Pratimālā: The Lovely Garland from the World of Literary Games

In recent years, antyākṣarī programs in various forms, have been entertaining people. The Vividhabhāratī channel of Ākāśavāṇī (All India Radio) perhaps set the precedent decades earlier by broadcasting antyākṣarī programmes based on movie songs. In my childhood days, many programs were organized, in close circles – both friends and family, in schools and colleges, where youngsters participated in antyākṣarī programs based on film songs. Their enthusiasm for antyākṣarī made them forget other pastimes and leisure activities. During innumerable picnics and educational trips along with relatives and friends, the bus/train journeys started with the seed-sowing of antyākṣarī that grew along the way, sprouting during various food breaks, blooming into flowers of joy during the campfires and attaining fruition during the return journey. That level of enthusiasm and frenzy has been slightly dampened these days. I wonder whether it’s due to the degradation of the quality of lyrics in the recent film songs or because today’s generation has developed an aversion to learn anything by heart.

I too love antyākṣarī based on film songs (while I could win prizes in these events during my childhood, even now I’m pretty good at it), but I prefer antyākṣarī based on poetry. Hence this article is reserved for that. Many people are aware of the antyākṣarī based on movie songs, but only few know the other version based on poetry; people might even have the misconception that the former has inspired the latter! The reality is that antyākṣarī based on verses found in classical Sanskrit poetry and drama is the precedent for all other types. With passage of time, what if some Americans or Australians (in any case, Cinema is theirs) claim that it is their invention and file a patent! My attempt here is directed towards avoiding such a situation in future.

In Indian history, references to antyākṣarī exist—at the very least—since the past 2500 to 3000 years. We find a reference in the Kāmasūtra of Maharṣi Vātsyāyana.[1] In his treatise, Sage Vātsyāyana lists sixty-four art forms, antyākṣarī being one among them. It is referred to as ‘Pratimālā’ there. Yaśodhara, who has written the wonderful commentary Jayamaṅgalā to the Kāmasūtra, describes how pratimālā is antyākṣarī

यस्या अन्त्याक्षरिकेति प्रतीतिः।
सा क्रीडार्था, वादार्था च॥

He says that it was both a literary pastime and a tool for scholarly debates. In such debates, perhaps verses that consisted of arguments were presented and refuted in this format. We don’t have much information about that form. However, the commentator has codified the general format of the antyākṣarī as a literary pastime in the form of a verse. Starting with any verse, the verse to be recited next is chosen such that it starts with the letter that ends the previous verse, and this goes on and on, to form a garland of verses, which is called Pratimālā.

प्रतिश्लोकं क्रमाद्यत्र संधायाक्षरमंतिमम् ।
पठेतां श्लोकमन्योन्यं प्रतिमालेति सोच्यते॥

Another work called Hārāvaḷi echoes this opinion.

शेषमक्षरमादाय प्रतिश्लोकं क्रमेण यत् ।
अन्योन्यं पठ्यते श्लोकः प्रतिमालेति सा मता ॥

Though Mitra, Vallabha, Bhāskara-narasimha, etc. have tried to explain Pratimālā in a different way, their explanations lack aucitya (appropriateness). Yaśodhara’s opinion on the other hand is apt and endearing.

In our tradition there are many games that are literary in nature. In Vātsyāyana’s list of sixty-four art forms, besides Pratimālā, we find games like Prahelikā, Durvācaka-yoga, Pustaka-vācana, Kāvya-samasyā-pūraṇa, Akṣara-muṣtikā-kathana, Mlecchita-vikalpa, Dhāraṇa-mātṛkā, Saṁpāṭhya, Mānasi, Kāvya-kriyā, Abhidhāna-kośa, Chando-jñāna, and Kriyā-kalpa, to name a few. The Buddhist work Lalita-vistara, the Jaina work Prabandha-kośa, and Śukra-nīti-sāra describes such literary pastimes in detail, but there are more references to such games in the Kāmasūtra.[2] It is unlikely that people from other cultures nurtured such literary games as much as the ancient Indians. The main reason for this being the infinite possibilities provided by our classical languages as well as the all-encompassing, but precise mastery over the language and its literature by our forefathers. In such a rich literary backdrop we should see an art form like Pratimālā.

Antyākṣarī is the favourite pastime of connoisseurs of Sanskrit literature. It is still a living art form in Sanskrit pāṭhaśālās (traditional schools). Isn’t it quite natural that it finds top billing in places where oral learning has more importance!

The raw material for Antyākṣarī is a huge collection of beautiful verses. The basic requirement is to be capable of retrieving from the memory, within the blink of an eye, verses of great poets brimming with rasa and bringing them to the tip of the tongue. This art form is useful in learning beautiful verses by heart and developing the skill of recalling them from memory at whim. It is a process of learning literature that gives us both knowledge and

Pratimala Pratimālā: The Lovely Garland from the World of Literary Games pratimala1-300x225

Image Courtesy:- Google image search

happiness. It sharpens our recall. It can be expanded into a literary game that can both be a pastime, or on special occasions, a competition that evokes awe and enthusiasm. It is only due to such literary pastimes that we get an opportunity to make the verses, which we have memorized, to dance on the stage of our tongue. In terms of literature, recollecting them as the combination of sound and meaning, leads us to the repeated experience of rasa. At this point, it is prudent to state the ground reality. The students who prepare for such events, in their enthusiasm to be a step ahead, avoid learning the beautiful—and hence famous—verses from extraordinary poems and plays, with the thought: These are famous verses and their stock will be exhausted by our opponents, leaving us bankrupt! The rules of the game forbid participants to repeat verses already recited; it’s like the famous oath of Karṇa that he wouldn’t use the same arrow a second time! Without exception, those desirous of winning learn verses that are found in rare poems/plays or from dry philosophical works, and hence devoid of beauty. This is the main drawback that I’ve observed in antyākṣarī. This bears testimony to the fact that the poisonous seed of ‘winning at all costs’ causes undesired effects. Perhaps this is the bane of all games – it starts off as a pastime and ends up in cutthroat competition! Something that is primarily for relaxing ends up evoking anxiety and tension. If passion (rajas) is not subordinate to wisdom or good sense (sattva) then the result will be agitation of passion and hatred, greed for fame, money, and stardom.

The general rules of Antyākṣarī, which is still alive in the circles of Sanskrit connoisseurs, are as follows:

  1. The chosen verses should be invariably beautiful and full of rasa. The sources can be mahākāvyas, khaṇḍakāvyas, plays, campūs (mixture of prose and poetry), subhāṣitas (proverbs, good verses), or example sections of texts pertaining to aesthetics and dance/drama.
  2. Verses from texts related to vedānta, vyākaraṇa, tarka, are allowed, but care should be taken to choose verses with some or the other aesthetic quality.
  3. Verses from the Vedas, Upaniṣads, Purāṇas, Itihāsas, Āgamas, etc. are not allowed with rare exceptions when the verses are of top quality.
  4. Verses in the Anuṣṭup meter is disallowed though there are innumerable beautiful verses set in this meter.[3]
  5. Typically, verses composed by the participants – extempore or otherwise – are not allowed. But it can be used if the referee(s) agrees beforehand.
  6. Sometimes the next participant can start from the first alphabet of the third line of the previously recited verse instead of the last alphabet. For example, if the first verse is
    अस्त्युत्तरस्यां दिशि देवतात्मा
    हिमालयो नाम नगाधिराजः ।
    पूर्वापरौ तोयनिधी वगाह्य
    स्थितः पृथिव्या इव मानदण्डः ॥The next person can choose a verse starting from the letter ‘प’ instead of the letter ‘ड’ and continue as follows:पुरस्कृता वर्त्मनि पार्थिवेन
    प्रत्युद्गता पार्थिवधर्मपत्न्या ।
    तदन्तरे सा विरराज धेनुः
    दिनक्षपामध्यगतेव सन्ध्या॥Also in many cases, verses end either by the letter ‘म’ or ‘त’. To avoid same letters we can use the previous letter. For example, if the verse ends as ‘संमोहनम्’ or ‘निरगात्’, instead of the letters ‘म’ or ‘त’ we can use ‘न’ or ‘ग’. These relaxations are left to the discretion of the referee(s).
  1. If the last letter is from the set ख-घ-छ-झ-ट-ठ-ड-ढ-ण-ङ-ञ-थ-ष, verses starting with vowels (स्वर-अच्) can be used since it is rare for verses to begin with these letters. Sometimes, the participants waiting for their turn can take up the challenge of reciting a rare verse beginning with such a letter and win the challenge! I remember one such instance. The famous grammarian, Vidvān Mahabaleshwara Bhatta recited a verse ending with ‘ण’. I was in the opposite team. I composed a verse extempore and accepted the challenge. Since he had taught me the rules of how and when ‘न’ changes to ‘ण’ in a simple and enjoyable manner, I chose that to be the topic of the verse.
    भट्टभानुना येन हारिता ।
    तं नुमो वयं देववाङ्मयम् ॥
    The above verse composed in the Acyuta meter remains fresh in my mind. In all such cases the referee’s decision is final.
  1. In the last round, the rules are made stricter. No time is given to think. Verses are recited in one shot without stammering or stuttering. Not only that, the start of a new verse should match the end of the previous verse in terms of both the vowel and the consonant. E.g. if the last word is ‘महानघ’, then the next participant should choose a verse starting with ‘घ’.
    घट्टोपविष्टानिव वाग्भिरर्थैः
    शब्दागमज्ञान् खलु सान्त्वयामः ।
    आप्लुत्य भल्लूकवदापतन्तः
    कथं नु जय्या इह गौतमीयाः ॥
    He can’t recite some verse starting with, say, ‘घे’ or ‘घा’ even though this was within the rules in the previous rounds. Such rules ultimately depends on the capability of the participants and the evaluation criteria of the referees.

There are special categories in Antyākṣarī. The best among them is undoubtedly the Antyākṣarī of extempore verses. It goes without saying that the participants should all be poets capable of composing verses extempore, set to poetic meters. While I crave for such an event, the opportunities are extremely rare. Apart from that, we can organize events with specific themes – either verses composed by particular poets or verses from particular types of poetry (e.g. kālidāsāntyākṣarī, nāṭakapadyāntyākṣarī, etc.) or verses set in particular meters (e.g. upajātyāntyākṣarī, śārdūlavikrīḍitāntyākṣarī, etc.) To ensure that the event is enjoyed not merely by the scholar-participants but also by the audience, I, along with a few friends, made teams with three to four members each. Either before or after the verse was recited, for the sake of the audience, a summary of the verse in Kannada/English was provided by the member who recited that particular verse. The game itself goes on for two to three hours. This has gathered quite a fan following and is possible to organize if people wish to witness such an event. It is like a friendly match that is entertaining, without the cutthroat competition.

This is how the Sanskrit version fares, with national level events being organized regularly, but Antyākṣarī in other Indian languages cannot boast of such far-reaching effect. As far as I know, it does have a fairly good fan following in Telugu. The main reason for this is the love for poetry and a well-developed taste for classical literature in the people. The program Padyālatoraṇam[4] that is broadcast in the Telugu channel Saptagiri is a good example. I wonder why this hasn’t been possible in my mother tongue, i.e. Kannada. Perhaps both students and teachers are ignorant or uninterested or incapable of memorizing verses! Not just haḷagannaḍa, even verses in naḍugannaḍa and hosagannaḍa will do, as long as entire verses are used. We can’t use free verse and also such verses are devoid of metrical patterns, thus leading to difficulty in memorizing. Even so, I have the desire of participating and winning in a Pratimālā event in Kannada. Probably a handful of scholars, who have in-depth knowledge of Kannada poetry and have learnt many verses by heart, are the only hope. Would Kannada activists ever concentrate on such things? Why shouldn’t such an event be organized for the Rajyotsava?

PS: Recently I came to know that Antyākṣarī is famous in Kerala and goes by the name ‘Akṣara-śloka’. The life-line of such an activity are people from all walks of life who learn thousands of verses in Sanskrit and Malayalam and participate with great enthusiasm. Organizations like Akhila-keraḷa-akṣara-śloka-pariṣat have taken up this activity with enthusiasm. Cezary Galewicz and Lidia Sudyka in their research article[5] have given more details about the art form as it is practised in Kerala. This is one of the first articles that has discussed this literary pastime in such great detail. This is actually quite embarrassing that again it is the foreigners who have shown interest in our traditions.

Translated from the original Kannada essay of Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh. This essay appears in his remarkable anthology Kalakautuka. Thanks to Hari Ravikumar for his valuable inputs.



[1] It’s a disaster that the word kāmasūtra invariably conjures up an image of a condom, and nothing else, in the minds of people. Starting from those leaning towards the extreme ends of the moral spectrum to most others in between, Vātsyāyana’s Kāmasūtra seems to be the abode of lechery and perversion. This has resulted in undeserved notoriety thrust upon both the author and the treatise. Thus we have belittled our tradition. The Kāmasūtra has many valuable things related to cultural practices.

[2] Interested readers can refer to my book ಕನ್ನಡದಲ್ಲಿ ಅವಧಾನಕಲೆ  (Kannaḍadalli Avadhānakale), or M. Sridharamurthy’s book ಅರವತ್ನಾಲ್ಕು ಕಲೆಗಳು (Aravatnālku Kalegaḷu), or Dr. T. S. Sathyavathi’s ಚತುಷ್ಷಷ್ಠಿಕಲೆ (Catuṣṣṣṭikale).  English readers can refer to The Kalas by Dr. A.Venkatsubbaiah and Festivals, sports and Pastimes of India by Dr. V. Raghavan. Hindi readers can refer to प्राचीन भारत के कलात्मक विनोद (Prācīn Bhārat ke Kalātmak Vinod) by Ācārya Hazari Prasad Dwivedi.

[3] The only reason for this extremely strict rule is that most of Sanskrit literature—the Vedas, Upaniṣads, Purāṇas, Itihāsas, Āgamas, and other śāstras—is set in this metre. If such verses are allowed, the Antyākṣarī would never end. A basic requirement of any game is that it should be time-bound and there must be some mechanism to eliminate participants. Since this meter is quite natural to Sanskrit, even people with limited acquaintance with the language can compose verses extempore, thus pushing the game into an infinite loop! Therefore such a control mechanism is mandatory.  However, this has led to an inevitable loss since some of the most beautiful verses in the finest passages of great poets like Kālidāsa, Bhāravi, Māgha, Abhinanda, Śrīharṣa, Kṣemendra, Somadeva, Budhasvāmi, Nīlakaṇṭha-dīkṣita, etc. are set in this meter. The only way to alleviate this is to have antyākṣarīs based only on the works of such great poets with a constraint that the meter should be Anuṣṭup.

[4] This has two meanings – padyālato raṇam, ‘a fight with verses’ or padyāla toraṇam, ‘a canopy of verses.’

[5] Galewicz, Cezary and Sudyka, Lidia. If you know one thousand ślokas you are half a poet: On the akṣara-śloka traditions of Kerala. Cracow Indological Studies, Vol. VII (2005), pp. 295-315.

Raghavendra G S Pratimala Pratimālā: The Lovely Garland from the World of Literary Games gsr

Raghavendra G S

Raghavendra G S is currently pursuing a PhD in Computer Science at the Indian Institute of Science. He is a Sanskrit poet and a keen student of classical literature in Sanskrit and Kannada.
Raghavendra G S Pratimala Pratimālā: The Lovely Garland from the World of Literary Games gsr

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