Pothana: Jewel of Telugu Literature

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    It is not often that a chief minister breaks out in verse at a public event. So when K Chandrasekhar Rao, Chief Minister of Telangana, began to recite verses of the great Telugu poet Pothana, he left the audience both impressed and dumbstruck. But he couldn’t have chosen a more fitting moment to recall the work of the 15th-century poet and scholar, for he was standing at Pothana’s grave, at Bammera village in Jangaon district, Telangana, where he was inaugurating a memorial to the poet, in 2017.

    But it’s not only K Chandrasekhar Rao who can spout Pothana’s poetry at will. Almost everyone who grows up in Telangana is familiar with his work and can wax eloquent about its purity, simplicity and sweetness. Sample the following:

    PalikeDidhi Bhagavatamata
    Palikinchedivadu Ramabhadrundata Ne
    Palikina Bhavaharamagunata
    PalikedaVerondu Gaatha PalukagaNela

    (What I have to sing is the story of the Lord.
    The one who makes me sing it is Lord Ram himself.
    If I sing it, I’ll become free.
    So let me sing it since there is no other tale better than this)

    These lines are a part of the Shrimad Andhra Mahabhagavatha, the first regional translation of the Sanskrit Bhagavata Purana of Vyasa. Compiled by Pothana, the Shrimad Andhra Mahabhagavatha is one of the most popular works of Telugu classical literature.

    Born in the mid-15th century, Pothana went on to become one of the most acclaimed Bhakti saints and literary geniuses of his time. His ancestors were Shaivites from Bammera village, 40 km from Warangal in Northern Telangana. But during Pothana’s early education under his father, which included a thorough study of the Sanskrit epics, he was drawn to Ram and Vishnu, and his transition from being a Shiva devotee to a follower of Vishnu is clearly reflected in his works.

    Pothana’s first composition was Veerabhadra Vijayamu, which describes the adventures of Veerabhadra, son of Shiva. His second work was Bhogini Dandaka, the story of a young woman who falls in love with King Singha Bhupala and how the king accepts her love and gives her the title ‘Bhogini’. It is believed that Pothana wrote this poem under the royal patronage of the king he has mentioned this work. Another work attributed to Pothana is Narayana Sataka.

    But the work that Pothana is universally known for is the Shrimad Andhra Mahabhagavatha. But recreating a classic for one’s own people, in one’s own language, is no small undertaking. Although technically a translation, Pothana tweaked it subtly but sufficiently and made this narrative masterpiece an epic in its own right.

    Scholar Divakarla Venkatavadhani, in his monograph on Pothana published by the Sahitya Akademi in 1972, writes, ‘Pothana’s translation of the Bhagavata came out to be double the size of the original. The causes for this enlargement are that Pothana emotionally added his own ideas to the ideas of the original while translating portions full of devotion and of descriptions dealing with the greatness and the good qualities of God; that he followed not only the original, but also the commentary of philosopher Sridhara, while expatiating on profound philosophical matters; and that he introduced portions of the Vishnu Purana, Harivamsa and Narasimha Purana also while describing stories common to all of them.’

    Pothana’s Mahabhagavatha consists of more than 9,000 poems, which are divided into 12 skandhas (collections).

    However, it is believed that only eight of them were written by him and the others were written by later poets – Bopparaju Gangayya (5th skandha), Ercuri Singanna (6th skandha) and Veligandala Narayya (11th and 12th skandha). And the reason is fascinating.

    The story goes that when King Singha Bhupala asked Pothana to dedicate his magnum opus to him, the poet refused as he wanted to offer it to his Lord. Greatly offended, the king demanded that the manuscript be buried. But the Lord appeared in the queen's dreams and asked her to retrieve it. When that was done, portions of the book were found to be damaged and later poets volunteered to complete the missing skandhas.

    Some scholars believe that Pothana himself asked poets to assist him in writing the Mahabhagavatha, as it wasn’t an unusual practice to ask your disciples to help you out. Historian Mallampalli Somasekhara is of the view that the damage to the work might have been caused by political unrest in the state. After the fall of the Kakatiya Empire (12th CE), the Telugu country came to be divided among the kings of Vijayanagara, the Reddis of Kondaveedu, Velama Kings of Rachakonda and the Gajapatis of Cuttack. Since they were constantly at war with each other, the Bahmani Sultans took advantage of the situation and occupied large portions of their territory without difficulty.

    Telangana plunged into a state of chaos on account of the constant battles between the kings of Rachakonda and the Bahmani Sultans. Although the kings of Rachakonda reoccupied fortresses like Orugallu and Bhuvanagiri with the help of the Gajapatis, they could not hold on to them for long. By 1475 CE, the kingdoms of Rachakonda and Devarakonda passed into the hands of Bahmani Sultan Mohammad Shah. Somasekhara feels that Pothana’s original work was damaged in the turbulence caused by these raging battles and the poet needed help completing it.

    Regardless of whether he was or wasn’t assisted in the completion of his work, the fact is that the Mahabhagavatha is a magnificent creation of devotion. It is also a landmark in the evolution of the Telugu Vaishnava religion.

    Pothana was a Telugu and a Sanskrit scholar, and when he burst onto the Telugu literary scene, the language was already highly Sanskritised. It was a far cry from what it was like when it originated as a Proto-Dravidian language (a common ancestor of the Dravidian languages of South India). Proto-Dravidian was spoken in the 3rd millennium BCE in the Godavari basin, and Telugu was probably the first of the four Dravidian or Southern languages to break away.

    The earliest record of Telugu dates to 400 BCE and was found at the Bhattiprolu stupa in Guntur district in Andhra Pradesh. It consists of three inscriptions in Prakrit and contains several Telugu roots or words. This was the age of the Vedic Mahajanapadas (6th to 4th BCE), or ‘Great Republics’, and it was due to the Assaka Mahajanapada, whose territory included parts of present-day Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, that Prakrit and Sanskrit began to influence the Telugu language.

    After the decline of the Assaka Kingdom, the Satavahana Dynasty (100 BCE – 3rd CE) was the next major influence on the language. Based in the Deccan, the Satavahanas used Prakrit and Sanskrit, and generously borrowed from and lent to Telugu. Telugu words have thus been found on Satavahana coins.

    However, the first inscription entirely in Telugu dates to 575 CE and was found in Kadapa district of Andhra Pradesh. It is attributed to the Renati Cholas (6th - 13th CE), who broke with the prevailing custom of using Sanskrit and began writing royal proclamations in the local language. The rulers were originally independent but later forced to the suzerainty of the Eastern Chalukyas.

    It was during this time, in the 11th CE, that Telugu literature was formally established, when Nannaya Bhattaraka wrote the first Telugu retelling of the Mahabharata, titled Andhra Mahabharatam, under the patronage of Eastern Chalukya King Rajaraja Narendra.

    Most scholars believe that the advanced and well-developed language used by Nannaya Bhattaraka suggests that his Mahabharatam was not the genesis of Telugu literature. Unfortunately, we have no evidence of Telugu literature prior to Nannaya, except for royal grants and decrees.

    However, apart from his obvious contribution to Telugu literature, Nannaya Bhattaraka also standardised the language using Sanskrit grammar, thus giving it an even more pronounced Sanskrit tilt.

    The 11th CE was also the time when the Bhakti movement, which had emerged in 6th-7th century Tamil Nadu, spread to present-day Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. The movement empowered people on the lowest rungs of Indian society and provided an impetus to the growth of vernacular literature. Also, although Jainism and Buddhism were given patronage by the royal courts, Eastern Chalukya King Rajaraja Narendra was a Shaivite, who believed that an excellent way to popularise his religion was to translate its holy books into Telugu.

    The language entered its next phase when its script split from the Kannada alphabet between 1100 CE and 1400 CE. This was also its Golden Age as Telugu literature was actively patronised and promoted by many Southern dynasties, including the great Vijayanagara kings. This period thus saw the setting up of scholarly academies specifically for the development of the language and literature.

    The stage was thus set, as it were, for Pothana’s literary and poetic genius to flourish. He referred to himself as a ‘sahaj-pandit’ or ‘natural-scholar’, that is, one who was not formally trained. He did receive a foundation in the Sanskrit epics, courtesy his father, and evolved into a scholar of both Telugu and Sanskrit. But, most importantly, he believed that he had received the gift of poetry by the grace of God.

    Pothana wrote effortlessly and in a fluid style. Sample this from his Shrimad Andhra Mahabhagavatha:

    Mandara Makaranda Madhuryamuna Delu Madhupambu Vovune Madanamulaku
    Nirmala Mandakini Veechikaladooga Rayanchu Chanune Taranginulaku
    Lalitha Rasala Pallava Khadiyai Chokku Koyila Serune Kutajamulaku
    Boornendu Chandrika Sphurita Chakorika Marugune Sandraneeharamulaku
    Ambujodaru Divya Padaravinda
    Chintanamruta Pana Vishesha Maththa
    Chiththa Mereeti Niratambu Jera Serchu
    Vinuta Gunaseela! Matalu Veyanela?

    (A honeybee revelling in the honey-sweetness of Hibiscus, would it seek grass flowers?
    A royal swan swaying in the pure breezes of the Ganga, would it go to the oceans?
    A nightingale relishing the juices of smooth young leaflets, will it approach rough leaves?
    A chakora bird blossoming in the moonlight of a full moon, would it go to dark places with thick fog?
    Mind’s attention on the lotus-wearer's (God's) divine lotus-feet, a heightened headiness brought on by that nectar-like contemplation
    In what way will it learn to seek another? Listen good one, what is the point of discussing, it's obvious?)

    Not much is known of Pothana’s personal life, and it is difficult to separate fact from folklore. It is said that after his falling-out with the royal court, he led the life of a simple farmer, till the very end.

    In 1943, Bhakta Pothana, a biographical film based on the poet was made in Telugu and it celebrated jubilee runs all over South India, including Mysore state and Kerala. Although Potana lived about 500 years ago, his works are considered some of the finest specimens of religious literature even today.

    This story was recommended by LHI reader Sandeep Perkari.

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