Trysts by night in art and poetry

Heroine Rushing to Her Lover – family of Nainsukh (Boston MFA)

The night affords opportunities for all kinds of exploits and assignations that may not be possible during the daytime.  Under cover of darkness, a young woman may slip away for a secret tryst with her lover.

[Q} Where are you heading to in the dark night?
[A] To where he who is more dear to me than my life waits.

[Q] But how are you not afraid, being on your own?
[A] The god of love with his feathered arrows is my companion.

[Amaruśatakam verse 69; my own translation]

The painting above, connected with one of the great Indian artists of the eighteenth century, Nainsukh, depicts such a scene.  Our paramour sneaks away from her home by night to a spot in the forest where she has arranged to meet her lover during the night, and she must be back before anyone awakes and misses her in the morning.  It seems to be the monsoon season, when there are heavy rains, delicately painted here in silver, and which also lend a brighter tone to the night scene.

Gold paint picks out a brilliant streak of lightning across the night sky, complementing the golden embroidery in her clothing.  The beauty of the lightning streak is perhaps an analogy for human beauty, as it is also in the Vedic literature.  We are perhaps to imagine that we have caught the precise moment when the entire forest is suddenly lit up by lightning.  We wish her well in her escapade.

The determination of our protagonist is so great that she pays no heed to the downpour of rain and the thunderstorm that surrounds her, nor to the many venomous snakes which emerge during the monsoons.  She looks back with a keen expression on her face, perhaps to observe that no-one is following her.  Two trees seem to embrace, perhaps presaging a successful rendezvous with her lover.  Despite the darkness of night, and he difficulties of walking barefoot through the wet mud, she now moves forward with complete assurance.  She has doubtless been waiting anxiously all day, preparing for this moment.

Because even on this dark night she intends to meet her lover,
The girl paces up and down indoors
With her eyes tightly shut.

[Gāhā Sattasaī Verse 69; translation by Prof. Peter Khoroche and Prof. Herman Tieken]

Her path is perhaps dimly illumined by the moon, or else by lightning, lending her a kind of moral support.

Even on the very darkest night covered with the thickest rainclouds, women set off with longing to meet their lovers, with the flashes of lightning showing them their place on the road.

[Ṛtusaṃhāra Canto 2: Rainy Season, Verse 10; my own translation]

[To the cloud] “There on the King’s Road at night, when sight is blocked by darkness dense enough you could pierce it with a needle, show the ground with your lightning, as charming as gold on a touchstone, to women going to the homes of their lovers, and do not be resounding with thunder and pouring water; they are already on edge.”

[Meghadūta; Pūrvamegha verse 40; my own translation]
Sohni Swims to Meet her Lover Mahinwal (Brooklyn Museum)

This next painting is again a night scene about a lovers’ tryst, and was also painted during the late eighteenth century.  It depicts the famous story of Sohni and Mahiwal.  The river is the Chenab, a.k.a. Chandrabhāga or Asiknī, known for the darkness of its waters.  It has been a staple of the literary imagination since at least the time of the Rig Veda.  Sohni would slip away from home at night to meet her lover Mahiwal.  She must swim across the river to reach Mahiwal, who waits for her on the opposite bank.  Her body seems to strain towards him.  As he waits, he plays his flute for his herd of buffaloes.  A sword hangs by his side to guard against danger.

We may think that the night affords secrecy to the pair.  However, the lovers are not the only ones around on this occasion.  Apart from various widlife, in the bottom left corner, we see a holy man doing his spiritual practice by night.  We are perhaps remined of a humorous verse from the Mahārāṣṭrī Prakrit collection Gāhā Sattasaī, where a lady is plotting to meet her lover on the bank of another famous river, the Godavari.  Realising the risk of their activities being espied by such a holy man, she cannily speaks to him as follows –

Your holiness,
It’s safe for you to walk in the village now.
The dog that bothered you
Has been killed by a fierce lion
Who lives in the thickets of the Goda.

[Gāhā Sattasaī Verse 62; translation by Prof. Peter Khoroche and Prof. Herman Tieken]

Related to these scenes of lovers meeting at night, the night itself has been compared to a beautiful young woman in another verse by Kālidāsa –

The clouds part and the face of the moon displays the adornment of brilliant star clusters.
The night sets out at the advance of the day like a passionate young woman wearing the glow of finest raiment of moonlight

[Ṛtusaṃhāra Canto 3: Summer, Verse 5; my own translation]

Further, in a short yet strangely enigmatic Vedic verse by the renowned sage Atri Bhauma, even the earth itself seems to become a topic of affectionate praise, appearing as something like a beautiful lady.  Modern scholars understand this verse to be a kind of riddle, which seems to depict the appearance of the earth in a night-time rainstorm,  flooded with water and being shaken by thunder, somehow reminding us of the much later Abhisārikā verses discussed above.  The verse is tricky to translate, and I provide the reading of Prof. Jamison and Prof. Brereton here –

Yes indeed! (It is) just so: you bear the pressure of the mountains, o Earth,
as you bring the ground to life with your greatness, o gently sloping great one.

Praises sound in response to you, oscillating lady, through the nights,
as you fling the swelling moisture forward like a (horse) neighing for a prize, silvery one—

You who, steadfast yourself, keep fast the trees all across the earth by your strength,
when the lightning bolts of the dark cloud and the rains from heaven rain for you.

[Rig Veda Maṇḍala 5 Sūkta 84 by Ṛṣi Atri Bhauma; translation by Prof. Jamison & Prof. Brereton]

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