Wednesday, November 1, 1995

The Legend of Ramdas

Legends and anecdotes of Hyderabad - 7

The Legend of Ramdas
by Narendra Luther

Gopanna was born around the year 1620 . At an early age he was inspired by Pothanna's Bhagavatham and came to revere Rama both as an ideal human being and as Paramatma i.e. supreme soul pervading the universe. Gopanna adopted Rama as his family deity and called himself his servant. Thus he earned the epithet of Ramadas - the name by which he became famous later.

In Bhadrachalam, a tribal woman called Pokala Dommaka had heard the legend of Sabari and Lord Rama. According to that, Sabari had given some berries to Rama when he had passed that way during the course of his exile. In order to make sure that the berries were sweet, Sabari ate a part of each berry before offering it to Rama. Dommaka imagined herself to be Sabari and became a great devotee of Rama. One night, the story goes, Rama appeared in her dream and told her that there were three idols - of himself, Sita and Lakshamana hidden somewhere in the nearby hillock. He also told her that in course of time a devotee of his would come and construct a proper abode for them. Dommaka searched for the idols and was successful in locating them. The local people constructed a shed for them.

Some time after that Gopanna was posted as a revenue officer of the Husnabad pargana which included Bhadrachalam. On hearing the story and seeing the idols, he took upon himself the task of building a temple dedicated to Lord Rama on the bank of the Godavari at Bhadrachalam. First, he started with his own savings. Then he collected donations. The project kept on becoming more and more ambitious and so he started dipping into the public treasury in his custody. He is said to have spent around four million rupees on the construction. A good part out of that was from government funds. For the misappropriation of public funds he was dismissed from service and imprisoned in a cell in the Golconda fort.

There Ramadas, as if in a trance, started composing and singing devotional songs. The wardens of the jail in their inspection rounds seldom checked on him. His presence there was certified by his melodious chanting of his kirtans.

Ramadas spent 12 years in jail and wrote in all 125 songs mostly kirtans. These songs reveal his varied moods - from the ecstasy of devotion when nothing mattered, to the depths of despondency when he bemoaned his fate and chided his deity for letting him down. In one of his sarcastic moods he lambasted Rama saying :

"With great devotion and love I got the aigrette made for you. At whose expense are you wearing it and strutting about ? Did your father Dasaratha provide it to you or did your father-in-law Janaka give it to you ?"

Then, suddenly, he would realize that he had been insolent. He was then overtaken by remorse and would entreat his Lord :

"Do not take amiss what I said. I said all that because I could not bear the torture in the jail. I burst out in pain and scolded you."

In another song he rebuked Lord Rama and requested him to see that his debt was repaid.

In one complaint to Sita, Ramadas had the temerity to allege that Rama was Dharmaheena i.e. devoid of righteousness.

And thus for twelve long years, he carried on his frenzied one man kirtans in his cell.

The story goes that one night he was visited by two young handsome princes with long hair and armed with bow and arrow. How could he not recognize them ? Ramadas was dazed, but he did not stop his recitations till he heard his name. "Ramadas I have come. I am here on your summons," the dark one, Rama said with his charming smile.

And with a mocking tone Ramadas replied : "My Lord I am here because of you. I did not know you punished your devotees !"

"It is all over now," Lord Rama said - and the two princes disappeared.

The next day there was a furore in the fort. The sultan was visiting the jail himself. He made straight for the cell in which Ramadas was lodged. He took the key from the superintendent and ordered the removal of shackles from the prisoner's body.

"Ramadas, you have suffered enough punishment. Your dues have been discharged. You are free to go now."

"But Your Majesty ..." Ramadas faltered, "I haven't ..."
"Somebody paid for you," smiled the sultan. Ramadas was incredulous. "But who could it be, My Lord ?"

"I do not know," replied Tana Shah, "last night two young and handsome princes came to my chambers. One was slightly dark. He placed a bag near my feet and said : "Here is what Ramadas owes you. Let him be released now."

"My Lord, My God," cried Ramadas falling at the sultan's feet. "So you have seen them too. My penance is over."

"You can resume your duties now," said Tana Shah in a gesture of forgiveness.

"My duties are now in the temple where my deity lives." Ramadas folded his hand and made a bow to the sultan.

This was some time in 1683. Tana Shah, to make up for the years of incarceration of Ramadas, granted a jagir of three villages Sankaragiripatti, Polavancha and Bhadrachalam for the maintenance of the temple. Ramadas, now a living legend, spent the few remaining years of his life composing and singing songs and looking after the temple.

Ramadas wrote in a simple homely language. He had a good knowledge of tradition and his verses are replete with devotional sentiment. His compositions can be sung by common folks without any formal training in music. He therefore, became a people's composer and has remained so till today. In the south he is a revered household name and you are likely to hear his kirtans in any religious congregation.

History and legend have blended so beautifully in the life of Ramadas and one would not like to separate them. The Nizam's government used to present jewels for Rama and Sita on Ramanavami. Now this is done personally by the chief minister of the state.

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