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Home > Tamil Language & Literature > Tamil Language and Literature - a Brief Overview - Dr. Benjamin Walker
Tamil Language and Literature - a Brief Overview
Dr. Benjamin Walker
Tamil is the most highly cultivated of the Dravidian tongues, spoken by about fifteen million people in south-east Indian and southern Ceylon. The name is derived from ancient Damila, a non-Aryan Warlike people of South India who figure in early Buddhist and Jain records. Tamil is an extremely refined medium of communication, and there is no ground for supposing, as the early Sanskrit writers did, that it was spoken by a primitive people. The language has a rich and varied vocabulary and is extraordinary in its subtlety and sense of logic, and the refinements of its grammer bear comparison with the most precise for expressing nuances of thought and meaning. It is remarkably rich is honorifics, a charateristic of a decadent rather than a primitive culture, which suggests a highly mature satge of civilization. The manner in which the negative form of the verb is obtained is both ingenious and logical , while the system of interrogatives is as perfect as could be formed by the human mind' (IV,p.202).
The prodigious literary output of Tamil has to a certain extent been reduced to order by its systematic arrangement into anthologies in which much of the best material has been preserved. Some of the writings, according to Tamil tradition, go back many thousands of years. Tamil legend speaks of three grat literary academies called sangam, which met at or near Madura, and early Tamil writing is referred to as sangam literature. All the three sangams most probably flourished between the first and fifth centuries AD, under the patronage of Pandyan kings, but they have been ascribed a hoary origin, and the chronology allotted to the poets of these sangams is extremely confused.
The first sangam was supposed to have met about 10,000 BC, convened by the rishi Agastya, the mythical Apostle of the Decccan, and even the gods participated in its deliberations. It was held on Mount mahendra in the Kumari Nadu and lasted for four thousand four hundred and forty years. But a great flood swept over the country and nearly all the writings perished, although fragments of a work known as the Agattiyam were saved. This was a treatise on Tamil grammer attributed to Agastya himself. According to Tamil Saivites another important work also survived the Flood, namely, the Nanmarai, or `Four Scriptures', dealing with virtue, wealth, pleasure and bliss. The present version, said to be a redaction of the original, is one of the basec scriptures of the Saivites.
The second sangam traditionally lasted three thousand seven hundred years, and only one example of this period survives, namely, the Tolkapiyam, the earliet extant Tamil work, a grammer of the language by a Jain author, known after it as Tolkappiyar(c AD ?200-450). Believed to have been written long before the sage Vyasa compiled the Vedas, it nonetheless shown an acquaintance with Panini and Manu. It deals with phonetic rules, word construction, syntax, literary convention, rhetoric and prosody.
The third sangam is said to have lasted one thousand eight hundred and fifty years, and the work of its poets was colletcted into the Ettuttogai, 'Eight Anthologies', and the Pattup-pattu, 'Ten Idylls', comprising a total of 2,500 hymns, ballads, erotic verses, and Iyrics in praise of the country, of gods and of kings, by about three hundred authors. Some poems by Kapilar are included in the Pattup-pattu. Most of these poems were sung by minstrels at the princely courts, and are as archaic sounding to the modern Tamil student as Beowulf and piers Plowman are to the student of modern English.
These great were all but forgotten by the Tamils themselves till the end of the last century, and have yet to be fully and critically edited. The writings contain references to the Yavanas(Greeks) as brave seafarers, as bodyguards to the kings,and as palace guards. The possibility of Greek influence on sangam literature has sometimes been noted.
The first truly great poetical composition in Tamil is a work by Tiruvaluvar (c AD 400) known as the Kural, the most venerated book south of the Godaveri. A sister of Trivalluvar, named Avvaiyar, is a highly revered poetess in her own right, who has a splendid marital ode to her credit. Also worthy of note by an unknown but probaly contemporary author is the romantic epic Chintamani. It is full of grandeur and beauty, with exquisite descriptions of natural scenery, and shows a delicate and masterly handling of its story.
Jain influence is once more discerned in the Naladiyar (?400-800?), originally consisting of 8,000 verses written, one each, by as many Jains. To test their worth the verses were cast into a stream by order of a king, and only 400 floated, while the tested disappeared beneath the waters. These 400 poems constitute the present Naladiyar. There is no mention of god in the collection, but a burning sense of morality pervades the whole work, which is written in a terse and vigorous style.
The middle of the seventh century saw the birth of another Tamil masterpiece, Cilapathikaram, the subject of much commentary. Written by the poet Ilango it tells of the awe-inspiring wrath of a woman whose husband was unjustly slain by a king. To the same period belongs a sequel to this classic written by Sattan, with a Buddhist bias.
In the 9th century the poet Kampan wrote a Ramayana, a highly finished and popular work, based in part on an earlier Jain epic, also in Tamil. The character of Ravana is drawn in heroic proportions before whom Rama is an unimpressive little figure. It is said by Tamil scholars to challange comparison with the Ramayana of Valmiki.
The period between the 7th and 9th century saw the rise of two powerful religious currents which found expression in Tamil poetry and constitute the chief glory of Tamil literature. These were the works of the Saivaite saints and Vaishnavaite hymn writers. The Saivaite material was put together in the Thirumurai, an anthology of hymns by 63 devotees, including Thirumular, Appar, Sambandhar and Sundarar, Nambi and Sekizhar, and a masterpiece by Manikkavacakar. Together they constitute the canon of the Saiva Siddhandha school. The Vaishnavaite hymns were composed by a group of poets known as the Azhvars, who flourished in the same period. Their hymns collected into a volume of four thousand verses are known as the Prabantham, the prayer and hymn book of the south Indian Vaishnavaites.
What is sometimes called the golden age of Tamil literature was at its height between the 10th and 13th century. Sanskrit influences predominated along with the writings in Tamil, and there appeared a debased form of composition called Manipralavam, made up of a mixture of Sanskrit and Tamil, Sanskrit phrases and grammatical forms being intermingled with Tamil. This artificially lead deterioration of style and language from which Tamil writing did not recover until it came under the influence of English literature five centuries later.
In the 17th century a reaction against the Sanskrit trend set in, best exemplified in the anti-brahmanical writings of the Siththars (or Siddha) school (see Nathas). The Siththars were a Tamil sect who, while retaining Siva as the name of the one God, rejected everything in Siva worship inconsistent with pure theism. They have been described as quietists in religion and alchemist in science. Their mystical poems, especially the Siva Vaakiyam, are held in high regard. They are strong against idolatory, and according to some critics their works bear traces of Christian influence.
A literary curiosity indicative of the influences operating on South Indian writing at this period was the work of Viramaamunivar (1680-1747), the Tamil name of Father Constancio Beschi, an Italian Jesuit, whose Thembavani written in irreproachable Tamil contains stories from the old and new testaments. It is regarded as a Tamil classic and has been the subject of commentaries by Hindua and Tamil scholars.
The work of Christian missionaries in the revival of Tamil letters is universally acknowledged in the South today. They simplified the script, introduced punctuation, gave an impetus to prose works; wrote the first Tamil treatises on Science, introduced the printing press, produced Tamil tracts, books and magazines, and set up societies for promoting Tamil writing (V, p.9).
Of recent writers in Tamil, two are particularly worthy of notice. The first is Subramniya Bharathi (d. 1921), whose poems, written in terse simple style are tempered and restrained, albeit full of patriotic favour. He was a great lover of Shelley and in his own verse tried to combine the best of the old and the new, introducing forms and expressing sentiments reminiscent of the romantic revival. The second is Ramalingam Pillai (b. 1888) whose started his career as a painter and with Gandhi's encouragement turned to writing poetry. His work earned for him in 1949, the poet laureate in Tamil.