The women of Mamallapuram

Arjuna’s Penance/Descent of the Ganges – Mamallapuram

Yes, I know that Mamallapuram is not Chennai but it has been a weekend resort for those in the city for so long that it is practically part of the city. I came across this delightful, and I must admit rather sexist verse, in a book titled Thani Paadal Thirattu (a compilation of stand-alone songs) brought out by the Thanjavur Serfojee Saraswathi Mahal Library in 1990. These verses, all of unknown historicity, were compiled by Vidwan Sa Balasundaram of the Karandai Pulavar Kalluri, Thanjavur.

The book is a delight for it brings out unknown gems – they are witty, poignant, satirical, sarcastic, amorous and a lot more. The subjects are long-forgotten kings, patrons, deities of famed and lesser-known temples, and also the beauties of the Tamil landscape. The structure and the language used are not easy to understand and I am very thankful that the meaning of each verse is given alongside. In this particular poem, I have made bold to differ somewhat from the meaning given by the author and I have erred I am happy to be corrected –

பருதி யாயிரங் கைதொழ மால்வ்விழிப்

பத்து நூறெழப் பாணமொன் றேவிய

சுருதி யாகரன் சூரியன் தோணடைமான்

தொல்லை மாக்கடல் மல்லைப் பொருப்பனீர்!

கருதி யாலிலை யும்பட நாகமும்

கதலி யுங்கண்களி யாமலே

இரதி யாதரன் வையம்வன் திங்ஙனே

என்னை மால் செய்த தென்னகண் மாயமே?

O women of ancient Kadal Mallai

of Thondaiman and the Lord who resides in the Vedas

who is worshipped by the thousand-rayed sun

and who dispels the darkness of the thousand-eyed Indra

by shooting one arrow!

Is it not a wonder that the Lord of Love

rather than feasting his eyes on

the peepul leaf, the fanned snake

and the plantain stems in your forms

should come to this earth

and make me mesmerised with them instead?

My notes – the poem clearly equates the Pallava/Thondaiman ruler with the presiding deity of Mamallapuram, which in ancient times was known as Kadal Mallai. This is common practise in Indian poetry. The waking up of Indra by shooting just one arrow is not entirely clear to me, unless it is a reference to Rama defeating Ravana and therefore freeing Indra of troubles. In standard Indian references of beauty, a perfect stomach is like a peepul leaf, the pudenda is like a fanned snake and the thighs are like plantain stems.

This article is part of a series I write on poetry associated with Chennai. You can read the earlier parts here