Old Tamil Poetry

Translations of Tamil Poetic works that span 2000 years

Thirumandhiram – 8.8.21

Majestic toy-elephant conceals the wood
Majestic toy-elephant vanishes in the wood
Worldly elements conceal the divine
Worldly elements vanish in the divine.

மரத்தை மறைத்தது மாமத யானை
மரத்தில் மறைந்தது மாமத யானை
பரத்தை மறைத்தன பார்முதல் பூதம்
பரத்தில் மறைந்தன பார்முதல் பூதமே .

This is an oft quoted verse from Thirumoolar’s Thirumandhiram, dated to around 5th Century CE. When one sees a toy elephant, one doesn’t see the wood out of which the toy is made. The artisan’s skill makes one believe it is an elephant, not a chunk of wood. When one realises that it is nothing but a chunk of wood, the elephant vanishes from sight. Similarly, when one sees only the worldly elements that make up this world, one doesn’t realise the divine. They think that only the elements are real. But when one realises the divine, the elements vanish in the divine.

பார் முதல் பூதம் – 5 physical elements (air,land,water,sky,fire).

Thirumoolar lived around 5th Century AD (though there’s lot of debate about the chronology). He penned over 3000 verses, collected together as Thirumandhiram. This forms the 10th Thirumurai of the Saivite canon

பார் – World
பரம் – The Divine / Omnipresent

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 – 1260

Is it possible for those whose heart melts like lard placed on fire –
To say we’ll feign anger when our lover gets intimate?

நிணம் தீயில் இட்டன்ன நெஞ்சினார்க்கு உண்டோ-
புணர்ந்து ஊடி நிற்பேம் எனல்?

She’s angry with him, but when he gets intimate she can’t help mellowing down. Though she wants to feign anger, it is impossible for her as her heart melts like fat placed on fire.

நிணம் – fat /lard
புணர்தல் – get close / intimate
ஊடல் – tiff

Thirukkural – 611

Thinking task at hand is hard, one shouldn’t give up;
Untiring effort will give the strength needed.

அருமை உடைத்து என்று அசாவாமை வேண்டும்;
பெருமை முயற்சி தரும்.

One shouldn’t give into inactivity thinking that the task at hand is hard to do. The efforts put in will give the strength needed to complete the job.

There’s an ambiguity in the second line. If you read பெருமை as power / might , then ‘effort put in will give the strength needed’. If you read பெருமை as Laurel, then ‘effort put in will bring laurels’.

அருமை – difficulty
அசா‌ – idleness, lethargy
பெருமை – strength

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

Thirukkural – 191

One who utters drivel to anger learned men,
will be mocked by every one.

பல்லார் முனியப் பயன் இல சொல்லுவான்
எல்லாரும் எள்ளப்படும். 

Thiruvalluvar advises one to not talk rubbish. While this angers wise men in the community, he will be mocked and derided by all.

பல்லார் – learned men (in this context)
முனிதல் – to anger
பயன் இல – useless
எள்ளல் – reproached / mocked

Pattinaththaar – 12

Wife and kids and fame and wealth will come only till your doorway;
clansmen and kin upto cremation ground; Who’ll come further?
Even if grain sized or seed sized, good that you did earlier
will accompany and ensure your heavenly abode, I swear.

மனையாளும் மக்களும் வாழ்வும் தனமும் தன் வாயில்மட்டே
இனமான சுற்றம் மயானம் மட்டே வழிக்கேது துணை?
தினையா மளவு எள்ளளவாகிலும் முன்பு செய்ததவம்
தனையாள என்றும் பரலோகம் சித்திக்கும் சத்தியமே.

This Pattinaththaar (14th century?) poem talks about the futility of worldly attachments. Your wife, kids, fame and wealth will come only upto your doorstep when you die. Your clansmen and kin will take your body upto the crematorium. Who will accompany you on further journey? No one. Only the good that you did earlier, even if it was negligible, will accompany you and ensure that you reach your heavenly abode. This is the truth. So do good deeds and don’t hanker after fame and wealth.

Pattinathaar is amongst the most popular Siddhars (religious iconoclasts) in Tamil literature. His poems are commonly quoted even today. This particular poem received further fillip when Lyricist Kannadasan reworked the first two lines into a film song.

“வீடு வரை உறவு, வீதி வரை மனைவி, காடு வரை பிள்ளை, கடைசி வரை யாரோ, கடைசி வரை யாரோ~

மனையாள் – wife
மக்கள் – kids
வாழ்வு – life (fame)
தனம் – wealth
சுற்றம் – relatives
தினை – millet (grain)
எள் – sesame seed

Thanippadal – Kamban

Are you the only Ruler? Is yours the only fertile country?
Did I learn Tamil counting on your patronage?
Is there a Ruler who won’t rush to patronize me?
Is there a branch that doesn’t accept a monkey?

மன்னவனும் நீயோ வளநாடும் உன்னதோ
உன்னையறிந் தோதமிழை ஓதினேன் – என்னை
விரைந்துஏற்றுக் கொள்ளாத வேந்துண்டோ உண்டோ
குரங்குஏற்றுக் கொள்ளாத கொம்பு

This is one of the popular stand alone poems about Kamban, the preeminent Tamil Poet who wrote Kamba Ramayanam. Kamban’s period is generally accepted to be 12th century CE. This poem is supposed to have been his response to the Chola King who belittled him, but most probably an apocryphal story. This poem however is part of Tamil consciousness as a declaration of scholar’s pride against those in authority. In modern day, you can read it as a writer’s retort to his publisher 🙂

The Chola King Kulothunga Chola – I once belittled Kamban with harsh words. Kamban got angry, spoke this poem in the court and walked out of Chola country. He says “Do you think you are the only Ruler in this world and this country is the only prosperous country? Do you think I learnt Tamil just depending on your patronage only? This world has enough Rulers who will rush to patronise me. Is there any branch in any tree that will not accept a monkey? Like that my poetic skills and my Tamil knowledge will make many a ruler rush to patronise me”

Thirukkural – 1127

As my lover resides forever in my eyes,
I won’t even line them, lest he vanish.

கண் உள்ளார் காதலவராக, கண்ணும்
எழுதேம், கரப்பாக்கு அறிந்து.

She keeps thinking him constantly when he is not with her. She says since he resides in my eyes non stop, I won’t even line my eyes as I cannot not see him even for that short duration.

கண்ணுள்ளார் காத லவராகக் கண்ணும்
மெழுதேங் கரப்பாக் கறிந்து.

கரப்பு – hide
அறிந்து – எண்ணி – thinking

Thirukkural – 1123

O’ pupil of my eye, make way!  – fair browed girl
whom I fell in love with, has no place to stay!

கருமணியின் பாவாய்! நீ போதாய்-யாம் வீழும்
திருநுதற்கு இல்லை, இடம்!.

After spending time with him, she is leaving. He doesn’t want her to leave. He wants her image to stay in his eyes forever. So he asks the pupil in his eyes to go away and give space to the fine fore-headed girl with whom he is in love.

கருமணியுட் பாவாய்நீ போதாயாம் வீழுந்
திருநுதற் கில்லை யிடம்.

கருமணி – eye
பாவை – pupil
வீழும் – whom I fall for
திருநுதல் – திரு + நுதல் –  beautiful forehead

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