Selections from Songs of the Elder Sisters (the Therīgāthā)

Songs of the Elder Sisters

Songs of the Elder Sisters were composed during the Buddha’s lifetime, about 2,500 years ago. These women renounced home life and society, and joined the group of nuns founded by the Buddha. This selection of 14 poems from the Buddhist text known as the Therīgāthā were translated from Pāli by Francis Booth. See more of this translation of Songs of the Elder Sisters on Issuu.

These poignant songs are about loss of beauty, wealth and family, balanced by the greater gains of peace and wisdom through enlightenment in old age. All the songs are ascribed to particular women, whose names we know. They speak as individuals, not as wives, mothers and daughters.

Although Buddhist in intent, the songs are highly personal rather than pious and formal and are full of character and personality. They were passed down orally through chanting for 600 years before being written down and are among the earliest extant poems written by women. They also form the only canonical work in any religion written entirely by women.

Referring to a collection known as Verses of the Elder Nuns, the Therīgāthā, (Pāli: therī: elder in feminine form + gāthā: verses) consists of short poems dating from a three hundred year span beginning in the late 6th century BCE.

This collection of poems is believed to be the earliest text to record women’s spiritual journeys, and is the earliest known collection of women’s literature from India. What’s truly remarkable is that contrary to Virginia Woolf‘s famous (and often correct) claim that “anonymous was a woman,” the names of these ancient female poets are recorded.

This excellent analysis of the Therīgāthā from Zen Mountain Monastery gives a good historic background to this ancient text:

“… The adjective “first” and the Therīgāthā seem to go together. It is easy to see why. The Therīgāthā is an anthology of poems composed by some of the first Buddhists; while the poems of the Therīgāthā are clearly nowhere near as old as the poetry of the Rig Veda, for example, they are still some of the first poetry of India; the Therīgāthā ’s poems are some of the first poems by women in India; as a collection, the Therīgāthā is the first anthology of women’s literature in the world.” Read the rest in full here.


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Lost Beauty

Ambapali’s Song
Ah but when I was young I had beautiful hair
Glossy, curly and black like the colour of bees
Now my hair is like hemp or the bark of the trees
Ah, not false are the words of the teller of truth
With my hair filled with flowers and perfumed with scent
Thick as trees in the forest adorned with gold pins
Now my hair smells like dog’s fur all matted and thin
Ah, not false are the words of the teller of truth
I had eyebrows like crescents an artist would paint
And my eyes flashed like precious and radiant jewels
But the passing of time and the wrinkles were cruel
Ah, not false are the words of the teller of truth
With my beautiful nose and my features refined
And my ear lobes so soft how my teeth brightly shined
Now all yellow and ruined by age and by time
Ah, not false are the words of the teller of truth
Then my singing was sweet as the call of a bird
Like a cuckoo that warbles in the branches of trees
Now the music is broken and cracked with disease
Ah, not false are the words of the teller of truth
With my neck like a conch shell and smooth rounded arms
On my delicate hands rings and bracelets of gold
Now all withered and dried like an onion turned old
Ah, not false are the words of the teller of truth
In my young days my body was burnished and fine
And my breasts stood up proudly all shapely and round
Now my skin has turned baggy and sags to the ground
Ah, not false are the words of the teller of truth
In my youth I had thighs like an elephant’s trunk
And my calves and my ankles and feet were adorned
But with age all my limbs are now knotted and worn
Ah, not false are the words of the teller of truth
This magnificent body so beautiful then
Shows with time and with age how the truth is revealed
As a mansion looks fine ‘til the plaster has peeled

Ah, not false are the words of the teller of truth


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Anopama’s Song
The daughter of a house of wealth and fame
Well born in fortune and exalted name
A beauty celebrated through the land
A prize beyond a price to win my hand
Pursued and courted by the sons of kings
While merchant princes made rich offerings
A ruler promised treasuries of gold
And jewels equal to my weight eightfold
Gautama, worthy and enlightened one
In pity showed me life with passion gone
I shaved my head and left the world behind
Since seven nights all craving left my mind

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Vimala’s Song
Young and fine and drunk with beauty
Famous for my flawless face
Richly dressed and acting haughty
Putting others in their place

Painted and adorned with jewels
Standing at the brothel door
Like the hunter’s trap is cruel
Showing men delights in store
Teaching them my secret magic
Showing them my secret part
Now I see my life was tragic
Hating people in my heart
Now I live without possessions
Shaven headed, beg for alms
Now I conquered all obsession
Thoughts all gone now, cool and calm

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2 Grieving Mothers

Kisogotami’s Song
The noblest friends can even make
The wisdom of a fool increase
So cultivate the wisest ones
And see the tide of pain decrease
The driver of the chariot
Says women’s lives are full of grief
He drives and tames the hearts of men
Heals suffering and brings relief
To share a husband, bear a child
The pain of being second wives
Make some take poison, slit their throats
So suffering through many lives
I lost a husband and two sons
I laid them on the funeral pyre
My mother, father, brother too
Have burned to ashes in that fire
Through tears of a thousand lives
I reached the final state of peace
My dart cut out, my burden shed
From suffering at last released


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Vasitthi’s Song
Crazy with grief for the death of my son
Wandering far with my senses all gone
Naked and ragged and living in dirt
Three years I suffered with hunger and thirst
One day the Buddha was travelling near
Tamer of hearts and defeater of fear
Hearing the teacher’s true wisdom explained
Now I’ve cast out all the causes of pain

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3 A Woman Freed

Punna’s Song
Woman full is like the moon
Ripened on the fifteenth day
Full of wisdom, calm of mind
Darkness torn and thrown away

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Mutta’s Song
Woman freed is like the moon
Free from darkness and eclipse
Free in mind and free from debt
Free to live on alms and gifts

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Patacara’s Song
As men find wealth by planting crops
By ploughing fields and sowing seeds
By nourishing their wives and sons
They satisfy their earthly needs
So why could I, with virtuous mind
A woman pure in words and thoughts
Not find my peace and quench my thirst
By doing what the teacher taught?
Then one day as I bathed my feet
And watched the water run its course
I vowed to purify my mind
As men would train a noble horse
So in my cell I took the lamp
And from my bed I watched the flame
I grasped the wick and pulled it down
The light extinguished, peace remained

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Mettika’s Song
Walking weak and weary now
Youthful step long gone
Leaning on my walking staff
Trudging slowly on
Climbing up the mountain peak
Robe cast to the ground
Overturn my begging bowl
Freedom all around

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4 The Temptations of Mara, the Evil One

Sela’s Song

The solitary life brings no escape
Enjoy the world before it gets too late
The pleasures of the body are like spears
And nothing you call joy do I hold dear
My love of earthly pleasure disappears
Go, tempter, you will gain no victory here

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Soma’s Song
The wisdom of the sage is hard to gain
Beyond a woman’s nature to attain
Soma :
How can a woman’s nature interfere?
Our hearts are set, our way ahead is clear
My love of earthly pleasure disappears
Go, tempter, you will gain no victory here


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Khema’s Song

As you are beautiful and I am young
Let us go in delight where songs are sung
My body only fills me with disgust
Like swords and stakes to me are thoughts of lust
My love of earthly pleasure disappears
Go, tempter, you will gain no victory here

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Uppalavanna’s Song
You stand under the blossoms in the wood
Exposed to evil men who mean no good
A hundred thousand rascals could appear
I would not shake nor turn a hair in fear
Into your belly I could disappear
And in between your eyes could reappear
For I can rule the body with my thought
By following the way the Buddha taught
My love of earthly pleasure disappears
Go, tempter, you will gain no victory here


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Subha’s Song
I was walking one day
In the beautiful woods
When a rascal appeared
Who was up to no good
So I said to him
Why do you stand in my way
Knowing purity’s rule
I have sworn to obey
For all passion has gone
From my unblemished mind
But the sensual pleasures
Have made your heart blind
The Man:
How can one as sweet as you
Give up life to be a nun
Dressing in the saffron robe
Come with me and have some fun
Trees exude the smell of spring
Forest beds are overgrown
Flowers bloom and pollen spreads
How can you go all alone?
Beasts of prey live in the woods
Elephants about to mate
Women unaccompanied
Risk a very frightening fate
You could be my golden doll
Wearing jewels, silk and pearls
In my palace in the wood
Waited on by serving girls
Garlanded and bathed in scent
On a bed of sandalwood
Like a lotus in the stream
Living long in maidenhood
But what is it you see in this body of mine?
And what beauty appears in my face
When the cemetery calls and the body breaks down
Beauty vanishes without a trace
The Man:
Like a nymph inside the mountain
Spirit creature, my delight
Eyes like lotus blossoms blooming
Eyes that shine with radiant light
Like a spotless, golden vision
Long eyelashes, gentle gaze
Eyes that drive me wild with passion
Eyes to haunt me all my days
Travel in the wrong direction
Try to leap the mountainside
Seek the moon to be your plaything
Try to trap the Buddha’s child
Purified myself of passion
Struck like sparks from blazing coal
Thrown down like a cup of poison
Truth has always been my goal
Just as puppets can dance
With their sticks and their strings
So my body is made
Of impermanent things
Like a beautiful painting
Seduces the mind
So illusions confused you
And rendered you blind
If you still want my body
To make me your prize
Then I’ll pluck out and give
To you one of my eyes
So your object of worship
You hold in your hand
And the true face of beauty
You now understand
The Man:
Try to hold a blazing fire
Try to grasp a poisonous snake
Lady, live without desire
Now I see my cruel mistake
In the presence of the Buddha
There my sight will be regained
By the power of his merit
Passion conquered, peace attained


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More about the Elder Sisters and the Therīgāthā

More English Translations of the Therīgāthā

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Contributed by Francis Booth,* the author of several books on twentieth-century culture:

Amongst Those Left: The British Experimental Novel 1940-1960 (published by Dalkey Archive); Everybody I Can Think of Ever: Meetings That Made the Avant-Garde;  Girls in Bloom: Coming of Age in the Mid-Twentieth Century Woman’s Novel; Text Acts: Twentieth Century Literary Eroticism; and Comrades in Art: Revolutionary Art in America 1926-1938.

Francis has also published several novels: The Code 17 series, set in the Swinging London of the 1960s and featuring aristocratic spy Lady Laura Summers; Young adult fantasy series The Watchers; and  Young adult fantasy novel Mirror Mirror. Francis lives on the South Coast of England. He is currently working on High Collars and Monocles: Interwar Novels by Female Couples.


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*These are Amazon Affiliate links. If a product is purchased by linking through, Literary Ladies Guide receives a modest commission, which helps maintain our site and helps it to continue growing!

2 Responses to “Selections from Songs of the Elder Sisters (the Therīgāthā)”

  1. Great article!

    You may be interested in an online festival happening in May to celebrate the Therigatha.

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