Ravana’s forces of land, sea and air—c. 2009 relief mural at the Sanmira Hotel, Unawatuna, Sri Lanka
In this essay, Justin Henry, a 2017-18 CAORC NEH Senior Research Fellow, discusses the origins and implications of Ravana's flying machine, a popular figure in Sri Lankan versions of the Ramayana epic. All photos are courtesy of the author.
Last February while traveling along Sri Lanka’s southern coast, not far outside of Galle I revisited the museum at the former home of Martin Wickramasinghe (1890-1976)—the poet and novelist whose enduringly popular works inspired by his own rural village upbringing approximate him as something of the “Mark Twain” of the island nation.
In addition to offering a walkthrough of Wickramasinghe’s house and garden, the museum bills itself as a showcase of “traditional Sri Lankan heritage,” featuring everything from a carriage house displaying an assortment of horse and ox-drawn buggies and ploughs, to a gallery explaining the various masks and costumes used in Sinhala stage dramas, to an exhibition on the work of archaeologist Gill Juleff, who reconstructed an ingenious method of harnessing monsoon winds to superheat iron smelting kilns in the island’s southern mountains (possibly the source of the steel used to manufacture the coveted “Damascus swords” of the middle ages).
In a case just beyond the museum’s entrance hulked a striking, life-sized, painted wooden figure that I did not remember from my first visit over a decade ago—a ten-headed statue of Ravana, the demon-king of the Ramayana. The epic in brief—a story central to Hindu religious life for centuries—tells the saga of Rama, a north Indian prince, and his bride, Sita. In exile from their kingdom, Sita is captured by Ravana and held captive in Lanka, island fortress of the rakshasa demons. Rama manufactures a stone bridge to Lanka with the assistance of his monkey allies, slays Ravana, and rescues Sita before returning to Ayodhya to reclaim the throne.
Sinhala palm-leaf manuscript of the “Tale of Ravana” (18th century)
My curiosity piqued, I inquired from our tour guide when, why and how it was that this villain of Indian legend came to find a place in Martin Wickramasinghe’s home. He explained that the museum had acquired the piece in 1983 from a festival chariot used by a Hindu temple in Jaffna. “Ravana was a great king of Sri Lanka 8000 years ago,” he went on earnestly. “And, you know, he had an airplane powered by a mercury vortex engine. We had such technology in those days.”
This was not the last that I would hear of Ravana’s flying machine and its “mercury vortex” propulsion during my four months as a CAORC fellow in Sri Lanka this spring. Once I realized what the image was, the more I began to see Ravana atop his dandu-monara (or “wooden peacock” in Sinhala) everywhere I looked. For years a statue of airborne Ravana stood outside of the international airport at Katunayake. Drawings of Ravana and his technological marvel appear in Sinhala newspapers, on the covers of paperbacks found in bookshops throughout the capital city of Colombo, and even now in textbooks designed for secondary-school history courses. In the mountain town of Ella—today a major tourist-hub, believed to have once been the lair of the demon-king—amidst the dandu-monara billboards, Ravana themed hotels and cocktail menus, for $20 you can take a spin on the “Flying Ravana” zipline. This April Sri Lanka sent its first research satellite into low orbit around the earth, the “Ravana One.”
It is true that Sri Lanka lays claim to an impressive heritage of engineering marvels: the intricate, state-maintained irrigation system of the ancient kingdom of Anuradhapura; the stupas (reliquaries) of the island’s major Buddhist schools of the first millennium (with the Jetavana Aramaya standing for centuries as the third tallest structure in the world, after the pyramids of Khufu and Khafra at Giza); the 5th century plateau-top palace complex at Sigiriya, “Lion Rock,” complete with elaborate bathing pools and fountains.
Ravana aboard his flying peacock (Devram Vihara, Pannapitiya)
What then do we make of Ravana’s flying peacock? Or, as the question is often put bluntly to me when I describe my research, is it true, or is it a myth?
My current book project explores the development of uniquely Sri Lankan versions of the Ramayana story from the 14th century onwards, focusing on the domestication of Ravana by both Tamil Hindus and Sinhala Buddhists, who often make him out to be much more of a “good guy” than he is understood to be by Indians. I attempt to account for the process by which Ravana was transformed from a demon of Sanskrit lore to a historical, human king of Sri Lanka, including his appearance in the 21st century as a cultural hero among some Sinhala Buddhists, many of whom now trace their ancestry to Ravana’s “Yakkha” (demon) tribe.
I argue that the “Sinhala Ravana” phenomenon represents a fully articulated palingenetic myth, or wholesale re-writing of a national origin story, forged within the triumphal mood following the Sri Lankan government’s victory over the separatist Libertation Tigers of Tamil Elam one decade ago, and enabled by the speed of travel of ideas and images in our current digital age.
As it turns out, Ravana’s flying peacock represents a near perfect metonym for my overall thesis: that, while 21st century Ravana is popularly understood to be an indigenous king of the island (and even by some accounts the progenitor of Indic [or even world] civilization), his sui generis Sri Lankan representation is in fact the product of centuries of synthesis of regional literature and folklore, embellished in recent years by the global “alternative media” multiverse freely accessible through the internet.
“All Aboard the Dandumonara,” Ellement Hiking Bar & Restaurant, Ella
In the original Sanskrit version of the Ramayana, Ravana does indeed possess an aerial vehicle with which he abducts Princess Sita, though we are given no indication of the specifics of its mechanics, nor any suggestion that it resembles a bird (or peacock) in design. Indeed, vimanas or “flying castles” are a staple narrative convention in a variety of South Asian Hindu, Buddhist and Jain texts dating back in some cases more than 2000 years.
There is however in Sri Lanka a tradition of poetry and folklore—until recently unconnected with Ravana—involving flying wooden peacocks, usually associated with stories in which a carpenter’s son assists a prince in building a mechanical bird, with the prince then using the contraption to travel to a distant kingdom and seduce a princess.
Even Martin Wickramasinghe himself wrote a short children’s book based on one such traditional folk story, the Dandumonara Kathava. In these tales the design of the peacock is given some visual contour: its wings flap to produce lift, powered by the operator “peddling” (padinavā) from his cockpit seat, with three ropes (attached to ailerons?) controlling direction and pitch. While the Sinhala name for this device (the “wooden peacock,” dandu-monara) is unique, the basic story motif and concept of the bird-machine is found throughout India in various regional literature and oral traditions. The dandu-monara appears to be in fact one token of a broader literary genre concerning mechanical contrivances—including human and animal automata—found in such famed Sanskrit texts as the Pañcatantra (an ancient collection of folktales) and the Kathasaritsagara (“Ocean of the Streams of Stories”).
1921 cover illustration of U.D. Johannes Appuhami’s poem, “The Story of the Wooden Peacock,” based on a traditional Sinhala folktale.
Scholars have recently noted the coalescence in the 10th century of a pan-regional interest in stories concerning “fountain houses” and “mechanical gardens” complete with robotic fish, birds and other animals, apparently developing out of literary exchange between the Fatamid, Byzantine, Abbasid, north and central Indian empires of the time. This trade in “wonders and marvels” would have involved translation between Latin, Greek, Arabic and Sanskrit. In India the genre was related to a technical treatise by the poet-king Bhoja (fl. 1025), the Samarangana Sutradhara, which includes a chapter on machines blurring the lines between the magical and the technical in its descriptions of elaborate plumming, automatically refilling oil lamps, motorized menageries, robotic soldiers, and alchemically enabled combustion engines. The text includes some specific instructions on the construction of flying machines:
laghudārumayam mahāvihaṅgaṃ dṛḍhasuśliṣṭatanuṃ vidhāya tasya
udare rasayantramādadhīta jvalanādhāramadho’ sya cāti pūrṇam
tāruḍha puruṣastasya pakṣadvandvoccālaprojjhitena anilena
suptasvāntaḥ pāradasyāsya śaktyā citraṃ kurvannambare yāti dūram
Having built a great bird made of light wood, with a fine, tightly knit outer covering, and placing within its belly a mercury mechanism (rasa-yantram) functioning as a receptacle for a blazing fire,
Through the power of that mercury (pāradasya śaktyā) and the force of the air released from the wings [of the bird] flapping in unison, a man mounted atop it may travel a great distance through the sky, painting pictures [amid the clouds], his mind altogether serene.
–Bhoja’s Samarangana Sutradhara, chapter 31, verses 95 and 96
No one can deny that Bhoja offers here a fantastic—perhaps even technologically prescient—scene, leaving us to imagine not only a Da Vinci-esque avian simulacrum, but also fiery jet engines, and either an intricate form of contrail sky-writing, or a more romantic (if less physically plausible) sport of cloud-croche.
We have no physical record of Bhoja’s wondrous inventions ever having been actually constructed. He gives a few details concerning their hardware (copper piping, elementary hydraulics) though no full schematics. While the “wooden peacock” and other automata appear in a few medieval Sri Lankan Sinhala and Pali works, the specific theme of the “mercury vortex engine” seems to have come to the attention of modern Ravana enthusiasts through online versions of Dileep Kanjilal’s short 1985 book, Vimana in Ancient India, also a locus classicus in American “ancient aliens,” “alternative history,” and other dubiously credentialed academic circles. (Kanjilal did himself read the Samarangana Sutradhara, though his interpretation remains painfully positivist in its outlook.)
What then is my answer to the “truth or myth” question when it comes to Ravana’s airplane? While the demon-king has come for many to embody a mono-ethnic narrative concerning the original people of Sri Lanka, there is the potential for Ravana—both as a non- (or pre-) ethnic literary character, and as a subject of historical study—to function as a signifier of a shared heritage (Sinhala and Tamil, Buddhist and Hindu) of the people of the island.
To answer the “true or myth,” “real or fake” question in the binary fashion in which it is posed is to capitulate to a form of literalism which distracts from the more interesting possibility of treating Ravana as product of the stratigraphy of regional and global literary influences that have shaped his image in the 21st century. My answer therefore is to embrace the mystery of Ravana—admitting, as is true, that I still do not understand him fully—while inviting my interlocutor down with me into Ravana’s subterranean Lankan kingdom, to see what other treasures and clues he may have left behind.
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About the Author
Justin Henry holds a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago Divinity School and currently teaches Religious Studies at Loyola University Chicago. Research for his current book project was completed as a CAORC NEH Senior Fellow in Sri Lanka in the spring of 2019, and this year he will spend four months in Tamil Nadu on a research grant through the American Institute of Indian Studies.
The CAORC NEH Senior Research Fellowship is made possible thanks to support from the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Fellowship Programs at Independent Research Institutions (FPIRI) program. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.