The Mahabharata is a long epic poem. It describes the history of a royal family, the Kuru family. The family can pride itself in having both godlike and human ancestors.
The story is probably based on a battle between two peoples from northern India that took place around 1500 - 1600 before Christ. The text of the Mahabharata was written down between 540 and 300 before Christ. Apart from stories about various generations of the Kuru family, the Mahabharata also contains a famous philosophic conversation between prince Arjuna, one of the main characters and the god Krishna: the Bhagavat Gita.
The Bhagavatgita, by the way, is not performed in Kattaikkuttu. However, there is a scene with the opposite of what is described in the Bhagavatgita: Krishna refuses to go to war, while Arjuna does want to fight.
The story line The family's ancestor is King Bharata, but the story begins when King Shantana reigns. The most important main characters are two brothers, prince Pandu and prince Dhritarashtra and their children. Pandu and his two wives have five sons, the Pandavas. Pandu dies young. The blind Dhritarashtra has one hundred sons. He reigns for many years. After Dhritarashtra's abdication of the throne Pandu's eldest son Yudhishthira was to inherit the throne but he gambles away his birthright. Together with his brothers and their mutual wife Draupadi, Yudhishthira retreats into the woods. After having wandered for some time the brothers decide to reclaim the throne from their rival Duryodhana, the eldest son of Dhritarashtra. Duryodhana gets help from Karna, who is just as good a bowman as Yudhishthira's brother Arjuna. The fight between Karna and Arjuna is a recurring theme throughout the rest of the story. They are sons of the same mother, without being aware of it themselves. In the end, an eighteen-day battle decides who wins the fight.
What it all means The Mahabharata has the same role in Hinduism as Biblical stories in Western cultures. The book is a source of moral and psychological insight, which Hindus use to learn life lessons from. The Mahabharata can also be compared to the classical epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey, and the myths about Greek gods. The Mahabharata has the same role: it is a source of inspiration for artists. Whereas many Western people have little knowledge of for instance King David and Antigone, every Hindu is familiar with the characters from the Mahabharata and they identify with their favourite heroes and heroines.
There is not just one single reading of the Mahabharata. Every region has its own text and its own tradition of interpretation. Throughout India villages and towns claim that the stories took place in that particular location. Every region also has its own favourite characters, who have been given divine status in some places. Draupadi is an important goddess in Tamil Nadu.