Sandesha Kavyas – Sanskrit Messenger Poems

Among the many literary Sanskrit works languishing in obscurity, messenger poems – sandeśa or dūta kāvyas – have a peculiar charm. The short lyric poems tend to feature a pair of separated lovers, a messenger and message and a finely drawn description of the route to be travelled. Kālidāsa’s Meghadūta is the first and most famous sandeśa kāvya. A yakṣa, banished to a remote mountain for a year, sends a cloud to sustain his wife with a message of love. The cloud is to travel north west from Rāmagiri in central India, stop off at Ujjain to enjoy its attractions (consisting chiefly of alluring women), visit the Mahābhārata battlefield, Kurukṣetra, and then fly through the crack in Mount Krauñca to reach Alakā and deliver his message.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Kālidāsa must be feeling fairly smug. There are at least 70 sandeśa kāvyas (also known as dūta kāvyas) in Sanskrit alone, and counting – poets are still writing them today. There is a poem here for everyone.

There are Jain sandeśa kāvyas, a glut of fainting-gopī-sends-message-to-Krishna poems, messages from Rāma to Sītā and from Sītā to Rāma, and a host of magical beings whose curses, kidnappings and tricks separate lover from lover.

Most of the poems are between 100-200 verses, although some as are little as 30 odd stanzas and one stretches to 374. The majority follow Kālidāsa in using the metre known as mandākrāntā (‘slowly approaching’, a languid metre thought particularly suitable for the love-in-separation emotion, vipralambha-śṛṅgāra-rasa) throughout, although several use śikhariṇī and the more ambitious poems mix and match with a handful of metres.

Messengers change with the subject matter. Poems that brim over with vipralambha-śṛṅgāra-rasa have stock characters such as the cuckoo or bee of vasanta (spring), the peacock of varṣā (monsoon) and the swan of śarat (autumn). The moon and various breezes are also put to service; and one of the more impassioned gopīs sends Krishna’s footprint as a messenger. The philosophical sandeśa kāvyas spurn such poetic figures for messengers in the form of manas (mind), smṛti (memory), prajñā (transcendental wisdom) and svapna (dream). Very few poets choose a human messenger.

If you were to draw a map of all of the journeys these messengers make, many of which involve several detours to take in all the sights, the area around Vṛndavān would resemble Heathrow on a busy day – thanks to all those lovesick gopīs – and there would be a convergence of paths leading up to the Himalayas in the north and down to Sri Lanka in the south. Thanks to the widespread distribution of the poets themselves, though, you would almost certainly touch each Indian state as well as many parts of the sub continent at large. Scholars of social history have a field day with these poems.

The poems also cover the main sites in the literary geography of India. Several poets draw on the epics, particularly the Rāmāyaṇa – the separated hero and heroine and the trail blazed by Hanuman as Rāma’s emissary make it particularly suitable. Others use the stories of Krishna in the Bhagavata Purana. Often too a poet will introduce the local literary traditions of that area and language.
This sandeśa kāvya series will choose a few of these poems and focus on the journey that each messenger makes, with articles on a selection of the destinations mentioned looking both at the poet’s description and, where possible, the place as it is today. Where possible because pinning down each temple, hill, river and city is not easy. Leaving aside the mythological tail end of the journey deep in the Himalayas, scholars are still not able to ascertain the exact route that Kālidāsa’s cloud takes after a good 15 centuries and a great many commentaries, studies and books. Nevertheless it is difficult to resist such literary travelogues.

I will start with the Haṃsa Sandeśa, set chiefly in Tamil Nadu, and thereafter plan to do the Ṥuka Sandeśa of Kerala. I would welcome suggestions for any sandeśa kāvyas readers would like to see covered.


12 Responses to “Sandesha Kavyas – Sanskrit Messenger Poems”

  1. 1 Aleix February 9, 2011 at 11:46 pm

    Nice post. I’m working on Meghaduta and I’m bloging about some problems with the sanskrit text.
    I have not read these 70 sandesha poems you mention. I’ve read the volume from the Clay Sanskrit Library, with the beautiful translation by J. Mallinson.
    I hope you’ll continue the messenger series.


  2. 2 Lakshmi Srinivas February 11, 2011 at 4:50 am

    Wonderful idea for a series. I loved the ‘Heathrow airport’ metaphor. I now look forward to ‘Hamsa sandesa’ though it’s an intriguing but very interesting choice.

    I should add that the ‘duta kavya’ has been a very productive genre also in Tamil.

  3. 5 Sreenivasarao S February 15, 2011 at 9:49 am

    Dear Venetia, You have chosen a refreshing subject. Not many have attempted on this genre of poetry “languishing in obscurity” – as you remarked. You have wonderfully well sketched in brief the nature, the preoccupation and the history of the Sandesha-kavyas. I am sure this series of your articles too will become standard works of references on the net- just as your series on ’the flowers’ .I admire your scholarship and dedication. May I suggest, in order rendering your introductory article more wholesome could you consider saying a few words about the historical spread of the Duta-kavyas. Page 1124 of The Encyclopedia Of Indian Literature (Volume Two) (Volume 2) By Amaresh Datta provides a short century – wise survey of the Dutakavyas. Please click here. Or search for the page on Google. The poet-scholar Bhamaha (7-8th century) makes an interesting remark on employing objects in nature as also birds and insects as Dutas .
    Pardon me for the delay posting my appreciation.
    Warm Regards

    • 6 Venetia Ansell February 15, 2011 at 12:13 pm

      Thank you very much for the Encylopaedia reference, I shall look it up. There seems to be no thorough study of the sandesha/duta kavyas as a whole which is a pity, it would be much appreciated. If you know of any books or articles on this topic I would be grateful for any references. I am also having trouble sourcing the texts of many of the poems, let alone the commentaries….

  4. 7 Vasya February 16, 2011 at 10:46 pm

    Very much looking forward to the series on sandesha-kaavyaas. Is the Hamsa-sandesha you are referring to – by Vedanta Desikan (Rama to Sita) ?

  5. 8 hnbhat June 27, 2011 at 4:31 pm

    Very Nice of you to start a series of Sandesha Kavya-s. Some one is also seen working on Hamsasandesha which also designed undertake the comparative study of the messenger poems:

    Wish you all the best in your endeavor. I think I have got a book published by my friend also contains some history of Sandeshakavya-s in the Vaishnava theological group, in the introduction to शारिकासन्देश by a रामपाणिवाद.

  6. 9 Chandragupta March 26, 2014 at 2:22 pm

    How about the Doot Kavya Neminirvanam by Vagbhat?

  7. 10 Dr. Ratna Herath May 2, 2015 at 7:12 am

    Dear Venetia. Thank you for enlightening us on this genre of poems in India. We in Sri Lanka have many sandeshas, belonging to 14th to 16th centuries. They are Mayura,Gira(parrot), Salalihini,Kokila(Cukoo), Hamsa (swan) etc., We may perhaps start an interesting dialogue on this. Dr. Ratna Herath

  1. 1 Hamsa Sandesha – The Swan Messenger « Sanskrit Literature Trackback on February 14, 2011 at 8:07 pm
  2. 2 The Bidi Messenger | vagartham Trackback on December 13, 2015 at 4:49 am

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