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Tolkappiyar, Ilango, and Bharata. Part 2: Unity of Tamizh and Sanskrit

Recap: Summary from Part-1

You can read the entire post here.

  1. No factual basis for either of the 19th century theories: Aryan theory of Max Mueller, and Dravidian theory of the Bishop Robert Caldwell.
  2. Hindu, as well as some Buddhist and Jain concepts were embedded into Tamizh thought since the earliest of times. All three dharmic thought systems exhibit an integral unity [1].
  3. Several great Tamizh scholars and literary giants throughout history have celebrated the common origin of Tamizh and Sanskrit in Shiva.
  4. There exists a long and continuous history of Tamizh literature, dance, and music (Muthamizh).

We start with a brief discussion motivated by feedback for Part-1.

Material Benefits of Studying the Unity Inherent in Indian Language Systems

Eminent Indic scholar Dr. Srinivas Tilak remarked in his comment on Part-1 that the word ‘kalacharam‘ appears to be rooted in Sanskrit. Indeed, Lt. Col. KTSV Sarma’s English translation of the talk in Tamizh given by the seer of Kanchi Kamakoti peetham on culture [2] notes:

‘Kala’ in Sanskrit, ‘Kalvi’ in Tamil, ‘Culture’ in English, ‘Cole’ in French, have a common root meaning. Since it is a matter concerning all humanity, it has a similar sounding word, with a similar meaning too. ‘Kala’, means something that keeps growing, like ‘chandra kalai’ for the crescent moon. Similarly ‘kalai’ or art gives sustained growth to the mind. There is no end to this growing. Even the Goddess of learning, ‘Saraswathi’, says, ‘Learnt is a handful, while not yet learnt is as big as the world’. So she keeps at it. The word in Tamil, ‘kalacharam’, is of recent origin. “Panbu’ and ‘Panpadu’, are the earlier words, bringing in a connotation of delicate subtility of expression” [emphases mine].

‘Kalacharam’ is a relatively new and useful Tamizh term for an ancient and living cultural framework. In an increasingly interconnected world, there is often a global and diverse audience for content generated in any one place.  The accurate and automated translation of such content becomes quite important. Words that have an intuitively identifiable common root-meaning tend to become more popular among the available synonyms. To produce intelligent auto-translated content, methods from NLP (natural language processing), machine learning, computational linguistics, etc. may be employed. In terms of the data, models, and algorithms required in this context, the content, structure, and the inherent unity of the ancient, diverse, and living language systems of India are likely to become a prime candidate for knowledge mining. The multi-lingual scholars of India can play a leading role in the development of these new technologies, and should control the adhikara as well as the intellectual property generated from such research.

Let us start by examining the nature of the overlap between Tamizh and Sanskrit.


We mention three points about the  oft-quoted ‘just 45%’ Sanskrit in Tamizh.

a. Let us examine where same or equivalent words for Sanskrit are used. Only a brief, preliminary exploration is presented here noting that this topic is beyond the scope of this current blog and more suitable for research by scholars:

We can see the Tamizh and Sanskrit share important Indic non-translatables (herein denoted as “keywords” for brevity) [1], for which no equivalent word exists in English. Indian languages either use the Sanskrit keyword as is, or a readily available regional equivalent is employed. Many European languages that claim affinity to Sanskrit neither possess nor such keywords or equivalents. Examples of such sacred keywords include:

  • dharma (aram)
  • atma (anma, uyir*)
  • karma (oozh)
  • moksha (vidu)
  • shakti (sakthi)
  • avatar (avataram)

The words in parentheses, when provided, refer to the Tamizh equivalent available, based on a high-level review of the Thirukkural [7] and Sangam literature [4]. Tamizh also has equivalent terms for the four purusharthas of Hinduism that encompass the material and sacred realm . Today, ‘Om’ has a speacial UTF-8 character: ॐ in Sanskrit, and ௐ in Tamizh. As alluded to in the previous section, Sanskrit-rooted synonyms are conveniently employed so that listeners or readers from other regions of India or the world can follow along. For example, terms such as dharma and atma are part of common Tamizh usage today (Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalitha referred to her acquittal in a recent court case as ‘a victory for dharma‘).

A heuristic rule to detect Indic civilizational unity within a language is as follows: Any language that has an unbroken tradition of using a sacred keyword (or its own equivalent), is likely to have co-existed in mutual respect with Sanskrit as well as all other languages that share this property.

b. The intersection between Muthamizh and Sanskrit is significantly higher since these language systems have a strong overlap in terms of the interconnected art, verse, music and dance. Consequently, it is not surprising that the resultant cultural frameworks, Kalacharam and Sanskriti mirror each other. Siddha and Ayurveda, for example, are distinct knowledge systems within these frameworks that are not separate but rooted in dharma, and have the same fundamental operating principles.

c. We can better understand the full depth and the different dimensions of the unity between Muthamizh and Sanskrit as integral knowledge systems by comparing the content in the Natya Shastra and Silapathikaram. This comparison itself has raised some questions among scholars, which we address next.

Questions, Claims, Counter-Claims, Implications

A most ancient and influential work on Kalacharam is the Silapathikaram.  Similarly, the Natya Shastra, arguably the most important work of Sanskriti in terms of direct mass impact, is accepted by many as having originated in Kashmir.  The Natya Shastra is hailed as a fifth Veda, while the Silapathikaram reenacts the life in ancient Tamil Nadu (Tamizhakam) and serves as a valuable living aid and resource for Tamizhs to this day. What do we expect to find where we compare these monumental works? and what are the implications?

IF we find negligible coherence between Silapathikaram and Natya Shastra, then the following separatist claims may gain some credence:

  • Sanskriti and Kalacharam were two independently existing cultural frameworks since ancient times.
  • Southern India had its own traditions of literature, music, and dance that may be exclusive and separate from its counterparts north of the Vindhyas.

On the other hand, if we find a strong consonance, then the following observations are validated:

  • The cultural frameworks of Sanskriti and Kalacharam are inextricably linked since ancient times. We find the reflection of one in the other.
  • Southern India had its own distinct and inclusive tradition of literature, music, and dance, which coexisted with similar traditions in regions as far away as Kashmir.
  • Sanskrit and Tamizh thrived in mutual respect. They nourished one another, while retaining and celebrating their own distinctiveness.
  • Further repudiation of Max Mueller’s Aryan, and Bishop Caldwell’s Dravidian theory.

This comparative analysis is made easier by referring to the scholarly works of Michel Danino [3], and Dr. R. Nagaswamy, as presented in his lecture [4], and tabulating the uncovered facts. However, even if we demonstrate this unity, an unresolved issue may linger. Since both languages are ancient, as we mentioned in part-1, did Natya Shastra influence Silapathikaram, or was it the other way around? Separatist scholars have begun to posit a southern-Indian origin and a redefinition for ‘Bharata’ and reject a ‘Sanskrit basis’ for Sangam works. How do we deal with such developments? Do these ‘counter-claims’ weaken the thesis of Tamizh-Sanskrit unity?

For clarity, we have divided the original question of Tamizh-Sanskrit unity into two sub-questions, which we label as ‘easy’ and ‘hard’, as shown below.

The Easy and Hard Question of Tamizh-Sanskrit Unity

Easy question: Is there a deep (integral) unity between Sanskrit and Tamizh?

We denote this question as ‘easy’ because a systematic review of the evidence and data already available is sufficient for a layman to obtain an unambiguous answer.

Hard question: Did Natya Shastra and Sanskrit influence Silapathikaram and Tamizh (in direction and chronology)?

This is an interesting question for scholars having a multidisciplinary knowledge of Itihasa,  dharma, art, history, etc. The work of Michel Danino [3] and the presentation by Dr. Nagaswamy of his findings [5] provide clear clues, and we will cover this topic in a future post.

The remainder of this post is organized as follows.

  1. We tabulate the facts obtained from the analysis of Michel Danino and R. Nagaswamy.
  2. We apply these results to answer the easy question of Tamizh-Sanskrit unity
  3. Concluding comments.

Natya Shastra – Tolkappiyam – Silapathikaram

To gain an appreciation and understanding for Natya Shastra, we refer the reader to the scholarly and detailed introduction at our mother site, Indic Cultural Portal [6].  A key takeaway is that Natya Shastra is not restricted to dance, but is first and foremost an integral scientific treatise on dramaturgy, which by design and motive, is for the benefit of all people, transcending  Varna, Jati, region, language, gender, education level, etc.. Bharata is unequivocal in his goal that this is an inclusive work that is accessible to all. He appears to have succeeded too; its impressions can be traced from India through South East Asia, indicating that it is one of the most influential works in world history.

Ilango Adigal’s Silapathikaram is considered one of the five great Tamizh epics. Here, Dr. Nagaswamy [4] provides compelling evidence that shows this work is best recognized as a dance-drama of exquisite quality, depicting the lifestyle of the Tamizhs during the Sangam era. There were two prior Tamizh texts, the Agattiyam and the Bharatam (the Tamizh version of Bharata’s work) which were not available in their original form at that time. Therefore, a primary Tamizh reference for Ilango was Tolkappiyar’s Tolkappiyam and this was taken as the basis. Consequently, a comparative study of these works of Bharata, Tolkappiyar, and Ilango is required to obtain a full picture. Toward this, we return to our favorite Rishi, Agastya.

The Deep Influence of Agastya on Muthamizh

The influence of Agastya and his lineage on Muthamizh is deep. We introduced Rishi Agastya in part-1.  We now briefly summarize some points in the lecture by Dr. Nagaswamy [5].

Itihasa mentions Agastya’s relocation to Southern India after crossing the Vindhya mountains, bringing along with him several families of rulers and chieftains to Podhiya malai in Kanyakumari district. We also have evidence from recorded history.

Copper plate inscriptions at Velvikudi, Sinnamanur, Srivaramangalam, etc. [8] of Pandyan kings inform us that Agastya crowned them as  the rulers of Madurai (which mirrors Mathura of Northern India) and taught them Tamizh and Sanskrit. Pallava records at Kuram and other places mention Agastya’s slaying of the wicked Asura Vatapi [8]. In general, the presence of copious Tamizh and Sanskrit epigraphy indicates that both languages thrived in Tamil Nadu since ancient times without mutual tension.  According to 10th century commentators, the characteristic division in Tamizh Sangam works of dance into aham and puram was done by Agastya. Tolkappiyar is revered as a disciple of Agastya (i.e., a Rishi from Agastya lineage).  English references typically refer to Tolkappiyam as the first grammar of Tamizh, but this does not imply some one-dimensional ‘Wren and Martin” equivalent! The Tolkappiyam is an integral treatise on Tamizh Kalacharam. These commentators also mention that in the Purattinai (non-Sringara) division of the Porul Adhikaram portion of Tolkappiyam, there are a number of dance forms, some of which are said to be have been taught by Agastya (or his lineage). Seyyul (verse) employed in Tolkappiyam and Silapathikaram, which is almost Sanskrit Chandas, was given to us by Agastya. The Silapathikaram itself recounts the story of Agastya being received by Indra during the Indra Vizha. This beautiful story is given in Part-1, and explains how dance and music came down to the material world from their celestial origin.

Michel Danino on  Tolkappiyam

From Michel Danino’s essay on early Tamizh culture [3], in the section of Sangam literature, we learn about the Tolkappiyam:

  1. “… Its content, says N. Raghunathan, shows that “the great literature of Sanskrit and the work of its grammarians and rhetoricians were well known and provided stimulus to creative writers in Tamil...”
  2. adopts the entire Rasa theory as worked out in the Natya Shastra of Bharata
  3. same eight forms of marriage found in the Dharmashastras.
  4. recognizes the same four divisions as the ‘chatur varna’
  5. recognizes Vedic mantras as ‘the exalted expression of great sages’
  6. four-fold division of land (with a fifth representing the intersecting region), where each material division is associated with an expression from the poetic domain while ultimately being rooted in the transcendental realm. We can see that the deities venerated in other parts of India are already a part of Tamizh culture.
    • hills (kurinji): union, Cheyon (Muruga)
    • forest (mullai): awaiting, Mayon (Krishna)
    • seashore (neythal ): wailing, Varuna
    • cultivated lands (marutam):  quarrel, Ventan (Indra)
    • The area intersecting these four types were ‘desert’ lands (paalai): separation, Korravai (Durga)
  7. Such a synthesis is quite typical of the Hindu temperament and cannot be the result of an overnight or superficial influence ; it is also as remote as possible from the separateness we are told is at the root of so-called “Dravidian culture.”

Summary of Dr. R. Nagaswamy’s Findings

I have attempted to summarize Dr. Nagaswamy’s presentation in this video lecture to the best of my ability [4]. Errors in transmission, if any, are entirely mine. What is given below is an incomplete list of the presented evidence. Other scholars too have presented their analysis on this topic.

Tolkappiyam and Natya Shastra

  1. In porul adhikaram, we have two divisions: agattinai (emphasis on inbam or kama), and purattinai (focused on the other three purusharthas).
  2. Tolkappiyam also mentions ‘ahapaattu’ and ‘purapaattu’ (Paattu = song). These are meant to be songs used for dance performed by Paanar and viraliyar (dancers and musicians).
  3. At  the end of agattinai, Tolkappiyar refers to nadaka vazakku and ulakkiyal vazhakku. This maps exactly to natya dharmi and loka dharmi of Natya Shastra.
  4. Tolkappiyam consists of long poems, up to to 500 lines some times. Can it be compatible with dance? India has a long tradition of reciting and enacting long poems, for e.g., the Chakiyar Kuthu in Kerala performed with the help of Mudras. In fact, the whole of Sangam poetry that is divided into aham and puram is based on a dance tradition.
  5. As far as the purattinai division of Porul adhikaram, if we examine the commentaries, we observe that a major part of what is said is also meant for song.
  6. Mei paattu of Tolkappiyam is about bhava. This is mentioned by all the commentators. For example, Ilamburanar mentions that when the kings are witnessing a dance, these bhavas are brought into use. The definition of bhava is given in the Natya Shastra. ‘Mei’ represents the inner/facial feeling. We observe a 1:1 mapping with the Natya Shastra chapter on bhava.
  7. Tolkappiyam mentions 8 Rasas, and so do Natya Shastra and Silapathikaram (the Shanta rasa is not included until 9th century CE).

Silapathikaram and Natya Shastra

  1. Aham and Puram: The content in Sangam works are divided into two groups: aham and puram. This coincides with the Natya Shastra division of dance styles of Lasya/Sukumara (feminine/soft) and Tandava (vigorous).
    • aham is focused on Sringara (related to kama), and the puram on the other purusharthas (artha and dharma, with moksha implicit).
    • The Puhar and Madurai Kandam are associated with aham, and the Vanji Kandam with puram.
    • Similarly, the Sangam poems are classified as ‘aha paattu’, and ‘pura paattu’, and were meant to be sung and danced.
  2. The two dancing styles mentioned in the Natya Shastra: Margi (classical) and Desi (regional) are mirrored in Silapathikaram as the ‘iru vahai koothu’ of aariyam, and tamizh, respectively. This is a critical feature to note and we analyze this commonality in depth at the end of this post.
  3. Nritta Karana (dance movements): The Nritta Karanas are 108 in number, same as Natya Shastra. In general, the technical terminologies employed in the two works are the same, or an equivalent is mentioned.
  4. Vritti (theme): We have three Kandams (cantos) corresponding to the three great places of Tamizhakam: Puhar, Madurai, Vanji. A Katturai (note) at the end of each canto mentions a specific Vritti for each Kandam. To understand the meaning of each Katturai, we have to refer to the Natya Shastra.
    1. Bharati (heroism)
    2. Arbhati (wealth / violence). Recall the Tamizh word ‘Arbhattam’
    3. Sattvati (dharma)
    4. Kaisiki (romance)
  5. Pindi: This is not a native Tamizh word. Silapathikaram uses the term ‘Pindi-Bandha’ which can be understood once we refer to the Natya Shastra.
  6. Hasta: Silapathikaram mentions the ‘Tozhil kai’ and ‘ezhiyirkai’. Natya Shastra has the exact Sanskrit equivalent: Karma Hasta and Nritta Hasta.
  7. Silapathikaram and Natya Shastra share the same number and equivalents for:
    • Rasa and corresponding Bhava (8). Also present in Tolkappiyam.
    • Abhinaya (4)
    • Dharmi (2)
    • Vritti and Pravritti (4)
    • Swara (7) and Atodya, the types of musical instruments (4)
  8. Purusharthas have their equivalent Tamizh terms provided in parentheses:
    • Kama (Imbam)
    • Artha (Porul)
    • Dharma (Aram)
    • Moksha (Vidu)
  9. Applied Dramaturgy: In the Katturai at the end of the Silapathikaram, we find mention of the geographical area where the drama is enacted: ‘from Venkatam to Kumari’, i.e., Southern India. Next, Ilango mentions Ezuthu, Sol, and Porul, the same three divisions also employed in Tolkappiyam. The words of the Silapathikaram story are put into verse (Seyyul), which has to be put to tala, which is then adapted to music, and in turn synchronized with dance, etc. The aim is to use this dance-drama to depict the life of the tamil people as if (in Ilango’s own words) “it is reflecting a huge mountain thru a small mirror.  Dr. Nagasway quotes the 13th century CE commentator Adiyarkunallar and  has no doubt that “Silapathikaram is not a  literary text to be read, but a Nadaga Kappiyam”
  10. The conclusion in (5) is stunning in that it elevates the importance and scope of the Silapathikaram to a pan-India/global level: It is perhaps the earliest dance drama outside the Sanskrit/Prakritic system. To fully understand how Natya Shastra is applied in reality, scholars have to study the Silapathikaram.
  11. Twelve topics in Natya Shastra are mirrored in Silapathikaram. Equivalents are given in parentheses, else the Sanskrit term is used as is.
    1. Nibandha (Artham/Porul)
    2.  Rasa (Suvai)
    3. Bhava (Mei paadu)
    4. Abhinaya (Avinayam)
    5. Dharmi (Vazhakku)
    6. Vritti
    7. Jati
    8. Swaram
    9. Atodyam (Vadhyam)
    10. Ganam (Paadal)
    11. Prakriti (Pattiram)
    12. Mandapa (Arangam)
  12. Four-fold division of land in Tolkappiyam and Silapathikaram along with the deities of the Vedic tradition also worshiped in other parts of India
    • hills (kurinji), forest(mullai), coastal (neythal), cultivated or settled lands(marutam)
    • The four deities associated with this division are Mayon (Maya/Krishna), Ceyon (Subramanya), Vendan (Indra), Varunan (Varuna).
    • The division of terrain in this manner can also be found in the Vedas; for example, in the Sri Rudram Chamakam in the Yajurveda:
      "Ashma cha me mrittikacha me giraya scha me parvata scha Me sikata scha me vanaspataya scha me ..."
    • This division was adapted into the Natya Shastra, which partitions the performing stage into four areas:
    • Parvata, Vana, Sagara, Nagara
    • The intermediate mixture of lands: paalai (desert, Durga).
  13. Indra, an important Vedic Deity: The first public dance by Madhavi is in the Indra Vizha. In Natya Shastra too, the first dance was performed in the ‘Indra dhwaja maha’ or Indra’s festival.
  14. In a particular sequence of events, Ilango introduces six or more dance situations that are also mentioned in Natya Shastra, which are adopted by dancing girls to attract and win back the ‘person of interest’ when he his upset.
  15. Dr. Nagaswamy states that unless we understand how the Natya Shastra has been put to brilliant use in the Silapathikaram, we cannot fully understand and appreciate this great Sangam work.

Answer to Easy Question on Tamizh-Sanskrit Unity

The wealth of evidence from Itihasa, archaeological and material evidence, the presence and use of sacred Indic non-translatables, deep commonalities between Sangam-era works and Natya Shastra, is sufficient to unambiguously affirm the existence of Tamizh-Sanskrit unity since the earliest known time in recorded history, as well as in Itihasa. This conclusion remains valid regardless of the speculative claims of separatist scholars that its music and dance tradition came before and influenced Natya Shastra, or indeed, claims by other scholars in the opposite direction. This is because:

1. All the material evidence, factual commonalities, Vedic, and sacred links between Natya Shastra and Tolkappiyam/Silapathikaram that are mentioned here have no dependency on who was the “first” to come up with those concepts and ideas.

2. From the perspective of the easy question, it does not matter whether Natya traveled from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, or from Kanyakumari to Kashmir. The simple fact is that the Natya traditions in the south is reflected in other parts of India since ancient times. As an analogy, tomorrow, if we find out that it was not Newton but some person from China who first arrived at the law of gravity, it does not invalidate the fact of gravitational force!

Next, we examine the various dimensions of this unity.

The nature of this unity

  1. When the facts presented in the comparative study of Sangam works and Natya Shastra is combined with the archaeological and material evidence in Part-1, the material (artistic, linguistic, cultural) unity of Muthamizh and Sanskrit is firmly established.
  2. Furthermore, we see from Itihasa that through Shiva (who is the original Yogi as well as Nataraja) and Agastya, Tamizh and Sanskrit emerged from the same sacred sound that has no beginning or end. Thus the sacred and dharmic unity of Tamizh-Sanskrit is also evident.
  3. The material and sacred were never considered separate, non-intersecting domains in both language systems. Tamizh, Sanskrit, and their music and dance traditions flow smoothly from the same sacred origin to the material world unhindered. The most influential treatises in both systems encourage the pursuit of the purusharthas that teaches mankind to prosper, progress, and ultimately transcend the material domain. The integral nature of the Kalacharam-Sanskriti unity is transparent.
  4. The nature of this unity was celebrated in Itihasa, and as well as by illustrious Tamizh saints, scholars, and poets over centuries. Arguably, no other language pair in India can claim to have a deeper, more sacred, and ancient bond.

It is worth re-examining the ‘just 45% commonality’ statement given these findings. The influence and contributions of Tamizh Kalacharam and Southern India toward Sanskriti is immense. Michel Danino notes:

As regards the fundamental contributions of the South to temple architecture, music, dance and to the spread of Hindu culture to other South Asian countries, they are too well known to be repeated here. Besides, the region played a crucial role in preserving many important Sanskrit texts (a few Vedic recensions, Bhasa’s dramas, the Arthashastra for instance) better than the North was able to do, and even today some of India’s best Vedic scholars are found in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. As Swami Vivekananda put it, “The South had been the repository of Vedic learning.”

In other words, what is loosely called Hinduism would not be what it is without the South. To use the proverbial but apt image, the outflow from the Tamil land was a major tributary to the great river of Indian culture“.

How was this unity preserved?

Was this relationship one of equals or asymmetric?

Mutual respect, which is a bi-directional form of respect, is necessary to preserve this unity across thousands of years. Superior-inferior asymmetry in any relationship is a recipe for early break-up. We will show that ‘mutual respect’ is explicitly hardwired into the Natya Shastra, and that this is also reflected in the content of the Sangam work. The Natya Shastra’s remarkable introduction of Margi (classical) and Desi (regional) styles of Natya freed up artistic pursuit, eliminating any ‘Shastric claim’ to superiority by any one tradition. Every region, group, and individual was encouraged to promote their own verse, music and dance tradition, and to innovate in their own language.  Silapathikaram too embodies this democratic principle and mirrors this via ‘Aariyam’ and ‘Tamizh’ dance styles, simultaneously respecting inter-regional diversity, and encouraging intra-regional variations and innovations within its own sphere of influence. This liberation of verse, meter, music, and dance, appears to have resulted in an open architecture [1]. Dr. Nagaswamy rightly notes that “Sanskrit never stood against any other language, but only encouraged them. Never in history do we have any conflict“.

Remnants of this unified dance-drama tradition are still visible in Indian pop-culture via its feature films. The inter-connected verse-tala-music-dance Natya, however dilute it may be today, remains an key ingredient of all Indian language movies, including Tamizh and Hindi, and exhibits significant regional diversity. Furthermore, this pan-Indian feature is not present in movies from other parts of the world, and is most appreciated by audiences in India. As mentioned in our culture page, Tamizh feature films initially arose from stage performances (Natya/Nadakam) of stories from Itihasas and Puranas. We may be able to trace this feature embedded within Indian feature films back to the Silapathikaram and the Natya Shastra.

Clearly, Natya is a powerful Indic non-translatable that has united India and helped preserve the distinctiveness of Indian art, language, and culture.



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

[2] Deivathin Kural Series – 80,  http://advaitham.blogspot.com/2007/01/deivathin-kural-series-80.html, Lt. Col. KTSV Sarma, 2007.

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

[4] Bharata’s Natya Sastra and Tolkappiyar, Dr. R. Nagaswamy, https://youtu.be/qpgQzoeZQhU, 2013.

[5] Origin of Music and Dance, Dr. R. Nagaswamy. https://youtu.be/ox6W2vUEpnQ, 2014.

[6] Classical Indic Literature III: dramatics. Indic Cultural Portal, N.r.i. Pathi, 2015.

[7] Thirukkural: http://www.gokulnath.com/thirukurals.

[8] History and Culture of Tamil Nadu – vol 1, Chitra Madhavan. DK Printworld, 2013.


Thanks to n.r.i.pathi for reviewing this work, and his useful suggestions.

*Some authors view ‘uyir’ in the Thirukkural as a context-sensitive equivalent of ‘atma’. Thanks to Sri Raj Kashyap for pointing out that generally, anma (from atma) is used, and ‘uyir’ refers to ‘jiva’ or ‘prana’.

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

source: pinterest.com

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. https://youtu.be/ox6W2vUEpnQ, 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.