Sangam Literature – சான்றோர் செய்யுள்
Ancient commentators referred to Sangam literature as சான்றோர் செய்யுள், the verses of the wise. Sangam poetry laid down the foundation for the entire Tamil poetic tradition that has flourished for over two thousand years. It is the root of the massive Tamil literary tree from which branches have spread in many different directions. The predominantly secular Sangam poems influenced the later religious works of Jain, Buddhist, Saivite and Vaishnavite poets. The universality of emotions, which are revealed through the natural elements of the five landscapes, has made the poetry timeless, and for all cultures.
There are a total of 18 Sangam Tamil books – Ten long songs (Pāthuppāttu) and eight anthologies ( Ettuthokai), for a total of 2381 poems written by 473 poets (30 were female poets), and including 102 poems written by anonymous authors. There are 33,204 lines of poetry. 16 poets are responsible for about 50% of the total production (1177 out of the 2279 non-anonymous poems). They are Kapilar, Ammoovanār, Ōrampōkiyār, Peyanar, Ōthalānthaiyār, Paranar, Maruthan Ilanākanār, Pālai Pādiya Perunkadunkō, Avvaiyār, Nallanthuvanār, Nakkeerar, Ulochanār, Mamoolanār, Kayamanār, Perunkundrūr Kilār and Perisāthanār. Scholars differ on the period of the Sangam books, but many agree that they are between 300 B.C. and 300 A. D. The literature is secular for the most part. There are some references to Murukan, Kotravai, Sivan, Thirumal, Indiran and Brahman. The poets, both men and women, came from all backgrounds – kings, noble men, learned men, doctors, businessmen, teachers, metal smiths, goldsmiths, cattle herders etc. etc. In addition, there is Tholkāppiyam, the ancient text. Most of it was written before the poems. However, some parts were written later.
The word Sangam is not Tamil. It is not used in Sangam literature. A. K. Ramanujan wrote, “It means an academy or fraternity. The word is probably borrowed from the vocabulary of Buddhism and Jainism, the two religions competing with Hinduism in the 6th and 7th centuries in South India”. The earliest mention of the word is in Appar’s ‘Thirupputhur Thandavam’ in the 7th century and in Nakkeerar’s commentary on Iraiyanār Akapporul dated 7th – 8th centuries. In A. K. Ramanujan’s words, “This spurious name Sangam for the poetry is justified not by history, but by poetic practice.” George Hart wrote in his ‘The Poems of Ancient Tamil’ that the word is from Sanskrit ‘samgha’.
Sangam Age: The beginnings of Sangam literature date back to many centuries before Christ. There are many proofs that the bulk of the literature was written from 150 B.C. to 300 A.D. There is not a single reference to the Pallavas who established their rule in Kānchi around 275 A.D.; they must have been written before the Pallava arrival. Also, we have detailed description of foreign trade, especially with Greece, found in these poems, with descriptions of their ships, their gold coins, wines etc. The trade did not continue past the 3rd century A.D. We have the accounts and observations of Greek and Roman writers like the author of Periplus (A.D. 70), Pliny (A.D. 78), and Ptolemy (A.D. 140), which have elaborate descriptions of many cities and ports in the Tamil country. The Sri Lankan king Gajabāhu I and Chēran Chenguttuvan of Pathitruppathu were contemporaries. King Gajabāhu reigned from 173 to 195 A.D. This Gajabāhu synchronism is accepted by most scholars today. Iravatham Mahadevan has shown that the inscriptions at Pukalūr, which can be dated to 200 A.D. mentions the names of Chera kings who appear in Pathitruppathu. There are 4 references to Mauryan incursions into Tamil Nadu. The Mauryas ruled from 322 B.C. and 182 B.C.
Other Dravidian Literature: Other Dravidian literature came much later. The one that came after Tamil is Kannada, and that did not happen for at least 1,200 years. To quote Kamil Zvelebil, “the first narrative Kannada literature is Sivakōti’s Vaddārādhane in 900 A.D. Telugu literature as we know it begins with Nannaya’s translation of Mahabharatha in the 11th century A.D. In Malayalam, Unnunīli Sandēsam, an anonymous poem of the 14th century, is based on the models of Sandēsa or Dūta poems; its very language is true manipravālam, which is defined in the earliest Malayalam grammar (15th century Lilāthilakam) as the union of Malayalam and Sanskrit.”
Epigraphical evidences in Tamil-Brahmi: The Mangulam cave inscriptions were first noted in 1882, observed again in 1906 and determined in 1965 by Iravatham Mahadevan to have inscriptions from the 2nd century B.C. The inscriptions record the gift of a monastery to Nanta-siri Kuvan, a senior Jaina monk. Two of the caves have inscriptions about King Neduncheliyan.
The Jambai cave inscription etched in Tamil-Brahmi and dated the 1st century A.D. was discovered in 1981 by the Archaelogical Department. It states that the hermitage was given by Athiyamān Nedumān Anji. It records the grant of the cave on the north bank of the South Pennar River near Thirukoyilur in Vilupparam district by Athiyamān Nedumān Anji, who was one of the seven great vallal kings of ancient Tamil Nadu.
The discovery of cave inscriptions from the 2nd century A.D. was made at Pugalur in 1928. Pugalur is situated on the south bank of River Kaviri about 15 km. northwest of Karur, the ancient Chēra capital, which is in modern Karur district. However, its historical significance was only recognized almost four decades later, in 1965. Out of the 12 inscriptions, 2 refer to the Chēra royal family. Both of these inscriptions record the construction of a rock shelter for Cenkāyapan, a senior Jaina monk when Ilankadunko, the son of Perunkatunkōn the son of King Āthan Selirumporai, became the heir apparent. Iravatham Mahadevan has shown that the inscriptions at Pukalūr bear the names of the Chera kings who appear in Pathitruppathu.
Influence of Sanskrit: There is another important difference between Tamil and the other Dravidian literary languages: the meta language of Tamil has always been Tamil, never Sanskrit. As A.K. Ramanujan says (in Language and Modernization, p. 31), “In most Indian languages, the technical gobbledygook is Sanskrit; in Tamil, the gobbledygook is ultra-Tamil.” Kamil Zvelebil explains that there are traces of Aryan influence in early Tamil, just as the very beginnings of the Rig Vedic hymns show traces of Dravidian influence. He writes in his book, ‘The Smile of Murugan’, “Historically speaking, from the point of development of Indian literature as a single complex, Tamil literature possesses at least two unique features. First, it is the only Indian literature which is, at least in its beginnings and in its first and most vigorous bloom, is almost entirely independent of Aryan and specifically Sanskrit influences. Second, Tamil literature is the only Indian literature which is both classical and modern, while it shares antiquity with much of Sanskrit literature and is as classical, in the best sense of the word, as e.g. the ancient Greek poetry, it continues to be vigorously living modern writing of our days.”
Oral Tradition to Anthologies: Scholars believe that the poems were gathered into anthology form as early as the 8th century A.D., at a time when Buddhist and Jaina sanghas existed in the Tamil country, and hence the name ‘Sangam’.
The poems started out as oral tradition which must have gone on for a very long time. They reached a high level of sophistication even many centuries B.C. The process is the creative act first, when the texts are composed. Next is the oral transmission of the texts. Following is the editing and codification of the anthologies. The colophons were added to the poems a couple of hundred years after the poems, around the 5th century A.D. Finally, commentaries were written around the 13th and 14th centuries.
Ancient Commentaries: The extant ancient commentaries for the Sangam poems were written about a thousand years later. The language of the commentaries is quite hard, and often, more difficult than the original text. Ancient commentators had difficulties with ambiguous texts, much like we have today. Also, they sometimes offer moral opinions, depending on the society which existed around them at that point of time. Some of the modern commentators have also followed that complicated style of writing, thereby limiting the poems to Tamil scholars. However, there are recent commentaries that have been written in easily readable formats.
சங்க இலக்கிய பழைய உரை நூல்கள் – Ancient Commentaries for the Sangam books:
ஐங்குறுநூறு – Ainkurunūru: There is an ancient 13th century A.D. anonymous commentary. However, it is not a detailed one.
குறுந்தொகை – Kurunthokai: Tradition says that Pērasiriyar and Nachinārkkiniyar wrote commentaries, neither of which have been found.
நற்றிணை – Natrinai: No ancient commentary is available.
அகநானூறு – Akanānūru: There is an ancient commentary for the first 90 poems, probably written in the 12th century A.D.
பதிற்றுப்பத்து – Pathitruppathu: It has an old, brief commentary which is probably later than the 12th century A.D.
புறநானூறு – Puranānūru: An old commentary probably from the 12th century is available for the first 266 poems.
பத்துப்பாட்டு – Pathuppāttu: Nachinārkkiniyar wrote full-fledged commentaries for the 10 long songs in the 14th century A.D.
பரிபாடல் – Paripādal: Parimēlalakar wrote a full-fledged commentary in the 13th century A.D.
கலித்தொகை – Kalithokai: Nachinārkkiniyar wrote a full-fledged commentary in the 14th century A.D.
தொல்காப்பியத்தின் பழைய உரைகள் – Ancient Commentaries for Tholkāppiyam:
1. இளம்பூரணர் – Ilampūranar: The first available commentary was written by him. He was probably a Jaina scholar who lived in the 12th century A.D. His commentary has come down to us intact. His style is simple and lucid. Ancient scholars referred to him as ‘Urai Āsiriyar’.
2. சேனவராயர் – Senāvarāyar: His commentary pertains only to ‘Sol Athikāram’. It is dateable to 1275 A.D. This author contests the view of Pavananthi, and also questions some of the conclusions of Ilampūranar.
3. பேராசிரியர் – Pērāsiriyar: His date is the 13th century A.D. His real name is not known. His commentary reveals his great scholarship.
4. நச்சினார்க்கினியர் – Nachinārkkiniyar: His style is artful, and he has a great poetic sense. His commentary reveals his skills in both Tamil and Sanskrit. His date is probably the 14th century A.D.
5. தெய்வச்சிலையார் – Theivachilaiyār: He composed his commentary to the second book ‘Sol Athikaram’, in the 16th century.
6. கல்லாடர் – Kallādar: His commentary was for the second book ‘Sol Athikaram’. His work is dated 16th or 17th century A.D.
Loss and Recovery: We lost these manuscripts, which were etched on palm, for many centuries. We knew of their existence since there were references to them in the commentaries written many centuries after the Sangam age. They were buried amidst the collections of Saivite monasteries and some families, without anyone knowing of their existence. They were re-discovered by U.V. Swaminatha Iyer (1855 – 1942) and C. W. Thamotharam Pillai (1832 – 1901) in the late 19th century. U.V. Swamintha Iyer started the process in 1883 at the Thiruvāvaduthurai Saiva monastery, and both these men, along with the help of a few other scholars completed the work of editing and bringing them to print, over the next few decades. But for Swaminatha Iyer, this process of recovery would not have started then. We owe immense gratitude to him, and to all the other scholars who helped him. They also edited and published the books during the last quarter of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th century.
Nature Poetry: Sangam poetry is nature poetry. The elements of nature are intertwined with love, valor, agony, ecstasy, kindness, war, cruelty, honor, charity, friendship and many more facets of humanity. The Sangam poets never lost sight of the physical world around them. Keenly observing nature, they brought to life the fauna and flora, and used them effectively in almost every poem, to reveal human emotions and situations, thereby creating beautiful vignettes. There are over one hundred flowers described in the poems. One can travel back in time and see many mammals, reptiles, insects, birds, bushes, vines, flowers, mountains, forests, ponds, waterfalls, rivers and streams in the Tamil country. The sky with the constellations, sun, moon, stars and planets are also used effectively. The tiny red velvet bugs of the rainy season, to the mighty elephant in the jungle, are part of the drama. A piece of foam dashing on the rocks in a flooding stream and losing itself little by little, is used to describe the heroine fading away in pain in Kurunthokai 290.
Secular Poetry: Sangam literature is mostly secular, reflecting the early strata of the Tamil culture. However, even the earlier works Natrinai, Kurunthokai, Akanānūru, Ainkurunūru, Pathitruppathu and Puranānūru have a few references to gods. Paripādal has many hymns for Murukan and Thirumal. Thirumurukātruppadai was written for Murukan. Perunthēvanār’s invocation poems were added to Puranānūru, Natrinai, Kurunthokai and Akanānūru, around the 8th century when the texts were compiled into anthologies. However, only in Puranānūru, it is inserted as poem 1, and is made to be part of the anthology.
Akam: Poems that view life from inside the family, and concern the love between man and woman. About 78% of the poems are in the Akam Thinai.
Puram: Poems that view life from outside the family, and deal with topics such as the king, heroism, battle, ethics, and the life of wandering bards and poets.
According to Nachinārkkiniyar in his Tholkāppiyam commentary (Porul 56), ‘Akam’ and ‘Puram’ are like the inner palm and back side of the hands, respectively, when the palms are held together. It could not have been explained any better, other than with the Tamil ‘vanakkam’ symbol.
The Eight Anthologies – எட்டுத்தொகை – Ettuthokai
“நற்றிணை நல்ல குறுந்தொகை, ஐங்குறுநூறு,
ஒத்த பதிற்றுப்பத்து ஓங்கு பரிபாடல்,
கற்றறிந்தார் ஏத்தும் கலியோடு, அகம், புறம் என்று
The eight anthologies consist of poems divided into two broad categories – Akam (interior) and Puram (exterior – king, heroism, battle, ethics and wandering bards and poets). Puranānūru and Pathitruppathu are the only two that belong to Puram category.
1. நற்றிணை – Natrinai: This anthology has 400 poems written by 175 poets. The poems have 8-13 lines. Poem 234 is missing, and only parts of 395 have been recovered. There are 59 references to historical incidents.
2. குறுந்தொகை – Kurunthokai: This anthology has 400 poems written by 205 poets. The poems have 4-8 lines. U.V.Swamintha Iyer’s edition has 401. One poem must have been added later, possibly the invocatory poem. There are 27 historical references in Kurunthokai.
3. ஐங்குறுநூறு – Ainkurunūru: This is an anthology with 500 short poems, as the title indicates. The poems have 3-6 lines. It is arranged in five sections, each of 100 verses, each dealing with once facet of Akam – Kurinji, Neythal, Marutham, Mullai and Pālai. Within the main 5 divisions, the poems are sets of 10 with thematic headings as ‘Monkeys, boars, peacocks etc. etc.). Each set of 10 poems are based on a single topic. It has 17 historical references.
Kapilar wrote the Kurinji poems, Ōrampōkiyār wrote the Marutham poems, Ammoovanār wrote the Neythal poems, Pēyanār wrote the Mullai poems and Ōthalānthaiyār wrote the pālai poems.
4. பதிற்றுப்பத்து – Pathitruppathu: This has 80 poems (out of an original 100) and they belong to the Puram category. The name means, ‘The ten tens’. It deals with the exploits and achievements of just one dynasty – The Chēras. It is unique in that sense since it is exclusively devoted to the Chēras. The poems have 8-56 lines
The kings described in this collection are Imayavarampan Nedunchēralāthan (11-20), Palyānai Selkelu Kuttuvan (21-30), Kalankāykanni Nārmudichēral (31-40), Kadal Pirakōttiya Chenguttuvan (41-50), Ādukotpāttu Chēralāthan (51-60), Selvakkadungo Valiyāthan (61-70), Perumchēral Imruporai (71-80), and Ilanchēral Irumporai (81-90).
Each set of ten has been appended with a ‘pathikam’ (epilog), which furnishes us with details of the author, the hero, his lineage etc. These epilogs have been added much later, but it appears that the historical information they provide could have been drawn from earlier resources.
5. பரிபாடல் – Paripādal: This is unique among Sangam books, since it has both Akam and Puram poems. It is one of the later anthologies. The collection has 22 poems. The poems have 32-140 lines. The topics for the poems are Thirumāl, Murukan, and Vaikai River.
6. கலித்தொகை – Kalithokai: This later anthology has 150 poems in the kali meter, of 12 to 80 lines by 5 poets, each of whom has treated a different Akam theme. S. V. Damodaram Pillai who found these original manuscripts and wrote the commentary for them, believed that the entire book was the work of one poet and that it was written a couple of centuries later than the other books. Also, the prolific Sangam poet Kapilar lived a few centuries earlier than the ‘Kapilar’ who wrote the Kurinji poems in this collection. Either there are two Kapilars, or the Kurinji poems were erroneously assigned to Kapilar since he was a Kurinji Thinai expert. The poems have 11-80 lines.
Dr. Kamil Zvelebil is also of the view that the whole book was written by one person in the Pāndiyan kingdom. K.N. Sivaraja Pillai, Rajamanickam, Takanobu Takahashi and others hold the same view.
What we see in the modern editions, are Kapilar for Kurinji, Pālai Pādiya Perunkadungō for Pālai, Nallanthuvanār for Neythal, Nalluthiran for Mullai and Marutham Ilanākanār for Marutham.
7. அகநானூறு – Akanānūru: This anthology has 400 poems written by 142 poets. This anthology has also been called ‘Nedunthokai Nānuru’ since the poems are long. All the poems are in Akam thinai, as the name implies. The poems are from 13 to 31 lines, and they have all reached us intact. There are 288 historical allusions.
8. புறநானூறு – Puranānūru: It has 400 poems and they deal with Puram (exterior). The poems were written by both male and female poets. The poems are 4 to 40 lines, and are composed by 156 poets. There were 14 kings, and 15 women among these poets. The female poet Avvaiyār wrote 33 poems.
Praising the Kings: There are a total of 138 poems which praise the 43 kings belonging to the three great dynasties: Chēra, Chōla and Pāndiya. There are 141 poems in praise of 48 small-region kings – the main ones are Athiyamān Nedumān Anji, Vēl Pāri, Āy Andiran, Pēkan, Kumanan, Kāri, Nānjil Valluvan, Pittan Kotran and Elini. There are 121 poems whose heroes are unknown due to missing words, defective colophons, fragmentary nature of the poems etc.
The Ten Long Songs – பத்துப்பாட்டு – Pathuppāttu
“திருமுருகு பொருநாறு பாணிரண்டு முல்லை
பெருகு வள மதுரைக்காஞ்சி – மருவினிய
கோல நெடுநல்வாடை கோல் குறிஞ்சி பட்டினப்
பாலை கடாத்தொடும் பத்து”.
These are long poems which are of 103 to 782 lines, and they do not totally fit well into the Akam (interior) and Puram (exterior) categories, except for Kurunjippāttu which is considered to be Akam.
1. திருமுருகாற்றுப்படை – Thirumurukātruppadai: This song has 317 lines in the Āsiriyappā/Akaval meter, and was written by the poet Nakkeerar for Murukan.
2. பொருநராற்றுப்படை – Porunarātruppadai: This song has 248 lines in Āsiriyappā/Akaval meter. It was written by Mudathāmakkaniyār. One bard guides another bard to go to king Chōlan Karikālan.
3. சிறுபாணாற்றுப்படை – Sirupānātruppadai: This song has 269 lines in Āsiriyappā/Akaval meter, and was written by Nathathanār. One bard guides another bard to go to king Nalliyakōdan.
4. பெரும்பாணாற்றுப்படை – Perumpānātruppadai: This song has 500 lines in Āsiriyappā/Akaval meter. It was written by Kadiyalūr Urithirankannanār. One bard guides another bard to go to king Thondaimān Ilanthiraiyan.
5. முல்லைப்பாட்டு – Mullaippāttu: This song has 103 lines in Āsiriyappā/Akaval meter, and was written by poet Nappoothanār. The king is Thalaiyālankānathu Cheruvendra Neduncheliyan.
6. மதுரைக்காஞ்சி – Mathuraikānchi: This song has 782 lines in the Āsiriyappā/Akaval meter, and was written by poet Māngudi Maruthanār, for the Pāndiyan king Neduncheliyan.
7. நெடுநல்வாடை – Nedunalvādai: This song has 188 lines in Āsiriyappā/Akaval meter, and was written by poet Nakkeeranār (son of Madurai Kanakkāyanār), and the king is unknown. Some scholars speculate that the king is Pāndiyan, since there is a description of neem leaves tied to spears.
8. குறிஞ்சிப்பாட்டு – Kurinjippāttu: This song has 261 lines in Āsiriyappā/Akaval meter and was written by Kapilar for the north Indian king Brahadatha. This song describes the Tamil mountain country, its fauna and flora, and its marriage customs.
9. பட்டினப்பாலை – Pattinappālai: This song has 301 lines. There are 153 lines in Vanji meter and 138 lines in Āsiriyappā/Akaval meter. It was written by Kadiyalūr Urithirankannanār. The king was Chōlan Karikālan.
10. மலைபடுகடாம் – Malaipadukadām (also known as Kootharātruppadai – கூத்தராற்றுப்படை): This song has 583 lines in the Āsiriyappā/Akaval meter, and was written by Perunkousikanār. One bard guides another bard to go to king Nannan Venmān.
திணை – Thinai: There are seven thinai classifications in Puram, and five in Akam. (There are 2 more Akam thinais which are rarely used, and are seen only in the later Kalithokai poems. They are Kaikilai and Perunthinai which deal with one sided love, and are not regarded as pure Akam by scholars).
புறத்திணை – Puram Thinais: These seven thinais have been named after flowers. These are Vetchi, Vanji, Ulignai, Thumpai, Vākai, Kānji and Pādān. Vetchi is cattle raid, Vanji is preparation for war and invasion, Ulignai is siege, Thumpai is battle, Vākai is victory, Kānji is tragedy, and Pādān is praise.
According to the Tholkāppiyam, there are 7 thinais for Puram poems – Vetchi, Vanji, Ulignai, Thumpai, Vākai, Kānji and Pādān. However, they do not agree with what we find in Puranānūru. Puranānūru has 11 thinais – Karanthai, Kānji, Kaikkilai, Thumpai, Nochi, Pādān, Perunthinai, Pothuviyal, Vanji, Vākai and Vetchi. The Ulignai thinai from Tholkāppiyam is not in Puranānūru.
The Puram thinai poems are spoken by the poet himself, and frequently associated with real persons, places and events in history.
அகத்திணை – Akam Thinais: Here are five thinais, and they are named after flowers and trees. These are Kurinji, Mullai, Marutham, Neythal and Pālai. In addition to the plant that gives it its name, each of these five Akam thinais is associated with a certain kind of land, flora and fauna found in that land, people who live there, a season, a time of day and a situation in the development or fulfillment of love between a man and a woman. The poets have used Akam thinais to achieve poetic effect, and it is very important to know them, to appreciate Sangam poetry. The metaphors and similes in the poems are based on the elements in the particular landscape. Fauna, flora and the very landscape itself is used to express the physical traits and emotions of the characters in the poems.
குறிஞ்சி – Kurinji: (புணர்தலும் புணர்தல் நிமித்தமும்) Mountains and adjoining lands. It is named after the Kurinji flower that blooms once in 12 years 0n mountain slopes. Kurinji and Kānthal flowers grow in the mountains. Murukan is the deity of the Kurinji land, and bears, tigers and elephants, parrots and peacocks live there. Wild rice, millet, and tubers are grown. Sandal wood trees abound. The mountain dwellers hunt, collect honey and raise millet. Villages are called ‘siru kudi’ and ‘kurichi’. Springs and waterfalls abound. Music is created with Kurinji lute in Kurinji tunes.
Lovers union is the main sentiment of Kurinji thinai. This is pre-marital
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.
நெய்தல் – Neythal: (இரங்கலும் இரங்கல் நிமித்தமும்) Seashore and adjoining lands. It is named after the blue waterlily that grows near the seashore. Fish catching and salt making is done here. Blue waterlilies grow in the ponds. Cormorants, gulls, herons and pelicans are the birds and crocodiles and sharks live here. Screwpine trees (thālai) grow, and there are water wells and salt water ponds. Villages are called ‘pattinam’ and ‘pākkam’. Music is created with vilari lute in sevvali tunes.
Anxious waiting is the theme of Neythal thinai. This could be pre-marital or post-marital.
The subject is often separation, during which the unmarried woman 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.
பாலை, Pālai: (பிரிதலும் பிரிதல் நிமித்தமும்) Dry wilderness and adjoining lands. It is named after the Pālai tree which grows in very dry areas. Tigers, red foxes, vultures, eagles and pigeons live in this pālai land. Irruppai, ōmai and ulignai trees are in this land. The common flowers are kuravam and pāthiri. There are robberies on the wasteland paths. Villages are ‘kurumpu’ and ‘paranthalai’. Water sources are dried springs and there are ring wells. Music is created with pālai lute in panchuram tunes.
Separation is the theme of Pālai. This could be pre-marital or post-marital.
The hero sets out across the wilderness to elope with his beloved, or goes alone to make enough money to marry her on his return. Occasionally the hero is married and undertakes a journey for business purposes. The time is midday and the season is summer.
முல்லை – Mullai: (இருத்தலும் இருத்தல் நிமித்தமும்) Forest and adjoining lands. It is named after jasmine, and the vine grows wild in forest areas, especially in the rainy seasons. Cattle herds, deer, rabbits, and wild fowl live there. Wild grain and millet is grown. Flowers are jasmine and thōndral, trees are kondrai and kāyā, and villages are ‘pādi’ and ‘chēri’. Music is created with Mullai lute in sāthāri tunes. Forest streams are active in the rainy season.
Patient waiting is the theme of Mullai. This could be pre-marital or post-marital.
The heroine waits for her man to return from a journey. Some poems in this category describe union. All concern the fertility of the rainy season in the forest meadows. Rainy season is the period. The time is usually evening.
மருதம் – Marutham: (ஊடலும் ஊடல் நிமித்தமும்) Paddy fields and adjoining lands. It is named after flowering Marutham trees which grows in agricultural areas. White and red rice are grown, water buffalo is the animal, and lotus and lilies are the flowers. The trees are Vanji, Kānchi and Marutham. Settlements are ‘pērūr’ and ‘moothūr’. Wells, ponds, rivers, and streams are all over the place. The birds here are pelican, waterfowl and goose. Marutham lute is used create Marutham tunes. People work in the fields planting, weeding and cutting the rice stalks.
Infidelity is the theme of Marutham. This is post-marital for the most part.
After marriage and usually after the couple have a son, the hero leaves his wife and begins to live with courtesans, or visits them regularly. The time is day.
Understanding Akam thinais: It is very important to understand this to enjoy Akam poems. Each Akam thinai consists of three components – Muthal, Karu and Uri. Muthal consists of basic elements such as a tract of land, a season, a time of day or night. Karu consists of the flora and fauna in that tract, its inhabitants, their occupations etc. Uri is the aspect peculiar to each landscape; more specifically, the feelings, deeds and situations of the dramatis personae in love poetry.
Comparing Akam and Puram thinais: Akam means ‘that which is inside’ and Puram means, ‘that which is outside’, and they are the two sides of Sangam poetry. For each Akam thinai, there is a coinciding Puram thinai.
The Puram poem is spoken by the poet, and has names, places and events of history. The Akam poems are spoken by the hero, his friend, heroine, her friend (tholi), the friend’s mother (foster mother- sevili), the heroine’s real mother, the courtesan and the passer-by.
The two genres differ from each other not only in theme, but also in technique. Akam poems make much use of images suggesting a mood and a situation, while Puram poems do not and are more straightforward. For Akam, the mood and the situation are closely associated with each thinai, but, for Puram, the association is less. In Akam poetry, themes described in poems are connected with each other, and, taken as a whole, form a ‘love drama’; each scene depicted in Puram poems is a solitary one and not connected with each other. Puram poetry is far less conventional than Akam poetry, and its subject matter is easier to understand. Akam poems have many similes and metaphors, and fauna and flora are used to express situations and human emotions.
Snapshot of life two thousand years ago: The 2381 Sangam poems reveal many vivid images of the Tamil country from two thousand years ago. We see the fauna and flora in all the five landscapes, food people ate, clothing that people in different geographical regions wore – mountain dwellers wore grass and flower garments and others wore woven cotton and silk clothes, jewelry made with gold and precious stones, the lives of bards, dancers and musicians who played instruments, cattle herders playing their flutes, the various musical instruments, battles and warriors, trading with the Greeks and Romans whose large ships arrived in ports, just reigns of small-region kings, great friendships between poets and kings, the three great kings who battled with each other constantly, the seven great donors and small region kings, trades people did in the different landscapes, war equipment, forts with moats, existence of metal smith workshops, knowledge of the sky – the Sun, Moon, Venus, Mars, Saturn, Mercury, Jupiter, comets and many constellations, casting of bronze bells using the lost wax method, building of a small curved dam, the heat and wafting aroma from sugar mills, using scissors for cutting hair, lizard omens, bird omens, an occasional kindness of a hunter who lets the bird he trapped fly away, and even the kindness of a ruthless, wild killer animal letting its prey with young ones to get away.
Some Interesting Conventions and Facts that might help new readers:
1. Snakes are attacked by thunder, which chops off their heads and kills them.
2. Snakes spit sparkling gems.
3. Pearls drop off the tusks of elephants.
4. A tiger will not eat a prey if it does not fall on its right side.
5. Women in love get yellow pallor spots on their bodies, and their eyes become pale and yellow. Their shoulders and arms become thin. Bangles fall off their wrists.
6. There is a mythical creature called asunam. The University of Madras lexicon defines asunam as a creature believed to be so susceptible to harmony, that when it is fascinated by notes of music, a sudden loud beat of the drum causes its instantaneous death.
7. There is a mighty animal Āli, which kills elephants. It could be a hyena or a lion.
8. The heroine’s friend is sometimes the voice of the heroine and she tells the hero what the heroine wants to tell him. It is because of an old convention which is in the Tholkāppiyam, that the heroine cannot utter her love feelings directly to the hero. This convention comes from ancient oral tradition.
9. Both the mother and foster mother refer to the heroine as ‘my daughter’.
10. The speakers of Puram poems are the poets. The speakers of Akam poems are the hero, heroine, heroine’s friend, heroine’s mother, heroine’s foster mother, hero’s charioteer, hero’s concubine and passers-by, when the hero and heroine are in the wasteland.
11. The fathers and brothers of the heroine have never been speakers of any poem. However, they are referred to in the poems.
12. When the heroine refuses to respond to the hero, he climbs on a palmyra stem horse (madal ēruthal, meaning climbing on a palmyra stem or frond) and has it pulled through town for people to see and the heroine to be embarrassed. He does that as a last resort as a jilted lover, if the heroine refuses his love.
13. When the heroine is lovesick and thin, her mother fears that she’s afflicted with a disease because of the wrath of Murukan, and brings a diviner to her house to appease Murukan, the mountain deity. The diviner (Velan) uses molucca beans and divines, offers a goat as sacrifice, ties a talisman on the heroine’s arms and does frenzied ritual dances on freshly laid sand in the front yard of the house that is decorated with flowers.
14. There is not a word in the English language for ‘virali’. A virali is a female artist who performs dances and also sings. She belongs to the bard’s family. She is the bard’s wife in some poems.
15. A demon protects wounded warriors on the battlefield, when they have nobody to guard them. This convention comes from Tholkāppiyam Purathinai Iyal.
16. Young women are described as having ‘bright forehead’, ‘sharp teeth’, ‘thick, dark hair’, ‘fragrant hair, ‘deer-like looks’, ‘bamboo-like arms’, ‘swaying walk’, ‘delicate shoulders’ etc. These phrases are repeated quite often in the poems. Young girls drew designs on their breasts and shoulders, and these were called thoyyil.
17. Morphemes are often used in the poems. These are words that function with nouns and verbs, and have no independent existence (அசைச்சொல்). The Tholkāppiyam describes the different morphemes and the situations where they can be used. They are: மன், தில், கொன், உம், ஓ, ஏ, என, என்று, மற்று, எற்று, மற்றையது, மன்ற, தஞ்சம், அந்தில், கொல், எல், ஆர், மா, மியா, இக, மோ, மதி, இகும், சின், அம்ம, ஆங்க, போலும், யா, கா, பிற, பிறக்கு, அரோ, போ, மாது.
18. There are references to Yavanas (Greek Ionians). They brought wine, served as body guards to kings, were merchants who brought us female figurine lamps with cupped hands as oil wells – பாவை விளக்கு in Perumpanatruppadai 316-317, and had goose lamps on posts in Nedunalvādai 101-103. There are references to Aryans in a couple of poems – Tamil kings repelling attacks of the Aryans, Aryans training wild elephants, Āryan acrobats performing on ropes etc. There are also few references to Mauryan incursions into Tamil Nadu.
Words used to describe the hero in Marutham poems: தண்துறை ஊரன், துறைகேழ் ஊரன், அணித்துறை ஊரன், மகிழ்நன், தண்ணம் துறைவன், மல்லல் ஊரன், பொய்கை ஊரன், யாணர் ஊரன், துறை நணி ஊரன், பூக்கஞல் ஊரன், கழனி ஊரன், புனல் அணி ஊரன், வண்டு தாது ஊதும் ஊரன், புனல் முற்று ஊரன், பழன ஊரன், நல் வயல் ஊரன், பெரும, கொழுநன், கலி மகிழ் ஊரன்
Words used to describe the hero in Neythal poems: கொண்கன், துறைவன், தண்ணம் துறைவன், மெல்லம்புலம்பன், இருங்கழிச் சேர்ப்பன், உரவுநீர் சேர்ப்பன், தண்கடல் சேர்ப்பன், தெண்கடல் சேர்ப்பன், பெருங்கடல் சேர்ப்பன், கானல் துறைவன், பெரும்துறை சேர்ப்பன், புலவுநீர் சேர்ப்பன், நெடுநீர் சேர்ப்பன், நளிகடல் சேர்ப்பன், தூ மணல் சேர்ப்பன், தண்புனல் சேர்ப்பன், இடுமணல் சேர்ப்பன், திரை தரூஉம் தலைவன், தாழை சேர்ப்பன், தடவுநிலை சேர்ப்பன், உயர்மணல் சேர்ப்பன், வார்மணல் சேர்ப்பன், விரிநீர்ச் சேர்ப்பன், கொண்கன், தேம் பாய் துறைவன், பனித்துறைச் சேர்ப்பன், மலி திரைச் சேர்ப்பன், அம் கானல் துறைவன், இலங்கு நீர்த் துறைகெழு கொண்கன், கானல் அம் பெருந்துறைச் சேர்ப்பன், மலி நீர்ச் சேர்ப்பன், பனி நீர்ச் சேர்ப்பன், பெரும் பௌவ நீர்த் துறைவன், தெண் கடல் பொருநன், கானலஞ் சேர்ப்பன், வரு திமில் எண்ணும் துறைவன், வளை மேய் பரப்பன், குவவு மணல் சேர்ப்பன், பூக்கேழ் புலம்பன்
Words used to describe the hero in Kurinji poems: மலை கிழவோன், ஓங்குமலை நாடன், நெடுமலை நாடன், கிழவோம், பெருவரை நாடன், வெற்பன், மலை நாடன், கல்லக வெற்பன், கல் கெழு நாடன், பெருமலை நாடன், பெருங்கல் நாடன், குன்ற நாடன், சாரல் நாடன், நன்மலை நாடன், ஓங்குவரை நாடன், சூர்மலை நாடன், கெழுமலை நாடன், விலங்குமலை நாடன், மலைக் கிழவன், ஆடுமயில் அகவு நாடன், மழை விளையாடு நாடன், மலை வெற்ப, மலை கெழு வெற்பன், குன்றுகெழு நாடன், மாமலை சிலம்பன், ஆர்கலி வெற்பன், இலங்குமலை நாடன், இலங்கு மலை வெற்பன், யாறு நிறை பகரும் நாடன், ஏ கல் வெற்பன், கூட்டு விரை கமழும் நாடன், பெருந்தேன் இறாஅல் கீறும் நாடன், கானக நாடன், வெறி கமழ் நாடன், சேய் மலை நாடன், அரு வரை நாடன், குன்று உயர் அடுக்கம் கொள்ளும் நாடன், பெரும, உயர் வரை நாடன், வான் தோய் வெற்பன், பெரு வரை அடுக்கத்து கிழவோன், பிறங்கல் மலை கிழவன், அம் மலை கிழவோன், கான நாடன், கானக நாடன், வரையக நாடன், குன்ற வெற்பன், மால் வரை நாடன், குன்றத்து அண்ணல், சாரல் நாடன், மல்கு நீர்ச் சேர்ப்ப, கான் கெழு நாடன், மை ஆடு சென்னிய மலை கிழவோனே, கோடு உயர் வெற்பன், மாக் கல் வெற்பன்
Words used to describe the hero in Pālai poems: விடலை, காளை, தோன்றல், பெரும, இறு வரை நாட, பூக் கேழ் ஊர
Words used to describe the hero in Mullai poems: புறவின் நாடு கிழவோன், மென்புல வைப்பின் நாடு கிழவோன், நீடு நீர் பனித்துறை சேர்ப்பன், புறவணி நாடன், இருங்கலி வெற்பன், பெரும, புன்புல நாடன், கான் கெழு நாடன், வன்புல நாடன், வரையக நாடன்