The Porunai in Sangam Literature: A river of wealth, power and antiquity

The latest discoveries about human settlements along the Porunai or Thamirabarani river in Tamil Nadu are exciting; the river and its valley have also figured extensively in the lives of the ancient Tamils

By V Sundararaju
Published: Tuesday 21 September 2021
The Porunai river in Tamil Nadu. Photo: Rahuljeswin via Wikimedia Commons
The Porunai river in Tamil Nadu. Photo: Rahuljeswin via Wikimedia Commons The Porunai river in Tamil Nadu. Photo: Rahuljeswin via Wikimedia Commons

Scientists from the Beta Analytic Testing Laboratory in Miami, United States, recently carbon dated and analysed rice and soil found in a burial urn at Sivakalai archaeological excavation centre in Thoothukudi district of Tamil Nadu.

The results showed that the rice and soil dated back to 1155 Before Common Era. In other words, they were nearly 3,200 years old, almost as old as the Indus Valley Civilisation, in the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent.

This is not the first time the Porunai or Thamirabarani river, in the basin of which Sivakalai is located, has been found to have supported an ancient settlement.

In 1876, the German ethnologist, naturalist and explorer Feodor Jagor travelled to Adichanallur, also in Thoothukudi district and collected some rare artefacts unearthed here. The collections were exhibited in Berlin museums.

Louis Lapicque from Paris also conducted studies in Adichanallur during 1903-04 and collected more information.

Subsequently, British archaeologist Alexander Rea unearthed many prehistoric artefacts from 1903-1904 and the same were exhibited at the Chennai Museum.

A book titled Catalogue of the prehistoric antiquities from Adichanallur and Perumbair containing the list of antiquities exhibited was released in 1915.

Sivakalai and Adichanallur were just seven kilometres apart along the Porunai. “There have been several millennia of civilisation along the Porunai’s banks,” Maheswaran, a retired anthropologist, said.

In Sangam literature

The Porunai or Thamirabarani river is mentioned several times in Sangam-era literature composed from the first to fourth centuries Common Era. The Sangam corpus is considered to be a ‘treasure trove’ containing crucial records of the subcontinent’s ancient history.

The only major perennial river in Tamil Nadu, Thamirabarani has been mentioned as Porunai, Than Porunai, Porunal and Poruntham in Tamil literature right from the Sangam era.

Than Porunai finds a place in Tholkappiam, an ancient treatise on Tamil grammar. Than Porunai is also mentioned in the Sangam work Puranaanooru.

Researchers say ‘Than Porunai’ evolved into ‘Tamira Porunai’, before becoming ‘Thamirabarani’.

Purananooru, one of the eight books in the secular anthology of Tamil Sangam literature describes the present day ‘Thamirabarani’ as ‘Than Porunai’ (தண்பொருநை) as given below:

Tamil Script

“அரிமயிர்த் திரள் முன்கை

வால் இழை மடமங்கையர்

வரிமணற் புனை பாவைக்குக்

குலவுச்சினைப் பூக்கொய்து

தண்பொருநைப் புனல்பாயும் ...” (Puranaanooru-11)

Roman Script

“Arimayirth thiral munkai

Vaal izhai mada mangaiyar

Varimanar punai paavaikkuk

Kulavuch chinaip pookkoidhu

Than Porunaip punal paayum”

English translation

“Young women with soft hair on their hands and ornaments play by building small sand houses in the sand bed and worship the Goddess they created in the sand with flowers. Then they swim and play in the cool water of the river Porunai.”

(As the water was cool, it is referred to as ‘Than Porunai’-தண்பொருநை )

Port of Korkai

The Thamirabarani river flows 128 kilometres, from the Western Ghats to the Gulf of Mannar. One folk etymology says that the river was also called ‘Tamraparani’ in the classical period.

This was later changed to ‘Taprobana’, the name given to the island of Sri Lanka, just across the Gulf, by the ancient Greeks. 

The spot where the river meets the Gulf was the location of Korkai, an important port of the ancient Tamil Pandyan Kingdom. Korkai port was famous for the export of pearls. There are ample allusions to this in Tamil Sangam literature.

Tamil Script

“மறப்போர்ப் பாண்டியர் அறத்திற்காக்கும்

கொற்கையம் பெருந்துறை முத்து” (Aganaanooru-27)

Roman Script

“Marapporp pandiyar araththirkaakkum

Korkaiyam perunthurai muththu”

English translation

“The Pandyas, who were known for warfare, protected Korkai with charity. Korkai was famous for pearls.”

Tamil Script

“இவர் திரை தந்த ஈர்ங்கதிர் முத்தம்

கவர்நடைப் புரவிக்கால் வடுத்தபுக்கும்

நற்றேர் வழுதி கொற்கை முன்றுறை”(Aganaanooru-130)

Roman Script

“Ivar thirai thantha eerngadhir muththam

Kavar nadaip puravikkaal vaduththapukkum

Natrer vazhudhi korkai mundrurai”

English translation

“The pearls brought by the waves of the sea made the horse limp as they injured its legs. Korkai was under the control of the Pandya king, who owned a quality chariot”. 

Tamil Script

“புகழ் மலி சிறப்பிற் கொற்கை முன்றுறை

அவிர் கதிர் முத்தமொடு வலம்புரி சொரிந்து” (Aganaanooru-201)

Roman Script

“Pugazh mali sirappir korkai mundrurai

Avirkadhir muththamodu valampuri sorinthu”

English translation

“The popular Korkai owned by the Pandya King, where pearls and conch shells were collected in plenty.”

The latest research was conducted on rice and soil found in an urn. Earthen pots were made by the people of Tamil Nadu during the Sangam period. Pot making was known to the inhabitants of the area that is today Tamil Nadu since at least the New Stone Age period, which is said to be around 7000 BC. 

The art of making mud pots is believed to be about 9000 years old. There are quite a good number of evidences in Puranaanooru, Aganaanooru and Malai Padu Kadaam of Sangam literature.

Tamil Script

“இருள் திணிந்தன்ன குரூ உத்திரள் பரூ உப்புகை

அகலிடு விசும்பின் ஊன்றுஞ் சூளை” (புறநானூறு-228)

Roman Script

“Irul thininthanna kuroo uththiral paroo uppugai

Agalidu visumbin oondrunj soolai”

English translation

“The smoke released while burning the earthen pots in the kiln settled down in the sky as dark clouds.”

The ancient Tamils at Korkai and other ports of the ancient Tamil country had good trade relations with the Romans. The Romans are known as ‘Yavanar’ in Tamil. The term ‘Yavana’ was originally used for the Greeks and meant ‘Ionian’. Quite a good number of evidences are found regarding this in the Puranaanooru and Aganaanooru.

Tamil Script

“யவனர் தன்கலந்தந்த தண்கமழ் தேறல்" (புறநானூறு-56)

Roman Script

“Yavanar thankalanthantha thankamazh theral”

English translation

“The flavoured liquor brought in good looking bottles by Yavanar (Romans).”

Tamil Script

“யவனர் தந்த வினைமாண் நன்கலம்

பொன்னொடு வந்து கறி யொடு பெயரும்" (அகநானூறு-149)

Roman Script

“Yavanar thantha vinaimaan nankalam

Ponnodu vanthu kariyodu peyarum”

English translation

“The ships of Yavanar brought gold and returned with pepper”.

Researchers say Porunai is not only a non-Sanskritised word, but also the right word for Thamirabarani in Tamil.

Sudhakar, a professor at Manonmaniam Sundaranar University in Tirunelveli said paddy cultivation has continued in the Porunai valley for nearly three millennia.

The new findings about Sivakalai are exciting. In addition there is the existing knowledge about Adichannallur and Korkai.

The Archaeological Survey of India and the Tamil Nadu Archaeological Department should now redouble their efforts and conduct more research in the Porunai valley so that many lost chapters of Tamil Nadu’s glorious history can be revealed.

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth 

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