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 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 school textbooks and radio 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 with every true folksong, the singer of the ಗೋವಿನ ಹಾಡು (gōvina haaḍu: The Song of the Cow) is not an individual but society itself.
     What you’re about to read is a poetic English translation. The “version” I have chosen to translate is the extremely popular sung version. While it is true that this version omits a great number of verses – a redacted version released by the Kannada Sahitya Parishat offers 114 verses! – it does so without ever doing violence to the ಭಾವ (bhaava: ~ spirit) of the original. Likewise, my translation is not always literal but is an attempt to convey the bhaava of the song.
Also – since the original itself uses a vocabulary and rhyme-scheme that are medieval-Kannada, I have taken the liberty of using a vocabulary and a grammar of inversion that are redolent of English poetry of the Romantic period.

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

Punyakoti – The Song of the Cow

Let me tell you of the ways
Of Kaalinga the keeper-of-the-cows
In the flourishing land of Karnaata 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 called to the cattle gathered round

Come Gange come come Gowri come
Come mother-Tungabhadre come
Come Punyakoti you too come here
Was how he called out loud and clear

Listening 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 Punyakoti
Who said 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

The cow whose name was Punyakoti
Was thinking fondly of her baby
As she headed back happy to the shed
To the calf she had to feed

Aha! thought the tiger cruel
Here at last is today’s meal
And bounding up encircling
He blocked her way the tiger king

This is the story of Punyakoti
Who said Truth was the only deity

I’ll pounce upon you right away
My claws will dig into your belly
And then I’ll tear you side to side

The tiger bayed in villainous pride

Tiger listen to my little plea
My kanda’s home waiting for me
Let me feed him just once more
And then I’ll make my way back here.

If I let a gift like you go free
That’s come to me when I’m hungry
You’ll slip away and never appear
You lie to me roared the tiger

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

This is the story of Punyakoti
Who said Truth was the 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
By whose side shall I sleep now 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 from the same mother
I ask 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 Punyakoti,
Who said Truth was the 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
You 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
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
The tiger leapt off the cliff to die

This is the story of Punyakoti
Who said Truth was the only deity

Punyakoti, now filled with joy,
Frolicked home to feed her boy.
Then calling on her own cowherd
For the benefit of all declared

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

For he is the store of all good things
And the master of our good feelings

Note: Here is another link that just misses having the whole song, but blends the song with a very charming animation: www.youtube.com/watch?v=UOZmoWirK4

P.S: What I find astonishing is that an ~ 15-minute video of this song for children is the second-most watched Kannada-language video on YouTube with 225 MILLION views. (The first spot is held by a “superhit” song from a 2021 critically-panned movie.) If one takes into account the views its Tamil version and Telugu version have amassed, one reaches the figure of 500 MILLION or HALF A BILLION! Scarcely believable.

15 thoughts on “Puṇyakōṭi – The Song of the Cow

  1. Madhava, yes I call you as my nephew’s childhood buddy, with an extra ‘a’ . Primary school poem brought afresh memory, while I read through your translation. Good work.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ಅದ್ವಿತೀಯ ಶುಭಕಾಮನೆಗಳು
    ಇದೇ ಥರಾ ನಿನ್ನ ಎಲ್ಲಾ ಕೆಲಸಗಳು ಶುಭವಾಗಲಿ

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks madhav
    We knew you as a Genius in math!
    But this is truly unique. .. i always wondered how to narrate the story of punyakoti as i knew the song only
    But this gives me a good story for my son 🙂
    Thank you very much

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Very nicely translated. My daughter loves PUNYAKOTI SONG.
    And her friends too.
    Due to language problem found difficult to make them understand.
    I can share this translation with them.
    Thanks Madhav.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It’s pretty difficult to translate this one. ನೀವು ಮೂಲಕ್ಕೆ ಚ್ಯುತಿಯಾಗದಂತೆ ಭಾವಾಂತರಿಸಿದ್ದೀರಿ. Good one.

    Liked by 1 person

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