Vadavaraiyai Mattakki

KannagiIn the early centuries AD, deep in South India, there is a town called Puhar under the rule of the Cholas. Two well to do merchant families who live there arrange a match between their children. Kovalan and Kannagi start their married life pleasantly. But after a few years, Kovalan’s eyes stray. He takes up a talented young dancer Madhavi as his mistress. Enthralled by her, he neglects both his wife and his business. He even has a child with Madhavi. Spending lavishly on her, her fellow musicians and dancers, Kovalan’s ancestral wealth dwindles away to nothing. In the meanwhile, Kannagi silently bears his abandonment, uncomplaining, chaste. One day, something quite trivial triggers his disillusionment; his ego is hurt and he gives up Madhavi to return to his wife. The penniless young couple decide to leave for Madurai where Kovalan hopes to restart a business with Kannagi’s anklet as principle. After a strenuous voyage, they reach Madurai where they take shelter with a cowherdess. Kannagi rests there while Kovalan goes to the market hoping to sell the anklet. A deceitful gold merchant blames his own crime of stealing the queen’s anklet on Kovalan and he is punished to death by the king. Grief stricken, Kannagi marches to the Pandiya king’s court to demand justice. The king is aghast when he realises the truth and punishes himself. But Kannagi’s wrath remains unquenched; her curse burns Madurai to cinders. She moves away to the Chera Kingdom where she is venerated as a Goddess after she too passes away.

This is the synopsis of Silappadikaram, an important literary work from the Sangam period. Written by Ilango Adigal (~5 AD), it is a mix of prose, poetry and song. To this day, Kannagi is venerated in South India as a symbol of virtue and chastity. A chaste and submissive doormat even when her man is a low-life and a vengeful Goddess when he dies, she is a dream heroine for men, don’t you think? I wonder how many sorry females have tried to live up to this impossible male ideal? Reminds me of Stepford Wives!

I may question the characterisation, but the poetry is still beautiful. Our song choice of today are some verses from a  song sung by the cowherdesses as they dance, called Aychiyar Kuravai ஆய்ச்சியர் குரவை. Tuned by S.V.Venkataraman as a Ragamalika in Hamsanandi, Kamas, Hindolam, Shanmukhapriya, Paras and Kapi, this song was made famous by M.S.Subbulakshmi.  The verses remind us of stories from Hindu myths and epics, hinting at many incidents related to Lord Vishnu and his avataras. The poet expresses his amazement at the many contrasting incidents and then questions the worth of a life not spent in praising, honouring and worshipping Lord Vishnu. The poet cleverly uses similarities and contrasts, rhyme and alliteration, rhythm and repetition to create a very moving and beautiful song. This ancient Tamil has a lovely ring to it; see footnote for lyrics and translation.

Listen below the irreplaceable M.S.Subbulakshmi and her impeccable rendering of this song :

Alternate link : Click here

Footnote (Lyrics and Translation) :

Poetry : Ilango Adigal
Music : S.Venkataraman
Raga : Ragamalika – Hamsanandi, Kamas, Hindolam, Shanmukhapriya, Paras, Kapi
Language : Sangam Period Tamil

For lyrics and word breakups, I consulted the excellent virtual library here. I also referred to the explanations as I translated word by word using dictionaries as many words from classical Tamil are unfamiliar to me. However, I am not a Tamil scholar, so please refer to literary books for better accuracy.

Raga Hamsanandi
வட வரையை மத்தாக்கி வாசுகியை நாணாக்கி,
கடல் வண்ணன் பண்டொருநாள் கடல் வயிறு கலக்கினையே!
கலக்கிய கை யசோதையார் கடை கயிற்றாற் கட்டுண்கை,
மலர்க்கமல உந்தியாய்! மாயமோ? மருட்கைத்தே!

Words Separated
வடவரையை மத்து ஆக்கி, வாசுகியை நாண் ஆக்கி,
கடல் வண்ணன் பண்டு ஒரு நாள் கடல் வயிறு கலக்கினையே!
கலக்கிய கை யசோதையார் கடை கயிற்றால் கட்டுண் கை
மலர்க் கமல உந்தியாய்! மாயமோ? மருட்கைத்தே!

vaDa varaiyai mattAkki vAsukiyai nANAkki
kaDal vaNNan panDorunAL kaDal vayiru kalakkinaiyE
kalakkiya kai yasodaiyAr kaDai kayiRRAR kaTTuNkai
malarkamala undiyAy mAyamO maruTkaittE

O Ocean-Coloured one! (kaDal =ocean, vaNNan=coloured), once upon a time (panDu=a former time, oru=one, nAL=day), making the northern (vaDa) hills (varai) into a churning-staff (mattu) and Vasuki (the mythical serpent King) as cord (nAN), you stirred (kalakkinaiyE) the centre of the ocean (kaDal=ocean, vayiru=belly).  That hand (kai) which stirred (kalakkiya) is the same as (implied) the hand (kai) tied (kaTTuN) by Yashoda (yasodaiyAr) with the churning cord (kaDai=churning, kayiRu=cord). O Lotus-navelled one (malar=flower, kamala=lotus, undi=navel)! Is  this an illusion (mAyamo)? I am amazed (maruTkaittE)!

Raga Kamas
அறுபொருளிவனென்றே அமரர் கணம் தொழுதேத்த,
உறு பசி ஒன்றின்றியே, உலகடைய வுண்டனையே!
உண்ட வாய் களவினான் உறி வெண்ணெய் உண்ட வாய்,
வண்டுழாய் மாலையாய்! மாயமோ? மருட்கைத்தே!

Words Separated
‘அறு பொருள் இவன்’ என்றே, அமரர் கணம் தொழுது ஏத்த,
உறு பசி ஒன்று இன்றியே, உலகு அடைய உண்டனையே!
உண்ட வாய் களவினான் உறி வெண்ணெய் உண்ட வாய்,
வண்டுழாய் (alt?வண் துழாய்) மாலையாய்! மாயமோ? மருட்கைத்தே!

aRu poruL ivanenDRE amarar kaNam tozhudEtta
uRu pasiy onDRinDRIyE ulagaDaiya vuNDanaiyE
unDa vAy kaLavinAn uRi veNNai uNDavAy
vanDuzhAy mAlaiyAy mAyamO maruTkaittE

The immortals (amarar, gaNam=group) praise (Ettu) and worship (tozhudu) Him as the Absolute (aRu poRuL). You ate (uNDanaiyE) the whole (aDaiya) world (ulagu) without (anDRi) any (onDru=one) great (uRu) hunger (pasi).  That same mouth (vAy) which ate (unDa), is the mouth which ate the stolen (kaLavu) butter (veNNai) from the hanging pot (uRi)! With a nature/natural quality (mAlai) as such a one (vanDuzhAy), [alternate: O One who is garlanded (mAlai) with well-grown (vaN) Tulasi (tuzhAy)]! Is  this an illusion (mAyamo)? I am amazed (maruTkaittE)!

Raga Hindolam
திரண்டமரர் தொழுதேத்தும் திருமால் நின் செங்கமல
இரண்டடியான் மூவுலகும் இருள்தீர நடந்தனையே!
நடந்த அடி பஞ்சவர்க்குத் தூதாக நடந்த அடி,
மடங்கலாய் மாறட்டாய்! மாயமோ? மருட்கைத்தே!

Words Separated
திரண்டு அமரர் தொழுது ஏத்தும் திருமால்! நின் செங் கமல
இரண்டு அடியான் மூ-உலகும் இருள் தீர நடந்தனையே.
நடந்த அடி பஞ்சவர்க்குத் தூது ஆக நடந்த அடி,
மடங்கலாய் மாறு அட்டாய்! மாயமோ? மருட்கைத்தே!

tiraNdamarar tozhudEttum tirumAl nin senkamala
iraNDaDiyAn mUvulagum iruL tIra naDandanaiyE
naDanda aDi panchavarkkut-tUdAga naDanda aDi
maDangalAy mATRaTTAy mAymO maruTkaittE

O Lord Vishnu (tirumAl) who the immortals (amarar) gather (tiraNDu) and worship (tozhu)! To end (tIra) the darkness (iruL) in the three worlds (mU ulagu), you stepped (naDandanaiyE) with your two (iraNDu) red-lotus (senkamala) like feet (aDi). That same feet (aDi) which stepped (naDanda),  were the feet which stepped (naDanda ADi) as an ambassador/negotiator (tUdu) for the five Pandavas (panchavar). You as Narasimhan (maDangalAy) destroyed (verb அடு, attAy) your enemies (mARu). Is  this an illusion (mAyamo)? I am amazed (maruTkaittE)!

Raga Shanmukhapriya
மூவுலகும் ஈரடியான் முறை நிரம்பா வகைமுடியத்
தாவிய சேவடி சேப்பத், தம்பியொடுங் கான் போந்து,
சோவரணும் போர் மடியத் தொல்லிலங்கை கட்டழித்த
சேவகன் சீர் கேளாத செவியென்ன செவியே?
திருமால் சீர் கேளாத செவியென்ன செவியே?

Words Separated
மூ-உலகும் ஈர் அடியான் முறை நிரம்பாவகை முடியத்
தாவிய சேவடி சேப்ப, தம்பியொடும் கான் போந்து,
சோ அரணும் போர் மடிய தொல் இலங்கை கட்டு அழித்த
சேவகன் சீர் கேளாத செவி என்ன செவியே?
திருமால் சீர் கேளாத செவி என்ன செவியே?

mUvulagum IraDiyAn muRai nirambA vagai muDiyat-
tAviya sEvaDi sEppat-tambiyoDum kAn pOndu
sOvaraNum pOr maDiyat-tollilangai kaTTazhitta
sEvakan sIr kELAda seviyenna seviyE
tirumAl sIr kELAda seviyenna seviyE

He went (pOndu) to the forest (kAn) with his brother (tambiyoDum) reddening further (sEppa) his reddish feet (sEvaDi) which leapt (tAviya) all the three worlds (mU ulagum) fully (muDiya) in two steps (IraDi) such that (vagai) the number of times(muRai) is not fulfilled (nirambA) (In Vamana avatara, He has a boon of three steps, he stepped the three worlds in just two steps ). What kind of ear is one (sevi enna seviyE) which has not heard (kELAda) the fame/praise (sIr) of the attendant (sEvakan, here Hanuman) who destroyed (kaTTazhitta) the walls (sO) and fortress (araN) such that the inhabitants (implied) died (maDiya) in the war (pOr) in ancient (tol) Lanka (ilangai)? What kind of ear is one (sevi enna seviyE) which has not heard (kELAda) the fame/praise (sIr) of Lord Vishnu (tirumAl)?

Raga Paras
பெரியவனை, மாயவனைப், பேருலகமெல்லாம்
விரி கமல உந்தி உடை விண்ணவனை கண்ணும்,
திருவடியுங், கையும், திருவாயும், செய்ய
கரியவனைக் காணாத கண்ணென்ன கண்ணே?
கண்ணிமைத்துக் காண்பார்தம் கண்ணென்ன கண்ணே ?

Words Separated
பெரியவனை, மாயவனை பேர் உலகம் எல்லாம்
விரி கமல உந்தி உடை விண்ணவனை; கண்ணும்,
திருவடியும், கையும், திரு வாயும், செய்ய
கரியவனை; காணாத கண் என்ன கண்ணே?
கண் இமைத்துக் காண்பார் தம் கண் என்ன கண்ணே?

periyavanai mAyavanaip-pErulagamellAm
viri kamala undi uDai viNNavanai kaNNum
tiruvaDiyum kaiyum tiruvAyum seyya
kariyavanaik-kANAda kaNNenna kaNNE?
kaNNimattuk-kANpArtam kaNNena kaNNE?

The greatest one (periyavan)! The dark skinned one / the illusionist (mAyavan)! The celestial one (viNNavan) in whose navel (undi) like an open lotus (viri kamala) is contained (uDai) all (ellAm) the great (pEr) world (ulagam) !  What kind of an eye is an eye (kaN enna kaNNE) which has not seen (kANAda) the dark complexioned one (kariyavanai) with beautiful (seyya) eyes (kaNNum), feet (tiruvaDiyum), hands (kaiyum) and mouth (tiruvAyum)?  What kind of eye is an eye (kaN enna kaNNE) of those (tam) who blink and watch (kaN imaittu kANbAr)?

Raga Kapi
மடந்தாழும் நெஞ்சத்துக் கஞ்சனார் வஞ்சம்
கடந்தானை நூற்றுவர்பால் நாற்றிசையும் போற்றப் ,
படர்ந்தாரணம் முழங்க பஞ்சவர்க்கு தூது
நடந்தானை ஏத்தாத நாவென்ன நாவே?
நாராயணா என்னா நாவென்ன நாவே?

Words Separated
மடம் தாழும் நெஞ்சத்துக் கஞ்சனார் வஞ்சம்
கடந்தானை நூற்றுவர்பால் நாற்றிசையும் போற்ற,
படர்ந்து ஆரணம் முழங்க, பஞ்சவர்க்குத் தூது
நடந்தானை ஏத்தாத நா என்ன நாவே?
‘நாராயணா!’ என்னா நா என்ன நாவே?

maDantAzhum nenjattuk kanjanAr vanjam
kaDandAnai nUTRuvarpAl nATRisaiyum pOTRap
paDarndAraNmuzhanga panchavarkku tUdu
naDandAnai EttAda nAvenna nAvE?
nArAyanAvennA nAvenna nAve?


The one who overcame (kaDandAnai) the deceit (vanjam) of Kamsa (kanjanAr) with the ignorant (maDam) and deceitful/low (tAzhum) heart (nenjam)! Who is praised (pOTRa) by everyone (implied) in all four directions (nATRisai)! What kind of tongue is one (nAvenna nAvE) who does not praise (EttAda) the one who went (naDandAnai) as an ambassador (tUdu) for the Pandavas to the Kauravas (nUTruvarpAI) while the extensive (paDarnda) vEdas (AraNam) were chanted resoundingly (muzhanga)? What kind of tongue is one (nAvenna nAvE) which does not say Narayana (nArAyAvennA)?


Filed under Carnatic Music, Compositions in Tamil, Ilango Adigal, M.S.Subbulakshmi

25 responses to “Vadavaraiyai Mattakki

  1. Ramesh

    Wow Suja. This is a scholarly piece of work. To transliterate each verse, note the raaga, explain its meaning – this qualifies as a PhD thesis 🙂

    The only version of the song that is usually heard, and this is what you have featured, I think is from MS’s famous United Nations concert in 1966. She herself has rarely sung this again and very few other artistes seem to take it up as well. I have never heard it in a concert, and even the recordings are very few. Wonder why , for this is a beautiful song. Earlier I just used to listen to the song for the music, but now that you have explained the meaning as well, it has even more appeal. Even though I am a Tamil speaker, I can hardly understand ancient Tamil !!

    Completely second your views on Silappathikaram. There is more I find unacceptable in Silapathikaram than is praiseworthy. The problem with each of the classics is that they are set in a time and age and illustrate the values prevailing at that time. Set in a different time and context, they appear full of flaws. Even Ramayana and Mahabaratha suffer from the same problem – we have discussed this before.

    A gem of a post.

    • Thanks Ramesh, if only it were that easy to get a PhD 🙂 Truth be told, it was a rather difficult translation to do and took me many hours. But it was an intellectually interesting exercise, so I quite enjoy the effort. And like you, understanding the words intensified the listening pleasure for me too.

      You are right in saying that this is not sung often at all however there is a version by Unnikrishnan which is quite good; its on youtube. As you rightly say, many of our epics, myths, fables etc do not stand up well to the current way in thinking. I understand and do not expect it of them. Still, I blame some of them for manipulating the psyche of women to an extent that they accepted all kinds of unjust treatment as their due. It starts with Sita walking on fire to Kannagi’s submissive behaviour. And as to Kannagi burning hundreds of innocents in revenge for one innocent death? Why is this considered justice? Sigh! Media has always manipulated the minds of people….this is just another instance of it.
      Cheers. Suja

  2. Narasimha Raj

    “this is a beautiful song” – so says Ramesh.
    Suja, I fully agree with what Ramesh says. I go into ecstasy whenever I listen to her (which I do daily – be it her Suprabhatams or renderings of Annamacharya/Thyagaraja kritis, or Bhajans of Kabir or meera . . !)
    Suja, I am sure you have derived great satisfaction for the research & translation efforts you put in. Self-Satisfaction/Self-Appreciation is the ultimate recognition – far beyond the PhDs awarded (The ‘parchment’ does not assure continuance of efforts, but the person does – because of Self-Motivation!)
    Best Wishes.

    • Hello Raj, knowing what a fan you are of MSS, I was sure you would enjoy this post even as I was writing it 🙂 Thanks for your encouraging words,

  3. madam, your blog with sanskrit texts where needed are great. I have been a long time devotee of MS . As I do not have formal training in classical music, I welcome confirmation/ information about ragas. Good Work. You have another fan from this day!….

    • Thank you for your very nice comment 🙂 I too am merely a rasika, I have no training in music. I learn as I hear, as we all do. It’s an ocean, this music, is it not? And rasikas only wade in the shallow water! But please join me in my exploration of music, and perhaps we can all glean some knowledge. Cheers. Suja

  4. Balaji (Anand)


  5. Enjoying your blog. Thanks.

  6. K K Viswanathan

    Yes , I do cherish the lyrics and the grandeur of the poetry, the whole Tamil Epic of that immortal Ilano Adigal.

    The whole Tamil Nadu and the Three Empires are connected in the Epic .Initial stages Silapadigaram covers Chola Empire, then traverses through the Pandya Empire and Culminates in Chera Province where the Heroine or the Central Mystical Character merges into the Ultimate and Comes to be celebrated as a GODDESS.

    I have a few doubts on the great Epic and the Poet .
    1) What is the status of Kannagi in Chera Province (today’s Kerala) , ? Is Kannagi epitomised as a GODDESS and are there Templess today in Kerala?
    2) What is the context of this particular song which forms an integral Chapter of the EPIC ? How all of a sudden Lord Krishna forms the subject of praise in the whole song ??

  7. Kalyan Krishnan

    Excellent work, thanks for sharing!

    Regarding the male chauvinist thing, another way to look at it is that unlike western epics like Iliad Odyssey etc., which were all about men, this was really all about a woman and her Hero’s Journey overcoming the limitations of her very flawed man. Her own flaws, assuming everyone has some, were left unsaid to idealize her status as a goddess. I also find it interesting that in those days a lone woman, a widow even, was given audience in the king’s court, and got justice on the king himself. That is a lot more than we can say for later periods in our history!

    Glad I found your blog, enjoyed it!

    • Welcome to my blog, it’s always a pleasure to meet fellow music enthusiasts 🙂 Thank you for your kind comments and even more for your insight. You know, I was so blinded by the distaste I felt for the traditional woman’s role portrayed by the heroine that I was blinded to the redeeming features that you point out. Indeed all you say is correct and should be taken into account. Thank you for giving me an alternate viewpoint.
      Cheers. Suja

  8. Saraswati

    mAyamo maruTkaittE.. I never thought I’d come across this one ever. These verses I learnt from my music teacher almost 20 years back and had completely forgotten. Going through it again, understanding the bhaavam and listening to the MS version feels like an illusion.
    Thank you Suja for this wonderful blog..

    • Ah, the pleasure of rediscovering old loved songs 🙂 I can just see my amma singing this while pottering about the kitchen, her pottu haphazard as she wipes the sweat in the Delhi heat..if I went and stood at the kitchen door, she would beam a big smile at me. I too have such precious memories associated with this song…ah, I miss my amma and she has been gone for so many years!
      Cheers. Suja

  9. N Jayaraman

    Rare song deserves to be heard again and again.It was a famous song loved by my father

  10. komala

    Suja very nice. Do you have notation for this ragamalika?? Pl post it thanks

    Pl post it th

    • Komala, I apologise for not replying. I was in the midst of family crisis in September so not responding to anything. Sadly I don’t have the notation, but I’m sure you can find it in a book.

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