Rama, Rajendra, kesava, Kedili

Rama, Rajendra, Kesava, Kedili

Partha Desikan


An article on ‘Three hundred Ramayanas' by Professor A.K. Ramanujan, written in 1987, is in the news once again. Among other things, we learn from the article how the story of Sri Rama traveled to Southeast Asia. This was enabled by Tamil Indian traders and scholars

who traded with the Khmer kingdoms (such as Funan and Angkor) and Srivijaya, with whom the Indians shared close economic and cultural ties for several centuries.



Sometime in the late first millennium AD, the Valmiki epic was adopted by the Thai people, who had migrated to Southeast Asia from southern China. The oldest recordings of the oral hearings in the early Sukhothai kingdom began to appear in the thirteenth century. They included stories from the Ramayana taken from the songs of Tamil devotees of Vishnu, named Azhvars. A final shape was arrived at on receiving the inputs from Kamban's Tamil version of the Ramayana. The history of the legends was told in the Thai shade theater known as Nang, a shadow-puppet show in a style probably adopted from Indonesia. The Thai version of the legends was written down for the first time in eighteenth century, during the tenure of the Ayutthaya kingdom, following the demise of the Sukhothai government. Most editions, however, were lost when the city of Ayutthaya was destroyed by armies from Burma (modern Myanmar) in the year 1767. The version recognized today was compiled in the kingdom of Siam under the supervision of King Rama I (1736-1809), the founder of the Chakri dynasty, which still maintains the throne of Thailand. Between the years of 1797 and 1807, Rama I supervised the writing of the well-known edition, known as Ramakien and personally wrote parts of it himself.


Through the centuries people contacts between the Straits and Tamilnadu in South India had developed continuously. The specific relationship of Srivijayan kings with the Tamil Chola dynasty of southern India, however, though initially friendly, deteriorated into actual warfare in the eleventh century. In 1025, Rajendra Chola, the Chola king from  South India, conquered Kedah from Srivijaya and occupied it for some time. The Cholas continued a series of raids and conquests throughout what is now Indonesia and Malaysia for the next 20 years. Although the Chola invasion was ultimately unsuccessful, it gravely weakened the Srivijayan hegemony and enabled the formation of regional kingdoms based, like Kediri, based on intensive agriculture rather than coastal and long-distance trade. Chinese sources from early 13th century suggest that the Indonesian archipelago was ruled by two great kingdoms; the western part was under Srivijaya's rule, while the eastern part was under Kediri domination.


Lay Tamils traveling to the Straits region happened to include scholars well read in Sanskrit and Tamil epics, Hindu religious rituals and Vedic lore. Thus, not only do we find Rama's story being well established as part of Thai, Malay and Indonesian culture. We find also that some acculturated Tamil Peranakans of the region are priestly in origin. They may now speak only Thai, Hokkien  or Bahasa Malay, but are able to recite whole passages from the Vedas or from the Srivaishnavite devotional poems of Azhvars of Tamilnadu, all of which are used for special occasions, like the coronation of the Thai King for instance. If Ramayana, the Vedas and other religious literature are the gifts of Tamils to the Straits people, the latter too had something very special to offer to the ordinary South Indian.


The 6th century Tamil Vaishnava saint and poet, Peria Azhvar uses the popular name Kedili, meaning ‘the flawless one', as an epithet of Lord Krishna, whom he describes as having so infatuated a young cowherd girl, that she goes and stands before total strangers and calls out plaintively the names of her lover, Kesava and Kedili.  In the words of her mother (Peria Azhvar Tirumozhi, Chapter 3.7, verse 7), who complains about her to friends, the Azhvar says,


Pesavum tariyaada penmaiyin pedaiyen pedai ival

Koosamindri nindraargal tan edir kol kazhittaan moozhaiyaay

Kesavaa! endrum kedilii! endrum kinjugavaaimozhiyaal

Vaasavaarkuzhal mangaimeer! Ival maal urugindraale.


(O Ladies with fragrant hairdos! This foolish daughter of this helpless person (me), babbling like a female parrot stands before passers by without any sense of shame and cries out to her lover in infatuation, ‘O Kesava! O kedili! (Flawless One!)


The Tamil Peranakans of Java in Indonesia, who left India after Peria Azhvar's time would seem to have named their kingdom Kedili after Lord Kesava. This was perhaps early in the 8th or 9th century. The name has been retained with only the l sound changed to r sound up to the present day. There is a modern town in East Java bearing the name Kediri. This town lies along the river Brantas which also went by the same name Kediri earlier. The Kediri flows in the sub-district (kecamatan) Kediri which is part of the regency (kabupaten) also called Kediri, which has been the traditional agricultural base of Java, producing rice and sugarcane. A comet which fell in Indonesia in 1940 and a popular soccer team of the republic have been given the Kediri name as well. I have no doubt that this ubiquitous name is indeed a variation of Kesava's name, Kedili, imported into Indonesia lovingly long ago, especially because it means that the region, like Kesava, appeared to the Tamil immigrants equally flawless. Modern Javans, look for the origin of this name in other directions


1. kedil means a barren woman in Javanese, while kedi means a man of short-stature, or a nurse assisting in childbirth. There are legends supporting all three connections.

2. In honour of the famous dance instructor Kedi Wrakatnolo, who played Arjuna roles in traditional puppet shows.

3. In honour of Dewi Kilisuci, who meditated in the Selomangleng cave in this region and was called ‘Kedi' the pure or clean one.

4. In the inherited Javanese language, Adeg, the dhiri suffix, very close to diri, has been used as an indication of high position (like a Lord) in the words angdhiri and magdhiri ( It is interesting to note a similar veneration-suffix diri in use in Kerala through the ages.)


Rice and lentils had been available in plenty in Kediri from the beginning and no one who has visited Indonesian restaurants at home or abroad would be surprised to learn that Kedirians used fermenting, wet grinding and steaming as significant cooking techniques to great advantage. Many varieties of fish as well as shrimp, rice, pulses, coconut milk, soy and several roots figure in modern Indonesian recipes using these techniques. The interaction of vegetarian south Indians with Javanese in the 8th and the 9th centuries AD should have led to the development of vegetarian batters in that Indies location. The batter based preparation kedili was born thus in Indonesia using indigenous processes and imported materials and skills, soon after the regency itself was named. Javanese researchers have deduced that the name of the regency Kediri was first found in an inscription on March 25, 804 and this date is commemorated as the birthday of Kediri.



Silappadikaaram, a Tamil epic of an earlier period (around 3rd century AD) describes the grocery and provisions area of the Puhar market place in coastal Tamilnadu. There is reference to eight cereal grains and five kinds of spices and flavours, and to vendors selling ready made pittu and appam. Both these preparations require rice flour and unrefined sugar. Appam also uses wheat flour optionally and involves homogenization with raw sugar and water into a paste which is then cooked in dehydrated butter or vegetable oil. A salted deep fried cake involving nixed flours of rice and lentils known as vadai was not in vogue then, but arrived soon on the scene. Simultaneously the aappam , a pancake involving the use of salted mixtures of wet ground pulses and rice also appeared and required the use of flat hot pans . This was the precursor to dosais of the unfermented variety, involving merely a name change. The name aappam was then passed on to rice based thin noodles (sevai, idiaappam) requiring wet grinding and squeezing through wooden or metal sieves. Fermented batter as dosai raw material was yet to be born. Some version of it arrived in South India along with kedili batter, from Indonesia. Where did Kedili arrive and when?


Udupi, a happy village on the Karnataka seaside, was for long known as a Saivite pilgrim centre, where Siva was worshipped in two forms, 1) as Ananteswara, whose linga form was believed to contain in it the hidden forms of Mahavishnu as well as his constant companion, Ananta-Sesha and 2) as Chandramouleeswara. The other attraction that drew pilgrims to Udupi was that a section of the priestly community in the village included such experts in culinary arts that the prasadas in the twin-temple were highly sought after. To this day, Udupi, which has since grown into a town where the famous Maadhwa shrine of Sri Krishna and the eight mathas (monasteries) of the Madhwa doctrine have been established in the 14th century, continues to be equally famous for the flavours and tastes that its cuisine provides its guests, while it indulgingly spoils their avid tongues and palates no end.


I believe that the enthusiastic visitors from Indonesia, no doubt of South Indian origin, who finally brought the recipe and suitable cookware for kedili cakes from Kediri, did not go direct to the eastern shores of South India. Discouraged by the battling mood of the Cholas even two generations prior to Rajendra Chola, they arrived perhaps by ship at Kozhikode or other nearby port, possibly even Mangalapura, before proceeding to Udupi to share their treasured knowledge with resident south Indians. Kedili, the flawless steamed lentil cake was made for the first time in Karnataka and renamed iddali or iddalikaa. One mention of it in writings, arguably the first, occurs in the Kannada writing of Shivakotiacharya in 920 AD, and it seems to have started as a dish made only of fermented black lentil. A document from circa 1025 A.D. states that lentils were soaked in buttermilk, ground into meal, then seasoned with black pepper, coriander, cumin and asafoetida. The Kannada king and scholar Someshwara III, reigning in the area now called Karnataka, included an idli recipe in his encyclopedia, the Manasollasa, written in Sanskrit ca. 1130 A.D. There is no known record of rice being added until some time in the 17th century. It may have been found that the rice helped speed the fermentation process, or created a product friendlier to the palate. Idli has been adopted with great enthusiasm in Tamilnadu ever since, is made in every household, and is available in every restaurant there. Modern idli cakes are usually about three to four inches in diameter and are made by steaming a batter consisting of fermented black lentils (de-husked) and rice. Most often eaten at breakfast or as a snack, idlis are usually served in pairs with chutney, sambar, or other accompaniments. Mixtures of crushed dry spices such as milagai podi are the preferred condiment for idlis eaten on the go.


Idli has been commended again and again by scientists around the world for its nutritional value, safety and ease of preparation. To give an example, even as late as in 2006, an investigation made by the Central Food Technological Research Institute found that the batter, properly made and packed in pouches retains desirable composition and flavour , even if kept for about six days before being steam-cooked. http://www.springerlink.com/content/r02643325680244p/



Ravi, an Indian origin expert on idlis, presented the idli along with sambhar on 4th November 2007 at the World Vegan Festival at Adelaide, South Australia and called it kedli (Do you recognize our flawless kedili?). He referred to its Indonesian origin during his very successful presentation. It is indeed a joy to reflect that the inspiration for naming a far off region, and in turn its welcome gift to Tamil kitchens, should have come from old Tamil devotional poetry!



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