The Mahābhārata is famed for many things, but rarely for its lyricism. Nevertheless, as this verse adequately illustrates, there is room in this capacious epic for poetry too. Here Vyāsa plays on two words, kumbha (an elephant’s temple) and kuca (a woman’s breast), whose similarity in sound is matched by the similarity in shape their physical forms take, to bring out the sad incongruence of elegantly dressed young men being embraced by death rather than by their lovers.
decked out in their finest earrings,
cut each other to pieces with sharp arrows
and fell prey to sleep
clasping the rounded temples of their elephants
as though cradling the rounded breasts of their wives.
Thanks to Chris Gibbons at the University of Queensland for spotting and sending us this verse.
Kumbha, which can also mean a water pitcher and thus by extension a pitcher-shaped breast, is exploited to full effect in battle scenes such as these by later poets, including Gaṅgādevī in her Madhurā Vijaya (4.61):
वीराः कुञ्जरकुम्भेषु शायिनः शत्रुसायकैः ।
प्राबुध्यन्त सुरस्त्रीणां कुचकुम्भेषु तत्क्षणात् ॥
put to sleep by the shafts of their foes
upon pillows formed of elephants’ temples,
awoke the next moment
upon pillows formed of apsarases’ breasts.*
*Warriors killed fighting heroically in battle are fast-tracked straight to heaven.