Sangam landscape


The Sangam landscape (Tamil: அகத்திணை "inner classification") is the name given to a poetic device that was characteristic of love poetry in classical Tamil Sangam literature. The core of the device was the categorisation of poems into different tiṇais or modes, depending on the nature, location, mood and type of relationship represented by the poem. Each tiṇai was closely associated with a particular landscape, and imagery associated with that landscape - its flowers, trees, wildlife, people, climate and geography - was woven into the poem in such a way as to convey a mood, associated with one aspect of a romantic relationship.

Topics in Sangam literature
Sangam literature
Akattiyam Tolkāppiyam
Aiṅkurunūṟu Akanaṉūṟu
Puṟanāṉūṟu Kalittokai
Kuṟuntokai Natṟiṇai
Paripāṭal Patiṟṟuppattu
Tirumurukāṟṟuppaṭai Kuṟiñcippāṭṭu
Malaipaṭukaṭām Maturaikkāñci
Mullaippāṭṭu Neṭunalvāṭai
Paṭṭiṉappālai Perumpāṇāṟṟuppaṭai
Poruṇarāṟṟuppaṭai Ciṟupāṇāṟṟuppaṭai
Nālaṭiyār Nāṉmaṇikkaṭikai
Iṉṉā Nāṟpatu Iṉiyavai Nāṟpatu
Kār Nāṟpatu Kaḷavaḻi Nāṟpatu
Aintiṇai Aimpatu Tiṉaimoḻi Aimpatu
Aintinai Eḻupatu Tiṉaimalai Nūṟṟu Aimpatu
Tirukkuṛaḷ Tirikaṭukam
Ācārakkōvai Paḻamoḻi Nāṉūṟu
Ciṟupañcamūlam Mutumoḻikkānci
Elāti Kainnilai
Tamil people
Sangam Sangam landscape
Tamil history from Sangam literature Tamil literature
Ancient Tamil music Sangam society


Classical Tamil love poetry assigns the human experiences it describes, and in particular the subjective topics that those experiences relate to, to specific habitats. Every situation in the poems is described using themes in which the time, the place and the floral symbols of each episode are codified. These codifications are used as symbols to imply a socio-economic order, occupations and behaviour patterns, which, in turn, are symbolized, by specific flora and fauna. Details of secondary aspects are just as rigidly codified - the seasons, the hour a god, musical instruments and, above all, the sentimental connotations of each landscape: lovers' meetings, patient waiting, lovers' quarrels, separation, and the anxiously awaited return.

Geographical and non-geographical thinais

Under this codification, the inner universe associated with love is divided into seven modes, or thinai, five of which are geographical and associated with specific landscapes, and two of which are non-geographical and not associated with any specific landscape. Four of the geographical landscapes are described as being landscapes that occur naturally in the Tamil lands. These are: kuṟiñci (குறிஞ்சி) - mountainous regions, associated with union, mullai (முல்லை) - forests, associated with waiting, marutam (மருதம்) - cropland, associated with quarreling, and neytal (நெய்தல்) - seashore, associated with pining. The fifth - pālai (பாலை), or desert, associated with separation - is described in the Tolkappiyam as not being a naturally existing landscape.[1]

From these basic associations of landscape and subject, a wide range of specific themes suitable for each landscape were derived. Thus, for example, the commentary on the Iraiyanar Akapporul states that as a result of the association of the kuṟiñci landscape with union, it was also associated with the fear of separation, reassurance, the hero's or heroine's discussions with their friends, their being teased or taunted by their friends, their replies to their friends, the friends' role as intermediary, the meeting of the lovers, grief and doubt, and other similar themes. According to the Tamilneri vilakkam, a 9th-century text on poetry, the love themes described by the five thinais constitute "the Tamil way of life" or "the Tamil way of love." (tamiḻneṟi)[2]

The two non-geographical modes - kaikkilai and peruntiṇai - were seen as dealing with emotions that were non-conforming, and therefore were not associated with any specific landscape. Kaikkilai, dealt with unreciprocated or one-sided love, while peruntiṇai, dealt with 'improper' love or love against the rules of custom.

Poetic Attributes of the Landscapes

  kuṟunji Mullai Marudam Neydhal Pālai
ne expresses patient
waiting over separation
Lovers' quarrels, wife's irritability
(husband accused of visiting a courtesan)
Heroine expresses grief
over separation
Elopment Longest separation Dangerous journey by the hero
Flower kuṟunji Mullai (Jasmine) Marudam Water lily Paalai
Landscape Mountains Forest, pasture Agricultural areas, plain or valley Seashore Parched wasteland, Desert
Time Midnight Evening Shortly before sunrise Sunset Noon
Season/Climate Winter/Cool and moist Late Summer/Cloudy Late spring Early summer Summer
Animal Monkey, elephant, horse, bull Deer Water Buffalo, freshwater fish Crocodile, shark Fatigued elephant, tiger, or wolf
Crop/Plant Jackfruit, bamboo, venkai Konrai Mango Punnai Cactus
Water Waterfall Rivers Pond Well, sea dry wells, stagnant water
Soil Red and black soils with stones and pebbles Red soil Alluvial Sandy, saline soil salt affected soil
Occupation Hill tribes, gathering honey Pastoral and agricultural occupations Farmer Selling fish, salt, fisherfolk Travellers, bandits
God Murugan Thirumaal Vendan Kadalon Kottravai

The relationship between thinai and landscape

Despite the strong association of each thinai with a geographical landscape, in classical prosody it was the conduct described by the poem that constituted its thinai, and that thus

The Geographical thinais

South India in the 3rd century AD

In Tamil, each of the five geographical thinais are named for a flower that is characteristic of that landscape. In English translation, however, it is customary to use the name of the landscape rather than that of the flower, largely because the flowers lack the cultural association with a specific language in English that they have in Tamil.

Kurinji – Mountainous Region

The mountain is the scene of the lovers' union at midnight. It is the cold, dewy season. The forest is rich with lakes, waterfalls, teak, bamboo and sandalwood. In this region millet grows and wild bees are a source of honey. Love in this setting is exemplified by Murugan, and one of his wives, Valli, the daughter of a mountain dweller. He wears the sparkling red kantal flower and rides a peacock, the bird of the mountains.

The name of the region, Kurinci, is also the name of the famous Kurinji flower (Strobilanthes kunthiana) from the lofty hills of Tamil country. The Strobilanthes, a shrub whose brilliant white flowers blossom for only a few days once every ten or twelve years, blanketing the slopes in radiant whiteness under the sun. This event of jubilation and purity symbolizes the frenzy of a sudden love shared, in concert with the unleashed forces of nature: the amorous dance of peacocks, their echoing cries, the splash of waterfalls, the roar of savage beasts. The lovers hold each other tighter still and forget the dangers of the mountain path.

'குறிஞ்சி - தலைவன் கூற்று'

கொங்குதேர் வாழ்க்கை அஞ்சிறைத் தும்பி
காமம் செப்பாது கண்டது மொழிமோ
பயிலியது கெழீஇய நட்பின் மயிலியல்
செறியெயிற் றரிவை கூந்தலின்
நறியவும் உளவோ நீயறியும் பூவே.


Kuṟiñci (Kuṟuntokai - 2)
Beautiful-winged bee
whose life is passed in search of honey
don't speak to me of desire
but tell me what you really saw:

Could even the flowers that you know
be as full of fragrance
as the hair of the woman
with the even set of teeth and the peacock nature,
to whom long affection binds me?

- Irayanār

Mullai – Forests

Mullai is the land of the forest. The forest is rich with lakes, waterfalls, teak, bamboo and sandalwood. In this region millet grows and wild bees are a source of honey. Mullai or Jasmine (Jasminum auriculatum) is the flower of the forests.

The theme of the forest and of shepherds at play, the image of confident waiting for the loved one, produced an original offshoot; for this is the region of Maayon ( Ancient Tamil God ), and the love theme it represents symbolizes the devotee waiting in the hope that Maayon will eventually come and fill his soul, thus experiencing the joys of expectation.

முல்லை - தலைவி கூற்று

சுடர்செல் வானஞ் சேப்பப் படர்கூர்ந்
தெல்லறு பொழுதின் முல்லை மலரும்
மாலை என்மனார் மயங்கி யோரே
குடுமிக் கோழி நெடுநக ரியம்பும்
பெரும்புலர் விடியலு மாலை
பகலும் மாலை துணையி லோர்க்கே.

-மிளைப்பெருங் கந்தனார்.

The sun goes down and the sky reddens, pain grows sharp,
light dwindles. Then is evening
when jasmine flowers open, the deluded say.
But evening is the great brightening dawn
when crested cocks crow all through the tall city
and evening is the whole day
for those without their lovers.

(Kuruntokai - 234) tr. George L. Hart

Marutham – Cropland

Pictorial representation for geographical thinais named Marutham, which relates to that of a characteristic feature of areas surrounding in and around Cropland's (or Fields) by classical poetry in Tamil language

The plains were the scene of triangular love plots in which the hero's visits to the courtesan oblige the heroine to counter with a mixed show of coquetry and moodiness, tactics whose limits are described in the Thirukkural ("Sulking is like flavouring with salt; a little suffices, but it is easy to go too far.").

The Marutam (Lagerstroemia speciosa) tree was the characteristic tree of this region.

மருதம் - தலைவி கூற்று

மள்ளர் குழீஇய விழவி னானும்
மகளிர் தழீஇய துணங்கை யானும்
யாண்டுங் காணேன் மாண்தக் கோனை
யானுமோர் ஆடுகள மகளே என்கைக்
கோடீ ரிலங்குவளை நெகிழ்த்த
பீடுகெழு குரிசிலுமோர் ஆடுகள மகனே


Nowhere, not among the warriors at their festival,
nor with the girls dancing close in pairs,
nowhere did I see him.

I am a dancer;

- for love of him
these conch-shell bangles slip
from my wasting hands -

he's a dancer too.

- Marutham (Kuruntokai - 31)

Neithal – Seashore

Crocodile, animal of seashore area
shark, seashore area animal

The seashore affords many examples of the compelling charm of Sangam poetry and the extraordinary freshness of its realism. From behind the conventional symbolization of waiting there emerges a picture of the life of the fisherfolk; the nets and boats drawn up on the beach, scuttling crabs and cart wheels bogged down in the sand, the odour of drying fish, cut into thick slices, which attracts the birds, beautiful village girls peering through the Pandanus hedges, and the wind blowing through the cracks in the roughly constructed straw huts at night.

Water lily is the characteristic flower of the region.

நெய்தல் இருங்கழி நெய்தல் நீக்கி
மீனுநுண் குருகுஇளங் கானல் அல்கும்
கடல்அணிந் தன்றுஅவர் ஊரே
கடலினும் பெரிதுஎமக்கு அவருடை நட்பே.

Water lilies bloom
in the lagoons
where cranes part the water lilies
looking for fish
then fly away to stay
in fragrant seaside groves,
near my lover's village washed by the sea.

His love for me
is greater than the sea.

- Neithal (Ainkurunuru - 184)

Pālai – Desert

Kotravai( Kali) God of Desert region

In classical Tamil prosody, the pālai or wasteland is not seen as being a naturally occurring ecology. Ilampuranar, in his commentary on the Tolkappiyam, explains that instead, the landscape of the wasteland with which the paalai is associated emerges when other landscapes whither under the heat of the burning sun. . Paalai could thus be seen as a mixture of Mullai and Kuṟiñci tracts, rather than as a mere sandy area.

The theme of wasteland and separation occupies half of one of the most famous anthologies, the theme of the mountain being only secondary.

Paalai tree is identified as Wrightia (Wrightia tinctoria).

பாலை - கூற்று தோழி நிலந்தொட்டுப் புகாஅர் வானம் ஏறார்
விலங்கிரு முந்நீர் காலிற் செல்லார்
நாட்டின் நாட்டின் ஊரின் ஊரின்
குடிமுறை குடிமுறை தேரிற்
கெடுநரும் உளரோநம் காதலோரே.
-வெள்ளி வீதியார்.

They will not dig up the earth and enter it,
They will not climb into the sky,
They will not walk across the dark sea.
If we search every country,
every city,
every village,
can our respective lovers escape us?

- Pālai (Kuṟuntokai - 130)


  1. V., Balambal (1998). Studies in the History of the Sangam Age. New Delhi: Kalinga Publications. pp. 27–28. ISBN 978-8185163871.
  2. Zvelebil, Kamil (1992), Companion Studies to the History of Tamil Literature, Leiden: Brill, ISBN 90-04-09365-6 at pp. xvi-xvii
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