Tamil language has the special claim of being at once classical like Sanskrit, Greek or Latin, and vigorous and modern like the modern Indian languages. Its history can be traced back to the age of Tolkappiyam the earliest extant Tamil grammar generally to 500 B.C. Among the Dravidian language it is least influenced be 'sanskrit' though there is a certain degree of influence.
The earliest extant literature of the Tamils is called Sangam literature and it is dated between 500 BC. and 200 A.D. Though a considerable part of the early poetry has been lost, some of the bards and patrons decided to preserve apart of it in certain anthologies (about 4th century A.D.). These are the Ten Idylls (Pattuppattu) and the Eight Anthologies (Ettuttohai). Four hundred and seventy three poets, of whom thirty are women, have been identified. These are mainly classified into two. Akam or esoteric dealing with love and Puram or exoteric dealing with war.
In this period, Tamil literature was considerably bound by literary conventions. The poets were keen on keeping up the tradition. The land was treated as five regions viz. mountains, forests, fields, coasts and deserts and the theme of love in five aspects viz. union, patience, sulking, wailing and separation. The poet dealing with a certain aspect of love restricted himself to a particular region, season, hour, flora and fauna. These literary conventions are explained in Tolkappiyam.
Purananuru is 400 verses on Puram themes. It serves as a window on the Tamil people 2000 years ago. Agananuru is 400 poems on love themes. The length of these poems varies from 13 to 37 lines. There are other collections like Natrinai, Kuruntogai, Ain-kurunuru, Paripadal, etc., which are quite well known.
Tiruvalluvar's Tirukkural is acclaimed to be the greatest Tamil classic. It expresses the most profound thoughts on the many problems of life. Each verse is a couplet composed with great economy of words. The book is divided into 133 chapters each containing 10 verses. The chapters are arranged in three books dealing with virtue, wealth and pleasure.
Round about the 3rd century A.D., Tamil produced two epics Silappadhikaram and Manimekhalai which are considered twin epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The author of Silappadhikaram was the son of a Chera King liango Adikal. The title means the "Story of the Anklet" and the epic describes the moving story of Kannagi.
Manimekhalai is the daughter of Madhavi and Kovalan, the hero of Silappadhikaram. Kamba Ramayanam is an immortal classic in Tamil. Though Kambar based his work on the Sanskrit Ramayana of Valmiki, his rendering shows that he was a supreme artist. It is different in plot, in construction and in the delineation of character. Kambaramayanam runs to 10,368 verses.
Tamil is rich in devotional literature Nayanmars are the exponents of Saivaism and Alwars that of Vaishnavism. Thiru gnanasambandar, Thirunavukkarasar, Sundarar and Manikkavacakar are the four great Nayanmars. The great Alwars are 12 in number. Kulasekhara Alwar and Andal are specially remembered. There are 5 major kaviyams and 5 minor kaviyams in Tamil. Jain and Buddhist works are in abundance in the language.
Coming to the period between 13th & 18th centuries, we notice Muslim and Christian impact on Tamil literature. Umaruppulavar has composed a long poem of 5000 verses on the life of prophet Muhammed. The Christian influence began with the Portuguese and continued with the Danes, the Dutch, the French and the British. Beschi, Caldwell, Winslow and Pope have made significant contributions to Tamil. The Italian priest Beschi (1680-1747) composed the magnificent poetical work Tembavani (The Insatiable Beauty) on the life of St. Joseph. Vedanayagam Pillai and Krishna Pillai are two other Christian poets.
Twentieth century has produced many talented men of letters in various fields, Poetry, Prose, Drama, Novel, Biography, Short Story etc. Dr. Swaminatha Iyer unearthed many literary works and edited them. Swami Vadachalam, Thiru V. Kalyanasundera Mudaliar and V. O. Chidambaram Pillai are great writers of the modern period. However, the greatest poet of modern Tamil is Subramania Bharati whose patriotic poems have inspired thousands of readers in his time. Personal freedom, national liberty and the fundamental equality of all men find eloquent expression in his verses. In some of his poems like Kuyilpattu (Song of the Cuckoo) Kannanpattu (Poems on Lord Krishna) or Panchali Sapatham (The Vow of Panchali) we notice a religious perception at work.
Rajam Ayyar, Madhavayya, Pudumaipithan, Kupa, Rajagopalan and Kalki Krishnamoorthi have contributed much to the field of Tamil fiction. These writers along with Bharati ushered in the new epoch of renaissance in Tamil literature.
In the post-Independence period several writers have come to the fore. Among poets, the names of Kulothungan, Ka-Na Subramanyam and C. S. Chellappa may be mentioned. And in fiction the outstanding names are Akilan, jayakanthan, Neela Padmanabhan, Sundararamaswamy, Ashokamitran and Indira Parthasarathy.