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Topping The Edge of Imagination

Arshia Sattar

By Sukanya Agashe
Popular Prakashan, Delhi, 2014, pp. 260, Rs. 350.00


Sukanya Agashe’s attempt to definitively locate Lanka and to establish a physical geography for the Sanskrit Ramayana covers an astonishing amount of ground, literally and metaphorically. Her documentary research is meticulous and wide ranging, her physical journeys and empirical investigations equally so. As a result, Romila Thapar can say in her blurb to the book, ‘Sukanya Agashe’s approach introduces new ideas into the debate and some of her suggestions are valuable in moving the debate forward and making us think afresh.’ To my mind, there are two debates here: one about the actual physical locations, for example, is Valmiki’s Lanka the geographical island of Ceylon or is it a mountain surrounded by water in a region on the mainland, in a place that we now call Jharkhand? Is Kishkindha the area that surrounds modern-day Hampi or is it a place further north? For some reason, these questions have engaged scholars for centuries in much the same way that hundreds of thousands of grey cells have been spent locating the battlefields of Homer’s epics. To a large extent, such research contributes to the historicization of epics in simple terms, supporting the argument that the events in these marvellous stories, however complex they may be with flying monkeys and aerial chariots, did actually happen. On the other hand, in a more nuanced and  gently speculative way, such research allows us to have greater empirical knowledge of the lay of the land at the time when these stories were compiled. We learn something about how the ancients knew the lands they occupied and how they thought about the lands that surrounded them. In the same way, these texts can be seen as  reflecting some part of how polity and society were structured and operated. The second debate is the one that discusses how we see and understand these texts themselves and therefore, the information they contain: are these texts meant to be ‘historical’ at all or, do we treat them as delightful flights of fancy and fantasy, products of an unfettered human imagination that chooses to express itself in metaphor rather than in facts? Is Lanka an island in the Indian ocean or a place in the poet’s mind where the restraint and virtue of Ayodhya is turned on its head and becomes ostentation and indulgence? Further, one of the indications of how deeply the story of Rama ...

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