When pearls and corals washed ashore in Thiruvallikeni

This is a new series I am beginning today – August 7, 2020. During this lockdown, I have been spending some time each day going through poems that were composed on what eventually became Chennai. These are works that span quite a long timeline. I am aware that I should be including works from the Sangam and also Thiruvalluvar but I have decided to include only those that make a mention an identifiable spot in the city and include some description of it.

I am not going by the order of timeline as this can never be an exhaustive listing. I am therefore picking up verses as and when they strike me and am including them here. The first verse I am quoting here is Peyazhwar’s Pasuram on the Thiruvallikeni temple.

வந்து உதைத்த வெண் திரைகள் செம் பவள வெண் முத்தம்

அந்தி விளக்கும் அணி விளக்காம்

எந்தை ஒரு அல்லித் தாமரையாள் ஒன்ற்றிய சீர் மார்வன்

திருவல்லிக்கேணியான் சென்று

Where the white surf breaks,

Bringing in red corals and white pearls

which resemble twilight and the lamps lit therein

He who bears on his perfect chest

The lady of the Lotus,

Resides at that Thiruvallikeni

The above translation is largely mine. The verse is part of the Moonram Thiruvanthathi, which comprises Peyazhwar’s verses. As the name suggests, the verses in this compilation are in the antha-adi format – the last word of the first verse becomes the first word in the second and so on. The last word of the last verse is the first word of the first.

Peyazhwar was born in Mylapore and a precinct with a well in Arundale Street is said to be his birthplace. It has in recent years been restored and maintained by a private Trust. The exact timeframe of Peyazhwar is a matter of some debate. He is one of the first three Azhwars and he is ascribed a period somewhere in the fourth millennium before Christ. If that were to be true, his description of the ‘notorious Madras surf’ must be the earliest.

The way he links two precious stones that are from the sea with a poem on a coastal area is just brilliant. And his association of the two colours – pink and white with the sunset is another beautiful aspect. Even today, you can stand at the beach and enjoy the same play of colours.

Worshipping sugarcane at Thiruvottriyur

Kipling’s poem on Madras

The women of Mamallapuram