Pendragon Lectures XII

Transcreating Thirukural

Banyan & Margosa are good for teeth
Nalatiyar & Thirukkural are good for tongue
Tamil Proverb


 As I showed in my last lecture, one of the most interesting avenues a poet may scribble along is the process of recreating creation – transcreation – that is to say the arduous rewording of the great works of ancient masters. This method was the core of the 16th century Renaissance – the new birth – where the lore-caskets of Arabian, Greek & Latin wisdom were studied, assimilated & regurgitated by European writers. A century later came the Georgian translations of Homer’s epics, & more recently Seamus Heaney’s transcreation Beowulf. It is in a similar capacity that I have been engaged on a new version of the Kural of Thiruvalluvar, or as it is more commonly known, Thirukkural. This 2000-year-old treatise on the art of living is ranked as the first book of the Tamils – that ancient, heroic, dark-skinned race that dwells in both Tamil Nadu & Sri Lanka. As I.A. Richards noted, ‘great cultures start in poetry,’ & it is with the Tamils that this is particularly notable. Their literature is held in the national esteem far greater than any other land upon the globe, the writers of which are elevated to the level of saints. Foremost among them is Thiruvalluvar, the creator of the Thirukkural, a timeless text that, as the giant of Tamil studies GU Pope observed; ‘Outweighs the whole of remaining Tamil literature, & is one of the select number of great works, which have entered into the very soul of a whole people & which can never die.’



The thing is, despite its universal brilliance, hardly anyone outside of Tamil Nadu knows about this book. For me, it was the quite unwieldy, clumberous translations into English that formed the problem – dense & wordy phrases that lose the beauty & immediacy of the original. As a poet, & the poet who rediscovered the poem in the post-imperial world, it was a challenge worth rising too. Over the past few decades we have slowly become obsessed with books on self improvement written by an assorted collection of lifestyle gurus. I believe the Kural to be the ultimate self-help book, a treatise on the unchanging realities of human existence, tracing through its pages the outline of an ideal life.

As we stride through the twentieth century, a new culture awaits mankind – that of a unified ‘global village,’ needing its own ‘international literature,’ & the non-sectarian, anti-nationalistic Thirukkural fits the bill astonishingly well. To the Tamils, the Thirukkural is a divine book, but not in the sense of the Koran or Bible, which offer an obstinate outlook on the religious experience. Over the centuries it has been observed that people are more willing to die for their scriptures than to live by them, but the Thirukkural is simply a book to live by, a code of moral conduct to which all creeds, castes & colors can connect, whose lofty idealism has been acclaimed by all the religions of the world. In the words of EV Daniel, “The Holy Kural may well be the meeting ground, the common ground, of all religions.”

Chapter 4 Verse 3

ஒல்லும் வகையான அறவினை ஓவாதே
செல்லும்வாய் எல்லாஞ் செயல்

In every way possible
Practice virtue incessantly

What are the Kural? In Tamil, the word Kural means ‘dwarfish,’ & has been applied to the shortest measure in Tamil poetry – the Kural Venba. This is a couplet of only seven words – four in the first line & three in the second. This curtness insists on an epigrammatic nature of composition, such as the English proverb ‘A stitch in time, saves nine.’ The kural are inherently simple, yet extremely subtle, being very similar to the Japanese Haiku, where ideas & sensations are expressed with a modicum of words. Yet in the hands of Valluvar, through the act of ellipsis, he condenses his world-view into phenomenal couplets that have become became sharpened knives with which to unstitch the fabric of mortal existence & expose it to the world. Or as Archbishop Trench remarked;

 He abounds in short and memorable, and, if I might so call them, epigrammatic sayings, concentrating with a forceful brevity the whole truth which he desires to impart into some single phrase.

What he has achieved is no less than a blueprint for life. & these neat, ordered rows of kural have stamped an order on the chaos of human existence. Or as Reverend P Percival once wrote, “Nothing in the whole compass of human language can equal the force and terseness of the couplets in which the author of the Kural conveys the lessons of wisdom.”

At the feet of Thiruvalluvar - Kanyakumari
At the feet of Thiruvalluvar – Kanyakumari

The legend says that Valluvar submitted his palm-leaf manuscript of his Kural to the 49 Pandits of the second Sangam, the high-browed judges of the Tamil literary establishment, c.100 BC. He found them sat on a raft that floated on the serene waters of the Golden Lily tank, the fabulous centre-piece of the great Meenakshi Sundareswarar temple of Madurai. At first the Pandits initially scoffed at the sage, throwing scorn on the work of an unlearned man from the lower castes. Valluvar remained unphased by their mockery, & simply placed the manuscript on the raft according to the set custom. Much to the Pandit’s astonishment, the raft immediately shrank, ducking these conceited men into the water, & leaving just enough room on the boards for the manuscript. Once on dry land, the sodden scholars recognized through this miracle that the Kural were indeed divine, an opinion that has not changed a single iota for two millennia.

Once the Kural had been accepted by the Pandits of Madurai, its influence penetrated every facet of Tamil society. The common Tamils took this rare blend of vibrant mysticism & pragmatic realism to their hearts, concerning as it does the everyday matters which affected their lives. The Kural was quoted in many early Tamil works, such as the Puranauru & the Manimekalai. It also influenced Kambar’s excellent 13th century Tamil version of the Ramayana, where Rama & his wife Seeta were fully imbued with the moral guidance of Valluvar. Then, in 1272, the poet Parimelazhagar arranged the 1330 kural into the order which the modern world now knows them. They were placed into chapters of ten kural each, which were again divided into 3 sections – the Muppaal – of Virtue, Wealth & Love. The theory is that if these are fully adhered to, then the fourth muppaal – Moksha (salvation) – shall be achieved.

Constantine Beschi
Constantine Beschi

The Kural were first brought to the attention of Europe by a series of missionaries entering Tamil Nadu via Madras (British), Pondicherry (France) & Tranquebar (Danish). The very first translation was in Latin & made by an Italian priest, Father Constantius Beschi, in the early eighteenth century. The next translator was the German AF Cammera, whose work was published in Leipzig in 1803. Then came the French Savant, M Ariel, who released his translation in 1848. It was he who proclaimed the Kural as “One of the highest & purest expressions of human thought.” These men were the pioneers, whose efforts helped to fan the flames of interest in this ancient text, which ever since has burnt fiercer & fiercer. Their efforts in translating Tamil can be compared to the discovery of the Rosetta stone, but instead of using that hieroglyphic key to open the doors of ancient Egypt, they have instead unlocked the wonders of the human soul.

Once the world became aware of these compact distiches of quintessential wisdom, the Kural have been translated into over 6o languages across the world, including 13 other Indian languages. The first English translation was in 1853, by the Reverend Drew, whose work would inspire GU Pope, a gargantuan figure of Kural lore. History now sees George Uglow Pope as the great standard bearer of Tamil, that ‘noble language’ as called it, immersing & devoting his entire life to its study & translation. His first lesson in the language occurred when he was an eighteen-year-old lad in England. Later that year he arrived in Madras & upon first hearing the true beauty of Tamil on the lips of a humble fisherman, he became determined to learn all about the language & to be able to speak it as fluently as a native. He set about meeting the greatest Tamil scholars of the day, & had soon unleashed his genius upon its life-long mission.  By 1840 he was staying at Mylapore, about which he would later write, “While visiting the villages around here, that enthusiasm for the great Tamil poet was first kindled which has been an important factor in my life.”

Within a short time of my learning Tamil, I commenced translating Thirukkural, for the benefit of Europeans,” he said, & after almost fifty years, on September 1st, 1886, he would complete his noble task, which by now he had declared the ‘masterpiece of human thought.’ By February 1893 he would also add an excellent, poetic translation of the Naltiyar to his many achievements in Tamil, which included an unfinished, yet massively comprehensive dictionary of Tamil. For his erudite efforts he was given the honorary degrees by Oxford and Lambeth, & was awarded the much coveted Gold Medal of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1906. After a ‘long and useful’ life of 88 years, he died in 1908, when one of his last requests was to have his tomb decorated with the words, ‘A student of Tamil.’

George Uglow Pope
George Uglow Pope

My own journey into Thirukkural began in February 2002. Two years previously, to celebrate the millennium, the Tamils had erected a giant statue of Thiruvalluvar off the coast of Kannayakamari, India’s most southern point. It was this glorious statue which I first noticed as I arrived at that confluence of the three seas, where the Bay of Bengal, Arabian Sea & Indian Ocean fling their waves at the rocky shore from three different directions. The monument is 133 feet high, representing the 133 chapters of the Kural. The pedestal on which the statue stands is 38 ft high, representing the 38 chapters in the Virtue section of the text. The remaining 95 feet of the statue itself represent the total number of chapters in the second and third parts of the Kural – Wealth & Love. The three parts are also echoed by the statue’s right hand, which has three fingers pointing to the heavens. As I gazed upon the statue, all these nuances the time were unknown to me. Kannayakamari had seen my first steps into Tamil Nadu, & all I had gleaned from this visit was that the man who towered before me was the ‘Holy Poet of Tamil Nadu.’
A few days later I found myself in the great city of Madurai, & it was here that I was first flung into the world of the Kural. In the lanes close to the great temple that forms the cities heart, I came across one of the Manivasagar Pathippagm bookshops that are scattered across Tamil Nadu. These are both publisher & bookseller &one of their publications caught me eye. It was a small red book with the famous image of Thiruvalluvar sitting cross legged in flowing white robes, a pen in his right hand & a scroll in his left. I immediately bought it & rushed back to my hotel. There, as I reclined under a fan to avoid the heat, I plunged into the Kural, a moment that will stay with me forever. I was immediately touched by its beauty & simplicity, & though my young western mind found some of the maxims a little difficult, I felt there & then an affinity for them. The copy I had was the famous co-translation by Reverend Drew & John Lazurus & on that very first evening I transformed two or three of them back into the Kural form. It was a small step on a journey that would take many years, but as I made it I knew that one day I would like to translate the every kural.

Book Market Madurai
Book Market Madurai

On my return from India in April 2002 I tucked my copy of the Kural away in my bookshelf & let it gather dust while I pursued other projects. For the next six years it would intermittently be looked at, at one point forming the bedrock of my own work in the Kural form, the results of which can be seen in the Humanology section of this book. All through these years the dedication I had made to translate the Kural niggled away at the back of mind. At the same time my literary abilities were strengthening, waiting for the right moment, some catalyst to trigger off the resolution of my promise. This came in September 2008, when I was visited by a friend. She had brought along with her a young Tamil, & conversation soon turned to the subject of the Kural. The fact that a non-Tamil could enjoy his native literature quite amazed him, & during the course of our evening together I resolved to once & for all translate the book for my peers.

Two months later I flew to Mumbai & traveled overland to Tamil Nadu. My first port of call was Thiruvannamalai, a bustling town nestled beneath the holy red mountain of Aranachala. It was here that the 20th century Sri Ramana Maharishi had spent most of his life in deep contemplation. A famous Ashram had slowly developed about his mediations, which still thrives to this day, many decades after his death. One part of the ashram houses a library, & it was to its silent desks that I found myself drawn. To my delight there were many books on the Kural, which I plunged within in order to create as exact & enjoyable a rendition of the Kural as possible. While I sat at the long desks there, keeping cool beneath a spinning fan, several hefty tomes spread out before me, I was helped many times by the librarian, Ramesh Babu, who would assist me with the awkward points of classical Tamil.


I then took to the road, absorbing the Tamil culture & appreciation of the Kural from conversation to conversation. I felt it would enhance my own version if I was to compose along the same roads that Thiruvalluvar himself once trod. From Thiruvannamalai I passed to the famous beach at Mamallapuram, where under the statue of Thiruvalluvar I reached the half-way point in my translation. Next port of call was chaotic Chidambaram & its famous Annamalai library at the university there. Unfortunately the recent terrorist massacres at Mumbai prevented me from using the facilities. Instead I found a municipal library in the town which was quite adequate. My further travels would take me through the watery wonders of the Karveri Delta, the whitewashed former Danish colony at Tranquebar, the multi-templed town of Kumbakonam, the fabulous fortresses of Thanjavur & Trichy, before I found myself on an overnight train heading to Rameshwaram, arriving there early on Christmas Eve. By this point I had almost completed my task & was hoping to finish the Kural over the festive season. However, every hotel on the island was full, & I rather felt like Joseph & Mary as they trawled the inns of Bethlehem looking for somewhere to sleep. This same scene was repeated even 50 miles away in Ramanathapuram, which was full of Gujuratis who would take a fleet of buses down to Rameshwaram to join in the festivities. Eventually, late on Christmas Eve, I arrived in Madurai where I was very much relieved to find a hotel with vacancies.

As I awoke on Christmas Day I was taken aback by the fact that I was to finish my version of the Kural in the same city in which I had first delved into its pages. To do this I found a small, empty shrine in the Meenakshi Sundareswarar temple & went to work to the babble of human voices & jazz-like strains of an Indian trumpet. Six 2-foot tall black statues of gods, each sporting a ‘skirt’ & a garland of yellow flowers, sat watching me as I scribbled frantically. They were joined by a giant wall-painting of the green-skinned Siva & potraits of famous Tamil saints. It was a lovely moment to finally lay my pen to rest in such a place, & as I stepped outside into skintingling sunshine the fact I had just finished the divine Tamil text, in one of the holiest Hindu temples, on the most sacred day in Christendom, was not lost on me at all. In my elation I found the same bookshop where I had originally bought the Thirukkural, & there babbled out my story, on the conclusion of which the bookseller brought out another book. It was the Nalatiyar.


Up until this point I had known nothing about its existence, but a brief glance at its introductory proverb, which proclaimed it as an equal to Thirukkural, immediately piqued my interest. The timing was also exceptional. Only a few minutes previously I had completed the Kural, & now its sister text was in my hands! I felt the same sensation springing up as I had had on first looking into the Kural, & resolved once more to translate an ancient Tamil text into English. This I commenced as I continued my tour of Tamil Nadu, which passed through salubrious Kodaikkanal, the plains Palani & Mancunian Coimbatore, before reaching the gorgeous tea plantations of the Niligris Hills. It was there, in the remarkable town of Coonoor,  that I spent a lovely two weeks, editing the Kural & translating the Naltiyar. Coonoor was to be my last place of residence in Tamil Nadu & I left that wonderful Indian state in January 2009. With me in my luggage was the same red copy of the Kural I had brought seven years previously. But alongside it now was my own completed version, complemented with a rendition of the Nalatiyar!

Thirukkural is a wonderful book, but to an English speaker it might as well be written in Gaelic. Despite being among the most widely translated texts in the world, outside of Tamil Nadu it is one of the least read. Even the vast majority of the multi-lingual Indians cannot read a word of it. On top of this, to the English-speaking mind, the translations of the Kural we possess are often too wieldy or fanciful to absorb. The most widely known & respected translations in English are the poetical couplets of GU Pope, & the transliterations of Reverend Drew & John Lazurus. I offer their renditions of Kural 36-9 as an example.

The True ‘support’ who knows – rejects ‘supports’ he sought before 
Sorrow that clings all destroys, shall cling to him no more (GU Pope)

He, who so lives as to know Him who is the support of all things & abandons all desire, will be freed from the evils which would otherwise cleave to him & destroy (his efforts after absorption) (Drew & Lazurus)

Similarly, a modern rendition by a native Tamil, Kalaimamani Kalladan, reads; The mind’s nature is to cling to every thing; but that should realize the true thing & cling to it; & that should abandon all desires. If done so, any suffering destined to inflict a person, shall not occur

My own rendition of this particular kural, forced as I was into only seven words, goes as follows;

By choosing true virtue
Bruising ruin debarred

Perhaps it has lost a little in the translation, but the essential essence remains. It has been my intention to create something new from the wellsprings of each kural – not just a vague paraphrase, but a simple maxim for the modern human mind. In order to convey the Valluvar’s magnificent message I felt each kural needed to be immediately understood. One of the chief beauties of the original is the compactness of an individual kural, or as PS Sundram observed, “Its soul is brevity, & with it least is most.”


The saint’s succinct & subtle style, operating in such a short space, uses many poetic techniques; from rhyme & repetition, to intricate word-play & clever puns to expose the very heart of his philosophies.  I have attempted to emulate these as best as possible, rendering a version that is as close to the original as possible. This has been helped by the English language, that most flexible & comprehensive of all the modern tongues. At the moment in the world there are 400 million native English speakers – second only to the mandarin of the insular Chinese. However, when you add the billion Indians unified by the English tongue, plus the fact that English is the one true lingua franca of commerce & culture, then it is only right that the ‘global gospel’ of Valluvar should be funneled through the English language into the world at large. As MS Venkatchalam wrote;

It is our bounden duty to make the world realize the richness of Kural & that can be done, only by rendering it into English & thus making it reach all the nook & corners of the world.

Despite Tamil being a beautifully sonorous language, it is extremely complex – a single word may need two pages of explanation. However, one of the traditional strengths of the English language is that by flexing its inherent linguistic muscles it has always been able to adopt foreign lexicon, syntax & grammar, & be strengthened by them in the process. The subtle nuances & inflections of the English language have made it possible to translate the complexities of Tamil – for our words may also be variously expressed, & when placed in combination offer multitudinous shades of meaning. In addition, as a fluent speaker of English I had the relative freedom of Tamil Nadu, where English is widely spoken in the wake of the imperial Raj. I was able to both converse with educated Tamils on the nature of the Kural & form travel arrangements between the widely scattered libraries. In these dusty halls of academe, stuffed with books in both Tamil & English, I discovered many good translations of the Kural which helped me in my task. These include those of PS Sundaram, VR Ramachandra Dikshitar, FW Ellis, VVS Aiyer, Suddhananda Bharati & Kasthuri Srinivasan.

My journey through the kural was the most greatest of pleasures to undertake. For any future poet, during your period of training it is almost a necessity to travel foreign lands Indiana-Jones-stylee in search of obscure yet beautiful poetical texts, in order to enrich your own poetic spirit & through a proper transcreation, the spirit of your native land.


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