Taxation – The elephant in the field

Updated: Dec 6, 2020

A Pandyan King of the Sangam age is advised by a poet on how not to tax his people. The poet makes the king understand the advantages of appropriate taxation with a rather different anology. Before we read the poem and understand the poet’s comparison, it is imperative to know a little about the Sangam age and literature.

Sangam Literature:

The vast literature of the Tamil Sangam comprise of various collections of poems on diverse topics. The 800 poems of Agananuru and Purananuru are the most famous sets of compilations. While Agananuru is love poetry, Purananuru deals with the life details of kings, economy, wars, polity in general, among others.


While the debate on ascertaining a date with authentic evidence to the sangam poetry has not reached a final consensus among scholars, it is however safe to state that the poems of Purananuru were composed probably in the early years of the beginning of the common era.

The Poet and the King:

Though many kings and poets appear in the Sangam works, little can be re-constructed with regard to their chronology and history. Some of these kings also appear in the later copper plates of Pandyas like those of Velvikkudi and Sinnamanur, but only as distant kings whose achievements are listed without a time frame.

One such king is Arivudainambi. The name literally means a man with sound intelligence. True to his name, he himself is a poet, whose poems feature in the Sangam poem collections. He is adviced by another poet by name Pisiranthaiyar on how to tax his subjects.

Taxation and elephant: ‘If the produce from a small piece of land is reaped, stored and the rice is made as balls to feed the elephants on a daily basis, it is evident that the produce will last long and serve its purpose of feeding the elephants. However, if an elephant is let loose to enter a large farm land, the food that enters its mouth would be lesser than the food that had been trampled and ruined by its feet.

Similarly, an intelligent king must understand justice and tax his subjects only what is right. This way, the government will automatically be fed with millions in revenue for a sustainable period of time. A corrupt king who takes what he desires from the people’s money will result in a nation like that of trampled produce in a field with a mad elephant. The king would finally not be able to feed himself and simultaneously ruin his land also.’ (Puram – 184)

The motto of the Pandyan budget that year probably was to reduce the tax burden on the middleclass and trust in voluntary compliance, much like that of 2019. In sangam literature the theme of a poem is denoted by the term ‘thurai’. One of the main themes of Purananuru is that of poets advising kings on various matters. We find poets who advice politely or even in anger to urge the king to be righteous. The Thurai for the said poem is called ‘Seviyarivuru’, which literally translates to advice.

It is our fortune that Tamil history had advisors to kings who sang poetry. If not for the linguistic value, it is very doubtful if such an advice in prose, administered vocally would stand the test of time through two millennia and be available to us to cherish the beauty of poetry, imbibe values and understand history.

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