There are 100 verses in Saundarya Lahari, although some versions have up to 103 verses. The first part of forty-one verses called ‘Ananda Lahari’ (Wave of Bliss) describes Devi’s power, her manifestations, and her embodied presence within the devotee. The second part is called “Saundarya Lahari’ (Wave of Beauty). Verses 42-91 describe Devi’s physical beauty, moving from head to toe.

Verses 92 onwards are more akin to prayers:

Saundarya Lahari is composed in quatrains, in sikharint metre, which is a syllabic metre of seventeen syllables in each quarter (pada). For a line to be in Sikharini, its second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, twelfth, thirteenth and seventeenth syllables must be ‘guru’ (heavy/long) while the rest of the syllables are ‘laghu’ (short/light). (Sanskrit has guru and laghu syllables, unlike English which has long and short syllables, and there are specific rules for identifying them.)!Apart from metrical dexterity, even the sounds within the line play off each other – for instance, ‘truṭita-taṭinī’, ‘sadyaḥ svidya’.

Often, there is an exploration of the range of derived words in a single verse – for instance, ‘padaṃ’, ‘prapadaṃ’, ‘apadaṃ’ and ‘vipadāṃ’. Sometimes, a word is used in its various meanings – for instance, verse 61 uses the word ‘vaṃśa’ for three of its meanings: nose-ridge, bamboo staff and lineage.

The hymn feels personal and even intimate; it is addressed directly to Devī, and most verses include the vocative case (such as O Devī).

Devī is addressed by any of her many names – Devī, Pārvatī, Śivé (consort of Śiva), Śambhoḥ (Śiva’s), Śarvāṇī (Śarva’s, ie, Śiva’s spouse) and often as jananī (mother) and giri-tanayā (daughter of the mountain).

The Sanskrit word for ‘goddess’ is ‘Devī’, and that is how I refer to her in the translation and notes. Words seem to have been chosen extremely carefully in this hymn, and the choice of Devī’s name is a good example. For instance, in verse 81, Devī is called by her name ‘Pārvatī’, a word that is derived from ‘parvata’ which means ‘mountain’. Devī’s father is Himavān, and his name in this verse, ‘kṣitidharapati’, literally means ‘bearer of the earth’. This provides a delightful contrast to the central idea of the verse, that Pārvatī’s hips are bigger than the earth, and make the earth light by comparison. However, in verse 60, Devī is called ‘Śarvāṇī’, and the appellation precedes the word ‘śravaṇa’; we know it is not a coincidence and can marvel at the skill of the poet.

Many of the comparisons in the hymn follow conventions of Sanskrit aesthetics.

The natural world provides the scope – thus, faces and feet are compared to lotuses, glances to arrows, breasts to the temples of elephants, thighs to plantain stems, and so on. Correlations often occur due to numbers. Devī has four hands, and Brahmā has four heads that hope for the protective blessing from her four hands.

The two earrings of Devī reflected on her cheeks become four, and provide a basis for comparison with the four wheels of a chariot. The description of Devī’s beauty is done by means of elaborate tropes and comparisons. A few examples will help illustrate this point, especially verse 44 where the expression ‘saundarya laharī’ (wave of beauty) occurs. The ocean of beauty of Devī’s face is so vibrant that the waves spill over into her hair-parting where she wears a vermilion mark (sindūra). Flanked by thick hair, the parting reminds the poet of sunrise upon the no man’s land between two thronging armies. If the comparison is a stretch, it points to the transcendence of Devī’s beauty and illustrates the inadequacy of both language and imagination for the task of description.

In verse 45, the poet says that Devī’s face is so lovely that it mocks a lotus, and illustrates it by comparing her soft curls to the loveliness of a swarm of baby bees. Śiva’s eyes – the same eyes that razed Kāma to the ground – are like bees, maddened or intoxicated by the beauty of Devī’s face. The poet uses another word for the bee-like eyes of Śiva – ‘honey-licker’ – which lets Devī’s face be automatically compared to a honey-laden flower, as well as Śiva’s eyes to an intoxicated bee. A connection is made between the state of being mad with anger and mad with attraction. The detail that her curly hair is like a swarm of young bees suggests textural softness as well as movement and density.

It is widely believed that the author of Saundarya Lahari– or at least the first part of Saundarya Lahari – is Ādi Śaṅkarācārya (Śaṅkara), the seer from Kerala who wrote the commentary for the Brahmāsūtra, established religious centres across the Indian region and is believed to have lived around the eighth century CE.

Sanskrit commentaries pay reverential homage to Śaṅkara in the very first line. There are legends about how Śaṅkara brought back the first forty-one verses called ‘Ānanda Laharī’ from Kailāśa, ie, Śiva’s abode in the Himalayas. In verse 75, the poet calls himself a child of Draviḍa (Draviḍa śiśu) –scholars have speculated about the reference, wondering if it refers to some South Indian poet other than Śaṅkara. There seems to be some hesitation among commentators attributing the second part of the hymn, which describes Devī’s beautiful body, to the celibate monk Śaṅkara. Whether this reasoning is flawed or not, the authorship cannot be proved.

What we can say with certainty is that the squeamishness says more about the interpreters than about the interpreted. Locating Saundarya Laharī in around the eighth century CE would align with the rich imagery and profusion of aesthetic emotions (rasas), by then so practised and perfected by Sanskrit poets, especially Kālidāsa. But establishing dates is like walking on a minefield, potent with explosive arguments, and authenticity is an impossible or naïve pursuit considering the oral transmission of Saundarya Lahari over centuries.

There are thirty-five Sanskrit commentaries of Saundarya Lahari, and well known among these are the ones by Lakṣmīdhara, Kaivalyāśrama (called Saubhāgyavardhanī), Kāmeśvara Sūri (called Aruṇāmodinī), Ānandagirī, Rāmakavi (called Ḍiṇḍima Bhāṣya) and Gopālasundarī. Sanskrit is not the only literature of discussion for Saundarya Lahari, and there are numerous books in Tamil, Telugu and other Indian languages. During my fieldwork in Andhra–Telangana, I found several contemporary scholars of religion who had print and audio publications in Telugu. Many Hindu institutions, such as the Sringeri Peetham, publish discourses on Saundarya Lahari. Even when authors state that they have adhered to Lakṣmīdhara’s commentary, very few mention details about the manuscripts to which they have referred.

The order of verses varies slightly between versions, and there are even alternative versions for words in many verses resulting in variant meanings. One can only appreciate uncertainty and multiplicity as a part of the delightful or just inevitable legacy of an oral tradition.

I was able to peruse numerous palm-leaf and paper manuscripts at the Adyar Library in Chennai. These were in Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Odiya and Nagari scripts, and did not carry any information about the dates or sources.

The library digitised four folios that I selected, in Telugu and Nagari, among which only one was complete. PM-77456 had nine verses, and PM-73056 had seventeen verses, both in Telugu. The Nagari manuscript PM-2918 had 103 verses, and PM-2917 was fragmentary with marginal commentary on each folio. The Mysore edition reproduced in Vol 11 of the Bibiliotheca Sanskrita of the Government Oriental Library Series by the Government of Mysore is the acknowledged source for Swami Tapasyananda (1987), Pandit S Subrahmanya Sastri and TR Srinivasa Ayyangar (1965) and A Kuppuswami (1976). All three follow the same order for the first forty-one verses, ie, ‘Ānanda Laharī’. Here, the twenty-eighth verse is ‘dadāne karatalai...’, a verse which is placed as the ninetieth or ninety-first in some versions. I too follow this sequence.

Excerpted with permission fro ‘Saundarya Lahari: Wave of Beauty’, translated from the Sanksrit by Mani Rao, Harper Collins.