Origin of Tamil literature
Tamil literature has a lengthy and rich literary tradition that spans over 2000 years. 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.
Evolution of Tamil Literature
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, Devotional Period and Period of Old Epics. These are mentioned below in details-
Sangam Period in Tamil Literature
Sangam literature 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 in Tamil Literature
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 two 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.
Devotional Period in Tamil Literature
During 500 CE, the Kalabhras eventually declined marking a turning point in the history of Tamil Literature. The Kalabhras, who had suppressed the Hindus for a considerable period, were eventually overthrown, paving the way for the emergence of the Pandyas in the south and the Pallavas in the north. However, despite the change in ruling powers, the influence of Jainism and Buddhism continued to persist in Tamil Nadu.
During the early reigns of the Pandya and Pallava kings, these rulers themselves adhered to Jain and Buddhist faiths. Nevertheless, the Hindu community began to react strongly to what they perceived as the decline of their religion. This reaction reached its zenith during the later part of the 7th century, when a significant Hindu revival took place. This revival gave birth to a substantial body of Vaishnava and Shaiva literature, which played a crucial role in the growth of popular devotional practices.
The Vaishnava Alvars, in particular, made noteworthy contributions to the development of devotional literature. These saint-poets composed hymns that celebrated the glory of Maha Vishnu, and their compositions were later compiled into the Four Thousand Sacred Hymns named “Naalayira Divyap Prabhandham” by Nathamunigal. This collection is regarded as the Tamil Vedam, equivalent in sanctity to the Sanskrit Vedas. Among the earliest Alvars were Poigai Alvar, Bhoothath Alvar, and Pey Alvar, each of whom composed one hundred Venpas extolling the virtues of Maha Vishnu in Tirukoilur. Tirumalisai Alwar, a contemporary of the Pallava king Mahendravarman I, wrote Naanmugantiruvadiandadi and other significant works.
Tirumangai Alvar, who lived in the 8th century CE, emerged as a prolific writer, contributing approximately one-third of the Divyaprabhandam. Periyalvar and his adopted daughter Andal also made substantial contributions to the Vaishnava canon, composing nearly 650 hymns. Andal, in particular, symbolized purity and profound love for God, expressing her devotion through hymns that portrayed Vishnu as her beloved. One of her most famous compositions, "Vaaranam Aayiram" (One Thousand Elephants), narrates her dream wedding to Vishnu and continues to be sung at Tamil Vaishnava weddings to this day. Nammalvar, who lived in the 9th century, composed Tiruvaimoli, consisting of 1,101 stanzas. This work is highly esteemed for its profound insights into the Upanishads and was collected by Nathamuni around 950 CE, serving as the classical and vernacular foundation for Sri Vaishnavism. The hymns of the Naalayira Divya Prabhandham are held in equal reverence with the Vedas by Sri Vaishnavites, earning the title of Dravida Vedam or Tamil Vedam.
In parallel with the Vaishnava Alvars, the Shaiva Nayanmars also emerged as prominent figures, contributing to the devotional literature of Tamil Nadu. Their compositions were later compiled into the Periya Puranam. The earliest known Nayanmar was Karaikal Ammaiyar, who lived in the 6th century CE. Among the celebrated Shaiva hymnists of this period were Sundaramoorthy, Thirugnana Sambanthar, and Thirunavukkarasar or Appar.
Sundarar, another prominent Shaiva poet, wrote Tiruttondartokai, a composition that lists sixty-two Nayanmars. This list was later expanded upon by Sekkilar in his work Periyapuranam, comprising 4,272 verses. Manikkavasagar, a minister in the Pandya court during the 8th century CE, also made significant contributions to Shaivite literature. His work Tiruvasakam consists of over 600 verses and is renowned for its profound devotion and passionate expressions of faith.
Period of Old Epics
Cilappatikaram 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 outstanding 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
The medieval period in Tamil Nadu stands as a golden era of literary creativity and intellectual exploration. It was a time when Tamil Nadu flourished as a hub of artistic expression, religious devotion, and cultural exchange. The works produced during this period continue to inspire and captivate readers even today. During the medieval period, the Tamil land was ruled by the Imperial Cholas and was under a single administration. This period witnessed a remarkable cultural and literary renaissance. From the 11th to the 13th centuries, when Chola power reached its zenith is also marked as a period when cross-cultural interactions fostered between Cholas and regions of South India, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asian kingdoms. The Cholas, known for their devotion to the deity Shiva, constructed numerous temples that served as the epicenter of religious and literary activities. These architectural marvels inspired a rich tradition of hymns and poems celebrating the divine. The Prabhanda, a form of poetry, gained prominence during this period. Simultaneously, efforts were made to systematically collect and categorize religious texts from the Shaiva and Vaishnava sects.
Nambi Andar Nambi, a contemporary of Rajaraja Chola I, compiled the Shaiva texts into eleven books known as Tirumurais. These works preserved the religious teachings and stories associated with Shaivism. Sekkilar, during the reign of Kulothunga Chola II, standardized the hagiography of Shaivism in Periyapuranam, also called Tiruttondar Puranam.
In contrast, Vaishnava religious texts were predominantly composed in Sanskrit. Ramanuja, a great Vaishnava leader, faced religious persecution under the Shaiva-oriented Cholas. Despite these challenges, the Tamil literary landscape thrived. One of the most renowned works of this period is Ramavatharam by Kamban, who flourished under the reign of Kulottunga III. Although inspired by Valmiki's Ramayana, Kamban infused his own contemporary landscapes into the epic, creating a distinct Tamil narrative. Another prominent poet of the time was Auvaiyar, who delighted in creating works for young children. Her didactic works, such as Athichoodi and Konraiventhan, continue to be cherished and taught in schools across Tamil Nadu.
Buddhist and Jain literature also found a place within Tamil literary traditions. The Jivaka-Chintamani by Jain ascetic Thirutakkadevar, composed in the 10th century, stands out for its use of the Viruttam style of poetry. The Five Great Epics of Tamil Literature, including Silappatikaram, Manimekalai, Kundalakesi, and Valayapathi, hold a significant place in Tamil literary heritage.
Furthermore, the medieval period saw the development of grammatical treatises, political works, and biographical accounts. Notable examples include Jayamkondar's Kalingattuparani, a semi-historical account of the Kalinga invasions by Kulothunga Chola I, and Ottakuttan's Ulas, which offered insights into the lives of Vikrama Chola, Kulothunga Chola II, and Rajaraja Chola II. Tamil Muslim literature also emerged during this time, with works dating back eight centuries. Palsanthmalai, a small eight-stanza composition from the 14th century, represents the earliest known literary work from this tradition. Notable contributions include Aayira Masala Venru Vazhankum Adisaya Puranam by Seyku Issaku (Vanna Parimala Pulavar) in 1572 and Mikurasu Malai by Aali Pulavar in 1592, both elucidating Islamic principles and beliefs. Tamil grammar and linguistic analysis received significant attention during this period. Scholars such as Amirtasagara, Buddamitra, Pavanandi, and Neminatha delved into the intricacies of the Tamil language, exploring prosody, grammar, and the synthesis between Tamil and Sanskrit. The richness of Tamil literary heritage extended beyond religious and linguistic realms.
Tamil Muslim literature also emerged during this time, with works dating back eight centuries. Palsanthmalai, a small eight-stanza composition from the 14th century, represents the earliest known literary work from this tradition. Notable contributions include Aayira Masala Venru Vazhankum Adisaya Puranam by Seyku Issaku (Vanna Parimala Pulavar) in 1572 and Mikurasu Malai by Aali Pulavar in 1592, both elucidating Islamic principles and beliefs. Tamil grammar and linguistic analysis received significant attention during this period. Scholars such as Amirtasagara, Buddamitra, Pavanandi, and Neminatha delved into the intricacies of the Tamil language, exploring prosody, grammar, and the synthesis between Tamil and Sanskrit. The richness of Tamil literary heritage extended beyond religious and linguistic realms.
Vijayanagar and Nayak period in Tamil Literature
The period from 1300 CE to 1650 CE stands as a transformative era in the political landscape of Tamil Nadu. The region witnessed significant upheavals as it faced invasions from the armies of the Delhi Sultanate and the subsequent rise of the Bahmani Sultans in the Deccan. Out of the ashes of the Hoysala and Chalukya kingdoms, the Vijayanagar empire emerged. Despite the political flux, this period witnessed a remarkable literary output in Tamil Nadu. Philosophical treatises, commentaries, epics, and devotional poems thrived. Hindu sects established numerous monasteries, known as Mathas, which played a pivotal role in educating the people. The Vijayanagar kings and their Nayak governors, staunch Hindus themselves, provided patronage to these Mathas, even though they predominantly spoke Kannada and Telugu. Consequently, Tamil literature continued to flourish, unfazed by the linguistic differences. Prominent works of a philosophical and religious nature emerged during this period. Meykandar's Sivananabodam and Svarupananda Desikar's Sivaprakasapperundirattu presented Advaita philosophy in anthological form. Arunagirinathar's Tiruppugal, a collection of approximately 1,360 verses, celebrated the deity Muruga with its unique meters and enchanting melodies. Madai Tiruvengadunathar's Meynanavilakkam explored Advaita Vedanta, while Siva prakasar contributed to Shaiva philosophy, most notably with his moral instruction book, Nanneri. Narrative epics in the form of Puranas were a significant part of the religious and philosophical literature of the time. These Sthala Puranas recounted legends and folklore associated with various deities of Tamil Nadu's temples. Villiputturar's Villibharatam, a Tamil translation of Vyasa's Mahabharata, and Kacchiappa Sivachariyar's Kanthapuranam, based on the Skandapurana, were noteworthy works in this genre. Varatungarama Pandya, a Pandya king, exhibited literary prowess with his work Paditrruppattanthathi, and he also translated the Sanskrit erotic book Kokkoha into Tamil. This period also witnessed significant efforts in the field of commentaries. Adiyarkunallar annotated Cilappatikaram, Senavaraiyar provided commentary on Tolkappiyam, and Parimelalagar's commentary on the Tirukkural remains highly regarded to this day. Notable annotators like Perasiriyar and Naccinarikiniyar contributed commentaries on various works of Sangam literature. Mandalapurusha's Nigandu Cudamani marked the first attempt at compiling a Tamil dictionary, while Thayumanavar's collection of short philosophical poems gained acclaim in the early 18th century. During the 17th century, the benevolent figure Syed Khader, affectionately known as Seethakaathi, emerged as a great patron of Tamil poets. He commissioned Umaruppulavar to write the first biography of Nabi, resulting in the collection of poems called Seerapuranam. Additionally, this century witnessed the emergence of literary works by Christian authors. Veeramamunivar, also known as Costanzo Giuseppe Beschi, compiled the first Tamil dictionary, Chathurakarathi, which listed Tamil words in alphabetical order, making it a valuable linguistic resource.
Modern Period in Tamil Literature
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.
Evolution of Tamil Novels
The world of Tamil literature witnessed the advent of novels in the late 19th century, introducing a new form of storytelling that captivated readers. The growing population of Tamils with a Western education and exposure to English fiction played a crucial role in the emergence of Tamil novels. Mayavaram Vedanayagam Pillai took the initiative by penning the first Tamil novel, "Prathapa Mudaliar Charithram" in 1879. This romance novel incorporated a mix of fables, folk tales, and even Greek and Roman stories, aiming to entertain readers. It paved the way for subsequent works.
The early pioneers of Tamil novels, such as B. R. Rajam Iyer and A. Madhaviah, further contributed to the development of the genre. Rajam Iyer's "Kamalambal Charitram" (1893) and Madhaviah's "Padmavathi Charitram" (1898) portrayed the lives of Brahmins in rural 19th-century Tamil Nadu, depicting their customs, beliefs, and rituals. Rajam Iyer's work showcased a blend of realism and spiritual undertones, while Madhaviah explored social issues, shedding light on the exploitation of young girls by older men.
D. Jayakanthan, a prominent figure in Tamil literature, left an indelible mark on the development of the Tamil novel. His notable work, "Sila Nerangalil Sila Manithargal," exemplifies his deep understanding of human nature and presents an authentic portrayal of Indian reality. Jayakanthan's contributions enriched the literary traditions of the Tamil language and shaped the broader landscape of Indian literature.
Since the 1990s, a new wave of post-modernist writers emerged, infusing Tamil literature with experimental elements. Writers like Jeyamohan, S. Ramakrishnan, Charu Nivedita, and Konangi brought a fresh perspective to the genre. Their works blended classical Tamil inflections with innovative storytelling techniques, including sound poetry.
Evolution of Tamil Fictions
Since the 1930s, crime and detective fiction have enjoyed wide popularity in Tamil Nadu. Notable authors of this genre include Kurumbur Kuppusami and Vaduvur Duraisami Iyengar, who gained prominence before independence. In the 1950s and 1960s, Tamilvanan introduced readers to foreign locales through his detective hero Shankarlal, employing pure Tamil with minimal Hindi or English loan words. Indra Soundar Rajan, a popular modern author, intertwines supernatural elements with crime thrillers, often drawing inspiration from Hindu mythology.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Kalki Krishnamurthy made a mark with his historical and social fiction. His works transported readers to different periods in history, captivating them with compelling narratives rooted in the rich cultural heritage of Tamil Nadu. Similarly, Chandilyan's historical romance novels set in medieval India and along trade routes with Malaysia, Indonesia, and Europe gained immense popularity during the 1950s and 1960s. During the 1950s and spanning six decades, Jayakanthan emerged as a prominent figure in Tamil fiction. With around 40 novels, 200 short stories, and two autobiographies, his works delved into the lives of underprivileged individuals such as rickshaw-pullers, prostitutes, and rag-pickers.
In the realm of modern romance novels, Ramanichandran has emerged as the current bestselling author in the Tamil language. Her captivating stories explore themes of love, family, and relationships, resonating with readers seeking emotional connections and heartwarming narratives. Arunaa Nandhini, a recent Tamil novelist, has captured the hearts of many readers with her engaging stories encompassing family dynamics, romance, and glimpses of reality infused with humor. The evolving landscape of Tamil fiction reflects the changing tastes and preferences of readers, ensuring a diverse and vibrant literary ecosystem.