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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Classical Indian Love Poetry

Something different for you, from the archives. Thirty years ago I wrote this. If you have romance in your soul, you may like it. Even if you just read some of the poems, I'm sure you'll enjoy them.

The existence of India's rich and ancient literary heritage is fairly well known in the west, mainly through the popularity of the Bhagavadgita, which is perhaps the most sublime expression of Indian religious and philosophical sentiment of all time.  A later interpolation into the Mahabharata epic, the Gita stands on its own as a superb example of Sanskrit composition. The early Vedic literature, together with the Mahabharata and the other great Indian epic, the Ramayana, highlight the religious and philosophical contribution which Sanskrit literature has given to the world, but they tend to overshadow contemporary accomplishments in the secular field.  Yet in their portrayal of the less esoteric aspects of human existence, the Sanskrit poets display just as much delight in beauty, wit and artistry as they do in more lofty literary pursuits.

The composition of classical Sanskrit poetry was very much a male occupation, and undoubtedly the most popular themes of secular verse were women and love.  In a society where sex roles were rigidly defined and reinforced by tradition, women were portrayed in the paradoxical terms that might be expected of a chauvinistic social climate.  They were beautiful, wilful, fascinating temptresses whom men are bound to love but can never hope to understand.

Just as classical Indian painting and sculpture use forms from nature to portray the beauty of women, so do such similes appear in verse - the moon, the lotus, the fawn and beautiful flowers:

The moon tries every month in vain
To paint a picture of your face;
And, having failed to catch its grace,
Destroys the work, and starts again.

Her red Ashokaflowers chid the ruby's brightness,
While Karnikaras stole the flamegod of morning;
Pearls paled beside her Sinduvara's whiteness:
Such flowers of spring she wore for her adorning.

These lovely little verses are without the sensuosity or cynicism which appear in many other poems.  Much of the poetry of Bhatrhari and Amaru, for example, is subtly erotic, but with such exuberance, wit and grace that it is sheer delight to read:

Though she's the girl, I am the one who's shy;
And though she walks with heavy hips, it's I
Who cannot move for heaviness; and she
Who is the woman:  but the coward, me.
She is the one with high and swelling breast,
But I the one with weariness oppressed.
Clearly, in her the causal factors lie,
But the effects in me.  I wonder why!

Here, the love relationship has been intellectualised in an amusing way, and there are many other equally charming verses which depend for their humour of this device.  The sensuality of the example below is more direct and unequivocal:

Her hand upon her hip she placed,
And swayed seductively her waist,
With chin upon her shoulder pressed,
She stretched herself to show her breast:
With sapphire pupils burning bright
Within pearly orbs of white,
Her eyes with eagerness did dance,
And threw me a comehither glance.

This poem beautifully encapsulates the view of woman as the temptress, flaunting her charms to lure men into the lovetrap. Bhatrhari tries to warn them of the danger:

If the forest of her hair
Calls you to explore the land,
And her breasts, those mountains fair
Tempt that mountaineer, your hand
Stop! before it is too late:
Love, the brigand, lies in wait.

Alas for Bhatrhari, he rarely heeds his own advice, judging by the number of poems inspired by broken romances which appear against his name.  These culminated in near desperation as he contemplates an ancient version of misdirected passion:

She who is always in my thought prefers
Another man, and does not think of me.
Yet he seeks for another's love, not hers;
And some poor girl is grieving for my sake.
Why then, the devil take
Both her and him; and love; and her; and me.

The Indian ideal of physical beauty in the female form was of ample, spherical breasts and broad, comfortable hips, separated by the narrowest of waists.  The appeal of this combination has evoked a great deal of enthusiasm in the inspired poet, laced with a touch of humour.  One such poem is actually addressed to a lady's slender waist:

To her waist 
This is sheer recklessness!  How can she make you
 Go for a walk?
Can she not see that the weight of her breasts
Is enough to break you?

Another uses an elaborate conceit based upon the traditional Indian notion of polity known as the mandala, whereby it is the right and duty of kings to seek to expand their territory.

Your breasts are like two kings at war, my dear:
Each striving to invade the other's sphere.

A society which sharply defines the separate roles of men and women tends to encourage certain conventions in behaviour between the sexes when they are together.  Sexual aggressiveness in the male brings the reaction of coquetry from the female, as society forbids her to reciprocate, in public at least, in like manner.  The refined Gupta society of the court reflected these tendencies, which in turn to misunderstandings and frustrations between men and women.  As a result there developed a genre of verse emanating from such sentiments.

No, but look here now, this is just absurd,
The way our famous poets talk of girls
As weak and winsome, Weak?  Is this a word
To use of those who, with the shake of curls
And with the triumph of a modest glance,
Can lead the very gods a merry dance?

Moon-light face
Flower-bud hand,
Nectar voice,
Rose-red lip:
Stone-hard heart.

Very chauvinistic!  But when the chauvinism is linked with cynicism, the combination is more than adequate to raise the hackles of the mildest feminist.

It may be hard enough to do,
But if you try, you'll find
A way to pin down quicksilver,
But not a woman's mind.

Nor gifts, nor honour, righteousness nor praise,
Learning nor force, can mend a woman's ways.

From this tiny fraction of examples, the male view of woman is abundantly clear, even if not all have been driven to the despair and cynicism of the worst afflicted by love.  'May women smile upon you,' goes the invocation, 'the most perverse, delightful creatures in God's universe.'

The love between wife and husband is the subject of some of the most beautiful poems.  Very often the theme is inspired by partings, just as it is in literature from all over the world.  How does a loving and dutiful wife impart to her husband her deepest feeling on his departure?

'Do not go', I could say; but this is inauspicious.
'All right, go' is a loveless thing to say.
'Stay with me' is imperious'.  'Do as you wish' suggests
Cold indifference.  And if I say 'I'll die
When you are gone', you might or might not believe me.
Teach me, my husband, what I ought to say
When you go away.

This is a delightful poem, but none has so movingly portrayed the theme as this brief quatrain.

She fainted when she heard him say
That he must go abroad; and then,
Reviving, said, 'You're back again!
My love, you've been so long away.'

The games of love are played our in verse by the Sanskrit poets, and reveal a healthy picture of joy, tenderness and humour between lovers.  If nothing else, the poems clearly show that amorous adventures have a timeless and international quality!

Fluttering her hands, she tries to find her clothes,
And throws her broken garland at the lamp,
Laughing in shy confusion, while she tries
To cover up my eyes.  How sweet she is
To look and look at, after we've made love!

Lying together in the bed
They kept a sullen silence grim,
And not a word to her he said.
And she refused to speak to him.
But glances chance to interlace:
A moment's pause, and both thereafter
Forget resentment, and embrace
Dissolving in a gale of laughter.

The tender words she spoke so sweet
Last night when in his arms she lay
She hears the parrot now repeat,
And blushes at the break of day.

What, though, when love goes wrong?  Ancient Indian society did not impose the absolute moral strictures upon infidelity, which are evident in Judaeo-Christian-based societies, although adultery was frowned upon in practice, particularly on the part of women.  Women were expected to be chaste, largely because of the affront that her infidelity imposed upon the dignity of her husband.  Polygamy was not unknown, but it was probably fairly rare even then.  Adultery was a forgivable sin for men, but women were expected to show sufficient jealousy towards their errant partners to indicate their love for their spouses.  'In the event of any misconduct on the part of her husband,' says the Kama Sutra, 'she should not blame him excessively, though she be a little displeased.'  Most of these poems were written at about the same time that the Kama Sutra assumed the recension in which it appears in translation today.  Like this treatise on the art of love, much of the love poetry is written by and about the men and women of the upper classes of Gupta society, and because of this, constitutes a useful source for morals and manners of the period.  The most poignant of poems on this theme concern the loss of love between husband and wife, as this example, tinged with overwhelming sadness, demonstrates:

Today adds yet another day
And still your father is unkind.
The darkness closes up the path.
Come, little son, let us go to bed.

How to cover indiscretion in love is a favourite topic for humour, as these poems reveal.

While describing to her best friend
Her adventures with her lover,
She realised she was talking to her husband,
And added, 'And then I woke up.'

'Yes, you are fawning at my feet,' said she,
'A wretched trick,' she said, 'to hide your chest
Smeared with the evidence, in case I see
Cosmetics from another woman's breast.'
'Where is it, then?' I said, and with a kiss
Pressed close to her, to blur the telltale trace,
Holding her firm, arousing her to bliss
And she forgot it in our fierce embrace.

Not all escape so easily.  One wayward lover has to put up with the heavy sarcasm of a jealous spouse:

'Did you sleep in the garden, dear,
On a bed of magnolia flowers?
I suppose you know that your breast
Is smeared with the pollen dust?'
'O, why will you try to be clever,
And scold me with hints like this?
Let me tell you I got these scratches
From cruel magnolia thorns.'

The classical poets wrote on an unlimited variety of themes, of which love, with all its joys and tribulations, is but one. Undoubtedly their world was steeped in luxury, ease and, above all, constantly stimulated aesthetic sensitivity.  Though not averse to other secular themes such as poverty, death and everyday life, the ancient Indian poets seem to have tapped a special source of inspiration derived from the subject of love.  The result is a freshness and vitality in verse and sentiment which easily transcend the millennia.  Perhaps Dharmakirti comes closest to explaining this source in this moving poem:

A hundred times I learnt from my philosophy
To think no more of love, this vanity,
This dream, this source of all regret,
This emptiness.
But no philosophy can make my heart forget
Her loveliness.

The source for all poems is John Brough, Poems From the Sanskrit (Penguin, 1968).


  1. Thank you. SO beautiful. Of course, the sensuality of love poems crosses over into the bhakti tradition, so that worshipping god (here , Shiva) can be equally sensuous. Some excerpts from Mahadeviyakka:

    "Four parts of the day I grieve for you
    Four parts of the night I'm mad for you
    I lie lost,sick for you, night and day,
    O lord white as jasmine.
    Since your love was planted
    I've forgotten hunger, thirst and sleep.
    I saw the lord, white as jasmine,
    and broke wide open
    He bartered my heart, looted my flesh,
    claimed as tribute my pleasure
    took over
    all of me.
    I'm the woman of love
    for my lord, white as jasmine."



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