In The Cloud-Messenger Kalidasa created a new genre in Sanskrit literature. Hindu critics class the poem with The Dynasty of Raghu and The Birth of the War-god as a kavya, or learned epic. This it obviously is not. It is fair enough to call it an elegiac poem, though a precisian might object to the term.
We have already seen, in speaking of The Dynasty of Raghu, what admiration Kalidasa felt for his great predecessor Valmiki, the author of the Ramayana; and it is quite possible that an episode of the early epic suggested to him the idea which he has exquisitely treated in The Cloud-Messenger. In the Ramayana, after the defeat and death of Ravana, Rama returns with his wife and certain heroes of the struggle from Ceylon to his home in Northern India. The journey, made in an aërial car, gives the author an opportunity to describe the country over which the car must pass in travelling from one end of India to the other. The hint thus given him was taken by Kalidasa; a whole canto of The Dynasty of Raghu (the thirteenth) is concerned with the aërial journey. Now if, as seems not improbable, The Dynasty of Raghu was the earliest of Kalidasa’s more ambitious works, it is perhaps legitimate to imagine him, as he wrote this canto, suddenly inspired with the plan of The Cloud-Messenger.
This plan is slight and fanciful. A demigod, in consequence of some transgression against his master, the god of wealth, is condemned to leave his home in the Himalayas, and spend a year of exile on a peak in the Vindhya Mountains, which divide the Deccan from the Ganges basin. He wishes to comfort and encourage his wife, but has no messenger to send her. In his despair, he begs a passing cloud to carry his words. He finds it necessary to describe the long journey which the cloud must take, and, as the two termini are skilfully chosen, the journey involves a visit to many of the spots famous in Indian story. The description of these spots fills the first half of the poem. The second half is filled with a more minute description of the heavenly city, of the home and bride of the demigod, and with the message proper. The proportions of the poem may appear unfortunate to the Western reader, in whom the proper names of the first half will wake scanty associations. Indeed, it is no longer possible to identify all the places mentioned, though the general route followed by the cloud can be easily traced. The peak from which he starts is probably one near the modern Nagpore. From this peak he flies a little west of north to the Nerbudda River, and the city of Ujjain; thence pretty straight north to the upper Ganges and the Himalaya. The geography of the magic city of Alaka is quite mythical.
The Cloud-Messenger contains one hundred and fifteen four-line stanzas, in a majestic metre called the “slow-stepper.” The English stanza which has been chosen for the translation gives perhaps as fair a representation of the original movement as may be, where direct imitation is out of the question. Though the stanza of the translation has five lines to four for the slow-stepper, it contains fewer syllables; a constant check on the temptation to padding.
The analysis which accompanies the poem, and which is inserted in Italics at the beginning of each stanza, has more than one object. It saves footnotes; it is intended as a real help to comprehension; and it is an eminently Hindu device. Indeed, it was my first intention to translate literally portions of Mallinatha’s famous commentary; and though this did not prove everywhere feasible, there is nothing in the analysis except matter suggested by the commentary.
One minor point calls for notice. The word Himálaya has been accented on the second syllable wherever it occurs. This accent is historically correct, and has some foothold in English usage; besides, it is more euphonious and better adapted to the needs of the metre.
A Yaksha, or divine attendant on Kubera, god of wealth, is exiled for a year from his home in the Himalayas. As he dwells on a peak in the Vindhya range, half India separates him from his young bride.
On Rama’s shady peak where hermits roam,
Mid streams by Sita’s bathing sanctified,
An erring Yaksha made his hapless home,
Doomed by his master humbly to abide,
And spend a long, long year of absence from his bride.
After eight months of growing emaciation, the first cloud warns him of the approach of the rainy season, when neglected brides are wont to pine and die.
Some months were gone; the lonely lover’s pain
Had loosed his golden bracelet day by day
Ere he beheld the harbinger of rain,
A cloud that charged the peak in mimic fray,
As an elephant attacks a bank of earth in play.
Fore this cause of lovers’ hopes and fears
Long time Kubera’s bondman sadly bowed
In meditation, choking down his tears —
Even happy hearts thrill strangely to the cloud;
To him, poor wretch, the loved embrace was disallowed.
Unable to send tidings otherwise of his health and unchanging love, he resolves to make the cloud his messenger.
Longing to save his darling’s life, unblest
With joyous tidings, through the rainy days,
He plucked fresh blossoms for his cloudy guest,
Such homage as a welcoming comrade pays,
And bravely spoke brave words of greeting and of praise.
Nor did it pass the lovelorn Yaksha’s mind
How all unfitly might his message mate
With a cloud, mere fire and water, smoke and wind —
Ne’er yet was lover could discriminate
’Twixt life and lifeless things, in his love-blinded state.
He prefers his request,
I know, he said, thy far-famed princely line,
Thy state, in heaven’s imperial council chief,
Thy changing forms; to thee, such fate is mine,
I come a suppliant in my widowed grief —
Better thy lordly “no” than meaner souls’ relief.
O cloud, the parching spirit stirs thy pity;
My bride is far, through royal wrath and might;
Bring her my message to the Yaksha city,
Rich-gardened Alaka, where radiance bright
From Shiva’s crescent bathes the palaces in light.
hinting at the same time that the’ cloud will find his kindly labour rewarded by pleasures on the road,
When thou art risen to airy paths of heaven,
Through lifted curls the wanderer’s love shall peep
And bless the sight of thee for comfort given;
Who leaves his bride through cloudy days to weep
Except he be like me, whom chains of bondage keep?
and by happy omens.
While favouring breezes waft thee gently forth,
And while upon thy left the plover sings
His proud, sweet song, the cranes who know thy worth
Will meet thee in the sky on joyful wings
And for delights anticipated join their rings.
He assures the cloud that his bride is neither dead nor faithless;
Yet hasten, O my brother, till thou see —
Counting the days that bring the lonely smart —
The faithful wife who only lives for me:
A drooping flower is woman’s loving heart,
Upheld by the stem of hope when two true lovers part.
further, that there will be no lack of travelling companions.
And when they hear thy welcome thunders break,
When mushrooms sprout to greet thy fertile weeks,
The swans who long for the Himalayan lake
Will be thy comrades to Kailasa’s peaks,
With juicy bits of lotus-fibre in their beaks.
One last embrace upon this mount bestow
Whose flanks were pressed by Rama’s holy feet,
Who yearly strives his love for thee to show,
Warmly his well-beloved friend to greet
With the tear of welcome shed when two long-parted meet.
He then describes the long journey,
Learn first, O cloud, the road that thou must go,
Then hear my message ere thou speed away;
Before thee mountains rise and rivers flow:
When thou art weary, on the mountains stay,
And when exhausted, drink the rivers’ driven spray.
beginning with the departure from Rama’s peak, where dwells a company of Siddhas, divine beings of extraordinary sanctity.
Elude the heavenly elephants’ clumsy spite;
Fly from this peak in richest jungle drest;
And Siddha maids who view thy northward flight
Will upward gaze in simple terror, lest
The wind be carrying quite away the mountain crest.
Bright as a heap of flashing gems, there shines
Before thee on the ant-hill, Indra’s bow;
Matched with that dazzling rainbow’s glittering lines,
Thy sombre form shall find its beauties grow,
Like the dark herdsman Vishnu, with peacock-plumes aglow.
The Mala plateau.
The farmers’ wives on Mala’s lofty lea,
Though innocent of all coquettish art,
Will give thee loving glances; for on thee
Depends the fragrant furrow’s fruitful part;
Thence, barely westering, with lightened burden start.
The Mango Peak.
The Mango Peak whose forest fires were laid
By streams of thine, will soothe thy weariness;
In memory of a former service paid,
Even meaner souls spurn not in time of stress
A suppliant friend; a soul so lofty, much the less.