. In particular, the parents ask their sons never to pick a fight with family rivals. They also ask that they take good care of their sister and see that she is well married. Soon, however, the last rites for these two seniors are performed. The great Yeman, Lord of death, is sent to down by the great god Shiva. His “accountant” has told him that his book states that the days this couple can spend on earth are now used up. So Shiva asks Yeman to bring the lives of these two quickly back to his Himalayan abode.

The Sons Ignore Their Parents’ Final Words

Not long afterwards, the younger twin wants to begin settling old family scores. He singles out the enemy clansmen, the same men who once forced his parents into exile. The elder brother is very reluctant to endorse this move, but he is soon pulled into action by his fiery younger sibling. The two of them go to the palace dressing room and prepare for an attack. They wrap their fine turbans on their heads, put their swords in their scabbards, and call for their powerful horses. Their assistant (son of the untouchable described earlier…who is also their guardian) helps with these preparations. The two young kings soon leave the palace on horseback for the clansmen’s key village. Their powerful assistant follows at a run behind them.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Episode 16: The Home-Coming

In this feature, we outline the chapters of The Legend of Ponnivala as we've laid them out in the animated and print series. The sub-story descriptions are those that occur in each episode, and are drawn from our Teacher's Handbook.

The King and Queen of Ponnivala are reunited with their “lost” sons Ponnar and Shankar. The brothers join their little sister and the reunited family return from exile to their Ponnivala palace. There they clean and rebuild their long-abandoned family home. The boys learn horsemanship and dicing, while the sister dreams in her lovely swing. All three grow up to age fifteen.

A Goddess Visits The Couples’ Humble Home

The goddess takes the boys on her shoulders and sets out on foot to search for their parents. After several inquiries and some wandering she finally hears that the boys’ family is living in a hunter king's horse stall. She leaves the twins at the local temple in the hunters’ main village and cautions them to stay put while she goes on an unspecified errand. Soon her shadow crosses the doorstep of the couple’s living space. They rush out to find this most unexpected visitor.

The Queen Asks For Proof of Her Sons’ Legitimacy

At first the queen does not believe that she could have two sons. But the goddess asks her and her husband to come to the nearby temple to see for themselves. Both the king and the queen are overjoyed at the beauty of the two young boys they find waiting there. But the queen refuses to believe the goddess’ assurance that these children belong to her. She calls upon Vishnu to verify the matter. He proves the goddess’ word by staging a magical demonstration. He makes milk from the queen's breasts pass through seven cloth veils to reach her sons’ mouths and then spill into her sons’ mouths. The couple are overjoyed and realize that it is now time for them to return to their old palace and reclaim their ancestral lands.

The Royal Couple Return From Exile With Three Children Instead of One

The couple return to Ponnivala with all three children and reclaim their ancestral lands. Their palace is cleaned and redecorated. Soon the two boys meet their key guardian for the first time. He is the magical son of a poor family living nearby. They also meet the offspring of many important animals in the kingdom (horses, goats, etc.) that they will interact with again later.

The Couple Arrange Their Sons’ Weddings

All three children grow up happily, but the king and queen now begin to worry about their own deaths and want to arrange their sons’ weddings. The two boys resist, but finally agree to their mother’s wishes. However, they set out one key condition: they will never touch their wives or look at their faces. (Of course this implies there will be no offspring from these promised formal unions). The queen is horrified but has to agree to this wish in order to strike a bargain with her two sons.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Homer's Odyssey in Ottawa

An Ottawa Story Tellers and 2 Women Productions Co-Production

NAC Fourth Stage, Ottawa June 16, 2012

By Brenda Beck
I attended a fabulous story telling event in Ottawa on Saturday. It was an all-day telling of Homer’s The Odyssey by a group called the Ottawa StoryTellers. There were no costumes and none of the 18 or so performers were assigned individual character roles. The group’s members took turns telling the story, with each of the legend’s 24 books being spoken out loud by one individual. There were no prompters, no scripts and no cheat notes. This might sound boring but the result was an outstanding performance!
I drove four hours from a village near Toronto to hear this, dragging my sceptical husband along. We were not sure what to expect. I was curious because of my interest in ancient bardic storytelling techniques, which I am familiar with from my years of living in a village in South India prior to the advent of electricity there. In those times--fifty years ago--a single story teller could captivate his audience for 18 nights, with simple pauses during the daytime for normal work activities and other practical or pressing masters.
Well, this Ottawa event was the closest thing to this genuine and very ancient tradition of professional oral story telling I have ever seen or heard outside of India. Even my husband, not a literary man by background, sat on the edge of his chair. We only had the opportunity to hear the second half of the performance (4:30 PM to 10:30 PM) because we had to drove so far to get there, but it was worth every litre of gasoline we burned en route!  The performance; which in its full version ran 12 hours for those who arrived at 10:30 AM kick off; had to be broken here and there for brief stand-up breaks and food finding expeditions. But the spell cast by these story tellers was so strong that each of these interruptions came as a shock. Soon enough the lights would re-dim and the sound of a small tin whistle would call everyone back to their seats for the next hour or so of pure enchantment.

The stage set was elementary but evocative. One old folding dark wood screen stood behind the tellers. It was draped with a single bright red cloth and accented by a solitary pair of upright, wicked-looking crossed spears. The lighting was low and yellow-orange in hue, just the feeling that old fashioned lamps or torches would provide. The stage was small, rounded and low, with the listeners crowded around it so closely that they could almost touch the performers. All present sat at small round tables, in a non-linear higglety piggelty sort of way. The theatre (the Fourth Stage at the National Arts Centre) was jam-packed. Everyone was excited. The buzz was palpable. What a treat! And the entire event ended with an innovative song composed by Tom Lips, one of the players. It was set to the tune “What Shall We Do With the Drunken Suitor?” but with the words altered to say “What Shall We Do With the Drunken Suitors?” Everyone loved this play on the old Odyssey theme of the hero’s wife courted by mean-spirited nobles while her Lord is away at sea. The audience belted out the words together, ending with a clever chorus substituting for the traditional song line “Early In the Morning.” Instead we all sang Homer’s lovely and poetic epithet “At Rosy Fingered Dawn.”
All in all, this was a marvellous experience, and one that took me back to the real foundations of human storytelling--the most ancient form of entertainment known; the human verbal arts; a universal tradition that surely reaches back into the past many, many thousands of years!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Episode 15: The Truth Unveiled

In this feature, we outline the chapters of The Legend of Ponnivala as we've laid them out in the animated and print series. The sub-story descriptions are those that occur in each episode, and are drawn from our Teacher's Handbook.

Family clansmen attack the Ponnivala palace, sending the King, Queen and their baby daughter into exile. The couple flee to the forest and end up living in a humble hut. The Queen has to work to feed her suffering family. But a surprise is in store when two sons they don’t know they have, start asking the local goddess about their true parents.

The Royal Couple Are Forced Into Exile

The scheming clansmen now begin to threaten the king, using the excuse that he has no male heirs. They beat and bully the family mercilessly until the latter become resigned to leaving their lands and to seek refuge elsewhere. They first go to the village where they have traditional ties and loyal workers. But these allies warn that their presence puts them all in danger of being beaten and further harassed by the same clansmen who just pushed the couple out of their palace.

The Wandering Family Finds Refuge in a Horse Stable

The king, queen and their little baby daughter now leave their familiar Ponnivala territory all together. They decide to retreat to the forested hills where a group of tribal hunters live. There they are offered safe haven and a good meal. But a problem soon appears. The destitute family is offered food by their hunter-hosts, but they try (politely) to refuse. The hunter king suspects (correctly) that this refusal is for caste reasons. In simple terms the farmers perceive themselves to be superior to a group of hunters and don’t want to take food from the hands of this “inferior” community. Now the hunter king gets angry and the only refuge he will offer the destitute couple is to set up house in an old horse stable.

Two Sons Learn The Truth About Their Parents

They have no food and the wife of the king is forced to offer to do common labor (pounding rice) in exchange for food supplies. The other women of the village reject her as too frail and inexperienced to do hard work, but with the help of Lord Vishnu she manages to husk prodigious amounts of paddy rice. Meanwhile the boys grow fast, cared for lovingly by the goddess. One day she is singing a lullaby to the boys that makes a vague reference to their parentage. The younger son (the aggressive one) instantly demands to know who their real parents are and where they are located. The goddess now reveals to the boys their true identity and promises to return the twins to their parents as soon as she can discover their whereabouts.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Episode 14: The Temple Secret

In this feature, we outline the chapters of The Legend of Ponnivala as we've laid them out in the animated and print series. The sub-story descriptions are those that occur in each episode, and are drawn from our Teacher's Handbook. Series 2 begins with Episode 14: The Temple Secret.

A scheming midwife tries to kill the twin sons born to the Queen of Ponnivala. But the family goddess, Celatta, rescues them in secret and then protects them beneath her temple. The boys dine on magical tiger’s milk and receive marshal arts lessons. A baby girl born in the palace minutes later is accepted as the Queen’s only child. She is raised with love by her parents.

A Midwife Is Bribed By Greedy Clansmen

Several clan relatives of the ruling family in Ponnivala hear rumors that triplets (two sons and one daughter) will soon be born to the queen. They decide to bribe the local midwife, asking her to kill the two baby boys before their mother ever sees them. She is to “stuff any male babies down a rat hole” leaving only baby girls to survive. But Lord Vishnu hears about the plan from his seat on the milk sea and decides to help the queen. He alerts the local family goddess and asks her to dig a secret tunnel that will connect the palace birthing room to her nearby temple.

Two Magical Heroes Are Born!

Then Vishnu takes the form a fly on the wall of the birthing room. The midwife blindfolds the queen, telling her that “this is her first experience of childbirth” and that the blindfold will help her not to be scared. While she sharpens her knife in an adjacent room Vishnu transforms into his true self and performs a magical Caesarian on the queen. He lifts out the twin boys who are already strong and warlike. They first “kick the evil” out of the midwife, straightening her back (which earlier had 18 bends).

A Shocked Mother Learns The Truth About Her Only New Born

Then the goddess appears in the room and lifts the two boys in her arms. She whisks them thru her secret tunnel to her local shrine where they will now live safely hidden under her protection. Meanwhile, the queen gives birth naturally to the third in the series, a baby girl. When her blindfold is finally untied the new mother is shocked to learn that she has only one baby girl.

The Twin Heroes Are Raised By A Goddess

The king and queen graciously accept their fate and commit to raising their daughter well. She introduces her to the family goddess and welcomes her into palace life. Meanwhile, the local goddess is secretly raising the girl’s twin brothers in a cave-like space under her temple. There she feeds the boys on the milk of tigers and elephants. Soon they will grow mature and be endowed with magical powers. But all this happens without the knowledge of the royal couple.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Episode 13: The Book of Fate

In this feature, we outline the chapters of The Legend of Ponnivala as we've laid them out in the animated and print series. The sub-story descriptions are those that occur in each episode, and are drawn from our Teacher's Handbook.

The Queen of Ponnivala finds herself alone at the gates of heaven. There she undergoes a twenty one year rite of pennance. Lord Shiva tests her determination repeatedly. But finally she persuades him to call off his curse of barrenness. The great Lord then places three magical children in her womb. The Queen returns to Ponnivala, rejoining her husband on the way.

The Queen Sits Deep In Prayer For 21 Years

The queen now sits on her pillar of penance for twenty one years. She is so motionless that a family of heavenly parrots build a nest in her nose. Eventually Lord Vishnu comes to check on her, and as he waves his arms the parrots leave the queen’s nose and fly off to earth. They go directly to the palace of the hill-dwelling hunter king. His sister greets them warmly and they settle in her forest.

The Queen Is Tested Seven Times

The supreme god, Lord Shiva, now pushes the queen to the brink of death. He then revives the poor queen only to put her through the same cycle again and again. Finally she has experienced a complete cycle of seven “rebirths.”

Lord Vishnu Intervenes

Lord Vishnu sees all this and becomes worried about the woman he has helped so much. So he takes the form of a beggar and goes before his sister, the wife of Lord Shiva. After being screened by a maid he is allowed in at last. There he complains to Shiva’s wife about the queen’s treatment. She then promises him that she will intercede with Lord Shiva himself. But Shiva is angry about the “heat” generated by the penitent who is requesting the gift of sons. His body is now covered with sores. He does not cede to Vishnu’s request for mercy easily.

The Queen’s Prayers Are Answered!

Finally Shiva allows his brother-in-law to bring the queen before him. He has his accountant check his records and then grants the penitent three children. The two boys will each reincarnate the spirit of an important hero in India’s famous classical epic: the Mahabharata. The girl will reincarnate one in a set of seven “virgin sisters” who live near Shiva’s counsel chambers. But there are two provisos:

  1. All three children will have lives lasting only 16 years. 
  2. Vishnu must give up his sacred conch shell and leave it “in hock” with the great god Shiva. 

He will only get this important possession back when he physically brings the lives of the three divine children back to Shiva’s chambers when their sixteen years of life are over. After these matters are finalized the couple start their long journey back to earth. Lord Vishnu revives the heroine’s “dormant” husband when she reaches the spot where he rests. The couple continue on to their palace together.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Episode 12: The Gates of Heaven

In this feature, we outline the chapters of The Legend of Ponnivala as we've laid them out in the animated and print series. The sub-story descriptions are those that occur in each episode, and are drawn from our Teacher's Handbook.

The King and Queen of Ponnivala set out on a long walk towards the gates of heaven, hoping for an end to their childless condition. They meet with many adventures. The Queen even carries her husband on her back. Unfortunately he grows too weak to continuee and has to stop part way. Finally, with Lord Vishnu’s help, the Queen reaches their destination alone.

A Great Insult & Its Consequences

The king and queen set off on their long journey. But they have gone only a short distance when a large sow blocks their path. It is the same she-boar that the queen had earlier purchased and raised on her lands, in hopes of its bearing offspring. The heroine is impatient now. She is eager to get on with her travel plans and feels that the boar is being rude. So she kicks it with her right foot. The boar takes this as an insult. The huge animal now acts as a soothsayer who can see the future. She predicts that the queen will eventually bear two sons and one daughter in return for her good deeds. But the mother boar also says that she will bear a son too, an extraordinarily large male who will kill the queen’s sons. With this curse spoken, the mother-boar jumps off the path and runs away. Next a little palace dog, appears. She is the queen’s personal pet. It too wants a boon, and it knows what has just transpired. So it asks for a pup that will have poison in its teeth. Her plan is that once born, her tiny daughter will become the one to actually kill that great black boar.

The King Falters but His Queen Comes to the Rescue

With a long list of requested gifts on their minds, the couple now set out for the abode of the gods. Soon the husband begins to tire and the queen has to urge him on. She coaxes him, then carries him on her back, up the steep path. Lord Vishnu is watching and teases her at several points, making the journey even more difficult. Finally the husband faints and she finds a little pond water that might revive him. Again Lord Vishnu plays with her, making the water recede. At last the god allows her to fetch a few handfuls. The water is almost magical it is so potent. The king quickly revives.

There Are Many Challenges Along The Pilgrims’ Path

Next the pilgrims face a huge mountain cliff. Vishnu helps by lifting the two over the worst spots. Next they cross rivers of stone, of thorns, of butter oil, and finally of fire. When these feats are complete the couple face yet another threat. This time they are confronted with a forest full of cobras. One cobra asks the queen for a son, someone who can later assist her in a time of need. The queen agrees to carry this special request with her as well.

The King Drops Into a Deep Sleep

...but the Queen reaches her destination

Finally the king and queen reach a flight of steps leading to heaven. Vishnu tells the queen that only she will do the penance. Her husband is tired and will wait there for them. He falls into a deep sleep and Lord Vishnu puts his life in a little protective box. As the Lord and the queen climb the steps they see visions of people being tortured in hell. Vishnu instructs her not to be frightened. Finally they reach the place where the queen will sit in deep meditation. Lord Vishnu builds a special pillar, made of sharp needles, for her to sit on.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Episode 11: A Pilgrim's Journey

In this feature, we outline the chapters of The Legend of Ponnivala as we've laid them out in the animated and print series. The sub-story descriptions are those that occur in each episode, and are drawn from our Teacher's Handbook.

Lord Vishnu tells the King and Queen of Ponnivala they must complete a long list of charitable deeds if they want to be granted children. Making life tough, a group of artisans develop a plot to kill both under the wheels of a temple cart Vishnu had them commission. Faith brings the gods to the couple’s rescue. But then Lord Vishnu spells out one final challenge.

The Heroic Couple Undertake Good Works

Lord Vishnu first asks the couple to build a set of resting stones for people with heavy head loads. He also asks that they construct eating shelters and pay to have public wells dug. He also asks them to marry two particular trees (similar to constructing a local shrine). Most importantly, they are to have a temple cart built for the goddess and then pull it around her temple.

The Rival Clansmen Cleverly Plot To Kill The King and Queen

The rival clansmen hear of the coming festival and the plan to hand pull a new temple cart around the temple. They instruct the carpenters to stop the cart part way. They are to declare that a dream was sent to them by the goddess asking that the king and queen place their heads under its heavy wheels as a powerful sacrifice. They are counting on the couple’s belief in the goddess to get their agreement. A huge bribe is promised in exchange for this lie. The artisans agree and do as they are told. The devout king and queen do reluctantly place their own heads on the ground in front of the cart’s heavy wheels. But with Lord Vishnu’s help, the great wagon magically rises up and flies above their heads, causing them no injury! Now we see divine justice at work. The 16 clansmen who were pulling the cart are killed, along with six lying artisans (the 7th escapes).

A Vow To Feed The Multitudes

The queen remembers that there are two more important things Lord Vishnu has asked for. They are to feed a thousand beggars and then to travel to heaven and perform penance the at the feet of Lord Shiva himself. The feast for the beggars is prepared. But the couple can only find nine hundred and ninety nine beggars, one short of the 1,000 needed to fulfill the vow. The queen sets off to find one more, but there are no more, anywhere. Finally, on the way back she finds a very weak and poor man lying in a ditch. The queen takes this man in her arms and carries him to her palace where she coaxes him into eating a little rice. The vow is fulfilled!

The Penitents Begin a 21 Year Pilgrimage

Next the couple begin their pilgrimage to the gates of heaven. First they lock the palace and a leave a perpetual lamp burning in the family temple. Next all the people of the area come to say good bye. Even the animals of Ponnivala appear one by one. They ask that the queen return from heaven with a gift of fertility for them as well. Among the visitors are cows, who ask for calves, and horses who ask for colts. A poor woman from the area asks for the gift of a strong son who can serve as a powerful assistant for the queen’s sons-to-be. Finally the couple set off. The four gates to the palace compound are locked and black beetles and wasps are called to stand guard.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Episode 10: The Pillar of Destruction

In this feature, we outline the chapters of The Legend of Ponnivala as we've laid them out in the animated and print series. The sub-story descriptions are those that occur in each episode, and are drawn from our Teacher's Handbook.

A young Queen, insulted and beaten at her own brothers’ orders, visits the temple of the goddess Kali. Her brothers follow her there to beg forgiveness. She then lifts the curse she laid on their family. But, returning home, she finds her own husband now is angry with her. Cast out, the Queen becomes very depressed. Fortunately, Lord Vishnu offers her help.

Two Brothers Beg Forgiveness

While the bruised and dejected heroine stands before the goddess a priest of this temple happens by. He asks who beat her and why. Upon learning the story he makes the excuse that he has forgotten something and then runs to her brother’s home. There he talks with the two brothers and begs them to go to the temple and ask their sister’s forgiveness. Only then will their children be brought back to life. The two men reluctantly go and fall at their sister’s feet. She does not want to look at them but the goddess advises her to forgive them and then to enter the home where she was born.

Many Children Miraculously Revived

The queen forgives her brothers, but demands that they run off, out of sight. They do this and she proceeds to visit her natal home with the temple priest as her escort. Inside she finds the dead bodies of her brothers’ fourteen children. The priest tells her she has special powers and begs her to revive them all. The heroine bargains and asks permission to take two of the female children for her own purposes. The priest allows this and all the children are brought back to life using a golden wand sent to the sister by Lord Shiva himself.

Two Brides-To-Be Become Stones to Await Their Grooms

The heroine takes two girls of her choosing from the palace, dragging them against their will to a spot near the village (Ganesh) temple. There she magically turns them into two upright stones. Calling on Lord Vishnu, she asks that these girls be guarded by beetles and wasps until such time as she can bring her own (as yet unborn) twin sons back to that very spot to marry them. Finally, satisfied with her accomplishments, the queen gathers her servants and start out on the path back to her own palace.

The Queen is Banished from the Palace by an Angry King

Now back at home, the king finds his queen asleep and exhausted. He suspects trouble because she has covered her whole body with her sari. Asking to see her arms and legs he soon knows the real truth about her terrible beating. He banishes her from the palace. She plans on suicide and calls in the stone masons to build her a 60 foot tower from which she will jump to her death.

The Queen Contemplates Suicide

...but is saved from death at the last moment

When it is completed she climbs up and then calls on Lord Vishnu, asking that he assure her that when she jumps her body will be broken into many pieces. Vishnu dissuades her with his cunning and exhorts the couple to perform a long list of good works instead. Vishnu implies that when these many fine deeds are complete, that they will be granted a child.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Folklore, Religion, and Good Storytelling

It’s a strange fact of modern life that we like to sanitize whatever we can to avoid offending people. This is necessary for the most part, of course, because when dealing with research and writing about another culture or belief system it’s paramount that the subject be treated fairly and sensitively.

But there’s another challenge that confronts the researcher in the presentation of folk materials: whether or not to sanitize the religious associations when discussing a story or folk tale. In many epic myths from around the world, things simply don’t happen in the story without the intervention of the gods. Can you imagine how short the Odyssey would be if Odysseus wasn’t tossed about the Mediterranean by Poseidon? Could we have a popular story like Dracula if the main character hadn’t renounced God and become a servant of evil? How short would Wagner’s “Ring” cycle be without entire operas devoted to the activities of Wotan?

OK, that last one might not be so bad.

But many of these are past traditions, and those gods are no longer worshipped (except in the case of Dracula, of course). When dealing with living traditions things get trickier. In The Legend of Ponnivala, for example, very little could happen without the intervention of divine forces. The accidental killing of sacred cows in the first generation wouldn’t lead to the cursing of an entire family line, because there would be no Shiva to become angry. Kunnutaiya wouldn’t be revived by Vishnu, because there would be no Vishnu in the story. But he wouldn’t die anyway, because there would be no Gates of Heaven for Kunnutaiya and Tamarai to journey to in the first place.

There is a big difference, however, between a sacred text like the Vedas and a folktale. For one thing, gods are frequently presented in folk tales as characters, but primarily they’re like forces of nature. Things happen because of them. Second, the other characters in the story are rarely presented with a simple moral dilemma. Instead, every move they make, and every consequence they face, is the result of a decision. These ethical dilemmas, and their reward or punishment at the hands of divine forces, are the driving force behind the lessons of folk tales. And so, even with the involvement of gods and goddesses, the tales are less about theology and more about how the human characters handle the challenges placed before them.

With this in mind, how do you think researchers and storytellers should treat religious motifs in folk stories? Should the involvement of gods and godlike characters be eliminated, or celebrated as part of the mythology that informs the life of the culture the story reflects? Post your comments below.