kiskiKAHANI (the Ramayana Project)

300 Ramayanas and Counting . . .
About   Contributors   Contact   |   
by Transposh - website crowdsourcing translation plugin

Ahalya: Theme and variations

Lakshmi Holmström talks about the different Ahalya stories in Kamban, Mudaliar and Pudumaippittan

Why do some stories beckon writers through the ages, calling for retellings and re-interpretations? In this essay, I begin with the Ahalya story as Kamban presents it in the Balakandam of his retelling, in order to tease out some of the ambiguities which he builds into it. I then examine some modern Tamil versions where the story is taken up and re-worked in a variety of ways.

In Kamban’s version, Viswamitra arrives at the walls of Mithila with the young Rama, after their adventure with Tadaka, the rakshasi. The dust of Rama’s feet settles on the black rock that was once Ahalya who, brought back to life, falls at Rama’s feet and worships him. After this has happened, Viswamitra tells the back story of the curse that turned her into stone. God Indra, having fallen in love with the beautiful Ahalya, wife of Gotaman the sage, sneaks into the hermitage in Gotaman’s absence, disguised as him, and sleeps with Ahalya. However, Gotaman returns, and curses both Indra, who is instantly covered in a thousand vaginas, and Ahalya who turns into stone. Just before Ahalya is petrified into stone, in answer to her plea that he should set a limit to the curse, he declares that the dust of Rama’s feet will one day set her free. The immortals, meanwhile, plead on behalf of Indra, and Gotaman changes the marks all over him into a thousand eyes.

In his study of the of the Ahalya story, Kailasapathy (2007:117f.) tells us that the earliest reference to it in Tamil literature is a brief set of three lines in Paripaatal, one of the later Sangam collections (c. 5th century CE), containing both akam and bhakti poems. (Pilgrims on the way to Tirupparanguntram, a hill sacred to Murugan and Valli, are shown a number of cave paintings, which they recognize and explain to each other. The lines that are relevant to us are these: ‘This is Indran in the form of a cat; this is Ahalya; this is Gotaman. This is where he turns her into stone in his fury’). So it was a well-known story before Kamban reworked it.

Clearly, one of the major changes we notice in Kamban’s retelling, when compared with Valmiki is the content of Gotaman’s curse. In Valmiki Ahalya is condemned to eat no food but air, and to lie on burning ashes, invisible to all men. In Kamban she is turned into stone, and the possibility of her deliverance from his curse is conceded by Gotaman after her desperate plea. This symbolism (flesh becoming stone; stone returned to life) will be used variously and most poignantly by all Tamil poets and writers following Kamban, who have retold this story.

The other crucial change is to do with Ahalya’s state of mind when Indra makes love to her.  In the Valmiki version, although Indra appears in the guise of her husband, Gotaman, she recognizes him as the king of the gods, is flattered, and sleeps with him willingly. Kamban’s telling is much more ambiguous than this. Here are the crucial lines:


Mayalaale  arivu niingi maamunikku attram seydu

poy ilaa ullaatthaan than uruvame kondu pukkaaan

pukku avalodum kaama pudumana madhuvin theral

okka undu irutthalodum unarndanal unarnda pinnum

thakkadu andru ena ooraal taazhndanal iruppa taazha

mukkanaan anaya aatral munivanum mudugi vandaan


(mayal infatuation; arivu knowledge, common sense, intelligence; attram departure, being away; madhuvin theral clear toddy; okka undu eating together; unardanal became conscious, perceived; oraal unable to judge;  taazhdanal fell low, sank)

This is how Ramanujan (1992:29) translates the lines:

One day, overwhelmed

and mindless, he isolated

the sage; and sneaked

into the hermitage

wearing the exact body of Gotama

whose heart knew no falsehoods.


Sneaking in, he joined Ahalya;

coupled, they drank deep

of the clear new wine

of first-night weddings;

and she knew.


Yet unable

to put aside what was not hers

she dallied in her joy,

but the sage did not tarry,

he came back, a very Siva

with three eyes in his head.

Much as I always admire his work, I fear that Ramanujan’ss translation, in this case, doesn’t altogether deal with the ambiguities in the text. A closer translation would go something like this:

Infatuated to the point of losing his common sense (arivu niingi), (Indran) ensured that the sage was away, and taking the exact form of Gotaman whose heart know no falsehood, he sneaked inside. And so they coupled, drinking deeply of the clear honeyed wine of the newly wed, when suddenly she realized (unarndanal). But even then (unarnda pinnum) past judging that it was not right, (thakkadu alla enna ooraal) she sank/fell utterly (taazhndanal). It was then that the sage, equal to Siva in his power and endurance, returned.

The two operative words in the passage, relating to Ahalya’s recognition (or otherwise) of Indran, are ‘unarndanal’ and ‘ooraal’. Let us consider this pair of words, a little. Kamban uses the first to indicate Ahalya’s first stab of realization/recognition; the second to indicate she is no longer capable of moral judgement. Now, ‘Unardal’ is to do with sense-perception, consciousness, understanding. David Shulman (1992:101) points to the importance of the concept in Kamban’s Iramavadaram, defining it as ‘the intuitive, felt understanding that is the normal medium of connection between individuals’. Here, ‘recognition’ or ‘realization’ feels right, lighting up a dramatic and terrible moment, as Kamban presents it to us. Notice how it breaks the line naturally. Ramanujan’s ‘She knew’ (in regard to Ahalya) is too unequivocal, I think. In contrast to ‘unardal’, ‘oordal’ is to do with the reasoning mind. Kamban wants to say that Ahalya’s realization comes too late for moral judgement, catching her, as it were, in mid-descent. ‘Takkadu alla enna ooral (not able to judge it improper), taazhndanal (she fell).’ What does she sink into? Bliss or sin? Whatever Kamban intended – and there are uneasy questions here about sexual passion and pleasure, Ramanujan’s ‘dallied in her joy’ feels inadequate to the single tragic word, ‘taazhndanal’, whose very sound echoes its sense. Note too, ‘taazhdanal’ exactly matches ‘unardanal’, giving another pause in the line where it occurs, and carrying the drama forward once more.

I hope I have laid bare some of the ambiguities in Kamban’s telling. Not surprisingly, Kamban’s commentators and critics have debated endlessly about the extent of Ahalya’s guilt – or lack of it. But the whole incident, it seems to me, could also be read as a tale  about how we make moral choices and decisions, and how responsible we are for them. For example, Indran is described as ‘Mayalaal arivu niingi’, i.e  having lost his commonsense/ intelligence/ knowledge because of his infatuation; yet he is held responsible for his (im)moral action, and punished for it. Or so it appears until the gods intercede for him, and then he gets away with it. What are we to make of this?

And then, there is Gotaman. In modern times, Gotaman’s part in the tragedy has also come under scrutiny. If Ahalya is not guilty, how are we then to read Gotaman’s curse and his excessive anger? In Kamban, his words are unequivocal: ‘You who are like a prostitute, turn now into stone’. (The word he uses is ‘vilai magal’ which AKR renders very successfully, as ‘bought woman’.) Yet, when Viswamitra advises Gotaman, after she is freed from the curse, he says, ‘Her heart is guiltless; take her back’, (nenjinaar pizhaippilaataal),  while Rama hands her to Gotaman as, ‘that woman of flawless chastity’ (‘maasaru karpin mikka ananginai’). How are we to read Kamban here? Either he means that Ahalya was guiltless always, or that she has been purified during her long years as a stone.

Rama alone, in Kamban’s version appears to be free of ambiguity; indeed it is one of the moments in Kamban’s telling, when his divinity is very clearly revealed by Viswamitra.


Now let us come to some modern Tamil tellings of the Ahalya story.

A curious rendering of the story which simplifies and resolves these ambiguities is Subramanya Mudaliar’s Ahaligai Venpa (1914, summarized in Kailasapathy 2007:127-134). Mudaliar shifts the interest of the story to Indran and the scene between Indran and Ahalya, which he presents as a straightforward rape. In his introduction, he acknowledges his debt to Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece.  This narrative poem, one of Shakespeare’s earliest works (1594), you will remember,  tells the story of Tarquin’s rape of Lucretia, a woman well-known for her beauty and chastity.  Tarquin enters Lucretia’s bedroom while her husband is away in an army camp, and attempts to seduce her. Lucretia speaks up, appealing to his sense of morality, and his responsibility as an authority figure, but he rapes her anyway, overwhelming her by brute force. After he leaves, Lucretia sends for her father and husband, tells them everything and makes them promise to avenge her, after which she commits suicide.

Mudaliar takes many elements from Shakespeare’s poem, particularly the debate in Lucretia’s bedroom, making the confrontation between Indran and Ahalya a dramatic clash between good and evil. Indran makes clear his intent; Ahalya, as the embodiment of chastity opposes him entirely – there are no grounds for doubt here. The debate also gives Ahalya a  lively character; she stands up for herself, and defends herself as best she can.  It is also notable, that when Indran finally overcomes her by his superior strength, Ahalya has lost consciousness entirely, and has fainted. Mudaliar, thus, exonerates her entirely.

Yet, the fact remains that she has been raped. We note that Ahalya still feels guilty, reviles herself to Gotaman when he returns, declaring she is not even fit to be his slave. We must also note that although Gotaman comforts her saying everything that happened, is through the working fate (uuzh vinaiaal), nevertheless, he can’t accept her because as a victim of rape, she is still tainted. He proclaims that she must become a stone in order to receive purification (kallaay nii aartal kazhuvaay).

It is interesting to see how firmly Subramania Mudaliar boxes the Ahalya story into a frame of late Victorian morality, with an intense preoccupation with female chastity. At the same time, the Ahalya story also gets bound up with a ref0rmist consciousness of the victimisation of women. Hand in hand with this goes a mix of horror, shared male guilt and a moral evasiveness in regard to women who are victims of rape.


There are two wonderful treatments of the Ahalya story in more modern times, which I turn to now, the first by one of the finest short story writers in Tamil, Pudumaippittan, the other by the Sri Lankan poet, Sivasegaram.

Pudumaippittan actually wrote two versions of the Ahalya story. The first written in 1934 has the simple title ‘Akalikai’ (Pudumaippittan 2000:131-5). The second, written nine years later, is called ‘Sabavimochanam’ (Deliverance from the curse: ibid. 527-40; translated by Lakshmi Holmström in Pudumaippittan 2002:128-45). Although I really want to focus on the second and more famous story, the earlier and quite different version is intriguingly full of questions and ambiguities, so let me describe it briefly. The earlier work tells the actual story of the seduction/rape of Ahalya, seen as exemplifying the destructive power of passion, but with an odd twist of its own. Only three characters appear: Ahalya, Gotaman and Indran. Indran is seen as almost entirely human, there are only a couple of oblique references to his divinity. He sees Ahalya when she is bathing in the river, and has already made advances to her and been repulsed. He then stalks her, gets rid of Gotaman by imitating the crowing of a cock, and seduces her when she is half asleep. She is completely taken in, and only recognizes him as the stalker when she opens her eyes. She hits him, throwing him off, stunned.

The interesting thing that Pudumaippittan has done in this early version is to change the character of Gotaman entirely, and to make him the chief protagonist. No longer the furious sage, he is excessively and perhaps unnaturally calm, the opposite of passionate Indran; certainly less passionate and sensuous than his wife. When he returns to the hut, realizing that it is not yet dawn, he finds Ahalya in a terrible state, ‘squirming and shaking like a worm that has fallen into fire’, and Indran still standing there, the very picture of guilt. Gotaman’s reaction is astounding. He says to Ahalya, calmly gathering her up, and with terrible prescience, ‘Kanné, Ahalya, at that moment, did your body become a feeling-less stone?’ He apparently deduces a new truth: that passion turns even a god into an animal. ‘A pure mind alone is true chastity. If her body is polluted by chance, what can a helpless woman do?’ So, still serene, he sends Indran on his way. There isn’t, apparently, a curse. The story ends with a cryptic and hugely ambiguous comment by the author: ‘And Ahalya? Fate’s final trick which was played out in her heart, presented itself as the battleground of her husband’s serenity.’ (My translation.)

What does Gotaman’s question to Ahalya mean? Does he want her body to have turned into a stone during the rape, to ensure there was no sexual gratification? Was this his wish? And what is Fate’s final trick? That she does indeed become a stone? What is her realization that at last brings Gotaman’s serenity to the battleground? That the  curse indeed is a wish-fulfilment?

I come now to the the second version. Pudumaippittan’s familiarity with Kamban’s Iramaavatharam  is well attested, and quite clearly, Kamban is his starting point. However, ‘Sabavimochanam’ is prefaced by the deliberately provocative epigraph, ‘For those acquainted with the Ramayana, this story might be incomprehensible, unpalatable too. I am not concerned about that.’ He begins exactly at the same place that Kamban does. Rama and Lakshmana, god children (avataara sisukkal), arrive with Viswamitra outside the walls of Mithila. Rama’s mission of deliverance is hinted at: they have already begun the destruction of the rakshasa. (There is some irony in the reference to Marichi, who, Viswamitra imagines, has disappeared forever). After the dust of Rama’s feet settles upon Ahalya, and she returns to life and worships Rama, Viswamitra tells the prince who she is, but here, her story is not given in detail, but summarized in just a couple of sentences. She is, according to Viswamitra, ‘That artless girl (peedai), who was deceived by Indra’s magical disguise (maaya veesham). As a result of her unbounded love for her husband (alavukku adangaada paasattin vilaiyvaaga), she allowed herself to be deceived and her body to be tainted (tan udambai maasuppaduttikondaval). Viswamitra could almost be summarizing Pudumaippittan’s earlier story.

Importantly, in both Pudumaippittan’s versions, Ahalya does not recognize Indra. Her unbounded (excessive or uncontrollable, alavukku adangaada) love for her husband is clearly not deemed a sin either by Rama, who asks himself, ‘Should someone be punished for something that happened without the assent of her conscious will?’; nor by Viswamitra, who says to Gotaman, (echoing Kamban exactly) ‘It is only right that you accept her; she did not err in her heart.’

The rest of Pudumaippittan’s ‘Saabavimochanam’ shifts to the continuing life of Ahalya and Gotaman, and re-examines Rama’s impact on the couple. In this way all the main events of the Ramayana story, are retold from the perspective of this middle-aged and disillusioned couple: their great hopes in the prospective coronation which was to begin a golden age of Dharma, but which goes disastrously wrong, then the exile of Rama and Sita, and finally their long awaited return.

‘Saabavimochanam’ effectively has two endings. The first is when Sita tells Ahalya of the fire-test that Rama imposed on her. Ahalya is outraged, ‘Kannagi’s frenzy leaping through her mind’, Pudumaippittan comments, Tamilizing the story. ‘One law for Ahalya, quite another for Rama?’ she asks. In the case of Ahalya, the purity of her intention made Rama absolve her, even if technically she could be said to be at fault, having actually slept with Indra. But in the case of Sita, even though neither her chastity nor the purity of her intention were ever in doubt (within the terms of Pudumaippittan’s story, at any rate); yet Rama could not accept her without establishing the fact of her innocence publicly.


‘Didn’t it have to be proved to the world,’ Sita asked, laughing softly.

‘If one knows it oneself, isn’t that enough? Is it possible to prove the truth to the world?’ demanded Ahalya. She was dry of words.

Again she said, ‘And will it become the truth if you just demonstrate it, even if it doesn’t touch the heart?’


Ahalya’s encounter with Rama, at the start of Pudumaippittan’s story, gives her a criterion by which to judge him at the end, and judge him she does. This is an ironic reversal of Kamban’s Ramaayanam, where, as A.K. Ramanujan (1992:32) has said, the Ahalya episode is the first in a series of actions through which Rama roots out evil, sustains the good and brings release to all living beings.

The second ending happens when Gotaman returns to the hut and embraces Ahalya, trying one last time to revive their relationship. But Ahalya, shocked by what she perceives as Rama’s betrayal, has returned in her mind to the earlier deceptions and betrayals in her life; she does not see Gotaman when he enters, but Indra disguised as Gotaman. Her heart hardens and she wills herself into stone once more. This, Pudumaippittan implies, is her real deliverance from the curse of long ago.

An important element that Pudumaippittan introduces into ‘Sabavimochanam’ is its psychological subtlety. At the start of Pudumaippittan’s re-telling of the Ahalya story, Rama and Lakshmana are clearly described as children descended from the gods. But the story leaves behind its mythic background and becomes a human one. Unlike previous retellings of the Ahalya story, Rama becomes an important player in the story. He is studied in terms of a young man trained to be an ideal ruler, who shows great promise but fails in the end. At the level of the human story, the psychological examination of what happens to the marriage between Ahalya and Gotaman is another new perspective that Pudumaippittan brings to the story. The trauma of the sexual deception practised on her, and the terrible curse which Gotaman once pronounced, are long-lasting, gradually driving a wedge between the couple. Pudumaippittan implies that they could never have survived it. The way this theme is developed is one of the finest things in the story. Unable to find any peace, Ahalya and Gotaman undertake a pilgrimage which parallels the years of exile and wandering of Rama and Sita. But the landscape merely reflects their inner paalai (wasteland, aridity) wherever they go.[1]The one thing they look forward to is Rama’s return. When, eventually, the story of the fire-test is told, Ahalya’s hope in the possibility of another, and more daring definition of dharma is finally lost. The symbolism of stone is deployed with acuteness and force: at the beginning it is a punishment for passion; at the end a voluntary withdrawal in protest of betrayal.

One of the important things in Pudumaippittan’s version, is of course, the emphasis he gives to the intention underlying the deed. Not only do Rama and Viswamitra stress this position at the beginning of the story: it entirely influences and changes Gotaman’s perspective after his curse is lifted. To my knowledge, Pupumaippittan is the first re-teller of the Ahalya story in Tamil, to develop Gotaman’s character at any length. After Ahalya and Gotaman are re-united i.e. when the curse is lifted, Gotaman begins to think of dharma in an entirely new way: ‘If a violation of the moral law happens without one’s awareness or assent, then it cannot be judged a sin, even though the entire seed of man is crushed because of it. It is the deeds we do with the full intention of the conscious mind (manalayippum suyapragnaiyum kuudiya seyal) that mark us.’ It also has to be said, that in Pudumaippittan’s version, Gotaman learns this new truth cerebrally, but Ahalya experientially.

So, in ‘Saabavimochanam’ Pudumaippittan takes up the question of intention and agency not as one which belongs only to modern times but as an abiding one which enables us to re-read the Ahalya story in a new and relevant way. But ‘Saabavimochanam’ also asks a larger question about what constitutes dharma in the public sphere. What does dharma mean for a ruler or head of state? How was it that the shocking events in Ayodha, resulting in Rama’s and Sita’s exile, were allowed to happen? What is this dharma that allows a Bharata to be so engrossed in it that he cannot forgive his mother, Kaikeyi? Ahalya’s realization, even before Rama’s return from Sri Lanka, is that ‘A dharma which takes no account of individual human beings is the enemy of the human race.’ Then she encounters the inconsistency in Rama himself. As the radiant god-child, Rama could see with clarity that each deed must be judged by the individual doer’s intention. Yet later, as the ‘ideal ruler’ trained by Vasishta, he sets aside individual rights, and puts the state and public interest first. Here Pudumaippittan is raising the whole question of the basis of moral action, dharma, in the context of the individual and the state, and placing individual responsibility and accountability above established rules and practices.

Pudumaippittan wrote a long polemical essay ‘Ungal kadai’ (‘Your story’), which brings together many of the ideas which are reflected in his stories consistently, and are of importance in ‘Saabavimochanam’. First of all, he presents the history of man as a constant struggle for survival. According to him, it is because of this struggle for survival that human societies grew; governments and religions developing later, as ways of safeguarding such societies. Crucially, he sees an irreconcilable contradiction between the individual and society; the individual is always sacrificed for the sake of society. Hence, he declares, his lack of faith in most political philosophers and their systems, because the ideal societies they have imagined have not taken into account the individual and his or her weaknesses. ‘So long as man is man, society and the individual must stand in two different corners, debating their position’ (Pudumaippittan 1954:17; my translation). His suspicion of organized religion is similar: ‘Governments seek to fetter man’s body’, he writes, ‘Religions seek to fetter man’s mind’ (ibid., p.18). In both cases, ‘to be enslaved by a doctrine, kolgai, is to be enslaved by the monstrously huge forms which we have raised in the sacrificial fires we ourselves have lit’ (Pudumaippittan 1954:72). The central irony for Pudumaippittan is that societies created their gods and their notions of heaven and hell according to their own needs, but then became enslaved by them. It is only by destroying the gods of our own making that we can prepare the way for genuine change. It is this stance that underlies the scepticism and agnosticism that Pudumaippittan brings to his examination of political and social change.


Sivasegaram’s poem (1995) is one of the most economical treatment of the story in Tamil that I know of. It is only in the title that Ahalya, or indeed, any of the four characters taking part in the drama of the poem, is named. But the name immediately signals to the story that we know from Kamban’s Ramayana and elsewhere. Here is the poem in my translation (Holmström 2009:116):




Above the earth, beneath the earth,

hillocks and mountains,

rocks and fragments,

standing upright, fallen down,



Her husband, the sage, was a stone.

The god was a liar, but

no stone he,

only a male deity who lived

to survive the curse.

And she who had lived like stone

coming alive for that instant alone

truly became a stone.


On a day much later,

a god who crossed the seas to rescue a lover

only to thrust her

into burning flames—

who feared the town’s gossip

and exiled her—

an avatara, unworthy of touching a stone—

stumbled upon her.


Had she not changed again

stone becoming woman

to live like a stone with a stone,


Had she remained truly a stone

she might have stood forever,

a mountain peak, undestroyed by time.


In Sivasegaram’s poem, all four characters are unnamed: the wife, the husband who curses her; and the two gods, one who is the reason for the curse, the other the means by which she is released from the curse. She is seen as the victim of all three. It is not the usual questions of Ahalya’s morality and chastity that Sivasegaram takes up, but of her right to a life of feeling, passion and agency. The tragedy of Ahalya is that she is condemned to be a stone, alive or not. The poem is very brilliantly and tightly organized around the image of stones, and a complex set of meanings associated with and generated by stones. Besides this, it is constructed around a system of alliteration and play on similar sounding words kal (stone), kaal (foot), kaalam (time) and so on.

Let us look at it closely. Karkkal, stones, the single word repeated, frames the first verse, containing a picture of rocky wasteland, which in sangam terms would be the fifth landscape, paalai.

But ‘stone’ also becomes a symbol for lack of feeling or passion. Hence the first verse leads naturally into the second:

munivan kanavan kal

thevan kayavan

aanaalum illan ikkal.

The ironic repetition of ‘kal’ at the end of the lines, and the alliteration of kanavan (husband) and kayavan (liar) are ways of linking and contrasting the cold, morally correct sage Gotaman, and the passionate, but lying god Indra, who awakened Ahalya momentarily. A further contrast follows between the male deity who gets away with it (Gotaman’s curse is partially repealed when the gods plead for him), and Ahalya, whose destiny it is to become a stone. In her case the curse will remain until Rama delivers her from it.

Since Sivesekeram sees Ahalya as a victim of Gotaman’s coldness or stoniness in the first place there is a particularly stinging irony in the content of the curse:

kallaaga vaarzhndu

kananeram uyirndavalo

kallagave aanaal.

Once again the chiming repetition of the ‘kal’, this time at the beginning of the lines, enclosing the poignant ‘kananeram uyirndavalo’, ‘she who came alive for an instant’.

The movement in the second half of the poem reverses what has gone before. The third verse, balances against the lying god Indra of the first half of the poem, the equally dubious god Rama who, by stumbling on Ahalya, (kaal idara), condemns her against to life once again, to live as a stone with a stone. ‘Kaal idara’ changes the whole character of the encounter between Rama and Ahalya, no longer an action of divine grace, it becomes a mere accident. (Nice balance between kal and kaal here, by the way.) The third verse also, with the two allusions, one to the Sita’s ordeal by fire, and the other to her exile, casually subverts the whole of the Ramayana, as Pudumaippittan, of course, did before him.  Another symmetry here: Rama’s brutal betrayal of his ‘kaadali’, loved one, (ti pizhambil talliyavan – one who thrust or shoved her into the flames) is meant to parallel Indra’s casual betrayal of Ahalya.

The final lines magnificently turn the whole myth around: the accidental – indeed almost insulting – deliverance from the curse leaves Ahalya condemned forever. No question of seeking salvation from a patriarchal god; in retrospect, had she at least been left a real stone she would have had some dignity and stood for all time.

Sivasegaram’s poem not only retells the story, but signals towards a whole tradition of retellings and subversions which are part of a Tamil literary history. Each re-telling comes out of its particular time, raising questions which are relevant to that moment. But this becomes possible because of the strength of the story in the first place – the tangle of relationships and emotions which can be seen in different ways, from different perspectives, and the lasting questions it asks about moral choices and responsibilities.



 Holmström, Lakshmi, Subashree Krishnaswamy & K. Srilata (eds). 2009. The rapids of a great river: the Penguin book of Tamil poetry. New Delhi: Penguin India.

Kailasapathy, K. 2007. Adiya mudiyum. Chennai: Kumaran.

Pudumaippittan. 1954. Pudumaippittan Katturaigal. Madras: Star Publications.

Pudumaippittan. 2002. Pudumaippittan: translated and edited by Lakshmi Holmström. New Delhi: Katha

Pudumaippittan. 2000. Pudumaippittan kathaikal. Nagerkoil: Kalachuvadu.

Ramanujan, A.K. 1992. ‘Three hundred Rāmāyaņas: five examples and three thoughts on translation’ in Paula Richman (ed.), Many Rāmāyaņas: the diversity of a narrative tradition in South Asia, pp. 22-49. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Shulman, David 1992. ‘Fire and flood: the testing of Sītā in Kampan’s Irāmāvatāram’ in Paula Richman (ed.), Many Rāmāyaņas: the diversity of a narrative tradition in South Asia, pp. 89-113. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Sivasegaram, S. 1995. Nattikarai Muunkil. Madras: National Arts & Literary Association.


Lakshmi Holmström is a writer and translator who was born in India, studied at Madras and Oxford universities, and now lives in England. She is the author of Indian Fiction in English: the Novels of R. K. Narayan), editor of The Inner Courtyard: Short Stories by Indian Women, and co-editor of Writing from India, a collection of stories from India for readers aged 14‑16.

Her re-telling of the fifth-century Tamil narrative poems Silappadikaram and Manimekalai was published in 1996. Her main work has been in translating the short stories and novels of the major contemporary writers in Tamil: Mauni, Pudumaippittan, Ashokamitran, Sundara Ramaswamy, Ambai, Baama and Imayam. In 2000 she received the Crossword Book Award in India, for translation of Karukku by Bama.



[1]           Paalai is the fifth of the five landscapes, each associated with an aspect of love, which underlie the poetics of the akam or love poetry of Sangam Tamil. Paalai is desert waste, and stands for separation. We cannot be certain whether Pudumaippittan is deliberately referring to akam poetry, but there are clear parallels between the inner and outer landscape in ‘Saabavimochanam’ which echo the classical Tamil poems.