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The Tolkāppiyam (Tamil: தொல்காப்பியம்) is a work on the grammar of the Tamil language and the earliest extant work of Tamil literature and linguistics. It is written in the form of noorpaa or short formulaic compositions and comprises three books – the Ezhuttadikaram, the Solladikaram and the Poruladikaram. Each of these books is further divided into nine chapters each. While the exact date of the work is not known, based on linguistic and other evidence, it has been dated variously between the third century BCE and the 10th century CE. Some modern scholars prefer to date it not as a single entity but in parts or layers. There is also no firm evidence to assign the authorship of this treatise to any one author.


Tolkappiyam deals with orthography, phonology, morphology, semantics, prosody and the subject matter of literature. The Tolkāppiyam classifies the Tamil language into sentamil and koduntamil. The former refers to the classical Tamil used almost exclusively in literary works and the latter refers to the dialectal Tamil, spoken by the people in the various regions of ancient Tamilagam.

Tolkappiyam categorises alphabet into consonants and vowels by analysing the syllables. It grammatises the use of words and syntaxes and moves into higher modes of language analysis. The Tolkāppiyam formulated thirty phonemes and three dependent sounds for Tamil.

Etymology of the name

The name Tolkāppiyam derived from the combination of the two words Tonmai and kāppiyam. Tonmai means ancientness and Kappiam means literature.

Derivation of Tolkāppiyam from root words as per the rules defined in Nannūl verse 136.


The dating of the Tolkappiyam has been debated much, and it is still imprecise and uncertain and has seen wide disagreements amongst scholars in the field. The work has been dated variously between the 5th century BCE and the 3rd century CE.

The antediluvian datings stemmed mostly from a descriptive commentary in an 8th-century work called Iraiyanar AgapporuL, about the existence of three Tamil Academies; they have now been rejected as being devoid of any archeological/linguistic evidence. The disagreements now center around divergent dates from the 3rd century BCE or later, with one estimate (by a botanist-author) being as late as the 10th century CE. Some scholars prefer to date it not as a single entity but in parts or layers which are estimated as written between the 3rd century BCE and the 5th century CE. There is also no firm evidence to assign the authorship of this treatise to any one author.


Tholkapiyam was written by Tholkappiyar, the disciple of Agathiar, and was born on May 1 in the Tamil month of Chitirai on a pournami (full moon) day in 865 BC. He was said to have been born in Adankodu village in Vilavankodu taluq in Kanyakumari district,Tamil Nadu. There are references to this in his work, Tholkapiyam," explained R. Madhivanan, former Director, Tamil Etymological Dictionary Project of Government of Tamil Nadu. He further explained that since "Agathiam", the grammar compiled by Agastyar, went missing after the great deluge, Tholkappiyar was asked to compile Tamil grammar. For several years according to many scholars and historians Tholkappiar was born in present-day Kanyakumari district. Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu Jayalalitha stated "Two famous Tamil poets, namely, Tholkappiar and Athanakottu Asan were born in Kanyakumari district. A tree is named after Tholkappiar in Kanyakumari District".


Starting in the 11th or 12th century CE, several commentaries came to light. Of these, the one by Ilampuranar dated to the 11th or 12th century CE is considered one of the best and most comprehensive. This was followed by a commentary dateable to 1275 CE by Senavaraiyar which, however, dealt only with the Sollathikaram. A commentary by Perasiriyar which is heavily indebted to the Nannūl followed. This commentary which can be dated to the 12th or 13th century CE, if not later, 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, which can be dated to the 14th if not the 15th or 16th century follows. Naccinarkiniyar, himself being a scholar of both Tamil and Sanskrit quotes from Parimelalakar's works. Teyvaccilaiyar's commentary follows in the 16th or 17th century. Finally, the latest available commentary, that of Kallatar comes to light. Of these commentaries, those of "Ilampooranar", "Deivachilaiyaaar" and "Natchinaarkiniyar" is regarded highly and the triumvarate are also called "Urai-asiriyargal".


The Tolkāppiyam consists of three books each of which is divided into 9 chapters. The books are called atikarams. The three books are

  1. Ezhuththathigaaram - Formation of words and combination of words
  2. Sollathigaaram - Syntax
  3. Porulathigaaram - Conveying thoughts.


Ezhuththathigaaram is further subdivided into the following 9 sections - Nuul Marabu, Mozhi Marabu, PiRappiyal, PuNaRiyal, Thokai Marabu, Urubiyal, Uyir Mayangial, PuLLi Mayangial and the KutriyalukarappunaRiyal.

Nuul Marabu - (the contents of the section) This section enumerates the characters of the language, organises them into consonants, vowels and diacritic symbols. The vowels are sub classified into short and long vowels based on duration of pronunciation. Similarly, the consonants are sub classified into three categories based on the stress.

Mozhi Marabu - (the contents of the section) This section defines rules which specify where in a word can a letter not occur and which letter can not come after a particular letter. It also describes elision, which is the reduction in the duration of sound of a phoneme when preceded by or followed by certain other sounds. The rules are well-defined and unambiguous. They are categorised into 5 classes based on the phoneme which undergoes elision.

  1. Kutriyalugaram – the (lip unrounded) vowel sound u
  2. Kutriyaligaram – the vowel sound i(as the vowel in 'lip')
  3. Aiykaarakkurukkam – the diphthong ai
  4. Oukaarakkurukkam – the diphthong au
  5. Aaythakkurukkam – the special character (aaytham)

PiRappiyal (The content of the section) – This is a section on articulatory phonetics. It talks about pronunciation methods of the phonemes at the level of diaphragm, larynx, jaws, tongue position, teeth, lips and nose. The visual representation of the letters is also explained.

PuNaRiyal (The content of the section) The structural combination of words. (This section talks about the changes to words due to the following word i.e. it specifies rules that govern the transformations on the last phonem of a word (nilaimozhi iiRu) because of the first phonem of the following word (varumozhi muthal) when used in a sentence.)

Thokai Marabu – Combination of words based on meaning.

Urubiyal – Combination of words with case-ending along with euphony particles. (This section talks about the word modifiers that are added at the end of nouns and pronouns when they are used as an object as opposed to when they are used as subjects.)

Uyir Mayangial – Combination of words with an initial vowel-phonetic upon vowel-ending.

Pulli – Combination of words with an initial consonant-phonetic upon consonant-ending. (Pulli concept is one of the distinguishing feature among the Tamil characters. Although it is not unique and brahmi also has pulli. It is distinguished by placement. According to tolkappiam which talks about pulli and its position, that is on top of the alphabet instead of side as in Brahmi. This is also one of the characteristics of Tamil brahmi according to Mr. Mahadevan. The first inscription of this type of pulli is in Vallam by Pallvas dated to the 7th or 8th century CE by Mahendra Varman Pallava.) KutriyalukarappunaRiyal - Combination of words with an initial vowel-phonetic upon the shortened 'u' vowel-ending.


Sollathigaaram deals with words and parts of speech. It classifies Tamil words into four categories - iyar chol (words in common usage), thiri chol (words used in Tamil literature), vada chol (words borrowed from Sanskrit), thisai chol (words borrowed from other languages. There are certain rules to be adhered to in borrowing words from Sanskrit. The borrowed words need to strictly conform to the Tamil phonetic system and be written in the Tamil script.

The chapter Sollathigaaram is subdivided into the following 9 sections – KiLaviyaakkam, VEtRumaiyiyal, VEtrumaimayangial, ViLimaRabu, Peyariyal, Vinaiyiyal, Idaiyiyal, Uriyiyal and the Echchaviyal.

KiLaviyaakkam– KiLaviyaakkam literally translates to word formation. This section deals with syntax correlation between subject and predicate in gender, number, person etc.

VEtRumaiyiyal – Role of case in syntax.

VEtrumaimayangial – some case-suffix denote other case-meaning

ViLimarabu – Formation of vocative case

Peyariyal – This section deals with nouns.

Vinaiyiyal – This section deals with verbs.

Idaiyiyal – Partial words of prefix and suffix and their formation in syntax.

Uriyiyal – This literally translates to the nature or science of qualifiers and deals with adjectives and adverbs.

Echchaviyal – Other points to be considered in syntax-formation.


The Porulathigaaram gives the classification of land types, and seasons and defines modes of life for each of the combinations of land types and seasons for different kinds of people. This chapter is subdivided into the following 9 sections – AkaththiNaiyiyal, PuRaththiNaiyiyal, KaLaviyal, KaRpiyal, PoruLiyal, Meyppaattiyal, Uvamayiyal, SeyyuLiyal and the Marabiyal.

AkaththiNaiyiyal – This section defines the modes of personal life i.e. life of couples.

PuRaththiNaiyiyal – This section defines the modes of one's public life.

KaLaviyal – Who and how expose the secret love

KaRpiyal – Behavior of the 'United couples'

PoruLiyal – How the couples expose themselves and how the kin and kith correlate with them.

Meyppaattiyal – Impact of feelings, a psychological views exposed in ancient literatures.

Uvamayiyal – The name Uvamayiyal literally translates to the nature or science of metaphors.

SeyyuLiyal – This section deals with a grammar for classical Tamil Poetry based on principles of prosody.

Marabiyal – Hereditary Tamil language

Other claims

Some scholars believe that Tholkappiar was a Jain. There are two verses given in support of Tholkappiar's religious outlook. 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.

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.” Dr. Dubyanskiy also said that the authority of the text was undeniable. “It is a literary and cultural monument of great importance.”

Dates proposed

  • Iravatham Mahadevan, an Indian epigraphist, argues that epigraphy sets an upper limit of around the 7th century CE on the date of the Tolkappiyam, on the basis that the Tolkappiyam is familiar with the use of the puḷḷi – a diacritical mark to distinguish pure consonants from consonants with an inherent vowel – which does not occur in inscriptions before that time.
  • Vaiyapuri Pillai, the author of the Tamil lexicon, dated Tolkappiyam to not earlier than the 5th or 6th century CE.
  • Kamil V. Zvelebil, a Czech Indologist specialised in the Dravidian languages, dates the core of Tolkappiyam to pre-Christian era.
  • Robert Caldwell, a 19th-century linguist who prepared the first comparative grammar of the Dravidian languages, maintains that all extant Tamil literature can only be dated to what he calls the Jaina cycle which he dates to the 8th to 13th centuries CE. However, Caldwell did not have the benefit of reviewing a large section of ancient Tamil literature (including ancient texts such as the Tamil: பத்துப்பாட்டு paththuppaattu and Tamil: புறநானூறு puranaanooru) that were later uncovered and published by C. V. Thamotharampillai and U. V. Swaminatha Iyer.
  • Takahashi Takanobu, a Japanese Indologist, argues that the Tolkappiyam has several layers with the oldest dating to 1st or 2nd century CE, and the newest and the final redaction dating to the 5th or 6th century CE.
  • T.R. Sesha Iyengar, a scholar of Dravidian literature and history, estimates the date when the Tolkappiyam has been composed to lie "before the Christian era".
  • Dr. Gift Siromoney, an expert on ancient languages and epigraphy, estimates the date of Tolkappiyam to be around the period of Asoka (c. 300 BCE), based on an analysis of the Tamil Brahmi inscriptions found at Anaimalai in Tamil Nadu.
  • V. S. Rajam, a linguist specialised in Old Tamil, in her book A Reference Grammar of Classical Tamil Poetry: 150 B.C.–pre-Fifth/Sixth Century A.D. dates it to "pre-fifth century AD".
  • Herman Tieken, a Dutch scholar, who endeavours to trace the influence of the Sanskrit Kavya tradition on the entire Sangam corpus, argues that the Tolkappiyam dates from the 9th century CE at the earliest. He arrives at this conclusion by treating the Tolkappiyam and the anthologies of Sangam literature as part of a 9th-century Pandyan project to raise the prestige of Tamil as a classical language equal to Sanskrit, and assigning new dates to the traditionally accepted dates for a vast section of divergent literature (Sangam literature, post-Sangam literature and Bhakti literature like Tevaram). Hermen Tieken's work has, however, been criticised on fundamental, methodological, and other grounds by G.E. Ferro-Luzzi, George Hart and Anne Monius.
  • A C Burnell, a 19th-century Indologist who contributed seminally to the study of Dravidian languages was of the view that the Tolkappiyam could not be dated to "much later than the eighth century."
  • References

    Tolkāppiyam Wikipedia

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