Old Tamil Poetry

Translations of Tamil Poetic works that span 2000 years

Archive for the tag “Silappathikaaram”

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)

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.

Silappathikaaram – Aichiar Kuravai – KoLu

One who jumps in unafraid of the furious black bull,
him does this fragrant flower tressed girl covet;
To him who tames the crimson foreheaded bull,
do arms of this golden bangled girl belong;
To him who rides the strong young bull,
does this jasmine tressed girl belong;
To him who tames the spotted white bull,
do arms of this slender girl belong;
To him who tames the freckled white bull,
does soft bosom of this slim girl belong;
To him who tames the triumphant young bull,
does this yellow flowered tressed girl belong;
To him who tames the pristine white bull,
does this dark and dusky beauty belong.

காரி கதன் அஞ்சான் பாய்ந்தானைக் காமுறும், இவ்
வேரி மலர்க் கோதையாள்; சுட்டு,
நெற்றிச் செகிலை அடர்த்தாற்கு உரிய, இப்
பொன் தொடி மாதராள் தோள்.
மல்லல் மழ விடை ஊர்ந்தாற்கு உரியள், இம்
முல்லை அம் பூங் குழல்-தான்.
நுண் பொறி வெள்ளை அடர்த்தாற்கே ஆகும், இப்
பெண் கொடி மாதர்-தன் தோள்.     
பொன் பொறி வெள்ளை அடர்த்தாற்கே ஆகும்: இந்
நன் கொடி மென்முலை-தான்.
வென்றி மழ விடை ஊர்ந்தாற்கு உரியவள், இக்
கொன்றை அம் பூங் குழலாள்.
தூ நிற வெள்ளை அடர்த்தாற்கு உரியள், இப்
பூவைப் புது மலராள்.

Bull taming (or) Jalli Kattu is one of the centuries old tradition of Tamils who lived in pastoral tracts. It was called Eru thaluvudhal, literally hugging the bull, in Sangam era. Taming a bull was a mark of bravery and women were enamored with successful bull tamers. It was a dangerous sport for the participants as being gored by the bull was regular occurrence. Unlike Spanish bull fights where the bulls are killed, here the emphasis is only on controlling the bulls.

These lines are just one of the literary evidences that talk about Eru thaluvudhal 2000 years ago. There are 7 long poems in Kaliththokai, which is earlier than Silappathikaaram, listing in detail the ritualistic bull taming.

This poem is in the Aichiar Kuravai section of the 2nd Century epic Silappathikaaram. The protagonists of the epic, Kovalan and Kannaki leave their native town of Kaveri Poom pattinam in Chola country and come to Madurai, the capital of Pandya country. Kovalan leaves Kannaki with the pastoral people in the outskirts of Madurai and goes to the city to sell Kannaki’s anklet and make money. He is wrongly accused of stealing the Queen’s anklet and is killed.

The pastoral women see bad omens in their settlement. The elder among them, Madhari, says let us sing and dance the Kuravai, which was originally sung by Nappinnai along with Lord Krishna in his youth. Seven young women hold hands together and dance around singing the praise of Krishna.

Silappathikaaram – Kanal Vari – 17

Your elders live by entering the ocean and killing life;
you too live by entering a human body and killing my life;
heavy are your breasts, pushing against their confines;
let them rest against me, lest you lose your slender waist.

கடல் புக்கு, உயிர் கொன்று, வாழ்வர் நின் ஐயர்;
உடல் புக்கு, உயிர் கொன்று, வாழ்வைமன் நீயும்;
மிடல் புக்கு அடங்காத வெம் முலையோ பாரம்;
இடர் புக்கு இடுகும் இடை இழவல் கண்டாய்!

This poem is from SilapPathikaram, the earliest and greatest epic in Tamil literature. The epic is dated to 2nd Century CE.  It describes the Tamil society of that era in detail.

This poem is sung by the protagonist, Kovalan when he visits the beach with the courtesan Madhavi. He sings of an imaginary fisherwoman. Madhavi is piqued and in return she sings about River Kaveri as a woman pining for her lord. This creates a rift between Kovalan and Madhavi and leads to their separation.

“You are from the fishing community. Your father and your brothers enter the ocean to kill fish and live by that. Similarly you have entered a human form and kill my life and live by that. Your breasts are heavy and struggle to be contained in their confines. So don’t lose your slender waist unable to carry the burden of your breasts. Rest them against me”

Rest them against me is implied and not explicit in the original. I have included it in the translation for better comprehension.


We praise the sun! we praise the sun!-
as he circles the golden peak of Mount Meru
like the Royal Signet of the rulers of Cauvery.

ஞாயிறு போற்றுதும்! ஞாயிறு போற்றுதும்!-
காவிரி நாடன் திகிரிபோல், பொன் கோட்டு
மேரு வலம் திரிதலான்

These lines are from the foreword of Tamil epic Silappathikaaram. Mount Meru is the mythical sacred mountain of Hindus, Buddhists and Jains, considered to be the center of the Universe. bit.ly/1sqA0AN.

The Sun is the source of energy for life in this world. The Rulers of Cauvery (Cholas) are like the sun, enriching this life. It can also mean that Chola Royal Signet rules the whole world, like the Sun does..

Silappathikaaram – ManaiAram Padutha Kaathai 73-80

O’ blemishless Gold! O’ pristine Pearl!
O’ faultless Incense! O’ sugar! O’ honey!
Hard to acquire woman! elixir of life!
Noble merchant’s dazzling daughter!
– Ruby not born in the mountain?
– Nectar not born in the ocean?
– Melody not born in the harp?
How shall I extol thee, long dark tressed woman!

மாசு அறு பொன்னே! வலம்புரி முத்தே!
காசு அறு விரையே! கரும்பே! தேனே!
அரும் பெறல் பாவாய்! ஆர் உயிர் மருந்தே!
பெருங்குடி வாணிகன் பெரு மட மகளே!
மலையிடைப் பிறவா மணியே என்கோ?
அலையிடைப் பிறவா அமிழ்தே என்கோ?
யாழிடைப் பிறவா இசையே என்கோ?
தாழ் இருங் கூந்தல் தையால்! நின்னை

This is one of the more popular poems of the epic Silappathikaaram. Even the Tamils who haven’t read Silappathikaram would have heard the first two lines.

This is Kovalan praising his wife Kannaki on their first night. Five things he calls her are equated to five senses. Gold (sight), Pearl (touch), Incense (smell), Sugar cane (taste), Honey dripping voice (hearing). More romantic of the commentary writers expand it as “He calls her blemishless gold. She smiles a little, opening her mouth. Her teeth are like pearls. As he comes near her she smells divine. He kisses her and tastes her sweetness. She sheds her inhibition and starts talking. Her voice is like honey”

Kovalan and Kannaki are from the merchant caste. Her father MaaSaathuvan was the leading merchant of Pukar (Poompuhar) town. Kovalan praises her family and then goes on to extol her virtues. “You are like a rare ruby, but you weren’t born in the mountains. You are like the hard to get nectar, but you weren’t born in the ocean (remember the nectar Devas and Asuras found by churning the ocean). You are like melodious music, but you were not born in the harp”

In the first line the literal translation for pearl is வலம்புரி முத்தே – pearl found in the right hand conch. The right hand conch (சங்கு) is rare to find and the pearl formed in it is of better quality. I have used ‘pristine’ instead of unwieldy ‘right hand conch’. In the second line the word விரை (virai) is given in Tamil dictionary as an aromatic substance made of five ingredients. I have used ‘incense’ for easy reading. In the last four lines I have slightly altered the structure for better readability in English.

Silappathikaaram – IndiraVizhavu Kaathai 224-234

Like God of love’s massive army
is her* ire; facing her, calming her
and after getting her sandal paste all over him,
the broad shouldered husband enters his house
with a guest, to the chaste woman
he’s wedded to and living with.
‘Dark eyes in her bright face,
that shame blue water lily petals,
are red and do not cool down despite the guest.
Does this universe have anything to soothe her?’
he shivers helplessly


உருவிலாளன் ஒரு பெரும் சேனை
இகல் அமர் ஆட்டி, எதிர் நின்று விலக்கி, அவர்
எழுது வரிக் கோலம் முழு மெயும் உறீஇ,
விருந்தொடு புக்க பெரும் தோள் கணவரொடு-
உடன் உறைவு மரீஇ, ஒழுக்கொடு புணர்ந்த,
வடமீன் கற்பின், மனை உறை மகளிர்;
‘மாதர் வாள் முகத்து, மணித் தோட்டுக் குவளைப்
போது புறங்கொடுத்துப் போகிய செங் கடை
விருந்தின் தீர்ந்திலது ஆயின்,யாவதும்
மருந்தும் தரும் கொல்,இம் மா நில வரைப்பு?’ என
கையற்று நடுங்கும்

Line no 224-234 of IndiraVizhavu  chapter of Pukaar Kaandam in Silapathikaaram. This chapter details the Festival of Indira in Poompukar town. A man goes to a courtesan’s house. She is angry with him, her anger is huge like the God of Love’s army. He pacifies her with sweet words, makes love to her and leaves. Her sandal paste marks are all over his body. He goes to his home and on the way picks up a guest so that his wife won’t show her anger in front of a guest. However the wife sees the marks on his body and her eyes redden. Even the presence of a guest doesn’t lessen her anger. The man is helpless as his tactic hasn’t worked.He wonders whether this universe has any potion to soothe her, while shivering in front of her.

Always remember to remove the lipstick marks 🙂

Silappathikaaram – Nadukal Kaathai 165-168

Like actors on stage, a soul too,
doesn’t play the same role again;
“A soul’s rebirth follows one’s actions”
are the words of wise men

ஆடும் கூத்தர்போல்,ஆர்உயிர் ஒருவழி,
கூடிய கோலத்து,ஒருங்கு நின்று,இயலாது;
“செய் வினை வழித்தாய் உயிர் செலும்”என்பது
பொய்இல் காட்சியோர் பொருளுரை

This is from Silappathikaram,the pre eminent epic of Tamil literature. This poem is part of advice given by the minister to angry Chera King Senguttuvan. Line no. 165-168 in Nadukal Kaathai, chapter in Silappathikaaram, Vanji Kaandam.

A soul is not the same in different births. Depending on good or bad done in previous birth, its fate changes in next birth. This is similar to actors playing various roles on stage. Though the actor is same, the roles he play differs.

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