Manikkavacagar and the problem of Tamil Literature.
BY PROF. JULIEN VINSON, PARIS.
In the two numbers of the Malabar Quarterly Review previous to the last, Mr. K. G. Sesha Aiyar fully discussed the question; as my name occurs several times in his article, I ask permission to answer him, or better to express here my actual ideas about the matter, shortly as possible. I must declare, first, that I never pretended to be absolutely right and am always ready to confess my errors, when it is proved I mistook, as for example, in the case of Dr. Burnell's famous foot-note.
I must be allowed too to say that for long the Tamilian were devoid of what may be called the historical sense; they have no written history and all their records are thoroughly mingled with folklore, popular tales, religious events and mythic legends. Almost all personal names of old days appear as mere surnames or even nick names; so, is it admissible that a child may have been called by his parents, as many great Tamil writers were, Kakkeippadiniyar "the sweet crow singer," or Parimelalagar "the superior beautiful" one?
Manikkavacagar (St. Manikkavacaka "one whose speeches are precious jewels") is known as a great Tamil Poet, an energetic Saiva devotee, a valiant minister of the Pandiya king Arimarddana. Moreover he is said to have overthrown and converted some Buddhist priests who had come from Ceylon, to Sidambaram. At what time then did he possibly live and flourish?
We are able to affirm that it cannot be delayed later than the tenth or eleventh century A. D. The Madras Government Epigraphist, Mr. V. Venkayya, inform us, in his last annual report, that one inscription was lately discovered, in which king Vikramachola, about the year 1135, ordered a provision to be made for the singing of one Manikkavacagar's hymns Tiruchchalal. So, in the beginning of the twelfth century, Manikkavacagar was already a celebrated poet and a venerated holy saint throughout the whole Tamil country. He must then have been dead more than a century before.
Very little is to be got from the works of this renowned saint. And we may perhaps doubt whether he really is the author of all the poems which are ascribed to him. I was ever of opinion that the Kalladam, for example, was composed prior to the Kovei; its style and metre appear more archaic, and we find in it many traces of the primitive manners and beliefs of the lower people, frequent allusions to conjurors, sorcerers, soothsayers &c., on the one hand, and of ghosts, goblins, evil spirits, vampires, on the other. Moreover, Tamil works cannot throw much light by themselves on historical problems because many modern writers have mistakenly copied out old author, according to the rule later formulated by Pavanandi; "On what matters, with what words, in what way, high men – have spoken; so to speak, is the convenience of style."
But we may believe at best Tiruvacagam is Manikkavacagar's work, and we must see at what period of Tamil Literature it is to be brought up. The problem, to be solved, must be examined at three points of view, viz., the literary, the religious and the historical one.
Some learned native scholars have said that the Tamilians had attained a high degree of civilization and possessed a rich literature and a perfect writing system of their own, much before the Christian era, at a time when their country extended over a large space of land southward of Cape Comorin. But these statements have always appeared to me as a mere hypothesis, to which nothing affords the slightest support. No fragment whatever of a word, not a single remains of inscription, not even an original tale or tradition, can be produced in its favor. As regards writing for example, Mr. Burnell admitted that the Vatteluthu might have been directly borrowed by the old Dravidians from some Semitic traders or travelers; but one cannot doubt now that it originated from the northern Aryan alphabets: the forms for k, c,
t, the confusion of long and short e, and o, and many other particulars prove it unquestionably. It is almost certain that writing was introduced in Southern India in the third century of the Christian era, and we must observe the oldest documents are in the Sanskrit language only. Old grants and inscriptions generally contain two parts, and eulogistic, mythical and historical one in verse and an administrative or official in prose, sometimes in the Prakrit or spoken language. Later, vernaculars (Tamil, Canarese, and Telugu) are used in the prose official part; still later, Tamil occurs in the poetical eulogy in the agaval metre which is known to be the oldest of all; more recent documents are found to be written in the Vernacular prose only. Are we not authorized to conclude from this that the writers of these documents were originally strangers who generally became acquainted with local idioms and used them more and more? It is highly probable that the Aryanisation of South India was peacefully and progressively made. The Aryan immigrants, being principally Brahmans and warriors, settled themselves in towns and formed separate communities there; it was only by their intercourse with the nature, in subsequent days, that they began to learn, use and write original languages and taught the native to write and compose literary works. The first Tamil, Canarese or Telugu writers were evidently Brahmans of northern origin and religion. Not one Tamil, Canarese or Telugu book now in existence is independent of Sanskrit.
Moreover, Tamil literature is nearly related to religious events. When we try to get a general view of it, we become bound to the necessity of acknowledging it must be divided in distinct periods, each of which corresponds to a special religious activity, but we must admit, before all, a preliminary, preparatory period; then came the time in which Jainas and perhaps Buddhists were flourishing then, the Saivites grew up and began to engage in a long and violent struggle with these heretics; then Saivism became predominant. In later times we see Vaishnavas interfering, in the same epoch as so many Tamil Puranas were composed embodying many old local primitive deities, uses, superstitions and legends. The last period, - the modern one, can be considered as beginning with the arrival of the European settlers, about the end of the fifteenth century.
Now, let us turn to Tiruvacagam and other works of Manikkavacagar. They were evidently written in the militant period of Tamil Literature, viz., in the third one. But writing having been introduced in the Dravida about the third century, it cannot have become current and be applied to the Vernacular languages before the fourth; and the preliminary period, the Jaina period, which followed certainly lasted something on two or three centuries. So that, Manikkavacagar cannot have lived and written earlier than the seventh or eighth century.
Historically, Manikkavacagar was a contemporary of king Varagunapandya, whose name is quoted in his works; and this king is probably the same named prince who, as we know, ascended the throne in the year 862-863. Moreover, in the legends of his life, our great saint is said to have been the prime minister of Arimarddana Pandya. Who this is we cannot decide, as he has not been yet identified. But he appears as the 61st or 63rd in the list of the 74 monarchs who reigned in Madura before the overthrowing of their power by the Chola. This important event look place under the reign of Rajendra Chola, towards the middle of the eleventh century; and if we assign as usual, 20 years to each of the 10 or 20 kings who reigned between Arimarddana and Kun Pandya, the last independent sovereign, we find Manikkavacagar must have lived at the beginning of the ninth century.
My conclusion will be them that Manikkavacagar's age is very probably the just said ninth century (800-900) of the Christian era.