A great Sanskrit novel called “Kadambari” was composed in the seventh century CE by an Indian author named Banabhatta. It has a prominent role in Indian literary history and is regarded as one of the first novels in the history of literature. This novel is a romantic novel. It is interesting to see that this novel was completed by Banabhatta’s son Bhushanabhatta. The purvabhaga or earlier part of the novel is written by Banabhatta and uttarabhaga or later part is written by Bhushanabhatta. Thus, we can say that it is the novel that has been composed beautifully by a father and his son.

Story of the novel

Once upon a time, there was a brave king named Shudraka. He ruled a big and rich kingdom, and its main city was called Vidisha. One day, a girl from a lower caste called Chandala, who lived in the forest, came to the king’s court. She gave the king a parrot as a gift. The parrot’s name was Vaishampayana. After the parrot had some delicious food and rested in the royal chambers, it started to tell a story. The parrot said, “Your Majesty, this story is very long. But if you’re curious, I can tell it to you.” The parrot tells a story about his past. He used to live in the Vindhya Forest with his old father. One day, a group of hunters called Shabaras came to the forest. They killed many animals and caused a lot of destruction. Vaishampayana’s father was pulled out of their home and killed. After the chaos settled down, Vaishampayana left and wandered around. Eventually, he found safety in a place where hermits lived. There, he met a wise sage named Jabali. Jabali looked at the parrot for a moment and said, “He is facing the consequences of his own bad behavior.” This comment piqued the interest of the other hermits, and Jabali began to tell a long story, which takes up a big part of the ‘Kadambari’ novel. Jabali tells a story about a place called Avanti. In Avanti, there was a city called Ujjayini, and it was ruled by King Tarapeeda. The king had a lot of wealth, strength, knowledge about spiritual things, and many wives, but he didn’t have a son. One night, King Tarapeeda had a dream. In his dream, he saw Chandra, the Moon God, going into the mouth of his queen named Vilasavati. When he woke up, he told his chief minister Shukanasa about this dream. Shukanasa, in turn, shared that he had a dream in which a person dressed in white placed a lotus (a type of flower) in the lap of his wife Manorama. In a short time, both wives became pregnant, and they each had a baby. Tarapeeda’s wife gave birth to a son named Chandrapeeda, and Shukanasa’s wife had a son named Vaishampayana. These two boys became very close friends and were raised together in a special school that was heavily protected. Chandrapeeda got a strong and fast horse named Indrayudha, and they became inseparable companions. After finishing their schooling, the two friends returned to the capital city. When they came back, there were loud and joyful celebrations, and Chandrapeeda caught the eye of many infatuated young women. Queen Vilasavati gave her son a lovely young girl named Patralekha as a gift. King Tarapeeda decided to make his son the next in line to rule the kingdom. Shukanasa, the chief minister, gave Chandrapeeda some practical advice. After this, Chandrapeeda and Vaishampayana, along with a huge army, left to explore and conquer new lands. Chandrapeeda, after defeating all the princes in the world, decided to take a break in a place called Suvarnapura, which is in the Himalayas. One day, while he was riding his horse, he spotted a couple of Kinnaras, who are like demigods, and he started chasing them. But they managed to escape, and the prince ended up getting lost.He found himself near a beautiful lake called Acchoda. After quenching his thirst, he heard a sweet melody and began to search for where it was coming from. It turned out that the music was coming from a heavenly and radiant young woman who was dressed like a spiritual person. She was sitting in a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, playing a musical instrument called a Veena (which is like a lute). The young lady, named Mahashveta, welcomed Chandrapeeda and offered him kindness. He asked her to share her story. Mahashveta, with tears in her eyes, began her tale by saying, “Oh Prince, is there any benefit in hearing about my decision to leave the world behind? But if you truly want to know, I will tell you.” Mahashveta explained that she is the daughter of a demigod called Gandharva. One day, while she was at Lake Acchoda for a bath, she saw a very handsome young ascetic and instantly fell in love with him. She could smell a delightful fragrance coming from his body, and it seemed like he was also filled with desire. She approached another young sage named Kapinjala and asked about the person she was infatuated with. Kapinjala told her that the object of her affection was named Pundarika. He was the son of Goddess Lakshmi, who became pregnant with him just by looking at the great sage Shvetaketu while sitting on a lotus. One day, as Kapinjala and Pundarika were wandering in the Nandana forest, the forest goddess gave Pundarika a fresh mango sprout to wear as an earring. This sprout was the source of the enchanting fragrance. Pundarika took the mango sprout from his own ear and placed it onto Mahashveta’s ear. As he did this, he dropped his prayer beads because he was so overwhelmed by the pleasure of touching her cheek. Mahashveta then wore the mango sprout around her neck. Kapinjala scolded Pundarika for giving in to such strong feelings, which didn’t fit with his role as an ascetic. Pundarika felt embarrassed and asked for his prayer beads back, pretending to be annoyed. However, since Pundarika was clearly confused because of his emotions, Mahashveta tricked him by giving him her strand of pearls instead of the prayer beads. They went their separate ways, and that night, Mahashveta was overwhelmed by her love-sickness. Her servant, Taralika, told her that Pundarika had approached her and asked about Mahashveta. He had sent a love letter for her, written on tree bark with leaf juice as ink. When Mahashveta read it, she lost her composure. Just then, Kapinjala arrived and delivered news. He said that Pundarika’s passion for Mahashveta had pushed him to the edge of his existence, and now his life depended on her. After Kapinjala left, Mahashveta was tormented and fainted. As the moon rose, she left her palace to meet Pundarika. But she heard Kapinjala’s cries from afar, and he told her that Pundarika had died. Mahashveta was heartbroken and prepared to end her life on Pundarika’s funeral pyre. However, a divine being descended from the sky and carried Pundarika’s body away. He told Mahashveta not to give up her life and assured her that they would be reunited. Kapinjala, agitated, flew after this being. Mahashveta blamed herself for Pundarika’s death and renounced all worldly pleasures, becoming an ascetic. This marks the end of Mahashveta’s story, which began in Paragraph 7. Chandrapeeda comforted Mahashveta and advised her not to blame herself. He asked about her companion, Taralika. Mahashveta explained that Kadambari, the daughter of the Gandharva king Chitraratha and queen Madira, had been her childhood friend. Kadambari was deeply saddened by Mahashveta’s situation and had vowed not to marry as long as Mahashveta was in grief. Kadambari’s parents were concerned about her decision, and they had asked Mahashveta to persuade her. So, just before Chandrapeeda arrived, Mahashveta had sent Taralika to deliver her message to Kadambari. The very next day, Taralika returned with a young Gandharva named Keyuraka. Keyuraka told Mahashveta that Kadambari was deeply saddened by the message and was determined not to marry as long as Mahashveta was grieving.  Mahashveta decided to visit Kadambari herself, and Chandrapeeda accompanied her. They went to Mount Hemaketu, where the Gandharvas lived. As soon as Chandrapeeda and Kadambari saw each other, they fell deeply in love. Mahashveta asked Kadambari to let Chandrapeeda return to his place since his companions must be worried about him. Chandrapeeda returned to his camp, where he was reunited with Vaishampayana, Patralekha, and his army. The next day, Keyuraka came with a message that Kadambari was suffering from the pain of separation. Chandrapeeda quickly rode his horse, Indrayudha, and, accompanied by Patralekha, rushed to Kadambari. Kadambari was growing pale with desire. Chandrapeeda playfully offered to ease her suffering by offering his body, but Kadambari declined. As Chandrapeeda was about to leave, Kadambari asked if Patralekha could stay with her as a companion. Chandrapeeda agreed, and then he returned to his camp. He received a letter from his father, King Tarapeeda, who complained about his prolonged absence and requested his immediate return to the kingdom. Chandrapeeda sent a messenger to Kadambari and left Vaishampayana in charge of the slowly returning army. He quickly headed towards the capital. Along the way, he came across a Chandika temple and witnessed the strange behavior of a peculiar Dravida ascetic. (This part seems to have been included for amusement and has no connection to the later story.) Chandrapeeda’s parents and the citizens were delighted to see him when he reached Ujjayini. In a few days, Patralekha brought news that Kadambari was suffering greatly from love-sickness. Shortly after, Keyuraka arrived, confirming Kadambari’s condition. Chandrapeeda was in a similar state of mind. He decided to seek the help of his friend Vaishampayana. He went to meet his returning army but received a strange account from his generals. While the army was camped at Lake Acchoda, Vaishampayana went into a trance-like state and seemed to be searching for something. Now, he refused to leave the lake. Chandrapeeda got really worried about his friend Vaishampayana and decided to go looking for him. He said goodbye to his parents and set off. However, when he reached Lake Acchoda, there was no sign of Vaishampayana. Instead, he met Mahashveta, who shared a surprising story. She had encountered a young Brahmin who had shown strong feelings of love for her. She got very angry and cursed him, saying he would turn into a parrot. Right at that moment, the young man fell to the ground, lifeless. It was only later that she learned he was Vaishampayana, Chandrapeeda’s friend. Chandrapeeda was so shocked by this news that he passed out. Just then, Kadambari (who had told her parents she was going to visit Mahashveta) arrived at the scene with Patralekha. Both of them fainted when they saw Chandrapeeda lying on the ground. When Kadambari woke up, thinking that Chandrapeeda was dead, she prepared to end her own life on his funeral pyre. But at that moment, a voice from the sky spoke out, saying, “My child Mahashveta, Pundarika’s body is in my world. It will stay safe until you two can be together. On the other hand, even though Chandrapeeda’s soul has left because of a curse, his body is made of light and will never perish. Kadambari needs to make sure his body is protected.” Everyone was amazed. Patralekha said that it wasn’t right for Indrayudha, Chandrapeeda’s horse, to stay on earth when his master was gone. So, she got on the horse and jumped into Lake Acchoda. In the very next moment, Kapinjala emerged from the lake. Mahashveta was overjoyed to see Pundarika’s friend and wanted to hear what had happened. Kapinjala explained that he had followed the heavenly being who had taken Pundarika’s body to the moon world. This being turned out to be the Moon God. The Moon God told Kapinjala, “I was once cursed by your friend Pundarika, even though there was no real reason for it. I would suffer from unrequited love many times. In return, I cursed him so that he would share my pain. But when I found out that he was in love with Mahashveta, who is connected to my race, I brought his body here to keep it safe. Kapinjala, you should go and ask the sage Shvetaketu (as mentioned in Paragraph 8) for help in freeing his son from this curse.” Kapinjala explained further: “While I was rushing towards Shvetaketu, I accidentally ran over an angry sage. He got really mad and cursed me, saying I would turn into a horse. I begged him for forgiveness, and he finally relented. He said the curse would only be in effect as long as I had a rider. I asked him if, even as a horse, I could stay with my friend Pundarika. Then, the sage told me that the Moon God would be born on Earth as Tarapeeda’s son, who would be my rider. Pundarika would be reborn as the chief minister’s son and be a companion to my rider. After hearing this, I fell into the ocean below and transformed into a horse.” Because I still remembered my past life even after becoming a horse, I intentionally brought Chandrapeeda here while chasing after the Kinnara couple. And here’s the surprising part: Vaishampayana, the young man cursed by you, Mahashveta, was actually Pundarika himself in his previous life.” Kapinjala finished his story that started in Paragraph 21. Mahashveta was heartbroken to have lost her lover for the second time. Kadambari asked about Patralekha, who had gone into the lake with the horse. However, Kapinjala didn’t know anything about that, so he leaped into the sky to meet Shvetaketu. In the meantime, Kadambari spent her time watching over Chandrapeeda’s lifeless body, which showed no signs of decay. A messenger, sent by Kadambari, informed Chandrapeeda’s parents about their son’s difficult situation. Tarapeeda, Vilasavati, Shukanasa, and Manorama arrived at the scene, filled with sorrow. Tarapeeda decided to give up all his worldly pleasures and began spending his days in the forest near his son’s lifeless body. Jabali then revealed that Vaishampayana, the one cursed by Mahashveta, was the very parrot present in their hermitage. This marked the end of Jabali’s narrative, which had started in Paragraph 2. The parrot Vaishampayana continued his story, saying, “After Jabali had finished, I remembered everything from my past life. I asked him to tell me something about my friend Chandrapeeda’s current life, but he dismissed my request. Jabali explained that even though I was Pundarika in my past life, I was still an ascetic. I fell into the trap of sensual desires because I was born only from a woman’s seed (as mentioned in Paragraph 8), and therefore lacked the necessary qualities of manliness.” After the gathering in Jabali’s hermitage had ended for the night, I, the parrot, felt deeply sad about my fall from being an ascetic Brahmin to becoming an animal. Right at that moment, the sage Kapinjala arrived at the hermitage. He embraced me and tears of joy streamed down his face. Kapinjala told me, the parrot, something hopeful, saying, ‘I’ve met your father Shvetaketu, who guided me here. Your troubles are nearing an end.’ Then, Kapinjala left the hermitage. As time passed, my wings grew stronger, allowing me to fly. I embarked on a journey to the north to find Mahashveta. Along the way, I became exhausted and fell asleep. When I woke up, I discovered that I had been caught in a trap set by a Chandala, a forest-dweller. I was brought to a Chandala girl who addressed me as her son and said, “Oh, my child, you can’t leave me now.” She then placed me in a golden cage and presented me to you, King Shudraka. I don’t know who this girl is or why she calls me her son.” This marks the end of the parrot’s story that began in Paragraph 1. King Shudraka became curious and summoned the Chandala girl. She told the king that she was Lakshmi, who was Pundarika’s mother as mentioned in Paragraph 8. What’s more, the king himself was none other than Chandrapeeda, the Moon God. The mutual curses between the Moon God and Pundarika had now come to an end. Upon hearing this, the king remembered everything from his past life and fell into a deep state of love-sickness for Kadambari. Meanwhile, at Mahashveta’s hermitage, the spring season arrived in all its glory. Kadambari, with a touch of her hand, brought Chandrapeeda back to life. He explained that since the curse was over, he had left behind the earthly body of Shudraka. Pundarika descended from heaven in the form that Mahashveta had fallen in love with. Both couples were finally reunited, and the parents of all the lovers gathered around them, overwhelmed with joy. One day, Kadambari asked Chandrapeeda about Patralekha’s whereabouts. Chandrapeeda revealed that Patralekha was actually Rohini, a demigoddess and one of the Moon’s spouses. She had come to the mortal world to care for Chandrapeeda during his curse. Kadambari and Chandrapeeda celebrated their first intimate union. Chandrapeeda returned to Ujjayini and crowned Pundarika as the King. He split his time between Ujjayini and Mount Hemaketu. The two couples lived together in eternal happiness.

Critical Appreciation

“Kadambari” by Banabhatta is a classic work of Indian literature, hailed for its complexity, narrative depth, and poetic beauty. Here’s a critical appreciation of this ancient Sanskrit novel:

1. Literary Craftsmanship: Banabhatta’s “Kadambari” is a masterclass in Sanskrit prose and poetry. The language used is highly refined and elegant, showcasing the author’s command over the Sanskrit language. The novel’s intricate verses and rich imagery make it a literary treasure.

2. Narrative Complexity: The novel is known for its intricate narrative structure. It weaves multiple storylines and subplots, often blending the past, present, and future, creating a tapestry of interconnected events. This complexity adds depth and intrigue to the plot.

3. Philosophical Themes: “Kadambari” delves into profound philosophical and metaphysical themes, including the concept of rebirth, destiny, and the cyclical nature of existence. It explores the idea of fate and how it shapes the lives of the characters.

4. Emotional Depth: The novel is emotionally charged, with characters experiencing a wide range of emotions, from love and desire to sorrow and longing. Banabhatta’s portrayal of human emotions is both sensitive and evocative.

5. Character Development: The characters in “Kadambari” are multidimensional and undergo significant growth throughout the novel. The protagonist, Kadambari, evolves from a young girl to a mature woman, and her transformation is portrayed with depth and subtlety.

6. Historical and Cultural Significance: The novel provides valuable insights into the social and cultural milieu of ancient India. It offers a glimpse into the courtly life, rituals, and values of the time, making it a valuable historical and cultural document.

7. Narrative Prowess: Banabhatta’s storytelling skills are evident throughout the novel. He uses a variety of narrative techniques, including flashbacks, dreams, and parallel narratives, to create a rich and engaging reading experience.

8. Symbolism and Allegory: “Kadambari” is replete with symbolism and allegory, inviting readers to explore deeper layers of meaning. The use of symbolism adds layers of complexity to the narrative and encourages contemplation.

9. Influence on Literature: “Kadambari” has had a profound influence on Indian literature and has been a source of inspiration for many subsequent writers. Its impact on the literary landscape is undeniable.

10. Enduring Appeal: Despite being a work from ancient India, “Kadambari” continues to captivate readers with its timeless themes and poetic beauty. Its exploration of human emotions and philosophical ideas remains relevant to contemporary readers.

In conclusion, “Kadambari” by Banabhatta is a literary masterpiece that combines intricate storytelling with profound philosophical themes. Its rich language, narrative complexity, and emotional depth have ensured its enduring appeal and its place as a classic in Indian literature.