Hamsa Sandesha – The Swan Messenger

The first poem to be featured in this series on sandeśa kāvyas is the Haṃsa Sandeśa by Vedānta Deśika. 

The Poem

Hanuman has just returned to Mount Malyavān with a message from Sītā, imprisoned in Laṅkā, to her husband Rāma:  “Come as fast as you can.  I won’t last much longer.”  Rāma prepares to set off with his army the very next morning but just as dawn breaks he sees a swan, newly arrived from its monsoon retreat in the Himalayas, and is suddenly overcome with intense longing for his elegant wife.  When he comes to, he decides to ask the swan to take a second message to Sītā to console her and reassure her that he will soon rescue her. 

This is not the only sandeśa kāvya that takes the Rāmāyaṇa as its base, although it is probably the earliest.  Others such as Rudranyāyapañcāna’s Bhramara Dūta and the Abda Dūta of Kṛṣṇaśrīcandananābhi use the same device of a second messenger – a departure from the epic – sent to Sītā to keep her going, in these cases a bee and a cloud respectively.  Nityānandaśāstri’s Hanumad Dūta sticks to the epic in having Hanuman as the messenger, while Srikrishnanāthanyāyapañcānana’s Vāta Dūta has Sītā send a message to Rāma using a northern-bound breeze.

The Rāmāyaṇa doesn’t just provide the framework of the poem.  Small details dotted throughout recall the epic: the dancing peacock and peahen that torment Rāma during the monsoon, Rāvaṇa’s aśoka vana that fruits in all seasons, the captive Sītā as a doe surrounded by tigers, Sītā’s rising-sun-yellow shawl and anklet.  Vedānta Deśika though also very consciously draws on the Megha Dūta most notably with an array of verbal echoes designed to evoke for the listener the poem’s predecessor. 

 Upon the backdrop formed of these two familiar literary landscapes, Deśika introduces a third element that is all his own, that of his land and God.  The swan’s journey through southern India focuses on the temples and shrines of the Srivaishnavites – spread throughout modern day Tamil Nadu and parts of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka –  and their god, Viṣṇu.  The swan’s zig-zag course is determined by these divine spots, whose manifestations of Viṣṇu he is to worship. 


The Journey

Rāma dispatches the swan to the South, whose chief selling point is her “wealth of holy sites” (sthānaiḥ divyaiḥ).   Rāma also notes that it hosts the Tāmraparṇī and Kaveri rivers which spew out pearls, and the sandal-wood Malaya mountains from where blows the celebrated Malaya breeze.  A must-see destination, then, bar one small drawback, that it is also home to the rakṣasas.   

The route mapped out for the swan is, says Rāma, one of the two that Hanuman had described to him:

मार्गौ सम्यङ् मम हनुमता वर्णितौ द्वौ तयोस्ते

सह्यासन्नोऽप्यनघसुभगः पश्चिमो नित्यवर्षः।

प्राचीनेषु प्रतिजनपदं संहतावद्भुतानां

मग्ना दृष्टिः कथमपि सखे मत्कृते ते निवार्या ||1.11

Hanuman described the two routes to me quite clearly.  The western one, although it is the closer of the two, isn’t very suitable for you because of the constant rain.  On the eastern route your eyes will be glued to the series of wonderful sights found in every city and every hamlet – tear your eyes away as best you can, my friend, for my sake.

In fact, the route Hanuman’s expedition is instructed to take in the Rāmāyaṇa by Sugrīva is more a circuitous tour of central and southern India rather than a direct path to Laṅkā. Sugrīva orders them to go to the Vindhya Mountains, and from there many places north of the mountain range including Utkal (Orissa) and Daśārṇa (Madhya Pradesh) before covering the South – the Andhra, Chola and Pandya lands and Kerala – and then Laṅkā and the mysterious lands beyond. 

At any rate, there is no mention of most of the destinations that Deśika sends his swan to.  The swan’s journey focuses on the many of the 108 divya deśams (“holy places”) of Srivaishnavism, including Tirupati, Kanchipuram and Srirangam.  Almost all of Deśika’s material in this section comes from his own intimate knowledge of these places, their traditions and literatures.  He was chief ācārya (religious teacher) at both Kanchipuram and Srirangam, and was named the ghaṇṭa-avatāra (‘bell incarnation’) of Tirupati after the miraculous events that led to his birth.  Indeed the gods from these three important temples are said to have attended his father’s funeral.

This is the main reason that the swan is urged to take the eastern not the western route.  And, although Rāma continually urges speed – as the yakṣa did in the Megha Dūta – the apparent urgency is undermined by the long descriptions of wonderful places, at most of which the swan is instructed to stop either to worship the deity or enjoy the delights that place offers, or both.


The swan’s journey thus proceeds like this:

  1. Mount Mālayavan = The Anegundi hill next to the river Tungabhadra, near Hampi,Northern Karnataka (Monier Williams identifies it as “mountain(s) lying east of Mount Meru” but as Meru is imagined to be somewhere in the Himalayas, there is perhaps more than one Malyavān)
  2. Mount Añjanādri/Veṅkatādri = Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh
  3. Kāṇcī = Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu
  4. Varṣā = Thiruvallarai, Tamil Nadu
  5. Kaverī and Chandrapuṣkariṇī pond = Srirangam temple (which is on an island in the Kaveri, just beside Trichy), Tamil Nadu
  6. Vṛṣabha mountain = temple of Sundaraja Perumal known as Azhagar Koil/Tirumal Arum Solai (near Madurai), Tamil Nadu
  7. Tāmraparṇī river = Thamirabarani river, Tirunelveli district, Tamil Nadu
  8. A flight across the ocean
  9. Laṇkā = Sri Lanka

Click here to see this, very rough, map in Google maps

It is the end of the rains (varṣā), and thus the time that expeditions, both mercantile and military, can be begun. Indeed the very appearance of the swan heralds the new season of autumn (śarad) – swans fly to Mount Kailāsa for the duration of the monsoon, only to return when the rain is over.  The swan is thus promised an enjoyable journey: the peacocks who revel so much in the rain are losing their pride and their tail feathers, the lotuses and water lilies are opening, red bandhūkas are blooming and light white clouds charge through the sky:

आरक्तानां नवमधु शनैरापिबन् पद्मिनीनां

कालोन्निद्रे कुवलयवने घूर्णमानस्सलीलम्।

स्विन्नो दानैर्विपिनकरिणां सौम्य सेविष्यते त्वा-

मामोदानामहमहमिकामादिशन् गन्धवाहः॥1.11

The fragrance-bearing wind will attend to you, Sir, overseeing the rival fragrances shouting “me first, me first”.  Moistened by the forest elephants’ ichor it will playfully spin round in the night-blooming kuvalaya forest, leisurely sipping the fresh nectar of ruddy lotuses.


पर्याप्तं ते पवनचलितैरङ्गरागं परागैः

स्थाने कुर्युस्समसमुदयाद्बन्धवो बन्धुजीवाः।


चूडाचन्द्रं पुरविजयिनः स्वर्णदीपेन पूर्णम्॥1.12

The bandhūka trees will powder you all over with red pollen dislodged by the wind, and appropriately so, as they are relatives of yours – they blossom at the very time you set off.  Once you’ve been anointed you’ll look like the moon on Śiva’s head, smeared with the lac of Parvatī’s feet and filled with Gaṅgā’s foam.

सूक्ष्माकारैर्दिनकरकरैः कल्पितान्तश्शलाकाः

शारोपान्ताः शतमखधनुः शेषचित्रांशुकेन।

ऊढाः पश्चादुचितगतिना वायुना राजहंस

छायेरन्नभसि भवतः शारदा वारिवाहाः॥1.13

Autumn’s clouds will make for you an umbrella in the sky, my royal swan, propelled from behind by the wind at a speed to match yours, an umbrella with ribs formed by the sun’s slender rays, its border patterned with the multicoloured cloth of Indra’s lingering rainbow.


The Poet


Vedānta Deśika (1269-1370 AD), the author of the Haṃsa Sandeśa, was celebrated as a lion among poets and philosophers (kavi-tarkika-simha) during his lifetime, and well known and respected long after it.  He is a key figure in the Srivaishnava community whose chief teacher, Rāmānujācārya (the father of Viṣiṣṭādvaita Vedānta), Deśika claims descent from on both his father’s and mother’s side.  He wrote a huge amount of original works and commentaries both on and in Sanskrit, Tamil, Prakrit and the mixed language known as Maṇipravāla.  Most of this had a religious or philosophical bent – although that is not to imply that it was dry prose, some of his hymns to Viṣṇu, his wives and manifestations make for magnificent poetry.  Nevertheless, although Viṣṇu is present in the Haṃsa Sandeśa in his incarnation as Rāma, this is considered one of the lighter of his many profound works and hence often overlooked even by his devotees.



Deśika, after Kālidāsa, uses the mandākrāntā (‘slowly advancing’) metre throughout.  Each pāda (quarter) looks like this:

–      –     –    – | u u u u u  –  |   –   u  –   –    u  –   – 

A short/laghu syllable is represented by ‘u’ and a long/dīrgha by ‘-‘; the vertical bars represent the natural pauses.

Those familiar with the invocatory verse of the Viṣṇu Sahasranāma that begins, ‘śāntākāraṃ bhujagaśayanam…’, will recognise the mandākrāntā chandas immediately. 


The other posts will each deal with one section of the swan’s journey. 

  • Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh
  • Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu
  • Srirangam (Trichy), Tamil Nadu
  • Sri Lanka


[NB: In these articles and translations I have taken (rāja)haṃsa to mean swan.  From an ornithological point of view this is probably incorrect, as swans are not native to India, but given the importance of the bird’s white colour as an indication of its purity and divine lineage, and its regal associations, neither goose nor flamingo nor crane (the alternatives for ‘haṃsa’) conjures up the image that the Sanskrit word evokes.  So we have stuck to ‘swan’ and imagine a mythical bird which is firmly rooted in the conventions of kāvya.]


12 Responses to “Hamsa Sandesha – The Swan Messenger”

  1. 1 Aleix February 15, 2011 at 12:47 am

    Very good post!

    I agree with your choice for swan. By the way, are all translations yours? Which sanskrit edition are you quoting?

    • 2 Venetia Ansell February 15, 2011 at 10:56 am

      Thank you. It’s a very rich poem the Hamsa Sandesha, too rich for a few blog posts but hopefully the articles will at least generate some more interest in it. I’m using a Chaukhambha edition (which is still in print) with a Sanskrit commentary by Agyatakartrik;a 1902 edition by SN Sastriar, published by the Madras Central Book Depot; and a 1903 edition from Vaijayanti Press (Madras) by P Ananda Charlu. The latter two are no longer in print.
      Yes the translations are my own.

  2. 3 Sreenivasarao S February 15, 2011 at 10:35 am

    Dear Venetia, Very well presented. As you remarked, almost every Sandesha poetry owes its inspiration to and is a tribute to Kalidasa’s epic poem. There are also some subtle variations. For instance, while Srungara and Karuna run through Meghasandesha, the Hamsa-sandesha is charged with a sense of fulfillment. There are also spiritual overtones of quest and attainment ascribed to the work of Sri Vedanta Deshika who was primarily a philosopher- scholar. The image of the Swam – pure and unattached- is viewed, largely, as a symbolism.
    Perhaps, in each of the Sandesha –works you propose to review, you could say briefly in a few words the contrast between Kalidasa’s epic and the work under review.
    Looking forward to the next, with Warm Regards

    • 4 Venetia Ansell February 15, 2011 at 10:50 am

      Thank you. Yes as you say it is very interesting to see how each compares with the Megha Duta. I hope to bring this out when I focus on particular passages. I believe there are some studies which offer a verse by verse comparison between the Megha Duta and a chosen sandesha kavya but I haven’t yet been able to get hold of any.

      • 5 Isaac February 15, 2011 at 8:44 pm

        There is a bit of a discussion in Yigal Bronner and David Shulman’s translation of the poem (Clay Sanskrit Series, 2009 “Self-Surrender,” “Peace,” “Compassion,” and “The Mission of the Goose”: Poems and Prayers from South India by Appayya Dīkṣita, Nīlakaṇṭha Dīkṣita & Vedānta Deśika. New York University Press / JJC) and the paper they published on the subject (2006. “A Cloud Turned Goose: Sanskrit in the Vernacular Millennium.” The Indian Economic and Social History Review, 43.1.).

        Steven Hopkins has been working on the subject of the messenger poems for some time, and should be bringing out a study in the near future. His paper in the IFP book “Passages” is enlightening (2009, “Sanskrit in a Tamil Imaginary: Sandesakavya and the Hamsasandesa of Venkatanatha,” in Passages: Relationships between Tamil and Sanskrit. Edited by Kannan M. and Jennifer Clare. Tamil Chair, DSSEAS, University of California, Berkeley and Institut Français d’Indologie, Publications Hors série n. 11: Pondichéry, South India: IFP, 2009, pp. 281-312.).

  3. 6 Anand Viswanathan February 17, 2011 at 3:35 am

    Very nice and informative post, Venetia.
    I applaud your work, particularly for bringing out lesser published works on the web to the world through your website.

    I liked the map in this post. These help appreciating the overall setting better.

    Acharya Vedanta desika is known for his sanskrit works in many genres. Sankalpa sooryodayam is an allegorical drama. I have read part of his manipravala magnum opus Rahasya traya saram. It is a real treat to read if anyone is comfortable in sanskrit as well as tamil.

    His gadya work raghuveera gadyam also makes an interesting read for its vibrant prose.

    Waiting to read the details here.

    • 7 Venetia Ansell February 17, 2011 at 10:19 am

      Thanks Anand. I have only read bits and bobs of his other works – there are so many – and nothing in Tamil or Manipravala as I’m not able to read those languages unfortunately, but I believe as you say that there is some great material in there.

  4. 8 Lakshmi Srinivas February 20, 2011 at 10:26 am

    tUtu (< Skt dUta) genre in Tamil is the messenger poem. This is a medieval genre and was there perhaps from before Srimad Vedanta Desika's time. In the world of Srivaishnava literature itself, both Nammazvar and Andal have used birds as messengers in their verses although neither wrote a full fledged 'messenger poem'. These two poets are traditionally held to have lived much before Desika's time. Hope this helps.

  5. 9 Lakshmi Srinivas February 21, 2011 at 10:48 am

    According to Tamil textbooks, the first messenger poem in Tamil is Umāpati sivācāriyar’s ‘neñcu viṭu tūtu’ or the ‘Heart Messenger’. Umāpati sivācāriyar is a great Saiva Siddhānta teacher who in the poem sends his own heart as a messenger to his guru to highlight his deficiencies to his teacher. Umāpati sivācāriyar is dated to about `14th century. He might have been a younger contemporary of Swami Desika.

  6. 10 serena March 22, 2011 at 1:38 pm

    My early morning tea was complemented by reading your latest
    Sandesa kavyas blog – the poem on the swan messenger .
    Next time I come to India please could you be my guide for the route that the swan (although not ornithologically correct) takes? Piddletrenthide Village hall has an available evening for a follow up presentation once I have done this route.

  1. 1 Hamsa Sandesha – Srirangam (4) « Sanskrit Literature Trackback on March 20, 2011 at 8:37 pm
  2. 2 Hamsa Sandesha – Lanka (5) « Sanskrit Literature Trackback on March 30, 2011 at 9:25 pm

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