Rāma, sick with love for his lost Sītā, is anxiously awaiting the return of the search parties Sugrīva – roused from his post-victory revels – has dispatched to the four corners of the earth. Those from the North, East and West come back empty handed and with nothing to report. All now rests with the expedition to the South led by Hanumān. When he and his high-spirited troop finally arrive, Hanumān presents Rāma with a message from the imprisoned Sītā: “Come as fast as you can. I won’t last much longer.” It would be enough to spur any husband to immediate action, and none more than Rāma, and he prepares to set off with his army the very next morning.
It is this point of the Rāmāyāṇa story that Vedānta Deśika, a 13th century Tamil philosopher and poet, chooses as the setting for his Haṃsa Sandeśa (The Message of the Swan), a beautiful Sanskrit lyric of 110 verses.
To return to Rāma, but this time the Rāma of the Haṃsa Sandeśa: on the dawn of departure, the hero sees a swan, newly arrived from its monsoon retreat in the Himalayas, and is suddenly overcome with intense longing for his elegant wife. When he comes to, he decides to ask the swan to take a second message to Sītā to console her and to reassure her that he will be there soon – and thus ensure she doesn’t succumb to her despair.
This is not the only sandeśa kāvya – an immensely popular genre of messenger poems following Kālidāsa’s Megha Dūta – that takes the Rāmāyaṇa as its base, although it is probably the earliest. Others such as Rudranyāyapañcāna’s Bhramara Dūta and the Abda Dūta of Kṛṣṇaśrīcandananābhi use the same device of a second messenger – a departure from the epic – sent to Sītā to keep her going, in these cases a bee and a cloud respectively. Nityānandaśāstri’s Hanumad Dūta sticks to the epic in having Hanuman as the messenger, while Srikrishnanāthanyāyapañcānana’s Vāta Dūta has Sītā send a message to Rāma using a northern-bound breeze.
The Rāmāyaṇa doesn’t just provide the framework of the poem. Small details dotted throughout recall the epic: the dancing peacock and peahen that torment Rāma during the monsoon, Rāvaṇa’s aśoka vana that fruits in all seasons, the captive Sītā as a doe surrounded by tigers, Sītā’s rising-sun-yellow shawl and her anklet. Vedānta Deśika though also very consciously draws on the Megha Dūta most notably with an array of verbal echoes designed to evoke for the listener the poem’s predecessor.
Upon a backdrop formed of these two familiar literary landscapes, Deśika introduces a third element that is all his own, that of his land and God. The swan’s journey through southern India focuses on the temples and shrines of the Srivaishnavites – spread throughout modern day Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh – and their god, Viṣṇu. The swan’s zig-zag course is determined by these divine spots, whose manifestations of Viṣṇu he is to worship.
Deśika was celebrated as a lion among poets and philosophers (kavi-tarkika-simha) during his lifetime, and well known and respected long after it. He is a key figure in the Srivaishnava community whose chief teacher, Rāmānujācārya (the father of Viṣiṣṭādvaita Vedānta), Deśika claims descent from on both his father’s and mother’s side. He wrote a huge amount of original works and commentaries both on and in Sanskrit, Tamil, Prakrit and the mixed language known as Maṇipravāla. Most of this had a religious or philosophical bent – although that is not to imply that it was dry prose, some of his hymns to Viṣṇu, his wives and manifestations make for magnificent poetry. Nevertheless, although Viṣṇu is present in the Haṃsa Sandeśa in his incarnation as Rāma, this is considered one of the lighter of his many profound works and hence often overlooked even by his devotees.
Rāma dispatches the swan to the South, whose chief selling point is her “wealth of holy sites”. Rāma also notes that it hosts the Tāmraparṇī and Kaverī rivers laden with pearls, and the sandal-wood Malaya mountains from where blows the celebrated Malaya breeze. A must-see destination, then, bar one small drawback, that it is also home to the rakṣasas.
The route mapped out for the swan is, says Rāma, one of the two that Hanuman had described to him:
मार्गौ सम्यङ् मम हनुमता वर्णितौ द्वौ तयोस्ते
सह्यासन्नोऽप्यनघसुभगः पश्चिमो नित्यवर्षः।
प्राचीनेषु प्रतिजनपदं संहतावद्भुतानां
मग्ना दृष्टिः कथमपि सखे मत्कृते ते निवार्या || 11
Hanuman described the two routes to me quite clearly. The western one, although it is the closer of the two, isn’t very suitable for you because of the constant rain. On the eastern route your eyes will be glued to the series of wonderful sights found in every city and every hamlet – tear your eyes away as best you can, my friend, for my sake.
In fact, the route Hanuman’s expedition is instructed to take in the Rāmāyaṇa by Sugrīva is more a circuitous tour of central and southern India rather than a direct path to Laṅkā. Sugrīva orders them to go to the Vindhya Mountains, and from there many places north of the mountain range including Utkal (Orissa) and Daśārṇa (Madhya Pradesh) before covering the South – the Āndhra, Cola and Pāṇḍya countries and Kerala – and then Laṅkā and the mysterious lands beyond.
At any rate, there is no mention of most of the destinations that Deśika sends his swan to. The swan’s journey focuses on the several of the 108 divya deśams (“holy places”) of Srivaishnavism, including Tirupati, Kanchipuram and Srirangam. Almost all of Deśika’s material in this section comes from his own intimate knowledge of these places, their traditions and literatures. He was chief ācārya at both Kanchipuram and Srirangam, and was named the ghaṇṭa-avatāra (‘bell incarnation’) of Tirupati after the miraculous events there that led to his birth. Indeed the gods from these three important temples are said to have attended his father’s funeral.
This is the main reason that the swan is urged to take the eastern not the western route. And, although Rāma continually urges speed – as the yakṣa did in the Megha Dūta – the apparent urgency is undermined by the long descriptions of wonderful places, at most of which the swan is instructed to stop either to worship the deity or enjoy the delights that place offers, or both.