Natalie Savelyeva

Poetic conventions and Music

Poetic conventions described in Tholkappiyam (oldest Tamil grammar) The third part of that work (Porulatikaram) dealing with subject-matter mentions five types of love poetry (aham) each of which is connected with a particular landscape (see - Five landscappes of Love), mode of conduct of the main character, a god, a season, a time of the day, a musical scale, etc. The five modes of conduct (tinai) bear similarity to the nayika types described in Natya Sastra (see - Classification of Heroines, Nayika):

Tinai Situation Nayika
iruttai waiting for the beloved vasakasajja
punartai union of lovers svadhinabhatrika
piritai separation, elopement vipralambha, abhisarika
utal feigned quarrel khandita, kalahantarita
inrankal pining, longing virahotkhandita, prositabhatrika

Scales (palai) and modes (pann)

The musical scales figuring in ancient system of Tamil poetics represent regional varieties tuning the harp (yazh, Sanskrit vina). Different types of yazh (lute), palai (parent scale) and pann (derived scane comparable to the raga of the present day) are mentioned in the Sangam literature [3].

In Tamil Music, the seven notes were called as kural, tuttam, kaikkilai, uzhai, ili, vilari and taaram. Later, say, between 200 BC and 200 AD, these notes also came to be mentioned as sa, ri, ga, etc., as in use today. A sthayi (or an octave) was termed as mandilam.

The Tamils of the Sangam age of an earlier period also identified the 12 swaras in a scale employ the shadja-panchama (i.e. sadja grama) or shadja-madhyama (i.e. madhyama grama) relationships. This type of relationship was called kizhamai.

These ancient Tamil palai are comparable to the grama of Sanskrit musicology (see - Gandharva Scales). But the Tamil authors usually mention five scales, while in Natya Sastra the number of basic scales is reduced to two (plus older gandhara grama ascribed to heavenly beings).

By modal shift of tonic, they devised the seven major palais. This graha bheda method, known as Pannu peyarttal was discussed in various Sangam works like Ahananooru, Madurai Kanchi and Malaipadukadam. The cycle of fifths was called aaya palai.

By decreasing one sruti for two swara-s, 16 kinds of panns were derived; this method was called Vatta palai.

Halving the sruti value in the 12 notes and creating panns was Tirikona padai. Sadura palai indicated reducing one quarter of the sruti value of the notes. The method of deriving pentatonic scales based on saptaka (seven tone scale) was referred to as Nertiram.

The major seven palai-s or parent scales of the music of the ancient Tamils are: Sempalai (corresponding to the present Harikambhoji); Padumalai Palai (Natabhairavi); Sevvazhi Palai (Hanumatodi, but with both madhyama-s); Arum Palai (Dheera Sankarabharanam); Kodi Palai (Kharaharapriya); Vilari Palai (Hanumatodi); and Merchem Palai (Mecha Kalyani). From out of these, 103 pann-s were derived: Perumpann (sampoorna) 17; Panniyal (shadava) 70; Tiram (audava) 12; and Tirattiram (swarantaram) four.

Sangeeta Ratnakara of Sarangadeva (13th century, AD) mentions some of these pann-s.

Five musical modes are: mullai yazh, kurinci yazh, palai yazh, maruta yazh and cevvali yazhl (in musical practice replacing neytal yazh). Those modes could be compared with murcanas of Gandharva music. According to S. Ramanathan (1), Atiyarkkunallar, the medieval commentator on the Silappatikkaram, devised two methods of deriving the five ancient Tamil yazh as secondary scales from a main scale, that is to say "the old method" with palai yal called Sempalai (Sanskrit madhyama grama from ma) as a basic scale, and the "new method" with arumpalai, corresponding to sadja grama as a basic scale.

Yal Condition Place Season Time of day God
mullai waiting for the beloved forest rains evening Krisna
kurinci union of lovers mountains winter night murugan
palai separation, elopement desert summer noon kali
maruta feigned quarrel meadow all seasons dawn indra
neytal pining, longing seashore early summer sunrise varuna

Seven stringed yazh

Seven stringed yazh was tuned to produce the seven swaras of a pann called Sempalai or Kodippalai, which is equivalent to that of the present Harikambhoji raga. Swaras of Kodippalai could be represented in modern terms as S (4) R2 (3)G1 (2) m1 (4) p (3) D1 (2) n1 (4) S (S – sadja, R2 – trisruti risabha, G1 – chatusruti gandhara, m1-–suddha madhyama, p - pancama, D1 - trisruti daivatam and n1 - kakali nisada. The numbers in brackets denote number of srutis between the adjacent swaras.)

Seven different pann-s were created using this seven-stringed yazh by shifting the tonic down (i.e. from sa to ni and so on.) The same method is described in Gandrarva tradition under the term of Murcana, where Harikabboji corresponds to Matsarikrita murchana of Sadja grama, i.e. the murcatna starting from the note ma of Sadja grama, m1 p D1 n1 s R1 g1 after conversion to the unified tonic Sa keeping the invervals between the notes intact, gives us Kodippalai or Harikamboji of Melakarta or Harikedaragoula as this raga is called in Dikshitar school.

Pancha Marabu

Pancha Marabu, the Sangam work on music, describes all the aspects of music, musical instruments and dance, which were prevalent during that period.


Ain-Thinai, a work on akam poetry dated of about 3 century AD comprises five small works on love poems based on five-fold psychological division. Thinaimalai-Nuttu-Aimbathu is among those five works.

In Thinaimalai Nuttu-Aimpathu there are many references to different panns. The sound emanating from the bees when they sit on flowers is equated to Sadari pann. The sound of bee approaching a Jasmine flower makes a sound of joy and this sound is likened to Gandharam pann. There are also references to panns called Sevvazhi, Vilari and Palai.


Silappadikaram written by Ilango Adigal about the first half of 2nd century AD, is the foremost of Tamil epics, includes plenty of information on music and dance that prevailed during that period. Silappadikkaram includes six chapters dealing with music, Arangetru Kadai, Kanal Vari, Venir Kadai, Vettuvavari, Kunrakuravai and Aychiyarkuravai. There are two commentaries on Silappadikaram, that of Adiyarkkunallar and Arumpadavurai.

The ancient Tamils recognized and used the scheme of 22 srutis. The terms alagu and mattirai were used as equivalents to srutis. Adiyarkunallar, in his commentary to the Aychiyarkkuravai, the 7th Chapter of Silappadikaram gives the number of Srutis and how they were allotted among 7 swaras. Corresponding basic pann was called Sempalai. The ancient Tamils also knew how to derive new panns by the process of modal shift of tonic and by the process of reallocating the srutis of the swaras.

The seven swaras were called Narambu or by names, Kural, Tuttam, Kaikilai, Uzhai, Ili, Vilari and Taram. There are illustrations where the seven notes are equated to Krishna, Balarama, Nappinai and so on and also to the Constellations.

The scheme of seven major modes and elaboration of this scheme into 103 panns is also mentioned.

The concept of modern Samvaditva (relationship of consonants and dissonants) has also been mentioned as Kural-Ili relationship where the intervals between the two given notes are mentioned to be eight steps of swarasthanas and 13 srutis. There is a reference to the concepts of Vadi, Samvadi, Anuvadi and Vivadi in Venirkadai. It is mentioned that Madhavi played on yazh paying attention to Inai, Kilai, Pagai and Natpu (which are Tamil words for Vadi, etc).

There are references to how a pann should be sung with proper articulation of sound and modulation of the voice in different ways.

The four different ways by which musical scales were derived and arranged, are mentioned as Vattapalai, Chaturapalai, Trigonapalai and Ayapalai. From Ayapalai, 14 palais have been derived, while the seven Perumpanns (the major pans) and five Sirupalai (minor panns) have been derived.

The Suddha scale is referred to as Sempalai or Vattapalai and this approximates to the present day Harikamboji mela (see details abouve, in section on yazh.)

In the evolution of notes, Taram (Nishadam) was supposed to have originated first and a reference to this found in Arangetrukadai.

The pann was further divided into Tirams (Janya modes). A pann comprising all seven swaras (like sampoorna raga), was referred to as Tirattiram. A pann having less than seven swaras was called Tiram. Of the five major Panns Kurinji, Mullai, Palai, Marudam and Neidal, four were called Perum Panns (big or major panns). Neidal Pann was called Tiranil yazh because it had no derivative Panns and Tirams to its credit.

The classification of Panns in to four Jatis (Ahanilai, Puranilai, Arugiyal and Perungiyal) is described in the Venir Kadai of Silappadikaram. There is a reference to Madhavi playing Sagodayazh with 14 strings.

Tala was then known as Seer, Pani and Thooku.

There is a mention of Vartanai which means Arohanam and Avarohanam movement of the mode (pann.)

Yazh seemed to have been the most commonly used stringed instrument. The praises of God were sung to the accompaniment of yazh. The yazh was loved and most revered by all. The great respect to yazh can be seen from the reference to Madhavi taking the yazh from Kovalan after saluting it, in the Kanalvari chapter of Silappadikaram.

There is an elaborate description of the yazh and yazh player in the Arangetrukadai chapter of Silappadikkaram. Sagodayazh seems to have been used by the debutante on the stage.

The strings of the yazh were tuned to the notes of absolute pitch and the instrument itself was played on open strings. From the term Narambu, it is evident that in addition to different types of strings, thick guts must have also been used.

The strings of the yazh were named after the notes to which they were tuned. This facilitated the playing of different panns by the modal shift of tonic.

Among other kinds of yazh mentioned are Periyazh and Siriyazh with 21 and 7 strings respectively. The last two yazhs to be the most ancient yazhs. Reference to Makarayazh with 17 or 19 strings and Sagodayazh with 14 strings are also found.

In the Venirkadai, the parts of a yazh are mentioned. It is also said that the yazh must be protected from heat, wind, rain etc. The strings, it says, should be devoid of the four major defects: a) inextricable twist b) tiny hairs sticking to the jut c) sprayed ends of a jut and d) Murukku or twist. This shows that the strings were gut wired. The Venirkadai also gives reference to the posture of yazh while playing.


Patthupattu (the collection of ten poems) is the earliest of the Sangam works to exhaustively deal with the details of the yazh. There were four kinds of yazh, namely, Periyazh with 21 strings, Makarayazh with 19 strings, Sagodayazh with 14 strings and Sengottuyazh with 7 strings. Patthupattu contains description of yazh with its constituent parts, as it was during the Sangam period. The Periyazh with 21 strings and Seeriyazh with 7 strings played by the Perumpanar and Sirupanar respectively are mentioned in this work. The Perumpanar were said to be experts in playing the Periyazh.

Madurai kanchi

There are a number of references to specific panns to be sung during worship and during ceremonies. Madurai kanchi refers to women singing Sevvazhi pann to invoke the mercy of God during childbirth.


Malaippadukadam refers to Viraliyar (female singers) singing Kurinji pann to offer worship to the deities residing in the hilly regions. The same work also refers to Virali singing Marudappan before singing the eulogies of kings. Malaippadukadam also refers to the people trying to overcome their fatigue by singing Marudappan after working in the fields.


There is a reference to panns and birds/insects in Perumpanatruppadai. It says that the beetles liked to listen to Kurinji pann played on Vilyazh thinking it to be the voice of its own kith and kin, while they hated to listen to Palai pann played on flute.


  1. S. Ramanathan. Music in Cilappatikkaram, Madurai, 1979
  2. Sangitasiromani: A Medieval Handbook of Indian Music edited by Emmie Te Nijenhuis, E.J.Brill, Netherlands, 1992
  3. Tamilnadu’s Contribution to Carnatic Music. A Bird’s Eye-view by B.M. Sundaram
  4. Harikambhoji raga S. Rajam with Sruti Staff, 43 SRUTI June 2009
  5. More on Tamil Music at