Poetry at Sangam




(Excerpted, with permission from Penguin Books India, from A Hundred Measures of Time: The Tiruviruttam of Nammāḻvār, translated by Archana Venkatesan.)

From the Translator’s Introduction

The Tiruviruttam is an iconic poem by Nammāḻvār (mid-8th to mid-9th CE), the greatest of the twelve āḻvārs, Śrīvaiṣṇava saint-poets, from the Tamil region. Consisting of 100 interlinked verses, forming a cycle, it celebrates the growing love affair between the hero and heroine, Nammalwar, who speaks in a female voice. As the erotic and esoteric intertwine, we not only discover the woman’s love and enjoyment of Viṣṇu and the joy of being devoured by him but also the never-ending cycle of separation and union, of birth and death from which only god can offer release.

Nammāḻvār’s poetic style is one that favours brevity and tightness. It makes for verses that glow as though lit from the inside like a flawless gem of concentrated colour. Like many great Tamil poets, he achieves this effect with a breathless cascade of striking images, metaphors and sounds that in the Tamil script quite literally run into each other. This is a key feature of the experience of reciting the Tiruviruttam. It evokes breath-taking, not just on account of its sumptuous use of language, but because as you read or recite the poem, you are often left trying to seize your breath. In Tamil, the poem recreates the heady sense of mystical experience, and its use of language draws attention to your breath, your uyir, the oscillations of breathing in and out mimicking the filling and emptying that characterizes the peculiar relish of such experience. This is perhaps one of the most stunning features of the poem and one I felt was integral to Nammāḻvār’s poetic vision, as significant as the antāti. Thus I have kept punctuation to an absolute minimum, and have avoided placing commas between strings of epithets or adjectives. This violation of the rules of English grammar is meant to recreate the rush of feeling that the Tamil torrent of words produces in the hearer and listener. You are supposed to be left breathless and slightly dazed after each verse, overcome by the sheer lushness of sounds and images, for that is the affect that Nammāḻvār’s original ingeniously produces.

The Tiruviruttam is rendered into free verse, but this does not mean I have been insensitive to its internal rhythms or that the lines are arranged arbitrarily. I have chosen a style that approximates the tight, dense structure of the poem, where the vocabulary is straightforward, but their use and the ideas they express are profound. For the most part, I have kept the lines in translated English short, the vocabulary simple, and I have happily embraced contractions. For the most part, each translated verse adheres to the order of the Tamil’s four-line verse. That is, rather than reverse the word order as is often the case because of Tamil’s so-called left-branching syntax to accommodate English’s right-branching one, I have for the most part, retained line order if not word order. This has been made easier by the structure of each individual verse, which generally posits a proposition in its opening two lines, and what I call a (re)turn in its closing two lines. While there was no way to keep the four-line structure without compromising intelligibility, I have rendered each verse as having two distinct parts. I have avoided punctuations wherever possible in the first part of the verse to indicate continuity of thought and idea between its proposition and return.

A Selection from the Tiruviruttam


Her Friend Said:

        O girl like Vaikuṇṭha
        of the great lord
        who spanned this world surrounded by the swirling ocean
        the lovely koṉṟai begin to bud
        awaiting your lover’s return

        they haven’t yet bloomed
        into dense garlands of gold
        that hang from a thick canopy of leaves.


The Friend Said:

        The dark bull-like night lost to the fiery red morning
        now it has returned desiring victory:
        this brief lowly evening

        O girl whose tender breasts are bound in cloth
        don’t despair for your bangles
        Won’t the tall lord who sealed a pact
        and measured worlds
        give you grace?


She Said:

        I desired the dense fragrant garland
        of cool lovely tulasī adorning the crown
        of our lord of heavens
        who holds the beautiful curved disc

        my lustre turns to paleness
        when it came swiftly
        stretching into days months years aeons
        and now it’s here to torture me
        the night now a thousand aeons.


She Said:

        I didn’t say ‘He became the end of days and swallowed the seven worlds.’
        I saw a dark fruit
        observed ‘It’s the colour of the sea.’

        My mother then said ‘What impertinence!’
        ‘She speaks of the colour of the one who swallowed worlds.’
        Speak to her dear friend. My mother scolds me.


She Said:

        The lovely young moon that tears
        the unshrinking dense darkness
        of this endless swirling night
        tears me through. It strengthens

        I am alone
        my heart fixed on the garland of tulasī.
        Is this any way to live
        waiting for my lustre to return?


Her Mother Said:

        Like a white cow in the sky
        the white moon spills its bright white moonlight
        to delight the world,
        evening ripens.

        Is it right that the one who protects the seven worlds
                lord who holds the fiery disc
                that glows like the sun
        allows this lonely girl to suffer so?


Her Friend Said:

        His long eyes closed, he slumbers
        upon his bed that rests
        on rolling rising ocean waves.
        When he comes awake
        he swallows worlds

        a fresh gentle breeze wafts
        having devoured the fragrance of tulasī
        adorning the crown of that same one
        who uprooted the great mountain
        turned it on its head.


He Said:

        O your bright faces slay me
        with their arrow-sharp eyes that dart like keṇṭai
        and brows that curve like fearsome bows

        Are you from Vaikuṇṭha where his devotees abide
                that place where the lord reclines
                on the sea with its lovely waves
                that push rounded conch shells to shore?
        Or are you from this earth?


She Said:

        My innocent heart desires
        the buds of cool lovely tulasī that adorn
        the one who spread everywhere
        measured this world.

        Is it a surprise the white moon
                closes the broad petals of the lovely lotus
                makes the delicate āmpal bloom
        spreads like poison everywhere
        wanting my white bangles?


She Said:

        The beautiful young moon wails
        when the sun falls on the crimson battlefield.

        The lowly evening arrives with the tulasī
                of the master of the gods
                who made Laṅka a terrible battlefield
        as a companion
        to steal my beauty to torment me.