Far back in time, King Raghu, an ancestor of Lord Ram and ruler of the Ikshvaku dynasty, conquered the region of Aparanta (today’s Konkan) and with this, he completed his conquest of India, from Kamarupa (Assam) to India’s Western coast. The next in his sights was the conquest of ‘the Land of Parasikas’ or Persia.
But it presented a peculiar conundrum. Should he take the easy sea route from the port of ‘Kalyana’ (Kalyan) or the perilous land route through the Thar Desert? After pondering this for a while, King Raghu and his army took the land route to Persia through Sindh and the Bolan Pass, before reaching Southern Persia. Here, he defeated an army of bearded Persian horsemen, and this was followed by his conquest of the land of the Hunas on the banks of the Vankshu River (Oxus) and the land of the Kambojas (Xinjiang province of China).
This fascinating snippet on the conquest of Persia, Afghanistan and Western China of Lord Ram’s ancestor is found in the epic Sanskrit poem Raghuvamsa, composed by celebrated Sanskrit poet Kalidasa in the 5th century CE. What makes Raghuvamsa so fascinating is that apart from the exploits of Lord Ram’s ancestor, we also find very interesting snippets of information.
For example, it tells us that Persia was famous for its vine creepers (‘draksavalayabhilmisu’) and its trade in precious furs (‘ajinaratna’). There are references to the cultivation of saffron flowers in Afghanistan ‘which got stuck to the manes of King Raghu’s horses’ or the walnut trees (Aksota) in the Xinjiang region, to which King Raghu’s elephants were tied.
Amazingly, almost 1,500 years after Kalidasa, Afghanistan is still known for its saffron cultivation and Xinjiang for its walnut trees!
When we think of writers and poets of ancient India, the stereotype is that of ‘inward looking’ people, who were unaware of the world around them and were prone to exaggeration. There has been a general tendency to use the accounts for foreign travellers to piece together life in contemporary India at the time. But so much can be gleaned about life in India 1,500 years ago, from food to politics, by studying the works of Mahakavi Kalidasa alone.
One of the most detailed studies on daily life in the times of Kalidasa was carried out by Banaras Hindu University historian Bhagwat Saran Upadhyaya, between 1935 and 1945, published as India in Kalidasa (1947). By analysing Kalidasa’s poems and plays, Upadhyaya pieces together what daily life in India – food, politics, education and even entertainment – must have been like at the time. It is an invaluable resource for details on life under the Gupta Empire, during which time Kalidasa lived.
While we know very little of the man himself, we do know that Kalidasa was a court poet of Gupta Emperor Chandragupta II (r. 380-415 CE) and his successor Kumaragupta (r. 415-455 CE). Kalidasa’s surviving works that are available today consist of:
Two epic poems (Mahakavya) and two shorter poems (Khandakavya):
Each of these works, despite dealing with varied topics, is encyclopaedic in its own way. For example, Meghaduta has unbelievably detailed information on the flora, fauna and the weather conditions of regions stretching from Ramtek in Vidarbha to the Manasarovar Lake in Tibet. Through the exploits of King Raghu, Raghuvamsa describes the geography of India like never before. Mālavikāgnimitram and Abhijñānaśākuntalam provide details of food, culture, furniture, the education system, politics and beliefs of those times. For example, in Mālavikāgnimitram, people greet each other with a ‘Namaste’, while in Raghuvamsa they greet each other with ‘Pranama’ or ‘Vande’, salutations that we use even today!
Food and Wine
In Raghuvamsa, we find references to ‘Kheera’ or ‘Payascharu’ (Kheer/Payasam), while there are references to a sweetmeat called ‘Modaka’ (Modak) in all Kalidasa’s plays. In fact, in Vikramōrvaśīyam, Kalidasa gets really poetic and compares the parts of the Modak with the ‘phases of the moon’.
Another food that finds frequent mention is ‘Sikharini’ (today’s Shrikhand) , prepared from curd mixed with spices like cardamoms, cloves, camphor and other fragrant ingredients cooked in milk and sugar. Raghuvamsa states that the spices – cardamom, cloves and pepper – grew naturally in the ‘Malaya’ mountains of the South (Yela Mala mountain range of Kerala).
Kalidasa also makes numerous references to fruit trees, with the mango tree being mentioned most frequently. Apart from cereals and rice, Kalidasa also mentions meat and fish being eaten regularly. Most notable is the ‘Rohita’ or ‘Rohu’ fish found in the Gangetic plains. A line in Mālavikāgnimitram tells us that there were slaughterhouses and meat shops where meat could be purchased.
We also have references in Kalidasa’s works to the drinking of wine, both by men and women. Kalidasa refers particularly to three kinds of preparation of wine, narikelasava – extracted from coconuts; sidhu – prepared from sugarcane; and madhuka – extracted from flowers. The flowers of mango and red patak tress were used to scent these wines.
In Raghuvamsa, we have references to the drinking peg (casaka) and roadside wine shops and bars (panabhumi} that ‘abounded in drinking cups’ (casakottara). No wonder Kalidasa (in Raghuvamsa) states that the entire army of King Raghu got drunk from wine extracted from coconuts! On a lighter note, there is even a cure given for hangovers, from overconsumption of wine.
In Mālavikāgnimitram, we find a reference to ‘Matsyandika’, an unrefined cane sugar juice concentrate, being used by ayurvedic practitioners to cure hangovers.
Clothing and Fashion
Clothing is one of the least-studied areas of ancient Indian history. So it might surprise you to learn that, just like today, people dressed according to the occasion, 1,500 years ago too. Different works by Kalidasa mention hunting dresses, wedding dresses, special dresses worn by ‘repentant’ and ’ love-sick’ people as well as by those observing a vow. And these were quite practical. For example, Kalidasa, in Raghuvamsa, states how hunting dresses were of ‘a colour matching with leaves, so that the beasts might be easily deceived’ – today’s ‘camouflage’.
Also, each region had its own style of clothing, including wedding dresses. For example, in Mālavikāgnimitram, its heroine Malavika appears in ‘the wedding dress which prevailed in the Vidarbha country’. The men generally wore a turban, a scarf (‘vestana’) and a dhoti, while the wealthier ones decorated their turbans with gems. The clothes were in various colours such as white, red, blue, saffron and black and the fabric varied in hot and cold weather. There are references to both silk (Kauseyaka) and wool (Patrorna), with a reference in Kumarasambhava, which says that that the finest form of silk was called ‘Cinamsuka’, an allusion to the silk imported from China.
Kalidasa also refers to different kinds of ornaments in his works. The most popular form of necklaces worn at the time was called ‘niska’, made by stringing together coins called ‘niskas’. Other types of necklaces included muktavali – a string of pearls; tarahara – a necklace of large pearls; hara – an ordinary necklace; harasekhara ‘ – a snow-white string of beads; suddha ekdvali – necklace with a gem in the centre.
Earrings or ‘Karnabhushana’ also find a mention such as Kundala – an earring set with a single precious stone. Several types of rings too find a mention, especially those in the shape of a serpent, with the name of the owner written on it.
Hair-styling and hair-dressing was considered a mark of class and culture and had evolved into a form of high art. Women scented their hair with incense from Agarwood or Sandalwood and then parted and knit it in long tresses. Flowers and strings of pearls were then set into the hair. There are numerous references to men and women decorating themselves with flower garlands on special occasions such as festivals.
From Kumarasambhava and Ṛtusaṃhāra, we also learn about the cosmetics that people used in those times. Before bathing, people would apply what we call today ‘body masks’ made of various pastes called anulepana and angaraga. These were made of sandalwood paste mixed with ayurvedic plants. After a bath, they perfumed themselves with musk.
In Ṛtusaṃhāra, there is even a reference to the ‘make-up’ that women wore. A special white paste was made, and it was used to paint their faces in various foliage patterns.
As a form of ancient Indian lip gloss or lipstick, women applied lac-dye to their lips, and then smeared over it a powder of lodhra wood, to give it a reddish effect.
We find numerous references to household furniture in the works of Kalidasa. We also read of beautiful seats made of ivory covered with white cloth called Bhadrapitha or Bhadrasana, while Vetrasana was furniture made of cane. There is also mention of several varieties of beds, depending on their size. The most poetic is the description of Saiyya (in Raghuvamsa), which was a set of bedcover, bed and bedstead, furnished in white ‘as that of a swan’. Boxes known as Manjusha were an important item of furniture and were used as wardrobes to store clothes, toiletries and ornaments. We find a description of different types of lamps, household utensils and highly polished metal plates, which were used as mirrors. They were prized items.
One of the most important parts of the household was the garden, which supplied flowers for decoration and toiletries. As a result, the art of horticulture and gardening was highly valued. The gardens appear as a setting in most of Kalidasa’s works, and trees and flowers play an important role in their plots.
Goddess Parvati in Kumarasambhava, Yaksha’s wife in Meghaduta, and Shakuntala in Abhijñānaśākuntalam are deeply attached to their trees and plants. Apart from private gardens, there were public gardens maintained by the government for the benefit of all citizens. Special gardeners called ‘udyanapalikas’ were appointed to look after these public gardens and were paid by the state.
In today’s times, when there seem to be too many options for entertainment, it is hard to imagine a time when the swing was the most popular and accessible form of entertainment, for kings and commoners alike, in India. There were swings not just in private and public gardens, but even in the homes of the rich.
Mālavikāgnimitram speaks of grown men and women enjoying the pleasures of the swing (doladhirohana) ‘unmindful of the dangers being thrown away’. In fact, in the same play, Queen Iravati requests her husband, King Agnimitra, saying, ‘I wish to enjoy the pleasure of sitting in the swing in company with your lordship’.
Theatre and drama was another popular pastime of common folk, even 1,500 years ago. Dramas were staged on festival days and also for private celebrations like birthdays and weddings. In fact, Kalidasa’ play Mālavikāgnimitram was specially composed so that it could be staged on the festival of the Equinox.
Amazingly, just like today’s movie critics, there were special officers known as ‘Parasnikas’, whose duty it was to witness new releases (of plays) and report them to the king. A positive review boosted a play’s popularity and won it awards (from the King). There is a distinct reference to these Parasnika officers in the Mālavikāgnimitram.
Since music and dance too were very popular, there were ‘Sangitashalas’, where professional training in music and dance was given to men and women. These schools were run by the state and the teachers received regular salaries (‘vetana’). But, very strangely, while Kalidasa is detailed in his description of song and dance, there is no mention to Ragas in any of his works.
Painting too was very popular. There are many references to the art of paintings and forms like frescos, portraits and landscapes in Kalidasa’s works. We read of walls of palaces and houses covered with frescoes, which were damaged by rain. But it is the portrait (Pratikriti) that plays an important role in Kalidasa’s works. For example, Yaksha in Meghaduta draws a portrait of his wife on a boulder on a mountain.
Hunting was a popular pastime of the kings. Interestingly, Kalidasa in Abhijñānaśākuntalam, writes about Kings being accompanied by Yavanis or female Greek attendants, on their hunts. Interestingly, this practice has also been mentioned by Greek chronicler Megasthenes in his account Indica (written 700 years before Kalidasa), in reference to the Magadha royal family.
Economy and Trade
Most people are struck by the description of rich and prosperous lands in Kalidasa’s works. During the Gupta period, trade and commerce flourished and the economy thrived. We find a very comprehensive description of the economy, trade and commerce in different regions of India, most notably in Raghuvamsa. It is so detailed that it almost seems as if Kalidasa had referred to trade manuals of the time while composing this work.
Incredibly, Kalidasa mentions different crops grown in different regions of India. For example, the winter crop, reaped from November to January in Bengal, is mentioned in Rtusamhara. He wrote of varieties of rice called Kalama and Sali, which grew in the wild. He mentions the cultivation of saffron in the Oxus valley (Afghanistan), and how the people of Maladesha (Malwa) ploughed their fields during the monsoon.
In Raghuvamsa, Kalidasa writes of the Pandya country (Tamil Nadu) that was known for its precious stones and pearls. Elephants were caught in Kalinga (Odisha) and Kamarupa (Assam). The forests of the Himalayas were known for their resins, and for their fragrant oils. The forests of Yela Mala in Kerala were known to supply spices such as cloves, cardamom and black pepper. Kalidasa mentions merchants taking long sea voyages and their ships being wrecked in storms. He makes a special mention of the land of ‘Vanayu’ (Arabia) which was known for its excellent breed of horses, which were imported to India.
To finance this thriving economy, a system of banking existed at the time. Kalidasa speaks of Niksepa – something that is deposited with another in trust, and with the object of taking it back. He mentions Nyasa – another form of banking deposit, and Nivi – which remains after deducting all the expenditure already incurred and excluding all revenues to be realized or the net balance. We also learn from Gupta-era inscriptions such as those found at Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh, that guilds served in ancient India as banks that received deposits and advanced loans.
Politics and Governance
We get an idea about polity and governance from Kalidasa’s works. Interestingly, in Abhijñānaśākuntalam, Kalidasa refers to the government as Lokatantra, though its meaning differs from ‘democracy’ as we know it today. It meant ‘system of public administration’.
In Mālavikāgnimitram, there are references to ‘Mantri Parisat’ or Council of Ministers, whose duty it is to assist the King with the administration. The King and the ministers were complementary to each other, with ministers taking over when the King was away.
Kalidasa alludes to the offices of at least three ministers, viz., the Chief Minister, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Finance, Law and Justice. Decisions were taken together with the Cabinet and sent to the King for his final approval. We know this from a line in Mālavikāgnimitram, where the Chief Minister says to the King: ‘We have resolved how matters in connection with Vidarbha are to be settled; we just wish to know your Majesty’s opinion.’
Amazingly, much like the system today, the ministers would make notes on files and documents to signify their assent, saying ‘I approve’.
According to Raghuvamsa, it was the Council of Ministers who invited Bharata to take the throne after King Dashratha’s death, when Ram went into exile. Below the Council of Ministers, in the hierarchy, were ‘Tirthas’ or ‘Heads of Departments’ and a ‘Dharmadhikari’ or ‘in-charge of the department of religion’.
The cities had their own police system, under a police chief called ‘Nagaraka’. It seems that even Gupta-era police had their share of corruption, bribery and extortion. As the police chief says to the fisherman in Abhijñānaśākuntalam:
“Fisherman, great as you are, you have now become my dear friend. With liquor as its witness, our first friendship is desired. So let us go to the liquor-seller’s shop itself.’
The code of law was extremely severe, with harsh punishments. While Kalidasa writes of criminal law in detail, he writes very little of the civil law of those times.
Kalidasa refers to territorial divisions in India as ‘Janapadas’. Again, his knowledge of the lands is almost encyclopaedic. In Raghuvamsa, he refers to the land of the Pandyas with their capital as Uragapura (either Madurai or Nagapattinam), the land of Kerala and Aparanta (Konkan) as well as the Central Indian regions of Avanti and Vidarbha, among others. He writes about places as diverse as Mahismati (Maheshwar in today’s Madhya Pradesh) and Gokarna in coastal Karnataka. In Meghaduta, there is a detailed description of rivers, flora and fauna, with an expanse starting at Ramagiri (Ramtek near Nagpur) and ending in Manasarovar Lake in Tibet.
Today, most Indians are more familiar with the works of Shakespeare than those of Kalidasa. Shakespeare’s contribution to the English language, the new words he introduced, and his contribution to popular culture has been analysed and dissected by scholars and taught around the world. But Kalidasa’s contribution to Indian culture is far greater and goes far deeper. In fact, his plays and poems are a kind of ‘Encyclopaedia Indica’, which presents a fascinating India of those times, from food and culture to politics and trade. And to imagine that Kalidasa lived more than 1,000 years before Shakespeare.
Hopefully, there will be renewed interest in the greats of Indian literature, and it will throw new light on our rich and vibrant history.
Cover image: Artist’s impression of Kalidasa in the Hutchinson’s Story of the Nations
This article is part of our ‘The History of India’ series, where we focus on bringing alive the many interesting events, ideas, people and pivots that shaped us and the Indian subcontinent. Dipping into a vast array of material – archaeological data, historical research and contemporary literary records, we seek to understand the many layers that make us.
This series is brought to you with the support of Mr K K Nohria, former Chairman of Crompton Greaves, who shares our passion for history and joins us on our quest to understand India and how the subcontinent evolved, in the context of a changing world.
Find all the stories from this series here.
Rising from the chaos of the post-Kushana period, the Guptas built a glorious empire that covered almost two-thirds of the Indian subcontinent. Here’s a glimpse into how these Emperors steered the course of history.
The Vardhanas rose out of the rubble of the Gupta Empire and produced one of the most well-known kings of Northern India. Read about the glorious reign of Harshavardhana, who became king at 16 and went on to become a canny general, benevolent ruler and even a talented writer.
In many ways, life in the 5th century CE was not very different from what it is today, down to fashion trends and antidotes for hangovers. Read on for some fascinating insights into ancient India, from the works of Kalidasa, one of the greatest Indian poets of all time.
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