“Intoxicated!” An Excerpt from Mattavilasa
Translated by Brishti Guha
Volume 8, Issue 1 (Spring, 2020)
While still in high school, I came across a book on the history of Sanskrit literature (a topic my mother was then researching), and was enthralled by the vibrancy of the plays and stories mentioned there. Ever since, I made it a point to read as much Sanskrit literature as I could while keeping up with my studies (and later, my career) in economics.
I first read Mahendravarman’s Mattavilasa (an excerpt of which is translated here) many years ago and was immediately captivated by its humorous and irreverent tone. When I used to narrate the plot of the play to my friends, they found it incredible that a seventh-century Sanskrit play would feature people (and, what’s more, people belonging to religious orders) getting drunk and getting into all kinds of scrapes afterwards. One of the reasons I chose this play to translate (apart from the fact that I personally like the original very much) is that it drives home the feeling that people have not really changed at all over time. In many ways, the play has a contemporary, cosmopolitan feel to it. Besides, modern readers (both eastern and western) often view characters from ancient literature with excessive reverence. We think of wise sages and indomitable warriors. This play, in contrast, does not treat even its main characters with any reverence, but shows them along with all their failings (and does so in quite a gentle spirit). This was another reason why the play attracted me, and why I chose to translate it. I had also noticed that the playwright uniformly poked fun at the habits of “fake holy men” (and women) regardless of which particular cult or order they belonged to. So, it didn’t seem to me that the playwright was prejudiced against a particular religion.
While the original Sanskrit play has a lively exchange of dialogue (which I have done my best to capture in the translation), the speakers sometimes speak in verse (especially of a descriptive nature), and long rolling compounds are used. Rolling compound words and sporadic verses were standard in Sanskrit plays of the time, and convey a graceful and poetic quality to readers well-versed in Sanskrit. However, literally translating compound words into English would have made for a very stilted and awkward sounding translation. I have focused on conveying the meaning and spirit of these words, without sacrificing readability. I have also rendered the verses in plain prose. This makes the characters’ speeches sound more natural and will probably make it easier for performers, as well. I have chosen to use rather informal language in my translation, which I felt is in tune with the subject matter of the play. Another issue I encountered during my translation was that the play sometimes casually references religious symbols or stories well-known to an Indian audience, but which western readers might find rather puzzling. I had to choose how much explanation, if any, to insert. I have chosen to retain these portions (slightly abbreviating them when necessary) with a few brief footnotes for context.
Mahendravarman was a king from the Pallava dynasty, who ruled in seventh-century South India from 600 to 630 AD. He was known for writing farcical plays, building rock-cut temples, and chasing away invading neighbors. Mattavilasa is his most popular play.
Brishti Guha has a PhD from Princeton and is an associate professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, India. She is an economist in love with literature. Besides publishing economics papers in international academic journals, and sometimes writing for the popular press, she has published (or is due to publish) translations, retellings, and essays in Samovar, Sci-Phi Journal, Eye to the Telescope, the Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, Empty Mirror, Ezra, and Jaggery.
Cast of Characters
Satyasoma: A skull-bearing Saivite mendicant
Devasoma: His girlfriend
(Satyasoma and Devasoma enter)
Satyasoma (drunk): Darling, it’s true that asceticism makes one charming. You’ve done the ultimate penance. And you’re looking more beautiful every second. Your face is breaking out in a sweat, and your arched eyebrows are quivering; your gait is restless, you’re laughing without a reason, and your speech is slurred. You roll your reddish eyes passionately one minute, and look blank the next. Your hair falls carelessly on the edge of your shoulders, and the garlands in them are coming apart.
Devasoma: Are you saying I’m drunk?
Satyasoma: What did you say?
Satyasoma: Am I drunk, then?
Devasoma: Hey, why is the floor spinning? I’m falling down. Catch me!
Satyasoma: Here you go, Somadeva. (tries to catch her, and falls down) But darling, are you angry with me? You’re moving away.
Devasoma: I guess Somadeva gets angry easily. She’s keeping her distance though you’re bowing and scraping in front of her.
Satyasoma: Aren’t you Somadeva? (Thinking) Oh no. You’re Devasoma.
Devasoma: You like this Somadeva so much that you’re calling me by her name!
Satyasoma: Darling, that was a slip of the tongue. Blame the wine.
Devasoma: You’re lucky you’ve got something to blame.
Satyasoma: Drinking is ruining my life. Ok, I’ve decided. I’m going to abstain from today.
Devasoma (tearfully): Oh no! Please don’t break your vows on my account!
Satyasoma (embracing her joyfully): Glory to my lord Siva! He’s shown me this: wine, women, and weird clothing bring eternal bliss!
Devasoma: I’ve heard the Buddhists speak of a different route to salvation.
Satyasoma: They’re a muddled lot. They’ve confused cause, action, and effect completely, and by doing so, they’ve shot themselves in the foot. A Buddhist would tell you that a happy end may require painful means: ergo, happiness equals pain.
Devasoma: Let’s not talk about them.
Satyasoma: Good idea. Why talk about those who torment people by forcing them to practice chastity, shave off their hair, eat at fixed hours, and wear dirty clothes? Just talking about them feels so wrong: I need a drink or two to purify my mouth after all that.
Devasoma: Then let’s go to another tavern.
Satyasoma: Sure, darling.
(The two roam about looking for liquor shops)
Satyasoma: Our Kanci’s splendid. Listen to the clouds on top of those towers thunder like drums. It’s spring all around the year with those flower shops and beautiful girls, with their tinkling girdles. You know how our sages talk of ceaseless joy, boundless and unrestrained: well, I think they could find it right here, drink it up with their senses.
Devasoma: Kanci’s like the goddess of wine, full of sweet music.
Satyasoma: Look, darling. This tavern’s just like a yajna ground. The pillar there is the sacrificial post: the drinks are the ritual soma. Those drunks are the priests. Their glasses are the sacrificial vessels, those roasted skewers are special offerings, their drunken talks the Yajur mantras, their singing the Sama hymns, their leather bags the sacrificial ladles. And the tavern owner is the fellow in charge of the sacrifice.
Devasoma: And the alms that the two of us can get here are like the sacrificial portion set aside for Rudra.
Satyasoma: I’m enjoying watching these drunkards dance. They’re trying to dance in tune to drumbeats, but every time they reach out to adjust a garment or necklace out of place, they lose the rhythm. They’re making up for that by moving their hands and eyebrows in time to the music, though!
Devasoma: Spoken like a true connoisseur.
Satyasoma: Hail the all-powerful goddess of wine! A cup of wine can remove the sting of rejections, soothe lovers’ quarrels, and energize the young—not to mention helping with lovemaking! I don’t believe people who say that Siva burnt up Cupid into ashes with the flame of his third eye. I think that wine was born from the extreme heat of that glance, and that’s why it excites all our minds so!
Devasoma: That makes sense. Siva’s a god who helps the world. He wouldn’t do anything to destroy it.
(The two start drumming on their cheeks)
Satyasoma: Alms please, dear lady!
(From behind the curtain) Here are some alms for you.
Satyasoma: Let me take that. Darling, where’s my skull?
Devasoma: I don’t see it either.
Satyasoma (thinking): We must have left it in the tavern we went to before. Let’s go back and look for it.
Devasoma: What do we do? It’s a sin to reject alms offered with respect.
Satyasoma: We can deal with this crisis. We don’t have our skull, so we’ll just take it in this cow’s horn.
Devasoma: Ok. (Does so)
(The two roam around looking for the skull)
Satyasoma: I don’t see it here either. (Sadly) Hey folks, have you seen our begging bowl? You haven’t? What’s to become of me? A skull-bearing ascetic without a skull! I’m ruined. That skull’s been with me forever, keeping me company while I ate, drank, and slept. I miss it like a friend. (Falls down and beats his head) Oh well, it’s just a token after all. I’m still a member of the skull-bearing order. (Gets up)
Devasoma: Who could have taken the skull?
Satyasoma: Darling, it had roast meat in it, so I’m guessing either a dog or a Buddhist monk.
Devasoma: Well, let’s look for it all over the city.
Satyasoma: Ok, darling.
(The two walk about)
(A Buddhist monk enters with a bowl in his hand)
 This play was set in seventh-century Kanchipuram (a city in south India). At the time, many different religious cults coexisted in southern India. Siva was one of the major Hindu deities, and there were various cults associated with him. The two characters that appear in my translation belong to an extreme religious order associated with Siva. The ascetics belonging to this order were supposed to lead lives of simplicity and meditation, depending on charity for alms. Buddhism existed at the same time, and Buddhist monks and nuns were also supposed to lead similarly austere lives in monasteries and nunneries. However, there were always some people in every religious order who took advantage of the public’s willingness to support them, and instead lived eminently non-spiritual lives, in the pursuit of wine, women and wealth! The play is a light-hearted satire making fun of such characters.
 His vows to drink alcohol regularly.
 Kanchipuram, the town where the play is set.
 The ground where religious ceremonies were conducted and offerings made to the gods.
 Chants from one of the Vedas, used in religious rituals.
 Chants from a scripture, intended to be sung aloud.
 Another name for Siva.
 Mendicants of this order used a skull as a begging bowl.