Old Tamil Poetry

Translations of Tamil Poetic works that span 2000 years

Naaladiyaar – 219

Enmity is better than friendship of the fickle;
death is better than incurable sickness;
killing is better than cruel ridicule;
criticism is better than false praise.

தெளிவு இலார் நட்பின் பகை நன்று; சாதல்
விளியா அரு நோயின் நன்றால்; அளிய
இகழ்தலின் கோறல் இனிதே; மற்று இல்ல
புகழ்தலின் வைதலே நன்று.

This poem in Naaladiyaar (anthology of poems by Jain monks, dated around 2nd Century CE) is under the chapter “Choosing friends”. Enmity of the fickle minded person is better than their friendship. The next three lines imply why it is so, without explicitly stating it. My interpretation is as follows. A fickle minded friendship is like an incurable sickness. Death is preferable to that. A friend who ridicules heartlessly is worse than one who kills you. A friend who heaps false praise is worse than one who criticises.

Puranaanooru – 184

If mature rice is harvested and consumed,
a ma’s* yield will last many days;
even a hundred sei** (goes waste)
if a single elephant enters it to eat,
as its legs trample more than what it eats;
if a judicious ruler collects as per rule,
his country yields a lot and prospers;
if ruler becomes weak, surrounded
by fawning ignoble kith and kin,
hankers after wealth mercilessly,  
like an elephant overrun field,
neither does he consume,
but his country is ruined too.

*Ma – a measure of land, roughly 1/3 of an acre
** Sei – a measure of land, roughly 1 3/4 of an acre

காய் நெல் அறுத்துக் கவளம் கொளினே,
மா நிறைவு இல்லதும், பல் நாட்கு ஆகும்;
நூறு செறு ஆயினும், தமித்துப் புக்கு உணினே,
வாய் புகுவதனினும் கால் பெரிது கெடுக்கும்;
அறிவுடை வேந்தன் நெறி அறிந்து கொளினே,
கோடி யாத்து, நாடு பெரிது நந்தும்;
மெல்லியன் கிழவன் ஆகி, வைகலும்
வரிசை அறியாக் கல்லென் சுற்றமொடு,
பரிவு தப எடுக்கும் பிண்டம் நச்சின்,
யானை புக்க புலம் போல,
தானும் உண்ணான், உலகமும் கெடுமே.

This poem by Pisiranthaiyaar advises the Pandya king to collect taxes judiciously. If rice is harvested carefully and consumed, yield of a Ma (1 Ma = roughly 1/3 of an acre) will last for many days. But yield of even a 100 Sei (1 Sei = roughly 1 3/4 of an acre) will be wasted if an elephant enters it, because it tramples much more with its legs than what it eats. Similarly, if a ruler collects taxes as per rule, his country will yield a lot to him and it will prosper too. However, if he becomes weak and on the advice of fawning relatives he collects taxes without any mercy on the populace, his country will become like an elephant entered field. He won’t get what he wishes for, but his country too will be ruined.

It is a sage advice to rulers. Collect taxes carefully. If you put too much pressure on the populace, you won’t get what you wish and your country will be ruined. Keep your relatives and yes men off the government.

யானை புக்க புலம் போல,
தானும் உண்ணான், உலகமும் கெடுமே.
I could not match the brevity of these lines. All I could muster was

Like an elephant overrun field,
neither does he consume,
but his country is ruined too.

PazhaMozhi 400 – 10

When a close friend and his foe bicker,
one who incites both as if he’s their wellwisher,
instead of taking either’s side as a friend,
is called a torch lit in both ends.

பெரிய நட்டார்க்கும் பகைவர்க்கும், சென்று,
திரிவு இன்றித் தீர்ந்தார்போல் சொல்லி, அவருள்
ஒருவரோடு ஒன்றி ஒருப்படாதாரே,
இரு தலைக் கொள்ளி என்பார்.

When a close friend and his foe have a fight, one should take the side of either one of them. One who goes and talks to both as if he is their friend and incites them, making sure that they don’t reconcile is called a torch lit in both ends. He will damage them both.

Pazhamozhi 400 (Proverbs 400) is one of the 18 post Sangam collections. It was written by முன்றுறை அரையனார் (Mundrurai Arayanar, Chief of Mundrurai) and is generally dated to around 5th Century AD.

இருதலைக் கொள்ளி – a torch lit at both ends. The phrase  இருதலைக் கொள்ளி எறும்பு – an ant stuck in a torch that burns at both ends – is in common usage in Tamil Nadu even today.

Kurunthokai – 47

Her friend says:

Dark Vengai’s* yellow blossoms strewn on rock 
make it appear as big tiger cub in the forest
he crosses in his secretive night jaunts;
You aren’t helpful, O’ white moon who stays late.

* Vengai Tree – Indian Kino / Malabar Kino tree. Of dark trunks and Yellow flowers.

தோழி கூற்று:

கருங்கால் வேங்கை வீயுகு துறுகல்
இரும்புலிக் குருளையிற் றோன்றுங் காட்டிடை
எல்லி வருநர் களவிற்கு
நல்லை யல்லை நெடுவெண் ணிலவே.

Her friend says to the moon, “You are staying up longer than you normally do. In moonlight, the rocks on which yellow flowers of Vengai tree have fallen look like big tiger cubs (black rock strips visible amidst yellow flowers) and are frightening. He has to cross this forest at night to come and meet my friend. Your staying late isn’t helping anyway. You are unwelcome.” The implied meaning to him is “Don’t take risks crossing the forest in moon light. The towns people may see you. So expedite your marriage proposal to my friend.”

The original poem simply say’s ‘Dark Vengai’s blossoms’. I have added ‘yellow’ to make it easier to understand.

vengai

herbalplantslanka.blogspot.com

NalVazhi – 11

If I ask you to give up a day’s food, you won’t;
if I ask you to eat two days’ food, you won’t;
never will you understand my torment;
it’s hard to live with you, my dreaded appetite.

ஒருநாள் உணவை ஒழியென்றால் ஒழியாய்
இருநாளுக்கு ஏலென்றால் ஏலாய்-ஒருநாளும்
என்னோ வறியாய் இடும்பைகூர் என்வயிறே
உன்னோடு வாழ்தல் அரிது.

This poem by Avvaiyar (the 3rd, of 12th Century AD) talks about the unforgiving nature of hunger. “If no food is available, you won’t give it up for a day. When excess food is available and I ask you to eat two days worth of food, you again will not. You will never understand my struggles to feed you. It is hard to live with you, my dreaded stomach”

I have used “appetite” in translation instead of “stomach” as in the original, because I felt it read better.

Naaladiyaar – 161

Oh ruler of hills where waterfalls roar!
Thinking ‘he’ll bear it’, one shouldn’t upset
flawless men among us; once they’re upset,
it’s hard for anyone to set it right.

‘பொறுப்பர்’ என்று எண்ணி, புரை தீர்ந்தார் மாட்டும்
வெறுப்பன செய்யாமை வேண்டும்; வெறுத்தபின்,-
ஆர்க்கும் அருவி அணி மலை நல் நாட!-
பேர்க்குதல் யார்க்கும் அரிது.

This poem is under the chapter பெரியாரைப் பிழையாமை – ‘Not finding fault with Great men’. Just because a genius / great man bears with it, people shouldn’t upset him by their actions. Once a great man is upset, it is difficult for any one to clear the harm caused by it. Upsetting great men will cause much grief to the country. So the ruler and people should be considerate and not hurt them.

Thirikadugam – 28

Vicious man who argues nastily to win,
One who covets an unattainable thing,
One who waits to fault other’s learning –
these three tire their arms dehusking the husk.

வெல்வது வேண்டி வெகுண்டு உரைக்கும் நோன்பியும்
இல்லது காமுற்று இருப்பானும், கல்விச்
செவிக் குற்றம் பார்த்திருப்பானும்,-இம் மூவர்
உமிக் குற்றுக் கை வருந்துவார்.

The vicious man who talks angrily in order to win an argument, the man who covets the unattainable, the man who waits to find fault in opponent’s knowledge – these three are like men who tire their arms trying to dehusk the husk. Rice has already been removed and only the husk is left over. These three are like those who try to dehusk it again. What they do is useless and will only tire them.

Puranaanooru – 196

To grant if it is possible
or to refuse if not possible,
is the practice of gallant men;
To promise when not possible
or to refuse when possible,
these two cause supplicant’s grief
and also lead to patron’s shame;
Your action is like that;
I’ve seen what my ancestors did not;
May your sons be free of illness;
I too, without cursing the heat or idling in rain,
will be on my way to my impoverished home,
a hole in a rock guarding us from the wind,
thinking of my chaste young wife who awaits me
with not a jewel on her but modesty;
May you have a good day.

ஒல்லுவது ஒல்லும் என்றலும், யாவர்க்கும்
ஒல்லாது இல் என மறுத்தலும், இரண்டும்,
ஆள்வினை மருங்கின் கேண்மைப் பாலே;
ஒல்லாது ஒல்லும் என்றலும், ஒல்லுவது
இல் என மறுத்தலும், இரண்டும், வல்லே
இரப்போர் வாட்டல் அன்றியும், புரப்போர்
புகழ் குறைபடூஉம் வாயில்அத்தை;
அனைத்து ஆகியர், இனி; இதுவே எனைத்தும்
சேய்த்துக் காணாது கண்டனம்; அதனால்,
நோய் இலராக நின் புதல்வர்; யானும்,
வெயில் என முனியேன், பனி என மடியேன்,
கல் குயின்றன்ன என் நல்கூர் வளி மறை,
நாண் அலது இல்லாக் கற்பின் வாள் நுதல்
மெல் இயல் குறு மகள் உள்ளிச்
செல்வல் அத்தை; சிறக்க, நின் நாளே!

Poet Aavoor Moovan Kilar has come to the Pandya King’s (Ilavanthikai Palli Thunjiya Nanmaran) to sing his praise and get gifts. The King neither gives a gift nor refuses, but keeps on dragging his feet. The poet is upset and wrote this poem. “Either to give or say it’s not possible to give is what gallant men do. To promise when it’s not possible and to refuse when it is possible cause grief to the supplicant and also bring shame on the benefactor. What you are doing is similar to that. Your ancestors were generous men who gave gifts to my ancestors. But I have seen what my ancestors haven’t seen. I will be on my way to my impoverished home where my wife awaits me. I won’t wait anymore here in your court even if the sun is scorching or it is raining. My home is nothing but a hole in a rock. My wife has no jewels but her innate modesty. But don’t think I am cursing you. My your sons be free of illness. May your day be good”

Even when one is upset by actions of the other, it is still a practice in Tamilnadu to say “May you be well” (நல்லா இரு) instead of cursing. This habit seems to be a left over from the Sangam era. A poets curse was thought to be potent. So he did not curse the King but just spoke about his own poverty and helplessness. At the same time, he doesn’t want to give up his self respect. Hence he says he won’t wait any more in the court but be on his way to his home. Some commentators interpret ‘poverty stricken hole in a rock home, that just protects from the wind’ as ‘our home which just protects us from the wind, where poverty hangs like a millstone’.

This poem from 2000 years ago says that things haven’t changed much. Tamil poets are impoverished yet imperious.

Puranaanooru – 191

If you ask why I haven’t greyed
though I’m advanced in age,
my wife’s noble, children clever;
my attendants act as per my wish;
my ruler is a just protector;
above all, in my town live
many a learned and humble scholar.

யாண்டுபல வாக நரையில வாகுதல்
யாங்கா கியரென வினவுதி ராயின்
மாண்டவென் மனைவியொடு மக்களு நிரம்பினர்
யாண்கண் டனையரென் னிளையரும் வேந்தனும்
அல்லவை செய்யான் காக்கு மதன்றலை
ஆன்றவிந் தடங்கிய கொள்கைச்
சான்றோர் பலர்யான் வாழு மூரே.

This poem is by Pisiranadhaiyaar, a poet in Pandya country. His friendship with Chola King KopPerun Cholan was legendary, though they had never met each other. When KopPerun Cholan decides to starve to death after a tussle with his sons for the throne, he sends news to Pisiranadhaiyaar to come and see him. But before Pisiranadhaiyaar comes, he passes away.

When Pisiranadhaiyaar is asked why he hasn’t greyed though he is old, this is his answer. “My wife is a dignified soul, my children are clever. My attendants are in line with my thinking. My ruler is just and protects us safely. Above all this I am surrounded by learned and humble scholars in my town. So I have nothing to worry about, hence I haven’t greyed”.

No wonder most of us bald and grey early these days.

Manimekalai – 16.84-90

Listen : Clear minded men give up
intoxicating toddy and taking lives;
Death of men born and rebirth of dead
is like going to sleep and waking up;
Knowing that virtuous attaining heaven
and vile men attaining hell is true,
wise men give them up.

மயக்கும் கள்ளும் மன்உயிர் கோறலும்    
கயக்குஅறு மாக்கள் கடிந்தனர் கேளாய்:
பிறந்தவர் சாதலும் இறந்தவர் பிறத்தலும்
உறங்கலும் விழித்தலும் போன்றது உண்மையின்
நல்அறம் செய்வோர் நல்உலகு அடைதலும்
அல்லறம் செய்வோர் அருநரகு அடைதலும்
உண்டுஎன உணர்தலின் உரவோர் களைந்தனர்

These lines are from Manimekalai, a Tamil Buddhist Epic. Of the 5 great Epics in Tamil literature, 3 are Jainism oriented (Seevaka Sinthamani, Silappathikaaram and Valaiyapathi) and 2 are Buddist (Manimekalai and Kundalakesi). Of the Buddisht epics, Manimekalai is the only fully extant text. Manimekalai is dated to around 6th Century AD. You can read more about Manimekalai in Wiki.

Being an epic of an ascetic religion, it propagates giving up things that cause immorality in men. Murder and drunkennes are placed at par. This verse is of a Buddhist merchant Sadhuvan who is stranded in an island with Nagas advising the Naga Chief. When Sadhuvan is castaway in the island, the Chief gives him a woman, food and wine. Sadhuvan refuses and the Naga chides him asking what’s the point of life if you give up women and food? This verse is Sadhuvan’s reply.

“Death and birth are regular occurences like going to sleep and waking up. It is well known that the virtuous attain heaven and the vile attain hell. Since wise men know this, they give up intoxicating wine and taking others lives”

Manimekalai was written to refute other competing religions of that time and hence most of its verses are moralistic. I chose these lines for their beautiful brevity, especially

பிறந்தவர் சாதலும் இறந்தவர் பிறத்தலும்,
உறங்கலும் விழித்தலும் போன்றது

Death of men born and rebirth of dead
is like going to sleep and waking up

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