Suleiman Charitra and Jatakamala

As well as translating Kemendra’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 Kalyāa 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 ( Kalyāa 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.


Review: The Seduction of Shiva

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

Siddhartha: From German to Sanskrit, via English

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.


Megha Duta Part Two

(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.

Call for Poetry Submissions

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 ।


Sanskrit Newspapers and Periodicals

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 sources found over time:

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.

Kokila Sandesha Bonus Post

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.

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