The Implications of the Mrcchakatikam
(or, The Little Clay Cart Becomes Golden)

“May we be guarded by the god Siva, whose neck is ever embraced by the fair slender arms of the goddess, like pale streaks of lightning flashing upon the surface of a dark blue cloud.” (Basham 26) These are the opening words of the Mrcchakatikam, a play whose title is usually translated from the Sanskrit as “The Little Clay Cart”. These words clearly mark the Mrcchakatikam as belonging to a dramatic tradition with deep ties to the Hindu religion, guided by the worldview of that religion. This religion was fundamental not only to the art of natya (the original Sanskrit term for the theatre of ancient India), but also to the society in which it was staged. In fact, Hinduism can be seen as the sacred cord which bound natya and ancient India together, assuring that the former would both always accompany, and always be flavored by, the latter. The Mrcchakatikam is the oldest sample of natya still extant (Chattopadhyaya 12), pre-dating (and therefore most likely influencing) the Natyasastra Banerjee 22-3), and it may be the best play in the genre to use if one wishes to show how natya puts Hindu truths into action.

Putting The Mrcchakatikam In Its Proper Context
It is important to note that the origins of the Mrcchakatikam were not documented. The identity of ‘King Sudraka’, the person attributed as its author, has not been fixed historically; the name has many myths and legends associated with it, and the best conclusion that can be reached is “there was perhaps a personality in ancient India worthy of the name of a king like Shudraka who later became more or less a legendary figure and hardly any historical truth can be gleaned now from a host of conflicting materials.”(9) It is equally difficult to place a date on the work’s composition; it is the oldest of the classic Sanskrit dramas, and estimates of its origin have ranged from the 1st century B.C.E. to the 4th century C.E., with the most convincing evidence pointing to an unknown year in the first or second century of the Common Era.(9-14) However, evidence both from within the text and from other sources provides the reader with a very clear picture of Sudraka’s India, especially its laws (the Mrcchakatikam focuses heavily on issues of justice, crime, and punishment, as its prologue makes clear (Naikar 8) ).

This was a culture in which the king was considered the fountain of justice-- his word was law, and much was dictated upon his whimsy (9-10). In terms of economics, little is known about the state of commerce at this time; some facts can be inferred, such as the use of metallic currency, and that trade was practiced with foreign countries but it involved long journeys fraught with peril (Biswas 115). Many behaviors which are currently proscribed in India were perfectly acceptable at this time, including gambling (so popular that there was a gambler’s guild and designated houses for the activity) (Naikar 9), slavery (the rules for this trade being set down in the Arthasastra) (12), and polygamy (24). This was also a culture demarcated by caste divisions, in which brahmin priests enjoyed the most privilege, closely seconded by kshatriya warrior-princes, with merchants and peasants forming the base of the class pyramid. However, if we believe Sudraka to have portrayed his society accurately, these divisions may not have been as rigid as is traditionally supposed: in the world of the Mrcchakatikam, “birth has not been the determining factor about one’s profession or status in the society… anyone can go for the profession of his choice and enjoy high places by sheer merit" (Banerjee 92). Some argue that this flexibility of caste makes the world in question is an imaginary one, but this stance gets problematized by the fact that, unlike other popular Sanskrit dramas such as the Sakuntalam, the Mrcchakatikam contains no supernatural events or characters. What the Mrcchakatikam does contain is a love story, of the virtuous-poor-man-meets-prostitute-with-heart-of-gold brand, that is filled with role reversals and transformations of fate. It is one of the most endearing creations natya has to offer.

Natya, the Art That Controlled the Cart
Natya was one of the most highly codified forms of theatre that can be found in its long and troubled history. It should be emphasized that natya did not differ in this respect from most other arts and occupations of ancient India. For example, the most famous text from this era is probably the Kama Sutra, which codifies the art of lovemaking, setting down a list of sixty-four vital skills for being a housewife (Sinha 24) --among other lists far more lurid. This Indian tendency to create manuals and lists of techniques is even satirized within the Mrcchakatikam, in the speech of the amateur burglar Sarvilaka: “Kanasakti’s Manual of Burglary lists four ways of making a hole in a wall: pulling out baked bricks, cutting through unbaked bricks, softening mud walls by wetting them, and sawing through wooden ones” (Basham 57). The joke here, of course, is that no one would publish a manual on how to commit a crime like burglary. (Sarvilaka even punches up the humor by praying before pulling out the bricks, giving “Reverence to Kartikeya, the god of thieves; reverence to the teachers of kleptology in ancient days—Kanakasakti, Brahmanyadeva Devavrata and Bhaskaranandi” (57), which of course draws a parallel to the sort of benediction quoted above which begins not only this play, but all plays of the genre.) However, someone did circulate a manual on how to stage and perform natya. That someone has become known as Bharata Muni (as in the case of Sudraka, the identity has not been corroborated by any sort of documentation), and that manual is the Natyasastra.

As has already been mentioned, the Mrcchakatikam pre-dates the Natyasastra, and therefore some of its rules did not apply to its staging. For example, Sudraka's

stage appears to have been a bigger one to allow several scenes… to be presented at the same time. The scenes being of diversified nature, one occurring in the set of a house and the other in the city streets, it was difficult to accommodate such scenes on a stage having no system of division by screen. Scenes like those in acts VI, VII, IX and X could not be performed in the mechanized stage of Bharata. In all probability, Shudraka’s was an open-air theatre with wide area to help the entry of carts or show the jumping of the attendant of Shakara from the house top. Though Bharata approves of a miniature form of chariot etc. to be shown on the stage, nowhere have we any reference to a normal cart being exhibited in reality which is but essential in the drama for its suspense, development and denouement. (Banerjee 22)
However, it cannot be denied that most of the techniques prescribed by the Natyasastra were used for performances of the Mrcchakatikam. Almost all areas of performance and staging are covered by Bharata's text; it is especially worthwhile in a study of the Mrcchakatikam to note what the Natyasastra has to say about scenery and properties, costuming, music, and acting style. The rules dictating special visual and auditory effects are not relevant, because (as has already been mentioned) the Mrcchakatikam contains no supernatural events.

The vast majority of scenery and properties that are mentioned in the script for the Mrcchakatikam would not have been depicted realistically on stage in its production; instead, they would have existed in the mind’s eye of the audience members. “After all,” Bharata notes in the chapter of the Natyasastra devoted to such matters, “the only possible thing is an imitation, not an identical form… an actual weapon may cause death; actual ornaments and material would be too heavy.” (Rangacharya 184) Objects and set-pieces such as hills, horses, and houses were made by skeletons of split bamboo shoots covered with cloths of suitable colors. A good example of something that would be treated in this manner in the Mrcchakatikam is the elephant that attacks Samvahaka at the end of Act II. In this type of theatre, it was considered far more important that the audience get the sense that Samvahaka was being attacked than that they actually see such an attack. In fact, the Natyasastra specifically states that “a weapon is not to be wielded, cutting and beating should not be actual. There must be just symbolic gestures.”(184)

Costuming was apparently much more realistic (though stage makeup was highly exagerrated so that all of the facial features could be easily discerned from quite some distance away, for reasons to be explained later). Ornamentation, clothing, and headgear for a character in any specific scene was determined by that character’s station in life, the region in which the character was supposed to live, and the character’s emotional condition during the scene. Because the Mrcchakatikam is set in a town in southern India (Banerjee 3), the actress playing Vasantasena would probably heed the instruction for the “Women of the south to have designs in tattoo on their foreheads” because “Make-up not suited to the region would not impress. It will be as ridiculous as wearing a girdle on the breast.” (Rangacharya 177) There are also moments in the text of the Mrcchakatikam which require specific items of costuming, such as a garland, or a tinkling anklet, or jewels. Vasantasena would most likely have worn these items, though the jewelry would have been “made in lac and sparsely inlaid” (218).

Music was a vital component of natya. The standard format was apparently Gandharva music, that which “is composed of svara (notes), tala (time-measure), pada (words) and is played with different instruments… it is very dear to gods” (218). According to the Natyasastra, “Just as a picture without color has no beauty, a drama without song has no charm” (294), and the Natyasastra classifies song very carefully, beginning with whether the instrument that produces it is stringed (placing the human voice in this category) or covered, solid or hollow (218). According to the Natyasastra, each of the various instruments in these categories should only be used to elicit a certain rasa (emotional effect, literally, “flavour”) in the audience. The Mrcchakatikam deals chiefly with the erotic rasa, srngara (56), and thus the appropriate instruments would need to be chosen; they would also have to be played in the correct style, or vrtti (243).

Unfortunately, determining the correct instruments and vrtti to be used for any particular rasa involves a level of familiarity with Sanskrit which is outside the scope of this node; consider the amount of technical knowledge necessary to decipher a sentence like “The varieties of bahirgitas are: Asravana, Arambha, Vaktrapani, Samghotana, Parighattana, Margasarita, Lilakrta and the three kinds of asaritas” (240), which is typical of those found in the ten-page chapter of the Natyasastra entitled “Stringed Instruments”.

We discover the same sort of (anal) precision in Bharata’s instructions for the actors. Merely scanning the table of contents of the Natyasastra, we see that possible roles are classified by the character’s age, gender, and station in life, and notes are given for each. These lines, even those of gender (Rajagopalan 2), could be crossed by the performer (the delineation of caste would certainly have to be crossed every time a brahmin or kshatriya character was needed), but there were instructions for how to do so, just as there were for everything else in natya. An actress portraying the character of Vasantasena in the Mrcchakatikam would heed these words from the section entitled “Courtesans”: “A man, by giving money, is loved though hated earlier; if dear, he becomes dearer; becomes (to her) virtuous) even if he is wicked. On seeing him, there is a smile in her eyes, a look of pleasure (joy) on her face.”(207) However, the instructions do not end here, because in natya, ‘a smile’ and ‘a look of pleasure’ are far too little to fully express a bhava (emotion) in order for the audience to experience a rasa. The actress portraying Vasantasena would need to control her entire body to correctly express the bhava of rati,love, (56) when encountering the character of Carudatta. The conclusion is easily reached that the acting style encountered in the performance of classic Sanskrit drama is incredibly formal, and focused upon external manifestation through gesture, the carriage of the body, and facial expression (hence the need for strong stage makeup). When the script includes an express instruction like “Carudatta registers fear” (Basham 138), the actor would certainly need to invoke the correct mudra, or hand position, at that moment in performance. It should be noted that certain poses would be utilized in performance for concepts besides emotions, when those concepts were referred to by the script. “Looking up with half-shut eyes, the mid-day sun is indicated,” (Rangacharya 208) Bharata instructs, and so logically in a performance of the Mrcchakatikam the actor playing Sthavaraka would look up with half-shut eyes when he announces “How hot the midday sun is!” (Basham 101) However, such postures would certainly be suborned in a good production, if they were to get in the way of expression of bhava and consequently the rasa absorbed by the audience.

Transformation: The Purpose of Rasa, Natya, and the Mrcchakatikam
The emphasis placed on rasa and the painfully explicit documentation on how to create it which are found in the Natyasastra are somewhat difficult to understand unless one first realizes that the audience's experience of rasa is the entire purpose of natya. When the bhava portrayed onstage in Sanskrit drama approaches the ideal, “The spectator is elevated mentally and his heart becomes crystal-clear… the mirror-like heart of the spectator leading to his perfect identification with these modes” (Janaki 9). That process of identification is the experience of rasa, and it clearly transforms of the mind and heart of the audience member.

Through rasa, we arrive at the core meaning behind natya: transformation from a lesser to a greater state of existence. This idea of transformation, the way that it is stressed and the importance assigned to it, are what mark natya and plays like the Mrcchakatikam as being so thoroughly Hindu in nature, “Brahmanic or even of the Vedic” (Byrski 42), because the same process of transformation is the ultimate goal of that religion. Simply put, “the aim of Natya is to express in a popular and easy form the metaphysical sense of life and of the cosmos.” (13) This aim becomes obvious when one examines the myth of natya’s creation, as recorded by Bharata in the opening section of the Natyasastra; in this aetiology, various lesser gods request Brahma to create a Veda that the sudras (castes besides the brahmins, who were the only members of society allowed access to the holy vedas) could understand (Rangacharya 1).

It cannot be emphasized enough here that, in its proper Hindu context. the term veda refers to the “three or fourfold aspect of both the ultimate and the ordinary reality. The written text… is only one more way in which these aspects manifest themselves” (Byrski 54), and that the basis of Vedic metaphysical thought is daivasuram, a struggle between the gods and the demons, or the positive and negative aspects of the universe, which is “a process of uniting the separated or integrating the multiple into one” (135)-- a transformation from a lesser to a greater state of being, exactly what natya strives to reach and what the Mrcchakatikam successfully depicts.

Throughout Sudraka’s play, characters are constantly being transformed from one state to another, indeed, from a lesser to a greater state. Before the events of the play even began (we are informed), Carudatta the wealthy merchant lost all of his money and thus was transformed from rich to poor—but he did so through generous acts, thus proving his true virtue (Basham 51). In the Mrcchakatikam's first act, Vasantasena the courtesan becomes devoted to a single man, scorning the advances of others (32), and by the end of the play she proves herself worthy of the new king’s blessing, which transforms her into a woman Carudatta can claim as his lawful wife (144). The new king—now there’s a transformation. Aryaka begins the play as a mere cowherd’s son, but a revolution ousts the unjust ruler who imprisons him; this revolution places Aryaka at the head of the state, where he immediately proves himself far more noble than his predecessor (141). Indeed, all of the play’s characters undergo some sort of transformation, be it a metaphorical one that lasts merely a moment, or a life-changing one, like when a masseur-turned-gambler decides to eschew his worldly life and become a Buddhist monk (52). These transformations can be temporary setbacks (like in act IX, when Carudatta, the town’s most virtuous man, becomes a convicted criminal (128-9)), but in the end, even the hardened villain Samasthanaka (or Sankara, as he is more commonly referred to in supplementary texts), foiled in his plots, receives mercy (143).

Those of us who approach the Mrcchakatikam with a Western worldview will probably view the cumulative success of these transformations, and the resulting happy ending for the play, as being somewhat unrealistic. Instead of allowing this facile interpretation to hold sway, such audience members must realize that “a tragic end is incompatible with the Hindu view of life.” (Byrski 137) This view of life is founded on the idea that the universe began when Brahma, the original unity, willed itself into a multiplicity, and that the course of existence is inevitably flowing back towards that unity, which will be reached, albeit at the end of time. Because “Natya’s performance has also to convey to the spectator this awareness of the ultimate destiny of creation” (151), giving the Mrcchakatikam an unhappy ending would have literally disrupted the nature of the universe for this play’s intended audience.

It is somewhat sad that this intended audience was nowhere near as large as the gods of natya’s creations myth would have us believe; classic Sanskrit drama was not publically staged. “It was mostly performed on special occasions like a religious festival, a marriage ceremony, a king’s coronation… in dancing halls and music rooms in the royal palace where the ladies of the harem were taught these pleasing arts” (Biswas 22). Although some dialogue was written in the vernacular Prakrit, the fact that the poetic, most rasa-oriented speeches were composed in rarefied Sanskrit marks works like the Mricchakatikam as being court dramas, created for the pleasure of an elite. Still, the fact that the Mricchakatikam was staged at court does not change its fundamental message, or make that message any less significant. At its heart,

Natya is an epitome of the entire cycle of existence—never tragic, because there is no place for tragedy in the… existence… conducted through its course to a fulfilment when Mind and Speech… are yoked together... Natya was created in the likeness of the sacrifice… what it has to convey is the truth, the entire and exact truth, about the nature of the world.(Byrski 143)
As the oldest and one of the most exquisite examples of natya that has been preserved, the Mrcchakatikam conveys the message of the genre admirably, reaffirming the Hindu structure of belief to those who have been born into it, and enlightening those who have not but who are willing to open their eyes. It closes in much the same way it began, with a benediction: “May all the priests and monks be saints of virtue, and righteous kings, their foes subdued, rule gloriously, and all things born know happiness forever!” (Basham 145)


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