Old Tamil Poetry

Translations of Tamil Poetic works that span 2000 years

Thirumandhiram – 7.11.1

Heart a grand shrine, mortal body a temple,
mouth a gateway to reach the generous Lord,
to those clear of mind, soul is Shivam*;
fickle five senses are light that clears darkness.

உள்ளம் பெருங்கோயில், ஊன் உடம்பு ஆலயம்,
வள்ளல் பிரானார்க்கு வாய் கோபுர வாசல்,
தெள்ளத் தெளிந்தார்க்குச் சீவன் சிவலிங்கம்
கள்ளப் புலன் ஐந்தும் காளா மணிவிளக்கு.

* Shivam / Shivalingam – Lord Shiva, the Supreme being

This is a famous verse from Saivite saint Thirumoolar’s Thirumandhiram. 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.

“Physical body is a temple. Heart is the shrine in which Lord resides. Mouth is the gateway through which (by chanting his name) we can reach the generous Lord. To those who are clear of mind and don’t have any doubts, their Soul is Shivam (the supreme being). Our fickle five senses are lights that clear away the darkness in the temple”.

I understand this verse as “Look for the God within you. God resides in your soul. Don’t look for him outside, but chant his name. Once you lose your doubts, you will become one with Him”. I might be completely wrong too, as I am not a student of Saivite Theology.

Two important things to note in this verse.
1. He makes a difference between கோயில் & ஆலயம், which I have translated as ‘shrine’ and ‘temple’. Shrine is the inner sanctum where the God resides. Temple is the building built around it. In Tamil கோயில் – கோ + இல் (Lord’s residence). ஆலயம் – ஆன்மா+லயம் (Soul + union – where soul unites with God).

2.Another important phrase in this verse is கள்ளப் புலன் ஐந்தும்  – Fickle five senses. He doesn’t simply say five senses. Those senses are needed to drive away the darkness in your body (temple). But those are fickle / deceptive and may mislead you. So you have to keep them in control to light the way forward.

Kainnilai – 48

In his town cranes hunt for fish in paddy fields;
Let him embrace voluptuous sandal painted breasts,
and not leftovers like this old woman’s saggy breasts;
Oh bard with a fine harp! – he isn’t welcome here.

கொக்கு ஆர் வள வயல் ஊரன் குளிர் சாந்தம்
மிக்க வன முலை புல்லான், பொலிவு உடைத்தா;-
தக்க யாழ்ப் பாண!-தளர் முலையாய் மூத்து அமைந்தார்
உத்தரம் வேண்டா; வரல்.

He has been at the courtesan’s house and now wants to go back home. So he sends his bard as an advance scout to cool his wife down. She isn’t ready. She retorts to the bard “He is from the town where Cranes hunt for fish in inundated paddy fields. Like that he keeps searching for fresh fish. Let him go and embrace those voluptous sandal paste painted breasts of the courtesan. Let him not come for this old woman’s saggy breasts like reaching out for leftovers. Ask him not to come here.”

Kainnilai is one of the 18 anthologies* in post Sangam era. It originally had 60 poems, 12 each for the five landscapes of Tamil poetry. Written by Pullangadanaar in post Sangam era (between 2nd and 8th Century AD), only 45 verses are extant now. It was first published from Palm leaf manuscripts in 1931 by Anantha Rama Iyer. The commentary in Tamilvu.org site is by Sangu Pulavar, based on the source material from 1931 edition.

  • There is some debate about whether Kainnilai or Innilai (another collection of poems) is the 18th anthology.

Sivavakkiyar – 434

A solid stone you choose and break it into parts two;
the stone at entrance, you tread on till it’s worn smooth;
the stone at the sanctum, with flowers and water you shower ;
Tell me, which one of these is fit for the Supreme power.

ஓசையுள்ள கல்லைநீ உடைத்திரண்டாய் செய்துமே
வாசலிற் பதித்தகல்லை மழுங்கவே மிதிக்கின்றீர்
பூசனைக்கு வைத்த கல்லில் பூவும் நீரும் சாத்து கிறீர்
ஈசனுக்குகந்த கல்லெந்தக் கல்லு சொல்லுமே.

Sivavakkiyar, one of the prominent Siddhars (iconoclastic rebels), is known for his fiery denunciation of idol worship. He is said to have lived around 10th Century AD.

In this poem he asks which of these stones is God? There is no difference between these stones as they are from the same rock.One part of it is laid at the entrance and another worshiped as deity. So God is not in these stones, but in your heart. This iconoclasm is the leit motif of his poems.

Kambaramayanam – 3237

Her forehead’s like a bow, eyes are like spears,
teeth are like pearl and coral are her lips – ,
if I say so, words may match; meaning doesn’t;
Is there anything to compare her with?
To say Paddy is like grass, doesn’t convey it right.

வில் ஒக்கும் நுதல் என்றாலும், வேல் ஒக்கும் விழி என்றாலும்,
பல் ஒக்கும் முத்து என்றாலும், பவளத்தை இதழ் என்றாலும்,
சொல் ஒக்கும்; பொருள் ஒவ்வாதால்; சொல்லல் ஆம் உவமை உண்டோ?
“நெல் ஒக்கும் புல்” என்றாலும், நேர் உரைத்து ஆகவற்றோ

In Ramayana, after Lakshaman cuts her nose off, Surpanaka rushes to Lanka and provokes her brother Ravana to avenge her. Ravana asks who did this to her and what did you do to provoke them? She replies “I wanted the beautiful Sita with them to be your consort”. And proceeds to describe Sita’s beauty.

“I can say Sita’s forehead is curved beautifully like a bow, her eyes are sharp like spears and her teeth are even and white like pearls. Coral is her lips. But all these similes do not convey the full beauty of Sita. There’s nothing in the world to compare her with. It is like saying Paddy is like grass. Though technically right, it does not convey the riches of Paddy”

Kamban’s poems are meant to be read out loud. The cadence is a joy in itself. If you can read Tamil, read this out loud. I wasn’t able to match Kamban’s brevity, hence had to make it five lines instead of the original four lines.

Inna Narpathu – 3

To live under a murderous tyrant is misery;
to cross an ocean without a raft is misery;
friendship of the acid-tongued is a misery;
misery it is, to live a life of worry.

கொடுங் கோல் மற மன்னர் கீழ் வாழ்தல் இன்னா;
நெடுநீர் புணை இன்றி நீந்துதல் இன்னா;
கடு மொழியாளர் தொடர்பு இன்னா; இன்னா,
தடுமாறி வாழ்தல் உயிர்க்கு.

Inna Narpathu (40 poems about grief/misery) is a collection of  40 poems written by poet Kapilar (different from Kapilar of Sangam era) around 4th Century AD. Each poem lists out four thoughts on what causes grief. These are advisory in nature.

Second line of this poem can also be read as “To cross this ocean of life without support is a misery”.

Thirukkural – 621

Laugh when misery strikes! there’s no better way
to face and overcome it.

இடுக்கண் வருங்கால் நகுக! அதனை
அடுத்து ஊர்வது அஃது ஒப்பது இல்.

When misery strikes, one shouldn’t mope but laugh at its face. That’s the best way to overcome it.

Naaladiyar – 356

Tribes remember abundance of the hills;
farmers remember riches of fertile fields;
Wise men remember kindness shown to them;
Base men remember scorn heaped on them.

மலைநலம் உள்ளும் குறவன்; பயந்த
விளைநிலம் உள்ளும் உழவன்; சிறந்தொருவர்
செய்தநன் றுள்ளுவர் சான்றோர் : கயந்தன்னை
வைததை உள்ளி விடும்.

The hill tribes remember the bounty provided by the hills and praise them. Farmers remember the riches provided by fertile fields and praise them. Similarly Wise men always remember the kindness shown to them and praise their benefactors. Lowly men only remember the scorn heaped on them and will try to take vengeance.

Thanippadal – 57

With mom departs palate; with dad departs learning;
with children departs one’s riches – fine life
departs with kin, strength departs with sibling;
everything departs along with wife.

தாயோ டறுசுவைபோம் தந்தையொடு கல்விபோம்
சேயோடு தான்பெற்ற செல்வம்போம் – ஆயவாழ்(வு)
உற்றா ருடன்போம் உடற்பிறப்பால் தோள்வலிபோம்
பொற்றாலி யோடெவையும் போம்.

This poem by Avvayar (the 3rd) is about what we lose when we lose people in our life. Mother is one who cares about serving tasty food to you. Father is one from whom we constantly learn. Children are one’s valuable posessions. Kith and kin are needed for fine life. A sibling adds strength. We lose each of these when each one of them departs from our life. Wife embodies all this and more. So when you lose your wife, you loses everything.

With mother goes அறு சுவை – six tastes (sweet, sour, pungent, salt,astringent, bitter). I’ve substituted palate for it.
The word used for wife is பொற்றாலி – பொன் + தாலி meaning Golden bridal chain / Mangalsutra. I used generic wife to make it easier to understand in English.

Thirukkural – 208

Evil doers’ ruin is like the shadow
that never leaves one’s footsteps.

தீயவை செய்தார் கெடுதல் நிழல் தன்னை
வீயாது அடி உறைந்தற்று.

Ruin of the evil doers is inevitable. It won’t leave them,just like shadow that follows one without leaving him.

Kurunthokai – 58

Friends who chide! If I were to stop,
as you advice, it’ll be good for me;
Like butter on a sun burned hot rock,
guarded with eyes by an armless mute,
melting freely, spreads this malady;
it’s hard to bear and uproot!

இடிக்கும் கேளிர்! நும் குறை ஆக
நிறுக்கல் ஆற்றினோ நன்று மன் தில்ல;
ஞாயிறு காயும் வெவ் அறை மருங்கில்
கை இல் ஊமன் கண்ணின் காக்கும்
வெண்ணெய் உணங்கல் போலப்
பரந்தன்று, இந் நோய்; நோன்று கொளற்கு அரிதே!

This is one of my favorite poems in Kurunthokai. His friend chides him to stop pining for her. He says, “I too want to stop pining. If I can do that as you advice, it will be good for me. However I am powerless to stop this love sickness. It spreads across my body like butter on a hot rock guarded by an armless mute. It is hard to bear, and I am powerless to put an end to it”.

The simile “butter on a hot rock, guarded by an armless mute with his eyes” elevates this poem. The armless mute person tries to guard the butter with his eyes. But it melts freely on the hot rock. He can’t call on anyone to come and stop it nor can he stop it himself. He can only watch helplessly as the butter melts. So is the condition of our hero. He watches helplessly as love sickness takes over his life. He is powerless to stop it himself nor can he ask for help from others. It consumes him fully. Even if he wishes to, he can’t uproot it.

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