‘Rajatharangini’ review: A Sanskrit classic from Kashmir revisited in Malayalam

Owing to the pervasive distraction of COVID-19, Malayalam readers may have missed a notable event: the first translation into their language of a 12th century Sanskrit classic, Rajatarangini . It is by late Vidwan T.K. Raman Menon, an erudite scholar in both Sanskrit and Malayalam during his time.

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Rajatarangini was composed by Kalhana, scion of a noble family of Kashmir. Among other things that fall within its wide sweep, the work contains references not only to such things as the country’s episodic encounters with China across the border, but also to the depredations of Mahmud Ghazni in Kashmir’s neighbourhood around 1013 that portended the eventual Islamic conquest of Kashmir, the land variously heirs to the spiritual heritage of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain faiths. Such striking historical details aside, the preeminent fact is that Kalhana’s is a literary text of extraordinary merit. It has multiple dimensions, such as the aureole of antiquity, the grandeur of epic, the cachet of Sanskritic literary canons, the singular distinction as an ancient Indian historical chronicle and the uniqueness that it embodies as representation of a vital part of Indian selfhood. As history of Kashmir, it has its undoubted deficiencies in terms of conventional chronology and the complex tapestry of myth and legend that it has largely woven together as content, but then Rajatarangini is more aptly described as meta history. And with that touchstone, Kalhana’s work can truly lay claim to an important place in world literature itself. Its apt choice of kavya (poetry), as felicitously described by Shonaleeka Kaul, makes for a versatile and flexible mode that can entertain the mythic and the folk alongside classical and conventionalised registers of imagination and representation.

Several interpretations

Rajatarangini ’s first translation into a foreign language was as long ago as in the first decade of the 13th century, by Haidar Malik into Persian. After that, the English translation appeared under the aegis of the Asiatic Society in 1835 and the French translation in 1852. Among the renowned translations of the work in later years were those by Aurel Stein in 1900 and by Ranjit S. Pandit in 1935, the latter with a Foreword by Jawaharlal Nehru. The Hindi translation of Pandeya Ram Tej is another well-acclaimed book.

But oddly enough, no translation of the work into Malayalam had been attempted all this time until Raman Menon, a scholar and author of numerous books in Malayalam including an extensive commentary of Ramcharitmanas , accomplished it in 1969. And 40 years after his passing, the translation has now been brought into publication thanks to the zealous efforts of a few lovers of classical literature. The book has a magisterial Foreword by Puthezhath Raman Menon, a considerable figure in Malayalam literature and a contemporary of the translator.

In the legacy of Sanskrit, Kashmir and Kerala can be said to have a unique fellowship of literary creativity, with icons like Bilhana and Somadeva in Kashmir and Shankara and Narayana Bhattathiri in Kerala. The polar ends of the subcontinent that these two regions represent have been lyrically evoked in the familiar poetic description of ‘himavatsethuparyanthaam’. In our own time, the Kashmiri Sanskrit scholar and former diplomat A.N.D. Haksar captured the mystique of India’s coordinates in this couplet: Kashmira Kerala paryanthaamganatantrenashasssitam, Rakshayantujanaasarve, ekachhatramimaammaheem (From Kashmir to Kerala extending and governed by democracy, may all the people protect this land’s sovereign unity).

Unique bond

Indeed, in the imagined community of multilingual India, Sanskritic culture is the one indissoluble bond between Kashmir and Kerala, forever sanctified by the epoch-making mission of Kerala’s Shankaracharya, the enunciator of Advaita philosophy. The long and arduous journey of the great saint across the country to Kashmir, punctuated by philosophical debates with peers and concurrent composition of immortal commentaries on the Hindu texts, is part of India’s sacred history. And for another, Sarvagnana Peetha in Srinagar where Shankaracharya was enthroned is the one mystic chord of tradition that has endured in the Keralite imagination of Kashmir.

In this backdrop, the Malayalam translation called Rajatharangini promises to arouse a great deal of interest among readers. It joins a long catalogue of such translations from Sanskrit beginning with that of Kautilya’s Arthashastra , one of the first in the history of Malayalam literature.

Kavya as a genre has had a prominent place in traditional Malayalam poetics, so the austere aesthetics of Kalhana’s work will strike a chord with readers, particularly those with a yen for that stimulating mixture of Sanskrit and Malayalam of yore, termed Manipravala. Its heyday was the 13th and 14th centuries, broadly the period straddling the phase of Sanskrit literature to which Rajatarangini belongs.

Raman Menon’s translation attempts to preserve the essential characteristics of the original by adopting the Manipravalam diction. The result is an exposure to the ineffable delights of Sanskritised Malayalam, an edifying experience in itself. Raman Menon’s translation bears the signature of his scholarly skills, derived from mastery of both Sanskrit and Malayalam. Like other translations of the work, it is in prose. Compared to translations in other languages, Raman Menon’s craft is remarkable for its lucidity and elegance.

Rajatharangini ; Vidwan T.K. Raman Menon, Priyadarshini Publication Society, ₹1,200.

The reviewer is a former diplomat.

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Printable version | Jul 19, 2022 1:08:57 pm |