These songs were composed during the Buddha’s lifetime about 2,500 years ago by women who had renounced home life and society and joined the group of nuns founded by the Buddha.
The 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, 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 entirely by women.
There have been only two previous translations of the works into English, neither of which was in verse. This translation by Francis Booth is from the Pali originals of a small selection from the 73 works in the Therigatha; no attempt has been made to capture the rhythm of the Pali language in which they were composed, just the character of the women’s voices.
In the original Pali texts, the songs are usually set out in order of length, but they are here arranged into five sequences according to their themes: Lost Beauty; Grieving Mothers; A Woman Freed; The Temptations of Mara, the Evil One; and Seduction.