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 King 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.
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.
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 itself 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.
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)
Distance destroys love,
So does the lack of it.
Gossip destroys love
It takes nothing
To destroy love. (81)
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)
Is soon repetitive:
It’s the improvised style
Wins my heart. (274)
Stag and doe
Enter the forest
Separately looking for
Herbage and water,
And stay unparted
Till death. (287)
He, for whom I forsook
Shame, chastity, honour,
Now sees me as just
Another woman. (525)
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:
- Mehrotra, Arvind Krishna. The Absent Traveller: Prakrit Love Poetry from the Gathasaptasati of Satavahana Hala. Penguin: Delhi. 2008
- Peter Khoroche; Herman Tieken (2009), Poems on life and love in ancient India: Hāla’s Sattasaī
- Amaresh Datta (1988) Encyclopaedia of Indian literature vol. 2 Chennai: Sahitya Academy
Winternitz, Maurice. History of Indian Literature. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. 1985