Old Tamil Poetry

Translations of Tamil Poetic works that span 2000 years

Kambaramayanam – 1777

They fell down; wilted; writhed in agony;
Cried “It’s today we lost our eyes”;
Were immersed in a sea of misery;
“O’ my son! O’ my son” they sobbed;
“You broke our heart” they grieved;
“You’ve gone to live in the eternal world,
We can’t bear to live here by ourselves,
here we come, here we come” they cried.

“வீழ்ந்தார்; அயர்ந்தார்; புரண்டார்;
‘விழி போயிற்று இன்று ‘என்றார்;
ஆழ்ந்தார் துன்பக் கடலுள்;
‘ஐயா! ஐயா! ‘என்றார்;
‘போழ்ந்தாய் நெஞ்சை ‘என்றார்;
‘பொன் நாடு அதனில் போய் நீ
வாழ்ந்தே இருப்பத் தரியேம்;
வந்தேம்! வந்தேம் இனியே!‘‘

King Dasaratha killed a blind ascetic couple’s son by mistake while hunting. The boy had come to a jungle pond to take water for his thirsty parents. Dasaratha hears the noise and shoots an arrow thinking it’s a deer. Once he realises his mistake, he grieves and goes to the old couple and tells them of his mistake and apologises.

The blind couple collapse on hearing the death of their son, who was everything to them. They cry saying “Though we were blind, he never made us feel that. With his death today, we have really lost our eyes. O’ my son! O’ my son! In your death you have broken our heart. You have left us and gone to live in the eternal world (heaven). We won’t live alone here by ourselves. We will die and come along with you there” they grieved.

Death of a son is a pain that cannot be assuaged. Further to this they curse Dasaratha that he too will suffer the same fate. That curse is what causes the sequence of events leading to Rama’s exile and Dasaratha’s death.
போழ் – split / break
பொன் நாடு – golden country / heaven / eternal world
தரியேம் – can’t bear

Kurunthokai – 99

He answers her friend who asks him “did you think of her when you were away?”

Did I not think of her? Thinking,
Did I not reminisce? Reminiscing,
Was I not flustered by society’s coventions?
Like the copious flood that wetted branches of the tallest tree
Thinning to a rivulet one scoops out water from, and drying out,
My unbounded passion is slaked once I’m here.

உள்ளினென் அல்லெனோ யானே? உள்ளி,
நினைந்தனென் அல்லெனோ பெரிதே நினைந்து,
மருண்டனென் அல்லெனோ, உலகத்துப் பண்பே?
நீடிய மராஅத்த கோடு தோய் மலிர் நிறை
இறைத்து உணச் சென்று அற்றாங்கு,
அனைப் பெருங் காமம் ஈண்டு கடைக்கொளவே.

He has come back after a long time spent earning wealth. Her friend asks him “Did you think of her when you were away?” He answers her “Was there a moment I did not think of her? No. Thinking of her did I not remember the pleasant times we spent together? I did. Did I not despair of the world’s convention that a man has to go away from his near and dear ones to earn wealth? I did. My unbounded passion was like a copious flood that touches the branches of the tallest tree. Like how the same flood dwindles down to rivulet you can drink from and then ceases to exist, my passion is satiated now that I am one with her again.”

“Flood thinning out into a rivulet and drying out” is a remarkable simile for how passion is satiated once one is with his loved one. When he is away from her, the only thing that keeps him going is his passion towards her. As that is satiated after hecomes home, he is content, and looks back at that burning passion, perplexed.

உள்ளுதல் – thinking
நினைத்தல் – remember
மருளுதல் – bewildered / flustered
உலகத்துப் பண்பு – world’s rules / conventions
நீடிய மரம்  – tall tree
கோடு – branch
தோய் – soak / wet
மலிர்நிறை – huge flood
இறைத்து உ(ண்)ண -scoop out and drink
அற்று – cease to exist / dry out
அனைய – like
பெருங்காமம் – unbounded passion
ஈண்டு – here
கடைக்கொளல் -reaches its end

Thirukkural – 68

To have their children wiser than themselves,

is pleasurable for everyone in this world.

தம்மின், தம் மக்கள் அறிவுடைமை மா நிலத்து
மன் உயிர்க்கு எல்லாம் இனிது.

When a child is wiser than its parents, it is pleasing not only to parents but to the whole world.

I have gone with Devaneya Paavaanar’s commentary. Parimel Azhagar interprets it as “Wisdom of children is pleasurable to the world, more than what it is to parents”

தம்மில் – more than themselves
தம் மக்கள் – their children
மா நிலம் – world
மன் உயிர் – humans

#ChildrensDay

Pazhamozhi 400 – 161

“Who else is as forsaken as I am? Alone am I!”
Thinking so, one should not give in to lethargy;
Give up sloth and try! – The tireless never fail
To achieve what they yearn for.

‘இனி, யாரும் இல்லாதார் எம்மின் பிறர் யார்?
தனியேம் யாம்!’ என்று ஒருவர் தாம் மடியல் வேண்டா;
முனிவு இலராகி முயல்க!-முனியாதார்
முன்னியது எய்தாமை இல்.

This is a straight forward verse, spurring people to action. It is easy to give up  on life saying “There is no one to support me. I am the most forsaken person in the world. So I might as well give up”. But one should not give in to this lazy attitude. The tireless person who strives hard even without others’ support will always achieve what they have in mind.

தனி – alone
மடியல் – become lazy
முனிவு – tired / slothful
முனியாதார் – tireless
முன்னியது – what’s in one’s mind / yearning
எய்தாமை – fail to achieve
இல் – never

Naaladiyaar – 26

Does it matter if it is dragged with a rope? Or cleaned up and buried?
Does it matter if it is left in public? And people badmouth it?
Once the actor, who resides in this bag off flesh
Playing his role, departs?

நார்த் தொடுத்து ஈர்க்கில் என்? நன்று ஆய்ந்து அடக்கில் என்?
பார்த்துழிப் பெய்யில் என்? பல்லோர் பழிக்கில் என்?-
தோற்பையுள்நின்று, தொழில் அறச் செய்து ஊட்டும்
கூத்தன் புறப்பட்டக்கால்.

The poet equates life / soul to an actor who resides in our body (bag of flesh). Once his role is over he departs. After that this body worthless. It doesntatter if it is dragged around or cleaned up and buried. It doesn’t matter if it is left lying around and people bad mouth it. The body isn’t affected anyway as it is just an inanimate object.

Nanmanik Kadigai – 64

A lamp’s flame is worshipped;
But firewood’s flame is disregarded;
World will neglect the illiterate elder son in a clan,
But value the learned younger one.

திரி அழல் காணின், தொழுப; விறகின்
எரி அழல் காணின், இகழ்ப; ஒரு குடியில்
கல்லாது மூத்தானைக் கைவிட்டு, கற்றான்
இளமை பாராட்டும், உலகு.

A temple  lamp’s flame, though small in size, is worshipped  by people. But the same people when they see a firewood’s bigger blaze, disregard it. Similarly in a clan, though one is elder, if  he is illiterate, the world will neglect him. The educated younger son will be valued more. So education defines the value of a person, not his age.

திரி – (lamp’s) wick
அழல் – flame
தொழு – worship
இகழ் – disrespect, disregard
குடி – clan
கைவிட்டு – neglect

Thirukkural – 997

Though their intellect is sharp like a file*, just like a tree are they,
those who lack virtue and grace.

*file – filing tool

அரம்போலும் கூர்மைய ரேனும் மரம்போல்வர்
மக்கட்பண்பு இல்லா தவர்.

Some people might be highly knowledgeable in their area of expertise. Their wit might be sharp like a file (tool). However if they lack characteristics (virtue / courtesy) that differentiate humans from other beings, they are dumb, just like a tree. Their sharpness is of no use.

மக்கட் பண்பு – நன் மக்கள் + பண்பு – characteristics of good human beings. I have taken some liberty to translate it as virtue and grace. Dr. G.U. Pope translated it as ‘humane courtesy’. Intellect is not explicit in original couplet. Literally it reads ‘Though they are sharp like a file’

அரம் – file (tool)
கூர்மை – sharp
மக்கட் மக்கட் பண்பு – நன் மக்கள் + பண்பு – characteristics of good human beings

Kambaramayanam – 2019

Her plait’s adorned with fragrant powder and pollen,
Her forehead’s curved like a slice of the moon;
He, whose lips lend colour to coral, walks with her –
like a dark cloud and a streak of lightning appearing alone,
like an adorned bull elephant and its cow walking alone.

மா கந்தமும், மகரந்தமும், அளகம் தரும் மதியின்
பாகம் தரும் நுதலாளொடு, பவளம் தரும் இதழான்,
மேகம் தனி வருகின்றது மின்னொடு என, மிளிர் பூண்
நாகம் தனி வருகின்றது பிடியோடு என, நடவா.

This verse is in கங்கைப் படலம் (Ganga chapter) when Rama and Sita enter the forest and reach the river Ganga. When Rama leaves Ayodhya, people follow him. So he sends back his chariot to Ayodhya and walks away in the night. People think he has gone back to Ayodhya and follow the chariot marks. Before they realize that they have been misled,  Rama and Sita enter the forest and walk south towards Ganga, along with Lakshmana.

Kamban describes them walking by themselves, free of the adoring populace. Sita’s hair is washed with aromatic powders and pollen from flowers and is fragrant. Rama’s lips are strikingly red, it is as if they had lent their colour to coral gemstone. As they walk together, it was like a dark cloud (Rama is dark hued in the epic) and silver lightning appearing together in the vast sky. It was like a bull elephant walking with its cow, undisturbed in the forest.

Elephant’s walk is a repeatedly used simile in Tamil literature for graceful walking. As always with Kamban’s Tamil verse, read it out loud to appreciate the cadence.

மா கந்தம் – great fragrance
மரகந்தம் – pollen of flower
அளகம் – hair / plait
மதியின் பாகம் – part of a moon
நுதல் – forehead
பவளம் – coral
இதழான் – he with lips
மின்னொடு – மின்னலோடு –
மிளிர் பூண் – shining adornments
நாகம் – male elephant (bull)
பிடி – female elephant (cow)

Silappathikaaram – Vanji-k-Kaandam – Kundrak Kuravai

There’s no reason I see , to be miffed
with the fresh waters that have caressed his hills;
But my heart aches my friend, if others frolic
in the fresh waters that have caressed his hills;

There’s no reason I see, to be miffed
with the fresh waters that carry pollen from his hills;
But my heart aches my friend, if others frolic before I do
in the fresh waters that carry pollen from his hills;

There’s no reason I see, to be miffed
with the fresh waters that carry flowers from his hills;
But my heart aches my friend, if others frolic
in the fresh waters that carry flowers from his hills.

எற்றொன்றும் காணேம் புலத்தல் அவர்மலைக்
கற்றீண்டி வந்த புதுப்புனல்
கற்றீண்டி வந்த புதுப்புனல் மற்றையார்
உற்றாடி னோம்தோழி நெஞ்சன்றே ;

என்னொன்றும் காணேம் புலத்தல் அவர்மலைப்
பொன்னாடி வந்த புதுப்புனல்
பொன்னாடி வந்த புதுப்புனல் மற்றையார்
முன்னாடி னோம்தோழி நெஞ்சன்றே;

யாதொன்றுங் காணேம் புலத்தல் அவர்மலைப்
போதாடி வந்த புதுப்புனல்
போதாடி வந்த புதுப்புனல் மற்றையார்
மீதாடி னோம்தோழி நெஞ்சன்றே;

This set of verses are in Vanji-k-Kaandam, the third part of Silappathikaaram. A girl’s lover hasn’t come to see her in a long while. He is from the hills. She goes along with her friend to bathe in the water falls. In the previous verse, she says though he has forsaken me, I have come shamelessly to bathe in the water falls that flows from his hills. In these verses she says she doesn’t have reason to be miffed with the water falls. Her tiff is only with him who has not come to see her.She is possessive about the waters from his hills and thinks they are meant only for her.

“I don’t have any reason to be angry with the fresh waters that come here having caressed his hills. But if other girls frolic in these waters, my heart aches. I don’t have any reason to be angry with the fresh waters that come bearing pollen from his hills. But if other girls frolic in these waters before I do, my heart aches. I don’t have any reason to be angry with the fresh waters that come bearing flowers from his hills. But if other girls frolic in these waters, my heart aches.”

Ilango uses multiple words for ‘any reason’ – எற்றொன்றும் / என்னொன்றும் / யாதொன்றும் in order to maintain the rhyme of each verse. Similarly கற்றீண்டி / உற்றாடி , பொன்னாடி / முன்னாடி , போதாடி / மீதாடி rhymes make it a joy to read out loud in Tamil. I haven’t been able to bring that out in translation.

எற்றொன்றும் – எது ஒன்றும் – any reason
காணேம் – காண மாட்டேன் – I don’t see
புலத்தல் – tiff / be miffed
கற்றீண்டி – கல் + தீண்டி – rock caress
புதுப்புனல் – புது + புனல் – fresh water
மற்றையார் – other (girls)
உற்று – reach
ஆடின் – if  (they) frolic
நோம் – நோகும் – pains
நெஞ்சன்றே – நெஞ்சு+அன்றே – but (my) heart
என்னொன்றும் – எது ஒன்றும் – any reason
பொன் – பொன் தூள் – மகரந்தம் (?) – golden colored powder – (pollen?)
முன் – before
யாதொன்றும் – யாது + ஒன்றும் – any reason
போது – flower
மீது – on

Thirukkural – 483

Is there any work that’s impossible to do  – 
if done at the right time with right tools.

அருவினை யென்ப வுளவோ கருவியாற் 
கால மறிந்து செயின்.

No work is impossible to do if it is done at the right time with the right tools.

அரு வினை – அருமை + வினை – hard / impossible work
என்ப உளவோ – என்று கூறப்படுவது எதுவும் உள்ளதோ – is there anything called
கருவி – (right) tools
காலம் – (right) time
செயின் – செய்தோமென்றால் – if done

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