Lively young women with flowers in their hair
walk about me with their friends.
They walk in dreams that are all their own
in this garden-like city that the gods have built.
The rich in this place are uncountable,
each person’s mind is filled with joy.
Kathmandu is an ocean of happiness,
this may be the golden city that the demons once built.
Some places like Lhasa, London, or China,
some dark alleys like those of Delhi,
some places that rival mighty cities of India
are in this city that light has filled.
Swords, hatchets, knives, and khukuris,
decorated by pistols and even rifles,
brave and strong men fill all its streets.
Could another place like Kathmandu exist?
There is no anger, deceit, or falsity,
there is no limit to dharma and nobility,
the Lord of Animals protects this city,
this is the land of God Shiva, the land of immortality.
After so many days I have seen the Balaju water gardens again
and I write that underneath earthly skies this is a Heaven.
All around me are birds that sit or swing upon vines,
maybe with soft voices they intend to steal my mind.
If I can stay here and make many verses
what better thing or pleasure could I ever wish?
If there were a beautiful maiden to dance before me,
Lord Indra’s paradise I would never miss.
From the fifth to the fifteenth century AD, the Khas civilization flourished from its roots in what is now far-west Nepal. Historical documents show that west Nepal, south-west Tibet, and Kumaon and Garhwal of India were united and the Khas language had great influence in these regions during the time of that civilization’s rise. After the fall of the Khas Empire, its language, which evolved into present day Nepali, was considered bastardized and limited to speech. Sanskrit dominated most of the written texts of South Asia and its influence was particularly strong in Nepal.
Brahmins were the teachers, scholars, and priests of the society by virtue of their caste. Their education was Sanskrit oriented since most religious texts of the Hindu religion were in that language.
Bhanubhakta Acharya, born to a Brahmin family in 1814 in Tanahu, received an excellent education with a strong leaning towards religion at home from his grandfather. He led an unremarkable life until he met a grass cutter who wanted to give something to the society so that he could be remembered after death. Bhanubhakta was young, and the grass cutter’s words inspired him to write these words:
He gives his life to cutting grass and earns little money,
he hopes to make a well for his people
so he will be remembered after death,
this high thinking grass cutter lives in poverty,
I have achieved nothing though I have much wealth.
I have neither made rest houses nor a well,
all my riches are inside my house.
This grass cutter has opened my eyes today,
my life is worthless if the memory of my existence fades away.
The grass cutter’s wish to be remembered has been fulfilled: he is more romanticized than Adikabi Bhanubhakta, considered the first poet to write in the Khas, or now the Nepali language. While there were other verses written in the Khas language before Bhanubhakta’s time, some of them were hard to identify as poetry – the quality is sketchy; many of the writers disappeared due lack of a forum where they could foster their talents (sadly the audience was just not there); many wrote poetry that was too heavily Sanskritized. Bhanubhakta was definitely “the” writer who gained the acceptance of a wide range of people and his creations played a key role in popularizing the written form of the Khas language.
The people of the first poet’s time strongly believed that building and renovating temples, shrines, rest houses and taps were acts of dharma. Kings honored their gods with pagoda structures decorated with the best wood, stone, and metal artwork. Every artisan created his piece so it would send a message of goodwill to the palace of Indra, the King of Amarawati, which many considered Heaven. The poor and the rich all tried to give what they could afford to ensure a good afterlife.
Bhanubhakta’s contribution was unique. Children who received an education at the time began their studies with light epics like the Ramayan and graduated to the more complex Upanishads and Vedas in his time. Ram’s heroic exploits were highly impressive to Bhanubhakta, so he decided to make the deity more accessible to the people who spoke Khas. (Since the social order did not encourage literacy, most country people did not understand anything when epics were read out to them in Sanskrit.)
When completed, his translation of the Ramayan was so lyrical that it was more like a song than a poem. However, his creation was not published and he was to die without receiving credit for his contribution. It was later in 1887 that Moti Ram Bhatta found his manuscript and printed it in Benaras, India, where Bhatta published, wrote critiques, and shared his gazal songs with others. Though priests found a rapt audience when they explained what they had been reading, they could not compete with the pleasant flow of Bhanubhakta’s translation. Soon he and his book became household words.
Bhanubhakta did not study Western literature – the West must have been a land of fables for him. The closest city in India was several weeks’ walk away, and there was a huge distinction between those who had been to Kathmandu and those who had not. (When Bhanubhakta first visited Kathmandu, he called it the City of Immortality and compared it to the legendary cities of the gods and demons.) All his ideas and experiences were derived from his native land. This lent such a strong Nepali flavor to his writing that few poets have been able to equal his simple creations in terms of content: a sense of religion, a sense of simplicity, and the warmth of his country are the strongest features of his poetry. Those who read the first lines of the Bhanubhakta Ramayan can clearly feel Nepal in them.
Narad sage went to the Land of Truth one day,
wanting to bring back something good for the creation.
Brahma the Creator was there and the sage
sat at his feet and pleased him with devotion.
The themes which Bhanubhakta wrote about were uncomplicated. Once he went to visit a friend and not only discovered that his friend was on a journey, but that his wife was extremely rude to wayfarers. Guests and wayfarers were never treated casually by the people of his time. Houses were few and far between and if anyone refused to shelter a traveler, the traveler might have to walk several miles before finding another resting place. On top of this, there were many stories of gods who came in the guise of humans seeking shelter and judged the homeowners by their conduct. Bhanubhakta was shocked by her attitude and wrote:
The wife of Gajagharsoti is a source of fortunes that are ill
She has taken leave from us all and is on the way to Hell.
As said before, the credit of discovering Bhanubhakta goes to Motiram Bhatta. Bhatta took pains to collect the miscellaneous works of Bhanubhakta and published a collection. He also wrote the poet’s biography. The search for Bhanubhakta’s works must have been frustrating. He did not write many poems, or few survived if he did. His works appear in fragments that are neither organized nor titled. He concentrated his efforts on the Ramayan, and most of his short poems deal with events which he felt profoundly about or they sing the praises of his gods.
I believe that Bhanubhakta wrote two masterpieces in his life. One, obviously, is the Bhanubhaktey Ramayan and the other is a letter he wrote in verse form to the prime minister while in prison. Some funds had been embezzled while Bhanubhakta worked for the local government. He misunderstood the situation, signed some papers, was made a scapegoat, and put into prison. His health became bad, he was given false hopes of being set free, and for a long time his case was not even heard. So he wrote a petition to the all-powerful prime minister requesting his freedom. The Nepalese language is always respectful; even today most letters begin with, “I humbly request….” Bhanubhakta’s petition made fun of his own situation and convinced the ruler of his innocence.
Everyday I see kind authorities and they get rid of my worries.
I am at peace and at night I watch dances for free.
I do what my friends – mosquitoes, fleas, and bedbugs – say:
the mosquitoes sing and the ticks dance, I watch their play.
I was jobless, wealth-less, my hard-earned food came from the spade,
I served those people so everyone would notice me and give me respect.
Without wavering I served and they were pleased and they gave
overflowing attention that is never, ever, taken away.
I am forty, I have a son who is eight years old.
The time for celebrating his manhood-ceremony is close.
I am rotting inside these four walls, so what can I do, my Lord?
How can I complete the ceremony in this darkness-filled world.
The secret of success should be given by the father,
the lessons of life should be given by the mother,
my child has yet to study the Vedas and serve his teacher,
therefore to you, my Owner, I repeat my prayer.
Even while a great ruler like you own this earth,
a Brahmin’s rituals of manhood are being delayed.
Whose feet do I have to place my sorrow at except yours?
Please take pity on me and decide my case for better or worse.
My body is weak, it is made of grain and water.
How shall I say what has befallen me here?
I have suffered much sorrow, my body grows heavy,
and I have been ill for many days.
I was imprisoned for a long time at Kumarichowk,
illness came upon me there and after much trouble I went home.
When I became well they brought me here,
now you, my Owner, you are my only hope.
Whatever I explained to the authorities in writing is true.
But others’ answers and written proofs, I am told,
have proved wrong all that I have said.
I told them I would pay their fines a thousand-fold.
But they say they have signatures on papers and letters,
they say their witnesses have many more tales.
I said I would not plead, I would rather be false,
I will say anything that gets me outside these walls.
I have no wish to spend the rest of my life in this quarrel.
I have no wish to become a millionaire and fill my house with treasures.
Days pass by uselessly and I cannot comfort myself
if you would decide my case it would be a great help.
I have talked with the warden and he does not speak.
Even if he does, his: “tomorrow, tomorrow,” sounds like a joke.
What are these tomorrows? It would be better to know I won’t be freed.
Many tomorrows passed. Please fill this empty bag of mine, I beg.
Bhanubhakta not only won his freedom with his poem, but was given a bag of money as well. So passed the most dangerous and exciting time of his life. He died in 1868 a simple man who did not know that he would be among the most revered creators of Nepal. Today Bhanubhakta is called Adikabi, the first poet of Nepal. Perhaps, it is only he and Laxmi Prasad Devkota that have become literary gods in this country. The only difference between the two is that Devkota’s works continue to enjoy as much celebrity as the great poet himself while Bhanubhakta’s fame tends to overshadow his writings. The eulogy that Devkota wrote to Bhanubhakta Acharya a century later follows.
The Grass Cutter
by Laxmi Prasad Devkota
A tired young man,
his head on a pillow of rock,
sleeps underneath a tree.
A grass cutter sharpens his blade
near him leisurely.
A sweet song of the forest
steals into a gentle dream.
A heart flies towards Heaven
from the clear world of the living.
Wakening, the bright youth asks,
“What are you doing grass cutter?”
He replies smiling,
“Well, we all will go our way,
every person alone.
There is no one in my heart
for whom to tire my fingers.
So I sell this grass and collect money
to build a rest house and a tap for my people.
If we do not sow, how will anything grow?
And how long will we play with toys?
The sickle dances
and the grass cutter continues,
halting, collecting moments
as if they are bright jewels.
“This forest belongs to the gods
and this is a ripe field to be cut.
I reap my fruit and pay rent to the earth.
This life is two days of sun and shade,
so I give to the gods
the rest house and the watering place.”
Magnetized, the youth stares at him.
It is as if lightning flashed.
Leaves rustle and forest birds
fly into the darkness of the trees.
“Oh”, from somewhere a thin sound,
“The worth of this grass cutter’s life.”
The person who slept in the forest
is shaken awake, he is shaken awake.
His eyes are moist,
his breasts rise and fall,
two tear drops fall upon the rock.
The tear drops from a caring heart
make the forest’s colors strange
and writing on the stone like pure waves
sing beautifully like the birds
of the forest,
and of the cage.
Surroundings drink the elixir of immortality
and the hills hum among themselves.
Cool floods, and shades of happiness,
heat and thirst are gone today.
O wonderful star of Saturn,
O these first sounds of Nepal.
May such grass cutters fill the grounds
beneath the skies of my Nepal.
This language, strange and endearing,
welcome like the broken voice of a child.
Shy syllables, these first tender sounds,
simple, transparent, and filled with light.
O birthday of my people’s language,
come down! come down to this earth again!
It has been many days since you left
and this whole country has become thirsty again.
What a wonderful past!
Why would the smells not be gentle?
Why would the world not be bright?