rAjahaMsa in the ha ṃsasaṃdeśa

Oliver Fallon opfallon at YAHOO.COM
Wed Apr 15 14:12:08 UTC 2009

I would like some help on the identity of the rā
Dear Colleagues,

I would like some help on the identity of the rājahaṃsa which is the subject of Vedāntadeśika's Haṃsasaṃdeśa.
He tells us little of the bird except that he repeatedly stresses that it is a pure white water bird and that it has a beautiful call as it flies to which that of the peacock is unfavourably compared.
I was first provoked into considering that this is not a goose by a comment in Shastriar's 1902 Madras edition of the poem, where he says:

"rājahaṃsa is a species of swan with red legs and bills (sic). Compare 'rājahaṃsās tu te cañcucaranair lohitais sītāḥ'"

The colour of the bird's beak and legs are not mentioned in the poem. Can anyone suggest a source for 'rājahaṃsās tu te cañcucaraṇair lohitais sītāḥ'?

There are no swans in the Indian avifauna so an editor/translator who had never actually seen a swan could be forgiven for this misidentification.
It is unlikely to be a goose as the Indian bar-headed goose is grey with black and white markings and has yellow beak and legs. However its call is describes in the 10 vol.  'Handbook to the Birds of India and Pakistan' as 'Similar to the Greylag's but more nasal and musical.' The Greylag's call is described thus: 'The far-reaching honking aahng-ung-ung, with its variants, uttered in different keys during the morning and evening flighting, is one of the most exhilarating bird sounds for the sportsman and bird lover. These calls are also uttered when migrating, especially during the night.' Interestingly, the poem describes the bird resting during the night.
It is unlikely to be an egret as although these are pure white they have black legs and yellow bills and as for their calls 'Except for an occasional throaty croak when one bird is supplanting a rival, very silent.'
This leaves storks and cranes.
The white stork has red legs and bill but it's voice is 'Poorly developed. Adults practically silent...'
The sarus crane is grey with red head and legs but grey bill.
The siberian crane is pure white with red bill and legs and it's call is described as 'A pleasant, soft musical koonk-koonk uttered chiefly in flight.' One problem is that the siberian crane is not now found in South India, but that is not to say that it was not in medieval times.

Can anyone on the list suggest other identifications and also quote any definitions of rājahaṃsa from any of the lexicons?
For reference I append a previous discussion of this word on the list below.

With thanks for your help,

Oliver Fallon

Date:         Tue, 27 Sep 2005 13:28:36 +0100
Reply-To:     Indology <[log in to unmask]>
Sender:       Indology <[log in to unmask]>
From:         Dominik Wujastyk <[log in to unmask]>
Subject:      Re: Fw: Hamsa
Comments: To: Indology <[log in to unmask]>
Comments: cc: [log in to unmask] In-Reply-To:  <003e01c5c351$8769eac0$5d01000a at krasnal>
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Julia Leslie was preparing a comprehensive re-examination of the whole 
hamsa/swan/goose/flamingo issue, but sadly her premature death last year 
prevented that work being completed.  I do remember several conversations, 
however, in which Julia noted that the various "hard" positions on the 
fixed identity of the hamsa were always wrong.  It's not "always" a goose, 
or swan, flamingo, or mythical bird.  In deciding how to understand what 
is meant by "hamsa", "rajahamsa" etc., in any passage, context is very 
important, Julia thought, including chronological, geographical and 
narrative context.  Her 1998 "A Bird Bereaved" article in JIP demonstrated 
this method admirably.  Unfortunately there isn't a simple, general answer 
about the identity of hamsa.  Interestingly, Julia felt that it was indeed 
appropriate to understand "swan" in many cases, though not all. She 
deprecated the rigid identification of "hamsa" with "goose" which has 
become an automatic reflex in much indological writing since Vogel's 1962 
book _The goose in Indian literature and art_, which she felt was based on 
a too-narrow selection of sources (mainly architectural and mainly 
Sinhalese).  She felt that Dave's _Birds in Sanskrit Literature_ was often 
more nuanced, better informed ornithologically, and more appropriate.


On Tue, 27 Sep 2005, Sven Sellmer wrote:

> ----- Original Message ----- From: "Harsha Dehejia" 
> <[log in to unmask]>
> To: <[log in to unmask]>
> Sent: Tuesday, September 27, 2005 12:49 PM
> Subject: Hamsa
>> Sven:
>> A hamsa is neither a swam or a duck but a mythic bird.
>> Regards.
>> Harsha
>> Prof. Harsha V. Dehejia
>> Ottawa, ON. Canada
>> PS Can you post this on the Indologist as I am unable to do this as I have 
>> a new computer address.


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