Thembavani (Tēmpāvaṇi)(தேம்பாவணி in Tamil) (A Garland of Unfading Honey-Sweet Verses), one of the Tamil classics, a poetical work of Veeramamunivar (Costanzo Beschi), on the life of St.Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus Christ. This Tamil Divine Comedy is divided into thirty-six cantos, containing 3,615 stanzas. "It is," says Baumgartner, "the noblest epic poem in honour of St. Joseph written in any literature, East or West". It begins with the birth of Joseph (வளன், சூசை) and ends with his "coronation" by the Triune God in heavenly glory.
A staunch ascetic called Valan (Joseph) gets married to a resolute virgin called Mary. To them ‘a child is born’, to them ‘a son is given’, through Divine intervention. How that holy family plays its role in the Divine Drama – or if we may call it Tiruviḷaiyāṭal (Divine Play) as Tamils would call it, or La Divina Commedia as Dante would have it or Divine Providence as the Catholic Church would like to proclaim it ‒ is the burden of the epic.
Thembavani has more than 100 references to events and teachings in the Bible. Thoroughly immersed in Tamil literature and culture, Beschi integrates several literary devices successfully employed by classics such as Kamba Ramayanam (கம்ப இராமாயணம்) and Manimekalai (மணிமேகலை). This is particularly evident in his description of a landscape, mountain, sea, desert and fertile land, and other epic features of major Tamil epics.
Beschi occupies a special place in Tamil literature. In fact, the fifth world Tamil Congress held at Madurai in January 1981 acknowledged it by erecting his statue in the city of Madras along with others who have made similar contributions. Beschi composed three Tamil grammars and three dictionaries, Tamil-Latin, Tamil-Portuguese and Tamil-Tamil. His magnum opus, the Thembavani is considered by experts to this day as one of the best Tamil works ever written.
Costanzo Giuseppe Beschi was born in the town of Castiglione Delle Stiviere in the district of Mantua, in Italy, on November 8, 1680. He finished his secondary education at the Jesuit School in Montero where the three subjects of rhetoric, humanities and grammar were taught. Desiring to become a priest, he joined the Society of Jesus in 1698 and studied philosophy for three years from 1701–1703 in Bologna, and theology for four years from 1706–1710. He was ordained priest in 1709. His studies included not only philosophy and religion but also the learning of languages like Latin, French, Portuguese, Greek, and Hebrew. On hearing about the work done in India by the Jesuits returning to Italy from India, Beschi was eager to come to India. He was sent by his superiors to India in 1710 and landed in Goa and then came to join the Madurai Province of the Jesuits. Though he was given priestly duties in plenty which involved a lot of travelling, he passionately followed his desire to master the local language, literature and culture. He studied Sanskrit, Tamil as well as Telugu from pundits. He gained mastery in Tamil and because of his boldness in defending the correctness of his convictions, he was fondly called by people as Dhairiyanathar (The Fearless Guru). His magnum opus Thembavani was presented for ratification as a classic in the Academy of Poets and received their approval and the poet was given the title Veeramanunivar (The Courageous Ascetic)
A tablet was installed in his native place Castiglione Delle Stiviere in 1980 to mark the 300th birth anniversary of Beschi. In it, it is mentioned that Beschi is called the Dante of the Tamil language.
Beschi composed the epic keeping Joseph (Valan) as the hero and Mary as the heroine and wove into it several characters and episodes appropriate to the unravelling on the story of Joseph, Mary and their God-son. The epic consists of 3,615 rhymed quatrains in Tamil with 90 variations, and it has been translated by M. Dominic Raj into English in unrhymed quatrains of free verse following the ‘Sprung Rhythm’ style of Hopkins. It consists of 3 Parts with 12 sections in each. There are 356 episodes that relate to births, deaths, journeys, wars, celebrations, happenings in the Netherworld, Hell, Heaven, etc. It contains philosophical and theological discussions on the nature of God, idolatry, rebirth, Fate, virtue, asceticism, etc. It has an abundance of historical, biblical and fictional characters like Moses, Joshua, Gideon, Joseph of Old Testament, Samson, David and Goliath, Nebuchadnezzar, Tobit and Tobias, John the Baptist, Herod, Kunnan, Navakan, Surami, etc. Its actions take place in several places like Bethlehem, Judea, Nazareth, Egypt, Heliopolis[disambiguation needed], Gaza, Jericho, Sinai, Beersheba, etc. Kings from the Holy Roman Empire (England, Ireland, Spain, Gaul, Prussia, Norway, Lusitania, Genoa, Etruria, Parthia, Cyprus, Paeonia) come to Vienna at the invitation of Leopold I to install the statue of the hero of the epic (Joseph). Thus ends the epic. Thembavani is regarded by Prof. Alexander Beecroft of the University of South Carolina as one of the seven World Classics that are yet to be translated into English from their native languages. He places Thembavani as the third in the list.
The Thembavani was divided into three parts and twelve sub sections.
M. Dominic Raj was born on January 6, 1942, at Tiruchirapalli in Tamil Nadu. He completed his schooling at Campion High School in 1958 and his PUC in 1960 at St. Joseph's College, Tiruchirapalli (both run by Jesuits). He completed a three-year course in philosophy in Latin medium at Salesian College, Yercaud when he was with the Salesians of Don Bosco for a few years. After working for five years as a school teacher, he resigned his job and joined M.A (English) course at St. Joseph's College, Tiruchi, and passed it securing the 3rd rank in the undivided University of Madras in 1972. He learnt his English from Fr. Hession S.J. while in school and from Fr. T. N. Sequeira, Fr. Lawrence Sundaram, (Jesuits) and professors P. Marudanayagam, A. Joseph, M.S. Nagarajan and others. He learnt the audacity to criticize even the canons of Philip Sidney, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Arnold and others from Prof. S. Ramasamy, who was engaged by the college to take classes after his retirement from service as Head, Dept. of English, Presidency College. In 1975, he left St. Joseph's College and joined VHNSN College, Virudhunagar as Asst. Prof. of English. In 1981, he completed the Post Graduate Diploma in the Teaching of English course conducted by the Central Institute of English and Foreign Languages, Hyderabad. He obtained his PhD degree in1989 from Madurai Kamaraj University after research on the topic ‘Indian Contribution to English Literary Criticism’ under the able guidance of Prof. P. Marudanayagam. He retired as Reader and Head of the Department of English, VHNSN College, in the year 2000. His interest in Tamil Classical Literature came about when he worked as Chief Resource Person, Department of Translation, Central Institute of Classical Tamil, Chennai (from 2009 to 2013). He had to edit the English translations of Classical Tamil Texts (some in verse and some in prose) carried out by some of the highly reputed translators at that time A.K. Ramanujan, Prema Nandakumar, Alain Danielou, J.V. Chellaiah, Nalladi R. Balakrishna Mudaliar, P.N. Appusamy, K.G. Seshadri and several more. After leaving the Institute, thinking of contributing something to Tamil literature, he thought of translating Thembavani which was much talked about but about which no worthwhile scholarly work had been done. In fact, the text itself was not easily available, much less the facts about Beschi's life and his works. It is hoped that through this translation Thembavani will no longer be discarded by the very people for whom it was written and that it will spur the younger generation to engage itself in serious academic work, and that all who read it will enjoy the extraordinary poetic genius of Veeramamunivar and the sweetness of his poetic diction.
Now that we have an English translation of Thembavani, and that too in verse, it will be interesting to compare this with the earlier translations in English of select verses by scholars and others.
Francis Whyte Ellis (1777-1819), a British Civil Servant, who was Senior member of the Madras College Board, contributed immensely to the spreading of Tamil writings. Luckily, Prof. P. Marudanayagam, in his Introduction, has given us Ellis’ translation of some verses of Thembavani. Elijah Hoole (1798–1872) was an English orientalist and Wesleyan Methodist missionary. Elijah Hoole, a who himself translated parts of the Bible into Tamil, offers a glimpse into Thembavani, with some selections from the description of Jerusalem in the second canto:
“There were swarms of contending crocodiles, showing teeth sharp as a sword, and curved like the fair new moon, opening their fleshy mouths, and flashing fire from their eyes, as though the moat had formerly been deepened to hell, and the demons lying there had assumed and wandered about in a terrifying form.”
PART I, Section IV, verses 35, 36 and 41
நாடொறும் கனிந்த செந்தேன் நற்கனி அளித்தல் நன்றோ கோடுறு மரமும் தன்னைக் கொடுத்தலே நன்றோ இவ்வாறு ஈடுறும் உளனும் உள்ளு மீதில் செய் துறவே யென்பார் வீடுறு நூலோர் என்ன விளம்பினான் இளவல் மாதோ.
“Is it preferable to present daily the honey-dripping fruits, or to offer at once the tree with all its branches?” for, said the youth, the learned say that for the devotee to offer himself and all that he possesseth is perfect devotion.” (F.W. Ellis)
(sandhi-separated Tamil text) "நாள் தொறும் கனிந்த செந்தேன் நல் கனி அளித்தல் நன்றோ? கோடு உறு மரமும் தன்னைக் கொடுத்தலே நன்றோ? இவ்வாறு, ஈடு உறும் உளதும் உள்ளும் ஈதல் செய் துறவே என்பார் வீடு உறு நூலோர்," என்ன விளம்பினான் இளவல் மாதோ.
“Is it better for a tree to yield daily only mature red-honeyed fruits, Or to offer itself with a surfeit of branches? Similarly, it is a greater deed To give all that we have as also our heart, and that constitutes penance According to the doctors writing about celestial matters,” insisted the lad. (M. Dominic Raj)
காயொடு மரந்தத் தாற்போல் கடித்துற வருமை வெஃகி வேயொடு நெருங்குங் கானில் விழைந்து தான் ஒழுகல் நன்றோ தீயொடு குழைமற் றோரும் செவ்வுறச் செலுத்தல் நன்றோ தூயுடு உணர்வோ யென்னச் சொற்றினான் குரவன் அம்மா.
“O thou who art possessed of pure knowledge,” said the old man, “is it preferable that a man, offering as it were, the tree with all its fruits, should dwell alone in the wilderness, cloaked with bambus, and attached only to the practice of austere penance, or that he should conduct others involved in sin, in the right path?” (F.W. Ellis).
(sandhi-separated Tamil text) "காயொடு மரம் தந்தாற் போல் கடித் துறவு அருமை வெஃகி, வேயொடு நெருங்கும் கானில் விழைந்து தான் ஒழுகல் நன்றோ? தீயொடு குழை மற்றோரும் செவ்வு உறச் செல்லுதல் நன்றோ, தூய் உடு உணர்வோய்?" என்னச் சொற்றினான் குரவன் அம்மா.
“Is it better to desire as valuable the difficult penance similar to giving up the fruits Along with the tree and follow it selfishly with a craving in a forest packed with bamboo And other trees? Or to show the way of following the righteous path to others troubled By evil? O you with a heart as pure as a star!” So said the venerable one. (M. Dominic Raj)
பாற்கலந் திட்ட தெண்ணீர் பால்குன்றும் பண்பு மில்லால் மேற்கலந் தொளிர்ந்த வெய்யோன் வெயிலுமுன் னெரித்த தீயம் போற்கலந் திசைத்த மற்றம் புண்ணியந் துறவு வாய்ந்த சாற்கலந் தியல்பை யேற்றும் தகுதியே வென்றான் பாலன்.
Like milk mixed with water, which by diluting it decreases its natural properties, or like a lamp burning before the beams of the bright rayed sun shining on High,” said the youth, “are all other virtues, which in truth are only sound, and can these, therefore, add anything to the high eminence acquired by devotion? The sage of lucid intellect tenderly embracing the youth said, “ As the stars surround the moon, may not benevolence, knowledge, affection, constancy, forbearance, liberality and other unillusive virtues adorn devotion though it is practised in a country abounding in every species of wealth. (F.W. Ellis)
(sandhi-separated Tamil text) "பால் கலந்திட்ட தெள் நீர் பால் குன்றும்; பண்பும் இல் ஆல். மேல் கலந்து ஒளிர்ந்த வெய்யோன் வெயிலுமுன் எரிந்த தீபம் போல், கலந்து இசைத்த மற்றப் புண்ணியம், துறவு வாய்ந்த சால் கலந்து, இயல்பை ஏற்றும் தகுதியோ?" என்றான் பாலன்.
If clear water is mixed with milk, milk will lose its essence and water also will lose its clarity; It will be like a lamp burning in front of the light spread across the sky by the sun, If the virtues of domestic life are added and mixed with the superb ones of asceticism.; Has the former got the capacity to enhance the nature of the latter?” Asked the lad. (M. Dominic Raj)
It can be seen that the translation of M. Dominic Raj has a slight edge over that of Ellis. Note: Now the book is available for download in Amazon Kindle Unlimited.