Puṇyakōṭi – The Song of the Cow

Puṇyakōṭi herself may have hesitated to say it, but it is very close to the truth that there is almost no Kannadiga who has not heard the refrain ಸತ್ಯವೇ ಭಗವಂತನೆಂಬ ಪುಣ್ಯಕೋಟಿಯ ಕಥೆಯಿದು (satyavē bhagavantanemba puṇyakōṭiya katheyidu). Even I, who grew up in a predominantly English environment and never studied Kannada in school (which is where most children come across it if they haven’t already), seem to remember listening to the refrain as a child – in the same lilt familiar to so many other millions of Kannada speakers.

On its surface, the story of Puṇyakōṭi is a moral story. It is also the way most people apprehend it. The song-narrative of the upright, ever-truthful cow has brought and continues to bring tears to countless eyes. Indeed, if one does not object to a little ‘back-to-the-future’, Puṇyakōṭi’s behaviour may easily be called Gandhian. (Raja Rao, the Kannada-speaking English novelist, tells of how he related Puṇyakōṭi’s story to Gandhiji himself and how pleased Gandhiji was to hear it.)

Today, it is very possible that a moral story like this one may seem, at best, rather quaint; at worst, saccharine and preachy. Cows are no longer woven into the fabric of people’s lives, there are few thickly-forested areas (like the ones in the story) and even fewer tigers, and ideas like the truth and honesty have turned into curiosities. And yet, the memory of a people (though they themselves may transform beyond recognition) is not easily erased. The past continues to impress itself on the present. If earlier it was the radio and school textbooks that propagated the song, it is now the internet and Youtube.

A word now about the song’s origin. While nothing definitive has been said, the song has been dated to the early 1800s (and is quite possibly of even earlier vintage). And while the unity of the song’s narrative points towards it being a single author’s work, it is only fitting that the author is unknown. Because, like every true folksong, the singer of the ಗೋವಿನ ಹಾಡು (The Song of the Cow) is not an individual but society itself.

Having provided this introduction, I would now like to present my (poetic) English translation of the poem. The version I have chosen to translate is the extremely popular sung version. While it is true that this version omits a number of verses originally recorded, it does so without ever doing violence to the ಭಾವ (~emotional context) of the original. Likewise, my translation is not always literal but is an attempt to convey the ಭಾವ of the song. Also, because the original itself uses a vocabulary and rhyme-scheme that are Old-Kannada, I have taken the liberty of using a vocabulary and a grammar of “inversion” that may seem redolent of English poetry of the Romantic period.

Since there is a readily available online version of the song, I am simply providing the link here. I think it best to read the translation as you listen to the song.

Puṇyakóṭi – The Song of the Cow

Let me tell you of the hows
Of Kāḷinga, the keeper-of-the-cows,
In the flourishing land of Karnāta here,
Right in the centre of this earthly sphere.

Beneath the tender mango trees,
He sat as he played on his flute at ease,
And happy strains went forth of sound
That cálled to the cattle gathered round:

Come Gangē, come, come Gowri, come
Come, mother-Tungabhadrē, come,
Come, Puṇyakōṭi, you come too
Was how he called out his halloo.

Harking to the cowherd’s call,
The cows they gathered one and all,
And then they overflowed their milk
Until his earthern pot was filled.

This is the story of Puṇyakōṭi,
Who said the truth was the only deity.

Within the mountains spread around
Was heard tiger arbhuta‘s sound,
As round and round the hills he prowled
While his stomach in a hunger growled.

In a fury fiercely roaring,
He went rumbling thundering soaring,
Down to where the cows all were,
And sent them scattering here and there.

A straying cow called Puṇyakōṭi,
Thinking fondly of her baby,
Was returning happy to her shed
To the calf she had to feed.

Aha! thought the tiger cruel
Here at last is today’s meal,
As he bounded up with wicked laugh
And blocked her way back to her calf.

This is the story of Puṇyakōṭi,
Who said the truth was the only deity.

I have no intent to play,
I’ll pounce upon you right away,
And then I’ll tear you side to side,
The tiger boomed in villainous pride.

Tiger, listen to this plea of mine,
I’ve left my kanda ’mongst the kine.
Let me feed him just once more
And then I’ll make my way back here.

Your capture’s like a gift to me,
And if I simply let you free,
You’ll slip away and never appear –
Don’t lie to me, roared the tiger.

The truth’s my father, and my mother’s the truth,
The truth’s my sister, and my brother’s the truth.
And if I do not keep my word,
I know that it will not please the lord.

This is the story of Puṇyakōṭi,
Who said the truth was her only deity.

I’ve come back, kanda, to our shed,
To see you once before I head
Back to the tiger to whom I’ve said
That I will give myself as food.

Whose teats shall I now suckle, ma,
Whose side shall I now sleep by, ma,
In whose care, ma, shall I now live,
Who will hug me when I grieve?

O mothers dear, O sisters dear,                                                                                    
We all came fróm the same mother.
So will you please, on my behalf,
Treat as your own this orphaned calf?

Do not butt him if he rears,
Do not kick him if he errs;
Make him your own on my behalf,
Fondly treat this orphaned calf.

This is the story of Puṇyakōṭi,
Who said the truth was her only deity.

You are an orphan now, my son,
The tiger’s claimed me for his own.
I will now go and clear our debt
She said as she hugged her kanda tight.

Then saying goodbye to her child,
Not even once looking behind,
She reached the entrance to the cave
And said to the tiger – urgent-brave.

Here take my flesh, here take my meat,
Here take this hot blood of my heart,
O mighty tiger, take all of this
And sate your hunger with relish.

Listening to these words of hers,
The tiger’s eyes filled up with tears.
O if I kill and eat a lass so good,
I know that it will not please the lord.

You’re like a sister born with me,
What will I gain by killing you?
So saying, with a heavy sigh,
Off the cliff he leapt to die.

This is the story of Puṇyakōṭi,
Who said the truth was the only deity.

Puṇyakóṭi, now filled with joy,
Frolicked home to feed her boy.
Then calling on her own cowherd
She stood in front of him and said:

Let all the cows within my clan
And all the cowherds from your clan
Come together every year
And chant our Krishṇa’s name in prayer.

For he is the store of all good things,
And the máster of our good feelings.

P.S: Here is another link that just misses having the whole song, but blends the song with a very charming animation.