Are olden Tamil texts reliable sources of past history? – II
by Jayasree Saranathan on 22 Jul 2021 0 Comment

Literature is considered 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. Let’s look at a poem on Pandyan king by name ‘Koodakaaratthuth thunjiya Maaran Vazhuthi” by Aiyur Mudavanaar (Pura Nanuru 51).


The king’s name gives a historic fact that he died in a place called Koodakaaram (possibly 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 a 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 lame and it seems that in those times it was not derogatory to call one by one’s disability. 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 ten poems in all and one of them got him carts as gifts that helped him to move around easily. 


An 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) (Pura Nanuru - 51). If someone said so, he would get angry and would not rest until the one who said so was finished in war or agreed to become subservient to him. The poet says that those who faced the wrath of this king had an existence like that of the winged termite (called ‘eesal’ in Tamil) that lives for a day after leaving the termite hill. The poets thus gave examples from what was seen in nature.


This poem has two more pieces of information. 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 (three kingdoms) under one’s control.


When the ruler was powerful, he tried to bring all kingdoms under his tutelage. Cheran King Senguttuvan exhibited his control over all three kingdoms when he got the other two kings to 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 Koodakaaram, 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.


Comparison with incidents


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


The location is somewhere near the sea shore in Pandyan land. A girl and a boy were in love 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 narrates 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 talk of the people. While saying this, the girl makes an extraordinary comparison with Rama.


The chirping sound of 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 (Aga Nanuru – 70). 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 called “Neidhal” which refers to sea shore and adjoining places; it 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 to 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 had the legend of Rama’s trip to their shores.


There are people who question the historicity of Rama, but here in a remote sea shore location of Pandyan land, people have lived in the memory of Rama and how he spent his time during his brief stay there. The poet’s imagination comes in the comparison of whispers of people with the noise of birds which was also of low decibel level. The poet could have just said that someone shooed the birds to stop the noise. 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, daughter of Malayadwaja who married Sundareswar, regarded as Lord Siva himself. They therefore called themselves Gowriyar. This poem mentions Gowriyar while referring to Pandyas. This name in antiquity matches with the incident of Rama which is also a very olden one. 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 and 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 who wrote another poem of Sangam literature. Having this name as prefix 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 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 in 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 at least thousand 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 Tolkappiyam and from inscriptions we know that Brahmins did follow their Varna duty of learning and teaching others. According to Tolkappiyam there were six works for Brahmins which in reality were taken up not by one but six types of Brahmins (Tolkappiyam, Puraththinai iyal 74) and all of them were engaged in teaching besides their Vedic duties.


Writing on these six types, the 9th century commentator Nachinarkiniyar 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 three categories of Sanskrit and Tamil teaching were known as head, middle and end. 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 Sangam literature was continuously imparted. It was only after the colonial interruptions in education that the Sangam texts were lost and later found 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.

This shows that they trained students from different castes in writing poetry and enabled them to deliver them in a learned forum like the Sangam Assemblage, but did not compete 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 thousand students! This shows the level of literacy and awareness on education. Only one Sangam poem was attributed to one Kulapathy Nakkannanaar of Kidangil (Kurum thogai 252). Nakkannan is a Brahmin name. The ‘na’ prefix is added as 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, who contributed some of the finest poems that mirror the history and culture of Tamils. We will discuss them in appropriate contexts.


(To be continued)


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