The Englishman’s tail

And the role of Hanuman in it……

What if I told you that there was a time when many a person believed Englishmen were the descendants of Hanuman and his ape friends? And If I continued to state that this was serious stuff, not words of sarcasm, ridicule or any kind of contempt for the white man? Well, it was so and as I got deeper and deeper into the story, I saw that it stretched into the performing arts of Kerala, the Kathakali, where its effect remains to this day. But to get to the origins, you have to go to the days when the Ramayana epic was embedded deep in the psyche of the common man.

Before we do that, we have to visit Malabar in the 15th through 17th century. Those days were turbulent alright with the Portuguese sometimes embedded in the wars between the Zamorin and Cochin, as well as a few fought in the seas involving the Portuguese and the marakkars. But the man on the street was not really affected and Malabar went on with its merry ways as a feudal society with the Nambuthiris, the educated lot at the apex, then the Nairs and following them all the other classes, castes and tribes. Sanskrit was the language of the learned, and Malayalam was just starting to evolve from Tamil and Sanskrit. The white men from the West was making his presence felt, and of course, the local populace observed them and their habits keenly. The foreigners - both men and women dressed differently, covering much of their body, compared to the barely clad locals, they ate food which the locals never ate, such as the meat of the cow and they drank liquor in the evenings. They were strong and courageous in the battle field and well, people asked questions. 

If they were doing things which were against the prescribed norm, how was it that they were strong and victorious? The Nambudiri’s came up with a theory and the scribes recorded it faithfully. But naturally, it had to fit with the epics and holy books for popular acceptance. As time went by, more white men appeared, the Dutch and later the French and the English. The last of the lot manifested themselves even more closely with the locals and soon displaced the local chiefs and titular heads. I must also hasten to add that while I am focusing on the Malabar side of the story, similar accounts popped up from other parts of the land around the same time and we will get into a couple of those later on. The brief conclusion was that these foreigners had something to do with a strong and warlike lot such as the monkeys who fought for Rama against Ravana, in Lanka and that the Englishmen, could be their progeny, naturally complete with a tail in the rear.

The thought that Englishmen have tails existed even before that and is ascribed to a Scottish belief from the 16th century. A version reported in BBC went thus - In his chronicle, 'The Scotichronicon' (c. 1440), Walter Bower relates the story of how some of the English acquired their tails. Apparently, in 597, when St Augustine came to preach the word of God to the West Saxons in Dorset, he came to the village of Muglington where the people distorted and contradicted what he said, or simply wouldn’t listen to him. They even had the audacity to hang fish tails from his clothing. The story goes that God decided to punish these Saxons, along with their descendants and the rest of their country, for this insult to one of his anointed messengers. As Bower relates: ‘For God smote them in their hinder parts, giving them everlasting shame so that in the private parts both of themselves and their descendants all alike were born with a tail.’ The Scots said it of the English, the English said it of the French, and it seemed to be a common insult to hurl at one's opponents.

Medieval Frenchmen had a tradition, which survived even to the nineteenth century, implying that Englishmen had tails, which they cunningly concealed. Other nations were also sure of it, the Greeks of Sicily, as it appears - when forced to entertain British crusaders in 1190 termed them as ‘tailed Englishmen’. At the end of the 13th century, the besieged Scots at Dunbar castle shouted ‘ye English dogs with long tails! We will kill you and cut off your tails’ (Peter Ackroyd). A few shouted after a battle that they would make ropes for themselves from the Englishmen's tails to tie them up on the following day. Some academics mention that the inference was due to the long hair English men sported, worn down like a tail. But all that were for different reasons and did not involve the monkey brigade which went to Lanka.

But let us return to the Namboodiri in Malabar, and he chose to do exactly that, which was to pin a tail on the Englishman. The epic they chose to associate the Englishman was the Ramayana. It is difficult to point out exactly when and how this was done, but what we do know is that Englishmen of repute heard of it from their associates in Malabar. One JF Logan had to prove he did not have one and others wrote their opinions about it. The version reported in The Academy-July 1893 was the version provided by a Namboothiri to Edward Nicholson. Edward incidentally was an Army doctor who authored one of the first works on tropical snakes and spent a while in Malabar.  

He recounts: I have just come across the same charge (English have tails) in a Malyalam legend grafted on to the Ramayanam. It was in an old notebook, which I had forgotten at the time of the correspondence. I give the story as it was told me in Malabar, many years ago; I spell the proper names as they are pronounced in Malyalam.

The legend of Belal Kitia: When Ramen's army of monkeys were building the bridge from Rameshwaram to Lanka, they were hindered by Värunen (the sea-god), and the monkeys came to Ramen complaining of the rough sea produced by Varunen. So Ramen prayed to the sea to let him build the bridge, but Varunen paid no attention. Then Ramen became angry, and took his bow and arrows to destroy the sea. But as soon as his arrow was fixed, Varunen got frightened and came out of the sea; and he came to Ramen, bringing a present of a bright gold colored cucumber, and begged Ramen's pardon. But Ramen said, having fixed his arrow he must discharge it - at what? Then Varunen said there is a country over there where Rakshashas live; destroy that country. So Ramen shot the arrow, and it killed everyone in the country, and then came back after washing itself in the sea. And then Ramen, having finished the bridge, went over to Lanka and destroyed Ravanen and his Rakshasha army. And after he had made Ravanen's brother king, the Rakshashis came and complained that they were all pregnant by Ramen's monkeys. What to do? So Ramen bid them all get into a ship and go to the country, Belal-kitia, the inhabitants of which he had destroyed with his arrow. But they said, how shall we live there? And he gave them a palm-leaf (writing-leaf) and a broom-twig (for a pen) and told them they should live by that. So they went into the boat and rowed to that country, and had children who became very clever. The English people are descendants of them, and being of monkey ancestry they have tails. And being descended from Dévas [monkey-gods] and Rákshashis [female demons] they partake of both natures, the men being like Dévas and the women like Rákshashis. And they breakfast in the morning like Dévas, on proper simple food, but they dine like Rákshashas on meat and strong drink.” This explanation of the “valakaren’’ nature by simple Hindu country folk is singular. And the general Indian dislike of Englishwomen, a feeling not unreciprocated, shows itself in a very uncomplimentary form.

The origin of this story however dates back to the Portuguese times when as it appears the Alvancheri Thrampakkal narrated this to the Zamorin of Calicut (Keralodaya – KN Ezhuthachan) and suggested that the Zamorin carry out a number of yaga’s and rites to counter the white man’s strength. Now all that was certainly interesting, and believe it or not, this story has many other corollaries and localized versions, as we shall soon see. But one question to be asked was did they men Vaal Karen – man with a tail or Vella Karen - white man when the term was coined? Could it have been the former? And did the term belal kitia mean bilayet? I think valkaren was hardly used and the connection to Bilati shows a potential link to the Bhavishya Purana about which we will talk later.

Another account in the Indian review (Vol 57, 1956) is even more amazing and I quote - A Nambudripad of Malabar declared that all Europeans are descendants of Hanuman and are furnished with a tail. Mr. J. F. Logan, I. C. S., undressed himself before a Parishad and demonstrated that he had no tail. The Parishad duly passed a resolution "This Englishman apparently is an exception and has no tail." I am at a loss as to who this JF Logan is, for we did have William Logan (Malabar Collector) and he does not mention this anywhere, but it is stated so in the above publication.

All this was debated for some time in various English meetings, which sometimes involved learned Indians too. The Journal of the Royal society of arts provides examples of how common spread this belief was. RA Leslie Moore mentions: The Hindu belief in Bombay is that the English are descended from Hanuman, the Monkey King. After all, Hanuman was a good fighter, and apparently a cheery soul, to judge from the red-leaded images of him adorning every Deccan village.

One Mr KG Gupta C.S.I replied that this was not prevalent in Bengal but he agreed on its possibility and stated ‘Having regard to the extreme energy, of the average Englishman, his agility in the tennis- court, or cricket-field, or in the ball-room, it was possible that in some parts of India he might be considered as being descended from the ape. He also thought that the Hindus actually gave the Englishman very great credit, because he did not regard him as a descendant from an ordinary ape (like the rest of us), but from Hanuman, the Lord of Monkeys.

The discussion became serious and Gupta added his thoughts - Hanuman was the ally and friend of Rama, one of the great Indian deities; he assisted Rama in civilizing and Aryanising Ceylon, and he was a loyal, thoroughly good and kind ape. He was so loyal that when his loyalty was once questioned he tore open his breast for everybody to see that on his heart was written the name of his friend and patron Rama. If they (English) had to admit that they were descended from apes, surely the best thing that could possibly happen was to be descended from the best of the apes, so that there was nothing discreditable about it at all. Coming to the question of superstitions, what were superstitions? Did not they represent the exercise of that faculty which had brought all human knowledge, i.e., the inductive faculty? All the highest achievements of science were due to that process. Superstition was an inference drawn from one or two coincidences. It was faulty in that sense, but was the result of the same process.

Sir George Birdwood charmingly opined thus in reply - whether it was to be regarded as implying compliment or contempt would depend on the feeling and thought of the person at the time of giving expression to it: for the Hindus, like all the quick-witted people of Southern Eurasia, from Greece to India, have a wonderful way of conveying praise and blame, blessing and cursing, in the same words. So, he concluded, ‘spoken by a Hindu, in the plain sense of the words, the tradition referred to by Mr. Leslie Moore could have been repeated to him only in the spirit of the sincerest praise’. A common Hindu saying in Bombay is: - "Even the High Gods themselves delight in flattery."

But the story does not end there, for this tale can possibly be seen to be part of a work called the Bhavishya Purana (Pratisarga Parva) and perceived to have been written or modified sometime after the English settled in Calcutta, narrates the origin of Harikhanda (Europe) and the Gurundas (white bodied). The Gurundas are connected to the monkeys of Ramayana. Those which died were brought to life by Ravana and consorted with the women in Ravanas’s harem. The Gurundas came for trade and started it at the city of Kalikata by the order of their queen Vikatavati (Queen Victoria). This myth also, as the myth from Malabar, connects the origin of the Gurundas who are evidently the British, to the monkeys of the Ramayana.

I could not get a hold of the original verses, but  I got to the  Kanchi kamakoti translations, and this is what it states - Shri Rama of Ramayana after vanquishing Ravana made possible many of dead vanara soldiers who fought valiantly to get back to life, the important ones being Vikata, Vrujil, Jaal, Burleen, Simhal, Jawa (Jaawa), Sumaatra (Sumatra), etc. He gave the boon to these Vanaras that quite a few Dwipas (Islands) far and near Lanka be occupied and that they would be Kings of these Islands and that Architect Jaalandhara would help construct and even their wives would be procured from among those Devakanyas liberated after Ravanas death. The Vanaras were delighted at the happening and in course of time, the habitants of the Islands developed trade contacts with Garunds (British) of the Western World, especially with Isha Putras (Khishtha, Ishu or Isamasiha). The inhabitants were Surya Deva worshippers and virtuous and honest people worthy of promoting overseas business and the King of the Western Dwipa of England called Vikata and later on by his wife Vikatavatior Victoria ruled over there by Ashta Koushala Marg (under the Counsel of Parliament). The British Raj witnessed high prosperity by executing overseas business generation after generation with democracy (Rule of Citizens) with the hereditary Queen or King elected by a Prime Minister; the ninth Chief Representative of Gurunds was Mekal (Lord Macaulay) who administered the Raj with honesty for twelve years; he was followed by Laurdel (Lord Wavel) who ruled for thirty two years.

In the above, you will find that the islanders conducted trade with the gurundas. Nevertheless, the monkey connection may have been deduced by the Nambudiri from the Bhavishya Purana and these special divine powers of the monkey brigade also seem to account for the capacity of Europeans for sea voyage and oceanic adventures, all which were taboo for the common man in Malabar.

Later, and funnily enough, some lent flight to their imagination and connected the tail of Hanuman to the tail coat worn by the Englishman, maybe that was the image which got them the Hanuman link. On the other hand, some opine that the concept of a tail went from Hanuman Ram Leela stage shows to the dressing of gentry in England, during formal occasions!

Then there is the associated account as related to Trijata, the daughter of Vibhishana and one who was friendly to Sita during her period of confinement in Lanka. She (in other versions it is Mandodari) is considered to be Queen Victoria, in a rebirth, according to Upasni Baba (Meher baba’s guru and Shirdi Saibaba’s pupil). The Baba narrates (early 20th century) - Trijata was a Brahmana, and loved the Kshatriya Rama. The duty of the Kshatriyas is to rule. Being a Brahmana and being intensely devoted to Rama, Trijata should have attained the real state of Rama. But she was devoted to the ruler Rama and hence her progeny, though Brahmana by class, came forth as the rulers on this earth. Once the progeny was brought into being the atma of Trijata joined the real state of Rama. The punya accumulated by Trijata in serving Sita forced her Jiva to have a body to enjoy and expend that punya, and she came forth as Queen Victoria. Since the state of Sita was ever existent in her heart (due to which she had desired to have Rama as her husband) the Kingdom of the Queen Victoria was virtually the Kingdom of Sita. Just as the Ramarupa that satisfied the desire of Trijata returned to its original state on satiating her desire, in the same way, the husband of Queen Victoria after the birth of their progeny returned to the state of Sat. All this explains why Queen Victoria loved this country.

Now this was all interesting, perhaps still accepted by some and scoffed by others, but what is important is that the many of the learned accepted all these hypotheses gladly during a three to four hundred year period as a possibility, and allowed it to direct their actions!

But what connection does this have with our revered art form Kathakali? Ah! My father would have gone on and on about that art itself for he was very fond of the art. I understood very little of it and have never had the patience to savor the lengthy performances, being the dimwitted fool I was, and slept off as it went on into the wee hours of the morning in our temples.

If you observe the headgear of Hanuman in Kathakali carefully, you will find that it is very different from that of other characters. You will find that it is styled somewhat after a pike helmet oft used by the British, but one with a wider than normal brim and a majestic brass spike. The origin of this white and silver trimmed ‘vattamuti’ is ascribed to the Kadathanad Raja (d 1727)in North Malabar during the 18th century, and the story is that he styled it after French military hats from Mahe (some others say Christian priest style hats modified to have double domes and a spike). I am more inclined to connect it with the Pike helmet since the French wore flat topped hats in Malabar, but maybe I am wrong, perhaps the French did wear such a hat. The white man was sometimes termed the ‘red monkey’ and you will also note that Hanuman’s Kathakali facial getup is made up with a black top half and a red bottom half, replete with a white sideburns / beard or vellathaadi. He wears a woolen hairy coat, completing the European monkey connection.

That brings us to an end and well, now you know how it all came about, right? But then again, all these are myths or events bound by myths, and the question is, should one spend time trying to figure it all out? Romila Thaper answers the question interestingly - Myth is at one level a straight forward story, a narrative: at another level it reflects the integrating values around which the societies are organized. It codifies belief, safeguards morality, vouches for efficiency of the ritual and provides social norms. In a historical tradition therefore the themes of myths act as factors of continuity…….

You can perhaps recount this story to a friendly Brit over a pint of bitter (maybe better after two or three), but I would not guarantee that the results would always be accompanied with much bonhomie! 

The Academy – Vol 43, 1103, June 24, 1893
Journal of the Royal Society of arts – Vol. 59, No. 3040 Indian Superstitions E. A. Leslie Moore
Essence of Bhavishya Purana VDN Rao
The Talks of Sadguru Upasni-Baba Maharaja Volume II Part B
South Indian History Congress Jan 1999, The Myth of the origin of White People and its Role in Resistance to Europeans in Malabar - Dr. T. Vasudevan
Ancient Indian Social History: Some Interpretations - Romila Thapar
BBC article – Englishmen and tails 

Pics Hanuman – Courtesy Hindu and photographer named.


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