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Topics in Sangam literature
Sangam literature
Agattiyam Tolkāppiyam
Eighteen Greater Texts
Eight Anthologies
Aiṅkurunūṟu Akanāṉūṟu
Puṟanāṉūṟu Kalittokai
Kuṟuntokai Natṟiṇai
Paripāṭal Patiṟṟuppattu
Ten Idylls
Tirumurukāṟṟuppaṭai Kuṟiñcippāṭṭu
Malaipaṭukaṭām Maturaikkāñci
Mullaippāṭṭu Neṭunalvāṭai
Paṭṭiṉappālai Perumpāṇāṟṟuppaṭai
Poruṇarāṟṟuppaṭai Ciṟupāṇāṟṟuppaṭai
Related topics
Sangam Sangam landscape
Tamil history from Sangam literature Ancient Tamil music
Eighteen Lesser Texts
Nālaṭiyār Nāṉmaṇikkaṭikai
Iṉṉā Nāṟpatu Iṉiyavai Nāṟpatu
Kār Nāṟpatu Kaḷavaḻi Nāṟpatu
Aintiṇai Aimpatu Tiṉaimoḻi Aimpatu
Aintinai Eḻupatu Tiṇaimālai Nūṟṟaimpatu
Tirukkuṟaḷ Tirikaṭukam
Ācārakkōvai Paḻamoḻi Nāṉūṟu
Ciṟupañcamūlam Mutumoḻikkānci
Elāti Kainnilai

Tolkāppiyam, also romanised as Tholkaappiyam (Tamil: தொல்காப்பியம், lit. "ancient poem"[1]), is the most ancient extant Tamil grammar text and the oldest extant long work of Tamil literature.[2][3] The surviving manuscripts of the Tolkappiyam consists of three books (atikaram), each with nine chapters (iyal), with a cumulative total of 1,610 (483+463+664) sutras in the nūṛpā meter.[4][note 1] It is a comprehensive text on grammar, and includes sutras on orthography, phonology, etymology, morphology, semantics, prosody, sentence structure and the significance of context in language.[4]

The Tolkappiyam is difficult to date. Some in the Tamil tradition place the text in the mythical second sangam, variously in 1st millennium BCE or earlier.[6] Scholars place the text much later and believe the text evolved and expanded over a period of time. According to Nadarajah Devapoopathy the earliest layer of the Tolkappiyam was likely composed between the 2nd and 1st century BCE,[7] and the extant manuscript versions fixed by about the 5th century CE.[8] The Tolkappiyam Ur-text likely relied on some unknown even older literature.[9]

Iravatham Mahadevan dates the Tolkappiyam to no earlier than the 2nd century CE, as it mentions the puḷḷi being an integral part of Tamil script. The puḷḷi (a diacritical mark to distinguish pure consonants from consonants with inherent vowels) only became prevalent in Tamil epigraphs after the 2nd century CE.[10] According to linguist Prof. S. Agesthialingam, Tolkappiyam contains many later interpolations, and the language shows many deviations consistent with late old Tamil (similar to Cilappatikaram), rather than the early old Tamil poems of Eṭṭuttokai and Pattuppāṭṭu.[11]

The Tolkappiyam contains aphoristic verses arranged into three books – the Eluttatikaram ("Eluttu" meaning "letter, phoneme"), the Sollatikaram ("Sol" meaning "Sound, word") and the Porulatikaram ("Porul" meaning "subject matter", i.e. prosody, rhetoric, poetics).[12] The Tolkappiyam includes examples to explain its rules, and these examples provide indirect information about the ancient Tamil culture, sociology, and linguistic geography. It is first mentioned by name in Iraiyanar's Akapporul – a 7th- or 8th-century text – as an authoritative reference, and the Tolkappiyam remains the authoritative text on Tamil grammar.[13][14][note 2]


The word Tolkāppiyam is a attribute-based composite word, with tol meaning "ancient, old", and kappiyam meaning "book, text, poem, kavya"; together, the title has been translated as "ancient book",[16] "ancient poem",[17] or "old poem".[18] The word 'kappiyam' is of Indo-Aryan origin from the Sanskrit Kavya.[19]

According to Kamil Zvelebil – a Tamil literature and history scholar, Tamil purists tend to reject this Sanskrit-style etymology and offer "curious" alternatives. One of these breaks it into three "tol-kappu-iyanratu", meaning "ancient protection [of language]".[16] An alternate etymology that has been proposed by a few purists is that the name of the work derives from the author's name Tolkāppiyan, but this is a disputed assumption because neither the author(s) nor centuries in which this masterpiece was composed are known.[16]


The dating of the Tolkappiyam is difficult, much debated, and it remains contested and uncertain.[20][21] Proposals range between 5,320 BCE and the 8th century CE.[21][22]

The tradition and some Indian scholars favor an early date for its composition, before the common era, and state that it is the work of one person associated with sage Agastya. Other Indian scholars, and non-Indian scholars such as Kamil Zvelebil, prefer to date it not as a single entity but in parts or layers.[23] The Tolkappiyam manuscript versions that have survived into the modern age were fixed by about the 5th century CE, according to Zvelebil.[20][23][24] Scholars reject traditional datings based on three sangams and the myth of great floods because there is no verifiable evidence in its favor, and the available evidence based on linguistics, epigraphy, Sangam literature and other Indian texts suggest a much later date.[25] The disagreements now center around divergent dates between the 3rd century BCE and 8th century CE.[20][25][26]

The datings proposed by contemporary scholars is based on a combination of evidence such as:

  • comparison of grammar taught in Tolkappiyam versus the grammar found in the oldest known Tamil-Brahmi and old-Tamil inscriptions[6][20]
  • comparison of grammar taught in Tolkappiyam versus the grammar found in the oldest known Tamil texts (Sangam era);[20][27] this evidence covers items such as phonemic shapes, palatals, and the evolution in the use of compounds[28]
  • comparison of grammar taught in Tolkappiyam versus the grammar taught and found in the oldest known Sanskrit texts;[29] this includes tracing verses and phrases found in the Tolkappiyam that borrow, translate or closely paraphrase verses and phrases found in the works of ancient and influential Sanskrit scholars such as Panini, Patanjali, Manu, Kautilya, Bharata and Vatsyayana.[20]
  • comparison of poetry and prose rules taught in Tolkappiyam versus the actual early Tamil poetry and prose[30]
  • Prakrit and Sanskrit loan words (vadacol),[31] and inconsistencies between the sutras of the Tolkappiyam[20]

Dates proposed

  • In his book published in 1925, T. R. Sesha Iyengar – a scholar of Dravidian literature and history, states that the Tolkappiyam while explaining grammar, uses terms for various forms of marriage in the Kalaviyal chapter. Elsewhere it mentions terms related to caste. Such ideas about different weddings and caste, states Iyengar, must be the influence of Sanskrit and Indo-Aryan ideologies. He disagrees with those European scholars who refuse to "concede high antiquity to the Dravidian civilization", and as a compromise suggests the Tolkappiyam was composed "before the Christian era".[32]
  • In post-Independence India, the Tamil scholar Gift Siromoney states that the Tolkappiyam should be dated based on the chronology of TALBI-P system based inscriptions, which is difficult to date. He suggests that this could be around the time of Ashoka, or centuries later.[33]
  • Iravatham Mahadevan dates the Tolkappiyam to no earlier than the 2nd century CE, as it mentions the puḷḷi being an integral part of Tamil script. The puḷḷi a diacritical mark to distinguish pure consonants from consonants with inherent vowels only became prevalent in Tamil epigraphs after the 2nd century CE.[34]
  • V. S. Rajam, a linguist specialised in Old Tamil, in her book A Reference Grammar of Classical Tamil Poetry dates it to pre-fifth century CE.[35]
  • Vaiyapuri Pillai, the author of the Tamil lexicon, dated Tolkappiyam to not earlier than the 5th or 6th century CE.[20][36]
  • Kamil V. Zvelebil dates the earliest layer, the core Ur-text of the Tolkappiyam to 150 BCE or later.[37] In his 1974 review, Zvelebil places Book 1 and 2 of the Tolkappiyam in the 100 BCE to 250 CE period.[38] Rest of the sections and sutras of the text to centuries between 3rd and 5th century CE. The extant manuscripts of Tolkappiyam are based on the "final redaction" of the 5th century, states Zvelebil.[39]
  • Takanobu Takahashi, a Japanese Indologist, states that the Tolkappiyam has several layers with the oldest dating to 1st or 2nd century CE, and the newest and the final redaction dating to the 5th or 6th century CE.[25]
  • A C Burnell, a 19th-century Indologist who contributed to the study of Dravidian languages was of the view that the Tolkappiyam could not be dated to "much later than the eighth century."[40]
  • Herman Tieken, a Dutch scholar, states that the Tolkappiyam dates from the 9th century CE at the earliest. He arrives at this conclusion by treating the Tolkappiyam and the anthologies of Sangam literature as part of a 9th-century Pandyan project to raise the prestige of Tamil as a classical language equal to Sanskrit, and assigning new dates to the traditionally accepted dates for a vast section of divergent literature (Sangam literature, post-Sangam literature and Bhakti literature like Tevaram).[26] Hermen Tieken's work has, however, been criticised on fundamental, methodological, and other grounds by G.E. Ferro-Luzzi, George Hart and Anne Monius.[41][42][43]


There is no firm evidence to assign the authorship of this treatise to any one author. Tholkapiyam, some traditionally believe, was written by a single author named Tolkappiyar, a disciple of Vedic sage Agastya mentioned in the Rigveda (1500–1200 BCE). According to the traditional legend, the original grammar was called Agathiam written down by sage Agastya, but it went missing after a great deluge. His student Tolkappiyar was asked to compile Tamil grammar, which is Tolkappiyam.[44][45] In Tamil historical sources such as the 14th-century influential commentary on Tolkappiyam by Naccinarkkiniyar, the author is stated to be Tiranatumakkini (alternate name for Tolkappiyan), the son of a Brahmin rishi named Camatakkini.[46] The earliest mention of Agastya-related Akattiyam legends are found in texts approximately dated to the 8th or 9th century.[47]

According to Kamil Zvelebil, the earliest sutras of the Tolkappiyam were composed by author(s) who lived before the "majority of extant" Sangam literature, who clearly knew Pāṇini and followed Patanjali works on Sanskrit grammar because some verses of Tolkappiyam – such as T-Col 419 andT-Elutt 83 – seem to be borrowed and exact translation of verses of Patanjali's bhasya and ideas credited to more ancient Panini. Further, the author(s) lived after Patanjali because various sections of Tolkappiyam show the same ideas for grammatically structuring a language and it uses borrowed Indo-European words found in Panini and Patanjali works to explain its ideas.[28] According to Hartmut Scharfe and other scholars, the phonetic and phonemic sections of the Tolkappiyam shows considerable influence of Vedic Pratishakhyas, while its rules for nominal compounds follow those in Patanjali's mahabhasya, though there is also evidence of innovations. The author(s) had access and expertise of the ancient Sanskrit works on grammar and language.[48][49]

According to Zvelebil, another Tamil tradition believes that the earliest layer by its author(s) – Tolkappiyan – may have been a Jaina scholar, who knew aintiram (pre-Paninian grammatical system) and lived in south Kerala, but "we do not know of any definite data concerning the original author or authors". This traditional belief, according to Vaiyapuri Pillai, is supported by a few Jaina Prakrit words such as patimaiyon found in the Tolkappiyam.[50]


The Tolkappiyam deals with ilakkanam (grammar) in three books (atikaram), each with nine chapters (iyal) of different sizes. The text has a cumulative total of 1,610 (Eluttatikaram 483 + Sollatikaram 463 + Porulatikaram 664) sutras in the nūṛpā meter, though some versions of its surviving manuscripts have a few less.[4][5] The sutra format provides a distilled summary of the rules, one that is not easy to read or understand; commentaries are necessary for the proper interpretation and understanding of Tolkappiyam.[51]

Book 1

"Eluttu" means "sound, letter, phoneme", and this book of the Tolkappiyam covers the sounds of the Tamil language, how they are produced (phonology).[52] It includes punarcci (lit. "joining, copulation") which is combination of sounds, orthography, graphemic and phonetics with sounds as they are produced and listened to.[52] The phonemic inventory it includes consists of 5 long vowels, 5 short vowels, and 17 consonants. The articulatory descriptions in Tolkappiyam are incomplete, indicative of a proto-language. It does not, for example, distinguish between retroflex and non-retroflex consonants, states Thomas Lehmann.[51] The phonetic and phonemic sections of the first book show the influence of Vedic Pratisakhyas, states Hartmut Scharfe, but with some differences. For example, unlike the Pratisakhyas and the later Tamil, the first book of Tolkappiyam does not treat /ṭ/ and /ṇ/ as retroflex.[53]

Book 2

"Sol" meaning "word", and the second book deals with "etymology, morphology, semantics and syntax", states Zvelebil.[52] The sutras cover compounds, some semantic and lexical issues. It also mentions the twelve dialectical regions of Tamil speaking people, which suggests the author(s) had a keen sense of observation and inclusiveness for Old Tamil's linguistic geography.[52] According to Peter Scharf, the sutras here are inspired by the work on Sanskrit grammar by Panini, but it uses Tamil terminology and adds technical innovations.[49] Verb forms and the classification of nominal compounds in the second book show the influence of Patanjali's Mahabhasya.[53]

Book 3

"Porul" meaning "subject matter", and this book deals with the prosody (yappu) and rhetoric (ani) of Old Tamil.[54] It is here, that the book covers the two genres found in classical Tamil literature: akam (love, erotics, interior world) and puram (war, society, exterior world). The akam is subdivided into kalavu (premarital love) and karpu (marital love).[54] It also deals with dramaturgy, simile, prosody and tradition. According to Zvelebil, this arrangement suggests that the entire Tolkappiyam was likely a guide for bardic poets, where the first two books led to this third on how to compose their songs.[54] The third book's linking of literature (ilakkiyam) to the grammatical rules of the first and the second book (ilakkanam) created a symbiotic relationship between the two.[51] The literary theory of Tolkappiyam, according to Peter Scharf, borrows from Sanskrit literary theory texts.[49]

Epigraphical studies, such as those by Mahadevan, show that ancient Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions found in South India and dated to between 3rd century BCE and 4th century CE had three different grammatical form. Only one of them is assumed in the Tolkappiyam.[51] The language of the Sangam literature is same as the one described in Tolkappiyam, except in some minor respects.[49]


The Tolkappiyam is a collection of aphoristic verses in the nūṛpā meter.[4] It is unintelligible without a commentary.[51] Tamil scholars have written commentaries on it, over the centuries:

Commentaries on Tolkappiyam
Author[49] Date[49] Notes
Ilampuranar 10th to 12th century Full: all verses[55]
Cenavaraiyar 13th or 14th century Partial: 2nd book[55]
Peraciriyar 13th century Partial: 1st and 2nd book[55]
Naccinarkkiniyar 14th century Partial: 1st, 2nd and part 3rd book[55]
Tayvaccilaiyar 16th century Partial: 2nd book[55]
Kallatanar 15th to 17th century[49][55] Partial: 2nd book[55]

The commentary by Ilampuranar dated to the 11th or 12th century CE is the most comprehensive and probably the best, states Zvelebil.[56] The commentary by Senavaraiyar deals only with the second book Sollathikaram.[55] The commentary by Perasiriyar which is heavily indebted to the Nannūl, frequently quotes from the Dandiyalankaram and Yapparunkalam, the former being a standard medieval rhetorica and the latter being a detailed treatise on Tamil prosody. Naccinarkiniyar's commentary, being a scholar of both Tamil and Sanskrit, quotes from Parimelalakar's works.[55]


There are two verses given in support of Tholkappiar's religious outlook.[57] Some made controversial and unconfirmed observation in Sangam poems that there is relatively meager reference given to religion in general. In the akam songs, Tholkappiar has made reference to deities in the different land divisions: Thirumal for Mullai, Murugan for Kurinji, Vendhan for Maarutham, Kadalon for Neithal and Kotravai for Paalai.[citation needed]

Alexander Dubyanskiy, veteran Tamil scholar from Moscow State University stated, "I am sure that Tolkappiyam is a work which demanded not only vast knowledge and a lot of thinking but a considerable creative skill from its composer." Dubyanskiy also said that the authority of the text was undeniable: "It is a literary and cultural monument of great importance."[58]

See also


  1. ^ The palm-leaf manuscripts and commentaries on the text vary slightly in the total number of verse-sutras; they are all about 1,610.[5]
  2. ^ According to Thomas Lehmann, the Tolkappiyam rules are followed and exemplified in Old Tamil (pre-700 CE) literature. The Middle Tamil (700-1600 CE) and Modern Tamil (post-1600 CE) have additional distinct grammatical characteristics.[15] Causative stems of verb bases are "lexical in Old Tamil, morphological in Middle Tamil, and syntactic in Modern Tamil", for example, states Lehmann. Nevertheless, many features of Middle and Modern Tamil are anchored in the Old Tamil of Tolkappiyam.[15]


  1. ^ Kamil Zvelebil 1973, p. 131.
  2. ^ Kamil Zvelebil 1973, pp. 131–133.
  3. ^ David Shulman 2016, p. 28.
  4. ^ a b c d Kamil Zvelebil 1973, pp. 131–132 with footnotes.
  5. ^ a b Hartmut Scharfe 1977, pp. 178–179 with footnote 2.
  6. ^ a b Takanobu Takahashi 1995, pp. 16–17.
  7. ^ Nadarajah, Devapoopathy (1994). Love in Sanskrit and Tamil Literature: A Study of Characters and Nature, 200 B.C.-A.D. 500. Motilal Banarsidass Publ. ISBN 978-81-208-1215-4.
  8. ^ Kamil Zvelebil 1973, pp. 138–146 with footnotes, Quote: "this fact would give us approximately the 5th cent. AD as the earliest date of Porulatikaram, and as the date of the final redaction of the Tolkappiyam.".
  9. ^ Kamil Zvelebil 1973, pp. 138–139 with footnotes.
  10. ^ Mahadevan, I. (2014). Early Tamil Epigraphy - From the Earliest Times to the Sixth century C.E., 2nd Edition. p. 271.
  11. ^ S. Agesthialingam, A grammar of Old Tamil (with special reference to Patirruppattu), Annamalai University, (1979), pXIV
  12. ^ Kamil Zvelebil 1973, pp. 131–134 with footnotes, 150.
  13. ^ Kamil Zvelebil 1973, pp. 131–134 with footnotes.
  14. ^ Hartmut Scharfe 1977, pp. 179–180.
  15. ^ a b Thomas Lehmann (2015). Sanford B. Steever (ed.). The Dravidian Languages. Routledge. pp. 75–76. ISBN 978-1-136-91164-4.
  16. ^ a b c Kamil Zvelebil 1973, pp. 131–132 with footnote 1.
  17. ^ Bartholomaeus Ziegenbalg (2010). Tamil Language for Europeans: Ziegenbalg's Grammatica Damulica. Otto Harrassowitz Verlag. pp. 1–2. ISBN 978-3-447-06236-7.
  18. ^ Willem van Reijen; Willem G. Weststeijn (1999). Subjectivity. Rodopi. pp. 321–322. ISBN 90-420-0728-1.
  19. ^ Sir Ralph Lilley Turner - A comparative dictionary to the Indo-Aryan languages, Entry 3110 kāˊvyaāvikā&searchhws=yes
  20. ^ a b c d e f g h Kamil Zvelebil 1973, pp. 138–146 with footnotes.
  21. ^ a b The Date of the Tolkappiyam: A Retrospect." Annals of Oriental Research (Madras), Silver Jubilee Volume: 292–317
  22. ^ Takanobu Takahashi 1995, pp. 16–17, Quote=The date of Tol[kappiyam] has been variously proposed as lying between 5320 B.C. and the 8th Cent. A.D..
  23. ^ a b Ramaswamy, Vijaya (1993). "Women and Farm Work in Tamil Folk Songs". Social Scientist. 21 (9/11): 113–129. doi:10.2307/3520429. JSTOR 3520429.
  24. ^ Takanobu Takahashi 1995, pp. 16–19.
  25. ^ a b c Takahashi, Takanobu (1995). "2. Erudite works". Tamil Love Poetry & Poetics. Leiden; New York; Cologne: Brill. p. 18. ISBN 90-04-10042-3. These agreements may probably advance the lower limit of the date for Tol[kappiyam], but do not mean more recently than the 5th Cent. A.D., as suggested by some critics such as S. Vaiyapuri Pillai [...]
  26. ^ a b Tieken, Herman Joseph Hugo. 2001. Kāvya in South India: old Tamil Caṅkam poetry. Groningen: Egbert Forsten.
  27. ^ Takanobu Takahashi 1995, pp. 16–18.
  28. ^ a b Kamil Zvelebil 1973, pp. 142–146 with footnotes.
  29. ^ Takanobu Takahashi 1995, pp. 16, 18–19.
  30. ^ Takanobu Takahashi 1995, pp. 16, 20–22.
  31. ^ Kamil Zvelebil 1991.
  32. ^ Sesha Iyengar, T.R. (1925), Dravidian India, Asian Educational Services, New Delhi, reprinted 1995, pp 155–157
  33. ^ Gift Siromoney (1983), Origin of the Tamil-Brahmi script, Seminar on "ORIGIN EVOLUTION AND REFORM OF THE TAMIL SCRIPT", pp. 21–29, The Institute of Traditional Cultures, University Buildings, Madras-600005
  34. ^ Mahadevan, I. (2014). Early Tamil Epigraphy - From the Earliest Times to the Sixth century C.E., 2nd Edition. p. 271.
  35. ^ Rajam, V. S. 1992. A Reference Grammar of Classical Tamil Poetry: 150 B.C.–pre-Fifth/Sixth Century A.D. Memoirs of the American philosophical society, vol. 199. Philadelphia, Pa: American Philosophical Society, p. 7
  36. ^ Vaiyapuri Pillai, S. 1956. History of Tamil language and literature; beginning to 1000 A.D.. Madras: New Century Book House.
  37. ^ Kamil Zvelebil 1973, pp. 137 and 147, Quote (p. 137): "As we will see later, Tolkkapiyam, the core of which may be assigned to pre-Christian era, consists perhaps of many layers, some of which may be much earlier than others", (p. 147): "Thus, the nuclear portions of Tolkappiyam were probably born sometimes in the 2nd or 1st century BC, but hardly before 150 BC.".
  38. ^ Kamil Zvelebil 1974, pp. 9–10.
  39. ^ Kamil Zvelebil 1973, pp. 138–147 with footnotes
  40. ^ "It is thus impossible to put the original text much later than the eighth century, for by the tenth century the whole Pāṇḍiya kingdom had fallen under the orthodox Coḷas." Burnell, A. C. (1975). "On the Aindra School of Sanskrit Grammarians: Their place in the Sanskrit and Subordinate Literatures". Mangalore: Basel Mission Book and Tract Depository: 8–9. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  41. ^ George Hart III. "Review of Tieken's Kavya in South India." Journal of the American Oriental Institute 124:1. pp. 180–184. 2004.
  42. ^ G.E. Ferro-Luzzi. "Tieken, Herman, Kavya in South India (Book review). Asian Folklore Studies. June 2001. pp. 373–374
  43. ^ Anne E. Monius, Book review, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 61, No. 4 (Nov., 2002), pp. 1404–1406
  44. ^ book titled "Tholkappiyar Kaalam", Madhivanan
  45. ^ Zvelebil, Kamil. 1973. The smile of Murugan on Tamil literature of South India. Leiden: Brill.
  46. ^ Kamil Zvelebil 1973, p. 136.
  47. ^ Kamil Zvelebil 1973, pp. 136–137.
  48. ^ Hartmut Scharfe 1977, pp. 180–182.
  49. ^ a b c d e f g Peter Scharf (2013). Keith Allan (ed.). The Oxford Handbook of the History of Linguistics. Oxford University Press. pp. 253–254. ISBN 978-0-19-164343-9.
  50. ^ Kamil Zvelebil 1973, p. 137.
  51. ^ a b c d e Thomas Lehmann (2015). Sanford B. Steever (ed.). The Dravidian Languages. Routledge. pp. 76–78. ISBN 978-1-136-91164-4.
  52. ^ a b c d Kamil Zvelebil 1974, p. 132.
  53. ^ a b Hartmut Scharfe 1977, pp. 180–181.
  54. ^ a b c Kamil Zvelebil 1974, p. 133.
  55. ^ a b c d e f g h i Kamil Zvelebil 1973, pp. 134–136.
  56. ^ Kamil Zvelebil 1973, p. 134.
  57. ^ Dr.C.R.Krishnamurti. "2. The Sangam Period".
  58. ^ Karthik Madhavan. "Tolkappiyam is not dependent on Sanskrit sources: Tamil scholar". The Hindu.


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