Sangam poetry and a journey to Kurinji land

In this Kurinji region of Karnataka, the lavender-coloured flowers have given way to the imported arabica and robusta coffee blossoms.

Published: 09th December 2021 12:34 AM  |   Last Updated: 09th December 2021 12:34 AM   |  A+A-


Mischief makers posted file pictures of fully-bloomed Kurinji flowers on social media, saying they were current photos. (Photo | Balan Madhavan/

Last month, two of my old college friends who had come from the Middle East had a surprise for me. "We are in Bengaluru, why don't you come over?" they asked.

Deprived of long journeys for almost two years due to the pandemic, I decided to seize the opportunity and packed my bags. Meeting me at the airport, my friends said, "The next part of the journey is a surprise for you", and instructed the chauffeur to drive towards the south. We drove past the drenched, semi-flooded Bengaluru towards Mysuru and beyond. As the rising sun glanced through the clouds, the hills on the west side of Mysuru came into view. Soon we were passing through the lush green landscape of the hill country. 

The visuals created by the lucid verbal imagery in Sangam poetry, which I had read long ago in AK Ramanujan's book, Poems of Love and War (an anthology of the translations of classical Tamil poetry), was right in front of me.

Forest animals walk there and elephants roam. / In the sky's high places thunder rumbles. / But you come alone in the night / Along the narrow paths of snakes and tigers, / O man of the mountain country … of fruitful hills/ ancient conquests and wide spaces / where the music of waterfalls mingles with bee sounds / as drums with lute-strings. (Poet: Kapilar, Akananuru 318)

I realised I was in the Kurinji land of Tamil Sangam poetry. Sangam is a collection of literature from South India. AK Ramanujan writes about Sangam literature thus, "In their antiquity and in their contemporaneity, there is not much else in any Indian literature equal to these quiet and dramatic Tamil poems. In their values and stances, they represent a mature classical poetry: passion is balanced by courtesy, transparency by ironies and nuances of design, impersonality by vivid detail, austerity of line by richness of implication" (AK Ramanujan, The Interior Landscape). As Sangam poetry is often identified with Tamil centres such as Madurai and Kanchi, historians hardly used this literature for the study of South India except Tamil Nadu and Kerala to an extent because of the ambiguity of the geographical limit of Sangam cultural region. Elamkulam Kunjan Pillai, who extensively used Sangam literature for building up Kerala history, puts an end to these doubts by referring to Akananuru, where Venkatam, Erumayoor and Tulu land are considered as the northern boundary of the Tamil land. Among this, Venkatam is the present Venkatachalam or Tirumala-Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh and Erumayoor is Mysuru (Eruma (Tamil) = Mahisha (Sanskrit); Ur (Tamil) = village (English). The hills of Mysuru that are south of Tulu Nadu, presently known as Coorg/Kodagu region, is thus the Kurinji land of Sangam poetry.

The poems beautifully infuse the internal emotion of the protagonists with that of the external landscape. For example, one of the poems read thus:

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 Kurinji that has black stalks (Poet: Tevakulattar, Kuruntokai 3). "The poem in the original opens with earth, sky and water, moves through the native elements of the mountain landscape (slopes, bees, Kurinji) and ends with a human feeling, 'Love'," observes AK Ramanujan (Poems of Love and War).

Interestingly the poems map the landscape of the Sangam region into five categories known as tinais based on the main flower found in that landscape. The five tinais (aintinai) are Kurinji (mountain flower) (mountain region), Mullai (jasmine) (forest region), Marutam (queen's flower) (fertile land), Neytal (water lily) (seashore) and Palai (Indian devil tree also known as saptaparni) (arid region). Various aspects of love life like the first union, separation, anxiety and elopement are all identified with the landscape. The lusher the landscape, the better the chance of union of the lovers. And when the lovers meet, the whole flora and fauna rejoice with them through chattering monkeys, drunken elephants in mirth and gushing waterfalls. The love for the landscape and the vivid description of the Sangam poems is quite close to Kalidasa, however there is no need to suggest any link. Unlike Kalidasa, Sangam poets represent the landscape with anecdotes like in one of the poems on Marutam land, where giggling girls, as they harvest sugarcane, teasingly throw the produce to the merchant caravans on the road, while someone mistakenly sharpens their sickle on a snoozing tortoise. Indeed, a fantastic imagery.

When you travel through South India, be it Tamil Nadu, Kerala or Karnataka, you see the landscapes changing drastically, especially if you take an east to west route. You can observe as the Sangam poets did (not as well as them though), the change in the landscape and fragrance of new flowers. Unfortunately, in this Kurinji land of Karnataka, the lavender-coloured Kurinji flowers have given way to the imported arabica and robusta coffee flowers. Though plantations have altered the landscape, the planters have tried to maintain their intangible cultural heritage. Interestingly, they do share this intangible heritage with north Kerala. Nannan of Ezhimalai (Kannur district, Kerala), who is condemned in Sangam literature as a tyrant, seems to have ruled Kodagu too. The forgotten roots have to be explored and nurtured further.

The distant hills with Kurinji flowers, seen through the mist, still stand upright, unperturbed by the aroma of coffee in the air, like a Kodava hillman waiting for his lover. Standing on that hill and looking west, you may see the eastern boundaries of the country of many gods.   

(The writer is head of Department of Art History, The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda and can be reached at


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