Lay once down to sleep
In the lee of the walls
Of Mathura metropolis.
Gusty winds had then extinguished
All city lamp flares
And all city doors
Had closed against comers
As the stars in the night sky
By dense clouds lay obscured
In the rain-month of Sravana.
Whose anklet-ringing feet
Struck sudden at his breast?
Awoke the monk with a start
Inertia by dreams inculcated
In an instant fled away.
Light of a lamp, so severe
Shone into his eyes,
So beautiful with forgiving mercy.
Drunk with the wine of youth
Her form draped with stuff
Of the densest blue.
And jewels trilling and tinkling
The city danseuse going to a tryst,
Her feet striking the slumbering monk
Came to a stop Basabdatta.
Lifted she her lamp
To behold his fair young form,
Countenance tranquil tender smiling
And his bright forehead
Where like moonlight
Radiated calm serenity.
Spoke she in pleasing voice
Her eyes tinged with shame
“Forgive me, my young sir,
Have pity, come to my home.
This rigid hard earth
Is no place for you to sleep.
In compassionate tones spoke the monk,
“Oh lady, loveliness embodied,
Now is not yet my time
Go where you must, prosperous one.
At the right time will I come
To your arbour
Suddenly the storm in flames of lightning
Revealed its mammoth face
And the woman shuddered in dread.
On the wind sounded the storm’s conch of doom,
In the firmament, thunder roared a laugh
In mockery intense.
The year not quite ended
Was an evening in the spring month Chaitra.
Breezes drifted demented, delirious
Buds adorned the branches
Of trees on the highway.
In the king’s bower bloomed bakul
And parul and fragrance of the evening ,the tuberose.
Far-off came the intoxicating tones
Of bamboo flutes, borne on the wind.
None left at home, all the citizens
Had gone to the flower-festival
At the Madhuban.
The city deserted, seeing which
Silently smiled the full moon.
On the empty road, in the light of the moon
Alone travelled the ascetic.
In the tree-clad avenue, above his head
The cuckoo called ceaseless.
Had his long-awaited night of tryst
Arrived at last?
The city left behind, staff in hand.
He went the way to outside the walls.
Stood on the edge of the moat-
In the shadows of the mango-grove
Who was that abandoned on one side
Almost his feet?
Dreadfully diseased, all her frame
Covered with pox pustules she lay
Her form darkened
By the shadow of scourge.
City people had brought her here
To outside the city walls abandoned
Her presence to them a poison.
The monk sat down and took up
Her stiff head upon his lap.
On the parched lips he poured water
Recited benedictions upon her head
He anointed her form lovingly
With cooling paste of sandalwood.
The mango-buds dropped off the branches one by one
Sang the cuckoo incessantly
All the earth with moonlight lay inebriated.
The woman asked, “O merciful one
Who are you that have come?”
“Tonight the time is apt
And I am here, Basabdatta”,
Replied the monk.
Recitation by Bratati Banerjee, from a video on Youtube.
This poem is from the book of poems called Katha published in 1900 in which Tagore recreated several Buddhist legends. Tagore responded to Buddha’s teachings in quite a few works, among which are Chandalika and Shyama, the two magnificent dance dramas. He found great relevance in the universality in Buddha’s message especially in the modern world so taken up with the pursuit of power and wealth. The theme of sensuality being transcended by spirituality is the cornerstone of this lyrical work.
As far as historical facts go, Upagupta was a latter day orthodox Buddhist saint who lived in Mathura sometime between the 3rd century BC and the 1st century AD. He is thought to have lived during the reign of Emperor Ashoke and to have been a special object of his devotions. Basabdatta also finds mention in some texts but the story more often related about them is somewhat different and tinged with much baser emotions than presented by Tagore.