Paintings of the Sangam Tamils

Updated: Dec 6, 2020

Man happened to paint even before he knew to speak. Earliest paintings are found in rock caves dating back 40,000 years from now. Some scholars believe that proto-humans, called Neanderthals painted some of these rock paintings and that humans carried forward the tradition.

India is no exception to cave art. From the well protected and documented site of Bhimbhetka to the many caves whose rock art are being defaced with graffiti today and a few others that are still inaccessible in Tamil Nadu, India’s rock paintings from the pre-historic era is a matter of study by itself.

The oldest classical Tamil paintings that are tangibly available to us today are those at the Sittannavasal caves at Pudukottai district. Pallava, Chola and Nayaka era paintings are available to us in the ascending order of numbers.

However, painting traditions and practices of the Sangam era (1st Century BCE to 3rd Century CE) and post Sangam – Epic Era (Circa 5th Century CE) are frozen in texts and are not often written about.

Presence of Grammar works of Paintings:

From the words of the Epic Manimekalai(1), we decipher that there existed a text that elucidated the grammar of painting. Manimekalai is a Buddhist work in Tamil which is classified as one among the 5 great epics of the language. The main character, Manimekalai who is a danseuse, learns the text of ‘Oviyanannul’, which translates to the text of painting. It is also evident from the adjectives given to it, that all dancers were also learned in painting.

Tradition of Textile painting:

Silappadhikaram, the first among the five great epics of Tamil language has a chapter dedicated to the description of the protagonist’s dance show. The description of the stage contains a reference to a painted cloth being used as canopy for the stage(2).

There is a rather poetic description of a Pandyan Queen who was separated from King in another Sangam classic. She went to bed and noticed the painted screens that hung from the canopy of her well carved bed. These paintings depicted the skies, with many constellations and the moon’s movements. She noticed that the star ‘Rohini’ is with her partner, the moon and sighs heavily thinking about her plight.

This aesthetic depiction of a heroine in separation from a Sangam text called ‘Nedunelvadai’(3) and the painted canopy of Madhavi from Silappadhikaram are sources of information that help us conclude that the tradition of cloth painting existed in the early years of the Tamil Society.

Parvati, Temple Mural - Kailashanatha temple, Pallavas - 8th Century CE

Paintings on temple walls:

The text of Paripadal(4) from the ‘Ettuthogai’ collection of Sangam Poetry contains a narration of the temple of God Kartikeya at ‘Thirupparankundram’ town. It is said that a pavilion of the temple was decorated with paintings. A realistic depiction of people admiring the paintings is also found in the text. The people who visit the temple try to identify the paintings and tell aloud their findings to each other. Some say that they have spotted Cupid and his lover; while others claim they’ve seen the God Indra who assumed the form of a cat. In connection to this, another devotee says that he has spotted ‘Ahalya’, the lady who was desired by God Indra and her husband Gautama.

Thus, it is clear that the temples of the Sangam era were decorated with paintings of mythological narratives.

Paintings on Public buildings:

The Sangam Cholas had arranged public kitchens to feed the citizens of the empire. Such kitchens, among other public buildings were also painted on their outer walls with many figures. A realistic depiction of the kitchen and the rice that is being cooked inside is given in the text called ‘Pattinappalai’(5). It is said that the interiors of the kitchen was very clean, however the walls that were created with the skill of many craftsmen, which also contained many paintings were dusty due to movement of cars on the street that spread dirt to the painted walls.

Thus, it is evident that many such walls of public spaces were filled with paintings even before millennia in the Tamil Country.

Painting in Poetic conventions:

It was a poetic convention of the Tamil poets to compare any beautiful image to that of a painting. In a number of instances, a beautiful woman is often said to resemble a painting.

Thus, it is evident that the culture of Tamil Nadu has painting engrained in it for millennia. It is no wonder that its paintings are one of the most admired in India. It is essential for the people to realize that the tradition is age old and the onus to preserve them is in the hands of every individual. Awareness against defacing or graffiti drawing upon such historic paintings in temples must be created and such acts strictly prohibited.


1. Manimekhalai 2:30-32

2. Silappadhikaram – 3.109-112

3. Nedunelvadai 156-166

4. Paripadal -19.46-53

5. Pattinappalai – 40-50 The Author can be contacted at

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