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Dhevaram - Tamil Classical Music

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About Dhevaram  and the legends behind Nalvars (the famous four pillars of Shaivaism) and Nayanmars.

Tamil & Carnatic systems | Thirumurais | Naalvar | Nayanmar 
Sambandhar | Thirunavukkarasar | Sundharar | Manikkavasakar
Cheraman Perumal | Karaikkal Ammaiyar | Nilakanda yazpanar | Thirumoolar
Musical Instruments - Percussion, String, Wind


Tamil as a language, must had been handed down through oral tradition from days of yore. The Sorry, your browser doesn't support Java(tm). inscription of the letters on palm leaves, barks and parchments with iron nail serving as quill must have come into vogue only a few centuries before Christ.

Tamil literature as such had crystallized much later in the 3rd century B.C. onwards when we come across references to the three Sangam periods known as the Talai Sangam with Agasthiyar as its head (3c BC) with no surviving literary works, Idai Sangam with Tolakappiyar as its head (2c BC) believed to have produced Tolakappiyam (Tamil Grammar) and the Kadai Sangam with Nakkirar as its head (1c BC) which saw the emergence of Pathuppattu (Ten Idylls) and Ettuthogai (Eight Anthologies) totaling 18 works (6 to 95AD).

The music of  South Indian  peninsula, of  the pre-Christian era - namely the Sangam period,  is called Tamil music. This period ranges approximately between 300 BC and 3 AD.

Tamil literature

Tamil (Thamiz) music is one of the ancient music schemes available. In ancient times, Tamil was divided into iyal (prose), isai (verse), natakam (drama) and each of these flourished on their own. However, today  very less is known about the Tamiz isai (verse, music) even among the educated. 

Great musical works like Tholkappiam, Ettuthogai (Narrinai, Kurun Thogai, Ainkuru nooru, Padirru pattu, Pari padal, Kali thogai, Aga Nnanooru, Pura nanooru), Patthupattu (Tiru murugarru padal, Prur arru padai, Siru panarru padai, Perum panarru padai, Mullaip paa, Madurai kanchi, Nedu nal vadai, Kurinji paattu, Pattiana palai, Malai padu kadam) are a wealth of information on ancient Tamil music, believed by many as the mother of Carnatic music. Through these books and other ancient Tamil treatises we know of the existence of different types of music, musical instruments, musical forms, Panns (Pan - the equivalent of Ragas) and so on.

Despite their very creative minds and poetic capabilities, Thamizh poets have traditionally been poor and were dependent on patrons for their livelihood. While asking for charity, a poet in Purananuru appeals to the patron by saying that - It is not despicable to ask for alms but to say ‘no’ is still worse; to donate before asked for is good but to decline when offered is still better. The concept of Arrup patai is defined byAncient palm leaf manuscripts, Saraswathi mahal library Tholkappiar as tribute or homage paid by poets to Kings and patrons expecting financial rewards and other gifts. The Thirumurukarrup by Nakkirar, in praise of Murugan - the deity of the kurinji  landscape, is an exception. However the differences in the grammar, style and the induction of a deity instead of a human being as the patron, indicate that the Nakkirar who wrote Thirumurukarrup  patai  was not the one who wrote parts of the patthupattu or the one who wrote the grammatical text, adinul.

The depth at which various subjective and objective topics, human emotions and feelings,  have been discussed in the Sangam texts, it appears that the authors were basically concerned with personal and social topics of emotional appeal and the  religious thoughts and spiritual analysis and devotional concepts developed at a later time.


The Sangam period corresponds approximately to the historical landmarks:

The emergence of Buddhism and Jainism posed challenges to traditional Vedic Hinduism. The Tamil land that excelled in the Shaivaite tradition in the ancient times underwent a dark period during 4th, 5th and 6th century A.D., due to the introduction Buddhism, more specifically Jainism, from North on the Royal throne. These self-punishing  religions caused the vibrant Tamil traditions into the back burner. Through the Bhakthi movement of the 7th to 12th centuries, Hinduism - Shaivaism and Vaishnavism, saw a revival. Dhevaram is an integral part of the Shiva Bhakthi movement.

The word Dhevaram (Thevaram) in Tamil language has evolved from Tamil words Dhe + aram, Dhe for Dheyvam, meaning God, and aram meaning inisai padal i.e.. sweet songs, together constituting Thevaram (Dhevaram) meaning Sweet songs in praise of the divine Lord, in this context Lord Shiva. Thevaram songs utilises simple Tamil, the language of the common folk rather than Sanskrit the language of the elite, and in a form that is easily understood by common man to sum up and propagate the Shivaite philosophies - part of Bhakthi movement later to the sangam period.

The  period between 7th and 12th centuries, the period of Bhakthi movement - characterized by intense worship of a single God, saw a revival of Shaivaism that gave  its Saints - 63 Nayanmars. Amoung them the efforts of Naalvar (four great pillars) of Shaivaism, viz. Thirugnana Sambandhar, Thirunavukkarasar, Sundharar, Manikkavasakar are very important. Despite grave physical threats, they travelled throughout Tamilnadu kindling spiritual insurgence. They are referred to as 'samayakkuravarkal' or 'naalvar' (the great four). The order in which these four great saints are mentioned is in the order in which they passed away rather than the order in which they were born, as per Shivaite tradition.

This period (7th - 12th centuries - the period of Bhakthi movement) also witnessed resurgence of Vaishnavism through the efforts of the 12 Vaishnavite saints known as Alwars (Azvars). They have composed approximately 4000 Tamil verses. Compared to the Shiva devotional poems, the Vaishnava devotional poems make greater use of akam tradition and less of puram tradition of the classical period. Some important Vaishnavite saints are Adal, Kulacekarar, Tirumangky and Nammazvar. The works of the last one are very important and are sometimes referred to as Tamil Vedas. The philosopher-saint Nathamuni recovered these verses from near oblivion and arranged them as the Dhivya Prabandham (sacred compositions or Divine Collection), set many of them to music, and rejuvenated the tradition of formally reciting them in temples.



The works of the 63 Nayanmars (nayanars, Shiva's slaves) - Shiva devotees - are collectively referred to as 'Thirumurai' . There are 12 volumes containing about 18,000 songs in Tamil, of which first 7 volume constitute the Thevaram.


The Thirumurais, 12 in numbers, are grouped into:

The first 7 Thirumurais together is referred to as 'Thevaram'. The 8th Thirumurai is called 'Thiruvasagam'. The 10th is the 'Thirumanthiram'. The 12th is the 'Periyapuranam' that describes the lives of the Nayanmars.

The other Nayanmars did not produce much literary works, though they spearheaded the Bhakrhi movement in the south with Shiva as their deity much like the Alwars had Vishnu as their Supreme Lord, with extreme devotion.

Besides the above a few other luminaries appeared

Beyond these 12 Thirumurais, there are what is known as Pillaiththamizh dealing with activities of the deities in their infant days, and others viz.

and many more. However these are not included in the Thirumurais.

All the Thevarams were locked up in a room in the Chidhambaram temple for some centuries. When the "Shivapadhasekara Thirumuraikanda choza Emperor Rajarajan traced them out, many of the creations were lost to vagaries of time (probably they were written on palm leaves) and the pann for many of the padhikams that survived were not mentioned. Rajarajan requested  Madhanka chula maniyar, a lady from the Yazhpanar family, to specify the pan for all the padhikams. The padhikams are sung only in that specified pan.

The Tamil musicians are called paanar and the female musicians are called paadiniyar. The musicians were broadly classified in to Porunar, Panar and Kuttar. Porunar were supposed to be well versed in martial music like Parani, and were also able dancers. The Panar were both vocalists and instrumentalists. The Kuttar were dancers who possessed a sound knowledge of the art of dancing and were adept in portraying the feelings and emotions of a character.

The Porunar were further subdivided in to 3 sects:

The Panar had the following subgroups:

The main instrument used is Yazh. The city Yapanam in Srilanka gets its name form this instrument. The paanar is the main character in many of the sangam literature, Perumpanarruppdai, Chirupanarruppadai etc. The references to Tamiz (Tamil) music are there in one of the Ayimperum kappiyangal (five great ancient epics), Silappadhikaram by Ilangovadigal.


Tamil and Carnatic music systems

Tamil and Carnatic music have plenty of similarities between them. The very famous Carnatic music has its roots shared with / evolved from Tamil music. There is a view that Carnatic music might have originated from Tamil music.  One finds that the current Carnatic music has given new names to the ancient Tamil terms, fine tuned and uses the same system. 

Another interesting feature is the three composers called the Tamil Moovar (Tamil Trinity), who lived about five decades before the Carnatic Trinity (Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri). They were Muthutandavar, Arunachala Kavirayar and Marimutha Pillai. In fact, the earliest Trinity were the peerless Dhevaram Trinity - Gnanasambandar, Appar and Sundarar - the first three of Naalvar, who were well known for their language and devotion.

The 7 basic notes known by Sanskrit names today were known by pure Tamil names such as, Kural, Tuttam, Kaikilai, Uzhai, Ili, Vilari and Taram. There are even terms for the notes in different octaves. For example, Kurai Tuttam and Nirai Tuttam refer to the Rishabha in the lower and upper octaves respectively. The ancient Tamil treatises like Tolkappiam and Silappadikaram mention about 'Pannati', the equivalent of raga alapana. 

Music terms in Dhevaram and 
their equivalents in Carnatic

Tamil and Carnatic Terms in music

Dhevaram (Tamil) terms

Carnatic equivalent terms











padam ezhu

  • kural

  • thutham

  • kaikilai

  • uzhai

  • ili

  • vilari

  • tharam

saptha swaram

  • shadjam

  • rishabham

  • gandharam

  • madhyamam

  • panchamam

  • daivatham

  • nishadam

Pann of Dhevaram and its equivalent Raga in Carnatic



Puraneermai Bhoopalam
Nattapadai Ghambheera Nattai
Thakkaragam / Thakkesi Kambothi
Kausikam Bhairavi
Gandhara panchamam Kethara Gowlai
Nattai ragam / Sadhari Panthuvarali
Pazhanthakkaragam Suththa saveri / Aarabhi
Kurinchi Harikambodhi
Vyazhakkurinchi Saurashtram
Megharagakkurinchi Neelambari
Yazhmuri Adaana
Indhalam Nadha Naamakkriya / Mayamalava Gaula
Seekkamaram Nadha Naamakkriya
Gandaharam / Piyanthaigandharam / Kolli / Kolli Kowvanam Navaros
Chevvali Yadukula Kambodhi
Panchamam Aahiri
Pazham Panchuram Shankarabharanam
Andhalikkurinchi Sama
Chenthuruthi (Chenthiram) Madhyamavathi


In Thevaram there are 21 pans (It could even be 24 or 27 as some experts say). The entire Thevaram is arranged in sequence with respect to the pans (equivalent to ragaas of Carnatic). In the 9th Thirumurai a pan which is not used in other Thirumurai called salarapani is used.

Karaikkal Ammaiyar, a lady saint who lived during the great Bhakthi  revolution that took Tamilnadu to a great elevation was the first to sing songs with ten hymns called 'padhikam' in praise of Lord Shiva. The first three of the four pillars of Shaivaism in Tamilnadu, namely Sambandhar, Appar (Thirunavukkarasar), Sundharar composed innumerable songs in padhikam style, rich in music that helped to revamped Shaivaism and the Tamilnadu. The padhikams together called as Thevaram, were so popular that the kings starting from the great Thirumuraikanda Rajaraja chozan appointed musicians in temples across Tamiz land to sing  these hymns of music in the specified manner. These musicians are called Odhuvars. Their service continues even today in the temples.


Musical instruments

The ancient Tamil treatises like Tholkappiam and Silappadikaram mention 'Pannati', the equivalent of raga alapana. Instruments like Kuzhal (Flute), Yazh (Vina / Harp) and Muzhavu (percussion) seem to have been the accompaniments for both music and dance. 


String  instruments


Yazh is the most famous musical instrument for Tamil music, as Veena is to Carnatic music. Yazh is a string instrument like Veena. The Periyazh with 21 strings and Seeriyazh with 7 strings were played by the Perumpanar and Sirupanar respectively. Patthupattu is the earliest of the Sangam works to exhaustively deal with the details of the Yazh. There were four kinds of Yazh. They are: 


More information on this instrument Yazh can be found in "Yazhnool" written by Swami Vibulanandha. Some of the other music instruments referred in Thirumurai are kokkarai and kudamuzA (thala instruments). Some hymns in "kalladam" describe these instruments.


Wind instruments

The flute was the most popular among the wind instruments. The process of making holes in the flute is explained in Perumpanatruppadai. The holes were bored on the tube by placing a burning log at required intervals. There is a reference in Kurinjipattu, to shepherds playing Ambal Pann on the flute. The twelfth Thirumurai Periya Puranam tells about the making of flute and playing on the flute in Anaya nayanar puranam songs.

The other wind instruments referred to in Malaippadukadam are:


Percussion instruments

Of the various percussion instruments referred to in Tamizh classical music - Dhevaram, the Murasu was the most popular and used on all occasions. During festivals, Murasu was played on all days as it conveyed joy and gaiety. Muzhavu accompanied girls when they sang.

There is mention of the Viraliyar playing the Seeriyazh and also dancing to the Tala played by the hand on the Muzhavu which has Marcchanai on the drum face. The Pormurasu or war drum was a very important instrument, which was played in the battlefield to frighten enemies and also infuse courage and enthusiasm in the hearts of the warriors. The Murasu seemed to have been as important as a national flag as the victorious king always captured the Murasu of the defeated king. The selection of wood and method of making Murasu is mentioned in Maduraikanchi. The construction and tuning of Murasu is referd to in Malaippadukadam. The sides were covered with skin, which were kept in position by leather straps. The left drum face was tuned to Panchamam (Ili) while the right one was tuned to Shadjam (Kural). In Porunaratruppadai, this instrument is referred to as Udukkai with the impression of the palm of the player on the drum face, resembling the dark color of the hood of dancing snake. The Porunar is supposed to have played on this drum with the Tala known as Irattai Talam.

The Malaippadukadam refers to Muzhavu, Aguli or Siruparai and Tattai. The Tattai is also known as Karadijai. The sound of this Parai is said to resemble the croaking of a frog and also that of the bear. This was a crude folk instrument made out of bamboo stick. Numerous slits were made across the stick and sound was produced on it by striking it on a stone or any other hard surface. The Kurinjipattu refers to this instrument being used by peasant women to scare away the pigeons and parrots from the field along with another drum called Kulir. Malaippadukkadam refers to a drum called Ellari, which was also called Salli or Sallikai.

The works Purananuru and Ettutogai refer to a percussion instrument called Padalai. Another name for this was Orukanmakkinai. The Ghana Vadyam referred to in Malaippadukadam in Kancha talam is known by the name Pandil, made of bronze. Paditrupattu refers to Kalappai, where all the instruments were kept and was carried by the singing bards everywhere.


Audio Renditions by me

A few Dhevaram Audios 




My rendition

Mangayarkkarasi ...


Thirugnana Sambandhar

Rendition 90 KB

Pidiyadhan ...


Thirugnana Sambandhar

Rendition 26 KB

Poozhiyarkon ...


About Naalvar

Rendition 39 KB

 Thodudaiya ...     First song of Sambandhar  Rendition 71 KB

Vetragi vinnagi ...



Rendition 87 KB




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