Tamils - a Trans State Nation..

"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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  • A History of Tamil Literature
    Mu Varadarajan, translated from Tamil by E.Sa Visswanathan
    Sahitiya Akademi, Madras 1988

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[see also Tamil Language & Literature]
Tamil Language - Ola Leaf

Preface Chapter 1 Tamil Language Chapter 2 - Tamil Literature

Preface by Professor T.P. Meenakshisundaran, Madurai  1 October 1970

"With the exception of Sanskrit, Tamil is the only language in India, with a hoary past and a rich tradition of literary history. It reveals the commingling of cultures comparable to that of a garland of flowers of many hue. In spite of the fusion of cultures everyone could perceive the distinctive features of the Tamil language and literature and enjoy their beauty, which form the basis of the Dravidian culture.

The literary world knows the uniqueness of the Cankam classics. One of the twin epics, the Cilappatikaram, bewitched the minds of many scholars. The Tirukkural, an ethical work, and the Tiruvacakam, a collection of devotional songs, won the hearts of many literary critics even in their translations both in oriental and Occidental languages.

One could comprehend the quintessence of  Saiva Siddhanta philosophy and the philosophy of Vaisnavism only through the media of Tamil literature and culture.

It is, therefore, imperative that one should be familiar with the history of Tamil literature.

The Sahitya Akademi invited the eminent scholar and professor of Tamil, Mu. Varadarajan, to write the history of Tamil literature. He is an erudite scholar in Tamil language and literature.
He distinguished himself as a professor, who could convey lucidly the essential features of Tamil literature to students as well as to common people. Himself a creative writer of repute, he received the Sahitya Akademi Award for his novel in Tamil. He is one among those few scholars, who could enjoy reading the entire gamut of Tamil literature: the ancient, the mediaeval and the modern periods. Such a scholar has written A History of Tamil Literature (Tamil Ilakkiya Varalaru) in his own inimitable style. This work will remain as a priceless offering not merely to the intellectual world but to the people of India."

Tamil Language

Old Dravidian

In the historical past Proto-Dravidian was spoken throughout India. When the Turanians and the Aryans came to India through the Khyber and the Bolan Passes respectively, and mingled with the local population of the North, the North Indian languages of Proto-Dravidian origin changed to a great extent. As a consequence Praakrit and Paali emerged as the languages of the masses in the northern part of India.

Despite the commingling of local and foreign ethnic elements, a section of Proto-Dravidians maintained their ethnic and cultural identity in some isolated areas, spoke corrupt forms of Proto-Dravidian languages and these have survived, to this day, as living examples of ancient Dravidian languages. Languages such as Kolami, Parji, Naiki, Gondi, Ku, Kuvi, Konda, Malta, Oroan, Gadba, Khurukh, and Brahui are examples of Dravidian languages prevalent in the North. Today Proto-Dravidian speakers are increasingly mingling with other linguistic groups and learning their languages. Therefore, their numerical strength is on the decline.

People living in the Rajmahal mountains in Bengal and in the areas adjacent to Chota Nagpur are good examples of the intermingling. A section of people living in Baluchistan speak Brahui, which has many linguistic features similar to the Dravidian languages spoken in South India. Scholars are surprised today to note many linguistic similarities between Tamil and Brahui, especially in numerals, personal pronouns, syntax and in other linguistic features. The Indian Census report of 1911 classified Brahui as a language belonging to the Dravidian family. It was then spoken by about 170, 000 people, although this number over the years dwindled to a couple of thousands. Whatever be their numerical strength now, they are proof of the fact that the Dravidians in some age of the historical past were spread in the region between Baluchistan and Bengal and spoke the Proto-Dravidian idiom.

North Indian Languages

Since the Dravidians lived throughout the Indian subcontinent at some historical past, certain syntactical affinities are noticeable even today between the South and a large number of North Indian languages.

When Praakrit and Paali became popular in the North, the Proto-Dravidian language lost its ground there, and confined itself entirely to the South. Even in South India it did not remain as one single language for a long time. Dialectical differences arose partly due to the political division of the Tamil country into three distinct Tamil kingdoms and partly due to the natural barriers created by rivers and mountains.

The absence of proper land communication among the three Tamil kingdoms also accentuated this process of dialectal differences. As a result the Dravidian language spoken by the people. who lived in the regions north and south of the Tirupati mountains, varied to such an extent as to become two independent languages, Tamil and Telugu. The language spoken in the region of Mysore came to be known as Kannada. Malayalam emerged as yet another distinct language in Kerala. All these far-reaching changes occurred at different periods of time in the history of the Dravidian languages. Among these four languages, it is only the Tamil language which has a long literary tradition.

The term Dravidian, which refers to the language of South India, is of a later origin. Originally it was derived from the word tamil . This word in course of time changed into dravida after undergoing a series of changes like tamila, tramila, tramita, trapida and travida. At one time the languages spoken in the regions of Karnataka, Kongu and Malabar were respectively known as Karunaattut-tamil, Tulunattut-tamil and Malainattut-tamil. Today however, these regional languages are classified under the blanket term "Dravidian family of languages".

South Indian Languages

Many common linguistic features are still discernible among these Dravidian languages. Some five thousand words are common to these languages. Many grammatical forms are common. The overwhelming influence of Sanskrit scholars and the indiscriminate borrowing of Sanskrit words resulted in the emergence of Kannada and Telugu as distinct languages from Tamil some fifteen hundred years ago.

The influence of Sanskrit on Malayalam language came to be felt only about eight centuries ago, and therefore, the areas of difference between Tamil and Malayalam are not many. Tamil was the language of bureaucracy, of literati and of culture for several centuries in Kerala. In fact, fifteen centuries ago the rulers of Kerala were all Tamils.

Up to the tenth century the Pandya kings ruled Kerala with royal titles such as 'Perumaankal and 'Perumaankanar'. It was a Tamil poet from Trivandrum who in fact presided over the academy of Tamil scholars, when they met to evaluate the famous Tamil grammatical work Tolkappiyam.

From the third century 13.C. to the first century A.D., many poets from Kerala composed poems in Tamil and their compositions are included in Tamil anthologies such as Akananaru and Purananaru. All the one hundred poems in the anthology Patirruppattu extol the greatness of the kings of the Kerala region. The author of the famous Tamil epic Cilappatikaram was a poet from Kerala. The shrine in honor of Kannaki, the heroine of Cilappatikaram, was built at Tiruvancikkulam in Kerala.

Among the Saiva and Vaisnava composers, Ceraman Perumal Nayanaar and Kulacekara Alvaar respectively, belong to the Kerala region. Aiyaneritanaar, the author of the tenth century grammatical work Purapporul Venpaamaalai, hailed from Kerala. Many scholars and pundits from Kerala contributed much to the Tamil language and literature and the historical evidence shows that the region now known as the State of Kerala was once an integral part of Tamil Nadu at some period of time. Because of these reasons there is greater affinity between Tamil and Malayalam than between Tamil and Kannada or Telugu.

Contact with Foreign Countries

Tamil occupies a distinctive position among the Dravidian languages owing to its geographical expansion, for it has spread beyond the frontiers of India. Apart from being the language of forty million people in Tamil Nadu it is the spoken and written language of several millions of Tamils living in Ceylon, Burma, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, South Africa, Fiji Islands and Mauritius.

That the Tamils were well advanced in sea-borne and inland trade is evident both from Tamil literary sources as also from the accounts of foreign travellers.1 Even as early as the tenth century B.C., articles of trade such as peacock feathers, elephant tusks and spices intended for King Solomon were sent in ships belonging to the Tamil country. Some words in Hebrew, Greek and English point to the existence of trade between Tamil Nadu and the countries around the Mediterranean region. Classical Hebrew terms like tuki and ahalat are close to the Tamil words tokai and akil respectively.

Although English words like 'sandalwood' and 'rice' are borrowed from the Greek language, their origin is in fact Tamil. Likewise the Greek words for ginger and pepper also owe their origin to Tamil. Sea-borne trade flourished between the Tamil country and the Roman Empire during the period of Emperor Augustus. This fact is borne out by numerous coins issued during his reign, which were unearthed by archaeologists in the Tamil country. Iron age finds in Philippines also point to the existence of trade between Tamil Nadu and the Philippine Islands during the ninth and tenth centuries B.C. This apart, Tamil traders frequented the shores of Burma, Malaya and China with their wares and bartered them for Chinese silk and sugar. The Tamil word ciini for sugar indicates its origin. In Tamil classical works, Chinese silk is referred to as ciinattupattu.

Foreigners who toured India gave an account of the flourishing trade between the Tamil regions of India and other countries. Periplus and Pliny mention that since articles from Tamil Nadu such as pearls, elephant tusks and muslin were bartered for gold, and that the trade balance was more in favour of the Tamils, the Emperor Vespasian viewed especially the drain of gold as a serious threat to his country's economy and took the extreme step of terminating the two-way trade between Rome and the Tamil country. References to the ports of trade in the Tamil country such as Tonti, Muciri, Korkai and Kaavirippumpattinam are also found in the writings of Periplus. Ptolemy writing in A.D. 150 speaks about Ceraas, Cholaas and Paandyas as the rulers of Tamil Nadu. He also mentions the important trading centres like Karur, Nagappattinam and Pondicherry in his travel notes. All these references to the trading activities of the Tamils in foreign writings correlate to those found in the early Tamil classics.

The business acumen of the Tamils is shown in the special terms used by them to refer even to the minutest fractions in calculation. To cite some examples, the term immi referred to the fraction of 1/320 x 1/7. And one-seventh of this fraction was termed as anu. One-eleventh of an anu was known as mummi and one ninth of a mummi was termed kuNam.

The renowned Sanskrit epics the Raamayanaa and the Mahaabhaarata also speak about the Tamil country and in particular the importance of Madurai as the capital of the Paandyaa kings. Megasthenes, who came to India during the period of Chandragupta Maurya, refers to the Paandya country and its polity. The edicts of the famous Indian Emperor Asoka also mention that during his rule the Tamil kings in the far south of India enjoyed political independence.

Antiquity of Tamil Grammatical Works

Among the ancient grammatical works available, the Tolkappiyam was the earliest and it was written around the third century B.C. There are over two hundred and fifty references in Tolkaappiyam which, provide substantial evidence of the existence of many classical and grammatical works in Tamil prior to Tolkaappiyam itself. It classifies Tamil words into four categories, iyarcol, tiricol, ticaiccol, and vatacol. Iyarcol refers to the words in common use, while tiricol refers to the words used specifically in poetry. Regional words are known as ticaiccol. Words borrowed from Sanskrit are called vatacol. Certain specific rules were stipulated in borrowing words from Sanskrit. The borrowed words were to strictly conform to the Tamil phonetic system and to be written in the Tamil script. All these indicate the sound grammatical basis on which the Tamil language has evolved over the years.

Besides, Tolkaappiyam also classifies the Tamil language into centamil and kotuntamil. The former refers to the classical Tamil used exclusively by literati in their works and the latter refers to the colloquial Tamil, spoken by the people. This shows that even in those distant days differences had grown to such an extent as to enable the Tamil grammarians to classify the language into written and spoken.

Tamil Scripts

The earlier Tamil inscriptions were written in braahmi, grantha and vattezuttu scripts.2 Inscriptions after the seventh century A.D. contain Tamil characters similar to the one now in vogue. This prompted some scholars to argue that vatteluttu and Tamil scripts originated from braahmi scripts. This view has no solid base, for one can see a copious description of Tamil scripts in Tolkaappiyam, which belongs to third century B.C. It is obvious therefore, that Tamil language had a distinct script of its own even at that early period. In fact vaTTezuttu is none other than the old Tamil script. Even the southern braahmi was a corrupt form of vaTTezuttu . Distinct differences exist between the southern and the northern braahmi script, for the southern one had its genesis in vaTTezuttu . Much before brahmi scripts could become popular the Tamils possessed a script of their own which they put to use in their commercial transactions and in their writings.

The Tamii characters which are in use today also can be deemed to have originated from vatteluttu. There are twelve vowels in Tamil consisting of five short vowels, a, i, u, e, and o (அ, இ, உ, எ, ஒ); their corresponding five long vowels, aa, ii, uu, ee and oo (ஆ,ஈ,ஊ, ஏ, ஓ) and two letters ai and au (ஐ, ஔ) for the prevention of hiatus.

There are eighteen consonants made up of six surds k. c, T, t, p, and R (க், ச், ட், த், ப், ற்) and their corresponding six sonants g, j, N, n, m, n2 (ங், ஞ், ண், ந், ம், ந்) and six medials y, r, l, v, z and L (ய், ர், ல், ழ், வ், ள்) . The two short vowels e and o (எ, ஒ) which are not in Devanagari are essential to Tamil and other languages of the Dravidian family.

There is a world of difference in meaning between the words eTu and ETu (எடு, ஏடு); koTu and kOTu (கொடு, கோடு), teL and tEL (தெள், தேள்); as well as koL and kOl (கொள், கொல்). It is therefore, needless to emphasise the importance of short and long vowels like e and ee/E (எ, ஏ); as well as o and O (ஒ, ஓ) in Tamil.

There are no aspirated consonants like gha or cha in Tamil. Likewise the letter h ( ஹ) is also absent in Tamil. But a corresponding letter k (ஃ), known as aytam is used to soften the surds in Tamil. The trilled consonant R (ற்) is quite different from r (ர்).The consonant n (ன்) has a nasal sound and it is different from other dentals. The consonant l ( ல்) is equally essential like that of the consonant L ( ள்). These two different l's exist both in Telugu and in Kannada. The consonant z (ழ்) is found only in Tamil and Malayalam. It had existed in old Kannada but not now. The two vowels ru ( ரு) and lu ( லு), which are there in Devanagari, are not there in Tamil. The short-nature u (உ) and i ( இ) sounds are in Tamil, but there are no letters to indicate them.

If the letters ka, ca, Ta, ta, pa (க, ச, ட, த, ப, ற) appear at the beginning of a word, after hard vowel consonants. and after doubling they will be pronounced like surds. In other places they will be pronounced like sonants. Although there are no distinct letters for surds and sonants in Tamil, the vowel consonants themselves are pronounced like surds and sonants depending on the place in which they appear. Therefore the one Tamil consonant ka (k) is pronounced like gha depending upon its placement in a word. Likewise other hard vowel consonants ta (த), ca (ச), Ta (ட) and pa (ப) are pronounced differently like ( dha, cha, tha, bha) respectively according to the place where they appear in a word. There are no sibilants like sa, sha, Sa in Tamil.

There are distinct letters in Tamil to indicate numerals and fractions. There are evidences to show that the present roman numerals 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 originated from Tamil.

Classification and Formation of Words

There are four kinds of words in Tamil. Among them the root words or uriccol which were used in ancient poems are not popular now. If we exclude them then there exist only three types of words namely nouns, verbs and itaiccol or particles. The nouns indicate animate and inanimate categories of things, gender, number and person. tiNai is classified into uyartiNai (nouns denoting personal class of beings, including men, gods and demons) and akRiNai (inferior class of beings whether animate, inanimate, or neuter). Higher categories of animate beings like human beings fall under uyortiNai. Others, both animate and inanimate come under the category of akriNai. There are three genders in uyartiNai: masculine, feminine and neuter. Palar paal or neuter plural gender indicates many in number. Masculine and feminine genders in Tamil indicate only singular number. AkRiNai is classified into onRan paal (singular of the impersonal class) and palvin pal (plural of the impersonal class).

Again, number is classified into one and many. Unlike Sanskrit there is no dual number in Tamil. There are three 'persons' in Tamil, namely, first person, second person and third person. Case inflexions are many in Tamil and their indicators form as suffixes in words.

Distinction between animate and inanimate things, and masculine and feminine genders are usually made according to the meaning of words.

Verbs are classified into finite and infinite verbs. Most of the finite verbs are formed with suffixes which indicates this animate or inanimate quality, as also gender. The gender is not distinguished both in abstract nouns and in relative participles. Both verbs and nouns are formed from verbal roots. But very few verbs are formed from noun roots.

Particles have no meaning of their own but acquire meaning when added to other words and help to differentiate their meanings too. Even meaningless words are regarded as particles.

Most of the words in Tamil are agglutinative in character, i.e. case indicators, time and gender markers are affixed to root words. As a result, the formation of words become clear. Even the words in the classical literature are agglutinative in character. There is no distinction between the roots that were used in ancient classics and those which are now in vogue. The root word which was used to mean 'food' in ancient classics was una. The one used in medieval period was either uN or uNTi. Whereas the modern word for food is uNavu. In all these words whether ancient, mediaeval or modern, the root word un is clear. Only the suffixes differ. Therefore, the Tamil of ancient poetry too begins to seem familiar after a while if one reads the ancient classical poetry for a time. This is the reason why the Tamils of this century find little difficulty in understanding the Cankam classics. It also accounts for the continuity that exists in Tamil literary growth. One finds it used in the poems of the hymnodists and Kampan, composed in the seventh century and the twelfth century respectively.

There is little difference in syntax between ancient and modern Tamil. Although over a period of time word forms have changed the formation of syntax remains intact in all the Dravidian languages. In this respect there exist similarity between the languages of the South and the North, though they fall under a different category known as Indo-European languages. The fact that syntax changes very little, while other aspects of a language do, is brought out in the similarity one finds in the formation of syntax between the Dravidian languages of the South and the languages of the North of India. This explains why syntactical differences exist between the languages of North India on the one hand and Sanskrit, Greek and Latin on the other; and why there exists similarity between north and south Indian languages. This unity in syntactical formation becomes obvious if one analyses all the four major Dravidian languages of South India. If one analyses the continuous growth of Tamil language the perceivable truth is that there is little change in the formation of syntax both in the classical Tamil and the Tamil used in modern short stories.

Unnecessary Polemics

Among the spoken languages of India, Tamil achieved perfection even during the pre-historic period. Literary growth in Tamil took place at the same time when there was similar growth in Sanskrit. Literary works came to be written only at a later period in all other Indian languages. Therefore there was considerable antiquity for Tamil language and literature.

Besides, the ancient classical Tamil literature originated and blossomed from the folk song and poetry of the Tamil country. The forms of such poetry were also not borrowed from any other language, but were culled from the folk poetry and songs that was in vogue among the people of Tamil Nadu. The existence of such combination of antiquity and individuality in Tamil literature, was forgotten by later day Sanskrit scholars. As such they not merely denied the greatness due to the Tamil language but began to look upon it on the assumption that it borrowed immensely from Sanskrit from its very inception.

Therefore, Sanskritists indulged in unwanted polemics by arguing that Tamil had no intrinsic merit of its own because it borrowed heavily from Sanskrit. To establish this assumption, Caminata Desikar, a Sanskrit scholar and author of a grammatical work entitled ilakkaNakkottu compared the alphabets of Sanskrit and Tamil and found that all, expect five alphabets, the two short vowels e (எ) and o (ஒ) and three consonants Ra, na and za (ற, ன, ழ) are common to both the languages. Therefore he argued that all the characters common to the two languages essentially belonged to Sanskrit and the five rare symbols which are absent in Sanskrit belonged specifically to Tamil. Based on his findings he wrote an unusual verse in which he posed insolently a question whether Tamil with only five letters of its own could ever be called a language.

Intelligent persons will be ashamed
To call it a language
That possesses only five letters.3

This scurrilous verse only indicates the irrational attitude of the Sanskrit scholars of the seventeenth century.

Such unreasonable attitude became obvious in analysing the origin of words that were common to Sanskrit and Tamil. Basic words like niir (water) and miin (fish) which had been in use from time immemorial in Tamil language was interpreted by Sanskrit scholars as having originated from Sanskrit roots. They refused to consider the possibility that Sanskrit would have borrowed these common words from Tamil, the most ancient language of the region, and even propagated that most of the words in Tamil had been borrowed from Sanskrit.

The Tamil scholars were perplexed by such unfounded claims. However with the arrival of linguists like Caldwell from Europe, and with the publication of books in English refuting the claims of Sanskritists, Tamil scholars gained confidence in the intrinsic value of Tamil language. Despite this, the biased views held by Sanskritists held sway ir the world of letters even up to this century until linguists in England like Burrow falsified these erroneous claims by their researches. This controversy persisted even in analysing the names of places in the Tamil region. After translating certain names of places from Tamil to Sanskrit, the Sanskrit scholars argued that they were borrowed from Sanskrit.

One classic example was Vriddhachalam which is a literal translation of the Tamil place called MutukunRam. Likewise, several names of deities were translated into Sanskrit. The devotional hymns of the Nayanmars in fact mentioned these names in their pure Tamil form. Instances are not wanting that while translating names of places from Tamil into Sanskrit, the Sanskrit scholars failed to comprehend the real meaning of the original Tamil words and translated them erroneously.

Without knowing the actual meaning of the name of a town ArkkaTu (Arcot), the Sanskrit scholars translated it Sataranyam, which literally means six forests, whereas the Tamil word arkkaTu literally means a forest of fig trees. To perpetuate these Sanskritised names, they wrote stories as well. Despite their efforts Sanskritised names failed to gain currency among the people. The Sanskrit scholars, for example, tried to Sanskritise the name of the river Paalaaru as Ksra Nati. It could not be perpetuated. Thus the Sanskrit scholars unnecessarily sowed the seeds of dissension in the Tamil country.

Tanit-Tamil Iyakkam (Pure Tamil Movement)

Sanskrit scholars attempted to Sanskritise Tamil several centuries ago by the liberal use of Sanskrit words. They argued that such a liberal mixture enhanced the beauty of the Tamil language and compared the hybrid language to an ornament made out of equal number of pearls and corals. They called the hybrid style as manippravala style and attempted to popularize it in the country. Some of the Jain and Vaisnava Sanskrit scholars employed that style using grantha scripts Their attempts, however, failed because of the naturally rich vocabulary and literary wealth of the Tamil language.

Sanskrit scholars, however, refused to acknowledge the real merit of Tamil literary works. Although they were born in the Tamil country, spoke the Tamil language, and lived as Tamilians, they seldom read such important works as the TEvaram and the Tiruvaacakam. They treated lightly those who attained scholarship only in Tamil. Even the hymns of Nayanmars, which found a pride of place in temple rituals during the Chola period, lost their importance at a later stage. They went to the extent of denigrating Tamil as the language of the mortal and extolling Sanskrit as the language of gods.

If the Sanskritists found laudable ideas in Tamil works, they tried to belittle their merit saying that those were borrowed ideas from Sanskrit works. They tried even to underrate the importance of Tiruvalluvar's Tirukkural by running it down as a compendium of ideas translated from Sanskrit works. Likewise they considered that Tolkaappiyam, the first grammatical work by Tolkappiyar was based on Sanskrit. To substantiate their view, they assigned the work of Tolkappiyar to Tiranatumakkini who was a scholar in Sanskrit. The RaamayaNaa, Mahaabhaarata, PuraaNas and other philosophical works were no doubt borrowed from Sanskrit but the Sanskrit scholars tried to camouflage the very existence of great literary works in Tamil like the Cankam classics, didactic and devotional literature. But their efforts were halted only when scholars like V.K. Curiyanaraayana Sastriar and Maraimalaiyatikal focussed the attention of the people on the literary treasures of the Tamil language.

Two Different Types of Tamil Style

Though the efforts to Sanskritise Tamil no longer exist, the repercussions of those earlier efforts are still felt in society. One effect, of course, was the virulent opposition to the use of Sanskrit words in Tamil, and this opposition has not subsided even today.

At a time when all merit and greatness were attributed to Sanskrit alone, Tamil scholars like cUriyanarayana Sastriar and CuvAmi Vetaacalam preferred to use only the Tamil equivalents of their Sanskrit names, Paritimarkalainjar and MaRaimalaiyaTikal respectively. Despite their stance, their earlier Tamil prose works contained many words of Sanskrit origin.

When the Sanskritists claimed that Tamil could not exist without Sanskrit, the two Tamil scholars addressed themselves to the task of writing Tamil without borrowing from Sanskrit. Curiyanarayana Sastriyar, the pioneer of this style of writing died at a very young age. His contemporary, MaTaimalaiyaTikal lived longer and crystallized this attitude into a movement in 1916. Since then the movement has been popularly known as the Tanit-Tamil lyakkam or the Pure Tamil Movement among the Tamil scholars.

Its impact still persists among the Tamils. Those who have interest in maintaining the purity of Tamil language even now prefer to substitute a Tamil equivalent for Sanskrit names given by their parents. With vengeance they totally reject borrowings from Sanskrit. Instead they prefer to borrow from English. The Tamil scholars consider it their duty to write in chaste Tamil free from Sanskrit and have been writing like this since the inception of the Pure Tamil Movement. The virulence of the movement was due to the past pride of the Sanskritists in their knowledge of Sanskrit language.

The blunders committed by them have given rise to two different views as well as controversies in the use of Tamil. One group preferred to use as far as possible a pure Tamil without the admixture of Sanskrit words; others preferred to write in a hybrid language. Even now many writers to daily newspapers, weeklies and monthlies write in a hybrid language. Therefore the Tamil scholars denounce their writing as faulty. The writings of the Tamil scholars are criticised as too difficult to read, lifeless and artificial. Thus the effect of the old controversy still exists, although in a different form.

In the historic past, Sanskrit played the role of a communication language among the scholars, who lived in different parts of the Indian sub-continent. Therefore it was learnt avidly by scholars at Kanchipuram as well as at Banaras. The sum-total of human knowledge available from Kaveri to the Gangetic plains was written in the Sanskrit language. Ideas relating to literature, religion and theories of art were found elaborately set forth in Sanskrit. Many forget that quite a lot of authors of these Sanskrit works were scholars from South India.

For example Dandin the author of the Kavyadarga in Sanskrit, was a scholar from Kanchipuram in the Tamil country. Sankara the exponent of Advaita philosophy, was again a South Indian. He mentioned in his works Saint Gnanacampantar, the crusader against Jainism in South India. Raamanujar, the originator of Visishtaadvaita philosophy was a Tamillian and he lived every close to Kanchipuram. Scholars who analysed the life-style and arts of the people of the Tamil country, wrote many works on the Bharata Naatyasastra, the Carnatic music and on astrology. Therefore, if one considers these facts dispassionately, it was unrealistic on the part of later day Sanskrit scholars to denigrate Tamil language and literature. It is equally true in the case of Tamil scholars to think that theories and ideas found in Sanskrit were alien to Tamil.

The Tamil scholars took the cue from the old commentators for writing prose. The commentators including Parimelazakar and others, who were known for their scholarship in Sanskrit, wrote in pure Tamil with the least borrowing from Sanskrit. Their style of writing was similar to the one now in vogue, for the present-day Tamil scholars adopted only their style.

The journalists' style has been based on the spoken language of the Tarnils. In spoken language, foreign loan words are mixed freely and syntax corresponds to emotional situations. Poet Paaratiyaar composed poems largely in pure Tamil. He followed the same method while writing essays too.

Tiru. Vi. Kaliyanacuntaraar moved very closely with Tamil scholars and journalists. He was himself a distinguished scholar and a seasoned journalist. He wrote many literary works and also edited a number of daily newspapers and weeklies. He was a link between the Tamil scholars and the journalist of his day. His earlier writings abound in Sanskrit words. With the advent of the Pure Tamil Movement, he began to write without the admixture of Sanskrit words. He used foreign words only when there were no suitable Tamil words to express a particular idea. He gave up long and stilted sentences and largely used emotionally charged short sentences common to spoken language. Thus his writings and speeches, tried to bridge the chasm that existed between the scholars and journalists. Even now two different types of styles exist: one adopted by the scholars and the other followed by the journalists.

Dialectical Conventions

There exist slight regional differences in the spoken Tamil of the people living in various parts of the Tamil country. In the nineteenth century, in the absence of transport facilities, dialectical differences would have been more pronounced than it is now. Now they are on the decline because of increased transport and educational facilities. Besides mass-media, such as daily newspapers, journals, radio and television are also contributing factors. However, there are some differences between the Tamil spoken at Tirunelveli and Coimbatore. These two dialects differ distinctly from the Tamil spoken in Thanjavur and Tiruchirappalli. The Tamil spoken in the city of Madras on the other hand differs from all of them, because of the liberal borrowing of words from Telugu, Urdu and English languages.

Similar differences exist in the phonetics also. The vowel consonant ca ( ச) is distinctly pronounced in Tirunelveli, whereas in the northern part of Tamil Nadu it is pronounced as sa (ஸ) at the beginning of words. The letter za (ழ), which is unique to the Tamil language is pronounced differently from one district to another. In the southern districts it is pronounced as la (ள), in Salem as ya ( ய ) and in the city of Madras it is pronounced in both the ways. The verb izu (இழு) is pronounced as icu (இசு). In spoken language vaazaippazam (வாழைப்பழம்) is pronounced to the detestation of scholars as vaaLappaLam (வாளப்பளம்) and Vaayappayam (வாயப்பயம்). Certain classes of people pronounce the verb irukkiratu (is) as irukku (இருக்கு). Others pronounce it is irukkutu (இருக்குது) and the illiterates as kiitu. The verb ceytuvittaar (has done it) is pronounced in spoken language as ceynjiTTaar, cenjiTTaar and cenjipuTTaar. Likewise the verb eTuttukkoNtan (has taken it) is pronounced as etuttukkinan, etuttukNan, and etuttukkittan.

Some words have altogether a different meaning in the Tamil used in Sri Lanka. The known meaning for the word aRutalaka  is comforting. But in Sri Lanka 'calmly' and 'leisurely (amaitiyaaka and kaalataamatamaaka). The Tamils in Sri Lanka use the word kataippOm (��*�����) instead of pecikkoNTirappOm  which means 'will be talking'. Likewise they use caTanku (rituals) for tirumaNam (marriage); kaNakka (heavy or weighty) for niRaiya (full); vaTivaai(beautiful) for nanRaaka (better or well); and kantOr (office) for aluvalakarn (office).

Foreign Loan Words in Tamil

Words borrowed from English are phonetically changed and used as such in Sri Lanka. For example pan (bun) is written as pan (பான்); kappi (coffee) as koppi (கோப்பி), kOrt (court) as kot ; Sart (shirt) as set, taarc (torch) as rOc and taval (towel) as tuvaai. Likewise many Tamil words are phonetically changed and used as such in spoken and written Tamil of Sri Lanka.

English and Hindi words are used in spoken Tamil of the people who live in the northern districts of Tamil Nadu. Such loan words are not phonetically changed but written in the same way as they are pronounced in the concerned languages.

For example such words as bus, cycle, car, office, late, post, bank, and coffee (pas , caikkil, kaar, apis, let, post, pank, and kaappi respectively) are written in Tamil characters in the manner they are pronounced in English. Script writers, novelists and short story writers use these Tamilised forms in their writings. Some of them use such loan words frequently in their writings, while others use them only when their Tamil equivalents are non-existent.

Although in spoken Tamil such English words as leave, stamp, rail, station and telephone are commonly used, in written Tamil their equivalents vitumuRai, tapaaltalai , pukaivaNTi nilaiyam and tolaipEci  respectively are used. Some Urdu words like calam and capacu found place in the devotional poems of saints Arunakirin�tar and Kumarakuruparar, who lived in the seventeenth century. As a result of North Indian's contact some words from the Hindi language are used in the present-day spoken Tamil. For the same reason many sweets prepared in hotels of Tamil Nadu bear Hindi names.

From time immemorial a few Sanskrit words had been intermixed with Tamil. Prior to the second century A.D., and during the Cankam period only one per cent of Sanskrit words intermingled with Tamil. This increased to three to five per cent in the devotional songs of Alvars and Naayanmaars who lived in the seventh and eighth centuries respectively.

During the period of the epics also the intermixing of Sanskrit words with Tamil continued to increase. It reached its high water mark in the thirteenth century when the maNippravaala style became popular. As a result the number of Sanskrit loan words increased phenomenally in the religious prose works of the Jains and the Vaisnavites. But the commentators of grammatical and literary works wrote in chaste Tamil with the least number of Sanskrit loan words. As a result the maNippravaala style fell into disuse.

However in the Puranas, Talapuraanas, Ulaas and Kalambakams the percentage of Sanskrit loan words continued to remain at five to eight per cent. In the subsequent centuries the frequency increased with the advent of certain new types of versifications like yarnakam, ciletai and matakku. They, however, became obsolete in course of time.

Most of the devotional songs of Raamalinka Cuvaamikal contain very few Sanskrit loan words. Their percentage is very high in his prose work. Certain new usages peculiar to the Christians found their place in the Bible. A new translation of the Bible in chaste Tamil is now available. Certain Arabic words were frequently used by Muslim writers in their works. Even today stories written on Muslim families contain some words of Arabic origin. Stories about anglicized families or families living in metropolitan cities contain many words from English to reflect the spirit of their spoken Tamil as well as to give realism to the story. Though foreign loan words were used in Tamil in lesser or greater degree for various reasons and at different periods of time, the Tamil language itself retained its individuality. It can be said that among the living languages of India, it is the Tamil language which has the least number of foreign loan words.


1. For an interesting account of the ancient Tamils refer, P.T. Srinivasa Iyengar, History of the Tamil from the Earliest Times to 600 A.D., Madras, 1929, pp. 36-43.; and A.L. Basham, The Wonder that was India, London, 1954, p. 62. --

2. According to Professor M. Varadarajan, vaTTezuttu was nothing but the scripts inscribed on stones. They had been known as veTTezuttu or letters inscribed on stones. But in course of time and by usage it was transformed into vaTTezuttu . For an in-depth study of Tamil scripts refer, M. Varadarajan. Moli Varalaaru (The History of Tamil Language), Madras, 1954, pp. 425~37. The view of a historian on the same subject is as follows: "What the vaTTezuttu is and how it came into being and how it was practiced we cannot say definitely. But we can say almost with some definiteness that it represents a very ancient cursive alphabet, perhaps the primitive South Indian alphabet which existed long, long before the inscriptions of Asoka." V.R.R. Dikshitar, Pre-Historic South India, Madras, 1951, p. 218. Yet for another view of the origins of Tamil scripts refer, John R. Marr, "The Early Dravidians" in A.L. Basham (ed.), A Cultural History of India, London. 1975, pp. 32-34.

3. Arumuka Navalar (ed.), llakkanakkottu (Madras). p. 9, lines 27-28.

Tamil Literature

The history of Tamil literature dates back to the pre-Christian era. As there was little impact of other linguistic groups or literatures on the Tamil country, the earliest Tamil poetical forms were derived from folk songs. Since literary works in other Dravidian languages came to be written only after the eighth century A.D., the Tamil literature prior to this, extending over a period of twelve centuries, had grown like the first child in a joint family.

There is no clear reference to Kannada and Telugu languages in the Cankam classics (B.C. 500 -200A.D.). Likewise no reference exists regarding Malayalam, the language of Kerala, the region on the south western coast-line of peninsular India. The people who lived beyond the Tirupati Hills were referred to as vatukar in the Cankam classics. Likewise Kerala was mentioned as Cera nadu.

People of  that region studied Tamil poetical works. And their poets too composed poems in Tamil. The contact with Sanskrit scholars was there between the Cankam. period and the seventh century A.D. But it was restricted to Tamil scholars living in the urban areas. It was then that certain Sanskrit words like teyvam (God), karanam (reason) and anai (command) gained a place in Tamil vocabulary. Likewise many words from North Indian languages found a place in Tamil with the spread of Jainism and Buddhism in the Tamil country. The Buddhists and Jains, who were well versed in Sanskrit, Prakrit and Pali, were largely responsible for this admixture.

The impact of Sanskrit literature on Tamil gradually increased. Only then was there an influx of Sanskrit words into Tamil. During this period only two languages, Tamil and Sanskrit, were regarded as literary languages. The former was known as the language of the South and the latter as the language of the North. Sanskrit scholars termed Tamil as Dravidian. Since it was called Dravidian, it was not mentioned as such in Tamil literary works of the time.

Saint Tirunavukkarcar, who lived in the seventh century A.D., while praising the omnipotence of Lord Siva, mentions that He was the personification of Aryan and Tamil, thereby classifying the cultural composition of ancient India into two main groups. The same idea found expression in the puranas as well, where it is indicated from one side of the tamarukam (a small leather musical instrument held by Siva) originated Sanskrit and from the other, Tamil. It was also the origin of the story that Siva taught Sanskrit to Panini, and Tamil to Agastya. All these indicate that in the earlier period of Indian literary history only Tamil and Sanskrit existed.

Contact with Sanskritists

After the eighth century A.D. Jain scholars translated some Sanskrit works into Tamil while certain other works were based on Sanskrit. Up to the third century A.D. only the Ceras, the Colas and the Pandyas ruled the Tamil country. A turmoil followed their rule, and the Pallavas of Kanchipuram emerged as the political power.

Some of the Pallava rulers were learned in Sanskrit. The Pallava king, Mahendravarman wrote his magnum opus, Mattavilasa, a play (farce) in Sanskrit. The Pallava rulers in general patronized both Sanskrit and Tamil languages and literatures as well as fine arts. Their capital, Kanchipuram, became the centre of Sanskrit studies. Famous poets like Dandin, the author of Kavyadarsa, and others lived there and rendered great service to Sanskrit language and literature. As a result of the emergence of Sanskrit as an important language, three different types of scholars appeared on the literary scene: scholars proficient both in Tamil and Sanskrit and others skilful in any one of the two languages. The number of Sanskrit scholars increased when Sankara's Advaita and Ramauja's Visistadvaita philosophies became popular in the country. During this period many Sanskrit Puranas were also translated into Tamil.

It was then that some scholars realised that both Tamil and Sanskrit scholars function as two distinct groups within a single cultural milieu. They attempted to bring them together by innovating anew style of hybrid writing called manippravala, where equal amount of Sanskrit and Tamil words were used like pearl and coral.

Some Vaisnavite scholars (who wrote commentaries on the devotional songs of Alvars) and certain Jain scholars tried to popularise the hybrid style by writing in manippravala. They sincerely believed that this style would promote unity and create a climate of understanding between Tamil and Sanskrit scholars. With this aim in view certain Sanskrit works were written in Grantha script and Tamil works in manippravala style.

Undoubtedly their aim was a noble one. However, they failed to comprehend that a few scholars would not be able to change the very tenor of a language. Despite their noble aim, therefore, the manippravdla style failed to make any headway among the scholars. Eminent poets like Kampar and famous commentators who wrote commentaries on Tamil literary and grammatical texts, rejected this style. Instead they preferred a style consistent with the traditional features of the Tamil language. Some names of characters in Kampan's Ramayana were phonetically modified, and written as such, to sound like Tamil names. In some other cases he translated certain Sanskrit proper names into suitable Tamil equivalents in order to conform to Tamil literary traditions.

As a result proper names like Laksmana, Vibisna, Subarna, Svarnavarna and Ahalya became Ilakkuvan, Vrtanan, Uvanan, Cuvanavannan and Akalikai or Alikai respectively. Some other names like Suvarroavarna and Yagnaviroda were literally translated to read as Kanakameni and Velvippakainan respectively. During this period certain scholars tried to increase the Sanskrit vocabulary in Tamil while others preferred to use a limited number of Sanskrit loan wards with due phonetic modifications. Ultimately the efforts to preserve Tamil words and Tamil sounds triumphed.

Contact with Others

The Pallava dynasty collapsed towards the end of the ninth century A.D. The Colas re-emerged and rose as sovereign power and ruled the Tamil country up to the thirteenth century, when they also disintegrated. Mohammedan invasions rocked the country. Under the Vijayanagar regime Nayak kings gained favour and standing in Tamil Nadu. Owing to the political prominence of the Telugus, their cooperation with Tamils increased in various spheres of activity.

Some of the devotional poems of Alvars were translated into Telugu. During the same period Pirapulirikalilai and other works were translated into Tamil. Likewise the Tamil hagiologies of the Saiva saints were translated into Kannada. As a result of such literary activities a closer understanding was established among the Dravidian languages of the South.

Some Marathi words formed part of the colloquial Tamil, while the Saraboji rulers of Maharashtra ruled part of the Tamil country with their seat at Thanjavur. During the period of the Nawabs of Carnatic some Persian and Arabic words became part of the administrative vocabulary of the Tamil language. Some of them were frequently used in the spoken language as well.

Besides these, the Tamil language borrowed many words from the European languages since the beginning of the seventeenth century. This process of borrowing from the European languages increased when the Portuguese, the Dutch, the English and the French established their commercial and political interests in the country. With the introduction of printing machines, prose works became numerous.

When the English established their political hegemony over the Indian sub-continent, western literary genres like the short story and the novel reached Tamil through the medium of English. Consequently new literary forms like short story, novel and plays were experimented. Since the Tamil speaking area of the Indian subcontinent had been under the political dominance of foreigners up to 1947, the impact of various dynasty of rulers is adequately reflected in the continuous growth of the Tamil language.

Poetic Forms

In the early stages of the development of Tamil literature three types of poetical compositions, akaval, kalippa and paripatal were popular. The akaval type of verse is formed from a minimum of three lines to a maximum of several hundreds of lines. Each line consists of four-feet or four cirs. A combination of two or more metrical units or syllables or acais comprises a foot or cir. The basic metrical unit or acai is formed by one or two vowels. The akaval poetry resembles prose because of its narrative quality. The main difference between akaval and prose is that the former is written in four-foot lines with alliteration and assonance while the latter is invariably without these essential features. However in the earlier days even prose was written in four-foot lines. This can be seen in the prose passages of Cilappatikaram and in the writings of scholars.

The kali verse like akaval is written in four-foot lines with a difference in rhyme. The foot is arranged in such a way as to produce a tripping rhyme. Paripatal has a smooth flowing rhyme. Both kali and paripatal verse forms must have been modelled on folk songs. They are not prosaic either in form or metre, for a variety of poetic components are used to make the verse forms skip. Consequently, Tolkappiyam mentions that these poetical forms are eminently suitable for composing love poems. The Tolkappiyam discusses various types of verse forms. It mentions about venpa, which became popular only after the second century A.D. After this period, kali and paripktal lost their importance. Besides these Tolkappiyam refers to another poetical form known as pannatti. Perhaps this type of verse form has been from folk music. It is but natural for certain musical forms, to enter literature. Today too there are some such music generated forms.

Even after grammatical and poetical conventions were well established, Tamil poets continued to favour traditional poetic forms. They remained aloof without trying out in their works, the new folk forms that flourished in those days.

But Ilanko, the author of Cilappatikaram, adopted several of these new folk forms in his work. Likewise the seventh and the eighth century Saiva and Vaisnava hymnodists made the best use of the then available folk music. A new poetical form, viruttam, emerged in fact from folk songs. This new poetical form was first put to major use in the tenth century by the Jain poet Tiruttakkatevar in his epic Civakacintamani. All the three thousand verses are in viruttam.

Prior to the ninth century all the major epics in Tamil had been written in akaval. When Tiruttakkatevar successfully experimented with the viruttam form of versification in his epic, other poets like Cekkilar and Kampar composed their poetical works in viruttam. Till today viruttam is the largely used form in Tamil poetry. Though the term viruttam is a derivation from Sanskrit, there is little connection with Sanskrit prosody. It is in fact a beautiful form of poetry evolved from Tamil folk music. In contrast to akaval, viruttam has no restriction regarding the occurrence of four cirs in a line. A line may consist of four, five, or even forty cirs. However, a viruttam poem should conform to certain rules. It should have four lines. All lines should have exactly the same number of cirs as in the first line. There is no restriction regarding the length of cirs: they may either be long or short depending on the poets' need. Countless variations are possible as a result of this flexible rule. Depending on emotions words are arranged to effect different rhythm patterns. As a result viruttam has become the most suitable form of poetry to give effect to various types of emotions.

In the seventeenth century even such an important medium as viruttam was found inadequate. The poets, therefore, looked for new forms from the then popular folk poetry. As a result certain folk forms like cintu, kanni and kummi gained literary stature. Up to this century, efforts to discover new forms continued. Parathiyar utilised the poetic form found in folk songs sung by street beggars or konaickis. Similarly Paratitacan made use of the rope-dancer's songs to compose one of his very interesting poems. The metrical form found in the kirttarcai has also been adopted in modern Tamil poetry. In addition to these, efforts and experiments are continuing today to evolve new poetical forms.

Different Prose Styles

In the growth of Tamil prose style too one can discover the periodical changes that had taken place in Tamil language. Early prose was written like the akaval with alliteration and assonance.

Later these were reduced, but the syntactical form with subject and predicate was maintained. Even this prose style was not based on the syntax of spoken Tamil. If analysed critically, the early poetical style was closer to spoken Tamil, than to the written one. The written prose possessed brevity. It reflected even the complexity and subtlety of thought. Since the early prose was meant for scholars, it contained many rare words unknown to spoken language.

It was only with the advent of the printing machine, that it was realised that prose could be used by all as a potential medium. As a result prose was simplified, rare words were reduced to the minimum and the syntax became closer to the spoken language. When weeklies and dailies became popular in the last century, Tamil prose attained lucidity and simplicity. Its syntax became similar to the spoken tongue where to novel and short story emerged as popular genres read and appreciated by all, simplicity and lucidity became part of the literary style. As a consequence, a new prose style capable of giving form to different kinds of emotions and thought contents with only simple and known words was evolved.
In the case of poetry, when new forms of versification were introduced, the old forms were not totally rejected.

Even today there are poets who use only traditional forms of versification. Likewise, despite the growth of simple prose, writers are not wanting even now who write in a bombastic style rich in alliterations, assonances and archaic words. Therefore, what is said in the foregoing pages as a growth of new prose style is in fact the changes one finds in the works of many modern writers.

Contents of this Book

The present History of Tamil literature, which traces the periodical changes and subsequent growth of Tamil language and literature, does not attempt to discuss all the works in Tamil.

Innumerable books were written during the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. The books that were written in the past six decades of the twentieth century outnumbered the total number of books publishing during the past twenty-four centuries. Therefore, for obvious reasons, neither all the published books nor all the writers are mentioned in this work. However only the books and authors that are essential to point out the major trends in Tamil language and literature are mentioned in this book.

Since this book is meant for other linguistic groups in the country and written with a limit set to the number of pages, there is no scope for detailed explanation or highlighting special features of books and elaborate notes on authors. A word about modern literature: the works that are mentioned here cannot be said with certainty that they will survive the test of time and remain in the future as literary pieces. Some of the works that are not referred to in this work may in the future live as literary pieces. The tide of time is more powerful than the preferences of my own intellect.

The history of Tamil literature is classified into different ways. The following classification is attempted with the main purpose of enabling other linguistic groups to understand Tamil literature.

Ancient Period

1. The Period of Cankam Literature: B.C. 500-200 A.D. The age of akam and puram poetical works.
2. The Period of Ethical Literature: 100-500 A.D. (a) Tirukkural and other ethical works; (b) Karnarpatu and other works written in venpa metre. -
3. The Period of Old Epics: Cilappatikaram, Manimekalai, Muttollayiram and other works.

Medieval Period

1. The Period of Bhakti Literature: 600-900 A. D. (a) The hymns of Nayanmars and Alvars; (b) Nantikkalam-pakam and other literary works.
2. The Period of Epic Literature: 900-1200 A.D. (a) Jain and Buddhist works like Civakacintamani, Perunkatai and other literary works; (b) Grammatical works like Iraiyanar Kalaviyal and others; (c) Eminent poets like Cekkilar, Kampar, Ottakkuttar, Auvaiyar and others; (d) Minor literary works like ula, parani and pillaittamil.
3. The Period of Commentaries: 1200A.D--1500 A.D.

(a) Commentators like Ilampuranar, Peraciriyar and others;
(b) (i) Commentaries on Vaisnava devotional works; (ii) Islamic literature; (iii) Christian Tamil scholars: Viramamunivar and others; (iv) the growth of prose literature.

Modern Literature

1. Nineteenth Century: (a) Christian contribution to Tamil literature; (b) Ramalinkar, Vetanayakar and others; (c) The growth of novels and essays.
2. Twentieth Century: (a) Paratiyar, Kalki, Putumaippittan; (b) Short story, novel and plays; (c) Biography, essays and critical works.




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