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Genesis of Carnatic Music

Indian music, South Indian music, Carnatic music and Tamil music are synonyms

Dr. Amutha Pandian

In India two kinds of classical music are practised at present – Carnatic and Hindustani. Hindustani is practised mostly in North India and it is a known fact that this was born out of an amalgamation of indigenous music and the music of the Middle East, brought into India by the Mogul conquerors. Even though there are books at present to define its characteristics, for a thorough study of this style of music recourse to the musicology of Carnatic music is inevitable. No wonder then that when the great maestro Ravi Shankar was asked for the theory underlying the music that he performs he said he is only a performing artist and that for a possible theory one has to look up to South India.

The classical music typical of South India is Carnatic music; the term ‘Carnatic’ was used by the English who landed in the Malabar Coast, to denote the music that was practised from Mysore to Tiruvanandapuram. This South Indian music is Dravidian Music for the four states of South India- Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka –that constitute the ancient Dravidian Kingdom, and Tamil language has been the mother language of antiquity for these four Dravidian languages. Hence, Indian music, South Indian music, Carnatic music and Tamil music are synonyms.

In spite of these overt particulars several researchers still argue that Carnatic music was developed by the Aryans and has nothing to do with Tamil.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, when Europeans began to be interested in Indian music and began their research, Sanskrit works like Bharata Natya Sastra of the second century A.D., and Sangeetha Ratnakaram of the fifth century served as reference. While the former is a work on drama giving several details of music, the latter is replete with myths and legends.

Also popular books on Carnatic music say that Carnatic music owes its origin to the Vedas. Though Carnatic music is more suited to recite the Vedas, the Rig Veda was originally chanted with four notes Ri, Dha, Ga, and Ni and according to tradition certain portions of the Rig Veda, were chanted with the additional three notes Sa, Ma, Pa by Ravana, King of Lanka, which later became the Sama Veda. One popular misconception is about the nomenclature of the Sama

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European gentlemen who came to India to gather information about the antiquity of India, its ancient arts and culture were misled by those who have a very imperfect knowledge of it

Veda. Fox Strangways, in the Music of Hindustan (p.249–250), says that drinking of the juice of soma plant is the central point of the elaborate ritual described in the ninth book of the Rig Veda. Soma refers to the moon, and the Sama Veda is specially connected with the worship of ancestors whose abode is believed to be the moon. If the nomenclature suggests chanting that followed drinking of soma juice, or chanting that is made to the Moon God, the name must be soma gaanam’ and not ‘sama gaanam’. Ravana, when crushed underfoot by Lord Siva for his obdurate pride, being conversant with the four tantras (strategies of rhetoric) – sama (appeasement), bheda (argument), dhana (charity), danda (punishment) – chanted the portions of the Rig Veda to the accompaniment of the veena and appeased Lord Shiva’s wrath. Samam + Veda = Sama Veda, where ‘sama’ is pacifying. There are images in temples in South India, which depict this. In the temples at Madurai, Aavudayarkoil and many other places images of Ravana represent him as playing a veena of thousand strings with his twenty hands.

It is also a matter for regret that many European gentlemen who came to India to gather information about the antiquity of India, its ancient arts and culture were misled by those who have a very imperfect knowledge of it. The result was that the musicologists were often confounded by the appalling differences between the theories of music that was promulgated in these works and the music practised by veterans. Indian and Western musicologist, in the wake of nineteenth century, found it impossible to form a tangible scientific theory of the much-appreciated Carnatic music. C. R. Day, Fox - Strangways, E. Clements and others failed in their endeavors because they based their research on Sanskrit works, which were written with puranic imagination mixing plenty of myths and legends.

Any classical art is formalized, and organized. It fits into a grammatical framework and is governed by scientific rules. Yet the musicologists who ground their theories of music on the Sanskrit works neither define them in clear terms nor agree with each other in a scientific theory.

For example though most of the details that Sarangadeva gives in the Sangeetha Ratnakaram are details that explain the South Indian system, he is unscientific when talking about the intervals between sruthis, the number of sruthis, modal shift of tonic and the three grammas. Though Sarangadeva says that alaguu-s(sruthis) must have

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It was Abraham Pandithar who declared that while the theories promulgated from the Sanskrit works do not in anyway suit the practical music of South India

equal intervals, he also says that the number of sruthis is 22. How could 12 semitones be divided into 22 in equal proportion with the ratio of one fourth or one eighth? The zodiac sign (by which the Tamils formed their Vattappaalai) with12 houses will not be complete with the 22 alaguus of Sarangadeva. Kural Thiribu (modal shift of tonic) by which the three graamams (gamut) are made is impossible in Sarangadever’s system. Sarangadeva mentions the Dhaivatha Graamam, the Madhyama Graamam and the Gandhara Graamam a few times. But he says that the Madhyama Graamam was not popular in his days and that the Gandhara Graamam went away to the celestial region. This is perhaps because singing Kural Thiribu was not properly understood. However the way the Tamils sang Kural Thiribu could be deduced, from the description in the ‘Aaycchiyar Kuravai’ in the Silappathikaaram. The ‘Aaycchiyar Kuravai’ shows the great felicity with which the Tamils made Kural Thiribu. It was possible only because their music was scientific.

It was Abraham Pandithar who declared that while the theories promulgated from the Sanskrit works do not in anyway suit the practical music of South India (or Carnatic Music), some of the details in the Silappathikaaram cognates with the oral tradition of the Oduvaars of the Thevaram and the music of the Nagaswaram artists. (Karunamirtha Sagaram,p.)The facts that are undeniable proofs to conclude that the present Carnatic music is the ancient music practiced by the Tamils:

1. Details found in the Sanskrit works are not scientific

2. They in no way serve to explain the ancient music preserved in the oral tradition of the Oduvaars.

3. The music that is spoken of in the Tolkappiam, the Paripadal and the Silappathikaaram are highly systematized.

4. They explain the classical music that is practiced today.

Through these facts and recent research in history, linguistics and anthropology one can arrive safely at the following conclusions:

1. During the period of the sangams, Tamil music attained classical heights.

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translating their knowledge for the Sanskrit scholars some of the basics principles lost their explanations and relevance.

not by the Sanskrit speaking Aryans but the Tamil speaking Dravidians

3. When the Sanskrit scholars became expert exponents of Tamil music, they were so keen on reproducing the knowledge in their own language that Tamil books on music became extinct.

4. Most of the technical terms in music and musicology including the names of notes and panns were translated into Sanskrit.

5. The Buddhists and the Jains, with a philosophy based on restraint and asceticism, preached against pleasure, one of the four basic principles of the philosophy of the life of the Tamils, and consequently artists were pushed to the fringes of society.

6. With the rejuvenation of Indian Art in the 19 th and 20 th centuries, music of the Tamils was renamed Carnatic Music. However, for the theory of musicology, Sanskrit works were alone referred to.

7. When Indian and Western scholars tried to build a tangible theory of Carnatic music from the Sanskrit source there were incongruities because such a theory is inapplicable to the music practised by traditional musicians till today in the south of India.

Carnatic music was developed many thousands of years before the authors of Sanskrit works such as the Bharata Natya Sastra (500 A.D.), the Sangeetha Parijatham (600 A.D.), and the Sangeetha Ratnakara (1200A.D.), not by the Sanskrit speaking Aryans but the Tamil speaking Dravidians. Details of music in the Tholkappiam, the great Tamil work of the pre-Christian era on literary theory and linguistics, presuppose a highly systemized music. If separate panns are designated to separate landforms it is imperative that a scientific and systemized music should have been practised in Tamil Nadu even before the time of the Tholkappiam.

Adiyaarkkunallar, in the Preface to the Silappathikaaram, deplores the extinction of works on music, and quotes a few works that helped him in his commentary. The books he refers to are Agattiyam, Isainunukkam, Indira Kaaliam, Gunanool, Kootanool, Saeyantam,

Panchabhaaratheeam,

Panchamarabu, Bharatasenapateeam, Bhaaratham, Perungurugu, Perunaarei, Mathivaanar Naataka Tamil Nool and Muruval. Pervungalam or the yazh (Veena) with 1000 strings and other yazhs with 21, 17, and 14 strings, which are referred to in the above works, were all extinct even in his own time.

Seittriyam,

Talavahaiyottu

Nool,

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They completely changed the names of some of the ancient pans (ragas) and also technical terms

According to Hindu Music and Gayan Samaj (Part III, p. 8) Hindu music as a system was developed long ago. Dr. Tennant says that by the mere presence of large number of instruments in India, Hindus might be regarded as considerably proficient in music. W.W. Hunter in The Indian Empire (p.110-112) and K.B. Deval in Hindu Musical Scale and the 22 sruthi-s (p 1) are of the opinion that an Indian musical scale was in existence even before the Brahman period of 2500 B.C. to 1400 B.C. Hindu priests who resided and meditated in the primeval forests and inaugurated civilization developed it into a system and science. Because this system is very different from the arka system developed by acharyas (who first chanted the Vedas in only one note, and then two and subsequently four) this music must be the South Indian music.

Hindu Music and the Gayan Samaj speaks of the systems present in North India and then says “Besides these there is the Southern Indian system distinct in it, and constituting an important section of the Indian musical system, termed the Karnataka system” (Quoted in Karunamirtha Sagaram Part I,Book 1). C.R. Day says that (p.12) of the two systems practiced in Southern India, Hindustani is practised mostly by Moghuls, while Carnatic is confined more to the southern races, and that it may be called the natural music of the south and that it is more scientific and refined than the Hindustani, and again (p.13) that because South India was less disturbed by internal commotions “ the science of music would seem to have been maintained and cultivated long after the original art had been lost in the North”(p. 13) . Moreover according to Hindu Music and Gayan Samaj the Dravidian system is more Vedic than the northern Hindustani.

As already pointed out, when the Aryans entered South India during the period of the last sangam, Brahmans learnt Sanskrit, and made fresh works in both the languages that account for the presence of Sanskrit words in Tamil. Older writings became obsolete owing to disuse and other natural causes. Subsequently these Aryans became experts in South Indian music, which “gave them power and influence they prized so much” (C .R. Day, p.5) and this led to doubts about the antiquity of the language and culture of the Tamils. They discarded all the existing fragments of works of Tamil music, wrote new ones in Sanskrit and handed them to posterity. They completely changed the names of some of the ancient pans (ragas) and also technical terms, giving Sanskrit names with Sanskrit letters as mnemonics for

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Written without proper comprehension of the minute details of Carnatic music these texts caused great confusion regarding the theories of Carnatic music

determining them thus giving them derivative names. They further classified the pann-s introducing some of the chief Sanskrit ideas into it. The real harm was done when they handed down through written texts what they did not understand. Written without proper comprehension of the minute details of Carnatic music these texts caused great confusion regarding the theories of Carnatic music.

Pythagoras, the Greek philosopher, though well conversant with the sruthis used in the South Indian system, being unaccustomed to tuning an instrument by sounding Sa and Pa as the South Indians did, was misled by the system in the Sangeetha Ratnakaram, took with him the measurements 2 / 3 and ¾ and developed the western music scale out of it. From that time onwards, there have been numerous theories as to the number of sruthis in the South Indian system. As already observed, European musicologists were very often

misled by those who had a very imperfect knowledge of it. For example, a very great scholar like C.R. Day, often misled by what he read in the Sangeetha Ratnakaram, says that “sruthi is of 22 kinds also … Doubts however exist as to whether the intervals of the sruthis were

In the arrangements of the sruthis, modern usage is

diametrically opposite to the classical one; the latter placing them before the note to which they respectively belong, while the former gives position after the notes. The arrangements of the frets of the veena and other stringed instruments accord with the modern acceptation of the principle. According to the rule laid down in the classical treatises, the disposition of the notes is reversed” (C.R. Day. p.15). He comes to this conclusion after much research. But nobody told him that the present veena, arranged like the European system of Equal Temperament, belongs to the ancient South Indian system, and that the treatise which he refers to does not tell him all the truth. A detailed study of the four different kinds of yazhs mentioned in Tamil works reveals that this system of notes according to equal Temperament was known in very ancient times in the Tamil country. As modern musicians are ignorant of that system they declare that ancients did not know the art of having permanent frets for veena; but had them adjusted from time to time to suit different ragas, and that the modern system of having permanent frets originated from the time of Sevappa Naicker of very recent date, having the English notes of a scale for model.

equal or not

This ancient system lost its subtlety and became corrupt owing to incorrect mathematical calculations and computations in the

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Pandithar, through his extensive research, provides enough evidences

Sanskrit works. This wrong system, combined with the haphazard system of Pythagoras, resulted in many books being written on the subject with contradictory theories. Though some of the theories written in Sanskrit are as old as 1,000 years, they do not possess any scientific authenticity and firmness as the oral tradition in vogue at present in Tamil Nadu that is quiet systematic. Further, in spite of the scarcity of literature, South Indian music has been preserved and taught to others by those professional musicians supported for generations by ancient temples who learnt music by oral transmission and who became experts in playing instruments, such as the veena, the flute, the nagaswaram, and the mridangam and in dancing and singing. In this regard it must be remembered that it was a non- brahman woman who was not allowed in the temple dominated by the achariyaars wrote the panns for the Thevaaram hymns when they were recovered by the great Chola king.

Pandithar, through his extensive research, provides enough evidences for the following findings in his great work Karnamirtha sagaram.

1. Carnatic music, which has been practised by the Tamils from the ancient times, is based on sound scientific principles.

2. The 22-alaguu (sruthi in Sanskrit and microtones in English) system of Sarangadeva is wrong since modal shift of tonic is impossible in this system. There must be 24 alaguus.

3. The Tamils determined these alaguus by listening to the concordance between Sa and Pa. Eventhough the Tamils were experts in mathematics, they did not use mechanical appliances in determining the notes due to the practical difficulties in using them. Instead they believed in developing a high degree of musical sensibility to distinguish very minute alaguus.

4. Pythagoras, who did not understand this way of determining the alaguus, calculated Sa - Pa to be 2 / 3 and Sa - Ma to be ¾ and based the calculation of notes of western music accordingly on these measurements.

5. The Mother pann is Chempaalai, now known as Sankaraabharanam.

Though great musicians like Shyama Sastri, Thiyagaraja Swamigal, Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer and Muthuswamy Dhikshidhar composed and sang heart-melting hymns, they have not written the grammar

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This stanza alone is proof enough to conclude that the music of the Tamils was systemized during the Sangam age

for writing songs to panns. Though they belonged to Tamil Nadu and their mother tongue was Tamil, Sanskrit charlatanism was so great those days that they did not compose Tamil songs.The great songs of the bhakthi cult were overlooked. It was considered improper to sing the great songs of Arunachala Kavirayar, Muthu Thandavar and Marimuthapillai in Temples.

Though such great music works in Tamil of the Sangam period are lost the little that is in the Paripadal of the Sangam age and the Silapathikaaram of Sangam Maruviya Kaalam (transitional period) are enough to form tangible theories of Carnatic music.

Some of the stanzas in the Paripadal, written by Nallandhuvanaar, who lived before the poet Illango and about thousand years before Adiyaarkunallar, along with its commentary by Parimelazhagar, provide ample proof to the high standard of the music of the Tamils.

The translation of one of the stanzas of Paripadal 11 goes thus:

‘The music of the beetles that were singing from inside the flowers adorning the hair of the damsels, in spite of their efforts to drive them off, resembled the Yazh. This was in the relation of Kural to Ili, which is Kilai note. This was the pann Marutham that appeared in the Paalai where Ozhai is Kural. Ozhai is Kilai to Ili as it is fifth to Kural leftwards. It implies that it is the Yama Yazh appearing in Vilarippaalai. The beetles sang them harmoniously according to Thaalam”.(trans.Abraham Pandithar)

This stanza alone is proof enough to conclude that the music of the Tamils was systemized during the Sangam age. Panns were classified and thaalams were defined. Relationships between notes were mathematically derived to the finest level to give maximum joy. Harmony is scientific and beauty is in harmony. The following is a translation of the commentary by Parimelazhagar of the nineteenth song lines 41 to 46 in the Paripadal. These songs are written in praise of the deity by Nappannanaar and set to music in pann Gaandhaaram by Maruthanallachuthanar.

“Those who get music out of the divine Brahma Veena, those who create music with their fingers out of the Kulal (flute) and those who enjoy the music of the Yazh by producing the Paalai from the Ili and the Kural neither too loud not too soft but in a middling degree; Those who make the noise of the murasu(drum) to be in complete combination with the thaalam (beat) of the music of the Kural in the Yazh”.

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they contain very important clues to the grammar of the music that the Tamils practised and testify to the fact that Carnatic music

The strings vibrated in harmony with the human voice and the percussion instrument murasu kept strict time in conjunction. There was orchestral music and the notes of octaves they selected were always suited to situations.

If a work like the Silappathikaaram, which is primarily an epic of love and revenge, treats several details of music pertaining to subtle nuances in spontaneous felicity how intertwined should music and dance have been in the life of the people? Though the details are meager, they contain very important clues to the grammar of the music that the Tamils practised and testify to the fact that Carnatic music, which has been practised by the Tamils from the ancient times, is based on sound scientific principles.

However not only are those passages difficult to understand, but also some of the words used are obsolete. The commentaries (by Arumpatha-urai-aasiriyar and Adiyaarkunallar) written about ten centuries after Ilango either overlooked what happened in between the centuries or failed to explain everything in detail. It is for this reason that people living after ten centuries from the time of the commentators find it still more difficult to understand what Ilango meant. The commentators are also not explicit in many places. In spite of all this, the little that is in the Silappathikaaram proves adequate to explain certain features of South Indian music.

Further, the Silappathikaaram says that the musician must posses a keen ear for the different concordant and discordant relationships of inai, kilai, pagai and nattpu. They determined alaguus by listening to the concordance between Sa and Pa.

There is textual proof in the Silappathikaaram for how some of the basics principles lost their explanations and relevance. The work mentions two ways or traditions of singing. The names Thondrupadu marabu and Vampurumarabu (Traditional and modern or neo) suggest that, in this age, new methods of singing began displacing the traditional ways. It must also be noted that historians call the age of the Silappathikaaram Sangam Maruviya Kaalam’ (The age of the deterioration of the Sangam).

The Silappathikaaram belongs to the age when the land of the Tamils was assailed by the cultural conquests from the people of the north, especially of the Sanskrit speaking people. The educated class among the Tamils known as anthanars began translating their

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If one who knows the language is often incapable of understanding the idea of an author how could people of alien tongues understand it?

knowledge for the Sanskrit scholars. The Brahmins 1 of South India, though they were born in South India and their mother tongue was Tamil, did not care to write in Tamil. They translated what they learnt from their own language into Sanskrit. 2 For example about 460 years ago, Venkatamahi, son of Govinda Dhikshidhar, the Prime Minister to the Chola king, arranged together the modes of panns used in South Indian music but wrote his work in Sanskrit and called it Chaturdhandhi Prakashika. Though it is about the music of South India, it is written in a foreign language and so it lacks clarity. The intentions of Maha Vaidhyanatha Iyer, who composed, in Sanskrit, Raga Malika for the 72 Melakartas – although he was a good Tamil scholar and derived the substance was from the Periyapuranam – are also dubious. Such constant changes, therefore, from one language to another lead to number of errors and admixtures, so much so that the original meaning is often lost. If one who knows the language is often incapable of understanding the idea of an author how could people of alien tongues understand it?

When the Sanskrit scholars became expert exponents of Tamil music, they were so keen on reproducing the knowledge in their own language that Tamil books on music became extinct. Older writings became obsolete owing to disuse and natural causes. Subsequently, these Aryans became experts in South Indian music, which “gave them power and influence they prized so much” (C.R. Day p. 5) and this led to doubts about the antiquity of the language and culture of the Tamils. As has been argued earlier, they replaced existing fragments of works of Tamil music with new ones in Sanskrit. However, they did not understand the minute details of Carnatic Music and so these texts caused great confusion regarding the theories of Carnatic music.

Sanskrit words were gradually introduced into Tamil. Most of the technical terms in music including the names of notes and pans, were translated into Sanskrit. Later most of these Tamil terms were considered Sanskrit derivations. The term Brahma Veena can be quoted as an example. The Bhirma Melam, a Telugu work written by Kanagaiyaa Kavi Saathuurigam, records 24 alaguus in Brahma Veena. The Maelathikaralakhshanam, a Sanskrit work of relatively very recent times also refers to 24 alaguus. The expressions ‘Rudra Veena’ and ‘Brahmma Veena’ are also found in the work and musicians now believe that this word originated in Sanskrit. But the presence of the

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term ‘brama veena’ in the 41 st to 46 th stanzas in the Paripadal is an undeniable proof that this nomenclature belonged originally to Tamil.

This attitude must change

Venkatamahi says that he constructed the 72 Melakartas and he names the panns are in Sanskrit. But a little research will prove that all the names are Tamil derivations. The book, Vyasa Kadakam, gives the names of several pans, such as ‘Kanakangi’, ‘Rathnangi’ and ‘Ganamurthy’, which are Tamil derivations. The ancient Vyasa Muni would not have written the Vyasa Kadakam for, if so, Bharata in the fifth century and Sarangadeva in the thirteenth century would have referred to it. So another Vyasa, who lived after Sarangadeva and before Venkatamahi, should have been the author of the Vyasa Kadakam. He started recording the changed names of Tamil panns and Venkatamahi completed the task. It then became very easy for the Sanskrit exponents to swear by the Sanskrit works and the fact that the present Carnatic music is the erstwhile Tamil music was soon forgotten. This attitude must change. Only then further research in Tamil Musicology will be intensified which in turn would make possible the performance of Carnatic music with the minute alaguu system mentioned in Tamil Literature. It will also then be possible to retrieve all the 12,000 panns and the seven kinds of thalams mentioned in Tamil Literature.

Notes:

1. Brahmins were ‘anthanar’ class of the Dravidians. “The Brahman caste habituated to an intellectual life, and in the exercise of verbal memory to an astonishing degree”(Slater, Gilbert. The Dravidian Elements in Indian Culture New Delhi: Asian Educational Services, p.62), found in the Aryan supremacy and administration, an opportunity. This fact and intermarriages made some Brahmans to consider themselves Aryans and superior to the other Dravidians. Some of them even suffered identity crisis in their enthusiasm to uphold Sanskrit language along with their necessity to possess the rich culture of the Tamils.

2. Again what Gilbert Slater says must be quoted here. “

the second

and third stages of Aryan invasion involved a struggle for survival

between languages. That the brawnier but thicker-witted Aryan should bear the extraordinarily difficult languages of the ‘ill- speaking man’ as the Vedas term the Dravidian, was not be supposed. The Dravidian instead had to learn Sanskrit. The

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Brahman caste (Dravidians) habituated to an intellectual life and trained in the exercise of verbal memory to an astonishing degree, found here an opportunity … And the Brahmans having thus taken the initiative in spreading the use of Sanskrit, or Sanskrit derivatives, among the Dravidian population, others less eagerly and with greater difficulty followed by degrees just as has happened with the spread of English in Madras Presidency.” ” (Slater, p.62)

Books Referred:

Abraham Pandithar. Karnamirtha Sagaram. (Thanjavur:Lawley

Press,1917)

Bharata Muni. Natya Sastra (trans.) Manmohan Gosh. Calcutta

Clements, E. Introduction to the Study of Indian Music (London:

Longman, Green and Co., 1913)

Day, C. R. The Music and Musical Instruments Southern India and Decccan. (London:Novello,Ewer and Co., and Adam and Charles

Black,1891)

Fox –Strangways. A. H. The Music of Hindustan. (Oxford:Clarenden Press, 1916 .

Hunter,W.W. The Indian Empire. (London:W.H.Allen and Co.,1878)

Paripadal with Commentry. (Tirunelvely, Saiva Siddanta Publishers,

1964)

Saminatha Iyyar,U.Ve. Silapathikaram with Commentry(tamil, Chennai,U.Ve. Sa.Nool Nilayam, 1978)