The cultural connection

R. Nagaswamy’s latest book, ‘Mirror of Tamil and Sanskrit,’ is an integrated study that shows the impact of Vedic tradition and Sanskrit on Tamil life

Updated - July 05, 2016 03:47 pm IST

Published - July 05, 2012 06:44 pm IST

Dr. R. Nagaswamy, Former Director, Dept. of Archaeology, Govt. of Tamil Nadu. Photo: Archives

Dr. R. Nagaswamy, Former Director, Dept. of Archaeology, Govt. of Tamil Nadu. Photo: Archives

“At no point was there an isolated development of Tamil culture,” states R. Nagaswamy, former Director of Archaeology, Government of Tamil Nadu. “At no point of time was any part of the world isolated from its neighbourhood. The impact of the North Indian tradition on various spheres in the Tamil region cannot be denied. We are able to trace this tradition up to the Vedas.”

Nagaswamy’s latest book, ‘Mirror of Tamil and Sanskrit,’ is an integrated study that shows the impact of Vedic tradition and Sanskrit on Tamil life - its literature, art, music, dance, legal system and social customs. In the book, he gives examples from inscriptions, historical records, Tamil literature, social life, civil administration, the judicial and legal fields.

The book is a chronological evaluation of the progress of Tamil culture. The archaeologist talks to this correspondent on certain aspects of his work. Excerpts:

Sanskrit and Vedic traditions; Brahmi

This book establishes for the first time that Tamil attained classical status by adopting Vedic and Sanskrit traditions, especially with the help of Brahmins in the formative stages. The Tamil script is derived from Brahmi, which was invented by the Brahmins or the Brahmanas when Emperor Asoka wanted to propagate his message through his edicts. The earliest known written records in Tamil are assigned to 2nd century BCE and are in the Brahmi script.

Asoka embraced Buddhism no doubt. But nowhere does he mention that he is spreading Buddha Dharma. His edicts are about how a civilised society should be - he is emphasising righteous conduct. What the emperor says is not new; he is propagating the ancient code ofconduct. “I want to enforce what kings have tried to enforce earlier but have failed to do,” says Asoka. All that he propagated was derived from the age-old teachings enshrined in the Upanishads, especially Taittriya Upanishad. Also, Asoka is not anti-Brahminical as is believed by some. Repeatedly he emphasises in his edicts that Brahmins must be accorded respect.

Legal terminology

You find the legal terminology employed in Sanskrit legal texts applied in early Sangam, Pallava, Chola and Pandya times. The terminology found in the Dharma Sastras is employed in all these administrative systems based on the general code of conduct formulated during the Vedic period.


The earliest Tamil grammar available today is Tolkappiyam. By the time of Tolkappiyar and the Sangam poets, Tamil had been so integrated with Prakrit and Sanskrit tradition that it is impossible to isolate it from Sanskrit tradition. Tolkappiyar deals with both Tamil and Sanskrit grammatical structures… he exhibits it in many sutras in his work. The Sastraic tradition is reflected in Agattinai.

Tolkappiyam shows that many of the concepts followed in Tamil Nadu were found in the northern tradition, something that has been denied in the past 50 years.

The Tamil poetics as prescribed in Tolkappiyam was adopted from Sanskrit sources as for example phonetics and alankaras such as Upama.

I’m looking at Tolkappiyam from two angles in the book. The division of the land was into five groups. This is stated by Bharata in his Natya Sastra when he talks of how the images of these various divisions should be created on the stage so that the audience experiences the feeling of being transported there. The people of these five divisions in Tolkappiyam had their own gods and they were all Vedic gods such as Indra, Varuna, Siva, Vishnu, Kumara (Muruga)…

I have also dealt with the social aspect. There were the Brahmanas, then the Kshatriyas, the Vanigars, and the Vellalars, the last named were divided into two groups - all of them were eligible for Moksha which is also mentioned in Sanskrit literature. If you go deeper, the customs such as registration of marriage were also introduced by Brahmins. The whole of Porul Adhikaram of Tolkappiyar is based on Sanskrit literature.


Silappadikaram is only a Nadaga Kavya, not an epic as it is made out to be. It is purely creative poetry for the purpose of dance. “I’m using it to mirror society,” says the author Ilango Adigal. Silappadikaram consists of three cantos. Each end-poem describes what is contained in the canto. And that is based on the particular virutti . This is the Sanskrit influence for it is present in Natya Sastra.

The Vedic mode of worship was followed in the time of Silappadikaram. Natya Sastra was the basis of aesthetics of music, dance and literature. In turn, Tamil Kavyas were translated into Sanskrit - it was a two-way or reciprocal relationship.

Sangam Literature

I have said that these poems are not folk poems but poetically embellished works. They are not narrative poems and they are not history. It is said that the old Sangam poets were relegated to the background. But I have pointed out how century after century, the rulers studied Sangam poets and how Brahmins have not suppressed Tamil. There was no antagonism to Tamil anywhere and both Sanskrit and Tamil have prospered.

There is no iron curtain - Tamil culture is part of the total Indian culture. The whole of India was called “Navalar Theevu,” the Tamil equivalent of Jambudvipa, and it was ruled by different dynasties in different regions. But the outlook of the people was the same and the culture was one.

Response to the book

The book has already generated a positive response from a few scholars abroad. If scholars or others here want to refute anything I have pointed out, they are welcome. But their arguments should be based on facts and evidence and not on emotional response.

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