January 11, 2015
Food in Pathuppattu (continued)
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.
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.
Perumpaanattuppadai is a poem of 500 lines. Perumpanars are bards who played the large yal (lute) accompanied by their singing. In this poem a bard recommends to fellow bards to seek the help of his patron Thondaiman Ilanthirayan, the ruler of Kanchi. The poem graphically recounts the things the bards would see as they travel through various landscapes on the way to the capital city Kanchi. There are splendid descriptions of the sea port town where trade and commerce flourished and of the festivals in the ancient capital city Kanchi. The virtues and generosity of the king are also praised in these lines.
The poem gives graphic details about the life of ancient Tamils. The conventional five regions - kurinchi, mullai, palai, marutham and neithal- and the foods the people who lived in these areas ate are also described in detail. 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. Other grains such as a variety of millets were also very popular. Mangoes, jackfruit, sugarcane and honey provided the sweet component to their meals. They brewed toddy from palm trees and wine from rice and alcohol was consumed as a part of meals. They knew to crush sugarcane and make jaggery from sugar cane juice.
As the panars go through the spacious forest paths, there are huts with roofs made of thatched leaves of eenthu (dates) palms. The women of these huts dig the ground with spades with caps of iron and raise the dust of black-soiled barren lands and take out the soft rice grains stored in the ground. They pound this rice with ulakkai (pestles) short and strong in urals (mortars) made in the ground. They draw water from the wells and add to the un-sifted rice along with white meat in an old pot with a broken rim on a broken stove. The minstrel advices the panars that if they say they are the subjects of the lord of the hills who wears war anklets on his legs, the forest women will feed them abundant food served on teak leaves.
At the fort of the forest dwellers in many homes they will serve red rice grown in uplands that look like red berries of eenthu palms along with poriyals (stir fried) made of the flesh of iguana. In the kurinchi region the thieves who steal cattle sell them to buy sweet rice liquor and enjoy it along with meat of sturdy goats.
In the region where cattle herders lived, small goats were tied to posts in front of their huts. The women churned yogurt to make butter and carried it in pots to the market to sell. They fed their families with the money earned from selling buttermilk. The minstrel advices the panars that if they ask for food, these women will feed them fresh millet cooked in milk along with white avarai beans.
As they walk further they will see tall cattle sheds and grain granaries in the front yard that resembles elephants. If the bards stay here where hunger is unknown, they will get white rice along with well fried flesh of domestic fowl. They will also get sugarcane juice, as much as they desire from the noisy sugar cane mills where cane juice was boiled to make jaggery.
In the neithal region where fishermen live, they will see short roofed huts covered with thatched tarpai grass. Fish baskets lie in front of the huts and when the bards stay there they fisherwomen will serve them a drink made from a mash of un-pounded boiled rice mixed with fine powdered sprouts of rice, cooled in large wide mouthed pots for two days to sweeten it along with fried fish.
When they get to the Brahmin settlements at sunset they will get well cooked rice that bears the name of a bird along with fresh pomegranate cooked with butter made from the milk of a red skinned cows, and fresh curry leaves and black pepper. They will also give fragrant pickles made with tender green mangoes.
At the seashore town there are many storied mansions where there is abundant food. They will get abundant toddy with fatty meat of the boar with short legs. When they leave these behind and go to the groves where farmers live in huts with roofs made of thatched coconut palm leaves, they will get big jackfruits that grow in clusters and sweet water from young coconuts and alluring plantain fruits. They will also receive young pulpy fruit of the palmyra palms and other dainty sweets to eat.
And finally when the bards reach the palace of the patron, he will ask them to remove your old clothing and give fine clothing with bright threads and then serve them meat dishes cooked by a talented cook with strong hands. He will also serve large fine red rice and special sweet dishes that are spread in silver bowls.
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