Old Tamil Poetry

Translations of Tamil Poetic works that span 2000 years

Archive for the month “March, 2017”

Muththollayiram – 37

My heart, reserve and virtue, all of them
the Ruler of river country* has seized;
My friend with flared waist like a snake’s hood!
isn’t just one-sixth of produce owed to the King?

* Ruler of River Country – Cholas in whose country River Cauvery flowed.

என்னெஞ்சு நாணு நலனும் இவையெல்லாம்
மன்னன் புனனாடன் வௌவினான் – என்னே
அரவகல் அல்குலாய் ஆறில் ஒன் றன்றோ
புரவலர் கொள்ளும் பொருள்.

Muththollayiram (Three times Nine Hundred) is an anthology of poems sung in praise of the Three Royal dynasties of Tamil Country – the Cheras, Cholas and Pandyas. Only 108 of the poems are available now. It is generally dated to around 5th Century CE.

In this poem, a girl pines for the Chola King. She says to her friend, I am so much in love with him that he has seized my heart, reserve and virtue. He owns me completely now. This is unfair. Isn’t just one sixth of the produce owed to the King. How can he seize them all?

The third line is simple in Tamil அரவு அகல் அல்குலாய் – snake hood flared waisted girl. English readers will find it odd though. The curve of the snake hood is equated the curves of the girl. அல்குல் means either ‘mound of venus’ or ‘waist’ based on context. It is one of the most contested words in Tamil. Tamil readers can read this post http://madhavipanthal.blogspot.in/2011/10/alkul.html to know more about the word அல்குல்.

Once we move beyond waist / mound of venus, we also realise that the tax rated 1500 years ago was just sixteen percent.

River Cauvery flows through the Chola Kingdom, so the Chola Kings are mentioned by the river. (Tamil readers, remember Ponniyin Selvan? Ponni is another name for Cauvery).

Kurunthokai – 97

I am here all alone; 
my virtue grieves in the shore;
coastal chief is in his hamlet;
our affair’s a gossip in public square.

யானே ஈண்டையேனே; என் நலனே
ஆனா நோயொடு கானலஃதே.
துறைவன் தம் ஊரானே;
மறை அலர் ஆகி மன்றத்தஃதே

He has left her after their love has been consummated. He hasn’t come back as promised. The town has started to gossip about their affair. So she says to her friend “I am suffering here all alone. My reserve and virtue have deserted me and are in the shore sadly. The man from the coast is in his hamlet. Our affair is now a gossip in public square.”

When she says ‘virtue is in the shore’ she hints that that’s where their love was consummated. The brevity of the original poem is remarkable, almost like a Japanese Haiku.

Thirukkural – 1224

In the absence of my lover, dusk arrives
like a harsh executioner.

காதலர் இல் வழி, மாலை, கொலைக்களத்து
ஏதிலர் போல, வரும்.

When my lover was with me, evenings were blissful. Now that he is absent, arrival of the evening is like that of a harsh executioner, out to slay my life.

Rev.G.U.Pope and Yogi Shuddhananda Bharati interpret கொலைக்களம் as battlefield. I have interpreted it as an execution square / place. Like (கொலைக்களக் காதை) in the epic Silappathikaaram. கொலைக்களத்து ஏதிலர் – Literally ‘stranger in the execution chamber’. Parimel Azhagar in his 13th Century commentary interprets ஏதிலர் – அருள் இல்லாதவர், one who is inconsiderate. I have used ‘harsh’.

Naaladiyaar – 219

Enmity is better than friendship of the fickle;
death is better than incurable sickness;
killing is better than cruel ridicule;
criticism is better than false praise.

தெளிவு இலார் நட்பின் பகை நன்று; சாதல்
விளியா அரு நோயின் நன்றால்; அளிய
இகழ்தலின் கோறல் இனிதே; மற்று இல்ல
புகழ்தலின் வைதலே நன்று.

This poem in Naaladiyaar (anthology of poems by Jain monks, dated around 2nd Century CE) is under the chapter “Choosing friends”. Enmity of the fickle minded person is better than their friendship. The next three lines imply why it is so, without explicitly stating it. My interpretation is as follows. A fickle minded friendship is like an incurable sickness. Death is preferable to that. A friend who ridicules heartlessly is worse than one who kills you. A friend who heaps false praise is worse than one who criticises.

Puranaanooru – 184

If mature rice is harvested and consumed,
a ma’s* yield will last many days;
even a hundred sei** (goes waste)
if a single elephant enters it to eat,
as its legs trample more than what it eats;
if a judicious ruler collects as per rule,
his country yields a lot and prospers;
if ruler becomes weak, surrounded
by fawning ignoble kith and kin,
hankers after wealth mercilessly,  
like an elephant overrun field,
neither does he consume,
but his country is ruined too.

*Ma – a measure of land, roughly 1/3 of an acre
** Sei – a measure of land, roughly 1 3/4 of an acre

காய் நெல் அறுத்துக் கவளம் கொளினே,
மா நிறைவு இல்லதும், பல் நாட்கு ஆகும்;
நூறு செறு ஆயினும், தமித்துப் புக்கு உணினே,
வாய் புகுவதனினும் கால் பெரிது கெடுக்கும்;
அறிவுடை வேந்தன் நெறி அறிந்து கொளினே,
கோடி யாத்து, நாடு பெரிது நந்தும்;
மெல்லியன் கிழவன் ஆகி, வைகலும்
வரிசை அறியாக் கல்லென் சுற்றமொடு,
பரிவு தப எடுக்கும் பிண்டம் நச்சின்,
யானை புக்க புலம் போல,
தானும் உண்ணான், உலகமும் கெடுமே.

This poem by Pisiranthaiyaar advises the Pandya king to collect taxes judiciously. If rice is harvested carefully and consumed, yield of a Ma (1 Ma = roughly 1/3 of an acre) will last for many days. But yield of even a 100 Sei (1 Sei = roughly 1 3/4 of an acre) will be wasted if an elephant enters it, because it tramples much more with its legs than what it eats. Similarly, if a ruler collects taxes as per rule, his country will yield a lot to him and it will prosper too. However, if he becomes weak and on the advice of fawning relatives he collects taxes without any mercy on the populace, his country will become like an elephant entered field. He won’t get what he wishes for, but his country too will be ruined.

It is a sage advice to rulers. Collect taxes carefully. If you put too much pressure on the populace, you won’t get what you wish and your country will be ruined. Keep your relatives and yes men off the government.

யானை புக்க புலம் போல,
தானும் உண்ணான், உலகமும் கெடுமே.
I could not match the brevity of these lines. All I could muster was

Like an elephant overrun field,
neither does he consume,
but his country is ruined too.

PazhaMozhi 400 – 10

When a close friend and his foe bicker,
one who incites both as if he’s their wellwisher,
instead of taking either’s side as a friend,
is called a torch lit in both ends.

பெரிய நட்டார்க்கும் பகைவர்க்கும், சென்று,
திரிவு இன்றித் தீர்ந்தார்போல் சொல்லி, அவருள்
ஒருவரோடு ஒன்றி ஒருப்படாதாரே,
இரு தலைக் கொள்ளி என்பார்.

When a close friend and his foe have a fight, one should take the side of either one of them. One who goes and talks to both as if he is their friend and incites them, making sure that they don’t reconcile is called a torch lit in both ends. He will damage them both.

Pazhamozhi 400 (Proverbs 400) is one of the 18 post Sangam collections. It was written by முன்றுறை அரையனார் (Mundrurai Arayanar, Chief of Mundrurai) and is generally dated to around 5th Century AD.

இருதலைக் கொள்ளி – a torch lit at both ends. The phrase  இருதலைக் கொள்ளி எறும்பு – an ant stuck in a torch that burns at both ends – is in common usage in Tamil Nadu even today.

Kurunthokai – 47

Her friend says:

Dark Vengai’s* yellow blossoms strewn on rock 
make it appear as big tiger cub in the forest
he crosses in his secretive night jaunts;
You aren’t helpful, O’ white moon who stays late.

* Vengai Tree – Indian Kino / Malabar Kino tree. Of dark trunks and Yellow flowers.

தோழி கூற்று:

கருங்கால் வேங்கை வீயுகு துறுகல்
இரும்புலிக் குருளையிற் றோன்றுங் காட்டிடை
எல்லி வருநர் களவிற்கு
நல்லை யல்லை நெடுவெண் ணிலவே.

Her friend says to the moon, “You are staying up longer than you normally do. In moonlight, the rocks on which yellow flowers of Vengai tree have fallen look like big tiger cubs (black rock strips visible amidst yellow flowers) and are frightening. He has to cross this forest at night to come and meet my friend. Your staying late isn’t helping anyway. You are unwelcome.” The implied meaning to him is “Don’t take risks crossing the forest in moon light. The towns people may see you. So expedite your marriage proposal to my friend.”

The original poem simply say’s ‘Dark Vengai’s blossoms’. I have added ‘yellow’ to make it easier to understand.



NalVazhi – 11

If I ask you to give up a day’s food, you won’t;
if I ask you to eat two days’ food, you won’t;
never will you understand my torment;
it’s hard to live with you, my dreadful stomach.

ஒருநாள் உணவை ஒழியென்றால் ஒழியாய்
இருநாளுக்கு ஏலென்றால் ஏலாய்-ஒருநாளும்
என்னோ வறியாய் இடும்பைகூர் என்வயிறே
உன்னோடு வாழ்தல் அரிது.

This poem by Avvaiyar (the 3rd, of 12th Century AD) talks about the unforgiving nature of hunger. “If no food is available, you won’t give it up for a day. When excess food is available and I ask you to eat two days worth of food, you again will not. You will never understand my struggles to feed you. It is hard to live with you, my dreaded stomach”


Naaladiyaar – 161

Oh ruler of hills where waterfalls roar!
Thinking ‘he’ll bear it’, one shouldn’t upset
flawless men among us; once they’re upset,
it’s hard for anyone to set it right.

‘பொறுப்பர்’ என்று எண்ணி, புரை தீர்ந்தார் மாட்டும்
வெறுப்பன செய்யாமை வேண்டும்; வெறுத்தபின்,-
ஆர்க்கும் அருவி அணி மலை நல் நாட!-
பேர்க்குதல் யார்க்கும் அரிது.

This poem is under the chapter பெரியாரைப் பிழையாமை – ‘Not finding fault with Great men’. Just because a genius / great man bears with it, people shouldn’t upset him by their actions. Once a great man is upset, it is difficult for any one to clear the harm caused by it. Upsetting great men will cause much grief to the country. So the ruler and people should be considerate and not hurt them.

Thirikadugam – 28

Vicious man who argues nastily to win,
One who covets an unattainable thing,
One who waits to fault other’s learning –
these three tire their arms dehusking the husk.

வெல்வது வேண்டி வெகுண்டு உரைக்கும் நோன்பியும்
இல்லது காமுற்று இருப்பானும், கல்விச்
செவிக் குற்றம் பார்த்திருப்பானும்,-இம் மூவர்
உமிக் குற்றுக் கை வருந்துவார்.

The vicious man who talks angrily in order to win an argument, the man who covets the unattainable, the man who waits to find fault in opponent’s knowledge – these three are like men who tire their arms trying to dehusk the husk. Rice has already been removed and only the husk is left over. These three are like those who try to dehusk it again. What they do is useless and will only tire them.

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