Kālidāsa (Devanāgarī: कालिदास) was a Sanskrit poet and dramatist, his title Kavikulaguru (Preceptor of All Poets) bearing testimony to his stature. Known to be an ardent worshipper of Shiva, he wrote his plays and poetry largely based around Hindu mythology and philosophy. His name means, literally, "Kali's servant".



The exact dates of Kalidasa's life are disputed. These range from the 1st century BCE to the 5th Century CE.

Kalidasa's play Mālavikāgnimitra has as its hero the second Sunga king Agnimitra. This king is known to have ruled around 170 BC. So Kalidasa had to be after him. The Aihole Prashasti of 634 AD, compares the skill of its composer to Kalidasa's. This then becomes the latest date for Kalidasa. In addition, the Indian tradition associates the poet with the court of a king Vikramaditya. Historians generally associate Kalidasa with reigns of Gupta kings Chandragupta Vikramāditya, and his successor, Kumaragupta in the 4th century AD. Chandragupta II is known to have assumed the title of Vikramaditya and reigned over the zenith of the Gupta golden-age. It must be noted that Kalidasa does not mention any king as his patron or any dynasty other than the Sungas in his works. The fact that he named his play about Pururava and Urvashi as Vikramuurvashiiya, replacing Pururava by Vikrama in the name and calling Pururava by that name in the play , is treated as an indirect tribute to his patron. The name of his epic Kumārasambhavam is considered a pun on the name of Kumaragupta. Kumara is another name of Kartikeya, a son of Shiva and a god of war, and his birth is tied to the birth of the Gupta king. In addition, Kalidasa's mention of Huns in Raghuvamsha is taken as veiled reference to Skandagupta's victory over them. The camapign of Raghu in the same epic is supposed to be modelled on Samudragupta's campaign. He is supposed to have composed his Meghadūta at Ramagiri, identified as Ramtek near Nagpur in Maharashtra .It is known that Prabhavatigupta, Chandragupta II's daughter was married to the Vakataka king who had his capital nearby. These clues have led historians to assign Kalidasa to the Gupta age.

However, dissent has been raised by scholars on this association based on the following issues:

  • Kalidasa does not mention any Guptas ever.
  • There have been many Vikramadityas and he could have been in the court of any of these including a legendary one from the 1st century BC.
  • The campaign sections of Raghuvamsha used cannot be very reliable. It is not correct to assume that the tribes mentioned there were not known prior to Gupta campaigns. Kalidasa's works have not been free from interpolations and such campaign sections are notorious for being tampered with as seen in case of the campaigns in the Mahabharata.
  • Kalidasa was a votary of Shiva and composing an epic poem celebrating the birth of Shiva's son would be a natural expression of devotion. Kumara was a popular name of the war god and it might be a coincidence that it matches the name of a Gupta king.
  • There seems to be no reason why Kalidasa should use Agnimitra as a hero as he was far removed from his time and not famous either. In fact, his only claim to greatness is being the hero of Kalidasa's play, otherwise he is just a name in dynastic lists in all ancient works. Kalidasa also seems to be aware of certain historical peculiarities like the fact that Agnimitra's father Pushyamitra still called himself a commander though he had become the king after usurping the throne from the Mauryas.

The dissenting scholars generally favour placing Kalidasa nearer to the age of the Sungas and the age of the legendary king Vikramaditya.


The Kalidas Smarak at Ramtek
The Kalidas Smarak at Ramtek

Not much is known about Kalidasa's personal life and background, but there are several myths and legends about it. From his works he comes across as a very educated Brahmin but the legends have a more romantic story to tell. He is said to have been born in a community of shepherds(Kuruba Gowda). He was known for his beauty and innocence. A local princess Vidyotama, who vowed to marry only a man who defeated her in debate, outwitted all the scholars in the kingdom. These insulted scholars managed to present the dim-witted Kalidasa as a learned man and even got her married to him. But when the truth was discovered she was ashamed of his uneducated ignorance and coarseness. Kalidas left his home in pursuit of knowledge and to become worthy of his intellectual wife. A devoted worshipper of the goddess Kali, Kalidasa is said to have called upon the goddess for help and was rewarded with a sudden and extraordinary gift of wit and wealth. When he returned , his wife asked, "Asti Kashchit Wagvisheshah" (translated: is there any speciality in ur language). Kalidasa refused to continue to be the princess' husband because she has taken the place of his guru, being the one directing him to the path of knowledge. As a tribute to her utterance, he starts his various books using different parts of the above statement: "ASTHYutharasyam dishi" in Kumarasambhavam, "KASCHIT kaantha" in Meghasandesham and "VAGArthviva samprukthou" in Raghuvamsham.

The province of origin of Kalidasa is the subject of much debate. His loving description of the Himalayas in Kumarasambhavam have made some scholars place his birth in that region. However, Kalidasa lavishes much love on Ujjain in Meghaduta and is not tired of singing praises of the city, hinting that he may have been a resident of it.

Legend has it that he was murdered by a courtesan in Sri Lanka during the reign of Kumaradasa. But this king reigned in the 6th century AD and hence this seems to be improbable.



Three famous plays written by Kalidasa are Mālavikāgnimitram (Mālavikā and Agnimitra), Vikramorvaśīya (Pertaining to Vikrama and Urvashi) and Abhijānaśākuntalam (The Recognition of Sakuntala). The last is the most famous, and was the first to be translated into English and German.

Shakuntala stops to look back at Dushyanta, Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906)
Shakuntala stops to look back at Dushyanta, Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906)

Mālavikāgnimitram is his first work tells the story of King Agnimitra, who falls in love with the picture of an exiled servant girl named Mālavikā. When the queen discovers her husband's passion for this girl, she becomes infuriated and has Mālavikā imprisoned, but as fate would have it, Mālavikā is in fact a true-born princess, thus legitimizing the affair.

Kalidasa's second play, generally considered his masterpiece, is the Abhijānaśākuntalam (The Recognition of Shakuntala) which tells the story of another king, Dushyanta, who falls in love with another girl of lowly birth, the lovely Shakuntala. This time, the couple is happily married and things seem to be going smoothly until Fate intervenes. When the king is called back to court by some pressing business, his new bride unintentionally offends a saint who puts a curse on her, erasing the young girl entirely from the king's memory. Softening, however, the saint concedes that the king's memory will return when Shakuntala returns to him the ring he gave her. This seems easy enough--that is, until the girl loses the ring while bathing. And to make matters worse, she soon discovers that she is pregnant with the king's child. But true love is destined to win the day, and when a fisherman finds the ring, the king's memory returns and all is well. Shakuntala is remarkable not only for its beautiful love poetry, but also for its abundant humor which marks the play from beginning to end.

The last of Kalidasa's surviving plays, Vikramōrvaśīyam, is more mystical than the earlier plays. This time, the king (Pururavas) falls in love with a celestial nymph named Urvashi. After writing her mortal suitor a love letter on a birch leaf, Urvashi returns to the heavens to perform in a celestial play. However, she is so smitten that she misses her cue and pronounces her lover's name during the performance. As a punishment for ruining the play, Urvashi is banished from heaven, but cursed to return the moment her human lover lays eyes on the child that she will bear him. After a series of mishaps, including Urvashi's temporary transformation into a vine, the curse is eventually lifted, and the lovers are allowed to remain together on Earth. Vikramōrvaśīyam is filled with poetic beauty and a fanciful humor that is similar to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream.


In addition to his plays, Kalidasa wrote two surviving epic poems Raghuvamsha (Dynasty of Raghu) and Kumarasambhava (Birth of Kumar Kartikeya), as well as the lyrical Meghaduta (Cloud Messenger) and Ritusamhāra (The Exposition on the Seasons).

Other Works Attributed To Kalidasa

Kalidasa has also been credited with many minor poems and hymns. But these are generally treated by scholars as works of other poets writing under the name of Kalidasa.

In addition to being a great poet Kalidas is beileved to be a good astrologer too. "Uttara Kaalaamritam " a work on astrology is attributed to him and it is said that as a result of his worship of goddess Kali, the predictions given in this book are absolutely correct.


While many commentaries on the works of Kalidasa exist in various Indian and non-Indian languages, the most famous and often studied one is the Sanjeevani by Kolachalli Mallinatha Suri (15th century CE) (usually referred to as Mallinatha), written during the reign of the Vijayanagara king Deva Raya II.

Kalidasa in modern popular culture

An Indian postal stamp depicting one of the characters in the Meghadootam
An Indian postal stamp depicting one of the characters in the Meghadootam

In Koodiyattam, the only surviving ancient Sanskrit-based theatre tradition, Bhasa's plays were usually performed, but legendary Koodiyattam artist and Natya shastra scholar late Nātyāchārya Vidūshakaratnam Padma Shri Guru Māni Mādhava Chākyār choreographed and started to perform popular Kalidasa plays like Abhijānaśākuntala, Vikramorvaśīya and Mālavikāgnimitra.

The legends of Kalidasa's life have been popularized by movies such as Kaviratna Kalidasa and Mahakavi Kalidasa in Kannada and other South Indian languages. These movies are based on the legends around Kalidasa that offer ample scope for special effects and music. Also, V. Shantaram made the movie Stree based on Kalidasa's Shakuntala. Of his works, the play on Shakuntala is the one that lends easily to adaptation and hence has been filmed in virtually every major Indian language.

Mohan Rakesh's acclaimed play in Hindi based on Kalidasa's life Āshad ka ek din(A Day In The Month Of Āshad) tries to capture the conflict between the harsh realities of the times and the ethereal beauty repeatedly portrayed in his works. Kalidasa leaves behind his childhood sweetheart Mallika to go to the royal court. He wins acclaim and a life of pleasure. When he comes back to Mallika expecting an eager welcome, he discovers that in the intervening years, her life has taken the harsh road never seen in his art.

Surendra Verma's Hindi play "Athavan Sarga," published in 1976, is based on the ancient myth that Kalidasa could not complete his epic "Kumārasambhava" because he was cursed by the goddess Pārvati for obscenely describing her conjugal/amorous life with Lord Shiva in the eighth canto of this epic. The play depicts Kalidasa as a court poet of Chandragupta who faces a trial on the insistence of a priest and some other moralists of his time. The playwright, while beautifully depicting the dilemma of a writer in such a circumstance, has not only invalidated the eternal discussion of obscenity in literature but also underlined the importance of the freedom of expression & futility of censorship in art.

"Asti Kashchid Vagarthiyam", a five act play written by Dr. Krishna Kumar in Sanskrit, was first published in 1984. The story depicts a variation of the popular legend of Kālidāsā's wedding, portraying him as a mentally handicapped woodcutter who is married to Vidyottamā, a learned princess, through a conspiracy of two scholars who had been defeated by her in a discussion on the scriptures. On discovering that she has been cheated, Vidyottamā banishes Kālidāsā. She however relents, asking him to acquire scholarship and fame if he desires to continue the relationship. She further lays a condition saying that on his return she will question him by asking him, Asti Kashchid Vāgārthah" ("Is there anything special in expression?"). If she is satisfied with his answer, the matrimonial relations will be restored. Kālidāsā, in due course, not only attains knowledge and fame but becomes a famous poet as well. To prove allegiance to his wife, he composes three verses at the beginning of Kumārsambhava, Raghuvansha and Meghaduta that begin with the words Asti ("there is"), Kashchit ("something") and Vāk ("expression.") Dr Krishna Kumar's play, written in the traditional Sanskrit style, ends with the reunion of Kalidasa and his wife. The basic theme of the play is the general belief that prior to attaining fame, Kalidasa was mentally challenged and his wife was responsible for his transformation.


1 There arose a question on who was the better poet: Kalidasa or Dandi? After realising that no Sanskrit scholar of their time was capable of evaluating their competence, the pair go to the goddess of knowledge, Saraswati. Upon being asked who was the greater poet, the goddess answers that it was Dandi. Disappointed, Kalidasa asks the goddess, "Am I nothing, mother?" A phrase well known to all students of Sanskrit is then uttered: "tvamēvaham" ("You and I are the same .")

2 There was a complaint by other scholars, why King treats Kalidasa so differently. So King asked the scholars to describe a piece of dry wood. All of them said "Suskam Kasthyam" ("dry wood"). When Kalidasa came he said "Nirasa tarubara purata bhage" ("lifeless part of tree lying in front of me") The poetic interpretation and the sweet sounding words made everybody realize the speciality of Kalidasa

3 Saraswati bandana is also attributed to Kalidasa.

Further reading

  • K.D. Sethna. Problems of Ancient India, p. 79-120 (chapter: "The Time of Kalidasa"), 2000 New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan. ISBN 81-7742-026-7 (about the dating of Kalidasa)

This article might use material from a Wikipedia article, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

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Birth Of The War God

Cloud Messenger

Dynasty Of Raghu

Sakoontala Or The Lost Ring


Translations Of Shakuntala And Other Works

Two Minor Dramas

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