Archive for the 'Messenger Poems' Category

Megha Duta Part Two

(For the sharper eyed readers who are wondering where Part One is, I am still waiting for a chance to cover the first half of the cloud’s route. This post covers its journey into the Himalayas and beyond.)

Kālidāsa’s Megha Dūta needs little introduction.  The most famous, and the original, of the sandeśa kāvyas by Sanskrit’s most famous, and almost certainly best, poet has always been one of India’s favourite poems.  A yakṣa, cursed to spend a year apart from his wife, is overwhelmed by love sickness at the beginning of the monsoon and sends a cloud to their home in Alakā.  The cloud’s route, from Madhya Pradesh up in to the mountains, has been the subject of much discussion. As ever, it is not easy to match the mixture of real and fabled places with modern equivalents – and more so once the cloud enters the Himalayas, the abode of snow, gods and fable.

Here, among the spectacularly large mountains of Uttarakhand, the cloud’s journey towards Mount Kailāsa is painted in the luminous colours of myth, with eight-legged śarabhas, goddesses who want to use him as a shower and golden lotuses.  We cannot but remember too the beautiful description of Himālaya (Himālaya is often described as a single, personified mountain rather than a mountain range) at the beginning of Kālidāsa’s Kumāra Sambhava, where irridiscent herbs serve as lamps for night-time rendezvous, birch leaves are used for love letters and the sun’s rays travel upwards (rather than downwards) to bring the lotuses to bloom

To try and trace the route, then, that the cloud takes from Kanakhala to Kailāsa is perhaps folly – but nevertheless irresistible folly for anyone travelling these mountains with a copy of the Megha Dūta in his pocket.


The cloud travels from the Sarasvatī river – itself much debated – to Kanakhala, and at this point at least we are still on fairly stable ground.  Kankhal, as it is now called, is a small suburb of Hardwar which houses a Dakṣa temple. It was here (as well as many other places including Kottiyur in the Kokila Sandeśa) that Dakṣa insulted his son-in-law Śiva and ended up his daughter as well as his head.   The temple today looks fairly new but that, the priest assures the visitor, is due to jīrṇoddhara – the process of continual rennovation.  In fact, it was Śiva himself who set in place the śivaliṅga here.

None of this though is mentioned or even alluded to by Kālidāsa.  In the Megha Dūta Kanakhala is simply the place where Gaṅgā descends from the Himalayas.  The Ganga becomes so called at Devaprayag – the first of the five prayags which mark the joining of the various rivers that form the Ganga (prayāga means saṅgama or joining) about 20 kilometres beyond Hardwar in the dry and dusty lower foothills of this part of the Himalayas – where the two primary head rivers of the Ganga, Alakananda and Bhagirathi, meet.

The yakṣa next tells his messenger to go to Himālaya himself where he will find a footprint of Śiva being worshipped by siddhas, perfected beings.  Many connect this with Har ki Pauri (‘footprint of Hara/Śiva’) just a few kilometres upstream of Kankhal, at the heart of Hardwar.  It is here that the main āratī for which Hardwar is famous is conducted, thankfully in a less orchestrated and showy manner than that on the Ganga’s banks at Varanasi but nevertheless with a certain amount of pomp.  The thousands of devotees of all shapes and sizes bathe in the river with the help of plentiful ropes and chains attached to the ghats, to stop them from being swept away.  Across the river, local boys, naked and with empty jerry cans tied to their waists to keep them afloat, jump into the water and let themselves be carried rapidly downstream for several metres before grabbing hold of a post and hauling themselves back to the bank.

If Har ki Pauri is the same as the footprint upon a stone that Kālidāsa describes, it is odd that he says the Himalayas start in between Kankhal and this spot. In fact, the hills don’t really start until Rishikesh, a few kilometres beyond Hardwar. There is a small hillock behind Har ki Pauri but otherwise Hardwar and the surrounding areas are very much a part of the plains – dry and flat.

The other details that Kālidāsa gives us about the Himalayas at this point – that they are scented with musk deer, and filled with devadāru (pine) trees and camarīs (yaks) with singed tails – relate better to the mountains proper than these early foothills. Pines are indeed plentiful higher up, and yaks too are found in places like Ladakh and Tibet.  It is possible to buy odd-looking furry balls (what exactly they are is not worth thinking too deeply about) which contain the sickly-sweet scent of the musk deer – the scent comes from their navels and is often mentioned in poetry as a fragrance for women – in Hardwar but the deer themselves are not in evidence in these parts.


The next place mentioned in the poem is Krauñca Randhra, the gap through the Krauñca mountain. This gap, and the mountain, appear often in Sanskrit literature, including in the Rāmāyāṇa – although there its location is north rather than south of Kailāsa – but has eluded modern scholars.  The hole is said to have been created when Paraśurāma fired an arrow through the mountain in order to best Kārttikeya who had already performed the same feat.  And it is through this hole that swans fly when heading to the Mānasa lake at the beginning of the monsoon.

In the Megha Dūta, the cloud is instructed to fly through the Krauñca Randhra after crossing the upataṭa of Mount Himālaya. Upataṭa literally means ‘near the slope’ but perhaps here refers to the foothills or lower mountains of the range. At any rate we should probably assume Krauñca is some distance from the spot where the cloud is to worship Śiva’s footprint.

There is a mountain in the Garhwal hills known to locals as Kraunch Parvat in the Garhwal hills – named after the yellow-beaked mountain crow (krauñca) – just a few kilometres from Pokhri.  It is here, they say, that Kartik Swami (as Kārttikeya is called here) retired after his younger brother Gaṇeṣa infuriated him by outwitting him in a competition.  Both brothers agreed to race around the earth to see who should be worshipped first. While Kārttikeya was labouring to circle the globe, Gaṇeṣa simply walked around his father and mother who together represented the world, and thus won.  Hence Kārttikeya came to Krauñca to do penance and work off his anger.

At the top of a three kilometre walk up the mountain, right on the ridge, lies a small temple to Kartik Swami with 360 degree views of the surrounding mountains – both the Garhwal and Kumaon hills can be seen.  The bells on the way up to the temple are covered in discoloured bindis, and the last few metres are littered with broken bangles and combs, the detritus of a certain type of pooja. None of the Garhwalis we met, including the pandit of the temple, knew anything about a hole in the mountain, nor does the mountain’s ridge have any kind of gap which could have been construed as a randhra.  Dr Dilip Kumar Rana of the Chinmaya International Foundation Shodha Sansthan, who has written an excellent article on the Megha Dūta route in the foundation’s journal, suggests that this gap was perhaps just an illusion created by two mountains hard by each other.

Kailāsa and Alakā

Whether or not this Kraunch Parvat is the same as that mentioned in the Megha Dūta should be able to be decided by whether it falls on the route to Kailāsa.  Neither the swans nor the cloud would fly through the hole unless it meant a shortcut in their route – there would be no point in them taking a long diversion to fly through the mountain.  This brings us neatly to our next problem.

Mount Kailash, which is currently in Tibet, is certainly the most likely candidate for the Kailāsa of Sanskrit literature and myth. Kailāsa, the silver mountain, is said to be home to both Kubera and Śiva. It is a mountain of some resplendence and a great many myths, many of which involve the Mānasa lake which is very close to the Tibetan Mount Kailash.  Even today, the mountain is considered so holy that no one has yet attempted to climb it.  Instead, pilgrims circumambulate it – sometimes covering the entire 57 km with full body prostrations.

However, there are many Kailashes in the Himalayas, including Adi Kailash in eastern Uttarakhand.  And in the Megha Dūta, the location of Alakā, which is ultimately the cloud’s destination, is hard to reconcile with the Tibetan Mount Kailash mainly because Kālidāsa says that the Gaṅgā flows down this particular Kailāsa.

It is on the slopes of this mountain that Alakā, Kubera’s city, lies says the poet.  And it is from this mountain that Gaṅgā descends. The Ganga’s two head rivers, though, come not from Mount Kailash but from Gaumukh (the Bhagirathi) and Satopanth (the Alakananda), both of which are in the Garhwal hills. In fact, the source of the Alakananda, which is a few kilometres trek from Badrinath, is called by some Alakapuri (‘purī’ means ‘city’). Badrinath itself is a huge mountain and, according to Dr Rana, is at least on one occasion described as being near Kailāsa.

In Sanskrit literature and myth, Alakanandā is the name of the Gaṅgā in svarga (heaven), and, after the river split into four when descending to earth, the Alakanandā was the only one of the four to flow into India.  When descending from heaven, the river is said to have fallen first upon Hemakūṭa, which is according to some sources another name for Badrinath.  A competing story though relates how the river formed four great lakes when falling to earth, the southern one of which was Mānasa.

To further complicate matters, Gaṅgā is meant to have been summoned to earth by King Bhāgīratha – after whom the Bhagirathi river is named – from Kailāsa.  So perhaps Kālidāsa was following this belief in locating Gaṅgā upon Kailāsa’s slopes.

Nevertheless, several scholars, and some Garhwalis, believe that Alakā was on the banks of the present day Alakananda, or rather right at its mouth. I wasn’t able to get up to Alakapuri and Satopanth, the source of the Alakananda, because Badrinath is closed for winter and no one is permitted to go up to the temple or beyond during this time, but if we accept that Alakapuri is at least a contender for being the site of Alakā, then Kraunch Parvat is more or less en route.  (Funnily enough there is another Alakapuri on the road from Chamoli to Gopeshwar, a small village on the bank of the Alakananda – no yakṣas in sight though.)

That leaves us with as many if not more unsolved difficulties, not least of which is where the Mānasa lake is – for that too is mentioned in the poem. Perhaps cnce we reach Kailāsa we should perhaps fold up our maps and surrender ourselves to the beauty of the poetry.

हित्वा तस्मिन्भुजगवलयं शम्भुना दत्तहस्ता

क्रीडाशैले यदि च विचरेत्पादचारेण गौरी ।

भङ्गीभक्त्या विरचितवपुः स्तम्भितान्तर्जलौघः

सोपानत्वं कुरु मणितटारोहणायाग्रयायी ॥ ६० पूर्वभागः

And if Shiva were to cast off

his dark snake-bracelets

and hold Gauri’s had

while she wanders on foot

about that mountain of fun,

you should arrange your body

into a series of waves

and steady the water within,

becoming a stairway soft on the feet

for her to climb.

(Translation by Sir James Mallinson)

(The use of diacritics in this article may seem inconsistent – this is because where referring to a modern place name I have not used diacritics, while references to place names in the poem and elsewhere in Sanskrit literature retain diacritics.)


Many thanks to Pushpinder Singh Rawat and his many friends and relatives in Garhwal, and to Gautam for taking me up to the mountains.

Kokila Sandesha Bonus Post

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,

lives here

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:


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.

Mahodayapuram – Kokila Sandesha 8

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:

रम्यां हर्म्यध्वजपटमरुद्वीजितब्रध्नयुग्या-

मग्रे पश्याञ्जनखलपुरीमाश्रितां शङ्करेण।

यत्राश्लिष्टो वरयुवतिभिश्चुम्बति स्विन्नगण्डं

चूर्णीवातः प्रिय इव रतिश्रान्तिमास्यारविन्दम्॥1.88

Up ahead you’ll see the charming city of Añjanakhala where the mansions’ fluttering flags act as fans for the sun’s horses and which is home to Ṥaṅkara.  The breeze from the Cūrṇī river returns the embraces of the city’s beauties, kissing their sweat-streaked cheeks as a lover the lotus face of his beloved, creased with exhaustion after their love-making.

The koel is to fly slightly inland after crossing the Nīlā or Bharatapuzha river.  His first stop is the home of Uddaṇḍa’s scholarly friends, the Payyūr Bhaṭṭas, to whom he should offer a poetic composition as a gift – possibly this very poem itself. (This echoes the offering Lakṣmīkdāsa’s messenger in the Ṥuka Sandeśa makes to Kālī at the Kodungallur temple; the Ṥuka Sandeśa, which was written a little before this poem, covers the southern half of Kerala before ending just north of Kodungallur and there is thus considerable cross-over in the two poems’ description of this area.)  After the Payyūr Bhaṭṭas’ house, which is in a village today known as Porkulam, the koel visits in rapid succession Vṛṣapura, Valāyālaya and Saṃgamagrāma – Thrissur, Urakam and Irinjalakuda respectively.

The koel’s penultimate stop is Mahodayapura, the ancient capital of Kerala under the Kulaśekhara kings, the second Chera empire.  Mahodayapuram must have been a grand city – the Ṥuka Sandeśa describes its mighty army and overlordship of other Kerala kings – but it is surprisingly hard to establish where exactly it stood.

The two sandeśa kāvyas both describe a Kālī temple, Mahodayapuram and the Cūrṇī or Periyar river on whose banks the city stands.  From the order in which the two messengers – who are flying in opposite directions, the parrot of the Ṥuka Sandeśa is travelling from southern Kerala up the coast – cross these three, it is clear that the temple is north of the city, which is itself north of the river.

In the Kālī temple just before the city Uddaṇḍa describes how Ṥiva’s attendants the bhūtas are prevented from sacrificing a bull by Vijayā.  This is the Bhadrakālī temple at the centre of Kodungallur. Animal sacrifice used to be a large part of the worship here but was latterly banned, although tethered goats still bleat just outside the main entrance.

Although in the Kokila Sandeśa the temple is clearly outside the city, the Ṥuka Sandeśa is more ambiguous and some locate Mahodayapuram in Kodangallur itself, a largeish town 30 odd kilometres above Kochin.  Others say that the lost port city of Muziris was Mahodayapuram. Muziris, which has attracted so much attention of late that there is now a Muziris Heritage Project run by the Kerala government, was a huge trading port frequented by the Romans, Greeks, Arabs and Chinese.  Recent archaeological evidence though places it about 10 kilometres south of Kodungallur in a village called Pattanam – perhaps shortened from Muziripattanam.  Recent finds from a site there include a plethora of amphora fragments, and a Tamil-Brahmi inscription that seems to indicate early Jain influence.  The port’s importance though seems to have suddenly diminished, perhaps due to an earthquake or as a result of the flooding in 1341 of the Periyar which changed the river’s course.   It is exciting stuff and has already been spun into a Michael Wood BBC documentary.  Most probably, though, Muziris was distinct from Mahodayapuram, acting as the empire’s major port city rather than its capital just as it had for the earlier Cheras.  At any rate, following the Chola king’s attack on Mahodayapuram in the 12th century, the entire Kulaśekhara empire fizzled out.  So by the time of Uddaṇḍa and Lakṣmīdāsa, both Mahodayapuram and Muziris must have been shadows of their former selves.

Unni identifies Mahodayapuram as Tiruvanchikulam, which seems to fit with the description in both the poems.  The Tiruvanchikulam temple is about two kilometres south of Kodungallur.  It is a quiet Ṥiva temple – thus “home to Ṥaṅkara” (verse 1.88 above) – said to have been built in the 11th or 12th centuries and thus accorded protected-monument status by the government archaeological department.   The Cūrṇī river is about a kilometre south of the temple.  It is hard to imagine this little hamlet – which has almost become a suburb of Kodungallur – as the Kulaśekhara kingdom’s capital but as Herodotus notes the fortune of cities is in perpetual flux.

The Cūrṇī, which features prominently in both the sandeśa poems, is a massive river crossed by means of two long bridges; there is an island in the middle.  Chinese fishing nets stand alongside the river’s banks, at the edge of the dense palm trees that flank all water bodies in this part of India.

सा च प्रेक्ष्या सरिदनुपदं यत्र कल्माषितायां


रक्ताः पद्माः कुवलयवनीसाम्यमापद्यमाना

विज्ञायन्ते स्फुटमहिमधामोदये जृम्भमाणे ॥ 1.89

And that river is worth seeing.  In her waters, slowly mingling with the musk washed off the necks of Mahodayapura’s girls as they bathe, red lotuses are transformed into clusters of blue water lilies. It is only when the sun starts to spread its warm light that they can be seen for what they are.

The koel’s final stop lies across this mighty river at Jayantamaṅgalam known today as Chennamangalam.

तीरं तस्याः प्रति गतवतो दक्षिणं तत्क्षणं ते

देशः सर्वातिशयविभवो दृक्पथेतः प्रथेत।

तां जानीया दिशि दिशि जयन्ताख्यया ख्यायमानां

प्रत्यादिष्टत्रिदिवनगरप्राभवां प्राप्यभूमिम्॥1.92

The moment you cross towards the river’s southern bank, the richest of all lands will stand revealed.  That is your destination, the city which eclipses the city of the gods in her splendour, known the world over as Jayanta.

The Viṣṇu temple in Chendamangalam (mentioned several times in the poem) – reproduced with kind permission from Paliath Narendran.


Thus ends the koel’s journey and this series of posts.  Thank you to all those who helped, including Dr Shankar, Professor Unithiri, Professor Rajendran, Harunga Isaacson, Isaac Murchie, Mr Lakshman and all those who helped me at the temples.

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