“Kamba Sutram” is phrase associated with Kambar that is used by the Tamil people in their day to day speech even today. “Kamba Sutram” means Kambar’s formula. When we trace the roots of the phrase, it was actually, “Kamba Chithiram” meaning Kamban’s Art. But due to the usage it got transformed over time as “Kamba Sutram”. The phrase is used when referring to a context that is either difficult to do or even impossible. The phrase has an interesting legend behind it. Lets see what it is.

The then Chola King (Kulothunga Cholan), on hearing about the great epic Ramayana written by Valmiki, was interested in such a great epic being written in Tamil. So he engaged two contemporary poets – Kambar and Ottakoothar – to imbibe the crux and characterisation of what Ramayana is and produce such an epic in Tamil. The King also provided them with funds and facilities to have the epic written. Ottakoothar started off with the work and he put in efforts to produce the epic in Tamil and present it to the world before Kambar does. Kambar being a playful chap, whiled away the time spending all the funds he had, but the biggest gift he had in his life was the grace of Goddess Saraswathi – Goddess of Knowledge. Ottakoothar knew that Kambar did not do any work but he kept quiet and continued with his work. One fine day, the King called up the poets to see the each one’s progress in getting the epic completed. Ottakoothar did his work and was ready to produce the work, but Kambar did not write even a bit, but he daringly appeared before the King praying and believing that his Goddess Saraswathi will never let him down.

The King asked both of them to explain as to what extent each one has progress and sing a sample from their work. Ottakoothar narrated the story. He said that “Ravana has kidnapped Seetha, and Lord Rama is on his way to recover Seetha and the Vaanarams (Ape army) are helping Rama in his mission. They are going to Srilanka but the sea that has to crossed is the obstacle. In order to overcome the obstacle, it was planned to build a bridge by throwing rocks in the sea”. Ottakoothar finished saying that he has completed up to the point where the Vaanaram’s are going to throw the rocks into the sea. And he sang a few lines from his work. He was applauded.

Kambar knew nothing about Ramayana until then, got the story line now. When it was his turn, the King asked Kambar’s status. Kambar witty and smart enough, told that he has completed up to point where the Vaanarams are now throwing rocks into the sea and building the bridge. Note the point that Ottakoothar gave the lead that the Vaanarams are going to build the bridge but not yet started building and Kambar got that lead and used it cleverly saying that now the Vaanarams are building the bridge. The King asked to sing a few lines from his work. This is where the grace of Goddess Saraswathi that has been bestowed on Kambar is proved. He instantaneously sang the following

“Thumidham Theriththu Mael Logam Sella
Amirdham yena Devargal Vaai Pilandhanarae”

meaning, the drop that splashed when the rocks were thrown into the sea, rose up to the heavens and the Devar’s (heavenly people (angels) including Indran etc) were awe struck with their mouths wide open, making them wonder if the water drop that splashed was Amirdham (the magical potion that keeps them young and rejuvenating). The interlingual rendition,

Thumidham – Water drop
Theriththu – Splash
Mael Logam – heavens
Sella – going
Amirdham – rejuvenating potion
Devar – Heavenly people
Vaai – Mouth
Pilandhanarae – Opening the mouth

Just see the presentation of Kambar, he actually bring the see in front of our eyes as if he drew an art out of words.

Well getting back to the legend, now the word Thumidham became the controversial word. Ottakoothar said that Kambar has used the word, Thumidham, that is outdated and out of use. But the fact is that the word is still used in a transformed form, called Thoodham (meaning water) – mostly used by Brahmins. If asked what the roots of the word Thoodham is, most say that it is Theertham which also means water but in a holy context. But actually Thoodham is the transformation of Thumidham.

Kambar argued that he can prove that the word is being used at that time. Ottakoothar asked for the proof and he took him to a village saying that he heard people using it there. But actually it was not. On the way he prayed within his mind to Goddess Saraswathi and pleaded her for help. And his prayers were answered. At one place, a woman was churning milk to take butter, and children were playing near the pot which she used to churn. The woman said


“Kulandhaigalae, thalli poi vilaiyaadungal, Thumidham therikka pogiradhu”.

meaning, “Kids please go a little away from the pot and play, or else the drops (Thumidham), would splash on you”

And that was Kambar’s proof. Actually the woman was Goddess Saraswathi incarnate. Ottakoothar understood that it was Goddess Saraswathi who was partial to Kambar got angry, threw his half completed work into the sea, which Kambar used and completed”.

What history says is that Ottakoothar, accepted defeat before Kambar considering his work is nothing before Kambar’s work and threw his work in fire, but Kambar was able to rescue two sections (called Gaandams) and added it to the four Gaandams he wrote. However the name Kamba Ramayanam stayed for the epic in Tamil

There is even another legend that says that Kambar playfully whiled away the time and when the King ordered that the epic should be completed by the next day. He prayed to Lord Ganesha who wrote so fast as Kambar sang the song and completed all the verses overnight.

Whatever be the legend, but the work that Kambar has produced transcends time and makes him immortal. Not only that the phrase “Kamba Chitiram” – Kambar’s Art and “Kamba Sutram” – Kambar’s Formula are both appropriate. And no other poet has presented such a work where the characters of the epic and the situations are brought live as an ART just by the words used. The FORMULA that Kambar used to an epic with lively ART has earned the rightful name “Kavi Chakravarthi” (Emperor of Poets).

More to come, until then…