The literature of classical Tamil, which later became known as Sangam literature were engraved on palm leaves and dates back to the period between 300 BC and 300 AD. These heroic poems written in ancient Tamil graphically describe life in south India under the Chera, Chola, and Pandya dynasties. Pathuppattu (The ten Idylls) an anthology of ten mid length poems is one of the oldest surviving Tamil poetry.
Maduraikanchi is the longest poem in Pathuppattu. The author of the poem is Mankudi Maruthanar, the court poet in the court of Pandya King Nedunjeliyan II, and one of the earliest court poets mentioned in Tamil literature. This poem addressed to the King, begins with speaking of the prosperity of the Pandya kingdom for which the king's ancestors were responsible. While the poet tactfully lauds the king's valor and character and enumerates his victries, he also indirecrtly gives hint to the king that he should try to emulate his ancestors. The poem contains elaborate descriptions of the capital city and the different landscapes of the Pandya country. Maduraikanchi also gives graphic descriptions of foods cultivated and harvested as well as brought in trough trade. Meat and liquor were a huge part of the food culture of Pandya country.
Madurai, was the central seat of Sangam literature. As early as 3rd Century BC, Megasthenes visited Madurai and quoted this city as “Methora” in his document Indika. The Pandyas had active maritime trade relationships with the west. Pliny, Strabo, Ptolemy and the author of the Periplus have written about it in their works.The Panydan country was well known for pearl fishery, with Korkai being the principal center of the trade.
The poet praises the prosperity of the Pandya land:
"This land bounded by the loud, vast ocean with tall waves, and on the tall peaks of Its mountains where honeycombs hang, wind swirls on all directions with strength, the red sun that create days and the white moon that create night shine splendidly, Rain helps and the land thrives everywhere, one seed yield thousands and the land and trees give abundant benefits”.
“Even if summer scorches the mountains, even if the sky hide rains, and even if Venus changes course, the water flow in your rivers do not change, and harvests are abundant and rustling sounds of grain spears are heard. There are sounds of farmers who reap grains. There are clamors of fishermen reaching the shores, along with those of the salt merchants who sell white salt from huge salt pans. Such is this town with constant noises”.
" There was abundant prosperity in the lands, the wealthy capital city abound in various things of worth that make the earth groan with its weight. People did not stop eating various rice dishes and they did not end eating many varieties of food. The king gathers around him his warriors who imbibe much toddy served in vessels made of leaves".
Trade and commerce in Pandya land:
“In the esteemed town with deep moats and fine paddy, a place surrounded by shores and clean ocean where swaying ships with tall masts with flags on them, bring goods that can be enjoyed by its citizens. These ships looking like mountains with clouds, come splitting the fierce large ocean, and they are brought to the port by fierce winds as sweet drums roar”.
In the fertile marutham tracts:
"Clouds rise drinking from the eastern sea and clouds rest on the mountains near the western shore, and they pour abundant rains both day and night accompanied by thunderbolts that scare the elephants that live on hills where bamboos tall grow. The rain that falls on the land swells and rivers overflow their banks, and fill the ponds and flow into the eastern sea encircling fields of corn in which plants grow so high that elephants that stand in them are fully lost to the view"
In the mullai woodlands:
"Millet spears are ready for picking, sesame pods have become dark, and the varaku millet with black stems are mature, and in the deep pits dug for pulling out edible tubers pigs romp and swirl".
In the kurinji mountain land:
"The small-eared thorai rice is raised on the high grounds from which akil and sandalwood tress are cleared. White mustard with long stems that got tangled with white mountain rice, ginger, turmeric, black pepper and many other kinds of food were heaped on like boulders. There were sounds of parrots being chased from millet fields, and those of forest dwellers chasing wild cattle from grazing the bright sprouts of avarai”.
In the neithal (seashore) land:
“Bright pearls given by the roaring ocean, various foods brought by merchants, sweet tamarind that grew in the fields near the backwaters, white salt piled as tall dunes in the seashore, fatty fish caught by the fishermen with strong hands, horses that were brought in splendid ships navigated by captains, and fine goods that are to be sent to huge countries – all these are seen every morning at the seashore; they bring prosperity to the seashore land”.
Prosperity of the capital city Madurai:
“In the wide long streets that are as broad as rivers crowds of folks of various races and speech create noice in the morning market place when buying things. The streets where in the morning and evening people buy and sell, present a charming scene”.
“Good merchants who well follow virtue’s rules have splendid mansions that appear like group of many hills. In them they store their goods and foodstuffs rare of various kinds, they buy the produce of the hills, the plains, and the sea and other things of wealthy lands: gems, pearls and gold and trade in them”.
“Food is served to many with sweet rice, segments of ripe jackfruit and mangoes sweet, both ripe and unripe, vegetables and other fruits of various kinds that grow on lovely vines, sweet treats that taste ambrosia-like, famed rice cooked with chunks of flesh that is relished much, roots edible dug up from deep earth, tasty rice and dainties good that are enjoyed much everywhere”.
“At nightfall the sounds of conch shells cease and shops are shut, their screens pulled down. Vendors, who sell delicate appams that are like honeycombs and modakam that are made by hand filled with coconut and sugar sweet and pulses, go to sleep”.
“The limitless goods and abundant prosperity in Madurai city is a sight to behold even to those in the celestial world”.
Praising the Pandya king:
"May you perform fine rituals like your ancestors who received knowledge from fine teachers of ancient tradition, in whose reign in this fine big city liquor was filtered in all the fileds, goats were slaughtered under all tress, dishes were cooked with roasted fatty meat and ghee as colorful smoke rose appearing like spreading rain clouds. May you enjoy the good life that has been given to you, being served liquor in gold cups by young women with glittering jewelry”.
To read more about the Sangam poems please click on the link to a Brief Introduction to Sangam Period.
Achaya, K.T. Indian Food: A Historical Companion. Oxford University Press 1994
Champakalakshmi R. Trade, ideology and Urbanization South India 300 BC to 1300 AD . Oxford Unversity Press India 1996.
Chellaiah, J.V. Pattuppattu: Ten Idylls, Translated into English Verse. Colombo General Publishers 1975
Herbert, Vaidehi. Pathuppattu. Digital Maxim LLC. 2013
Mukund, Kanakalatha. The Trading World of Tamil merchant: Evolution of Merchant Capitalism in the coramandal. Orient Longman 1999.
Sastri, K.A. Nilakanta. The Cultural History of the Tamils. K.L. Mukhopadhyay 1964
Madurai Meenakshi Temple- Photo copyright Raghu Ramachandran