By M. Amirthalingam
Tamil literature of the Sangam period (between 2300 C.E. and 700 C.E.) includes the Tolkaappiam and Padinenkilkannakku (the eight Anthologies, ten long songs, the minor eighteen anthology series and the five great epics). During the period the poets were closely associated with nature and wildlife and described in their poems what they actually observed. The habits and habitats of wildlife during the Sangam period can be understood through this literature.
Tolkaappiam, recognising that human activities cannot take place in a vacuum and are constantly influenced by environmental factors, human experiences in general and subjective topics in particular, assigned specific habitats. Accordingly, land was classified into five divisions or thinai. These were: kurinji (mountainous regions), mullai (forests), maruthan (agricultural lands), neithal (coastal regions), and palai (wastelands).
The references to the descriptions of animals in Sangam literature given below will show that they are a mixture of observed facts, imagination, and poetic fancy, and not a serious study in natural history.
An Agam (271) describes the feeding behaviour of the Little brown dove. The poet states that the brown dove mainly eats grain, which it may swallow with some fine sand particles.
Birds like the Collared scops owl, Indian barn owl and Spotted owlet sleep during the day in their nest and feed during the night. These nocturnal birds build their nests in natural holes or niches in the ruins of buildings and in hollows of old trees. These characteristics accompanied by their description are explicitly illustrated in Agam 122 and Puram 364.
The Collared scops owl almost looks like the Indian barn owl, somewhat brownish in colour with a crest on its head. The poem describes how it sleeps during the day and how it comes out in the night from the hollows of old trees to feed.
Verses of Natrinai (356), Kurunthogai (384) and Purananooru (67) refer to the description and migration of the wild duck. The verses describe the Spot bill duck as one which has short, reddish legs and webbed feet. In one of the verses, the poet says “anna chaval after feeding on the minute prey over the water spread at Kanyakumari, if you migrate to the Himalayas…”
The White stork, a migratory bird, flies to India from Europe and Siberia during the cooler seasons and it returns home by summer. The ancient Tamil poets called the bird a guest bird (vamba naarai). The poem written by Satthimuthar clearly reflects this behaviour of the migratory bird. There are other references found in verse 236 of Kurunthogai and verses 100 and 190 of Agananooru about vamba narai (migratory bird) where the punnai (Indian laurel) tree is mentioned in all the three verses.
Few passages can rival the description of the North Wind and its effects, and the interplay of human emotions and sentiments, as found in Netunalvaatai. It refers to the impact of vadai katru (chill northern wind) which affects animals in various ways: prevents cattle from grazing and cows from suckling their calves, makes monkeys shiver in the cold and birds fall from trees.
From verses 225 of Purananooru and 336 of Natrinai we gather that the Baya weaver bird builds its nests shaped like a conical bottle in the leaves of the palmyra palms and branches of the bamboo plant. Depending on the season, the bird constructs the entrance for the nest. Birds like crane, peacock, parrot, rooster and dove also find a place in the verses of Kurunthogai. The parrot is said to eat the neem fruit in the desert region, a habit common among crows. (Courtesy: Eco News – the journal of CPREEC.)
Madras Musings, Vol. XIX No. 7, july 16-31, 2009