Sangam Lit

Sangam Lit

Puranaanooru 229 – A comet in the sky

September 21, 2023

In this episode, we perceive a reference to an astronomical phenemon, as depicted in Sangam Literary work, Puranaanooru 229, penned about the Chera King Yaanaikatchey Maantharancheral Irumporai by the poet Koodaloor Kizhaar. The verse is situated in the category of ‘Pothuviyal Thinai’ or ‘Common Themes’ and reveals the events following the demise of this king.

ஆடு இயல் அழல் குட்டத்து
ஆர் இருள் அரை இரவில்,
முடப் பனையத்து வேர் முதலாக்
கடைக் குளத்துக் கயம் காய,
பங்குனி உயர் அழுவத்து,
தலை நாள்மீன் நிலை திரிய,
நிலை நாள்மீன் அதன் எதிர் ஏர்தர,
தொல் நாள்மீன் துறை படிய,
பாசிச் செல்லாது, ஊசித் துன்னாது,
அளக்கர்த் திணை விளக்காகக்
கனை எரி பரப்ப, கால் எதிர்பு பொங்கி,
ஒரு மீன் வீழ்ந்தன்றால், விசும்பினானே;

அது கண்டு, யாமும் பிறரும் பல் வேறு இரவலர்,
‘பறை இசை அருவி நல் நாட்டுப் பொருநன்
நோய் இலனாயின் நன்றுமன் தில்’ என
அழிந்த நெஞ்சம் மடிஉளம் பரப்ப,
அஞ்சினம்; எழு நாள் வந்தன்று, இன்றே;
மைந்துடை யானை கை வைத்து உறங்கவும்,
திண் பிணி முரசம் கண் கிழிந்து உருளவும்,
காவல் வெண்குடை கால் பரிந்து உலறவும்,
கால் இயல் கலி மாக் கதி இல வைகவும்,
மேலோர் உலகம் எய்தினன்; ஆகலின்,
ஒண் தொடி மகளிர்க்கு உறு துணை ஆகி,
தன் துணை ஆயம் மறந்தனன்கொல்லோ
பகைவர்ப் பிணிக்கும் ஆற்றல், நசைவர்க்கு
அளந்து கொடை அறியா ஈகை,
மணி வரை அன்ன மாஅயோனே?

A verse containing significant elements of interest to stargazers! The poet’s words can be translated as follows:

“In the presence of the goat-shaped constellation and the flame-like constellation, in the pitch darkness of the midnight hour, as the first constellation of a curved palm tree appeared and the one shaped like a pond shone at the edges, during the first half of the ‘Panguni’ month, as the first day star descended, and the steady star rose in front of it, and the old star dipped into the shore, neither going east, nor going north, as a lamp to those who lived on earth, as a blazing missile, brimming against the wind, a comet fell from the sky.

Seeing that, along with other supplicants, I fervently wished that the ‘the king of the fine country, where cascades resound like drums, should live long without affliction’, even as our hearts were filled with anguish and fear. Seven days has passed since then. When we see the strong elephant slumbering upon its trunk, the well-tied sturdy drum rolling, uncared for, with its leather torn, the protective royal umbrella breaking its leg and falling down, those speedy horses standing still and forsaken, we know that he has attained the heavenly word; As he became the companion of maiden with glowing bangles, has he forgotten his royal women down here?; He who has the skill to vanquish enemies and to render charity boundlessly to those who loved him – the king in the dark hue of a mountain of sapphires!”

Time to delve into the nuances. The poet starts with a detailed description of how the stars in the sky lined up using the terms unique to his culture and his era. In contemporary times, a student of the skies living in India can understand exactly what a stargazer in Australia is talking about, because of the commonality in the description of constellations. However, in those times, each culture had their own way of describing the skies. So, this poet uses shapes familiar to his region such as a goat, flame, a palm tree and a pond to describe the star groups in the sky. Interpreters across the ages have tried to map it to their own understanding of star systems, which may or may not be right. So, I’d like to focus on the aspects that are clear, beyond doubt, like the mention of the month ‘Panguni’, which is a Tamil calendar month used even today, denoting the period between March 15 and April 15. Adding a lot of information about the position of different stars just then, the poet goes on to say that in the earlier portion of this month, on a pitch dark midnight hour, a comet blazed down the sky. 

The moment this comet appeared, the poet and many others with him seem to have frozen in fear and started praying that nothing should happen to the king of their land, denoted as a domain flowing with cascades, thundering like drums. Seven days went by, the poet continues, and now, he sees the elephants lying down listlessly, their heads on their trunks; war drums with the eye torn; the royal umbrella disintegrating and the leaping, trotting horses standing still, not knowing what to do. So, the poet concludes, as foreseen, the king is now dead and has moved on to the next world. He asks a question about whether the king has forgotten his royal maiden as he has now become the companion of heavenly maidens wearing glowing bangles. A male vision of heaven is evident from these lines! The poet concludes with a description of the king, calling him courageous in the presence of his enemies, who sought to conquer him, and compassionate in the presence of supplicants, who came with affection and trust to him, adding that the king is dark-skinned like a mountain of sapphires.

The interesting element in this verse is the dread felt by the poet and many others on seeing this comet and their fears later turning true. This is no isolated occurrence. In fact, this emotion, the fear on seeing a comet, has been recorded again and again in literature and history. For instance, as detailed in this internet article, the comet was seen as a prophecy of doom in ancient literature like the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Roman prophecies and in cultures as far apart from these, as Mongolia and China, as well. In fact, the dread has continued into modern times as well, and every time the Halley’s comet appears, doomsayers pronounce that the world is about to end.

Is it human affinity to pattern matching and weaving stories out of the random that has given rise to such a belief or is it a remnant of humans’ collective memory from prehistoric times involving a falling asteroid and catastrophic consequences thereafter? We can only wonder for the core principles of the human mind so near, remain far more mysterious than those distant and once-disturbing comets of the sky!