உவமை (uvamai) – the beauty of similes and metaphors

During our school days, learning Thamizh was a chore (what subject was not?!). There was a mandatory section in the exams where one had to remember a poem or a set of ThirukkuraLs by heart and write it down in the exam. It was both a pain and a pleasure – pain obviously due to the need to memorize them (“Of what use will KuraL be for my engineering degree, later?”) and a pleasure because they were generally a sure shot way to get 10 – 20 marks in the exam without having to think too much!

Too bad the classic literary songs were not in movies – otherwise everyone would be getting full marks in that part of the exam. As if answering our prayers like this,  the stars and planets aligned in one such year.

KuraLs were normally a bit easy to remember – after all, each was only two lines. The longer verses were tough. In one of our student years, the poem in question was one from திருநாவுக்கரசர் – ThirunAvukkarasar – (one who has mastered the art of speech/poetry). Luckily for us, Maniratnam and Ilayaraja came to our rescue that year. With his recent string of successes, Tamilnadu was abuzz with the next Maniratnam directorial venture and he didn’t disappoint with Dalapathi – his interpretation of Mahabharata with no less than Rajinikanth as the star!

The most famous song in that film was ராக்கம்மா கையத்தட்டு. With an excellent violin prelude, Ilayaraja outdid himself in the song. But what was even more beneficial was the preamble to that song, which incidentally, was the same song by ThirunAvukkarasar! No need to say that we all aced the Thamizh exam that year!

குனித்த புருவமும், கொவ்வைச் செவ்வாயில் குமிண் சிரிப்பும்,
பனித்த சடையும், பவளம் போல் மேனியில் பால் வெண் நீறும்,
இனித்தம் உடைய எடுத்த பொன்பாதமும் காணப் பெற்றால்
மனி(த்)தப் பிறவியும் வேண்டுவதே, இந்த மாநிலத்தே!

kunitha puruvamum kovvai sevvAyil kumiN sirippum
panitha sadaiyum, pavaLam pol mEniyil paal veNNeerum
initham udaiya edutha pon paathamum kaaNappetRAl
manitha piraviyum vENduvathe intha maanilathE

Perfectly arched forehead, lips red as berries at adorn a slight smile, long matted, braided hair, with the bright white ash on a body that shines like a red coral, and golden legs lifted above the ground in pleasant dancing pose – if one gets the pleasure to see such a glorious view, even this undesirable human birth will be desirable!

One of the goals in Hinduism is to get away from the cycle of human birth and death and attain moksha (liberation or salvation, roughly). From sidhars to azhwars to nAyanmArs, all promote various ways to attain moksha – be it by bhakti (devotion), jnana (knowledge), or karma (good deeds). However, in this poem, ThirunAvukkarasar goes against the grain and says it’s OK to be born again and again as long as one gets to see the glory of God (in this case, the idol in the Nataraja Temple in Chidambaram)!

The similes (உவமை – uvamai – in Thamizh grammar) used in the poem are a beautiful example of many such usages across Thamizh literature – known for its rich creativity and imagination. It looks like such creativity gets heightened when the focus is fixated on one subject – be it a topic such as love or be it God – the result is beautiful poetry for generations to enjoy!

In addition, the poem is also a great example of another Thamizh grammar speciality – எதுகை (edhugai) – similar to rhymes. Edhugai refers to the second letter of the first word in each line matching. The counterpart, mOnai refers to the first letter of each word in a line matching. Here, the edhugai is kunitha, panitha, initha, manitha, which makes the poem melodious to sing and to listen.

Kamban strikes again

Kamban – who we discussed a while back – is known as the master of uvamai (simile). His use of similes is masterful and can be found throughout his masterpiece – Kamba RAmAyanam. He seems to especially relish the occasions where he gets to describe the beauty of the two main characters – rAma and sIta. Here are a couple of gems:

When Hanuman sees sIta, he is trying to describe the beauty of rAmA (thanks to a post by a Ms. Saroja Ramanujam):

அண்ணல்தன் திரு முகம் கமலம் ஆம் எனின்,
கண்ணினுக்கு உவமைவேறு யாது காட்டுகேன்?
தண் மதி ஆம் எனஉரைக்கத் தக்கதோ,
வெண் மதிபொலிந்தது மெலிந்து தேயுமால்?

aNNal than thiru mugam kamalam aam enin
kaNNinukku uvamai vEru yaadhu kaatugEn?
thaN madhi aam ena uraikka thakkatho
veN madhi polindathu melindhu thEyumAl?

If rAmA’s beautiful face can be compared to a lotus in full bloom, what can I then use as a comparison for his eyes? I cannot even compare his face to the shining beautiful moon, as the moon waxes and wanes and doesn’t do justice to the comparison.

Even Kamban seems to be at loss for words and says I cannot even think of a good simile to describe rAmA as the comparisons are all flawed while He is flawless!

We are reminded of a similar comparison in a famous song in the eighties (நாளும் நிலவது தேயுது மறையுது , நங்கை முகம் என யார் அதை சொன்னது).

The second one is from a completely different angle. This time it is Surpanakai – the sister of rAvana, the villain in the story, describing the beauty of sIta, thus enticing him to abduct her.

வில் ஒக்கும் நுதல் என்றாலும்,
வேல் ஒக்கும் விழி என்றாலும்,
பல் ஒக்கும் முத்து என்றாலும்,
பவளத்தை இதழ் என்றாலும்,
சொல் ஒக்கும்; பொருள் ஒவ்வாதால்;
சொல்லல் ஆம் உவமை உண்டோ?
“நெல் ஒக்கும் புல்” என்றாலும்,
நேர் உரைத்து ஆகவற்றோ!

vil okkum nudhal endrAlum
vEl okkum vizhi endrAlum
pal okkum muthu endrAlum
pavaLathai idhazh endrAlum
sol okkum, poruL ovvAdhAl
sollal aam uvamai undO?
“nel okkum pul” endrAlum
nEr uraithu aagavatrO!

If I say that her forehead is shaped like a perfectly arched bow, and the eyes like the tip of a spear, teeth like beautiful white pearls, and lips red as coral – these may be good similes, but they don’t do her beauty justice! Are there even words that can be used as similes to describe her beauty?  (no, there aren’t). While one can call a blade of grass as a simile to a reed of wheat, it is not an appropriate comparison (in terms of characteristic).

Kamban not only uses great similes, he complains that even similes do not do justice to the beauty of the girl in his story!

Wayside Gems

There are famous quotes abound that the journey can be more memorable than the destination. During the research for this post, we came across a fascinating Thamizh grammar definition by chance. Grammar was never a forte for most of us in our childhood. However, with the dagger of exams and expectations to pass with high marks no longer hanging over our heads, we can appreciate it a lot more now.

Consider the two words in Thamizh – சாரை பாம்பு (saarai paambu) and மலை பாம்பு (malai paambu).

The first one, which refers to a fast moving rat snake falls under the Thamizh grammar: இருபெயர் ஊட்டு பண்புத்தொகை (iru peyar ootu paNbu thogai). Thamizh grammatical terms are fairly descriptive and the purpose can be fairly understood by understanding the term.

இருபெயர் – two names
ஊட்டு – addition
பண்பு – character / meaning
தொகை – word compression

The word is a compressed version of two words சாரை and பாம்பு to give meaning.

The second one – மலை பாம்பு – while looking similar in structure, has a completely different grammatical source. It falls under the category ஏழாம் வேற்றுமை உருபும் பயணும் உடன் தொக்கத்தொகை (ezhaam vEtrumai urubum payaNum udan thokkathogai)! Say what?

ஏழாம் வேற்றுமை – seventh variance
உருபும் – word transformation
பயணும் – value
உடன் தொக்க – by adding meaning
தொகை – word compression

Essentially, it means that the original phrase மலையின் கண் வாழுகின்ற பாம்பு (mazhayin kaN vaazhugindra paaambu – snake that lives in the mountain) was compressed and can be decompressed by adding an associative variance (கண் – one of the seven such allowed variances) with an additional word (வாழுகின்ற) in order to get the true meaning!

What was more enjoyable was coming across this video below, which seems to be a tuition recording for TNPSC (Tamil Nadu Public Services Commission) exam. The teacher casually drops this bomb somewhere around 9:15!

It reminded me of my teachers back in the days – we used crib about most of them, never appreciating their knowledge or understanding of their subject. Hopefully it’s never too late to say Thanks!


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