Tamil Language

Here is a detailed article about the Tamil language and the rich history of Tamil Nadu. Don’t forget to check out the link at the end of the article for an insightful session on Tamil literature.

Tamil is the first thing that pops up on your screen if you try looking up about the oldest language in the world. Tamil is the oldest language in the Dravidian family. If we were to trace its origins, documented records of Tamil Literature go back to 2000 years, with the Sangam era being the earliest period of Tamil literature, dated from ca 300 BC – AD 300. More than 55% of the epigraphical inscriptions (around 55,000) found by the Archaeological Survey of India are in Tamil language. The two earliest manuscripts from India, acknowledged and registered by UNESCO Memory of the World Register in 1997 and 2005, were written in Tamil.

So, how exactly did the Dravidian languages originate? This is not known exactly but advanced statistics estimate that they have been around for 4500 years. There are around 80 Dravidian languages, but only 4 of them are widely known, with Tamil amongst the oldest languages in the world. However, these writings, salvaged from the sites, were coined “Proto Dravidian”, and seem similar to present-day Tamil, which is why we call Tamil one of the oldest languages.

Since the 20th century, there has been a belief in Tamil Nadu, about the existence of a mythical continent called Lemuria. It was once cited as a reason to explain the existence of lemurs, mainly found in Indian Madagascar and continental Africa. The Tamil revivalists popularized the concept of Lemuria in 1920s to counter the dominance of Indo-Aryans and Sanskrit. They claimed that prior to its deluge, Lemuria was the original Tamil homeland where the Tamil civilization was born. Tamil writers characterized Kumari Kandam as an ancient, but highly advanced civilization located in an isolated continent in the Indian Ocean. They also described it as the cradle of civilization inhabited solely by the speakers of Tamil.

Now that we know a bit about the origin of Tamil Nadu (if we choose to believe in the concept of Lemuria), let us move on to the 3 major dynasties- Cheras, Cholas, and Pandyas that ruled South India during the Sangam period, a prosperous period for Tamil Nadu.

According to ancient literature, these kings were in continuous battle, ruling different parts of South India and maintained good relations with Ashoka, evident from the pillars of Ashoka Kingdom. It was during this period that Tamil flourished and poets were given great rewards for poetry, as these dynasties showed more interest in developing Tamil. Sangam Literature, comprising around 2400 poems, marks the golden period for development of Tamil. Sangam period had three literary academies, each flourishing in a different area and a different time. The Pandyas contributed greatly to these academies. The first one, MUDHAL SANGAM, is believed to have been hosted at Thenmadurai. It is believed that even gods and great sages attended this. However, no literature has been found from this place. The second academy, IDAI SANGAM, was hosted in Kapatapuram. Many literary works are said to have been released, but only one of them had survived –Tholkaapiyam, which dates to 100BC, and is considered to be the primary book for Tamil grammar. It is also widely known to be the first literature book in Tamil. The third academy, KADAI SANGAM, was hosted in Madurai, the capital of the Pandyan Dynasty. Numerous literary works are said to have been composed during that time and fortunately, many of them have been recovered.

On their significance, Zvelebil quotes A. K. Ramanujan, “In their antiquity and in their contemporaneity, there is not much else in any Indian literature equal to these quiet and dramatic Tamil poems. In their values and stances, they represent a mature classical poetry: passion is balanced by courtesy, transparency by ironies and nuances of design, impersonality by vivid detail, austerity of line by richness of implication. These poems are not just the earliest evidence of the Tamil genius. The Tamils, in all their 2,000 years of literary effort, wrote nothing better.”

The Pandiyan Kingdom sent many foreign embassies to other countries, including Greece and Italy during their golden age. There are evidences of this in records by Roman historians like Strabo, Pliny and many others. They recorded the accounts of receiving embassies from these rich Pandiyan kingdoms under the rule of Augustus, Claudius and Julian, till about 300 CE.

One unique feature of Tamil literature, particularly early Sangam literature that survives today, is the lack of commentary of the concept of God. A lot of literature that survives from Sanskrit and many other languages has extensive theological debates that take place in the same format as that of the early Socratic dialectics of the Greece golden era. However, there is Sangam literature, like Tholkappiam, Aathichudi and Thirukkural, that has survived the test of time. This doesn’t imply that none of the literary works mentioned anything about supernatural entities. The guidelines to these texts were extremely restrictive. The earlier texts do talk about Gods, mentioning the patron of the city or the Sun and Gods in relation with nature,  but the later Sangam period sees the emergence of various Gods mentioned in the Vedas, Indra for an example. Rig Veda is considered to be one of the first written books ever and surprisingly, it has been identified to contain 40 words that have been borrowed from the Proto Dravidian language.

There have been accounts of the existence of these nations in the inscriptions salvaged from the time of Ashoka and also commentaries on how well connected and vast, the properous kingdoms were. This Golden Sangam age came to an end due to the invasion of the Kalabhras, who destroyed the Pandya, Chera and the Chola dynasties ruling over the era. This came to be known as the dark age of Tamil, for little evidence is there about what happened during this period. There was no significant improvement in the literature.


Tamil is not a remnant of a lost language, but it is something that has taken the old language, undergone changes and continues to evolve while maintaining the initial prototype. The literary and colloquial Tamil, that is popular currently, varies greatly from Sangam Tamil, but has more similarities than differences to the extent that it isn’t called an entirely different language from its predecessor.

Tamil dialects are heavily influenced by two major factors: region and caste.

Based on regions in Tamil Nadu, the dialects are divided into Central Tamil dialect, Kongu Tamil, Madras Bashai, Madurai Tamil, Nellai Tamil and Kumari Tamil in India and also some other dialects that are spoken in Sri Lanka, Karnataka, Malaysia and Mauritius.

The dialect of the Palakkad district in Kerala has many Malayalam loanwords, has been influenced by Malayalam’s syntax, and has a distinctive Malayalam accent. Similarly, Tamil spoken in the Kanyakumari District, has more unique words and phonetic style than Tamil spoken at other parts of Tamil Nadu. These words and phonetics are different enough that a person from Kanyakumari district is easily identifiable by their spoken Tamil. Hebbar and Mandyam dialects, spoken by groups of Tamil Vaishnavites who migrated to Karnataka in the 11th century, retain many features of the Vaishnava Paribasai, a special form of Tamil developed in the 9th and 10th centuries that reflects the Vaishnavites’ religious and spiritual values. Several castes have their own sociolects, that most members of that caste traditionally use, regardless of where they come from. It is often possible to identify a person’s caste by their speech!

Some of the most common examples would be the differences in simple words like Rasam or Saathamudhu, Veedu, Aathu and many others.

The Dark ages of the Kalabhras brought with them the influx of Buddhism and Jainism to the southern peninsula. The Pandyas soon retook Madurai and overthrew the Kalabhras, followed by the revival of Cholas under Vijayalaya Chola and the revival of Cheras in Kerala as well. The Chalukyas were then defeated by the Rashtrakudas.

Soon, literature began to grow and prosper. However, the literary form was way different from the Sangam age. The focus of the literature had shifted to God. Many poems, songs and hymns were composed especially by Saivaite and Vaishnavite scholars, that were later popularised due to the theological debates that took place with the Buddhists and Jains.

One of the more famous theological debates was done by the child saint Thirugnanasambhandar, who is known to have won the theological debate in Madurai, condemning almost 8000 jains in a single day.

The classical literature that we have today is mostly lost, due to a number of reasons like the Gallick Sack of Rome, burning of the library of Baghdad, and many other reasons that led to this loss.

The only surviving copies of almost 600 years of Shaivite philosophy and composition had been stashed away for safe keeping within the Chidambaram temple. Their existence was validated by fragments of these songs that continued to be passed on by oral traditions. The brahmanas of the temple did not allow the palm leaves to be salvaged and be released until Raja Raja Chola led a campaign against the city, only to find that almost half the hymns were eaten by white ants and destroyed. However, the remaining have been recovered.

Another belief was that throwing away palm leaves in the river, on a particular day, was auspicious, which led to people discarding chunks of classical literature away, also leading to their loss in the ages. Wonder what might have been in those leaves, maybe even more rich literature or maybe some other accounts!

The period from 1300 CE to 1650 was a period of constant change in the political situation of Tamil Nadu. The Tamil country was invaded by the armies of the Delhi Sultanate who raided the Pandya kingdom. This stretched the Delhi Sultanate to such an extent that it collapsed soon after, triggering the rise of the Bahmani Sultans in the Deccan. Vijayanagar empire rose from the ashes of the kingdoms of Hoysalas and Chalukyas and eventually conquered entire South India. This period saw a large output of philosophical works, commentaries, epics and devotional poems. A number of monasteries (Mathas) were established by various Hindu sects and these began to play a prominent role in educating the people. Numerous authors were either of the Shaiva or of the Vaishnava sects. The Vijayanagar kings and their Nayak governors were ardent Hindus and they patronised these Mathas. Although the kings and the governors of the Vijayanagar empire spoke Kannada and Telugu, they encouraged the growth of Tamil literature. This is interpreted from the fact that there is decrease in the literary output during this period. It is also in this time that we see the distinct wedge and the emergence of Malayalam as a separate language.

There was a large output of philosophical and religious works, such as the Sivananabodam by Meykandar. At the end of the 14th century, Svarupananda Desikar wrote two anthologies on the philosophy of Advaita, the Sivaprakasapperundirattu. Arunagirinathar who lived in Tiruvannamalai in the 14th century wrote Tiruppugal. Around 1360 verses of unique lilt, set to unique metres, these poems are on the God Muruga. Madai Tiruvengadunathar, an official in the court of the Madurai Nayak, wrote Meynanavilakkam on the Advaita Vedanta.

During the 18th and the 19th century, Tamil Nadu witnessed some of the most profound changes in the political scene. The traditional Tamil ruling clans were superseded by European colonists and their sympathisers. The Tamil society underwent a deep cultural shock with the imposition of western cultural influences. Ramalinga Adigal (Vallalar) (1823–1874) wrote the devotional poem Tiruvarutpa, whichis considered to be a work of great beauty and simplicity. Maraimalai Adigal (1876–1950) advocated for the purity of Tamil and wanted to clean it of words with Sanskrit influences. One of the greatest Tamil poets of this period was Subramanya Bharathi. His works are stimulating in their progressive themes like freedom and feminism. Bharathy introduced a new poetic style into the somewhat rigid style of Tamil poetry writing, which had followed the rules set down in the Tolkaappiyam. His puthukkavithai (Lit:new poetry) broke the rules and gave poets the freedom to express themselves. He also wrote Tamil prose in the form of commentaries, editorials, short stories and novels. Some of these were published in the Tamil daily Swadesamitranand in his Tamil weekly India. Inspired by Bharathi, many poets resorted to poetry as a means of reform. Bharathidasan was one such poet. U.V.Swaminatha Iyer, was instrumental in the revival of interest in the Sangam age literature in Tamil Nadu.

Ramalinga Adigal’s Tiruvarutpa

It was the 19th century is when we saw translations from the West appearing in Tamil literature. Though unpopular, it was consumed by a select audience.

Famous Tamil works: Thirukkural, Tolkappiyam, Silappadikaram, Manimekalai,
Tevaram, Thirumandhiram, Divya Prabandham, Thiruppaavai, Thiruarutpa, Panchali Sabatham

We can see a huge influence on the classical Sanskrit stories in Tamil literature like the Ramayana and Mahabharata. There has been a constant transfer of loan words between the literatures but apart from that, there have also been translations of various stories like the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Even though the Kamba Ramayana is considered to be a literal translation of the original, Kambar did modify a lot, including a wife dying when she hears that her husband is dead. A sign of pure love?

This brings us to address an extremely important question of correct vs the right interpretation.

For example, when we translate something, should it be done the way it was intended to be done or should it be done in a way that is compatible with the present day and age? The Greeks declared the sea as dark as wine. Is the sea as dark as wine? No. But that is how people used to describe it back then. Colours and hues did not have names until recently. Hence, the concept of interpretation comes into the picture, especially when the literature we are studying is thousands of years old, from a completely different era with completely different beliefs. We are still able to read philosophy today because of the painful efforts by Aquinas, Augustine, Avicenna and others to make Plato and Aristotle compatible with their time. Literal translations, in some ways, forcefully romanticise the past, don’t you think?

To know more, visit our Instagram handle and check out the recording of the Indic Bequeathals session on Tamil language:

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