Ode to Sky Lark: Shelley, Kalidasa and Vedic Poet Grtsamada

cataka 1

Written by London Swaminathan
Post No. 1058; Dated 22nd May 2014.

It is very interesting to study and compare the poems on birds by Rig Vedic sage Grtsamada, India’s greatest Sanskrit poet Kalidasa, Sangam Tamil poets and English poet P.B Shelley. Among these poets, Shelly is always associated with the sky lark. But singing odes to birds started several thousand years before Shelly, that too on the banks of River Saraswati. The author of Second Mandala of the Rig Veda is sage Grtsamada. This Mandala is considered one of the oldest Mandalas of the Veda. Some scholars dated it to 1700 BCE. Life of Grtsamada is itself mysterious. He is said to belong to two Gotras. His poem about a bird called Kapinjala is more mysterious. I will discuss the mystery of Kapinjala separately. But in the following article I will simply compare Kapainjala with sky lark and Cataka bird.

Nearly 2000 years after Grtsamada, Kalidasa, Adi shanakara and the Sangam Age Tamil poets sang about the sky lark. Nearly 1500 years after these poets, PB Shelley came on the scene to sing about the same bird.

Picture of Jacobin Cuckoo (cataka bird)

Is Kapinjala of R.V. a sky lark?
What is Kapinjala? It is a bird identified by early scholars as francolin partridge. I don’t agree with this identification. Going by the words and description, it is the Cataka bird of Sanskrit and Tamil literature. Kapinjala means that which drinks water.

Cataka : “Some people identify it with the Jacobin cuckoo (Family- Cuculidae, Genus-Clamator). Because of its persistent and peculiar call, it is also known as the brain fever bird. The cataka is believed to subsist only on rain drops; as it disdains to drink any other water, it has become a symbol in literature of pride and self respect; it is associated with clouds and rain; to see a cataka on the left is a good omen; in stanza 9 of Maghadutam, three good omens are listed: the cataka bird on the left, a gentle breeze and hen cranes eager for mating.” (from Kalidasa -The Loom of Time by Chandra Rajan)

Meghadutam of Kalidasa :–

“as you loiter along, and here on your left
The cataka in its pride sings sweetly” (verse 9)

“Siddhas watching catakas
Skilled catching falling rain drops” (verse 23)

“Without a sound you offer catakas
The water they crave” (verse 113)

Implored by catakas tormented by great thirst
And hanging low weighed down by large loads of water (Rtusamharam 2-3)
There many more references in sakuntalam , Raghuvamsam and Vikramorvasiyam)

Picture of Chataka Pakshi (Kapinjala)

The Kapinjala is also associated with water and omens. So it is not francolin partridge, but it is Cataka.

What is the Mystery?
The second part of this article will deal with the mystery of this bird. Why Indra is called a Kapinjala? Why Buddha was called a Kapinjala in the Jataka story? Why Devi Bhagavatham Purana says that Kapinjala came from the head of Vritrasura? Was astrology (Bird predictions) practised in the Vedic period?

First, let us read the poem from the R.V.
“The hymn is addressed to Indra in the form of a Kapinjala, the bird which we call the Francoline partridge”: Ralph T H Griffith in book The Rig Veda

Mandala 2, Hymn 42
1.Telling his race aloud with cries repeated, he sends his voice as his boat a steersman.
O Bird, be ominous of happy fortune; from no side may calamity befall thee.
Let not the falcon kill thee, nor the eagle; let not the arrow bearing archer reach thee.
Still crying in the region of the fathers, speak here auspicious, bearing joyful tidings.
3.Bringing good tidings, Bird of happy omen, call thou out loudly southward of our dwellings,
So that no thief, no sinner may oppress us, Loud may we speak, with heroes in assembly.

Mandala 2, Hymn 43

1.Here on the right sing forth chanters of hymns of praise, even the winged birds that in due season speak.
He, like a Sama chanter utters both the notes, skilled in the mode of Trstup and of Gayatri.

2.Thou like the chanter priest chantest the Sama,Bird; though singest at libations like a Brahman’s son.
Even as a vigorous horse when he comes near the mare, announce to us good fortune, Bird, on every side, proclaim in all directions happy luck, O Bird.

3.When singing here O Bird, announce good luck to us, and when thou at sittest still think on us with kind thoughts

When flying off thou singest thou art like a lute. With brave sons in assembly may we speak aloud.

From the above hymn three things are clear:
1.It is a song bird 2.It is a bird of omen 3)It is in the region of fathers (sky)
When we compare this with cataka of Kalidasa it is matched without any difficulty. The very name Kapinjala makes it clear that it longs for water. Sangam Tamil literature copied Kalidasa in several places. Following are the descriptions of Cataka in Tamil literature:


Skylark in Sangam Tamil Literature
A bard awaiting with hopes the kind of munificence of a benefactor compares himself to the skylark that longs for drops of rain – Puram 198 sung by Vatamavannakkan Perisatan

The skylark sings while soaring in the sky longing for rain – Kali 46
It suffers in the absence of seasonal rain – Aink. Line 418

There is a reference to the skylark that longs for rain and the poet mentions it as “tuli nasai pul”( puram 198 vatamavannakkan perisatan)
Aink-418, aka.67, kali 46, pura 196, Patina-3/4

So far I have made it clear that Grtsamada,Kalidasa and Sangam Tamil poets sing about the same bird Kapinjala=Sataka= Thuli Nasai Pul in Tamil.

Now compare it with the beautiful poem by P B Shelley:

Ode to a Skylark by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)
Sky lark is a different bird, but the approach of the poet to the bird is same as Grtsamada’s Kapinjala. So we can boldly say that Grtsamada started this genre:

Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert-
That from Heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.

Higher still and higher
From the earth thou springest
Like a cloud of fire;
The blue deep thou wingest,
And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.
Skylark 08 (Shay Connolly)

In the golden lightning
Of the sunken sun,
O’er which clouds are brightening,
Thou dost float and run,
Like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun.

The pale purple even
Melts around thy flight;
Like a star of Heaven,
In the broad day-light
Thou art unseen, but yet I hear thy shrill delight–

Keen as are the arrows
Of that silver sphere,
Whose intense lamp narrows
In the white dawn clear
Until we hardly see, we feel that it is there.

All the earth and air
With thy voice is loud,
As, when night is bare,
From one lonely cloud
The moon rains out her beams, and Heaven is overflowed.

What thou art we know not;
What is most like thee?
From rainbow clouds there flow not
Drops so bright to see
As from thy presence showers a rain of melody:-

Like a poet hidden
In the light of thought,
Singing hymns unbidden,
Till the world is wrought
To sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not:

Like a high-born maiden
In a palace-tower,
Soothing her love-laden
Soul in secret hour
With music sweet as love, which overflows her bower:
Picture of P B Shelley

Like a glow-worm golden
In a dell of dew,
Scattering unbeholden
Its aerial hue
Among the flowers and grass, which screen it from the view:

Like a rose embowered
In its own green leaves,
By warm winds deflowered,
Till the scent it gives
Makes faint with too much sweet those heavy-winged thieves:

Sound of vernal showers
On the twinkling grass,
Rain-awakened flowers,
All that ever was
Joyous, and clear, and fresh, thy music doth surpass.

Teach us, Sprite or Bird,
What sweet thoughts are thine:
I have never heard
Praise of love or wine
That panted forth a flood of rapture so divine.

Chorus hymeneal,
Or triumphal chant,
Match’d with thine would be all
But an empty vaunt,
A thing wherein we feel there is some hidden want.

What objects are the fountains
Of thy happy strain?
What fields, or waves, or mountains?
What shapes of sky or plain?
What love of thine own kind? what ignorance of pain?

With thy clear keen joyance
Languor cannot be:
Shadow of annoyance
Never came near thee:
Thou lovest: but ne’er knew love’s sad satiety.

Waking or asleep,
Thou of death must deem
Things more true and deep
Than we mortals dream,
Or how could thy notes flow in such a crystal stream?

We look before and after,
And pine for what is not:
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.

Yet if we could scorn
Hate, and pride, and fear;
If we were things born
Not to shed a tear,
I know not how thy joy we ever should come near.

Better than all measures
Of delightful sound,
Better than all treasures
That in books are found,
Thy skill to poet were, thou scorner of the ground!

Teach me half the gladness
That thy brain must know,
Such harmonious madness
From my lips would flow
The world should listen then, as I am listening now—P B Shelley


Please read my earlier posts:

The Mysterious Vedic Homa Bird: Does it Exist? (posted on 10 December 2011)
Can Birds Predict your Future?
Hindu Eagle Mystery Deepens (Posted on 16-2-2013)
A Tamil bird in Sumerian Double headed Eagle in Sumeria
Double Headed Eagle: Sumerian- Indian Connection
Karikal Choza and Eagle Shaped Fire Altar
Bird Migration in Kalidasa and Tamil Lterature
Friends of Birds
Four Birds in One Sloka
Can Parrots recite Vedas?
Gods and Birds