Ancient and Unique Nature of Tamil – Part 1


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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.

Tamil Etymology:
What does the word Tamil mean? Let’s have a look at the Tamil Lexicon entry for the word Tamil.

தமிழ் tamiḻ
, 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[1] is connected with

  • tami – ‘solitude;loneliness’–> ‘solitariness,uniqueness’ or
  • tam- sweet , il- sound –> our sweet sound or
  • Tamir ‘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[2].

Epigraphic Evidences:

There are at least 11 sites with Tamil Brahmi script dated to 2nd century B.C[3].
The following sites are listed by Iravatham Mahadevan to be dated to 2nd Century B.C. with Tamil Brahmi scripts,

1. Mangulam
2. Arittapatti
3. Tiruvadavur
4. Kilavalavu
5. Kongarpuliyankulam
6. Marukaltalai
7. Varichiyur
8. Vikkiramangalam
9. Mettupatti
10. Karungalakkudi
11. Mudalaikulam

Adichanallu excavations have brought to light rudimentary Brahmi scripts, approximately dated to 500 B.C.[4], 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.

Part 2 – Sanskrit the magic wand?

Part 3 – Unique nature of Tamil

Foot Notes:

[1] Etymology of Tamil is discussed in detail by Dr.Zvelebil in his Companion studies to History of Tamil History, pg. ix-xvii
[2] The Smile of Murugan: On Tamil Literature of South India by Kamil Zvelebil, pg. 4-5
[3] Early Tamil Epigraphy: From the Earliest Times to the Sixth Century A.D. by Iravatham Mahadevan, pg.97

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


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  1. Hi,

    Does Tamil also mean Tham + ill (gross translation meaning “inside yourself”)?

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  3. Verey useful. I want to know about the availabillity of English translations of all Sangam works.

  4. Hi vairam,

    When u say that tamil brahmi script was borrowed from northern brahmi, does the question “why not otherwise?” comes to ur mind??

    Becoz, it is reasonably proved nowadays that Indus script is dravidian and the Indus seals are found in Tamil nadu also…

    So, i propose that tamil had a writing tradition since very long back.. Then the brahmi evolved…Then carried to north…

    It is well known that “shruti” was practised in sanskrit for a long period.. It could be their contact with Tamils which led them to “smriti” system…

    My doubt is…The earliest tamil work is tholkappiyam… It is not an “ilakkiyam”….But an “ilakkanam”… which cant be easily transmitted just by oral tradition… You date it as 2-3 rd century BC….But u say that tamils followed asoka’s northern brahmi frm 200 bc only…
    Munnukku pin muraNaaha uLLathey???

    Does it occur that… A grammar book cant be the beginning of a classical era???
    considering the scholarliness of Tholkappiyam and the research he had done on tamil…The CLASSICAL tamil shud itself have been for 100s of yrs b4 that, leave alone the age of Kodunthamizh…

  5. “When u say that tamil brahmi script was borrowed from northern brahmi, does the question “why not otherwise?” comes to ur mind??”
    this is not what i say – please refer workd Of iravtham Mahadevan- who has done extensive work and is also an expert in Indus alphabets…
    “Becoz, it is reasonably proved nowadays that Indus script is dravidian and the Indus seals are found in Tamil nadu also…”
    resonably proved is a very big over statement – what is now confirmed is possibility that it might have common references with Dravdian- this is not universally accepted theory

    “So, i propose that tamil had a writing tradition since very long back.. Then the brahmi evolved…Then carried to north…”
    Tamils might have had their own indegenious writing but that doesnt say anythign about brahmi being south india… we can write tamil in any script…most ppl have resoted to writing tamil ine nglish scripts these days… tamil has been written in brahmi,grantha,vattelthu and present systems… so connecting languae to script is not a valid argument…

    “My doubt is…The earliest tamil work is tholkappiyam… It is not an “ilakkiyam”….But an “ilakkanam”… which cant be easily transmitted just by oral tradition… You date it as 2-3 rd century BC….But u say that tamils followed asoka’s northern brahmi frm 200 bc only…”

    Tholkappiyam is oldest literature available dated to 100 BC. There have been more earlier literatures but not avilable ot us and lost. Literature again has no conenction to script.. as you know most indian languages for oral and had oral literatures…mahabartha and ramayana and even vedas were oral literatures before being penned down centuries later. This very well could be treu about Tamil Literature… writing in language always comes after literature… please have this basic understanding…

    “A grammar book cant be the beginning of a classical era???”
    where have i mentioned that??? in my essay…I am talking here about literatures available to us…mapuranam and akkatiyam are lost but are considered older than tholkappiyam…essay based on history can be written only with what is available not with what can be speculated…

  6. Vairam,

    I saw your interview in about sanga illakiyam and it was excellent. Good Work !!

    With regard to the origin of Tamil, I would agree with you since we don’t have any work before Thollkappiyam with us to claim its antiquity.

    But on the other hand if we can gain knowledge on the evolution of classical languages like greek, latin, then we can relate it with tamil and get to a ballpark number. for example lets say if the first complete literature in latin (like Tholkappiyam) came in 4 century B.C and the oral origin is dated back to 9 century B.C, this tells it took 5 centuries for the language to evolve to fit in to a literary language.

    Similarly atleast if we can know the evolution of other classical languages we can relate that to tamil. This will not be the best way to date back the origin, but can give a new perspective and thought process. Because I seriously believe there should be atleast 6 – 8 centuries of evolution for Tamil before Tholkappiyam.

  7. Hi Vairam,
    You have been providing lot of information, which otherwise would take about years of study through several books. I also read interviews of Iravtham mahadevan. I also believed tamil brahmi scripts are borrowed from asokan brahmi. As per the evidence we have, oldest ashokan brahmi inscriptions is dated to 300 BC. But the new evidence from aadhichennellur excavation reveals that tamil (brahmi) scripts is dated to 500 BC (inscription on the pottery). I am sure you must have read this somewhere?. Can you throw some light on this.

  8. ”பிராமி “என்ற ஒரு எழுத்து முறையே கிடையாது.it was Tamil.இது தமிலி என வடமொழியாளர்களால் அழைக்கப்பட்டது.வட மொழி வாய் வழி பயன்பாடே எழுதப்படாதவை.எழுதாகிளவி என்பர்.எழுத்து முறையை உருவாக்கி பயன்படுத்தியது தமிழ்.அசோகர் தமிழ் மொழி எழுத்துக்களை பயன்படுத்தி(தமிழர்களிடம் பெற்று)வட மொழி எழுதினார்.தொல்காப்பியம் or திருக்குறளோ எழுத்துக்களை அழுத்தமாக உரைக்கின்றன. Tamil letters used to write northen language. (sanskrit, balli..) பிராமி என்ற பெயர் தொல்லியல் துறையில் பணி புரியும் சமஸ்கிருதத்தை ஆதரிப்பவர்களால் வழங்கப்பட்டது. தமிழ் மொழியின் தொன்மையை குறைப்பதற்கு தமிழை எழுத தமிழ் பிரமி வட மொழி எழுத வட பிரமி என தமிழை மறைக்க பிரமீடு கட்டிவிட்டார்கள்.அன்மையில் ஓமன் நாட்டில் கண்டெடுக்கப்பட்ட தமிழ் ஓட்டு சில்லை மிக பழமையான சான்று.

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