What Kalidasa teaches us about Lockdown, Bodiversity Loss and Climate Change

abhay k.

Undiminished beauty and splendour of Kalidasa’s poetry can teach us a thing or two on how to beat the lockdown,
writes Abhay K. sharing his 21st century rendering of Kalidasa’s Meghaduta

A poem by UK poet laureate Simon Armitage titled ‘Lockdown’ about the Corona virus pandemic published in the Guardian on 21st March 2020, which was influenced by Meghaduta or The Cloud Messenger by Kalidasa, inspired me to read Meghaduta in original Sanskrit and its various English translations. Fortunately, I had studied Sanskrit in my high school in Rajgir, Nalanda, Bihar, which came in handy. It was one of my favourite subjects those days and I still remember several shlokas by heart, which have become part of my everyday life.

World Catalogue shows 250 editions of Meghaduta so far in various languages. I chose to read the verse translation by H.H. Wilson published over 200 years ago in 1814, prose-poem translation by Col. H.A. Ouvry in 1868, translation with exhaustive notes by Mallinatha published in 1895 and translation by Chandra Rajan published by the Sahitya Akademi in 1997.

These are fine translations, however I felt that this breathtaking poem of 111 stanzas needed to be presented to the younger generation in a more contemporary language, especially during the time of the lockdown across the planet, to help them to cope with it. The poem is about a Yaksha or an attendant spirit of Kubera, the Lord of Wealth, who is banished for a year in central India for neglecting his duties in the mythical city of Alaka, in the high Himalayas near Mount Kailasa.

Meghaduta is full of detailed descriptions of flora and fauna of the central and north India as well as of its hills, rivers, mountains, legends, beliefs, traditions, mythologies, rituals, high erotica among others. I have tried my best to preserve the names of the plants and animals, rivers, hills and mountains, traditions and styles, as in the original Sanskrit text of Kalidasa, providing their modern names in the note below each stanza in which they appear. I think it is very important to keep their original names lest we forget them and lose these treasures.

Meghaduta creates a complete magical world in itself full of sylphs, nymphs, spirits, eight-legged animals, the wish fulfilling trees, various kinds of drums, celestial elephants, birds, rare flowers, fruits, plants and trees who help the cloud in his journey to deliver the Yaksha’s message to his beloved.

The secret of Meghaduta’s continued relevance even today, in my view, is its focus on sensual love and the nature’s beauty, the two subjects which are of eternal interest to us; and Kalidasa’s genius in making these two flow into each other. For example, who but Kalidasa can imagine the rivers as sensuous women, advising his friend, the cloud to take interest in rivers along the way on his journey from the central Indian plains to the Himalayas—

तस्याः किंचित्करधृतमिव प्राप्तवानीरशाखं
हृत्वा नीलं सलिलवसनं मुक्तरोधोनितम्बम
प्रस्थानं ते कथम अपि सखे लम्बमानस्य भावि
ज्ञातास्वादो विवृतजघनां को विहातुं समर्थः॥४१॥

Like the slender arms of the lady river

Vanira branches reach out to take away her 

water garment and expose her thighs, the banks.

O friend, of course it would take long for you 

to depart, for who has the strength to leave 

a woman after relishing her bare thighs?                              41       


This love poem would be unimaginable without all the plants and fragrant flowers described in detail by Kalidasa. This is why Meghaduta should be of interest to the contemporary readers as we deal with biodiversity loss and climate change today. Can we use the imagery of nature as a sensual being presented by Kalidasa in Meghaduta to transform how we see nature—from mother to beloved, from revering it to loving it and from being separate from it to being part of it? Can it help us in protecting nature if we start see clouds, rivers, plants, trees and animals as sensual beings?

Meghaduta also highlights the importance of flowers, plants, animal, seasons, rains, rainbows, winds, sun, moon, stars, stones, rivers, mountains among others things—animate and inanimate, in our love-life, without which we would be gradually become bio-robots obsessed with numbers and statistics, dealing with various kind of growth rates, and living a dismal life on a planet marred by loss of biodiversity and extreme climatic events.

With the above in mind, here I present my translations of the first 7 stanzas of Meghaduta in which a Yaksha pleads with the cloud to take his message to his young wife in the mythical city of Alaka and stanzas 64-71 describing the beauty of Alaka and its women, and the last 6 stanzas, to give you a taste of undiminished beauty and splendour of Kalidasa’s poetry written in Sanskrit circa 5th century CE, roughly 1500 years ago. I have also provided the Sanskrit texts of the stanzas in case you would also like to read the original text.

कश्चित्कान्ताविरहगुरुणा स्वाधिकारात्प्रमत्तः
शापेनास्तंगमितमहिमा वर्षभोग्येण भर्तुः
यक्षश्चक्रे जनकतनयास्नानपुण्योदकेषु
स्निग्धच्छायातरुषु वसतिं रामगिर्याश्रमेषु॥१॥

A Yaksha, negligent of his duties, 

deprived of his divinity by Kubera’s curse, 

banished for a year away from his beloved, 

made home at hermitages in Ramagiri

full of thick and shady groves 

where Sita bathed once.                            1


Yaksha: Attendant spirit of Kubera, god of wealth

Ramagiri is located somewhere in Maikal range in the central India

तस्मिन्नद्रौ कतिचिदबलाविप्रयुक्तः स कामी
नीत्वा मासान् कनकवलयभ्रंशरिक्तप्रकोष्ठः
आषाढस्य प्रथमदिवसे मेघमाश्लिष्टसानुं
वप्रक्रीडापरिणतगजप्रेक्षणीयं ददर्श॥२॥

Separated from his sweetheart—lovesick, 

having passed several months on these hills

his arms bare—golden bracelets fallen off, 

on the first day of Asadha, he saw a cloud 

embracing the mountain peak like an elephant

engaged in playful thrusts against a river bank.                    2


Asadha: the first month of the rainy season, usually in June-July

तस्य स्थित्वा कथमपि पुरः कौतुकाधानहेतो
रन्तर्बाष्पश्चिरमनुचरो राजराजस्य दध्यौ
मेघालोके भवति सुखिनोऽप्यन्यथावृत्ति चेतः
कण्ठाश्लेषप्रणयिनि जने किं पुनर्दूरसंस्थे॥३॥

Standing before it with tearful eyes 

he fell into deep trance—even a happy

heart is moved at the sight of a cloud,

what then could be the state of someone 

who has been exiled so far away—

full of desire, anxious to embrace his love?                 3


प्रत्यासन्ने नभसि दयिताजीवितालम्बनार्थी
जीमूतेन स्वकुशलमयीं हारयिष्यन्प्रवृत्तिम
स प्रत्यग्रैः कुटजकुसुमैः कल्पितार्घाय तस्मै
प्रीतः प्रीतिप्रमुखवचनं स्वागतं व्याजहार॥४॥

Nabhasa setting in, he craved to please his love,

sending her a word through the cloud

so he made an offering of fresh Kutaja flowers

to the cloud and addressed him dearly.                      4


Nabhasa: the second month of rainy season in India usually in July-August

Kutaja :  Ivory tree (Holarrhena antidysenterica)


धूमज्योतिःसलिलमरुतां संनिपातः क्व मेघः
सन्देशार्थाः क्व पटुकरणैः प्राणिभिः प्रापणीयाः
इत्यौत्सुक्यादपरिगणयन् गुह्यकस्तं ययाचे
कामार्ता हि प्रकृतिकृपणाश्चेतनाचेतएषु॥५॥

Can a cloud, a concoction of water and wind, 

radiant vapour and lightning carry a message,

usually done by a wise messenger in flesh and bone?

He urged the cloud without paying attention

to these, mad in love— for the lovesick 

what’s animate and what’s inanimate?                      5


संतप्तानां त्वमसि शरणं तत्पयोद प्रियायाः
संदेशं मे हर धनपतिक्रोधविश्लेषितस्य
गन्तव्या ते वसतिरलका नाम यक्षेश्वराणां

O rainmaker, the saviour of the suffering

please carry my message to my true love—

for I am separated from her by the wrath of Kubera,

please go to Alaka, the residence of the Lord of Yakshas

where palaces glow under the moon on Shiva’s head

who resides in a garden in the city’s outskirts.                                   7

विधुन्वन्तं ललितवनिताः सेन्द्रचापं सचित्राः
संगीताय प्रहतमुरजाः स्निग्धगम्भीरघोषम
अन्तस्तोयं मणिमयभुवस तुङ्गम अभ्रंलिहाग्राः
प्रासादास त्वां तुलयितुम अलं यत्र तैस तैर विशेषैः॥६४॥

Where palaces, kissing the sky, can match 

your splendor, one on one, on each of these—

terraces made of precious stones rival the sparkle 

of your radiant rain drops, murals on the walls

compete with the colours of your rainbow, flirty

women rival lightning’s playfulness, and the beating 

of drums match the deep-throated sound of your thunder.             64

यस्यां यक्षाः सितमणिमयान्य एत्य हर्म्यस्थलानि
ज्योतिश्चायाकुसुमरचितान्य उत्तमस्त्रीसहायाः
आसेवन्ते मधु रतिफलं कल्पवृक्षप्रसूतं
त्वद्गम्भीरध्वनिषु शनकैः पुष्करेष्व आहतेषु॥६६॥

Where Yakshas with charming women as companions, 

revel on their palace-terraces paved with moonstones

resembling flowers under starlight, addicting themselves

to Ratiphala wine pressed from Kalpataru, Puskara drums 

beating gently producing deep and soft sound like yours.                66



Ratiphala: an aphrodisiac fruit 

Kalpataru: wish fulfilling tree


कॢप्तच्छेद्यैः कनककमलैःकर्णविभ्रंशिभिश्च । 

मुक्तालग्नस्तनपरिमलैश्छिन्नसूत्रैश्च हारैर्

नैशो मार्गः सवितुरुदये सूच्यते कामिनीनाम् ॥ ६७ ॥

Where at the dawn, the night-path of the amorous women 

is revealed by fallen Mandara flowers from their ringlets

golden lotuses torn, fallen from their ears, 

threads of their necklaces broken, pearls scattered,

fragrant from the perfume of their breasts.                             67


Mandara : Erythrina variegata or Indian coral tree


नीवीबन्धोच्च्वासितशिथिलं यत्र बिम्बाधराणां
क्षौमं रागादनिभृतकरेष्व आक्षिपत्सु प्रियेषु
अर्चिस्तुङ्गान अभिमुखम अपि प्राप्य रत्नप्रदीपान
ह्रीमूढानां भवति विफलप्रेरणा चूर्णमुष्टिः॥६८॥

Where the lovers, full of desire, with their impudent

hands undo the waist-string and toss aside 

the slackened silk garments of Yaksha women, 

who covered in shame throw a handful of churna 

on the jewel lamps with high flames. Ah! but in vain.    68


Churna: aromatic powder

यत्र स्त्रीणां प्रियतमभुजोच्च्वासितालिङ्गितानाम
अङ्गग्लानिं सुरतजनितां तन्तुजालावलम्बाः
त्वत्संरोधापगमविशदश चन्द्रपादैर निशीथे
व्यालुम्पन्ति स्फुटजललवस्यन्दिनश चन्द्रकान्ताः॥७०॥

Where at midnight, moonstones, hanging

from the thread nets, touched by the moonbeams, 

free from your obstruction, ooze drops of cool water, 

taking away the weariness of women

released from the arms of their lovers

after hours of lovemaking.   70              

मत्वा देवं धनपतिसखं यत्र साक्षाद वसन्तं
प्रायश चापं न वहति भयान मन्मथः षट्पदज्यम
सभ्रूभङ्गप्रहितनयनैः कामिलक्ष्येष्व अमोघैस
तस्यारम्भश चतुरवनिताविभ्रमैर एव सिद्धः॥७१॥

Where Shiva, friend of Kubera, himself lives—

and fearing him the god of love does not bear 

his bow strung with bees, his work accomplished

by charming women whose arched eyebrows

like stretched bows shoot seductive looks

at the lovers—their preys.    71


Shiva: the supreme god

Kubera: the Lord of wealth

The legend is that Manmatha, the god of love was afraid having once been reduced to ashes by fiery glance of Shiva

नन्व आत्मानं बहु विगणयन्न आत्मनैवावलम्बे
तत्कल्याणि त्वम अपि नितरां मा गमः कातरत्वम
कस्यात्यन्तं सुखम उपनतं दुःखम एकान्ततो वा
नीचैर गच्चत्य उपरि च दशा चक्रनेमिक्रमेण॥१०६॥

Reflecting, however, I find strength within,

therefore darling, don’t give in

to utter despondency. Who has ever attained 

everlasting happiness or suffered endless misery?

The man’s condition is like the rim of a wheel

—sometimes up, sometimes down.                              106

भूयश्चाह त्वम अपि शयने कण्ठलग्ना पुरा मे
निद्रां गत्वा किम अपि रुदती सस्वरं विप्रबुद्धा
सान्तर्हासं कथितम असकृत पृच्चतश च त्वया मे
दृष्टः स्वप्ने कितव रमयन काम अपि त्वं मयेति॥१०८॥

And once again happily we’ll be in bed

as before, your arms around my neck,

suddenly, you’ll wake up sobbing

and when I would ask the reason,

you’ll tell me with half-suppressed laughter

—“You flirt, I saw you in my dream

making love to another woman.”                            108

एतस्मान मां कुशलिनम अभिज्ञानदानाद विदित्वा
मा कौलीनाद असितनयने मय्य अविश्वासिनी भूः
स्नेहान आहुः किम अपि विरहे ध्वंसिनस ते त्व अभोगाद
इष्टे वस्तुन्य उपचितरसाः प्रेमराशीभवन्ति॥१०९॥

On receiving the message O dusky-eyed,

rest assured I’m well, don’t doubt me

believing any scandalous gossip.

They say that separation destroys love

ah! on the contrary, in the absence

of pleasure, cravings become stronger, 

multiplying into a galaxy of desires.                                    109

एतत्कृत्वा प्रियमनुचितप्रार्थनावर्तिनो मे
सौहार्दाद्वा विधुर इति वा मय्यनुक्रोशबुद्ध्या ।
इष्टान्देशाञ्जलद विचर प्रावृषा संभृतश्रीर्मा
भूदेवं क्षणमपि च ते विद्युता विप्रयोगः॥१११॥

Having granted my heart’s wish

for our friendship’s sake or out of pity

O cloud, richly recharged with rain, go

wherever you wish to go. May you never

be separated from the light of your life 

like me, even for a moment.                                                                111

Lockdown across the planet has taught us to pay attention to our surroundings as Kalidasa has done in these exquisite poems, reminding us of all the beauty waiting to be discovered by slowing down, listening to birdsong, smelling the fragrance of flowers, reading books, thinking about our relationship with nature and how can we tackle the three biggest challenges our planet faces today —biodiversity loss, climate change and environmental pollution.


Abhay K. is the author of ten poetry books and the editor of The Book of Bihari Literature (HarperCollins India, 2022), The Bloomsbury Book of Great Indian Love Poems (2020) among others. His poem ‘Earth Anthem’ has been translated into over 150 languages. He received SAARC Literary Award 2013 and was invited to record his poems at the Library of Congress, Washington DC in 2018. His translations of Kalidasa’s Meghaduta  (Bloomsbury India, 2021) and Ritusamhara  (Bloomsbury India, 2021) from Sanskrit, have won KLF Poetry Book of the Year Award 2020-21.

Life in Quarantine: Witnessing Global Pandemic is an initiative sponsored by the Poetic Media Lab and the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis at Stanford University.

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