The Absent Traveller: Prākrit Love Poetry from the Gāthāsaptaśatī of Sātavāhana Hāla
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The Gathasaptasati is perhaps the oldest extant anthology of poetry from South Asia, containing our very earliest examples of secular verse. Reputed to have been compiled by the Satavahana king Hala in the second century CE, it is a celebrated collection of 700 verses in Maharashtri Prakrit, composed in the compact, distilled gatha form. The anthology has attracted several learned commentaries and now, through Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s acclaimed translation of 207 verses from the anthology, readers of English at last have access to its poems. The speakers are mostly women and, whether young or old, married or single, they touch on the subject of sexuality with frankness, sensitivity and, every once in a while, humour, which never ceases to surprise.
The Absent Traveler includes an elegant and stimulating translator’s note and an afterword by Martha Ann Selby that provides an admirable introduction to Prakrit literature in general and the Gathasaptasati in particular.
Unlike its Tamil cousin, the Prākrit gāthā does not have a colophon to give the poem’s speaker (‘What Her Girl Friend Said’) and set the scene (her lover within earshot, behind a fence). The commentaries on the Gāthāsaptaśatī sometimes disagree on these points, and I have in the notes below relied chiefly on Gaṅgādhara’s sixteenth-century (?) work to identify the voice and, more interestingly, the intention behind it. The poems are numbered according to Albrecht Weber’s Das Saptaçatakam des Hāla
(saṃketa-sthāna). The heroine is consoled by her girl friend who shows her an alternative rendezvous, a hemp yard yellow with flowers; compare 693. Some others in this genre are 103, 104, 110, 295, 402, 550, 628, 676, 769 and 874. For commentatorial approaches to these and other rendezvous poems, see Dundas (1985). Poem 11. The scene at her feet reminds the woman of a coital position—‘the postilion position’ as Flaubert called it—and hence the laughter (Gaṅgādhara). Poem 24. Any wife to any
Kong-po buzz like a trapped bee? He has been my bed-mate for three days and now thinks only of god . . . (Whigham 1969: 18) Poem 955. According to Jogalekar, the medium, a leaf-cup filled with flowers carried downstream by the river-as-go-between, is the message. Two thousand years later Ruben Dario, as if he had read the old man’s thoughts, wrote: But in spite of stubborn time, My thirst for love persists; I approach the garden’s roses, My hair a greying mist. (Monegal and Reid 1981:
245, n. 3) Acknowledgements I am indebted to Suresh Chandra Pandey and Uday Bhan Singh Chauhan for reading with me the Prākrit poems and Sanskrit commentaries; to Arun Kolatkar for remarks on the English of the translations and the nature of translatorese; to A.K. Ramanujan for going over the manuscript, pencil in hand; to Ravi Dayal for his advice when I had to choose between alternative versions and could not decide; to Martha Ann Selby for letting me hear the English through her American ear
versus ‘culture’ dichotomy. The Gāthāsaptaśatī’s detractors and supporters alike have described it as derivative and sometimes as downright immoral. Arthur Berriedale Keith, in his now-classic reference work Classical Sanskrit Literature, rightly claims that Maharashtri Prākrit is ‘far from being a true vernacular’, but then argues that the gāthās are derived from the study of Sanskrit models. Keith has also demonstrated that the Gāthāsaptaśatī had a far-reaching influence on later authors and