Sketchbook Page 57: V is for Vānara

August 4, 2014 § Leave a comment

Vānara skeleton (partial reconstruction)

Vānara skeleton (partial reconstruction)

Bones from a Bestiary part 22: V is for Vānara

This is the twenty-second in a series of chimerical creatures; the aim is to create an alphabet of fabulous beasts over the coming months.

With recent advances in genetic engineering it should be possible to manufacture such creatures in the laboratory; although the results will not always be practical (or, indeed, humane) …

Vānara (Sanskrit: वानर) refers to a group of ape-like humanoids or monkeys in the Hindu epic Ramayana and its various versions. In Ramayana, the Vanaras help Rama defeat Ravana. The Vanaras also appear in other texts, including Mahabharata.

There are three main theories about the etymology of the word “Vanara”:

  • It derives from the word vana (“forest”), and means “belonging to the forest” or “forest-dwelling”.
  • It derives from the words vana (“forest”) and nara (“man”), thus meaning “forest man”.
  • It derives from the words vav and nara, meaning “is it a man?” or “perhaps he is man”.

Although the word Vanara has come to mean “monkey” over the years and the Vanaras are depicted as monkeys in popular art, their exact identity is not clear. Unlike other exotic creatures, such as the rakshasas, the Vanaras do not have a precursor in the Vedic literature. The Ramayana presents them as humans with reference to their speech, clothing, habitations, funerals, consecrations etc. It also describes their ape-like characteristics such as their prowess at leaping, their hair, their fur and a tail.

According to one theory, the Vanaras are strictly mythological creatures. This is based on their supernatural abilities, as well as written descriptions of Brahma commanding other deities to either bear Vanara offspring or to incarnate as Vanaras to help Rama in his mission. The Jain re-tellings of Ramayana describe them as a clan of supernatural beings called the Vidyadharas; the flag of this clan bears monkeys as emblems.

Another theory identifies the Vanaras with tribal people who dwelled in the forests and used monkey totems. G. Ramdas, based on Ravana’s reference to the Vanaras’ tail as an ornament, infers that the “tail” was actually an appendage in the dress worn by the men of the Savara tribe (The female Vanaras are not described as having a tail). According to this theory, the non-human characteristics of the Vanaras may be considered a product of artistic imagination. In Sri Lanka, the word “Vanara” has been used to describe the Nittaewos mentioned in the Vedic legends.

Vanaras were created by Brahma and other gods to help Rama in battle against Ravana. They are powerful and have many godly traits. Taking Brahma’s orders, the gods began to parent sons in the semblance of monkeys (Ramayana 1.17.8). The Vanaras took birth in bears and monkeys, subsequently attaining the shape and valor of the gods and goddesses who created them (Ramayana 1.17.17-18). After Vanaras were created they began to organise themselves into armies and spread across the forests; although some, including Vali, Sugriva, and Hanuman, stayed near mount Riskshavat.

According to the Ramayana, the Vanaras lived primarily in the region of Kishkindha (identified with parts of the present-day Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh & Maharashtra). Rama first met them in Dandaka Forest, during his search for Sita. An army of Vanaras helped Rama in his search for Sita, and also in battle against Ravana, Sita’s abductor. It is Nala and Nila who built a bridge over the ocean so that Rama and his army could cross to Lanka. As described in the epic, the characteristics of the Vanara are described as amusing, childish, mildly irritating, badgering, hyperactive, adventurous, bluntly honest, loyal, courageous, and kind.

In the Ramayana, the Vanara Hanuman changes shape several times. For example, while he searches for the kidnapped Sita in Ravana’s palaces on Lanka, he contracts himself to the size of a cat, so that he will not be detected by the enemy. Later on he takes on the size of a mountain, blazing with radiance, to show his true power to Sita.

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