Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

Sanskrit Limericks

M. R. Sampatkumaran


It may seem anachronistic to talk of limericks, probably an invention of Edward Lear of the nineteenth century, in Sanskrit, a language which is believed to have ‘died’ ages before. But the game of samasya-purana, completing a quatrain of which a line, usually the last, is given, resembles nothing so much as our popular limerick competitions. It was a favourite pastime among our poets and pandits in the past: and there are any number of stories suggesting that it enjoyed royal patronage in the good old days. It used to be a popular test of skill: and though, as poetry cannot be made to order, it could hardly have stimulated poetical talent, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it did encourage ready wit and dexterity in the use of language and the expression of ideas. Of Sanskrit poetry it has been said that one can find in it ‘more cleverness per square inch’ than anywhere else in the world. And much of this cleverness is found among the stanzas composed and completed to order.

The Bhoja Prabandha in its romantic account of the court of King Bhoja of Dharanagara makes Kalidasa the hero of many a little anecdote involving samasya purana. Of course, if at all there was any Kalidasa at the court of Bhoja, he must have been a different person from the author of Sakuntala, who flourished hundreds of years before Bhoja. But whoever may be the hero of the anecdotes, he was, at any rate, a person of ready wit, admirable presence of mind, resourceful command over language and metre and some not unpoetical fancy and imagination. One story relates that the King once challenged his court poets to complete a stanza of which the last line was the apparently meaningless jingle–gulu-guggulu-guggulu. Most of them found them selves at sea, but Kalidasa produced a marvel of onomatopoeia:

The jamboo fruits fall into the clear waters, from the branches shaken by monkeys–gulu-guggulu-guggulu.

A similar story is recorded of the line, thatham-thatham-thantha-thatham-thatham-thah. Kalidasa’s stanza took up the theme of Rama’s coronation and spoke of a young lady, somewhat flushed with wine, dropping a golden jar. It reached a staircase and rolled down the steps making the musical tinkle expressed in the line given by the King. Among verses of this kind, it is, however, more usual to find the statement and resolution of apparent paradoxes. A typical instance is given by a Bhoja story. One day the King gave the line ‘fire cool as sandal-paste’, and the poets were as usual all flabbergasted. Kalidasa, however, with his divine vision found out what inspired the King–a veritable miracle staged by a faithful wife–and wrote of it:

Seeing her son fall into the fire, the faithful wife did not wake up her husband (who was sleeping with his head on her lap): but compelled by the power of her chastity, the fire became cool as sandal-paste.

Quite similar is a stanza found in the Hanuman-nataka, of which the last line is: ‘The lotus shines in the midst of fire’. It deals with the miraculous incident of Sita entering the fire to prove her purity to Rama, after her prolonged stay in the palace of Ravana. Agni, the god of fire, saw to it that she remained unharmed–her face shone like a lotus in the midst of fire–and restored her to Rama. The following stanza, completed from the last line, belongs to the same type, but is something of a tour-de-force in the manipulation of its ideas:

Kicked by a fly, the whole universe trembled–when the stomach of God (incarnating) as child (Krishna) and eating butter, throbbed.

Another method, frequently employed for resolving paradoxes, is to cite them as examples of contradictions in terms. Here is an example:

"Stop, Arjuna? I shall kill you now in the battle with my arrows." "I am standing, Karana. Do you think, fool, that a lion will flee away from a deer?"

The lion runs away from the deer–that was the theme set. The poet overcame the difficulty by referring to a mutual exchange of compliments between Arjuna and Karna, the rival warriors of the Mahabharata. The sindhura mark on the face of a widow–considered as impossible or, at least, unlikely to be seen–is made to point a moral in this stanza:

Associate with the good, my son, giving up quickly bad company. For, even a worthy person obtains blame by having evil companions–like the sindhura mark on the forehead of a widow.

To one familiar with the conventions of Sanskrit poetry, the clever flattery in the following verse will become evident:

All creatures become pleased when their enemies are shamed. When the rising moon is hidden by the white light of your glory, the female chakravaka bird dances.

The chakravaka bird, which becomes nightly separated from her mate, ought to hail the rising sun with joy: but

Looking at the moon like face of the young lady and the star like pearls round her neck, and fearing that the night has returned, the chakravaka bird cries at sunrise.

Sometimes the poet has to seek the aid of illusion to account for the apparently impossible things he is called upon to mention in his stanza.

For instance:

A fly has given birth to a camel in a corner of the hollow of the husk of a sesamum-seed

–such an illusion arises for the people, when a camel is reflected in the pupil, which shines like a star in a corner under the eyelash of the lady with eyes like those of a deer cub.

This game is now passing out–or very probably has already passed out–of fashion. A generation or two ago, perhaps no one who dabbled in Sanskrit studies escaped a challenge to complete a samasya. I have heard that my father* was once set the line: "Butter becomes hard in fire." A woman’s heart, he improvised, proverbially soft and tender, becomes hard in the fire of anger. Some years ago, I was present at a satavadhdnam performance by Lalapet Ramanujacharya. Among the hundred tasks set for occupying his attention, one was completing a stanza of which the last line was: "Elephants enter into a crab-hole." If I remember right, he gave us a small vignette of a game of chess on the beach: for some reason or other, the chessmen rolled about on the sands, and the rooks, which are called ‘elephants’ in Indian chess, fell into a crab-hole.

From Sanskrit the game had passed on to other Indian Languages also. Of Subrahmanya Bharati, the well-known Tamil poet, a story is related that he was once asked to compose a stanza ending with ‘Bharati, the little fellow’. It proved something of a boomerang for the gentleman who set the task.

Sometimes it is said that there is nothing new under the Sun. One of the most curious facts in support of this is perhaps the reappearance of the favourite literary sport of our medieval princes in the guise of the limerick competition under the patronage of press barons and magazine magnates.

* The late Rao Bahadur Prof. M. Rangacharya.

Let's grow together!

I humbly request your help to keep doing what I do best: provide the world with unbiased sources, definitions and images. Your donation direclty influences the quality and quantity of knowledge, wisdom and spiritual insight the world is exposed to.

Let's make the world a better place together!

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: