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As a poet and scholar interested in literature and history, I have been moved to consider the variety and richness of Tamil literature as it is relevant to our cultural lives in the United States today, particularly as it provides important clues to the roots of certain traditional, ritualistic, and cultural practices that may perplex Indian American youth. I was excited, then, to attend the fourth annual Tamil conference at the University of California, Berkeley, this past April. The conference theme was “Aaru,” which means “rivers,” “branches,” or “paths,” and it brought together scholars from all over the world to discuss the significance of Aaru from ancient Sangam Tamil literature to contemporary times.

Tamil is one of the oldest living languages; its first known fully developed poetic, grammatical, and phonological work, “Tholkappiyam,” dates back to 500 B.C.E. Tamil literature is not only rich in poetic aesthetics, but it offers important insights on topics as diverse as art, feminism, philosophy, warfare, righteousness, religion, monarchy, morality, devotion, romance, sexuality, and spirituality.

Hinduism is one of the oldest religions to recognize the feminine power as a divine form of shakti, or kundalini, or “Mariamman,” as characterized in Tamil folklore. I had the opportunity to hear Anne Monius of Harvard University speak about the river Kaveri, which is identified with the virgin goddess and sectarian commitment in Tamil literature. Although Kaveri was traditionally regarded as an agrarian fertility goddess, Monius pointed out that Kaveri was directly associated with Jain and Buddhist Tamil literatures such as the Silapathikaram, which date back to 2nd century C.E. Seevaga Sindamani, a 9th century C.E. Tamil epic, devotes a large section to the principles and practices of the Jain religion. These monumental works of literature have provided historical perspectives for the Jain traditions today.

Srilata Raman’s elaboration of the righteous rule of the Tamil monarch, King Manu, was revealing. The story goes that the monarch crushed his own son under a chariot as retribution for his son having killed a calf; the mother cow is said to have sought Manu’s justice by ringing the palatial justice bell. References to Manu date back to the 2nd century C.E. and illustrate the Hindu concept of dharma.

Feminism, goddesses, fertility, and romance have been central themes of Tamil literature for several centuries. Tamil literature not only conveys the freedom and rights of women, but also the association of divine energy with omnipotent feminine divinity. This association is unique to Indian culture in general and Tamil literature in particular. Amy Alloco of Emory University presented her research on Aadi Peruku, or river rituals identified with the fertility goddess. She pointed out that although the festival retains its agrarian tradition, it is also about the auspiciousness of the female, especially in the married state. These ritualistic practices may explain the high valuation of virginity and marriage in many cultures. Unfortunately, subsequent misinterpretation of this concept by the converse association of inauspiciousness with the widowed state of women has also led to appalling customs in some rural societies.

The themes of gender and sexuality were prevalent in the Sangam Tamil poems of 200 C.E. and the 400 love poems of Agananuru. The feminist subject in these poems is intriguing considering that the society of that time was still predominantly patriarchal. Female Tamil poets could also express their overt desire for men through vivid, uninhibited descriptions of masculinity. Take this poem from the Ainkurunuru Anthology as translated by A.K. Ramanujam: “But look at him, out there standing like a sentinel who keeps rain-tank from flooding. Rain-wet bright sword hung at his side, war anklet twined with moss, his striped waist-cloth tight, and wet with dew.” Some historians believe that ancient India’s transformation from a land that associated sexuality with divinity, to a present day nation of conservative moral values, and from explicit expressions of the feminine to a valuation of feminine inhibition, evolved through several centuries of foreign invasions.

Tamil Nadu was able to preserve its traditions, values, and practices over centuries, as it did not suffer as many foreign invasions as other states in India. All over India, feminine auspiciousness is often identified with the moon, as exemplified by the Indian festival of Karva Chauth. The festival ends with women breaking a day’s fast after seeing the moon through a tamis or chalni(drum sieve).

Associations of the moon with beauty and romance have had a long history in Tamil literature, from the 2nd century’s Agananuru to the 20th century Tamil poet, Bharathidasan. Although celestial landscapes have inspired many romantic poems, such as Percy Shelley’s “The Cloud” and Lord Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty,” Bharathidasan’s romantic story of Amudhavalli and poem on Nila cause reverberations.

Bharathidasan’s Puratchikavi is about Amudhavalli, the daughter of a dictator. The monarch wants his lovely daughter to appreciate the beauty of Tamil poetry and chooses Udharan, a young and handsome Tamil poet, to teach her. Unfortunately, the King is apprehensive that Amudhavalli might succumb to the romantic call of Udharan, or Udharan may slip from his pedagogical duty by falling in love. Thus the king tells his daughter that the young teacher is blind, and tells the poet that Amudhavalli has leprosy. The King installs a veil to separate the two, telling Udharan that it is so he should not contract leprosy.

The poetry spontaneously flows from the teacher to the princess, until one evening when a full moon decorates the sky. The Princess has not yet arrived for her lesson, and Udharan is enticed by the gleaming full moon. He composes an extemporaneous poem and recites the verses. Upon hearing Udharan’s verses, the princess realizes that Udharan cannot be blind, for he has composed a vivid poem revealing the feminine beauty of moon, and thus crushed the veil between them.

Although it is impossible to do justice to the original Tamil verses, I have endeavored to provide a flavor of this poem with my own transformation, entitled “Lunar Lunacy.”

Lunar Lunacy

Underneath the sapphire-veiled saree, you hide your ravishing body
And just exposing your gleaming face, O Moon!
What if you had exposed your whole body, will this
Whole world die of schizophrenic love with you!
Are you the solitary blossom in the celestial garden?
Are you the heavenly, milky, silver urn?
Or a geyser of love-nectar? Are you the metamorphosis
of the crimson disk at dawn, sunken into the blue sea,
chilled, quenching the red fire, and ascending
westward as a golden gleam?

When I see thee, my heart brims with ecstasy but
I find no words to pen my powerful feelings!
As if I am poverty-stricken, all my unremitting efforts
Flounder to find that one last spoon of pudding to quench
My insatiable hunger; there, what an eternal bliss it is,
To find an abounding pot of well-cooked white rice!
Oh that transcendental ecstasy is the joy of
just getting a glimpse of you, O Moon!

Krishnan Balasubramanian is a professor emeritus of chemical physics at Arizona State University, a senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley/Livermore Labs, and an adjunct professor of mathematics, physics, and computer science at Cal State East Bay. He writes poetry in both English and Tamil.

Photo: “Chola King Rajendra”—Shiva and Parvati bestow their blessings by garlanding the Chola King Rajendra at Gangai Konda Cholapuram near Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu