Tamil Literature

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Tamil Literature


the literature of the Tamils, dating from the beginning of the Common Era.

The earliest works of Tamil literature included love lyrics and the poetry collections Eight Anthologies and Ten Songs, which described the rural and urban life of the ancient Tamils, the wanderings of poets, and the valor of kings. The rules for ancient Tamil poetry, which was similar to folklore, were fixed in the Tolkappiyam, the earliest Tamil grammatical treatise written in verse. The Tirukkural and Nalatiyar, collections of aphoristic poetry, date from the middle of the first millennium A.D. Buddhism and Jainism influenced Tamil narrative poems of the second half of the first millennium, including Cilappatikaram (The Jeweled Anklet), Manimekalai, Civakacintamani, Valayapadi, and Kundalakesi; the last two works survived only in fragments.

The narrative poem Ramayana by Kampan (10th and 11th centuries), as well as other adapted works depicting Tamil mythological figures, were no longer mere imitations but depicted traditional Tamil life. Ottakkuttan (12th century) and Puhajendi (13th and 14th centuries) developed the genre of court poetry. An artificial, bombastic style of prose and poetry that combined Tamil and Sanskrit became prevalent.

The development of Shivaism and Vishnuism within Hinduism gave rise to an extensive bhakti literature beginning in the seventh and eighth centuries. Works of bhakti literature from this period included the anthology Four Thousand Sacred Hymns, revered today by the Vishnuites as much as the Vedas, and Twelve Sacred Collections, most of whose material was compiled by Nambiyandar Nambi approximately in the 11th century. Similar works were the poetry of Sambandar (seventh century) and of Appar and Cuntarar (eighth century), the poetry collection Sacred Words by Manikkavacakar (ninth century), and Periyapuranam by Cekkilar (12th century). Later outstanding religious poets included Arunakirinatar (15th century), Sivaprahasar (17th century), and Tayumanavar (18th century).

The 19th century was a period of important developments in Tamil culture. Ideas of enlightenment became prevalent, and interest in national culture and literature increased. The first Tamil magazine, Tamil Patrika, began publication in 1831, and the first newspaper, Svadesa-mittiran, in 1880. Traditional poetry was renewed. Tamil prose literature, first written during the 17th and 18th centuries, became an independent genre in the 19th century. One of the founders of Tamil prose was Vedanayakam Pillai (1826–89), who wrote the first Tamil novel, Piratapa Mutaliyar Carittiram (1879). Other outstanding novelists were B. Rajam Aiyar (1872–98) and A. Madhaviah (1874–1926).

The first Tamil short stories were translations and adaptations of works by Western European short-story writers. Original short stories expressing anticolonial views were written by S. Aiyar (1881–1925) and Madhaviah. The early Tamil prose works were based on enlightened realism. A prominent poet of the early 20th century was Subrahmanya Bharati (1882–1921), whose works contained patriotic, anticolonial, and antifeudal motifs. Bharati was one of the first Indian writers to hail the October Socialist Revolution, in the short poem “The New Russia” (1918).

An important role in the development of 20th-century Tamil literature was played by the literary and artistic journals Ananda Vikatan (since 1924), Kalayimahal (since 1931), and Kalki (since 1941). The prose writer Kalki (1899–1954) wrote the first Tamil historical novel, Beloved Son of Kaveri (1947–48), and the first Tamil socially oriented novel, The Sound of Waves (1953). Outstanding prose works of the mid-20th century have included the socially oriented novels of daily life by R. A. Mahadevan (1913–57); novels written during the 1950’s and 1960’s by M. Varadarajan (1912–73), including A Lump of Coal; and the novella A Woman’s Heart (1952) and the novel The Neighbor’s House by S. Tirupurasundari (born 1921).

Other outstanding Tamil prose works of the 20th century have been the psychological novel An Anxious Heart (1953) by Akilan (born 1923); the prose writings of C. Rakunathan (born 1923), who translated works by M. Gorky; and works by D. Jeyakan-than (born 1934), including novellas, short stories, and the novel Different Times, Different People (1973). Prominent Tamil short-story writers have included Putumaippittan (1906–48), K. V. Jagannathan (born 1906), N. Pichamurti (born 1901), T. Janakiraman (born 1921), and G. Ajahirisami (born 1923).

Tamil dramaturgy has been influenced by Ibsen and Chekhov. Character depiction has become more realistic and psychologically accurate. Plays written for radio broadcasting by such playwrights as B. S. Ramaiya have helped establish the genre of the one-act drama.

Associations of Tamil writers in New Delhi, Bombay, and Calcutta publish literary and artistic periodicals. The Tamil Association of Colombo has functioned since 1941. Tamil literature has influenced the literatures of other peoples of Southern India.


Smirnova, I. “Kratkii ocherk razvitiia tamil’skoi literatury (do kontsa XIX v.).” In Literatury Indii. Moscow, 1958.
Pillai Vaiyapuri, S. History of Tamil Language and Literature. Madras, 1956.
Meenakshisundaram, T. P. A History of Tamil Literature. Annamalainagar, 1965.
Kailasapathy, K. Tamil Heroic Poetry. Oxford, 1968.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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