The fabled monarch Vikramaditya is considered a model of kingly virtues, and his reign a golden age. These famous stories narrated by the thirty-two statuettes of nymphs supporting the magic throne of Vikramaditya extol his courage, compassion and extraordinary magnanimity. They are set in a framework recounting the myths of his birth, accession, adventures and death in battle, after which the throne remained concealed till its discovery in a later age. A fascinating mix of marvellous happenings, proverbial wisdom and sage precepts, these popular tales are designed to entertain as well as instruct. Many have passed into folk literature.
The original author of the Simhasana Dvatrimsiks is unknown. The present text is dated to the thirteen century AD. It exists in four main recensions, from which extracts have been compiled together for the first time, in this lively and faithful translation of this celebrated classic by a renowned Sanskritist.
The cover shows part of a panel depicting Vikramaditya from an illustrated copy of the Indian Constitution. Illustration by Nandalal Bose. Photograph courtesy IIC Library, New Delhi. Photographed by Syed Noah Nizami. Cover design by Apurba Chowdhury.
Aditya Narayana Dhairyasheel Haksar was born in Gawalior and educated at the Doon School and the universities of Allahabad and Oxford. A well-known translator of Sanskrit classics, he has also had a distinguished career as a diplomat, serving as Indian high commissioner to Kenya and the Seychelles, minister to the United States, and ambassador to Portugal and Yugoslavia.
He has translated various classics from the Sanskrit, including the plays of Bhasa (The Shattered Thigh and Other Plays), Dandin’s Dasa Kumara Charitam (Tales of the Ten Princes) and Narayana’s Hitopadesa, all published by Penguin.
Vikramaditya is a famous figure in Indian folklore. He is represented as a great and good king whose reign was a golden age of righteousness, peace and prosperity. This image has persisted in popular memory for at least a thousand years.
The aura of virtue might and splendour surrounding the persona of Vikramaditya was such that many Indian rulers assumed this name as a title. Boys today continue to be named Vikram, Vikrama, or Bikramjit, if not given the dull appellation which means, literally, ‘the sun of valour’. An era bearing the king’s name, which was already current in India when the Central Asian scholar Alberuni visited the country at the turn of the millennium, remains in use to this day. And Ujjain, a town in the state of Madhya Pradesh indentified with Vikramaditya’s fabled capital Ujjayini, still has several sites associated with him, apart from being the seat of a new Vikram University.
Myths and traditions often contain kernels of actual history, and many scholars consider that behind the legends of Vikramaditya there must be a historical figure who ruled at Ujjayini and founded an era. Some historians tried to identify him with the Gupta emperor Chandragupta II, who had the title Vikramaditya, and whose reign was one of the high watermarks of ancient Indian culture; but this monarch lived some four hundred years after the commencement of the Vikrama Era in 58-57 BC. Another academic opinions holds it possible that later rulers who assumed the same name, such as Chandragupta II, may have been confused with the original Vikramaditya in the popular legends that have grown around this figure. In any event, the force of these perennial stories is such that the ancient king appears, along with great historical rulers such as Asoka and Akbar, in the illuminated panels prepared for the original calligraphed document of the Constitution of modern India. His depiction there has been reproduced on the cover of the present volume.
The numerous stories about Vikramaditya form a considerable literature in Sanskrit, from which some of them passed into other Sanskrit from Maharashtri Prakrit. The Sanskrit works still extant date mostly from the medieval period. They include: the Madhavanala Katha of Ananda, about the adventures of two lovers eventually united with each other through the king’s chivalrous efforts; the Vikramaditya, in which he appears in the guise of a wise parrot; the Panchadanda Chhatra Prabandha, Charitra of Ananta, which begins with Vikramaditya’s final war, and continues with his successors. An interesting incidentally of the king’s conquest of Ujjayini and founding of a new era. But the two most popular works are the Vetala Panchavimsatika or the Twenty-five Tales of the Vampire, and the Simhasana Dvatrimsika or the Thirty-two Tales of the Throne. The former has been translated into English many times, beginning with the rendition by Sir Richard Burton of Arabian Nights fame in the nineteenth century. The latter, presented here, has received comparatively less attention.
The Vetala tales are essentially stories ending in riddles told to King Vikramaditya to test his wisdom. The Simhasana tales, on the other hand, are stories about the king himself. They describe his merits and exploits, his birth, accession, rule and death. They are, moreover, intended to edify as well as to entertain. The king is depicted as a paragon of virtue, and his deeds as models of noble and heroic, magnanimous and courageous conduct.
The Simhasana Dvatrimsika has a colourful setting of adventures and miracles. At its centre is the royal throne off simhasana of Vikramaditya, supported by dvatrimsat or thirty-two statues of celestial nymphs. The first six frame stories narrate the circumstances of Vikramaditya accession after the abdication of his half-brother; his receiving the magic throne from the king of the gods; and his last battle and death, after which the throne was hidden as there was no one worthy of occupying it. The later frame stories describe the subsequent discovery of the throne by King Bhoja of Dhara and his attempts to ascend it, which occasion the thirty-two tales of the throne.
Each time Bhoja starts to mount the throne, one of the thirty-to statuettes comes to life and interrupts him with a tale of the deeds of Vikramaditya, illustrative of the latter’s virtues, especially his heroism and generosity, Each tale ends with the admonition that Bhoja may sit on the throne if he can match the merits of the earlier king. After thus restraining him thirty-two times, the nymphs explain in the epilogue how they came to be transfixed they are now releases. Bhoja then installs the throne in a shrine as an object of reverence.
Though full of miraculous happenings, the stories also describe various human predicaments. A king is cuckolded; another must punish his own son; a young man loses his friends along with his wealth; the hero must choose between protecting his reputation and helping his rival. There is a recurring pattern of Vikramaditya obtaining some priceless gift as a result of his extraordinary heroism, and then giving it away in a supreme gesture of generosity or compassion. A sequence of changing backgrounds provides rich variety to this constant theme. The scenes of individual stories shift from a coronation ceremony to a pleasure park in spring time; from a great temple to a courtesan’s house; and from occult rituals to the royal routine. For additional colour there are divine dancers, a magic show, and interestingly recapitulate the plot of the Vetala Panchavimsatika. One story appended to a few manuscripts of the text describes Vikramaditya’s supernatural birth.
Narrative energy and diversity is heightened by the geographical sweep of the stories. Action normally begins and ends in the royal capital Ujjayinin, also called Avanti. But it ranges from Kanchi in the south to Kashmir in the north, and from Gujarat in the west to Assam in the east. In between there is mention of the regions of Andhra, Jarnataka and Malava; cities like Dhara and Pratishthana; and centres of pilgrimage like Kedara and Varanasi, Prayaga and Gaya. These references also provide a dual framework of geographical awareness and of cultural identity at the time when the stories were composed.
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