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Amazing Collection of 20,000 Tamil Proverbs

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(Tamil version of the post is also available in the blog)

Tamil is one of the richest languages in the world. It has a collection of more than 20,000 proverbs. This collection is an Encyclopaedia of Tamil Wisdom. Tamil proverbs touch all the subjects under the sun. A proverb has been defined as the “wisdom of many and the wit of one”. Tamil word for proverb is Pazamozi, the meaning of which is an old saying.

Tamil people take great delight in quoting them. Women are more familiar with the proverbs. There won’t be any conversation or discussion without a proverb being quoted. Villagers use more proverbs than city dwellers. Illiterates and neo literates use more proverbs than educated Tamils.
Three English people showed great interest in collecting them. They collected Tamil proverbs and published them with English translations 125 years ago. Their collection exceeded 19,000 proverbs. Still there are thousands of proverbs which did not find a place in the collection. Reverend P. Percival published his first collection with less than 2000 proverbs in 1842. When he brought out his third edition in 1877 he had 6156 proverbs. Later John Lazarus published another collection with 9415 proverbs in 1894. The last collection by a foreigner Rev. Herman Jensen came out in 1897. It contained another 1897 proverbs. There may be some repetitions or some new versions of the same proverbs.

But no one should think only foreigners did the pioneering work in this area. Ancient Tamil literature has many proverbs used in their verses. There is one book called Pazamozi, a collection of 400 verses. Each verse ends with a proverb. This was composed by Mundruraiyanar 1500 years ago. A devotional poet Appar alias Thirunavukkrasu used proverbs even in his devotional poems. This is very unique.

No culture has given so much importance to proverbs like the Tamils. This kind of literature indicates the great antiquity and poetic nature of Tamil people, says Lazarus in his introduction. He adds that the Tamil proverbs are in iambic tetrameter, with a rhyme in the first and third feet E.g. Agattin azagu Mugaththil theriyum; meaning Face is the Index of the mind.
Not all the proverbs are in grammatical language, some are colloquial. Tamil proverbs deal with various subjects. There is a great variety. They deal with god, religion, food, manners, customs, dress, morality, hygiene, animals, plants, inanimate objects, numbers, castes, medicines, mythology, superstitions and science. Name anything, you may find a fewproverbs or may be a hundred on the topic. Nothing worthy of note seems to have escaped the insight or scrutiny of the Tamil observer.

100 Proverbs on Elephant

Tamils are very keen observers of nature. They use most of the animals in proverbs. Over 100 proverbs are there on elephant alone! Even the great may slip (yanaikkum kuta adi sarukkum), A time for everything ( Yanaikku oru Kalam vanthal ,Punaikku oru Kalam varum), Seeking one’s own ruin (Yanai than thalayileye mannaip pottukkollum) and many more.

A great many proverbs are flashes of wit or sarcasm. Indecent haste is ridiculed by the following: Undressing oneself when the river is still ten miles off! One who is extreme in his approach is called a barber who either shaves the head clean or leaves the tuft( Vaithal kudumi, siraithal mottai). Women are either praised for their wisdom or criticized for their shortcomings: a woman can make or mar a person; A house without a wife is a burning ground; a wife is the ornament /lamp of the house; don’t confide your secrets to any woman; never listen to your wife’s counsel. Wife- Mother in Law clash also figure in proverbs: What the mother in law breaks is an earthen vessel, what the daughter in law breaks is a golden vessel.

The ancient Tamils had a genuine admiration for truth and justice, honesty and humility, love and mercy and hated every form of vice and hypocrisy. This is reflected very well in many of the proverbs.

Lazarus says in his introduction to Tamil Proverbs, “Proverbs have a mission of their own. It teaches all the good things in life in pithy words. Four or five words will give the effect of listening to a long sermon. It makes a good impact on everyone.

Proverbs are inexhaustible source for researchers. One can write a lengthy article on each and every proverb. Some proverbs have both positive and negative meanings. It can be interpreted both ways. Many of the proverbs have lost their original meanings. Some are not all understood nowadays.

Some familiar proverbs are given below:

Where there is love, even the impossible becomes possible
The meek shall rule the earth
Waste not even a moment
Though it be a medicine, share it with a guest
The tears of the poor are like a sharp edged sword
Rather die than lose your honour
Though the rain has stopped, the drizzle has not
Desire has no limit
No pains no gains

dear swaminathan !
thanks for the information.
some more proverbs
yanai varum piney maniosai varum muney -bell rings before the arrival of the elephant
venkala kadail yanai pukunthr pola -like elephant entered the vessel shop
yanaikku komanam katta mudiyuma ?-can we provide komanam to the elephant
pulyapathu poonai soodu pottukonthatu pola- like cat burned its skin to resemble the tiger
oodamum oru nal vandiyil yerum-even the boat will travel in a cart
ezhuthiyavan yettai ketuththan padiyavan pattai keduthan-the writter spoiled paper & the singer spoiled the song
yettu sorakkai karikku uthavathu-the vegitable in writting will not be useful for dishes
nayee vala nimutha mudyathu-we can not straighten the tail of dog
attukku vallai andavan allathuthan vaithullan-god has given the measured tail for the goat
uyara uyara parinthalum oor kuruvi parinthu akakthu-even when the sparrow fly high it can not become eagle
if you want it can continue
with regards,
Good selection! In fact, when I get time I want to classify proverbs subject wise and write some research papers. If I have a secretary I will keep on dictating article after article. I need a Ganesh like Vyasa who made him to write Mahabharata non stop!
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