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Lively Literature: Elephant and Lunar Elegance!

When battles happen on full moon nights, a special event can be observed with Chera Emperor’s (King of part of South India) special giant soldiers. Here is a poem from Sangam (Ancient Tamil) Literature that depicts the corollary of such event.

Original Text from Muththollaayiram (Songs about Chera Emperor, Song 18)

வீறுசால் மன்னர் விரிதாம வெண்குடையைப்
பாற எறிந்த பசியத்தால் – தேறாது
செங்கண்மாக் கோதை சினவெங் களியானை
திங்கள்மேல் நீட்டுந்தன் கை.

Transliteration of Muththollaayiram (Songs about Chera Emperor, Song 18)

veeRusaal mannar virithaama venkudaiyaip
paaRa eRindha pasiyaththaal – theRaadhu
sengaNmaak kodhai sinaven kaLiyaanai,
thingaLmel neettunthan kai.

Note: Please give additional stress to capitalized alphabets, as in Tamil, they sound with more power as compared to lower case of same alphabets.

Meaning of Muththollaayiram (Songs about Chera Emperor, Song 18)

Kings tend to have chariots with huge white umbrellas with their national symbols to represent their nation. The aggressive war elephants belonging to Chera’s empire are used in battles and they get hold of white umbrellas of opposing kings and break them with their trunk, while also trampling them using their feet. Since they are used to trampling circular white umbrellas, they tend to reach out to full moon furiously with their trunks, assuming that it is also another white umbrella of another king.

Points to Ponder:

  • Elephants may move their trunks towards the sky accidentally or to reach out to tallest parts of the tree to find some nourishment, which could happen in any night. They tend to forage with equal voracity during both days and nights. 
  • Once in every 29.5 nights, everybody tends to observe full moon day. Therefore, both events are not related to each other.
  • However, to add to the poetic aesthetics, the poet had related to these two events and mentioned that it has to do something with Chera Emperor’s battling prowess.
  • Moreover, Hunger for power would also hit the pachyderms and habit of trampling the whole day would mean that they would continue even in nights.
  • Reader may ask if elephants would not know that it is full moon and not white umbrella.
  • One has to understand that the elephants are inebriated with slight amount of alcoholic ingredients that ferment slowly, so that they will be in control of their mahouts, but after the war day, would feel completely drunk and have hangovers. So, such phenomenon is possible.
  • Moreover, the foods tend to ferment within their stomachs and after a tiring day of war, anyone would feel too drowsy and poor pachyderms are no exception. Kaliyaanai (the last word in third line) confirms that the elephants are fed with fermentable foods that leave them in an intoxicated or confused state.
  • It is common to note that trunks are held high, so that they would get a better view with their highly developed sense of smell and check for any further attacks. Note that wars are held only after sunrise and before sunset. Once sun is out of sky, nobody goes for war. However, how will someone translate this law to the poor pachyderms that darkness means safety and no battle?

While one would enjoy the poetic beauty of this stanza, it equally emphasizes on how effective battles are won by Chera King, who is the hero of one of the three sections in Muththollaayiram (Chozha and Pandiya emperors being heroes of other sections).

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