Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. März 2006

5.1. Innovation and Reproduction in Literature. The Narrative
Herausgeber | Editor | Éditeur: Azat Yeghiazaryan (Armenian National Academy of Sciences, Yerewan)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Dancer with Magic Bowl

Narrative in Tamil Epic (Second Century AD)

Arputhrani Sengupta (Associate Professor, Dept. of History of Art, National Museum Institute, New Delhi, India)



The question for us today is, how we can produce reproductions of knowledge that will guarantee optimal knowledge and, as a corollary, what do we consider optimal knowledge in contemporary processes. The narrative in the Tamil epic Manimekalai was chosen for the Conference for its striking qualities of innovation and reproduction. When Manimekalai took decisions on her life, cognition and positive force set her on the path of knowledge. Born to be a courtesan, her decision to take the vow of chastity and charity is a daring innovation, which utilized creative power in the service of spiritual and social goals. By writing the epic Merchant Prince Shattan reproduced the narrative in a form that could be retained and retrieved. The Tamil epic Manimekalai has endured for nearly two millennia because of the innovation of Brahmi script derived from Aramaic, which enabled the reproduction of knowledge through writing for the benefit of society. The written reproduction provides the possibility of a broader reception and, more importantly, also of history, society and religion, and the opportunity for critical observation, since only a fixed text makes any kind of criticism possible.


(fig. 1) Inscription in Brahmi on a pillar fragment with octagonal shaft, which identifies the donor as the perfumer Hamgha and his family, Amaravati Stupa, Early 2 nd century AD



The literate period in South Asia dawned with the innovation of Brahmi script during the early Christian era. (fig. 1) Derived from Aramaic, Brahmi revolutionized communication in South Asia and introduced literature of a high caliber simultaneous in Tamil and Pali Sanskrit. To be human is to have language, but literature in Tamil and Sanskrit is singular in that literature in both languages appears suddenly for the first time.(1) The early texts, like the unprecedented visual arts of the time, are considered Buddhist but they present anthropologists and art historian with formidable problems of interpretation. Literature in particular is part of superstructure of a culture and when one starts suddenly from a clean slate, with no history or evolutionary process to refer to, contextual reading throws up questions more keenly about society, gender and race. Part of the interpretive struggle is to re-introduce history into cultural studies. In the new historicism, the narrative in the Tamil epic Manimekalai begins with the premise that art is not secured to a stable background and context is open to interpretation. Detailing, and the aesthetic engagement of feeling that arise from the narrative, are obviously from an encounter that is existential in experience. The possible date of Manimekalai is the 2 nd century AD and one of the questions is naturally, how does this work seem so contemporaneous to the Roman civilization? Yet, we are dealing here with analogies and synonyms, or as Lévi-Strauss would say, that ‘similar’ does not mean ‘the same’. The epic addresses relationship between literature and philosophy, art production and social production and the present narrative figures out, where the centers of interest might be.

The merchant Prince Shattan wrote the epic Manimekalai (The Girdle) in 30 long poems, which he presented to the Chera Prince Ilango Adigal, the author of the Tamil epic Shilapdikaram (The Anklet) of which this narrative is a sequel. The original manuscripts in Tamil were written on palm leaf in Brahmi.(2) The date of Manimekalai is close to 171 AD the date proposed by Ramachandra Dikshitar for Shilapadikaram. Svaminatharya culled Manimekalai from about a dozen manuscripts only in 1898 and a recent translation by Alain Danielou is the source for the analysis of the narrative.(3)

Imagination and language are part of the apparatus but a special set of circumstances and a unique blend of qualities were needed to bring Manimekalai into existence. The seemingly archaic tale of Manimekalai is a ‘Romance’, and we are dealing with the end-results of a long process of selection and ordering of what were in the first place oral narratives, artfully combined with life experience. The narrative contains a variety of other meanings, perhaps equally or more important, due to its obvious reference to Buddhist culture of the Kushana period synchronous with the Roman Empire.(4) The reference to Buddhist culture brings into sharp focus ambiguities afloat in the narrative: Tamil Nadu in the South curiously lacks a Buddhist material culture while the narrative in Tamil relates it vividly to art and architecture in the North and Northwest of India. First it implies that the Tamils of the Dravidian race once occupied the northern regions, rich in Buddhist art, bearing Brahmi inscriptions, and much later migrated to South India, which at the time of the Buddhist period might have been shunned generally as the "nether region". Secondly, the writer seems to have set down the story for another group of people and to suit a new audience, with obvious variations and allusions to a culture alien to the southern peninsula, which he describes so minutely. However, no matter how distant or foreign the culture from which it emanates, myth and folktale, when combined with history, lends itself to the making of legends.(5)


Legend of Manimekalai

Manimekalai is a figure from the past reinvented, given a personality, mythologized and placed in a story that is supposed to elicit awe and reverence. Manimekalai, the ‘Dancer with the Magic Bowl’, is a legend that has elements of ‘myth’ that shade into ‘folktale’ in complicated ways. The poet Shattan asserts his ego centrifugally so that the world that surrounded him has been absorbed into the riveting story of Manimekalai, the beautiful daughter of courtesan Madhavi who took a vow of chastity and amid untold tribulations gained knowledge and power through the intervention of the goddess Manimekala and other divinities. She also received the gift of a magic bowl that produced perennial quantities of food to feed the destitute. Besides salvation to mankind, Manimekalai was destined to bring retribution for her parents Madhavi and Kovalan, whose love and betrayal with tragic consequences is dealt by Ilango Adigal in the epic Shilapdikaram.(6) Manimekalai too had her share of grief. In a previous life Manimekalai was Lakshmi, wife of Rahul, now Prince Udayakumara who was infatuated with her. Despite coming under the shadow of bondage brought by knowledge, Manimekalai could neither reciprocate Udayakumara’s love nor save his life due to a fate controlled by her past deeds.(7) Instead Manimekalai chose to serve humanity as a Buddhist nun and practiced severe self-denial to escape the chain of rebirth and thus reach the sublime state of selflessness. The story with the central motif of chastity and charity is interwoven with supernatural events, oracles and astral travel.


Oppositions and Contradictions

The ‘questions’ posed by Manimekalai are taken up from Shilapadikaram: betrayal and retribution connected to karma or past deeds as opposed to human nature; heroic sacrifice and chastity in an unending process that ceaselessly crosses and re-crosses geographical and tribal boundaries. According to Lévi-Strauss mythmakers seek to resolve all manner of contradictions or try to relate, one aspect of life to its opposite in a chain of ‘binary oppositions’- for example, youth and age, human and animal, culture and nature, life and death. These may be immediate and sensory, such as the Magic Bowl, central to the conflict between life and death, hunger and satiation, or extremely abstract, such as philosophical speculations. Ultimately Manimekalai overcomes the contradictions inherent in her corporeal self and reaches the void or sunya, the ‘absolute nothingness’.(8)


Sequence of Episode

The question of the narrative structure, the way in which episodes are put together to make a ‘story’ is a matter of importance for understanding the meaning of the narrative. The Russian folklorist Vladimir Propp identified a total of thirty-one episodes or ‘functions’ constituting the basic building-blocks of all Russian folktales that holds true in other cultures as well: these include Interdiction, Violation of Interdiction,(9) Villainy, Departure from Home on Quest, Dialogue with Magical Helpers,(10) Appearance of Villain, Flight, Pursuit, and Deliverance from Pursuit. Moreover, although few of the one hundred traditional stories analyzed by Popp contain all thirty-one of these ‘functions’, these episodes that appear in any particular tale always do so in the same order. The narrative in Manimekalai suggests that here too, although colored by the supernatural and digressions on religious discourse, the list of basic episodes is structured in a well-defined sequence.


Miraculous Interventions

When perused by Prince Udayakumara Manimekhalai enclosed herself in the crystal pavilion in Upavanam, ‘the garden’.(11) At first the Prince thought that Manimekalai was one among a number of portrait statues in the pavilion, but when he perceived her through the transparent walls, ‘Eros, a crocodile on his pennon, let fly his five flower darts, filling him with irresistible desire’. Goddess Manimekala, endowed with immense wisdom and knowledge of all things past and future, freed Manimekalai from imminent danger and conveyed Manimekalai by air to the isle of Manipallavam guarded by Tivatilakai.(12) In another instance, as Manimeklai slept behind the tall gate of the Champapati Sanctuary to the east of the Pillar Statue, she heard as in a dream the oracular statue reveal the tragic demise of Prince Udayakumara under the sword of Kayashandikai’s husband, a furious Vidhyadhra who was endowed with power to travel by air at will.(13)


The Magic Cup

(fig 2) The cup bearer (Aputra?), Gandhara, 1 st or 2 nd century AD

Manimekalai is one of the earliest literary masterpieces replete with mythical motifs interwoven with folktale, which at the same time seeks to explain the meaning of life, with vivid descriptions of human society and culture.(14) On her flight from home, Manimekalai was separated from her faithful companion Sutamati, who was from Bengal. On the island of Manipallavam the goddess Manimekhala taught Manimekhalai a magic formula, while Tivatilakai, the divine protector of the land presented Manimekhalai with a bowl, a marvelous vessel of perennial life. Manimekhalai later heard from Aravana Adigal how Aputra first received the divine bowl, known as ‘Cow of Abundance’ from the hands of Chinta, the goddess of knowledge.(15) In the hands of Manimekhalai life pours from the inexhaustible cup, to alleviate hunger in all directions. That is the wisdom for which Manimekalai meditated in great austerity and realized that - beside desire and fear, the supreme sacrifice is life; that loss of life is actually to gain life eternal. Central to sacrifice is the cup of life, a symbol of faith and immortality. Buddhist art actually depicts couples and individuals holding this cup of life. The recurrent theme is one of drinking from the magic cup, and a great level of unity is found in this type. The common themes fit together better if they are taken as variant elements in a similar category in the Golden Age of Buddhism during the Kushana period, which itself is just one structural feature of a larger design, which Worthen calls the ‘Myth of Replacement’.(16) In the grand structural scheme of the early Buddhist art, the motif of the magic vessel, like the cornucopia in the hands of the goddess in Gandhara, is the consecrated vessel, the joyous ‘begging bowl’ that transforms itself into a wish-fulfilling vessel in the hands of Manimekalai. The groups of recurrent ‘bundles’ of ideas constitute the complete paradigm of symbols and substitutes. These groups include the etymological importance of words significant to eternity and immortality, and the proper names of mythological characters, a feature from which all comparative mythology takes its departure in order to explain better the complexities of human destiny.(17)


Dream and Reality

Veneration of footprints was a symbol of apotheosis and certain sites such as Padma-pankaja-malai also known as Gridhra-kuta or Vulture Peak was a place of pilgrimage. Aravana Adigal is reported to have worshipped footprints of the Buddha in Rajghat (Varanasi or Benaras). In the epic, dream revelations and predictions, oracles and miraculous signs are part of everyday life. When Manimekalai came upon the ‘miraculous footprints of the wonder working Buddha’ on the lotus pedestal within a pavilion made of crystal panels in the Upavanam, she walked round the pedestal, keeping it on her right then prostrated as a mark of reverence. Then she suddenly remembered her past life as Lakshmi.(18) (fig.3)

(fig.3) Footprints of the Buddha, Amaravathi, 1 st or 2 nd century AD

Manimekalai also learnt from Aravana Adigal why she was named after Manimekala, goddess of the Ocean with powerful waves.(19) (fig 6) The narrative is a folktale in which the story is put together from mythic elements with the dual purpose of entertaining and pointing out some moral value: Manimekalai’s ancestor, a namesake of her grandfather and her father Kovalan, was shipwrecked in a shark-infested Ocean. He struggled for seven days in the waves of the bottomless sea and was lost like a ‘needle in a woolen rug’.(20) However, he had unfailingly practiced the five virtues and recognized the four truths, so when the moment approached for him to lose his life, a shudder ran through the carpet that bears Indra’s throne: Indra at once summoned goddess Manimekala and said ‘This Kovalan struggling in the sea for seven days has the same virtues as the Bodhisattva, the master of us all who, in the shade of the papal, practiced ascetic life. He must be delivered from danger, so that the ten rule of conduct (paramita) is observed in the world and the wheel of dharma goes on turning smoothly’.(21) Immediately goddess Manimekala guided him to the shore and saved Kovalan from certain death.

(fig.4) Sea goddess holding the cup of life in ‘Soul Saucer’, Gandhara, 1 st or 2 nd century AD

The Charanas or the sages who travel through the air, recounted this tale to his descendent Kovalan. Kovalan in gratitude wished his daughter to bear the name of the goddess, and the goddess on the night of her birth revealed to Madhavi that Manimekalai would lead a life of renunciation. Further, Manimekalai learnt from Aravana Adigal that when, by the will of the goddess and the curse of Indra, the city of Puhar was devoured by the sea, Kovalan and Madhavi fled to Kanchi for the love of Manimekalai.(22) The reason why the sea goddess devoured Puhar forms a narrative within narrative: Pilivalai, daughter of the Naga (of the serpent race), who on pilgrimage to the isle of Manuipallavam, entrusted her infant son by the Chola king Neduvel Killi, to Kamabala Chetty, a merchant in woolen blankets, whose vessel was the only one en-route to India to stop at the isle. Taking the child Chetty sailed for his homeland, but in the darkness of the night was shipwrecked near the shore. The king was distraught by the loss of his son and neglected the annual festival of Indra. Indra ordered Manimekala, the sea goddess to swallow up Puhar as it was predicted. [see note 14]


Skills of Courtesan

Manimekalai or ‘The Dancer with the Magic Bowl’ was destined by birth for art and pleasure and lived in a street where women of pleasure resided in a house of several floors with gilded balconies. She was accomplished like her mother Madhavi, who knew both kinds of dance, dances suitable for the royal palace and those for the common public, poems set to music, the art of dramatic posture (tukku) to empahsise the rhythm of the poetic meter, the various musical rhythms (tala), and how to play the harp (yal) tuned according to the various moods.(23) She knew by heart the poems chanted during the dances and had mastered the language of gesture (mudra), by which love (akam), virtue and glory (puram) are expressed.(24) She knew how to play the great drum and how to adjust the tightness of its skin to regulate the sound. She knew how to play the melodious flute, as also the art of playing ball, of preparing dishes according to recipes of the best cuisine as well as the preparation of scented powders of diverse colors, the manner of bathing in various seasons, the body’s sixty four positions in making love, the art of anticipating men’s desires, of speaking charmingly, of writing elegantly with the cut reed, of arranging magnificent bouquets of flowers according to their form and color, the choice of dress and jewels according to circumstances and the art of fashioning necklaces of precious pearls or precious stones. She had also studied astrology and the art of measuring time, and other similar sciences, the art of drawing and painting all of which, according to the books forms part of the métier of an accomplished courtesan.(25) Although accomplished in the arts and endowed with great beauty Manimekalai, to the amazement and distress of her mother and companions, left home to dedicate her life to charity and to attain the ‘bright light of knowledge’.(26) [see note 9]


Samkhya Cosmology

In the astrological religion the transmigration of souls is connected to karma, according to acquired merits and demerits, which to a large extent is controlled by the manner in which the soul descends at the time of birth through the various spheres or planets disposed in space. The ascent of the soul is likewise influenced by the music of the spheres that is controlled by the acquired merits and demerits. The soul ascends through a series of celestial spheres to reach the paradise of bliss or ‘world of light’ known as Dutita /Tushita loka. In Tushita loka perfect souls become deified immortals or reincarnate according to their acquired merit.Thus, incapable of attaining truth without the aid of that which is material, the soul will be guided by the ‘true’, though merely perceptible ‘lights’ (lumina vera) of the resplendent soul to the man made image, which reveals the ‘True Light’ (verum lumen) that is Buddha prior to Christ; and it will thus be raised, or rather ‘resurrected’ (surgi, resurgit), from terrestrial bondage even as Christ like Buddha is seen rising with flaming shoulders and a halo in ‘resurrectio vel Ascensio’ on a Gandhara sculpture.(27) The luminous Buddha with flaming shoulders ascending in radiant clouds depicted on the stele is a visual demonstration of the nature of the immortal in Samkhya Cosmology. (fig 5)

(fig 5) Immortal in the world of light, Gandhara, 1 st or 2 nd century AD

Yet this splendid but subtle piece of poetry is nothing as compared to the orgy of Neo-Platonic light metaphysics to which Buddhist theology abandons itself during the Kushana period (AD 1 st - 3 rd Century), when India was a confederation of states ruled by Scythic-Greeks. It is particularly evidenced in Buddhist art and literature where the whole material universe becomes ‘light’ composed of countless small ones as of so many suns so that man-made pillar, (throne) or natural (tree), including man dissolve in light, and become a symbol of that which is not physically perceptible. As a stepping ladder on the ascent to Heaven; the human mind, abandons itself to the radiance indicated by the spiraling discs of the planets or the sun disc that glows as a halo, long before it is adopted as Christian iconography.


Neo Platonic Doctrine

Both the celestial lights in the heavens and those that are produced by human artifice on earth are ‘images of the intelligible lights, and above all of True Light Itself’.(28) The epic speaks of the Bodhi Tree radiant with jewels, which is the symbol of knowledge attained by innumerable Buddhas, the ‘enlightened beings’. ‘Within the crystal pavilion, the miraculous footprints of the wonder-working Buddha on a lotus shaped pedestal shining with bright rubies’ are in reality verses that amount to a condensed statement of the whole theory of ‘anagogical’ illumination: On the sacred pedestal the jeweled footprints of the ‘wonder-working Buddha’ indicate that the physical ‘brightness’ of the work of art will ‘brighten’ the minds of the beholders by a spiritual illumination.(29) The divine pedestal in the crystal pavilion is identified as the work of Maya, the heavenly carpenter, ‘to remind men that only those actions accomplished for love’s sake with severe self-denial will succeed’. Maya is also the maker of the oracular ‘Pillar Statue’ in the Upavanam the garden, where ‘by the will of the Buddha, the Merciful and the Compassionate, …who dedicated his life to the protection of all living beings, the trees are always aglow in bloom’.(30)


Epicureanism and Stoicism

When Manimekalai embarks upon the study of religious dogmas with teachers of various sects, the recurring engagement with philosophy and religion is meant to clarify, inform and educate. The purpose of dissecting diverse creeds in detail is to finally proclaim the validity of Buddhist dogma.(31) The digressions on philosophy and religion make the epic a specialized tool of communication that tries to cut through the syncretism in religion and the eclecticism in the philosophy characteristic of this period. An interlude in Canto 27 is recognizably Hellenistic, a system with ethics supported by physics and epistemology. The treatment is a curious replay of the famous encounter between Epicureanism and Stoicism, translated as the persuasive argument of a drunkard with a naked Jain ascetic familiar in Syrian accounts. Although the kernel of wisdom is intact much has been understandably transformed in translation: An emaciated Jain monk, with a vessel of water hung from a loop of cord and ceaselessly waving a flywhisk to avoid hurting an insect walked naked. A drunkard hailed him, ‘Holy man! Come here so that I may bow before your lotus-like feet! Good monk, hear my words! Your life dwells in your body, which is but filth, but you do not suffer like those who live encased in hot clothes, which make them sweat. Come and share this sweet wine, there are no tiny beasts in the liquor secreted by the palm tree. My guru taught me that only those who get drunk on wine know ecstasy in this world, happiness in their next life, and eternal beatitude. You will see that drunkenness clears your mind. But if you find it more to your liking to fast rather than drink an honest cup of wine, then go your way!’(32)

In order to propound the Jain doctrine of Nirgrantha Manimekalai asks questions about Jainism. The answers given by a naked ascetic is a complex discourse that begs comparison with the Pythagorean theories and belief system.(33) Regarding religious belief, the Pillar Statue’s conversation with Manmekalai is of interest: "There are some who affirm that creator of all forms of life is a personal God who reigns over the world. Others think that the supreme being, himself without form, created all forms, Yet others affirm that only through the practice of self-denial and mortification, inflicting cruel suffering on our body, can we free ourselves of our bonds, and tread he path that leads to a world of everlasting delight. There are also others who say that the world is merely the result of the questionable celebrations of the practitioners of these various creeds. You will also hear the statement of those who affirm with authority that there are no gods, that the dead are not reborn, and that it is doubtful our virtuous deeds can acquire us merit. With your experience of transmigration and of retribution of our sins, you can tell them the story of your own life…"(34) Such speculations are well-known in Greek literature. The advent of Alexander marked the beginning of a new internationalism that paved the road to the Roman Empire. By uniting the Greek Mediterranean with Egypt and Syria,(35) the accomplished Hellenistic tradition was transformed by alien skills and ideas that eventually produced a logically restructured art and literature in the Indian sub-continent. To understand Roman art and culture within and beyond the borders of the empire, the essential aspects of Hellenic tradition, the Hellenistic mutation and the Hellenistic-Egyptian and Syrian tradition have to be separately viewed.(36)


Landscape withGardens of Delight

The narrative fixes the geography, while the landscape of the sacred domain bristles with extraordinary events. The river Kaveri rises from a sacred spring in Karnataka State that swells into a mighty river. The river maiden Kaveri flowed into the lap of the protective goddess Champu and her consort Champapati or Puhar, which was a famous city known popularly as Kaveripumpatinam.(37) According to mythology the Chola king Kantan (Skanda) entreated the sage Agastya for perennial water, upon which the sage overturned his pitcher from which River Kaveri flowed towards the sea in the east, close to where goddess Champu stood. The Goddess Champu abides in the shade of a thousand branched rose-apple tree and is conceived as divine protector of the ‘rose-apple’ continent called Navalan Tevu.(38) The epic describes cities surrounded by many gardens, one of which is called Lavanika-vanam, the Garden of Delights. It is reserved for the amusement of those belonging to the royal family and their companions. Within, there is a small lake, which can be filled and empties by machinery. The guards arrest trespassers.(39) Another pleasure garden, known as Oyyana-vanam, is set apart during the festival of Indra for celestial visitors, who alone have the right to enter. In the heavenly enclosure dwells Sampati, the noble vulture that lost its wings when it flew up to the sun. None of these gardens were accessible to the general population. However, the monasteries in Kanchi, surrounded by gardens were the permanent residences of monks who preached the holy doctrine of the Buddha. The ascetics who travel through the air sometimes stop there for a few moments of agreeable repose. (40)


Qualities Admired in the External World

The Tamil literature of the Sangam or Academy of the early Christian era may be divided broadly into Akam, or that which pertains to emotions connected to human experience, and Puram or that which involves courage and action. Manimekalai is Sangam literature that deals with skill both with Akam and Puram. We glean from the epic that a man’s ankle bracelet was a sign of noble deeds and that the king honored successful merchants with insignia of a golden flower and bestowed the title ‘Etthy’ as a mark of respect.(41) Prince Udayakumara, surrounded by his guard and chariots, rode majestically along the main avenue wearing a garland of tamarisk flowers, holding the reins of his splendid chariot gathered into his fist in the form of a flower bud. He had just managed to master the menacing elephant Kalavega with admirable courage. Without a trace of fear he had jumped onto his charger as fleet as air and reached the place where the maddened elephant rushed blindly through the city, heavy as a mountain, sowing panic in the streets of the bazaar and on the royal road blocked with wagons, drummers, beggars, and banners. The supervisor of the elephants did not know what to do. Like a ship in distress, the royal elephant had ejected his mahout in madness, his trunk rubbing the wound left by the goad to control him.

The simile of a ship gives a rare insight to the dangers of navigation so real that one can taste the spray of salt water as the sailor battles to regain control. The storm-tossed ship is presented in a way that is enduringly experiential and clearly the emotional response generated by the author gives the epic its cognitive value: ‘When a ship finds itself caught in a storm, its helmsman, perched on the raised bridge in the poop, trembles with fear lest the main mast fixed at the vessel’s center break off at the base, tearing away the ropes holding the sail, which, breaking loose and losing its tightness, begins to lash about with a furious flapping, finally tearing itself to shreds, so that the ship breaks adrift without any means of control, on an Ocean whose waves splash and drive in all directions.’(42)


Arts and Crafts

Reflected in the story of Manimekalai or the ‘Dancer with the Magic Bowl’ is the idea that literature is part of the superstructure and economics its base. The epic is rich and complex, dense and bursting with life, intellectual and cultural energy. A variety of crafts people practice their craft in their respective locality. The street of weavers made cloth so fine that it is difficult to distinguish the cross threads and dyed it in bright colors. The street of jewelers made mother-of-pearl bracelets; the street of those who made necklaces of precious stones, the street of the controllers who checked the gold content on the touchstone and owned houses of many floors. There are varied details of religious and everyday life, the arts and customs. In the ancient city of Puhar the visitors admired the stucco sculptures made by skilled craftsmen, representing all living beings, as well as the immaculate statues of the gods, similar to those that adorn the walls of the many storied buildings.(43) On the streets transvestites with pretty little upraised breasts, a slim figure and protuberant sex performed the Pedi dance. Brightly colored designs decorated their shoulders and breasts. They wore mother-of-pearl earrings and their short-skirt might be a girdled chiton of Greco-Roman derivation. Their mouth was painted bright coral red and they showed their beautiful white teeth. Their large shining eyes were slightly underlined and their black eyebrows were arched like the crescent moon in their curved brows. Their hands with red-dyed palms were like water lilies of Malabar.(44)


Narrative as a Network of Signs

The poet has interpreted the historical reality of his time so well that the epic is striking in its visual equivalent in the contemporary art of Gandhara, which is comparable only to Rome in its style, realism and innovative spatial organization and pictorial techniques. The visual force of street scenes, the interior of courtesans’ quarters, palatial architecture, the complex drama, funeral practices, costumes, manners and customs are integrated to create a fusion of realism and immediacy as was done on the Imperial Columns of Rome.

Canto 28 is a topographical painting in words that give a panoramic view of the city. However, the material culture, which is archaeologically untenable in the Indian subcontinent, is inexplicably Roman in its attributes.(45) The landscape and suburbs spreading outside the walls protecting many princely dwellings provide the backdrop as Manimekalai progressed on her way to the great city of Kanchi on her quest to seek Aravana Adigals to learn Buddhist dharma.(46) If we treat the narrative as a network of signs, some significant cultural markers clamor for close scrutiny: Groups of soldiers with their officers kept watch over the inner city, which was surrounded by a moat. (fig.6)

(fig 6) Cityscape, Sanchi Stupa, early 1 st century AD

Into the moat flowed, by means of underground pipes, the scented waste waters used to wash the tresses, or impregnated with perfumed oils that dissolve when bathing in luxurious dwellings, in which the baths mechanically filled and emptied as desired. Into the moat also flowed the perfumed waters used to spray the crowd during celebrations for the king’s birthday; the waters discharged when the basins of the public fountains were cleansed, impregnated with smoke from aloe wood and other aromatic woods used in rites; and the waters mixed with various perfumes, sprinkled for freshness on the floors of rich dwellings, the water used by heads of family who practice five virtues, to wash the sublime feet of ascetics.(47) Only water spreading a delightful fragrance flowed into the moat, so that the crocodiles and fish that disported there lost the usual nauseating smell. On the surface of the water floated large lotus, white water lilies and blue iris, turning the moat into the likeness of the multicolored bow of Indra.(48)

At the center of the fortification was a high gate surrounded by a tower of several floors, on which many flags were flying. Painted white and covered with frescoes, from afar it looked like a mountain of marble. It was through this high gate that Manimekalai entered Kanchi. The street of painters and musicians (panda), experts in vocal music and playing various instruments, who know the major and minor modes, as well as elocution and poetic meters and people who sound the conch, whose spiral winds to the right.(49) The street of dancers, expert in the two kind of dances, classical dance for the palace and dancing suitable for the public at large, that of experts who calculate time and announce it every natika (24 minutes). Further on was the street of the panegyrists, who composed eulogies of the king, which they declaimed standing or seated. There was also a quarter where the elephant drivers lived, who tamed recently captured animals and trained them with skill, and also a quarter for horsemen who teach the golden-collared horses to amble.(50) Manimekalai admired the artificial hills from which cascades fell by mechanical means; the parks whose trees laden with flowers inspired all with an overwhelming desire to go and relax there. There were pools with limpid water, hospices to welcome travelers, and monasteries for ascetics as well as vast palaces with golden domes, which in their splendor rivaled the seven temples built by Indra at Puhar.

The preparations for the festival of Indra provide a rare glimpse of royal protocol. In the presence of the kings of all the neighboring countries, the state officials were summoned to the palace for the proclamation of the opening of the festival of the thousand-eyed Indra. Around the sovereign stood, as was the custom, the five groups of high dignitaries who formed the royal council: the high priest, the captains of the army, the spies, and the ambassadors, followed according to rank, by the eight corps of officials, the tax collectors, the provincial governors, the treasury accountants, the palace servants, the representatives of the people and the officers of the various regiments. It was asserted that if the festival of Indra were not celebrated, the enraged Tyche would molest all the inhabitants.(51) The account has parallels in the political and structural organization as well as the concept of cities protected by Tyche familiar in Asia under Rome. (fig.7)

(fig.7) Protective Tyche-Hariti, Gandhara, 1 st or 2 nd century AD

This comparison is possible because of a coincidence of meaning derived from an approximate understanding of the other. It is in this sense that a mutual recognition is possible through cognition.


Transmission of Myth

One of the common traits in the mythic narrative is a philosophic or moral purpose. The narrative of Manimekalai preaches moral values of right conduct, self-sacrifice and salvation through self-realization. Allegoric interpretation, which began with Plato or certainly with the Neo-Platonists, insists that ‘myth is a didactic parable that adumbrates current metaphysical or moral concepts and that its personae are symbols of natural phenomena or moral categories’.(52) On another level of interpretation, the myth is invested with human motives, and its movements are diachronic. Hence, Manimekalai is an elaboration of history and the Buddha in its central focus is the apotheosis of idealized human beings. Just as myth may reinforce history, history may conversely become the raw material of the mythic imagination. If the historical time, unity of purpose and background are important, then fantasy and creative invention add to the narrative force of Manimekalai, which can be compared to the legendary stories found worldwide in cultures with ancient literary traditions, such as Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome. Often probability is stretched to fabulous limits as when goddess Manimekhala, the goddess of Ocean, transports Manimekkhalai to safety by air. Myths of glorification have commonly been used in similar ways, in a variety of cultures, to assert a sense of communal prestige. One famous example of deliberately fabricated historical myth is the Roman poet Virgil’s epic elaboration in the Aeneas, in which Venus shares her identity with goddess Manimekala. This must be viewed against the fact that there is no record of either literature or comparable arts in India prior to the Christian era. At the dawn of a new era the sub-continent was apparently a pristine paradise perched at the very end of the then known world. Innovations in Tamil and Sanskrit literature datable to the early Christian era are thus probably unsurpassed in history. They contain a landscape constructed by received knowledge, of travelers’ tale and of ‘family resemblance’, which serve to locate zones of identity and zones of discrepancy. Description of a crystal or glass pavilion, murals in stucco, wall painting and life-like sculpture in Manimekalai are proof of Mediterranean influence in India. This is confirmed by literary allusion to numerous Greeks in India identified as Yavana from Yavanapura or Alexandria. The Greek connection apparently included Pompeii, where an ivory statuette in early Buddhist style was recovered from a merchant’s house on the "via dell’ Abbondanza". (fig.8)

(fig.8) Goddess Manimekala-Isis-Aphrodite in Sanchi style, Pompeii, 1 st century AD

Pompeii was buried under the ashes of Versuvious in 79 AD that set off tidal waves cutting off escape route. The Greek geographer Ptolemy in the 2 nd century AD mentions key ports, including Kaveri Emporium, the Kaveripumpattinam or Puhar, identified by Tamil texts as port city of South India. However, to identify Puhar as Pompeii might be far fetched except for their common fate and tantalizingly similar material culture.

Often myths and legends are connected to the idea that one can claim to own the land and human beings who lived therein through superiority of race, language and the performance of certain words. Native pride enacted through speeches, declarations and announcements are compelling. For instance, when the city Puhar was built, a vast plot of land was set apart for the dead. Four posterns at cardinal points gave access to it, the entrance with bright colored standard was reserved for the heavenly beings that draw nigh in their flying chariots, suspended in the air, immobile as a painting.(53) The walls of the next gate are decorated with frescoes, the work of skilled artists, representing rice paddies, sugarcane plantations, lakes and groves. Another entrance, with an upper floor appears naked and empty except for the spotless wash of white lime. In front of the fourth entrance stands a great statue of stucco and clay, representing the guardian of the cemetery with red lips and furious stare, holding a pointed spear and a long rope. If the subjectmatter is presented in ways that are of enduring cognitive and social interest, the historical time and background are as important as the fantasy and creative invention, which add to the narrative force.(54)


New History and Literary Narrative

The representational and expressive content of the epic are of enduring cognitive, moral, historical, and social interest. In the final analysis the critical role of story telling in New Historicism ought to move towards trust in mobility, not only in travel narratives but in the idea that culture itself is always moving from one place to another. And it is that extraordinary mobility of which India is a sublime example, which holds challenges in the years ahead in the reading of the narrative.(55) It is impossible to discover the place of origin of a widely distributed mythical motif. Mythical narratives, like folk stories, generally travel easily from one group of people to another. Of course, the myths may change in the process, and even within the same group changes may occur as myths are told and retold. There is certainty where zones of identity from literate tradition and the zones of discrepancies, which suggest incorporation of oral or a local body of myth. This happened for example in India, where cultural configuration of the Buddhist period displayed pronounced elements from Roman Asia.

The Transcultura International Institute, a group promoting strategies for acquiring mutual knowledge, met recently in Pondicherry.(56) The Institute’s key concern is to analyze the encounter between European and non-European cultures. Moussa Sow, from the Institut des Sciences Humaines, (Mali), who was one of the earliest members of the Transcultura team, speaking at Jawaharlal University, New Delhi, said that there had been interest in Mali and Senegal in Dravidian languages, particularly Tamil, and Tamil scholars went to these countries, and in exchange Africans came to India, probably without suspecting Senegal and Mali might be the bridge to a lost links with Carthage and Alexandria. Just as we have translations in the linguistic sense, we have translations in the cultural sense. The desire to interpret is a desire to explain meanings anew, which serve to locate the zones of identity and the zones of discrepancies. It is this zone of identity and discrepancy that makes cultural studies so exciting. Umberto Eco, a member of the Transcultura, argues that that all colonization results in guilt, and anthropology is the symbol of that guilt.(57) The investigation of this narrative is an attempt to propitiate this guilt, the unstated yearning for a previously known topography that urges us to search for the shadow of memory in the landscape of myth, symbols, dream, perception and cognition, experience, facts and fantasy, being and becoming, the natural vision of the Northern Lights, the hidden order of the ideal and maps in the seas of changes and shifting dunes of context. As Susan Visvanathan rightly observed, semioticians work with any index. (fig. 9)

(fig. 9) Swags supported by putty in the manner of Rome, Gandhara, 1 st or 2 nd century AD)

The narrative in the Tamil epic Manimekalai was chosen for the Conference for its striking qualities of innovation and reproduction. When Manimekalai took decisions on her life, cognition and positive force set her on the path of knowledge. Born to be a courtesan, her decision to take the vow of chastity and charity is a daring innovation, which utilized creative power in the service of spiritual and social goals. By writing the epic Merchant Prince Shattan reproduced the narrative in a form that could be retained and retrieved. The Tamil epic Manimekalai has endured for nearly two millennia because of the innovation of Brahmi script derived from Aramaic, which enabled reproduction of knowledge through writing for the benefit of society. The written reproduction provides the possibility of a broader reception and, more importantly, also of history, society and religion, and the opportunity for critical observation, since only a fixed text makes any kind of criticism possible.

The heterogeneous nature of style and content of the Buddhist epic Manimekalai and the Buddhist art of India, datable between 1 st to the end of 2 nd century AD, is frankly a puzzle. Under what circumstances were so many choice and variegated narratives produced for the first time in the subcontinent? The answer will take us to the very foundation of India, where magnificent obsessions of human beings deposited wisdom and skills received from ancient civilizations. The transcultural path leading to these conclusions is embedded in the rich narratives of Buddhist art and literature of the new age that miraculously dawned simultaneously in the east and the west.

© Arputhrani Sengupta (Associate Professor, Dept. of History of Art, National Museum Institute, New Delhi, India)


(1) Etymologically Brahmi claims its origin from Maha Brahma, the supreme godhead. Unlike the Tamil of the Dravidian race, Sanskrit is a member of the Italic branch of the Indo-European languages which fits the designation Ramance, deriving from the Latin phrase romanica loqui, ‘to speak in Roman fashion,’ which attests to the popular, rather than literary, origins of the language. Exemplifying the Pax Romana, Sanskrit known as the ‘language of the gods’, is a synthesis of Aramaic, Greek and Latin that echoes the Vedic revelation: Vasudhaiva kutumbakam - ‘the entire world is your family’. Sanskrit is a unique phenomenon of the ‘Day of the Pentacost’ (The Acts 2, 1-12) and belies its mythical antiquity in the remote past.

(2) Scientifically, Brahmi script cannot originate in two periods in time, as it is currently attributed first to "hang ‘Emperor Ashoka’ on the peg of Alexander the Great" in the 3 rd century BC, and the Kushana Brahmi of the 1 st century AD when the script actually evolved, with more than two centuries of literary wasteland in between. Brahmi left a legacy of an inscribed code of conduct on stone that always identified the inscriber, as ‘He who loves the name of God, the beloved of God’. The invocative formula points more firmly to the racial origins of the edicts, but Ashoka, believed to be the Emperor’s name is open to speculations. The word Ashoka has single occurrence in the edict and means ‘remover of sorrow’. The edict inscribed in Brahmi, like Buddhist art, is conspicuously absent in Tamil Nadu.

(3)Manimekkhalai. Merchant Prince Shattan, Tr. Alain Danielou, with collaboration of T. V. Gopala Iyer, Penguin Books India, 1989, 1993.

(4) Kushana are a Scythian tribe that formed an alliance with the Parthians in Persia, creating a buffer zone against the Romans in the northwestern region of the sub-continent by the middle of the first century B.C. The Kushana empire at its height stretched from the Ganges to the Oxus and in its western frontier flourished a distinct cultural tradition, that of Gandhra, now Pakistan. The Kushana kingdom was a confederation of states, where significant sculptural traditions evolved in Gandhara and Mathura. While the Gandhara sculpture in Greco-Roman style is anecdotal and portrays realistic observations of contemporary life, the Mathura school has the scale, style and symbolic mode of communication characteristic of the millennia old tradition of Egyptian art. However, it is in the material culture of Gandhara, that it is possible to see with clarity a synthesis of religious and artistic traditions.

(5) The author of Manimekalai is curiously in league with Apuleius who was born in Madauros (c.125 AD) in Carthage, a major port for trade that remained an intellectual capital, as large as Alexandria. Apuleius, after schooling in Madauros went to Athens to learn Greek and then on to Rome to study Latin. He was inducted into the mysteries of goddess Isis, which play a significant role in his writings. For the rest of his days in Cathage he was a teacher and public orator involved in the interpretation of Platonic philosophy.

(6)Shilapadikaram is also published by the Penguin.

(7) Transmigration of soul is connected to the concept of karma, and happens according to acquired merits and demerits.

(8) During the Indo-Greek period, the syncretism in religion and eclecticism in philosophy added much to the welter of deities (the deities have not acquired the identity of the Hindu pantheon as yet), which is a contribution of Neo-Platonism, Stoicism and other schools of thought including the Pythagorean Sect. The spiritual belief system, in both Buddhist and Jain, with reference to a hierarchy of being, emphasize the One, the Good at the summit, while on the other extreme we arrive at matter, the point at which being vanishes into nothingness.

(9) Danielou, p. 5. Interdict or authoritative prohibition is a sentence debarring a person or place from ecclesiastical functions and privileges. For instance, when a courtesan abandons her profession of dancer and prostitute, the entire city’s indignation is a cause for concern. Manimekalai was a courtesan by birth and Vasanatmala in the group was convinced that for a girl destined by birth for art and pleasure to become an ascetic and mortify herself was an impious act. However, Manimekalai acted in defiance of the laws of the city, her mother and her companions and studied religious dogmas with teachers of the various sects and later received the Buddhist dogma from Aravana Adigal in Kanchi, today a temple in city in Tamil Nadu.

(10) Danielou, p. 96. Prince Udayakumara, although spurned by Manimekalai pursued her relentlessly. The chase in dangerous terrain, which ultimately costs him his life, makes him the villain of the moment. Villainy in a sub-plot depicts how Vishakai, ‘of shining brow, pale as a drawing that has not yet been colored’, distraught by rumors of romance with her cousin Dharmadatta, left her house and went to the pilgrims’ hospice to ask the statue of the genie sculpted on the pillar what he could do to free her of the calumny caused by such rash gossip.

(11) Danielou, p.14, Prince Udayakumara was the son of a Chola king whose ‘white parasol was as bright as a moon’: a metaphoric allusion to justice and truth that prevailed in his kingdom.

(12) Tivatilakai (dvipa-tilaka) means ‘adornment of the island’, name of the Tyche or yakshi (protective female spirit) of the island Manipallavam. According to Stoicism the world is a living intelligent Being. Equally, air and fire are the media that activate matter, hence ‘artistic fire’ or ‘intelligent pneuma (wind)’ are important vehicles. The pneuma that permeates the whole cosmos gives inorganic structures their cohesion. When it occurs in other ratios, physics or the power of growth in plants and the soul in animals seem to have extended to aerial flight as an infinite continuum of matter set in an infinite void. ‘Physical’ or metaphysical doctrines had their effect on Stoic logic, a subject including grammar as well as various linguistic studies.

(13) Canto 21, Danielou, p.87. Manimekalai had transformed herself as Kayshandikai to escape from Prince Udayakumara, who continued to follow her, thus meeting his tragic end. Vidhyadhara is a spirit of the air that belongs to a cohort of heavenly beings similar to angels. In Kalingabodhi Jataka astral travel depended upon the ‘investiture of the body in the garment of contemplation’ (jhana vethanene). Even inanimate objects invested with spiritual force can take aerial flight. A famous account in Buddhist literature describes how a Buddha image took ‘flight through the air’ from India to Khotan to become the prototype for other images in Central Asia.

(14) The reason why the sea swallowed Pumpuhar (Puhar), a famous city mentioned in other early Tamil literature, is as follows: Pilivalai, daughter of the Naga of the Serpent Race, on pilgrimage to the isle of Manipallavam, entrusted her infant son by the Chola King Neduvel Killi, to Kambala Chetty, a merchant in woolen blankets, whose vessel was the only one en route to India to stop at the isle. Taking the child Chetty set sail for his homeland, but in the darkness of the night was shipwrecked near the shore. The king was distraught by the loss of his son and in his sorrow neglected the annual festival of Indra, which provoked the god’s fury. Indra ordered Manimekala, the sea goddess to swallow Puhar, as had been predicted.

(15) Canto 12-4. Chinta means imagination. The Egyptian cow goddess Isis-Hathor was known as the ‘Great Flood’; the sky goddess is also ‘The Cow of Abundance’, since she nourishes souls to all eternity.

(16) The mythic motif of the ‘begging bowl’ is incorporated in a Buddhist narrative: On the seventh week of meditation under Rajayatana tree, two merchants named Tapussa and Bhalikka came with their caravan from Ukkala country. Persuaded by a deity who was a relative, the merchants came forward to give Madhupindika (ball of honey) to the Buddha. The Lokapalas or the four regents of the earth came forward with four bowls of precious stones, which the Buddha refused. Finally he accepted four alms bowls of stone and then fused them into one. The two merchants vowed to be ‘Devacika Upasaka’, or loyalists of Buddha and Dharma.

(17) Etymologically Manimekala is girdle made of beads (mani-bead, mekala-girdle). The name personifies the sea goddess that girdles the whole universe. Besides mekala the co-existing goddess in the Buddhist pantheon identifies herself with other emblematic devices such as beaded necklace and a distinctive earring. Cultural similarities abound. The Egyptian Menat, or beaded necklace is emblematic of Isis-Hathor. In several depictions in Buddhist art the goddess is nude except for the girdle. Another name of great import is Amitabha Buddha. Etymologically, Amitabha means 'of infinite radiance' and 'eternal life'. The appellation 'Buddha' denotes radiant or 'enlightened’ being, illuminated with the immense light of the sun.

(18) Danielou, p.36-39, Canto 9.

(19) Manimekala, ‘the goddess of Ocean, solitary and distant, descended from heaven like a ray of light’. Her attributes are that of Stella Maris identified with Isis-Aphrodite, whose cult was spread widely by sailors during the Roman period.

(20) Carpet is culturally untenable in Tamil Nadu, and since the climate is hot, there is no requirement for woolen material. Reference to woolen carpets and merchants dealing in woolen blankets are intriguing.

(21) Danielou, p.151. The perfections (paramita) are generally considered as ten, sometimes reduced to eight or even six. These ten rules are: dana (charity), shila (purity of conduct), kshanti (patience), virya (courage), dhyana (meditation), prajna (intelligence), upaya (utilization of the proper means), pranadhana (dedication), bala (energy), jnana (knowledge).

(22) Events in the epics Shilapadikaram and Manimekalai took place in the three southern kingdoms, whose dynasties fade into prehistory. In the west, the kingdom of Chera (Kerala); to the east Chola or Cholamandala (Coramandel in the Madras region); and in the south, Pandya, whose capital was Madura. Pallavas of Parthian origin conquered South India via Maratha country and subdued Chera, Chola and Pandya and ruled their kingdom from Kanchi.

(23) The curved harp (yal) depicted in early Buddhist art is West Asian in origin. The 17 stringed makara yal had mythical crocodile head as terminal. The celestial musicians in Buddhist art are known as kinnora (male) and kinnori (female). The word is derived from kinnor (Aramaic), a type of harp on wooden frame. King David’s harp could have been either a kinnor or a nebel (‘skin bottle’) made of animal skin over a round sound box.

(24) The Tamil Sangam (Academy) literature of the early Christian era was categorized as akam (pertaining to love or emotion) and puram (pertaining to valor and action) and underwent rigorous quality control.

(25) Danielou, p. 2. A similar list is given in a commentary on the Kama Sutra, which needs to be compared with ancient Greek literature on the subject.

(26) The word Buddha also denotes ‘bright light of knowledge’,

(27) The Apocrypha record that St.Thomas converted Gondophares, the Kushana king of Taxila in about 42 AD to Christianity. The remarkable Christ-like Buddha image in Greco-Roman style datable to AD 1 st or 2 nd Century is in Musée Guimet, Paris. The Neo-Platonic concept of light is developed from Panofsky’s corresponding engagement in ‘Abbot Suger of St. Denis’, pp. 108-145.

(28) Panofsky, p.131 A metrical condensation of John the Scot’s lines, from which the lines ‘...ut eant per lumina vera/Ad verum lumen…’ are derived. Inscribed ‘BODDO’ in Greek, the iconography of the Buddha in the Kushana gold coin shows a standing figure inscribed within a double nimbus, identifying him with the invincible solar deity. If one should seek a prototype, Buddha, as Universal Monarch, has his right hand raised in a gesture of Adlocutio, a familiar posture of Roman emperors while addressing gatherings.

(29) Danielou, pp.9, 36-39. Illumination or enlightenment, which is developed step by step through symbols is known as the Upward-Leading Method.

(30) Danielou, p.33 There is no archaeological evidence of a pavilion made of crystal panels except the Buddhist stupa that have yielded crystal reliquaries that are globules of light.

(31) The earliest iconography of the Buddha in a Kushana gold coin (AD 1 st century) shows a standing figure inscribed within a double nimbus, identified as ‘BODDO’ in Greek. See note 28 aove.

(32) Danielou, p.10. In conclusion it is observed that the Jain monk may not be swayed from abstinence but there are many who let themselves be convinced by the word of the drunkard.

(33) Danielou, p.136. The Jain doctrine is Nirgrantha and the texts deal with ten main subjects: dharmastikaya (evolution), adharmastikaya (immutability), akaya/ akasha (space), kala (time), paramanu (the atom), karma (action and bonds created by good or evil deeds), and nirvana (release). The Jain worship Arhat Parameshti, the supreme prophet, before whom the ten sovereign gods, the Indras, bow. There are 42 Bhuvana-Indras, Regents of the Heavenly Worlds; 32 Viyantara Indras, Regents of the Spheres; 22 Kalpa-Indras, Regents of the Cosmic Cycles; the Spirirts of the Sun, the Moon etc.; Nara-Indra, the Regent of Men, Mrigendra, the Regent of Animals.

(34) Danielou, p.90

(35) Zeno (c.300 BC), the founder of Stoicism, though he worked in Athens, was of Phoenecian descent.

(36) Beardley, p. 71. Strabo, the Roman geographer was a Stoic (Geography I, i, 10; I, ii, 3). Stoics, like the poet Shattan of Manimekalai, approved the use of poems for moral teaching in school, conceiving poetry as a kind of allegorized philosophy and a vehicle superior to prose to conduct philosophic discourse of the highest truths.

(37) Patinam in Tamil denotes a city. The city of Kaveripumpatinam or Puhar is personified as Champapati, the consort of Goddess Champu, the Tyche of Kaveripumpatinam. According to literary sources the sea engulfed Kaveripumpatinam.

(38) Tevu is an island and Navalan Tevu suggests that the island had a considerable number of gifted orators or poets (Navalan - ‘gift of tongue’).

(39) Danielou, p.8

(40) Act 8:26-40. In the contemporary world we encounter astral travel when Philip, one of the apostles of Christ was taken by the Spirit from Jerusalem to the desert of Gaza, where he joined an Ethiopian in his chariot to explain the words of God. Once his task was done Philip was once again taken by the Spirit to Azotus, from where he traveled to Caesarea to continue teaching.

(41) Danielou, p. 97

(42) Danielou, p.14. In early Buddhist art the elephant is actually conceived as a huge vessel to transport the faithful to the shores beyond.

(43) Stucco is native to Egypt and a number of stucco reliefs of Alexandrian manufacture, contemporaneous to the Roman Empire, were found in Begram, Afghanistan. However, Debevoise attributes the origin of this stuccowork to the Nabataeans who as skilled caravan leaders were instrumental in the transmission of the Aramaic script widely. "Origin of Decorative Stucco", American Journal of Archaeology. Vol XIV.1941. p.60.

(44) The Romans named Muziris and Nelcynda in Malabar, now Kerala on the southwest of the peninsula. Muziris had a temple dedicated to Augustus Caesar in the first century AD. The harbors in Malabar and Tamil Nadu functioned as a gateway to the lucrative commerce with Rome. The Periplus of the Eryhraean Sea (circa A.D.60) is a Greek text by an un-named merchant living in Egypt, which provides a detailed account of the trade across the Indian Ocean. Egypt was a key player in the trade with the Mediterranean world, and the Ethiopians settled in Barigaza (Bharuch or Broach on the Narmada River in Gujarat) and gained importance as intermediaries, like the Syrians, in the trade with Rome.

(45) However, a close encounter with Rome is confirmed by finds of Roman coins, Arretine ware and Greco-Roman jewelry as well as place names in Tamil Nadu: Madras - Sopatina / Masulipatam, Pondichery - Poduka, Karaikal - Camara and Cannanore - Naura.

(46) In canto 29, upon reaching the monastery in Kanchi Manimekalai found her mother Madhavai, her companions and Kovalan’s father, who after the death of his only son had renounced the world. It is speculated that Aravana Adigal is Nagarjuna, ‘Light of the Serpent’, a famous logician and teacher of Mahayana doctrine, who received the original teachings of the Buddha preserved by the king of the Nagas. Naga indicates a race that worshipped serpents and believed in transmigration so that a human or divine being could transform into a snake, as it is evidenced in Egyptian culture.

(47) Danielou, p. 141-142

(48) Pollitt, pp. 33-41. The originally austere Romans imported such luxury from Egypt, described by Pliny (N. H. XXXIV, 34) and others, such as Athenaeus (194A, 197C, V, 204E). It was conquered Asia which first sent luxury to Italy (Pliny, N.H. XXXIII, 148-50)

(49) p. 34

(50) Skilled performance by equestrians indicates a cultural configuration and a cultural diffusion that was assimilated even in the Buddhist art of India. In the Roman Empire it was a special honor to be raised to the status of the equestrian order. Upward mobility is indicated by members of the equestrian families in Carthage (‘Divine muse of Africa’) who sought to make careers for themselves in the Imperial administration or as officers in the army.

(51) Indra is identified as an Indo-Aryan deity and, although she figures prominently in literary allusions and art of the early historic period, Indra practically has no relevance to the practice of Hindu religion.

(52) Worthen, p.1

(53) Danielou, pp. 24-26. The imagery of a chariot suspended in the air has the pictorial virtuosity of a Roman cameo cut in Alexandria. Vivid descriptions of necropolis and funerary practices, although of great interest, are excluded here except to observe that Chakravala or the Circular Enclosure is the sphere where the gods live. In Tamil Nadu it approximates burial sites enclosed by circles of stone. Architecturally Chakravala is royal reliquary mound called Stupa, very similar to the funerary monument of Augustus Caesar in Rome, which proliferated in the subcontinent. S hudukattu-kottam or the city of the dead was a fearful place, where shaft burial peculiar to Egypt is also described as ‘narrow tombs sunk underground, whose doors are then walled up’. In Tamil the tomb is known as kal-arai or stone chamber.

(54) The explanation given, why Puhar was devoured by the Sea, is a masterful invention. by Pilivalai, daughter of the Naga race.

(55) The Bible, Luke XV, 11-12. The account of the ‘Prodigal Son’ in the Buddhist scripture Lotus Sutra (c.AD 50. Original in the collection of The British Museum Library), written on birch bark in cursive Aramaic script known as Kharosthi (written from right to left) of the Gandhara region (now part of Pakistan) offers fertile ground for transcultural studies. The ‘Prodigal Son’, a parable of Christ, is exclusive to the Gospel of Luke, which was written in Alexandria. St. Luke might have been bilingual, like Christ, who spoke in Aramaic his native tongue. The advent of Alexander marks the beginning of a new internationalism that paved the road for the Roman empire. By uniting the Greek Mediterranean with Egypt and Syria, the accomplished Hellenistic tradition was transformed by alien skills and ideas that eventually produced a logically restructured art and literature in the Indian sub-continent. To understand Roman art and culture within and beyond the borders of the empire, the essential aspects of Hellenic tradition, the Hellenistic mutation and the Hellenistic-Egyptian and Syrian tradition have to be viewed separately.

(56) This international team is the brainchild of Alain le Pichon who is at the University of Paris.

(57) Susan Visvanathan, ‘Strategies for acquiring mutual knowledge’, The Hindu, Tuesday, November 8, 2005, p.11 The report is on Eco’s position, as the chairperson of the Delhi proceedings, at the Alliance Française and the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Visvanathan is a novelist and teaches sociology at JNU.


Manimekkhalai. Merchant Prince Shattan , Tr. Alain Danielou, with collaboration of T. V. Gopala Iyer (Penguin Books India, 1989, 1993)

Beardsley, Manroe C. Aesthetics: From Classical Greece to the Present. A Short History (The Macmillian Company, New York, 1966)

Eco, Umberto, Symbol in Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language (Bloomington, Indiana, U.P., 1984)

Knox, Robert, Amaravati: Buddhist Sculpture from the Great Stupa (The British Museum, London, 1992)

Panofsky, Erwin, Meaning in the Visual Arts, Doubleday Anchor Books (New York, 1955)

Pollitt, J. J. The Art of Rome: c.753 BC-337 AD (Sources & Documents in the History of Art Series, Edited by H. W. Janson, Prentice-Hall, Inc., New Jersey, 1966)

Worthen, Thomas D., The Myth of Replacement: Stars, Gods, and Order in the Universe (The University of Arizona Press, Tucon, 1991)

Ed. Sarayu Doshi, India and Greece: Connections and Parallels, Marg Publications, Bombay, 1985

5.1. Innovation and Reproduction in Literature. The Narrative

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For quotation purposes:
Arputhrani Sengupta (New Delhi, India): Manimekalai. Dancer with Magic Bowl. Narrative in Tamil Epic (Second Century AD). In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW:

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