The seed from which this book germinated was a workshop entitled "Between Preservation and
Recreation: Tamil Traditions of Commentary in Pursuit of the Cankam Era", held in the Pondicherry
Centre of the EFED from the 26th to 28th July 2006 in honour of the late and much lamented Pandit T.V.
Gopal Iyer. The volume had been conceived as a felicitation volume of a particular kind, not simply a
collective gift of essays loosely connected with his domain of study, but a concerted effort at improving
our understanding of an area in which he had been a guide and landmark for almost all of us who met on
that occasion: Tamil commentarial literature. A presentation of the life and work of T.V. Gopal Iyer, along
with a voluminous bibliography, is followed by essays on different commentarial genres.
After a general introduction into the topic by Eva Wilden (EFEO Paris/Hamburg), Thomas Lehmann
(SA] Heidelberg/EFEO Pondicherry) gives a survey of the types of commentary found in Tamil. jean-Luc
Chevillard (CNRS) addresses problems related to the interaction between Sanskrit and Tamil by
following the transfer of a subset of scholastic terminology from one language to the other. G.
Vijayavenugopal (EFEO Pondicherry), Eva Wilden and A. Dhamodharan (formerly SAI Heidelberg) deal
with the genre of grammatical and poetological commentaries and their conception. Martine Gestin
(Laboratoire d'Anthropologie Sociale, EHESS/College de france) explores the possibilities of retrieving
social and anthropological information from a poetological commentary. T.V. Gopal Iyer (t2007), his
brother T.S. Gangadharan and T. Rajeswari (all 3 of the EFEO Pondicherry) deal with different aspects
of the tradition of literary commentaries. R. varadadesikan (EFEO Pondicherry) introduces the genre of
Vaishnava theological exegesis and, finally, Sascha Ebeling (Chicago) characterises the "neo-
commentaries'' of the 19th century.
This book is the outcome of a workshop entitled "Between Preservation and Recreation: Tamil Traditions
of Commentary in Pursuit of the Cankam Era", held in the Pondicherry centre of the EFEO from the 26th
to 28th July 2006. The event was planned as an occasion to honour a man who had attained more than 80
years in the service of Tamil language and literature, and who had been employed by our institution for
almost 30 years: Pandit T.V. Gopal Iyer. The volume was meant to be a felicitation volume of a particular
kind, not simply a collective gift of essays somehow or other connected with his domain of study, but a
concerted effort at improving our understanding of an area in which he had been a guide and landmark
for almost all of us who met on that occasion. In July 2006, his vibrant mind and unimpeded zeal still
prevailed over the frailties of an aging body. Although he already found it difficult to move about, once he
was seated in his chair he was with us as completely as ever he had been. Time, alas, does not stand still.
On the first of April 2007 he finally succumbed to the illness that had struck him down during the
preceding months. Our felicitation has become a commemoration.
In fact this sad development has not greatly changed the structure of the present volume. A presentation
of the life and work of T.V. Gopal Iyer had been planned from the outset, and luckily a lengthy interview
was conducted (and recorded)", in August 2006, with the end of making him tell his own story, the story
of a pandit of the last generation, a traditional education side by side with 'modem' university degrees. R.
Ilakkuvan (Tamilppulavar Kalluri Thanjavur) has taken the pains to transcribe his spoken word into a text,
which is at the basis of the Tamil version entitled "tamil palutta ullam", the opening section for the
biographical part of this book. It is followed by an English version of T.V.G.'s life story and by a
bibliography which may not be complete, but which is quite voluminous nevertheless.
The bulk of the book, then, will be devoted to tracing the outline of a largely un-chartered territory in the
area of Tamil studies, that of Tamil commentaries. Anybody who has known T.V.G. will at once perceive
the connection between the two parts of this book. A commentary is, put most simply, an explanation of
a basic text which is, for one reason or another, hard to understand. T.V.G. has been the breathing and
walking embodiment of a commentary for more than one generation of students, Indian and Western,
trying hard to understand the intricacies and the implications of Tamil texts, be they poetic or theoretical.
He was a living demonstration of the remarkable strengths of an age-old exegetical tradition: his vast
memory encompassed not only the Tamil works themselves, from Cankam times onwards right up to the
19th century, but also the explanations and interpretations given by generations of commentators, a highly
complex intellectual universe of transmitting, retaining and subtly modifying what had been said and
thought. He would know, or would know where to look for the answer to any question that had been and
could have been asked within that universe, and he would give it willingly, with a smile on his face, just
for the asking, no matter who it was that asked him. Incidentally he also made visible an inherent
weakness of that system of knowledge, a scholasticism that amounted at times to inflexibility - a hoast of
questions had not been asked and consequently could not be asked within that universe. Far from being a
criticism of him and the few scholars of his dwindling generation this last remark was meant to capture
some of the tension of intellectual curiosity that kept us together during the days of that workshop.
Widely differing in age, background and education we formed a group that had some questions and
problems in common and others not.
Now that he has left us we have to get on as best we can, with the consciousness that with him one track
of memory has been extinguished, bearing testimony to vast resources of knowledge. We do not honour
our teachers by celebrating them while they are alive or by lamenting them when they are no more, but by
continuing the work to which they initiated us.
Many people have helped in the production of this volume, first of all, of course, the participants of the
original workshop in 2006. My thanks go to all of them. Special thanks go to T.S. Gangadharan (EFEO
Pondy) and R. Ilakkuvan (Tamilppulavar Kalluri, Thanjuvur) who made a huge effort to establish the
biographical and bibliographical data concerning the life and works to T.V. Gopal Iyer. Thanks go to G.
Vijayavenugopal (EFEO Pondy) and T. Rajeswari (EFEO Pondy), Jean- Luc Chevillard (CNRS Paris),
Whitney Cox (SOAS London), Sascha Ebeling (University of Chicago) and Vincenzo Vergiani(University
of Cambridge) for helping with the proof-reading and formatting, to N.Ramaswamy and G. Ravindran
(both EFEO Pondy)for providing the photographs, and finally to Valerie Gillet (EFEO Pondy) for written
the French resumes attached at the end of this book.
Between Preservation and Recreation - Tamil Traditions of commentary
Tamil, the second classical language of India, can boast not only of a rich and complex literary tradition
reaching back for about two millennia, but also of a complementary tradition of textual exegesis the
beginnings of which are shrouded in mist, while officially they are put down to the 8th century, with
Nakkiran's famous commentary on the Iraiyanar Akapporul. Now even setting aside the usual hazards of
dating,' there is something striking in such an assumption, namely the fact that with Nakkiran we are
already faced with a fully developed specimen of commentarial idiom and technique. There is nothing
experimental or preliminary about the style of this text, a fact that has traditionally been put down on the
one hand to the literary genius of the author. On the other hand it has been explained by the ubiquitous
construction of the oral predecessors: Tamil theoretical texts would never have been comprehensible by
themselves, but had always presupposed a teacher-disciple relationship that ensured the transmission of
the necessary explanations. With these few sentences we have already managed to get into the thick of
Yet, however the question of absolute dating might be decided, next in line are two anonymous
commentaries on less well-known treatises, the Tamil Neri Vilakkam (Akam poetics) and the
Yapparunkalaoirutti (metrics; important because of its numerous references to and quotations from lost
texts), followed by Kunacakarar on the Yapparunkalakkarikai (metrics), followed by Ilampuranar on the
Tolkappiyam, and then before long we are safely inside so dense a network of cross-references that we
can safely speak of a tradition. All of them clearly appear to be linked to a domain termed, in Tamil,
ilakkanam, subdivided into eluttu, col and porul, that is, grammar consisting of the three subdiciplines
phonetics, morphology, semantics and syntax plus poetics and/or rhetorics. The long and the short of
this introduction is that actually we do not know very much, either about the period in which the first
commentaries were produced, or about the situation or the motivation of their authors. What we do know
can be put into five brief, if somewhat generalising, paragraphs. Our knowledge is far more detailed, or
perhaps one had better say, the sources for possible knowledge are much more extensive and varied in
the case of the second great phase of commentary production, i.e. the modern one starting in the 19th
century, which will be treated separately. This introduction will close with a brief survey of the papers
assembled in this volume.
2. Historical Setting
The picture of the situation in Southern India towards the end of the first millennium of the Common Era
is said to be uncommonly detailed." This may be true in a number" of respects, such as politics and
economy, but from the perspective of literary activity the picture has to be qualified. VELUTHAT (1993:
12), in his introduction, writes: "The literary works of this period can be generally classified, again, in two
groups: (a) the one centring on temples, and (b) the one centring on courts. The first category has been
subjected to analysis by a number of pandits and historians ( ... ) The court literature has not received the
same amount of detailed treatment, although they too have striking parallelisms with the bhakti literature
both in form and content. This, however, is a question to be looked into." What is striking about this
statement is, in our context, the fact that among the literary activities of the period the theoretical works
are not even mentioned. Yes, people produced bhakti literature and court poetry (and some other things),
but they also developed a whole new set of exegetical tools for dealing with literature that already existed:
further subdivisions of ilakkanam, threefold grammar, such as yappu (metrics) and alankara (stylistics),
the genre of nikantus (literary dictionaries) and, incidentally, that of commentaries.
Politically speaking we have three forces contending for power after the end of the ominous Kalabhra
interregnum: first the Palla vas, very much oriented towards the North and Sanskrit culture, and there
seems to be little relation between them and Tamil literature, unless the fact that the first bilingual
inscriptions are Pallava is counted in that respect. The one literary work officially composed at a Pallava
court (that of Nandivarman III in the mid-9" c.) is the Nantikkalampakam, first instance of a new poetic
genre. Disputed is a second work, the Parataoenpa, according to the Tamil tradition also belonging to the
same period and environment.
The second force is the revived dynasty of the Pantiyas, whose relationship with the Cankam kings of the
same name is not clear. Ideologically they apparently sought affiliation, for in their inscriptions they claim
a share, for their as yet unnamed ancestors, in an activity for the promotion of Tamil which might be
connected with the greater part of the anthologisation of the earlier literature." It is highly probable that
they continued to be promoters and sponsors for Tamil language and literature, as has been argued by
TIEKEN, while at the same time they were interested in Sanskrit literature and culture, since one (early
and lost) Tamil version of the Mahabharata is mentioned in one of their inscriptions." They continued to
rule their territory from Maturai, the famous capital of the third Cankam and up to this day the legendary
Tamil literary city.
The third force, though appearing slightly later on the political scene, are of course the Colas. By the 10th
and well into the mid-IS" centuries they are the dominant power, while being time and again heavily
contested by the Pantiyas of the "second Empire". Much more research has been done on the Colas than
on their adversaries, and so we have a much more detailed (though still quite incomplete) picture of Cola
literary activity. It is at the court of Viracolan alias Vira Racentiran (1012-1044 AD.) that the Viracoliyam
is written, and if we are allowed to draw conclusions from this fact as to their language policy, it seems
that they promoted Tamil, but in a highly Sanskritised variety." It is of course very tempting to simplify
and see the three dynasties at least as factors in the dynamics of the literary traditions: Palla vas for pure
Sanskrit, Pantiyas for pure Tamil and Colas also for Tamil, though for a Tamil that draws extensively on
Sanskrit theory and lexicon. But given the present state of research such a statement seems merely
Another factor is certainly religion, although it is even less clear in which way it might have been effective.
Partly it must have led to a compartmentalisation into various literary cultures, the members of which
took little notice of each other. Well known is the Cola patronage of fervent (and to some extent bilingual)
Shaivism as represented by the Periyapuranam. Perhaps the fact that it was precisely the already Tamil-
chauvinistic Shaivism that at the same time drew on theological texts written in Sanskrit (such as the
Agamas) that made a grammar like the Viracoliyam (written by a Buddhist at that) possible. Broadly
speaking there seems to be virtually no relation between the Shaivaite and Vaishnavite bhakti traditions on
the one hand and "academic" literary culture on the other." Commentators do very rarely quote
devotional literature. Still, one part of the poetological tradition, the IA and its commentary show some
kind of Shaiva affiliation, since the legendary authorship of the treatise is put down to Shiva, and the
approval of its commentary to Murukan. Things are different with Buddhist and Jain literature: the epics
(the Jain Cilappatikaram and Civaka Cintamani and the Buddhist Manimekalai) have become part of the
literary corpus drawn upon for examples in the grammatical and poetological tradition, and of some
grammarians we are told they were Jain (Tolkappiyar, Pavananti Munivar, the author of the Nannul) or
Buddhist (Puttamittiranar, the author of the Viracoliyam).
What entitles us to speak of "a Tamil literary tradition" when referring to the set of people writing treatises
on Tamil grammar and literature and writing commentaries on treatises, and later also on literary works, is
the fact that despite the existence of numerous "schools" all of them basically refer to the same corpus of
Tamil literature and to each other." The literary corpus concerned is roughly made up of three types of
texts, Cankam, Kilkkanakku and epic texts, or, to put it brief, of the literary production of the first
millennium minus the bhakti poetry." This means there is a certain conservative or even antiquarian
element detectable in the activity of the commentators, which in part might seem inherent in the very genre
of the commentary itself: writing a commentary one is concerned with preserving or clarifying a sense
(and this is also true for the auto-commentary, a genre likewise not unknown within the tradition).
Put differently, the arising of the commentary as a genre, followed by a phase of intensive commentary
writing, betrays a renewal of interest in the past, and probably a reconstruction of that past and a cultural
identity in relation to it. This preoccupation with a Tamil past on the part of the commentators explains
why in part their agenda is surprising to a modern reader: often the commentator seems less concerned
with the wording of the text he is commenting on than with the construction of a set of social norms for a
universe in which a given poetic statement (or rule, in the case of a theoretical text) would make sense.
And often we perceive a double trespass on his part. He does not properly distinguish between the
poetic universe and the real world, and he does not distinguish between the real world of olden days and
of his own time. This is the sort of ghostly reality we still find depicted in many historiographic accounts
of past events and society.
3. The Value of Commentarial Evidence
The modem reader's dependence on the testimony of the commentaries is enormous, almost absolute.
For one thing the editors and commentators of the late 19th century gained access to the texts they were
confronted with and had to make sense of via the bridge of the extant commentarial material. (What else
could they have done?) Secondly, the commentaries they wrote, and that is the majority of the
commentaries we still read today (as will be argued below), are crafted along the lines of the traditional
commentaries known to them. Thirdly, almost our whole set of philological tools, grammars, dictionaries,
indexes, are heavily indebted to the same reservoir of knowledge. No doubt at all we have much reason
to be grateful not to have been plunged all on our own into the fairly hermetic universe of classical Tamil
literature. But, in order to evaluate the evidence available in detail it is unavoidable to understand the
interests and the techniques of the commentators. This means acknowledging a number of facts:
1. There is a time gap between the early classical texts and the medieval commentaries that is
about as wide as the one separating us from those commentators, namely roughly speaking between 500
and 1000 years.
2. The language of the commentaries is often quite as hard (and sometimes harder) to understand
as that of the classical Tamil texts.
3. The commentators were partly already confronted with difficulties similar to our own. This is
clearly shown by the innumerable cases where there are several suggestions, either within the same
commentary or in the form of debates going on over various commentaries.
4. Those difficulties were only in part openly acknowledged Commentators have developed a
technique of simply glossing over awkward passages.
5. One pervasive interest of the commentators (probably less for those on grammar, but very
much so for those on poetry and poetics) is morals. This accounts for quite a number of astonishing
interpretative decisions on their part at the level of individual textual detail, and it explains at least some of
the oscillation between the poetic world and the real one: uneasiness arises when poetic behaviour or
norms deviate from worldly norms.
It is the last point that seems to be most in need of further illustration, and so I want to bring in two
examples, one mainly of socio-historical interest for the epoch of the commentaries themselves, while the
other is of crucial importance for our understanding of the Tamil poetic universe.
At the beginning of the TP Kalaviyal there is a definition of kamakkuttam, "coupling out of passion", one
of the basic elements of the secret phase in a poetic love relationship. Rather surprisingly it is explained
as one "among the eight [kinds of] marriage [to be found] with those familiar with the Vedas, of the
nature [of the marriage] of those connected with the good lyre abiding by the ghat", i.e. the Gandharva
marriage. Incidentally this sutra is a fine example of the Sanskrit policy followed in one phase of the
Tolkappiyam redaction: loan words are relentlessly translated into Tamil, even if this impedes
understanding. In the parallel sutra IA 1 we find a simply kantaruvam for turaiyamai nalyal tunaimaiyor.
Now, Naccinarkkiniyar's commentary on this sutra runs over almost four pages (in the edition of T.V.
GOPAL IYER). After quoting an apocryphal eight-liner that defines kalavu - thus silently restoring the
order of things against the actual TP text, for a definition of kalavu is precisely what we would expect at
the beginning of the kalavu section - he, however, does not proceed to explain why the comprehension of
a poetological concept should be enhanced by its being embedded in a set of social norms. Instead he
establishes the full dharma context by citing sutra-s defining all the eight forms of marriage as known to
Hindu law from the Grhyasutras onwards. We will come back to this case in the section on Tamil and
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