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The Sangam Age constitutes an important chapter in the history of South India. According to Tamil legends, there existed three Sangams (Academy of Tamil poets) in ancient Tamil Nadu popularly called Muchchangam. These Sangams flourished under the royal patronage of the Pandyas. The first Sangam, held at Madurai, was attended by gods and legendary sages but no literary work of this Sangam was available. The second Sangam was held at Kapadapuram but all the literary works had perished except Tolkappiyam. The third Sangam at Madurai was founded by Mudathirumaran. It was attended by a large number of poets who produced voluminous literature but only a few had survived. These Tamil literary works remain useful sources to reconstruct the history of the Sangam Age.

Sangam Literature

The corpus of Sangam literature includes Tolkappiyam, Ettutogai, Pattuppattu, Pathinenkilkanakku, and the two epics – Silappathikaram and Manimegalai. 

  • Tolkappiyam authored by Tolkappiyam is the earliest of the Tamil literature. It is a work on Tamil grammar but it provides information on the political and socioeconomic conditions of the Sangam period. 
  • The Ettutogai or Eight Anthologies consist of eight works – Aingurunooru, Narrinai, Aganaooru, Purananooru, Kuruntogai, Kalittogai, Paripadal and Padirruppattu. 
  • The Pattuppattu or Ten Idylls consist of ten works – Thirumurugarruppadai, Porunararruppadai, Sirupanarruppadai, Perumpanarruppadai, Mullaippattu, Nedunalvadai, Madurai Kanji, Kurinjippatttu, Pattinappalai and Malaipadukadam. 
    • Both Ettutogai and Pattuppattu were divided into two main groups – Aham (love) and Puram (valour). 
  • Pathinenkilkanakku contains eighteen works mostly dealing with ethics and morals.  The most important among them is Tirukkural authored by Tiruvallur. 
  • Silappathikaram written by Elango Adigal and Manimegalai by Sittalai Sattanar also provides valuable information on the Sangam polity and society.

Other Sources

In addition to the Sangam literature, the Greek authors like Megasthenes, Strabo, Pliny and Ptolemy mention the commercial contacts between the West and South India. The Asokan inscriptions mention the Chera, Chola and Pandya rulers on the south of the Mauryan empire.

The Hathigumpha inscription of Kharavela of Kalinga also mentions about Tamil kingdoms. The excavations at Arikamedu, Poompuhar, Kodumanal and other places reveal the overseas commercial activities of the Tamils. 

Period of Sangam Literature

The chronology of the Sangam literature is still a disputed topic among scholars. The sheet anchor of Sangam chronology lies in the fact that Gajabhagu II of Sri Lanka and Cheran Senguttuvan of the Chera dynasty were contemporaries.

This is confirmed by Silappathikaram as well as the Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa. Also, the Roman coins issued by Roman emperors of the first century A.D were found in plenty in various places of Tamil Nadu. Therefore, the most probable date of the Sangam literature has been fixed between the third century B.C. to third century A.D. on the basis of literary, archaeological and numismatic evidence.

Political History

The Tamil country was ruled by three dynasties namely the Chera, Chola and Pandyas during the Sangam Age. The political history of these dynasties can be traced from the literary references. 

Cheras

The Cheras ruled over parts of modern Kerala. Their capital was Vanji and their important seaports were Tondi and Musiri. They had the palmyra flowers as their garland. The Pugalur inscription of the first century A.D refers to three generations of Chera rulers. Padirruppattu also provides information on Chera kings. Perum Sorru Udhiyan Cheralathan, Imayavaramban Nedum Cheralathan and Cheran Senguttuvan were the famous rulers of this dynasty. Cheran Senguttuvan belonged to the 2nd century A.D. His younger brother was Elango Adigal, the author of Silappathikaram. Among his military achievements, his expedition to the Himalayas was remarkable. He defeated many north Indian monarchs. Senguttuvan introduced the Pattini cult or the worship of Kannagi as the ideal wife in Tamil Nadu. The stone for making the idol of Kannagi was brought by him after his Himalayan expedition. The consecration ceremony was attended by many princes including Gajabhagu II from Sri Lanka.

Cholas

The Chola kingdom of the Sangam period extended from modern Tiruchi district to southern Andhra Pradesh. Their capital was first located at Uraiyur and then shifted to Puhar. Karikala was a famous king of the Sangam Cholas. Pattinappalai portrays his early life and his military conquests. In the Battle of Venni he defeated the mighty confederacy consisting of the Cheras, Pandyas and eleven minor chieftains. This event is mentioned in many Sangam poems. Vahaipparandalai was another important battle fought by him in which nine enemy chieftains submitted before him. Karikala’s military achievements made him the overlord of the whole Tamil country.  Trade and commerce flourished during his reign period. He was responsible for the reclamation of forest lands and brought them under cultivation thus adding prosperity to the people. He also built Kallanai across the river Kaveri and also constructed many irrigation Tanks. 

Pandyas

The Pandyas ruled over the present day southern Tamil Nadu. Their capital was Madurai. The earliest kings of the Pandyan dynasty were Nediyon, Palyagasalai Mudukudumi Peruvaludhi and Mudathirumaran. There were two Neduncheliyans.  The first one was known as Aryappadai Kadantha Neduncheliyan (one who won victories over the Aryan forces). He was responsible for the execution of Kovalan for which Kannagi burnt Madurai. The other was Talaiyalanganattu Cheruvenra (He who won the battle at Talaiyalanganam) Neduncheliyan. He was praised by Nakkirar and Mangudi Maruthanar. He wore this title after defeating his enemies at the Battle of Talaiyalanganam, which is located in the Tanjore district. By this victory Neduncheliyan gained control over the entire Tamil Nadu. Madurai Kanji written by Mangudi Maruthanar describes the socio-economic condition of the Pandya country including the flourishing seaport of Korkai. The last famous Pandyan king was Uggira Peruvaludhi. The Pandyan rule during the Sangam Age began to decline due to the invasion of the Kalabhras. 

Minor Chieftains

The minor chieftains played a significant role in the Sangam period. Among them Pari, Kari, Ori, Nalli, Pegan, Ay and Adiyaman were popular for their philanthropy and patronage of Tamil poets. Therefore, they were known as Kadai Yelu Vallalgal. Although they were subordinate to the Chera, Chola and Pandya rulers, they were powerful and popular in their respective regions.

Sangam Polity

Hereditary monarchy was the form of government during the Sangam period. The king had also taken the advice of his minister, court-poet and the imperial court or avai. The Chera kings assumed titles like Vanavaramban, Vanavan, Kuttuvan, Irumporai and Villavar, the Chola kings like Senni, Valavan and Killi and the Pandya kings Thennavar and Minavar. Each of the Sangam dynasties had a royal emblem – carp for the Pandyas, tiger for the Cholas and bow for the Cheras. The imperial court or avai was attended by a number of chiefs and officials. The king was assisted by a large body of officials who were divided into five councils. They were ministers (amaichar), priests (anthanar), military commanders (senapathi), envoys (thuthar) and spies (orrar). The military administration was also efficiently organized during the Sangam Age. Each ruler had a regular army and their respective Kodimaram (tutelary tree).

Land revenue was the chief source of state’s income while custom duty was also imposed on foreign trade. The Pattinappalai refers to the custom officials employed in the seaport of Puhar. Booty captured in wars was also a major income to the royal treasury. Roads and highways were well maintained and guarded night and day to prevent robbery and smuggling. 

Sangam Society

Tolkappiyam refers to the five-fold division of lands – Kurinji (hilly tracks), Mullai (pastoral), Marudam (agricultural), Neydal (coastal) and Palai (desert). The people living in these five divisions had their respective chief occupations as well as gods for worship. · Kurinji – chief deity was Murugan – chief occupation, hunting and honey collection. · Mullai – chief deity Mayon (Vishnu) – chief occupation, cattle-rearing and dealing with dairy products.  · Marudam – chief deity Indira – chief occupation, agriculture. · Neydal – chief deity Varunan – chief occupation fishing and salt manufacturing. · Palai – chief deity Korravai – chief occupation robbery.  Tolkappiyam also refers to four castes namely arasar, anthanar, vanigar and vellalar. The ruling class was called arasar. Anthanars played a significant role in the Sangam polity and religion. Vanigars carried on trade and commerce. The vellalas were agriculturists. Other tribal groups like Parathavar, Panar, Eyinar, Kadambar, Maravar and Pulaiyar were also found in the Sangam society. Ancient primitive tribes like Thodas, Irulas, Nagas and Vedars lived in this period. 

Religion

The primary deity of the Sangam period was Seyon or Murugan, who is hailed as Tamil God. The worship of Murugan was of ancient origin and the festivals relating to God Murugan were mentioned in the Sangam literature. He was honoured with six abodes known as Arupadai Veedu. Other gods worshipped during the Sangam period were Mayon (Vishnu), Vendan (Indiran), Varunan and Korravai. The Hero Stone or Nadu Kal worship was significant in the Sangam period. The Hero Stone was erected in memory of the bravery shown by the warrior in battle. Many hero stones with legends inscribed on them were found in different parts of Tamil Nadu. This kind of worshipping the deceased has a great antiquity. 

Position of Women

There is plenty of information in the Sangam literature to trace the position of women during the Sangam age. Women poets like Avvaiyar, Nachchellaiyar, and Kakkaipadiniyar flourished in this period and contributed to Tamil literature. The courage of women was also appreciated in many poems. Karpu or Chaste life was considered the highest virtue of women. Love marriage was a common practice. Women were allowed to choose their life partners.  However, the life of widows was miserable. The practice of Sati was also prevalent in the higher strata of society. The class of dancers was patronized by the kings and nobles.

Fine Arts

Poetry, music and dancing were popular among the people of the Sangam age.  Liberal donations were given to poets by the kings, chieftains and nobles. The royal courts were crowded with singing bards called Panar and Viraliyar. They were experts in folk songs and folk dances. The arts of music and dancing were highly developed. A variety of Yazhs and drums are referred to in the Sangam literature. Dancing was performed by Kanigaiyar. Koothu was the most popular entertainment of the people.

Economy of the Sangam Age

Agriculture was the chief occupation. Rice was the common crop. Ragi, sugarcane, cotton, pepper, ginger, turmeric, cinnamon and a variety of fruits were the other crops. Jackfruit and pepper were famous in the Chera country. Paddy was the chief crop in the Chola and Pandya country.

The handicrafts of the Sangam period were popular. They include weaving, metal works and carpentry, ship building and making of ornaments using beads, stones and ivory. There was a great demand for these products, as the internal and external trade was at its peak during the Sangam period. Spinning and weaving of cotton and silk clothes attained a high quality. The poems mention the cotton clothes as thin as a cloud of steam or a slough of a snake. There was a great demand in the western world for the cotton clothes woven at Uraiyur.

Both internal and foreign trade was well organized and briskly carried on in the Sangam Age. The Sangam literature, Greek and Roman accounts and the archaeological evidence provide detailed information on this subject. Merchants carried the goods on the carts and on animal-back from place to place. Internal trade was mostly based on the barter system.

External trade was carried between South India and the Greek kingdoms. After the ascendancy of the Roman Empire, the Roman trade assumed importance. The port city of Puhar became an emporium of foreign trade, as big ships entered this port with precious goods. Other ports of commercial activity include Tondi, Musiri, Korkai, Arikamedu and Marakkanam. The author of Periplus provides the most valuable information on foreign trade. Plenty of gold and silver coins issued by the Roman Emperors like Augustus, Tiberius and Nero were found in all parts of Tamil Nadu. They reveal the extent of the trade and the presence of Roman traders in the Tamil country. The main exports of the Sangam age were cotton fabrics, spices like pepper, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon and turmeric, ivory products, pearls and precious stones. Gold, horses and sweet wine were the chief imports.

End of the Sangam Age

Towards the end of the third century A.D., the Sangam period slowly witnessed its decline. The Kalabhras occupied the Tamil country for about two and a half centuries. We have little information about the Kalabhra rule. Jainism and Buddhism became prominent during this period. The Pallavas in the northern Tamil Nadu and Pandyas in southern Tamil Nadu drove the Kalabhras out of the Tamil country and established their rule. 


Sources

  1. Module-1 Ancient India by NIOS
  2. India’s Ancient Past by RS Sharma
  3. Class-11 Tamil Nadu State Board History Book

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