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Suleiman Charitra and Jatakamala

Thu, 10/20/2016 - 08:01

As well as translating Kṣemendra’s Darpa Dalana for Rasāla recently, A.N.D. Haksar has two two other very disparate translations also out: Suleiman Charitra and Jatakamala. Both, in line with the diplomat-turned-translator’s now trademark style, use a combination of mainly prose with some elegant free verse to recount these poems in wonderfully readable modern English.

Suleiman Charitra of Kalyāṇa Malla is a small Sanskrit work with huge import across cultures. It relates the biblical tale of David’s fascination with, and ultimate seduction of, his general’s wife Bathsheba in the language and context of Sanskrit kāvya.

The story, told fairly economically in the Bible, has many of the elements of classic Sanskrit love poetry. With some imagination and many embellishments by the 16th century poet we soon have all the ingredients necessary: a powerful man burning with desire, a go-between, and a beautiful woman cautious at first but later an equal partner in ‘the battle of love’. The telling is all the poet’s own – from the leaf juice potion used to confound and inflame Bathsheba, to the description of the many positions they tried in their lovemaking ( Kalyāṇa Malla’s other work is a manual on sex) – and much much racier than the original. The beauty of Bathsheba – or Saptasuta as she is called, a rough translation of the name’s Hebrew meaning – follows kāvya conventions: her lips are as red as the bimba, her thighs shapely as the plantain, her waist adorned by the triple wrinkle. Even the distinctly non-erotic episode – in which David is made to see what a crime he has committed by sleeping with his general’s wife and then ensuring the general is killed in battle, and as a result is persuaded to have the first son Bathsheba bears him killed as recompense – is heavily influenced by Sanskrit thought. We thus have David, confronted by his ministers on his joy following his son’s death, expounding on the soul’s immortality, and the unreal nature of birth and death.

As the translator points out in the introduction, this wonderful example of cross-cultural influences deserves much more attention than it has so far attracted. Professor Minkowski, current Boden Professor at Oxford, did talk about it in the Boden lecture of 2006 but that aside this little poem has hardly been noticed. This translation, the first into English, will hopefully change that to some degree, and remind us that the coming together of different cultures can engender wonderfully rich fruit rather than inevitably leading to conflict and destruction.

Jatakamala, first translated by A.N.D. Haksar in 2003 and recently reprinted, could not be more different. This collection of stories about the previous births of the Buddha, composed by Ārya Śūra probably in the 4th century AD, is extremely well known and loved among both Buddhists and others. And this is nīti-kāvya, poetry designed primarily to educate and edify. There are beautiful women to be sure but the Buddha’s previous incarnations never swerve from their upright and moral conduct. Indeed, when the Buddha in one tale is struck with love for a particularly enchanting women who belongs to his minister, he, unlike David, does not yield to his passion, even as the husband entreats his master to take her as his wife.

Here we have a hero who can do no wrong, and whose many deeds – from offering his own body to be eaten to entering hell rather than fail to pay respects to a visitor – are so right that they seem not only impossible to emulate but difficult even to relate to, so far removed are they from normal human experience. And yet most of these stories are still a rip-roaring read. There is a huge variety of lively characters, from a prince who has inherited a taste for human flesh from his lion mother to a chick who refuses the worms his parents bring and prefers a vegetarian diet of leaves. Indeed the Buddha himself appears in many avatāras, including as several animals and also the king of the gods, Śakra. And we travel with him from the royal palace to (many a) hermitage to the edge of the world. In each story, he calmly meets the calamity or challenge before him, and is concerned only with how to help others and follow dharma, even at, in fact often at, the cost of his own life. The tales of the Buddha committing suicide or allowing his body to be trampled to hacked to death in order to feed or help others are famous, and justifiably so; for all the talk of this body being only a vehicle for spiritual pursuit, how many others are so ready to give it up so easily and so joyfully, and in such a painful manner?

The one story though that really touches the heart is that of the prince who is banished from his kingdom because of his great generosity, and happily goes to the forest as a renunciant, followed by his beloved wife and children. Their peace there is destroyed when a Brahmin comes one day and asks the prince for his children, to be servants to the Brahmin’s wife. The prince is upset but doesn’t for a second consider refusing the Brahmin his request, and remains steadfast even as his children – beaten in front of him by their new master – appeal to him for help. Śakra then comes to test him – as he does in many stories – by asking him for his wife, who has by this time returned from gathering fruit to the hermitage to find her children gone. This request too the prince grants.

There are morals aplenty here, as the author points out in the introduction and conclusion of each story, and as reiterated by the Dalai Lama in his preface to the book, but perhaps the greatest power of these tales is their ability to stick with the reader as an ever-ready moral compass beautifully decorated in a rainbow of colours.

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Review: The Seduction of Shiva

Wed, 06/18/2014 - 12:22

The Seduction of Shiva: Tales of Life and Love

Translated from the Sanskrit by A.N.D. Haksar

Penguin India, 2014

Rs 399

AND Haksar’s latest Sanskrit translation is, in his own words, an “eclectic assemblage” of stories taken from right across the spectrum of Sanskrit literature. What binds these diverse episodes together – in addition to their being ‘tales of life and love’ – is their tendency to reveal an unusual, or at least little known, aspect of sex or marriage in the India of yore.

Most of these stories involve love in its most elemental form. The bawdy pub-joke type of tale – like the one about a barber being cuckolded by the king, in which teeth around the king’s anus create the climax – is typical of the earthy kathā literature for which Sanskrit is not famous (although recent translations by Haksar, among others, have attempted to make this literature more widely known). The anthropologist though will probably find the carefully selected episodes from the Mahābhārata the richest. There is a famous illustration of the niyoga rite – in which a brother may be called upon to father children by his sister-in-law; the tale of a bark-clad sage’s wife demanding a honey-moon suite with all the trimmings before she acquiesces to be impregnated by her husband; and the story of how earth’s greatest warrior spurned the advances of heaven’s most desirable apsaras, and became a eunuch as a result. There is even a discussion on whether it is men or women who enjoy themselves most in bed, and, incidentally, whether mothers or fathers love their children more.

Haksar’s easy-flowing English prose – and his skilful verse, though there is sadly little verse in this particular collection – helps the reader sail through each episode; this is not a book that will take days to read. He has not though been well served by Penguin’s editing process. Diacritical marks are used in places, but not as per the recognised standard nor with consistency. Some Sanskrit words are italicised, some not; and at times the same word is italicised in one instance and not in another. In one case, the name of a prince is spelt differently in two consecutive paragraphs. The notes too seem not to have been fully thought through. It is always difficult to get the notes in such a book right: too much and you irritate the reader for whom this material is familiar, too little and you lose everyone else in a maze of names and foreign words. Even so, it is sometimes difficult to see the logic behind decisions such as, in the first story, explaining who Śiva is but not Kāma.

Haksar has always striven to reveal Sanskrit literature in all of its glorious technicolour, rescuing it from the whitewash some try to apply, and lifting off the veil of greyness through which the majority view it. And this kaleidoscopic collection, in over-representing the colourful and entertaining, will certainly help to further this aim. For Penguin to publish The Seduction of Shiva under the Penguin Classics imprint, though, is perhaps misleading. This is not so much a canonical work but a collection of fun, easy stories that will not only entertain the reader but give him a ready stock of interesting tidbits about the sex lives of ancient Indians.


For more details and to buy this book, please see the Penguin India page

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Siddhartha: From German to Sanskrit, via English

Sat, 04/19/2014 - 05:26

It seems only natural to be reading Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha in Sanskrit. The classic novel, written originally in the author’s native German, is set in India during the Buddha’s lifetime and follows a young Brahmin’s quest to discover his true nature. As he tries to find ātman, Siddhartha rejects the priesthood of his forefathers and joins a band of ascetics in the forest. After mastering asceticism and the supernatural powers associated with it, he renounces that too and – following a brief meeting with Gautama Buddha during which he realises he can never learn from another the truth he seeks – he next practises the arts of love and business as a wealthy town-dweller. Disgusted with that life, indeed with life itself, he finds peace finally as a boatman listening to and learning from the river across which he carries passengers.

Muni Kalyanakirtivijaya’s translation has as its base the original English translation by Hilda Rosner, which uses simple, unfussy language to allow the gentle beauty of the story to shine out. The translator’s Sanskrit version is written in a similarly simple style, with few of the long samāsas, rare verbal forms or complex syntax that can plague Sanskrit literature. So unassuming is the language that it allows the reader to focus instead on the meaning the words convey. The author’s decision to retain sandhi – in contrast to many writers of simple Sanskrit who prefer to omit it – makes for a sonorous read; and reminds us that sandhi need not impede the less practised reader, or indeed listener, of Sanskrit.

There are one or two things with which a reader might quibble. In particular, in the poem that Siddhartha composes for his mistress, Kamala, the richness of the Sanskrit kāvya tradition is conspicuous by its absence, despite Kamala’s delight upon hearing these verses.

Nevertheless, for those of us who naturally read Sanskrit more slowly than we read our mother tongue, this translation is the perfect way to really enjoy this beautiful novel. By slowing us down just enough to ensure we really drink in each word and each description, but at the same time ensuring we need not break the flow by having to puzzle out difficult sentences, this translation allows us to listen to Hesse’s story as Siddhartha learns to listen to the river. And perhaps, if we listen as he does, we too will finally hear the mystical syllable ‘Om’.


For more details and to get a copy of the book, please write

Muni Kalyanakirtivijaya’s Sanskrit translation is not the first – there is at least one other Sanskrit version of the novel, by Dr L Sulocana Devi.


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Megha Duta Part Two

Sat, 04/21/2012 - 11:02

(For the sharper eyed readers who are wondering where Part One is, I am still waiting for a chance to cover the first half of the cloud’s route. This post covers its journey into the Himalayas and beyond.)

Kālidāsa’s Megha Dūta needs little introduction.  The most famous, and the original, of the sandeśa kāvyas by Sanskrit’s most famous, and almost certainly best, poet has always been one of India’s favourite poems.  A yakṣa, cursed to spend a year apart from his wife, is overwhelmed by love sickness at the beginning of the monsoon and sends a cloud to their home in Alakā.  The cloud’s route, from Madhya Pradesh up in to the mountains, has been the subject of much discussion. As ever, it is not easy to match the mixture of real and fabled places with modern equivalents – and more so once the cloud enters the Himalayas, the abode of snow, gods and fable.

Here, among the spectacularly large mountains of Uttarakhand, the cloud’s journey towards Mount Kailāsa is painted in the luminous colours of myth, with eight-legged śarabhas, goddesses who want to use him as a shower and golden lotuses.  We cannot but remember too the beautiful description of Himālaya (Himālaya is often described as a single, personified mountain rather than a mountain range) at the beginning of Kālidāsa’s Kumāra Sambhava, where irridiscent herbs serve as lamps for night-time rendezvous, birch leaves are used for love letters and the sun’s rays travel upwards (rather than downwards) to bring the lotuses to bloom

To try and trace the route, then, that the cloud takes from Kanakhala to Kailāsa is perhaps folly – but nevertheless irresistible folly for anyone travelling these mountains with a copy of the Megha Dūta in his pocket.


The cloud travels from the Sarasvatī river – itself much debated – to Kanakhala, and at this point at least we are still on fairly stable ground.  Kankhal, as it is now called, is a small suburb of Hardwar which houses a Dakṣa temple. It was here (as well as many other places including Kottiyur in the Kokila Sandeśa) that Dakṣa insulted his son-in-law Śiva and ended up his daughter as well as his head.   The temple today looks fairly new but that, the priest assures the visitor, is due to jīrṇoddhara – the process of continual rennovation.  In fact, it was Śiva himself who set in place the śivaliṅga here.

None of this though is mentioned or even alluded to by Kālidāsa.  In the Megha Dūta Kanakhala is simply the place where Gaṅgā descends from the Himalayas.  The Ganga becomes so called at Devaprayag – the first of the five prayags which mark the joining of the various rivers that form the Ganga (prayāga means saṅgama or joining) about 20 kilometres beyond Hardwar in the dry and dusty lower foothills of this part of the Himalayas – where the two primary head rivers of the Ganga, Alakananda and Bhagirathi, meet.

The yakṣa next tells his messenger to go to Himālaya himself where he will find a footprint of Śiva being worshipped by siddhas, perfected beings.  Many connect this with Har ki Pauri (‘footprint of Hara/Śiva’) just a few kilometres upstream of Kankhal, at the heart of Hardwar.  It is here that the main āratī for which Hardwar is famous is conducted, thankfully in a less orchestrated and showy manner than that on the Ganga’s banks at Varanasi but nevertheless with a certain amount of pomp.  The thousands of devotees of all shapes and sizes bathe in the river with the help of plentiful ropes and chains attached to the ghats, to stop them from being swept away.  Across the river, local boys, naked and with empty jerry cans tied to their waists to keep them afloat, jump into the water and let themselves be carried rapidly downstream for several metres before grabbing hold of a post and hauling themselves back to the bank.

If Har ki Pauri is the same as the footprint upon a stone that Kālidāsa describes, it is odd that he says the Himalayas start in between Kankhal and this spot. In fact, the hills don’t really start until Rishikesh, a few kilometres beyond Hardwar. There is a small hillock behind Har ki Pauri but otherwise Hardwar and the surrounding areas are very much a part of the plains – dry and flat.

The other details that Kālidāsa gives us about the Himalayas at this point – that they are scented with musk deer, and filled with devadāru (pine) trees and camarīs (yaks) with singed tails – relate better to the mountains proper than these early foothills. Pines are indeed plentiful higher up, and yaks too are found in places like Ladakh and Tibet.  It is possible to buy odd-looking furry balls (what exactly they are is not worth thinking too deeply about) which contain the sickly-sweet scent of the musk deer – the scent comes from their navels and is often mentioned in poetry as a fragrance for women – in Hardwar but the deer themselves are not in evidence in these parts.


The next place mentioned in the poem is Krauñca Randhra, the gap through the Krauñca mountain. This gap, and the mountain, appear often in Sanskrit literature, including in the Rāmāyāṇa – although there its location is north rather than south of Kailāsa – but has eluded modern scholars.  The hole is said to have been created when Paraśurāma fired an arrow through the mountain in order to best Kārttikeya who had already performed the same feat.  And it is through this hole that swans fly when heading to the Mānasa lake at the beginning of the monsoon.

In the Megha Dūta, the cloud is instructed to fly through the Krauñca Randhra after crossing the upataṭa of Mount Himālaya. Upataṭa literally means ‘near the slope’ but perhaps here refers to the foothills or lower mountains of the range. At any rate we should probably assume Krauñca is some distance from the spot where the cloud is to worship Śiva’s footprint.

There is a mountain in the Garhwal hills known to locals as Kraunch Parvat in the Garhwal hills – named after the yellow-beaked mountain crow (krauñca) – just a few kilometres from Pokhri.  It is here, they say, that Kartik Swami (as Kārttikeya is called here) retired after his younger brother Gaṇeṣa infuriated him by outwitting him in a competition.  Both brothers agreed to race around the earth to see who should be worshipped first. While Kārttikeya was labouring to circle the globe, Gaṇeṣa simply walked around his father and mother who together represented the world, and thus won.  Hence Kārttikeya came to Krauñca to do penance and work off his anger.

At the top of a three kilometre walk up the mountain, right on the ridge, lies a small temple to Kartik Swami with 360 degree views of the surrounding mountains – both the Garhwal and Kumaon hills can be seen.  The bells on the way up to the temple are covered in discoloured bindis, and the last few metres are littered with broken bangles and combs, the detritus of a certain type of pooja. None of the Garhwalis we met, including the pandit of the temple, knew anything about a hole in the mountain, nor does the mountain’s ridge have any kind of gap which could have been construed as a randhra.  Dr Dilip Kumar Rana of the Chinmaya International Foundation Shodha Sansthan, who has written an excellent article on the Megha Dūta route in the foundation’s journal, suggests that this gap was perhaps just an illusion created by two mountains hard by each other.

Kailāsa and Alakā

Whether or not this Kraunch Parvat is the same as that mentioned in the Megha Dūta should be able to be decided by whether it falls on the route to Kailāsa.  Neither the swans nor the cloud would fly through the hole unless it meant a shortcut in their route – there would be no point in them taking a long diversion to fly through the mountain.  This brings us neatly to our next problem.

Mount Kailash, which is currently in Tibet, is certainly the most likely candidate for the Kailāsa of Sanskrit literature and myth. Kailāsa, the silver mountain, is said to be home to both Kubera and Śiva. It is a mountain of some resplendence and a great many myths, many of which involve the Mānasa lake which is very close to the Tibetan Mount Kailash.  Even today, the mountain is considered so holy that no one has yet attempted to climb it.  Instead, pilgrims circumambulate it – sometimes covering the entire 57 km with full body prostrations.

However, there are many Kailashes in the Himalayas, including Adi Kailash in eastern Uttarakhand.  And in the Megha Dūta, the location of Alakā, which is ultimately the cloud’s destination, is hard to reconcile with the Tibetan Mount Kailash mainly because Kālidāsa says that the Gaṅgā flows down this particular Kailāsa.

It is on the slopes of this mountain that Alakā, Kubera’s city, lies says the poet.  And it is from this mountain that Gaṅgā descends. The Ganga’s two head rivers, though, come not from Mount Kailash but from Gaumukh (the Bhagirathi) and Satopanth (the Alakananda), both of which are in the Garhwal hills. In fact, the source of the Alakananda, which is a few kilometres trek from Badrinath, is called by some Alakapuri (‘purī’ means ‘city’). Badrinath itself is a huge mountain and, according to Dr Rana, is at least on one occasion described as being near Kailāsa.

In Sanskrit literature and myth, Alakanandā is the name of the Gaṅgā in svarga (heaven), and, after the river split into four when descending to earth, the Alakanandā was the only one of the four to flow into India.  When descending from heaven, the river is said to have fallen first upon Hemakūṭa, which is according to some sources another name for Badrinath.  A competing story though relates how the river formed four great lakes when falling to earth, the southern one of which was Mānasa.

To further complicate matters, Gaṅgā is meant to have been summoned to earth by King Bhāgīratha – after whom the Bhagirathi river is named – from Kailāsa.  So perhaps Kālidāsa was following this belief in locating Gaṅgā upon Kailāsa’s slopes.

Nevertheless, several scholars, and some Garhwalis, believe that Alakā was on the banks of the present day Alakananda, or rather right at its mouth. I wasn’t able to get up to Alakapuri and Satopanth, the source of the Alakananda, because Badrinath is closed for winter and no one is permitted to go up to the temple or beyond during this time, but if we accept that Alakapuri is at least a contender for being the site of Alakā, then Kraunch Parvat is more or less en route.  (Funnily enough there is another Alakapuri on the road from Chamoli to Gopeshwar, a small village on the bank of the Alakananda – no yakṣas in sight though.)

That leaves us with as many if not more unsolved difficulties, not least of which is where the Mānasa lake is – for that too is mentioned in the poem. Perhaps cnce we reach Kailāsa we should perhaps fold up our maps and surrender ourselves to the beauty of the poetry.

हित्वा तस्मिन्भुजगवलयं शम्भुना दत्तहस्ता क्रीडाशैले यदि च विचरेत्पादचारेण गौरी । भङ्गीभक्त्या विरचितवपुः स्तम्भितान्तर्जलौघः सोपानत्वं कुरु मणितटारोहणायाग्रयायी ॥ ६० पूर्वभागः

And if Shiva were to cast off

his dark snake-bracelets

and hold Gauri’s had

while she wanders on foot

about that mountain of fun,

you should arrange your body

into a series of waves

and steady the water within,

becoming a stairway soft on the feet

for her to climb.

(Translation by Sir James Mallinson)

(The use of diacritics in this article may seem inconsistent – this is because where referring to a modern place name I have not used diacritics, while references to place names in the poem and elsewhere in Sanskrit literature retain diacritics.)


Many thanks to Pushpinder Singh Rawat and his many friends and relatives in Garhwal, and to Gautam for taking me up to the mountains.

Categories: Other Language Links

Call for Poetry Submissions

Sat, 03/03/2012 - 14:37

Rasāla, a new Sanskrit publishing venture I have just set up, will be bringing out an anthology of poetry on the night, entitled ‘Śarvarī’.  For this, we would like to invite all Sanskrit enthusiasts to submit verses – either their own compositions of those of their favourite poets.

The best 108 verses submitted will be published in the 2012 Rasāla anthology. Those whose verses are selected for the anthology will be duly credited; they will also each be given a free copy of the book.  Those verses not selected will be published on Rasāla’s website.


Full details are given in the announcement below (in English and in Sanskrit). Please visit the Rasāla website for more details and to see the verses submitted so far.




Call for Poetry Submissions


Rasāla is a new Sanskrit publisher which publishes India’s most beautiful forgotten poems alongside contemporary English translations.  We would like to invite you to submit verses – either your own compositions of those of your favourite poets – for the annual Rasāla anthology. This year’s anthology is entitled ‘Śarvarī’ or ‘Night’.


Submitted verses should be on the theme ‘Night’ – for instance descriptions of the sunset, moonrise and onset of darkness; the meeting of lovers by night; the blooming of waterlilies and so on.  You are encouraged to send verses which are artistically beautiful – imbued with rasa and rich in figures of speech – as opposed to those focused more on morals or instruction.


Please send your submissions either to or, by post, to Rasāla, A303 Raheja Regent, 35 Coles Road, Fraser Town, Bangalore 560 005.  Phone: +91 997230 5440. Please note your name and contact details and also include the name and any other details of the poet whose verses you are submitting.


The best 108 verses submitted will be published in this year’s Rasāla anthology. Those whose verses are selected for the anthology will be duly credited in the book; they will also each be given a free copy of the book.  Those verses not selected will be published on Rasāla’s website.


For more information, please visit


रसालाख्यं नूतनसंस्कृtतप्रकाशनं भारतवर्षस्यादृष्टपूर्वाणि विस्मृतानि सुन्दरतमानि च काव्यान्यांग्लभाषायानूद्य प्रकाशयति । भवन्तो रसालप्रकाशनस्य पद्यावल्याः कृते स्वरचितानि पद्यान्यन्येषां कवीनां (प्राक्तनानामधुनातनानां वा) च पद्यानि प्रेषयेयुरित्यस्माकं सविनया प्रार्थना । अस्याः पद्यावल्याः ’शर्वरी’ति नाम अस्माभिर्दत्तम् ।

पद्यानि रात्रिसम्बद्धानि भवितुमर्हन्ति – यथा सुर्यास्तचन्द्रोदयतिमिरादीनां वर्णनम्, रात्रौ कामिनोः समागमः, कुमुदादीनां विकास इत्यादि । पद्यानि रसमयानि अलङ्कारचमत्कारयुक्तानि भवेयुः । यथाशक्ति नीत्युपदेशसहितानि पद्यानि वर्जनीयानि । प्रति पद्यानि प्रेषयेयुः | aअथवा Rasāla, A303 Raheja Regent, 35 Coles Road, Fraser Town, Bangalore 560 005.  Phone: +91 997230 5440  प्रति पद्यानि प्रेषयेयुः | स्वसन्देशपत्रे नामसङ्केतसम्पर्काणां सूचना दातव्या । कवेर्नामाद्यपि तत्रैव दातव्यम् ।


एतेषां प्रेषितानां पद्यानां मध्ये १०८ उत्तमानि पद्यानि शर्वरीनाम्न्यां रसालपद्यावल्यां प्रकाशितानि भविष्यन्ति । येषां पद्यानि पुस्तकार्थं चितानि तेषां नामाद्यपि पुस्तके लिखितं भविष्यति । तेभ्यः पुस्तकमेकमपि दीयते ।  यानि पद्यानि पुस्तकार्थं न चितानि, तान्यपि रसालप्रकाशनस्य अन्तर्जालस्थाने प्रकाशिष्यन्ते ।

इतोऽपि विज्ञप्तिप्राप्तये कृपया पश्यतु ।


Categories: Other Language Links

Sanskrit Newspapers and Periodicals

Mon, 02/27/2012 - 11:23

There are a great many more Sanskrit dailies, weeklies, monthlies and so on than you might have expected – well over 75 at the last count.  Here is a list of as many as I have been able to find details of – most of these were taken from a list published in Sragdhara, a Sanskrit monthly from Orissa, and others have been added via the Sanskrit Documents team:

If you have more details for any of these publications, or if anything needs to be changed – please let me know by commenting on this post or writing to me at And do of course let me know if there are new or existing publications that ought to be added to the list.

Categories: Other Language Links

Kokila Sandesha Bonus Post

Fri, 02/24/2012 - 16:16

This post is part of a series on the Kokila Sandeśa of Uddaṇḍa Ṥāstri, to read the introduction click here

लक्ष्मीजन्मस्थितिमनुपमैः पूरितां रत्नजालै- र्भूभृद्गर्भां प्रकटितकलेशोदयश्लाघ्यवृद्धिम् । पाथोराशेस्तनुमिव परां मन्यमानो विशालां यामध्यास्ते स खलु निगमाम्भोजभृङ्गो रथाङ्गी ॥ १ ॥

Discus-wielding Viṣṇu himself,

bee to the Vedas’ lotus,

lives here

seemingly in the belief that this sprawling city is another vast ocean.

For both are the birthplace of Wealth herself,

both are filled with jewels that know no comparison,

both are home to the pillars of the earth,

and while the rise of its artists magnifies the city,

it is the rise of the moon that magnifies the ocean.*   Uttarabhāga – Verse 1

*Lakṣmī, the goddess of wealth, was born in the ocean and it is full of the jewels produced when the ocean was churned to produce amṛta.  Bhūbhrt, literally ‘that which bears the earth’, is often used to denote a mountain or a king; both are meant in this case.  The ocean swells at the rise of the moon.

By Uddaṇḍa’s account, the city to which his wife belongs, Chendamangalam (Sanskritised as Jayantamaṅgalam), is not only as vast as the ocean but also its match in wealth.  Whether or not Chendamangalam, pronounced Chennamangalam, was ever quite as grand as the poet describes it is today one of those quiet Keralan villages with almost as many people as temples.

In fact, Chendamangalam’s most famous residents date from after Uddaṇḍa’s time.  The Paliath Achans, who were appointed as hereditary prime ministers to the Kochin kings and ruled much of this area in their own right, lived here in the large Paliam Palace.  The palace and other parts of the Paliam ancestral home are currently being renovated – in a project undertaken partly by the large Paliath family, several of whom still live here – and will soon be opened to the public.

Uddaṇḍa doesn’t mention the Paliath family – writing as he was a couple of hundred years before it rose to prominence – but he does describe the Viṣṇu temple which is one of the many temples now under the Paliam trust.  Local report has it that this temple moved Uddaṇḍa so much that he raised his hands to pay his respects to God – one of only two occasions when he did this, the other being at the Rajarajeshwara temple in Taliparamba.

Uddaṇḍa describes the temple as being “on the bank of the Cūrṇī river” (now the Periyar) but the river is now some distance away.  Local historian Mr Manoharan believes that the river used to run alongside the temple, just to its north, but changed its course to move further north.

The site of the home of Uddaṇḍa’s wife, Śrīdevī, is also uncertain.  The Mārakkara household, or Mārakkaḷ as it is now known, is still recognised as the family into which Uddaṇḍa married.  Family tradition holds that one of the reasons the scholar-poet came down to Chendamaṅgalam was because of the report of the Mārakkara family’s great learning.  The other reason cited is that Uddaṇḍa’s friend, another of the poets from the Zamorin’s court, Chennas Namputiri, was from this area and indeed gave his name to the town.

According to the poem, the house lies to the south of the temple.  Today’s Mārakkara family is based south-west of the temple, but at a little distance.  Instead, a plot adjacent to the temple, which now hosts a recently built house, may have been the original site.

The Kokila Sandeśa has a detailed description of the house and its grounds. It has a jewelled fence that encloses a golden central building; an ornamental pond lined with rubies; mango, champaka, sandal wood and kuravaka trees; and an emerald apartment where the poet’s wife loves to be.

Not much of that would have survived even if the description owed less to poetic licence, although the present Mārakkara house does have two ponds – one for bathing, and the other a yakṣī- or nāga-kolam (pond) – and an aśoka tree housed alongside shrines to propitiate the nāgas.  (Nāgas or snakes play a very important role in Kerala. The current residents remember how the local astrologer, when consulted about moving one of the shrines, told them that according to the snakes it was the family who were guests living upon their land.  One owner ignored the traditional nāga-worship to his peril;  he was eventually chased out of the house by them.)

The house’s owners tell the story of how Uddaṇḍa came to write the Kokila Sandeśa:

Uddaṇḍa used to travel a lot, even after marrying, to participate in debating competitions and visit his scholar-friend. Perhaps towards the end of his life he went back to his village near Kanchipuram and was, due to failing health, unable to travel back to his wife in Chendamangalam.  It was then that he composed the Kokila Sandeśa as he pined for her.  Whether the couple was ever reunited – whether they ever did enjoy full days of each other’s company against a backdrop of roaring monsoon clouds – is not recounted.

तीर्णप्रायो विरहजलधिः शैलकन्याप्रसादात् शेषं मासद्वितयमबले सह्यतां मा विषीद । धूपोद्गारैः सुरभिषु ततो भीरु ! सौधान्तरेषु क्रीडिष्यावो नवजलधरध्वानमन्द्राण्यहानि ॥ ६१ ॥

By the grace of Pārvatī, daughter of the mountain,

we have almost crossed this sea of separation.

Only two months remain.

Be strong, my little one,

don’t give up!

Then we shall pass whole days in play

upon balconies steeped in incense,

my timid thing,

days ringing with the deep murmur of fresh rainclouds. Uttarabhāga – Verse 61

Rasāla, a kāvya imprint I have just set up, will be bringing out its edition of the Kokila Sandeśa alongside an English translation in the next couple of months.  Please click here for more details or get in touch:


Many thanks to Narendran Paliath and his parents; Mr Sreekumar and the residents of Mārakkara; and Mr Manoharan for showing me round Chendamangalam and bringing alive the koel’s final destination.

Categories: Other Language Links

Mahodayapuram – Kokila Sandesha 8

Thu, 10/20/2011 - 08:54

This post is part of a series on the Kokila Sandeśa of Uddaṇḍa Ṥāstri, to read the introduction click here

रम्यां हर्म्यध्वजपटमरुद्वीजितब्रध्नयुग्या- मग्रे पश्याञ्जनखलपुरीमाश्रितां शङ्करेण। यत्राश्लिष्टो वरयुवतिभिश्चुम्बति स्विन्नगण्डं चूर्णीवातः प्रिय इव रतिश्रान्तिमास्यारविन्दम्॥1.88

Up ahead you’ll see the charming city of Añjanakhala where the mansions’ fluttering flags act as fans for the sun’s horses and which is home to Ṥaṅkara.  The breeze from the Cūrṇī river returns the embraces of the city’s beauties, kissing their sweat-streaked cheeks as a lover the lotus face of his beloved, creased with exhaustion after their love-making.

The koel is to fly slightly inland after crossing the Nīlā or Bharatapuzha river.  His first stop is the home of Uddaṇḍa’s scholarly friends, the Payyūr Bhaṭṭas, to whom he should offer a poetic composition as a gift – possibly this very poem itself. (This echoes the offering Lakṣmīkdāsa’s messenger in the Ṥuka Sandeśa makes to Kālī at the Kodungallur temple; the Ṥuka Sandeśa, which was written a little before this poem, covers the southern half of Kerala before ending just north of Kodungallur and there is thus considerable cross-over in the two poems’ description of this area.)  After the Payyūr Bhaṭṭas’ house, which is in a village today known as Porkulam, the koel visits in rapid succession Vṛṣapura, Valāyālaya and Saṃgamagrāma – Thrissur, Urakam and Irinjalakuda respectively.

The koel’s penultimate stop is Mahodayapura, the ancient capital of Kerala under the Kulaśekhara kings, the second Chera empire.  Mahodayapuram must have been a grand city – the Ṥuka Sandeśa describes its mighty army and overlordship of other Kerala kings – but it is surprisingly hard to establish where exactly it stood.  

The two sandeśa kāvyas both describe a Kālī temple, Mahodayapuram and the Cūrṇī or Periyar river on whose banks the city stands.  From the order in which the two messengers – who are flying in opposite directions, the parrot of the Ṥuka Sandeśa is travelling from southern Kerala up the coast – cross these three, it is clear that the temple is north of the city, which is itself north of the river.

In the Kālī temple just before the city Uddaṇḍa describes how Ṥiva’s attendants the bhūtas are prevented from sacrificing a bull by Vijayā.  This is the Bhadrakālī temple at the centre of Kodungallur. Animal sacrifice used to be a large part of the worship here but was latterly banned, although tethered goats still bleat just outside the main entrance. 

Although in the Kokila Sandeśa the temple is clearly outside the city, the Ṥuka Sandeśa is more ambiguous and some locate Mahodayapuram in Kodangallur itself, a largeish town 30 odd kilometres above Kochin.  Others say that the lost port city of Muziris was Mahodayapuram. Muziris, which has attracted so much attention of late that there is now a Muziris Heritage Project run by the Kerala government, was a huge trading port frequented by the Romans, Greeks, Arabs and Chinese.  Recent archaeological evidence though places it about 10 kilometres south of Kodungallur in a village called Pattanam – perhaps shortened from Muziripattanam.  Recent finds from a site there include a plethora of amphora fragments, and a Tamil-Brahmi inscription that seems to indicate early Jain influence.  The port’s importance though seems to have suddenly diminished, perhaps due to an earthquake or as a result of the flooding in 1341 of the Periyar which changed the river’s course.   It is exciting stuff and has already been spun into a Michael Wood BBC documentary.  Most probably, though, Muziris was distinct from Mahodayapuram, acting as the empire’s major port city rather than its capital just as it had for the earlier Cheras.  At any rate, following the Chola king’s attack on Mahodayapuram in the 12th century, the entire Kulaśekhara empire fizzled out.  So by the time of Uddaṇḍa and Lakṣmīdāsa, both Mahodayapuram and Muziris must have been shadows of their former selves. 

Unni identifies Mahodayapuram as Tiruvanchikulam, which seems to fit with the description in both the poems.  The Tiruvanchikulam temple is about two kilometres south of Kodungallur.  It is a quiet Ṥiva temple – thus “home to Ṥaṅkara” (verse 1.88 above) – said to have been built in the 11th or 12th centuries and thus accorded protected-monument status by the government archaeological department.   The Cūrṇī river is about a kilometre south of the temple.  It is hard to imagine this little hamlet – which has almost become a suburb of Kodungallur – as the Kulaśekhara kingdom’s capital but as Herodotus notes the fortune of cities is in perpetual flux. 

The Cūrṇī, which features prominently in both the sandeśa poems, is a massive river crossed by means of two long bridges; there is an island in the middle.  Chinese fishing nets stand alongside the river’s banks, at the edge of the dense palm trees that flank all water bodies in this part of India.

सा च प्रेक्ष्या सरिदनुपदं यत्र कल्माषितायां मज्जन्माहोदयपुरवधूकण्ठकस्तूरिकाभिः। रक्ताः पद्माः कुवलयवनीसाम्यमापद्यमाना विज्ञापयन्ते स्फुटमहिधामोदये जृम्भाणे॥ 1.89

And that river is worth seeing.  In her waters, slowly mingling with the musk washed off the necks of Mahodayapura’s girls as they bathe, red lotuses are transformed into clusters of blue water lilies. It is only when the sun starts to spread its warm light that they can be seen for what they are.

The koel’s final stop lies across this mighty river at Jayantamaṅgalam known today as Chennamangalam.

तीरं तस्याः प्रति गतवतो दक्षिणं तत्क्षणं ते देशः सर्वातिशयविभवो दृक्पथेतः प्रथेत। तां जानीया दिशि दिशि जयन्ताख्यया ख्यायमानां प्रत्यादिष्टत्रिदिवनगरप्राभवां प्राप्यभूमिम्॥1.92

The moment you cross towards the river’s southern bank, the richest of all lands will stand revealed.  That is your destination, the city which eclipses the city of the gods in her splendour, known the world over as Jayanta.

The Viṣṇu temple in Chendamangalam (mentioned several times in the poem) - reproduced with kind permission from Paliath Narendran.


Thus ends the koel’s journey and this series of posts.  Thank you to all those who helped, including Dr Shankar, Professor Unithiri, Professor Rajendran, Harunga Isaacson, Isaac Murchie, Mr Lakshman and all those who helped me at the temples.

Categories: Other Language Links

Kshemendra: Three Satires from Ancient Kashmir

Tue, 10/18/2011 - 10:21


Translated by AND Haksar

The ancient Kashmir of the title is a strange land peopled by swindler goldsmiths descended from the rats whose destructive burrowing drove the golden Mount Meru to abandon the world of mortals and ascetics so intent upon gazing at the sky that they keep tripping over.  It is nevertheless not unfamiliar to those campaigning with Anna Hazare against a rotten bureaucracy nor to those who grumble about India’s increasing moral bankruptcy. 

These three satirical bhanas, or “causeries”, are the work of Kshemendra, a cosmopolitan scholar of the 11th century who studied under the famous Abhinavagupta.  Kshemendra’s contribution to Sanskrit literature has only recently been fully appreciated: the first of the 34 works attributed to him was discovered in 1871.  Eighteen have been found in total, of which several are technical and devotional works and four satirical.  AND Haksar, who translated these three satires, has already done much to establish the poet’s reputation beyond the academic community with his translation of the Samaya Matrika or The Courtesan’s Keeper, a sustained satirical narrative about a shape-shifting pimp.  These three satires, also set in Kshemendra’s native Kashmir, paint a similar picture of a society in hot pursuit of money and sex, preferably combined. 

Although the first work, Narma Mala or A Garland of Mirth, takes a narrative form, the other two, Kala Vilasa (A Dalliance with Deceptions) and Deshopadesha (Advice from the Countryside), are more a string of well executed vignettes.  The story, at any rate, is of secondary consideration.  It is in the details that Kshemendra’s pen cuts most deeply, particularly in his fresh and often shocking similes.  The guru whose mouth twitches “like the cunt of an old she-buffalo” is not quickly forgotten, and Mr Haksar does justice to the often filthy language of the original; you have to wonder how the Victorian translators would have handled this.  But the humour is not all bawdy.  The foreign student for whom “even a river is considered insufficient for his purificatory rites” but who happily tucks into the leftover dinner and drink of the harlot he has engaged for the evening, has a glow “like that of an unlit lamp”. 

No one, not even a Buddhist nun, not even poets themselves, is spared.  At times, Kshemendra can seem a little old-fashioned: working wives and women who enjoy a good party are among those he condemns as “demons of a thousand deceptions in the dark night of this degenerate age”.  But his castigation of cheating officials resonates loud and clear:

Plundered by the bureaucrat,

the state’s afflicted prosperity

weeps dark tears, which seem to be

ink drops dripping from his pen.

At times Kshemendra relents and gives us more standard poetic fare but his wit and cynicism are never far from the surface.  A beautiful description of Ujjain at dusk mixes the conventional with his own particular style; “the sun…disappeared slowly from the sky like a gambler stripped bare by cheats”.  For the most part we are invited to mock as well as condemn the doctor who must kill thousands of patients with experimental concoctions before establishing his reputation, the astrologer who consults “knowledgeable fisherman” about the likelihood of rain and the man about town who gives himself love bites and smears lipstick on his collar before going out.  Would that Kshemendra were alive and writing today.

This review first appeared in the New Indian Express here

To buy this book or for more details, click here

Categories: Other Language Links

Triprangode and Tirunavaya – Kokila Sandesha 7

Fri, 09/30/2011 - 19:53

This post is part of a series on the Kokila Sandeśa of Uddaṇḍa Ṥāstri, to read the introduction click here

Sixty five kilometres down the coast, the koel reaches the land of Prakāśa, literally the ‘bright’ land, from which Kālī herself has been tamed by the continuous Vedic recitation.  This is the stretch in between the towns of Tirur and Ponnani, through which the huge Nīlā or Bharatapuzha river flows out into the Arabian ocean. 

There are three temples that the hero bids his messenger visit as he flies through.  The first is the temple of Ṥiva which the poet calls Ṥvetāraṇya and is today known as Thripangode temple. Ṥiva is worshipped as Mṛtyuñjaya, ‘conqueror of death’, because it was here that he dispatched Yama, god of death, in a towering rage, as the local priest explains:

The sage Mṛkaṇḍa, who lived next to the nearby Tirunavaya temple, was a great devotee of Ṥiva’s and in response to his prayer for a son, he was offered the classic choice – a boy glorious but short-lived or ordinary but long-lived.  Like others, he chose the former and was blessed with a perfect son, Mārkaṇḍeya, who was destined to live until the age of 16.  On his 16th birthday, Yama came to take Mārkaṇḍeya.  The boy first ran to Viṣṇu in the Tirunavaya temple but Viṣṇu urged him to turn to Ṥiva for protection.  He ran the three kilometres to the Ṥiva temple – right through the centre of a huge al tree that stood in front of the temple and which split in half to let him through – and embraced the Ṥivaliṅga. Yama, in hot pursuit, hurled his deadly noose which settled around the liṅga Mārkaṇḍeya was hugging.  Incensed at this attack on his devotee and his very form, Ṥiva rose in terrible anger out of the liṅga to slay Yama with his triśula or trident. Mārkaṇḍeya was saved – and lives on eternally as a 16 year old youth – and four new Ṥivaliṅgas sprung up to mark the three (large judging by the distance between each) steps the god had taken after killing Yama and the place where he then settled, which thereafter became the main temple. 

To the right, just outside the temple gate, is a moss-covered pond in which Ṥiva washed his bloody triśūla.

The poem describes his blood-stained feet:  

सेव्यं शम्भोररुणमुरसस्ताडनाद्दण्डपाणेः पादाम्भोजं शिखरितनयापाणिसंवाहयोग्यम्। येनाक्रान्ते सति गिरिपतौ लोष्टमानास्यचक्र- श्चक्रन्दाधःकृतभुजवनो रक्षसां चक्रवर्ती॥1.71

Worship Ṥambhu’s lotus feet, stained red from trampling on Yama’s chest, which Parvatī massages with her hands. It was these feet which made the rakṣasa king cry out, squashed as he was beneath the mountain lord, his many heads heaped up in a circle and his clustering arms crushed to the ground. 

The Mṛtyuñjaya-homa remains one of the two most important rituals at the temple.  It is perhaps to this rite that the poet refers when he talks of how a glimpse at the god’s face here secures a devotee freedom from death. 

The last shrine devotees visit as they do their circuit of the temple is dedicated to Navamukunda, the Viṣṇu of the neighbouring Tirunavaya temple.  Here they give thanks to Viṣṇu for directing Mārkaṇḍeya to Ṥiva.

The Tirunavaya Navamukunda temple – which Uddaṇḍa calls Nāvākṣetra – is next on the koel’s route.  This spot is called Trimūrtisaṅgamasthāna – the spot where all three forms of God come together – because in addition to the Viṣṇu temple there is a (rare) Brahma temple and a Ṥiva temple on the opposite bank of the river, both of which are clearly visible from Tirunavaya. It is also an important spot for pitṛ-karman rites (as was Thirunelly) which are held on certain days of the year and attract lakhs of pilgrims, but the temple’s main claim to fame is the Mamankam festival that used to be held here.  The temple stands right on the northern bank of the Nīlā river, just a few kilometres from the river’s mouth, and was thus perhaps a logical place to hold a festival whose mythical origins and divine significance pale in comparison to its influence on trade and politics. 

The festival traces its roots back to a 28-day concord of the gods, convened by Bṛhaspati once every 12 years.  It was at originally called Mahāmāgha, the great (festival) of the month of Māgha, which in the vernacular became Mamankam.  An article written by the current Zamorin of Calicut (see Calicut post) in 2006 notes that it is difficult to ascertain the date of the first festival.  At any rate by the 9th century AD, when the famous Ceraman Perumal divided up his kingdom and ran away to Mecca, the festival seems to have become a sort of royal election in which the surrounding kings would meet, discuss the performance of the last ruler’s 12 year term, and pick a new leader.  The Valluvanad kings inherited the temple overlordship, and thus control of the festival.  According to the current Zamorin’s account, his forbears, despite their great power and wealth, were unable to beat the Valluvanad king and sought to discover the source of his great strength.  On learning that it was the royal family god at Angadipuram who rendered him invincible, the Zamorin prayed to this same god and was soon victorious in what are now referred to as the Tirunavaya wars in the fourteenth century.  Thus the Zamorins won control of this temple and the politically and commercially important festival. 

Instead of coming to pay his respects to the Zamorin as overlord as other local leaders did, the defiant Valluvanad raja sent four leading men to kill the Zamorin.  They were duly killed by the Zamorin’s guards but it became a tradition for the men of these families to attempt this assassination at every festival, both to avenge their fathers’ and grandfathers’ deaths as well as to reclaim overlordship from the Zamorin.  British accounts of these attempts – which never succeeded – describe the tragic suicide missions.  The festival continued until the 18th century when Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan attacked Kerala and sacked the Tirunavaya temple.  The temple was rebuilt by one of the Zamorins – both the Tirunavaya and Tripangode temples still fall under the Zamorins, along with 30 other temples in this region. 

For the hero, though, the Mamankam festival of his patron (which he suggests will be in full swing when the koel visits; although Māgha is in śiśira, the season that precedes vasanta, so even if it happened to be the right year the timing is slightly off) is of mainly of interest because it will have brought his wife here, along with many other Keralan ladies. 

साकं कान्तैर्मिलति ललितं केरलीनां कदम्बे मत्प्रेयस्याः प्रियसख महामाघसेवागतायाः। पायं पायं मुखपरिमलं मोहनं यत्र मत्ताः प्रायोऽद्यापि भ्रमरकलभा नैव जिघ्रन्ति पद्मान्॥ 1.73

As a gaggle of Kerala ladies tremblingly meet their lovers, I know that right now the boisterous bees, driven wild as they drink again and again of the intoxicating scent of my wife’s mouth – for she too will have come for the Mahāmāgha festival – won’t even notice the lotus’ fragrance. 



The original Ṥivaliṅga at Triprangode is said to have been constructed in the 9th century and is decorated with beautiful but crumbling murals – restoration would cost 4 lakhs so they are being left to deteriorate.

Categories: Other Language Links

Calicut – Kokila Sandesha 6

Thu, 09/15/2011 - 09:36

This post is part of a series on the Kokila Sandeśa of Uddaṇḍa Ṥāstri, to read the introduction click here

After the diversion to Sampadgrāma and the Kola capital, the koel now heads due south along the coast to where his destination, Jayantamaṅgalam, lies, 280 odd kilometres away.   

मुक्ताजालैर्धवलपुलिनं वीचिमालाविकीर्णैः कूलाध्वानं कुसुमिततरुस्निग्धमालम्बमानः। देशाद्देशं व्रजसि कुतुकोत्तानमुग्धाननानां वामाक्षीणां नयनचुलकैः सादरं पीयमानः॥1.63

Hug the coast, lustrous with fresh blossom, its sandbanks white with the mass of pearls scattered there by successive waves.  As you travel from region to region beautiful naïve young women, lifting up their questioning faces, will drain deep draughts of you with rapt eyes. 

His next stop is Kozhikode – better known by the old British name Calicut – which Uddaṇḍa Sanskritises as Kukkuṭakroḍa (literally ‘hen’s lap’ following the Malayalam).  The poet’s description of Calicut includes some of the best verses of the poem and celebrates the city as a whole rather than any particular site or temple.

गेहे गेहे नवनवसुधाक्षालितं यत्र सौधं सौधे सौधे सुरभिकुसुमैः कल्पितं केलितल्पम्। तल्पे तल्पे रसपरवशं कामिनीकान्तयुग्मं युग्मे युग्मे स खलु विहरन् विश्ववीरो मनोभूः॥

Where in every house there is a freshly whitewashed balcony, on every balcony there is a bed laid out for love with scented flowers, upon every bed there is a pair of lovers mastered by passion, and within every couple the mind-born God of Love who conquers all ranges at will. 

Calicut was the city in which Uddaṇḍa won patronage and great acclaim.   His patron, Mānavikrama, is thought to have ruled in the 15th century and was himself a scholar and author.  Mānavikrama was the head of the powerful Zamorin or Samoothiri clan which had risen to prominence following the collapse of the Chera kingdom in the 12th century.  Many stories and much debate surround the Zamorins’ rise. The Keralotpatti’s version is that a favoured chieftain of the last Chera king (who, the legend goes, converted to Islam and ran off to Mecca) was granted the wasteland that now forms Calicut.  At any rate, by the 13th century the Zamorins were a force to be reckoned with and became the most powerful rulers in Kerala for several centuries, fighting with the Kolattiri kings among others. 

Mānavikrama, whom Kunjunni Raja says was “one of the greatest patrons of literature that Kerala has ever produced” famously had a circle of 18 and a half scholars in his court, including Uddaṇḍa and others such as the Payyūr Bhaṭṭas whose house the koel will soon visit.  The half was Punam Namputiri, a native of the Kola region where the koel has just come from who was accorded such status because he was a Malayalam rather than a Sanskrit poet. 

Thanks to the port established at Calicut, the Zamorins became fabulously wealthy.  The port became a major trading centre, particularly for spices (lending Calicut its epithet as ‘City of Spices’), and appears in many travellers’ writings, including those of the 14th century Ibn Battuta.  The city’s sea-borne wealth becomes in the poem the expression of the sea’s love for his daughter who has settled in Calicut:

यत्र ज्ञात्वा कृतनिलयनामिन्दिरामात्मकन्यां मन्ये स्नेहाकुलितहृदयो वाहिनीनां विवोढा। तत्तद्द्वी*पान्तरशतसमानीतरत्नौघपूर्णं नौकाजालं मुहुरुपहरन् वीचिभिः श्लिष्यतीव॥1.67

*Unni’s edition has tattadvīpa instead of tattaddvīpa as above

There I can picture the rivers’ husband – his heart overwhelmed with love for his daughter Indirā who, he knows, has made her home here – continuously proffering fleets of boats groaning with heaped up jewels gathered from hundreds of different islands dotted here and there, and hugging the city with his waves as it were.

The port at Beypore, one of the sub-ports of Calicut and a historical ship-building site, is a few kilometres outside the main city.  Boats of all sizes come to the small port today but only the multicoloured oil drums come close to the vision of gem-rich splendour of Uddaṇḍa’s description and piles of such incongruous cargo as septic tanks and industrial metal parts make for an altogether more prosaic aspect. 

The city was also famous for the Revati Patthanam that was established by the Zamorins as a way of making amends for their aggression towards the trustees of the Tali Shiva temple, and thereby free themselves of the curse that was stripping the dynasty of all progeny.  The Patthanam was thus set up in the 14th century – and so called because it started on the day of the Revatī nakṣatra or star – and became a great draw for scholars, including Uddaṇḍa, from all over South India. The contest is still held at the Tali Shiva temple and includes prizes for scholars of logic, philosophy and grammar.  It was here that Uddaṇḍa, after many years of unparallelled success on the debating floor, was given his comeuppance by the precocious Dāmodara.  Among the many verses and stories from the competition between these two scholars that tradition has handed down is the challenge issued by Uddaṇḍa to his young adversary to disprove the statement that his (Dāmodara’s) mother was chaste. The 12 year old extricated himself by quoting a verse from the Ṛg Veda that maintains a wife is in fact enjoyed by Soma, Gandharva and Agni before she is given over to her husband. No doubt a more effective rejoinder than that usually made in such verbal duals in pubs, bars and streets the world over. 

It was this temple too that hosted the first performance of Uddaṇḍa’s only other major work, the Mallikāmāruta.  Yet oddly this temple finds no mention in Uddaṇḍa’s description of the city, despite his close association with it.  The absence of any reference to Mānavikrama, his contemporaries at the Zamorin’s court or the temple leads some scholars to suppose Uddaṇḍa wrote the poem early on in his career before he had become so acquainted with Calicut and its inhabitants.  The familiarity with Kerala that is so evident though argues against this and Uddaṇḍa does describe the Zamorin family as a whole at least as brave, powerful rulers. 

As with Kanchipuram, the poet’s hometown, the koel will have to tear himself away from the city:

कृष्ट्वा दृष्टिं कथमपि ततः कौतुकानां निदाना- दुड्डीयेथाः पथि विटपिनां पुष्पमाध्वीं लिहानः। हारं हारं मदनपृतनाकालहैः कण्ठनादै- रुत्कण्ठानां जनपदमृगीलोचनानां मनांसि॥1.69

Hard though it may be given the city’s array of wonders, drag your eyes away from there and fly onwards, feeding upon the nectar of the trees along the way.  With your calls, the drumbeat of Love’s army, bewitch the hearts of the doe-eyed girls of each region as they gaze up at you.

Categories: Other Language Links

Sakuntalam: Natana Kairali

Wed, 09/07/2011 - 09:30

The painted faces, rich costumes and elaborate headgear of Keralan theatre and dance have been so liberally sprinkled on tourist literature that, spectacular as they are, they have almost lost their power to command our attention.  To see such theatre in action, though, is to be mesmerised all over again. 


At 13 hours – spread over four days – Sakuntalam Kutiyattam bears comparison with the Bayreuth Festival’s Ring Cycle.  Here, though, there is no decade-long waiting list for tickets; entry is free and open to anyone who can find their way through the backlanes of a small town near Thrissur to Natana Kairali, a centre for traditional arts set up by Gopal Venu. The audience is an eclectic mix of Mr Venu’s former pupils, arty types, Sanskrit professors and the obligatory MLA plus flunkees (can any cultural event in India start without felicitating a local politician?).  The theatre is in Mr Venu’s backyard.  This being Kerala the backyard is a tangle of banana, coconut and betel nut trees bordered by a large tank; as we wait for the performance to start crickets provide the music and bats, which swoop through the stage, the spectacle.  The theatre itself consists of a banana-leaf roof supported with bamboos, from which hang spotlights and electrical wiring. Indeed, the electrical equipment and chairs are the only real concession to modernity.  Behind the stage, separated by a diaphanous cloth screen, is a smaller area which acts as a single changing room for all the actors as well as backstage.  The role of make up artist is assumed by younger pupils and the actors themselves, who use small handheld mirrors to effect their transformation.


Kutiyattam, like most other dance and theatre forms in India, grew out of temples and it retains its religious significance. The drummers who provide the music for the performance – alongside two young girls with small cymbals – pray before they begin.  Similarly the first entrance of each actor is a ceremony itself in which the actor, screened by a red and white cloth, turns first to the drummers and then, taking position behind the screen, stands ready to be revealed to the audience.   


The play from which this Kutiyattam performance is adapted is the fourth century AD Abhijnana Sakuntalam (The Recognition of Sakuntala), the most famous and probably the most beautiful of all Sanskrit plays by India’s most celebrated ancient poet, Kalidasa.  King Dushyanta happens across the heroine, Sakuntala, in her father’s hermitage while out hunting.  Enamoured he marries her according to the gandharva rite, a kind of ancient love marriage.  He returns to his kingdom, and Sakuntala, by now pregnant with his son, leaves the ashram to go to her husband’s house.  Dushyanta though, cannot recognise her due to a curse. Rejected, Sakuntala is spirited away to another ashram until such time as Dushyanta should have cause to recognise her and the son she has borne him – at which point they all live happily ever after.  Kalidasa, who took the story from the Mahabharata, rounded it off with the happy ending that Sanskrit drama – like Bollywood – requires. 


Much of kutiyattam is non-verbal, and involves only small movements: the swivelling of the eyes from target to bow, target to bow as an archer takes aim, or the dance of eyebrows.  Actors assume many different roles, sometimes all the roles, including those of animals; and they use no props.  Mudras or set hand formations are used to signify, where needed, which role the actor is playing at present. Some are obvious – like the sign for the deer – but others are difficult for the uninitiated to understand, along with much of the other complex dramatical language employed throughout.  It is a theatre of great subtlety which demands of its audience keen observation and patience.  Such observation and patience though are rewarded.  Few could watch Duśyanta’s charioteer enacting the happily grazing deer suddenly alerted to danger as the king starts the chase and then fleeing, crazed with fear, without feeling the deer’s terror. 


This production is Mr Venu’s adaptation of Kalidasa’s play, which was first performed in 2002.  The play is punctuated with sparingly selected verses and dialogues from the Sanskrit (and Prakrit – for non-Sanskrit speakers like women) original. The drums – which are continuously playing otherwise – fall silent for the delivery of these lines, which are stretched out in a sort of half-chant.  This manner of delivery does little to communicate the famed beauty of some of the verses – indeed Kalidasa’s plays were not traditionally used for kutiyattam perhaps because their lyric beauty was less suitable than other more dramatic texts – although it does at least ensure that every word is clearly heard. 


It is the combination of the pulsing drumbeats and the wordless acting that has the greatest power to move the audience.  The drummers watch the actors intently and create a verbal echo for every flicker of the eyes and dart of the finger, so that it is almost as if the actors’ movements themselves produce the sound.  The range of sounds the drums – two mizhavus, large bronze urns with leather stretched over their mouths, and one smaller edakka – can produce belies their seeming simplicity.  The power of the mime is thus doubled – we can almost see and hear the bee that Sakuntala tries to fight off. 


As the only living form of Sanskrit theatre, kutiyattam was recognised by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2001. And Kerala has successfully marketed kutiyattam, along with so many of its other assets, to the foreign holiday makers who flock here.  While such recognition does of course help, it is these small, devoted bands of its proponents who will hopefully keep the theatre truly alive and thus prevent it being reduced to pre-dinner background entertainment at one of India’s seven-star hotels. 

This article first appeared, in a shortened form, in the New Indian Express here

Categories: Other Language Links

Taliparamba and Ezhimala – Kokila Sandesha 5

Tue, 08/30/2011 - 09:33

This post is part of a series on the Kokila Sandeśa of Uddaṇḍa Ṥāstri, to read the introduction click here

After the city of Koṭṭayam, the hero asks his messenger to take a small diversion to Sampadgrāma towards the north of Kerala, just as Kālidāsa’s yakṣa urges the cloud to take a circuitous route in order not to miss Ujjain. 

दिग्यातव्या यदपि भवतो दक्षिणा रक्षणार्थं मत्प्राणानां पुनरपि सखे पश्चिमामेव यायाः। धूतारामं मुकुटतटिनीमारुतैस्तत्र शम्भोः सम्पद्ग्रामं यदि न भजसे जन्मना किं भृतेन॥

Even though you need to head south if you are to save me from death, my friend, fly a little further still to the west.  If you don’t visit Sampadgrāma while you’re there, where the breezes from the Mukuṭa river bestir the gardens, this life will have been a waste.

Unni notes that Sampadgrāma was “was one of the opulent villages of ancient Kerala”, as its name ‘sampad’ ‘wealth’ and ‘grāma’ ‘village’ suggests.  It is today known as Taliparamba or Perincelloor and houses the famous Rajarajeshvara temple, whose founding myth is told as follows:

Three Ṥivaliṅgas, created from the dust produced by the churning of the sun mixed with amṛta (a divine nectar), were presented by Parvatī to three kings.  The kings were to install the lingams somewhere where no death had occurred.  The first king, Māndatha, after a long search, found the current spot and thus installed it there.  However the lingam eventually sank into the ground and the second king, King Muchukanda, again decided upon this spot to establish his lingam.  It too sank.  The third, King Shatasoma, came to the same spot and, seeing the lingam begin to sink even as he installed it, took the help of the legendary sage Agastya to keep his lingam above ground.  It worked and, with the combined power of three Ṥivaliṅgas, the place thus became a major temple.

This temple too is connected to Paraśurāma, who had it renovated by heaven’s architect, Viśvakarma. 

Rāma also worshipped at this temple on his way back to Ayodhyā after defeating Rāvaṇa.  Out of deference to him – as an incarnation of Viṣṇu – devotees here do not enter the namaskāra-maṇḍapa where he worshipped. 

सौधैस्तुङ्गैर्हसदिव सुधाक्षालितै राजताद्रिं तेजोराशेः प्रविश भवनं धूर्जटेरूर्जितं तत्। पार्श्वे पार्श्वे परिचितनमस्कारजातश्रमाणां क्ष्मादेवानां क्षणमन्भवंस्तालवृन्तस्य लीलाम्॥1.51

Enter that mighty abode of the resplendent dreadlocked Ṥiva with its whitewashed turrets that seem to mock the silver mountain Kailāsa and for a moment or two enjoy the refreshing breeze from the fans of the Brahmins who are gathered on every side, resting after their customary namaskāras.

This temple is also the scene of several stories about our poet, Uddaṇḍa Ṥāstri. As a notice board tells visitors even today, he was one of the most famous – possibly the original – recipient of the illustrious Kuttumparam award for excellence in a given field.  This award ceremony is held in a small structure on the right of the main gate of the temple and the prize consists of a large gold bracelet, the vīraśṛṅkhala, awarded by a unanimous vote by the temple leaders.

The poet seems to make no reference to this but the very fact he spends nine verses describing this temple, far longer than any other, suggests a partiality.  This partiality may also be attributed to another story which tells how Uddaṇḍa, who worshipped divinity in its most impersonal aspect as nirguṇa Brahma (Consciousness uncharacterised by any of the qualities we know and understand) and thus not in the habit of paying his respects to God embodied in a statue, found his palms spontaneously come together in prayer – as the lotus closes upon seeing the moon – as he stood before the Taliparamba Ṥiva [if anyone knows the verse to which this refers please let me know].  This then brings an added significance to the verse with which the hero asks the koel to praise God in this temple – the only such instance in this poem.   

दिव्यैश्चर्यं दिशसि भजतां वर्तसे भिक्षमाणो गौरीमङ्के वहसि भसितं पञ्चबाणं चकर्थ। कृत्स्नं व्याप्य स्फुरसि भुवनं मृग्यसे चागमान्तैः कस्ते तत्त्वं प्रभवति परिच्छेत्तुमाश्चर्यसिन्धो॥1.54

“For your devotees you wield a divine might, but you yourself live on the alms of others. You hold Gaurī tenderly in your lap, but you burnt the five-arrowed God of Love to ash.   You have pervaded the whole world and appear throughout it, but the Upaniṣads are still searching for you.  Who has the power to circumscribe your supreme self, an ocean of wonders, my Lord?”

इत्थं स्तुत्वा बहिरुपवनोपान्तमाकन्दशृङ्गे यावद्भानुर्व्रजति चरमं भूधरं तावदास्स्व। द्रक्ष्यस्यन्वक्सफलनयनं ताण्डवानीन्दुमौले- र्लास्यक्रीडाललितगिरिजापाङ्गसम्भावितानि॥1.55

Sing his praises thus perched atop a mango tree in the grove outside until the sun travels beyond the furthest mountain.  After that feast your eyes upon the tānḍava dance of the moon-crested Ṥiva, intensified by the lovely Parvatī flashing glances as she dances the accompanying lāsya. 

The koel is promised a beautiful night’s rest in Ṥiva’s presence, fanned by the breeze from the nearby sea which brings with it the scent of the night-blooming water lily.  In the morning as he sets off he is encouraged to visit the nearby Trichambaram temple.  Interestingly the traditional way of visiting these two neighbouring temples, at least today, is the other way round – Trichambaram first and then the Rajarajeshwara temple. 

दृष्ट्वा देवं परिसरजुषं शम्बरे बालकृष्णं लोपामुद्रासखतिलकितं दिङ्मुखं भूषयिष्यन्। कोलानेलावनसुरभिलान् याहि यत्र प्रथन्ते वेलातीतप्रथितवचसः शङ्कराद्याः कवीन्द्राः॥1.61

Visit the nearby Ṥambara temple of the young Lord Kṛṣṇa in as you prepare to head south, the direction marked by Agastya.  Go to the Kola lands fragrant with cardamom forests where great poets such as Ṥaṅkara*, whose famed verse has spread beyond every shore, are celebrated.   

*Unni notes that this is a reference to a contemporary of Uddaṇḍa’s who composed the Ṥrīkṛṣṇavijaya

The Trichambaram – said to be a corruption of Tiru Ṥambara (tiru is the Tamil equivalent of śrī – a marker of respect) –  temple is a small but nevertheless famous Kṛṣṇa temple which is just two kilometres from the Rajarajeshvara temple.  This temple, which history places in the 11th century, is also linked to Paraśurāma – but in this case he is credited with its foundation.  The two temples are linked by more than geography.   Viṣṇu and Lakṣmī once came to pay their respects to Ṥiva in his temple here.  When he saw Lakṣmī Ṥiva assumed the form of Viṣṇu to lure her into the garbhagṛham or inner shrine.  He then had his attendants – the bhūtagaṇas – block her exit by permanently sealing the temple’s back door so that she, and the wealth she embodied, might remain there. [The bhūtagaṇas feature too in the temple’s construction.  The local priests demonstrate how these huge walls, made of large stone blocks without cement, could not have been built by men – the bhūtagaṇas erected them.]  The goddess was later claimed by her husband but her presence remains there.  In celebration of this bond, the festival idol of the Trichambaram temple is brought to the Rajarajeshvara temple on three occasions each year, where it circles the large temple wall seven times, seated upon an elephant. 


The Kola land to which the koel is next directed is closely linked with both of these temples.  The Kola region was originally the dominion of the Mūṣika (or Mūṣaka – both variants, which mean rat or mouse, are used) kings and only later the Kolattiris, who give the land the name ‘Kola’ by which Uddaṇḍa refers to it.  In the legend narrated above, the third king, Shatashoma, is a Mūṣaka king according to the Mūṣakavamśa.  The Mūṣakavaṃśa is a mahākāvya that tells the story of these kings from their origins – the first king’s mother escaped Paraśurāma’s slaughter of kṣatriyas by taking refuge on the Ezhi hill, Ezhimala, which later became their capital – up to the 12th century.  Other Mūṣaka kings worshipped at these temples and they were also evidently important places of worship and culture for the Kolattiris. 

The hero tells the koel that the Kola land is fragrant with elā, cardamom.  The Kola capital, Ezhimala, which means ‘mouse hill’ in Tamil and Malayalam, is celebrated for its wonderful fecundity which legend attributes to its unusual formation.  The hills were originally portions of the Himalayan mountain top which Hanuman, after bringing them to the battlefield at Laṅkā to revive Rāma’s army, accidentally dropped on his return journey.  A huge naval academy was recently built at Ezhimala and special clearance is needed for visitors.  Uddaṇḍa though gives us a dramatic description of the view from this coast (as the hero seems to send the koel directly south to the sea’s edge, and as Ezhimala is due west of Taliparamba, the spot Uddaṇḍa has in mind is probably south of the capital):    

उन्मज्जद्भिः पुनरिव जवात् पक्षवद्भिर्गिरीन्द्रै- र्वृन्दैर्नावां भुजपटलिकोड्डामरैर्गाह्यमानम्। लक्ष्मीजानेः शयनसदनं पुष्पवाटं पुरारेः पाकस्थानं निखिलमरुतां पश्य वारान्निधानम्॥1.62

See the ocean – Viṣṇu’s bedroom, Ṥiva’s garden and a kitchen for all the gods*.  As flocks of great ships with curving sails dive about her it is as if the mountain lords are once again bursting up from the sea, their wings intact. 

*Ṥiva wears the moon in the place of a flower, and as the moon was born in the ocean, the ocean is thus the garden from which he plucked his flower.  The ocean also produced the amṛta or nectar which nourishes all of the gods.

Categories: Other Language Links

Citra Kavya: Review of Citram

Fri, 08/26/2011 - 09:38

Citra Bandha – Volume III of Citram

V Balasubrahmanyam

Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan


 Dr Shankar Rajaraman

Authors on Sanskrit poetics have traditionally classified poetry into three types based on the predominance, subordination or relative absence of dhvani (suggestion) and specifically of its major subdivision called rasa-dhvani (suggestion through sentiment, in fact sentiment itself because it is held that sentiment can never be expressed through words but always suggested through them). Of these three types, the ‘superior’, ‘intermediate’ and ‘inferior’ – plus the ‘most inferior’ if we accept Jagannātha Paṇḍita’s four-fold classification – citrakāvya (literally ‘marvel poetry’ [1]) comes last. It is therefore held to be synonymous with the ’inferior’ or the ‘most inferior’ categories of poetry.

Citrakāvya’s aim, as its very name suggests, is to create wonder. Though held to be inferior by rhetoricians, it is by no means easy to compose. Neither has it been neglected due to its lower status. It is in fact intriguing to note that even purists who vouch for the superiority of poetry that is infused with dhvani have been unable to resist the pull of citrakāvya for the sheer intellectual challenge it offers. Ānandavardhana, the author of the Dhvanyāloka, a path-breaking work in Sanskrit poetics that successfully upholds the superiority of dhvani, is, surprisingly, also credited with the Devīśatakam, a hymn in praise of Devī, the Mother Goddess, that sets forth to illustrate, at every step, the numerous, complicated and difficult forms of citrakāvya.

Backed by a history of more than a thousand years, citrakāvya still continues to be composed by small pockets of scholars throughout India. The laity, though, is scarcely aware of the existence of such a form of poetry. A work of the nature of Citram is therefore the need of the hour. By introducing a lesser-known but interesting aspect of Sanskrit poetry to the general public, the work has, I should say, done yeoman service to the cause of popularising the language. Anything that is interesting is also likely to motivate some, at least, to explore further. 

This book, the third volume of Citram, deals with one of the subdivisions of citrakāvya called citrabandha (‘pictorial poetic composition’), also termed bandhacitra or simply bandha, in addition to gaticitra (‘citrakāvya based on movement’).

Gaticitra is poetry in which letters are so arranged that they repeat when one moves through the lines of a verse in a particular manner. The most famous example of a gaticitra (although in this book it hasn’t been classified as a gaticitra we may consider it so on the authority of Dr Venkatachala Shastry, author of Kannaḍa Citrakāvya) is the gomūtrikā bandha, a zig-zag composition.  In this composition, every alternate letter of the first and third lines of a verse is the same as every alternate letter of the second and fourth lines, thus creating a zig-zag pattern which mimics that left by an ambling cow – gomūtra is a cow’s urine.

[The image above is slightly different to the classical gomūtrikā; here the zig-zag pattern moves between the first and second lines and the third and fourth rather than between the first and third and second and fourth.]

The second category, bandhacitra, refers to composition of verses where the repetition of letters gives rise to a pattern that resembles recognisable objects in day to day life, for example a lotus or serpent.  [The illustration below shows a cobra citrabandha, both in composition and then below that in regular verse form.]

The author, under the heading ākṛticitram (citrakāvya based on the form or appearance of shapes) has classified the various types of pictorial poetry under eleven subheads.  Māṅgalikacitram refers to a pattern that resembles objects considered auspicious, eg the svastika sign. Twenty two such patterns have been described.  Next is the gomūtrikā, of which four types are described.  The muraja is a pattern resembling straps tied to a muraja, a type of musical drum. This is also often classified under gaticitra.  Cakra compositions are wheel patterns whose subtypes are based on the number of spokes the wheel contains. Ten types have been described here.  The padma (‘lotus’) category is subdivided based on the number of petals the lotus contains; the author describes eight types.  There are 12 types of nāga compositions, which consist of a single or multiple coiled or uncoiled serpent(s), and 19 types of āyudha ones, which resemble various weapons, like a sword, knife or mace.

In the section on gaticitram, the author gives six categories.  Of these the āvalī (a streak or uninterrupted series, an uninterrupted repetition of the same letters in a different sense as in ‘His Hispanic panicky wife’) and śṛṅkhalābandha (literally a chain-shaped composition, an extension of āvalī in which the entire verse is composed so that every succeeding word starts with the letters with which the preceding word ends) are in fact subtypes of yamaka, a figure of sound consisting of repetition of letters that give different meanings, but are similar in sound. Of the remaining four, rathapada, gajapada and turagapada are based on the chessboard moves of a camel, elephant and horse [2] while the last, namely kākapada (crow’s foot), has examples quoted from the Vidagdhamukhamaṇḍanam where the answers to three riddles posed in a verse when arranged in a particular manner resemble a crow’s foot.  There is then paśupādapacitram – patterns based on certain flora and fauna, for instance an elephant, horse or peacock, and also a man or woman. Sixteen types have been described.  Ābharaṇacitram consists of patterns resembling various ornaments, such as an armlet or girdle. Five types are described here.  Finally we have 38 types of anyākāracitram which are miscellaneous formations such as the moon, Mount Meru, a bed, swing, well, lamp, pestle, mirror, lute, bell and so on.  The book thus discusses a total of 141 patterns.

The author’s modus operandi in describing a pattern is to first quote its Sanskrit definition (lakṣaṇa) translate it to English and then give the examples (lakṣya) from various sources – both poetry and works on poetics followed by the Sanskrit commentary on these exemplary verses – the English meanings of individual words in the verses and the overall purport. Metrical details are occasionally added.

Though the author’s efforts in collating information on citrakāvya from every nook and corner of Sanskrit literature are laudable, more value could have been added to his work had he more closely analysed the intricacies involved in composing citrakāvya. To give an example, he cites a verse which illustrates the kuṇḍalitanāgabandha, or the coiled snake pattern, but forgets to mention the metre which in this case is the 21-syllable pañcakāvalī, also called sarasī or campakamālā. It is necessary to know the metre in this instance because it is usually the more famous sragdharā metre that is employed for composing verses of this kind. Further, a verse in the kuṇḍalitanāgabandha pattern invariably has to be composed in a metre that has 21 syllables in each line. That the metre itself, quite apart from the pattern selected, poses extra constraints on the poet, has also not been analysed adequately. In this example, the distribution of short and long syllables in each line is as follows (U represents a short syllable and _ represents a long one): UUUU_U_UUU_UU_UU_U_U_. The coiled serpent pattern requires, apart from similarity between other pairs of letters, that the 14th letter of the first line and the 20th letter of the second line be the same. However, from the distribution of short and long syllables in this metre, it can be seen that the 14th syllable is long while the 20th syllable is short. The poet is therefore forced to use a conjunct consonant as the 15th letter of the first line so that, in accordance with metrical rules, the preceding syllable – in spite of being short to match the 20th syllable of the second line – is counted as long, thus simultaneously satisfying constraints posed by the pattern as well as metre.

With respect to the Sanskrit portions of this book, several mistakes can be observed. For example, in the verse cited above, the 13th, 11th and 9th letters of the first, third and fourth lines have been printed as ṇā (which is a long syllable), ya (a short syllable) and kṣa (a conjoint consonant that renders the previous syllable long) respectively. The contingencies of the metre, however, mean that such a representation of short and long syllables is not possible. The absence of diacritical marks makes it difficult to read Sanskrit words transliterated into Roman script. For instance, ‘Anyakara Chitram’ could be read as either anyākaracitram or anyākāracitram, meaning either ‘pictorial poetry from other sources’ or ‘pictorial poetry delineating other patterns’.

Notwithstanding the above, this is a book that merits a place in the personal collection of any Sanskrit enthusiast. Its strength lies in the sheer amount of information that it provides on the topic of citrakāvya. Apart from well-known sources such as the Pādukāsahasram, Ṥiśupālavadham, Ṥarasvatīkaṇṭhābharaṇam or Citrakāvyakautukam, the author has also managed to draw examples from less-known and difficult-to-procure sources such as the Vidagdhamukhamaṇḍanam, Citraprapañca, Kapphiṇābhyudaya and Vīrajinastava. That the octogenarian author learnt Sanskrit in order to delve deep into one of the most difficult and least explored aspects of its literature is as much a proof of the greatness of this language that can provide such inspiration as of the author’s passion.

Dr Shankar Rajaraman is an accomplished Sanskrit poet and an aṣṭāvadhānī who can compose citrabandhas at the drop of a hat.  His latest book, Devīdānaviyam, a citrakāvya (from which the illustrations  above have been taken), was published in January by Samskrita Bharati.

  [1] For a definition of citrakāvya, rf. Kāvyaprakāśa 1.4: ‘śabdacitraṃ vācyacitram avyaṅgyaṃ tvavaraṃ smṛtam’ – ‘sound-based citrakāvya and meaning-based citrakāvya are said to be an inferior sort of poetry without any implied meaning’.  See also the explanation that follows: ‘citramiti guṇālaṅkārayuktam. Avyaṅgyamiti sphuṭapratīyamānārtharahitam.’  - ‘citrakāvya is poetry endowed with attributes like mādhurya (sweetness) etc and figures of sound and sense such as alliteration and simile, but bereft of any conspicuous suggested meaning.’  [2] Venkatachala Shastry in his Kannaḍa Citrakāvya wonders if this refers to the moves of a camel (the camel is the Indian equivalent of the bishop) in chess.  According to the Kāvyālaṇkāra of Rudraṭa, in a rathapada verse the second and fourth lines are palindromes, ie, read the same forwards and backwards. In other words, it refers to the moves of a chess piece that can traverse both forwards and backwards horizontally, vertically or obliquely, but not all three. The minister (queen) may traverse both forwards and backwards and in all directions, so it cannot be the moves of a minister. The elephant (rook) may traverse both forwards and backwards horizontally and vertically (but not obliquely) – and in any case there is already a gajapada – so this does not refer to the moves of the elephant either. It is the camel alone that has the freedom to traverse forwards and backwards in only one direction, ie, obliquely. I therefore feel this comes closest to the moves made by the camel on the chess board. It may be that it is called ratha (chariot) rather than uṣṭra (camel) because traditionally the caturaṅgasainya (‘four-limbed army’; caturaṅga can also refer to chess) is composed of elephants, chariots, horses and foot soldiers – but no camels. Since elephants, horses (the horse is the knight) and foot soldiers (the pawns) are already represented on the chess board, the remaining piece – leaving aside the king and minister – which we now call the camel should logically be a chariot. 
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Kottayam – Kokila Sandesha 4

Mon, 08/15/2011 - 09:27

This post is part of a series on the Kokila Sandeśa of Uddaṇḍa Ṥāstri, to read the introduction click here

The koel continues his descent through the ghats until he reaches Kottayam, just a few kilometres from the coast but nevertheless in the foothills.  This was the kingdom of the Puralī kings, an important dynasty.  The kingdom originally had its headquarters at Peravur, which you pass through on the way from Kottiyur among a glittering array of enormous new churches, bizarre statues (including one in which a bewinged Jesus is running a sword through Satan, who is already ablaze, in a sort of cross between St George slaying the dragon and Paradise Lost illustrations) and Jesus posters. During Uddaṇḍa’s time, Kottayam was the kingdom’s capital and lent its name to the dynasty as a whole.  Later, the capital shifted to Pazhassi and the kings became known as the Pazhassi rajas.  Kottayam is now a village just outside Kuthuparamba called Kottayampoil but in the poem it is a city which, like others that the koel will visit, boasts huge skyscrapers and pretty girls. 

इत्थं भक्त्या पुरमथनमाराध्य लब्धप्रसादः कृष्टः कृष्टः पथि पथि सखे केरलीनां कटाक्षैः। उच्चैः सौधैरुडुगणगतीरूर्ध्वमुत्सारयन्तीं फुल्लारामां प्रविश पुरलीक्ष्माभृतां राजधानीम्॥1.44

Worshipping Ṥiva, destroyer of fortresses, with devotion thus you will receive his prasāda.  Drawn hence by the glances the ladies of Kerala throw at you from every pathway, my friend, enter the capital of the Puralī kings, its gardens abloom, whose tall mansions drive the clustering stars to follow a higher trajectory. 

The main attraction, though, is the king’s daughter, Svātī, to whom Uddaṇḍa dedicates two verses. Svātī is the only non-divine woman in the poem other than the hero’s wife who receives so much attention – and praise. 

केलीयानक्वणितरशना कोमलाभ्यां पदाभ्या- मालिहस्तार्पितकरतला तत्र चेदागता स्यात्। स्वाती नाम क्षितिपतिसुता सेवितुं देवमस्याः स्वैरालापैस्तव पिक गिरां कापि शिक्षा भवित्री॥1.47

If the king’s daughter, Svātī, should happen to come there – her girdle ringing as she springs along on soft feet, hand in hand with her friends – to worship the Lord, she will learn a thing or two about singing from your twittering, koel.

तामायान्तीं स्तनभरपरित्रस्तभुग्नावलग्नां स्वेदच्छेदच्छुरितवदनां श्रोणिभारेण खिन्नाम्। किञ्चिच्चञ्चूकलितकलिकाशीथुभारेण सिञ्चे- श्चञ्चच्चिल्लीचलनसुभगान् लप्स्यसेस्याः कटाक्षान्॥1.48

As she approaches – her waist bent as if shrinking from the weight of her breasts and her face patterned with drops of sweat, weary of carrying her heavy hips – sprinkle her with the nectar of the buds collected with your beak.  In return she will throw you inviting looks that leap from under her trembling eyebrows.

Possibly in connection with this eulogy, some scholars credit Uddaṇḍa with a poem called the Svātīmuktaka, fifty verses in praise of this same princess which purport to be from her lover, and there are stories that link the two as lovers.  Unni in his edition of the Kokila Sandeśa dismisses this attribution but these two verses coupled with the one below which celebrates Svāti’s father, King Hariścandra, and the family in general suggests a link of some sort between Uddaṇḍa and the Pūralis.

येषां वंशे समजनि हरिश्चन्द्रनामा नरेन्द्रः प्रत्यापत्तिः पतग यदुपज्ञं च कौमारिलानाम्। युद्धे येषामहितहतये चण्डिका सन्निधत्ते तेषामेषां स्तुतिषु न भवेत् कस्य वक्त्रं पवित्रम्॥1.45

King Hariścandra was born to Puralī stock.  It was they, my winged friend, who restored and introduced the Kaumārila teaching*, and in battle Caṇḍikā stands beside them to destroy their enemies.  Is there anyone who would not be purified by voicing their praise?

*This is a reference to the philosophical teachings of the mimāṃsa school, and specifically those of Kumārilabhaṭṭa. 

One of King Hariścandra’s descendants won great fame by resisting the Mysore king in the 18th century.  A recent film about his life – Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja – was the best grossing film in Malayalam cinema and his tomb is on the Wayanad tourist route.  (Wayanad is the district of Kerala into which Thirunelly and Kottiyoor fall).  In all other respects though Kottayam seems to have slipped into obscurity, eclipsed partly by its more famous southern namesake – a region near Trivandrum in southern Kerala.

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Verse of the Week: 11th August 2011

Thu, 08/11/2011 - 09:24
न देवो विद्यते काष्ठे न पाषाणे न मृण्मये। भावेषु विद्यते देवः तस्मात् भावो हि कारणम्॥  

The Lord lives not in the wooden carving

 Nor in the sculpture made of stone or clay;

The Lord lives in our thoughts

And it is through our thoughts that we see him dwell in everything.

Dr Varanasi Ramabrahmam

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Kottiyur – Kokila Sandesha 3

Sun, 07/31/2011 - 09:26
This post is part of a series on the Kokila Sandeśa of Uddaṇḍa Ṥāstri, to read the introduction click here प्राप्तस्ते यदि कृतमहो वाङ्ग्मयीतीरवासी देवो दक्षाध्वरविमथनोड्डामर*श्चन्द्रचूडः। आस्ते शातत्रिशिखशिखया दारुकं जघ्नुषी सा यस्यादूरे मृगपतिशिरस्तस्थुषी भद्रकाली॥1.42

*Unni reads uḍḍāraka but as this doesn’t seem to have any meaning the alternative reading uḍḍāmara is preferred

You may be able to visit the moon-crested Lord Ṥiva who dwells in celebration on the bank of the Vāṅmayī river, having ravaged Dakṣa’s sacrifice.  Not far from him lives the goddess Bhadrakālī who, mounted on the head of a lion, skewers Dāruka with the sharpened point of her trident.


The famous abode of Ṥiva, known today as Kottiyur, is in fact two temples rather than one.  This extraordinary spot – which like Thirunelly and Kanchipuram before it on the koel’s route boasts of itself as Dakṣiṇa Kāśī (the Varanasi of the South) – was the scene of the famous Dakṣayāga, the sacrifice conducted by Dakṣa, according to the temple sthālapurāṇa. 

Dakṣa’s daughter, Satī, had married the penniless, badly (often minimally) dressed ascetic, Ṥiva, against her father’s wishes.  Dakṣa decided to organise a grand sacrifice to which he invited everyone except his son-in-law.  Satī confronted him at the sacrifice and her father further insulted Ṥiva, publicly humiliating him in his absence.  Unable to bear this Satī threw herself into the fire.  (As a result her name in its Anglicised form, suttee, came in modern times to refer to the practice of wives self-immolating themselves upon their husband’s funeral pyres.)  Ṥiva was incensed both at the insults and his wife’s suicide and summoning up two of his most terrifying forms, Bhadrakālī (the mention of her in the verse refers to the nearby Mukambi temple, where she is worshipped as Porkkali) and Vīrabhadra, and gatecrashed Dakṣa’s ceremony, cutting off his father-in-law’s head in the process.  Heaving Satī’s body onto his shoulder he started to dance the tāṇḍava dance and in doing so began to destroy the world.  Eventually, Brahma and Viṣṇu managed to stop Ṥiva’s dance, Dakṣa ended up with a replacement head – that of a goat – and mokṣa, and this kṣetra or holy place with its self-formed Ṥivaliṅga was instituted.

The temple complex consists of two temples on opposite side of the Vāvalippuḷa or Bavali river – the river Uddaṇḍa calls the Vāṅmayī.  One, Ikkare Kuti, is open for 11 months of the year and is much like other temples of this area.  The other, Akkare Kuti, opens for the 28 day Vaiśakha festival, which recalls the Dakṣayāga and takes place around May and June each year.  Akkare Kuti comprises two piles of stones – Manithara which represents Ṥiva, and Ammarakallu which represents Parvatī – surrounded by a sort of moat made by the Bavali and the Thiruvanchira rivers.  Through the calf-deep water of the moat parade temple elephants and shield-carrying priests. Around the moat, terraced walls, made of mud and stone, rise up to where coconut leaf huts are (re-)built each year to house the police post, the theyyam stage where every evening dancers re-enact the Dakṣa-Ṥiva story, the temple office and so on.  Similar temporary huts cover the two deities. A stone-walled channel, through which water courses, connects the temple ground to the river. And everywhere – in the temples, in the moat, on the terraces, in the channel and in the river – throng thousands of devotees, bare-chested men in orange or white dhotis and saried women.  The temple trust estimates that between 30-50 lakh people visit the Akkare Kuti temple over these 28 days. 

The festival was instituted thousands and thousands of years ago – no one can be sure exactly when says the temple trust Chairman – in memory of Dakṣa’s sacrifice and has been practised in exactly the same way ever since.  This temporary temple is set up each year because the devotees who originally started worshipping Ṥiva here found it difficult to cross the river every day – in spate it is fairly sizeable although most devotees still attempt the crossing through the river, assisted by sandbags and a spindly bamboo pole, rather than by the nearby footbridge because of the sanctity of the water – so built the Ikkare temple for daily worship. 

सिक्तः स्वच्छैर्झरलकणैस्तं भज व्योम्नि तिष्ठन् मुक्ताच्छन्नासितनवपटीकायमानायमानः। ध्वाङ्क्षभ्रान्त्या यदि परिजनास्त्वां समुत्सारयेरन् कूजां किंचित् कुरु ननु गिरा व्यज्यते सन्नसंश्च॥1.43

Worship the Lord as you hover in the sky, cooled by the fine spray from the crystal clear waterfalls which will make you look like a swathe of dark cloth studded with pearls.  If the temple attendants mistake you for a crow and try to drive you away, sound your call once or twice – a man’s words speak his worth.


A shop selling the auda or odapoo – lengths of bamboo which are raked into thin hair-like strands – that represent Dakṣa’s white beard. As well as being offered here at the temple, they can are hung in cars and houses throughout the region.

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Thirunelly – Kokila Sandesha 2

Sun, 07/17/2011 - 09:38

The koel’s first sighting of Kerala is at Thirunelly, an ancient temple at the point where the deciduous forests that lead up to the Western Ghats from the plains begin to turn into the betel nut and plantain that cover their western flank.  Today Thirunelly is in Kerala, just – the Karnataka-Kerala border falls at Bavali, about 20km before Thirunelly – but in the poem the koel must first cross the temple and presumably ascend the Brahmagiri hills which sit in magnificence behind it before he will see the fertile land of Kerala. 

The Western Ghats or Sahya mountains are, explains the hero, home to winged jungle sprites and Paraśurāma:

क्रीडन्तीनां मुखरितलतामन्दिरं खेचरीणां भूषानादैर्भुवनविदितं सह्यशैलं श्रयेथाः। क्षत्रध्वंसात् स्वयमुपरतो विप्रसात्कृत्य कृत्स्नम् पृथ्वीचक्रं भृगुकुलपतिर्यत्तटे सन्निधत्ते॥1.39

Wing your way to the world-famous Sahya mountains, a mass of creepered enclaves alive with the jingling of the bejewelled sky-roamers that play there.  Paraśurāma, lord of the Bhṛgu clan, who has finally given up his massacre of kṣatriyas and dedicated the entire orb of the earth to Brahmins, dwells on those slopes. 

Paraśurāma is the axe-wielding (paraśu means ‘axe’) sixth incarnation of Viṣṇu born to a kṣatriya mother and Brahmin father. He is said to have created the land of Kerala by hurling his axe into the sea and thus reclaiming from the ocean the stretch of coast from Kanyakumari – India’s southernmost tip – to Gokarna – which is just below Goa.  Today’s Kerala is of course now much reduced, its southern extremities lost to Tamil Nadu and its northern to Karnataka when the states were created on a linguistic basis.  Kunjunni Raja in his book The Contribution of Kerala to Sanskrit Literature notes that similar stories are told by other communities further up the West Coast which suggests this was a legend that entered Kerala with the Brahmins who immigrated here from these areas.  At any rate Paraśurāma looms very large in Kerala and surfaces in many of the temples the koel visits on his journey. 

Paraśurāma’s father was killed by a kṣatriya and it was to avenge this death that he went on a kṣatriya-killing spree.  The story goes that he came to Thirunelly temple, after trying many others first, to perform the pitṛkārman (rites prescribed for ancestors, including relatives that may have recently died) for his father as well as to wash away the pāpa of the blood he had spilled, as in the verse above.  The other famous visitors to this temple – as to so many temples – are Rāma and Lakṣmaṇa who came here to perform the pitṛkarman for their father Daśaratha.  The Viṣṇupadam (Viṣṇu’s footprint) at the Pancatīrtha, where five streams once met, marks the spot where they performed the rites.

Thirunelly today draws people from all over Kerala and elsewhere for these same ancestral rites, although its popularity may be more to do with the fact that this was apparently the spot chosen in Kerala for depositing the ashes of the president Rajiv Gandhi after he was assassinated. The temple is all set up for the ritual, with a suggested programme for devotees – the whole process requires about 24 hours – a demarcated spot in the nearby Pāpanāśinī (sin-destroying) stream for depositing the ashes and readily available pitṛkarman materials.

The name Thirunelly is Sanskritised by Uddaṇḍa to become Āmalakadharaṇī.  Nelly and āmalaka are the Malayalam and Sanskrit words respectively for the Indian gooseberry, which is much larger than the English fruit of the same name.  The spot is so rich in amala (as shown below) that the small shops abutting the temple sell jars of preserved whole fruits.  There are several legends behind the amala association, chief of which is related to the temple’s founding. 

Brahma once, while cruising atop the swan that serves as his vehicle, decided to stop off at this beautiful spot – thus lending his name to the large hill that dominates this area, Brahmagiri (Brahma’s hill) – and chanced upon Viṣṇu sitting in an amala tree.  He concluded that this place was none other than Vaikuṇṭha, the heaven established by Viṣṇu for his followers.  He asked Viṣṇu to remain here to help people get rid of the pāpa they and their relatives and ancestors have accummulated  - which is how the Pāpanāśinī stream acquired its name and power – and established the temple.  Entrusting the temple’s maintenance and rituals to some Brahmins, he told them he would come every day to worship Viṣṇu here himself.  Thus the priests set out the materials for a sixth puja every night and by the time they return in the morning Brahma has come and performed his worship. 

That was 5,000 years ago. More recently, one of the Kulaśekhara kings of Mahodayapuram (the koel’s penultimate stop), Kulaśekhara Āḷwār, who after gaining power over all of southern India turned to Vaishnavism in a big way and is said to have died en route to Tirupati, is also supposed to have founded the temple.  There is no consensus on his dates but he was probably pre-10th century AD.  Two copper plate inscriptions – which seem to link the temple to the rulers of northern Koṭṭayam, the koel’s next but one stop – and various other archaeological evidence suggests that the temple was indeed well established by the 10th century.

Just to the side of the temple is a Ṥiva cave shrine, barely big enough for a man on all fours to enter, which houses a small, garlanded lingam.  One version of another amala myth connected to Thirunelly has this lingam formed of a fruit that God granted to a hungry devotee.  Part of the river, which seems to be split into several small rivulets that spill all over the hill, runs past the rocks that form the cave and a huge plumeria tree – called śvetacampaka (white Champak) or kṣīracampaka (milk Champak) in Sanskrit – hangs over the temple, dropping white and yellow flowers onto the Nandī that guards Ṥiva.  All around the temple, devotees have created small piles of stones, presumably in connection with a request made to God.  A local devotee, who has written a leaflet about the temple, says that Thirunelly was originally a Shaivite and Dravidian place of worship which succumbed to the later wave of Vaishnavite influence.  He explains the Brahma myth in terms of a Brahmarṣi, the name given to a leader of a yāga (Vedic sacrifice), who perfomed a yāga here. 

Ṥiva is said to have gone from here to Kottiyur to destroy Dakṣa’s sacrifice (more on this in the next post, Kottiyur) and there is still an important link between the two temples.  Devotees are supposed to visit both temples plus a third, Thrissilery, together.  To travel to Kottiyur by road you have to go back on yourself through Mananthavady – the road in Thirunelly fizzles out about two kilometres past the temple – which is about 30km but there is apparently a path of 7-10km through the hills which devotees used to walk.  If so it is a short flight for the koel to his next destination, Kottiyur.

Categories: Other Language Links

Kokila Sandesha – Introduction

Mon, 06/20/2011 - 09:57

It is vasanta, spring, the season in which Kāma, god of love, lets fly his arrows with wild abandon.  As nature bursts into glorious flower, often at the instigation of beautiful young women, so too does desire.  It is thus natural that our hero, a lover playfully plucked from his wife’s side by some mysterious women and then abandoned in Kanchipuram and unable to return for two more months, is driven to dispatch a messenger to assuage the torment of separation.  And what better messenger than the koil, Kāma’s right hand man?  Thus the scene is set in the Kokila Sandeśa of Uddaṇḍa Ṥāstrī, and the koil is sent upon his long journey – some 1200-1300kms – across India’s lower half and into the land of Kerala. 

Our hero is not named – like Kālidāsa’s yakṣa he is ko’pi, ‘someone’ – but we can hazard a guess that he is in fact the author himself.  Uddaṇḍa was a 15th century Tamil from a village whose learning and scholarship is so great that even the parrots are reciting the Vedas as the koil flies past.  He made his way west, seeking patronage, and eventually ended up in Kerala.  The heroine, whom the koil is to seek at home in Chendamangalam, a town just north of Kochi, is thus we can assume Uddaṇḍa’s wife. (Other sources suggest that he was indeed married to a Chendamangalam lady.)  The only other well known work of this great Tamil scholar, a play called Mallikāmāruta based very heavily on Bhavabhūti’s Mālatīmādhava, gives us the details of the poet’s origins and his travels across various kingdoms including Kaliṅga, Āndhra, Karṇāṭa and Cola to the court of the Calicut Zamorins.

Indeed it was from the Zamorin court that he is said to have acquired the title Uddaṇḍa, which means ‘pre-eminent’ (literally ‘one who has a stick upraised’); his original name was Irugupanātha. It is tempting to imagine that the route he instructs the koil to take – which is, he says, “the best and most direct, where the deep shade of the trees will keep you cool as you travel” – is similar to that which he himself had taken when he first came to Kerala as a young man.  In the play, he describes how he spent this journey diving into great rivers and visiting temples, among other things, which could well be a summary of the koil’s proposed trip.

What is certain, though, is that Uddaṇḍa knew this part of Kerala – roughly the northern half of the long and thin, sea-bordered, state – very well. Indeed, he spent considerable time in one of the cities that the koil is to go to, Calicut, and legends connect him with other stops such as Taliparamba. 

Despite the lack of extant works, Uddaṇḍa looms large in the popular imagination in Kerala, even today.  A great many muktakas – free-standing verses – are attributed to him, which give us a colourful, if unprovable, picture of his long stay in the state.  One particularly memorable story relates how the Tamilian was invited by his friends, the Payyūr Bhaṭṭas (great scholars who also appear in the poem), to a kanji feast.  Anyone who has ever sampled kanji will wonder whether the very phrase ‘kanji feast’ is not itself an oxymoron; kanji, which tends to be called ‘rice gruel’ in English, consists of the water in which rice is boiled (the bit that is usually drained off) with, if you’re lucky, a few disintegrating rice grains and the slightest hint of salt.  [Admittedly the dish Uddaṇḍa ate seems to have been slightly less bland, with ginger and the such, although it was then as it is now something that is good for you. Most people take kanji only when illness forces it upon them.] Uddaṇḍa reluctantly attended the feast and found to his – and our – great surprise that the dish inspired his poetic spirit:

अङ्गजतापनियन्त्री सुरुचिरलावण्यसम्पदा सुखदा। अधरीकृतोपदंशा श्राणा शोणाधरीव रमणीया॥

Rice gruel is like a red-lipped beauty: where she tames Love’s fire, it soothes the body’s heat; to her abundant and charming beauty it has a wealth of subtle flavours; she is an antidote to upadaṃśa while it counteracts heavily spiced food – and both give a man equal pleasure.  

[The use of śleṣa (words with two meanings) makes it difficult to render the full effect of this verse in English.]

Most of these verses and stories depict a man formidably learned in just about every discipline and dismissive of the scholarship of some of his local rivals, particularly those who composed in Malayalam as opposed to Sanskrit.  Indeed, when he was finally defeated in debate by a precocious 12-year old – when the boy was still in the womb Uddaṇḍa’s rivals had used Vedic mantras to imbue him with his exceptional intellect – he left Kerala in a huff. For those who are more familiar with the Uddaṇḍa of popular report, the Kokila Sandeśa’s unstinting eulogy of his adopted land may come as somewhat of a shock. 

Although the koil is to spend well over half of the journey in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, the hero dwells at length only on Kanchipuram and lists only four stops before the Sahya mountains (the Western Ghats) and Thirunelly temple on the Kerala-Karnataka border:

दृष्ट्वा तत्रामलकधरणीमन्दिरं शार्ङ्गपाणीं तस्माच्छैलात्तटमवतरन् किञ्चिदाकुञ्च्य पक्षौ। कूलेऽम्भोधेः क्रमुककलिलां केरलक्षोणिमग्रे पश्य स्फीतां भृगुसुतभुजाविक्रमोपक्रमं या॥1.41

Pay a visit to the bow-wielding Viṣṇu of Amalakdharaṇī temple and then soar down the mountainside on tightly clipped wings.  Up ahead you’ll see the fertile land of Kerala, closely carpeted with kramukas, the product of Paraśurāma’s mighty arms. 

By contrast, the 500kms in Kerala include 15 stops and span 53 verses.  And it is these 53 verses that really set the pulse racing, both for literary critics and historians.  Historians because in addition to the lush landscape, thickly carpeted in betel nut or cardamom trees and criss-crossed by rivers; the local temples alive with myth; and the fabulous cities whose palaces push the stars out of their orbits, the Kokila Sandeśa is stuffed with historical, social and cultural details.  We are introduced to the kingdoms of the Puralīs, the Kolas and the Zamorins; the Mamankam festival and a varied cast of Uddaṇḍa’s contemporary scholars, poets and kings.  Sandeśa kāvyas are often mined for socio-historical detail; the Kokila Sandeśa presents a particularly rich vein of material. 

The hero describes a route which the koil cannot but enjoy.  There are beautiful women, breezes to wait upon him, mango buds to feast on (the koil is eternally connected to the mango which blossoms in this season) and spiritual rewards to be won.  If the Haṃsa Sandeśa was a pilgrimage of Srivaishnavite sites, the Kokila Sandeśa is a cultural tour and a celebration of the land in which Uddaṇḍa found patronage, fame and love (well a wife, at any rate). 

Only the most obtuse reader could fail to be as delighted by his armchair travel as the koil is; most will soon find themselves reaching for a Kerala map and plotting their own journey in the bird’s wing-prints.


The map is in three parts because Google maps is struggling to handle so many destinations – the first part, above, shows the route from Kanchipuram to Thirunelly.


This is the stretch from Thirunelly to Calicut.

This is the final stretch, from Calicut to Chendamangalam (Mukkola and Muziris are not included as below).

The maps of course show the route by road; the koil’s journey would naturally have been shorter. 

The route the koil follows is:

  • Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu
  • Lāṭapuram, in Chingleput district, TN
  • Thiruvalam, TN
  • Srirangam in Trichy, TN
  • Lakṣmīnārayaṇapuram – I haven’t yet identified this but one scholar locates it in Melukote near Mysore in Karnataka so I have followed this in creating the map above
  • Thirunelly, Karnataka
  • Kottiyoor, Kerala (all remaining places are in Kerala)
  • Kuthuparamba
  • Taliparamba
  • Ezhimala
  • Calicut
  • Thirunnavaya
  • Chamravattom
  • Mukkola – I haven’t yet been able to find this
  • Porkulam
  • Thrissur
  • Urakam
  • Irinjalakuda
  • Kodungallur
  • Muziris – a port that was destroyed in the 14th century and whose location has not yet been confirmed
  • Chendamangalam

Uddaṇḍa Sanskritises the Malayalam names, which gives us a minimum of two names for each place.  In addition, today’s Malayalam names are often different to those cited by 20th century scholars, and the lack of a standard transliteration scheme of these names into English further confuses matters.  Thus the town referred to on Google maps (that well known authority) as Urakam, can also be written Urukam, Urugam, Oorukam, Oorugam and so on and seems to have been called Pemmanam at some point; while Uddaṇḍa calls it Valayālaya. In some cases, there is also a mangled British rendering of a Malayalam name to add to the confusion, so that Kodungallur becomes Cranganore. 

I have tried to list the best known contemporary name above to help those trying to find each place on a map.   In the posts on each place I will discuss the different names where relevant and of course match the modern place name with name given in the poem.

Categories: Other Language Links

Hamsa Sandesha – Lanka (5)

Wed, 03/30/2011 - 20:46

[To read the introduction to the Hamsa Sandesha click here]

तस्मिन् दृस्या भवति भवतश्चारुसौधावदाता लङ्का सिन्धोर्महितपुलिने राजहंसीव लीना। त्वामायान्तं पवनतरलैर्या पताकापदेशैः पक्षैरभ्युज्जिगमिषुरिव स्थास्यति श्राव्यनादा॥1.60 

There you will see Laṅkā settled into the ocean’s sacred sand, her beautiful mansions lending her a white hue, looking like your mate, the female swan.  She will stand as if beckoning you as you approach with a call clear and loud, her wind-fluttering flags serving as wings. 

Laṅkā presents a problem for the poet.  As the parallel of the heavenly city of Alakā in the Meghadūta, which is the yakṣa’s home, it warrants a long, preferably beautiful, description.  Kālidāsa had pictured the city as a lover whose shawl is slipping off and who wears a string of clouds among her palaces like a lady wears pearl necklaces in her hair.  But Laṅkā is Rāvaṇa’s kingdom, peopled by rakṣasas (a type of particularly nasty monsters) rather than the young, carefree couples of Alakā.  Deśīka circumvents this by describing only the physical city – which was built by Viśvakarman and used to belong to Kubera, and is, as Hanuman attests in the Rāmāyaṇa, a worthy spectacle in itself – and the imprisoned goddesses who bewail the enforced separation from their lovers, and their fate at the hands of the rakṣasa king. 

(Another small difficulty, which the poet playfully reminds us of, is that Hanuman – who preceded the swan’s envoy to Sītā – has just recently burnt the entire city to ashes.  The image below is taken from Nina Paley’s brilliant Sita Sings The Blues


लीलाखेलं ललितगमनाश्चारुनादं सशिञ्जाः भल्लाक्षं त्वां स्मरशरदृशो गौरमापाण्डुराङ्ग्यः। मुग्धालापं मधुरवचसो मानसार्हं मनोज्ञाः यत्रानीतास्सुरयुवतयो रञ्जयेयुस्समक्षम्॥2.1

There in Laṅkā the abducted goddesses will present an entrancing picture.  They walk gracefully, you are elegant in play.  They have the music of their jewellery, you your lovely call.  Their lotus eyes are the love god’s arrows, you are known as the arrow-eyed.  Their bodies are pale and yours white. Their sonorous voices match your artless communication.  They know the ways of love; you are worthy of it.    

Sri Lanka has recently added a multitude of Rāmāyaṇa trails to an already bulging tourism portfolio.  Tour operators will now take you to Weragantota, the spot where the Puṣpaka Vimāna, Rāvaṇa’s equivalent of a private jet, first disbursed the captive Sītā; the pond formed of her tears; and the spot, Divurumpola, where she was forced to undergo the test of fire to prove her chastity.  The Lankan part of the epic’s geography though has long been disputed and remains today inconclusive.  Indeed several academics deny the identification of Laṇkā with today’s Sri Lanka full stop and instead place Rāvaṇa’s kingdom in the middle of a lake in North-East India or about 100 miles beyond Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean.  Even those that accept Sri Lanka cannot agree on where Rāvaṇa’s city might have been. 

Following the Rāmāyaṇa, the Haṃsa Sandeśa places the city of Laṇkā (and Laṇkā seems to be used for both the city and the island kingdom) just beyond the shore on Mount Trikūṭa (the three-peaked mountain): 

अध्यासीना बहुमणिमयं तुङ्गशृङ्गं त्रिकूटं दिक्पालेषु प्रथितयशसा रक्षसा रक्ष्यमाणा। अग्रे मेरोरमरनगरीं या परिष्कारभूम्ना त्वाहूयेव ध्वजपटमयानग्रहस्तान्धुनोति॥2.3 

Laṅkā is situated on the high-peaked gem-rich Trikūṭa hill, guarded by the demon whose reputation the world’s guardians are all too aware of.  Lavishly done up, she points the banners of her fingers as if challenging the immortals’ city on Meru’s peak.  


The palace that occasioned such a vivid description in the Rāmāyaṇa, where Hanuman wandered among thousands of post-coital women happily dozing, is here a symbol of Rāvaṇa’s imposing might:  

मध्ये तस्या निशिचरपतेः सद्म रुधान्तरिक्षं युग्मं नेयैर्दिवि सुमनसां सेव्यमानं विमानैः|2.6 (first two pādas) 

You will see the palace of the nightstalker lord, Rāvaṇa, at its centre – it intrudes into the sky, and is plied by the celestial chariots of the gods which are designed to carry couples into the heavens.


The swan, though, is directed straight to the aśoka vana, where Hanuman, on the brink of despair, discovered Sītā after an exhaustive search of the city. 

ईषत्कोपाच्चकितपवनामिन्दुसन्दिग्धसूर्यां नित्योदारामृतुभिरखिलैर्निष्कुटे वृक्षवाटीम्। सीताशोकज्वलनसहजैस्तत्र दीप्तामशोकै- रापद्येथाः प्रथमलुलितामाञ्जनेयप्रचारैः॥2.7

Go towards the copse of trees there in the palace garden, where the wind trembles at his most trifling angry word and the sun is mistaken for the moon.  It is always bursting with the fruit of every season and is ablaze with aśoka trees which keep Sītā company in her burning grief.  Hanuman was the first one to turn this grove upside down when he went on the rampage.


Here, as the swan wheels around in circles, he will find Sītā sitting below a śiṃśupā tree, her only companion.  And thus Rāma ends his instruction for the journey, and dwells with sad affection on his wife and the message the swan is to deliver to sustain her until his arrival. 

The rather blurry image at the top of this post is taken from one of those immortal tv serialisations of the Ramayana – highly recommended, especially the Rama-Ravana dual. 

Categories: Other Language Links