Mother’s day special – for my blog readers 🙂
We are fascinated by women’s roles in stories — loving, caring, compassionate, strong, determined, chaste, loyal — sometimes fierce too. How do we perceive a female character having layers? I remember one lady illustrated in Ancient Bengali literature — in Maynamatir gaan (The songs of Maynamati), composed between 11th century-17th century AD. These were preserved in oral traditions and also in many written texts— naturally having several versions. All of them present Maynamati with equal importance.
Sisumati was the princess of Meher-Kul (current Tripura), the lovely daughter of king Tilakchandra. She was merely a kid when the Yogi Gorakshanath came to her father’s palace. Out of sheer affection to her, the Yogi made the kid his disciple. He taught her the ‘Mahajnyan’ — the sanctified lessons that could resurrect a dead person. He also gave her a new name, ‘Maynamati’.
She was married to Manikchandra, the prince of a neighbourhood kingdom Vikrampur. Maynamati was only daughter of her father. So Manikchandra shifted to Meher-Kul, so that he could take care of both the kingdoms. The loving queen Maynamati wanted to teach him the Mahajnyan. Manikchandra denied. She tried to convince her telling, “Listen my love! This Mahajnyan will make you immortal by removing all your mortal disease and pains.” Manikchandra replied, “For a man, there is no greater humiliation than accepting own wife as preceptor. I can’t accept you as my teacher.”
As time was passing like this, Maynamati was growing old. As per tradition of the royals, Manikchandra married another four princesses and espoused hundred eighty ordinary wives. They were all young and beautiful. Soon the old queen and the proud youngs engaged themselves in a spiteful fight against each other. Manikchandra drove the old Maynamati out of the palace. She left the capital and started living in a small town named Ferusa.
The king became adamant. Insisted by a long-bearded minister from Bangla, he started torturing his subjects. The subjects resorted to worshiping the deity ‘Dharmathakur’, pleased him and pleaded for the destruction of the cruel king. Dharmathakur listened to them. The king fell fatally ill. Maynamati was called back to the palace to help him. She brought water from the sacred river Ganga in the golden bejeweled vessel to bring her husband back to life. She chased the messengers of Yama, the god of death to the river, the messenger jumped into the river; the queen took the form of a buffalo and the messenger hid in the waves becoming a fish. The queen attacked the fish becoming a crane. The messenger turned into a lobster to get rid of her but she turned herself into a goose. Leaving water, the messenger turned itself into a pigeon but the queen continued chasing him, this time taking the form of an eagle. Finally she severely beat up the messengers of Yama, the god of death who tied her husband’s life with a strong rope but nothing worked. Manikchandra died, leaving a seed in Maynamati’s womb. Their son Govindachandra was born after his death. The large kingdom was being ruled by Maynamati.
Govindachandra was married to Aduna, the elder daughter of a Dhaka king Harischandra and received the younger princess Paduna as dowry. Bhattasali’s lore tells that he also married a daughter of the powerful southern king Rajendra Choladev. But the eighteen year old prince was sent to exile by his mother, Maynamati. The old queen was convinced that if her son does not spend the life of an ascetic in exile in a forest for twelve years, he would die at the age of nineteen. The young queens were obviously against the old lady’s decision. As all their efforts to stay with the husband failed, they tried to poison the mother-in-law. Maynamati’s Mahajnyan helped her defeating them. Govindachandra resisted becoming a disciple of a guru of cleaner community telling: “How shall I, the illustrious ruler of a state become a disciple of a person of low birth who cleans the roads and marketplaces in my kingdom? Yours is such a mean option to humiliate me!” The old queen was angry –“The person you call scavenger is so powerful that even Indra, the god of heavens worship him. Wearing a pair of golden sandals, he is able to walk on the river. His food is prepared in his residence in the moon while the river crocodiles make his dining table. How dare you ignore his kind of a man of wisdom?” Govinda hit back, “I don’t believe any of your words. I hate being the son of your kind of a mother! You have accepted the offerings of love from the low-born one only to acquire the knowledge of Mahajnyan. You poisoned my father to death following your paramour’s advice. Now both of you conspired against me — while you want to enjoy the amorous pleasures of your illicit love sending me to exile! Why didn’t you sacrifice yourself in my father’s funeral pyre? I could consider myself a pious prince at least!” The queen started cursing him: “The low born one is my brother while both of us are disciples of the venerable Gorakshanath. How could I give birth of your kind of a son — the one who could scandalize own mother?”
The queens cried helplessly. The lustrous Aduna spared no effort to dissuade her husband from leaving her alone. But Govindrachadra was powerless against the strong will of his mother. He had to go to the forest alone and accept all kinds of miseries of the life in jungle. A beautiful wealthy prostitute sought to win his love. Failing, she forced him into slavery. He had to bring water for her from a river far away. One sudden morning, as he was walking through the jungle to fetch water, he realized that his twelve years of exile was over. He cut his thigh, so that he could use own blood to write a letter to his home. His guru saved him from there and helped him fly to his palace.
Twelve years were too long for Aduna to recognize him. She ordered the royal elephant to kill the trespasser in the palace and called the royal dog. But the elephant bowed his head before this bearded ascetic; also the dog started wagging its tail at his sight. Aduna understood her mistake, “Even the speechless animals could recognize you, My Lord! How stupid is your poor queen that she could not!”
Govindachandra ascended the throne and ruled the kingdom to peace and prosperity for years.
The story is simple — and Maynamati is the lady who stands in the core of the story. Was this Maynamati an immoral character who had an illicit affair with her fellow-disciple of the spiritual guru Gorakshanath? Was she a murderer who killed her husband not being able to make him follow the spiritual path she was following? We do not know, but even if she did not commit any crime, her aggressive way of expanding own dominance over the kingdom as well as the family, and her cruel treatment to her own young son doesn’t seem ideal from our point of view. The songs of Maynamati were composed by same Nath community, the disciples of Gorakshanath. And some of the texts mentions her being imprisoned by Govindachandra for having corrupt intensions. How come this kind of a lady becomes a role-model in the lore of a society where women’s morality is given lot of importance?
We have to go back to history to find out answers. Existence of Goraksnath, a legendary Nath-Yogi and the king Gobindachandra somewhere between11th-13th century in Bengal is established from literary records found in Eastern part of Bengal, Odisha and Maharashtra. Probably Maynamati’s stories were compiled to illustrate the greatness of her mighty spiritual guru Goraksnath, while only the magnitude of his spiritual prowess could make the immoral Maynamati a powerful one. Probably eleventh century Bengal, which was suffering from political anarchy, also bit puzzled in the realm of conflicting religious beliefs, sought the help of some supernatural power of an incredibly self-restrained Yogi — whose support could help even an allegedly wicked woman to gain power over the society and its people. Hence, Maynamati’s story becomes the story of making the impossible ‘Possible’ — establishing a strong-willed woman’s supremacy subduing all who denied accepting her.