a punning riddle: 19 women or 20 women and one man?

by Jahnabi Barooah

एकोनाविंशति: स्त्रीणां स्नानाय शरयूं गता।
विंशति: पुनरायाता एको व्याघ्रेण भक्षित:।।

nineteen women went to bathe
in the sarayu.
twenty women returned,
one was devoured by a tiger.

how is this possible? this verse puns on the fact that there are no spaces between words in sanskrit manuscripts. the first word (ekonāviṃśati – one less than twenty) is a compound which can also be broken up like this: एको ना विंशति: (eko nā viṃśati). Viṃśati means ‘twenty.’ While ekonā means one less than, eko nā means ‘one man.’ Interpreted this way, the verse translates like this:

one man and twenty women
went to bathe in the sarayu.
twenty women returned,
and one (man) was devoured by a tiger.

this kind of punning is called śleṣa (meaning, embrace’ in the sanskrit language. for a pioneering work on this topic, see yigal bronner’s extreme poetry.

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