Kokila Sandesha – Introduction

This post is part of a series on the Kokila Sandeśa of Uddaṇḍa Ṥāstri. An edition of the poem with an English translation will be released shortly by Rasāla, a kāvya imprint I have just set up. Please click here for more details or get in touch: venetia@rasalabooks.com

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 koel, or cuckoo, Kāma’s right hand man?  Thus the scene is set in the Kokila Sandeśa of Uddaṇḍa Ṥāstrī, and the koel 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.  We can thus assume that the heroine, whom the koel is to seek at home in Chendamangalam, a town just north of Kochi, is 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 koel 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 koel’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 – attributed to him 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 praised more for its health benefits than anything else – most people take kanji only when forced to by illness.] 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 koel is to spend well over half of the journey in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, the hero dwells at length only on Kanchipuram and lists just 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 betel nut trees, 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 as the koil by the armchair travel the poem affords; 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:

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.


There are numerous other Kokila Sandeśa or Dūta poems, in Sanskrit as well as regional languages, including one attributed to a Sri Lankan poet-monk at the Irugalkula Tilaka Pirivena in the 15th century, and another by Vedānta Deśika’s son, Kumāra Vāradācārya/Nārāyaṇācārya, in the 14th century.


13 Responses to “Kokila Sandesha – Introduction”

  1. 1 vasya10 July 4, 2011 at 10:18 am

    Very nice to hear about this work!

  2. 2 Sreenivasarao S July 11, 2011 at 5:17 pm

    Dear Venetia, I am sorry for the delay in responding to your very well crafted article on Uddanda Kavi’s Kokilasandesha. You have, as always, brought out the essential beauty and grace of the poem. The pictures and maps too are well selected. My regard and appreciation for your learning and dedication is heightened.
    You have given an insight into the colorful and aggressive personality of Uddanda; sprinkled with interesting anecdotes; bedecked with delightful description of the Kokila-route, and well illustrated with maps and pictures.
    It is a commendable effort of love and dedication.
    I am grateful for letting me have a copy of Kokilasandeśa of Uddanda by Shri N. P. Unni
    Warm Regards

  3. 3 david shulman October 12, 2011 at 11:06 am

    these are very beautiful posts, with the accompanying pictures and bits of the text. where are you, where have you studied? i am going to a conference next week on sandesa-kavyas, mostly from south india, and it would be nice to know more about how you became interested in Uddanda. david

  1. 1 Kottiyur – Kokila Sandesha 3 « Sanskrit Literature Trackback on July 31, 2011 at 9:27 am
  2. 2 Kottayam – Kokila Sandesha 4 « Sanskrit Literature Trackback on August 15, 2011 at 9:29 am
  3. 3 Indian History Carnival – 44:Āgamaḍambara, Kokila Sandeśa, 1857, de Havilland | varnam Trackback on August 15, 2011 at 12:46 pm
  4. 4 Taliparamba and Ezhimala – Kokila Sandesha 5 « Sanskrit Literature Trackback on August 30, 2011 at 9:35 am
  5. 5 Calicut – Kokila Sandesha 6 « Sanskrit Literature Trackback on September 15, 2011 at 9:40 am
  6. 6 Triprangode and Tirunavaya – Kokila Sandesha 7 « Sanskrit Literature Trackback on September 30, 2011 at 7:53 pm
  7. 7 Mahodayapuram – Kokila Sandesha 8 « Sanskrit Literature Trackback on October 20, 2011 at 10:21 am
  8. 8 Kokila Sandesha Bonus Post « Sanskrit Literature Trackback on February 24, 2012 at 4:17 pm
  9. 9 Thirunelly – Kokila Sandesha 2 « Sanskrit Literature Trackback on February 24, 2012 at 4:31 pm

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