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.