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The trouble with ancient texts is...

The Pura-Naa-Nooru was compiled about 2,000 years ago and contains four hundred poems composed by more than 150 poets, writes Renuka Narayanan.

india Updated: Jul 25, 2008 23:39 IST

A woman who’s just tidied up after spinning cotton in her yard, while her lost hen wanders back safely, now wants to feed her guests and the visiting bards, “a stew cooked of a lizard with yogurt”.

Nobody reads them! Who has the know-how or the time? But with ancient Tamil texts very much in the news now, I was enchanted to discover Chef Jacob Sahaya who made an innovative and emotionally satisfying USP for himself researching ancient Tamil texts and figuring out whole festivals of food. So sambar is very much the flavour now, be it the Meepshi Padalam (Rescue Chapter) of the Yuddha Kandam in Kamba Ramayanam (9th century) or the Pura-Naa-Nooru (Four Hundred Poems of War) that Jacob Sahaya mined with the help of scholars.

The Pura-Naa-Nooru was compiled about 2,000 years ago and contains four hundred poems composed by more than 150 poets. It has no explicit philosophical intentions. It’s about war, love, living, dying, des-pair, hope, wealth, poverty… all the stuff of everyday life, simply, directly and unpretentiously expressed that a modern mind can relate to.

Besides which, it has quite a few references to food. I rather like Poem 386 by the poet Kovoorkilaar, which starts off straight like these poems mostly do, with the situation: “We took what he offered us, the fried meat, dripping with ghee as when drops of rain shower on a lake of water and we ate the roasted meat pierced through by the skewer. And into white cups where there was already meat, he had cow’s milk poured for us to fill them

to the top… my lord was generous.”

Or is it Poem 366 by Kotamanaar, which is advice to a man of authority: “Don’t let others know how strong you are but learn what they are saying…and help those who take action…you may feel disturbed by the women with lovely red lines in their eyes who pour out choice filtered toddy into a fine-fashioned vessel…killing a male goat and tearing off the roasted meat, you should have it set out on leaves and given without stinting to those people who are hungry, for that food is like an oblation – and grant a place to those who want boiled rice and then you yourself should eat.”

There are vivid mind pictures in a few sudden words like this one by Uraiyur Mutukootanaar, “…like an ignorant cowherd in extreme cold kindling a small fire in the faded evning…” which is as typical of 21st century Shining India, alas, as of the ancient Tamil country of the 1st century CE.

Meanwhile, there’s exotic lizard stew if you like in Poem 326 by Tankar Pokollanaar. In this situation, a woman has just tidied up after spinning cotton in her yard , while her lost hen wanders back safel. She now wants to feed her guests and the visiting bards, “a stew cooked of a lizard with its short legs that was captured only a short distance away on the shores of a pond by the children of hunters ..and she makes the stew with yogurt, pouring on fat, mixing in other good things.”

One of the most detailed certainly is Poem 319 by Alankuti Vankanaar (dead poets, all, but ours unto us!) who gets positively domestic: “Down at the bottom of a pot…there is water fit to drink…set a handful of millet out in the front yard…so that doves and partridges may take it as bait; all we have now is some cooked rabbit, but we will give it away!”

The Pura-naa-nooru may not be overtly a book of moral science but everything in it clues us into the worldview that it is coming from. A worldview obviously implies a standard of the things that these people thought were worth doing or being and things that they did not think were a good idea at all.

You decide if you like them or not, after you read Poem 190 by Kannian Poonkunran: ‘“How can it be that you have no grey hair, though you have lived many years?”

‘You have asked the question and I will give you an answer! My children have gone far in learning. My wife is rich in her virtue. My servants do as I wish and my king, who shuns corruption, protects us. And in my city there are many noble men who through their deep knowledge, have acquired calm, have become self-controlled, and the choices they make in their lives are built on the quality of restraint. Every city is your city, everyone is your kin…’

The Penguin translation is by George L. Hart and Hank Heifetz. Alas that no Indian does such work enough to be noticed and known nationally. Would a government dare bluff its own people otherwise?