Rulers of men, be it in a system autocratic or democratic, soon begin to believe in their “divine right” of leadership and that they outstrip their predecessors — some of whom are sought to be brushed out. This sentiment is not alien to our country and our time, despite the lessons from one of the most abiding and popular works of our cultural tradition.
This work is fantastical, but seeks to anchor itself in recorded history while using the memory of a fabled monarch, whom scholars still struggle to identify, or ascertain if he ever existed, or is a representation of an ideal ruler.
But historical or not, we find here that his record is so exemplary and so celebrated that, centuries later, a powerful king, who comes across his throne, is not allowed to ascend it unless he proves to be equal in courage, wisdom, generosity and ability.
Our legendary monarch is none other than Vikramaditya, whom Indian diplomat and classicist A.N.D. Haksar terms as representing “a great and good king whose reign was a golden age of righteousness, peace and prosperity” — a perception “which has persisted in popular memory for at least a thousand years”.
And his name still lives on in the traditional Hindu calendar system, its newest aircraft carrier, in the calligraphed copy of the Constitution (along with Ashoka and Akbar), and above all, in lore and legend.
Out of hundreds of stories about the “Sun of Valour” (as his name means), the best-known are the cycles collected in the “Baital Pachisi” and the “Simhasana Dvatrimsika”, or the “Singhasan Battisi” as it is more popularly known, which is the work being referred to here.
How this work — composed in Sanskrit sometime in the 11th century CE or later, since its central figure is Raja Bhoj (r. 1010-55) of the Parmara dynasty in the Malwa region — has come down to us is a tale in itself. Involved were scores of unknown authors who translated it into various Indian languages, Emperor Akbar who ordered it be rendered into Persian, and then Lallu Lal and Kazim Ali who translated it into Hindi in the early 19th century.
Finally, it was American Sanskrit scholar Franklin Edgerton in the early 20th century who produced a definitive edition as well as the first (and for long, the only) English translation. He worked on the 33 versions available, including four major ones, while 14 manuscripts being sent to him from Bombay were lost as they were being carried across the Atlantic on the Titanic! He finished his work in 1917 and it was published by Harvard University in 1926.
But while the provenance and textual variations of the “Singhasan…” are interesting in their own (and can be found in the introduction of Haksar’s “Simhasana Dvatrimsika/Thirty-Two Tales of The Throne of Vikramaditya” (Penguin, 1998), let us look at its content.
Like the “Baital Pachisi”, it begins with how Vikramaditya succeeded his brother Bhartrihari to the throne of Ujjayini as the latter renounced the world in disgust after the sordid affair of the fruit bestowing immortality he had presented his wife — and where it ended up. It devotes another chapter to his glory, his eventual death and the hiding away of his throne, before coming to the story in earnest.
King Bhoj and his courtiers, on a hunt, pass by the fields of a Brahmin, sitting on a small mound to oversee his ripening crops, and he invites them to come and take their fill. But as they enter and he comes down to meet them, he complains they are spoiling the harvest. As they leave and he returns to the mound, he calls them back and the same process repeats itself.
Bhoj suspects there is something in the mound, orders it dug, comes across the throne, which has thirty-two statuettes of angels carved into it, and has it brought to his palace. But whenever he ascends, one of the statuettes comes to life and asks him if he can match Vikramaditya’s sterling qualities, each illustrated by a tale about him, interspersed with some key advice about life.
These range from the “ordinary” in which he manages to convince some deity to grant some boon to someone who has been long propitiating them without success, or offers himself as a sacrifice to obtain what someone desires — to some more fantastic, involving a visit to the underworld or to the Sun’s domains, or coming across the Indian form of the Graces. One of the most interesting is the king’s encounter with a gambler.
The cycle continues till all 32 tell their stories about Vikramaditya and reveal their true nature. So does Bhoj, when we find what he does with the throne.
If we could get these traditional, timeless repository of our folklore to be considered more than just stories, we would be in a better state.
(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected] )