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Topics in Sangam literature
Sangam literature
Akattiyam Tolkāppiyam
Aiṅkurunūṟu Akanaṉūṟu
Puṟanāṉūṟu Kalittokai
Kuṟuntokai Naṟṟiṇai
Paripāṭal Patiṟṟuppattu
Tirumurukāṟṟuppaṭai Kuṟiñcippāṭṭu
Malaipaṭukaṭām Maturaikkāñci
Mullaippāṭṭu Neṭunalvāṭai
Paṭṭiṉappālai Perumpāṇāṟṟuppaṭai
Poruṇarāṟṟuppaṭai Ciṟupāṇāṟṟuppaṭai
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
Tamil people
Sangam Sangam landscape
Tamil history from Sangam literature Tamil literature
Ancient Tamil music Sangam society

The Tolkāppiyam (Tamil: தொல்காப்பியம்) is a work on the grammar of the Tamil language and the earliest extant work of Tamil literature.[1] It is written in the form of noorpaa or short formulaic compositions and comprises three books – the Ezhuttadikaram, the Solladikaram and the Poruladikaram. 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 evidence, it has been dated variously between 3rd century BCE and the 3rd century CE. Some modern scholars prefer to date it not as a single entity but in parts or layers.[2] The author name of this literature is Tholkappiyar, who might be a Jain follower.

Tolkappiyam, deals with orthography, phonology, morphology, semantics, prosody and the subject matter of literature. The Tolkāppiyam classifies the Tamil language into sentamil and koduntamil. The former refers to the classical Tamil used almost exclusively in literary works and the latter refers to the dialectal Tamil, spoken by the people in the various regions of ancient Tamilagam.[3]

Tolkappiyam categorises 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 Tolkāppiyam formulated thirty phonemes and three dependent sounds for Tamil.

Etymology of the name

The name Tolkāppiyam derived from the combination of the two words Tonmai and kāppiyam. Tonmai means ancientness and Kappiam means literature.

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

ஈறு போதல் இடையுகரம் இய்யாதல்
ஆதி நீடல் அடியகரம் ஐயாதல்
தன்னொற் றிரட்டல் முன்னின்ற மெய்திரிதல்
இனமிகல் இனையவும் பண்பிற் கியல்பே

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 dating of the earliest Tamil grammatical treatise 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] It has been dated variously between 3rd 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] There is also no firm[weasel words] evidence to assign the authorship of this treatise to any one author.

Dates proposed

  • Kamil V. Zvelebil, a Czech Indologist specialised in the Dravidian languages, dates the core of Tolkappiyam to pre-Christian era.[11]
  • Dr. B. G. L. Swamy, a botanist and historian, contends that the Tolkappiyam cannot to be dated to anything earlier than the 10th century CE.[7]
  • Takahashi Takanobu, 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".[12]
  • 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.[13]
  • 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".[14]


Not much is known about who the author was or when he lived.[8] Traditionally, it was thought that there could have been only one author but given the fairly long time it seems to have taken for the final redaction of the book to become available, it is reasonable to ascribe the work to multiple authors. Zvelebil speculates that the final redaction may even have been the work of a systematised school of grammar than the work of individuals.[15] Many authors however, ascribe the work to Jaina traditions and the earliest of the possibly many authors, who has been identified as Tolkappiyanaar to a heterodox Jaina order. S. Vaiyapuri Pillai has suggested that Tolkappiyanaar may have belonged to a grammatical tradition called "Aintiram", referring to the Aindra school of grammar(a view which other scholars like Burnell, Takanobu and Zvelebil share) and that he was a native of Tiruvatankotu in present day Southern Kerala.[5]


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".[16]


The Tolkāppiyam consists of three books each of which is divided into 9 chapters. The books are called atikarams (Sanskrit:adhikara). The three books are

  1. Ezhuththathigaaram - Formation of words and combination of words
  2. Sollathigaaram - Syntax
  3. Porulathigaaram - Conveying thoughts.


Ezhuththathigaaram is further subdivided into the following 9 sections - Nuul Marabu, Mozhi Marabu, PiRappiyal, PuNaRiyal, Thokai Marabu, Urubiyal, Uyir Mayangial, PuLLi Mayangial and the KutriyalukarappunaRiyal.

Nuul Marabu - (the contents of the section) This section enumerates the characters of the language, organises them into consonants, vowels and diacritic symbols. The vowels are sub classified into short and long vowels based on duration of pronunciation. Similarly, the consonants are sub classified into three categories based on the stress.

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)

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.

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.)

Thokai Marabu – Combination of words based on meaning.

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.)

Uyir Mayangial – Combination of words with an initial vowel-phonetic upon vowel-ending.

Pulli – 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.) KutriyalukarappunaRiyal - Combination of words with an initial vowel-phonetic upon the shortened 'u' vowel-ending.


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 – KiLaviyaakkam, 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.

VEtRumaiyiyal – Role of case in syntax.

VEtrumaimayangial – some case-suffix denote other case-meaning

ViLimarabu – Formation of vocative case

Peyariyal – This section deals with nouns.

Vinaiyiyal – This section deals with verbs.

Idaiyiyal – Partial words of prefix and suffix and their formation in syntax.

Uriyiyal – This literally translates to the nature or science of qualifiers and deals with adjectives and adverbs.

Echchaviyal – Other points to be considered in syntax-formation.


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.

AkaththiNaiyiyal – This section defines the modes of personal life i.e. life of couples.

PuRaththiNaiyiyal – This section defines the modes of one's public life.

KaLaviyal – Who and how expose the secret love

KaRpiyal – Behavior of the 'United couples'

PoruLiyal – How the couples expose themselves and how the kin and kith correlate with them.

Meyppaattiyal – Impact of feelings, a psychological views exposed in ancient literatures.

Uvamayiyal – The name Uvamayiyal literally translates to the nature or science of metaphors.

SeyyuLiyal – This section deals with a grammar for classical Tamil Poetry based on principles of prosody.

Marabiyal – Hereditary Tamil language

See also

  • Tamil grammar
  • Scholarly articles on Tolkappiyar and Tolkappiyam [RAGHAVA IYENGAR,R.1941 Tamil Varalaru(in Tamil),Annamalai, University(Reprint 1978 )]


  • 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.

External links

  • Tolkappiyam fulltext

Template:Tamil language

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