Thiruvalluvar, also known as Valluvar, was a celebrated Tamil poet and philosopher. He is best known for Tirukkua, a collection of couplets on ethics, political and economical matters, and love. The text is considered as one of the finest works of the Tamil literature.
Much of the information about Thiruvalluvar comes from legendary accounts, and little is known with certainty about his family background, religious affiliation, or birthplace. He lived in present-day Tamil Nadu state of India, and his flourit is dated variously from 4th century BCE to 7th century CE based on the traditional accounts and the linguistic analyses of his writings.
There is negligible authentic information about the life of Thiruvalluvar. In fact, neither his actual name nor the original title of his book can be determined with certainty.Tirukku?a? itself does not name its author. The name Thiruvalluvar was first mentioned in the later text Thiruvalluvarmaalai (10th century).
- One tradition claims that he was a Paraiyar weaver.
- Another theory is that he must have been from the agricultural caste of Vellalars, because he extols agriculture.
- Mu Raghava Iyengar speculated that “valluva” in his name is a variation of “vallabha”, the designation of a royal officer.
- S. Vaiyapuri Pillai derived his name from “valluvan” (a Paraiyar caste of royal drummers), and theorized that he was “the chief of the proclaiming boys analogous to a trumpet-major of an army”.
The poem Kapilar Akaval (or Ahaval), purportedly written by Kapilar, describes its author as a brother of Valluvar. It states that they were children of a Pulaya woman named Ati (Adi) and a Brahmin named Pakavan (Bhagwan). The poem claims that the couple had seven children, including three sons (Thiruvalluvar, Kapilar, Atikaman) and four sisters (Awai, Uppai, Uruvai and Velli). However, this legendary account is spurious.Kamil Zvelebil dates Kapilar Ahaval to 15th century CE, based on its language.
Various biographies mention the name of Thiruvalluvar’s wife as “Vasuki”, but such details are of doubtful historicity.
George Uglow Pope called Thiruvalluvar “the greatest poet of South India”, but according to Kamil Zvelebil, he does not seem to have been a poet. According to Zvelebil, while the author handles the metre very skillfully, the Tirukku?a? rarely features “true and great poetry”, which appears only in a few places, notably in the third book (pleasure). This suggests that Thiruvalluvar’s main aim was not to produce a work of art, rather an instructive text focused on wisdom, justice and ethics.
The Tirukku?a? has been dated variously from 300 BCE to 7th century CE. According to traditional accounts, it was the last work of the third Sangam, and was subjected to a divine test (which it passed). The scholars who believe this tradition, such as Somasundara Bharathiar and M Rajamanickam, date the text to as early as 300 BCE. Historian K. K. Pillay assigned it to the early 1st century CE.
Linguist Kamil Zvelebil is certain that Tirukku?a? does not belong to the Sangam period, and dates it to somewhere between 450-500 CE. His estimate is based on the language of the text, its allusions to the earlier works, and its borrowing from some Sanskrit treatises. Zvelebil notes that the text features several grammatical innovations, that are absent in the older Sangam literature. The text also features a higher number of Sanskrit loan words compared to these older texts. According to Zvelebil, besides being part of the ancient Tamil literary tradition, the author was also a part of the “one great Indian ethical, didactic tradition”, as a few of his verses seem to be translations of the verses in Sanskrit texts such as M?navadharma??stra and Kautilya‘s Artha??stra.
S. Vaiyapuri Pillai assigned the work to c. 650 CE, believing that it borrowed from some Sanskrit works of 6th century CE. Zvelebil disagrees with this assessment, pointing out that some of the words that Pillai believed to be Sanskrit loan words have now been proved to be of Dravidian origin by Thomas Burrow and Murray Barnson Emeneau.
The poem Kapilar Akaval states that Thiruvalluvar was born on the top of an oil-nut tree in Mayilapuram (Mylapore in Chennai). On the other hand, the poem number 21 of Tiruvalluvamalai claims that he was born in Madurai.
In 2005, a 3-member research team from the Kanyakumari Historical and Cultural Research Centre (KHCRC) claimed that Thiruvalluvar was born in Thirunayanarkurichi, a village in present-day Kanyakumari district. Their claim was based on an old Kani tribal leader who told them that Thiruvalluvar was a king who ruled the “Valluvanadu” territory in the hilly tracts of the Kanyakumari district.
Almost every religious group in India, including the Christians, have claimed Thiruvalluvar as one of their own.
Kamil Zvelebil believes that the ethics of the Tirukku?a? reflect the Jain moral code (e.g. Tirukku?a? 251-260 talks about vegetarianism, and Tirukku?a? 321-333 talks against killing). Zvelebil states that the text features “several purely Jaina technical terms”, such as the following epithets of God:
- Malarmicaiyekinan (Tirukku?a? 3), “he who walked upon the flower”
- Aravaliyantanan (Tirukku?a? 3), “the Brahmin the wheel of dharma”
- Enkunattan (Tirukku?a? 9), “one of the eight-fold qualities”
- Atipakavan (Tirukku?a? 1), “the Primeval Lord”
Zvelebil notes that even the 13th century Hindu scholar Parim?la?akar, who wrote a commentary on Tirukku?a?, accepted that such epithets are applicable only to the Jain Arhat. Some other epithets mentioned in the text also reflect a “strong ascetic flavour” characteristic of Jainism:
- Ventutal ventamai ilan (Tirukku?a? 4), “he who has neither desire nor aversion”
- Porivayil aintavittan (Tirukku?a? 6), “he who has destroyed the gates of the five senses”
Zvelebil further states that Thiruvalluvar seems to have been “cognizant of the latest developments” in Jainism. Zvelebil theorizes that he was probably “a learned Jain with eclectic leanings”, who was well-acquainted with the earlier Tamil literature, and also had some knowledge of the Sanskrit texts.
Multiple Hindu sects have claimed Thiruvalluvar as one of their own, and have tried to align his verses with their own teachings.Shaivites have characterised Thiruvalluvar as a devotee of Shiva, and have installed his images in their temples.
Anti-caste activist Iyothee Thass, who converted to Buddhism, claimed that Thiruvalluvar was originally called “Tiruvalla Nayanar”, and was a Buddhist. Thass described him as follows: Tiruvalla Nayanar was born in Madurai, as the son of King Kanchan and Queen Upakesi. When he grew up, the prince wandered across many countries, until he joined a Buddhist sangam at Thinnanur. There, he learned about the Buddhist doctrine from his guru Chakaya Munivar.
Thass further contended that the name “Tirukku?a?” is a reference to the Buddhist Tripi?aka. He claims that Thiruvalluvar’s book was originally called Tirikural (“Three Kurals”), because it adhered to the three Buddhist scriptures Dhamma Pitaka, Sutta Pitaka, and Vinaya Pitaka.
According to Thass, the legend that presents Thiruvalluvar as the son of a Brahmin father and a Paraiyar mother was invented by Brahmins, who wanted to Hinduise a Buddhist text.
Christian missionary George Uglow Pope claimed that the Tirukku?a? shows Chrisitan influence, particularly from the Alexandrian school. He theorized that Thiruvalluvar came into contact with Christian teachers such as Pantaenus in Mayilapur, and incorporated the ideas from the Christian scriptures in his text. Zvelebil states that Pope was “rather overenthusiastic in discovering strong traces of Christianity” in Tirukku?a?, and dismisses Pope’s hypothesis as based on “vague impressions”.
Since the 1960s, some South Indian Christians led by M. Deivanayagam at the Madras Christian College, have characterized Thiruvalluvar as a disciple of Thomas the Apostle. According to this theory, Thomas visited present-day Chennai, where Thiruvalluvar listened to his lectures on the Sermon of the Mount. Several Tamil scholars, both Christian and Hindu, have criticized this claim as inaccurate.
Tirukku?a? is one of the most revered ancient works in the Tamil language. It contains 1330 couplets, which are divided into 133 sections of 10 couplets each. The first 38 sections are about ethics (aram), the next 70 about political and economic matters (porul), and the rest are about love (kamam). The text has been translated into several languages, including a translation into Latin by Constanzo Beschi in 1699 which helped make the work known to European intellectuals.
Thiruvalluvar is also believed to be the author of two Tamil texts on medicine, Gnana Vettiyan and Pancharathnam; although many scholars claim that they were by a later author with the same name, since they appear to have been written in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These books, ‘Pancharathnam’ and ‘Gnana Vettiyan’, contribute to Tamil science, literature and other ayurvedic medicines.
A temple-like memorial to Thiruvalluvar, Valluvar Kottam, was built in Chennai in 1976. This monument complex consists of structures usually found in Dravidian temples, including a temple car carved from three blocks of granite, and a shallow, rectangular pond. The auditorium adjoining the memorial is one of the largest in Asia and can seat up to 4000 people.
There is a 133-foot tall statue of Thiruvalluvar erected at Kanyakumari at the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent, where the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, and the Indian Ocean converge. The 133 feet denote Tirukku?a?’s 133 Chapters or athikarams and the show of three fingers denote the three themes Aram, Porul, and Inbam, i.e. the sections on Morals, Wealth and Love. The statue was designed by V. Ganapati Sthapati, a temple architect from Tamil Nadu. His statue was unveiled in Ulsoor, near Bengaluru, on 9 August 2009, also making it the first of its kind for a poet of a local language to be installed in its near states other than his own home land at India. There is also a statue of Thiruvalluvar outside the School of Oriental and African Studies in Russell Square, London.
The government of Tamil Nadu celebrates the 15th (16th On Leap Years) of January as (as Per Tamil Calendar ??-2) Thiruvalluvar Day as part of the Pongal celebrations in his honour.