Category Archives: Kavya

Kavya and Indian Poetics – Part One

[I could not arrange the topics in a sequential order (krama) . You may take these as random collection of discussions; and, read it for whatever it is worth. Thank you.]


Kavya Shastra

The Indian Poetics over the centuries was known by different names at different stages of its development.  Valmiki in his Epic, Ramayana, refers to Poetics as Kriya-kalpa (kriya-kalpa vidashcha kavyavido janan– Uttara Kanda. 93.7).  Lalitavistara Sutra a Buddhist text believed to belong to the first or second century explains the term Kriya–kalpa as the rules  for creating poetic works  (Kavya-karana-vidhi) ; and says that  the term means  Kavya-alamkara , the poetics (kriya–kalpa iti kavya-karana-vidhi kavya-alamkara ithyarthaha).  Vatsayana  (Ca. second century) in his famous Kama sutra , while enumerating the fourteen types of arts (Kala) that a cultured urbane  person (Nagarika)  should cultivate , also uses the terms  chando-jñānamKavya-kriya-kalpa   to denote the Poetics  (Kamasutra 1.3.15). 

Jayamangala , in his commentary on Kamasutra, explains the term  Kriyakalpa as the science that determines  the nature of poetry (Kriyakapa iti Kavya-karana-vidhi , Kavya-alamkara ityartha).  The poet Dandin (6th-7th century) in his Kavyadarsha, a handbook of classical Sanskrit Poetics, calls Poetics as Kriyavidhi, the rules of poetry (vācāṃ vicitra-mārgāṇāṃ nibabandhuḥ kriyāvidhim // 1.9 //)

But, by the time of Bhamaha (Ca.6-7th century) the term Alamkara or Alamkara shastra was in wide use.  he opens his work with words Kavya-alamka ityeshu yatha buddi vidiyate; and, follows it with the phrase Kavya-lakshana. Dandin also uses the term Kavya-lakshana.  It was believed that Alamkara the figurative speech or ornamentation was the principle virtue that lent Kavya its grace and brilliance (Kavya-shobha-karaan dharman alamkaran prachakshte).

The titles of the books, of  his period and thereafter , on Poetics, therefore, were centered upon the term Alamkara , such as: Kavyalamkara (by Bhamaha, Ca.6- 7th century) ; Kavya-alamkara-sara- Samgraha (by Udbhata-8th century) ; Kavya-alamkara- sutra-vritti (by Vamana Ca. 8th ) and Kavya-alamkara (by Rudrata – c. 9th-century) .

The tendency to describe Poetics in terms of Alamkara went on for a considerable period of time. Though Alamkara was the general name for Poetics, the term Alamkara  referred  both to one of the principles of Poetics and  also to the specific expressions of   figures of speech like Anuprasa, Upama etc. And the concepts of Rasa, Guna, and Riti were also brought under the overall ambit of Alamkara principle.

Rajashekhara  (9th -10th  century)  the poet and scholar  treated  Poetics  as a Shastra; and , he named Poetics as  Sahitya Vidya; the finest essence of all the four Vidyas . And the poets who followed Rajasekhara began to describe Poetics as Sahitya.  For instance;   Vishwanatha named his book on Poetics as Sahitya-darpana ; Ruyyaka titled his book as sahitya-mimamsa ; and, Bhojaraja called Poetics as Kavya shastra.

[Sahitya derived from the root ‘Sahita‘ – being together or united – suggests a system that binds together Sabda (word) and Artha (its meaning).That relation is natural – Nisarga siddha sabda-artha sambandha.

And, Sahitya  generally represents the notion of literature – everything preserved in writing, or even in speech; but, here, practically it was a synonym for Kavya. (Perhaps Vangmaya – things made of language) could be a better term) ]

Thus, over the long period, from time to time, the Shastra of Poetics had been called variously  as Kriya-kalpa; Kavya-karana-vidhi; Kavya-kriya-kalpa; Kriya-vidhi; Alamkara Shastra; Sahitya Vidya and Kavya shastra.

The terms Kriya–kalpa, Kavya–vidhi etc went out of use quite early. And, the scope of the term Alamkara, since the time of Anandavardhana  (Ca.10th century)  got restricted to one of the elements of poetry , which is  the ornamentation and figures of speech like Anuprasa , Upama etc ; and,  it was scarcely used in its  wider sense of poetics.

The term  Sahitya which etymologically means to put together in the sense of  composition , coordination , balance , concord and contact , in recent times,  is used to cover all forms of literature (vangmaya) . It covers even Grammar, philosophy, logic, etymology, technical subjects like medicine , Law  etc; apart from  prose, poetry drama etc.

Therefore, the scholars generally opine that for Poetics, the term Kavya shastra seems more suited (though some employed the grandiose term Kavya Mimamsa)  ; particularly since the term Kavya includes prose, poetry, Drama and all other forms of creative writings.  Besides, the suffix Shastra (Sahsanath shasanam) signifies the theory of practice as also the practice of theory. Further, the term Kavya Shastra sounds better than Kriya, Kapla, and Vidhi etc. And, Kavya Shastra was therefore used by writers like Bhamaha, Dandin, Vamana, Rudrata, Rajasekhara and others to denote Poetics. Since the Indian Poetics began to take a systemic form during the times of Bhamaha and Dandin, attempting to expound the essence of Kavya, its aesthetics and style and lucidity of composition etc, we may as well adopt their nomenclatures.  That is one view. And, there are other views too.


According to Dr. Ganesh Tryambak Deshpande (Bharathiya Sahityashastra, The Indian Poetics), the Indian Poetics developed in stages over a period of about two thousand years.  During these long centuries , the Indian Poetics attained maturity. He enumerates six stages of development : Kriyakalpa (around 2nd century BCE) ; Kavyalakshana (from Bharata up to 6th century AD) ; Kavya-alankara (600 AD to 850 AD) ;  Sahitya (say from 850 to 1100 AD); and, Sahitya-paddathi (1100 AD – 1650 AD).

Bharata’s Natyashastra , according to Dr. G.T. Deshpande , represents the first stage of Indian poetics (Kriyakalpa) where the diverse elements of arts, literature, music, dance, stage management and cosmetics combined harmoniously to successfully produce an enjoyable play- Drshya-kavya.

During the next (second) stage (Kavyalakshana) the poetics grew independent of the theater. The discussions during this period were mostly regarding the general nature of Kavya. This period is marked by the works of Bhamaha and Dandin, say up to 600 AD.

In the third stage (Kavya-alankara)   stretching from Bhamaha and Dandin up to Rudrata, say from 600 AD to 850 AD, the concepts of Alankara (embellishments) Gunas (characteristics) and Rasa gained a little more clarity. The characteristic beauty (Saundaryam or Shobha) associate with poetry and the means of creating highly enjoyable poetry came into discussion.

The fourth stage (Sahitya) was the period of analysis and understanding the basic concepts of literature and Grammar. This was the period from Mammata to Anandavardhana (say from 850 to 1100 AD). The questions raised during this period, basically, were :

:- ‘What is truly Sahitya (literature)?’ ; ’Does it merely mean a combination of words and meanings? Or, is there anything more to it?’ ;

:- ‘What are the special features of poetry?’ ;

:- ‘ Do the words in the poetry convey the same meaning as anywhere else?’ ; and ,

:-  ‘How is the meaning  (Artha) of  poetry conveyed?’ etc.

It is in this period, the poetics (Kavya) became independent of the earlier concepts of Alamkara, Dvani etc.

And, the sixth stage (Sahitya-paddathi) was the methodical study of the poetry  in all its aspects . It was the period that stretched  from 1100 AD – 1650 AD, say ending with Jagannatha Pandita.



Main concerns – Sabda and Artha

One of the problems that engaged attention of the Grammarians and the philosophers alike was the subtle relation between the linguistic element (Sabda) and its meaning (Artha).  Sabda can roughly be understood as word, a sound, a meaningful unit of speech. Patanjali explained the term Sabda as that which when articulated gives out the meaning or intent the of the speaker.  And, Mandana Misra, in his Sphotasiddhi said: Sabda is the cause that produces the intended meaning.

According to Bhartrhari (4th or 5th century) “There is no cognition without the operation of words. All knowledge is illumined through words’’. In Bhartrhari’s scheme of things, the problem of meaning is basic. It is through the meaning conveyed by the words that knowledge is experienced.” “It is only the thought as expressed in words that can be understood, communicated and criticized. A language grows with the thought; or rather the thought grows with language. In the ultimate analysis they might even be identical.”

Two main concerns of the Sanskrit Poetics seemed to be: the word, and its meaning. The first one concerns how the word is treated in the text; and, mainly how it is formally used. It could be the elaborate embellishments (Alamkara) artistically arranged to enhance the beauty of the presentation; or it could be the elegance of the diction or even oblique ways of twisting. The other is about the shades or the layers of meaning that the word is capable of revealing. Generally, it was about the ways (vyapara) of achieving the objectives (phala) of the poet and his poetry.

The late-tenth-century philosopher and literary theorist Abhinavagupta felt that Kavya is not just about meaning, it is something more than that ; and, he put it  directly: “It is not the mere capacity for producing meaning as such that enables a text to be called Kavya. And that is why we never apply that term to everyday discourse or the Veda.”

Raja Bhoja (1011–1055) in his Srngaraprakasha says, that of the things made of language (Vangmaya) Kavya is one species. The elements that make the language are the words and meanings. And, word and meaning when  harmoniously  composed (sahitau) constitute Kavya. . Thus Kavya is a composition ( unity , sahitya) of word and meaning.

Then he goes on to say:

What, however, does the word “word” signify? It is that through which, when articulated, meaning is understood, and it is of twelve sorts, starting with base and affix and ending with sentence, section, and whole work.

“Meaning” is what a word gives us to understand, and it is of twelve sorts, starting with action and tense and ending with word-meaning and sentence-meaning.

And last, “composition” signifies the coordinated relation between word and meaning; and it, too, is of twelve sorts, starting with denotation and implication and ending with avoidance of faults, employment of expression-forms (guna), connection with factors of beauty (alañkara), and presence of rasa.

King Somesvara III (around 1130) of the Kalyana Chalukya dynasty in his Manasollasa, an encyclopedic work, says:

Words make up the body of a literary text, meaning is its life-breath, tropes its external form, emotional states and feelings its movements, meter its gait, and the knowledge of language its vital spot. It is in these that the beauty of the deity of literature consists.

Manasollasa vol 2-page 171 ( 225) verses 205-206

The scholars of Poetics, of course, need to be concerned with the beauty and elegance of expression; but, at the same time they also need to be exercised over the sense that such arrangements of words would produce. The Poetic-scholars realized that neither logic (Nyaya) nor Grammar (Vyakarana) would provide them with right answers. The position, simply put, is :

Poetry in any of its forms does need words; and the arrangements of those words, however clever or elegant, do have to convey a sense or meaning. The poetic beauty does not solely dependent on the strict order of words or other conventions. It in fact goes beyond regulated regimens. It is only the right or judicious combination of the two – Sabda and Artha – that produces relishing aesthetic expressions and suggestive poetry. The ultimate merit of a Kavya is in its enjoyment (Rasa) by the Sahrudaya the reader endowed with culture and taste.

design rangoli

Now, regarding words:  according to Indian Poetics, a word has three functions: it signifies or denotes (abhida); it indicates (lakshana); and it suggests (vyanjana).


The meaning that is comprehended immediately after the word is uttered is its primary meaning (mukhya-artha). The meaning thus conveyed and its relation to the next word and its own meaning is a mutual relation of the signifier and the signified (vachya-vachaka). The power that creates the relation among words is Abhida-vyapara, the power of denotation or sense. The suggestive power of the word is through Vyanjana-artha.

The meaning of a word or a sentence that is directly grasped in the usual manner is Vakyartha (denotation or literal sense); and, the power of the language which conveys such meaning is called Abidha-vritti (designating function). The term Sabdabodha ‘verbal comprehension’ or ‘verbal cognition’ is also used at times. It is intended to denote meaning of a sentence as understood by the listener.

In certain cases where a particular word is not capable of conveying the desired sense, another power which modifies that word to produce the fitting or suitable meaning is called Lakshana-vritti (indicative function).

The primary sense Vakyartha is the natural (Svabhavokti) and is the easily comprehended sense of the word. When the perception of the primary sense is obstructed, the word conveys the sense other than the primary sense; but, the two meanings (somehow) seem related.  Thus, the secondary sense (lakshana) could even be called an unnatural meaning (Vakrokti) of the word.

For instance; when the word Purusha is uttered, one immediately understands it as a reference to a male member of the human race. It is the primary sense of the word. It might refer to an individual or to a generic attribute. In any case; the word Purusha and its meaning are related. It is a signified–signifier relationship; one pointing towards the other. This relationship is termed Abhida.

However, in the world we live, we do not always use a word only in its primary sense. Many times, the word in its primary sense may not be adequate.  Then, we attempt to attribute a sense to the word that is different or distinct from the primary sense. This would be secondary sense – lakshanika or lakshyartha – of that word. The word in its secondary sense is called lakshana. The relationship between the secondary sense and the word is described as lakshya-lakshya sambandha

Such process of superimposition (aropita) is called lakshana or indication. The three: the obstruction caused due to incompatibility of primary sense; the connection between the primary and the secondary sense; and, the convention (rudi) – are all interrelated. Here, there ought to be some justification for switching over to the un-natural meaning of the word; and, it should be generally acceptable (or should have gained currency in the common usage).

The indication (lakshana) is thus of two types: one, sanctioned by usage (rudi-lakshana); and , the other , where the speaker uses it for a specific or a specialized purpose (prayojanavato lakshana).

lotus design

As regards the Grammarians’ point of view, of the three functions of the word, the secondary or the indicative Lakshana-vritti is the most important and popular.  Three conditions for Lakshana are generally accepted by all schools of Grammar.

The first is the incompatibility or inconsistency of the primary meaning in the context, which produces a break in the flow of thought, forcing the listener to think in order to understand what the speaker would really have meant by the uncommon usage and why he has used the word in an irregular way.  The inconsistency could be either because of  the impossibility of associating the normal meaning with the other word meanings of the sentence ; or  it could be because  of the normal meaning’s unsuitability in the context.

The second condition is about the kind of relation between the primary (normal) meaning of the term and its meaning as intended by the speaker in a given context. This relation can be one of proximity to the alternate (contrary) meaning or one of similarity or of mixed quality. The latter type is called Gauni Lakshana which the Mimamsakas treat as an independent function called Gauni. According to Mimamsakas, the real Lakshana is only of the first type, a relation of proximity with contrariety (oppositeness).

The third condition could either be acceptance of its meaning in common usage ; or it could be a meaning derived from the root of the word (Dathu) for a  special purpose intended for introducing the Lakshana. All faded metaphors (nirudha lakshana) fall into the former category, and metaphorical usages, especially by the poets, fall into the latter.

[The common examples given here are of Pankaja which in common usage means lotus; but literally means something born out of slush. The other is the Ashva-karna a type of leaf , but literally the ears of a horse. In all such cases, it is the meaning in common usage that is  generally accepted ; and the literal meaning is treated as faded metaphor.]


[The Great Grammarian Panini did not accept Lakshana as a separate function in language. He did not consider the incompatibility etc., on which the Lakshana was based by other Grammarians as quite relevant from the point of view of Grammar. The sentences such as:’ He is an ass’ and ‘He is a boy ‘are both correct grammatically. Panini’s Grammar provides some popular examples of Lakshana; like ‘the village on the river’ (gangayam ghosah) by considering proximity as one of the meanings of the locative case. Similarly, Panini does not mention or provide for the condition of yogyata or consistency, which is considered by the later Grammarians as essential for unity of sentence. The expression Agnina sinchati (He sprinkles with fire) is grammatically correct, though from the semantic point of view it may not be quite proper, because sprinkling can be done only with liquid and not with fire.]

It does not mean that some words are merely vachaka and certain others are only Lakshya, and so on. The use of words, their role and the intended effect are context sensitive. The same word could be employed in any number of ways; each performing its role its own context. All the shades of meaning are necessary and relevant in poetry; but, each in its own context.

lotus design

Similarly, Riti, as put forward by Vamana, is an arrangement of words and meanings characterized by various Gunas. A particular Guna might be appropriate in a particular context. The verbal compositions could be tight knit and high flowing in a given context; but , a simple , lucid narration might be appropriate in  an  another situation. One may admire grandeur in one situation; and simplicity in another. It is the context that decides appropriateness of style.

Rajasekhara, therefore, says:  A sentence is an arrangement of words which embodies the content that the speaker wishes to convey

(pada-nama-abidhita-arthagrathanakarah sandarbhah vakyam – Kavyamimamasa (22) of Rajasekhara).

For instance; take the word Mother. The word in its primary sense is woman who has given birth to a child. In the specific context when one says ‘Kausalya is the mother of Rama’ you are referring to a particular person. And when one says , ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, one is not referring to a physical mother but to suggest the sense of ‘origin’. Here, the primary sense of the term does not work. Similarly, when the Saint Ramaprasad calls out to Devi in anguish as Mother, it suggests the intensity of his devotion and the depth of his longing for her love and protection. Devi is not the physical mother but a projection of the universal Mother principle as also the specific Mother deity. It is said; the  vibrations of the suggested meaning of the word are indeed truly powerful.


Then, there is the most interesting and much debated Vyanjana-artha which is the suggested sense or the essence of the word. This is founded in the principle that   the meaning of word is not limited to its literal sense; the word has the power to reach far beyond the obvious.

In poetry, the word acquires another power Vyanjana-vritti the suggestive function. It is the    power which activates the potential hidden in the word. And, the word acquires a new glow. Through the suggestive function of the word, a new meaning emerges, transcending the obvious literal sense, far more beautiful and sensitive.

The word which connotes the suggested sense (through the suggestive function Vyanjana –vritti) is named Vyanjaka. The relationship between the suggestive word and the suggested meaning (Vyanjana-artha) is described as vyangya-vyanjaka sambandha.

The suggestive word, the suggested meaning, the power of suggestion; and their mutual relationship are virtually the lifeblood of Indian poetics.  In fact, this is what that distinguishes poetry from other forms of literature.

The suggested sense Vyanjana-artha, which, though not explicit, becomes the object of awareness is regarded the essence of poetry. The Dhvani School put forward by Anandavardhana, brought focus on the potential power of the word in a Kavya. Here, the word (Sabda) together with  its literal sense  (Vakyartha )  is said to form the body of Kavya , it is its  cloak .  But, the essence of poetry is elsewhere; it is not directly visible; and, that essence is the suggested sense of the word (Vyanjana-artha).

It other words: it is not the direct literal and obvious meaning that is explicit in poetry, but it is the suggested, indirect and emotive meaning that matters.  Hence, though the words of a Kavya and their  the literal sense must be given their due importance , they are  but a medium for emotive and indirect meaning flash forth .

In a good poetry, this suggested meaning dominates over the words and their literal meaning. As Anandavardhana put it: The latter are compared to a woman’s  body and the former to her grace and beauty which is a subtler manifestation  and a more profound meaning of the womanhood.

The primary meaning can be understood by all. But, the suggested meaning is understood only by those who are gifted with some imagination and a sort of intuition.

Here, the mere knowledge of the word alone is not enough to understand and enjoy the poetic import or the essence of the Kavya. It needs intuition or Prathibha. Mammatacharya calls Prathibha as – nava-navaonvesha-shalini prajna – the ever inventive and resourceful intellect. Prathibha is also called, at times, as Vasana

Only those endowed with Prathibha can truly enjoy the essence and beauty of Kavya. That is why, it is remarked,  the Grammarians (unlike the goodhearted cultured reader the Sahrudaya) cannot truly appreciate and enjoy the Rasa of good poetry. They are incapable of looking beyond what appears obvious.

Anandavardhana, therefore, says that such suggested sense is not apprehended (na vidyate) by mere knowledge of Grammar (Sabda-artha-shasana-jnana) and dictionary. It is apprehended only (Vidyate, kevalam) by those who know how to recognize the essence of poetic meaning (Kavya-artha-tattva-jnana) – Dhv.1.7

It is said; in the highest class of Kavya, the denoted meaning (Vakyartha )  and  the denoting meaning (Lakshyartha)  is subservient to  revealing the suggested sense word (Vyanjana-artha); and , it is  called Dhvani by the scholars – Dhv.1.13

The suggested sense of the word designated as Dhvani (resonance or tone or suggestion) is regarded Anandavardhana as the soul of Kavya : Kavyasya Atma Dhvanih.

[The concept of Dhvani was said to be inspired by the ancient doctrine of Sphota. The term Sphota signifies:  bursting; opening; expansion; disclosure; the eternal and imperceptible element of sound and words; and , is the real vehicle of the idea which bursts or flashes on the mind when a sound is uttered.

Nagesha Bhatta identifies Vedic Sage Sphotayana, mentioned by Panini in one of his rules, as the originator of Sphota theory. Bhartrhari, however, states that Audumbarayana (mentioned by Yaska) had put forth views similar to the Sphota concept.

In any case, the original idea of Sphota seems to go back to the Vedic age when Vak or speech was considered to be a manifestation of the all – pervading Brahman , and Pranava (Aum) was regarded as the primordial speech sound from which all forms of Vak were supposed to have evolved.

It was Bhartrhari (around 485 AD) in his great work Vakyapadiya (all about sentence and word) elaborated and established the Sphota doctrine in the realm of Grammar and in Philosophy.

According to Bhartrhari, the perfect perception is that in which there is identity between the object (namely, words or the letters of sounds ) and the form of its cognition (namely, the Sphota) . This special kind of perception is held to be function of mind, rather than of the external senses.

This is a major subject; and deserves to be discussed separately.]

But, when one begins to talk of words (Sabda), naturally, it leads to Grammar (Vyakarana), which concerns itself with the arrangement of words into sentences. It does not account for the pattern of meanings.  The poetry on the other hand is not much concerned with the arrangement of words. But, it does strive to convey a meaning.

In the case of poetry, the arrangement of words (Sabda or pada) might be  logical but not necessarily grammatical. That is because; the poetic beauty does not solely dependent on the strict order of words or other conventions. It , in fact,  goes beyond regulated regimens. The unique virtue of poetry is that it provides space for experimentation, and to introduce hitherto unknown or unusual terms and expressions, regardless of their grammatical correctness. And at the same time , it was recognized  that the poetic beauty does not merely depend on ornate figures of speech or on the twisted or unusual expressions ; but , it is primarily  in the intrinsic merit of the poetry itself.

The combination of words or arrangement of words expressing the idea or the content which the poet intends to convey at a ‘single stroke’ is the sentence (Vakya) in the poetry. A sentence is defined by Rajasekhara as an arrangement of words which embodies the content that the speaker wishes to convey (pada-nama-abidhita-arthagrathanakarah sandarbhah vakyam – Kavyamimamasa (22) of Rajasekhara).

The meaning of a sentence expresses a complete idea. The sentence in poetry is called Vachana (Vakyam vachanam vyavaharanti – Kavyamimamsa). In poetry the terms Vakya, Vachana and Ukti are synonymous. A characteristic turn of expression attains the status of poetry (Ukti-visesah kavyam).

[Among the ancient Grammarians, neither Panini nor Gautama defined the sentence. Katyayana was perhaps the first to define a sentence. He called it ekatin, that which has one finite verb. Panini, however, seems to have held that a sentence can have many more than one finite verb.  The later Grammarians also seemed to accept Panini’s view. But, from Katyayana’s point of view such a sentence may be considered as a complex sentence made up of two or more sentences, but fundamentally forming one single sentence.]

design rangoli

The relation between Grammar and poetry is interesting.

Yaska , the great Etymologist of the ancient times,states : Vyakarana  (Grammar) deals with linguistic analysis to establish the exact form of words to properly express ideas, while Nirukta focuses on linguistic analysis to help establish the proper meaning of the words, given the context they are used in the Vedic texts.

But , at the same time, Yaska remarks : while deriving the meaning of a word, in its own context, one should try to stick to the rules of the Grammar (Vyakarana) as far as possible; but, if this is of no avail in bringing out the hidden meaning of the term in question, then one should abandon such rules – na saṃskāram ādriyeta / viśaya-hi vṛttayo bhavanti (Nir.2.1)


And, Poetry, in the Indian traditions, is often called vyakaranasya puccham – the tail piece or the appendix of Grammar. The Grammar determines the correctness of the words and their arrangement within a sentence. The poetry is however more concerned with the appropriateness and mutual relations among the words.  The poetry, as far as possible, follows Grammar. But , when it finds the rules of Grammar too constrained or suffocating , it switches over to other means of expressions that are more appropriate or conducive to its natural flow; or , it invents its own means. At times, when those inventive expressions of poetic suggestions are so charming and become so popular, they walk into Grammar per se; and, the Grammar must necessarily accept poetic inventions (svikara avashyakah).

Continued in

Part Two 


Sources and References

Glimpses of Indian Poetics by Satya Deva Caudharī

Indian Poetics (Bharathiya Kavya Mimamse) by Dr. T N Sreekantaiyya

Sahityashastra, the Indian Poetics by Dr. Ganesh Tryambak Deshpande

History of Indian Literature by Maurice Winternitz, Moriz Winternitz

A History of Classical Poetry: Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit by Siegfried Lienhard

Literary Cultures in History by Sheldon Pollock



Posted by on July 9, 2015 in Kavya, Sanskrit


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Chitrakavya – Chitrabandha

A. Chitrakavya

1.1. Sanskrit poetry has an amazingly vast variety of forms and structures. There is at the top the most elaborate Maha-kavya in classic style narrating a noble story element (kathavastu) of sublime characters   spread over several cantos (sargabandha),  adorned with eighteen types of descriptions (asta-dasha-varnana),  with well chosen forms (guna) of expression, syntax, and graces of Rasa and beauty (alankara) and endowed with  eloquent imagination; and, at the same time, satisfying all the norms and principles  (kavya-lakshana)  prescribed  for a Maha-kavya by the Alankara-sastra texts. The sophisticated thematic construction of such courtly epics is presented as a splendid unity of descriptive and narrative delight.

There is at the other end of the spectrum, the rather flippant or absurd minor poems, as also terse lyrical couplets that dispense in capsule form erotic or didactic (niti) wisecracks.

1.2.  In between there are verities of slightly less elaborate Laghu-kavya or Khanda –kavya, Champu Kavya (written in a mix of prose and poetry), Giti Kavyas, Mukutas, biographical poems, anthologies and stotras etc.

Among these, is a wonderful class of poetry based in brilliant flexible or rather mischievous play of vowels, consonants, words and sounds. The elements of the verse are, at times, picturesquely patterned into designs (bandha), geometric figures or into images of familiar things in life such as a flower, wheel, flag, drum, umbrella, mace etc. Perhaps because of its figurative quality this class of poetry is known as Chitra-kavya.

2.1. The term Chitra has several interpretations such as image (or picture), uniqueness or peculiarity (as in vichitra) or wonder. The Chitrakavya aims to generate a sense of wonder by resorting to unusual (peculiar) management of certain meters; innovative poetic structures, designs or patterns (bandha) resembling objects (vastu) or their movements (gati) that one commonly sees in life. The Chitrakavya also attempts to evoke poetic or emotive images.

And in that sense it is an imitation, a reflection or an image (Chitra) of true poetry (Kavya); but,  it is not the poetry itself. It is ‘image- poetry’.

The other way to look at it is to treat Chitrakavya as architecture of poetry where the sounds of syllables (matra) and letters (akshara) take a visible form.

[Incidentally, the Chitrasutra of Vishnudarmottara  wonders why the concept of Rasa is extended to all arts but not to architecture.]

2.2. The other interpretation extended to the term Chitra is: the figure of speech (Chitra-alankara),  where the poet plays on the sound of the letters with particular importance to similes (upama) and metaphors.

3.1. Even from its early stages,  the Sanskrit poetics has recognized the close association between the word and its sound; and,  between speech (vak) and meaning (artha). The word is that which when articulated gives out meaning; and meaning is what a word gives us to understand. The tradition, therefore, believes that Kavya is a unity or composition (sahitya) of word (sabdalankara) and its meaning (arthalankara).

The concept of Chitrakavya however seemed to be: whatever be the source of its inspiration, kavya is a ‘thing made of language’. The elements that go into a kavya are the words, meanings and the way in which the words have to be compounded. The Chitrakavya , therefore, treats pictures evoked by the sound of the word and its meaning as separate figures (sabda –chitra and artha-chitra); and , it also in some other ways, combines the word and the meaning into a common figure or an image (ubhaya-chitra).

3.2. Chitrakavya (marvel-poetry) embraces all ingenious forms of poetic compositions. The skillful  artistry of words and dexterous enterprise of the poet  is displayed in  unusual  and clever arrangement of letters, in  different combination of words , to evoke varied meanings where the sequence of words when read from the reverse direction –right to left – produce a different meaning; in alliteration of letters (anuprasa); alliteration of words (pada prasa); in ambiguous use of a word where it conveys different meanings depending upon the context (latanu-prasa); in the play of pun (slesha or sabda slesha) ; in change of voice (kaku) or in poetic subversion  or deviant expression (vakrokthi) and so on .

Chitrakavya also  uses certain other features that are peculiar to Sanskrit language. For instance; yamaka is a permutation of  identical set of syllabic strings described by the poet Bhamaha as ‘chimes’ where a letter or a word is repeated regularity at fixed positions in a stanza , say at the beginning, or the end of only  line , or at the middle of only two lines (paada).

4.1. As said; the object of Chitrakavya is to ignite awe and wonder; to evoke amusement and pleasure; and, to offer intellectual challenge. Such poetic tricks or riddles (kuta) have been employed in Sanskrit poetry for a very long time. In Mahabharata there are verses that play on alliterations, puns and chimes.  

For instance; (in Jatugriha Parva, a sub-section of the Adi Parva- CXLVII) Vidura the uncle of the Pandavas employs kuta an oblique form of verse, as described in Chitra-alankara, where the real intent is concealed and couched in philosophical or mystical words. Through a Kuta verse (riddle) Vidura, (who was conversant with the jargon of the Mlechchhas), successfully cautions Yudhistira that the house built for them at Varnavata by Duryodhana is actually a lac -house (Jatugriha) ; and it is meant to burn them all into ashes.

He that knows the schemes his foes contrive in accordance with the dictates of political science, should, after knowing them, act in such a way as to avoid all danger. He that knows that there are sharp weapons capable of cutting the body though not made of steel, and understands also the means of warding them off, can never be injured by foes. He lives who protects himself by the knowledge that neither the consumer of straw and wood nor the drier of the dew burns the inmates of a hole in the deep woods. Those who live in a hole like rats will not be harmed by fire.  The blind man sees not his way: the blind man has no knowledge of direction. So always be vigilant.  He that has no firmness never acquires prosperity. Remembering this always be upon your guard. The man who takes a weapon not made of steel (i.e., an inflammable abode) given him by his foes, can escape from fire by making his abode like unto that of a jackal (having many outlets). By wandering a man may acquire the knowledge of ways, and by the stars he can ascertain the direction, and he that keeps  his five (senses) under control can never be oppressed by his enemies.’

paureu tu nivtteu vidura sarva-dharma-vit
bodhayan pā
ṇḍava-śreṣṭham ida vacanam abravīt

” prājña prājña pralāpajña samyag dharmārtha-darśivān
tathā kuryād āpada nistared yathā
niśita śastra śarīra-parikartanam
yo vetti na tam āghnanti pratighātavida
aghna śiśiraghnaś ca mahākake bilaukasa
na dahed iti cātmāna
yo rakati sa jīvati
ur vetti panthāna nācakur vindate diśa
tir bhūtim āpnoti budhyasvaiva prabodhita
anāptair dattam ādatte nara
śastram alohajam
śvāvic chara
am āsādya pramucyeta hutāśanāt
caran mārgān vijānāti nak
atrair vindate diśa
ātmanā cātmana
pañca pīayan nānupī

Its inner meaning was that the rogue Purochana would set the house on fire; he is a dreadful foe; you can guard yourself only when you runaway through the underground tunnel. 

Yudhistira replies “I understood what you said” (vijñātam iti tat sarvam ity ukto viduro mayā) ; and, saved himself, his brothers and their mother.

vidurea kto yatra hitārtha mleccha-bhāayā
vidurasya ca vākyena suru
ādyā pañca-putrāyā suptāyā jatu-veśmani
purocanasya cātraiva dahana
sapra-kīrtitam – 01,002.08

And thereafter, the Pandavas set out on the eighth day (aṣṭame ‘hani) of the month of Phalguna when the star Rohini was in the ascendant; and , arriving at Varanavata they beheld the town and its people.

aṣṭame ‘hani rohiṇyāṃ prayātāḥ phalgunasya te / vāraṇāvatam āsādya dadṛśur nāgaraṃ janam


 4.2. The other major poets such as Asvaghosha (sundaranabdana), Sri Harsha (naishabha-charitra), Bharavi (kiratarjuneeya), Magha (sishupalavadha), Kalidasa (Raghuvamsha) and many other later poets also enjoyed using Chitrakavya techniques as playful indulgence.

Further  , it  is surprising that Anandavardhana the rhetorician who looked down on Chitrakavya did himself used Chitra techniques in  his works Dhvanyaloka as also in Devistataka.  For instance; in Anandavardhana’s Devisataka (850 AD) almost every stanza contains a verbal display of some sort: Verse eight when read backwards becomes Verse nine; in verse ten,  four lines can be read forwards and backwards; in verse forty six , only two letters Ma and Na are used with the  vowels; in verse fifty nine ,  only two letters Tha and Va are used.

Anandavardhana’s stricture seems to have had   little impact on its practice.If anything, the popularity of Chitrakavya only increased in the following centuries.

4.3. Among the scholar poets, Sri Anandathirta who later became Sri Madhawacharya the founder of the Dvaita philosophy in his Yamaka-bharata narrates the Mahabharata in verses employing yamaka – chimes.

Sri Vedanta Desika (12-13th century) the remarkable scholar – poet in his Paduka Sahasram celebrating the glory of Sri Ranganatha’s Padukas in 1008 verses   employs Chitra-paddathi for 40 verses (911-950)- (we shall return to Sri Desika’s work later).

The noted Advaita scholar Sri Appayya Dishitar wrote a descriptive text of literary criticism Chitra Mimamsa studded with illustrations.

5.1. There are also kavyas written entirely in the Chitra paddathi. These are generally of two types: the poems of chimes (yamaka-kavya) having varieties of chimes yamaka at fixed positions in stanza to convey different meanings; and the other being the poems of pun (slesha-kavya) having the same set of words so that a line (paada) conveys more than one meaning.

5.2. An instance of Yamaka-kavya is Chaturvimsatika  ascribed to a Jain monk Shobanamuni (10th century). The poem has four groups of verses. The first group of verses is in praise of twenty – four Tirthankaras; the second of all the Jains; the third adulates the Jain doctrine; and, the fourth sings the glory of all deities.   The verses are so constructed that the fourth line has the same set of letters as in the second line, but conveys a different meaning.

5.3. There are too many Slesha-kavyas where each of its lines gives forth more than one meaning. For instance, the Rama-pala –charita   by the court poet Nandin depicts at once two stories (dwi-sandhana—kavya), one of the Sri Rama and the other of King Rama Plala of Bengal (1104-1130) .

Another is the ‘ Raghava-yadava – Pandavveya’ by Chidambara Sumati (16th century) a court poet of Vijayanagara which narrates simultaneously three stories (Tri-sandhana kavya’) those of Rama, Krishna and Arjuna. Such Slesha – kavyas, by laborious splitting compound words; by repetition of sounds (srutyanusara), of vowels (varna-anusara) and of words (pada – anusara);    and by interpreting the words depending on the context, can yield five or even seven stories.

The authors of the Slesha-kavyas must have gone into enormous  study and trouble in crafting  multiple headed literary works , employing varieties of techniques. Such works are unique to India;  and, in particular to Sanskrit. I believe no other literary tradition in the world has such bi-textual poetry, equaling the Slesha Kavya.  But , sadly, the theorists of the classical Sanskrit Kavyas deplored the Slesha Kavyas ; and, pushed it down to a low level. It was even treated as an aberration. Even during the modern times, there have hardly been any serious academic studies. concerning the Slesha Kavyas. As a result, this fascinating  creative literary form is now left in utter obscurity .

[ For more on Slesha , please read :Extreme Poetry , the South Asian movement of simultaneous narration by Yigal Bronner.]

5.4. There is also a Viloma-kavya where the first half of the verse is repeated backwards (viloma) in the second half; and they together form an entire line (pada). When the method is extended in a certain order the verse becomes all-moving (sarvathobhadra) or half-moving (ardha-bhrama).

A 16thcentury poet Daivajna Suryadasa Kavi from Godavari district in Andhra Pradesh wrote a Chitrakavya in the Viloma (reverse) style narrating the story of Rama and Krishna (Rama-Krishna-Viloma-Kavya) in 38 slokas.

Each sloka has four lines, of which the first two lines relate to Rama-story while   the next two lines to Krishna story. The specialty of this Kavya is that the third line is composed by reversing the order of letters in the second line, while the fourth line is a reversal of the order of letters in the first line.

For instance :

तं भूसुतामुक्तिमुदारहासं
वन्दे यतो भव्यभवं दयाश्रीः ।
श्रीयादवं भव्यभतोयदेवं
संहारदामुक्तिमुतासुभूतम् ॥ १॥

(Forward) तं भूसुतामुक्तिमुदारहासं वन्दे यतो भव्यभवम् दयाश्रीः ।

Taan bhoosuta mukti mudaarahaasan vande yato bhavan dayaashree ||

“I pay my homage to Him who rescued Sita, whose laughter is captivating, whose incarnation is grand, and from whom mercy and splendor arise everywhere.”

(Backward) श्रीयादवं भव्यभतोयदेवं संहारदामुक्तिमुतासुभूतम् ॥

Shree yaadavan bhavy latoy devan sanhaaradaamukti muta subhootaan ||

“I bow before that Sri Krishna, the descendant of Yadava family; who is a
divinity of the sun as well as the moon; who destroyed Putana who only gave destruction; and who is the soul of this entire universe

[ Please check for the text of the

 :  ]

There is also a Viloma kavya by Venkatadvari titled Yadava-raghaveeyam. The Yadava-raghaveeyam a poem with two meanings (anuloma-viloma-kavya) comprises 30 verses and deals with the story of Rama and Krishna together by adopting the style of anuloma and prathiloma, that is, reading each stanza as such and in reverse order, the former telling the story of Rama while the latter narrating the story of Krishna. Hence this work actually consists of 60 slokas in all.

For instance :

वन्देऽहं देवं तं श्रीतं रन्तारं कालं भासा यः ।
रामो रामाधीराप्यागो लीलामारायोध्ये वासे ॥

“I pay my obeisance to Lord Shri Rama, who with his heart pining for Sita, travelled across the Sahyadri Hills and returned to Ayodhya after killing Ravana and sported with his consort, Sita, in Ayodhya for a long time.”

In reverse

सेवाध्येयो रामालाली गोप्याराधी मारामोरा ।
यस्साभालंकारं तारं तं श्रीतं वन्देहं देवं ॥

“I bow to Lord Shri Krishna, whose chest is the sporting resort of Shri Lakshmi;who is fit to be contemplated through penance and sacrifice, who fondles Rukmani and his other consorts and who is worshiped by the gopis, and who is decked with jewels radiating splendor.”

It is said; Sri Venkatadhvarin or Venkatacarya was the son of Raghunatha and Sitamba of the Atreyagotra . His grand-father Sririnivasa known as Appayaguru was the nephew of the great Tatacharya of Kancheepuram , a contemporary of Appayadiksita .

Venkatadhvari who lived in the 17th century is believed to have been born at Arasanipalai a hamlet near Kancheepuram and was a follower of Sri Vedntadesika. He had mastery in poetry and rhetoric. He composed 14 works, the most important of them being Lakshmisahasram a hymn to Goddess Lakshmi which is modeled on “Padukasahasram” [पादुकासहस्रम्], the well-known work of Sri Vedantadesika.

5.5. And as late as in the 19th century a poet named Krishnamurthy (son of Gauri and Sarvajna) of Kanchipuram succeeded in producing a very difficult form of Chitrakavya. He narrates the story of Ramayana in a sloka by employing only 32 letters (syllables) and by arranging them in a circular form, as like bangle (kankana).The reading of the letters backward and forward, from a particular starting point can produce in all 64 verses. I learn a copy of his Kankana-bandha –Ramayana is placed at the Saraswathi Mahal Library of Tanjore.

: नेतादेवालीनामाशाधानाधीनानेकालोकी | मास्यानंभाख्यायोगीशं पायादेतं रामेराजा ||

6.1. Good and enjoyable Chitrakavyas are extremely difficult to compose and structure. It demands enormous skill and patience. A Chitrakavya poet should also have excellent command over the language and be thoroughly familiar with its mechanics for manipulating their multiple applications. The difficulty of the poet in constructing these types of poems is exacerbated by the requirement that each type of Kavya should be structured in its own prescribed meter.

For instance; the verses patterned into design of coiled snakes (kundali-naga-bhanda) are to be composed in a meter that has twenty-one syllables in each line. Such restrictions impose additional constraints on the poet.

The Vishnudarmottara a text of 6th century lays down that a riddle should be expressed in less than two full verses . That explains why Ubhyachitra class of verses which aim to maintain a balance between the sound and the meaning of the word, are difficult to produce. Much of the trouble is often of the poet’s own making; and that is compounded because of the tendency to use inscrutable or difficult words and expressions.

There are innumerable poems of the Chitrakavya genre, displaying immense variety .It is almost impossible to list out even their various   classifications.

[Shri V. Venkateswara  mentions : there is a long tradition of Chitra Kavyas in Telugu also, such as ,  Paada bhramaka, padya bhramaka, niroshtya kavyas, dwyarthi kavyas, bandhas etc. from 11 th century till date.]


7.1. Though the Chitrakavyas are highly enterprising and extremely difficult to compose, they are not rated high by the scholars specialized in literary criticism. The Chitrakavya  ( particularly its Sabda-chitra component )  is classified as an inferior type of poetry (Adhama-kavya) because it is viewed mostly as an artificial language-acrobatics, verbal jugglery that is not easy to understand; and confronting the reader with riddles, distractions and confusions. Generally, it is accused of giving the ’word-puzzles’ a poetic garb.

7.2. The Sanskrit scholars have always held that the emotive content (rasa) is the soul of poetry, while sound (sabda) and meaning (artha) form its body. The votaries of classical poetry, therefore, point out that Chitrakavya does not merit to be recognized as true or authentic poetry because it does not satisfy the objectives of a good poetry. It has no soul (kavyasya=atma) . Chitrakavya might amuse or entertain but it lacks the poetic beauty, the sensitivity of suggestion (rasa-dhvani) and does not inspire or elevate the reader to higher ideals. It also lacks, they say, mādhurya (sweetness), rasa the emotional content, or exquisite turn of phrases (pada-lalitya), descriptions (varnana)or vision (darshana) etc.

7.3. Shri Kalanath Jha in his scholarly treatise Figurative Poetry in Sanskrit Literature (1975) – ( which is a rare  book that is devoted entirely to discussion on all aspects of Chitrakavya; the others being Chitra Bandha by V Balasubraumanyam and The pattern Poetry : Guide to an Unknown Literature by Dick Higgins )  – defends its merits and remarks :

”What is called Chitrakavya, especially the one endowed with  arthachitra  (meaning), can be poetry of very high order provided there is a concord between the meaning of the word and its representation; and there is consistency in treatment of the subject. The figures with which this division of poetry is constituted are not irrelevant, as they succeed in evoking a fine poetic sense; or an equally superb poetic image. All this is related to creative urge of the poet. The strength of Chitrakavya is in evoking a visual image of the poetry, throwing open a new perspective and stroking imagination. These create a class of poetry which inspires and also impresses”.

7.4. Shri Jha also says, Chitrakavya is essentially not inferior; but the overuse of sterile techniques caused it great harm. The other reason for relegating Chitrakavya to a low position, according to him, is that adequate attention was not paid to the development of its Arthachitra component. And, because of that the figures of sound lost their inner appeal in the midst of verbal jugglery. Shri Jha concludes that Chitrakavya which entertains and challenges, far from being ‘inferior’, demonstrates the amazing possibility inherent in a language, along with the potential for originality and creativity. The excellence achieved in Chitrakavya is unmatched in any of the literature in the world over. Backed by a history of more than a thousand years, Chitrakāvya still continues to be composed by small pockets of scholars throughout India. Yet, sadly, it seems to be a dying art.


B. Chitrabandha

Classifications under Sabdachitra by Bhoja

8.1. There are too many texts and authorities on Chitrakavya. For the limited purpose of this post let me follow the explanations offered in Sarasvathi-kanta-abharana (ornament in the neck of Sarasvathi) edited by KN Sharma and V.L , Pansikar (1934). It is a text of the Alankara-sastra ascribed to King Bhoja (1018 – 1063) of the Parmara dynasty, ruling the Malwa region from its capital at Dhara (according to some, Bhoja shifted his capital from Ujjain to Dhara). Sarasvathi-kanta-abharana is an elaborate text of 643 verse enriched by as many as 1,563 examples (or illustrations) spread over five Chapters.

8.2. As said earlier, the concept of Chitrakavya seemed to be that kavya is a ‘thing made of language’. The elements that go into a kavya are the words, meanings and the way in which those words have to be compounded. In such a scheme of things, the Sabdachitra the word-picture occupies a key position.

9.1. Though the Sabdachitra , which relies more on the sound of letters and words than on their meaning , was  not rated highly the scholars of his time,  However,  Bhoja considered it as an important  aspect of  Chitrakavya; and , accorded it elaborate treatment.  He classified Sabdachitra into six varieties.

The first and the second are based in the use of vowels and consonants –Svarachitra and Vyanjanachitra. And they together constitute Varnachitra – the play on alphabets and syllables. In the Varnachitra he gives detailed descriptions and instances of verses composed of only one or two consonants having no dental or labial or palatal letters; or having any two or three of the short / long vowels.

9.2. The third is Sthanachitra, which is the use of sounds by classifying them dependent on their origin (pronunciation) in different parts of mouth and throat. Bhoja provides instances of verses composed by use of only one or two consonants not involving teeth or palate or throat; as also of verses using only two or three short/ long vowels.

[In the Sanskrit arrangement, all the vowels come first, alternating long and short (- a -, – â- etc.); then those consonants like –k-, -kh-, -g-, and – gh – which are pronounced in the throat, alternating aspirated and un-aspirated, voiced and unvoiced;then, in similar alternating fashion, those consonants that are pronounced on the palate, like –ch– and -j-; and after them those on the teeth, like -t- and –d-; and last but-one those on the lips, like -m- and -p- . All sounds are arranged as those from the inside of the mouth proceeding outwards, in order. The list is rounded off with semi-consonants like -ya- and -va-, and aspirated and sibilant sounds like -h- and -s-. No other ancient system of writing seems to have been so systematically thought out.]

9.3. The fourth and fifth are Aakarachitra and Bandhachitra , which closely resemble each other; and, therefore their distinction was not strictly followed in the later times. These categories detail the bandha-techniques by employing verses which  can be designed and woven into various patterns of objects, animals, birds etc.

Under the former , the Aakara-chitra , which is based on the shapes and forms of things, Bhoja mentions that the padma-bhanda (lotus) and chakra-bandha (wheel) are popular. Besides, there are mangala-chitras, the patterns of poetic structures that resemble auspicious designs such as Swastika, Shanka, and Chakra etc. About twenty such patterns are mentioned.

Among the Aakarachitra, Bhoja mentions varieties of lotus designs: four petalled, the eight petalled, the sixteen petalled; and an eight petalled one bearing the name of the poet. As regards the chakrabandha (wheel), it depends on the number of spokes on the wheel that one adopts.  There could be as many varieties as there are spokes on one’s wheel. Ten such types are described by Bhoja.

And, Bhoja remarks that all other designs can be treated as falling under the latter variety, the Bandhachitra. An important feature of  Aakarachitra or  Bandhachitra or even ofGatichitra is the repeated use of certain letters in certain specified positions in order to enhance the sense of wonder.  Thus,  alliteration and chimes is important to these designs. Bhoja however cautions that in the case of Bandha poetic-designs , it is essential to predetermine the positions for certain letters.

There are more than 200 known varieties of Bandhas. These include 12 types of Naga-bandha of single or multiple coiled or uncoiled snakes; 19 types of Ayudhas, weapons, such as sword, knife, mace and such others; 16 types of Abharana-chitras   resembling ornaments , such as bangle, armlet, girdle etc; and , 38 types of miscellaneous formations , Anya-aakara-Chitra: those resembling umbrella (chatra-bandha), banner or flag (pataka-bhanda), mace (gadha-bandha) in addition to  sun, moon , Meru, bed, swing, lamp, pestle, bell and so on.

The Yantras (charts) , which are drawn by Tantrics , employ many types of Bandhas. And, as poetic designs too the Bandhas seem to be gaining popularity, even in recent days.

9.4. The sixth is Gatichitra (movement) where a striking verbal effect is created through movement of certain letters or groups of letters in a specified order. The techniques commonly used in the Gatichitra are basically Viloma-chitra (reverse order), which when extended in certain order produce Ardha-bramana (half reverse) and  Sarvatobhadra (multiple movements).

Regarding the specific types of patterns under Gatichitra, six are mentioned. Of these, the first two are of Yamaka character where similar sounding letters are repeated giving out different meanings, depending upon their position in the Chitra. One is Aavali, an unbroken series of same letters; and, the other is  Srinkhala-bandha , a chain like formation where the entire verse is composed in such a manner that every succeeding word starts with the last letter of the previous word.

The next three Gatichitra patterns – rathapadagajapada and turagapada – are based on Chess board moves of a camel (Bishop), elephant (Rook) and horse (knight) respectively. The specialty of the knight-walk pattern is that when all the letters of the verse are systematically written so as to fill all the 64 squares of the Chess board , then the letters in the squares  where the knight lands on  each of its move give forth another verse.

And the sixth is Kakapada (crow feet), where riddles are posed in verses arranged in the shape of crow’s feet.

In addition, verses in image of musical drum (muraja) complete with straps ; and also Gomutrika – resembling patterns made by cow’s urine while the cow is on the  move –  are usually included under Gatichitra, by the later scholars.

Gomutrika , in turn, has several varieties . That which consists two or more lines is pada-gomutrika; a verse of four lines giving rise to another is ardha-gomutrika; and, where it involves two verses is sloka-gomutrika. There is also a class based in verses of reversed order or written in varied meters.

hamsa 5

C. Illustrations

All the illustrations provided under belong to the Sabdachitra class of Chitrakavya.

11. Varnachitra

11.1. Consonants

The following is a verse composed by aligning all the 33 consonants in Sanskrit in their natural order (It is like writing a verse by stringing together a, b, c etc in their order).

Who is he the lover of birds, pure in intelligence, adept in stealing other’s strength, leader among destroyer of enemies, the steadfast, the fearless, and the one who filled the ocean. He is the Maya, whose blessings destroy all foes.

At the other end, is a verse written by using only one consonant –da

Sri Krishna the one who confers all boons, the destroyer of evil minded, the great purifier, whose arms punishes the wicked and protects the virtuous shot his lethal arrow at the foe.


There are In between are plenty of verses made by using two or three consonants.


11.2. Vowels

The following is a witty verse formed entirely by the vowel Uu

The gods took refuge in Brihaspahi, the lord of speech, the Guru of gods in heaven, as they went into the battle. They prayed him to stay happy and strong; and not to fall back into sleep again and again.

This sloka uses only one vowel (e) in the first line and one vowel (a) in the second line.

O Lord Shiva of three eyes , knower of all existence, destroyer of the worlds, Lord of the eight-fold super-powers and of immense wealth, the Lord who killed Daskha and Kamadeva do protect me.


11.3. Vowel and Consonant

Here is an amazing sloka of 32 syllables using only one consonant (Ya) and one vowel (Aa):

यायायायायायायायायायायायायायायाया।  यायायायायायायायायायायायायायायाया।।

The Paduka (footwear) which adorn the Lord , which help in attaining all that is good and auspicious, which removes all ills, which gives knowledge, which inspires desire to be in presence of the Lord, by which all places of the world can be reached , these padukas are of the Lord

(This verse is taken from Sri Vedanta Desika’s Padukasahasram)


12. Sthanachitra

Sthanachitras are composed by using consonants of only one group. This verse uses only gutturals.

You the traveler who bathes in the rippling waves of the Ganga you are unaware of the sufferings of the world, you go up Mount Meru to rest, come down to save us from sins.


13. Akarachitra

Aakarachitras are based on the shapes and forms of things. Among these the padmabhanda (lotus) and chakra – bandha(wheel) are popular.


13.1. Padmabhanda

The following is an Illustration of an eight petalled lotus with a central part. The letter ya is placed at its centre. In this instance on two petals carry one letter each. And the other six petals have two letters each.

Now beginning with the central ya move upward to the vertical petal where there is the letter Sri and above that is the letter ta l. With this, you got the first four letter word: ya-sri-ta = Yasrita. Then move in the clockwise to the next petal which has the letters pa and va; then move to the next petal which has letters ta and na. Then move to the center of the lotus design to pick up the letter ya. And that gives: pa-va-na-ta-ya which forms the word pavanataya. Continue in similar manner clockwise following the dotted lines. And, finally you get the verse which reads:

Yasrita pavanatya yatanacchadanichaya/   Yacaniya dhiya maya yamayasyamstutasriya//



13.2. Chakrabandha

There are several varieties of wheel designs (chakrabandha) depending on the number of its spikes. In the instance given here the wheel is designed by using six spikes.


The Śiśupāla-vadha, of Māgha contains a verse written in the difficult wheel -design, or Chakra-bandha. If you rearrange the syllables in the form of a wheel, there is a message hidden among the spokes:

Magha Shishupala vadha

The following Chakrabandha was created in recent times by DEMIAN MARTINS

Here every line of the verse begins and ends on a separate spike. Except that the first and the last letters are on the rim of the wheel. The fourth line is on the rim of the wheel.

The middle letter of all the three lines is one and the same; and therefore it appears on the hub of the wheel at its centre.

Every fourth letter of the line on the rim is shared by the line that it relates to.

The verse is a prayer at the feet of Lord Chaitanya the personification of Krishna ; and ,also seeking the blessings of Srila Prabhupada.

[This chakrabandha was designed by DEMIAN MARTINS  in 2010]


13.3. Murajabandha -musical drum

This also is a popular example of Akarachitra. To start with, the four lines of the verse are written in their natural order. The first two major strings to tighten the  drum are (ABC in ‘V’ shape ) are drawn touching the top two sides of the drum and the middle of the bottom side.Then the next major string (DEF in inverted V shape) touching the bottom two side and the middle of the top side. The syllable laying on these two major strings form the first and the fourth lines of the verse. Then two minor strings are drawn forming two diamond shaped figures (GHIJ and KLMN) – the letters I and M are at the centre of the drum. The syllables on these two minor strings form the second and the third lines of the drum.

The army was very efficient and as it moved the warrior hero was very alert. The soldiers in that army raised a huge noise. The army was fierce with intoxicate and restless elephants. There was no thought of pain.


14. Gatichitra

14.1. The entire verse is a palindrome – the line can be read in both ways (say as in Malayalam, Noon etc)

O immortals, the lover of sharp sword s does not tremble like a frightened man in his battle full of grand chariots and demons the devourers of humans.

Magha is known for the beauty of his poetry and his skill of the storytelling.  That has impressed scholars throughout the ages.  Besides that, Magha was a manipulator of the Sanskrit language; and, there is none equal to him. The following verse, in the 19th chapter of Śiśupāla-vadha could be taken as an illustration of his skill in creating a palindrome in four directions ; the most complex poetic device ever created.

रसाहवा वाहसार-

rasāhavā vāhasāra-

Now, if you reverse the lines as though placing a mirror beneath them, this forms a palindrome in four directions:

Shishupala Vadha mirror effect

“ [That army], which relished battle (rasāhavā) contained allies who brought low the bodes and gaits of their various striving enemies (sakāranānārakāsakāyasādadasāyakā), and in it the cries of the best of mounts contended with musical instruments (vāhasāranādavādadavādanā).” (Trans. George L. Hart)

[ Source : Paul M.M. Cooper · in Art & aestheticsBooks, Literature & Creative Writing.]


14.2. Ardha-bramana


Ardha-bramana is half movement. In this design:

i. Only eight letters are used in the entire verse (otherwise, it just does not work)

ii. The verse has four lines.

iii. When that is converted into a grid it will have 32 cells.

iv. The first four letters of the top (first) line is formed by the first letter of each of the four lines, picked up in descending order in the grid.

v. The next four letters of the top (first) line is formed by the last letter of each of the four lines taken in ascending order in the grid.

vi. You will notice that the first four letters of each line are mirror reflections of the last four letters of that line (that is to say, the last four are the reversed order of the first four).


14.3. Sarvathobhadra

Sarvathobhadra is also a viloma (reversed) type of Chitrabandha. As seen above, in the Ardha-bramana the first half of the line (paada) is reversed (repeated backwards – viloma) in the second half. When this the design is extended into the Sarvathobhadra  grid of 64 cells (8 x 8) the verse gains  greater mobility.

Oh man , this is the battle field which excites even the gods. It is not mere battle of words. Here the men fight and risk their lives , not for themselves but for the sake of others. The field is dangerously filled with mad and intoxicating elephants. Those eager to fight and even those eager to survive but not fight have also fight.

[This is verse taken from Bharavi’s kiratharjuneeya. It is a description of a battle. It is said that both Sarvathobhadra and Gomutrika represent battle formations (vyuha). While Sarvathobhadra is a hallow square formation or disposition of troops facing outwards, the Gomutrika is a diagonal disposition of troops.]


Sarvathobhadra resembling a Chess board is a type of magic square. The 64 letters of the verse are systematically filled into each of boxes in the square.

You will find that the verse can be read horizontally, vertically and even backwards; and you will get the same verse. That becomes possible because each quarter-stanza (16 letters) is  composed of two sets of  palindromes (of eight letters each)  where in each set the last four letters are the reversed order of the first four. Again the first four syllables of the first quarter (de, va, ka, ni) are formed by taking the first syllable of each quarter, in sequence. Similarly, the first four syllables of the second quarter (va, hi, ka, sva) are the same as the second syllable of each quarter .

Sarvathobhadra is a complicated mix of a double palindrome and acrostics where the letters picked up from other quarters form a new word.


14.4. Gomutrika

Gomutrika, as the name indicates, is a design similar to the zig zag patterns on the ground made by the sprinkling cow’s urine, while the cow is on the move. In this composition, every alternate letter of the first and third lines of a verse is the same as every alternate letter of the second and fourth lines.   The first two lines of the verse are written in one sequence and the other two lines are written as another sequence.

May Indra, who wields the thunderbolt who disperses the clouds in the sky, who desires pleasures from his consort Sachi, the daughter of demon puloma-may that Indra remove illusions, protect you from fear of all dangers and misfortunes.


The following is another example of Gomutrika-bandha from Sri Rupa Goswami’s Citra Kavitani I – an amazing Sanskrit Poetry.  Sri Rupa Goswami (1489–1564) was a great Guru, poet, and philosopher of the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition.




14.5. Turaga-bandha – the knights walk

The Turagabandha which mimics the moves of the knight pawn on the Chess board is the most celebrated of all the bandhas. Before discussing Turaga-bandha let me talk of a few other things.

There was for a long time a mathematical problem known as the knight’s tour problem. It involved the moves of the knight pawn on a empty Chess board. The problem posed was to move the knight so that it visits every square (64) on the board – but only once. And, at the end of the tour it must come back to the square from which it began. The first mathematician to investigate the Knight’s tour problem was Leonhard Euler (1707 to 1783) , a Swiss mathematician. Since then it has come to be known as Euler Chess Knight Problem.   (For more on that please





Sri Vedanta Desika (12-13th century) the remarkable scholar-poet in his Paduka Sahasram celebrating the glory of Sri Ranganatha’s padukas in 1008 verses   employs Chitra-paddathi for 40 verses (911-950).

Among these, the verse No.929 and N0.930 are hailed as astounding solution to the ‘knight’s tour problem’.

The syllables of the first Sloka (No.929) are posted, in sequence, on the squares of the Chess board.

स्थिरागसां सदाराध्या विहताकततामता । सत्पादुके सरसा मा रङ्गराजपदं नय ॥

O the sacred Padukas of the Brahman, you are adorned by those who have committed unpardonable sins; you remove all that is sorrowful and unwanted; you create a musical sound; (be pleased) and lead me to the feet of Lord Rangaraja.

Then if the syllables on the squares that the knight visits are put together in their sequence it produces the Sloka No.930

The Padukas which protect those who shine by their right attitude; who is the origin of the blissful rays which destroy the melancholy of the distressed; whose radiance brings peace to those who take refuge in them, which move everywhere,  -may those golden and radiating Padukas of the Brahman lead me to the feet of Lord Rangaraja.

The same table in English



The second verse not only provided the solution to the knight’s tour problem but went far beyond that.   It is said composing     such verse is far more difficult than solving the original Chess-knight problem. It is all the more amazing when you realize that Sri Vedanta Desika lived at least six hundred years before Euler.


References and Sources

1. Sarasvathi-kanta-abharana edited by KN Sharma and VL Pansikar (1934).

2 . Figurative Poetry in Sanskrit Literature by Kalanath Jha (1975)

3. Chitra Bandha by V Balasubraumanyam (2010)

4. The Wonder that is Sanskrit by Sampadananda Mishra and Vijay Poddar (2006)

I acknowledge the figures and Slokas taken from

The wonder that is Sanskrit  And from  The Figurative Poetry in Sanskrit Literature

The rest of the images are from internet


Posted by on October 10, 2012 in General Interest, Kavya, Sanskrit


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