A Vignette in Indian Literature: Young Women Picking Their Own Mates not Unusual,

By Kollengode S Venkataraman

Asmita Ranganathan of South Hills drew the sketches that nicely embellish the story.

In the last issue, Dilip Amin’s article elegantly persuaded readers – mostly Indian immigrant parents — to take in their stride interfaith marriages among their children. Amin also informed youngsters of the important issues they need need to sort out before, the issues they may gloss over during courtship.

Girls choosing their mates on their own is not unusual if you go by Indian legends. The story of Nala and Damayanti, among others, in Mahabharata is one example. In another, Shakuntala, the daughter of Kanwa rishi (sage), and prince Dushyanta fall in love, and even conceive a baby “out of wedlock” in today’s parlance. In other Indian literature too, young women falling in love with men is portrayed in diverse situations with all the intense emotions it generates.

Readers may know that Tamil, a stand-alone classical language like Sanskrit, Hebrew, Chinese, Latin and Greek, has a large collection of literature spanning over 2500 years, many of them now not extant. Kalittogai, whose time is before or around the beginning of the Common Era, is one such anthology of 150 free-style poems in classical Tamil, many dealing with love’s many fascinating manifestations portrayed in vignettes.

A verse in Kalittogai by king Perum-kadum-Ko, describes a situation that is contemporary for all ages. Ko in old Tamil means king. In ancient India, it was expected that kings, powerful landowners, and rich merchants be trained in the aesthetics of literature, music, and dance. Naturally, many of them were patrons of arts. This Kalittogai poem is set in a fascinating backdrop:

A middle aged woman, the mother of a young adult daughter, finds at daybreak that her grown-up daughter is not home. She remembers seeing her daughter going to bed the previous night. She knows that her daughter was in love with a young man in the neighborhood. Not finding her daughter, the mother panics that she might have left the village with her lover. Looking for her daughter in panic along the pathway leaving the village, she sees a group of Brahmin ascetics walking briskly towards her.

How does she know they are Brahmins? Well, they are carrying a Tri-Dandam (a stick made by tying together three branches of a special tree) carried by Brahmin sannyasis even today, to which they have tied their alms-collecting bowls (bhiksha-patram).

The poem is composed as a conversation between the panicked mother and the wayfaring Brahmin recluses on a pilgrimage:

“O Brahmins, with a tri-dandam on your shoulder to which you have tied your alms-collecting bowl, and carrying umbrellas to shield against the hot sun, your single-minded brisk walk and demeanor tell me you are on a pilgrimage. Along way you came by, did you see my daughter and a stranger’s son walking together in love with each other?”

“We cannot say we did not see. O mother of the attractive, courageous young woman who chose to leave with a young, handsome man! We did see them walking past us! Panic not! Now listen:

“Fragrances growing in the forest on the hill only benefit the people who daub themselves with their pastes. What use are the fragrances for the hill? Coming to think of it, your daughter too is like that to you.

“Lustrous pearls growing in waters beautify only those who wear them. What use the pearls have for the waters? Coming to think of it, your daughter too is like that to you.

“The melodic music coming from the seven-stringed yaazh (a harp-like ancient Tamil instrument not available now) is only for those who enjoy its music. What good is the music for the yaazh itself? Coming to think of it, your daughter too is like that to you.”

Comforting the panicked mother thus, the wayfaring Brahmins reassure her further: “You return home in peace of mind. And do not be in grief thinking that your daughter has run away. She is a virtuous woman. Do not cause her any harm. She has gone with a good and honorable man. Her actions do not violate the Natural Order of things in life.”

Now when we put this 2000-year old verse’s import in the context of Dilip Amin’s suggestions and counsel in the last issue to parents and youngsters contemplating interfaith marriage, we see a fascinating continuum between Amin and the Brahmin ascetics.

The Kalittogai verse is cast in the context of a mother’s panic on her daughter choosing her life partner on her own. However, the imageries in the Brahmin ascetics’ advice to the panicked mother are as much valid to situations in which our young men and women choose their life partners on their own, much to the anguish of their parents.

For those who can read Tamil, the original Kalittogai verse is given below*. If you can read Tamil, you will find that this classical Tamil is very different from your day-to-day contemporary masala Tamil, or even the Tamil you read in popular magazines. If you plough through reading it, I am sure you will appreciate its literary nuances.


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