CLASSICAL TAMIL LITERATURE originated in the Sangam age which falls approximately between 300 BC and 500 AD. The Sangam period is known as the Golden Age of Tamil Literature. A.K.Ramanujan (1929-1993) the pioneering translator of the Akananuru in 1967 wrote “there is not much else in Indian Literature equal to these quiet and dramatic Tamil Poems”.
He also wrote “These poems are not just the earliest evidence of the Tamil genius. The Tamil in all their 2000 years of literary effort wrote nothing better”.
The Sangam literature which was in palm leaf manuscript were lost and forgotten for several centuries before they were brought to light by Tamil scholars like Arumuga Navalar, S.V. Thamotharanpillai, and U.V.Swaminatha Iyer in the 19th century coinciding with the arrival of the printing press in South India.
They collected and cataloged old manuscripts which were in a state of deterioration, found in parts of Tamil Nadu and Jaffna. It is even said that what were lost is equal to or even more than what was discovered by these scholars. The published works amount to more than one hundred.
Together in all, these pioneers printed and published the Tolkapiyam Natchinarkiniyar Urai in 1895, the Tolkapiyam Senavaraiyar Urai in 1868, Manimekalai in 1898, Silapadikaram in 1889, Pathupattu in 1889 Puranuru in 1894 all with extensive commentaries.
Though the sangam works were of a much earlier age (300BC – 500AD) They were categorized and compiled during the 3rd Sangam period which centered in Madurai in the 10th century AD. The Sangam literature were bought under two categories –
- The major Eighteen Anthologies comprising the Eight Anthologies (Edduthokai) and the Ten Idylls (Pathupattu)
- The Major Eighteen Anthologies. The Thirukural was included in this category.
The two pillars on which Greek classical literature stands is the Iliad and the Odyssey. Old Greek language is no more and the modern Greek language is distinctly different. Linguistic experts consider ancient Greek as a dead language, but the belief that new one is a continuation of the old still persist among Greek nationalists. Ancient Greek had more letters and different pronunciations. Modern Greek has a simplified grammar and alphabet. You can guess what is meant in the ancient Greek but if you try to translate, it may lead to very grave mistakes.
Tamil is the oldest language in the world which is spoken by a large number of people all over the world. It has an unbroken literary tradition, the grammatical systems which is the backbone of the language like that of Greek, Latin, Persian, Sanskrit, Chinese and Arabic, Tamil is the only classical language with a very rich literary heritage that spans more than 2500 years or more. It is one of the 20 language of the world that is spoken by millions in several countries.
The Tolkapiyam, the oldest extant Tamil grammatical work makes 150 acknowledgement of indebtedness to earlier predecessors who belonged to the first and second sangams. Alexander Dubiansky, veteran Tamil scholar of Moscow State University says that the author of the Tolkapiyam is a “man of great intellect, deep thought and open mind” and that the “Tolkapiyam is a literary and cultural monument of great importance”.
George L.Hart who holds the endowed chair in the University of California, Berkeley read extensively in Greeks, Latin, Sanskrit and Tamil says that Tamil literature has an unparalleled record of originality and literary merit and is fit to stand as an equal of any literary tradition.
Tamil phonology consists only of 30 primary and 3 secondary sounds, most of them so simple to be easily pronounceable. This number can be easily reduced to 31 as 2 of the secondary sounds are allophones of the vowels i and u . Phonologically speaking it is the simplest of the classical languages. The Tamil language, the oldest of them all has stuck to its beginnings and continues to preserve its pristine state due to its grammar and literary tradition.
The foregoing averments are evident in the structure of the Kural which follows the ancient traditions but continues to be modern. The vitality of the Kural represents the vitality and inventive capacity to suit the time without a break in the long traditions. A study of the Kural from this stand point is a very profitable investment.