Tamil Poets

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Love songs or poems are probably found in every culture. Dealing as they do with an intense emotional experience felt by all, they are also a very old feature of verbal culture. The Tamil love poems given here may have been composed in southern India during the period 400-300 BCE.

        The fragments of Egyptian love poems that have survived are primarily praise of the lover or poems of longing. The Tamil poems also include praise and longing as their subjects, but also include poems of mutual joy. In these and other features, there is some similarity between the classic Tamil love poems and the Hebrew Song of Songs. Father Mariaselvam, whose translations from different anthologies of early Tamil love poems are given here, points out similarities in the use of the cities as similes for the beauty of a girl (Tirzah and Jerusalem in the Hebrew poems; Kutal, Arkkatu, Tonti, and others in the Tamil ones). And the idea that female beauty is awe inspiring is found in both groups.

        Whereas there are some 28 smaller units or poems in the Song of Songs, there are more than 1000 Tamil love poems. These are usually divided into two genres: Akam, or personal and intimate poems, and Puram, or social and exterior poems. Only a few extracts of Akam poems are presented here. Praise poems have been put first, then poems of longing, and finally poems of joy at being together. In the Tamil tradition, an indication is given of who is speaking the poem. Each extract is identified by its location in the anthology from which it is taken.





1   What her companion said:


"Like a kurinci flower,.

that blossomed just this morning

on the high mountain, is her body.

Like flowers from a large fountain, put side by side,

are her eyes cool and eye-brows dark.

Like that of a peacock is her beauty.

Like that of a red-striped parrot is her speech.

Her upper arms are large.

Like that of a statue is her form;

such is this girl"

With loving heart and in many ways

so praises the mother and never forgets this maid

whose fragrant hairs do not fail to be scented with oil.

        Narrinai 301



2   What he said to her:


O young maid, making a garland

out of the summer-patiri,

full-petalled flowers that grow near 

the sandy ford of forest river bank,

more furious than the eyes are your breasts,

more furious than the breasts are your broad upper arms!

        Ainkurunuru 361



3   What he said to his friend:


The darling-young daughter of the hill-chief is she,

in complexion like the heavenly dames on mountains,

in beauty, wonder-inspiring,

with blossomed breasts,

her mouth being red and

her chest full of beauty spots—

She it is!

        Ainkurunuru 255



4   What he said to the heroine's companion:


Young maiden is she;

her teeth are like the shining pearls

from the ford of Korkai

with neytal-flowers of swinging petals;

red coral is her mouth

she wears pretty bangles, well shaped;

her speech is sweet like the sounding of the strings in the harp.

        Ainkurunuru 185





5   What he said to her companion:


Breasts have indeed blossomed,

her hair has grown long and is flowing down,

her white teeth have come up in perfect line,

some beauty spots have shown up already in her body.

I know, I have been suffering because of her.

But she does not yet know it,

she—the only daughter of wealthy parents.

What shall become of her?

        Kuruntokai 337



6   What she said:


O man of hill country, where in winter

it rains heavily with sweet thunders,

all living beings sleep at midnight,

the fathers of hill-dwelling maidens,

with pretty jewels and fragrant hair,

have searched for sleeping place during the chase

but returned home to sleep on the bed of tiger-hide.

When I am separated from you,

I suffer whenever I think of you.

When I wait long for you outside,

during the night, while all sleep,

at the cold and unfriendly north wind,

in our garden, and stand embracing a tree

and pondering over your return—

Such standing and waiting is sweeter than

embracing your body so as to press

my well shaped heaving breasts many times

and to surround you with my arms wearing shining bangles.

        Akananuru 58



7   What she said to her companion:


His love for me is genuine

and he indeed is a great man.

Besides, the early dew season has set in to indicate

that the late dew season is soon to arrive.

Kura buds have blossomed

and the sweet early summer is already there.

On branches of flowers, black cuckoos with red eyes

call to each other in sweet voice:

"Lovers in embrace,

keep on embracing."

But what shall I say about him

who assured me saying, "I will never leave you"

and yet after all such assurance, went away

to a distant country through the barren lands

where the ponds are dry and without water,

the ways are long and forked and full of dangers?

        Narrinai 224



8   What she said to her companion:


Do listen, my friend, bless you!

That one capable of telling lies that seem true,

lay close to me and embraced me at night

in the false dream that lied like truth.

Confused I woke up and caressed the bed thinking that he was there!

To be pitied am I,

who am certainly alone

like the kuvalai-flower

that has been made to suffer by the bee.

        Kuruntokai 30



9   What she said to her companion:


My friend,

the man of that land where,

the forest dweller, strong like a lion,

in his watch-hut in the millet field,

having drunk toddy, was hilarious

and his wife whose long dark tresses,

scented with sandal oil,

were being dried by gentle breeze,

and who, having arranged

the long hairs with her fingers,

sang kurinci music on the mountain slope.

A valiant male elephant,

not eating the millet ears that he had plucked,

nor moving from his position,

fell slowly asleep in that music.

He, having painted his chest with sandal lotion,

wearing on his chest and head garlands

where bees went round singing,

and holding a spear in his right hand,

came, without being noticed by the watchmen,

and opening the door that was not bolted

and entering slowly inside the house,

embraced my upper arms and caressed me,

and thus relieved me from the painful sickness,

spoke to me sweet words and went away.

Because he has not deigned to come today,

how is it that we see pallor in my forehead,

surrounded by dark hair of pleasant sight,

so that our affair has become the gossip of the village?

        Akananuru 102






10   What she said to the messenger:


Did you really see?

Or did you just hear from someone who saw?

Tell me, I pray,

I want to know only "one thing" —

the coming of my lover —

from whose mouth did you hear it?

May you receive as gift

the city of Patali, full of gold,

on the bank of River Conai

where elephants with white tusks bathe.

        Kuruntokai 75



11   What he said to her:


You, maid of the hill country,

who have pretty bamboo-like upper arms

that can heal my love sickness and debility

and who walk beautifully,

will you come with me,

as Valli loved Murukan and went away with him,

to my village, where

in a forked way amidst tall naka trees a wild boar,

with red mud on its body

was caught in a trap and was torn to pieces

by hunting dogs,

but its flesh was rescued by the forest dwellers?

The brilliance of your form shines in your eyes

and that is why I cannot look at you!

        Narrinai 82



12   What he said to his friend:


A girl of dark complexion is she:

Ever ready to embrace,

desirable in beauty,

with delicately bulging breasts

and long flowing hair!

How can I forget her and be at rest?

In her look is such longing

as in the look of a new-born tender calf

that longs to see its mother whose udders are ready to flow!

        Kuruntokai 132



13   What she said to her companion:


Wider than the earth, indeed,

higher than the sky,

more unfathomable than the vast waters

is this love of mine for the man

of the mountain slopes

where bees make rich honey

from the black-stalked kurinci flowers.

        Kuruntokai 3



14   What he said to her:


Like gold, indeed, O maiden, is your shining body,

and like sapphire, your fragrant dark hair;

Like flowers are your pretty painted eyes

and like bamboo, your well shaped upper arms.

Whenever I see them,

I feel extremely happy like those perfect in family bliss.

Besides, our son, with golden anklets

has learned to play about.

I have no work anywhere else to do.

Above all, my love for you is greater than the sea!

If you come to think of it,

why should I part with you at all?

        Narrinai 166





Adapted from The Song of Songs and Ancient Tamil Love Poems by Abraham Mariaselvam. Biblical Institute Press, Rome, 1988. Copyright © Biblical Institute Press 1988.

                            Selection and introduction © Rex Pay 2001