Religion in ancient Tamil country

Aiyanar on an elephant

The Sangam period in Tamilakam (c. 200 BCE to 200 CE) was characterized by the coexistence of many religions: Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism alongside the ethnic religions of the Tamil people. 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]

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Tamil religions

Tamil religions denotes the religious traditions and practices of Tamil-speaking people. The Tamils are native to modern state of India known as Tamil Nadu and the northern and eastern part of Sri Lanka. Tamils lives also outside their native boundaries due to migration such as Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa, Australia, Great Britain, United States, Canada, Réunion and in other countries in Europe. Many emigrant Tamils retain elements of a cultural, linguistic, and religious tradition that predates the Christian era.

Early Tamil Religion

A Neolithic cattle-herding culture existed in South India several millennia prior to the Christian era. By the first century, a relatively well-developed civilization had emerged. It is described in some detail in Tamil texts such as the Tholkappiyam (third BCE) and by the Sankam poets—an "academy" of poets who wrote in the first two centuries of the Common Era.

Ancient Tamil grammatical works Tholkappiyam, the ten anthologies Pathuppāṭṭu, the eight anthologies Eṭṭuttokai sheds light on early religion of ancient Tamil people. Murugan was glorified as, the red god seated on the blue peacock, who is ever young and resplendent, as the favored god of the Tamils.[2]Shiva was also seen as the supreme God.[2] Early iconography of Murugan[3] and Shiva[4][5][6] and their association with native flora and fauna goes back to Indus Valley Civilization.[7][8] The Sangam landscape was classified into five categories, thinais, based on the mood, the season and the land. Tolkappiyam, mentions that each of these thinai had an associated deity such Murugan in Kurinji-the hills, Vishnu in Mullai-the forests, Durga in Pālai-the deserts, Indra in Marutham-the plains and Varuna in Neithal-the coasts and the seas. Other gods mentioned were Krishna and Balaram who were all assimilated into Hinduism over time. Dravidian influence on early Vedic religion is evident, many of these features are already present in the oldest known Indo-Aryan language, the language of the Rigveda (c. 1500 BCE), which also includes over a dozen words borrowed from Dravidian languages.[9] This represents an early religious and cultural fusion[10][11] or synthesis[13] between ancient Tamils and Indo-Aryans, which became more evident over time with sacred iconography, flora and fauna that went on to influence Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism[14][12][15][16]

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.[17] The temples of the Sangam days, mainly of Madurai, seem to have had priestesses to the deity, which also appear predominantly a goddess.[18] In the Sangam literature, there is an elaborate description of the rites performed by the Kurava priestess in the shrine Palamutircholai.[19]


"Veriyattam" refers to spirit possession of women, who took part in priestly functions. Under the influence of the god, women sang and danced, but also read the dim past, predicted the future, diagnosed diseases.[20] Twenty two poets of the Sangam age in as many as 40 poems portray Veriyatal. Velan is a reporter and prophet endowed with supernatural powers. Veriyatal had been performed by men as well as women.[21]


Among the early Tamils the practice of erecting Hero stone (nadukkal) had appeared, and it continued for quite a long time after the Sangam age, down to about 11th century.[22] It was customary for people who sought victory in war to worship these hero stones to bless them with victory.[23]


Theyyam is a ritual shaman dance popular in Kerala and parts of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Theyyam migrates into the artist who has assumed the spirit and it is a belief that the god or goddess comes in the midst of fathering through the medium of possessed dancer. The dancer throws rice on the audience and distributes turmeric powder as symbols of blessing. Theyyam incorporates dance, mime and music and enshrines the rudiments of ancient tribal cultures which attached great importance to the worship of heroes and the spirits of ancestors, is a socio-religious ceremony. There are over 400 Theyyams performed, the most spectacular ones are those of Raktha Chamundi, Kari Chamundi, Muchilottu Bhagavathi, Wayanadu Kulaven, Gulikan and Pottan. These are performed in front of shrines, sans stage or curtains.

The early character of Tamil religion was celebrative. It embodied an aura of sacral immanence, sensing the sacred in the vegetation, fertility, and color of the land. The summum bonum of the religious experience was expressed in terms of possession by the god, or ecstasy. Into this milieu there immigrated a sobering influence—a growing number of Jain and Buddhist communities and an increasing influx of brahmans and other northerners.

The layout of villages can be assumed to be standard across most villages. An Amman (mother goddess) is at the centre of the villages while a male guardian deity (Tamil: காவல் கடவுள், kāval kaṭavuḷ ?) has a shrine at the village borders. Nowadays, Amman can be either worshipped alone or as a part of the Vedic pantheon.[24]

Divinity of Kings

Pre-Sangam and Sangam age

Throughout Tamil Nadu, a king was considered to be divine by nature and possessed religious significance.[25] The King was 'the representative of God on earth' and lived in a koyil, which means the "residence of God". The Modern Tamil word for temple is koil (Tamil: கோயில்). Titular worship was also given to Kings.[26][27]

Words meaning 'King', like (Tamil: கோ "King"), iṟai (இறை "Emperor") and āṇḍavan (ஆண்டவன் "Conqueror") now primarily refer to Gods. Mōcikīraṉār in the Purananuru says:

Not rice, not water,
only the King is the life-breath
of a kingdom.

The Kingdom suffered by famine or disorder when the King erred.[28] These elements were incorporated later into Hinduism like the legendary marriage of Shiva to Queen Meenatchi who ruled Madurai or Wanji-ko, a god who later merged into Indra.[29] Tolkappiyar refers to the Three Crowned Kings as the "Three Glorified by Heaven", (Tamil: வான்புகழ் மூவர், Vāṉpukaḻ Mūvar ?).[30] In the Dravidian-speaking South, the concept of divine kingship led to the assumption of major roles by state and temple.[31]

Middle ages

At the birth of Raja Raja 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, descended on earth..." During the Bhakti movement, poets often compared gods to kings.[32]


Main article: History of Hinduism
The Murugan temple at Salavanakuppam near Mahabalipuram.
Sculpture of the god Murugan

The brick temple excavated in 2005[33] 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

During the Sangam period, Hinduism was popular in Tamil Nadu. Shiva, Murugan, Krishna, Balarama and Kali were some of the popular deities. The poetic division of the landscape into five regions also associated each region with its own patron deity.[34]


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 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. 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 Vedic sacrifices. Priests learned in the Vedic rites typically performed them under the patronage of the kings.[35]

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.[36] 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 Silappatikaram and the Sangam poems such as Kaliththokai, Mullaippāṭṭu 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.[37]

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. Krishna Janmashtami 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.[38]


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.[39] Some scholars believe that the author of the oldest extant work of literature in Tamil (3rd century BCE), Tolkāppiyam, was a Jain.[40]

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.[41][42]

Scholars consider the Tirukkural by Valluvar to be the work by a Jain.[43][44][45] It emphatically supports vegetarianism (Chapter 26) and states that giving up animal sacrifice is worth more than a thousand offerings in fire (verse 259).

Silappatikaram, a major work in Tamil literature, was written by a Camaṇa, Ilango Adigal. It describes the historical events of its time and also of the 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, 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."[46]

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.


Main article: Tamil Buddhism

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.[47] The Silapatikaram 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. Manimekalai is a sequel to the Silapathikaram, which tellst the story of Buddhism of the daughter of Kovalan and Madhavi.

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.[48][49][50] 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.[51][52] 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.[53][53][54][55] 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).[56] Despite the sectarian differences, Syrian Christians share a common social status within the Caste system of Kerala and is considered as Forward Caste.[55]


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.[57] 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.[57]

Philosophies of religion


The secular identity[58] of the Sangam 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.:[59]

Thus the Tamil land became a fertile nursery and the several religions... throve in friendly rivalry.
Es Vaiyāpurip Piḷḷai, History of Tamil language and literature: beginning to 1000 A. D.

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

Ūzh meaning 'fate' or 'destiny' and vinai meaning 'works' concerns the ancient Tamil belief of differentiating what man can do and what is destined.[60]

Kaṭavuḷ and Iyavuḷ

Sangam Tamil people understood two distinct characteristics of Godhood. God who is beyond all (Tamil: கடவுள், Kaṭavuḷ ?) and the God who sets things in motion (Tamil: இயவுள், Iyavuḷ ?).[61]

See also




    • Balambal, V (1998). Studies in the History of the Sangam Age. Kalinga Publications, Delhi. 
    • Gopalakrishnan, S (2005). Early Pandyan Iconometry. Sharada Publishing house, New Delhi. 
    • Subrahmanian, N (1972). History of Tamilnad. Koodal Publishers, Madurai. 


    1. 1 2 Kanakasabhai 1904, p. 233.
    2. 1 2 Kanchan Sinha, Kartikeya in Indian art and literature, Delhi: Sundeep Prakashan (1979).
    3. Mahadevan, Iravatham (2006). A Note on the Muruku Sign of the Indus Script in light of the Mayiladuthurai Stone Axe Discovery.
    4. Ranbir Vohra (2000). The Making of India: A Historical Survey. M.E. Sharpe. p. 15.
    5. Grigorii Maksimovich Bongard-Levin (1985). Ancient Indian Civilization. Arnold-Heinemann. p. 45.
    6. Steven Rosen, Graham M. Schweig (2006). Essential Hinduism. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 45.
    7. Basham 1967
    8. Frederick J. Simoons (1998). Plants of life, plants of death. p. 363.
    9. Krishnamurti (2003), p. 6.
    10. 1 2 Lockard 2007, p. 50.
    11. Lockard: "The encounters that resulted from Aryan migration brought together several very different peoples and cultures, reconfiguring Indian society. Over many centuries a fusion of Aryan and Tamil people occurred, a complex process that historians have labeled the Indo-Aryan synthesis."[10] Lockard: "Hinduism can be seen historically as a synthesis of Aryan beliefs with Harappan and other Tamil traditions that developed over many centuries."[12]
    12. 1 2 Lockard 2007, p. 52.
    13. Hiltebeitel 2007, p. 12.
    14. Tiwari 2002, p. v.
    15. Zimmer 1951, p. 218-219.
    16. Larson 1995, p. 81.
    17. Thiruchandran, Selvy (1997). Ideology, caste, class, and gender. Vikas Pub. House.
    18. Manickam, Valliappa Subramaniam (1968). A glimpse of Tamilology. Academy of Tamil Scholars of Tamil Nadu. p. 75.
    19. Lal, Mohan (2006). The Encyclopaedia Of Indian Literature (Volume Five (Sasay To Zorgot), Volume 5. Sahitya Akademi. p. 4396. ISBN 8126012218.
    20. Iyengar, Srinivasa (1929). History of the Tamils: from the earliest times to 600 A.D. Asian Educational Services. p. 77.
    21. Venkatasubramanian, T.K. (2010). Music as History in TamilNadu. Primus Books. p. 16. ISBN 9380607067.
    22. Shashi, S. S. (1996). Encyclopaedia Indica: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh: Volume 100. Anmol Publications.
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    24. Hastings, James (2003). Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Part 14. Kessinger Publishing.
    25. Harman, William P. (1992). The sacred marriage of a Hindu goddess. Motilal Banarsidass Publ. p. 6.
    26. Anand, Mulk Raj (1980). Splendours of Tamil Nadu. Marg Publications.
    27. Chopra, Pran Nath (1979). History of South India. S. Chand.
    28. 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.
    29. Bate, Bernard (2009). Tamil oratory and the Dravidian aesthetic: democratic practice in south India. Columbia University Press.
    30. A. Kiruṭṭin̲an̲ (2000). Tamil culture: religion, culture, and literature. Bharatiya Kala Prakashan. p. 17.
    31. Embree, Ainslie Thomas (1988). Encyclopedia of Asian history: Volume 1. Scribner. ISBN 9780684188980.
    32. Hopkins, Steven (2002). Singing the body of God: the hymns of Vedāntadeśika in their South Indian tradition. Oxford University Press. p. 113.
    34. Subrahmanian 1972, p. 381.
    35. Kanakasabhai 1904, p. 231.
    36. Subrahmanian 1972, p. 382.
    37. Gopalakrishnan 2005, p. 19.
    38. Balambal 1998, p. 6.
    39. Jain, Ashish (29 July 2011). "History of Tamil Jains". Archived from the original on 22 October 2014.
    40. Singh, Narendra (2001). Encyclopaedia of Jainism. Anmol Publications. p. 3144. ISBN 978-81-261-0691-2.
    41. Early Tamil epigraphy from the earliest times to the sixth century A.D. Iravatham Mahadevan, Harvard University Press, 2003
    42. Recent Discoveries of Jaina Cave Inscriptions in Tamilnadu by Iravatham Mahadevan
    43. Tirukkural, Vol. 1, S.M. Diaz, Ramanatha Adigalar Foundation, 2000,
    44. Tiruvalluvar and his Tirukkural, Bharatiya Jnanapith, 1987
    45. The Kural, P. S. Sundaram, Penguin Classics, 1987
    46. The Milieu of the Ancient Tamil Poems, Prof. George Hart
    47. Kanakasabhai 1904, p. 232.
    48. Journal of the Institute of Asian Studies, Volume 18. Institute of Asian Studies (Madras, India). 2000.
    49. Weil S. 1982; Jessay P.M. 1986; Menachery 1973; Menachery 1998.
    50. 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.
    51. Vadakkekara, Benedict (2007). Origin of Christianity in India: a Historiographical Critique, pp. 325–330. Media House Delhi.
    52. 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. JSTOR 2800388.(subscription required)
    53. 1 2 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. JSTOR 2800388.(subscription required)
    54. Fuller, C.J. "Indian Christians: Pollution and Origins." Man. New Series, Vol. 12, No. 3/4. (Dec., 1977), pp. 528–529.
    55. 1 2 Forrester, Duncan (1980). Caste and Christianity. Curzon Press. pp. 98,102.
    56. 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. JSTOR 2800388.(subscription required)
    57. 1 2 P. 125 The Shengold Jewish Encyclopedia By Mordecai Schreiber
    58. Encyclopaedia of Tamil Literature: Introductory articles. Institute of Asian Studies. 1990.
    59. Piḷḷai, Es Vaiyāpurip (1956). History of Tamil language and literature: beginning to 1000 A. D. New Century Book House.
    60. Journal of Tamil studies, Issues 31–32. International Association of Tamil Research. 1987.
    61. Singam, S. Durai Raja (1974). Ananda Coomaraswamy: remembering and remembering again and again. Raja Singam. p. 50.
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