Literature: Satavahana Hala’s Gathasaptasati

Having previously commenced our study of Classical Indic Literature, we now take our first look at Classical Indic Poetry. Appropriately, our first selection is from Andhra itself and dates back to the glorious Empire of the Satavahanas.  This great dynasty featured mighty Conquerors such as Gautamiputra Satakarni and is famed for the Art & Architecture of Amaravati. However, it also produced talented poets such as Emperor Hala, an earlier dynast. He was the compiler of and contributor to the Poetic Anthology Gathasaptasati (known as Gaha Sattasai in the Maharashtri Prakrit in which it is composed)

Translated into many Indian, European, and Middle Eastern languages, the Sapta sati (also known as Gaha koso—or ‘Treasury of Gathas’)  is considered to be one of the earliest surviving anthologies of Classical Indic Poetry.

Author

Not much is known about Emperor Hala (pronounced Haala). According to Western archaeology he is tentatively dated to between 200 BCE and 200 CE (but likely much earlier according to the indigenous Indic Chronology). The 17th Satavahana dynast in the pauranic king lists, Hala himself is called Kavi-vatsala (‘he who has parental affection for poets’). Considered to be religious, he is famous for his patronage of Prakrit over the more popular and elite Sanskrit of the time. Despite this, the influence of his anthology extended to poets centuries after him, such as Govardhana, who wrote the Sanskrit work, Aryasaptasati . He is mentioned by many other Pan-India litterateurs such as Bana of Harsacarita fame.

Maharashtri Prakrit was considered the finest of all Prakrits, and is appropriately used in this work and many other classical ones. Only a portion of the Gathasaptasati, 44 of the 700 verses, are attributed to the Satavahana Emperor. The remainder are said to have been collected from assorted poets, most anonymous. There were as many as 7 or 8 women poets  in an estimated 261 total, truly making it the poetry of the people.

Composition

While Sanskrit reads in an highly refined and courtly fashion, Prakrit is far more bucolic and earthy, fitting for the red earth of the Krishna-Godavari. Indeed, if Sanskrit literally means “refined”, Prakrit literally means “natural” and “common”. As such, while composed by none other than a great king, this work is appropriately written from the common woman’s perspective. Indeed, it is a fitting riposte to all those who seek to brand Classical Indic Literature as “elitist” and disconnected from the masses.  Rather, it intimates a close awareness and love for village life and the village itself. While it is indeed Love Poetry, it is as much an ode to the Deccan, its rivers, its plant life, and its rural life. Gardens, assorted flowers, maidens, ploughmen, hunters, and sisters are all mentioned and appreciated. Indeed, it is a celebration of the common life.

Replete with imagery, the Godavari River itself is treated by the Gathasaptasati as a metaphor for the flow of love and desire. The banks of the nadi are viewed as a near aphrodisiac.  It has, with good reason, been called “a woman’s book, a compendium of her gestures, utterances and silences“.

Contrary to modern characterizations, kavya literature is neither uniformly prudish nor prurient. It very much runs the spectrum, as do Hala’s 700 single verse poems (Sapta – satti), in Gatha form (the Prakrit counterpart to the Sanskrit Sloka and the Apabramsha Doha). Satakas are famous in Telugu literature, and the pre-Telugu period of the Andhras was no different. A gatha, or song, consists of as many as 27 different variations, but is generally structured with 30 matras (syllabic instants) in the first line, and 27 in the second line. It is composed in the traditional Arya meter. The Kashmiri literary theorist, Anandavardhana wrote on the importance of dhvani, or resonance, in his suitably titled Dhvanyaloka. According to him, the gatha is the poetic embodiment of dhvani, and he himself was a poet in Prakrit. Indeed, in contrast to the ornamental and elegant Sanskrit of Kalidasa, the Prakrit of Hala et al truly resonates in unadorned yet evocative form. Simple, quick, and powerful.

The sthayibhava and rasa are undoubtedly Rati and Sringara respectively. The anthology records every day trials and tribulations of Love and the Erotic, as well as the ebb and flow of affection. Indeed, it describes the escapades of various lovers and how they seek each others forgiveness, while others remain loyal. As described in our previous post, merely because the masses fall short of the ideal, should not mean that people should refrain from aspiring to them. Many of the descriptions are indeed erotic, touching on both the romantic and physical nature of love in real life. The selection below, however, gives a only a taste of rati bhava and focuses more on sringara rasa. Enjoy.

Selections

§

Pia-viraho aappia-damsanam aa guruaaien dho vi dukkhaien |

Jie tum karijjasi theeain namo aahijaaie ||

Separated from the woman you love,

To sit beside one you do not is

To double your sorrow. I honour

The goodness that brings you. (24)

§

Adrisanena pemmam aaveai ai-damsanena vi aaveai |

Pisuna-jana-jimpaina vi aave ai aimeaa vi aave ai ||

Distance destroys love,

So does the lack of it.

Gossip destroys love

And sometimes

It takes nothing

To destroy love. (81)

§

Bahu-pupaph-bharonamiaa-bhoomi-gaa-saaha sunasu vinnatthim |

Rolaa-tad-viaad-kudangam-mahuaa saniaam galijjaasu ||

Oh Mahua

Blossomed

On Godavari’s

Arboured bank

Shed

Your flowers

One

After

One (103)

§

Sama-sokakh-paivadadiaanaum kaalena rooda-pemmaanaum |

Mihunaanaum marada jam tham khu jiaai aiaaram muaam ho ai ||

Their love by long years secured,

Sharing each other’s joys and sorrows,

Of such two the first to go lives,

It’s the other, dies. (142)

§

Bahu-viha-vilaasa-rasiai surai mahilaanaun ko uvajjhaao |

Sikkhaee aasikkhiaaeen vi savvo nehaanu bandhena ||

Bookish lovemaking

Is soon repetitive:

It’s the improvised style

Wins my heart. (274)

§

Rannaau thanam rannaau paaniaam savvaam saam-gaaham |

thaha vi maaun maeen aa aamarananthaaeen pemmaaeen ||

Stag and doe

Enter the forest

Separately looking for

Herbage and water,

And stay unparted

Till death. (287)

§

Lajjaa chatthaa seelam aa khandaam aajasa-gosanaa dhinnaa |

Jassa kai nam piaa-sahi so ccheaa jano jano jaaao ||

He, for whom I forsook

Shame, chastity, honour,

Now sees me as just

Another woman. (525)

§

Muha-pecchaao paee se saa vi hu savisesa-damsanumbaeeaa |

do vi kaatthaa puhaeen aamahila-purisam va mannannthi ||

He looks deeply in her face;

She is sunk in his vision

Thus looking at each other in great joy

As if for them they were all alone in the world. (743)

§

* Numbering diverges from original. Done according to Albrecht Weber's German translation.

It is available for Purchase today in Telugu and English editions:

Prakruta Gatha Saptasati                                                                       The Prakrit Gatha Saptasati

References:

  1. Mehrotra, Arvind Krishna. The Absent Traveller: Prakrit Love Poetry from the Gathasaptasati of Satavahana Hala. Penguin: Delhi. 2008
  2. http://www.exoticindiaart.com/book/details/prakrit-gatha-saptasati-text-with-english-translation-NAB828/
  3. Peter Khoroche; Herman Tieken (2009), Poems on life and love in ancient India: Hāla’s Sattasaī
  4. Amaresh Datta (1988) Encyclopaedia of Indian literature vol. 2 Chennai: Sahitya Academy
  5. Winternitz, Maurice. History of Indian Literature. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. 1985

4 thoughts on “Literature: Satavahana Hala’s Gathasaptasati

    1. Thank you for your kind words, andi. Please do let us know if you have any suggestions or email us if you would like to contribute. Namaste.

    1. Hello @Vamsi. Thank you for your compliment and your comment. How old Telugu is depends on whom you ask ;). The current western paradigm general asserts that Telugu dates back to the 6th century, with words occurring even earlier in epigraphy at Bhattiprolu and in coinage & literature during the Satavahana era.

      If you talk to our traditional pandits on the other hand, they will say that it is at least as old as the Mahabharata (5000 years), which mentions the sweet language of the Andhras. Other traditional legends will say it dates back to Andhra Vishnu and the capital of Srikakulam. So it’s safe to say the language is at least 1400 years old, if not much older.

      Here is another article on the topic, if you’re interested in the traditional view: http://www.andhraportal.org/andhras-who/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *