02 January 2011

Kurunthogai (குறுந்தொகை)

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.

All great languages and religious traditions of the world have produced wonderful literary works. Be it Sanskrit, Prakrit, Arabic, Greek, Chinese, Egyptian, Tibetan, Tamil, Hebrew, Latin and other ancient languages, they all have made their own contribution to the field of literature. Where should I start my presentation? Let me start with Tamil, the language of my ancient ancestors and the mother of my mother-tongue Malayalam. Tamil, as we all know, has a long literary history, beginning with the Sangam classics of எட்டுத்தொகை (Eight anthologies) and பத்துப்பாட்டு (Ten Idylls). These EIGHT and TEN together constitute the "18 major works" (பதினென்மேல் கணக்கு), the earliest collection of literature in Tamil (200 B.C. to 400 A.D.). The 2,380 odd Sangam poems we now have are nothing but anthologies compiled at a subsequent period (500-700 A.D.) by redactors whose names are sometimes unknown.The Sangam poems  were sung by about 473 poets as evident from the names given below each poem, besides many poems for which the author's names are unknown.

There is no literature in the world similar to Tamil Sangam works in conceptualization, style and presentation. A full fledged Sangam poem (for instance poems of the anthology Akanaanuru) has all the three subject matters, namely 'Place & Time' (முதற்பொருள்), 'Love' (உரிப்பொருள்) and 'Fauna and Flora' (கருப்பொருள்). Amongst its many characteristics, the most striking are the descriptions of nature, both flora and fauna, in such intricate details which is unique to Sangam alone. To know more about these unique works, you may visit the blog devoted to "Sangam Tamil Literature".

The Tamil of the Sangam works are extremely difficult to understand. In fact I would say impossible to understand. For people like us, only translations come to the rescue. We can then compare, word-by-word, the Tamil words those poets employed to compose the poems.

I am taking குறுந்தொகை, one of the anthologies among எட்டுத்தொகை here for my first presentation.
'Kurunthogai' means 'anthology of short verses'. Though these poems must have been composed sometime between 200 B.C. to 300 A.D., Kurunthogai all most Sangam anthologies were compiled by one Poorikko (பூரிக்கோ) sometime before the ninth century A.D. , the time when they were referred as anthologies (Pillai and Ludden, 1997). Names of 205 poets are mentioned in this anthology. Authorship is not known for only 10 poems.

Sangam poetry consists of Internal (akam) and External (puram) poems, with the former employing 'Love' as the theme and the latter concerning War and State affairs. Kurunthogai consists entirely of Love poems. Like all anthologies on Love, Kurunthogai poems can also be categorized according to the landscape themes of Kurinchi, Mullai, Marutham, Neythal and Pālai. Kurinchi means Mountainous Landscape, Mullai means Lowland forests, Marutham means Agricultural region, Neythal mean Littoral regions and Pālai mean Deserted landscapes (of Kurinchi and Mullai). In Kurunthogai, Kurinchi poems dominate, followed by Pālai and the rest (see Fig below).

 Fig: Number of poems according to Ainthinais in Kurunthogai.

(1) Strangers before but lovers now

The work is studded with numerous references to nature, both flora and fauna. To begin with, let me reproduce here one of the often quoted love poem which narrates how lovers feel to have come together in spite of being strangers before. This one is attributed to the poet செம்புலப் பெயநீரார்.
யாயும் ஞாயும் யாராகியரோ?
எந்தையும் நுந்தையும் எம்முறைக் கேளிர்?
நீயும் யானும் எவ்வழி அறிதும்?
செம்புலப் பெயல் நீர்போல,
அன்புடை நெஞ்சந்தாங் கலந்தனவே!
Your mother and my mother, how are they related?
Your father and my father, what are they to one another?
You and I, how do we know each other?
Like the rain and red earth, our loving hearts are mingled as one.
(Translator: M. Shanmugam Pillai & David E. Ludden)  

(2) Debarking elephants

The second song I reproduce here attracted my attention because of its reference to the feeding habits of elephants. Sangam literature abounds with such information, not only that of elephants but also on the feeding habits of bear, heron, snake, otter, tiger, macaques, stork, python etc. In the following poem, poet Perunkatungo (பெருங்கடுங்கோ) describes how a tusker debarks a yaam tree. K.V. Krishnamurthy (2007) in his book “தமிழரும் தாவரமும்(Bharathidasan University, Trichy) as Hardwickia binata. As pointed out by the poet, the leaves and barks of this species are eaten by elephants and gaur (source: Blog on Flora of Nilgiris).

(Hardwickia binata)

நசை பெரிது உடையர்; நல்கலும் நல்குவர்;
பிடி பசி களைஇய பெருங் கை வேழம்
மென் சினை யாஅம் பொளிக்கும்
அன்பின-தோழி!-அவர் சென்ற ஆறே.
தோழி, "கடிது வருவர்" என்று, ஆற்றுவித்தது.

Those filled with love bestow their love, my friend.
The path he follows is full of love:
            The male elephant peels off tender barks of the yaam tree
            With his long trunk to appease the hunger of his mate.
(Translators:  M. Shanmugam Pillai & David E. Ludden) (Modified)

(3) Peacock's foot, crest and feather

Kurunthogai has three interesting comparisons between different floral parts and peacock’s body parts. I would like to highlight these interesting comparisons the poets have made while composing these Kurunthogai poems.

Poet Céntan Kannan compares vāgai's (Albizia odoratissima) blooms to the crest of the peafowl (poem 347), poet Killimankalang Kizhār compares karuvilai’s (Clitoria ternatea) flowers to the 'eyes' on the peacock feathers (poem 110) and poet Kollan azhici compares the leaves of nochi (Vitex spp.) tree to peafowl’s foot. These poems are from different thinais or landscapes (pālai, mullai and maruthan, in that order) and by different authors. They have all compared different parts of a peacock to different parts of plants of their respective regions. The resemblances are very striking and it only goes on to show that ancient Tamils lived in such a close intimacy with nature. In an age when there were no distractions like the modern man-made motor-vehicles, buildings, computers, televisions and the like, it was only natural for them to have spent time observing nature and natural phenomena. Let us look at these three poems of Kurunthogai (Translator M. Shanmugam Pillai and David E. Ludden):
Albizia odoratissima bloom (above) compared to peafowl's crest (left)

Vāgai bloom and peacock's crest

மல்குசுனை புலர்ந்த நல்கூர் சுரமுதற்
குமரி வாகைக் கோலுடை நறுவீ
மடமாத் தோகைக் குடுமியிற் றோன்றும்
கான நீளிடைத் தானு நம்மொடு
ஒன்றுமணஞ் செய்தனள் இவளெனின்
நன்றே நெஞ்சம் நயந்தநின் துணிவே.  (347)
Longing for wealth as you do, my heart,
Your goading me would be fine
If only this girl could come with me
To make love along the long, jungle path,
Where fragrant flowers on the stalks
Of young vākai trees growing in wasted deserts,
Where springs once bubbling are all dried up,
Appear like the crests of young, black peacocks.

The bluish 'eyes' of peacock feathers indeed resemble the Clitoria ternatea flower  
Karuvilai flower and peacock's trail

வாரா ராயினும் வரினும் அவர்நமக்கு
யாரா கியரோ தோழி நீர
நீலப் பைம்போ துளரிப் புதல
பீலி ஒண்பொறிக் கருவிளை யாட்டி
நுண்முள் ஈங்கைச் செவ்வரும் பூழ்த்த
வண்ணத் துய்ம்மலர் உதிரத் தண்ணென்று
இன்னா தெறிதரும் வாடையொடு
என்னா யினள்கொல் என்னா தோரே. (110)
That man who does not even wonder how I am,
As the cold and bitter winds blow
To shake off clean, red, flowers
From the sharp-thorned mimosa;
And make the karuvilai, with marks
On it like a peacock’s tail; dance
In the bushes; as it spreads around
The fresh buds of the nilam flower
Which grows on water.
Whether he comes or doesn’t come,
What is he to us, my friend?

Leaves of Vitex spp. (left) compared to peacock's foot (above)

Nochi leaves and peacock's foot

கொன்னூர் துஞ்சினும் யாந்துஞ் சலமே
எம்மி லயல தேழி லும்பர்
மயிலடி யிலைய மாக்குர னொச்சி
அணிமிகு மென்கொம் பூழ்த்த
மணிமருள் பூவின் பாடுநனி கேட்டே. (138)

Even though the whole large town sleeps,
We do not sleep,
Hearing distinctly the sound of blue flowers
Shaken off the beautiful, soft branches
Of the nochi tree, with leaves like peacock’s feet,
And dark flower bunches on ézhil hill,
Near my home.

Vairam in his blog “கற்க நிற்க” had already pointed out the reference to nochi leaf and peacock’s foot in Kurunthogai poem 138. Nochi in Sangam literature is usually identified as Vitex negundo, a plant of marutham or Agricultural region. Interestingly, Vitex altissima, another species found in the Western Ghats’ evergreen and semi-evergreen forests, is called Peacock Chaste Tree! The Tamil for this species is மயிலாடி or மயிலை நொச்சி.

Kurunthogai also has few other interesting references comparing flora with fauna. To cite a few examples: (i) Buds of screwpine shrub with opening wings of herons (Poem 228), (ii) tapering buds of sugarcane plant with gravid green snake (Poem 35), (iii) back side of a lily leaf to the wings of the bat (Poem 352), (iv) fallen flowers of Indian Kino tree to the stripes of a tiger cub (Poem 47).


Pillai, M.S. and Ludden, D.E. 1997. Kurunthokai: An anthology of classical Tamil poetry. International Institute of Tamil Studies. page 1



  1. Wonderful presentation sir,I would like to follow you please. Paranjabey.

  2. Very Nice to read through. These poetry brings the real color and flavor of our Tamil country! Mannvaasanai!!