Cankam Literature Composed in South India Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The early Caṅkam literature is poignant, often beautiful, and, most important, a relatively pure representation of Tamil culture before it was influenced significantly by northern Aryan culture.

Summary of Event

Caṅkam, or Śangam, refers to the earliest stratum of Tamil literature. According to legend, it was the product of an academy of poets who met under the patronage of Pāndyan kings; however, in truth, there were several patrons, including Chēra and Chola royalty. The poems were classified into two groups according to sentiment. The first were composed of akam, or interior, poems, usually about love or life as seen from within the family. The second type, puram, or exterior, poems, referred to life outside the family. Puram poetry dealt with such subjects as good or evil actions, war, and community or kingdom. Such public poetry celebrated the ferocity or the glory of a king, lamented the death of heroes, and mourned the poverty of poets, war, and tragic events. The two types of poems were directed to the two realms of the sacred in Tamil society, namely married life and kingship. To develop or enhance the sacred power (aṇanku) of the king, praise was given to the beat of loud drums. Love and marriage were sacred, and particular importance was placed on a woman’s chastity. Akam poems encouraged proper behavior to protect the sacred aṇanku inherent in women.

Generally, akam poetry is synonymous with love poetry. The category is subdivided into two aspects: the kaḷavu and karpu. Kaḷavu refers to the period in which people prepare for marriage and addresses such themes as the union of hearts, trysts, meetings arranged by friends of either party, and elopement. The second aspect, karpu, refers to life after marriage and ideal domestic relations. Typical themes are cordial love relations, quarrels (particularly if the husband strays), reconciliation, separation, return of the husband, and the advent of the monsoon season, the best season for love. The two main aspects are subdivided further into the seven tiṇai, or behavioral patterns, which include unrequited love, mismatched love, and well-matched love.

The earliest Caṅkam literature consists of a group of eight anthologies of poetry referred to as the Eṭṭuttokai (the eight anthologies). The dating of the material is debated among specialists, but most agree that the Eṭṭuttokai were composed primarily between the first and third centuries c.e. The works contain collections of poems on various topics that also are important resources for the study of Tamil history and customs, trade and commerce, economic and domestic life, various legends, and matters of love. The 740 poets who contributed to the eight collections include people of different backgrounds, with various trades, and from a number of communities. Many poets, themselves from a high class, composed in a form of oral poetry popular among the lower classes, and therefore the poems provide a comprehensive view of the language and customs of Tamil society. The earliest work was compiled at a time before any significant Aryan influence infiltrated the region; therefore, the poems are devoid of any particularly Brahmanical proclivities.

The Eṭṭuttokai poets came from diverse backgrounds. Some were members of royal families, and even a few women were included as contributors. The poet Naṇmullaiayār from Allur was famous for her lively descriptions of domestic life and delicate feelings. The woman poet Kākkai Pāḍiṇiyar wrote a poem about a crow extending invitations to guests by its cawing. It is recorded that the Chēra king Āḍu Kōṭpāṭṭu-ch-Chēralādaṇ rewarded her well for the popular composition. The very famous poet Kapilar was known for his loyal support of his friend, a chieftain whose cause he supported in opposition to three kings. His brilliant and imaginative poems concern both akam and puram subjects. Kōvūr Kiḷār championed humanitarian concerns in his poetry. For example, he pleaded with a king not to have elephants trample the young son of an enemy king. Another poet of note is Māmūlaṇār, whose twenty-nine poems have many historical references.

The eight anthologies reflect a broad and accurate picture of early Tamil social life and customs in a way that Sanskrit literature does not. The eight anthologies are Naṛṛiṇai, Kurondokai, Aiṇkuṛunuṛu, Padiṛṛuppatta, Paripāḍal, Kalittokai, Akanānūṛu, and Puranāṇṇūru.

The Naṛṛiṇai should consist of four hundred short poems, but one is missing. All verses are composed of nine to twelve lines and deal with love. The collection represents the work of 175 poets with an additional invocation by Pāradam Pāḍiya Perundēvaṇār. The collection was put together by the Pāndyan king Paṇṇāḍu Tanda Māran Vaḷudi. The Naṛṛiṇai may date to the late second to early third century c.e.

The Kurundokai consists of 401 poems of four to eight lines each. The subject of the poems is akam. The collection represents the work of 205 different poets; ten verses are anonymous. Poet Pāradam Pāḍiya Perundēvaṇār contributed the invocatory stanza to Murukan. The anthology was compiled by Pūrikkō and may date to the early third century c.e.

The Aiṇkuṛunuṛu is possibly the earliest of the eight anthologies and may be dated to c. 100 c.e. The collection consists of five hundred short poems on love, between three and six lines each. There is also an invocation to the god Śiva by Pāradam Pāḍiya Perundēvaṇār. The work was divided into five sections by five famous poets: “Ōramobōkiyār,” “Ammūvaṇ,” “Kapilar,” “Ōdalāndaiyār,” and “Pēyaṇ.” The first hundred poems dealt with the marudam aspect of love, or the love quarrel; the second hundred with the neydal, or pining for one’s love; the third with kuriñchi, or the union of lovers; the fourth with pālai, or separation; and the last with mullai, or patient waiting. The poems were collected by Kūḍalūr Kiḷār at the insistence of the Chēra king Māndaraṇ Chēral Irumoṛai.

The Padiṛṛuppatta is divided into ten sections of ten poems each. The individual poems praise ten Chēra kings. As the works exists today, the first and last sections are missing. The Padiṛṛuppatta is an extremely valuable storehouse of historical facts about the ancient Chēra kings and the customs and manners of the people over whom they ruled. The eight surviving sections have been attributed to different poets. It is noted that the poets were rewarded well by the patron kings.

The twenty-four poems of the Paripāḍal were written by thirteen poets. Some of the work has been lost; originally it was said to have seventy poems. The subject of the remaining poems is mainly love. A colophon under each poem gives the author’s name along with the name of the musician who set it to music and the melody in which the poem was set. One of the poets who contributed to the anthology was the well-known Nallanduvaṇār.

The Kalittokai took its name from the kali meter, in which all the poems were composed. The poems deal with incidents of love in the form of dialogues. The work has 150 poems including the stanza invoking Śiva by Perundēvaṇār, and the collection was compiled by Nallanduvaṇār. Five different authors, including the famous Kapilar, contributed to the collection as it stands today, although some specialists believe there were more contributors. The dating of the text is highly debated; some of the poems may date to the second century b.c.e., and others may be as late as the sixth century c.e. Akanānūṛu, also called Neḍunṭokai, consists of four hundred poems on love with an introductory poem of invocation. The length of the poems varies from thirteen to thirty-three lines. The compilers, Uruttiracaṇmaṇ with the help of the Pāndyan king Ukkirapperuvaḷudi, assembled the work of 143 poets. There is an invocation to Śiva by Perundēvaṇār. The work was classified into three parts: Kaḷirriyānai Nirai (the array of male elephants), Maṇimiḍai Pavaḷam (string of corals interspersed with gems), and Nittkilak Kōvai (necklace of pearls). The anthology probably dates from the early third century c.e.

The Puranāṇṇūru has four hundred poems, all of which are concerned with the puram (war) theme. The anthology’s 165 poets included kings and women. In ancient Tamil society, poets seemed to give advice to rulers on the subject of war. For example, they often intervened between angry kings and advised them. Poets were regarded as wise as well as practical and influential. Mainly the poems in the anthology are about the kings, feudatory chieftains, ministers, and warriors of the three Tamil countries. Some 139 patrons were mentioned in the poems. The Puranāṇṇūru is of particular historical value in that it records sentiments and facts about ancient Tamil life.


The early Caṅkam poems were written during a period in which Brahmanism was not prevalent in the Tamil region. Thus, the rich language reveals more than profound sentiment; it also conveys extremely important facts about a culture that was submerged and altered in later centuries by the migrations of northern Aryans, who brought their own culture.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hart, George L., III. The Poems of Ancient Tamil: Their Milieu and Their Sanskrit Counterparts. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975. An excellent study of the early Caṅkam poetry with historical and literary analysis. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hart, George, and Hank Heifetz, trans. and eds. The Four Hundred Songs of War and Wisdom: An Anthology of Poems from Classical Tamil, the Puranuru. New York: Columbia University, 1999. A translation of the Puranāṇṇūru. Provides information on Tamil poetry.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marialesvam, Abraham. The Song of Songs and Ancient Tamil Love Poems. Rome: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 1988. An interesting comparative study that looks at the love poems of the Bible and those of the ancient Tamils. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nilakanta Sastri, A. K. A History of South India from Prehistoric Times to the Fall of the Vijayanagar. 4th ed. Madras: Oxford University Press, 1976. The author provides a thorough essay on the historical and social background of the Caṅkam age and also includes some discussion of the literature. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zvelebil, Kamil. Lexicon of Tamil Literature. New York: E. J. Brill, 1995. A general work explaining Tamil terms.

Categories: History