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Tamil language has the special claim of being at once classical like Sanskrit, Greek or Latin, and vigorous and modern like the modern Indian languages. Its history can be traced back to the age of Tolkappiyam the earliest extant Tamil grammar generally ascribed to 500 B.C. Among the Dravidian languages it is least influenced by Sanskrit, though there is a certain degree of influence.

The earliest extant literature of the Tamils is called Sangam literature and it is dated between 500 B.C. and 200 A.D. Though a considerable part of the early poetry has been lost, some of the bards and patrons decided to preserve a part of it in certain anthologies (about 4th century). These are the Ten Idylls (Pattuppattu) and the Eight Anthologies (Ettuttohai). Four hundred and seventy three poets, of whom thirty are women, have been identified. These are mainly classified into two. Akam or esoteric dealing with love and Puram or exoteric dealing with war.

In this period, Tamil literature was considered bound by literary conventions. The poets were keen on keeping up the tradition. The poet dealing with a certain aspect of love restricted himself to a particular region, season, hour, flora and fauna. These literary conventions are explained in Tolkappiyam.

Purananuru is 400 verses on Puram themes. It serves as a winsow on the Tamil people 2000 years ago. Agananuru is 400 poems on love themes. There are other collections like Natrinai, Kuruntogai, Ain-Kurunuru, Paripadal,etc. which are quite well known.

Tiruvalluvar's Tirukkural is acclaimed to be the greatest Tamil classic. It expresses the most profound thoughts on the many problems of life. The book is divided into 133 chapters each containing 10 verses. The chapters are arranged in three books dealing with virtue, wealth and pleasure.

Round about the 3rd century A.D., Tamil produced two epics Silappadhikaram and Manimekhalai which are considered twin epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The author of Silappadhikaram was the son of a Chera king Ilango adikal. Kamba Ramayana is an important classic in Tamil. Though Kambar based his work on the Sanskrit Ramayana of Valmiki, his rendering shows that he was a supreme artist. It is different in plot, in construction and in the delineation of character. Kambaramayanam runs to 10,368 verses.


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