CLASSICAL DANCE OF THE ANCIENT TAMILS
"Nations are as much cultural as political forms, and the creation of a
unique high culture of world significance is often central to their
legitimation." - John Hutchinson, and
David Aberbach in Nations & Nationalism, 1999
paper presented at
Conference Seminar of Tamil Studies
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia 1966
- 40 years later, 15 December 2006]
"...the very fact that only the
Tamil country has been able to preserve through the ages the Bharata
Natya in its original grandeur and pristine purity points to the fact
that this was the dance that had been handed down by the age old
ancestors of the present Tamils which later was perfected by the early
மஹாபரத சூடாமணி என்னும் பாவ ராக தாள சிங்காராதி அபிநயதர்ப்பண விலாசம்
- உமாபதி சிவாசாரியார்
Date of Natya Sastra
Dance and Music in Cilapathikaram
It was once generally believed that in the matter of culture
and civilisation, South India was largely if not exclusively indebted to the
North. A critical study of the cultural history of Ancient India would however
show that the advent of the Aryans into India and their subsequent vic�torious
progress ultimately resulted not so much in the Aryanisation of India as in the
Indianisation of the Aryans.(1)
The excavations at Mohenjodaro and Harappa have revealed that
there existed in this country a very rich and perfect civilisation even before
the advent of the Aryans. "It became evident that long before the arrival
of the horse-riding Northerners, there were highly organised and splendidly
built brick cities in a vast area of India in which a pre-Aryan people of
remarkable skill and knowledge lived. That they were some kind of Dravidian
people, predecessors of the present inhabitants of South India cannot be proved
with certainty, but the cumulative evidence is so strong that a few serious
scholars now doubt the Dravidian character of the pre-Aryan city dwellers of
Western India. After all, there is a good deal of reference to their cities in
the most ancient writing of the Aryans. the Rig Veda.� (2)
The so called Aryanisation of South India was in several
respects quite unlike the Aryanisation of North India. For, the most tangible
result of it was the acceptance by the South Indians not of Aryan theology but
of Hindu sociology as reflected in the caste system. Secondly, this movement
does not seem to have evoked much opposition. On the contrary, there is evidence
to show that the changes brought by it were welcomed by the Dravidians with
alacrity. And, thirdly the incursions from the North were not so violent as to
root out the languages and the peculiar religious culture of the South. The
Aryanisation of South India may be said to have begun round about 1000 B.C. and
been completed before the time of Ashoka. (3)
The movement of Aryanisation was of the nature of
Hinduisation rather than of Aryanisation. In this movement between the North and
the South, there was more of give rather than of take on the side of the
Dravidians. The greatest gift of South India to Hinduism is God Siva. The word
Siva in proto-Dravidian meant �red�. There is ample evidence to show that
long before the advent of the Aryans, the cult of Siva had spread far and wide
in this country - different aspects of this religion being emphasised in
different regions. Four gods which may be mentioned as peculiarly Tamil Gods are
Siva, Balarama. Krishna and Murugan.
The contribution of South India to the totality of Indian
culture is great and has a special significance. This is due to the fact that
the South did not suffer from foreign invasions to the extent that the other
parts of the country did.
Date of Cilapathikaram
The history of dance reveals that from the earliest times,
dancing has been intimately associated with religion.
The Tamil country or Tamilakam can boast of an antique and
original culture. The geographical limits of Tamilakam have been defined in an
old work as �Venkatam�, in the North, �Kumari� in the South and the Sea
to the East and West. It is well known that long before the beginning of the
Christian era, the Tamil language had built for itself a great literature and
moulded it according to the genius of its people as is seen in the Sangam works
of the Tamils.
The Sangam epoch has been assigned to the period commencing
with the 5th Century B.C. and ending with the 4th Century A.D. The Sangam age in
Tamil Literature was a period of great literary glory never to be surpassed in
the history of any literature whatsoever. It was the production of a colossal
volume of Tamil poetry in its pristine purity. The age was a period of national
awakening when the arts and the sciences flourished alike, when the peo�ple
obtained all social amenities and when far flung trade and commerce secured to
the Tamils prosperity and power. The second century of the Christian era is
called the �Golden Age� in Tamil letters. (4)
Manim�khalai, 2 of the 5 major epics
are believed to have been written during this Golden Age. They are the Iliad and
Odyssey of Tamil poetry and it is impossible to exaggerate their importance.
Silappadik�ram, classified under the category of totar�nilaicceyyal amazes us,
by its perfect sense of form, its harmonised blending of (iyal) poetry, isai
(music) and natakam (drama), its gorgeous and picturesque descriptions, epic
dignity civilisation in which the theatre, music, dancing, poetry, architecture,
painting and seasonal feasts celebrated with enchanting fantasy formed part of
the daily life of every class and occupation.
Cilapathikaram is not only one of the world�s greatest
literary masterpieces, but it is also a vast storehouse of information on the
arts of music, dancing, building and other activities of the Ancient Tamils.
Wood carving, stone cutting, clay modelling, bronze casting are all phases of
the sculptural art, and the Tamils attained a high degree of proficiency and
perfection in all these forms of art at a very early period. (5)
In fact, the earliest literary reference to the art of image-making in South
India is found in Cilapathikaram. A perfect South Indian bronze is one of the
highest achievements in the plastic arts, as it combines in a remarkable manner
deep spiritual vision, technical skill and an age-old tradition. South Indian
bronzes have won worldwide reputation for their intrinsic beauty and artistic
merit. What is so extra�ordinary in the images of Siva Nataraja whose five
functions are creation, preservation, destruction, purification and grace is the
tremendous display of energy revealed in transcendental calm.
On a critical study of the dances and music mentioned in the
Cilapathikaram, it is clear that the ancient Tamils had developed a very high
standard of technique in dance and music, which probably formed the basis for
the Aryans to develop and write a highly systematised and perfect technique on
the art of dancing and dramaturgy like Bharata�s Natya Sastra and Nandikeswara�s
Date of Natya Sastra
The Natya Sastra is the most important and authoritative
treatise on Sanskrit dramaturgy dealing exhaustively on poetics, metre, music
and drama as they affect the composition and representation of the drama.
Nandikeswara�s Abhinaya Darpana on the other hand, deals exhaustively on the
art of Bharata Natyam only.
Nothing definite can be said about the date of the
Natya Sastra. It has been assigned by different scholars to various dates
between the 2nd century B.C. to 3rd century AD. In fact, the date of the Natya
Sastra, according to some, is placed in the 3rd century A.D., i.e. a 100 years
after the date of Silappadik�ram.
The prakrits recognised by the Natya
Sastra are later than those of Asvagosha. It recognises the use of the
Ardha-Magadi which is not found in the dramas other than those of Asvagosha and
Bhasa. On the other hand, it ignores the Maharashtri which it freely used in the
later classical dramas. The fact that Bhasa violates some of the rules of
Bharata suggests that in his days, the Natya Sastra had not obtained
sufficient sanctity. All this evidence goes to suggest the 3rd century AD, as a
probable date of this work.(6)
Dance and Music in Cilapathikaram
As mentioned already, Silappadik�ram gives a fund of
information about the music and dance of the ancient Tamils 2000 years back.
While giving the necessary qualifications of the ideal dance master in �Arang�eru
Kadai�, Silappadik�ra;n mentions that an ideal master must have thorough
knowledge of the characteristics of the 2 broad divisions of Ahakkoothu and
When conducting the 2 general varieties of dance Ahakkoothu
and Purakkoothu that include the songs, the tales and their combinations, he
should have an eye upon the movements with the single and double hands, beauty
hands and expressive hands known as Pindi and Pinayal, Ezhirkai and Thozhirkai
respectively. The Ahakkoothu and Purakkoothu referred to by Ilango Adigal are
only the Nritta and Nritya aspects of Bharatanatyam which are the 2 major
aspects of this great art.
Purakkoothu or Nritta is pure dance which consists of
movements of the body and limbs which are performed to create beauty and
decorative effect and not to convey any specific meaning or idea to the
Ahakkoothu or Nritya on the other hand is dance with facial
expressions. i.e. a dance which is performed specifically to convey the meaning
or import of a theme or an idea to the beholder. This Nritya is accomplished
through the use of suggestive facial expressions and codified gestures of the
hands. The Pindi and Pinayal mentioned here are the single handed gestures or
Asamyuta Hastas and double handed gestures or Samyuta Hastas.
The Pindi or single handed gestures are 28 in number and they
are: � Pataka, Tripataka, Ardha-Pataka. Kartari-Mukha, Mayura, Ardha-chandra,
Arala, Sukatunda. Mushti. Sikjara. Kapittha. Kataka-Muk�ha. Suci, Chandra-kala.
Padma-kosa, Sarpa-sirsa, Mrga-sirsha, Simha�Mukha, Kangula. Sola-padma, Chatura,
Bhramara. Hamsasya. Hamsa�paksha, Samdamsa, Mukula, Tamrachuda. Trisula.
The Pinayal or double-handed gestures which are 24 in number
are Anjali Kapotha, Kar�kata, Swastika, Dolahasta. Pushpa puta. Utsanga.
Sivalinga, Katakavar�dhana, Kartari-Swastika, Sakata. Sanku, Chakra, Samouta,
Pasa, Kilaka, Matsya. Kurrna. Veraha, Garuda, Nagabanda. Khadva, Berunda,
Of these 28 and 24 hand gestures. only some are used while
performing the pure dance or Purakkodoothu. Such of those hand gestures that are
used in Pure Dance as ornamental adjuncts are called 'Ezhirkai� (hand used to
create beauty) and all those that are employed for expressing some idea or
meaning are called �Thozhirkai� as they serve the purpose of conveying an
idea. Thus, while the �Thozhirkai� are 28 plus 24 52 in number, used in the
Nritya aspect of Bharatanatyam, �Ezhirkai� are comparatively less in number.
i.e. 13 in number as they serve only as ornamental adjuncts.
The dance master should see that pure dance does not get
mixed up with dance with expressions and vice versa, and he should not mix-up
the foot movements of the Kuravaikkoothu with those of Varikkoothu.
On the other hand, a dancer had to undergo rigorous training
for 7 years starting from her 5th year in music and dance. She was expected to
be able to sing songs composed in foreign languages as well as play on the Yal,
flute and drum. This compares well with the verse in the Abhinava Darpana�.
�Kantena lambayeth geetham
Has-the nartham pradarsayeth
Chakshurbhyam darsayeth bhavam
The dancer must sing producing music from the throat, bring
out the meaning of the song by appropriate gestures of the hand, her eyes must
speak out the bhava or expression and feet must keep perfect time.
�Yatho hasthas tha tho drushtir
Yatho drushtis tha tho manaha
Yatho manas tha tho bhavo
Yatho bhavastha tho rasaha.�
Eyes should follow the hand, mind should follow the eye.
where the mind goes there is expression and where there is bhava or expression.
there is rasa.
The dance master must be able to choreograph harmoniously the
various kinds of Purakkoothu with the 14 types of vilakku or songs. Besides, he
should have thorough mastery over the eleven types of dances from Alliyam to
Kodu-kotti. These eleven types are :�Alliyam. Kodu�kotti, Kudaj, Kudam, Pedi.
Kadayam, Pandarangam. Mal, Tudi, Marak�kal and Pavai. The dances referred to
are that of Siva, Muruga. Kama, Durga, Krishna, Lakshmi and Indrani. While the Cilapathikaram
gives slight descriptions of the context and occasion for these
dances, they do not throw much light as to how they were danced - the technique
and manner of presentation.
ALLIYAM: Sri Krishna and his brother Balarama, had to pass
through many a peril when they were brought to Mathura, the capital of King
Kamsa to be slain. One such was the royal elephant Kuvalaya�peeda which was
driven furiously on them. On that occasion, it is said that Krishna dances a
wonderful dance when he pulled out the tusks of the maddened beast and struck
KODU-KOTTI is ascribed to Lord Siva. The 3 invincible Asura
brothers who ruled the 3 cities made of gold, silver and iron could be slain
only when they came together once in many thousands of years for a second and
that, too, with a single arrow only. Only Lord Siva could undertake that
mighty task. Slaying them and standing on the battle field where lay the ashes
of the burnt cities, he danced a fierce dance of triumph and victory clapping
his hands in glee while his consort Bhairavi was alone left to keep time to
his weird measures known as Kodu-kotti.
KUDAI: In the great battle between the Asuras and Devas,
the Divine Boy, Skanda, the leader of the Divine Armies, lowered his great
umbrella and using it as a side curtain danced a dance of disdain and
KUDAM: Usha, daughter of Bana, the Asura king of Shontapura
fell in love with Anirudda, son of Kama and grandson of Sri Krishna. Bana on
coming to know if it was enraged and put Anirudda in jail after a hard fight.
Then, Sri Krishna who went in disguise to the city of Bana to see his grandson
danced a strange dance with a pot in his hands (made of clay and five metals)
that was always kept moving to keep time to his evolutions (Kudam � pot).
PEDI: The dance of Kama along the streets of the city of
Shonta�puram to effect the release of his son held in captivity changing
himself into a combination of man and woman (Pedi � Eunuch).
KADAYAM was the dance performed by Indrani in the same city
of doom. She is said to have danced the last of the dances (Kadai � last).
PANDARANGAM is also another dance of Lord Siva white with
the ashes of the vast crematorium, on the battle field after the burning of
MAL: The dance of Govinda disguised as a wrestler when he
challenged and crushed Bana. the Asura in fair fight. The evolutions during
the bout are given the name of a dance, because it was so simple and merry a
feat to the Lord.
TUDI: The dance of victory of Lord Skanda keeping time on
the Tudi on one hand, over Sura Padma. the mighty Asura who took refuge on top
of the waves in mid-ocean.
MARAKKAL: Mahadevi. sister of Vishnu was enraged when the
Asuras took refuge by changing themselves into poisonous snakes and scorpions.
The Devi, with legs of wood danced, crushing the life out of the poisonous
brood (Marakkal � wooden leg).
PAVAI: Lakshmi assumed a wondrous form that melted the
hearts of the Asuras and put chaos into their brains, and they ran after her
madly. The beautiful gait and charming movements of Lakshmi are known as Pavai.
These eleven dances with their appropriate songs and tales
and the sentiments underlying each, should be part of the equipment of the
teacher and the pupil in dance.
The mention of 2 types of Koothu have been interpreted in
various ways as:
Shanthikkoothu as against Vinodakkoothu
Kuravaikkoothu as against Varikkoothu
Vasaikkoothu as against Varisanthikkoothu
Tamil as against Aryan
Desi as acainst Margi.
From the standard works on music and dance used as references
by Adiyarkunallar in his commentary on Cilapathikaram, Shanthikkoothu may be
taken to mean the classical dance or Bharatanatya and Vinodakkoothu the folk
dances. As under Shanthikkoothu. mention is made of Chokkam or Pure Dance
consisting of 108 Karanas. Mai is divided into Desi, Vadugu and Singala.
Abhiriaya is the interpretation of a song with facial
expressions and Nataka is dance with the dramatic element. Under the
Vinodakkoothu comes the Kuravai in which 7, 8 or 9 persons take part. Love and
conquest form the subject.
The songs are composed in the metre Kuravai.
Kalinatam � acrobatics of professional gymnasts and
Kudam � is a dance with water pots on the head.
Nokku � marked by stateliness, afility and seductiveness.
Tholpavai � is the dance of the puppets or Tholubommalatham with figures
of leather and an illuminated curtain as the back ground.
Vasai � also called Vinodakkoothu related to sentiments of merriment and
laughter admitting of 2 divisions � one before the kings � Vettiyal
and the other before the common people �� Poduviyal.
Cilapathikaram gives the legendary origin of dancing. Once in
the Sabha of Indra, Indra�s son Jayantha is said to have lost his balance in
his behaviour towards the celestial dancer Urvasi, which enraged Sage Agastya
who cursed him to be born as a Bamboo stick in the Vindhya Hills and Urvasi a
Courtesan on the earth. Urvasi was to be freed from the curse on being presented
with the �Talaikkol� which was symbolical of Jayantha on her Arangetral day.
The talaikkol was usually the central shaft of a white umbrella captured in the
battlefield from monarchs of great repute and symbolical of Jayantha. Thus
Jayantha is celebrated in the ceremony and worship of �Talaikkol�.
This ancient ceremony of Talaikkol finds a parallel in the
ceremony of �Thandiam Pidithal� practised by the Devadasis of more recent
times. The Devadasis as the name implies were professional temple dancers
attached to the temples and they preserved the highest traditions of
Bharatanatya in their original grandeur and pristine purity. The young daughters
of the Devadasis started learning dancing at the age of five, first by watching
the elder student dancers and practising by themselves. In about the 7th year
when they were initiated for practice, the ceremony �Thandiam Pidithal�
(holding the pole) is held.
On an auspicious day and hour, a quantity of paddy is spread
in the centre of the Silambakkoodam in a square or rectangular form and a pole
or stick is held across the centre by 2 elderly Devadasis firmly at both sides.
The girl commencing her practice has to hold the middle of the stick with both
her hands and begin to dance the first movements, with her feet over the paddy
as the teacher beats the timing with his stick (Thattu.kazhi). The seed of
Bharathanatyam is thus sown in her. Thus after 7 years of rigorous training in
dancing the Arangetral or the first appearance on the stage is made as did
Madavi of Cilapathikaram 2000 years ago.
The mention that Madavi danced both the Desi and Margi styles
of dance may well mean the indigenous style developed by the ancient Tamils as
against the alien style of the Aryans though essentially the technique of
Bharatnatya was the same.
Thus, Cilapathikaram gives ample evidence to a high state of
evolution in the art of dancing. We also find that the instruments used by the
ancient Tamils were the yal, kuzhal and maddalam. The qualifications of the
songster, drummer, flutist and the vina player are also elaborately given. The
detailed and technical description of the musical instruments and players
clearly indicate that the ancient Tamils had a highly developed musical system
and used a scale of 22 srutis � that is the scale of just intonation.
Apart from the fund of information that we get about
classical dancing and music in the Arangerukadai of Cilapathikaram, we also come
across the various ritual and folk dances that were popular in those ancient
days. The ancient Tamils believed in invoking the blessing of Gods during times
of great distress and calamity and this they did by singing. dancing, fasting
The chief gods invoked by them were Murugan, Mayon, Siva, Korravai
or the Goddess of Victory, Bala�rama, Varuna. Indra etc. Among the ritual
dances, we come across Vettuvavari in honour of Korravai which was often
performed by the Maravar tribe. The ritual dance Kuravaikkoothu was performed by
the women of the community in honour of Lord Krishna who married the cowherdess
Pinnai. The Kuravaikkoothu, we are told, was performed by Madari and her
daughter in order to invoke the blessing of Lord Krishna as a number of
ill-omens indicated some disaster to the city and its people. So in order to
avert the impending danger, the Kuravaik�koothu
In summing up the paper, the following are mentioned as
worthy of note: -
The ancient Tamils had developed a unique and original
culture long before the beginning of the Christian era when literature and fine
arts flourished. But, by the time of the Cilapathikaram, that is the 2nd century
AD, Aryanisation had already started which had its effect in influencing all
phases of life including the arts and literature. It is probable that soon after
the early Aryans penetrated the South, many Sanskrit or Prakrit words gained
This was before the Christian era, and may have extended over
a period of some centuries.(7) The influence of Aryan culture
is clearly seen in the life described in the Cilapathikaram. That is the reason,
we find the introduction of a number of Aryan gods, and Sanskrit beliefs in the
work. But, this need not lead one to believe that all fine arts were borrowed
from the Aryans and that Sanskrit alone gave the key to the whole of Indian
It may be assumed that the style of dancing and music
developed by the ancient Tamils were studied and perfected by the early Aryans.
who wrote such great treatises like the �Natya Sastra� and �Abhinaya
It may also be argued that the very fact that only the
Tamil country has been able to preserve through the ages the Bharata Natya in
its original grandeur and pristine purity points to the fact that this was the
dance that had been handed down by the age old ancestors of the present Tamils
which later was perfected by the early Aryans.
The Tamil country especially Tanjore, has always been the
seat and centre of learning and culture. It was the famous quartet of Chinnayya,
Ponniah, Sivanandam and Vadivelu of the Tanjore Court during King Saraboji�s
time (1798- 1824) which made a rich contribution to music and Bharatanatyam and
also completed the process of re-editing the Bharathanatyam programme into its
present shape with its various forms like the Alarippu, Jathis�waram,
Sabdham, Varnam, Tillana etc.
The descendants of these 4 brothers formed the original stock
of Nattuvanars or dance teachers of Bharatanatyam in Tanjore. Originally, they
formed a community by themselves and most of them were Saivite non-brahmins,
their mother tongue being Tamil. Probably they were the direct descendants of
the ancient Tamils. who tried to preserve the age-old traditions of dance and
music passed on by their ancestors.
Though Bharatnatyam is over 2000 years old, it has always
been a growing art. Its basic principles and ideals have remained practically
unchanged although its repertoire and forms of presentation have been changing
from time to time to suit changing conditions and concepts of artistry. Thus the
arts of India, especially music and dance are a revela�tion
of many thousands of years of culture and civilisation.
1. R N. Dandekar, Mythology, Contribution
of the South to the Heritage of India, p. 15; The Publication Division,
Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, Delhi, 1961.
2. Dr. Charles Fabri, 'Art and Architecture�,
Contribution of the South to the Heritage of India, p. 22; The Publication
Division, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, Government of India,
3. R. N. Dandekar, Mythology, Contribution
of the South to the Heritage of India, p. 18; The Publication Division,
Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, Government of India, Delhi, 1961.
4. K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar, Chapter XVI, B,
�Dravidian Languages and literature,� The History and Culture of the
Indian People, vol. II, p. 300, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. Bombay, 1951.
5. G. Venkatchalam, �South Indian Temple
Images�, Leaves from my scrap Book, p. 96, Raj Book House, Bangalore, 1961.
6. M. A. Mehendale, Chapter XVI, A, �Sanskrit
Language and Literature�, The History and Culture of the Indian People, vol.
II, p. 270, Bharatiya Vidya Rhavan. Bombay, 1951.
7. K. R. Srinivasa Iyengar. Chapter XVI B,
�Dravidian Languages and Literature�, The History and culture of the
Indian People, Vol. II, p. 288, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay, 1951.
1. Ramachnadra Dikshitar �The Silappadikararn of Ilango
Adigal, Eng. trans., Oxford University Press, 1939.
2. Man Mohan Gosh, �The Natya Sastra� ascribed to Bharata
Muni, Eng. trans., Royal Asiatic Society, Bengal, 1951.
3. The History and Culture of the Indian People. Vol. II, �The
Imperial Unity Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan�, Bombay, 1951.
4. Ragini Devi, Dances of India, Susil Gupta (India) Ltd.,
5. Beryl de Zoete, The Other Mind - A Study of Dance in South
India, Victor Gollancz Ltd., London, 1953.
6. Srinivasa Iyengar, C. R., Sangeetha Bheeshma
Keerthanacharya, Indian Dance, Blaze Publications, Madras, 1948.
7. The Dance in India, Tourist Division, Ministry of Transport
and Communications, Government of India, New Delhi, 1958.
8. Kay Ambrose, Classical Dances and Costumes of India, A.
& C. Black, London, 1950.
9. Venkatachalam G., Leaves from my Scrap Book, Hosali Press,
10. Veeraraghavan (trans.), Abhinaya Darpana of Nandikeswara,
V. Swaminatha Iyer Library, Adyar, Madras, 1957.
11. Indian Dance, Pub. Div., Ministry of Information and
Broadcasting, Government of India.
12. Contribution of the South to the Heritage of India, Pub.
Div., Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, 1961.
13. "Bharatha Natyam�, Marg - A Magazine of Arts,
Marg Publications. Bombay, 1957.
14. Souvenirs of the 8th, 9th and 10th South Indian Natya Kala
Conferences, Indian Institute of Fine Arts, Madras.