“Meghadoot”, meaning the Cloud Messenger, is a Sanskrit poem of 120 stanzas or slokas, composed by the poet Kalidasa. Briefly, the poem is about a yaksha, who is banished from Alakapuri, takes refuge in Ramgiri, shares his sorrow with a cloud, and requests the cloud to go and tell his beloved in Alakapuri that he is safe. However, Kalidasa has developed this simple theme into a great literary masterpiece of unparalleled beauty. Even after a passage of 1600 years since it was written, Meghadoot continues to captivate the minds of its readers. Rabindranath Tagore, Madhav Julian, Kusumagraj, Shanta Shelke, and many literary stalwarts have translated Meghadoot from Sanskrit into other Indian languages. Kalidasa’s descriptions are so picturesque, that artists have been inspired to paint Meghadoot sloka by sloka. Its translations into several foreign languages have been posted on the internet.

It is said that a poet can see what even the sun does not. There are no limits to a poet’s imagination. Meghadoot, however, stands a class apart from other great poetry, as Kalidasa’s flight of fantasy transcends into the realm of real science which we know today as meteorology. It would be futile to conjecture how or from whom Kalidasa might have acquired his scientific knowledge. Perhaps nature herself was his teacher!

The very first sloka of Meghadoot paints before us a picture of a yaksha, meaning a servant, exiled from his home in Alakapuri, now living in a far away place called Ramgiri, lonely, broken-hearted and worn out, pained by the separation from his beloved. He is counting the remaining days of his sentence. And on the first day of the month of Ashadha, he suddenly notices a cloud, standing alone atop the mountain peak of Ramgiri (“Ashadhasya prathama divase”…sloka 1.1).

Historians are in general agreement that the town presently called Ramtek, near Nagpur, is the location of Kalidasa’s Ramgiri, while Alakapuri might have been in north India somewhere in the Himalayan foothills. It is important to note that the average date of the arrival of the monsoon over the Ramtek region in 400 A. D. was indeed the same as it is today. This is a reassuring fact, particularly in the context of climate change and the doubts that are being expressed about the changes in the monsoon patterns.

Now imagine that Kalidasa’s solitary cloud is standing proudly over the mountain top, overlooking the region around it, announcing the arrival of the monsoon rains to a population that has been suffering from the scorching heat of the prolonged summer. This cloud is spearheading the monsoon front, making sure that the way ahead is clear for the advance of the monsoon. The yaksha looks at this cloud which has such a heavy responsibility (1.3) and pleads with him to undertake an additional task of carrying a message to his beloved (1.4).

The yaksha knows that the cloud is made up of four ingredients: water, wind, electricity and smoke (“Dhoomra jyoti salila marutam sannipatah kva meghah…” 1.5). He is well aware of the different forms of clouds (1.6). Moreover, he also knows that the northern town of Alakapuri, where his beloved is, lies in the path of the monsoon clouds (“Gantavya te vasatiralaka…” 1.7). Today it is known that smoke consists of two types of carbon, organic and black, of which the former helps in cloud formation and the latter absorbs heat. The role of black carbon in global warming is however not yet fully understood. It is mindboggling that Kalidasa should have known about cloud processes in such detail in his times.

In today’s satellite era, it is possible to monitor globally the growth, movement and dissipation of clouds. The average life time of a typical monsoon cloud is at best a few hours. When Kalidasa’s yaksha asked the cloud to go with his message all the way from Ramgiri in central India to Alakapuri in the Himalayan foothills, he seems to be quite aware of this fact. He was sure that one single cloud would not be able to sustain itself along this long journey. So he finds a scientific solution to the problem. He advises the cloud to rest awhile over the several rivers that would have to be crossed on the way and get rejuvenated (“Neetva neelam salilavasanam muktarodhonitambam…” 1.43). The rivers mentioned are Vetravati (1.24), Shipra (1.31), Gambhira (1.42), Ganga (1.53) and others. It is obvious that Kalidasa envisaged a process in which the evaporation from the surface of these large rivers would help in cloud formation and development. Kalidasa’s poetic fantasy and scientific logic go hand in hand to help fulfill the yaksha’s desire. Little research has however been done since Kalidasa’s times till today on how the monsoon is influenced by the rivers that crisscross the Indian subcontinent.

The yaksha thereafter lays down the itinerary of the cloud. He wants the cloud to visit places like Vidisha, Ujjayini and Devgiri, which have great beauty and with which he has strong emotional bonds. He describes them in picturesque detail and entices the cloud to see them. But here again the scientist prevails over the poet and he says that the monsoon winds will surely carry the cloud to the destination (“Mandam mandam nudati pavanaschanukulam yatha twam…” 1.10). The monsoon winds will slowly turn westwards (“Kinchit paschadvraja laghugatirbhuya evottarena…” 1.16). The yaksha is acquainted with the circuitous route of the monsoon and he repeatedly cautions that the cloud must always keep moving to the north (“Vakra pantha yadapi bhavatah prasthitasyottarasham…” 1.27).

At many places, the yaksha tells the cloud to gain height in order to move faster, again suggesting that Kalidasa was aware of the fact that the monsoon winds gathered strength with height, while phenomena such as the tropical easterly jet and the low level jet were discovered by meteorologists only in the last century.

We do not yet have a precise definition of a typical monsoon cloud. But monsoon clouds over northern India are taller than those over peninsular India and are associated with thunder and lightning. At the end of the poem, the yaksha wishes that the cloud and his beloved, the lightning, may never get separated (“Ma bhudevam kshanamapi cha te vidyuta viprayogah…” 2.55).

Kalidasa’s Meghadootam is not only a poem of great beauty but an accurate scientific statement about the monsoon clouds and winds. What Kalidasa wrote about the monsoon 1600 years ago, can be said to be scientifically sound by today’s standards. In some respects, Kalidasa remains ahead of the scientists of the twentyfirst century and they can learn from him and draw inspiration for doing further research in the monsoon.

Prof. R. R. Kelkar
Kalidasa Day, 23 June 2009