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Home > Tamil Language & Literature > Tamil Heroic Poetry: A Comparative Study - K.Kailasapathy
Lecturer in Tamil, University of Ceylon
Paper presented at Second International Conference Seminar of Tamil Studies
Chennai, Tamil Nadu, January 1968
Heroic Poetry - Clarendon Press, 1968;
One Hundred Tamils of 20th Century - K.Kailasapathy;
Role Models for Heroism among Tamils - C.P.Goliard and
Development of Tamilian Religious Thought - Swami Vipulananda]
|"...what is of interest to us here is that the bulk of the heroic poetry which has come down to us, portrays the emergence of the three principal kingdoms from among innumerable tribal organisations and village communities. This epoch in a nation’s history is violent but brilliant, short-lived but glorious, convulsive but opulent. As elsewhere, the politics of the Tamil Heroic Age were marked by the ascendancy of an “energetic military caste, which torn by internecine conflicts of succession and inheritance breaks loose from its tribal bonds into a career of violent, self-assertive individualism... (the) composite nature of the Tamil heroic poems, and their cherished recital by schools of bards - of which we have some evidence - in due course lead to what we may call a “national consciousness “, an idea of pan-Tamilian culture, which in fact became a political concept in historical times. In this sense, one is naturally reminded of the gradual evolution of a Greek national consciousness arising out of the recitation of the Iliad and the Odyssey at the Panathenaea..."|
With the publication of The Heroic Age by H. M. Chadwick in 1912, the comparative study of heroic poetry may be said to have begun. Beginning his studies on the early narrative poetry of the Anglo-Saxons, he extended his inquiry to the epics of different peoples - particularly the ancient Greeks- and by a comparative study established a number of correlations which make it possible to refer to a body of works showing many of the same characteristics, that they may be regarded as arising out of a specific set of social and historical conditions.
Following Chadwick’s work, the epic narrative poetry of the Indo-European nations was studied, by many who have produced a considerable number of works on the Homeric epics, the old French epic, the Teutonic heroic songs, the epics of Indians, the Irish and Icelandic prose sagas and Slavonic popular literature.
Chadwick himself along with his wife followed up his studies with the monumental three-volume work The Growth of Literature (Cambridge 1932-40), which drew on several studies in various languages. They rightly emphasized the potential value in the study of the heroic poetry of non-Indo-European peoples, particularly the African and Polynesian communities. In recent years archaeological studies of the Near East have led to the ‘discovery’ of a New Heroic Age of the Ancient Sumerians. This has been largely due to the work of S. N. Kramer, who has applied the comparative method of Chadwick very successfully. Referring to the pioneering works of the Chadwicks, Kramer says, “it is no insignificant index of the value and reliability of these works to note their effective utilization to give meaning and form to an hitherto practically unknown cultural stage in the history of ancient Mesopotamia.” (1)
Since heroic poetry may be related to a specific socio-historical condition and literary milieu it can arise at different times among different peoples. So far as is known, the Sumerian Heroic Age is the oldest, preceding the oldest of the Indo-European Heroic Ages, that of the Greeks, by more than a millenium and a half. The Indo-Aryan or (North) Indian Heroic Age probably dates only a century or so later than that of Greece.
One could venture to say that the Tamil Heroic Age comes next in time, preceding the Teutonic Heroic Age of about the fourth century A.D. The Tamil Heroic Age should be placed somewhere in the fourth or fifth century B.C.. Before we go on to it, it would be relevant to point out here that in almost all the cases of these ancient Heroic Ages, the written literary pieces relating to them date from much later days; in Sumer it is said that some at least of the heroic lays were first inscribed on clay some five to six hundred years following the close of the Heroic Age; (2) a span of about four hundred years may be ascribed for the Greek and a little more may be the case with that of the Tamils. In any case the Tamil heroic poetry had most probably been committed to writing by the beginning of the Christian era.
Now, what is of interest to us here is that the bulk of the heroic poetry which has come down to us, portrays the emergence of the three principal kingdoms from among innumerable tribal organisations and village communities. This epoch in a nation’s history is violent but brilliant, short-lived but glorious, convulsive but opulent. As elsewhere, the politics of the Tamil Heroic Age were marked by the ascendancy of an “energetic military caste, which torn by internecine conflicts of succession and inheritance breaks loose from its tribal bonds into a career of violent, self-assertive individualism." (3)
It has been pointed out that most heroic poetry evolves round a few select personalities, giving rise to a cycle of poems and lays. For example, in the Slavonic Kiev cycle of heroic poems, Vladimir I dominates the subject matter, (4) as Charlemagne does in the French Chanson de Roland. Similarly, Sumerian heroic poetry centres round, among others, Gilgamish. Among the Kirghiz, the greatest hero is Manas with his retinue of forty friends. The heroic songs of Manas form a cycle and, with that, the starting point for a real epic is provided. The ease of Achilles, Odysseus and Hector is only too familiar in the Greek epics.
In common with this general characteristic, most of the Ten Songs have their heroes, two princes, NheTunjcezhiyan of the PaaNTiya dynasty and Karikaalan of the Coozha dynasty. Cengkuttuvan of the Ceeral line represents the third family. We have mentioned that Emperor Asoka referred in his rock edicts to these three kingdoms. In the course of the development of Tamil heroic poetry, one from each of these three dynasties seem to have emerged and remained heroes par excellence.
Students of heroic poetry have often formulated the following general characteristics for comparative purposes:
(1) narratives told for their own sake;
(2) connected with the Heroic Age of past;
(3) they contain factual m detailed descriptions;
(4) told in the third person with abundant speeches;
(5) full of formula, i.e., noun-adjective combination, repeated lines, and themes used often though not always in precisely the same form;
(6) composed in a metre where the line is the unit and not the stanza;
(7) centred on a few heroes;
(8) accepted by later generations as records of historical past. The idea that the bards who sang these were divinely inspired gave it absolute authenticity.(5)
Now, if we turn to the Tamil heroic poems, we find these characteristics more or less valid. The Ten Songs at least are narratives, developed by generations of bards whose special vocation was the declamation of heroic poetry; they are certainly connected with a Heroic Age, which saw the establishment or the laying of foundations for the establishment of the three kingdoms which survived well into the medieval period.
In them we have abundant factual and detailed descriptions of unimportant actions, needed by the narratives, such as banquets, dress, travel, ornaments, instruments, etc. They are narrated in the third person, but with plenty of speeches, such as oaths, challenges, reports and the like. The words kilhavi and kuuttu may be noted. The very basis of this poetry is the traditional language of the epics, full of all formulae, which had led some modern critics to see painful repetitions in them. The metre of these poems is akaval, the oldest known metre in Tamil, ideally suited for oral narration, and comparable - and in fact compared by some - to the Greek hexametre. They are centered around a few super heroes. They were traditionally accepted by Tamil scholarship as of authentic historical past, and like the Homeric poems we know that they formed the staple of Tamil education in post heroic period until our times.
For Homer,” wrote Parry “as for all minstrels, to versify was to remember - to remember words, expressions, phrases from the recitals of minstrels who had bequeathed to him the traditional style of heroic verse.” By studying the recent compositions of Jugoslav minstrels, he demonstrated that such poems depend upon a gradually evolved traditional style of stock epithets, fixed expressions, which the bards fit into their mould of verse after a fixed pattern, according to their needs.
Now a study of the early Tamil poems show this to be very true. For example fixed formulaic phrases like “chieftain of swift steeds “, “ warrior of victorious lance", “possessor of lofty chariots,” “chieftain of eye-filling garlands “, “Ceeran of war-drum beating army”, "wide-spaced world ", “beautiful broad breast “, “Mathurai rich in gold”, are repeated wherever occasion demands them, and they are not always the characteristic style of a single poet. The question of imitation does not arise at all, as there is “no question of plagiarism or copyright ".(6)
Readers of Homeric epic are familiar with formulaic phrases such as chronos thronos Here - ’golden-throned Hera’, polytlas dios Odysseus - ‘long-suffering god-like Odysseus’, Gerenios hippota nestor - ’the Gerenion charioteer Nestor’, Glaukos Athene - ’ grey-eyed Athene’ or ‘Mycenae or Troy rich in gold’, etc. Such stock epithets and many others like them evolved by a long process were the stock in trade of all the minstrels and in due course came to form a literary dialect or what has been called the epic dialect. Similar to these noun-adjective combinations are the stock of repeated lines and passages.
This composite nature of the Tamil heroic poems, and their cherished recital by schools of bards - of which we have some evidence - in due course lead to what we may call a “national consciousness “, an idea of pan-Tamilian culture, which in fact became a political concept in historical times. In this sense, one is naturally reminded of the gradual evolution of a Greek national consciousness arising out of the recitation of the Iliad and the Odyssey at the Panathenaea.
In an epic style like that of early Tamil heroic poetry, reaching back through a tradition, we would naturally find not only ancient words and usage but also archaic customs and manners. There are survivals in the poems, faithfully carried on by the bards as part of their stylistic heritage. The Tamil heroic poetry perhaps, took its final form, when trade between South India and the western world flourished.
The writings of the Graeco-Roman geographers corroborate some of the evidence in these poems. As such they are datable. And descriptions of material objects are identical. Yet the bulk of the poetry contains older memories with their terminology unchanged.
We may cite an example. There are repeated references to ‘raincloud-like black hides’- the heroes’ shield. The word used for hide is tool, ‘skin’ or ‘hide’, has survived to this day. This expression was probably an echo of a time when hide was in fact used as a shield. But we also find in the poem new words - meaning shields of other materials - wood and metal. These were presumably added by later bards, when such was the practice.
A striking parallel is seen in the Iliad. In the 6th Book, when Hector withdraws from battle, it is said, ‘the black hide beat upon his neck ankles’, referring in all probability to a Nycenean body shield. But it has been pointed out that at a later date it was not visualized as such, and a further description, “the rim which ran round the outside of the bossed shield”, was added. The latter description does not fit with the earlier one.
Finally I shall just mention one more aspect of heroic poetry that promises scope for comparative study: the simile. It has been pointed out by students of Homeric epics that there are three types of simile:-
(1) The elementary one. The identification of one object with another.
(2) Where comparisons in two objects are developed on both sides.
(3) The typical Homeric, or epic simile in which the image used as illustration is developed at length for its own sake, where some of the details no longer apply in the comparison.(7)
With the reservation that Tamil Heroic poetry did not develop into the epic but remained in the form of lays - the longest being about 700 lines - which to some degree curbs the effective use of similes - it may be said that all three types are found in it.(8)
By way of conclusion, let me draw your attention to the immense potentialities of the comparative method. In a penetrating essay on The Comparative Study of Homer, (9) Sir Maurice Bowra has shown how comparative studies or rather studies in other literatures have had their impact on Homeric scholarship.
For example, Lachmann’s theory of independent lays that constitute the Iliad is said to be traceable to the creation of the Kalevala by the poet-scholar-folklorist Lönnrot. This was a Finnish epic made, out of a number of epic poems collected by the scholar.
Likewise, the postulation of three strata for the Iliad by Leaf, the famous editor, commentator and analyst, owes something to the systematic analysis and edition of the Mahdbhãrata, with its obvious interpolations. The idea held by the influential Greek scholar and translator, Gilbert Murray, that the Homeric epics are traditional books, subject to continuous change, i.e. accretion and expurgation, appears to have been derived from the Higher Criticism of the Old Testament.(10)
These were some of the influences that emanated from works of the last century and before. In the present century the collection and analysis of living oral poetry of several peoples have gradually helped evolve a new -awareness of oral poetics which alone seems to hold the key to the true understanding and appreciation of heroic poets like Homer.
Says Professor Emeneau, “For many scholars over many centuries the implications of oral composition for the understanding of Homer were forgotten. There was a need for some new impulse to make the matter vivid enough to be vital in Homeric Studies.”(11)
The reference is of course to Milman Parry and his associates who broke new ground by applying boldly and profitably to Homeric study the details of the technique of oral verse-making found among the South Slav epic singers.
While studies on Tamil heroic poetry can benefit immensely from such works as that of Radlov, the Chadwicks, Parry, Thomson, Lord and others, (12) I would hazard the suggestion that a proper study of Tamil heroic poetry itself will in turn throw some light at least on some problems that beset the students of Homeric and other heroic poetry in general.
1.S. N. KRAMER, “Heroes of
Sumer - A New Heroic Age in World History and Literature “, PAPS 90 (1946), p.
2. Ibid., p. 121.
3. G. THOMSON, Studies in Ancient Greek Society, I: The Prehistoric Aegean, 2nd ed., London, 1954, pp. 413 f.
4. H. M. and N. K. CHADWICK, The Growth of Literature, Cambridge, 1932-40, 2, p. 99; 3, p. 37; etc.
5. For a detailed enumeration of these categories, see C. M. BOWRA, “The Comparative Study of Homer”, AJA LIV (1950), p. 185.
6. Cf. C. M. B0WRA, in Companion to Homer, p. 34.
7. R. W. WILLETTS, “The World of Homer”, Our History Series 32 (1963-64), pp. 8-11
8.REV. X. S. THANINAYAGAM has briefly referred to the striking similarity between the Homeric and Tamil simile. Cf. Nature Ancient Tamil Poetry, Tuticorin, 1953, pp. 48f
9. AJA LIV (1950), pp. 184-92.
10.Cf. G. MURRAY, The Rise of the Greek Epic, Oxford, 1934, pp. 93-145.
11.“M. B. EMENEAU, “Oral Poets of South India—The Todas “, JAF 71 (1958), p. 312. As an attempt at applying theories of oral poetics to a living Dravidian literature, the importance of this essay cannot be over-rated. See also “The Songs of the Todas “, PAPS 77 (1937), pp. 543-59.
12. For a detailed comparison of such features, see K. KAILASAPATHY, A Study of Tamil Heroic Poetry with Some Reference to Ancient Greek Epics (Thesis approved for the degree of Ph.D., in the University of Birmingham). Material contained in this thesis was later published in *Tamil Heroic Poetry, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1968