An Immortality Of Stone And Storied Deeds – The Jatayu Colossus of Kerala

I have often maintained that India is a place wherein the past – and here, I mean the folk-memory inherent in Mythic recollections and retellings – is not merely ‘remembered’, nor ‘commemorated’ … but actively re-immanentized into the living present. This is one reason why it has still-living, still-vibrant Indo-European mytho-religious tradition.

Now, what we see here is a small part of that. I say “small” – it’s a physically huge sculpture, that’s about sixty meters in length. And it represents the figure of Jatayu, from the Ramayana.

According to popular versions of this myth, Jatayu – a heroic avian creature – had attempted to intervene in Ravana’s abduction of Rama’s Wife Sita, and was cut-down by the demon emperor, maimed, and crashed to earth near this site in Kerala.

Before dying from his wounds (note the rather large and prominent-via-its-absence missing wing), Jatayu managed to croak out a warning to Rama & Laxman of what had happened when they came across him while searching for the missing Sita; as well as informing the Divine Brothers that Ravana’s flight-path had headed South toward Lanka.

Now, all of that is pretty powerful stuff; but what makes it resonant is not simply that somebody has taken the time and the care to construct a downright megalithic monument to the moment in roughly the site where the Mythic event is often held to have taken place. That would be remembrant, and commemorant, true. But why it is salient, is that the statue bears with it a set of values – moral enjoinment, ethos, inspiration, and instruction.

To quote from the officially sanctioned English translation of the poem that is written upon it:

“Stand atop this hill for a while in contemplation
Here is where Jatayu fell
Trying to block with his talons and beak
The alien gnome who seized in deceit
The priceless pearl of a daughter
Born to the plough-furrow of dear Earth
And fleeing to another coast.
He who believes to be his right
To possess even the celestial nymphs he covets

This is where the enemy’s sword
Chopped Jatayu’s wing.
The spot that accepted that flowing blood stream
Like a sobbing mother accepting her martyred son.
The spot received that bird
Flapping its single wing
Descending like a flag on the mast
Of this country’s pride

Doesn’t this wind that blows here
Sing that tale?
Doesn’t every sand grain here
Recall that Saga?

As we stand on this hill
with heads bowed
In the memory of that bird
Who sacrificed himself as a flower offering
We indeed churn immortality from death.”

Now, it does not take an in-depth knowledge of the Ramayana to feel something when reading these lines. Although it is interesting to note that the conclusion is, in fact, more broadly resonant – both with a performative element common to regular Hindu worship practices [the giving of a flower in the direction of the Divine]; and also to the action of Shiva at the Churning of the Sea of Milk, wherein He successfully derives the Amrit [‘Mrit’, like ‘Mort’, meaning ‘Death’ – ‘A-‘ being the opposite of .. so “Immortality” elixir] after first suffering the Halahala [poison of death] as an act of self-sacrifice. [There is also, perhaps, a point of resonancy with the RigVedic accounts of a certain other bird bringing Soma for the augmentation of the fight against Evil; but more upon that, perhaps, some other time]

I also found myself recalling the wise words of Shiva … in the Havamal –

“Cattle Die and Kinsmen Die
Thyself Too Soon Must Die
But One Thing Never, I Ween, Will Die
Fair Fame Of One Who Has Earned”

“Cattle Die and Kinsmen Die
Thyself Too Soon Must Die
But One Thing Never, I Ween, Will Die
The Doom [‘Judgement’/’Renown’/’Reputation’/’Accordment of Honour’] On Each One Dead”

So, to bring it back to both the present and the plinth of this mighty bird’s monumental remembrance-stone – what we have here is an immortality ensured not merely through megalithic carving (although that certainly also helps – albeit subject to what we might, perhaps, term the Ozymandias corollary); but rather, supported via the active connotation of commemoration (which is, after all, remembering together), and the saliency of the moral example to be found and thence lived even by the ordinary devotee.

Now in terms of what those values are – the official statement emphasizes three elements. The first being the general concepts of “chivalry and valour”. The second, that this is a reminder of an earlier state wherein Man and Animals – that is to say, the natural world, the environment, and the non-human creatures who are more of same – lived in greater harmony. And the third, “a towering tribute to women’s safety and honour”. Which, insofar as it entails the direct intervention when some scoundrel is seeking to undermine such through criminal acts or other indignity, is also what is entailed by “chivalry”; and, as applies “valour”, one supposes can be extended out in a broader sense to encompass interventions to assist and uplift people of whichever gender.

All three are, of course, concepts which are in general decline in the modern age. Which is partially why it is so incredibly vital to go back – both to the Past, but also to Myth – in order to actively refresh ourselves, and to re-immanentize these core, cherished values back out into the world around us today.

And this, too, is why it is so decent that monuments like this are made, even in the current era. Although I am not quite sure, even leaving aside the size, how frequent official state-sanctioned Indo-European mytho-poetic masonry is made outside of India today.

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