7 Sudraka: Mrichhakatika

Mr. Surajit Maity

epgp books





‘Mrichchhakatika’ or ‘The Little Clay Cart’ is an ancient Sanskrit play written by King Shūdraka (Ujjayini) in around 3rd century A.D. It is one of the oldest of all the so far known Sanskrit plays in Indian Literature. Concerning the life, the date and the very identity of the author King Shūdraka, we are curiously ignorant. No other work is ascribed to him and we have no direct information about him till date beyond the somewhat fanciful and exaggerated self praising statements in the prologue of this play. Surely there are many tales, who cluster about the name of King Shūdraka but none of them found so far represents him as an author. A few years back the age and even the authorship of this play was uncertain. After the unexpected discovery of the plays of Bhasa provided us with new data and brought light to the drama Charudatta whose enlarged and completed version Mrichchhakatika seems to be.


According to its prologue, Shūdraka was a Kshatriya king of some country (not mentioned) brave and handsome in appearance knowing Rigveda, Samaveda and mathematics. He knew the art of regarding courtesans and the science of training elephants; was a devotee of Lord Siva and had performed the Asvamedha sacrifice. The great King died at the ripe age of hundred years and ten days. Due to lack of information, facts and evidences the authorship of this play is still uncertain. There are many theories prevailing about the same, but none of them could be considered reliable.


Yet our very lack of information may prove, to some extent at least, a disguised blessing. For our ignorance of external fact compels a closer study of the text, if we would find out what manner of man it was who wrote the play. And the case of King Shūdraka is by no means unique in India; in regard to every great Sanskrit writer—so bare is Sanskrit literature of biography—we are forced to concentrate attention on the man as he reveals himself in his works. First, however, it may be worthwhile to compare Shūdraka with two other great dramatists of India, and thus to discover, if we may, in what ways he excels them or is excelled by them.




Kālidāsa, Shūdraka, Bhavabhūti—assuredly, these are the greatest names in the history of the Indian drama. So different are these men, and so great, that it is not possible to assert for any one of them such supremacy as Shakespeare holds in the English drama. Kalidasa – “the grace of poetry” and Bhavabhuti – “the master of eloquence” are far more intimately allied in spirit than is either of them with the author of Mrichchhakatika. Kalidasa and Bhavabhuti are Hindus of the Hindus; the Shakuntala and the Latter Acts of Rama could have been written nowhere save in India: but Shūdraka, alone in the long line of Indian dramatists, has a cosmopolitan character. Shakuntala is a Hindu maid, Madhava is a Hindu hero; but Sansthanaka and Maitreya and Madanika are citizens of the world. In some of the more striking characteristics of Sanskrit literature – in its fondness for system, its elaboration of style, its love of epigram – Kalidasa and Bhavabhuti are far truer to their native land than is Shūdraka. In Shūdraka we find few of those splendid phrases in which, as the Chinese say, “it is only the words which stop, the sense goes on,” – phrases like Kalidasa’s “there are doors of the inevitable everywhere,” or Bhavabhuti’s “for causeless love there is no remedy.” As regards the predominance of swill-moving action over the poetical expression of great truths, The Little Clay Cart stands related to the Latter Acts of Rama as Macbeth does to Hamlet. Again, Shūdraka’s style is simple and direct, a rare quality in a Hindu; and although this style, in the passages of higher emotion, is of an exquisite simplicity, yet Shūdraka cannot infuse into mere language the charm which we find in Kalidasa or the majesty which we find in Bhavabhuti.


Yet Shūdraka’s limitations in regard to stylistic power are not without their compensation. For love of style slowly strangled originality and enterprise in Indian poets, and ultimately proved the death of Sanskrit literature. Now just at this point, where other Hindu writers are weak, Shūdraka stands forth preeminent. Nowhere else in the hundreds of Sanskrit dramas do we find such variety, and such drawing of character, as in The Little clay Cart; and nowhere else, in the drama at least, is there such humor.


To gain a rough idea of Shūdraka’s variety, we have only to recall the names of the acts of the play. Here The Shampooer who Gambled and The Hole in the Wall are shortly followed by The Storm; and The Swapping of the Bullock-carts is closely succeeded by The Strangling of Vasantasenā. From farce to tragedy, from satire to pathos, runs the story, with a breadth truly Shakespearian.

Here we have philosophy:

The lack of money is the root of all evil. (i. 14)


And pathos:


My body wet by tear-drops falling, falling;

My limbs polluted by the clinging mud;

Flowers from the graveyard torn, my wreath appalling;

For ghastly sacrifice hoarse ravens calling,

And for the fragrant incense of my blood. (x. 3)


And nature description:


But mistress, do not scold the lightning. She is your friend,

This golden cord that trembles on the breast

Of great Airāvata; upon the crest

Of rocky hills this banner all ablaze;

This lamp in Indra’s palace; but most blest

As telling where your most belovèd stays. (v. 33)


And genuine bitterness:


Pride and tricks and lies and fraud

Are in your face;

False playground of the lustful god,

Such is your face;

The wench’s stock in trade, in fine,

Epitome of joys divine,

I mean your face

For sale! the price is courtesy.

I trust you’ll find a man to buy

Your face. (v. 36)

But a spirit so powerful as that of King Shūdraka could not be confined within the strait jacket of the minute, and sometimes puerile, rules of the technical works. In the very title of the drama, he has disregarded the rule that the name of a drama of invention should be formed by compounding the names of heroine and hero. Again, the books prescribe that the hero shall appear in every act; yet Chārudatta does not appear in acts ii., iv., vi., and viii. And further, various characters, Vasantasenā, Maitreya, the courtier, and others, have vastly gained because they do not conform too closely to the technical definitions.


Shūdraka’s humor is the third of his vitally distinguishing qualities. This humor has an American flavor, both in its puns and in its situations. The plays on words can seldom be adequately reproduced in translation, but the situations are independent of language.


It remains to say a word about the construction of the play. Obviously, it is too long. More than this, the main action halts through acts ii. to v., and during these episodic acts we almost forget that the main plot concerns the love of Vasantasenā and Chārudatta. Indeed, we have in The Little Clay Cart the material for two plays. The larger part of act i. forms with acts vi. to x. a consistent and ingenious plot; while the remainder of act i. might be combined with acts iii. to v. to make a pleasing comedy of lighter tone. The second act, clever as it is, has little real connection either with the main plot or with the story of the gems. The breadth of treatment which is observable in this play is found in many other specimens of the Sanskrit drama, which has set itself an ideal different from that of our own drama. The lack of dramatic unity and consistency is often compensated, indeed, by lyrical beauty and charms of style; but it suggests the question whether we might not more justly speak of the Sanskrit plays as dramatic poems as dramas.




ACT I, entitled The Gems are left Behind. Evening of the first day.—after the prologue, Chārudatta, who is within his house, converses with his friend Maitreya, and deplores his poverty. While they are speaking, Vasantasenā appears in the street outside. She is pursued by the courtier and Sansthānaka; the latter makes her degrading offers of his love, which she indignantly rejects. Chārudatta sends Maitreya from the house to offer sacrifice and through the open door Vasantasenā slips unobserved into the house. Maitreya returns after an altercation with Sansthānaka, and recognizes Vasantasenā. Vasantasenā leaves a casket of gems in the house for safe keeping and returns to her home.


ACT II, entitled The Shampooer who Gambled. Second day.—The act opens in Vasantasenā’s house. Vasantasenā confesses to her maid Madanikā her love for Chārudatta. Then a shampooer appears in the street, pursued by the gambling-master and a gambler, who demand of him ten gold-pieces which he has lost in the gambling-house. At this point Darduraka enters, and engages the gambling-master and the gambler in an angry discussion, during which the shampooer escapes into Vasantasenā’s house. When Vasantasenā learns that the shampooer had once served Chārudatta, she pays his debt; the grateful shampooer resolves to turn monk. As he leaves the house he is attacked by a runaway elephant, and saved by Karnapūraka, a servant of Vasantasenā.


ACT III, entitled The Hole in the Wall. The night following the second day.—Chārudatta and Maitreya return home after midnight from a concert, and go to sleep. Maitreya has in his hand the gem-casket which Vasantasenā has left behind. Sharvilaka enters. He is in love with Madanikā, a maid of Vasantasenā’s, and is resolved to acquire by theft the means of buying her freedom. He makes a hole in the wall of the house, enters, and steals the casket of gems which Vasantasenā had left. Chārudatta wakes to find casket and thief gone. His wife gives him her pearl necklace with which to make restitution.


ACT IV, entitled Madanikā and Sharvilaka. Third day.—Sharvilaka comes to Vasantasenā’s house to buy Madanikā’s freedom. Vasantasenā overhears the facts concerning the theft of her gem-casket from Chārudatta’s house, but accepts the casket, and gives Madanikā her freedom. As Sharvilaka leaves the house, he hears that his friend Aryaka, who had been imprisoned by the king, has escaped and is being pursued. Sharvilaka departs to help him. Maitreya comes from Chārudatta with the pearl necklace, to repay Vasantasenā for the gem-casket. She accepts the necklace also, as giving her an excuse for a visit to Chārudatta.


ACT V, entitled The Storm. Evening of the third day.—Chārudatta appears in the garden of his house. Here he receives a servant of Vasantasenā, who announces that Vasantasenā is on her way to visit him. Vasantasenā then appears in the street with the courtier; the two describe alternately the violence and beauty of the storm which has suddenly arisen. Vasantasenā dismisses the courtier, enters the garden, and explains to Chārudatta how she has again come into possession of the gem-casket. Meanwhile, the storm has so increased in violence that she is compelled to spend the night at Chārudatta’s house.


ACT VI, entitled The Swapping of the Bullock-carts. Morning of the fourth day. Here she meets Chārudatta’s little son, Rohasena. The boy is peevish because he can now have only a little clay cart to play with, instead of finer toys. Vasantasenā gives him her gems to buy a toy cart of gold. Chārudatta’s servant drives up to take Vasantasenā in Chārudatta’s bullock-cart to the park, where she is to meet Chārudatta; but while Vasantasenā is making ready, he drives away to get a cushion. Then Sansthānaka’s servant drives up with his master’s cart, which Vasantasenā enters by mistake. Soon after, Chārudatta’s servant returns with his cart. Then the escaped prisoner Aryaka appears and enters Chārudatta’s cart. Two policemen come on the scene; they are searching for Aryaka. One of them looks into the cart and discovers Aryaka, but agrees to protect him. This he does by deceiving and finally maltreating his companion.


ACT VII, entitled Aryaka’s Escape. Fourth day.—Chārudatta is awaiting Vasantasenā in the park. His cart, in which Aryaka lies hidden, appears. Chārudatta discovers the fugitive, removes his fetters, lends him the cart, and leaves the park.


ACT VIII, entitled The Strangling of Vasantasenā. Fourth day.—A Buddhist monk, the shampooer of the second act, enters the park. He has difficulty in escaping from Sansthānaka, who appears with the courtier. Sansthānaka’s servant drives in with the cart which Vasantasenā had entered by mistake. She is discovered by Sansthānaka, who pursues her with insulting offers of love. When she repulses him, Sansthānaka gets rid of all witnesses, strangles her, and leaves her for dead. The Buddhist monk enters again, revives Vasantasenā, and conducts her to a monastery.


ACT IX, entitled The Trial. Fifth day.—Sansthānaka accuses Chārudatta of murdering Vasantasenā for her money. In the course of the trial, it appears that Vasantasenā had spent the night of the storm at Chārudatta’s house; that she had left the house the next morning to meet Chārudatta in the park; that there had been a struggle in the park, which apparently ended in the murder of a woman. Chārudatta’s friend, Maitreya, enters with the gems which Vasantasenā had left to buy Chārudatta’s son a toy cart of gold. These gems fall to the floor during a scuffle between Maitreya and Sansthānaka. In view of Chārudatta’s poverty, this seems to establish the motive for the crime, and Chārudatta is condemned to death.


ACT X, entitled The End. Sixth day.—Two headsmen are conducting Chārudatta to the place of execution. Chārudatta takes his last leave of his son and his friend Maitreya. But Sansthānaka’s servant escapes from confinement and betrays the truth; yet he is not believed, owing to the cunning displayed by his master. The headsmen are preparing to execute Chārudatta, when Vasantasenā herself appears upon the scene, accompanied by the Buddhist monk. Her appearance puts a summary end to the proceedings. Then news is brought that Aryaka has killed and supplanted the former king, that he wishes to reward Chārudatta, and that he has by royal edict freed Vasantasenā from the necessity of living as a courtezan. Sansthānaka is brought before Chārudatta for sentence, but is pardoned by the man whom he had so grievously injured. The play ends with the usual Epilogue.




Mrichchhakatika is one of the most famous prakaranas i.e. a play whose plot is partly derived from the history and partly is a creation of the author’s fancy of the ancient India that is not based on the epic material and is full of rascals. It is natural that Shūdraka should choose for the expression of matters so diverse that type of drama which gives the greatest scope to the author’s creative power. This type is the so-called “drama of invention”, a category curiously subordinated in India to the heroic drama, the plot of which is drawn from history or mythology. Indeed, Mrichchhakatika is the only extant drama which fulfils the spirit of the drama of invention, as defined by the Sanskrit canons of dramaturgy.


An exaggerated tongue-in-cheek self-praise by the author begins as:

Who vied with elephants in lordly grace;

Whose eyes were those of the chakora bird

That feeds on moonbeams; glorious his face

As the full moon; his person, all have heard,

Was altogether lovely. First in worth

Among the twice-born was this poet, known

As Shūdraka far over all the earth, –

His virtue’s depth unfathomed and alone.

And again:

The Samaveda, the Rigveda too,

The science mathematical, he knew;

The arts wherein fair courtesans excel,

And all the lore of elephants as well.

Through Shiva’s grace, his eye was never dim;

He saw his son a king in place of him.

The difficult horse-sacrifice he tried

Successfully; entered the fiery tide,

One hundred years and ten days old, and died.

And yet again:

Eager for battle; sloth’s determined foe;

Of scholars chief, who to the Veda cling;

Rich in the riches that ascetics know;

Glad, giant the foeman’s elephant to show

His valor; – such was Shūdraka, the king.

And in this work of his,

Within the town, Avanti named,

Dwells one called Charudatta, famed

No less for youth than poverty;

A merchant’s son and Brahman, he.

His virtues have the power to move

Vasantasena’s inmost love;

Fair as the springtime’s radiancy,

And yet a courtesan is she.

So here king Shūdraka the tale imparts

Of love’s pure festival in these two hearts,

Of prudent acts, a lawsuit’s wrong and hate,

A rascal’s nature, and the course of fate.

Mrichchhakatika – a ten act play based on the love of Charudatta, a prominent but poor inhabitant of Ujjayini (also called Avanti) and Vasantasena, an exquisitely beautiful and pure minded courtesan of the same city. The play begins with prologue consisting of a benedictory stanza which basically is a prayer for the people of the world. Author asks Lord Siva to protect the people from all kind of pain and prejudice, free them from all kind of bounds of mind and body. This is followed by some interesting particulars about the author told to the audience by the director of the play in a poetic sense.


The characters of the Mrichchhakatika are living men and women. It is quite evident from the play that Shūdraka’s men are better individualized than his women. The characters include every class of individuals in the society from Brahmans to executioner to housemaids.


Two elements of the play often perplex western audiences. First, Vasantasena’s profession and second, Charudatta is married.


Vasantasena’s profession is not as tawdry as western audiences often suppose. She is not merely a body for sale. In the opening moments of the play, she rejects Sansthanaka’s advances, though he is not only wealthy but the king’s brother-in-law. Furthermore, we find her speaking Sanskrit (albeit briefly) in act four. This is not an insignificant detail. Vasantasena is educated. She circulates among the privileged of society. And she circulates in the open, among the movers and shakers of the community—which is to say: among the men.


Indeed, Charudatta is married. But his wife is only identified as “the wife”, hardly appears in the play, and, then, not outside the confines of her home. The courtesan has a unique status in the cultural context of this play.


The play gives not a single word to concerns over Charudatta’s marriage. Like Duhshanta in Shakuntala, Charudatta is free to pursue whatever paramours attract his attention. The world of Mrcchakatika is a man’s world. Only educated courtesans like Vasantasena have a place of their own in it.


His greatest character is unquestionably Sansthānaka, this combination of ignorant conceit, brutal lust, and cunning, this greater than Cloten, who, after strangling an innocent woman, can say:


Oh, come! Let’s go and play in the pond.


Most attractive characters are the five conspirators, men whose home is “east of Suez and the ten commandments.” They live from hand to mouth, ready at any moment to steal a gem-casket or to take part in a revolution, and preserving through it all their character as gentlemen and their irresistible conceit. And side by side with them moves the hero Chārudatta, the Buddhist beau-ideal of manhood,


A tree of life to them whose sorrows grow,


Beneath its fruit of virtue bending low. (i. 48)


To him, life itself is not dear, but only honor. He values wealth only as it supplies him with the means of serving others. Vasantasenā is a character with neither the girlish charm of Shakuntalā nor the mature womanly dignity of Sītā. She is more admirable than lovable. Witty and wise she is, and in her love as true as steel; this too, in a social position which makes such constancy difficult.


In Maitreya, the Vidūshaka, we find an instance of our author’s masterly skill in giving life to the dry bones of a rhetorical definition. The Vidūshaka is a stock character who has something in common with a jester; and in Maitreya the essential traits of the character— eagerness for good food and other creature comforts, and blundering devotion to his friend— are retained, to be sure, but clarified and elevated by his quaint humor and his readiness to follow Chārudatta even in death. The grosser traits of the typical Vidūshaka are lacking. Maitreya is neither a glutton nor a fool, but a simple-minded, whole-hearted friend.


The courtier is another character suggested by the technical works, and transformed by the genius of Shūdraka. He is a man not only of education and social refinement, but also of real nobility of nature. But he is in a false position from the first, this true gentleman at the wretched court of King Pālaka; at last he finds the courage to break away, and risks life, and all that makes life attractive, by backing Aryaka. Of all the conspirators, it is he who runs the greatest risk. To his protection of Vasantasenā is added a touch of infinite pathos when we remember that he was himself in love with her. Only when Vasantasenā leaves him without a thought, to enter Chārudatta’s house, does he realize how much he loves her; then, indeed, he breaks forth in words of the most passionate jealousy.



Of all the Sanskrit dramas, Mṛcchakaṭika remains one of the most widely celebrated and oft-performed in the West. The work played a significant role in generating interest in Indian theatre among European audiences following several successful nineteenth century translations and stage productions, most notably Gérard de Nerval and Joseph Méry’s highly romanticized French adaptation titled Le Chariot d’enfant that premiered in Paris in 1850, as well as a critically acclaimed “anarchist” interpretation by Victor Barrucand called Le Chariot de terre cuite that was produced by the Théâtre de l’Œuvre in 1895.


Play adaptations: The play was translated into English, notably by Arthur W. Ryder in 1905 as The Little Clay Cart. (It had previously been translated as The Toy Cart by Horace Hayman Wilson in 1826.) Ryder’s version was enacted at the Hearst Greek Theatre in Berkeley in 1907, and in New York City in 1924 at the Neighbourhood Playhouse, which was then an off-Broadway theatre, at the Theater de Lys in 1953, and at the Potboiler Art Theater in Los Angeles in 1926, when it featured actors such as James A. Marcus, Symona Boniface and Gale Gordon. The play has been adapted in several Indian languages and performed by various theatre groups and directors, like Habib Tanvir.


Film adaptations: The first silent film of Kannada film industry, Mricchakatika (Vasantsena) (1931), starring Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Vasantasena, a 1941 Indian Kannada film directed by Ramayyar Shirur, and Utsav, a 1984 Hindi Bollywood film by Girish Karnad was based on an adaptation of this play.


The Indian play depicted in the 2001 film Moulin Rouge!, “Spectacular Spectacular”, may have been based on The Little Clay Cart.

you can view video on Sudraka: Mrichhakatika


  • Basham, Arthur Llewellyn, and Arvind Sharma. The Little Clay Cart: An English Translation of the Mrcchakatika of Sudraka as adapted for the stage by AL Basham. SUNY Press, 1994.
  • Ryder, A. W. “Mricchakatika of Sudraka:“The Little Clay Cart, attributed to King Sudraka (Translated).” Cambridge, Mass (1905).
  • The Mrichchhakatika of Sudraka – Edited by M. R. Kale, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi (2004).
  • Two plays of ancient India: The little clay cart; The minister’s seal / translated from Sanskrit and Prakrit, with an introduction, by J.A.B. van Buitenen, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi (1971).
  • Wohlsen, Marcus (2005). “The Greatest Show on Earth: The First Indian Play Performed at UC Berkeley — And Anywhere in the United States — Took the Stage of the Greek Theater in 1907, Along with Elephants, Zebras, and a Cast of Hundreds”. Illuminations. University of California Berkeley. Retrieved 17 July 2012.