Translating A Sangam Poem

(I have translated a Kapilar’s poem from ‘Ahananuru’. This got featured in the edition on Tranlsations in Qarrtsiluni )

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.