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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.


Kshemendra: Three Satires from Ancient Kashmir


Translated by AND Haksar

The ancient Kashmir of the title is a strange land peopled by swindler goldsmiths descended from the rats whose destructive burrowing drove the golden Mount Meru to abandon the world of mortals and ascetics so intent upon gazing at the sky that they keep tripping over.  It is nevertheless not unfamiliar to those campaigning with Anna Hazare against a rotten bureaucracy nor to those who grumble about India’s increasing moral bankruptcy. 

These three satirical bhanas, or “causeries”, are the work of Kshemendra, a cosmopolitan scholar of the 11th century who studied under the famous Abhinavagupta.  Kshemendra’s contribution to Sanskrit literature has only recently been fully appreciated: the first of the 34 works attributed to him was discovered in 1871.  Eighteen have been found in total, of which several are technical and devotional works and four satirical.  AND Haksar, who translated these three satires, has already done much to establish the poet’s reputation beyond the academic community with his translation of the Samaya Matrika or The Courtesan’s Keeper, a sustained satirical narrative about a shape-shifting pimp.  These three satires, also set in Kshemendra’s native Kashmir, paint a similar picture of a society in hot pursuit of money and sex, preferably combined. 

Although the first work, Narma Mala or A Garland of Mirth, takes a narrative form, the other two, Kala Vilasa (A Dalliance with Deceptions) and Deshopadesha (Advice from the Countryside), are more a string of well executed vignettes.  The story, at any rate, is of secondary consideration.  It is in the details that Kshemendra’s pen cuts most deeply, particularly in his fresh and often shocking similes.  The guru whose mouth twitches “like the cunt of an old she-buffalo” is not quickly forgotten, and Mr Haksar does justice to the often filthy language of the original; you have to wonder how the Victorian translators would have handled this.  But the humour is not all bawdy.  The foreign student for whom “even a river is considered insufficient for his purificatory rites” but who happily tucks into the leftover dinner and drink of the harlot he has engaged for the evening, has a glow “like that of an unlit lamp”. 

No one, not even a Buddhist nun, not even poets themselves, is spared.  At times, Kshemendra can seem a little old-fashioned: working wives and women who enjoy a good party are among those he condemns as “demons of a thousand deceptions in the dark night of this degenerate age”.  But his castigation of cheating officials resonates loud and clear:

Plundered by the bureaucrat,

the state’s afflicted prosperity

weeps dark tears, which seem to be

ink drops dripping from his pen.

At times Kshemendra relents and gives us more standard poetic fare but his wit and cynicism are never far from the surface.  A beautiful description of Ujjain at dusk mixes the conventional with his own particular style; “the sun…disappeared slowly from the sky like a gambler stripped bare by cheats”.  For the most part we are invited to mock as well as condemn the doctor who must kill thousands of patients with experimental concoctions before establishing his reputation, the astrologer who consults “knowledgeable fisherman” about the likelihood of rain and the man about town who gives himself love bites and smears lipstick on his collar before going out.  Would that Kshemendra were alive and writing today.

This review first appeared in the New Indian Express here

To buy this book or for more details, click here

Triprangode and Tirunavaya – Kokila Sandesha 7

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:

Sixty five kilometres down the coast, the koel reaches the land of Prakāśa, literally the ‘bright’ land, from which Kālī herself has been tamed by the continuous Vedic recitation.  This is the stretch in between the towns of Tirur and Ponnani, through which the huge Nīlā or Bharatapuzha river flows out into the Arabian ocean.

There are three temples that the hero bids his messenger visit as he flies through.  The first is the temple of Ṥiva which the poet calls Ṥvetāraṇya and is today known as Thripangode temple. Ṥiva is worshipped as Mṛtyuñjaya, ‘conqueror of death’, because it was here that he dispatched Yama, god of death, in a towering rage, as the local priest explains:

The sage Mṛkaṇḍa, who lived next to the nearby Tirunavaya temple, was a great devotee of Ṥiva’s and in response to his prayer for a son, he was offered the classic choice – a boy glorious but short-lived or ordinary but long-lived.  Like others, he chose the former and was blessed with a perfect son, Mārkaṇḍeya, who was destined to live until the age of 16.  On his 16th birthday, Yama came to take Mārkaṇḍeya.  The boy first ran to Viṣṇu in the Tirunavaya temple but Viṣṇu urged him to turn to Ṥiva for protection.  He ran the three kilometres to the Ṥiva temple – right through the centre of a huge al tree that stood in front of the temple and which split in half to let him through – and embraced the Ṥivaliṅga. Yama, in hot pursuit, hurled his deadly noose which settled around the liṅga Mārkaṇḍeya was hugging.  Incensed at this attack on his devotee and his very form, Ṥiva rose in terrible anger out of the liṅga to slay Yama with his triśula or trident. Mārkaṇḍeya was saved – and lives on eternally as a 16 year old youth – and four new Ṥivaliṅgas sprung up to mark the three (large judging by the distance between each) steps the god had taken after killing Yama and the place where he then settled, which thereafter became the main temple.

To the right, just outside the temple gate, is a moss-covered pond in which Ṥiva washed his bloody triśūla.

The poem describes his blood-stained feet:

सेव्यं शम्भोररुणमुरसस्ताडनाद्दण्डपाणेः

पादाम्भोजं शिखरितनयापाणिसंवाहयोग्यम्।

येनाक्रान्ते सति गिरिपतौ लोष्टमानास्यचक्र-

श्चक्रन्दाधःकृतभुजवनो रक्षसां चक्रवर्ती॥1.71

Worship Ṥambhu’s lotus feet, stained red from trampling on Yama’s chest, which Parvatī massages with her hands. It was these feet which made the rakṣasa king cry out, squashed as he was beneath the mountain lord, his many heads heaped up in a circle and his clustering arms crushed to the ground.

The Mṛtyuñjaya-homa remains one of the two most important rituals at the temple.  It is perhaps to this rite that the poet refers when he talks of how a glimpse at the god’s face here secures a devotee freedom from death.

The last shrine devotees visit as they do their circuit of the temple is dedicated to Navamukunda, the Viṣṇu of the neighbouring Tirunavaya temple.  Here they give thanks to Viṣṇu for directing Mārkaṇḍeya to Ṥiva.

The Tirunavaya Navamukunda temple – which Uddaṇḍa calls Nāvākṣetra – is next on the koel’s route.  This spot is called Trimūrtisaṅgamasthāna – the spot where all three forms of God come together – because in addition to the Viṣṇu temple there is a (rare) Brahma temple and a Ṥiva temple on the opposite bank of the river, both of which are clearly visible from Tirunavaya. It is also an important spot for pitṛ-karman rites (as was Thirunelly) which are held on certain days of the year and attract lakhs of pilgrims, but the temple’s main claim to fame is the Mamankam festival that used to be held here.  The temple stands right on the northern bank of the Nīlā river, just a few kilometres from the river’s mouth, and was thus perhaps a logical place to hold a festival whose mythical origins and divine significance pale in comparison to its influence on trade and politics.

The festival traces its roots back to a 28-day concord of the gods, convened by Bṛhaspati once every 12 years.  It was at originally called Mahāmāgha, the great (festival) of the month of Māgha, which in the vernacular became Mamankam.  An article written by the current Zamorin of Calicut (see Calicut post) in 2006 notes that it is difficult to ascertain the date of the first festival.  At any rate by the 9th century AD, when the famous Ceraman Perumal divided up his kingdom and ran away to Mecca, the festival seems to have become a sort of royal election in which the surrounding kings would meet, discuss the performance of the last ruler’s 12 year term, and pick a new leader.  The Valluvanad kings inherited the temple overlordship, and thus control of the festival.  According to the current Zamorin’s account, his forbears, despite their great power and wealth, were unable to beat the Valluvanad king and sought to discover the source of his great strength.  On learning that it was the royal family god at Angadipuram who rendered him invincible, the Zamorin prayed to this same god and was soon victorious in what are now referred to as the Tirunavaya wars in the fourteenth century.  Thus the Zamorins won control of this temple and the politically and commercially important festival.

Instead of coming to pay his respects to the Zamorin as overlord as other local leaders did, the defiant Valluvanad raja sent four leading men to kill the Zamorin.  They were duly killed by the Zamorin’s guards but it became a tradition for the men of these families to attempt this assassination at every festival, both to avenge their fathers’ and grandfathers’ deaths as well as to reclaim overlordship from the Zamorin.  British accounts of these attempts – which never succeeded – describe the tragic suicide missions.  The festival continued until the 18th century when Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan attacked Kerala and sacked the Tirunavaya temple.  The temple was rebuilt by one of the Zamorins – both the Tirunavaya and Tripangode temples still fall under the Zamorins, along with 30 other temples in this region.

For the hero, though, the Mamankam festival of his patron (which he suggests will be in full swing when the koel visits; although Māgha is in śiśira, the season that precedes vasanta, so even if it happened to be the right year the timing is slightly off) is of mainly of interest because it will have brought his wife here, along with many other Keralan ladies.

साकं कान्तैर्मिलति ललितं केरलीनां कदम्बे

मत्प्रेयस्याः प्रियसख महामाघसेवागतायाः।

पायं पायं मुखपरिमलं मोहनं यत्र मत्ताः

प्रायोऽद्यापि भ्रमरकलभा नैव जिघ्रन्ति पद्मान्॥ 1.73

As a gaggle of Kerala ladies tremblingly meet their lovers, I know that right now the boisterous bees, driven wild as they drink again and again of the intoxicating scent of my wife’s mouth – for she too will have come for the Mahāmāgha festival – won’t even notice the lotus’ fragrance.



The original Ṥivaliṅga at Triprangode is said to have been constructed in the 9th century and is decorated with beautiful but crumbling murals – restoration would cost 4 lakhs so they are being left to deteriorate.

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.

Sakuntalam: Natana Kairali

The painted faces, rich costumes and elaborate headgear of Keralan theatre and dance have been so liberally sprinkled on tourist literature that, spectacular as they are, they have almost lost their power to command our attention.  To see such theatre in action, though, is to be mesmerised all over again. 

At 13 hours – spread over four days – Sakuntalam Kutiyattam bears comparison with the Bayreuth Festival’s Ring Cycle.  Here, though, there is no decade-long waiting list for tickets; entry is free and open to anyone who can find their way through the backlanes of a small town near Thrissur to Natana Kairali, a centre for traditional arts set up by Gopal Venu. The audience is an eclectic mix of Mr Venu’s former pupils, arty types, Sanskrit professors and the obligatory MLA plus flunkees (can any cultural event in India start without felicitating a local politician?).  The theatre is in Mr Venu’s backyard.  This being Kerala the backyard is a tangle of banana, coconut and betel nut trees bordered by a large tank; as we wait for the performance to start crickets provide the music and bats, which swoop through the stage, the spectacle.  The theatre itself consists of a banana-leaf roof supported with bamboos, from which hang spotlights and electrical wiring. Indeed, the electrical equipment and chairs are the only real concession to modernity.  Behind the stage, separated by a diaphanous cloth screen, is a smaller area which acts as a single changing room for all the actors as well as backstage.  The role of make up artist is assumed by younger pupils and the actors themselves, who use small handheld mirrors to effect their transformation.

Kutiyattam, like most other dance and theatre forms in India, grew out of temples and it retains its religious significance. The drummers who provide the music for the performance – alongside two young girls with small cymbals – pray before they begin.  Similarly the first entrance of each actor is a ceremony itself in which the actor, screened by a red and white cloth, turns first to the drummers and then, taking position behind the screen, stands ready to be revealed to the audience.   

The play from which this Kutiyattam performance is adapted is the fourth century AD Abhijnana Sakuntalam (The Recognition of Sakuntala), the most famous and probably the most beautiful of all Sanskrit plays by India’s most celebrated ancient poet, Kalidasa.  King Dushyanta happens across the heroine, Sakuntala, in her father’s hermitage while out hunting.  Enamoured he marries her according to the gandharva rite, a kind of ancient love marriage.  He returns to his kingdom, and Sakuntala, by now pregnant with his son, leaves the ashram to go to her husband’s house.  Dushyanta though, cannot recognise her due to a curse. Rejected, Sakuntala is spirited away to another ashram until such time as Dushyanta should have cause to recognise her and the son she has borne him – at which point they all live happily ever after.  Kalidasa, who took the story from the Mahabharata, rounded it off with the happy ending that Sanskrit drama – like Bollywood – requires. 

Much of kutiyattam is non-verbal, and involves only small movements: the swivelling of the eyes from target to bow, target to bow as an archer takes aim, or the dance of eyebrows.  Actors assume many different roles, sometimes all the roles, including those of animals; and they use no props.  Mudras or set hand formations are used to signify, where needed, which role the actor is playing at present. Some are obvious – like the sign for the deer – but others are difficult for the uninitiated to understand, along with much of the other complex dramatical language employed throughout.  It is a theatre of great subtlety which demands of its audience keen observation and patience.  Such observation and patience though are rewarded.  Few could watch Duśyanta’s charioteer enacting the happily grazing deer suddenly alerted to danger as the king starts the chase and then fleeing, crazed with fear, without feeling the deer’s terror. 


This production is Mr Venu’s adaptation of Kalidasa’s play, which was first performed in 2002.  The play is punctuated with sparingly selected verses and dialogues from the Sanskrit (and Prakrit – for non-Sanskrit speakers like women) original. The drums – which are continuously playing otherwise – fall silent for the delivery of these lines, which are stretched out in a sort of half-chant.  This manner of delivery does little to communicate the famed beauty of some of the verses – indeed Kalidasa’s plays were not traditionally used for kutiyattam perhaps because their lyric beauty was less suitable than other more dramatic texts – although it does at least ensure that every word is clearly heard. 

It is the combination of the pulsing drumbeats and the wordless acting that has the greatest power to move the audience.  The drummers watch the actors intently and create a verbal echo for every flicker of the eyes and dart of the finger, so that it is almost as if the actors’ movements themselves produce the sound.  The range of sounds the drums – two mizhavus, large bronze urns with leather stretched over their mouths, and one smaller edakka – can produce belies their seeming simplicity.  The power of the mime is thus doubled – we can almost see and hear the bee that Sakuntala tries to fight off. 

As the only living form of Sanskrit theatre, kutiyattam was recognised by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2001. And Kerala has successfully marketed kutiyattam, along with so many of its other assets, to the foreign holiday makers who flock here.  While such recognition does of course help, it is these small, devoted bands of its proponents who will hopefully keep the theatre truly alive and thus prevent it being reduced to pre-dinner background entertainment at one of India’s seven-star hotels. 


This article first appeared, in a shortened form, in the New Indian Express here

Taliparamba and Ezhimala – Kokila Sandesha 5

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 city of Koṭṭayam, the hero asks his messenger to take a small diversion to Sampadgrāma towards the north of Kerala, just as Kālidāsa’s yakṣa urges the cloud to take a circuitous route in order not to miss Ujjain.

दिग्यातव्या यदपि भवतो दक्षिणा रक्षणार्थं

मत्प्राणानां पुनरपि सखे पश्चिमामेव यायाः।

धूतारामं मुकुटतटिनीमारुतैस्तत्र शम्भोः

सम्पद्ग्रामं यदि न भजसे जन्मना किं भृतेन॥

Even though you need to head south if you are to save me from death, my friend, fly a little further still to the west.  If you don’t visit Sampadgrāma while you’re there, where the breezes from the Mukuṭa river bestir the gardens, this life will have been a waste.

Unni notes that Sampadgrāma was “was one of the opulent villages of ancient Kerala”, as its name ‘sampad’ ‘wealth’ and ‘grāma’ ‘village’ suggests.  It is today known as Taliparamba or Perincelloor and houses the famous Rajarajeshvara temple, whose founding myth is told as follows:

Three Ṥivaliṅgas, created from the dust produced by the churning of the sun mixed with amṛta (a divine nectar), were presented by Parvatī to three kings.  The kings were to install the lingams somewhere where no death had occurred.  The first king, Māndatha, after a long search, found the current spot and thus installed it there.  However the lingam eventually sank into the ground and the second king, King Muchukanda, again decided upon this spot to establish his lingam.  It too sank.  The third, King Shatasoma, came to the same spot and, seeing the lingam begin to sink even as he installed it, took the help of the legendary sage Agastya to keep his lingam above ground.  It worked and, with the combined power of three Ṥivaliṅgas, the place thus became a major temple.

This temple too is connected to Paraśurāma, who had it renovated by heaven’s architect, Viśvakarma.

Rāma also worshipped at this temple on his way back to Ayodhyā after defeating Rāvaṇa.  Out of deference to him – as an incarnation of Viṣṇu – devotees here do not enter the namaskāra-maṇḍapa where he worshipped.

सौधैस्तुङ्गैर्हसदिव सुधाक्षालितै राजताद्रिं

तेजोराशेः प्रविश भवनं धूर्जटेरूर्जितं तत्।

पार्श्वे पार्श्वे परिचितनमस्कारजातश्रमाणां

क्ष्मादेवानां क्षणमन्भवंस्तालवृन्तस्य लीलाम्॥1.51

Enter that mighty abode of the resplendent dreadlocked Ṥiva with its whitewashed turrets that seem to mock the silver mountain Kailāsa and for a moment or two enjoy the refreshing breeze from the fans of the Brahmins who are gathered on every side, resting after their customary namaskāras.

This temple is also the scene of several stories about our poet, Uddaṇḍa Ṥāstri. As a notice board tells visitors even today, he was one of the most famous – possibly the original – recipient of the illustrious Kuttumparam award for excellence in a given field.  This award ceremony is held in a small structure on the right of the main gate of the temple and the prize consists of a large gold bracelet, the vīraśṛṅkhala, awarded by a unanimous vote by the temple leaders.

The poet seems to make no reference to this but the very fact he spends nine verses describing this temple, far longer than any other, suggests a partiality.  This partiality may also be attributed to another story which tells how Uddaṇḍa, who worshipped divinity in its most impersonal aspect as nirguṇa Brahma (Consciousness uncharacterised by any of the qualities we know and understand) and thus not in the habit of paying his respects to God embodied in a statue, found his palms spontaneously come together in prayer – as the lotus closes upon seeing the moon – as he stood before the Taliparamba Ṥiva [if anyone knows the verse to which this refers please let me know].  This then brings an added significance to the verse with which the hero asks the koel to praise God in this temple – the only such instance in this poem.

दिव्यैश्चर्यं दिशसि भजतां वर्तसे भिक्षमाणो

गौरीमङ्के वहसि भसितं पञ्चबाणं चकर्थ।

कृत्स्नं व्याप्य स्फुरसि भुवनं मृग्यसे चागमान्तैः

कस्ते तत्त्वं प्रभवति परिच्छेत्तुमाश्चर्यसिन्धो॥1.54

“For your devotees you wield a divine might, but you yourself live on the alms of others. You hold Gaurī tenderly in your lap, but you burnt the five-arrowed God of Love to ash.   You have pervaded the whole world and appear throughout it, but the Upaniṣads are still searching for you.  Who has the power to circumscribe your supreme self, an ocean of wonders, my Lord?”

इत्थं स्तुत्वा बहिरुपवनोपान्तमाकन्दशृङ्गे

यावद्भानुर्व्रजति चरमं भूधरं तावदास्स्व।

द्रक्ष्यस्यन्वक्सफलनयनं ताण्डवानीन्दुमौले-


Sing his praises thus perched atop a mango tree in the grove outside until the sun travels beyond the furthest mountain.  After that feast your eyes upon the tānḍava dance of the moon-crested Ṥiva, intensified by the lovely Parvatī flashing glances as she dances the accompanying lāsya.

The koel is promised a beautiful night’s rest in Ṥiva’s presence, fanned by the breeze from the nearby sea which brings with it the scent of the night-blooming water lily.  In the morning as he sets off he is encouraged to visit the nearby Trichambaram temple.  Interestingly the traditional way of visiting these two neighbouring temples, at least today, is the other way round – Trichambaram first and then the Rajarajeshwara temple.

दृष्ट्वा देवं परिसरजुषं शम्बरे बालकृष्णं

लोपामुद्रासखतिलकितं दिङ्मुखं भूषयिष्यन्।

कोलानेलावनसुरभिलान् याहि यत्र प्रथन्ते

वेलातीतप्रथितवचसः शङ्कराद्याः कवीन्द्राः॥1.61

Visit the nearby Ṥambara temple of the young Lord Kṛṣṇa in as you prepare to head south, the direction marked by Agastya.  Go to the Kola lands fragrant with cardamom forests where great poets such as Ṥaṅkara*, whose famed verse has spread beyond every shore, are celebrated.

*Unni notes that this is a reference to a contemporary of Uddaṇḍa’s who composed the Ṥrīkṛṣṇavijaya

The Trichambaram – said to be a corruption of Tiru Ṥambara (tiru is the Tamil equivalent of śrī – a marker of respect) –  temple is a small but nevertheless famous Kṛṣṇa temple which is just two kilometres from the Rajarajeshvara temple.  This temple, which history places in the 11th century, is also linked to Paraśurāma – but in this case he is credited with its foundation.  The two temples are linked by more than geography.   Viṣṇu and Lakṣmī once came to pay their respects to Ṥiva in his temple here.  When he saw Lakṣmī Ṥiva assumed the form of Viṣṇu to lure her into the garbhagṛham or inner shrine.  He then had his attendants – the bhūtagaṇas – block her exit by permanently sealing the temple’s back door so that she, and the wealth she embodied, might remain there. [The bhūtagaṇas feature too in the temple’s construction.  The local priests demonstrate how these huge walls, made of large stone blocks without cement, could not have been built by men – the bhūtagaṇas erected them.]  The goddess was later claimed by her husband but her presence remains there.  In celebration of this bond, the festival idol of the Trichambaram temple is brought to the Rajarajeshvara temple on three occasions each year, where it circles the large temple wall seven times, seated upon an elephant.


The Kola land to which the koel is next directed is closely linked with both of these temples.  The Kola region was originally the dominion of the Mūṣika (or Mūṣaka – both variants, which mean rat or mouse, are used) kings and only later the Kolattiris, who give the land the name ‘Kola’ by which Uddaṇḍa refers to it.  In the legend narrated above, the third king, Shatashoma, is a Mūṣaka king according to the Mūṣakavamśa.  The Mūṣakavaṃśa is a mahākāvya that tells the story of these kings from their origins – the first king’s mother escaped Paraśurāma’s slaughter of kṣatriyas by taking refuge on the Ezhi hill, Ezhimala, which later became their capital – up to the 12th century.  Other Mūṣaka kings worshipped at these temples and they were also evidently important places of worship and culture for the Kolattiris.

The hero tells the koel that the Kola land is fragrant with elā, cardamom.  The Kola capital, Ezhimala, which means ‘mouse hill’ in Tamil and Malayalam, is celebrated for its wonderful fecundity which legend attributes to its unusual formation.  The hills were originally portions of the Himalayan mountain top which Hanuman, after bringing them to the battlefield at Laṅkā to revive Rāma’s army, accidentally dropped on his return journey.  A huge naval academy was recently built at Ezhimala and special clearance is needed for visitors.  Uddaṇḍa though gives us a dramatic description of the view from this coast (as the hero seems to send the koel directly south to the sea’s edge, and as Ezhimala is due west of Taliparamba, the spot Uddaṇḍa has in mind is probably south of the capital):

उन्मज्जद्भिः पुनरिव जवात् पक्षवद्भिर्गिरीन्द्रै-

र्वृन्दैर्नावां भुजपटलिकोड्डामरैर्गाह्यमानम्।

लक्ष्मीजानेः शयनसदनं पुष्पवाटं पुरारेः

पाकस्थानं निखिलमरुतां पश्य वारान्निधानम्॥1.62

See the ocean – Viṣṇu’s bedroom, Ṥiva’s garden and a kitchen for all the gods*.  As flocks of great ships with curving sails dive about her it is as if the mountain lords are once again bursting up from the sea, their wings intact.

*Ṥiva wears the moon in the place of a flower, and as the moon was born in the ocean, the ocean is thus the garden from which he plucked his flower.  The ocean also produced the amṛta or nectar which nourishes all of the gods.

Citra Kavya: Review of Citram

Citra Bandha – Volume III of Citram

V Balasubrahmanyam

Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan


 Dr Shankar Rajaraman

Authors on Sanskrit poetics have traditionally classified poetry into three types based on the predominance, subordination or relative absence of dhvani (suggestion) and specifically of its major subdivision called rasa-dhvani (suggestion through sentiment, in fact sentiment itself because it is held that sentiment can never be expressed through words but always suggested through them). Of these three types, the ‘superior’, ‘intermediate’ and ‘inferior’ – plus the ‘most inferior’ if we accept Jagannātha Paṇḍita’s four-fold classification – citrakāvya (literally ‘marvel poetry’ [1]) comes last. It is therefore held to be synonymous with the ’inferior’ or the ‘most inferior’ categories of poetry.

Citrakāvya’s aim, as its very name suggests, is to create wonder. Though held to be inferior by rhetoricians, it is by no means easy to compose. Neither has it been neglected due to its lower status. It is in fact intriguing to note that even purists who vouch for the superiority of poetry that is infused with dhvani have been unable to resist the pull of citrakāvya for the sheer intellectual challenge it offers. Ānandavardhana, the author of the Dhvanyāloka, a path-breaking work in Sanskrit poetics that successfully upholds the superiority of dhvani, is, surprisingly, also credited with the Devīśatakam, a hymn in praise of Devī, the Mother Goddess, that sets forth to illustrate, at every step, the numerous, complicated and difficult forms of citrakāvya.

Backed by a history of more than a thousand years, citrakāvya still continues to be composed by small pockets of scholars throughout India. The laity, though, is scarcely aware of the existence of such a form of poetry. A work of the nature of Citram is therefore the need of the hour. By introducing a lesser-known but interesting aspect of Sanskrit poetry to the general public, the work has, I should say, done yeoman service to the cause of popularising the language. Anything that is interesting is also likely to motivate some, at least, to explore further. 

This book, the third volume of Citram, deals with one of the subdivisions of citrakāvya called citrabandha (‘pictorial poetic composition’), also termed bandhacitra or simply bandha, in addition to gaticitra (‘citrakāvya based on movement’).

Gaticitra is poetry in which letters are so arranged that they repeat when one moves through the lines of a verse in a particular manner. The most famous example of a gaticitra (although in this book it hasn’t been classified as a gaticitra we may consider it so on the authority of Dr Venkatachala Shastry, author of Kannaḍa Citrakāvya) is the gomūtrikā bandha, a zig-zag composition.  In this composition, every alternate letter of the first and third lines of a verse is the same as every alternate letter of the second and fourth lines, thus creating a zig-zag pattern which mimics that left by an ambling cow – gomūtra is a cow’s urine.

[The image above is slightly different to the classical gomūtrikā; here the zig-zag pattern moves between the first and second lines and the third and fourth rather than between the first and third and second and fourth.]

The second category, bandhacitra, refers to composition of verses where the repetition of letters gives rise to a pattern that resembles recognisable objects in day to day life, for example a lotus or serpent.  [The illustration below shows a cobra citrabandha, both in composition and then below that in regular verse form.]

The author, under the heading ākṛticitram (citrakāvya based on the form or appearance of shapes) has classified the various types of pictorial poetry under eleven subheads.  Māṅgalikacitram refers to a pattern that resembles objects considered auspicious, eg the svastika sign. Twenty two such patterns have been described.  Next is the gomūtrikā, of which four types are described.  The muraja is a pattern resembling straps tied to a muraja, a type of musical drum. This is also often classified under gaticitra.  Cakra compositions are wheel patterns whose subtypes are based on the number of spokes the wheel contains. Ten types have been described here.  The padma (‘lotus’) category is subdivided based on the number of petals the lotus contains; the author describes eight types.  There are 12 types of nāga compositions, which consist of a single or multiple coiled or uncoiled serpent(s), and 19 types of āyudha ones, which resemble various weapons, like a sword, knife or mace.

In the section on gaticitram, the author gives six categories.  Of these the āvalī (a streak or uninterrupted series, an uninterrupted repetition of the same letters in a different sense as in ‘His Hispanic panicky wife’) and śṛṅkhalābandha (literally a chain-shaped composition, an extension of āvalī in which the entire verse is composed so that every succeeding word starts with the letters with which the preceding word ends) are in fact subtypes of yamaka, a figure of sound consisting of repetition of letters that give different meanings, but are similar in sound. Of the remaining four, rathapada, gajapada and turagapada are based on the chessboard moves of a camel, elephant and horse [2] while the last, namely kākapada (crow’s foot), has examples quoted from the Vidagdhamukhamaṇḍanam where the answers to three riddles posed in a verse when arranged in a particular manner resemble a crow’s foot.  There is then paśupādapacitram – patterns based on certain flora and fauna, for instance an elephant, horse or peacock, and also a man or woman. Sixteen types have been described.  Ābharaṇacitram consists of patterns resembling various ornaments, such as an armlet or girdle. Five types are described here.  Finally we have 38 types of anyākāracitram which are miscellaneous formations such as the moon, Mount Meru, a bed, swing, well, lamp, pestle, mirror, lute, bell and so on.  The book thus discusses a total of 141 patterns.

The author’s modus operandi in describing a pattern is to first quote its Sanskrit definition (lakṣaṇa) translate it to English and then give the examples (lakṣya) from various sources – both poetry and works on poetics followed by the Sanskrit commentary on these exemplary verses – the English meanings of individual words in the verses and the overall purport. Metrical details are occasionally added.

Though the author’s efforts in collating information on citrakāvya from every nook and corner of Sanskrit literature are laudable, more value could have been added to his work had he more closely analysed the intricacies involved in composing citrakāvya. To give an example, he cites a verse which illustrates the kuṇḍalitanāgabandha, or the coiled snake pattern, but forgets to mention the metre which in this case is the 21-syllable pañcakāvalī, also called sarasī or campakamālā. It is necessary to know the metre in this instance because it is usually the more famous sragdharā metre that is employed for composing verses of this kind. Further, a verse in the kuṇḍalitanāgabandha pattern invariably has to be composed in a metre that has 21 syllables in each line. That the metre itself, quite apart from the pattern selected, poses extra constraints on the poet, has also not been analysed adequately. In this example, the distribution of short and long syllables in each line is as follows (U represents a short syllable and _ represents a long one): UUUU_U_UUU_UU_UU_U_U_. The coiled serpent pattern requires, apart from similarity between other pairs of letters, that the 14th letter of the first line and the 20th letter of the second line be the same. However, from the distribution of short and long syllables in this metre, it can be seen that the 14th syllable is long while the 20th syllable is short. The poet is therefore forced to use a conjunct consonant as the 15th letter of the first line so that, in accordance with metrical rules, the preceding syllable – in spite of being short to match the 20th syllable of the second line – is counted as long, thus simultaneously satisfying constraints posed by the pattern as well as metre.

With respect to the Sanskrit portions of this book, several mistakes can be observed. For example, in the verse cited above, the 13th, 11th and 9th letters of the first, third and fourth lines have been printed as ṇā (which is a long syllable), ya (a short syllable) and kṣa (a conjoint consonant that renders the previous syllable long) respectively. The contingencies of the metre, however, mean that such a representation of short and long syllables is not possible. The absence of diacritical marks makes it difficult to read Sanskrit words transliterated into Roman script. For instance, ‘Anyakara Chitram’ could be read as either anyākaracitram or anyākāracitram, meaning either ‘pictorial poetry from other sources’ or ‘pictorial poetry delineating other patterns’.

Notwithstanding the above, this is a book that merits a place in the personal collection of any Sanskrit enthusiast. Its strength lies in the sheer amount of information that it provides on the topic of citrakāvya. Apart from well-known sources such as the Pādukāsahasram, Ṥiśupālavadham, Ṥarasvatīkaṇṭhābharaṇam or Citrakāvyakautukam, the author has also managed to draw examples from less-known and difficult-to-procure sources such as the Vidagdhamukhamaṇḍanam, Citraprapañca, Kapphiṇābhyudaya and Vīrajinastava. That the octogenarian author learnt Sanskrit in order to delve deep into one of the most difficult and least explored aspects of its literature is as much a proof of the greatness of this language that can provide such inspiration as of the author’s passion.

Dr Shankar Rajaraman is an accomplished Sanskrit poet and an aṣṭāvadhānī who can compose citrabandhas at the drop of a hat.  His latest book, Devīdānaviyam, a citrakāvya (from which the illustrations  above have been taken), was published in January by Samskrita Bharati.

[1] For a definition of citrakāvya, rf. Kāvyaprakāśa 1.4: ‘śabdacitraṃ vācyacitram avyaṅgyaṃ tvavaraṃ smṛtam’ – ‘sound-based citrakāvya and meaning-based citrakāvya are said to be an inferior sort of poetry without any implied meaning’.  See also the explanation that follows: ‘citramiti guṇālaṅkārayuktam. Avyaṅgyamiti sphuṭapratīyamānārtharahitam.’  – ‘citrakāvya is poetry endowed with attributes like mādhurya (sweetness) etc and figures of sound and sense such as alliteration and simile, but bereft of any conspicuous suggested meaning.’ 
[2] Venkatachala Shastry in his Kannaḍa Citrakāvya wonders if this refers to the moves of a camel (the camel is the Indian equivalent of the bishop) in chess.  According to the Kāvyālaṇkāra of Rudraṭa, in a rathapada verse the second and fourth lines are palindromes, ie, read the same forwards and backwards. In other words, it refers to the moves of a chess piece that can traverse both forwards and backwards horizontally, vertically or obliquely, but not all three. The minister (queen) may traverse both forwards and backwards and in all directions, so it cannot be the moves of a minister. The elephant (rook) may traverse both forwards and backwards horizontally and vertically (but not obliquely) – and in any case there is already a gajapada – so this does not refer to the moves of the elephant either. It is the camel alone that has the freedom to traverse forwards and backwards in only one direction, ie, obliquely. I therefore feel this comes closest to the moves made by the camel on the chess board. It may be that it is called ratha (chariot) rather than uṣṭra (camel) because traditionally the caturaṅgasainya (‘four-limbed army’; caturaṅga can also refer to chess) is composed of elephants, chariots, horses and foot soldiers – but no camels. Since elephants, horses (the horse is the knight) and foot soldiers (the pawns) are already represented on the chess board, the remaining piece – leaving aside the king and minister – which we now call the camel should logically be a chariot. 

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