Hasthikaantha Mantharey : Of mystical spells and the power of love
Early last month I watched the late Prof. Ediriweera Sarathchandra's
Hasthikaantha Mantharey at the Lionel Wendt.
Directed by Lalitha Sarathchandra, this delightful production
designed on classical forms of theatrical expressions is a must watch
for aspiring thespians and will prove worthy to school children to
develop appreciation for the classics of Sinhala theatre.
opens with something like an overture with verse and a dance by a
performer, in certain respects stylised by gestures and movements, to
represent an elephant. Stagecraft is patently minimalist and is in
keeping with the traditions of classical traditional Sinhala theatre.
The resplendent finery certainly adds an element of attractiveness
evoking the images of olden times. Acting overall was commendable. The
story is set in ancient Bharatha deshaya (pre British India in land
extents as per Buddhist and Vedic scriptures). King Chandapachopa, who
is power hungry to reign over all of Bharatha, wages war on King Udena,
who is believed to possess a mystical spell unknown to the learned
Brahmins, who are advisors in the royal court. This spell is a mantra
called the Hasthikaantha mantharaya the effects of which are unknown
until war is waged. It subdues the cavalry of war elephants deployed by
the invading king and draws the elephants over to the side of the
defending king's army. A 'Trojan horse' strategy is later devised
thereafter with a mechanical elephant, and King Udena is finally
The captive king is unrelenting about his refusal to teach his captor
the secret mantra but is negotiated into teaching it to a 'suitable
candidate' who will appreciate its aesthetic musicality. What ensues is
a classic scenario where love at first sight occurs between King Udena
and the Princess Vasuladaththa, an accomplished songstress, and
incidentally King Chandapachopa's daughter! Finally the warmongering
King realises his excessive greed had lost him his daughter -who elopes
with the captured King - while also not being successful in obtaining
the secret mantra, for which he waged war.
The importance of elephants in ancient India cannot be overstated.
They were crucial to economic, military, religious/cultural affairs.
Chanakya Kautilya, the legendary political advisor/strategist and
exponent on statecraft in ancient Bharatha, who was instrumental in
enthroning Emperor Chandragupta and the consequent founding of the
Maurya Dynasty, is believed to have established laws that decreed the
killing of an elephant to be an offence carrying the death penalty.
The advance of Alexander the Great and his ambitions beyond the
victory of the Hydaspes (after he defeated King Porus), was believed to
have been discontinued upon learning of the massive arsenal of war
elephants possessed by the Nanda empire, the principal power in the
Indian subcontinent at the time.
Therefore, on one hand what this play speaks of is how a creation of
nature -the elephant - was seen in the light of an unparalleled force of
power and wealth in ancient times of the Indian subcontinent and what
lengths kings would go to obtain or protect secrets that would grant
mastery over commanding elephant cavalries.
And while in the midst of power struggles where kingdoms and the
lives of kings are at stake, the beauty of love and its destinies too
can manifest in the most unexpected of circumstances.