In letter and spirit

Patrakaumudi, a fourth century treatise, gives a detailed account of how letters should be written and how these ought to be received, says B.N. Goswamy

Prince Balwant Singh of Jasrota writing a letter. By Nainsukh of Guler. Pahari, dated 1758.
Prince Balwant Singh of Jasrota writing a letter. By Nainsukh of Guler. Pahari, dated 1758. Prince of Wales Museum, Mumbai


1. A letter, esp. a formal or didactic one; written communication.

2. (usually cap.) one of the apostolic letters in the New Testament.

(comes from Olde English which derives it from Latin epistola which, in turn, comes from Greek epistol, meaning message, letter etc.)

I doubt if any of the young would be interested in reading this piece: those, I mean, who belong to the ‘hurry-up-I’m-busy-give-me-something-right-now-right-in-the-vein-right-here-slap-slap-slap-quickly-I’m-late’ generation, as someone described it. But I am tempted all the same to go back to the leisured and orderly world of not long ago when letter-writing — as different from the hastily shot-off e-mails and the insufferable, nearly-illiterate sms’s of today — was not only common, but also something of an art.

There can obviously be different ways of approaching the theme. One could cite here a whole range of works — paintings and sculptures — both from the West and from India, in which one sees people in the act of writing a letter. Some celebrated images spring instantly to mind, including that of the seductive nayika from Khajuraho writing with a stylus upon a sheet. One could at the same time talk about some famous letters that have come down, again both from the West and India: brilliant epistles with great literary flavour, letters that are moving, inspiring, sensuous, humane, witty, wise. As I said, one could do any of these things.

Here, however, I am inclined to draw attention to an early text from India — going back, according to some, to the fourth century, but possibly much later in my view — that deals exclusively with letter-writing: to be more precise, with various aspects of letters. The text is ascribed to Vararuchi, a name shared by many authors, including a justly celebrated one at the court of the great Gupta ruler, Vikramaditya: hence the early, fourth century date suggested for it by some. It bears the title Patrakaumudi which could be translated either as ‘an elucidation or commentary upon the subject of letters’, or, poetically, as ‘moonbeams falling upon letters’, perhaps. In any case, it is full of some fascinating passages laying down rules in which one can catch glimpses of a long-forgotten but gracious world. I came upon references to the text in a work by Dr Hirananda Sastri on Vijnaptipatras: these were long scroll-shaped memorials written by devotees to revered Jaina ascetics, begging them to come and spend the prescribed four months of monsoon-retreat in their town. The Sanskrit text of Vararuchi speaks, early on, about how a letter should start, invoking auspiciousness.

"A letter should commence with the symbol Shri which should be put in a praakaara or enclosure. Three Shris should be written in the case of a friend, one for the son or for the wife, six for the preceptor, two for the servant, and four for the foe`85 The prefixes like pujya-pada (whose feet are to be worshipped) should be written in the case of higher persons or mahasthanas (whose status or place is greater than that of the sender of the letter)."

However, there were variations in practice. Thus, as Dr Sastri says, a higher person addressing one who is lower in position would use the word svasti in place of Shri. Similarly, the word siddhih is used in place of Shri when a junior addresses a senior. But, to continue: "thereafter, the name of the place from which the letter starts should be given while expressing humility and a desire to know the commands of the higher person."

This established, one moves on to the actual writing of a letter. The sign of a goad (or ankusha) should be drawn, the text says, at the commencement as a mark of auspiciousness. A dot should be put in the middle and the figure of seven below it. Then the word svasti should be written under it. Thereafter, a good piece of prose should come; then the word Shri or its variations and some other words in Sanskrit; thereafter, the news, good or evil as the case may be, should be written in Sanskrit or in Prakrit; then, the message; then, the main news or the purport of the letter should be introduced. This should be followed by honorifics and words of affection in verse and then, to conclude, words like kimadhikam, meaning ‘what else is there to say?’ should be written. This should be followed by some verse about the dispatch of the letter and then the date of the communications should be recorded. "This is the usual way of writing letters."

Following common Indian norms, Vararuchi classifies letters into three categories: uttama, madhyama, and saamaanya, meaning, respectively, of the superior, middling, or common kind. This classification comes in handy when the appearance of letters is described. "Letters should be decorated with gold (or) silver and perfumed according to their status or quality. The best letter should be adorned with or written in gold, the second — or middle-class letter — in silver, and a common one, in ordinary colours." Everything seems to have been coded.

There are thus some regulations about the marking of letters. "A royal letter should be marked by a circle, the disc of the moon, made of musk and saffron at the top leaving a space of six angulas or digits. The letter to ministers should be marked with saffron only and those to learned men and the gurus, with sandal, and letters to the masters with sindura or red oxide of mercury. The letter to the wife should be marked with red lac, the letter to the father and to the son, with sandal, and to the ascetics, with sandal alone; to the yatis or celibates, with saffron.

This is the way in which the text goes on, detail following upon detail. Interestingly, however, it does not only take into account the writing of letters, but speaks even of how letters ought to be received.

"A royal letter should be carried on the head, a letter to a worthy (high) minister should be carried touching the forehead, the letter of a preceptor and of the Brahmins on the head. So also, the letters of the celibates, the ascetics and of the masters. They should be respectfully received on the head. The letter of the wife, the son and the friend should be placed on the hridaya or heart. The letter of a praveera or great warrior should be placed on the throat or kantha." And so on. All this detail sounds so alien now, so far removed. But then, as I said, there were other times before ours when things were different. And life moved at a different pace.