Sanskrit poets took great joy in playing around with its alphabets, verses, rhymes: incorporated them in visual patterns,all for the purpose of celebrating the Sanskrit language.
“Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein
Marinating in the aftertaste of Māgha’s Śiśupāla-vadha — a piece of eight-century epic-poetry that reads like a love letter to words, to language— a thought struck me: that we don’t celebrate language anymore. Sure, we discuss in plenty the “correct use” of language, we complain in loud voices its “dumbing down”, we still take pleasure in crosswords and Scrabble … but we don’t play with words. No, not like the Sanskrit poets did. Sanskrit poets, it seems, delighted in linguistic acrobatics. In the name of chitrakavya, or Figurative Poetry, the poets performed Olympian feats of gymnastics before the reader, and their words, like boomerangs, soared across the mind to swoop in for a clean strike each time.
“Chitra”, literally, means peculiar/wonder (as in vichitra), and variegated. Chitrakavya, therefore, is poetry that creates wonder through a physical arrangement of words into visual patterns or pictures. It held a great charm for the poets, and in a spirit of lighthearted indulgence, they worked words into patterns like lotuses, wheels, conches, wrote verses with just one alphabet in a feet or a hemistich, shunned certain alphabets throughout a verse, created rhymes and chain-rhymes, identical hemistiches with un-identical meanings, etc.
For example, in one chapter in Daśakumarācharitam, Dandin did not use labials at all— because the hero, whose lips had been badly bitten by his passionate mistress the previous night, was unable to pronounce these sounds! Bhaţţathiri, in his Niranunāsika campu, did not use nasals for Śūrpaņakhā’s dialogues since her nose was cut off and she could not produce these sounds! In Māgha’s Śiśupāla-vadha is an ekākśari, a verse with just one consonant:
दाददो दुद्ददुद्दादी दाददो दूददीददोः ।
दुद्दादं दददे दुद्दे दादाददददोऽददः ॥
Describing a battle scene between Kŗśņa and Śiśupāla, it means: “Kŗśņa — the giver of every boon, the scourge of the evil-minded, the purifier, the one whose arms destroy the wicked who cause suffering to others — raised his weapon against the foe.”
Another example is a verse in which all the consonants follow their natural sequence. (Imagine writing a, b, c, in their natural order, not nonsensically!):
कः खगौघाङचिच्छौजा झाञ्ज्ञोऽटौठीडडण्ढणः ।
तथोदधीन् पफर्बाभीर्मयोऽरिल्वाशिषां सहः ॥
“Who is he, the lover of birds, pure in intelligence, expert in stealing the strength of others, leader among the destroyers of the enemies, the steadfast, the fearless, the one who has filled the ocean? He is king Maya, the repository of the blessings that can destroy the foes.”
Vedanta Deśika’s Pādukāsahasram, a piece of tenth-century poetry written in praise of the wooden sandals of Lord Rama, is a trove of chitrakavyas:
An incredible verse with just one consonant and one vowel, this is a fine example of Deśika’s uncommon erudition. It means, “The wooden-sandals (pāduka) which adorn the Lord, which help in attainment of all that is good and auspicious, which give knowledge, which inspire the desire to be in the presence of the Lord, which remove all that is hostile, which have attained the Lord, by which all the places of the world can be reached, such are the sandals of the Lord.”
In this same work, Deśika worked a verse into a turagapāda, or steps of a horse— a perfect solution for the “Knight’s tour problem”.
The ‘Knight’s tour’ is a famous mathematical problem— it challenges the player to place a knight in one corner of the chessboard and to cover all the 64 squares with the knight without landing on any square twice. In the 1750’s, Leonhard Euler, a Swiss mathematician, found a solution to this problem and since then, it has been called Euler Chess Knight problem. But Deśika beat Euler a full 700 years before:
स्थिरागसां सदाराध्या विहताकततामता ।
सत्पादुके सरसा मा रङ्गराजपदं नय ॥
Read in its natural order, this verse means, “Oh, the sacred sandals of the Brahman, you are always adorned by those who have committed unpardonable sins; you remove all that is sorrowful and unwanted; you create a musical sound; (be pleased) and lead me to the feet of Lord Rangaraja (Rama)”
But if it is arranged on a chess board, and read according to the squares that the knight visits in the tour problem, it produces another verse:
It now reads:
स्थिता समयराजत्पागतरा मादके गवि ।
दुरंहसां सन्नतादा साध्यातापकरासरा ॥
“The sandals which protect those who shine by their right attitude, whose place is in the center of the blissful rays, which destroy the melancholy of the distressed, whose radiance brings peach to those who take refuge in them, which move everywhere— may those golden and radiating sandals of the Brahman lead me to the feet of the Lord Rangaraja (Rama)”
A feat far greater than simply solving the Knight Tour problem!
Sanskrit poets did not limit themselves to this. No, these mad-hatters composed verses that could be read as a rathapāda (steps of the camel/bishop), gajapāda (steps of the elephant), gomutrikā (arrangement like the moving cow’s sprinkling of urine), and kākāpāda (steps of a crow’s foot)! Besides this, they composed epic-palindromes in which lines read forward and backward gave either a complete stanza or a different meaning. Sometimes, poems narrated two or more (nay, once even seven) tales simultaneously!
Chidambara Sumati’s Rāghava-Yādava-Pāndavēyam, for example, narrates simultaneously the stories of Rāma, Kŗśņa and Arjunā! Suryadasa’s Ramakrishna-Vilomakavya, is another example. Of the two lines of each verse of this composition, the first narrates the tale of Rama, and the next line, which is the first line written in reverse order, narrates the tale of Kŗśņa!
तं भूसुतामुक्तिमुदारहासं वन्दे यतो भव्यभवं दयाश्रीः ।
श्रीयादवं भव्यभतोयदेवं संहारदामुक्तिमुतासुभूतम् ॥
The first line, addressed to Rāma, reads, “I pay my homage to him who released Sītā, whose laughter is deep, whose embodiment is grand, and from whom mercy and splendor arise everywhere”.
By reversing this line, we get the second line addressing Kŗśņa: “I bow before that Kŗśņa, the descendent of the Yādava-lineage, who is the lord of the son and the moon, who liberated even her (Pūtana) who wanted to bring an end to his life, and who is the soul of the universe.”
Besides such acrobatics, there is another variant of chitrakavya that works with extreme constraints— chitrabandha or verses that can be read in different sequences to create different meanings. Bhojaraja, in his treatise on aesthetics, lists more than two-hundred varieties of chitrabandhas—like kankana-bandha which demands that the letters be arranged in circular form as in a bangle, such that the verse can be read from any point on the circle – each beginning creating a new verse! Naga-bandha requires the verse to make sense if arranged in the form of a snake and traced from head to tail; other patterns include coiled and uncoiled snakes, swords, knifes, and maces, armlets, girdles, and necklaces, lamps, pestles, and swings, bells and umbrellas, and many, many more!
Here is an example of a verse that can be worked into the pattern of a mūrajaor a drum:
सा सेना गमनारम्भे रसेनासीदनारता ।
तारनादजना मत्तधीरनागमनामया ॥
First, the four feet of the verse are written in their normal order. Now, the first of the two major strings of the drum (ABC) are created by starting from the left-hand corner and then moving to the centre of the opposite side and then back to the right hand upper corner. Then, the second major string (DEF) is created by following a similar movement starting from the lower left hand corner. The syllables of these two strings form the first and the fourth lines of the verse. Then there are the two minor strings forming two squares, GHIJ and KLMN. These form the second and the third lines of the verse:
Following the strings in multiple orders, the same verse is created with the same meaning: “The army was very efficient, and as it moved, the warrior heroes were very alert and did their duties with great concentration. The soldiers in that army made a great sound. The army was adorned with intoxicated and restive elephants. No one was there with any thoughts of pain.”
Finally is a sarvato-bhadra (perfect in all directions), a magic square of sorts, taken from Bharavi’s Kirātārjunīya. It is a complicated mixture of syllabic palindromes and acrostics that describes a battle scene, and can be read in any direction to give the same verse and the same meaning!
देवाकानिनि कावादे वाहिकास्वस्वकाहि वा ।
काकारेभभरेऽकाका निस्वभव्यभस्वनि ॥
“O man who desires war! This is that battlefield which excites even the gods, where the battle is not of words. Here people fight and stake their lives not for themselves but for others. This field is full of herds of maddened elephants. Here those who are eager for battle and even those who are not very eager, have to fight.”
Flipping through centuries of Sanskrit literature, one is reminded of the jouissance— the juicy joy— of language. Language is not simply a means of communication and nothing more. Is food is a means of fuelling and no more? In Stephan Fry’s words, “In life, you have to explain wine. You have to explain cheese. You can’t but you have to try, or if not try, you have to, surely, be aware of the astonishing fact of them”. So did Māgha say, “Oh! Like music that has just seven notes, language, although it comprises of only a few letters, is infinite in possibility!”
Pictures & translation credit: “The wonder that is Sanskrit”– Sampadananda Mishra