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Tamil is one of mankind’s oldest languages, belonging to the Dravidian linguistic family. This description fits Tamil perfectly. Its sophisticated script and detailed grammar have created the ideal structure for the flowering of literature – prose, poetry, drama, literary criticism, lyrics and sacred chants. It offers a fascinating window to a hoary culture that has not changed perceptibly in millennia. Sangam literature comprises one of the largest known ancient body of works in any language, much of which is available today. The earliest we hear of Tamil literary activity are epoch-making events: the three sangam or conventions between 300 BCE and 300 CE. The first two Sangams are too far into the past for precise dates. They were held in South Madurai (south of the present-day Madurai) and Kapatapuram, both submerged by the sea.

Sangam literature

The legendary Rishi Agastya participated in the first Sangam and formulated rules of Tamil grammar. At the second Sangam was Tolkappiar, Agastya’s disciple who compiled the authoritative book on Tamil grammar, Tolkappiam. Most of the surviving literature is from the third Sangam. In an assembly presided over by the Pandya king, and an audience comprising nobility and the common citizenry, wordsmiths presented their works at court to be rewarded by the king and be evaluated by their peers. Experts in the fields of mathematics,music, medicine, astrology, astronomy were also present. While religious texts of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism were presented, the majority of the work was secular. Some poets were wandering bards, others courtiers and confidants of rulers. Works of nearly 600 poets from all strata of society were compiled. It was not unusual to find women participants. The Sangam era ended with the invasion of the Kalabra dynasty in 3rd century CE. However, it’s influence still pervaded. Medieval saint-poets and litterateurs from sixth century CE allude to the Sangam works. Nakkirar, himself an acclaimed poet of the eighth century CE, compiled a detailed commentary, Iraiyanar Akapporul, on Sangam poetry.

Around 1000 CE, these scattered works were retrieved and collected into anthologies with added colophons. The colophons are authentic sources of information on the author, his patron, the occasion for which the work was written, the place, date of the copy and the scribe’s name. Today we have anthologies of more than 2000 poems by numerous poets composed under the patronage of various rulers. These are in varying metres and range from 3 to 40 lines. In the Sangam period, like today, the literature on lives of people could be classified into two broad groups.

Aham poetry deals with inner lives of protagonists. It also depicts family life and interpersonal relationships, with the accent on love in its myriad shades – separation, unrequited love and reconciliation. Puram poetry emphasises the outer or public domain. The themes were wars, administration, trade, customs, philosophy and elegies with an emphasis on heroism. A variation was Akappuram, verses which were a combination of Aham and Puram.Thus a separation due to war would fall under this category. We get clues on several varied aspects of life: geographical locations, architecture, clothing, social mores.

Seasons and landscapes were used as metaphors and similes in Thinai poems called ‘The Ten Idylls’ dealing with nature. They set the mood for the poem. Some parts of ‘The Ten Idylls’ are detailed descriptions of the natural riches of the kingdom, the terrain, the seasons, wild life, the interplay of human emotions, sentiments and economic wealth connected to the greatness of the poet’s benefactor – the king. The poems show great variety of form and adherence to rules of grammar. Poets used meter, rhyme and blank verse. Yet other poems were set to music which varied to suit different occasions. Mention has been made of several kinds of percussion, string and wind instruments. Some of the poems were sung in a specific raga, accompanied by a string and a wind instrument.

The drum was the most popular and used in festivals to enliven proceedings, as an accompaniment for singers and in war. Details of the process of making and tuning these instruments are also given. We also come to know of foreigners who visited the Tamil shores. ‘Yavana’ applied to both Greeks and Romans. They are described as being of “fine physique and strange speech” whose “well-built boats rode the waves of foaming rivers”. The Pattinapalai talks of “well-weighed goods in abundance being exported with the Tiger mark impressed on them so as to recover customs duty.” The exports included ivory, pearls from the Pandyan kingdom, pepper from the Chera port Muziris. Also in the list were perfumes, herbs, sesame oil, coconut oil, gold, sandalwood, betel, diamonds, rubies, coral, tamarind, tortoise shell and salt. Extremely fine cloth, described in Sangam works as “webs of woven wind” was much sought-after. Sangam literature also mentions imports amongst which counted fine Italian wine served in golden goblets. Some of the foods and dishes mentioned are sesame, salt, rice, ragi, rabbit, quail, tamarind, sweet potato, sugarcane, idli, roast meat and appam. Even a cursory glance shows the antiquity of these foods and the fact that eating patterns have not altered significantly in millennia! Equally interesting are the comments and point of view of these writers, so ancient in their age yet so modern in their assessment of human nature.

Authors: Padma Raghavan, Savita Narayan
Photograph © A. Raghavan
Source: Heritage India Volume 4, Issue 2

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