Mahabalipuram, or where I declare my love for Karna

Pancha ratha, Mahabalipuram
Apparently, 5 million people tuned in to watch Mahabharat when it was aired in Britain. Howzzat!

If you grew up in India in the nineties, your Sunday TV schedule would have consisted of one of three mythological shows- Ramayana, Mahabharatha or Shree Krishna- followed by Shaktimaan. I never could get myself to watch Shaktimaan, even when I was young and did not know about Superman or Spiderman (my parents frowned upon comics), but I loved the mythological series. I loved the fierce villainy of Duryodhana, the beatific smile of Rama, the pranks of Krishna. I loved the fights, the chiseled (and sometimes flabby) warriors drawing themselves up and stringing their bows, the arrows zooming toward each other, clashing in a shower of sparks and booms. It’s a guilty pleasure; you know the special effects are antiquated and the acting exaggerated, but there is a part of you that secretly enjoys that overblown melodrama.

Dharmaraja ratha, Mahabalipuram
Dude, you gambled your wife away, you stood by as your cousin insulted your family, you lied to an old man about the death of his son. How did you get the name Dharmaraja?

In Mahabalipuram, there are five monolithic structures together called the Pancha rathas, though they do not remotely look like chariots. There are four for the Pandavas (poor Nakul and Sahadev have to share one) and one for Draupadi. Draupadi’s temple has a Buddhist vihara-like appearance, while Bhima’s is the largest, while the Dharmaraja ratha(above) and the Arjuna ratha look very similar. There is not much I can tell you about the structures, other than that they were constructed in the late seventh century by the Pallava kings. But what I would like to talk about is the role of Karna.

Arjuna ratha, Mahabalipuram
Can we go on a hunger strike for a Karna ratha? 😛

Karna is probably one of the most enigmatic characters of the Mahabharatha. We hear so much about him yet know so little of him. In the epic, the Pandavas are painted as heroes and the Kauravas as villains, but Karna walks the thin line separating them. He has the good qualities of the Pandavas- he is generous, noble and fiercely loyal- yet he shares Duryodhana’s failings of arrogance and pride. He is designed to be a character your heart goes out for, from the time he challenges Arjuna in the archery tournament but is belittled for his lowly birth, to the time he is rejected by Draupadi at her swayamvara, to the heartrending moment his chariot is stuck in mud in the battlefield. Every time I read the Mahabharatha, I’m struck by how Karna slowly creeps into your consciousness until, by the end, you wish, for a moment, that he had beaten Arjuna and got the glory he thirsted all his life for.

Nowadays, I’m a fan of another epic series about family squabbles and wars to gain control of a kingdom. Instead of a woman baying for the blood of the man who stole her self-respect, we have a woman baying for the blood of the men who usurped her family’s throne. Instead of a blind king’s cruel son disrobing his sister-in-law in public, we have a sadistic boy king forcing his betrothed to view her father’s beheading. Instead of a house of lac being burned down, we have the Red Wedding. Game of Thrones is Mahabharatha with a ton of sex, blood and dragons. No wonder I like it so much.


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