The scope of this topic is very wide. I have tried to summarize the views of various scholars when they try to Introduce Tamil to readers in their respective books. I feel this essay would be the right place to start my mini series on Tamil Literature studies.
What does the word Tamil mean? Let’s have a look at the Tamil Lexicon entry for the word Tamil.
, n. perh. தமி¹. cf. dramiḍa. 1. Sweetness, melodiousness; இனிமை. (பிங்.) 2. Refined quality; நீர்மை. (பிங்.) 3. Tamil language, being divided into iyaṟ-ṟamiḻ, icai-t-tamiḻ, nāṭaka-t-tamiḻ; இயற்றமிழ், இசைத்தமிழ், நாடகத் தமிழ் என மூவகையாக வழங்கும் மொழி. 4. Tamil literature, Tamil work; தமிழ் நூல். 5. The Tamils; தமிழர். அருந்தமி ழாற்ற லறிந்திலர் (சிலப். 26, 161). 6. The Tamil country; தமிழ்நாடு. தண் டமிழ் வினைஞர் (மணி. 19, 109).
Texual reference for the word Tamil:
- The earliest textual reference of this word can be found in Tolkappiyam, the earliest tamil work( Ur text of the book can be as early as 100 B.C. – though the book has lot of interpolations). In Tolkappiyam Eluttatikaram 386 the following words occur ‘ Tamil en kilavi’ meaning ‘the word Tamil’.
- We also have two more occurrences of the word Centamil (‘refined Tamil’) in Tolkappiyam Colatikkaram(398.3 ,400.2).
- The preface to Tolkappiyam (later than the original text) also has occurrence of Tamil and Centamil.
- In the Sangam Literature (1 AD to 3 AD) there are atleast 14 references to Tamil.
The term is found in following meanings,
- Tamil Language (Puram 50.10,58.13 etc.)
- Tamil Country ( Puram 51.5)
- Tamil Warriors/army (Puram 19.2, Patirupattu 63.9)
- Tamil Literature (Cirpanaatrupadai 66)
Etymology of Tamil is connected with
- tami – ‘solitude;loneliness’–> ‘solitariness,uniqueness’ or
- tam- sweet , il- sound –> our sweet sound or
‘the proper(excellent) process(of speaking)’
The word ‘Dravida’ is etymologically connected to Tamil. Development suggested is as follows,
tamir > damil > damila > dravida.
Origins of Tamil:
Origins of Tamil are still left to speculation. As far as we know Tamil Language is member of the Dravidian Language Family. The name Dravidian for the language chain was coined by R.Cladwell in 1856 on the base of the Sanskrit term Dravida found in 7th century A.D.. Tamil is the oldest of the surviving Dravidian languages.
How old is Tamil? This question has resulted in many answers but none of them with any definitive proof, especially with a Language which has been dependent on Oral tradition for long time. Tamil has majorly been an oral Language. As per widely accepted theory the earliest system of Tamil writing is either called Tamil Brahmi or Dameli, is borrowed from the Ashokan Brahmi and changed to the phonetically needs of Tamil. The writing system came as late as 250BC (Ashoka period 272-232 BC). So any historical data regarding Tamil can be obtained only after the writing system got introduced.
The generally admitted fact by various scholars in historical Dravidian Linguistics is that Proto-South Dravidian linguistic unity disintegrated some time between 8th-6th century B.C. and Tamil began to be cultivated as literary language sometime about 4th or 3rd century B.C. During this period, pre literary Tamil developed into Old Tamil. Old Tamil is the first recorded stage of any Dravidian Language. This was followed by final stages of Tamil – Kannada split and beginning of ancient Tamil literature, which was accompanied by conscious efforts of grammarians and body formed by poetic bards to set up some kind of norm – a literary standard. This standard defined the refined, elegant ,high Tamil- ‘Centamil’. This was followed by creating of literature of High standard and descriptive grammar work Tolkappiyam.
There are at least 11 sites with Tamil Brahmi script dated to 2nd century B.C.
The following sites are listed by Iravatham Mahadevan to be dated to 2nd Century B.C. with Tamil Brahmi scripts,
Adichanallu excavations have brought to light rudimentary Brahmi scripts, approximately dated to 500 B.C., if these dates are confirmed this could change a lot of perceptions on Tamil Language.
Based on available and attested sources we can safely say that literary Tamil began by around 3rd Century BC. New evidences can push this period further to 5th century B.C. but I would safely assume 3rd century period based on attested data.
Sanskrit the Magic Wand?
“All these literatures owed a great deal to Sanskrit, the magic wand of whose touch alone raised each of Dravidian Languages from the level of a patois to that of a literary idiom.” – One of the most popular/controversial statement by great scholar K.A.N.Shastri.
Is this statement really true? was origins of Tamil dependent on Sanskrit?
Kamil Zvelebil accepts that this line of thought is true for languages like Kannada, Teleugu and Malayalam, but strongly believed that Tamil was an exception to this general view. George L.Hart with respect to Sanskrit influence on Tamil says “as I view the evidence, though there certainly was northern influence, Nilakantasastri has exaggerated its extent.”
The beginning of Kannada Literature were almost inspired by Jainism.The first extant narrative literature is Sivakotti’s Vaddaradhane(900 A.D.) on lives of Jaina saints.The first theoretical treatise of Kannada culture Nrpatunga’s Kaviraajamarga is based on Dandhin’s Kavyadarsa. Pampa the first great poet and most eminent of classical Kannada literature is entirely indebted to Sanskrit and Pakrit sources in his version of Mahabaratha and Adipurana ,a work dealing with lives of first Jain Tirthankara.
Similar situation is found in Telugu. The first available literature is Nannaya’s translation of Mahabaratha(11th century). The first theoretical work on Telugu Culture, Janasrayachandas is written in a language more Sanskrit than Telugu(but contains meters peculiar to Telugu and hence indicates that probably there were Telugu compositions before Sanskritization).
Beginning of literature in Malayalam too is closely associated with High Sanskrit Literature.Unnuunili Sandesam of 14th century is based on Sanskrit Sandesa poems.The very language is maniparavalam which is high breed of Malayalam and Sanskrit, known as bhasasamskrtayogam.
On the other hand, in Dr.Zvelebil’s words “The earliest literature in Tamil is a model unto itself-it is absolutely unique in the sense that, in subject matter, thought-content ,or, if we want(though I dislike this term when talking about Literature),Dravidian. And not only that, it is only the Tamil Culture that has produced-uniquely so in India- an independent, indigenous literary theory of a very high standard,including metric and prosody,poetics and rhetoric.”
George L Hart contends the claim that Early Tamil has lot of words of Sanskrit origins. This claim is due to the misconception that early Tamil Inscriptions is full of Pakrit words. How ever this misconception was clarified by detailed study by Iravatham Mahadevan , who has shown that the early tamil inscriptions had very few Pakrit words and they are relatively in pure Tamil, though with a slightly greater number of northern words than the anthologies. The fact that nearly all the early Tamil inscriptions are Jain cave inscriptions, we should take into account that the language used by Jain monks was Pakrit which has resulted in increase of northern words in inscriptions when compared to the literature.
J.V.Chelliah in his great work Ten Tamil Idylls (pathupaatu) says,” the Sanskrit words used in some of these poems(pathupaatu) are almost nil, while in others there is a progressive increase” .He has also estimated percentage of Sanskrit words in some works in Ten Idylls.
- Pattinapaalai – .9% Sanskrit words
- Mullaipaatu – 2.6% Sanskrit words
- Kurunjipaatu – 1.31% Sanskrit words
Even in Thirumurgatrupadai,considered to be the last work of Sangam Literature with the heavy Aryan influence has only 30 Sanskrit words which is lesser than 2% of total words according to his estimate. Even in these 30 words such as min, taamarai and muttu are now known to be of Dravidian origin according to George L. Hart. Hart also goes on to say “A survey of Mahabaratha would, I believe, show a much higher percentage of Dravidian words”.
Dr.Hart also points out that Sanskrit words were not directly accepted; rather they were adapted to Tamil pronunciations. He says that there was a strong dislike for Sanskrit sounds. He gives the following examples.
- Kubera –> maa niti kilavan
He concludes his essay with the following statement,” Unlike the other Dravidian Languages, whose earliest works were written when Sanskrit influence was strong and are full of unchanged words form that language, Tamil Literature goes back to a period before northern literature had enough prestige in the South to be imitated there and to a time before northern institutions were so strong that they brought with them northern words.”
Dr.Zvelebil observes that ” Tamil literature did not develop in a cultural vacuum, and that the evolution of the Tamil culture was not achieved either in isolation, or by simple cultural mutation. The very beginnings of Tamil Literature manifest clear traces of Aryan influence- just as the very beginnings of Indo-Aryan literature, the Rig vedic hymns, show traces of Dravidian influence.”
Unique Nature of Tamil
According to Dr.Zvelebil Tamil literature possesses at least two unique features.
- Tamil literature in its beginnings and in its first and most vigorous bloom, is almost independent of Sanskrit and Aryan influences.
- Tamil Literature is the only literature which is classical and modern.
Tamil is the only literary Dravidian Language whose Meta Language is Tamil. The meta Language of Tamil is always been Tamil and never Sanskrit.With conscious effort Tamil can be used without any Sanskrit origin word. This is observed by A.K.Ramanujan when he says, “In most Indian languages,the technical gobbledygook is Sanskrit;in Tamil,the gobbledygook is ultra-Tamil.”
Tamil is probably the only ancient language in India which bears the reflection of life style and emotion of an entire people who lived in that period. Though its heroes were idealized and heroic as Kailasapathy observes “What is pertinent is the fact that both poems (akam,puram) are dealing with aristocratic society- a society dominated by warlike chiefs.” 
Kamil Zvelebil accepts this fact but also points out that these Old Tamil heroes were very close to the land, the economic basis of existence, though he probably did not do any manual work himself; he did not live in huge castles, but in villages in big houses called manai,akam,il and only occasionally in small fortress(very similar to present day village headmen, who are associated with day to day activities of the village and are not isolated from the common man).
Kailasapathy also points out that slaves, servants, errand men etc. are not entitled to be portrayed as the heroes in the poems treating the five divisions of Mutual Love. He also gives references from Tolkappiyam and works of commentators like Ilampuranar and Nachinarkiniyar.
Zvelebil observes that though these heroes were Idealized men and women; it wasn’t essentially life of sacerdotal or ruling nobility, of priestly class, of nuns, monks, or of elite group or groups of society. These poems have captured the basic human experience in the best possible way making it one of the truly classical piece of literature.
Zvelebil also points out the difference between Tamil literature from other literatures of India “it (Sangam literature) is very different all strata of Sanskritic literature – from the Vedic literature which is literature of sacerdotal class, from the great epics which are the literature of the ruling barons, from the classical literature which is par excellence the literature of the “man about town”, of the naagarika; it is also different from the Buddhist and Jaina texts, since these are mostly the literature of the monastic orders,of monks and nuns.However this does not mean that it is ,in its finished form, as we have it “popular” literature of folk literature.”
The poets of the Sangam age include 20 women contributing 140 poems. The poets also belonged to all classes of the society- princes, chieftains, peasants, brahmins, merchants, potters, black smiths and carpenters by birth. 
Both Kailasapathy and Zvelebil agree on the basic fact that the early poetry of the Tamils is founded on a secular, oral bardic tradition – in sharp contrast to the Vedic poetry and comparable rather with the Greek or Welsh bardic literature. The essential philosophies of the early Tamils were also different from that of the Sanskrit, Vedic literature.(Scope this topic beyond this article, hence I am avoiding going into details.)
Dr.Zvelebil observes that the poets of Ancient Tamils to the present day writers have mastered the technique of suggestion, of allusion, of interference and wordplay, of complex use of imagery and multiple overtones .
To end this essay I would like to quote A.K.Ramanujan opinion on Sangam literature, “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 value and stances, they represent a mature classical poetry; passion is balanced by courtesy, transparency by ironies and nuances of design, impersonality by vivid detail, leanness of line by richness of implication. These poems are not just the earliest evidence of the Tamil genius. The Tamils, in all their 2000 years of literary effort,wrote nothing better. “
 Etymology of Tamil is discussed in detail by Dr.Zvelebil in his Companion studies to History of Tamil History, pg. ix-xvii
 The Smile of Murugan: On Tamil Literature of South India by Kamil Zvelebil, pg. 4-5
 Early Tamil Epigraphy: From the Earliest Times to the Sixth Century A.D. by Iravatham Mahadevan, pg.97
 A History of South India from prehistoric times to the fall of Vijayanagar by K.A.Nilakantasastri, pg.22
 Poems of Ancient Tamil: Their Milieu and Their Sanskrit Counterparts by George L. Hart, pg.11
 The Smile of Murugan: On Tamil Literature of South India by Kamil Zvelebil, pg. 4
 Early Tamil Epigraphy: From the Earliest Times to the Sixth Century A.D. by Iravatham Mahadevan
 Pattupattu: Ten Tamil Idylls by J.V. Chelliah, pg.12
 Poems of Ancient Tamil: Their Milieu and Their Sanskrit Counterparts by George L. Hart,pg.11-12
 The Smile of Murugan : On Tamil Literature of South India by Kamil Zvelebil, pg. 11
 Language and Modernization by A.K.Ramanujan, pg. 31
 Tamil Heroic Poetry by K.Kailasapathy, pg.11
 ibid., pg.11-12
 The Smile of Murugan : On Tamil Literature of South India by Kamil Zvelebil, pg. 12
 ibid., pg.12-13
 ibid., pg.22
 The Interior Landscape: Love Poems from a Classical Tamil Anthology by A.K.Ramanujan, pg. 115
Reference and Further Study
- The Smile of Murugan : On Tamil Literature of South India by Kamil Zvelebil
- Companion studies to History of Tamil History
- Tamil Literature by Kamil Zvelebil
- Poems of Ancient Tamil: Their Milieu and Their Sanskrit Counterparts by George L. Hart
- Tamil Heroic Poetry by K.Kailasapathy
- The Eight Anthologies by J.R. Marr
- The Interior Landscape: Love Poems from a Classical Tamil Anthology by A.K.Ramanujan
- Pattupattu: Ten Tamil Idylls by J.V. Chelliah
- A History of South India from prehistoric times to the fall of Vijayanagar by K.A.Nilakantasastri
- Early Tamil Epigraphy : From the Earliest Times to the Sixth Century A.D. by Iravatham Mahadevan
- Tamil Lexicon – University of Madras