Spoken by eighty million people in South Asia and a diaspora that stretches across the globe, Tamil is one of the great world languages, and one of the few ancient languages that survives as a mother tongue for so many speakers. David Shulman presents a comprehensive cultural history of Tamil- language, literature, and civilisation - emphasising how Tamil speakers and poets have understood the unique features of their language over its long history. Impetuous, musical, whimsical, in constant flux, Tamil is a living entity, and this is its biography.
Two stories animate Shulman s narrative. The first concerns the evolution of Tamil s distinctive modes of speaking, thinking, and singing. The second describes Tamil s major expressive themes, the stunning poems of love and war known as Sangam poetry, and Tamil s influence as a shaping force within Hinduism. Shulman tracks Tamil from its earliest traces at the end of the first millennium BCE through the classical period, 850 to 1200 CE, when Tamil-speaking rulers held sway over southern India, and into late-medieval and modern times, including the deeply contentious politics that overshadow Tamil today.
Tamil is more than a language, Shulman says. It is a body of knowledge, much of it intrinsic to an ancient culture and sensibility. "Tamil" can mean both "knowing how to love"- in the manner of classical love poetry and being a civilised person. It is thus a kind of grammar, not merely of the language in its spoken and written forms but of the creative potential of its speakers.