Why are we still taught Shakespeare and not Kalidasa in Indian Schools? Lately, I heard this question a lot. So, I decided to attempt reading Kalidasa and at least educate myself on Kavyas and Mahakavyas of our land.
Which of the Kalidasa Books to read?
The first question that you need to resolve is which of the so many works of Kalidasa to read. I have earlier attempted reading Meghdoot which is both his famous work and one of the smallest – just about 110 verses. There are all kinds of translations and interpretations available for Meghdoot. As a traveler, it also promised to take me around the ancient geography of India. However, I left it half way.
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I just got to spend a week in Ayodhya and the name of Kalidas’s Raghuvamsham kept coming up as I read about the history of the city. So, once back home, I decided to read Raghuvamsham. It is one of the 5 Mahakavyas of Indian Literature. 2 of the 5 Mahakavyas are by Kalidas – Raghuvamsham and Kumarsambhav. I hope to read that next.
Which version of the Raghuvamsham to read?
The easy and foolproof answer would be – read the original in Sanskrit. Alas, most of us can not read Sanskrit, at least not at a level where we can read complex poetry that is full of metaphors.
English versions are easily available. I have the translation by A N Haskar published by Penguin that is a poetic translation. Many people recommended M R Kane’s translation published by Motilal Banarasi Das.
However, as a Hindi speaker and someone who does understands Sanskrit even if not completely, I wanted to read it in Hindi that is as close to Sanskrit as possible. So, I picked up Kalidas Granthavali published by Varanasi based Chaukhamba Publishers. It has complete works of Kalidas and essays about him and his works. The book begins with Raghuvamsham. The pages are divided vertically between Sanskrit and Hindi verses. So, you can read them simultaneously.
I read most of it in Hindi. However, whenever there was an evocative description, I looked at the Sanskrit verse and it made my reading enriching and joyful. If you read Hindi I definitely recommend you to read this version.
What is Raghuvamsam?
Raghuvamsham is a poetic genealogy of the Raghu Vamsh or the clan of Raghu. The most popular king or son of this dynasty is Sri Ram, whose story we know through poems like Valmiki’s Ramayana and Goswami Tulsi Das’s Ram Charit Manas. Raghu was the great-grandfather of Sri Ram, whose family line goes back to the first man on earth – Manu.
What Raghuvamsham does for an average reader is put the story of Sri Ram in perspective. Kalidasa starts the story with King Dilip who would be the great great grandfather of Sri Ram. He introduced you to each of his forefathers and then the generations that follow him and shows you the family traits that kept the line alive for so long. The story of Ramayana is restricted to a few chapters out of the 19 chapters.
Chapters are called Sargah in Raghuvamsam Mahakavya of Kalidasa.
Each chapter highlights one episode from the life of the king whose story is being told. Some chapters also take the reader through the land of Bharat. They introduce you to various kings and kingdoms, various forests and rivers and through myriad landscapes.
Each chapter also highlights one emotion – it could be courage, romance, compassion, charity, service, courage or love. All emotions are there if you read the whole poem, but each chapter focusses on only one emotion as a highlight.
What did I learn from reading Raghuvamsam by Kalidas?
As a reader or as a Rasik you enjoy the visual that Kalidasa presents to his readers. As a writer, I learned how to create metaphors. Kalidasa merges the world of nature and world of humans so effortlessly that you start relating to nature around you, almost effortlessly. Let me take you on a chapter wise journey
Chapter 1 – Vasishthashramgaman
The chapter of Raghuvamsham is about the King of Ayodhya Dilip and his queen Sudeshna reaching the ashram of Vasishtha Muni. The chapter describes the glory of Dilip and how everything is well in his kingdom except the fact that King has no son. So, he goes to the Ashram of his Guru with a wish to get a son and to find out the reason of his not having a son.
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I loved the way Kalidas makes Dilip describe his situation to Rishi Vasishtha. He says I am like that mountain who has the sun shining on one side but the other side is always dark. What a beautiful way to describe the co-existence of Sukh and Dukh – joy & sorrow.
Chapter 2 – Nandini Vardaan Pradaan
In this chapter, King Dilip and Queen Sudeshna do the Seva or service for the Nandini cow, who is the daughter of famous Kamdhenu. They do everything to please the cow including going through the tests she puts them through until she blesses them.
The highlight of this chapter is the extent to which a king and a queen go to get a son. The relation between the Guru and the king also comes out beautifully. When the king wants something, he must go to the Guru and do as directed. He cannot order the Gurus to come to him.
Chapter 3 – Raghu Rajyabhishek
This chapter describes the birth of Raghu and his growing up and ends with him taking over the kingdom from his father. Kalidasa decided to name his Mahakavya on the name of Raghu, so it is safe to assume he was most impressed by the story of Raghu in the family line that produced many illustrious kings. There is an elaborate description of an encounter between Raghu and Indra and how the former obliges the later by not coming in the way of his 100 Yagnas.
This chapter kind of takes you through the education, skills, and training that went into the making of a king who the world would remember for a long time to come.
Chapter 4 – Raghu Digvijay
This chapter takes you across India as Raghu goes on to establish his sovereignty and visits all the kingdoms of his times. You get introduced to the land, its flora, fauna and its sights and sounds. A true travelogue from the times of Kalidasa that takes you from the sand of the deserts to the waves of the sea in the south.
Chapter 5-8 Aj Swayamvar Gaman, Swayamvar Varnan, Ajswayamvarabhigamanon, Aj Vilaap
As the names of the 4 chapters of Raghuvamsham indicate, these 4 chapters are dedicated to Aj – the son of Raghu. In the life of Aj, the primary focus is his visiting Vidarbha for the Swayamvar of the Vidharbha princess Indumati, getting married to her and then the sorrow of losing her. Kalidas chooses his story to tell explore the man-woman relationship while he completely skips this in his father Raghu’s story.
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The bravery of Aj is shown when he meets the enemies on his way to Vidarbha from Ayodhya. One chapter describes the various kings and their kingdom as Indumati moves from one king to the other during her Swayamvar until she reaches Aj of Ayodhya and chooses him. The descriptions literally make you marvel at the knowledge as well as storytelling skills of Kalidasa. The next chapter is about all these kings attacking Aj on his way back to Ayodhya and how he protects his new wife. The last chapter is about the death of Indumati and the sense of loss that Aj goes through with it.
Chapter 9-10 – Mrigya Varnan, Ramavatar
These chapters lay the foundation for the birth of Ram and the purpose of his birth. In Mrigya Varnan, the story of Shravan Kumar happens and the stage is set for the exile of Rama. In the Ramavatar chapter, there is an exploration of Vishnu as he sleeps in the ocean, and why he decides to take human birth to kill Ravana. This chapter takes you into the realm of Devis and Devatas.
Chapter 11-15 Sita Vivah Varnan, Ravan Vadh, Dandakatpratyagaman, Sita Parityag, Ram Swargarohan
These 5 chapters of Raghuvamsham take us through the story that we popularly know as Ramayana. However, Kalidas does not tell us the story as do Valmiki and Tulsidas. He just picks up a few scenes to say what he wants to say. He describes the marriage of Ram and Sita and the next chapter covers from the exile to killing of Ravana.
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Dandakpratyagaman would be my favorite chapter where Ram is showing Sita from his Pushpak Vimaan. In the process, he describes the days that he has spent without her since her abduction. He not only describes the places but also what he felt when he was searching for her and acknowledging those who helped him. It is a lovely account of reuniting of Ram and Sita.
Sita Pratityag is about Ram separating from Sita but focusses on how he remains monogamous till he decides to leave earth in the next chapter.
Chapter 16-17 – Kumudwati Parinay, Atithi Varnan
Kumudawati Parinay takes us through the lesser known parts of the Raghuvamsam again. It tells the story of Ram’s son Kush who ruled from Ayodhya after him. There is a lovely scene of Adhishtatri Devi of Ayodhya appearing before Kush who was ruling from Kushavati and urging him to return to Ayodhya. There is also an elaborate description of Jal-Kreeda or playing in the water. Suddenly all the tanks and ponds that I had seen in Ayodhya made sense. It seems it was a major for the rich and mighty of those times.
This chapter also tells you how the sons of the 4 sons of Dasrath spread across the land and established kingdom like Shatrughan established Mathura on the banks of Yamuna. The chapter ends with the wedding of Kush with Naga Princess Kumudwati.
Atithi was the son of Kush and Kumudawati and next chapter talks about his story which essentially is living the legacy of his ancestors.
Chapter 18-19 Vanshanukram, Agnivarn Shringar
Vanshanukram is a simple genealogy of the line after Atithi. You get the long chain of names of fathers and son. A modern depiction would simply put them in a hierarchy chart. However, Kalidasa being Kalidasa he describes the defining feature of each of them even if it difficult for you to remember or associate them. The last chapter is about one king who forgot to live his Dharma and chose to lead a lavish life. The book ends with his pregnant wife adorning the throne.
All through this Mahakavya or poem, you feel you are a common citizen of Ayodhya who is sitting on the banks of Saryu River listening to the story of your ancestors. It is not easy to read. It demands a lot of prior knowledge, it demands absolute concentration and preferably solitude so that you can soak in the words that paint.
Read it. You will discover the ways of Indian poems that ran into thousands of verses, how the metaphors were created and how the words can actually make you see, listen, smell and feel.