“Without Bhakti, there is no Tamil literature,” D. Gnanasundaram, Kamban Chair Professor at Pondicherry University, says. “Look at the number of songs and range of the topics covered. It is not just about religion — it is an expression of Tamil social history from the seventh century on.”

N. Deiva Sundaram of the University of Madras agrees. “The poems of the Bhakti movement composed between the seventh and twelfth centuries provide information on the Tamil traditions using simple language. They are also a record of the language as it was spoken in that time.”

Religion has always been a big patron of art and literature in most languages, and much of the earliest literature in most languages now extant is religious or philosophical in character. But the Sangam poetry and other early works of Tamils refer less to religion than to social customs and traditions. A strong secular character seems to have influenced Tamil poetry in the early period.

In contrast, the poetry of the Bhakti movement — some of the first being the Nalayira Divya Prabandham (4,000 songs) of the Azhwars (Vaishnavite) and the Twelve Thirumurais (comprising 18,426 songs) of the Saivite saints — have as their main theme religion and god.

“The period between the Sangam Age and the Pallavas — the second to the sixth centuries CE — were trying times for Tamil literature and the Hindu religion. The Kalabhra kings seem to have been patrons of Jains and Buddhists, and Pali and Prakrit seem to have flourished,” Dr. Gnanasundaram says.

Though the five great Tamil epics and a number of other works were composed by Jains and Buddhists in this period, Dr. Gnanasundaram says their social ideals were contrary to the Tamil customs and traditions seen in Sangam poetry.

He sees the Bhakti movement as a return to the “roots” of Tamil society where the emphasis is on the present material world rather than on sacrifice and abstinence. Even the religion of the Bhakti poets is sensuous, and the Azhwars and the Nayanmars alternately profess love to or chide their gods, depending on their mood, in their poetry.

Others, including Hindu Religious & Charitable Endowment Minister K.R. Periyakaruppan, see the social effects of the Bhakti movement. “These saints were drawn from all classes and castes. They went from temple to temple and offered worship in the language of the people, embodying the idea that before god everyone is equal,” he says.

Mr. Periyakaruppan points to the revival of Tamil culture and the Tamil language with the Bhakti movement, and sees the Bhakti movement as one of the reasons Tamil is a living classical language. Women such as Karaikkal Ammaiyar and Andal got public recognition, just as women poets were welcomed in the courts of kings in the Sangam Age.

Dr. Gnanasundaram talks about the figures of speech that are drawn from everyday experience and nature. Vivid portrayals of country life are seen in the poems, and Tamil music is celebrated. “Tirugnanasambandhar [a Saivite Nayanmar] gives us some of the best references to Tamil Isai — the instruments, the forms of music,” he says.

Historian Burton Stein notes in his Peasant, State and Society in Medieval South India that the Bhakti movement was a social reaction to the town-based and mercantile society of Jains and Buddhists. It may be seen as an expression of the largely rural population with emphasis on agriculture. This is reflected in the works and contributes to the idea that they are “more rooted in Tamil culture.” The poetry produced a huge corpus of work interpreting the ideas exemplified by these saints.

The Vaishnavite philosophical tradition of the South, starting with Ramanuja's expounding of Visishtadvaita, draws a lot from the Azhwars, while Saiva Siddhanta uses the songs of the Saivite saints.

In music, too, the idea of Bhakti, after finding roots in different parts of the country through various people's movements, becomes a major inspiration for composers like Tyagaraja.