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Translating a Sangam poem

May 6, 2011

by Uma Gowrishankar

What Her Friend Said As Golden Flowers Covered The Hill

by Kapilar (Ahananuru 2)

Banana and jack fruits
ripened, weigh down from trees
in your mountain slope;
they fall in the cool pool of water
gathered in the rocks.
The thirsty male monkey
drinks the fermented sap
mistaking for water,
intoxicated he sleeps on flowered bower
unable to climb the sandalwood tree
its trunk twisted with pepper creepers:
when pleasures are easily attained in your land
you can never be insatiate.
My beautiful friend
shoulders slender like bamboo
has love for you that is unstoppable,
come to her as the moonlight
drenches the hills
scented by the Vengai flowers.


The Sangam Age in Tamil Nadu (2nd century B.C. to 3rd century A.D.) was the greatest period of literary outpourings. Tolkapiyam (literally meaning”‘Old Composition”), a detailed treatise on grammar and poetics written at this time, defined the Sangam poetic tradition.
According to Tolkapiyam, a poem either lay in the inner space of love, relationships and feelings (aham) or in the public realm of kings, war and community (puram). The aham poems or poems of the interior grew from the four landscapes of the Tamil country: the mountain region (Kurinji), forest lands (Mullai), the agriculture lands about river basins (Marudam), the coastal region (Neidal) and the parched hill slopes or forests (Palai).

Each of these landscapes with their gods, plants, animals, tribes of people and their occupations, watering holes, drums, and music became a rich repertoire of images, symbols and metaphors. This exterior landscape that mapped an interior terrain of emotion and feeling got associated with a phase of love. Thus a whole world of signifiers in the outer landscape with various living forms and cultural codes signified specific human feelings.

Kurinji landscape, the lush and beautiful land with waterfall and high hills was associated with the burst of passion in the first union of lovers. Mullai, the verdant forest land with the fragrance of wild jasmine, was associated with the patient waiting of lovers before their union in marriage. Neidal, the coastal plain, was inhabited by hardy fishing folk who lived at the edge of life. This landscape was associated with the feeling of anxiety experienced by the lover waiting for her man who has braved the stormy ocean. Marudam, the fertile river plains and centre of urban life, was associated with infidelity and misunderstanding between lovers. Palai referred to the forest land and hillside parched by the scorching heat of sun in the summer months. The bleak and relentless dry lands of Palai were associated with the feeling of desolation experienced by lovers in life’s harsh terrain.

Ahananuru is a collection of 400 poems written by over 145 poets. “What Her Friend Said As Golden Flowers Covered The Hill” is the second poem from this collection and is written by Kapilar. The poem is set in the mountain region (Kurinji landscape). Kurinji is also the name of a flower (Strobilanthes kunthiana) that blossoms in hundreds on the slopes of the hills once in twelve years. Bamboo trees, sandalwood, jackfruit and Vengai trees (Pterocarpus bilobus or the Indian Kino tree) grow luscious on the cool hills where waterfalls and pools of water are cradled between rocks. This region is a veritable haven for monkeys, elephants, wild bulls, peacocks and parrots. The hill tribe people who worshipped Cheyon or Murugan the god of war and beauty, collected honey, fruits and grew wild millets.

The honeyed fruits of banana and jack that fall in pools of water, the intoxicated male monkey are metaphoric signifiers of the pleasure that the man seeks in the first union with his woman during their clandestine meeting in the dead of a moon drenched night.


Uma Gowrishankar blogs at umagowrishankar.wordpress.com/.

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  1. May 6, 2011 at 5:42 pm

    An enchanting poem and fascinating contextual material.

    This is one of the very best editions of qarrtsiluni in a long and distinguished sequence.

  2. May 7, 2011 at 12:09 am

    Thank you Dick. Yes, the edition on Translations is one of the best – what an expanse it offers!

  3. Ambal
    May 7, 2011 at 10:19 am

    Excellent work, Uma. Understanding and translating work such as this takes a deeper understanding of the social, literary, and physical environment at the time the work was written (very different from the present day environment!). Even without the allusions, the vivid mental images these poems create resonate through the ages.

  4. Karen Stromberg
    May 7, 2011 at 7:03 pm

    I agree with Dick (above). This is an enchanting poem. And, this is a most excellent edition
    of qarrtsiluni. I wonder if there will be a CD included in the print edition.

  5. alex cigale
    May 7, 2011 at 10:25 pm

    I just wanted to echo the comments re: the great value of your cultural contextualization, Uma. I particularly appreciated the continuities of poetic culture your contribution reveals, how poetry is truly the news that stays news. “… A poem either lay in the inner space of love, relationships and feelings (aham) or in the public realm of kings, war and community (puram).” Isn’t it amazing how this primary dichotomy still frames the debate about poetry’s social role in our day?

  6. May 8, 2011 at 1:42 am

    Thank you Ambal and Karen. Interesting observation Alex. Sangam poetry which apears pivoted on the dichotomy of personal and social/political also paradoxically questions the insularity of spaces. The aham poems are placed in an ethos that is vastly inclusive, and the puram poems that make references to kings and historical/political events are personal too and woven through with images from the landscapes. This is a simplistic reading though, a deep reading shows how this is a tension that the poems address at various levels.

  7. alex cigale
    May 11, 2011 at 12:03 am

    Yes, yes, Uma. If poetry succeeds in telling us anything it is that the personal and local is the political.

  8. May 31, 2011 at 9:37 am

    Uma: not only is the translation gorgeous, but the context information is very useful. All too often people I’ve come across think of India as a country with a monolithic culture, ignorant of the myriad of dialects, regions, traditions, that it contains — especially in the southern regions and especially before the Mughal era. More to discover, more to read. Thank you :)


  1. May 8, 2011 at 2:14 am
  2. May 9, 2011 at 3:33 pm
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