Love is a timeless and universal subject matter of poetry. Spread across different geographies and civilisations, love poems have been found on the Sumerian cuneiform tablets, clay tablets on the Easter Islands in the Pacific Ocean, in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. Love poems of the Greek poets Asclepiades (fourth century BCE), Sappho (600 BCE), Philodemus (110-30 BCE) and the Latin poets Sulpicia (first century BCE), and Catullus (c 84-c 54 BCE) are still printed and read widely. Six varieties of love are described in ancient Greek philosophy: eros (sexual passion), phila (platonic love), ludus (playful affection), pragma (mature love), agape (selfless love) and philautia (self-love).

The moon has vanished from the sky
The Pleiadas too
It is midnight now and time rushes by
And I, on my bed all alone, lie 

— Saphho, 48

Sparrow, cynosure
of my girl’s eye?
she fondles you,
holds you in her arms,
gives you her fingertips
to tease you to bite…

— Catullus, Poem 2

Ancient Arab and Persian love poetry endure too. Love poems are found in the poetry of Maya and Inca civilisations as well. Here is a Mayan love poem:

A chi
T u caap cool
Hok che

Oh to kiss
Your mouth
At the loose railing
Of the picket fence!

Indian poetry has an age-old tradition of love poetry dating back millennia.

No woman would have
rounder hips than me,
or would be more skilled
in the art of love-making.
Or pressing tighter or
thrusting her thighs higher.
Indra, the greatest of all! 

— Rigveda 10.86.06

I came across the rich heritage of Indian love poetry while selecting and editing The Bloomsbury Anthology of Great Indian Poems from 28 Indian languages spanning over 3000 years. It set me on a quest to explore the rich tradition of Sringara Rasa in Indian poetry, which encompasses various facets of love:

Among the lovers whatever is done
by the one, the same should be done in return –
if a woman kisses him, he should kiss her in turn
if she strokes him, he should stroke her too in return. 

— Kamasutra, Book Two, Ch-3

Sringara (love) rasa is the most prominent among the nine basic rasas, viz, Sringara (love), Hasya (laughter), Raudra (anger), Kaarunya (kindness), Bibhatsa (horror), Bhayaanaka (scare), Vira (valour), Adbhuta (surprise) and Shaanta (calm), which together capture the universe of human emotions. Sringara rasa itself is further divided into three broad types – Ayoga Sringara (unequal love filled with longing), Vipra Lamba Sringara (love in separation) and Sambhoga Sringara (love in sexual union).

Every month the moon attempts
to capture the beauty of your face
and, having miserably failed
erases the work to start afresh. 

— Dharmakirti

In Indian philosophy, pursuit of Kama (enjoyment) is an essential step along with Dharma (right conduct) and Artha (economic prosperity) in obtaining Moksha (ultimate liberation / self-actualisation). Vatsayayana’s Kamasutra defines Kama as follows – “Kama is the enjoyment of appropriate objects by the five senses of hearing, feeling, seeing, tasting, and smelling, assisted by the mind together with the soul. The ingredient in this is a peculiar contact between the organ of sense and its object, and the consciousness of pleasure which arises from that contact is called Kama.” Those who pursue Artha, Kama and Dharma, in balance, understand the art of life, and automatically attain Moksha.

What makes Indian love poems different and unique from love poems written in other countries and civilisations?

Blurring of boundaries of devotional and sensual love is one of the key dimensions of Indian love poetry where divine love transcends sensual love.

You’re one with me, apart too
How to describe you
You’re beloved, God too
How to describe you 

— Sachal Sarmast

I am on fire
with heartfelt desires.
cut through the greed in my heart,
show your way
Lord, white as jasmine.

— Akka Mahadevi

The indispensability of nature in Indian love poetry also makes it unique. Even flowers, plants, animal, seasons, rain, rainbow, wind, sun, moon, stars, stones, rivers, mountains among other things animate and inanimate have their own sensual personas and feature prominently in Indian love poetry. Kalidasa’s Meghaduta mentions 26 different kinds of plants and flowers such as Mango, Ashoka, Rodhra, various species of Jasmine, Kakubha, Kurbaka, Mandara among others. Women’s physical beauty and sensuality is vividly depicted:

Your slender limbs Syama-creepers
your glance the doe’s tremulous eyes
your face the moon
your luxuriant hair the peacock’s tail
your eyebrow play the brook’s ripple
O fair one! you alone have all these
there is no one like you in this world.

— 101 Meghaduta

Round hips, their beauty augmented
with soft silk and the jewelled belts,
their sandal pasted breasts shining
with strings of pearls, hair fragrant
with subtle and lingering perfumes,
women soothe the senses of their lovers
with these in the scorching summer, my love.

— 1-4, Ritusamhara

Indian love poems have been widely anthologised earlier. Some well-known anthologies of Indian love poetry include Tambimuttu’s Indian Love Poems (1967), Subhash Saha’s Anthology of Indian Love Poetry (1976), Andrew Schelling’s Erotic Love Poems from India (2004), Meena Alexander’s Indian Love Poems (2005), Jayaprabha’s Unforeseen Affection And Other Love Poems (2005), Jerry Pinto and Arundhathi Subramaniam’s Confronting Love (2005), Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s The Absent Traveller (2008), Ashmi Ahluwalia’s Writing Love (2010), R Parthasarathy’s Erotic Poems From The Sanskrit: An Anthology (2017) and Amrita Narayanan’s Parrots of Desire: 3000 Years of Indian Erotica (2017), which combines poetry and prose, among others.

What sets this anthology apart from the previous anthologies of Indian love poems is that it covers Indian love poetry spanning over 3000 years starting from the Rigveda up to the present day, and includes love poetry from over two dozen Indian languages. The poems included here from various Indian languages have been translated by well-known poets and translators of poetry into contemporary lucid and poetic English, making these gems of Indian poetry accessible to the younger generations who are starting to explore the world of love and sensuality.

At this momentous juncture in their lives, a rich world of Indian love poetry could be their guide, their confidant and help them traverse the circuitous path of love.

While selecting poems for this anthology I read love poems from various centuries, languages and anthologies and came out with several gems. The quest of finding great Indian love poems also put me on the path of translating Kalidasa’s Meghaduta and Ritusamhara, the two exquisite masterpieces of Indian love poetry.

Many stanzas from these two classics find place in this collection. I have also translated a selection of verses from Sanskrit classics such as Kamasutra, Amarushataka among others which have been included here. A number of love poems from Braj Bhasa which I have translated, also find a place in this collection.

Have patience, my love
don’t take off my clothes yet,
though parrot is asleep
mynah is still awake…

— Keshavdas

Sanskrit, Tamil and later Prakit are the three key ancient Indian languages with rich collection of love literature. Sanskrit love poems are well-known and are represented in this anthology with poems from Rigveda, Brihadaranyaka Upanishada, Kamasutra, Subhasitaratnakosha, Amarushataka, Trishati of Bharatrihari, Chauraspanchasika of Bilhana, Subhashitavali and poems of Bhavabhuti, Kalidasa, Ānandavardhana,Vidya, Dharmakriti, Mammata Bhatta, Bhanudutta among others. Classic Tamil love poems are represented by Kaccippettu Nannakaiyar, Kollan Alici, Manikkavacakar, Nakkirar, Venmanipputi, Villakaviralinar among others. Prakit love poems are represented by selections from Gathasaptasati.

If I could spend just one night with her –
the girl with a soft body, broad shoulders,
lush alluring hair, who has stolen my heart –
I swear I wouldn’t want to live another day.

— Nakkirar

He finds the missionary position
Tiresome, and grows suspicious
If I suggest another.
Friend, what’s the way out?

— Gathasaptasati 476

The local differences in Prakrit grew wider around 1000 CE and several modern Indian languages were born out of it including 22 officially recognised languages in the Indian constitution. Worldly and mystical love dominates medieval Indian literature (1000–1800 CE) devoted to love between Krishna and Radha and Rama and Sita.

Love poems of Vidyapati from Maithali, Habba Khatoon from Kahmiri, Surdas, Bihari, Keshav Das, Ghanananda from Braj Bhasha, Mirabai from Rajasthani, Rabindranath Tagore, Jibanananda Das, Samar Sen, Mandakranta Sen from Bengali, Sitanshu Yashashchandra from Gujarati, Balamani Amma from Malayalam, Kutti Ravathi from Tamil, Muddupalani, Srinatha, Mahe Jabeen from Telugu, Vasant Abaji Dahake from Marathi, Kynpham Sing Nougkynrih from Khasi, anonymous poets from Gondi and Mising, Chandrakanta Murasingh from Kokborok, Mir Taqui Mir, Ghalib, Kaifi Azami, Makhdoom Mohiuddin, Nida Fazli, Firaq Gorakhpuri from Urdu, Gagan Gill from Hindi, Sixth Dalai Lama from Tibetan, Akka Mahadevi, DS Bendre from Kannada, Amrita Pritam and Gulzar from Punjabi, Salabega from Oriya, Nilim Kumar from Assamese, Sachal Sarmast from Sindhi, Amir Khusrau from Persian, Sarita Sharma from Nepali among others are included here.

All my inhibition left me in a flash,
When he robbed me of my clothes,
But his body became my new dress. 

— Vidyapati

The long lasting tradition of love poetry continues till date, although the love poems written in Sanskrit outnumber the love poems written in other Indian languages.

Many love poems of great beauty and sensitivity written in various Indian languages including English, find a place in this anthology. Love poems of Sarojini Naidu, Kamala Das, Pritish Nandy, R Parthasarathy, Jayanta Mahapatra, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Manohar Shetty, Saleem Peeradina, Tishani Doshi, Bhanu Kapil, Arundhathi Subramaniam, Ranjit Hoskote, Sudeep Sen, Shanta Acharya, A. Thomas among others who write in English also feature in the anthology.

But say he chooses to appear on a Sunday
afternoon, when you’re walking upstairs
for lunch; cutting broccoli into perfect spears
while the rice in the cooker is boiling.
Would you ask first, that he strip away
the layers of the past – the times you washed
together in darkness between whispered words
and the husky calls of nightfall’s birds.

— Tishani Doshi

Love poems of Dalit, Tribal, LGBTQ, and Indian diaspora poets have also been included in this anthology.

I give her the rose with unfurled petals.
She smiles
and crosses her legs.

I give her the shell with the swollen lip. 
She laughs. I bite
and nuzzle her breasts.

— Suniti Namjoshi

The focus of this anthology is on the poems instead of poets, and therefore, the anthology has been organised alphabetically with the titles of the poems, instead of the popularity of the poet. It has also been done to highlight the timeless nature of great poetry. May these poems set rivers of love flowing within you and aid in your journey towards Moksha!

The Bloomsbury Book of Great Indian Love Poems

Excerpted from the “Introduction” to The Bloomsbury Book of Great Indian Love Poems, edited by Abhay K, Bloomsbury.