Chando nidānaṁ gāthānaṁ
Metre forms the foundation for the verses (Devatāsaṁyutta, 202)


An understanding of the basic principles underlying Pāḷi metrical composition is not hard to acquire and will certainly enhance any reader's appreciation of the texts of Early Buddhism. Some of the most important and inspiring of these texts are written either wholly or mainly in verse, and even in the prose collections verse abounds. Below is a table giving estimates of the verse numbers in some of the most important collections in the Sutta Piṭaka, from which we can see that that collection alone contains well over 20,000 verses (numbers are based on PTS editions except where stated, and in some cases are approximate only):




















1000+ (945 in Sagāthavagga)







1291 (Ce)

823 (Ce)



6905 (Ce)

5228 (Ce)


372 (Ce)

In the West in recent times much scholarly work has been produced in this field, so that it is now possible to outline the prosody of these texts with some degree of accuracy. However the difficulty the interested student faces at this point is that the studies that have been done are either too detailed for the beginner, or too narrow, being based on only one metre, or one type of metre.

In the Theravāda countries a study of Pāḷi prosody has nearly always been based on the Medieval work Vuttodaya, which describes the Classical prosody fairly well, but is no guide at all to the Canonical prosody, as there are metres in the Canon that are not found in that work on the one hand; and on the other hand the ones that are described generally have different parametres.

This book therefore is an attempt to summarise, within a relatively short compass, and hopefully in a fairly straightforward way, what is so far understood about Pāḷi verse composition during the canonical period. As such it relies very much on the work of previous scholars in this field such as Smith, Warder, and Norman, whose tables on usage have been consulted at every stage. However, I have also re-scanned a number of works wherever it seemed necessary to check descriptions and standardise terminology. I have also attempted to summarise the results of monographs written by Alsdorf, Bollee, Bechert, and others.

It should be understood that this is a general study only, I have made detailed studies, which are for the more advanced student elsewhere. Significantly, it appears that even writing about "Canonical Pāḷi prosody" may be slightly misleading, as the detailed studies tend to show that there was a development in the prosody even during the short period in which the material was being recited and collected; and that the various recitation (bhāṇaka) traditions may have allowed slightly different parametres to the metres.

In this book I have preferred to use the Pāḷi names of the metres rather than their Sanskrit equivalents, as is the more common practice in recent works on the literature. Although verse composition in Pāḷi is intimately related to that of its cultural environment, it nevertheless represents a definite stage in the development of Indian verse composition. It seems reasonable then, that if our intention is to describe the metres as they appear in the Pāḷi sources, that we should also designate them by their Pāḷi names, and understand from the outset that these metres differ somewhat from their usage in other, or later, cultural contexts.

At the time of the composition of these verses, of course, there was nothing like the Sanskrit hegemony in cultural matters that emerged after the Canon was closed. In fact, it appears that in the period under discussion it was the vernacular cultures, of which Pāḷi forms a part, that were in the forefront of cultural evolution, adopting popular or folk forms into their compositions, which were still quite fluid in structure, and which were only later classified and organised by writers on Sanskrit aesthetics. However, for the convenience of the student, in preparing this book I have provided Sanskrit equivalents for the metres (and occasionally other words) at relevant places in the book, and these and others are also noted in the glossary.

This book is divided into 4 sections: the first deals with the rules for scansion, and the exceptions that have to be taken into consideration; the second presents a description of the metres themselves; the third considers briefly the important subject of the mixing of metres; and the fourth an index and glossary, which provides definitions of all the most important terms used in the literature, and seeks to disentangle some of the confusion that exists in the terminology. In an appendix there is an attempt to trace the evolution of the two most important metres in Pāḷi against the wider background of the development of Indian metrics as a whole.

For students who are new to the subject it is recommended that they first read through sections 1.1-2; 2.1-3; 2.6; 2.8-17; 2.20; & 3.1 in order to get an overview of the subject, and then try scanning some verses themselves following the examples given in the text, before re-reading in more depth in order to understand the exceptions, variations, and so on that exist.