|Riddles are also found scattered across works on poetics and subhāśita anthologies.There are fairly detailed methods of classifying and naming these riddles. But as jargon doesn’t add to the fun, let’s not bother about the nomenclature.
By Suhas Mahesh
If you thought that Sanskrit was only about epics and scriptures and classical poetry, try and solve these riddles below.
तरुण्यालिङ्गितः कण्ठे नितम्बस्थलमाश्रितः।
गुरूणां सन्निधानेऽपि कः कूजति मुहुर्मुहुः॥
(Vidagdhamukhamaṇḍanam of Dharmadasa)
“Who moans repeatedly, even with the elders around,
While riding on a girl who holds him by the neck?”
No doubt you’ve got it— he’s a jala-kumbhaḥ “water-pot”. This is one of the 200+ verses present in the vidagdha-mukha-maṇḍanam (“An Ornament to Lips of the Clever”) , a medieval book of riddles by a Buddhist author Dharmadāsa. Here is one more ribald riddle from the same author—
आपाण्डु पीनकठिनं वर्तुलं सुमनोहरम् ।
करैराकृष्यतेऽत्यन्तं किं वृद्धैरपि सस्पृहम् ॥
“What is that alluring object
— round, firm and white all over—
which even old men long to grasp?”
That attractive object, says Dharmadasa, is a ripe bimba fruit (pakva-bimba-phala). It is rather strange for a bimba fruit to arouse so much excitement in old men. A subhāṣita anthology gives a more reasonable answer— a snuffbox.
Apart from the bawdy humour, there is nothing exceptional about these riddles— the variety is common in every language. More interesting are the riddles that use wordplay — for it’s here that the full glory of Sanskrit shines through. Sanskrit’s structure provides good legroom to frame and solve complicated riddles. Sanskrit poets are also by nature fond of puns and word-gimmicks. Riddle (prahelikā) solving is even included in the traditional list of the sixty four arts catuḥṣaṣṭikalās. Despite all this, the riddle genre never really took off in a big way in Sanskrit. Of all the great poeticians, Danḍī is riddle’s only votary. The total number of published texts dedicated to the matter can be counted on one hand, to my knowledge— and all of them await translation. Vidagdha-mukha-maṇḍanam, kavīndra-karṇābharaṇam and budha-vaktra-maṇḍanam have provided me with many hours of the pleasure-pain of perverse puns. Riddles are also found scattered across works on poetics and subhāśita anthologies.There are fairly detailed methods of classifying and naming these riddles. But as jargon doesn’t add to the fun, let’s not bother about the nomenclature. Here is an interesting riddle—
पानीयं पातुमिच्छामि त्वत्तः कमललोचने ।
यदि दास्यसि नेच्छामि न दास्यसि पिबाम्यहम् ॥
“Maiden, I want water.
But if you give, I won’t take it.
And if you don’t, I will”
How strange! The paradox in this family of puzzles usually hinges on a word sheltering a compound (sandhi). In this case, we write need to rewrite the verb dāsyasi (“you give”) as dāsī asi (“you are a servant”). Now the paradox vanishes—
“Maiden, I want water.
If you’re a servant-girl, I don’t want it.
And if you aren’t, I’ll take it”
Classist? Yes. But the wordplay demands it. This kind of wordplay is scarcely conceivable in English. Some efforted attempts can be made—
A nice maiden
An ice maiden
The Wine Drink
But it cannot match the felicity Sanskrit provides. Here’s one more riddle from the same family —
हते हनुमता रामः सीता हर्षमुपागता |
रुदन्ति राक्षसाः सर्वे हा हा रामो हतो हतः ||
When Rāma was killed by Hanumān,
Sītā was overcome with joy.
And the demons wailed
“Alas! Rama is dead, he’s dead!”
So many incongruencies in one verse! All of them are banished when we see that rāma is actually ārāma (garden), since a savarṇadīrgha compound is possible.
When the garden was destroyed by Hanuman
Sītā was overcome with joy.
And the demons wailed
“Alas! The garden’s ruined, it’s ruined!”
What an ingenious trick! The same family has another interesting riddle where the Pandavas give away their wealth to Duryodhana. The calamity is averted by cleaving Duryodhana as aduḥ (gave) yo (who) adhana (penniless), thereby making them help a needy man instead. In yet another riddle, Pandavas exult seeing the fallen Keshava, while the Kauravas weep. By splitting keshavaḥ as ke shavaḥ (corpse in water), the verse is recast as a tale about crows and fish. As would be obvious by now, solving these riddles needs consummate skill with grammar.
No wonder Dandī said that riddles were handy devices for “perplexing rival scholars” (paravyāmohana).
Yet another riddle, this one from a different family—
य एवादिः स एवान्तो मध्ये भवति मध्यमः |
य एतन्नाभिजानीयात् तृणमात्रं न वेत्ति सः ||
Its beginning is its end.
(It starts with ya and ends with sa)
Its middle is its middle.
(In the middle is a semi-vowel)
If you don’t know this,
you don’t even know a blade of grass.
The phrase tṛṇamātraṁ (as much as a blade of grass), is an idiom for a tiny and piddling thing. The answer has been cleverly woven into the question as a taunt — grass (yavasam) is the answer. It starts with ya, ends with sa, and has a semi-vowel va in the middle. The naive reader is mislead because ya and sa are also pronouns.
There is another well known riddle where the answer is hidden within the question—
का काली? का मधुरा? का शीतलवाहिनी गङ्गा?
कं सञ्जघान कृष्णः? कं बलवन्तं न बाधते शीतम्?
What is black? What is sweet? Who is the Gangā of cold waters?
Whom did Krishna kill? Which strong man is not affected by cold?
काकाली | कामधुरा | काशीतलवाहिनी गङ्गा |
कंसं जघान कृष्णः | कम्बलवन्तं न बाधते शीतम् |
A row of crows. The yoke of passion. The one in Kāśī.
Krishna killed Kamsa. The one with a blanket.
Though all we’ve seen so far is impressive and amusing, Sanskrit is capable of so much more! Take a look at this—
भद्र माणवकाख्याहि कीदृशः खलु ते पिता ? |
वेलान्दोलनकल्लोलः कीदृशश्च महोदधिः ? ||
“My lad, who is your father?”
“And how is the surging ocean which overflows its shores?”
The poor lad is supposed to answer both questions with just one word. He soon concedes and the answer is revealed to him — majjanmakaraḥ. This answers both questions, depending on how you split it—
मत्-जन्मकरः (“Who was responsible for my birth”)
मज्जत्-मकरः (“Hiding crocodiles”)
An oblique way of answering, but a logically consistent way nonetheless. This paradigm of using the word ‘mat’ as a peg for creating puns is seen in a delightful instance in the Kathāsaritasāgara. While Sage Gautama is away, Indra arrives and seduces his wife Ahalyā. In a moment of weakness, Ahalyā too gives in. But Gautama suddenly returns, causing Indra to panic and turn himself into a cat. Gautama asks Ahalyā, “Who’s there?” and she puns in Prakrit — “majjaro” “The Cat” and also, “mat-jāro” “my-lover”. Despite her excellent pun, she is turned to stone by Gautama who also includes some wordplay in his own curse.
A more advanced version of the riddle—
के स्थिराः? के प्रियाः स्त्रीणां ? कोऽप्रियो ? नक्तम् आह्वय |
नृत्यभूः कीदृशी रम्या ? नदी कीदृग्घनागमे ? ||
“What are immovables?”
“Whom do women love?”
“Who is disliked”
“Call the night!”
“What kind of a stage is beautiful?”
“How is the river when the clouds swell?”
“tataraṅga”: An expansive one
“Tumultuous with waves”
The answer to the first five questions when combined as a compound, must be the same as the answer to the sixth one! I think we can safely say that nobody except the creator is capable of solving such puzzles.
Another verse with two questions, one word answer. But this time there’s a twist —
कीदृशा भूमिभागेन राजा स्नातोऽनुमीयते |
प्राङगणं कुरुतेत्युक्ताः किमाहुस्तदनिच्छवः ||
“By what kind of surface can we infer that the king has finished his bath?”
“When instructed to build the courtyard, what did the unwilling workers say?”
The answer to the first question is haima-vāraka-rañjinā “by a surface with golden pots”. Presumably, the sound will let us infer the completion of the King’s bath. The second answer is obtained by reading the word in reverse! na ajiram karavāmahai — “We will not make the courtyard”. And this is just the tip of the iceberg!
I’ll leave you with an easy riddle to ponder about—
एकचक्षुर्न काकोऽयं बिलमिच्छन्न पन्नगः |
क्षीयते वर्धते चैव न समुद्रो न चन्द्रमाः ||
I’m one eyed, but not a crow.
I desire a hole, but am not a snake.
I increase and decrease,
But am not the sea or the moon.
What am I?
(Conventionally, the crow is believed to have only one eyeball which can flit at will between the two eye sockets. This is also the origin of the kākākshi-golaka-nyāya crow-eyeball-maxim, which is used in reference to a word or phrase which can have two interpretations in a context.)
(Suhas Mahesh is an undergraduate at the Indian Institute of Science. Blissfully wedded to Physics during day, he ekes out time to woo language at night. His other interests include Carnatic music, hobbyist electronics and history)