Tamil, the oldest of the Dravidian language group spoken in southern India, has a history dating back to the early centuries before the common era. The earliest Tamil literature to survive is known by later Tamil commentators from the seventh century as the poetry of the Caṅkam or "academy" of Madurai. This poetry is diverse, and it was organized into anthologies of different sizes some time after their composition. The Caṅkam literature is thematically divided into akam, "interior" love poems with anonymous characters, and puram, "exterior" poetry on war, the praise of kings, and other subjects. The Caṅkam poetry relies on a complex and highly conventional system of seasons, times, and landscapes to indicate different moods and situations. These conventions are laid out, inter alia, in the earliest grammar of the language, known as the Tolkāppiyam, composed perhaps in the first centuries of the common era.
The Caṅkam age, sometimes characterized as the "heroic" period of incipient state structures, gave way to a more established agrarian society of settled kingdoms, in which longer poems and didactic works were composed, between the third and sixth centuries a.d. The most famous of these were Iḷaṅkō Aṭikaḷ's "Tale of an Anklet," or Cilappatikāram, a long narrative and lyrical poem telling the story of the widow Kaṇṇaki, and the Tirukkural, a collection of gnomic verses on love, politics, and righteousness by Tiruvaḷḷuvar. Many works of this period were strongly influenced by the religions of Jainism and Buddhism. By the seventh century the Hindu cults of Shaivism and Vaishnavism gained widespread popularity through songs known as the ālvār and nāyanmār, composed by wandering saint devotees. Though these poems sometimes built on earlier Caṅkam poetic conventions, they tended for the most part to be composed in a simpler and more direct style, in keeping with the message of devotion to the Shiva or Vishnu. The hymns of the saints were collected and anthologized from the twelfth century, during the apogee of the famous Chola kingdom of Tanjavur (c. a.d. 950–1250). The Chola period saw numerous important literary innovations at court, which were heavily influenced by Sanskrit kāvya. The courts of the later Chola kings produced some of the most famous poems of the medieval period, like Kampan's Irāmavatāram (a Tamil version of the Rāmāyaṇa) and the courtly epic Kaliṅkattupparaṇi by Cayaṅkoṇṭar. The Kaliṅkattupparaṇi formed one of a large number of new genres, called as a class prapantam. The prapantam literature formed the staple of literary accomplishment until as late as the nineteenth century, and acted as the umbrella under which a number of folk and courtly genres met during later medieval times.
From the late Chola period a rich commentarial and scholastic literature also emerged in a number of fields, including grammar, poetics, and theology. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, under the Nāyaka kings of Madurai, Senji, and Tañjavur, northern languages, like Telugu, Marathi, Urdu, and Sanskrit, were often heavily patronized by the elites. The study of Tamil literature was confined almost entirely to Shaiva monasteries, or maṭhas. European missionary activity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries led to important new developments, chief of which was the proliferation of indigenous printing presses from 1835. Modern genres like novels, autobiographies, and essays, and newspaper writing became widespread throughout the nineteenth century. By the first decades of the twentieth century, a number of important writers had sparked a new public interest in Tamil literature and history, which became caught up in the anti-Brahman movement and organized Dravidian nationalism.
Peterson, Indira Viswanathan, trans. Poems to Siva: The Hymns of the Tamil Saints. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981.
Ramaswamy, Sumathi. Passions of the Tongue: Language Devotion in Tamil India, 1891–1970. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
Zvelebil, Kamiḷ The Smile of Murugan: On Tamil Literature of South India. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1973.