Imagining The Urban (Sanskrit and the City in Early India)

Item Code: NAG477
Author: Shonaleeka Kaul
Publisher: Permanent Black
Language: English
Edition: 2010
ISBN: 9788178242781
Pages: 292 (20 B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 8.5 inch X 5.5 inch
Weight 470 gm
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Book Description
About the Book

When you think of India's ancient cities, you think of khaki archaeologists digging crumbling structures out of ancient mud. Urban spheres, Irom this perspective, often look as dull as the dust from which they emerge.

But the early Indian city wasn't like that at all, says Shonaleeka Kaul: it was certainly not only brickand-mortar, nor merely an agglomeration of built up space. In Sanskrit literature these cities were alive, vibrant, teeming with variety, Kaul examines Samkrit kavyas over about a thousand years to see what India's early historic cities were like as living, lived-in, entities. She looks at ideologies, altitudes, institutions, and practices in ancient urban areas, showing the ways in which they often cohered into a world view, a mentalite.

'Ihis is also a book about Sanskrit literature. Scholars have long argued for a nuanccd use of literary texts to achieve a more rounded understanding of ancient history, and Kaul achieves exactly that. She takes forward the idea of a Sanskrit 'literary culture', arguing that genres influence methods of historical representation. Her book gives us a fresh view of the early city, showing distinctive urban ways of thought and behaviour which relate in complex w.iys to tradition, morality, and authority. In advocating Sanskrit kavyas an important historical source, it addresses not just ancient India specialists bur also scholars of literary history: the kavyas rework history, says Kaul, providing us with 'transhistoricity' rather than 'ahistoricity.

By asking new questions about early Indian cities and ancient Indian texts, this book asks to be read by every scholar of history, urban ism, cityscapcs, literary history, Sanskrit writings, and South Asian antiquity.

About the Author

Shonaleeka Kaul teaches in the Department of History, University of Delhi. She was at Jawaharlal Nehru University for her PhD. As part of visiting faculty, she has also taught at Yale.


Imagining the Urban was first conceived more than a decade before it came to be written. Considering I had barely entered my teens then, this calls for explanation. My fascination with cities in early India, and with Sanskrit culture, started with a television serial telecast on Doordarshan. Chandra Prakash Dwivedi's Chanakya made an impression on me, as it did on many people, for its directorial soundness, gravity of content, and chaste, eloquent dialogues. But it was its representation of the city, mostly Mauryan Pataliputra, the locale for the exciting developments that issued forth from the Machiavellian yet moralistic mind of Chandragupta Maurya's prime minister, that took me into a different world, a world from long ago. That early urban ethos, and a desire to revisit it, stayed with me, and must have mingled with my fondness for Sanskrit and its beautiful imagination, which developed at about the same time in school.

Years later, when actually conceiving of a project for my PhD, it occurred to me that I could pursue my romantic inclinations and bring together the city and Sanskrit texts. This I did, and Imagining the Urban is based on the thesis that was granted the doctoral degree by Jawaharlal Nehru University GNU) in 20056. As if its purely personal and temperamental origins were not enough, it so happened that this book was thought about and written down too in suitably unacademic environs: more while I was in the kitchen, bathroom, and garden than when in any library or office! Retrospectively, that seems appropriate, since for me history, the discipline, has been a private, individual experience; its rigour a personal satisfaction, its discoveries selfedification. And I can't help believe that this is a nice, intimate way to feel about and go about a subject otherwise notorious as scholarly, heavy, and boring.

At JNU I was fortunate to work under someone who gave me the freedom and the confidence to explore and chart the untraversed terrain my project entailed. This was my supervisor at the Centre for Historical Studies, Professor B.D. Chattopadhyaya. The thesis evolved under his affectionate and enriching guidance. It was a privilege and pleasure working with him.

My co-supervisor, Professor Kunal Chakrabarti, was kind and a constant source of cheerful encouragement. I am grateful to him for valuable suggestions. To Professor Upinder Singh, whom I have known from the time I was her student at St Stephen's College, this book and I owe deep gratitude. She read and commented on the manuscript and asked many questions, my answers to which went on to refine and fill out the theoretical premises of the book. She has provided me great support.

Professors Sheldon Pollock and Phyllis Granoff read a couple of papers on aspects of my research. My uncle, Professor A.N. Kaul, read the thesis. Their responses were most encouraging. Rukun Advani, this book's editor and publisher, made my foray into publication easy. The subtitle to the book is his contribution, as is much else. Andrew More, my former student at Yale University, accessed and scanned the images for this book at very short notice.

The libraries I accessed are: Central Library at JNU, Lady Sri Ram College Library, National Museum Library, Department Special Assistance Library of the Centre for Historical Studies at JNU, and the India International Centre Library. The Indian Council of Historical Research financed a part of this study through their junior research fellowship. Acknowledgements for the illustrations in chapter one are due to Ananda K. Coomaraswamy: Essays in Early Indian Architecture, ed. Michael Meister (Delhi: IGNCA-OUP, 1992).

This book would not have been possible-and indeed nothing in my life would have been possible-but for my father. A brave, persevering, immensely loving and lovable man. A man of singular intelligence, integrity, and independence; humour and good cheer. He was my life, my world. This book would have meant more to him than to anyone else. I miss him very much even as I realize how he lives on in my sister and me.

My sister, Devika, the gentlest of souls, has showered me with affection. She is a real literature person and it is from her that I picked up a love of reading, even as she did from our father.

Tulip, my little black dog, has seen me through thick and thin. She is my close companion and were it not for her exemplary forbearance and considerateness, I could not have got any work done! Julie, Lizzu, Bhuri, Makki, and Bazki are other doggy friends who've over the years infused me with life by their sheer presence.

I acknowledge also a number of (human) friends who shall remain nameless here but whose faith in me has given me faith in myself.


The city in history has had not only a spatial existence but an ideational one-an existence in the realm of ideas. It has elicited and gathered around itself notions, images, and associations. These ideas of the city are as material a part of the story of urban space as the tangible structures and systems that inhabit or delimit it on the ground. Based on literary perceptions, and drawing on more than two dozen Sanskrit kavyas of the first millennium CE, this book sets out to capture the idea of the city in early India.

"Kavya" means literature as a form of art, as distinct from scripture (agama), history (itihasa), and technical treatise (sastra). In keeping with the usage in Bharata's Natyasastra and Bhamaha's Kavyalamkara-the earliest extant works on poetics in the Sanskrit tradition-kavya includes, contrary to popular understanding, not only poetry (sargabandha or mahakavya) but also drama (natya), tale (katha), and biography (akhyayika). This area of Sanskrit creative and narrative literature has not yet attracted the historian's serious and sustained interest. I explore this realm in search of literary renderings of the early Indian experience of urbanism: ways of "seeing" and "thinking"-imagining-the city which were peculiar to a prodigious genre of literature of that period. The title of this book refers not to the imaginary but the imaginative representation of urbanism, that is, a creative as well as imagistic rendering, but not an unreal or fantastic one. It can also serve a double purpose: the sense of "social imaginary", which is a set of values, institutions, and meanings common to a particular society as perceived by a social subject-in this case a literary culture. Textual representations can conceptually organize space, and this book is an enquiry into the literary production and projection of urban space in early India.


Not all Sanskrit kavyas treat of the city significantly, but from the large number that do I have selected a list that, without being exhaustive, is widely representative. The more than two dozen texts from the first millennium CE that I have used are given below in order of chronology. Information on their background, and on their types and plots, follows this Introduction (see Appendix 1: The Kavyas). This is intended to give a sense of the literature as well as serve the function of an annotated Dramatis Personae, helping readers to relate to the incidents and references that populate this book.

The kavyas to which this study refers are Asvaghosa's Buddhacarita and Saundarananda, both epic poems and the earliest complete specimens of the genre (first-second century); Aryasura's jatakamala, poetic prose (second-third century); Bhasa's Avimaraka, Balacarita, and Carudatta, plays of different types (second-third century); Sudraka's Mrcchakatika, a prakarana play (third-fifth century); Kalidasa's Meghaduta, Rtusamhara, and Raghuvamsa, mahakavyas or epic poems, and Abhijnanasakuntala. Malavikagnimitra, and Vikramorvasiya, nataka plays (fourth-fifth century); Visakhadatta's Mudraraksasa, a nataka play (fifthsixth century); the caturbhani or four monologue plays, namely, Vararuci's Ubhayabhisarika, Isvaradatta's Dhurtavitasamvada, Sudraka's Padmaprabhrtaka, and Saumilaka's Padataditaka (fifthsixth century); Subandhu's Vasavadatta, an akhyayika or biographical tale (sixth century); Mahendravarman's Mattavilasaprahasana, a farce (seventh century); Bana's Kadambari, a katha or tale, and Harsacarita, an akhyayika (seventh century); Magha's Sisupalavadha, an epic poem (seventh century); Dandin's Dasakumaracarita, a tale (seventh-eighth century); Bhavabhuti's Malatimadhava, a prakarana play (eighth century); Vijaya's Kaumudimahotsava, a nataka play (eighth century); and Damodaragupta's Kuttanimata, a satirical prose-poem (ninth century).

Little by way of background is known with certainty about most of these works. Dates, provenance, even authorship at times, have been attributed by historians of Sanskrit literature with tentativeness and an element of speculation. This is because, with the exception of the likes of Bana's Harsacarita-a work that gives a lengthy biographical sketch of the poet associating him with a known historical king-the kavyas adopt a general silence about their creators.' However, in this book I am primarily interested in looking into the narrative content of the texts and exploring thematically the logic of the urban depictions contained in them. It suffices to know that the texts listed, belonging to the first millennium CE, lie within the orbit of the classical kavya movement. Kavyas continued to be composed after the first millennium, and several important theoretical works on poetics were also written after this period, at the beginning of the second millennium. However, it can safely be maintained that kavya experienced its highest efflorescence within the first eight or nine centuries of the Common Era.

Apart from the brief definition which I have given of it, the kavya genre deserves a full explication, particularly in its role as a historical source. So I will say more a little later about what this generic movement of sorts signified; and that will also reveal why the specific background of individual texts and their authors or provenances may be largely redundant to understanding their vision.

In addition to the "pure" kavyas, I look at other texts and material that provide a contrastive, often elucidating context to the city images gleaned from kavyas. I have included in my study the Mahabharata (400 BCE-400 CE) which, though not a kavya, shares an important attribute of several kavyas in being narrative literature par excellence. The Mahabharata's main line of narration frequently takes us to cities. The Ramayana (500 BCE-300 CE), which may be regarded as close to the sargabandha kavya style and is also known within the Sanskrit tradition as adikavya-the "original kavya"-dwells at length on cities. Moreover, though the composition of these two epics started in the last half of the first millennium BCE, it continued well into the period of the I have also referred to certain major normative/prescriptive/ technical texts from across the millennium which have a bearing on different aspects of cities. The Arthasastra (third century BCE-third century CE), Kautilya's seminal treatise on statecraft; the Kamasutra (fourth century CE), a defining exposition on sexual pleasure by Mallanaga Vatsyayana: and the Mayamata (ninth-twelfth century CE), a text on architecture attributed to Mayamuni, have been discussed at places to fortify the interpretive effort. In the same way archaeological, epigraphic, and art evidence has also been visited, mostly in the first two chapters and the appendix on archaeology (see Appendix 2: The Archaeological Picture).

The enterprise at hand poses a number of challenges, partly on account of the nature of the sources being drawn upon, and partly because this kind of textual exercise has not been attempted before on this scale for early India. A discussion of the issues involved will substantiate and clarify the project. But before I go into those, it will be useful to develop a perspective on the themes and approaches that have dominated the historiography of early Indian urbanism, and where the present work stands in relation to those.


Preface and Acknowledgementsix
A Note on Texts, Translations, and Citationsxiii
The Sources2
Historiographical Trends So Far5
The Case for Kavyas15
The Method18
The Social Location of the Kavyas21
The Transhistoricity of the Kavyas31
The Study in Outline34
Appendix 1: The Kavyas39
The External Structure of the City51
Defining the Limits of the City65
Glimpses of Settlement Geography79
The Planned City and Its Layout86
The Royal Road92
The Royal Palace96
Residential Buildings99
Non-residential Buildings107
The Marketplace108
The Sacred Landscape112
Sights, Sounds, and Smells in the City114
Appendix 2: The Archaeological Picture121
The Man-About-Town131
The Libertine139
The Courtesan143
The Family Woman153
The Ascetic161
The Brahrnana169
The King174
Kama Culture and the Social Order195
Imaging the City209
Wealth and Poverty213
Deception and Intrigue223
Urban Ideologies226
Cities of the Ramayana235
"Others" of the City240
Aesthetics and the Urban Ethos251
Questions of Legitimacy253

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