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