Madhurā Vijaya: Introduction

Gaṅgādevī is one of Sanskrit’s rare surviving poetesses.  There seem to have been several women poets but most of their work has been lost.  Indeed Gaṅgādevī’s Madhurā Vijaya was only discovered in 1916, in Trivandrum, and consists of a single many-holed manuscript (plus possibly a couple of other unpublished manuscripts in far-flung corners of India).  The original editor of the Trivandrum manuscript noted that the poem was so good that several scholars couldn’t accept it had been written by a woman.

Gaṅgādevī was not only a poetess, she was also a queen – the queen of the mighty Vijayanagara empire in the 14th century.  Her poem celebrates the victory won by her husband, King Kampa or Kamparaya, over the Sultan of Madurai – the Madhurā of the title.  Although she doesn’t shrink from describing the horrors of war, albeit overlaid with the surrealism of kāvya, battle occupies only two of the surviving nine cantos.  For the rest, we are invited to admire the city of Vijayā where the mansions reach so high into the sky that the women playing catch in the attics mistake the moon for their pearl-encrusted ball.  We follow Kampa right from the womb to his suitably auspicious birth, delightful infancy and handsome adulthood.   We accompany the prince as he indulges in the extra-curricular activities enjoined for royals: sampling the delights of each of the six seasons, picking flowers and playing about in water – all in the company of the court’s comeliest women.  And, in the most beautiful part of the poem, we are privy to an evening spent with his chief queen, Gaṅgādevī herself. Sadly, just as the moon starts to rise, the evening – for us at least – is abruptly curtailed, the text for that canto long since lost.

One feature of Gaṅgādevī’s poem that immediately strikes the reader – or rather the listener as she writes – is the way in which she plays with sounds.  In Sanskrit this kind of poetic device is called śabdālaṃkāra, roughly translated as poetic embellishment wrought by sound, as distinct from arthālaṅkāra which is based on the meaning rather than the sound of words.  In English such sound play can be re-created to an extent with devices such as alliteration, assonance and rhyme – and in the translations that follow we have tried to bring this aspect out as much as possible.

Over the next few weeks, we will present a few of the verses from the Madhurā Vijaya to give you a taste of the poem.  Rasāla is bringing out a volume of selected verses from the Madhurā Vijaya soon, in print and eBook format.  We will keep you posted here but you are also welcome to contact us for more details.

Our first verse, from among the introductory few stanzas of the poem, suggests that Gaṅgādevī was not a proto-feminist…

निर्दोषाप्यगुणा वाणी न विद्वज्जनरञ्जिनी ।

पतिव्रताप्यरूपा स्त्री परिणेत्रे न रोचते ॥

A poem may be sound,

but unless sweet

it will not delight the literati.

A wife may be faithful,

but unless pretty

she will not please her spouse.

 

1.19 Gaṅgādevī’s Madhurā Vijaya

2 thoughts on “Madhurā Vijaya: Introduction

  1. [And, in the most beautiful part of the poem, we are privy to an evening spent with his chief queen, Gaṅgādevī herself. Sadly, just as the moon starts to rise, the evening – for us at least – is abruptly curtailed, the text for that canto long since lost.]

    A typical Bollywood sex scene. Maybe it was written that way?

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