Ancient Chera kingdom: Notes from the Sangam book Pathitruppathu

Pathitruppathu (പതിറ്റുപ്പത്ത്), a Sangam book dedicated to the Chera kingdom, has rich descriptions of the everyday life and practices of the times. What can it add to our existing knowledge of Kerala’s ancient history?

Vaidehi Herbert

Sangam literature comprises of 18 books containing 8 anthologies (collections of poems) and 10 long poems composed over a period of 500 to 600 years, roughly between 300 B.C. and 200 A.D.  The literature speaks of trade with Greeks and Romans. Rock inscriptions with the names of ancient Tamil kings have been dated to as early as 2nd B.C. by Iravatham Mahadevan. Accounts of Greek and Roman writers like the author of Periplus (A.D. 70), Pliny (A.D. 78), and Ptolemy (A.D. 140) give elaborate accounts of Tamil cities.  It was a miracle that these books which were written on palm manuscripts survived for many centuries until they were rediscovered a century ago (There was this tradition of re-writing the manuscripts once a century. However, they were neglected for many centuries). The Sangam books are classified as Akam (inner, poems which deal with all phases of love) and Puram (exterior, poems which deal with bravery, charity, poets, bards and other societal matters).  The literature is very heavy on nature and there are vivid descriptions of the mountains, rivers, waterfalls, oceans, fauna and flora and other natural elements found in ancient Tamil Nadu. Almost every poem has some element of nature. Nature is used constantly in similes and metaphors. Also, interestingly, even many Akam poems have historical references.  

Chera Kingdom in Sangam Literature

There are many references to the Chera kingdom, since it was one of the three major Tamil kingdoms during the time.  The other two were the Chozha and Pandiya kingdoms. There were also many small-region kings, some of whom were under the control of the three great kingdoms. Puranaanooru—an anthology with four 400 poems—has poems dedicated to the kings of the three great kingdoms and to other kings of smaller regional kingdoms.  

Pathitruppathu (പതിറ്റുപ്പത്ത്), meaning ten times ten, which originally had 100 poems is written exclusively for the Chera kingdom.  A set of 10 poems was for a king. Only 80 poems have survived. It is unclear why the Cheras alone had a book dedicated for their kings.  If the other two kingdoms had similar books, they have not survived.

Akanānūru 396, for instance, has the following lines on a Chera king carving his bow emblem on the Himalayas having attacked and defeated the Aryans (there are other references as well of ancient Tamil kings chasing away attacking Aryan forces):

I will not be afraid to stay here.  Should you
leave, before leaving, you need to return my
beauty, lovely like Vanji city of the victorious
Chēran king who attacked the trembling Aryans,
captured their king and carved the Chēra bow
symbol on the ancient, northern mountains.
 

In Akanānūru 127, Māmoolanār, Pālai Thinai, we see the heroine’s friend say to her:

May you live long, my friend!  Your faultless
lover will not stay in another country, where
they speak a different language, letting your
bright bangles to become loose, and your body
to become thin, struggling here each day with
sorrow and distress, even if he were given the
wealth that King Nedunchēralāthan with victory
drums, who rode the seas and chopped the sacred
kadampam tree of his enemy, and like his ancestors,
carved the curved bow symbol on the Himalayas,
got as tributes from his enemies fine jewels
gold female figurines and diamonds in huge
quantities known by the word āmpal, heaped
them in his palace yard in Mānthai city,
1 and
abandoned them for the land to
devour.

Notes on everyday life:

All the 18 books are a rich source of information about life in the ancient Tamil country.  One can learn a lot about, the wars and weapons, occupations (over forty-five of which have been mentioned), trade, astronomy, huts, houses, mansions, palaces, streets and conveyances used (horse drawn carriages, bullock carts, etc). There are also descriptions of everyday life—how children were raised, their games, food that people ate, the churning of buttermilk in the mornings at homes, scissors used for trimming hair, music and musical instruments, dances, love, charity,  jewels women wore, etc.

The books describe trade with the Greeks and Romans.  They were called ‘Yavanar’ since the first traders were probably Ionians (Greeks).  Akanānūru 149 mentions that the Ionians came with gold and left with pepper from the Chera country. Here’s my translation:2

Musiri town of Chēran, where, causing the
huge, beautiful Sulli river’s white foam to become
muddied, the fine ships of the Yavanas come with gold
and leave with pepper

Sangam literature is also a literature of nature, meaning that the elements of nature were used in almost all the poems.  There are mentions of mountains, rivers and towns of ancient Tamil Nadu. There are also very many references of the trees, plants, creepers, vines, flowers, birds, animals and insects found in the region.

Commentaries:

The history of the Chera kingdom can be seen not just in Pathitruppathu, but also in Puranaanooru and other Sangam books.  There are ancient and modern commentaries for the Sangam books. Ancient Commentaries for the eight anthologies and ten poems in from the Sangam literature are the following:

  • Ainkurunūru (ഐങ്കുറുനൂറ്):  There is an ancient 13th century A.D. anonymous commentary. 
  • Kurunthokai(കുറുന്തൊകൈ):  Tradition says that Pērasiriyar and Nachinārkkiniyar wrote commentaries, neither of which have been found.
  • Natrinai (നറ്റിണൈ):  No ancient commentary is available.
  • Akanānūru (അകനാനൂറ്):  There is an ancient commentary for the first 90 poems, probably written in the 12th century A.D.
  • Pathitruppathu (പതിറ്റുപ്പത്ത്):  It has an old commentary which is probably later than the 12th century A.D.
  • Puranānūru (പുറനാനൂറ്):  An old commentary probably from the 12th century is available for the first 266 poems.
  • Paripādal (പരിപാടൽ):  Parimēlalakar wrote the commentary in the 13th century A.D.
  • Kalithokai (കലിത്തൊകൈ):  Nachinārkkiniyar wrote the commentary in the 14th century A.D.
  • Pathuppāttu (പത്തുപ്പാട്ട്):  Nachinārkkiniyar wrote commentaries for the 10 long songs in the 14th century A.D.

We know from references that there were commentaries that preceded these ancient ones, but they have not come down to us. Great scholars like U. Ve. Swaminatha Iyer, Po. Ve. Somasundaranar and Avvai Duraisamy have written modern commentaries on Sangam literature in the last century.  In the last three decades, a number of newer commentaries on the book have also been published. Together, they provide a rich repository of an important epoch of south Indian history.


Vaidehi Herbert has translated all the 18 Sangam books into English and has won the G. U. Pope award in 2016 from the Tamil Nadu Government for her Sangam translations.  In July 2013, she won the Nalli Viruthu from Tamil Nadu for her Pathitruppathu translation. She has been interviewed by BBC, Tamil Radio from Sydney, Australia and Puthiya Thalaimurai in Tamil Nadu. Her website has a rich collection of translations of Sangam literature for non-Tamil speakers. She lives in Hawaii and can be contacted at kavini100@gmail.com

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