Master Valluvan, the long-misunderstood Tamil Mentor




          “The Kurral owes much of its popularity to its exquisite poetic form. A kurral is a couplet containing a complete and striking idea expressed in a refined and intricate metre. No translation can convey an idea of its charming effect. […] The brevity rendered necessary by the form [composed in the Venpa metre] gives an oracular effect to the utterances of the great Tamil ‘Master of the sentences.’ They are the choicest of moral epigrams. […] Tiruvalluvar is generally very simple, and his commentators very profound.

                                                      Rev. G.U. Pope, Former Fellow of Madras University



[Pardon these futile measly words from your great Potiya height: they can hardly belittle your true worth.]


Under what leaky hutment roof    by stamped-mud floors

            trembling clair-oscuro straw-wick kuttuvilakku

  on the stark anvil of crisp phrase and sparse syntax

           by the raging nama-nir rhyming brine

                                                        at Mayilapur’s  S.Thomé sandy doors

     while peacocks danced to your innate pulsating chimes

   have you chipped away at uncut gems


                   Those the Yavanas brought with the monsoons

    or   such as your sea-daring captain friend Elela-Cinkan’s

          Even those the Christian missionaries preached

                in daredevil enticement   

   after St.Thomas fell to a vel  stuck in his bosom        

        or of

             those like you who were stamped underfoot


                                                                  Caste in cast-iron strictures

        Priest only to the proclaimer paraiyar drum-beaters

   The warp and woof of intricately woven venpa verse

                  elevating your weaving clan to fresh artistic heights 



        in the humbled ways of your birth

   on whose steps have you pitched your ears

      whose wisdom have you had to pilfer


      whose ways have you had to ape   

      whose mere thoughts have you then had to set aright      


  and remould into inextinguishable lines


Or had you tread the ahimsa path of gentle-foot Jains

Treading gently the earth for fear of loping boot pains


                                                                   SEVEN STARK WORDS

             Seven alliterative blockbuster words       struck so

they rhymed initially   in juxta-positioning lineal parallels

        pausing but in the fourth

                                                  to resume breath in the fifth

    Leaving the interstitial morphemes in resonating ellipses


The economy of your parsing has wreaked havoc down the ages

                                                                               in all trans-explicatory tongues   

Tough-minded men come from afar

           with other gods to serve

                   and sacrifices to make in the name of their Lords

                                                                      bent your versification to limp rhyme

           and left meaning a hung pursuit

      in the hands of plagiarists           professors preachers   


not knowing nor divining the reason for your craftsman’s

                          concatenation of weighted phonemes

       advanced theories for your elastic pregnant mind

 strung myriads of pages in exegeses

                                                               (much perhaps to your amusement now)

  each staking a claim to posterity

                                                       the villainous hanging on your lips


In a time devoid of papered learning for the poor

When to be born a Sudra or Pariah was a sin

When masters were those top-heavy manically-mantric Brahmin priests

Preying on the duped loyal sycophantic Vaishyas  

                wishing to earn karmic merit with their agricultural gain at their altar feet

              such servant-financers as they by legions now lay their souls down

                        as even the long-gone royally leisure-dispensing Kshaktriyas


        how would he who sought the spread of knowledge

    not seek to encapsulate learning in mnemonic couplets

                    arranged according to rigid design 

       for those who could not count either


Ten fingers in the hand   so

Ten the number of facets of a thought

                                                 a subject

                                                      a theme

        even if theme subject thought were stretched too thin



   Whether or not relations with the uncultured enamour

   Do not seek to succour what should sour


   What does it matter if you gain or lose inferiors

   Who feather their own nests and leave you in a mess


   Those who look to the benefit that accrues from friendship

   And those who covet largesse are thick as thieves


   Better be content to walk alone than surround yourself

   With friends who’d ditch you like wild stallions in battle


   It’s better to sever than solder vile ties

   With the petty-minded who’d fail you in need


   By far it’d serve you better to be snubbed by the wise

   Than be warmed by the company of narrow-minded fools


   It’s infinitely more useful to bear your enemies’ scorn

   Than court raucous revellers who’d warm you up with guffaws


   Friends who’d proffer help remonstrate and find fault

   Might as well shun them with scarcely a farewell


   Friends who please by word and yet act otherwise

   Crop up as a rude shock even in dreams


   Turn away from the friend who snuggles up in private

   While he seeks to denounce you in a public place

                                      [Tirukkural, Chapter 82: “Evil Friendship”]            



No-one contests your calligraphic diamond cutter’s skills

Nor your codifier rôle of existing customs   beliefs

                                    of kingly comportment

                                 of the wife’s place

                              of manner of securing friendships

                            of the obtention and dispensation of education

                         of the seductions in the dainty maiden’s coyness

Nor of your infinite wisdom of the times

Nor of your observation of the passing of life about you

Nor  alas! of your inveterate nay obsessive need to pontificate

                                in what is evident to the even half-baked




What mattered was to get the lesson through

                                         even one in ten was well worth the while

       if remembered by the unfortunate by birth

Who never traversed the threshold of class and caste

         who never even buckled exceeding numbers on their toes    


To you the ten-by-tens    by one-hundred-and-thirty

           perhaps you planned a florilège

                                                                  in old age

    by weeding out for posterity’s privileged classes

                                                                        the few quoted over and over

katka kasatara karka   karrapin

nitka atatkut taka


vilampu suttapun aratu  arate

navinal sutta vatu


                                      and you might never have thought

     the mighty today are like those trodden poor of your day


at least were shackled to ignorance by force     by godly fear

                                 a racially discriminating Overlord 


          now the privileged in blindness give you lip-service

                                                          and a lot of money

        hoping by this gesture to earn your merit   

                                           not earn YOU merit                                             

                                         and the society’s accolade


You remain abused still

            by the undistinguishing crowd

     who upon the mention of your name

                                                                   rise to feel proud

                                                                                                of what then


             in their shored-up selves    

                                                         of belonging in

the self-same pigment and tongue


None of your real worth passes into them

Nor the reason for your epigrammatic lines



Should I then beg forgiveness for this affront


Some apart

          much remains redundant


                 inapt by way of pointing to fresher vistas

      and these that follow the rarity of your verse

              imbibe nothing else from this age’s handy cornucopia

                                                     of instant wisdom


Your lines served an eminent purpose in your time

                                        now we bed our minds down by encyclopaedic libraries

                 we live on another planet

Your chain-ganged lines served to teach the meek

      the lame of mind

  the dislocated of your time


Yes  some still wallow in the same myth


 not from want of will   

         but from the fear of rebirth

                                                imprisoned in conditioned belief


      and the essor of Dravidian identity

                            only defering to the feigned purity of Aryanising blood

reverts to the same mythic belief

         some kind of imagined power of breed


History is in the past

It cannot help the present to liberate itself

If one has not understood the difference

If one has not disowned and let fall meaningless myths


If you  dear Valuvan  lived in these times

Would you not have disowned your own lines


                  well perhaps some or more

 not all finding their way into a florilège of your choice


for you know how love in the third part changed with moeurs

     changing with the times

so has the art of governance

and the unconscionable ways and practices of the artha classes

other precautions more pressing than mere friendship

would have compelled you to jettison many a couplet


Who knows   even your first ten would have found their way

                                        into a bin

     ethical lines of advice

                                         would turn sour in today’s ear


No child would heed to the letter your admonitions of behaviour

Nor no wife take her place in the humiliating role of kitchen-helper

No king will base his reign on your strict plans of concern for etiquette

No youth seek virtue in the puritanical preachment of bygone observances


                   One singular contention

                   No peasant revolution

                   No women’s liberation

                   No religious reformation

                                                              grace your pages

    the establishment   the status quo  the traditional hierarchy  the Almighty

           All         find mindful foundation

                                                              in your ardent didacticism

 and extend licence to those who cry sacrilege

       in the coming dismantling of the clans of castial  power


Is poetry only meant for teaching what is time-honoured

                           what is authorised

                 what seeks not to rock the ship of fate       


Helas!  My universally-renowned peerless ancestor!

                                                                                  I’d like to think

You’d be the first to have recognized the always changing world

The first to have accepted the parting of ways

For your intelligence    your foresight and hindsight

Your immensely powerful quill

      would have sought other remedies

                                                                 other means to convince

      a wayward world

                                     a world far too gone and worldly-wise

    to hatch the nuances of your admonishing word   

                                                                                      all afresh 


N’empêche your name is a comet

      hurtling down the ages



© T.Wignesan 2001

December 2001, Paris, France


[Published in Third Eye, a literary magazine (Co-Editor: S. Jeyasankar) published by the Faculty of Arts, Eastern University of Sri Lanka, December 30, 2001]