Freedom of Speech — A Lesson from the Ancient Tamil Tradition
Dr. S. Chandnibi
The species of Mankind has come across through many mile stones since the genesis in the universe towards betterment of life. Marvels originated from the womb of human brain, bringing to light many arts. All over the time mode of communication remains as a major parameter to fix the level of civilization is well attested by the field of information technology the legacy of our time. First it was speech or sound then writing invented. Pictography, logography, syllable and alphabets was the process of developments in the art of writing. Modern day artificial intelligence could also be put in this capsule of communication. Man has such heavy urge to communicate his thoughts, ideas and opinion to others to paint his picture in the fabric of the universe rather that leaves his identity for ever.
Every aspect of art right from Rock art of ‘food gatherer’ stage to modern art, drawing, painting, and literature including journalism everything can be termed under one umbrella ‘’communication” that’s the reason behind for the wise to include ‘freedom of Speech or expression’ under fundamental rights of Democracy.
The article 19(1) of the constitution of India states that, “all citizens shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression” The philosophy behind this Article lies in the Preamble of the constitution, where a solemn resolve is made to secure all its citizen, liberty of thought and expression. If freedom of expression and its utility by the public is accepted as a parameter to evaluate the status of civilization then there lies the glory of Sangam Age civilization.
Rather it’s a natural thrust for us to express our thoughts of all emotions to the fellow human. The compositions thus emanated helps us to appreciate one’s way of life in full at a particular time period of its composition. In the human history thus the stage of lettering has a special focus and ted to be the prime alarm of civilization.
In the Tamil civilization, the Tamil society had gained the level of writing prior to others in India (600 B.C on the basis of C14 testing, Keeladi). The pinnacle was touched in the Sangam Age when innumerable literature emerged. With the works at hand to-day one may visualize their pattern of life then. Surfacing as a treasure trove often we tend to land and learn more.
The life in Sangam Age is picturized by the creative writings of the time, rather we have known very less and much is waiting for us to ponder and include in our knowledge store. Then political life under monarchy was pervaded with battles where the ball of victory kept rolling sides constantly in the ground of war among the three major powers viz Cheras, Cholas and Pandiyas. Hence, the classical world of Tamil poetry also boomed with poems of all pursuits including the victory and the failure. The Tamil literature has a peculiar way of portraying about the king even who lost the battle and such poems are termed as ‘Parani ’ in latter days.
Once, there was a clash between the Chera and Chola kings. Though both were renowned for their valor, in the law of nature only one should win. The Chera lost the ground and Chola triumphed. In course of the fight that ventured at Venni (a Placename), an arrow struck the chest of the Chera and pierced through his back but leaving him alive. As a scar on back was contempated as a symbol of cowardness, the Chera king felt ashamed and concluded to close his life by committing self-immolation. In this system of practice, one will sit facing northern direction and starve, offer prayers to the almighty until death. Even close associates like friends, scholars and servants too accompany them mostly. The climax is not this but with a lady poet named Venni Kuyattiyar who came from the Chera territory and one among the 44 women composers known to us of the hour.
Sangam age rulers too had a bent of mind for poetry and had a great web of literary men cutting across political borders. The bards were paid much respect and gifted substantially with largeness by the leaders in general. It was a community that attached much reverence to creativity and so much space was provisioned to beat the drum of truth at any magnitude as gleaned from their verses.
The full-scale celebration was held in the court of the Chola king Karikāla after victory, to which the poets too had an invitation, where our hero Venni Kuyattiyār too was present. She utilized her space for ‘freedom of speech and expression’ in that stage to reveal the victorious Cola immersed in joy that his achievement was too small and short lived and to divulge the fact that the Chera ruler who was no more had gained immortal victory. She combined her wisdom and the space for freedom of expression to put boldly that the Chera King had surpassed Karikālan in fame, though last in the war.
Her poem goes as below…
“Descendant of the mighty ruler skilled
In the art of enslaving the wind while
Sailing ships in the water- raging sea!
Karikal Valavan of virile tuskers!
You went to the war-front; showed your strength
Crushing enemies; he that attained
The word of fame starving himself to death
Facing the north as he was ashamed of
The wound on the back at the battle of Venni
Is a better being than you are.”
(Purananuru, English translation, Central Institute of Classical Tamil, 2021, Chennai)
In simple terms, the poem speaks of a moral victory:
“O Scion of the mighty one who got the wind to help him
to steer the ship in the vast deep waters of the sea,
You won the battle at Venni displaying your might;
But is not he, who got world famous by taking to self-
Immolation, getting ashamed of the wound on his
If this immense level of guts and boldness of the lady poet is to be considered as a yardstick to measure the stage of civilization, then Sangam Age was in the height of civilization which at present day none can even imagine.
No wonder the life of that age deserves all appreciation for the freedom of speech and expression though no written constitution was available, though monarchy was the system. We all do wish to enjoy such life. Yes ‘where there is a will; there is a way’ and let’s try to retrieve the past to the present besides all appreciation to madam Venni Kuyattiyār.
About the Author:
Dr. S. Chandnibi, Professor of History, is a native of Tamil Nadu (Salem), educated from Madras University, teaches South Indian History in Aligarh Muslim University, Uttar Pradesh, one of the Central universities of India, interested in disseminating historical facts to public and writes to both English and Tamil Newspapers and magazines. A prolific speaker and writer on history, society, archaeology and Tamil language. Has authored eight books and her book on Devadasis from inscriptions (Tamil) has won Arumozi Award under the category of the Best Research Book of the year (2020). Widely recognized among national and international Historians Academicians and Researchers.(email@example.com)