Editor's Note

When the original work is already full of interpretive spaces, and two different translators get together, the result can only be expansive. In this issue, we feature ground-breaking translations from a work-in-progress by Priya Sarukkai Chabria and Shobhana Kumar, with both translating the same songs of the legendary 9th century CE Tamil poet Manickkavacagar.

One cannot but help compare Priya’s condensed style here with that of her previous collaborative book translation of Andal (— see Andal:Autobiography of a Goddess, Zubaan Books 2016). Now add the factor that Shobhana is a master of haibun (— see A Sky Full of Bucket Lists, Red River, 2021). What we have is a new tautness, and poems that are engaged in a conversation with aspects of form and space.

A well-known feature of the Chidambaram temple where Manikkavacigar presented his poetry, is an empty inner sanctum, or the presence of space instead of an aniconic deity. Priya seems to have responded with concrete poems in her translations, and both translators seem to have worked with shape and space for their translations. Priya also comments on the binary gendered form of the divine. Not that one would map characteristics to genders, but – as in Song 2 –  we do see how one translator is gentle and suggestive, and the other, urgent and impassioned.

Of these four selections we feature in this issue, three have been translated by both translators. In Song 1, the reader sees a partial overlap, where one translator has worked with lines 26-33, and the other, with 30-40. In Song 20, Verse 2, Priya recasts the poem’s broader context, whereas Shobhana cuts to the point. One of Priya’s concrete poem translations is Song 2, where she imitates or echoes the shape of a damaru (rattle drum) – as she explains – “symbol of the primal vibrations in space during the stress of creation.” The title of each poem translation includes the translator’s initials (PSC or SK) in parenthesis. The italicized phrases in Priya’s translations are her own words.

— Mani Rao
The Bombay Literary Magazine

Translator's Note

‘Thiruvasakaththirkku urugaathar oru vasagathirkum urugaar.’ ‘The heart that does not melt for the sacred utterances of the Thiruvasakam will melt for none other at all.’  This is an ancient saying that succinctly encapsulates the experiential bliss of savouring the 51 cantos, 658 poems, written in a supreme state of bliss by Tamil Saiva mystic poet Manikkavacagar. While his poems have a visceral force and emotive beauty, they are also complex and inventive.

Writing in cen /Classical Tamil, Manikkavacagar largely followed rules laid down in the Tolkaappiyam, a Sangam-era treatise on prosody and grammar. A highly allusive system, this encourages, in akam love poetry, three levels of generative interpretation. Further, such poetry often relies on the device of maraiporul / veiled meaning where  sacral interpretation is placed–-like a luminous, floating shadow–-beneath the flow of a seemingly secular verse.

Such poetic play calls for multiple strategies of translation to bring out connections within the same poem, and those in dialogue with each other. Collaborating on translating the Thiruvacagam, we found that we also brought different approaches to the project. When reading the lines together, we were often stunned at the possible interpretations a word offered. Subsequently, our experience of writing and translating took on amplified meanings, and became an elevated experience for both of us.

About translating Manickavacigar, Shobhana Kumar writes:

“I began to study this sublime offering and I was drawn for life. A quiet urge to attempt translation of this masterpiece began to niggle inside me, growing into an unassailable urge to embark on the task in the recent years. I was introduced to an in-depth study of the text by Dr. Neela Venkatachalam, disciple and daughter-in-law of world-renowned Saivite scholar, Smt. Swarna Somasundaram. Over the brief number of times that I listened to Dr. Neela, she would often pause and begin to weep at the magnificence of the verses. This was my scholarly introduction to Thiruvasakam.” If the project is daunting, the passion seems up to the task.

Priya Sarukkai Chabria writes:

“The necessity of two translators rose, for me, from myriad grounds of meaning embedded in mystical songs, and in the godhead, Siva.  This demands all poetic possibilities be explored; that contradictory yet twinned aspects of the great God that Manikkavacagar sings of be held in the imagination:  without form and in His multiple forms; ascetic and lover, male and female united.” Besides, Manikkavacagar’s songs are never only about himself; even the apparently monologic outpourings are dialogues with his God, now with Him, now in separation. Each song contains not one, but two distinct personalities: his and His. This is the DNA of the opus; through our two translations we attempt to copy but not contain this spiral.

Siva is said to manifest as the fifth element akasha / etheric space in Chidambaram temple where Manikkavacagar composed most of his songs.  Within, the cave-like room garlanded with a single string of golden leaves seems empty, but isn’t. It throbs with unseen energy. This is the temple’s rahasya, mystery. This possibly led to the floating quality of many of my translations. [….] Conversely, I also find myself making an unusually large number of concrete poems shaped as symbols of Shiva or his attributes —linga, serpent, river Ganga, shrine, damaru –and I wondered why.  The linga is understood as a visible form of mantra, my ‘linga’ translations could possibly be seen as echo of this prayerful urge. However, the arrival of concrete poems on the attributes are more perplexing. But the aesthetics of spirituality evolves almost unknown to one’s self.”

SONG 1: Sivapuranam

Siva as the Eternal at Thirupperunthurai temple


The Sivapuranam is regarded as the preface to the Thiruvacagam. Some scholars attribute its 195 lines in the vengalipa metre as a later addition by the Thillai temple’s priests.


Lines 26 – 33


i was

 grass   bacteria   fungus   amoeba   worm

 stone & tree

 snake bird

 beast of every kind

 ghost & demon

 i evolved into a caveman

 man alert

 refined & self-possessed

 as   ascetic   saint   demigod


i’ve breathed in throngs of species

flying   floating   running   swimming   still

over and over again i’ve known these births but not myself

i’m drained my body’s not my home



  boundaries break illusions blow to bits

when I glimpse your golden feet


step inside me

as tower of realization


   rapture alight



Lines 30-40


from grass to root

from worm to tree

from stone to man

from ghoul to gana

from king of nether

to sage to celestial

from inanimate to sentient

i have borne it all, my Lord


i plead rage rant and have found

home   at   Your   feet.







i witness

the One truth

the One whole

the One answer

in the vedas

and agamas.

i meet

heat and cold

all at once

all illusion


You rise


dissipate my

ignorance my


fill me

with wisdom



SONG 7: Thiruvempavai

Sung at the temple of Thiruvannamalai


This song of twenty verses is sung in the month of Margazhi, mid-December to mid-January, as part of pavai nombu, a ritual undertaken by maidens, praying for good husbands. The song is one of awakening devotees to rise, cleanse themselves and open their doors to God.



Verse 2


your love for him traversed time

you said,

and yet, have you forsaken it now

for mundane sleep?


you maidens, seemingly evolved,

adorned in all that is Him,

is this how you must chide me?


He, hidden from celestial sight, reveals

to us mortal devotees, His bedecked feet.


all we know is to love him.

let us sing his praise





Verse 2


girl don’t waste another moment but praise

effulgence as we do in every pulse of

darkness and light gem covered

you couch on crushed buds of

carnal desire comforted

by baubles


a firestorm

of grace spews from

his feet every second loath

your sport in trifles in tillia sky of

consciousness that’s ached for and adored

even by heavenly beings to your true worth awaken



SONG 10: Thirukothumbi: Song of the Dragonfly

Sung at Thillai


Sangam literature regards thumbi, dragonfly, as an evolved being due to its preference for sweetest nectar, unlike bees that sip from all flowers. Manikkavacagar alludes to this aspect for the devotee’s longing.


these words of mounting

love are sung to an insect small –


balanced on the fragrance of sacred

bushes and shady trees hovering as light

hum desire the bee a wanton drinks

from every flower not the thumbi

selective supping on the sweetest alone


sipping rapture’s nectar enlightened being

stand in as my cognizance

adopt my feminine voice

  be my messenger


Verse 2


who am i    what use my wisdom    my

self-awareness is ash

if heaven’s king doesn’t command me

 as his own


 teeming lotuses spilling

nectar bloom

in citambaram

 the mendicant’s temple and court



he’s just wandered in blood

 oozing from his hand that holds

brahma’s fleshy head as begging bowl


fly there

wee radiance

to feed yourself

 tell him of my suffering



Verse 14



 of every being in every being

 in this world  and far beyond


with her அருள் arul whose fragrant tendrils breath

entwining grace


he appeared as wild sage as mystic versed in the vedas

displays himself palmleaf of fire written in leaping blue flames of wisdom

to me

made me his


i was revealed to myself

 as his splendid cinder


thumbi with blazing wings

go burn your way there


him to me



SONG 20: Thirupalliezhuchi

Sung at Thirupperunthurai


This song of ten verses is usually sung as part of the waking rituals for the god in the temple who, like a medieval king, is attended with fanfare and priests in procession.


Verse 2


sun arc appears  darkness disappears

mountain inspires awe in me as waves of endless grace

 roll over us




night from sky sun peaks

over the horizon blossoming

flowers    as his aurous eyes open

 so too your radiating

smile through bee-black galactic

night showers telluric life




treasure of grace

tiruperundurai’s golden sovereign

douse us in the bliss we crave

wave upon wave rolling

from your eternal ocean




me  hear my plea

god arise



Verse 2


as the first rays ride the east

all darkness disappears

as the dawn gently shines from You,

we behold Your face of grace


like bees to blossom,

we swarm towards You,

standing eternal, You mountain of benevolence

You ocean of mercy, surging eternal


hear my calling


from night

Translations: Specific credits

SONG 1: Sivapuranam, Lines 26 – 33 (Priya); Lines 30-40 (Shobhana)

SONG 7: Thiruvempavai, Verse 2 (Priya; Shobhana)

SONG 10: Thirukothumbi, Verse 2, Verse 14  (Priya)

SONG 20: Thirupalliezhuchi, Verse 2 (Priya; Shobhana)


Inscription at the gates of Nataraja temple, Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu, South India. Adobe Stock. Standard license.


Manikkavacakar was a 9th-century Tamil saint and poet who wrote Thiruvasagam, a book of Shaiva hymns. Speculated to have been a minister to the Pandya king Varagunavarman II (c. 862 CE–885 CE)[1] (also called Arimarthana Pandiyan), he lived in Madurai.

He is revered as one of the Nalvar (“group of four” in Tamil), a set of four prominent Tamil saints alongside ApparSundarar and Sambandar. (courtesy Wikipedia)


Priya Sarukkai Chabria is an award winning translator, poet, speculative fiction and literary non-fiction writer whose books include four poetry collections, two SFF novels, literary non-fiction, a novel, translations from Classical Tamil,  and as editor, three poetry anthologies.She is Founding Editor, Poetry at Sangam www.poetryatsangam.com. Priya collaborates with photographers, filmmakers, dancers and musicians.  Speculative stories, EARTHRISE,  her reworked Gitanjali by Rabindranath Tagore as Sing of Life, and The Poetry at Sangam Anthology of World Poetry in Translation. (as Editor) are forthcoming.  Besides translating Manikkavacagar she’s completing her memoir, Archives of Absences. Winner, Muse India Translation Prize, Kitaab Experimental Story Award, Best Reads from Feminist Press. Awarded for Outstanding Contribution to Literature by the Indian government. Residencies/presentations include Writer’s Centre, Norwich, Sun Yat-sen International Writers Program, Commonwealth Literature Conference, Innsbruck,Indian Institute of Advanced Studies etc. Anthologies publications include AsymptoteKenyon Review, MAI: Feminism & Visual Culture, PEN InternationalPost Road, PR & TA, Reliquiae, Solarpunk Creatures, The British Journal of Literary TranslationThe Literary Review(USA)The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction I &II etc. Priya is on the Advisory Council of G100, India and WrICE Writers Immersion and Cultural Exchange, Australia.  www.priyasarukkaichabria.com


Shobhana Kumar is a poet, translator and non-fiction writer. Her book of haibun, A Sky Full of Bucket Lists, (Red River in 2021), won the Rabindranath Tagore Literary Prize 2021-2022, and The Touchstone Distinguished Books Award, 2021, Honourable Mention, instituted by The Haiku Foundation, USA. She has two books of poetry published by Writers Workshop. As a memoirist, biographer and chronicler, she has written regional histories and people with eight published works. Kumar is Associate Editor of Yavanika Press, an award-winning e-publishing house. K. Srilata and Shobhana Kumar’s work, I, Salma, Translated Poems, (Red River, 2023) is the first collected poems of Salma in English. Work in progress also includes a collaborative translation project with Priya Sarukkai Chabria on Manikkkavacagar’s Thiruvasakam, and selected works of Subramanya Bharathi with K. Srilata. She also works in the spaces of corporate communication and branding strategy. She is mentor to the Centre for Leadership, Empowerment and Development (CLED) at Kumaraguru Institutions. She is founder of Small Differences, an NGO that works with the elderly homeless, transgender community and vulnerable women and children.

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