Ancient Tamils knew Valmiki Ramayana
by Jayasree Saranathan on 11 Jun 2023 2 Comments

Rama and Ramayana were common knowledge in Tamil speaking lands in olden days. Numerous Rama temples all over Tamil Nadu bear testimony to this. But there is a propaganda blitzkrieg that Ramayana is a myth and there is no connection between Rama and Tamils. Let us examine the evidence from Tamil literature.


Although Rama lived in Ayodhya, the major portion of the Ramayana occurred in the Tamil region. It was from the coast of Tamil Nadu that Rama went to Lanka. He reached the south east coast of Tamil Nadu and stayed there for a few days. He did penance on the shores and then started building a dam across the ocean. There is an old temple at the location where he is believed to have done penance, while the remnants of Ram Setu are there to see. Were there local people present at that time to pass on the news about Rama’s arrival there? It seems there were!


Dhanushkodi, where the Setu Dam begins, was part of Tamil lands known as “Neydhal” – coastal land. There must have been small settlements here and there even in olden days when Rama lived. Rama’s arrival there must have been an unforgettable event for them. People seem to have talked about places where Rama sat and where he slept and carried those memories generation after generation. One such memory has been recorded in the Sangam literature called ‘Agananuru’


The context described in the poem of Agananuru shows how deeply the memory of Rama’s visit to the region was etched in the minds of the common people. The situation is about a man and a woman in love with other. When the people of the town came to know about it, the gossip-mill started grinding and stopped only after they got married.


The girl’s friend tells how the gossip was ended. When Rama sat down under a banyan tree on the seashore and consulted his friends about how to cross the sea, all the birds that lived in that tree, which were making noise until then, became silent. Similarly, when this man and the woman got married, the village people who were speaking ill about them until then, just stopped speaking anything about them.


Could the woman have given such a parable if there had not been such a notion among the people of that coastal region that this was the place where Rama had come and sat under a banyan tree?


It can be said that this is poet’s imagination. As far as the Sangam literature is concerned, the poets have told what was prevalent. What the people of the area often talk about, was incorporated in their poems. The memory of Rama’s arrival, the place he wandered, and the place he sat under the banyan tree were all noted by the locals and passed on through generations, which the poet immortalised in his composition. Let’s take a look at the meaning of this verse numbered 70 in the corpus of Agananuru.


“On the roaring shores of the great ocean, belonging to the Pandya king known as the victorious “Gowriyar”, when Rama, the victorious warrior, started speaking (in the discussion with his friends) the birds in that banyan tree became silent. Similarly, the sound of the town has also been subdued (after the girl married her lover).”


The expression “Thol Muthu Kodi” in the verse for the location is interpreted by an olden and unnamed commentator as ‘Thiruvanai-karai’, the name for Ram Setu in olden Tamil texts. Some other commentators have written that when Rama built Tiruvanai-karai, the chirping of birds from the banyan tree stopped because of the chopping of the tree to make the Ram Setu bund.


But that is not the case, as is evident from Valmiki’s Ramayana. Valmiki mentions the names of trees used for building the dam. Banyan tree was not mentioned. However, it is said that there was a banyan tree in the coastal area of Sri Lanka when Ravana set out to abduct Sita. The people near Ram Setu say that banyan trees are still found on the seashore in Rameswaram, proving that banyan trees existed in the coastal areas of Tamil Nadu as well. One such banyan tree was in Dhanushkodi, known as “Mudhukodi” in the verse, under which Rama sat and consulted his friends. His visit and how he spent his time have been deeply ingrained in the minds of the people of that area. Even in matters of love, those people could not think of anyone other than Rama.


Two other facts in this song suggest that the verse refers to a very old period only. One is the mention of Gowriyar for the Pandyas; Gowri refers to Meenakshi Devi from whom the Pandyans claimed descent. Gowriyar is a very ancient name for the Pandyas and occurs only in a couple of places in the Sangam texts. Clearly, the Ramayana occurred at an ancient time when the Pandya dynasty was called “Gowriyar.”


In the same verse, it is also said that the women were dressed in leafy clothes. From that also, it is possible to discern the antiquity of the time. It seems that the locals had been talking about Rama and his visit right from the time of his visit.


There is another verse too, giving a rare tale related to the Ramayana. A poet, with a generic name Paanan in the ancient Tamil works, received many jewels from a king as gifts for his compositions. His family on seeing those jewels could not make out how to wear them as they had never seen such exquisite ornaments. What was meant to be worn on the ear was worn on the finger and what was meant to be worn on the finger was worn on the ear. The poet says this seemed like how the Vanaras behaved on picking up the jewels thrown by Sita when she was being abducted by Ravana. Not knowing what to do with the ornaments, the monkeys (Vanaras) tried to wear them inappropriately, the hand jewels on the ears and the ear jewels on the fingers and so on.


This detail found in Purananuru 378 has not been told by Valmiki or even Kamban in the Tamil version of Ramayana. Only Valmiki describes Sita as having seen five Vanaras, including Sugreeva, on top of a hill. On seeing them she had thrown her jewels wrapped in her upper garment towards them. Later when Sugreeva met Rama, he showed him the bundle of jewels. There is no mention of the Vanaras handling the jewels after they them picked up.


None of these details are found in Kamba Ramayana. Kamban doesn’t even mention Sita sighting the Vanaras and throwing her jewels towards them. This verse of Purananuru written many centuries before Kamban, expressing the event found in Valmiki, testifies that the version of Valmiki Ramayana was well known among the Tamil people. Not only that, it was a talking point among the common folks.


Ordinary folks have talked about what the monkeys could have done on seeing the ornaments. There must have been discussions and folktales back then among the Tamil people as to what the monkeys would do with the jewels. The poet has put these conversations as a parable in the verse. How deep the story of Rama with minor details such as the jewels thrown at the Vanaras had penetrated the popular psyche that it gave rise to imagining the ways the Vanaras could have behaved!


There are five other verses related to the Ramayana that are cited by the commentator, Nacchinaarkkiniyar, who lived 1000 years ago. In those works, the lesser-known stories like Hanuman defeating Akambana are told, indicating that Rama’s story as told by Valmiki was known to the Tamil people long before Kamban wrote Ramayana. People have read them or heard them through discourses.


The Sangam verses on the banyan tree-base in Dhanushkodi where Rama was seated and the discussion of what the Vanaras had done with the ornaments thrown by Sita form indelible proofs that the Ramayana was common knowledge among the Tamil people of very ancient times.


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