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Mangalkavya


Mangalkavya (literally, poems of well-being) a genre of Bangla narrative poems written approximately between the 15th-18th centuries, depicting the greatness of popular, indigenous deities as well as the social scenario. The poems are known as mabgalkavya because it was believed that listening to these poems about the deities brought both spiritual and material benefits. The poems used to be rendered as musical plays but with more emphasis on the story than on the music.

Mangalkavya describe the greatness of a particular deity, usually one indigenous to Bengal or an indigenous deity fused with an Aryan god. They also depict the conflict between the indigenous deities and the alien deities which ended with the victory of the indigenous gods. The word mabgal also means vijay or victory, and indicates that the poems were written to celebrate the victory of the local gods over the Aryan gods. Some of these poems have the word vijay as part of their names, such as Manasavijay by Bipradas Pipilai.

manasa, chandi and dharma thakur are the main deities of mangalkavya, with Manasa and Chandi being regarded as superior to others. The three main strains of mangalkavya-Manasamangal, Chandimabgal and Dharmamabgal-were woven round these three deities. In course of time, the god shiva also became a subject of mangalkavya and the poems eulogising him or narrating stories about him are known as Shivayan or Shivamabgal.

A mangalkavya has four main parts. The first part is the vandana, a salutation to various deities and venerable figures, irrespective of their religion or caste-a testament to the non-communal outlook of the composers of mangalkavya and to their efforts to synthesize various religions. In the second part, the poet explains the reason for composing the epic. In this part the poet introduces himself and explains how he got the inspiration to write the poem-usually in a dream or by way of a divine command. The third part, the devakhanda, depicts the establishment of a relationship between the Aryan god and the indigenous deity. It is interesting to note that the god Shiva always makes an appearance in this part of the poem. The fourth part, the narakhanda, contains the main narrative which is generally about a deity cursed and expelled from heaven, his reincarnation as a human being, his activities on earth as a human being, and finally, the assertion of his position as a deity worthy of being worshipped. Incidental to this story is the heroine's tale of weal and woe, and the description of how she dresses, how she cooks, etc.

It is believed that contemporary political and social conditions had some connection with the emergence of mangalkavya in the 13th century. It was at the juncture of the 12th and the 15th centuries that the Turkish forces led by bakhtiyar khalji defeated laksmanasena and conquered Bengal. In analyzing the causes of this defeat, historians believe that the Senas, who were patrons of the Brahmins, did not have the support of the lower castes who were neglected and oppressed.

When the alien Muslim forces became the new rulers, the pride of the dethroned upper class Hindus was hurt. At the same time, they realized their mistakes, and the ignominy of their defeat brought them closer to the hitherto ignored lower class Hindus, ending years of social divisions. The upper class Hindus then started respecting the religious beliefs of the lower classes. Their defeat also demoralized them and resulted in a lack of confidence in themselves and an ever-increasing reliance on supernatural forces. They started believing that fortune and misfortune were in the hands of a providence that regulated everything and that, no matter what heroic qualities human beings possessed, they were helpless without supernatural aid. This led them to create new deities who combined the power of the Aryan gods with that of the indigenous gods and who could be implored for all sorts of material and spiritual boons. This new breed of deities became their mangal gods, and the epics composed in their honour became the mangalkavya. The defeat of the alien deities and the victory of the local deities depicted in the mangalkavya were in fact symbolic of victory of the Bengalis over the foreign races. The dethroned Hindus found some sort of solace in these stories of victory.

Brahmins and other high castes do not play a prominent part in mangalkavya. The main characters of the mangalkavya are usually from the merchant community while the other characters are from lower social strata. One reason perhaps is that the mangalkavya were aimed at establishing the worship of one deity or the other. The patronage of a resourceful person was needed for this purpose. The mangalkavya also vividly reflect their contemporary social scene, for instance, how men and women used to dress, the condition of education, the monetary system, warfare, civic life, and the hopes and aspirations of the common people.

A kind of mixed culture is evident in the mangalkavya. The reason for this may be ascribed to the extensive contacts that took place between the Aryans and non-Aryans as well as between Hindus and Buddhists around the 10th and the 11th centuries in Bengal. As they bridged their differences and forged closer links, both communities lost their separate religious identities and turned towards the puranas and tantricism. As a result there developed a mixed religious culture drawing from both the Hindu Puranas and Buddhist Tantricism, and this was reflected in the mangalkavya.

It is generally assumed that mangalkavya were composed after the advent of Muslim rule in Bengal in the 13th century and continued to be composed till the 18th century, that is, upto the composition of Annadamabgal by bharatchandra (1712-1760). Manasamabgal is the oldest of the mangalkavya and narrates how the snake goddess Manasa established her worship in Bengal by converting a worshipper of Shiva to her own worship. Manasa was a non-Aryan deity and her worship was an ancient one in Bengal. It is believed she came to Bengal with the Dravidians who worshipped her in the hope that she would protect them against snakes. Manasa is also known as Bisahari, Jabguli and Padmavati.

The story of Manasamangal begins with the conflict of the merchant Chandradhar or Chand Saodagar with Manasa and ends with Chandradhar becoming an ardent devotee of Manasa. Chandradhar is a worshipper of Shiva, but Manasa hopes that she can win over Chand to her worship. But, far from worshipping her, Chand refuses to even recognise her as a deity. Manasa takes revenge upon Chand by destroying seven of his ships at sea and killing his seven sons. Finally, behula, the newly-wed wife of Chand's youngest son Lakhindar, makes the goddess bow to her love for her husband through her strength of character, limitless courage and deep devotion. Behula succeeds in bringing Chand's seven sons back to life and rescuing their ships. Then only does Behula return home.

Manasamangal is basically the tale of oppressed humanity. Chandradhar and Behula have been portrayed as two strong and determined characters at a time when ordinary human beings were subjugated and humiliated. The epic brings out the caste divisions and the conflicts between Aryans and non-Aryans. The conflict between human beings and the goddess brings out the social discriminations of society, as well as the conflict between Aryans and non-Aryans. Shiva, whom Chand worshipped, was originally not an Aryan god, but over time was elevated to that position. Manasa's victory over Chand suggests the victory of the indigenous or non-Aryan deity over the Aryan god. However, even Manasa is defeated by Behula. The poem thus suggests not only the victory of the non-Aryan deity over the Aryan god, but also the victory of the human spirit over the powerful goddess. Manasamangal is also remarkable for its portrayal of Behula who epitomises the best in Indian womanhood, especially the Bengali woman's devotion to her husband.

The first Manasamangal poet was, perhaps, Kana Haridatta (c 13th century), but his work is no longer extant. Other poets who composed versions of Manasamangal after him were Purusottam, Narayandev (c 15th century), vijay gupta and Bipradas Pipilai. Vijay Gupta's Manasamangal (1494) is perhaps the most popular of these versions because of its rich literary qualities. It is believed that Bipradas Pipilai's Manasavijay was also composed during the mid-15th century.

Chandimangal is another important strain of mangalkavya. It is based on the story of Chandidevi, an indigenous goddess, whose status was subsequently elevated to that of an Aryan deity due to the influence of Hindu and Buddhist worship. Chandimangal is woven round two stories: the story of Kalketu and Fullara, and the story of Dhanapati and his wives, Lahana and Khullana. Kalketu is a poor hunter who lives with his wife Fullara. Chandi feels sorry for the pair and grants them good fortune. Kalketu and Fullara grow enormously wealthy. However, in the midst of their good fortune, they forget Chandi and grow proud. The goddess punishes them for their arrogance and makes them poor again. Kalketu and Fullara soon realize their folly and beg her forgiveness. Chandi forgives the errant couple and returns them their wealth.

The second story shows how Chandi makes Dhanapati, a worshipper of Shiva, acknowledge her power. Dhanapati is a wealthy merchant, fond of the good things of life. Attracted by the beauty of his sister-in-law, Khullana, he marries her. Soon after their marriage, he sets forth on his travels, leaving Khullana in the care of his first wife Lahana. Soon forgetting his new wife, he starts visiting prostitutes. Meanwhile, back home, Lahana, incited by her maid, starts torturing Khullana. It is only after Khullana bows to Chandi that she is helped by the goddess to regain her husband's love. Dhanapati again sets forth on a journey, leaving Khullana at home. During his journey Dhanapati meets with misfortune and is imprisoned. Meanwhile, Khullana gives birth to a son whom she names Srimanta. When Srimanta grows up, Chandi helps him to rescue his father. Dhanapati is finally forced to acknowledge the power of Chandi.

It is clear that the two stories were constructed to prove the power of Chandi and establish her worship. But they reveal many social aspects of the period when the poem was written, among them the custom of polygamy and the rivalry between co-wives, the lustful nature of men, the growth of cities, and the rites and rituals of hunter communities. The poet also has a fine eye for human suffering when he compares the wild animals, pleading for Chandi's mercy when they are being hunted by Kalketu, to oppressed human beings.

Chandimangal's original composer was Manik Datta, who perhaps hailed from Maldaha and pre-dated Chaitanya. A copy of his work is dated 1785. Other Chandimangal composers are Dvija Madhav and mukundaram, both belonging to the 16th century and both influenced by Vaishnava thought. Dvija Madhav's work, dated 1579, gave definite shape to the story of Chandimangal. A number of small lyrics on the pattern of Vaishnava poetry have also been inserted into the poem. Mukundaram is regarded as the greatest of the mangalkavya poets. He excelled in portraying the joys and sorrows of human life. He made the characters full of life even as he imparted to them a sense of universality and humanity.

Dvija Ramdev's Abhayamabgal is another narrative poem on the pattern of Chandimangal. It was composed in chittagong and reveals some influence of the local dialect. It uses the word ferangi (foreigner), suggesting that it might have been written towards the middle of the 17th century, after the appearance of the Portuguese. The versification reflects the influence of Dvija Madhav.

Annada is one of the many names of Chandi. Bharatchandra, one of the greatest poets of the Middle Ages, chose to call his famous epic about her Annadamangal. Some critics hesitate to call it a mangalkavya as it has some features that distinguish it from other poems of this genre. For instance, the fearsome aspect of the goddess as seen in other Chandimangal poems is absent from Annadamangal. Here Chandi is a loving Bengali mother, blessing people and giving them bountiful harvests. The Chandi who asserts her right to be worshipped in other Chandimangals is also missing here; it is her benevolent aspect that attracts people to her worship. It has been suggested that by this time, the worship of Chandi had been established so there was no need for the poet to show the malignant power of the goddess.

Annadamangal is in three parts, each complete, with a story of its own. The first part contains the story of Shivayan-Annadamangal, the second part the story of Vidyasundar-Kalikamangal and the third part the story of Mansingha-Annapurnamangal. The basic event of the first story is from the Puranas. It narrates Sati's death, Parvati's marriage, Shiva's family life and the appearance of the goddess at Kashi in the guise of Annapurna. Added to this is the folktale of how the goddess leaves Harihor and appears in the parental home of Bhavananda, forefather of King Krishnachandra. The second story narrates how, through the kindness of the goddess Kalika, Sundar marries Vidya and escapes the penalty of death. The third story is somewhat historic and describes how Mansingha defeated and imprisoned Pratapaditya and how Bhavananda received the title of 'Raja-e-Farman' from Emperor jahangir.

Annadamangal depicts a good deal of the Bengali society of the time. It was a life where the wants of the people were small. For example, Ishwar, a ferryman, asks the goddess to bless him so that his children can have milk and rice to eat, indicating that this was the minimum dietary requirement of a Bengali. Another noticeable aspect of Annadamangal is the prominence given to human beings. Pleasing the king has become more important than pleasing the deities. The poem possesses considerable literary merit, with the poet demonstrating his skill in the use of imagery and versification.

Dharmamangal is about the greatness of Dharmathakur, a non-Aryan deity symbolising the sun or Buddha. This deity originated in the radha region of ancient Bengal, but his worship was limited and confined to the lower classes. In the 17th century Dharmathakur was gradually elevated to the rank of a Puranic god.

Dharmamangal tells the story of Lausen's struggling life. When Rampal's son was the king of Gauda, Mahamada Pal, his brother-in-law, was a minister in the king's cabinet. Mahamada's sister, Ranjavati, was married to old Karnasena, ruler of a princely state. Lausen was their son. There are a number of conflicts between Lausen and Mahamada and Ichhai Ghos. Lausen wins with the help of the god Dharma. Mahamada does not worship Dharma and contracts leprosy. He is, however, cured when Lausen prays to Dharma. The poem ends with the establishment of the worship of Dharma.

Dharmamangal's original composer was Mayur Bhatta who is believed to have lived around the 15th century but no specimen of his work has been found. Other Dharmamangal composers are Rupram (c 16th century) and Manikram Ganguly (c mid-17th century). Yet another composer of Dharmamangal, Sitaram Das, may also have lived in the 17th century. The best-known poet of Dharmamangal is Ghanaram Chakravarti, whose version of the poem may be dated 1711. Some others who composed different versions of the poem are Sahadev (1735), Narasingha (1737), Hrdayram (1749) and Govindaram (1766?).

Life of the common people of the Radha region depicted in Dharmamangal is unique. Unlike other mangalkavya, it does not show the Bengalis as devoid of spine and dependent on deities. Here they are determined and revengeful in the face of political conflicts and threats to their rulers. In Manasamangal and Chandimangal the stories centre round deities, and human beings are incidental. But in Dharmamangal the main story focuses on human beings. Here, social conflicts and political rivalry dominate, while supernatural events are rather incidental. The depiction of the political scenario of Radh of the time and the patriotism of the lowly people of the society distinguishes Dharmamangal from other mangalkavya. It also possesses a high literary quality.

Shivayan or Shivamangal is not original, nor is its purpose to establish the worship of any deity. However, it may be noted that Shiva appears in all mangalkavya as an essential link. As if to reflect the miserable life of the Bengalis, the devakhanda that preface the main stories of all mangalkavya describe the family life of Shiva and Parvati and the ups and downs of their conjugal life. This only enhanced the popularity of the mangalkavya and inspired the compilation of various tales about Shiva into a core book that later came to be known as Shivayan or Shivamangal. There is no attempt in it to install the worship of Shiva. In fact, there was no need for it. Though not an Aryan god, Shiva was one of the most ancient deities and his worship was well established. It may well be that Shivayan was created to preserve the pristine glory of this ancient god in the melee of new deities like Manasa and Chandi.

The first Shivayan poet, Ramkrishna Ray, composed his poem early in the 17th century. It narrated the greatness of Shiva, but also described the strain in his relationship with his wife, Parvati. The poem has been praised for the variety of its poetic metres, the restraint and dignity of its language, and its use of literary devices. Shivayan, composed by Rameshwar Bhattacharya towards the beginning of the 18th century, is perhaps the most popular of the Shivayan poems. Rameswar depicts Shiva as a farmer, who is attracted to other men's wives, indifferent to domestic duties and fond of eating. This image of Shiva made him very close to the most of the Bengalis who were farmers. The narration of Shiva's experience as a farmer reveals many problems faced by the agricultural community of the time.

There were other mangalkavya written on a variety of subjects. In the 18th century different deities were portrayed in such works as Suryamabgal, Gabgamabgal, Shitalamabgal, Laksmimabgal, Sasthimabgal, raymangal, Sarasvatimangal, Kalikamabgal, Saradamabgal, Gaurimabgal and Durgamabgal. These narratives have recorded the social and cultural life of Bengal during the Middle Ages. [Dulal Bhowmik]