We think we know the story of King Harishchandra, a ruler who was generous, honourable and truthful to a fault, whose principles led him to lose everything he had. But we have never read or heard the story quite this way: the language is inspired, the canvas is vast, the women are beautiful, the animals are fierce, the sages are proud and the gods watch in wonder as the extraordinary tableau of a great king’s fall occurs before their eyes. And ours.
The Life of Harishchandra, Vanamala Viswanatha’s lucid, playful and sympathetic translation of Kannada poet Raghavanka’s Harishchandra Kavya, brings this medieval text to rich and vibrant life.
Raghavanka composed this masterpiece in the 13th century, in the lingering turbulence—linguistic, political and social—created by the Virashaiva movement. Writing in Kannada, Raghavanka adopted the elevated register of Sanskrit court poetry along with its tropes and images, but, as Viswanatha’s introduction points out, Raghavanka’s work participates in the subversive ideas that bhakti spawned in his locale.
The story of Harishchandra’s torments is set within a wager between the sages Vasishtha and Vishwamitra, part of their well-recorded personal rivalry. Vishwamitra says he will bring Vasishtha’s favourite to his knees, force him into a situation where he acts in a contemptible manner. As the wager plays out, we are treated to the most exquisite poetry, familiar in so many ways and yet imbued with a locality that reminds us we are reading Indian poetry from a regional geography and from a very specific caste hierarchy. We see the king at his best, he performs the bahusuvarnaka sacrifice, where immeasurable amounts of gold are given away, and the women, more beautiful than any you have known, dance and sway in gardens more lush and bounteous than you can imagine. As the king is wallowing in his glory, Vishwamitra strikes: he sends a plague of rampaging animals to attack Harishchandra’s subjects and the king must go on a hunt to control them.
As his hunters are decimated, Harishchandra chases down a wild boar who leads him to the sage’s hermitage, a place forbidden even to the storm winds. Vishwamitra sends two women from a low caste ( holatis , they are called in Kannada) to seduce the king. The king rejects them with arguments that remind us that classical ideas of kingship in India are fundamentally predicated on upholding the order of caste. Kings must maintain, in particular, the boundaries between the touchable and the untouchable. Harishchandra is Rama’s ancestor and we know that in his story, Rama too was called upon to respect a dharma that was rooted in the inflexible hierarchy of castes and their acceptable behaviours.
When Harishchandra spurns the holatis , they challenge the king thus: “The ears that enjoyed very note of our music are not defiled;/ the eyes that feasted on our shapely form are not defiled;/ the mouth that acclaimed our art is not defiled;/ the nose that smelled the fragrance of our bodies/ wafted by the gentle wind is not defiled./ How is it that only our touch is defiling?/ How is is that, among the five composite senses,/ one is superior and the other four inferior?” Harishchandra is defeated by their arguments and he beats them most violently, flaying the skin off their backs.
Viswanatha takes this episode as evidence of Raghavanka’s critical and courageous stand against caste. He places the philosophy of Basavva and the Virashaivas in the mouths of the so-called polluting women. But by doing so, Raghavanka also forces gender into the argument against hierarchy which, to my mind, is even more radical. After this pivotal event, the story proceeds in rather more predictable ways: Vishwamitra confiscates Harishchandra’s kingdom and eventually has to return it. In the end, the good king triumphs, patriarchy is restored, and the three worlds revert to the state in which they should always be.
Dreamy, vacant hours
There is so much to be enjoyed in the text, for example, the sight of a woman who sits pining for her departed lover, “...tears rolled down her cheeks forming a shining pearl necklace on her chest. Tell me, did those fingers resting on her cheek appear as if a five-headed cobra were lifting up the moon-face of the woman? No, that is not so. Her hand on her cheeks looked as lovely as the delicate petals of the lily that opens out as the moon, the lotus’s foe, rises in the sky.” Or this, that describes the boar that led the king away: “Sparks flew from those lance-like canines. Black smoke issued forth from those thundering nostrils. Bright orbs of fire spewed from those furious eyes.”
Viswanatha keeps the joy of the Sanskrit shlesha , the pun, offering us both readings, as in “...like mountains/ kudhara despite being badly attired/ kudhara; like gods/ dvijas in partaking of special food; like the moon, in being flawed; like Death/ dharma in being indestructible.” Away from the shlesha , I would have liked fewer Sanskrit words, words that might have been easily translated, even if not entirely accurately. A suragi knife and a maridumbi bee add nothing to our understanding or experience of the text. In fact, they break the flow of reading for little (or no) reward.
Pedantry aside, Viswanatha’s translation is a wonderful read and Harishchandra’s fortitude reminds us of the Biblical Job, restoring our faith in the possibility that humans can act for honour and stand on principle.
The Murty Classical Library of India has kept its promise to provide high quality translations of Indic texts that are reasonably priced and widely distributed. It has pledged to go beyond the universe of Sanskrit and to tackle the literary output of the medieval period, thereby widening the canon of what we consider to be ‘classical’. Since 2015, a steady trickle of excellent translations has been quietly colouring our literary landscape. The Life of Harishchandra is among the most recent of these.
This volume has been my companion on cool, grey and rainy afternoons over the past week and, as the monsoon takes over and the rhythms of our lives are slowed, I would recommend it highly for those dreamy, vacant hours.
The writer is author of Ramayana for Children , and Uttara: The Book Answers , a translation and commentary on Valmiki’s Uttara Kanda .