First Published in First City (New Delhi) June 2006.
The story of the Talking Head is not found in Peter Brooke’s retelling of the Mahabharata. It is not even found in Vyasa’s original. Yet it is a very popular folklore. Stories of the Talking Head can be found as far afield as Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
In Tamil Nadu the Talking Head is identified with the head of Aravan, the son of Arjuna, by Uloopi. On the seventh day of the battle at Kurukshetra, Krishna told the Pandavas, “Unless a man without a scar on his body is sacrificed to the goddess of war, Kali, you will not win the battle.”
The Pandavas wondered who they could sacrifice. Only Krishna and Arjuna possessed flawless bodies but they could not be spared. Finally the warrior, Aravan, came forward. He possessed a flawless body. “You may sacrifice me but it is my wish that I marry before I die,” he said.The Pandavas were obliged to fulfil Aravan’s last wish if they had to sacrifice him. However, no matter how hard they tried they could not persuade a single woman to marry the man who was doomed to die the day after marriage. Finally, Krishna came to the rescue. He took the form of a woman called Mohini and married Aravan. They spent one night together. Local tradition has it that Aravan is a form of Shiva, hence locally called Kootandavar, and that by marrying Vishnu/Mohini he became the divine husband of all transgender people locally known as Alis. After the wedding night, at dawn, Aravan was sacrificed and Krishna mourned for him like a widow before returning to his male form.
The sacrifice pleased Kali and the goddess promised the Pandavas victory in battle. Aravan was forgotten. His purpose had been served. On his wedding night, Aravan told his wife that he longed to see the battle. After the sacrifice therefore, Mohini/Krishna took his severed head, placed it on a tall pike and breathed life into it so that from its vantage point it could witness the war over the remaining ten days.
The Talking Head is also identified with one Barbareek, an archer so great that when Krishna asked him to pierce with a single arrow all the leaves of a Banyan tree, he pierced not only the leaves on the branches but also the ones Krishna had plucked and placed under his foot. According to tales in Andhra Pradesh, Barbareek was the son of Bhima’s son Ghatotkacha. In Rajasthan, Barbareek is said to be the son of Bhima and a serpent princess (Uloopi?). Barbareek was given the boon: he was invincible provided he fought for the weak. Barbareek entered Kurukshetra and fought on the side of the Pandavas when they were weak and the Kauravas were strong. He changed sides and fought on the side of the Kauravas as soon as the Pandavas became strong and the Kauravas weak. Consequently, the war failed to go in any particular direction. To put an end to this, Krishna went to Barbareek and said, “Help me.” Barbareek could not refuse a cry for help. “Save me from this creature who terrorizes me,” so saying Krishna picked up a mirror and held it in front of Barbareek’s face. “Please separate this creature’s head from his body so that he no longer frightens me,” begged Krishna. Barbareek had no choice but to behead himself. But before doing so, he expressed his last wish to Krishna, “I want to see how the war proceeds.” “So be it,” said Krishna. After severing his neck, Krishna took Barbareek’s head, placed it on top of a pole, and breathed life into it.
The Talking Head is stronger than all the heroes in the Mahabharata. According to one oral tradition, during the battle, Arjuna’s chariot was pushed back by the sound of loud laughter. “Where is this laughter coming from?” asked Arjuna. “It is the laughter of Barbareek, an archer so powerful great that he carried three arrows in his quiver. With one he can destroy the Kauravas. With another he can destroy the Pandavas. With the third he can destroy me,” said Krishna. Krishna explained how he had cunningly beheaded the warrior so that he could not interfere with the war. That even without his body Barbareek could interfere with the war by simply laughing, annoyed Krishna. He took Barbareek’s head from the top of the hill to the bottom so that his laughter did not stop any war chariot.
In Vyasa’s epic, everybody learns of the events in battle through Sanjaya, who has been granted divine sight. But since Sanjaya is Dhristarashtra’s charioteer, hence on the Kaurava side, his opinions could be biased. Not so with Barbareek who sided with no one. From his vantage position, he witnessed and wept for the moral conflicts that permeated the war, the sight of brothers killing brothers over principles and property and petty quarrels. Without a body, he could do nothing about it. He asked Krishna, “Who are the winner and losers? The Kauravas are dead. The Pandavas have won. Gandhari weeps for her children. Draupadi also weeps for her children. Who is the true victor?” In response, Krishna only smiled.
A folktale from Kerala states that Bhima and Arjuna went to the Talking Head (Barbareek/Aravan) located on top of a pole or tree or hill, and asked him who the greatest warrior in Kurukshetra was. “You saw the whole thing from a height, a different perspective, which we could not,” said the brothers. The Talking Head replied, “I saw no warrior killing warrior. I saw the discus of Vishnu who is Krishna severing the necks of unrighteous kings on both sides and Draupadi who is Kali stretching her tongue to drink the spilt blood.” Thus, seen from another point of view, the point of view of the Talking Head, the war at Kurukshetra is not about the Pandavas and Kauravas, it is about Vishnu/Krishna establishing order by destroying the kings who abuse the earth, i.e. Kali/Draupadi.
The Talking Head is thus a symbol for a less confined, more global perspective on things. All of us see the world from our individual point of view, limited by our prejudices, our experiences and expectations. The Talking Head sees it from an alternative angle. And when he voices his opinions, we see the world quite differently. When he speaks, we realize the Pandavas and Kauravas are tiny elements of God’s greater canvas. The Mahabharata is not just about one kingdom, it is about cosmic order.
More interesting is the contemptuous laughter of the Talking Head. We know he is stronger than all whose feats he witnesses. From his vantage position he can see things that others cannot see — all the hidden, repressed and secret desires of warriors. He mocks their faÃ§ade of righteousness. He knows what is truly in their hearts. In front of the Talking Head no one can pretend.
And so it is that the Talking Head is worshipped across India. When you see a head hanging at the gate of a house made out of a pumpkin with large eyes and with its tongue sticking out know that it is the Talking Head. When you see a head on the arch around a deity or at the entrance of a temple, know that it is the Talking Head. In Rajasthan, the Talking Head is seen as a form of Krishna and worshipped as Khatu Shyamji. In Shaiva lore, the Talking Head is called Kirti-Mukha or ‘Face of Glory’ who on Shiva’s orders ate his own body to satisfy his hunger. By not eating anyone else for his survival, he earned the right to be placed above the image of gods and mock the devotees who enter the temple. Seated above the gods, he can see everything (he has large eyes). He can do nothing (he has no body) except share his viewpoint. His opinions are caustic (his teeth are like fangs). His tone mocking (he sticks his tongue out).
The Talking Head is also a reminder that there is a force greater than the heroes of the epics. A force out there who knows us better than we know ourself. He is the voice of conscience, speaking the truth, unafraid to expose the putrid reality the heroes and villains of the epic try to repress or deny. We can defend our stand or apologize for our actions or blame others for our follies or offer explanations for our misdeeds but he will not listen because he has no ears.