Ancient Tamil scripture engraved in stone

Tamil Literature’s Rich History and Its Significance in Linguistic and Cultural Anthropology

With the discussion of topics relating to Tamil people’s political, social, and cultural aspects, the prolific history of Tamil literature spans more than 2000 years. As a Tamil woman myself, I feel the need to indulge in the vast and diverse works of my ancestors. From classics to modern literature, each period of Tamil literature includes a multitude of enrichment that is ultimately a work of art that is to be adored for years to come.

Tamil literature is comprised of five main time periods: firstly, the Sangam age; secondly, the Post-Sangam period; thirdly, medieval literature; fourthly, the Vijayanagar and Nayak period; and lastly, the Modern era.

Sangam age

The Sangam period is a historical era of Tamil literature, spanning from the 6th century BCE to the 3rd century CE. Alas, most works from this period have not survived. The oldest known surviving piece of literature is the Eighteen Greater Texts, commonly known in Tamil as the Patiṉeṇmēlkaṇakku.

The Eighteen Greater Texts date back between 100 BCE and 200 CE. They include the Ten Idylls (Pattupattu) and Eight Anthologies (Ettuthokai). This work of literature contains approximately 2831 poems attributed to 473 poets.

One of the most significant literary works from this period that is still discussed among Tamil people today is Silappatikāram , which is among one of the Five Great Epics in Tamil literature: SilappatikāramManimekalaiCīvaka CintāmaṇiValayapathi and Kuṇṭalakēci.

Kannagi, one of the main characters of Silapathikaram, proving her husband's innocent in rage to the king, highlighting the importance of chasity in Tamil culture.


Dating back to the 5th – 6th century CE, the epic Silappatikāram highlights the devastating affair of the heart between Kannagi and Kovilan through a poem containing 5740 lines. The epic depicts the story of Kannagi and Kovalan, newlyweds who are happily living in harmony. As the story progresses, Kovalan leaves his wife for another woman, Madhavi, spending all his money on her.

Despite her husband’s unfaithfulness, Kannagi waits for Kokilan’s return. At Indra’s festival (a festival for the goddess of rain), Madhavi and Kovalan participate in a singing competition. Kovalan’s song contains lyricism about a man hurt by his lover, whereas Madhavi’s song portrays a man who has betrayed his relationship. These songs cause them to eventually separate, causing Kanaggi to accept Kovilan’s return.

With Kokilan being in debt, he sells Kannagi’s anklet to a goldsmith, unknowing that the goldsmith will frame him for stealing the queen’s anklet. He is then executed by the king without being able to prove his innocence. When Kannagi learns of this, she seethes with anger as she heads to court to question the king. She shows the king the other anklet that belongs to her, then angrily tears off her breast and throws it at the city of Madurai, ultimately burning it down with her curse and killing the king in the process, as the shame is so unbearable he commits suicide.

A statue of Kannagi, depicting how important her character in Silapathikaram is to Tamil culture.
Source: Wikipedia

Kannagi is often depicted as the symbol of chastity in Tamil culture due to the extent she has gone through to demonstrate her faithfulness to her husband, despite his wrongdoings. She is worshipped as a goddess in select parts of South Asia.


Though the dating of Tolkāppiyam is difficult to mark, it is proposed to date back between 5,320 BCE and the 8th century CE. It is one of the most important works of Tamil literature, as it allows for an understanding of the origins of the Tamil language.

Tolkāppiyam consists of three books: words(Eluttatikaram), sounds (Sollatikaram), and subject matter (Porulatikaram). Tolkāppiyam contains significant subject matters in accordance with Tamil history:

In the Tolkāppiyam and the anthologies, poems are classified by theme into akam (“interior”) and puṟam (“exterior”), the former highly structured love poems, the latter heroic poems on war, death, personal virtues, the ferocity and glory of kings, and the poverty of poets.

This work of text accentuates the aspects of ancient Tamil culture in a poetic sense. It also goes into depth about the nature of South Asia, with descriptions of the five landscapes deemed important in Sangam culture, and their contents.

The five lands of importance in Tamil culture on the Indian map, Kurinji (mountainous region), Mullai (forests), Marutham (cropland), Neithal (seashore), and Pālai (dry lands)
Source: Wikipedia

These five landscapes include Kurinji (mountainous region), Mullai (forests), Marutham (cropland), Neithal (seashore), and Pālai (dry lands).  The poems depicting these landscapes allow us to understand the importance of nature in ancient Tamil culture. Such poems invoke a distinct perspective on the beauty of nature. As seen below, there is a poem translated into English depicting Neithal: 

Water lilies bloom
in the lagoons
where cranes part the water lilies
looking for fish
then fly away to stay
in fragrant seaside groves,
near my lover’s village washed by the sea.

His love for me
is greater than the sea.

—Neithal (Ainkurunuru-184)

The Sangam period continues to hold a great importance in Tamil literature, as it emphasizes the experiences of the first known and recorded emergence of Tamil people.

Post-Sangam period of Tamil literature

The Post-Sangam period occurred approximately three centuries after the Sangam age. With this period came literature related to philosophy and ethics in Tamil culture. The most prominent text about ethics comes from this age, Tirukkural by Thiruvalluvar. Divided into 133 sections, it contains short couplets of seven words.

Thiruvalluvar, author of Tirukkuṟaḷ, a commentary on what is morally and ethically right.

Tirukkural has three sections: aram (virtue), porul (government and society), and kamam (love). There is an emphasis on ideas of gratitude, kindness, non-violence and more. It is essentially seen as a text of the moral code in Tamil literacy. Below are a few examples of Tirukkurals:

Even if you have nectar that will assure immortality,
it is not appreciable to dine alone, leaving the guests out. (82)

Call him not a man, one who speaks
vain words; he is a scum. (196)

The wealth of the wise one who loves, and is loved by, the world,
is like a public pond brimming with water. (215)

As seen in these examples, Thiruvalluvar’s words were written to encourage Tamil people to behave morally. His view on ethics still plays a big role in Tamil culture today, as hospitality remains a big part of Tamil culture.

Medieval Tamil literature

The book cover for Aathichoodi by Avvaiyar.

The medieval period, spanning from the 11th and 13th centuries, was one of harmony amongst Tamil people. Avvaiyar, a female poet who’s name translates to ‘respectable woman’, created poems during this era that continue to be taught in Tamil schools today. Avvaiyar is one of the most crucial poets of Tamil history, as her poems appeal to children. Her well-known poem, Aathichoodi, demonstrates to children how to live a life full of moral genuineness with the use of the Tamil alphabet. Below are some lines from the poem translated into English:

Intend to do right deeds,

Nature of anger is to subside,

Help others as much as you can,

Do not stop or avoid charitable deeds,

Do not brag about your possessions- wealth, skills, knowledge, etc…

Never lose hope or motivation,

Do not despise numbers and letters (maths; or arts, science, and literature),

Do not beg,

Give alms, then eat,

Adapt to your changing world,

Never stop learning,

Do not speak ill about others (especially behind their back),

Do not hamper development or creativity.

Tamil literature up to this period includes a common theme of moral lessons and ‘words to live by’ to guide people to lead a life of ethics.

Vijayanagar and Nayak period

The Vijayanagar and Nayak period, reigning from approximately 1300 to 1650 C.E., was a period in Tamil history where the Tamil country would be affected by an invasion, and ultimately conquered. As a result, the rise of the Vijayanagar kingdom and Nayak governance came about. Exemplary works in Tamil literature were still produced in this era. For example, Thiruppugazh by Arunagirinathar.

Arunigirinathar and Lord Murugan in front of the temple, after Murugan saves him from death.
Source: Hindu Blog


Thiruppugazh, created in the 15th century, is a work of religious songs praising Lord Murugan. The background behind Arunagirinathar’s reason for writing Thiruppugazh is quite intriguing. According to Arunagirinathar, Lord Murugan saved him when he was going to end his life at a temple. Ultimately, this reformed his life. Consequently, Arunagirinathar decides to make devotional songs to thank Lord Murugan for saving him. An example of this is demonstrated in these verses:

O Lord of the celestial heavens
who protects the Kurava woman of the sweet, child-like words
who wields the spear which destroyed the majestic hill
and wears a garland of scarlet flowers
where bees dance seeking honey.
(Song 1304)

This period demonstrated the devotionality to religion prominently, especially with the use of literature. As seen throughout this article, the Hindu religion is prominently valued among Tamil people.

The modern era of Tamil literature

The late 18th to 19th centuries brought the Modern era in Tamil literature. This gave us the works of Subramanya Bharathi, who was a writer and an important member in terms of social reform. Bharathi was very influential, both with his literature and activism.

Subramanya Bharathi, a poet of the modernist era of Tamil literature, with influence fro
Source: mypoeticside

Bharathi’s work is often cited as the inspiration for modern Tamil literature. His work is said to involve both modernist and classical techniques. Additionally, his poems show how outspoken he was about social issues, and often display rebellious remarks. Bharathi covered a variety of topics in his works, from children’s songs to praising those fighting for India’s independence. Here is Bharathi’s commentary on the Indian caste system:

There is no caste system.
It is a sin to divide people on caste basis.
The ones who are really of a superior class are the ones
excelling in being just, wise, educated and loving.

Bharathi would eventually be sent into exile later in his life, after being exposed for his involvement in extremism within the Indian National Congress. He remains an influence on the works we see today, serving as a big inspiration for poets such as Bharathidasan.

The Modern era played a large role in the rebellion of the British and French colonizers, causing many of those who critiqued the colonizers to go into exile. Moreover, they were still praised by Tamil people, as these authors were seen as representations of social reform and unity among South Asians.  

The rise of Tamil novels

The modern era of Tamil literature was accompanied by a rise in novels. Ramanichandaran would contribute to this rising trend with the composition of modern romance novels in the 20th century. She is currently the best-selling author in Tamil literature, with 178 novels written.

Ramanichandran’s focus on romance novels does not include the idea of caste systems, which is a common controversy within South Asia because the caste system is still used to this day.

One of her famous books, Kanney Kanmaniey, illustrates Madura and her lover, Sathyan. Madura’s brother loses money while betting on horses, causing her and her brother to work at Sathyan’s hotel. Sathyan unknowingly believes that Madura betrayed him and ends up marrying another woman, but his wife ends up dying. Conflicted with revenge and undying love, Sathyan is confused about how to act towards Madura. In sum, the story follows Sathyan’s journey of love and figuring out his feelings towards Madura.

The cover of the book, Kanney Kanmaniey by Raminachandran
Source: Goodreads

As a result, these types of stories are very popular among Tamil women because it allows them to live through these stories. 

Cultural and linguistic significance in anthropology

Tamil, being one of the oldest recorded languages in linguistic history, has a diverse library of literature. With commentaries on ethics and struggles, to songs depicting the beauty of nature before the rise of demolition of the environment, Tamil literature gives us a deep insight into the values of South Asian culture. Some of these values are still appraised today. In retrospect, the Tamil people were seemingly advanced in terms of thought and transcribing it into literature. The exploration of this language allows for a better understanding of the Tamil culture and its customs. 

In addition, there is linguistic significance when looking at the history of Tamil literature as well. Though most, if not all, literature from the 6th Century BCE does not remain today, it is still evident that the Tamil people took time to record their thoughts. The Tamil ancestors decided that their language was important enough for them to document. It is as if they knew future generations would come to relish and expand upon this language. This documentation allows those today to learn the language, with many references available for the expansion of knowledge.

A map of the world, depicting the countiries in which Tamil is spoken.
Source: Visually

Result of expanding language 

As a result of this willingness to expand the language and continue the culture, approximately 76 million people belong to the Tamil population. With technological advances in modern society, we can access the ideas that generations from more than 2000 years ago, observe how they have shaped our society. Therefore, with the documentation of the Tamil language, we can understand that: 

Tamil is one of the few living classical languages and has an unbroken literary tradition of over two millennia. The high level of diglossia exhibited by Tamil, and the prestige accorded to classical Tamil, have resulted in much of the vocabulary and forms of classical Tamil being preserved in modern literary Tamil, such that the higher registers of literary Tamil tend towards the classical language. The classical language also forms an important part of Tamil-medium education: verses from the Tirukkural, a classical work, are, for example, taught in primary school. The ordinary form of the modern language used in speech and writing, in contrast, has undergone significant changes, to the extent that a person who has not learnt the higher literary form will have difficulty understanding it.


With 247 characters in the language, Tamil literature can portray the complexities of its language through its literary works. 


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