11. In Print, On the Net: Tamil Literary Canon in the Colonial and Post-Colonial Worlds – Globalization in India


In Print, On the Net: Tamil Literary Canon in the Colonial and Post-Colonial Worlds

A. R. Venkatachalapathy

Some texts are born literary, some achieve literariness, and some have literariness thrust upon them.


Terry Eagleton (1996: 7)

Today, when we speak of the Tamil literary canon, we generally tend to think of such texts as the whole corpus of Sangam literature: the post-Sangam didactic literature (with pride of place being accorded to Tirukkural), the twin epics of Silappadikaram and Manimekalai, the Saivite thirumurais, the Vaishnavite Nalayira Divya Prabandam, Kambar's Ramayanam and a selection of what is referred to as chittrilakkiyam or minor literature. A wide spectrum of overlapping institutional practices—extensive preservation and transmission with concomitant hermeneutic devices like commentary and exegesis, prescription in pedagogy and curriculum, employment of texts as grammatical authority and reference, as a repertoire for allusion, invocation as a marker of antiquity and historicity—have given these texts a canonical status.

Common sense associates an immutable character to such texts, and endows the canon with universal, unchanging and absolute values. Recent studies, however, have questioned the definition of a literary canon as an immutable corpus of texts sharing certain assured values and properties, distinguished by the possession of intrinsic worth. Therefore, it is now an academic commonplace to point out that literary canons, like all other human artefacts, are not given, but the product of a specific history and, thus, historically contingent (Eagleton 1996; Shirane 2000). This anti-foundational approach to the study of the literary canon contends that there is no foundation in the text. This approach enables the study of a canon as the product of a specific history. This chapter is firmly set in this tradition and seeks to explore how the Tamil literary, canon with respect to Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, were defined and redefined in colonial and post-colonial times.

Before beginning this exercise, it would be appropriate to define its limits. As it is assumed that the entire Tamil population of the world somehow buys into this canon and shares it, we need to define, at least broadly, who the Tamils are. The Tamil people, numbering over 70 million, are now spread over a good part of the globe. From their traditional homelands in southern India and Sri Lanka, the vicissitudes of globalization have scattered them across the continents. This chapter explores whether an undifferentiated Tamil canon is shared by the Tamil people. For the purposes of this chapter, the Tamil people of India and Sri Lanka alone are considered. (Even in Sri Lanka, I do not consider the plantation Tamils.) I do not take into account the regions of south east Asia (where Tamils have lived for about a millennium with a continual history of migration) and other parts of the world such as South Africa, Fiji and the Caribbean islands (where Tamils migrated as indentured labourers in the high noon of capitalism) because literary tradition has either been weak or non-existent. Further, by literary canon, I refer to only the pre-modern literary canon: a consideration of modern canon(s) is beyond the scope of this chapter, as it is even more contentious and still quite in the process of making.

Canon(s): Pre-Colonial and Colonial

As is now widely acknowledged, the Tamil language has a long and unbroken literary tradition. The fecundity of literary production is borne out by the plethora of extant literary texts. Not surprisingly, their position within the canon has varied considerably with the figuration and re-figuration of the literary canon through the ages.

The pre-colonial canon consisted largely of religious didactic literature. Here is what the earliest Tamil novel, Pratapa Mudaliar Charithiram (1879), has to say about the inadequate reading of students:

Have they even so much as taken a look at Thiruvalluvar's Thirukkural? Have they heard of Kambar's Ramayanam even in their dreams? Are they even familiar with the authors of Naladiyar? Do they know Avvaiyar's moral books thoroughly? Do they know even a little bit of Athiveerarama Pandiyan? They have not so much as taken a look at the prabandams of innumerable Tamil poets.


(Pillai 1984, 307–8)

Clearly, only didactic and religious works were accounted for in the canon. This point is made rather dramatically by U. V. Swaminatha Iyer (1855–1942), the legendary editor of Tamil classics. On Thursday, 21 October 1880, U. V. Swaminatha Iyer, then a twenty-five-year-old teacher at the Kumbakonam Government College, went to meet Salem Ramaswamy Mudaliar, a civil munsif who had recently been transferred to the small town of Kumbakonam. Swaminatha Iyer had been a pupil of Mahavidwan Meenakshisundaram Pillai, acknowledged as the finest Tamil teacher of the nineteenth century. Salem Ramaswamy Mudaliar was reputed to be a liberal man with a broad outlook who patronized scholarship. In an obvious attempt to win his friendship, Swaminatha Iyer had ventured to meet him at his home. What transpired at this meeting is dramatically narrated by Swaminatha Iyer, in his famed autobiography.

‘With whom did you study?’ Salem Ramaswamy Mudaliar queried.
‘Mahavidwan Meenakshisundaram Pillai.’ I replied.
I expected the uttering of Pillai's name to create a ripple. Even if he did not respect my official position, he could at least open out to me as a student of Pillai. He did not and spoke in a measured manner.
He continued with his questions ‘What did you study?’ came the next question. Certain that I could dazzle him with a reply to this question, I listed the texts that I had studied: Kudandai Andadhi, Marasai Andadhi, Pugalur Andadhi, Thiruvarangathandadhi, Alagarandadhi, Kambarandadhi, Mullai Andadhi, Meenatchiyammai Pillai Tamil, Muthukumaraswamy Pillai Tamil, Akilandanayaki Pillai Tamil, Sekkilar Pillai Tamil, Thirukkovaiyar, Tanjaivanan Kovai…. Twenty andadhis, twenty kalambakams, fifteen kovais, thirty Pillai Tamils, twenty ulas, thus I listed a number of prabandams. There was not a trace of wonderment on his face.
Suddenly, he interjected, ‘What is it worth?’
I was not a little disappointed… I did not give up and began a list of puranams: ‘Thiruvilaiyadal Puranam, Thirunagaikkarona Puranam, Mayura Puranam, Kanda Puranam, Periya Puranam, Kuttrala Puranam…
He continued to look still like a graven image.
Naidadam, Prabulinga Leelai, Sivagnana Bodham, Sivagnana Sithiyar,’ I continued…Gave the names of some grammars. Yet he remained unmoved. With the thought that I forgotten the most important of them all, I said, ‘I have read Kambaramayanam two to three times over…’
‘It is good that you have read all these later day works. Have you read any of the ancient texts?’ he asked…
‘There are so many old works among those I have listed!’ I replied.
Only when he countered ‘Have you read the texts which are the wellsprings of these texts?’ did I realize that he was up to something.
‘I don't know the texts you are talking about’
‘Have you read Seevaka Chinthamani? Manimekalai? Silappadhikaram?’


(Iyer 1997, 50–3).

No doubt, U.V. Swaminatha Iyer's account of this meeting with Salem Ramaswamy Mudaliar is highly dramatized. But it highlights rather emphatically, the conflict that was emerging in the later part of the nineteenth century, over what was the real canon, the great tradition. Ramaswamy Mudaliar's dismissive statement ‘What is it worth?’ decimates in one stroke the entire body of literature that Swaminatha Iyer valued. In other words, the pre-colonial canon was being fundamentally questioned. It was the moment of the unmaking of an old canon and constructing one anew. A new notion of time—what constituted antiquity, the ancient—had come into play. While both Swaminatha Iyer and Ramaswamy Mudaliar prized ancient works for their antiquity, they differed over what was ancient or ancient enough.

Many of the texts that Swaminatha Iyer listed are now but adjuncts to a different canon and go by the name of chittrilakkiyam, minor literature. Further, these texts are mostly religious in character, mythologizing sacred spaces and hagiographizing divine beings and saints. Many of these texts are now valued only for their religious significance, some are barely read or cited, few now form part of any curriculum. This then constituted the pre-colonial canon that was shared by the cultural worlds of both Tamil Nadu and Eelam.

How did this change take place that reduced so many texts, so meticulously imparted and imbibed, to near worthlessness? To understand this, one needs to turn to the social and intellectual milieu in the colonial context.

It is now commonplace to suggest that colonialism produced knowledge about the colonies. Power was deeply implicated in this production of knowledge. A battery of colonial officials and scholars systematically collected and created information about the ruled. The Orientalists codified laws based on long-forgotten and newly-retrieved texts and unearthed new literatures and redefined the cultural heritage of the colonised. In the Indian context, William Jones and Max Mueller were the stalwarts of this project. Their work displaced the Persian language in India. In fact, the Persian language was to suffer twice over: while English displaced it as the official language, Sanskrit decimated its position culturally. Their work also led to the publication of the Vedas, puranas and other texts, which have now come to define the ‘essential’ India. The Orientalist representation of India was fully founded on Sanskrit scriptures and texts. The newly emergent discipline of comparative philology added to its importance, as Sanskrit was seen to be kindred to, if not the source of the Indo-European languages.

Orientalism thus privileged Sanskrit over all other languages in India and it was often described as classical, thus implying that other Indian languages were vernaculars. This formulation was in its turn challenged in south India. Christian missionaries and scholar-administrators, with their agenda for countering Brahmanical hegemony, posed this challenge. Drawing on similar philological tools as those employed by the Orientalists, they formulated a new theory of the Dravidian family of languages. Though the defining moment is often taken to be the publication of Robert Caldwell's Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian Family of Languages (1856), we now have the fresh insights provided by Thomas Trautmann (2006), that it was Ellis who anticipated many of Caldwell's ideas. While Caldwell based his work primarily on Tamil, Ellis worked through Telugu. This approach, which I term counter-Orientalism, posited that the Dravidian languages—Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam—did not belong to the Indo-European family of languages and owed very little to Sanskrit. These languages, especially Tamil, grew independent of Sanskrit with its own corpus of literature and grammar.

This theory of an independent Dravidian family of languages was avidly seized by the emerging non-Brahmin scholars of Tamil Nadu, who employed this to reinforce their identity and challenge the supremacy of Brahmins in the public sphere. Their quest led to a search for a corpus of literature that pre-dated Aryan/Sanskrit influence. The corpus of Sangam literature with its ancient cultural traditions untainted by a Brahmanical religion and a culture based on sedentary life proved just right. The egalitarian communal life depicted in this literature, with the glorification of ideals such as love, valour, munificence and honour provided an alternate worldview to that of a Vedic age constructed by the Orientalists. The time was thus ripe for a ‘rediscovery’ of the Sangam classics, highlighted dramatically by U. V. Swaminatha Iyer's tryst not only with Salem Ramaswamy Mudaliar but also with his own destiny.

The question ‘What is it worth?’ drove U.V. Swaminatha Iyer to look for what was really worth it all. Salem Ramaswamy Mudaliar himself provided the lead with the palm-leaf manuscript of Seevaka Chintamani, a Jain kappiyam or epic. Though he began studying the manuscript with some trepidation and misgiving, he reassured himself:

How does it matter as long as it is not beyond Tamil literary tradition? Is it in Sanskrit or Telugu that one has to learn it afresh? Will it be beyond one's comprehension if one studies it carefully with a given knowledge of Tamil texts? (Iyer 1997, 534);,

However, Swaminatha Iyer was to be proved wrong. As a rubric in his autobiography goes, it was ‘a separate universe’ (oru thani prapanjam). Swaminatha Iyer glosses this section with statements that further qualify the utter novelty of this newfound literature:

It appeared like another unique language. The vistas of the new world depicted in the Sangam books appeared as the mountains covered by mist. Though this heavy mist hung over the mountains, its loftiness and magnitude though not fully visible was yet perceptible as bigger than the earth, vaster than the sky and more unfathomable than the deep seas (Iyer 1997, 557).

Here Swaminatha Iyer is making a self-referential allusion (to the Sangam text Kurunthokai 3), heightening a sense of discovery and at the same time appropriating it as one's own tradition.

Swaminatha Iyer's systematic and meticulous study brought forth the publication of many of the Sangam classics at regular intervals. As he prodded through to make sense of Seevaka Chintamani, it became clear that one could not understand a text without association to the other texts of the same corpus. Swaminatha Iyer relates how he made a list of difficult terms from these texts and then tried to make sense of each of them in relation to one another. Ultimately, he published his edition of Seevaka Chintamani in 1887—the inauguration of a long innings in the field of scholarly publication.

Contrary to popular myth, U. V. Swaminatha Iyer, however, was neither the first nor the only editor-publisher in the field. Tamil scholars from Sri Lanka played an equally crucial role in the discovery and retrieval of these ancient Tamil texts. In fact, the modern editions of Tamil classics were truly inaugurated by Arumuga Navalar, reputed to be the father of the Saivite renaissance in Jaffna. Even by 1860 he had published a fine edition of Tirukkural. C. W. Damodaram Pillai (1832–1901), also from Jaffna, was in fact the true pioneer; he was the earliest scholar to systematically hunt for long-lost manuscripts and publish them using modern tools of textual criticism. His edition of Tholkappiyam-Porulathikaram was published in 1885, Iraiyanarakapporul in 1883, Viracoliyam in 1881; he published the Sangam work Kalithokai (1887) at least two years before Swaminatha Iyer published any Sangam text (Pillai 1970).

Leaving aside the question of ‘firsts’, the point to be noted is that this project of unearthing ancient literary texts to constructing a new canon was a shared intellectual enterprise between scholars from both sides of the Palk Strait. It is worth labouring over the point that postcolonial developments obfuscate how much Tamil scholars of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka shared and functioned in an almost undivided mainstream cultural world. The cultural stalwarts of Jaffna, and to a certain extent even Batticoloa, had bases in Tamil Nadu and it was not uncommon for scholars from Tamil Nadu to make periodic visits to Sri Lanka. C. W. Damodaram Pillai and U. V. Swaminatha Iyer were systematically looking for and publishing the Sangam texts, and in this exercise, they were articulating the desire and fulfilling the requirement of the reconstituted world of Tamil letters. In the preface to each work, they talked about the canon of which it was part (see Damodaram Pillai's Preface to Kalithokai), the publication of which followed in a regular stream: Kalithokai (1887), Pathittruppattu (1889), Purananooru (1894), Ainkurunooru (1903), Kurunthokai (1915), Nattrinai (1915), Paripadal (1918) and Ahananooru (1923). Silappadikaram and Manimekalai, the twin epics as they came to be later designated within the canon, were published by Swaminatha Iyer in 1892 and 1898 respectively.

We also find an interesting metaphor that both of them employ in their description of the new Tamil canon. Personifying the Tamil language as a mother, they extended this metaphor by terming the various texts of the canon as her adornments. By extension, they thought of their work as a search for the jewels that had been lost due to external aggression and internal apathy (Pillai 1970, 69; Swaminatha Iyer 1995, 35).

In terms of modalities, print was constitutive of this process of discovering and constructing the canon. In the editorial Prefaces of C. W. Damodaram Pillai and U. V. Swaminatha Iyer, the urgency to save the texts from the palm leaves, from the ravages of white ants and termites, from the jaws of Time itself is quite palpable. The underlying premise seems to be that of print as a panacea. Somehow the printing of these texts in itself would render them immortal, defeating Time and consequently restore the heritage of the Tamil people. As C. W. Damodaram Pillai exclaimed, ‘Was not the non-availability of print that eventually led to the extinction of Ilakkana Vilakkam!’ (Pillai 1970, 67).

Though both Damodaram Pillai and Swaminatha Iyer complained of poor patronage, there is little doubt that it was gobbled up by the Tamil elite with pure delight. The writing of most scholars in Tamil is suffused with details culled from these texts: P. Sundaram Pillai, V. Kanakasabhai Pillai, J.M. Nallasami Pillai, Maraimalai Adigal and others used these works to write their literary, social, historical and philological work. By the early 1910s they had become influential enough to be decried by their opponents that:

Within the last fifteen years a new school of Tamil scholars has come into being, consisting mainly of admirers and castemen of the late lamented professor and antiquary, Mr. Sundaram Pillai of Trivandrum. Their object has been to disown and to disapprove any trace of indebtedness to the Aryans, to exalt the civilization of the ancient Tamils, to distort in the name of historic research current traditions and literature, and to pooh-pooh the views of former scholars, which support Brahmanization of the Tamil race. (Aiyangar 1914, 6)

Srinivasa Aiyangar's diatribe clearly points to the uses the new literary canon had been put to in Tamil Nadu to fashion a new identity for Tamils. This message was diffused in Tamil society from the early part of the twentieth century. Scholarly editions were reprinted, less scholarly editions were published, commentaries were written, they were prescribed texts not only in colleges, but also in schools. Incidents and events from these texts were rewritten and fictionalized. In politics, the Dravidian movement flaunted it with rhetoric. Of course, within this canon, differential emphases came to be apportioned to the texts. Purananooru and Kurunthokai were seen to exemplify the twin values of valour and love, while Paripatal and Kalithokai were given short shrift, especially because of their later date of composition. Thirukkural was in a separate class of its own, quoted at all occasions, claimed by every ideological hue and rejected by none. Silappadikaram occupied pride of place with its epic narration, exquisite poetry and potential for political appropriation.

What in fact was happening in Tamil society was a process of secularization. Religious texts were being increasingly marginalized and another body of literature, the Sangam classics, were being prioritized over them. Religious values were undermined and the secular character of the classics was being upheld. In this interpretation, ancient Tamil Nadu was seen as an egalitarian society where caste and religion did not exist. Love, valour and munificence were the most valued attributes. This secular vision of ancient Tamil society was counterpoised with the unequal society that Tamil Nadu became after the advent of Aryans and Brahmins—when caste and religion accompanied them—turning Tamil society into an unequal one. The Tamil language itself was seen to be tainted by religion. Therefore the religious associations of the Tamil language were to be purged by invoking to the pristine character of the Sangam classics.

This understanding of Tamil tradition became the dominant one in Tamil Nadu. To document just one instance, if we take a look at a late nineteenth century text like the Tamilalangaram by Dandapani Swamigal, we find that the glory of the Tamil language is represented exclusively in terms of Hindu mythology where the language is closely associated with divine miracles performed by poets and Tamil savants. This view of the Tamil language lost currency with the rise of Tamil identity politics outlined above which saw the Tamil language in entirely secular terms. However, this was not true of Tamil tradition in Sri Lanka, giving the literary canon there a different tweak. It is to this that we now turn.

Canons in Tamil Nadu and Eelam: The Chasm

If this was the trajectory of identity formation in Tamil Nadu, a different process obtained in Sri Lanka. Though the Tamil speaking regions of Sri Lanka (now much re-defined especially due to the conscious policy of demographic change pursued by the Sinhala (chauvinist) Sri Lankan state) in terms of the Jaffna peninsula (islands to its north), Vavuniya, and the eastern province (the plantations Tamils not being counted), the Jaffna Tamils have historically been socially and culturally dominant. So much so, that Yalpanathu Manithan (the Jaffna Man) has become a metaphor that stands for the entire Sri Lankan Tamil population. Even within this dominant section, the Vellalars have dominated. What often passes for Tamil Sri Lanka is more often than not this minority of Vellalars. This Vellalar elite capitalised on the opportunities provided by colonialism to become a middle-class elite. Despite the close proximity to the Indian mainland, the impact of colonialism was differential. Right from the early sixteenth century, Jaffna was ruled by Europeans—first the Portuguese and later the Dutch, until taken over by the English in the late eighteenth century. Admittedly, the Christian missionary activity was more widespread here than in Tamil Nadu. The mid-nineteenth century saw the acute crisis among the Vellalar elite occasioned by the evangelization of Christianity. Arumuga Navalar is emblematic of this process and there was a veritable reassertion of Saivite identity. A new Saivite identity was reconstituted in direct opposition to Christianity. Saivite religion was almost semitized with Arumuga Navalar devising prescriptive norms for Saivism and Saivites. This definition was sharpened through a serious of polemics with Christian missionaries and within the Saivite fold. Navalar schematized elaborately on what constituted the true Saivite religion, its doctrine, its liturgy and its canonical texts. His reformulation of Saivism was to win over the entire Vellalar elite to his fold. In his 1861 pamphlet on what constitutes Tamil scholarship, Arumuga Navalar refers only to religious texts and didactic literature. The only non-denominational texts that he includes are grammatical works. While he exempts Vaishnavites from reading purely Saivite texts, the addressee of his exhortations seems to be the Saiva–Vellalar male (Arumuga Navalar 1954. 28–9). Arumuga Navalar's protégé Sabapathy Navlar is more explicit when he asserts that

the three dwijas who are eligible to wear the sacred thread, the Vellalars of the fourth division who have obtained siva theekkai and of the other division, the noble ones like the anulomas who have taken siva theekkai alone are entitled to study the Tamil texts. (Navalar 1927, 178).

As K. Sivathamby observes,

Navalar and his followers, in their anxiety to prove beyond doubt the indivisibility of the Saiva–Tamil character of the Jaffna literary tradition, underplayed, if not openly kept away from public attention, the secular literature… (Sivathamby 1995, 67)

This process was in stark contrast to the secularization process in Tamil Nadu outlined earlier. Here let us take a look at how the Tamil canon was defined for the Sri Lankan Tamils right at the time of the redefinition of the canon in Tamil Nadu. A canonical text in this regard is the seminal work Dravida Prakasigai (1889) by Sabapathy Navalar (1845–1903). Sabapathy Navalar, much like Arumuga Navalar, straddled the Tamil world on both sides of the Palk Strait. His Dravida Prakasigai is an elaborate treatise, the product of a breed of pre-colonial scholarship which is quite familiar with the colonial world, and yet reasserts the pre-colonial canon without so much as batting an eye-lid to concede a quarter to the newly discovered texts. Dravida Prakasigai is very much a literary history, except that it is structured like a medieval grammatical text and explicates ‘literature’ as understood in pre-colonial times. A sketch of the contents and the structure of the book could clarify this. After a brief payiram or Preface, follow four chapters: the divine antiquity of Tamil, grammatical heritage, literary heritage and philosophical heritage. The final chapter following this, in true pre-colonial fashion, is actually an appendix (olibiyal). For Sabapathy Navalar, grammar, literature and philosophy constitute a whole, which is separable only for explication. In the chapter on literary heritage, he includes thirumurai, sangam, epic, puranam, itihasam, and other literature. The point to note is that the devotional thirumurai literature is given pride of place. He explicitly states that their divine origin commands primacy (Navalar 1927, 136). Thirukkural is subsumed within this sacred literature. Sangam literature, the fount of all literature in the newly-defined canon of Tamil Nadu is relegated to a secondary place with only ten pages given to it. The Tamil classic par excellence, Silappadikaram, is given cavalier treatment in just a page for its Jain association. Similar cursory treatment is given to the Vaishnavite Nalayira Devya Prababdan. The fourteen Saiva Siddhanta philosophical texts Siddhanta Sathiram, which have no place in the mainland canon, are given a separate location in the Sri Lankan canon.

Even on the question of antiquity, there is a fundamental difference in its definition. While the literary world of Tamil Nadu understood antiquity in secular historical terms, Dravida Pragasikai argues in terms of a divine antiquity. The antagonism vis-à-vis Sanskrit is also negotiated in varied terms. While scholars of Tamil Nadu argued for the Tamil language's superiority over Sanskrit in secular terms, Sabapathy Navalar asserts that both languages have divine origins and therefore Tamil should not be accorded a secondary place in relation to Sanskrit.

While the secular Sangam classics were indeed given a prominent place in the canon of Sri Lanka, a Saivite interpretation of these texts a la the Vellalar scholars such as Maraimalai Adigal of Tamilnadu, was given to the texts. The Saivite canon of the twelve thirumurais, especially Thevaram, Thiruvachagam and Peria Puranam, continued to enjoy primacy. More important was the primacy given to Kanda Puranam, a fourteenth century text that mythologizes the story of the ancient Tamil god Murugan, in tune with the Sanskritic Skandan. In fact, so central is the Kanda Puranam to Sri Lankan Tamil culture that it is often referred to as Kanda Puram Kalacharam or ‘Kanda Purana Culture’ (Sivathamby 1994, 67; Kailasapathy 1986, 62). But in Tamil Nadu, Kanda Puranam has absolutely no literary status at all. It is read only as a religious text, if at all.

1947/48—the years of formal independence from the British—further widened the chasm. The Sri Lankan Tamil elite bought in the concept of ‘national literature’ (desiya illakkiyam) that was being advocated in Sri Lanka, with its emphasis not only of freeing Sri Lankan culture from the after effects of colonialism but also from the swamping by the commercial mass culture emanating from India. In the 1950s and 60s, the distinctness of Sri Lankan culture vis-à-vis India was articulated emphatically. Apart from the occasional nostalgia for a past golden age of a shared culture with Tamil Nadu, the wedge was indeed in place.

The refrain during the immediate post-colonial period was one of maintaining a distinct identity as Sri Lankan/Eelam Tamils while not fully rejecting the commonalities shared with Tamil Nadu. As K. Sivathamby states:

The primary objective of this work is to clarify to Indian readers the manner in which a literary tradition, combining Sri Lanka's individuality and the generality of Tamil literature, emerged and grew in Sri Lanka. (Sivathamby 1987, v)

He goes on to add:

Due to the common link of Tamil language and geographical proximity, apart from many other common features, (the Eelam Tamils) they also strongly exhibit many attributes which distinguish them. This distinction ranges from language use to social structure, from clothes to food habits, from economic structure to weltanschuaang. (Sivathamby 1987,2)

The learned professor could well have added literary canon to this list! K. Kailasapathy's assertion that Sri Lankan Tamil literature has exceeded the earlier description of ‘literature from across the shores’ into being an inseparable part of Tamil literature can be understood in this context (Kailasapathy 1986, 10).

The late 1970s however occasioned vigorous rethinking. The oppression of the Tamil people by the Sinhala–Buddhist chauvinist state decimated any support for a ‘national literature’ of Sri Lanka. The police firing at the 1974 International Tamil Conference, held at Jaffna, the incendiary attack on the Jaffna Library in 1981 and finally the 1983 state-sponsored programme against the Tamils delivered telling blows that redefined Tamil identity. The fillip that these gave to Tamil insurgency and the continued war-like conditions has meant that Eelam Tamils have had to seek refuge outside Sri Lanka.

Apart from India, the Sri Lankan Tamil disapora is now wide-spread in Europe (especially France, Germany, Switzerland, UK, Canada, North America and Australia). More Sri Lankan Tamils live in Toronto now than in Jaffna! Further, the migration of Tamils from India is also not insignificant. This Tamil diaspora is now fairly well settled and relatively well organized.

The Tamil book market has expanded a little, due to this. More Tamil writers travel abroad than ever before. A number of Sri Lankan Tamil writers are getting published in Tamil Nadu since 1983. More importantly, access to the Internet has reconfigured the Tamil world. It is said that Tamil is one of the most widely used languages on the net, with thousands of active Tamil sites. In these sites—which house many e-magazines, home pages, discussion groups—there has been a coming together of Tamils cutting across the boundaries of nation–states. The problems of the Tamil language in relation to its functioning in the digital world are one of the hot topics of debate. This has largely been responsible for the standardization of the Tamil keyboard, many international conferences have been held on the subject of Tamil in computers—even a Tamil virtual university has been launched.

In this process, there is an active concern regarding the preservation and retrieval of Tamil texts. This squarely confronts the question of what is the canon. Given the situation that the cyber community of Tamils is not constrained by national boundaries, two distinct canons, one for Tamil Nadu and another for Sri Lankan Tamils have not been able to thrive. Thus, in the various Web sites which host the Tamil classics, the secular Tamil canon—the canon of Tamil Nadu—has become the canon almost by default.1 Religious literature is marginalized; or if accorded a place, it is as a literary text that it occupies a place.


Tamil Nadu and Eelam shared a common literary canon in pre-colonial times. Despite independent literary production in these two regions, a common stake was laid on a canon of texts. Admittedly, the canon consisted predominantly of religious, mythological and didactic texts. A combination of the advent of print with colonialism and its attendant social transformations led to the discovery of a whole body of texts from a time period prior to the then existing canon. Print played a major role in bringing these texts into an emerging public sphere, which was avidly seized by the non-Brahmin elite of Tamil society. In their interpretation, these newly canonized texts took on a secular colour. The religious texts were completely marginalized. Even when some of these major religious texts were accommodated into the new canon, they were accorded a place on strictly literary terms—for what was considered to proclaim the greater glory of the Tamil language and its speakers. The identity politics of the Dravidian movement largely revolved around this canon.

Though Sri Lankan Tamil scholars played a crucial role in the retrieval of these texts, their literary tradition did not fully buy its way into the new canon. In their cultural world, the pre-colonial canon thrived, largely unchanged. The texts of the new canon of Tamil Nadu were read as the pre-history of the existing canon. The primacy of the Saivite texts remained largely unchallenged. This is explained by the religious reassertion epitomized by Arumuga Navalar, who reconstituted Saiva religion in accordance with the threats and challenges posed by social transformations triggered by colonialism. The innate sense of superiority that Jaffna Tamils hold vis-à-vis the people of Tamil Nadu cannot be discounted as a factor in the framing of a different canon for themselves.

The chasm between the canons of Tamil Nadu and Eelam was further widened by the process of decolonization. In post-independence Sri Lanka, the demarking of national boundaries divided Tamil Nadu and Eelam. The assertion of a new found national identity, furthered by fears of being swamped by Tamil Nadu/India and the emergence of a concept of (Sri Lankan) national literature further rigidified the canons.

The political developments since the 1983 pogrom dispersed a Tamil diaspora across the world. The spread of new technologies such as the Internet has brought a new virtual Tamil community into being. This has created the space for a dialogue between Tamils of India and Eelam, which has enabled once again the making of a shared literary canon.


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