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  • Sangam Age: Literature to Political &Socio-Economic History

    Sangam Age

    Mahabalipuram Pallava Dynasty

    • The Tamil heroic poems, popularly called the Sangam literature, constitute the-major evidence for the old Tamil literary tradition.
    • In South India, Tamil had become a literary language, i.e., a full-blown language with its own system of writing, at least by third century BC.
    • The Neolithic – Chaleolithic amalgam, which began around 2000 B.C., continued upto the middle of the first millennium B.C. It was then overlapped by the Magalithic culture inhabited by the Megaliths builders.
    • The Megalithic culture which dates to C. 500 B.C. and A.D. 100 brings us to the historical period in South India.
    • The Megalithic culture is known not from its actual settlements, which are rare, but from its graves. These graves are called Megaliths because they were encircled by big pieces of stone. They contain not only skeletons of peolple (fractional burials) who were buried but also iron objects like swords, spears, arrowheads, axes and pottery (black-and-red pottery).
    • Agricultural tools like hoes and sickles found in the graves indicate and advanced type of agriculture.
    • The Cholas, Pandyas, Cheras and Satyaputras mentioned in Ashoka’s inscriptions were probably in the Megalithic phase of material culture.
    • About the beginning of the Christian era, the Megalithic culture was overlapped by what has been called Andhra Culture, on account of occurrence of Andhra coins.
    • The distinctive pottery of the period was a white painted reddish brown ware known as the Russet-coated Painted Ware.
    • This is also the time when South India had a large volume of trade with the Roman world, as shown by the occurrence, at numerous sites of Roman coins, glass work and pottery, the most noteworthy in the last item being the arrentine and the amphora.
    • The cultural and economic contacts between the north and the deep south paved the way for the introduction of material culture brought from the north to the deep south by traders, conquerors, Jainas, Buddhists and some Brahmana missionaries.
    • From the second century B.C., there was formation of state system, rise of social classes, use of writing, beginning of written literature, etc.
    • The land south of the Krishna River was divided into three kingdoms – Cholas, Pandyas and Cheras or Keralas.
    • The Pandyas are first mentioned by Megasthenes who speaks of the Pandya kingdom being ruled by a woman and that even seven year old mothers were found in the Pandya country; this may suggest some matriarchal influence in the Pandya society.
    • According to Megasthenes Pandyan kingdom was celebrated for pearls.
    • The three kingdoms – Cholas, Pandyas and Cheras, together with Satiyaputras (Satyaputra) are referred to as independent states by Ashoka in his inscriptions with which he maintained friendly relations.
    • The name Satiyaputras is otherwise is an unknown name and has not yet been satisfactorily identified.
    • The word ‘Sangam’ is associated with South Indian history where a college or assembly of Tamil scholars and poets flourished under the royal patronage of the Pandya kings at Madurai.
    • Hence the age is known as ‘Sangam Age’, which extends roughly between 300 B.C. and 300 A.D.
    • 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 then 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 the 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 Sangam literature includes Tolkappiyam, Ettutogai, Pattuppattu, Pathinenkilkanakku, and the two epics- Silappathigaram and Manimegalai.
    • Tolkappiyam authored by Tolkappiyar is the earliest of the Tamil literature. It is a work on Tamil grammar but it provides information on the political and socio-economic 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, Maduraikkanji, 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 Thiruvalluvar.
    • Silappathigaram 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 Hathikumbha inscription of Kharavela of Kalinga also mentions about Tamil kingdoms.
    • The excavations at Arikkamedu, 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 the 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 Silappathigaram 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 evidences.


    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.

    Sangam Age Political Map

    The Cholas

    • The Cholas Kingdom was situated between the Pennar and the Velar rivers were the most powerful of all three kingdoms.
    • Their chief centre of political power was at Uraiyar, a place famous for cotton trade.
    • In the middle of second century B.C., a Chola king named Elara Conquered Sri Lanka and ruled over it for nearly 50 years. He was the first important Chola king.
    • A firmer history of the Cholas begins in the second century A.D. when their greatest and most famous king Karikala, or the man with charred leg, who founded the port city of Puhar (identical with Kaveripattinam) and constructed 160 km of embankment along the Kaveri River.
    • Puhar or Kaveripattanam was Chola capital. Puhar was also a great centre of trade and commerce.
    • Trade in cotton cloth was one of the main sources of Cholas wealth.
    • The Cholas also maintained an efficient navy.


    The Cheras

    • The Cheras or the Kerala country was situated to the west and north of the land of the Pandyas covering some portions of Tamil Nadu also.
    • The history of the Cheras was marked by continuous fight with the Cholas and the Pandyas.
    • Nedunjeral Adan, the first known Chera king, earned the title of ‘Udiyanjiral’.
    • He also bore the title of ‘Imayavarambam’ or he who had the Himalayas for his boundary.’
    • Senguttuvan, the Red or Good Chera, according to the Chera poets, was the great Chera king. It is said that he had invaded the north and crossed the Ganga.
    • He build a temple for Kannagi, the Goddess of Chastity. The worship of Kannagi is known as the Pattini-cult, which was stabilized by him.
    • After the second century A.D., the Cehra power declined, and nothing of its history until the eighth century A.D. is known.
    • The capital of the Cheras was Vanji or Kaur.
    • The Cheras owed its importance to trade with the Romans. They also build a temple of Augustus there.


    The Pandyas

    • The Pandyan kingdom occupied the south-most and the south-eastern portion of the Indian Peninsula, with Madurai as it capital.
    • The Pandyas were one of the most ancient dynasties to rule South India and are mentioned in Kautilya’s Arhasastra and Megasthenes’ Indica.
    • The Sangam age started form a Pandya king and, as per Sangam literature, there were at least twenty kings in this dynasty.
    • Legendary and traditional accounts mention the loss of many Sangam texts on account of a ‘deluge’ which compelled the Pandyan kings to shift their capital first from Ten-Madurai to Kapatapuram and then from there to Madurai on the Vaigai.
    • The most prominent among them was Nedunzalian, who made Madurai his capital.
    • Another king was Madaranjeral Irumporai who sent embassies to Roman emperor Augusts and performed Vedic sacrifices.
    • Pandya rulers exercised a clan-rule under several lineages, each bearing Tamil names ending with suffixes such as Valuti and Celiyan.
    • The Pandyas acquired their resources in inter-tribal conflicts with the Cheras and Cholas, and luxury goods from their maritime trade with countries further west.
    • The Pandyas founded a Tamil Literary academy called the Sangam, at Madurai
    • They adopted the Vedic religion of sacrifice and patronized Brahmin priests.
    • The Pandyas profited from trade with the Roman Empire.
    • Their power declined with the invasion of a tribe called the Kalabhras.
    • After the Sangam Age, this dynasty lost its significance for more than century, only to rise once again at the end of the 6th century.
    • Their first significant ruler was Dundungan (590-620) who defeated the Kalabars and brought the Pandyas back to the path of glory.
    • The last known Pandya king, Parakramadeva, was defeated by Usaf Khan a viceroy of Muhmmad-bin-Tughlaq when the Tughlaq dynasty was in process of extending their kingdom up to Kanyakumari.


    Minor Chieftains

    • The minor chieftains played a significant role in the Sangam period and among them Pari, Kari, Ori, Nalli, Pegan, Ay and Adiyaman were popular for their philanthropy and patronage of Tamil poets.
    • 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 and 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.



    • The primary deity of the Sangam period was Seyon or Murugan, who is hailed as Tamil God.
    • The worship of Murugan was having an ancient origin and the festivals relating to God Murugan was mentioned in the Sangam literature.
    • Murugan 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 and 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 a 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 and Rice was the common crop.
    • Ragi, sugarcane, cotton, pepper, ginger, turmeric, cinnamon and a variety of fruits were the other crops.
    • Jack fruit 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 and 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 evidences 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, Arikkamedu 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 which reveals 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.
    • 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.


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