It is after a lengthy break that I am back. I will not bore you with the many reasons for my absence, other than to assure you that many - most - of those reasons are irreproachable and would find a sympathetic ear with even the sternest of school teachers. Since I am far removed from the world of school teachers this fact is of no relevance whatsoever. What is of relevance, perhaps, is the blog post that follows. For those of you, if indeed you even exist, who greeted my return with euphoria, expecting to read one of my mad tales or music reviews or travelogues, I am afraid that I have to warn you to to be prepared to be hit on the head with a sledgehammer. What follows is a densely detailed account of the history and development of Tamil Literature.
No, I am not joking.
If you were wondering what the title of the post has to do with Tamil Literature, it is from a lovely poem from the Sangam-era work of poetry, the Kurontokai. Here is A.K. Ramanujan's exquisitely evocative transalation:
What could my mother be to yours?
What kin is my father to yours anyway?
And how did you and I meet ever?
But in love our hearts are as red earth and pouring rain:
mingled beyond parting.
Tracing the history of this distinctive, voluminous and glorious heritage, its development can be divided chronologically into several segments: the Sangam period; the Buddhist and Jain period; the age of Bhakti or religious literature; the period of literary flowering under the Tamil empires; the literature of Mutts or religious monasteries; the colonization era and the modern age.
Sangam period: until around 300 AD
Tamil tradition and belief holds that there were three great Sangams, or literary academies that were responsible for the some of the most prolific and glorious periods of Tamil literature. Almost nothing is known about the first two Sangams, other than that they existed; all the works from these epochs are lost to us. From the 3rd Sangam, which is said to have lasted 1850 years and ended in the 3rd century, however, a fair amount of literature has survived, which provides tantalising glimpses of the life and times of Tamil antiquity, and the advanced form and structure of the language itself. A lot what was written about in these finely nuanced, vividly detailed, metaphor-rich poems - love, longing, war, governing, morality, grief, trade - are as fresh and as relevant as if it were written just yesterday. Among the best known - and best - of the Sangam works are the Eight Anthologies and the Ten Idylls. And one of the most remarkable works of this period, the Tholkappiam, is still respected, studied and valid, today.
It is difficult to describe the Tholkappiam in a way that does it justice. It dates from around 2000 years ago, and is most often referred to as a book of Tamil grammar. It is that, yes, but that is merely the tip of an iceberg that runs deep and wide. Divided into several sections, it expounds in masterly detail about the letters of the alphabet, and about vocabulary and structure and grammar. But then it also provides an in-depth commentary about the substance or matter of literature itself. Drawing upon the literary culture that preceded it, it lays down rules for different types of literary compositions, providing examples from writers whose works are now lost to us. The Tholkappiam tells us that poems can be about inner subjects like love; these are called Akam poems. Those that deal with outer subjects, like war,ethics, valour, are called Puram poems. There is a detailed and systematic classification of various landscapes that are associated with certain emotions and actions. In its exhaustive coverage of semantics, phonology, orthography, prosody and so much more, the Tholkappiam is one of the most valuable works of not just ancient, but any Tamil literature.
Buddhist and Jain period: 100 AD to 600 AD
As the Sangam era drew to a close, Tamil lands came increasingly under the influence of the Buddhist and Jain religions. In around 300 AD, the Kalabhras, who were mostly Buddhists, ruled over Tamil Nadu, and Buddhism, along with Jainism, flourished. This period saw a large number of literary works by Jains and Buddhists, most of them dealing with morality and ethics. Perhaps the best known, and the most beloved of these, taught even today all these centuries later to school children all over Tamil Nadu, is the Thirukkural. Two of the greatest epics of Tamil literature were also written around this time: Silappathikaram and Manimekalai.
The Thirukkural, one of the world's gems of wisdom about virtue, wealth and love, was written as 1330 couplets (or Kural) by Thiruvalluvar, a poet who might have lived any time between the 2nd and 6th centuries. Often, his work is classified as belonging to the Sangam period, but on its literary merits, the beautiful simplicity of the language, the straightforward practicality of its advice, the far-ranging variety of matter it deals with, it stands and shines alone. Through its words, the Thirukkural reveals the power and richness of the Tamil language.
The story of Silappathikaram, the Tale of the Ankle Bracelet, is hugely popular with children and grown-ups alike. It was written, perhaps around the 3rd century, by Ilango Adigal, a Jain monk who was the brother of the Chera king Senguttavan. Growing up, Ilango Adigal had ample time to indulge and cultivate his passion for literature and music. These he employed in full measure in his magnificent epic that is a masterpiece of a combination of different metres, love songs, dramatic scenes and religious hymns. It is an engrossing story, but it is also an invaluable source of Information about the daily life, customs, arts, religious life, philosophy and politics of the Chera, Chola and Pandya kingdoms of antiquity.
Other Jain and Buddhist writers
Cheethalai Sattanar, a corn merchant who was a perfectionist who struck his head with an iron stylus if he felt his work was not up to the mark, wrote one of the earliest of the Tamil epic stories, the Manimekalai. The book is a mine of information on Buddhism and is written in a simple and elegant style with exquisite descriptions of nature's beauty.
Thiruthakka Thevar, a Jain writer, wrote the Jivaka Chintamani, which, with lovely poetry and chaste diction, brimming with religious sentiment and reflections on human nature, is an exposition of Jain doctrines and beliefs.
The Bhakti period: Hindu revival literature: 600 AD to 1100 AD
The reign of the Kalabhras was relatively short-lived, and while they were largely tolerant of all religions and did not force their faith on their subjects, a movement rose once they were deposed, to suppress the growing popularity of the Jain and Buddhist religions. During this Hindu revival movement that took place around the 7th century, a large number of Saivite and Vaishnavite poets wrote meltingly beautiful and soul-stirring songs and poems. Between them, they composed thousands of verses that are a major part of Tamil devotional literature.
The poet-devotees of the god Shiva were called Nayanmars. They came from a variety of backgrounds, including royal, military and untouchable. Around the 11th century, the hymns and poems of the Nayanmars were collected into a group of works called the Thirumurais. Of these, the first seven, by some of the most well-known of the Nayanmars - including Appar, Jnana Sambandar and Sundarar, form the Thevaram or Garland to the Deity.
The Nayanmars are venerated as practically holy themselves, and beautiful sculptures have been made of their images. One of the earliest prominent Nayanmar was Manikkavasar, whose words have been likened to a cascade of rubies. He composed the Thiruvasakam and Thirukovaiyar, in which can be seen the early beginnings of fusing of the mythologies of the Aryans with those of the Tamils. Full of devotion and piety, it is also lively and interesting enough to be palatable to a youthful audience. Other legendary Nayanmars are Appar (the Father) who, early in life, converted to Jainism and then reconverted back to Hinduism; Jnana Sambandar, the boy wonder, and Sundarar.
The lives of the 63 most acclaimed Nayamars were immortalized in the 12th century epic by Sekkizhar, the Periya Puranam (or Big Work or Epic).
Singing the praises of Vishnu were the Alwars, who also composed thousands of verses, hymns and prayers in praise of the multiple forms of the lord. Twelve of them stand out and shine brightly and are even worshipped. They include Nammalvar, the Lord's Chosen One, from whom devotional poetry is said to have burst forth spontaneously when he was a mere boy, and Andal, a pretty lass and the only female among the twelve, whose passionate love and longing for unison with Vishnu are immortalized in her work, the Thiruppavai. A Tamil scholar, Nathamuni, compiled the beautiful words of the 12 Alwars into an anthology called the Divya Prabandam, which remains a source of inspiration for devotees, scholars, musicians and dancers.
The Golden Age of Tamil Empires 1100 - 1400 AD
During this golden era when the Cholas and Pandyas held sway over Tamil lands, literature flourished as well. Aryan ideas and religious literature in Sanskrit were eagerly studied, and had an impact on the writing of this age.
This poet's poet, another among Tamil literature's most beloved, Kambar is best known for his adapation of the Indian epic, the Ramayana. Tapping into the rich vein of Tamil literature of the preceding centuries, Kambar's Ramayana is a true gem. With its melodious, jeweled stream of verse, powerful descriptions, harmony of sound and meaning, and fantastic metaphors and similes strewn lavishly through the text, it is an absolute delight to read. Kambar has used Valmiki's original version as a stepping stone from which he has taken literary flight, expanding on some sections, adding drama, elaborations and his own versions, making his Ramayana a worthy work on its own merit, not a mere modification and variation of an earlier piece.
Commentaries and Analyses
A lot of the literature of Tamil is dense and difficult to understand. The reader can miss the deeper meanings present, and in order to take care of this, many writers took up the task of writing detailed commentaries and analyses. Two forms of these can be found: one that explains the text, and the second that includes critical analysis, comments on other commentaries, and supplements. These works are invaluable in grasping and appreciating the literature more thoroughly. One of the best known of the commentators was Nacchinarkiniyar, who has penned elaborate, well-written treatises on the Tholkappiam and the Jivaka Chintamani among others. His erudition and clear, analytical mind make his works a real treasure.
Mutts: The Literature of the Monasteries
Around the 1400s, a number of religious monasteries, called Mutts, or Madums, were established throughout the Tamil lands, largely for the diffusion of knowledge of Tamil and the Hindu religion. These places were great repositories of learning, and played an invaluable role in preserving the palm-leaf manuscripts of the Siddhi yogis (who wrote detailed medical treatises). Many of the Mutts had their own poets, from whom came an outpouring of poetry that was religious or philosophical in nature. Many other writers were inspired by this and penned their own religious and philosophical works. Arunagirinathar was one of them; this 15th century poet is best-known for his Thirupuggazh, a book of beautifully lyrical and rhythmically complex verses about the god Muruga.
The Colonial Era: 1700 - 1900
As sea-routes to India were explored by a variety of nations, the country saw an influx of people from several European nations. These included traders, administrators, travellers and missionaries, and many of them made their way to Tamil country, where they were influenced by, and had an influence on, the language and literature of the place. This period saw the development of vernacular journalism, and a revival and renaissance of old Tamil prose, which was translated into both western languages like English, as well as into the Tamil of the time. Old classics were printed into book form, and Tamil drama was born.
One of the Europeans who had a big impact upon the Tamil literary world was Constanzo Beschi, an Italian Jesuit missionary, who arrived in Tamil Nadu around 1710. He is also known as Virama Muniyar, and is remarkable in how completely he adapted to and adopted local habits. He became a scholar of Tamil, and wrote Thembavani, a beautiful epic poem on the life of Saint Joseph. He also wrote a grammar of the Tamil language in Latin, a dictionary, modelled after the western version, of the language, as well as on Christian theology, in Tamil, for the local population.
The political, social and cultural changes that roiled life in Tamil Nadu were reflected in its literary output. Pride in their heritage prompted the revival and study of ancient Tamil works. Poets like Gopalakrishna Bharati and Bharati Dasan wrote beautiful works, touching upon social issues like caste and inequality. Gopalakrishna Bharati's Nandan Charitam, about the life of a lower caste man, was considered quite revolutionary for its time.
Exposure to English novels might have given birth to the Tamil novel. In 1879, Mayuram Vedanagam Pillai wrote the first Tamil novel, Prathapa Mudaliar Charitram. This was meant for pure entertainment, with its mix of fables and folk tales.
The Tamil Muslim population also contributed many literary works that covered a broad range of topics from fiction to politics, mysticism to medicine, and law and philosophy; foremost among these is the Seerapuranam, on the life of the prophet Mohammed Nabi.
Modern Tamil Literature: 1900 to Today
With the independence movement gaining strength, Tamil literature echoed the concerns and issues of the times.
Subramanya Bharati was a poet who lived in the 19th and 20th centuries, and is probably the greatest modern poet of Tamil literature. His ideas and thoughts were way ahead of their times, and he wrote, in simple, yet stirring and passionate language, on a variety of issues including women's rights and freedom. He broke free of the rigid constrainsts dictated by the Tholkappiam, and opened the doors to a looser, more accessible form of poetry that was powerful in its simplicity.
Another towering figure in modern Tamil literature was U.V. Swaminatha Iyer, who was single-handedly responsible for the revival of many long-forgetten treasures of Tamil literature, in addition to writing dozens of books on it.
Today, the great Tamil literary tradition lives on in numerous journals, newspapers and magazines, in the ever-popular crime and detective novels, and drama. Writers like Tamilvanan, Subha, Pattukottai Prabhakar and Indra Sounder Rajan thrill and entertain readers today.