Meghaduta, (Sanskrit: “Cloud Messenger”) lyric love poem in some 115 verses composed by Kalidasa about the 5th century ce. The verse is unique to Sanskrit literature in that the poet attempts to go beyond the strophic unity of the short lyric, normally the form preferred for love poems, by stringing the stanzas into a narrative. This innovation did not take hold, though the poem inspired imitations along precisely the same story line.
Unique in Sanskrit love poetry is Kālidāsa’s Meghadūta, in which the poet tries to go beyond the strophic unity of the short lyric , which normally characterizes love poems, by stringing the stanzas into a narrative. This innovation did not take hold, though the poem inspired imitations along precisely the same story line.
The Meghaduta is the lament of an exiled yaksha (a benevolent nature spirit) who is pining for his beloved on a lonely mountain peak. When, at the beginning of a monsoon, a cloud perches on the peak, he asks it to deliver a message to his love in the Himalayan city of Alaka. Most of the poem, composed in an extremely graceful metre, consists of a description of the landmarks, cities, and sights on the cloud’s journey to Alaka.
Meghaduta inspired Friedrich Schiller’s play Maria Stuart.
The Meghadūta (Cloud-Messenger, written by Kālidāsa) is the first of a genre, saṁdeśa-kavya, that flourished in Sanskrit and other Indian languages into the modern era. The form is simple, but found root in the minds of individuals in many different contexts. (German Romantics loved the poem, but only rarely went on to pen saṁdeśa-kavya of their own.) In this, the model poem, two lovers find themselves separated by half of the Indian subcontinent. The poem itself consists of a message between the two lovers and directions for how to deliver it. In the Meghadūta the lovers are separated by many miles, but later poems play with the distance represented. Whether separated by mountain ranges, highways, miles, or yards, the distance hardly matters. As long as the lovers are not bound by the tight embrace of love they feel restless and unsure and must communicate with those they are separated from. Whether read in the heyday of the Gupta Empire, Schlegel’s Germany, or New York’s Upper East Side, Kālidāsa’s verses can strike the heart of many a lover.
The poem opens with a pitiful image of a nameless Yakṣa (demi-god), exiled, alone, powerless, wasting away in Central India. He has been brought to this sorry state as a punishment from the god Kubera. Not long ago our hero had been gainfully employed by the god and lived an idyllic life with his young wife in the Himalayas. But he became distracted (presumably by the thought of his lover), slacked off, and was fired—which is even worse if your boss is a god. While exiled to a monastery on a mountain, the Yakṣa constantly thinks of his lover, neglecting his body and growing so thin that “his gold bracelet slipped off his wrist.” We are not told how his lover is faring. As the months wear on and the seasons change, our hero sees the first clouds of summer, which in India bring the monsoon.
Business and trade come to a halt during the monsoon, when travelling merchants return to their homes, a fact that makes our Yakṣa (stuck in the monastery until autumn) even more despondent. In desperation, the Yakṣa calls out to the largest cloud he sees, asking it to carry a message to his lover.
The Yakṣa begins by describing the journey the cloud is to take across India and ends with a sweet message for his beloved. Interestingly, the message itself is rather short when compared with the description of the journey the cloud is to take. Before we can get to the message we are confronted with a sense-battering display of the land that lies between the two lovers. Everything the Yakṣa touches is sexualized. The longing that unites the lovers thematizes the land. What was once homogenous and anonymous space becomes demarcated when the gaze of the Yakṣa passes over it. Borders are constructed and maps are drawn over the natural territory of the Indian subcontinent as the cloud bears the message of love. Normally when we gaze out into space we are confronted by an abyss— our sight extends to the horizon and we are left wondering what comes next (or we don’t even wonder!). But our Yakṣa knows there is something beyond the horizon, a lover who grounds him in two places, two “heres” at once. With these two spots standing powerfully in opposition on the map, the space between them becomes a reality to be reckoned with, overcome, theorized, and sexualized.
We see these observations come alive in the Meghadūta as the Yakṣa attempts to will himself through his poetic imagination into the hands of his lover far-away in the Himalayas. Like the pilgrim’s progress, as we get closer and closer to our final destination, description gets thicker and the pace gets slower. Tension builds. By bringing the two lovers together conceptually, the cloud serves to reinforce the distance between them. By trying to render the space between him and his beloved insignificant, the Yakṣa actually imparts significance to what was formerly empty space.
There are two parallel love stories being told in the poem: that of the Yakṣa and his bride, and that of the cloud and the land and its inhabitants. It is worth noting that the poem was written in a period of rapid expansion of the borders of the Gupta Empire when new territories were being actively integrated into the cultural system of the Gupta kings. Some of the territories mentioned in the poem were recently conquered and brought into the sway of the expanding empire. Within the poem cultural differences are glossed over—women are described according to the cities they live in, but the descriptions of their bodies and their actions doesn’t vary. Any place the cloud passes over is a place where one can have sexual relations with the land and its inhabitants. The only difference that is noted is that between naïve village women and the urbane women of larger centers of commerce, but in the end, both the naïve and the urbane are sexual beings. Not only the inhabitants, but also the land itself is sexual.
The woman is a collage of the best aspects of nature— an amalgam of the most beautiful natural images Kālidāsa can conjure up.
Her beauty is one that comes from the world around her and yet exceeds it by displaying the loveliest parts. When we read the poem, we are removed from the actual woman by the gaze of two men, the poet and the distressed lover he creates. The woman (nameless like our male Yakṣa) is a reflection of a shadow, obscured by idealized longing and imagination. The Yakṣa imagines her as so distressed by their separation that she neglects the social norms of beauty and bodily upkeep. She no longer uses conditioner for her hair, her nails grow long, her cheeks become rough, clothes dirty, lips chapped, ornaments cast aside, mascara unapplied. Her state of depression unleashes her natural beauty, which shows even more because she doesn’t try to cover herself with the sexual instruments of society.
The semantic range of Sanskrit words is massive. Most words are over-determined, conveying a wide range of unrelated meanings. This lends itself very well to punning and double-entendres, which can be very difficult to capture in translation. A prime example of this is Kālidāsa’s continual use of the verb saṁgam, which he used to signify “reunion” as well as “sex” (perhaps the English word “cohabitation” captures some of this meaning, but it is awkward to use. In its own way, the English phrase “coming” bears its own difficulties.). Kālidāsa uses words with multiple meanings to link verses together. While it is considered bad form to use the same word twice in the same verse, it is the mark of a good poet to use the same word in different meanings in verses close to each other. Unlike most languages, Sanskrit possesses a large store of “true synonyms,” words that convey the exact meaning of another word with no lexical distinction (most synonyms in English only approximate the meaning of another word). Thus, there are dozens of words for the concept “house,” none of which display meaning distinct from one another, but which make poetry more interesting.
The entire Meghadūta is written in a single metre and can be chanted. The emphasis on chanting historically led to the poem being broken apart. Single verses can be chanted out of context and rearranged to fit a certain performance, recitation, or dance. This is reflected in the content of each verse, which expresses a single enclosed moment or image. Each verse acts as a semi-autonomous, self-contained unit both thematically and syntactically. Traditional Sanskrit literary critics assigned each poem a rasa, a flavor or mood. This rasa applied to the entire poem but also to each particular verse, which was supposed to express the mood of the poem in toto. In the case of the Meghadūta, the traditional rasa assigned is viraha, abandonment or separation.
It must be considered among the finest poems, if not the finest poem, written in Sanskrit. Kālidāsa also wrote for the theatre and was no doubt the most versatile author of Sanskrit literature; his works became well-nigh canonical models.