Old Tamil Poetry

Translations of Tamil Poetic works that span 2000 years

Archive for the category “Sangam”

Kurunthokai – 313

Whiskered tern in his vast seashore
picks and f
eeds on fish from flooded inky estuary,
then dwells in nearby fragrant grove; 
With him have I bonded;
this bond won’t be undone;

it’s hard to unravel, fastened forever.

பெருங் கடற் கரையது சிறுவெண் காக்கை
நீத்து நீர் இருங் கழி இரை தேர்ந்து உண்டு,
பூக் கமழ் பொதும்பர்ச் சேக்கும் துறைவனொடு
யாத்தேம்; யாத்தன்று நட்பே;
அவிழ்த்தற்கு அரிது; அது முடிந்து அமைந்தன்றே.

He hasn’t come to meet her for long. Her friend disparages him for making her grieve. She talks to her friend in support of him. “It is true that he hasn’t come to meet me. Doesn’t mean that he has forgotten me. Whiskered terns in his vast seashore come to the flooded inky black estuary to hunt for fish. After picking up the fish and eating it, they go back and dwell in nearby fragrant groves. With him have I hooked up. Our love is strong and won’t unravel easily. It is set forever, a permanent bond. Will be hard for others to undo it”

‘Tern hunting fish and going back to the grove’ is a metaphor. They have met secretly near the estuary at night. But she is sure, like how the tern goes back to the grove, he too will take her to his home as wedded wife. Tern doesn’t hunt indiscriminately. It picks and chooses. Likewise he too chose only her.

‘Hard to unravel’ is a veiled warning to her friend. “Don’t badmouth him to me. You won’t be able to change my mind about him”

Whiskered_tern_(Chlidonias_hybridus)_winter_plumage

Whiskered Tern (from Wikimedia)

சிறுவெண் காக்கை – Whiskered Tern
நீத்து நீர் – Excess Water (flooded)
இருங் கழி – dark sanded estuary
பூக் கமழ் – flower smelling (fragrant)
பொதும்பை – grove
சேக்கும் – dwells
யாத்தல் – tied / bonded
முடிந்து – tied / fastened
அமைந்து – settled / permanent / forever

Kurunthokai – 25

There was no one else but the crook himself;
if he refutes his words, what can I do?
A Kurugu*, with greenish legs like millet stalks,
too was there watching the water to hunt slippery eels,
when he made love to me.

*Kurugu – Yellow bittern, a reclusive egret kind of bird that resides in reed beds.

யாரும் இல்லை; தானே கள்வன்;
தான் அது பொய்ப்பின், யான் எவன் செய்கோ?
தினை தாள் அன்ன சிறு பசுங் கால
ஒழுகு நீர் ஆரல் பார்க்கும்
குருகும் உண்டு, தான் மணந்த ஞான்றே.

Screenshot_2018-06-02-21-47-36-832_com.instagram.android

They have consummated their love. But he is delaying the commitment of marriage. She is afraid that he may go back on his word and confides her anxiety to her friend, as all of us do: There was no witness to the passion and the promises shared – unless you count the Kurugu who was hunting eels in the river nearby.

Sangam poetry takes its cues and metaphors and also implications from nature. Hence the mention of the Kurugu has different layers of meaning.

First, it is indicative of setting. The Kurugu is reclusive and stays among bushes or river brush. It signifies the place where the couple made love – an isolated riverbank.
Second, it underlines her helplessness, since the bird after all, cannot speak – and so cannot speak for her.

Third, the bird waiting to hunt eels is a metaphor, for him, the lover, waiting to hunt her, make her his ‘conquest’. In separation, she remembers how he charmed her and begins to doubt his intentions – hence calling him a crook.

But as we know, these feelings of anxiety and doubt are quickly followed by lovers’ hope, and assurances to the self.

Kurunthokai – 57

Magandril* birds entwined together
grieve as if separated for years
even if a flower comes in between;
Like them, if we, destined to be a couple,
are separated and become single,
only way to escape that pain
is to lose our lives together,
as our love’s strong and inseparable.

பூ இடைப்படினும் யாண்டு கழிந்தன்ன
நீர் உறை மகன்றிற் புணர்ச்சி போலப்
பிரிவு அரிது ஆகிய தண்டாக் காமமொடு,
உடன் உயிர் போகுகதில்ல – கடன் அறிந்து,
இருவேம் ஆகிய உலகத்து,
ஒருவேம் ஆகிய புன்மை நாம் உயற்கே.

*Magandril – Ibis(?) like bird that lives near water bodies and rests on flowers

Their affair hase become public and she is forbidden to go out of her home by her parents. She says to her friend “I have been in love with him for long. Now my parents have separated us. This is causing me untold grief. Magandril birds that live in water grieve as if separated for years even in their embrace is interrupted for a short while by a flower coming between them. They give up their life if they are separated. Since we two are inseparable at heart and our love is getting stronger, the only way to escape this grief is for us to lose our lives together”

Tamil Wikipedia says Magandril is King Penguin, which doesn’t make sense considering the geography of Tamil country. Andril is Ibis bird. So I assume Magandril too is a species of Ibis.

P.S.A. Suicide is stupid, even if poets romanticize it. Don’t harbor such ideas.

யாண்டு – year
புணர்ச்சி – embrace
பிரிவு அரிது – hardly separated (inseparable)
தண்டா – not reducing (strong)
காமம் – love
கடன் அறிந்து – know what is to be done (destiny)
இருவேம் – two (couple)
ஒருவேம் – become one (single)
புன்மை – pain
உய் – to be saved / escape

Puranaanooru – 74

Even if a baby is stillborn or born unformed
it’d still be considered part of the Royal clan
and be inflicted with battle wound (before burying);
Will such a clan give birth to one who’s so weak
as to beg spiteful foes for water to quench his hunger;
foes who demean him by keeping him chained like a dog?

குழவி இறப்பினும், ஊன்தடி பிறப்பினும்,
‘ஆள் அன்று’ என்று வாளின் தப்பார்;
தொடர்ப் படு ஞமலியின் இடர்ப்படுத்து இரீஇய
கேள் அல் கேளிர் வேளாண் சிறு பதம்,
மதுகை இன்றி, வயிற்றுத் தீத் தணிய,
தாம் இரந்து உண்ணும் அளவை
ஈன்மரோ, இவ் உலகத்தானே?

This poem is attributed to Chera King Kanaikkal Irumporai. He loses the battle of ThirupPorpPuram to Chola King Chenkanaan and is taken prisoner. He is kept chained in prison and has to request his captors for water. He decides to give up his life instead of living in such abject condition. He says “In Royal clans, even a stillborn baby or one born unformed will be inflicted with battle wound before being buried. Will such a clan give birth to one who is reduced to beg for food and water from spiteful foes who instead of killing him honorably in the battlefield, keep him chained like a dog and demean him? I’d rather give up my life than live so abjectly.”

Dying in battle was the biggest honor for men from martial clans. So even a stillborn baby was inflicted with a battle wound before being buried.

குழவி – baby
ஊன்தடி – unformed flesh
வாளின் தப்பார் – won’t escape the sword (be inflicted with battle wound)
தொடர் – linked (chained)
ஞமலி – dog
இடர்ப்படுத்து – distress (demean)
கேள் அல் – unfriendly (spiteful)
கேளிர் – friends(used sarcastically here, hence I used foes)
வேளாண் – charity / benificence
மதுகை இன்றி – without strength (weak)
இரந்து – beg
ஈன் – give birth

Nattrinai – 234

Think of the efforts by elders (of his clan)
and lofty fame of your own clan;
It’d be good if you accept gifts from his hills –
where waterfalls bring down rich gems –
and betroth this budding girl to him;
But if you decide based on their gifts ,
even majestic chariot riding Sembian’s
-who captured his foes’ standards in Kalumalam battle-
Panguni festival celebrating Urandhai
along with Ulli festival celebrating Vanji
will be lesser in value (for our girl).

சான்றோர் வருந்திய வருத்தமும் நுமது
வான்தோய்வு அன்ன குடிமையும் நோக்கித்
திருமணி வரன்றும் குன்றம் கொண்டிவள்
வருமுலை ஆகம் வழங்கினோ நன்றே
அஃதான்று,
அடைபொருள் கருதுவிர் ஆயின் குடையொடு
கழுமலம் தந்த நற்றேர்ச் செம்பியன்
பங்குனி விழவின் உறந்தையொடு
உள்ளி விழவின் வஞ்சியும் சிறிதே.

He is from hill country. Her folks are from the plains. They belong to different clans. Both of them have fallen in love. He has send elders from his clan to her house, with gifts, asking for her hand in marriage. Her father and brothers aren’t receptive. They aren’t aware of the couple’s love affair. But her mother knows. This poem is her mother telling them to accept the wedding proposal.

“These elders have taken such pains to walk all the way to our house and brought gifts for our daughter. Think of that. Also think of the name and fame of our clan. Taking these factors into account it would be better if you accept for marriage proposal of our budding daughter with the man from the hills. His hills are so rich that the flowing waterfalls rake in gems from the hills. If you think that these gifts that they have brought in aren’t valuable enough, there are no gifts that are equal in value to our daughter. Even Panguni festival celebrating Sembian’s (Chola King) Urandhai and Ulli festival celebrating Cheran’s Vanji are no match for our daughter”.

”இவள் வருமுலை ஆகம்” – ‘This girl’s body with budding breasts’. I’ve used budding girl. Her mother hints that her daughter is in love with him, by saying “consider the pride of our clan”. With ‘waterfalls that rake in gems’, she hints that his country is wealthy enough to give her daughter in marriage to him.

Today is Panguni Uttharam festival in Tamil Nadu. It is celebrated across Murukan temples in the month of Panguni. This poem is one of the earliest mentions of Panguni festival celebrated in the banks of Cauvery river near Urandhai (present day Uraiyur, Tiruchi). From the description in Akanaanooru – 137, it must have been a festival heralding arrival of summer that later morphed into a festival in Murukan temples. Vanji is generally thought to be near present day Kodungallur in Kerala. Karur in Tamil Nadu was also called Vanji later.

சான்றோர் – Elders
வருத்தம் – painstaking efforts
வான்தோய்வு – sky high / lofty
குடிமை – clan (pride)
திருமணி – rich gems
வரன்றுதல் – வரன்டுதல் – rakes up / gathers
வருமுலை – budding breast
ஆகம் – body
அடைபொருள் – gifts received
குடையொடு – (enemy king’s) Royal Parasol
நற்றேர் – நல்ல தேர் – majestic chariot
செம்பியன் – Chola King
பங்குனி விழவு – Panguni festival
உறந்தை – Urandhai (present day Uraiyur, Trichy)
உள்ளி விழவு – Ulli festival (not sure what it is)
சிறிது – lesser

Kurunthokai – 383

When she hesitates to elope, her friend says:

Since you agreed, I passed on the message,
to him, the lord from the hills;
he waits at the place we chose;
Now you say “Let today pass by”;
My limbs are tired and weary;
Other than to flutter
like a tender shoot amidst fire,
there’s nothing else I can do.

நீ உடம்படுதலின், யான் தர, வந்து,
குறி நின்றனனே, குன்ற நாடன்;
”இன்றை அளவைச் சென்றைக்க என்றி;
கையும் காலும் ஓய்வன ஒடுங்கத்
தீ உறு தளிரின் நடுங்கி,
யாவதும், இலை, யான் செயற்கு உரியதுவே.

She has decided to elope with him and has sent him message through her friend. They have fixed a point to meet. Now at the last minute, she is having second thoughts and is jittery. Her natural shyness is holding her back. She says to her friend, “Let today pass. I will go tomorrow”. Her friend knows that she needs a push to act upon her decision. So she says, “I am tired, my hands and legs are weary . I tremble like a tender shoot amidst fire. There is nothing I can do”, implying she can’t go and tell him of the change in plans.

குறி – குறிப்பிட்ட இடம் – chosen place
குன்ற நாடன் – man from the hill country
தீ உறு தளிர் – tender shoot in middle of fire
இலை – இல்லை – nothing

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
அரமகள்
ஆம்பல்
மடுப்ப

Kurunthokai – 29

(He chides his own heart – a common monologue technique in Sangam poetry)

You discard good counsel, follow useless words;
Like an unfired clay vessel catching rain drops
Your flood of passion is beyond what my soul can hold;
You desire what’s beyond reach, my heart!
Worthwhile will be your struggle,
if you find one who holds your words close to heart
like the young one of a monkey in upper branches holding its mother tight.

நல் உரை இகந்து, புல் உரை தாஅய்,
பெயல் நீர்க்கு ஏற்ற பசுங்கலம் போல
உள்ளம் தாங்கா வெள்ளம் நீந்தி,
அரிது அவாவுற்றனை-நெஞ்சே!-நன்றும்
பெரிதால் அம்ம நின் பூசல், உயர் கோட்டு
மகவுடை மந்தி போல
அகன் உறத் தழீஇக் கேட்குநர்ப் பெறினே.

This poem by Avvayar (of Sangam era, 2200 years ago) is a personal favorite. He comes to meet her at night. Her friend refuses him permission to meet and asks him to expedite his marriage proposal. So he is going back forlorn. But his heart is still pining to meet her. He chides his heart. “You don’t listen to good advice, but follow what you want to do. Like an unfired clay vessel held to catch rain drops turning to mush, my soul cannot hold the amount of passion in you. I will break down. You desire what is beyong reach. All your struggles will be worthwhile if you can find someone who hears your grief and holds your words close to her heart, like a monkey up on the tall branch holding its young one tight.”

Two similes make this a stand out poem.

பெயல் நீர்க்கு ஏற்ற பசுங்கலம் போல – Like an unfired clay pot held to catch rain water . The clay vessel is not yet fired and hardened, hence it turns mushy once rain water falls on it. Similarly his soul can’t bear the intensity of passion. This phrase ‘உள்ளம் தாங்கா வெள்ளம் நீந்தி’ – ‘immersed in passion beyond limits of my soul’ , written about 2200 years ago, is timeless. Any Tamil speaking person today will still understand the phrase. Such brevity and beauty.

மகவுடை மந்தி போல – like a monkey carrying its young one. If she hears you and holds your words close to your heart as tight as a monkey carrying its young one. If she values your feelings so much, that she holds them tight. Not normal tight, but as tight as a monkey holding its young one tight as it jumps from tall branches.

பெயல் நீர் – rain water
பசுங்கலம் – fresh (unfired) clay vesselவெள்ளம் – ஆசை வெள்ளம் – flood of passion
அரிது – rare / beyond reach
அவாவுற்றனை – desired
நன்றும் பெரிதால் – lot of good / worthwhile
பூசல் – struggle
உயர் கோட்டு – tall branch
மகவுடை – with kid
மந்தி – monkey
அகன் உற – close to heart
தழீஇ – holds / embraces

Puranaanooru – 278

The old woman’s stomach is shriveled like lotus leaves;
veins stand out in her weak and withered shoulders;
on hearing many a person say that her son fled
after losing to the enemy, she angrily declared
“if he retreated from the battle field,
I’ll chop off my breasts that fed him”;
with a sword she went and searched the bloody field
from which bodies were yet to be removed;
on seeing her son’s dismembered body,
she felt happier than the day she birthed him.

நரம்பெழுந் துலறிய நிரம்பா மென்றோள்
முளரி மருங்கின் முதியோள் சிறுவன்
படையழிந்து மாறின னென்றுபலர் கூற
மாண்டமர்க் குடைந்தன னாயி னுண்டவென்
முலையறுத் திடுவென் யானெனச் சினைஇக்
கொண்ட வாளொடு படுபிணம் பெயராச்
செங்களந் துழவுவோள் சிதைந்துவே றாகிய
படுமகன் கிடக்கை காணூஉ
ஈன்ற ஞான்றினும் பெரிதுவந் தனளே.

Pura Naanooru is an anthology of 400 poems about external world – wars, kings and warriors. This is one of the popular poems which is used by politicians of all hues to whip up the glorious bravery of Tamils of yesteryears. The old woman has sent her son to battle field. She is reed thin, veins stand out in her shoulders, her stomach is shrivelled like dry lotus leaves. People bringing news from battle field say that her son ran away from the battle field after losing to the enemy. She is incensed on this blot to her clan. She declares angrily, “if it is true that he retreated from the battle field, I will chop of my breasts that fed him. He is no more my son”. She takes a sword in her hand and enters the battlefield to find whether it is true that her son ran away. The bodies are yet to be removed from the battlefield, which is still red with the blood spilt that day. She searches among those bodies. Finally she finds her son’s dismembered body amidst the battlefield. She feels joyful that her son held up her clan prestige and died bravely in the battle field instead of running away. The joy she felt (that he had upheld clan pride) was much more than the joy she felt when she gave birth to him.

“படையழிந்து மாறினன்” – U Ve Saa interprets this as “he retreated after losing”. Avvai Duraisamy Pillai in his commentary interprets it as “he was injured in the back while retreating and killed”. I have followed U Ve Saa’s interpretation as I think it makes more sense. George L Hart too follows U Ve Saa.

The original poem flows in one single sentence. It was difficult to maintain that structure without making the poem clunky. So I have split it into sentences.

நரம்பு – blood vessels / veins
உலறிய – dry
நிரம்பா – not full / withered
மென் தோள் – soft shoulders
முளரி – lotus
மருங்கு – waist
படை அழிந்து மாறினன் – lost to enemy and fled
மாண்டமர் – மாண் + அமர் – great battle
படுபிணம் – dead bodies
செங்களம் – (blood) red field
சிதைந்து வேறாகிய – destroyed and cut into pieces
படுமகன் – dead son
ஈன்ற – birthed
ஞான்று – day
உவத்தல் – happy

Puranaanooru – 185

Wagon of governance that drives the world
with wheel and axle joined together,
will have a smooth path without obstacles
if wagoner is skillful; if he’s inept in driving,
it will get mired in slush of enmity daily,
bringing more and more misery.

கால்பார் கோத்து ஞாலத் தியக்கும்
காவற் சாகா டுகைப்போன் மாணின்
ஊறின் றாகி யாறினிது படுமே
உய்த்த றேற்றா னாயின் வைகலும்
பகைக்கூ ழள்ளற் பட்டு
மிகப்பஃறீநோய் தலைத்தலைத் தருமே.

This poem written by King Thondaiman Ilanthirayan, advises a ruler on how to rule his country with movement of wagons as a metaphor. Movement in the world happens when wheel and axle are joined together. It is similar to how a ruler rules his country. If the ruler who directs his country’s progress is skillful, the path ahead will be smooth with no obstacles. But if he is weak and indecisive in driving the country forward, its progress will get mired in the slush of enmity often and will create much misery to his subjects.

The first part of the poem was tough to translate. Some commentaries explained it as “Like how wheel and axle joined together drive a vehicle, does movement in the world occur. So the king who drives the wagon of governance..” But the source poem doesn’t have the word ‘போல்’ – ‘like’ for it to be treated as a simile. Other commentaries treat it as a metaphor “Wagon of governance that’s driven in the world with wheel and axle together..”. I have followed this. However what do wheel and axle stand for in the metaphor is not clear. Or may be ‘Wagon of governance’ and movement of vehicles is equated in the metaphor with ‘wheel and axle’ treated as they are.

Such ambiguity is what makes it a pleasure to read and interpet the classics.

கால் – Wheel
பார் – Axle
கோத்து – joined
ஞாலம் – world
இயக்கும் – operate
காவல் – guard / governance
சாகாடு – Wagon
உகைப்போன் – driver / wagoner
மாண் – skillful / great
ஊறு – obstacle
இன்றி – without
இனிது – smooth
உய்த்தல் – to drive
தேற்றுதல் – making clear / decisive
வைகல் – daily
பகை – enmity
கூழ் – slush
அள்ளல் – mire
மிகப்பஃறீநோய் – மிக + பல + தீ + நோய் – lots of misery
தலைத்தலை – more and more

Post Navigation