Tolkāppiyam (Tamil: தொல்காப்பியம், lit. "ancient poem"[1]) is the most ancient extant Tamil grammar text and the oldest extant long work of Tamil literature.[2][3] The surviving manuscripts of the Tolkappiyam consists of three books (atikaram), each with nine chapters (iyal), with a cumulative total of 1,612 sutras in the nūṛpā meter.[4][note 1] It is a comprehensive text on grammar, and includes sutras on orthography, phonology, etymology, morphology, semantics, prosody, sentence structure and the significance of context in language.[4]

The Tolkappiyam is difficult to date. Some in the Tamil tradition place the text in the mythical second sangam, variously in 1st millennium BCE or earlier.[6] Scholars place the text much later and believe the text evolved and expanded over a period of time. According to some, the earliest layer of the Tolkappiyam was likely composed between the 2nd and 1st century BCE,[7] and the extant manuscript versions fixed by about the 5th century CE.[8] The Tolkappiyam Ur-text likely relied on some unknown even older literature.[9]

Iravatham Mahadevan dates the Tolkappiyam to no earlier than the 2nd century CE, as it mentions the puḷḷi being an integral part of Tamil script. The puḷḷi (a diacritical mark to distinguish pure consonants from consonants with inherent vowels) only became prevalent in Tamil epigraphs after the 2nd century CE.[10] According to linguist Prof. S. Agesthialingam, Tolkappiyam contains many later interpolations, and the language shows many deviations consistent with late old Tamil (similar to Cilappatikaram), rather than the early old Tamil poems of Eṭṭuttokai and Pattuppāṭṭu.[11]

The Tolkappiyam contains aphoristic verses arranged into three books – the Eluttatikaram ("Eluttu" meaning "letter, phoneme"), the Sollatikaram ("Sol" meaning "Sound, word") and the Porulatikaram ("Porul" meaning "subject matter", i.e. prosody, rhetoric, poetics).[12] The Tolkappiyam includes examples to explain its rules, and these examples provide indirect information about the ancient Tamil culture, sociology, and linguistic geography. It is first mentioned by name in Iraiyanar's Akapporul – a 7th- or 8th-century text – as an authoritative reference, and the Tolkappiyam remains the authoritative text on Tamil grammar.[13][14][note 2]

The word Tolkāppiyam is a attribute-based composite word, with tol meaning "ancient, old", and kappiyam meaning "book, text, poem, kavya"; together, the title has been translated as "ancient book",[16] "ancient poem",[17] or "old poem".[18] The closest Indo-Aryan cognate to the word Kappiyam is the Prakrit Kabya.[19]

According to Kamil Zvelebil – a Tamil literature and history scholar, Tamil purists tend to reject this Sanskrit-style etymology and offer "curious" alternatives. One of these breaks it into three "tol-kappu-iyanratu", meaning "ancient protection [of language]".[16] An alternate etymology that has been proposed by a few purists is that the name of the work derives from the author's name Tolkāppiyan, but this is a disputed assumption because neither the author(s) nor centuries in which this masterpiece was composed are known.[16]

The dating of the Tolkappiyam is difficult, much debated, and it remains contested and uncertain.[20][21] Proposals range between 5,320 BCE and the 8th century CE.[22][21]

The tradition and some Indian scholars favor an early date for its composition, before the common era, and state that it is the work of one person associated with sage Agastya. Other Indian scholars, and non-Indian scholars such as Kamil Zvelebil, prefer to date it not as a single entity but in parts or layers.[23] The Tolkappiyam manuscript versions that have survived into the modern age were fixed by about the 5th century CE, according to Zvelebil.[23][20][24] Scholars reject traditional datings based on three sangams and the myth of great floods because there is no verifiable evidence in its favor, and the available evidence based on linguistics, epigraphy, Sangam literature and other Indian texts suggest a much later date.[25] The disagreements now center around divergent dates between the 3rd century BCE and 8th century CE.[20][25][26]

The datings proposed by contemporary scholars is based on a combination of evidence such as:

There is no firm evidence to assign the authorship of this treatise to any one author. Tholkapiyam, some traditionally believe, was written by a single author named Tholkappiyar, a disciple of Vedic sage Agastya mentioned in the Rigveda (1500–1200 BCE). According to the traditional legend, the original grammar was called Agathiam written down by sage Agastya, but it went missing after a great deluge. His student Tholkappiyar was asked to compile Tamil grammar, which is Tolkappiyam.[44][45] In Tamil historical sources such as the 14th-century influential commentary on Tolkappiyam by Naccinarkkiniyar, the author is stated to be Tiranatumakkini (alternate name for Tolkappiyan), the son of a Brahmin rishi named Camatakkini.[46] The earliest mention of Agastya-related Akattiyam legends are found in texts approximately dated to the 8th or 9th century.[47]

According to Kamil Zvelebil, the earliest sutras of the Tolkappiyam were composed by author(s) who lived before the "majority of extant" Sangam literature, who clearly knew Pāṇini and followed Patanjali works on Sanskrit grammar because some verses of Tolkappiyam – such as T-Col 419 andT-Elutt 83 – seem to be borrowed and exact translation of verses of Patanjali's bhasya and ideas credited to more ancient Panini. Further, the author(s) lived after Patanjali because various sections of Tolkappiyam show the same ideas for grammatically structuring a language and it uses borrowed Indo-European words found in Panini and Patanjali works to explain its ideas.[28] According to Hartmut Scharfe and other scholars, the phonetic and phonemic sections of the Tolkappiyam shows considerable influence of Vedic Pratishakhyas, while its rules for nominal compounds follow those in Patanjali's mahabhasya, though there is also evidence of innovations. The author(s) had access and expertise of the ancient Sanskrit works on grammar and language.[48][49]

According to Zvelebil, another Tamil tradition believes that the earliest layer by its author(s) – Tolkappiyan – may have been a Jaina scholar, who knew aintiram (pre-Paninian grammatical system) and lived in south Kerala, but "we do not know of any definite data concerning the original author or authors". This traditional belief, according to Vaiyapuri Pillai, is supported by a few Jaina Prakrit words such as patimaiyon found in the Tolkappiyam.[50]

The Tolkappiyam deals with ilakkanam (grammar) in three books (atikaram), each with nine chapters (iyal) of different sizes. The text has a cumulative total of 1,612 sutras in the nūṛpā meter, though some versions of its surviving manuscripts have a few less.[4][5] The sutra format provides a distilled summary of the rules, one that is not easy to read or understand; commentaries are necessary for the proper interpretation and understanding of Tolkappiyam.[51]

"Eluttu" means "sound, letter, phoneme", and this book of the Tolkappiyam covers the sounds of the Tamil language, how they are produced (phonology).[52] It includes punarcci (lit. "joining, copulation") which is combination of sounds, orthography, graphemic and phonetics with sounds as they are produced and listened to.[52] The phonemic inventory it includes consists of 5 long vowels, 5 short vowels, and 17 consonants. The articulatory descriptions in Tolkappiyam are incomplete, indicative of a proto-language. It does not, for example, distinguish between retroflex and non-retroflex consonants, states Thomas Lehmann.[51] The phonetic and phonemic sections of the first book show the influence of Vedic Pratisakhyas, states Hartmut Scharfe, but with some differences. For example, unlike the Pratisakhyas and the later Tamil, the first book of Tolkappiyam does not treat /ṭ/ and /ṇ/ as retroflex.[53]

"Sol" meaning "word", and the second book deals with "etymology, morphology, semantics and syntax", states Zvelebil.[52] The sutras cover compounds, some semantic and lexical issues. It also mentions the twelve dialectical regions of Tamil speaking people, which suggests the author(s) had a keen sense of observation and inclusiveness for Old Tamil's linguistic geography.[52] According to Peter Scharf, the sutras here are inspired by the work on Sanskrit grammar by Panini, but it uses Tamil terminology and adds technical innovations.[49] Verb forms and the classification of nominal compounds in the second book show the influence of Patanjali's Mahabhasya.[53]

"Porul" meaning "subject matter", and this book deals with the prosody (yappu) and rhetoric (ani) of Old Tamil.[54] It is here, that the book covers the two genres found in classical Tamil literature: akam (love, erotics, interior world) and puram (war, society, exterior world). The akam is subdivided into kalavu (premarital love) and karpu (marital love).[54] It also deals with dramaturgy, simile, prosody and tradition. According to Zvelebil, this arrangement suggests that the entire Tolkappiyam was likely a guide for bardic poets, where the first two books led to this third on how to compose their songs.[54] The third book's linking of literature (ilakkiyam) to the grammatical rules of the first and the second book (ilakkanam) created a symbiotic relationship between the two.[51] The literary theory of Tolkappiyam, according to Peter Scharf, borrows from Sanskrit literary theory texts.[49]

Epigraphical studies, such as those by Mahadevan, show that ancient Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions found in South India and dated to between 3rd century BCE and 4th century CE had three different grammatical form. Only one of them is assumed in the Tolkappiyam.[51] The language of the Sangam literature is same as the one described in Tolkappiyam, except in some minor respects.[49]

The Tolkappiyam is a collection of aphoristic verses in the nūṛpā meter.[4] It is unintelligible without a commentary.[51] Tamil scholars have written commentaries on it, over the centuries:

The commentary by Ilampuranar dated to the 11th or 12th century CE is the most comprehensive and probably the best, states Zvelebil.[56] The commentary by Senavaraiyar deals only with the second book Sollathikaram.[55] The commentary by Perasiriyar which is heavily indebted to the Nannūl, frequently quotes from the Dandiyalankaram and Yapparunkalam, the former being a standard medieval rhetorica and the latter being a detailed treatise on Tamil prosody. Naccinarkiniyar's commentary, being a scholar of both Tamil and Sanskrit, quotes from Parimelalakar's works.[55]

There are two verses given in support of Tholkappiar's religious outlook.[57] Some made controversial and unconfirmed observation in Sangam poems that there is relatively meager reference given to religion in general. In the akam songs, Tholkappiar has made reference to deities in the different land divisions: Thirumal for mullai, Murugan for kurinji, Indhiran for marutham, Varunan for neithal and Korravai for palai.[citation needed]

Alexander Dubyanskiy, veteran Tamil scholar from Moscow State University stated, "I am sure that Tolkappiyam is a work which demanded not only vast knowledge and a lot of thinking but a considerable creative skill from its composer." Dubyanskiy also said that the authority of the text was undeniable: "It is a literary and cultural monument of great importance."[58]