Tholkaapiyam, the Oldest Tamil Book

– An Introduction

By Kumar Punithavel

Kumar Punithavel

Though Tholkaapiyam is considered to the the old­est written text available written in Tamil, it is referred to as a book of grammar, and is believed to be about 3000 years old. It differs from other grammar books in that, it while providing the grammar for Tamil it also provides the guide and grammar for life and living, of Tamil populous. With the repeated foreign invasions, many of the Tamil heritage have been lost by merging differ­ent ethos. Today Tholkaapiyam survives only as a document to refer to, and know how the Tamilian race lived a very cultured way of life, and their wisdom, about three thousand years ago. In the last millennia many foreigners had sub­jugated the Tamils. As recently as in the last two centuries it was the Dutch, Portuguese and the British who ruled over them. Previous that too, there had been many invasions from the north of India. It is frequently the more barbaric race that wins over the civilized race for want of valour.

The epic book of grammar Tholkaapiyam, of Tamil language and Tamilian ways of life, has three subdivisions called athikaram. In the ancient times writing was a very difficult task. In order to economize long writing the essentials are written in the form of aphorisms called noot­paa literally meaning book verse. The book has a total of 1,612 aphorism or nootpaas. It has been sub divided into three subdivisions, and the first subdivision is called Eluthu-athikaram in which letters and its phonetics are dealt with. It also shows how they copulate with one another form­ing combined sounds etc. It is interesting to note that the length of time for a particular syllable is said to be a mathirai. It further goes to the extent of defining the time period for a mathirai as the time taken to wink the eye or snap thefingers. This Eluthu-athikaram is subdivided into nine parts.

The second subdivision or athikaram (அதிகாரம்) is titled Chol-athikaram (சொல்லதிகாரம்), meaning subdivision of words where extensive grammar is dealt with like noun, verb, adjective and adverb, together with other neces­sary conditions of writing etc. It is interesting to note that the author has identified and catego­rized four different group of words to be used in poetry. They are Iyatchol (இயற்சொல்) or natural words (mean­ing the traditional original words), Thirichol (திரிச்சொல்) distorted words, Vadachol (வடசொல்), meaning northern words (words that got infiltrated from the north, from languages such as Sanskrit) and Thisaichol (திசைச்சொல்) mean­ing the words that came into Tamil from around the world. In those times Tamils did sea trades around the world. Interestingly Tamil has giv­en many words to the lexicon of other languages too. British who ruled the Tamil nation took away words like anicut and catamaran etc. from Tamil language for their usage. Understandably the au­thor had viewed the world like the poet Kaniyan poonkundranar (கணியன் பூங்குன்றனார்) of that time, who had composed a famous poem in the anthology Purananooru (புறநானூறு) of Sangam literature as யாதும் ஊரே யாவரும் கேளிர் ; meaning ‘the world is my hamlet and the hu­manity is my kin’, expecting the languages to keep changing, accepting knowledge from everywhere.

The third subdivision is very special for Tamil language and is titled Porul-athikaram (பொருளதிகாரம்). The word ‘porul’ literally means subject matter, and for a language the subject matter is the people who use that language. In this case the Tamil race of that time. The author has devoted a complete subdivi­sion for the grammar of the Tamil people of that time. To this day no other language grammar had thought of giving the prosody or the constitution for its people way of living. It is here the book covers the two genres of Sangam literature, the aham (அகம்) and puram (புறம்). Aham deals with the individu­als’ personal life like love, erotic and other emo­tional matters. And Puram deals with individu­al’s interaction with exterior world like society, virtue, valour, war etc.

Interestingly aham has been further divided into two distinct parts as kalaviyal (களவியல்) dealing with premarital love and relationships, and Katpiyal (கற்பியல்) on post marital relationships. People were identi­fied by the topography and terrain they lived in. There were four distinct landscapes mentioned. They were Kurunji (குறிஞ்சி), the mountainous area, Neithal (நெய்தல்), the sea and seashore, Marutham (மருதம்),the agricul­tural field lands, Mullai (முல்லை), the forest lands. And the people followed professions suitable to their sur­roundings where they lived, like agriculture, fishing, hunting, cattle rearing etc. During those times they had maintained their identity with wearing garlands made from their terrain to distinct one from the other. Each had their own god / deity to protect them. Apart from these specialized deities of the terrain, there were other deities too. Kotra­vai (கொற்றவை), the feminine deity was considered as deity to be prayed, for blessings, before going for a war. Understandably her name is derived from the Tamil word kottram (கொற்றம்), which means victory, successor bravery.

It must be mentioned here, in the days gone by, Thiruvalluvar (திருவள்ளுவர்) took a respectable place in Tamil culture where it was pointed out by the great Tamil poet and law giver in his epic book Thirukkural (திருக்குறள்) mentioned in couplet 76 mentions;

The unwise deem love virtue only can sustain, it also helps the man who evil would restrain

It is mentioned in Tholkaapiyam, the men who lost their lives in the defense of their homeland were honored and remembered by erecting a granite monument called ‘Nadu Kal’ (நடு கல்), which literarily means planted granite stone. But, in spite of many diverse deities and worshiping customs they lived a life of peace and harmony, until the foreign inva­sion which toppled the peaceful way of life. Another interesting feature is they had no hierarchal order among themselves as men­tioned in sastras of other parts of India.

During those times a Tamil girl could choose her life partner as per her wish, with­out any restriction. The partner was decid­ed on her hearts desire or a brave lad was selected from the celebrations of Jallikattu (ஜல்லிக்கட்டு), where a young lad subdues ferocious bull bare handed while the whole village watches. Unlike bull fights it the west, the life of the bull is spared. In those times a person’s wealth was judged by the number of live­stock he had in his herd. The word maadu (மாடு) in Tamil has two connotations. One is cow and other is wealth.

Leaving the exact date, Tholkaapiyam was authored aside, all learned would agree that Tholkaapiyam is a great book of grammar of Tamil language and also spelling out the ethos to live by, for the Tamil people. It has to be cherished and preserved for the benefit of the future generations.

(This piece was originally published in the Monsoon Journal; republished here with some changes -Editor)