Old Tamil Poetry

Translations of Tamil Poetic works that span 2000 years

Moodhurai – 15

Like a venom remover who cures a striped tiger
becoming its fodder then and there –
help offered to petty minded ingrates
is a mud pot hitting a rock.

வேங்கை வரிப்புலிநோய் தீர்த்த விடகாரி
ஆங்கதனுக் காகார மானாற்போல்-பாங்கறியாப்
புல்லறி வாளர்க்குச் செய்த உபகாரங்
கல்லின்மே லிட்ட கலம்.

When a tiger was bit by a snake and poisoned, it fell sick. A physician felt sorry for it and removed the poison. Once the tiger was back on its feet, it ate the venom remover then and there. Such is the help rendered to the ungrateful who are petty minded. It will be like a mud pot thrown on a rock breaking into splinters and hurting the one who threw it. So when you offer help, make sure it is to the deserving.

The second simile – ‘help to ingrates is like a vessel hitting rock’ is a little awkward. Why equate ‘help rendered’ to ‘throwing a pot’? கலம் is like English ‘vessel’, can mean both a bowl and a boat. If we take it as a boat, then the last line will read ‘is a boat hitting a rock’ which too makes the simile convoluted.

Moodhurai (literal meaning – Elder’s words) written by Avvayar (the 3rd) is generally dated to around 12th Century AD.

வேங்கை – cheettah
வரிப் புலி – striped tiger
விட காரி – poison remover
ஆங்கு – there
ஆகாரம் – food
பாங்கறியா – பாங்கு + அறியா – manner less / ingrates
புல்லறிவாளர் – petty minded
கலம் – vessel

Thirukkural – 439

Never ever marvel at one’s own self!
Never wish to do a deed that yields no good!

வியவற்க, எஞ்ஞான்றும் தன்னை! நயவற்க,
நன்றி பயவா வினை!

Thiruvalluvar’s advice to Rulers. Never think too highly of oneself. Never even wish to do things that do not result in public good. வியத்தல் – wonder / marvel எஞ்ஞான்று – any day நயத்தல் – wish

Thirukkural – 672

Delay doing things that need to be delayed;
delay not those that are not to be delayed.

தூங்குக தூங்கிச் செயற்பால தூங்கற்க
தூங்காது செய்யும் வினை.

Nature of some jobs need them to done in gradual fashion. One shouldn’t rush to do them. Some other jobs needs to be done without delay. They should be done at the earliest.
தூங்கு – delay

Kambaramayanam – 9370

When day by day like a waxing moon you grew,
I undertook an austere vow 
to see Indra defeated by the bow you drew;
What vow did I undertake now 
to see your beheaded body, what did I do!
Will I, an abject soul, still desire this impermanent life?

கலையினால் திங்கள் என்ன   
    வளர்கின்ற காலத்தே உன்,
சிலையினால் அரியை வெல்லக்   
    காண்பதோர் தவம்முன் செய்தேன்;
தலை இலா ஆக்கை காண   
    எத் தவம் செய்தேன்! அந்தோ!
‘நிலை இலா வாழ்வை இன்னும்   
    நினைவெனோ, நினைவு இலாதேன்?

Indrajit (one who defeated Indra) has been defeated in the battle with Rama and beheaded. A grief stricken Ravana goes to the battlefield and brings his son’s headless body back. On seeing Indrajit’s body, his mother Mandodari laments and castigates herself in pity. This is one of the verses in that chapter.

“When you were growing up as an young man like a growing moon, I prayed to God to see you defeat Indra and undertook austere vows. What austere vow did I undertake to see your headless body, my son? Should I, a thoughtless woman and an abject soul, still desire to live this impermanent life. Won’t it be better if I die now”

The last line ‘நிலை இலா வாழ்வை இன்னும்  நினைவெனோ’  – ‘Will I still desire this impermanent life’ is a perfect example of alliteration and meaning coming together in Kamban’s poetry.

கலை – with skills
திங்கள் – moon
சிலை – bow
அரி – Indra
ஆக்கை – யாக்கை – body

Puranaanooru – 278

The old woman’s stomach is shriveled like lotus leaves;
veins stand out in her weak and withered shoulders;
on hearing many a person say that her son fled
after losing to the enemy, she angrily declared
“if he retreated from the battle field,
I’ll chop off my breasts that fed him”;
with a sword she went and searched the bloody field
from which bodies were yet to be removed;
on seeing her son’s dismembered body,
she felt happier than the day she birthed him.

நரம்பெழுந் துலறிய நிரம்பா மென்றோள்
முளரி மருங்கின் முதியோள் சிறுவன்
படையழிந்து மாறின னென்றுபலர் கூற
மாண்டமர்க் குடைந்தன னாயி னுண்டவென்
முலையறுத் திடுவென் யானெனச் சினைஇக்
கொண்ட வாளொடு படுபிணம் பெயராச்
செங்களந் துழவுவோள் சிதைந்துவே றாகிய
படுமகன் கிடக்கை காணூஉ
ஈன்ற ஞான்றினும் பெரிதுவந் தனளே.

Pura Naanooru is an anthology of 400 poems about external world – wars, kings and warriors. This is one of the popular poems which is used by politicians of all hues to whip up the glorious bravery of Tamils of yesteryears. The old woman has sent her son to battle field. She is reed thin, veins stand out in her shoulders, her stomach is shrivelled like dry lotus leaves. People bringing news from battle field say that her son ran away from the battle field after losing to the enemy. She is incensed on this blot to her clan. She declares angrily, “if it is true that he retreated from the battle field, I will chop of my breasts that fed him. He is no more my son”. She takes a sword in her hand and enters the battlefield to find whether it is true that her son ran away. The bodies are yet to be removed from the battlefield, which is still red with the blood spilt that day. She searches among those bodies. Finally she finds her son’s dismembered body amidst the battlefield. She feels joyful that her son held up her clan prestige and died bravely in the battle field instead of running away. The joy she felt (that he had upheld clan pride) was much more than the joy she felt when she gave birth to him.

“படையழிந்து மாறினன்” – U Ve Saa interprets this as “he retreated after losing”. Avvai Duraisamy Pillai in his commentary interprets it as “he was injured in the back while retreating and killed”. I have followed U Ve Saa’s interpretation as I think it makes more sense. George L Hart too follows U Ve Saa.

The original poem flows in one single sentence. It was difficult to maintain that structure without making the poem clunky. So I have split it into sentences.

நரம்பு – blood vessels / veins
உலறிய – dry
நிரம்பா – not full / withered
மென் தோள் – soft shoulders
முளரி – lotus
மருங்கு – waist
படை அழிந்து மாறினன் – lost to enemy and fled
மாண்டமர் – மாண் + அமர் – great battle
படுபிணம் – dead bodies
செங்களம் – (blood) red field
சிதைந்து வேறாகிய – destroyed and cut into pieces
படுமகன் – dead son
ஈன்ற – birthed
ஞான்று – day
உவத்தல் – happy

Thirukkural – 115

Loss or gain is nothing new; to not lose evenness of mind
is the adornment of the learned.

கேடும் பெருக்கமும் இல்லல்ல நெஞ்சத்துக்
கோடாமை சான்றோர்க் கணி.

To lose one’s possessions or to gain the same is not something new. It is natural in the course of life. So the learned scholars do not lose their mind and deviate from fairness in both cases. That evenness is what defines them.

கேடு – loss
பெருக்கம் – gain
இல் அல்ல – இல்லாதவை அல்ல – not something new
கோடு – deviation
அணி  – adornment

Kambaramayanam – 1103

Is it anything new to discard 
golden jewels and dresses worn externally?
A bright foreheaded woman discarded
modesty residing in her heart too;-
Like an ascetic who undertakes
severe forms of renunciation,
to forego one’s self

is a characteristic of passion too.

பொன் அருங் கலனும், தூசும்,
     புறத்து உள துறத்தல் வம்போ?
நல் நுதல் ஒருத்தி. தன்பால்
    அகத்து உள நாணும். நீத்தாள்;-
உன்ன அருந் துறவு பூண்ட
    உணர்வுடை ஒருவனேபோல்.
தன்னையும் துறக்கும் தன்மை
     காமத்தே தங்கிற்று அன்றே.


This poem is in the Revelry chapter (உண்டாட்டுப் படலம்) recording  revelries of women accompanying Dasaratha to Mithila. Kamban says “To give up external adornments like jewels and dress is nothing new. Anybody can do it. But this woman gives up modesty that resides in her heart and hankers after her man. Like ascetics who give up their self and undertake severe forms of renunciation, love makes these women discard their self and forget their reserve.”

Thirukkural – 573

Of what use is a tune, if it is not harmonious to sing?
Of what use is an eye, that lacks a kind sight?

பண் என் ஆம், பாடற்கு இயைபு இன்றேல்?-கண் என் ஆம்,
கண்ணோட்டம் இல்லாத கண்?

A tune that is not harmonious to sing is of no use. It provides no pleasure to the listener. Similarly an eye that lacks compassion is of no use. Though one may see with those eyes, it is as good as not seeing. ‘Use’ is not explicit in the original verse. I have made it explicit in translation.

The Tamil word கண்ணோட்டம் means kindly / benign / compassion, with the root word கண் – eye; ‘looking kindly at the other person.’.

‘பாடற்கு – பாடுவதற்கு – to sing’. Both Parimel Alagar and Devaneya Paavaaanar interpret it this way. However Mu Va and others treat it as ‘பாடலுக்கு – to the song’. G.U.Pope too in his translation interprets it as ‘to the song’ . Hence my translation differs from his.

பண் – Tune
இயைபு – suitable / harmonious
கண்ணோட்டம் – kindness / compassion

Thirukkural – 305

To guard oneself, one should guard against anger!
If not guarded, anger will kill the angry person himself.

தன்னைத் தான் காக்கின், சினம் காக்க! காவாக்கால்,
தன்னையே கொல்லும், சினம்.

Puranaanooru – 185

Wagon of governance that drives the world
with wheel and axle joined together,
will have a smooth path without obstacles
if wagoner is skillful; if he’s inept in driving,
it will get mired in slush of enmity daily,
bringing more and more misery.

கால்பார் கோத்து ஞாலத் தியக்கும்
காவற் சாகா டுகைப்போன் மாணின்
ஊறின் றாகி யாறினிது படுமே
உய்த்த றேற்றா னாயின் வைகலும்
பகைக்கூ ழள்ளற் பட்டு
மிகப்பஃறீநோய் தலைத்தலைத் தருமே.

This poem written by King Thondaiman Ilanthirayan, advises a ruler on how to rule his country with movement of wagons as a metaphor. Movement in the world happens when wheel and axle are joined together. It is similar to how a ruler rules his country. If the ruler who directs his country’s progress is skillful, the path ahead will be smooth with no obstacles. But if he is weak and indecisive in driving the country forward, its progress will get mired in the slush of enmity often and will create much misery to his subjects.

The first part of the poem was tough to translate. Some commentaries explained it as “Like how wheel and axle joined together drive a vehicle, does movement in the world occur. So the king who drives the wagon of governance..” But the source poem doesn’t have the word ‘போல்’ – ‘like’ for it to be treated as a simile. Other commentaries treat it as a metaphor “Wagon of governance that’s driven in the world with wheel and axle together..”. I have followed this. However what do wheel and axle stand for in the metaphor is not clear. Or may be ‘Wagon of governance’ and movement of vehicles is equated in the metaphor with ‘wheel and axle’ treated as they are.

Such ambiguity is what makes it a pleasure to read and interpet the classics.

கால் – Wheel
பார் – Axle
கோத்து – joined
ஞாலம் – world
இயக்கும் – operate
காவல் – guard / governance
சாகாடு – Wagon
உகைப்போன் – driver / wagoner
மாண் – skillful / great
ஊறு – obstacle
இன்றி – without
இனிது – smooth
உய்த்தல் – to drive
தேற்றுதல் – making clear / decisive
வைகல் – daily
பகை – enmity
கூழ் – slush
அள்ளல் – mire
மிகப்பஃறீநோய் – மிக + பல + தீ + நோய் – lots of misery
தலைத்தலை – more and more

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