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Topics in Sangam literature
Sangam literature
Akattiyam Tholkāppiyam
Eighteen Greater Texts
Eight Anthologies
Aiṅkurunūṟu Akanāṉūṟu
Puṟanāṉūṟu Kalittokai
Kuṟuntokai Natṟiṇai
Paripāṭal Patiṟṟuppattu
Ten Idylls
Tirumurukāṟṟuppaṭai Kuṟiñcippāṭṭu
Malaipaṭukaṭām Maturaikkāñci
Mullaippāṭṭu Neṭunalvāṭai
Paṭṭiṉappālai Perumpāṇāṟṟuppaṭai
Poruṇarāṟṟuppaṭai Ciṟupāṇāṟṟuppaṭai
Eighteen Lesser Texts
Nālaṭiyār Nāṉmaṇikkaṭikai
Iṉṉā Nāṟpatu Iṉiyavai Nāṟpatu
Kār Nāṟpatu Kaḷavaḻi Nāṟpatu
Aintiṇai Aimpatu Tiṉaimoḻi Aimpatu
Aintinai Eḻupatu Tiṉaimalai Nūṟṟu Aimpatu
Tirukkuṛaḷ Tirikaṭukam
Ācārakkōvai Paḻamoḻi Nāṉūṟu
Ciṟupañcamūlam Mutumoḻikkānci
Elāti Kainnilai
Related topics
Sangam Sangam landscape
Tamil history from Sangam literature Ancient Tamil music

The Tholkāppiyam (Tamil: தொல்காப்பியம், literally Paleo-literature) is a work on the grammar of the Tamil language and the earliest extant work of Tamil literature[1] and linguistics. It is composed in the form of noorpaas or short formulaic compositions and comprises three books – the Ezhuttadikaram ("Eluthu" meaning letter), the Solladikaram ("Sol" meaning word) and the Poruladikaram ("Porul" meaning definition). Each of these books is further divided into nine chapters each. While the exact date of the work is not known, based on linguistic and other evidences, it has been dated variously between the 6th century and the 3rd century BCE. Some modern scholars prefer to date it not as a single entity but in parts or layers.[2] There is also no firm evidence to assign the authorship of this treatise to any one author.

Tholkappiyam deals with orthography, phonology, morphology, semantics, prosody and the subject matter of literature. The Tholkāppiyam classifies the Tamil language into chentamil and koduntamil. The former refers to the classical Tamil spoken by the speakers of the heartland of the ancient Tamil land and employed almost exclusively in literary works and the latter refers to the dialectal Tamil, spoken by the people in the various fringe regions of ancient Tamilagam.[3]

Tholkappiyam categorises the Tamil alphabet into consonants and vowels by analysing the syllables. It grammatises the use of words and syntaxes and moves into higher modes of language analysis. The Tholkāppiyam formulated thirty phonemes and three dependent sounds for Tamil.


The name of the work derives from the author's name Tolkāppiyan as was the convention in the ancient Tamil land, for example, we find treatise names such as Palkāppiyam authored by Palkāppiyanār, Palkāyam authored by Palkāyanār (cited in the commentary of Tolkāppiyam:porul:650), Avinayam authored by Avinayanār (cited in the commentary to Nannūl:369 by Mayilainatar).The prefatory verse ("Pāyiram") itself ("தொல்காப்பியன் எனத் தற்பெயர் தோற்றி") and its traditional commentaries such as Ilampuranam also clearly state that the author's name is Tolkāppiyan with the commentators Ilampuranar and Naccinārkkiniyar both glossing the above line as "forming his own name as One Who belongs to the ancient Kappiyam lineage" ("பழைய காப்பியக்குடியிலுள்ளோந் எனத் தன்பெயரை மாயாமல் நிறுத்தி" - Naccinārkkiniyar).

In contrast to the above, some try to derive Tolkāppiyam from the combination of two words: Tonmai ("ancientness") and kāppiyam ("literature").

The derivation of Tolkāppiyam from the root words is as per the rules defined in Nannūl verse 136.[4]

ஈறு போதல் இடையுகரம் இய்யாதல்
ஆதி நீடல் அடியகரம் ஐயாதல்
தன்னொற்றிரட்டல் முன்னின்ற மெய்திரிதல்
இனமிகல் இணையவும் பண்பிற்கியல்பே

நன்னூல் - 136

தொன்மை + காப்பியம்
"ஈறு போதல்" என்னும் விதிப்படி
தொன்மை + காப்பியம்
தொன் + காப்பியம்

"முன்னின்ற மெய்திரிதல்" என்னும் விதிப்படி
தொன்ல் + காப்பியம்
தொல் + காப்பியம்

Last one goes away, Middle "U" becomes "E"

First one elongates, Bottom "A" becomes "AI"
Similar ones doubles, Previous consonant changes
Same clan increases, joins, all these are characteristics
Nannul – 136

Tonmai + Kappiam

As per rule "Last one goes"
Tonmai + Kappiam
Ton + Kappiam
As per rule "previous consonant changes"
Tonl + kappiam
Tol + kappiam


The author of Tolkappiyam is addressed as Tholkappiar and he was a disciple of Sage Agastya.[citation needed] Sage Agastya (Akathiyar in Tamil) was also author of older hymns of Rig Veda. Using the age of Rig Veda, age of Sage Agastya can be established and using age of Sage Agastya, age of Tholkappiar and Tholkappiam can be established. Dating using this method would yield dates around 1500 BCE with assumption that Agastya didn't live for more than 200 years.

The dating of the Tolkappiyam has been debated much, and it is still imprecise and uncertain[5][6][7] and has seen wide disagreements amongst scholars in the field.[7][8][9] The work has been dated variously between the 5th century BCE and the 3rd century CE.[5][7][8]

The antediluvian datings stemmed mostly from a descriptive commentary in an 8th-century work called Iraiyanar AgapporuL, about the existence of three Tamil Academies; they have now been rejected as being devoid of any archeological/linguistic evidence.[8][9] The disagreements now center around divergent dates from the 3rd century BCE or later,[5][8][10] with one estimate (by a botanist-author) being as late as the 10th century CE.[7] Some scholars prefer to date it not as a single entity but in parts or layers which are estimated as written between the 3rd century BCE and the 5th century CE.[2]

Dates proposed

  • Iravatham Mahadevan, an Indian epigraphist, argues that epigraphy sets an upper limit of around the 7th[11] century CE on the date of the Tolkappiyam, on the basis that the Tolkappiyam is familiar with the use of the puḷḷi – a diacritical mark to distinguish pure consonants from consonants with an inherent vowel – which does not occur in inscriptions before that time.[12]
  • Vaiyapuri Pillai, the author of the Tamil lexicon, dated Tolkappiyam to not earlier than the 5th or 6th century CE.[5][13]
  • Kamil V. Zvelebil, a Czech Indologist specialised in the Dravidian languages, dates the core of Tolkappiyam to pre-Christian era.[14]
  • Robert Caldwell, a 19th-century Presbyterian missionary turned linguist, who prepared the first comparative grammar of the Dravidian languages, maintains that all extant Tamil literature can only be dated to what he calls the Jaina cycle which he dates to the 8th to 13th centuries CE.[9] However, Caldwell did not have the benefit of reviewing a large section of ancient Tamil literature (including ancient texts such as the Tamil: பத்துப்பாட்டு paththuppaattu and Tamil: புறநானூறு puranaanooru) that were later uncovered and published by C. V. Thamotharampillai and U. V. Swaminatha Iyer.
  • Takanobu Takahashi, a Japanese Indologist, argues that the Tolkappiyam has several layers with the oldest dating to 1st or 2nd century CE, and the newest and the final redaction dating to the 5th or 6th century CE.[8]
  • T. R. Sesha Iyengar, a scholar of Dravidian literature and history, estimates the date when the Tolkappiyam has been composed to lie "before the Christian era".[15]
  • Dr. Gift Siromoney, an expert on ancient languages and epigraphy, estimates the date of Tolkappiyam to be around the period of Asoka (c. 300 BCE), based on an analysis of the Tamil Brahmi inscriptions found at Anaimalai in Tamil Nadu.[16]
  • V. S. Rajam, a linguist specialised in Old Tamil, in her book A Reference Grammar of Classical Tamil Poetry: 150 B.C.–pre-Fifth/Sixth Century A.D. dates it to "pre-fifth century AD".[17]
  • Herman Tieken, a Dutch scholar, who endeavours to trace the influence of the Sanskrit Kavya tradition on the entire Sangam corpus, argues that the Tolkappiyam dates from the 9th century CE at the earliest. He arrives at this conclusion by treating the Tolkappiyam and the anthologies of Sangam literature as part of a 9th-century Pandyan project to raise the prestige of Tamil as a classical language equal to Sanskrit, and assigning new dates to the traditionally accepted dates for a vast section of divergent literature (Sangam literature, post-Sangam literature and Bhakti literature like Tevaram).[10] Hermen Tieken's work has, however, been criticised on fundamental, methodological, and other grounds by G.E. Ferro-Luzzi, George Hart and Anne Monius.[18][19][20]
  • A C Burnell, a 19th-century Indologist who contributed seminally to the study of Dravidian languages was of the view that the Tolkappiyam could not be dated to "much later than the eighth century."[21]


Tholkapiyam was written by Tholkappiyar, a disciple of Vedic sage Agastya[22]. Since Agathiam, the grammar compiled by Agastya, went missing after a great deluge, Tholkappiyar was asked to compile Tamil grammar.[23][24]

Tamil palm-leaf manuscript of Tolkāppiyam


Starting in the 11th or 12th century CE, several commentaries came to light. Of these, the one by Ilampuranar dated to the 11th or 12th century CE is considered one of the best and most comprehensive. This was followed by a commentary dateable to 1275 CE by Senavaraiyar which, however, dealt only with the Sollathikaram. A commentary by Perasiriyar which is heavily indebted to the Nannūl followed. This commentary which can be dated to the 12th or 13th century CE, if not later, frequently quotes from the Dandiyalankaram and Yapparunkalam, the former being a standard medieval rhetorica and the latter being a detailed treatise on Tamil prosody. Naccinarkiniyar's commentary, which can be dated to the 14th if not the 15th or 16th century follows. Naccinarkiniyar, himself being a scholar of both Tamil and Sanskrit quotes from Parimelalakar's works. Teyvaccilaiyar's commentary follows in the 16th or 17th century. Finally, the latest available commentary, that of Kallatar comes to light. Of these commentaries, those of "Ilampooranar", "Deivachilaiyaaar" and "Natchinaarkiniyar" is regarded highly and the triumvarate are also called "Urai-asiriyargal".[25]


The Tolkāppiyam consists of three books each of which is divided into 9 chapters. The books are called athikaarams. The three books are

I. Ezhuththathigaaram – Formation of words and combination of words. II. Sollathigaaram – Syntax. III. Porulathigaaram – Conveying thoughts.

I. Ezhuththathigaaram

Ezhuththathigaaram is further subdivided into the following 9 sections – Nuul Marabu, Mozhi Marabu, PiRappiyal, PuNaRiyal, Thokai Marabu, Urupiyal, Uyir Mayangiyal, PuLLi Mayangiyal and the Kutriyalukara PunaRiyal.

  1. Nuul Marabu – (the contents of the section) சொல்லதிகாரம்This
  2. Mozhi Marabu – (the contents of the section) This section defines rules which specify where in a word can a letter not occur and which letter can not come after a particular letter. It also describes elision, which is the reduction in the duration of sound of a phoneme when preceded by or followed by certain other sounds. The rules are well-defined and unambiguous. They are categorised into 5 classes based on the phoneme which undergoes elision.
    1. Kutriyalugaram – the (lip unrounded) vowel sound u
    2. Kutriyaligaram – the vowel sound i(as the vowel in 'lip')
    3. Aiykaarakkurukkam – the diphthong ai
    4. Oukaarakkurukkam – the diphthong au
    5. Aaythakkurukkam – the special character (aaytham)
  3. PiRappiyal (The content of the section) – This is a section on articulatory phonetics. It talks about pronunciation methods of the phonemes at the level of diaphragm, larynx, jaws, tongue position, teeth, lips and nose. The visual representation of the letters is also explained.
  4. PuNaRiyal (The content of the section) The structural combination of words. (This section talks about the changes to words due to the following word i.e. it specifies rules that govern the transformations on the last phonem of a word (nilaimozhi iiRu) because of the first phonem of the following word (varumozhi muthal) when used in a sentence.)
  5. Thokai Marabu – Combination of words based on meaning.
  6. Urubiyal – Combination of words with case-ending along with euphony particles. (This section talks about the word modifiers that are added at the end of nouns and pronouns when they are used as an object as opposed to when they are used as subjects.)
  7. Uyir Mayangiyal – Combination of words with an initial vowel-phonetic upon vowel-ending.
  8. Pulli Mayangiyal – Combination of words with an initial consonant-phonetic upon consonant-ending. (Pulli concept is one of the distinguishing feature among the Tamil characters. Although it is not unique and brahmi also has pulli. It is distinguished by placement. According to tolkappiam which talks about pulli and its position, that is on top of the alphabet instead of side as in Brahmi. This is also one of the characteristics of Tamil brahmi according to Mr. Mahadevan. The first inscription of this type of pulli is in Vallam by Pallvas dated to the 7th or 8th century CE by Mahendra Varman Pallava.)
  9. Kutriyalukara PunaRiyal – Combination of words with an initial vowel-phonetic upon the shortened 'u' vowel-ending.

II. Sollathigaaram

Sollathigaaram deals with words and parts of speech. It classifies Tamil words into four categories – iyar chol (words in common usage), thiri chol (words used in Tamil literature), vada chol (words borrowed from Sanskrit), thisai chol (words borrowed from other languages. There are certain rules to be adhered to in borrowing words from Sanskrit. The borrowed words need to strictly conform to the Tamil phonetic system and be written in the Tamil script.

The chapter Sollathigaaram is subdivided into the following 9 sections –

, VEtRumaiyiyal, VEtrumaimayangial, ViLimaRabu, Peyariyal, Vinaiyiyal, Idaiyiyal, Uriyiyal and the Echchaviyal.

KiLaviyaakkam– KiLaviyaakkam literally translates to word formation. This section deals with syntax correlation between subject and predicate in gender, number, person etc.

  1. VEtRumaiyiyal – Role of case in syntax.
  2. VEtrumaimayangial – some case-suffix denote other case-meaning
  3. ViLimarabu – Formation of vocative case
  4. Peyariyal – This section deals with nouns
  5. Vinaiyiyal – This section deals with verbs
  6. Idaiyiyal – Partial words of prefix and suffix and their formation in syntax
  7. Uriyiyal – This literally translates to the nature
  8. Echchaviyal – Other points to be considered in syntax-formation.

III. Porulathigaaram

The Porulathigaaram gives the classification of land types, and seasons and defines modes of life for each of the combinations of land types and seasons for different kinds of people. This chapter is subdivided into the following 9 sections – AkaththiNaiyiyal, PuRaththiNaiyiyal, KaLaviyal, KaRpiyal, PoruLiyal, Meyppaattiyal, Uvamayiyal, SeyyuLiyal and the Marabiyal.

  1. AkaththiNaiyiyal – This section defines the modes of personal life i.e. life of couples.
  2. PuRaththiNaiyiyal – This section defines the modes of one's public life.
  3. KaLaviyal – Who and how expose the secret love
  4. KaRpiyal – Behavior of the 'United couples'
  5. PoruLiyal – How the couples expose themselves and how the kin and kith correlate with them.
  6. Meyppaattiyal – Impact of feelings, a psychological views exposed in ancient literatures.
  7. Uvamayiyal – The name Uvamayiyal literally translates to the nature or science of metaphors.
  8. SeyyuLiyal – This section deals with a grammar for classical Tamil Poetry based on principles of prosody.
  9. Marabiyal – Hereditary Tamil language

Other claims

There are two verses given in support of Tholkappiar's religious outlook.[26] Some made controversial and unconfirmed observation in Sangam poems that there is relatively meager reference given to religion in general. In the akam songs, Tholkappiar has made reference to deities in the different land divisions: Thirumal for mullai, Murugan for kurinji, Indhiran for marutham, Varunan, for neithal and Korravai for palai.[citation needed]

Alexander Dubyanskiy, veteran Tamil scholar from Moscow State University stated “I am sure that Tolkappiyam is a work which demanded not only vast knowledge and a lot of thinking but a considerable creative skill from its composer.” Dr. Dubyanskiy also said that the authority of the text was undeniable. “It is a literary and cultural monument of great importance.”[27]

See also


  1. ^ * Zvelebil, Kamil. 1973. The smile of Murugan on Tamil literature of South India. Leiden: Brill. - Zvelebil dates the Ur-Tholkappiyam to the 1st or 2nd century BCE
  2. ^ a b Ramaswamy, Vijaya (1993). "Women and Farm Work in Tamil Folk Songs". Social Scientist. Social Scientist. 21 (9/11): 113–129. doi:10.2307/3520429. JSTOR 3520429. As early as the Tholkappiyam (which has sections ranging from the 3rd century BC to the 5th century AD) the eco-types in South India have been classified into ...
  3. ^ According to later commentators, there were twelve regions (panniru nilam) which were the sources of the dialectisms. Zvelebil, Smile of Murugan, p 132.
  4. ^ Nannūl by Pavanandhi Munivar
  5. ^ a b c d Zvelebil, Kamil (1973)
  6. ^ Takahashi, Takanobu (1995). "2. Erudite works". Tamil Love Poetry & Poetics. Leiden; New York; Cologne: Brill. p. 16. ISBN 90-04-10042-3. The date of Tol[kappiyam] has been variously proposed as lying between 5320 B.C. and the 8th Cent. A.D.
  7. ^ a b c d The Date of the Tolkappiyam: A Retrospect." Annals of Oriental Research (Madras), Silver Jubilee Volume: 292–317
  8. ^ a b c d e Takahashi, Takanobu (1995). "2. Erudite works". Tamil Love Poetry & Poetics. Leiden; New York; Cologne: Brill. p. 18. ISBN 90-04-10042-3. These agreements may probably advance the lower limit of the date for Tol[kappiyam], but do not mean more recently than the 5th Cent. A.D., as suggested by some critics such as S. Vaiyapuri Pillai [...]
  9. ^ a b c Caldwell, Robert (1974)
  10. ^ a b Tieken, Herman Joseph Hugo. 2001. Kāvya in South India: old Tamil Caṅkam poetry. Groningen: Egbert Forsten.
  11. ^ "Varalaaru – A Portal For South Asian History".
  12. ^ "This theoretical deduction is also confirmed by the actual occurrences of Pulli from about the end of the Arikamedu Period (Century 200 AD) [...] The age of the invention of the Puḷḷi has a bearing on the date of Tolkappiyam which is quite familiar with the device.Mahadevan, Iravatham (1970). "Tamil Brahmi Inscriptions". "State Dept. of Archaeology. Govt. of Tamilnadu: 6–7. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  13. ^ Vaiyapuri Pillai, S. 1956. History of Tamil language and literature; beginning to 1000 A.D.. Madras: New Century Book House.
  14. ^ Zvelebil, Kamil (1973). The Smile of Murugan: On Tamil Literature of South India. Brill Academic Publishers. p. 137. ISBN 90-04-03591-5. As we will see later, Tolkkapiyam, the core of which may be assigned to pre-Christian era, consists perhaps of many layers, some of which may be much earlier than others
  15. ^ Sesha Iyengar, T.R., Dravidian India by , Madras, 1925, Asian Educational Services, 31 Hauz Khas Village, New Delhi 110016, reprinted 1995, pp 156.
  16. ^ Dr. Gift Siromoney, Origin of the Tamil-Brahmi script, Seminar on "ORIGIN EVOLUTION AND REFORM OF THE TAMIL SCRIPT", pp. 21–29, The Institute of Traditional Cultures, University Buildings, Madras-600005, 1983.
  17. ^ Rajam, V. S. 1992. A Reference Grammar of Classical Tamil Poetry: 150 B.C.–pre-Fifth/Sixth Century A.D. Memoirs of the American philosophical society, vol. 199. Philadelphia, Pa: American Philosophical Society, p. 7
  18. ^ George Hart III. "Review of Tieken's Kavya in South India." Journal of the American Oriental Institute 124:1. pp. 180–184. 2004.
  19. ^ G.E. Ferro-Luzzi. "Tieken, Herman, Kavya in South India (Book review). Asian Folklore Studies. June 2001. pp. 373–374
  20. ^ Anne E. Monius, Book review, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 61, No. 4 (Nov., 2002), pp. 1404–1406
  21. ^ "It is thus impossible to put the original text much later than the eighth century, for by the tenth century the whole Pāṇḍiya kingdom had fallen under the orthodox Coḷas." Burnell, A. C. (1975). "On the Aindra School of Sanskrit Grammarians: Their place in the Sanskrit and Subordinate Literatures". Mangalore: Basel Mission Book and Tract Depository: 8–9. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  22. ^ "Devdutt Pattanaik: Lopamudra's Consent".
  23. ^ book titled "Tholkappiyar Kaalam", written by Dr. Madhivanan,
  24. ^ Zvelebil, Kamil. 1973. The smile of Murugan on Tamil literature of South India. Leiden: Brill.
  25. ^ Zvelebil, Kamil, The Smile of Murugan, p134
  26. ^ Dr.C.R.Krishnamurti. "2. The Sangam Period".
  27. ^ Karthik Madhavan. "Tolkappiyam is not dependent on Sanskrit sources: Tamil scholar". The Hindu.


  • Zvelebil, Kamil. 1975. Tamil Literature, Leiden, Brill, ISBN 90-04-04190-7.
  • Zvelebil, Kamil. 1973. The Smile of Murugan on Tamil Literature of South India. Leiden: Brill.
  • Takahashi, Takanobu. 1995. Tamil love poetry and poetics. Brill's Indological library, v. 9. Leiden: E.J. Brill.
  • Hart, George L. 1975. The poems of ancient Tamil, their milieu and their Sanskrit counterparts. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Burnell, Arthur Coke (1875). On the Aindra school of Sanskrit Grammarians: their place in the Sanskrit and subordinate literatures. Mangalore: Basel Mission Book and Tract Depository, 8-20.
  • Albert. 1985. Tolkāppiyam phonology and morphology : an English translation. Madras : International Institute of Tamil Studies.

External links