Deepa Bhasthi delves into the world of Sangam poetry – the surroundings in which they were written, the traditions they had to adhere to, and emotions they elicited.    

I cannot name my lover here. Tradition will not allow me to. Not when these are poems from the Sangam era that I write about here. ‘Poetry cannot swerve from tradition,’ declares the Tholkappiyam, the definitive text on Tamil grammar written, scholars say variously, between 3rd century BCE and 3rd century CE.

My poetry, I am the Sangam era, has to adhere to strict rules that the rest of the few hundred poets who wrote me worked with. I can speak only anonymously. I cannot tell you my name, not my mother’s, not my female companion’s. My lover’s name I cannot bring to my lips, I can only say how,

Gently he would stroke
my long and curly hair
and put his arms around me.

We cannot tell you our names. We can tell you were we are from though. That place you now call Madurai, the city of lady Meenakshi, used to house a Sangam, an academy, where hundreds, some say thousands, of poets lived and wrote my poetry. There were two other sangams, according to tradition, one south of the present-day Kanyakumari and the other in Kapadapuram. Both were submerged, there is a historical memory of a massive tsunami that destroyed thousands of poems. The two thousand that survived are from the third sangam.

Near Madurai, the river Vaiyai (also called Vaigai) once used to be a mighty river. So important was the river, that the people of Madurai, then under the Pandiyan kings, revered it, constructed songs in praise of its waters. The Paripatal, the last of the eight anthologies that make up part of the eighteen greater anthologies of the corpus of Sangam/Cankam literature, contains songs for the river. These are the only texts in the Sangam literature that are written according to melodic scale, called pan, so scholars believe that they were set to music and performed. In the Paripatal, Vaiyai is ‘known in the most immediate manner, through the senses’, the flow and ebb of the river is akin to the hero’s love for the heroine.

He goes away often, my lover. Chasing wealth, fame and other women. I pine, in the inky darkness of the night, I wait. Yet,

In the hillman’s mountain fields

where the millet harvest is over

the lush country beans

have started blooming.

Even in this cold winter

He hasn’t come home.


He comes home, my lover and we meet,

…in the woods by the


where the hoary sea

plays on the beach

and the birds are clamorous



I would never swim in the


with anyone other than



I told my lover this. To the mighty Vaiyai, our people

…feed the river

garlands, pastes,

musks and


making the waters


            They offer the

river liquor,

            which it refuses to



The river was where we bathed. He would lay his eyes on the other women who came to bathe there, the kind whose,

Garlands of leaves mix

with hair, rubbing paste on


erasing it away

            in the embrace:

jewels on breasts and


tangled, entwined.


The poems the poets wrote then, they were of the Marutam thinai, the countryside and plains that set the scene for my man’s infidelity. They constructed five thinais, each named after a flower, representing a geographical region, each indicative of a set of feelings in the poems as well.

My lover, he always brought me flowers, withered sometimes from the long journey and protested his innocence. My companions would tease, set up ruses. We would meet at the Vaiyai.

With a laugh, he goes

away, taking her


like a river rushing to

join the immense,

dark ocean.

Not drinking the fruit


nor wiping away the

blood-red water,

            he makes love to


Her friends say,

‘She is blossoming,

may she live long,

and prosper.’

The Vaiyai makes her


My eyes, laced with collyrium, would be red, because


palm liquor

            flowing water



I forgive him, for I am the virtuous, not the other woman. He is a man, after all, and

Mixing love and


bringing together

lover and beloved

to bathe and make


this is the nature of


full of flowers.



I cannot tell you the name of my lover. Tradition does not allow me to. The poets who wrote of our love stories, of the river Vaiyai, of the frolicking we indulged in, of our flowers, our longing in separation, the urgency, desires in our lovemaking, these poets of extraordinary genius, they only tell you who said what to whom.


I think of the sweet embraces

of my girl,

her tender, rounded arms

and her golden spotted breasts.


The poets will tell you that I was pining for my lover and saying this to myself. They would never speak in their individual voices. Their words were always through characters, as though it were a play. Their words were of me, the hero and my lover, the heroine. Their words were of my friend, her friend, her biological and foster mothers, my concubine and sometimes, those of my charioteer. This anonymity is why their words appeal to you now, communicating across time and space in this modern century. They do not seem like the words of my time, of two millennia ago when I lived and loved my women.

The subjects of love that these poets wrote on, about our love lives, these are divided into the complementary categories of akam and puram, both extraordinarily complex and defying any simple explanation. Akam is inside, heart, mind, sexual pleasure, breast, etc. Puram is the ‘other’ of akam: outside, exterior, bravery, side, back, gossip, wild tract, etc. From our times to when you are reading this now, hundreds of words have been described as either of these two concepts. It is complicated. Our lives were of simpler times though. We loved and laughed, revered the river, prayed to our gods, paid allegiance to our kings of the Pandiya dynasty.

It was a woman’s world that the poets wrote of. It is my lover’s feelings that the Vaiyai best carries in her swelling waters. They sometimes talk of that time when I had to go away, and was separated from my beautiful girl.

If one can make out

morning and day,

desolate evenings

and night when the world


and daybreak,

then this love is false.


To ride the palm-frond horse

and be mocked on the street

is a shame.

So is living

in separation.


She, my lover,

I met her in the foothills

rich with flowers —

a slim young girl

with broad shoulders.

The water of her gracefulness

has subdued the fire

of my manliness.



this beautiful young girl

with sparkling white teeth

and bangled wrists

has struck me down.



I do not know

if she knows it or not,

but my heart is still with her

and I lie here

heaving heavy sighs

like a sleeping elephant.


I have been with other women. There are concubines. Yet my lover became my son’s mother. I always return to her. For how could I ever forget, in this life, and in yours as you read this, my son’s mother,

Wearing an amulet

made of the forked


which have dull


of the soft-flowered vagai

and leaves of arugu,

and the sweet-smelling

buds of pavai,

that sprouted in the first

monsoon rain

that came like thunder,

whose petals of blue


neatly washed sapphire


bound together with a

white thread,

she looked resplendent

and lovable

in her wedding dress.



All the lines in italics are extracts from Sangam poetry, written between 300 BCE and 300 CE. I have taken these poems and several references from two books.

  1. Love Stands Alone: Selections from Tamil Sangam Poetry, edited by A R Venkatachalapathy
  2. The River Speaks: The Vaiyai Poems from the Paripatal, translated by V N Muthukumar and Elizabeth Rani Segran

​Deepa Bhasthi ​was recently introduced to someone as a hippie. In other descriptions, she has been a journalist​, translator​​ and worked in the development sector briefly. ​She is now a full time writer living and working in Bengaluru. ​Her works have appeared in several publications including Himal Southasian, Indian Quarterly, The New Indian Express, OPEN magazine, The Hindu Business Line's BLInk, The Hindu, Art India and elsewhere on the web. ​She is the editor of The Forager magazine, an online quarterly journal of food politics, available at www.theforagermagazine.com​ Through her column 'Filter Coffee', she will take you through the states that lie below the mighty Vindhyas; tell stories from that land, of those people. This column will carry features, interviews, commentary, travelogues and much more, everything infused with a healthy dose of South Indian flavour.

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