Dance in Early Tamil Literature- a reading

Compiled from the writings of Mr. Rajendra Kumar

“It is a well – known fact that Tamizh language is one of the oldest languages in the world. Not only is it old but also it is very rich in literature.

But what makes Tamizh unique and special is that it has survived the ravages of time and is still spoken by millions of people across the globe.
Dance and music (or for that matter any form of fine arts) has always been part of Tamizh culture.
Tholkaappiyam‘, the authentic work on Tamizh Grammar that was written in 500BC by Tholkaapiyar-considered to be a student of the great sage ‘Agaththiyar’ mentions a lot about classical dance.

Starting from Tolkappiyam, many texts like Pancha Marabu, Kooththa Nool, Bharata Senapathiyam have defined the grammar of classical dance.

Pancha Marabu‘by Arivanaar-which was also written almost the same time as Tholkaapiyam – describes in detail about music and dance. It talks about various hand gestures,abhinaya,kooththu,,naatyam.It also describes the letters to be used for jathis-tha,thi,tho,ki,k.

Then there is ‘Kooththa nool‘ authored by Saaththanaar. This is the oldest available text on the grammar of classical dance.‘Kooththa Nool’ has two sections, ‘Suvai’ and ‘Thogai’ with 153 and 162 verses respectively and says that the sound, the letters and the music emanated from the Dance of the Lord.

It also says that ‘Om’ is the beginning and the end for everything.

The author seems like a good psychiatrist, philosopher and most importantly an intellectual.

The link between human life and the Nava Rasaas have been described in detail by the author.

 Here is a verse form Koothanool. Tastes emerge from the feelings within and these are expressed as dance. Feeling is the soul, Taste is the Mind, and expression is the body’.

அகம்உயிர் ஆகச் சுவைஉளம் ஆக
இழைஉடல் ஆக இயல்வது கூத்து.

It is a cryptic verse with very deep meanings but what was written nearly 2500 years ago holds good even now. And this is applicable to any art form.

However, ‘Silappathigaaram‘-one of the five major epics in Tamizh-is considered to be a complete book on classical dance. ‘Silappathikaaram’ gives a perfect description about Classical Dance and Music.

We find that in literature too, small things have played major roles. A small gemstone ankle-bell(silambu)  influenced an entire epic.
‘Silappathikaaaram'(Story of the jeweled anklets) is considered to be one of the greatest epics in the world of Literature.In the words of the Czech Professor Dr.Kamil Zvelebil,

‘‘The epical poem of Silapathikaaram which by its baroque splendour and by the charm and magic of its lyrical parts belongs to the epic masterpieces of the world and should be admired and beloved by all in the same was as Poems of Homer, the Dramas of Shakespeare, the Pictures of Rembrandt, the Cathedrals of France and Sculptures of Greece”.

What is this Silappathikaaram all about?

Kovalan and Kannagi lead a happy married life until Kovalan falls for a great dancer Madhavi and begins to live with her.Unable to bear the adoration and appreciation Madhavi was getting from others, he becomes jealous and deserts her.

He is penniless now and returns to Kannagi who offers to sell her anklet- filled with rubies-to get some money. They go to Madurai where Kovalan while trying to sell one of the anklets is caught by the guards of the Pandya King.The Queen’s anklets-which were filled with pearls- had just then been stolen and assuming that Kovalan was the culprit, the King orders his guards to kill Kovalan.

Kannagi throngs the King’s court and proves that her anklets were filled with rubies and not pearls. Realising his folly, the King dies instantaneously. Kannagai goes on to burn the city of Madurai.

Though there lot of great things about the way Ilango AdigaL has presented this simple but complex story, what attracts a connoisseur is the way he has structured the grammar of Music and Dance.
Though there are lot verses, I am giving below one sample verse that speaks volumes about the quality of the work.

It says ‘One must start learning classical dance at the age of five without any compromise on Musical, Dance and Aesthetic Elements, practise rigorously for seven years and perform at the age of twelve.’

ஆடலும் பாடலும் அழகும் என்று இக்
கூறிய மூன்றில் ஒன்று குறைவு படாமல்
ஏழு ஆண்டு இயற்றி ஓர் ஈர் ஆண்டில்
சூழ் கழல் மன்னற்குக் காட்டல் வேண்டி.

However, it is the description about Classical Dance in ‘Silappadhigaaram’ that calls for special mention and appreciation.

Ilango adigaL must have been a perfectionist. The author elaborates on the qualifications of a Dance Teacher, Percussionists,Vocalist,Flautist, and the person(s) playing the ancient instrument ‘Yaazh’.

He deals with each and every aspect of dance starting from the vocalist, the lyricist, the percussionist, the instrumentalists.

What amazes one is the way he has defined the structure of the stage. Not only has he given the dimensions of a stage but also that he has mentioned about the lighting, and the way the stage has to be decorated.

If the verse

எழுகோல் அகலத்து எண்கோல் நீளத்து
ஒருகோல் உயரத்து உறுப்பினது ஆகி
உத்தரப் பலகையொடு அரங்கின் பலகை
வைத்த இடை நிலம் நாற்கோல் ஆக
ஏற்ற வாயில் இரண்டும் பொலியத்
தோற்றிய அரங்கினில் தொழுதனர்
gives the desired dimensions of a stage,

தூண் நிழல் புறப்பட மாண் விளக்கு எடுத்து ஆங்கு
ஒருமுக எழினியும் பொருமுக எழினியும்
கரந்து வரல் எழினியும் புரிந்துடன் வகுத்து

talks about the lighting.

He then goes on to describe the ‘Pancha Sandhi’ Kavuththuvum-an item that is performed in the beginning to ward off evil forces-and then the 11 different dances called as ‘Pathinoru aadal’..

And that is the reason ILango AdigaL paid importance to music as well while talking about dance.

In just one verse, he gives the names of the seven swaras as per Tamizh PaN.

குரலே, துத்தம், கைக்கிளை, உழையே
இளியே, விளரி, தாரம் என்றிவை
எழுவகை இசைக்கும் எய்தும் பெயரே
சவ்வும் ரிவ்வும் கவ்வும் மவ்வும்
பவ்வும் தவ்வும் நிவ்வும் என்றிவை
ஏழும் அவற்றின் எழுத்தே ஆகும்

Sa-Kural; Ri-Thuththam;Ga-KaikkiLai;Ma-Uzhai;Pa-ILi;Dha-ViLari;Ni-Tharam.

In another verse, he says PaNs(Ragams) are obtained by arranging the 12 Kovais(swaras) in a specified structure in the ascending and descending scale.

But more than all these, what leaves one wonder struck is his definition of Gruha Bedam-tonic shift. He calls this as ‘Kural Thiribu’.

He says ‘if the Thuththam(ri) of Mohanam is the base, it would give Madhyamavathi, if the KaikkiLai(ga)is the base it would give Hindolam, the ILi(pa) would give Sudhha Saveri and the ViLari(dha) Sudhha Dhanyasi’.

Is it not amazing that somebody in the Tamizh land defined all these as early as the 5th century?Bottom of Form

MaNimekalai’– considered to be an offshoot of ‘Silappathikaaram’ since MaNimekalai was the the daughter of Madhavi and Kovalan- also talks a lot about the dance.

Written by ‘Seeththalai Saaththanaar’, the text mentions about Tala Aruthi,the eleven different forms of dance-as already mentioned in detail in ‘Silappathikaaram’-the two forms of ‘Kooththu’ and the existence of a grammar book on ‘Bharatam’.

In another major text, ‘Seevaka ChintamaNi’, the chief protagonist, Seevakan himself is a dancer.

In Bhakti Literature,texts like Thevaram and Tirumanthiram talk a lot about the dance of Siva.

Some verses in the ‘Naalayira Divya Prabhandam’ describe the dance of Krishna.

Thiruppugazh‘ written by AruNaGirinathar has lot of verses that use the dance syllables.In one of the verses, ‘Athala Sethanaar aada’, he makes all the gods in the heaven dance.

Apart from these texts that are exclusive books on Grammar, classical dance finds a mention in Sangam Literature, works that preach Wisdom and Values like ThirukkuraL, Naaladiyaar etc.,

These are some of the glimpses from literature.

Golden period for the Arts

If we look at the different periods, during the sangam period, all art forms were their best. After this, there was a lull as the Tamizh land was ruled by strangers called ‘KaLappiRars’.In fact, this period is supposed to be a dark period in the history.

The Pallavas took over and this period was the Golden Period. All major art forms flourished.The dance sculptures at Maamallapuram still exist and tell us the aesthetic sense of the Pallavas.

After this was the Chozha period and the Bruhadeeswara temple at Thanjavore (Thanjavur Big temple ) depicts 81 karanaas (loosely translated as poses but they are not just poses)  out of the 108 Karanaas.The Nataraja temple at Chidambaram and the Saarangapaani temple at KumbakoNam have all the 108 karanaas depicted. Nobody has a clue as to why the balance of 27 is not depicted.
This shows the passion and the dedication of our ancestors and how deeply they were involved in fine arts. It also shows that fine arts was an intrinsic part of their lives. ( See Related Post)

Mr. Rajendra Kumar acknowledges the information provided by Prof.Raghuraman in the book titled ‘Tamizhar Natana Varalaaru’.

I  sincerely thank Mr. Rajendra Kumar for sharing the info with us.

Here are a few websites that you may access for further reading

  • – for downloading Tamil Documents
  • Madurai is an open and voluntary initiative to collect and publish free electronic editions of ancient tamil literary classics. This means either typing-in or scanning old books and archiving the text in one of the most readily accessible formats (“ETEXTS”) for use on all popular computer platforms. All etexts will be distributed in both web/html and PDF formats.- Distributed through the World Wide Web servers , anyone located anywhere may download a copy for personal use or read what we publish on the internet, free of charge.
  • – online library at Tamil Virtual University
  •–  Online Tamil Virtual University

13 responses to “Dance in Early Tamil Literature- a reading

  1. a very beautiful writing on literature. very informative and amazing. i wonder where you found all these and he links below them.
    you are doing a wonderful job!
    hats off!

    Thanks Meghna. Mr. Rajendra Kumar’s writings are indeed beautiful and informative.. Well I need to thank him for being so generous and sharing this with us.
    You can visit his blog at

  2. Hi,

    What has been presented here is just a sample of what Tamizh literature is all about.
    Please read the original Silappathikaaram and other works-or the translation- to understand more about the richness.
    I also request you to read Prof.Raghuraman’s wonderful analysis.

    Sangeetha is doing a wonderful job here.
    Hats off to her!!

  3. Dear Sangeetha,
    That was a very informative and interesting article. I think the extracts from Silapathikarum were brilliant.

    Thanks Shwetha,
    Will pass on the comments to Mr. Rajendra Kumar, the brilliant writer who shared this article with us.
    Best Wishes,

  4. You could have mentioned that in Silappathikaaram they composed a specific music piece for a specific dance item, not the other way around – like we are choreographing nowadays!

  5. Informative article.
    Could you specify is there are English translations for Koothanool

  6. Dear Thiru Rajendra Kumar
    குரலே, துத்தம், கைக்கிளை, உழையே
    இளியே, விளரி, தாரம் என்றிவை
    எழுவகை இசைக்கும் எய்தும் பெயரே
    சவ்வும் ரிவ்வும் கவ்வும் மவ்வும்
    பவ்வும் தவ்வும் நிவ்வும் என்றிவை
    ஏழும் அவற்றின் எழுத்தே ஆகும்
    mentioned above is from Thivaakara Nihandu and not from Silappathikaaram.

  7. Any one interested in downloading “Pancha Marabu” complete (Sangam period Tamil Dance Treatise), from the Digital Library, could follow the the following URL and download same. Pancha Marabu has a Chapter on Kootha Marabu with sub-sections on (a) Ardaliyal (2) Avinayaviyal (3) Thandiyaviyal

  8. Pingback: Talk by Prof. Raghuraman on Koothanool (கூத்தநூல்) – Video | Bharathanatyam and the worldwide web·

  9. Its a excellant pease of work but i felt his article needs to be in tamil can u please translate this in tamil also….

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