Susan Hawthorne translates Kālidāsa’s Meghadūta

Susan Hawthorne is the author of six collections of poetry, the latest of which is Cow (2011). Cow was written during a 2009 Asialink Literature Residency based at the University of Madras and funded by the Australia Council and Arts Queensland. Her previous book, Earth’s Breath (2009) was shortlisted for the 2010 Judith Wright Poetry Prize. A chapbook of poems about war, Valence, will be published in late 2011. She is Adjunct Professor in the Writing Program at James Cook University, Townsville. She has been studying Sanskrit at La Trobe University and ANU for five years.



Kālidāsa’s Meghadūta

Kālidāsa’s Meghadūta (Cloud Messenger) from approximately the 4th century CE is a poem of 111 stanzas. This poem is based on reading the first 20 stanzas of the poem in Sanskrit. Meghadūta is one of several lyric poems by Kālidāsa who wrote three plays as well as epic poems. He is one of the most important poets writing in Classical Sanskrit. Translating for Sanskrit provides many challenges, and in this version I take poetic licence in order to make the poem work in English. The Sanskrit metre in which it is written is mandākrānta, a slow elegiac metre.


Twenty stanzas of Meghadūta

a whole year passed and the Yakṣa pined
though he lived in pleasant surrounds
among Rāmagiri’s shady trees
and the holy waters of Sītā
yet still he ached
only himself to blame for Kubera’s curse

his mind bent by longing for her
love bangle slipped from his famished arm
with bittersweet pangs of love
he hungered on that lonely mountain top
on a windy day portending monsoon
he saw an elephant cloud rutting the cliff face

his yearning peaked as he stood
before this phantasm of elephant
dry-eyed tears welling inside
even the cheerful mind is ruffled
by the sight of a rough-skinned cloud
he wished his arms a necklace

as the month of Śrāvaṇa approached
the month of listening he prepared
to send news through the cloud ear
he made an offering of fresh kuṭaja flowers
spoke aloud his words filled with love
sustenance for his beloved

his mind bent by yearning
he clutches at cloud elements
vapour light water wind
mistakes cloud breath for vital breath
poor lovelorn Yakṣa can’t sense
the mirror from its reflection

Yakṣa speaks to the cloud saying
I know you are born into the world-wandering
shapeshifting clan related to thunder-bearing
Indra I call on you to help me most lofty one
my kin are far away and destiny tells me
to make a humble request though it be futile

rain-giver you are a refuge in sticky heat
Kubera has parted me from my beloved
and  I beg that you travel to her in Alakā
with my message where you’ll find a palace
bathed in the light of a crescent moon on the head
of Śiva standing in the outer garden

ascend the path of the wind sky-fly
so the wives need no longer sigh
at their unravelled hair imploring
their well-travelled husbands to return
whereas I in thrall to Kubera
have neglected my beloved

without obstruction follow the jet stream
how you float unlike my beloved
her heart like a wilted flower
she needs the thread of hope
to buoy up her spirits in fruitless
counting of days and nights

as the wind drives you slowly slowly
the cātaka bird sings sweetly sweetly
skeins of cranes are in flight
cloud seeded they fly in formation
like a garland aloft pleasing to
the sky-turned eye

your sky companions the gander kings
have heard your thundering gait
they long for Lake Mānasa so high
they watch for mushrooming earth
and carry food strips of lotus root
as you fly together to Mount Kailāsa

lofty mountain embraced by cloud
rain tears and farewells marked
by Rāmagiri’s receding footprints
steaming tears stream down
the mountain’s face a knot
of loss born of long separation

oh cloud listen to me
let your ears be drunk
on sound    listen follow
the path laid down
drink from bubbling streams
rest when exhausted

beneath you bewildered
women watch the crowd
of elephant clouds a shiver
of north wind carries off
the mountain tusk
beware the quarter elephants

face-to-face a sliver of Indra’s
bow rises from the anthill
a kaleidoscope of colours
in crystalline refraction
your indigo body glittering
like a glamour of peacocks

fruits of harvest grown
on moisture from you
fertile as the wombs
of women sweet sacred
smell of turned earth
climb the brow to the cloud-road

ride the spine of Āmrakūṭa
the ground awash with
your downpour extinguishing
wildfire such kindness is
returned providing refuge
for high flying friends

cloud braid lies along Āmrakūṭa’s
spine fringed with mango orbs
the mountain a curve of breast
its dark nipple in the middle
a coupling of gods looks
at the pale vastness of earth

the young wives of forest nomads
frolic in thick mountain arbours
you sprint the rim of mountain
streams riven by strewn boulders
like the cross-hatched pattern
decorating the body of an elephant

you whose rain is shed drink
the must-infused water of wild
elephants water-clumped
jambū trees obstruct your way
the wind cannot lift a solid mass
a void is light fullness is gravity