The BBS: Women in post-Sangam Literature—Thirukkural

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 Thirukkural is an important body of work in Tamil literature, from the post-Sangam period. It occupies pride of place in Tamil culture.

The Thirukkural is often described as a reflection of the true character of Tamil society (Dayanand Bharati, 2015). Going by his kurals or couplets, Valluvar saw women as either chaste, husband-worshipping wives, prostitutes who sold their love for money, or as persons whose advice when heeded will make one less of a man.

With Valluvar, the meaning of karpu went on to include unconditional obedience and devotion to the husband, in addition to chastity. He also believed that the husband’s happiness and the family’s happiness depended on her chastity and unconditional submission to tending to the household and family. He also accorded supernatural powers to women who worshipped their husbands.

Following are examples (Poovai Amudhan, 2011):

Araththuppaal, Vaazhkkaith thunainalam

peNNin perundhakka yaavula kaRpennum
thiNmaiuN daagap peRin

Kural 54

Translation: There is no greater treasure than a woman who guards her chastity.

theyvam thozhaaaL kozhunhan thozhudhezhuvaaL
peyyenap peyyum mazhai

Kural 55

Translation: A woman who, if worships her husband, as she rises in the morning, even if she doesn’t worship god, if she says “let it rain”, it will rain.

thaRkaaththuth thaRkoNtaaR paeNith thakaisaandra
soRkaaththuch soarvilaaL peN

Kural 56

Translation: It is the duty of a woman to protect her chastity, to take care of her husband’s needs, and thus establish her name as a virtuous woman.

siRaikaakkum kaappevan seyyum makaLir
niRaikaakkum kaappae thalai

Kural 57

Translation: You cannot guard a woman by putting her in a prison, only she can protect her highest virtue of chastity through self-control.

petraaR peRinpeRuvar peNdir perunjiRappup
puththaeLir vaazhum ulagu

Kural 58

Translation: A dutiful and devoted wife will attain heaven.

pukazhpurindha illiloarkku illai ikazhvaarmun
ERupoal peedu nadai

Kural 59

Translation: A man who does not have a chaste wife cannot walk with the pride of a lion in front of those who scorn him.

mangalam enpa manaimaatchi matru adhan
nankalam nanmakkat peru

Kural 60

Translation: A virtuous wife is a household’s blessing, and the crowning jewel of such a household is to have good children.

Note that this section (“Vaazhkkaith thunainalam” or “life partner’s well-being”) entirely talks about what the ideal wife should be, and how her husband’s well-being depends on her devotion and virtuousness. There is not a single kural in this section that talks about what is required of a husband in order for the wife to be happy, though the section is titled with a gender neutral term (vaazhkkai thunai or life partner). The notion that a woman’s chastity needs to be guarded, and that she has to put her chastity above all else, and Valluvar recommending self-control, echo Manu Smriti’s assumption that women are sexual beings with uncontrollable sex drive (Chakravarti U, 1993).

Kaamathuppaal, uruppunalan azhidhal

In this section, all couplets talk about the woman yearning for her partner. No couplet talks about a man’s longing for his wife. Even the couplets that are told from the man’s point of view, talk about how the woman seems to grow sad at the slightest sign of him parting from her physically. This could be a deliberate decision, and serves Valluvar’s ideal of the virtuous woman being the submissive one in the relationship. Here are a few examples:

nayandhavar nalkaamai solluva poalum

pasandhu panivaarum kan

Kural 1232

Translation: These eyes that shed tears seem to betray the lack of reciprocation from my beloved.

thanandhamai saala arivippa poalum

manandha-naal veengiya thoal

Kural 1233

Translation: My weak shoulders which had swollen with happiness on our wedding day, now announce our separation to the world.

muyangiya kaikalai ookkap pasandhadhu

paindhotip paedhai nudhal

Kural 1238

Translation: I loosened my tight embrace, thinking she would be in pain, and her bright forehead darkened.

muyakkidaith thanvali poazhap pasapputra

paedhai perumazhaik kan

Kural 1239

Translation: A cold breeze came between us even as we were in embrace, and at the thought of that slightest distance her large, soft eyes dimmed.

As can be seen, when the woman talks, it is about how much she longs for the husband’s proximity. When the kural takes on a man’s voice, it talks about how much the woman misses his proximity. All sections of Kaamathuppaal, Padarmelindhirangal, talks about lust and longing, all in the woman’s voice.

Moreover, the Thanipadarmigudhi section of Kaamathuppaal even lays down how a woman is not respected if her lover does not reciprocate her love:

veezhap patuvaar kezhee-iyilar thaamveezhvaar

veezhap pataa-ar enin

Kural 1194

Translation: Even if she is beloved by the entire world, she is devoid of luck if she is not loved by her beloved.

This kural sums up the idea that a woman’s worth is tied to her partner and his affections. This section, too, uses the woman’s voice. No couplet talks about a man dealing with rejection.

Valluvar, too, thought it was not within female propriety to explicitly talk about feelings:

penninaal penmai udaiththenpa kanninaal

kaamanoai solli iravu

Kural 1280

Translation: Expressing her longing through her eyes, and thus asking for her lover to end the longing, makes a woman more feminine than femininity itself.

He also talks about submission being a sign of a woman’s love for her partner:

thinaiththunaiyum oodaamai vaendum panaith-thunaiyum

kaamam niraiya varin

Kural 1282

Translation: If a woman’s lust exceeds the size of a palmyra fruit, she will not desire to feign anger (oodal) even as much as the size of a grain of millet.

In sum, the entire Kaamathuppaal section portrays women as either longing for their husband’s return from abroad, or for their lover’s acceptance and reciprocation. They also resorted to feigning anger (oodal) as a way of getting the man’s attention and affection. There are very few couplets that talk with the man’s voice, and even those talk about how the man’s wife/lover longs for them, and is slavish in their worship of the relationship.

Porutpaal, penvazhicheral

 In this section, Valluvar deems it disgraceful for a man to listen to his wife’s advice, or to let the wife take the lead in any manner:

manaivizhaivaar maaNpayan eydhaar vinaivizhaiyaar

vaeNtaap poruLum adhu

Kural 901

Translation: A man who submits to his wife out of love, can neither fulfill his duties nor engage in good deeds.

paeNaadhu peNvizhaivaan aakkam periyadhoar

naaNaaka naaNuth tharum

Kural 902

Translation: All the wealth that a man possesses will bring him shame if he prioritises his wife’s wishes over his duties.

This is indicative of how much of a say the wife could have in decisions made by the husband.

illaaLkaN thaazhndha iyalpinmai eGnGnaandrum

nallaaruL naaNuth tharum

Kural 903

Translation: He who unnecessarily forgoes his masculinity and surrenders to the wife, will feel ashamed when among the good.

peNNaeval seydhozhukum aaNmaiyin naaNutaip

peNNe perumai udaiththu

Kural 907

Translation: It is better to be a bashful woman than to be a man who submits to his wife.

The tone in Kural 907 is clearly misogynistic: Valluvar felt it was degrading to have feminine traits.

Here is another example where Valluvar says it is below their dignity for men to let their wives lead the way:

eNsaerndha nenjath thitanutaiyaarkku eGnGnaandrum

peNsaerndhaam paedhaimai il

Kural 910

Translation: Those who possess high intellect and strong will, will not be so ignorant as to submit to their inexperienced wives’ wishes.

Valluvar also seems to despise prostitutes because they give away pleasure for money. How dare they not turn into the exclusive property of a man and let him govern their sexuality!

Here is an example:

anpin vizhaiyaar poruLvizhaiyum aaidhotiyaar

insol izhukkuth tharum

Kural 911

Translation: The sweet words of a prostitute who desires not a man’s affection but his wealth, will bring him sorrow.

Thus in the Sangam age, going by the androcentric literature, a woman was not equal to man. A woman’s most important virtue was karpu or chastity—the patriarchal principle of sexual exclusivity. Women who did not guard their chastity were seen as dishonourable. A woman’s life was about playing the role of the virtuous mother/wife. Their lives, apart from the men their lives, remain undefined.

The influence of Tholkappiyam and its accompanying misogyny extends beyond the Thirukkural to post-Sangam literature as well. The Silappadhikaaram is an outstanding example. Yep, that’s the next bubble waiting to burst.

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