15 January 2011

Natrinai (நற்றிணை)

Introduction: Literary classics abound in all languages of the word and it is indeed a pleasure to read them and appreciate how our ancestors viewed life and how every civilization differed from each other in viewing at the aims and pursuits of life in this world. The objective here is to present once a week, the best poem or sloka or verse or song I have read among the different literary works of the world. "யான் பெற்ற இன்பம் பெருக இவ்வையகம்" என்று திருமூலர் திருமந்திரத்தில் கூறியதுபோல, let everyone attain the bliss I have received in reading them.

குறுகிய குறுந்தொகைக்கும், நெடிய நெடுந்தொகைக்கும் இடையே நடுத்தர நீளத்தில் உடைய பாடல்களைக் கொண்டதுதான் நற்றிணைThis classification based on the size of the poems is akin to the grouping of Buddha’s discourses in Theravada Buddhism’s Sutta Pitaka, one of the three baskets under the Pali canon Tipitaka. The long length discourses are called Digha Nikaya, the middle length ones as Majjhima Nikaya and the short discourses as Samyutta Nikaya. So too the poems of the Sangam period classified as Nedunthogai (anthology of long poems), Natrinai (anthology of poems of medium length) and Kurunthogai (anthology of short poems).

நற்றினையும் 400 பாடல்களைக்கொண்ட ஒரு தொகுப்பு நூல். கிட்டத்தட்ட 200 புலவர்களால் பாடப்பட்ட பாடல்களைக் கொண்ட இதில், ஒவ்வொரு பாடல்களும் 9 முதல் 12 வரிகளைக் கொண்டது. நற்றினையை பலர் ஆங்கிலத்தில் மொழிபெயர்த்துள்ளனர். I have two of them, one published by the Department of Tamil Development and Culture and the other by the International Institute of Tamil Studies.

Natrinai is has a mine full of information on natural history. It has some of the remarkable narratives on the habits of wild animals found in the different landscapes of Tamil country. These are at times rare observations on prey-predator relationships, feeding habits, denning behavior, camouflaging abilities or a comparison of certain floral characteristics to the morphology of animals. 

(1) Goat on the slopes, the Nilgiri tāhr (Perunkunrār Kizhār & Kapilar)

The Tamil name for Nilgiri tahr is வரையாடு (வரை ஆடு), but the name used during the Sangam days was varudai (வருடை). The word occurs in many poems of the Kurinji mountainous landscape. Almost all the poems specifically contain the word ‘mountain’ or ‘slopes’ in them.  However, none of the translators I have come across have rendered the word வருடை as ‘tahr’; obviously because of their lack of knowledge on Indian wildlife. Some of them even translate it as a deer. Natrinai has these two poems on varudai:

பல் மலர்க் கான் யாற்று உம்பர், கருங் கலை
கடும்பு ஆட்டு வருடையொடு தாவன உகளும்
"In the company of a herd of wild goats on the hill
Beyond the banks of a wild river
with a variety of blooms floating in it"
(Natrinai 119)
……………………………………………………….. - அவன் மலைப்
போருடை வருடையும் பாயா,
சூருடை அடுக்கத்த கொயற்கு அருந் தழையே?

The leaves in the garment picked up from a spot
Inaccessible to the 
mountain goat,
Skilled at negotiating heights and chasms.
A spot in the mountains presided over by fearsome gods –

(Natrinai 359)

Translator A. Dakshinamurthy is right in considering the animal as a wild or mountain goat. The only ‘goats’ of the hill skilled in negotiating heights and chasms is nothing but the tahr. All Sangam poems refer varudai as a species of the hills or mountainous slopes (Akam 378; Ainkurunuru 287; Kurunthogai 187; Kali 43:15; Kali 50:4,21; Malai 503). The clinching evidence to prove that வருடை is nothing but வரையாடு comes from Pattinappālai:

மழை ஆடு சிமைய மால் வரைக் கவாஅன்
வரை ஆடு வருடைத் தோற்றம் போல,
கூர் உகிர் ஞமலிக் கொடுந் தாள் ஏற்றை  (138-140)

Nilgiri tahr: Goat or Sheep? (Photo: Dhanashri)
Rev. J.P. Rottler was absolutely right when he gave வரையாடு as one of the meanings of the world வருடை, though he called it a ‘mountain sheep’ and not as tahr (see “A Dictionary of Tamil and English” - page 157). However, recent genetic studies have indicated that the Nilgiri tahr is related to the ‘sheep’ and not to the goat as once thought to be (*). In that sense Rottler was correct in calling Nilgiri tahr a mountain sheep and not a mountain goat. It is a sheep that looks like the goat. In other incidents, a jackal became a wolf. The Egyptian jackal was actually a wolf that developed morphological characteristics of a jackal (Rueness et al, 2011).

And what is the meaning of “varai” (வரை)? Rottlers provides nine different meanings, two of which are “mountain” and “precipitous”. So the word வரையாடு mean “mountain goat” or “cliff goat”. The word வரை also means “bamboo” and that is why some of the translators have wrongly rendered the above lines from Pattinappalai as follows:

Upon these play big bulls whose legs are bet like
those of sharp-clawed dogs and rams.
And these resemble stags that leap about
on bamboo slopes of cloud-capped hills.
(Pattinappalai 138-140) [Translator: J.V. Chelliah]

The bags in the courtyard a mountainous heap,
From which the sharp-toothed, bow-legged dot and the ram
Jump like the mountain sheep on the cloud-clad hills
Of mountains with foot-hills where the big bamboo grows.
[Translator: N. Raghunathan]

The Sangam classics have a wealth of information on both fauna and flora of the Tamil Land. The more I dwell into it, the more I am stunned to read such references. I am yet to come across a literary classic series with so much of amazingly precise information on natural history. 

2) Otter in the burrow with fish (Author: Anonymous)

Source:Ria Inher blog

Different landscapes (Kurinchi, Mullai, Marutham, Neythal and Palai) of the ancient Tamil country had their own deity, flora, fauna, community of people, flower, food and vocation for the respective five regions.
The word நீர்நாய் (Tamil name for the otter) occurs in at least in eight of the Sangam poems.  Almost all the poems come under the Agricultural landscape (Marutham). If it is Marutham, the water body is tank, the fish involved is vālai and the tree species in the surrounds is kānji (Trewia polycarpa). 

The present Tamil Land has three species of otters. Though the oriental small-clawed otter (Aonyx cinerea) is restricted to the hill streams of mountainous humid forests, none of the Kurinji poems mention otter in them! The species of otter mentioned in Marutham tinai could be either the common otter (Lutra lutra) or smooth coated otter (Lutra perspicillata). The following poem from Natrinai is from Neythal and here the water body is creek, fish is a juicy one and tree is tillai (Excoecaria agallocha). The species here must be Lutra perspicillata.
அருளாயாகலோ, கொடிதே!- இருங் கழிக்
குருளை நீர்நாய் கொழு மீன் மாந்தி,
தில்லைஅம் பொதும்பில் பள்ளி கொள்ளும்
மெல்லம் புலம்ப!.  (Song 195)
O chief of the shore-lands,
            Where the otter cub that lives in the dusky creek
            Devours the succulent fish it has caught
            And goes to sleep in the cavernous hole
            Of the tillai trees in the pleasant shore!

(Translator: A.V. Subramanian)

Both these species of otters (L. lutra and L. perspicillata) would have shared their habitat with the crocodile in some parts of their distribution range in Tamil Nadu.  i.e. in Marutham landscape with the mugger (Crocodilus palustris) and in the Neythal landscape with the estuarine crocodile (C.  which once had Tamil Nadu coast also in its distribution range. 

3) Aestivating frog of Mullai landscape (Author: Kapilar)

Wildlife in Sangam literature is not restricted to mammals and birds alone.  There are also many references to herpetofauna, both reptiles and amphibians. The following poem from Natrinai has reference to an amphibian, reptile, mammal and insect. Interestingly, we seen all these species generally mentioned in the context of hunting and eating.  

உடும்பு கொலீஇ வரி நுணல் அகழ்ந்து
நெடுங் கோட்டுப் புற்றத்து ஈயல் கெண்டி
எல்லு முயல் எறிந்த வேட்டுவன் சுவல
பல் வேறு பண்டத் தொடை மறந்து இல்லத்து
இரு மடைக் கள்ளின் இன் களி செருக்கும்
வன் புலக் காட்டு நாட்டதுவேஅன்பு கலந்து
நம்வயின் புரிந்த கொள்கையடு நெஞ்சத்து
உள்ளினள் உறைவோள் ஊரே முல்லை
நுண் முகை அவிழ்ந்த புறவின்
பொறை தலை மணந்தன்று உயவுமார் இனியே.
(Poet: கபிலர்)

She now abides in our village situated in a hard ground woodland;
Here a hunter goes hunting during the day
And catches the wild lizards, digs out striped toads,
And also winged cochineal insects from the tall columns of white ants
And then hunts a hare.
He makes a bundle of all these and carries home on his shapely shoulders,
Only to forget everything and sleep,
After getting intoxicated with abundant toddy.
(Natrinai 59)  [Translator A. Dakshinamurthy]

Cloackwise from above left: (i) Black-napped hare, (ii) Jerdon's bull frog, (iii) Bengal monitor and (iii) Winged termites.

According to herpetologist Karthik Vasudevan of Wildlife Institute of India, the striped frog (vari nunal, வரி நுணல்) referred here could be Hoplobatrachus crassus (Jerdon's bull frog) described by Jerdon in 1853 from "Carnātic". Resembling the Indian bull frog, it buries itself deep in sandy soil in summer and becomes active on ground during the monsoon. A song from Puranuru (364), also from Mullai landscape, mentions the same species vari nunal croaking like the drums played in the dancing theater during monsoon. In fact the only other reference to vari nunal also comes from a poem belonging to Mullai tinai (Ainkurunūru 468:1).

One of the well known Tamil proverbs found in Pazhamozhi Nānūru is 'நுணலும்தன் வாயால் கெடும்' (Palamozhi 114:4) which means “A croaking frog only invites trouble”. The word used for frog in this post-Sangam work is also ‘நுணல்’. The other words used for the frog or toad in Sangam Tamil are thavalai (தவளை), therai (தேரை). The word therai probably refers to the toad in most of the contexts of the poems. A Natrinai poem says “Like a toad that remains hidden during the summer season” (வேனில் தேரையின் அளிய, Natrinai 347). Most of the references to therai also occur in Mullai tinai. (Akam, 154; Ainkuiru 453, 468; Kurun 193). Poem 468 from Ainkurunūru mentions both vari nunal and therai in it (வரிநுணல் கறங்கத் தேரை தெவிட்ட). Thavalai, the commonly used word for frog in Tamil these days, is surprisingly rare in Sangam poems! (e.g. Kurun 148).

Monitor lizard (udumbu) and hare (muyal) are two of the most commonly hunted animals in Sangam literature, both appearing frequently from Mullai landscape. Often hunting dogs were employed to hunt them. Two proverbs entrapped in the famous Pazhamozhi Nānūru are worth quoting here:

நாய் கொண்டால் பார்ப்பாரும் திண்பர் உடும்பு (Palamozhi 36:4) “If bitten by a dog, even Brahmins will eat udumbu
தீற்றாதோ நாய்நட்டால் நல்ல முயல்?” (Pazhamozhi Nānūru 128) “Befriend a dog and he will get you a good hare”

The word udumbu (உடும்பு), translated as ‘wild lizard’ by the translator in the above Natrinai poem (Natrinai, 59) could be none other than the Bengal monitor (Varanus bengalensis). Sangam poets mention the udumbu in many poems (e.g. Natrinai 24 & 59, Puram 68:1, 152:5, 333:15 etc.), so also muyal (Akam 284:2, 384:5, 394: 14; Ainkuru 421:2; Natrinai 252:10; Perumb 115).

Lastly, the invertebrate mentioned in Natrinai 59 is Eeyal (ஈயல்). During the Sangam days, poets referred to the termites were as sithalai (சிதல்) and their winged ones as eeyal (ஈயல்). Most of the Sangam poems mentioning winged termites also appear in the Mullai landscape (Akam, 304, 394, 14; Ainkuru 497). The habit of consuming termites has continued even to this day in Tamil Nadu. I am referring to the Irulā tribes of Tamil Nadu who are expert hunters of snakes, rodents and termites (*).

With this we complete the list of animals the Natrinai hunter had brought with him: frogs, hare, monitor lizards and termites. 

4) Wood apple and the forest lizard (Author: Anonymous)

The word ‘udumbu’ may not always mean the monitor lizard. If Natrinai poem 59 meant this species, the context in poem 14 indicate some other species. Forest lizards (agamids and geckos) often have skin patterns that perfectly camouflage with the background colour of trees. Some of them are so perfect mimics that it is often difficult to distinguish them from the colour of the tree bark. In the following poem, an unknown poet compares the loosely knit flakes on the bark of a wood apple tree (Feronia elephantum or F. limonia) to the loosely fit skin of a forest lizard which in this case could even be the flying lizard (Draco spp.).

Bark of wood apple

பார் பக வீழ்ந்த வேருடை விழுக்கோட்டு
உடும்பு அடைந்தன்ன நெடும் பொரி விளவின்,
ஆட்டு ஒழி பந்தின், கோட்டு மூக்கு இறுபு,
கம்பலத்தன்ன பைம் பயிர்த் தாஅம்
வெள்ளில் வல்சி வேற்று நாட்டு ஆர் இடைச்
சேறும், நாம்' எனச் சொல்ல- சேயிழை!-
நன்று' எனப் புரிந்தோய்; நன்று செய்தனையே;
செயல்படு மனத்தர் செய்பொருட்கு
அகல்வர், ஆடவர்; அது அதன் பண்பே.  (Song 24)

He said he would leave for distant lands
            Where on the way, he will see the fruit of wood apple strewn like balls
            Thrown by children at close of play
            Strewn on the green ground that looks like a carpet,
            The wood apple, aged tree with roots that are tough that break the ground
            And spreading branches, its supporting trunk old, wrinkled,
            And looking like a mountain lizard of uneven skin.
            This fruit offers the only sources of nourishment to those that live
            In those distant arid lands
            And you have given him leave to go on such a journey leaving me;

(Translator: A.V. Subramanian)

5) Elephant tusk and screw pine flower (Author: Nakkannaiyār)

The flowers thaazhai shrub (screw pine: Pandanus odoratissimus) has a special place among Vaishnavites of Tamil Nadu. These flowers are favoured during the pooja (worship) of Lord Shiva. The ivory coloured flowers of this species are known for their pleasant and penetrating fragrance. In the following Natrinai poem, the author Nakkannaiyar compares the spiny leaves of the shrub to the sword fish, its scaly barks to shrimps and the buds of the flowers to elephant tusks.

இறவுப் புறத்து அன்ன பிணர் படு தடவு முதல்
சுறவுக் கோட்டன்ன முள் இலைத் தாழை
பெருங் களிற்று மருப்பின் அன்ன அரும்பு முதிர்பு
நல் மான் உழையின் வேறுபடத் தோன்றி
விழவுக் களம் கமழும் உரவு நீர்ச் சேர்ப்ப  (Song 19)

Your littoral domain is rich in screw-pine bushes
Whose bases are broad and barks scaly like the skin of shrimps;
Their thorny blades are very the sword fish’s.
And the ripened buds resemble the tusks of huge elephants.
They bend aside a little and look like so many heads of antelopes.
Their sweet fragrance reminds us of the scent emitted from the arena of festival.
(Translator: A. Dakshinamurthy)

6) Madhuca eating fruiting bats

Sangam poets have not spared even bats. Perhaps all the references are on fruit bats, designated to Pālai and Neythal landscapes (பாலை, நெய்தல்). Called vāval (வாவல்) during the Sangam days, bats are now called vavvāl (வவ்வால்). Fruit bats are known feed on a variety fruits and many species adaptable to live near human habitations, often raiding fruit orchards. But, as Avvaiyār of the medieval period said, no one would call out the bats when their trees bear fruits (மரம் பழுத்தால் வௌவாலை வாவென்று கூவி இரந்தழைப்பார் யாவருமங் கில்லை, Nalvazhi, 29). Nālatiyār, one of the greatest didactic works in Tamil of post-Sangam period, using the parable of fruit bats and wood apple Limonia acidissima (=Feronia elephantum) says: “Fruits of thick-shelled wood apple may be in plenty and nearby, yet fruit bats won’t approach those fruits anyway” (அருகலது ஆகிப் பல பழுத்தக்கண்ணும், பொரி தாள் விளவினை வாவல் குறுகா, Nālatiyār, 261). Let us now see what the  song from Natrinai has to say about fruit bats:

A fruit bat on Madhuca flowers (Photo by Mymoon Moghal).
வேம்பின் ஒண் பழம் முணைஇ இருப்பைத்
தேம் பால் செற்ற தீம் பழம் நசைஇ
வைகு பனி உழந்த வாவல் சினைதொறும்
நெய் தோய் திரியின் தண் சிதர் உறைப்ப

The bats hate the bright neem fruits
and move away to the iruppai tree
desiring its honey sweet fruits.
The delicate sprinkles of water on the tree branches
at this morning hour appears
like flames lit with ghee.
(Natrinai 279) [Translated by Vaidehi]

Fruit bats feed on the fruits as well as the flowers of iruppai or iluppai tree (Madhuca longifolia). (Thiruchenthil et al, 2009). Many Sangam poems also mention that sloth bears (Melursus ursinus) are fond of iruppai flowers and fruits (Akam 81, 95). Madhuca trees (called mahwa or mahua in Hindi) is a tree of the dry deciduous forests of the Indian subcontinent. It is also cultivated and nurtured in the countryside for its seeds from which oil is extracted and flowers from which alcoholic drink is prepared.

Thiruchenthil, N.P. and Karuppudurai, T., Raghuram, H. and Marimuthu, G. (2009). Bat foraging strategies and pollination of Madhuca latifolia (Sapotaceae) in southern India. In: Acta Chiropterologica, 11 (2). pp. 435-441.
Rueness EK, Asmyhr MG, Sillero-Zubiri C, Macdonald DW, Bekele A, et al. (2011). The Cryptic African Wolf: Canis aureus lupaster Is Not a Golden Jackal and Is Not Endemic to Egypt


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