Ravana - historical or mythical figure?
About three years ago I spent about three weeks with three sisters in
India. To be specific their abode was in Vaishalee off Pitampura suburb
of Delhi. The name Vaishalee resonated with back home childhood Sunday
Dhamma school memories of the miserable state that the city of Vishala (Vishala
Mahanuwara) was plummeted to during Buddha's time, due to spread of a
pestilence. But this Vaishalee was geographically different. In fact,
aloof and quiet, it was mostly sprinkled with residences of University
staff. Two of the Bhatia sisters were and are on the New Delhi
University staff and their father, a retired dean. Their mother was a
well-known poetess whose reminiscences of the flight from Lahore to a
city in India the young couple indulged in, in a tight packed train in
the immediate aftermath of the partition riots trailing India's
Independence, just held me spellbound.
One evening I spotted the three sisters gaily dressed and ready for
an outing. They were enroute to the Ravana Festival. We are going to
burn him, they said. Annually they, the North Indians do so, according
to the three sisters. Not born yesterday I could well understand the
Indian wrath against our valiant king of pre-historic times charged
internationally with unwarranted aggression and trespass of a foreign
sovereign state and kidnapping another's wife.
But having joined them I felt very sad as I watched massive flames
converging around the bloated effigy of Ravana and making a bonfire of
After all he was my countryman who in certain legendary ways has
brought immense glory to it. We and our literature and folklore would
have been much poorer without him. Whenever we are down in the doldrums
and find nothing to uplift our spirits we can take solace in the thought
that the first airplane was built in our small island. The Wright
brothers of USA take a back seat. No. Not in the Dandu Monara of King
Ravana. Even the airport has been located as Wa - Ri - Ya - pola (Stand
where air borne vehicles stop). That could be the world's first airport,
this town today hidden in the meshes of Sath Korale vegetation. Who
disputes these facts or maybe no one bothers.
If not for him what would have ignited hot debates as to whether
Ravana is a mythical or historical figure and stoked imaginations of
artists, writers and even beauty queens. Beauty queen? Never heard of
that, I hear you say. Let me narrate that briefly.
She, from the North West of Sri Lanka was a raving beauty. And one
with brains too. Peradeniya campus opened its doors to her readily in
the late 1950s and whenever she entered through the Arts Theatre doors,
very tall, lithe, extremely attractive and imperial looking, so smart in
the Kandyan Osaree, a neat konde tied behind, not only the male students
but we females too were just mesmerized by her. So far so good. Then she
went across the oceans to better her fortunes. Again good. Then she
returned. Had bidden adieu to the Osaree. As the newspaper photos showed
on her arrival at the airport, not at Wariyapola but at Katunayaka, she
was wrapped in a swirl of robes, very much like a female Gadaffi.
Back to the beauty. After landing in her home country she made the
dramatic announcement that she is a descendent of the mighty King Ravana.
Cameras flashed on her, reporters crowded round her. After all not every
female especially of Asian stock makes such dramatic and sensational
announcements. Such bravado is usually the copyright of European women.
When did the revelation break on her, the inquisitive scribes asked,
pens poised. In England, she answered. Perhaps he appeared before her
after flying in his Dandu Monera to Heathrow airport. Well, if not for
Ravana how could such fantastic stories crop up? Unfortunately the lady
no more treads the earth. Kings-Queens, their descendants and all
mortals finally take the same path.
Why did I suddenly think of Ravana? The interest was spawned by an E
mail circulated by an up and coming researcher named Danesh. Researchers
like writers put their fingers into anything that take their fancy and
sometimes anything includes "All things under the Sun."
Danesh has already taken the firm stand that Ravana is a mythical
figure and is very worried that a State sponsored organization of the
country connected to tourism seems to give official recognition to this
This bureau's immediate motive here seems to be to attract Indian
tourists and set them on the trail of Ravana. I may be wrong but the
first incident mentioned in this article reveals that India is no lover
of Ravana. Who would decide to spend dollars on treading the trail of a
Another issue is can an organization, even so powerful as a State
body transform a mythical figure (assuming it to be so) into a
historical character? Has this sort of thing been staged in other
countries? I mean is there a precedent? What research has been done to
prove or disprove the legend of Ravana, without merely stating that he
truly roamed the earth of Lanka flying above too or on the other hand,
that he is a pseudo figure cultivated by fertile Lankan imagination not
limited to North West beauties but to a good spread of our citizens?
Newspapers given publicity to recent discoveries by luminaries in the
archaeological arena that a very high civilized age had existed about a
century before the advent of Vijaya. Could this approximate to the
Ravana age? It is time that an academic association launch a discussion
on the subject. State bodies have much power including the power of
injecting life and blood into airy figures. Not that I proclaim that
Ravana is an airy figure.
I love the valiant man too much for that and am not ashamed to admit
that as Ravana's effigy was burnt to ashes in the outskirts of the
capital of India that I shed a few tears for the man who built the first
air plane in the world, yet vilified in the neighbouring sub-continent,
at least in its Northern part. Was there really a Ravana? It is time to
probe into the issue without pre-prejudicial bias. There is no smoke
without fire, is a cliche, but true. For the legend of Ravana to spring
and entrench itself there has to be some background.