Written in the stars, before books!

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Peter Falk, whom many of us remember as the taciturn TV detective Colombo, had a memorable line in the fabulous 1987 movie, The Princess Bride: "When I was your age, television was called books," Falk's character tells his grandson. "And this is a special book. It was the book my father used to read to me when I was sick, and I used to read it to your father. And today I'm gonna read it to you."

So this is a story which was told by my ancestors during the Sangam era sometime between 600 through 300 BC when the Pandyan king Ukkiraperuvazhuthi commissioned the compilation of an anthology of Tamil poetry called the Akananuru. Some 145 poets contributed to this work, but the stories that are told therein go back to a time before books. In those days, television was to be found in the night sky in the form of stars.

You're probably familiar with some of the descendants of those old starry stories. That corny pick up line "What's your star sign?" is a throwback to those days when tales were told of Aries the ram, and the Gemini twins, and Aquarius the water-carrier. Our tale today is about Taurus the bull, or to be more precise, a cluster of seven stars in the constellation Taurus known as the Pleiades.

The ancient Greeks, who named the cluster, referred to those stars as the Seven Sisters: daughters of the titan Atlas and the sea nymph Pleione. After Atlas was forced to carry the heavens on his shoulders, Orion began to pursue all of the Pleiades, and Zeus transformed them first into doves, and then into stars to comfort their father.

(The constellation of Orion is said to still pursue them across the night sky.)

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The Japanese people referred to the cluster as Subaru. Today, that name has been taken by the car manufacturer, which uses a graphical representation of the Seven Sisters as its logo.

Chairman Mao, revolutionary leader of modern China, probably derives his name from the same source: Mǎo refers to the "Hairy Head of the White Tiger of the West" as the constellation is described in Chinese astronomy.

In Thailand, they tell the tale of an elderly couple who raised a family of chickens: a mother hen and her six chicks. A monk arrived at the couple's home and, as they had no food to offer him, they decided to cook the mother hen. As the mother hen was being killed, her six children threw themselves into fire to die alongside with their mother. The heavens immortalized the seven chickens in remembrance.

Which now brings us back to our starting point. Lord Siva, the story goes, was urged by his supplicants to bring forth an heir to destroy the demon Taraka. Siva heared their prayers and married Parvati, the incarnation of his wife Sati. He took her to his home at the summit of Mount Kailas in the Himalayas to consummate the marriage.

The foreplay between Siva and Parvati proceeded for a kalpa (which the Puranas describe as a period of 4,32 billion years) during which time Taraka was wreaking havoc in the world. In desperation, the Devas went to Lord Vishnu who climbed Mount Kailas, knocked on Siva's door, and said "Hurry up".

Interrupted in mid-coitus, Siva spilled his seed upon the earth.

Agni, one of the Devas, changed into a dove to swallow the burning semen which was threatening to consume the three worlds with its heat.

Parvati cursed him: "Despoilers of love, you have made me a barren woman. Siva's seed was meant for my body. Base Agni, become the devourer of all things for swallowing what was mine!"

For five thousand years, Agni burned with the heat of Siva's seed until he could stand it no more. He burst out from a sacrificial fire tended by the wives of the Saptarishi who were immediately impregnated. They returned home to face the wrath of their husbands who tossed them out in rage.

Finally, they expunged the seed upon the mountain where it flowed together into a golden foetus which melted the ice into the river Ganges and flowed down where it came to reset amidst the reeds for ten thousand years.

Six stellar goddesses, the Karthigai maidens, flew down to bathe in the Ganges when they saw the splendid child. Each wanted to suckle him. So the child grew six heads and fed at each of their breasts at once.

And so it is that that this week, Tamil people around the world marked one of the oldest and most celebrated days in the ancient calendar "Karthikai Deepam" when the full moon (Powernami) is in conjugation with the constellation Karthigai representing the son of Siva and the six maidens who raised him.

My very best wishes to you all on the occasion of the original Festival of Lights.