(Last Updated on : 24/12/2011)
The history of Tamil literature
has a lengthy and rich literary tradition that spans over 2000 years. The oldest existing works signify an even longer period of evolution. The history of Tamil literature is influenced by the social, cultural and political history of the Tamil nation. Sangam literature that originated during 2nd century BCE, comprises of anthologies of several poets that are based on various genres like war, love, social and moral values, religion and other aspects of life. The early epics and moral literature made by the Buddhist, Jain and Hindu scholars soon followed and lasted till 5th century CE. The period from 6th to 12th century CE, the great Bhakti movement was initiated by Alvars (sages of Vaishnavism
) and Nayanmars (sages of Shaivism
) who wrote Tamil devotional poems. Tamil literary classics such as Periya Puranam and Kambaramayanam were also written during this period. The imperial Chola and Pandya empires were patrons of these classics. During the late medieval period, some eminent Muslim and European scholars also entered the Tamil literary scene.
During the late 19th century, Tamil literature was revived with literary works of philosophical and religious nature. These were constructed in such a manner that the general people could understand and enjoy these works. Subramania Bharathi initiated the modern Tamil literary movement and eventually others followed. With increasing literacy rate, the level of Tamil prose enhanced and matured and novels and short stories were introduced into the medium.
Ancient Tamil Literature
The ancient history of Tamil literature can be divided into 3 segments, namely the Sangam Period, Didatic or Ethical Literature Period and Period of Old Epics. These are mentioned below in details-
consists of some of the earliest existing Tamil literature and deals with various themes like governance love, war, bereavement and trade. But most of the literature of that period has been lost. The literary works available at present from the Sangam age is a small part of the entire Tamil literature created during this Tamil golden age. The available literary works have been chronologically divide into 3 segments, which include the Major 18 Anthology Series that consists of 8 anthologies and 10 idylls; the 5 Great Epics; and Tolkaappiyam, a work on grammar, rhetoric, phonetics and poetics. The Sangam period is regarded as the golden period of Tamil language. During this era, the Tamil nation was ruled by the Cheras, the Cholas and the Pandyas.
Tolkappiyam is a textbook on Tamil grammar providing the intonation and syntax of words and sentences. Moreover it is a categorization of animals, habitats, plants and humans and also vividly discusses about human emotions and interactions. Tamil literature was classified into Akam (subjective) and Puram (objective) categories. A collection of poems named Kuruntokai, of the Ettuthokai anthology, showcases the initial management of the Sangam landscape. These can be also found in later works of Akananuru and Paripaatal. Akaval and Kalippa poetic forms were mostly used by scholars and poets of the Sangam period.
Didatic or Ethical Literature Period
Didatic period in Tamil literature began 3 centuries after the Sangam period, which was witness to the mutual cooperation of the 2 major languages of the era, Tamil and Sanskrit. Between these 2 major North Indian and South Indian languages, various concepts and words related to religion, philosophy and ethics were mutually loaned and traded. During 300 CE, the Kalabhras, who were mainly were Buddhist, greatly influenced the Tamil country. Numerous Buddhist scholars and authors emerged and evolved during this era. Moreover, Buddhism and Jainism saw rapid development in the region and the entire country as well. These scholars and authors reflected the ascetic faiths in their religion in their works and created literature based on ethics and morality. Several Buddhist and Jain poets significantly contributed to the production of such didactic literary works that included lexicography and grammar. During this period, the collection the minor 18 anthology was created.
Tirukkural by Thiruvalluvar is perhaps the most renowned of the ethical literatures from this period and is an all inclusive manual of ethics, polity and love. The book contains 1,330 kural that are divided into chapters of 10 kurals each. The initial 38 are on ethics, the next 70 are on polity and the rest are on love. Other well known literary works from the Didatic period of Tamil literature are Nalatiyar, Iniyavai Narpathu, Kalavali and Inna Narpathu. Nalatiyar and Pazhamozhi Nanuru, popular Jain texts, comprise 400 poems and each poem quotes a proverb with illustrated stories.
During 500 CE, the Kalabhras eventually declined and were replaced by the Pandyas in the Tamil country. In the late 17th Century, the suppressed Hindu sects revived and numerous Saiva and Vaishnava literary works were created. Some of the renowned Saiva hymnists from this era were Thirugnana Sambanthar, Sundaramurthi and Thirunavukkarasar (Appar). Devotional hymns were also created by Vaishnava Alvars and the songs were accumulated into 4000 sacred hymns. The 3 earliest Alvars were Pudam, Poygai and Pey.
Period of Old Epics
is amongst the exceptional literary works that was created during this period. In all probabilities, Cilappatikaram is considered to be authored by Ilango Adigal ho was believed to be the sibling of Senguttuvan, the Chera king from Sangam age. Cilappatikaram is an outsatanding work and it provides a vivid and unique portrayal of the ancient Tamil country. Cilappatikaram, along with Manimekalai which is another renowned epic, is based in Buddhist philosophy. Manimekalai was constructed by Sattanar, a contemporary of Ilango Adigal. The epic Manimekalai comprises an extended explanation of fallacies of logic that is believed to be based on the Sanskrit work Nyayapravesa written by Dinnag in the 5th century. Perunkathai, written by Jain author Kongu Velir, was based on Brihat-katha which was in Sanskrit. Other popular narrative poems from this era are Valayapathi and Kundalakesi created by a Jain and a Buddhist scholar respectively.
Medieval Tamil Literature
During the medieval period, the Tamil land was ruled by the Imperial Cholas and was under a single administration. During the 11th and 13th centuries the Cholas reigned supreme with minimum foreign invasions. The Prabhanda became the leading form of poetry. The religious norms and principles of Vaishnava and Shaiva sects were methodically collected and categorised. Nambi Andar Nambi arranged books on Saivism into 11 books named Tirumurais. Periyapuranam or Tiruttondar Puranam by Sekkilar, standardized the hagiology of Shaivism
. Kamban's Ramavatharam was one of the best Tamil literary works and Ramavatharam is the greatest epic in Tamil Literature. Auvaiyar, a popular poetess, wrote mainly for children and her renowned works include Athichoodi, Konraiventhan, Mooturai and Nalvali.
Jivaka-Chintamani by Thirutakkadevar, created in the 10th century, is one of the most noteworthy books on Jain faith. Viruttam verse form was first time introduced in this work. The Five Great Epics of Tamil Literature include Cilappatikaram, Valayapathi, Manimekalai, Kundalakesi and Jivaka-chintamani. Other works during this period are Yapperungalakkarigai, Yapperungalam, Virasoliyam, Nannul, Vaccanandi Malai, Pavanandi, Purapporul Venpamalai and others. There were political and biographical works as well like Kalingattuparani by Jayamkondar.
The political situation of Tamil Nadu went through a constant change during the constant change. There were several commentaries, devotional poems, epics and philosophical works that were created during this period. During the late 14th century Svarupananda Desikar authored 2 anthologies on Advaita philosophy, Sivaprakasapperundirattu. Moreover, Arunagirinathar wrote the well known Tiruppugal during this era. Other works include Meynanavilakkam by Madai Tiruvengadunathar. In the 17th century, Sivaprakasar created numerous works on the Saiva philosophy like Nanneri. During this period, many Muslim and Christian writers emerged into the literary scene and created many memorable works. Omar (Umaru Pulavar) wrote Seerapuranama and Costanzo Giuseppe Beschi (Veeramamunivar) wrote the Chathurakarathi.
The modern era of Tamil literature began during the 18th and 19th century, during which Tamil Nadu observed various prominent political changes. The traditional rulers of the Tamil land were overpowered by European colonists and their supporters. The Tamil society was deeply influenced by western culture and thinking. Some of the eminent scholars from this period include Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, U.V.Swaminatha Iyer Gopalakrishna Bharathi etc.
Gopalakrishna Bharathi, one of the most renowned authors of the 19th century, wrote several lyrics and poems that were in tune with Carnatic music. Nandan Charitam, based on the life of Nandanar, was amongst his most popular literary works. Nandan Charitam was a revolutionary and innovative social commentary of the period. Gopalakrishna Bharati extended on the account in Periyapuranam. Tiruvarutpa, a devotional poem believed to be a beautiful and simple work, was written by Ramalinga Adigal (Vallalar). Subramanya Bharathi and Maraimalai Adigal were other renowned poets of that epoch.
Puthukkavithai by Subramanya Bharathi established new rules and ways and provided new authors and poets freedom to create better work. Bharathi also created Tamil prose in the form of short stories, novels, editorials and commentaries. Several scholars and writers, like Bharathidasan, resorted to poetry in order to develop and improve literature and themselves. U.V.Swaminatha Iyer initiated a movement to revive the interest in Sangam literature in Tamil Nadu. He wrote an autobiography named En Caritham and published over 90 books.