A fascinating vision of Dasavataram

Annamayya had a penchant for unusual descriptions and the knowledge of the language to fashion songs beautifully

May 16, 2019 03:43 pm | Updated 03:43 pm IST

CHENNAI, TAMIL NADU, 11/08/2018: Dance critic V A K Ranga Rao  in Chennai.    
Photo: K.V. Srinivasan

CHENNAI, TAMIL NADU, 11/08/2018: Dance critic V A K Ranga Rao in Chennai. Photo: K.V. Srinivasan

The first known song-writer in Telugu, Tallapaka Annamacharya (1408-1503) wrote 32,000 lyrics according to his biographer-grandson Chinnanna. Around 12,000 of these are now available. A few are by his son Peda Tirumalacharya, and grandsons China Tirumalayya and Peda Tiruvengalanadhudu. Around a hundred of these are about the ten incarnations. Except for a handful (four by my count) in simple Sanskrit, all are in Telugu. But to be exact, there was another poet earlier whose Telugu compositions dealt with it. This was Krishnamayya, whose creations are known as ‘Simhagiri Narahari Vachanalu.’ Strictly speaking, they were not songs as such, with pallavi and charanam divisions but incantations addressed to the Supreme — Simhagiri Varaha Narasimha — with an internal rhythm.

Kshemendra of Kashmir, 12th century, authored the first work in Sanskrit exclusively about the ten incarnations, ‘Dasavathar Charitham.’ Jayadeva, later in the same century, wrote the first song about the subject, ‘Jaya Jagadeesa hare’ in his ‘Geeta Govind’ preceded by the sloka ‘Vedanuddharathe’ which captures all ten in a crucible. This was the first song about the ten incarnations I heard. A little later, when I could read, Andhrashtapadi, a book put together by Meka Venkatadryapparao, Raja of Vuyyur, (kept accessible in my mother’s puja room), it became clear that Jayadeva saw Krishna taking all these forms to save humanity from various calamities.

Frequent readings made me understand its import. This acquaintance was fortified by a few Ashtapadis sung by my mother as a part of her namasankeertan on Sundays with local women and the 78-rpm gramophone records we had, by Vinjamuri Anasuya and T. Suryakumari, ‘Chandana charchita,’ ‘Nindati chandana’ and ‘Dheerasameere.’ There is nothing like a catchy tune to lodge the lyrics indelibly in memory, I found.

A Dasavatara song of Annamayya first came to me through vocalist Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna’s request to write the sleeve-notes for his Long Play disc. As was my wont, I went through all the texts, got the meanings for the difficult parts from Archakam Udayagiri Srinivasacharyulu, a scholar who edited some Annamayya volumes for TTD. His guiding and my mind’s goading was so thorough that when a pseudo-scholar said that the line ‘Purasathula maanamulu pollujesina cheyi’ referred to Krishna, I dragged him over hot coals and told him that it referred to Buddhavatara and the wives of Tripura demons and not Gopis.

Ten-incarnation songs

Vakkalanka Sarala Rao, a film playback singer of the 1940s and Fifties, noted my fascination for Annamayya and said, “You’ll never be able to wade through all the 12,000 songs now available. Why don’t you concentrate on the ten-incarnation songs?” She didn’t stop with that but handed over a dozen such songs in her neat hand (this was pre-xerox time). By her benefaction, I found my lode.

I dug deep. I pursued the meaning of every phrase, idiom and word that were not properly, pertinently explained in dictionaries. Annamayya’s Telugu was 600 years old. It had some words not in the lexicons in use today; and some, whose meanings had changed with time.

The initial help came from Samudrala Lakshmanaiah and, subsequently from Ravva Srihari’s Srihari Nighantuvu . His more specific Annamayya Padakosam came later. By which time I had become a little more intimate with Annamayya’s usage. And audacious enough to question certain meanings given in the latter: Page 376: “Patavaali cheeralu=Saris with vertical or horizontal stripes. A plaid design woven with two different colours for warp and weft.” This is wrong. Patavaali means a sari woven out of tie & dye hanks. Today’s well-known examples are Pochampalli (Telangana) and Sambhalpur (Odisha).

In Annamayya’s time they were made in nearby Cheerala-Perala. The text appended in the Padakosam, ‘Kutilampu je(ne?)thalu kuchhuluga gatti’ meaning ‘complicated handiwork (weaving) tied in loops’ proves my point.

In many temples all over the four States of South India, the Dasavatara sculptures are found in a group. They are Matsya (Fish), Kurma (Tortoise), Varaha (Boar), Narasimha (Man-Lion), Vamana (Dwarf), Parasurama (Rama with an axe), Kodandarama (Rama with a bow), Balarama (Rama with a plough), Buddha and Kalki (the Rider on a horse). In some places Krishna is seen in place of Buddha. In the Andhra region, where Jagannath of Puri is famous, a lone Jagannatha is shown in place of Buddha. One example I know is in the Venugopala temple in Bobbili, Vizianagaram district.

Pratima Kosha , Encyclopaedia of Indian Iconography has a specific ‘dhyana sloka’, a verse detailing the form, for these ten as also for hundreds of others from the Hindu Pantheon. The sculptor has to meditate on this sloka, visualise the form and recreate it in stone. Some slokas have slight variations. Kalki is riding a horse in one and in another, he has a horse-head on a man’s body. This is not to be confused with other Puranic figures with the head of a horse, the sage Tumbura, the twin medicine men Ashwinis churned out of the Ocean of Milk, the demon Hayagriva and the Hayagriva form of Vishnu, a disseminator of knowledge, a counterpart of the Saivite Dakshinamurthi.

Dhyana sloka

A clear picture emerges out of this mythical chaos by the six volumes of Indian Iconography (Hindu, Jain and Buddhist) put together by S.K. Ramachandra Rao published by Kalpatharu Research Academy (a division of Sri Sringeri Sarada Peetham, Bangalore). Yes, T.A.Gopinatha Rao’s Elements of Hindu Iconography (1914) dealt with the same subject (omitting Jain and Buddhist), but it was not meant for the laity.

Apparently the dhyana sloka for Buddha mixed him up with Jain Tirthankara; for it says Buddha was naked with a clean shaven head and begged for alms. Bhagavatha names twenty-two (three?) important avatharas and includes Rishabha (Adinatha, the first Tirthankara) and Buddha. This could have been a reason for the portmanteau definition. Many songs of Annamayya tread this tow-path. It must be remembered that by his time, the 15th century, Buddhism was not a strong contender with Hinduism.

The variety that Annamayya infused into his Dasavatara Sankeertanams is immense. Some are just re-telling of the stories associated with them. A few are cryptically brief. But many make no sense at all to the laity. They pun upon the words. They make way-out allusions, indulge in riddles. They reveal, yes, with a scholar’s commentary, insights into mythological characters and incidents.

Most name Krishna and some, Balarama. About half-a-dozen name both, one after the other. In a few, the description can apply to either, Killer of the demons, Caretaker of the cows, Lover of the gopis. Yes, Balarama’s dalliance with the Gopis is detailed in Bhrigu Samhitha.

“One day he was sporting with the Gopis and suddenly he thought of indulging in ‘jalakrida’, playing about in water. He commands the river Yamuna to come to him. Yamuna does not. Angry, he sets out with his plough to change its course, Terrified, she flows to him, taking along gifts, sapphires and blue raiment (white in some accounts).” This accounts for Annamayya’s description of Balarama as ‘neeli kase vaadu’, one clothed in blue.

Annamayya had a penchant for unusual descriptions and the requisite knowledge of the language to fashion them beautifully. In ‘Deva devam bhaje,’ he describes Rama as ‘talaahi naga haram.’ Different scholars have interpreted it differently. They can’t be proved wrong as their knowledge of grammar enables them to justify it.

I say that my interpretation is more correct as it is based not on grammatical splitting of words with a hatchet of academics but on the observation of nature. It goes thus: tala = toddy palms; ahi = snake; naga = hood; haram = queller.

To test Rama’s ability to fight Vali, Sugreeva asks him to fell seven toddy palms with a single arrow. These, as I visualised, are not in straight line but in a group. As they are of different heights, their heads together look like the hood of a snake. Years after I went public with this image, I discovered to my utter surprise that Ananda Ramayanam , also attributed to Valmiki, has a passage which is literally pulled out of my type-writer. The translation by Devarakonda Seshagiri Rao (Sivakameswari Granthamala, Vijayawada, 20007, page 38, 2nd and 3rd lines) says it in so many words.

The study of Krishna’s ten incarnations is fascinating. A deep penetration of Annamayya’s accounts of these is a combined lesson in language, mythology and folk beliefs no matter how many doctorates are appended to one’s name. It is a true learning experience for all.

The writer is a well-known film historian, dance reseracher and musicologist

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