The Natrinai is a collection of 400 poems in Tamil that scholars date to the 1 – 3 centuries ACE. It is part of a larger collection called the Sangam literature. The poems are authored by more than a hundred poets, some women and some whose names have not survived. All the poems are organised on the basis of five landscapes that govern the content and metaphor of the verses. The landscapes are – Kurinji (Hills and mountains), Mullai (forests), Marudam (Pastoral fields), Neidhal (Seashore) and Paalai (desertification of the preceding landscapes).
Verses vary in length from 3-4 lines to those as long as 18 lines. All the poems are on love. A recurrent theme in at least 50 per cent of the verses is the reference to trees. Today, mankind has realised the key role trees play not only as a balm for sore eyes but also in our environment. We have done this with the aid of the most advanced technology. The poets of the Natrinai had no modern technology but had not only connected the role of trees to their well-being, but had observed even the minute variations of trees as the seasons change. Thirty-three trees are mentioned, many just once by a few like the Punnai- Calophyllum indophyllum (31),Venkai - Pterocarpus marsupium (22), Jackfruit (14), have several references. The thillai (Exocoeria agallocha), bamboo, cotton and banana, though not trees, are considered such. Many references indicate the prosperity of the town but others go deeper. Many references are indicative of the trees bursting into flower or shedding/growing leaves as an indication of the season,
For example, in verse 99, the poet Ilanthirayan, sets the verse in Palai or the desert thinai. The conversation is between the heroine and her friend. The heroine recounts her lover's promise to come before the monsoon. She mentions the flowering of a few trees as an indication of the promise going in vain. Her friend consoles her and reminds her (rather falsely) that the trees have made a mistake…
The road he has travelled has no water and is parched
The sun beats down like cloth spread out evenly.
Will my lover not return? you say …
The clouds have taken the sea's water and pour it back on the parched earth
The Pidavam, Konrai and Kodal have bloomed,
Trees have no brains and they have erred in judging the season
Fear not lady, the monsoon is yet to begin.
Your lover has not broken his promise
Trees are also revered as members of the family, in what is probably the most famous verse on trees in the Natrinai, The heroine asks her lover to meet her during the day. As they meet a little distance from the house and the lover makes advances, she asks him to be more formal near her “elder sister”. Seeing no one around, the lover asks who this sister is and the lady replies –
As a child playing with friends, a little girl pressed seeds
Into the white sand and forgot all about them.
One of them sprouted and the girl nourished it with the honey and milk meant for her.
As it became a tree and she married and gave birth to me.
My mother says, “This tree is my first born, your elder sister”.
Embrace me, but not near my sister…
Oh lord of the white seashore, where the sound of the white conch,
is louder than the minstrels' voices.
I can show you other trees that offer shade too…
Other metaphors vary, a fallen jackfruit with its flesh scattered is likened to the direction the relationship is taking. In another verse, the sadness of parting is compared to a jackfruit shrivelling and falling down. Not all references are directly related to love. Gossip mongers are chastised by a lover returning to his lover. He compares gossip mongers to those who convert nothing into vile words. He compares the transition to the tamarind fruit turning from green to red! A popular tree the Natrinai does not mention is the coconut. The Palm tree is mentioned as a metaphor for a tall hill.
The verses of the Natrinai show a great sensitivity for nature that our ancient poets had. Today, many of us know introduced trees but few of us can point out to the other traditional trees. Even tree planting projects sadly prefer introduced trees such as date palms rather than native species that are just as decorative and more suited to our climates. Hopefully sponsors and landscapists will someday bring these trees back to vogue.
The author is scheduled to release a book on the cultural history of Thanjavur later this year. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org