The BBS: Women in Sangam Literature

This post is a part of a series that looks at how women are perceived and portrayed in Tamil literature, films, pop culture and thereby, in Tamil country

The literary works examined in this section are thought of as model literature for the ideal Tamil society. We delve into the glorious Sangam period literature that has been used to substantiate the egalitarian character of ancient Dravidian society. Considered to be rich in ethical codes and moral standards, their undeniably misogynistic streak jumps out at anyone who reads them (except maybe those blind to their privilege). Public intellectuals of Tamil society seem to have ignored, or worse, not considered the gender discrimination that fills these works.
For this section I’ve relied on Balu S’s work available on Gender Awareness Promoters; he has studied Sangam era literature from a gender perspective.

Here is what he had to say when I asked him about gender roles in Sangam literature:

I have heard people contending that women were considered or treated equally in Sangam period (period disputed but roughly between the years c. 350 BCE to 300 CE) and I wondered what this equality meant. The arguments for ‘women were treated as equal in Sangam’ would be in the lines of, women were educated, some women chose their partners, women learnt and performed arts and they were poets etc. However compared to the privileges enjoyed by the men, as could be derived from the literature, the status of women was significantly less. They were educated but only at home, whereas men went out for education and women could perform art only in the confines of their homes mostly.

He goes on to quote examples from Sangam literature. He talks about Tholkappiyam, considered the master guide for Sanga Ilakkiyam (Sangam literature). Tholkappiyam is divided into three books—Ezhuthadhikaram (formation of words), Solladhikaram (syntax), Poruladhikaram (conveying thoughts) ( In his article, Balu talks about the third, Poruladhikaram, which defines “how a man and a woman should be and should be portrayed” in literary works.
He goes on to quote from the work, which talks about what the characteristics of the ideal woman (heroine of a story) should be:

Acchamum naanum madanum mundhurudhal
Nicchamum penbarkku uriya enbar

Kalaviyal 96, Tholkappiyam

Timidity, bashfulness, and credulity
Are the ruling traits in Woman (heroine)

Accham means timidity, madam means modesty, and naanam means bashfulness. Balu says that here madam also denotes that though the heroine of the story is knowledgeable, she will not display it. This is a clear indication, then, of the insecurity felt by men who feel threatened by women who surpass them intellectually.

The forthcoming section is mostly excerpts from Sangam literature with translations. They’re from Balu’s collection; I’ve tweaked the translation a bit to suit my needs. I’ve added them as support for my conclusion that the Sangam era was as patriarchal and misogynistic as present day Tamil Nadu. I’ve linked the sources so if you want to start a discussion on this post, please do your research.

Serivum, niraivum, semmaiyum, seppum,
Arivum, arumaiyum penpaalaana.

Poruliyal 206, Tholkappiyam

Temperance, fullness of bearing, uprightness,
Facility of the tongue, discrimination and discernment 
Are traits marked in women

Uyirinum sirandhandru naane: naaninu
Seyir theer kaatchik karpuch chirandhandru; yenath
Thollor kilavi pulliya nenjamodu
Kaamak kizhavan ulvazhip padinum,
Tha il nal mozhi kizhavi kilappinum,
Aavagai piravum thondruman porule

Kalaviyal 111, Tholkappiyam

As the heroine goes by herself
Seeking the hero she has fallen in love with
Or as she says such words
As are free from willfulness and guile,
Armed she is 
With the saying of the ancestors:
“Bashfulness is of greater worth than life itself,
And chastity unsullied stands superior to bashfulness”
And such things as lofty as these
Constitute the thematic modes of Akam love proper

Clearly, chastity and bashfulness were integral to the ideal heroine; according to Balu the claim that these are the words of ancestors was “probably attempts to give a stamp of credibility and authority to the prescribed qualities of a woman”.

Here’s another example:

Thar pugazh kilavi kizhavan mun kilaththal
Yeth thirathaanum kizhaththikku illai-
Murpada vaguththa irandu alangadaiye

Karpiyal 178, Tholkappiyam

The heroine,
Whatever be the circumstances,
Is not given to self-praise
In the presence of the hero
Save the two context aforesaid

Let’s look at what Tholkappiyam says are the ideal characteristics of the man, the hero of the story:

Perumaiyum uranum aadoomaena

Kalaviyal 95, Tholkappiyam

Nobility of bearing and fortitude
Marks the man (hero)

While the main text is brief, the commentary, or Urai, list more qualities, says Balu: education, valour, charity, cooperation, impartiality, fearlessness, brilliance, rigidity, and bravery, to name a few.
This is proof, that “a woman was invested with patriarchal notions of ideal attributes and so was the man”.

Tholkappiyam also specifies that self-praise by the hero is a good thing:

Kizhavi munnaarth thar pugazh kilavi
Kizhavon vinaivayin uriya yenba

Karpiyal 179, Tholkappiyam

Self-praise marks the hero’s utterance
In the presence of the heroine
As he sets out on his mission
Parting from her (the heroine)

TL;DR: Self-praise is acceptable if you are a man/you’re the hero. In fact, it was a norm (still is?).

Tholkappiyam also talks about who among them (hero and heroine) has to be superior:

Ondrae vaerae endru iru paalvayin
Ondri uyarndha paaladhu aanaiyin
Oththa kizhavanum kizhathiyum kaanba
Mikkon aayinum, kadi varai indrae

Kalaviyal 90, Tholkappiyam

When a woman and man are in love, and the man turns out to have qualities that are superior to that of the woman, then it does not matter if he is of equal stature.

It was of utmost importance then, that the hero not be portrayed as inferior to the heroine.

The next time I find myself needing to explain fragile masculinity, I’m going to quote this.

Let’s move on and see how specific traits were expected to manifest in man (hero) and woman (heroine) in Sangam literature: first up, valour.

In Sangam poetry, both women and men are praised for their valour and courage, but there is a marked difference. The men are praised for going into battle, fighting fearlessly, and dying rather than running away from the battlefield. As for the women, their bravado and courage are defined in relation to the men in their lives: they are deemed courageous if they face the death of their husband or son in an uncomplaining manner and felt proud about it.

Narambu ezhundhu ulari niramba men thol
Mulari marungin, mudhiyol siruvan
Padai azhindhu, maarinan endru palar koora
“Mandu amarkku udaindhanan aayin, unda yen
Mulai aruththiduven, yaan” yenach chinayee,
Konda vaalodu padu pinam peyara,
Sengalam thuzhavuvol, sidhaindhu vaeru aagiya
Padu magan kidakkai kaanoo
Eendra gnandrilum peridhu uvandhanalae!

Kaakkai Paadiniyar Nachellaiyar, Purananooru 278

When she heard many say,
“The son of that old woman,
Her veins showing, dried, delicate arms with
Loose skin, and shrunk stomach like lotus leaves,
Showed his back and ran from ferocious battle”,
She was enraged and said, “I will cut off 
These breasts that fed him, if that is true”,
And turned over every body lying in the blood-soaked battlefield
She finally found her son
Who was chopped to pieces,
And she felt happier than she did
When she gave birth to him!

This also serves as an indication of the ideal woman was expected to live her life serving male interests.

While the ideal way for women to display courage and valour were thus defined by the Tholkappiyam, there are problematic Sangam love poems that follow the done-to-death trope of the hero harassing, or stalking, or coercing the heroine into accepting him or consenting to a sexual encounter. In some poems, the woman is treated as an object, and any attention showered on her by her man is lapped up, and seen as the man being gracious.

Pooppin purappaadu eer-aaru naalum
Neeththu agandru uraiyaar yenmanaar pulavar-
Paraththaiyin pirindha kaalaiyaana

Karpiyal 185, Tholkappiyam

The literate men say,
While there occasions his separation (from the heroine)
In pursuit of harlots
The hero does not keep off from the heroine
During the twelve days
Since the day of her menstruation

Here the poem takes on a glorifying tone, while describing how the hero does not keep away from the heroine during her fertile period in spite of concurrently pursuing sexual relationships with other women. This is seen as a mark of goodness on the part of the hero, and seen as a favour done by the hero to the heroine. Compare this with how chastity was defined as more important than life itself for women (Kaliviyal 111, Tholkappiyam, mentioned earlier in this chapter). Men, in stark contrast, were allowed to court and have sexual relationships with multiple women, before and after marriage.

Going by the poems in Akanaanooru, eloping was accepted, as far as the woman married the man she eloped with. Thus, the virtuous woman was sexually exclusive. Further, a woman’s karpu (chasitity), as defined in Tholkappiyam, was taught to her by her husband (Karpiyal 152, Tholkappiyam).

As for expressing her feelings to the man she is interested in, the woman could do so only be suggestive because of her femininity dictates it (a.k.a acham, madam).

Kaamath thinaiyin kan nindru varuoom
Naanum madanum penmaiya aagalin
Kurippinum idaththinum alladhu, vaetkai
Nerippada vaaraa, avalvayinaana

Kalaviyal 106, Tholkappiyam

Bashfulness and credulity
Being ingrained in feminine nature
The passion of love of the heroine
Will find expression
Through suggestive modes
And through the context of the situation
And not through explicit utterance

Here is yet another example of how the woman is expected to to resort to non-verbal responses, as against being plain expressive:

Sol edhir mozhidhal arumaithu agalin
Alla kootrumozhi avalavayinaana

Kalaviyal 108, Tholkappiyam

Rare as it is
In the feminine nature of the heroine
To respond in verbal utterance
To the hero’s overtures of love
She is wont to non-verbal suggestive responses

Even if the wife was distressed by her husband’s dalliances with other women, she could not express it directly. She can express her hurt through indirect means: for instance, her friend would talk to him about it (Nachinarkiniyar, Kalaviyal 158, Tholkappiyam).

Coming back to the trope of how a woman falls in love with the man in spite of coercion and harassment, here is a popular poem that embodies it:

Sudarththodee! Kaelaai! Theruvil naam aadum
Manar chittril kaalin sidhaiya, adaichiya
Kodhai parindhu, vari pandhu kondu odi
No thakka seyyum siru, patti, mael oar naal,
Annaiyum yaanum irundhema,
“Illire! Unnu neer vaettaen” yena vandharkku, annai,
“Adar por sirakaththaal vaakki, sudarizhaai!
Unnu neer ootti va” yendraal: yena yaanum
Thannai ariyaadhu sendraen: matru yennai
Valai munkai patri naliya, therumandhittu,
“Annaai! Ivanoruvan seidhadhu kaan” yendraena,
Annai alarip padardhara, thannai yaan,
“Unnu neer vikkinaan” yendraena, annaiyum
Thannai purambu azhiththu neeva, mattru yennaik
Kadaikkannaal kolvaan pol nokki, nagaik koottam
Seidhaan, ak kalvan magan

Kalithogai 51

Listen my friend who wears bright bangles!
That wild brat
Who used to kick our little sand houses
With his leg,
Pull flower strands from our hair,
And yank the striped ball from us
Causing us agony,
Came one day when my mother and I were home.
“Oh, people of this house,
Please give me some water to drink,” he said.
Mother said to me, “Pour water in the thick gold vessel,
And give it to him to drink, my bright-jewelled daughter.”
And so I went unwittingly,
He seized my bangled arm and pressed it, 
Shocking me.
“Mother, see what he did,” I shouted.
My mother, distressed, came running with a shriek,
“He had hiccups while drinking water”.
Mother stroked his back gently,
And asked him to drink slowly.
He looked at me from the corner of his eyes, giving me loaded looks,
And smiled a lot, that thief!

“It is constructed as a romantic situation but the subtext is clearly misogynistic: the boy harasses girls while young and while grown up he has the audacity to grab her hand, smug with the notion that she would not put him in trouble. True to word the woman recounts the incident to her friend as if he was mischievous and naughty now with the added observation of him giving her ‘killer looks.’ There was obviously no concept of sexual harassment or sexual consent that either sexes had to  be aware about”, writes Balu.

Another example, where male entitlement is more explicit (Kabilar, Kalithokai 62):

Yeiyekthu oththan, naan ilan thannodu
Maevaem yenbaarayum maevinan kaippatrum

Hey, boy, have you no shame?
You’re trying to unite with me
By gripping my hand, even if i don’t want to

Maevinum, maevakkadaiyum, akthu ellam
Nee aridhi, yaan akthu arikallaen; poo amandra
Mel inar sellak kodi annaai! Ninnai yaan
Pul inidhu aagalin, pullinen yella!

Girl, you know consent and lack of it,
I am not aware of all that;
You are like a delicate vine with flowers
I desired your sweet embrace
And embraced you.

Thamakku inidhu yendru, validhin pirarku inna
Seivadhu nandru aamo matru?

Just because it is sweet for you,
Is it right to forcibly cause distress to others?

Sudar thodee! Potraai kalai, nin mudhukkuraimai; potrik kael!
Vaettarku inidhu aayin alladhu, neerkku inidhu yendru
Unbavo, neer unbavar?
Seivadhu arikallaen, yaadhu seivenkolo
Ai vaai aravin idaipattu, nai vaaraa?

Bright-bangled one! Stop analysing it.
Use your intellect. Listen,
Thirsty people drink water because they find it sweet, 
Not because the water finds itself sweet.
I do not know what to do.
Ancient wisdom says it is okay
To take away a girl
To save her from the five-headed snake

Aranum adhu kandatraayin, thiran indri,
Koorum sol kaelaan, nalidharum; pandunaam
Vaeru allam yenbadhu ondru undaal; avanodu
Maaru undo, nenje! Namakku?

He doesn’t listen to me,
He is wasting away;
If that is wisdom, maybe
We weren’t strangers in the past;
Maybe I was united with him.
Is there any opposition to that thought, my heart?

The man justifies, in fact normalises his disregard for her consent, by drawing the parallel of a thirsty person’s need for water. The woman, too, gives in, concluding that if this were wisdom, then maybe she was wrong about her consent being important at all, and that they were united in the past.

Apart from steamrolling and gaslighting, there was always blackmailing:

Maa yena madalum oorupa; poo yenak
Kuvimugizh yerukkang kanniyum soodupa;
Marukin aarkkavum padupa;
Piridhum aagupa-kaamam kaazhkkoline

Pereyil Muruvalar, Kurunthokai 17

If love ripens, one will
Wear an erukkam garland
With pointed buds,
Ride on a palmyra frond horse,
Suffer ridicule on the streets,
And even more.

This practice, “madalerudhal”, appears to be “a kind of blackmailing technique intended to intimidate the woman”, says Balu. He notes that women were not allowed the liberty to do the same, quoting from Tholkappiyam:

Yeththinai marunginum, magadoo madalmael
Porpudai nerimai inmaiyaana

Akathinaiyial 38, Tholkappiyam

Translation (V Murugan):
No strand of akam love behaviour
Does enjoin on the heroine
To ride the horse of palmyra stems,
As it goes contrary to the norms
Of feminine propriety.

Clearly, it was considered unfeminine for a woman to be audacious, while the man had all the freedom to be what he wanted to be. While this is a rule for writing characters for literary work, it can be taken as an indication about what was accepted by society at large.

Further, according to the guidelines laid down in the Tholkappiyam, the woman could have the upper hand in the relationship during a lover’s tiff, where the man is submissive if only to placate her. In another set of verses, the Tholkappiyam establishes that a man privileges a woman by marrying her (Credit: Balu).

Widowhood reduced a woman to a sub-human state. Women who lost their husbands were made to shave their heads, stay away from society, and had to practice extreme austerity, such as eat cooked seeds of water lily:

Ivan urai vaazhkkaiyo, aridhe! Yaanum
Mannuru mazhith thalaith then neer vaara,
Thondru thaam  udutha amm pagaith theriyal
Siru vell aambal alli unnum
Kazhi kala magalir pola,
Vazhi ninaindhiruththal, adhaninum aridhe!

Marakothu Nappasalaiyar, Puranaanooru 280

Translation (George Hart):
For you to stay alive in this world
Is hard! 
But far harder it is for me to think
Of living like the widows who have shed their ornaments
Water trickling down my 
Shaved head caked with mud,
And for food (eat) the seeds
Of the small water lily
That was his garland of war

As is evident from the aforesaid verses, widows committed sati to escape the sub-human life of widowhood. The practice of a woman committing suicide after the husband dies is mentioned in Tholkappiyam. Sati was practiced during Sangam age: literature from the age talks about thipaaidal, or walking into flames. The act of a woman walking into her husband’s funeral pyre is also mentioned, and she is also hailed as a “good, great woman”. [Tholkappiyam, Porul 79].

The qualities espoused by Sangam literature with respect to women: chastity, unquestioning devotion to the husband, dying when the husband does, pride in having birthed a male child, are all means to the end: maintaining the status quo—male dominance and patriarchy, through misogynistic strictures forced upon women. “It is an age old technique  to praise or glorify some actions / nature of suppressed that is advantageous to the suppressor”, says Balu S.

The influence of such glorified discriminatory and misogynistic values can be seen in Thiruvalluvar’s works, discussed in the next section.

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