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Topics in Sangam literature
Sangam literature
Agattiyam Tolkāppiyam
Eighteen Greater Texts
Eight Anthologies
Aiṅkurunūṟu Akanāṉūṟu
Puṟanāṉūṟu Kalittokai
Kuṟuntokai Natṟiṇai
Paripāṭal Patiṟṟuppattu
Ten Idylls
Tirumurukāṟṟuppaṭai Kuṟiñcippāṭṭu
Malaipaṭukaṭām Maturaikkāñci
Mullaippāṭṭu Neṭunalvāṭai
Paṭṭiṉappālai Perumpāṇāṟṟuppaṭai
Poruṇarāṟṟuppaṭai Ciṟupāṇāṟṟuppaṭai
Related topics
Sangam Sangam landscape
Tamil history from Sangam literature Ancient Tamil music
Eighteen Lesser Texts
Nālaṭiyār Nāṉmaṇikkaṭikai
Iṉṉā Nāṟpatu Iṉiyavai Nāṟpatu
Kār Nāṟpatu Kaḷavaḻi Nāṟpatu
Aintiṇai Aimpatu Tiṉaimoḻi Aimpatu
Aintinai Eḻupatu Tiṇaimālai Nūṟṟaimpatu
Tirukkuṟaḷ Tirikaṭukam
Ācārakkōvai Paḻamoḻi Nāṉūṟu
Ciṟupañcamūlam Mutumoḻikkānci
Elāti Kainnilai

The Purananuru (Tamilபுறநானூறு, Puṟanāṉūṟu ?, literally "four hundred [poems] in the genre puram"), sometimes called Puram or Purappattu, is a classical Tamil poetic work and traditionally the last of the Eight Anthologies (Ettuthokai) in the Sangam literature.[1] It is a collection of 400 heroic poems about kings, wars and public life, of which two are lost and a few have survived into the modern age in fragments. The collected poems were composed by 157 poets, of which 14 are anonymous and at least 10 were poetess.[1][2] This anthology has been variously dated between 1st century BCE and 5th century CE, with Kamil Zvelebil, a Tamil literature scholar, dating predominantly all of the poems of Purananuru sometime between 2nd and 5th century CE.[3][4] Nevertheless, few poems are dated to the period of 1st century BCE.[5]

The Purananuru anthology is diverse. Of its 400 poems, 138 praise 43 kings – 18 from the Chera dynasty (present day Kerala), 13 Chola dynasty kings, and 12 Early Pandya dynasty kings.[1][6] Another 141 poems praise 48 chieftains. These panegyric poems recite their heroic deeds, as well as another 109 poems that recount deeds of anonymous heroes, likely of older Tamil oral tradition.[1] Some of the poems are gnomic in nature, which have attracted unrealistic attempts to read an ethical message, states Zvelebil.[1] The poetry largely focuses on war, means of war such as horses, heroic deeds, widowhood, hardships, impermanence, and other effects of wars between kingdoms based along the rivers Kaveri, Periyar and Vaigai.[1][7]

The Purananuru is the most important Tamil corpus of Sangam era courtly poems,[8] and it has been a source of information on the political and social history of ancient Tamil Nadu. According to Hart and Heifetz, the Purananuru provides a view of the Tamil society before large scale Indo-Aryan influences affected it.[2] The life of the Tamils of this era revolved around the king, emphasized the purity of women and placed limitations of the rights of widows.[9] Further, the compilation suggests that the ancient Tamils had a caste system called kuti. The anthology is almost entirely a secular treatise on the ancient Tamil thought on kingship, the constant state of wars within old Tamil speaking regions, the bravery of heroes and the ferocious nature of this violence.[10][11] According to Amritha Shenoy, the Purananuru poems eulogize war and describe "loyalty, courage, honor" as the virtues of warriors.[12] In contrast, Sivaraja Pillai cautions that the historical and literary value of Purananuru poems may be limited because the poems were not a perfect work of art but one of compulsion from impoverished poets too eager to praise one king or another, seeking patrons through exaggeration and flattery rather than objectivity.[13]

The Purananuru poems use words, phrases, and metaphors, examples include references to the Himalaya of "immeasurable heights", Shiva, Vishnu, four Vedas, Ramayana, rivers and other aspects.[14]


Among the eight Sangam anthologies, Purananuru and Pathitrupathu are concerned with life outside family – kings, wars, greatness, generosity, ethics and philosophy.[15] While Pathitrupathu is limited to the glory of Chera kings in 108 verses, Purananuru contains an assortment of themes in three hundred ninety seven poems.[15] Of the original 400 poems, two have been lost, and some poems miss several lines.[15]

Structure and content[edit]

There are 400 poems in Purananuru including the invocation poem. Each poem measures anywhere between 4 and 40 lines. Poems 267 and 268 are lost, and some of the poems exist only in fragment. The author of 14 poems remain unknown. The remaining poems were written by 157 poets.[16] Of the poets who wrote these poems, there are men and women, kings and paupers. The oldest book of annotations found so far has annotations and commentary on the first 266 poems. The commentator Nachinarkiniyar, of the eleventh–twelfth century Tamil Nadu, has written a complete commentary on all the poems.

Subject matter[edit]

I am the soul

Not food is the soul of life
Nor water is the life's soul
It is the king
who is the life of this wide expanse of the earth
this is the duty of the kings
with armies stocked with mighty spears:
To know:
I am the soul!

Purananuru 186, Translator: Kamil Zvelebil[17]

The Purananuru poems deal with the puram aspect of the Sangam literature, that is war, politics and public life. Many poems praise kings and chieftains. Some of the poems are in the form of elegies in tribute to a fallen hero. These poems exhibit outpourings of affection and emotions. Purananuru is notable for three features: the king and his believed powers over the climate and environment (rains, sunshine, successful crops), the ancient Tamil belief in the power of women's purity, namely karpu (chastity), and the ancient system of caste (kuti, kudi) that existed in Tamil kingdoms.

According to Hart and Heifetz, the Purananuru content is organized in the following way (poem sequence number in brackets):[18][19]

  • Invocation to Shiva (1)
  • Praise of kings (2-64)
  • Death of the king, messengers, bards, bragging king, captive treatment, odds, speed of war, warriors, singing poets, poor poet and generous kings (65-173)
  • Ethical and moral poems (182-195)
  • Kings who were not generous to poets (196–211)
  • Death of kings, helplessness of widows, youth versus old age, cattle raids, memorial stone, drinking, combat (213–282)
  • War (283–314)
  • Kings who were generous to the poor (315–335)
  • Impermanence of life, the inevitability of death (336–367)
  • Low-caste drummer asking king for gifts (368–400)


The collected poems were composed by 157 poets, of which 14 are anonymous and at least 10 were poetess.[1] Some of the authors of the poems, such as Kapilar and Nakkirar, have also written poems that are part of other anthologies.


There seems to be some definite structure to the order of the poems in Purananuru. The poems at the beginning of the book deal with the three major kings Chola, Chera and Pandya of ancient Tamil Nadu.[20] The middle portion is on the lesser kings and the Velir chieftains, who were feudatories of these three major kingdoms, with a short intervening section (poems 182 - 195) of didactic poems. The final portion deals with the general scenery of war and the effect of warfare.


Just as the akam (subjective) poems are classified into seven thinais or landscapes based on the mood of the poem, the Tamil prosodical tradition mentioned in the ancient Tamil grammatical treatise Tolkappiyam also classifies puram (objective) poems into seven thinais based on the subject of the poems. These are vetchi, when the king provokes war by attacking and stealing the cattle of his enemy; vanchi, when the king invades the enemy territory; uzhingai, when the king lays a siege of the enemy's fortress; thumbai, when the two armies meet on a battlefield; vaakai, when the king is victorious; paataan, when the poet praises the king on his victory; and kanchi, when the poet sings on the fragility of human life.

The Purananuru does not, however, follow this system. The colophons accompanying each poem name a total of eleven thinais. From the subject matter of the poems they accompany, each can be said to represent the following themes:[21]

  • Vetchi
  • Karanthai
  • Vanchi
  • Nochchi
  • Thumpai
  • Vaakai
  • Kanchi
  • Paadaan
  • Kaikkilai
  • Perunthinai
  • Pothuviyal

The Kaikkilai and Perunthinai are traditionally associated with akam poetry. In Purananuru, they occur in the context of the familiar puram landscape of warfare. Thus songs 83, 84 and 85 are classified to belong to the kaikkilai thinai, which denotes unrequited love, and describe a noblewoman's love for King Cholan Poravai Kopperunarkilli. Similarly, songs 143 to 147 are classified as perunthinai or perunkilai thinai, which denotes unsuitable love, and deal with King Pekan's abandonment of his wife.[21]

Pothuviyal is described in commentaries as a general thinai used for poems that cannot be classified in any other manner but, in the context of Purananuru, is used almost exclusively for didactic verse and elegies or laments for dead heroes.[citation needed]


Purananuru songs exhibit a unique realism and immediacy not frequently found in classical literature. The nature and the subject of the poems lend us to believe that poets did not write these poems on events that happened years prior, rather they wrote (or sang) them on impulse in situ. Some of the poems are conversational in which the poet pleads, begs, chides or praises the king. One such example is poem 46. The poet Kovur Kizhaar address the Chola king Killivalavan to save the lives of the children of a defeated enemy who are about to be executed by being trampled under an elephant. The poet says, "… O king, you belong to the heritage of kings who sliced their own flesh to save the life of a pigeon, look at these children; they are so naïve of their plight that they have stopped crying to look at the swinging trunk of the elephant in amusement. Have pity on them…" The almost impressionistic picture the poem paints cannot be anything but by someone who is witness to the events present in the poem.[original research?]

The second poem by Mudinagarayar addresses the Chera king Uthayan Cheralaathan and praises him for his feeding the armies at the Kurukshetra war. This is an obvious anachronism suggesting a king of the early common era Tamil country had a role to play in the battle of the Mahabharata epic. Based on this one poem, there have been attempts at dating the Purananuru poems to around 1000 BCE or older.[original research?]

Historical source[edit]

Each Purananuru poem has a colophon attached to it giving the authorship and subject matter of the poem, the name of the king or chieftain to whom the poem relates and the occasion which called forth the eulogy are also found.

It is from these colophons and rarely from the texts of the poems themselves, that we gather the names of many kings and chieftains and the poets and poetesses patronised by them. The task of reducing these names to an ordered scheme in which the different generations of contemporaries can be marked off one another has not been easy. To add to the confusions, some historians have even denounced these colophons as later additions and untrustworthy as historical documents.

A careful study of the synchronisation between the kings, chieftains and the poets suggested by these colophons indicates that this body of literature reflect occurrences within a period of four or five continuous generations at the most, a period of 120 or 150 years. Any attempt at extracting a systematic chronology and data from these poems should be aware of the casual nature of these poems and the wide difference between the purposes of the anthologist who collected these poems and the historian’s attempts are arriving at a continuous history.

There have been unsuccessful attempts at dating the poems of Purananuru based on the mention of the Mahabharata war. A more reliable source for the period of these poems is based on the mentions one finds on the foreign trade and presence of Greek and Roman merchants in the port of Musiri (poem 343), which give us a date of between 200 BCE to 150 CE for the period of these poems. This is further strengthened by the mention of a reference to Ramayana in poem 378, and a reference to Maurya in poem 175, which indicates a late date of about 187 BCE. A combination of these two considerations would indicate a composition date range during the 2nd century BCE.[22]

Ramayana Reference[edit]

The earliest reference to the Epic Ramayana in Tamil literature is found in the Purananuru 378, attributed to the poet UnPodiPasunKudaiyar, written in praise of the Chola king IIamchetchenni. The poem makes the analogy of a poet receiving royal gifts and that worn by the relatives of the poet as being unworthy for their status, to the event in the Ramayana, where Sita drops her jewels when abducted by Ravana and these jewels being picked up red-faced monkeys who delightfully wore the ornaments.[23][24]

Publishing in modern times[edit]

A palm leaf manuscript with ancient Tamil text

U. V. Swaminatha Iyer (1855-1942) resurrected the first three epics and Sangam literature from the appalling neglect and wanton destruction of centuries.[25] He reprinted the literature present in the palm leaf form to paper books.[26] He published Purananuru for the first time in 1894.[16] Ramaswami Mudaliar, a Tamil scholar, first gave him the palm leaves of Civaka Cintamani to study.[25] Being the first time, Swaminatha Iyer had to face many difficulties in terms of interpreting, finding the missing leaves, textual errors and unfamiliar terms.[25] He went on tiring journeys to remote villages in search of the missing manuscripts. After years of toil, he published Civaka Cintamani in book form in 1887, followed by Silappatikaram in 1892 and Purananuru in 1894.[25][27] Along with the text, he added abundant commentary and explanatory notes of terms, textual variations and approaches to explaining the context.[25]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Kamil Zvelebil 1973, pp. 54–55.
  2. ^ a b George Hart & Hank Heifetz 2001, p. xv.
  3. ^ George Hart & Hank Heifetz 2001, p. xvi.
  4. ^ Kamil Zvelebil 1973, pp. 41–43 with Chart 4.
  5. ^ Zvelebil, Kamil (1973). The Smile of Murugan: On Tamil Literature of South India. BRILL. ISBN 978-90-04-03591-1.
  6. ^ Brajadulal Chattopadhyaya (2009). A Social History of Early India. Pearson. pp. 31–32. ISBN 978-81-317-1958-9.
  7. ^ George Hart & Hank Heifetz 2001, pp. xvi–xix.
  8. ^ Stein, Burton (1977). "Circulation and the Historical Geography of Tamil Country". The Journal of Asian Studies. Cambridge University Press. 37 (1): 7–26. doi:10.2307/2053325. JSTOR 2053325.
  9. ^ George Hart & Hank Heifetz 2001, pp. xvii–xx.
  10. ^ George Hart & Hank Heifetz 2001, pp. xvii–xviii.
  11. ^ M. G. S. Narayanan (1982). "The Warrior Settlements of the Sangam Age". Proceedings of the Indian History Congress. 43: 102–109. JSTOR 44141220.
  12. ^ Shenoy, Amritha V. (2018). "International humanitarian law in ancient India: a multicivilisational perspective". Indian Journal of International Law. Springer Science. 58 (3–4): 425–451. doi:10.1007/s40901-019-00102-y. S2CID 182614568.
  13. ^ John Marr (1958), The eight Tamil anthologies with special reference to Purananuru and Pattirruppattu, SOAS, University of London, page 9;
    The Chronology Of The Early Tamils, KN Sivaraja Pillai, University of Madras, page 18
  14. ^ George Hart & Hank Heifetz 2001, pp. xxi, 3–4, 28–32, 41, 139–140, 206, 220.
  15. ^ a b c Hart 1999, p. xvi
  16. ^ a b Kovaimani and Nagarajan, 2013, p. 26.
  17. ^ Kamil Zvelebil 1974, p. 19.
  18. ^ Hart 1999, p. 349, xvi
  19. ^ Rav 2003, p. 126
  20. ^ Hart 1999, pp. xvi-xviii
  21. ^ a b George Hart & Hank Heifetz 2001, pp. xxix–xxx.
  22. ^ Beresford, James (1 January 2013). The Sailing Season of the Indian Ocean. Brill. ISBN 978-90-04-24194-7.
  23. ^ Hart, George L; Heifetz, Hank (1999). The four hundred songs of war and wisdom : an anthology of poems from classical Tamil : the Puṟanāṉūṟu. Columbia University Press. pp. 219-220.
  24. ^ Kalakam, Turaicămip Pillai, ed. (1950). Purananuru. Madras.
  25. ^ a b c d e Lal 2001, pp. 4255-4256
  26. ^ M.S. 1994, p. 194
  27. ^ Zvelebil 1992, p. 197