Manasollasa: The 12th-Century Treatise On The Art of Living

Representation image (Depiction of the yogic adept, Mahāsiddha Virupa, 16th century/ Public Domain)
This treatise on life by a 12th century Chalukya king will teach you how to eat, sing, dance, rule and live well.

In the vast annals of ancient historical treatises, there are few guides to living the life of a king as informative as that of the Manasollasa. Written by King Someswara III (AD 1122-1133) of the Chalukya dynasty, this 12th-century encyclopedia has guides on everything from capturing elephants to ruling a kingdom and brewing wine.

Someswara was an erudite scholar-king, whose subjects gave him the title of Sarvadnya-bhupa – ‘The king who knows everything’. In many ways, he was the original king of good times. His empire spanned much of modern-day Karnataka and Maharashtra as well as parts of Andra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Goa. He designated the Manasollasa as the book that teaches the world. It comprises of five sub-books divided into 100 chapters.

The advice may not apply to all of us, particularly those of us who lack an army of servants and helpers. One column advises a king to maintain four palaces, one for each of the seasons (spring, summer, winter and monsoon). Or take Snānopabhoga, the expert treatise on bathing. According to this treatise, the king’s person should:

…first be anointed with fragrant oil, and then massaged by expert wrestlers well-versed in the art of massaging. An ointment prepared with fragrant unguents like Kostha etc. in water or Kanjika is applied afterwards to the body for rubbing and cleaning the skin. A Khail (a special preparation of an ointment of wheat-flour etc…) is then applied to remove grease from the skin and it serves the same purpose as the modern soap.

Young women then pour over the head water from golden jars made fragrant by various scented things. The scented oil of Amalaki is then applied to the hair; sometimes scented turmeric is applied in addition. The oil and turmeric are then removed with warm water and the body is rubbed vigorously with a dry towel. Finally the removal of wet clothings completes the elaborate process of a royal bath.

The inclusion of wrestlers was no whim; the king patronized and encouraged competitive wrestling. Wrestling matches were commissioned between equally competent fighters. The wrestlers would salute the king and then fight in specially constructed arenas. The first to break his opponents limbs would usually be declared the victor.

On governance and administration, the Manasollasa advocates delegating the king’s responsibilities to a dedicated team of ministers. It suggests that kings take their astrologers seriously, and plan their palace according to the principles of Vasthu. And kings should have food and medicine tasters to guard against the four poisons.

Much of the book has to do with the art of enjoyment. The fourth sub-book of the Manasollasa, the Pramoda kāraṇa, is the largest by far and details the means of entertainment and joy, such as music, dance, songs and sports.

According to Mandakranta Bose’s reading, dances should be performed:

…at every festive occassoin, to celebrate conquests, success in competitions and examinations as well as occasions of joy, passion, pleasure and renunciation. Six varieties of dancing are described next and then six types of nartakas [performers]

Along with dance, the Manasollasa has 2,500 verses in two chapters devoted to the study of music. But it’s also an ancient cookbook, perhaps among the first to emerge from India. Crunchy snacks like Sev and delicacies like the idli were first mentioned in the Manasollasa (though the latter is believed to have originated in Indonesia).

The King described the dishes cooked for him in the palace, listing vegetarian and non-vegetarian recipes. Some of his advice might seem ostentatious, as he says it’s alright to eat from earthen pots but a king should be served with gold utensils. But many pages describe recipes, some of which are followed to this day – and others that can doubtless inspire some experimentation in the kitchen!

Take rice, for example. In those days, it used to be mixed with milk and ghee after cooking – with the excess water discarded. Another recipe describes a milk-based snack:

In another method, good milk is added to sour juice and the split milk is tied with a white cloth; when the water is strained, Elaichi (cardamom) and sugar are added to the condensed mass, mashed and blended into a smooth lump. Small balls in the size of ripening Bimba fruits are made out of it, fried and eaten.

Many of these recipes are available online. Do give them a try – and let us know how they turned out. Not all the recipes are equally mouth-watering, such as this recipe for roasted rat (the reaction to which depends on personal taste).

Select a strong black rat, found in the fields and river banks. Fry it in hot oil holding it by the tail till the hair is removed. After washing with hot water, cut open the stomach and cook the inner parts with sour mango and salt. Alternatively, skewer the rat and roast it over red-hot coals.When the rat is well cooked, sprinkle it with salt, cumin and lentil flour.

Do note that the black rats from fields and river banks are likely to be a much cleaner species than those to be found in your city blocks. Asides from these, different methods of brewing wines of grape, sugarcane and palm and coconut sap are mentioned. Marco Polo himself had tried this palm wine and given it his thumbs up.

The Manasollasa also has extensive chapters on the training and breeding of horses and elephants. Some of these techniques, such as those to capture elephants, were later lost in the region after the invasions of the Muslim sultanates. Hyder Ali made a famous attempt to capture a herd of elephants and failed so spectacularly that he cursed anyone who dared attempt the feat again.

The king mentions that among the finer animals were elephants from the Kalinga forest and Arabian horses. Perhaps one piece of good advice the treatise offers was the following: Don’t keep your enemies in your armies, but if you do, keep them in the front lines.

Altogether, the Manasollasa covers the aspects and qualifications needed of a king, the techniques of administration that he could find useful, the recipes of the royal court, the arts of song and dance and the many types of games and sports that were once prominent. If you read it with an eye to imitation, you will find it a guide to living well. The Manasollasa is quite unlike the traditionally acknowledged treaty of ancient Indian governance – the Arthashastra – in that this book teaches you how to leave your hair down and enjoy life.

You can read its translation here and see whether the 12th-century king of good times is still relevant today. If one thing is certain, it is that one can never have enough recipes, songs, dances and games to try out – as long as we keep an open mind to learn the lessons from the past.


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