Department of Religion
Being Human in Seventeenth-Century Nayaka Madurai
The seventeenth century Nayaka kingdoms of the Tamil region exhibit an intriguing blend of very different values and traditions. This intricacy was the result of the gradual penetration and integration of a Telugu-speaking elite into the Tamil region, that continued for well over a century. This political shift took place during a substantial economic boost in this region, partly thanks to new mercantile connections with Europe.
One case study of the small Nayaka kingdoms is the city of Madurai: During the seventeenth century, under the reign of King Tirumala Nayaka, the city of Madurai underwent a major surge of development. King Tirumala ruled Madurai for 36 years, and with the help of ventures such as a complete renovation of the great Minakshi temple, reinstated the city of Madurai as a leading political and cultural center in the late-medieval Tamil region.
The ensuing highly polyglot literary culture under King Tirumala gave rise to Nilakantha Dikshita, one of the most prolific Sanskrit poets in the late medieval era in Southern India. This great poet served under King Tirumala as a kind of head of state, a fact crucial to the informed and critical reading of his works. Considering our knowledge of the Nilakantha's political status when reading his works may indicate certain historical and cultural realities. My reading of Nilakantha's Gangavatarana, a late mahakavya adaptation to the known mythical story of King Bhagiratha and the descent of Ganga on Siva's head, is such an informed reading.
Although Nilakantha's version retells an ancient Pan-Indian mythical story, I would maintain that it is also heavily influenced and even re-shaped by new concepts that grew out of this new cultural environment. In my presentation I shall address, using examples from this work, questions such as: How did the people of the Nayaka kingdoms imagine the human king through their varied literary idioms? What was universal, and what local, in the cultural constructs produced under the Nāyaka Kingdoms? What were their understandings regarding the relationship between the human and the godly? How is the almost-paradigmatic poet-king relationship reflected through folklore stories about the poet Nilakantha and King Tirumala? What apparent innovations and hidden transformations occurred in the courtly literary sphere during this time? Using close reading, I shall employ Gangavatarana as an instrument to portray some realities of seventeen century Nayaka, and its people.
For his Master’s thesis at Tel-Aviv University, Mr. Ben-Herut submitted a paper titled “The Descent of Goddess Ganga on Shiva’s Head”. The thesis includes a translation from Sanskrit to Hebrew of a courtly poem composed by Nilakantha Dikshita. The thesis’ research focuses on human identity formations in the genre of courtly prose and on reconstructions of the God-Human relationship in the late medieval South Indian region. He has recently begun his Ph.D. studies through which he is interested in further exploring the complex relationship during the late medieval time between extreme religious practices and mainstream religion, as it is manifested mostly through diverse literary spheres. He will continue his readings in Sanskrit poetry as well as to gain new capabilities in some southern vernaculars, so he can research and expose inter-cultural effects during the late medieval period.