Landscapes of Love: Glimpses from Sangam Literature

Description of nature in its various facets is a common and recurrent feature in the classical literature of India. From the likes of Valmiki and Kalidasa in Sanskrit to the authors of Sangam anthologies in Tamil, great poets have filled their works with wondrous and enchanting descriptions of nature in many ways.   

Blessed were they to live and write in the pristine surroundings of this ancient land of India, with its amazing geographical diversity, with its snowy mountains, hills, rivers, forests, seashores, marshes, plains and even deserts in some regions. It’s no wonder that Indian classical literature has vivid and amazing portrayals of many diverse landscapes.

The word landscape is an interesting one. According to the Oxford English dictionary, it means all the visible features of an area of land, often considered in terms of their aesthetic appeal. So, what this word denotes is not just a raw or plain picture of the land, but the picture loaded, superimposed or conditioned by a sense of aesthetics. In fact, is this sensibility that differentiates ordinary photographs from the rich and visually appealing landscape photographs.  

In the love poems that are part of the Sangam classics, the outer landscape appearing in the poem is not just some arbitrary description of nature or scenery, but the very reflection of the inner landscape filled with emotions. This elevates the poem from the worldly to the sublime , exemplifying its Rasa.  In fact, Tamil literary tradition classifies expressions of all forms of love under the category akam (inner), in contrast to other subjects like ethics, war, statecraft etc. which are placed under the category pūṟam (outer). A K Ramanujan, the renowned modern English poet and translator of portions of Sangam poetry into English calls this ‘interior landscapes’.  Many readers of these poems, including academics and students of literature, even many commentators simply miss this aspect. As a result, these great poems often receive flat and superfluous readings. Let us look at this through a few examples. 

யாயும் ஞாயும் யார் ஆகியரோ
எந்தையும் நுந்தையும் எம் முறைக் கேளிர்
யானும் நீயும் எவ்வழி அறிதும்
செம்புலப் பெயல் நீர் போல
அன்புடை நெஞ்சம் தாம் கலந்தனவே.

குறுந்தொகை 40, செம்புலப் பெயனீரார்

My mother and your mother,
what are they to each other?
My father and your father,
how are they related?
You and I,
how did we know each other?
Like rainwater that falls and
merges with the red earth, our
loving hearts have become one.

Kurunthokai 40, Sempulapēyaneerār

In this poem, the lover speaks to his lady love about how their hearts came together so naturally, despite them being total strangers to each other. The rain water mingling with the earth and acquiring its color is a beautiful metaphor for this, but it is still at the outward level. A subtler hint is in the word செம்புலம் (red earth) which indicates hot tropical land, burning and yearning for a water drop. The pouring of the rain on such land quenches its thirst and gives an exotic new fragrance to it. The bond of love among them is also like that – fresh, unique and born out of longing. This is a deeper level of meaning that the poem implies. 

அவரோ வாரார் முல்லையும் பூத்தன
பறி உடைக் கையர் மறி இனத்து ஒழியப்
பாலொடு வந்து கூழொடு பெயரும்
ஆடுடை இடைமகன் சென்னிச்
சூடிய எல்லாம் சிறு பசு முகையே

குறுந்தொகை 221, உறையூர் முதுகொற்றனார்

He has not come back,
but jasmine has blossomed.
Leaving others who carry palm
fronds as rain guards to care
for their herd with young,
a goat herder comes with milk
and leaves with milk-rice, and
all he has in his hair are tiny,
fresh jasmine buds.

Kurunthokai 221, Uraiyūr Muthukotranār

In this poem, the lady speaks to her friend, Sakhi about the pain of her separation from her lover, as he has not yet returned even after the end of the monsoon season, as promised. The blossoming of the jasmine indicates the change of the season and the activity of the goatherd signals that routine life is just going on its course, yet he has not come. This is the conventional meaning. But is that all that is there to the poem? Why does she not feel like even touching the fully bloomed jasmine that sits right in her courtyard, while the goatherd passes by with his hair full of fresh jasmine buds? The poem gives a subtle hint at the intimate pain and anguish of the lover, leaving it unsaid.

உள்ளினென் அல்லனோ யானே உள்ளி
நினைத்தனென் அல்லனோ பெரிதே நினைத்து
மருண்டனென் அல்லனோ உலகத்துப் பண்பே
நீடிய மரத்த கோடு தோய் மலிர் நிறை
இறைத்து உணச் சென்று அற்றாங்கு
அனைப் பெருங்காமம் ஈண்டு கடைக்கொளவே

குறுந்தொகை 99, ஔவையார்

I thought about her, did I not?
Thinking about her, I imagined
a lot, did I not?
Did I not get confused by the
nature of this world?
My intense love has been a
raging flood that has swollen up
to the branches of tall trees.
I have returned, so that it can
subside, to a level that can be
scooped with one’s hands to drink.

Kurunthokai 99, Avvaiyār

Here, the man speaks to his lady love’s Sakhi. He says, when I was away, my love was like the flood that she could not feel, but now that I have returned, it is like a stream that she can touch and feel. This is quite explicit. But what is the unsaid part? O girl, in separation, viraha, my love for her was like the flood that would even submerge tall trees, intense and raging. Will she even fathom, comprehend that love? Does she think that it is just this little stream? It is this throbbing of the lover that is the subtle element in this poem. 

Tamil literary tradition of the Sangam era (300 BCE to 300 CE) classifies and records five distinct geographical landscapes – kuṟiñci (hill side), mullai (pastoral land), marutam (farmland), nĕytal (coastal areas) and pālai (desert land). It is said that Tamil country is endowed with all these five types of landscapes. While the first four are natural, the last one pālai gets created when kuṟiñci or mullai get ‘distorted’, i.e. become non-habitable due to some reason.  

In later texts just after the Sangam era, a very detailed “Grammar of Aesthetics” was built around this categorization, called திணை (tiṇai). Under this, each landscape contained specific set of plants, flowers and grains and was habited by specific groups of people. Specific deities were associated with each landscape – Muruga or Skanda with kuṟiñci, Krishna with mullai, Indra with marutam, Varuna with nĕytal and kŏṟṟavai or Durga with pālai. On the same lines, a specific aspect of love was associated with each landscape –  kuṟiñci with the union of the lovers, mullai with the lady love’s chaste and determined longing for the lover who has gone away with a promise of return, marutam with love quarrel, nĕytal with the anguish and grief of the lovers away from each other, pālai with the lover going away on a long journey (usually seeking wealth). Apart from these five categories there are a few more. Poems that span across categories are considered exceptions in aesthetic theory.

Scholars have opined that such conventional categorisation was an attempt by the Tamil literary theorists to contextualise and interpret the Sangam poems collections and was a part of canonisation of the Tamil literary texts. Much of the academic and traditional reading of Sangam poems revolves around this framework. But the sheer beauty and appeal of Sangam classics are not confined to such conventions. They remain a great delight to the lovers of poetry and literature across boundaries.        


All the translations of the poems given in this article are by Vaidehi Herbert, from the website

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