Magnum Photos

Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu, India, 1996; photograph by Raghu Rai

Tamil is spoken today by approximately 80 million people, mostly in India but also in Sri Lanka, Singapore, and Malaysia, and in an international diaspora. It is also one of the world’s oldest languages, with a continuous history stretching back to at least the late centuries BCE. It has served as a language of trade and statecraft, and as a medium for poetry, philosophy, linguistic science, visionary esotericism, and the expression of Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian religious cultures over the past two millennia. To attempt to give a comprehensive vision of the language within the compass of a brief book intended for nonspecialists might seem an impossible task.

Yet Tamil: A Biography succeeds at this remarkably well. It is written by David Shulman—a leading Indologist and scholar of classical South Asian languages, now emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem—who has often written about Israel and particularly the plight of Palestinians in these pages. The book traces a chronological sequence from the prehistory of the language up to modern times. Shulman draws together a wealth of contemporary scholarship, but the perspective that commands the book is uniquely his, as is the authorial voice. Gently humorous, frequently lyrical, and wearing great learning very lightly, the book’s prose admirably summons up what it might be like to listen to a series of lectures by a gifted teacher.

Some readers today would associate the Tamil language with the ethnic minority of that name in northern Sri Lanka and with the tragic events of that nation’s civil war. Others might think of the state of Tamil Nadu in the modern Republic of India, with its distinctive cuisine and popular culture. The language has more native speakers than Italian, Thai, or Polish; more than Dutch and Swahili combined. Modern Tamil is profoundly “diglossic”: its spoken register differs sharply from the formal written language.

Such descriptions cannot begin to capture the experience of listening to or speaking the language. Imagine, say, academic German at its most ornate: long sentences, internal digressions, a flurry of case endings and conjugations, the exhausting anticipation of a desperately needed noun. Imagine this as the medium of everyday life: trips to the store, tentative friendships, asking for directions. Now imagine it spoken as quickly as human tongues and lips can allow, and you have an idea, more or less, of how I felt as a college student living among Tamil speakers for the first time.

I was in Madurai, an ancient city in Tamil Nadu inextricably connected with the language’s millennia-long existence, and after much desperation, I came to find life in Tamil’s presence exhilarating. This is a frequently shared experience of the language’s foreign enthusiasts, which mirrors, however poorly, the insider perspective of many Tamil native speakers. Speaking, or even just listening to, well-spoken or (better yet) sung Tamil exerts a powerful allure over those who are at home in it. The sheer love for the language that I saw in my Madurai neighbors two decades ago shades over into an intense loyalty, even a quasi-religious devotion, of a sort rarely seen elsewhere.

Shulman opens his book with a brisk review of three possible etymologies for the word “Tamil,” none of which he finds especially satisfying. By means of an acrostic substitution of the name’s vowels, you end up with temoli, “the sweet language”; a colder historical linguist’s eye can, with some justice, catch a glimpse of a verbal root meaning “to be fit or proper.” Finally, just possibly, a reflexive pronoun might underlie the name’s first syllable: Tamil would then be that which is “singular” or perhaps “our own.” In any case—whether it is called sweet, appropriate, or unique—Tamil as a name seems to refer not to the speech of home, field, or market (that would be just moli), but to a particular, intensified variation upon it.

There is an abundance of evidence, including inscribed potsherds, dedicatory inscriptions, coins, references in Greek and Latin authors, even burrowings into the Old Testament, that points to the existence of a spoken language recognizably related to what we now call Tamil that flourished from the late centuries BCE. From the earliest time the language’s refined register of carefully crafted poetic speech has been its central quality. In its oldest surviving grammar, the materials of poetic subject matter are granted equal time with phonology and word formation; in another early work, “Tamil” is said to mean nothing more (and nothing less) than the inner world of the heart.

These texts—the Tŏlkāppiyam (The Old Composition) and the Iraiyanar Akapporul (On the Nature of Love Poetry, by God)—contain erudite reflections on the earliest surviving body of Tamil literature, usually referred to as the poetry of the sangam (the Assembly). The Iraiyanar tells us that there were three such assemblies, which met over thousands of years, the first two of them in cities that were later swept away by the sea. Only the poetry of the third and final assembly, held in Madurai, is said to have survived. This medieval narrative commenting on the Tamil cultural past contains important reflections on the relation of poetry to criticism and on the loss and disruption of literary tradition, all of which Shulman carefully describes. The oldest Tamil literature, the supposed outcome of the third and final sangam, consists of eight anthologies of poems, of various lengths, each ascribed to different authors, and a collection of ten much longer lyrical and descriptive “songs.”


All of these are broadly sorted into two thematic categories: akam or “the interior,” consisting of love poems, and puram or “the exterior,” a more diverse group, including martial eulogy, public praise, and worldly wisdom. The first of these take the form of intensely realized monologues by anonymous young lovers and their friends, dependent upon what their greatest English translator, the late poet and folklorist A.K. Ramanujan, called “the interior landscape.”1 Here, the emotional lives of these lyrical personae are represented through reference to the natural and cultural features of five stylized landscapes, linked to real features of the South Indian countryside. Here is an example, from Ramanujan’s translation, cited by Shulman, to which Ramanujan gave the title “What she said to her girl friend”:

On the tall hill
where the short-stemmed
   nightshade quivers,

       a squatting cripple
       sights a honey hive
       points to the honey,
       cups his hands,
       and licks his fingers:

so, too,
even if one’s lover
doesn’t love or care,
it still feels good

just to see him
now and then.

The abandoned speaker hopes for even a glimpse of her lover; even if she cannot be with him, she still has recourse to the vicarious pleasures of their former happiness. This implicit message is given nuance by the poem’s subtle appeals to the language of the landscapes, which was first formalized in the Tŏlkāppiyam. The hill, its nightshade, and the honeycomb all summon up a setting named after another mountain flower, the kurinci, suggestive of the landscape in which the lovers meet and have their first illicit sexual encounter.

These details set the emotional tone of this exquisite little poem: for an attuned reader or listener, they immediately call to mind the haunted erotic reverie that exists just beneath its surface. The details of the akam landscapes (the puram poems possess a parallel system) might lend themselves to a cold formalism; yet almost every poem in the corpus, and certainly every great one, depends on a carefully cultivated ambiguity or—as here—on complex effects of irony.

Such poems seem distinctively modern. This is marvelously captured by Ramanujan’s style of translation, with its specific typographic arrangements, echoing William Carlos Williams and H.D. Despite all of the alternatively austere and exuberant pleasures of the sangam collections, most of the scholarly and popular discussion of them has revolved around the prosaic matter of their dating. This is an important question. The Assembly poems are so remarkable, and so seemingly distinct from other Indic literatures and from later Tamil culture, that it is tempting to understand them as the finest achievements of a classical civilization (Ramanujan himself claimed that Tamil poets “wrote nothing better”), even as the works of an oral-poetic culture that was for a time untouched by writing.

The history of Tamil literature could then suggest the outlines of social history: a pristine world, as yet unaffected by obscurantism and priestcraft, and free of the inequities of caste and gender, all supposed exports of the Sanskrit-speaking North. But the tenacious notion of Tamil literature as an oral poetry is certainly untrue. As Shulman emphasizes, the sangam works represent a literate, learned culture; the wandering bards who appear in some poems are among many of their stylized dramatis personae.

The debates over chronology can grow heated; at what might be called their reasonable extremes (excluding those who claim the poems to be nineteenth-century forgeries, or as the surviving testament of an antediluvian lost continent), estimates range from well before the beginning of the Common Era to the tenth century CE. Sifting through the contentious scholarly literature, Shulman presents a new chronology of the early texts, arguing for a series of compositional and editorial moments—“clusters of time”—strung across the first millennium. He argues that a group of loosely connected societies emerged by the end of the first century CE, whose historical figures supplied names to poets writing around the fourth century. The anthologies we now possess began to take editorial shape at Madurai around the year 800.


This new interpretation is unlikely to satisfy partisans on different sides of this argument, but it is the most judicious and capacious such theory yet offered. Likely to ruffle some scholars is Shulman’s insistence that this remarkable literary culture was, since its inception, deeply in dialogue with Sanskrit, and that a great many (perhaps most) of its poets partook of the Brahmanical culture that already spanned all of South Asia by the Common Era’s early centuries.

The early chapters of Tamil: A Biography are filled with Shulman’s perceptive readings of the poetry of the sangam and of works of the later and wider classical Tamil canon, including the delightful gnomic couplets of the Tirukkural, short statements on how to live virtuously, and the broad narrative horizons of the so-called “epics,” the Cilappatikaram and Manimekalai. But it is in his attention to the later centuries of premodern Tamil literature and thought that Shulman truly finds his theme. In contrast to Ramanujan, he finds much here that is worthwhile; in his understanding of the Tamil culture of the thirteenth through the eighteenth centuries, no scholar working today is his equal.

The central chapters of the book contain a multitude of observations, and at moments move at a breathless pace. Shulman’s idiom, while often infectious, can at times be eccentric: words like “empirical” and “pragmatic” recur constantly, though in ways that would likely surprise an empiricist or a pragmatist. He possesses a genuine interpretative generosity; yet at times he writes as if every early Tamil author shared his own preoccupations. These include the magical efficacy of poetic language, the constitution and dissolution of the human self, and an intuitive, preverbal sense of the “aliveness” of the world. Connecting all of these is Shulman’s larger conception of Tamil as a sort of indwelling, transpersonal being.

These are huge themes, which often resonate with the thoughts of the poets, grammarians, and mystics with whom he engages. In some cases, however, these insistent points prove overwhelming. The poet Kamban, whom he finds “the most gifted of all Tamil authors” and whose magnificent Ramayana of the twelfth century was the greatest statement of the medieval literary canon, is enlisted only to demonstrate an understanding of truth as the realization of “the autonomy and integrity of the spoken, audible (musical) word that, once uttered, will always live out its life in the world independent of the speaker’s will.” If this is at once too big and too small a conclusion to hang on the masterpiece of a great poet, it is not wholly Shulman’s fault. Kamban’s work is enormous, and thanks to the volumes of its translation soon to appear in the Murty Classical Library of India, about to become much better known to a global English audience. Shulman’s translation of the poem’s second book is due to be published in the near future.2

Maya Tevet Dayan

David Shulman in Andhra Pradesh, where Telugu is the official language but Tamil is also spoken, 2006

Shulman’s imaginative sympathies, however, draw him to figures who are far from any conception of the poet as truth-speaking mystagogue. There is, for instance, his obvious affection for the poet Kalamekappulavar, whom he calls Black Cloud. A poet who improvised on the spot, whose verse percolates through the popular culture of literary anecdote, Black Cloud is representative of the unruly world of the late-medieval culture, a figure of madcap macho swagger. One story finds him trapped upside down in an outlandish death trap of his own design, involving iron cages, boiling oil, and the poet’s body surrounded by knives attached to raging elephants. Black Cloud introduces himself into this Rube-Goldberg-meets-David-Blaine contraption while an audience of learned men bombards him with requests for improvised verses: if he fails to come up with one, or commits a mistake of grammar, prosody, or convention, the trap is sprung.

Asked to write a poem in the form called venpa about a mountain made to shake by a fly nearby, he ups the ante: “Why not the whole universe?” The venpa is a notoriously tricky verse form, tightly restricted in its cadence, with a complicated pattern of double rhyme. The resulting Tamil poem is a little miracle of assonance and rhythm; Shulman beautifully captures its lyrical eccentricities:

The eight elephants that stand at the cardinal points,
great Mount Meru, the oceans,
the Earth herself—all teetered and tottered
when a fly came buzzing
into the wound left on Vishnu’s body

by the cowherdess with the musical voice

when she struck him
with the thick churning rod.

(It helps to know that in traditional texts the directions are, indeed, guarded by elephants; Mount Meru is the axis mundi; and Vishnu was incarnated in a village of cowherds as the mischievous, larcenous, adorable baby Krishna, whose long-suffering mother Yashoda was forced on occasion to deliver corporal punishment, with cosmic consequences.)

Set against a daredevil like Black Cloud is the figure of the erudite man of letters, like the poet Pukalenti. Equally a master of form—he wrote an entire long work in the same difficult venpa meter—Pukalenti is remembered not for death-defying stunts or hurling versified magical curses, but as the creator of marvelously playful and intricate figurative experiments:

Look, my friends with breasts round as burnished
copper pots: the cool sky, scorched by the moon,
is breaking out in blisters—and still,
though you should know better,
you insist on honeyed phrases like
“a firmament filled with stars”?

Pukalenti puts this in the mouth of Damayanti, his lovesick heroine, but he is of course speaking through her, metapoetically, in order to address less inventive rivals (there are invisible scare quotes around the copper pots, another cliché). The hallucinatory image at the verse’s heart—the sky burning up with fevered passion, just like its speaker—pushes beyond any recognized poet’s convention: here, the coolly intellectual author is as capable of wild invention as the death-defying freestyle rhymer.

Despite the singularity of its titular object, Tamil: A Biography is itself never just about a single language. Instead, this polyglot scholar—who knows at least a dozen languages—has produced a deeply polyglossic history, one in which Sanskrit, Prakrit, Telugu, Malayalam, Persian, Arabic, and English are all shown to be interacting with Tamil, indeed to be in some sense inseparable from it. For Shulman, the varying intensities of language extend both all the way down—from the language of poetry to trips to the store and asking for directions—and across what we naively consider the airtight boundaries separating one speech form from another. His work amounts to a view of language that differs profoundly from the scholarly understanding of modern languages with its taxonomic imperatives. Shulman never states an underlying theory outright, as a sort of methodological credo, but such a theory acts as a structuring leitmotif throughout.

This amounts to an invitation to a radical rethinking of the whole Herderian SpracheVolk continuum that presents each language as representing a distinct group or culture and on which much depends, including the academic institutions that study world literature and non-Western cultures.

The stark divide between Tamil and Sanskrit, a central pillar of the modern “Dravidianist” politics in India, is especially undermined. In Shulman’s view, Kamban’s Tamil becomes a kind of Sanskrit, while the verbal texts of the brilliant eighteenth-century composer Muttusvami Dikshitar, who wrote only in Sanskrit, are suffused by a knowledge of Tamil. Not unrelated to this is Shulman’s convincing interpretation of Dikshitar and his two fellow members of the “Carnatic trinity”—whose works are as high as high culture gets in contemporary Tamil Nadu—as Tantric shaman-sorcerers, recreating the universe through sound.

There is a story about how once Kamban had finished his monumental retelling of the Ramayana, but before its debut, the poet went to receive the blessing of the Brahmans residing in the great temple-city of Shrirangam. These men, repositories of traditional knowledge in both Tamil and Sanskrit, rejected the lower-caste poet and his masterpiece, insisting that he first receive the endorsement of their great rivals, the Shiva-worshipping Brahmans of nearby Cidambaram, then also the endorsement of the non-Hindu Jains, as well as the caste of blacksmiths, various courtesans, even Kamban’s own young son. The poem had to belong not to one singularly gifted poet, but to the whole of society, in order for it to come into being in the world.

In Tamil Nadu today, there are men and women of learning and sincerity bent on preserving their language’s heritage for the next generation. The state government has inaugurated a Central Institute of Classical Tamil to further the study of the language’s past; it possesses an impressive set of modern offices. I fear they will not be enough. For Tamil’s remarkable achievements to endure in our century, it must overrun the boundaries of ethnicity and regional culture. Tamil must be claimed as a part of a common global heritage, just as Kamban’s Ramayana could only exist within circuits extending beyond the idiosyncratic inner world of the poet. Shulman’s book helps us to see why this is so, and why it is so important.