Kamadeva’s arrows of love were made of flowers. His divine commander was vasanta (spring),
who brought the trees and flowers into blossom and softened all creation for the sweet, irresistible
attack of the god of love.
This nature-god is most in tune with India’s Classical Age (roughly, the first thousand years AD), a
time when the land was dominated by forests teeming with bird and animal life, and the human
population was comparatively small and scattered. Countless kingdoms, large and small, made up
the rich bejewelled pattern of India. Around the kings palace or fort grew small towns and bazaars
and caravanserais for travellers, but just outside the city gates there was considerable verdure, with
areas of cultivation fringing the great forests. This was a fit setting for the great legends and romances
of gods and heroes and heroines. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata belonged to the earlier, Epic
Age, but they provided stories that continued to be told and retold, culminating in Kalidasa’s great
verse-drama, Shakuntala, written in the early years of the new millennium. The great achievement of
Shakuntala is in part due to its creator’s love of nature. He is at his best in the lyrical passages
describing the flora and fauna of the land. Shakuntala herself is half bird, her name being derived
from the shakuntas or birds with which she held such easy converse.
Shakuntala is romantic and escapist, but this is not always the case with other writings of the period.
The Classical Age saw the flourishing of the Sanskrit language, with an outpouring of poetry and
drama. And Kamadeva was no chubby, infant Cupid. He was a mischievous, dexterous, youthful
deity. His presence, visible or invisible, is felt in almost every story, love poem or prose work.
The literature of love and the literature of love—making are different. In the stories, poems and
extracts presented here we find passion, desire, tenderness, jealousy, sensuality, even platonic love.
But the art of love—making, described so inexhaustibly (exhaustingly?) in Vatsayana’s Kamasutra
(fourth century AD) does not really fall in the purview of this collection. It is not so much a story as a
manual of sexual prowess. And it is easily available everywhere in many handsome editions.
In making this selection, I was looking for love literature that was not too well-known but which,
nevertheless, was of high quality. Naturally I drew upon legend and folklore, of which there is a fair
sampling; upon recent translations of classical Sanskrit, Tamil and Kannada literature; upon retellings
from the epics; and upon some of the formative literature of the last century. Even then, I felt that
something was missing—some tantalizing fragment, forgotten, neglected, unknown to me (and
probably to the general reader) and which in some way sought to draw attention to itself.
Can a book draw attention to itself? Can an author reach out across the centuries, tap you on the
shoulder, and say, ‘Don’t forget me. I, too, had something to say on the subject. The idea is fanciful.
Scholars search and discover, but I’m no scholar, I wait for the lucky find.
And as luck would have it—or perhaps the mischievous Kamadeva, who has often numbered me
among his victims, came to my rescue—I chanced upon a copy of E. Powys -Mathers’ English
version (1927) of the Kuttanimayam of Damodaragupta, and the love poems of two Sanskrit poets,
Amaru and Mayura, also translated by Mathers.
The story ‘The Loves of Haralata and Sundarasena’ is taken from Damodaragupta’s little—known
work, written in the eighth century AD. Nothing seems to be known of the author; and this appears
to be but a fragment of his output. It is based on Louis de Langle’s French translation.
When this story was written, we are told, the condition of the wife was negligible. She passed, at a
far too early age, from the authority of the mother to that of her mother—in—law. She was despised
if she remained childless; and, if she became a widow, she was not expected to survive her
The courtesan could only benefit from the wife’s lack independence. Her liberty was apparently
protected by ‘law; she could give or refuse herself. She was often able to obtain an education denied
to the wife, and this education as both an attraction and a protection. She became more and more
the ideal——‘the one for whom to commit immortal fo1lies’.
And yet, wrote Louis de Langle, ‘Being at once both sensual and a mystic, the Hindu always asked
too much of very luxurious circumstance, an agitation of passion ...he also expected sincerity and
love. His too intense desire overleapt its object, and then reason proclaimed that object. be
I think this helps us to know a little more about Damodaragupta’s thinking, and to reconcile his
savage bitterness with the tenderness running through his story.
Amaru was held in great esteem as a poet of the phases love: desire and attainment, estrangement
and reconciliation, joy and sorrow. He was one of the supreme early lyric poets of India. He lived
around AD 800. There is a legend that Amaru was the hundred and first reincarnation of a soul
which had previously occupied a hundred women. From a reading of his poems we can see how this
legend might have arisen!
Mayura, who flourished in the first half of the seventh century, was a favourite of King Harsha (AD
606-647), but only a few erotic fragments of his work remain. The poems of Amaru and Mayura
come from the Powys Mathers volume on ‘Eastern Love’.
To turn to other works that add lustre to this collection, the recent translation by T.R.S. Sharma of
Janna’s Kannada classic, Tale of the Glory—Bearer, is represented by an extract which tells the
story of the unfaithful queen who had an affair with a mahout, reputed to be the ugliest man in the
kingdom. Physical deformities pale into insignificance when the chemistry between two people is just
Janna was a Jain poet of the twelfth and thirteenth century AD. He was the chief court poet of the
Hoysala King, Veeraballala. Versions of this story are also found in Sanskrit, Hindi, Gujarati and
The Tamil classic, Shilappadikaram (The Ankle Bracelet) by Prince Ilango Adigal, in the translation
by Alain Danielou, is evocative in its descriptions of life in ancient India. The author was a Jain prince
of the third century. Included in this selection is an extract from his verse epic in which he tells the
story of young Kovalan who leaves his loyal wife Kannaki for the courtesan Madhavi. But the law
of karma governs our lives, and Kovalam dies as a result of his infidelity.
Somadeva’s Kathasaritsagar is a treasure-trove of stories, as its title ‘Ocean of Stories’ suggests.
Worldly pleasure and power are the principal themes of this work. Arshia Sattar’s recent translation
from the Sanskrit provides the story ‘The Courtesan Who Fell in Love’.
In going through some nineteenth century retellings of legend and folklore, I have made selections
from The Indian Antiquary which was edited in the 1880s and 1890s by Lt. Col. Sir Richard
Temple. This learned journal brought together some wonderful tales from Punjab, Kashmir, Bengal,
Gujarat, and other parts of western, central and southern India. Contributors to these now rare
volumes Included Flora Annie Steel, Putlibai Wadia, and G.H.; Damant. Damant was a Deputy
Commissioner of the Naga Hills who fell victim to the rebel Mozema Nagas during an uprising of that
tribe in October 1879. Flora Annie Steel’ married a member of the Indian Civil Service and came to
India in 1868. Her best known novel was On the Face of the, waters (1896), a balanced study of
the 1857 uprising. Her tales from the Punjab (1894) was a unique collection of retellings of oral
Another civil servant who interested himself in Indian history and folklore was C.A. Kincaid. His
many books included Deccan Nursery Tales and A History of the Maratha People. In his Tales of
Old Ind he retold many of the romantic love stories of Sindh, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Punjab. Of the
stories presented here, ‘Momul and Rano’ and ‘Umar and Marai’ are Sindhi in origin. ‘Hir and
Ranjho’ - and ‘Suhni and Mehar’ come from the Punjab.
In 1920, Shovana Devi (all I have is her name) brought but a little volume called Tales of the Gods,
which gives us brief but charming renderings of some of the well—known tales from the epics,
including the Shakuntala legend. (Kalidasa’s verse drama is too long for inclusion here, and an
extract would not have done justice to this seven-act play. But included is this great Sanskrit poet’s
other famous work, Meghadutam (The Cloud-Messenger) in the translation by Chandra Rajan. A
lover—beloved relationship it implied between the earth and her cloud—lover, and the world
sustaining cloud also acts as a foil to the poem’s hero, the passionate, love-sick yaksha.
Back of the Book
A compilation of love stories and poems from the classical literature and folklore of India.
Set in regions of great natural beauty where Kamadeva, the god of love, picks his victims
with consummate ease, these stories and lyrics celebrate the myriad aspects of love. In addition to
relatively well-known works like Kalidasa’s Meghadutam and Prince Ilango Adigal’s
Shilappadikaram, the collection features lesser-known writers of ancient India like Damodaragupta
(eighth century AD), whose ‘Loves of Haralata and Sundarasena’ is about a high-born man’s
doomed affair with a courtesan; Janna (twelfth century), whose Tale of the Glory-Bearer is extracted
here for the story of a queen whose betrays her handsome husband for a mahout, reputed to be the
ugliest man in the kingdom; and the Sanskrit poets Amaru and Mayura (seventh century), whose
lyrics display an astonishing perspective on the tenderness, the fierce passion and the playful
savagery of physical love. Also featured are charming stories of Hindu gods and goddesses in love,
and nineteenth-century retellings of folk tales from different regions of the country like Kashmir,
Punjab, Maharashtra and Rajasthan.
Both passionate and sensuous in its content, this book is sure to appeal to the romantic in
all of us.
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