Lord Skanda-Murugan

Some Observations on Kurinci Poetry

by Alexander M. Dubiansky

from Silver Jubilee Special Lectures
edited by R. Vijayalakshmy
(Madras: International Institute of Tamil Studies, 1996) pp. 278-283

Valli Amma
Valli Amma as depicted at Kataragama

As it is well known the situational element of the Kurinci-t-tilnai is premarital union of lovers (punartal). The hero, a young hunter, falls in love with one of the girls from a tribe of hunters (kuravar), who are scaring away parrots from millet-fields. The details of their romance are described in many books and papers, so I will not go into them here. Suffice it to say that under the guidance of the girl's friend the romance moves to its desirable end, that is, to the marriage (which is by the way practically not shown in the akam poetry). What I am concerned here with is the natural environment of the poetical situation and its symbolical meaning. I am going to show that this environment and its details can express the main idea of the situation in a laconic and at the same time very picturesque way.

The natural background for the meeting of the lovers is a mountain landscape: high peaks, dangerous clefts and caves, rivulets and small lakes, mountain slopes covered with forests where trees and plants blossom and wild animals (tigers, elephants, bears, monkeys, peacocks and parrots) abide.

Poets describe the details of the landscape colourfully and viividly, though very laconically -- with one or two strokes of brush, so to say. For example:

Listen my friend and prosper!
Our man is from mountains, where
A waterfall slithers down the slopes
Like a snake and drops quickly
To make rocks bang together.
And it hits the flowered and swaying limbs
Of the long trunked verikai tree
Growing among the stones,
To make this limbs barren.
The love we mingled with him
Is good
As long as he never goes away.

(Kuruntokai 134 trans. M. Shanmugampillai)

Pen-portraits of a mountain forest made by Tamil poets are absolutely realistic and even correspond to botanical descriptions of plants. But at the same time they have inner symbolical meaning which can be understood if we take into consideration the meaning of the situational element of the theme.

In ancient Tamil culture sexual relations between men and women were considered sacred and looked upon as a kind of a divine marriage. Thus, it is quite natural that the situational elements of the kurinci has its prototype in the mythology of Murugan. Murugan, who is well known as the Tamil god of war and love, is connected with solar energy and is the chief of the region of kurinci. His spouse Valli is a personification of an edible plant valli. (Convolvus batatas), which grows in mountain forests. The coition of Murugan and Va!!i symbolizes on the mythologal level the union of two basic principles of nature (male and female) which is the source of its fertility and richness.

It can be demonstrated that the two lovers in Kurinci poetry are replicas of the mythological figures, just mentioned and their relations are also connected with fertility and procreation.

It must be noted, however, that in the poetry the actual union of lovers is practically not described. It exists only in thoughts, dreams and recollections of the heroes. Nevertheless, the idea of the union is obviously present and finds a beautiful and picturesque embodiment in the natural environment of the situation.

Murugan himself turned into a venkai tree
Murugan himself in an episode from the Kantapuranam turned into a venkai tree. Vall's father Nambi first orders the strange venkai cut down, but when blood-red sap appears (to Valli's distress) he rescends the order. Temple painting from Siddhandi Murugan Kovil, Sri Lanka.

One of the most characteristic details of mountain forests is venkai (Pterocarpus bilobus), a big tree with golden-red fragrant flowers and a black trunk. Due to the colour of the flowers and its reddish sap, which it produces when the bark is cut, it has permanent association with Murugan. Tamil kings and warriors, who impersonated the god on battlefields, wore garlands made of venkai flowers and in kurinci poetry the hero often appears with them. Murugan himself in an episode from the Kantapuranam turned into a venkai tree.

So, when the heroine exclaims; 'Is there anything sweeter than the time when we, clad in skirts made of green leaves, were rocking in a swing tied to the black trunk of a venkai-tree?' (Narrinai 368: 1-4) her erotic intentions, though expressed in an indirect way, are absolutely clear.

Another forest tree that has symbolical association with Murugan and accordingly with the girl's lover is sandal. Its wood is reddish in colour, fragrant and very strong. When the girl or her friend mentions sandal, she always hints at the hero. Sandal is often meaningfully used in comparisons. For instance, 'his love is like beehives among limbs of a high sandal tree, where sweet honey is mixed with cool pollen of lotuses, which was elevated by the winds,' (Narrnai I, 3-4). The erotic overtones of this fragment are also indisputable.

Not only flora but also fauna and some other details of the landscape can serve as an expression of the ideas connected with the hero or, more generally speaking, with the male principle of nature.

The female principle is expressed in the same manner. First of all, let us mention valli -- already mentioned, a liana-Iike plant with edible tubers, which can be viewed on as a symbol of fertility and female sexual energy. In one of the variants of the Murugan myth, there is an episode when Valli climbs onto a venkai-tree, plucks some leaves, makes a skirt for herself and then embraces the trunk pressing it with her breasts (David Shulman, Tamil Temple Myths. Princeton, 1980, pp. 280-281). It is interesting to note that there is a clear reminincence of this episode in one of the poems: ‘a girl from a tribe of hunters wants to pluck new golden flowers from high limbs of venkai, which grows on the slopes of mountains where Valli entwines around the tree' (Akananuru 52, 1-3).

The next plant we shall touch on is the mango tree. In the North Indian poetical canon, mango is associated with Kama, the god of love and obviously with the male principle. In Tamil culture, associations with the female principle are stressed. One of the most typical details of a woman's verbal portrait is the colour of her body, which is like the colour of fresh sprouts of mango (mantalir), that is dark-blue. Generally a woman possesses the mango-beauty (māmaikkavin) as it is put in th poems. In some versions of the story of Kannaki, the heroine of the Cilappatikaram, she is born from a mango -tree. The fact that in some Munda tribes there is a ritual of marriage of a young boy with a mango tree seems to be relevant in this connection (A. Archer W.G. The Hilt of Flutes, Pitttsburg, 1974).

So, again a simple pen-picture such as, for instance, the stream of water with flowers of venkai which have fallen into, it is washing the roots of mango trees (Paripatal VII, 14-15) is full of inner, obviously erotic meaning and hints at the union of lovers.

There is one more important idea which is also expressed through some details of the landscape of mountain forests -- the idea of ripeness or fullness. Millet is ripening in the forest fields; honey in the beehives on the trees is ripe; flowers of venkai and mango are fully open; mountain streams and lakes are full of water. All these details symbolically express the idea of ripeness of the girl, her readiness for marriage. Sometimes, such details speak of the state of readiness of both partners. When the girl's friend says that the venkai has opened its bright flowers and the moon has reached fullness (Akananuru 2, 16-17) she means that the time of marriage has come.

Now, it is an apt moment to say a few words about kurinci, a flower which gave its name to the region of mountain forests and to the poetical theme tinai. Kurinci (Strobilanthes) is a typical plant of the region. It produces honey and has dark blue petals. Strange enough, it is mentioned in the akam poetry very rarely, only five times (Narrinai 116.11; 268; 3:30.1.1; Akanaruru 308.16; Kurumogai 3.3.), though on the surface of things it seems to be a good symbol for a woman because the colour of its flowers is usually blue(nilam), and this colour is normally associated with the female principle. But the significance of kurinci lies much deeper. The matter is: kurinci blossoms once in twelve years, which is exactly the age of sexual maturity of a girl in traditional Tamil culture (cf. the age of Kannaki, the age of Valli). This coincidence makes kurinci an ideal expression of the above-mentioned cardinal idea of the poetical situation and the most apt symbol of a girl coming of age.

From the above said, the role of natural environment in the poetry seems to be clear. Absolutely realistic penportraits of mountain forests form a sympathetic background for the situational element of the poetical theme and are able to express the ideas important to it: readiness of the parters for union (the girl's readiness in the first place), the actual premarital union and the idea of fertility and procreation connected with it.

This does not mean that the portraits of a forest have no aesthetic meaning for poets and their audience or that all the details of the landscape are necessarily Ioaded with a symbolic meaning, but the general symbolical role of the landscape in the poetry is undeniable. It is possible to produce a certain table which will show several levels of symbolical expression of the union of two principles of nature male and female in ancient Tamil love poetry and the correspondence of different elements of the poetical theme of kurinci:

Level Male principle Female principle
Anthropomorphic hero heroine
Mythological Murugan Valli
Vegetative venkai, sandal, kurinci valli, mango, kuvalai, millet
Zoological tiger, bee peacock, parrot
Landcape mountains streams mountain lakes
Astronomical sun moon
Colour red dark blue (mā, nilam)

The principle of stringing together the three elements of the poetical theme, which we can define as mytho-poetical, can be found in poetry belonging to all the themes. If we take, for example, the mullai tinai with its hill forests as a background for the situation of a woman patiently waiting for her husband, we see that its dominant idea (female chastity) is also expressed symbolically by numerous details of the landscape. Only in this case different plants, flowers or animals move to the avant scene, the most important among them being mullai-jasmine (Jasminium trichotumum) which is a permanent symbol of the idea of chastity in Tamil culture.

In conclusion, I would like to point out the fact that the concept of Kurinci -- mountains as the domain of Murugan and the source of fertility and plenty -- became a common motif in Tamil literature and culture. It has even entered the field of modern politics. The schematical picture of two black mountain peaks with the red sun between them is the well known symbol of the Tamil national movement. It is not a mere choice therefore that Annaturai, the famous leader of Tamil national movement and the founder of the party 'Dravida Munnerrak Kalakam' made once the remark: "Murugan is the god of DMK" (Fred Clothey. The Many Faces of Murugan).

Dr. Alexander Dubianski, Ph.D. is Associate Professor in the Department of Indian Philology at the Institute of Asian & African Studies at Moscow State University. He has published about 70 titles in Russian and English on Indian culture, religion and literature. He may be contacted at:

Dr. Alexander Dubianski
Department of Indian Philology
Institute of Asian and African Studies
11, Mokhovaya Street
Moscow State University
Moscow, Russia
E-mail: dubian@iaas.msu.ru

See also "Skanda-Murukan: Time and Nature associations" by A. Dubianski

Sri Lanka's legend of Valli Amma
Research articles from the First International Conference on Skanda-Murukan