It's not just now that the tiger arouses admiration. Early Sangam poetry also has frequent references to this magnificent animal.

As a child, I frequently asked my mother to get me a tiger for a pet. I soon learnt that her “ok, soon”, meant “never”. I settled for hoping that I could at least pet one and now that hope too has vanished. I pander to my respect and admiration for this majestic animal by watching wildlife shows on TV!

It is difficult not to respect the tiger; its grace, majesty and consummate elegance always leave a lasting impression! No wonder that it is the national animal of not just of India but of Bangladesh too.

Ancient depictions

The tiger was also the symbol of the ancient Chola dynasty, whose territories stretched to North India, Maldives and Malaysia at one time. Travelling to some of their temples with a kindred soul, I wondered the Chola craftsmen preferred to depict lions over tigers. That train of thought led me to check references to the tiger in ancient Tamil literature. The tiger finds frequent mention in these texts.

The Kuruntokai and Purananooru are both early Sangam anthologies of poems. Said to be of the pre-Christian or early Christian era, they comprise several short poems by various poets. The Kuruntokai deals with matters of the heart, love mostly, and the Purananooru with the lives of kings and matters that were their preoccupation. The Kuruntokai verses are set in any of the five landscapes and the four poems that talk of tigers are set in the mountainous landscape: Kurinji or Palai, a landscape that has been desertified.

In Madurai Perunkollan's verse, the heroine is asked by her mother to go and tend to the fields and prevent the parrots with curved beaks from stealing the grain. She realises that, if she is in the fields, her lover cannot meet her. She requests her companion to pass this message to her lover who then does not need to cross a dangerous and lonely path frequented by “small headed, strong tigers”, elephants and green-eyed red dogs (the endangered Indian Wild Dog or Dhole).

Kapilar, among the best poets of his age, draws on rich imagery and emotions in his verse. The heroine and her companion are watching the world go by and suddenly hear the sound of young cowherds shouting “tiger! tiger!”. The heroine begins to shed tears and explains this to her friend in verse: My eyes, they cry by themselves!/As these young cowherds mistake the venkai flowers to a tiger./One day, it happened to us girls and a young handsome man came to rescue us/Thinking that the tiger we cried out was a real one and not just flowers/That handsome man was from the mountains, tall as the heavens/I lost myself to him, he has left me yearning/My eyes have not forgotten…

Comparison to flowers

The comparison of the tiger's coat to the venkai (Pterocarpus bilobus) flowers is a favourite one! In two other poems, the behaviour of the tiger is pointed out to teach the heroine a lesson of living life. Poet Madurai Mallanar sings of an idyllic scene of the sun setting between the mountains shedding slanting rays on elephants making merry in the soon-to-be-dried-up ponds. The heroine is not happy and grieves her separation. Her companion assures her that her lover will return, crossing the long hills and the treacherous dessert as surely as the fact that tigers (that are “ferocious and striped”) never attack when there is a group of strong elephants.

From the Purananooru is a poem by Chola Nallur Tiran. The poet advises us to select the friendship of those who have the quality of tigers. It is not the ferociousness this time but purpose and persistence. The poet says: Rats eat the grain all the time and are forever greedy,/People like that make unsuitable friends/The tiger hunts once, and if the prey falls on the left will not eat or hunt again/It will try again the next day/People with such scruples and principles make better friends!

With such respect and sensitivity shown to this magnificent animal, it behoves us to do our bit to protect the tiger. Else, there may come a day when literary evidence is all we have to show that such a magnificent animal once inhabited the planet.

With inputs from Parrvathy G.

The author's book on the cultural history of Thanjavur will be released later this year. E-mail: pradeepandanusha@gmail.com