translating bilhanaBilhana

The eleventh-century historian and poet Bilhana was probably born in Kashmir but travelled widely on the subcontinent, visiting Mathurá, Kanauj, Prayága, Kází, Dáhala before being received as master of the sciences by Vikramáditya VI (1076-94), the Cáukya king of Kalyána. Bilhana rewarded his patron with an eighteen-canto epic entitled Vikramáńkadevacarita, apparently completed some time before 1088. The interwoven history is fanciful, but the last cantos describes Bilhana's family and his life as a wandering Pańdit. {1}


Bilhana is better known today for Caurapańcáziká , a fifty-stanza poem recalling a clandestine love affair. Tradition says that Bilhani enjoyed an intrigue with a king's daughter, was sentenced to death when discovered, but gained his freedom by reciting the poem on his execution day. Commentators disagree on the identity of the king, and many think the story is simply a fictional tale of robber chief and princess.

Problems also surround the manuscripts. Two versions exist, the Kasmiri and southern Indian, and only 7 stanzas are common to both. Some 34 stanzas may be genuine to the period, but Bilhana's authorship is by no means certain. {2}

Each stanza begins with adyápi (even now), and the poem describes in detail the past joys and sorrows. Stanza 21 is typical:

adyApi tAm mayi samIpakavATalIne :
manmArgamuktadRzam AnanadattahastAm
madgotraliNgitapadam mRdukAkalIbhiH :
kiMcic ca gAtumanasam manasA smarAmi

We see the stanazas are short, and in fact cast in the 14-syllable Vasantatilaka metre: {3}

ad yA pi tAm ma yi sa mI pa ka vA Ta lI ne :
man mAr ga muk ta dR za mA na na dat ta has tAm

mad got ra liN gi ta pa dam mR du kA ka lI bhiH :
kiM cic ca gA tu ma na sam ma na sAs ma rA mi

Previous Translations

A.B. Keith provided a literal translation:

Even today do I see her, as, head resting on her hand and eyes fixed on my path — though in truth I was hidden behind the door near by — she sought to sing in sweet tones a verse into which she had woven my name. {2}

Gertrude Cloris Schwebell, {4} working from translations by S.N. Tadpatrikar, {5} M. Ariel {6} and Gerhard Gollwitzer {7} created a free verse rendering:

And still today her image is embedded in my heart
how she sits at the window,
her head supported by her hand.
Anxious eyes are searching
my usual path,
her glance hurries to meet me.
But I am standing, listening, on the threshold.
Softly she sings, so softly,
a verse that holds my name.

The version best known to English readers is probably that by Barbara Stoles Miller: {8}

Even now,
I recollect lurking at her door—
her glance fell on my path,
her words evoked my name in murmured tones,
her heart seemed to follow me.

Or the 'free interpretation' by E. Powys Mathers entitled BlackMarigolds. The translation is often beautiful, but so freely handled that it's difficult to match translation with original, as his stanzas 20 to 23 indicate:{9}

Even now
I know my princess was happy. I see her stand
Touching her breasts with all her flower-soft fingers,
Looking askance at me with smiling eyes.
There is a god that arms him with a flower
And she was stricken deep. Here, oh die here.
Kiss me and I shall be purer than quick rivers.

Even now
They chatter her weakness through the two bazaars
Who was so strong to love. And small men
That buy and sell for silver being slaves
Crinkle the fat about their eyes, and yet
No Prince of the Cities of the Sea has taken her,
Leading to his grim bed. Little lonely one,
You clung to me as a garment clings, my girl.

Even now
Only one dawn shall rise for me. The stars
Revolve tomorrow's night and I not heed.
One brief cold watch beside an empty heart
And that is all. This night she rests not well;
Oh, sleep, for there is heaviness for all the world
Except for the death-lighted heart of me.

Comparing these with the Barbara Stoles Miller version above, or her translation of stanza 21 in the northern recension ( in case Mathers was using this version) we see how much has been added, in Nineties twilight imagery and to the prose sense:

Even now,
I remember a hundred flatteries
spoiling the sense of her words
when she trembled in exhaustion after love—
the sweet words came in jumbled sounds
she whispered faintly, timidly spoke. {8}

There is also a 2000 translation, possibly privately printed, by John T. Roberts {10} Recent translations online include those by Dawn Corrigan {12} and Colin Leslie Dean. {13}

More material can be found at: Safaya, Indian timeline, Khajuraho, Bagchee and Deepak Neupane.

Word for Word Translation

If we now undertake the usual word-for word translation:

adyApi       tAm  mayi    samIpakavATalIne :
even_now  her   artful    near panel_of_door lurking

manmArgamuktadRzam              AnanadattahastAm
think seeking open appearance    face presented formed_by_hand

madgotraliNgitapadam                          mRdukAkalIbhiH :
my family adhering was_singing verse   with tender quarrel

kiMcic    ca     gAtumanasam   manasA       smarAmi
a_little   and   moving mind     with_sense   I_recollected

Which we could construe as:

Even now I think of her artful, by the door lurking,
seeking that open face offered as is her hand,
her singing a verse of my family, and tender quarrels
a little the mind moving recollected with sense.

We note immediately how far from a close rendering are the translations of Schwebell and Mathers, particularly the last. We shall come back to E. Powys Mathers, whose approach is that of the Hâfiz translation by Gertrude Bell, though rendered in a free-verse Modernist style.


Our word-for-word rendering differs from previous translations, the main areas of disagreement being:

1. mayi: artful. Who is being artful, woman or poet? The text does not say.

2. lIne : lurking. Who is lurking, poet or mistress? Again the text does not say, and translators have disagreed.

3. manmArgamuktadRzam: think seeking open appearance. Many alternatives exist for the four words here, which greatly change the meaning. Most translators construe something like (her looking for my appearing/disclosure) but the meaning may link more with following compound, stressing mukta, which means loosened, let free, relaxed, slackened, opened or open. {11}

4. AnanadattahastAm:  face presented formed_by_hand. Most translators have played safe and construed this as 'head resting on hand'. But Anana means mouth, face, entrance or door. Datta does not mean resting but given, granted, presented, protected or honoured. And hastAm means formed with the hands or taken by the hand. I'd suggest a reading that carries on the meaning of open in the preceding compound: her face is presented as her hands, i.e. with an open appearance: 'seeking that open face offered as is her hand'.

5. madgotraliNgitapadam: my family adhering was_singing verse. Gotra means family, race, lineage or kin. 'Name' is an acceptable synonym, but Bilhana may be refering to his Pańdit duties.

6. kalIbhiH. I read this as the instrumental plural of kali (strife, discord, quarrel, contention), giving 'with/by tender quarrels'. Other translators have generally read this as 'tender discord' qualifying the woman's singing.

7. gAtumanasam: moving mind. Most translators read gAtu as road or path, linking it with mArga in line 2: the woman is searching the path. But gAtu means going, motion, unimpeded motion, progress, increase or welfare. I suspect the poet is thinking of the woman intently: manasa means mind in its widest sense: intellect, intelligence, understanding, perception, sense, conscience, heart and mind.

Given these difficulties, it may be better not to tie the interpretation down more than is necessary, but preserve the ambiguity that suggests intimacy of poet and mistress. Perhaps like this:

Even now I think of her, artful, by the door lurking,
seeking that open face offered as is her hand,
her singing a verse of my family, and tender quarrels
a little the mind moving, returning with sense.

Which again emphasizes the need to work from the original. If we'd simply reworked previous renderings we should have doubtless written something like:

Even now, head propped on hands, gazing out,
eyes searching the path by which I'd come,
while I am already behind her, not in sight,
do I hear her singing a verse that holds my name.

Which is passable as verse, but not necessarily what Bilhana is saying.

On the next page we look at another Bilhana stanza, and see what literary theory can say about translation in general.



1. A.B. Keith, A History of Sanskrit Literature (Motilal Banarsidass, 1993), 153-158
2. A.B. Keith, 1993. 188-190.
3. A.B. Keith, 1993. 420.
4. Gertrude Clorius Schwebel, The Secret Delights of Love by the pundit Bilhana (from the Sanskrit). (The Peter Pauper Press, 1966).
5. Caurapańcáziká, an Indian Love Lament of Bilhana Kavi, critically edited with translation and notes by S.N. Tadpatrikar, Poona, 1946. Poona Oriental Series No. 86.
6. Tchorapantchçat, publié, traduit et commenté par M. Ariel. Les Cinquantes (Couplets) de TCHORA ou Histoire de Bilhana; Journal Asiatique, Quatričme Serie, Tome XI, p. 469-534; Paris, 1848.
7. German Free Version of Gerhard Gollwitzer. Des Pandit Bilhana Fünfzig Strophen von Heimlicher Liebeslust, Karl Schustek Verlag, Hanau, 2 Aufl. 1964.
8. Miller, Barbara Stoles. Phantasies of Love-thief: Caurapancasika Attributed to Bilhana (Columbia Univ. Press, 1971).
9. Black Marigolds: A free interpretation of the Caurapańcáziká. E. Powys Mathers, pp. 66-77 in Mark Van Doren (Ed.) An Anthology of World Poetry (Albert and Charles Boni, 1928). Also reissued as Black Marigolds and Coloured Stars. Edward Powys Mathers (Anvil Press Poetry, 2004) "A heady mixture of rapture, longing, sorrow and imminent death", an Amazon reviewer called the translation. Information and selected verses on
Complete text is at:
10. John T. Roberts, Caurapancasika, English and Sanskrit. The Thief, His Fifty Verses: Bilhana's Caurapancasika, The Northern Recension, with word by word grammatical notes and translations. (Papercraft Print, 2000). ISBN: 0-9679677-1-6 / 0967967716
11. Readers may want to check with online dictionaries. Cologne Digital Sanskrit Lexicon: Capeller's Sanskrit Dictionary: Apte Sanskrit Dictionary Search: NNA.
12. Swan Song of the Thief an adaptation of Bilhana’s Caurapâńcâsikâ by Dawn Corrigan. Otis Nebula. 2012. A very pleasing rendering.
13. The Caurapańcasika by Colin Leslie Dean. Sribd. 2013. One of the Erotic Poetry Books by the Gamahucher Press, with introductory notes.


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