As a powerful medium of communication, languages can exist thousands of years.  Today we can still find some of the classical languages on earth which form the basis for the development of the major civilisations.
In the European culture the phrase ‘classical languages’ refers principally to both Latin and Greek.
The two languages in India which were given the status of classical languages are Sanskrit and Tamil.
What is a classical language?
The term ‘classical’ is derived from the Latin word ‘classicus’. From Latin it was adopted in French and afterwards from French into English.
A classical language is a language that has a literature which is classical in nature. According to George L. Hart, University of California, Berkeley, a classical language should be:
It should have an independent tradition that arose mostly on its own, not as an offshoot of another tradition.
It must have a large and extremely rich body of ancient literature.
The Sahitya Academy’s Expert Committee (INDIA) mentioned the following four criteria for a classical language.
The high antiquity of early texts/recorded history of over 1500 to 2000 years.
A body of ancient literature/texts that is considered a valuable heritage by generations of speakers.
The literary tradition should be original and not borrowed from another speech community.
The classical language and literature should be distinct from the modern and there may also be a discontinuity between the classical language and its later forms of offshoots.
The Government of India, by its October 12, 2004 Order, designated Tamil as a ‘Classical language’, since Tamil meets all the requirements of being a classical language.
According to George L.Hart, California, Berkeley,
Tamil is extremely old (as old as Latin).
It arose as an entirely independent tradition with almost no influence from Sanskrit or other   languages.
Its ancient literature is indescribably vast and rich.
Tamil has a very rich literary heritage and a long literary tradition spanning more than 2500 years and may be far older than that. The history of Tamil literature is an integral part of the history of Tamil Nadu and  closely linked with the social, political and cultural trends of the various periods.
Antiquity and the evolution of Tamil Literary Conventions
The Tholkappiyam is a work on the grammar of Tamil language and rhetorics and the oldest book in Tamil available today. The author is Tholkappiyanaar.
Tholkappiyam is divided into 3 books. Phonology (Ezhuttathikaaram), Morphology and syntax (Sollathikaaram) and subject matter of poetry (Porulathikaaram).
In the Porulathikaaram, Tholkappiyam writes grammar for poetics. Tamil is the only language in the world that describes such a grammar.
Since grammar books are usually written after the existence of literature over long periods, it is obvious that a significant amount of literature could have preceded Tholkappiyam.
There are over 250 references in Tholkappiyam which provide substantial evidence of the existence of many classical and grammatical works in Tamil prior to Tholkappiyam. Moreover, it should be noted that before the literature from which these literary conventions were written, there must have been a time when the people lived this life.
P.T. Srinivasa Iyengar in his book ‘History of the Tamils, from the earliest to 600 A.D,p.63’ states that
At first the bard’s poetry was a true mirror of the life led by the people of that time.
Later poets kept up the traditional imagery of earlier ones.
These traditional poetic images were later crystallised into literary conventions.
The ancient Tamils divided the habitable parts of the earth into five natural regions. Tholkappiyam names these regions as follows:
Kurinji – The hilly country.
Mullai – The wooded land between the highlands and the lowlands.
Paalai – The dry waterless regions.
Marutham – The lower courses of rivers/The agricultural land.
Neythal – The coastal regions which skirts the sea.
Thiru V. Kalyanrasundaram the Tamil scholar and essayist in this book ‘Murugan allathu azhagu’ (Lord Murugan or Beauty) says that firstly people lived on the mountains and then gradually migrated to other regions.
Therefore, it must have taken a very long period of time,
For the Tamils to have migrated from the mountain to another region and for the culture to have evolved in these five regions as mentioned in the Tholkappiyam.
When bards began to sing in each region and reflected the conditions of life in that region.
When the practice of poets changed into fixed literary conventions and a poem sung in any of these five regions should deal with a particular episode in man – woman relationship.
For example,
Kurinji– The meeting of lovers
Marutham – Love quarrel (sulking)
Paalai – The pangs of separation.
Taking the evolution of these literary conventions into consideration, P.T. ShrinivasaIyengar (History of the Tamils, from the earliest to 600 A.D,p.71) concluded that the early culture of the Tamils must be very ancient and must have started a few millenniums before Christ.
This makes the Tamil language and culture extremely old.
According to George L. Hart, California, Berkeley,
    ‘Tamil constitutes the only literary tradition indigenous to India that is not derived from Sanskrit. Indeed its literature arose before the influence of Sanskrit in the South became strong and so is qualitatively different from anything we have in Sanskrit or other Indian languages.’
    ‘The quality of classical Tamil literature is such that it can fit to stand beside the great literatures of Sanskrit, Greek, Latin.’
‘Tamil has its own poetic theory, its own grammatical tradition, its own esthetics and a large body of literature that is quite unique.’
Kamil V. Zvelebil, a European scholar and an exponent of the classical status of Tamil, stated in his book, ‘The smile of Murugan on Tamil literature of South India,pp.1-2’: “But the early Tamil poetry was rather unique not only by virtue of the fact that some of its features were so unlike everything else in India, but, by virtue of its literary excellence; those 26,350 lines of poetry promote Tamil to the rank of one of the great classical languages of the world.”
The History of Tamil literature is divided into 3 periods:
The ancient period – which comprises of
Sangam period              (300 B.C.E – 200 C-E)
Post Sangam period     (200 C.E – 600 C.E)
The Medieval Period    (600 C.E – 1700 C.E)
 The Modern Period      (1700 C.E onwards)
The period from 300 B.C.E. to 600 C.E is known as the Classical period in Tamil literature and the literature that appeared during that period is known as the Classical literature.
The Sangam Age
The Sangam age is considered to be the golden era of Tamil language. It was the time when Tamil Nadu was ruled by the three ‘crowned kings’, namely the Cheras, Cholas and the Pandyas. During that period, the main duty of these kings was not only to protect their country and their people but also to protect their language, literature and culture. Great poets were revered and were gifted with gold and other sources of wealth.
Sangam means ‘academy’. The Tamil Sangams were assemblies of Tamil Scholars and poets.
The Sangam age comprised of 3 different Sangams.
The literature that appeared during the 1stSangam is all lost.
Among the wealth of material produced during the 2ndSangam, the Tholkaapiyam is the only book available today.
The 3rd Sangam was held in the city of Madurai. Much of the literature belonging to the 3rd Sangam has been lost and part of this literature which is still available today is known as the ‘Sangam Literature’ which comprises the eight anthologies (Ettuthokai) and the Ten Idylls (PatthuPaattu)
Sangam Literature
This Sangam Literature laid down the foundation for the entire Tamil poetic tradition that has flourished for over 2000 years. It constitutes of 26,350 lines written by 473 poets.
Sangam poetry is highly conventionalised. These conventions are found in  Tholkappiyam but are much older as they come from ancient oral bardic tradition.
Sangam literature was written within the framework of well prescribed and socially accepted conventions established in the Tholkappiyam and were classified into two broad categories, namely ‘Akam’ (erotic) and ‘Puram’ (heroic).
‘Akam’ means interior, heart, mind, house, family. Poems about ‘Akam’ in Sangam Literature deals with human emotions, love, separation, lover’s quarrel.
 In the various poems the poet describes the situation, emotions, the climatic conditions, the various elements of flora and fauna, the animals, the inhabitants and the culture pertaining to each landscape.
The poems about ‘Akam’ were categorised in 5 different ‘Thinai’ (landscape) namely:
Kurinji (The hills)
Mullai (The forest)
Paalai (The dried region – hills and forests when afflicted to extreme drought)
Marutham (The agricultural land)
Neythal (Lands by the seashore).
Poems about ‘Puram’ deal with all other aspects of human experience such as heroism, war, ethics, philanthropy, social life and customs.
Post Sangam Period
The post Sangam period is the period from 2nd century C.E to 6th century C.E.
During this period the two great Epics of Tamil Literature mainly Silappathikaaram by IlangoAdigal and Manimekalai by Saattanaar saw the day. These two epics are also known as the ‘Twin epics’.
The collection of the minor eighteen anthologies (The pathinenkeezhKanakku) was of this period. These authors created works mainly on morality and ethics among which the Thirukkural is the most ancient and most well-known.