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A Plausible South Indian Laurel

Since I have been made a Laurel I have been looking for a period Indian depiction of a laurel wreath.  Almost everything depicted in SCA regalia looks more Greek or Roman to my eyes.  I didn’t know if there was a depiction of anything more Mughal I could find.

Spoiler: I did not find such an image.  The Persian and Mughal artists were very enchanted with flora of their regions, depicting them on the borders of miniatures and in their garden scenes. But their images were naturalistic, and I could not find a depiction of either bay leaves, laurel leaves, or any leaves twisted into the shape of a chaplet. I was getting ready to chuck the idea out the window when I stumbled upon an interesting note while I was doing research for another project. 

The Purananuru, an anthology of 400 poems written between the 1st and 3rd century CE, describes the wars, cattle raids, Kings, bards and battles of the Tamil people during the Sangam era. (1)  Rather like the Victorian language of flowers(2), the Tamils attached great importance to the gifting of flowers in a ceremonial manner, and their poetry is peppered with flower images that are meant to create specific meaning in the listener’s mind, though for a non Tamil audience, that meaning is often obscure.    

The poem I read is 269:(3)

Wearing a garland of wild jasmine full of seeds and a few blossoms
and buds as sharp tipped as a kuyil’s beak resplendently
bedecking your thick black hair, you drank once, and again,
of liquor as amber as a tiger’s eyes poured out in a new cup,
and then because a tuti drummer wearing a chaplet of dried leaves
and drumming the call to battle on his drum had come,
You refused to praise and accept the filtered, intoxicating 
Toddy they then offered you but instead took up this sword,
They say, into your powerful hand and with it after tracking
bowmen who had seized the many long lines of cattle in combat
where the warriors wore fragrant basil, you cut down
Those enemies while the red vultures screeched, sailing on their curving wings!”

I’ve highlighted all the places where the people in the poem are wearing plants. In two of these examples the plants are described as chaplet, i.e. plants twisted into a crown/coronet/wreath and worn on the head.  The translator note for line 11 “where the warriors wore fragrant basil”  reads:

“For Fragrant basil (karantai) see the notes to poem 261.”(4)

I looked up karantai on a website which has mapped 99 Sangam era literature plants to their modernly known counterparts.(5)  Karantai was identified as “Sphaeranthus indicus” or East Indian Globe thistle.  I was confused by this as the translator had translated it as “fragrant basil” not “thistle”; a thistle and a basil seem to me to be wildly different plants.  

The relevant excerpt from poem 261 reads: (6)

“...the lord who returned from the raids wearing fragrant basil
that hangs down like the udders of heifers, the proper ornament
as the learned, well know, he who returned right here with the herd, 
the hero with his victorious spear is gone…”

The note from 261 reads:(7)

“Fragrant basil" is the translation of karantai. It was the custom to wear veṭci when going off on a raid and karantai when returning.”

And that is interesting, because a laurel wreath was originally a symbol of victory bestowed on the heads of victors in the Greek Olympics and held above the heads of victorious Roman generals after a military victory (don’t make me go find references for these statements. I will, but I will be grumpy about it) and here we have local Tamil plants being used in the exact same way. 

[As an interesting sidebar, I note that veṭci is so associated with going off to war/cattle raid that it is also the word used to describe poems in which the people in the poem are going off on a cattle raid.]

I double checked my secondary translation of the Purananuru,(8) and the translation for 261.  The notes for this poem also echo the observation about a going to war chaplet and a victory chaplet. It notes that the victory chaplet was made of  “நறும் பூங்கரந்தை – fragrant basil flowers”.

Also on that same web page the word “basil” appears again, on fragmentary poem 340:

“...the father of those warriors has
designs for a king with great esteem, one who brings
down elephants with large trunks like huge palmyra
trunks, in lovely fields with karanthai plants.”

In this case the field of victory itself is covered with karanthai plants.  The notes for this poem’s last line reads “ கரந்தை அம் செறுவின் – in beautiful fields with karanthai, Globe thistle, or fragrant basil”.

The internet(9) tells me that Globe thistle, Sphaeranthus indicus, is heavily fragrant. 
In conclusion, in the Sangam era victorious warriors returned from battle crowned with chaplets of globe thistle, in exactly the way we use laurel wreaths in our culture to convey mastery. For people making regalia for future Indian Laurels, this might give you a place to start.

Now granted, globe thistle does not look the same as laurel leaves, so an Indian Laurel wreath would have obviate-oblong leaves covered with hairs, and purple globe shaped flowers scattered through the wreath.(10)  I was given some lovely regalia when I was made a laurel, and I likely will not be replacing or updating my regalia, even though it still does not look right for me to wear in my own eyes. 

Now that I know chaplets were worn by victorious Sangam warriors, I feel slightly more comfortable wearing the current sigil for this order. Or perhaps I should say, I feel like a slightly more plausible laurel.


1 Hart & Heifetz (tra.), The Four Hundred Songs of War and Wisdom: The Purananuru. Columbia University Press, 1999, New York, ISBN 978-0-231-11563-6 , Pg XV
3.Hart & Heifetz (tra.), The Four Hundred Songs of War and Wisdom: The Purananuru. Columbia University Press, 1999, New York, ISBN 978-0-231-11563-6 , Pg 161
4. ibid, pg 307
6. Hart & Heifetz (tra.), The Four Hundred Songs of War and Wisdom: The Purananuru. Columbia University Press, 1999, New York, ISBN 978-0-231-11563-6 , Pg 159
7. ibid, pg 306

Image attribution:  Franz Xaver, CC BY-SA 4.0


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