The Tamil Life of Pururavas: A Vernacular Adaptation of a Sanskrit Myth.

Author:Peres, Ofer


Around the beginning of the nineteenth century, alongside the growing use of the recently introduced technology of print in Tamil-Nadu, a large body of Tamil folk narratives, originally oral, was transformed into written form. (1) Among these texts, which came to be the most popular form of Tamil prose in the nineteenth century, one distinguishable sub-group is what Kamil Zvelebil defined as "folk-versions of pan-Indian Hindu epic cycles." (2) These texts expand episodes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata into long, elaborate tellings characterized by a relatively high register and an ornate style. Next to titles such as Pancapantavar Vanavacam ("The Forest Sojourn of the Five Pandavas") and Mayiliravanan-katai ("The Story of Peacock Ravana"), this group also includes the Pururavac-cakkiravartti-katai (hereafter PCK), namely, "The Story of Emperor Pururavas." (3)

The PCK, an elaborate prose telling of the ancient love story between the human King Pururavas and the celestial nymph (apsaras) Urvasi, was first printed in Madras in 1819. (4) The time of its composition is unknown, and so is the identity of its traditional audience and context of performance. (5) It is composed in the typical style of pre-modern Tamil katha literature (6) and bears some features common to works of this genre, such as the use of proverbs and repetitive formulaic phrases. Like most Tamil folk-narratives, its authorship is traditionally ascribed to the medieval Tamil poet Pukalenti Pulavar. (7) In terms of content, the PCK is a fusion of "folk/popular" and "classical" themes: the ancient Pururavas myth, as known from the Vedas and Puranas, occupies only one-fifth of the PCK. The remaining four-fifths are a unique supplement to the story, which does not appear in any of the Sanskrit tellings. This supplement, in addition to extending the story, is, as I intend to show, also designed to echo the classical narrative in a manner that situates the latter in a new ideological context and undermines its ethical and theological stands.

The PCK's specific mix of narrative elements is shared by two other Tamil works: a nineteenth-century drama by the name of Pururava-natakam (PN, "The Drama about Pururava") and a sixteenth-century Tamil mahakavya (8) called Pururava-caritai (PC, "The Adventures of Pururava"). Like the PCK, both works place the Sanskrit "original" account next to a larger narrative with a plot similar to the PCK's supplement. Further examination of these texts and a discussion of their relation to the PCK are made towards the end of this paper. However, we shall begin our exploration of the PCK with a consideration of its connection to the early, Sanskrit examples of the Pururavas narrative.


Among the ancient narratives of the Sanskrit tradition, the famous legend of Pururavas and Urvasi stands out as one of the very few that have been retold and reworked from Vedic times to this day. It appears in a variety of texts in the Vedic canon from as early as the Rgveda, (9) is narrated fully in many of the major Puranic texts, and is referred to in both epics. (10) In the Sanskrit belletristic field, it serves as the theme for Kalidasa's Vikramorvasiya and is retold in the Kathasaritsagara. (11)

Although spread over a wide swath of time and space, the vast majority of the Sanskrit tellings of the Pururavas story share a similar basic plot line, of which the central themes are the conjugal relationship of Urvasi and Pururavas and their dramatic separation. The epics identify Pururavas as the first king of the Lunar Dynasty, and the Puranic accounts add a few fixed background sub-episodes, such as Urvasi's curse of descent to the human world and the unusual birth-story of Pururavas, whose mother, Ila, is, in fact, a man under the influence of a sex-changing spell. (12) From the Puranas onwards, however, there is a clear split in the traditional telling of this narrative into two major branches, two "tale types," each of which has its own, mostly distinct, sub-episodes. One major type is the "Vedic" branch (hereafter "V-branch"), to which belong all tellings that are in agreement with the basic elements of the SB 11.5.1 narrative. The second type I call the "Kalidasa" branch (hereafter "K-branch"), which includes the Puranic tellings that share the major narrative elements developed in Kalidasa's Vikramorvasiya. (13)

The first fifth of the PCK is a V-branch account, closely resembling the Bhagavata Purana (BhP) telling. (14) A brief summary of the BhP telling will provide the necessary foundations for the following structural analysis of the PCK and enable us to identify its deviations from this conventional, "classic" template.

The Classical Story of Pururavas in BhP 9.14 (15)

The celestial nymph Urvasi, cursed by Mitra-Varuna to reside temporarily as a human in the human world, overhears the sage Narada describing the good looks and other fine qualities of the human king Pururavas and makes up her mind to spend her time on earth with him. Immediately enchanted by Urvasi's beauty, Pururavas asks her to become his wife and enjoy sexual pleasures with him. Urvasi, herself enamored of Pururavas, agrees but sets three conditions: he must protect her two pet rams, her food must be only clarified butter, and she must never see him naked, except during sexual intercourse. Pururavas accepts her conditions, and the two lovers enjoy many days together. But like most curses in Indian literature, Urvasi's too has an expiry date. In due time, Indra, the lord of the gods, starts missing Urvasi's presence in his assembly. He then sends the Gandharvas to bring her back, and they accomplish this mission by virtue of a ruse. The Gandharvas enter Pururavas' palace in the dead of the night and steal the two rams from under his nose, a failure to which Urvasi reacts with an acrid assault on Pururavas' manhood. Goaded by her cries, Pururavas pursues the thieves without taking the time to put on his garment. The Gandharvas then produce a flash of lightning so that Urvasi sees him naked, and she disappears.

Mad with grief, Pururavas wanders through the world in search of her. He eventually arrives at the banks of the Sarasvati River in Kuruksetra, where he finds Urvasi playing with her celestial companions, and begs her to return to him. (16) At first, Urvaso rejects him coldly, but when he insists and even threatens to kill himself, she agrees to meet him for one night every year and give birth to his sons. Six years and six sons later, she realizes he will not be satisfied in this manner and advises him to worship the Gandharvas and ask for a boon that would allow them to reunite forever. Pururavas does as she suggested and receives from the Gandharvas an agnisthali, that is, a ritual vessel that contains fire. For some reason Pururavas believes the agnisthali to be Urvasi herself, and when he realizes it is just an earthen pot, he leaves it in the forest and goes back to his palace.

That night Pururavas is lost in thought. According to the BhP, this is a moment of cosmic importance: the turn of the cosmic ages, from the Satya-yuga (the first age) to the Tretayuga. This change has some serious theological and ritualistic implications: what formerly was the one-syllable "Om" became at that moment the threefold Veda; the ritual structure of the Satya-Yuga, which included only one sacrificial fire, was replaced at that point with the standard ritual structure of three sacrificial fires, as ordained in the Vedas. According to the BhP, the manifestation of the three Vedas occurs in the mind of Pururavas on that very night in his palace. He then returns to the place where he left the agnisthali but discovers that the fire and the earthen vessel have turned into two trees, one a sami and the other an asvattha. Pururavas uses their branches to kindle fire, performs the threefold fire sacrifice that he has envisioned, and eventually reaches Urvasi's world.

With regard to its outline and major motifs, the BhP telling can be considered a typical example of the "classic" V-branch narrative of Pururavas. As previously mentioned, the first fifth of the PCK highly resembles this version. At this point, however, we ought to take a look at the general plot of the PCK in toto.

The PCK--A Brief Sketch (17)

Typical of its genre, the PCK begins with a frame-narrative, which in this case is a well-known episode from the Mahabharata's Forest Book (aranya-parva). At a certain point during the Pandava brothers' long exile, Arjuna leaves to perform a harsh penance (tapas) in order to obtain the pasupatastra--the ultimate weapon for their coming war against their cousins and rivals, the sons of Dhrtarastra. In his absence Yudhisthira and the others are visited by Vyasa, who, upon seeing Yudhisthira's grief, tells him that his troubles will soon be over, in a manner similar to those of their ancestor, Pururavas. Yudhisthira asks him to tell the story and Vyasa does so willingly, beginning with a description of the Lunar Dynasty from creation to the birth of Pururavas and up to his coronation as king of Pratisthanapuram. Hence the stage is set for the story of Pururavas himself, who thus far was described through conventional superlatives only. The account of his love affair with Urvasi recalls the BhP narrative presented above, but instead of the familiar formula of the three nuptial conditions, Urvasi says (PCK 1912, 12):

varir cakkiravarttiye! enakk' or virata-niyatiy untu. at' ennav enil: enta kalattil nir vastiravinaray nirvaniyakat tonrukinriro akkalattil ummai vittup pirintu ninki vitumpatiyay[aka] irukkum appdtu nlr mana-varuttam uramal enakkuc celavu kutukka vakkuttattan ceyvir anal nam iruvarum kantaruvamakak kutikkalantu cukapokankalaiy anupavikkat takutiyaka irukkum. Listen, O King! I have one condition: at some point, you would appear [before me] naked, and...

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