Inscriptional evidences related to dance and male dancers in Tamilnadu

This is a continuation of our historical snippets on Bharatanatyam (part1, part2, part3, part4). This post is inspired by (a) the article titled “Inscriptions in Tamilnadu Relating to Dance” by Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam published in The Journal of Music Academy of Madras (JMA) in 1981 [Ref 1]. (b) Also the book by Prof. Raghuraman from Jain college titled “Tamizhar Nadana Varalaaru” has numerous information of dance forms in ancient Tamil kingdoms.

In any case, it is sufficient to say that there are numerous inscriptions as evidence that show that dance was an essential part of ancient Tamils. We will see some of the important inscriptions one by one. I know this is a long post, bit breaking it into multiple posts would get rid of its charm. If you find it overwhelming in one go, do read it bit by bit. 🙂

Evidence pointing to musicality and Sollukattu/Sor kattu

This is dated to 4th century AD [Ref 3] in the Tamil-Brahmi script from the Sangam age.  It is from the place called Arachalur in Erode district. The facsimile (thats what epigraphists call when they take a carbon copy of the inscription, so the depressions in the rock are white (no ink) in the copy and the background black (ink)!) is shown below:

Image courtesy: The Hindu

Here is the annotated image [from Ref 3]
Thus we have
eluttum punaruttan malaiy
vannakkan tevan cattan

tells that a Tevan Sattan belonging to the clan of Malai-vannakan composed the following lines. Below this inscription are two inscriptions written in a grid like format.

Click to see a larger image

and the adjacent one is shown below.

Click to see a larger image

The beauty of this inscription is that in this grid form it makes a perfect symmetry whether read from top to bottom, bottom to top or from right to left, right to left. The second grid has some syllables missing (shown in bracket). However according to Ref 3, due to the symmetry the missing pieces can be easily found. Can you try saying the syllables to the inscription above? I wondering if it has been already incorporated in some jati korvai, if not then wouldn’t that be interesting?

Although the article in Ref 1, Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam mentions the syllable tu for the missing syllables in the second grid, here I am leaning more towards [reference 3] the translation given by Dr. Iravatham Mahadevan who wrote the definitive book on Tamil epigraphy. The reasons are (a) the date of the publications. Ref 1 is 1981 and Ref 3 is 2003, and (b) Dr. Mahadevan had referred to all the alternate interpretations and on checking under close inspection of the inscription came to the current conclusion.

It is common knowledge among dancers that Silapathikaaram is an ancient text that describes the various dance forms. However, the dating of this epic has always been a messy issue. In his book Dr, Iravatham Mahadevan, indicates that since this inscription can be dated to 4th century, it predates Silapathikaram (6th century AD) by two centuries. Also, it predates other inscriptions that have evidences to achievements of ancient Tamils in the field of music and dance.

Evidence of knowledge of Natyashastra in the South

People from in and around Chennai are familiar with the world heritage site Mammallapuram (Yes, it is not Maha-Bali-Puram!). However, most of us miss a nearby spot when we visit this place. It is a small hamlet called Saluvankuppam, where the Tiger cave is also present. Close to it is a Pallava structure called Athiranachanda mandabam. There are two walls that are a treasure house of inscriptions, one in Pallava Grantha and in Sanskrit/Samaskrutam.

Pallava Grantha – Saluvankuppam Pallava Inscription
Image Courtesy

In the inscription of Pallva Grantha script the 7th verse says [Ref 4]

अ [नुग्र] शील [:॥] यदि न विधाता भरतो यदि न हरिर्न्नारदो न वा स्कन्दः [।] बोद्धुं क इव समर्त्थस्संगीतं कालकालस्य ॥

translated as

Who will be able to understand the music of Kalakala, if it were not Vidhatri (Brahman) Bharata, Hari, Narada or Skanda?

Did you notice the name of Bharata mentioned here? As Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam points out in her article [Ref 1] that the last eight chapters of Natyashastra discusses more towards music and hence it was popular in south where the Pallava King, Rajasimha (674-800 AD), also known as Kalakala, was well versed in the arts.

Evidence of male dancers in the South performing Ariyakuttu/Aryakuttu

When I read that there are inscription evidence of male dancers, I jumped off from my chair!!! We are familiar that the males belonging to the Isai vellalar community were dance teachers or Nattuvanaars, teaching and performing the kutcheri with the devadasis. Although they had learned the dance form, they never practiced it. However, in ancient Tamil country it seems there were three kinds of dance that has been documented as being performed by male artists. One is Aryakuttu/Ariyakootu and the second one is Santhi Kuttu and the third one is Sakkai Kuttu. In the Vanji kandam of silapadikkaram there is a mention of a kootu called Kotticcedam by a male dancer called Paravur Kootaccakkaian.

Unlike the previous inscriptions (Tamil Brahmi and Pallava Grantha) the following inscriptions are in Tamil. In this section, we will see dancers performing Aryakuttu/Ariyakuttu, and we come to know that this dance form was exclusively performed by men [Ref 6].

Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam refers to a certain male dancer called Kumaran Srikantan who performed the Arya Kuttu or Ariya Kootu. The inscription is in the temple of Tiruvavaduthurai belonging to the 9th regnal year of Raja Raja I. It mentions that an endowment of land was created and called as ‘nritya bhoga’ to Kumaran Srikantan, and this was given for his performance of Ariya Kootu in six parts/sections.

The second male dancer performing Ariyakuttu is named as Kirttimaraikkadan alias Tiruvelai-araichchakkai. The Tamil inscription is present in the Mahalingaswami temple in Tiruvidaimarudur on the north wall of the central shrine. It is dated to the 4th regnal year of Parakesarivarman (Aditya II Karikala son of Sundara Chola Parantaka II), the famous Aditya Karikalan of Ponniyinselvan novel by Kalki Krishnamurthy

…having assembled in the theatre-hall (nataka-salai), ordered that provision may be made for performing the (dance known as) Ariyakkuttu in the presence of the lord of the sacred Mulasthana (temple) at Tiruvidaimarudil, to Kirttimaraikkadan alias Tiruvelai-Araichchakkai.


Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam further describes how this ariyakuttu was is part of the Panch Marabu, by the author Arivanar and hence the name Aryaikuttu. He describes the seven varieties of Kootu (Tandava, Nritta, Natya, Kuravai vari, Kolam, and Vagai) in his book as being based on Bharata’s Natya shastra.

Evidence of male dancers in the South performing Santhikuttu

There was another kind of dance performed called Santhikuttu. This was performed by both gender. Silapadikkaram has detailed descriptions of Santhikuttu. In the Somanatha temple, Attur, Tiruchchendur Taluk in Tirunelveli district, the Tamil inscription is located on a pillar in the south veranda of the first prakaram. It is dated to the 16th regnal year of Jatavarman Srivallabha. The male dancer called Soman performed Santhikuttus. (A.R.E.  439 of 1929-30.)

 This record of Jatavarman Srivallabha, which commences with the usual historical introduction, is dated in the 16th year of the king.  It is much damaged; but from the legible portions it appears to register some gift of land to a certain Soman who is described as a Santikkuttan or one who enacted Santikkuttus, a variety of dance and stage-play.  This kuttu is defined in the commentary on the Sileppadikaram, the early Tamil epic.


Evidence of male dancers in the South performing Sakkai kuttu (Chakkiar Kuttu)

The third type of dance performed by both genders was Sakkai kuttu. What we see here are the Cakkai kuttu performed by males. Cakkai kuttu is still being performed as Chakkiar Kuttu or Koodiyattam by the males of the Chakkiar community.

A certain Sakkai Marayan Vikrama solan or Chozhan is mentioned as performed Sakkai kuttu in the Kamarasavalli/Kamaravalli temple. The Tamil inscription says that he was rewarded for performing the dance thrice on the Tiruvadirai nakshatram day in Marghazhi and Vaigasi. The birth star of Rajendra chola I. (ARE 65 of 1914) [Ref7]

In the north wall of central shrine, dated in the reign of the Chola king Parakesarivarman alias Udaiyar Sri Rajendra-Choladeva I. Records in his twenty-ninth year, Rishabha, Wednesday, Ardra, Regnal Year 21 corresponding to May 6, A.D. 1041, gift of land by the great assembly of Kamarasavalli-chaturvedimarigalam to Sakkai Marayan VikramasOlan for performing the dance (Sakkai kuttu) thrice on each of the festivals Margali-tiruvadirai and Vaigasi-tiruvadirai.

In another Tamil inscription in the temple of Varamuleswara temple, Kilappaluvur, Udaiyarpalayam Taluk, Tiruchirapalli district the sakkai kuttu is mentioned. But, it does not mention the name of the dancer. (A.R. No. 250 of 1926)

This records the allotment (by the temple authorities) out of the devadana land at Tiruvalandurainally, of 1 ½  kalanju of gold, 3 ka’am of paddy and a pair of cloths, as remuneration to a sakkai of a Adalaiyur for enacting 3 parts of a sakkai-kuttu (dance-dramas?) in the temple on the day of a festival occurring in Asvini asterism in Aippigai month.



1. Inscriptions in Tamilnadu Relating to Dance by Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam, 1981 JMA  (Disclaimer: I have attached the link to the pdf of the lecture as part of this post. I am not really quite sure of the copyright, although the website had no mention of it anywhere. So, I will remove the document if anyone points to any copyright infringement.
2. South Indian Inscriptions (
3. Early Tamil Epigraphy: From the Earliest times to the Sixth Century AD. By Iravatham Mahadevan, 2003, Harvard Oriental Series Volume 62, Harvard University Press.
4. Tamil Arts Academy (
5. Purattatva blog (
6. Donors, Devotees, and Daughters of God by Leslie C. Orr, Oxford University Press. In page 235, “Other festival dances mentioned in Chola period inscriptions include cakkai kuttu, which was performed by both men and women (ARE 65 of 1914, ARE 120 of 1925, ARE 8 of 1929, ARE 160 of 1941, SII 19.171) and ariyakuttu performed by men (ARE 120 of 1925, SII 3.202)”
7. South indian Shrines (1993), By P. V. Jagadisa Ayyar Pg 365, Asian Educational Services.

3 responses to “Inscriptional evidences related to dance and male dancers in Tamilnadu

  1. Really wonderful instiatie. Incidentally, the mamadur narasamangalam Mahendra inscription has references to his music talent , as well that of his wife and predates the atiranchadnra inscription.


  2. Thanks for the comments, Vijay. I will look into those inscriptions.

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