English Translations of Bhakti Poetry by Arundhati Subramaniam

Arundhathi Subramaniam (Translator)



Isn’t it funny

That though she’s Mother of the Universe,


we warble

about her lotus bud breasts

and her eyes more limpid than a doe’s?


And though she has no beginning or end

we hail her as the little girl born

to the Monarch of the Great Mountain?


Hilarious really

all the hyperbole


when she’s beyond it all —

description, explanation,





Their eyes deluged

In ecstasy


Their bodies stippled

With goose flesh


Their intellects stunned

Into imbecility


Like drunken bees,

Incoherent, words vaporizing


On their tongues —

Their madness testimony


To your worship, Great Mother,

Unrivalled by any other.


Translator’s Note: Abhirami Bhattar was a priest of the Thirukadaiyur temple, on the east coast of Tamil Nadu, and preeminent Tamil poet of the goddess Abhirami. He lived in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and his ferocious bhakti led many to consider him mad. The story goes that he irked the King Serfoji with his goddess-intoxicated proclamation that it was a full moon day (when it was actually a new moon). The king ordered that he be beheaded if the moon did not rise that night. Abhirami Bhattar lit a large fire and erected a platform over it, tied with ropes. He sat on the platform, spontaneously singing verses in praise of Goddess Abhirami. With each verse, he cut off one rope. On completing the 79th hymn, Abhirami appeared and threw her diamond earring skyward so that it shone like the moon. This was the legendary genesis of the Abhirami Antadi, an inspired collection of hundred hymns.

All the translations are from Eating God: A Book of Bhakti Poetry; edited by Arundhathi Subramaniam; Penguin India, 2016. Published with permission from the translator.