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Having Silenced the Silver: Anonymous

From: Manoa
Volume 25, Issue 2, 2013
pp. 4-6 | 10.1353/man.2013.0057

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

kṛtvā nūpuramūkatāṃ caraṇayoḥ saṃyamya nīvīmaṇīn
    uddāmadhvanipiṇḍitān parijane kiṃcinna nidrāyite
kasmai kupyasi yāvad asmi calitā tāvad vidhi preritaḥ
    kāśmīrīkucakumbhasaṃbhramaharaḥ śītāṃśurabhy udyataḥ

  • kṛtvā. having made

  • nūpura. anklets

  • mūkatāṃ. silent

  • caraṇayoḥ. on my feet

  • saṃyamya. having bound

  • nīvī. sash, cloth waistband

  • maṇīn. jewels

  • uddāma. unrestrained, noisy

  • haraḥ dhvani. noise, roar

  • piṇḍitān. cluster

  • parijane. company of people

  • kiṃcinna. somehow

  • nidrāyite. made (or watched) them go to sleep

  • kasmai. why

  • kupyasi. are you angry

  • yāvat [and] tāvat. right then, just when

  • asmi. I was

  • calitā. set forth

  • vidhi. (voc.) O Fate

  • preritaḥ. you drove, impelled

  • kāśmīrī. (like a) Kashmiri girl’s (this and the following words through haraḥ are a bv. cmpd. with moon)

  • kuca-kumbha. breast

  • saṃbhrama-haraḥ. over my path (literally, obstructing my path)

  • śītāṃśurabhi. white, cold moon

  • udyataḥ. up-risen

Having silenced the silver
chains at my ankles,
bound up the noisy
jewels on my waistband,
and watched the nearby
households go to sleep—
Fate, why are you angry?
I’d just set forth
when you spurred the cold
new-risen moon, bright
as a Kashmiri girl’s breast,
over the open road.

The speaker sets out for a perilous night meeting with her lover, a theme depicted in countless Indian miniature paintings. The anonymous poet uses sharp syllables driven by ū and ī, which sound like the clinking of jewelry: nūpura-mūkatām and nīvī-maṇīn. They highlight the contrast between the care the young woman takes to muffle her bright ornaments, and the vulnerability of her moonlit form. Seeing the cold bright moon as a pale girl’s breast excites in the poem both desire and the woman’s heightened fear, lest she be discovered.

This poem is from one of the significant Sanskrit anthologies, the Subhāṣitaratnakoṣa (Anthology of Poetry Gems), a collection of 1,738 lyrics distributed through fifty thematic chapters. The editor, Vidyākara, was a twelfth-century Buddhist abbot of Jagaddala monastery, in Bengal. A man of wide and varied tastes, he showed no qualms about including openly erotic poems in his collection. Flanked by chapters on the seasons, on Buddha, on various Indic deities, and on wealth, poverty, fame, and so forth, the core chapters focus on the phases or seasons of erotic love.

Vidyākara’s anthology was entirely lost until this century, when two explorers, a few years apart, happened upon a readable twelfth-century palm-leaf manuscript, probably Vidyākara’s personal copy. They each found it in a barn at the Ngor monastery in Tibet, about a day’s journey by foot from Shigatse. Jagaddala monastery was destroyed during Muslim incursions around 1207 CE. Its last abbot, Śakśrībhadra, may have fled to Tibet in 1204. He would have carried books, mementos from former abbots, images, and other monastic treasures for preservation. Most likely he took with him Vidyākara’s manuscript.

The manuscript resurfaced first in 1934, happened on by Rahula Sankrityayana, an Indian pandit and good scholar of Sanskrit who was possibly traveling through Tibet as a British spy. A few years later Giuseppe Tucci, the noted Italian art collector and scholar of Buddhism, came across the same manuscript. Each managed to produce, under challenging conditions, photographic plates of very poor quality (“execrable,” says one account), and to transport them out of Tibet.

The palm-leaf manuscript has not been seen again. It held about a thousand poems. A copy of the same anthology, this one produced on paper and housed in Kathmandu, holds 1,728 poems, leading Daniel H. H. Ingalls (who translated the entire collection) to speculate that Vidyākara worked on the manuscript for years. The copy in the monastery at Ngor would have been an early version, a work in progress.

The way Vidyākara’s book surfaced eighty years ago after nearly a thousand years, but has not been seen since, seems a fitting emblem of the tattered, fragmentary nature of Sanskrit poetry.

Andrew Schelling  

Andrew Schelling, born in 1953 at St...

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