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Ancient Tamil society as reflected in Sangam literature

by ASIFF HUSSEIN - Sunday Observer Sep 22 2002

The Sangam age which relates to a period extending from about the 3rd century B.C. to the 3rd century A.C. is widely regarded as the 'golden age' of the Tamils. The heroic poetry of this period which is replete with detailed descriptions of the Tamil country of South India, its kings and chieftains and the loves and wars of its various peoples has also preserved for us some insights into the Tamil society and culture of the time.

Sangam literature to put it simply is a veritable goldmine of information providing us with a glimpse into the romances, marriages, dress, ornamentation, culinary fare and religious life of the early Tamils before they came under Aryan influence.

As for ornamentation, it would appear that the Tamil women of yore were a highly cultured lot and took great pains to adorn their persons with a variety of ornament. The Silappadigaram gives an exhaustive list of ornaments worn by an actress including a waist girdle of two and thirty strings of lustrous pearls, various kinds of necklaces consisting of strings of beautiful beads and pendent golden leaves, ear-rings set with large diamonds and sapphires, armlets made of brilliant gems and pearls, bracelets of gold and coral, finger-rings set with precious stones, anklets including one resembling a string of pearls extending from the ankle to the big toe and little toe-rings.

The tali or neck ornament was evidently known, but whether it meant the Mangala Sutra or marriage badge of Tamil women as is the case now is uncertain. Rather, it would appear from Sangam literature that the term tali referred to any neck ornament whose purpose was not purely decorative, which is to say that it may have also had some ritual or talismanistic value.

The Nedunalvadai of Nakkirar, one of the ten idylls known as the Pattup-pattu describes the Queen as wearing a long-pointed tali lying loosely on her bosom. Nose ornaments which figure so prominently in the ornamentation of modern-day Tamil women are however conspicuously absent in Sangam literature and this is perhaps the only respect in which the Tamil women of yore could not excel in adornment their modern-day counterparts whose nose-studs and nose-rings give them a charm which few other ornaments can match. The absence of nose ornaments in the Sangam age is however easily explicable, since it is today established beyond doubt that such ornaments are a relatively late introduction to India by its Muslim conquerors.

Culinary fare

Indeed, nose ornaments seem to have gained widespread popularity in India only around the eighteenth century as a result of Moghul rule.

Sangam literature also provides us with a glimpse into the dietary habits of the early Tamils. The staple food of the Tamils then as now seems to have been rice, supplemented with various vegetables and meats. Milk, butter and honey also seem to have been in common use. In an account of a wandering minstrel contained in the Perum-panarru, we learn that the diet of the hunters consisted of course rice of a red colour and the flesh of the guana while that of the shepherds consisted of a meal of maize, beans and millet boiled in milk.

The labourers in the agricultural tracts seem to have enjoyed a meal of white rice and the roasted flesh of the fowl, while on the sea coast, the fishermen seem to have subsisted on rice and fried fish.The Brahmins who were vegetarians had fine rice with mango pickle and the tender fruits of the pomegranate cooked with butter and the fragrant leaves of the Karuvembu.

Sea food was evidently much relished, for the Pattinap-Palai mentions fish being sliced at the port of Pukar in the mouth of the Kaveri, and fishermen partaking of dishes of fried sweet prawns and boiled field tortoise. Among the beverages, the toddy drawn from the coconut palm seems to have been commonly consumed by the poorer classes such as soldiers, labourers and wandering minstrels. Fishermen are mentioned as drinking the juice extracted from the palmyra. The wealthier classes, according to the Manimegalai, consumed scented liquers manufactured from rice and the flowers of the Tataki (Bauhinia Tomentosa) while the favourite drink of royalty seems to have been costly imported wines brought by Yavana ships.

Religious beliefs

Sangam literature is also replete with references to various religious rituals and beliefs of the ancient Tamils including the afterlife. Such works as the Pattinap-Palai and Tiru-Murugarup-Padai of Nakkirar furnish us with considerable information in this connection. Saivism evidently had a large following in the days of the Sangam poets and it would appear from the available literature that the higher classes regarded Siva as their favourite deity. He is represented as a fair-complexioned personality with red hair and three eyes.

The worship of the lingam associated with the cult of Siva was also in vogue as the Pattinap-Palai refers to temples where lingams were enshrined.

The huntsmen and hill tribes of the Tamil country however seem to have worshipped Muruga, the god of war who is said to have had six faces and twelve arms. His priest is said to have carried a lance, the favourite weapon of Muruga and slaughtered a bull as a sacrifice, mixing its blood with boiled rice and offering it to the god amidst the sound of drums and trumpets. Among the other deities who find mention in Sangam literature are Vishnu who is referred to in the Mullaip-pattu as Tirumal, and Korravai, the old mother goddess of the Tamils who the Nedunal Vadai refers to as the 'goddess of victory'.

Sangam poetry also contains numerous allusions to the afterlife, showing that the early Tamils believed in a life after death, especially for their warriors slain in battle. The Hero's heaven of the Tamils somewhat resembled the Valhalla of the Norsemen where it was believed dwelled the warriors who fell in battle. The Purananuru has it that should a person fall in battle, he will enjoy the bliss of marriage with a spotless maiden in heaven.

Indeed, it is said that those warriors who died a natural death were laid on a grass mat and cut asunder with a sword so that they might die a hero's death and attain heaven, a practice which was even applicable to the children of the warrior class as evident in the statement of the Purananuru "Whether it be a still-born child or a mere foetus, it is not spared but cloven asunder".

As such, warriors fallen in battle were held in high esteem. The Sangam works often allude to hero-stones erected on the spots where warriors who fell in battle were presumably buried.

For instance, Perunk-Kausikanar in his Malaipadu-kadam refers to stones with epitaphs inscribed on them set up in the memory of departed warriors, while in the Akananuru we read "Prominent hero-stones erected on the wayside are decorated with peacock feathers. On them are inscribed the name and might of the fallen warriors".