Old Tamil Poetry

Translations of Tamil Poetic works that span 2000 years

Thanippadal – Kamban

Are you the only Ruler? Is yours the only fertile country?
Did I learn Tamil counting on your patronage?
Is there a Ruler who won’t rush to patronize me?
Is there a branch that doesn’t accept a monkey?

மன்னவனும் நீயோ வளநாடும் உன்னதோ
உன்னையறிந் தோதமிழை ஓதினேன் – என்னை
விரைந்துஏற்றுக் கொள்ளாத வேந்துண்டோ உண்டோ
குரங்குஏற்றுக் கொள்ளாத கொம்பு

This is one of the popular stand alone poems about Kamban, the preeminent Tamil Poet who wrote Kamba Ramayanam. Kamban’s period is generally accepted to be 12th century CE. This poem is supposed to have been his response to the Chola King who belittled him, but most probably an apocryphal story. This poem however is part of Tamil consciousness as a declaration of scholar’s pride against those in authority. In modern day, you can read it as a writer’s retort to his publisher 🙂

The Chola King Kulothunga Chola – I once belittled Kamban with harsh words. Kamban got angry, spoke this poem in the court and walked out of Chola country. He says “Do you think you are the only Ruler in this world and this country is the only prosperous country? Do you think I learnt Tamil just depending on your patronage only? This world has enough Rulers who will rush to patronise me. Is there any branch in any tree that will not accept a monkey? Like that my poetic skills and my Tamil knowledge will make many a ruler rush to patronise me”

Thirukkural – 1127

As my lover resides forever in my eyes,
I won’t even line them, lest he vanish.

கண் உள்ளார் காதலவராக, கண்ணும்
எழுதேம், கரப்பாக்கு அறிந்து.

She keeps thinking him constantly when he is not with her. She says since he resides in my eyes non stop, I won’t even line my eyes as I cannot not see him even for that short duration.

கண்ணுள்ளார் காத லவராகக் கண்ணும்
மெழுதேங் கரப்பாக் கறிந்து.

கரப்பு – hide
அறிந்து – எண்ணி – thinking

Thirukkural – 1123

O’ pupil of my eye, make way!  – fair browed girl
whom I fell in love with, has no place to stay!

கருமணியின் பாவாய்! நீ போதாய்-யாம் வீழும்
திருநுதற்கு இல்லை, இடம்!.

After spending time with him, she is leaving. He doesn’t want her to leave. He wants her image to stay in his eyes forever. So he asks the pupil in his eyes to go away and give space to the fine fore-headed girl with whom he is in love.

கருமணியுட் பாவாய்நீ போதாயாம் வீழுந்
திருநுதற் கில்லை யிடம்.

கருமணி – eye
பாவை – pupil
வீழும் – whom I fall for
திருநுதல் – திரு + நுதல் –  beautiful forehead

Moodhurai – 12

Thazhai‘s* petals are bigger, yet Magizh‘s** scent is sweeter;
Don’t dismiss any one because they are physically smaller-
The ocean is vast, yet its water isn’t good to even cleanse,
A nearby small spring’s water though is good enough to drink.

*Thazhai – Screw Pine flower / Kewra flower
**Magizh – Bakul (Hindi) / Spanish Cherry / Bullet wood tree flower with small petals

மடல்பெரிது தாழை மகிழினிது கந்தம்
உடல்சிறிய ரென்றிருக்க வேண்டா-கடல்பெரிது
மண்ணீரு மாகா ததனருகே சிற்றூறல்
உண்ணீரு மாகி விடும்.

This is a straight forward poem. Don’t dismiss anyone because they are smaller in stature. To explain this the poet uses two examples. Though the petals of screw pine flower (Thazhai) are bigger , the scent from smaller Bullet wood tree flower (Maghizam poo) are sweeter. Similarly, though the ocean is vast, its water cannot be used even to wash oneself. It will be salty and sticky. But a small spring near the ocean might have water that is good enough to drink.

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

கந்தம் – scent / fragrance
மண்ணீர் – கழுவும் நீர் – water to cleanse
உண்ணீர் – உண்ணும் நீர் – drinking water


Screw Pine Flower / தாழம் பூ

Bakula, Bullet WoodFlower

Bakul / Bullet Wood tree flower / மகிழம் பூ







Thirukkural – 605

Procrastination, forgetfulness, laziness and sleep – these four
are vessel willingly boarded by those who court ruin.

நெடுநீர் மறவி மடிதுயில் நான்கும்
கெடுநீரார் காமக் கலன்.

Thiruvalluvar saying it bluntly. He uses ‘கலன்’ – in singular for boat, though he lists four characteristics earlier. In Tamil it doesn’t sound odd, but in English it is mismatched. While translating it in English, I had to make a choice whether to use plural ‘are vessels’ or to introduce another verb like other translators have done ‘these four shape the ship’. Finally I decided to go with the original singular itself.

நெடுநீர் – procrastination
மறவி – மறதி – forgetfulness
மடி – laziness
துயில் – sleep
கெடுநீர் – ruin
காமம் – desire
கலன் – boat / vessel

Thirukkural – 423

Whatever words we hear, uttered by whomsoever,
Wisdom is to discern real meaning of those words.

எப் பொருள் யார் யார் வாய்க் கேட்பினும், அப் பொருள்
மெய்ப்பொருள் காண்பது-அறிவு.

Don’t go by who said it. Go by what is said. Analyze those words, find out the real meaning behind them and act upon it. That is what Wisdom is. Much needed advise in Twitter.

Paripadal 10 – Lines 74-78

Women with shark shaped chains adorning their forehead,
take out the silver bowl from its dark casing
like moon that rises up parting the belly of clouds, pour warm toddy,
hold it in their hands like a snake closing in on the full moon,
and drink it with their red lily lips like celestial women drinking moonlight.

முகில் அகடு கழி மதியின்
உறை கழி வள்ளத்து உறு நறவு வாக்குநர்
அரவு செறி உவவு மதி என அங்கையில் தாங்கி
எறி மகர வலயம் அணி திகழ் நுதலியர்
மதி உண் அர_மகள் என ஆம்பல் வாய் மடுப்ப

Paripadal is one of the latter day Sangam works. It originally contained 70 poems, out of which only 22 are available today. These lines are from poem no. 10 singing the praise of River Vaigai that flows through Madurai. After the rains, fresh floods flow in Vaigai. It is a day of revelry for young men and women. The poem details about the festive spirit on the banks of Vaigai. These lines are rich in similes, I have tried my best to translate them.

Women’s forehead is framed with shark shaped chains (?) (மகர வலயம்). They take out shining white silver bowls from its dark casing. It looks like moon rising up from belly of dark clouds.  They pour warm toddy in those bowls and hold it in their palm. The shining bowl in their hand looks like a snake closing in on the moon. They place the bowl in their red lily like lips and drink it. They look like celestial women drinking moonlight.

holding bowl

Holding bowl in hand, looking like a snake swallowing moon

முகில் – cloud
அகடு – belly
கழி – part / tear
மதி – moon
உறை – cover / casing
வள்ளம் – bowl
நறவு – toddy
வாக்குநர் – one who pours
அரவு – snake
செறி – closing
உவவு மதி – full moon
அங்கை – beautiful hands
எறி மகர வலயம் – chain in the shape of attacking shark
நுதலியர் – women whose forehead

Thirukkural – 272

What’s the use of lofty ascetic appearance – if one does
what his own heart knows is wrong.

வானுயர் தோற்ற மெவன்செய்யுந் தன்னெஞ்சந்
தானறி குற்றம் படின்.


Sivavakkiyar – 35

 What are temples? What are holy tanks?
You misers worshipping in temples and tanks,
temples and holy tanks are within one’s mind;
Nothing, nothing, nothing is created or destroyed.

கோயிலாவது ஏதடா குளங்களாவது ஏதடா 
கோயிலும் குளங்களும் கும்பிடும் குலாமரே 
கோயிலும் மனத்துளே குளங்களும் மனத்துளே 
ஆவதும் அழிவதும் இல்லைஇல்லை இல்லையே.

Siddhar Sivavakkiyar, dated to around 10th Century CE was one of the leading rebel poets in Tamil literature. Siddhars were iconoclastic rebels whose thoughts were against the organised Vedic religion. Their main idea was one had to find God within oneself and not rely on temples and rituals.

In these verses he chides those who go to temples and sacred tanks for salvation. He says find God within you and not in these temples and tanks.  God can neither be created or destroyed by mortals. The last line I interpret it as “all that in this world only transforms into another form. There is nothing that is created new nor destroyed”.

/Joke/Simply put, The first law of thermodynamics 🙂

குலாமர் – miser.

Thirukkural – 1145

More one gets drunk, more is a drink desirable;
more our love gets gossiped, more is it blissful.

களித்தொறுங் கள்ளுண்டல் வேட்டற்றாற் காமம் 
வெளிப்படுந் தோறு மினிது.

Her friend advises her to pipe down as her love is becoming town gossip. She says “Like a drunkard relishing his drink as he gets more drunk, I relish our love more as our affair is gossiped and revealed to the public”.

This is under the chapter அலர்அறிவுறுத்தல் – Affair becomes public (Literal meaning is ‘Advising about Town gossip’)

களி – intoxicated
வேட்டல் – desirable

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