Calicut – Kokila Sandesha 6

This post is part of a series on the Kokila Sandeśa of Uddaṇḍa Ṥāstri, to read the introduction click here. 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:

After the diversion to Sampadgrāma and the Kola capital, the koel now heads due south along the coast to where his destination, Jayantamaṅgalam, lies, 280 odd kilometres away.

मुक्ताजालैर्धवलपुलिनं वीचिमालाविकीर्णैः

कूलाध्वानं कुसुमिततरुस्निग्धमालम्बमानः।

देशाद्देशं व्रजसि कुतुकोत्तानमुग्धाननानां

वामाक्षीणां नयनचुलकैः सादरं पीयमानः॥1.63

Hug the coast, lustrous with fresh blossom, its sandbanks white with the mass of pearls scattered there by successive waves.  As you travel from region to region beautiful naïve young women, lifting up their questioning faces, will drain deep draughts of you with rapt eyes.

His next stop is Kozhikode – better known by the old British name Calicut – which Uddaṇḍa Sanskritises as Kukkuṭakroḍa (literally ‘hen’s lap’ following the Malayalam).  The poet’s description of Calicut includes some of the best verses of the poem and celebrates the city as a whole rather than any particular site or temple.

गेहे गेहे नवनवसुधाक्षालितं यत्र सौधं

सौधे सौधे सुरभिकुसुमैः कल्पितं केलितल्पम्।

तल्पे तल्पे रसपरवशं कामिनीकान्तयुग्मं

युग्मे युग्मे स खलु विहरन् विश्ववीरो मनोभूः॥

Where in every house there is a freshly whitewashed balcony, on every balcony there is a bed laid out for love with scented flowers, upon every bed there is a pair of lovers mastered by passion, and within every couple the mind-born God of Love who conquers all ranges at will.

Calicut was the city in which Uddaṇḍa won patronage and great acclaim.   His patron, Mānavikrama, is thought to have ruled in the 15th century and was himself a scholar and author.  Mānavikrama was the head of the powerful Zamorin or Samoothiri clan which had risen to prominence following the collapse of the Chera kingdom in the 12th century.  Many stories and much debate surround the Zamorins’ rise. The Keralotpatti’s version is that a favoured chieftain of the last Chera king (who, the legend goes, converted to Islam and ran off to Mecca) was granted the wasteland that now forms Calicut.  At any rate, by the 13th century the Zamorins were a force to be reckoned with and became the most powerful rulers in Kerala for several centuries, fighting with the Kolattiri kings among others.

Mānavikrama, whom Kunjunni Raja says was “one of the greatest patrons of literature that Kerala has ever produced” famously had a circle of 18 and a half scholars in his court, including Uddaṇḍa and others such as the Payyūr Bhaṭṭas whose house the koel will soon visit.  The half was Punam Namputiri, a native of the Kola region where the koel has just come from who was accorded such status because he was a Malayalam rather than a Sanskrit poet.

Thanks to the port established at Calicut, the Zamorins became fabulously wealthy.  The port became a major trading centre, particularly for spices (lending Calicut its epithet as ‘City of Spices’), and appears in many travellers’ writings, including those of the 14th century Ibn Battuta.  The city’s sea-borne wealth becomes in the poem the expression of the sea’s love for his daughter who has settled in Calicut:

यत्र ज्ञात्वा कृतनिलयनामिन्दिरामात्मकन्यां

मन्ये स्नेहाकुलितहृदयो वाहिनीनां विवोढा।


नौकाजालं मुहुरुपहरन् वीचिभिः श्लिष्यतीव॥1.67

*Unni’s edition has tattadvīpa instead of tattaddvīpa as above

There I can picture the rivers’ husband – his heart overwhelmed with love for his daughter Indirā who, he knows, has made her home here – continuously proffering fleets of boats groaning with heaped up jewels gathered from hundreds of different islands dotted here and there, and hugging the city with his waves as it were.

The port at Beypore, one of the sub-ports of Calicut and a historical ship-building site, is a few kilometres outside the main city.  Boats of all sizes come to the small port today but only the multicoloured oil drums come close to the vision of gem-rich splendour of Uddaṇḍa’s description and piles of such incongruous cargo as septic tanks and industrial metal parts make for an altogether more prosaic aspect.

The city was also famous for the Revati Patthanam that was established by the Zamorins as a way of making amends for their aggression towards the trustees of the Tali Shiva temple, and thereby free themselves of the curse that was stripping the dynasty of all progeny.  The Patthanam was thus set up in the 14th century – and so called because it started on the day of the Revatī nakṣatra or star – and became a great draw for scholars, including Uddaṇḍa, from all over South India. The contest is still held at the Tali Shiva temple and includes prizes for scholars of logic, philosophy and grammar.  It was here that Uddaṇḍa, after many years of unparallelled success on the debating floor, was given his comeuppance by the precocious Dāmodara.  Among the many verses and stories from the competition between these two scholars that tradition has handed down is the challenge issued by Uddaṇḍa to his young adversary to disprove the statement that his (Dāmodara’s) mother was chaste. The 12 year old extricated himself by quoting a verse from the Ṛg Veda that maintains a wife is in fact enjoyed by Soma, Gandharva and Agni before she is given over to her husband. No doubt a more effective rejoinder than that usually made in such verbal duals in pubs, bars and streets the world over.

It was this temple too that hosted the first performance of Uddaṇḍa’s only other major work, the Mallikāmāruta.  Yet oddly this temple finds no mention in Uddaṇḍa’s description of the city, despite his close association with it.  The absence of any reference to Mānavikrama, his contemporaries at the Zamorin’s court or the temple leads some scholars to suppose Uddaṇḍa wrote the poem early on in his career before he had become so acquainted with Calicut and its inhabitants.  The familiarity with Kerala that is so evident though argues against this and Uddaṇḍa does describe the Zamorin family as a whole at least as brave, powerful rulers.

As with Kanchipuram, the poet’s hometown, the koel will have to tear himself away from the city:

कृष्ट्वा दृष्टिं कथमपि ततः कौतुकानां निदाना-

दुड्डीयेथाः पथि विटपिनां पुष्पमाध्वीं लिहानः।

हारं हारं मदनपृतनाकाहलैः कण्ठनादै-

रुत्कण्ठानां जनपदमृगीलोचनानां मनांसि॥1.69

Hard though it may be given the city’s array of wonders, drag your eyes away from there and fly onwards, feeding upon the nectar of the trees along the way.  With your calls, the drumbeat of Love’s army, bewitch the hearts of the doe-eyed girls of each region as they gaze up at you.


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