Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Purananuru - A Brief Introduction

Purananuru (Tamil: புறநானூறு) is a Tamil poetic work in the PathinenmaelkanakkuTamil literature, belonging to the Sangam period corresponding to between 200 BCE – 100 CE. Purananuru is part of the Ettuthokai anthology which is the oldest available collection of poems of Sangam literature in Tamil. Purananuru contains 400 poems of varying lengths in the Akaval meter. More than 150 poets wrote the poems. It is not known when or who collected these poems into these anthologies. anthology of

Purananuru is an excellent source of information on the political and social history of pre-historic Tamil Nadu. There is a wealth of information on the various rulers who ruled the Tamil country before and during the Sangam era (200 BCE – 100 CE).

Madurai Temple
Madurai - the seat of the Tamil Sangams

Nature of Purananuru

There are 400 poems in Purananuru including the invocation poem. Poems 267 and 267 are extinct and some of the poems are partially extinct. Of the poets who wrote these poems, there are men and women, kings and paupers. The oldest book of annotations found so far has annotations and commentary on the first 266 poems. The commentator Nachinarkiniyaar of the eleventh – twelfth century Tamil Nadu has written a complete commentatry on all the poems.


It is not known exactly how many authors wrote the poems in Purananuru. There are 147 different names found from the colophons. However some of these could denote the same author. For example, Mangudi Kizhaar and Mangudi Maruthanaar could denote the same person. We don't know the authors of around 14 poems. Fourteen of the authors are kings and chieftains. Fifteen of the authors were women, one of whom was Auvaiyar who is credited with 33 poems. Some of the authors of the poems such as Kapilar and Nakkirar have also written poems that are part of other anthologies.

Some of the names of the authors such as Irumpitarthalaiyaar and Kookaikozhiyaar seem to be nick names based on words from the poems rather than proper names. This suggests that those who compiled this anthology must have made up these names as the author's names must have been lost when these poems were collected.

Subject matters

As its name suggests, Purananuru poems deal with the puram (external or objective) concepts of life such as war, politics, wealth, as well as aspects of every-day living. Some of the poems are in the form of elegies in tribute to a fallen hero. These poems exhibit outpourings of affection and emotions.

There are also a few poems in Purananuru, which are classified as attruppatais. Attruppatai poems read like travelogues in which poets who were returning with gifts received from a king, encourage other poets to do the same by describing in glory of the king and his country. This gives the opportunity to the poet, among other topics, to describe in great detail the natural beauty, fertility, and resources of the territory that has to be traversed to reach the palace of the patron.


There seems to be some definite structure to the order of the poems in Purananuru. The poems at the beginning of the book deal with the three major kings Chola, Chera and Pandya of ancient Tamil Nadu. The middle portion is on the lesser kings and the Velir chieftains who were feudatories of these three major kingdoms with a short intervening section (poems 182 - 195) of didactic poems. The final portion deals with the general scenery of war and the effect of warfare.


Just as the akam (subjective) poems are classified into seven thinais or landscapes based on the mood of the poem, the Tamil prosodical tradition mentioned in the ancient Tamil grammatical treatise Tolkappiyam also classifies puram (objective) poems into seven thinais based on the subject of the poems. These are vetchi when the king provokes war by attacking and stealing the cattle of his enemy, vanchi when the king invades the enemy territory, uzhingai when the king lays a siege of the enemy's fortress, thumbai when the two armies meet on a battlefield, vaakaipaataan when the poet praises the king on his victory and kanchi when the king is victorious, when the poet sings on the fragility of human life.

The Purananuru does not, however, follow this system. The colophons accompanying each poem name a total of eleven thinais. From the subject matter of the poems they accompany, each can be said to represent the following themes:

  • vetchi - the provocation of war through attack and cattle raids
  • karanthai - defending against cattle raids
  • vanchi - invasion of the enemy's territory
  • kanchi - transcience and change, the fragility of human life, against the backdrop of war
  • uzhingai- attacking the fort
  • nochchi - defence of the fort or territory
  • thumpai - the frenzy of battle
  • vaakai - victory
  • paadaan - praise of a king's heroism or generosity, asking for gifts
  • pothuviyal - general heroism (mostly philosophical musings and elegies for heroes).
  • kaikkilai - unrequited love
  • perunthinai - unsuitable love

The last two themes are traditionally associated with akam poetry. In Purananuru, they occur in the context of the familiar puram landscape of warfare. Thus songs 83, 84 and 85 are classified to belong to the kaikkilai thinai, which denotes unrequited love, and describe a noblewoman's love for King Cholan Poravai Kopperunarkilli. Similarly, songs 143 to 147 are classified as perunthinai or perunkilai thinai, which denotes unsuitable love, and deal with King Pekan's abandonment of his wife. Pothuviyal is described in commentaries as a general thinai used for poems that cannot be classified in any other manner but, in the context of Purananuru, is used almost exclusively for didactic verse and elegies or laments for dead heroes.

Tolkappiyam does not mention several of Purananuru's themes. Also, Tolkappiyam's oozhinaiPurananuru, its role being filled to some extent by the nochchi theme, whilst other themes described as having a particular function in Tolkappiyam are utilised differently by Purananuru. The thinais for 44 poems have been lost due to the deterioration of the palm-leaf manuscripts. theme does not occur in

The poems are further classified into thurais. A thurai denotes the locale of the poem giving the situation under which it was written. Some of these are parisil thurai when the poet reminds the king or patron of the reward that he promised to him, kalitrutanilai in which the hero dies with the elephant he killed in battle, and so on. Some of the poems are too damaged in the manuscripts to determine their thurais. It is not known whether the authors of the poems made these classifications. It is more likely that those who collected the anthology applied these classifications. Poem 289 was not assigned any classification for reasons unknown.

Realism and fantasy

Purananuru songs exhibit a unique realism and immediacy not frequently found in classical literature. The nature and the subject of the poems lend us to believe that poets did not write these poems on events that happened years prior, rather they wrote (or sang) them on impulse in situ. Some of the poems are conversational in which the poet pleads, begs, chides or praises the king. One such example is poem 46. The poet Kovur Kizhaar address the Chola king Killivalavan to save the lives of the children of a defeated enemy who are about to be executed by being trampled under an elephant. The poet says, "… O king, you belong to the heritage of kings who sliced their own flesh to save the life of a pigeon, look at these children; they are so naïve of their plight that they have stopped crying to look at the swinging trunk of the elephant in amusement. Have pity on them…" The almost impressionistic picture the poem paints cannot be anything but by someone who is witness to the events present in the poem.

Along with such realism, Purananuru shows glimpses of fantasy as well. The second poem by Mudinagarayar addresses the Chera king Uthayan Cheralaathan and praises him for his feeding the armies at the Kurukshetra war. This is an obvious anachronism suggesting a king of the early common era Tamil country had a role to play in a mythological battle of the Mahabharata epic. Based on this one poem, there have been attempts at dating the Purananuru poems to around 1000 BCE or older.

Historical source

Each Purananuru poem has a colophon attached to it giving the authorship and subject matter of the poem, the name of the king or chieftain to whom the poem relates and the occasion which called forth the eulogy are also found.

It is from these colophons and rarely from the texts of the poems themselves, that we gather the names of many kings and chieftains and the poets and poetesses patronised by them. The task of reducing these names to an ordered scheme in which the different generations of contemporaries can be marked off one another has not been easy. To add to the confusions, some historians have even denounced these colophons as later additions and untrustworthy as historical documents.

A careful study of the synchronisation between the kings, chieftains and the poets suggested by these colophons indicates that this body of literature reflect occurrences within a period of four or five continuous generations at the most, a period of 120 or 150 years. Any attempt at extracting a systematic chronology and data from these poems should be aware of the casual nature of these poems and the wide difference between the purposes of the anthologist who collected these poems and the historian’s attempts are arriving at a continuous history.

Although there have been attempts at dating the poems of Purananuru based on the mention of the Mahabharata war, a more reliable source for the period of these poems is based on the mentions one finds on the foreign trade and presence of Greek and Roman merchants in the port of Musiri (poem 343) give us a date of between 200 BCE to 150 CE for the period of these poems. This is further strengthened by the mention of Maurya in poem 175 and a reference to Ramayana in poem 378.


யாதும் ஊரே, யாவரும் கேளிர்,
தீதும் நன்றும் பிறர்தர வாரா,
நோதலும் தணிதலும் அவற்றோ ரன்ன
சாதலும் புதுவது அன்றே, வாழ்தல்
இனிதுஎன மகிழ்ந்தன்றும் இலமே, முனிவின்
இன்னாது என்றலும் இலமே, பின்னொடு
வானம் தண் துளி தலைஇ ஆனாது
கல் பொருது இரங்கும் மல்லல் பேர்யாற்று
நீர்வழிப் படுஉம் புணைபோல் ஆருயிர்
முறைவழிப் படுஉம் என்பது திறவோர்
காட்சியின் தெளிந்தனம் ஆதலின் மாட்சியின்
பெரியோரை வியத்தலும் இலமே,
சிறியோரை இகழ்தல் அதனினும் இலமே.
(கணியன் பூங்குன்றன், புற நானூறு, 192).

The Sages

To us all towns are one, all men our kin,
Life's good comes not from others' gifts, nor ill,
Man's pains and pain's relief are from within,
Death's no new thing, nor do our blossoms thrill
When joyous life seems like a luscious draught.
When grieved, we patient suffer; for, we deem
This much-praised life of ours a fragile raft
Borne down the waters of some mountain stream
That o'er huge boulders roaring seeks the plain
Tho' storms with lightning's flash from darkened skies.
Descend, the raft goes on as fates ordain.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !
We marvel not at the greatness of the great;
Still less despise we men of low estate.

Kaniyan Poongundran, Purananuru - 192
(Translated by G.U.Pope, 1906)

"இனி நினைந்து இரக்கம் ஆகின்று! திணிமணல்
செய்வுறு பாவைக்குக் கொய்பூத் தைஇத்
தண்கயம் ஆடும் மகளிரொடு கைபிணைந்து
தழுவுவழித் தழீஇத் தூங்குவழித் தூங்கி
மறை எனல் அறியா மாயமில் ஆயமொடு
உயர்சினை மருதத் துறை உறத் தாழ்ந்து
நீர்நணிப் படிகோடு ஏறிச் சீர்மிகக்
கரையவர் மருளத் திரையகம் பிதிரக்
குளித்து மணல் கொண்ட கல்லா இளமை!
அளிதோ தானே! யாண்டுண்டு கொல்லோ,
தொடித்தலை விழுத்தண்டு ஊன்றி நடுக்குற்று
இருமிடை மிடைந்த சிலசொல்
பெரு மூதாளரோம் ஆகிய எமக்கே?"

(தொடித்தலை விழுத்தண்டினார், புற நானூறு, 243 )

The Instability of Youth

"I muse of YOUTH! the tender sadness still
returns! In sport I moulded shapes of river sand,
plucked flowers to wreathe around the mimic forms:
in the cool tank I bathed, hand linked in hand,
with little maidens, dancing as they danced!
A band of innocents, we knew no guile.
I plunged beneath th' o'erspreading myrtle's shade,
where trees that wafted fragrance lined the shore;
then I climbed the branch that overhung the stream
while those upon the bank stood wondering;
I threw the waters round, and headlong plunged
dived deep beneath the stream, and rose,
my hands filled with the sand that lay beneath!
Such was my youth unlesson'd. 'Tis too sad!
Those days of youth, ah! whither have they fled?
I now with trembling hands, grasping my staff,
panting for breath, gasp few and feeble words.
And I am worn and OLD!"

Thodithalai Vizhuthandinar, Purananuru - 243
(Translated by G. U. Pope, 1906)

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