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In most of Sanskrit poetry the primary determinant of a meter is the number of syllables in a unit of verse, called the pāda ("foot", not to be confused with the "foot" of Western prosody). Meters of the same length are distinguished by the pattern of laghu ("light") and guru ("heavy") syllables in the pāda.
The rules distinguishing laghu and guru syllables are the same as are specified in Vedic texts such as the Pratisakhyas. They can be summarized as:
For measurement by morae, laghu syllables count as one unit, and guru syllables as two units. The standard unit of grouping, analogous to the "foot" of Western prosody, is four morae (four laghus, two gurus, or a guru and two laghus).
Gaṇa (Sanskrit, "group") is the technical term for the pattern of light and heavy syllables in a sequence of three. It is used in treatises on Sanskrit prosody to describe meters, according to a method first propounded in Pingala's chandaḥśāstra.
Pingala's method described any meter as a sequence of gaṇas, or triplets of syllables, plus the excess, if any, as single units. There being eight possible patterns of light and heavy syllables in a sequence of three, this scheme called for ten descriptive elements in all. With each of these ten, Pingala associated a letter, allowing the meter to be described compactly as an acronym. His encoding scheme was as follows
Pingala's order of the gaṇas, viz. m-y-r-s-t-j-bh-n, corresponds to a standard enumeration in binary, when the three syllables in each gaṇa are read right-to-left with H=0 and L=1.
The definition of the meter Vasantatilakā given by Kedāra in his Vṛttaratnākara is
which can be decoded as
Note that Kedāra's definition is itself an example of the meter.
The word yamātārājabhānasalagāḥ (or yamātārājabhānasalagaṃ), invented by medieval commentators, is a mnemonic for Pingala's gaṇas, using the vowels "a" and "ā" for light and heavy syllables respectively with the letters of his scheme. In the form without a grammatical ending, yamātārājabhānasalagā is self-descriptive, where the structure of each gaṇa is shown by its own syllable and the two following it:
The mnemonic also encodes the light "la" and heavy "gā" unit syllables of the full scheme.
The truncated version obtained by dropping the last two syllables, viz. yamātārājabhānasa, can be read cyclically (i.e., wrapping around to the front). It is an example of a De Bruijn sequence.
The gaṇas are not the same as prosodic feet in Greek or Latin poetry, although there is a correspondence (m-y-r-s-t-j-bh-n = molossus, bacchius, cretic, anapest, antibacchius, amphibrach, dactyl, choreus). The difference is that the gaṇas are analytic devices only, and do not indicate internal structure as "feet" do. For instance, a phalaecian verse consisting of a spondee, a dactyl and three trochees would be analysed as m-s-j-g-l (i.e. a molossus, an anapest, an amphibrach and a trochee); similarly a sapphic verse as r-t-j-g-l (cretic, antibacchius, amphibrach and trochee).
Most of classical Sanskrit poetry is of the varṇavṛtta type, also called akṣarachanda. Stanzas are quatrains of four pādas (verses), with the metrical structure of each pāda completely specified. In some cases, pairs of pādas may be scanned together as the hemistichs of a couplet. It is then normal for the pādas comprising a pair to have different structures, to complement each other aesthetically. Otherwise the four pādas of a stanza will have the same structure.
While the Mahabharata has various types of versification, an overwhelming proportion of the stanzas (all but about 0.2%) are akṣaravṛtta (free syllabic). Within this majority, 95% are shlokas of the anustubh type and the rest are tristubhs.
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