Lesson 31: Avvaiyar – The Poet of the Masses

‘Avvai’ means a ‘respectable elderly woman’ in Tamil. Hence, the word ‘avvaiyar’ means a
‘respectable old woman’ and ‘grandmother.’ It is a title rather than the specific name of a woman.

Who was Avvaiyar?

We know that Avvaiyar was not just one woman. At least three women poets were called Avvaiyar
at various periods of Tamil history. They were some of the most famous and important female poets
in Tamil. They were older women, not married, and devoted their lives to god.

Let us look at the lives of two Avvaiyars.

The first Avvaiyar lived in the Sangam period, around the third century BCE (BCE means Before
Common Era; earlier, we used the term BC, which means Before Christ). She was respected by all,
even the mighty Tamil kings. She went from village to village, sharing the food of the poor farmers
and composing poems and songs for them.

The second Avvaiyar lived in the tenth century during the reign of the Chola dynasty. She was the
court poet of the Chola kings. Kings listened to her advice with respect and valued her wisdom.
She was known as a wise and noble woman and also as a saint. She is represented as an old woman
in a sari, supporting herself with a walking stick.

Avvaiyar is famous for her simple but powerful poetry. Her poems are full of
common sense and wisdom. They explain basic morals on how to live a good life.

Avvaiyar was revered by many villagers, who drew inspiration from her single-line poems and sayings.
She is counted among the most famous poets in the Tamil canon and is a torchbearer for women poets.

Here are three of Avvaiyar’s sayings:
‘The sum of your knowledge can be captured in the palm of a hand, whereas the things you do not
know comprise the size of the world.’
‘Give and you shall receive. You water the feet of the coconut tree and it gives you the sweet water of its fruit.’
‘The papaya has large leaves and has no scent. The malli (jasmine) has small petals but is fragrant. The sea
is large but you cannot drink the water. A spring is small but it serves all.’

Children learning the Tamil language are introduced to Avvaiyar’s poems at an early age. Even today,
grandmothers in Tamil Nadu pass down Avvaiyar’s wisdom and teachings orally.

A) Vocabulary
Make two sentences with each of the words given below.
Revere – feel deep respect for, admire
Canon – a list of well-known or sacred books
Torchbearer – a person who leads or inspires others to work towards a valued
goal, someone who holds a torch (light) and shows the way forward to others
Oral (here) – through the mouth, information passed down through the
generations through speech or song, and not through writing

B) Discussion Points
1. What are the stories that your parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles have told you?
2. Did you enjoy listening to these stories?
3. Do you still remember some of them?
4. Can you retell one of these stories in detail?
5. Did you memorise any poems recited to you by your elders?
6. Do you remember any sayings that were frequently mentioned by family members?

C) Sayings
Read the sayings given below. Can you give examples to show that you understand their
When you shoot an arrow of truth, dip its point in honey.
The early bird catches the worm.
What you don’t see with your eyes, don’t invent with your mouth.
The bitter heart eats its owner.
Don’t be afraid of being outnumbered. Eagles fly alone. Pigeons flock together.
He that gives should not remember, he that receives should not forget.
If you wish to move mountains tomorrow, you must start by lifting stones today.
Who is wise? He who learns from everyone.
Fear makes the wolf bigger than he is.
Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and he will eat forever.

Revised July 2020

Audio courtesy Tara Kriplani: