Khawnaa, oft-anglicised as Khana, was a Bengali poet and fabled astrologer, who composed in early medieval Bengali, and is estimated to have lived between 9th and 12th century CE. She hailed from humble origins of Deulia village, Chandraketugarh in present-day North 24 Parganas district, West Bengal.
Legend has it that she was named Ksharna (moment) (subsequently colloquially corrupted to Khana) because she was born at an auspicious moment.
Compositions and History
Her lyrical verse, known as khanar bachan or vachan (literally “Khana’s words”), among the earliest compositions in Bengali literature, reek of petrichor and are reputed for their idyllic exploration of the rural microcosm, strong grassroots anchorage and rustic agrarian motifs. Her potential particularly lay in having both a bedrock-connected aesthetic as well as a general abstraction, universal in appeal. Her witty worldview was readily ingestible and digestible to laymen, yeomen and simpletons and being an oral, lyrical, vernacular tradition, didn’t require a quantum beyond (historically) peasant and pedestrian literacy. Her poetry thus left an indelible impression upon one and all, and its ready memorability enabled its seepage and persistence in popular folk consciousness.
Her legend beyond her poetry is considerably less well-resolved, albeit appreciably-founded and is enshrouded in mystique. Though subsequent archaeological excavations and relical discoveries have aided disentanglement of fact from fiction, her historic component is in significant need of demystification and ascertainment than her comparatively substantial literary corroboration.
Khana (identified as Lilavati in secondary sources) is associated with Pragjyotishpur at the Assam-Bengal fringe or perhaps, Chandraketugarh. Her lore revolves around oracle, although her pennings primarily elucidate robust common sense in various South Bengali setting. The folkfables have since been partially attested to by the discovery of an intricate albeit severely deteriorated and dilapidated mound bearing her name, along with that of her husband Mihira. Lilavati’s poetry also explores various astrological themes, divination and clairvoyance, and often includes and invokes rural folk beliefs and innuendos.
Legend of Discourse with Varahmihira
Legend has it that, deeming (owing to a soothsaying miscalculation on his part) the circumstances and omens of his offspring’s birth as gravely inauspicious and consequently prophesising his son to be a predestined ne’er-do-well, the Great Varahmihira deserted him. Mihira somehow survived, and in time and grew up to be a fine youth, who later, fell in love with, and was subsequently encouraged, bolstered and married by Lilavati. Legend has it that she deduced his abandonment as a misinterpretation of scriptures and the divination discipline on his father’s part and determinedly sought redemption on his behalf. Although it is very difficult to demystify and discern and rid facts of romanticisation, evidence strongly suggests and perhaps, establishes at least some sort of interaction between Khana, the poet and astrologer and Varahmihira, the astronomer, mathematician and astrologer.
In the extensive Shaastraarth (scripture-based debate) that subsequently ensued, following initial mansplaining and impetuously dismissive condescension from Varahmihira, one of the nine jewels of Vikramaditya’s court, Khana, with her acumen, wit and factual soundness, defeated the latter hands-down. Feeling publicly humiliated and affronted, Varahmihira was furious, and he perceived her as a contemptuous threat to both his scholarly and morally sacrosanct authority. In a tempestuous fit, a vengeful Varahmihira ordered her tongue to be severed which was promptly devoured by a gecko, which led to a folk superstition that when a gecko clicks thrice mid-conversation, it attests to the veracity and truthfulness of the speaker.
Besides her historically-established absolute poetic merit, Khana’s less substantiated parable is recalled as a popular testimony to male chauvinism and vengeful patriarchal fragility, one of the earliest and rare few acknowledgements of its kind, and account of such nature, encountered in a folk narrative.
Over the course of time several legends have emanated and intricately intermeshed, contributing to her irresolvable mystique as a celebrated and tragic-culminating folk figure; among these numerous narratives, some describe her as the daughter of an oracle, others as a longtime daughter-in-law of Varahmihira and yet others appropriate Mihira as either or both, her to-be tongue -severer or mutually predestined star-crossed lover. Though, it is factually likely that Bengal was the exhaustive domain for the expenditure of her entirety of life.
Her couplets and quartets explore themes that were drawn from the soil and although they never traded everyday utility for literary finesse, yet her wisdom was metaphysical and her verse balanced as the prime literati. Khawnaarbachan, after a millennium, are still omniprevalent in the land as crisp mnemonics and pure, bite-sized essence of wit.
Khana’s timeless two-liners dealing with rural rhythms of life and rustic ethic and aesthetic, strive to inculcate long-term pragmatic virtues and foster self-utility ethics. They serve as classic ergonomic, utilitarian references guiding day-to-day activities and productive action, particularly useful to the derelict who have had no access to systematised knowledge and causative-based rigorous education. A vast number of her sayings have over time, become augmented into the commonplace colloquial corpus, often uncredited to her. Most vernacular modern proverbs, frequently anonymously attributed, often trace back their origin to her writing. Their brevity, balanced meter, simplicity, lucidity and rhythm serve as memory aids, facilitating ease and convenience of recall. Modern Bengali feminism heavily draws from her compositions. However, today, while her verses persist in some form or the other, ingrained in very Bengalihood, Khana is getting increasingly obscure.
Contemporary Archaeological efforts are largely directed towards colonial-era artefacts, relics, artifices and documentation, while early to early medieval history get neglected and endangered of permanent loss. It’s time to reconsider, reinvigorate and resurrect her effigy into the mainstream narrative. Even precolonial archaeology seldom endeavoured to preserve rural culture, part of a well-acquainted alienation, condescension, cultural ignominy and academic neglect towards the countryside.
Khana drew inspiration from everyday routines and so-called trifles of rural life: Where others saw mundanity, triviality and chores, she saw rhythm, and wisdom abound.