Hinduism Tamil Caṅkam Religion
Alexander M. Dubyanskiy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0116


The initial stage of Tamil cultural and literary tradition is connected with the so-called Caṅkam, a poetic academy held by kings of the Paṇṭiya dynasty. The term was borrowed from Buddhist or Jaina practice, in which the word saṅgha signifies a congregation of monks, scholars, or disciples. The literary output of the academy traditionally is called Caṅkam poetry, and the time when the academy supposedly flourished (the first four centuries of the Christian era) is usually called the Caṅkam age or Caṅkam epoch. The corpus of poetry that came down to us consists of two collections called Eṭṭuttokai (Eight anthologies) and Pattuppāṭṭu (Ten songs). It is not a religious poetry (in the sense of praising gods), with the exception of the anthology Paripāṭal and the poem Tirumurukāṟṟupaṭai, but the religion of the age, the main mythological figures, and the forms of worship are reflected by it. On close inspection, many poems can be associated with religious rituals or have roots in a certain cultic activity. A notion of the sacred is also present. It reveals itself particularly in connection with a certain energy inherent in people and things. The poetry of the Caṅkam age, though having indigenous roots, demonstrates its acquaintance with many religious ideas, rituals, and mythological stories that came from the North from Sanskrit and Prakrit sources. They are mostly Brahmanical, but Buddhism and Jainism were well known too. Three mythological persons stand out prominently in the poetry: Murukaṉ, Tirumāl, and (much less) the goddess Koṟṟavai. The problem of the correlation between local and Aryan elements in their mythology is often discussed, but there is no doubt that they reflect the process of the amalgamation of both and combine features of local divinities and more general figures of the Hindu pantheon, namely Skanda, Vishnu/Krishna, and Durga.

General Overviews

It was Friedhelm Hardy who, in Hardy 1983 (cited under Māl/Tirumāl/Māyōṉ), expressed the opinion that critical and comprehensive research on the early Tamil religion is urgently needed. However, there are still only a few special research works dealing exclusively with the Caṅkam religion. Mudaliar 1964 gives a general sketch of it. Subbiah 1991 (cited under the Notion of the Sacred) analyzes roots of Tamil religious thought resting on the texts of Caṅkam anthologies. Otherwise essays on religion in the Caṅkam age are usually included in works devoted to the early Tamil culture. Descriptions of religious life and mythological figures of the Caṅkam epoch are presented as a part of a general social-historical picture or in the context of special topics: Tamil literature, performing arts, nature. Such are Kanakasabhai 1966, a presentation of the main aspects of the ancient Tamil society; Singaravelu 1966, which gives practically the same picture; Pillay 1975, a more detailed panorama of the ancient Tamil society; and Subrahmanian 1997, a many-sided description of life in Tamilnadu in the first half of the first millennium with special sections devoted to religious matters. Thani Nayagam 1966 approaches religious beliefs from the point of view of the relationship of tamils with nature. Sivabalan 1996 looks into the religious aspect of one of Tamil’s poetic anthologies.

  • Kanakasabhai, V. The Tamils Eighteen Hundred Years Ago. Madras: Saiva Siddhānta, 1966.

    The first description of the early Tamil society based on texts (Caṅkam and others). A separate chapter summarizes facts concerning religious ideas, cults, and mythological figures. A tendency to idealize the life of the time and to exaggerate features of religious liberty and tolerance is obvious. Originally published in 1904.

  • Mudaliar, Arumuga S. “Concepts of Religion in Caṅkam Literature and in Devotional Literature.” Tamil Culture 11.3 (1964): 252–271.

    Stresses the tolerant character of the religions of the period, enumerates the main mythological figures, and presents those figures in connection with a traditional geographic division of the territory of Tamilnadu into five regions. Gods who are traditionally considered to be the patrons of these regions are viewed as deities of tribes inhabiting them.

  • Pillay, K. K., ed. A Social History of the Tamils. Vol. 1. 2d ed. Madras: University of Madras, 1975.

    The chapter on religion consists of an accurate listing of all facts concerning gods, rites, folk beliefs, and superstitions. Indicates trends of totemism. The book is useful as a source of information about old Tamil society and culture.

  • Singaravelu, S. Social Life of the Tamils: The Classical Period. Kuala-Lumpur, Malaysia: University of Malaya, Department of Indian Studies, 1966.

    Describes the society of the Caṅkam age; presents data connected with religion and mythology. Good as an introduction to the topic.

  • Sivabalan, G. “Religious Beliefs among Ancient Tamils as Portrayed in Patiṟṟuppattu.” Journal Pengajian India 6 (1996): 93–106.

    A description of gods and mythological figures, including ghosts and demons, as reflected in a single anthology from the collection Eṭṭuttokai. Can be useful as a source of information.

  • Subrahmanian, Nainar. Tamil Social History. Vol. 1. Chennai: Institute of Asian Studies, 1997.

    Follows the pattern of Singaravelu 1966 and Pillay 1975. Contains a section devoted to religion. Pays more attention to Buddhism and Jainism in the Tamil country. Also can be used as a reference book.

  • Thani Nayagam, Xavier S. Landscape and Poetry: A Study of Nature in Classical Tamil Poetry. Bombay: Asia Publishing House, 1966.

    Describes religious beliefs, the gods, and rituals from the point of view of their connection with nature. The system of five regions (aintiṇai) and its ties with gods is presented. Nature details (plants, flowers, animals) are given as symbols of this or that god. Animistic character of Tamil religion is formulated.

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