Sanga Kaalam (B.C. 3000 - A.D. 100)
Tamil literature is as old and as rich as Greek, Sanskrit and Chinese literatures.
The post-Sangam period (200-600 AD) is notable for the composition of five great Tamil epics -- Silappadikaram, Manimekalai, Jivaka-cintamani, Valaiyapati and Kundalakesi. Silappadikaram is considered to be the brightest gem of early Tamil literature. It is an invaluable source book of ancient Tamil dance and classical music. The other major epics produced in Tamil include Jivakachintamani or Mudiporultodarnilaiseyyul, Valaiyapati and Kundalakesi. Besides these, the Jain authors have produced five minor works -- Yasodhara-kaviyam, Chulamani, Perunkathai, Nagakumara-kaviyam and Nilakesi.
The Cholas were the great patrons of Tamil literature. One of the great figures of Tamil literature, Kamban, belonged to this period. He was the greatest of the court poets of Kulottunga Chola III (1178-1218 AD). He adapted Valmiki's Ramayana in Tamil in his Ramakatai or Kamba Ramayanam, which is very unique in its style and technique. He also composed other works like Erelupadu and Sathakoparandali. The other great works of this period include Ottakkuttan's Uttarakandam, Takkayagapparani and Muvarula; Pugazhendi's Nalavenba; Auvaiyar's Atticcudi, Konraivendam, Mudurai and Nalvazhi; Jayankondan's Kalingattupparani; Iraiyanar's Kalaviyal; Kalladanar's Kalladam, Aiyanar Itanar's Purapporulvenbamalai, Puttamittiranar's Viracozhiyam, Divakarar's Divakaram, Pingalar's Pingalandai and Pavananti's Nannul. Another important poet who flourished during the Chola period was Kuttan, who authored great works like Nalayirakkovai, Parani, Tukkayagapparani, Sarasvatiyandadi and Arumbaittollayiram. Other noted scholars of the Chola period include Tirutakadevara the author of Jiwana Chintamani and Talamokti, the author of Sulamani and Venkatamadhava who wrote a commentary on Rigveda during the reign of Parantaka I.
Tamil may be said to be very fortunate and lucky in having 'Tolkappiyam' and Cankam Classics which are the extant old Tamil literature truly representing the bulk of ancient Tamil works lost for ever. 'Tolkappiyar' whose age is generally placed in the 5th century B.C. gives us a lot of information for tracing the heritage of the Tamils.
It is no exaggeration to say that the kinds of Tamil literature we come across in the medieval and modern periods were mostly in existence in pre-Tolkappiyam age.
The age of Tolkappiyam
Tolkappiyam one of the greatest works that the world has ever produced is the oldest extant treatise in Tamil. Its survival against vicissitudes is a wonder. Books literary and grammatical prior to it were completely lost. No works have reached us for the three centuries subsequent to Tolkappiyam. We notice a big interregnum between Tolkappiyam and the 'Sangam' literature. The influence of is felt on all the periods of Tamil literary history in various degrees. Earlier a work, greater is its impact.
The earliest extant literature of the Tamils is called Sangam literature and it is dated between 500 BC. and 200 A.D. Though a considerable part of the early poetry has been lost, some of the bards and patrons decided to preserve apart of it in certain anthologies (about 4th century A.D.). These are the Ten Idylls (Pattuppattu) and the Eight Anthologies (Ettuttohai). Four hundred and seventy three poets, of whom thirty are women, have been identified. These are mainly classified into two. Akam or esoteric dealing with love and Puram or exoteric dealing with war.
In this period, Tamil literature was considerably bound by literary conventions. The poets were keen on keeping up the tradition. The land was treated as five regions viz. mountains, forests, fields, coasts and deserts and the theme of love in five aspects viz. union, patience, sulking, wailing and separation. The poet dealing with a certain aspect of love restricted himself to a particular region, season, hour, flora and fauna. These literary conventions are explained in Tolkappiyam.
Purananuru is 400 verses on Puram themes. It serves as a window on the Tamil people 2000 years ago. Agananuru is 400 poems on love themes. The length of these poems varies from 13 to 37 lines. There are other collections like Natrinai, Kuruntogai, Ain-kurunuru, Paripadal, etc., which are quite well known.
The age of Tirukkural
The second great work with 1330 couplets written by an individual author is Tirukkural.
'Tiruvalluvar' who is also a follower of 'Tolkappiyam' made a new approach to Ceyyliyal and gave a concrete shape to some of the ideas contained in that chapter in Tolkappiyam.
The age of Silappathikaram
The third outstanding work in old Tamil is Silappathikaram. It is also an embodiment of the ideas of the earlier three great works.
The age of Tamilised Epic
In the true Tamil epoch, characters in literature are not described as belonging to any faith. Religions did not play the least role in the ancient literature proper. But in the second epic period, heroes and heroines and other minor characters are shown as the devoted followers of certain religious faiths by birth. This significant difference between the Tamil literature that came into existence after the 4th century A.D. and the Tamil literature existing before that century should be borne in mind when we study the circumstances which are responsible for the many sided developments in the history Tamil.
Between 600-900 AD, the Tamil literature came under the influence of Saiva and Vaisnava saints called Nayanmars and Alvars respectively. The Saiva saints first compiled their hymns into the Devaram. The hymns of the Saiva saints were later collected into twelve anthologies called Tirumurais. The Periya Puranam or Tiruttondar Puranam, considered as the twelfth Tirumurai, was composed by Sekkizhar (12th century AD). The Vaishnavaite saint Nathamuni (824-924 AD) compiled the Vaishnava hymns into four books called Divya Prabandham or Nalayira Divya Prabandham. The other Alvar saints who contributed to the Tamil religious literature include Periyalivar, Poigaialvar, Bhutattalvar, Andal (the only woman saint among Alvars) and Nammalvar. Nammalvar's Tiruvaymozhi, the third book of Divya Prabandham, is said to be a quintessence of the Upanishads.
It is very difficult to find out the cultural heritage of the Tamils in the Modern Literature. The historic march of literature in Tamil began with the pre-Christian era. For the major division of "Silappathigaram" the first epic of Tamilnadu. In this epic Tamil Kings were given due respect at proper places.
"Tamil and Tamilnadu" are magic words to the Tamils to raise them as one man to do their duties at critical times in our history. This cultural aspect has been predominant in our Modern Literature.
The movement of Reform under the leadership of Periyar E.Ve.Ramasamy tried to reestablish the ideals of 'Kural' among the Tamils. They wanted to use it as a shield of "Aram" against the social evil and ignorance.
Only one book has the strength to reveal the full picture of the cultural heritage of the Tamils and that is Tirukkural.
Marriage without consideration of caste or creed was in vogue in the ancient Tamil society. In "Kalavu Manam" there was no restriction by the society on men and women in the choice of their life-partners. But in the medieval period this freedom of choice in marriage was quite out of vogue in Tamil society, atleast from the twelth century. Many had Tamil scholars had seriously thought about the old way of Tamil marriage and they wanted to put an end to this cruel form of the caste system in marriage.
Untouchability was not known among the ancient Tamils. St.Appar and other great men did not care about untouchability when they became one among the order of that one God.
In the meantime Gandhism embraced the untouchables as Harijans. Rajaji exposed the cruelty of the upperclass in his short stories like "Mukuntan" and "Jakattica Castiryin Kanavu".
Matavaiyya, Bharathi, Va.Ra.Sithanantha Bharathi and C.N.Annadurai attacked the caste system mercilessly. Gandhian movement touched the very heart of the people. Many nationalists, Socialists and Communists wrote stories, novels, poems and dramas againsts this evil system. Certain social reformers criticized the attitude of the religious institutions which tried to convert innocent people from other religions to their religions. Rajaji, Pudhumaipithan and Vintan have written on such themes.
Ancient Tamils discouraged gambling and dicing which seem to have been somewhat common in those days. According to Thiruvalluvar gambling destroys property, teaches falsehood, puts an end to benevolence and brings in misery.
'Kalki' as a follower of Rajaji wrote many stories and novels in support of prohibition. Periyasami Turan has also written many stories to show the evil effects of drinking.
In order to eradicate the "Theva Thasi" System previling in the Hindu temples "Tevadhasi" and "Kottu Melam" short stories written by Ta.Na.Kumarasami and Ti.Janakiraman respectively came out successfully.
The earliest Tamil literature goes back to the Sangam period. In ancient times, the assembly or academy of most learned men of Tamil land was called 'Sangam' and the literature produced in these assemblies is known as the Sangam literature. The compilation of the corpus of literature was accomplished over a period of three to four centuries but there is a controversy amongst scholars regarding the exact period of the Sangams. Perhaps, the Sangam period stretched from 600 BC- 200 AD. Many Tamil scholars mention about the existence of three Sangams at Madura, Kapatapuram and Northern Madura respectively. It is believed that most of the works relating to the first two Sangams dealt with music and dance. Unfortunately all the works of these two Sangams are lost, except for Tolkappiyam, which is the oldest extant grammar dating back to 500 BC. The literature of the third Sangam period mainly comprises of poems which are arranged in eight anthologies called Ettuttokoi and ten idylls called Pattuppattu. Ettuttokoi consists of Narrinai, Kuruntogai, Ainkurunuru, Padirruppattu, Paripadal, Kalittogai, Ahanuru and Purananuru. Pattuppattu consists of the following ten idylls by eight different authors: Tirumurugarruppadai, Porunararruppadai, Cirupanarruppadai, Pattinappalai, Kurincippattu, Nedunalvadai, Maduraikkanci, Malaipadukadam, Mullaippattu and Perumpanarruppadai. The third Sangam period also saw a collection of minor works called Padinen-kizhkkanakku which deals mainly with moral virtues. Among them, the most notable is Tiruvalluvar's Tirukkural or Kural, which deals with philosophy and wise maxims. The Sangam literature, unlike the Rig Vedic texts, was secular in nature and revolved around the themes of various heroes and heroines. The Sangam literature provides very valuable information on the social, economic and political life of the people living in deltaic Tamil Nadu in the early Christian centuries.
The modern period witnessed the impact of Islam and Christianity on Tamil literature. Umaruppulavar (1605-1703 AD) was the earliest among the Muslim Tamil poets. He composed the Sirappuranam, which is a verse narrative on the life of Prophet Muhammad. Another work dealing with the Islamic faith was Muhaidin Puranam (1845 AD) by Mohammad Ibrahim. Constanzio Beschi (1680-1747 AD), who adopted the pseudonym of 'Viramamunivar', wrote a classic Tembavani, on the life of Jesus Christ.
Subramanya Bharati (1882-1921 AD) was one of the greatest of Tamil litterateurs of the modern times. He is renowned for his patriotic and devotional songs and intense prose writings on contemporary social affairs. His Panchali Sabadam is an epic poem based on a single episode of the Mahabharata. His other great works include Kalippattu, Kannanpattu and Kuyilpattu. The other renowned Tamil poetic works of the modern times include Meyyarivu and Padal Tirattu of V.O.Chidambaram; Malarum-malaiyum and Umarkkayyam-padalkal of Desikavinayagam; Podumai Vettal, Tamiizhan Idayam and Sankoli of Kalyanasundaram; Avalum Avanum of N.K.Ramalingam; Azhakin Sirippu, Pandiyan Parisu, Tamizhiyakkam, Kudumbavilakku, etc of Bharatidasan. Durai Manickam was another important modern Tamil poet who is credited with prolific works like Aiyai, Nurasiriyam, Koyyakkani, Ensuvai Enbatu and Paviyakkottu. The other renowned poets of this period include M.L.Thangappa, Mudiyarasan, Ezhilmutalvan, N.Kanakaraja Iyer, A.Srinivasaraghavan, Kannadasan and Tamizhazhagan.
Paramartta Gurukathai written by Viramamunivar in the 18th century affords the earliest specimen in novel writing in Tamil. However, Vedanayagam Pillai (1824-1889) is credited with the writing of the first novel in Tamil, Pirataba Mudaliyarcharittiram in 1875. H.A.Krishna Pillai (1827-1900) adapted John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress in Tamil in his Iratcanyayattirigam. The other important works of this period include Bharatam of Perundevanar, Nandarcharittirak-kirttanaikal of Gopalakrishna Bharati, Kamalambalcharittiram of Rajam Ayyar (1896), Padmavatichaittiram of Madhaviah, Menaka and Balamani of Vaduvur Duraiswamy, Ratnapurirahasyam of A.Kuppuswamy, Mannasai and Kariyadarisi of Shankara Ram. M.Varadarajan (1912-1974) experimented with several new techniques in Tamil novels. His famous works include Perra Manam (1953), Karittundu (1953), Ahalvilakku, Sentamarai and Mankudisai. C.N.Annadurai has two important works to his credit - Nallatambi and Rangoon Radha (1952). Akilan won the Jnanpith Award in 1976 for his novel Chittirappavai (1968). The other important novelist of modern times include Anuttama, Jayalakshmi Srinivasan, Kodainayaki Ammal, N.Parthsarthy, C.Subramanyam, Jayakantan and Sundaram Ramaswamy. V.V.S.Aiyar, Kalki, Pudumaippittan, B.S.Ramayya and ASP Ayyar are renowned short story writers in Tamil.
Tamil is rich in devotional literature Nayanmars are the exponents of Saivism and Alwars that of Vaishnavism. Thiru jnanasambandar, Thirunanukkarasar, Sundarar and Manikkavacakar are the four great Nayanmars. The great Alwars are 12 in number. Kulasekhara Alwar and Andal are specially remembered. There are 5 major kavyams and 5 minor kavyams in Tamil. Jain and Buddhist works are in abundance in the language.
Coming to the period between 13th & 18th centuries, we notice Muslim and Christian impact on Tamil literature. Umaruppulavar has composed a long poem of 5000 verses on the life of prophet Muhammed. The Christian influence began with the Portuguese and continued with the Danes, the Dutch, the French and the British. Beschi, Caldwell, Winslow and Pope have made significant contributions to Tamil. The Italian priest Beschi (1680-1747) composed the magnificent poetical work Tembavani (The Insatiable Beauty) on the life of St. Joseph. Vedanayagam Pillai and Krishna Pillai are two other Christian poets.
Twentieth century has produced many talented men of letters in various fields, Poetry, Prose, Drama, Novel, Biography, Short Story etc. Dr. Swaminatha Iyer unearthed many literary works and edited them. Swami Vadachalam, Thiru V. Kalyanasundera Mudaliar and V. O. Chidambaram Pillai are great writers of the modern period. However, the greatest poet of modern Tamil is Subramania Bharati whose patriotic poems have inspired thousands of readers in his time. Personal freedom, national liberty and the fundamental equality of all men find eloquent expression in his verses. In some of his poems like Kuyilpattu (Song of the Cuckoo) Kannanpattu (Poems on Lord Krishna) or Panchali Sapatham (The Vow of Panchali) we notice a religious perception at work.
Rajam Ayyar, Madhavayya, Pudumaipithan, Kupa, Rajagopalan and Kalki Krishnamoor have contributed much to the field of Tamil fiction. These writers along with Bharati ushered in the new epoch of renaissance in Tamil literature.
In the post-Independence period several writers have come to the fore. Among poets, the names of Kulothungan, Ka-Na Subramanyam and C. S. Chellappa may be mentioned. And in fiction the outstanding names are Akilan, jayakanthan, Neela Padmanabhan, Sundararamaswamy, Ashokamitran and Indira Parthasarathy.
Tamil Literature - A Bird's View by Prof. S.Chandrasekaran M.A., M.Phil.
The topics covered are :
The period of the three academies of Tamil covering a period of roughly 1700 years upto
250 A.D. This is considered to be the Golden Age of Tamil Literature. The literature,
predominantly poetry is fresh, born out of fertile imagination takes the briefest of forms
to present a picturesque panorama of the lives and times. War and love happen to be the
subject matter. The serenity and chastity in love amply match nobility and greatness in
war. What begins as a supreme effort of the most civilized people proceeds through steady
progress to be mercilessly ended by the heartless sides of the rising oceans which are
reported to have swallowed thousands of miles of the ebode of this great people. However
zealous kings and patriotic poets have preserved whatever was possible to the benefit of
the succeeding generations.
Sangam Maruvia Kaalam :(A.D. 100 - 500)
This period witnesses the growth of Buddhism and Jainism in the now shrinked Tamil
country. Consequently the Northern concepts and ways of life start stamping their imprints
on the Tamil Community. The origin charm of the early Tamil Literature starts wearing
Puram costumes. First long poem 'Sillpathi Karam'. This epic is to remain unparalled and
unexcelled in conception and grandoeur till the advent of the Kamba Ramayana in the 9th
century A.D. Besides this, Thirukkural which is certainly more ancient than silappadigaram
and some of the other works on ethical way of life were written during this period.
The Dark age or the Kalabhra
Interegnum (A.D. 150 - 500)
While the march of the mighty oceans have destroyed the
early Tamils and their way of life, the Kalabhra invasion during 250 A.D. decidely alters
the shape of Tamil leterature and Tamil way of life. Kalabharas, having been the sons of
the Kannada soil did not have the necessary love of Tamil to ensure its growth. Instead
the pronounced Jainest fanatism of these rulers have more or less destroyed the acts and
literature of the Tamil people to the point of extinction.
However various treatises on Poetics began to be written along with some of the ethical
works which are grouped in Pathinenkil Kanakku. The most illustrious flower of the Dark
Ages is probably the 'Muthollayiram' 900 songs each on the Chera, Chola and the Pandya
Bakthi or The Pallava Period
(A.D. 500 - 800)
The severe austerity in matters practised by the Kalabrahs a band of alien waranders
who overran the Pandiya Kingdom in the 3rd century have suppressed all vestiges of Tamil
act art and letters. The valuable contributions like music, dance and drama of the Sangham
period were suppressed. This strangling sway had practically obliterated the Tamil way of
life of the legendary past. Most of the literary works of the Sangaham period might have
The supuression of the alien Kalabhra clan by Pandiyan Kadumkon by the end of the 6th
century had helped a revival of the ancient orthodox religions of the land. Great
spiritual preception both in Saivism and Vaishnavism towed the entire Tamil country,
sanchtifying the temples by their songs, and directing the people, the masses and the
elite, towards a higher and godly way of life. The sway of these preceptions held sway for
about 13 centuries. This is called the Bakthi movement. The literature of this period
reflects the ennobling qualities which have come to characterise the arts, architecture
etc. The simple songs of the Bakthi movement in elegant musical Tamil won over all the
people high and low.
Chola period or the Epic Period
(A.D. 800 - 1200)
The culmination of the Bakthi Movement can be found in the materialisation of the Chola
Empire. A new golden era of political supremacy which was synamous with religous culture
and temple buildings was thus ushered in.
Greatest of Tamil Epics Kamba Ramayanam was born in this period. The quintessance of
the entire Tamil culture of the preceding years, the broad span of literary excellence
which have been evolving through the millenia, the peak of religious fevour which has been
embracing people in all their walks of life and all that is noble in the land and life of
the Tamil as a people find their happy fusion and exemplary delineation in Kamba
Ramayanam. Other epics preceding and following this great poet's pale into insignificance
Another noble off spring of this period is Periapuranam. The work is in a sense a
national epic of the Tamil people, because it treats of the lives of the Saints who lived
in all the different parts of Tamilnadu, and belonged to all classes of society, men and
women, high and low, educated an uneducated. We have among the saints princes from all the
ruling dynasties of the land, as well as men from the harijan classes; but they are all
equal in the devotion and service to God and godlymen. Sekkilar transcends the limits of
time and space and comprises within the fold of his spiritual democracy even people who
lived earlier and who will be living later, in all the distant climes. New literary forms
begin to take shape during this period which were going to keep the literary tradition
alive for many more centuries to come.
The History of Tamil Literature during the Chola period has recorded glorious
achievements. The Pandya period which follows does not exhibit such literary excellence
mainly because of the political instability. The end of the 13th and the begining of the
14th century witness the capturing of power by the Mohammedians. For about the next two
hundred years, until the spread of the Vijayanagara empire in the deep south practically
there was no literary creations but for a few commentaries on Sangam literature including
Silappadhikaram and Thirukkural. Philosophical treatises on Saiva Religion were also
written in poetry. These were known as the 'Sithantha Sastirangal'.
Although 'epic' literature of the grand scale did not appear in the literary horizon
several glittering stars started apearing and adorning the field of Tamil Literature,
known as 'Small Prabandas' or 'Sitrilakkiyangal'. These new literary works varied in their
content and structure from the earlier works. Some scholars opine that the literature of
this period reflects the lives of the common people much more than those of the previous
periods. The love of Tamil language in an alien political atmosphere can be very much seen
in some excellent poets whose metre and rhythm have enriched our language. In fact the
grand old musical tradition can be said to have been carefuly guarded, and be said to have
been carefully guarded, and handed over to the succeeding generation by them. Mention must
be made of Arunagirinathar and his Thiruppugazh (The Diving greatnes) and of
Kumaragurupara Swamigal whose musical stanzas are still being sung in Temples with vigour
The range and variety of the Prabandas of the period covering nearly 350 years are
quite extensive and astounding. Though same repetitions mar the guarded literary
landscape, much of trendsetting literature is born during this long period. Common people
and their way of life including their harmless pursuits and their exemplary contentedness
find happy expression in these works. The simple lives and the special featuers of the
hill tribes (Kuraver) are recorded in the lovely lyrics of the kuravanji literature. The
common features of the agravian society are found in the delightful pages of Pallu
literature. March of war and deeds of valour form the basis of the Bharani Literature
which contains myths and the supernatural elegantly interwoven in musical and rhythmic
verses. A variety of verses speaking of war, love, humour, valour, season, charm etc. are
cleverly compiled in Kalambagam poetry. The stages of a child's growth upto 3 years forms
the subject matter of 'Pillai thamil' poetry which generally adopts God and greatmen as
the 'children' to be sung. The puranic fevour, religious charms and astounding imagination
found in these poems are unmatched by any poetry of the world literature. A damsel sending
even an inanimate object to present her case to her lover forms the subject matter of
'Thoudhu'. It is quite common to see even birds and animals praised to dizzy heights in
these resounding verses which succeed in portraying the lyrical longings of the love born
lady. The different emotions stirred at the sight of a Grand Procession taken in honour of
an Exemplary individual are beautifully presented in ULA. Seven stages of a girl's growth
into womanhood and the corresponding feelings of awe, infactuation, unfulfilled love and
longing associated with their behavioural patterns are studied in minute detail in the
Ulas. Thirukkutralakkuravanji, Mukkoodal Pal