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 (amarī…kabarī etc). These words are also linked by other aspects such as their grammatical formation and syllable count.
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
Today is Yugādī- the beginning (ādī) 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:
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.
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:
22.146 Naiṣadhīyacarita of Śrīharṣa
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.
तारतारतरैरेतैरुत्तरोत्तरतो रुतैः ।
रतार्त्ता तित्तिरी रौति तीरे तीरे तरौ तरौ ॥
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:
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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.
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 ॥
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.
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 rākṣasas‘ taste for blood, as well as the fact that elephant’s temples are one of the several places where pearls are found.
निशाचराः केचन कुञ्जराणां
चुचूषुरुत्पुष्करनालदण्डैः ॥ (उपजातिः)
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.
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 ।
फणचक्रेण निवारयत्यहीन्द्रः ॥ (औपच्छन्दसिकम्)
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
In this, the second verse from the description of the night, the poetess plays on the idea that bees are often seen circling a lotus flower at duskvainly essaying an entry – the lotus closes as the sun sets. That the lotus is one of Lakṣmī’s chosen abodes is well known.
नलिनं मन्दिरमिन्दिरास्पदम् ।
परिपालयति स्म निक्वणन्
परितो यामिकवन्मधुव्रतः ॥ (वियोगिनी)
Whistling all the while,
like a sentry on night-watch,
patrolled the lotus flower -
the tower which was Lakṣmī’s bower* -
as each petal-door was pulled to.
*Lakṣmī here is both the goddess and wealth.
7.17 Gaṅgādevī’s Madhurā Vijaya
The next two verses of the week are taken from what is probably the most beautiful canto of the entire poem, the seventh, in which there is a leisurely description of the night – from the setting of the sun to the rising of the moon. The last few verses are delivered, at the King’s request, by Gaṅgādevī herself, but her words are sadly curtailed by the loss of the last portion of this canto.
It is in this canto that Gaṅgādevī’s skill at composing verse where the beauty of the imagery is perfectly complemented by the beauty of the sound is demonstrated to its fullest.
विलुठद्वीचिषु बिम्बमम्बुधेः ।
रसनाभिर्लिलिहुर्मुहुर्मुहुः ॥ (वियोगिनी)
As the ray-rich sun’s radiance-robbed disc
wobbled from wave to wave,
fish fancied it a piece of meat,
licking at it with flicking tongues.
7.13 Gaṅgādevī’s Madhurā Vijaya
Yamaka is a favourite sound-device of Sanskrit poets, and is indeed perhaps found only in Sanskrit poetry. The word literally means ‘twin’ or ‘twofold’ because the device depends upon the repetition of a particular pattern of syllables with an identical sound but a different meaning. Although this pattern of syllables is impervious to word boundaries, the fact that each letter in Sanskrit can only be pronounced one way means that the sound remains identical. It should become clearer how different this is to the case in English with a simple example:
He rears a reindeer.
Her ears are inflamed.
Although the first 12 letters in both the sentences (h-e-r-e-a-r-s-a-r-e-i-n) are the same and arranged in exactly the same order, there is no similarity in sound because of the oddities of English pronounciation. In addition, because the pattern crosses word boundaries, it is almost undetectable even to the reader who sees rather than hears the verse. Were the letters to be written without any spaces, of course, the same reader would instantly see the repetitive pattern.
This week’s verse, taken from King Kampa’s frolics in the lake with his wives, demonstrates yamaka at the end of the first and second pādas and the third and fourth: ‘na vāritābhih…na vāri tābhiḥ‘ and ‘-lāmacarcikābhiḥ…. -lāmacarcikābhiḥ‘. Here the yamaka pays no heed to word boundaries, and single-syllable, meaningless parts of words – such as ‘na‘ in the first pāda or ‘lāma‘ in the third – are pressed into service. Nevertheless, the sound effect is clearly heard here. Andbecause of Sanskrit’s fondness for compounding and the joining of words through sandhi, such patterns are often easy for the silent reader too to spot.
अपि दयिततमेन वारिताभि-
र्विहृतिरसान्महिलामचर्चिकाभिः ॥ (पुष्पिताग्रा)
Though many-a-time did their beloved ask,
they left not their much-loved bask,
their tilaka and sandal paste in every way faded,
those beautiful wives of his in no way jaded.
6.65 Gaṅgādevī’s Madhurā Vijaya
This week’s verse comes from the last part of the cycle of seasons, the description of Vasanta.
सुतनवः फलकेषु मधूत्सवे
रतिपतिं परिलेखितुमुद्यताः ।
हरिहरात्मजमेव समालिखन् ॥(द्रुतविलम्बितम्)
In the festival of Vasanta,
his pretty wives attempted to paint Rati’s prince
upon their picture boards,
but found themselves drawing the King
for it was he who dwelt eternally in their hearts.*
5.71 Gaṅgādevī’s Madhurā Vijaya
PS: We will be at the Bangalore literary weekend, Lekhana, this weekend. Our very own general editor, Shankar Rajaraman, is on the translating poetry panel at 10:30am on Saturday so please do come and join in the discussion. More details at the Lekhana page on Facebook.
Gaṅgādevī devotes most of the fifth canto to an elaborate description of each of the six seasons of the year, starting with Grīṣma (summer) and ending with Vasanta (spring). This cycle of seasons, ṛtuvarṇana, is a must-have for any mahākāvya worth its salt. Although the poetess remains well within the bounds of the detailed conventions related to this particular trope, she nevertheless continually surprises us with fresh and unusual images, such as in this verse on Śarad (autumn):
शरदकर्षदहर्पतिदर्पणम् ॥ (द्रुतविलम्बितम्)
Śarad drew her mirror,
the irridescent sun,
out of a clutch made of clouds,
clearly eager to admire herself
as the lotuses of her eyes burst into bloom.
5.46 Gaṅgādevī’s Madhurā Vijaya
After the bloody business of the first battle, we, along with King Kampa, are given a leisurely interlude as he enjoys himself with his many wives in each season of the year, in the garden, in the lake and in the evening. Before plunging into this description, the scene is set at Kampa’s new palace in Kanchipuram – the city he has just conquered – as liege kings come to offer him their obeisance and allegiance:
नरपतेः प्रतिहारमहीं मुहु-
प्रसृमरो मणिरेणुरशोषयत् ॥ (द्रुतविलम्बितम्)
At the threshold to the Prince’s palace,
the jewelled dust billowing forth
as kings jostled,
bracelet brushing against bracelet,
dried up the slush created by the springs of ichor
streaming from war elephants.
5.7 Gaṅgādevī’s Madhurā Vijaya
(We have added the name of the chandas or metre in brackets at the end of the Sanskrit verse for those who would like to know which chandas each verse is set to.)
Verse of the week will return after New Year but in the meantime we thought you might enjoy this.
Gaṅgādevī describes the battle between King Kampa and his adversary Campa, the ruler of Kanchipuram, which is a prequel of sorts to the bigger clash between Kampa’s real target, the Sultan in Madurai. Blood and gore there is aplenty but always with a twist:
आस्रापगासु परितो निःसृतासु सहस्रशः
rivers of blood
rushing forth in a myriad of reds
brimmed with lotuses –
heroes’ heads sliced off by bhalla arrows. 58
4.58 Gaṅgādevī’s Madhurā Vijaya
(Some browsers are not playing the audio properly. If this happens, please download to your system and listen to it in your local music player – iTunes, Windows Media Player etc…)
We just wanted to let you all know that we are now on Amazon which will make things easier for those of you not in India because you won’t have to wait weeks for a book to arrive, and the postage should be less. Here is our first book in America and in the UK and I think the European sites too; our other books will follow when published.
The Message of the Koel is also now available on Kobo, one of the most popular eBook reading apps. I was able to test it out on the iPad last week and it works well, although if you have an iPad (or any other Apple product) I’d still recommend iBooks over Kobo because it everything just works and looks better in iBooks. Just to complicate things, though, you can’t buy our books directly from iBooks due to complex US legal requirements – so you need to buy the eBook from us and then you can very easily load it onto your device.
Thanks and as we are now firmly in the festive season for almost all of our readers we can safely wish you a happy Dasara, Diwali, Eid, Thanksgiving, Christmas and of course New Year.
Upon the birth of the prince, the future King Kampa, nature responds with the celebration warranted for someone who will soon save the world – or southern India at least.
निश्चित्य देशेष्वपि दक्षिणेषु ।
ननर्त हर्षादिव हव्यवाहः ॥
Realising that sacrificial oblations
would soon be offered in the South too –
the fire danced a jig of joy,
weaving his mass of flames into worshipful arcs,
or so it seemed.
2.17 Gaṅgādevī’s Madhurā Vijaya
Gaṅgādevī draws a vivid and fantastic picture of Vijayā, King Kampa’s capital city. What her description of the city lacks in specific historical and geographical detail is more than made up for by the visual images she conjures up. Travellers to Hampi – the UNESCO heritage site where the city once stood – will not find it hard to imagine such scenes as these among the far-flung ruins of the city.
सन्ध्यासु यत्र निर्यान्ति जालेभ्यो धूपराजयः ।
trails of incense smoke would race
out of the city’s windows,
as though they were gangs of darkness
frightened into flight at the sight
of the oil lamps standing guard within.
1.59 Gaṅgādevī’s Madhurā Vijaya
Gaṅgādevī is one of Sanskrit’s rare surviving poetesses. There seem to have been several women poets but most of their work has been lost. Indeed Gaṅgādevī’s Madhurā Vijaya was only discovered in the 1920s and consists of a single, many-holed manuscript. The original editor of the manuscript noted that the poem was so good that several scholars couldn’t accept it had been written by a woman.
Gaṅgādevī was not only a poetess, she was also a queen – the queen of the mighty Vijayanagara empire in the 14th century. Her poem celebrates the victory won by her husband, King Kampa or Kamparaya, over the Sultan of Madurai – the Madhurā of the title. Although she doesn’t shrink from describing the horrors of war, albeit overlaid with the surrealism of kāvya, battle occupies only two of the surviving nine cantos. For the rest, we are invited to admire the city of Vijayā where the mansions reach so high into the sky that the women playing catch in the attics mistake the moon for their pearl-encrusted ball. We follow Kampa right from the womb to his suitably auspicious birth, delightful infancy and handsome adulthood. We accompany the prince as he indulges in the extra-curricular activities enjoined for royals: sampling the delights of each of the six seasons, picking flowers and playing about in water – all in the company of the court’s comeliest women. And, in the most beautiful part of the poem, we are privy to an evening spent with his chief queen, Gaṅgādevī herself. Sadly, just as the moon starts to rise, the evening – for us at least – is abruptly curtailed, the text for that canto long since lost.
One feature of Gaṅgādevī’s poem that immediately strikes the reader – or rather the listener as she writes – is the way in which she plays with sounds. In Sanskrit this kind of poetic device is called śabdālaṃkāra, roughly translated as poetic embellishment wrought by sound, as distinct from arthālaṅkāra which is based on the meaning rather than the sound of words. In English such sound play can be re-created to an extent with devices such as alliteration, assonance and rhyme – and in the translations that follow we have tried to bring this aspect out as much as possible.
Over the next few weeks, we will present a few of the verses from the Madhurā Vijaya to give you a taste of the poem. Rasāla is bringing out a volume of selected verses from the Madhurā Vijaya soon, in print and eBook format. We will keep you posted here but you are also welcome to contact us for more details.
Our first verse, from among the introductory few stanzas of the poem, suggests that Gaṅgādevī was not a proto-feminist…
निर्दोषाप्यगुणा वाणी न विद्वज्जनरञ्जिनी ।
पतिव्रताप्यरूपा स्त्री परिणेत्रे न रोचते ॥
A poem may be sound,
but unless sweet
it will not delight the literati.
A wife may be faithful,
but unless pretty
she will not please her spouse.
1.19 Gaṅgādevī’s Madhurā Vijaya
This final verse in our kavi samaya series imagines how Pārvatī, jealous when Śiva goes to worship Sandhyā, the goddess of evening, expresses her anger within the confines of the ardhanārīśvara (in which Śiva makes up the right hand side and Pārvatī the left – see image above) form that she and her husband assume.
एकं दन्तच्छदस्य स्फुरति जपवशादर्धमन्यत्प्रकोपा-
देकः पाणिः प्रणन्तुं शिरसि कृतपदः क्षेप्तुमन्यस्तमेव ।
एकं ध्यानान्निमीलयत्यपरमविषहं वीक्षितुं चक्षुरित्थं
तुल्यानिच्छापि वामा तनुरवतु स वो यस्य संध्यावसाने ॥
One half of the lips quivers in japa,
the other in anger.
One hand is raised above the head in reverence,
the other to push the first back down.
One eye is closed in meditation,
the other because it cannot bear to look.
May he whose left side matches the right,
as he performs his sandhyā rites.
Verse 70 in the Subhāṣitāvali, attributed to Arbhaka