Tamils of the 20th Century
U.V.Swaminatha Iyer (U.Ve.Sa)
1855 - 1942
Professor C.R.Krishnamurthi on U.V. Swaminatha Iyer
On 141st Birth
Anniversary, S. Thangavelu, 1996
U.Ve. SAA. (Tamil): Bharati Kaavalar Dr. K. Ramamurthy, 2002
Dr.S.Jayabarathi on Thamil Thaatha,
The Patriarch of Tamil - A tribute, on
his 150th birth anniversary. S. Viswanathan, 2005
Professor C.R.Krishnamurthi on U.V. Swaminatha Iyer
Dr. SAmin^Atha iyer
((Uttamadhanapuram Venkatasubbaiyer Swaminatha Iyer
Tamil: உத்தமதனபுரம் வேங்கடசுப்பையர் சுவாமிநாத ஐயர்), was one of the
illustrious students of MahA VidwAn MInAtchi sun^tharam PiLLai. He lived to the ripe age
of 87 and was affectionately referred to as the 'Grand Father of Thamizh'
He held senior academic
positions in Thamizh at the Madras Presidency College. This was the time when the British
were at the peak of their power and it was rare, if not impossible, for a native son with
expertise in the vernacular language to be elevated to these high positions. He was
conferred the honorary doctoral degree (D.Litt.) by the University of Madras. In
recognition of his outstanding literary accomplishments and contributions, he was also
honoured with the title, "MahAmahOpAthiyAya'
- greatest of the great teachers.
He has written 91 published works including the editing of several Sangam texts, epics
and grammatical works. He will be remembered for his style of prose including two
biographies, one on his mentor, MInAtchi sun^tharam PiLLai and the other on the musician,
GAnam KrishNa iyer and a long list of essays and reminiscences. His famous Autobiography is regarded as a legacy he
bequeathed to posterity providing a liaison between older schools of thought and modern
Thamizh literary trends. His other works include the following:
நான் கண்டதும் கேட்டதும்,
On 141st Birth
Anniversary, S. Thangavelu, Hindu, 25 February 1996
Dr. U. V. Swaminatha Iyer, Tamil scholar and literatus , whose 141st birth
anniversary fell on February 19, showed a keen interest in Tamil literature, even when he
His father, Venkatasubbiar, a musician, observing the child's aptitude, made all
efforts to educate the boy, putting him in the care and tutelage of Tamil scholars.
Venkatasubbiar earned his living by giving discourses on the Ramayana, and by the nature
of his profession, travelled a lot. Although he wanted his son to follow in his footsteps,
he realised that the boy should not be forced into anything.
In Ariyalur on the support of the Zamindar, his son was taught by Satagopa Aiyangar, a
scholar in Tamil who was equally proficient in music. As the Zamindar was running into
debt, his support to Venkatasubbiar's family dwindled. At that time, his friend Kunnam
Chidambaram Pillai, revenue accountant and Tamil scholar, came to his rescue. Chidambaram
Pillai persuaded them to move to Kunnam, where Venkatasubbiar gave discourses at
Chidambaram Pillai's house Chidambaram Pillai's friendship was valuable in more ways than
A Tamil scholar, he specialised in ``Tiruvilaiyadal Puranam'' and such other works;
Iyer started learning from him. He also trained under Pillai as an assistant to a revenue
accountant so that he could get a job. Iyer also came under the influence of Kasturi
Aiyangar, who specialised in the Kamba Ramayanam.
Iyer learnt Tamil grammar, known as Nannool from him. It was after his marriage that
Iyer was introduced to Chinnappannai Vridhachalam Reddiar, a rich and eminent scholar.
From him Iyer learnt the prosody, the rules and laws relating to the art of poetry. On the
advice of Senganam Chinnappannai Vridhachalam Reddiar and others, Iyer's father took him
to Meenakshisundaram Pillai of Mayavaram to gain more knowledge of Tamil literature.
In Mayawaram, Iyer was assigned to a senior student of the Mahavidwan Saverinatha
Pillai. Iyer was taught Naidadam by him. Though Saverinatha Pillai was a good scholar and
taught well, Iyer hankered for direct lessons from the Master. Pillai taught him
Tirukkudanthai Tirupandadi, the poem he composed in honour of Sri Kumbeswara. Iyer studied
several works under the Mahavidwan. These include a number of antadi and Pillai-t-tamil
After some months, Iyer accompanied Pillai to Tiruvavadurai. Melakaram Subramania
Desikar was then Head of the famous math in that place. Widely respected for his
scholarship. Desikar asked Pillai to stay on at the math for some time as many of his
tampirans wished to have advance lessons in Tamil.
When Pillai introduced Iyer to him, Desikar made the usual enquiries and asked the boy
to recite a verse. He was delighted when Iyer recited the verse musically and gave a
word-for-word explanation as well. He was gratified to know from Pillai that the new
student was deeply attached to Tamil literature at a time when love for English learning
was sweeping the education scene.
Tyagaraja Chettiar was the head of the Tamil Department in the Government College,
Kumbakonam. He was a man of great erudition and was held in high esteem by the pupils as
well as the public. He was a student of Meenakshisundaram Pillai. When Chettiar retired,
he recommended Iyer in his place. Iyer was appointed to that post on February 16, 1880.
During that time one Salem Ramaswami Mudaliar joined as District Munsiff at Kumbakonam on
transfer from Ariyalur. On the advice of Desikar, Iyer met Mudaliar.
The friendship between them proved to be a turning point in Iyer's life. Mudaliar was
responsible for persuading Iyer to edit and publish the ancient Tamil classics. Iyer had
till then confined his enjoyment of Tamil literature to medieval works. Mudaliar also gave
a handwritten copy of Jeevaka Chintamani for publication.
As Chintamani was a Jain classic, Iyer went to the homes of Jains in Kumbakonam to get
some doubts cleared. He also read the Jain epics and collated several manuscript versions
and arrived at a correct conclusion. It was due to his efforts that the Jeevaka Chintamani
was published in 1887. From that time onwards he began to search for Sangam classics with
a view to editing and publishing them. After Chintamani, Pattu-P-Pattu was published.
Often it was difficult to make out what was inscribed on the palm leaf. He was able to
bring out the publications with his thorough knowledge of the literature. During his life
time, Iyer edited and published a hundred books Sangam works, Kavyas, Prabhandhas,
Sthalapuranas, etc., with introductions, critical notes, glossaries and indices valued for
their thoroughness and depth of research. When Srinivasachariar, Tamil Pandit at the
Madras Presidency College retired, Iyer was transferred to Madras from Kumbakonam in 1903.
He retired in 1919 at the age of 64.
His research work increased several times after retirement. He travelled from place to
place in search of palm leaf manuscripts so as to edit and publish them. From 1924 to
1927, Iyer was the Principal of the Meenakshi Tamil College in Annamalai University,
Chidambaram. On health grounds, he resigned the post, came to Madras and continued his
The title Mahamahopadhya was conferred on him by the Madras Government in recognition
of his services, in the year 1906. The same year when the Prince and Princess of Wales
visited Madras, a function was arranged where several scholars were given titles and
Iyer was honoured with a golden bracelet. In 1925, the title ``Dakshina Kalanidhi'' was
awarded to him by Kamakoti Pitathipathi Sri Sankara Swamigal. In 1932, the Madras
University awarded the title ``Doctor'' to him in recognition of his services in the cause
of Tamil. Dr. Iyer died on April 28, 1942. It was due to his efforts, that the world came
to know the wonderful literary output of the ancient Tamils and their glorious past.
U.Ve. SAA. (Tamil): Bharati Kaavalar Dr. K. Ramamurthy, Gangai Puthaka Nilayam, 13, Deenadayalu Street, T.Nagar,
Chennai-600017. - Book Review by T. A. Srinivasan, 12 March 2002
U. Ve. Swaminatha Iyer, affectionately called as "Tamizh
Thaathaa" for his untiring efforts to trace ancient Tamil
literary works, spent all his years in the service of Tamil
language and literature. It was given to him to visit every
nook and corner of the Tamil country by all modes of
transport and also by foot in the earlier part of the last
century and rescue and resurrect Tamil classics right from
those belonging to the Sangam age to later day works like
Ula, Kalambakam and Pillaithamizh.
Ancient Tamil works, in palm leaf manuscripts, were kept in
far corners of many village houses in those days and due to
long years of neglect they were mutilated. He went after
these works and gave them anew to the world through his
scholarly, precise and exact editions.
The book under review, in about 100 pages, gives the life
history of the great scholar, right from his childhood to
his education under the late Tirisirapuram (Tiruchi)
Mahavidwan Meenakshisundaram Pillai, his contemporaries, his
publication of numerous works, the titles earned by him, his
meeting with Gandhiji, and Subramania Bharati's tributes to
him. But for him the Tamil country would have lost many
works. Though there were five great epics known as
"Aimperumkappiyangal", only three of them — Jeevaka
could be retrieved by him. Even he, despite his best
efforts, could not obtain the other two works, Valaiyapati
Besides his publication of rare works, Swaminatha Iyer gave
to the Tamil world two new forms of literature — a biography
and an autobiography. The former, titled Meenakshi Sundaram
Pillai Charitharam, presented the life-history of his
He also wrote En Charitharam which was serialised in the
Kalaimagal and it presented an account of his life and also
the men and matters during his time.
The book is in easy-to-read Tamil. It makes only a passing
reference to the honour conferred on him by the Madurai
Tamil Sangam, whose founder, Pandithurai Thevar,
helped Iyer monetarily to publish many ancient classics and
also gave him numerous palm leaf manuscripts and also
published the works edited by him through the Sangam's
literary journal, Senthamizh. These facts need to be
included at least in the future edition.
Dr.S.Jayabarathi on Thamil Thaatha, 2002
article was written as a tribute to one of the greatest Tamilians of all time -
The Grand Master of Tamil - Thamilzh Thaathaa U.VE.Saaminatha Aiyer.
It was first published in the Mayil magazine of Malaysia. The occasion was the
birthday of the Grand Master on the 19th of February, 1992. It was serialised
and came out in weekly segments over a period of 10 weeks.
The series came to a finish on the 24th April, 1992 - which by a coincidence
happened to be the 50th memorial anniversary of the Grand Master.
The article has been written in a very simple and lucid language for the
consumption of the average Tamil-educated Malaysian Tamilian. I have taken the
pains to explain many terms, personalities, traditions, etc, which the average
Malaysian Tamilian would be unaware of. The section on the prevailing
circumstances during the times of UVS was descriptively written by me. So was
the section covering the Sanggam Literature - especially PuRa nAnURU.
I considered this endeavour as a thoNdu - humble service to Tamil and the Grand
Master of Tamil. The more than 10 weeks that I took to write and send the
segments were done in all reverance - as a penance - tapas.
The crowning glory paid to that endeavour were the letters of praise given by
the grandson of UVS - Mr.Subramania Aiyer, the presiding SannidhAnam of
ThirupananthAL, and the KalaimagaL literary magazine.
I followed up by celebrating the 100th year anniversary of the publishing of the
'PuRanAnURu' book by U.VE.Saminatha Aiyer, in 1994. It was a grand occasion in a
town called Sitiawan and it was marked by my marathon speech which lasted 6
hours on Tamil Literature. One of the high lights of the occsion was drama on
This is a very comprehensive biography of the Thamilzh Thaathaa.
The patriarch of Tamil - A tribute, on
his 150th birth anniversary. S. Viswanathan, Frontline 26 February 2005
TAMILS across the globe recently celebrated the government's decision to confer
the `classical language' status on their mother tongue. This recognition, which
puts the ancient language on a par with Greek, Latin and Sanskrit, is not only
owing to its antiquity but also its rich literature. What has happened now, say
Tamil scholars is only the "official reiteration" of the international academic
community's recognition of Tamil literature as `classical', particularly the
works such as Paththuppaattu (ten idylls) and Ettuththogai (Eight anthologies)
of the Sangam era (from the first and second centuries of the Christian era),
besides the better known Thirukkural and Tholkappiam.
Interestingly, the original texts of a significant number of the much-acclaimed
literary works of the Sangam period came to public notice only towards the end
of the 19th century, when they appeared in print with commentaries. Until then,
works such as the Aymperum Kaappiangal (the five great epics) - Silappathikaram,
Manimekalai, Kundalakesi, Jeevaka Chintamani and Valaiyapathi, were in the form
of palm leaf manuscripts in the possession of scores of families living in
various parts of Tamil Nadu.
They did not have the skill to read them, and,
therefore, did not realise their literary worth. Tamil scholars were aware of
the existence of such texts as references in the available works.
All that the
people knew until then as Tamil literature comprised Bhakti literature,
historical works and minor poems. Although very few literary works were
available for studies, they did draw the attention of European scholars such as
Bishop Robert Caldwell (1814-1891) and Constantine Joseph Beschi (known in Tamil
as Veeramamunivar). However, during the same period, Sanskrit literary works
attracted more Western attention because of their availability and easy access.
IT was under these circumstances that the need to hunt for the missing palm leaf
manuscripts and bring to light the hidden treasure of Tamil literature was felt.
Foremost among those who undertook this formidable task was Mahamahopadhyaya
Dakshinathya Kalanidhi Uthamadhanapuram Venkatasubbaiyer Swaminatha Iyer
(1855-1942), popularly known as "Tamizh thaththaa" (the grand old man of Tamil).
A Tamil professor and literary scholar, Swaminatha Iyer's 150th birth
anniversary was celebrated on February 19.
He took upon himself the arduous task of collecting the palm leaf manuscripts of
great literary works that lay scattered not only in Tamil Nadu but even outside.
As part of this mission he undertook long journeys, interesting and fruitful
sometimes and unrewarding at others. Ultimately, he succeeded in gathering palm
leaf manuscripts of many immortal Tamil works.
With the objectivity and
detachment of a scientist and the imagination of an artist and critic, he made
comparative studies of various manuscripts. Starting with Jeevaka Chintamani in
1887, he printed and published Manimekalai (1898), Silappathikaram (1889),
Paththuppaattu (1889) and Purananooru (1894), all appended with scholarly
commentaries. Although he brought out about 100 works in all, including minor
poems, many of the manuscripts that he gathered remain unpublished.
BORN in 1855 into a poor family at Uthamadhanapuram, near Kumbakonam in the old
Thanjavur district, Swaminatha Iyer had his early education in Tamil under some
teachers in his village. Although his father Venkatasubbaiyer, a musician,
wanted his son to learn music, Swaminatha Iyer was inclined to concentrate on
When he was 17, he became a disciple of Mahavidwan Meenakshisundaram
Pillai, a Tamil scholar, who was in the service of the Thiruvavaduthurai
Adheenam in the old Thanjavur district. It was one of the wealthy Saiva mutts in
Tamil Nadu, which patronised Tamil teachers and men of letters and propagated
its religious philosophy through them. Swaminatha Iyer learnt Tamil under the
guidance of Meenakshisundaram Pillai for five years. During this period, he
earned the goodwill of the mutt head, himself a Tamil scholar.
After Meenakshisundaram Pillai's death, Swaminatha Iyer was retained in the mutt
as a vidvan (scholar). In 1880, he joined the Government Arts College at
Kumbakonam as a Tamil teacher, at the instance of the outgoing teacher
Thiagaraja Chettiar, also a former student of Meenakshisundaram Pillai. In his
autobiography, En Sarithiram, first serialised in the Tamil weekly Ananda
Vikatan, from January 1940 to May 1942 and later published as a book in 1950, he
gives a graphic account of the rigid selection process he had to undergo before
being appointed a Tamil teacher.
"Thanks to his erudition in Tamil, skill to
explain anything in an interesting manner, training in music and profound love
for others, he could easily attract the students," said K.V. Jagannathan, one of
his students, in his short biographical note published in En Sarithiram. He was
loved and venerated by the students. This was no mean achievement, considering
the fact that Swaminatha Iyer had little grounding in English at a time when the
craze for English was at its peak, and Tamil teachers did not enjoy the same
status as teachers of English and other subjects. After 23 years of service at
the Kumbakonam college, he joined the Presidency College, Chennai, in 1903. Even
after his retirement in 1919, he continued to teach Tamil. From 1924 to 1927, he
was the principal of the Meenakshi Tamil College. He spent the rest of his life
as a publisher, which immortalised his name. He died on April 28, 1942, after a
brief period of illness, at Thirukkazhukundram, now in Kancheepuram district.
SWAMINATHA IYER's search for Tamil manuscripts began even as he joined the
Kumbakonam college as a teacher. Many influential persons who took keen interest
in Tamil studies were in touch with him. His meeting with Ramasami Mudaliar,
District Munsiff of Salem, proved a turning point in his life. Swaminatha Iyer
readily responded to the Munsiff's request to read the palm leaf in his
possession and explain it to him.
When he knew that the manuscripts were that of Jeevaka Chintamani, which he had been looking for, he was overjoyed. He
transcripted the palm leaf manuscripts, a Buddhist work, into paper and edited
it with utmost care. He printed and published the epic with notes and
commentaries in 1887. It was an instant success. He mobilised funds from all
available sources to continue the task of publishing the other invaluable
literary works. Donations from Tamil lovers poured in. He also launched a
`pre-publication sale' campaign with success.
Then began Swaminatha Iyer's long search for the original texts of ancient
literary works. It was a search that lasted until his death. Many people
voluntarily parted with the manuscripts in their possession. Swaminatha Iyer
visited almost every hamlet and knocked at every door. He employed all the
resources at his command to get at the works.
As a result, a large number of
literary works which were gathering dust as palm leaf manuscripts in lofts,
store-rooms, boxes and cupboards saw the light of day. Of them, Silappathikaram,
Purananooru and Manimekalai were received by Tamil lovers with a lot of
enthusiasm. Purananooru, which mirrored the lives of Tamils during the Sangam
period, prompted scholarly research on the subject. In a span of about five
decades, Swaminatha Iyer published about 100 books, including minor poems,
lyrics, puranas and bhakti (devotional) works.
Referring to the high quality of Swaminatha Iyer's publications, Jagannathan
wrote in his biographical note: "What he published was not a mere transcription
of the manuscripts in palm leaves. If publication is so simple as that, many
others could have done it with success long ago. What Swaminatha Iyer did was to
edit and publish these works with detailed footnotes, commentaries and indices,
besides biographical notes on the authors. This was very useful and many readers
desired to preserve these books for posterity. All this is evidence of not only
the scholarship of the editor but also the hard work he had put in."
ANOTHER significant contribution made by Swaminatha Iyer is in the realm of
Tamil music, wrote Dr. Arimalam S. Padmanabhan, a researcher and academic, in a
paper on the Tamil scholar. Until Swaminatha Iyer came out with his publications
of Silappaathikaram, Paththuppaattu and Ettuththogai, music was a grey area in
During the previous four centuries, Telugu and Sanskrit dominated the music
scene in Tamil Nadu in the absence of any valuable information on Tamil music.
Swaminatha Iyer's publications threw light on the glorious presence of Tamil
music in the earlier centuries and paved the way for serious research on the
Abraham Pandithar's Karunamirda Sagaram was the first major research work and it
was followed by Vibulaanda Adigal's Yaazh Nool. Both these authors acknowledged
the fact that it was Swaminatha Iyer's publications that inspired them to do
"Silappathikaram is the best among the ancient Tamil literary works that provide
vast information on Tamil music," observes Prof. V.P.K. Sundaram, another noted
Tamil music researcher. "Without Swaminatha Iyer's publication there could have
been no Karunamirda Sagaram," he observes. As the son of a famous musician of
his time, Swaminatha Iyer learnt music from Gopalakrishna Bharathi, an
outstanding musical exponent and the author of Nandan Sarithiram, an immortal
work on a Dalit saint.
FOR his invaluable service to Tamil literature, Swaminatha Iyer was honoured
with several awards and titles. The government honoured him in 1906 with the
title "Mahamahopadhyaya" (Great Teacher). While the Bharatha Dharma Mandal
awarded him the title of "Dravida Vidya Bhooshan", Sri Sankaracharya of Kamakoti
Peetam honoured him with the title "Dakshinadya Kalanidhi". A doctorate was
awarded to him by the University of Madras in 1932.
Tamil poet and nationalist
Subramania Bharati, who inspired the freedom movement
with his powerful songs, was a distinguished contemporary of Swaminatha Iyer.
Paying glowing tributes to Swaminatha Iyer in one of his poems, Bharati called
him "Kumbamuni" (the saint from Kumbakonam) and said: "So long as Tamil lives,
poets will venerate you and pay obeisance to you. You will ever shine as an