Friday, March 9, 2018

Searching for the original ‘Brihat-katha’

Most of the Indian readers of my blog must have read, when they were young, the famous collection of stories known as ‘Vetala Panchavimshati’ (वेतालपञ्चविंशति) either in a book form or in pictorial or comic format. For sake of other readers, I would like to give here the frame of the story, which goes along on these lines. The legendary king ‘Vikramditya’ makes a promise to a sorcerer that he will capture a ‘vetala’ (वेताल), (a celestial spirit Pishacha [analogous to a vampire in Western literature] that hangs upside-down from a tree, inhabits, and animates dead bodies). King however finds the task much more difficult than he had ever imagined. Each time the king tries to capture the ‘Vetala’, it tells a story that ends with a riddle. If the king cannot answer the question correctly, the vampire consents to remain in captivity. If the king knows the answer, but still keeps quiet, then his head shall burst into thousand pieces. Moreover, if King Vikramaditya answers the question correctly, the vampire would escape and return to his tree. Being extremely wise, the king knows the answer to every question; therefore, the cycle of catching and releasing the vampire continues for twenty-four times, giving us twenty-four amazing stories.

Readers may not know that ‘Vetala Panchavimshati’ stories come from a much larger collection (actually a vast collection) of stories, aptly called as ‘Story Ocean of many rivers’ (कथासरित्सागर), a name I am sure that all my Indian readers must have heard of. The work, consisting of 18 books of 124 chapters and approximately 22,000 Shlokas (each shloka consisting of two half-verses of 16 syllables each), is believed to have been composed by a Kashmiri Pandit, Somadeva. He was commissioned by a King of Kashmir, ‘Anantadeva’ (reigned 1028-1063 CE) of ‘Lohara’ dynasty, to compose a cycle of stories to amuse and calm the queen ‘Suryamati’ (सूर्यमति) during a political crisis. Though the basic story line of this book narrates, the exploits of King Naravahandatta (नरवाहनदत्त) of ‘Vatsa’ dynasty, who ruled from the ancient city of ‘Kaushambi’, located on bank of River Jamuna. Author Somadeva skillfully manages, during course of his book,  to interweave an unbelievably large number of short and long stories, which sometimes have no connection whatsoever  with the main story line. The Book begins with birth of King ‘Udayana’, narrates his life, loves and queens. Story then proceeds with birth of Udayana’s son ‘Narvavahandatta’, his upbringing and finally how he acquired his many (twenty-six) wives.

Somadeva, though a great story teller, to be fair enough, accepts in the beginning of his magnum opus that he is not the real author of this work and he has merely abridged it from the work of a great poet (who lived between first and third century) known as ‘Gunadhya’(गुणाढ्य). This original work was known as ‘Brihat katha’ (बृहत्कथा, a widely spread story). Somadeva says.

एवं गुणाढ्यवचसा सप्तकथामयी I स्वभाषया कथा दिव्या कथिता काणभूतिना II
तथैव च गुणाढ्येन पैशाच्या भाषया तया I निबद्धा सप्तभिर्वर्षैर्ग्रंन्थ्लक्षणि सप्त सा II

मैतां विद्याधरा हार्षुरिति तामात्म्यशोणितैः I अटव्यां मष्यभावाश्च लिलेख स महाकविः II

“Gunadhya for his part using the same Paisachi language threw the original tale of Kanabhuti consisting of seven stories into seven hundred thousand couplets in seven years; and that great poet, for fear that the Vidyadharas should steal his composition, wrote it with his own blood in the forest, not possessing ink.”

 (Paishachi language was a form of ‘Prakrit’ language and is believed to have been popular in northwestern region of ancient India. The present Pakistani –Afghan languages of ‘Pushtu’ and ‘Dardistan’ people are believed influenced by ‘Paishachi’ language.)

However, it so happens, that Somadeva is not the only Kashmiri Pandit to compose such a work of ornate poetry based on Gunadhya’s ‘Brihat Katha’. Another Kashmiri Pandit, Kshemendra (क्षेमेन्द्र) had also composed about thirty years earlier (year 1037 CE), a poetic work known as ‘Btihatkathamanjari’ (बृहत्कथामञ्जरी). In all fairness, ‘Kshemendra’ also accepts, like Somadeva, that his work also is a recension of Gunadhya’s ‘Brihat Katha’. He says.

श्रुत्वा गुणाध्यकथितं कानभूतिरुवाच नम्‌ I
शोणितेन लिख क्षिप्रं सप्तानां चक्रवर्तिनाम्‌ II

कथां विद्याधरे न्द्राणां कथयामि स्थिरो भव I

इति श्रुत्वा लिलेखाशु सप्तलक्षाण्यनन्यधीः II

Even though these two above-mentioned works of ornate poetry, based on Gunadhya’s ‘Brihat-Katha’, have been always available to scholars including European Orientalists, the original ‘Brihat Katha’ written by Gunadhya remained untraceable. Surprisingly, as more and more scholarly interest was shown in Gunadhya’s  ‘Brihat-katha’ during Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries, more recensions of the original ‘Brihat katha’ came to light or became known, from study of ancient literatures. In 1906, S. Krishnaswami Aiyangar reported in Journal of Royal Asiatic society that a Tamil work of poetry known as ‘Udayanan Kadai’ or ‘Peruugadai’ was according to him a literal translation of  Gunadhya’s ‘Brihat-katha’. He felt that it was written around second century CE. In 1913, R. Narsimhachar reported in Journal of Royal Asiatic society, discovery of a copper plate inscription of a king of ‘Ganga’ (गान्गेय) dynasty, ‘Durvinita’ (दुर्विनित), who reigned in first half of sixth century. The inscription attributed the king with the authorship of three books. One of the books was called as “Vadda-kathena”, which Narsimhachar interprets as the Sanskrit translation of original ‘Brihat-katha’ in Paishachi language. Prof. F.Lacote, in his essay published in 1908, claimed that he knows about even a Persian version of ‘Brihat-katha’ that was stored at India Office Library in London. The book was titled as ‘Kutha and Purana’ and consisted of 34 stories, which unfortunately were not coherent. Readers might be aware that the stories from ‘Brihat-katha’ were found used in many famous Sanskrit poetic works and dramas, such as ‘Swapna-vasavadatta” (स्वप्न-वासवदत्ता), ‘Pratidnyayaugandharayan’ (प्रतिज्ञायौगंधरायण), ‘Ratnavali’ (रत्नावली), ’Harshacharita’ (हर्षचरित), and ‘Meghaduta’ (मेघदूत).

However, original ‘Brihat Katha’ still remained obscure and untraceable.

In 1893, Pandit Hara Prasad Shastri reported in Journal of the Asiatic society of Bengal,  about the discovery of twelve manuscripts that originated in Nepal and were obtained through the good offices of his friend Babu Kshirodchandra Raychaudhari, Headmaster of Chapra Zilla School in Bihar. I quote from his report as follows.

“The twelfth manuscript is labeled as unknown. The first page is missing and the end far away. On examination, it is found that pages from 2 to 210 exist. The handwriting is beautiful but much older. On examination, the manuscript proved to be a portion of the ‘Brihat-Katha’, about tenth of the whole work. It is not Somadeva’s ‘Katha saritsagara’ nor Kshemendra’s ‘Brihatkathamanjari’ because in both these works the chapters are divided into ‘lambhakas’ and ‘tarangas’, whereas in the present manuscript it is divided into ‘Adhyayas’ and ‘Sargas’. The manuscript contains one complete Adhyaya and a portion of second. It has in all 26 ‘sargas’. Some of the markers at the end of a page or Colophons bear significant words; ‘Brihatkatha- ShlokaSangraha’ (बृहत्कथा- श्लोकसंग्रह), Names of ‘sargas’ and some proper names also appear in some of the Colophons, which I have not been able to identify in Somadeva’s or Kshemendra’s works”.

Based on his observations, Pandit Hara Prasad Shastri came to the obvious conclusion that his manuscript must have been the third recensionof Gunadhya’s ‘Brihat-katha’, originally written in Paishachi language, and it bore a name ‘Brihatkatha- ShlokaSangraha’. He also noted from the archaic style of letters written in ‘Devnagari’ script that this manuscript was much older period (from Gupta period, Fourth to Sixth century) than those written by Somadeva and Kshemendra. He also pointed out that the manuscript was part of a large work with only the first Adhyaya  itself comprised of 4200 Shlokas or verses. In comparison, Kshemendra’s entire work consists of little more than 7000 Shlokas.

A famous French Orientalist, Prof. F. Lacote managed to collect three or four manuscripts of ‘Brihatkatha- ShlokaSangraha’. One of the first things that he noted was that colophon of ‘Sarga’ 28, gave name of the composer of this book by saying ‘Shribhatt Budhaswamin krit Brihatkatha-shlokasangraha ’ (श्रीभट्टबुधस्वामि कृत बृहत्कथा- श्लोकसंग्रह),  which could be translated as  ‘Brihatkatha, abridged in epic verses by Budhaswamin’. After a thorough study of all the manuscripts of ‘Brihatkatha-shlokasangraha’ collected by him, Prof. Lacote, thirteen years later (1906) wrote his famous essay, titled ‘Essai sur  Gunadhya et la Brhatkatha’. However, before we jump to the conclusions drawn by Prof. Lacote, let us examine another book of great relevance to the subject,  titled as,’ History of Indian literature’ by M. Winternitz,  written in 1922. Winternitz points out in this book and I quote.

“There are many points that go to suggest that ‘Brihatkatha- ShlokaSangraha’ stands closer to the work of Gunadhya than the Kashmiri recensions .” He gives two examples to support this argument. Firstly, the introductory verses about Gunadhya (quoted above) that are present in ‘Katha Saritsagar’ and ‘Brihatkathamanjari’ are completely missing in ‘Shlokasangraha’. Secondly, Budhaswamin’s book says in chapter 14, verse 60-61 that “Gunadhya could not sing in his own praise”; a sure indication that ’Shlokasangraha’ is a verbatim version of the original, in the form of a poem. Winternitz adds that the nature of the main story in ‘Shlokasangraha’ creates a stronger impression of the work being original than the Kashmiri recension.

Prof. Lacote, in his essay, comes to the same conclusion, when he guardedly says. “Budhaswamin may have innovated a little in the detail of the adventures, and much, if one likes to think so, in the style, is not unlikely, more essentially, in the necessary tales, which are of a nature more vague than the frame story itself. I do not believe that Budhaswamin has deliberately given to the ‘Brihat katha’ a commonplace, even a vulgar character, which did not exist already in the original. Everything considered, it does not seem to me as if he had altered considerably either the plan or subject matter (of Gunadhya’s Brihat-katha)”.

Considering the three recensions (two Kashmiri and one from Nepal) together, Prof. Lacote tries to reconstruct in his essay, the main frame of the story of Gunadhya’s  ‘Brihat-katha’ that he considers is nearest to the original. However, as readers must have realized by now, our purpose here was never the story itself, which readers can always read from the plethora of translations available in many languages. What is more fascinating is the account of the attempts made and efforts put in by many a scholars and Orientalists to try to retrieve the original ‘Brihat-katha’, a masterpiece of ancient Indian literature, even when the original manuscript has been lost forever.

9th March 2018

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

A celestial marriage fancied in stone and words

Hindu scriptures narrate tale of a demon known as ‘Tarakasura’, who was blessed by Gods that he would never be killed by anyone except son of Lord Shiva. This was almost an impossibility because Lord Shiva had killed the God of Love, ‘Madan’. Meanwhile, Uma, a daughter of Mountain Himalaya,  fell in love with Lord Shiva, who would not even look at her. To change his mind she carried out a long spiritual penance (तप), because of which Lord Shiva changed his mind and agreed to marry her. This marriage of Gods, which eventually took place according to this story, has been a great source of conjecture for poets and carvers in stone of ancient and medieval India.
We find scene of this celestial marriage, carried out according to Hindu Vedic traditions, depicted at least in two rock cut temples of in Maharashtra (Elephanta and Verul or Ellora). In cave no. 29 of Verul caves near Aurangabad city, this scene is depicted towards the east end of the great hall of this cave. The two main figures in the mosaic are Shiva and Parvati or Uma, each with a flower in their left hand. Uma wears heavy earrings and slightly inclines her head as if bashful. Below, to the right, kneeling by the sacrificial fire, is Brahma, with three heads, acting as priest; to the left are Mena and Himalaya, the mother and father of the bride, with a flower and a coconut. Above are the gods and goddesses; on the left are Vishnu, Yama, Vayu or Soma, Agni, and perhaps Varuna; on the right is Indra on Airavat.
Verul caves are believed excavated between seventh and eleventh century CE. We however cannot exactly pinpoint the century when this particular mosaic must have been sculptured.  Yet, since this mosaic is in cave 29, which is located towards north end of the caves, it must have been done in later periods as earliest caves in rock cut temples are always located towards the center. We can therefore place this cave (no. 29) as excavated in eighth or ninth centuries approximately.
At least three centuries before these stone carvers would  start their work with the chisel, a famous Sanskrit poet ‘Kalidasa’ had already conceived an epic poem, which he named as ‘Kumarsambhavam’ or ‘Birth of Kumara’, based on the theme of this celestial marriage. The ‘Kumrasaṃbhavam’ is widely regarded as one of Kalidasa’s finest works, a glowing example of his poetic genius. The style of description of this poem would set the standard for metaphors that pervaded the Indian literary tradition for many later centuries.
Kalidasa describes the marriage ceremony in these words.

प्रदक्षिणप्रक्रमणात् कृशानोर् उदर्चिषस् तन् मिथुनं चकासे ।
मेरोर् उपान्तेष्व् इव वर्तमानम् अन्योन्यसंसक्तम् अहस्त्रियामम्॥७.७९॥
तौ दम्पती त्रिः परिणीय वह्निम् कराग्रसंस्पर्शनिमीलिताक्षीम् ।
तां कारयाम् आस वधूं पुरोधास् तस्मिन् समिद्धार्चिषि लाजमोक्षम्॥७.८०॥
सा लाजधूमाञ्जलिम् इष्टगन्धं गुर्ऊपदेशाद् वदनं निनाय ।
कपोलसंसर्पिशिखः स तस्या मुहूर्तकर्णोत्पलतां प्रपेदे॥७.८१॥
तद् ईषदार्द्रारुणगण्डलेखम् उच्छ्वासिकालाञ्जनरागम् अक्ष्णोः ।
वधूमुखं क्लान्तयवावतंसम् आचारधूमग्रहणाद् बभूव॥७.८२॥
वधूं द्विजः प्राह तवैष वत्से वह्निर् विवाहं प्रति पूर्वसाक्षी ।
शिवेन भर्त्रा सह धर्मचर्या कार्या त्वया मुक्तविचारयेति॥७.८३॥
आलोचनान्तं श्रवणे वितत्य पीतं गुरोस् तद्वचनं भवान्या ।
निदाघकालोल्बणतापयेव माहेन्द्रम् अम्भः प्रथमं पृथिव्या॥७.८४॥
ध्रुवेण भर्त्रा ध्रुवदर्शनाय प्रयुज्यमाना प्रियदर्शनेन ।
सा दृष्ट इत्य् आननम् उन्नमय्य ह्रीसन्नकण्ठी कथम् अप्य् उवाच॥७.८५॥

The original Sanskrit poem was aptly translated by Ralph Griffith in 1853 in a beautiful free flowing manner. Here is the translation of the verses quoted above.

“Around the fire in solemn rite they trod,
The lovely lady and the glorious God;
Like day and starry midnight when they meet
In the broad plains at lofty Meru's feet
Thrice at the bidding of the priest they came
With swimming eyes around the holy flame
Then at his word the bride in order due
Into the blazing fire the parched grain threw,
And toward her face the scented smoke she drew,
Which softly wreathing o'er her fair cheek hung
And round her ears in flower-like beauty clung.
As o'er the incense the sweet lady stooped,
The ear of barley from her tresses drooped,
And rested on her cheek, beneath the eye
Still brightly beaming with the jetty dye
This flame be witness of your wedded life:”
Be just, thou husband, and be true, thou wife!
Such was the priestly blessing on the bride.
Eager she listened, as the earth when dried
By parching summer suns drinks deeply in
The first soft droppings when the rains begin.
Look, gentle Uma, cried her Lord, afar
Seest thou the brightness of yon polar star”

We can easily agree that the beauty of these words equally projects out of the stone carving at Verul, leaving us in a quandary as to which one is more beautiful, the mosaic or the poetry of Kalidasa?

07 February 2018

Friday, November 24, 2017

Arab historians and the legend of Padmini

A new controversy over Padmini, the legendary queen of King Ratna Simha of Chittorgarh, is raging in media these days.The trigger for the controversy  has come from a film, yet to be released, that is themed on this legendary queen.  The legend of Padmini, as we know it today, is based on an epic poem ‘Padmavat’ written in year 1540 by Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi in the Awadhi language. It is the oldest extant text among the important works in Awadhi and is considered a famous piece of Sufi literature from the period.
According to this legend, King Ratna Simha of Chittor married princess Padmini after a quest. After hearing about her beauty, Sultan of Delhi Allauddin Khalji, invaded Chittor to obtain Padmini. King Ratna Simha was captured by the Sultan’s forces, but his Rajput warriors rescued him on Padmini's request. While he was in captivity, his Rajput neighbour - Devpal of Kumbhalgarh - sent a marriage proposal to Padmini. Ratna Simha fought with Devpal to avenge this insult, and the two Rajput kings killed each other in a single combat. Allauddin then invaded Chittor, but before he could capture the fort, Padmini and other women immolated themselves.
I thought that it would be an interesting exercise to find out, whether, Arab historians, who have provided detailed narratives about Delhi Sultans, mention this legend and if so how they describe it? The outcome turned out to be quite interesting.
The earliest historian, who describes Allauddin’s campaign against Chittor is Amir Khusro (1253-1325), a Sufi musician, poet and scholar, who accompanied Allauddin on this campaign. He narrates this battle in his book “Tarif-i-Alla” or “Khajanau-al-Futuh” in this fashion.
On Monday, the 8th Jumda-al- thani, AH 702, (28th January 1303) the loud drums proclaimed the royal march from Delhi, undertaken with a view to the capture of Chittor. The author accompanied the expedition. The fort was taken on Monday, the 11th of Muharram, AH 703 (27th August, 1303 A.D.). The Rai (Rajput King) fled, but afterwards surrendered himself”. Amir Khusro comes up with a strange narrative here that is very difficult to explain. He says. “And (the Rajput King) was secured against the lightning of the scimitar (curved sword). The Hindus say that lightning falls wherever there is a brazen (Brass) vessel, and the face of the Rai had become as yellow as one, through the effect of fear”. This comment perhaps can be explained in this fashion. The battle was fought in such ferocity that the sunlight reflecting from the blades of the curved swords, flashed like strikes of lightening. The intense battle was so fearsome that the face of the Rajput King turned yellowish. Khusaro compares this with the Hindu belief that brass vessels attract flashes of lightening. This denigration of  Rajput Kings, who are generally known for their bravery and courage appears, far removed from reality and an exercise in sycophancy to please Sultan Allauddin.   Khusro continues further," After ordering a massacre of thirty thousand Hindus, he bestowed the Government of Chittor upon his son, Khizr Khan, and named the place Khizrabad. He bestowed on him a red canopy, a robe embroidered with gold, and two standards—one green, and the other black—and threw upon him rubies and emeralds. He then returned towards Delhi”.
According to Khusaro’s description, the battle appears to have been a fought in a decisive way, in which thirty thousand Rajput’s were massacred but he makes no mention of any loss on other side. . Perhaps we can excuse him for not having described the losses suffered by Sultan, because, after all, he himself was part of the expeditionary force.
Writing a few decades later, Ziauddin Barani (1285–1357) disposes off the battle in just one line. He says. “The Sultan then led forth an army and laid siege to Chittor, which he took in a short time, and returned home”. However, more important are his further comments. He says. “New troubles now arose on account of the Mughals in Mawaru-n nahr (Transoxiana, region north of Oxus River). They had learned that the Sultan had gone with his army to lay siege to a distant fort, and made but slow progress with the siege, while Delhi remained empty. The Sultan now returned from the conquest of Chittor, where his army had suffered great loss in prosecuting the siege during the rainy season. They had not been in Delhi a month, no muster of the army had been held, and the losses had not been repaired, when the alarm arose of the approach of the Mughals. Affairs were in this extraordinary position; the Sultan had just returned from Chittor, and had had no time to refit and recruit his army after his great losses in the siege”. This narrative gives us a better insight about the battle of Chittor as it tells us that and even though 30000 Rajputs were killed, Allauddin’s losses were also probably much higher.
We find another mention of this battle in the work of Mahomed Kasim Firishta, who compiled his history book by end of Sixteenth century. He writes. “Allauddin about this time sent an army by the way of Bengal to reduce the fort of Warangal in Telangana, while he himself marched towards Chittoor, a place never before attacked by the troops of Mohamad. After a siege of six months, Chittoor was reduced in the year AH 703. Year and the government of it conferred on the King's eldest son, the Prince Khizr Khan, after whom it was called Khizrabad”. Fisrishta’s account tells us that the siege of Chittorgarh had lasted for six months, which must have taken a heavy toll on Allauddin’s army.
Surprisingly, none of these accounts even mention the name of Queen Padmini, which possibly means that either the entire legend is imaginary or secondly, the most likely possibility is that the Padmini episode was a kind of defeat or slap on face of Sultan, and any mention of it was to be avoided.   
There is no romantic angle in the story of life of Sultan Allauddin. He was a cruel and whimsical despot, who took pride in abducting wives of kings defeated by him, adding them to his harem. In 1892 he defeated Karan Deva II of the Vaghela dynasty, the main ruler of Gujarat. His queen, Kamla Devi, fell into the hands of the invaders and was sent as booty to Allauddin. Karna Deva himself, along with his very young daughter Deval Devi and other surviving followers, fled to the Deccan.  Much later, when Deval Devi had come of age, she was captured and was sent to Delhi, where she was reunited with the mother (Kamla Devi), who she had not seen since childhood. Shortly afterwards, at the insistence of the mother, Deval Devi was married to Allauddin's eldest son Khizr Khan (her mother's step-son)
Amir Khusro found the story of Deval Devi, a fit subject for “Ashiqi”, a kind of epic or historical poem, having for its main subject, the loves of Deval Devi, and Khizr Khan, eldest son of Sultan Allauddin. From the historical account mentioned above, Amir Khusro’s  “Ashiqi” appears to be only an imaginary work with no historic basis.
Amir Khusro, in spite of being a poet, was a staunch Sunni Islamist. He writes. “Praise be to God that he so ordered the massacre of all the chiefs of Hind out of the pale of Islam, by his infidel-smiting sword, that if in this time it should by chance happen that a schismatic should claim his right, the pure Sunnis would swear in the name of this Khalifa of God, that heterodoxy has no rights”.
Sultan Allauddin was no hero. At the time of the battle for Chittorgarh, he was 37 years old, an age that was the average lifespan of Indians at that time, and had a grown up and married son. He was bad tempered, obstinate, and hard-hearted. He was a man of no learning and never associated himself with intellectuals. He could not read or write a letter even. He was however very fortunate. His plans and schemes were generally successful, which made the world smile upon him. As a result of his success, he became more and more reckless and arrogant. It would be very wrong to make an attempt to give him a romantic or awe inspiring look.
Sultan Allauddin was a staunch believer of Islamic tenets as proscribed by the prophet. He hated any heterodox principles of religions. He was very harsh on Hindu subjects from his territories. He asked  the Kazi and other wise men from his court   to come up rules and regulations by which  he  could ground down the Hindus, deprive them of that wealth and property, which according to him, fostered disaffection and rebellion. The Hindu was to be so reduced as to be left unable to keep a horse to ride on, to carry arms, to wear fine clothes, or to enjoy any of the luxuries of life. No Hindu could hold up his head and in their houses, no sign of gold or silver or money was to be seen.

References: -

1. The History of India by its own historians: By Sir H.M.Elliot: Volume iii: pp. 76, 189, 549
2. History of rise of Mahomeden power in India: translated from original Persian of Mahomed Kasim Ferishta: By John Briggs: Vol i: pp. 321 ff
3. The Imperial Gazetteer of India: The Indian Empire: Vol ii: pp. 430-31

24th November 2017