ASURA: Tale Of The Vanquished

Anand Neelakantan

Asura is partly a Ravana perspective on where his life intersects with that of Rama, (and thus Ramayana) and partly a social commentary of his life and times. (how society treats women, the caste system etc) The tale is narrated by Bhadra, an asura who fought under Mahabali and several others before becoming a recurring (and key) figure in Ravana’s life from the time he led a ragged army against Kubera. The narrative begins with Ravana’s last moments, as he lay dying on the battlefield.

Predictably, the book shows Ravana in a good light, whose only fault was that he defied the prevalent societal norms and lived life on his own terms, as opposed to Rama, who was deified by the higher castes and made into an ideal image. For all we know, this is probably true, since history is after all, written by victors.

While most of the story is essentially known, the author deserves credit for demystifying the myth – from the big picture details of which region was ruled by which king to smaller details like Pushpak as a flying machine prototype and Jatayu becoming a bird that got caught in its rotors. This does require that he has to gloss over some of the events, but that’s easily something we could forgive because the author largely keeps it true to the original tale. Varuna as a pirate, Kubera as the merchant king, Yama as the drug lord, various Indras, are all superb renditions of familiar mythological characters. There’s some intelligent use of Bhadra in the final events, and the author leaves ample clues for the reader to predict it. The author tries to show that in many ways, things have remained unchanged – the generation gap between Bali/Angada and Ravana/Meghanada is a classic example, and this is something that gives the narrative a lot of credibility. (+5 points for the Jabali mention)

But I did feel that it could have been edited better. Bhadra’s character, though used well to show how the life of a common man changed, or remained unchanged as the ruling class switched, is prone to long winded discourses which slackens the pace. The working of Ravana’s mind too becomes preachy once in a while, but thankfully not too often. If I had to nitpick, I’d say that mistaking navel for naval while describing a woman’s anatomy is not a sign of good proofreading. (-5 points for not connecting Chandrahasa to Shiva and relegating it to a blacksmith origin)

But in essence, it is a fresh take, and was good enough for me to visualise how it really must have been – as something that really happened, and not just a myth.


EastforEaster: Day 3 – Bangkok

Click here for Part 1 and Part 2

It was a rainy morning when we left the lovely Siem Reap airport, made even more wonderful with free Wi fi. For some reason we didn’t have to pay the $25 tourist charge either. I am clearly a fan of this airport. We thanked our stars that we weren’t affected by the morning rains when we saw the faces of dejected tourists who had just landed.  Bangkok Airways, “Asia’s Boutique Airline” was indeed stylish and served us a good breakfast. (This was in addition to the breakfast at the hotel, but I’d always wanted to experience a double breakfast) Some good dining tips for Krabi were picked up from the in-flight magazine. We landed at Suvarnabhumi around noon and cleared immigration in a few minutes. This was an elegant, efficient airport, not as pretty as Siem Reap, but definitely more scalable. We picked a free Bangkok map (and airport map) and reached the public taxi counter where an uninterested aunty forced herself to fill a form and send us on.

The taxi driver proved to us that all over the world, there are versions of the auto guys in Bangalore who give first time visitors a well metered city darshan. This was despite the city map and a Google Maps print with point to point directions (in Thai too). He pretended he had lost his way, called a friend to get directions and even tried to take us past our hotel before we opened the door and forced him to stop.

The Tango Vibrant service apartments seemed a slightly grander version of the Ginger Hotels here. Despite being a self-help kind of set up, they provided excellent service and were an extremely helpful bunch of people.

We had arranged our tour with  Absolute Bangkok Tours. Our guide was supposed to meet us at 1.30 and she landed right on time. In the hired car, she introduced herself and after being faced by blank stares and rapid blinking, told us we could call her Nikki. :) Our first stop was the Grand Palace and the Emerald Buddha.

The thing to remember here is that all that glitters ain’t what it’s supposed to be. That doesn’t make it look any less opulent though. Despite being a Mallu and being bombarded by gold ads all my adult life, this was something! Meanwhile, Bangkok continued our walk-in-progress theme and the Palace was just the start.

The name of the king who built this is also borrowed from Indian royalty/ science fiction – Rama 1. The mural on the left is one from a long stretch that shows the Ramayana. Ravana continues his 4+4+2 head arrangement here too and this is the Rama-Ravana face off scene. (click to enlarge) There were some very interesting characters –  this one is half lion and half man, though an evil soul commented on Facebook that it was JLo. 😀

There was Garuda doing one of his regular snake stunts. The gold rush continued with some porcelain and jade for relief. We also saw a model of Angkor Wat. And we walked on. While getting out, we saw a tourist being sent back for wearing shorts. 😀 You can hire clothes from across the street though.

Despite the two breakfasts, we were hungry and went off to grab some street food near the Palace as we waited for the taxi. Pork, fish and mango for dessert. All absolutely awesome and only costing 20 baht each. The next stop was Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn) which required a ferry crossing. We saw a monk who refused to endorse earthly signs even if they seemingly pointed in the right direction.

Wat Arun is another beanstalk to be climbed and a pretty steep one at that. But as always, a good view awaits you. We also saw a few monks who reminded me of a soft drink commercial from years back. The colour of their robes and the drink in their hand is the indicator. :) We crossed the river and proceeded to Wat Pho. Yes yes, I did ask D what for she was making me walk like this.

Wat Pho is another walkathon. We saw the reclining Buddha and I wondered if he had taken a tour too. I vaguely remembered a story I’d read in Tinkle/ACK about a mouse (?) which had set out to find the tallest Buddha. I thought this Buddha featured in it. I tried to remember the story as D dropped 108 coins in 108 vessels kept by the Buddha’s side.

There were also statues of Marco Polo – in what seemed like an extreme Chinese makeover, and another that seemed like Prabhudeva caught in one of his dance moves. The former is accurate and the latter was me seeing things because of excessive walking. But again, another place worth a visit for some beautiful Buddhas.

If I had any hope that the walking had ended, D dashed it when she subtly indicated that there was a good view from the Golden Mount. The view was definitely neat, but it also meant that I began seeing stars early in the evening. That cafe there must be doing great business!

Our penultimate stop for the day was the flower market. D was like a little kid who was seeing flowers for the first time. But I couldn’t really blame her – all sorts of colours, shapes and sizes and a bouquet’s worth of roses selling for 20 baht. Despite all the temptation, D didn’t ask me to buy her flowers. Mah wife is cool that way :) Nikki seemed to be on a shopping spree though.

We left for the last item on our agenda – the Chao Phraya dinner cruise. The sky seemed set for rain and we had about an hour to kill at the River City mall, where the pier was. As we sat inside the mall, too tired to walk, and munched away at the Foi Tong we’d bought earlier (vermicelli like dessert made from egg yolk), it started raining and continued as we got into the boat. We feared the worst. Dinner distracted us as soon as we boarded and we used regular buffet diversion techniques to manage the mobs at the counter. The crowd was a mix – from India, Middle East, Kenya, Bhutan and more, and in an attempt to please Indians, the lady massacred Bolo Ta Ra Ra and Munni!! Thankfully the skies cleared and we could enjoy the cruise despite not having ‘side-seats’. Our tuk tuk driver, on the way back to the hotel, an old man, turned out to be quite a speed demon. But it was a fun ride and looked forward to the shopping mania planned the next day.

More pics on Facebook

Lankan Reams – Day 2 – Sigiriya, Sita Kotuwa

After another hearty breakfast, we started out for Sigiriya, which we’d heard was quite an uplifting experience. It was only half an hour away, and we almost got a peacock to pose on the way. Our consolation prizes were a hawk-eagle and a bee eater.

At Sigiriya, we got ourselves a specialist guide, recommended to us by our own guide, who I said would be sleeping while we climbed. We posed by the inner moat, which allegedly had crocodiles. This high security was because our friend King Kashyapa (from yesterday’s Habarana reference) had much to fear. Allegedly, the only good thing he seems to have done is building this magnificent place. The gardens are at three levels – water, boulder and terraced.A few snaps from the first two. The hole-stone is actually a fountain, which still works, the architecture using only the water’s own force to push it up.

The first view of the Sigiriya Rock is awe inspiring and scary at the same time, the latter because you have to climb it. Right till the very top, braving shaky looking spiral steps, small and steep staircases, with many a pause in between to catch the breath, and the magnificent views. Since the pictures don’t do full justice, I tried a video too.


The first big stop is to watch the slightly NSFW frescos – of the 500 concubines our friend Kashyapa kept in his palace, and quite apparently, many of them roamed about topless. From the frescos its easy to see that all sorts of races and nationalities had a representation in his palace. We then climb down a spiral stairway to reach the next attraction.

The next stop is the Mirror Wall, so called because of its shiny surface. Several generations, unfortunately, chose this place to proclaim their love. Thankfully, there are no heart signs, though someone did practice their English alphabet. This is what it looks like from the outside.And then we climb again, until we reach the lion’s paws, where the last stage starts.

This is quite a hellish climb, especially if you have a problem with heights. The only solace is the breathtaking view from the top. And like most climbs, this one manages to give you a satisfaction at the end that’s difficult to describe.


On the way down, we saw among other things, Kashyapa’s swimming pool, throne, and the Cobra Hood cave, although I did think the last one looked straight out of ‘Planet of the Apes’.

When we got back, our original guide told us that he had found out the route to my principal agenda of this vacation – some Ramayana sites. We eagerly got in, and in half an hour got completely lost.  We also realised that the guide had assumed that a visit to these places knocked out Dambulla from our plan. It was now a long detour, so we moved on. The place was pretty scenic though, and offset our irritation quite a bit. But the wandering also meant that though we did visit Laggala, Dunuvila, Weragantota and Yahangala, we never actually located the exact sites, which required treks. In case you plan to do this, double check that your operator knows these sites very well. Ours obviously didn’t, mostly because these sites are not in the regular tourist’s itinerary.

The redemption came in the form of Sita Kotuwa, her first temporary prison. This place was also used by Buddhist monks later. Its easy to understand why. Its quite a trek, and a slippery one at that. But in the end, we safely reached our destination. And then we had a stroke of luck. The caretaker of this archaeological site told our guide that the caves used by Ravana and Sita were a walkable distance away, but the path was very slippery and it would be tough. But we were more than happy to see them. And see we did! When epic meets reality, its indescribable. Epic awesomeness.

It surprised me that Ravana made a stop here, when his principal areas seemed closer to Ella. Ella is situated quite in the interior, and it means that unlike the comics’ depiction, it  wasn’t on the seaside and it required a long trek to reach Lanka’s capital. From the stories floating around, the Pushpak seemed to have developed a problem. Gurulapotha had a repair centre, and was nearby, hence the stop. It was all real, in some form!!! I have promised myself an exclusive Ramayana trip.. someday!

The guest house there was a really sad story. A typical old government place that you would encounter in mofussil India. Hardly anyone visited and revenue was minimal. No facilities, they said, the new traveler lists air-condioners, internet and a television in the room as mandatory. They gave us milky tea and said that a few Indians had visited a few weeks back. The Lankans, I was beginning to realise, are doing a lot for the Buddhist heritage structures, and the later kings, but no one seemed interested in Ravana. I wondered if it was because of Hindus being a minority – 7%.

We took the road to Kandy, curves and vista all the way, discussing car manufacturers and shopping options with our guide, and even Bangalore’s metro, once we realised that our guide was a ground technician with SriLankan Airlines earlier, and had gone on a Tokyo – Osaka bullet train.

The Hotel Suisse at Kandy had a huge colonial hangover, but nothing to complain about. This was easily the most tiring day of the vacation, and in the end, our feelings were best expressed by

Coming up – Day 3. And in case you missed them,  here are Days 0 and 1.