Tamil is the oldest and purest of the four Dravidian languages, others being Kannada, Kodagu and Malayalam. Ancient Indian literature is not all about the Vedas; it’s about Sangam literature too. Tamil, the oldest and truest of the Dravidian speeches, boasts of this literary tradition of more than 2,200 years, the most remarkable body of secular poetry extant in India. While other pre-Aryan languages were happily courting Sanskrit and Prakrit, Old Tamil stood firm in its corner refusing to yield. However, the evolutionary story of the language and script are a controversy among scholars even today.
The Sangam compositions are anthologies of poems grouped into two - the Eight Collections (Ettuttokai) and the Ten Idyls (Pattu-p-pattu). There are also few individual long narrative poems (Kavyas). Based on two distinct themes, akam (romantic) and puram (martial), the poems are replete with imageries of seasons, places, plants and animals, enabling scholars to know the world of these ancient poets. The literary output until about 500 AD is simply amazing.
By the next century, Shaiva (in praise of Shiva) and Vaishanva (in praise of Vishnu) writers began rising from sleep, leading to a religious renaissance. It was the turn of devotional literature to hog the limelight. The corpuses of Shaiva hymns, sung until today, were compiled in Tirumurarais (early 11th century). The Vaishnava saints lay the foundation of the Bhakti cult not only for South India (500-1000AD), but also for the whole of India. Their songs were put together in the colossal Nal-ayira-p-pirapantam, also known as the ‘Book of 4000 Hymns’.
Some of the great Tamil poets lived in the times of the mighty Chola kings (10th-13th centuries), a period of literary revival. Kampan’s Ramayana is the best in Tamil until today. Ottakkuttan wrote the Uttara Kanda, the last canto of the Ramayana. Pukazhenti popularized the Mahabharata with his simple adaptations in Tamil, and Chayam Kontar wrote a long war poem 'Kalingattu Parani', in the Sangam style. Didactic works, grammatical treatises and lexicons were produced from time to time by Jain writers.
Age of Commentaries On Sangam Poetry & Sanskrit Literature
After the literary revival, it was the age of learned commentaries on Sangam poetry, Shaiva and Vaishnava philosophies, and literature influenced by Sanskrit. Some of these were the esteemed Bharatham by Villiputthurar, Thiruppuhazh (hymns) by Arunagirinathar and translations of many Puranas. Some brilliant stray verses of this period have been collected in late anthologies, like Kalamegham, Satthimutthapulavar and Padikkasu Thambiran. European Christian missionaries also took to Tamil in the 16th century, and the first book was printed in 1579. Muslim poets like Sakkari Pulavar and Umaru Pulavar brought new themes in Tamil writings in the 18th century.
Modern Tamil Literature
A modern trend in Tamil literature began in the 19th century by a group of writers influenced by English, Vedanayakam Pillai being among them who wrote the first original novels and dramas. A literary giant of the 20th century was Subramania Bharathi, whose poems and patriotic songs are well known. Although the development of prose has been pretty slow, the historical romances of C R Srinivasa Aiyangar, social novels like Padmavati and Vijaya Marttandam of A. Madhavayya, Kamalambal by Rajam Iyer and S. Venkataramani’s Murugam are prominent. The short story was popularized by V V S Iyer and Rajaji, while Sambanda Mudaliar’s adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays contributed to Tamil drama greatly.