August 23, 2017

The painful joys of dealing with Sanskrit long compounds

Filed under: Sanskrit Literature — Tags: , , — Giulio Geymonat @ 8:12 pm

It is a fact that one of the peculiarities that makes Sanskrit what it is, and one that no other language displays (at least as far as I know), is the possibility of writing unbelievably long nominal compounds.

We can define a nominal compound as a semantic and grammatical entity made of a sequence of nominal stems (including participles and possibly adverbs) with no case endings between them, only the last one having a case ending fitting the grammatical structure of the sentence where the compound occurs.

A short compound is one made of up to three stems: for example (with two stems) prasannaprAya “almost correct” (literaly “whose largest portion (prAya) is correct (prasanna)”, or (with three stems) mAdhavAlekhyaprayojana “the intended use (prayojana) of the portrait (Alekhya) of Madhava (a proper name)”.

Compounds of four stems are pretty common, at least in works with literary value (all the examples given here are taken, quite randomly and mostly from the first act, from the mAlatImAdhava, a very famous and important drama written around the VII century AD), and often easily understandable: for example upacitamahAmohagahana “deeply mysterious (gahana) because of a great (mahA) infatuation (moha) massed up (upacita)” or saundaryasArasamudAyaniketana “an abode (niketana) of the collection (samudAya) of chief ingredients (sAra) of beauty (saundarya)”.

Compound of five stems, although being not rare, may start posing some problems of immediate understanding.

Immediately understandable are for example bhavanavalabhItuGgavAtAyanasthA “stationed (sthA) at the high (tuGga) windows (vAtAyana) of the top-room (valabhI) of her palace (bhavana)” or abhinavakaridantacchedapANDu “white (pANDu) like a piece (cheda) of a new (abhinava) elephant (kari) tusk (danta)”; less obvious is for example anyonyapraguNaguNanirmANanipuNa “able (nipuNa) to create (nirmANa) qualities (guNa) reciprocally (anyonya) suitable (praguNa)”.

When we deal with compounds of six stems, an immediate understanding is not always easy.

Take for example akaThoraketakasaMdigdhamugdhendu “a new (mugdha) moon (indu) mistaken for (saMdigdha) a young (akaThora) Ketaka flower (ketaka)”, or gaNDoDDInAlimAlAmukharitakakubh “regions of the heaven (kakubh) made to resound (mukharita) by rows (mAlA) of bees (ali) flying up (uDDIna) away from the cheeks (gaNDa)”.

With compounds of seven stems our mind must make an effort (at least one needs to read them carefully twice or trice) to grasp the overall meaning (let alone the problem of finding out the meaning of each stem, but that, depends very much on the richness of one’s own vocabulary; mine unfortunately is not so vast at all, so that I often loose quite a time to check up the dictionary, and sometimes, more often than I would like, I get quite frustrated as I forget the meaning of say the first or the second or the third stem by the time I’ve checked the meaning of the last…so I have to look up again the meanings! It goes without saying that polysemy also poses problems when one deals with the combined meaning of stems. Honestly, it’s not easy to translate Sanskrit long compounds!).

Take for example cUDApIDakapAlasaMkulagalanmandAkinIvAri “water (vAri) of the heavenly Gange (mandAkinI) dripping (galan) from the numerous (saMkula) skulls (kapAla) used as a chaplet (ApIDa) on top of the hairs (cUDA)”.

In the very next line of the same verse from which the previous example is taken (the first, or according to other manuscripts, the second verse of the play malatImAdhava by bhavabhUti, from which, as said, all the examples quoted are taken), we find an eight stems compound: vidyutprAyalalATalocanazikhijvAlAvimizratviS “splendour (tviS) mixed up (mizra) with flames (jvAlA) of fire (zikhi) from the eye (locana) on the fore-head (lalATa) resembling (prAya) lightnings (vidyut)”.

In the next verse, we find a nine stems compound: nandihastAhatamurajaravAhUtakaumarabarhitrAsa “fear (trAsa) of the peacock (barhi) of the god Kumara (kaumara) attracted (AhUta) by the sound (rava) of the drum (muraja) hit (hata) by the hand (hasta) of Nandi (proper name)”

We can for sure consider properly long compounds those with ten or more stems, progressively causing that specific intellectual emotion to which the title of this post refers, and that I still cannot define in plain words, but that moves from a most probable initial frustration (because when one is confronted with a word of say 15 or more stems it is highly improbable that he can make out immediately what it means, and after, hu-hu, 20 and more years of studying a language, it’s not such a good feeling, or one easy to cope with, when you cannot understand what you read! Grrrr!) to a final amazement causing at the least a sort of subtle intellectual thrill (“Yes! I’ve got through it somehow!”) but more often resulting in a sense of deep wonder and admiration for the beauty of the Sanskrit language and for the skills of its poets (let alone a sense of profound respect for a tradition that was able to transmit correctly and for more than one thousand years such amazingly complex texts).

This for example has eleven stems (it occupies the first half, i.e. two quarters, of a verse) unmIlanmukulakarAlakundakozaprazcyotadghanamakarandagandhabandhu “friend (bandhu) of the scent (gandha) of the thick (ghana) juice of flowers (makaranda) dripping down (prazcyotat) from the sheath (koza) of jasmines (kunda) looking weird (karAla) because of the buds (mukula) opening up (unmIlat)” (it refers to a wind blowing out of a garden).

But, as far as the mAlatImAdhava is concerned, it’s in the prose passages, where the constraints of the metrical patterns are absent, that one finds the majority of the longest compounds (some of them quite overwhelming, if not annoying, at first; but only at first!).

Consider for example this one, with 17 stems: ullasitamadhuramadirAmodaparimalAkRSTasakalamiladalipaTalasaMkulAkulitamukulAvalImanoharAbharaNaramaNIya “delightful (ramaNIya) for the intriguing (manohara) ornaments (AbharaNa) in the form of rows (AvalI) of buds (mukula) agitated (Akulita) by swarms (saMkula) of quantities (paTala) of bees (ali) all (sakala) assembling (milat) after having been attracted (AkRSTa) by the (buds’) fragrant substance (parimala) whose perfume (Amoda) is intoxicating (madira), sweet (madhura) and coming forth (ullasita)” (the compound refers to a tree).

To be noted that the beginning of the compound (up to AkRSTa) can be slightly differently translated: “attracted (AkRSTa) by their [we are talking of the rows of buds of the tree under description] scent (parimala) pleasing (Amoda) and at the same time intoxicating (madira) with sweetness (madhura) coming forth (ullasita)”. It could also be possible to take ullasitamadhuramadirAmoda as a sequence of four adjectives (“pleasing, intoxicating, sweet and coming forth”) referred to parimala “scent”, but my opinion is that if it’s possible is always better, at least with Bhavabhuti, to interpret, in a long compound, a sequence of stems that could be considered as made up both by nouns or adjectives (as in this case; it is very common that Sanskrit has the same stem used as an adjective and as a name), not as being made of all adjectives, on the ground that an alternation of nouns and adjectives is less obvious, and therefore to be considered more elegant (let us not forget that Bhavabhutis’ is one of the best, in terms of grammatical consistency, Sanskrit ever written: the tradition clearly states that).

Let’s analyze yet this other compound, made up of 20 stems: uttrastamattakalahaMsavibhramAbhirAmacaraNasaMcaraNaraNaraNAyamAnamaJjIramaJjuraNitAnuviddhamekhalAkalApakalakiGkiNIraNaraNatkAramukhara “in a noisy manner (mukhara; the whole compound has an adverbial value) with the clanking sound (raNatkAra) caused by the jingles (raNa) of the melodious (kala) little bells (kiGkiNI) of the girdle of several strings (mekhalAkalApa, two stems) mixed (anuviddha) with the sweet (maJju) sound (raNita) of the anklets (maJjIra) resounding loud (raNaraNAyamAna) for the movements (saMcaraNa) of the feet (caraNa) beautiful (abhirAma) with a grace (vibhrama) of a royal swan (kalahaMsa) delighted (matta) and at the same time frightened (uttrasta)”

Now a longer one, of 24 stems, composing the first quarter of a very long verse (number 23 of act V): pracalitakarikRttiparyantacaJcannakhAghAtabhinnenduniSyandamAnAmRtazcyotajIvatkapAlAvalImuktacaNDATTahAsatrasadbhUribhUtapravRttastuti “a praise (stuti) begun (pravRtta) by many (bhUri) creatures (bhUta) being afraid (trasat) by the laughs (hAsa) continuous (aTTa) and, even so, intense (caNDa) released (mukta) by the rows (AvalI) of skulls (kapAla) getting alive (jIvat) because of the drippings (zcyota) of the life-giving ambrosia (amRta) oozing down (niSyandamAna) from the moon (indu) wounded (bhinna) by the blows (ghAta) from the nails (nakha) dangling (caJcat) all around (paryanta) the elephant-hide (karikRtti, two stems) that is moved about (pracalita).

But probably the best way to show, and try to share with the readers, what happens when one’s mind copes with long compounds, is take a whole verse built around long compounds (but for sure it must be the last example, before the pains of dealing with long compounds overshadow once and for all the joys of it!)

One such verse for example is number 19 of act V, describing a most terrifying river, as seen by Madhava, the hero of the play (a boy of around 16 years of age, gone to the cemetery ground in order to procure himself human flesh to barter with some demons for their assistance in a difficult task), and built around two long compounds (the first with 13 stems, the second with 14).

guJjatkuJjakuTIrakauzikaghaTAghUtkArasaMvalgitakrandatpheravacaNDaDAtkRtibhRtaprAgbhArabhImais taTaiH |
antaHzIrNakaraGkakarkarapayaHsaMrodhakUlaMkaSasrotonirgamaghoragharghararavA pArezmazAnaM sarit ||

[The verse itself is preceded by iyaM purata eva “right (eva) in front (purata) of me, here is (iyam)”…]

“…the river (sarit) on the other side of the cemetery (pArezmazAnaM), possessing a gurgling (gharghara) and at the same time vehement (ghora) roar (rava) due to the flowing off (nirgama) from the bed (srotas) of its stream (kUlaMkaSa) caused by the obstruction (saMrodha) of its waters (payas) by faded (zIrNa) bones (karkara) and skulls (karaGka) found within it (antar), with its bank (taTaiH) fearful (bhIma) because of their slopes (prAgbhAra) being filled (bhRta) with the terrifying (caNDa) howling (DAtkRti) of grieving (krandat) jackals (pherava) mixed (saMvalgita) with the shrieking (ghUtkAra) of quantities (ghaTA) of owls (kauzika) making the bowers (kuJjakuTIra) buzzing (kuJjat)”

So, this is the story of long compounds and their effects on the brain which I wanted to try to tell you here: but how to translate them in an elegant English (or Italian or French or any other language), well that’s a complete different matter! (where a sense of disappointing failure, when one compares the translation with the original, is most of the times unavoidable, no matter how hard and how long one tries: and that’s one of the main reasons — awkward translations — why Sanskrit poetry is difficult to appreciate in translation — a very good reason indeed to learn Sanskrit!)


  1. Hi Giulio and thanks for sharing this interesting post on the emotional ups and downs of dealing with Sanskrit compounds. It gives a great insight on both an essential peculiarity of the language and the complexities involved in the understanding/translating process.
    However I think it would be good to get also a chance of listening to the examples and appreciate their sound and pronunciation.
    Is this (maybe another painful joy for you!) something you could arrange?

    Comment by Paschal — September 5, 2017 @ 1:33 pm

  2. Hi Paschal, so much I love you that you will find in the next post audio files for the majority of the compounds mentioned here: enjoy them!

    Comment by Giulio Geymonat — September 25, 2017 @ 10:49 pm

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