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Home > Tamil Language & Literature > Ancient Tamil Literature
Ancient Tamil Literature
from the Introduction to Landscape and Poetry, 1966
Father Xavier S. Thaninayagam
"...The poetry belonging to the age before and immediately after the composition of Tolkapiyam has not come down to us. What have reached us are the Ten Idylls (Pattuppaattu) and the Eight Anthologies (Ettuttokai) which are collections of poems composed after Tolkaappiyam by various poets, most of whom belonged to one single epoch. Most of this poetry was composed before the second century A.D. These poems, however, do not exactly belong to a Golden or Augustan Age of Tamil literature as has been supposed. Indications point to their being the efforts of an age when decades of convention were setting limits and marking boundaries to poetic inspiration, and preventing the free and unfettered beat of the poets' wings. Nevertheless, it is a great and spacious age in Tamil literature..."
The ancient literature of the Tamils, like the literature of the ancient Greeks, impresses one not so much by the bulk, range and variety of the works that have been preserved for us, as by the comparative novelty and compelling nature of its contents, and by the light that it throws on the hoary and characteristic culture of the southern part of Peninsular India.
What Goethe said of literature in general is also true of Tamil.
"Literature is a fragment of a fragment; of all that ever happened or has been said, but a fraction has been written, and of this but little is extant''.[l]
With Greek and Latin, Tamil shares the misfortune of having lost the vast portion of its ancient literature, but while Greek and Latin have yet their drarnas, epics, and historical, philosophical and forensic prose, it is almost exclusively the lyric and heroic and bardic poetry of ancient Tamil that has survived. Yet what has escaped the ravages of time, though not even a hundredth of the actual output,  reveals elements so original and fresh in the history of literature, and throws such new light on the history of a portion of the world, that to study the literary features of ancient literature or to describe the world as it was at the age of Asoka, or Alexander, or Augustus, it would not be sufficient to take count only of Greek and Latin, and Sanskrit and Chinese. It would be necessary to consider Tamil as well.
During the last two centuries some European scholar or other of nearly every generation has paid Tamil the tribute of a sigh,  and insisted that Western scholarship ought not neglect it, but even so, all the interest that has been created has only resulted in some stray compliment paid in legendary language, "In the South of India there is an ancient language with an ancient literature." Tamil has not had its Max Mullers. Macdonells, Keiths and Winternitzes and even these have unwittingly prolonged Western neglect of Tamil because by identifying Indian literature with Sanskrit literature, they have created the belief that Sanskrit literature is both exclusively and exhaustively representative of Ancient Indian Culture. Max Miiller wrote about what India can teach the West. By India he meant the Indo-Gangetic plain. The Kaaveeri delta has interesting lessons too.
While it is given to the student of comparative literature to trace the origins of Sanskrit literature in the hymns of the Vedas, and the early attempts of the Grecian bards in the Homeric poems, of the origins of Tamil literature, he can find little trace or historical account. The earliest book extant is Tolkaappiyam, and that book argues the existence of numberless grammarians, a large literature, and years of anterior literary culture. 
Even by the most rigid canons, the date of its composition cannot be fixed later than the third century before Christ. It is this book which gives the scholar a wealth of material for the study of the social life and literary conventions of the Tamils of the half millennium preceding the Christian era. As such, the third part of the book, which deals with the functions, the matter, and the mode of poetics, Porulatikaaram, is the first and fundamental source for the study of Nature in ancient Tamil literature.
It describes the conventions which regulate the two-fold classification of Tamil poetry, namely, "Love poetry and all that is not love poetry" (Akam, Puram), the landscape, the seasons, the hours appropriate to each aspect and emotion of love; the trees and flowers which are symbolic of different landscapes or strategic movements; in short, how Nature is to be framed as the background of human bellaviour and emotions in poetry. The poetry belonging to the age before and immediately after the composition of Tolkaappiyam has not come down to us. What have reached us are the Ten Idylls (Pattuppaattu) and the Eight Anthologies (Ettuttokai) which are collections of poems composed after Tolkaappiyam by various poets, most of whom belonged to one single epoch. Most of this poetry was composed before the second century A.D.
These poems, however, do not exactly belong to a Golden or Augustan Age of Tamil literature as has been supposed. Indications point to their being the efforts of an age when decades of convention were setting limits and marking boundaries to poetic inspiration, and preventing the free and unfettered beat of the poets' wings. Nevertheless, it is a great and spacious age in Tamil literature.
These poems present faithful portraits of the social, economic, political, and literary state of the Tamil country, the two centuries before and after Christ. A good portion of the literary legislation of Tolkaappiyarn regarding Nature as the background of poetry is illustrated by these poems. The Tolkaappiyam and these poems which collectively are often referred to as Cankam Literature, are the texts used for the present study.
The Ten Idylls contain lengthy and picturesque descriptions of the Tamil country and its seasons. Most of them are in the form of Aarruppatai, a literary device by which a bard or a minstrel who has received bountiful gifts from some wealthy patron is supposed to direct another to the same Maecenas. This gives the occasion to the poet, among other topics, to describe in great detail the natural beauty, fertility, and resources of the territory which has to be traversed to reach the palace of the patron. These poems which are in the nature of guide-books and travelogues adopt a more credible and realistic device than those Tamil poems of a later age which utilize inanimate objects like the cloud and the wind as messengers or the media of poetic observation. The Aarruppatai is of a piece with Tamil realism and describes the journey as experienced by a human traveller, and that on terra firma.
Each of the Ten Idylls contains passages relevant to the theme of Nature. The first poem on the god, Murukan, contains descriptions of the natural beauty of spots most beloved by him, of his immanent presence in Nature, and of the flowers, trees and animals sacred to him. Minute and interesting descriptions of the hill country, of the dawn and the setting in of evening, and of the close life of the people with Nature, occur in Malaipatukataam, and Kapilar's famous Kurineippaattu.
Few passages can rival the description of the North Wind and its effects, and the interplay of human emotions and sentiments as found in Netunalvaatai. The conventional regions of the Coola and Paantiya kingdoms, the Kaaveeri and Vaiyai which water them, and regional fusion (tinai mayakkam) are faithfully portrayed in the other poems which are intentionally panegyric. The greatness of a sovereign was assessed also by the fertility and the diversity of regions found within his kingdom and, therefore, descriptions of the landscapes of the territory of a sovereign often form an integral part of laudatory and heroic verse.
The Eight Anthologies are classified again according to the subjects treated, namely, into Akam and Puram. This is a fundamental division in Tamil poetry, and is made on the basis of psychological and psychic experience. Akam is a word denoting "interior" as opposed to Puram which means the "exterior".
Under Akam poetry comes what is supposed to be the most internal, personal, and directly incommunicable human experience, and that is love and all its emotional phases. All that does not come under this internal and interior experience is classed as Puram. While love poetry is Akam, all the other poetry, elegiac, panegyric and heroic is Pu!am. In Puram poetry, the study of Nature is mainly objective and consists in similes and metaphors, whereas in Akam poetry Nature is the background and sympathetic stage for the emotional and aesthetic aspects of love.
There is in Tamil love poetry much of the sympathetic interpretation of Nature whereby Nature is brought into relationship with man, furnishing lessons and analogies to human conduct and human aspirations, and expressing itself in sympathy with or in antagonism to the lives of men. The Puranaanuuru, and the Patirruppattu which belong to the Puram category do not entertain certain elements of the interpretation of Nature, which, on the other hand, are considered to be vital to the Kali odes, the Ainkurunuuru, the Kuruntokai, the Narrinai, and the Netuntokai or Akanaanuuru.
An abundance of similes and metaphors regarding Nature, and exquisite touches of suggestion, are to be found in the Puranaanuuru and Patirruppattu. Some of the poems in the former collection may be easily classed among some of the best of Nature poetry in world literature. But the poetry of the Akam collections introduces, in addition, an outlook which is foreign to other literatures. It has been the object of writers like Humboldt, Ruskin, Biese and Palgrave to regard the ancient and modern world, when looked at from the standpoint of the poetic interpretation of Nature, as "one great confederation". Though the study of ancient Tamil literature confirms this view in a general way, it also shows that in a corner of Peninsular India, a people developed an interpretation of Nature the like of which was not conceived on the plains watered by the Ganges, or on the banks of the Nile or the Tiber, or on the shores of the Aegean Sea.
The Kali odes, so-called because of the Kali metre employed in their composition, are extremely rich in figures of speech and in a keen observation of Nature. They contain apostrophes supposed to be made by lovers to such objects as the cloud, the wind, the moon and the sea, but the most precious part of the poems of the anthology are the highly artistic expressions of feminine love sentiment. The Paripaatal, another anthology consisting of long odes of a special metre and meant to be sung to the accompaniment of stringed instruments, consists partly of devotional odes to Murukan and Tirumaal, and partly of poems exclusively on the Vaiyai river and the water-sports connected with the festival celebrated around its annual freshes after the monsoon rains. The natural scenery in which the religious shrines are located are praised in a devotee's language of love and rapture in the devotional odes, while the odes on the Vaiyai contain abundant descriptions of the birth of the river, and its rapid and sometimes devastating progress amidst scenes of natural loveliness. They contain also protestations of almost a human affection on the part of the poets for the river that confers beauty, fertility and prosperity to the city and the kingdom of Maturai.
The other four books are anthologies of love poems, alike in subject and metre, but different only in length. The Netuntokai consists of poems of thirteen to twenty-one lines, the Narrinai of poems of nine to twelve lines and the Kuruntokai of poems from four to eight lines. The Ainkurunuuru also consists of similar poems of three to six lines, but forms a separate anthology since it is divided into a hundred poems on each region. Though human emotions form the primary subject of these anthologies, it is the human emotions of a people who lived in intimate relationship and communion with Nature.
The shorter the poem the more intense is its suggestiveness regarding Nature; the longer the poem the more detailed is the description of Nature, and the more explicit the avowal of the mutual influence between Man and Nature. While human passions in these poems are suggested in a few lines, it is the description of the landscapes and the natural setting appropriate to these passions which are described at length. Many of these poems are landscapes in verse. It looks as if the Tamil poets had a tradition of writing on the same theme verses of different length, for it is easy to trace an idea embodied in a couplet of Tiruvalluvar in an expanded form in a poem of Kuruntokai, and yet more diffuse in Netuntokai, and with minute and elaborate details in, say, Netunalvaatai.
There is, therefore, no dearth of material for a study on the poetic and philosophic interpretation of Nature in ancient Tamil poetry. The mediaeval commentators of Tolkaappiyam and the Cankam Classics have rendered this task easier by their illustrations and exegesis. To such names as Naccinaarkiniyar, and Ilampuuranar, and Parimeelalahar, must be added also the names of modern editors, the prince among whom is the late Dr. Swaminatha Iyer, whose introductions and apparatus criticus render great aid to the student engaged in Tamil research. The difficulty for the student is rather the embaras de choir.
There is such an abundance of material that to select, collate and make the subject presentable and readable to those whose acquaintance with Tamil literature is scant, is not a light task. The flora and fauna, the very hills and localities mentioned in Cankam literature have yet to be explored and identified. Literary criticism of Tamil poetry is a new field of study, for histories of Tamil literature have until recently been preoccupied with disputes regarding chronology, and with proving or disproving the veracity of fabulous accounts that have grown around literary origins and lives of poets.
The books which I have found to treat in a satisfactory manner the concept of Nature among the ancient Tamils, are P. T. Srinivas Iyengar's Pre-Aryan Tamil Culture and History of the Tamils from the Earliest Times to A.D. 600.  The author's main sources for the history of that period are the very ones which are the texts for the present study. He has studied them to some extent from the historical angle.
It now remains to examine them from the point of view of the literary critic and the literary historian. Professor M. Varadarajan in his book The Treatment of Nature in Sangam Literature has made a detailed and comprehensive analysis of the texts concerned  For a book intended for foreign readers on this subject, I have paid greater attention to Akam poetry as revealing the more original aspects of Nature poetry in Tamil. It has not been my intention to crowd into this study abundant details, or make it heavy reading with a multitude of quotations, and reference to single objects of Nature as mountains, rivers, trees, flowers, animals, or single forces of Nature, as lightning and thunder.
Where other literatures are concerned, ancient and modern, this province of literary criticism has attracted a satisfactory number of scholars. While there have been several works on the interpretation of Nature of individual poets like Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Shelley, or the entire literature of single nations, world literature itself has been the subject of research in this interesting aspect. Schiller led the study with his Uber die naive und sentimentale Dichtung (1794), followed by Alexander von Humboldt, who in his Kosmos, a work of encyclopaedic information, discussed Nature in the poetry and landscape painting of the Indo-European races. Ruskin in the third volume of Modern Painters has interpreted the Nature of Landscape art in classical, mediaeval and modern times.
Victor de Laprade's two studies, Le sentiment de la nature avant We Christianisme and chez les modernes are bold and masterly surveys by a critic of refined thought. Comparative literature received very adequate and comprehensive treatment in the studies of Alfred Biese, who in his two works covered the whole field from the Homeric poems to the Romantic School of the Nineteenth Century, Die Entwickelung des Naturgefuhls bei den Griechen und den Romern (1884) and Die Entwickelung des Naturgefuhls im Mittelalter und in der Neuzeit. Francis Turner Palgrave came next with his work on Landscape in Poetry from Homer to Tennyson, and John Campbell Shairp with his Poetic Interpretation of Nature in which may be found studies of Homer, Lucretius, Vergil, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth. None of these works contains even a single reference to ancient Tamil literature, though the Vedic hymns and Kalidasa come in for some little comment.
The reader will probably feel at the end of this work, if he will peruse it to the end, that Nature as studied, described, and embodied by the ancient Tamil poets, contains features not in the least negligible in a study of comparative literature, and that the works of Humboldt and Biese would have been more complete, and the studies of Laprade and Shairp richer and more accurate, if Tamil Cankam literature had been available to the authors at least in translations. 
1 Goethe quoted in The New Dictionary of Thoughts, subject Literature, New York, 1936.
2 On the antiquity and extent of ancient Tamil literature, see K. S. SRINIVASA PILLAI, History of Tamil (Tm), pp. 1-41, Madras, 1922; T. R. SESHA IYENGAR, Dravidian India, pp. 79 ff, and 166 If,, Madras, 1925; K. N. SIVARAJA PILLAI, The Chronology of the Early Tamils, Madras, 932; A. cHlDAMBARANArHA CHE=AR, Advanced Studies in Tamil Prosody, Annamalainagar, 1943, in which the antiquity may he examined from a new angle, namely, prosody. On the characteristics of ancient Tamil Poetry, see Swami Vedachalam, Ancient and Modern Tamil Poets, Pallavaram, 1939.
3 Beschi, Ellis, Bower, Caldwell, Pope. Dr. Winslow writes in the preface to his Tamil-English Dictionary (Madras, 1862): "It is not perhaps extravagant to say that in its poetic form the Tamil is more polished and exact than the Greek and in both dialects, with its borrowed treasures, more copious than the Latin". Dr. Schimid: "The mode of collocating its words follows the logical or intellectual order more so than even the Latin or Greek". "Although the very ancient, copious and refined Tamil language is inferior to none, it is regarded by most people as the (probably barbarous) vernacular of a people living somewhere in a remote district. Neither does our Indian Government nor do our Universities (British) fully recognize the value of Tamil literature; and so those who spend their lives in seeking for pearls under water". Dr. G. U. POPE in Tamilian Antiquary, No. 6, p. 3, Madras, 1910. Scholars as those mentioned above, well versed in European classical literatures, would have been impressed far more if the Cankam literature available to the present generation had been available to them. Max Muller in Prefatory note to Hindu Manners and Customs, "Tamil Literature hitherto has been far too much neglected by students of Indian literature, philosophy and religion."
4 This is fairly clear from the nature of Tolkaappiyam which codified already existing literature and grammar.
5 In addition to the works mentioned see Simon Casie Chetty, The Tamil Plutarch, Colombo, 1946. In the note (p. 122) under the title "Tolkaappiyanaar, T. P. MEENAKSHISUNDARAM dates the work as anterior to third century B.C. Later interpolations are not ruled out.
6 DR. U. V. SAMINATHA IYER, Kuruntogai (Tm) Introduction, p. 8 ff, 2 ed., Madras, 1947. PIERRE MEILE, in Histoire des Litteratures, Vol. I, p. 1046 if,, Paris, 1955.
7 S. KRISHNASWAMY IYENGAR in the Tamilian Antiquary, No. 5, Trichinopoly, 1909, writes of this period as The Augustian Age of Tamil Literature. The phrase has been often used since then by writers on Tamil literature.
8 T. 1037, see General Introduction of Pattuppaattu translated by J. V. CHELLIAH, Colombo. V. R. RAMACHANDRA Dikshtar, Studies in Tamil Literature and History, 1946, pp. 21-85, London, 1930.
9 The term "Cankam literature" is very widely used among the Tamils to designate their ancient books written prior to, say, the third century of the Christian era. The word Cankam here stands for 'Literary Academy' and these books are the works of poets who lived at a period when the activities of a literary body regulated and set the standards for Tamil literature. The persistent Tamil tradition speaks of three academies, the first two of which were Succeeded by geological upheavals that caused the loss also of the literature of those epochs. What has remained are mostly the books of the third epoch or of the third aeademy, and now "Cankam" has by degrees come to mean par excellence the third academy and the third epoch.
10 The author makes several useful observations which if developed will contribute greatly to Tamil research. His chronology, however, is debatable. His book is referred to as H.T. in these pages.
11 These pages were written before the publication of M. Varadarajan's The Treatment of Nature in Sangam Literature, Madras, 1957.
12 See the English translation of Pattuppaattu by J. V. CHELLIAH, o.c. DR. G. U. POPE, has translated some poems of the Puranaanuuru in the Tamilian Antiquary, No. 6, pp. 45-77, Madras, 1910. The Tolkaappiyam Porulatikaaram has been translated with a commentary by VARADHARAJA AIYER, Annamalainagar, 1948, and P. S. SUBRAHMANYA SASTRI (see bibliography).
Both VARADHARAJA AIYER and P. T. SRINWAS IYENGAR, o.c., have translated into English numerous poems in their texts but there is yet room for improvement in the diction of the translations. Dr. Kamil Zvelebil of Prague has published an anthology of Ancient Tamil Poetry in Czech.
Plants are identified in this book generally on the basis of BURROW and EMENEAU's Dravidian Etymological Dictionary.