Sangam Poetry - akam

I’m dipping in and out of A. K. Ramanujan’s Poems of Love and War, a selection of Tamil poems written between 100 BC to AD 250. The poems are divided into two large categories: akam - interior – poems about love; puram - exterior – poems about everything else, especially war, values, community.

The akam poems are full of indirect metaphor: each type of love is associated with a particular season, a landscape, a flower, a bird... Here is an example of an akam poem and Ramanujan’s commentary:

What She Said

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 kurinci
that has such black stalks.
Kuruntokai 3

The kurinci flower and the mountain scene clearly mark this as a kurinci poem about lovers’ union. The union is not described or talked about; it is enacted by the “inset” scene of the bees making honey from the flowers of the kurinci. The lover is not only the lord of the mountain; he is like the mountain he owns. Describing the scene describes his passion. The kurinci, being a plant that takes about twelve years to come to flower, carries a suggestion assimilating the tree to the young tropical heroine who speaks the poem…

Furthermore, the poem opens with large abstractions about her love: her love is bigger than earth and higher than the sky. But it moves toward the concreteness of the blackstalked kurinci, acting out by analogue the virgin’s progress from abstraction to experience. .. This progression (from the basic cosmic elements to the specific component of a landscape) is also the method of the entire intellectual framework behind the poetry: moving from first elements to native elements to human feelings…

Here is another akam poem:

What He Said

As a little white snake
with lovely stripes on its young body
troubles the jungle elephant
this slip of a girl
her teeth like sprouts of new rice
her wrists stacked with bangles

troubles me.
Catti Natanar
Kuruntokai 119

There is a small collection of akam poems here, with the Tamil text, transliteration, translation – and a table showing the landscapes / seasons, etc. associated with each type of love.

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