Old Tamil Poetry

Translations of Tamil Poetic works that span 2000 years

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Naan Manik Kadigai – 58

Forever will there be stars and two great lights*;
Forever will there be ailments and toil;
Forever will there be alms givers and seekers;
Forever will there be newborns and the departed.

*Two great lights – Sun and Moon

என்றும் உளவாகும், நாளும், இரு சுடரும்;
என்றும், பிணியும், தொழில், ஒக்கும்; என்றும்
கொடுப்பாரும் கொள்வாரும் அன்னர்; பிறப்பாரும்
சாவாரும் என்றும் உளர்.

This verse is about the unceasing continuity of the world. Each generation thinks it is something new, but the march of time goes on forever. The sun, moon and the stars were there yesterday, are today, will be there in future too. So are the toils of the people and maladies that prevent them from toil. Patrons and alms seekers are always there. So are new borns and the dead.

Keep in mind these poems were written 1500-1800 years ago, before we found black holes.

Thirikadugam – 58

Wealth of one who doesn’t help his kin,
Cultivation of one who doesn’t nurture his green shoots growing,
Lineage of one who spends his youth drinking –
These three appear stable, but are headed to ruin.

கிளைஞர்க்கு உதவாதான் செல்வமும், பைங் கூழ்
விளைவின் கண் போற்றான் உழவும், இளையனாய்க்
கள் உண்டு வாழ்வான் குடிமையும்,-இம் மூன்றும்
உள்ளன போலக் கெடும்.

This is poem no. 58 from Thirikadugam (திரிகடுகம்) written by poet Nalladhanar (நல்லாதனார்) about 1800 years ago. He says the wealth you don’t share with others, the crops that you don’t tend to because you are lazy, youth spent drinking – these three might look to be stable but will definitely be ruined. So take care and not embark on a path to ruin.

கிளைஞர் – Relatives

பைங் கூழ் – growing crops (green shoots)

குடிமை – Lineage

Thirukkural – 397


(For the learned) any country is his; any town is his;
Then why be unlearned till one’s death?

யாதானும் நாடு ஆமால்; ஊர் ஆமால்; என், ஒருவன்
சாம் துணையும் கல்லாதவாறு?

In this Kural Thiruvalluvar talks about importance of learning.

A learned person will be respected wherever he goes. So why do people waste their entire life without learning?

Thirukkural 196

One who uses words of inanity
isn’t called a man but chaff of humanity.

பயனில்சொற் பாராட்டு வானை மகனெனல் 
மக்கட் பதடி யெனல்.


Kambaramayanam – 10171-10173

Whole world hails my chastity;
Even Brahma can’t derail my conviction;
Yet, if the omniscient Lord doesn’t believe me,
Is there any other God who can convince him otherwise?

Lotus seated Lord, One who herds the bull,
Lord of justice with a conch in his hand-
this trinity sees everything like gooseberry on a palm,
yet, are they capable of fathoming women’s mind?

“So, for whom else should I 
prove my blemish less chastity?
It’s better to give up my life; It’s your command my lord, 
I deserve it; that’s my fate too” said she.

பார்க்கு எலாம் பத்தினி; பதுமத்தானுக்கும் 
பேர்க்கல் ஆம் சிந்தையள் அல்லள், பேதையேன்; 
ஆர்க்கு எலாம் கண்ணவன், ”அன்று” என்றால், அது 
தீர்க்கல் ஆம் தகையது தெய்வம் தேறுமோ?

பங்கயத்து ஒருவனும், விடையின் பாகனும்,
சங்குகைத் தாங்கிய தரும மூர்த்தியும்
அங்கையின் நெல்லிபோல் அனைத்தும் நோக்கினும்,
மங்கையர் மனநிலை உணர வல்லரோ?

ஆதலின் புறத்து இனி யாருக்காக என்
கோது அறுதவத்தினைக் கூறிக் காட்டுகேன்?
சாதலின் சிறந்தது ஒன்று இல்லை; தக்கதே
வேத! நின்பணி; அதுவிதியும் ‘என்றனள்.

This set of three verses are Sita bemoaning her fate when Rama accuses her of not following the Dharma and giving up her life when kidnapped by Ravana. The war is over, Ravana has bee slain; Hanuman and Vibishana go to Ashoka Vanam to bring Sita to see Rama. She is overwhelmed by joy and comes to see Rama. At this point Rama accuses her and doubts her chastity. All her joy becomes a mirage and she is grief stricken.

She says, “The whole world hails my chastity. Even the God of Creation, Brahma (who is seated on a lotus) won’t be able to change my conviction to stick to the righteous path. But what’s the use? You, who can see everything in this world say ‘No’, is there any other God I can turn to to convince you otherwise?

The Lotus seated Lord (Brahma, the creator), Lord who herds the bull (Shiva, the destroyer), Lord of Justice (Vishnu) who carries a conch in his hand – these three are all seeing. They see everything crystal clear like a gooseberry held in a palm. Yet can they understand what is inside a women’s heart?

To whom else should I prove my chastity? What is the use? It is better for me to give up my life as per your command, my Lord; I am fated to do so, and I deserve it too”. After this she walks into the fire and the power of her chastity burns the Lord of Fire himself and he comes out and proclaims her as pure.

பதுமத்தான் – பத்மத்தில் (தாமரையில் ) அமர்ந்தவன் – Brahma
பங்கயம் – பங்கஜம் – Lotus விடை – Bull
அங்கையின் நெல்லி – gooseberry on a palm (crystal clear)
கோது – fault

Naaladiyaar – 222


Though fresh flood breaks canal banks again and again,
those who depend on water for livelihood don’t curse it,
but build the banks again and again;
One whom we’ve chosen as a good friend, we bear with,
though they exasperate us again and again.

செறுத்தோறு உடைப்பினும், செம் புனலோடு ஊடார்,
மறுத்தும் சிறைசெய்வர், நீர் நசைஇ வாழ்நர்;-
வெறுப்ப வெறுப்பச் செயினும், பொறுப்பரே,
தாம் வேண்டிக் கொண்டார் தொடர்பு.

செறு – மடை – canal(?). Not sure of the English word
தோறும் – again
புனல் – flood
ஊடார் – ஊடல் கொள்ள மாட்டார் – won’t get angry
மறுத்தும் – again
சிறை செய்வார் – build again
நசை – desire
வெறுப்பு – hate (I’ve used exasperate as it is meant for friends)

Nammalwar – Thiruvai Mozhi – 3381

Oh Gods, what shall I do? This night stands like seven aeons
in front of me and weakens my soul;
My Kannan, with chakra* in his hands, hasn’t come too;
Caressing cool breeze singes me, hotter than a fiery blaze.

தெய்வங்காள் என்செய்கேன்? ஓர்இரவு ஏழ்ஊழியாய்
மெய்வந்து நின்று எனதாவி மெலிவிக்கும்
கைவந்த சக்கரத்துஎன் கண்ணனும் வாரானால்
தைவந்த தண்தென்றல் வெம்சுடரில் தான்அடுமே.

This is a verse from Nammalwar’s Thiruvai Mozhi. Nammalwar is the most prolific of the 12 Alwars (Vaishnavite Saints) and has penned 1352 of the 4000 verses in Vaishnavite canon.

In this set of verses he imagines himself as a woman in love with Krishna. She says “Oh Gods! What shall I do now. This night stretches like seven aeons in front of me. This night weakens my soul as Krishna, with Chakra in his hand, hasn’t come to meet me. Because of his absence, even this cool breeze singes me much hotter than a fiery blaze.”

தைவந்த – is interpreted as ‘caressing’ in Vaishnavite commentaries, though I can’t find that meaning in Tamil lexicon. My instict was to interpret it as ‘cool breeze in the month of Thai’. But I’ve gone with the standard commentaries.

ஊழி – aeon
ஆவி – soul / spirit
மெலிவிக்கும் – மெலிவு செய்யும் – weakens
தண்தென்றல் – cool breeze
வெஞ்சுடர் – fiery blaze
அடும் – burns

Kurunthokai – 157

‘Cock-a-doodle-do’ crows the rooster;
at which my naive heart trembles –
for it heralds rapier like dawn
that rends cuddled lovers apart.

‘குக்கூ” என்றது கோழி; அதன் எதிர்
துட்கென்றன்று என் தூய நெஞ்சம்-
தோள் தோய் காதலர்ப் பிரிக்கும்
வாள் போல் வைகறை வந்தன்றால் எனவே.

This is a popular Kurunthokai poem. The rooster has crowed. Hearing that her heart skips a beat and she is afraid. Because the arrival of dawn means separation from her lover who is in tight embrace with her. The outstanding phrase here is ‘வாள் போல் வைகறை’ – sword like dawn. Dawn has no mercy and is going to sever the lovers apart, like a sword does.

The Tamil poem says ‘cuckoo crows the rooster’. I have used the more common English version ‘cock-a-doodle-do’ instead of ‘cuckoo’.

துட்கு – fear
தூய – pure / naive
தோள் தோய் – hugging shoulders
வாள் – sword
வைகறை – dawn

Thirukkural – 605

Procrastination, forgetfulness, laziness and sleep – these four
are vessel willingly boarded by those who court ruin.

நெடுநீர் மறவி மடிதுயில் நான்கும்
கெடுநீரார் காமக் கலன்.

Thiruvalluvar saying it bluntly. He uses ‘கலன்’ – in singular for boat, though he lists four characteristics earlier. In Tamil it doesn’t sound odd, but in English it is mismatched. While translating it in English, I had to make a choice whether to use plural ‘are vessels’ or to introduce another verb like other translators have done ‘these four shape the ship’. Finally I decided to go with the original singular itself.

நெடுநீர் – procrastination
மறவி – மறதி – forgetfulness
மடி – laziness
துயில் – sleep
கெடுநீர் – ruin
காமம் – desire
கலன் – boat / vessel

Some questions I have been asked

1. Are you a Tamil scholar/expert/academic?

No, definitely not. I studied in English medium schools in various towns of Tamil Nadu. I learned Tamil only as a language, it wasn’t my medium of education. However, all my initial fiction reading was in Tamil. I read my first English book only when I was 13. My translations are part of my self learning of classical Tamil literature.

I am an Engineer by qualification. I have worked as an Engineer, Ship Chandler and now am a business owner. I have never been a teacher / academic. The beauty of Tamil is it is a living classical language, so it is easily accessible to any Tamil speaking person if he is willing to put in effort.

2. Why have a separate twitter account for translation? Why not post it in your personal account?

A separate account creates a focused brand. If I post in my personal account, it will be diluted with my personal tweets. In the polarized world we live in, my politics (I identify myself as a Liberal atheist) may not be appreciated by those who follow me only for translations. So I thought it is better to keep the accounts separate.

3.How do you choose which poem to translate?

Purely on random basis. Sometimes I select poems in line with current news events. I try to mix and match slice of life poems, aphorisms, epics and so on so that there is no monotony.

4.Why not translate in chronological order, finishing one anthology before moving on to the next?

I tried to translate Kamba Ramayanam in 2013, but couldn’t make much progress because the monotony got to me. I lack the perseverance to stick to one project. By this method of mix and match, I myself don’t know what I will be translating tomorrow. So it keeps the interest going, for me and the readers.

5.Where is your source material from?

The original poems I take from Tamilvu.org site. It is a treasure trove for Tamil literature and one of those instances where a government organization does real good.

The translations are done by me.  (Yes, I still get this query). For commentaries I rely on Tamil commentaries from Tamilvu site as well as blogs. There are many Tamil blogs that have detailed commentaries. For dictionary, again I use the Madras University Tamil lexicon in the Tamilvu site.

6.Do you think your translations are good? Why waste time?

Sangam Poetry has many translations off line and online. Thirukkural has been translated countless times. Other works have been translated in bits and pieces. So it is not like I am the first one to do this. I am my worst critic. I am aware of my drawbacks. I would like to have skills like Vikram Seth and translate metrical Tamil poetry into iambic pentameter verse. But I don’t have such skills.

I read somewhere that “you have to be willing to be bad at something before you become good at it”. That’s what I am doing. I am putting myself out there, warts and all, and trying to improve.

7. How do you find time? 

I don’t watch TV much. That frees up a lot of time. I do steal time from my family, but they have reconciled to that a long time ago. My other reading has suffered a lot since I started this project.

8. Why don’t you include Tamil commentary / audio clip for each poem?

I have a business to run too :-). This is a solo project. My skills are limited and there is only so much time I can spend. I did try recording my voice, but it came out horrible.

There are lot of Tamil commentaries available online –  தினம் ஒரு சங்கத் தமிழ் (KRS blog), 365 பா (Group blog), கற்க நிற்க (Palaniappan Vairam Sarathi), http://learnsangamtamil.com (Vaidehi Herbert), sangacholai (Dr. P Pandiaraja), http://vaiyan.blogspot.in (Sengai Pothuvan) are some I know. You can google and find more.

9. Why do you do reposts in twitter? Why not tweet only new translations?

To keep the readers engaged. This is one tip I got from twitter.com/sentantiq .

Also I am afraid that if I stop posting for one day, then I might drop the project altogether. So I impose a condition on myself that I have to post atleast one translation a day. Sometimes this leads to too much pressure on myself. No one is going to ask me why I didn’t post that day. Yet, I have to do it. In a way this project is a monkey on my back.

10. Are you bringing out a book anytime soon?

No. There is lot more to do before I can compile these into a book. Most of these translations are done last minute, sometimes while traveling in a bus or train. They are like a curate’s egg, good in parts. I need to build up a corpus of translations and clean them up before venturing to publish a book.

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