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The Four Hundred Songs of War and Wisdom: An Anthology of Poems from Classical Tamil, the Purananuru

George L. (tr.) Hart and Hank Heifetz (tr.)

Hart, George L. (tr.); Hank Heifetz (tr.);

The Four Hundred Songs of War and Wisdom: An Anthology of Poems from Classical Tamil, the Purananuru

Columbia University Press, 2002, 320 pages

ISBN 0231115636, 9780231115636

topics: |  poetry | tamil | india-ancient | translation


Purananuru is an anthology of old Tamil poetry, the oldest of the eight Sangam anthologies. Literally, the title means four hundred puRam songs - i.e. songs of the exterior - largely praising warriors, war, and also elegies to the dead. The four hundred poems are composed by more than 150 poets dating from between the first and third centuries C.E.. Written in old Tamil, this literary anthology had already been stabilized by the 3d c. CE, before Aryan influence had penetrated the south. It forms part of the extensive Sangam Literature (poetry) dating from 300BC to 300AD.

puRam poetry: seven tinais

What is interesting is that by the 1st c. CE, around when most of these poems were composed, there was already a flourishing literary tradition with entrenched conventionalized categories, which were listed in the tolkAppiyam, composeed around 2nd c. CE. At the highest level, short poetry forms could be in akam and puRam (interior and exterior) categories. Each class had its entrenched forms; thus akam dealt with themes of love and were in the form of a monologue to a lover or a friend; puRam poetry was often about war and addressed a real king. Within each class there were several modalities; thus the analysis of the poetic moods in puRam poetry is classified into seven moods or tinai (lit. place, but in this context, more of a mood, also called punn, tamil for rAga). These seven are listed in the tolkAppiyam as:

1. veTci : prelude to war, cattle raid; [akam counterpart: kuRiNci: night, on a mountain] 2. vāNchi : preparation for war, start of invasion, and recovery of cattle. [akam counterpart: mullai; rainy season, meadowland] 3. uLiNai : siege; defense of fort [akam counterpart: marutam] 4. thumpai pitched battle, [akam counterpart: neytal]. evening, grief 5. vākai : victory. [akam_ pAlai] 6. kānchi : transience of the world 7. Pātān : praise of kings, elegy, asking for gifts

Even the metaphors had conventionalized schemes of signification. Of course, the analysis developed over the centuries, and by the time the anthologies of sangam literature were compiled (c. 8th century), there were more elaborate forms. But what is striking to the modern reader is that, as in China, by the first centuries CE, not only had these large body of poems been composed, but there was a poetic sensibility refined enough to order these into genres of akam and puRam and then these many tenai or mood categories. Clearly this is the tip of a much older oral tradition that persisted for many centuries in Tamil verse. Further, a large number of the Sangam poems were translated later into Sanskrit and may have also influenced tropes in classical sanskrit poetry.

War and drinking

In terms of content, it is interesting to note the extent to which the poems are soaked through with toddy. The warrior king is forever indulging in his favourite toddy, made from palm, mohua flowers and other fruits. It is regularly drunk before battles (poem #292) and to fight off "shivers and chills" (#304). Strong liquor is clearly more heroic ("aged toddy strong as the sting of a scorpion", #392). After drink, the warrior-king becomes more generous with his gifts (123), and a shared drink is a sign of bonding (290), etc. A couple of poems mention wine, which was brought to them by the yavanas (greeks). Almost one in four poems has one of the words "toddy", or "liquor".

Anyone visiting these regions in Kerala and Tamil Nadu will not fail to
note the continuing importance of palm toddy or "kallu" in these

	customers at a kallu shop overlooking the scenic tea-estates of
	   	chinnakanal in the nilgiris above munnar, kerala

The translations

This translation is a work of collaboration between Tamil scholar George
Hart and poet Hank Heifetz.  Many of these poems had earlier appeared in
translations by George Hart.  One noticeable difference is that in the
earlier versions, Hart had kept a meter and scansion in his lines; the
translations now are mostly prose.  Personally, I seem to like some of
those earlier versions, though some versions have clearly improved.
as an example, consider the opening lines of poem 38.

in Hart's earlier version:

	Victorious king on a young mountainous elephant,
	whose great army has waving flags of many colors
	that seem to wipe the sky!

in Heifetz's rendering:
	Victorious king, you who ride a mountain
	of an elephant and lead a vast army
	with flags of many colors that flutter
	as if they were brushing the sky clean.

We see that the infelicity of "mountainous elephant" has been replaced,
and "brushing the sky clean" is clearer than "wipe the sky".  At the same
time, I feel the new version often tends to verbosity - and brevity must
lie at the heart of any poetic enterprise.  Thus, it is not clear to me on
the whole these are real improvements.

In the above, for instance, if we take Hart's original version and
change to "mountain-like" and "wipe the sky clean", and replace "has
waving" with "waves" - then we would have remained compact while
reflecting the meaning adequately, without the additional burden of so
many words.  Also, the scansion of Hart's originals give a better sense
of the poetry, even in translation, than the pure prose versions.

On the whole though, most poems in the translation read quite well in
English, but they tend to verbosity quite often.  They are presumably
all quite faithful to the originals.  But read as English poetry, the
translations by Ramanujan often fare better (see 102 below), and also
some of the versions by Vaidehi.

A key shortcoming in the volume is the absence of an index of first
lines.  The main index attempts to capture enough hints for the main
theme words, but it is far from a concordance and it remains difficult
to find a particular poem.  Also, why the index lists the page numbers
and not poems is unclear; as in Ramanujan's Poems of Love and War,
surely a notation such as 137, [137] could have indicated the poem
number and its notes.  - amitabha mukerjee nov 2012


Auvaiyar : Purananuru #91

Kings in the line of Atiyans! You who pour out the toddy that makes men roar!
You whose powerful hand with its sliding bracelets triumphs and brandishes
an infallible sword that brings you victory, cutting your enemies down
on the field! Anci of the golden garland, rich in murderous battle!
May you live as long as he lives on whose head the crescent moon
glows, whose neck is as a dark blue as sapphires! Oh greatness!
Without considering how difficult it is to obtain the sweet fruit
Of Nelli plant with its tiny leaves , which has to be plucked
from a crevice on the summit of an ancient mountain hard to climb,
you kept silence in your heart about it powers,
and so that you might rescue me form death, you gave that fruit !

Auvaiyar: The spare axle #102


Those who sell salt carry a spare axle with them lashed
to the wood underneath because they think about oxen
who are young and unacquainted with the yoke, about a heavy load
in the wagon which must pass over heights and travel low ground
and who knows what may happen? You, so bright with glory are like
that axle, your hand a cup for giving to others! Greatness!
You are like the moon at the time when it is full!
How can there be darkness for those living under its radiance.

	[Auvaiyar is the most prolific of the dozen or so women poets
	 among the composers of these poems.  Her work also appears in
	 several other anthologies]

Alternate translation by AK Ramanujan: A Young Chieftain

The young bull
does not feel the yoke,
though the cart is loaded
with salt and things.
But who can
foresee the damages
when it dips into creeks
and climbs the hills?

So the salt merchants keep
a second safety axle
under the axletree. 

	You are such,
	lofty one with bright umbrellas of fame:

	whoever lives in your shade,
	living as under the fullest moon,

	has any fear
	of night?

		[Auvaiyar: on Pokuttelini]
		Purananuru 102

		(from Poems of Love and War p.141)

Kapilar for King Pari #107

		p. 73

"Pari! Pari!" they say, and with their eloquent tongues
the bards praise one man and sing of his many strengths.
But more than only Pari matters.
The monsoons too are here to preserve the world!

[earlier version by Hart:

	Again and again they call out his name
	"Pari! Pari!"
	Thus do poets with skilled tongues all praise one man
	Yet Pari is not alone:
	there is also the rain to nourish this earth.

	kapilar appears to have been the court poet for a Vel Pari
	king, in the Nilgiri region (around Coimbatore / Erode), c. 3d
	c. CE.  When Vel Pari is killed in battle, kapilar is supposed to have
	committed suicide by vadakirrutal - facing North and starving.

Kapilar for King Pari #118

That small reservoir with its clear water and its sloping
shore like a half moon running along hills and knolls
now is shattered in the land that was once governed
from cool Parampu by PAri who gave
chariots away and whose massive arm held a sharp spear.

Kapilar: giving away chariots #123

if someone takes his seat every morning in his court
and drinks himself blissfully drunk,its a simple thing-
then, to give away chariots! but Malaiyan whose good name glows
and is never diminished,even without getting delightfully drunk, gives away
	more lofty ornamented chariots,
than the drops of rain that fall on the fertile Mullur mountain!

version by Ramanujan #123

	If a man's drunk from morning on
	and delighted with the crowd
	in the court,
	it's easy for him
	to give away a chariot or two.

	 	But the tall gold-covered chariots
		given by Malaiyan
		of everlasting fame,

		given when he's sober,

		outnumber the raindrops
		on the rich peaks of Mullur.

			(Poems of Love and War, p. 153)

ParaNar to king Pekan #142

			p. 90

	Like the clouds who form part of an endless family
	raining down on the dry reservoirs, on the wide fields,
	even on arid salt flats rather than where they might be useful,
	with his elephants in rut, war anklets on his feet, this is
	Pekan! Ignorant though he is of how to grant gifts,
	marching against an enemy army no ignorance marches with him!

original old tAmil:
			அறுகுளத்து உகுத்தும், அகல்வயல் பொழிந்தும்,
			உறுமிடத்து உதவாது உவர்நிலம் ஊட்டியும்,
			வரையா மரபின் மாரி போலக்,
			கடாஅ யானைக் கழற்கால் பேகன்
			கொடைமடம் படுதல் அல்லது,
			படைமடம் படான் பிறர் படைமயக் குறினே.

paraNar on Pekan's abandoned wife kaNNaki #144

				p. 91

How can you be so coldly cruel, so without compassion?
As we were playing our small yAls in the cevvaLi rAga of longing 
and singing of your forest, the look of it during the monsoon!
we saw a young woman in grief that seemed to have no end,
her darkened eyes glowing like dusky, fragrant waterlilies but overflowing
with tears that fell to wet her breasts adorned with their ornamentation.

Bowing down to her, we asked of her, "Young woman! Are you
some relation to the lord who wants us to be with him?"
With her fingers like budding red kAntaL flowers she brushed
away her tears and then said to us, "I am no relation of his!
Hear me out! Pekan, whose fame glows, hungers for the beauty,
they say, of another woman who resembles me and in his resounding
chariot he pays his frequent visits
to the lovely city that is all encircled with jasmine!"

	 [there are 5 poems 143-147 appealing to king Pekan on behalf of the
	  abandoned kaNNaki.  These poems are classified in the puRanANURu
	  in the tinai peurntinai, a mood that does not appear in the

அருளா யாகலோ கொடிதே; இருள்வரச்,
சீறியாழ் செவ்வழி பண்ணி யாழ நின்
கார்எதிர் கானம் பாடினே மாக,
நீல்நறு நெய்தலிற் பொலிந்த உண்கண்
கலுழ்ந்து, வார் அரிப் பனி பூண்அகம் நனைப்ப,
இனைதல் ஆனா ளாக, ‘இளையோய்!
கிளையை மன், எம் கேள்வெய் யோற்கு?’என,
யாம்தன் தொழுதனம் வினவக், காந்தள்
முகைபுரை விரலின் கண்ணீர் துடையா,
‘யாம், அவன் கிளைஞரேம் அல்லேம்; கேள்,இனி;
எம்போல் ஒருத்தி நலன்நயந்து, என்றும்,
வரூஉம் என்ப; வயங்கு புகழ்ப் பேகன்
ஒல்லென ஒலிக்கும் தேரொடு,
முல்லை வேலி, நல்லூ ரானே!’
	 	(original tamil)

konaTTu ericcilUr mAtalaN maturaik kumaranAr #180

		(about his patron, irntUr kiLAN tOyaN mAraN)

He doesn’t have the wealth that everyday he would lavish on others
Nor the pettiness to say that he has nothing and so refuse!
Enduring the troubles that have fallen upon him as king, cured
of his suffering from those noble wounds endured when weapons
on the field of battle tasted his flesh, the handsome scars have grown
together as if he were a tree with its bark striped for use
in curing and his body is perfect! Not a scar!  In Irntai he lives
and practices generosity! He is an enemy to the hunger of bards!
If you wish to cure your poverty, come along with me, bard whose lips
are so skilled! If we make our request of him, showing our ribs
thin with hunger, he will go to the blacksmith of his city
and will say to that man of powerful hands,
"Shape me a long spear for war, one that has a straight blade!"

Auvaiyar: Whether you grow rice

		#187 p. 120

Whether you grow rice or whether you are a forest,
whether you are a valley or whether you are a mountain,
if they are good men who inhabit you,
then you are good, land!  and may you long flourish!

alt tr. by Ramanujan: Earth's bounty

Bless you, earth,
      or hill,

      you are only as good
      as the good young men
      in each place.

	      (from Poems of Love and War p.159)

karuvUrp peruN catukkattup to koperuncolaN who is fasting to death #219

[the cycle of poems from 213 to 223 mourn the event when the
early chola king Kopperuncholan faced a revolt by his two sons.
Rather than fight and kill them and leave the country without heir, he is
advised by his poet-friend to kill himself in the Tamil tradition of
vadakiruttal, where one faces north and
fasts till death.  A number of his companions also fasted with him.

in this poem, karuvUrp appears to be lamenting the fact that the king has
not invited him to fast alongside.]

	Warrior! You who are wasting away all the flesh on your
	body under the speckled shade, on this island in the river!
	Are you angry with me? For those
	summoned by you who have sat down beside you are many!

Earlier version by George Hart

	On an island in a river,
	in a spotted shade,
	you sit and your body dries up.
	Are you angry with me, warrior
	who have asked so many to join you here?
		—The song of KaruvÚrp Peruñcatukkattup PÚtanataùÁr to
		king Kõperuñcõãaù as he faced north [to starve himself to death].

kuTTuvaN kIraNAr : death of a king #240


He who gave away horses with gaits of various rhythms
and elephants and whole territories and cities and unending revenue
ceaselessly to singers, Ay aNTiraN has gone to the world
of the gods accompanied by his women with their tiny bangles
and their high-sloping mounds of love, when Death who has
no mercy took them away. At the side of a burning ground
where sedge grows, where a wide-mouthed owl settled into the space
of the hollow of a tree hoots to the dead his message
that they must burn and be added to the ashes, his body
rested, and vanished as the glowing fire consumed it. The eyes
of poets have been dimmed. Nowhere do they see anymore
who can shelter them. Their families clamor but they
can do nothing for them and they go off
shrunken with hunger now, away to the countries of other kings!

["mounds of love" - அல்குல், alkul = pubic area]

Auvaiyar: Give him liquor and then drink yours

				Puranuru 290, p.171

Give him liquor and then drink yours! O lord of raging
war and of herds of elephants and of handsome chariots!
The father of your father and the father of his father together---
like the hub set by a carpenter at the center of a wheel---
stood their ground on the field where men raise and hurl spears
and there, without blinking, perished. He too is a man of might, famed
for his courage. Like a palm-leaf umbrella
when it is raining, lord! he will ward off the spears they aim at you.

   * (Tamil w English
	   translations, mostly by Vaidehi, and a few by Hart
   * (in Tamil)
   * lankanewspapers English only with brief explanations
   * project madurai tamil eText

Obv: Bust of king. Prakrit legend in the Brahmi script: "Siri Satakanisa
     Rano ... Vasithiputasa": "King Vashishtiputra Sri Satakarni"
Rev: Tamil Brahmi script: "Arah(s)anaku Vah(s)itti makanaku Tiru
     H(S)atakani ko" - which means "The ruler, Vasitti's son, Highness

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This review by Amit Mukerjee was last updated on : 2015 Mar 31