The Setubandha of Pravarasena

Monkey Army building a stone bridge to cross sea on way to Lanka — Wikimedia Commons (Ms Sarah Welch)

The Prakrit languages have a very rich and complex literary history dating back to at least the early centuries AD. As Prof. Andrew Ollett explains –

“Like Sanskrit, [Prakrit] was a language of literary intellectual culture, and cut across regions and religious traditions. If it was not cultivated as intensively or as broadly as Sanskrit was, it was nevertheless cultivated by those at the very apex of cosmopolitan culture, such as Bhoja and Ānandavardhana.”

Indeed, in setting out his theory of dhvani, Anandavardhana relies on examples predominantly taken from Prakrit literature, and especially from the Sattasaī of Hāla, which dates from the early centuries AD. As Prof. Daniel Ingalls explains –

“An important stimulus to discussion, it seems to me, must have been the Prakrit literature which formed an important part of Kashmiri critical studies. The first five quotations in Ananda’s opening defense are all taken from Prakrit. … If we look at the verses of the Sattasaī, we see that it is suggestion upon which the effect of almost every stanza depends. … Such verses lend themselves naturally to the thesis which Ananda set out to defend.”

There is in fact only one surviving Prākṛta Mahākāvya. This is the Rāvaṇavāho (“killing of Rāvaṇa”) , better known as the Setubandha (“bridge-building”), of Pravarasena is a c.5th century AD text written in Mahārāṣṭri Prākṛta, and is in fact the only It tells the story of how Rāma, supported by Hanumān and the whole monkey army, set out for Śrī Laṅkā and rescue Sītā. When Daṇḍin described Prakrit in his Kāvyādarśa, he specifically referenced this text as follows –

“The language of Mahārāṣṭra is known to be the best Prākṛta –

An ocean of jewels of beautiful verse with [works like] Setubandha etc.”

[Kāvyādarśa 1.34; my own translation]

Although this work is no longer on the best-seller lists, nevertheless the Setubandha does seem to continue to influence our understanding of these events, in some sense just as much as the Sanskrit Rāmāyaṇa of Vālmīki. Thus, for example, the building of the bridge across the Palk Strait from India to Śrī Laṅkā is covered in more detail here, hence its more popular name of Setubandha, and it is this version of that episode which influenced Bhaṭṭī when writing his Bhaṭṭī-kāvya, and also continues to influence us today. Cantos VI to VII tell the story of all the bridge-building activities, led by the monkey Nala. Below I translate a handful of verses from the last part of Canto VIII, describing the end result of all these frenetic activities, based on the Sanskrit chhāyā in the edition of Prof. Rādhāgovinda Basak. I also consulted the translation of Prof. K.K. Handiqui.

Even from the Malaya plateau, the lord of monkeys (Sugrīva),
Could hear the cheering of the monkeys
And knew that the last of the mountains was in place
To complete the causeway.

The Eastern and Western parts of the ocean
Being divided by the great causeway,
It seemed as if the sky was leaning unevenly,
Having been pushed upwards in the middle.

With the [reddish] Malaya and Suvelā [mountains] connected,
Across the sky-like ocean-water,
The causeway seemed like the path of the chariot of the sun,
With the redness of sunrise and sunset.

As soon as the bridge was made,
Distress, deep sighs, loss of sleep,
Pallor [and] weakness
Passed from Rāma to Rāvaṇa

Now, immense, soaring and totally vast,
The causeway stretched out like death personified,
Dividing the ocean in two,
To lead to the demise [of Rāvaṇa] and [his] kinsmen

[Setubandha Canto VII, verses 82, 85, 86, 88, 89; my own translation]

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