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U. V. Swaminatha Iyer

Dr. U. V. Swaminatha Iyer (Uttamadhanapuram Venkatasubbaiyer Swaminatha Iyer Tamil: உத்தமதானபுரம் வேங்கடசுப்பையர் சாமிநாதையர்), 1855 – 1942 C.E., was a Tamil scholar and researcher who was instrumental in bringing many long-forgotten works of classical Tamil literature to light. His singular effort over five decades brought to light major literary works in Tamil and contributed vastly to the enrichment of its literary heritage. Dr. Iyer published over 91 books in his lifetime, on a variety of matters connected to classical Tamil literature, and collected 3067 paper manuscripts, palm leaf manuscripts and notes of various kinds. He is affectionly called as "Tamil Thatha" (Grandfather of Tamil)

Early life

Utthamadhanapuraam Venkatasubramanian Swaminathan was born on February 19, 1855 C.E. in the village of Suriaymoolai in the house of his maternal grandfather, near Kumbakonam in present-day Tamil Nadu. His father, Venkatasubbaiyer, was a musician and Sivakatha exponent who earned his living by giving discourses on the Hindu texts; by the nature of his profession, he travelled a lot. Observing his son's aptitude, Venkatasubbaiyer made all efforts to educate the boy and put him in the care and tutelage of noted Tamil scholars.

Swaminatha Iyer had his early education in Tamil under some teachers in his native village. Although his father Venkatasubbaiyer, a musician, wanted his son to learn music, Swaminatha Iyer was inclined to concentrate on Tamil. 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. This 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 a few years of study in Kunnam, Swaminatha Iyer moved to Mayavaram and continued his study of Tamil literature with Meenakshisundaram Pillai.

Academic career

Tyagaraja Chettiar was the head of the Tamil Department at the Government College, Kumbakonam. A student of Meenakshisundaram Pillai, he was a man of great erudition and was held in high esteem alike by his pupils and by the public. When Chettiar retired, he recommended that Swaminatha Iyer be invited to take his place. Swaminatha Iyer was duly appointed to that post on February 16, 1880. During his tenure at the College, Swaminatha Iyer met Ramaswami Mudaliar. The friendship between them proved to be a turning point in Swaminatha Iyer's life. Mudaliar was responsible for persuading Iyer to edit and publish the ancient Tamil classics. Swaminatha Iyer had till then confined his enjoyment of Tamil literature to medieval works. Mudaliar also gave him a handwritten copy of Seevaga Sindhamani for publication.

Manuscript recovery

As the Civaka Cintamani was a Jain classic, Swaminatha Iyer went to the homes of learned member of the Jain community 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 Cevaka Cintamani was published in 1887. From that time onwards, he began to search for Sangam classics with a view to editing and publishing them. After the Cevaka Cintamani, the Pattupattu was published.

Thus began Swaminatha Iyer's long search for the original texts of ancient literary works during which he regularly worked with S. V. Damodaram Pillai. 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, storerooms, boxes and cupboards saw the light of day. Of them, the Cilappatikaram, Manimekalai and Purananuru were received by Tamil lovers with a lot of enthusiasm. Purananuru, 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.

Swaminatha Iyer retired from active teaching in 1919. 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 research.

Contributions to Tamil music

Another significant contribution made by Swaminatha Iyer is in the realm of Tamil music. Until Swaminatha Iyer published the Cilappatikaram, Pattupattu and Ettuthokai, music was a grey area in Tamil research. 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 subject. 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.

His autobiography

Dr. Swaminatha Iyer published his autobiography, En Sarithiram, serialised in the Tamil weekly Ananda Vikatan, from January 1940 to May 1942. It was later published as a book in 1950.


Dr. Iyer was conferred the honorary doctoral degree (D.Litt.) by the University of Madras in 1906. In recognition of his outstanding literary accomplishments and contributions, he was also honoured with the title, Mahamahopathiyaya, literally: "Greatest of great teachers". In the same year, when the Prince and Princess of Wales visited Madras, a function was arranged where Swaminatha Iyer was honoured.

Dr. Iyer was awarded the title of Dakshina Kalanidhi in 1925. In 1932, the Madras University awarded an honorary PhD to him in recognition of his services in the cause of Tamil. India Post ( issued a commemorative postage stamp on 18 February 2006.

Death and legacy

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. 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 equated Iyer with Saint Agasthya when he called him "Kumbamuni" (Saint Agasthiar- Who was among the first exponents of Tamil - was supposed to have born in a "Kumbha" - a kind of vessel- hence the name Kumbamuni) and said: "So long as Tamil lives, poets will venerate you and pay obeisance to you. You will ever shine as an immortal."


  • Viswanathan, S., The patriarch of Tamil , Frontline Volume 22 - Issue 05, Feb. 26 - Mar. 11, 2005

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