Eco Literature at its best: Tamil Sangam Poetry

Photo: Ancient Origins

By Rajesh Subramanian

The time for eco literature and its twin, eco criticism has come. They are going to lead the next major literary wave. The last one hundred years have seen many literary waves reaching their zenith and then subsiding, giving way to new ones. Now, it is time for a reality check, especially in view of the global ecological disasters that humankind faces in an unprecedented way. Far from the notion of the outside environment and culture nourishing literary works, it is literature (eco-lit) that has to guide humankind to restore the environment and nature to their pristine glory.

The Tamil Sangam poetry (circa 1st to 4th century CE) boasts of a unique literary tradition among various streams of Indian literature. Contrary to the literary traditions of that period and the subsequent eras, the Sangam poetic tradition was to a great extent devoid of mythological and religious allusions. It focused more on the external world, wars and love life.

While the broad Sangam literature is generally categorized into akam (inner) and puram (outer), what is of great interest from an ecocritical perspective is that these two categories of poetry were painted on the ecological canvas of “tinais”. The akam poetry talks about romantic love, sexual union, longing for the soul mate and the like, and the puram poetry talks about wars, heroism and the like.

In the akam poetry, the master stroke was the utilization of the background of tinais which was based on the location or landscape in which a particular poem is set. The ecology based tinais were five – kurinji (mountainous regions), mullai (pastoral regions), marutham (riverine agricultural regions), neidhal (coastal regions) and palai (arid, desert regions). Such a background of tinais is a common thread in both akam and puram poetry.

Human emotions and longings were viewed from an ecological kaleidoscope; natural elements and sceneries fused into the narrative effortlessly. It is difficult to delineate if the wilderness and beauty of nature mirrored human pathos or vice versa.

Consider this short poem:

Friend, his seas swell and roar
making conch shells whirl on the sands.
But fishermen ply their little wooden boats
unafraid of the cold lash of the waves.

Look, my bangles
slip loose as he leaves,
grow tight as he returns,
and they give me away.

(Ainkurunuru-192- Neidhal tinai, Tr: A.K.Ramanujan)

And one more example:

Bigger than earth, certainly,
higher than the sky,
more unfathomable than the waters
is this love for this man

of the mountain slopes
where bees make rich honey
from the flowers of the 
that has such black stalks.

(Kurunthokai-3- Kurinji tinai, Tr: A.K.Ramanujan)

(*kurinci/kurinji here refers to plants that bloom at 12 year intervals)

“Nature” very often is portrayed as an entity outside the world of the humans and external to the “culture” of the society. But since time immemorial, nature has been a part of the construction of “language” and mankind’s initial “words” were closely associated with natural elements. Language has an umbilical cord relationship with nature. It is but natural that literature, a byproduct of language and intellect, has to closely portray nature either very outwardly or in subtle nuances. Classical Tamil literature is an essential example of this notion.

When a society and its language is strongly nature conscious, their lifestyle will tend to minimize damages to the environment. Though social progress mandates industrialization, in a nature- conscious society, this progress happens with minimal collateral damage to nature’s assets. Somewhere in between, when the above consciousness is lost, destruction of nature results. Then, as a tool of the social consciousness, eco literature rises to the occasion to highlight the assaults on nature and warns the society of the impending doom, if the trend is not arrested.

As per a tenet in eco criticism related theories, the journey from nature to culture very much happens through an effortless mechanism in Sangam Poetry. There can exist distinctions between “pure nature” and “culture” but such a definition based distinction between the two terms hardly gets reflected in literary works. Nature transcends through many grey areas into culture and culture imbibes the multiple vibes of nature over a period of time. The concept is generally acceptable for almost any language and culture in the world. Nature thus finds itself captured in the literary traditions of any culture and the effect of culture can be found in the way nature is either preserved or damaged by the people belonging to that culture.

As eco literature and eco criticism have been making deeper inroads into global literary arenas, Ursula Heise proposed the concept of “world citizenship” connecting every individual to the Earth and treating every major ecological problem with a global perspective. While the poetics and politics of Eco-Cosmopolitanism in contemporary world literature is engaging more and more academics and literary theorists, the concept was captured with an awesome grandeur in Sangam poetry.

Consider the below poem for an instance:

Every town’s our home town; every man, our kinsman;
good and evil happen not because of others;
pain and relief happen on their own;
dying isn’t something unknown;
neither do we rejoice that life is a joy,
nor in disgust, do we call it a misery;
since we know from words of the wise
‘Our precious lives follow their destined course,
like rafts following the course of a mighty river
clattering over rocks after a downpour
from lightning slashed skies’,
we are not impressed by the mighty;
more importantly, we do not scorn the lowly.

(Purananooru – 192, Tr: A.K. Ramanujan)

The Tamil Sangam poetry is an invaluable treasure from an eco literary perspective. Rediscovery and re-exploration of the Sangam literature is likely to lead to glimpses of a great civilization that lived one with nature – in letter and spirit.

Rajesh Subramanian
 is based in Chennai. He is an author, literary critic, translator and the editor of the online literary magazine Modern Literature ( He can be reached at /


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3 thoughts

  1. ‘The time for eco literature and its twin, eco criticism has come’, says Rajesh. True. We also have a new science, namely ecolinguistics and various journals which explore this science:
    The languages of the ancients hold the key to our world’s future. Café Dissensus and the journal which Rajesh edits, Modern Literature, are both in English. I have had the honour to be published by both platforms but I feel all Indian journals published in English would benefit greatly from multilingualism. Multilingualism in itself would be a powerful symbol. It would symbolise dissent, dissent from the norm, from the language of world power and the unholy alliances that bow before their flags and emblems. After all, to revert to Tamil language and literature, celebrated by Rajesh, Tamil was not the language of the Industrial Revolution, colonialism and globalisation which heralded the age of pollution. It was English. I wonder have ecolinguists come up with a way in which English can be decolonised (along with the mind that speaks, reads and writes in English).


    1. Well, that depends, most of us still think, speak and write in Tamil. English is a mere language for communication. Tamizh flows in blood. Caution: Never visit Tamilnadu with such so-called opinions on multilingulism. In a country where people speak 29 languages, we very much understand that term and its implications. Most of my schoolmates can speak an average of four languages. It is indeed satirical, we Tamizhans had to see the day where people are taking classes to Indians on multilingualism. I agree it would be nice if these works were translated to English. But that agreed, the world will not fall apart if some narrow minded hypocrites who post hypocritic comments on Tamil people are ignorant of our literature. I am happy such people are unable to enjoy our literature. Our language deserves to be read, spoken and written with respect and open-mindedness, and some people suffer from serious lack of it. We Tamil people are open minded, and accept changes with grace, but then linguistic sentiments echo aloud in our people. We have language worship in our land, and what else was the reason the language has survived a good 4000 years? We people love it. And “Tamil-is-inferior-to-English” bias cannot and will not be tolerated. So what if English was there during Industrialisation, our language was there thousands of years before your root language latin became dead, and here we are still speaking Tamil. And we know English is great, how about extending the same courtesy to us? With all due regards, the next time, think twice before commenting on our tongue. And coming to the point on decolonising, how about decolonising such colonising mentality?


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