The Gathasaptasati: Prakrit love poems by women from 2 BCE, India (translated by AK Mehrotra)

I’m glad that the Murty Classical Library has revived some interest in classical Indian literature, and even more glad that they choose to focus on languages other than Sanskrit. Historically, Sanskrit has been the language of the elite, while Prakrit and Pali were common in daily use.

One selection of classic poetry in Prakrit that has not been neglected is the Gathasaptasati, or the Gaha Sattasai. This collection of 987 short poems were part of a great oral tradition, carried on primarily by women, in the erstwhile Satavahana kingdoms, around 2 B.C.E. The Gathasaptasati is primarily composed of love poetry, explicit and frankly erotic. The version that I read is AK Mehrotra’s English translation, titled, ‘The Absent Traveller’ (WorldCat, Amazon) ¬†The title derives from this beautiful little verse:

Preoccupied with thoughts
Of his desolate wife
The absent traveller
Now approaches the village
Now leaves it behind

The Gathasaptasati is by turns, charming and playful, and intense and erotic. There is love and grief and despair, often conveyed only through images. I tweeted out a small selection of quotes from Mehrotra’s translation, and they are storified here, if you’d like to take a look. I recommend Mehrotra’s translation, as well.


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