Religion in ancient Tamil country

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Ayyanar(Dharma Shastha) on elephant

The Sangam period of Tamizhagam (c. 200 BCE to 200 CE) was characterized by the co-existence of many religions: Brahminism, Buddhism and Jainism alongside native Dravidian worship. The monarchs of the time practiced religious tolerance and openly encouraged religious discussions and invited teachers of every sect to the public halls to preach their doctrines.[1]



During the megalithic period of about 1000 BCE – 400 BCE, people of South India including Tamilagam, shared many beliefs and practices of the native Dravidian religion with the megalithic builders elsewhere in the Indian subcontinent and beyond.[2] The famous 3.5 metre-high granite figure excavated at Mottur, in present-day Vellore district, is considered the oldest known anthropomorphic representation of God in stone in the Tamil country.[3] Some form of Mother Goddess worship was prevalent in the megalithic period, as suggested by the discovery of a copper image of a Goddess in the urn-burials of Adichanallur and other excavations in Tamil Nadu that have yielded headstones, shaped like the seated Mother.[4] Megalithic culture attached great importance to the cult of the dead and ancestors. Certain gods in the Hindu pantheon, such as Cheyon (Murugan/ Karthikeya), Maayon (Thirumal / Vishnu), Korravai (Durga) and Naga, Aiyanar (or Sastha), deities were originally tribal gods of this period.[2]

Divinity of Kings[edit]

Pre-Sangam and Sangam age[edit]

In many parts of Nilagiri mountain ranges people tribal community people Todas, Kotas and Badagas had slightly different set of religious practices and beliefs . Their religion centres on the buffalo; consequently, rituals are performed for all dairy activities as well as for the ordination of dairymen-priests. The religious and funerary rites provide the social context in which complex poetic songs about the cult of the buffalo are composed and chanted. In general throughout Tamil Nadu like the rest of the regions in India, a king is considered to be divine by nature and possess religious significance.[5] The king is 'the representative of God on earth' and lives in a palace called ' Koyil', which means the residence of God. The ritual worship of God was also given to the king.[6][7]

Modern words for god like ko (Tamil:கோ), irai (Tamil:இறை), āṇḍavar (Tamil:ஆண்டவன்) originally meant King, Emperor, and Conqueror respectively before being used to refer to God. The Modern Tamil word for temple, koyil (Tamil:கோயில்), literally means king's house, or palace. Mōcikīraṉār in the Purananuru says:

The Kingdom suffered by famine or disorder when the King erred.[8] These elements were incorporated later into Hinduism like the legendary marriage of Shiva to Queen Mīnātchi who ruled Madurai or Wanji-ko, an Old Tamil God who later merged into Indra.[9] Tolkappiyar refers to the Three Crowned Kings as the "Three Glorified by Heaven", (Tamilவாண்புகழ் மூவர், Vāṉpukaḻ Mūvar ?).[10] In the Dravidian-speaking South, the concept of divine kingship led to the assumption of major roles by state and temple.[11]

Middle ages[edit]

At the birth of Rajaraja Chola I, the Thiruvalangadu inscription states:

"Having noticed by the marks (on his body) that Arulmozhi was the very Vishnu, the protector of the three worlds."

During the Bhakti movement poets often compared Gods to Kings.[12]

Native Dravidian religion[edit]

Dravidian religion was actively separate during the Sangam period. It was only after the 5th century that the indigenous Dravidian religion completely fused with Vedic religion.[13] Remnants of the practice still continue in rural areas. The cult of the mother goddess is treated as an indication of a society which venerated femininity. This mother goddess was conceived as a virgin, one who has given birth to all and one.[14] The temples of the Sangam days, mainly of Madurai, seem to have had priestesses to the deity, which also appear predominantly a goddess.[15] In the Sangam literature, there is an elaborate description of the rites performed by the Kurava priestess in the shrine Palamutircholai.[16]


This refers to possession of women. They took part in priestly functions. Under the influence of the god, they sang and danced, but also read the dim past, predicted the future, diagnosed diseases.[17] Twenty two poets of the Sangam age in as many as 40 poems portray Veriyatal. Velan is a ëreporter and prophetí endowed with supernatural powers. Veriyatal had been performed by men as well as women.[18]


Among the early Tamils the practice of erecting memorial stones (Nadukal) had appeared, and it continued for quite a long time after the Sangam age, down to about 11th century.[19] It was customery for people who sought victory in war to worship the hero-stones to bless them with victory.[20]


The Murugan temple at Salavanakuppam near Mahabalipuram. The brick temple excavated in 2005 dates to the Sangam period and is believed to be the oldest Hindu temple to be found in Tamil Nadu. The temple faces north, unlike most Hindu temples which face either east or west and is believed to have been constructed even before shilpa shastras were written
Sculpture of the god Murugan(Skanda)

During the Sangam age, Hinduism, including Vedic Brahminism, was a popular religion among the people. Siva, Murugan, Krishna, Balarama and Kali were some of the popular deities among the Hindus. The division of the Sangam landscape into five regions, is also apparent in religion – with each region having had its own patron deity.[21] The people of the Kurinji or the mountainous regions worshipped Muruga, the god of war. He was portrayed as having six faces and twelve arms. His shrines were usually on the peaks of high hills or in the midst of dense forests. He carried a lance as his weapon and hence was called Velan or lancer. Animal sacrifices were carried out under sheds that were put up for the purpose, with flags hoisted over them that bore the emblem of Muruga, the rooster. Ancient mythology has it that Muruga was the commander-in-chief of the celestial army when it fought the Asuras or the demons. According to the tradition of the Kuravas, the hill people, Muruga married a maiden of their tribe.


The people of the pastoral lands or the Mullai regions worshipped Krishna and his brother Balarama. The shepherd races of these regions amused themselves by enacting plays that portrayed the main events of Krishna’s mythical life, such as his childhood pranks, his victory against the evil Kamsa, his embassy to Duryodhana and other episodes involving him in the Mahabaratha. Krishna was also popularly known as Mayavan or Mayon, the deceiver. Balarama his elder brother was believed to have extraordinary physical strength. The Marutham people(Mallar/pallar) worshipped Indra or Ventan, while the Neithal people considered Varunan or Katalon to be their patron deity and the Palai people worshipped Korravai or Kali. Among the higher classes of the Tamil society, the favorite deity was Siva. He was portrayed as a man of fair complexion with tangled locks of red hair and three eyes, the third one situated in the middle of his forehead. He wore tiger’s skin and rode a bullock, armed with a battle-axe and the trishul. The temples of Siva were considered the most stately and august of the public edifices.[22] Other popular deities of this age were Kama the god of love, Surya the sun, Chandra the moon and Yama the god of death. The Brahmins of the Tamil country attached great importance to the performance of Yagas or Vedic sacrifices. Priests, learned in the Vedic rites, performed these sacrifices usually under the patronage of the kings.[23]

The temples of the Sangam age were built out of perishable materials such as plaster, timber and brick, which is why little trace of them is found today.[24] The only public structures of any historical importance belonging to this age that have survived to this day are the rock-beds hewn out of natural rock formation, that were made for the ascetics. The Cilapatikaram and the Sangam poems such as Kaliththokai, Mullaippattu and Purananuru mention several kinds of temples such as the Puranilaikkottam or the temple at the outskirts of a city, the Netunilaikkottam or the tall temple, the Palkunrakkottam the temple on top of a hill, the Ilavantikaippalli or the temple with a garden and bathing ghat, the Elunilaimatam or a seven storeyed temple, the Katavutkatinakar or the temple city.[25]

Footprint of Buddha engraved on stone, c. 1st century CE

Some of the popular festivals of this age were Karthigaideepam, Tiruvonam, Kaman vizha and Indira vizha. Karthigaideepam was otherwise known as Peruvizha and was celebrated in the Tamil month of Karthigai every year.Tiruvonam was celebrated in the month of Avani to denote the birth of Mayon. The Kaaman vizha was held in the spring and during this festival, men and women dressed up well and participated in dancing. Indravizha included the performance of Vedic sacrifices, prayers to various gods, musical recitals and dancing.[26]


Main article: Tamil Jain

The exact origins of Jainism in Tamil Nadu is unclear. However, Jains flourished in Tamil Nadu at least as early as the Sangam period. Tamil Jain tradition places their origins are much earlier. The Ramayana mentions that Rama paid homage to Jaina monks living in South India on his way to Sri Lanka.[27] Some scholars believe that the author of the oldest extant work of literature in Tamil (3rd century BCE), Tolkāppiyam, was a Jain.[28]

A number of Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions have been found in Tamil Nadu that date from the 2nd century BCE. They are regarded to be associated with Jain monks and lay devotees.[29][30]

Tirukkural by Valluvar is considered by to be the work by a Jain by scholars like V. Kalyanasundarnar, Vaiyapuri Pillai,[31] Swaminatha Iyer,[32] P.S. Sundaram.[33] It emphatically supports vegetarianism (Chapter 26) and states that giving up animal sacrifice is worth more than thousand offerings in fire( verse (259).

Silappatikaram, first epic in Tamil literature, was written by a Camaṇa, Ilango Adigal. This epic is a major work in Tamil literature, describing the historical events of its time and also of then-prevailing religions, Jainism, Buddhism and Shaivism. The main characters of this work, Kannagi and Kovalan, who have a divine status among Tamils, were Jains.

According to George L. Hart, who holds the endowed Chair in Tamil Studies by University of California, Berkeley, has written that the legend of the Tamil Sangams or "literary assemblies: was based on the Jain sangham at Madurai:

There was a permanent Jaina assembly called a Sangha established about 604 AD in Maturai. It seems likely that this assembly was the model upon which tradition fabricated the cangkam legend."[34]

Jainism began to decline around the 8th century, with many Tamil kings embracing Hindu religions, especially Shaivism. Still, the Chalukya, Pallava and Pandya dynasties embraced Jainism.


The Buddhists worshiped the impressions of Buddha’s feet engraved on stone and platforms made of stone that represented his seat. The pious Buddhist walked round them, with his right side towards them and bowed his head as a token of reverence.[35] The Cilapatikaram mentions that the monks worshipped Buddha by praising him as the wise, holy and virtuous teacher who adhered to his vows strictly, as the one who subdued anger and all evil passions and as the refuge of all mankind. In the Buddhist Viharas or monasteries, learned monks preached their sermons, seated in a place which was entirely concealed from the view of the audience. The Buddhists did not observe the distinctions of caste and invited all ranks to assemble on a footing of equality. Self-control, wisdom and charity were among the virtues preached and practiced by the monks, who were numerous in the ancient Tamil country.[1]


Thiruvithamcode Arappally believed to be built by Thomas the Apostle and was patronised by the Chera king, Udayancheral.

Christianity was introduced in India by St. Thomas the Apostle who landed at Muziris on Malabar Coast in the year 52 AD. These ancient Christians are today known as Saint Thomas Christians or Syrian Christians or Nasrani.[36][37][38] They are now divided into different denominations namely, Syro-Malabar Catholic, Syro-Malankara Catholic, Malankara Orthodox, Jacobite and Malankara Marthoma. Syrian Christians followed the same rules of caste and population as that of Hindus and sometimes they were even considered as population neutralizers.[39][40] They tend to be endogamous, and tend not to intermarry even with other Christian groupings. Saint Thomas Christians derive status within the caste system from the tradition that they were elites, who were evangelized by St. Thomas.[41][41][42][43] Also, internal mobility is allowed among these Saint Thomas Christian sects and the caste status is kept even if the sect allegiance is switched (for example, from Syrian Orthodox to Syro-Malabar Catholic).[44] Despite the sectarian differences, Syrian Christians share a common social status within the Caste system of Kerala and is considered as Forward Caste.[43]


The traditional account is that traders from Judea arrived in the city of Cochin, Kerala (then Chera Nadu), in 562 BC, and that more Jews came as exiles from Israel in the year 70 CE after the destruction of the Second Temple.[45] The distinct Jewish community was called Anjuvannam. The still-functioning synagogue in Mattancherry belongs to the Paradesi Jews, the descendants of Sephardim that were expelled from Spain in 1492.[45]

Philosophies of religion[edit]


The secular identity[46] of the Cankam literature is often celebrated to represent the tolerance among Tamil people. Es Vaiyāpurip Piḷḷai, concludes in his History of Tamil language and literature: beginning to 1000 A. D.:[47]

Most scholars agree that the lack of 'god' should not be inferred to be atheistic. The Tamil books of Law, particularly the Tirukkural, is considered as the Perennial philosophy of Tamil culture because of its universalisability.

Ūzh and Vinai[edit]

Ūzh meaning 'fate' or 'destiny' and vinai meaning 'works' concerns the ancient Tamil belief of differentiating what man can do and what is destined.[48]

Kaṭavuḷ and Iyavuḷ[edit]

Sangam Tamil people understood two distinct characteristics of Godhood. God who is beyond all (Tamilகடவுள், Kaṭavuḷ ?) and the God who sets things in motion (Tamilஇயவுள், Iyavuḷ ?).[49]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Kanakasabhai. p. 233.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  2. ^ a b "Vedic Roots of Early Tamil Culture by Michael Danino". Retrieved 2007-06-08. 
  3. ^ Narasimhaiah, B (2004). Neolithic and Megalithic Cultures in Tamil Nadu. Sundeep Prakashan. p. 203. ISBN 81-7574-048-5. 
  4. ^ Raman, K.V (2002). "Proceedings of the 9th session of Indian Art History Congress". Hyderabad: Sundeep Prakashan, New Delhi. pp. ch. 19.  |chapter= ignored (help)
  5. ^ Harman, William P. (1992). The sacred marriage of a Hindu goddess. Motilal Banarsidass Publ. p. 6. 
  6. ^ Anand, Mulk Raj (1980). Splendours of Tamil Nadu. Marg Publications. 
  7. ^ Chopra, Pran Nath (1979). History of South India. S. Chand. 
  8. ^ A.K., Ramanujan (2011). Poems of Love and War: From the Eight Anthologies and the Ten Long Poems of Classical Tamil. Columbia University Press. p. 287. 
  9. ^ Bate, Bernard (2009). Tamil oratory and the Dravidian aesthetic: democratic practice in south India. Columbia University Press. 
  10. ^ A. Kiruṭṭin̲an̲ (2000). Tamil culture: religion, culture, and literature. Bharatiya Kala Prakashan. p. 17. 
  11. ^ Embree, Ainslie Thomas (1988). Encyclopedia of Asian history: Volume 1. Scribner. ISBN 9780684188980. 
  12. ^ Hopkins, Steven (2002). Singing the body of God: the hymns of Vedāntadeśika in their South Indian tradition. Oxford University Press. p. 113. 
  13. ^ Bhattacharyya, Haridas (1978). The Cultural Heritage of India: Languages and literatures. Ramakrishna Mission, Institute of Culture. 
  14. ^ Thiruchandran, Selvy (1997). Ideology, caste, class, and gender. Vikas Pub. House. 
  15. ^ Manickam, Valliappa Subramaniam (1968). A glimpse of Tamilology. Academy of Tamil Scholars of Tamil Nadu. p. 75. 
  16. ^ Lal, Mohan (2006). The Encyclopaedia Of Indian Literature (Volume Five (Sasay To Zorgot), Volume 5. Sahitya Akademi. p. 4396. ISBN 8126012218. 
  17. ^ Iyengar, Srinivasa (1929). History of the Tamils: from the earliest times to 600 A.D. Asian Educational Services. p. 77. 
  18. ^ Music as History in TamilNadu. Primus Books. 2010. p. 16. ISBN 9380607067.  |first1= missing |last1= in Authors list (help)
  19. ^ Shashi, S. S. (1996). Encyclopaedia Indica: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh: Volume 100. Anmol Publications. 
  20. ^ Subramanium, N. (1980). Śaṅgam polity: the administration and social life of the Śaṅgam Tamils. Ennes Publications. 
  21. ^ Subrahmanian. p. 381.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  22. ^ Kanakasabhai. p. 230.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  23. ^ Kanakasabhai. p. 231.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  24. ^ Subrahmanian. p. 382.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  25. ^ Gopalakrishnan. p. 19.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  26. ^ Balambal. p. 6.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  27. ^ 2011
  28. ^ Singh, Narendra (2001). Encyclopaedia of Jainism. Anmol Publications. p. 3144. ISBN 978-81-261-0691-2. 
  29. ^ Early Tamil epigraphy from the earliest times to the sixth century A.D. Iravatham Mahadeva, Harvard University Press, 2003
  31. ^ Tirukkural, Vol. 1, S.M. Diaz, Ramanatha Adigalar Foundation, 2000,
  32. ^ Tiruvalluvar and his Tirukkural, Bharatiya Jnanapith, 1987
  33. ^ The Kural, P. S. Sundaram, Penguin Classics, 1987
  34. ^ [1] The Milieu of the Ancient Tamil Poems, Prof. George Hart
  35. ^ Kanakasabhai. p. 232.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  36. ^ Journal of the Institute of Asian Studies, Volume 18. Institute of Asian Studies (Madras, India). 2000. 
  37. ^ Weil S. 1982; Jessay P.M. 1986; Menachery 1973; Menachery 1998.
  38. ^ A. E. Medlycott, India and The Apostle Thomas, pp.1–71, 213–97; M. R. James, Apocryphal New Testament, pp.364–436; Eusebius, History, chapter 4:30; J. N. Farquhar, The Apostle Thomas in North India, chapter 4:30; V. A. Smith, Early History of India, p.235; L. W. Brown, The Indian Christians of St. Thomas, p.49-59.
  39. ^ Vadakkekara, Benedict (2007). Origin of Christianity in India: a Historiographical Critique, pp. 325–330. Media House Delhi.
  40. ^ Fuller, Christopher J. (March 1976). "Kerala Christians and the Caste System". Man. New Series (Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland) 11 (1): 55–56. (subscription required)
  41. ^ a b Fuller, Christopher J. (March 1976). "Kerala Christians and the Caste System". Man. New Series (Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland) 11 (1): 55, 68. (subscription required)
  42. ^ Fuller, C.J. "Indian Christians: Pollution and Origins." Man. New Series, Vol. 12, No. 3/4. (Dec., 1977), pp. 528–529.
  43. ^ a b Forrester, Duncan (1980). Caste and Christianity. Curzon Press. pp. 98,102. 
  44. ^ Fuller, Christopher J. (March 1976). "Kerala Christians and the Caste System". Man. New Series (Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland) 11 (1): 61. (subscription required)
  45. ^ a b P. 125 The Shengold Jewish Encyclopedia By Mordecai Schreiber
  46. ^ Encyclopaedia of Tamil Literature: Introductory articles. Institute of Asian Studies. 1990. 
  47. ^ Piḷḷai, Es Vaiyāpurip (1956). History of Tamil language and literature: beginning to 1000 A. D. New Century Book House. 
  48. ^ Journal of Tamil studies, Issues 31–32. International Association of Tamil Research. 1987. 
  49. ^ Singam, S. Durai Raja (1974). Ananda Coomaraswamy: remembering and remembering again and again. Raja Singam. p. 50. 


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