Old Tamil Poetry

Translations of Tamil Poetic works that span 2000 years

Archive for the month “June, 2016”

Thirukkural – 233

There’s nothing eternal in this world,
except peerless fame.

ஒன்றா வுலகத் துயர்ந்த புகழல்லாற்
பொன்றாது நிற்பதொன் றில்.

Kundalakesi – 2

Sick men don’t bother about medicine’s taste;
warmth seekers don’t bother about fire’s smoke.
Wise men won’t consider lapses in my words as lapses,
when I praise the one who overcame all three poisons.

நோய்க்குற்ற மாந்தர் மருந்தின்சுவை நோக்க கில்லார்
தீக்குற்ற காத லுடையார்புகைத் தீமை யோரார்
போய்க்குற்றமூன்று மறுத்தான்புகழ் கூறு வேற்கென்
வாய்க்குற்றசொல்லின் வழுவும்வழு வல்ல வன்றே.

Kundalakesi is one of the five great epics of Tamil literature. Three of these are Jainism based (Seevaka Sinthamani, Silappathikaaram, Valayaapathi) and two are Buddishm based (Manimekalai and Kundalakesi). Kundalakesi is estimated to have been written before 5th Century AD. Only 19 of the 99 verses of Kundalakesi are available today.

It is about Kundalakesi, daughter of a rich merchant in Puhar, who falls in love with a thief Kaalan about to be beheaded. Her father pleads with the King and saves Kaalan from death. After marriage one day she playfully calls him thief. Enraged by this , he plans to kill her and takes her to a mountain peak to push her down. When he tells this to her, she requests him to let her go around him three times as worship before being killed. He agrees. She goes behind him and pushes him down , killing him. Then she repents and becomes a Buddhist monk. She defeats Jain and Hindu scholars in theological debates.

In this poem, the poet says “see the content and forgive any mistakes in my form. Like how sick men don’t bother about the taste of medicine or those who seek warmth don’t bother about smoke from fire, those who want to learn the teachings of Buddha will overlook any mistakes I make”.

“One who overcame all three poisons” refers to Buddha. In Buddhism, three poisons – desire, hatred, ignorance or greed, anger, foolishness (காமம், வெகுளி, மயக்கம்) –  are considered root of all human misery.

Valaiyaapathi – 3

You adore the dark hued, glossy, flower decked,
beautified tresses of women, my heart!
Beautified tresses and shaped hair buns
will burn in funeral pyres one day, my heart!
Though you’ve seen them burn in funeral pyres
why do you still hanker after them, my heart!

நீல நிறத்தனவாய் நெய்கனிந்து போதவிழ்ந்து
கோலம் குயின்ற குழல்வாழி நெஞ்சே
கோலங் குயின்ற குழலுங் கொழுஞ் சிகையுங்
காலக் கனலெரியின் வேம்வாழி நெஞ்சே
காலக் கனலெரியின் வேவன கண்டாலுஞ்
சால மயங்குவ தென்வாழி நெஞ்சே.

Valaiyaapathi, written in 9th Century AD is one of the five great epics in Tamil Literature. Only 72 verses of Valaiyaapathi are available now and from these it is difficult to ascertain the story of the epic. Based on the content of these verses, it has been concluded that this a Tamil Jain literature. Tamil Nadu had dominant Jain presence for nearly thousand years from 4th Century BC to 8th Century AD. It declined with the revival of Shaivism in 8th C AD.

This verse talks about temporary nature of worldly pleasures. Jain monks naturally advocated an ascetic lifestyle.

Kurunthokai – 18

Her friend says:

O’ Lord from the hills, where bamboo stalks
fence trees that have jackfruits growing in roots,
find an auspicious time to marry her soon;
who else knows her plight?
Like a small twig in which a huge fruit hangs,
her life is tenuous, but her love, immense!

தோழி கூற்று:

வேரல் வேலி வேர்கோட் பலவின்
சார னாட செவ்வியை யாகுமதி
யாரஃ தறிந்திசி னோரே சாரற்
சிறுகோட்டுப் பெரும்பழந் தூங்கி யாங்கிவள்
உயிர்தவச் சிறிது காமமோ பெரிதே!

This is another of Kapilar’s marvellous poems. After their usual tryst at night, he starts to go to his town. Her friend stops him and advices him that this nightly visits cannot continue forever. He has to marry her soon. Let’s first look at the last four lines of the poem. “Please find an auspicious time and marry her soon. Other than you, no one knows her plight. The passion she has for you is immense. Her life cannot carry such a burden for long.” The simile she uses is a huge ripening jack fruit hanging on a small twig. The twig cannot bear the fruit’s weight and the fruit may fall anytime and burst open, of use to no one. Similarly her passion is weighing on her life and she can’t bear it for ever. So marry her soon.


Jackfruit tree in my ancestral house. Fruits in both branches and roots.

Now to the first two lines. Her friend describes his hills as where jackfruits grow in roots underground. They are in no danger of falling down and bursting open. She implies “you don’t understand the plight of your lover. Jackfruits in your country are safe from falling down and are fenced with bamboo stalks so are in no danger of being stolen. But your lover’s status is like a huge jackfruit hanging in a branch, visible to all. It may either fall down or be stolen away. So act fast”

The last line ”இவள் உயிர் தவச் சிறிது, காமமோ பெரிது” portrays the burden of love beautifully. It is one of the most beautiful phrases ever in Tamil. Translating that is a tough ask. I have settled on “her life is tenuous but her love, immense”.

Also while describing the simile Kapilar uses “சாரல் சிறுகோட்டுப் பெரும்பழம்” which literally is “Huge fruits in small twigs in (trees that grow in) mountain slopes”. I wasn’t able to bring the slopes within the structure of the poem. Hence I have skipped it.

Kambaramayanam – 6443

As He – who’s so distant that even Brahma can’t find – laughed,
wise Prahaladan who’d proclaimed, “I’ll find and show Him”,
danced; sobbed; sang excitedly; raised hands over his head;
fell at His feet; ran around, stomped the earth and jumped.

“நாடி நான் தருவென் “ என்ற  நல் அறிவாளன், நாளும்
தேடி நான்முகனும் காணாச்  சேயவன் சிரித்தலோடும்,
ஆடினான்; அழுதான்; பாடி  அரற்றினான்; சிரத்தில் செங்கை
சூடினான்; தொழுதான்; ஓடி  உலகெலாம் துகைத்தான், துள்ளி.

As Narasimha (half man, half lion) appeared in the pillar Hiranyan broke, Prahaladan was overtaken by excitement. He ran around, danced, sobbed, and jumped up and down.


Narasimha slaying Hiranyan. Prahaladan is at left hand bottom corner. At Belur, Karnataka.

This is a sculpture of Narasimha slaying Hiranyan, in Belur Temple (Karnataka). You can see Prahaladan praying at the left hand side bottom corner.

Kambaramayanam – 6439 – 6442

“He’s there in a saan*; He’s in a hundredth of an atom too;
He’s in the Meru** mountain; He’s in this pillar too;
He’s in the words you utter; you’ll see for yourself soon”
he said; derisively laughed his father, saying “Good,

The omnipresent one, whom only you and Devas pray to,
show him in this pillar; if you can’t show him here,
I’ll kill you like a mighty lion slaying a tusker,
drink your crimson blood, and eat your body too”

“My life isn’t easy for you to take; if He
doesn’t appear wherever you touch and see,
I’ll kill myself; if life is still cherished by me,”
replied the wise one, “I am not his devotee.”

Wishing to see Him, mockingly he said “well, well”,
and with his mighty hands slammed a nearby pillar
like a thunder strike; as it shattered in all directions, there
appeared the red eyed Lion, its roar making the world shudder.

* saan – a unit of measurement. Distance between tip of thumb and small finger when all fingers are spread out. Roughly 9 inches.

** Meru mountain – Mythical mountain thought to be the center of the Universe.

“‘சாணினும் உளன்; ஓர் தன்மை  அணுவினைச் சதகூறு இட்ட
கோணினும் உளன்; மாமேருக் குன்றினும் உளன்; இந் நின்ற
தூணினும் உளன்; நீ சொன்ன  சொல்லினும் உளன்; இத்தன்மை
காணுதி விரைவின் ‘என்றான்;‘நன்று எனக் கனகன் நக்கான்

‘உம்பர்க்கும் உனக்கும் ஒத்து, இவ் உலகு எங்கும் பரந்துளானை,
கம்பத்தின் வழியே காண, காட்டுதி; காட்டாய் ஆகில்,
கும்பத்திண் கரியைக் கோள்மாக் கொன்றென, நின்னைக் கொன்று உன்
செம்பு ஒத்த குருதி தேக்கி, உடலையும் தின்பென் ‘ என்றான்.

‘என் உயிர் நின்னால் கோறற்கு எளியது ஒன்று அன்று; யான் முன்
சொன்னவன் தொட்ட தொட்ட  இடந்தொறும் தோன்றான் ஆயின்,
என் உயிர் யானே மாய்ப்பல்; பின்னும் வாழ்வு உகப்பல் என்னின்,
அன்னவற்கு அடியேன் அல்லேன் ‘ என்றனன் அறிவின் மிக்கான்.

நசை திறந்து இலங்கப் பொங்கி, “நன்று, நன்று “ என்ன நக்கு,
விசை திறந்து உருமு வீழ்ந்தது என்ன ஓர் தூணின், வென்றி
இசை திறந்து உயர்ந்த கையால்  எற்றினான்; எற்றலோடும்,
திசை திறந்து அண்டம் கீறச் சிரித்தது, அச் செங்கண் சீயம்.

Slaying of Hiranyan is one of the dramatic sequences of Kamba Ramayanam. Hiranyan gets a boon from the Gods that he can be killed neither by a human nor an animal, he can be killed neither in the morning or in the night, neither in earth or on the sky. Because of this boon, he rules the world with an iron fist forcing everyone to accept himself as God. God’s name is not to be spoken anywhere. So Devas plead to Vishnu to kill Hiranyan. Hiranyan’s son Prahaladan is an ardent devotee of Vishnu. He refuses to chant Hiranyan’s name. So Hiranyan asks his soldiers to kill his own son. Due to Vishnu’s protection, Prahaladan doesn’t die whatever they do. This is the climax of that sequence.

Prahaladan says to Hiranyan, “Vishnu is everywhere in this world. You better pray to him and surrender”. Hiranyan laughs and says “if he is every where show him to me in this pillar. If not I will kill you, drink your blood and eat your dead body”. His hatred towards the Gods makes him to say such bone chilling words to his own son. Prahaladan too is no coward. He says “If Vishnu doesn’t appear where ever you touch, I will kill myself. I won’t be his devotee anymore”. Hiranyan smashes his hand on a pillar and there appears Narasimha, the avatar of Vishnu that is half man, half lion.

Kamban uses the inherent rhythm of Tamil language to build up the crescendo in this sequence of poems. If you can read Tamil, read it out loud. You’ll really love it. In the translation, I’ve used the capital H (He, Him) wherever God is spoken about.

Naanmanik Kadigai – 19

If husband is upset, his doe eyed wife is rattled;
if a scholar is upset, his learning is rattled;
if the ruled are upset, ruler is rattled;
if harp strings are upset, song is rattled.

பெற்றான் அதிர்ப்பின், பிணை அன்னாள்தான் அதிர்க்கும்;
கற்றான் அதிர்ப்பின், பொருள் அதிர்க்கும்; பற்றிய
மண் அதிர்ப்பின், மன்னவன் கோல் அதிர்க்கும்;
பண் அதிர்ப்பின், பாடல் அதிர்ந்துவிடும்.

Naanmanik Kadigai, is a collection of 101 poems written by Vilambi Naganar. This collection is considered to have been written at the same time as Silappathikaaram, around 2nd Century AD. All poems in this collection are advisory in nature. They contain 4 phrases connected by a common underlying meaning. Hence the name Naan (four) mani (gem) kadigai (fragment). Their meaning is direct and easily understood.

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