The Strange Afterlife of Vidyāpati Thākura (ca. 1350–1450 CE): Anthological Manuscripts, Linguistic Confusion, and Religious Appropriation

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Manuscript Studies
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Manuscript studies
Bengali Literature
Religion of Bengal
Vaiṣṇava literature
liturgical manuscripts
methodology of philology
court literature
vernacular literature in South Asia
Asian History
Hindu Studies
South and Southeast Asian Languages and Societies
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Diamond, Christopher L.

This article examines the difficult aspects of working with anthological manuscripts and printed editions of lyrical vernacular poetry in South Asia by focusing on the textual reception of Vidyāpati Ṭhākura. In his own life, Vidyāpati wrote technical treatises in Sanskrit, historical narratives in Apabhraṃśa, and a corpus of lyrical poems (padas) and two dramas in the vernacular Maithili language. While his technical works remained relatively static and limited in their circulation, Vidyāpati’s lyrical poems had a more enduring and geographically widespread effect on the languages, literatures, and religions of Mithilā and Eastern India (Bengal, Orissa, and Assam). The anthologies of padas, usually called “padāvalī’s”, whatever their historical manifestation or locality, were usually collections of disconnected padas without contextual narratives or explanations. This analysis focuses on the difficulty of working with free-standing small lyrical poems, which were never conceived of as unified textual entities, in both organized padāvalīs and small disposable manuscript handbooks (pothīs). The padas were used pragmatically by elite poets, devotional saints, and musicians from the 15 th century CE onwards. This creates problems when one tries to trace physical remains and textual sources from this period. There exists a gap between the Maithili padāvalīs of the 16 th and 17 th centuries and the Bengali Vaiṣṇava padāvalīs writing in a hybrid Bengali-Maithili kuntsprache of the 18 th and 19 th centuries. Since the linguistic and poetic variations and total number of attestations are so extensive, what relationship can be inferred between the Maithili padāvalī tradition and later anthologies based on manuscript and other textual evidence? I argue for a strategy of closely reading the variances and additions to the bhaṇitā (poetic signature) that reveal an appeal to the courtly prestige of Mithilā, even in the devotional communities of Bengal.

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