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. Pattinapalai is one of the earliest works in Pathuppattu, written before the third century AD.
Pattinappalai describes the wealth and prosperity of the Chola country just as Maduraikanchi described the wealth and prosperity of the Pandya country, these two poems eloquently picture the advanced civilization that prevailed in south India during the early centuries.
Pattinappalai begins with a statement of a lover who declares in just five lines that he will not leave his beloved even if he were given the prosperous Kaveripoompattinam (also called Puhar) with a great king. The following 296 lines of the poem celebrates Kaveripoompattinam and Karikala Cholan, the ruling king who was a great patron of Tamil Poets. It gives detailed descriptions of the capital city which was a great emporium (once a flourishing port city, it was submerged in the sea and only small villages remain there today). This port city is mentioned by Ptolemy as an emporium - a trading prot known to Roman merchants.
The imports and exports piled up in the custom houses were so huge that they are described as hills. The harbor, the huge ships and the merchandise they brought, fishermen and their lives, religious monasteries, worship of Murukan, Chola King Karikalan’s struggles to regain his throne, his invasion of enemy lands and his activities during peaceful times are all described in detail. The poem also gives graphic descriptions of foods cultivated and harvested, as well as various goods brought in trough trade from foreign countries. Meat and liquor were a huge part of the food culture of the Chola country.
The poet praises the prosperity of the fertile agricultural lands of Chola Kingdom:
"There are continuous yield from wide fields, fragrant smells waft from sugar mills and heat from their fires wilt the water lilies in nearby fields. Fully grown calves of fat buffaloes eat mature fine paddy and sleep in the shade of large granaries. There are coconut palms with clusters of coconuts, banana plants with bunches of fruits, betel nut palms with mature nuts, fragrant turmeric, many kinds of mangoes, clusters of palmyra fruit and fresh harvests of yams and tender ginger in the Chola country".
Trade and commerce in Chola country:
"In the huge Chola country with many small towns, salt merchants call out prices and they barter their white salt for rice. The sturdy boats that bring the rice are tied to the posts on the backwater shores, looking like rows of horses in stables".
"Like the monsoon season when clouds absorb ocean waters and come down as rains on the mountains, limitless goods for export come from inland and imported goods arrive in ships. Fierce, powerful tax collectors are at the warehouses collecting taxes and stamping the Chola tiger symbol on goods to be exported. Warehouses are filled with unlimited expensive items packed in sacks. They lay heaped in the front yard".
"Swift horses with lifted heads arrive on ships from abroad, bags of black pepper arrive through inland rivers, gold comes from northern mountains and akil and sandalwood come from western mountains, pearls from the south seas come and red corals from the eastern sea. Ganges and Kaveri rivers bring their yields, Eelam (Sri Lanka) provides its food, and from Burma come manufactures products. Many rare things are piled up on the wide streets".
"Merchants pay fair prices for what they buy, and sell what they have for fair prices. In this ancient city festivals are celebrated by the wise and their relatives who have traveled to other lands and people from faultless countries speaking many languages, who have migrated for trade. Kaveripoompattinam is a place with great spender where people mingle together sweetly".
One of the interesting passages describes "Vanigars (merchants) who formed the backbone of the population and lived in unity in a crowded section of the city".
Food Consumed by the people:
"For its fame to spread and last and justice to exist, there are well protected public kitchens with lavish double doors bearing the Chola tiger symbol. When large quantity of rice is cooked in these kitchens and drained, the excess water poured out the rice pots runs like a small river creating slush in the mud. Farmers with curved plows praise the celestials and give fresh and cooked food as charity".
"Warriors eat roasted shrimp and steamed filed tortoises. Fishermen drink palm liquor from scaly palmyra palms. Sizzling sounds of frying pieces of fish and meat are heard in the front of the liquor shops. In these shops frequented by many, liquor is sold and there are many flags".
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