June 18, 2016
The poems of Purananuru, like all other puram poems, view life from outside the family and the topics include bighearted and powerful kings, battles, heroism, hospitality shown to strangers, loyalty of the soldiers to their king, and the king’s generosity and dedication to the welfare of his subjects. They provide vivid details of the society and the life of the kings, merchants and common people in a cosmopolitan, trade-oriented, and religiously tolerant society.
The poems also provide graphic descriptions of foods the kings gave to the bards and the kind of foods and drinks his subjects enjoyed. There are no detailed recipes in these poems, but they provide abundant information of the culinary culture of the time.
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, pastries made of coconut and sugar and pickled fruits. It is amzing to see references to meat smoked by burning sanadalwood as well as flowers. Meats were also roasted on skewers - All these culinary techniques were prevalent by the third century A.D. is quite remarkable.
Alcoholic drinks were in abundant supply and were consumed by all classes of people. Interesting information about ingredients and cooking methods are also in these poems. Alcohol was a big part of celebrations and offerings of alcohol were made to the much respected memorial stones. Offering liquor was considered a sign of hospitality and it was served by both king and his subjects. Purananuru has references to filtered and unfiltered alcohol; one poem describes clear alcohol as golden ghee-like. Liquors made from coconut sap, rice, and flowers are also mentioned.
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 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.
Poets praising the strong and generous kings
A poem by the famous poet Kapilar mentions food (and even a cooking method) in praising the generous king - " Soft are the hands of those who sing your praises, they know no work more difficult than eating rice cooked with meat, and chunks of fresh meat roasted in fire with flower-fragrant smoke."
Another poem goes - " Generous king, your knowledge, kindness and liberal outlook are beyond measure. In your country, heat from the fire that cooks rice, and that from the hot sun are only heat that people who live in your shadow know".
Poem describes various cold drinks - "Robust fishermen, whose boats are sturdy, drink strong toddy and begin to dance kuravai dances to perfect rhythm. Women wearing shining bangles and mandakam garlands mix the juices from the young fruits of black palmyra trees, sweet juices of sugrarcane and sweet water from coconuts growing on the sand dunes and drink and then plunge into the waves of the clear ocean".
Poem on king's generosity toward his warriors - "Your warriors have received fine flourishing lands where workers in the rice field chase away birds, and roast fish from the inlets on fire made of fallen palmyra fonds, drink desirable toddy and shake tender coconuts down from coconut palms".
"In the good southern land of the Pandyan king, wives of farmers who live in spacious houses fill rice in baskets in which forest hunters with fierce dogs present heaps of venison, and in the pots in which cowherd women bring curds (yogurt). The families of bards are nourished with balls of rice mixed with meat, looking like flower garlands on which flower buds and fresh green leaves are strung together. Your battle camp is lovelier than the festival you celebrated, sacrificing male goats in every mansion near the entrance, with fresh flowers and thick sand."
"May the rays of the sun no longer rise for me, unless I sing of your might and great acts, every morning and evening. May he live long, our king Valavan, who gives with an open mind, abundant wealth to bards who utter sweet words and eat huge balls of rich, cooked rice mixed with honey and millet grown in dry fileds, that are as large as the eggs of pigeons, with cooked rabbit meat."
Poet lamenting the demise of chieftain Pari " In the past, wine jars were opened, male goats were slaughtered, unlimited food was cooked, meat and rice were served. Fatty minced meat was fed and great wealth was bestowed according to the desires of the receivers, and you made friends with us."
"In Ay Andiran's great mountain country with jackfruits and sweet spices, mountain dwellers living in huts with narrow eaves drink aged liquor and perform kuravai dances in front of the houses near vengai tress".
"Without asking us for what we wanted, he (chieftain Valvil Ori) gave us boiled fatty meat of deer that was killed in hunt and toddy that was like melted cow ghee."
"The lord of the kuthirai mountain, the one on which no one rides, where waterfalls roar, kantal flowers bloom, its vast slopes dense with bamboo where black pepper vines grow, and mountain dwellers seed tiny millet at the right time, on the dusty ground that is rooted by herd of boars for thick tubers, and get yields of huge clusters of grain, so that they may eat well. They pour sweet foaming milk from elk into an unwashed pot that smells of boiled deer, its large sides white, and they set it on fire burning sandalwood pieces and cook rice in their front yard where lovely jasmine flowers bloom along with koothalam. They share their food on wide leaves of plantain, that put out dense clusters of fruits".
"If you ask me who my king is, my king rules a prosperous fine country where workers drink filtered, strong, aged liquor and eat cooked tortoises without limits, their cheeks bulging with roasted eels, as they forget their occupation and celebrate perpetual festivals."
"They say Pisiran lives in the southern king's fine land where cowherd women cook a meal with fork eared pounded millet, pours white curds with white velai flowers that grow in profusion in the streets, and a gravy with beautiful tamarind, so that avarai bean pickers may eat them to their full."
Continues in Part II.
Achaya, K.T. Indian Food: A Historical Companion. Oxford University Press 1994
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
Herbert, Vaidehi. Purananuru. 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
Zvelebil, Kamil Veith. A History of Indian Literature Volume X Tamil Literature Otto Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden 1974
Photo of forest - rights free image from Government of Kerala Tourism Department website.