Old Tamil Poetry

Translations of Tamil Poetic works that span 2000 years

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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.

Thirukkural – 491

Don’t start any work (against a foe), don’t taunt – till

you’ve found the right place to encircle!

தொடங்கற்க எவ் வினையும்; எள்ளற்க-முற்றும்
இடம் கண்டபின் அல்லது!


When engaging an enemy you should lie low till you have found the right place to besiege and best him. Till that time you shouldn’t make the enemy know that you are preparing for war and do no mock / taunt the enemy. The right place decides the outcome of the battle. 

Thirukkural – 1183

He took my beauty and modesty away – 
giving misery and pallor in its place.

சாயலும் நாணும் அவர் கொண்டார்-கைம்மாறா
நோயும் பசலையும் தந்து.

He has left her and gone away. She agonizes over him and starts to weaken. Her friend advises her to take care of herself and not let the town  know about her tryst with him. She replies “While leaving me he took away my beauty and modesty with him, giving me love sickness and pallor in return”

கொண்டார் – is interpreted either as “got it from me – பெற்றுக் கொண்டார்” (by Dr. Mu. Va.) or “took it away from me – எடுத்துக் கொண்டு சென்றார்”(by Parimel Alagar and Devaneya Paavaanar). I have gone with Paavaanar’s interpretation.

சாயல் – beauty
நாண் – shame / modesty
கைம்மாறு – in return / in its place
நோய் – (love) sickness
பசலை – wanness / pallor

Thirukkural – 236

If one’s born, be born to achieve glory;
One who can’t, is better not born.


தோன்றின், புகழொடு தோன்றுக! அஃது இலார்
தோன்றலின் தோன்றாமை நன்று


Everybody born in this world must strive to achieve glory. If one does not strive, his life’s wasted and he’s better not born.

Thirukkural – 1286

In his presence, I don’t notice his faults;
In his absence, I notice only his faults.

காணுங்கால் காணேன் தவறு ஆய; காணாக்கால்,
காணேன், தவறு அல்லவை.

She pines for him and tells herself “when I see him I don’t see his faults. But when I don’t see him, I see only his faults.” All her anger about his long absence vanishes the moment she see him. 

I have taken liberty to translate “When I see him / don’t see him” as “in his presence / absence” and “I don’t notice anything but his faults” as “I notice only his faults”

Thirukkural – 1021

There’s no greater dignity than to say
“I will not slack in my duty”

‘கருமம் செய’-ஒருவன்-’கைதூவேன்’ என்னும்
பெருமையின், பீடு உடையது இல்.

This Kural is in the Chapter ‘Clan Duty’ -குடி செயல்வகை. Hence Parimel Azhagar (13th Century) and Devaneya Paavaanar (20th Century) interpret duty as one’s duty towards upliftment of his clan / society.

Thirukkural – 1255

Dignity to not grieve over one who caused them grief
is not something a love sick person knows.

செற்றார்பின் செல்லாப் பெருந்தகைமை, காம நோய்
உற்றார் அறிவது ஒன்று அன்று.

He has been away from her for long. She is angry with him for making her suffer. Yet, she cannot dismiss him from her thoughts. When her friend asks her to forget him, she says lovesick persons lack such dignity.

Kambaramayanam – 5293

She took it; hugged it to her bosom;  
placed on her head; pressed to her eyes;  
her shoulders lifted; she sagged;
she was at peace; she longed feverishly; sighed;
is it possible to describe her state  of mind?

வாங்கினள் : முலைக்குவையில்
    வைத்தனள் : சிரத்தால்
தாங்கினள் : மலர்க்கண் மிசை
    ஒத்தினள் : தடம்தோள்
வீங்கினள், மெலிந்தனள் :
    குளிர்ந்தனள், வெதுப்போடு
ஏங்கினள் : உயிர்த்தனள் :
    இது இன்னது எனல் ஆமே?

This poem describes Sita’s reaction when Hanuman meets her in Lanka and gives her Rama’s ring (கணையாழி) to identify himself. Sita had given up hope that Rama will come to save her and is on the verge of killing herself. So when Hanuman comes bearing news from Rama, she is overcome by emotion. That ring becomes Rama for her. She takes the ring, hugs it in her bosom, places it in her head, presses it to her eyes. Her shoulders lift up. She sags. She is at peace . She longs feverishly. Sighs. All at the same time. Kamban, the poet, wonders can one define her state?

Tol Kappiyam (தொல்காப்பியம் – Old Tome), the defining book of Tamil Grammar, lists 8 types of physical display of one’s mental state. (எண் வகை மெய்ப்பாடு). These are – laughter, crying, wretchedness, surprise, fear, pride, anger, delight.

நகையே அழுகை இளிவரல் மருட்கை
அச்சம் பெருமிதம் வெகுளி உவகையென்று
அப்பால் எட்டாம் மெய்ப்பா டென்ப

Sita’s overwhelming reaction was across the spectrum that one cannot decide from her reaction what she was going through.

Thirukkural – 148

For the wise, manliness of not coveting other’s wife
is not only virtue, but moral duty too.

பிறன் மனை நோக்காத பேர் ஆண்மை, சான்றோர்க்கு
அறன் ஒன்றோ?ஆன்ற ஒழுக்கு.

Thriruvalluvar says “To not look at/ covet other man’s wife is not just a virtue for wise men. It is their moral duty too.”

Puranaanooru – 85

Since this isn’t my man’s town,
since this isn’t my man’s country,
“He won, he won”, say some;
“He didn’t” say some others;
Great, these townsmen talk both ways;
I ran with my anklets tinkling,
stood near the wide palm beside my house,
and saw for myself his victory.

என்னைக்கு ஊர் இஃது அன்மையானும்,
என்னைக்கு நாடு இஃது அன்மையானும்,
‘ஆடு ஆடு’ என்ப, ஒரு சாரோரே;
‘ஆடு அன்று’ என்ப, ஒரு சாரோரே;
நல்ல, பல்லோர் இரு நன் மொழியே;
அம் சிலம்பு ஒலிப்ப ஓடி, எம் இல்,
முழாஅரைப் போந்தை பொருந்தி நின்று,
யான் கண்டனன், அவன் ஆடு ஆகுதலே.

Chola King PeruNarKilli (பெருநற்கிள்ளி) is a stranger to poetess Nakkannayaar’s (நக்கண்ணையார்) country. He is participating in a wrestling match in her town. Since he is a stranger, there are some who support him and some who don’t. She is confused and runs to see what is happening. She is glad to see for herself that he has won.

This is a beautiful slice of life poem, written roughly 2000 years ago. Poems 83-85 are by Nakkannayaar writing about her passion towards PeruNarKilli.

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