The Tholkāppiyam is the oldest available Tamil work on poetics.  It is a general treatise on poetry, since it includes akam and puram poetry and deals with the five branches of grammar as well.

‘Tholkāppiyam represents the group mind and the group personality of the Sangam age’, wrote T.P. Meenakshisundaram.  Tholkāppiyam ‘It is not only one of the finest monuments of human intelligence and intellect preserved in Indian tradition; it is also the first literary expression of the indigenous, pre-Aryan Indian civilization’ it represents the essence and the summary of classical Tamil culture’, writes Kamil Zvelebil, the Czech Tamil scholar. He also adds ‘it is a vision of an entire civilization, highly formalized and made very explicit. All the three books show a mind of extraordinary depth, a rare inwardness, a brilliant expository power, and an ability of crytal-clear formulation’.

Kamil Zvebil writes that Tholkāppiyan was a Jaina scholar, well versed in a pre-Paninian grammatical system called ‘aintiran’ and that he lived in southern Kerala from 3rd – 1st century B.C. A few data support that he was a Jain. First the paayiram (preface) uses the term Patimaiyon which is derived from Jaina Prakrit word and signifies a Jaina ascetic. There are further indications within the text supporting this hypothesis. The classification of lives (jiva) and non-lives (ajiva) agree to the Jaina classification. The description of māthirai (prosodic unit) as being equivalent to கண்ணிமைத்தல் (closing and opening of eyelid) and to கை நொடி (snapping of finger) is supposedly of Jaina origin. The words முன்னிதின் உணர்தோர் is obviously Jaina Acharyas.

Date of Tholkāppiyam: Kamil Zvelebil writes Tholkāppiyam was written over many centuries. The earliest parts of tholkāppiyam were pre-Sangam period. The later parts were written after the 18 Sangam books were written.

Kamil Zvelebil says that the nuclear portions of Tholkāppiyam were born sometime in the 2nd of 1st century B.C., but there were many additions to it for the next few centuries. I. Mahadevan says that the ‘pulli’ doesn’t occur in earlier inscriptions, but only from about 2nd century. A.D. and that Tholkāppiyam is familiar with it and so it must be of  later than the 2nd century A.D. Jesudasan points out to the differences between the rules of language in Tholkāppiyam and the Sangam books and concludes that Tholkāppiyam was much earlier than the classics. Takanobu Takahashi and George Hart are of the opinion that even though some part of Tholkāppiyam were before the classics, some of it were after the classics.

The name ‘Tholkāppiyam’:  Some Tamil scholars disagree with others who believe that the name comes from Sanskrit ‘kāvya’, which was originally proposed by Caldwell and accepted by Western Tamil and Sanskrit scholars.

These Tamil scholars say that it is from the Tamil word ‘kāppu – காப்பு இயன்றது’ which means ‘that which protects’ – in this case, it protects the language by its guidelines.   Another belief is that the book is named after the village ‘Kāppiyakudi’ where Tholkāppiyar lived (Tamil Love Poetry and Poetics’ by Takanobu Takahashi).

Sections of Tholkāppiyam:  Tholkāppiyam in its present day form consists of three parts (அதிகாரம்) – Each part has nine chapters (இயல் ), and the whole has approximately 1600 Sutras (the total number varies according to commentators) of varying lengths, divided into 27 chapters.  The first part is எழுத்ததிகாரம் (part on letters) and it deals with phonetics, phonology, graphemics etc. The second part is சொல்லதிகாரம் (the part about words) and it is dedicated to etymology, morphology, semantics and syntax. The third part is பொருளதிகாரம் (the part dealing with the subject matter), and it consists of nine chapters.  It is interesting to note that Nakkirar uses the word ”பால்’ (பொருட்பால்) instead of the Sanskrit derived work அதிகாரம்.

1.நூல் மரபு
2.மொழி மரபு
5.தொகை மரபு
7.உயிர் மயங்கியல்
8.புள்ளி மயங்கியல்
9.குற்றியலுகரப் புணரியல்

2.வேற்றுமை இயல்
3.வேற்றுமை மயங்கியல்
4.விளி மரபு
6.வினை இயல்
7.இடை இயல்
8.உரி இயல்

1. அகத்திணை இயல் – Chapter on love themes in general
2. புறத்திணை இயல் – chaper on non-love (heroic and non-love) themes
3. களவு இயல் – Chapter on secret or pre-marital love
4. கற்பு இயல் – Chapter on post-marital love
5. பொருள் இயல் – Chapter on supplementary aspects of love
6. மெய்ப்பாட்டு இயல் – Chapter on the manifestation of moods
7. உவமை இயல் – Chapter on simile
8. செய்யுள் இயல் – Chapter on composition
9. மரபு இயல் – Chapter on traditional usage of words

Tholkāppiyam deals with all five branches of grammar (although this classification was established much later) –எழுத்து (sounds and letter),  சொல் (words), பொருள் (subject matter of poetry),   யாப்பு (prosody) and அணி (rhetoric). The authority of the grammar has been supreme and has exercised great influence on subsequent grammars.

Commentaries on Tholkāppiyam:

இளம்பூரணார் – was probably a Jaina scholar who lived in the 11th or 12th century A.D. His style is simple, clear and lucid. He is referred to as உரையாசிரியர் and his commentary is considered the best one. It has come down to us intact.

சேனாவரையர் – his commentary pertains only to சொல்லதிகாரம். It is dateable to 1275 A.D. This author contests the view of Pavananthi, and also questions some of the conclusions of இளம்பூரணார்.

பேராசிரியர் – may be placed between இளம்பூரணார் and நச்சினார்க்கினியர் in respect to his style. His style is neither too simple or lucid as Ilampuranaar nor as artful and prolix as நச்சினார்க்கினியர். His date maybe 13th century, since he is heavily indebted to Nannool, a standard midieval Tamil grammar text.

நச்சினார்க்கினியர் – His style is artful. His commentary reveals great scholarship in both Tamil and Sanskrit. His commentaries on பத்துப்பாட்டு, எட்டுத்தொகை, and  சீவக சிந்தாமணி reveal his keen poetic awareness and word values. He is probably from the 14th century or even later.

தெய்வச்சிலையார் – composed his commentary to the second book சொல்லதிகாரம். He is later than the four others mentioned here. He was very well versed in Sanskrit and in Aryan traditions. His date is probably the 16th century A.D.

கல்லாடர் – seems to be the latest of the available commentators. His work refers to the second book only, the சொல்லதிகாரம். He belongs to the 16th or 17th century A.D.

Commentaries on Akam Poetry:

இறையனார் அகப்பொருள் – the author of this work is unknown. Although it is said that Siva himself wrote it, it might be someone with a name இறையனார், or it could be an unknown author. It was
written in copper and was found in a temple altar in Madurai. Kamil Zvelebil dates it to 5th – 6th centuries A.D. T.G. Aravamuthan assigns 4th – 5th centuries A.D. as the possible time.
This book is concise and has only 149 lines and it deals with களவு and கற்பு.

அகத்தியம் – Nakkeerar refers to this book, which is lost. This book is supposed to be older than Tholkāppiyam.

நக்கீரர் உரை – This is a commentary on  இறையனார் அகப்பொருள். This is written in clear and lucid prose. It is more than a commentary. It is the first theoretical work which deals with love phases as a serial ‘love story’. It frequently refers to the opnions of another school (ஒரு சாரார்) and refutes them. Takanobu Takahashi assigns him to the 8th century A.D. Nakkirar makes reference to பாண்டிய மன்னன் நெடுமாறன் who is his patron. He ruled during the latter part of the 7th century A.D. in Madurai and was converted to Saivism by திருஞான சம்பந்தர்.

அகப்பொருள் விளக்கம் or நம்பியகப்பொருள் – Grammar on Akam poetry. The author is நாற்கவிராச நம்பி.
The book is probably from the 13th – 14th centuries A.D.  The 5 chapters in the book are அகத்திணை இயல், களவு இயல், வரவு இயல், கற்பு இயல், and ஒழிபு இயல்.
அகத்திணை இயல் – (1-116) deals with akam genre
களவு இயல் – (117-170) deals with pre-marital love
வரவு இயல் – (171-199) deals with marriage
கற்பு இயல் – (200 – 209) deals with marital love
ஒழிபு இயல் – (210-252) is a supplementary chapter

This book has a far more systematic and intelligible description of love poetry than Tholkāppiyam and Iraiyanār Akapporul. It seldom needs a commentary. However, there is an anonymous one available.

தொல்காப்பியம் அகத்திணை இயல்

Tholkāppiyam, in sutra 3 of Akathinai Iyal, lists the components of the Akam poem as follows:

முதல் கரு உரிப்பொருள் என்ற மூன்றே
நுவலும் காலை முறை சிறந்தனவே
பாடலுள் பயின்றவை நாடும் காலை.

On examination, when we list them,
the entities which constitute the poem
are, excelling in order,
mutal, karu and uri-p-porul

Mutal means first or principal, and refers to the setting in time – poluthu, and place – nilam, in which the activity of the Akam poem takes place. Time is conceived of in two aspects, the time of the year, or season and the time of the day or night. Land refers to the landscape in which the poem is set; there are five of these: kurinci – mountains, hilly tracts; mullai – forest and pasture; marutham – agricultural lands, neythal – lands by the seashore; pālai – desert tracts. The Tamil name for these is thinai.

Karu means embryo, nucleus, and refers to the various elements of flora, fauna, artefacts, inhabitants, and so on, which are native to the above mentioned types of tinas.

Uri is connected with the word urimai – ownership, appropriateness, propreity, and refers to the distinctive mood that characterizes each thinai. The correspondence between the five thinai and their associated moods is as follows:

புணர்தல் – punarthal – union is associated with the kurinci thinai
பிரிதல் – pirithal – separation is associated with the pālai thinai
இருத்தல் – iruthal – patient waiting is associated with mullai thinai
இரங்கல்  – irankal – anxious waiting, pining is associated with neythal thnai
ஊடல்  – utal – sulking, love quarrels is associated with the marutham thinai

The Five Thinais

Kurinji – The kurinji thinai isi the hill country where the young people meet, fall in love and attempt to pursue their affair in secret. The thinai takes its name from the kurinci shrub, which flowers once every 12 years, covering the hillsides with its purple-blue blossoms.  Its season extends from mid-October to mid-February consisting of the Tamil months of Aippaci and Kārthikai (kūtir kālam – the cold season), and Mārkali and Tai (mun pani kālam – the season of early dew):

கூதிர் யாமம் என்மனார் புலவர்
பனி எதிர் பருவமும் உரித்து என மொழிப
வைகறை விடியல் மருதம்.

The learned assign
midnight and the cold season
to the hilly tract.
The season of the early dew
belongs to it also.                      Tholkāppiyam, Akathinai Iyal verse 7 & 8

Pālai – The pālai thinai, the arid tract, is not thought by most to be assigned to a specific geographical location, there being no deserts as such in the Tamil country. It is rather thought to refer to tracts of the kurinci and mullai when afflicted to extreme drought. Tholkāppiyam does not even assign it a name of its own, referring to it simply as natuvanilai thinai, the thinai in the middle (in the list of the other four). The name, pālai, that of a tree that grows in arid conditions, was assigned by a later commentator. According to Tholkappiyam, the season extends from mid-February to mid-August, consisting of the Tamil months of Maci and Pankuni (pin pani kalam – the season of the late dew), Cittirai and Vaikasi (ilavenil – the milder hot season) and Ani and Ati – the hot season. The time of day is mid-day, when the sun is at its most fierce and unrelenting.

நடுவு நிலைத் திணையே நண்பகல் வேனிலொடு
முடிவு நிலை மருங்கின் முன்னிய நெறித்தே
பின்பனிதானும் உரித்து என மொழிப.

As we see it,
the hot season and midday
go with the centrally-placed tract
The season of the late dew
is also help to be proper (to the arid land).               Tholkāppiyam, Akathinai Iyal verse 11 & 12

Mullai – After the exhilaration and excitement of the kurinji thinai, and the subsequent hardship and deprivation of the pālai thinai, the mullai thinai, trasports us to the moment when the heroine’s time of waiting is coming to an end as the rainy season approaches and the year comes full circle. The mullai thinai is associated with the rainy season and evening. Mullai – jasmine is the flower which gives its name to the thinai. Remaining fresh for several days after it is plucked, this flower symbolises the patient waiting and sustained hope of the heroine. The kār kālam is the cloudy or rainy season, which extends from mid-August to mid-October, the Tamil months of Avani and Purattāci. Mullai poems can refer also to the married stage of life, when the hero is engaged upon some errand for the king, for example.

காரும் மாலையும் முல்லை

The rainy season and evening
(are assigned to) the forest tract.       Tholkāppiyam, Akathinai Iyal verse 6

Marutham – The subject matter of marutham is utal, which mean feigned dislike on the part of the heroine as a result of the hero’s infidelity; it is often translated as sulking or love quarrels. However, this definition does little justice to the marutham poems of Kurunthokai, the bulk of which deal mainly with the psychological reaction, often subtle and nuanced, of the heroine or her friend to the husband’s attempt at reconciliation. The hero’s infidelity takes place with either a concubine – il parattai, a kept mistress – kātal parathai or a village prostitute – ceriparattai.  These characters take on the role of speaker in a number of poems, in which they typically disparage the hero and heroine.  There is no season assigned to this tract. The time of day associated with it is the early hours just before dawn, but this is not evidenced by most of the marutham poems, in which the time of day plays no obvious role.

வைகறை விடியல் மருதம்

The early hours before dawn
are associated with the agricultural tract         Tholkāppiyam, Akathinai Iyal 9

Neythal – The neythal thinai is, in Kurunthokai at least, somewhat the antithesis of the kurinji, in that the defining mood is one of anxiety in love on the part of the heroine. A large number of the verses feature the latter stages of a relationship in which the hero appears to be largely impervious to the suffering of the heroine at the hands of her own family and the gossipmongers in the village. It is also somewhat of a hybrid as it features the themes of the hero failing to return at the appointed time (pālai and mullai), the behavior of the unfaithful husband (marutham), the announcement that the marriage has been agreed (kurinji), and the successful secret meetings (kurinci). As with the marutham, no season is assigned to this tract in Tholkappiyam. It is merely stated that its characteristic time is erpatu the late afternoon before sunset, although there is little evidence of this in Kuruntokai.

நெய்தல் ஆதல் மெய் பெறத் தோன்றும்

It is established that late afternoon
is the time assigned to the seashore tract      Tholkāppiyam, Akathinai Iyal  verse 10