Kambar (Kamban in casual address) (Tamil: கம்பர்) (c. 1180, Tiruvaluntur, Tanjore district, India – 1250) was a medieval Tamil poet and the author of the Ramavataram, popularly known as Kambaramayanam, the Tamil version of Ramayana. Kambar also authored other literary works in Tamil, such as Erezhupathu, Silaiezhupathu, Kangai Puranam, sadagopar anthathi, and Sarasvati Anthati.
Kambar belonged to the Ochchan or Occhan caste, traditionally priests in southern India. However, he was brought up in the household of a wealthy farmer in Vennai Nellur in Tamil Nadu. The Chola king—having heard of this talented bard—summoned him to his court and honoured him with the title Kavi Chakravarty (The Emperor of Poets).
Kamban flourished in Therazhundur, a village in the culturally rich Thanjavur District in the modern state of Tamil Nadu in South India. Kamban was a great scholar of India's two ancient and rich languages; Sanskrit and Tamil. In a scholarly biography, Kavichakravarty Kamban, Mahavidwan R. Raghava Iyengar wrote in detail about this 12th-century poet.
The original version of Ramayana was written by Valmiki. It is an epic of 24,000 verses which depicts the journey of Rama, a prince of Ayodhya who belonged to Raghuvamsa (Solar dynasty). In Hinduism, Rama is the seventh incarnation of Lord Vishnu, one of the Trimurti (the Hindu holy trinity which includes Brahma and Shiva).
The Ramavataram or Kamba Ramayanam of Kamban is an epic of about 11,000 stanzas, as opposed to Valmiki's 24000 couplets. The Rama-avataram or Rama-kathai as it was originally called was accepted into the holy precincts in the presence of Vaishnava Acharya Nathamuni.
Kamba Ramayana is not a verbal translation of the Sanskrit epic by Valmiki, but a retelling of the story of Lord Rama.
Legend has it that the entire episode was written in one night by Lord Ganesh. Ganesha is said to have written the poems that Kambar dictated to him during the night, as Kambar procrastinated the work till the day before the deadline set by the King.
There is also a legend that Ottakuthar—an eminent Tamil poet and a contemporary of Kambar—also composed Ramayanam. Tradition has it that Ottakoothar was ahead of Kambar as the former had already finished five cantos, but when the king asked for an update, Kambar—a master of words—lied that he was already working on the Setu Bandhalam, upon which Ottakoothar feeling dejected threw away all his work. Feeling guilty, Kambar recovered the last two chapters of Ottakoothar's composition and added into his own.
Kamba Ramayanam: The epic
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Kamba Ramayanam occupies a unique place in the echelons of Tamil literature. Kambar was a master of the poetic form and his ability to weave magic with words is evident in many places in the epic. Rich in metaphors and similies Kamba Ramayanam became a reference point for later day poets to try and emulate. But the opinion among Tamil scholars is that Kamban's poetry is unparalleled.
Kambar also made several modifications to the original story to suit the cultural sensitivities of the Tamils. One of the situations is where Ravana the king abducts Sita from the hut where she is staying with Rama. In the Sanskrit version, Ravana lifts Sita and carries her. But this is unthinkable to the Tamilian. So Kambar makes a deviation and states that he lifted her up along with the hut and the earth below it and carried that piece of earth, the hut, and the lady in it. There are several such instances.
The situation where Hanuman comes back from Sri Lanka to inform Rama about the mission is noteworthy for its understanding of psychology. Rama is worried about Sita and her state. Anjaneya knows this very well. So he starts his report with the words "கண்டனன் கற்பினுக் கணியை கண்களால் ...." (the meaning being: "I have found her, the epitome of virtue, with my eyes..."). Such is the psychological significance of the word construction in the epic. Kamban creates an imagery that is vivid and touches a chord in the mind of the reader; whether he is talking about the beauty of மருதநிலம் (a type of fertile land described in ancient Tamil literature) or he is describing the "busy" nature of Ayodhya, he manages to paint a graphic picture in words. Sample this: தண்டலை மயில்கள் ஆட தாமரை விளக்கம் தாங்க கொண்டல்கள் முழவின் ஏங்கக் குவளை கண் விழித்து நோக்க தெண்டிரை எழினி காட்டத் தேம்பிழி மகர யாழின் வண்டுகள் இனிது பாட மருதம் வீறிருக்கும் மாதோ
The description is of a garden land (marutha nilam) the metaphors and the imagery are just incomparable. There are peacocks dancing, flowers swaying like lanterns over the waterbody, and the bees are buzzing sweeter than the stringed musical instrument.
The lines where he describes Mandothari (wife of Raavan) discovering the body of Raavan on the battle field are so full of meaning that they would take a complete essay to describe. In short, the poem describes that the body of Raavan is riddled with holes created by a single arrow from Rama. And the reason the poet ascribes to that action is superb. The arrow was apparently searching every inch of his body to see if the ill-fated love that Raavan felt for Sita was stored somewhere in the body and in that search it went through the entire body, making it look like a sieve.
Many Tamil poets, statesmen, kings, and common people have praised Kambar for his Kambaramayanam, which has more than 10,000 songs and more than 45,000 lines, forming one of the greatest epics of Tamil.
A common word of praise attributed to Kambar is that even the mill in his house would sing ("Kambar veettuk kattuththariyum kavipadum"; "கம்பர் வீட்டுக் கட்டுத்தறியும் கவிபாடும்"). He is considered special in singing poems under "Viruthapa".
"Kamba Sutram" (கம்ப சூத்திரம்) is a phrase used by Tamil people in their day-to-day activity. It was actually originally "Kamba Chithiram", only denoting Kamban's art. However, over period of time it rendered as "Kamba Sutram". The phrase is used just like "rocket science", which clearly denotes that skills of Kambar in writing poem with viruthapa is as difficult as "rocket science".
Kamba Ramayana was first delivered in Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, Srirangam at the court hall (Kambar Arangetra Mandapam) near Thaayar sannithi.
Legend says that when contemporaries objected to Hiranyavadaipadalam ("Story of Hiranyakasipu", which occurs as Vibhishana telling Ravana while warning against his false sense of invincibility), Kamban read it in front of the Narasimha Swami temple in Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple. The Swami applauded by laughing out aloud from his Sanctum Sanctora (Mettu Narasimhar Sannidhi), and this was taken as proof of approval.
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- "Kampan." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2011. Web. 23 Dec. 2011.
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