11 December 2011

Nāladiyār (நாலடியார்)

Nāladiyār (நாலடியார்) is yet another classic in Tamil devoted entirely for teaching morals and admiring good conduct. Next to Thirukkural (sacred couplets), it is the most popular ethical treatise in Tamil. Even though one can see many parallels between Thirukkural and almost all others under Pathinenkeelkanakku (18 minor works in Tamil), it is with Nāladiyār that Thirukkural is often associated with.

புறப்பாடல்கள் (நீதி)
புறப்பாடல்கள் (நீதி)
களவழி நாற்பது
ஐந்திணை ஐம்பது
இன்னா நாற்பது
ஐந்திணை எழுபது
இனியவை நாற்பது
திணைமொழி ஐம்பது
பழமொழி நானூறு
திணைமாலை நூற்றைம்பது
கார் நாற்பது

In fact there is an old Tamil saying which goes like this.

ஆலும் வேலும் பல்லுக்குறுதி,
நாலும் இரண்டும் சொல்லுக்குறுதி.

When literally translated, this means, “Banyan and Neem strengthen teeth, Four and Two strengthen words”. The message implied here is that the four-liner “Nāladiyār” and the two-liner “Thirukkural” strengthen one’s conduct and speech, just like how brushing the teeth with sticks of banyan and neem adds to its strength. In rural Tamil Nadu (perhaps in most parts of South India), the twigs of these two trees are still commonly used for brushing teeth.

Nalatiyar and Thirukkural

Though scholars and translators tend to regard Nāladiyār as an amplified or expanded version of Thirukkural (Ramachandran, 2000), only about 12% of the quatrains in Nāladiyār are strikingly similar to the Kural. Rest of the similarities, if any, are restricted to resemblances in message. In spite of these similarities, not many people lay much emphasize on the differences between these most popular ethical works in Tamil. Some of these have been enumerated below:

1.    Nāladiyār harps on impermanence of life and often goes overboard on this subject. Thiruvalluvar restricts this to only one chapter. Nālatiyār is clearly not “this worldly” like the Kural.
2.    Nāladiyār exalts ascetic life over domestic life whereas Thirukkural regards domestic life more equal than the other
3.    Nāladiyār despises the filthy origin and composition of the human body and instability of youth. The Kural never.
4.    With only one chapter in it, the third division of love (kāma) is rather rudimentary in Nāladiyār. Thirukkral has 25.
5.    Unlike the Kural, Nāladiyār does not have any chapters on Statecraft (King, Minister, War, Espionage, Fortress etc.) 

From its comparatively tenable language and occurrence of certain words, it is obvious that Nāladiyār was a work of later date than the Kural. However Pope (1893) observes that some of the quatrains in Nāladiyār could be older than Kural couplets! Occurrence of words like வேம்பு, முந்திரி and புண்ணியம் supports my view. Ramachandran (2000) assigns 7th century A.D. to this work as it refers to the dynasty of Muttharaiyar in two of its poems (200 and 296). 

Compilation and organization

Though Nalatiyar literally means ‘one who wrote four liners’, the name actually refers to the work and not any particular author. Moreover, to call this work Nāladiyār is also a misnomer for it is not the only work in Tamil consisting of four-liners. On the contrary, quatrain (venba) is the most commonly employed meter in Tamil poetry. According to convention, Patumanār organized these poems into 40 chapters containing 10 poems each (Annamalai, 2001; Ramachandran, 2000). And he grouped all these poems further under the Trivarga (முப்பால்) of Dharma, Artha and Kāma (அறம், பொருள் and இன்பம்). The redactor obviously followed the way couplets in Thirukkural have been organized. Patumanār was not the only person to have anthologized their compilations in the style of Thirukkural. An anonymous author in the 14th or 15th century created “Puraththirattu” (புறத்திரட்டு) in different chapter headings, most of which were identical to those found in Thirukkural. Innilai  (இன்னிலை), another didactic work we will be taking up for discussion during the last week of this year, is also organized under Dharma, Artha and Kāma.

The presence of miscellaneous chapter 37 called “Various ethics” (பன்னெறி) proves that Patumanār had to bundle together 10 poems of varying subjects into a chapter of 10 poems. Though the very next chapter 38 is on ‘Harlots”, the last poem in chapter 37 is also on harlots. Moreover, the placement of many other poems in Nāladiyār (like 354 on prostitutes in Chapter 36 on Fraudulence, poem 204 on Friendship in Chapter 21 on “Kindred” and poems 125, 126, 128 and 129 on friendship under chapter 13 on “Fear to do evil”) only goes on to show that the author had difficulty in fitting the verses into his set plan of restricting the number of verses in a chapter to 10. Another proof for Nāladiyār being a compilation of various poets’ compositions is the repetitive occurrence of the same idea and simile (e.g. 138 & 211; 3 & 21, 283 & 290).

Next to the Kural, Nāladiyār is the most translated ethical work in Tamil. Complete English translations of Nāladiyār by the great Western scholar in Tamil Rev. G.U. Pope, by another European Rev.F.J. Leeper and by the renown Sanskrit and Tamil scholar Srirama Desikan are available on the net. I have two other translations with me, that of S. Anavaratavinayakam Pillai (1903), published by the International Institute of Tamil Studies and that of Pl. M. Annamalai, published by the Institute of Asian Studies in 2001. Dinavartamani, F.W. Ellis and S. Venkatachalam are few others to have translated the work into English (Ramachandra, 2000). Nāladiyār has also been translated into many Asian and European languages.

A book of similes

Some of the literary works under the ’18 minor works in Tamil’ are known by their special or unique features in them. For instance……
  • The book which deals entirely with rainy season (of Mullai thinai) is Kār Narpathu
  • Book of ‘Dos and Don’ts” (way of life) is Asāra Kovai.
  • Only work devoted to entirely poems on battlefield is Kalavazhi Nārpathu.
  • Book of proverbs is Pazhamozi Nānuru
  • Book of ancient wisdom is Mudumozhikkānchi
  • And Naladiyar qualifies to be called as the book of similes.
Indeed, Nāladiyār is a book of similes or analogies. Indian poetry is known for the employment of similes and parables. In Tamil literature, Nalatiyar tops all other works for the quantum of similes in it. When analyzed, 160 of the 400 poems in Nāladiyār (a whopping 40%) contained these similes. And another 70 odd poems (17.5%) begin with an address to a chieftain, hero, heroine or a minstrel which is typical of many Sangam and post-Sangam works (see table below). We see this style of beginning a poem with an address to a chieftain or lady in Ainkurunūru, Ainthinai aimpathu and many other works. Interestingly, similes are almost absent in poems that begin with an address to the hero or lady. Though said to be written by 400 different poets, I see a common style of composition permeating through a bulk of the poems in Nāladiyār. It is very likely that many of the poems were authored by a single poet and this would explain why there is a noticeable similarity in style of composition for a substantial proportion of poems.

Table: Examples of some similes and poems addressed to a person in Nāladiyār

Some typical examples of simile-based poems (N=160)

Examples of poems addressed to a hero or lady (N=70)
Dog barks and bites man, but man never bites back the dog (70)

Good lord of the cool hills festooned with springs! (71)
Is the arrow that killed a jackal better than the one which missed a lion? (152)

O Lord of the hill country abounding in waters! (79)
A starving tiger, though mighty, will even catch and eat a frog (193)

O lord of the cool shore of ocean, full of rivers! (98)
Will any one dare to cut off his hand, just because it accidentally pricked one’s eye? (226)

O thou who hast rows of bracelets! (111)
A flower may spread fragrance, but the fly will prefer to hover around excreta (259)

O lord of the cool mountain! (113)
Thick shelled wood apples may be there in plenty, but fruits bats won’t go there (261)

O large-eyed beauty! (116)
People may live on sea shore but they will go in search of a spring to drink (263)

O lord of the land resplendent with mountains on whose declivities genii abound! (127)
Can a man wait for the tides to subside to have a bath in the sea?  (332)

O lord of the shore of the cool broad ocean! (166)
Container of ghee, though tightly packed, will attract untiring swarm of ants (327)

O lord of the fragrant and goodly mountains! (239)
A pig will never equal an aggressive elephant, though well adorned with diamond (358)

O thou with long lance-shaped eyes, (297)

The metaphors in Nāladiyār have to be treasured not only for their sheer quantity but also quality. Most of them are unique to Nāladiyār, not found anywhere outside this work. Nevertheless, some of the similes seem to have been borrowed from Sanskrit sources. We cannot however confirm this borrowing with certainty because everything would depend on an accurate dating of these works. Two of these similarities between Nāladiyār and other works are shown in the table below (Nitisātakam, Pachantantra and Nitidvisastika). At least in the case of Panchantra, it seems to be a borrowing from this ancient Sanskrit work. 

Original language
Lengthening of the shadow
लघ्वी पुरा वृद्धिमति पश्चात्
      लघ्वी पुरा वृद्धिमति पश्चात्।
दिनस्य पूर्वाद्र्धपराद्र्ध-भिन्ना
      छायेव मैत्री खलसज्जनानाम्।। (६०)
As in the first half of the day,
Shadows diminish from large to small,
The friendship of rogues declines likewise.
Make friends with the truthful, the savants, and the wise,
Your friendship grows as the shadows under the afternoon sun. (Bhartrihari in Nitisatakam, 60)
நளிகடல் தண்சேர்ப்ப. நாணிழல் போல
விளியும் சிறியவர் கேண்மை - விளிவின்றி
அல்கு நிழற்போல் அகன்றகன் றோடுமே
தொல்புக ழாளர் தொடர்பு.
O lord of the shore of the cool broad ocean! friendship with the mean, like the shadow of the morning, will continually decrease, while friendship with those who have long been famous will increase more and more, like the shadow of the afternoon. (Nāladiyār 166)
Friendship and sugarcane
इक्षोरग्रात् क्रमशः
पर्वणि पर्वणि यथा रसविशेषः।
विपरीतानां तु विपरीता॥ (१६)
Friendship with the good increases day by day
As the sap of the sugarcane increases from the top,
joint to joint.
Friendship with the wicked, however,
is contrary in nature.
(Nitividsastika 16) [Translator: S. Jayasree]

Starting from the tip, sugarcane juice
Grows sweeter by degrees, node after node;
So does friendship of the upright; the reverse
Is true in the case of those perverse.
(Panchatantra II. Winning friends. 31)
[Translator: Chandra Rajan]
கருத்துணர்ந்து கற்றறிந்தார் கேண்மையெஞ் ஞான்றுங்
குருத்தின் கரும்புதின் ற்றறே - குருத்திற்கு
எதிர்செலத்தின் றன்ன தகைத்தரோ, என்றும்
மதுர மிலாளர் தொடர்பு.
Friendship with the wise, whose intelligence divines our thoughts, is like eating a sugar-cane from the top; connexion with persons without sweetness of disposition is like eating it from the opposite end (the flavour decreasing by degrees) (Nāladiyār 211)
[Translator: Rev.F.J.Leeper]
Biting a dog back
கூர்த்துநாய் கெளவிக் கொளக்கண்டும் தம்வாயால்
பேர்த்துநாய் கெளவினார் ஈங்கில்லை - ஈர்த்தன்றிக்
கீழ்மக்கள் கீழாய சொல்லியக்கால் சொல்பவோ
மேன்மக்கள் தம்வாயால் மீட்டு.
The dog barks and bites a man, but
The man never bites back the dog;
The mean may throw indecent words, but
The great will never repeat those words.
(Nāladiyār 70)
श्वा यदि दशति मनुष्यान्न ते जनास्तं पुनः प्रतिदशन्ति।
यद्याक्रोशति नीचो न् सज्जनस्तं वदति किंचित् ६८
If a dog bites men, they do not bite him back.
If a wicked man censures a good man,
the latter does not say anything in turn.  (Nitidvisastika, 68) [Translator: S. Jayasree]

The specialty of Nāladiyār is that it offers the reader with many quotable quotes. At times the entire chapter is studded with quality poems which can be quoted for that particular subject proper. Some of the chapters that captivated my attention are the 2nd chapter on ‘Instability of youth’ (இளமை நிலையாமை), chapter 22 on “Choice of friendship” (நட்பாராய்தல்), chapter 32 on “Conduct in the assembly” (அவையறிதல்) and chapter 38 on “Prostitutes” (பொது மகளிர்). Throughout the work, we see emphasis on charity, instability of wealth, friendship, Impermanence of life and deceit of harlots. Among the so called triple evils of “Wine, Harlot and Gambling”, Nāladiyār deals only on ‘Harlots’. I never expected an ethical treatise like Nāladiyār to have omitted topics like “Abstinence from alcohol” (கள்ளுண்ணாமை) and “Gambling” (சூது).

For various reasons explained below, I would like to draw the attention to seven poems from Nāladiyār.

(1) Animal Welfare

In spite of being a Jaina work, Nāladiyār does not contain any dedicated chapter on the evils of meat eating (புலால் உண்ணாமை). This is yet another proof for the fact that Nāladiyār was not written by a single author. Redactor Padumanār had to squeeze in the three poems (121: on eating meat, 122: on caging birds, and 123: on eating crabs) under the chapter on “Fear of evil deeds” (தீவினையச்சம்). செய்யுள் 121-ல் வனவிலங்குகளை கூட்டிலடைப்பவர்களை நாலடியார் கடுமையாக சாடுகிறது

இரும்பார்க்குங் காலராய் ஏதிலார்க் காளாய்க்
கரும்பார் கழனியுள் சேர்வர் - சுரும்பார்க்கும்
காட்டுளாய் வாழுஞ் சிவலும் குறும்பூமும்
கூட்டுளாய்க் கொண்டுவைப் பார்.

They should have their legs bound with iron,
Become slaves to their enemies, and go to the field of gloomy soil,
Who keep in a cage the partridge or the quail,
Which live in the woods resounding with the sound of winged insects.
 [Translator: F. J. LEEPER]

(2) Aim always high

In Thirukkural, there is a couplet which says “Let all thy aims be high. Failure then is as good as success”. (596). Valluvar illustrates this point in another place using this brilliant simile: “Better collect the spear that missed an elephant than the arrow that killed a hare” (772). The idea here is that it is undeserving to exult is something easily achievable. The focus instead should be on rare tasks that difficult to accomplish and would merit a great deal than ordinary achievements. That’s why Valluvar says in another place that "If the great achieve anything, it will be deeds rare in achievement” (975). The parable of the hare and elephant used by Valluvar in couplet 772 could be explained with an example from the world of cricket. It is a custom in modern day cricket to either collect the ball or stumps as a memento of good performance. The message of Kural 772 is that a bowler should try to take the wicket of a great batsman instead of rejoicing the wicket of a tail-ender. Let us try putting this in verse form: “Better collect the ball that beat Tendulkar than the one that bowled Walsh”.

In Nāladiyār, the hare is replaced by ‘jackal’ and elephant by ‘lion’. The poem is nothing but an expanded version of couplet 772.

இசையும் எனினும் இசையா தெனினும்
வசைதீர எண்ணுவர் சான்றோர் - விசையின்
நரிமா உளங்கிழித்த அம்பினின் தீதோ,
அரிமாப் பிழைப்பெய்த கோல்? (152)

Whether they succeed or do not succeed;
Blameless ends will be the thoughts of the great.
Is the spear that missed a lion inferior to
The arrow that pierced the heart of a jackal?
[Translator: S.A. Pillai]

Transltor Srirama Desikan explains the implication of this verse in his translation: “A venture may be accomplished early or it may not. But the great ones would undertake only great ventures without a flaw. An attempt to shoot a lion fatally with an arrow may fail; still the great ones will feel glad because the great attempt was worthwhile. On the other hand, even if a jackal’s body is rent asunder with an arrow, the great ones will deny the venture as worthless.”

(3) Be Deaf, Dumb and Blind

There is a wise saying in Tamil: “ண்ணால் காண்பதும் பொய் காதால் கேட்பதும் பொய்”. I think this is not an ancient saying but developed sometime in later years. It seems to embody the proverbial principle to "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil". This again is said to stem from the Japanese pictorial maxim "mizaru, kikazaru, iwazaru" (, , , which is read literally as "don't see, don't hear, don't speak") (Wikipedia). Apparently this mudumozhi (முதுமொழி) originated in Japan during the 8th century A.D. where it probably reached the country through the following Confucian saying of the fifth century B.C.

Look not at what is contrary to propriety;
Listen not to what is contrary to propriety;
Speak not what is contrary to propriety;
Make no movement which is contrary to propriety.
(Analects 12:1)

Interestingly, we find a poem with similar teaching in Nāladiyār. This poem seems to tell us what these three evils are!

பிறர்மறை யின்கண் செவிடாய்த் திறனறிந்து
ஏதிலா ரிற்கண், குருடனாய்த் தீய
புறங்கூற்றின் மூகையாய் நிற்பானேல், யாதும்
அறங்கூற வேண்டா அவற்கு.   (158)

Realizing the greatness of vitue,
          Be deaf to hear the secrets of others,
          Be blind to seeing the women of others;
          Be dumb to speaking behind the back of others;
No need for books of morals to guide you.
[Translator: M. Annamalai – modified]

What should not be heard? Secrets of others. What should not be seen? Others' women. And what should not be spoken? Backbiting.

(4) Palms: Coconut, Arecanut and Palmyra

Betel nut palm
Coconut palm
Palmyra palm

Palms constitute one of the most appealing groups of plants in the plant kingdom. I remember reading in one of the introductory sections of the IUCN’s Action Plan for the conservation of palms that the palms as a group comprise some of the largest leaves, biggest fruits, tallest trunks and longest lifespans in the plant kingdom. And no other plant group also has proved to be so useful to man like the palms. Leaves are used as thatch for roofing, fruits are eaten, inflorescence is tapped for toddy, main stem are used as pillars, besides serving as ornamental plants in horticulture.  

Three of the most commonly planted species of palms in South India are the naturally growing native palmyra palm (Borassus flabellifer), coconut palm (Cocos nucifera), which was once a tree of the coastal regions but has now been planted extensively even inlands, and finally the betel or areca palm (Areca catechu) which was introduced to India in historical times. Nāladiyār employs all these three species of palms as similies to good effect to equate with different classes of friends.

கடையாயார் நட்பிற் கமுகனையர் ஏனை
இடையாயார் தெங்கி னனையர் - தலையாயார்
எண்ணரும் பெண்ணைபோன் றிட்டஞான் றிட்டதே,
தொன்மை யுடையார் தொடர்பு.    (216)

The lowest class (of people) in friendship are like the Betel palm;
The middle class are like the Coconut palm;
And the friendship of the highest is like the Palmyra palm.
They are old friends, once given, given for ever.
[Translator: S.A. Pillai – modified]

To interpret this better, I reproduce Srirama Desikan’s explanatory translation again here: “The areca palm requires daily care; else, it will become unfruitful. Such is the case with the friendship of low persons. The coconut palm needs at least occasional care; else its fruitfulness will be affected. Such is the case with the friendship of the average person. The Palmyra tree flourishes of itself without any outside care; so also, the friendship of the great ones will grow more and more naturally.”

Coincidentally, palmyra tree is the state tree of Tamil Nadu. Tamils in olden days used these palm leaves for writing.

(5) Dog and the elephant

For me, the poem which out tops all else in Nāladiyār is the one which employs the simile of a dog and captive elephant to recommend us of the kind of friend one should choose.

யானை யனைவர் நண்பு ஒரீஇ நாய் அனையார்
கேண்மை கெழீஇக் கொளல்வேண்டும், - யானை
அறிந்தறிந்தும் பாகனையே கொல்லும், எறிந்தவேல்
மெய்யதா வால்குழைக்கும் நாய்.

Avoiding the friendship of those who resemble elephants,
Seek the friendship of those who resemble dogs;
For an elephant will kill his mahout whom he has known for a long time,
But a dog will wag his tail while the spear thrown at him is still in his body.
[Translator: F.J. Leeper]

In the state of Kerala, South India, it is not uncommon to see a captive elephant attacking and killing the mahout. Since Kerala has mostly tuskers, the incidence of mahouts getting killed by their elephants is higher when compared to other states in India. Though an elephant need not come to musth for it to get this murderous rage, it is during the time of musth that the chances of an attack on the mahout increase. According Dr. Jacob V. Cheeran, one of the elephant experts in Kerala, one of the possible reasons why this happens is because the elephant, which is otherwise dominated by the mahout, in a momentary act of defiance, tries to establish its dominance over the mahout. We can also say that elephants in musth have the advantage of overcoming their sub-ordinance and keep that sustained for a longer period of time.   

(6) North Indians and South Indians

An interesting poem in the chapter on ‘Possession of Knowledge” (அறிவுடைமை) is the following one referring to people from South and North. There must have been a wrong notion prevalent among the North Indians those days that people from the South cannot attain salvation. The poet who composed this poem seems to have had this perceived notion in mind.

எந்நிலத்து வித்திடினும் காஞ்சிரங்காய் தெங்காகா
தென்னாட் டவருஞ் சுவர்க்கம் புகுதலால்
தன்னாற்றா னாகும் மறுமை வடதிசையும்
கொன்னாளர் சாலப் பலர்.

Whichever soil be it sown in, the nux-vomica can never become coconut.
Even men born in the South have reached heaven.
It is himself that decides his future
In the north too, there are many who deserve to go to hell.  (243)
[Translator: S.A. Pillai]

It seems that South Indians were probably late to receive the Vedic religion and were probably considered by those who brought the religion to South as a despicable race or pagans. Though Hinduism is also built on the theory of Karma, the belief in the effects of Karma is also strong among the Buddhists and Jains.  

According to this poem, it does not matter whether you are from the North or South, your deeds decide on your future. In other words you reap what you sow. If you want a coconut, you should think of sowing a coconut and not anything else. This appears to be the message of this poem.

(7) Eyes of women

Lastly, let me cite this poem from the last chapter of Nāladiyār. There is only one chapter in the third division ‘Love” but this is one of the best “akam” (அகம்) love poems I have read in Tamil literature. பெண்களின் கண்களை தமிழ் இலக்கியங்களில் பூக்களுக்கும் (உதாரணம்: தாமரை) மீன்களுக்கும் (உதாரணம்: கயல்) ஒப்பிடுவதைக் கண்டுள்ளோம். அதுபோலவே, புருவத்தை வில்லுக்கு ஒப்பிடுவதையும் காணலாம். இவ்விரண்டு உவமானங்களையும் கொண்டு தொகுக்கப்பட்ட பாடல்தான் நாலடியாரில் வரும் கீழ்கண்ட பாடல்.

கண்கயல் என்னும் கருத்தினால் காதலி
பின்சென்றது அம்ம சிறுசிரல் - பின்சென்றும்
ஊக்கி யெழுந்தும் எறிகல்லா ஒண்புருவம்
கோட்டிய வில்வாக் கறிந்து.

Mistaking my wife's eyes for a gayal-fish,
          the kingfisher is after her;
But seeing her beautiful eyebrows,
          it stopped short of striking her eyes,
Mistaking them to be tensile bows about to strike.
[Translator:F.J. Leeper - modified]

விழிகளைக் கயல்மீன் என்று எண்ணியதனால் அதனைக் குத்தித் தின்னும் பொருட்டு மீன்கொத்திப் பறவை என் தலைவியின் பின்னால் சென்றது அவ்வாறு பின் சென்றும், முயற்சி செய்தும், அவளது ஒள்ளிய புருவம் வளைக்கப்பட்ட  வில்வளைவு போன்றிருத்ததை உணர்ந்து, அந்த விழிகளைக் குத்தித் தின்ன இயலாதிருந்தது! (தெளிவுரை அ. மாணிக்கம், மணிவாசகர் பதிப்பகம்).

  • Annamalai, 2001. Introduction to Nālaţiyār in Engish. Institute of Asian Studies, Chennai. Pages iii-x
  • Ramachandra, T.N. 2000. A note on the significance and the history of editions as well as translations of the Nāladiyār. In: The Nāladiyār. International Institute of Tamil Studies, Chennai. Pages 1-10
  • Pope, G.U. 1893. The Nalatiyar or Four Hundred Quatrains in Tamil. The Clarendon Press, Oxford


  1. who said tamil ini mella chagum? um pondror irrukaiyile தலையாயார்
    எண்ணரும் பெண்ணைபோன் றிட்டஞான் றிட்டதே,
    தொன்மை யுடையார் irrukaiyile!

  2. நன்றி பிராபகரன் அவர்களே, உங்களுடைய பாராட்டுதலுக்கு நன்றி.

  3. Thank you sir for your great service