Friday, 26 November 2021

The legend of the Indian prince who is the forefather of all Cambodians

 The love story of prince Preah Thong and Naga princess Neang Neak is intrinsic to Cambodian culture, passed on to every child at a young age.

One of the most beautiful theatrical spectacles that a person can witness in Asia is the Preah Thong Boung Soung, a rendition of the story of Preah Thong and Neang Neak that is performed by the Royal Ballet of Cambodia. With elaborate costumes, gentle music and exquisite dance, the opera depicts the story that every single child in Cambodia is told at a very young age – the saga of an Indian prince and a serpent (Naga) woman who are the ancestors of all Khmer people.


Like the Indian epic Ramayana, there are several versions of the story of Preah Thong and Neang Neak. One of the most popular versions goes like this: Thousands of years ago, Cambodia was a small island called Kouk Thlouk, meaning the land of the Thlouk tree, a Cambodian species of Chrysobalanaceae. The island belonged to the Nagas (serpents) who lived in the ocean. One day, Naga princess Soma and her subjects transformed themselves into beautiful women and came to the island. The same night, an Indian prince named Kaundinya sailed with his followers to the island. The prince saw the Naga princess dancing in the moonlight and fell madly in love with her and asked her to marry him. She agreed under the condition that the Naga king, her father, approve of the marriage.


Representational image. The story of Preah Thong and Neang Neak is performed often by the Royal Ballet of Cambodia. | David Van Der Veen/AFP



Since the Naga palace was in the depths of the ocean, Kaundinya had to ride there by carrying Soma’s tail. The king found the Indian prince to be a suitable match and agreed to let his daughter marry him. After their wedding, the Naga king expanded the island by reclaiming more land from the ocean. This territory was then ruled by the Kaundinya and Soma, who were given the Khmer names Preah Thong and Neang Neak respectively. The Cambodians, or Khmers, consider themselves the descendants of the pair.


“The description of the land as an ‘island’ is linked with the idea that all of the country was formerly underwater,” German scholar RĂ¼diger Gaudes wrote in a paper titled ‘Kaundinya, Preah Thong and the Nagi Soma: Some aspects of a Cambodian legend’. “Determining the geographical location of Koul Thlouk is impossible, particularly since it is said to be situated near the Dangrek Mountains, near the town of Siem Reap (where, indeed the classical metropolis of Angkor Thom was located), or far to the south of Angkor Borei – its supposed location evidently depending upon the place of origin of the respective narrator.”


Scholars widely agree that the notion that ancient Cambodia was an island was because of the widespread floods that the country has been witness to for thousands of years.


Another version of the story says Kaundinya waged a war with Soma, while another claims he killed the Naga king who refused to allow his daughter to marry a human. One thing that is common between these and almost all versions of the story is the part about the Indian prince carrying the tail of his future wife to the depths of the ocean. It is such a part of the Cambodian ethos that it has been incorporated into Cambodian wedding rituals: while entering the honeymoon room, a Cambodian groom is required to carry the end of the long train of the bride’s dress. This gesture and the story behind it indicate that the woman is the head of the family. Cambodians consider Neang Neak as their matriarch.


Elements Of Truth?

Like many epics and legends of Asia, the story of Preah Thong and Neang Neak may have an element of truth. Chinese historical texts mention the Kingdom of Funan, a loose network of Indianised states in the 3rd century CE. Funan is probably a Chinese variant of the Khmer word Vnum, which means mountain. The state’s ancient capital Vyadhapura did not survive the ravages of time.


In his book Account of Foreign Countries at the Time of Wu, 3rd century Chinese traveller Kai Tang documented the existence of Funan and Vyadhapura. He mentioned that the script of the kingdom was similar to what he called the Indian script. Kai Tang wrote about Kaundinya in his book, while talking about the origin of Funan. The Chinese name for the Indian prince was Hun Tian.


German historian and Indologist Hermann Kulke was the first to suggest that the Indian king was a Brahmin and that Kaundinya was actually the name of his gotra. In his book The Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History, Sanjeev Sanyal added that Kaundinya probably was from northern Andhra Pradesh or southern Odisha.


Tenth century Chinese encyclopaedia Tai Ping Lu Yuan says Kaundinya (Hun Tian) was a devotee of a Hindu god and dreamt of his god giving him a divine bow and asking him to take to sea in a vessel. The Chinese text that was translated by historian and academician Ramesh Chandra Majumdar said Kaundinya went to a temple of his god and found a bow the morning after the dream. “Then he embarked on a trading vessel, and the god changed the course of the wind in such a manner that he came to Funan,” the Chinese encyclopaedia said. “Liu Ye (Soma) came in a boat to plunder the vessel. Hun Tian raised his bow and shot an arrow, which pierced through the queen’s boat from one side to the other. The queen was overtaken by fear and submitted to him. Thereupon Hun Tian ruled over the country.”



The marriage of Kaundinya and Soma is mentioned in several ancient Chinese texts as well.

“These accounts undoubtedly reflect historical events from the 1st Century AD (that is two hundred or more years before Kang Tai’s visit) relating to the process of Indianisation: the influx of Indian religion, folklore, political and legal theories and other cultural elements brought by Indians into Southeast Asia in connection with social changes and the formation of states there,” Gaudes wrote.


Cultural Linkages

After Cambodia broke free of colonial rule, Cambodian stateman Norodom Sihanouk, who was first king then prime minister of the country, made it a priority to popularise the story around the world. Under the patronage of Sihanouk’s wife Norodom Monineath, the Royal Ballet of Cambodia performed the opera in several countries.


The ballet has since become an international symbol of the country and the dance depicting the story has been inscribed on the Unesco World Heritage list. It even survived the murderous and genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, which wanted to ban the story and ballet.


Sihanouk also developed a strong personal friendship with Jawaharlal Nehru, who he considered his mentor. During a 12-day visit to India in 1955, the Cambodian statesman spoke of both the influence of Sanskrit on the Khmer language as well as link the story of Preah Thong and Neang Neak created between the countries. “We [India and Cambodia] are cousins,” he said during the visit. “Khmer civilisation is the child of India’s civilisation, and we are proud of it.”


This story and dance, which are a powerful and important cultural link, can be the basis of strengthening India’s relationship with the most Indic of South East Asian countries. In a post-pandemic world, audiences in Indian cities would welcome the performance by Cambodian dancers of the story that shows the love between an ancient Indian prince and his Naga princess.


(Source: Scroll)

Thursday, 25 November 2021

Why are we still uncomfortable with the idea of widows finding joy and meaning in life?

I was around eight-nine years old, when my grandfather’s sister arrived from Mangalore. She towered over me, despite her stoop, her grey-blue eyes resting kindly on my face, her knobbly fingers stroking my cheeks. There was something different about this figure clad in a rough muddy red nine-yard sari and a white blouse, with elbow-length sleeves and buttons that reached her throat. I noticed her bare arms, neck and ears, which was unlike the other women in our house, whose ears flashed diamond earrings, whose necks were adorned with a mangalsutra and whose wrists made music as the gold bangles they wore clinked together. It was when the sari pallu covering her head slid down her neck that I noticed her shaven head. I remember gasping almost audibly, though she was quick to pull it back over her head.

Never having seen a woman with a shaved head before, my spontaneous reaction was to ask my mother why grandma wore her hair so short, only to be shushed into silence. Mother’s eyes conveyed that I was never to speak about it again. I must have appeared rude to the grandma, as I watched her from the corner of my eyes wondering why she wore the same muddy red sari and white blouse every day, till I saw one set spread out on the clothesline and another on her body, and realised that it was her ‘uniform’. It was when an older friend who had came home to play with me remarked, ‘Oh, your grandmother is a vikesha, just like my Sumati Ajji, who lives in our village,’ did I realise that there were other women like her. Varsha told me that vikeshas were women without hair; whose heads were shaved when their husbands died. ‘My Ajji too wears the same sari,’ she said. I remember snuggling up to grandma several times a day, wanting to hug her, an inexplicable sadness enveloping me.




My mother was widowed at 23, and I had heard how, when some relatives had approached her to remove her mangalsutra and wipe her forehead, a beloved, firebrand elderly relative, ‘Ba’ to the young and old, had stepped forward like a warrior, her hands on her hips, daring anyone to do that. She was a rebel, way ahead of the times, and sensitive enough to stop the cruel practice. When I was older, mother told me how Ba had commanded, ‘Go, take a bath and leave the rest to me.’ When mother had come out of the shower, Ba had dried her hair, braided it, and adorned it with a fragrant mogra gajra, applied a red kumkum tikka on her forehead and insisted that she wear a printed floral sari. Such was Ba’s vehemence that none dared to oppose her diktat. Mother had the support of her parents too, who encouraged her gently to complete her graduation, appear for qualifying exams and take up a job in a bank.


Not all women are so fortunate. I remember a widow shrinking back, as I applied haldi kumkum on her forehead, as I did, to the other women accompanying her, and then being admonished for my ‘blunder’. From that day onwards, I stopped following the custom that is followed in some homes, of applying haldi-kumkum (reserved only for a sumangali– a married woman whose husband is still living) while taking leave of women guests. I did not want to be party to this discrimination. I also stopped conducting the haldi-kumkum ceremony to which only sumangalis are invited. Blindly following prescribed customs that blatantly marginalised a few revolted me, and I realised that being vigilant, questioning and taking concrete steps, however small, were fairly effective forms of protest.


When I got married, mother refused to ‘give me away’. Despite the liberalism she was exposed to, her mind was so conditioned that as a widow she was unlucky, her fears made her resolute. My cajoling had no effect on her. The family opined that it was her comfort that mattered. One of my regrets is not knowing her mind before the ceremony, for had I the slightest inkling, I would have opted for a registered marriage. I have seen several other widows in the family shrinking away from performing religious rites. Nobody seems to mind, so deep-rooted is its acceptance.


A few things have certainly changed. Widow remarriage is no longer as taboo as it was. Education and financial independence have ensured that widows do not have to toe the line of regressive customs, at least in urban areas, though I say this more out of observation than any statistics at hand. We still hear stories of unwanted attention and ill-treatment at the hands of family members. Though we have come a long way from the horrendous practice of Sati, we need greater humanitarian strides if we are to speak of the true empowerment of widows. The plight of the widows of Vrindavan, driven out of their rightful homes, and living in penury and loneliness, comes to my mind, as also that of widows around the world who are ostracised or branded as witches.


It’s time we acknowledged that a bereaved woman going through the emotionally wrenching event of losing her life partner does not need a misogynist code of social conduct that disarms her. All she needs is a way forward to lead a highly meaningful and joyous new life.


(Source: She The People TV)

Tuesday, 23 November 2021

I looked closely at two famous portraits of Tipu Sultan – and found that one isn’t actually of him

 A history enthusiast goes beyond the captions at the museum at the 18th-century ruler’s summer palace in Srirangapatna.

Visitors to the museum run by the Archaeological Survey of India in Tipu Sultan’s summer palace in Srirangapatna, near Mysore, have the opportunity of inspecting two painted portraits of the 18th-century ruler himself.


The one by GF Cherry is the popular portrait of Tipu Sultan. Since the late 18th century, it has appeared in a variety of books, magazines, journals and newspapers articles about him.


Two portraits at Tipu Sultan's summer palace that are said to be of him. | Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons



The other is a full-length portrait and has been attributed by the museum to the German artist Johan Zoffany. Here, the direct gaze of the subject falls on the visualiser in contrast to the depiction of the subject’s profile in Cherry’s painting.


Especially since the advent of the internet and social media, this painting has increasingly been appropriated into Tipu Sultan’s life story: it has appeared both online and in print as a definitive portrait of Tipu Sultan in his younger days.

The noted Tipu Sultan historian Kate Brittlebank has even incorporated this painting on the cover page of her biography, Tiger: The Life of Tipu Sultan.


I had been long fascinated with this portrait of Tipu Sultan both on account of my interest in the ruler’s history as well as my hobby as an artist who experiments in paint as well as pencil. The striking contrast between the tawny and near-corpulent Tipu Sultan in the Cherry painting and the slim Tipu Sultan in the Zoffany painting intrigued me. But I brushed it off as Tipu Sultan gaining in weight with the passage of years.


GF Cherry, who painted the first portrait, was the Persian secretary to Governor General of India, Lord Cornwallis at Srirangapatna. Anne Buddle, a noted historian mentions that a similar portrait by the same artist was presented by Lord Cornwallis in 1792 to Tipu Sultan’s mother. This work, after being passed on to Tipu Sultan’s youngest son Prince Gholam Mohammad, was gifted by him to the East India Company and is now in the British Library, London.


This portrait can be considered an authentic representation of Tipu Sultan on account of it being painted in the lifetime of Tipu Sultan and once, having been in the possession of both his mother and his son.


This image of Tipu Sultan is also congruent with the description of Major Allan, who was present on the spot when Tipu Sultan’s lifeless body was discovered in an archway, and mentions the ruler as having a “…short thick neck, small arched eyebrows, tawny complexion, (with) moustache and clean-shaven chin. He was inclined to ‘corpulency’.”


Portrait of Tipu Sultan, attributed by Dariya Daulat Museum to Johan Zoffany, 1780.



The second painting also wandered a little before it came to the Dariya Daulat Bagh Museum. Writes the British historian and author Denys Forrest:


“…. a full-length which, according to the Descriptive List (above), was presented to the Government of India by Sir P. C. Tagore in 1934 and hung in the corridor to the State Dining Room at Viceroy’s House. This picture was then attributed to Zoffany, but I have been unable to obtain any further details of it.”


It’s clear that the painting was already attributed to Zoffany before its arrival at the museum in Srirangapatna.


However, when I delved deeper into art history, I realized that Zoffany’s style of painting was very different from this painting of Tipu Sultan attributed to him. Renowned art historian Mildred Archer had this to say about him: “Zoffany found it difficult to suppress his interest in bounding movement and love of histrionic gesture.”


That is evident from Zoffany’s “The Impey Family listening to strolling musicians” (1783-’84), “Warren Hastings with his wife” (1783-’87), “Col. Mordaunt’s Cock Match” (1784-’86). But the painting of Tipu Sultan has the subject standing idly looking ahead without any semblance of movement whatsoever, something quite different from the regular works of art attributed to the artist.


Portrait of Tipu Sultan, attributed to GF Cherry; British Museum, London, and Dariya Daulat Bagh, Srirangapatna. Credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons



Besides this oddity, Zoffany is known to have visited Calcutta, Lucknow and Delhi but neither Mysore nor Srirangapatna during his travels in the subcontinent.


It was during this research on this painting and European art history in India that I also started to look at paintings by another artist Tilly Kettle (d.1786) who was in India between 1769 and 1776. While explaining Kettle’s paintings, Pauline Rohatgi and Graham Parlett write, “Kettle usually portrayed his sitters, their serious expressions largely devoid of emotion, against a plain or simple background.”


Kettle usually painted full-length portraits of his sitters having a direct gaze, with distinct elements like, the direction of the light source and shadows, stance of the foot and bearing of the sword.


This distinctive style is evident in paintings by Kettle such as “An Army Officer, Madras” (1770), “Mohammed Ali Khan, Nawab of Arcot” (1770), “Shuja-ud-Daula” (1772) and “An officer in the 2nd Bengal Infantry Brigade”, Calcutta (1772).


Emperor Shah Alam reviewing the 3rd brigade of the East India Company’s troops at Allahabad by Tilly Kettle (c. 1781).



This style is also noticeable in the Dariya Daulat painting. Besides, Kettle incorporated backdrops featuring part of a building or vegetation, often palm trees like the one observed in the background of the Dariya Daulat Bagh portrait.

This is in contrast with Zoffany’s style, with subjects showing marked expression, conversation pieces, and paintings often with varied complex backdrops and at times incorporating detailed paintings in display, while painting indoor scenes.


Tilly Kettle is also not documented as having visited Mysore or Srirangapatna during his time in India.

One evening as I was looking at art books, I had my breakthrough. I found the Dariya Daulat “Tipu Sultan” in a Kettle painting titled “Emperor Shah Alam reviewing the 3rd brigade of the East India Company’s troops at Allahabad.”


This subject in the Kettle painting not only looks exactly similar but wears similar coloured and decorated clothing as the subject in the Dariya Daulat museum painting. No doubt remains now that this was the same person depicted in both the paintings. It is obvious that Tipu Sultan could not have been present in Allahabad by the side of the then Mughal Emperor Shah Alam during his review of the English troops commanded by General Barker. This had to be somebody else.




My subsequent research, that I will leave for another article in the future, shows why I’m certain that the subject in the painting is actually Salar Jung, brother in law of Shuja-ud-Daula, the Nawab-vizier of Awadh both of whom were present in Allahabad at the review of the English troops by the Emperor Shah Alam. Apart from his brief stint in Madras (1769-1771), Kettle was also the court painter of Shuja-ud-Daula and painted several portraits of Shuja-ud-Daula and his family members.


This means that the Dariya Daulat painting is a clear case of misattribution of both the painter as well as subject of the portrait.


(Source: Scroll)