Matal – Unique Tamil ritual when hero’s love fails! – Part 1

Matal is one of the most unique traditions in Tamil Sangam literature. Lot of modern scholars even play it down since it is considered to be ‘primitive’, ‘barbaric’ and ‘uncivilized’. So what is this ritual all about?
So before starting over about this tradition, I will go over the general tradition of the Akam poetry.
Sangam literature emphasizes on some thing called ‘Kalavu’. Kalavu is Premarital love. The basic structure of Kalavu poems in Sangam literature are as below,
The Talaivan(Hero) meets Talaivi(heroine) accidentally by chance, usually while hunting or fishing , or while travelling in the mountains or along the sea shore. Talaivan sees Talaivai and vice versa, the beauty of Talaivi makes Talaivan feel whether she is a human being or a goddess(ananku). Then our Talaivan looks for signs like whether her feet is on the ground, whether she perspires etc. to confirm wether she is human. Their eyes meet and they fall in love at once. Then Talaivan convinces the Talaivi and they make love in nature. Then Talaivan meets Talaivi again (planned visits) and make love. After a point of time Panki(heroine friend) comes to know about the Talaivan. She advises Talaivi to report her love to her parents and as the Talaivan to marry her. She even advises the Talaivan to approach the girl’s parents and stop visiting the Talaivi in secrecy. Talaivan then request Panki to arrange clandestine meeting with the Talaivi.

The refusal of the Panki to arrange further clandestine meeting between Talaivi and Talaivan forces the Talaivan who is under deep frustration and psychological pressure threatens Panki that he would perform the ritual/custom of Matal.

Matal :
So what is the custom of Matal?
The custom is usally termed Matal-erutal or Matal-Urtal meaning mounting or riding the Matal.
Matal according to Dravidian Etymology Dictionary means
• Flat leaf made of palm, plantain, and screw pine.
• Jagged stem of Palmyra leaves.
• Horse made of Palmyra leaves.
• Horse made of Palmyra stems.
The custom may be described as below,
The frustrated lover threatens to make horse out of rough edged leaves of Palmyra tree, decorate it with bells and flowers and ride this horse, screaming through the village.
He hopes that this threat would induce Panki to arrange a meeting with Talaivai, out of fear that he would actually perform the degrading act and revealing the clandestine affair to public.

The following poem is typical example of the Matal custom,
17. குறிஞ்சி – தலைவன் கூற்று

மாவென மடலும் ஊர்ப பூவெனக்
குவிமுகிழ் எருக்கங் கண்ணியும் சூடுப
மறுகி னார்க்கவும் படுப
பிறிது மாகுப காமங்காழ் கொளினே.

-பேரெயின் முறுவலார்.

Kurunthokai 17
What he said
When love is beyond bearing
And goes to the seed,
men will even ride Palmyra stems
like horses;will wear on their heads
the reeking cones of the erukam buds
like flowers;will draw to themselves
the gossips of the street;
and will do worse.

Poet:Pereyein Muruvalar
Translated by A.K.Ramanujan

Tamil commentary by Dr.U.V.Swaminathan Iyer
காமம் காழ்க்கொளின் – காம நோயானது முதிர்வுற்றால், மடலும் – பனை மடலையும், மா என -குதிரை எனக் கொண்டு, ஊர்ப – ஆடவர் அதனை ஊர்வர்; குவி முகிழ் எருக்கங் கண்ணியும் – குவிந்த அரும்பை உடைய எருக்கம் பூ மாலையையும், பூ என – அடையாள மாலையைப் போல, சூடுப – தலையில் அணிந்து கொள்வர்; மறுகின் ஆர்க்கவும் படுப – வீதியில் பிறர் தம்மைக் கண்டு ஆரவாரிக்கவும் படுவர்; பிறிதும் ஆகுப – தம் கருத்து முற்றாதாயின் சாதலுக்குரிய வரைபாய்தல் முதலிய வேறு செயலை உடையரும் ஆவர்.
காமம் மிக்க தலைவன் பனைமடலால் குதிரையைப் போல ஓர் உருவம் அமைத்து அதன் கழுத்தில் மணி, மாலை முதலியவற்றைப் பூட்டித் தன் உருவத்தையும் தலைவியின் உருவத்தையும் ஒரு படத்தில் எழுதிக் கையில் ஏந்தி அதன்மேல் யாவரும் அறிய ஊர்ந்து வருதலை மடல் ஏறுதல் என்பர்; அங்ஙனம் அவன் வருவதைக் கண்ட ஊரினர் படமுதலியவற்றால், ஑இன்னவளுக்கும் இவனுக்கும் நட்பு உண்டுஒஎன்பதை அறிந்து அதனை வௌதப்படக் கூறிப் பழிப்பர்; அது கேட்டுத் தமர் மணம் புரிவிப்பர் மடல் ஏறும் தலைவன் நீறு, எருக்க மாலை, ஆவிரம்பூமாலை முதலியவற்றை அணிந்து வருதல் வழக்கம் என்று தெரிகின்றது.

Kurunthokai 17 indicates that the Hero resorted to whenever the love-passion comes to a climax and cannot be endured any more. According to Dr.Zvelebil “The essence of the custom was the expression of the man’s sexual frustration and the subsequent behavior resulting form it ; this behavior may be understood as erotic simulation with simultaneous discharge and discarding of one’s sexuality, of the sadomasochistic type, which may be seen in context of prevailing customs of hook- swinging , piercing ones tongue or cheeks with small spears, needles and other sharp objects etc. described frequently enough in anthropological and ethnographic accounts.”

Matal was a highly customized ritual and the meaningful components of the ritual are as below,
• The horse made of Palmyra leaves
• Bell hanging around the neck of the metal horse
• The body of the man should be besmeared with ashes
• The lover of had wear worthless buds or flowers and/or white bones
• While riding the horse in public the lover shouted and screamed to reveal his frustration and identity of his lover.

One of the main aim of riding matal horse was to reveal the identity of Talaivi to public so that they would know that Talaivan who was riding the metal horse had a love relationship with the Talaivi. This can be seen from the following line from Kurunthokai 14,
யானே பெற்றாங்
கறிகதில் அம்மவிவ் வூரே மறுகில்
நல்லோள் கணவன் இவனெனப்
பல்லோர் கூறயாம்

யான் பெறுகதில்- நான் மடன்மா ஏறுதலாற் பெறுவேனாக; பெற்றாங்கு-பெற்றபின்பு, இ ஊர்- இந்த ஊரில் உள்ளார், அறிகதில்- அறிவாராக; பல்லோர்-பலர், மறுகில்- வீதியில், நல்லோள் கணவன் இவன் எனக் கூற-இந்த நல்லாளுடைய தலைவன் இவன் என்று சொல்லா நிற்க,

My approximate translation:
‘After I have mounted the metal horse, people of the village would understand that I am the Lover of my sweetheart.’
In a commentary to the poem Dr.U.V.Swaminathan Iyer says that the Hero would paint image of him and his lover and would carry it around the village while he was riding the matal horse to reveal the identity of his lover to the whole village.
173. குறிஞ்சி – தலைவன் கூற்று

பொன்னேர் ஆவிரைப் புதுமலர் மிடைந்த
பன்னூல் மாலைப் பனைபடு கலிமாப்
பூண்மணி கறங்க வேறி நாணட்
டழிபடர் உண்ணோய் வழிவழி சிறப்ப
இன்னள் செய்த திதுவென முன்னின்
றவள் பழி நுவலு மிவ்வூர்
ஆங்குணர்ந் தமையினீங் கேகுமா றுளெனே.

-மதுரைக் காஞ்சிப்புலவன்.

Kurunthokai 173
What he said

When I throw of my shame
and mount on the hopping horse
made of palm stem,
tied a many stringed garland of
tightly- wrapped and fresh flowers
of the golden avirai shrub,
to make the bells on its neck ring, shouting,
‘this is the sort of women who would do
this to me, making love sickness
that destroys me grow and grow’,
the village will blame her to her face.
I know what I am doing. I must go!

Poet: Mathurai Kanjipulan
Translated by Kamil Zvelebil

It was very shameful act to perform Matal, as Kurunthokai 32 says after riding metal horse and disgracing his lady love, the life itself is a disgrace.

32. குறிஞ்சி – தலைவன் கூற்று

காலையும் பகலும் கையறு மாலையும்
ஊர்துஞ் சியாமமும் விடியலு மென்றிப்
பொழுதிடை தெரியிற் பொய்யே காமம்
மாவென மடலோடு மறுகில் தோன்றித்
தெற்றெனத் தூற்றலும் பழியே
வாழ்தலும் பழியே பிரிவுதலை வரினே.

-அள்ளூர் நன்முல்லையார்.

Kurunthokai 32
What he said
If one can tell morning
from noon from listless evening,
the night of sleeping towns from dawn,
then one’s love
is a lie.
If I should lose her
I could proclaim my misery in the streets
riding mock horses on palmyra stems in my wilderness
but that seems such a shame.
But then, even living,
Away from her, seems such a shame.

Poet:Allur Nanmullaiyar
Translated by A.K.Ramanujan

If the lover failed to get desired response from the lover after matal he either deserted the village or committed suicide. It was considered honorable to commit suicide rather than performing metal repeatedly.

13 Sangam poems describe Matal, they are listed below:

  • Kurunthokai 14,17,32,173,182
  • Narrinai 146,152,342,377
  • Kalithokkai 138,139,140,141
  • and also mentioned in Kalithokai 58and 61.

Though very crude, this tradition seems to have carried over to us over long period through poetry and literature.

Thiruvalluvar has written whole decade of poems about Matal(1131-1140).

End of Part 1

Part 2 – Thirukural on Matal and translations



  1. Matal eruthal…?
    The thing which i have heard from my professors are different from what u have explained here .
    Madal – panangarukku the sharp knife life projection in the palm leaves shrubs.
    they arrange them like a bed or seat and they try to sit in that or lie on that till the parents of the girl or the gal herself accept his love and arrange for the marriage. this is almost like self mutilation or hurting himself for love.

  2. The part of Self mutilation is true… but the original practice is to make shape of a horse….
    They even used kalli specifically signify the lust and sexual reason for the practice…(while milk oozing out)..
    The process you have described might be later process , the practice mentioned in Sangam for surely horse shaped…
    This process have been described by Dr.Zvelebil , Gorge L Hart and AKR , all three of them accept this kind of practise should have existed and not a poetic convention…

  3. very interesting. i dont think it is crude at all when compared to what 21st century scorned lovers do 🙂 . And to know that the sangam age even had codes that matal shouldnt happen twice!! awesome.
    thanks vairam.

  4. ‘மடலேறுதல்’ பற்றிய விளக்கத்திற்கு நன்றி .

    இனிய பொங்கல் நல்வாழ்த்துகள் 🙂

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