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Sanskrit Poetry
Updated: 1 week 6 days ago

An Award from the President’s Office

Sat, 09/24/2016 - 07:30

Dr Shankar, Rasala’s General Editor, is one of those unassuming geniuses who quietly do some of the best work in their field.  Most of us who know him quickly realise just how talented he is as a Sanskritist.  Sanskrit poetry is complex, dense, rigidly structured and requires a knowledge of all kinds of topics that would overwhelm even University Challenge champions, but to Dr Shankar it comes as easily and naturally as a mother tongue.

It is then a great happiness that his talent has now been recognised at the national level with the Maharshi Badrayan Vyas Samman award, announced by the President on Independence Day.  Press release here.

Congratulations Dr Shankar, it really couldn’t have been better deserved.

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Darpa Dalana: Pre Orders

Wed, 05/04/2016 - 12:24

As India gasps for breath under the stifling heat of both the summer and fiery politics, it is perhaps an appropriate time to dive into the refreshing reality of Kṣemendra’s Darpa Dalana. The Darpa Dalana, or The Ending of Arrogance, takes no prisoners as its author, a controversial and provocative satirist from 11th century Kashmir, exposes and demolishes all types of human failings. This edition, Rasāla’s latest book, includes the original Sanskrit text alongside a fluent part-prose, part-verse translation by the well known career diplomat turned translator, A.N.D. Haksar.

More details about the Darpa Dalana can be found on here.

As with Translating The Divine Woman, we are using a print-on-demand model. This does make things a bit more expensive so for you our faithful followers we would like to once again offer a discounted pre-order price of Rs 270 or £8. The list price thereafter will be Rs 350 or £10. If you would like to pre-order one of these books at the lower price, please send an email to venetia@rasalabooks.com by 10th May with the postal address to which you would like it sent.

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Darpa Dalana: Ladies in Love

Thu, 03/24/2016 - 11:24

The five and sixth chapters of the Darpa Dalana deal with pride in heroism and charity respectively. The fifth chapter tells the story of a mighty and proud king who finally finds his match in battle in a pair of sages, while in the sixth we are introduced to the famously generous Yudhiṣṭhira and the golden mongoose to demonstrate that giving should be measured by intentions rather than gems.

Here is a verse from the latter:

प्राप्तुं स्वर्गवराङ्गनास्तनतटस्पर्शातिरिक्तं सुखं

दत्तो मेरुरपि प्रयाति तृणतामात्मोपकारेच्छया ।

आपन्नार्तिविलोकने करुणया श्रद्धासुधापूरितं

सत्त्वोत्साहसमन्वितं तृणमपि त्रैलोक्यदानाधिकम् ॥ २७ ॥

For a gift made for one’s own benefit,

in order to obtain

pleasures to top even those of caressing

the breasts of ladies in paradise,

though as great as Meru’s mountain,

is worth no more than a blade of grass.

But a blade of grass given gladly

with compassion, faith, and the best of intentions,

at the sight of others’ sufferings,

is greater than the gifting of the triple world.

In the seventh, and final chapter, Kṣemendra moves into another gear. Suddenly, we have left behind the hard-hitting but spartan didacticism that prevailed in the previous chapters and we find ourselves in the realm of ornamental kāvya, with Śiva and Pārvatī high up in the Himalayas. The longer metre and flowery language, replete with kavi samaya (the poetic conventions that mark the magical world of kāvya apart from reality), do not though lessen the bite with which Kṣemendra satirises his prey – here sages who have spent thousands of years mortifying their bodies to attain liberation, unsuccessfully.

Śiva, who is the undisputed master of tapas or austerities, demonstrates to Pārvatī that the reason the sages are still struggling is because they have not yet cleansed themselves of desire and hatred. To do this, he assumes the form of a ravishingly beautiful young man, and, strolling into the ashram, brings the sages’ wives to their knees:

तासां तदालोकननिर्निमेषा दृष्टिः परं कर्णपथप्रविष्टा ।

उत्सृष्टलज्जाविपुलाभिलाषादसूचयन्मुग्धमृगीविलासम् ॥ ४६ ॥

तासां तदर्चारभसोत्थितानां स्रस्तांशुकोत्कम्पिघनस्तनीनाम् ।

नवेन कामेन खलीकृतानां जृम्भाभवोऽभूद्भुजयोर्विलासः ॥ ४७ ॥

As [the sages’ wives] gazed unblinking at him – all shame forsaken in the intensity of their desire – their eyes grew large like those of beautiful does, tapering at the edge to their very ears. They scampered up to welcome him, breasts trembling, veils slipping. Dizzy with a passion they had never before experienced, they started to yawn and stretch.

The poet then turns our gaze to the sages, who are apoplectic, and proceeds to describe their furious – and amusing reaction – to the god’s arrival. Happily for them, at Pārvatī‘s request Śiva removes their delusions. Nevertheless, Kṣemendra has made his point:

प्रशान्तोऽन्तस्तृष्णाविषमपरितापः शमजलै–

रशेषः सन्तोषामृतविसरपानेन वपुषः ।

असङ्गः सम्भोगः कमलदलकीलालतुलया

भवारण्ये पुंसां परहितमुदारं खलु तपः ॥ ७३ ॥

Penance calms the heat of inner craving

with the water of tranquility,

and the body with endless draughts

of the nectar of contentment.

One can enjoy without getting attached

like the drop of water on the lotus leaf.

In this wilderness called life, though,

penance is great only when it serves others.


This is the last post in the series on the Darpa Dalana. To learn more about the Rasāla edition, and/or to purchase a copy of the print or eBook please click here. To read the previous posts, please click here.

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Darpa Dalana: Fair and Lotus

Thu, 03/17/2016 - 11:24

The fourth chapter of the Darpa Dalana satirises the pride people take in their physical appearance and contains plenty of salutary lessons for today’s beauty-obsessed world. The poet intersperses the tale of this chapter with some appropriately delicate stanzas. Here is the opening verse:

पद्मोपमानां दिनसुन्दराणां कोऽयं नृणामस्थिररूपदर्पः ।

रूपेण कान्तिः क्षणिकैव येषां हारिद्ररागेण यथांशुकानाम् ॥ १ ॥

What makes people arrogant

with beauty? It is transient.

Men are like lotuses which stay

looking good for just a day.

Beauty’s glow is for a moment,
as turmeric dye upon a garment.

And towards the end, Kṣemendra further elaborates this idea of human beauty being like the lotus:

प्रातर्बालतरोऽथ कुड्मलतया कान्ताकुचाभः शनै–

र्हेलाहासविकाससुन्दररुचिः सम्पूर्णकोषस्ततः ।

पश्चान्म्लानवपुर्विलोलशिथिलः पद्मः प्रकीर्णेऽनिलै–

स्तस्मिन्नेव दिने स पङ्ककलिलक्लिन्नस्तटे शुष्यति ॥ ७३ ॥

A tender bud at dawn, the lotus resembles a girl’s breast,

it blossoms further as if smiling in the full bloom of youth;

then it begins to fade, trembling unsteady in the breeze,

only to lie sodden with mire, withering on the bank – all in one day.


This is the fourth post in the series on the Darpa Dalana. To learn more about the Rasāla edition, and/or to purchase a copy of the print or eBook please click here. To read the previous posts, please click here.

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Darpa Dalana: Poets as Pimps

Thu, 03/10/2016 - 17:22

Chapter three of the Darpa Dalana – on learning and knowledge – is quite close to home for Kṣemendra, a poet, writer and scholar par excellence himself. Nevertheless, he dives straight in:

कविभिर्नृपसेवासु चित्रालङ्कारहारिणी ।

वाणी वेश्येव लोभेन परोपकरणीकृता ॥ १० ॥

वादिभिः कलहोदर्कतर्कसम्पर्ककर्कशा ।

वाणी क्रकचधारेव धर्ममूले निपातिता ॥ ११ ॥

साधुतेजोवधायैव तार्किकैः कर्कशीकृता ।

वाणी विवादिभिः क्रूरैः सौनिकैरिव कर्तरी ॥ १२ ॥

Poets are like greedy pimps that prostitute the muse of language – decking her up with flourishes and tropes and reducing her to a means for their patrons’gratification. In the hands of debators, the muse of oratory turns into a sawblade, whetted on the grindstone of polemic, that strikes at the very root of dharma. Arguing logicians sharpen their words like the cruel butcher’s cleaver to intimidate the innocent.

In the course of this chapter, Kṣemendra has Indra railing against various perversions of learning almost all of which we immediately recognise. Here is one on plagiarism:

परसूक्तापहारेण स्वसुभाषितवादिना ।

उत्कर्षः ख्याप्यते यस्याः किं तया चौरविद्यया ॥ ३९ ॥

‘That which asserts its excellence

by stealing others’ compositions,

and proclaiming them as one’s own;

what is such learning, but plain theft?’

The long story that is narrated exposes the folly of not one but five learned scholars in a kind of internecine domino effect, warning the reader that learning without the attendant maturity of thought and feeling is worthless.


This is the third post in the series on the Darpa Dalana. To learn more about the Rasāla edition, and/or to purchase a copy of the print or eBook please click here. To read the previous posts, please click here.

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Darpa Dalana: Money, Money, Money

Thu, 03/03/2016 - 11:21

In the course of a long lecture delivered by a noble-hearted wife to her miserly husband in the Darpa Dalana‘s second chapter on wealth, this verse stands out as particularly relevant to our times:

प्रभूतलाभलोभेन प्रयुक्तार्थस्य सर्वतः ।

भूर्जदृष्टेन तुष्टस्य नष्टबुद्धेर्धनेन किम् ॥ ४४ ॥

‘What is it for one who has

lost his mind, spent all his money

out of greed for some great profit,

and now just has a piece of paper

for his satisfaction?’

The miser soon dies – due to lack of medical attention (he didn’t want to waste money) – and Kṣemendra takes a wicked pleasure in describing him reborn as a unfortunate wretch:

अन्धः कुब्जः कृशः खञ्जः कुष्ठी स्थूलगलग्रहः ।

समूह इव दुःखानां स तस्यास्तनयोऽभवत् ॥ ७७ ॥

A catalogue of miseries, he was a blind, scrawny, leprous, lame dwarf with a fat growth on his neck.

This boy ironically tries to beg from the deceased miser’s house and is beaten away from the door at the instruction of Candana, the miser’s son. Buddha then arrives to put him out of his misery, and offer Candana, and us, some salutary advice:

दत्तं न वित्तं करुणानिमित्तं लोभप्रवृत्तं कृतमेव चित्तम् ।

यैः सञ्चयोत्साहरसैः प्रनृत्तं शोचन्ति ते पातकमात्मवृत्तम् ॥ १११ ॥

‘Those who immerse their mind in greed,

do not share their wealth, have no compassion,

are only moved by making money

at which they dance joyfully –

they come to regret their lives as downfall beckons.’


This is the second post in the series on the Darpa Dalana. To learn more about the Rasāla edition, and/or to purchase a copy of the print or eBook please click here. To read the previous posts, please click here.

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Darpa Dalana: Introduction

Fri, 02/26/2016 - 11:20

Our next few blog posts aim to introduce the Darpa Dalana, a celebrated and fascinating poem on human pride in its manifold forms which will be published by Rasāla later this year.

The Darpa Dalana is an unusual poetic work in classical Sanskrit from 11th century Kashmir composed by Kṣemendra, a clever satirist whose biting wit has captured the attention of many a modern reader. The poem’s 587 verses are spread over seven sets of vicāras or thoughts. These dwell on the main causes of man’s arrogance: family, wealth, learning, beauty, power, charity and sanctimony. All need to be understood and discarded for a better life. This translation – by the career diplomat A.N.D.Haksar, ten of whose previous translations from Sanskrit literature have been published as Penguin Classics – is perhaps the first time the work has been rendered in full into English.

The first chapter narrates the story of Tejonidhi, an arrogant and cruel Brahmin who learns – from a she-mule – that he is in fact the bastard son of a low-caste tailor who seduced his young mother when her husband was busy with some religious observance.

Harsh words about womenkind may ruffle more than a few feathers, as these spoken by Tejonidhi’s mother herself as a prelude to her explanation of how her son was conceived:

देहप्रदाः प्राणहरा नराणां भीरुस्वभावाः प्रविशन्ति वह्निम् ।

क्रूराः परं पल्लवपेशलाङ्ग्यो मुग्धा विदग्धानपि वञ्चयन्ति ॥ ६६ ॥

‘[Women] give man birth,

but take away his life.

Their nature is timid,

but they will enter a fire.

Soft of limb,

they hurt cruelly.

Though artless

they deceive even the wise.’

Still, feminists may rest assured that it is Tejonidhi himself who comes off the worst.

As with subsequent vicāras, Kṣemendra ends this chapter with sage words of advice:

सम्मोहपातालविशालसर्पस्तस्मान्न कार्यः कुलजातिदर्पः ।

शमक्षमादानदयाश्रयाणां शीलं विशालं कुलमामनन्ति ॥ ८१ ॥

Do not obsess over a family name,

it is but a snake slithering in empty bluster’s morass.

Restraint, forgiveness, generosity, compassion,

these are the hallmarks of real class.


This is the first post in the series on the Darpa Dalana. To learn more about the Rasāla edition, and/or to purchase a copy of the print or eBook please click here.

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Translating The Divine Woman Now Out

Thu, 02/18/2016 - 16:09

After a long wait and much patience on behalf of our new print partner Pothi.com as we worked to get the book looking just so, we have just received a large box-ful of Translating The Divine Woman.  Those of you who have already placed pre-orders should get your copies soon; we do hope you enjoy it.

The book is also up on Flipkart, Pothi.com and Amazon’s worldwide sites, including Amazon India.

For more details about the book and how to buy it, please visit the book page here.

The eBook is also almost ready. We’ll be in touch with details about that in due course.

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Pre-Orders for Translating The Divine Woman

Sun, 01/10/2016 - 17:29

Those of you who have been following this blog faithfully need no introduction to Rasala’s latest volume, Translating The Divine Woman.  For those who want a little background, here we go.

Translating The Divine Woman is now ready and this time, thinking of all those trees, we are trying a new print-on-demand model where we print each book as it is ordered. This will make things a bit more expensive so the book will be priced at Rs 350 or £10. We will though be doing an initial short print-run of 100 or so for which we can offer a significantly lower price of Rs 270 or £8 for those that order in advance. If you would like to pre-order one of these books at the lower price, please send an email to venetia@rasalabooks.com by 19th January with the postal address to which you would like it sent. .

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Syamala Dandaka: The Fifth Quarter

Tue, 12/29/2015 - 19:19

After the sensuous description of the first three parts, the poem changes both in format and topic. The goddess is now described in terms of her divine paraphernalia and attendants, and the esteem and love with which she is held by many familiar characters from Sanskrit kāvya and lore.

The fifth part has a musical prose poetry description of the parrot Śyāmalā is so fond of:

सर्वविद्याविशेषात्मकं चाटुगाथासमुच्चारणं कण्ठमूलोल्लसद्वर्णराजित्रयं कोमलश्यामलोदारपक्षद्वयं तुण्डशोभातिदूरीभवत्किंशुकं तं शुकं लालयन्ती परिक्रीडसे ।


blithely caressing the parrot,

spirit of cognizance,

enfolded in darkling wings of down,

with tri-coloured neck of sparkling sheen,

with shimmering beak surpassing the crimson of kiṃśuka flowers,

beguiling the world in rapturous song.

The work ends with powerful echoing invocations to the mighty goddess that linger in the mind’s ear long after you have closed the book.



This is the third and final post in the series on Śyāmalā Daṇḍaka. To learn more about the Rasāla edition, and/or to purchase a copy of the print or eBook, please click here.

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Syamala Dandaka: Top to Toe

Tue, 12/22/2015 - 19:17

The first three parts of the daṇḍaka (by part we are referring to each of the five lines, or quarters, of the huge single verse that is the daṇḍaka) describe the goddess from head to toe. We start with her lustrous hair, and working our way along her nose ring, lips, breasts, bangles and toe nails, we end with her feet, where we find another contender for the longest word ever written. Here the translators have created a mirror image of the Sanskrit, starting with the goddess’ lotus feet which seem to be stained with lac, and ending with the assembled gods and the explanation for that appearance of lac – as the gods bend in obeisance before her, the rubies in their crowns cast a reddish light upon her feet.




उमे ॥

Your lotus feet seem dyed in virgin tints of luxuriant lac,

as crimson as the youthful sun,

on rinsing in the radiance of rubied crowns

gracing the bowèd heads of a myriad gods:

the lord of devas

the lord of fortune

the lord of spirits

the lord of water

the lord of Vāṇi

the netherworlded lord

the lord of daityas

the lord of yakṣas*

Vāyu and Agni;

O woman,

bearing the beautiful lotus,


*The gods listed are Indra, Viṣṇu, Śiva, Varuṇa, Brahmā, Yama, Nirṛti and Kubera.



This is the second post in the series on Śyāmalā Daṇḍaka. To learn more about the Rasāla edition, and/or to purchase a copy of the print or eBook, please click here.

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Syamala Dandaka: Introduction

Tue, 12/15/2015 - 11:26

Śyāmalā Daṇḍaka is one of those lyrical Sanskrit texts which, despite its mainstream popularity in India, has slipped beneath the literary radar. Unlike the wonderfully obscure works Rasāla normally publishes, Śyāmalā Daṇḍaka tallies up almost 3,000 hits on youtube and is attributed to the legendary Kālidāsa, undisputed emperor of Sanskrit poetry. And yet, like our previous volumes, this lyrical poem is barely accessible to the English reader. Amid the few published literal translations, and the many online versions, there is nothing – that we are able to find at least – that conveys the beautiful phonology of the poem in verse form.

Usha Kishore, a much-published poet of Indian origin living in the UK, and her uncle, M Sambasivan, a priest, Sanskritist and neurosurgeon, teamed up to try and capture the beauty of the poem in English. The result of their labours over a good three years will soon be out in print in Rasala’s newest volume, Śyāmalā Daṇḍaka: Translating The Divine Woman.

In the next few blog posts, we give our readers a sneak peak of this upcoming volume, complete with recordings of both the English and Sanskrit by Usha herself.

The opening of the daṇḍaka sets the bouncy rhythm for the next three sections with a long initial phrase (yes that’s all one compound word, and it is a stunning example of what you can do with compounds in Sanskrit – start at the end, in the kadamba forests where the goddess is found, and work your way back, zooming out through the bilva woods to the island they rest upon to the sea that surrounds it) followed by two shorter ones:



सर्वलोकप्रिये ।

doting denizen of the kadamba groves,

akin to kalpa trees,

amidst a bilva wood,

atop a gemstone isle rising from the ambrosial sea;

beloved of the hide-clad Śiva,

beloved of the world.



This is the first post in the series on Śyāmalā Daṇḍaka. To learn more about the Rasāla edition, and/or to purchase a copy of the print or eBook, please click here.

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The Conquest of Madhura Now on Amazon

Fri, 09/19/2014 - 17:54

My husband and I recently celebrated our son’s first birthday and, not coincidentally, it’s been over a year since you last heard from us here at Rasāla. Motherhood and laptops don’t get on that well together, although you’ll be pleased to hear that Utpalaksha has already tried his hand at editorial mark-up (or perhaps freehand scribbling would be a better term) on the upcoming Darpa Dalana.

We don’t have a verse of the week for you yet I’m afraid, but we do have some good news for our customers who are based outside India.  Rasāla’s The Conquest of Madhurā: Gaṅgādevī’s Madhurā Vijaya is now available on Amazon.com, and, thanks to a new policy, the Amazon version uses the same attractive matt finish that we use for our India-printed books.  The Message of The Koel, which is already on Amazon.com, now also has that same matt cover rather than the glossy one we had to use earlier.

You are of course still welcome to order directly through Rasāla – and we prefer it that way because it’s the only way we get to meet, albeit virtually, our readers – but for those who like the one-click ease of Amazon, please go ahead:

The Conquest of Madhurā

The Message of The Koel

(As before, India-based readers can buy our books on Amazon.in as well as Flipkart and other Indian ebookshops.)

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Śabdālaṃkāra 3: Razing and Wrecking and Routing

Tue, 05/14/2013 - 15:47

The two main figures of sound in Sanskrit poetry are anuprāsa and yamaka. Anuprāsa is normally translated as ‘alliteration’ but while it includes alliteration it is not limited to it. Anuprāsa is any repeated sound, most normally that formed by a consonant, within a verse or section of a verse. This could be a plethora of ‘t’-starting words, which would indeed be alliteration, but it could also refer to a string of ‘v’s found at the start, middle and end of various words.

The example below – the famous opening verse of Appayya Dīkṣita’s Kuvalayānanda in praise of Gaurī or Pārvatī - repeats the letter ‘r’ throughout, but even more conspicuous are the multiple ‘rī’ sounds (amarīkabarī etc). These words are also linked by other aspects such as their grammatical formation and syllable count.


भ्रमरीमुखरीकृतम् ।

दूरीकरोतु दुरितं

गौरीचरणपङ्कजम् ॥

Listen to this verse

In translating this, we have tried to recreate something of the rhythm and patterns of the original as well as the repeated sounds.

Singing with bees

thronging the locks

decking the girls

bowing before her,

razing and wrecking and routing all evil -

thus may Gaurī’s lotus feet ever be.


First verse of Appayya Dīkṣita’s Kuvalayānanda

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A New Book and A New Year

Thu, 04/11/2013 - 09:01

Today is Yugādī- the beginning (ā) of a new age (yuga), although in its more popular spelling the festival has lost the ‘y’ to become the far less pronounciation-friendly, for non-Indians at least, Ugadi. It is at any rate a suitably auspicious day to celebrate the official release of Rasāla’s second book, The Conquest of Madhurā, a rare 14th century Sanskrit poem by – believe it or not, and several scholars didn’t when it was discovered in 1916 – a woman. 

Faithful readers of the Rasāla Verse of the Week, as doubtless all of you are, will not need any further introduction to the poem. For more details about the Rasāla edition, click here (and note that if you buy the print book before 1st June 2013, you are entitled to a free copy of the eBook).

We also wanted to let you know that there are several forthcoming titles to look forward to, including:

  • a sonorous rendition of two famous hymns - the Śyāmalā Daṇḍaka and the Āryā Śataka – by award-winning poet Usha Kishore and neurosurgeon-cum-Sanskritist M Sambasivan
  • a translation of the viciously funny Darpa Dalana of Kashmir’s 11th century master-satirist, Kṣemendra, by diplomat-turned-translator AND Haksar
  • as well as of course the first Rasāla anthology – 108 of Sanskrit’s most beautiful verses on the night and her myriad charms

We will though have to ask you to be patient because Rasala will be taking an extended break while Venetia goes on maternity leave.  In the meantime, please do dig into The Conquest of Madhurā (and The Message of The Koel if you haven’t already). Both are available in print and eBook format.  And we will endeavour to keep dispatching verses of the week to you all as often as possible – to those who have noticed that the Rasāla Verse of the Week has become slightly erratic recently, sorry – but probably more like once a month than once a week.

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Shadbalamkara 2: Hindoos and Their Hookahs

Thu, 03/28/2013 - 07:35

We continue the śabdālaṃkāra series this week with the following verse taken from the Naiṣadhīyacarita of Śrīharṣa. This verse comes right at the end of the lengthy mahākāvya, in a canto which describes, in over 150 verses, the night as enjoyed by the hero and heroine. As we saw with Gaṅgādevī’s rich evocation of the night in a similar setting, Śrīharṣa puts paid to the notion that sound trickery must come at the expense of aesthetic beauty.

But first the verse:


कलयसिकृशतनु नगगनतटमनु।



22.146 Naiṣadhīyacarita of Śrīharṣa

Listen to this verse

The poet has contrived to make every single syllable in the verse laghu or light, so that the metrical pattern, were we to scan this, would be an unbroken line of 16 ‘U’s. This is achieved chiefly by using short vowels, as well as by ensuring that there are no situations by which a laghu becomes a guru (eg: he never uses two or more consonants in a row here, bar the ‘pr‘ of prati which nevertheless doesn’t convert the prior vowel into a guru or heavy syllable).

As English verse scans based on stress rather than on short and long syllables – as Sanskrit, Latin and Greek verse does – it is not possible to recreate this effect metrically in English. Nor indeed is there such a clearcut distinction in English between short and long vowels – which is ordinarily the chief determinant of whether a syllable is short or long. To most native speakers in England at least, the idea of short and long vowels probably begins and ends with the short ‘a’s of northerners versus those of their posher counterparts down south. In fact, as students of English phonetics will know, there is much more to it than the way in which ‘grass’ is pronounced. Nevertheless, vowel length is not as well defined as it is in the classical languages. Take the following three words:




The double ‘o’ in all might make you assume that these are long vowels, but this being English it is not of course that logical. The first is really a short ‘u’ sound. The second a sort of open-ended ‘u’. And the third could be represented by the long ‘ū’ of Sanskrit. [As an interesting but tangential aside, the 'oo' of 19th century treatises entitled 'Being a Study on Hindoos and their Hookahs in Benkipoor' and the such represents in most cases the Indian short 'u'.] Being wholly unqualified to discuss English vowel length in any greater detail, suffice it to say that we decided not to attempt an all-short-vowel translation but instead tried to mimic the effect with a translation that uses only single-syllable words.

My love so slim,

see you not how the tens on tens of stars glow white in the sky,

each as it were a hole –

cut by the sharp hoof of a steed of the sun –

full to the brim

as moon juice drips down

night on night?

The idea of classifying words based on the amount of syllables they have is more native to English than that of short and long vowels or syllable length in metre, but does this do justice to the sound effect of the original? We would welcome your thoughts on how else this all-short-syllable verse could be represented in English, and indeed on any of the other points raised here.

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Trawittering – Sound Play in Sanskrit

Sat, 03/16/2013 - 18:06

तारतारतरैरेतैरुत्तरोत्तरतो रुतैः ।

रतार्त्ता तित्तिरी रौति तीरे तीरे तरौ तरौ ॥

listen to this verse

Before we come to the translation(s) of this verse, you’ve probably noticed something slightly unusual about it – a predominance of ‘t’s and ‘r’s. These are in fact the only two consonants used, alongside an assortment of vowels. In Sanskrit such a verse is called a dvyakṣarī – literally a ‘two-letter’ verse. There are single-consonant verses – ekākṣarīs – and similarly verses that deliberately use only three or four consonants (after that it becomes far too easy…). Such verses are prized more for their sound and their ability to impress the literati than for their poetic sentiment. Indeed often the meaing is secondary, if not inconsequential.

Accordingly a translation of the meaning alone does little to convey the nature of the original:

Wracked with love, the partridge laments upon every river bank and every tree, his cries growing shriller with each passing moment.

Instead we need to try and convey something of the form – as well as the meaning – in English. Re-creating the two-consonant-only effect though in a language such as English is not easy.

We managed a four-consonant-only translation:

A tittiri, in Eros’ snare, tires not

as it tunes its strain.

On trees it rests, on straits nearest,

to raise its notes sans restraint.

But we happily throw down the gauntlet to Rasāla’s readers – can anyone render this verse using only two, or even three, consonants in English or in any other language?

In fact, conveying such sound play is not always best achieved by mimicking in English the original effect in Sanskrit. At times, using a sound device native to English more effectively communicates the impact the original would have had on the listener. Thus for the verse in question we could try something like alliteration:

Trawit trawit,

trills the twitterer tragic-struck,


tree after tree

track after track.

So one Sanskrit verse and three translations – none of them wholly conveying the original. Translating such śabdālaṃkāra or sound play is challenging and very often translators don’t even attempt it – which is a great pity we feel.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be demonstrating some of the different sound devices Sanskrit poets use and experimenting with different translation techniques. We’d love to make this series as interactive as possible, so please do send in your thoughts, translations and feedback at any point – use the comment button or write to us at venetia@rasalabooks.com

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Poetry in the Mahabharata

Thu, 03/07/2013 - 17:40

The Mahābhārata is famed for many things, but rarely for its lyricism. Nevertheless, as this verse adequately illustrates, there is room in this capacious epic for poetry too. Here Vyāsa plays on two words, kumbha (an elephant’s temple) and kuca (a woman’s breast), whose similarity in sound is matched by the similarity in shape their physical forms take, to bring out the sad incongruence of elegantly dressed young men being embraced by death rather than by their lovers.





Youthful warriors,

decked out in their finest earrings,

cut each other to pieces with sharp arrows

and fell prey to sleep

clasping the rounded temples of their elephants

as though cradling the rounded breasts of their wives.

7.159.4 Mahābhārata

Thanks to Chris Gibbons at the University of Queensland for spotting and sending us this verse.


Kumbha, which can also mean a water pitcher and thus by extension a pitcher-shaped breast, is exploited to full effect in battle scenes such as these by later poets, including Gaṅgādevī in her Madhurā Vijaya (4.61):

वीराः कुञ्जरकुम्भेषु शायिनः शत्रुसायकैः ।

प्राबुध्यन्त सुरस्त्रीणां कुचकुम्भेषु तत्क्षणात् ॥

Brave soldiers

put to sleep by the shafts of their foes

upon pillows formed of elephants’ temples,

awoke the next moment

upon pillows formed of apsarases’ breasts.*

*Warriors killed fighting heroically in battle are fast-tracked straight to heaven.

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Madhura Vijaya: Battle

Thu, 02/28/2013 - 10:01

Our final verse from the Madhurā Vijaya is taken from the climactic battle scene between King Kampa and the Sultan in Madurai. The few verses leading into the duel are awash with a mixture of poetic surrealism and bloody gore. Princess she may be, but Gaṅgādevī doesn’t baulk at describing the sound of iron striking bone, or the way in which a neck buckles and sinks into the shoulders as a hammer lands upon the crown of a head.

In this particular verse, she plays on rākṣasastaste for blood, as well as the fact that elephant’s temples are one of the several places where pearls are found.

निशाचराः केचन कुञ्जराणां

कुम्भस्थलान्निःसृतमास्रपूरम् ।

निष्ठ्यूतमुक्तामणयः सहर्षं

चुचूषुरुत्पुष्करनालदण्डैः ॥ (उपजातिः)

Listen to this verse

A rabble of night-roaming rākṣasas,

inverting elephant trunks to make straws,

slurped with satisfied burps

the blood streaming from the beasts’ temples,

spitting out the pearls.

9.6 Gaṅgādevī’s Madhurā Vijaya

The Rasāla edition of this poem, The Conquest of Madhurā: Gaṅgādevī’s Madhurā Vijaya, is now available. The edition consists of a selection of 200-odd verses from the 500 or so extant verses of the original, alongside a new translation by Shankar Rajaraman and Venetia Kotamraju. The eBook also includes audio versions of several verses. Click here for more details.

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Madhura Vijaya: Srirangam

Fri, 02/15/2013 - 10:00

We have all too little of the eighth canto of the Madhurā Vijaya – like the final canto our text starts and finishes in medias res – and it is hard to know exactly who it is that narrates to King Kampa the terrible situation that has befallen the Persian-occupied South. In the verse below, this mysterious female messenger tells the King the state of affairs in Srirangam, an important Vaishnavite shrine in Tamil Nadu. The Ranganathar Swamy Temple was ransacked more than once by the invaders, and there are various accounts of devotees’ heroic efforts to safeguard the god’s idol; here it is Śeṣa himself, upon whom Viṣṇu rests, who protects his lord.


हरिमुद्वेजयतीति जातभीतिः ।

पतितं मुहुरिष्टकानिकायं

फणचक्रेण निवारयत्यहीन्द्रः ॥ (औपच्छन्दसिकम्)

‘In Śrīraṅga,

Śeṣa, King of Snakes,

fearing lest Viṣṇu his master

be rudely awoken from meditative slumber,

shields him from the broken bricks that keep falling

with his thousand-fold hoods.

8.2 Gaṅgādevī’s Madhurā Vijaya

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