Shri Parmanand Research Institute
Srinagar, Kashmir


Bilhana - The Minstrel

by Prof. K. N. Dhar

KASHMIR of yore has been the cradle of Sanskrit lore and learning. From 9th century A. D. to 12th century A. D. brightest luminaries in Sanskrit literature have shone on its firmament. These four hundred years, roughly speaking, form the crux and the culmination of what may be called the creative and original literary activity of Kashmiris in the realm of Sanskrit language and literature. A galaxy of rhetoricians, philosophers, poets, and historians all by their own right brought fame and lustre to the good name of "Sharada Desa', (the land of speech) as Kashmir was popularly known then. They marvellously contributed to the richness of "Deva Vani" (Speech of gods) and immortalized its flavour and fragrance in their thought- provoking treatises.

New theories pertinent to the soul (content) and body (form) of literature were propounded. Tenets of literary Indian criticism were established for the first time in Kashmir. New standards and norms for evaluating a literary composition were enunciated; old ones were refuted by persuasive argumentation. "Aesthetic element" got its cherished place for the first time in the books on Poetics and rhetorics. To quote Dr Raghavan "If there is a prominent Indian Aesthetics which could be applied to all fine arts, it is to Kashmir we owe it ." Among these literary giants Anandvardhana Vamana, Mammatta and others are prominent.

Such diverse subjects like dramaturgy and philosophy could ably be handled by one and the same person like Abhinavagupta. The versatile genius of Kashmiri scholars is irrefutable and their erudition unquestionable. Even the minutest details did not elude their attention. Their command over language is faultless and their thought rejuvenating.

Out of such intellectual climate, enriched all the more by Nature's extravagant disposition, a unique system of philosophy was evolved known as "Saiva-Darshan", which is "the synthesis of the realistic, idealistic, voluntaristic, absolutic and mystic current of thought then prevailing in Kashmir." This system of philosophy, to speak more precisely, is a happy compromise between "the personal and the impersonal and the monistic and the dualistic approaches punctuated with the traditions and terms of thought and practices of the Buddhists and the orthodox. " Dr R. K. Kaw has one more explanation to offer :- "It has laid emphasis on the need of 'recognition' (Pratyabhijna of 'Self' (Atman), viz the supreme inheritance of man. The necessity of supersensuous experience for self- realisation is rccognized owing to the limitations of man's sense and reason". Among the host of such philosophers the name of Somananda and Utpala, the propounders, and Abhinavagupta the interpreter deserve special mention.

While all these sons of 'Saraswati' or 'Sharada' (Goddess of speech or learning) revelled in their ethereal imagination understandably forgetting the environments in which they were living, one polymath Ksemendra did not lose sight ofthe society in which he was born to breathe and could feel the ground under his feet, as the idiom goes. A realist by nature and a satirist by disposition he tried his hand on a variety of subjects including poetry, history, rhetorics, prosody, etc, but his realistic approach is pronounced throughout. He might indulge in didactics but the sting of satire is there. He has given a graphic picture of contemporary society rampant with seductive Gourtezans, cheating 'banias' and cunning and corrupt clerks. In the words of Dr. Surya Kanta, "Ksemendra's comprehensive style, his clarity of expression, his power to use satire to the best advantage and his critical insight into literature have earned for him a place among the masters of Indian literary tradition."

"History" says Macdonnel, "is the one weak spot in Indian literature. It is in fact non-existent."

The conspicuous absence of historical spirit among the ancient Indian writers is more due to their out-look on life than to their incompetence to handle this form of expression. In spite of ihis obvious discomfiture, Kashmir has made a substantial contribution to the art of recording chronicles in the person of Kalhana whose torch was kept alive by Jona Raja, Srivara and Prajya Bhatta in later years. 'Raja Tarangini', a chronicle of the Kings of Kashmir, is to this day the solitary work on history pure and simple. Even though with intermixture of the supernatural and the marvellous, the historical content of this book is not altogether authentic, yet it cannot be gainsaid that Kalhana is certainly the greatest historian in Sanskrit literature."

Sanskrit as such could not understandably have been the language of the elite only as it is often contended, but could fairly be understood by the people in general. In the absence of such a hypothesis, such a gigantic literary activity could not have fructified. This very fact is further elaborated by Bilhana himself when he says :


"Where even the women in their household speak Sanskrit and Prakrit as fluently as their mother-tongue".

This inference is furthermore corroborated by Stein when he says, "The continued popular use of Sanskrit even among Mohammadans is strikingly proved by the Sanskrit inscription on a tomb in the cemetry of Bahau- Din -Sahib at Srinagar (A. D. 1484).' It is, therefore, erroneous to assume that Sanskrit as a spoken word had lost its pristine glory. "Brief Sanskrit inscriptions without dates have been found by me on a number of old Mohammadan tombs in Srinagar, near Martand and elsewhere." During this rennaisance when Sanskrit was not only the vehicle of mental gymnastics at the hands of Kashmiri scholars but also the spoken word of the people at large, Bilhana saw the light of the day. He had already a tradition behind him, a background worth its weight in gold, forming an indissoluble part of his soul even if he was physically away from his motherland.

The first extant reference about him is given by Kalhana :


"Bilhana who had left Kashmir in the reign of King Kalasa had been made by Parmadi, the Lord of Karnata, his Chief Pandit"; when travelling on elephants through the hill-country of Karnata his parasol was borne aloft before the king. When he heard that the liberal Harsa was like a kinsman to true poets, he thought even so great a splendour a deception.

Some of his verses are also found in 'Kavya Prakasa' of Mammatta and 'Balabodhinivriti' of Katantra; some of his didactic verses not found in the works ascribed to him are also given in the anthologies, This also goes to prove that Bilhana had attained sufficient amount of popularity in his home land even though he had been physically away from it.

However, the credit of unearthing this "Jewel amongst Kashmir Poets'' goes to Dr. Buhler and that also, paradoxically enough, outside Kashmir. In 1877 A. D. while in search of Sanskrit manuscripts, he came across an old palm-leaf edition of "Vikramankadeva Caritam" in Jaisalmer, formerly a central Indian State and now a part of Rajasthan.

In the Calcutta edition of Rajatarangini Rilhana is given instead of Bilhana. The astute doctor without any hesitation identified this Rilhana as Bilhana- subsequent research on this subject only confirmed his view. In the Sarda characters "Ra" and "Ba" are apt to be confused vwing to their seemingly alike symbols; so the scribe while transcribing the original Sarda characters into Devanagari script must have made this mistake unwittingly. In a later critical edition of Rajatarangini by Dr. Stein, the name Bilhana is correctly given.

The name as such is not of Sanskrit origin. Perhaps it has a Dardic base and might have connoted some meaning in the local dialect. This needs to be looked into. The same can be said about Kalhana whom some critics have identified with Kalyana, given in Mankha's "Sri Kanth Caritam". But this inference does not hold water. Barring some prominent names which have a Sanskritic base, the majority of names seems to have been derived from the local dialect e.g. Mammatta and other names ending in "tta".

Bilhana does not leave us guessing as regards his birth place "He does not wish to remain under a bushel." He gives a candid description of the village in which he was born :


"There is at a distance of two and a half kosas from Pravara Pura (Srinagar) a rising plateau named Jayawan in which there is a spring of Takshaka (serpent king) of crystal clear water, veritably a disc to chop away the head of Kaliyuga ready to annihilate the "Dharma". Quite close to it is a village endowed with the virtues, opulence and all fame named Khonmukh."

This Khunmukh Village is even to-day as exactly situated as it was given by Bilhana some eight hundred years ago. In some editions the name Khonmusa is given which according to Buhler is the correct word. He had advanced a theory that the copyist must have been a Jaina who pronounce "Sa" and "Kha" alike, such as Katimosha: Qaimoh, Ratimosha: Romoh. This theory cannot be termed as correct as it is a conjecture only. I have tried to provide an answer to this controversy like this. The final "ausa" sound is generally changed to "oh" in Kashmiri as in 'Pausa' to 'Poh', and the medial sound "O" and "U" are not clearly distinguished by Kashmiris. So the "Khonmukh" as given by Bilhana has come to be pronounced as "Khunmuh". In modern vernaculars also "Mukha" (Sanskrit) has changed to "Munha". There may be one more cause for this confusion of "Kha" and "Sa". Again the "Sarada" characters might be responsible for this. Even today the Pandits of Kashmir knowing Sarada script sometimes refer sarcastically to a new entrant to their ranks in the words: "can he differentiate between 'sa' and 'ma" ? This clearly goes to prove that the various symbols in Sarada are apt to be confused; only a profound scho]ar with an immaculate knowledge of the intricacies of this script can be relied upon for genuine text.

This "Khunmuh" village is situated on a 'rising mound' (a table-land, exactly speaking) near the Srinagar Jammu National Highway, when it branches off to the left near Pandrethan at a distance of five miles from Srinagar. In this volcanoic range are situated Zevan, Wuyan and Khrewa also. It is at a distance of seven miles from Srinagar as pointed out by the poet one and a half "gavyuti". 'Gavyuti' is roughly taken to be equal to four miles.

The 'Takshaka Naga' as alluded to above in the Sloka under reference has undergone cultural conquest. There is a grave-yard adjacent to it. The water is not as crystal clear as was known to the poet. It is not also altogether circular in shape now. The saffron fields and the vine-yards are even to-day as luxuriant in their brilliance as in the days of the poet. Only the Vitasta (Jhelum) seems to have gone farther way from it perhaps by a distance of two to three miles. Rivers do change their course and it is a geographical phenomenon which will take its toll on any part of the globe.

In these surroundings our poet was born of 'Jyeshta Kalasha' and 'Naga Devi. His father Jyeshta Kalasha was a commentator of Mahabhashya of Patanjali. In a way his illustrious father bequeathed to him as an heirloom th e love for Sanskrit Muse.

No exact date of his birth or death can be given for obvious reasons. Even though he has written profusely about himself, yet he has not given us the dates with mathematical precision. In order to arrive at some conclusions regarding the years in which he flourished we have to rely on stray references about him in the works of his successors or contemporaries, or on the indirect evidence to be culled out from his writings. Happily for us Kalhana has made a reference to the years in which he left Kashmir. He went for a sojourn to Central India in the reign of King Kalasa. King Kalasa was the son of King Ananta whose rule commenced from Saptarsi Samvat 4 i.e. 1029 A.D. to Saptarsi Samvat 39 i. e. 1064 A.D. Towards the end of his rule he performed the Abhisheka (Anointing ceremony) of his son and made over his kingdom to him in his life-time in Saptrsi Samvat 41, i.e 1066 A.D. This can safely be fixed as the date for the departure of Bilhana to Central India. The immediate predecessor of Bilhana, the Polymath Kshemendra gives this detail about the kings and indirectly helps us to form a rough view of the range of years in which Bilhana lived.

Kalhana makes another reference to him when he enjoyed the partonge of Parmadi of Karnata. The Vikram as given by Bilhana has been identified as King Chalukya Vikramaditya VI of Kalyan who reigned form 1076 A.D. to 1127 A.D. Thus it is clear that this illustrious poet reached "Kalyan" ten years in advance of Vikramaditya's enthronement. During this decade Bilhana must have made a name by his talent and erudition which consequently arrested the attention of the king who rewarded him munificiently and bestowed on him the title of "Vidyapati" (the Master of learning).

So it secms probable that Bilhana lived between the last two quarters of the eleventh century. Probably the poet was cut short in his life by 1088 A.D. as he has ignored his patron's biggest military campaign to the south in his Vikramankadevacaritam. This great expedition, had Bilhana been living at that time, could not have been ignored by him while smaller campaigns have been elaborately narrated by him in his Vikramankadevacaritam. Thus we can rightly assume that the span of life of our poet outside Kashmir ranges from 1066 A.D, when Kalasha ascended the throne of Kashmir, to 1088 A.D. when his patron started his military campaign towards the south. However, this assertion cannot be termed as final because :

(i) It can also be possible that he must have left Kashmir not in the first year of Kalasa's reign. Kalhana explicitly says that he left during the reign of King Kalasa. It might be any year.

(ii) Moreover, he might have fallen into disfavour of his patron, as the kings have generally been whimsical by nature. Because of this dis-favour Bilhana no longer eulogized him in his memoirs.

One more point also deserves attention in this respect. What could have been the possible age of Bilhana when he chose to try his fortune outside Kashmir. Taking the state of communications and the time it took to travel from North to Central India he could not have been a minor. He would not have been allowed to risk his life on such a hazardous jourlley had he not been quite mature and seasoned. Let us assume the lowest limit of his age and fix it at 25, if not more. So broadly speaking, our poet lived from 1041 A.D. to 1088 A.D. i e. forty eight years, not a span worth its name in view of the standards obtaining at that time. Hence it seems plausible that he lived even after 1088 A.D., might be a retired life; and when he actually breathed his last, remains hidden in the womb of time.

Bilhana, as the tradition goes, has three compositions to his credit: "Vikramankadeva Caritam"- a historical Kavya, 'Caur Panchasika- a lyric of fifty stanzas and a small drama of four acts "Karna Sundari". One more book "Bilhana Caritam", ostensibly an autobiography, has also been ascribed to him. But in it the name of the writer does not appear any where. It may have been written by one of his admirers who preferred to remain unknown. Moreover the details and dates given in it do not agree with those given in Vikramanka Deva Caritam.

Out of these three compositions only the Vikramankadeva Caritam reaches the highest water-mark. It is definitely a work of mature judgment and composed demeanour. It must have been written before 1088 A. D., for the great expedition of that king to the south, which occurred in that year is not mentioned by the poet. This kavya consists of 18 cantos while the last canto is devoted to the personal account of the poet. In these 18 chapters the number of verses roughly comes to 2500. In this composition history has been wedded to romance and war. King Vikramaditya, his patron, is portrayed in brightest possible colours. His valour, his charitable disposition, his love for fine-arts have been lavishly praised. The description of seasons, the landscape and other relevant topics occupy the largest space in the book. The historical content is definitely subservient to the poetic fancy :


"Like the buzzing of bees engaged in collecting honey, like the new sprout of the vernal damsel, like the blowing of auspicious conches on a birth-day, the spring set in. "

About the erotic sense of love, he has to say :


"O Lord of Night (the moon), I have a spotless beloved in my bosom. What will you do with your spotted one (beloved) ? Pour out to me wine in your goblet studded with gems. Are you not conversant with the 'spot' in your lap."

The two introductory verses of the Kashmirian manuscript of 'Caur Panchashika', the genuineness of which is corroborated by Bilhana himself, show that it was written in Kalyana before the poet had obtained the favour of the king Vikrama. The mention of Lord of Kuntala and indignant address to his envious rivals and enemies prove this. It is often ascribed to "Caur Kavi" which is not a name but a pseudonym for Bilhana. It is definitely the offspring of a corrupt reacling in the colophon :-


(Thus end the fifty verses of amor by Caura)

"Caurpancasika" (the fifty stanzas of a thief) or the "love-lament" aptly called by Sir Edwin Arnold is a lyric of a poet ready to mount the scaffold for enticing a princess. During this fateful suspense when the life of the poet hangs by a slender thread, the reminiscences of the days spent in the sweet company of the princess oppress the heart of the lover and he ventilates these in a powerful and pathetic versified form. The refrain of each stanza begins with even today. At places the imagination of the poet borders on sensuality :


"Oh me ! I was the bee who sucked his fill Prom fragrant chalice of that gold-leaved flower, Breast deep. Know I not well how it did thrill Beneath mine eager clasping in that hour, When love waxed well-nigh cruel in quick kisses, And passion welcomed hurts that mixed with blisses."

The theme of this lyric according to tradition is a leaf from the personal experience of the poet. This can be also an imagined situation which the poets can visualize easily by virtue of their innate productive faculties. The freshness of the poem is eternal.

"Karna-Sundari" is the name of the heroine of the drama bearing the same name. Usually the dramatists in Sanskrit have named their compositions after their heroines. Kalidasa also did the same. In this small drama of four Acts is a love episode between Karna Sundari, a princess and Karna Raj, son of Bhimadeva, a scion of Chalukya dynsty. Like other Sanskrit dramas it is more of a dramatic poem than a drama. The story is common-place with a happy blending of history and imagirlation. Prose pieces are simple and short. Prakrits have also been laudably employed. Bilhana puts the following compliment in the mouth of the King for the beauty of his beloved: "On account of being put in fire the lustre of gold is darkened as if with the smoke; the moon is robbed of its resplendence like a leaf bereft of red hue; the creeper-like bow of cupid is ineffective, the beauty of the world having gone to sleep. Why only the plaintain groves shine before her in their pride? "

It can now safely be asserted that Vikramankadeva Caritam is the poet's ldst work, and these other two works precede it. Both these works, the lyric and the drama, do not portray perfect craftsmanship in respect of the tech.lique of the language.

Bilhana essentially is a romantic poet. Romantic poetry baldly speaking is the acme of poet's individuality. At the roots of this poetry we perceive the all-pervading sentiment of this romantic instinct inherent in man. Our poet does not dabble in high sounding philosophical dicta like Somananda and others which are definitely beyond the comprehension of an ordinary man. He does not either indulge in hair-splitting argumentation on the ingredients of literature as Mammatta and others did. He does not also tag hislory with legend like Kalhana and his retinue. He also fights shy of indicting the society like Ksemendra. Like a truly romantic poet he translates his emotions as they ooze forth in his heart. He weaves a world of his own in which the inebriating influence of vines and the golden hue of saffron form the woofand the warp. To speak precisely he lives in his imagination.

Bilhana's 'forte' is love-milk of human kindness. "The love portrayed by Indian poets is not of the ideal type, of the sensuous type; but yet they reveal great delicacy of feelings and refinement of thought. "He holds a mirror to human feelings in a masterly way and at the same time keeps the nature an eyewitness to this all. He delineates human feelings in the background of Natural surroundings, so that the throbs of man and Nature beat in unison. "By the artistic use of pathetic fallacy the lyric-poets blend Nature and Man into one inseparable whole."

The natural beauty of Kashmir can definitely give fillip to the creative imagination of a poet. While in Central India he enshrined the sweet memory of this land of "learning, saffron, ice-water and grapes, making it a superparadise," in the innermost sanctuary of his heart. This very facutly impelled him to write exuberant poetry pulasting with his emotions inherent while in Kashmir and acquired while in Kalyan. His language is flowery and his diction flawless.

Unlike his predecessor Ksemendra, he does not seem to believe that the figures of speech (Alankaras) are external embellishments only. He makes use of these profusely and in a dexterous way. His similes are apt and impressive. Even though he uses a variety of metres in his compositions, yet his favourite is andakranta'' in which metre Kalidasa has couched his immortal lyric "Cloud Messenger".

Consequently when he takes pride in narrating the two peerless products of his Motherland, it seems no exaggeration:


"Verily saffron and the poetic prowess are born of the same womb, outside Sarda Desa (Kashmir) I have not seen these two sprout forth."

To crown all, in the portrayal of human feelings punctuuated with the sobering influence of love and all the more accentuated with the extravagantly kind- hearted diposition of Nature none can excel him in his home-land. He drinks at the fountain of love - a synonym of life - to his fill; older critics perhaps were right when they classed him with Kalidasa and compared the talent of the former and the latter to the "lustruous hair" and the "coquetry" of the "charming Lady of poetry" respectively.

Bilhana has been fortunate enough to receive recognition in his life time, a phenomenon very rare with sanskrit writers. Usually their talents have been sung in panegyrics when they leave their mortal frame. This all goes to substantiate that Bilhana epitomizes in himself a dexterous mastery over sound and sense. His facile pen could clothe any imagination that would strike his fancy in proper words and in proper order. He might have at times spent much ink while eulogizing the virtues of his patron, even then he belleved in the golden mean - a synthesis between fact and fiction. He paid back his gratitude to the King in words pulsating with sincerity, pregnant with scholarship and endowed with vibrant emotions. No other better repayment could be irnagined. So when he says :


"There is no hamlet or village or even Metropolis; That is no forest or garden or land devoted to learning where the wise, the dull, the old, the young, the women and men, one and all, do not recite his poems with utmost exhiliration."

It does not jar on our ears as hyperbole or pedantry. It is a statement of facts which may not be palatable to a few, only because it comes from the mouth of the poet himself.

Kashmiri Overseas Association
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