Wednesday, January 1, 2020

The Tamil Mahabharatams

Have you heard about the Tamil Mahabharatams? Although the physical locales of the Mahabharata are primarily located in north India, there's more than one version in Tamil.

Researcher Vijaya Ramaswamy says that the epic reached south India somewhere in the early Christian era (corresponding to late Sangam period). The earliest Tamil version is by the Sangam poet Perunthevanar, who wrote something called Bharatam referring to the Pandava-Kaurava war. But this version has not survived.

The next oldest version appears in the 9th century, when a version of Bharatam was written in the Pallava Kingdom (during the rule of Nandivarman III). It was in "Champu" style, which is a mix of prose and poetry.

In the 10th century, the Pandya king Rajasimha commissioned another version in Tamil. Further in 14th century, Villiputturar wrote a version called Villi Bharatam. This is the version used in Villupaatu, one of Tamil Nadu's folk performances (featured in the photo).

Villupaattu performance in progress, photo by Praveenp [Public domain]
The Villi Bharatam ends with Ashwathama killing Draupadi's children. After that, the same Villi Bharatam was extended by two poets called Nallapillai and Murugapillai who added 11,000 poems in the 1800's. You can see several Villipatu performances even now on youtube; and there are often performances on televisions as well.

Also, somewhere in 16th century, yet another version emerged, written by Pugazhendi Pulavar, which is also used in folk versions and performances of the Mahabharata.

As the epic travelled into Tamil Nadu, local stories began to incorporate Mahabharata characters - thus for example, we have the story of Alli and Arjuna (about which more later!).