Articles on Grammar and Prosody Home Page
The Wonder that was India
[Ed: In this edition I have included the references and the translations that were in footnotes and the body of the text at the relevant places, added in the metrical markings, and somewhat reformatted the original text.]
APPENDIX XI: PROSODY
Like those of classical Europe the metres of Indian poetry are quantitative, based on the order of long and short syllables, and not, as in English, on stress. As in classical European languages a syllable was counted as long if it contained a long vowel (
Though most of the Vedic hymns are in stanzas of four quarters there are some with three or five divisions. Of the former, one, called Gāyatrī, is common, and is that of the famous Gāyatrī verse:
Tát Savitúr váreṇiam
bhárgo devásya dhīmahi,
dhíyo yó naḥ pracodáyāt.
of the god Savit,
that he may inspire our minds.
It consists of three sections of eight syllables each, the first four of which are free, while the last four have the cadence ⏑−⏑⏓.
The commonest Vedic stanza is Triṣṭubh, consisting of four quarters of eleven syllables each. The quarter normally has a cæsura after the fourth or fifth syllable, and is prevailingly iambic. The last four syllables of each quarter have the cadence −⏑−⏓.
For example the first verse of the hymn to Indra (R.V. i. 32):
índrasya nu vriāṇi prá vocam
yni cakra prathamni vajr
áhann áhim, anu apás tatarda,
pra vakṣáṇā abhinat párvatānām.
the first he did, the wielder of the thunder,
when he slew the dragon and let loose the waters,
and pierced the bellies of the mountains.
Similar to this, but with an extra syllable in each quarter, was the twelve-syllabled Jagatī, with the cadence −⏑−⏑⏓.
In the later hymns of the g Veda a stanza of four eight-syllable quarters, called Anuṣṭubh, became popular. This was much the same as Gāyatrī, with a fourth line added, but there was considerable variation in the final cadence. For example the first verse of the “Hymn of the Primeval Man” (R.V. x. 90) (not translated in the book):
Sá bhmiṁ viśváto vtv
áty atiṣṭhad daśāṅguláṁ.
From the Anuṣṭubh of the Vedas developed the Śloka, the chief epic metre of later times. This consisted of four quarters of eight syllables each, the first and third normally ending with the cadence ⏑−−⏓, and the second and fourth with ⏑−⏑⏓. Certain specified variations were allowed. As an example we quote the first verse of the account of Damayantī’s svayaṁvara:
Atha kāle śubhe prāpte,
tithau puṇye kṣaṇe tathā,
Bhīmo rājā svayaṁvare.
at the auspicious day and hour,
King Bhīma invited the lords of the earth
to the bride-choice.
The śloka metre was widely used for poetry of all kinds, especially for didactic and narrative verse. The courtly poets, however, favoured longer metres, with their quantities rigidly fixed in complicated rhythmic patterns, some with regular cæsuræ. Textbooks describe over 100 metres of this kind, many with fanciful names, but only some twenty or thirty were popular. Of these we mention a few of the most common.
Indravajra (“Indra’s Thunderbolt”):
4 × 11 −−⏑−−⏑⏑−⏑−⏓.
example: Kumāra Sambhava, I, 15
voḍhā muhuḥ kampita-devadāruḥ
yad vāyur anviṣṭamgaiḥ kirātair
carries the spray from the torrents of the young Ganges
and refreshes the hunting hillman,
blowing among his peacock plumes.
Upendravajra (Secondary Indravajra), a variant of the above, with the first syllable short:
4 × 11 ⏑−⏑−−⏑⏑−⏑−⏓.
Quarter lines of Indravajra and Upendravajra were often combined in mixed stanzas. Such stanzas of varying metres were called Upajāti.
4 × 12 ⏑−⏑−−⏑⏑−⏑−⏑⏓.
Indravamśa: like Vaṁśastha, but with a long first syllable:
4 × 12 −−⏑−−⏑⏑−⏑−⏑⏓.
Vaṁśastha and Indravamśa were often combined in an Upajāti metre, e.g. the verses of Kālidāsa, Kumāra Sambhava:
babhūva bhūmnā śruti-bhitti-bhedanaḥ,
a great crash broke the walls of the ears,
a shattering sound, tearing the tops of the mountains,
and wholly filling the belly of heaven.
balaṁ dviṣo 'bhūd avani-prakampāt.
The great elephants stumbled, the horses fell,
and all the footmen clung together in fear,
as the earth tremblem and the ocean rose to shake the mountains.
sametya sarve sura-vidviṣaḥ puraḥ,
śvānaḥ svareṇa śravaṇānta-śātinā
mitho rudantaḥ karuṇena niryayuḥ.
dogs lifted their muzzles to gaze on the sun,
then, howling together with cries that rent the eardrums,
they wretchedly slunk away.
Vasantatilakā (“The Ornament of Spring”):
4 × 14 −−⏑−⏑⏑⏑−⏑⏑−⏑−⏓.
example: Bilhaṇa, Caurapañcāśikā, p. 45
Adyāpi tām praṇayinīṁ mgaśāvakākṣiṁ
paśyāmy ahaṁ yadi punar divasāvasāne
I might see my beloved, with eyes like the eyes of a fawn,
with the bowls of her breasts the colour of milk,
I'd leave the joys of kingship and heaven and final bliss.
Mālini (“The Girl wearing a Garland”)
4 × 15 ⏑⏑⏑⏑⏑⏑−−¦−⏑−−⏑−⏓.
example: Bharthari, Śṅgāraśataka, 53
Kim iha bahubhir uktair yukti-śūnyaiḥ pralāpair?
Dvayam api puruṣānāṁ sarvadā sevanīyam —
stana-bhara-parikhinnaṁ yauvanaṁ vā vanaṁ vā.
Only two things are worth a man’s attention —
the youth of full-breasted women,
prone to fresh pleasures, and the forest.
Pthvī (“The Earth”):
4 × 17 ⏑−⏑⏑⏑−⏑−⏑⏑⏑−⏑−−⏑⏓.
example: Bharthari, Nītiśataka, 5
Labheta sikatāsu tailam api yatnataḥ pīḍayan
pibec ca mgatṣṇikāsu salilaṁ pipāsārditaḥ
kadācid api paryaṭañ chaśa-viṣāṇam āsādayen,
na tu pratiniviṣṭa-mūrkha-jana-cittam ārādhayet.
thirsty, you may succeed in drinking the waters of the mirage,
perhaps, if you go far enough, you'll find a rabbit’s horn,
but you'll never satisfy a fool who’s set in his opinions!
Mandākrāntā (“The Slow-stepper”):
4 × 17 −−−−¦⏑⏑⏑⏑⏑−¦−⏑−−⏑−⏓.
An example of this metre is from Kālidāsa’s Meghadhūta:
Sthitvā tasmin vanacara-vadhū-bhukta-khuñje muhūrtaṁ,
toyotsarga-drutatara-gatis tatparaṁ vartma tīrṇaḥ,
Revām drakṣyasy upala-viṣame Vindhya-pāde viśīrṇām,
bhakti-cchedair iva viracitāṁ bhūtim aṅge gajasya.
then press on with faster pace, having shed your load of water,
and you'll see the Narmadā river, scattered in torrents, by the rugged rocks at the foot of the Vindhyas,
looking like the plastered pattern of stripes on the flank of an elephant.
Śikhariṇī (“The Excellent Lady”):
4 × 17 ⏑−−−−−¦⏑⏑⏑⏑⏑−−⏑⏑⏑⏓.
example: Bharthari, Vairāgyaśataka, 82.
Yad' āsid ajñānaṁ smara-timira-saṁskāra-janitaṁ
tadā dṣṭaṁ nārī-mayam idam aśeṣaṁ jagad api.
Idānīṁ asmākaṁ paṭutara-vivekāñjana-juṣāṁ
samībhūtā dṣṭis tribhuvanam api Brahma manute.
I thought the world completely made of women,
but now my eyes are cleansed with the salve of wisdom,
and my clear vision sees only God in everything.
Hariṇī (“The Doe”):
4 × 17 ⏑⏑⏑⏑⏑−¦−−−−¦⏑−⏑⏑−⏑⏓.
example: from a panegyric of King Pulakeśin II Cālukya in an inscription at Aihole, Hyderābād, composed by Ravikīrti and dated A.D. 634 (EI vi, 8ff.).
Apara-jaladher Lakṣmīṁ yasmin Purīṁ Purabhit-prabhe
mada-gaja-ghaṭākārair nāvāṁ śatair avamdnati
jalanidhir iva vyoma vyomnaḥ samo 'bhavad ambudhiḥ.
with hundreds of ships, like elephants in rut,
the dark blue sky, scattered with hosts of heavy clouds,
looked like the sea, and the sea looked like the sky.
Śārdūla-vikrīḍita (“The Tiger’s Sport”):
4 × 19 −−−⏑⏑−⏑−⏑⏑⏑−¦−−⏑−−⏑⏓.
example: Bharthari, Śṅgāraśataka, 12
Keśaḥ saṁyaminaḥ, śruter api paraṁ pāraṁgate locane,
cāntarvaktram api svabhāva-sucibhiḥ kīrṇaṁ dvijānāṁ gaṇaiḥ,
muktānāṁ satatādhivāsa-ruciraṁ vakṣoja-kumbhadvayaṁ
cetthaṁ tanvi vapuḥ praśāntam api te kṣobham karoty eva naḥ.
your mouth filled with ranks of teeth that are white by nature,
your breasts charmingly adorned with a necklace of pearls,
slim girl, your body, though at rest, disturbs me.
Sragdharā (“The Girl with a Garland”):
4 × 21 −−−−⏑−−¦⏑⏑⏑⏑⏑⏑−¦−⏑−−⏑−⏓.
example: Bāṇa, The Deeds of Harṣa
Pascād aṅghriṁ prasārya, trika-nati-vitataṁ, drāghayitvāṅgam uccair,
āsajyābhugna-kaṇṭho mukham urasi, saṭā dhūli-dhūmrā vidhūya,
ghāsa-grāsābhilāṣād anavarata-calat-protha-tuṇḍas turaṅgo,
mandaṁ śabdāyamāno, vilikhati, śayanād utthitaḥ, kṣmāṁ khurena.
Curving his neck, he rests his muzzle of his chest, and tosses his dust-grey mane.
The steed, his nostrils ceaselessly quivering with desire of fodder,
rises from his bed, gently whinnies, and paws the earth with his hoof.
Kurvann ābhugna-pṣṭho mukha-nikaṭa-katiḥ khandarām ā tiraścīm
lolenāhanyamānaṁ tuhina-kaṇa-mucā cañcatā kesareṇa
nidrā-kaṇḍū-kaṣāyaṁ kaṣati, niviḍita-śrota-śuktis, turaṅgas
tvaṅgat-pakṣmāgra-lagna-pratanu-busa-kaṇam koṇaṁ akṣṇaḥ khureṇa.
and then the horse, the curls matted about his ears,
rubs with his hoof the red corner of his eye, itching from sleep,
his eye, struck by his dewdrop-scattering mane, waving and tossing,
his eye, to the point of whose quivering eyelash there clings a tiny fragment of chaff.
In a few rather rare metres the first and third quarters differ in length from the second and fourth. The commonest of these was Puṣpitāgrā:
2 × (12 + 13) ⏑⏑⏑⏑⏑⏑−⏑−⏑−⏓¦
example: introductory verse to the lyric of Jayadeva’s Gīta Govinda:
“Aham iha nivasāmi. Yāhi Rādhām,
anunaya madvacanena c' ānayethāḥ”,
Iti Madhuripuṇā sakhī niyuktā,
svayam idam etya punar jagāda Rādhām.
console her with my message, and bring her to me.”
Thus the foe of Madhu commissioned her friend,
who went in person, and spoke to Rādhā thus...
As well as metres of this type there are others, the scansion of which is based on the number of syllabic instants (mātrā) in each quarter-verse. The most common of these is Āryā (“The Lady”). This is divided into feet, each containing four instants, counting a prosodically short syllable as one and a long syllable as two instants (i.e. −−, −⏑⏑, ⏑−⏑, ⏑⏑−, or ⏑⏑⏑⏑). The first quarter of the Āryā stanza contains three such feet; the second, four and a half; the third, three, and the fourth three and a half, with an extra short syllable after the second foot. The whole of Hāla’s Saptaśataka is written in this metre; for example:
sottuṁ diṇṇāi jāi pahiassa.
Tāi ccea pahāe
ajjā āaḍḍhaï ruantī.
straw for his bed.
This morning she gathers it together,
The metres employed by Jayadeva in his Gīta Govinda are exceptional, although imitated by later poets. They are no doubt borrowed from popular song. The stanzas of the (following) lyric, excluding the refrain, consist of four quarters of nine, eight, nine and ten syllables respectively, all of which are short except the last rhyming syllable in the first and third quarters and the penultimate in the second and fourth.
Harir udayatu suktena.
Tava virahe vanmālī sakhi sīdati.
of the deeds of the parted lover,
may Hari arise in the hearts full of zeal.
He is grieved at seperation from you, decked with his forest garland.
The prosody of Tamil poetry differs considerably from that of Sanskrit. In Tamil the basic unit is the “metrical syllable” (aśai), which may be a single syllable or a long syllable preceded by a short one. Two, three or four of these form a foot, of which a line of poetry may contain from two to six or occasionally more. Complicated rules, which cannot be discussed here, much restrict the order of syllables and feet in the line.
last updated: August 2005