Food in Pathuppattu
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. Although the name Pathuppattu has been in use for very long, it is unknown who made this collection. The poems in Pathuppattu praise kings, valor, wars, generosity, loyalty, and gratitude. Poems describing the king’s generosity give graphic descriptions of food that he gave to the bards. Five of the poems in Pathuppattu are guide poems where one bard urges other bards to go to his generous patron for help. 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. These poems eloquently portray an advanced civilization that prevailed in south India during the early centuries.
In Porunaratruppadai (one of the earliest poems in Pahtuppattu) the poet meets a wandering minstrel and directs him to his patron Chola king Karikalan.
Foods and drinks offered to the bards by the king are described in the following lines:
“In the halls bejeweled, smiling, comely maids poured out from spotless golden vessels full like cheering rain much stupefying drink repeatedly. Knowing the time to eat, he urged me to eat cooked thick thigh meat of sheep that were fed arukam grass twisted as ropes and fatty, big pieces of meat roasted on iron rods. He gave more and more even when I refused them again and again, he served many tasty pastries in many shapes”
“One day the king begged us to eat cooked rice whose grains unbroken looked like jasmine buds, all the grains of the same size with no streaks and long like fingers along with curries mixed with roasted seeds staying with me sweetly”
Describing bartering of food:
"People barter honey, ghee and edible yams for fish oil and toddy those who sell sweet sugarcane and flattened rice barter them for deer meat and wine”
Sirupanattrupadai: In this poem a Panan (one who sings) who had received rich presents from the chieftain Nalliakodan meets a group of Panars traveling in very hot weather, and he recommends that they go to his patron for help. He tells them what food they will get from the people of various regions on the way and finally from the king.
In the seashore towns they wil give:
"Fishermen will give you aged liquor that their wives with sharp, spear-like eyes and pretty faultless faces that make the moon jealous, have prepared along with fried kulal fish cooked over akhil driftwood wood of sleeping camel’s shape brought over by swollen waves”
In the hot wasteland they will give:
“Women of the Eyitriyar race who stay in huts will be hospitable to you and will feed you rice and venison cooked in tamarind sauce”
In the agricultural tracts they will give:
“The sister of the farmer will serve cooked white rice balls made from rice finely pounded with an iron pestle, with a dish made of split-legged crabs”
And when they reach the king’s palace he will give:
"He will give you toddy strong that stupefies like poison of snakes, and in golden plates that much surpass the morning sun that lights the sky, he will serve many dishes suited to your taste that are prepared according to the rules found in the treatise* that a hero wrote whose chest was as broad as the snowy mount”
*The treatise refers to the work of Bhima of Mahabharata who lived for a year disguised as a cook.
Food references in other poems in Pathuppattu coming up in the next segments.
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
Chellaiah, J.V. Pattuppattu: Ten Idylls, Translated into English Verse. Colombo General Publishers 1975
Herbert, Vaidehi. Pathuppattu. Digital Maxim LLC. 2013
Kanakasabhai, V. The Tamils Eighteen Hundred Years Ago. Higginbotham & Co. Madras 1904
Sastri, K.A. Nilakanta. The Cultural History of the Tamils. K.L. Mukhopadhyay 1964