A statue of Thiruvalluvar
|Other names||Valluvar, Mudharpaavalar, Deivappulavar, Maadhaanupangi, Naanmuganaar, Naayanaar, Poyyirpulavar, Dhevar, Perunaavalar|
|Region||Tondai Nadu of Tamil nadu|
|Ethics, ahimsa, justice, virtue, politics, education, family, friendship, love|
|Common ethics and morality|
Thiruvalluvar, commonly known as Valluvar, was a celebrated Tamil poet and philosopher. He is best known for authoring the Thirukkuṛaḷ, a collection of couplets on ethics, political and economical matters, and love. The text is considered the greatest work of the Tamil literature and one of the finest works on ethics and morality.
Much of the information about Valluvar comes from legendary accounts, and little is known with certainty about his family background, religious affiliation, or birthplace. He is believed to have lived in Madurai and later in the town of Mylapore (a neighbourhood of the present-day Chennai), and his floruit is dated variously from 4th century BCE to 5th century CE, based on the traditional accounts and the linguistic analyses of his writings. Maraimalai Adigal gives 31 BCE as the birth year of Valluvar.
Valluvar has literally influenced every scholar down the ages since his time across the ethical, social, political, economical, religious, philosophical, and spiritual spheres. Because the life, culture and ethics of the Tamils are considered to be solely defined in terms of the values set by the Kural literature, the government and the people of Tamil land alike venerate Valluvar and his work with utmost reverence. He is known by numerous honorific designations, such as Saint, First Poet, Divine Poet, Brahma, and Great Scholar.
There is negligible authentic information about the life of Valluvar. In fact, neither his actual name nor the original title of his work can be determined with certainty. Tirukkural itself does not name its author. Reflecting on this, Monsieur Ariel, a French scholar of the 19th century, famously said of the Tirukkural thus: Ce livre sans nom, par un auteur sans nom ("The book without a name by an author without a name"). The name Thiruvalluvar was first mentioned in the later text Tiruvalluva Maalai (compiled c. 10th century).
Various claims have been made regarding Valluvar's occupation. One tradition claims that he was a Paraiyar weaver. Another theory is that he must have been from the agricultural caste of Vellalars because he extols agriculture in his work. Mu Raghava Iyengar speculated that "valluva" in his name is a variation of "vallabha", the designation of a royal officer. S. Vaiyapuri Pillai derived his name from "valluvan" (a Paraiyar caste of royal drummers) and theorized that he was "the chief of the proclaiming boys analogous to a trumpet-major of an army".
The poem Kapilar Agaval, purportedly written by Kapilar, describes its author as a brother of Valluvar. It states that they were children of a Pulaya mother named Adi and a Brahmin father named Bhagwan. The poem claims that the couple had seven children, including three sons (Valluvar, Kapilar, and Atikaman) and four sisters (Avvai, Uppai, Uruvai, and Velli). However, this legendary account is spurious. Kamil Zvelebil dates Kapilar Agaval to 15th century CE, based on its language. Various biographies mention the name of Valluvar's wife as Vasuki, but such details are of doubtful historicity.
George Uglow Pope called Valluvar "the greatest poet of South India", but according to Zvelebil, he does not seem to have been a poet. According to Zvelebil, while the author handles the metre very skillfully, the Tirukkuṛaḷ does not feature "true and great poetry" throughout the work, except, notably, in the third book, which deals with love and pleasure. This suggests that Valluvar's main aim was not to produce a work of art, but rather an instructive text focused on wisdom, justice, and ethics.
My savoury food with skilful care;
On whom alone of womankind,
In ceaseless love, I fix'd my mind;
Who from my door hast never stirr'd,
And never hast transgress'd my word;
Whose palms so softly chafed my feet,
Till charm'd I lav in slumbers sweet;
Who tendedst me with wakeful eyes–
The last to sleep, the first to rise?
Now weary night denies repose:
Can sleep again my eyelids close?
Traditional account has it that Valluvar was left as a new-born child in a grove of ilupay or oil-nut tree (Mahua longifolia), and under a punnai or mastwood tree (Calophyllum inophyllum), near a temple sacred to Shiva at Mylapore. He was found and raised by a Velalan couple. Some believe that he was the chief, a priest, a soothsayer and a doctor, heading the eighteen tribes that compose the Pariah community. Once when Valluvar helped a farmer from the town of Kaveripakkam named Margasahayan by saving his crops from a disease, Margasahayan offered Valluvar his daughter Vasuki in marriage as a token of gratitude. Valluvar and Vasuki earned a living by weaving clothes. Valluvar purchased thread from a merchant named Elelasingan, who became his lifelong friend and disciple. Elelasingan owned vessels and thus traded overseas. Valluvar is said to have authored the Kural text on the insistence of Elelasingan’s son Arlyakananthar. On the advice of Elelasingan and other friends, Valluvar took his work to the Madurai College at the Pandiyan King's court at Madurai. Poetess Avvaiyar and Poet Idaikkadar are said to have accompanied Valluvar on his journey to Madurai. Upon reaching the Madurai College, he presented his work to an assembly of forty-nine poets presided over by the Pandiyan King. His work won the ordeal set by the assembly and was eventually accepted unanimously. The forty-nine professors along with Avvaiyar and Idaikkadar sung in praise of Valluvar and his work, which was compiled into an anthology named the Tiruvalluva Maalai.
When Vasuki died, Valluvar buried her body in a sitting posture. Lamenting her death, he composed a quatrain that reveals his deep love and affection toward her.
Valluvar was a deep thinker and a keen observer of life “in its more familiar and humbler walks.” He analyzed both the micro- and the macro-dimensions of the society and observed every action of not just the layman but also the ruler, including the follies and vices of the kings, the education of the princes, the intrigues of the kings’ courts, the attitudes of tactics of the ministers, the havoc wreaked by periodic wars, and the frequency of famines and epidemics. He scrutinized the application of morality in every sphere of life and the society and wrote down in couplets.
The exact date of Valluvar is still under debate. With his time being uncertain, the exact time when he authored the Kural text remains even murkier. The Tirukkuṛaḷ has been dated variously from 300 BCE to 5th century CE. According to traditional accounts, it was the last work of the third Sangam and was subjected to a divine test (which it passed). The scholars who believe this tradition, such as Somasundara Bharathiar and M. Rajamanickam, date the text to as early as 300 BCE. Historian K. K. Pillay assigned it to the early 1st century CE.
Linguist Kamil Zvelebil is certain that Tirukkuṛaḷ does not belong to the Sangam period and dates it to somewhere between 450 and 500 CE. His estimate is based on the language of the text, its allusions to the earlier works, and its borrowing from some Sanskrit treatises. Zvelebil notes that the text features several grammatical innovations, that are absent in the older Sangam literature. The text also features a higher number of Sanskrit loan words compared with these older texts. According to Zvelebil, besides being part of the ancient Tamil literary tradition, the author was also a part of the "one great Indian ethical, didactic tradition", as a few of his verses seem to be translations of the verses in Sanskrit texts such as Mānavadharmaśāstra and Kautilya's Arthaśāstra.
S. Vaiyapuri Pillai assigned the work to c. 650 CE, believing that it borrowed from some Sanskrit works of the 6th century CE. Zvelebil disagrees with this assessment, pointing out that some of the words that Pillai believed to be Sanskrit loan words have now been proved to be of Dravidian origin by Thomas Burrow and Murray Barnson Emeneau.
With the exact date of Valluvar still under debate, taking the latest of the estimated dates, the Tamil Nadu government officially ratified 31 BCE as the year of Valluvar. From 18 January 1935, as suggested by Maraimalai Adigal, the Valluvar Year was added to the calendar. Thus, the Valluvar year is calculated by adding 31 to any year of the common era.
As with most other details about Valluvar, the exact place of his birth remains uncertain. Valluvar is believed to have lived in Madurai and later in the town of Mayilapuram or Thirumayilai (present-day Mylapore in Chennai). There are also accounts that say he was born in Mayilapuram and later moved to Madurai in order to publish his work at the royal court. The poem Kapilar Akaval states that Valluvar was born on the top of an oil-nut tree in Mayilapuram, while verse 21 of the Tiruvalluva Maalai claims that he was born in Madurai.
In 2005, a three-member research team from the Kanyakumari Historical and Cultural Research Centre (KHCRC) claimed that Valluvar was born in Thirunayanarkurichi, a village in present-day Kanyakumari district. Their claim was based on an old Kani tribal leader who told them that Valluvar was a king who ruled the "Valluvanadu" territory in the hilly tracts of the Kanyakumari district.
Valluvar survived his wife for many years. Nevertheless, he was affected profoundly by Vasuki's death that he secluded himself from social life and devoted the rest of his life to religious contemplation. According to traditional accounts, Valluvar died on the day of Anusham in the Tamil month of Vaikasi. At his deathbed, he expressed a strange desire according to which his body should not be cremated but exposed in the open air outside the town to be devoured by crows and other scavenging animals, and it was done so. On the spot where Valluvar's corpse had lain, Elelasingan built a temple and instituted worship. The temple remains today, albeit in a comparatively modern form, at Mylapore.
Valluvar is generally thought to have belonged to either Jainism or Hinduism. Valluvar's treatment of the concept of ahimsa or non-violence, which is the principal concept of both these religions, bolsters this. In particular, his treatment of the chapters on strict vegetarianism (or veganism) (Chapters 26 and 32) and non-killing (Chapter 33) reflects the Jain precepts, where these are stringently enforced. The three parts that the Kural literature is divided into, namely, aram (virtue), porul (wealth) and inbam (love), aiming at attaining veedu (ultimate salvation), follow, respectively, the four foundations of Hinduism, namely, dharma, artha, kama and moksha. His mentioning of God Vishnu in couplets 610 and 1103 and Goddess Lakshmi in couplets 167, 408, 519, 565, 568, 616, and 617 hints at the Vaishnavite beliefs of Valluvar. Other eastern beliefs of the poet found in the book include previous birth and rebirth, seven births, and some ancient Indian astrological concepts, among others. Nevertheless, even in the introductory chapter, Valluvar’s invocation of the Supreme Being does not give us a clue to his religion.
Kamil Zvelebil believes that the ethics of the Tirukkural reflect the Jain moral code (e.g. couplets 251–260 talks about moral vegetarianism, and couplets 321–330 talks against killing). Zvelebil states that the text features "several purely Jaina technical terms", such as the following epithets of God:
- Malarmicaiyekinan (Couplet 3), "he who walked upon the [lotus] flower"
- Aravaliyantanan (Couplet 3), "the Brahmin [who had] the wheel of dharma"
- Enkunattan (Couplet 9), "one of the eight-fold qualities"
- Atipakavan (Couplet 1), "the Primeval Lord"
Zvelebil notes that even the 13th-century Hindu scholar Parimelalhagar, who wrote a commentary on the Kural text, accepted that such epithets are applicable only to the Jain Arhat. Some other epithets mentioned in the text also reflect a "strong ascetic flavour" characteristic of Jainism:
- Ventutal ventamai ilan (Couplet 4), "he who has neither desire nor aversion"
- Porivayil aintavittan (Couplet 6), "he who has destroyed the gates of the five senses"
Zvelebil further states that Valluvar seems to have been "cognizant of the latest developments" in Jainism. Zvelebil theorizes that he was probably "a learned Jain with eclectic leanings", who was well-acquainted with the earlier Tamil literature, and also had knowledge of the Sanskrit texts.
Multiple Hindu sects have claimed Valluvar as one of their own and have tried to align his verses with their own teachings. Shaivites have characterised Valluvar as a devotee of Shiva and have installed his images in their temples.
Anti-caste activist Iyothee Thass, who converted to Buddhism, claimed that Valluvar was originally called "Tiruvalla Nayanar", and was a Buddhist. Thass described him as follows: Tiruvalla Nayanar was born in Madurai, as the son of King Kanchan and Queen Upakesi. When he grew up, the prince wandered across many countries, until he joined a Buddhist sangam at Thinnanur. There, he learned about the Buddhist doctrine from his guru Chakaya Munivar. Thass further contended that the name "Tirukkural" is a reference to the Buddhist Tripiṭaka. He claims that Valluvar's book was originally called Tirikural ("Three Kurals"), because it adhered to the three Buddhist scriptures Dhamma Pitaka, Sutta Pitaka, and Vinaya Pitaka. According to Thass, the legend that presents Valluvar as the son of a Brahmin father and a Paraiyar mother was invented by Brahmins, who wanted to Hinduise a Buddhist text.
Christian missionary George Uglow Pope claimed that the Tirukkural shows Christian influence, particularly from the Alexandrian school. He theorized that Valluvar came into contact with Christian teachers such as Pantaenus in Mayilapur and incorporated the ideas from the Christian scriptures in his text. However, he had to date Tiruvalluvar in 9th century AD to fit this into his theory. Pope goes on to praise the Kural text as an "echo of the 'Sermon on the Mount.'" In the Introduction to his English translation of the Kural, Pope even claims, "I cannot feel any hesitation in saying that the Christian Scriptures were among the sources from which the poet derived his inspiration."  Since the 1960s, some South Indian Christians led by M. Deivanayagam at the Madras Christian College, have even attempted to characterize Valluvar as a disciple of Thomas the Apostle. According to this theory, Thomas visited present-day Chennai, where Valluvar listened to his lectures on the Sermon of the Mount. Nevertheless, Zvelebil also points out that the chapters on the ethics of moral vegetarianism (Chapters 26 and 32) and non-killing (Chapter 33), which the Kural emphasizes emphatically and unambiguously unlike the Bible or other Abrahamic religious texts, suggest that the ethics of the Kural is rather a reflection of the Jaina moral code than of Christian ethics. According to John Lazarus, the Kural’s chapter on killing “deals exclusively with the literal taking away of life,” of both humans and animals, in stark contrast to the Bible’s concept of killing, which refers only to the taking away of human life. He observes, “None of the ten epithets by which the Deity is described in the opening chapter of the Kural have the remotest connection with Christ or God, that is to say, as they are designated in the Bible.” He also says that the chapter on love “is quite different from the Apostle’s eulogium in 1 Cor. xiii.”
Tirukkural is the chief work attributed to Valluvar. It is one of the most revered ancient works in the Tamil language. It contains 1330 couplets, which are divided into 133 sections of 10 couplets each. The first 38 sections are about ethics (aram), the next 70 are about political and economic matters (porul), and the rest are about love (inbam). The text has been translated into several languages,, beginning with a translation into Latin by Constanzo Beschi in 1699, which helped make the work known to European intellectuals.
Tirukkural is also the only work attributed to Valluvar. However, claims are made that Valluvar was also the author of two Tamil texts on medicine, Gnana Vettiyan (1500 verses) and Pancharathnam (500 verses), although many scholars claim that they were by a later author with the same name, since they appear to have been written in the 16th and 17th centuries. These books, 'Pancharathnam' and 'Gnana Vettiyan', contribute to Tamil science, literature and other ayurvedic medicines. In addition to these, there are 15 other texts that are attributed to Valluvar, namely, Rathna Sigamani (800 verses), Karpam (300 verses), Nadhaantha Thiravukol (100 verses), Naadhaantha Saaram (100 verses), Vaithiya Suthram (100 verses), Karpaguru Nool (50 verses), Muppu Saathiram (30 verses), Vaadha Saathiram (16 verses), Muppu Guru (11 verses), Kavuna Mani (100 verses), Aeni Yettram (100 verses), Guru Nool (51 verses), Sirppa Chinthamani (a text on astrology), Tiruvalluvar Gyanam, and Tiruvalluvar Kanda Tirunadanam. Nevertheless, several scholars, such as Devaneya Pavanar, deny this claim.
A temple-like memorial to Valluvar, Valluvar Kottam, was built in Chennai in 1976. This monument complex consists of structures usually found in Dravidian temples, including a temple car carved from three blocks of granite, and a shallow, rectangular pond. The auditorium adjoining the memorial is one of the largest in Asia and can seat up to 4,000 people.
There is a 133-foot tall statue of Valluvar erected at Kanyakumari at the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent, where the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, and the Indian Ocean converge. The 133 feet denote Tirukkuṛaḷ's 133 chapters or athikarams and the show of three fingers denote the three themes Aram, Porul, and Inbam, that is, the sections on morals, wealth and love. The statue was designed by V. Ganapati Sthapati, a temple architect from Tamil Nadu. On 9 August 2009, a statue was unveiled in Ulsoor, near Bengaluru, also making it the first of its kind in India for a poet of a local language to be installed in its near states other than his own home land. There is also a statue of Valluvar outside the School of Oriental and African Studies in Russell Square, London.
The Government of Tamil Nadu celebrates the 15th (16th on leap years) of January (the 2nd of the month of 'Thai' as per Tamil Calendar) as Thiruvalluvar Day in the poet's honour, as part of the Pongal celebrations.
- Sarvajna and Tiruvalluvar statue installation
- Valluvar Kottam
- List of Sangam poets
- Thiruvalluvar year
a. ^ The period of Valluvar is dated variously by scholars from c. 4th century BCE to c. 5th century CE, based on various methods of analysis, including traditional accounts and linguistics analyses. The officially accepted date, however, is 31 BCE, as ratified by the government in 1921, and the Valluvar Year is being followed ever since. For more in-depth analysis, see Dating the Tirukkural.
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