Tag Archives: Culture

Personalities: Nambi Narayanan

The main source for this article is Sri Nambi Narayanan’s autobiography and supported by additional references that are listed at the end of this post. The article does not present a comprehensive historical or scientific review of Nambi Narayanan’s many achievements. Rather, the content reflects a student’s limited understanding of some challenging subject matter and an attempt to learn from the insights shared by an extraordinary personality. The opinions and errors in the article belong to the author alone.

Ready to Fire‘ is available at many popular bookstores.

Early Life

Padma Bhushan Sankaralingam Nambi Narayanan was born on Dec 12, 1941, in Nagercoil, Travancore State. He was the first boy in the family after four girls. His father ran a successful business of Copra, Coir, and Oil in Thiruvananthapuram and had relocated to Nagercoil to start a new oil business. Nambi did his elementary schooling at the Parakkamadai Elementary School and shifted to the Desiya Vinayaka Devasthanam a few years later and topped the school in his Standard-10 exams. He repeated this feat in his pre-university course at the South Travancore Hindu college. He loved Mathematics from an early age and developed a natural interest in engineering. Unfortunately, he fell seriously ill during the college admission time and enrolled in a BSc Mathematics course for a year before joining the Thayagarajar College of Engineering in Madurai in June 1960. This was a college blessed with world-class professors.

Nambi Narayanan’s father passed away within five months of his joining college. At age 19, Narayanan was unsure if he should continue his studies or take over his father’s business and stay with his family. His sisters were strong personalities who made it clear that young Nambi must focus on his studies. He had earned a merit scholarship which took care of all educational expenses while he pursued his Mechanical Engineering degree. Narayanan had two close friends in college, Lawrence, who later became a colonel in the Indian army, and Chandran who would become an important ISRO colleague.

First Signs of the Nambi Effect

After being elected as the joint secretary of the student union, young Nambi faced a challenge of bring Thiru. Kamaraj as chief guest to a college function as desired by the college founder Thyagaraja Chettiar. This was opposed by a section of the college that supported Annadurai’s DMK. They wanted a flowery orator and not a school-dropout; so what if he was a remarkable achiever who brought the mid-day meal scheme to TN schools? Nambi Narayanan recalls how the wisdom of Kamaraj was earned not through book parsing but from the varied experiences of life. Clearly, this Dravidianist predilection for hyperbole over substance hasn’t diminished in 60 years. Narayanan was able to persuade a reluctant Kamaraj to attend the function and notes in his autobiography that the great Tamizh leader won over the audience including the naysayers with “his simplicity and clarity of thought”.

The faculty of his college also played a big role in shaping Narayanan’s future. Among others, he fondly recalls his training under Prof. Kothandaraman who ensured that each of his students completed their engineering project (axial flow compressor) end-to-end, from design to fabrication to the final functional testing. Toward the end of his course, Narayanan obtained gradual school admission at both Princeton University and Caltech but decided to stay in India and be close to his ailing mother.

Early Career

Nambi Narayanan’s first job was as a trainee assistant at the Deccan Sugars and Akbari Company, a sugar factory of Parry & Co, in Trichy, Tamil Nadu. He had to oversee the entire process from the crushing of the sugarcane to the final end products. Here too, one gets to see Narayanan’s multidisciplinary talents- analytical thinking, business acumen, and an eagerness to obtain a more hands-on experience. In went the future Rocket Scientist into the Bagasse (Sugarcane pulp) pit, something that no white-collar employee there had done before. His reasoning is important for every student to internalize: “Getting a feel of what the lowest grade worker does gives you an idea of wholesomeness. It works in a bagasse pit; it works in a rocket assembly clean room.”.

It can only be Karma that brought Nambi Narayanan into ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization) after he quit his sugar factory job and moved back to Thiruvananthapuram.

When Nambi Narayanan met Abdul Kalam

“… then came the monthly groceries from AT Ganapathiya Pillai’s shop in Chaalai Bazaar that was to solve my problem. One of the items was wrapped in a newspaper which I was about to throw into the bin when a two-column advertisement on it caught my eye. Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station (TERLS) in Trivandrum …” – September 4, 1966.

Picture Link Source: eastcoastdaily.in

Narayanan noticed the advertisement a day after the last date to apply, yet such was the lack of red tape in Vikram Sarabhai’s organization, his application for the position of technical assistant (design) was not summarily rejected. He was able to convince TERLS to accept his application. Narayanan wanted to learn more about the job and the people he would be working with if he got accepted. He recalls: “some of the scientists involved in TERLS were staying in a lodge. As I was entering the lodge, one of the residents, a man in a pale blue shirt and dark trousers was coming down the stairs. I thought he must be involved in the Thumba project and introduced myself as an applicant. ‘I am A P J Abdul Kalam, rocket engineer,‘ he said.” APJ Abdul Kalam would later be part of the panel that interviewed Nambi Narayanan and brought him on board. Kalam was especially impressed by Narayanan’s engineering college project work in Madurai. Narayanan joined India’s first space science team on September 12, 1966. A more dramatic life-saving interaction with India’s future President and Bharat Ratna is depicted in the opening sequence of Madhavan’s ‘Rocketry’ movie. Abdul Kalam was among the few invitees who attended the simple wedding ceremony of Nambi Narayanan and Meenakshi Ammal a year later. The couple were blessed with two children, Sankar, and Geetha.

Nambi Narayanan, 1967. Source: N. Narayanan Autobiography.

Nambi Narayanan’s autobiography reveals the enormous influence that Vikram Sarabhai had on him after he joined TERLS/ISRO. There would be leaders of unimpeachable integrity after Sarabhai, including the great Satish Dhawan and UR Rao, but none who could match the long-term vision of Sarabhai. Eventually, ISRO also fell prey to office politics, and this acted as a catalyst in the ISRO spying case in the 1990s. Despite internal friction, ISRO sustained its ability to deliver and retain public trust. We have to thank the many ISRO men and women whose work ethic remain true to the original vision of Vikram Sarabhai. This much is apparent from Nambi Narayanan’s book.

Picture Link Source: blog.aerospacenerd.com

Liquid Propulsion Systems

Nambi Narayanan must be recognized for his single-minded goal of developing liquid propellant rocket engines at ISRO. He differentiates between liquid propellants that are earth storable (at room temperature), while cryogenic engines [4] employ propellants that are liquified and stored at an extremely low temperature.

Picture Source: N. Narayanan Autobiography.

What’s so special about liquid propulsion systems (LPS)? Among other attributes, the strength and efficiency of rocket engines is rated on their ‘specific impulse’ which makes LPS more attractive (see the brief footnote at the end of this post). Young readers can also review this IIT-Madras lecture series [2].

Kalam and Narayanan were members of India’s first space team who branched out into different areas. Kalam took the route of solid fuel rockets and later, missiles at DRDO and achieved success in both areas (Rohini, SLV-3, and the Agni missiles) [1, 9]. On the other hand, Nambi Narayanan’s contributions were in the area of LPS.

In his book, Narayanan notes Sarabhai’s initial reluctance to venture into this area while his own belief in the potential of LPS remained rock-solid (irony unintended). ISRO’s focus was on solid fuel- it was lower risk with immediate reward, including dual-use for missile launching. LPS was viewed as a high-risk alternative, which few in ISRO were willing to bet on. A natural question that any layperson would ask is: why are we even talking about risk? Weren’t these all solved problems by the 1960s, with well-established mathematical formulas, drawings, books, and all the know-how available? After all, the Saturn V rocket used in the Apollo moon missions was powered by a cryogenic engine. Why couldn’t ISRO quickly put together the desired rocket configuration using the available know-how? This question is an important one in the context of the ISRO espionage case and is addressed at the end of this article.

Madhavan’s biopic does a great job of covering Narayanan’s single-minded pursuit of LPS, starting with his stint at Princeton University (thanks again to Sarabhai slashing through red tape) in August 1969. This was a heady time period at the peak of the cold war. Public interest in space exploration was sky high. America, spurred by President Kennedy’s inspirational 1961 ‘moon shoot speech’ had beaten the Soviets to the moon and taken the lead in the space race. This result is also relevant to our story for the USSR thereafter gave up on their moon exploration program and simply mothballed their (more than 250?) cryogenic engines that never flew [1, 5].

Narayanan’s NASA Fellowship and MS admission in Princeton was related to the study of solid fuels but though his positive attitude and skills of persuasion, he became a student of Professor Luigi Crocco. Prof. Crocco was a top professor in chemical rocket propulsion (closer to LPS) who did not accept any students at that time for personal reasons. Narayanan convinced Prof. Crocco and learned from him at his residence and completed his MS in less than 11 months and returned to India in 1970.

Narayanan had spurned lucrative offers from US organizations that were trying to poach him. He came back to serve India and work on LPS in an environment that was at best lukewarm to such an initiative. It is easy to be critical of Nambi Narayanan’s outspoken go-getter personality and his inability to suffer fools gladly. But then, sweet-talking people who focus on winning popularity contests are never going to decolonize India and take her forward in a strategically important field dominated by the western powers. Narayanan and his colleagues successfully tested smaller scale two-stage rockets using liquid fuel. Despite this, skepticism persisted about their ability to build a genuinely scalable engine and LPS received limited funding even though Narayanan had the support of Sarabhai and later, Satish Dhawan.

Noticing Narayanan’s firm belief in liquid propulsion, Vikram Sarabhai, who had great awareness of the global developments in the field, directed him to recce the new Space Science facility of Rolls Royce that housed a hydraulics laboratory in Cumbria, Scotland. UK was shutting down its space program (outsourcing it to NASA) and this amazing new laboratory, which Narayanan describes as “a Fluid Engineer’s dream place”, was put up for 400 million Pounds. Narayanan traveled to Cumbria in 1971, charmed and befriended the administrator there and then made an audacious request – give it to India for free. Narayanan was startled when the request was granted with the stipulation that India must bear the shipping costs. The biopic does not show what happened afterward.

Sarabhai passed away (killed?) during this time. The laboratory equipment arrived in India, but India’s premier space organization did not have the land to reassemble and revive the extraordinary laboratory. In its disassembled form, it ended up in a few ISRO apartments in Trivandrum. Narayanan, the custodian of the equipment, watched the ‘engineer’s dream’ turn into a nightmare as it was ‘systematically plundered’ for spare-parts by scientists:

“.. one asking for a recorder, another taking away a pressure sensor, a third one snatching a flow meter. After giving up on setting up the facility on a new campus, I silently let these go, in a heartrending way, that it was probably better at least some of the hardware were put to use than let it gather rust. There were times when it also occurred to me that some people who did not want ISRO giving thrust to liquid propulsion systems would have derived great please in seeing what was happening. Before my eyes, the Rolls Royce hydraulic laboratory was cannibalized. “.

A more tragic story is how Tamil Nadu’s inebriated Dravidianist minister ‘interacted’ with Vikram Sarabhai and squandered a golden opportunity for TN to host ISRO’s rocket launch pad. TN’s loss was Andhra’s gain and today it is the Sriharikota range that is world famous and deservedly so. But what was the price paid by the nation for the minister’s disgraceful conduct? Narayanan calculated that every launch from the chosen location in Nagercoil would have saved ISRO enough fuel to launch a 30% larger payload.

A heart-warming sequence in the biopic is Nambi Narayanan’s stint in Vernon, France (1974-1978) along with more than 50 other ISRO scientists. Working alongside experts, the group absorbed nearly one hundred and fifty priceless man-years of hands-on experience with liquid propulsion systems. This cash-free contract with SEP France (Societe Europeenne de Propulsion) was finalized through the efforts of another famous personality, TN Seshan, IAS, who had an administrative role in the organization. The benefits would come later and culminate in the development of India’s own reliable and trustworthy Vikas Engine (Narayanan notes that apart from its Sanskrit meaning, Vikas was also named for Vikram A. Sarabhai). In France, among other things, Narayanan’s team was able to identify and resolve a major problem with the ‘upper stability margin’ of SEP’s Viking engine and earned the respect of their engineers who initially underestimated them.

It is another frustrating story that despite being ready, Narayanan and his team were only able to test the Vikas Engine in 1985. At one point, Narayanan had enough and told Satish Dhawan that he was quitting. A single make-or-break test was finally sanctioned to be conducted in France since India did not have the testing capability. Nambi Narayanan grabbed that chance and ensured a successful test of the Vikas Engine. However, it would take another eight years to celebrate its first successful launch.

Testing of High Thrust VIKAS Engine for the Gaganyaan program. Picture Source Link: Isro.gov

It is worth noting at this point that contrary to the claim in Wikipedia that Narayanan took all the credit for himself, his book recounts the contributions of numerous people inside and outside ISRO to India’s space program. This long list includes not only the first three ISRO chiefs who supported him, but also his colleagues, administrators, assistants, businessmen, and skilled technicians: Fitters like Sukumaran Nair, and Anandan who was also an expert at hand-sealing joints, and welders like Samuel Raj whose expertise stunned the French and who turned down their huge paycheck to return to Mother India and his modest salary and train more Indians. These are the hidden skills that make magic work. But for Narayanan’s book, these stories of skill and sacrifice would have remained unknown.

The most famous overseas assignment of Narayanan, we now know, happened in Russia, when the USSR was breaking up. These events have been well documented in interviews and the biopic. It is sufficient to note here that Narayanan and the ISRO team pulled off another coup and were able to bring cryogenic engines along with a limited ‘technology transfer’ into India in 1994.

This story actually began in 1975 when Narayanan and his colleague spotted a KVD-1 Soviet engine at a Paris Aerospace Exhibition where it was (deliberately?) labeled as some ‘RD-100’. This fact was confirmed by an old Soviet scientist there who also mentioned that its specific impulse was a barely believable 461 seconds, far superior to anything the Americans had at that time. This engine was first test fired in 1967 and held on to its record for the highest specific impulse until the end of the century [5].

Picture of KVD-1 (?) Link Source: European Space Agency Website

Fast forward to the 1990s. The Vikas Engine went operational in 1993 and India was in the process of completing a cryogenic engine technology transfer agreement with the Russians. Being able to indigenously develop, test, and deploy such engines would signal India’s entry into the lucrative commercial market of large payload launches. An elite club that was the sole preserve of the large powers. America promptly blocked the original deal by misusing MTCR after India passed on an American offer to deliver the same.

This was a move driven purely by commercial interests as the US was long aware that cryogenic engines were practically unviable for missile launches. Why? Narayanan pointed out in a 2013 video interview [4] that it required 48-72 hours to prep a cryogenic system prior to launch. This non-transferability of cryogenic engine technology to missiles was also strongly raised by India at that time [5].

Racist NY Times Cartoon after the Mangalyaan Launch. Link Source: IndiaToday

Eventually, seven KVD-1 engines along with documents and equipment were brought legally to India by four Ural Airlines flights in 1994. Air India turned a blind eye to national interest and backed out lest an unhappy Uncle Sam takes away ‘their’ lucrative New York landing rights. The first three flights arrived in Trivandrum by July 1994, with the last flight scheduled for late December.

In October 1994, ISRO announced its first success with a rocket that could be used for commercial satellite launches. Just when it seemed that everything was falling into place, charges of espionage were laid against multiple scientists and key ISRO partners involved with Cryogenic technology transfer in October 1994. Nambi Narayanan, the main target, was arrested on November 13, 1994. They were accused of passing on ‘secret drawings’ and papers to Pakistan using Maldivian intermediaries [1, 4]. After a long and tortuous battle, Narayanan was fully exonerated by the courts. The deep trauma suffered by his devout wife Meenakshi during this time is a most heartbreaking section of his book. Although his stance was vindicated, ISRO’s cryogenic program was set back by more than a decade – it was ‘mission accomplished’ for the masterminds of the plot. Nevertheless, India would eventually develop an indigenous cryogenic engine, thanks in part to Narayanan’s pioneering efforts.

ISRO ‘Spy’ Case: Know-Why versus Know-How

“.. our frontier past and our industrialized present both incline us toward a preoccupation with technique, with know-how rather than know-why”. — Dwight Macdonald, American social critic [12].

” .. “know-why” is understanding the context and the value of your actions. Why are you doing this? Why are you implementing the techniques and tools you have learned? What are you trying to get out of this? It’s only the balance of “know-how” and “know-why” which will create the desired outcome.” – [11].

Nambi Narayanan’s 2013 interview with Madhu Kishwar [4] was perhaps the first time a general audience had the opportunity to absorb his brilliant insights into the fraudulent case. Temporarily setting aside many other loopholes in the investigation conducted by the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and Kerala police, we return to a critical point that Nambi Narayanan has emphasized throughout his book and in multiple interviews. The simplest way (at least for this author) to realize why the case was spurious and lacked Pramana is to appreciate the difference between “know how” and “know why”. Not knowing this is one of the reasons why experienced IB and police officers ended up looking foolish in this sad episode.

Anyone with a basic understanding of rocket science knows even if the drawings are given, an engine cannot be made without long years of development, guidance and extensive tests. In other words, you can’t make a rocket engine based on know-how—you need the ‘know-why’. If rockets were built merely with drawings, there is no reason why every space-faring nation is making rockets its own way and not copying from others“. – Nambi Narayanan.

Raghu Garud at the University of Pennsylvania, in a widely cited paper [7] on strategic management has provided useful working definitions of know how/why/what. Let’s understand these terms through his example (emphases in bold are mine):

“.. consider a computer that comprises many components that together provide utility to users. Know-why represents an understanding of the principles underlying the construction of each component and the interactions between them. Know-how represents an understanding of procedures required to manufacture each component and an understanding of how the components should be put together to perform as a system.

.. Without an adequate appreciation of the underlying principles, changes in one element of the system may affect the performance of the entire system in a manner that is difficult to predict beforehand “.

Recall the ‘O-rings‘ element of the cryogenic-engine powered NASA Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986?


Know-how cannot substitute know-why, it can only complement it. ISRO has devoted all the time, effort, skill, and talent to accumulate know-why by working hands-on with and learning from experts. The same cannot be obtained through a disembodied review of manuals, drawings, or YouTube Videos. It can take decades. India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier is being delivered to the Indian navy as I am writing this. The work began in 1999. There are no short cuts to ‘Make in India’. The importance of know-why is not something that arm-chair experts in social media can grasp.

These concepts are not alien to our culture. Bharatiya and Tamizh Kalacharam, our inimitable traditional craft and knowledge systems, and sacred art forms have sustained for millennia, being directly passed down from master to apprentice, mother to daughter, father to son, Guru to Sishya. Deep culture pays attention to know why, a shallow one cannot think beyond technique and know-how.

To cite an example from culture and art, the know-how for making the Thanjavur Veena exists [10] but to make Veenas of sustainably high quality requires a high degree of know-why. Similarly, there once was a know-how book published by Popular Mechanics in 1950 that told you how to make a Stradivarius Violin [12]. However, it has been noted that when it comes to making Steinway Pianos or Stradivarius Violins, a lack of know-why is the reason why rivals are unable to consistently create instruments of comparable quality [7]: knowledge of why something works can therefore form the basis for sustainable competitive advantage as causal ambiguity aids inimitability..”.

To replicate and consistently achieve the same high quality without ‘working with the masters’, as Sri Nambi Narayanan puts it, is just not possible. The Vikas Engine delivered every single time, launch-after-launch, without a single failure. This is the value of know-why.

It is mind-boggling that some top investigators of a national agency proceeded under the assumption that drawings can be smuggled into Pakistan and turned into missiles with cryogenic engines. Senior IB official MK Dhar repeats in his autobiography [13] that: “They also did not appreciate the argument that peaceful space rocketry and militarised rockets used the same technology. Pakistan had an abiding interest in Indian rocket technology especially development of cryogenic engine technology.”

MK Dhar [13] also states that “Pakistan were in the midst of developing indigenous rocket technology, fuel and guidance systems. It was interested to acquire knowledge about cryogenic engine, which India was on the threshold of developing.” This claim is also fictitious as Narayanan has pointed out that India was not even remotely close to developing one. A 2010 book that surveyed the state of rocket development in Asia and South America [6] did not mention Pakistan in a list that included Iran and North Korea. Today, nearly thirty years after the alleged attempt to acquire the rocket know-how, Pakistan has gotten nowhere and perhaps does not even care. We know why.

Dhar’s last paragraphs are devoted to the ISRO case that derailed his final years at IB. The concluding words of Nambi Narayanan’s book are reserved for the late Mr. Dhar. They are in agreement that a full multi-agency investigation is required to expose the key conspirators.


In March 1994, Nambi Narayanan had put in another request, this time to UR Rao, to quit after the success of an upcoming PSLV launch, and yet again to the next ISRO chairman, Kasturirangan in August 1994. This last request was finally accepted but the fabricated case intervened three months later. He was reinstated into ISRO at its Bengaluru headquarters on July 1st, 1996. Five space science and technology domain experts: Satish Dhawan, UR Rao, Roddam Narasimha (IISc), Yash Pal (TIFR, UGC), and S Chandrashekar (ISRO, IIM), as well as TN Seshan were signatories to an open letter in 1997 asking for an end to the harassment of Nambi Narayanan and remarked that India’s strategic programs were no longer free of outside interference. The final judgment on the ‘spy case’ came in April 1998. He continued the fight in the courts, this time seeking compensation from the government. Narayanan officially retired in 2001. He was awarded the nation’s third highest honor, the Padma Bhushan for his contributions to science and engineering in 2019. In 2021, the Kerala State Government finally paid 1.3 Crore Rupees in damages. A biopic on his life, ‘Rocketry: The Nambi Effect’ was made by the acclaimed Tamizh and Indian movie artist, Ranganathan Madhavan, and released in July 2022 to rave reviews.


GSLV Mark-II, India’s largest launch vehicle when it was operationalized, employs an indigenously developed upper stage cryogenic engine. It has delivered several successful launches to date since January 2014 [8], nearly 20 years after the 1994 deal with Russia.

Padma Bhushan S. Nambi Narayanan is a living embodiment of a ‘Make in India’ spirit that refused to be broken.

GSLV Mark-II. Picture Link Source: Isro.gov

Footnote: Isp (Specific Impulse)

Isp = thrust produced / fuel weight flow [3], which simplifies to a time unit (seconds) and makes it easy to compare the efficiency of different rocket engines.

Pic Source Link: Specific Impulse (nasa.gov)

Nambi Narayanan: “Then there is the case of energy levels, called specific impulse in rocket science. A solid propulsion engine has a maximum specific impulse of 240 seconds, while a liquid engine has up to 295 seconds. A cryogenic engine has a specific impulse of more than 460. A higher specific impulse or energy level meant the need for lesser fuel or more payload mass to orbit.”.


  1. Nambi Narayanan and Arun Ram. Ready to Fire: How India and I Survived the ISRO Spy Case. Bloomsbury India. 2018.
  2. K. Ramamurthi. Rocket Propulsion: Video Lecture Series. IIT Madras. Circa 2013.
  3. NASA.gov. Beginner’s Guide to Rockets: Specific Impulse. Accessed July 26, 2022.
  4. Madhu Kishwar and Nambi Narayanan. “Shreekumar’s victim ISRO’s Nambi Narayanan spoke to Madhu Kishwar on 26/8/13 – YouTube”. 2013,
  5. Brian Harvey. Russia in Space: The Failed Frontier? Springer. 2001.
  6. Brian Harvey. Emerging Space Powers: The New Space Programs of Asia, the Middle East and South-America. Springer Praxis. 2010.
  7. Raghu Garud. On the distinction between know-how, know-why, and know-what. Advances in Strategic Management (14). 1997.
  8. ISRO.gov.in. Geosynchronous satellite launch vehicle (GSLV). Accessed July 26, 2022.
  9. APJ Abdul Kalam and Arun Tiwari. Wings of Fire: Autobiography of Abdul Kalam. Universities Press. 1999.
  10. B. Kolappan. From a log of wood to a symbol of melody. The Hindu. 2011.
  11. ezeep.com. The Difference Between Know-How & Know-Why. Accessed on July 26, 2022.
  12. Dwight McDonald. Against The American Grain. Random House. New York. 1962.
  13. Maloy Krishna Dhar. Open Secrets: The Explosive Memoirs of an Indian Intelligence Officer. 2018.

Indic Art Through Sketches

TCP is thrilled to present this amazing series of sketches by the artist, Devika Joglekar. You can follow her work on twitter and facebook, and visit the Miheika Art website to learn more.

Additional References:  IndicPortal’s Introduction to Natyasastra and Indian Music.

Dances of India

Bharatanatyam Mudra















Musical Instruments of India

















About the Artist

Devika ji is an award-winning animator, illustrator, and author based in the SFO Bay Area in California. The website miheika.com notes: “Miheika specializes in Clear Line style illustration and Flash animation. Over the years, Devika has infused life into several childrens’ story books and graphic novels, through her signature illustration and animation work.

TCP recommends the book ‘Mimi and Soni Learn How to Wear a Sari”. A delightful little illustrated story about two little girls who learn how to wear a Sari from Aaji (Grandma in Marathi) for Deepavali, much to the delight and surprise of their moms. A Kindle copy of the book is available at Amazon.

Through these sketches that celebrate India’s unity and diversity, we also recognize the shared heritage between Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra. A bond that was further strengthened by the kings of the Bhosle house, including the great Raja Serfoji 2 who ruled over Thanjavur, an important center of dharma and Indic art.

Tamil Nadu: The Land of Vedas – Part 1


The Sangam Era

Tamil Nadu: The Land of Vedas‘ is Dr. Nagaswamy‘s latest publication in a long series of scholarly works studying the history and culture of Tamil Nadu. Nagaswamy’s several decades of contributions in this area have lead to a better understanding and awareness among the people of Tamizh kalacharam in particular, and Indian Sanskriti as a whole.  Through this book, Nagaswamy demolishes several ill-formed and spurious assumptions and claims regarding Tamizh culture, history, and language that have been postulated in the last century. Leading Hindu and Indian-American intellectual Rajiv Malhotra, in this video below, shares his thoughts regarding the importance of this work.

New TV serial on Aryan/Dravidian conflict expected soon on Star Plus. Goldie Behl producer-director. I plead them to pause the project & consult scholars rather than politicize irresponsibly based on myth-makers & breaking India forces. This could be serious so please get involved in a responsible manner. Rajiv Malhotra

Posted by Rajiv Malhotra on Saturday, August 20, 2016

TCP painstakingly curated the content of Dr. Nagaswamy’s important talks demonstrating the fundamental dharmic links between Tolkappiyam, Silapathikaram, and Natya Shastra as part of a two-part series that demonstrated an integral unity between Tamizh and Sanskrit traditions. In the process of understanding the nature of this unity, it becomes evident that the culture of Tamizhs, while distinct, is not separate from other regional cultures in India since ancient times. Many of Nagaswamy’s prior works, including his lectures, are focused on this remarkable consonance between Tamizh and Sanskrit. In this new book, his research, expertise and wisdom come together to bring to the reader a fascinating and factual description of the Vedic culture of the Tamizh land. In doing so, his work reaffirms the philosophical unity of Bharatvarsha. This book is a fact-driven work representing several decades of research by Dr. Nagaswamy in four different areas:

  • Literature
  • Epigraphy and Inscriptions
  • Ancient Structures and Monuments
  • Darshana / Philosophy

The magnificient ancient temples of Tamil Nadu, with their proud Gopurams, majestically proclaim to the world that the land on which they stand is the land of dharma and Vedas. There is also a massive amount of historical and literary data directly attesting to the dharmic and Vedic basis of Tamizh society since ancient times. For example, Nagaswamy notes that the organization of Tolkappiyam, the first Tamizh grammar work, and its rules, is reflected in Vedic Pratisakyas and Paanini’s grammar, as shown by P. Subramanya Sastri. Furthermore, the marriage of Kannagi, the main character of Silapathikaram was conducted as per Vedic rites. Ancient Tamizh kings invited and rewarded thousands of meritorious brahmanas by providing them residences and land grants. It is worth noting that the necessary and stringent qualifications imposed by the Kings here. Rewards were not simply bestowed on the basis of birth, but required the individual to exhibit good conduct, maintain their vow of poverty, be a living embodiment of the Vedas, and demonstrate their adherence to dharma.

This first post briefly summarizes some key comments and insights provided by Nagaswamy in the chapter on Sangam literature.

link source: globalsecurity.org
link source: globalsecurity.org

Purananooru (Puram Anthology)

  • First two songs

This collection of poems has been recognized as the most authentic record of ancient Sangam literature without any latter additions. Nagaswamy points out to us the rich Vedic tradition and dharmic concepts present in this anthology which seamlessly spans the material and sacred domain. The first prayer song is attributed to Perumdevanaar who sang the Mahabharata in Tamizh, and the second to Mudinaagaraayar, the earliest known Tamizh poet in history. This latter fact is known to us thanks to Tamizh Thatha (grandfather) U. V. Swaminatha Iyer’s work with palm leaf manuscripts.  Legends like UV Swaminatha Iyer and Dharampal, through their decades of tireless seva, are true Bharat Ratnas. Mudinaagaraayar praises a Chera king in this song as a participant of the Kurushetra battle between the Kauravas and Pandavas. Nagaswamy’s commentary is extremely powerful and important, clearly bringing out the integral unity of India. He notes that even if this is were a case of poetic exaggeration, “it still makes clear, that this Tamil king did feel he was a part of this country and did not stand in isolation. The reference to Mahabharata war the king’s participation would show that the epic was a part of Tamil ethos at the very beginning of Tamil history, is an identity but not isolation. The Tamil territorial division and linguistic difference did not make them followers of an independent culture, but remained one with the rest of the country. Each region of India had its own boundaries and different dialects, but the culture remained one and the same. This song gives the Vedas a sacred and venerated place.

  • Avvaiyaar

The lady saint and poetess Avvai is deeply respected in Tamil Nadu to this day.

The lady saint and poetess Avvai is a most respected and revered saint of Tamil Nadu. A Sangam poem (in the puram anthology) describing the Rajasuya Yaagashaala by a Chola king was sung by her. The Chola king invited the Chera and Pandya king to attend, and both accepted. Thus we have the three crowned kings of Tamizhakam of the Sangam era participating in a sacred Vedic Yagna. This amazing sight gladdened the heart of Avvaiyaar, and led to the composition of the poem. The trinity of kings are recognized as the direct representatives of Tamizh society and its culture, as noted by Nagaswamy, and is emphatically expressed via the Tamizh saying “Mannan Uyirte Malar Talai Ulakam.  The king is the living embodiment of the nation. In her poem, the great Avvaiyaar notes that the the kings honored meritorious Brahmanas following a specific custom that is prescribed in the Dharmashastras. Avvaiyaar has praised the Vedas in her songs.

  • Yagnas and dharmayuddham

Poet Nettimaiyaar in verse 15 in the Puram section praises Pandya king Peruvaluti for the completion of many Vedic Yagnas as prescribed in the Vedas and directed by the Dharmashastras. These Yagnas were not merely ceremonial and occupied an important role in Tamizh life, and were guided by Vedic Brahmanas of the Sangam era.  This is also seen in Avvaiyaar’s poem and even the Tolkappiyam. This fact demolishes any claim of Vedic priests not being present in the Sangam era. In fact the Tamizhs performed two types of Vedic Yagnas (Velvi). The Kala Velvi is performed by the farmers who follow their dharma, and the Mara kala Velvi is done by the kings after victory in the battlefield, who followed the kshatriya dharma. Thus the farming and warrior communities of the Sangam era commemorated and celebrated their successes by connecting to and dedicating their work to the divine via Vedic Yagnas. The poem refers to the marriage festival as Vaduvai, which is derived from the Sanskrit term for marriage.

Battles were fought by Tamizh kings in accordance with the dharmasastras, for e.g., ensuring that innoncents were not killed, with due warning given to civilians so that they could ensure their safety before the battle started. The Tolkappiyam states that the warring kings had to make sure that women, children, Brahmanas, the sick, and the cows would be protected.

  • Respect for Brahmanas in Tamizhakam

Puram poem 43 mentions an interesting episode that highlights the need to respect a group of Brahmana Rishis who were revered for their sacrifices on behalf of humanity. To teach a Chola prince who insulted such a Brahmana, the story is told by a poet of the great King Sibi who followed the path of dharma and whose self-sacrifice astounded even the selfless Rishis.

link source: university4children.blogspot.com
link source: university4children.blogspot.com

Sibi was recognized by the ancient Tamizhs as an ancestor of Cholas. This story is also known in the Jataka tales of Buddhism that originated far north, and is praised in the Silapathikaram and later Tamizh poems. Clearly, there is no trace of north-south divide here.  The prince realized his mistake, and poet too relented. The poet blesses the land with prosperity as long as the sands of river Kaveri remain.

  • Karma and reincarnation

Karma and Maru Janmam (Punar Janam, rebirth) are two non-negotiable beliefs held not just Hindus, but also by Jains and Buddhists. These are fundamental truth claims of dharma thought systems. Puram poem 27, sung by Saatanaar, an adviser to the Chola king, echoes this belief, and clearly this was part of the ancient Tamizh culture and belief system.

  • Vinnantaayan

Nagaswamy cites verse 166 sung by Avur Mulam Kilaar in praise of a Brahmana named Vinnantaayan (Vishnu Dasa) of the Chola country, as a very important one for understanding the Vedic studies in Tamil Nadu. Nagaswamy notes “this poem points to the immense faith the ancient Tamil society had for Brahmanas as leaders among the men of knowledge“.

Vinnantaayan is praised for as performer of a variety of Yagnas and as a descendant of the foremost men of learning who were well versed in the dharmasastras.  His family had studied all four Vedas as well as the six Vedangas. The  Sangam Tamizhs were familiar with the visualization of the shandangas as six limbs of the body:

  • Kalpa (hand)
  • Chandas (leg)
  • Jyotisam (eye, Kanakku in Tamizh)
  • Nirukta (ear)
  • Siksha (nose, Brahmam in Tamizh)
  • Vyakarana (mouth)
Note the word 'Kanakku' or calculation in Tamizh for Jyotisam. Vedanga Jyotisha contains Ganita (calculation).

Vinnantaayan did a Purva-Paksha of other dharmic systems that refuted some aspects of the Vedas, and is known to have debated and defeated several such opponents using brilliant arguments. Thus we see Sangam Tamizhs were not only followers but also leaders and defenders of India’s Vedic tradition.

Nagaswamy states that this poem provides an example of Vedic lifestyle in Tamil Nadu at the start of the first century CE, i.e., around 2000 years ago, and that were many such Brahman families living in the Kaveri delta at the time. Sangam literature also highlights the centrality and sacredness of Kaveri to Tamil Nadu, which remains to this day.

  • Taittiriya Upanisad

Pulaviyanaar’s song about the famous Pandya king Nedum Chezhiyan is recognized by Nagaswamy as another important one that depicts the Vedic basis of ancient Tamil Nadu. The poet while celebrating the king’s victories as a vanquisher of the nation’s enemies, exhorts him to also be a protector and sustainer of people, noting that this is the way to everlasting fame. The passages in the Taitreya Upanishad highlighting the importance of food, light, and water are then translated into Tamizh by the Sangam Poet and sung in the aftermath of the battle of Talaialanganam where thousands of lives were lost. Nagaswamy notes: “this is perhaps the earliest translation of the Taitreya Upanishad, Brguvalli, in any regional language. This is an important illustration of Vedic Upanishad absorbed in the earliest of Tamil literature and expressed in lovely Tamil. It is also an unimpeachable evidence of amalgamation of Vedic and Tamil culture… The poem also proves the Tamil society is irrefutably based on the four “Purusharthas” (the four foundational pillars Dharma, Artha, Kama, Moksa) of the Vedic tradition.

We have discussed just a few snippets from a large body of amazing facts in this chapter that includes discussions on:

  • Van Paranar
  • Pattiru Pattu
  • Patthu Pattu
  • Ain-kurunuru
  • Paripadal
  • Dating sangam literature
  • Natural evolution of sanskrit
  • Copper plates, hero stones, Pulmkuruchi inscription
  • Stratigraphic evidence

Beyond all this direct material evidence, we find within the conduct and expressed beliefs of all illustrious Tamizh saints and scholars since ancient times, an unswerving commitment to Satya, the Truth, that is the foundation of the Vedas and Indic civilization.

We will continue this discussion in Part-2.

Tamil Nadu, The Land of Vedas is available for purchase at the Tamil Arts Academy, Chennai.

Personalities: M. S. Subbulakshmi

source: msstribute.org
source: msstribute.org
I should prefer to hear "Hari tum haro" spoken by Subbulakshmi than sung by others - Mahatma Gandhi

Popularly known as ‘M.S’ or ‘MS Amma’, M. S. Subbulakshmi is not only one of the greatest exponents of an ancient vocal music tradition of India that can be traced back to the Samaveda, she is also a Bhakti saint of the modern area.  Hers was an unselfish life completely devoted to Sangeetam, dharma, and danam. The divinity in her music transcended man-made limitations to touch the atmas of listeners all over the world.


M.S. Subbulakshmi was born on September 16, 1916 to Subramania Iyer,  a Tamizh Brahman, and Shanmukavadivu Ammal, an immensely talented music artist hailing from the sacred Devadasi tradition of temple dancers and musicians. Her initials are derived from the ancient Tamizh city of Madurai where she was born, and her mother Shanmukavadivu.  Her musical journey began at home and her mother was her first guru. She learned to sing and play musical instruments, and her amazing skill level was achieved not by mastering the formal music sheets employed in the west, but through the distinct traditional Indian method of ’embodied learning’ from Guru to Sishya. As MS recalls “My earliest interest in music was focused on the raga. I would try to reproduce the pipers as well as I could. My mother played and rehearsed constantly. No formal lessons, but I absorbed a whole wealth by listening and humming along with the veena.” Her approach to music practice and training was like that of a Yogi. She was a child prodigy who received the blessings and instant admiration of virtually every leading Carnatic vocalist of that era who heard her sing. Her first song recorded at age 10 was in Tamizh, devoted to Lord Muruga, with her mother accompanying her on the Veena.

Her first public performance the same year at her Madurai school included a Marathi song. She never looked back and went from strength to strength, her god-given voice and talent enthralling audiences eveywhere, transcending language barriers.

In the 1930s she met Thyagaraja Sadasivam, a freedom fighter and artist who co-founded the famous patriotic Tamizh weekly Kalki. Sadasivam, the son of Tyagarajan and Mangalam Iyer, was deeply influenced by the Indian freedom movement, especially ‘Lal-Bal-Pal’ and Sri Aurobindo. MS shared the dharmic and patriotic views of Sadasivam, and the two were married in 1940. By all accounts, her husband played a positive role in her successful career, a fact that MS recalled when she was awarded the Bharat Ratna.

MS was a devotee of Kanchi Mahaswamigal and most of her royalties and earnings from music were given to charity. She had great concern for the people around her, enquiring about their health and their family, and graciously donating the amount received for her concert to any good cause that needed financial support. Humility was her adornment. Once her husband Sri Sadasivam quoted that she did not know how many ciphers followed number 1 for one lakh! If a child asked her casually to sing a song for him/her, she would sing without any hesitation.

MS Subbulakshmi’s concerts all over India and around the world brought the sacred music of Carnatic to audiences that had heard mostly Hindustani classical from Indian musicians before. Some notable overseas concerts include:

  • Festival of Arts in Edinburgh (1963)
  • US fund-raising tour for the Flushing temple in NYC and the Pittsburgh temple (1977)
  • Carnegie Hall, New York City (1977)
  • Festival of India in London (1982) and Moscow (1988)

She started her movie career in 1938 with Sevasadanam, and acted in some memorable movies based on dharmic themes, including Sankuntalai and Savitri, where she played Narada Muni, which helped fund the nationalist magazine Kalki. She reserved the best for her last role in, and as the Bhakti saint Meera in Tamizh in 1945 (and later, in Hindi).

"In the Bombay Studio where the Meera score was recorded:, it was the same story. Artists who came for other recordings would stop by and become rapt listeners. A thin newcomer, two long plaits dangling behind, refused to record her song after the M.S. session." "Not now, not after that!" She went on to become a legend in her own right as Lata Mangeshkar, while continuing to remain a devoted M.S. fan" - Frontline (2004).

In 1963, the famous Venkatesha Suprabatam album was released, and this was soon followed by her famous concert in the UN.  Her sublime rendering of Vishnu Sahasranamam and Bhaja Govindam were released as albums in 1970. The Tirumala Tirupathi Devasathanam began broadcasting her Venkateshwara Suprabhatam in 1975 forever uniting the sacred verse with her voice. The Annamacharya Pancharatna Album (Telugu) was released in 1980. She gave innumerable charity concerts with the proceeds going to noble causes. Her last concert was in June 1997 and she never sang in public after her husband passed away later that year. Her selfless service to India, her Bhakti, and adherence to dharma without expecting anything in return, elevated her to the position of a saint in the eyes of many. She left her physical body on December 11, 2004, but her nishkama karma  will continue to be an inspiration for generations to come.

Achievements and Notable Awards

  • Asthana Vidwaan of Tirumala Tirupathi Devasthanam
  • Bharat Ratna (1998, first musician to receive this award)
  • Padma Bhushan (1954), Padma Vibhushan (1975)
  • Sangeet Natak Academy Award (1956)
  • Ravindra Bharathi Cultural Academy’s Award (1967)
  • Isai Periaringar Virudhu, by Tamil Isai Sangam (1970)
  • Fellow of the Sangeet Natak Academy (1974)
  • Desikottama, Vishwa Bharati University at Shantiniketan (1981)
  • Kalidas Samman, Government of Madhya Pradesh (1988)
  • Swaralaya Puraskar (1997)


MS started and ended the daily cycle of activities in Southern India. Her Kaatrinile Varum Geetam is the earliest song in my memory, in a mother’s comforting voice as her child sleepily dozed off into the night, to wake up the next morning to Kowsalya Supraja Rama Poorva Sandhya Pravarthathe.. from her Venkatesa Suprabatam. MS Amma thus became an integral part of many Indian families in this endless cycle of night and day.

MS Subbulakshmi was universally recognized by admirers and critics alike as an outstanding singer of Carnatic music and devotional songs.  She was noted for her precision in pronunciation; a crispness not only in Sanskrit, but any language in which she sung. While the aesthetic heights, Shruti Suddham, diction, and effortless genius of her singing have been explained by Carnatic aficionados and music connoseiurs, the sacredness and divinity in her songs can be experienced by everyone.  What do I care of technical excellence when the bhava and depth of her Bhajans shreds through all my carefully acquired layers of false projections and reconnects to the divine latent within? For me, to hear MS Subbulakshmi sing is to feel a stirring sense of bhakti, but the voice i hear within me belongs to my mother.

"What is this almost transcendental quality behind the unfailing rapture? ... Many would attribute it to the Indian Bhakti tradition of poetry and song to which the singer belonged...The Bhakti polarities of seeking and finding, loss and conquest, desire and fulfilment are realised in their verses." -Frontline (2004)

***  Adi Sankara’s Bhaja Govindam ***

In the 1940s, MS retraced the journey of Meera before she enacted that role in one of the greatest Indian motion pictures ever made. When she sang in the praise of Giridhara Gopala, the listeners were thrilled, be they king, prime minister, or commoner. Those who heard MS Subbulakshmi sing in praise of Krishna during this pilgrimage regarded her as the reincarnation of Meerabai. I visited Chittorgarh earlier this year to pay humble tribute to the heroic Indian women and men who resisted the tyranny of invaders and conquered even death in that process. There is also a mandir of Meera, who, through her Bhakti, defeated the tyranny of ego and secular materialism that invades our sacred realm.

copyright: Tamizh Cultural Portal

MS sang there too. ‘Kalki’ Krishnamurthy recorded the events that transpired that day:  “Among the ruins a single structure stands unscathed, its loveliness undimmed. This is the Krishna shrine built by the Rana of Chittor for Meerabai, to grant her request during the (happy) days of their married life before he turned against her. When Subbulakshmi sat in the Lord’s sanctum and sang the songs of Meera, every one of us had the same thought: Meerabai had sung the same songs from the same spot in rapturous devotion! M.S. shed tears as she sang. Everyone had moist eyes. Most remarkable was the sight of the old, half blind temple priest, going off into a sudden trance, clapping his hands in rhythm to Meera’s songs.

Thus when she was young, MS was already a living saint in the minds of many in Northern and Southern India. And that is a most simple and natural Indian way to ‘sainthood’, not by marketing and institutional certification post-mortem. Her mystical, youthful beauty as princess Meera was akin to a ‘Kovil Silai’, and captured on-camera by Ellis Dungan. She made famous the blue Kanchipuram saree, which became popular as ‘MS blue’.

source: sangam.org
source: sangam.org

Her fame spread far and wide after concerts all over the world. When she sang Maitreem Bhajata composed by Kanchi Mahaswamigal, at the United Nations during the height of the cold war in 1966, she shared Hinduism’s ancient and universal message of mutual respect and harmony with a global audience – perhaps the most powerful, sincere, and profound anti-war and dharmic message ever put to verse and sung on a global modern stage.  When she sings Kurai Ondrum Illai..  composed by Rajaji: I have no regrets, O Lord Venkateshwara, even if you are in a place where my mortal eyes cannot reach…, the divinity and Bhava simultaneously overwhelms and comforts the Rasika.

The power of her singing is such, we feel that additional accompaniment or harmonies only detract from the pure, integral unity of the sacred song. This unity, which is a salient feature of Indic traditions, is a reason how a simple Tamizh girl from Madurai could authentically and confidently re-enact Meera of Rajasthan.

(source: Chittorgarh.com)
(source: Chittorgarh.com)

She was not acting like Meera. She was Meera reincarnated who bridged the north-south divide fabricated by colonialism. Questions like “Why are you making this film in the Madrasi language? Why not in Hindi?” quickly dissolved into admiration and wonder. The quintessential Tamizh song ‘Kaatrinile‘ in that movie, which is deeply embedded in the hearts of millions of Tamizhs is inspired by bhajans from Bengal.

The Bhakti movement that originated in the Tamizh land several centuries ago and reached Rajasthan and all other parts of India came back to Tamil Nadu via ‘Meera’. That was her last movie, and what a way to sign off the big screen. MS aged gracefully, her beauty undiminished, carrying herself with a charm and poise that only a true Yogi and Sattvic lifestyle can achieve. When MS finished her concerts, large sections of the audience, young and old, did their namaskarams to her, recognizing an enlightened atma – the youthful saint who became MS Amma.

**Documentary on MS**

"Every citizen of this great land is a Ratna." - MS Subbulakshmi


  1. http://www.msstribute.org/
  2.  http://www.dnaindia.com/analysis/report-m-s-subbulakshmi-why-this-legendary-musician-is-like-no-other-2185036
  3. https://www.theguardian.com/news/2004/dec/17/guardianobituaries.india
  4. http://www.thehindu.com/fr/2004/09/17/stories/2004091702890600.htm
  5. http://www.frontline.in/static/html/fl2126/stories/20041231006400900.htm
  6. ‘M.S.Subbulakshmi – A Divine Maestro’, by K.S. Mahadevan.
  7. ‘Following MS around the country’, by C. Ramakrishnan
  8. http://www.thehindu.com/fr/2004/12/17/stories/2004121700410500.htm
  9. http://www.thehindu.com/2004/12/12/stories/2004121215950100.htm


Thanks to the amazing n.r.i. pathi for his pointers, data, editing, and feedback.

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’.