Lesson 33 – Avvaiyar – The Poet of the Masses (Level 1+)

‘Avvai’ literally means a ‘respectable elderly woman.’ But who was Avvaiyar? Avvaiyar is not just one person. There have been at least three Avvaiyars at various periods of Tamil history.  The earliest Avvaiyar is believed to have lived in the 3rd century BCE. The second Avvaiyar lived in the tenth century. The last Avvaiyar was a court poet in the Chola dynasty.

Avvaiyar found great happiness in the lives of small children. Her works, written for young children, are read and enjoyed by children even today.

Avvaiyar was revered by many villagers, who drew wisdom 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.

Her poems are full of common sense. Kings valued her wisdom and wanted her to stay in their courts, but she refused to be tied down.  Her honesty and virtue gave her the courage to talk to kings on equal terms and to correct them when they were wrong.

Here are a couple of her 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.”

Even today, grandmothers pass Avvaiyar’s wisdom down the generations orally.

Please make 2 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 in working towards a valued goal
Oral (here) – information passed down through the generations by speech or song.


  1. What are the stories that your parents/ grandparents/ aunts and uncles 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?

Can you give an example for each of these sayings to show that you understand their meaning:

Haste makes waste
Honesty is the best policy
Fortune favours the bold
Better late than never
The early bird catches the worm