This article is part 1 of 7 in the series Nīlakaṇṭhadīkṣita

Nīlakaṇṭhadīkṣita’s Time, Place and Family Background

In its literary history that spans several millennia, Sanskrit has been enriched by the works of innumerable authors. It would not be a great loss to the reader if he or she happened to miss reading some of them. But then, there are others whom a genuine lover of Sanskrit literature cannot afford to ignore. That the works of Nīlakaṇṭhadīkṣita belong to this latter genre is proof enough of his uniqueness in Sanskrit literature. In his close observation of human nature and especially in his application of humor and sarcasm to the service of poetry, he stands side by side with the Kashmirian poets, Kṣemendra and Bhallaṭa. The Sanskrit idiom, over which he has an excellent grasp, makes his humor appear natural and unlabored.

Fortunately, Nīlakaṇṭhadīkṣita, unlike most Sanskrit poets who scarcely provide us with personal details, has been liberal enough in including autobiographical details in most of his works. In the preface to his work, Nīlakaṇṭhavijayacampū, he gives the date in which it was composed as the Kali year 4738 (which corresponds to 1637 CE). Apart from this, the writings of his elder contemporaries such as Appayyadīkṣita, Ratnakheṭaśrīnivāsadīkṣita, Veṅkaṭamakhi and Yajñanārāyaṇadīkṣita, contemporaries such as Veṅkaṭādhvari and Rājacūḍāmaṇidīkṣita and younger contemporaries such as Rāmabhadradīkṣita, Mahādevakavi and Cakrakavi also help in determining his date. Based on an account that Appayyadīkṣita lived for seventy-two years and died in 1626 CE when Nīlakaṇṭhadīkṣita was twelve years old, one could infer that the poet was born in 1613 CE. It was, without doubt, in present-day Tamil Nadu that Nīlakaṇṭhadīkṣita was born. He spent a good part of his life in the city of Madurai to whose presiding deity, Mīnākṣi, he was deeply devoted and in the court of whose king, Tirumalanāyaka, he served as a minister.

His own works—Nalacaritra and Gaṅgāvataraṇa, especially—give ample information about the illustrious family in which he was born. His forefathers, mentions the prelude to Nalacaritra, were realized souls who taught all branches of learning, chanted the Vedas, drank the holy soma juice, defended the doctrine of Advaita and were famed throughout the world. Among them was one Accādīkṣita who hailed from the clan of Bharadvāja. Of his eight sons, the fifth, Śrīraṅgarājādhvarī composed several works, chief among which are Advaitavidyāmukura and Vivaraṇadarpaṇa. His son, the famous Appayyadīkṣita, who is known to have written one hundred and four works on various subjects also took the lead in establishing the Śaiva doctrine. The Nayaka ruler, Cinabomma, honored him with a shower of gold coins. Nīlakaṇṭhadīkṣita humbly salutes Appayyadīkṣita more than once in his works. Appayyadīkṣita’s brother Accādīkṣita was also a great scholar and the verse of one Gururāma, quoted in Nalacaritra, describes him as a man of letters, well-versed in grammar, the philosophical schools of SāṅkhyaMīmāmsāVaiśeṣika, logic and poetics. His grandson, Nārāyaṇādhvarī commented on works such as Sāhityaratnākara and Mahāvīracarita and was believed to be an incarnation of goddess Pārvatī. Nīlakaṇṭhadīkṣita was his second son by Bhūmīdevī. He was tutored by his father in the traditional sciences as well as in literature. In the first canto of Gaṅgāvataraṇa, he fancies his father’s poetry as the holy water that washes the left foot of Śiva, the foot that belongs to Pārvatī who occupies Śiva’s left half. He also studied Advaita under his family preceptor, Gīrvāṇendra Sarasvatī.

Nīlakaṇṭhadīkṣita’s Works

Nīlakaṇṭhadīkṣita’s muse is by no stretch of imagination limited, spanning almost the entire gamut of Sanskrit literary forms. He has chiefly to his credit two mahākāvyas (epic-poems composed of verses divided into chapters called sargas), Śivalīlārṇavaand Gaṅgāvataraṇa, a campū (a literary form that combines versified poetry and prose), Nīlakaṇṭhavijaya, a nāṭaka (one of the ten major types of drama), Nalacaritra and a host of short works, namely, Kaliviḍambana, Sabhārañjanaśataka, Vairāgyaśataka, Anyāpadeśaśataka, Ānandasāgarastava, Śivotkarṣamañjarī and Śāntivilāsa. The short works are satires, didactic poems or hymns in praise of various deities. Apart from these, a few manuscripts and printed works bear evidence to the fact that Nīlakaṇṭhadīkṣita also authored the following works –MukundavilāsaŚivatattvarahasyaKaiyaṭavyākhyānaGurutattvamālikā, SaubhāgyacandrātapaRāmāyaṇasārasaṅgraha (also known as Raghuvīrastava), Aghaviveka and Caṇḍīrahasya. That he was an erudite scholar in various branches of learning, Alaṅkāraśāstra (aesthetics), Vyākaraṇa (grammar), Mīmāṃsā (one of the six branches of Indian philosophy that is concerned with the interpretation of Vedic injunctions, especially those that are ritualistic),Vedānta (one of the six branches of Indian philosophy that is concerned with the knowledge of Self), Tarka (logic), Śaivāgama (texts on Śaivaite philosophy) and Nītiśāstra (polity), to name just a few, is borne out by these works. Let us now discuss these works in some detail.

Major works of Nīlakaṇṭhadīkṣita


The Śivalīlārṇava belongs to the literary genre known as the māhākāvya. Spread over twenty-two cantos, it describes the sixty-four exploits of Shiva. It is based on the Sanskrit work, Hālāsyapurāṇa (which is a part of Skandapurāṇa) and two Tamil works, Periyapurāṇam and Tiruviḻaiyāḍal. The title literally translates as “The ocean of Shiva’s exploits”. That the Śivalīlārṇava is a prototypical mahākāvya can be gathered from the following points –

  • The work is divided in to twenty-two sargas and describes the saga of virtuous kings from the Pāṇḍyan country.
  • The principal sentiment is one of serenity though other sentiments too find appropriate expression.
  • The plot is chosen from the Hālāsyapurāṇa.
  • The poem begins with a prayer addressed to the river Gaṅgā
  • The first sarga, apart from a praise of the art of poesy and poets in general, also contains verses that make fun of the wicked. In one of these verses (1.63), Nīlakaṇṭhadīkṣita speaks thus about the sadistic pleasure which the wicked derive out of deriding others –

आनन्दथुर्ब्रह्मविदां यदेकस्ते व्यङ्ग्यलाभेषु शतं कवीनाम् |
एते सहस्रं पुनरर्बुदं वा परोक्तिदोषस्फुरणे खलानाम् ||

“A hundred-fold richer than the joy of those that have realized the Self is the joy which poets beget when they infuse their words with suggestion and a thousand-fold, nay, billion-fold richer is the joy which the wicked derive through finding faults in what others utter.”

  • Every sarga has verses composed in one meter throughout with a change in metrical structure at the end. The twentieth and twenty first sargas in particular have verses in several meters, evidencing Nīlakaṇṭhadīkṣita’s expertise in prosody.
  • The expanse of Shiva’s sixty-four exploits give the poet ample scope to employ his descriptive powers. Let us go through some of these in detail.

The second sarga starts with a novel and beautiful description of the Pāṇḍyan province. Some examples could be cited here:

आकारिता यत्र मखेषु विप्रैरालोकयन्तो विबुधाः समृद्धिम् |
युष्मान्यजामो वयमर्पयध्वे युष्मत्पदं चेदिति सान्त्वयन्ते ||

In this kingdom, the gods, invoked by sacrificing priests, would take one look at its prosperity and plead with them thus – “We are willing to take on your role if only you would agree to part with your kingdom”. (2.5)

मृत्पिण्डरूपो जनको यदीयः पितामहो यस्य कुलाल एव |
स कुम्भजन्माजनि सूत्रकारः कोणो वसन्क्वापि चिरं यदीये ||

His father was but a lump of clay and his grandfather, a mere potter. But the pitcher-born Agastya managed to write the aphorisms of Dravidian grammar only because he managed to make some corner of this kingdom his home”. (2.7).

This is followed by a description of the river Tāmraparṇī in eight verses, one of which is given below.

क्षारोदकास्वादभवं विपाकमपाकरिष्यन्निव कुम्भजन्मा |
जहाति शैलं मलयं न जातु पातुं प्रकृत्या मधुरं यदम्भः ||

The sage Agastya never abandons the mountain Malaya, so he can keep drinking Tāmraparṇī’s naturally sweet water, antidote to the side-effects he suffered by gulping down salty sea-water. (2.22)

Next follows a description of the forest of Kadamba trees in the vicinity of Vṛṣādri –

संपूर्यमाणात्प्रतिपौर्णमासं शाखाग्रसंघट्टनतोऽवधूतात् |
मृगाङ्कबिम्बाद्गलिता इवोर्व्यां मृगाः शतं यत्र परिभ्रमन्ति ||

The hundreds of deer that roam around this forest seem to have dropped down from the lunar orb when, on every full-moon night, tall trees rubbed against it with the tips of their branches. (2.30) 

पुष्पाय वृक्षाग्रपदाधिरूढान्पुत्रान्मुनीनामुपलालयन्तः |
व्याजेन देवास्तपसोऽभिसन्धिं पृच्छन्ति  नित्यं परिशङ्कमानाः ||

When hermit-boys climb up the tall trees of this forest to pluck flowers, the ever-anxious celestials intercept them on their way and cajole them to know the reason why hermits below are performing penances. (2.35).

The sixth sarga contains descriptions of the spring season and the birth of his daughter –

आमूलादविरलमाचिते प्रवालैश्चूतेऽपि प्रययुरतोषमान्यपुष्टाः |
सर्वाणि ग्रसितुमिमानि यन्न सेकुः स्थातुं वा यदपि न शाखिकामपश्यन् ||

The cuckoos were unhappy with the mango trees bearing full fruits. Neither could they savor the bounty in entirety nor could they find a place to perch (6.18)

प्रेयस्या सविधमुपेत्य दीयमानामुत्प्लुत्य स्वयमुपगूहितुं पतन्तीम् |
कन्यां ताममृतमयीमिवाददानः कैवल्यं धरणिपतिस्तृणाय मेने ||

When the king’s wife brought her close so he could hold her, the little girl sprang up to hug him. As he held her nectarous form in his arms, salvation too was worth a blade of grass. (6.79)

न स्मर्तुं प्रमाथपतिं न कर्मशेषं निर्वोढुं न च महतो मुनीन्प्रणन्तुम् |
चान्योन्यं वदनमवेक्ष्य नन्दितुं वा दम्पत्योश्चतुरतया तयोर्बभूवे ||

In their immense joy, the couple scarcely remembered Śiva, barely managed to discharge pending duties, cared little to revere sages and didn’t even greet each other. (6.81)

The seventh Sarga ends with a description of autumn –

शिशिरितमवनीतलं समृद्धं विपिनमपूरिषताशया जलानाम् |
विरमति जलदेऽपि कस्य हानिः परमिह केचन चातकाः प्रणष्टाः ||

The earth’s surface was rendered cool, forests flourished and lakes filled up with water. Even the passing away of clouds made no big difference to anyone save the Cātaka birds who were now doomed to death. (7.74)

चिरपरिमुषितप्रदेशचिह्नाः समुपागताः सरसीः पुनश्च हंसाः |
कथमपि रसवर्णगन्धभेदैर्निजमम्बुजकोशमभ्यजानन् ||

Swans returned back to their lakes but robbed as they were of signs that marked their territories, could locate their respective lotuses only by the difference in their nectar, color and smell. (7.85) 

The two verses given above allude to the poetic convention that the Cātakas subsist on raindrops and swans migrate to the Mānasa Lake during the rainy season and return back to their respective lakes during autumn.

To be continued.




Dr. Shankar is an 'ashtavadhani,' psychiatrist, poet, and Sanskrit scholar. He is a master of a complex poetic form in Sanskrit known as 'chitrakavya.' He translated Gangadevi's Madhuravijaya and Uddandakavi's Kokilasandesha into English.

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इदं किञ्चिद्यामलं काव्यं द्वयोः खण्डकाव्ययोः सङ्कलनरूपम्। रामानुरागानलं हि सीतापरित्यागाल्लक्ष्मणवियोगाच्च श्रीरामेणानुभूतं हृदयसङ्क्षोभं वर्णयति । वात्सल्यगोपालकं तु कदाचिद्भानूपरागसमये घटितं यशोदाश्रीकृष्णयोर्मेलनं वर्णयति । इदम्प्रथमतया संस्कृतसाहित्ये सम्पूर्णं काव्यं...


इदं खण्डकाव्यमान्तं मालिनीछन्दसोपनिबद्धं विलसति। मेनकाविश्वामित्रयोः समागमः, तत्फलतया शकुन्तलाया जननम्, मातापितृभ्यां त्यक्तस्य शिशोः कण्वमहर्षिणा परिपालनं चेति काव्यस्यास्येतिवृत्तसङ्क्षेपः।


इदं खण्डकाव्यमान्तं मालिनीछन्दसोपनिबद्धं विलसति। मेनकाविश्वामित्रयोः समागमः, तत्फलतया शकुन्तलाया जननम्, मातापितृभ्यां त्यक्तस्य शिशोः कण्वमहर्षिणा परिपालनं चेति काव्यस्यास्येतिवृत्तसङ्क्षेपः।


इयं रचना दशसु रूपकेष्वन्यतमस्य भाणस्य निदर्शनतामुपैति। एकाङ्करूपकेऽस्मिन् शेखरकनामा चित्रोद्यमलेखकः केनापि हेतुना वियोगम् अनुभवतोश्चित्रलेखामिलिन्दकयोः समागमं सिसाधयिषुः कथामाकाशभाषणरूपेण निर्वहति।


अस्मिन् स्तोत्रकाव्ये भगवन्तं शिवं कविरभिष्टौति। वसन्ततिलकयोपनिबद्धस्य काव्यस्यास्य कविकृतम् उल्लाघनाभिधं व्याख्यानं च वर्तते।

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the third volume, some character sketches of great literary savants responsible for Kannada renaissance during the first half of the twentieth century. These remarkable...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the second volume, episodes from the lives of remarkable exponents of classical music and dance, traditional storytellers, thespians, and connoisseurs; as well as his...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the first volume, episodes from the lives of great writers, poets, literary aficionados, exemplars of public life, literary scholars, noble-hearted common folk, advocates...

Evolution of Mahabharata and Other Writings on the Epic is the English translation of S R Ramaswamy's 1972 Kannada classic 'Mahabharatada Belavanige' along with seven of his essays on the great epic. It tells the riveting...

Shiva-Rama-Krishna is an English adaptation of Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh's popular lecture series on the three great...


ಮಹಾಮಾಹೇಶ್ವರ ಅಭಿನವಗುಪ್ತ ಜಗತ್ತಿನ ವಿದ್ಯಾವಲಯದಲ್ಲಿ ಮರೆಯಲಾಗದ ಹೆಸರು. ಮುಖ್ಯವಾಗಿ ಶೈವದರ್ಶನ ಮತ್ತು ಸೌಂದರ್ಯಮೀಮಾಂಸೆಗಳ ಪರಮಾಚಾರ್ಯನಾಗಿ  ಸಾವಿರ ವರ್ಷಗಳಿಂದ ಇವನು ಜ್ಞಾನಪ್ರಪಂಚವನ್ನು ಪ್ರಭಾವಿಸುತ್ತಲೇ ಇದ್ದಾನೆ. ಭರತಮುನಿಯ ನಾಟ್ಯಶಾಸ್ತ್ರವನ್ನು ಅರ್ಥಮಾಡಿಕೊಳ್ಳಲು ಇವನೊಬ್ಬನೇ ನಮಗಿರುವ ಆಲಂಬನ. ಇದೇ ರೀತಿ ರಸಧ್ವನಿಸಿದ್ಧಾಂತವನ್ನು...


“वागर्थविस्मयास्वादः” प्रमुखतया साहित्यशास्त्रतत्त्वानि विमृशति । अत्र सौन्दर्यर्यशास्त्रीयमूलतत्त्वानि यथा रस-ध्वनि-वक्रता-औचित्यादीनि सुनिपुणं परामृष्टानि प्रतिनवे चिकित्सकप्रज्ञाप्रकाशे। तदन्तर एव संस्कृतवाङ्मयस्य सामर्थ्यसमाविष्कारोऽपि विहितः। क्वचिदिव च्छन्दोमीमांसा च...

The Best of Hiriyanna

The Best of Hiriyanna is a collection of forty-eight essays by Prof. M. Hiriyanna that sheds new light on Sanskrit Literature, Indian...

Stories Behind Verses

Stories Behind Verses is a remarkable collection of over a hundred anecdotes, each of which captures a story behind the composition of a Sanskrit verse. Collected over several years from...