Puram Poetry: An Ancient How-to Guide for life
*The circled area indicates the Tamil region*
Tamil People and Poetry
When asked to recall ancient Asian literature, most people refer to Chinese, Sanskrit, and Persian literature. While these texts created in their respective cultures are impressive and important in their own right, there is much to be explored when discussing the less well-known, Tamil poetry. The Tamil people are in ethnic group that originated in southern India. A majority of its people still live in the Indian peninsula, while some have emigrated to neighboring countries. Their Ancient culture was predominantly rural, and was mainly based on agriculture, trade, hunting, fishing, and handicrafts (The Norton Anthology of World literature). They lived in small villages, ports, and market towns which were governed by local chieftains and kings.
Tamil literature housed a variety of universal themes that challenge readers with its complexity. The Norton Anthology of World Literature states that Tamil poetry “invented an aesthetic and a style of poetry able to richly explore the complexities of human nature and culture, of human subjectivity in interaction with its environment, and of the impersonal forces at work in the cosmos” (969). This poetry has been organized into eight anthologies consisting of 2,381 poems authored by 473 poets, a small number of which were women. This body of work is known as cankam poetry; the poets themselves were Pulavars. They were written in academies (called Cankams) that trained its students in grammar, ethics, rhetoric, and poetics (Norton Anthology of World Literature). Tamil poetry is unique in the way that it is uninfluenced by Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. This distinction helps separate Tamil poetry from its Sanskrit counterparts, which it is often compared to.
*It is important to note that Tamil Poetry is divided into two different genres, Akam and Puram*
Puram, meaning exterior, is one of the two genres of ancient Tamil poetry. True to its name, Puram poetry deals with aspects of the world around us. The Norton Anthology of World Literature states that, “poems within the genre convey an individual’s experience of his or her public world – the shared world of war, social conflict, ethics, and community; of kings, heroes, poets, and ordinary citizens” (970). Narrators of these poems vary in gender and can attest to a variety of experiences. That being said, common characters include supplicating poets, grieving daughters, worried mothers, and concerned citizens. While the Puram genre differs greatly from its Akam counterpart, they both accomplish the difficult task of “bringing love and war, as well as nature and culture, within the ambit of ancient Tamils’ agricultural way of life” (971).
Setting and context cannot be overlooked when analyzing these poems. Texts that fall under the Puram category often take place in a city or town. Characters are often based on real people and the issues they face in Tamil society. Discussing authority figures was not off limits; kings and other rulers were often criticized and praised in these works. Philosophy and ethics was a common topic, with the upholding of certain values being enforced through many poems. These topics were often explored through the lens of one person who is undergoing a universal experience.
The Exterior Landscape
“This World Lives Because”
This world lives
Do not eat alone,
Not even when they get
The sweet ambrosia of the gods;
They’ve no anger in them,
They fear evils other men fear
But never sleep over them;
Give their lives for honor,
Will not touch a gift of whole worlds
There’s no faintness in their hearts
And they do not strive
Because such men are,
This world is.
This poem illustrates the importance of gratefulness and humility. A message of thanksgiving, this text explains the sacrifices that certain men make in order to take care of their people. The setting is this world, but it can also be applied to the smaller context of one’s village as well. The phrase “this world is”, seems to give off a feeling of consistency and tranquility. The world is not changing, it simply is. While there is conflict in daily life, they appear to have faith that their way of life will continue. Despite only consisting of two lines each, the opening and closing words of this poem hold great significance.
Enclosed by two couplets, the body stanzas detail what it takes to keep the peace. The first of these stanzas claim that these men “do not eat alone” (982). The pleasures of this world may tempt them, but they will always prioritize others. Themes of selflessness and community begin to arise. The importance of choice emerges in the second main stanza. Beginning with a bold statement “they’ve no anger in them”, the following lines emphasize that these “great” men are no different than anybody else. They fear the same fears as everyone else, but acknowledge the futility of worrying about what has yet to happen. The lack of anger these men feel may be attributed to their sentimentality; they choose to understand instead of react. It is a choice to do what is difficult, yet necessary. On the flip side, it is also a choice to take the easy way out and rely on these “great” men. The following two stanzas discuss their humility and rare selflessness.
This poem seems to have two goals: to encourage this kind of behavior and to remind us to be grateful for those who choose this lifestyle. The exterior world of the Tamil people depended on men’s strength as warriors and protectors of their village. Accomplishing such a difficult task deserves some recognition. “This World Lives Because” may have been written centuries ago, but its sentiment still rings true today. With the hectic world we live in, it can be hard to remember that good people exist. The communities we inhabit, no matter how big or how small, are held together by the glue that is humanity.
Puram poetry delves into countless topics of the outside world. Its relevance extends into the modern era, with each poem offering wisdom on how to behave and maneuver the world in which we live. I encourage anyone reading this to take a few minutes out of their day to explore the world of Tamil poetry; you might find it to be a reflection of yourself.
Puchner, Martin, et al. “Classical Tamil Lyric.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature, Fourth ed., B, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, New York, 2018, pp. 969–983.