The elegy and its many faces
In the last three columns I discussed the nature of the elegy in
Western cultures, some memorable English elegies and the growth of the
tradition of elegy-making in the Anglo-American tradition of poetry.
Today I wish to focus attention on classical India - the aim of this
chain of columns on the elegy is to index its many faces in diverse
cultures. My discussion of Indian elegies is based purely on my reading
and my preferences; others, I am sure, could focus on a different set of
In discussing elegies in classical Indian literary traditions I wish
to focus on the Sanskrit as well as the ancient Tamil tradition of
poetry both of which, in their diverse ways, displayed a commanding
richness and vibrancy.
In discussing the Sanskrit tradition, I wish to foreground the
Mahabharata; in discussing classical Tamil literature I wish to call
attention to the importance of poetry written during the Sangam period,
notably, the ‘Purananaru’.
Let us begin with the Mahabharata; It is one of the two most
important and consequential epics that have shaped Indian culture over
the centuries, the other being the Ramayana. The Mahabharata is regarded
as either the longest or the second longest epic in the world, depending
on whom you speak to.
That it is one of the longest epics in the world was never in
dispute. This epic consists of 74,000 verses and long prose passages.
Eighteen books go to form this massive epic, and the total word count
exceeds 1,8 million.
The family feud and the wars that ensue serve to illuminate the
cherished Indian cultural values by which one should live. Hence the
focus on purpose (artha), pleasure (kama), duty (dharma) and liberation
The term Mahabharata can be loosely translated as the great narrative
of the Bharata dynasty. Vyasa is generally considered to be the author
of this work although some scholars maintain that it was more likely a
product of collective authorship.
The epic touches on Hindu mythology, the world of gods and goddesses,
philosophy and morality. It has exerted a profound influence on the
growth of Indian arts and letters including cinema and television.
My focus of interest is not on the entire epic but its eleventh book.
The Mahabharata consists of eighteen books (parvas), and the eleventh is
called the women’s book of lament. It seems to me that in discussing the
nature and significance of Sanskrit elegies these laments demand our
The basic situation is as follows. This book deals with the laments
of the wives of the Kurus and Pandavas over the slain kith and kin. The
aged monarch Dhritarashtra was overwhelmed with sorrow at the demolition
of his sons. Sanjay admonished the king that grieving was futile and
that the funeral rites be performed.
Dhritarashtra blames himself believing that it is his past misdeeds
that have caught up with him. Vidura too sought to console the king by
pointing out that death was inescapable and when the specified time
arrives no one can challenge it. He also makes the point that there is
no better pathway to heaven for a Kshtriya (warrior) than to die in
Sanjay was insistent that the funeral rites of his sons and grandsons
be performed without delay. Gandhari, and all the Bharata ladies along
with Kunti were to accompany him to the stilled battlefield. A deafening
wail emerged form every house in the city. Thousands of women .wailing
and weeping, and lamenting the loss of life, accompanied them.
As Dhritarashtra proceeded about two miles, he was met by
Aswatthaman, Kripa and Kritavarman; they were weak and dejected and told
that they were the only survivors and everyone else in the Kuru army had
perished. Gandhari was informed of the bravery of his fallen sons. they
had indeed died a real Kshatriya death.
Vyasa, the author of the Mahabharata and also a character in the
narrative, granted spiritual vision to Gandhari with the result that she
could observe the battlefield for several miles. There she could see her
widowed daughters-in-law anxiously looking for the dead bodies of their
husbands and sons.
As she witnessed Duryodhana and others stretched in the battlefield,
she could not help lamenting. She began to accuse Krishna of causing the
calamity and mot preventing the slaughter. the bodies of the killed
princes were burnt on pyres with appropriate honours.; recitation of the
Vedas and the wailings of the women accompanied the ritual.
This is the context in which the women lament for their loved ones,
and these utterances take the form of powerful elegies.
These are some of the earliest elegies in classical Indian literature
and they clearly demonstrate the deep cultural roots from which they
grew. There are a number of features that distinguish the elegies
contained in the Sthri Parva of the Mahabharata. The first is the highly
dramatic nature of the reconfiguration of the events and ensuing
emotions, going back and forth between the past and the present.
This technique reminds one of clever inter-cutting in cinema. The
graphic imagery is both a reflector and promoter of the intensities of
loss that are foundational for the laments. The poet is acutely aware of
what the landscape is announcing.
The second is the interplay of the mundane and the transcendental.
The elegies are framed in terms of a transcendental perspective and
there is easy commerce between the earthly and divine. Third as I will
illustrate presently, in some of the elegies there is a strong element
of surprising eroticism which both reinforces and challenges the
overriding grief that propels the elegies.
Let me cite a few instances of women’s lamentations from the Sthri
Parva of the Mahabharata. (These translations are by K.M.Ganguli) ’All
of them are worthy of sleeping on soft, and clean beds. But, alas,
plunged into distress, they are sleeping on the bare ground. Bards
reciting their praises used to delight them before at proper times. They
are now listening to the fierce and inauspicious cries of jackals.
Those illustrious heroes formerly used to sleep on costly beds with
their limbs smeared with sandal paste and powdered aloe, now sleep in
the dust. These vultures and wolves and ravens have now become their
ornaments. Repeatedly uttering inauspicious and fierce cries these
creatures are now dragging their bodies….’
In descriptions such as these one observes the strong juxtaposition
of images and contexts: the dead and living powerful and powerless,
beauty and horror. Let us consider another representative elegy from the
Sthri Parva of the Mahabharata.
‘Behold O Madhava, my century of sons incapable of fatigue (from
exhaustion in the battlefield) have all been slain by Bhimasena with his
mace in battle.
That which grieves me more today is that these my daughters-in-law of
tender years, and with disheveled hair, are wandering in the field
today. alas they who formerly walked only on the terraces of goodly
mansions with feet adorned with ornaments are now in great affliction of
heart obliged to touch with their feet of theirs the hard earth miry
with blood. In sorrow they are walking like inebriated persons, driving
away vultures and jackals and crows with difficulty.
Once gain we observe the penchant for contrast and juxtaposition. The
following is another representative passage. ’’There,O Madhava, my son
Vikarna applauded by the wise, lies on the bare ground, slain by Bhima
and mangled horribly.
Deprived of life, O Madhava, Vikarna lies in the middle of (slain)
elephants like the moon in the autumnal sky surrounded by blue clouds.
His broad palms, cased in leather fence, and scarred by constant
wielding of the bow, are pierced with difficulty by vultures desirous of
feeding upon dead bodies…’
Here again the propensity to deploy graphic imagery, mostly visual,
and enforce startling juxtapositions characterize the forward movement
of the elegies.
At times, the poets puts in play tensions between situations and
their emotional understanding by locutions given to contrariety as for
example when the slain body lying on the ground is compared to an
autumnal moon in the sky surrounded by dark clouds.
A remarkable feature, it seems to me, in some of the elegies
contained in the Sthri Parva is the curious presence of a kind of
eroticism in the midst of intense lamenting for the dead. This is
evident in passages such as the following.
Conflict of emotions
Here the poet is describing the severed armed of a dead prince. ’Here
is the arm which used to invade the girdle, grind the deep bosom and
touch the navel and thighs, and the hip of fair women and loosen the tie
of the drawer worn by them.’ This might appear to be incongruous and
However, the poet instigates a conflict of emotions, contradictory
flows of feeling, that by their very contestations serve to give greater
complexity and density to the situation depicted. The world of startling
disjunction captured through language seeks its own conjunction, its
harmony, through that very language.
The elegies contained in the Sthri Parva of the Mahabharata, then,
are some of the earliest of powerful death poems or elegies in ancient
India. They display the depths of Indian culture from which they emerge
and the unmistakable imprint of Indianness they carry with them.
These elegies had a profound impact of later Sanskrit poets; how the
later poets fashioned their thoughts and emotions, deployed
representational strategies and constructed tropes owe a great deal to
the Mahabharata. These Elegies offer a sharp contrast to the English
elegies that we discussed in the past two weeks.
Let us consider another set of ancient elegies, this time from South
India. The elegies I have selected are Tamil death poems composed during
the Sangam period ( 3nd century B.C – 3rd century A.D). When we talk of
classical Indian poetry we very often confine our attention to Sanskrit
poetry ignoring the fact that there was a substantial body of complex
and powerful poetry produced in the Tamil tradition.
My focus of interest here is on the Puranauru.it is a part of the
Ettuthokai anthology composed during the Sangam period. Purananuru, as
the title suggests, consists of 400 poems of varying length. They were
composed by nearly 150 poets; however, one cannot vouch for the accuracy
of this number as the same poet could have written under different names
and also used pseudonyms.
This collection of poems sheds valuable light in the social,
cultural, political situation in ancient south India. The pots whose
works are included in this anthology consisted of men and women, kings
The colophon at the end of each poem gives us a sense of the
different authors. Many of the poems included in the Purananuru take the
form of panegyrics and some of the elegies can best be understood as
commemorative endeavors celebrating the dead.
Many of the poems that go to form this text can be described as
spontaneous responses to actual historical moments and events; some
scholars say that some of them were composed at the spur of the moment.
But this does not preclude the fact that some f the poems are
philosophical in nature that foreground important issues of body and
soul, death and rebirth, worldly existence and emancipation. Indeed
these are themes that have stirred the deepest imagination of Indian
philosophers throughout the ages.
As one reads the poems gathered in the Purananuru one realises that
the poets represented subscribe to a notion of a god who is responsible
for the creation, maintenance and destruction of the world.
Although a plurality of gods such as Siva, Tirumal, Muruga the
direction of the generality of thought proceeds towards a supremacy of a
single god, and that god is Siva. He is represented as the immutable and
imperishable and who has overcome the limitations of space and time.
Playthings of destiny
One theme that dominates many of the poems collected in Purananuru
including the elegies is that of destiny – how destiny inflects human
existence. Some of the poets entertain the worrying notion whether hymn
beings are mere playthings of destiny.
However, on closer reading it becomes evident that destiny is the
effect of the cumulative power of past actions with all its redemptive
force. what this means is that to lay the blame at the door of destiny
is to opt for the easy way out.
This idea of destiny is not confined to the subject-matter, The style
of presentation, the orchestration of the poems, the collision between
ambivalences in the language and locutions deployed strengthen this
In order to understand not only the literary weave of the Purananuru
but ancient Tamil poetic texts in general, one has to bear in mind two
central concepts associated with Tamil poetics – ‘akam’ and ‘puram’.
They are modes of rhetorical classification. ‘Akam’ refers to the
external while ‘puram’ refers to the external. ‘Akam’ poems are
essentially love poems while ‘puram’ poems are basically poems dealing
with wars and kings.
This division might imply a simplistic division; but in point of fact
it is more complex than appears on the surface. The landscapes
associated with ‘akam’ poetry – cultivated fields, wilderness, seaside,
hillside, forests –connote certain emotions with specific modes.
Although ‘akam’ and ‘puram’ are useful as broad generalisations, in
certain complex poems one finds a blending of the two. Certain poets
specialised in one of the two forms; however, there are those who
practised both forms. Purananuru essentially deals with ‘puram ‘– many
of the poems contained in this anthology textualize wars and kings and
This is a typical ‘puram’ poem; it is titled Not Rice Not War There
are different translations of poems collected in the Purananuru some
more literal than others; I have opted for the late A.K.Ramanujan’s
translations because as he himself said he was more interested in
capturing the inner form of the originals.
Ramanujan was an important English poet in his own right; I knew him
well and he offered me some very useful suggestions when I was
translating a selection of poems from the Theri Gatha, Let us consider a
typical poem from the Purananuru titled, ‘Not Rice, Not Water.’
Only the king
Is the life-breath
Of a kingdom.
And it is the duty
Of a king
With his army of spears
He’s the life
Of the wide, blossoming kingdom.
What I wish to focus on are some of the elegies represented in the
Purananuru.(not all poems gathered in this volume are elegies.) The
following is a typical composition that represents the essential
features of this genre as ancient Tamil poets saw them.
The bright burning eye
Of black half-burned faggots,
Pieces picked as if by a gypsy
In a field fire
May it burn brighter
Till it burns down to a handful.
Or rise in flames
And each out to heaven.
The fame of our sun-like king
His white umbrella cool
As the moon
Will not blacken
Will not die.
In this elegy, we observe how the poet has organised his thoughts and
emotions around the trope of burning. He constructs a series of images
that capture the power and glory of his protagonist; The abstract notion
of glory finds creative expression in the various concrete images that
move through this poem as indeed in many others collected in this
anthology. And the elegy orders itself in response to the dictates of
compactness. Let us consider another elegy from this text.
Let day, let night, come no more.
Let all my days come to nothing.
We have put peacock feathers
On his headstone
And poured bark-wine
In little bowls for him.
Will he accept them
Who didn’t accept a whole country
Of mountain peaks?
What is interesting about this elegy is the way in which a complex of
emotions has been compressed into a tightly organised poem. This is, of
course, partly due to the indubitable skill of Ramanujan as a
translator. There is an almost a modernist ring to this elegy which was
composed in South India some thousands of years ago which belies its
distant origins. We need to be mindful of the solace that is achieved
in, and unfolded through, the elegy. The following is another example of
an elegy from the ‘Purananuru’.
The young will not wear it.
Bangled women will not pluck it.
Neither minstrel, nor his singing woman.
Will bend this stalk of jasmine
With the crook of a lute
To wear it in their hair.
Cattan of the big lance
Who mastered men
With his manhood,
Why do you bloom now
Jasmine, In this land of Ollai?
Here again we see the compression, the compactness, the
suggestibility playing a crucial role in the dynamics of this elegy. The
poet deploys the image of the jasmine to summarise the loss of a life
that meant so much to so many.
On the basis of a comparative study of the elegies in the Sthri Parva
in the Mahabharata and the elegies contained in the Tamil text the
Purananuru that we have considered we can make the following
Both sets of elegies articulate a language of loss; both begin with a
sense of perplexity that comes as a disconcerting challenge to normal
understanding. Both sets of poems seek a deeper truth beneath the overt
misery and dislocations However, the two sets of elegies traverse two
different paths towards their poetic destinations.
In the case of the Mahabharata elegies, there is a sense of
expansiveness of meaning and heightened dramatic tone that invests them
with a distinctive vibrancy. On the other hand, the elegies quoted from
the Purananuru are concentrated and what is unsaid is as important as
what is said. It is as if the language is gazing at itself as it
These two sets of elegies present recognizably different verbal
fabrics from those found in the classical English elegies and modern
American elegies that I discussed earlier.
(To be continued)