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Michael Wood on the Tamils’ glittering cultural universe

“Let’s cherish this shining light of the great Bronze Age civilisations”, writes Michael Wood

Published: September 28, 2021 at 10:29 am
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I’m just about to hop on the train to Leicester, to visit friends in the Tamil community in what is Britain’s most multicultural city. A feast for the mind and body – especially for a vegetarian! But we will also be celebrating the riches of south Indian culture and history with a generation of Leicester children born outside India. And though this may sound rather grand, it set me thinking about the history of civilisation.

The 20th century saw the end of most of the traditional civilisations of the ancient world. The Tamil poet and freedom fighter Subrahmania Bharati, who died 100 years ago this September, spoke of the “terrible onslaught of European Christianity and European materialism”. We can see now that one of the effects of globalisation has been the final destruction of the thought-world of the civilisations that arose in the Bronze Age and which laid the foundations of our modern life, our philosophy, religious belief and custom.

Ancient Iraq and Egypt are, of course, long gone. China’s “great tradition” began to be dismantled after 1911 and was comprehensively demolished by communism. The final blows to the archaic spiritual universe of Persian civilisation were dealt by those arch modernisers, the Shah and the mullahs.

But one of the world’s classical civilisations came through to the new millennium. Although now changing fast, the Tamil cultural universe still survives, a little-known but brilliant flowering whose roots go back to prehistory.

It was a late developer. Recent digs date the urban centre of Adichanallur (at the southern tip of the Indian mainland) to about 1000 BC, and it thrived in the Roman period. Kamil Zvelebil, the great Czech scholar of Indian culture, called it the “last classical civilisation”. The ancient Tamil poetry of the Eight Anthologies, he said, was “so wonderful and fresh, that the only true comparison is with ancient Greek lyric poetry”. Meanwhile, the Kural is one of the great books of the world: its ethos of love, forgiveness and peace still informs the culture.

Among the ancient epics, perhaps the masterpiece is Silappadikaram, set in south India in the late Roman period, though lost in the mainstream until its rediscovery. Then there is Bhakti, the devotional songs of the Alvars and Nayanmars, the wandering saints. This tradition goes back to around the fifth century AD – and still now, at festival time, you may be treated to a visit from the traditional singers, the oduvars.

Other aspects of the tradition include that of bronze sculpture, at its artistic height in the 10th century. And then there’s one of the world’s great architectural traditions: stupendous temples, great gate towers rearing above the emerald-green palm forests, which are still the focus of music, dance, painting and sculpture, and visited by millions during the big festivals.

To these we might add, too, the classical dance (bharat natyam) and Carnatic music. And finally we must not forget the deities: Murugan, Siva and the Goddess. The ancient gods are still alive and well!

Taken together, this is one of humanity’s richest cultural traditions, a heritage as glittering as those of Iran, Japan or Sanskritic India. These various forms, Zvelebil wrote in 1956, “made the world richer and happier, and deserve to be more widely known as manifestations of the Tamil genius”.

Yet how much of this history is widely known in the west today? The western canon is so dominant in the way we look at the history of culture. But in Leicester is a reminder – not just for a community but for the rest of Britain. The destruction wrought by modernity, colonialism and monotheism is so great that there are very few places in the world now where the old view of humanity – the one shared, for example, by the ancient Greeks – is still alive.

There are rainforests. But there are also rainforests of the spirit. And you can find them close at hand – even in Leicester!

This article was first published in the October 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine

Authors

Michael Wood is professor of public history at the University of Manchester

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