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

The Purananuru (Tamill Puṟanāṉūṟu) is a Tamil poetic work in the Eṭṭuthokai, one of the eighteen melkanakku noolgal. It is a treatise on kingship: what a king should be, how he should act, how he should treat his subjects and how he should show his generosity.[1] Sangam Collection is classified into Patiṉeṇmēlkaṇakku and Patiṉeṇkīḻkaṇakku and each classification has eighteen collections, as an anthology of Tamil literature, belonging to the Sangam period. It is dated between 7th century BCE and 5th century BCE.[2]

The Purananuru is one of the eight books in the secular anthology of Sangam literature.[3] The secular anthology is entirely unique in Indian literature, which nearly all religious texts during this era.[3] The Purananuru contains 400 poems of varying lengths in the akaval meter. More than 150 poets wrote the poems.[4] It is not known when or who collected these poems into these anthologies.

The Purananuru is a source of information on the political and social history of prehistoric Tamil Nadu. There is information on the various rulers who ruled the Tamil country before and during the Sangam era.


Among the eight Sangam anthologies, Purananuru and Pathitrupathu are concerned with life outside family - kings, wars, greatness, generosity, ethics and philosophy.[5] 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.[5] Of the original 400 poems, two have been lost, and some poems miss several lines.[5]

Nature of Purananuru

There are 400 poems in Purananuru including the invocation poem. Poems 267 and 268 are lost and some of the poems exist only in fragment. 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 Nachinarkiniyaar, of the eleventh – twelfth century Tamil Nadu, has written a complete commentatry on all the poems.

A majority of poems are


It is not known exactly how many authors wrote the poems in Purananuru. There are 147 different names found from the colophons. However some of these could denote the same author. For example, Mangudi Kizhaar and Mangudi Maruthanaar could denote the same person. We don't know . Some of the authors of the poems, such as Kapilar and Nakkirar, have also written poems that are part of other anthologies.

Some of the names of the authors, such as Irumpitarthalaiyaar and Kookaikozhiyaar, seem to be nicknames based on words from the poems rather than proper names. This suggests that those who compiled this anthology must have made up these names as the authors' names must have been lost when these poems were collected.

Subject matter

As its name suggests, Purananuru poems deal with the puram (external or objective) concepts of life such as war, politics, wealth, as well as aspects of every-day living. 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 principally revolves around three themes - the king and his powers over the environment, power of women's purity, namely karpu (chastity), and the system of caste, which is not too different from the current system prevalent among Tamil society.[8]

There are also a few poems in Purananuru, which are classified as attruppatais. Attruppatai poems read like travelogues in which poets who were returning with gifts, received from a king, encourage other poets to do the same by describing the glory of the king and his country. This gives an opportunity to the poet, among other topics, to describe in great detail the natural beauty, fertility, and resources of the territory that has to be traversed to reach the palace of the patron.


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.[8] 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:

The last two themes 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. 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.

Tolkappiyam does not mention several of Purananuru's poetic meters and grammatical structure, which make it at least as old as Tolkappiyam if not more. Some of the meters in Purananuru are Archaic. Also, Tolkappiyam's oozhinai theme does not occur in Purananuru, its role being filled to some extent by the nochchi theme, whilst other themes, described as having a particular function in Tolkappiyam, are utilised differently by Purananuru. The thinais for 44 poems have been lost due to the deterioration of the palm-leaf manuscripts.

The poems are further classified into thurais. A thurai denotes the locale of the poem giving the situation under which it was written. Some of these are parisil thurai when the poet reminds the king or patron of the reward that he promised to him, kalitrutanilai in which the hero dies with the elephant he killed in battle, and so on. Some of the poems are too damaged in the manuscripts to determine their thurais. It is not known whether the authors of the poems made these classifications. It is more likely that those who collected the anthology applied these classifications. Poem 289 was not assigned any classification, for reasons unknown.

Realism and fantasy

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.

Along with such realism, Purananuru shows glimpses of fantasy as well. 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 a mythological 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.

Historical source

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.

Although there have been 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) 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 Maurya in poem 175 and a reference to Ramayana in poem 378.

Publishing in modern times

A palm leaf manuscript with ancient Tamil text

U. V. Swaminatha Iyer (1855-1942 CE) resurrected the first three epics and Sangam literature from appalling neglect and wanton destruction of centuries.[9] He reprinted these literature present in the palm leaf form to paper books.[10] Ramaswami Mudaliar, a Tamil scholar first gave him the palm leaves of Civaka Cintamani to study.[9] Being the first time, Swaminatha Iyer had to face lot of difficulties in terms of interpreting, finding the missing leaves, textual errors and unfamiliar terms.[9] He set for tiring journeys to remote villages in search of the missing manuscripts. After years of toil, he published Civaka Cintamani in book form in 1887 CE followed by Silappatikaram in 1892 CE and Purananuru in 1894 CE.[9][11] Along with the text, he added lot of commentary and explanatory notes of terms, textual variations and approaches explaining the context.[9]


யாதும் ஊரே; யாவரும் கேளிர்;
தீதும் நன்றும் பிறர் தர வாரா;
நோதலும் தணிதலும் அவற்றோரன்ன;
சாதலும் புதுவது அன்றே; வாழ்தல்
இனிது என மகிழ்ந்தன்றும் இலமே; முனிவின்,   
இன்னாது என்றலும் இலமே; 'மின்னொடு
வானம் தண் துளி தலை இ, ஆனாது
கல் பொருது இரங்கும் மல்லல் பேர் யாற்று
நீர் வழிப்படூஉம் புணை போல், ஆர் உயிர்
முறை வழிப்படூஉம்' என்பது திறவோர்
காட்சியின் தெளிந்தனம் ஆகலின், மாட்சியின்
பெரியோரை வியத்தலும் இலமே;
சிறியோரை இகழ்தல் அதனினும் இலமே.

கணியன் பூங்குன்றன், புறநானூறு, 192

The Sages To us all towns are one, all men our kin,
Life's good comes not from others' gifts, nor ill,
Man's pains and pain's relief are from within,
Death's no new thing, nor do our blossoms thrill
When joyous life seems like a luscious draught.
When grieved, we patient suffer; for, we deem
This much-praised life of ours a fragile raft
Borne down the waters of some mountain stream
That o'er huge boulders roaring seeks the plain
Tho' storms with lightning's flash from darkened skies.
Descend, the raft goes on as fates ordain.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !
We marvel not at the greatness of the great;
Still less despise we men of low estate.

Kaniyan Pungundranar, Purananuru, 192
(Translated by G.U.Pope, 1906)

இனி நினைந்து இரக்கம் ஆகின்று: திணி மணல்
செய்வுறு பாவைக்குக் கொய் பூத் தைஇ,
தண் கயம் ஆடும் மகளிரொடு கை பிணைந்து,
தழுவுவழித் தழீஇ, தூங்குவழித் தூங்கி,
மறை எனல் அறியா மாயம் இல் ஆயமொடு
உயர் சினை மருதத் துறை உறத் தாழ்ந்து,
நீர் நணிப் படி கோடு ஏறி, சீர் மிக,
கரையவர் மருள, திரைஅகம் பிதிர,
நெடு நீர்க் குட்டத்துத் துடுமெனப் பாய்ந்து,
குளித்து மணல் கொண்ட கல்லா இளமை
அளிதோதானே! யாண்டு உண்டு கொல்லோ
தொடித் தலை விழுத் தண்டு ஊன்றி, நடுக்குற்று,
இரும் இடை மிடைந்த சில சொல்
பெரு மூதாளரேம் ஆகிய எமக்கே?

தொடித்தலை விழுத்தண்டினார், புறநானூறு, 243

The Instability of Youth "I muse of YOUTH! the tender sadness still
returns! In sport I moulded shapes of river sand,
plucked flowers to wreathe around the mimic forms:
in the cool tank I bathed, hand linked in hand,
with little maidens, dancing as they danced!
A band of innocents, we knew no guile.
I plunged beneath th' o'erspreading myrtle's shade,
where trees that wafted fragrance lined the shore;
then I climbed the branch that overhung the stream
while those upon the bank stood wondering;
I threw the waters round, and headlong plunged
dived deep beneath the stream, and rose,
my hands filled with the sand that lay beneath!
Such was my youth unlesson'd. 'Tis too sad!
Those days of youth, ah! whither have they fled?
I now with trembling hands, grasping my staff,
panting for breath, gasp few and feeble words.
And I am worn and OLD!"

Thodithalai Vizhuthandinar, Purananuru, 243
(Translated by G. U. Pope, 1906)


  1. The Four Hundred Songs of War and Wisdom by George L. Hart and Hank Heifetz p.17
  2. The Four Hundred Songs of War and Wisdom: An Anthology of Poems from Classical Tamil, The Purananuru. Columbia University Press. 13 August 2013. p. 16. ISBN 978-0-231-51252-7.
  3. 1 2 Encyclopædia Britannica (India) 2000, p. 334.
  4. Parmeshwaranand 2001, p. 1151
  5. 1 2 3 Hart 1999, p. xvi
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Hart 1999, p. 349
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Rav 2003, p. 126
  8. 1 2 Hart 1999, p. xvii
  9. 1 2 3 4 5 Lal 2001, pp. 4255-4256
  10. M.S. 1994, p. 194
  11. Zvelebil 1992, p. 197


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