Naga-Mandala by Girish Karnad 

About the Play

Girish Karnad, a prominent Indian-English dramatist, is the author of the play Naga-Mandala. Karnad learned about Kannada mythology from his tutor, Professor A. K. Ramanujan, who inspired the play.

“Nagamandala” is a ceremonial (cobra worship) practised in the southern Karnataka coastal areas. In 1988, the play was published. The legendary implications and folklore traditions utilised by Girish Karnad in the play assist the audience in comprehending the societal intricacies, evils, and the protagonist’s desire for emancipation and fulfilment. The play has a contemporary outlook and mood.

The Plot

The play is also referred to as “Story Theatre.” Girish Karnad, a skilled story, employs the technique of story within a story. The plot of Naga-Mandala has four narrative levels. At the first level, the Author who commits the crime of writing boring plays that put the audience to sleep is sentenced to stay awake all night. The Flames (personified) of the village gather at the ruined temple where the Author is wailing on the second level and continue to gossip. At the third level, the Flame who is the latecomer knows the story but refuses to share it with others, and the story escapes from her mouth while she is sleeping, becomes the Story narrator. The Story tells the story of Rani, who is the central character in the plot. The structure of the temple and the relationships between the characters, which form upward and inward triangles, serve as the foundation for the entire Naga-Mandala. The temple represents Mandala and the snake represents vital energy. Rani’s relationship with the Naga alludes to Rani’s liberation and fulfilment from the clutches of patriarchy from a feminine standpoint.

Summary of Naga-Mandala

Rani (meaning “queen” to her parents) marries a wealthy villager, Appanna (a common name). Appanna, a male-chauvinist, ignores Rani and is unconcerned about her desires and feelings. He keeps her hidden and spends the nights with a concubine. Kurudavva, a blind woman, gives Rani the love potion in order for Appanna to fall in love with Rani. Because Appanna only comes to the house during the day, Rani decides to mix the potion with the food and serve it to him. But she is afraid of the potion’s red colour and pours it on an anthill. The Naga (Cobra) then drinks it and falls in love with Rani. He enters the house through the drain and sleeps with Rani as Appanna. Rani is unaware of Naga’s disguise. She can’t tell the difference between Appanna’s rude behaviour at lunch and Naga’s caressing at night.

Appanna is enraged when Rani becomes pregnant. He drags Rani to the elders of the village. The village elders, who remain silent and never raise their voices in protest of Appanna’s extramarital affair, force Rani to go through the ordeal of proving her innocence by catching a hot red iron bar or a cobra from the anthill. Rani chooses to go through the trial of catching the cobra on the advice of Naga (as Appanna).

The cobra slides above her shoulders and spreads its hood like an umbrella over her head, much to the surprise of the elders. Rani is declared a goddess by the village elders. Appanna’s emotions are obvious, and he is aware that he has never slept with Rani. He starts to doubt his own sanity. “What should I do?” Is the entire world conspiring against me? Have I sinned so much that Nature should mock me? … Any miracle can make her a goddess. But I do!” (Nāga: 60)

The story has three endings. The author narrator considers the first ending of the story, in which Appanna begins to love Rani while forgetting his concubine, to be loose.

The second ending is offered by the story’s narrator. Naga sacrifices himself for Rani’s love after Rani realises she had slept with both Appanna and Naga. He dies by hiding in Rani’s hair. The Flames, on the other hand, are not pleased with the cobra’s demise. The third ending is a rehash of the previous two. The Naga falls from Rani’s hair as she and Appanna reappear. Appanna intends to kill it, but Rani saves it by requesting that it hide in her hair and informing Appanna that the snake has escaped. The story comes to a close with Rani’s final remarks.

“This hair is a symbol of my wedded bliss.” “Live happily in there forever” (Nga: 64).

Analysis of  Naga-Mandala

Rani, one of the main characters in the play Nagamandala, was given the name ‘Queen’ by her parents because she was considered extremely valuable. But they had no idea that after her marriage, she would be treated as anything but a Queen. She married Appanna, a brute who used to lock his wife up like a caged bird. He did this because he didn’t want anyone talking to her. This could be interpreted as overprotectiveness or possessiveness. He imprisons someone who is so innocent, and he also engages in adultery, which many people in their village are aware of. Forcibly confining Rani in her own home would have been a traumatic experience for her.

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Rani’s well-wisher, Kurudavva, reveals to her that her husband has a concubine, whom she believes has bewitched him. She allegedly assumes and attributes Appanna’s infatuation solely to the bazaar woman, which is an unjust assumption because, if the scenario is examined without prejudice or bias, we see that both are equally at fault. Such assumptions, that it is a woman’s fault that they attract men to themselves without the man’s fault, or where the woman usually bears the brunt of the matter, are quite common to see. This demonstrates the painful double standards and gender biasness of society.

Appanna and his doppelganger Naga had completely different personalities, and their interactions with Rani were markedly different. They were similar in one way, aside from physical appearance: they both controlled and subjugated Rani. Naga was a devoted lover, but he imposed many restrictions on Rani’s life, confining her to her room to prevent Rani from discovering his true identity. He told her, “At night, wait for me here in this room. When I come and go at night, don’t go out of this room, don’t look out of the window- whatever the reason. And don’t ask me why.” (Karnad 45)(Karnad 45) He didn’t think it was necessary to explain his strange demands to her because it was expected of her as a wife to obey him without question or opposition. He never gave her the opportunity to choose because he always made the decision for her. Rani couldn’t influence or control him because he was dressed as the man of the house. Naga bound Rani to the house, but he was free to come and go as he pleased. As a result, Naga is exhibiting double standards.

Appanna later attacked Rani and attempted to kill her after learning of her pregnancy. He would have seriously injured her if Naga hadn’t intervened in time. Appanna was enraged by her infidelity, but he had forgotten about his betrayal of her since the first day of their marriage. “Aren’t you ashamed to admit it, you harlot? “I locked you in, and yet you managed to find a lover!” (Karnad 52) He had no qualms about his betrayal while attacking the helpless woman. To his mind, she committed an unforgivable sin, but he is guiltless, and thus he displayed extreme hypocrisy through his rash actions.

Appanna’s frequent visits to his concubine were common knowledge throughout the community. No one questioned Appanna’s infidelity, though. When Appanna reported Rani’s infidelity to the village elders, they resolved to test her chastity and punish her if she was discovered to be unfaithful. The village elders describe the virginity tests undergone by other women accused of adultery with their husbands: “The traditional test in our Village Court has been to take the oath while holding a red-hot iron in your hand,” the village elders say of other women accused of betraying their husbands. The accused has occasionally chosen to immerse his hand in boiling oil.” (Karnad 55) The village elders elected to ignore the man’s infidelity but judged the woman’s infidelity to be a horrific crime. Women were required to adhere to rigorous chastity codes, whereas men were free to participate in adultery. This double standard exhibited by the village elders is still prevalent in contemporary society.

The village elders awaited her examination and condemnation as an immoral lady with bated breath. They believed she had committed sin and demanded punishment. But when she survived the cobra test, which no woman had ever dared to do before her, they were stunned. Instantaneously, it became apparent that she possessed abilities and was not a typical woman. Due to their lack of knowledge, they hastily concluded that she was a goddess. “She is not a woman!” cried one of the elders. She is a Divine Being!”(Karnad 59) They even tried to convince the bewildered Appanna about his wife’s divinity-   “Elder I: Appanna, your wife is not an ordinary woman. She is a goddess incarnate. Don’t grieve that you judged her wrongly and treated her very badly. That is how goddesses reveal themselves to the world.You were the chosen instrument for revealing their divinity.” (Karnad 59)

The elders further demonstrated their hypocrisy by converting a woman they were prepared to condemn into a goddess deserving of devotion and reverence. In addition, they viewed Appanna’s suspicion of infidelity as a way to demonstrate the Goddess’ holiness. Previously, they had condemned her because they had greater control over her, but now she seemed to have hidden powers.

The play Tughlaq begins with a young man and an elderly man arguing about the Sultan’s effectiveness. One believes that earlier kings were attempting to be superior to the concept of being human, while the other does not comprehend why the current king must put on such a show to portray himself as humane and to demonstrate to the world that he places a great deal of importance on equality under his rule.

The Sultan appeared to place a great deal of value on prayer, as he enacted a new rule mandating that anyone who did not pray five times a day would suffer severe punishment from the law enforcement agents. However, his hypocrisy resides in the fact that he murdered his own father and brother during prayer time, which was the holiest time of day. Although the Sultan pretends to be just and moral, he was in fact a brutal murderer with no morals or ideals.

Another example of irony is when Aazam tells the disguised Aziz, “Brahmins do not carry daggers like that.” (Karnad 152) and “…Couldn’t you have arrived as a respectable Muslim?” (Karnad 152) Aziz was a Muslim who disguised himself as a Brahmin for personal gain. He was aware of the King’s strategy to demonstrate his sense of equality. In order to deceive the people with his designs, the King had to preferably put on a show where justice was administered to those of a different religion than his own, in order to demonstrate that justice was administered fairly despite religious differences. The king also desired to portray himself as so righteous that ordinary citizens were permitted to file lawsuits against him. Aziz, upon realising this, took advantage of the situation.

The Sultan seemed as if he sincerely cared about his people, but as the tale develops, the reader realises that he is a dictator. “Come, my people, I am waiting for you. Confide in me your worries…how dare I waste my time sleeping…” (Karnad 155) During a conversation with his stepmother, he refers to the fact that he murdered his family as “piece of gossip.” As if the act he committed and the lie he told weren’t immoral and ruthless enough, he accuses his stepmother of believing it, so portraying her as someone who lacks faith in him and has misjudged him and himself as a victim. He continues lying without remorse.

Moreover, he feigns innocence on the grounds that neither parricide nor fratricide are simple crimes that anyone would be willing to commit. Again, his hypocrisy regarding prayer is demonstrated, as is his extraordinary cunning when he deftly redirects Barani’s attention from him being the target of the rumour to the allegedly manipulative minds of the people, claiming that it “horrifies” him, so altering the listener’s perspective. Even his mother is implicated, demonstrating that even his closest relatives suspect him of the crime.

The Sultan reveals yet another instance of his hypocrisy when he asks Sheikh Imam-ud-din whether he believes he would have arranged the meeting if he hadn’t wanted his people to hear him. Everyone is duped, and we begin to see that he frequently uses rhetorical questions to cover up his lies. He also states that he did not want his people to be “people to be dumb cattle,” but in actuality, he was blinding them to his actions. Later in the play, it is revealed that “…soldiers went from door to door threatening dire consequences if anyone dared to attend the meeting.” (Karnad 176) The Sultan’s pretence continues beyond this point. On his journey, he deftly eliminates all objects that provide a hindrance. He then murdered Sheikh Imam-ud-din and put on an act of remorse, although he was the one who planned and carried out the murder without arousing suspicion until he had accomplished his objective. Ratansingh labels him a “scoundrel” because he methodically murders a man and then acts contrite about it. The Sultan remarked on the death of the Sheikh, noting that it should have been him: “It was a terrible sight. They took his body inside my tent, and I felt as if I were the one lying there dead and he was standing above me, staring at me. I should have been there instead of him.” (Karnad 170) But it was the Sultan himself who devised the plan to disguise the Sheikh as himself and send him to the battlefield in his place.

Next, Ratansingh confronts Shihab-ud-din, saying, “You accuse the people of Delhi of cowardice, yet you failed to fix an evident injustice.” (Karnad 177) Ratansingh informs Shihab-ud-din that he had previously condemned the inhabitants of Delhi for lacking the bravery to attend the conference to take command of their fate and oppose the plan to migrate to Daulatabad, but he also lacked the guts to join forces with the Amirs and the others.

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We also observe that Ratansingh makes the point that since even the troops are required to pray during the time in question and are not permitted to carry weapons at this time, it would be the ideal time for their attack. Except for Sheikh Shams-uddin, all agree. He explains that it is a precious moment that cannot be tainted with the blood of a Muslim and that they should not do this to Islam. Which Shihab-ud-din rebuttal asks him, “Is Islam just active at prayer?” (Karnad 178)

Tughlaq is exceptionally adept at deceiving individuals who placed their trust in him. The foundation of his big political manoeuvres was deceiving and manipulating those who believed him. When he found that Shihab-uddin had deceived him, he was filled with rage. Tughlaq stabbed Shihab-ud-body din’s violently even after his death and delivered a passionate speech on the betrayal of those in whom he had placed his trust: “Why must this occur, Barani? Are all those in whom I have faith doomed to history as traitors?” (Karnad 185) In addition, he ordered that the Amirs participating in the scheme be beheaded and their remains displayed as an example to the populace. This could be regarded Muhammad’s greatest act of hypocrisy.

When the soldiers surrounded Shihab-ud-din and the Amirs, Tughlaq waited until the conclusion of his prayer to assume control. Even though he was extremely excited, he maintained the appearance of a dedicated guy. He utilised prayer twice as an opportunity to murder his father and sibling. He gave prayer inordinate prominence and pretended to protect its sanctity until the betrayal occurred. When he realised he had been pierced by his own sword, he could no longer tolerate it. He went so far as to prohibit prayer within the kingdom. When he benefited from prayer, he supported it, but when he realised that his enemies benefited from it, he prohibited it. Even with regard to prayer, he acted inconsistently.

Aazam, his friend, persuaded Aziz to allow the woman to seek treatment for her ailing son, but Aziz refused, claiming that no one can save the youngster. However, he had assured the woman in a hushed voice that he would let her leave provided she paid bribes to his senior officials. Aziz may have concocted a tale to comfort his conscience-stricken accomplice. He would have gladly let the woman to pass if she had offered an adequate bribe, but he showed no leniency when she asked with nothing in her hands. As a highly egocentric individual who solely cared about his own interests, he constantly employed double standards.

Barani attempted to convince Muhammad to stop torturing his subjects for the tiniest transgression. He desired the Sultan to be an idealist. But Muhammad merely preached concern for his subjects’ suffering. As the monarch of a devastated land, he was solely concerned with his loss of glory. He could not believe that he was responsible for the destruction of his empire. He offers the lame justification that he is waiting for an opportunity to show himself by offering something to educate that can alter the course of history. He was merely a hypocrite who pretended to have a good innovation for the world, but wrecked disaster within his kingdom. His measures benefited his citizens in no manner.

In the final scene of the play, Barani got so upset with the Sultan’s decision to let Aziz go free that he proposed several terrible penalties for him. Barani realises his dishonesty when the Sultan points out that even Aziz would not have conceived of so many tortures. In the heat of the moment, however, even the historian with a tender heart, Barani, behaved hypocritically. Fearing he might become more affected by his close friend, he asked the Sultan to release him: “Your Majesty cautioned me when I erred, and for that I am grateful. I request permission to leave while I am still safe.” (Karnad 220) When his close buddy Barani also fled from him, Tughlaq saw how far he had fallen as a leader.


In Naga-Mandala, Girish Karnad incorporates Indian custom, myth, and folklore. In the context of cultural dilemmas and patriarchal ideology, the setting, themes, and plot all serve his intention of depicting the plight of an Indian woman and her ultimate struggle for freedom. In terms of people’s beliefs, the play reveals an abundance of Indianness. The plight of the Writer/Author Narrator and his fear of death illustrate the decline of standards in Indian theatre and the need for its revival in terms of the production of quality plays.

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