Old Tamil Poetry

Translations of Tamil Poetic works that span 2000 years

Archive for the month “January, 2017”

Thirukkural – 1039

If the master’s absent, his land will sulk,
and like a grumpy wife, be in strife.

செல்லான் கிழவன் இருப்பின், நிலம் புலந்து
இல்லாளின் ஊடிவிடும்.

If the owner of the land doesn’t visit his land daily and take care of farm activities, the land will start sulking and will fall out with him, like a grumpy wife. In the original text ‘grumpy’ is not explicit, but all the commentaries from 11th Century onwards mention irritable wife. I have made it explicit in the translation.

Though this couplet is under the chapter “Farming”, it is applicable to any business. If business owner doesn’t go to his place of work daily and take care of it, the business will falter.

Kambaramayanam – 604

As passion flooded, her body and soul waned
like her thread thin waist; love that entered
through her lengthy eyes, spread all over her,
like a drop of buttermilk that enters milk.

மால் உற வருதலும்,  மனமும் மெய்யும் தன்
நூல் உறு மருங்குல்போல்  நுடங்குவாள், நெடும்
கால் உறு கண் வழிப்  புகுந்த காதல் நோய்,
பால் உறு பிரை எனப், பரந்தது எங்குமே.

In Kamban’s Ramayanam, Sita and Rama meet the day before the Swayamvaram. As he walks through Mithila, he sees her standing in her palace. It is love at first sight. He walks away after that, without a word being spoken. She is love sick and suffers from his thought. This is one of the poems in that situation.

Due to immense passion her body and soul weakened and waned like her slender waist. Love that entered through her lengthy eyes spread through out her soul and consumed her. Love destroys her reserve and pervades her completely. It was like a drop of buttermilk that enters a pot of milk and spreads everywhere fermenting the milk.

This simile, like a drop of buttermilk in milk (பால் உறு பிரை என) is commonly used in Tamil literature. It is found 2000 year old Puranaanooru 276 (like a drop of buttermilk curdling the milk he destroyed the enemies), 1200 year old Manikkavasagar’s Thiruvasagam 21.5 (Siva is hidden like butter in fermented milk) and in Kambaramayanam itself again (as a simile for Lakshmana destroying the enemy formation in war.)

Silappathikaaram – Aichiar Kuravai – KoLu

One who jumps in unafraid of the furious black bull,
him does this fragrant flower tressed girl covet;
To him who tames the crimson foreheaded bull,
do arms of this golden bangled girl belong;
To him who rides the strong young bull,
does this jasmine tressed girl belong;
To him who tames the spotted white bull,
do arms of this slender girl belong;
To him who tames the freckled white bull,
does soft bosom of this slim girl belong;
To him who tames the triumphant young bull,
does this yellow flowered tressed girl belong;
To him who tames the pristine white bull,
does this dark and dusky beauty belong.

காரி கதன் அஞ்சான் பாய்ந்தானைக் காமுறும், இவ்
வேரி மலர்க் கோதையாள்; சுட்டு,
நெற்றிச் செகிலை அடர்த்தாற்கு உரிய, இப்
பொன் தொடி மாதராள் தோள்.
மல்லல் மழ விடை ஊர்ந்தாற்கு உரியள், இம்
முல்லை அம் பூங் குழல்-தான்.
நுண் பொறி வெள்ளை அடர்த்தாற்கே ஆகும், இப்
பெண் கொடி மாதர்-தன் தோள்.     
பொன் பொறி வெள்ளை அடர்த்தாற்கே ஆகும்: இந்
நன் கொடி மென்முலை-தான்.
வென்றி மழ விடை ஊர்ந்தாற்கு உரியவள், இக்
கொன்றை அம் பூங் குழலாள்.
தூ நிற வெள்ளை அடர்த்தாற்கு உரியள், இப்
பூவைப் புது மலராள்.

Bull taming (or) Jalli Kattu is one of the centuries old tradition of Tamils who lived in pastoral tracts. It was called Eru thaluvudhal, literally hugging the bull, in Sangam era. Taming a bull was a mark of bravery and women were enamored with successful bull tamers. It was a dangerous sport for the participants as being gored by the bull was regular occurrence. Unlike Spanish bull fights where the bulls are killed, here the emphasis is only on controlling the bulls.

These lines are just one of the literary evidences that talk about Eru thaluvudhal 2000 years ago. There are 7 long poems in Kaliththokai, which is earlier than Silappathikaaram, listing in detail the ritualistic bull taming.

This poem is in the Aichiar Kuravai section of the 2nd Century epic Silappathikaaram. The protagonists of the epic, Kovalan and Kannaki leave their native town of Kaveri Poom pattinam in Chola country and come to Madurai, the capital of Pandya country. Kovalan leaves Kannaki with the pastoral people in the outskirts of Madurai and goes to the city to sell Kannaki’s anklet and make money. He is wrongly accused of stealing the Queen’s anklet and is killed.

The pastoral women see bad omens in their settlement. The elder among them, Madhari, says let us sing and dance the Kuravai, which was originally sung by Nappinnai along with Lord Krishna in his youth. Seven young women hold hands together and dance around singing the praise of Krishna.

Thanippaadal – Avvaiyar

Weaver bird’s nest, lac’s resin, termite’s mound
or a beehive is hard for anyone else to do –
So do not brag I am the most skillful around,
everyone is good at something too.

வான்குருவி யின்கூடு வல்லரக்கு தொல்கரையான்
தேன்சிலம்பி யாவருக்கும் செய்யரிதால் -யான்பெரிதும்
வல்லோமே என்று வலிமைசொல வேண்டாங்காண்
எல்லார்க்கும் ஒவ்வொன் றெளிது!

This is a popular poem by poet Avvaiyar (the third Avvaiyar of 11th Century possibly). This is part of a collection of independent poems (தனிப் பாடல்), not part of any anthology. The legend is that she sang this when challenged that no one can write an epic like Kamban. Most probably an apocryphal story.

She says Don’t brag that you are the best of all. No one can create a Weaver bird’s nest (தூக்கணாங்குருவிக் கூடு) or a lac insect’s resin (அரக்கு)  or a termite mound or a beehive. Every one is good at something, so don’t brag.

I learned about lac insects and their resin while trying to understand this poem. You can read about them here. Ancients can always teach us a lesson or two.

I am sure that this poem is derived from poem no. 26 of Sirupanchamoolam, written by Kari Aasaan before 8th century. That poem has similar structure and compares silk worm’s thread and tent worm’s nest in addition to Weaver bird’s nest, lac insect’s resin and a beehive.

வான் குரீஇக் கூடு, அரக்கு, வால் உலண்டு நூல், புழுக்கோல்,
தேன் புரிந்தது, யார்க்கும் செயல் ஆகா;-தாம் புரீஇ,
வல்லவர் வாய்ப்பன என்னார்; ஒரோ ஒருவர்க்கு
ஒல்காது, ஓரொன்று படும்.

Ainkurunooru – 402

The way he lovingly caressed
and rested on her back,
as she lay cradling her son,
was joyous like spirited music
of the bard’s thrumming lyre, mother!
It was beautiful too.

புதல்வற் கவைஇய தாய் புறம் முயங்கி
நசையினன் வதிந்த கிடக்கை, பாணர்
நரம்பு உளர் முரற்கை போல,
இனிதால்; அம்ம! பண்புமார் உடைத்தே.


Pic source : Pinterest

She is at her husband’s place along with her kid. Her mom sends her Sevili (foster mother) to find out whether she is happy. This set of 10 poems (from 401-410) in Ainkuru Nooru (500 short poems) are the Sevili telling the girl’s mother how blissful she is at her husband’s place. The imagery, the mother laying next to the child cradling him while her husband lies behind her and caresses her back, warms the cockles of one’s heart. It is equated to the joy of the spirited music from the bard’s thrumming lyre. Truly a rich simile.


Kurunthokai – 40

My mom and yours, what are they to each other?
My dad and yours, how are they related?
You and me, how do we know each other?
Yet, like rain fall on red earth,
our hearts in love merged into one.
யாயும் ஞாயும் யார் ஆகியரோ?
எந்தையும் நுந்தையும் எம் முறைக் கேளிர்?
யானும் நீயும் எவ் வழி அறிதும்?
செம் புலப் பெயல் நீர் போல
அன்புடை நெஞ்சம் தாம் கலந்தனவே.

This is probably the most popular and most translated Sangam poem ever. Beauty of the poem lies in its simplicity and its unmatchable simile. They are from different clans / towns. Somehow they have met each other and fallen in love. He is leaving now after making love. She is afraid that he might not come back again. He drives away her fear with this poem.

“Our mothers aren’t related. Neither is my father related to your father. You and I didn’t know each other before meeting. Yet, we have met each other and fallen in love. Our hearts have now mingled together like rain water in red earth.” He says that despite not being related in anyway, we were destined to meet and fall in love. So there won’t be any separation between us.

The simile rain water on red earth (translated as Red earth and pouring rain by AK Ramanujan) makes this poem stand out. The rain water mixes with red earth and attains its color and characteristic. It cannot be separated back to rain water again. So have our hearts mingled together. Rain water and red earth aren’t related to each other. But their coming together makes the land fertile. Red earth is dry and waiting for the monsoon. Once the rain water falls on earth they become one and bring prosperity  to the land.

AK Ramanujan’s translation is most popular and was even put up as a poster in London Tube as part of Poems on the Underground. AKR as his wont, takes creative liberties with the structure of the poem. I prefer George L Hart’s translation which stays closer to the text. So why do I even translate the most translated Tamil poem. Because.

This poem has been used a lot in Tamil movies, most famously in Maniratnam’s Iruvar. This is my favorite

யாய் – my mother
ஞாய் – your mother
எந்தை – my father
நுந்தை – your father
கேளிர் – relative
செம்புலம் – red earth
பெயல் நீர் – rain fall

Thirukkural – 1106

உறுதோறு உயிர் தளிர்ப்பத் தீண்டலான், பேதைக்கு
அமிழ்தின் இயன்றன, தோள்.

As their touch revives my soul every time I embrace her,
this girl’s arms must be made of nectar.

Whenever he is away from her, his soul withers away. Every time he embraces her, her touch revives and rejuvenates his soul. So he says her arms must be made of nectar (life giving drink of Gods) as they revive me with their touch.

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