Introduction to the Kathāmṛta – Part 2 – Bṛhat-kathā-mañjarī

This article is part 2 of 20 in the series Introduction to the Kathāmṛta

The word ‘Kathā-sarit-sāgara’ literally means an ocean that is formed as a result of the confluence of many rivers of stories. Though the name of the work is famous and is largely in vogue today, a question naturally arises – did the author name the work so or did it get the name in the recent years. The word ‘Kathā-sarit-sāgara ’ occurs in the closing verse of the work.[1] The verse, however, is quite different from the others in its structure and is present at the end of the work. So, it is not unlikely that it was added long after the composition of the work. It appears that this literary work was originally named Bṛhat-kathā-sāra-saṅgraha – we infer this from the verse that precedes the concluding one and also from the writings at the beginning of the work.[2] Taraṅgas, i.e., waves are present in an ocean as well as in a river. Therefore, the term used to indicate chapters has a kind of aesthetic validity.

However, what can we say about lambaka? It refers to a bunch (of threads, for instance) or to a perpendicular (in geometry). It is incongruous with ‘river’ or ‘ocean.’ (A chapter is also called ‘lambaṇa’ in a variant reading of the work). It is likely that the term lambaka was there in the original text; therefore, even Kṣemendra has retained it in his Bṛhat-kathā-mañjarī. In consonance with this, he has appropriately named the sub-chapters as gucchas (flower-bunches, bouquets). Although his compilation of the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata are called mañjarīs, the sub-chapters therein are not called gucchas; instead they are called kāṇḍas and parvas. The same guccha is now called kucchu in Kannada. Each kucchu consists of many threads, each of which in turn strings several beads. Many such beaded threads bunched together form a kucchu. A kucchu might as well be called lambaṇa.[3] In other words, a chain of kucchus may form a lambaṇa, which dangles vertically.[4] This beaded kucchu, gutti, or guḍi is very much in use even today. In days gone by, it was a prominent feature of sculptural ornamentation. In ancient temples, ornate kucchus figure pervasively; they are often decorated with such strings of beads made of stone.

After the name ‘Kathā-sarit-sāgara’ (the ocean of the streams of stories) gained prevalence – regardless of whether it was coined by Somadeva or someone else – the chapters that come within may have been assigned the name taraṅga (wave). In Kṣemendra’s Bṛhat-kathā-mañjarī, the reason for the scribe (who made copies of the manuscript) to call the first part of the story’s prologue as ‘taraṅga,’ is positively due to the influence of the nomenclature used in the Kathā-sarit-sāgara. The name ‘taraṅga’ is surely not consistent with the title of his work, ‘Bṛhat-kathā-mañjarī.’ Similarly, a lambaka has nothing to do with  taraṅga. The reason for my prolonged discussion on this is because scholars like [Félix] Lacôte[5], [Arthur] Keith[6], and others have amended lambaka as lambhaka, thereby suggesting that it means lābha (gain) or vijaya (victory). Daṇḍi while speaking about the kathā-lakṣaṇa (characteristics of a story or plot), Subandhu in his Vāsava-dattam, and Jina-sena’s (c. 825 CE) in his Ādi-purāṇa (Indian Historical Quarterly, Vol. 5, pp. 31–35)[7], we come across a lambha-based division of chapters. We can see this term even in the word vi-pra-lambha. It is said that even Saṅgha-dāsa-gaṇi’s Prakrit work Vāsudeva-hiṇḍī is divided into lambhas. However, I have never come across the word lambhaka. One may argue that it is possible to etymologically derive lambhaka from lambha. Nevertheless, I am not sure why one would use a rather rare term like lambha and add a ka-pratyaya to it to indicate intimacy (svārthe ‘ka’ pratyayaḥ), when the more popular word ‘lābha’ is easily available for use!


The same story has been retold by the Kāśmīri poet Kṣemendra around twenty-five to thirty years prior to Somadeva—in the period of the aforementioned Anantarāja (r. 1029–64)—in his poetical work ‘Bṛhat-kathā-mañjarī.’ This is also an abridged treatise much like his Bhārata- and Rāmāyaṇa-mañjarīs; it is smaller than the Kathā-sarit-sāgara (around 2,500 ślokas). The abridgement is extremely restrained and therefore both the artha (meaning, logical structure) and the rasa (aesthetic experience, enjoyment) are violated on several occasions. Whenever there are descriptions, particularly of women, his enthusiasm-flamboyance increases fourfold. His treatise too has eighteen lambakas. The segments within a given lambaka, he calls it a ‘guccha’ as mentioned earlier. Although the topic is one and the same, the poetical treatises of Kṣemendra and Somadeva are independent works. Only the source-book for both of them are the same; but it appears that the versions of the original manuscripts the two of them referred to differed slightly in some aspects. There is also a difference in the order of the lambakas in the two works.

Lambaka order of the Bṛhat-kathā-mañjarī

(Lambaka number of the Kathā-sarit-sāgara is given in parenthesis)

1. Kathā-pīṭha (1)
2. Kathā-mukha (2)
3. Lāvāṇaka (3)
4. Nara-vāhana-datta-janana (4)
5. Catur-dārikā (5)
6. Sūrya-prabha (8)
7. Madana-mañcukā (6)
8. Velā (11)
9. Śaśāṅkavatī (12)
10. Viṣama-śīla (18)
11. Madirāvatī (13)
12. Padmāvatī (17)
13. Pañca (14)
14. Ratna-prabhā (7)
15. Alaṅkāravatī (9)
16. Śakti-yaśa (10)
17. Mahābhiṣeka (15)
18. Surata-mañjarī (16)

From this it appears that the Bṛhat-kathā-mañjarī follows the order of the source-book. From the sixth lambaka onwards, Somadeva has made a different arrangement, perhaps with a view to reconcile some of the anachronisms and absurdities that appear in the text. But even with all this jugglery, the shortcomings remain. He says,

यथामूलं तथैवैतन्न मनागप्यतिक्रमः।
ग्रन्थविस्तरसङ्क्षेपमात्रं भाषा च भिद्यते॥
औचित्यान्वयरक्षा च यथाशक्ति विधीयते।
कथारसाविघातेन काव्यांशस्य च योजना॥ (1.1.10–11)

Here, it is unlikely that ‘vistara-saṅkṣepa’ means ‘both expansive and abridged.’ It probably means ‘an abridged version that is elaborate’ because he himself claims, ‘saṅgrahaṃ racayāmi’ (I am composing a condensed version). The reason for his reordering of the lambakas as indicated above might be ‘aucityānvaya-rakṣā’ (to protect the appropriateness in the structure). The ‘kāvyāṃśas’ that he speaks of includes description, alaṅkāra (linguistic embellishments, at the level of sound and/or meaning), morals, and so forth.


To be continued...

This is an English translation of Prof. A R Krishna Shastri’s Kannada classic Kathāmṛta by Raghavendra G S, Arjun Bharadwaj,  Srishan Thirumalai, and Hari Ravikumar.

The original Kannada version of Kathāmṛta is available for free online reading here. To read other works of Prof. Krishna Shastri, click here.


[1] प्रवितततरङ्गभङ्गिः कथासरित्सागरो विरचितोऽयम्।
सोमेनामलमतिना हृदयानन्दाय भवतु सताम्॥ 13

[2] नानाकथामृतमयस्य बृहत्कथायाः
सारस्य सज्जनमनोम्बुधिपूर्णचन्द्रः ।
रामात्मजेन विहितः खलु संग्रहोऽयम् || 12

प्रणम्य वाचं निःशेषपदार्थोद्योतदीपिकां
बृहत्कथायाः सारस्यसङ्ग्रहं रचयाम्यहम् ॥ 1.1.3

[3] In this context, one may examine the meaning of ślokas that indicate that Nara-vāhana-datta had twenty-six wives – Bṛhat-kathā-śloka-saṃgraha 5.43–50

[4] This nomenclature is consistent with the approach of creating a thread like structure by weaving stories within stories or chaining one story to another.

[5] Lambha means ‘a conquest.’ – Essay on Guṇāḍhya, pp. 51, 162–63

[6] “…it is a plausible conjecture that the term applies to the victories of the hero, each section dealing with some achievement of his.” – History of Sanskrit Literature, p. 277

[7] भेदश्च दृष्टो लंभादिः (Kāvyādarśa, 1.27); बृहत्कथालंभैरिव कालभंजिकोपेतैः (Srirangam Edition, p. 123)



Prof. A R Krishna Sastri was a journalist, scholar, polyglot, and a pioneer of the modern Kannada renaissance, who founded the literary journal Prabuddha Karnāṭaka. His Vacana-bhārata and Kathāmṛta are classics of Kannada literature while his Saṃskṛta-nāṭaka and Bankimacandra are of unrivalled scholarship.

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