Andhra Mahabharatamu Part 1: How It Laid The Foundation For Telugu Literature

(Read Part 2 of this series here.)

Whenever the Vedic legacy faces a crisis, the fifth Veda, which is the Mahabharata, takes a new shape to redefine Dharma.

This is a loose translation of a statement made in the preface to the Andhra Mahabharatamu edition by Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD). The conditions that led to the composition of Andhra Mahabharatamu validate the quote. The Telugu version of the epic Mahabharata has a unique distinction of being composed by not one, but three poets belonging to three different generations. It took close to 300 years for this book to reach completion. These three poets are collectively called as Kavitrayam (“Poet Trinity”) among the Telugu literary sphere. The scope of this post is to observe the conditions that inspired each of the poets to take up this work.

Nannayya Bhattaraka

Adikavi Nannayya

Adikavi Nannayya. Picture Credit: Internet

Nannayya, who existed in the 11th Century CE, was the guru of Raja Raja Narendra, the Eastern Chalukyan King who ruled over Vengi. The political conditions that led to his ascension did have a bearing on the translation of the Mahabharata.

Raja Raja Narendra was the son of King Vimaladitya. Upon Vimaladitya’s death, he faced opposition from his step-brother Vijayaditya. Vijayaditya was influenced by his mother, Princess Melavamba, who was sympathetic to the Jain cause.

Raja Raja Narendra’s mother, Kundavamba, was a Chola princess and the sister of Rajendra Chola-I. She was a follower of the Shaiva thought. In the strife that ensued, Vijayaditya was supported by the Western Chalukyas, while the Chola emperor Rajendra supported his nephew.

Raja Raja Narendra prevailed, and he ascended the throne with some observations of common folk that he made in this course. He observed that the Jaina and Bauddha traditions endeared themselves to the common folk by having their literature available in the common tongue. Vedic literature, on the other hand, was a captive of a few scholars who had the knowledge of Sanskrit, and common folk had begun to feel uncomfortable about depending upon them. Adding to this, Pampakavi had composed “Vikramarjuna Vijaya”, a retelling of the Mahabharata in Kannada, in which he established the supremacy of the Jain thought over the Vedic thought.

Raja Raja Narendra’s concern rested on the glorification of renunciation by Jain culture and the undermining of the householder (“grihastha”) who was actually the social, cultural and economic backbone of the household, society and the State. The due respect of the householders, who were critical to any State, he believed, could be restored only by restoring Vedic thought through a language appreciated by the common folk. This led to his requesting Nannayya Bhattaraka to take upon the task of translating the fifth Veda to Telugu.

Nannayya, who empathized with Raja Raja Narendra’s observations, had a daunting task before him. Telugu, as a language, lacked an independent grammatical structure in his days. Thus, he took on the job of scrutinizing Telugu vocabulary, and produced the “Andhra Shabda Chintamani”, a grammatical treatise in Telugu, largely inspired from Panini’s Ashtadhyayi, while sticking to a five-fold grammatical structure (samjnā, sandhi, ajanta, halanta, kriya, as per “A Comparative Study Of Andhrasabdachintamani And Balavyakaranam”). The work earned him the titles “Sabda SAsana” and “vAgAnuSAsana”.

After carving the linguistic path for the Telugu language, Nannayya started on the Andhreekarana of Mahabharata. I use the term “Andhreekarana” instead of “translation” because Nannayya’s style of composition cannot be termed as a true translation of Krishna Dwaipayana Vyasa’s Moola Mahabharata. It also cannot be termed as a reconstruction or a retelling. According to the scholars who critiqued the text, the focus of Vyasa’s Mahabharata rested on the SAstra. Nannayya, while maintaining the spirit of this SAstra, took liberties with the kAvya element of the text. It goes without saying that there were a few plot deviations in his part of Andhra Mahabharatamu. This text thus covered linguistic as well as socio-philosophical lacunae that existed in 11th Century Telugu land.

Nannayya, coveting the title of Adikavi in Telugu, completed the Adi and Sabha Parvas of the Andhra Mahabharata. The Adikavi’s life, and thus that of his trail-blazing pen, came to an abrupt end in the middle of Aranya Parva.

It was a totally different socio-political situation that motivated the second poet, Tikkanna Somayaji, to continue this Yajna of Andhreekarana after more than 200 years, and we shall see why, in my next post.

Reference: Preface of Srimad Andhra Mahabharatamu – TTD Edition

For further reading: Andhra Kavula Charitramu – Sri Kandukuri Veerashalingam Pantulu

7 thoughts on “Andhra Mahabharatamu Part 1: How It Laid The Foundation For Telugu Literature

  1. Interesting that you would use the urdu word tharjuma to ask for the Telugu translation of this post 🙂

    On a serious note, we are planning a few articles in Telugu soon and will look at the Telugu translation of this article as well. Thank you for the suggestion!


  2. Telugu literature begins with Nannaya, but Telugu language is much more
    Ancient, attested in place names from as early as the second century a.d.
    Prose inscriptions from the middle of the first millennium show a gradual
    Evolution toward the classical language. Verse and the appearance of a literary
    style are attested in inscriptions from the late ninth century on (or even earlier: the Turime˘l.l. a inscription of Vikramaˆditya I, in the seventh century, is sometimes seen as already marked by a “high” style)


    Great literatures classicize their own texts, selecting certain major works or authors over others; they also tend to produce retrospective narratives to make sense of this selection. The result, in the case of Telugu, is a simple developmental scheme that can be found, in one form or another, in all modern histories of this literature, in Telugu or other languages. In this framing of the tradition, all begins with Nannaya, the First Poet (and First Grammarian, since an ordered, premeditated grammar must, in this perspective, precede both normal linguistic reality and the creation of poetry).

    Earlier poetic works may be presumed to have existed, but they are lost. Nannaya is said to have initiated the age of puran. a-like compositions with his adaptation of the first two and a half books of the Maha bharata epic into Telugu. After some four centuries, this vogue in puran. poetry gave way to full-fledged kavya or prabandha texts—elevated and sustained courtly compositions. The transition to kavya of this type is usually said to have reached its apogee in the Golden Age of Telugu literature at the court of Krishna deva raya of Vijayanagara (1509–1529). Following the breakdown of the Vijayanagara state-system in 1565, literature is seen as slowly sinking; with the displacement southward of Telugu political power into the Tamil country under the Nayaka kings (sixteenth to eighteenth centuries), new forms of poetic roduction, some of them supposedly “decadent,” became prominent in the afterglow of the classical efflorescence. Modern poetry then represents a blinding flash of revolutionary brilliance against the smoldering backdrop of the Nayaka and post-Nayaka decline. Such is the standard format, a still regnant mythology of poetic evolution, useful, perhaps, for rudimentary classification of the poets. It bears almost no relation to the deeper currents of this amazingly rich and intricate tradition. It seems likely that this schematic vision is itself derived from a seventeenth-century retrospective ordering of previous works in a manner that first produced the idealized image of a Golden Age centered around Krishna deva raya with his eight great poets, the asta-diggajas, homologized to the eight elephants who hold up the cardinal points of space. (In this sense, literary history and traditional history have marched in tandem;

    seventeenth-century texts first seem to have imagined Krishna deva raya in the mode of synoptic “great king.”) Indeed, one could argue that it was this later moment of integration, self-reflection, synthesis in grammar and linguistic metaphysics, and retrospective narrativization, in the mid-seventeenth century Deccan, that marks the true peak of originality in the mature medieval
    tradition, if such a temporal definition has any meaning. We can attempt to substitute for the standard evolutionary scheme a more subtle template that will take account of the profound shifts in style and expressivity as well as changes in major cultural themes and premises.
    Certain key, perhaps emblematic, figures help us too orient this picture of the tradition: Nannaya, Tikkana, Srınatha, Peddana, and Krishna deva raya, in the early stages. Each of these poets, by virtue of creative innovation, changed the rules of play and transformed the classical tradition.

    Here again we must begin with Nannaya, not as grammarian26 but as the poet who first produced a Telugu style commensurate with a complex, and entirely Telugu, sensibility. Clearly, he knew that he was doing this—knew that he was innovative in creating a musical and flowing poetic form, dense with expressive possibilities and unique to his mother tongue.

    Nannaya then became absorbed in composing in Tenungu the whole Mahabharata collection. His carefully uttered words glow with multiple meanings: poets with penetrating minds
    follow the lively narrative through to its inner purpose, while others give themselves to the harmony of the sounds

    what Nannaya invented was a style of poetic narrative in which the story line is clear, pleasing,
    and uninterrupted, but that at the same time allows the hearer/reader to reflect on it and to appreciate the subtleties of meaning. Moreover, the texture—which includes such components as lexical choices, the play of meter, and, above all, the way Sanskrit and Telugu are combined—is harmonious, economical, and musical.

    after Nannaya, paradigmatic for Telugu. The long Sanskrit compounds that appear throughout Nannaya’s poetry, in meters often adapted, again creatively, from Sanskrit into Telugu, are rganized semantically rather than metrically. They tend to be longer than is common in earlier Sanskrit poems, and they often spill over line endings, since Telugu meter, unlike Sanskrit, allows complex enjambment. Put differently, the Telugu patterns established by Nannaya’s work are not limited by meter: one reads a Telugu verse by breaking at syntactic-semantic pauses. As a result, the stanza allows formore complex syntactic structures and tremendous variation in cadence. The metrical skeleton hardly ever shows through the poem. What one hears, or notices, is the play of muscle and flesh that constitutes texture. By contrast,a verse that mechanically reveals its metrical organization, its caesura breaks and line endings, is considered either as a failure or as belonging to another level of the tradition, perhaps purely oral. It is this kind of sophisticated texturing, with its complex flow of subtle words and sentences, that Nannaya pioneered, and it is this that helps to explain the miracle of transmutation so characteristic of Telugu literature from that time onward, whereby whole pieces of Sanskrit phraseology can be lifted from a Sanskrit source and reworked into a borrowed Sanskrit meter, and yet be entirely and amazingly Telugu

    This same process applies to the transformation of genre. Nannaya’s Mahabharata both is and is not a purana. It follows the inherited story line, usually with remarkable fidelity to the prototype. But it also allows, indeed demands, reflection upon this narrative and an aesthetic savoring of the
    texture of its telling on the part of the reader, a process mostly unknown to Sanskrit puran. as. something quite new happened, and it became the starting point of a process that continued for a thousand years of Telugu literary production. Technically, too, there is the pattern of interspersing verse, in varying meters, and rhythmic prose (the campu style that became normative)

    At the same time, there is a unique quality that is wholly Nannaya’s and could never even be imitated by his successors: a gentleness in tone and a freshness in depiction of characters who are domesticated, but only to a certain point. His Sanskrit kings remain dignified and slightly remote, though they are also brought closer to the familiar range of experience of an Andhra listener. The vehemence and wildness of the Sanskrit Mahabharata are softened and partly tamed, even as the inner world of the characters becomes more familiar. In this sense, as in the stylistic domain discussed earlier, the existence of the Sanskrit prototype becomes a relatively abstract presence that hardly impinges upon the dynamic world of the Telugu text. Only the modern misapplication of the notion of “translation” to Telugu literary creation could see Nannaya—and a host of other Telugu poets—as primarily “translators.”

    Nannaya’s adaptation of the campu style also implies a particularly active, participatory role for the listener. The itihasa epic frame normally requires the presence of a speaker and a listener.

    for example, Sanjaya speaks to Dhrutarastra within the story, describing the battle to his blind master, but his words are reported by the Suta-narrator to the “original” listener, Saunaka, and other sages. The Suta, however, is merely repeating what Vaisampayana recited, on the basis of his teacher Vyasa’s composition, to King Janamejaya at the time of the latter’s sacrifice of snakes. These concentric frames are reframed by Nannaya, who sings the same story to his patron, Rajarajanarendra. And we, listening to a pauran. ika reciter, find ourselves in precisely
    the same dialogic situation. The innovation lies in the assimilation of this format to what is, in effect, a kavya: an aesthetic, self-conscious literary work. Sanskrit literary kavya, for whatever reason, does not share this need to internalize the listener. Part of the great power of Nannaya’s campu lies precisely in this activation and co-option of the listener—a characteristic feature of the oral storytelling mode—within a reinvented literary genre

    There is yet another aspect to Nannaya’s originality, at the very limit of linguistic expression. Perhaps more than any later Telugu poet, with the possible exception of Srınatha in his bhımesvara-puranamu, Nannaya produces a “magical” or “mantric” effect

    One long Sanskrit compound gives us the whole massiveness and heaviness of earth, indicated both by the long string of elements (forests, oceans, mountains, rivers, and lakes) and by the repeated ha sounds—also built into the rhyme scheme in the second syllable of each line—as if to demonstrate the breathlessness of the great snake who bears this burden on his thousand heads. But this dense alliteration has only begun: it is resumed by a dangling, unusual adverb: ajasra, “always,” another Sanskrit loan that would normally require a Telugu case-ending but which here simply flows into the line, rhyming with the following word, sahasra (“thousand”). The dangling adverb, in the rush of alliterating sound, suggests the uninterrupted process of bearing the earth’s burden. Now, at last, there is a small piece of Dravidian, the nonfinite verb dalci, “bearing.” The work is thus still incomplete; another burden must still be borne. The snake Adisesha along with bearing the earth, is also the bed on which the god Vishnu sleeps in the ocean of milk, and the poet makes sure that we feel this additional, indeed infinite, weight of the god by another gush of sibilants and aspirates, spilling over the line-break:

    duS-SaHatara-mu ̄rtikin jaladhi-S´ayiki payaka Sayyayaina ayyaHi pati. . . .

    These two burdens, incidentally, are never seen together in iconography orjoined in story; Nannaya has fused them, doubling the snake’s dreadful task and arousing our admiration for him. The listener, by now bent double himself under this weight, miraculously made present through the language, needs to rest. For the god, at least, a soft bed is available: the repeated cushioning of the soft double semivowels, -yy(a)-, a delicately iconic reproduction of the texture of the snake’s body. And this entire description is part of an appeal to the snakes on the part of the young Udanka who, as is customary, preludes his request with flattery or praise. This verbal production of overpowering sounds has the effect of making palpable and present the snake’s own experience; what is more, the verse also controls the reality it has created, like a snake-charming mantra. Indeed, Nannaya’s verses in this passage are believed to serve this very purpose of providing protection from snakes.

    Here, as one sometimes finds in Nannaya, it is the sound that matters most, more even than any translatable meaning. The sounds, even beneath the words, create a world of their own. Perhaps all language oscillates between the poles of denotative reference and existential creativity; Nannaya introduction is often closer to the latter pole. He tells us, not boastfully, that he always speaks truth (nitya-satya-vacanun, suggesting a self-discipline that fashioned a purity of tongue. This “true” relation to language enables him, in effect, to transcend language.

    maro roju tikkana gurunchi comment post chestha


  3. Pingback: Andhra Mahabharatamu Part 3 : How The Epic Reached Completion | Pittagoda

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