Here presented is a translation of the little-known Sanskrit verse epic Kathakautukam, written by the poet-scholar Srivara in 15th-century Kashmir. In modern times, its text was located there during the late nineteenth century and then edited and published in Bombay in 1901.

But apart from brief subsequent references in some academic histories of Sanskrit literature, and possibly some unpublished research, it has remained unnoticed and perhaps never been translated so far. The present work is intended to fill the gap and bring out this fascinating poem from past oblivion for general readership today.

This epic poetry from Kashmir, here titled A Tale of Wonder, deserves more exposure in the present times. Apart from its literary quality, and the need to make such forgotten works available in the mainstream of modern reading, there are also some other worthwhile considerations. These include a background of historical change and cultural intermingling reflected in its composition and theme, comparatively unusual in Sanskrit literature, and the manner of its presentation. These aspects are also reminders of a little-remembered chapter of national history. As such, some words on them may be a suitable prelude to this introduction.

To begin with, this poetic account provides a fine example of the cultural confluence not often noticed in Sanskrit literature. Written with sophistication in the classical style of that ancient language, it begins with the acknowledgement of its origin from a yavana source, which is clearly Persian in this context.

Secondly, the cultural mingling in it is not limited to narrative details but is also drawn from theology, mythology and mystic philosophy. Finally, the contents are derived both from existing Indian concepts and those later acquired from external sources. They also include specific information about the work’s dating, some details of its author and his mentor and of the then reigning ruler and conditions of Kashmir.

We may start with a brief historical background to Kathakautukam. As outlined in its first chapter, it is derived from the Persian masnavi, or poem, Yusuf wa Zuleikha, or Yusuf and Zuleikha, written by Mulla Jami from Herat. This was Maulana Nuruddin Abdul Rahman Jami (1414–92), a well-known savant of the time...

His classic poem was first translated into English in 1882 by the British scholar RTH Griffith, who described Jami as the “last great poet from Persia”, adding that his seven mystic poems are clustered under the title Haft Aurang, or Seven Thrones. Of these, the poem on Yusuf and Zuleikha is the most celebrated.

It was also employed over the centuries as a means to teach Persian to students, including in India.

It has indeed been mentioned as one, the opening lines of which had been learnt by the future Mughal emperor Jahangir as a child. In Griffith’s words, this work, a “romantic tale of the love, the sufferings, and the crowning happiness of Zuleikha [...] was intended to shadow forth the human soul’s love for the highest beauty and goodness – a love which attains fruit only after the soul has passed through the hardest travails”.

Recalculated in accordance with the modern calendar, the local dating information in Kathakautukam would show that Jami’s tale was perhaps written in 1451. Its Sanskrit retelling appears to have been done a little later in the same century by Pandit Srivara, a disciple of Pandit Jonaraja.

Both are better known as fifteenth-century scholars who wrote the first and second sequels to Rajatarangini, the history of Kashmir in Sanskrit commenced by Kalhana in the twelfth century. Three hundred years later, the contemporary king of Kashmir, praised and described in Kathakautukam, is Muhammad Shah (1484–86). He was the third in line from the celebrated Zainul Abedin (1420–70), the royal patron of Jonaraja, whose long reign ushered in an era of stability, prosperity and cultural interaction in Kashmir, which are also mentioned by Srivara.

The cultural interaction is also reflected in the sequels to Kalhana’s history, the second and third Rajataranginis by Jonaraja and Srivara, and the later ones by Prajyabhatta and Suka. All have been subjects of further academic research today.

But the reflection of these histories in Sanskrit poetry needs more notice. According to the respected Kashmiri scholar PNK Bamzai, Srivara was well versed in Persian, and his Kathakautukam “is probably the earliest instance of that literature’s utilisation in Sanskrit poetry”.

Yet another type of cultural interaction can be seen in the fifteenth-century verse anthology from Kashmir, Subhashitavali of Vallabhadeva. Translated in part, it was published some years ago as a Penguin Classic. The present translation could hopefully be another step in the same direction.

Kathakautukam was described by the Austrian scholar and historian of Sanskrit M Winternitz as an adaptation rather than translation of Jami’s poem. In his words it is an “amalgamation of the Hebrew story, Persian romantic ballad and the Indian Siva cult”.

In this description he omitted mention of another important contributory source, namely, Islam. Apart from prayers to the god Shiva in its prologue and epilogue, this Sanskrit epic also contains an opening invocation to the holy Prophet Muhammad, who is addressed in it as paigambar shiromani, or the “crown jewel of prophets”, to whom its story was revealed by a divine messenger.

Separately, the work also mentions the prophets assembled in paradise, and the subsequent creation of Adam, the progenitor of the human race, as recounted in Hebrew, Christian and Islamic scriptures. In his poem Srivara has also listed some prominent descendants of Adam in the line that preceded Yusuf.

The story of the prophet Yusuf is recounted in Surah XII (23–32, 51) of the Holy Quran. He also features with the name Joseph in the Holy Bible, Old Testament, Book of Genesis (35, 37, 39–50). Both cover the boy Yusuf’s abandonment, his sale as a slave in Egypt and his encounter there with his master’s lustful wife, who is not named in either scripture. Neither do they make any mention of Zuleikha, though the divine aspect of Yusuf seems clear. But she is very much there in Jami’s Persian poem from where she comes to Kathakautukam. In both these works she is part of a parable of the soul in search of god.

It would seem that Zuleikha is the more active figure in the works of both Jami and Srivara. It is she who longs for Yusuf and repeatedly suffers in her attempts to attain him. This mystic undertone of the soul seeking god appears fully in the poem of Jami, and is also clear in Kathakautukam.

In the latter, it is intermingled with a physical love story, presented faithfully in this translation. The Sanskrit poem’s narrative also includes a list of names – like Adam – taken perhaps from Jami and the Semite scriptures. Yakub and Yusuf are identifiable and mentioned as such in this translation. Others have been left in the original forms in which they occur in the Sanskrit text. Only one, Ajajamesra, has been rendered as Mesra-born. Bearing in mind its accompanying reference to a river, Mesra is obviously Egypt, and Nila the River Nile.

The Sanskrit text also has references to various divinities and heroes from Indian mythology. All their names are given in the original form, and explained where necessary in the notes to this translation. The principal mention in Kathakautukam is that of the great god Shiva, also presented in his cosmic aspect, and referred to by the poet with a number of synonyms, many of which are well known.

Interested readers would notice the use of both Indian and Semite origin figures in the narrative sequences of the present work. They also make evident its composite cultural background. A good example of this is the narration, in chapter 10, of the boy Yusuf’s abandonment in a forest and his rescue from a well with the help of the god Shankara and the angel Gabriel. There are several others, which a brief reading would easily locate.

Excerpted with permission from “The Introduction”, by AND Haksar, to A Tale of Wonder: Kathakautukam, translated from the original Sanskrit by AND Haksar.