"If it is true that liberal education should "liberate" by demonstrating the cultural values and norms foreign to us, by revealing the relativity of our own values, then the "discovery" and enjoyment of Tamil literature, and even its teaching should find its place in the systems of Western training and instruction in the humanities." - Kamil Zvelebil in his book, The Smile of Murugan , The Tamil literature of South India

Friday, April 11, 2014

Sangam Literature the Basics - Part 1

The sangam poets sang about nature, love, bravery and the life of people. The sangam poems could be categorized into two main branches, in terms of subject. One talking about the love and domestic life of people is called the 'agam'. Agam means inner, mind, self or home. Agam poems are personal in nature. Again there is a lovely convention of not using any names in these agam poems. So the poems could be applied to anyone surpassing all times. The reader can relate to the poem very closely.

The other branch talks about the public life of people, the bravery and charity of kings, and the wars. This is called 'puram' meaning the outer, public life or exterior. Puram poems refer to many kings, the names of them being explicit or implied. So all the sangam poems could be categorized into agam or puram.

Love and lifestyle of the people were dependent on the nature of the landforms. The people lived very close with the nature. Hence the agam poems are also categorized
into five landforms typically called as five 'thinai's. Those are named kurinji, mullai, marutham, neithal and paalai.
  • Kurinji refers to the mountains and adjoining lands.  
  • Mullai refers to the forests and adjoining lands.  
  • Marutham refers to the plains and adjoining lands.  
  • Neithal refers to the sea and adjoining lands.  
  • Palai doesn't have a separate landform, whereas the Kurinji and Mullai lands dried by drought were referred to as Paalai. In fact these lands are mentioned as 'naduvunilai', meaning 'in between'. The term 'Palai' was coined later by the commentators.
Kurinji, mullai, marutham and neithal were called 'naanilam', meaning the four lands. The sangam poems bring forth the landscape, animals, birds, crops, life of people and weather typical of the particular landform or thinai. This convention was followed by all the sangam poets, irrespective of the place and time they lived in. This adds up to the beauty of the poems that those could be understood easily.

We understand that the ancient Tamils gave importance to both the love and bravery for the welfare of the home and the country.  This is stated in Tholkappiyam as follows:

"இன்பமும் பொருளும் அறனும் என்றாங்கு 
அன்பொடு புணர்ந்த ஐந்திணை மருங்கின்"
"Inbamum Porulum aranum endraangu
anbodu punarndha aindhinai marungin"

Meaning: Inbamum - joyful, porulum - wealth, aranum- charity, endraangu - thus, anbodu punarndha - lived with love, aindhinai marungin - with the five thinais

This says that the Tamils lived a joyful life of earning wealth, love and doing charity. The five thinais we discussed above are called "anbin ainthinai", meaning the five thinais of love.

This is just a small introduction to get you all started. I will write more about the conventions and also the different collection of poems in the forthcoming posts.

Kindly feel free to ask any questions or doubts, so that I can fine tune my posts further.


  1. A very goog begining Grace... period of sangam literature may be added, even though a lot of disputes are there... BC-200 to AD-100 is accepted by a lot. I think these sites will help you in general... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sangam_literature
    And I hope you may know the TVU, and project madurai sites to read all sangam lit.in Tamil.
    And I hope strongly my dear sister, You can do a wonder by these works.. Keep it up and go ahead. Hats of to You.

    1. Thanks a lot. Yeah, I had given the period as 300 BC to 300 AD in my first post. I do refer to these sites. And again thanks a lot for your encouragement and loving wishes, dear brother.

  2. Simple and very nicely drafted Grace :)

  3. does this kurinji, Mullai Marutham Neithal and Palai denote plants specifically?

    1. Yes. Kurinji is the name of a flower and it grows from a shrub. Mullai is the name of a flower and hence the tree is mullai tree. Marutham is a tree too. Neithal is also a flower blooming in marchlands and waterbodies. (water lilies).


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