An Introduction to the Culinary Culture in the Sangam Period


December 1, 2014

The literature of classical Tamil, which later became known as Sangam literature, engraved on palm leaves dates back to the period between 300 BC and 300 AD. These classical works composed as hymns, ballads, erotic verses, and lyrics are about kings, valor, wars, loyalty, gratitude, generosity and love. These poems written in ancient Tamil graphically describe life in south India under the Chera, Chola, and Pandya dynasties and eloquently portray an advanced civilization that prevailed in south India during the early centuries.

According to Tamil scholars. these poems started as an oral tradition for several centuries. They were later gathered into anthologies, and colophons were added some two hundred years later. Finally commentaries were written around the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. They went through further revisions and additions during the nineteenth century.

The language of this poetic collection is formalized and standerdized. The entire corpus of this classical poetry is composed in two meteres - akaval and vanci. The earliest existing work in Tamil literature is a grammatical work -Tholkaappiyam. The surviving poems written by 473 poets are collected in ten volumes of longer poems, Pattuppattu (Ten Idylls) and eight volumes of short poems in Ettuthogai (Eight Anthologies).

These ancient poems are classified by their themes as Puram and Akam. Puram poems view life from outside the family and deal with topics such as kings, battles, heroism, hospitality shown to strangers, honesty of the traders, loyalty of the soldiers to their king, and the king’s generosity and dedication to the welfare of his subjects. They provide graphic details of the society and the life of the kings, merchants and common people in a cosmopolitan, trade-oriented, and religiously tolerant society. Akam poems view life from inside the family and their main theme is love. Akam poems relate to the human or personal aspects like love and relationships which are expressed in allegorical and abstract manner. According to Tamil scholar Vaidehi Herbert "there are no names of the characters
and the speakers are the heroine, her friend, her mother and her foster mother, hero and rarely  a friend or bystander. They address each other and never speak to the audience. The landscape concept of puram poems gives the poets freedom to use the terrain, the fauna and flora and the people who live in that particular landscape to be used in the poems to express emotions and to describe situations". 

Pathuppattu: Five of the poems in Pathuppattu are guide poems where one bard urges other bards to go to his generous patron for help. These are Porunaratuppadai, Perumpaanatuppadai, Sirupanattupadai, Malaipadukadam and Tirumurugattupadai. While the first four guide artists to donors, the last one guides people to the six shrines of the war god Murugan. It is a religious poem and does not contain much information about food. According to Tamil scholar Kamil Zvlebil these guide poems are some of the oldest poems written from around the second to the third century A.D.

In the longest poem Maduraikanchi the poet tactfully lauds the Pandya king's valor and character and enumerates his victories and also indirectly gives hint to the king that he should try to emulate his ancestors. Maduraikanchi also gives graphic descriptions of foods cultivated and harvested as well as brought in trough trade. Pattinappalai describes the wealth and prosperity of the Chola King. Mullaipattu describes the sorrow of a wife separated from her warrior husband away in the battle field. Nedunalvadai describes the cold season and Kurinjippattu describes the mountain country. These three poems do not have much information about food.

Ettuthogai: Of these eight anthologies, five poems Akananuru, Narrinai, Kuruntokai, Ainkurunuru, and Kalittokai are akam poems and  Purananuru and Patirruppattu are puram poems and Paripadal has both akam and puram poems.

There are no detailed recipes in these poems, but they provide abundant information of the culinary culture of the time. Descriptions food and drink are mostly found in puram poems.  People lived in five different landscapes and their food habits were very much influenced by their environment. The herdsmen of Mullai (forest tracks) region enjoyed maize, beans, thinai rice (millet), and milk, yogurt, and ghee made from buffalo milk. Farmers of the Marutham (farm land) region cultivated rice, sugarcane, mango, jackfruit and plantains for food. They were familiar with irrigation methods and used water stored in reservoirs in their fields. They ate their white rice and rice gruel with roasted flesh of fowl. Fishermen of the Neithal (coastal) region ate fish and drank a potage of rice and warm toddy kept in wide mouthed jars. In the Kurinji (mountainous) region they ate millet, flesh of rams, honey, and drank rice toddy. They also cultivated fruits and vegetables and gathered honey. In the Palai (dry land) region hunters lived on red rice and animals they hunted.

The early inhabitants of the south were by no means vegetarians.  Rice was the staple and they ate it with the meats of rams, deer, fowl, iguana, fish, crabs and pigs cooked with ghee and spices. Mangoes, jackfruit, sugarcane and honey provided the sweet component to their meals. Their foods also included edible roots, buffalo curd preserved in bamboo pipes, Sweet cakes resembling honey combs, pasties made of coconut and sugar and pickled fruits. Alcoholic drinks were in abundant supply and were consumed by all classes of people.

Hospitality was considered virtue and both the rich and the poor delighted in serving their guests, and ate what was left. On festive occasions the king and the rich held free feasts and several delicacies were offered. The food that the king provided to his court poets, soldiers and subjects is often descried in detail. Several of these old poems describe of foods of the common people and feasts that were prepared and served at the palaces, at festivals, and at weddings.

There was always close contact between people of Tamil country and they used a measure for measure barter system to exchange crops and goods produced in different regions. Cooking techniques such as basting, grilling, smoking meats and fermenting milk to make yogurt and butter and making ghee from butter were familiar to them. Food vendors sold many different delicacies and people enjoyed eating out and picnicking. Interesting information about ingredients and cooking methods are also in these poems.

To read more about food described in Sangam poems please click on the link to Food in Sangam Poems.

Resources:
Achaya, K.T. Indian Food: A Historical Companion. Oxford University Press 1994
Chellaiah, J.V. Pattuppattu: Ten Idylls, Translated into English Verse. Colombo General Publishers 1975
Dikshitar, V.R. Ramachandra. Pre-Historic South India Cosmo Publications 1951
Hart, George L. and Hank Heifetz (trans. and ed.) Purananuru: The four Hundred Songs of War and Wisdom: An Anthology of Poems from classical Tamil. Columbia University Press 1999
Herbert, Vaidehi. Sangam Literature A Beginner’s Guide.  Digital Maxim LLC. 2013
Iyengar, P.T. Srinivasa. History of the Tamils From the Earliest Times to 600 AD AES reprint 2001
Kanakasabhai, V. The Tamils Eighteen Hundred Years Ago. Higginbotham & Co. Madras 1904
Ramanujan, A.K. (trans. and ed.) Poems of Love and War: From the Eight Anthologies and the Ten Long Poems of Classical Tamil. Columbia University Press 1985
Ramaswamy, Sumathi, The Lost Land of Lemuria: Fabulous Geographies, Catastrophic Histories University of California Press 2004
Sastri, K.A. Nilakanta. A History of South India. Oxford University Press 1999
Sastri, K.A. Nilakanta. The Cultural History of the Tamils. K.L. Mukhopadhyay 1964
Zvelebil, Kamil Veith. A History of Indian Literature Volume X Tamil Literature Otto Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden 1974 

Map of Tamil country in Sangam Period:
By Rameez pp (Own work) [<a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0">CC-BY-SA-3.0</a>],via Wikimedia Commons


AMMINI RAMACHANDRAN