Poetry at Sangam



MEGHADŪTAM by Kālidāsa, translated by Mani Rao

(This excerpt from Kalidasa for the 21st Century Reader Translated from the Sanskrit by Mani Rao is reprinted by permission of Aleph Book Company.)

Translator’s Introduction

About this poem: In Meghadūtam, a yakṣa, who is a supernatural being, requests a cloud to carry a message of love and longing to his lover who is far away. The yakṣa hero of this poem serves the god of wealth, Kubera, and having failed in some responsibility, has been cursed to live for a year in Rāmagiri in Vindhya mountains of Central India. The year proves too long to endure, for his lover who remains unnamed is a woman or yakṣī who lives in Alakā, a city in the distant Himālayas. The yakṣa is obsessed, he reminisces his past moments with his lover, and fantasizes that she too is lovesick for him. However, the Meghadūtam is much more than a fanciful love-poem. The yakṣa tries to motivate the cloud by describing the wonderful sights en route to Alakā, and the poem, thus, also works as a travelogue of an itinerary from the Vindhyās to the Himālayas. Over the centuries, Meghadūtam became a model for the genre of ‘messenger-poem’ with numerous imitations in Sanskrit and the vernacular.

Meghadūtam is written in the mandākrānta meter of 17-syllabic lines in a fixed order of long and short syllables, which has a slow and meandering rhythm. Kālidāsa is so deft with the meter, the reader never feels that a word is contrived, or chosen for its syllable length or phonetic features rather than for aptness of meaning and suggestion. There is a lot of information in the long lines of Meghadūtam, but each detail informs the other, and it all adds up to more than the sum of the parts. The antelope runs to avoid the rain, meanwhile the earth responds to the same rain, and the antelope sniffs the rising fragrance… what we have is a montage, all these things come together at once. Each stanza is complete in itself, presenting one image or idea.

About this translation: In Meghadūtam, we learn that the hero, a supernatural being called a yakṣa, lived on a mountain named Rāmagiri. Why is the mountain called Rāmagiri? Kālidāsa does not spell it out, nor do any commentators. In fact, ‘Rāmagiri’ has unmistakable connotations for anyone who knows something about the importance of the epic Rāmāyaṇa to the Indian imagination. The anguish felt by the yakṣa upon this mountain recalls the anguish Rāma when separated from Sītā. The cloud (megha) brings back thoughts of Hanuman, who is the son of the god of wind, and who flies like a cloud, and Rama’s messenger (dūta). A comment within the translation, in italics, helps the reader pay attention to these connotations. And what kind of hero is this yakṣa? The first word in the poem is ‘some’ (kascit) – we are about to enter an epic-length poem from Kālidāsa, and the character we meet is non-descript. This is most unusual. In the very first line, we are told of the yakṣa’s lapse of duty. Unless the reader knows the context of classical poetry and what is expected of heroes whom poems are written about, s/he will not realize its significance. A duty or obligation (adhikāra) is the same as privilege (adhikāra); therefore, a person who neglects his duty is not only a rebel, he is foolish toward himself. Has the yakṣa become ordinary after the curse? Was it because he was besotted? An anti-hero? This translation helps point out this contrast by way of a commentarial remark. But it does not spoil all the fun. Why the use of the plural in ‘hermitages’? A wandering yakṣa, lost soul? Kālidāsa does not say, nor do I. Having expanded just a little, I get back to Kālidāsa’s summary-style brevity, repeating the ‘story so far’ and then move to the next narrative step. In general, I try to recapture the effect rather than the arrangements of the parts. In Meghadūtam, I often repeat a phrase that applies to several parts of the stanza, gaining the sense of an oral rendition, as well as the montage effect. Thus, this is a translation, that also serves as an appreciation.

from Meghadūtam


Some yakṣa who made a mistake was cursed by his master:
One entire year

        An ordinary yakṣa
        Not a hero

        When even a season’s separation’s unbearable
        Imagine six

        What mistake
        Kālidāsa does not specify
        Some lapse of duty
        Same word for ‘duty’ and ‘right’

        Has the ‘hero’ lost the reader’s heart
        In the very first line?

Heavy the pangs of separation from his beloved

His prowess gone like a sun that’s set
        Year-long night

He lived in hermitages on a mountain
named after Rāma

Groves cool, waters pure
Sītā once bathed here

        Remember Rāma remembered Sītā
        Remember messenger Hanuman
        Flying like a cloud

        Why hermitages, in the plural?
        More than exiled. Unsettled.



Separated from her for months wasting on that mountain
The yakṣa looked lovesick

His gold bracelets had given his forearm the slip
        Good lovers pine thin

Looked at a cloud embracing a ridge
on day one of the rainy season
like an elephant butting a rampart

        Elephants sharpen tusks
        on termite-hills or trees

        The simile’s a stretch
        Kālidāsa knows
        Wait two stanzas …

        And Kālidāsa calls the yakṣa’s lover
        ‘abalā’ : ‘without-strength’

        Just a generic word for a woman
        in a stanza where a particular yakṣa
        seems bereft of ‘bala’



In front of the cloud the stirrer of Ketaka flowers

The servant of the king of kings
        The yakṣa, servant of the yakṣa-king
barely stood

A long time
Tears pent

At the sight of a cloud even the mind of the contented
goes for a spin

Imagine a man whose beloved who longs to embrace him
lives faraway



Foreboding in the skies …

For the life of his love he wanted the giver of life the cloud
to carry news of his well-being

With a gift made of fresh Kuṭaja blossoms
and pleasing words – “welcome!”



What! A cloud? A tumble of vapor, heat, water, wind

To deliver a message from sentient living beings

Not figuring that the eager yakṣa
asked it – him –cloud

The lovelorns’ nature is such – poor things –
They cannot discriminate

        Kālidāsa calls him “guḥyaka”
        It means yakṣa, but also, ‘mysterious’

        Wearing his heart on his sleeve
        Our yakṣa is anything but



I know you—

You’re born in the world-famous family of
Puṣkara and Āvartaka clouds

You’re Indra’s main aide
You take any shape you please

        As for me
Far from family by a twist of fate
I’ve come to this state of imploring you

        It’s said
Plead to a superior even if in vain
Not to inferiors even if successful



Raincloud, you’re salve for those burning in love

You’ve got to take my message
Me – ripped by the wrath of wealth-god Kubera

Take my message to Alakā, city of the yakṣa-king

Palaces washed by moonlight from the moon
on the head of Śiva situatedtempled
in the outer gardens



Tossing curls

Wives whose husbands are away will gaze at you
riding the wind-route

When you’re here all ready
Who can ignore a pining wife?
No one

Unless – like me – slave to another



Go without delay and you’ll surely see
your brother’s faithful wife alive

absorbed counting days

Women’s hearts : like a flower
Proneto wilt in separation—

Hope’s the tie that holds it up

        For ‘alive’ our yakṣa says ‘not-dead’
        Hurry, cloud! She’s in dire straits



As a cool breeze nudges you slowly along
A proud Cātaka bird sings sweetly to your left

Your entourage in the sky a flock of cranes
in spectacular garland-formation
to mate undercover



Hearing that fortuitous sound the rumble
that makes earth a field of mushroom-umbrellas

Noble swans withlotus-stem-shreds in their beaks
Eager for Mānasarovar in the Himālayas

will fly along, your companions
all the way to Mt. Kailaś



Hug your dear friend, the high peak
Slopes marked with Rāma’s footprints humans adore

Say bye

It’s a friendship shaped by recurring meetings
and long separations’ warm vapour exhalations

        The mountain’s resonant
        with devotion and separation



So listen as I tell you your journey’s right route

Later, water-giver, you’ll hear
my message with your eager ears

Placing your feet on peaks,
weary, ragged,

You’ll sip some water from streams
and be on your way



As naïve celestial women
Faces upturned

‘What! Does the wind blow the peak away?’

Up into the sky
Fly northwards

From these juicy cane-fields

Steal away from the bossy, massive trunks of elephants
        They guard eight directions



Indra’s bow      rainbow
shines from the eastern hillock

A spectacle like shimmering gems
Your blue form’s lit by it

Like Viṣṇu’s figure       think blue
in a cowherd guise        Kṛṣṇa
Lit by apeacock plume



The loving lovely eyes of country-women drink you
They think ‘the crops depend on you’

They don’t know the art of eyebrow-coquetry

Now climb a mound of fragrant ox-tilled earth

A short back-step          for momentum
and go North again



Mt. Mango-Peak hoists a travel-tired you
nicely on its head

You put out its forest-fire with a strong shower once

Past favors in mind
Even the mean don’t turn from friends in need

As for him who’s this lofty
        he’ll host you, of course



A must-see view for celestial lovers
        in the sky:

You the color of a glossy braid on mountain-top
Slopes glow with ripe forest-mangoes

Like earth’s breast:
Dusky at the tip
Around it, fair

        No airplanes in Kālidāsa’s days
        And what a birds’ eye view



A short stop in these woods
where foresters’ wives pleasured

A faster gait from shed moisture
The next part’s crossed

You’ll see river Reva ragged
on rock-rugged Mt. Vindhya’s feet

Like holy-ash streaks etched on an elephant’s limb



Rain-spent, sip water from this current

Infused with bitter wild-elephant ichor
Slowed by rose-apple bushes

The wind does not shake you when laden, hey
Dense cloud, everyone’s

Inconsequential when empty
Fullness, for gravitas

        Elephants-in-heat exude ichor
        It runs into streams where they bathe

        Such sensuous liqueurs await
        our thirsty cloud



Forest antelopes

Spying green brown Nīpa flowers with half-sprung stamens
And upcoming buds of Kandala along the banks
Sniffing overpowering earth fragrance in burned forests

Forest antelopes will mark
your dripping raindrops’ path
        A flight-path traced on foot




Watching the Cātaka birds’ clever catch
of celestial raindrops
        A bird said to subsist on raindrops

Pointing out – enumerating – cranes in formation

Winning their dear bewildered wives’ jittery embraces
at your rumble

The celestials will honor you
        in gratitude



For my darling’s sake
For my happiness’ sake

You’ll want to go fast, but I imagine

You’ll linger on this hill and that
Fragrant with Kakubha flowers

Welcomed by peacocks
with moist white-edgedeyes

I hope you’ll get up, somehow,
and try to go quick



At your arrival in the Ten Citadels
where geesehave stayed a few days

A commotion

Shrub fringes a lighter shade
with new Ketaka flower spikes

In village squares
Birds starting to nest clamor
for leftover home-ritual offerings

Edges of the forest a ripe rose-apple purple



Reaching Vidiśā the capital
famed in all directions
        and named for that

Gain a sudden fulfillment of your lust

You’ll suck the sweet water of river Vetravatī
Waves wavy like eyebrows knit on a face

A pleased rumble along her shore



For a break, stay there in the hill called Nīca
withKadamba flowers pert as if
erect at your touch

The hill advertises

with grottoes that emit erotic aromas of prostitutes
The youthful exertions of city-boys