One day the scholar/poet A.K. Ramanujan was sifting through stacks of uncatalogued books in University of Chicago’s library. He stumbled upon an anthology of around 400 classical Tamil poems that deal with love and separation, the Kuruntokai. The Kuruntokai itself is a part of a larger work, the Ettutokai, which consists of 2,371 poems by around 470 poets writing between 200 B.C.E. and 200 C.E.

Now, it’s not that Ramanujan rediscovered some lost literary masterpiece that day (these poems were well known, elsewhere if not in English), but it did lead him to begin translating the poems himself, publishing them in various journals around the United States in the 1960s. Eventually he collected some of the poems and published them together as The Interior Landscape: Classical Tamil Love Poetry (1967). Consequently, for many of us in English, Ramanujan is our guide, taking us on to our own discoveries of this wonderful place.

Review copy courtesy of NYRB Poets.

Review copy courtesy of NYRB Poets.

This slim book of poetry is unique and remarkable: the 76 poems included were written nearly two thousand years ago, over the course of a few centuries, by 55 poets, both male and female. More remarkably, the poems talk to each other. In other words, these various poets would take the then-familiar characters and add their own poems to the mix, further developing the characters, the story, and the themes over the generations.

The book begins with a dramatis personae, which includes six characters: He, She, Her Friend, Her Foster-Mother, Passers-by, and Concubine. Already, as simple as that list is, we see the potential for tragedy.

The series of poems begins with She talking about her love for He:

What She Said

The still drone of the time
past midnight.
All words put out,
men are sunk into the sweetness
of sleep. Even the far-flung world
has put aside its rages
for sleep.

                       Only I
am awake.

It could be a glimpse at the innocent beginnings of love. For me, it’s peaceful, though love is keeping her awake when all others have entered “the sweetness of sleep.” Of course, love can keep us up at night for various reasons, and many of them are explored in this series of poems.

One thing that keeps She awake at night in the early poems is her separation from He. Off to find his fortune, He’s absent, and She has no idea when — or even if — he will ever return.

What She Said

My lover capable of terrible lies
at night lay close to me
in a dream
that lied like truth.

I woke up, still deceived,
and caressed the bed
thinking it my lover.

It’s terrible. I grow lean
in loneliness,
like a water lily
gnawed by a beetle.

She has a friend. At first, I thought this friend was also chasing after He. The friend, after all, sometimes refers to him as “our” lover. And maybe that’s what that poet had in mind. Another poet, though, suggests this friend is experiencing deep grief for She, a wonderful kind of love that is also explored here.

What Her Girlfriend Said to Him

You say that the wasteland
you have to pass through
is absence itself:
wide spaces where sometimes
salt merchants have gathered for a while
and gone, omai trees that stand
like ghost towns once busy with living.

But tell me really,
do you think that home will be sweet
for the ones you leave behind?

There is a lot going on in these seemingly simple poems. We get the passersby, those who think She has been possessed because they do not know about her sometimes debilitating love for He. There’s jealousy and betrayal, marriage and wandering.

Another aspect that I loved was the heavy reliance on nature, that external landscape, to explore the interior landscape. Most of the poems contain some metaphor whose central feature is a tree, a fruit, a handful of grass, rain. It keeps the lofty dreams grounded in their surroundings, which can be luscious or harsh, like love.

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By |2014-01-14T18:56:43-04:00January 14th, 2014|Categories: A.K. Ramanujan|10 Comments


  1. avataram January 15, 2014 at 12:02 am

    Ramanujan wrote many essays on Tamil Poetry. While I can read Tamil, the 2000 year old poetry is in archaic tamil that I can barely understand – like classical greek or latin. So, for most of us, not studying tamil at University level, the Ramanujan translations are the only way to approach these poems.

    I am yet to get hold of this book – I have an old translation by Ramanujan where he extensively annotated each poem. The basic division in the poems is Akam (inside) – poems of love and Puram (outside)– Poems of War. There is a wonderful poem, where thoughts of a tired warrior move from the battlefield (that is Purapuram -outside of the outside) to the body of the beloved (Akamakam – the inside of the inside).

    Ramanujan also talked of how temple architecture in Tamil Nadu is similar to the structure of these poems. Outside the temple, there is a Gopuram – a monumental tower, decorated usually with scenes from a battlefield (puram). As you go inside, the size of the gopurams begins shrinking, until finally, you are in the Garbagriha (literally, the womb), the akamakam, where the idol of the god is placed. The temple in Srirangam in TN is a good example of such architecture.

    The act of walking into the temple is an act of shedding all your Puram emotions – war, anger, and the act of going to the garbagriha is an act of love – also called bhakti towards the God.

    The temple architecture is the same even today in Tamil Nadu, but the philosophy behind it, the same as the one behind the 2000 year old poems – has probably been forgotten. It takes AK Ramanujan to remind us of how everything – poetry, architecture, politics, nature was all intimately linked.

  2. Betsy January 15, 2014 at 8:11 am

    Trevor and avataram – Many thanks to both of you (and the NYRB!) for this wonderful introduction to Ramanujan and ancient Tamil poetry. All new to me and very interesting.

  3. Elizabeth Thomas January 15, 2014 at 8:29 am

    Great review and fascinating comments, especially about the act of walking into the temple.

  4. Trevor January 15, 2014 at 2:48 pm

    Yes, thanks so much for the enlightenment, avataram. Betsy, I definitely think you’d enjoy this collection. And thanks for commenting, Beth! We don’t talk as much as we used to!

  5. avataram January 27, 2014 at 5:16 pm

    Just cross posting a link to a very good recent essay published by Nakul Krishna from Balliol College, Oxford giving some historical perspective on the first publication of The Interior Landscape by AKR in 1967, as well as recent comments by tamil scholars on these translations

  6. Trevor January 27, 2014 at 5:23 pm

    Great! Thanks for the link, avataram.

  7. […] The Interior Landscape: Classical Tamil Love Poems by A. K. Ramanujan (NYRB Poets) […]

  8. K.Nallatambi August 10, 2015 at 9:44 am

    i need a copy

  9. Trevor Berrett August 10, 2015 at 11:50 am

    You can order a copy on the NYRB website here.

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    […] A.K. Ramanujan: The Interior Landscape: Classical Tamil Love Poems […]

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