We’ve been using poetry to tell each other (and the world) about our love from ancient times. Some poems transcend time and cultures more than others, morphing as they travel: the ‘Chaurapanchâsika’, or ‘The Love Thief’ is a classic example.
This passionate 11th-century Sanskrit 50-stanza lament tells the story of a Brahman sentenced to death for loving a Maharaja's daughter. It’s based on the Kashmiri poet Kavi Bilhana's own experience: he wrote the work in prison in praise and recollection of his lost love.
Though the original no longer survives, the verse survived and continues to be popular today as a significant example of medieval Indian poetry. Both oral and written copies helped to perpetuate the poem’s success – versions that appeared in North India ended with the narrator facing execution, while those produced in South India had happier endings where the couple eventually marry.
So why did this particular verse travel so well and for so long? The blurred boundaries of the spiritual and the sensual that are visible in this poem are a characteristic of all Indian love poetry. What is unusual about ‘The Love Thief’ is its continuing popularity and survival into the 21st century. Its appeal was not only in the universally popular subject of love, but apparently in the accessible illustrative way in which it was written.
The French rediscovered and translated the poem in 1848, opening it up to Western European audiences. In turn, poet and journalist Sir Edwin Arnold wrote and illustrated an English version in 1896, thanks, in part, to British colonialism: the foreword explains that Arnold’s copy was based on a 1798 edition that surfaced in the East India Company library in Whitehall (now held at the British Library).
The imagery, metaphors, and ideals of romantic love abound throughout the verses and are enhanced in Arnold’s version by his accompanying watercolour illustrations. Included are illustrations of the Maharaja’s palace, the princess gripped by love’s power clutching “the fever of her burning breast”, and numerous flowers and plants.
As was typical of Indian love poems, nature is not just described, but personified in the verse: