Tamil Culture and Trade in the Past

An appraisal

by Sachi Sri Kantha, May 25, 2016

Book Review: Tamil Trade and Cultural Exchange, by N. Parameswaran, self published, printed at The Print Shoppe, Duraisamy Naicken Street, Chennai, 2005, 170 pp. ISBN 0-646-44934-6. 

Though this book was published in 2005, I review it after 11 years for Sangam site readers for two reasons. First, the theme is of perennial interest to Tamils. Secondly, in the past 15 years I have not covered this aspect of the history of Tamil language/literature in any of my previous commentaries or essays.

Reading the 154 pages of the text of this short book, brought back my memories of my innocent teenage days, nearly 50 years ago. In those days, Tamil orators (not of the prominent political tribe, though some had dabbled in pre-Independent India’s politics) and literati from Tamil Nadu frequently visited Colombo. Some belonging to this category were, Ki.Aa.Pe Viswanatham Pillai (1899-1994), Ma.Po. Sivagnanam (1906-1995), Ki. Va. Jagannathan (1906-1988), Kunrakudi Adigalar (1925-1995) and Thiruvachagamani K.M. Balasubramaniam (1908-1974). They extolled the culture of ancient Tamils. One of the refrain, which I still remember while listening to these experts was, ‘When the world was sleeping, Tamils were awake. Now when the world is awake, Tamils are sleeping.’ Here is a sample from this book, which relates to this refrain: “Given the geological evidence now forthcoming, it is all the more evident as Ilankai or Sri Lanka, was a part of South India then, the same people who occupied Tamilakam also occupied Ilankai or Sri Lanka when it separated. Apart from the tribes, they were the Tamils who by 11,000 years ago had attained a high-point in their civilization.” One may wonder, if Tamils had attained the zenith of their civilization 11,000 years ago, then was it all down hill since then?

Tamil Trade and Cultural Exchange book coverAuthor N. Parameswaran’s interest in writing about the cultural exchanges in the Southeast and Eastern Asia in the past one to two millennia is self-evident in the ten chapters of the book. In the preface to the book, he had indicated why this book was written as follows, “This book is intended to bring out the maritime and commercial enterprise of the Tamils during the ancient and medieval periods. At the same time, it was those ancient Tamil seafarers who first carried their ideas and culture to distant lands…A reawakening of the Tamils to their former grandeur and prosperity presupposes as well, a revival of their naval and maritime traditions. The timely and speedy implementation of the Sethu Samudram Project in making navigation possible through the Palk Straits for ocean-going liners will be a much required boost.”

It is evident that Parameswaran had relied on the works of few previously published authors (such as K. A. Nilakanta Sastri, Mudaliyar C. Rasanayagam, Kingsley Muthumuni de Silva, Kavalam Madhava Panikkar, S. Pathmanathan and Noboru Karashima) to summarize selected tidbits available in those sources. But, I doubt whether the author did bother to check in depth the original sources of some other citations he had included. These are that of H.D. Sankalia, Iravatham Mahadevan and Clarence Maloney. I noted errors in the dates and misinterpretations of the presented data of these researchers. Incomplete citations to earlier sources devil this book. At the end of each of the ten chapters, “Notes” appended, but these “Notes” themselves are incomplete, and fail to serve the real function in guiding the reader for the cited sources.

The chronological tabulation provided by Sankalia is distortingly presented in this book, and fails to agree with the assertion of Parameswaran that Kumari Kandam civilisation (aka, Tamil civilization) is “as old as 11,000 years ago”. Sankalia had suggested the period 2,200 – 2,800 years before present (i.e., 200 – 800 B.C) as the origin of earliest Tamil script. Among the seven items activities listed by Sankalia, three (items iii, vi and vii) relates to Dravidian culture. These are,

iii. Iron-smelting on a large scale, all over South India

  1. First traces of earliest Tamil in Brahmi-like script (c. 100 BC)

vii. Earliest Tamil literature

Thus, the chronological data adopted by Parameswaran in chapters 1 (Beginnings of Tamil civilisation in South India) and 2 (Quest for Kumari Kandam) is more in alignment with Tamil jingoists of yore, but do not jibe with the current thoughts of historians of Tamil literature. It is a pity that this Kumari Kandam (the lost continent) myth is still sustained by Parameswaran, by citing spurious sources. In 1981, one individual N. Mahalingam presented a paper on this theme at the 5th International Conference Seminar of Tamil Studies, held at Madurai. When it was printed in the conference proceedings, the editor had to insert a note of concern stating, “Some statements in this paper are either exaggerated or such as to call for further enquiry and research.”

David Crystal's 'Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language', p..308

Granted that Tamil language has the status as one of the classical languages of India with the oldest written record in history for Dravidian language family, in comparison to, say English language. David Crystal dates this to 3rd century BC. But, what is gained by boasting this accepted merit to beyond belief such as, “First Tamil Sangam, 9,600 BC to 5,200 BC, and Second Tamil Sangam, 5,200 BC to 1,500 BC”? Do these dates have any historical credibility? I checked two previously published chronologies of Indian history. While Mabel Duff (1972) begins her chronology at 557 BC, with the birth of Siddhartha (Gautama Buddha) at Kapilavastu, Romila Thapar (1986) begins her chronology at c. 2,500 BC with the Harappan culture. Thus, the dates recorded for the existence of First Tamil Sangam and Second Tamil Sangam predates the period of Harappan culture. To satisfy the doubters, Parameswaran has not offered any vital historical evidence for the existence of these two Tamil Sangams, other than mythological bluff. What was the population of Tamil Nadu between 9,600 BC and 1,500 BC, which supported these two Sangams? What was their life span? What was the prevailing literacy rate then? Parameswaran had excluded from his study, the commendable work of Sumathi Ramaswamy (currently, Professor of History, Duke University), on the fabulous, imaginary geographies of a lost world (i.e. Lemuria or Kumari Kandam or Kumari Nadu) in the Indian Ocean.

Especially of relevance and need is some guess work on the existing population in those, pre-Christ era. Nothing is mentioned in the book. Fifty years ago, Manickavasagam Pillai, with the assistance of mathematics Prof. Christie Eliezer, calculated the population of Tamilakam (incorporating the contemporary states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala) of the third Sangam age, and arrived at a range of 3.583 – 4.951 million, on the assumption that the world population at the time of the birth of Christ was 200 million.

Based on epigraphical inscriptions, renowned epigrapher Iravatham Mahadevan made three conclusions. These were,

  • “Tamil became a written language for the first time in about 2nd B.C. by the adaptation of the Brahmi script to the Tamil phonetic system.”
  • “The orthography of written Tamil was experimental during the first two centuries of its existence. Thereafter it settled down to practically the classical system.”
  • “Once writing was introduced in the Tamil country, it spread rapidly resulting in an efflorescence of literary activity in the early centuries of the Christian era (ca. 2 – 3 centuries A.D.”

Clarence Maloney had opined in 1970, “Since the east cost of India from Bengal to Ceylon is devoid of any archeological evidence of pre-Mauryan civilization, we may doubt the existence there of much long-distance sea traffic before the third century B.C. From the time of Buddhist expansionism, however, communication picked up along the east coast and cross-cultural fertilization was engendered. The accounts of navigation there in the Ceylon chronicles, the Jatakas, and Tamil literature, testify to this, as do the appearance from Mauryan times on of port cities in Bengal, Orissa, the Andhra deltas, the Kaveri delta and northeast Ceylon.”

Subsequently, in 1975, Maloney himself had repeated the same in three historical conclusions. (1) “Dravidian languages most likely spread through much of the south only with the Iron Age, roughly 500 BC.” (2) “A grade of cultural evolution we can call civilization was achieved between 200 BC and AD 300.”, and (3) “The appearance of early civilization in the Tamil area was sparked by sea trade and by the development of civilization in Sri Lanka.” Though Parameswaran cites this reference, he had ignored Maloney’s conclusions for convenience in repetitively asserting that “Tamil civilization is 11,000 years old”!

Chapters three to ten of the book with historically recorded non-Indian sources provide credibility to the Tamil trade and cultural exchange. These are simply re-telling of the historical records with identifiable names like Periplus, Pliny the Elder, Ptolemy, Marco Polo and Ibn Batuta tossed here and there. One vital point had been missed by the author. Tamil trade and cultural exchange with Rome, China and other Southeast Asian countries did occur, only when the Tamil kingdoms had political power in their hands. When the political power was lost, due to infighting coupled with the intrusion of Muslims and European powers (Portuguese, Dutch, French and British) such cultural exchange and trade vanished.

In concluding the book, Parameswaran includes three themes in his wish list. First, “A development and modernization of the ports on the northern and eastern coasts is a must.” Second, “Drawing upon the merchant guilds of the past, the setting up of trading corporations to engage in regional and international trade needs to be actively considered.” Third, “The Tamil diaspora found scattered around the globe provides a captive market to begin with for the ethnic products of the Tamil provinces. By successfully networking with them, the flow of exports to them as well as the imports of much needed capital goods for development of the region can be facilitated.”

Eleven years ago, when the book was published, talk of Sethu Samudram shipping canal project made some ripple in Chennai, New Delhi and Colombo. Pro and anti-views for this project were expressed. Tamil Nadu government and environmentalists opposed the project for different reasons. Reasons cited for the opposal were that (1) livelihood of  Tamil Nadu fishermen will get affected, and (2) purported ecological damage to the marine environment. Now, BJP party currently in power in India had opted to support the project. Parameswaran also offers his support for this shipping canal project.

Maps and illustrations (culled from internet sources), presented at the end of the book, are of poor quality and do not add luster to the book. Lack of index is also a demerit. Overall, better editing would have raised the quality of this book. If a second edition is planned in the future, rectifying the indicated omissions seems vital to the credibility of the book.

Lastly, I do respect the interest on Tamil history shown by Parameswaran, who had picked up writing after a career in international trade and including a stint with UNCTAD/UNDP. Neither his age nor his birth year is mentioned in the book. If he is blessed with time in his hand and good health, he has the skill to improve the text for better in the nearest future.

Cited Sources

David Crystal: The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991 reprint.


  1. Mabel Duff: The Chronology of Indian History – From the earliest times to the beginning of the sixteenth century, Cosmo Publications, Delhi, 1972.


Iravatham Mahadevan: Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions of the Sangam Age. In Proceedings of the Second International Conference Seminar of Tamil Studies (Madras, India, 1968), edited by R.E. Asher, 1970, vol. 1, pp. 73-106.


  1. Mahalingam: Kumari Kandam – The lost continent. In Proceedings of the Fifth International Conference Seminar of Tamil Studies (Madurai, India, 1981), edited by M. Arunachalam, 1981, vol.1, pp. 2:53 – 2:65.


Clarence Maloney: The beginnings of civilization in South India. Journal of Asian Studies, May 1970; 29(3): 603-616.


Clarence Maloney: Archaeology in South India: Accomplishments & Prospects, In Essays on South India, edited by Burton Stein, University of Hawaii Press, 1975, pp. 1-40.


M.E. Manickavasagam Pillai: Population of Tamilakam during the Sangham Age. In Proceedings of the First International Conference Seminar of Tamil Studies, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (April 1966), vol.1, 1968, pp. 346-349.


Sumathi Ramaswamy: History at Land’s End: Lemuria in Tamil spatial fables. Journal of Asian Studies, Aug. 2000; 59(3): 575-602.


H.D. Sankalia: Beginning of Civilization in South India. In Proceedings of the Second International Conference Seminar of Tamil Studies (Madras, India, 1968), edited by R.E. Asher, 1970, vol. 1, pp. 27-38.


Romilar Thapar: A History of India, vol. 1, Penguin Books, Middlesex, 1986 reprint.


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