Tirukkural encodes the cultural intelligence of the Tamil people in its 1,330 couplets (called kurals), written sometime between the third and first centuries BCE in south India by the legendary poet Tiruvalluvar. Like other classical Indian treatises on right living, Tirukkural starts with a section on virtue (dharma), continues on to a section on wealth (artha), and then covers love (kama). (More about Tirukkural can be found in my earlier essay, here on NC.)
Though ancient in origin, these verses are still alive in Tamil culture. My mother tells me that the local Indian cultural association where she lives in rural Ohio has just started a kural-memorization competition for the kids. Each participant has to start from the beginning of Tirukkural, the very first couplet, and recite as much as he or she can remember. The prizes are awarded to the top memorizers, one dollar per kural. I laughed, thinking of how much money a kid could make if she made it all the way to the section on wealth (that’s $380 for getting there).
The following couplets are from the first and third sections (virtue and love).
Chapter 8: On possessing love
In love, what lock? Heartache
gleams on the tear tracks left in its wake.
The loveless take all for themselves, but those who love own
not even their bones.
Love unites thought and action in pure life—
a consummation to the very marrow.
Love’s thrill leads to
Love’s possessors manufacture this world’s joy,
and, by possessing joy, win glory.
Pure virtue is love’s sole fruit according to the ignorant, oblivious
that pure valor ripens alongside.
Boneless worms in sunlight burn,
as do loveless people in moral virtue.
Loveless hearts bloom in an arid waste
on parched trees, withering.
What use are the outer limbs of the body
without the inner limb?
A love-filled path is the soul,
without which the body is only bones covered over with skin.
Chapter 122: On night visions
My love’s messenger came to me: a dream.
What feast of thanks can I offer it?
Of my eyes, shaped like darting fish, I beg sleep. Then for my love
truth will pour from my suffering heart.
Awake, he never came to me, but, asleep,
seeing him preserves my life.
In dreams, I seek that fierce pleasure, which in my waking life
avoids me: I find him.
Awake, my vision and its dream
met in one sweet moment.
If waking life would cease and only sleep persist
my love would never leave my mind.
Awake, he never came near. What cruelty takes, in my sleep,
its right to torture me?
I dreamt he made love to me. When I woke,
he swiftly entered my heart.
In this waking life, he offered me nothing. Yet I ached when in my dream
my love evaporated from my longing eyes.
Every day they will gossip about us and my forsakenness. But my dream
they didn’t glimpse, thankfully, these villagers.
from Chapter 123: An evening lament
Budding in early morning and unfurling all day,
the evening blooms, like this ache.
—Translated by A. Anupama
A. Anupama is a U.S.-born, Indian-American poet and translator whose work has appeared in several literary publications, including The Bitter Oleander, Monkeybicycle, Fourteen Hills, and decomP magazinE. She received her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2012. She currently lives and writes in the Hudson River valley of New York, where she organizes literary community (RiverRiver.org) and blogs about poetic inspiration at seranam.com.