The picture shows the urn with the rudimentary Tamil-Brahmi script, and a human skeleton and miniature pots at the Iron Age urn burial site at Adichanallur in Tamil Nadu. The inset with the arrow mark depicts how the script has been written inside the urn. — Photo courtesy: ASI, Chennai Circle.

CHENNAI, FEB. 16. A piece of writing has been discovered inside an urn at the Iron Age burial site at Adichanallur, 24 km from Tirunelveli town in Tamil Nadu. The script has six letters. The urn has a human skeleton in it along with miniature pots. What is unusual is that the script was inscribed inside the urn after it was baked. Normally, scripts are inscribed on the outer surface of urns.

The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), Chennai Circle, made this discovery when it resumed its excavation at Adichanallur after about 100 years. Dr. T. Satyamurthy, Superintending Archaeologist and Director of the excavation, first noticed the script. He has proposed that the piece of writing is in very rudimentary Tamil-Brahmi. M.D. Sampath, retired Director, Epigraphy, ASI, Mysore, also "suggested that the writing is in Tamil-Brahmi in a rudimentary form." Dr. Sampath says he has "tentatively read" the script as "Ka ri a ra va [na] ta." He says the script has seven letters.

The scope of this topic is very wide. I have tried to summarize the views of various scholars when they try to Introduce Tamil to readers in their respective books. I feel this essay would be the right place to start my mini series on Tamil Literature studies.

Tamil Etymology:
What does the word Tamil mean? Let’s have a look at the Tamil Lexicon entry for the word Tamil.

தமிழ் tamiḻ
, n. perh. தமி¹. cf. dramiḍa. 1. Sweetness, melodiousness; இனிமை. (பிங்.) 2. Refined quality; நீர்மை. (பிங்.) 3. Tamil language, being divided into iyaṟ-ṟamiḻ, icai-t-tamiḻ, nāṭaka-t-tamiḻ; இயற்றமிழ், இசைத்தமிழ், நாடகத் தமிழ் என மூவகையாக வழங்கும் மொழி. 4. Tamil literature, Tamil work; தமிழ் நூல். 5. The Tamils; தமிழர். அருந்தமி ழாற்ற லறிந்திலர் (சிலப். 26, 161). 6. The Tamil country; தமிழ்நாடு. தண் டமிழ் வினைஞர் (மணி. 19, 109).

Texual reference for the word Tamil:

  • The earliest textual reference of this word can be found in Tolkappiyam, the earliest tamil work( Ur text of the book can be as early as 100 B.C. – though the book has lot of interpolations). In Tolkappiyam Eluttatikaram 386 the following words occur ‘ Tamil en kilavi’ meaning ‘the word Tamil’.
  • We also have two more occurrences of the word Centamil (‘refined Tamil’) in Tolkappiyam Colatikkaram(398.3 ,400.2).
  • The preface to Tolkappiyam (later than the original text) also has occurrence of Tamil and Centamil.
  • In the Sangam Literature (1 AD to 3 AD) there are atleast 14 references to Tamil.

The term is found in following meanings,

  • Tamil Language (Puram 50.10,58.13 etc.)
  • Tamil Country ( Puram 51.5)
  • Tamil Warriors/army (Puram 19.2, Patirupattu 63.9)
  • Tamil Literature (Cirpanaatrupadai 66)

Etymology of Tamil[1] is connected with

  • tami – ‘solitude;loneliness’–> ‘solitariness,uniqueness’ or
  • tam- sweet , il- sound –> our sweet sound or
  • Tamir ’the proper(excellent) process(of speaking)’

The word ‘Dravida’ is etymologically connected to Tamil. Development suggested is as follows,
tamir > damil > damila > dravida.

Origins of Tamil:

Origins of Tamil are still left to speculation. As far as we know Tamil Language is member of the Dravidian Language Family. The name Dravidian for the language chain was coined by R.Cladwell in 1856 on the base of the Sanskrit term Dravida found in 7th century A.D.. Tamil is the oldest of the surviving Dravidian languages.

How old is Tamil? This question has resulted in many answers but none of them with any definitive proof, especially with a Language which has been dependent on Oral tradition for long time. Tamil has majorly been an oral Language. As per widely accepted theory the earliest system of Tamil writing is either called Tamil Brahmi or Dameli, is borrowed from the Ashokan Brahmi and changed to the phonetically needs of Tamil. The writing system came as late as 250BC (Ashoka period 272-232 BC). So any historical data regarding Tamil can be obtained only after the writing system got introduced.

The generally admitted fact by various scholars in historical Dravidian Linguistics is that Proto-South Dravidian linguistic unity disintegrated some time between 8th-6th century B.C. and Tamil began to be cultivated as literary language sometime about 4th or 3rd century B.C. During this period, pre literary Tamil developed into Old Tamil. Old Tamil is the first recorded stage of any Dravidian Language. This was followed by final stages of Tamil – Kannada split and beginning of ancient Tamil literature, which was accompanied by conscious efforts of grammarians and body formed by poetic bards to set up some kind of norm – a literary standard. This standard defined the refined, elegant ,high Tamil- ‘Centamil’. This was followed by creating of literature of High standard and descriptive grammar work Tolkappiyam[2].

Epigraphic Evidences:

There are at least 11 sites with Tamil Brahmi script dated to 2nd century B.C[3].
The following sites are listed by Iravatham Mahadevan to be dated to 2nd Century B.C. with Tamil Brahmi scripts,

1. Mangulam
2. Arittapatti
3. Tiruvadavur
4. Kilavalavu
5. Kongarpuliyankulam
6. Marukaltalai
7. Varichiyur
8. Vikkiramangalam
9. Mettupatti
10. Karungalakkudi
11. Mudalaikulam

Adichanallu excavations have brought to light rudimentary Brahmi scripts, approximately dated to 500 B.C.[4], if these dates are confirmed this could change a lot of perceptions on Tamil Language.

Based on available and attested sources we can safely say that literary Tamil began by around 3rd Century BC. New evidences can push this period further to 5th century B.C. but I would safely assume 3rd century period based on attested data.

Part 2 – Sanskrit the magic wand?

Part 3 – Unique nature of Tamil

Foot Notes:

[1] Etymology of Tamil is discussed in detail by Dr.Zvelebil in his Companion studies to History of Tamil History, pg. ix-xvii
[2] The Smile of Murugan: On Tamil Literature of South India by Kamil Zvelebil, pg. 4-5
[3] Early Tamil Epigraphy: From the Earliest Times to the Sixth Century A.D. by Iravatham Mahadevan, pg.97

Reference and Further Study:

  • The Smile of Murugan : On Tamil Literature of South India by Kamil Zvelebil
  • Companion studies to History of Tamil History
  • Tamil Literature by Kamil Zvelebil
  • Poems of Ancient Tamil: Their Milieu and Their Sanskrit Counterparts by George L. Hart
  • Tamil Heroic Poetry by K.Kailasapathy
  • The Eight Anthologies by J.R. Marr
  • The Interior Landscape: Love Poems from a Classical Tamil Anthology by A.K.Ramanujan
  • Pattupattu: Ten Tamil Idylls by J.V. Chelliah
  • A History of South India from prehistoric times to the fall of Vijayanagar by K.A.Nilakantasastri
  • Early Tamil Epigraphy : From the Earliest Times to the Sixth Century A.D. by Iravatham Mahadevan
  • Tamil Lexicon – University of Madras

Literary Evidence

According to th Kumari Kandam tradition, over a period of about just 11,000 years, the Pandyans, a historical dynasty of Tamil kings, formed three Tamil Sangams, in order to foster among their subjects the love of knowledge, literature and poetry. These Sangams were the fountain head of Tamil culture and their principal concern was the perfection of the Tamil language and literature. The first two Sangams were not located in what is now South India but in antediluvian Tamil land to the south which in ancient times bore the name of Kumari Kandam, literally the Land of the Virgin or Virgin Continent.

The first Sangam was head-quartered in a city named Then-madurai (Southern Madurai). It was patronised by a succession of eighty-nine kings and survived for an unbroken period of 4,400 years during which time it approved an immense collection of poems and literature. At the end of that golden age, the First Sangam was destroyed when a deluge arose and Then-madurai itself was swallowed by the sea along with large parts of the land area of Kumari Kandam.

However, the survivors, saving some of the books, were able to relocate further north. They established a Second Sangam in a city called Kavatapuram which lasted 3,700 years. The same fate befell this city as well, when it too was swallowed by the sea and lost forever all its works with the sole exception of the Tolkappiyam, a work on Tamil grammar. Following the inundation of Kavatapuram, the survivors once again relocated northward in a city identified with modern Madurai in Tamilnadu, then known as Vada-madurai (Northern Madurai). The Third Sangam lasted for a period of 1850 years and most scholars agree that that Sangam terminated around 350 AD.

Literary evidence of the lost continent of Kumari Kandam comes principally from the literature of the Third Tamil Sangam and the historical writings based on them. Many of them refer to the lost Tamil lands and to the deluges which ancient peoples believed had swallowed those lands. The Silappathikaram, a well known Tamil literary work, for instance mentions, “ the river Prahuli and the mountain Kumari surroundered by many hills being submerged by the raging sea”.

The Kalittogai, another literary work, specifically refers to a Pandyan king losing territories to the sea and compensating the loss by conquering new territories from the Chera and Chola rulers to the north. In his commentary on the Tolkappiyam, Nachinarkiniyar mentions that the sea submerged forty-nine nadus (districts), south of the Kumari river. Adiyarkkunelar, a medieval commentator, says that before the floods, those forested and populated lands between the Prahuli and Kumari rivers stretched 700 kavathams, ie for about 1,000 miles. As observed by Prof.(Dr) M. Sunderam, “The tradition of the loss of a vast continent by deluge of the sea is too strong in the ancient Tamil classics to be ignored by any serious type of inquiry.”

Archaeological & Geological Evidence

A discovery made by a team of marine archaeologists from India’s National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) in March 1991 has begun to bring about a sea-change. Working the off-shore of Tarangambadi-Poompuhar coast in Tamilnadu near Nagapattinam, a research vessel equipped with side-scan sonar, identified a man-made object and described it as “ a horse shoe shaped structure”. In 1993, it was examined again and NIO’s diver archaeologists reported that the U-shaped structure lies at a depth of 23 metres and about 5 kms offshore. 

The significance of that discovery is that it is a much older structure to any discovered earlier. Subsequent explorations carried out by Graham Hancock and his team, who working in association with Dr Glen Milne, a specialist in glacio-isotacy and glaciation induced sea-level change, were able to show that areas at 23 metres depth would have submerged about 11,000 years before the present time or 9,000 BC. The historical significance of that fact is that it makes the U-shaped structure 6,000 years older than the first monumental architecture of Egypt or of ancient Sumer or Mesopotamia (in present day Iraq) dated around 3,000 BC and traditionally regarded as the oldest civilisations of antiquity.

The Durham geologists led by Dr. Glen Milne have shown in their maps that South India between 17,000-7,000 years ago extended southward below Cape Comorin (Kanya Kumari) incorporating present day Ilankai/ Sri Lanka. It had an enhanced offshore running all the way to the Equator. The maps portray the region as no history or culture is supposed to have known it. The much larger Tamil homeland of thousands of years ago as described in the Kumari Kandam tradition takes shape. It supports the opening of the Kumari Kandam flood tradition set in the remote pre-historic period of 12,000 –10,000 years ago. The inundation specialists confirm that between 12,000-10,000 years ago Peninsular India’s coastlines would have been bigger than what they are today before they were swallowed up by the rising seas at the end of the Last Ice Age.

With its description of submerged cities and lost lands, the Kumari Kandam tradition predicted that pre-historic ruins more than 11,000 years old should lie underwater at depths and locations off Tamilnadu’s coast. The NIO’s discovery and Dr. Milne’s calculations now appear to confirm the accuracy of that prediction. At that period of time, Ilankai/ Sri Lanka was part and parcel of South India. It is, however, in the inundation map for 10,600 years ago as seen that the island to the south of Kanya Kumari had disappeared to a dot, and the Maldives further ravaged.

But more importantly, a neck of sea is seen separating Tuticorin in South India from Mannar in what is now Ilankai/ Sri Lanka. It is however in the map for 6,900 years ago that the separation of Ilankai/ Sri Lanka from the South Indian mainland is complete as it is today. Ilankai/ Sri Lanka’s separate existence as an island, so it seems, began 6,900 years ago or circa 4,900 BC. 

Tamil Mathematics:
1 – ஒன்று
3/4 – முக்கால்
1/2 – அரை
1/4 – கால்
1/5 – நாலுமா
3/16 – மூன்று வீசம்
3/20 – மூன்றுமா
1/8 – அரைக்கால்
1/10 – இருமா
1/16 – மாகாணி(வீசம்)
1/20 – ஒருமா
3/64 – முக்கால்வீசம்
3/80 – முக்காணி
1/32 – அரைவீசம்
1/40 – அரைமா
1/64 – கால் வீசம்
1/80 – காணி
3/320 – அரைக்காணி முந்திரி
1/160 – அரைக்காணி
1/320 – முந்திரி
1/102400 – கீழ்முந்திரி
1/2150400 – இம்மி
1/23654400 – மும்மி
1/165580800 – அணு
1/1490227200 – குணம்
1/7451136000 – பந்தம்
1/44706816000 – பாகம்
1/312947712000 – விந்தம்
1/5320111104000 – நாகவிந்தம்
1/74481555456000 – சிந்தை
1/489631109120000 – கதிர்முனை
1/9585244364800000 – குரல்வளைப்படி
1/575114661888000000 – வெள்ளம்
1/57511466188800000000 – நுண்மணல்
1/2323824530227200000000 – தேர்த்துகள்

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