Wednesday, May 10, 2017

2. Are olden Tamil texts reliable sources of past history?

Literature is considered as one of the sources to decipher history as it mirrors the culture and the life of the people and also the events of the time when it was written. However this source suffers from two defects namely, the element of imagination that the author would have wielded as a matter of literary freedom and the creeping in of interpolations at some point of time. But Sangam Literature stands out as a credible source as its composition and purpose does not give room for these two defects.

In the area of imagination, the Sangam poets have deployed two methods, one to describe something by using real life sightings / occurrences and another to use some events for comparison.

Comparison with real life sightings.

Most times the poets have described in many ways what one sees around. To quote an example, let us look at a poem on Pandyan king by name ‘Koodakaaratthuth thunjiya Maaran Vazhuthi” by Aiyur Mudavanaar (Pura Nanuru 51)

The king’s name itself gives a historic fact that he died in a place called Koodakaaram. His death might have occurred in a war in Koodakaaram. Presently there exists a place called Kodakara in Trissur in what was Cheran land in olden times. {A future discovery of an epigraph or an archaeological site might prove the veracity of Kodakara as former Koodakara}.

The poet’s name also gives a description of himself. His original name is not revealed, but his home town (Aiyur) and his disability (Mudavan) are revealed in this name. Mudavan means a lame person. This disability must have been there right from his younger age (a case of polio affliction?) that he was better identified as a lame person than by his original name. And he had no issues for being called as lame and it also seems that in those times it was not derogatory to call one by the disability one has. His disability did not deter him from getting an education to the level of composing and delivering a poem in the Sangam Assembly of intellectuals and in front of the king of the day. This poet has contributed 10 poems in all and one of them got him carts as gifts that helped him to move around easily.  

The interesting feature found in this poem on the Pandyan king was that this king never accepted the idea that Tamil land was common to all the three kings (Chera and Cholas besides himself) (1). If someone says so, he would get angry and would not rest until the one who said so was finished in war or agree to become subservient to him. The poet continues to say that those who faced the wrath of this king had existence like that of the winged termite (called ‘eesal’ in Tamil) that lives for a day after leaving the termite hill. Like this, the poets had given examples from what was seen in nature.

In this poem, two more information is found. 

One is the use of word “Thamizh” for the land. The language was Tamil and the land was Tamil even as early as 2000 years ago

The second was the desire to bring all the lands of Tamil (3 kingdoms) under one’s control

When the ruler was powerful he tried to bring all the kingdoms under his tutelage. Cheran King Senguttuvan exhibited his control over all the 3 kingdoms when he got the other two kings affix their seals in the communication he sent in the name of Tamils to the countries of North India. 

It seems the Pandyan king Maran Vazhuthi could not achieve this goal in his life time. His death in Koodakaram, if that happened to be in Cheran land, shows that he failed to bring the Cheras under his control. Kodakara in Trissur and its surroundings might be hiding some history under their sands.

The three kings with their emblem in the flags.
Chera (Bow and arrow), Chola (Tiger), Pandya (Fish)

Comparison with incidents

The second kind of description involves some incidents. One such incident is quoted from none other than Rama’s life!

The location is somewhere near the sea shore in the Pandyan land. 
A girl and a boy were in love with each other and were meeting secretly. This became the talk of the community who cast a slur on the girl. The girl’s friend was troubled by this and she managed to convince the boy to make his relationship open by agreeing to marry the girl. The poem is what the friend was telling the girl about the boy coming to marry her. By agreeing to marry the girl, the boy would be able to stop the talks of the people. While saying this, the girl makes an extraordinary comparison with Rama.

The chirping sound of the birds in the banyan tree near the shore of the Pandyan kingdom, under which Rama was in secret discussion about the upcoming war was stopped by the wave of hand by Rama. (2) Likewise the talks of the people would stop immediately the moment the boy marries the girl. What a comparison of an unimaginable kind!

The poet had only conveyed the ideas of the people of the day. The poem is under the category of the land type called “Neidhal” which refers to sea shore and the adjoining places. The poem under this category would reflect the life, talks and thoughts of the people living in this location. The shore under reference belongs to Pandyas. Unless a belief had existed among the people that Rama did come to this shore and from there made his trip to Lanka, this kind of a comparison could not have come up. 

A banyan tree also finds a place in the narration. So banyan trees were there closer to the shores in this part of Pandyan land. This gives rise to an opinion that people for ages have talked about the possible location or even a grand tree under which Rama took his seat. 

The visualisation of Rama shooing the birds into silence might be the poet’s imagination. But he used it convey the idea that incessant and disturbing sound of low decibel (in the nature of whisper) of the people was immediately stopped. The poet could have used some other comparison, but he thought of Rama’s presence because this land must have been having the legend of Rama’s trip to their shores.

There are people questioning the historicity of Rama, but here in a remote sea shore location of the Pandyan land, people have lived in the memory of Rama and how he spent his time during his brief stay there.

Poet’s imagination comes in the comparison of whispers of the people with the noise of the birds which was also of low decibel level. The poet could have just said that someone shooed the birds to stop the noise. But that he used Rama’s name specifically conveys a local tradition that existed in his times and perhaps from a distant past.

The name he uses to refer to Pandyas is also a unique one which we don’t see in recorded history. The oldest name for Pandyas was “Gowriya” meaning descendants of Gowri or coming in the lineage of Gowri. The Pandyas trace their beginnings to Meenakshi, the daughter of Malayadwaja who married Sundareshwar, regarded as Lord Siva himself. They saw in their image, Gowri and Siva and therefore called themselves as Gowriyar. This poem mentions Gowriyar while referring to Pandyas. This name in antiquity matches with the incident on Rama which is also a very olden one. Like this one finds remarkable usage of ideas and instances that cannot dismissed as imagined ones.

One can quote numerous poems from Sangam literature of the above kind to drive home the point that these poems were not imagined ones but reflective of real people, their thoughts and beliefs.

Naming tradition.

The poet’s name also conveys a tradition that existed in Tamil lands which was there throughout India also. 
The poet is known as “Madurai Thamizh Kootthanaar Kaduvan Mallanaar”.  

Madurai must have been the native place of the poet. 
There is a poet by name Thamizh Kootthan having written another poem of the Sangam literature. Having this name as prefix it conveys that he was the father of the poet under discussion.  

The remaining name is “Kaduvan Mallanaar” 
Mallan refers to a title or job as the chief of army. So that gives the poet’s name as Kaduvan. 

This gives a naming tradition of having the native place first, followed by father’s name, and then one’s own name followed by one’s profession. A comparison with naming traditions in other parts of India might give more information on how united or diversified the regions were in the past in this respect.

No scope for interpolation.

There is also no scope for interpolation of these poems. 

One main reason is the way poems obey rules of grammar
Any kind of tampering with the poem can be found out. 
Moreover the Sangam poems were of a different Tamil which one does not come across in the works of the last 2000 years. 
Even the Tamil of Silappadhikaram is not like Sangam Tamil.
Most of the words of Sangam poems are not in usage in today’s literary works. 
It is not possible to understand Sangam literature without commentaries. 
There do exist commentaries written in times of yore, say atleast 1000 years ago.   

Another reason for lack or absence of tampering with the poems is the way this literature was handed down from generation to generation through excellent Gurukul system
From Tholkappiyam and from inscriptions we know that Brahmins did follow their Varna duty of learning and teaching others.

According to Tholkaappiyam there were 6 works for Brahmins which in reality were taken up not by one but 6 types of Brahmins (3) and all of them were engaged in teaching besides their Vedic duties. 

Writing on these 6 types, the 9th century commentator Nacchinarkkinyar says that both Sanskrit based and Tamil based education was imparted. There was a broad classification into Sanskrit and Tamil learning. Three types of Brahmins were engaged in teaching Sanskrit and three were engaged in teaching Tamil.  

The 3 categories of Sanskrit and Tamil teaching were known as head, middle and end. (முதல்இடைகடை)  (4) 
Grammar formed the head of learning, literature and Dharma sastras the middle and other books formed the end level of learning. 
Thus there were three categories of Sanskrit teaching and three categories of Tamil teaching of head, middle and end level of study material. 
The middle and end level in Tamil included study of Sangam poetry.

Thus the continuous imparting of Sangam literature had happened. It was only after the colonial interruptions in education, the Sangam texts were lost and later found out by Dr U.Ve Swaminatha Iyer in the last century.

A notable feature of Sangam poems is that not many Brahmins contributed to Sangam poetry. 
The Brahmin poets were less in number compared to others who have contributed to the Sangam literature. This shows that they have trained the students from different castes in writing poetry and enabled them to deliver them in a learned forum like the Sangam Assemblage but  not competed with them in the presenting their poems.  

In the Tamil lexicon, we come across a term called "Kulapathy" – a title given to a teacher who has taught 1000 students! 

This shows the level of literacy and awareness on education. Only one Sangam poem was attributed to one Kulapathy NakkaNNanaar of Kidangil. (5). NakkaNNan is a Brahmin name. The 'na' prefix is added as a respect. His original name was Kannan which is common among Brahmins. 

Other than him, no 'Kulapathy" was known to have contributed to Sangam literature. The Assemblage was open to anyone who could demonstrate his poetic and Tamil skills. There were female poets too having contributed some of the finest poems that mirror the history and culture of Tamils. We will discuss them all in appropriate contexts.


Having touched upon the reliability of the Sangam texts as true accounts, let us proceed to see that the information in these texts go hand in hand with archaeological and epigraphic findings. 

Many a time, the information in the texts has helped to understand discoveries in epigraphy or archaeology and in interpreting passages in Ramayana and Mahabharta. We will see 3 such instances in the upcoming article .


1. Pura Nanuru - 51   

'தண் தமிழ் பொது' எனப் பொறாஅன், போர் எதிர்ந்து,
கொண்டி வேண்டுவன் ஆயின், 'கொள்க' எனக்
கொடுத்த மன்னர் நடுக்கு அற்றனரே;
அளியரோ அளியர், அவன் அளி இழந்தோரே
நுண் பல சிதலை அரிது முயன்று எடுத்த
செம் புற்று ஈயல் போல,
ஒரு பகல் வாழ்க்கைக்கு உலமருவோரே!

2. Aga Nanuru – 70

வென் வேற் கவுரியர் தொல் முது கோடி
முழங்கு இரும் பௌவம் இரங்கும் முன் துறை,
வெல்போர் இராமன் அரு மறைக்கு அவித்த
பல் வீழ் ஆலம் போல,
ஒலி அவிந்தன்று, இவ் அழுங்கல் ஊரே.

3.  Tholkaappiyam, Puraththinai iyal  74 "அறுவகைப் பட்ட பார்ப்பனப்பக்கமும்"

4.  ஆறு பார்ப்பியல் என்னாது வகை என்றதனான்அவை தலைஇடை,கடை என ஒன்று மும்மூன்றாய்ப் பதினெட்டாம் என்று கொள்கஅவை ஓதல்ஓதுவித்தல்வேட்டல்வேட்பித்தல்கொடுத்தல்கோடல் என ஆறாம் இருக்கும்எசுரும்சாமமும் இவை தலையாய ஓத்து. இவை வேள்வி முதலியவற்றை விதித்தலின் இலக்கணமுமாய்வியாகரணத்தான் ஆராயப்படுதலின் இலக்கியமும் ஆயின. அதர்வமும்ஆறங்கமும்தருமநூலும் இடையாய ஓத்து. இதிகாசமும் புராணமும் வேதத்துக்கு மாறுபடுவாரை மறுக்கும் உறழ்ச்சி நூலும்அவரவர் அதற்கு மாறுபடக் கூறும் நூல்களும் கடையாய ஓத்து. எழுத்து சொல்லும் பொருளும் ஆராய்ந்து இம்மைப்பயன் தருதலின்அகத்தியம் தொல்காப்பியம் முதலிய தமிழ் நூல்களும் இடையாய ஓத்து ஆம் என்று உணர்க. இவையெல்லாம் இலக்கணம். இராமாயணமும் பாரதமும் போல்வன இலக்கியம். இனி,தமிழ்ச் செய்யுட் கண்ணும் இறையனாரும் அகத்தியனாரும் மார்க்கண்டேயனாரும் வான்மீகனாரும் கவுதமனாரும் போல்வார் செய்தன தலையும்இடைச் சங்கத்தார் செய்தன இடையும்கடைச்சங்கத்தார் செய்தன கடையுமாகக் கொள்க."  (நச்சினார்க்கினியர்.)

5. Kurum thogai 252

(To be continued)


Unknown said...

The post is very interesting and induces in me enthusiasm to learn more from you about sangam literature and connection with life of people of that period.
One small observation, if I can mention. You have referred to Sri Swaminatha Iyer as U.Ve. Normally that is an abbrevation for Ubhaya Vedanta, meaning scholar of two vedantas, viz. Vedas and Tamil Vedas Nalayira divya prabhandam. This is therefore attributed to Sri Vaishnavas and not addressed to people following Advaita philosophy. It is a coincidence that the initials of Sri Swaminatha Iyer were also U and V, indicating his birth place Ulaganathapuram and his father name Venkatasubbaiyer!

jayasree said...

Thanks for your compliments and your clarification on the initials of U.Ve Sa. I am still a learner in Sangam literature. I am only finding connections between some inputs found in sangam litt with other info. Kurum thogai, Aga nanuru and Mullai- kali are a delight to read and know about the life and thinking of ancient Tamils. You may browse this link to read the sangam texts along with commentary.

Unknown said...

Thanks Madam, I will certainly read those treasures!