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Updated: July 29, 2013 18:51 IST

On the mountain path

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For a poet, wind and rain can only be translated as poetry. True to her calling, Avvai, the Tamil poet found this magic in everything around her.

A mountainous path in Kongu Nadu (north-west lands in present-day Tamil Nadu); Some time in the 1 century, CE

Lightning flashed intermittently, lighting up the dark, almost cavernous mountain-path for one brief moment. She cowered among the thick, gnarly tree-roots and vines and clapped her hands over her ears, bracing herself for what would come next.

Thunder crashed across the mountains with a roar that almost deafened her. She hunkered down the steep mountain path, knees knocking against the hard rocks. Where on earth was her friend? How long would she have to wait?

The swift, chill wind slashed her cheeks, as dark grey clouds rolled across the sky, spilling rain.

Fear rose in her heart. Night would fall soon and here she was, caught alone, on a mountain. There was still a long way to go, and her guide was nowhere to be found. Her lips moved despite herself; her talent that was her one true companion at all times, good or bad, now came to her swift aid. Her mind formed the words; she sang, softly:

“On the mountain path

Where snakes shiver in fear

Come the rains

With swollen clouds, gale winds

And roaring thunder

Ah, do you feel no pity for me?

You, who can splinter

Even the mighty Himalayas …

Why do you terrify

Poor, lonely women like me?

This is not fair,

Nor is it right

Ah, do you feel no pity for me?”

“Quite, quite beautiful,” came an appreciative male voice, and she jumped. When she looked up, she saw a tall, muscular man, dressed like a warrior, complete with sword and spear, standing on the mountain slope a little above her, rain dripping off his head-cloth. “My apologies,” he said, jumping down a boulder. “I was held up by a herd of elephants, or I’d have been here sooner.”

“Your highness,” she murmured, and would have knelt on the ground — but he stopped her.

“Adhiyamaan Nedumaan Anji of Thagadur does not ask his friends to kneel for him,” smiled the King. “You look well, my friend. I am pleased to welcome you back to my home.”

“I’m far from well,” she sighed. “Just a moment ago, I was terrified, on this mountain path — my tongue simply ran away with me.”

“And composed a beautiful poem,” nodded King Adhiyamaan, as they walked up the steep path. “You brought the wind and rain and gale right in front of my eyes, with your song. Gifts like these always triumph over fear.”

“I daresay,” she shrugged. “History will remember you, my lord — but who’s going to remember one poor woman’s random song, over years?”

“I have a feeling they will, my girl,” smiled King Adhiyamaan. “The name Avvai is going to travel across centuries. Who knows? Scholars and children alike might quote you, in the future,” he said.

Avvai’s mood lightened. The rain still battered the earth; but her spirits rose. She strode forward, the ornaments at her slender waist jangling; her ear-rings and bangles clinking in tune with the crashes of thunder; her musical laugh accompanying the rain-water, gently trickling from tiny rocky crevices, and onto the muddy path. The ground, wet and marshy, preserved Adhiyamaan and Avvai’s foot-prints, long after they’d gone.

Historical Note: Avvai, or Avvaiyaar, as she’s more respectfully known, is perhaps among the most famous of Tamil poets. There are supposed to be anywhere from three to five poets with the same name — beginning from the Sangam age, to even the 17-18 century. The story above is based on the Avvai from the Sangam age. Contrary to popular art-work which shows her as an old woman, Avvai of this period was a young lady who wore many ornaments and appreciated life to its fullest, as she travelled around the country, sang songs, and befriended kings.

Avvai of the Sangam Age was a staunch friend of the famed King Adhiyamaan of Thagadur, and sang many songs of him and his rule, even representing him as his ambassador in the court of Thondaiman. Hers seems to have been a joyous life; she used her considerable gift for verse to record her impressions, thoughts, friends and life. Her songs occupy pride of place in Tamil literature along with those of other well-known Tamil poets such as Kapilar and Paranar.

The song in this particular story is a translation of one sung by her, and has been written from the view-point of a young woman, from the lands of Kurinji, or the hill-country, as she travels upon a lonely mountain path during a storm. It’s a perfect snapshot of her feelings, and has been recorded and preserved as song number 158 in the collection, Kurunthogai. Avvai of this period has also written songs that form part of other collections, such as: Purananooru, Agananooru, and Natrinai.

So beautiful and time-tested are Avvai’s words, that even NASA quotes her peerless verse.

“What we have learned

Is like a handful of earth;

What we have yet to learn

Is like the whole world.”

What a beautiful story! My mother used to quote that verse about learning, all the time. It keeps in my place even now. I share it with kids I teach and at workshops for teachers. In keeping with Avvai's sense of fun and play with verse, my mother used to tell me about her repartee. I can't recall the whole thing, but it involved a chauvinist male (or male chauvinist) poet addressing her disdainfully as "di" in a verse. To which she retorted with a verse which not only gave it right back to him, but doubled the dose with two "da"s! It went something like ...
eTTeygaal latshaNamey
emaneyrum bariyey
mERkooraiyillaa veeday
yaaraiyada sonnaayada

I think line 1 meant to call him a spider
2nd line ... buffalo (erumai)
3rd line ... kuTTi-chevuru or ruin
4th line ... whom do you address? (with the double "da")

I never tired hearing this one. I don't know if this is apocryphal or if one of the avvais actually said this (and if so, which one)... but what a no-nonsense woman!

from:  Dr Chandra Shekhar Balachandran
Posted on: Jul 30, 2013 at 08:59 IST
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