Among the most beautiful stories I grew up listening to was that of the pariah woman who gave birth to twelve children, who grew up belonging to twelve different castes. Legends were told of each of the twelve children – so great did each of them become. Malayalis know her story as the legend of parayi pettu pantirukulam – ‘the parayi-begotten twelve castes.’ Translated that way, it could be slightly misleading because the legend does not say that the twelve castes or kulas were begotten by the parayi [pariah woman], but that her twelve children belonged to twelve different castes.
Hers is one of the most popular legends of Kerala and every child born in Kerala hears it as a child. In my case, it was from my father that I first heard the story as a child. Subsequently I read it as a teenager in Kottarattil Shankunni’s Aitihyamala [Garland of Legends], the collection of Kerala legends that was at that time available as an eight-volume set and has since been combined into a large, single volume. I have been obsessed with the beauty of the story ever since I first heard it.
The brahmana scholar, Vararuchi, says the legend, was one of the nine jewels in the court of King Vikramaditya. Vararuchi was a master of every known science and the unsurpassed scholar of pauranic scholar of the age.
One day it so happened that an idle question came to King Vikram’s mind: what is the most important verse in the Ramayana?
What an absurd question – how do you pick one out of the twenty-four thousand magnificent verses in Valmiki Ramayana as the undisputed best?
Vararuchi had no answer, which displeased the king very much. He asked Vararuchi to go, find out the answer and then come back – and if he couldn’t, said the king, he need not bother to come back to the court. He was given forty-one’s time to find the answer.
Vararuchi wandered wide and far, asking every scholar he met the answer to his question, but not one of them knew the answer. Some laughed at him for asking such a ridiculous question, others commented about the vagaries of kings and the foolishness of people who depended on them for their livelihood, and yet others named one verse or another, but Vararuchi was not satisfied.
Forty days passed, and yet he had no answer to his question. It was not only his position in the court that was at risk, but his fame itself. He knew even if the question was ridiculous he had to find a satisfactory answer for it – for, all that people would remember was that he could not find an answer Vikramaditya’s question, and not that the question was ridiculous.
That night, deep in despair and gloom, Vararuchi repaired to the bottom of a tree. He had failed. Now there was nothing left to be done. Forty days were past and when the night ended, it would be the forty-first day. And he would the laughing stock of the whole world.
He could hardly think as he lay down there. His body seemed to be already dead, so completely drained of all energy was he. Before falling asleep, he prayed: “May the goddesses of the forest guard me through the night!”
As he lay there, some dark spirits happened to pass by through the skies above him. They landed on the tree for a minute’s rest and as they were leaving, asked the forest goddesses who were on the tree if they were not coming along, they were going to a house where a birth was about to take place. The goddesses said they couldn’t leave the tree since the man sleeping under the tree had prayed to them before he fell asleep that they guard him through the night. They asked the spirits to let them know what happened on their way back.
Vararuchi was up before the night was over, as was his habit. But he did not open his eyes or get up. The deep gloom that had enveloped him before he fell asleep hadn’t left him. He had no answer to the king’s question and there was no point in getting up without the answer.
As he was lying there, the spirits who had gone to the house of birth came back and again rested on the tree. The forest goddesses asked them about their trip. “In whose house was the birth? Was the child male or female?”
The spirits told them it was to a lowly pariah’s house they had gone and the child born was a baby girl. “What is her future like?” asked the goddesses again. “What is she destined to become? Who will she marry?”
And the spirits answered, “Well, she is supposed to marry the idiot of a brahmana sleeping under this tree who does not even know that the most important verse in the Ramayana is “ramam dasharatham viddhi, mam viddhi janakatmajam; ayodhyam ataveem viddhi, yathecchasi tatha kuru!”
For those who are not familiar with this verse, it is taken from the Ayodhya Kanda of the Ramayana. As Lakshmana takes leave of his mother Sumitra to go to the forest with Rama and Sita, she tells him this verse as part of her advice to him. In the verse she asks him to look upon Rama as his father Dasharatha; upon Sita as herself, that is, as his mother; and upon the forest as Ayodhya; and for the rest, she tells him, he can do as he wishes. [In a different version of the Ramayana text, the verse ends in gaccha tata yathasukham; meaning, “Now son, go happily.”]
With those words the spirits took off again and Vararuchi got up and sat bolt upright. The first thing he realized is that he now had the answer he had been looking for. As for what the spirits had said he was destined to do, he told himself, it was disturbing but he would deal with it later. What he needed to do now was to go to his king and give him the answer.
Later that day Vararuchi reached Vikramaditya’s court. The king was delighted to see his scholar friend back again – he had been missing him and had even regretted the rash order he had given him.
Vararuchi, says the legend, not only gave the king the answer to his question, but also pointed out to him the most significant part of the verse: where Sumitra asks Lakshmana to look upon Sita as his mother. He then proceeded to interpret the verse in ten different ways, giving the verse ten different meanings.
As Vikramaditya, Vararuchi and the rest of the court sat talking, the scholar told the king: “Maharaj, a child has been born to a pariah couple last night. According to the time and place of her birth and the position of the stars, she is a great danger to the kingdom. If she continues to live, by the time she is three years old, the kingdom itself will be come to doom.”
The king was shocked to hear this. Vararuchi was the greatest scholar of jyotisha, the science of predictions, and author of a number of books. He has never been wrong in the past. Nor did anyone in the court have any doubt that everything Vararuchi predicted would come true.
They wondered what to do. It is a matter of a newborn pariah baby on one side and the whole kingdom on the other. True, a newborn baby cannot be killed, whoever she is. And in this case, it was a baby girl – all the more not to be harmed in any way. While all children were precious, girl children were infinitely more so. [How things have changed over time!]
But at the same time, ancient books of wisdom said that to save a family, an individual could be sacrificed; to save a village, a family could be sacrificed; and for the sake of the kingdom, a village could be sacrificed. Here it was the question of sacrificing an individual for the sake of a whole kingdom.
And yet they knew there was no way they were going to kill a girl child.
Eventually a compromise was arrived at, suggested by Vararuchi himself. They would float the baby down the river, on a raft made of banana stems, with a live torch stuck to her head. After that, let her fate be decided by destiny.
Vararuchi knew what he had suggested was the death of the new born baby. Though technically they would not be killing her straight away, she had no chances of surviving.
They say no blessing ever comes to man from dark powers. And if any apparently comes, the price you will have to pay for it will be shocking too heavy. Vararuchi had received the answer to his question from the dark spirits the previous night, and darkness has already entered the highly educated, pious brahmana’s heart, perhaps unknown even to himself. What was at stake was Vararuchi’s honour. It was not considered an honourable thing for a brahmana to wed a pariah girl. Great would be the social ignominy heaped upon a man who did so. But it was not an unheard of thing. While the society did look down upon it, the scriptures did allow it. It was what was called anuloma marriage, in which a man married a woman from a caste beneath his own caste. A brahmana was thus allowed to marry another brahmana woman, or a woman from a varna or caste beneath his. What the scriptures and tradition were against was pratiloma marriages, in which the woman was from an upper caste or varna, and the man from a lower one.
What Vararuchi was doing to save his honour was taking another life – an innocent newborn life. And that too the life of a girl child. All ancient scriptures are unanimous in this: there is no greater sin than taking the life of a girl child.
Such was the nature of the darkness that had entered Vararuchi that he condemned the little baby to death to save his honour.
Vararuchi’s suggestion was accepted. King’s men went to the hut of the pariah and snatched the baby from the hands of its screaming mother. They stuck a burning torch in her head and floated the baby screaming in agony down a river.
Years passed. Vararuchi was no more with King Vikramaditya. He was now a brahmana wandering restlessly from place to place. Perhaps his guilt tormented him constantly – what he had done to the little pariah girl was in all likelihood the first evil act of his otherwise pure life. At one time, one of the brightest jewels in the court, he had now become a yayavara, spending his nights where he reached. Yatra sayam grhah, that was his rule now: Home for the night is where you find yourself at the sunset. He lived on the charity of men – hospitality was always a part of India, particularly to wandering brahmanas, and their visits were always considered a blessing. After all, a guest was to be treated as God himself – atithidevo bhava, as the Taittiriya Upanishad puts it. Hospitality was also a form of tapas in the ancient tradition. Hosts went out of the way to make visitors comfortable. A situation that was, no doubt, at times exploited by ruthless guests. But that was accepted as part of life and no one ever complained, nor did they stop being hospitable.
Years of wandering. Vararuchi was fairly old by now. Once Vararuchi was a guest in the house of a brahmana. As they sat and talked, the brahmana was delighted to find his guest a great scholar. There was something lovable in the host brahmana too, something that endeared him to Vararuchi. And he really loved his home – he felt at ease in years. The great wandering scholar relaxed – and laughed. It has been years since he had laughed last. Laughter had left him the day he suggested to the king that the pariah baby be floated down the river with a burning torch stuck in her head. He laughed again for the first time in years.
He was still in a light mood when the brahmana invited his guest for lunch. So Vararuchi told his host he had certain conditions for accepting the invitation and unless these were met, he wouldn’t be able to accept the honour. Taken aback, the host asked him what he meant. And Vararuchi told him: “I need to feed a hundred people before I myself eat. For the lunch I need a hundred and eight curries. And after lunch, I need to eat three people and then I need four people to carry me.”
His host was now struck dumb. He couldn’t think of anything to say, he became so confused. And then he heard the voice of his daughter answering from inside the house, “Father, please tell the guest everything will be done as per his wishes.”
The girl’s voice sent a thrill through the aging scholar’s heart, a strange thrill that he had not known so far. He had never heard a voice as sweet as that. He had heard female voices of all kinds – cultured and refined voices in his days as a courtier, and every imaginable kind of voice in his wandering years. But never a voice like this. The exquisite notes the veena produced in the hands of the most talented musician were no match for the young female voice he had heard. A strange rapture rose up from the depths of the scholar’s being and spread through his body. Goosebumps appeared all over. Vararuchi was suddenly carried away to a different world, a world he had never been to before.
He had lived the first part of his life worshipping Sarasvati, the goddess of learning. And then his life had changed, and he had become a tormented wanderer. Thoughts of women had occured to him occasionally. After all, he was a healthy male and to which healthy male do they not occur; but he had known they were born of the urges of his body and had not allowed them to master him. But for the first time he wanted to hear that young female voice again and again. He wanted to hold the woman whose voice it was in his arms. He wanted to surrender himself to her, to make her his own and give himself to her. He wanted to travel with her into those worlds to which he was stranger, but had read about so much. He suddenly understood what his friend and fellow courtier of his court days, the royal poet Kalidasa meant when sang of the glory of women.
“Please ask the guest to have his bath and come back, and by then everything will be ready.”
That voice again.
She had asked him to have his bath and come back.
Vararuchi shook himself out of his thoughts and went to the nearby river for his bath.
After he left, the girl explained it all to her father. When the brahmana had said he had to feed a hundred people before he had his lunch, what he meant was that he had to perform vaishvadeva, the ritual that the scriptures said would please a hundred gods. When he said he wanted a hundred and eight curries, what he meant was he needed the ginger-curry, which is considered equal to a hundred curries. The three people he wanted to eat after lunch - that was a paan, made of betel leaves, aricanut and lime paste. And as for four people carrying him, all he meant was he needed a cot to lie on – the four legs of the cot are the four people.
When Vararuchi came back after his bath, his delight knew no bounds as he saw that everything was done as he wanted it. During the vaishvadeva, Vararuchi’s thoughts were less with the rituals and more with the girl.
And then when he was seated for the meal, the girl came and served the honoured guest. Vararuchi had the first glimpse of the girl whose voice had sent him into raptures. One look at her and Vararuchi knew that that voice had to belong her. He had never seen a girl like this before. Scholar that he was, his mind immediately associated her with his friend Kalidasa’s heroines – Yaksha’s beloved in Meghadoota, Shakuntala, Indumati...he knew none of them surpassed this girl in beauty. And how she moved!
While having his meal, his thoughts were contantly with her. And as he lay on his cot to rest after the paan and closed his eyes, he was unable to sleep. Instead, he saw himself with her. In a home of his own, with her as his beloved.
What a voice! And what beauty! And what brilliance!
He realized now that had never before thought of setting up a home.
Later, he talked to the girl’s father. He was more than pleased to give the girl to the scholar brahmana who was at one time a courtier of Vikramaditya. He talked to the girl, and told her of his age, but she had been listening to him from inside the house as he talked to her father and she had seen him when she came to serve him the lunch. She was already in love with him.
After their marriage, they settle in a home of their own. Vararuchi’s love for his wife was the love of an older man for a young woman. It is also the love of a man who had denied life to himself suddenly falling in love with life. He had much to teach her, scholar that he was, and she, with her brilliant mind, loved to learn from him, which endeared her all the more to him. And suddenly he learnt that he had more to learn from her than she had from him – this beautiful young girl whom she adored had the wisdom of a million of years of life on earth, and her wisdom surpassed his knowledge gathered from books. Hers was the wisdom of life.
Yes, he told himself one day, I am infatuated with this girl. And not ashamed of it. Woman was an altar, and he, a humble priest. Before her he felt the humility a devotee feels before the goddess he worshipped. There was nothing more worthwhile than spending the rest of his life worshipping at the altar she was.
One day she was lying on his lap and he was combing her hair. As he parted her hair, he noticed some strange mark right in the middle of her head. Something like a wound, healed a long time ago, leaving just the scar there.
A shiver ran through Vararuchi. His hands began to shake. He could hardly move. He could hardly speak. Was he imagining it? Or...? No, he did not want to name it. That was impossible!
Vararuchi’s words came out of him with great difficulty. “What is this mark...on your head?” he asked.
“Oh,” said the girl in her sweet voice that put the veena to shame,
“Father once told me that it was the mark of a wound. He said I wasn’t born to him, though he loved me more than if I had been born to him. I am a foundling, a baby who came floating down the river years ago on a raft of banana stems, with a torch stuck in my head.”
Continued ...part 2