The Legend of Ponnivala: Death and the Queen to premiere at Mosaic South Asian Heritage Festival in Mississauga

Toronto—July 26, 2012

The Sophia Hilton Foundation of Canada and Soft Science Associates are thrilled to announce the premiere of their new animated feature, Death and the Queen, at the Mosaic South Asian Heritage Festival, Saturday, August 18, 2012, 2:30PM at the Noel Ryan Theatre in Mississauga.

Download full colour (PDF) posters:

Small (5.04 x 8.92 inches): Click here (8 MB)

Medium (10.10 x 17.85 inches): Click Here (21 MB) Large (20.19 x 35.69 inches): Click Here (56 MB)

Top and bottom letterbox borders (black area only) may be cropped for publishing.

Death and the Queen is an animated tale excerpted from the much larger Legend of Ponnivala epic, which is based on an ancient South-Indian legend known as the Annanmar Kathai or “Elder Brothers’ Story.” It tells the tale of a local queen named Tamarai who must travel to the gates of Heaven to plead with the Hindu god Shiva. She wants him to lift a family curse of barrenness. With the burden lifted, her sons—the folk heroes Ponnar and Shankar—are born. In an effort to glorify their family and their kingdom (Ponnivalanadu), these twin kings face combat with ferocious beasts and fierce warriors, until fate reclaims them and returns their spirits to Lord Shiva at just sixteen years of age.

The Legend of Ponnivala is a vast epic legend from the Kongu region of Tamil Nadu in South India. Little known outside of its home region, the story was brought to the world when Brenda Beck; then a doctoral candidate in Anthropology at Oxford; left to study Tamil society in India in 1964. There, she was presented with a live performance of the popular local legend, which is still sung by bards in the ancient oral tradition. An epic adventure about the earliest farming origins in Kongu Nadu, the story took an astonishing eighteen evenings to perform, and used some 44 hours of reel-to-reel audio tape to record.

While highly localized and surprisingly unique, the epic has a deep connection with the greatest of all Indian epics, the Mahabharata (including reincarnations of some of its key heroic characters). It provides fascinating insights into Indian Tamil culture as well as Hindu folk mythology in general.

In 2006, preliminary work began on adapting this great epic to create an animated series titled The Legend of Ponnivala. The result of that adaptation is an unparalleled animated series (now in post-production) comprising twenty six half-hour episodes. The style of the animation, created under the artistic direction of Indian-Canadian artist Ravichandran Arumugam and technical direction of Eric Harris, has been painstakingly crafted to reflect a traditional Indian folk art style, while the 2D animation is modelled on South Asian shadow puppetry.

This production has also spawned a complete comic book series in English and Tamil, as well as several children’s stories, short films, classroom teaching materials, and soon a downloadable computer version of Parcheesi, an Indian strategy game that features prominently in the story.

Death and the Queen was written and directed by Brenda Beck. The original 1965 audio recordings have been used as part of the film’s soundtrack scored by Steafan Hannigan. The film features the voice and narration talents of Lata Pada, Sumit Bhatia, Afroz Khan, Ishwar, Sanjay Talreja, and Priyadarshini Govindarajan.


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Brenda Beck



An Overview of Episode 21: A Kidnapping Spree

In this feature, we outline the chapters of The Legend of Ponnivala as we’ve laid them out in the animated and print series. The sub-story descriptions are those that occur in each episode, and are drawn from our Teacher’s Handbook. 

Two brothers who rule Ponnivala set off on a parrot hunt with their talented First Minister. In a neighboring forest the group are met with an onslaught of tigers and cobras. Conquering these, the men capture a female parrot. But bird’s husband escapes and complains to the forest Princess whose brothers capture a Ponnivala palace maid in revenge. 

The Heroes Break Several Magical Barriers

The hunters’ sister suspects that her beloved parrots are in danger. So she sets up several barriers along the forest path leading to their nesting site, to prevent their capture. She creates an ambush of one thousand tigers. There will be a quiver of cobras waiting in the bushes as well. When the brothers encounter these ferocious animals they fight bravely and after some time they successfully defeat these animals and proceed to the huge tree where the parrots are known to nest.

[read more…]


An overview of Episode 20: Two Swords Blessed

A lonely sister lives in her family palace with two brothers who spend all their time away on adventures. Lonely, she requests that they bring her a parrot for company. The brothers agree and have a net especially made for this purpose. But then the sister has a vision and changes her mind. She fears capturing a parrot from the enemies’ forest will lead to war. 

The Lonely Sister Asks Her Brothers To Fetch Her Two Pet Birds

Meanwhile, the twin kings’ lovely little sister is lonely and begins dreaming about obtaining two magical parrots as pets. She wants her brothers to catch those “heavenly” birds for her. They will become her pets. The brothers express reservations. The parrots, though of heavenly lineage, reside well within the territory of their enemies: the hunters. The mountain territory there does not belong to them. But the brothers decide to go anyway. Then the sister changes her mind. She now realizes that the risks are too great. But the two kings have now committed to the mission and put their honor on the line. [read more…]

Ponnivala Web Comics Now LIVE Online!

Ponnivala Publishing (Gores Landing, Ontario) is pleased to announce the activation of our comic series, The Legend of Ponnivala. The first series (Episodes 1-13) is now live online in both English and Tamil, with Series 2 (Episodes 14-16) currently undergoing translation. Presently the first three Episodes in both languages are available for free.

The story is based almost verbatim on a legend that is otherwise only told orally in a remote corner of the Kongu region of South India. Writer and researcher Brenda Beck collected the story on 44 hours of audio tape back in 1965 while engaged in research for her doctorate at Oxford. The idea to present the story in animated and comic book formats came about in 2008, and has involved a team of skilled artists, animators, Foley artists, musicians, translators and storytellers to bring the whole thing to life.

As the animated series approaches completion, the comic books from Series 1 are now accessible online in English and Tamil, with plans for future translations into Hindi and French.

If there’s room on your page for a listing, we’d really appreciate the nod. If you have any feedback on the material that would be fantastic as well!

The webcomics are at

And hey, have a great Canada Day!


Homer’s Odyssey in Ottawa

An Ottawa Story Tellers and 2 Women Productions Co-Production

NAC Fourth Stage, Ottawa June 16, 2012

By Brenda Beck

I attended a fabulous story telling event in Ottawa on Saturday. It was an all-day telling of Homer’s The Odyssey by a group called the Ottawa StoryTellers. There were no costumes and none of the 18 or so performers were assigned individual character roles. The group’s members took turns telling the story, with each of the legend’s 24 books being spoken out loud by one individual. There were no prompters, no scripts and no cheat notes. This might sound boring but the result was an outstanding performance!

I drove four hours from a village near Toronto to hear this, dragging my sceptical husband along. We were not sure what to expect. I was curious because of my interest in ancient bardic storytelling techniques, which I am familiar with from my years of living in a village in South India prior to the advent of electricity there. In those times–fifty years ago–a single story teller could captivate his audience for 18 nights, with simple pauses during the daytime for normal work activities and other practical or pressing masters.

Well, this Ottawa event was the closest thing to this genuine and very ancient tradition of professional oral story telling I have ever seen or heard outside of India. Even my husband, not a literary man by background, sat on the edge of his chair. We only had the opportunity to hear the second half of the performance (4:30 PM to 10:30 PM) because we had to drove so far to get there, but it was worth every litre of gasoline we burned en route!  The performance; which in its full version ran 12 hours for those who arrived at 10:30 AM kick off; had to be broken here and there for brief stand-up breaks and food finding expeditions. But the spell cast by these story tellers was so strong that each of these interruptions came as a shock. Soon enough the lights would re-dim and the sound of a small tin whistle would call everyone back to their seats for the next hour or so of pure enchantment.


The stage set was elementary but evocative. One old folding dark wood screen stood behind the tellers. It was draped with a single bright red cloth and accented by a solitary pair of upright, wicked-looking crossed spears. The lighting was low and yellow-orange in hue, just the feeling that old fashioned lamps or torches would provide. The stage was small, rounded and low, with the listeners crowded around it so closely that they could almost touch the performers. All present sat at small round tables, in a non-linear higglety piggelty sort of way. The theatre (the Fourth Stage at the National Arts Centre) was jam-packed. Everyone was excited. The buzz was palpable. What a treat! And the entire event ended with an innovative song composed by Tom Lips, one of the players. It was set to the tune “What Shall We Do With the Drunken Suitor?” but with the words altered to say “What Shall We Do With the Drunken Suitors?” Everyone loved this play on the old Odyssey theme of the hero’s wife courted by mean-spirited nobles while her Lord is away at sea. The audience belted out the words together, ending with a clever chorus substituting for the traditional song line “Early In the Morning.” Instead we all sang Homer’s lovely and poetic epithet “At Rosy Fingered Dawn.”

All in all, this was a marvellous experience, and one that took me back to the real foundations of human storytelling–the most ancient form of entertainment known; the human verbal arts; a universal tradition that surely reaches back into the past many, many thousands of years! 



What is an Avatar?

When James Cameron released his breakthrough film Avatar in 2009, the word “avatar” became a household name. But few people realize what this word actually means. Some argue that it conjures up images of some kind of remote-controlled weapon. Others think of it as a type of robot (as in the case of Andromeda, where the ship’s computer was represented in physical form by an android “avatar” played by Lexa Doig).

Avatar is a Sanskrit word for “incarnation,” and refers frequently in Hindu mythology to the physical incarnations of the gods (particularly Vishnu). In popular culture, an avatar is something that represents the controller in another form; for example, the appearance of Jake Sully as an “avatar” in Na’vi form on Pandora in the movie. Sully isn’t actually incarnated on Pandora. He’s in stasis elsewhere, controlling this avatar with his mind.

Examples appear all over the religious and mythic world, however. It could be said that the god Odin from Norse mythology was an avatar when he appeared as a wandering wizard or an old man on the road, although strictly in such stories he was merely in disguise. Some scholars may even argue that Jesus was an avatar of God, as by definition He was born in earthly form while still retaining his essence as God.

The Hindu god Vishnu appears in a number of avatars throughout history, including as Matsya the fish, Kurma the tortoise, and perhaps most importantly as the hero Krishna. He also appears several times as a beggar or washerman in the Ponnivala story, but here again these are better thought of as disguises than as avatars, because he is not born into these forms but merely assumes their appearance.

More On The Boar!

As we’ve been looking at the interesting similarities between the Calydonian Boar Hunt and King Komban in The Legend of Ponnivala, more and more symbolism about this remarkable creature has been coming to light. The boar has long been associated in many old-world cultures with strength and courage. Yet its habits–eating just about anything with a voracious appetite–have also made it a symbol of darkness and fear. A bull or a boar might kill a man, but a bull is unlikely to eat him…a boar just might.

In fortitude and courage the boar is unmatched, and it’s perhaps for this reason that Vishnu chose to take this form for his third avatar, Varaha, in order to battle and subdue the demon Hiranyaksha. Hiranyaksha had taken the earth to the bottom of the cosmic ocean. After battling the demon for a thousand years, Varaha was victorious, and carried the earth between his tusks to place it back in its proper place in the heavens.

In the Mahabharata, the warrior Arjuna is attacked by a boar while he meditates to gain the favour of Lord Shiva. When he and the hunter (Shiva in disguise) shoot the boar at the same time, a fight ensues. That fight turns out to be the blessing Arjuna needs to gain the favour of Lord Shiva and receive the boon he needs.

In episode 24 of The Legend of Ponnivala, the servant Chambuga tells the kings of Ponnivala that the boar Komban is “the god of death himself.” This suggests that the boar might actually be Lord Shiva, or at least a symbol of his destructive power.

But what of other instances where the boar has become a mainstay of traditional culture? Well, if we can consider that there is a parallel between Artemis, the huntress in the Meleager story, and Kali, the goddess who comes to the aid of the hunters by giving the boon of a giant boar/son to the little sow, the mythology becomes quite universal.

For instance, there is a direct correlation between Artemis in Greece and the Roman goddess of the hunt, Diana. To Artemis, the hart (deer) was a sacred animal, but twice she called on a boar to do her dirty work (once to kill Adonis for his infidelity, and again to punish the farmer king Oeneus for neglecting her in the harvest sacrifices).

Diana’s representative animal is the hart, but her precursor from Gaul is another story. The goddess of the Ardennes forest range (covering parts of Belgium, Luxembourg, and France) was a huntress named Arduinna. A true Celtic goddess, Arduinna’s love of the wildwood, her role as protector of hunters and of animals, and her association with purity and the moon, were all adopted into Gallo-Roman mythology and became Diana, under which name she continued to be worshipped by pagan Europeans for centuries. As Arduinna however, her favoured beast was the boar, which she rode on the hunt.

The Norse goddess Freya also kept a boar for company. Freya was the Norse goddess of fertility, love, war, and death (all aspects associated with the other goddesses mentioned above, including Kali). She also ruled over the afterlife field of Folkvangr, where half of those who died in battle were said to end up (the other half went to Valhalla with Odin). Her boar Hildisvini (literally “battle swine”) was a constant companion and a powerful ally in battle. It is also thought that Hildisvini was Freya’s mortal lover, Ottar, in disguise–a notion which prompted Loki to suggest that she was always behaving inappropriately by riding her lover everywhere she went! (This was also an insult to her husband, Óðr, comparing him to a pig.)

The Meleager Story and Ponnivala

In a recent post, we discussed the similarities between The Legend of Ponnivala and the Calydonian Boar Hunt from Greek mythology. In both stories, the giant boar was sent to ravage the farmers’ land in revenge for a great insult. And in both stories, twin warriors figure very prominently in the battle (in Ponnivala they’re the heroes, while in the Illiad they’re helpers on the hunt).

There is, however, another set of curious parallels that bears some interesting discussion. One of the reasons Artemis is so insulted by Oeneus’ neglect of a sacrifice is that she is the goddess of the hunt, while he is a farmer. Although in Greek mythology these castes are not always as opposed as they can be in Indian tradition, this parallels the basic reason for the fight between Komban and the kings of Ponnivala. They have stolen a parrot, which provokes the vengeance of the forest princess Viratangal. In the war between the farmers and the hunters, Komban is a major combatant on the side of the hunters.

A similar theme occurs where Atalanta the huntress joins Meleager’s hunt (it’s her arrow that kills the boar). Despite generally accepting her skill, the other farmer/warriors of Calydon don’t trust this forest dweller. In the Roman version it’s assumed it’s because she’s a woman; in the Greek version, hero females who follow Artemis are quite common, and the aversion appears to be because of her caste as hunter. Following the hunt Atalanta is awarded the boar’s hide, which is an insult to Meleager’s farmer uncles. In the ensuing fight the uncles are killed, and their sister, Meleager’s mother, curses him and he dies.

Meleager’s death causes his sisters (called the “Meleagrids”) to weep so profusely that Artemis takes pity on them and turns two of them (Eurymede and Melanippe) into birds. This isn’t a direct parallel, but in Ponnivala the two parrots who live in Tamarai’s nose while she meditates outside Lord Shiva’s chamber also represent an avian pair that has a great deal to do with the fate of the heroes. Their separation at the hands of Ponnar and Shankar is what incites violence between the forest kingdom and the young kings.

Are there other instances in folk tales or myths when differences in occupation or social caste is an underlying force in personal or political conflict? Share your thoughts below!

Twin Warriors vs. The Giant Boar

In The Legend of Ponnivala, the twin kings Ponnar and Shankar face off against a giant boar named Komban. Komban is the offspring of a little sow who was once brought to Ponnivala as one of the royal animals. When Kuunutaiya and Tamarai set out on their journey to the Gates of Heaven to resolve the matter of their childless state with Lord Shiva, all the barren animals ask them to request a boon of children from the god on their behalf.

The pig, however, falls asleep across their path. In her rush to get moving Tamarai kicks the pig to wake her up. Indignant, the pig curses Tamarai and swears that the son she has will grow into a huge black boar that will ravage the land and kill Tamarai’s sons.

After Tamarai’s sons, the heroes Ponnar and Shankar, have grown, the land is ravaged by the great boar Komban. Komban challenges the young kings, who have stolen a parrot from the neighbouring forest kingdom. Through pitched and very dangerous combat, Komban is killed and his remains divided between the men of Ponnivala and their allies.

A similar tale is read in Greek mythology in the story of Castor and Pollux. Oeneus of Calydon commits a great insult when he offers a harvest sacrifice to all of the gods except Artemis. Enraged, Artemis sends a giant boar to ravage the fields of Calydon. According to the Illiad, Oeneus calls on his son Meleager to organize a hunting party (which includes, interestingly, the twin warriors Castor and Pollux, Meleager’s cousins). The boar is killed and the meat divided. However, Meleager’s uncles are offended that he has given a greater portion to the huntress Atalanta, and after further combat Meleager kills them, which incites his own mother to curse him.

We’d love to hear your thoughts…can you think of another mythic example where a great beast (not necessarily a boar, though that would be cool) has been unleashed to exact revenge for an insult? Post your comments below.

Odin’s Ravens and Tamarai’s Parrots

In The Legend of Ponnivala, Queen Tamarai must do penance by sitting in meditation for twenty one years before being permitted to take counsel with Lord Shiva. During this protracted meditation, two parrots take up residence in her nose. Before Tamarai awakens the parrots are shooed away by Lord Vishnu, and seek refuge in a forest kingdom under the protection of Viratangal.

The idea of birds nesting in someone’s nose seems a bit strange to Western readers, but there’s some significance to this occurrence when Eastern alchemy is considered. It is believed that when one enters a deep state of meditation, the physical body actually becomes hollow, making a potentially suitable residence for something like a bird (if the meditation is long enough).

Birds often represent some aspect of the spirit or mind in various mythologies, and this is even more important when we realize that many species of parrots mate for life. So it is that the parrot couple, husband and wife, are symbolic of family and marital loyalty. When their bond is disrupted by the capture of the wife-bird by Tamarai’s sons, Ponnar and Shankar, a war results, bringing an end to the family dynasty.

In Norse mythology, Odin; father of the gods and ruler of Asgard; had a pair of ravens named Huginn and Muninn. Their job was to fly around the world during the day and return to Odin in the evening with news of what was happening on Earth (Midgard). Their names mean “thought” and “mind” (or “memory”) respectively, and it’s believed that they represented these aspects of Odin’s daily meditation. While the lord of gods meditated, his thought and mind ventured out to open his consciousness to the goings on of the world under his protection.

Huginn and Muninn also represent the ideas of the fylgia; a supernatural companion that takes animal form in order to accompany a person in relation to their fate or fortune; and hamingja; the personification of the good fortune of a person or family, often in shape-shifting animal form as well. This ties the connection together nicely, as the fortunes of the ruling family of Ponnivala, as well as their enemies, are intimately tied to the treatment and deeds of their close animal companions.

Are there other mythic examples of birds representing these aspects of the mind and spirit in meditation? What about other duties they may be assigned? Share your thoughts below.