Love Poems of Ancient and Medieval India

“Before [people] ever wrote in clay” it has been said, “they cast their words in verse and line, rhythm-bound in poets’ minds, defying time and age.”

Most civilizations around the world have had long poetic traditions, carried forward by men and women with a passion to paint and depict their inner and outer world in words, as well as the ability to do so with remarkable imagination, insight and beauty of expression.  With the passage of time, in most societies, poetry of various ‘kinds’ began to be composed; and poems thus came to be classified under different genres. Three of the nine muses of ancient Greece, for example, were believed to inspire three different forms of poetry: Calliope (epic poetry), Erato (love poetry), and Polyhymnia (sacred poetry).

Among the various poetic-genres that developed around the world, love poetry is one of the most common – across civilizations and societies. Archaeologists, for instance, have found poems of love inscribed on 4000 year old Sumerian cuneiform tablets and tablets of clay on Easter Islands, as well as on archaeological artefacts unearthed from near the Egyptian pyramids. Ancient love poems have been found in almost all parts of the Greek archipelago; and Catullus, a famous Roman poet of the 1st century BCE, is still widely read for his love poems brimming with wit and passion. Similarly, the Arab poets of yore, “thrilled with autointoxication in describing the charms of woman-her fragrant hair, jewel eyes, berry lips, and silver limbs.” (Durant, p. 264). And ancient Persia is famous for its epic love poems such as Vis and Ramin and (love) poets such as Sa’adi.

Given the universality and the timelessness of love, and the enduring propensity of most cultures to express it in the form of love poems and love stories – are there features of ‘Indian’ love-poems and love-stories that set them apart from those of other nations and cultures? Can it be said that Indian love poems and stories possess characteristics that make them peculiar to the land and society? If yes, what are some of these features or characteristics?

It’s these questions that I will attempt to explore in this essay. It may be noted here as a preliminary, however, that given that love-poetry and love stories have a history of over two-thousand years in India, and that these poems and stories have been written in a myriad of languages, any attempt to summarise the characteristics of Indian love poetry and love stories in a short essay, is likely to be inadequate. Therefore, for the purpose of this essay I will focus primarily on Sanskrit poems composed or collected by three scholars/poets: Bhartrihari’s (5th CE) Shringara Shatakatraya, Vidyakara’s (11th CE) Subhashitaratnakosha and Bilhana’s (11th CE) Caurapâñcâśikâ. In addition to these poets and anthologist, I will also briefly refer to some others as appropriate.

Indian Love Poems    

As indicated above, while many of the features detailed below are primarily derived from Sanskrit poetry (and thus may not characterize all Indian love poems or poets), since Sanskrit is often considered to be the ‘mother-language’ and Sanskrit-literature substantially influenced the later literature of other languages of the sub-continent, it can be assumed, with some reservations, that a number of the features discussed here, also characterize the love-poems written in other Indian languages.

2.1 Rasa: The Guiding Framework

The ‘Rasa Theory’ (though originally applied to the theatre) is now considered to be fundamental to many forms of Indian art including dance, music, theatre, literature and cinema. It is thus also seen as one of the most important poetic theories of ancient India; and central to understanding its important features. It classifies human emotions into nine basic or stable types: Śṛngāram, Hāsyam, Raudram, Kāruṇyam, Bībhatsam, Bhayānakam, Vīram, Adbhutam and Śāntam.

A ‘creator’ (or poet) is said to “experience an [admixture of] emotion and is so overwhelmed by it that he seeks a medium for the expression of his feelings.” (Sunil, 2005) The chief purpose of the poet, thus, is to “transmit a sort of decoction of the stable emotions to his audience.”(Ingalls, p. 14). And this decoction of the nine basic emotions – which is the dominant emotional theme of the poem – is termed the rasa. In other words, rasa could be seen as a two-fold experience “felt by the creator and his expression through his [poem] and the experience of the reader (Sahrdayas) who receive the [poem].”

The extent to which the reader undergoes the emotion felt by the poet, is dependent on the skill and abilities of the poet in using elements such as Vibhava, Anubhava and Vyabicaribhava (33 transitory experiences), and also on how the Vyabicaribhava are aligned to create the Sthayibhava i.e. the stable mood (which, in turn, leads to the emergence of the required rasa). (Mund, 2011; p. 53-54)

Vibhava refers to the tools or means by which an emotion is activated, and is of two types: Alambhana Vibhava (the person or object responsible for the evocation of the emotion) also called the basic stimulus, and the Uddipana Vibhava (the setting in which the person or object is placed which helps in intensifying the emotional experience) and also called the external stimulus. Vibhavas are thus the ‘causal factors’; and the consequence i.e. the external manifestation which stem from the emotions evoked by the Vibhavas are termed the Anubhavas – which can be of two types: Vacika (expressed with the help of words) and Angika (expressed with the help of body or gestures). (Sunil, 2005)

As is apparent, the adoption this framework by Indian poets (and thus, also, its means and objectives), has influenced the Indian love poems in a number of ways. One of the direct influences has been on account of the conventions regarding the permissible combinations of the rasas. For example, as most love-poems are of Śṛngār rasa, and the conventions of rasa theory forbid certain combinations such as Śṛngār and Bhayānakam, while encouraging some other combinations such as Śṛngār and Hasyam, one is far more likely to come across love poems or love stories of the latter type than the former (Bhavabhuti’s Malatimadhava being an exceptional example).  Another example of the influence of the conventions that distinguishes Indian love poems is that ‘jealousy’ may be expressed by a woman but not by a man. (Ingalls, 1965). Some other important influences of the rasa theory on Indian love poems, would be discussed in the subsequent sections.

2.2 Types of Śṛngār Rasa

The Śṛngār Rasa, and thus the Indian love poems, are divided into three broad types, as described below (based on Dasarupaka of Dhananjaya).

2.2.1 Ayoga Śṛngār

In this type of love stories or poems, two individuals though attracted towards each other, are unable to unite due to certain reasons (which could be a curse, societal norms and so on). Kalidasa’s five-act Sanskrit drama, Malavikagnimitra – which tells the story of “the machinations of King Agnimitra to win Malavika, a female dance student with whom he is in love” despite opposition from his wife, the queen –  is an example of this type of love story (combining ayoga sṛngār ras with hasya ras, as mentioned in Sec 2.1).

2.2.2 Vipra-Lamba- Śṛngār (Love in Separation)

In this form of love stories/poems, the lovers have already met (and experienced union) at least once. It can be of two sub-types:

Pravasrupa Viyog: In this form, the man is (or about to go) out of home for an extended period of time, and the woman is shown to be in a state of viraha as a result of his absence. A good example of this type of love poem is Kalidasa’s Meghadūta which recounts the story of a Yaksha who has been exiled and his attempts to convince a passing cloud to take a message to his wife.

Some other examples are as below:

 She fainted when she heard him say
That he must go abroad; and then,
Reviving, said, ‘You’re back again!
My love, you’ve been so long away.’

John Brough, Poems From the Sanskrit (Penguin, 1968)

‘Do not go’, I could say; but this is inauspicious.
‘All right, go’ is a loveless thing to say.
‘Stay with me’ is imperious.
‘Do as you wish’ suggests cold indifference.
And if I say ‘I’ll die when you are gone’,
You might or might not believe me.
Teach me, my husband, what I ought to say (ibid.)

Manarupa Viyog: In this form, the woman is depicted to be angry with her man as he is attracted to, or has been with, another woman. This relates to the poetic convention followed in Śṛngār rasa that only a woman can be jealous. Jaydev’s Geeta-Govinda provides many examples of this form of love poetry. For example, Radha steals out of her house to meet Krishna; adorns herself with flowers, and waits for him to come. When Krishna arrives at dawn, he has marks of a tryst with another woman on his body. This enrages Radha who asks him to stay away from her and says ‘Yahi madhava yahi keshava ma vada kaitava vadam’.

Given below is another example of this form of love-poem, from Amaru’s Amarukaśataka dated approximately to 7th / 8th century CE.

Yes, you are fawning at my feet,’ said she,
‘A wretched trick,’ she said, ‘to hide your chest
Smeared with the evidence, in case I see
Cosmetics from another woman’s breast.’
‘Where is it, then?’ I said, and with a kiss
Pressed close to her, to blur the telltale trace,
Holding her firm, arousing her to bliss
And she forgot it in our fierce embrace.


2.2.3 Sambhog Śṛngār (Love in Enjoyment)

In this type of love poetry the process of love making or some parts of it, or the situation before or after the love-making is described. A perhaps unique characteristic of this form of love poems is its frequent mention of involuntary actions of the body when involved in the act of love-making, such as sweating, horripilation etc. as well as the references to nail wounds and scratches.

When he has taken off my clothes,
Unable to guard my bosom with my slender arms
I clung to his very chest for garment
But when his hand crept down below my hips,
What was to save me, sinking in a sea of shame,
If not the god of love, who teaches us to swoon?

(Vallana) (Ingalls, 1965)

What comes on lucky lover’s chest
Embracing a young woman
People call horripilation
But my idea is this, that Cupid’s arrows
Are being extracted from his flesh
By the magnets of her round and swelling breasts

(Samkarsana; Ingalls, 1965)

2.3 Blurred Boundaries between Religious and the Secular

An important feature of the Indian love poetry is its blurring of boundary between the sensual and the spiritual.  As Rita Sherma (2008) remarks in Encyclopaedia of Love in World Religions (p. 511-12), in ancient and medieval India “conceptualization of romantic love flowed freely through fluid boundaries between popular ideals and the religious imaginations. The culture provided extensive theological space for employing the imagery, metaphors, and ideals of romantic love.”

In devotional forms of Hinduism, romantic love is used to describe the relationship between gods and their faithful worshippers. The Bhakti traditions, for instance, “have historically provided an important avenue for women poetess-saints whose songs about their divine ‘husbands’ are used as hymns even today” (Sherma, 2008). However, while most of poems (such as those of Akka Mahadevi) emphasize the complexity of the relationship between gods and humans as equals in union and unequal in separation; some others, such as Jayadeva’s Gita Govind  depicts god (Krishna) longing, emotionally and erotically, for Radha (worshipper) thus “transforming sensual passion into divine love and equalizing the relationship between god and his beloved.

I saw the lord, white as jasmine,
and broke wide open
He bartered my heart, looted my flesh,
claimed as tribute my pleasure,
took overall of me.
I’m the woman of love
for my lord, white as jasmine.

(Akka Mahadevi)

Sister, I had a dream that I wed
The Lord of those who live in need:
Five hundred sixty thousand people came
and the Lord of Braj was the groom.
In dream they set up a wedding arch;
in dream he grasped my hand:
in dream he led me around the wedding fire
and I became unshakeably his bride.


Similarly, Bhartṛhari’s Śṛngār Śatakatraya, as Dasgupta (1946) notes, “”indicates a frame of mind wavering between abandon and restraint; “either the fair lady or the cave of the mountains”; “either an abode on the sacred banks of the Ganges or in the delightful embrace of a young woman”

2.4 Literary Devices and the Role of Nature

Many of the Indian love poems contain a graphic and picturesque description of sceneries.  Given that the geography of a region is often hidden in its poems and songs, and ancient India was characterized by “the exuberance of vegetation, the profusion of trees and fruits and flowers, the glare of burning skies, the freshness of the monsoon, the fury of storms, the serenity of Indian moonlight” (Indian Epic Poetry, Williams) and so on; this does not come as a surprise. Nature, thus, is not just described in Indian love poems – it is also often personified, and used to create the right mood or rasa. It can, for instance, be depicted as an ally of the lovers, helping them in their trysts; or it can be used to intensify the longing (viraha) and thus make the separation more painful. The use of Nature (spring or rainy season, the moonlit night, the soft breezes, the fragrance of flowers) as ‘Uddipana Vibhava’ can be easily seen in love peoms such as Meghduta or Sanskrit plays such as Abhijñānashākuntalam.

Indian love poems are also characterised by a liberal use of literary devices such as metaphors, similes, alliterations, hyperbole etc. Forms from Nature – flower, plants, animals, sun and moon etc. – are often used to portray the beauty of women or the strength and power of men.  For instance, as William (ibid. p. 44) notes, a courageous man would be spoken of as ‘a tiger of a man’. Other animals and birds often used in literary devices are lion, fawns, ruddy goose (chakravaka), boar, bees, pigeons, parrots, cuckoo, heron, ox etc. And some of the most common trees and flowers that one finds in these love poems are mango, sandalwood, kinsuka, jasmine, lotus, pomegranate and kadamba.

Some examples are given below:

The moon tries every month in vain
To paint a picture of your face;
And, having failed to catch its grace,
Destroys the work, and starts again.


Women bathed in sandalwood scents,
Flashing antelope eyes,
Arbours of fountains, flowers and moonlight,
A terrace swept with breeze of flowering jasmine
In summer they stimulate
Love and love-god himself.


Some of the other commonly used tropes in Indian love stories and poems are – naïve, rural girl (or one born in the ‘lap of nature’), urban and urbane male, sahelis (who often act as messengers and confidants of the heroine), vidushaks (jester accompanying the hero), bangles becoming too large to fit the hands of the heroine (indicating her pining away in viraha) etc. Abhijñānashākuntalam is an example of a love story / play which uses almost all these tropes.

2.5 Portrayal of Women

Though there were some important women love poets in ancient and medieval India, composition of most love poems that have survived seems to have been done predominantly by male poets.

Women – to love or hate
Moon-light face, Flower-bud hand,
Nectar voice, Rose-red lip:
Stone-hard heart.

John Brough, Poems From the Sanskrit (Penguin, 1968).

It may be hard enough to do,
But if you try, you’ll find
A way to pin down quicksilver,
But not a woman’s mind.


Women may thus often portrayed in paradoxical terms – as beautiful, irresistible and wily temptresses or sirens – who lead men astray with literal and figurative promises of near-divine physical pleasures, but are almost impossible to understand. And the following poem by Bhatrhari provides a good example of the tone that many of the love-poems adopt while describing women: cautionary yet surrendering.

If the forest of her hair
Calls you to explore the land,
And her breasts, those mountains fair
Tempt that mountaineer, your hand
Stop! Before it is too late:
Love, the brigand, lies in wait.


A man may tread the righteous path
Be master of his senses
Retire in timidity
Or cling to modest ways
Only until the arrow glances of amorous women
Fall on his heart


2,5,1 Vivid Description of Physical Beauty and Sensuality

Indian love poems are also often unhesitatingly sensual and describe women’s ideal physical form (ample, spherical breasts; broad hips, the ‘triple fold’, and the narrowest of waists) repeatedly, and in great detail. The description of the ideal male physical form, however, is far less frequent. Below are two love poems, given as examples of the description of the physical beauty and sensuality of women.

Her hand upon her hip she placed,
And swayed seductively her waist,
With chin upon her shoulder pressed,
She stretched herself to show her breast:
With sapphire pupils burning bright
Within pearly orbs of white,
Her eyes with eagerness did dance,
And threw me a comehither glance.


This the dark girl’s full-swelling breast,
Oily with saffron paste, is a friend f Love
Fit to dethrone his other friend, the moon;
For it too as she drops her cloud-blue dress
Is graced with a halo, the surrounding rays
Of a tossing string of pearls

Manovinod (Ingalls, 1965)

2.6 Undercurrent of Morality

Another key feature of the Indian love poems and stories is that such kavya often “had a moral lesson to impart, though it ran always as an undercurrent.” (Dasgupta, 1947) The poets were often guided by idealistic motives not just in their choice of subjects but also in the framing of plots.

For example, in Kumārasambhava, an epic poem in Śṛngār rasa, Kalidasa describes the perfect physical beauty of Uma, but makes her go through hard penance, and purify herself for her marriage by the practice of severe yogic austerities. Similarly, Shakuntala, who lost in the thoughts of her lover, had overlooked her duties (i.e. dharma or righteous conduct) is later made to suffer a cruel rebuff. And Urvashi is punished for her lust by being turned into a creeper. Even the famous love story of Savitri and Satyavan found in “The Book of the Forest” of the Mahabharata, has an underlying moral ‘message’.

Thus, even when writing about love and passion, the ancient poets seem to have made an effort to make it clear that kama should not transgress dharma and that while romantic love is something to be celebrated it must always be tempered by righteous conduct (and the four ‘Puruṣārtha)


We have discussed some key features of the Indian love poetry. This included, the use of the rasa theory as the guiding framework and the poetic conventions that arose as a result of this; the different ‘sub-genres’ of the sringara-rasa (such as ‘love in separation’ and ‘love in union or enjoyment’); the blurring of boundary between the spiritual and the secular or the religious and the romantic love; the use of literary devices in specific ways, the inclusion of elements of nature, and some of the most commonly encountered tropes; the paradoxical portrayal of women; and the overall undercurrent of morality (or righteous conduct) that seems to run through many of the love poems and stories. In conclusion, while it is apparent that Indian love poems share some of its features with the poetic traditions and poems from other parts of the world, the characteristics discussed above, when taken together, seem to provide it with a uniqueness of its own.

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