Sunday, January 27, 2008


The Meghaduta or Cloud Messenger is one of the masterpieces of Indian, indeed world literature. {1} Its 120-odd stanzas, each of four unrhymed lines, were written in the Mandakrata {2} metre at some time between 100 BC and 500 AD. {3} The Mandakrata is a long metre, moving slowly like the python, with a form as follows: {4} {5}

Kalakalah, the ferry in the sound, now lets great boats lie. Beneath
bold, broad, stone forts in which stiff Brits fix pride, lie little boats aground. Wet,

wild, welcome, warm they hint at bitter storms. Bold, bitten barricades fall.
Whose to say "fly," if nits pick petty fights and the work wanders widely?

Each line has 17 syllables and 10 stresses (or, more accurately, long syllables, as Sanskrit poetry is quantitative.) The stanza is richly elaborated and tightly knit {6}, so that each stands as a somewhat individual creation. When we realize that Indian poetry is often richly sensuous, moreover, with a leaning towards reflection and speculation unlike anything in Chinese, or indeed in English, {7} we begin to appreciate the difficulties. The story is also far from contemporary interests: a lovesick supernatural being (Yaksha) asks a cloud to convey a message across the subcontinent to his loved one. {8}

Other Translations
There have been many translations. {8} {9} {10} {11} {12} {13} {14}. Here are three Internet versions of the opening stanzas:

A lean and lovesick Yaksha, newly wed,
Dallied at home avoiding his work.
His elder, made angry, packed him into exile
For a year. Now his misery knows no bounds.
He lives in Ramgiri Parvat near a crystal lake,
Whose waters once touched by Sita, are holy.

Frustrated and forlorn, distant Chitrakut Mountain
His new home, Yaksha is lost and starved for love,
His wrist so thin it sheds its golden jewels.
Ashar has come, filling the southern sky with
A cloud, frolicksome as an elephant
About to charge, he seems to lower his tusks.

Seeing that beautiful cloud high on the mountaintop,
Filled with desire and tearful, Yaksha
Plunged into deep reflection. O Cloud!
Look at me -- how I pine to caress
The long neck of my beloved.
Should my feelings not be moved? {8}

Yue-tchi chief, neglectful of his fief,
Sentenced to suffer exile of one year,
(A heavy fate to part with his beloved,
And see his glories, joys and splendours set)
Came to dwell and wait in abbeys far
Amidst the ancient trees' sequestered shade,
Above the Rama-hills by springs wherein
The daughter of the Prince of Mithila
Once bathed and hallowed them for evermore.

And on these heights he whiled away some months,
An ardent lover torn from hapless wife,
His golden armlets from his wasting wrists
Slipt loose: Then with the first advent of rains,
Below him, clinging to the mountain side,
He spied a cloud, an elephant as 'twere,
With lowered tusks, against a rampart bent in sportive butt.

I know thou comest of the far-famed race
Of rolling, heavy clouds, -- and changing garbs
At will, thou leadest troops that serve the God
Of Rains, the Bountiful. And I by stroke
Of fate and law from dear ones cast afar,
Would seek of thee a favour.

Refuge thou art for all that suffer wrong,
Distressed and parched, on them thou pourest balm.
Then take this message to my love, for we
Are torn apart by angry Lord of Wealth. {12}

A certain yaksha who had been negligent in the execution of his own duties, on account of a curse from his master which was to be endured for a year and which was onerous as it separated him from his beloved, made his residence among the hermitages of Ramagiri, whose waters were blessed by the bathing of the daughter of Janaka and whose shade trees grew in profusion.

That lover, separated from his beloved, whose gold armlet had slipped from his bare forearm, having dwelt on that mountain for some months, on the first day of Asadha, saw a cloud embracing the summit, which resembled a mature elephant playfully butting a bank.

Managing with difficulty to stand up in front of that cloud which was the cause of the renewal of his enthusiasm, that attendant of the king of kings, pondered while holding back his tears. Even the mind of a happy person is excited at the sight of a cloud. How much more so, when the one who longs to cling to his neck is far away? {11}

And from printed sources:

This Yaksha, banished a desolate year
from his love and from the king whose curse
for some carelessness sent him impotent away,
spent his exile among the holy retreats
of Ramagiri where Sita, bathing, had made
the waters holy and where trees cast a rich shade.

On this mountain, months from his mate,
aching for love, his wrists so wasted
that the gold bracelet he wore slipped off
and was lost — he saw at summer's end
a cloud swelling against the peak
like a great elephant nuzzling a hill.

So he stood there, shaken, this courtier
of Kubera, his tears held back, considering
the heart-breaking sight a long time.
A sudden cloud can mute the mind
of the happiest man — how much more
when the one he is dying to hold is far from him. {13}

A certain nameless Yaksa, divested of his powers by his King and condemned for his dereliction to yearlong exile away from his family, lived in a cottage on Ramagiri hills, where the trees had a gentle shade and where the brooks had become holy from Sita's baths.

A few months of separation from his wife sapped his vigour and the bracelets slipped from his thinned wrists. Then, on the last day of Asadha, he noticed a cloud clinging to the mountain-peak, a visual pleasure, like an elephant playing and butting the peak.

The humble servant of the Sovereign Kubera stood somehow before it, tears welling up inside and lost for long in hesitant thought. Even a happy heart is perturbed at the sight of a cloud in the rainy season; what will be the state of those far off from lovers' embrace? {14}

A demigod who was heedless in his office
had lost his honored rank--
his master cursed him to endure
a year in exile from his love.
He lived on Mt. Rama
in the hermit groves
whose waters were pure from Sita's ablutions. {15}

Kalidas(translated from Sanskrit)