Raghavayadaviyam – Verse that reads the Ramayana forward and the Mahabharata backwards

Lever, Desserts, Warts, Snaps, Stops, Parts, Peels, Regal, Sports, Lived, Reviled, Spoons, Knits, and Trams, are one of the few English words, comprising more than 4 characters, that are meaningful when spelt backwards – an overwhelming majority of them plurals. Try to frame a meaningful English sentence that also makes sense when read in reverse, characterwise. At once, it seems a lost cause. The futility holds for most languages.

"Detartarated", i.e. to have ridden of tartarates (a chemical class/species), is a past participle of Detartarate, and currently the holder of the distinction of being "the longest palindrome" in the English language. Sounds very synthetic, doesn't it?

Now, a palindrome is something that reads the same back and forth, as "Malayalam", or "Madam". However, in Sanskrit, as a rule, vowels have no independent existence of their own. Hence, when seeing palindromes, we read one whole sound at a time, thus sanyuktaksharas (half letters attached to a full letter) are also read in their usual, normal order. This is not a weakness, but rather a consistent, organised scientific phonetic basis that makes Sanskrit grammar systematic, rational and natural.

"Able was I, ere I saw Elba", is a quote attributed to Napoleon, as an example of a Palindrome sentence, with 'ere' being an obviously obscure usage, as pertains to contemporary English. "Madam, I'm Adam", is also cited as an instance.

Now, palindromes can be word by word, syllable by syllable or character by character. An example of a word-by-word palindrome is

Love is This and This is Love, by J.A. Linden:

"Darling, my love

Is great, so great;

Recalling Heaven's calm above.

Fate is sweet this---

All after Fall!

Fall? After all,

This, sweet, is fate--

Above calm Heaven's recalling.

Great, so great is

Love, my darling!"

Notice how, some generous creative liberties need to availed - the poetic license has been exploited to the fullest and grammar has been pushed.

There is a language which has an entire booklet all of whose verses individually each read meaningfully, to and fro. Not only a phrase, not only a single sentence, but 30 entire verses. These are no palindromes (not that the language lacks them either) – they read differently in differing directions. Sanskrit has a genre of poetry called ‘anulom-vilom kaavya’, literally ‘fore/like and opposite poetry’ alluding to the existence of more than one such work. One such work comprises 30 shlokas (a category of verse line in the Vedic anustubh meter) (30 each, back and forth), which when read forth narrate the summary of the Ramayana, and when read backwards, narrate that of the Mahabharata. Ramayana and Mahabharata are respectively, the second longest and the longest epic poems in the world, dwarfing The Iliad and The Odyssey, in comparison. Roughly, they narrate the story of the 7th and 8th incarnations of the Hindu deity Vishnu, respectively.

Raghavayadaviyam (Literally Rama and Krishna) is said to have been composed by Venkatadhwari, a 17th century poet from Kanchipuram in Southern India.

The poem starts off as:

vaMde.ahaM devaM taM shrItaM rantAraM kAlaM bhAsA yaH | rAmo rAmAdhIrApyAgo lIlAmArAyodhye vAse ||1||
sevAdhyeyo rAmAlAlI gopyArAdhI mArAmorAH | yassAbhAlaMkAraM tAraM taM shrItaM vande.ahaM devam ||1’||

vaMde.ahaM devaM taM shrItaM rantAraM kAlaM bhAsA yaH | rAmo rAmAdhIrApyAgo lIlAmArAyodhye vAse ||1||

sevAdhyeyo rAmAlAlI gopyArAdhI mArAmorAH | yassAbhAlaMkAraM tAraM taM shrItaM vande.ahaM devam ||1’||

“I pay obeisance to Sri Rama, who travelled to the mountains [of Malaya and Sahya], with his mind occupied with the thought of Sita and returned to Ayodhya, sporting (there) with Sita for a long time.”

“I bow to lord Krishna, who is contemplated by penance and sacrifice, who plays with Rukmini and other consorts, who is worshipped by the gopis, whose chest is the sporting field of Lakshmi and who is adorned with radiant ornaments.”

mArAmorAH (mArAmOrAh) is a compound of 3 words: mA, ArAma and urAh. This pithiness is facilitated by standard rules of conjugation, systematised in Sanskrit grammar. The 3 words respectively mean ‘Lakshmi’ (the consort of Vishnu), ‘Sport’ and ‘Chest’. This unambiguously implies that the chest is a sporting ground for his consort. Sanskrit poetry enables compression by relying on interpretation (and elimination of absurd semantic permutations that do not make sense).

The non-necessity of helping verbs also permits metric terseness and fit to Sanskrit. A vast repertoire of synonyms and antonyms, particularly with nouns, enable a high degree of adaptability in Sanskrit.

It is more efficient to pack meaning in Sanskrit, as a number of prepositions and conjunctions can be incorporated in the word’s own form. Usage of word forms called Vibhaktis or Cases, makes it much more flexible. Each word has 21 word forms: 7 Cases and 3 Numbers. Pronouns have 3 of these sets, of 21 each, according to gender.

Note how the reversal isn’t merely wordwise but characterwise. This is a testament to the extraordinary adaptability, and objective and subjective encryption ability of Sanskrit. Moreover shlokas are a special type of verse, written in a specific meter. The Shloka is a couplet with each half-verse comprising 2 padas (feet), of 8 syllables each, with a four other limitations (constraints) and two subvarieties. Maintenance of this intricacy makes the feat all the more amazing.

The third verse, which initiates the stories by describing the respective cities of Rama and Krishna, is as:

kAmabhArassthalasArashrIsaudhAsaughanavApikA | sArasAravapInAsarAgAkArasubhUrubhUH || 3||

bhUribhUsurakAgArAsanApIvarasArasA | kApivAnaghasaudhAsau shrIrasAlasthabhAmakA || 3’||

kAmabhArassthalasArashrIsaudhAsaughanavApikA | sArasAravapInAsarAgAkArasubhUrubhUH || 3||

bhUribhUsurakAgArAsanApIvarasArasA |

kApivAnaghasaudhAsau shrIrasAlasthabhAmakA || 3’||

“The city of Ayodhya, abounding in mansions, the abodes of riches and splendour and of people, whose desires are fulfilled. is the land of deep wells and the cooing of cranes and of red-coloured earth or of red gold.

The houses of Dvaraka are having raised platforms for doing rituals and hence full of brahmins. The lotuses blossoming there are large. The city has mansions without blemishes and it shines with mango trees on the top of which the sun was visible.”

ghanavApikA (GhanvApikA) comprises the adjective Ghan- meaning intense while vApikA means well. It can imply that the city of Rama had numerous wells, another testimonial to its prosperity or that it had deep wells, an acknowledgement of the toil, ardour and prowess of the townsmen and engineers.

Notice the alliteration of the sar and sAr sounds in the second quartet. In fact, the previous shloka featured alliterations in both the the middle quarters. This is a recurrent lyrical feature of the work.

The spontaneous adjective-typecasting in Sanskrit poetry maintains both coherence and flow – both lyrical and semantic. For example, pIvarasArasA (PIvarsArasA) means Big Lotuses, but the order and positioning of the words is such as it clearly yields “A land abundant with big lotuses”.

sarAgAkArasubhUrubhUH (sarAgAkArasubhooribhooh) – ‘Sa’ is a prefix denoting with-. ‘Raga’ can mean ‘a melodic mode’ as well as the colour Red. ‘BhUri’ means copious, while Su- is a prefix connoting goodness or virtue, so SubhUri can mean “a positive abundance” or prosperity. Meanwhile, BhU also means earth (soil), thus SuBhuri can also mean rich earth, i.e. ‘resourceful earth’.

The lack of spaces between words spares ample scope for multi-ended interpretation, which often isn’t ambiguous and results in poetic puns. Essentially each quartet is composed of a single word or two, being qualified with a plethora of adjectives and meta-adjectives. It can also mean gold. Thus it implies that the city of Ayodhya abounds in riches and resources. Partitioning the giant word at different places, yields different senses.

The free use of prefixes and suffixes helps accomplish a wide variety of compression feats. For example Su- can be used to specify positivity and the specific meaning can be deduced from the context. For example, Su-BhAsh-it literally means well-spoken, hence depending on the context, ongoing narrative and connotation, it can mean anything from an aphorism or a quote to a glorious name, or sweet words to words spoken in a sweet voice, or simply a good piece of oration.

In the backward verse, Krishna’s city’s prosperity is implied by shrIrasAlasthabhAmakA (Shree-Glory RasAla-Mango tree Sth-Situated at BhAmaka-Sun), which denotes that the trees were so tall, the glorious (daytime) Sun, at its zenith sat upon their canopies. It might also imply that the proliferation of their foliage was so immense, it contained the glory (irradiance) of the Sun.

The ‘Sun’, for instance, has scores of synonyms in Sanskrit, based on numerous mythical and actual properties. This enables a wide domain to operate in, to fashion a verse that is intelligible either way.

Sanskrit’s systematic organisation of words etymologically, always adhering to the ‘ prefix+root+suffix’ scheme, ensures that linguistic corruptions do not occur. This strictness in codification of norms, permits it an unparalleled compositional liberty and poetic license.

The rest of the verses of Raghavayadaviyam follow suit (The curious reader may refer them here, here, or here.) , and elegantly describe the journeys of Rama and Krishna – their quests, adventures and kingdoms, with resplendent imagery and rich epithets. Not once, is a word misplaced. Seldom do we encounter a tautology. Not once is a character forced, for the mere sake of meter-maintenance, or for its salient reversibility. Not once is the narrative diverted or compelled, as the syllabic scheme remains intact. Not once, is a single qualifier found to be redundant.

Note that there exists a genre of poetry called anulom-vilom kavya, alluding to the existence of a multitude of such works. Vedant Desika’s Paduka Sahastram – an assortment of downright unbelievable patterns of poetry, said (legend has it) to have been written in mere hours, contains multiple such instances. Daivagya Soorya Pandit’s “Ramkrsna vilom kaavya”, is quiet similar to Raghavayadaviyam. It opens as:

(Forward) taM bhUsutAmuktimudArahAsaM vande yato bhavyabhavam dayAshrIH |

“I pay my homage to Him who rescued Sita, whose laughter is captivating,
whose incarnation is
grand, and from whom mercy and splendor arise everywhere.”

(Backward) shrIyAdavaM bhavyabhatoyadevaM saMhAradAmuktimutAsubhUtam ||

“I bow before that Sri Krishna, the descendent of Yaadava family; who is a
divinity of the sun as
well as the moon; who destroyed Putana who only gave destruction; and who
is the soul of all
this universe.”

Notice how the sheer number of synonyms of words like Elephant (about 1200) and Sun (several hundred), classical frequents, enables Sanskrit this flexibility, providing an array of options to pick from. Notice how grammatical organisation into cases, persons and tenses – the same objective organisation that makes Sanskrit suitable for programming enables ‘vande’ to stand for (I pay homage to). Tacit mythological symbolisms, epithets and connotations enable Sanskrit to withhold background information and thus stay terse and succinct. For example, that Krishna was a YAdava (hailing from the Yadu dynasty or kula) is common knowledge and thus “YAdavam” serves as a Synecdoche for Krishna. Sita was begotten from the Earth, hence she is “BhUsutA” (daughter of the Earth).

These indirect references and allusions enable a convenient shortening and pliability using implicit sobriquets.

Ramaswami Dikshitar, Muthuswami Dikshitar’s father had composed a musical piece in the Gangatarangini ragam, in which each phrase is a swara and Sahitya palindrome. It opens as – “SArasa-nayana-sarasA ! SAra-tara-rata-rasA!!”

‘Sumadhva vijayam’ by Sri Narayana Pandita (13th century) has a sloka that goes as:
samAnayA yAnamAsa mAyayA tatayAyamA |

nayAsanA nAsayAna yAtanAlalanAtayA ||

While each quarter (pAda) is a palindrome, it is a 2-dimensional palindrome.

sa mA na yA yA na mA sa

mA ya yA ta ta yA ya mA

na yA sa nA nA sa yA na

yA ta nA la la nA ta yA

yA ta nA la la nA ta yA

na yA sa nA nA sa yA na

mA ya yA ta ta yA ya mA

sa mA na yA yA na mA sa

Reading left to right, top to bottom, right to left, bottom to top, yields the same. You can start from any of the four vertices and then go either vertically or horizontally from each, and the poem shall read the same – there are a total of 8 ways to read it.

To quote an article by Suganthi Krishnamachari in The Hindu,
” ‘Sisupalavadha,’ which picks up the story of Sisupala from the Mahabharata, has verbal embellishments of all sorts. In one verse Magha uses just one consonant! Magha also comes up with the following verse:
sakArana nArakAsa

kAyasAda dasAyakA

rasAhavA vAhasAra

nAdavAda davAdanA

Here you find a palindrome not only when each line is read from left to right and in reverse, but if you invert the lines, you will find that the palindrome works in all four directions. That is why this palindrome is classified as sarvatObhadra — perfect in every direction.

Martin Gardner, whose column on mathematics for Scientific American was hugely popular, devotes an entire chapter to number and language palindromes in his book titled, Mathematical Circus, where he says Magha’s palindrome is the “most complex and exquisite type of palindrome ever invented.” Such an academic interest in Magha is understandable.”

In Tamil, Thirugnanasambandhar’s Thevaram contains a section called Maalaimaarru thiruppathikam which is full of palindromes.

Raghavayadaviyam is just one of the myriad, varied gemstones that lie carelessly strewn in Sanskrit’s literary treasurery, among those whose successive characters are arranged in the form of a checkered-board, such that it (Turangapadabandh) solves one of the toughest and most intriguing problems of chess – The Knight’s Tour, to one that comprises only of consecutive “ya”s, via those whose characters form elaborate spoked wheels (Chakrabandh), magic squares and full-fledged flowering plants (Pushpaguchchhbandh) by their arrangement on the varnamala, while not only making perfect sense but retaining a distinct artistic merit. Nonetheless, all these linguistic and combinatorial gymnastical tours-de-force were categorised by contemporaries as “adham-kavya” or “inferior/irregular poetry”, trivialised, inferiorised and condescended upon for their seeming lack of focus on convention and maximising the rasas, not that they lacked the latter.

In spite of its elegance, the Raghavayadaviyam is itself a bit obscure and cryptic, and was thus named “dushkar kavya” (inaccessible or hard to approach/attain poetry) by contemporaries, until the poet himself annotated it.

  • Written byPitamber Kaushik

    The author is a freelance journalist and amateur researcher in philosophy and minority studies, having previously written for The Telegraph, The New Delhi Times, The Gulf News, The Sunday Independent, Rising Kashmir, The Quint, Intersectional Feminism India, Sudharma, and The MilliGazette.


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