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

  • Rain Slants Steadily
  • Translated by Andrew Schelling (bio)

ambhomucāṃ salilamudgiratāṃ niśithetāḍīvaneṣu nibhṛtasthitakarṇatālāḥākarṇayanti karino'rdhanimīlitākṣādhārāravaṃ daśanakoṭiniṣaṇṇahastāḥ

  • ambho-mucāṃ. (bv. cmpd.) water-releasers (clouds)

  • salilam-udgiratāṃ. (bv. cmpd.) rain-dischargers (clouds)

  • niśithe. in the night

  • tāḍī. toddy palms

  • vaneṣu. in the groves

  • nibhṛtasthitakarṇatālāḥ. (bv. cmpd.) the ones standing hidden who beat their ears

  • nibhṛta. hidden

  • sthita. standing

  • karṇa. ears

  • tālāḥ. rhythm (beat)

  • ākarṇayanti. (they) listen

  • karinaḥ. elephants

  • 'rdhanimīlitākṣā. (bv. cmpd.)

  • 'rdha. half

  • nimīlita. closed

  • ākṣā. eyes

  • dhārā. rain

  • ravaṃ. roar

  • daśanakoṭiniṣaṇṇahastāḥ. (bv. cmpd.)

  • daśana. tusk

  • koṭi. tips

  • niṣaṇṇa. settled, resting

  • hastāḥ. trunks [End Page 52]

Rain slants steadilythrough the night-boundtoddy-palm forest.Concealed by huge frondsthe elephants,eyes half open,    ears beating a slow rhythm and trunksslung over their tusk-tips,listen to the unbrokendownpour.

Nothing is known of Hastipaka, to whom the poem is attributed. The name means elephant keeper, mahout. No other poems show up with this name. In this sense, it might be an honorary title more than a name, speaking to the poem’s masterful imagery. The common Sanskrit terms for elephant refer to its trunk. Karin, in this poem, and hastin, both mean “having a hand,” references to the trunk’s dexterity. In Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book and in the animated Disney film based on it, the king elephant’s name is Hatha, a modern Hindustani derivative.

At one level the poem is a crisp snapshot of natural history. What a gripping detail: how the elephants sling their trunks over their tusk tips—a gesture that contrasts with their ears, which are tālāḥ (beating a rhythm). Tāla is the technical term for rhythmic cycles in Indian music, which the drummer establishes.

The anthology the poem appears in was compiled by Vidyākara, abbot of the Buddhist monastery of Jagaddala, in Bengal. It might be that one could add a second reading to the poem: it shows the meditative tranquility of the elephant—an image regularly used for the Buddha (or Buddha mind) in sculpture, friezes, and paintings. Was the poem iconic? Meant to invoke the buddhas, to depict wandering monks waiting out the rains in a forest retreat, or to embody a state of mind? To enter its cadence might be to enter a samādhi, the calm vigilance of elephant mind.

I’ll take the poem through one other realm. In ancient India a sympathetic magic held between elephants and rain clouds, a discussion of which appears in Heinrich Zimmer’s Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization. Elephants were once clouds, able to roam the skies. After an angry ascetic “grounded” a herd, humans saw elephants as close kin to the monsoon storm clouds, the ambho-mucāṃ (water-dischargers) of the poem. When a kingdom suffered drought in ancient times, an elephant would be brought to court to lure rain. [End Page 53]

If it refers to the kinship between elephants and rain, the origins of this poem, then, could have been spells, by which specialists (rainmakers) manipulated or conjured weather. Oral formulas might not require an elephant be present, only the right words. Evoking the necessary images through recitation or incantation would be enough. In that sense, the poet here is like a duck hunter who doesn’t need a decoy—he only needs to reproduce the mallard’s call. [End Page 54]

Andrew Schelling

Andrew Schelling, born in 1953 at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, Washington, D.C., has written, edited, or translated twenty books. Early opposition to American involvement in Vietnam, plus an encounter with India’s texts, set him on a lifelong engagement with Asian literature. He studied Sanskrit at the University of California at Berkeley, and began to translate from its classical poetry tradition around 1978. His first book, Dropping the Bow: Poems of Ancient India, received the Academy of American Poets translation award in 1992, the first time the Academy had honored work done from an Asian language. Schelling’s...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 52-54
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.