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Home > Tamils - a Trans State Nation > Tamil Language & Literature > Thamizh Literature Through the Ages - Preface > 1. Introduction > 2. The Sangam (Academy) period. > 3. The Didactic Period > 4. The Era of the Thamizh Epics > 5. The Era of Devotional Period > 6. Epics of the ChOzha Period > 7. Grammar and Lexicography > 8. Philosophical Literary Period > 9. Thamizh purANangaL and Minor Poems > 10. IslAmic and Christian Contributions to Thamizh Literature > 11. Modern Period > 12. Present Situation > 13. Conclusion
Dr. C.R. Krishnamurti,
1. The History of Thamizh (தமிழ்) Literature
Thamizh is an ancient Dravidian language spoken in the south eastern peninsular region of India, north eastern part of Sri Lanka, and parts of Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, South Africa, Fiji and Mauritius. The migration of several professionals and scientists to North America and Europe during the middle of the twentieth century has resulted in substantial number of Thamizh speaking people and their descendants making their homes in these areas.
Endowed with rigid grammar and rich vocabulary, the language has flourished over three thousand years with only minor changes in script and literary style. Among the languages in the Indian subcontinent, it is claimed that Thamizh is the only language that has been influenced to the least extent by Sanskrit.
Though the northern part of India has been subjected to waves of invasion by foreigners since the dawn of the Christian era, the predominantly Thamizh speaking region in the south was able to maintain its linguistic traditions thanks to its relative geographical and political isolation. Considering the Harappa Mohenjo-Daro excavations some scholars have also suggested that the Dravidian groups of languages had a wider distribution in India than is generally believed. Thus any literary work on the history of Thamizh literature was clouded with the bias and prejudice of scholars and the anxiety of overzealous puritans to establish the antiquity of their language.
Critical analyses of the history of Thamizh literature had since been published in Thamizh but these are not readily accessible to those living outside India. Keeping this in mind, an attempt has been made to present an overview of the contributions of well known Thamizh authors and the salient features of their works. The relevance of literature to the social and cultural development of the Thamizh people has been emphasized. Controversial topics relating to the dates of authors and their works have not been discussed recognizing that Indologists and specialists in the subjects can handle them more authoritatively.
1.2. Constraints and Historical Perspectives
Though the antiquity of Thamizh is well established, an accurate chronological assessment of literary works had been rendered difficult due to lack of concrete scientific evidence to support conflicting claims. Undue reliance on myths and legends have thus culminated in controversial opinions or interpretations among scholars, confusion in the dates, names and personal accounts of authors and doubts of even their existence in some cases. Linguistic scholars have resorted to rock edicts of Kings, inscriptions on brass plates, stone carvings in temples, and palmyra leaves containing original works in conjunction. Archaeological excavations have also been useful in the reconstruction of the history of languages and the cultural characteristics of the people who spoke them.
Unfortunately much of the Thamizh literature belonging to the Sangam (academy), (சங்கம்) period had been lost so that all the current knowledge on the first two Thamizh academies can at best be described only as hypotheses not based on facts. Only events that occurred after the seventh century could be considered to have partial records worthy of discussion. Here again several manuscripts written in palmyra leaves were either lost, stolen, misplaced or destroyed by termites. Many had been taken away to other countries for safe keeping in museums not easily accessible to present day Thamizh scholars.
1.2.2. Names and Dates of Authors
The problem is further compounded by the custom that many authors had or assumed the names of famous predecessors so that it was not possible to know who the real person was. For example, several authors with the names n^akkIrar (நக்கீரர்) Kampan (கம்பன்) and ouvaiyAr (ஒளவையார்) had been credited with different works so that even references to contemporary authors, Kings or philanthropists mentioned in the rock and brass inscriptions do not tally with one another. To probe into this kind of discrepancy some experts have suggested the use of the literary style or grammatical features employed by specific authors. The tendency for interpolations (இடைச்செறுகல்) particularly in well known Thamizh works by authors in a subsequent time period added another dimension to the difficulty of identifying which were the originals and which ones were interpolated.
1.2.3. Transliteration and Word Processing
The difficulty in transliteration of Thamizh into English arises from the fact that the Thamizh system is basically grapho-phonemic and not grapho-phonological. A monumental effort had been made by Indologists and linguists to arrive at a satisfactory way of accomplishing this. Western scholars (James, 1991, Zvelebil, 1995) have adopted a transliteration system for written Thamizh. The minor importance given to the phonetic attributes of Thamizh in this system makes it difficult to decipher the names of authors and borrowed words.
Recognizing this limitation, professionals of Thamizh origin residing in North America and Europe have developed two word-processing software formats for computers. In one, the transliterated form is a phonetic reproduction using Roman characters. The softwares, Aathami, Madurai, Itrans, XlibThamizh, PC Thamizh, Palladam fall into this category. In the other, an appropriate Thamizh font permitting one to display the font as it is being typed is used. Examples include Mylai, Thamizh font, Saraswathi, and Ananku. Exchange of files between the two platforms is possible by using softwares such as Ahdawin, and Thamizh Converter. It is hoped that continued efforts by this enthusiastic and dedicated group of professionals would eventually result in an improved script and phonetic notations applicable to all kinds of spoken and written situations. This will also be a step in the right direction to recover and save whatever is still available of the ancient Thamizh literary works.
1.3. Historical Impacts
Finally the historic perspective emphasized by Dr. M.VaradharAjan (1972) in his opening passage of the 'History of Thamizh Literature' has to be noted. Considering the similarity of Thamizh to Oroan, Brahui and other languages spoken in pockets of North India to Dravidian group of languages, it has been speculated that Proto Dravidians were the original inhabitants of the land mass. According to the legend, the Dravidians originally came to India from the mythical continent of Lemuria that was engulfed by the sea. Whatever may be the facts, Sanskrit and the languages derived from it (PrAkrit and PAli) became the dominant language of the courts in the subsequent centuries.
Despite the healthy interaction between the Indo European and Dravidian groups of languages, there was no impetus to recover old Thamizh literary works. Even after the British entered into the picture, it was indeed unfortunate that publications in native Indian languages were restricted by the rulers. The restriction was removed in 1835 by Sir Charles Metcalf (MInAtchi sun^thharan, 1965). Further, the educational system under the British rule was heavily biased by its emphasis on western culture and history. Thamizh teachers were paid lower salaries than their English counterparts and, in general, occupied a lower status in the administrative hierarchy.
Till recently it was not even considered modern enough to write in pure Thamizh and some authors in the modern era attempted to develop a maNip pravALam style (மணிப்பிரவாளம்) of Thamizh which was heavily Sanskritized. Father Beschi who came to India in the eighteenth century as a missionary should be given the credit of translating ThirukkuRaL (திருக்குறள்) into Latin thus bringing the beauty of Thamizh and its richness to the western world. This was followed almost a century later, by the translation of ThirukkuRaL (திருக்குறள்), Thiru vAchakam (திருவாசகம்) into English by Dr. G.U.Pope. With this preamble of the constraints faced by Thamizh scholars, the growth of Thamizh literature during the Sangam period will now be discussed.