Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

'Tamil Studies in Ceylon'

by K.P. Ratnam, 1968

Books on medicine and astrology were written in the fourteenth century. Sekarajasekaram and Sekarajasekara Malai, works on medicine and astrology respectively, belong to this period. Another popular work on astrology was written in the fifteenth century. This was followed by Raguvamsa of Arasakesari. This work was a translation of Kalidasa’s Raguvamsa into Tamil poetry of very high order.

[source: Tamil Studies Abroad, a symposium, edited by Xavier S. Thani Nayagam, International Association of Tamil Research, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, 1968, pp. 137-145.]

Tamil Studies Abroad a symposium front cover edited by Xavier S. Thani Nayagam 1968

Tamil Pundit Kartigesu Ponnambalam Ratnam (1914-2010): An Appreciation

Front Note by Sachi Sri Kantha

As a tribute to the memory of late Pundit K.P. Ratnam (1914-2010), I present his 1968 review of ‘Tamil Studies in Ceylon’ below.

Of the first five International Tamil Conferences sponsored by the International Associaton of Tamil Research (IATR), three were held in January. The 2nd conference was held in Madras in 1968. The 4th conference was held in Jaffna in 1974. The 5th conference was held in Madurai in 1981. In his introduction to this symposim collection as Editor’s Foreward, Fr. X.S. Thani Nayagam, provided the background to the compilation of this book. I have transcribed below the first two paragraphs of his introduction.

“At the inaugural meeting of the International Association of Tamil Research some of the scholars present suggested that among the activities of the Association should be an annual report on the progress of Tamilological studies. A preliminary report on the progress of Tamilology was published in Tamil Culture vol.XI, no.1, 1964, as a result of the prompt replies obtained to questionnaires from Departments of Tamil in India and other countries.

The idea was then conceived that a compilation of historical essays concerning the origin, development and present state of Tamil studies in different countries would provide the basis for periodical surveys of Tamilology and would serve as valuable documentation for future programmes of the IATR. Scholars in various countries were invited to contribute to this Symposium which was scheduled to be published at the time of the First Conference of Tamil Studies which met in Kuala Lumpur in April 1966. It is, however, equally appropriate that this volume is now being presented at the Second International Conference of Tamil Studies which meets in Madras in January 1968.”

This Symposium collection contained 14 articles, contributed by specialists in Tamil studies. Among these 14, K.P. Ratnam’s review article was entitled ‘Tamil Studies in Ceylon I’. Prof. S. Vithiananthan’s review article was entitled ‘Tamil Studies in Ceylon II’. I have presented the latter article previously in my 20th death anniversary tribute to Prof. Vithiananthan, in May 2009.


Article Proper

Tamil and Sinhala are the national languages of Ceylon. Tamil language has a recorded history of at least two thousand five hundred years of existence in Ceylon. The Tamils of Ceylon are considered as the decendants of the Dravidians who ruled Ceylon before the advent of the Sinhalese. The Tamil literature of the Sangam period consists of the poems of a Tamil poet of Ceylon called Elaththup Poothan Thevanar. The cave inscriptions of second century BC of South India and Ceylon have reference to the migration of Tamils from South India to Ceylon, and vice versa.

Not only Tamil scholars and Tamil kings of Ceylon contributed to the development of the Tamil language and literature but some of the Sinhalese kings also adopted Tamil as the official language of their Courts. In the learned assemblies of the Sinhalese kings, Tamil poets too were given due places. Posarajah Pandithar, who is supposed to be a commentator on Cilappathikaram, adorned the court of the great Sinhala king Parakirama Bahu, in the thirteenth century.

In the Buddhist monasteries called ‘Pirivenas’, Tamil was taught as one of the important subjects. Even now many Buddhist priests study Tamil in Pirivenas and the two Buddhist Universities, Vidyalankara and Vidyodaya have courses in Tamil studies.

Even though the Tamil kings of South India, the Cholas and Pandiyas frequently invaded Ceylon from the third century BC and ruled it for periods up to the thirteenth century, there is no record to show the Tamil literary activities of these periods. But the Sian temples built during these periods and the inscriptions in them speak for themselves of the influence and the power of the Chola kings in Ceylon. During the eleventh century the whole of Ceylon became a province of the Chola empire under the famous Chola king Rajaraja I.

It is only with the establishment of the Tamil kingdom, in Jaffna in the thirteenth century AD, the literary activities of the Tamils are recorded. Pukalenthi Pulavar and Anthaka Kavi Veerarakavar of Tamilnad visited Jaffna and received gifts from the kings of Jaffna.

Medieval Period

Books on medicine and astrology were written in the fourteenth century. Sekarajasekaram and Sekarajasekara Malai, works on medicine and astrology respectively, belong to this period. Another popular work on astrology was written in the fifteenth century. This was followed by Raguvamsa of Arasakesari. This work was a translation of Kalidasa’s Raguvamsa into Tamil poetry of very high order. Only scholars with a sound knowledge of Sangam literature and other Tamil classics can understand this masterpiece of Arasakesari. Kathiramalai Pallu is the only outstanding work which appeared in the seventeenth century.

With the dawn of the seventeenth century the Jaffna kingdom was overrun by the Portuguese. The Tamil scholars could not withstand the onslaught of the Portuguese and engage themselves in their literary and religious activities. Escaping the persecution of the Portuguese, Gnanaperagaser of Tinnevely, Jaffna, crossed over to South India and worked there for the cause of the Tamil language and Saivaism. He wrote a commentary on Sivagnana Siththiar. Works on Catholic religion also appeared during this century. Pethuru Pulavar of Tellipalai composed Santhiyakumyor Ammanai and Gnana Pallu.

Famous poets and scholars like Sinnathamby Pulavar, Varatha Pandithar, Mailvagana Pulavar, and Sittampala Pulavar enriched the Tamil literature in the eighteenth century by their literary works. Marasai Anthathi, Kalvalai Anthathi, Karavai Velan Kovai and Paralai Pallu are the works of Sinnathamby Pulavar. Puliyoor Anthathi is the work of Mailvagana Pulavar. Sittampala Pulavar was the author of Killai Vidu Thoothu.

Modern Period

The nineteenth century was the period of literary revival in Ceylon. Poets and scholars in Ceylon vied with one another in serving the cause of the Tamil language and literature. They tried their hands in almost all the branches of Tamil studies both new and old. They went to Tamil Nad and made their mark there also.

Arumuga Navalar was the outstanding scholar of this period. The title of Navalar was conferred on him by the Tamils of South India. He was hailed as the father of Tamil prose. He rendered Periya Puranam and few other literary works into simple and lucid prose. He felt the need of good readers for children and made mark in this field too with his Bala Padams. He established a printing press in South India solely for the purpose of editing Tamil books. He edited nearly seventy works and won the admiration of the Tamils for his inimitable service in these fields; he encouraged the students of Tamil studies by his scholarly editions of classics and grammatical works.

He taught Tamil as a second language to Rev. P. Percival and translated the Bible into Tamil. He was the pioneer of platform oratory in Tamil Nad and Ceylon. He established Saiva Tamil Schools both in South India and Ceylon and devoted his full life equally to the cause of the Tamil language and Saiva religion. There are two of his schools, one in Jaffna and other in Chitamparam, still bearing his name. Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, statesman and scholar, in one of his speech in the Legislative Assembly of Ceylon referred to Navalar as ‘the champion reformer of the Hindus’.

C.Y. Thamotharampillai was a pioneer in the difficult task of editing the Tamil classics. He collected the old manuscripts of Tolkappiam, one of the oldest Tamil grammar and the commentaries on it and for the first time printed this work in three parts. Kaliththokai, Viracholiam, Choolamany and Irayanar Akapporul Urai are some of the other works edited by him.

A good number of Tamil scholars following in the foot-steps of Arumuga Navalar and Thamotharampillai edited many Tamil works at the beginning of the present century. Kanagasuntharampillai edited the Tamil Navalar Charitahi. He and Kumarasamy Pulavar jointly edited the Balakandam of Kamba Ramayanam. Yapparungkalakkarikai, Nambi Ahaporul and Thandi Alangaram are the important works edited by Swaminatha Pandithar. Inspired by the spirit of service to the cause of Tamil studies, many Tamil scholars started printing presses to edit Tamil works, even without considering the financial aspects of their undertakings. Sabapathy Navalar, Senthi Natha Iyer, Valvai Vaithilingam, Kanapathipillai, Swaminatha Pandithar, Moothathambi Chettiar and Muththuthambipillai tried their hands in this venture.

In the field of lexicography too, Tamil scholars of Ceylon were the pioneers. The first Tamil dictionary compiled by Tamil scholars was published in Jaffna in 1842. Santhirasegara Pandithar and other scholars brought out this dictionary which contained about 58,500 words. In 1905, N. Kathiravelpillai of west Puloly published another dictionary and won the admiration of the scholars for his stupendous work.

K. Kathiravetpillai with the help of pundits prepared a dictionary containing not only words but notes on the origin of the words and literary contexts. The first portion of this dictionary containing words beginning with ‘A’ was published in 1910. The other parts of this dictionary were published by the Madurai Tamil Sangam with the name Sangath Tamil Agarathy. This dictionary contains 63,900 words. In 1914, Kumarasamy Pulavar published a dictionary called Illakkia Chol Agarathy (dictionary of Tamil literary words).

Scholars of Ceylon also helped in the preparation of the Tamil Lexicon published under the authority of the University of Madras in 1936. Carol Visuvanathapillai and Nevins Sithambarapillai gave their helping hand to Winslow to compile his Tamil-English dictionary. This work saw the light in 1862. Muthuthambipillai published his English-English-Tamil dictionary in 1908. He was also the author of ‘Apithanakosam’, which was the forerunner of all the encyclopedia works in Tamil. It was published in 1902. Swamy Gannapiragasar won international reputation for his studies in comparative philology. His contributions in the field of the history of Tamil speaking were valued very much.

The seminary established by the American missionaries in the nineteenth century at Vaddukoddai, in the Jaffna peninsula encouraged the study of subjects like medicine and chemistry in Tamil. Dr. Samuel Fish Green published the translations of Cutter’s Anatomy, Physiology and Hygiene, Drwitt’s Surgery, Hooper’s Physician’s Vade Mecum, Well’s Chemistry, Dalcon’s Physiology, Waring’s Pharmacopoeia of India, into Tamil. This was the first attempt in the field of Tamil studies to translate books on science subjects into Tamil. Many Sanskrit works were also translated into Tamil in verse and prose. In this branch of studies, Arumuga Navalar, Naganatha Pandithar, Sabapathy Navalar, Senthinatha Iyer, Kumarasamy Pulavar, Sathasiva Iyer and S. Nadarajah made considerable contributions.

In the field of studies on the history of Tamil literature, the scholars of Ceylon contributed their due share. In 1889, Sathasivampillai wrote Pavalar Sarithira Theepagam (History of the Poets). This was followed by the Tamil Pulavar Sarithiram of Kumarasamy Pulavar in 1916. Thiravida Pirakasikai of Sabapathy Navalar was a new attempt in writing the history of Tamil literature. With the title of Then Moli Varalaru, Poopalapillai and Muthuthambipillai published their works on this subject.

Maha Vidvan Ganesha Iyer collected the biographical accounts of the Tamil poets of Ceylon and published them under the title of Eela Nadduth Thamil Pulavar Charithiram. The literary activities of all the poets of Ceylon numbering about two hundred and their works are described in this work.

The writer of this article contributed two works to the field of history of literature entitled Ilankaiyil Inpa Tamil and Nootaandugalil Tamil. The former traces the history of Tamil language and literature in Ceylon, while the latter traces the whole history century by century. Kanaga Senthinathan also tried his hand in this field and published his work entitled Eelathu Ilakkiya Valarchi which concentrates too much on the activities of the young writers of the modern popular forms of literature.

In the field of journalism and publication of journals and magazines the achievement of Ceylon scholars is notable. Morning Star appeared in 1841 and was followed by Hindu Organ and Sathiya Vetha Pathukavalan. Eelanadu was published in the 20th century. The monthly and weekly journals published in Ceylon are too many to be mentioned here. Many of htem, of course, had as usual everywhere, a short life. There are three Tamil dailies and about half a dozen periodicals at present in Ceylon.

The realization of the importance of folk arts encouraged a few scholars in the studies of folk songs and folk dramas. A few collections of folk songs have been published in addition to two folk dramas.

Even though the activities and the works of the Tamil poets and scholars of 19th and 20th centuries embrace many fields, yet they can be broadly classified into three main branches: viz, works conforming to conventional literary forms, works on research studies and works on modern forms of literature such as novels, short stories. The literary compositions of the poets are too many to be enumerated here. Senathirayar, the reputed teacher of Arumuga Navalar, Sivasmabu Pulavar, Navaliyoor Somasundara Pulavar, Pundit Nallathamby, Navaneetha Krishna Parathiar and Ilamuruganar perhaps deserve special mention in this connection.

Many Tamil scholars belonging especially to the 20th century wrote many works and articles of high order in prose on various subjects. In the field of new forms of literature a host of young men are struggling to make their mark. These young writers concentrate mainly on short stories. As a result of this the contributions to the field of novel do not keep pace with the advancement made in the field of short stories.

In the production of dramas, Ceylon scholars of the 19th century were in the forefront. Kandappillai, father of Arumuga Navalar wrote more than twenty dramas. Kanapathi Iyer, Muthukumara Pulavar, Inuvil Sinnathamby and Udupiddy Sinnathamby established their reputation in this field. Dr. K. Kanapathipillai, ex-Professor of Tamil, University of Ceylon, has six dramas to his credit.

The Art Council of Ceylon has a Tamil Drama Panel which encourages the production and publication of dramas awarding prizes also. Dr. S. Vithiyananthan has been doing good service as the chairman of this panel. Swamy Vipulananda’s contributions to the studies of Tamil drama and Tamil music are of a high order.

The torch of learning kindled by Navalar has been kept burning brightly by a line of distinguished scholars with unlimited devotion. Vidvasironmani S. Ponnnambala Pillai, Urai Asiriyar Vetpillai, Kumarasamy Pulavar, Maha Vidvan Ganesha Iyer and Pandithamany Kanapathipillai deserve special mention in this connection. Vetpillai wrote commentaries on many literary works and made a name in this field. Kumarasamy Pulavar was the most erudite scholar of his time and won high regard and respect of the Tamil scholars for his contributions in many fields. Ganesha Iyer won the laurels of fame by editing Tholkappium and its popular commentaries with his explanatory notes on the commentaries themselves. Among these illustrious scholars, of whom the country can be proud, only Pandithamany Kanapathipillai is now living. As a lecturer in Saiva Training College, Tinnevely, he did yeoman service to the cause of Tamil studies. His writings and speeches sustained the revival of Tamil studies and increased the tempo of progress in Tamil studies. In addition to his services in the Training College he ran an institute called ‘Kaviya Padasalai’ and taught students for the examinations of the Jaffna Oriental Studies Society. His articles and other writings were published in six parts.


The Jaffna Oriental Studies Society is the oldest of the institutions engaged in the Tamil studies. It was established in 1921. The Director of Education is its ex-Officio President and the District Inspector of Schools, Jaffna is its ex-Officio Secretary. It is the only institution which conducts examinations in higher studies in Tamil. About hundred persons have passed its pundit examination since 1921. It has stimulated higher studies in Tamil by holding literary conferences, publishing Tamil works and magazines, and conducting classes for its examination.

‘Kala Nilayam’ of Vannarpannai is another institution which encouraged higher studies in Tamil. Though it functioned for a few years from 1932 it organized study groups, ran a library and published a literary journal called ‘Gnayiru’. Kalai Pulavar K. Navaratnam was mainly responsible for the establishment of this institution. He has also published three works on arts and culture of the Tamils.

From 1956, Vani Kalai Kalagam of Karaveddy has been conducting classes in higher studies. Six students of this Kalagam passed the pundit examination of the Jaffna Oriental Studies Society in 1964; Pundit K. Veeragaththy is in charge of this institution.

Sri Lanka Sahitya Mandalaya was set up in 1958 by the Ceylon Government to work for the cause of the Sinhala and Tamil studies. From 1960 it has awarded prizes annually to the best works in various kinds of Tamil literature. From 1960 upto 1964, 118 new works were submitted to it for consideration for prizes.

The Department for Official Language Affairs has also been doing pioneer work in the preparation of glossaries of official terms and technical terms in Tamil since 1956. Four volumes of glossaries of official terms and phrases containing nearly 18,000 words were published by this Department when the writer of this article was in charge of the project as Research Officer. Technical terms covering almost all the arts and science subjects and the other branches of studies such as engineering and medicine have been translated into Tamil by this Department. English text books in many of these subjects for pre-University and University classes are also being translated into Tamil. Dr. V. Ponniah who served in this Department as superintendent of translations and A.V. Mailvaganam, Asst. Commissioner, gave their best to these projects.

The Ceylon Government encouraged research studies in Tamil by awarding for nearly six years from 1940 annual scholarship for research in Tamil tenable for two or three years in the Madras University. The writer of this article is the first to get this scholarship in 1940. Ceylon University College also awarded Sir Arunasalam scholarship for the candidate who scored the highest marks in Tamil at the London B.A. Examinations.

The Colombo Tamil Sangam which is the only registered Tamil Sangam in Ceylon has been doing good work to serve the cause of the Tamil studies since 1941. Apart from holding literary conferences and conducting classes it has also published some work. Jaffna Saiva Paripalana Sabai and the Colombo Vivekananda Society deserve mention here for their services.

Thamil Marai Kalagam founded by the writer of this article to propagate the teachings of Thirukkural and to encourage research studies in Thirukkural has been holding annual tests in Thirukkural and conferences since its foundation in 1953. It has also published a collection of 15 articles with the title Thamil Marai Kadduraikal. These articles were selected from nearly one hundred articles sent to the essay competition organized by the Kalagam.

The University of Ceylon at Peradeniya has courses in Tamil studies. Students can offer Tamil as one of the subjects for the B.A. degree or follow a special course in Tamil. M.A. course in Tamil has also been started recently.

The Tamils in Ceylon have been agitating for a Tamil university since 1958. The Tamil University movement started for this purpose has not yet succeeded in its campaign for a Tamil university. However, they are running an institution called ‘Navalar Kalagam’ in Colombo preparing students for external examinations of the Ceylon University and the London University.




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