Articles on Prosody Home Page
A.K. Warder's Introduction to Pali
[pp.354-361 and 368-372, with extracts from pp. 130, 280, 323, & 342.
Used with permission from the Author.]
So far [in Introduction to Pali] we have restricted ourselves (except for a few incidental verses in the reading passages) to the ordinary prose language of the Dīgha Nikāya, which is sufficiently typical of the Pāli prose in which most of the Canon is written. We must, however, to complete this introductory survey of Pāli, consider the main features of Pāli verse, which likewise are well exemplified in the Dīgha. The Canon contains probably 10,000—20,000 verses. These are mostly collected in books consisting entirely, or almost entirely, of verse, but some are scattered about in the prose texts as in the Dīgha Nikāya itself. The verses of the Dīgha Nikāya illustrate their most important linguistic and metrical characteristics. The linguistic features to remark are twofold: poetic licence and the use of archaic forms obsolete in everyday speech. The main characteristic of the metres is that they are quantitative, that is that the rhythm is determined purely by the lengths of the syllables, the effect of any stress (“accent”) being negligible.
Poetic licence is most noticeable in the freedom of word order in verse. Since the inflections generally show the relations between the words in a sentence almost any deviation from the prose order is possible without serious change of meaning (the emphasis will be different, and indeed the metrical form provides special possibilities for emphasis by placing words in rhythmically prominent positions), though for beginners it adds  greatly to the difficulty of disentangling the meaning. Secondly, the need to fit the sentence to the metre influences the choice of vocabulary, so that unusual synonyms and rare words may be used. Thirdly, superfluous or redundant words may be inserted to fill up lines of verse, especially indeclinables (nipāta) of merely emphatic or otherwise vague meaning. A prefix may be dropped or added where the meaning of the sentence will tolerate a slight change of nuance. Fourthly, the making of junction (sandhi) is more variable than in prose, and may be decided by metrical requirements rather than grammatical usage. Fifthly, certain syllables may be lengthened or shortened to suit the rhythm of the metre. Vowels linking suffixes to roots (less often prefixes) as well as final vowels are especially susceptible to this treatment, though this form of licence is not of very frequent occurrence.
Examples of poetic licence:-
ramatī (3rd singular present of ram (I), “delight”)
heṭhayī (aorist of heṭh (VII), “harass”)
gihi (for gihī: gihin = “house-dwelling”)
santŏ (perhaps we should write santa)
Buddhāna (genitive plural, for Buddhānaṁ)
kammăṁ (perhaps we should write kamma)
chetva (for -chetvā, gerund of chid).
Junction between root and suffix lengthened:
Junction between prefix and root lengthened:
Archaic forms are kept alive to a limited extent by being preserved in poems and songs handed down from past centuries. Though not acceptable in ordinary speech, they may be felt appropriate for poetic expression just because of their purely  poetic associations. They may also be felt to have greater dignity and power than everyday forms. The obscurity which may result is not always avoided by poets, on the contrary a certain mystification and portentousness may be deliberately sought. We thus meet in Pāli verse with a residue of ancient grammatical forms, among which we may note here some characteristic or frequent ones:-
Nominative plural in āse: sāvakāse (= sāvakā) gatāse (= gatā)
Imperative 1st plural in mu instead of ma: jānemu
Optative 3rd singular in e instead of eyya: ādise (= ādiseyya; from ā-dis (I), “dedicate”)
Optative 1st plural in mu instead of yyāma: pucchemu
Use of root aorist, e.g. 3rd plural in uṁ: akaruṁ (for akaṁsu), āpāduṁ (for āpādiṁsu)
Another unusual aorist: abhida (for abhindi)
Future of hū: hessati (= bhavissati)
Infinitive in tāye: dakkhitāye (= daṭṭhuṁ)
Gerund in (t)vāna rare in prose: caritvāna, disvāna, katvāna, sutvāna
Middle (attanopada) forms not current in prose:-
Vande (= vandāmi)
amhāse (= amhā)
karomase (= karoma)
ārabhavho (= ārabhatha, imperative)
vademase (= vadeyyāma)
āsīne (locative singular of the present participle middle of the verb as, “to sit,” itself almost extinct— replaced by ni-sid).
We have noted in Lessons 28 and 29 and earlier in this lesson that the denominative, intensive, desiderative, and “root” aorist are more frequent in verse.
Where two parallel forms exist, one with assimilation and consequent obscurity and one with a clear articulation through a linking vowel between stem and suffix, the form with assimilation will usually be more frequent in verse and sometimes extinct in prose:- 
dajjā (optative of dā, from the reduplicated stem dad + the ancient optative inflection yā(t), 3rd singular)
jaññā (= jāneyya)
kassāma (= karissāma).
Other archaic forms:-
diviyā (= dibbā, ablative)
poso (= puriso)
tuvaṁ (= tvaṁ)
duve (= dve)
addakkhiṁ (= addasaṁ)
-bhi (= -hi, instrumental plural).
Other poetic forms
caviya (= cavitvā)
ramma (= ramaṇīya).
As examples of vocabulary not used in prose we may list a few words here.
brū (I) brūhi (imperative 2nd singular) “say”, “call”
ram (I) ramati (also present middle 1st singular rame) “delight”, “enjoy”
vid (II) vindati “find” (for labh)
ambujo fish (“water-born”)
mahī the earth
have (ind.) truly, surely
ye (ind.) surely.
In scanning Pāli verse the following two rules apply:-
(1) A syllable having its vowel short and followed by not more than one consonant is short (lahu).
(2) A syllabic having its vowel long, or followed by ṁ or by more than one consonant, is long (garu).
There are also certain complications arising from minor discrepancies between the standard orthography and the original pronunciation. These arose over variant pronunciations  of the semi-vowels y, r, and v in some combinations (more rarely over the nasals). Some examples are:-
-cariya= −⏑ (*-carya)
sirīmant (“beautiful”, “fortunate”) = −− (*srīmant) (but sir, “beauty,” “fortune” = ⏑⏓
vya- = ⏑⏑ (viya-, as sometimes written)
veḷuriyo (“lapis lazuli”) = −⏑⏑−
ariya usually −⏑ (*arya), sometimes = −⏑⏑ (*āriya)
vīriya = sometimes −⏑ (*virya) but sometimes −⏑⏑ (vīriya, which is sometimes so written)
suriyo = sometimes −− (*suryo) but sometimes −⏑− (sūriyo, which is sometimes so written).
In the word brāhmaṇo, br- does not function as two consonants, hence a preceding syllable will be short if its vowel is short (*bamhaṇo ?). Occasionally other conjuncts also fail to “make position” (make a preceding syllable long).
Though all Pāli metres are quantitative, a new style of poetry had come into fashion in the 5th or 4th century b.c. which may be called the “musical” style. In the metres of this style the opposition of long and short syllables, that one long equals two shorts, is exact and inflexible in the same way as a note and two notes of half its value in music. The new metres had in fact taken their rhythms from music. In the older metres, which remained in use, though not uninfluenced by the new, the opposition of quantities is approximate only, so that the number of syllables in a line is still felt to be of decisive importance.
A “verse” usually contains four lines (pādas), being a quatrain, much more rarely six lines. Rhyme is not used.
Most important metres:-
“Old” metres (number of syllables per line constant, with only rare “resolution” of a long into two shorts, giving an extra syllable, under the influence of the “new” metres):-
vatta (epic narrative metre: only approximately quantitative) eight syllables per line, the contrasting cadences of alternate lines giving a verse of two dissimilar lines repeated in the epic style; there is a tendency to use this  as a line of sixteen syllables not organized in verses, which is very appropriate and flexible for continuous narrative
¦ ⏓⏓⏓⏓ ⏑−⏑⏓ × 2
⏑ ⏑ ⏑
anuṭṭhubha (the archaic form of vatta, in which the alternate lines are not contrasted)
⏓⏓⏓⏓ ⏑−⏑⏓ × 4 (the cadences of the prior vatta line are also admitted)
tuṭṭhubha-jagatī, normally eleven (tuṭṭhubha) or twelve (jagatī) syllables per line; these two metres, which have different cadences, are freely mixed, though they may also be used separately; there is a caesura (slight pause) after either the fourth or the fifth syllable
−⏑−,⏓,⏑⏓−⏑−⏓ × 4 (tuṭṭhubha) (caesura in one of the marked positions)
−⏑−,⏓,⏑⏓−⏑−⏑⏓ × 4 (jagatī) (caesura in one of the marked positions)
by mixture of an opening with caesura at the fifth with a continuation as per caesura at the fourth we occasionally find a tuṭṭhubha of twelve syllables or a jagatī of thirteen:
“New” metres (total quantity of each line constant, the unit in counting being the mattā = quantity of one short syllable; number of syllables variable):-
mattāchandas (“measure-metre”), (cadence fixed, being the last five or six syllables, rest widely variable provided  the total quantity is constant; there are always two dissimilar lines repeated):
vetālīya (lines one and three contain fourteen mattās, two and four contain sixteen; cadence −⏑−⏑⏓)
⏔⏔⏔−⏑−⏑⏓ ¦ ⏔⏔⏔⏔−⏑−⏑⏓ × 2
opacchandasaka (as vetālīya, but with two extra mattās in each line resulting from the longer cadence −⏑−⏑−⏓)
⏔⏔⏔−⏑−⏑−⏓ ¦ ⏔⏔⏔⏔−⏑−⏑−⏓ × 2
(very rarely, vetālīya and opacchandasaka are mixed) (another metre originally of this class is the svāgatā, which being less flexible is usually classified under akkharacchandas, see below)
gaṇacchandas (“bar-metre”) (not found in the Dīgha Nikāya: strictly musical and exactly quantitative like musical rhythms):
gīti (two or three lines of thirty mattās each, each only theoretically divisible into two quarter verses; each of the two lines is organized in eight bars, called gaṇa, of four mattās each, there being a “rest” of two mattās at the end; the characteristic rhythm is ¦⏓−¦⏑−⏑¦ = 2 bars, though this is simply a base on which variation is very freely made)
ariyā (a line of thirty mattās, as in gīti, followed by a line of twenty-seven mattās, the cadence being syncopated).
Derived metres (these represent a third phase, which subsequently became the dominant style in the literature, along with a somewhat restricted form of the vatta for continuous narrative; the tendency is for both the quantity and the number of syllables to be fixed. In the Pāli Canon these metres still retain a good deal of flexibility, whilst in later Indian literature they are given forms absolutely fixed except for the last syllable of each line):- 
samavutta (four similar lines):-
upajāti (a form of tuṭṭhubha, fixed)
⏓−⏑−−⏑⏑−⏑−⏓ × 4
rathoddhatā (a form of vetāliya line, fixed)
−⏑−⏑⏑⏑−⏑−⏑⏓ × 4
vaṁsaṭṭhā (a form of jagatī, fixed)
⏓−⏑−−⏑⏑−⏑−⏑⏓ × 4
pamitakkharā (derived from gaṇacchandas)
⏔−⏑−⏑ ⏑⏑−⏑⏑⏓ × 4
rucirā (derived from jagatī by resolution of fifth syllable)
⏓−⏑−⏑⏑⏑⏑−⏑−⏑⏓ × 4
aḍḍhasamavutta (two dissimilar lines, repeated)
pupphitaggā (a particular form of opacchandasaka, fixed)
⏑⏑ ⏑⏑ ⏑⏑ −⏑−⏑−⏓ ¦ ⏑⏑ ⏑⏑ − ⏑⏑ −⏑−⏑−⏓ × 2
−⏑−⏑−−⏔⏓ ¦ −⏑−⏑−−⏑⏑−⏓ × 2
visamavutta (four dissimilar lines)
upaṭṭhitappacupita (probably derived from mattāchandas)
−− −⏑⏑ −⏑ −⏑ −⏑⏑ −− ¦ ⏔− ⏑⏑⏑⏑ − ⏑−⏑ −−¦
⏑⏑ ⏑⏑ ⏑⏑ ⏑⏑ − ¦ ⏑⏑ ⏑⏑ ⏑⏑ ⏑⏑ ⏑⏑ − ⏑⏑ ⏓ × 1
uggatā (derived from gaṇacchandas)
⏑⏑− ⏑−⏑ ⏑⏑− ⏑ ¦ ⏑⏑⏑ ⏑⏑− ⏑−⏑ −¦
⏔ ⏑⏔⏑ ⏑⏑− ⏑⏑− ¦ ⏑⏑− ⏑−⏑ ⏑⏑− ⏑−⏑ ⏓ × 1
[Examples from] Exercise 30
Passages for reading:-
(vatta, or anuṭṭhubha in transition to vatta) [from Āṭānāṭiyasuttaṁ, DN 32. Ed. note: In what follows I have identified the passages; left out notes not relevant to a study of the verses; and included the metrical markers].01
yena Uttarakurū In the first line there is resolution of fourth syllable, or read yen'. 02 rammā, Mahā-Neru sudassano,
manussā tattha jāyanti amamā apariggahā.
na te bījaṁ pavapanti, na pi nīyanti naṅgalā,
akaṭṭhapākimaṁ sāliṁ paribhuñjanti mānusā.
akaṇaṁ athusaṁ suddhaṁ sugandhaṁ taṇḍulapphalaṁ,
tuṇḍikīre pacitvāna, tato bhuñjanti bhojanaṁ.
* * * * * * * *
tattha niccaphalā rukkhā, nānādijagaṇāyutā,
mayūrakoñcābhirudā kokilābhi hi An easier variant is -ādīhi, “etc.” There is a rare use of abhi as indeclinable with accusative, meaning “on”, “among” (the trees), but no accusative here. 03 vaggubhi,
jīvaṁjīvakasadd' ettha atho oṭṭhavacittakā,
kukkuṭakā kuḷīrakā vane pokkharasātakā.
sukasālikasadd' ettha daṇḍamānavakāni ca,
sobhati sabbakālaṁ sā Kuveranalinī sadā,
ito sā uttarā disā iti naṁ ācikkhatī jano.
yaṁ disaṁ abhipāleti, mahārājā yasassi so -
−−−¦−⏑⏑−¦¦⏑−−⏑¦⏑−⏑− (7 syllables, prior line)
yakkhānaṁ ādhipati Kuvero iti nāma so
⏑⏑⏑−¦⏑−−−¦¦−−⏑¦⏑−⏑− (7 syllables, posterior line)
ramati naccagītehi yakkhehi purakkhato. Two lines of this verse are a syllable short, add emphatic particles? There are parallel verses with different gods, for the four directions, some of which fit the metre, so this may be a clumsy substitution of names. 04
(vatta) [from DN 21, Sakkapañhasuttaṁ.] 05
vande te pitaraṁ, bhadde, Timbaruṁ, Suriyavaccase,
yena jātā 'si kalyāṇī, ānandajananī mama.
vāto va sedakaṁ kanto pānīyaṁ va pipāsino
aṅgīrasī piyā me 'si dhammo arahatām This is a rare case of the lengthening of the vowel of a final am under stress of metre, a phenomenon of historical interest. Metrically aṁ would be equally satisfactory, and is found in some manuscripts. 06 iva,
āturass' eva bhesajjaṁ, bhojanaṁ va jighacchato,
parinibbāpaya bhadde jalantam iva vārinā.
sītodakiṁ pokkharaṇiṁ yuttaṁ kiñjakkhareṇunā,
nāgo ghammābhitatto va ogāhe te thanūdaraṁ.
accaṁkuso va nāgo ca jitaṁ me tuttatomaraṁ,
kāraṇaṁ na ppajānāmi sammatto lakkhaṇūruyā.
tayi gathitacitto 'smi cittaṁ vipariṇāmitaṁ,
paṭigantuṁ na sakkomi vaṅkaghasto va ambujo.
vāmūru saja maṁ bhadde saja maṁ mandalocane,
palissaja maṁ kalyāṇi etaṁ me abhipatthitaṁ.
appako vata me santo kāmo vellitakesiyā,
anekabhāgo sampādi arahante va dakkhiṇā.
yam me atthi kataṁ puññaṁ arahantesu tādisu,
tam me sabbaṅgakalyāṇi tayā saddhiṁ vipaccataṁ.
yam me atthi kataṁ puññaṁ asmiṁ paṭhavimaṇḍale,
tam me sabbaṅgakalyāṇi tayā saddhiṁ vipaccataṁ.
Sakyaputto va jhānena ekodi nipako sato
amataṁ muni jigiṁsāno tam ahaṁ Suriyavaccase.
yathā pi muni nandeyya patvā sambodhim uttamaṁ.
evaṁ nandeyyaṁ kalyāṇi missībhāvaṁ gato tayā.
sakko ca me varaṁ dajjā Tāvatiṁsānam issaro,
tāhaṁ Unusual junction of taṁ + ahaṁ. 07 bhadde vareyyāhe Unusual junction of vareyyaṁ + ahe. 08 evaṁ kāmo daḷho mama.
sālaṁ va na ciraṁ phullaṁ pitaraṁ te sumedhase
vandamāno namassāmi yassa s' etādisī pajā.
(tuṭṭhubha) [from DN 19, Mahāgovindasuttaṁ.] 09
pucchāmi brahmānaṁ sanaṅkumāraṁ
kaṅkhī akaṅkhiṁ paravediyesu,
kattha ṭṭhito kimhi ca sikkhamāno
pappoti macco amataṁ brahmalokan ti. This ti does not form part of the verse. 10
hitvā mamattaṁ manujesu brahme
ettha ṭṭhito ettha ca sikkhamāno
pappoti macco amataṁ brahmalokan ti.
(vetālīya) [These examples are drawn from p. 130, quoting DN 23, Pāyāsisuttaṁ; and p. 323, DN 16, Mahāparinibbānasuttaṁ.] 11
littaṁ paramena tejasā
gilam akkhaṁ puriso na bujjhati
gila re gila pāpadhuttaka
pacchā te kaṭukaṁ bhavissatī ti.
sīlaṁ samādhi paññā ca vimutti ca anuttarā,
anubuddhā ime dhammā Gotamena yasassinā.
iti Buddho abhiññāya dhammam akkhāsi bhikkhŭnaṁ Metrical shortening. 12
Dukkhass' antakaro satthā cakkhumā parinibbuto ti.
(mixed vetālīya and opacchandasaka) [This example is drawn from p. 280, quoting DN 16, Mahāparinibbānasuttaṁ. The prior lines are Vetālīya, the posterior are Opaccandasaka.] 13
ye taranti aṇṇavaṁ saraṁ; setuṁ katva Poetic form of katvā. 14 visajja pallalāni,
kullaṁ hi jano pabandhati, nittiṇṇā medhāvino janā ti.
(opacchandasaka) [from DN 14, Mahāpadānasuttaṁ.] 15
khantī paramaṁ tapo titikkhā, nibbānaṁ paramaṁ vadanti Buddhā;
na hi pabbajito parūpaghāti samaṇo hoti paraṁ viheṭhayanto.
(upajāti) [This example is drawn from p. 342, quoting DN 16, Mahāparinibbānasuttaṁ.] 16
ekūnatiṁso vayasā Subhadda,
yaṁ pabbajiṁ kiṁkusalānuesī,
yato ahaṁ pabbajito Subhadda
ñāyassa dhammassa padesavattī.
ito bahiddhā samaṇo pi n' atthi.
(rathoddhatā) [All the examples from here on are drawn from DN 30, Lakkhaṇasuttaṁ.] 17
geham āvasati ce tathāvidho
aggataṁ vajati kāmabhogĭnaṁ,
tena uttaritaro na vijjati,
Jambudīpam abhibhuyya iriyati.
sacce ca dhamme ca dame ca saṁyame
dāne ahiṁsāya asāhase rato
daḷhaṁ samādāya samattam ācari.
pure puratthā purimāsu jātisu,
manussabhūto bahŭnaṁ sukhāvaho,
guttīsu rakkhāvaraṇesu ussuko. Note the alliteration in this verse - an ornament prominent in early Indian poetic theory. 18
pubbaṅgamo sucaritesu ahu
anvāyiko bahujan' assa ahu,
saggesu vedayitha puññaphalaṁ.
na pāṇinā na ca pana daṇḍaleḍḍunā
satthena vā maraṇavadhena vā puna,
ubbādhanāya ca paritajjanāya vā
na heṭhayī janatam aheṭhako ahu.
caviya punar idhāgato samāno
karacaraṇāmudutañ ca jālino ca,
paṭilabhatī daharo susūkumāro.
chetvă khīlăṁ chetvā palighaṁ | indakhīlam ūhaccamanejā m here is junction consonant. 19 |
te caranti suddhā vimalā | cakkhumatā dantā susunāgā ||
akkodhañ ca adhiṭṭhahī adāsi ca dānaṁ |
vatthāni ca sukhumāni succhavīnī |
abhivisaji mahim iva suro abhivassaṁ ||
taṁ katvāna ito cuto divaṁ upapajja |
sukataṁ ca phalavipākam ānubhotvā |
idha bhavati suravarataroriva The last r here is a junction consonant. 20 Indo ||
na ca vīsaṭaṁ na ca visāci |
na ca pana viceyyapekkhitā |
ujju In u(j)ju the quantity of the first syllable is variable.21 tatha pasaṭam ujjumano |
piyacakkhunā bahujanaṁ udikkhitā ||
abhiyogino ca nipuṇā ca |
bahu pana nimittakovidā |
sukhumanayanakusalā manujā |
piyadassano ti abhiniddisanti naṁ ||
piyadassano gihi pi santŏ |
bhavati bahŭnaṁ piyāyito |
yadi ca na bhavati gihī, samaṇo |
bhavatī piyo bahŭnăṁ[Ed. note: we need to read bahŭjanăṁ here, to correct the metre].22 sokanāsano ||
last updated: November 2007