Old Tamil Poetry

Translations of Tamil Poetic works that span 2000 years

Archive for the category “Epics”

Manimekalai 11.(lines 92-96)

Benefactors to the able are traders in virtue;
Those who satiate the hunger of the feeble
embody virtuous life in this world;
To all those alive in this atom packed world –
One who gives food is one who gives life.

ஆற்றுநர்க்கு அளிப்போர் அறவிலை பகர்வோர்
ஆற்றா மாக்கள் அரும்பசி களைவோர்
மேற்றே உலகின் மெய்ந்நெறி வாழ்க்கை
மண்திணி ஞாலத்து வாழ்வோர்க்கு எல்லாம்
உண்டி கொடுத்தோர் உயிர்கொடுத் தோரே.

Manimekalai is a Buddist epic, generally dated around 5th Century CE. It follows the life of Manimekalai, who is the daughter of Madhavi from Silappathikaram (the premier epic in Tamil literature). She is given the ‘Amudha Surabhi’ (never empty food bowl) which will satiate the hunger of all living beings. While giving her the Amudha Surabhi, the goddess Deeva Thilakai explains to her the virtue of feeding the hungry.

The Goddess says “Those who give to able men who can do something back for them are just traders in virtue. They do virtuous deeds expecting something in return. Those who remove the hunger of the feeble ones embody virtuous life in this world. There are in this atom packed world. In this world one who provides food to the needy is one who gives life to them”. Feeding the hungry was considered the highest form of virtue.

The phrase “உண்டி கொடுத்தோர் உயிர்கொடுத் தோரே” – ‘One who feeds is one who gives life’ is very popular in Tamil Nadu. It is derived from Puranaanooru poem number 18. Similarly the phrase ‘அறவிலை பகர்வோர்’ – ‘traders in virtue’ is from Puranaanooru poem no. 134.

ஆற்றுநர் – those who are able (to do some thing in return)
அறம் – virtue
விலை பகர்வோர் – who tell price (trader)
ஆற்றா – unable / feeble
மாக்கள் – people
மேற்றே – follows
மெய்ந்நெறி – true path (virtuous)
மண் திணி – atom packed
ஞாலம் – world
உண்டி – food

Kambaramayanam – 619

Not his sapphire like dark hued mane,
full moon face, long arms,
or beautiful dark boulder like shoulders – but,
it was his smile that first seized my heart.

இந்திர நீலம் ஒத்து இருண்ட குஞ்சியும்
சந்திர வதனமும் தாழ்ந்த கைகளும்
சுந்தர மணி வரைத் தோளுமே அல
முந்தி என் உயிரை அம் முறுவல் உண்டதே.

After Sita and Rama eye each other for the first time, he goes away. She is struck by love at first sight and pines for him. She loses her composure and is overcome by her emotions. She says, “His hair is dark like the blue sapphire. His face is round and bright like the full moon. His arms are long and hang low. His dark shoulders are like mountains. But it wasn’t all these features that captivated me first. Before all these, I lost my heart looking at his smile.”

Long arms – arms that hang below the knees were considered as a sign of well formed man.
Dark mountain like shoulders – Though the current day TV serials show Rama almost as white as a caucasian, in the epic he is a dark hued person. Hence dark shoulders.

இந்திர நீலம் – Blue sapphire
குஞ்சி – hair
வதனம் – face
சுந்தர – beautiful
மணி – sapphire (dark)
வரை – mountain (I’ve used boulder)
அல – not
முறுவல் – smile

Valaiyaapathi – 41

Youth isn’t permanent; pleasure isn’t long lasting;
Wealth too is like that; everyday is a flood of misery;
don’t think these are forever; prepare daily for salvation
like the farmer who produces seeds for next season.

இளமையும் நிலையாவால்; இன்பமும் நின்ற அல்ல;
வளமையும் அஃதேபோல் வைகலும் துன்ப வெள்ளம்
உளஎன நினையாதே செல்கதிக்கு என்றும் என்றும்
விளைநிலம் உழுவார் போல் வித்துநீர் செய்து கொண்மின்.

Youth is not permanent. It will be over in a jiffy. The pleasure you chase in youth isn’t long lasting. So is the wealth you think you have. Life is but a flood of misery. So don’t think these (youth, pleasure and wealth) are forever. Only the good deeds you do in this birth will help you achieve salvation. So be like the farmer who works hard but doesn’t consume everything he produces. He saves seeds for the next season from this year’s harvest.

This poem is from Valaiyapathi, dated to 9th Century AD. Valaiyapathi is a Jain epic and buttresses their religious view about salvation and rebirth. As with most Tamil works, all the words in this poem are still in daily use (except வைகல்).

செல்கதி – dictionary says “salvation”. Po.Ve.Somasundaranar in his commentary interprets it as “next birth”. I decided to stick to the dictionary meaning.

நிலை – permanent
வைகல் – daily
உள – there (foerever)
செல்கதி – salvation
விளைநிலம் – farmland
வித்து – seed

Kambaramayanam – 5387

If sandal and perfume smeared
broad shouldered God’s red mouth
is compared to blooming lotus, lotus will blush;
how can we equate it to coral,
that neither utters sweet pleasant words
nor smiles with sparkling white teeth?

ஆரமும் அகிலும் நீவி
      அகன்ற தோள் அமலன் செவ்வாய்
நாரம் உண்டு அலர்ந்த செங்கேழ்
      நளினம் ‘என்று உரைக்க நாணும்;
ஈரமுண்டு அமுதம் ஊறும் இன்னுரை
மூரல் வெண்முறுவல் பூவாப்
     பவழமோ மொழியற்பாற்றே?

This verse from Kamba Ramayanam occurs when Hanuman meets Sita in Lanka. She doubts whether he is one of Ravana’s demons in disguise. She asks him to describe Rama. Hanuman describes Rama in detail, starting from his foot. In this verse he describes luscious red mouth of Rama.

“The faultless one’s shoulders are smeared with Sandal paste and perfume from agar wood. If his red mouth is compared to a blooming lotus in a pond, the lotus will feel inadequate and blush. Then how can we compare it coral? Coral does not utter pleasant words or smile with sparkling white teeth.” If a smiling (blooming) lotus can’t be compared to his red mouth, how can unsmiling coral be compared?

This is an adjective packed verse. I haven’t been able to do full justice to Kamban’s adjectives, just approximately translated to the limit of my abilities.

ஆரம் – Sandal
அகில் – incense/ perfume of Agarwood tree
அமலன் – faultless one / God
செவ்வாய் – செம்மை + வாய் – Red mouth
நாரம் – water
அலர்ந்த – flowered / bloomed
செங்கேழ் – செம்மை + கேழ் – Red colour
நளினம் – Lotus
நாணும் – Ashamed / blushed
இன்னுரை – இனிய + உரை – pleasant words
இயம்பு – speak
மூரல் – teeth
வெண்முறுவல் – white (sparkling) smile
பூவா – doesn’t produce
பவளம் – Coral
மொழி – tell (equate it to)

Kundalakesi – 18

What’s to wither will wither; what’s to bloom will bloom;
what’s to be gained will be gained; what’s to be lost will be lost;
those who realise this will neither brood nor rejoice;
the maxim what’s to happen will happen is true.

மறிப மறியும் மலிர்ப மலிரும்
பெறுப பெறும் பெற்று இழப்ப இழக்கும்
அறிவது அறிவார் அழுங்கார் உவவார்
உறுவது உறும்என்று உரைப்பது நன்று.

The above poem is from Kundalakesi, the buddhist epic. It encapsulates the Buddhist philosophy of Karma. All that happens is destined to happen based on one’s Karma in previous birth. The Tamil poem is highly concise and precise. It’s difficult to bring that brevity in the translation. I have tried my best.

“If some thing has to die it will die. All your efforts cannot save it. Similarly if something is to grow, it will grow despite hardships. If one is destined to get something, he will get it. All the world can’t stop it. Similarly if one has to lose what he has he will lose it. Wise men who realise this will not grieve when they lose something nor rejoice when they get something. The worldly saying that what is destined to happen will happen is completely true”

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.

மறிதல் – diminish / destroyed
மலிர்தல் – grow
பெறுதல் – get
இழத்தல் – lose
அறிதல் – know
அழுங்குதல் – worry
உவத்தல் – be happy
உறு – to happen


Kambaramayanam – 6186

If you say he’s one, he’s one;
if you say he’s many, he’s many;
if you say he’s not so, he’s not so;
if you say he’s so, he’s so;
if you say he’s not there, he’s not there;
if you say he’s there, he’s there;
Immense is God’s presence!
How do we achieve salvation from this world?

‘ஒன்றே’ என்னின், ஒன்றே ஆம்;
‘பல’ என்று உரைக்கின், பலவே ஆம்;
‘அன்றே’ என்னின், அன்றே ஆம்;
‘ஆமே’ என்னின், ஆமே ஆம்;
‘இன்றே’ என்னின், இன்றே ஆம்;
‘உளது’ என்று உரைக்கின், உளதே ஆம்;
நன்றே, நம்பி குடி வாழ்க்கை!
நமக்கு இங்கு என்னோ பிழைப்பு? அம்மா!

The above poem is the Invocation to God at the beginning of Yuddha Kaanda (War chapter) in Kambaramayanam. It fits in with the concept of God is everything in this world. Mere mortals can’t realise him except by surrendering to him.

If you say God is one, that’s true because he is one that created this world. If you say he is many, that is true, because everything in nature – air, sea, water, fire, space – are manifestations of him. If you ask if he is like the sun or the moon or things visible, no he is not so. If you say he is the warmth of the sun or coolness of the moon, yes, he is so. If you say he is not there, it is true, because he is invisible. If you say he is there, it is true, because his presence is felt by believers. So immense is the nature of God. How can we lowly humans ever grow out of our ignorance and realise him in this world and achieve salvation (other than by surrendering to him)?

As I repeatedly say, I am not an expert in religious interpretations. My interpretations are based on existing commentaries and the language itself. If there’s any mistake, do point it out. ‘You’ in every sentence is implied. I have made it explicit in the translation.

This verse is reminiscent of Nammalvar Paasuram

உளன் எனில் உளன் அவன் உருவம் இவ் உருவுகள்
உளன் அலன் எனில் அவன் அருவம் இவ் அருவுகள்
உளன் என இலன் என இவை குணம் உடைமையில்
உளன் இரு தகைமையொடு ஒழிவு இலன் பரந்தே (2907)

அன்று – Not
ஆம் – Yes
இன்று – No
உளது – that which is
நன்று – immense / great
நம்பி – God
குடி வாழ்க்கை – nature / characteristic
பிழைப்பு – escape / deliverance

Kambaramayanam – 44

Pink legged swans roam around like fish eyed women,
leaving their swanlings on blessed lotus flowers in the fields;
mud legged buffaloes think of their calves and secrete milk,
feeding swanlings which then sleep to the lullaby of green toads.

சேல் உண்ட ஒண் கணாரில் திரிகின்ற செங்கால் அன்னம்
மால் உண்ட நளினப் பள்ளி வளர்த்திய மழலைப் பிள்ளை
கால் உண்ட சேற்று மேதி கன்று உள்ளிக், கனைப்பச் சோர்ந்த
பால் உண்டு துயிலப் பச்சைத் தேரை தாலாட்டும் பண்ணை.

In this poem Kamban describes the bounty and beauty of farm lands of Kosala country. Pink legged swans place their young ones on lotus flowers and roam around like fish eyed women imitating their walk. The buffalos in the fields think of the calves they left behind in the cow shed and start secreting milk spontaneously. This overflowing milk feeds the young swanlings which then sleep to the lullaby of toads. The fields of the country are so fertile and their cattle so well fed, that they spontaneously secrete milk.

  1. Lotus flowers are blessed because Goddess Lakshmi resides in them.
  2. In Indian tradition fish shaped eyes mean beautiful long eyes. The western equivalent is ‘almond eyes’

Silappathikaaram – Indira Vizhavu 68-75

Offering steamed lentils, sesame seed balls, rice mixed with meat,
flowers, incense and freshly cooked rice
women hold hands together and dance in a trance
as old elegant women bless and proclaim
“In this great land ruled by our ruler
may hunger, disease and enmity leave;
may rains and wealth spring forth;”

புழுக்கலும், நோலையும், விழுக்கு உடை மடையும்,

பூவும், புகையும், பொங்கலும், சொரிந்து;

துணங்கையர், குரவையர், அணங்கு எழுந்து ஆடி;
‘பெரு நில மன்னன் இரு நிலம் அடங்கலும்
பசியும், பிணியும், பகையும், நீங்கி;
வசியும், வளனும், சுரக்க’ என வாழ்த்தி;
மாதர்க் கோலத்து, வலவையின் உரைக்கும்,
மூதில் பெண்டிர்

Today is the first day of Chittirai month in Tamil Calendar, considered an auspicious day. The above verse detailing the celebration during the month of Chittirai is from the epic Silappathikaaram, written in 2nd Century AD.

Women get together and offer steamed lentil snacks, sesame seed balls, rice mixed with meat, flowers and incense and Pongal (interpreting it as rice cooked in front of the temple, I have used freshly cooked rice) to the Protecting deity (காவல் பூதம்) at a grove in between two parts (Maruvoorp Paakkam and Pattinap Paakkam) of the town of Kaveri Poompattinam. The young women are in a trance as the Goddess enters them (அணங்கு ஏறி ஆடுதல்)  and dance traditional folk dances of Thunangai and Kuravai. Old women from their clan prays to the deity and proclaims may this great land ruled by our ruler amidst two kingdoms, may hunger, disease and enmity leave; may rains and wealth springforth”

The prayer ritual is almost the same as it is practiced in Tamil Nadu today. Most of the Tamil words in the above lines are still in use today. I never tire to repeat the saying “Glory of Tamil language is not in its antiquity, but its continuity” (தமிழின் மேன்மை அதன் தொன்மையில் இல்லை, தொடர்ச்சியில் உள்ளது)

Kambaramayanam – 34

Rushing water’s sound; cane crushers’ noise;
cane juice’s gurgle; fresh water snails’ squeak;
bull fighting bustle; crash of buffaloes jumping in water;
All these mingle to create a heady buzz in the farm lands.

ஆறு பாய் அரவம்; மள்ளர் ஆலை பாய் அமலை; ஆலைச்
சாறு பாய் ஒதை; வேலைச் சங்கின் வாய் பொங்கும் ஓசை;
ஏறு பாய் தமரம்; நீரில் எருமை பாய் துழனி; இன்ன
மாறு மாறு ஆகி தம்மின் மயங்கும் மா மருத வேலி.

Kamban uses various synonyms of “sound” in Tamil – அரவம், அமலை, ஒதை, ஓசை, தமரம், துழனி. I have tried to do the same in the English translation.

Describing various sounds of a city or land is an age old technique in Tamil literature. Similar lines can be found in Sangam poetry (Malai Padu Kadaam – lines 291 – 345, Madurai Kanchi line 260-270).

Silappathikaaram – Kaanal Vari 86-97

Fish shaped eyes, bow shaped eyebrows, dark cloud tresses,
making men ache, her flawless face is a moon, you see!
A moon, you see – that lives in fishermen’s hamlet,
afraid of being gobbled by the snake* in the sky!
Afraid of the conch’s roar, her reddened spear like eyes
swing this way and that – she’s death, you see!
Death, you see – that lives as a tender lass
in this village by the sea.
Chasing away birds that steal dried fish,
causing distress to onlookers – she’s a misery you see!
A misery, you see – in the form of a plaited girl
in this flower adorned backwaters.

* Lunar Nodes – Rahu and Ketu are personified as snakes in Hindu mythology. Eclipse is explained as snakes swallowing the Sun and the Moon.

கயல் எழுதி, வில் எழுதி, கார் எழுதி, காமன்
செயல் எழுதி, தீர்த்த முகம் திங்களோ, காணீர்!
திங்களோ, காணீர்-திமில் வாழ்நர் சீறூர்க்கே
அம் கண் ஏர் வானத்து அரவு அஞ்சி வாழ்வதுவே!
எறி வளைகள் ஆர்ப்ப, இரு மருங்கும் ஓடும்,
கறை கெழு வேல் கண்ணோ கடுங் கூற்றம், காணீர்!
கடுங் கூற்றம், காணீர்-கடல் வாழ்நர் சீறூர்க்கே
மடம் கெழு மென் சாயல் மகள் ஆயதுவே!

புலவு மீன் வெள் உணங்கல் புள் ஓப்பி, கண்டார்க்கு
அலவ நோய் செய்யும் அணங்கு இதுவோ, காணீர்!
அணங்கு இதுவோ, காணீர்-அடும்பு அமர் தண் கானல்
பிணங்கு நேர் ஐம்பால் ஓர் பெண் கொண்டதுவே!

This is from the greatest Tamil epic Silappathikaaram. Silappathikaaram is dated to 2nd Century CE. It’s themes and characters are part of public discourse in Tamil Nadu. These three verses are sung by Kovalan when he visits the beach with his courtesan, Madhavi. These verses cause them to bicker with each other and makes him leave her to go back to his wife Kannaki.

During Indira Vizha (festival of Indra), Kovalan and Madhavi go to the beach at Kaveri Poompattinam (current day Poompuhar).  River Cauvery joins the sea here. He takes the harp and starts singing. These three poems are him singing in praise of an imaginary girl at the beach. Madhavi thinks that he is in love with another girl and has a tiff with him.

First verse – Her eyes are fish shaped, brow is like a curved bow and tresses are dark like clouds. Her face makes men yearn for her. Her face is a moon, that now lives in the fisherman’s hamlet because it was afraid of snakes in the sky swallowing it. The Lunar Nodes are personified as snakes (Rahu and Ketu) in Hindu mythology. Solar and Lunar eclipses were explained as Rahu and Ketu swallowing the Sun and the moon. So Kovalan says this girl’s face is like a moon. But why did the moon come down to earth. It must have been to escape the snakes.

Second verse – The sea is throwing up conch shells which roar with noise of the sea. Hearing that she is afraid and her eyes swing either way. Her eyes are reddened. Those red eyes look like blood stained spears that take the life of him. He says her eyes are the weapons with which she kills him. She is death incarnate living like a soft spoken tender girl in this sea side village.

Third verse – She is chasing away birds that come to steal dried fish that are white in color. Seeing her move about causes distress to him. She is misery incarnate in the form of a girl wearing plaits in the backwaters which are full of flowers.

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