The Caurapañcāśikā (The Love Thief) a Sanskrit love poem in 50 stanzas, tells of a thief’s secret love for a princess. Written over a thousand years ago, the poem has travelled widely, been re-written and translated into several languages, so very many times that the identity of its original composer is now something of a mystery.

The legend behind the Caurapañcāśikā tells the story of a thief who falls in love with a princess; “Caura,” as one of the book’s many latter day scholars, Barbara Stoler Miller, tells us, means a thief of hearts, a love thief, or simply a thief. On being discovered, he is thrown into prison and then given the death sentence. As he awaits execution, he recites these stanzas of his love.

In some versions, i.e., the sadder, “northern” version, the fate that befalls him is not mentioned, while in the happier, “the western-southern version”, the king, moved by his poem, is inclined to be forgiving and then consents to his daughter marrying the thief-poet.

The categorisation of the two versions is by Miller, who in her 1971 work, Phantasies of a Love Thief: the Caurapañcāśikā Attributed to Bilhana, took a detailed look at the book’s two recensions (the main storyline and the versions flowing from these) and this was the first vital difference.

One poem, different authors

In some versions, the thief’s identity is conflated with that of the poet’s, and so the legend is interspersed within the verses, while in others, the poet wrote the thief’s account after the event – making them in effect different people. Moreover, the names changed in some versions as well; not merely the princess’s, but the king’s too.

These two recensions and some later works clearly identify the writer as Bilhana, and so some versions do bear the name Bilhanakavya. For instance, the Caurapañcāśikā that drew Miller’s attention was an illustrated Rajasthani version of the 16th century version (located in the Gujarat Museum Society, Ahmedabad), which has Bilhana courting the princess Champavati. Even so doubts about authorship emerged early on. For instance, doubting scholars pointed to Virasimha (as the king was called in one of the versions) being a king whose reign preceded Bilhana’s own lifetime (latter part of the 11th century CE).

In still another version, like the one written in the east (where the story travelled orally later), the caura or thief has another different name. Here, the poems become paeans to the goddess Kalika by Sundara, the prince of Caurapalli who falls in love with Vidya and is sentenced to death for this by her father, the king Virasimha. But yes, in the end, he does marry the princess.

These then, are the many versions of the one main work, which doesn’t exist in its original form, or in the form of a “first edition” as we’d recognise one today – for obvious reasons. Indeed, different versions emerged in Bilhana’s own lifetime. The historian Robert Fraser says such different versions of ancient texts were inevitable. From the early 11th century, India saw a rich linguistic efflorescence, with different languages emerging and texts began to re-written in these languages, especially those first composed in the “cosmopolitan” language of Sanskrit.

In some ways who the poet is shouldn’t matter. Think of the Panchatantra, whose original kernel of stories travelled widely, and took on different shapes while doing so. Ancient texts were also copied, several times over – as Thomas Trautmann writes in case of the Arthashastra. Chanakya’s version was the most important of the arthashastras written before him and his then became the most definite.

Why the Caurapañcāśikā matters

But the Caurapañcāśikā occupies an important text in the pantheon of Sanskrit lyric poetry, as it follows in the tradition of poets like Bhratrihari and Amaru. And there is the very subversion implied by the verses, of a thief winning a princess’s heart. The verses all begin with the word “adyapi” – meaning, even then. For example, here is Barbara Stoler Miller’s (1971) translation of stanzas 27 and 28 of the northern recension of the Caurapañcāśikā.

Even now
Knowing death is quickly closing in
My thoughts leave the gods
And is drawn to her in awe. What can I do?
My thought is obsessed: She is my love!
Most beloved! She is mine!

Even now,
I painfully recall her eyes
Trembling like a frightened deer’s,
When she heard my sentence announced
Her quivering voice
Tears falling from her eyes
Her face bowed by her heavy grief.

In Richard Gombrich’s version published by the Clay Sanskrit Library (Love Lyrics), the verses begin, “Still I remember” or “Still I recall”.

A Poet’s revelations

Placing the poet, or rather, affirming Bilhana as the poet, made for an intriguing exercise, one that involved scholars across time, across regions. The claim that it was “discovered” by Oriental scholars from the 1840s onward is of course erroneous. It merely travelled west, for the love poem has always been popular, as its many versions in the Indian languages show.

The work of establishing Bilhana’s ownership of the text involved sourcing manuscripts from a range of places; as Miller writes, these were sourced from a couple of universities in the US and Europe, and there were the 50 more, archived in places like Adyar in Chennai, Mumbai, Baroda, Pune’s Deccan College and the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, and libraries and museums in Ahmedabad, Jaipur and Jammu, among others. In her work, she details the differences in the manuscripts, and it’s a fascinating exercise to study how script developed, how a text travelled and how versions changed.

But despite the doubters, and they remain, deriving the poet’s name was not altogether a complicated exercise. For one, the poet, Bilhana, did give himself away, or something of his identity, in another work that he composed. This is the Vikramankadevacharita, a poetic biography in 18 cantos, of the life of the Chalukya king, Vikramaditya VI, who ruled in 1076-1126 CE (there were as many as 14 Vikramadityas in ancient Indian history; this one is among the more famous).

It’s a work different in every way from the Caurapañcāśikā, and yet there are similarities in style between the poem and the details in the sections VIII to IX, which mention the king’s marriage with the princess Chandralekha (a name that appears in some versions of the Caurapañcāśikā). Moreover, even in his description of wars, Bilhana evokes a woman’s beauty. For instance, he writes, of the king’s sword being as black as a woman’s eyeliner.

There are similarities also with the play in four acts, Karnasundari, that Bilhana composed – so such versatility was quite up his sleeve. It’s about the king Karna’s marriage to the “fairy princess”.

But it is in this work, the Vikramankadevacarita, that Bilhana reveals much about himself. In the tradition of such works, the author’s own biography is part of the text. For instance, as in the poet Bana’s Harshacharita, the author’s note about himself appears at the beginning; in Bilhana’s case, it is appended to the end, and is surprisingly ambivalent, and evasive and contradictory. This duality is evidence, as the scholar Yigal Bronner has suggested, of the poet’s own dilemma and his own conflicted feelings about a poet’s role, his relationship with the king, his patron, and what a poet should really do. It’s fascinating to realise how, despite the centuries, some concerns remain the same.

Bilhana: A Life

Bilhana says he was born in Kashmir, near the historic town of Pravarapura, a place he remained homesick for, and where longed to return. Born in a scholarly family, he travelled widely – to Mathura, Kannauj, Benaras and then westward toward Anhilwad, in Gujarat. Following a visit to the temple of Somnath, he sailed down the western coast and reached “Karnata” (present-day Karnataka), where the king Vikramaditya impressed with his talent, offered him a court position, complete with perks like a royal blue umbrella and his own elephant.

The book itself does not take up the entire reign of King Vikramaditya VI. But even so, Bilhana in his attempt to give the king a “Rama”-like image exaggerates and glosses over much of the violence that accompanied the king’s accession to the throne. Besides a long running conflict with the Cholas, Vikramaditya waged a civil war to oust his brother from the throne (around the time Bilhana met him) and then also had his younger brother Jayasimha, who had loyally accompanied him on many campaigns, arrested and imprisoned.

The modern popularity of the Caurapañcāśikā

Around the 1940s, the Caurapañcāśikā saw a new popularity. Film historian Randor Guy writes of two Tamil films made on the poet in the same year, 1948. In Bilhana, the poet, engaged by the king to teach his daughter, is told that the latter, being “deformed” had to remain hidden behind a curtain. The princess, for her part, was told that the poet, her teacher, was blind. Yet the poet gave himself away when he described the moon’s beauty, and then the film has the same predictable ending as the poem’s happier versions.

Though Edwin Arnold wrote his own version of the Caurapañcāśikā (1896), the most popular and quoted version was by a lesser known poet, who was also a dabbler in various things. Edward Powys Mathers’s 1919 interpretation of the poem, titled Black Marigolds, is available in its entirety here, while another translated compilation by Powys Mathers is The Garden of Bright Waters, love poems from Asia.

Some of Powys Mathers’s work were used by John Steinbeck in his 1945 novel Cannery Row – a novel set around the sardine canneries that once existed on Ocean View Drive, near Monterey, Steinbeck’s childhood home in California. A work of fiction, though imbued with several autobiographical elements, it provides a glimpse of Steinbeck’s own thoughts on ecology, human behaviour and interaction between the species that make survival itself possible.

The character named Doc in this novel – and its sequel Sweet Thursday – is based on Steinbeck’s friend, the well-known marine biologist, ecologist and philosopher, Ed Ricketts; the novel is dedicated to him as well. Doc reads excerpts from the Caurapancasika at a party thrown for him by certain rebellious unsavoury characters, Mack and his boys.

The next morning, and we are very near the book’s end, Doc returns to the poem reading to himself, some lines he loves:

Even now
I know that I have savoured the hot taste of life
Lifting green cups and gold at the great feast.
Just for a small and a forgotten time
I have had full in my eyes from off my girl
The whitest pouring of eternal light –

He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. And the white rats scampered and scrambled in their cages. And behind the glass the rattlesnakes lay still and stared into space with their dusty frowning eyes.

— "Cannery Row", John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, well knew, and this novel was only an indication, that poetry is as vital for human happiness as the environment.