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"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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Home > Tamil Culture - the Heart of Tamil National Consciousness > Tamil Art > Drama > The Ritualistic Origins of Tamil Drama - K. Sivathamby

The Ritualistic Origins of Tamil Drama

Karthigesu Sivathamby
at First International Tamil Conference - Seminar
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 18 - 23 April 1966
[see also
Drama in Ancient Tamil Society, K. Sivathamby, 1981 and
Selected Writings - Karthigesu Sivathamby]


The richness of the cultural tradition of the Tamils is expressed in the concept of Muttamil, which classifies Tamil into three sections - Iyal (Literature), Isai (Music) and Natakam (Drama). Scholars are of opinion that this classification, which traditionally is believed to have been there from times immemorial, is not mentioned prior to 5th century A.D. (1) But the late date of this classification should not be taken to mean that activities in each of these spheres were not there earlier.

Source � the Problems in Handling the Source

Cankam literature teems with references to the dramatic activities of the Tamils. But the form in which these collections are existing, and the order in which they are referred to, do not enable us get a historical view of the development of any one institution, let alone Tamil drama.

Cankam literature is found in two anthologies - Ettuttokai and Pattupattu. The Ettuttokai poems are generally collections of single poems into anthologies and eight such anthologies form that collection. But all the anthologies do not reflect the same age. The culture depicted in Kalittokai is definitely of a later period.

Within each anthology, the poems are not placed chronologically. Pattuppattu works, eulogies on chieftains and kings, reveal an advanced political, economic and social background. All the works have been written with the consciousness of a literary convention which the poet dared not overstep.

Insofar as the history of drama goes, Pattuppattu poems, which are acknowledged to be of a later period than most of the Ettuttokai poems, contain references to a phase in the development of drama which is definitely much anterior to the phase depicted in Ettuttokai poems. Patirruppattu the eulogistic poem which often mixes fact with fiction, and Tirumurukarruppatai which mingles the Subrahmanya cult of North India with the indigenous cult of Murukan, the lord of the hilly tract, contain references which reveal the origins of Tamil drama much better than Narrinai and Kuruntokai which contain poems of a much earlier phase.

It therefore becomes essential to have a clear idea of the evolution of drama as seen in other countries and cultures before we interpret the references in Cankam literature and trace the history of Tamil drama from its origin to its early development.

Origins of Drama

It is generally accepted by all, that drama had its origins in the religious rituals of the primitive communities.
"It bears on the face of it the marks of its origin in magic." (2) "Imitation, mysterious identification of the imitator with the being initiated, assimilation of the individual experience into the collective experience of the group; these distinguishing features of the primitive magic dance contain in germ the essence of theatrical art." (3)

Lord Raglan, in his study of the emergence of the hero in the traaditional narratives, marks out the component units of ritual drama. Ritual drama, he shows, is based on a myth, and that myth must be in a narrative form. There is personification. "The chief actor in a ritual drama pretends to be a god or hero in order that he may be able to exercise that power which that God or hero is believed to have exercised." (4)

Religious ritual, which has within itself all the characteristics of drama, is thus practised, and out of it emerges the popular drama. The transition from the stage of ritual to that of art is well explained by Jane E. Harrison in her study of the emergence of Greek Drama as a popular entertainment from rituals. "We know from tradition that in Athens ritual became art, a dromenon became the drama, and we have seen that the shift is symbolised and expressed by the addition of the theatre or spectator-place to the orchestra or dancing place. . . . There seems, at Athens, to have been two main causes why dromenon passed swiftly, inevitably into the drama. They are, first, the decay of the religious faith; second, the influx from abroad of new culture and new dramatic material." (5)  With the change in the life of the people who performed these rituals, comes the change in the meaning and function of the ritual. After the change only the ritual mould remains."(6)

Akam, Puram Divisions in Tamil Literature

The references in Tamil literature relating to the origins and early development of Tamil drama should be read in the light of the general principles outlined above.In employing Cankam literature as a source for any study, we must take into count its chief characteristic, viz. the division into Akattinai (poetic tradition which deals with subjective experience - love and family life) and Purattinai (poetic tradition which deals with the objective experience - military exploits, raids, royal achievements etc.). Poems which deal with these themes are called Akam poems and Puram poems respectively. There was also the grammatical prescription - done so, after an exhaustive study of the texts -of what should form the background of the poems of each of these divisions. (7) The references relating to Tamil Drama are seen in both divisions.

Ritual Drama in Puram Tradition

Puram denotes the political organisation of the early Tamils. The further classification of the Puram activities in relation to the five ecological units (hill country, parkland adjoining forests, arable tracts, un cultivable semi-desert areas and the littoral tract) reveals to us the gradual emergence of Tamilnad from tribal units into well-knit monarchic states.

There are references to many dances in this division.

The most important of these dances is the Tunankai. Tivakaram a later day lexical work, defines Tunankai, as "a kind of dance in which the arms bent at the elbows are made to strike against the sides". The details of this dance are given in Patirruppattu, a poem of the Ettuttokai collection, dealing with the military exploits of the early Cera kings. Tunankai, is there described as the dance which is executed with the movement of the shoulders, on the fall of a king, (9) and the dance "that is executed, with the movement of the shoulders, in the battlefield which is heaped with corpses". (10)
The detailed description of the dance shows that it was danced by all the warriors of the victorious side, with the leader taking the prominent place.(11)

Tunankai dance arose out of the belief in a myth. It was believed in ancient Tamilnad that female devils ate the corpses of the dead soldiers and they danced with glee at the sight of such corpses, bending their arms at their elbows and striking against their sides, feeling immensely grateful to the one who killed those soldiers. This Tunankai dance of the victorious leader and his men is the ritualistic imitation of the dances of the female devils. (12)

It is clear from Dr. U. V. Caminata Iyer's commentary on the 26th verse of the Purananuru that this dance was performed to appease those female devils which they thought would give them more victories. (13) There are references to such dances of the female devils in the Purananuru. (14) These dances are also indicative of cannibalism, which arises due to the magico-religious belief "that a man who eats part of another man's body will immediately come to possess some of the qualities that belonged to him when he was still alive". (15)

Variations or advanced forms of this dance are referred to in the chapter on Purattinai in Tolkappiyam, and in Purapporul Venba-malai. The dances are Munterkkuravai, and Pinterkkuravai. The former is explained as that dance performed by the leader on the seat plank of the chariot, after he had won other kings and the latter as the dance of the Goddess Korravai, performed after drinking the gruel prepared with the dead bodies. (16)

These two dances bring out the individual heroism of the leader of the army as against the former in which the leader is one among the other soldiers. It can therefore be safely assumed that Tunankai, which started as a cannibalistic ritual must have emerged as the ritual dance of the warrior hero performed to maintain the solidarity of the group. Such type of dances are characteristic of the "heroic age". (17)

With the coming of Vedic myths into South India (it was at a time when there was an advanced system of established monarchy at which stage an all-out effort is always made to forget the tribal past of the office of kingship) we find this ritual being used to glorify the deeds of a god. Tirumurukaarrupatai, which is assigned to post-Cankam period, says that, Tunankai was performed by the female devils in praise of Lord Subramanya, when he defeated the Avunar. (18)

Tunankai at that stage becomes far removed from the world of reality and was assimilated into the Vedic mythology. With the diffusion of this once cannibalistic ritual into the Vedic myth we find its slow disappearance as a popular dance form. The assimilation takes place somewhere about A.D. 5th - 6th centuries and by that time the Akam and Puram tradition, which is characteristic only of primitive living, disappears too. The militaristic myths of the Tamils are revived only during the time of the Imperial Colas and that too only in literature. Kalingattuparani depicts that revival. (19)

Ritual Drama in the Akam Tradition

The ritualistic origins of Tamil drama is well seen in the dances mentioned in the Akam tradition. Akam literature of the Cankam age refers to various dances which were enacted with piety and devotion.


The most conspicuous of all such rituals is the Veriyattu, the dance of the priest possessed by Murukan. The great number of references to this dance in Cankam literature reveals the importance it had in that culture. (20) In order to appease the God, the Murukan priest or priestess is invited to offer the sacrifices of the blood of rams, roasted rice grains, and red flowers to the accompaniment of a vigorous and frenzied ritual. The priest or priestess generally entered into a trance and sang as he danced in the open space of the village common or before the temple of Murukan." (21) The contexts described in the poems indicate that Veriyattu was performed by the Velan to find out the ailment of the lady love whose body lost its lustre because of her anxiety regarding her lover.

This ritual has not yet lost its significance. This also arises from the myth that one falls sick when one is possessed by a spirit. In the village of Karaveddi in the Jaffna district of Ceylon, we can see even today the procedure detailed above, being adopted to cure persons of their illness. With the elevation of Murukan as a high god, Skanda, the deity worshipped is either Kali or Vairavar (Skt. Bahirama) or any other village deity. The deity very often is said to reside in the trees.
The Yakum Natima prevalent among the Sinhalese is a similar ritual. It is performed to cure diseases supposed to have been inflicted by the demons, Yakkas (Skt.-Yaksa ; Pali-Yakka). The main aim of the ceremony is to drive away the evil spirit that has `possessed' the patient. (22)

The Peykkoothu (devil dance) performed by the Pariahs of South India reveals how fervently this ritual is carried on at present. "Among them, when an individual is attacked by some malignant spirit (the spirit can be identified as some disease), the headman who officiates as priest performs a ceremony to exorcise the spirit from the victim's body." (23) Thus we find this ritual yet meaningful. Veriyattu has not yet become a dramatic form. It is yet religion.
But there are certain other rituals mentioned in the Akam poems which have lost their ritualistic character.

Magico-Economic Ritual Dance of the Fisher Folk

One such dance is the group ritual performed by the people of the littoral tract, when their catch is low. Commenting on the Sutra which speaks of the five different regions and the guardian deities of those regions, Naccinarkiniyar says that `when the fisher folk found their nets did not provide sufficient reward for their toils, the fisher women assembled and danced around the horn of a shark that is planted for the purpose'. (24) This dance form is referred to as Kuravai dance. We shall soon see how this Kuravai (the ritual mould) soon becomes an entertainment form.


Tolkappiyar refers to yet another dance which seems to have been a fertility rite. (25) The ritual referred to is Vatavalli literally meaning the plant (Convodvulus Butatis) that will never wither away. The fact that it is a ritual dance is clearly brought out in the 370th stanza of Perum-panarrupatai. It is explained as a dance in which both men and women took part. Naccinarkiniyar in his commentary states that  it had become a dance form seen only by the low and uncivilised (25).

Valli is the creeper plant which is often taken to denote fertility. The name of the hill country girl whom Murukan wooed and married is also Valli. In view of these associations, one wonders whether this dance could have been a ritual of sexual character. Briffault in his contribution to Encyclopaedia of Social Sciences on "Fertility Rites" says that "Sexual license is a prominent feature of agricultural festivals of seed and harvest times." The mention of the fact that it was danced by men and women and the comment that it could be witnessed only by the low ones seem to indicate the sexual licentiousness of the dance.Whatever its character might have been, it is clear that it never become an entertainment.

Tai Neeratal

269th poem in Akananuru refers to a group dance of females performed during the last days of the month of Tai. This dance comes at the end of a month long fast observed with the aim of getting the husbands of their choice. (26) This ritual later emerges as the Tiruppavai and the Tiruvempavai, and at the time of mingling with the Sanskrit cults, it was considered to be a ritual done in the honour of the Goddess Katyayam. (27)

But at that stage it becomes only a religious observance. The original dance ritual is yet retained in the Tiruvatirakkali of Kerala. This ritual which is referred to as one which was observed by girls with the motive of getting the husbands of their choice, seems to have originated as a fertility rite. Analysing the character of the festival as it is celebrated today in Kerala, Raghavan says the following:

"As a festival Tiruvatira belongs to the class of spring festivals, the maidens welcome the spring season of Kerala in songs and dances. A well known fertility cult with the early people was the dance of the maidens, the young virgin being considered representative of the community and credited with particular magical powers. Tiruvatirakkali or the dance play of the maidens may thus well have been a fertility rite in intention and origin. The exclusively feminine character of the play also supports the idea of the fertility rite in which women are the only participants in cultures predominantly feminine as are the matriarchal societies of Kerala." (28) All these could be said of the Tai-neeratal too. The intention of the ritual, viz. getting the husbands of their choice, may also indicate its origin as a fertility rite.These are some of the ritualistic dances, out of which we see the emergence of later dance forms.


A study of the festivals and the dance plays performed in those early festivals forms an essential part in the reconstruction of the history of drama. This is true of Tamil drama too. Festivals are defined as "Collective rituals often centering round magical operations. Festivals probably spring from the early communal feast and its attendant sacrifice." (29)

Briffault explains the way in which festivals give rise to entertainment forms. "Festivals originally intended to promote the activity of nature by sympathetic exertion on the part of the participants have tend ed to be valued for their own sake as dances, athletic contests and sports." (30)

Prof. Thompson has shown how the initiation ceremonies of early Greece led to the rise of Olympic festivals. (3l)
Thus festivals become the important point of departure from ritual to entertainment. In Cankam literature we find references to festivals which have not lost their ritualistic character and festivals which have lost their significance and were taken as occasions for social gathering. Dances were performed at both the instances.


Of the festivals the most important was the Intira festival. Intira festival is referred to in the 62nd poem of Ainkurunuru. This festival later emerges as the national festival of the Tamils. Cilappatikaram (32) and Manimekalai (33) testify amply to the fact that it was a festival connected with fertility rite. Intira, the Lord of Clouds, was worshipped. Both the works referred to earlier give detailed descriptions of the many dances and dramatic performances that were conducted during the festival.

Onam Festival

Maturaikkanci (590-596) speaks of the celebration of the festival celebrated on the Onam day, the day on which Mayon, the deity of the Mullai region, was born.An important feature of that festival was the sham fight put on by the Mallar. It must have been rituals of this type that led to the later day exhibitions of physical skill. Onam day is not celebrated in Tamilnad today. It is an important day of festivity in Kerala. Special dances are performed to mark this festivity. (34)

Agricultural Festival

336th poem in Akunanuru and the 364th poem in Kuruntokai refer to a dance of the agricultural region in which the hero dances with his concubine. It is well indicated in these poems that this dance was once performed by women of the courtesan class (hetaera) in which the landed proprietor also joined. But the 31st poem in Kuruntokai, gives the details of that dance. The dance is referred to as one in which the women embraced others. Who were these "others"? There are different interpretations. One view is that the dancing women embraced each other.(35) But Mahavidwan Raghavaiyengar takes it as the dance in which the maidens embraced their respective Mallars. (36) The fact that it had been an agricultural festival, lends credence to Raghavaiyangar's explanation. But the references indicate that the original agricultural significance had been forgotten.

The Term "Tunanki"

The interesting thing about these dances is that they are referred to as Tunankai dances. Tunankai, was the term used to denote the war dances too. This naturally raises the problem of nomenclature. What does the term Tunankai, mean? Does it mean the physical movement involved in the dance or the content that was sought to be expressed in the dance?
Tamil Lexicon derives the word Tunankai from `Tulanku' meaning, "to move; to sway from side to side". Thus it becomes clear that the word refers to the physical movement. Further, the word tulanku itself may be derived from the word "tullu"-leap or jump. It will be interesting to note that the word `tullal' denotes dance in Malayalam. In Tamil too, as Tamil Lexicon shows, `tullal' refers, beside many other things to `dance'. Thus it could safely be assumed that Tunankai denoted the movement peculiar to that dance and certainly not the myth or narrative which the dance aimed to communicate.

The Term "Kuravai"

The same problem is seen in the case of the term of `Kuravai' too. Dances which have been described as Kuravai, are recorded to have been performed for both ritual and recreational purposes. As is already seen, Veriyattu dances and Tai-neeratal dance have been referred to as Kuravai dances. But there are many Kuravai dances which were recreational and non-ritualistic in character. (37) The definitions given to Kuravai prove that the term too meant the mode of dancing. Atiyarkunallar's definition of Kuravai in terms of musical terminology shows that it was a group dance."

The definition given in Tivakararam says that it is a choral dance. In his commentary on Tirumurukarruppati, Naccinarkkiniyar, quotes a verse to say that Kuravai depicts love and victory. That is a vague definition. It leaves us with the only acceptable explanation that Kuravai was "a group dance performed in a circle".

The origin of the Kuravai form could be seen in the description of the ritual dance forms of South Indian tribes given by Krishna Iyer and Balaratnam. "The ritual encircling dance is perhaps the commonest of sacred dance. The object around which it takes place is a sacred one, an idol, an altar, a sacrificial victim, a holy tree or a well." (39)

Kuravai is also an encircling dance at its ritualistic level. We find it being danced around the horn of shark and the altar of Murukan. It must have later referred to all circle formation dances.

But one important observation should be made. Kuravai is a group dance and is performed by those whose society has not lost its collectivistic character. Cilappatikaram will bear out the truth that Kuravai as a ritualistic dance was formed only among those communities like that of the herdsmen and the hunters, which retained their tribal form or collective character. In both the ritual and recreational forms, all the members of the community take part. It is really significant that Kuravai was not a popular dance in Marutam - the agrarian region, where through property there were class divisions. The Kuravai dances we hear of in the Marutam are the ones performed in the festivals. Even the recreational Kuravai, in Kurinji, Mullai and Neital show group participation.

Thus we find the dances which were originally ritualistic in character turning out to be recreational. We also note that as society developed, dancing was becoming the activity of one class of women, viz. the courtesans.

Dramatic Performances

It is in that stage that we see dramatic performances being staged by a class of people called the Panar and their women counterparts called the Viralis. No study of the origins of the Tamil drama is complete without a complete knowledge of their activities.


Heroic age produces bards, and in Tamilnad, during that age bardism had developed itself into an organised institution. The bard had a troupe which consisted of himself and young female dancers. This female dancer was called Virali because she could exhibit the various emotions and sentiments in her dances in a very telling manner. Viralis danced to songs sung by the Panars. They were such a draw in every court that there arose a form of poetry called the "guide poem of Viralis" (Viraliyarrupatai) (41) Malaipatukatam, one of the poems in the Pattuppattu anthology is the best example of this genre.

Emergence of Natakam

The Virali expressed in dance form what was sung by the Panan (bard). Heroic ballads speak of heroic incidents. Thus the dance depicted the incidents. In this we see the birth of Natakam, which as defined by Atiyarkkunallar is the dance that describes a story.But soon this entire art of `drama' came into the hands of this class.

Feudalsim and the Displacement of the 'Heroic' Bardic Tradition

Heroic age is only a transient age. It marks the transition from tribalism to feudalism and the transition is always fast. Heroic age leads to well defined territorial settlements, with proprietary rights and security of those rights. Militaristic exploits do not have a place in that economy. War at this stage means destruction of the means of subsistence. And it was quite natural that the bardic tradition, the finest artistic flower of that age too suffered with the change. The character and function of art changed.

In the new society they had to perform for the delectation of an audience. Cankam literature shows that many such performances were held. (42) Such ones as rope-walking too became performances of art. (43) This era marks the fall in the social status of the artist. Along with the art, the artist too becomes a commodity and the Viralis who danced, now become concubines and hetaerae. Panan, the male member of that caste group becomes the pimp.


That brings us to the end of the Cankam Period. Collective rituals had now become artistic forms. Performance has come to be confined only to a class of people. Post Cankam age reveals that all the dances were performed by this caste and that vedic myths have replaced the indigenous myths. Ilanko Atikal's description of Matavi and her eleven dances shows this change.


1 S. Vaiyapuripillai, llakkiyaccintanaikal, Pari Nilayam, Madras, 1956, pp. 162-167.; A. V. Suppiramaniaiyer, Tamil Araicciyin Valarcci, Amuta Nilayam, Madras, 1959, pp. 53-55.
2 G. Thompson, Marxism and Poetry, Peoples Publishing House, Delhi, 1954, p. 39.
3 Julius BABA on "THEATRE" in the Encyclopaedia of Social Sciences.
4 LORD RAGLAN, The Hero, pt. III, Thinkers Library, London, 1949.
5 JANE ELLEN HARRISON, Ancient Art and Ritual, Home University Library, London, 1951, pp. 136-138.
6 For Origins of Drama, also see: GEORGE Thompson, Acschylus and Athens, Lawrence & Wishart, London,
1941.; J. E. HARRISON, Prolegomena to the study of Greek Religion, Cambridge University Press, 1922.; G. J. Frazer, The Golden Bough.; E. O. JAMES, The Beginnings of Religion, Arrow Books, London, 1958.; W. G. SUMMER, Folkways, Mentor Books, New American Library of World Literature, N.Y., 1960.
7 See Akattinai Iyal and Purattinai Iyal, Tolkappiyam (Porulatikaram), Kanecaiyar, Chunnakam, Ceylon, 1948.
8. Patirruppattu, 13, 45, 52, 57, 77, Murray & Co., Madras, 1957.
9 Ibid. 77.
10. Ibid. 45.
11 Ibid. 52.
12 S. Vittiyananthan, Tamilar Calpu, Tamil Manram, Galhinna, Ceylon, 1954, p. 168.
13 Caminanta Iyer, ed., Purananuru, Jothy Press, Madras, 1950.
14 Ibid. vs. 370, 371.
15 GARY Hogg, Cannibalism and Human Sacrifice, Pan Books, London, 1962, p. 19.
16 Sutra 76, Tolkappiyam - Porulatikaram, Naccinarkiniyam, Kanecaiyar, ed., Chunnakam, Ceylon, 1948.
17 JANE ELLEN HARRISON, Ancient Art and Ritual, p. 159.
18 Tirumurukarrupatai, 46-51.
19 See my article in Tamil, "Kalingathupparani - A short note on its form and content", Kalaimanjari, vol. 2, Peradeniya, Ceylon, 1966.
20. Akananuru, 22, 114, 242, 272. 292, 382; Maturaikkanji, 400-401; 613-615; Tirunmurukarrupatai, 242; Narrinai, 251.
21 Xavier S. THANI Nayagam, Aspects of Tamil Humanism, p. 8 (Re-printed from the Annals of Oriental Research of the University of Madras, vol. XVII, 1960-61.).
22 I am indebted to M. H. Gunatilaka, Lecturer in the Dept. of Sinhala, Vidyodaya University, for this information. Also see Sarathchandra, "Sinhala Folk Plays", University of Ceylon.
23. L. A. Krishna Aiyer and L. K. Balaratnam, Anthropology in India, Bharathiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay, 1961, p. 212.
24. Tolkappiyam, Porupatikaram, Akatinai Iyal 5, Naccinarkiniyam.
25 Ibid. Sutra 60.
26 Narrinai, 26.
27 M. Raghava Iyengar, Araicci Tokuti, Pari Nilayam, Madras, 1964, pp. 185-204.
28 M. D. Raghavan, Folkplays and Dances of Kerala, Ravivarma Archeological Society, Trichur, 1947, p. 13.
29 Charles Winnick, Dictionary of Anthropology, Littlefield, Adam & Co., Iowa, 1958.
30 R. Briffault, on "Festivals" in Encyclopaedia of Social Sciences.
31 George Thompson, Aeschylus and Athens, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1941, pp. 112-119.
32 Cilapatikaram, canto 5.
33 Manimekalai, canto 1.
34 M. D. Raghavan, Folk plays and Dances of Malabar, p. 4.
35  P.V. Somasundaranar, ed., Kuruntokai, S.S. Publishing Works, Madras, 1955, p. 42.
36 R. Raghava Iyangar, Kuruntokai Vilakkam, Annamalai University, Annamalainagar, 1958, p. 61.
37 Akananarru, 20, 118, 232, 336; Prarananuru, 24, 129; Narrinai, 276; Maturnikkanji, 96-7; Malaipatukatam, 320.
38 Cilapatikaram (Caminata Iyer edn.), Commentary in Patikam 77-27, Kabeer Press, Madras, 1960.
39 L. A. Krishna Iyer and L. K. Balaratnam, Anthropology in India, p. 212.
40 Purananuru, 335.
41 Tolkappiyam, Porulatikaram 91.
42. Porunararruppatai, 1; Akananuru, 176; Purananuru, 29; Patirrppatu, 56.
43 Kurinjippattu, 42.



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