Chhandas – India’s ancient science of writing verse.

Chhandas are the basic rules for writing verses in Sanskrit. As the rules are strict and classified according to a logic, it is possible to stay within these, making the verses sound beautiful, and meeting a specific purpose. The study of Vedic meters, along with post-Vedic meters, is part of Chandas, one of the six Vedanga disciplines:
Vedangas are six auxiliary disciplines associated with the study and understanding of the Vedas. Before understanding Chhanda, it might be interesting to see an overall view of the six Vedangas. The six vedangas are as follows:

Shiksha (Phonetics)
Kalpa (Ritual Canon)
Vyakaran (Grammar)
Nirukta (explanation)
Chhanda (Vedic meter)
Jyotisha (Astrology)

1. Shiksha (Phonetics)
Its aim is the teaching of the correct pronunciation of the Vedic hymns and mantras. The oldest phonetic textbooks are the Pratishakyas (prātiśākhya), describing pronunciation, intonation of Sanskrit, as well as the Sanskrit rules of sandhi (word combination), specific to individual schools or Shakhas of the Vedas.

2. Kalpa (Ritual Canon)
It contains the sacrificial practice and systematic sutras. There are three kinds of Sutras part of Kalpa:
a) Śrautasūtras, which are based on the Shruti, and teach the performance of the great sacrifices, requiring three or five sacrificial fires
a) Smartasūtras,or rules based on the Smriti or tradition. The Smartasūtras have two classes viz.
1. Grhyasutras, or domestic rules: They are basically treating the rites of passage, such as marriage, birth, namegiving, etc., connected with simple offerings into the domestic fire.
2. Dharmasutras or customs and social duties: The Dharmasūtras are the first four texts of the Dharmasastra tradition and they focus on the idea of dharma, the principal guide by which Hindus strive to live their lives. The Dharmasūtras are written in concise prose, leaving much up to the educated reader to interpret.The most important of these texts are the sutras of Āpastamba, Gautama, Baudhāyana, and Vasiṣṭha. The Dharmasūtras can be called the guidebooks of dharma as they contain the rules of conduct and rites as practiced in the Vedic schools. They discuss about the duties of people at different stages of life like student hood, house-holdership, retirement and renunciation. These stages are also called āśramas. They also discuss about the rites and duties of kings, judicial matters, and even personal practices like the regulations in diet, offenses and expiations, daily oblations, and funerary practice.

3. Vyakaran (Grammar)
Vyakaran includes the Aṣṭādhyāyī, of Sage Panini. Most of the work of very early Indian grammarians ranging to 8th century BC is lost.

4. Nirukta (explanation)
It is traditionally attributed to Yāska, an ancient Sanskrit grammarian. It deals with etymology, particularly of obscure words, especially those occurring in the Veda

5. Chhanda (Vedic meter)
It measures and divides Vedic Mantras by number of padas in a verse, which is called Padas. Number of padas divides each verse, hymn, or mantra and number of syllables divides each pada. There is a distinct taxonomy on this basis. For example a Gayatri Chhanda has 3 padas of 8 syllables containing 24 syllables in each stanza. Similarly, Anuṣṭup has 4 padas of 8 syllables, thus has 32 syllables in each stanza. Anustup is the typical shloka of classical Sanskrit poetry

6. Jyotisha (Astrology)
It describes rules for tracking the motions of the sun and the moon and the foundation of Vedic Jyotish. Frequently it is considered as one of the Shastras, rather than Vedanga.

Chhanda Basic Principles:
The above are the six Vedangas, and as such, used to have a better understanding of Vedas. However, they are used in any kind of verse that we use in daily life. We can try to understand some of the features of Chhandas.

It was the Sage Pingalacharya who organised the Chhandas in its present form. It is often stated ”
“NACHCHHANDAI VAGUCHCHARIT”, meaning, without the Chhand (stanza), one cannot even pronounce!

Akshara (Syllables): First of all, all Indian languages are phonetic, and are based on the sounds that we can create. To utter a word, one has to create a vocal sound, which is called an akshar (One does not get destroyed). Each akshara could have one or two maatras. When it has one maatra, it is Hrswa (e.g., a, ka, etc.), and when it has two, Deergha (e.g., aa, kaa, etc). We can consider them as basic (binary) building blocks of a word. Consonants get their maatra from the swara, associated to it.

The Chhanda have been listed into 26 categories, by the number of Akshara in each on the four lines of the verse. (Sanskrit and most Indian Languages use quartets for all literary purposes). Each Chhanda can have more than one Vritta which are so numerous, and used in literary works. The first of 26 Chhandas, named Ukta, has just one syllable, the next Atyukta has two and so on. The list of Chhandas are as follows:
1. Ukta
2. Atyukta
3. Madhya
4. Pratishta
5. Supratishta
6. Gayatri
7. Ushnik
8. Anushtup
9. Brihati
10. Pankti
11. Trishtup
12. Jagati
13. Atijagati
14. Shakwari
15. Atishakwari
16. Ashti
17. Atyashti
18. Dhriti
19. Atidhriti
20. Kriti
21. Prakriti
22. Aakriti
23. Vikriti
24. Sankriti
25. Atikriti
26. Utkriti

Even though there are such long number of Chhandas, most poets use Chandas between Anushtup (8) and Prakriti (21) for literary works. However, Most of the works in epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana have used Anushtup.

In addition to the categorization into Chhandas, the framework of verses fall into a large number of Vrittas. Each Vritta has a pattern of its syllables. Each syllable can be a Hrswa or a Deergha. As the number of syllables increase, the number of possible Vrittas (or patterns) also increase. Here the mathematical rule Fibbonacci series of Pascal’s Traingle applies. Thus, Ukhta can have no other Vritta, while Atyukhta can have one more variant, and so on. Larger number of letters in each pada can give rise to very large number of Vrittas in the same Chhanda.

The way in which syllables are placed in each Vritta follows grouping into Ganas, a group of three syllable, each place occupied by either a Hrswa or a Deergha. Thus, there are 8 possible Ganas. The following are these eight Ganas. A hrswa syllable is marked by “L” and a Deergha with a “H”.
Na-Gana = L-L-L
Ya-Gana = L-H-H
Ra-Gana = H-L-H
Ta-Gana = H-H-L
Bha-Gana = H-L-L
Ja-Gana = L-H-L
Sa-Gana = L-L-H
Ma-Gana = H-H-H

The mnemonic “yamātārājabhānasalagaṃ” is used by Pingalaacharya’s gaṇas, developed by ancient commentators, using the vowels “a” and “ā” for light and heavy syllables respectively with the letters of his scheme. In the form without a grammatical ending, yamātārājabhānasalagā is self-descriptive, where the structure of each gaṇa is shown by its own syllable and the two following it:

ya-gaṇa: ya-mā-tā = L-H-H
ma-gaṇa: mā-tā-rā = H-H-H
ta-gaṇa: tā-rā-ja = H-H-L
ra-gaṇa: rā-ja-bhā = H-L-H
ja-gaṇa: ja-bhā-na = L-H-L
bha-gaṇa: bhā-na-sa = H-L-L
na-gaṇa: na-sa-la = L-L-L
sa-gaṇa: sa-la-gā = L-L-H

Next is Sama Vritta, and Vishama Vritta, Sama when all four lines of the quartet have same order of syllables. In case of Vishama Vritta, the alternate lines will have a different order of syllables.

There could be mixed vrittas, where the vishama paada and sama paada could have different matrices of syllables. Such vrittas are called upajaadi (you may need to state the two participating vrittas in this).

Examples of most common Vrittas:
1. Indravajra: The disposition of syllables in each paada are, Ta-Ta-Ja-followed by two deergha, thus “H-H-L-H-H-L-L-H-L-H-H”. I am going to indicate a Hrswa by “La” and a deergha by “Haa”, so that each paada of the verse would sound “Haa-Haa-La-Haa-Haa-La-La-La-Haa-Haa-Haa”. You will have to make these sounds to have a feel of this vritta. Also, with 11 syllables in each paada, this will fall under Trishtup Chhanda.
2. Upendravajra: The disposition of syllables in each paada are, Ja-Ta-Ja-followed by two deergha, thus “L-H-L-H-H-L-L-H-L-H-H”. Thus, each paada of the verse would sound “La-Haa-La-Haa-Haa-La-La-La-Haa-Haa-Haa”. Also, with 11 syllables in each paada, this will too fall under Trishtup Chhanda.
3. Vasanthatilakam: The disposition of syllables in each paada are, Ta-Bha-Ja-Ja, followed by two deergha, thus “H-H-L-H-L-L-L-H-L-L-H-L-H-H”. Thus, each paada of the verse would sound “Haa-Haa-La-Haa-La-La-La-Haa-La-La-Haa-La-Haa-Haa”. You will have to make these sounds to have a feel of this vritta. Also, with 14 syllables in each paada, this will fall under Shakwari Chhanda. Poet Kaalidasa has used this, perhaps one of the reasons for the beauty of his verses is the Vritta!
4. Sragdhara: Each stanza would have Ma-Ra-Bha-Na-Ya-Ya-Ya, thus with 21 syllables (Chhanda Kriti). Besides, there is a pause after each 7 syllables. The phonetic form would be “Haa-Haa-Haa-Haa-La-Haa-Haa|La-La-La-La-La-La-Haa|-Haa-La-Haa-Haa-La-Haa-Haa”
5. Bhujangaprayaanam: This Vritta has in each paada four Ya-gana, so 12 syllables (Chhanda Jagati). The phonetic form would be “La-Haa-Haa-La-Haa-Haa-La-Haa-Haa-La-Haa-Haa”. This is an interesting sequence, and gives the feel of the movement of a snake!
6. Viyogini: This one is more popular in Kerala. The Malayalam poet “Kumaaranaasaan” has immortalised this vritta through his work, “Chintaavishtayaaya Sita”. The vritta has been able to convey the melancholy mood of a wife who was suffering separation. It has the alternative paadas different, the first paada having the scale, Sa-Sa-Ja-H and the other Sa-Bha-Ra-L-H. So phonetically, it would sound “La-La-Haa-La-La-Haa-La-Haa-La-Haa” for the first or Vishama pada, and “La-La-Haa-Haa-La-La-Haa-La-Haa-La-Haa” for the even or Sama pada.

6. Kusumamanjari: This Vritta has all four paadas “Ra-Na-Ra-Na-Ra-Na-Ra”, thus altogether 21 syllables (Prakriti Chhanda). Phonetically, this would sound like “Haa-La-Haa-La-La-La-Haa-La-Haa-La-La-La-Haa-La-Haa-La-La-La-Haa-La-Haa”

7. Mandaakraanta: This Vritta has in its four paada the sequence “Ma-Bha-Na-Ta-Ta-H-H”, thus 17 syllables (Atyashti Chhanda), with pauses after 4th and 7th syllables, thus the paada broken into three groupings of 4, 6, and 7 syllables. The Vritta would sound “Haa-Haa-Haa-Haa|-La-La-La-La-La-Haa|-Haa-La-Haa-Haa-La-Haa-Haa”

8. Shaardoolavikreeditham: The sequence of Ganas in this vritta are “Ma-Sa-Ja-Sa-Ta-Ta-H, thus 19 syllables per paada (Chhanda Atidhriti), with a pause after 12 syllables. The phonetic equivalent of each paada would be “Haa-Haa-Haa-La-La-Haa-La-Haa-La-La-La-Haa-Haa-Haa-La-Haa-Haa-La-Haa”.

9. Shaardoolavikreeditham: The sequence of Ganas in this vritta are “Ma-Sa-Ja-Sa-Ta-Ta-H, thus 19 syllables per paada (Chhanda Atidhriti), with a pause after 12 syllables. The phonetic equivalent of each paada would be “Haa-Haa-Haa-La-La-Haa-La-Haa-La-La-La-Haa-Haa-Haa-La-Haa-Haa-La-Haa”.