Tolkappiyar, Ilango, and Bharata. Part 1: Sivam illaiyendral Sakthi illai, Sakthi illaiyendral Sivam Illai


Introduction and Overview

Tamizh and Sanskrit are two of India’s most ancient living languages. Some claim that no more than 45% of today’s Tamizh is Sanskrit. From an alternative and equally narrow perspective, this could also mean, assuming ‘equality’, that 45% of Sanskrit is Tamizh. But the truth is that just as Shiva and Shakti are inseparable and have no independent existence of their own,  Tamizh and Sanskrit are jewels that reflect each other. If a seeker who only knew Tamizh dived deep into the most profound thoughts expressed by Tamizhs over millennia, he is likely to uncover similar insights that another person would obtain through Sanskrit. This no coincidence. The languages and cultures of India are distinct and inclusive but not separate or exclusive. They are rooted in what is recognized today as an ‘integral unity‘ [1] that produces India’s ‘unity in diversity’.  Indian languages are not just about reading and writing. This is but one dimension. They are better represented as integral knowledge systems because their design allow us to understand nature in different ways that going beyond textual information download. It is important for every Indian-origin parent to teach their child their mother tongue. ‘Amma’ is not the same as ‘mom’ or ‘mummy’. Tamizh appears to possess an open architecture that is characteristic of dharmic thought systems and this is a topic for further research by traditional scholars. Rather than ‘holistic’,  such Indic systems are more accurately characterized as ‘holographic’, with each component of the system reflecting other components [4]. The cultural framework associated with the integral knowledge system representing Sanskrit is Sanskriti, and its Tamizh counterpart, we denote as ‘Kalacharam’.

Let us understand this starting from scratch, keeping in mind a line from a recent Tamil movie: English is but a language, it does not necessarily represent knowledge!

Reversing the Gaze on Lutyens

To get an idea of the level of understanding about India that exists among the English speaking elite (click here for தமிழ்), we present excerpts from a recent bestseller [2] that discusses a conversation in the Lutyens (You can buy this book here).

“…The artist, meanwhile, is talking with the academics about her recent exhibition on mass graves. They purr in appreciation and on the spot issue her an invitation to come and speak at a conference they are organizing on ‘Fragments of Nationhood: Notes on a Country That Is Not a Country’….

…. ‘This is an interesting theme. In fact, one would think from reading several Indian scholars – though I must confess I read only English and not any of the other languages – that the idea of India itself is a creation.’ ‘Exactly right,’ says the younger of the academics, her smug face cracking to reveal a smile.

The Indians reverse the gaze:

….‘The idea that only the Westphalian model of nation state is valid is yet another example of Western intellectual arrogance. There are civilizational states too, which have evolved into modern nation states.’ He pushes his chair back, and with no regard for the fine sensibilities at hand, the chair screeches rudely. ‘The idea of Bharata, Bharatavarsha, is extremely old. And since its spatial contours have been recorded in text after text, it seems strange that strategies which were clearly meant to aid a colonial regime continue to find academic echo. Excuse me’…

…. ‘I am going to give you one example. There is a text in Sanskrit, called the Natyashastra. It is an ancient encyclopaedic work on dramaturgy. Some compare it to Aristotle’s Poetics but that’s plain silly, because the English translation of the Poetics is about thirty pages while the Natyashastra is immense. About thirty-six chapters averaging eighty to hundred verses each. It’s very elaborate. Anyway, what I want to say is that the Natyashastra is by no means a religious text. It concerns arts and aesthetics. Chapter 14 of the Natyashastra concerns regional variations in performance. There are all the different parts of India mentioned in it – it could be adapted to a Doordarshan programme talking about our unity in diversity in a blink, you know. And this is but one example. Anyway, enjoy your dinner,’ I say. ‘We must be off.’”

Indeed, a civilizational bond unites Bharata in a sacred, as well as the material sense since times immemorial, and this has been documented in our history and culture pages. In fact, this unity is perhaps the deepest kind of coherence the world has seen. One of the best examples of the output that arose from, and promoted such a consonance is the Natya Shastra, whose author, Bharata, and its foremost commentator, Abhinava Gupta, are mentioned as hailing from Kashmir.  A strong validation of the strength and reach of this civilizational coherence would be a demonstration of its ability  to transcend the ultimate ‘tyranny of distance’ in India – between Kashmir and Kanyakumari, and show that Tamizh and Sanskrit, two languages that seem furthest apart to so many Indians today, are rooted in this very same unity.

In fact, we hope to go beyond this and argue that Tamizh and Sanskrit share a bond that is deeper and longer than other Indian languages.

Bharatam and Agattiyam

The book excerpts in the previous section mention Natya Shastra and its regional variations and the enormous scope and range of this amazing work. The Sanskrit work of Natya Shastra, which was created well before the common era, is credited to Bharata Muni. A most ancient Tamizh work that is available is the Tolkappiyam by Tolkappiyar. The 13th century commentator Adiyaarkunallar mentions that there were two major Tamizh works before Tolkappiyam: Agattiyam and Bharatam, but were no longer available in their original form. The former refers to the work of Bharata Muni, and the latter represents the main body of work of Agastya Rishi [3]. Interestingly, some contemporary Tamizh authors speculate in the opposite direction, namely, Natya Shastra came from the south, and theorize their own interpretation of Bharata. The focus of this article is not on some self-defeating linguistic crab race. Rather, we are trying to better understand the reasons for a consonance in the deep and sacred thoughts expressed in Tamizh and Sanskrit. Toward this, we start at the very beginning with Sage Agastya.

Agastya and the origins of Tamizh

Rishi Agastya is mentioned by the Mahakavi, Subramaniya Bharati in his poem on Tamizh Thaai (‘Mother Tamil’, around 1919). Here Tamizh is revered as the daughter of Shiva [7], and a peer of Sanskrit, and Agastya delights in the knowledge of Tamizh. An ancient belief of the Tamizhs was that Sanskrit and Tamizh come from the same source – the sounds emanating from different sides of Shiva’s Damru (drum). The knowledge of Sanskrit went to Paanini (the ‘Siva Sutras’), and Tamizh to Agastya. Note that Shiva is one who has neither beginning nor end. Therefore, Tamizh and Sanskrit being rooted in Shiva, have no independent existence. Since there was no ‘other’, the question of one language ‘dominating’ the other was moot and both languages co-existed in mutual respect.  Let us examine some more significant mentions. Prior to Bharathiyaar, let us study the greatest ever Tamizh work, the Ramavataram, which is the Tamizh version of the Ramayana by the poet Kambar (circa 12th century CE). In the Aranya Kandam [8], we learn about the prowess of Agastya,  and the beauty and profundity of Tamizh, which was given to Agastya by Shiva himself. From the epic about an avatar of Vishnu, we learn that Tamizh contains within it the knowledge of Shiva.

If we go further back, it appears that Paranjothi (the commander-in-chief of Pallava king Narasimhavarman (7th century CE), and one of the greatest Tamizh rulers ever) who became a great saint and authored the Thiruvilayadal Puranam,  mentioned these points too [7]. Furthermore, the great Kalidasa (between 1st to 4th century  CE) alludes to Agastya Rishi in Southern India in his Sanskrit work Raghuvamsam [9].  Similarly, the dance and music traditions of the Tamizhs are also quite ancient.

The Origins of Music and Dance and its connection to Tamizh and Kalacharam

Agastya also gave music and dance to the Tamizhs.  Here is a beautiful story of how this happened [5]:

Agastya was received by Indra, the king of Devalokam, to join in a celebration (‘Indra Vizha‘) after the defeat of Vritra. Urvasi, the celestial dancer who was giving a performance caught a glimpse of Indra’s son Jayanta in the audience.  In that moment, she fell in love with him. Narada Muni duly obliged by playing a off note on his Veena, causing Urvasi to lose her step. Agastya, being the master of dance and music (recall he was instructed by Shiva, who is also Nataraja) considered this an insult. He cursed Urvasi to be born on earth. Narada Muni’s Veena too came down to earth.  Some say that Jayanta too was cursed to be born on earth, and Madhavi (the danseuse in Ilango Adigal‘s Silapathikaram) was the daughter of the mortal Jayanta and Urvashi.  Dr. R. Nagaswamy mentions that a special school for music and dance in Southern India was created by Agastya following the concepts set forth by Bharata [5].  When we enter the time frame of recorded history, Dr. Nagaswamy notes a continuous development of dance since 1st century CE in Tamil Nadu.

It is said that the celestial dancers Urvasi and Rambha personify dance, and music, respectively. It is apparent that since ancient times, Tamizhs viewed, without any tension, the material-transactional world as being seamlessly integrated with the sacred-transcendental. In recent times, the great 20th century mathematical genius, Srinivasa Ramanujan, attributed his astonishing mathematical insights to the Goddess Namagiri. Thus, Tamizh, like Sanskrit, was always rooted in this unity that is integral in nature. There is no dichotomy of independent existences for sacred and secular domains whose conflicts have to be reconciled to synthesize a solidarity, which is more emblematic of western thought systems [1].

Why do we bring up dance and music when we talk about language?

Tamizh is not merely text and literature, but is recognized as ‘Muthamizh’ that consists of Iyal, Isai, and Naatiyam, i.e., the trinity of literature, music, and dance. Muthamizh denotes the integral knowledge system we mentioned earlier. Beyond the ability to parse texts and obtain book knowledge, India gives prime importance to embodied knowing, where knowledge of both the material and the transcendental realm can be gained by direct personal experience. Indian music and dance also serve this purpose. However, these elements of Muthamizh cannot be fully mastered by treating them as independently existing subjects. In our culture page, we highlighted the inter-connectedness of Indian art, literature, science, economics, etc., which arises naturally from the Indic view of an interdependent cosmos. The ever growing accumulation of knowledge and wisdom via textual, oral, and embodied learning possible via Muthamizh gives us kalacharam, the distinct cultural framework of the Tamizhs.

A quick recap of what we have studied so far:  we recognized the dharma civilizational origins of Tamizh,  its dance and music, and its Kalacharam. Furthermore, its ancient ties to Sanskrit is recognized in itihasa and has been reaffirmed by distinguished Tamizh commentators over two millennium.  Why then are so many of today’s Indians, including Tamizhs, unaware of such facts? In order to learn the reasons,  we annotate and briefly discuss some fact-driven conclusions presented by Michel Danino in his essay [6]. Please refer to the linked article for complete details.

How did we forget this?

Demagoguery- a  key reason for contemporary ignorance of basic facts

“…. First, despite all evidence to the contrary, they still insist on the Aryan invasion theory in its most violent version, turning most North Indians and upper-caste Indians into descendants of the invading Aryans who overran the indigenous Dravidians, and Sanskrit into a deadly rival of Tamil. Consequently, they assert that Tamil is more ancient than Sanskrit, and civilization in the South older than in the North. Thus recently, Tamil Nadu’s Education minister decried in the State Assembly those who go “to the extent of saying that Dravidian civilization is part of Hinduism” and declared, “The Dravidian civilization is older than the Aryan.” It is not uncommon to hear even good Tamil scholars utter such claims.

Note that the Aryan/Dravidian racial dichotomy is a relatively new creation that was  introduced during the British occupation. This was a period of unimaginable despair. India was being looted using a brutal centralized system of taxation, and simultaneously, its decentralized education and socio-economic systems were being systematically uprooted. Traditional livelihoods were lost and people were forced to compete for food, resources, and jobs. In such an atmosphere, it became relatively easy to sow the seeds of doubt, tension, and discord.

It is worthwhile to briefly diverge here to mention that those who actually put their lives on the line and fought against the British uncovered this truth early. Although the video clip showing the climax of the 1959 movie ‘Veerapandiya Kattabomman‘ is less famous than some other scenes in this film, it assumes importance in the contemporary context. It contains a brief but stirring reversal of the gaze upon the predatory colonial mindset, followed by an exhortation to unite against them and to not fall prey to their divisive agenda.

Here, Kattabomman urges his countrymen to not turn sepoy and serve the occupier. He implores even those who betrayed him: the colonial masters who are here today will be gone tomorrow;  do not live your life based on their words, for we, who are born in this same soil, have to live with each other in dignity long after they’re gone.

Hard scientific proof via archaeology and material evidence 

“… Now, it so happens that archaeological findings in Tamil Nadu, though scanty, are nevertheless decisive. Indeed, we now have a broad convergence between literary, epigraphic and archaeological evidence…. Therefore the good minister’s assertion as to the greater ancientness of the “Dravidian civilization” finds no support on the ground..

In order to test his second assertion that that civilization is outside Hinduism, or the common claim that so-called “Dravidian culture” is wholly separate from so-called “Aryan” culture, let us take an unbiased look at the cultural backdrop of early Tamil society and try to make out some of its mainstays..”

.…All in all, the material evidence, though still meagre, makes it clear that Hindu concepts and cults were already integrated in the society of the early historic period of Tamil Nadu side by side with Buddhist and Jain elements. More excavations, for which there is great scope, are certain to confirm this, especially if they concentrate on ancient places of worship, as at Gudimallam…” [emphasis mine]

After presenting archaeological and material evidence of the Indian civilizational roots of Tamizh culture, Danino proceeds to discuss the literary evidence in the Sangam literature. Part-2 of this article is focused on this subject.  Before we proceed, let us summarize what we have covered so far to set up the concluding part of this study.

Summary and Conclusions

  1. To the best of our knowledge, there is no factual basis for either of the 19th century theories: the Aryan theory of Max Mueller, and the Dravidian theory of the Catholic Bishop, Robert Caldwell that was postulated a few years later.  There is no mention of either in prior texts or itihasa, in Tamizh or Sanskrit.
  2. Consequently, the argument of whether ‘Aryan’ preceded or succeeded ‘Dravidian’ is speculative at best and resides in the domain of conjecture.
  3. Hindu, as well as some Buddhist and Jain concepts (all of them dharmic thought systems) were deeply integrated into Tamizh thought since the earliest of times.
  4. Some of the greatest Tamizh scholars and literary figures throughout history recognized the origin of Tamizh and Sanskrit from the same source. These languages are anchored in dharma. Tamizh receives high praise in the Ramayana, which also exemplifies a Shiva-Vishnu harmony.
  5. Ancient tamizh thought is rooted in a unity that seamlessly integrates the material/transactional with the spiritual/sacred. There is no dichotomy from an Indic perspective.
  6. There exists a long and continuous history of Tamizh literature, dance, and music that are revered as Muthamizh. The resultant cultural framework is Kalacharam that is both ancient and living, mirroring Sanskriti.



[1] Being Different: And Indian Challenge to Western Universalism, Rajiv Malhotra. Harper Collins, India. 2011.

[2] The Heat and Dust Project: The Broke Couple’s Guide to Bharat, Saurav Jha and Devapriya Roy. HarperCollins, India. 2015.

[3] Tamil Arts Academy Publications, Dr. R. Nagaswamy.

[4] Indra’s Net: Defending Hinduism’s Philosophical Unity, Rajiv Malhotra. Harper Collins, India. 2014.

[5] Origin of Music and Dance, Dr. R. Nagaswamy., 2014.

[6] Vedic Roots of Early Tamil Culture. Michel Danino, 2001.

[7] Origin of Tamil and Sanskrit, S. Swaminathan, 2014.

[8] Kamba Ramayanam in English (Aranya Kandam), by P. R. Ramachandran. 2014.

[9] The Raghuvamsa of Kalidasa : with the commentary (the Samjivani) of Mallinatha ; by M.R. Kale,. Gopal Narayan and co., 1922.

Acknowledgment: I am indebted to n.r.i.pathi for sharing several key ideas on this topic.

2 thoughts on “Tolkappiyar, Ilango, and Bharata. Part 1: Sivam illaiyendral Sakthi illai, Sakthi illaiyendral Sivam Illai

  1. I like your statement that the cultural framework representing Sanskrit is Sanskriti, that representing Tamizh is Kalacharam. Could you kindly provide more information about Kalacharam? On surface, it looks like a Sanskrit word. What is its etymology? Does it have anything to do with kala (= arts)?

    1. Sir, it is a honor and hugely encouraging to have you take interest in this post. We will definitely try to find out about its etymology. In TN, Kalacharam is something we use quite naturally in conversation. Part-2 will be a good place to cover this topic you have suggested. thank you sir!

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