The Purananooru is a set of four hundred Tamil Poems dating from the Sangam Age (300 BC to 300 AD). Puram means external and nanooru four hundred. These poems are devoted to life in general. Agam(internal) poetry deals with love, relationships, family and the such-like.
As general reference points, in 380 BC, Plato was writing his Republic and the future Roman Empire was still a small republic in Southern Italy. The Mauryan Empire was established 324 BC. Alexander fought Porus at Jhelum in 326 BC. The inhabitants of what would later be known as the British isles were probably holding meetings to decide whether it was time to come down from the trees :-)
In this time, South India was ruled by chieftains and kings. The three main ruling dynasties, the Cheras, the Chozhas and the Pandyas had already been established. These kings spent a lot of time fighting each other and on occasion going North to fight someone else(atleast one king was known as Imayavaramban : he whose boundary is the Himalayas). A perusal of recent history will show that little has changed in modern Tamil Nadu :-)
The Tamil Sangams were meetings (similar to conventions of today) for the poets of that age. The Sangam era refers to the third Sangam which was hosted by the Pandyas.
The first one was supposedly held 10000 BC and the sage Agastya is supposed to have been the person presiding over it. Agastya also is popularly held to be the first one to codify the Tamil language. This might be more legend than history.
I have not been able to figure out when the second Tamil sangam was held. The book Tolkappiyam, which is a book of grammar dates from this era. Incidentally, this is supposed to be the earliest grammar book.
Purananooru is only one of the books to come out of the third Sangam**. It is a collection of poems by different poets. The poems cover a broad swath of topics.
Most of the poems are dedications to different kings and chieftains. The poets would sing praises of the king and the king would reward them suitably. The kings got their names and deeds immortalised in song and the poets got food and gifts.
Other poems deal with the courage of warriors in battle, the sorrow of grieving mothers or wives and general thoughts of poets on life, the Universe and Everything.
In all, the poems give us a glimpse into the lives of the people. Courage was highly respected (mothers ask to hear if their sons died with a wound in the back or in the chest). High moral values were stressed (A poem says, 'Regardless of the land, Where men are good, life will be good.'). As was charity (Another poem says 'They that give food, give life'). There are poems that celebrate nature and agriculture.
Other poems are a more general reflection on life. There is a poem saying words to the effect that the poet would love to live free like the deer, but unfortunately, his relations are tying him down to a family life. The famous line Yaathum Oore, Yavarum Kelir (All cities are our own, All people are our relatives) by the poet Kanian Poonguntranaar is also in this collection*.
Paari was a king who lived in the sangam age. He was the king of Parambu country. I dont know where that area is in present-day Tamil Nadu. He was considered one of the seven great 'vallal's. I am not sure what the exact translation for vallal is. Basically, any one who gives away a lot in charity is considered a vallal. I suppose one might say 'philanthropist' or 'charitable person', but it still loses something in the translation.
Paari is the subject of many poems written by the poet Kapilar (who also seems to have been his friend) who praises him and his bountiful land. Paari was destroyed by his rival kings, an occupational hazard in those days. This poem was written by his daughters lamenting his death.
Attrai Thingal Avvennilavil
Enthaium KondOm, Nam kundrum pirar koLaar
Ittrai thingal Ivvenilavil
Vendru eri murasin Venthar em
Kundrum Kondaar; yaam enthayum ilame
Last Full Moon
We had our father, we had our hill
This Full Moon
Kings play the drums of victory
They have our hill, We have lost our father.**
This poem conveys a deep sense of loss with haiku-like brevity.
The daughters seem to have accepted that defeat and death are as much a part of a kingly life as victory. They don't express hatred towards the victorious kings. They are just lamenting the loss of their father and their home.
PS. The attentive reader will notice that the phrase attrai thingal, avvennilavil is used in the song Narumugaiye Narumugaiye (from the Tamil movie Iruvar) written by the poet Vairamuthu.
* Yaathum Oore's claim to fame is that it is the first line in a song in the movie Ninaithale Inikkum, with Kamal and Rajini playing members of a disco band touring Malaysia. Incidentally, there is a song called Ennadi Meenakshi which also starts with a couple of lines from a Bharathiyar poem (Vaarthai Thavarivittai, Kannama). It's kind of sad that one must get introduced to Tamil poetry like this, but, I digress.
**Translation, as close as I can make it.
Attrai Thingal - last month(thingal=month)
Av ven nilavil - in the full moon (ven nilavu=full moon),
enthaium kondOm - We had our father (enthai=our father) kondOm (we had)
Nam Kundrum pirar kolaar - Others didnt have our hill
Ittrai Thingal - this month
Iv Ven nilavil - in this full moon
Vendru eri murasin venthar - The kings whose victorius drums sound
Vendru eri murasu (Drums(murasu) of victory(vendru eri)
kundrum kondaar - they have our hill
yaam enthaiyum ilame - We have lost our father (ilame = dont have/lost).
*** The others are Nattrinai, Kurunthogai, Ainkurunooru, Pathitrupathu, Paripaadal, Kalitthogai and Aganaanooru.