It’s a bird, it’s a plane … it’s a vimana!

Shiv: Did you know that Indians invented the flying machine?

Gerard: I know that they didn’t.

Shiv: It’s in the Ramayana. Which I’m pretty sure predates your entire country. 

This weekend was a great opportunity to discover an insider’s take on the DISPLACED HINDU GODS TRILOGY — Aditi Kapil visited for a marathon day, including a pre-show chat with audience members. A fascinating part of the conversation was Aditi’s take on the Easter eggs connecting all the plays. She said that some were put in for her own amusement while others served as “big themes” that tied the plays’ worlds together. Aditi mentioned that she is often surprised about which Easter eggs audiences catch and that they have caught many that she had not consciously hidden throughout the plays.

As I watched SHIV with new eyes after listening to Aditi speak, a new Easter egg revealed itself. Though Bapu’s poetry, with its references to spaceships and aliens, seems futuristic, his work actually reflects a centuries’ old tradition of writing about vimanas — or “flying machines.” This “re-mythologizing” is a structural Easter egg for all three plays, but within them, the characters rewrite their history through the lens of the traditional myths of their culture. The emphasis on flying or traveling by fantastical means is also a neat example of a thematic Easter egg within a play. Bapu’s kites, the laundry line at the lake, the cosmic ocean, Shiv’s loot-powered ship — all these traversing objects help the characters explore the unknown land of their own desires.

The word “vimana” means “to measure out, or traverse” and the name was first used to mean a flying machine in the Ramayana, as Shiv boasts to Gerard. In the epic, Rama rightfully claims the vimana after defeating Ravana, who had previously stolen it from the demi-god Kuvera, who had received the vehicle as a gift from Brahma himself. The Ramayana states:

“The Pushpaka Vimana that resembles the Sun and belongs to my brother was brought by the powerful Ravana; that aerial and excellent Vimana going everywhere at will … that chariot resembling a bright cloud in the sky … and the King [Rama] got in, and the excellent chariot at the command of the Raghira, rose up into the higher atmosphere….”

In the epic, another vimana is described as “shaped like a sphere and born along at great speed on a mighty wind generated by mercury” and is able to move up, down, forwards, or backwards.

Ravana steals the vimana.

Vimana became a common term for the opulent, floating palaces of the gods as well as crafts made for a single man. Ancient Sanskrit texts unearthed in Tibet suggest that a man could fuel his own vimana using his inner power of laghima, or becoming light, to counteract gravity. These documents propose that using this power, men could visit distant planets.

Towards the nineteenth-century, as technology slowly began to catch up with dreams of flying, vimanas became even more futuristic, and their cylindrical and saucer-like shapes wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of Star Trek. A man named Shivkar Bapuji Talpade described designing and flying a mercury-engine aircraft in 1895, though contemporary aeronautical engineers debate the veracity of his claim. Scholar William Clarendon translated Talpade’s blueprints for such an aircraft: ‘Inside the circular air frame, place the mercury-engine with its solar mercury boiler at the aircraft center. By means of the power latent in the heated mercury which sets the driving whirlwind in motion a man sitting inside may travel a great distance in a most marvelous manner. Four strong mercury containers must be built into the interior structure. When these have been heated by fire through solar or other sources the vimana (aircraft) develops thunder-power through the mercury.’

A vimana design from Shivkar Talpade’s book on aeronautics.

In his love of sci-fi, Bapu sees an escape from his disappointing life in Illinois; he uses the power of his imagination to visit distant planets, and, in teaching his daughter to fly kites and dream on the cosmic ocean, he gives her the same power to fly — even if there’s no mercury handy.

Check out Company One’s Events page soon for video of our talk with Aditi and stop by the Plaza to tell us what your vimana would look like.

Flying machines carved on the walls of temples dating back 3000 years ago.

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