[INDOLOGY] Amṛtam and viṣam letters

Rembert Lutjeharms rembert at ochs.org.uk
Thu Jan 14 17:16:44 UTC 2021

Dear colleagues,

In his "Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies", J.A. Dubois (pp.
395-96, of the 1906 third edition), while writing about "The Poetry of
the Hindus", states the following:

"In an idolatrous country everything necessarily tends towards
superstition. The poets of India, therefore, hold some letters to be
of good and others of ill omen. The ambrosial letters (amritam) come
under the head of the former, while the poisonous letters (visham)
belong to the latter class. This distinction, however, is not observed
in the poems in praise of the gods, who are supposed to be beyond such
influences. But in verses which concern simple mortals the case is
very different. Particular care must be taken never to begin any verse
addressed to them with a visham or unlucky letter. In the Telugu and
Canarese languages, the letters ke, ki, pe, pi, te, ti, etc. are of
this number, because these letters when written have the point turned
downwards. On the other hand, the letters ko, po, to, etc. are
considered to be lucky letters (amritam), because they have the point
turned upwards."

I was intrigued by this comment, since it is rare to find discussions
on the visual aspect of language compared to how often language is
treated as essentially aural, in a Sanskrit or Hindu context. The
distinction Dubois mentions seems purely based on the visual
appearance of these syllables in Telugu and Kannada scripts, not on
their sounds (and is thus quite different from the discussion, common
in Sanskrit poetics, about the importance in poetry of specific
syllables based on their sound, as in the concept of rasa-related

As is common, Dubois gives no reference for this distinction and its
use in poetry, and has nothing further to say about it than what I
have copied above. Presumably he was informed about this by the people
he knew.

Is this distinction between viṣam and amṛtam letters made in any other
source? I'd be interested in finding out more about this. I have so
far been unable to find anything else on this, though my search has
been constrained by my lack of knowledge of either Telugu or Kannada.
I would appreciate any references, whether to primary texts or
academic works.

Best wishes,

Dr. Rembert Lutjeharms
Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies
13-15 Magdalen Street
Oxford OX1 3AE United Kingdom
Tel.: +44 (0)1865 304300

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