How the jackfruit is linked to ancient Tamil literature

I am not certain how much of this is manufactured nostalgia, but when I think of the “spectacularly ugly, smelly pest-plant” that is now a new “vegan sensation” taking the world by storm, there is a series of images from the late ’80s that comes to mind.

A prickly companion

The sun shines down the open atrium in my mother’s home deep inside old Chola country. Around the courtyard are a handful of off-white linen sacks. My mother’s aunt ties each of them tightly before handing it to my mother who labels them and packs them inside duffel bags that we will take back home. At this juncture, my mother’s uncle walks in carrying a giant jackfruit which he plonks down on the floor with a flourish. He looks up at my mother, smiling. Instantly, my father’s face falls. I don’t blame him; I know exactly what he is thinking.

My mother’s cousins will load the fruit onto one of the Tiruvalluvar buses headed south but we have two changes to make that night – one at Madurai and the other at Nagercoil, the first of which also involves a bus station change. When we finally reach our destination in Chera country, there is the problem of lugging it home. Auto rickshaws aren’t always available that early in the day so there was a good chance we’ll have to walk home. Despite knowing all this, my father gives in: some fruits are worth the trouble.

I don’t sleep well on any of the three buses. Not when my feet are poked every few minutes by the offending fruit, contributing amply to whatever nightmare I happen to be having. But in this matter, I never had any choice. Every single year of my childhood, the fruit was, without exception, shoved under my seat.

Back home, in a dark and dingy kitchen, the thing lies atop old newspapers, spread out in all its glory: knifed with precision into four parts; my parents, their hands well-oiled, extracting each piece of flesh carefully before deseeding it. My job is simple. I count ten pieces each to be put into steel dabbas that will soon be delivered to half a dozen households all over town. Oh yes, we are back and look what we brought. Unsaid: isn’t it so much better than the variety you get here?

The jackfruit sapling was the first to be planted in the little land we had left around the newly built house. Now, there are coconut palms (this is Kerala, after all) and mango and plantain too but they came later. For my mother, the jackfruit always came first.

Ancient ties

Mukkani – the three fruits – refers to mango, jackfruit and banana, the holy trinity of the Tamil fruit world since the days of old. But the fruits of ancient Tamil country were more than just fruits; they were intrinsically tied to its culture and literature for thousands of years. Nowhere is this influence more evident than in the poetry of the Sangam era.

The epics of the Sangam period – Silappadhikaram in particular – continue to retain a strong presence in the Tamil imagination to this day, thanks in part to the role they played in the political narratives of the past century. Yet somehow, the vastly more interesting poetic anthologies of the same period don’t quite get the same attention.

I discovered these in a “world poetry” session a continent away in Chicago where a participant recited what I thought then was a very modern poem set in a vividly realised and fleetingly familiar landscape. And since that day in the early 2000s, I find Sangam poetry everywhere, even on the London Underground.

The jackfruit, in this context, appears both in akam (“the interior”) and puram (“the exterior”) Sangam poems and is usually associated with a specific region and poetic landscape – that of kuṟiñci, a mountain flowerThe kuṟiñci setting implies and evokes mountains, hill-tribes, morning dew, cool nights, peacock, monkey, millet fields, jackfruit, bamboo and the theme associated with this landscape is lovers’ union.

Here then, is a peek into this ancient world:

What She Said

What will happen now?

The ripe, sweet, aromatic mangoes of summer
from the stout trees
in the yards
and the glowing inner segments
of green-skinned jackfruit,
mixed with honey,
age in long bottles,
sections of the swaying bamboo,
and brew into a liquor
as powerful, as quick,
as a viper.

The hillsmen
offer it first to the mountain,
sky peak and living god;
soon get drunk on it,
served by their women in leaf skirts,
and forget to guard
the miller fields on the slopes
which elephants attack and ravage.

Then they feel outraged,
gather in councils,
young men and old men
gripping their bows,
and search the hills
for the rogue animals,

in the country
of my man.

Heart, so trustful
of his sweet and empty speeches,
what will happen to you
now?

— Maturai Ilampālāciriyaṉ Cēntaṉ Kūttaṉār, Akanāṉūṟu 348, translated by AK Ramanujan

~~~

What She Said

Once: if an owl hooted on the hill,
if a male ape leaped and loped
out there on the jackfruit bough in our yard
my poor heart would melt for fear. But now
in the difficult dark of night
nothing can stay its wandering
on the long sloping mountain-ways
of his coming.

— Kapilar, Kuṟuntokai 153. translated by AK Ramanujan

~~~

Her friend says:

O’Lord from the hills, where bamboo stalks
fence trees that have jackfruits growing in roots,
find an auspicious time to marry her soon;
who else knows her plight?
Like a small twig in which a huge fruit hangs,
her life is tenuous, but her love, immense!

— Kapilar, Kuṟuntokai 18, translated by Chenthil Nathan

~~~

A jackfruit falls

Look at your lover
planning to fly
to his native land
leaving you
to melt away in tears.
He is from the mountains
where sometimes
a jackfruit falls
into a narrow rift in the rock
destroying the tender honeycomb on a tree.

(what the friend told the girl, her lover overhearing)

— Kapilar, Aikurunuru 214, from ‘Love Stands Alone: Selections from Tamil Sangam Poetry’, ML Thangappa

To contrast with the above interior poems, here are a couple of Purampoems about chieftains and their hills and how to make them give you “both hill and country”:

Pāri: His Hill

Pāri’s Paṟampu hill
is quite a place.

Even if all three of you kings
should surround it
with your great drums of war
remember
it has four things
not grown under the plows
of plowmen:

one, wild rice
grows in the tiny-leaved bamboos
two, ripening jackfruit,
crammed with segment
of sweet flesh;
three, down below
grow sweet potatoes
under fat creepers;
four,
beehives break
as their colors ripen
to a purple,
and the rich tall hill
drips with honey.

The hill is wide as the sky,
the pools flash like stars.
Even if you have
elephants
tied to every tree there,
and chariots
standing in every field
you will never take the hill.
He will not give in
to the sword.

But I know a way
to take it:
pick carefully
your lute-strings, string little lutes,
and with your dancing women
with dense fragrant hair
behind you,

go singing and dancing 
to Pāri,

and he’ll give you
both hill and country.

— Kapilar: on Pāri, Puṟanāṉūṟu 109, translated by AK Ramanujan

~~~

Ay: His Hill

When the ape
on the bough
of the jackfruit tree
in the town’s commons

mistakes for fruit
the eye
on the thonged drumheads
hung up there by mendicant bards,
he taps on it,
and the sound rouses
the male swans below
to answering song
in Potiyil, that hill where the clouds crawl,
hill of Ay,
with war anklets on his feet,

hill inaccesible
to great kings,

yet open to the approaches
of dancers.

— Muṭomōciyār: on Ay, Puṟanāṉūṟu 128, translated by AK Ramanujan

The queen of desserts

My mother is visiting. She came laden with gifts as mothers do; one of the first things she did once we got home from the airport was to open her rather large flight handbag and take out a small bottle of…

“Pickle?”

I am partial to pickle made from mangoes picked from a specific tree in my aunt’s backyard back in Chola country.

“No,” she shook her head. “That tree is gone. Cyclone Gaja made sure that none of the mango trees are left standing. This is from our backyard at home. I couldn’t bring fresh fruit, so I made some pradhaman.

Chakka pradhaman: jackfruit pudding, the queen of Kerala desserts.

“How do you make this?”

My mother is a bit hard of hearing. She asked again so that she could be absolutely certain of what she thought she heard. As far as she was concerned, I was only interested in the fruit in the abstract and had never expressed an interest in making anything of, or with, the real thing.

You want to know how to make chakka pradhaman?”

“Yes.”

Her face lit up. And so, she sat down and told me.

Ingredients:

Ripe jackfruit slices, deseeded: 40

Ghee: 100 grams. More is usually better.

Jaggery: Between half and one kg. This depends on the sweetness of the fruit and blood sugar levels.

Method:

  1. Puree the fruit by blending the slices in a mixer/blender. Or if you would like to do this traditionally, you could spend an hour chopping the fruit finely.
  2. If you have an uruli, use it. This is the only time its likely to come to use. If not, take a heavy-bottomed pan, put it on the hob and pour in the ghee. Turn heat to high.
  3. Pour in the pureed fruit and cook for 30 minutes. This is not as easy as it sounds. The fruit should not stick to the pan which means you have to keep stirring for the entire duration.
  4. Add jaggery and cook for another 20 minutes.
  5. Chakka pradhamanis now ready to be eaten/bottled.

Further reading

  • Poems of Love and War, selected and translated by AK Ramanujan
  • The Interior Landscape: Classical Tamil Love Poems, AK Ramanujan
  • Four Hundred Songs of War and Wisdom, translated and edited by George L Hart and Hank Heifetz
  • Love Stands Alone: Selections from Tamil Sangam Poetry, translated by ML Thangappa
  • Don’t feel like books yet? Read translations from Chenthil Nathan’s Old Tamil Poetry

About Indianspice Staff Reporter

Report and write stories for Indianspice.co.za. It is our ambitious goal to cover issues/events/news concerning South Africa and the diaspora.

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