The literature of the Chola period was partly secular and largely religious. The age of devotional poems had come to an end with the last of the Alvars for Vaishnavite bhaktism and with Manikkavachakar for Saivite religion.
From the tenth century onwards new efforts in a new direction were made by the men of religion. Nambiandar Nambi collected the Tevaram hymns and edited them primarily.
His successors continued the edition till the sacred books of the Saiva canon were made into twelve Tirumurais (the Tamil equivalent of samhitas). Nathamuni, a Vaishnava, had to toil more laboriously to collect the 4000 of their sacred hymns.
The two editors set these hymns to music and established a tradition of these verses being sung ceremonially in temples. The oduvars in Saiva temples and the araiyar in the Vaishnava temples became the custodians of this oral traditions.
Sankara who wrote the commentary on the Brahmasutra did so in the eighth century and then Kerala had not become distinctly different from Tamilnad. Ramanuja coming three centuries later was a Tamilian whose major works are all in Sanskrit.
The philosophical treatises written by these masters are common property of thinkers everywhere but particularly so in Tamilnad. The Smarta tradition started by Sankara preferred Sanskrit to the language of the masses for its metaphysical exposition.
In the case of the Vaishnavite tradition, however, Tamil was held in equal reverence and many of the commentaries on Vaishnavite sacred texts were written in a mixed style half Tamil and half Sanskrit.
There was another order of semi-religious communication namely, the Puranic literature, of which some texts were the original product of Tamil genius as in the case of the Periyapuranam but some were great translations of Sanskrit originals like the Ramayana of Kambar.
The mystics in the Tamil country most of whom were the Siddhas and some rare ones-Vaishnavites like Nammalvar and Saivites like Manikkavachakar-adopted an esoteric language and quaint style. Tirumandiram of Tirumular of the early Pallava period considered to be a sacred text for Saivas set the pattern for Siddha Saiva mysticism.
The Pattinattupillai, a rich merchant Puhar renounced and preached renunciation. He has a collection of moving and powe verses which are mystical and pessimistic. The Periyapuranatn, the Saivite hagiology write in the period of Kulottunga II (also called Anabhaya Cholan) was the result; it is said of religious reaction to the reputation of the Jaina work Chintamani. Some scholars claim tha the Periyapuranatn is just the Mapuranam and the number 63 for the Nayanmars was insp' by the 63 Jaina saints.
The Chola devotion to Saivism was responsible for the phenom popularity of the Tiruttondarpuranam which is another name for Periyapuranatn. The Ramay of Kamban is the longest epic in Tamil running to over 12,000 verses, though it is susp- that many admiring imitators of Kamban's style of narration interpolated a number of their own verses so cleverly that even experts find its difficult to distinguish the interpolate from the original. Kambar's Ramayana is no mere translation of Valmiki.
Even the story was 'appropriately' altered by Kambar. The emphasis in the Tamil version is on the divinity of Rama and the heroism of Ravana. Many have admitted that Kamban like Milton is on the side of the hero typifying evil. Kambar's description of Ravana's court reminds one certain!, of Milton's account of Satan's court.
The literary pleasure one derives by reading Kambar is much greater than the religious conviction or the spiritual satisfaction which the epic gives, It is probably true that the Ramayana, called the Ramavathara by the author, is the proudest literary achievement of the Tamils.
The Kalingattupparani the first and the best of its kind written by Jayankondar a poet in the court of Kulottunga I, gives a heroic account in Hyperbolic terms of the first Kulottunga's second Kalinga war, as a parani it remains unsurpassed.
Ottakkuttar, the author of the Takkayakaparani, the Uttararamayana, the three Ulas on the three Chola kings Vikrama, Kulottunga, and Rajaraja was the poet-laureate in the courts of these three kings. Puhalendi traditionally reputed to be a successful rival to Ottakkuttar in the Chola court wrote only a short poem on the story of Nala called Nalavenba, but the poem which is as sweet as it is short is an unsurpassed gem and secures to its author a safe place in Tamil literature.
Kalladam by one Kalladanar certainly belongs to the Imperial Chola period for it speaks of the divine sports of Siva relating to Manickavachakar. It is the recipient of the highest admiration of Tamil orthodox scholarship but is unjustly ridiculed by some critics. In the medieval period we hear also of an Auvai, the author of a number of didactic poems like the Attisudi.
These are pretty works intended for the edification of children and many childlike adults. This Auvai is not to be confused with her illustrious namesake of the Sangam period. These literary works reveal the range of Tamilian moral code. These works reveal also the proverbial wisdom of the Tamils in which they repeat themselves not only in thought but even in phrasing. The stories of the mutual antagonism among Ottakkuttar, Kambar, Puhalendi and Auvai are possibly apocryphal.
Among the Jainas, Buddhamitra's Virasoliyam written in the days of Virarajendra introduces Sanskrit norms into Tamil grammar and is a pioneer followed by like-minded commentators for example Senavarayar etc. The Purapporul Venba Malai was also by a Jaina Aiyan Aridanar.
Narkavirajanambi's Ahapporul and Dandi's Alankaram, a work on rhetoric and figures of speech, are minor works of grammar but eminently suited for beginners. Yapparungalam by Amitasagaranar is an elaborate and complicated work on poetics and prosody on which the author himself wrote a commentary.
A simplified students' edition of this work called Yapparungalakkarigai written by the same author has a commentary by Gunasagara; the author and the commentator were Jainas. Poyyamoli who wrote an exemplary and model
Kovai on Tanjaivanan, a Pandya general, beautifully explicates the principles enunciated by Narkavirajanambi. It was during this period that the devotional poems of Pallava times were codified and standard works on Tamil grammar were written and many commentaries on the Tolkappiyam and other Sangam classics were made. Kundalakesi, a Buddhist work, Nilakesi a Jaina work and Valaiyapathi were the products of non-Hindu genius. Epigraphic Literature
During the Chola period the tradition of inscribing mostly on stone and occasionally on copper continued. The prefaces to the inscriptions known as prasastis set forth the achievements of contemporary kings and occasionally could be detected exaggerating. They have some literary merits. Their value consists in employing a large number of words in quite common usage which have since fallen off and are not to be found in standard literary works.