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Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
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Home > Tamil Language & Literature > Grammatical Works including Tolkapiyam > Tolkapiyar's Literary Theory - T.P.Meenakshisundaram


Tolkapiyar’s Literary Theory

T. P. Meenakshisundaram
Paper presented at First International Conference Seminar of Tamil Studies,
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, April 1966

"Tolkappiyam at least in parts is the earliest work in Tamil. It is a book on phonology, grammar and poetics. Therefore it implies the prior existence of Tamil literature...The most important aspect of this literature is the distinction between what is called akam and puram the exterior or the outer and the interior or the inner. I prefer to call them the poetry of the phenomenon and the poetry of the noumenon. The inner core of truth of human life is akam or Love. There is a rule that in akam poetry no names are to be mentioned... As against this, puram or the poetry of the phenomenon shows the experience of the varying individuals in this world, an experience which can be often dated as belonging to the historical persons...   Ultimately akam and puram are as the inner palm of the hand and its back..."

 A. General Theory

Tolkappiyam at least in parts is the earliest work in Tamil. It is a book on phonology, grammar and poetics. Therefore it implies the prior existence of Tamil literature. There is a distinction made therein between literary language and colloquial or non-literary language - ceyyul and valakkul1 thus implying certain literary conventions not only in grammatical forms but also in literary form and subject matter. However, from the point of view of vocabulary, ordinary words, literary words, dialect words and foreign words may all come into the literary composition.2 Though Tolkappiyam, as stated may be earlier than the Cankam works, it seems to contemplate the same kind of literature.

Akam and Puram

The most important aspect of this literature is the distinction between what is called akam and puram the exterior or the outer and the interior or the inner. I prefer to call them the poetry of the phenomenon and the poetry of the noumenon. The inner core of truth of human life is akam or Love. There is a rule that in akam poetry no names are to be mentioned.3 Akam is therefore describing an ideal or perfect human being whether man of women but here the poetry is not describing any type. It represents the autobiography of the individual from the fundamental universal point of view.

But this gives its core of love which may be equated with a soul which is revealed through the varying personalities within the background necessarily of the multifarious aspects of Nature and History which after all form the various points of view or perspectives revealing the inner core. Each poem, as I have stated elsewhere, is "a chink in the wall of its individuality giving the glimpse of the whole universe. It is a beautiful dew drop reflecting the whole of  the heavens and the earth from the individual point of view, its coign of vantage. "4

There are various implications of this ideal love tried to be explained in Nakkirar's commentary on Iraiyanar Akapporul.5 There were controversies on this as time went on, especially between the vedic scholars and the later day moralists on the one hand and the Tamil poets believing in the old theory of Love.6 The idealized love, it has to be said, made it easier for Tirumular to identify Love with God; "anpe sivam." 7 This led to the mystic poetry of the Nayanmars and Alvars singing in the old Akapporul style.

The phenomenon is there only as an exposition of the noumenon. It is only when love attains this ideal level that it becomes akam; for, other love stories remain only puram. As against this, puram or the poetry of the phenomenon shows the experience of the varying individuals in this world, an experience which can be often dated as belonging to the historical persons. This however is not to mean that this poetry is not universal; only it raises itself to that universal level by emphasizing the phenomenon.

Ultimately akam and puram are as the inner palm of the hand and its back.8 Akam poetry deals with this love from the point of view of pre-marital love or post-marital love kalavu and karpu. Puram deals with not only the various aspects of war then practised but also with the phenomenal victory of human life, with the greatness of men who come to be sung by poets and also with the evanescence of life inspiring man to do great acts and make himself eternal in the memory of men during the short span of his life.


There is one thing peculiar about this poetry; the poems consist of dramatic monologues. Tolkappiyar enumerates certain illustrative con­texts in the various aspects of akam and puram poetry where the charac ter could speak and reveal a dramatic moment.9 Therefore there is in that age no narrative poetry or epic but only a series of dramatic mon­ologues. This is one of the important aspects of the literary theory of Tolkappiyam.

Dandin who came to live in Tamil Nad at the end of the seventh Century realized the importance of this literary theory about poetic anthologies and therefore spoke only of two kinds of poetry, the poetry of anthologies and the poetry of continuous narration or epic. As I have stated elsewhere,

"Many a gem of purest ray serene may be hidden in the sea of experience, and many are the hidden ways of the subtle artists, working on these valuable gems. Many like the epic poets are great in weaving beautiful patterns, immortalized in the pearl necklace of a queen or in the diamond diadem of a king - the varying disposi­tions of the many faceted gems satisfying the varying tastes and vanities of the rich. Some like the Cankam poets are great in carving out glis­tening and living forms of the Divine Dance [Ratna Sabhapati] or the Female Beauty, in each individual gem, infusing and vivifying the dead stone, with their life breath and mystical vision, making it, in short, the Absolute. How can this Absolute be reduced to the relative in a pattern? "10

Anthological literature suggests in a unique way the group poetry as I have suggested elsewhere -

"Cankam poetry is unique as group poetry par excellence. It has a personality of its own representing the group mind and the group personality of the Cankam age. Taken as a whole, it satisfies all the requirements of great poetry, enumerated above. The folk songs and proverbs of an age, with their authors unknown, form a unity, as the very expression of the national personality and the language.

Cankam poetry, though too cultured to be called folk song, consciously creates this universal personality and that is why it has been classified as a separate group in Tamil literature - the really great national poetry, not in the sense of national popularity but in the sense of being the voice of the nation in its origin.    These remind us of the towering gopuram of Tanjore expressing the aspiring spiritual height of the Cola age, though it is not the handiwork of any one sculptor but the work of a group of artists, each giving expression in rock to a vision of his own. It is therefore necessary to realize the importance of this conception of Cankam literature as a Tokai or anthology or group poetry which lies at the very root of the theory of Cankam poetry."

Poetic Quintessence

What is called vanappu mentioned as the last of the organs of a literary composition in the list given by Tolkappiyar contemplates some narrative poetry or literature. But they are not as elaborately discussed as the contexts or dramatic moments of anthologies. There, amongst these vanappus, is tol which describes an old story. As contrasted with it is viruntu which describes a new story.

There is also the literature composed in the ordinary dialect of the common man. There is again the literature consisting of a commingling of verse and prose. The other kinds do not contemplate any continuous narrative. 11 Vanappu comes at the end of the list almost either as a concession to a latter age where narrative poetry has developed or as a vague remembrance of a forgotten tradition of an earlier age. In any case the cryptic explanation given for these vanappus, vaguely suggesting narrative poetry against the elaboration of the dramatic moments of the anthologies, seems to suggest the prevailing poetic theory of the age related mainly to the anthologies rather than to narrative poems.

Another aspect of this literature is the attempt by the poet to capture the poetic quintessence of the dramatic moment in the form of living phrases and poetic metaphors and similes which become the life of the verse. These phrases are, as it were, the keys with which the inner treasure of poetry has to be locked. These therefore have become the names of such verses and often the immortal names of the poets themselves. Even when this idea is elaborated as a Netuntokai and Pattuppattu, the dramatic and poetic compression is not forgotten.

This necessitates a great and important place being given to sugges­tion. Apart from ordinary figures of speech mainly consisting of various kinds of metaphors and similes there is ullurai uvamam which is an implied metaphor.12 Here nature is described; and from that, one has to understand the implications: for instance, the buffalo treading on lotus and feeding on tiny flowers implies the extra marital relationship of the hero who leaves the heroine to suffer thereby. That age thought it was against the culture of the heroine and others to state this charge openly. There may be further implications within implications, thus giving rise to various strata of meaning, naturally to be understood only by the real critics or sahradayas.      Apart from the figures of speech, there were also other kinds of suggestions not only of the meaning but also of emotions and ideals. iraicci is a general name given to this suggestion.13 The whole theory of suggestion as conceived and developed by the Cankam poets, require a detailed research.

The emphasis Tolkappiyar lays on poetic sentiments or Rasa or what is called meyppatu should also be understood. He speaks of eight rasas, nakai or hasya, uvakai or hanpiness which is something more extensive than sringara; suffering or soka; vira or heroism physical. moral, intellectual and spiritual, ilivaral or jugupsa or a kind of shudder­ing at meanness; knodha or anger (bhaya or fear) and adbhuta or won­der.14 Tolkappiyar further elaborates the various emotions which play an important part in the various dramatic moments of Akam poetry.15 

There is a separate chapter on this rasa or meyppatu in Tolkappiyar thus showing the importance of these poetic sentiments intended to be sug­gested by a description of the appropriate time and place of the story, which are in turn made alive by a graphic description of Nature includ­ing the plants and the animals on the one hand, and the human society on the other and finally by that story made clear through the behaviour and speeches of the hero and the heroine amidst their followers and relatives. The implications of this theory of meyppatu has also to be worked out in detail by further research.


Naturally, for understanding such dramatic monologues, it is necessary to be familiar with the conventions of such poetry. For inter­preting such a verse, it is necessary, as emphasized by Tolkappiyar to know who the speaker is, to whom it is spoken, its dramatic context in akam or puram ; the time implied therein as a looking back or as a looking forward and the various strata of meaning and rich suggestion because such poetry believing as it does in compression should have recourse to an elaborate theory of suggestion and meyppatu or rasa or poetic sentiment.16 There is also the poetic convention about interpret­ing long drawn sentences, its peculiar linkages and ellipses.

B. Theory Implied in Versification

Enumeration of Organs

I may pass on to quote from my essay on the theory of poetry in Tolkappiyam,17 an organic theory of poetry where the sounds and the meanings together form one united whole. The ceyyul iyal or the chapter on literary composition in Tolkappiyam starts by enumerating the various constituents of a verse as its organs where we find enumerated both the aspects of form and matter, not only the poetic form but also the phonological and morphological form.

(1) The alphabetical sounds or phonemes (Eluttu);

(2) their duration (Mattirai);

(3) their knitting together into syllables (Acai) ;

(4) the various permutations and com­binations of these syllables as feet (cir) ;

(5) the varied integrations of these feet into lines (ati);

(6) the caesura - the coincidence with the metrical and grammatical pause (yappu) ; (7) the lexical tradition (ma­rapu);

(8) the basic poetic intonations or fundamental poetic tunes so to say (tnkku) ;

(9) the innumerable garland-like patterns of the metrical weldings such as assonance and rhyme (totai) ;

(10) the import or the purport of the verse, controlling and vivifying all these parts, so as to make them expressive of the self same purport (Nokku);

(11) the basic verse patterns as so many permanent and natural sound configurations of the idiom of the language (pa);

(12) the length or dimensions of the verses (alavu);

(13) [here comes subject matter] the harking back to the ideal behaviour patterns of an ennobling humanity (tinai);

(14) their varying main currents of activity (kaikol);

(15) the speaker (kurrul); whose expression is the poem;

(16) the person to whom the poem is spoken (ketpor);

(17) the place (kalam) and

(18) the time of the poem (kalam);

(l9) the resulting effect of purpose of the verse (payan);

(20) the sentiment or emotion bubbling forth therein;

(21) [here comes to poetic syntax] the elliptical construction or the yearning after completion of the sense, at every stage of its progress (eccam) ;

(22) the context mak­ing the meaning (munnam) ;

(23) the underlying universality (porul) ;

(24) the ford in the poetic current where the particularity enters into the flow of poetry or the particularity of the poetic aspect of the verse (turai);

(25) the great linkings or the retrospective and prospective constructions (mat­tu);

(26) the colour of the rhythm of the verse (vannam); and

(27) the eight-fold poetical facades (vanappu) or kinds of poetry of poetic com­position.18

Their Significance

At first this may sound a confused conglomeration but a careful analysis and understanding will reveal the great organic theory of poetry as conceived by Tolkappiyar.

Some of the constituents of the verse, like the letters or phonemes, their duration, the syllables, the feet, the garland ­like weldings, the lines and intonations are elaborations of our phonetic experiences, whilst the resulting sound configurations, the rhythms, the dimensions, and the poetic tunes are prosodic elaborations of such an experience. All these hypnotize the reader, by their basic poetic music, and make him move and heave with the poem.

He stands enchanted and hypnotized believing in the subject matter and becoming one with it, carried away by the multitudinous concatenation of canorous sounds of varying durations, modified by breaths; frictions, trills, liquids, hard and soft explosions, enriched by oral and nasal resonances, and divided into happy collections of significant and natural syllabic pulsations, which by their flow, by their permutations and combinations form into various waves of feet, which in their turn move with the poetic mood, by their very force of movement fastening themselves into varying patterns of wreaths or eddies of differing directions and angles of assonance and rhyme; the multifarious dispositions of these lines, giving rise, on this poetic march to varied and variegated poetic tunes, resulting in basic configurations of different rhythms of many a hue and many a facade.

Here arises what Eliot has called the auditory imagination. The other organs of the verse like the meaning made clear by the context, the elaborate ramifications by allusions and suggestions glowing into life, by sweet remembrances as described at length by Prof. Richards, the lexical traditions of words and their significance, the elliptical construc­tion or the yearning for the predicate after every pause in the continuous flow of the sense making the whole a continuity, and the retrospective and prospective constructions as looking backward and forward to bring about a well known organized unity, are but ordinary grammatical themes. There are the various ways in which the reader's understanding of a poem and his usual grasp of the meaning are utilized for swaying his mind hither and thither, his mind, thereby heaving up with the crest of the poetic wave and ebbing away with its trough, and his hypnotized intellect, reasoning with the music and meaning of the poem, and there­by, becoming one with the theme.

The remaining constituents of the verse are its speaker, the persons addressed, the time and place, the effect, the sentiment, the generality, the particularity and the universality of the poem, the last head reminding us of Jung's "archetypes and the unconscious racial and individual mem­ories". These are all that one is accustomed to to consider under the head of meaning and subject matter. These form the poetic theme in its concrete and specific reality, vivified by its glowing emotion, appealing to every heart by its universality or archetype, becoming of momentous value, as the expression of a fundamental mode of intrinsically ennobling human behaviour; its value carrying with itself the imprimatur of per­sonal experience.         

The value of a work of art, as Read suggests, consists not merely in the progressive organization of impulses for freedom and fullness of life according to Richards, but also of the open recognition of amoral sanction which is, in the old phraseology, revealed to the artist. The eight-fold facades and the import of the parts are attempts at telescoping these various strata of poetry, viz. the sound, the music, the significance, its sweep and development, the emotion and the final experience. Everything, thus, appears to be of great importance in the final make up of the poetic personality of the verse, reflecting the personality of the poet.


1.Tolkappiyar, Tholkappiyam, The South India Saiva Siddhanta Works Publishing Society, Madras, 1943, Sutra 510, 880.

2. Ibid., 880.

3. Ibid., 1000.

4 T. P. Meenakshisundaram, The theory of poetry in Tolkappiyam, collected papers, Annamalainagar, 1961, p. 63.

5 Iraiyanar, Iraiyanar Akapporul Urai, Pavanthar Wazhakam, Madras, 1939, p. 12.

6 S.Rajam (ed.) Pariparal, Murray & Co., Madras, 1957, verse 9:12.

7 Tirumular, Tirumantirarn; Tiruppanantal Sri Kasi Mutt, Tiruppanantal, 1956, verse 270.

8 Naccinakkiniyar, Commentary on Tolkappiyam - Porttlatikaram, Pa­vanthar Kazhakam, Madras, sutra 59.

9 Tolkapiyar, Tolkappiyam, Sutras 982-988m 1004-1006, 1009, 1013, 1014, 1018, 1021, 1022, 1025, 1027, 1031, 1036-1037. The South India Saiva Siddhanta Works Publishing Society, Madras, 1943.

10 T. P. Meenakshisundaram, The theory of poetry in Tolkappiyam, collected papers, Annamalinagar, 1961, p. 63

11 Tolkapiyar, Tolkappiyam, sutras 1259, 1493, 1495. The South India Saiva Siddhanta Works Publishing Society, Madras, 1943.

12 Ibid., 992-994, 1244.

13 Ibid., 1175-1177.

14 Ibid., 1197.

15 Ibid., 1207-1214.

16 lbid., 1441 etc., 1445 etc., 1452 etc., 1457 etc., 1460, 1462 etc.

17 T. P. Meenakshisundaram, The theory of poetry in Tolkappiyam, collected papers, Annamalainagar, 1961, pp. 55, 563.

18 Tolkapiyar, Tolkappiyam, sutra 1259, The South India Saiva Siddhanta Works Publishing Society, Madras, 194



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