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Back Ground

The sixteenth century has been generally acclaimed as the golden age of telugu classical literature. This was the period of the famous group of eight poets commonly referred to as aShTadiggajamulu - the eight divine elephants holding up the four sides and four corners of telugu poetical universe! These poets were more or less contemporaneous. General public and literary critics alike have heaped great praise with a lot of superlatives and encomiums on these and many other eminent writers of this time. Popular lore placed this group in the imperial court (Bhuvana vijayam) of Sree kRShNa dEvarAyalu (Sri Krishna Deva Raya), and created several interesting stories around them. However, it must be remembered that aShTadiggajamulu neither belonged to the same generation nor did they all write significant poetry during Krishna Devaraya’s reign (CE 1509-1530). They all lived within the span of a century and all were patronized by the Vijayanagara empire or its vassals and officials. Several of them were natives of the southern region of present day Andhra Pradesh (rAyala seema -nellUru) and the neighboring areas. The remaining poets appear to have migrated to that region for various reasons -chiefly patronage. They all received extensive gifts of lands (like agrahAram) and other riches as a tribute to their brilliant literary and scholastic contributions. Scholars describe their poetry as belonging to "southern tradition" [Heifetz and Narayana Rao, 1987].


prabandha yugam

As a rule, they all wrote poetry in the prabandha style. Prior to that time, the established norm was to compose independent transcreations of major Sanskrit epics. These epics narrated in great style, religious stories for the general public that did not have the benefit of Sanskrit education. The driving force behind big projects like mahABhAratam, BhAgavatam, and rAmAyaNam in Telugu was as much moral and spiritual as literary appreciation. Even the Siva kavi sAhityam that concentrated on local stories and jAnu tenugu (as opposed to Sanskrit epics and prauDha telugu) had the spread of its own brand of religion as motive. Having produced the big epics and other major works of that kind by the fifteenth century, telugu sAhityam was ready to take up poetry for its own sake. What followed was the creation of several prabandhams that overflowed with great story telling techniques interspersed with extraordinarily brilliant literary showmanship (frequently one-up-man-ship!). telugu prabandha of course, was not invented in the sixteenth century. The Chola (cOLa) king nanne cODa (author of the famous kumArasamBhavam), yerrana and SreenAtha laid the foundations for prabandhams from the 12th century onwards. pillalamarri and his contemporaries (e.g., nandi mallaya & GhanTa singana) advanced the techniques further. However, it was aShTadiggajamulu who made the prabandham in to what it is. Because so many major poets of this time composed at least one important prabandham each, this era was called as the prabandha yugam.


Structure of prabandham

A prabandham can be of three types, viz., praKhyAtam, utpAdyam, miSramam (famous story, purely fictional story, mixed story). Prabandhams of this period were written in all the three genres. They generally conformed to the aesthetic and structural principles laid down in Sanskrit and Telugu works on poetics and prosody (lAkshaNika granthas) such as kAvyAdarSam by danDin, dhvanyAlOkam by Anandavardhana, alankAra sarvasvam by ruyyaka, etc. telugu prabandhams are divided into cantos (ASvAsam/sarga). The first ASvAsam generally begins with avatArika/iShTadEvatA stuti (prayer to the chosen Lord), praise/remembrance of great poets of the past, reasons for writing the book, kRti Bharta (to whom the book is dedicated), praise of kRti Bharta and his lineage, followed by a set of poems called ShaShTyantamulu. They all end in ShaShTee viBhakti. (In classical telugu, this viBhakti was given by kin^, kun^, yokka, lOn^, and lOpalan^). These ShaShTyantamulu reiterate with stylish embellishments that the book is being told to (kun^) the kRti Bharta. Those days, literary works were composed so that they can be read to the patron or recited to the learned audience (rasikAs) in the King’s (or God’s) court. Private and silent reading by an individual in his home was not much popular. Then comes the beginning of the story. At the beginning and the end of each canto, we usually see a string of poems praising God and/or the kRti Bharta. Each chapter ends with ASvAsAnta gadyam which is a small prose text stating that so and so (being the greatest poet on earth or whose book shall be praised in all the 14 worlds), who is the son of such and such has written the preceding canto with God’s grace! kRShNa dEva rAya appears to be an exception in using poems in place of the usual ASvAsAnta gadyam. Most of the actual story is told through poems in standard meters (Chandas). These include Sanskrit inspired vRtta meters such as utpalamAla, campakamAla, SArdUlam, mattEBham and their variations (the mAlikas). Meters native to Telugu (and to some extent Kannada) include kanda padyam, seesa padyam (with praSnOttaramAlA seesamu and other such variations), ATaveladi, and tETageeti. While these meters comprised the bulk of the poems, the poets also occasionally used (to show off!) meters such as: mattakOkila, sragdhara (mahAsragdhara), panca cAmaramu, layagrAhi, pRthvee vRttamu, kavirAjavirAjamu, mAlinee vRttamu, tarala, sugandhi vRttamu, tOTaka vRttamu, utsAha, sragviNi, vanamayUramu, upEndra vajramu, Bhujanga prayAtamu, narkuTamu, mangaLamahASree, etc. Usually, they can be found as part of ASvAsAnta padyAlu. For special purposes such as very long passages, there were ragaDa (vRShaBhagati ragaDa, dviradagati ragaDa), and danDakamu (gaNasamaka danDakamu). The danDakam may not qualify as a full-fledged meter but is used by several poets. Although dvipada was available, they don’t seem to have used it in the prabandhams. If at all, dvipada was exclusively used in certain dvipada kavyas (e.g., molla rAmAyaNamu and timmakka's suBhadrA pariNayamu). Other meters such as madhyAkka~ra were never used. They used vacanam (prose text) for three purposes, viz., as short connection pieces between two descriptions in Chandas, for describing very long but monotonous detail, or to quicken the pace of the story (they might have also used it when they were just fed up with Chandas!). Use of prose text mixed with poems in Chandas is referred to as campU style. It appears that kannaDa poets used it before telugu poets. It was customary for each prabandhamu to contain at least two or three long passages of vacanam showing that the poet was good at writing prose text with the same high quality as poetry.



In writing Prabandhams, enhancing "dharma" amongst the general population took a back seat and enjoyment of life in all its glory and variety became the main theme. Perhaps this is a reflection of the prosperous times ushered in by the vijayanagara Empire. The three centuries following its inception in CE 1336 saw the economy improve by leaps and bounds. Internal and external trade multiplied greatly. The state of the empire and its capitol was praised with many superlatives even by foreign travelers in their writings. A great many irrigation works such as tanks and canals were completed during this time thus increasing agricultural output. Even so, one can I am sure, argue that the average rural farmer’s standard of living did not register an equally dramatic rise. However, there is no doubt that enormous wealth was accumulated not only by the emperor, but also by his vassals, local chieftains, courtiers, underlings, merchants and even by imperial officials in the distant provinces. They all vied for the "good life" and patronized poets, musicians, artists, architects and sculptors. Most of the patrons were very well educated. Several of them were scholars and poets in their own right. Such patronage provided them with intellectual satisfaction, prestige, their ticket to a possible place in history and even some religious merit in the eyes of the populace. As the poets of that time often stated, even if some one was great, posterity will not know about it unless a great poet wrote about him. The argument was that we would not have known about the actions of a certain king Rama unless some one wrote the Ramayana. The implication was that the poet and the patron were mutual beneficiaries. These poets enjoyed a very comfortable life. An oft-quoted cATu padyam by peddana describes the motivation needed to compose. Among the props required were "nirupahati sthalambu," "ramaNee priya dUtika tecci yiccu" betel leaf tAmbUlam with pacca karpUram in it, a delicious meal, "Uyela mancamu," great scribes to write the poem down and rasikas who can tell ‘tappu’ from ‘oppu’ (great audience). How could any one write poetry simply (without any of this)? Only a thoroughly satisfied poet can compose thoroughly satisfying poetry! The more the patron tries to satisfy the poet, the better the end result. This basically meant that wealth and udArata on the part of the patron and talent on the part of the poet played a significant role in bringing about this great age in literature. It did not matter so much whether or not the poet came from the ‘high castes’. In fact, a refreshingly redeeming feature of this time (mired in feudal oligarchy) is the emergence of some major poets from the so-called ‘lower castes,’ e.g., rAma rAja BhUShaNuDu, and AtkUri molla.

During this period, several temples also acquired sizable wealth -so much so, that many could afford full time temple poets to write exclusive devotional poems and songs for formal temple ceremonies.



Poetry, after its moral and religious phase, entered a phase where it concentrated on portraying ideally desirable life. The poets obviously thought that heroism is just one step below divinity and hence must be taken up as a subject just after completing purANic stories of the divine. Writers of this time used the rAja vaiBhavam, the civilian life, people’s BhOga parAyaNatvam, the chivalry of young men and the dazzling damsels of vidyA (vijaya) nagaram as models and created a fantastic poetic universe. Several kAvyas portrayed the amorous aspect of life (SRngAra rasa-both the samBhOga and vipralamBha varieties) with all the nuances and subtleties in every conceivable manner (within the boundaries of SAstra). For example, more than three-quarters of the fifth canto of praBhAvatee pradyumnamu described samBhOga SRngAram in more than 180 poems! Only great heroes with super human masculinity, awesome heroines whose beauty was out of this world and their super natural romance and lovemaking were worthy of a prabandhamu. vasu rAja could displace kOlAhala the erring mountain, with his mere toe. Without exception the heroines were all padminee jAti streelu. Each limb and square inch of the heroine would be described in several sizzling poems! Books like kALahasti mAhAtmyamu that portrayed a life of intense devotion also had lustful passages and descriptions (within the parameters of the story being told). Even a poet like dhUrjaTi who vehemently assailed the desires of the flesh (kAma vAnCha) had no qualms describing Lord Siva as "j~nAnaprasUna kaLikA peena kuca gaLucCha matta BhRngamu." Common man, his struggles with himself and the world, societal structure and all other such issues had to wait out this era (and two more subsequent eras) to occupy center stage of literature.


aShTadiggajamulu usually took small, some times obscure, stories from purANas and used them as plots for writing major kAvyas. These kAvyas were littered with glittering varNanam (up to eighteen categories of varNana were described). The poets excelled each other in composing breathtaking poems and in producing rasa BhAvana by the ton. rasa niShpatti was the order of the day. In doing so, actual story telling was almost non-existent. It was even looked down upon. If the poet has to merely tell a story, what is his greatness? Any one can tell a story. A great poet should concentrate on creating rasa! By their very nature, these books were considerably more complicated (tough nuts) compared to earlier works. As such, they were written more for the rasikAs of the court than for the common man. The common man already got his religious books including the BhAgavatam!


Serious modern writers try to impress their interpretation of real life on the minds of readers. They don’t use Sabda vaicitri as a significant tool while trying to portray their chosen social values and their own theories of life. The reader can easily follow modern writers because of the highly simplified (and hence highly restricted) use of language. There is little reason to open a dictionary while reading modern works. The prabandha writers on the other hand placed a lot of importance on the beauty of sound, SabdArtha vaicitri, camatkAram, kalpana, etc. Just as a sculptor would take a cold hard block of stone and chip away till the beauty already inherent in it is revealed, the prabandha writers hammered away at words and their interrelationships till each poem revealed a ravishingly beautiful figure. Their aim was portraying heroic (and spiritual) values while entertaining the well-educated reader. If a modern reader wants to master the Prabandhams, she/he must make an effort to understand the twists and turns of word play. One should also experiment with the way of reading each poem. Since punctuation and diacritical marks were very limited in medieval Telugu, only certain ways of reading the poems (in terms of giving inflections, stops, etc.) would make complete sense. The reading technique is important since the poems were composed keeping in view an audience to which they would be read aloud or even sung by an expert. If they are read the wrong way, the intended original beauty may be lost and they may even sound very artificial. However, if one puts in the initial effort, the rewards will be very rich indeed! After each difficult poem is thoroughly followed, one feels a great thrill from the stunningly brilliant use of sound and imagery. Very few modern writers came close to the mastery of language shown by each of the aShTadiggajamulu. As far as the deeper rasAsvAdana and the associated intellectual satisfaction are concerned, there should be very little difference between an ancient literary gem and a modern literary gem (but then, there are not a great many modern gems to make the comparison!).


Apart from Prabandhams, poets of this time also wrote other books like alankAra granthams. Many were good at music. Exhibiting one’s literary prowess to entertain educated rasikAs was a cherished activity. Several poets were experts in different forms of aShTAvadhAnam, SatAvadhAnam (they had different names then), samasyApUraNam, etc. Collectively, they were responsible for a great number of very popular cATuvu poems that survived in the oral tradition. Many of these cATu poems also have interesting stories associated with them. An example illustrates their mastery of language, their social attitudes, competition among the individual poets, etc. Once, it is said, poet BhaTTu mUrti gave a samasya in the imperial court: "kunjara yUdhambu dOma kuttuka joccen" (a group of elephants went in to the neck of a mosquito!) The young vikaTa kavi tenAli rAmakRShNa got up and said to BhaTTu mUrti:

gaMjAyi tAgi turakala
saMjAtula gUDi kallu cavigon&nAvA
laMjala koDaka ! yekkaDa
kuMjara yUdhaMbu dOma kuttuka joccen^
| ka |

The emperor took some offense at the language used and told that in fact he himself, and not BhaTTu mUrti, gave the samasya and asked rAmakRShNa whether he would stand by his composition. rAmakRShNa replied in the negative and immediately recomposed the pUraNa with BhAratArtham (that pAnDavas' seeking employment with virATa was like a group of elephants taking refuge inside the throat of a mosquito) and famously saved his own neck:

raMjana ceDi pAmDavulari
BhaMjanulai viraTu golva pAlpaDi rakaTA
saMjaya ! yEmani ceppudu ?
kuMjara yUdhaMbu dOma kuttuka joccen^
| ka |

The competition between the poets was quite intense and as a result, each poet had to zealously guard against committing even minor transgressions in aucityam /pada prayOgam /alankAram, etc. An example attributed to rAmakRShNa attacks, quite mercilessly, Peddana’s usage of a certain phrase ("kalanATi dhanamu lakkara@m galanATiki dAca@m gamalagarBhuni vaSamA, nelanaDiminATi vennela yalavaDunE gAdebOya amavasaniSikin^"):

emi dini sepitivi kapitamu
brama vaDi veri puccakAya vaDi dini sepitO
umetakAya dini sepitO
yamavasa niSi yan&na mATa yalasani pedanA!


Click for More on Individual Poets

Seshu Madhava Rao Adluri
First posted: Jan. 1998, Minor revision: April, 1998.
Corrections including typos, suggestions, and additions to the above will be gratefully appreciated.
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