This post is part of a series on the Kokila Sandeśa of Uddaṇḍa Ṥāstri, to read the introduction click here
लक्ष्मीजन्मस्थितिमनुपमैः पूरितां रत्नजालै-
र्भूभृद्गर्भां प्रकटितकलेशोदयश्लाघ्यवृद्धिम् ।
पाथोराशेस्तनुमिव परां मन्यमानो विशालां
यामध्यास्ते स खलु निगमाम्भोजभृङ्गो रथाङ्गी ॥ १ ॥
Discus-wielding Viṣṇu himself,
bee to the Vedas’ lotus,
seemingly in the belief that this sprawling city is another vast ocean.
For both are the birthplace of Wealth herself,
both are filled with jewels that know no comparison,
both are home to the pillars of the earth,
and while the rise of its artists magnifies the city,
it is the rise of the moon that magnifies the ocean.* Uttarabhāga – Verse 1
*Lakṣmī, the goddess of wealth, was born in the ocean and it is full of the jewels produced when the ocean was churned to produce amṛta. Bhūbhrt, literally ‘that which bears the earth’, is often used to denote a mountain or a king; both are meant in this case. The ocean swells at the rise of the moon.
By Uddaṇḍa’s account, the city to which his wife belongs, Chendamangalam (Sanskritised as Jayantamaṅgalam), is not only as vast as the ocean but also its match in wealth. Whether or not Chendamangalam, pronounced Chennamangalam, was ever quite as grand as the poet describes it is today one of those quiet Keralan villages with almost as many people as temples.
In fact, Chendamangalam’s most famous residents date from after Uddaṇḍa’s time. The Paliath Achans, who were appointed as hereditary prime ministers to the Kochin kings and ruled much of this area in their own right, lived here in the large Paliam Palace. The palace and other parts of the Paliam ancestral home are currently being renovated – in a project undertaken partly by the large Paliath family, several of whom still live here – and will soon be opened to the public.
Uddaṇḍa doesn’t mention the Paliath family – writing as he was a couple of hundred years before it rose to prominence – but he does describe the Viṣṇu temple which is one of the many temples now under the Paliam trust. Local report has it that this temple moved Uddaṇḍa so much that he raised his hands to pay his respects to God – one of only two occasions when he did this, the other being at the Rajarajeshwara temple in Taliparamba.
Uddaṇḍa describes the temple as being “on the bank of the Cūrṇī river” (now the Periyar) but the river is now some distance away. Local historian Mr Manoharan believes that the river used to run alongside the temple, just to its north, but changed its course to move further north.
The site of the home of Uddaṇḍa’s wife, Śrīdevī, is also uncertain. The Mārakkara household, or Mārakkaḷ as it is now known, is still recognised as the family into which Uddaṇḍa married. Family tradition holds that one of the reasons the scholar-poet came down to Chendamaṅgalam was because of the report of the Mārakkara family’s great learning. The other reason cited is that Uddaṇḍa’s friend, another of the poets from the Zamorin’s court, Chennas Namputiri, was from this area and indeed gave his name to the town.
According to the poem, the house lies to the south of the temple. Today’s Mārakkara family is based south-west of the temple, but at a little distance. Instead, a plot adjacent to the temple, which now hosts a recently built house, may have been the original site.
The Kokila Sandeśa has a detailed description of the house and its grounds. It has a jewelled fence that encloses a golden central building; an ornamental pond lined with rubies; mango, champaka, sandal wood and kuravaka trees; and an emerald apartment where the poet’s wife loves to be.
Not much of that would have survived even if the description owed less to poetic licence, although the present Mārakkara house does have two ponds – one for bathing, and the other a yakṣī- or nāga-kolam (pond) – and an aśoka tree housed alongside shrines to propitiate the nāgas. (Nāgas or snakes play a very important role in Kerala. The current residents remember how the local astrologer, when consulted about moving one of the shrines, told them that according to the snakes it was the family who were guests living upon their land. One owner ignored the traditional nāga-worship to his peril; he was eventually chased out of the house by them.)
The house’s owners tell the story of how Uddaṇḍa came to write the Kokila Sandeśa:
Uddaṇḍa used to travel a lot, even after marrying, to participate in debating competitions and visit his scholar-friend. Perhaps towards the end of his life he went back to his village near Kanchipuram and was, due to failing health, unable to travel back to his wife in Chendamangalam. It was then that he composed the Kokila Sandeśa as he pined for her. Whether the couple was ever reunited – whether they ever did enjoy full days of each other’s company against a backdrop of roaring monsoon clouds – is not recounted.
तीर्णप्रायो विरहजलधिः शैलकन्याप्रसादात्
शेषं मासद्वितयमबले सह्यतां मा विषीद ।
धूपोद्गारैः सुरभिषु ततो भीरु ! सौधान्तरेषु
क्रीडिष्यावो नवजलधरध्वानमन्द्राण्यहानि ॥ ६१ ॥
By the grace of Pārvatī, daughter of the mountain,
we have almost crossed this sea of separation.
Only two months remain.
Be strong, my little one,
don’t give up!
Then we shall pass whole days in play
upon balconies steeped in incense,
my timid thing,
days ringing with the deep murmur of fresh rainclouds. Uttarabhāga – Verse 61
Rasāla, a kāvya imprint I have just set up, will be bringing out its edition of the Kokila Sandeśa alongside an English translation in the next couple of months. Please click here for more details or get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org
Many thanks to Narendran Paliath and his parents; Mr Sreekumar and the residents of Mārakkara; and Mr Manoharan for showing me round Chendamangalam and bringing alive the koel’s final destination.