Magha’s Shishupala Vadha: The most complex poem ever created?

The Shishupala Vadha by Magha might just be the most complex and beautifully-wrought poem ever written. So why hasn’t anyone heard of it?

“Oh! Infinite is the variety of language, even though it is made up of only a few letters, just as music, though it is made up of only seven notes.”

                                – Magha’s Shishupala Vadha, II. 72

The Shishupala Vadha, an epic poem written in Sanskrit in either the seventh or eighth century, is undoubtedly one of the most complex and beautiful poetic works ever created. This masterpiece of Sanskrit poetry follows the story of Krishna as he marches to Indraprastha, on his way to attend the great sacrifice held by his friend Yudhisthira, who is being crowned the King of the World.

This story from Krishna’s life, taken from an episode of the epic Mahabharata, begins with a brilliant light descending from the clouds, and all the people of the world pointing and marvelling.

“The townspeople watched, amazed, all saying ‘the path of the sun is horizontal. Its fire burns from on high, as we all know. But this light spreads itself in all directions, and falls to earth. What is it?’”

This light is the great sage Narada, who descends from heaven in order to warn Krishna that the terrible demon king Ravana, the grand evil of the Ramayana, has been reborn as a man. His name is King Shishupala, and his evil deeds are already known throughout the world. Continue reading “Magha’s Shishupala Vadha: The most complex poem ever created?”


Embedded in text: A night at The Word Factory

Does the short story have roots in oral storytelling? Should literature be a communal event? And could your short stories benefit from losing their more “readerly” bits? These were the questions thrown around at a night of wine, laughter and short fiction.

I recently dropped into a session at the brilliant Word Factory salon in London, where every month leading short story writers come to read from their collections and engage in debate on the short story form.

Continue reading “Embedded in text: A night at The Word Factory”

Hell in a handcart: The secrets behind Hieronymous Bosch’s The Haywain

After a recent trip to Lille, where I saw some of the creepiest and strangely wonderful art I’ve ever seen, I was stuck on the Eurostar for an hour and a half with no book to read. What I did have was an enormous 3210 x 2065 scan of the masterpiece painting by Hieronymous Bosch, The Haywain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Jheronimus (Hieronymous) Bosch
Jheronimus (Hieronymous) Bosch (c. 1450 – 9 August 1516)

I thought I could kill ten minutes or so looking over this wonderfully rich piece of medieval symbolic painting – but an hour and a half later, I pulled into London King’s Cross, and I was still looking at Bosch’s painting.

This artwork is so complex it has the richness of text. It brought me right back to poring over the Where’s Wally series as a kid: spotting concealed storylines, visual gags, hidden connections between elements.

Continue reading “Hell in a handcart: The secrets behind Hieronymous Bosch’s The Haywain”

Beauty, horror, and why I never want to meet Jan Fabre

I was recently in Lille for work, and swung by the Palais des Beaux-Arts to escape the particularly biting cold that descended on the city this January. I’m glad I did, because the temporary exhibition I found in there quite frankly blew me away.

The museum has a full-gallery exhibition dedicated to Belgian artist Jan Fabre, who painstakingly created 21 massive allegorical works entirely out of the iridescent wing cases of the jewel beetle. Continue reading “Beauty, horror, and why I never want to meet Jan Fabre”

Drawing a blank: In search of the Tate Modern’s blank canvases

It’s hard nowadays to mention the words “modern” and “art” without someone laughing through their nose. I’ve heard all kinds of dismissals of abstract modern art, from “I wouldn’t hang that on my wall” to “a child could do that,” but my all-time favourite has to be something a friend said to me the other day: “half of them are just blank canvases!”

Really? Blank canvases? I’m no art expert, but I knew this couldn’t be true. Was it possible that more than one artist has made the same quasi-philosophical point, each smugly hanging blank canvases in modern art galleries like a group of Halloween party-goers all turning up as a pumpkin? Continue reading “Drawing a blank: In search of the Tate Modern’s blank canvases”

Destinies of rust – Gordon Bottomley and the early days of eco-poetry

I came across this while archiving: an epigram to an unpublished work of the late Russell Hoban. It’s beautiful, and makes me want to read more of Bottomley’s work.

O, you are busied in the night,

Preparing destinies of rust;

Iron misused must turn to blight,

And dwindle to a tetter’d crust. 

It’s part of the poem “To Iron-Founders and Others”, an amazingly early piece of eco-poetry. I think it deserves posting in full. 

Can we also bring back the word tetter’d? Please? Continue reading “Destinies of rust – Gordon Bottomley and the early days of eco-poetry”

Changing faces, changing names: The history of Sri Lanka in 17 maps

Maps are complicated things. They reveal, and at the same time they conceal. They’re beautiful, but they can also hide the true ugliness of the world. They show the world as it is, and at the same time enforce a particular view upon it.

In one way or another, the urge to chart the earth has existed in people since the earliest ancient records began, and in the case of the island nation of Sri Lanka, the history of the place can be read in how people through the ages have chosen to map it.

Continue reading “Changing faces, changing names: The history of Sri Lanka in 17 maps”