Śathakopan of Kurukur likely lived in the ninth century of the Common Era. He certainly spent nearly all of his life in the far southern reaches of Tamil-speaking India, which was then the domain of the Pandyan kings of Madurai and is today the southernmost part of the state of Tamilnadu. As with most early Indian authors, practically nothing about his historical existence is known: we have his poetry, as well as a vast body of much later exegetical and hagiographical texts. In the poems, the reader encounters a sophisticated, erudite writer dedicated to revering the Hindu deity Vishnu in his many aspects. Śathakopan’s range of reference comfortably encompassed the worlds of myth and epic associated with traditions in Sanskrit as well as the corpus of classical poetry written centuries earlier in his own tongue.
His masterpiece is a long poetic sequence in praise of Vishnu and his devotees, a catalog of the god’s myths and the sites of his southern temples, and a searching examination of the inner life of one enraptured by Vishnu’s presence and made desperate by his absence. In a tremendous technical feat, every one of its 1,102 stanzas is linked together by echoes: the final words of each are picked up in the opening of the next. Its basic unit is a series of ten stanzas of four front-rhymed lines each—in Tamil they are just called “tens”; following English conventions, we might call them “decads”—followed by an eleventh stanza naming the poet. These decads are organized into ten units of roughly a hundred each (“centos”), with the eleventh stanza of each decad not counting toward the total. The sequence as a whole ends in a way somewhat reminiscent of Finnegans Wake, by repeating its first word. Śathakopan never names his poem—in his concluding stanzas it is just “his thousand”—but to the millions of South Indian Hindus who have revered it down through the centuries, it is the Tiruvāymoli (The Sacred Utterance). For these devotees, Śathakopan is known as Nammālvār, “our ālvār,” the crowning figure of an earlier canon of religious poets with that title, those “immersed in God.”
Emblematic of the intimacy seen in this title is a millennium-long adoration of the poet, from immense and evolving works of commentary on the Tiruvāymoli, through pious imaginings of his life and the life of his poem, to the ritual reenactment of moments along his path to final union with Vishnu. The thousand-plus stanzas of his masterwork have long been a central part of the imagination of the religious community called the Shrivaishnavas. Vaishnava denotes any worshipper of Vishnu; shri is either an honorific or a recognition of the role of the goddess Shri or Lakshmi in the community’s theology. The Shrivaishnavas emerged in the medieval period, in the aftermath of the theological project of the eleventh-century thinker Rāmānuja, who wrote solely in Sanskrit; the adoption and veneration of the earlier Tiruvāymoli corpus marks one of the distinctive features of their religion. Their hagiographical account of Nammālvār portrays him as an innocent completely absorbed in his love for his god: born into the landholding Vellala caste, the future poet never cried, ate, spoke, or opened his eyes. After his despairing parents deposited him in Kurukur’s Adinathan temple, he sat in yogic meditation for sixteen years. Jarred out of his trance by an enigmatic question asked by an itinerant brahmin named Madurakavi, Nammālvār suddenly awakened to the fullness of his devotion and his poetic ability, and the entire corpus of his poetry—the Tiruvāymoli and three shorter works—poured out of him spontaneously.
The man (or rather boy) who would come to be called Nammālvār thus does not possess much of a biography for the hagiographers: his life story is a kind of anti-biography, devoid of events. The same cannot be said of their account of his work, according to which Madurakavi memorizes the Tiruvāymoli and the other shorter works, sets them to music, and takes to the road, eventually coming to Srirangam, the great Vaishnava temple on an island in central Tamilnadu’s Kaveri River delta. He establishes the poem there, and the tradition of its performance thrives for many years before being almost entirely forgotten. A learned man from the region, a Vaishnava brahmin named Nāthamuni, overhears a single decad sung by a troupe of performers and begins a search for its source. Traveling south to Kurukur, he is frustrated to find no memory of the poet or his work. Meditating while repeatedly reciting a brief poem of Madurakavi’s in honor of Nammālvār, both men appear to him in a visionary trance, and Nāthamuni receives the Tiruvāymoli directly from the poet and his first devotee. He then becomes the work’s first editor, and the Tiruvāymoli takes its place as the largest part—a full quarter—of the canon of Tamil hymns that the Shrivaishnavas call the Divyaprabandham, “the Divine Composition.”
This is not the only South Indian story of the loss of a precious text and its miraculous recovery, nor is it the only story of such an apparently unlikely poet. The preservation of poems, songs, and works of learning was a constant struggle amid the dangers of faulty memory, indifference, fire, the rains, and the white ant: it’s little wonder that many beloved works were thought to have been rediscovered or to only exist as fragments of a once greater whole. The story contains elements of historical fact: Madurakavi really did write poems in praise of Nammālvār, and Nāthamuni was an actual scholar whose works are now entirely lost but for a few quotations. In other Indian literary myths, figures lost in a private world spontaneously produce new knowledge or verbal art; often these are gods in disguise. Some versions of Nammālvār’s story gesture toward his divinity, but common to them all is a boy lost in his love for Vishnu. The pious Vaishnavas who composed this story were not merely obedient to an inherited trope, nor were they simply credulous. These hagiographers were creatively responding to the overwhelming effect of the Tiruvāymoli as a whole, a work that astonishes in both its technical accomplishment and its thematic reach.
Though there is practically nothing we can say about Nammālvār as a historical figure, we can talk about the world in which he lived. Perhaps it would be better, for a moment, to speak of Śathakopan. The Tamil south of Śathakopan’s time was a world with a long cultural memory and filled with its own febrile creativity. It was also, importantly, a world of small settlements stretched out across an open frontier, lacking any clear cultural or imperial center. The lands claimed by the Pandyan kings were distinct from the well-watered world of the Kaveri Delta or the ancient, cosmopolitan city of Kanchipuram, on the northern edge of the Tamil country. Even now, in an unimaginably more densely peopled India, Tamilnadu’s far south can feel open and empty: sunbaked plains dotted with jutting granite crags and lit up by the occasional green of a rice field. Villages, towns, and temples clustered along the region’s major rivers, the Vaigai and the Tamraparni.
This was the world Śathakopan knew best and sang of most. He sings of flourishing places: in his hometown of Kurukur “mansions rise like jeweled mountains”; Vishnu dwells atop the Maliruncolai hill “amidst its gushing springs”; grief fades away in Tirumokur “with its lush gardens and cool pools.” The temples he celebrated in the Tiruvāymoli would have been modest structures enclosing a central shrine, with none of the gigantism of the gopurams, the richly decorated skyscraper gateways added many centuries later, that greet temple visitors today. Śathakopan likely traveled enormous distances by foot on pilgrimage beyond his local world: maybe to Srirangam, and perhaps as far as Tirupati, in Andhra Pradesh; and in two decads he sings movingly of his desire to visit temples across the western mountains in today’s Kerala.
In these decads, the voice is Nammālvār’s own; that is not always the case. Three main personae are present in the Tiruvāymoli: the poet, a young woman who speaks of her longing for Vishnu, and the woman’s mother, who is filled with sorrow at the loss of her daughter, who has become obsessively devoted to the god. Nammālvār, who addresses him as “my father,” sings of Vishnu’s mythic deeds, his temple homes, and the poet’s dedication to the Vaishnava faithful. The young woman and her mother are figures borrowed from the dramatis personae of classical Cankam poetry, which Nammālvār vividly repurposed.1 The young woman’s voice opens up perhaps the most celebrated of Tiruvāymoli’s themes, in which devotion to Vishnu is reframed as powerfully erotic. The figure of the mother is the most complex: in Nammālvār’s classical sources, she was a stock comic figure who mistakes her daughter’s lovesickness for possession by a god. Here the possession and the lovesickness are equally real, lending an urgent desperation to her voice.
Endless Song is Archana Venkatesan’s third volume of translations. Her earlier works brought the poems of the Ālvār poetess Āṇṭāḷ and a shorter work of Nammālvār’s to new audiences, but her translation of the Tiruvāymoli represents a leap forward in both ambition and accomplishment. With it Venkatesan has clearly become the leading English interpreter of early Tamil Vaishnava lyric, and certainly one of the very few truly gifted translators of the language’s premodern riches.2
There are two sorts of translations produced by people who work in universities. The scholarly translation, with its ballast of footnotes, seeks to make a virtue of its transparency: missing words are supplied in brackets, and idioms alien to the target language (in this case, English) are smuggled in, on the presumption that any reader will be familiar with the source language, and likely has the original at her elbow. The literary translation, on the other hand, aims for two simultaneous goals. It is meant to reproduce for the reader some version of an experience of the original, while also making a contribution to the target language’s world of imaginative possibilities. But especially when the original is from a distant time or place, its protocols of writing and reading can differ so widely from those of the later literary culture as to make such an assimilation close to impossible, and the needs of modern eloquence can often result in the muting or removing of the original’s particularities.
This strong tension is one of the reasons why academic institutions—for instance, university hiring and tenure committees—tend to be suspicious of literary translations, which end up considered the preserve of senior scholars, labors of love as much as knowledge. Meanwhile, academic publishers want works of stylish translation, and teaching depends on translation at nearly every level. And while translation studies is an established and rigorous discipline, it offers little practical training in how to translate beautifully and well. The literatures of early India present a further problem: as the comparatist Alexander Beecroft has written, many of the Indian classics are “texts that seem to have so much more to lose than to gain in translation.” There is their verbal complexity, their exotic references, and the complex poetics in which they come embedded. There is also the problem of sheer length: the Tiruvāymoli’s thousand-plus stanzas place it firmly in the midsize range.
Amid all this, Tamil occupies a curious position. For specialists of early Tamil poetry, literary translation is in many ways the default genre. Without diminishing the contributions of Venkatesan’s doctoral supervisor George L. Hart, much of this can be attributed to the linguist, folklorist, and poet A.K. Ramanujan. Before his early death in 1993, Ramanujan produced three crisp, often thrilling volumes of old Tamil translations, one of them selections from Nammālvār.3 This established a precedent within the study of Tamil and the other classical languages of South India for poetic translation, which has remained a legitimate way to produce knowledge of the Indian cultural past.
Ramanujan’s style is immediately recognizable, as one can see from a single stanza from the Tiruvāymoli describing Vishnu’s miraculous incarnation as Vāmana, the dwarf who swells to encompass the universe:
First, the discus
rose to view,
Then the conch,
the long bow,
and the sword;
from the eight quarters,
he broke through
the egg-shell of heaven,
making the waters bubble;
giant head and giant feet
growing away from each other,
time itself rose to view:
how the lord
paced and measured
all three worlds!
I now cringe when I remember my own student attempts to imitate this stripped-down, typographic way of translating; Venkatesan speaks, a little warily, of Ramanujan’s “distinctive modernist style.” Here is her version of the same verse:
The disc grew, the conch and bow too
praise swelled, rising in all directions, the staff
the sword grew, the huge world a bubble pierced by
his head his feet and time grew long,
this is how my father took the earth.
Ramanujan’s version is appealing, but Venkatesan’s is, to my eyes, superior: it manages to hold together both poles of the literary translator’s balancing act. It gives a far better sense of Nammālvār’s original, which like much of the Tiruvāymoli is a model of concision and, like hers, heavily enjambed. This attention to the source text pays off in a more effective English verse, one that enacts the rush of the god’s magical expansion, which Ramanujan’s indents and spacing render in slow motion.
To be sure, Ramanujan remains a hugely influential presence, a father-progenitor for anyone trying to bring a classic text of South Indian literature into English. The patriarchal reference is deliberate—Ramanujan’s scholarship is as replete with ideas like the distinction between “father tongues” and “mother tongues” as his own English poetry is preoccupied by the figure of his father, a scientist, astrologer, and amateur Sanskritist: one edition of his collected essays bears on its cover the pen-and-ink drawing Triptych of Father by his daughter Krittika. I mention this only to emphasize that classical Tamil’s leading translators are now women: besides Venkatesan, Martha Ann Selby and Indira Viswanathan Peterson have produced beautiful poetic renderings, and Eva Wilden is the foremost critical editor and scholarly translator of the classical corpus. Ramanujan always worked as a curator: he never attempted to translate an entire Tamil or Kannada classic, instead choosing whatever seemed most representative of the original or resonated with his poet’s sensibility. These choices tended to be superb, but his selections have exercised an outsize influence on what we consider valuable about these literatures.
Venkatesan’s translation allows us to take in Nammālvār’s work in its entirety, with the welcome assistance of her notes and appendices. This apparatus, more extensive than usual in a Penguin edition, presents the reader with a major fact of the Tiruvāymoli’s historical life: its significance as an object of commentary. Between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries, learned Shrivaishnava scholars constructed great gopurams of exegesis atop Nammālvār’s poem: treating its thousand stanzas with enormous care, they saw it as a narrative of his journey toward final union with Vishnu and as a scripture equal to the Vedas. Venkatesan approaches these interpretations with the charity and respect they deserve, drawing on them sparingly but effectively in her notes. But these scholars, writing half a millennium after Nammālvār’s lifetime, were primarily interested in the Tiruvāymoli as theology, while Venkatesan presents it as a work of art.
Of the work’s three voices, the male poet’s is the most prominent and the most varied. Many stanzas are simply elaborate words of praise, as in this one from the first cento:
Gods and sages think of you, swoon dissolve melt
they worship you with flowers water sandal incense
You are the seed, the reason of all things
known only to a steady heart, mysterious lord
Can your greatness ever diminish?
This passage is set within a range of moods, as when the poet grows desperate at the distance between himself and Vishnu’s grandeur:
“Father, come stand before me
your eyes bright as lotus, your body glowing like gold
show me this kindness” I cry out stripped of shame.
But what’s the point, great one,
when even the gods can’t see you.
This space between poet and Vishnu informs Nammālvār’s play with personae, especially when he speaks as the young woman in love, for example when her angst is figured as desire-haunted memory:
Who is to save me now?
My soft breasts yielded to his touch, my hips too
when he pushed into me, plunged deep into my self
then he left, abandoned me,
cast me aside, thief.
Now Kaṇṇan that young lion
my mysterious lord won’t return
his lotus eyes his lush lips his cool dark curls
his four wide shoulders torment my heart
this is my wretched fate.4
From early on, these two voices tend to cross over and blend together, as the poet speaks of Vishnu with a patently erotic passion, and as the woman’s stanzas draw from myth and metaphysics. The mother, whose voice is the rarest of the three, acts as a choric commentator on the proceedings. Here she quotes her daughter’s words as she is swept away in a Whitmanesque self-apotheosis:
I am all the land you see
the sky you see, I am that too
I am the hot flame, this wind that blows
and all the ocean, I am.
Has the one dark as the ocean
the one who sees all entered her?
You stand as witness in this world
seeing everything my girl does
what shall I say?
The Shrivaishnava commentators rightly find in this passage an allusion to the most famous of Vishnu’s acts, the theophany at the climax of the Bhagavadgita, when Krishna, one of Vishnu’s avatars, announces himself as the quintessence of a lengthy catalog of worldly and supernatural phenomena. This gives us a sense of Nammālvār’s boldly assimilative ambitions, but it is the mother’s perspective from outside the tight circle of those wholly devoted to Vishnu that makes the passage so powerful.
These three voices come into alignment as the Tiruvāymoli comes to a close, joined by the invocation of another perspective, that of the god filled with a reciprocal desire for his earthly lovers. By the poem’s final moments, these crystallize in a newly unified voice of the poet, addressing Vishnu:
You became my nectar that never sates
devouring my breath my sweet life
still your heart hungered for more.
Dark as a kāya bloom
with lotus-bright eyes and berry-red lips
dear to the lovely woman perfect for you,
you are my love.
For the commentators, these are among Nammālvār’s final words before his complete union with Vishnu. Yet the poem ends exactly the way it begins—with the word uyar, “the most high”—turning the Tiruvāymoli into a self-enclosed poetic object, a “perfect garland/of a thousand musical verses,” as powerful in its detail as it is lovely in its entirety.
For an overview of the poetics of this corpus, see my review of David Shulman’s Tamil: A Biography in these pages, March 23, 2017. ↩
Tamil studies in North America is a small field, and it can hardly come as a surprise that I know Venkatesan, but I should mention that she and I are part of a joint translation project of Kamban’s medieval Tamil Ramayana for the Murty Classical Library of India, for which we are also both editors. ↩
See David Shulman’s review in these pages of Ramanujan’s Journeys: A Poet’s Diary and his collection The Interior Landscape: Classical Tamil Love Poems, September 26, 2019. ↩
It’s worth noting—as Venkatesan does, and as David Shulman does in his appreciative foreword—her aversion to punctuation, above all the comma. It lends her versions momentum and serves as an effective means of defamiliarization, but it is a strange choice: while old Tamil lacked any sort of punctuation, its serial verbs and array of grammatical particles make for a series of distinct clauses, cases of accidental or deliberate ambiguity notwithstanding. An unprepared reader encountering the text solely through Venkatesan’s version might come away with an impression of a language that is far less controlled than Nammālvār’s in fact is. ↩