The earliest Tamil literature goes back to the Sangam period. In ancient times, the assembly or academy of most learned men of Tamil land was called ‘Sangam‘ and the literature produced in these assemblies is known as the Sangam literature. The compilation of the corpus of literature was accomplished over a period of three to four centuries but there is a controversy amongst scholars regarding the exact period of the Sangams. Perhaps, the Sangam period stretched from 600 B.C.- 200 A.D. Many Tamil scholars mention about the existence of three Sangams at Madura, Kapatapuram and Northern Madura respectively. It is believed that most of the works relating to the first two Sangams dealt with music and dance. Unfortunately all the works of these two Sangams are lost, except for Tolkappiyam, which is the oldest extant grammar dating back to 500 B.C.
The literature of the third Sangam period mainly comprises of poems which are arranged in eight anthologies called Ettuttokoi and ten idylls called Pattuppattu. Ettuttokoi consists of Narrinai, Kuruntogai, Ainkurunuru, Padirruppattu, Paripadal, Kalittogai, Ahanuru and Purananuru. Pattuppattu consists of the following ten idylls by eight different authors: Tirumurugarruppadai, Porunararruppadai, Cirupanarruppadai, Pattinappalai, Kurincippattu, Nedunalvadai, Maduraikkanci, Malaipadukadam, Mullaippattu and Perumpanarruppadai. The third Sangam period also saw a collection of minor works called Padinen-kizhkkanakku which deals mainly with moral virtues. Among them, the most notable is Tiruvalluvar’s Tirukkural or Kural, which deals with philosophy and wise maxims. The Sangam literature, unlike the Rig Vedic texts, was secular in nature and revolved around the themes of various heroes and heroines. The Sangam literature provides very valuable information on the social, economic and political life of the people living in deltaic Tamil Nadu in the early Christian centuries.
The post-Sangam period (200-600 A.D.) is notable for the composition of five great Tamil epics — Silappadikaram, Manimekalai, Jivaka-cintamani, Valaiyapati and Kundalakesi. Silappadikaram is considered to be the brightest gem of early Tamil literature. It is an invaluable source book of ancient Tamil dance and classical music. The other major epics produced in Tamil include Jivakachintamani or Mudiporultodarnilaiseyyul, Valaiyapati and Kundalakesi. Besides these, the Jain authors have produced five minor works — Yasodhara-kaviyam, Chulamani, Perunkathai, Nagakumara-kaviyam and Nilakesi.
During 600-900 A.D., the Tamil literature came under the influence of Saiva and Vaisnava saints called Nayanmars and Alvars respectively. The Saiva saints first compiled their hymns into the Devaram. The hymns of the Saiva saints were later collected into twelve anthologies called Tirumurais. The Periya Puranam or Tiruttondar Puranam, considered as the twelfth Tirumurai, was composed by Sekkizhar (12th century A.D.). The Vaishnavaite saint Nathamuni (824-924 A.D.) compiled the Vaishnava hymns into four books called Divya Prabandham or Nalayira Divya Prabandham. The other Alvar saints who contributed to the Tamil religious literature include Periyalivar, Poigaialvar, Bhutattalvar, Andal (the only woman saint among Alvars) and Nammalvar. Nammalvar’s Tiruvaymozhi, the third book of Divya Prabandham, is said to be a quintessence of the Upanishads.
The Cholas were the great patrons of Tamil literature. One of the great figures of Tamil literature, Kamban, belonged to this period. He was the greatest of the court poets of Kulottunga Chola III (1178-1218 A.D.). He adapted Valmiki’s Ramayana in Tamil in his Ramakatai or Kamba Ramayanam, which is very unique in its style and technique. He also composed other works like Erelupadu and Sathakoparandali. The other great works of this period include Ottakkuttan’s Uttarakandam, Takkayagapparani and Muvarula; Pugazhendi’s Nalavenba; Auvaiyar’s Atticcudi, Konraivendam, Mudurai and Nalvazhi; Jayankondan’s Kalingattupparani; Iraiyanar’s Kalaviyal; Kalladanar’s Kalladam, Aiyanar Itanar’s Purapporulvenbamalai, Puttamittiranar’s Viracozhiyam, Divakarar’s Divakaram, Pingalar’s Pingalandai and Pavananti’s Nannul. Another important poet who flourished during the Chola period was Kuttan, who authored great works like Nalayirakkovai, Parani, Tukkayagapparani, Sarasvatiyandadi and Arumbaittollayiram. Other noted scholars of the Chola period include Tirutakadevara the author of Jiwana Chintamani and Talamokti, the author of Sulamani and Venkatamadhava who wrote a commentary on Rigveda during the reign of Parantaka I.
The modern period witnessed the impact of Islam and Christianity on Tamil literature. Umaruppulavar (1605-1703 AD) was the earliest among the Muslim Tamil poets. He composed the Sirappuranam, which is a verse narrative on the life of Prophet Muhammad. Another work dealing with the Islamic faith was Muhaidin Puranam (1845 AD) by Mohammad Ibrahim. Constanzio Beschi (1680-1747 AD), who adopted the pseudonym of ‘Viramamunivar’, wrote a classic Tembavani, on the life of Jesus Christ.
Subramanya Bharati (1882-1921 A.D.) was one of the greatest of Tamil litterateurs of the modern times. He is renowned for his patriotic and devotional songs and intense prose writings on contemporary social affairs. His Panchali Sabadam is an epic poem based on a single episode of the Mahabharata. His other great works include Kalippattu, Kannanpattu and Kuyilpattu. The other renowned Tamil poetic works of the modern times include Meyyarivu and Padal Tirattu of V.O.Chidambaram; Malarum-malaiyum and Umarkkayyam-padalkal of Desikavinayagam; Podumai Vettal, Tamiizhan Idayam and Sankoli of Kalyanasundaram; Avalum Avanum of N.K.Ramalingam; Azhakin Sirippu, Pandiyan Parisu, Tamizhiyakkam, Kudumbavilakku, etc of Bharatidasan. Durai Manickam was another important modern Tamil poet who is credited with prolific works like Aiyai, Nurasiriyam, Koyyakkani, Ensuvai Enbatu and Paviyakkottu. The other renowned poets of this period include M.L.Thangappa, Mudiyarasan, Ezhilmutalvan, N.Kanakaraja Iyer, A.Srinivasaraghavan, Kannadasan and Tamizhazhagan.
Paramartta Gurukathai written by Viramamunivar in the 18th century affords the earliest specimen in novel writing in Tamil. However, Vedanayagam Pillai (1824-1889) is credited with the writing of the first novel in Tamil, Pirataba Mudaliyarcharittiram in 1875. H.A.Krishna Pillai (1827-1900) adapted John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress in Tamil in his Iratcanyayattirigam. The other important works of this period include Bharatam of Perundevanar, Nandarcharittirak-kirttanaikal of Gopalakrishna Bharati, Kamalambalcharittiram of Rajam Ayyar (1896), Padmavatichaittiram of Madhaviah, Menaka and Balamani of Vaduvur Duraiswamy, Ratnapurirahasyam of A.Kuppuswamy, Mannasai and Kariyadarisi of Shankara Ram.
M.Varadarajan (1912-1974) experimented with several new techniques in Tamil novels. His famous works include Perra Manam (1953), Karittundu (1953), Ahalvilakku, Sentamarai and Mankudisai. C.N.Annadurai has two important works to his credit – Nallatambi and Rangoon Radha (1952). Akilan won the Jnanpith Award in 1976 for his novel Chittirappavai (1968). The other important novelist of modern times include Anuttama, Jayalakshmi Srinivasan, Kodainayaki Ammal, N.Parthsarthy, C.Subramanyam, Jayakantan and Sundaram Ramaswamy. V.V.S.Aiyar, Kalki, Pudumaippittan, B.S.Ramayya and ASP Ayyar are renowned short story writers in Tamil.