Aatma-stuti: A didactic tale on self-praise

In the Sanskrit Panchatantra of Vishnu Sharma, The Turtle and the Swans narrates how fatal it would be if one indulges in self-praise, even when a situation demands it.

Published: 21st July 2021 12:30 AM  |   Last Updated: 20th July 2021 11:19 PM   |  A+A-

The Swans and the Turtle in Sri Bhimeswara Temple, Daksharamam, Andhra Pradesh, the only depiction where the stick is held vertically by swans

The Swans and the Turtle in Sri Bhimeswara Temple, Daksharamam, Andhra Pradesh, the only depiction where the stick is held vertically by swans. (Photo| EPS)

In the Yaksha Prasnaha (Yaksha's Questions) of the Mahabharata of Vyasa, a Yaksha in the form of a crane asks questions to which Yudhishthira gives befitting answers after saying, “Virtuous persons never approve that one should applaud their own self." However, it is not at all uncommon to see many people indulge in self-praise. "One said, 'in this ruined village there is no one to praise me, so I praise myself'," thus goes a Telugu proverb. An idiom forbids humans from indulging in "Aatma-stuti, Para-ninda" (Self-praise and abuse of others). In the Sanskrit Panchatantra of Vishnu Sharma, The Turtle and the Swans narrates how fatal it would be if one indulges in self-praise, even when a situation demands it.

A turtle and two swans become friends in a pond, which gets dry. The birds plan to migrate to another pond, but feel sorry for their friend who cannot fly. The turtle proposes an idea in which the birds hold a stick in their beaks, and the turtle holds it with its mouth and flies along the birds. Before doing so, the birds warn the turtle not to open its mouth for any reason until they reach another pond. During the flight, the turtle hears someone on the ground say, "What an idea of the swans in carrying the turtle to another place." This enrages the turtle, which tries to say, "It's my idea," falls on the ground and dies instantly.

The Buddhist Kacchapa Jataka in Pali tells an altered version of the tale in which en route from the Himalayas, the turtle falls on the earth and dies at Benares when it was ruled by the over-talkative King Brahmadatta. His advisor, a Bodhisattva or the Buddha in one of the previous births, says, "O king, they that have the limitless tongue would encounter such a misfortune as this," and the king learns a lesson.

The swans-turtle tale was also narrated in the Sanskrit Hitopadesa and Somadeva's Katha Sarit Sagara,which were translated into English. To Edwin Arnold's English rendering of the former text, Gordon Browne had done an illustration in which the swans and the turtle in the sky were portrayed life-like and the landscape in the backdrop naturalistically, which were typical features of Western art. Though many woodcut prints were produced on the theme from the Renaissance onwards, to the best of my knowledge, no well-known artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Albrecht Durer, to name a few, had done works based on such popular fables.

In India, as C S Patil had pointed out, at least 39 ancient temples and sites contain reliefs that cover tales from the Panchatantra. I discuss here two reliefs that I photographed decades ago; but to the best of my knowledge, both have not received any attention earlier from scholars on the topic. Sri Bhimeswara Temple at Draksharamam (East Godavari district, Andhra Pradesh), which was constructed by the Eastern Chalukya King, Bhima I (r. 892-921 CE), displays an executively carved panel with a pair of swans and a turtle between them. The swans seem to be holding a stick together in their beaks vertically, which is very unique, for all other works on the theme show the birds holding the stick horizontally. The birds appear to be still on the ground and are about to lift up the turtle, which had grabbed one end of the stick with its mouth. Such a visualization of the theme is rare and, as far as I know, not seen anywhere else. Panugallu (Nalgonda, Telangana) houses Sri Chaya Someswara and Sri Pachala Someswara temples. A portion of the former temple had been dismantled decades ago by concerned authorities with an intention to restore the same. The pull apart sculptures on the ground cover many incidences of the fable. A broken piece shows the pair of swans carrying a stick and the turtle; and, to suggest that the incident is taking place in the sky, the artist(s) had also included a small bird in flight right below the main subject. They had also included a man and another swan on either side of the central panel. The man, in my opinion, most likely represents the one on the ground who remarks about the intelligent idea of the swans.

The fable was translated into Pahlavi, Arabic and Persian, and many manuscripts of them contain picturesque illustrations. A few medieval printed editions of the story in Italian, German, French, English and other European languages also contain woodcut prints. The print in a German edition (1484) shows two additional turtles that came out of the dry pond and are looking, perhaps with astonishment, at the birds carrying the turtle on a stick into the sky. In Italian Tales of Bidpai and in its earliest translation into English (1570) by Thomas North, the same print was used. It shows the main scene taking place up in the sky and close to a castle on a nearby mountain ranges.The artist(s) had also incorporated many other birds, each one gliding in different directions. These gliding birds, in my opinion, clearly hint at the kinetic nature of the central scene. Thus, the artist(s) who visualised the tale, across the world, had added a new dimension to the theme by incorporating various other forms and figures in the visual.

(The writer is associate professor, Department of Fine Arts, Andhra University, Visakhapatnam and can be reached at


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