Posted on: July 3, 2020 Posted by: Ammini Ramachandran Comments: 0

June 18, 2016

Palm leaf Document Photo Credit Anton Croos

The classical Tamil Sangam literature written in ancient Tamil was composed as hymns, ballads, erotic verses, and lyrics. Engraved on palm leaves and dating back to the period between 300 BC and 300 AD, these poems 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.

Unfortunately, much of the Tamil literature belonging to the Sangam period was lost. The literature currently available from this period is perhaps just a portion of the wealth of material produced during this golden age of Tamil literature. 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 surviving poems written by 473 poets are collected in ten volumes of longer poems, Pathuppattu (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. Descriptions foods and drinks are mostly found in puram poems. 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.

In a previous series of five articles I had discussed about foods in poems of Pathuppattu. The following articles are about food in Ettuthogai. Of the eight anthologies in Ettuthogai, two poems – Purananuru and Patiruppattu are puram poems, Akananuru, Narrinai, Kuruntokai, Ainkurunuru, and Kalittokai are akam poems and Paripadal has both akam and puram poems. Just as in the poems in Pathuppattu, there are no detailed recipes in these poems, but they provide abundant information of the culinary culture of the time.

The Purananuru is an anthology of 400 poems by more than 150 poets, including ten women poets. According to Tamil scholar Kamil Zvelebil the date of the earlier poems in this collection date back to the first century B.C. and the second century A.D. “It was written before Aryan influence had penetrated the South and is a testament of pre-aryan South India, and to a significant extent, of pre-aryan India. Like the Homeric epics and Greek lyric poems, the Purananuru was among the first works written down in its cultural tradition – and like its Greek counterparts, it is notable for its freshness and directness of expression”.  writes Tamil scholar George Hart.

The Purananuru was first edited by U.V. Swaminatha Iyer in 1894 along with its old commentary, with an introduction and notes. Avvai Duraisamy edited it in two volumes and published then 1947 and 1950. Dr. George Hart translated the entire work to English in 1999 – “The Four Hundred Songs of War and Wisdom”.  In 2013 Tamil scholar Vaidehi Herbert published English translation with meanings. There are several commentaries written by various Tamil Scholars. 

“The name of the work literally means – The four Hundred poems about Exterior. This anthology along with Patiruppattu, yields valuable historical information.” writes Vaidehi Herbert. The anthology available today has only 397 poems; poems 267 and 268 were lost. The society that Purananuru describes revolved around the king who had important powers. There are total of 138 poems in praise of the three great kings of the Chera, Chola and Pandya dynasties. another 141 poems are in praise of the kings of small regions. The remaining poems form a mixed group where the three great kings and the regional kings are praised. There are many poems that praise the same king.


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 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

Treasures from the Past - Articles