Ancient Tamil music

Ancient Tamil music

The ancient Tamil music was the music of the ancient Tamil people, who resided in the lands of the ancient Tamil country. Many poems of the Sangam literature, the classical Tamil literature of the early common era, were set to music. There are various references to this ancient musical tradition found in the ancient Sangam books such as "Ettuthokai" and "Pattupattu". The early narrative poem "Cilappatikaram", belonging to the post-Sangam period (200 CE - 400 CE) also mentions various forms of music practiced by the Tamil people. Music was an integral part of the compositions of the Tamil Saiva saints such as Appar, Thirugnana Sambanthar and Manikkavasagar during the Hindu revival period between the sixth and the tenth centuries CE.

angam music

The Sangam age grammatical work "Tolkappiyam" mentions the various music pertaining to the five landscapes ("thinai") of the Sangam literature. The five landscapes are associated with a particular mood of the poem and to give colour to these moods, each had a musical mood ("pann"), a melodic instrument ("yaazh") and a percussion instrument ("parai"). For example, the "neithal" thinai, which dealt with the incidents around the seashore and the theme of elopement, had the musical mood of "sevvazhi", "Vilari yaazh" as the musical instrument and the "navayapambai" for the percussion. "Tolkappiyam" also mentions the musical form known as "Paattu Vannam" and various types of songs like "Asiriapattu", "Neduven pattu", "Adivarai", "Seer", "Ahaval Osai" and "Vellosai", which are classified on the basis of the musical quality, metrical structure etc. Most of the Sangam age poetry utilised one or more of these meters in their compositions. Poems of the "Ettuthohai" anthology, such as the "Natrinai", "Paripaatal" and "Kaliththokai" are extensively musical in nature and utilise various "panns" to create the mood [ [ Tamil Music ] ] .

Musical instruments

Poems of the Sangam literature contain numerous mentions of the various musical instruments such as the "Seerkazhi ", a stringed instrument of the Veena type and various percussion instruments such as "murasu" or "muzham". "Pattupattu" contains a description of the "yaazh", a stringed instrument. There were two types of "yaazh", "Periyaazh" or the 'large yaazh' contained 21 strings, whereas its more compact companion "Siriyaazh" had only seven strings. Two other types of "yaazhs", "Makarayaazh" with 19 strings and "Sakottuyaah" with seven strings are also mentioned in "Pattuppattu". However we have no further information on their actual appearance, mode of playing and the kind of melody generated by these instruments.

The flute was the most popular wind instrument during the Sangam period. "Perumpanarruppatai", one of the "Pattupattu" anthologies, describes the process of making the flute. The holes in the bamboo tube were bored using red-hot embers. The flute is also mentioned in the "Kurincippattu" as the instrument on which the shepherds played the "ambal pann". Among the other wind instruments were the "Pili", a small trumpet and "Kanvidutumbu" a larger flute ('as long as the trunk of an elephant'), perhaps producing lower octaves The flute also acted as a drone providing a constant pitch for vocalists and other instruments.

The "Murasu", or the drum was the most popular percussion instrument. During festivals, the sound of Murasu conveyed joy and gaiety. "Muzhavu", another percussion instrument accompanied singers. The drum was also used as the war-drum, calling people to arms. "Mathuraikkanci" mentions that the "murasu" was one of the prized possessions captured from the defeated enemy in the battlefield. "Malaipatukatam" describes the method of constructing and tuning the "murasu". The sides were covered with skin, which were kept in position by leather straps. "Malaipatukatam" also mentions other percussion instruments such as "udukkai", a palm-sized drum, "Muzhavu", "Siruparai" and "Tattai". The sound "tattai" resembled the croaking of a frog. This was a crude folk instrument made using a bamboo stick. Numerous slits were made across the stick and sound was produced on it by striking it on a stone or any other hard surface. In the "Kurincippattu" peasant women use "tattai" to scare the birds from the paddy field.A well-known percussion instrument is the "mridangam". It's a double headed drum used to accompany the "veena" and the "flute" among other instruments.

Musical notations

In Tamil music, the solfege "sa-ri-ga-ma-pa-da-ni" of the Indian classical music were known by their Tamil names "Kural", "Tuttam", "Kaikilai", "Uzhai", "Ili", "Vilari" and "Taram". There are notations for the notes in different octaves. For example, "Kurai Tuttam" and "Nirai Tuttam" refer to the "ri" ("rishabha") note in the lower and upper octaves respectively [ [ Tamil Music ] ] .


"Raga", which defines the mood of the Indian classical music was described by the "Pann". Specific "panns" were sung during worship and during religious and royal ceremonies. "Maduraikanchi" refers to women singing "Sevvazhi pann" to invoke the mercy of God during childbirth. In "Tolkappiyam", the five landscapes of the Sangam literature had an associated "Pann", each describing the mood of the song associated with that landscape.

The Sangam landscape was classified into five regions to describe the mood of the poem and to describe the intangibles of human emotions. While describing life and romance, the poets employed the background of the natural landscape and used the "pann" specific to that landscape to provide the mood. The "neithal" landscape, which is employed to convey the grief of separation of lovers had the associated "sevvazhi pann" expressing pathos.

Post-Sangam music

Evolution of "panns"

The post-Sangam period, between the third and the fifth centuries CE, Tamil music evolved to a higher sophistication. "Cilappatikaram", written around the fifth century CE, describes music based on logical, systematic and scientific calculations in the arrangements of the dancers on the stage to represent the notes and "panns". "Cilappatikaram" contains several chapters dedicated to music and dance, of which the most famous is the "kanal vari" which is a duet between the hero Kovalan and his lady-love Madavi. "Cilappatikaram" contains musical terminology such as, "azhaku" and "matthirai" referring to the musical pitch and the smallest fraction of an audible sound distinguishable by the human ear. From these evolved the scales. One of the first scales employed by the ancient Tamils was the "mullaippann", a pentatonic scale comprising of the notes "sa ri ga pa da" equivalent to C, D, E, G and A in the western notations. These fully harmonic scales, constitutes the "raga" "Mohanam" in the Carnatic music style. These scales can also be found in many eastern music systems such as the Chinese traditional music.

"Mullaippann" further evolved into "Sempaalai", a scale based on seven notes. The ancient Tamils also derived new "panns" by the process of modal shift of tonic and by the process of reallocating the pitch and beat of the notes. "Cilappatikaram" has an example of this in the chapter "Arangetrukadai", where the "Pann Mercharupalai" is changed to derive a new "Pann". The four original "panns" of "maruthappann", "kurinchippann", "sevvazhi" and "sadari" thus evolved into 103 "panns" with varying characterisations. Some of the "panns" and their equivalent Carnatic ragas were:

* "Panchamam" – "Ahiri"
* "Pazham Panchuram" - "Sankarabharanam"
* "Meharahkkurinchi" - "Neelampari"
* "Pazhanthakka Ragam" - "Aarabi"
* "Kurinchi" - "Malahari"
* "Natta Ragam" – "Panthuvarali"
* "Inthalam" - "Nathanamakriya"
* "Thakkesi" - "Kambhoji"
* "Kausikam" - "Bhairavi"
* "Nattappadai" – "Gambiranattai"

Musical instruments

"Cilappatikaram" makes reference to five types of instruments: "Tolkaruvi" (lit. 'skin instruments' = percussion), "Tulaikaruvi" (lit. 'holed instruments' = wind instruments), "Narambukaruvi" (stringed instruments), "Midatrukaruvi" (vocalists) and "Kanchakaruvi" (gongs and cymbals). The flute and the "yaazh" were the most popular instruments, while there were numerous kinds of percussion instruments suited for various occasions. "Cilappatikaram" also contains detailed instructions on the art of tuning and playing the "yaazh".

Devotional period

Between the fifth and the sixth centuries the Tamil literature was dominated by a moralistic age during which a number of literary works of didactic nature were produced. These poets did not attach much importance to music in their compositions, being more concerned with ethics and morals of the people. However the underlying musical culture was not forgotten. For example "Tirukkural" contains numerous allusions to music and the enjoyment of music. One famous example is the "kural" compares unfavourably the sweetness of the flute and the "yaazh" with the voice of children.


Tamil music revived with the advent of the Saiva and Vaishnava saints who composed thousands of religious hymns in popular language to spread their faith among common people. Saivite nayanmars such as Appar, Thirugnana Sambanthar and Sundarar used the ancient "panns" to enable people to sing them in Temples. The Saiva "Tevarams" and the Vaishna "Naalayira Divyap Prabhandhams" were instrumental in the revival and the popularisation of Tamil music. In addition to the "panns" for the melody, the "Tevaram" poems used "santham" (rhythm) such as "thaana-thana-thaanaa-thanaa" in their lyrics, providing a complete musical experience to the listener.

The traditional of religious singing continued for many centuries during which singers known as "Othuvars" sang the "Tevaram" songs in temples. The musical knowledge and skills were orally passed on through generations.


In the fifteenth century poet Arunagirinathar composed a series of poems known as "Thiruppugazh". Arunagirinathar represents a remarkable blend of Tamil literary genius, a high degree of devotion to Murugan and a musical expertise. Arunagirinathar was one of the first poet to set all his compositions to reverberating music in the style of "Santham" which means setting the verses within a certain length to conform with rhythm ("thala"). Arunagirinathar was the pioneer in the art of setting his poems to the sweet sounds of music. Just like the seven octaves in music, Arunagirinathar, is known as a "santhakkavi" – musical poet, utilises certain repetitive phrases rhythmically to achieve movement and colour in his poems. By combining the Tamil hard or soft consonants and long or short vowels in different ways, Arunagirinathar produces hundreds of compound rhythmic words such as, "tatta", "taatta", "tantha", "thaantha", "thaiya", "thanna", "thaana", "thanana", etc . At the beginning of each poem in the "Thiruppugazh", Arunagirinathar gives the rhythm notations.


ee also

* Sangam literature
* Tamil literature
* History of Tamil Nadu
* Carnatic music
* Dance forms of Tamil Nadu
* Naattupurapaattu

External links

* [ TamilNation]

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