|"The following works of art
and literature are among the most remarkable contributions of the Tamil
creative genius to the world's cultural treasure and should be familiar to
the whole world and admired and beloved by all in the same way as the poems
of Homer, the dramas of Shakespeare, the pictures of Rembrandt, the
cathedrals of France and the sculptures of Greece ......
The ancient Tamil lyrical poetry compiled in ‘The Eight Anthologies’; this
poetry is so unique and vigorous, full of such vivid realism and written so
masterfully that it can be compared probably only with some of the pieces of
ancient Greek lyrical poetry....."
Contribution to World Civilisation - Czech Professor Dr. Kamil Zvelebil
in Tamil Culture - Vol. V, No. 4. October, 1956)
புறம் என்று இத்திறத்த எட்டுத் தொகை
Mu.Varadarajan on Ettuthokai
International Conference Seminar of Tamil Studies,
Malaysia, April 1966
0.1 The eight anthologies called Ettuthokai form part of
early Tamil literature known as Sangam literature written eighteen centuries
ago. They consist of two thousand three hundred and seventy-one poems
varying from small stanzas of three lines in Ainkurunuru to stanzas of forty
lines in Purananuru.
There are four hundred and seventy poets known either by
their proper names or by causal names called from their works. The authors
are unidentified in the case of a hundred stanzas. The poets belonged to
different parts of Tamilnad and to different professions.
Some of them were very popular like Kapilar, Nakkirar and
Auvaiyar and some others are
rarely remembered by their names. Yet a general harmony prevails throughout
these eight anthologies. The tone and temper of the age is reflected in all
their poems with a singular likeness. They were moulded according to certain
literary conventions or traditions that prevailed in the Sangam age. Yet
they reveal the individual genius of the poets who sang them.
convention of the later days that poetry should deal with the four aspects
of life, viz aram (virtue), porul, (wealth and politics), inpam (love and
pleasure) and vitu (salvation), was not prevalent,
1 in those early days. The poets
sang either of Akam or Puram. Akam dealt with ideal love and Puram with the
rest, viz. war, munificence, etc.
0.3 Of the eight anthologies five are on Akam, two on Puram, and one on
both. Six of them are in 'akaval' metre which is a kind of blank verse,
interspersed with alliterations and rhymes. The poems on Akam as well as
Puram theme are written in this metre and its regulated and subtle music
adds to the poetic beauty. This metre is a simple but wonderful instrument
which causes no impediment to the freedom of expression of the poet. In has
been found to be an appropriate and natural medium for the expression of the
valuable experience of the poets.
The other two anthologies that are not
written in `akaval' metre are Kalittokai and Paripatal. The poems of
Kalittokai are in Kali metre which is well known for its dramatic and
lyrical qualities and which, according to Tolkappiyanar,2
is well suited to express the emotions of the lovers. There is repetition of
certain lines and phrases and this, added to the haunting music of the
metre, is very appealing.
Paripatal is a metre full of rhythm and music
and the anthology known by this name consists of songs composed in this
metre. There are religious poems as well as those on love-themes. The
love-theme is worked against the background of bathing festivities. These
songs were sung in different tunes as is evident from the notes on the music
at the end of these. The names of the musicians who set tunes to these songs
are also mentioned therein.
1. ‘Akam’ Poetry
1.1 In the poems on Akam, the aspects of love
of a hero and a heroine are depicted. The story of love is never conceived
as a continuous whole. A particular moment of love is captured and described
in each poem as the speech of the hero or the lady-companion or somebody
else. There are one thousand, eight hundred and fifty poems of this type in
five anthologies, viz. Akananuru, Narrinai, Kuruntokai, Ainkurunuru, and
One may expect a sort of monotonous repetition in these hundreds of poems
on more or less the same aspects of ideal love. This is what one finds in
all the Indian arts, sculpture or iconography or music. But when looked at
carefully, the individual genius of the poet is revealed through his
contribution. He gives something which is already familiar to the readers,
something which assures them of a continuity of the past art, but he gives
it with his fine colourings distinguished by his own rich experience and
imagination. And thus instead of monotony we feel a surprise that so many
variations of the same theme should be possible.
The first attempt to
arrange all the contexts of such love poetry into a series of continuous
succession of speeches giving as it were the story of two lovers is found
several centuries later in the `kovai' species.3
1.2 Love was dealt with in five ‘tinais', each pertaining to a particular
region with its own suitable season and appropriate hour of the day and its
flora and fauna and characteristic environment. The aspect of love is called
the uripporul or the subject matter of the `tinai ; the region, the season
and the hour are called the `mutal porul' or the basic material; the objects
of environment are denoted as `karupporul'. Kurinci-tinai or the clandestine
union of the lovers is characteristic of the mountainous region;
mullai-tinai or the life at home spent in expectation of the return of the
hero is set with the background of the forest region; maruta-tinai or the
sulky life has the agricultural tract as its background; neytal-tinai or the
life of despair is characteristic of the sea coast; palai-tinai or the life
of desolation in separation is depicted in arid tract.
Literary tradition in Tamil has closely associated the sloping hills and
the winding streams with the adventures of the lover coming to his
sweetheart at midnight, the early winter and the mullai blossoms of the
forests with the patient waiting of the wife for her husband's return from
the battlefield, the fertile paddy fields and the roaming buffaloes with the
careless life of the hero in the company of a harlot, the backwaters and the
seashore with the heart-rending despair of the heroine and finally the
waterless arid tract of the withered trees and emaciated beasts and birds
with the separation of the hero from the heroine in pursuit of wealth in a
far off country.
1.3 Tolkappiyanar clarifies the relative importance of
these three components of tinai.4
According to him karupporul is more important than mutalporul, and uripporul
is more important than the other two. In other words, the aspect of love is
the most important part, the objects of environment come next and the
region, the season and the hour are less important. There are a few poems in
the anthologies which have no mutalporul but only the other two, a few poems
have neither karupporul nor mutalporul but only uripporul or the aspect of
1.4 The poems on the theme of love are all in the form of dramatic
monologues. The hero, the heroine or the lady-companion seems to appear on
the stage and express his or her feelings and thoughts. Appropriate natural
scenery forms the background. The poet has no place on this poetic stage. He
cannot express his own ideas or feelings unless through the actors, the
hero, the heroine and others in the drama of love. What have been expressed,
have to be taken as the feelings and thoughts of the characters imagined and
created by him. The poet merges himself in the characters he creates and
does not, as in subjective poetry or in ordinary narrative, describe or
relate in his own person and from the outside. The dramatic element commonly
appears more or less prominently in the shape of dialogue. There might have
been some autobiographical material incorporated by the poet in such poems,
but it is not always easy to distinguish those elements. These are dramatic
lyrics, and in spirit and method subjective poems: but the subjective
element pertains, not to the poet himself, but to some imagined characters
into whose feelings and thoughts he gives vicarious expression.
there is this great difference between the early eight anthologies and the
later works as regards the men and the women dealt with in them. In the
mediaeval epics and other literary works, the common man and woman never
attained the status of hero and heroine, whereas in the poems on love the
ordinary man and women either in the mountainous region or in other regions
are depicted as the hero and the heroine.
1.6 Tolkappiyanar has explained the literary conventions of his age and
stated that he based his observations on the usages honoured by the practice
of the great poets (patalut-payinravai natunkalai).5
He has clearly noted in a `nurpa' that in the poems on Akam, the name of the
hero or the heroine, should never be mentioned. In the poems on love found
in Ettuthokai, there is not a single stanza wherein the hero or the heroine
is mentioned by name. The hero is mentioned in these poems simply as the man
of the mountain, the man of the town, the person of the sea coast, etc. So
also the heroine is referred to as the woman of the hill tribes, the girl of
the peasants, the daughter of the fisherman, etc.
The poets did not want
the readers to identify the hero and the heroine with historical persons. As Professor
T. P. Meenakshisundaram puts it, Akam poetry "expresses not something to
be dated with reference to any particular person",6
and the aspect of love depicted in it is intended to be universal and common
to all times. "The majority of the world's great lyrics", says Hudson,7
"owe their place in literature very largely to the fact that they embody
what is typically human rather than what is merely individual and
Every reader finds in the love-lyrics of the early Tamil anthologies the
expression of such experiences and feelings in which he himself is fully
able to share. Thus, by prohibiting the mention of the names of the hero and
the heroine in these lyrics the literary tradition in Tamil has preserved
Akam poetry pure and enabled it to give outward forms to the inner feelings
not of the individual but of the ideal man and woman.
1.7 Nature is used
to enrich the suggestive nature of poetry and this kind of suggestions
through some description of Nature is called `iraicci'. When the hero has
been meeting his sweetheart at night during his pre marital relationship,
the lady-companion desires to impress on him the necessity of hastening the
marriage and asks him to come and meet her during daytime. She specifies a
place for the meeting of the lovers during daytime and describes it as the
place where the honeycombs hang, the trees are full of ripe fruits and the
creepers have blossoms in abundance. She expects the hero to understand from
this description that a number of people will frequent the spot attracted by
the honey, the ripe fruits and the fragrant flowers and thus indirectly
forbids him from coming at daytime as well as at night and urges him to
marry and avoid such clandestine meetings.8
Similarly when he frequently comes at daytime, she requests him to come
during nights and describes the frontyard of the house as adorned by the
punnai trees with fragrant blossoms and the palmyra trees with the nests of
anril birds. The suggestion herein is that at night the anril birds are so
close to the house that they keep the heroine awake throughout the night by
their heart-rending cries ; 9
here is also the indirect urge on him to marry early and settle himself in
an inseparable life.
1.8 In some kinds of descriptions especially in love
songs of marutatinai, Nature is used in allegories called `ullurai uvaman'
or `the implied simile'. All the objects of Nature and their activities
stand for the hero, the heroine and others and their activities in the drama
of love. The latter are not at all mentioned but only suggested through the
former. It is simile incognito which leaves it to the reader to discover it.
The commentator Peraciriyar explains it as a type resorted to make the
literary expressions more beautiful and apt.
An otter enters a lotus tank,
scatters the vallai creepers, seizes the valai fish amidst them, feeds upon
them and returns in the early morning to its rattan bush. The heroine
describes this in order to blame her husband on his return from a harlot's
house. She suggests to him that she is aware of his infidelity, of his loose
morals, of pleasing the harlot's parents and relatives and of returning home
at dawn for a formal stay. Here the otter stands for the hero, the `valai'
fish for the harlot, the `vallai' creepers for her parents and the `rattan
bush' for his own house.
In such descriptions, the speaker hesitates to
express certain things openly but desires to dwell on minutely in a wordy
caricature of a familiar incident in Nature and through it more effectively
conveys to the listener all the feelings and thoughts.
1.9 The anthologies
are abounding in apostrophes. The hero or the heroine addresses the sea, the
moon, the wind, the crow, the crab, a tree or a creeper and expresses the
grief of the heart or requests one of them to sympathize with him or her.
The heroine addresses the sea and enquires of it as to why it cries aloud
even at midnight and who caused such suffering.
12 She also asks it whether it
cries aloud in sympathy with the misery of those pining in separation just
like herself or whether it has been forsaken by anybody as in her own case.13
She blames the north wind as merciless and unsympathetic.14
"Oh, chill north wind! we never meant any harm to you. Please do not cause
further suffering to this forsaken and miserable soul of mine."
15 She remarks that it mercilessly
blows at midnight to afflict her in her loneliness without any pity for her
utter despair and bids it blow through the country where the hero is so as
to remind him of her and make him return.
16 The hero in the distant country
feels the effects of the north wind but only thinks of his sweetheart
suffering lonely in the distant village and requests it not to blow through
her village and cause her more distress."
2. 'Puram' Poetry
2.1 There are some `arruppatai' or guide-songs
in the two anthologies, Purananuru and Patirruppattu. In these, the bard,
either a musician or dancer or actor (panan, virali or kuttan) who has
received gifts from a generous patron guides another bard suffering from
poverty and directs him to the same patron for help. Descriptions of the way
to the city of the patron and praises of his endearing qualities abound in
such guidesongs. In Purananuru, there are seven poems as guide-songs of the
musicians, four of the women dancers, and three of the literary artists.
Patirruppattu contains one guide-song of the musician and five of the women
dancers. All of them are in accordance with the exposition of Tolkappiyanar
regarding the form of such songs." 18
22. The elegies in Purananuru are frankly personal and are high tributes to
the dead patrons and friends. A few of them extended to be poems of some
philosophical significance. They are the outpourings of the emotions of the
poets who were so much attached to the patrons. In these elegies we do not
find such similitude of a shepherd mourning for a companion as we have in
the pastoral elegies in western literature.
19 These elegies in Tamil are
genuine and spontaneous. There is no artificiality in them. They express
intimate and personal grief. They cannot be charged of artificiality as in
Milton's Lycidas. Like Tennyson's In Memoriam the ancient Tamil elegy speaks
in its own character and calls things by real instead of allegorical names.
We need not penetrate a disguise to feel the poet's personal grief. The
ancient Tamil elegies are entirely free from any conventional bucolic
2.3 There is one peculiarity to be noted in these anthologies.
Whenever the poets wanted to express their gratitude to their royal patrons,
or their admiration of the generosity and valour of some chieftains, they
did so through their compositions on `Puram' theme, the theme intended for
these. Besides this, they also made use of their poems on Akam to introduce
the glory of their patrons by way of comparison or by mentioning their
mountains or forests as background for the drama of love depicted in such
The scandal about the association of the hero with a harlot is said
to be more widespread than the joyous uproar of the army of the Pandiya king
when it defeated and chased the armies of the two enemy kings in the battle
at Kutal.20 In an apostrophe
to the north wind, the lady companion says that the wind which now during
the separation of the lover causes so much distress to the heroine will
disappear when the lover returns home. Therein she mentions that the north
wind will then run away like the nine chieftains who were defeated in a
single day by the great Cola king, Karikalan and who ran away leaving all
their nine umbrellas in the battlefield at Vakai.
21 In another stanza the lady
companion consoles the distressed heroine that there is no room for any
suffering and assures her that the hero will never desert her to seek wealth
even if it amounts to possession of the Elil hills of Konkana Nannan.22
Some of these poems have long and elaborate descriptions of the achievements
of partons and give the impression that though they are on Akam theme, the
aim of the poet was only to praise the achievements of their patrons and
that the theme of love served as a formula or means to serve this purpose.
But it is not always so. As Dr. K. K. Pillai observes,
23 "it had become almost a
convention with the poets of that age to portray the feelings or reactions
of lovers by instituting comparisons with prominent political occurrences.
The wide popularity which they had attained provided the temptation for the
poets to import them into their comparisons so as to make the descriptions
impressive and realistic."
The commentators of Tolkappiyam interpret
`nurpa' No. 155 in "Porulatikaram" so as to admit and explain such
introduction of the glory and attainments of the partons in poems on the
theme of love.
2.4 The ancient poets were well known for their
self-respect and dignity and they felt it very delicate to approach a
chieftain and directly ask him for a gift. But they found it agreeable to
please them by singing the glory of his ancestors or his own achievements or
praising the beauty or fertility of his mountains and forests, and thus
indirectly indicate to him their request for his gift. They found this a
useful device to serve their purpose as direct asking did not suit their
sense of honour. This is evident from the poem of Mocikiranar in Purananuru,
wherein he stated "It is difficult for me to ask you for a gift. But I find
it easier to praise the Konperunkanam hills of yours."
Even Kapilar, who was more a
close friend than a court poet of the great patron Pari, has written more
lines in praise of his Parampu hills than those on the patron himself.
3.1 The sun, the moon, the trees, the birds, the
beasts and other objects of nature have been artistically described in the
poems of these anthologies. But they have never been loved and described for
their own sake, as in modern poetry. They have been described in early
poetry only to portray some aspects of life. Nature serves only as
background for or setting to the human emotions that are depicted in Akam or
Puram poetry. They serve as frames for pictures of love or war, munificence,
etc. Though Nature is thus made subservient to the human theme, yet there is
free play of descriptions of nature. Nature has a prominent, though not a
primary place in these anthologies. These poems treat all outward things as
subordinate to the inner forces and problems upon which the interest is
concentrated. 26 They
essentially depict mental states and are predominantly psychological,
meditative and argumentative.
3.2 The poets of Ettutokai believed in the
unique effects of a few deft touches of description, not in the elaborate
and full descriptions of all the parts of a beautiful object or scene. In
the later days, the poets indulged in the descriptions of persons from head
to foot or from foot to head calling such descriptions
கேசாதி பாத வருணனை and
பாதாதி கேச வருணனை.
According to Winchester 27
the difference between unimaginative treatment of Nature and imaginative
treatment is the difference between trying to describe all one sees and
rendering in a few epithets or images what one feels. The pictures of the
poets of Ettuthokai consist of only a few vivid features enough to interpret
and communicate their emotional experiences. They drop out of their pictures
all irrelevant and unpleasant details, so that the reader's attention is
concentrated upon the few features that give him a powerful and
characteristic impression. Through single lines, or sometimes single
epithets, the poets flash upon the reader's imagination the whole pictures.
The picture of a hare by the poet Tamilk-kuttanar of Madurai may be cited
as an example. 28 In one
single line of four simple Qualifiers and four small nouns - tumayirk
kuruntal netuncevik kurumuyal (the small hare with pure fur, short legs and
long ears) - the complete picture of the animal is impressively drawn. Such
simple and direct words have a suggestive magical power. There is no room
for exaggeration in such artistic descriptions, which are rather
interpretations of the poets' experience. They have such an intensity of
feeling and imagination that their descriptions do not deteriorate into
A Japanese painter once confessed that he had to concentrate
on the bamboo for many years and still a certain technique for the rendering
of the tips of bamboo leaves eluded him.29
Word-painting is no less difficult. Many of the ancient Tamil poets have
mastered this word painting. They frequently use simple adjectives that
convey with force their deep thought and experience regarding the pictures
3.3 In the descriptions of the beauty of the heroine, we find
only one or two aspects of beauty artistically touched.
வெறுத்த ஏஎர் வேய்புரை பணைத் தோள்ன
(the lady abounding in beauty and with bamboo-like shoulders.)
அந்தீங் கிளவி ஆயிழை மடந்தை
(the lady of pleasant red lips resembling the petals of `kavir' and of
sweet words, wearing fine jewels.)
Even in the descriptions which extended
to more than six lines and which form part of the monologues of the hero, we
find that he restricts himself to two or three aspects of the physical
beauty of his sweetheart and never transcends the limits of decency.
Therefore the hundreds of such poems dealing with love are happily devoid of
obscenity. Even the songs on the harlots and the hero's association with
them are free from gross bawdiness. Sexual passions have been purged of
their obscenity through dignified poetic touches.
3.4 The early poets did
not like to introduce foreign or borrowed images in their poetry. They
always copied direct from life and Nature. Even when they had to describe
the scenes of a distant country which they had not seen, as for example
those of the Ganges in flood, 32
or of the Yak at the foot of the Himalayas
33 they did not describe them in
detail but restricted themselves to the facts they knew from others and
avoided the odd mixture of any incongruous details in them. Even while
describing the scenes of their own country, they did not extend their
descriptions beyond their own observation and experience. For example,
Kapilar, a great poet of the age, who had left us the maximum number of
songs, had not depicted the agricultural region, he was content to deal with
the mountains and their surroundings.
The poet Perunkatunko of the Cera family, celebrated for his descriptions
of the arid mountains and forests, was silent about the beauties of the
coastal region. Ammuvanar and other poets who had written so much on the
coastal region were silent about the hills and the forests. They wrote
according to the fundamental principle stressed by Hudson, "the principle
that, whether his range of experience and personal power be great or small,
a man should write of that which lies at his own doors, should make it his
chief business to report faithfully of what he has lived, seen, thought,
felt, known, for himself." 34
This sincerity or fidelity is characteristic of the poems in these early
1 Nannul, 10.
2 Tolkappiyam, Porulatikaram 53.
3 `Kovai' is one of the ninety-six kinds
of literary works. It consists of 400 verses in a particular metre, each
dealing with an aspect of love, and all knit together in such a manner, that
the whole appears to be a story of a lover and his sweetheart depicted with
6 T. P. Meenakshisundaram A History of
Tamil Literature, Annamalai University, Annamalainagar, 1965, p. 26.
7 W. H. Hudson, An Introduction to the
Study of Literature, 2nd edn., London, 1946, p. 97.
8 Akananuru, 18.
9 ibid. 360.
10 Tolkappiyam Porulatikaram 30.
11 Akananuru, 6.
12 Kuruntokai, 163.
13 Kalittokai, 129.
14 Akananuru, 243.
15 Narrinai, 195.
16 Akananuru, 163.
17 Kuruntokai, 235.
18 Tolkappiyam, Porulatikaram
19 Walter W Greg in his Pastoral
Poetry and Pastoral Drama (p. 134), writes on Milton's Lycidas: The poem, in
common with the whole class of allegorical pastorals, is undoubtedly open to
the charge of artificiality, since, in truth, the pastoral garb can never
illustrate, but only distort and obscure subjects drawn from other orders of
civilization. . . . The dissatisfaction felt by many with Lycidas was
noticed by Dr. Johnson when he wrote: "It is not to be considered the
effusion of real passion, for passion runs not after remote allusions and
obscure opinions ... When there is leisure for fiction there is little
20 Akananuru, 116.
21 Ibid. 125.
22 Narrinai, 391.
23 Journal of the Madras University,
Humanities, vol. XXX, no. 2, January, 1959.
24 Purananuru, 154.
25 Ibid. 105 - 120.
26 Cf. the author's "The Treatment of
Nature in Sangam Literature", S.I.S. S.W.P. Society, Madras, 1957, pp. 404
27 C. T. Winchester, Some
Principles of Literary Criticism, New York, 1908, p. 132.
28 Purananuru, 334.
29 Ananda K Coomaraswamy, The
Transformation of Nature in Art, Cambridge, 1935, p. 41.
30 Akananuru 2.
31 Ibid. 30.
32 Purananuru, 161.
33 lbid. 13; Patirruppattu, 1.
34 W.H.Hudson, An Introduction to the
Study of Literature, 2nd ed., London, 1946, p. 17