The history of Tamil literature dates back to the pre-Christian era. As there was little impact of other linguistic groups or literatures on the Tamil country, the earliest Tamil poetical forms were derived from folk songs. Since literary works in other Dravidian languages came to be written only after the eighth century A.D., the Tamil literature prior to this, extending over a period of twelve centuries, had grown like the first child in a joint family.
There is no clear reference to Kannada and Telugu languages in the Cankam classics (B.C. 500 -200A.D.). Likewise no reference exists regarding Malayalam, the language of Kerala, the region on the south western coast-line of peninsular India. The people who lived beyond the Tirupati Hills were referred to as vatukar in the Cankam classics. Likewise Kerala was mentioned as Cera nadu.
People of that region studied Tamil poetical works. And their poets too composed poems in Tamil. The contact with Sanskrit scholars was there between the Cankam. period and the seventh century A.D. But it was restricted to Tamil scholars living in the urban areas. It was then that certain Sanskrit words like teyvam (God), karanam (reason) and anai (command) gained a place in Tamil vocabulary. Likewise many words from North Indian languages found a place in Tamil with the spread of Jainism and Buddhism in the Tamil country. The Buddhists and Jains, who were well versed in Sanskrit, Prakrit and Pali, were largely responsible for this admixture.
The impact of Sanskrit literature on Tamil gradually increased. Only then was there an influx of Sanskrit words into Tamil. During this period only two languages, Tamil and Sanskrit, were regarded as literary languages. The former was known as the language of the South and the latter as the language of the North. Sanskrit scholars termed Tamil as Dravidian. Since it was called Dravidian, it was not mentioned as such in Tamil literary works of the time.
Saint Tirunavukkarcar, who lived in the seventh century A.D., while praising the omnipotence of Lord Siva, mentions that He was the personification of Aryan and Tamil, thereby classifying the cultural composition of ancient India into two main groups. The same idea found expression in the puranas as well, where it is indicated from one side of the tamarukam (a small leather musical instrument held by Siva) originated Sanskrit and from the other, Tamil. It was also the origin of the story that Siva taught Sanskrit to Panini, and Tamil to Agastya. All these indicate that in the earlier period of Indian literary history only Tamil and Sanskrit existed.
Some of the Pallava rulers were learned in Sanskrit. The Pallava king, Mahendravarman wrote his magnum opus, Mattavilasa, a play (farce) in Sanskrit. The Pallava rulers in general patronized both Sanskrit and Tamil languages and literatures as well as fine arts. Their capital, Kanchipuram, became the centre of Sanskrit studies. Famous poets like Dandin, the author of Kavyadarsa, and others lived there and rendered great service to Sanskrit language and literature. As a result of the emergence of Sanskrit as an important language, three different types of scholars appeared on the literary scene: scholars proficient both in Tamil and Sanskrit and others skilful in any one of the two languages. The number of Sanskrit scholars increased when Sankara's Advaita and Ramauja's Visistadvaita philosophies became popular in the country. During this period many Sanskrit Puranas were also translated into Tamil.
It was then that some scholars realised that both Tamil and Sanskrit scholars function as two distinct groups within a single cultural milieu. They attempted to bring them together by innovating anew style of hybrid writing called manippravala, where equal amount of Sanskrit and Tamil words were used like pearl and coral.
Some Vaisnavite scholars (who wrote commentaries on the devotional songs of Alvars) and certain Jain scholars tried to popularise the hybrid style by writing in manippravala. They sincerely believed that this style would promote unity and create a climate of understanding between Tamil and Sanskrit scholars. With this aim in view certain Sanskrit works were written in Grantha script and Tamil works in manippravala style.
Undoubtedly their aim was a noble one. However, they failed to comprehend that a few scholars would not be able to change the very tenor of a language. Despite their noble aim, therefore, the manippravdla style failed to make any headway among the scholars. Eminent poets like Kampar and famous commentators who wrote commentaries on Tamil literary and grammatical texts, rejected this style. Instead they preferred a style consistent with the traditional features of the Tamil language. Some names of characters in Kampan's Ramayana were phonetically modified, and written as such, to sound like Tamil names. In some other cases he translated certain Sanskrit proper names into suitable Tamil equivalents in order to conform to Tamil literary traditions.
As a result proper names like Laksmana, Vibisna, Subarna, Svarnavarna and Ahalya became Ilakkuvan, Vrtanan, Uvanan, Cuvanavannan and Akalikai or Alikai respectively. Some other names like Suvarroavarna and Yagnaviroda were literally translated to read as Kanakameni and Velvippakainan respectively. During this period certain scholars tried to increase the Sanskrit vocabulary in Tamil while others preferred to use a limited number of Sanskrit loan wards with due phonetic modifications. Ultimately the efforts to preserve Tamil words and Tamil sounds triumphed.
Contact with Others
The Pallava dynasty collapsed towards the end of the ninth century A.D. The Colas re-emerged and rose as sovereign power and ruled the Tamil country up to the thirteenth century, when they also disintegrated. Mohammedan invasions rocked the country. Under the Vijayanagar regime Nayak kings gained favour and standing in Tamil Nadu. Owing to the political prominence of the Telugus, their cooperation with Tamils increased in various spheres of activity.
Some of the devotional poems of Alvars were translated into Telugu. During the same period Pirapulirikalilai and other works were translated into Tamil. Likewise the Tamil hagiologies of the Saiva saints were translated into Kannada. As a result of such literary activities a closer understanding was established among the Dravidian languages of the South.
Some Marathi words formed part of the colloquial Tamil, while the Saraboji rulers of Maharashtra ruled part of the Tamil country with their seat at Thanjavur. During the period of the Nawabs of Carnatic some Persian and Arabic words became part of the administrative vocabulary of the Tamil language. Some of them were frequently used in the spoken language as well.
Besides these, the Tamil language borrowed many words from the European languages since the beginning of the seventeenth century. This process of borrowing from the European languages increased when the Portuguese, the Dutch, the English and the French established their commercial and political interests in the country. With the introduction of printing machines, prose works became numerous.
When the English established their political hegemony over the Indian sub-continent, western literary genres like the short story and the novel reached Tamil through the medium of English. Consequently new literary forms like short story, novel and plays were experimented. Since the Tamil speaking area of the Indian subcontinent had been under the political dominance of foreigners up to 1947, the impact of various dynasty of rulers is adequately reflected in the continuous growth of the Tamil language.
The kali verse like akaval is written in four-foot lines with a difference in rhyme. The foot is arranged in such a way as to produce a tripping rhyme. Paripatal has a smooth flowing rhyme. Both kali and paripatal verse forms must have been modelled on folk songs. They are not prosaic either in form or metre, for a variety of poetic components are used to make the verse forms skip. Consequently, Tolkappiyam mentions that these poetical forms are eminently suitable for composing love poems. The Tolkappiyam discusses various types of verse forms. It mentions about venpa, which became popular only after the second century A.D. After this period, kali and paripktal lost their importance. Besides these Tolkappiyam refers to another poetical form known as pannatti. Perhaps this type of verse form has been from folk music. It is but natural for certain musical forms, to enter literature. Today too there are some such music generated forms.
Even after grammatical and poetical conventions were well established, Tamil poets continued to favour traditional poetic forms. They remained aloof without trying out in their works, the new folk forms that flourished in those days.
But Ilanko, the author of Cilappatikaram, adopted several of these new folk forms in his work. Likewise the seventh and the eighth century Saiva and Vaisnava hymnodists made the best use of the then available folk music. A new poetical form, viruttam, emerged in fact from folk songs. This new poetical form was first put to major use in the tenth century by the Jain poet Tiruttakkatevar in his epic Civakacintamani. All the three thousand verses are in viruttam.
Prior to the ninth century all the major epics in Tamil had been written in akaval. When Tiruttakkatevar successfully experimented with the viruttam form of versification in his epic, other poets like Cekkilar and Kampar composed their poetical works in viruttam. Till today viruttam is the largely used form in Tamil poetry. Though the term viruttam is a derivation from Sanskrit, there is little connection with Sanskrit prosody. It is in fact a beautiful form of poetry evolved from Tamil folk music. In contrast to akaval, viruttam has no restriction regarding the occurrence of four cirs in a line. A line may consist of four, five, or even forty cirs. However, a viruttam poem should conform to certain rules. It should have four lines. All lines should have exactly the same number of cirs as in the first line. There is no restriction regarding the length of cirs: they may either be long or short depending on the poets' need. Countless variations are possible as a result of this flexible rule. Depending on emotions words are arranged to effect different rhythm patterns. As a result viruttam has become the most suitable form of poetry to give effect to various types of emotions.
In the seventeenth century even such an important medium as viruttam was found inadequate. The poets, therefore, looked for new forms from the then popular folk poetry. As a result certain folk forms like cintu, kanni and kummi gained literary stature. Up to this century, efforts to discover new forms continued. Parathiyar utilised the poetic form found in folk songs sung by street beggars or konaickis. Similarly Paratitacan made use of the rope-dancer's songs to compose one of his very interesting poems. The metrical form found in the kirttarcai has also been adopted in modern Tamil poetry. In addition to these, efforts and experiments are continuing today to evolve new poetical forms.
Later these were reduced, but the syntactical form with subject and predicate was maintained. Even this prose style was not based on the syntax of spoken Tamil. If analysed critically, the early poetical style was closer to spoken Tamil, than to the written one. The written prose possessed brevity. It reflected even the complexity and subtlety of thought. Since the early prose was meant for scholars, it contained many rare words unknown to spoken language.
Even today there are poets who use only traditional forms of versification. Likewise, despite the growth of simple prose, writers are not wanting even now who write in a bombastic style rich in alliterations, assonances and archaic words. Therefore, what is said in the foregoing pages as a growth of new prose style is in fact the changes one finds in the works of many modern writers.
Contents of this Book
The present History of Tamil literature, which traces the periodical changes and subsequent growth of Tamil language and literature, does not attempt to discuss all the works in Tamil.
Innumerable books were written during the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. The books that were written in the past six decades of the twentieth century outnumbered the total number of books publishing during the past twenty-four centuries. Therefore, for obvious reasons, neither all the published books nor all the writers are mentioned in this work. However only the books and authors that are essential to point out the major trends in Tamil language and literature are mentioned in this book.
Since this book is meant for other linguistic groups in the country and written with a limit set to the number of pages, there is no scope for detailed explanation or highlighting special features of books and elaborate notes on authors. A word about modern literature: the works that are mentioned here cannot be said with certainty that they will survive the test of time and remain in the future as literary pieces. Some of the works that are not referred to in this work may in the future live as literary pieces. The tide of time is more powerful than the preferences of my own intellect.
The history of Tamil literature is classified into different ways. The following classification is attempted with the main purpose of enabling other linguistic groups to understand Tamil literature.
1. The Period of Cankam Literature: B.C. 500-200 A.D. The age of akam and puram poetical works.
2. The Period of Ethical Literature: 100-500 A.D. (a) Tirukkural and other ethical works; (b) Karnarpatu and other works written in venpa metre. -
3. The Period of Old Epics: Cilappatikaram, Manimekalai, Muttollayiram and other works.
1. The Period of Bhakti Literature: 600-900 A. D. (a) The hymns of Nayanmars and Alvars; (b) Nantikkalam-pakam and other literary works.
2. The Period of Epic Literature: 900-1200 A.D. (a) Jain and Buddhist works like Civakacintamani, Perunkatai and other literary works; (b) Grammatical works like Iraiyanar Kalaviyal and others; (c) Eminent poets like Cekkilar, Kampar, Ottakkuttar, Auvaiyar and others; (d) Minor literary works like ula, parani and pillaittamil.
3. The Period of Commentaries: 1200A.D--1500 A.D.
(a) Commentators like Ilampuranar, Peraciriyar and others;
(b) (i) Commentaries on Vaisnava devotional works; (ii) Islamic literature; (iii) Christian Tamil scholars:Viramamunivar and others; (iv) the growth of prose literature.
1. Nineteenth Century: (a) Christian contribution to Tamil literature; (b) Ramalinkar, Vetanayakar and others; (c) The growth of novels and essays.
2. Twentieth Century: (a) Paratiyar, Kalki, Putumaippittan; (b) Short story, novel and plays; (c) Biography, essays and critical works.