Tasveer Ghar: A Digital Archive of South Asian Popular Visual Culture

When a Language Becomes a Mother/Goddess

An Image Essay on Tamil

Let us look at (Figure 4):

In this picture, we encounter Tamiḻttāy as she appears early in her pictorial career, gracing the frontispiece of an anthology of poems called Moi araci [Queen Language, or queen of languages]. This book, printed in 1947 by a key centre of Tamil revivalist learning, is a compilation of numerous poems in praise of the language, some pre-modern but most by poets of the late nineteenth and early half of the twentieth centuries. In the book’s frontispiece—which pictorially echoes many of its verbal claims—Tamil appears as a gloriously attired bejeweled queen (araci), a shining crown on her head, a large resplendent halo casting a glow around her. Unlike human queens, though, she has four arms, two of which hold the veena (although many Tamil devotees would insist that it is an ancient Tamil lute called a yāḻ). In one of her other hands is placed a printed book, a symbol that fittingly reminds us of the role of print in spreading the message of Tamil devotion.  In a fourth hand, she holds a baton. Her status as a goddess of territory is visually signaled by the fact that she sits on a low stool placed on peninsular India, whose mapped outline she occupies, her feet firmly planted in a lotus in full bloom at the tip of the subcontinent. The island of Sri Lanka—where Tamil is spoken by a small but significant minority—is transformed into a swan, the queen’s vehicle.  Mountains to the north further demarcate her domain.

Moi araci’s editor, Velayutam Pillai, who presumably commissioned this picture (although the artist remains anonymous), offers the following explanation:

"Researchers insist that all over India, and in parts beyond, Tamil blood and culture still flourishes. It is to mark this that Tamiḻttāy's auspicious form spreads all over. Because the Tamil language is believed to be separated into the three parts of iyal, icai and nāṭakam, Tamiḻttāy holds a book in [one of] her right hands [signifying iyal, or literature], both her right and left arms holds the yāḻ (music), and in [one] left hand, she carries a baton, talaik kōl [signifying] (drama, according to the Cilapātikāram). That Sri Lanka is shown as a swan at her auspicious feet points to the fact that Tamil flourishes there as well."


About a decade earlier, Tamiḻttāy put in a visual appearance in one of the poet Suddhananda Bharati’s numerous publications (Figure 5). In this picture, Tamiḻttāy is a two-armed seated queen (araci), her body at an angle to the viewer. In her hands she holds a musical instrument, and also what look like a spear and a scepter (with a bird seated on it). Most saliently, her seated body occupies what is clearly recognizable as the roughly mapped outline of peninsular India, that part of the subcontinent that is inhabited by speakers of the Dravidian family of languages of which Tamil is the oldest known member. The island of Sri Lanka is transformed here as well into a swan seemingly looking up at the seated figure.

At first glance, Tamiḻttāy in these pictures (Figures 4 and 5), as well as elsewhere, resembles Saraswati (Figure 6), the Sanskritic-Hindu goddess of learning.
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