all towns are
one, all men our kin.
Home > Tamils - a Trans State Nation > Tamil Language & Literature > Thamizh Literature Through the Ages - Preface > 1. Introduction > 2. The Sangam (Academy) period. > 3. The Didactic Period > 4. The Era of the Thamizh Epics > 5. The Era of Devotional Period > 6. Epics of the ChOzha Period > 7. Grammar and Lexicography > 8. Philosophical Literary Period > 9. Thamizh purANangaL and Minor Poems > 10. IslAmic and Christian Contributions to Thamizh Literature > 11. Modern Period > 12. Present Situation > 13. Conclusion
Dr. C.R. Krishnamurti,
[see also சங்க கால நூல்கள் at Project Madurai]
2. The Sangam (Academy) (சங்கம்) Period
Chronologically the development of Thamizh literature is believed by the Thamizh people to have commenced during the Sangam period. References to the existence of at least three Thamizh academies are available in Thamizh literature. The first Sangam is credited to have been initiated by Lord Sivan himself. One of the poets, n^akkIrar (நக்கீரர்) who is said to have lived during this period has referred to the Thamizh academies in his commentary on iRaiyanAr akapporuLurai (இறையனார் அகப்பொருள் உரை)
According to the legend, a short-statured seer named agatthiar (அகத்தியர்) wrote the first treatise on Thamizh grammar (அகத்தியம்). Unfortunately no scientific proof is available to substantiate whether these academies existed at all and if so, the dates, the participants or their works. However it is probable that quite a few scholars could have met periodically at different times and discussed literary works either formally or informally.
2.2. TholkAppiam (தொல்காப்பியம்) and the top 18 Anthology Series (பதினெண் மேல் கணக்கு)
The starting point for Thamizh literary works is therefore reckoned to be the third or last Sangam period which is assigned the approximate dates from 500 B.C. - 200 A.D. Literary works of the last Sangam period include TholkAppiam, (தொல்காப்பியம்) a text on Thamizh grammar written by TholkAppiar (தொல்காப்பியர்) (~ 500 B.C.) and two collections of poems, dealing with akam (அகம்) subjective and puRam (புறம்) objective human emotions, the Eight Anthologies, ettut thokai, (எட்டுத்தொகை) and The Ten Idylls, Patthup pAttu, (பத்துப்பாட்டு) Together they constitute the top 18 in the PathineN mEl kaNakku Anthology series, (பதினெண் மேல் கணக்கு) . Of the several authors with conflicting names and dates involved in these Sangam collections, it is indeed gratifying to note that there were at least 27 poetesses. The role played by women in literary endeavours during the Sangam period is obvious.
2.2.1. TholkAppiam (தொல்காப்பியம்)
Setting aside the oft repeated but justifiable criticism regarding the lack of evidence of specific dates and authors, it is appropriate to examine the contents of these texts with reference to their style and substance. It is indeed amazing that even prior to the beginning of the Christian era, there did exist a language with rigid grammatical rules which even today serve as authoritative guidelines. The corollary is that Thamizh should have been flourishing long before this time for someone to set out rules and regulations to formalize its usage in prose and poetry.
The verses (நூற் பாக்கள்) themselves are set in a specific rhythm, YAppu (யாப்பு) and adorned by various figures of speech, aNi (அணி). This basic structure later blossomed into the development of Thamizh literature along 3 directions, literature, music and stage (முத்தமிழ் - இயல், இசை, நாடகம்) . Drama, per se, is absent from the Sangam collections.
188.8.131.52. Literary Features of TholkAppiam
a) Chapters (அதிகாரங்கள்) TholkAppiam is not merely a textbook on Thamizh grammar giving the inflection and syntax of words and sentences but also includes classification of habitats, animals, plants and human beings. The discussion on human emotions and interactions is particularly significant. TholkAppiam contains 1602 poems which have been placed under 3 chapters (அதிகாரங்கள்) : orthography, letters, (எழுத்து), etymology, words (சொல்), and subject matter or content, PoruL (பொருள்).
Whereas the grammatical part of TholkAppiam codifies the language, the concept of PoruL refers to the people and is unique to the Thamizh language and universal in its application. The grammar helps to convey the literary message on human behaviour and conduct which are later discussed in the chapter on PoruL.
In a broad sense, all human endeavours march towards four values: virtue (அறம்), wealth (பொருள்), pleasure (இன்பம்) and absolute peace (வீடு) . Since the last is beyond description and the first two are prerequisites for the third, TholkAppiar defines PoruL (content) to include pleasures derived from human emotions and experiences.
b) Literary Objectives (இலக்கியப் பொருண்மை)
The word, literature, ilakkiam, (இலக்கியம்) has not been specifically used by TholkAppiar. By splitting the word, ilakkiam, into ilakku, (இலக்கு) objective or philosophy and iyam, (இயம்) express, the inference is made that the philosophy of life is what is discussed under PoruL. The subsections, (இயல்கள்), under the chapter on PoruL include:
The term yAppu, (யாப்பு) an important component of how the prosody or versification is organized, is classified into seven kinds, (வகைகள்) as detailed below under the general context of PoruL :(பாட்டு, உரை, நூல், வாய்மொழி, பிசி, அங்கதம், முதுசொல்).
The structure, (அமைப்பு) and components, (உறுப்பு) of literary works (இலக்கியம்) and the way the poems should be organized could be of 34 different types as follows:
c) Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Parametersrs (முதல், கரு, உரிப் பொருட்கள்)
Recognizing that human activities cannot take place in vacuum and are constantly influenced by environmental factors, human experiences, in general, and subjective topics (அகம்) in particular, are assigned to specific habitats. Accordingly land was classified into five divisions, thiNai (திணைகள்) . These are: kuRinji (குறிஞ்சி) mountainous regions, mullai (முல்லை) forests, marutham (மருதம்) agricultural lands, n^eithal (நெய்தல்) coastal regions, pAlai, (பாலை) deserts.
The differences in human avocations in these different regions at different seasons are described with vivid imagination stressing the phenotype-environment interactions among human beings, plants and animals. The habitat and the season are considered to be the primary parameters (முதற் பொருள்).
Located in these are the living things (human beings, plants and animals) which are the secondary parameters (கருப் பொருள்) . For example, the six different types of persons involved in the section on secret love are the Brahmin, friend, maid, the hero and the heroine:
Finally the descriptions of the human emotions and feelings, tertiary parameters, (உரிப் பொருள்) under these conditions are given. Included in this section are the desirable and undesirable traits for the hero, heroine and other characters.
The general tendency of Thamizh people in considering the Sangam age as the golden era of their language may be ascribed not so much to its antiquity as to the fact that their ancestors were indulging in literary pursuits and logical classification of the habitats and society in a systematic manner with little to draw from precedents domestically or elsewhere. Viewed from this perspective, it would be obvious that what is important is not the accuracy of the dates or the names of authors as stressed by some scholars but the fact that the legends and folk lores of a country or region do contain valuable information on the continuous and coherent development of a language and the people. What is required is an unbiased attempt to separate the facts from the myths!
d) Subjective (akam) and Objective (puRam) topics (அகப்பொருள், புறப்பொருள்).
PoruL is subdivided into subjective, (அகப்பொருள்) and objective (புறப்பொருள்) topics. Subjective topics (அகப்பொருள்) refer to the personal or human aspect of emotions which cannot be verbalized adequately or explained fully. It can only be experienced by the individuals and includes love and sexual relationship. The division into akam and puram is not rigid but is flexible depending upon the interpretation used in a specific context.
Subjective topics (அகப்பொருள்) are further subdivided into four sections (இயல்) : subjective matters (அகத்திணை இயல்), clandestine love (களவியல்), chaste or wedded love (கற்பியல்), and material wealth (பொருளியல்).
Objective topics (புறப்பொருள்) discuss all other aspects of human experience such as heroism, ethics, benevolence, philanthropy, social life and customs. All these topics are placed under one section (புறத்திணை இயல்).
The distinction made between the subjective and objective topics stresses the fact that while all topics were indeed discussed, they were done with discretion and always keeping in mind the seriousness associated with the expression of these fine basic human feelings. For example, when human love is discussed, a hero (தலைவன்) and a heroine (தலைவி) are chosen without specific names and their feelings towards each other, under a variety of circumstances are elaborated using the imagination and descriptive capacity of the poet. Usually a friend who acts as a liaison between the hero and heroine is brought into the picture. In the narration of objective (புறம்) topics such as heroism of a King or chieftain or the philanthropy of a patron the specific names of individuals are mentioned.
The division of literary works into subjective and objective topics has enabled the poetic minds to discuss all topics under the sun from grammar to love, all within the framework of well prescribed, socially accepted conventions. The placement of secret or clandestine love (களவியல்) prior to wedded love (கற்பியல்) in TholkAppiam would indicate that former was not only socially acceptable but in fact was actively encouraged with the caveat that the choice should be made on sound criteria. The following verse (நூற்பா, சூத்திரம்) expresses the desirable traits viz., heroism and valour in the male and meekness, innocence and shyness (அச்சம், மடம், நாணம்) in the female:
Such a combination of traits has indeed been encouraged as mentioned below:
While describing the attributes of the heroine in wedded love (கற்பியல்), higher emphasis is given to chastity, good behaviour, hospitality, and ability to support the family and relatives . An example is given below of the desired traits. A discriminating observer could also discern the importance placed on the family system as a whole over the individual, a characteristic which is still in vogue.
In defining chaste or wedded love the only restriction placed is the giving away of the bride by the parents following the necessary rituals as explained below:
The practice leading to marriage is thus identical to the 'dating and choosing' the mate system practised in the west. The notion of "arranged marriages" therefore appears to be a recent introduction due to changed social circumstances. The Thamizh people are resilient as per the old dictum, "(பழையன கழிதலும் புதியன புகுதலும் வழுவல கால வகையினானே", meaning literally "old order changeth yielding place to new".
Four kinds of words were recognized by TholkAppiar: spoken words (இயற்சொல்), poetic words (திரிசொல்), borrowed words (திசைச்சொல்), and Sanskritized words (வட சொல்).
The poetic style was divided into three based on the number of meters and lines as akaval (அகவல்), kalippA (கலிப்பா), and paripAdal (பரிபாடல்). akaval is made up of four meters in each line which may vary from three to one hundred. The other two are more musically oriented. The veNpA (வெண்பா) style of poetry gradually replaced the akaval in later years.
f) Religion (சமயம்)
Another interesting but controversial observation in Sangam poems is the relatively meagre reference given to religion in general. In the akam (அகம்) songs, TholkAppiar has made reference to deities in the different land divisions: ThirumAl (திருமால்) for mullai (முல்லை), Murugan (முருகன்) for kuRinji (குறிஞ்சி), indhiran (இந்திரன்) for marutham (மருதம்), varuNan (வருணன்) for n^eithal (நெய்தல்) and koRRavai (கொற்றவை) for pAlai (பாலை)
Some scholars believe that TholkAppiar was a Jain. The following two verses are usually given in support of TholkAppiar's religious outlook:
2.2.2. The Eight Anthologies (ettut thokai) (எட்டுத்தொகை நூல்கள்)
The works included in ettut thokai along with the number of stanzas available in parentheses are as follows: puRa n^AnURu (புறநானூறு) (398) , aka n^AnURu (அகநானூறு)(400), n^aRRiNai (நற்றிணை) (399), kuRun^thokai (குறுந்தொகை) (400) , pathiRRup patthu (பதிற்றுப்பத்து) (80), ainkuRu n^URu (ஐங்குறுநூறு) (498), paripAdal (பரிபாடல்) (22) and kalit thokai (கலித்தொகை) (150). These are summed up in the following song by an unknown poet:
2.2.3. The Ten Idylls, (patthup pAttu) (பத்துப்பாட்டு)
The Ten Idylls consist of the following collections whose authors and the number of verses available are given in parentheses:
The composition of the Ten Idylls is described in the following verse:
In general, the concept of ARRup patai (ஆற்றுப்படை) is defined by TholkAppiar himself as the tribute or homage paid by poets and minstrels to Kings and patrons with the expectation of financial rewards or other gifts. The exception is ThirumurukARRup patai (திருமுருகாற்றுப்படை) which was sung by n^akkIrar (நக்கீரர்) in praise of Murugan (முருகன்), the deity of the kuRinji (குறிஞ்சி) landscape, thiNai, (திணை).
Based on the differences in the grammar, style and the induction of a deity instead of a human being as the patron, it is believed that the n^akkIrar who wrote ThirumurukARRup patai (திருமுருகாற்றுப்படை) was different from the one who wrote parts of the Ten Idylls or the one who wrote the grammatical text, adi n^Ul (அடிநூல்)
While describing life and romance, the poets employed the background of the natural landscape (இயற்கை அமைப்பு) and adorned their descriptions of love and emotions with a variety of similes (உவமைகள்) and vivid imaginations. For example, the weathering of a lover in distress is compared to the melting of butter placed on the eyes in the hot sun.
While describing the hot desert areas , pAlai (பாலை), where dangerous thieves had their hideouts, the author of a song in kalit thokai (கலித்தொகை) lets his imagination go wild as described below. He says that the thieves were so cruel that even if the traveler did not have any money they will cut him into pieces and enjoy themselves at the sight of the dancing of the slain body. Thing were so bad that even birds were scared to go into those areas.
Notwithstanding their indulgence in describing subjective passions of love and romance at considerable length, the Sangam poets held lofty ideals of life. The duties of different segments of the society are outlined in the following verse:
The fine qualities of man with reference to love, affection, courtesy, finesse, etiquette and forgiveness have been defined so precisely and meticulously in a kalit thokai (கலித்தொகை) piece that these are applicable universally:
Despite their creative minds and poetic capacities, Thamizh poets have been traditionally poor and were always dependent upon patrons (வள்ளல்கள்) for their livelihood. While asking for charity, a poet in PuRa n^AnURu (புறநாநூறு) appeals to the patron by saying that it is not despicable to ask for alms but to say no is still worse; to donate before asked for is good but to decline when offered is still better.
In the chapters on the puRam ( புறம்) topics, the heroism of people in general and women in particular occupied a key place. The following is the description of the valour of a woman who lost her brother on the first day and her husband on the second, dresses up her only son , gives him the spear and sends him to the battle on the third day after hearing the sounds of the bugle:
Considering the depth at which various subjective and objective topics have been discussed in the Sangam period, it would appear that the authors were basically preoccupied with personal and social topics of emotional appeal. It is not as if devotional concepts did not develop at this time. The following verses in pari pAtal (பரிபாடல்) demonstrate the emergence of the devotional (பக்தி) concepts. In the first song the prayers of an author where he desires not gold or fame but only the grace of the Lord Murugan are depicted. In the second , the concept of the omnipresence of God is explained.
Therefore, the less importance given to religious topics in the Sangam texts would suggest that, the authors who belonged to three different religious groups (Hinduism, Jainism or Buddhism) played down the religious note deliberately and concentrated on their poetic strengths. It is also probable that theological and devotional (பக்தி) concepts did not permeate deeply into the society until later.
Finally, a passage from PuRa n^anURu (புறநாநூறு) along with the English translation by G.U.Pope is given below to illustrate the cosmopolitan outlook of the Thamizh people in the Sangam period with reference to their global perspectives and ideals. In this akaval (அகவல்) , a minstrel called KaNiyan PUnkunRan (கணியன் பூங்குன்றன்) generalizes the sentiment that the whole world is considered as one big family where people conduct themselves with dignity and self respect and do not express undue homage to their superiors and have no contempt for the lower escutcheon.
This passage is relevant to the world today which appears to be fragmented by overzealous linguistic and religious fundamentalists. It seems appropriate to reiterate these profound words written a thousand years back to make the world a better place to live.
Any discussion on Sangam literature will not be complete without reference to the scholars who have interpreted these works in later years in their own characteristic styles. A scholar named iLampUraNar (இளம்பூரணர்) wrote a commentary on the entire TholkAppiam thus earning the title, Commentator (உரையாசிரியர்). In subsequent years he was indeed referred to as Commentator without his real name. A century later, some time in the thirteenth century, other commentators, PErAciriyar (பேராசிரியர்) and CEnAvaraiyar (சேனாவரையர்) wrote explanatory notes and interpretations for sections of TholkAppiam.
It is relevant to mention that the Sangam period corresponds roughly to the following historical landmarks:
In summary, going through the Sangam texts, one can make certain generalizations regarding the social life and cultural characteristics of the Thamizh people during the period. They appear to be highly systematic and logical in their literary approach as exemplified by their predisposition to classify every facet of their lives from land and language to love and heroism using well defined criteria. The word grammar was used in a broader sense to include rules governing not only inflections and syntax of words and sentences but also to describe personal relationships and social activities. The high degree of finesse and discretion they exhibited in their description of love and human relationship is admirable and may well be emulated with advantage today. Their sensitivity to discuss subjective and objective topics separately also shows their rigid code of ethics.
On the other hand, in the Sangam texts, the magnitude of coverage of human emotions and feelings seems to be much greater than discussions on religious thoughts and spiritual analysis. Even the few religious references pertain to deities specific to each habitat. Perhaps this is an indication that the Thamizh people in the Sangam period were pragmatic people fully preoccupied with worldly pursuits in their own habitats.