Sangam Poetry – Translations by A.K.Ramanujan




What She Said

Bigger than earth, certainly,
higher than the sky,
more unfathomable than the waters
is this love for this man
of the mountain slopes
where bees make rich honey
from the flowers of the kuriqci
that has such black stalks.

Tevakulattar (Kuruntokai 3)


What the Passers-By Said

This bowman has a warrior’s band
on his ankle;
the girl with the bracelets on her arm
has a virgin’s anklets
on her tender feet.

They look like good people.

In these places
the winds beat upon the vakai trees
and make the white seedpods rattle
like drums for acrobats
dancing on the tightropes.

Poor things, who could they be?
and what makes them walk
with all the others
through these desert ways
so filled with bamboos?

Perumpatumanar (Kuruntokai 7)


What She Said

It looks as if the summer’s glowing
new blossom on the dark neem tree
will not stay for his coming.

These cruel women’s tongues
are working on me,
now that he is gone,
grinding me to paste
like the one fig
of the white tree rising by the waterside,
trampled on by seven ravenous crabs.

Paranar (Kuruntokai 24)


What the Concubine Said

You know he comes from
where the fresh-water sharks in the pools
catch with their mouths
the mangoes as they fall, ripe
from the trees on the edge of the field.

At our place
he talked big.

Now back in his own,
when others raise their hands
and feet,
he will raise his too:

like a doll
in a mirror
he will shadow every last wish
of his son’s dear mother.

Alankuti Vankanar (Kuruntokai 8)


What She Said

On his hills,
the manai creeper that usually sprawls
on large round stones
sometimes takes to a sleeping elephant.

At parting,
his arms twined with mine
he gave me inviolable guarantees
that he would live in my heart
without parting.

Friends, why do you think
that is any reason for grieving?

Paranar (Kuruntokai 36)


What Her Girl-Friend Said

O long white moonlight,
you do him no good at all
as he comes stealing
through the night in the forest

where the black-stemmed ve:nkai
drops its flowers
on the round stones
and makes them look
like tiger cubs
in the half-light!

Netuvennilavinar (Kuruntokai 47)


What Her Friend Said to Him

Even if passion should pass,
O man of the hills
after the long tempestuous rains
of night
the morning’s waterfalls
make music in the caverns,
would our love also pass
with the passion?

Kapilar (Kuruntokai 342)


What He Said

What could my mother be
to yours? What kin is my father
to yours anyway? And how
did you and I meet ever?
But in love our hearts are as red
earth and pouring rain:
mingled beyond parting.

Cembulappeyanirar (Kuruntokai 40)


What She Said

Don’t they really have
in the land where he has gone
such things
house sparrows
dense-feathered, the color of fading water lilies,
pecking at grain drying on yards,
playing with the scatter of the fine dust
of the street’s manure
and living with their nestlings
in the angles of the penthouse
and miserable evenings,
and loneliness?

Mamalatan (Kuruntokai 46)


What He Said

As a little white snake
with lovely stripes on its young body
troubles the jungle elephant
this slip of a girl
her teeth like sprouts of new rice
her wrists stacked with bangles
troubles me.

Catti Natanar (Kuruntokai 119)


What She Said

Will he remember, friend?
Where the curve of the parrot’s beak
holds a bright-lit neem
like the sharp glory
of a goldsmith’s nail
threading a coin of gold
for a new jewel,

he went across the black soil
and the cactus desert

Will he remember?

Allur Nanmullai (Kuruntokai 67)


What Her Friend Said to Her

Our man of the hills

where the bent green bamboo springs back to the sky
with the spring of an unleashed horse

grows thin longing for our love,
like a tethered bull in summertime,

not knowing that here we are, wasting away
for his sake.

Vittakutiraiyar (Kuruntokai 74)


What He Said

Her arms have the beauty
of a gently moving bamboo.
Her eyes are full of peace.
She is faraway,
her place is not easy to reach.

My heart is frantic
with haste,
a plowman with a single ox
on land all wet
and ready for seed.

Oreruravanar (Kuruntokai 131)


What She Said

Once: if an owl hooted on the hill,
if a male ape leaped and loped
out there on the jackfruit bough in our yard
my poor heart would melt for fear. But now
in the difficult dark of night
nothing can stay its wandering
on the long sloping mountain-ways
of his coming.

Kapilar (Kuruntokai 153)


What He Said

O did I not think of you?
and thinking of you,
did I not think and think again of you?
and even as I thought of you
was I not baffled
by the world’s demands
that held me to my work?

O love, did I not think of you,
and think of you till I wished
I were here to sate my passion
till this flood of desire
that once wet the branch of the tall tree
would thin
till I can bend and scoop a drink of water
with my hands?

Auvaiyar (Kuruntokai 99)


What She Said

Look, friend,
fear of scandal will, only thin out passion.
And if I should just give up my love
to end this dirty talk,
I will be left only with my shame.

My virgin self of which he partook
is now like a branch half broken
by an elephant,
bent, not yet fallen to the ground,
still attached to the mother tree
by the fiber of its bark.

Alatturkirar (Kuruntokai 112)


What Her Girl-Friend Said

The sands are like heaped-up moonlight.
Right next to it stands all by itself,
as if all night were crammed into it,
the cool dense shade of a flowering grove
of the black punnai.

Our man has not come back.

Only our brothers’ fishing boats
will return from their hunt
of many kinds of fish.

Aiyur Mutavan (Kuruntokai 123)


What She Says (about her friend’s sympathy)

This is worse than the sleepless agony
of thinking about him, far away,
wandering long among trees
through difficult branching pathways.

This is much worse: I cannot bear to think
of my friend’s grief for me,

it’s like the deaf-mute’s
when he sees at night the suffering
of a dun cow fallen into a well.

Kuvan Maintan (Kuruntokai 224)


What She Said

Before I laughed with him

the slow waves beating
on his wide shores
and the palmyra
bringing forth heron-like flowers
near the waters,

my eyes were like the lotus
my arms had the grace of the bamboo
my forehead was mistaken for the moon.

But now…

Maturai Erutta:lan Centamputan (Kuruntokai 226)


What Her Friend Said

Will he not really think of us
when he passes the clumps of milk-hedge
with their fragrant trunks
and hears the redlegged lizard call
to his mate
in cluckings that sound like
the highway robber’s fingernail
testing the point of his iron arrow,
will he not really think of us, friend?

Palaipatiya Perunkatunko: (Kuruntokai 16)


What She Said

People say, “You will have to bear it.”
Don’t they know what passion is like,
or is it that they are so strong?

As for me, if I do not see my lover
grief drowns my heart,

and like a streak of foam in high waters
dashed on the rocks

little by little I ebb
and become nothing.

Kalporu Cirunuraiyar (Kuruntokai 290)


What She Said

Only the thief was there, no one else.
And if he should lie, what can I do?

There was only
a thin-legged heron standing
on legs yellow as millet stems
and looking
for lampreys
in the running water
when he took me.

Kapilar (Kuruntokai 25)


What Her Foster Mother Said

Let no sun burn
may trees shade the little ways on the hill
may the paths be covered with sand
may cool rain
cool the desert roads
for that simple girl
her face the color of the new mango leaf
who left us
for a man
with the long bright spear!

Kaymanar (Kuruntokai 378)


What Her Girl-Friend Said

In the seaside grove
where he drove back in his chariot
the neytal flowers are on the ground,
some of their thick petals plowed in
and their stalks broken

by the knife-edge of his wheels’ golden rims
furrowing the earth.

Ota Qani (Kuruntokai 227)


About the translator:

Attipate Krishnaswami Ramanujan (16 March 1929 – 13 July 1993) also known as A. K. Ramanujam was an Indian poet and scholar of Indian literature who wrote in both English and Kannada. Ramanujan was a poet, scholar, a philologist, folklorist, translator, and playwright. His academic research ranged across five languages: English, Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, and Sanskrit. He published works on both classical and modern variants of this literature and argued strongly for giving local, non-standard dialects their due. His translations of Tamil Sangam poetry are highly admired and well received globally.