Ancient and Unique Nature of Tamil – Part 2


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Sanskrit the Magic Wand?

“All these literatures owed a great deal to Sanskrit, the magic wand of whose touch alone raised each of Dravidian Languages from the level of a patois to that of a literary idiom.”[5] – One of the most popular/controversial statement by great scholar K.A.N.Shastri.

Is this statement really true? was origins of Tamil dependent on Sanskrit?

Kamil Zvelebil accepts that this line of thought is true for languages like Kannada, Teleugu and Malayalam, but strongly believed that Tamil was an exception to this general view. George L.Hart with respect to Sanskrit influence on Tamil says “as I view the evidence, though there certainly was northern influence, Nilakantasastri has exaggerated its extent.”[6]

The beginning of Kannada Literature were almost inspired by Jainism.The first extant narrative literature is Sivakotti’s Vaddaradhane(900 A.D.) on lives of Jaina saints.The first theoretical treatise of Kannada culture Nrpatunga’s Kaviraajamarga is based on Dandhin’s Kavyadarsa. Pampa the first great poet and most eminent of classical Kannada literature is entirely indebted to Sanskrit and Pakrit sources in his version of Mahabaratha and Adipurana ,a work dealing with lives of first Jain Tirthankara.

Similar situation is found in Telugu. The first available literature is Nannaya’s translation of Mahabaratha(11th century). The first theoretical work on Telugu Culture, Janasrayachandas is written in a language more Sanskrit than Telugu(but contains meters peculiar to Telugu and hence indicates that probably there were Telugu compositions before Sanskritization).

Beginning of literature in Malayalam too is closely associated with High Sanskrit Literature.Unnuunili Sandesam of 14th century is based on Sanskrit Sandesa poems.The very language is maniparavalam which is high breed of Malayalam and Sanskrit, known as bhasasamskrtayogam.

On the other hand, in Dr.Zvelebil’s words “The earliest literature in Tamil is a model unto itself-it is absolutely unique in the sense that, in subject matter, thought-content ,or, if we want(though I dislike this term when talking about Literature),Dravidian. And not only that, it is only the Tamil Culture that has produced-uniquely so in India- an independent, indigenous literary theory of a very high standard,including metric and prosody,poetics and rhetoric.”[7]

George L Hart contends the claim that Early Tamil has lot of words of Sanskrit origins. This claim is due to the misconception that early Tamil Inscriptions is full of Pakrit words. How ever this misconception was clarified by detailed study by Iravatham Mahadevan [8], who has shown that the early tamil inscriptions had very few Pakrit words and they are relatively in pure Tamil, though with a slightly greater number of northern words than the anthologies. The fact that nearly all the early Tamil inscriptions are Jain cave inscriptions, we should take into account that the language used by Jain monks was Pakrit which has resulted in increase of northern words in inscriptions when compared to the literature.

J.V.Chelliah in his great work Ten Tamil Idylls (pathupaatu) says,” the Sanskrit words used in some of these poems(pathupaatu) are almost nil, while in others there is a progressive increase” [9].He has also estimated percentage of Sanskrit words in some works in Ten Idylls.

  • Pattinapaalai – .9% Sanskrit words
  • Mullaipaatu – 2.6% Sanskrit words
  • Kurunjipaatu – 1.31% Sanskrit words

Even in Thirumurgatrupadai,considered to be the last work of Sangam Literature with the heavy Aryan influence has only 30 Sanskrit words which is lesser than 2% of total words according to his estimate. Even in these 30 words such as min, taamarai and muttu are now known to be of Dravidian origin according to George L. Hart. Hart also goes on to say “A survey of Mahabaratha would, I believe, show a much higher percentage of Dravidian words”[10].

Dr.Hart also points out that Sanskrit words were not directly accepted; rather they were adapted to Tamil pronunciations. He says that there was a strong dislike for Sanskrit sounds. He gives the following examples.

  • rupa–>uruvam
  • sruti–>kelvi
  • veda–>marai
  • Kubera –> maa niti kilavan

He concludes his essay with the following statement,” Unlike the other Dravidian Languages, whose earliest works were written when Sanskrit influence was strong and are full of unchanged words form that language, Tamil Literature goes back to a period before northern literature had enough prestige in the South to be imitated there and to a time before northern institutions were so strong that they brought with them northern words.”[11]

Dr.Zvelebil observes that ” Tamil literature did not develop in a cultural vacuum, and that the evolution of the Tamil culture was not achieved either in isolation, or by simple cultural mutation. The very beginnings of Tamil Literature manifest clear traces of Aryan influence- just as the very beginnings of Indo-Aryan literature, the Rig vedic hymns, show traces of Dravidian influence.”[12]

Part1- Tamil origins and Ancient nature

Part 3 – Unique nature of Tamil

Foot Notes:

[5] A History of South India from prehistoric times to the fall of Vijayanagar by K.A.Nilakantasastri, pg.22
[6] Poems of Ancient Tamil: Their Milieu and Their Sanskrit Counterparts by George L. Hart, pg.11
[7] The Smile of Murugan: On Tamil Literature of South India by Kamil Zvelebil, pg. 4
[8] Early Tamil Epigraphy: From the Earliest Times to the Sixth Century A.D. by Iravatham Mahadevan
[9] Pattupattu: Ten Tamil Idylls by J.V. Chelliah, pg.12
[10] Poems of Ancient Tamil: Their Milieu and Their Sanskrit Counterparts by George L. Hart,pg.11-12
[11] ibid.,pg.12
[12] The Smile of Murugan : On Tamil Literature of South India by Kamil Zvelebil, pg. 11

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. Sir,

    Among the Dravidian tongues, Tamil is the oldest one mothering other
    dravidian groups. The non exitence of any literary evidence before
    the fifth century A.D. in other dravidian languages is a proof that they
    are the offshoots of Tamil. What is wrong in this? Tamil being the mother
    of all Dravidian languages is a natural one, nothing to worry on this

  2. Tamil was spoken by the people of decon with some variations.The influence of sanskrit totally changed kannada,telugu and malayalam languages.Instead of calling them the offshoot of tamil we should realise that they are tamil but influenced by sanskrit and lost their identity.Tamil is going the sameway as we are speaking the language mixing English.Urgent steps are needed to save the language.

  3. Greatly impressed with the query threads discussed in this site.

    Have any of you thought about a Tamil word to mean” use”,
    Eg. I use coconut oil etc.
    I learnt to say bavikkiren when I went to Malaysia, same for soukkaram for soap and so on..
    Let us learn to speak Tamil in Tamil, please. This will be the greatest ubakaram we do for ourselves and our children!

  4. Dear Admin,

    We have created a list of 700 sanskrit words which are used on a regular basis in day-to-day Tamil language in both spoken and written forms. We are in the process of updating this list.

    The file is available under the heading ‘Sanskrit Words in Tamil’ at the following address

    The list contains the equivalent of such words in Hindi and share similar phonetics. We are in the process of updating the corresponding words in Bengali, Gujarati, Marati etc.,

    The objective behind the above effort is to enable Tamil students to understand, how they are already familiar with words which are used in other languages ,as well. With a bit of extra effort, they can clearly master many other Indian languages. This would make them multi-lingual, which is a major draw back for anybody trying to pursue a career opportunity outside of Tamilnadu.

    Also the site contains opinions on Sanskrit by learned scholars like Dr. Abdulkalam, Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi and others.

    Since your site is focussed on Tamil and Sanskrit , we thought a review of the above effort by yourselves would enable reaching out to a larger audience.

    Thanks and Regards
    Sanskrit Roots.

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