Is the Amarakosha a thesaurus after all?

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If not, what is it?  And how and why did people memorize it?

Responding to this post, "Memorizing a thesaurus" (10/28/20), Dan Martin remarks:

I found some of this discussion rather strange since to a kâvya* expert of the Indian and Tibetan realms (I am not one of them, although I got to hang with some of the great ones not so many years ago), this is a given: that the Amarakosha was never meant to be a dictionary for ordinary word meanings (.: absolutely not a Webster's), let alone a practical thesaurus for writers of expository prose (.: absolutely not a Roget's). It was meant, and went on to be used as such, as a resource for writers who wanted to write great poetry in the kâvya style. Even in Tibet, it was a way of 'Indianizing' your poetic output as was regarded as quite the hip, cool 'rad' thing to do until the mid 1980's (okay, for some self-styled modernists). I mean, maybe (who am I to judge?) it would have proven useless for Chinese literati who supposedly sinified everything they touched, but not so in Tibet.

In Tibet the Amarakosha and similar derivative abhidhâna** (mngon-brjod [VHM: "lexicology"]) works were solely for kâvya-style poets. The kâvya, Sanskrit and abhidhâna were areas of study that very much went together, very often with the same teacher teaching all three. That their Tibetan-language output might get Indianized with the help of these glossaries (a good word for them, is it?) was regarded only as an asset in that special elite world they created for their mutual consumption and comprehension. But somehow this purpose of the Amarakosha has often been misperceived, and many of its 'synonyms' got enshrined in Das's dictionary as if these poetic epithets were supposed to have currency in the Lhasa street. To give one glowing example: Recent feminist Tibetanists in particular have been led astray by the list of epithets for women in S.C. Das, p. 872 column b, as if they told us anything about ordinary Tibetan culture's ideas about women! In fact, they do not, even if they tell us SOMEthing about the Indians and Tibetans of the most sophisticated kâvya tastes, NOthing or very nearly nothing about the Tibetans. So please let's not demand that the Amarakosha be 'practical' for this or that nationality. It was meant for specific purposes that need identifying before characterizing it as useless or practical to this or that type of person….



*Kāvya (Sanskrit: काव्य, IAST: kāvyá) refers to the Sanskrit literary style used by Indian court poets flourishing between c.200 BC to 1200 AD. This literary style, which includes both poetry and prose, is characterised by abundant usage of figures of speech, metaphors, similes, and hyperbole to create its emotional effects. The result is a short lyrical work, court epic, narrative or dramatic work. "Kavya" can refer to the style or the completed body of literature. Aśvaghoṣa (c. 80–150 AD), a philosopher and poet considered the father of Sanskrit drama, is attributed with first using the word.


**An abhidhāna (Sanskrit: अभिधान, IPA: [ɐbʱɪdʱaːnɐ]) is a kind of dictionary or vocabulary of Sanskrit. Its purpose was to be used as a general guide for lexicography and word choice. Many of these works had been created in India. One of the oldest of them is the Abhidhana ratna – mala, of Halayudha Bhatta of the 7th century. The Abhidhana Chinta-mani of Hema-chandra, a celebrated Jaina writer of the 13th century, is often mentioned as among the best.


No matter how it is classified (thesaurus, glossary, lexicon, etc.) or how it is utilized, it is remarkable that people have memorized the Amarakosha and similar works for millennia.


Selected readings


  1. Victor Mair said,

    November 3, 2020 @ 12:19 pm

    From Max Deeg:

    I think Dan got the answer why the Indian-style dictionaries were not really attractive for Chinese literati right. Tibetan was under the spell of Indian semantic analysis from the very beginning, creating a vocabulary of compounds that the pre-Buddhist language probably only had in a very restricted way (as far as we can grasp it) – but again, I am not a specialist in matters Tibetan …

  2. Victor Mair said,

    November 3, 2020 @ 3:22 pm

    From Fred Smith:

    Very interesting comments from Dan Martin. It makes me wonder to what extent authors other than poets with vast memorized lexicons at the tips of their tongues actually used Amara or the other glossaries. I suspect that accomplished poets did use them pretty extensively, and philosophers and commentators less so. One does see Amara cited frequently in the commentaries on both poetry and śāstra.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    November 4, 2020 @ 7:40 pm

    From H. Krishnapriyan:

    In the context of Sanskrit, kAvyas are not really written. They are composed (typical words used are racita, AkhyAta, praNIta; not really likhita) like music.

    The distinction between literary and technical works would be probably less clear cut in India. Shankara, vEMkaTanAtha are examples of people who had poetic as well as shAstra works to their credit. vEMkaTanAtha was in fact known as kavitArkika (poet-logician). There are also kAvyas like bhaTTikAvya that were written to illustrate aShTAdhyAyI.

    From my experience of seeing composition in action, while they could have known the lexical works, the composers of poetry probably would not have consciously used them most of the time. On the other hand commentators and their audience would make greater use of them, both for understanding the meanings of terms referred to, as well as to provide a sort of resonance similar words with a different etymology could provide to the text.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    November 5, 2020 @ 11:45 pm

    From Tong Wang:

    I had a similar question when I read the first post on this subject: is Amarakosha a thesaurus? It seems to me more like a collection (or treasure) of words/terms, rather than a thesaurus meant to provide synonyms or antonyms for common writers. Its textual organization gives me an impression that the synonyms in Amarakosha are mainly various names of an object, though it contains verbs and adjectives in its third chapter. Dan Martin's remarks make good sense that it was only meant for a special elite world. A true Indian scholar must know various names of gods, just as a Chinese scholar knows various ways of writing a Chinese character.

    Why was there no Chinese thesaurus before modern times? Is it related to fact that Chinese is based on characters rather than words? I wonder if anyone has made investigation in this regard.

  5. crturang said,

    November 6, 2020 @ 12:33 pm

    Topical comment for today! ’लक्ष्मीः पद्मालया पद्मा कमला श्रीर्हरिप्रिया’ इत्यमरः।:)

  6. Andrew Usher said,

    November 6, 2020 @ 8:28 pm

    The title seems like splitting hairs: of course it's a thesaurus, regardless of whom it was meant for. Any list of synonyms for a variety of concepts is covered by the modern English meaning of 'thesaurus'.

    I am not sure what the point it beyond that.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo dot com

  7. Dan Martin said,

    November 9, 2020 @ 4:21 am

    Well, I guess the purpose is just to say that while the Amara Treasury may be a kind of thesaurus, it doesn't serve the same audience or purpose as a modern thesaurus. In other words, it is not a Roget's. It offers not practical word substitutions but poetic ones. Isn't it so much cooler to say 'water bearer' instead of that ho-hum humdrum word 'cloud'?

    Hmm. One of the uses of the thesaurus by moderns may be to find rhyming words when attempting to write greeting card inscriptions. So I wouldn't say Roget's has no potential for poetic employment whatsoever, although I would still say that was not its intent. Don't most people use it to upgrade their writings into something other people will take more seriously as work of erudition?

  8. Victor Mair said,

    November 9, 2020 @ 9:08 am

    For a Tibetan commentary on the Amarakosa, see Leonard van der Kuijp's "On the Vicissitudes of Subhūticandra’s Kāmadhenu Commentary on the Amarakoṣa in Tibet", available on

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