book excerptise:   a book unexamined is not worth having

Hymns for the Drowning: Poems for Vishnu

Nammalvar and A.K. Ramanujan, (tr.)

Nammalvar; A.K. Ramanujan, (tr.);

Hymns for the Drowning: Poems for Vishnu

Princeton Univ Press 1981 / Penguin 1993, 176 pages

ISBN 0144000105

topics: |  poetry | tamil | translation | anthology

Probably dating from the 9th c. AD, (c.880-930, though some would date him a century earlier, and some legends would date him to 3d millenium BC), Nammalvar is a leading figure from the period when traditional socio-religious practice (now known as Hinduism) was recovering from the ingress of Jainism and Buddhism. He has been called "the most important and prolific of the AlvAr psalmists" - V. Raghavan, in Sources of Indian tradition. He was one of the early saints in the Tamil bhakti transition, along with tirunAvukkarashu (vAgIsha), 7th c., jnAnasambandha: 7th c., and mAnikkavAchakar, 8th c.

His hymns to Vishnu remain a delight in these simple yet effective translations.

Note: a number like [9.9.10] indicates its location in Tiruvaymoli (lit. "holy word of mouth", or gods-spelling), his most important work with 1102 verses. Other sources are indicated in full.

Love Poems: The dark one

What she said [9.9.10] p. 33

	Evening has come,
		but not the Dark One.

	The bulls,
		their bells jingling,
		have mated with the cows
	and the cows are frisky.

	The flutes play cruel songs,
		bees flutter in their bright
			white jasmine
		and the blue-black lily.

	The sea leaps into the sky
			and cries aloud.

	Without him here,
		what shall I say?
		how shall I survive?

Skin dark as young mango leaf p.63

Skin dark as young mango leaf
      is wilting.
Yellow patches spread all over me.
Night is as long as several lives.

All those are the singular dowry
my good heart brings
as she goes over

   to the cool basil
   of my lord, the Dark One
with the wheel that cuts down demons.
     	       [Tiruvirutaam 12]

My Lord, My Cannibal

My dark one stands [8.7.9] p.67

	My dark one
	    stands there as if nothing's changed

	after taking entire
	into his maw
	    all three worlds
		the gods
	    and the good kings
	who hold their lands
	    as a mother would
		  a child in her womb -

	and I by his leave
	have taken him entire

	and I have him in my belly
		for keeps

While I was waiting eagerly for him [9.6.10] p.69

	While I was waiting eagerly for him
 	   saying to myself,
	      "If I see you anywhere
	        I'll gather you
		   and eat you up."

	 he beat me to it
	   and devoured me entire.

	     my lord as dark as raincloud.
	       my lord self-seeking and unfair.

Love poems: A case of possession

My girl, who's just learning to speak [5.6.2] p.71

My girl, who's just learning to speak
	"I'm beyond all learning.
	I'm all the learning you learn."

	"I'm the cause of all learning,
	   I end all learning,
	 I'm the essence of all learning,"
			            says she.

Does my girl talk this way
   because our lord of all learning
       has come and taken her over?

   How can I tell you,
            O learned men!

My little girl says [5.6.7] p.75

	My little girl says,
	"I've no relations here
		and everyone here is my relative."

	"I'm the one who makes relatives relate,"  she says.

	"I also end relations,
	and to those related to me
	I become all relations,"  she says.

	Can it be the lord of illusions
			beyond all relations
	has come and taken her over?

	How can I tell you,
	my kinsmen,
	what she means?

Poets, beware [10.7.1] p.76

 beware, your life is in danger.

the lord of gardens is a thief,
       a cheat,
    master of illusions;

he came to me,
   a wizard with words,
  sneaked into my body,
	   my breath.

with bystanders looking on
   but seeing nothing,
  be consumed me
     life and limb.

and filled me,
	made me over
   into himself.

He who devoured all seven worlds [2.6.7] p.82

He who devoured all seven worlds
      happily came
     and entered me
and he will not leave now;

from now on
  what's not possible
      for me?

At one stroke
   seven generations below
    and seven above
have cleared a wilderness
      of trouble,

and escaped hell.
    hot, endless hell.

author bio

Nammalvar, also known as Maran and Catakopan, was born into a peasant caste
(vellala) and lived from AD 880 to 930. Although his dates have not been
conclusively established, legend has it that he was born in Tirukurukur
(today’s Alvartirunakari in Tamil Nadu) into a princely family and lived for
only thirty-five years. Tradition recognizes twelve alvars (saint-poets
devoted to Visnu) between the sixth and the ninth centuries in South India,
of whom Nammalvar is the best known. He composed four works, of which the
1,102 verses of Tiruvaymoli are the most important. The fame and importance
of Nammalvar was such that soon after his death his images were installed in
South Indian Visnu temples and revered as the very feet of God.

back cover:
Tradition recognizes twelve alvars, saint-poets devoted to Visnu, who lived
between the sixth and ninth century in the Tamil-speaking region of south
India. These devotees of Visnu and their counterparts, the devotees of Siva
(nayanmar), changed and revitalized Hinduism and their deotional hymns
addressed to Visnu are among the earliest bhakti (devotional) texts in any
Indian language.

In this selection from Nammalvar's works, the translations like the originals
reflect the alternations of philosophic hymns and love poems, through
recurring voices, roles and places. they also enact a progression-from wonder
at the Lord's works, to the experience of loving him and watching others love
him, to moods of questioning and despair and finally to the experience of
being devoured and possessed by him.

Excerpt: Introduction

The poems in this book are some of the earliest religious poems about Visnu,
or Tirumal, the Dark One. The author is an alvar, "[one] immersed in god";
the root verb al means "to immerse, to dive; to sink, to be lowered, to be
deep." The title Hymns for the Drawing plays on the meanings of such an
immersion for poet and reader.

Tradition recognizes twelve alvars, saints-poets devoted to Visnu. Between
the sixth and the ninth century, in the Tamil-speaking region of South India,
these devotees of Visnu and their counterparts, the devotees of Siva
(nayanmar), changed and revitalized Hinduism, and checked the spread of
Buddhism and Jainism while absorbing some of the features of these
rivals. The saint-poets wandered all over the Tamil countryside, inspiring
and converting kings, brahmans, and peasants, affirming in poetry the
holiness of hundreds of Tamil places dedicated to Visnu or Siva. Their
pilgrimages, their legends, and their hymns (which they sang by the thousand)
literally mapped a sacred geography of the Tamil regions and fashioned a
communal self-image that cut across class and caste. They composed the most
important early bhakti (devotional) texts in any Indian language. The two
rival movements, despite differences in myth and ritual, created and shared a
special idiom, a stock of attitudes and themes, and a common heritage alive
to this day. A new generation of scholars has become interested in the alvars
during the last ten years, by very little of the poetry is available in

The author of the poems in this book had several names, for example, Maran
and Catakopan, but he was best known as Nammalvar, "our own alvar." He is
considered the greatest of the twelve alvars. Anyone who reads his poems can
see why: the poems are at once philosophic and poetic, direct in feeling yet
intricate in design, single-minded yet various in mood-wondering,
mischievous, tender, joyous, subtly probing, often touching despair but never
staying with it. He composed four works, of which the 1, 102 verses of
Tiruvaymoli ("holy word of mouth", "word of holy mouth"- "god-spell," if you
wish), are the most important. Very early, the Tiruvaymoli was hailed as "The
ocean of Tamil Veda in which the Upanisads of the thousand branches flow

According to historians, Nammalvar born into a peasant caste (vellala) and
lived from approximately A. D. 880 to 930. Some would date him a century
earlier. Although the facts are hazy, the legends are vivid and worth
retelling. According to these latter, he lived for only 35 years, he was born
in Tirukurukur (today's Alvartirunakari, in Tamil Nadu), into a princely
family in answer to their penance and prayers. When he was born, the
overjoyed mother gave him her breast but the child would have nothing of
it. He uttered no sound, sat if seated, lay if laid down, seemed both deaf
and mute. The distressed parents left the child at the feet of a local Visnu
idol. Once there, he got to his feet, walked to a great tamarind tree,
entered a hollow in it and sat like a yogi in a lotus posture, with his eyes
shut and turned inward.

Meanwhile, in North India, Maturakavi, a pilgrim poet and scholar, was
wandering near the Ganges; suddenly he saw a light in the southern sky. He
watched it or three days and followed it all the way to Kurukur, where,
having led him to the silent child in the tamarind hollow, it
vanished. Maturakavi tried in vain to wake the yogi by clapping his hands and
dashing stones on the temple walls. Finally, he went to the hole in the tree
and asked, "Master, if the subtle [spirit] is embodied in the gross [matter],
what will it eat, where will it rest?" The yogi at once replied: "That it
will eat, and there it will rest" Maturakavi realized at once that God was
what, the Master ate, and God was what he lived in. With that exchange,
master and disciple found each other; the master broke his life-long silence
and poured forth more than a thousand hymns to Visnu. The thousand
magnificent hymns, each beginning with the last word of the previous one,
were one continuous poem an icon or the endless, ever-changing forms of the

Such was Nammalvar's fame and importance that, soon after his death, images
of him were installed in South Indian Visnu temples, and revered as the very
feet of God. In these temples today very worshiper's head receives the touch
of a special crown that represents Visnu's feet and our alvar; it is named
catakopam after him. He is called the "first lord of our lineage." He is the
". Body," the other saints are the "limbs." His poems have been chanted in
temple services and processions since the eleventh century. Indeed. At the
Srirankam temple a special ten-day festival is devoted to his work: a
professional reciter (with the title araiyar, "King"), dressed in ritual
finery, sings and enacts the hymns for the listening image of Lord Visnu.

A certain Natamuni (10th century?) gathered and ordered the compositions of
the twelve Vaisnava saints and arranged for their recitation. According to
tradition, he heard visitors from Nammalvar's birthplace of Kurukur recite
ten stanzas, and he saw that they were only ten out of a thousand. So he went
to Kurukur, worshiped Visnu, and meditated as a yogi, but he failed to invoke
the poet or receive the poems. Then he recited 12,000 times Maturakavi's
praise-poems about his master, Nammalvar. Both Maturakavi and Nammalvar
appeared to him in a vision and gave him a knowledge of the alvar's four
works. Some accounts say, he received all of the four thousand in this
way. His grandson Yamuna (10th -11th century), celebrated in Sanskrit the
"impeccable [Tamil] scriptures" collected by Natamuni. It is significant that
both grandfather and grandson were priests at the Srirankam temple. Through
them and through Ramanuja (11th - 12th century), a non-Sanskritic,,
non-brahmanical religious literature (Nammalvar was a sudra saint) became
central to brahman orthodoxy. Inscriptions as early as the 11th century
mention endowments of land for the maintenance of reciters for the alvars'

Natamuni thus became the first link between the saints-poets and the Visnu
temples, between text and ritual; he was the first of a long line of teachers
(acaryas) who formed the theology and the institutions of the "Sri Vaisnava"

His compilation was called "The our Thousand Divine Compositions" (Nalayira
Divyaprabandham), shortened to the "our Thousand" (Nalayiram) or the "Divine
Composition" (Divyaprabandham). Orthodox Sri Vaisnavas deemed the Four
Thousand equal to the four Vedas. Sanskrit and Tamil, the Vedas and the, our
Thousand, were integrated in their domestic and temple services. The singers
of the Tamil hymns led the temple processions, walked before the god; and the
Vedas followed behind.

These texts are not merely the living scripture of an important sect; they
have attracted many subtle and brilliant commentators. The four Thousand,
particularly Nammalvar' s thousand verses in the Tiruvaymoli, and the
commentaries stand at the head of a philosophic genealogy of all Vaisnava
ideas, culminating in Ramanuja's qualified monism or monism-with-a-difference
(visistadvaita). As poems, they are the forebears of later traditions of
Vaisnava poetry, reaching as far as Caitanya in 16th-century Bengal and
Tagore in our own time. Characteristic pan-Indian themes find some of their
first and finest expressions in the poetry of alvars-themes such as the
Lord's creation as play (lila), Visnu's incarnations, Krsna's childhood, Lord
and devotee as lover and beloved, to name only a few. A number of these
themes and their relation to Hinduism at large and explored in the Afterword.

This book contains eighty-three poems; seventy-six of them are selected from
the Tiruvaymoli, and seven, love-poems in the classical style, from the
Tiruviruttam. My arrangement is as much a part of the "translation" as my
verse. The original verses are arranged in tens, which are in turn arranged
(by the compilers) in hundreds, following a long Tamil tradition. Yet single
verses have an existence of their own; they are quoted and recited as
complete poems. Each group of ten is united by meter, theme, and diction, but
the transition from each group to the next is not always clear; commentators
over various schemes. I have taken the liberty of oaring one of my own that,
I think, also reflects the tradition. In doing so, I have sometimes brought
together similar-looking poems from different parts of the original
anthology, keeping in mind, and often playing on, an overarching rhythm of

For instance, I have cycles of love poems alternating with philosophic and
other hymns, as in the original text. Such cycles and epicycles, with
returning voices, roles, and places, are part of the "interinanimation" of
these poems. I have placed ten poems on the works of Visnu (his incarnations,
etc.) at the beginning-for they weave into the allusive network of the other
poems. My arrangement also enacts the progression: from wonder at the Lord's
works, his play, his contrariety, to the experience of loving him and missing
him, of watching other (one's friends, one's daughters) love him and suffer
over him, to moods of questioning and despair, and on to an experience of
being devoured, possessed, taken over, till the very poems that speak of him
are of his own speaking.

To translate is to "carry across"; "metaphor" has the same
root-meaning. Translations are transpositions; and some elements of the
original cannot be transposed at all. For instance, one can often convey a
sense of the original rhythm but not the language-bound meter; one can mimic
levels of diction, even the word play, but not the actual sound of the words,
Items are more difficult to translate than relations, textures more difficult
than structure, words more difficult than phrasing, linear order more
difficult than syntax, lines more difficult than pattern. Yet poetry is made
at all those levels-and so is translation. The ideals is still Dryden's, "a
kind of drawing after the life"; "…to steer betwixt the two extremes of
paraphrase and literal translation; to keep as near my author as I could,
without losing all his graces, the most eminent of which are in the beauty of
his words; and those words, I must add, are always figurative…taking all the
materials of this divine author, I have endeavoured to make [him] speak such
English as he would himself have spoken…in this present age."

When two languages are as startlingly different from each other as modern
English and medieval Tamil, one despairs. For instance, the "left-branching"
syntax of Tamil is most often a reverse mirror image of the possible
English. Medieval Tamil is written with no punctuation and no spaces between
words; it has neither articles nor prepositions, and the words are
"agglutinative," layered with suffixes. Moreover, the syntax is a dense
embedding of clause within clause. I translate unit by syntactic unit and try
to recreate the way the thus seems to occupy more visual space on the page
than the adjective-packed, participle-crowded Tamil original. The
"sound-look," the syntax, the presence or absence of punctuation, and the
sequential design are part of the effort to bring the Tamil poems faithfully
to an English reader. The Notes and the Afterword are aimed at translating
the reader towards the poems. I have consulted various texts and commentaries
in learning to read these poems. Chief among these are: the ten volumes of
Annankaracariyar and the ten of Purushottama Naidu. I have used the standard
Tamil Lexicon system to transliterate Tamil words.

Many years ago, John Carman urged me to translate the alvars. In 1976, in the
subzero sun of a Minnesota winter, I read and reread the Tiruvaymoli with
care, and these ancient poems came alive for me. My thanks are due to John
Carman of Harvard, and to my friends at Carleton College, Northfield,
Minnesota, -especially to Bardwell Smith, Eleanor Zelliott, and James Fisher.

Keith Harrison, poet and translator, read an entire earlier draft: his
friendship has changed not only these poems. I also with to thank Friedhelm
Hardy, Vasudha Narayanan, Ronald Inden, James Lindholm, Wendy O'Flaherty,
David Grene, Norman Cutler, Chirantan Kulasreshtha, and my wife Molly or
criticism laced with kindness.

	- from []



The Paradigm
The Works of Visnu-I
My Quite Contrary Lord
The Lord at Play
Love Poems: The Playboy
Love Poems: The Dark One
Waxing and Waning
Love Poems: You Too?
The Works of Visnu-II
Love’s Messengers
Idiots, Monists, and Others
No More Kings
Love Poems: Four Returning Voices
My Lord, My Cannibal
Love Poems: A Case of Possession
The Takeover

Notes to the Poems

blurb: The poems in this book are some of the earliest about Visnu, one of the Hindu Trinity, also known as Tirumal, the Dark One. In many ways a companion volume to A K Ramanujan’s acclaimed Speaking of Siva, the eighty-three here are by Nammalvar, the celebrated saint-poet of the ninth century. Tradition recognizes twelve alvars, saint-poets devoted to Visnu, who lived between the sixth and ninth century in the Tamil-speaking region of South India. These devotees of Visnu and their counterparts, the devotees of Siva (nayanmar), changed and revitalized Hinduism and their devotional hymns addressed to Visnu are among the earliest bhakti (devotional) texts in any Indian language. Nammalvar, the greatest of the alvars, composed four works, of which the Tiruvaymoli was the most important. In this selection from his works, the translations like the originals reflect the alternations of philosophic hymns and love poems, through recurring voices, roles, and places. They also enact a progression – from wonder at the Lord’s works, to the experience of loving him and watching others love him, to moods of questioning and despair and finally to the experience of being devoured and possessed by him. -- We here and that man, this man, and that other in-between, and that woman, this woman, and that other, whoever, those people, and these, and these others in-between, this things, that thing, and this other in-between, whichever, all things dying, these things, those things, those others in-between, good things, bad things, things that were, that will be, being all of them, he stands there.

amitabha mukerjee (mukerjee [at-symbol] 2010 Jul 14