அகம்  – Akam Poetic Conventions

Sangam poetry is highly conventionalized.  It is best to understand the thinais and the concepts of muthal, karu, uri and ullurai to enjoy them best.  Tholkāppiyam (தொல்காப்பியம் ),  Kalaviyal endra Iraiyanār Akapporul (களவியல் என்ற இறையனார் அகப்பொருள் ), and Nampi’s Akapporul Vilakkam  (நம்பியின் அகப்பொருள் விளக்கம்), Kalaviyal Kārikai (களவியல் காரிகை), and Tamil Neri Vilakkam (தமிழ் நெறி விளக்கம்) are books that deal with Akam conventions.

Some scholars believe that parts of Tholkappiyam dealing with Akam (4th – 5th centuries A.D), Kalaviyal endra Iraiyanār Akapporul (4th – 5th centuries A.D.) , and Nampi’s Akapporul Vilakkam (13th century A.D.) were all written many centuries after the Sangam poems.  These akam conventions are much older than the poems themselves,  coming from an ancient oral bardic tradition.  The authors of the three books mention quote ancient Tamil scholars (“they said so”, “என்ப”) from oral tradition times.

Kalaviyal endra Iraiyanār Akapporul is the  first book on Akam thinais according to Kamil Zvelebil, and it was written  even before Tholkāppiyam Porulathikāram section which also dealt with Akam conventions, among the many other topics.

Scholars differ on the date of Tholkāppiyam. Some place it much earlier and some place it later.  Most scholars are of the opinion that it has many layers,  and that the earliest parts were around 300 B.C., but the later parts came centuries later.   Scholars agree that  Tholkāppiyam had a few additions later in Poruliyal,  and most think that it could be as late as the 3rd century A.D., and after the anthologies.

Ainkurunuru, Natrinai, Kurunthokai, Akanānuru and Kalithokai are Akam books.  Puranānuru and Pathitruppathu are Puram books.  Paripādal has both Akam and Puram songs.

Among the long Pathuppāttu poems, Kurinjippāttu is Akam.  Nedunalvādai, Pattinappālai and Mullaippāttu have both Akam and Puram elements.  Sirupānātruppadai, Perumpānātruppadai, Porunarātruppadai, Malaipadukadām and Thirumurukātruppadai are guidance poems.   Mathuraikkānji is a Puram poem.

Akam (interior) and Puram (Exterior) are not only thematic divisions of the Sangam poems.  They are more than that.  The two categories are related to each other by context, and by contrast.

Akam and Puram are very old Tamil words.  Akam means interior, heart, mind, self, kin, house, family, inland, settlement, earth, love poems and codes of conduct appropriate to akam.  Puram has opposite qualities to match each of these.

Meaning of Akam and Puram

Akam – interior, Puram – exterior
Akam – heart, mind, Puram – body surfaces & extremeties
Akam – self, Puram – others
Akam – Kin, Puram – non-kin
Akam – house, family, Puram – house yard, field
Akam – earth, Puram – farthest ocean
Akam – love poems & no names or person, Puram – poems about war, kings, people, names
Akam – codes of conduct appropriate to akam poetry, Puram – Codes of conduct appropriate to puram poetry

Out of the ten anthologies, Kurunthokai (401 short poems), Natrinai (400 poems), Akanānuru (400 poems), Ainkurunuru (500 short poems), Kalithokai (150 poems) are akam books.  Puranānuru (400 poems) and Pathitrupathu (80 poems)  are puram books.  Paripādal (33 poems) contains mixed  songs.


78% of the Sangam poems are written in the Akam Thinai.

Akam is divided into 5 divisions called thinais.  The word thinai means ‘land’. These are Kurinji, Mullai, Pālai, Neythal and Marutham.  Each of these have unique characteristics – not just about the tract of land that they are, but also in the people and animals who live there, the plants, trees, flowers and above all the feelings of the characters in the akam poems.

The Tholkāppiyam classified 5 different kinds of land, but did not use the word ‘pālai’ for dry land, since Tamil Nadu does not have real deserts.  Instead, the word  ‘naduvunilai’ was used, and the author meant that  to describe kurinji and mullai lands which were  affected by droughts.   The word ‘pālai’ was coined by later commentators.

Some interesting elements seen in the poems:

The heroine’s eyes are described as having red streaks.

The heroine who is in love becomes thin when separated from her lover, and the bangles on her arms slip down.  She becomes pale and develops yellow spots on her body.   The words used to describe this are – பசலை, பயப்பு, சுணங்கு, தேமல், தித்தி, திதலை, பீரம், வரி.

The heroine’s friend (தோழி) refers to the hero as our lover (நம் காதலர்) often, even though she means ‘your lover’, since the two of them are very close friends.  The heroine’s friend plays a very important role in the poems.  She is a friend, confidante, she arranges trysts and is a messenger between the lovers.

Thunder attacks or kills snakes.

Snakes spit gems.

A tiger will eat its prey only if it falls on its right side.

Pearls drop from the tusks of elephants

Kurinji – குறிஞ்சி: (புணர்தலும் புணர்தல் நிமித்தமும்) Mountains and adjoining lands. Named after the kurinji flower that blooms once in 12 years in mountain slopes.  Kurinji and Kānthal flowers grow in the mountains. Murugan is the god of the kurinji land, and bears, tigers and elephants, monkeys, wild pigs, parrots and peacocks live there.  Wild rice, millet, and tubers are grown.  Sandal wood trees abound.  Honey collection and millet raising is done.  Springs and waterfalls abound.  Mountain people called kuravars live with their families in huts in small settlements.
The subject of the poems are usually the secret meeting of lovers, which might be at the millet field, or at night when the heroine slips out of the house evading her mother, and the mother suspects that her daughter is up to mischief.  The time is daytime or midnight.  Lover’s union is the main sentiment in kurinji.  The situations are pre-marital. 

Typical Kurinji Thinai scenarios – Love in the mountains
The heroine chases parrots in the family’s millet field
Her friend joins her often in chasing parrots
The young girls use rattles and noise producing gadgets to chase parrots
The heroine meets the hero while chasing parrots, and fall in love
The friend helps the lovers to meet
The hero comes through forest paths at night to meet his lover
The heroine worries about his safety and the friend conveys this to him
The friend arranges for day and night trysts
The heroine and her friend play with the hero at the waterfalls
The heroine and her friend play on swings
The heroine is afflicated with love and becomes thin
Bangles slip down the arms of the heroine
Her skin has become pale and yellow spots have spread on her body
The village finds out about the affair and gossips start
The heroine’s friend asks the hero whether they can come to his town
Heroine’s mother finds out about it and locks her up
The friend urges the hero to come and marry her friend
Mother arranges for a velan (Murugan priest) to heal her daughter
Velan prepares the cermonial ground with fresh sand in their front yard
Velan does veriyāttam dances, and offers a goat and other things to appease Murugan
The heroine’s parents try to arrange her marriage with somebody else
The heroine does not respond to the hero’s love
The hero threatens that he is going to climb on the palmyra palm and be drawn around town with a photo of his beloved
The mountain dwellers plant millet and aivanam grain
They guard their crops from wild boars and elephants

Common words in Kurinji  thinai:   கிளி,   ஏனல் (millet, millet field),  அவணை (millet field),  தினை (millet),  இறடி (millet),  இருவி (millet stubble),  குரல் (millet spears),  தட்டை (bamb00 rattle to chase parrots – வெதிர் புனை தட்டை),  குளிர் – (noisy gadget used to chase parrots),  தழல் (slingshot), கவண் (slingshot),  புனவன் (mountain farmer),  குறவன் (mountain dweller),  கானவன் (mountain dweller), கொடிச்சி (wife or daughter of mountain dwellers),  ஓப்புதல் (to chase parrots and other birds that come to eat the grain),  யானை,  குரங்கு,  மந்தி (female monkey),  கடுவன் (male monkey),  மஞ்ஞை (peacock),  புலி,  பாம்பு, பன்றி (wild pigs), வரை ஆடு,  அருவி,  சுனை (mountain springs),  பலாமரம்,  பலாப்பழம், சந்தன மரம்,  வேங்கை மரம் (kino tree),  அகில் மரம் (eaglewood tree), மாமரம்,  குறிஞ்சி, குவளை,  காந்தள்,  தேன்,  தாது (pollen), மஞ்சு (cloud),  மழை (the word is used for both clouds and rain),  பெயல் (rain),  ஐவனம் (mountain wild rice), words for bamboo – மூங்கில்,  அமை,  வெதிர்,  காம்பு,  தட்டை,  கழை,  உந்தூழ் (giant bamboo),  ஞெலி,  பணை,  தூம்பு,  மால்பு,  வேரல் (small bamboo), முந்தூழ் (spiny bamboo),  வரை,  வயிர்,  வான், போல், words for guard platforms in the millet fields – கழுது,  இதண்,  மிடை,  பரண்,  கழுத,  இதணம்,  பணவை, words for mountains, hills etc. –  ஏகல் (hill or mountain), அடுக்கம் (range),  அடுக்கல் (range),  அருப்பம்,  அரைமலை (slope side of mountain),  அறை – huge rock,  அறைவாய் (mountain pass),  இகுப்பம் (large boulders, hillock),  இறும்பு (foothill), ஓங்கல் (mountain top),   கடறு (mountain slopes),  கது (mountain cleft),  கல் (hill or mountain),  கல்வளை (mountain caves), கல்லளை (mountain caves),  கன்முழை (mountain cavern),  கவாஅன் (slopes),  கிழிப்பு (mountain cleft),  குவடு,  குடுமி (peak), குன்று ( mountain),  கோடு (mountain),  சாரல் (mountain slopes), சிகரம் (peak),  சென்னி (peak),  நவிரம் (peak),   சிமையம் (peak),  சிலம்பு,   பெருங்கல்,   பிளப்பு (mountain cleft),   பிறங்கல்,  பொறை,  வெற்பு (hill),   மலை,  முகை (mountain cave),  முகடு (peak),  வசி (mountain cleft),  வரை (mountain), விடர் (mountain cleft),  விடரகம் (mountain caves),  விடரளை (mountain cave),   விண்டு (mountain), விலங்கல் (blocking mountain),  words for bees – வண்டு, சுரும்பு (honey bee), ஞிமிறு (honey bee),  தும்பி (used for both honey bee and dragon fly)

Pālaiபாலை (பிரிதலும் பிரிதல் நிமித்தமும்): Dry wilderness and adjoining lands. Named after the Pālai tree which grows in very dry areas.  Kotravai is the goddess here.  Tigers, red foxes, vultures, eagles, pigeons and lizards live in this pālai land. Iruppai, omai, and ulignai trees grow here.  Rēvam, kuravam and pāthiri flowers bloom here.  Robbery on the roads are common.  Water sources are dried springs and sunk wells.
The hero sets out across the wilderness to elope with his beloved, or, if he’s unaccompanied, to make enough money to marry her on his return.  Occasionally the hero is married and undertakes a journey for business purposes, or for some god.  The time is midday and the season is summer.  Separation of the lovers is the theme of Pālai.  The situations could be pre-marital or post-marital. 

Typical Pālai Thinai scenarios – Separation
The hero leaves, passing the wasteland, to earn wealth (except in Akananuru 255, the only poem in Sangam poetry where the hero goes on a ship
The hero and heroine elope and go through the wasteland paths
The foster mother goes in search of the heroine
Passers-by give advice to the hero and heroine
The heroine’s mother is very hurt since her daughter has eloped
The hero goes alone in search of wealth, leaving behind the heroine
The heroine is afraid that he has to go through paths with bandits and wild animals
The heroine’s friend consoles her
The heroine is distressed and bangles slip down her forearms
The hero speaks to his heart about his feelings
The heroine’s mother pleads with the crow to caw and bring her daughter back

Common words in Pālai thinai:   அத்தம் (harsh path), கடம் (wasteland), சுரம் (wasteland),  கடுஞ்சுரம், அருஞ்சுரம் (harsh wasteland),  எயினர் (tribes living in the wasteland), பல்லி,  ஓதி,  ஓந்தி (big garden lizard),  பாதிரி (summer blooming flower), கள்ளி (cactus), யா மரம், ஓமை மரம், குரவம், கள்ளிச்செடி, கோங்கு மரம்,  ஞெமை,  இருப்பை மரம், வேம்பு (neem), யாமரம், உகாய்,  கழுகு, செந்நாய் (red fox), யானை, புலி, மூங்கில், பதுக்கை (leaf heap, usually a shallow grave), நெல்லி,  வேனிற்காலம்,  பரல் கற்கள், இறத்தல் (கடப்பது), words for path – இயவு,  அத்தம், நெறி, வழி,  நடவை,  அதர், ஆரிடை (difficult path), ஆறு (path)

Mullaiமுல்லை: (இருத்தலும் இருத்தல் நிமித்தமும்) Forest and adjoining lands.  Named after the jasmine, and the plant grows wild in forest areas, especially in the rainy seasons.  The god is Māyon (the dark one), and cattle, deer, rabbits, and wild fowl live there.  Wild grain and millet is grown.  Flowers are jasmine and thōndral, trees are kondrai and kāyā.  Forest streams are active in the rainy season.
The heroine waits for her man to return from a journey.  Some poems in this category describe union.  All concern the fertitility of the rainy season in the forest meadows. Rainy season is the period.  The time is usually evening.  Patient waiting by the heroine is the theme of Mullai.  The situations could be pre-marital or post-marital. 

Typical Mullai Thinai scenarios – Patient waiting
The hero has gone on a personal business trip, and is expected at the start of the rainy season
The hero has gone on the king’s business, and is expected at the start of the rainy season
The heroine awaits his arrival when the rainy season arrives
The heroine is upset that the rainy season has started, and her man has not returned
The heroine is in denial that the rainy season has started and blames the trees for showing signs of the season
The heroine’s friend consoles her when she is worried
The hero is anxious to get back home once his business is over
The heroine is upset when rainy season has started and the hero has not returned
The hero talks to his charioteer on his way back
The rains start and forest is filled with kāyā, kondrai, mullai and other flowers
The hero eventually reaches home and tells the heroine how happy he is to be back

Common words in Mullai thinai:   புறவு (mullai land),  கொல்லை (mullai land), இரலை மான், முயல், ஆ (பசு), கன்று, மழை, flowers – முல்லை, காயா, குருந்தம், கொன்றை, தோன்றல், பித்திகம், தேர் (chariot), பாகன், மாரி,  கோவலர், ஆயர் (cattle herders), ஆடு, குழல், மஞ்ஞை (peacock),  மழை (clouds, rain),  மான், முயல்

Neythal நெய்தல்: (இரங்கலும் இரங்கல் நிமித்தமும்) Seashore and adjoining lands. Named after the blue water lily that grows near the seashore.  Varunan is the god.  Fish catching and salt making is done here. Blue water lily grows in the ponds.  Cormorant is the bird and crocodiles, sharks and buffalo that carries salt bags live here.  Screw pine trees grow, water wells and salt water ponds are here.  Fishermen community called parathaiyar live in nearby settlements with their families.
The subject is often separation, during which the heroine believes that her lover has abandoned her.  Occasionally, neythal poems concern the journey of the hero along the beach in his chariot as he comes to see his beloved.  The time is afternoon, evening or occasionally night. Anxious waiting is the theme of neythal.  The situations could be pre-marital or post-marital. 

Typical Neythal Thinai scenarios – Anxious waiting
The heroine and her friend dry fish on the seashore
Their fathers and brothers go into the ocean to fish
The heroine plays with her friends on the seashore
The heroine waits anxiously for the hero who is away
There is gossip in their settlement when the love affair is known
The heroine’s friend assures her that the hero will come on his chariot
The heroine’s body becomes pale and weak due to the separation
The heroine is unable to sleep at night

Common words in Neythal thinai:   பரதவர், மீன், சுறா, முதலை,  கடல், கடற்கரை, கானல் (grove near the seashore, கடற்கரை சோலை),  திமில் (boat),  அம்பி (boat), சேரி (settlement) ,  புன்னை, ஞாழல், தாழை (fragrant screwpine),  கைதல், கைதை (fragrant screwpine),   உப்பு,  உமணர் (salt merchant),  உப்பங்கழி (salty waters), மணல், எக்கர் (மணல் மேடு),  அலவன் (நண்டு),  அடும்பு (a creeper with beautiful pink flowers), நெய்தல் (purple water lily), ஆம்பல் (white waterlily), கோடு (conch shell), வளை (conch shell), வலை,  குருகு, நாரை, அன்றில், words for ocean – கடல்,  புணரி (sea, wave), பெருநீர், ஓதம் (sea, wave),  பரவை,  முதுநீர்,  பவ்வம்,  பெளவம், ஆழி, முந்நீர், அளக்கர், words for waves – திரை,  அலை,  ஓதம், புணரி

Maruthamமருதம்:  (ஊடலும் ஊடல் நிமித்தமும்) Paddy fields and adjoining lands.  Named after the flowering marutham tree which grows in agricultural areas.  Indiran is the god here, white and red rice are grown, Water buffalo is the animal, and lotus and waterlilies are the flowers. The trees are vanji, kānchi and marutham.   Wells, ponds, rivers, and streams are all over the place.  The birds here are pelican, waterfowl and swan. People work in the fields planting, weeding and cutting the rice stalks.
After marriage and usually after the couple have a child, the hero leaves his wife and begins to live with courtesans.  The time is day. Lover’s infidelity and the beloved woman’s resentment are the themes in marutham.  The situations are post-marital. 

Typical Marutham Thinai scenarios – Infidelity and hurt
The hero takes a concubine
The hero plays with his concubine/concubines in the river
The heroine is very sad and hurt
The heroine’s friend accosts the hero
The concubine talks about her feelings
The concubine talks about the heroine
The hero uses a messenger bard to send word to the heroine
The heroine tells the bard about her sad feelings
The heroine tells the hero how hurt she is
The heroine tells the hero about gossips
The heroine tells the hero that he was seen with his concubines
The friend speaks her mind to the bard
The friend refuses the hero entry into the house

Common words in marutham thinai:    வயல் (field), கழனி (field),  செறு (field), பணை (field), words for ponds – பழனம்,  பொய்கை, கயம், குளம், மீன், கெண்டை மீன்,  ஆமை, உழவர், அரிநர் (those who cut the grains, those who harvest), நெல், மாமரம், ஞாழல் மரம் , நொச்சி மரம், கரும்பு,  நீர்நாய்  (otter), ஆம்பல் (white waterlily),  தாமரை,  குருவி, கோழி, சேவல்,  கழனி, கொக்கு, காரான் (buffalo),  காஞ்சி மரம்,  மருத மரம், அத்தி மரம் (fig tree), கரும்பு,  தாமரை மலர், எருமை மாடு,  முதலை, களவன் (நண்டு)

The Akam Poem: Tholkāpiyam lists the three components of akam poems as follows:

Verse 3, Akathinai Iyal – அகத்திணை இயல்
முதல் கரு உரிப்பொருள் என்ற மூன்றே
நுவலும் காலை முறை சிறந்தனவே
பாடலுள் பயின்றவை நாடும் காலை

On examination, when we list them,
the entities which constitute the poem
are, excelling in order,
mutal, karu and uripporul.

Muthal means ‘first’ or ‘principal’, and refers to the setting in time (poluthu) and place (nilam) where the  activity of the poem takes place.  Time is conceived in two aspects, the time of the year or season, and the time of the day or night.  Land refers to kurinji,  mullai, marutham, neythal and pālai landscapes.

Karu means ’embryo’ or ‘nucleus’ and it refers to the fauna, flora, inhabitants and artefacts which are native to the thinai or lands.

Uri refers to the distinctive mood of that thinai.

The following poem is a good one to look at muthal, karu and uri. Muthal is the physical location and it is the pond in this poem.  Karu is the vālai fish, mango trees and the mangoes. Uri is the infidelity that we see here.

Kurunthokai 8, Ālankudi Vankanār, Marutham Thinai – What the concubine said, as the heroine’s friends listened nearby
The man from the town,
where pond vālai fish seize
sweet fruit that ripen and
drop from a mango tree
from the nearby field, talks big
at my place.

But when he’s at his home, he’s
like the mirror image of a puppet
that lifts its hands and legs when
a puppeteer lifts them, reflecting
the wishes of his son’s mother.

Notes:  தலைவி தன்னைப் புறங்கூறினாள் எனக் கேட்ட பரத்தை தோழியர் கேட்பாக் கூறியது.  குறுந்தொகை 164 – கணைக் கோட்டு வாளை கமஞ்சூல் மட நாகு துணர்த் தேக் கொக்கின் தீம்பழம் கதூஉம்.   இரா. இராகவையங்கார் உரை – விளைந்து உகு தீம் பழம் பழன வாளை கதூஉம் ஊரன் என்றது, தலைவியர்க்குரிய தலைவரைக் கிடைத்தபோது துய்ப்பது பரத்தையர் இயல்பென்று குறித்தாளாம்.

Thurai or colophons – notes attached to the akam poems: Considerable number of conclusions drawn by modern scholars with regards to akam poetry have been based on secondary material, that is thurai attached to the poems.  Thurai is where the reader is given information about who the speaker is and who it was spoken and under what circumstances. These were not written by the author. These were added many centuries later.  Dr. Takanobu Takahashi is of the opinion that these colophons were added between the 4th century A.D. and the 7th century A.D.  Sometimes, more than one colophon was added to a poem by different commentators and at different times.  Those who added only guessed what the author’s intent was, based on what they had learned and experienced.  It is very possible that the later commentators were not always perfect in their interpretation.  Thurais guide us in interpreting the poems in a very balanced manner for the most part.  However, they do leave questions for doubts in a few poems, especially about the speaker of the poem.

The elements of thurai are the kootru (speaker), ketpōr (the listener), viri (the specific theme) and the way the message is conveyed by the speaker to the listener. The colophon is usually the notes above the poem – see the poem below.  The words, ‘What the foster mother said about the heroine when she got married to her beloved” is the colophon.

Dramatis Personae: The voices of akam poems are the hero, the hero’s friend, the hero’s charioteer, the heroine, the heroine’s friend, the heroine’s mother, the heroine’s foster mother, and passers by.  In akam poem, the poet does not address the reader. Also, there are no names for the characters in these poems.  Names of leaders, kings or kingdoms will appear once in a while,  and they can be used as long as they are used as references, and are not the main characters of the poem.  For example, kurunthokai 15 has a reference to the Kosar tribe.

Ullurai, Irachi – Implied Meanings – Many Akam poems have implied inner meanings.

Kurunthokai 15, Avvaiyār, Pālai Thinai – What the foster mother said to the heroine’s mother about her daughter’s wedding
Wedding drums thunder and conch
shells blare at their marriage.

The love of this young woman with
decked bangles for the young man
donning warrior anklets and
carrying a white spear with red tip
has come true O friend,
like the solemn oaths of the Kosars
from the four villages,
who gather under an ancient banyan.

Notes:  செவிலித்தாய் நற்றாய்க்கு அறத்தொடு நின்றது.  

Kurunthokai 105, Nakkeerar, Kurinji Thinai – What the heroine said
I get teary eyed when I think
of my love for the man
from the mountain with gods,
where a naive peacock panics on
eating the mature clusters of the
gold-like, tiny millet left as new
offering to gods in a mountain
dweller’s field, and trembles like
a lovely female diviner performing
a frenzied veriyāttam dance.

Notes:  வரைவு நீட்டித்தவிடத்துத் தலைவி தோழியிடம் சொல்லியது.