Tamil Literature

Tamil language is more than 5000 years old and its literature is vast and varied. There are several classics in Tamil language covering every gamut of man's life - family, children, love, State administration, war, morality, ethics etc. The language follows a threefold classification of writing called IYAL, ISAI and NAATAKAM - prose, music and drama. It has an excellent grammar codified 5000 years ago. Tamil kings had patronized literature, dance, drama and music and built massive marvelous temples in stones which are in good shape even today. They are standing examples of scientific architecture and fine sculpture. Tamil language is easy to learn and pleasant to speak. There are several good Tamil books on a variety of subjects - Astrology, Medicine, Novels, Poems, Cookery, Yoga etc.

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SANGA KAALAM (B.C. 3000 - A.D. 100)

The period of the three Academies of Tamil (SANGAMS - MUDHAL SANGAM, IDAI SANGAM and KADAI SANGAM) covering a period of roughly 1700 years up to 250 A.D. This is considered to be the Golden Age of Tamil Literature. The literature, predominantly poetry is fresh, born out of fertile imagination takes the briefest of forms to present a picturesque panorama of the lives and times. War and love happen to be the subject matter. The serenity and chastity in love amply match nobility and greatness in war. What began as a supreme effort of the most civilized people proceeds through steady progress to be mercilessly ended by the heartless strides of the rising oceans which are reported to have swallowed thousands of miles of the abode of this great people. However zealous kings and patriotic poets have preserved whatever was possible to the benefit of the succeeding generations.


This period witnesses the growth of Buddhism and Jainism in the now shrunken Tamil country. Consequently the Northern concepts and ways of life start stamping their imprints on the Tamil Community. The original charm of the early Tamil Literature starts wearing Puram costumes.

First long poem Silappadigaram. This epic is to remain unparallel and unexcelled in conception and grandeur till the advent of the Kamba Ramayana in the 9th century A.D. 

Besides this, Tirukkural which is certainly more ancient than silappadigaram and some of the other works on ethical way of life were written during this period. 


While the march of the mighty oceans have destroyed the early Tamils and their way of life, the Kalabhra invasion during 250 A.D., decidedly alters the shape of Tamil literature and Tamil way of life. Kalabharas, having been the sons of the Kannada soil did not have the necessary love of Tamil to ensure its growth. Instead the pronounced Jainist fanaticism of these rulers have more or less destroyed the arts and literature of the Tamil people to the point of extinction.  However various treatises on Poetics began to be written along with some of the ethical works which are grouped in Pathinen keezh kanakku - 18 literary works. The most illustrious flower of the Dark Ages is probably the 'Muthollayiram' 900 songs each on the Chera, Chola and the Pandya Kings. 


The severe austerity in matters practiced by the Kalabrahs, a band of alien wanderers who overran the Pandya kingdom in the 3rd century suppressed all vestiges of Tamil art and letters. The valuable contributions like music, dance and drama of the Sangam period were suppressed. This strangling sway had practically obliterated the Tamil way of life of the legendary past. Most of the literary works of the Sangam period might have been destroyed. The supression of the alien Kalabhra clan by Pandyan Kadumkon by the end of the 6th century had helped a revival of the ancient orthodox religions of the land. Great spiritual perception both in Shaivaism and Vaishnavism towed the entire Tamil country, sanctifying the temples by their songs, and directing the people, the masses and the elite, towards a higher and godly way of life. The sway of these perceptions held sway for about 13 centuries. This is called the Bhakthi movement. The literature of this period reflects the ennobling qualities which have come to characterize the arts, architecture etc. The simple songs of the Bhakthi movement in elegant musical Tamil won over all the people high and low.


The culmination of the Bhakthi Movement can be found in the materialisation of the Chola empire. A new golden era of political supremacy which was synonymous with religious culture and temple buildings was thus ushered in. Greatest of Tamil epics Kamba Ramayanam was born in this period.

The quintessence of the entire Tamil culture of the preceding years, the broad span of literary excellence which have been evolving through the millennia, the peak of religious fervor which has been embracing people in all their walks of life and all that is noble in the land and life of the Tamil as a people find their happy fusion and exemplary delineation in Kamba Ramayanam. Other epics preceding and following this great poet's pale into insignificance by compassion. 

Another noble offspring of this period is Periapuranam. The work is in a sense a national epic of the Tamil people, because it treats of the lives of the Saints who lived in all the different parts of Tamilnadu, and belonged to all classes of society, men and women, high and low, educated an uneducated. We have among the saints princes from all the ruling dynasties of the land, as well as men from the harijan classes; but they are all equal in the devotion and service to God and godly men. Sekkizhar transcends the limits of time and space and comprises within the fold of his spiritual democracy even people who lived earlier and who will be living later, in all the distant climes. New literary forms begin to take shape during this period which were going to keep the literary tradition alive for many more centuries to come.


The History of Tamil literature during the Chola period has recorded glorious achievements. The Pandya period which follows does not exhibit such literary excellence mainly because of the political instability. The end of the 13th and the beginning of the 14th century witness the capturing of power by the Mohammedans. For about the next two hundred years, until the spread of the Vijayanagara empire in the deep south practically there was no literary creations but for a few commentaries on Sangam literature including Silappadigaram and Tirukkural. Philosophical treatises on Saiva religion were also written in poetry. These were known as the 'Siddhantha Saastirangal'.

Although 'epic' literature of the grand scale did not appear in the literary horizon several glittering stars started appearing and adorning the field of Tamil Literature, known as 'Small Prabandams' or 'Sitrilakkiyangal'. These new literary works varied in their content and structure from the earlier works. Some scholars opine that the literature of this period reflects the lives of the common people much more than those of the previous periods. The love of Tamil language in an alien political atmosphere can be very much seen in some excellent poets whose metre and rhythm have enriched our language. In fact the grand old musical tradition can be said to have been carefully guarded and handed over to the succeeding generation by them. Mention must be made of Arunagirinathar and his Thiruppugazh (The Diving greatness) and of Kumaragurupara Swamigal whose musical stanzas are still being sung in temples with vigour and devotion. 

The range and variety of the Prabandams of the period covering nearly 350 years are quite extensive and astounding. Though same repetitions mar the guarded literary landscape, much of trend setting literature is born during this long period. Common people and their way of life including their harmless pursuits and their exemplary contentedness find happy expression in these works. The simple lives and the special features of the hill tribes (Kuraver) are recorded in the lovely lyrics of the Kuravanji literature. The common features of the agrarian society are found in the delightful pages of Pallu literature. March of war and deeds of valor form the basis of the Bharani Literature which contains myths and the supernatural elegantly interwoven in musical and rhythmic verses. A variety of verses speaking of war, love, humor, velour, season, charm etc. are cleverly compiled in Kalambagam poetry. The stages of a child's growth up to 3 years forms the subject matter of 'Pillai thamil' poetry which generally adopts God and great men as the 'children' to be sung. The puranic fervor, religious charms and astounding imagination found in these poems are unmatched by any poetry of the world literature. A damsel sending even an inanimate object to present her case to her lover forms the subject matter of 'Thoodhu'. It is quite common to see even birds and animals praised to dizzy heights in these resounding verses which succeed in portraying the lyrical longings of the love born lady. The different emotions stirred at the sight of a Grand Procession taken in honor of an Exemplary individual are beautifully presented in ULA. Seven stages of a girl's growth into womanhood and the corresponding feelings of awe, infatuation, unfulfilled love and longing associated with their behavioral patterns are studied in minute detail in the Ulas. Thirukkutralakkuravanji, Mukkoodal Pallu, Meenakshiammai Pillaithamil, Kalingathu parani, and Moovar ula are glittering works in that they excel in their poetic excellence and un-curtailed imaginary excesses. The visible thread of religious underlining symbolises almost all the works of this period. 

This period has also produced some outstanding poets like Kalamegam, Irattaiyargal (Twins), Pugazhendhi, Paranjothiar, Villiputturar, Arunagirinathar, Kumaraguruparar, Thayaumanavar, Andagakkavai (Blind) Veeraraghava Mudaliar, Siva prakasa swamigal, Pattinathaar and Padikkasuppulavar. The literary history of the Nayak period will be incomplete if the contributions of these great men are not mentioned and acknowledged. The double meaning verses of Kalamegam speak volumes of his command of the language as well as his unparalleled observation skills. The songs of the Irattaiyargal mingle poems and humor to the eternal delight of the readers. The Musical excellence and rhythmic conformity of Arunagiri are matched only by his own store of abundant knowledge of our epics, the puranas and the philosophical treasures of the Shiva canon where Sivaprakasa excels by his unusual similes and original imagination. The sense of detachment in Pattinathaar's verses are at once thought provoking and saddening as they deeply explore the meaning of life in meaningful verses. Thayumanavar sets the trends for universal love and brotherhood to be able followed by Ramalingar and Bharathi during the next century. 

Though an attempt has been made to present a bird's eye-view of the literary history of the Nayak period, many religious and ethical forms of literature like Andathi and Satagam are not mentioned for want of space as well as the absence of literary excellence in most of these works to come. Famous Shiva mutts (monasteries) like Thiruvavaduthurai Adeenam, Dharmapura Adeenam, Thiruppananthal Kasi Madam, Madurai Thirugnana Sambandhar Thirumadam and a host of over Veera Saiva Madams have rendered immense help in preserving various palm leaf manuscripts in their zealous guarding and have willingly handed them over to great publishers like Dr. U. V. Swaminathaiyer but for whom Tamilians might not have been privileged even to see a simple verse of the ancient Sangam and medieval period literature. 



Tamil people have been associated with Arabs even from the Sangam Age. But significant presence of Islamic elders among us starts from the 12th century A.D. 

Islamic literature has been enriching our language since the 17th century. The greatest among them is Poet Umar (Umaruppulavar) whose 'Seerapuranam' describes the valiant life of Prophet Mohammed in 5026 verses in the 'VIRTTA' metre. This work is known for its high imagination, sweet description and touching dramatic excellence on the life of the great Kambar. Others like Gunangudi Mastan Sahib, Sheik Thambi Pavalar were known for humanitarian and devotional verses.


The saying that Tamil can immerse those who dive deep in it has been proved beyond a shadow of doubt by the Christian Missionaries whose contribution to Tamil can never be fully appreciated. Trade of the western countries with Tamilnadu which has been spoken of as the treasure house of wealth brought among traders, a host of great minds who set their foot in this soil to spread their religion. However as they started learning Tamil their love for this language had made them master its grammar and literature. Their contribution to the growth and development is more than their service to their religion. The service of Veerama munivar to Tamil language is unparalleled. The structure and shape of Tamil letters, exclamation and other marks for breaking sentences into simple entities were his singular service to the cause of Tamil.

Tamils can never forget the noble service of Robert-de-Nobili (Thatva Bodagar) Pope, Dr. Caldwell, Ziegen Balg, Francis Whyte Ellis and Iranius besides Tamil Christian poets like Mayuram Vedanayagam Pillai and H.A. Krishnapillai. The simplicity, social concern and the concern for women in the elegant verses of Vedanayagam Pillai and his being the first Tamil Novel writer in the form of 'Pratapa Mudaliar Charitram' are unforgettable. The Rakshanya yatrigam by Krishna Pillai is akin to Ramayana in its poetic excellence and emotional fervor. No doubt he is called Christian Kambar. 


Inscriptions in Shravanabelgola confirm the glorious presence of Jain ascetics in Tamilnadu. For five centuries (A.D. 300 -A.D. 800) Jainism had deep roots in Tamilnadu. The earliest Tamil epic Silappadigaram confirms the presence and popularity of Jainism. In 5th century A.D. Vachanandhi established Dramila Sangham in Madurai. Jainism was at its peak during the early reign of the Pallavas. Mahendra Pallava and Nindra Seer Nedumaran were devotees of Jain way of life and its principles. 

Jain contribution has its negative as well as positive aspects. Their pronounced austerity had been the cause of destruction of musical, dance and dramatic treatises which were in high esteem during the Sangam Age. The slant towards Sanskritisation starts with the Jains and the Buddhists whose philosophy were introduced in that language. Epics, ethical works, grammatical works, lexicons, Puranas, Prose etc. were the fields where Jains have made significant contributions. Sangam poets like Ulochanar, Kalaikottu Thandanar, Kanian Poongundranar were all Jain poets. Naaladiyar, Naanmanikkadigai, Siru Panchamoolam, Elaadi, Pazhamozhi (Proverb) of the Padinenkilkanakku anthology are Jain contributions. Kavyas like Jeevaka Chintamani, Valayapathi, Neelakesi, Choodamani, Udayanakumara Kauya, Perunkadai etc. are their gifts to Tamil grammar. Versified dictionaries called 'Nikandu' were the unique contribution of Jain ascetics to the varied development of Tamil Poetry.


Close on the heels of Jainism, Buddhism spread over Tamilnadu from the times of Asoka the Great. Buddha temples were built with monasteries in Boothamanpalam, Podimangai, Poompuhar, Uraiyur, Ponpatri, Nagai and Madurai. Poets like Podiyar and Sattanar were famous during the Sangam period. Aravana Adigal of Manimekalai and Mani mekalai herself were staunch followers of the Buddhist doctrine. Seethalai Chattanar, Sangamitrar, Dharmapalar, Dighnagar, Nagakuttanar, Buddha devar etc. were famous Buddhist poets. Manimekalai and Kundalakesi were the two epics which teach the Buddhist way of life.


After the advent of the Christian Missionaries and the development of the  Printing Press, Tamilnadu had the singular honor of getting a book in print in the entire Asia, a book on Christian Religion. Low cost books on religion were the early service by the Christian fathers. As a first reaction, Hindu Religious works and epics in prose style started coming out. The period represents the dawn, development and modernisation of Tamil prose. Western literacy types like Novel, Short story, Short play, Literacy criticism, Essay etc. began crowding the Tamil landscape. The period can be called the Age of Prose.

However the Tamil prose of this period had lot of Sanskrit and English words. Maraimalai Adigal started the pure Tamil Movement. Vulgarism and adulterations of alien languages were carefully reduced to bring in an era of pure Tamil prose writing. However the style was very hard. This was followed by Sri. Arumuga Navalar and Sri. C.V. Damodaran Pillai of Jafna in Ceylon. Navalar had done yeoman service to Shiva religion and Tamil language by his matchless writings in Tamil. Sri. Damodaram Pillai was a pioneer in finding and publishing ancient Tamil works. But for his self-less toil we would not have had the benefit of enjoying great old Tamil works like Kalithogai, Choodamani, etc. and the renowned commentaries of Nachinarkiniyar Senavaraiyar on Tolkappiam, Irayanar Kalaviyal urai etc. 

This was followed by the 'Great old grand father of Tamil' Dr. U.V. Swaminatha Iyer. As long as Tamil lives, Dr. U.V.S.'s name will remain in our memory. But for his ceaseless toil which involved tiresome travel, unenviable toil needed by the crumbling palm leaf manuscripts of yesteryears, careful study of each script and noting down the various emendations after repeatedly cleaning them without damaging the brittle little palm leaves etc. none of the Sangam Age Poetry and medieval poetry including the great commentaries would have been brought to print. Even in publishing Dr. U.V.S. showed unique originality and sincerity by simplifying the meanings, providing a brief account of the author and the content, writing clearly about the person on whom the poem was sung, adding relevant quotes from other parallel works etc. He had the unique distinction of having been crowned by the immortal Mahakavi Bharathi. Various prose writers like Thiru. Vi. Kalyanasundaranar, Ka. Su. Pillai, R. Raghava Iyengar, Kalyanasundaranar and a band of his followers have simplified the prose style. Even Tamil dailies and weeklies carried on the torch of simplicity and novelty brought forth by Thiru. Vi. Ka. as he is affectionately called.

Nineteenth century poetry presents interesting contrasts. We have the toughest poetry of Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai along with the simple poems of Vallalar Ramalinga Swamy. His devotional poems will melt even stones. The sense of profound humanism characterises Vallalar's poetry which seeks solace for every poor being. Religious tolerance and integration of all people of all caste's and creeds in his Samarasa Sanmarga Neri is a fore runner to the great leaders like Gandhi.

The beginnings of the Nineteenth Century witnessed great musical dramas like Nandan Charitra Keerthanai by Gopalakrishna Bharathi. The great tradition of the previous centuries where giants like Muthu Thandavar, Marimutta Pillai and Arunachala Kavirayar, which in turn followed the musical dramatic legacy of Pallupattu, Kuravanji Paattu and Nondi nadayam of the earlier decades. These songs of the musical drama have gone into the folklore of the Tamils and they are immensely popular even today. 

Short stories and Novels excel each other during the beginning of this 20th Century. Amidst this new trends, the towering presence of Subramanya Bharathi adorns own literary horizon. The one poet who forged a link between the past and the present and the future, who excelled in prose as well as in poetry, and who exploited journalism to higher literary purpose with considerable success, was Subramanya Bharathi. The rise of this genius synchronised with the freedom fight and in him we have perhaps the greatest national poet of all times. Much of his writing was prophetic and far ahead of his times.


The oldest Tamil book available to us is the Grammatical treatise Tolkappiam. Only through this book we can know the extent of Tamil literature prior to this work, which are not available to us now. Intellectual depth, unlimited fertility, excellent classification etc., mark this great work of Tolkappiyar. Just as oil is extracted from the oilseed, Grammar is churned out from literature. Many literary works must have preceded Tolkappiam. This is further confirmed by the author's use of terms like 'it is said so', 'they say so' etc.

Tolkappiam deals with Iyal Tamil. It is divided into three books - Eluthu (orthography), Sol (etymology) and Porul (subject matter). While other languages like Sanskrit have grammar for the first two, the concept of Porul happens to the most original in conception, classification and elaboration.

The first book deals with letters. The class of letters, the place of the origin of the sounds, and the coalescence of letters when words come together form the subject matter.

The second book deals with words. Its nine sections deal with the class of words (denoting higher or lower beings or things) gender and conventions, the cases and their import, the vocative case in particular, exceptions, then words of action, the particle and adjectives and adverbs, the last section hereof deals with four kinds of words - the common or national words, borrowed words, indigenous literary words and words of Sanskrit origin and their significance, 12 Senthamizh territories and their ruling dynasties are also referred to.

The third book is Porul adhikaram. Of its nine sections, five deal with Aham. one with puram, one each with similes, proxidy and idioms. The Tamil classifications of Physio-graphical regions as the four - Kurinji, Mullai, Marudham Neidal and Paalai and specifying the people who live there, their general pursuits, the seasons and the daily hours which are special to each region, the emotions of love that is most applicable to each region, the natural setting, animals and birds and the tutelary deities - starts from Tolkappiam. The author does not consider Paalai desert region - as the fifth region; its classification as the fifth has been adopted much later. Though Tolkappiyar held the regions as only four he held the conventional conduct in love poetry, tinai to be five. Along with there 5 aintinai, he added two more one sided love (Kaikkilai) and improper love (Perumtinai). These floral symbols signify the following : Kurinji - union of the lovers, mullai - separation; marutham - lover's, neidal - waiting on account of separation, Paalai separation.

Just as aham means a house and a domestic life, its external counterpart puram means mostly war in the ancient part. The activities connected with wars are also grouped under seven categories or tinai. War is not only fought on level grounds but on certain decent codes which are singularly unique in character.

Tolkappiam opens up for us magic fields of life, thought, language and literature - the richness and variety of which are the products of our own proud legacy of thousands of bygone years.