rAjahaMsa in the ha ṃsasaṃdeśa

Oliver Fallon opfallon at YAHOO.COM
Thu Apr 16 09:16:19 UTC 2009

The 'Handbook of the
Many thanks to those who replied to this enquiry.

The 'Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan' says that no more than a dozen sightings of swans of each species are recorded in the subcontinent, and those in the north and only in very severe winters. We can conclude that the classical and medieval poets had no knowledge of these birds. As the swan is regarded as a noble, beautiful and even royal bird in the West, rājahaṃasa translates culturally as swan into English, but not literally.

There is no doubt that the primary meaning of haṃsa is goose, and this is borne out by its cognates: Latin anser; German ganser; English gander etc.
I have little doubt that the haṃsas that visited Nala and Damayantī were a flock of bar-headed geese (Anser indicus).

However as Julia Leslie so ably demonstrates in her article 'A Bird Bereaved', and as indicated in Dominic's earlier post to this list, haṃsa is also a generic term for a large water bird, and that the context of the text and the details of habit and appearance must be considered carefully before making an identification.

In the literary context of the haṃsasaṃdeśa, what bird would Rāma choose as his messenger to Sītā? Surely only the most striking and beautiful bird would do. As cranes stand at almost six foot tall and fit the descriptions of habit and appearance in the text they seem to be the strongest contenders.

I would be interested to know of any other close readings of occurrences of birds in Sanskrit literature such as Julia Leslie's of Valmīki.

With thanks,
Oliver Fallon



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