Sangam Age

The word Sangam refers to a college or assembly of Tamil Scholars held under the royal patronage of Pandyan Kings at Madurai. But the earliest account of it is enveloped in legend. There were three sangams which lasted, at long intervals, for 9,990 years altogether and counted, 8,598 poets (including a few Gods of the Saiva sect) as members and 197 Pandyan Kings as patrons. The Sangam Age extends roughly from 300 B.C. to 300 A.D. The historical period begins in South India with the Sangam Age. Before this, the extreme south Was inhabited by Megalith builders. Megaliths were graves encircled by big pieces of stone which contained not only the skeletons of people buried in it but also pottery and iron objects.  

The first Sangam was attended by Gods and legendary sages, but all its works have perished. The second, attended by several poets, had produced a large mass of literature, but only Tolkappiyam (the early Tamil Grammar Text) has survived. The third attended by several poets, had also produced vast literature, but only a fraction of it has survived.  It is this fraction which constitutes the extant body of Sangam literature.


The king was assisted by a large body of officials who were-divided into five assemblies or Councils. They were (a) Amaichars or Ministers (b) Purohitaror Priest (c) Senapathis or Military Commanders (d) Dhootars or Convoys (e) Ottrar or Spies. The Ma and Veli are measures of land and ‘Kalam’ a measure of grain. The king's share was ‘Karai‘, i.e. land tax. Foreign trade played a major part of the revenue. The rulers maintained a standing army which consists of cavalry, infantry and elephants. 


Sangam age witnessed the appearance of the Brahmins as a regular Vama as also their growing influence. The Kshatriyas and Vaishyas were absent as a regular Vama. But warriors and merchants were to be found as separate classes. The feurth class was that of the agriculturists called ‘Vallalas’. The ruling class was called as ‘Arasars‘.


Brahmanism began to make its ground into South India with kings performing vedic sacrifices. Buddhism and Jainism also began spreading. Chief God of sangam age was Murugan. Other Gods were three-eyed God (Siva), Indra, Varuna, Kubera, Yama, Tirurnal etc. Ascetism was honoured and Tridandi ascetics are particularly mentioned.

Trade and Commerce

Trade, both inland and foreign was well organized and briskly carried on. External trade was carried on between South India and Hellenistic kingdoms. Roman trade was very important. Main exports of Sangam Age were cotton goods, spices like pepper, ginger, cardamom and cinnamon. Caravan merchants with carts played a vital role in internal trade.  Barter system played a larger part in it. 


The land south of the Krishna river was divided into three kingdoms – Chola, Pandya, and Chera or Kerala. The second and thirteen rock edicts of Ashoka mentions the Chola, Pandya, Satiyaputra and Keralaputra in the South. Kharavela's Hathigumpha inscription (155 B.C.) mentions tramira desa sangatham or confederacy of Tamil States.


It was situated to the West and North of the Pandya Kingdom and had trade relations with Romans. Most important King was Senguttuvan, the Red Chera. The History of Cheras was marked by continuous fighting with the Cholas and Pandyas. The capital of Cheras was Vanji or Karur.  Nedunjeraladen is the first known Chera King. He is said to have fed both the armies of the Kurukhshetra war and so had earned the title Udiyanjeral. Senguttuvan, according to the Chera poets was the greatest Chera King. Senguttuvan invaded the North and crossed the Ganga. He is remembered for building a temple of Kannagi, the Goddess of Chastity. The worship of Kannagi is known as Pattini culture which was established by him. Silapadikaram describes his heroic deeds. Ilango Adigal the author of Silapadikaram was his brother.


The Chola dominion was known as Tondaimandalam or Cholamandalam. Their chief centre of political power was at Uraiyur, a place famous for cotton trade. In the middle of the second century B.C., a Chola king named Elara conquered Sri Lanka and ruled over it for nearly 50 years. A firmer history of Cholas begins in the second century AD. with their famous king Karikala, who founded the port city of Puhar (Kaveripattanam) and constructed 16 km. of embankment along the Cauvery river. Karikala literally means a man with a Charred leg. He fought the Battle of Reuni and defeated 11 kings. He was the greatest of Chola Kings.


lt occupied the South-Eastern portion of the Indian Peninsula with Madurai as its capital. Their capital was Madurai.  first mentioned by Megasthenes, who says that their kingdom was famous for pearls and was ruled by a woman. The compilation of Tamil literature in three Sangams took place in Madurai. Nedunchezhiyan was the greatest Pandyan ruler. He defeated the Cheras and Cholas in the battle of Talaiyalagnam. According to Silapadikaram, in a fit of passion he ordered the execution of Kovalan the husband of Kannagi. Another king was Maduranjeral Irumporai, who sent Embassies to Roman emperor Augustus and performed vedic sacrifices. 


Kalabhras emerged at the closing of 3rd century and lasted till the 6th century. The Cholas and the Pandyas were running under low profile which led to the upper hand of Kalabhras. Evidences are vague about the history of the Kalabhras.


Pallavas dominated the areas between the river Krishna and Cauvery during the 6th century A.D.. Kanchi was their capital city. Mahendravarman I who was the popular Pallava ruler was drastically defeated by Pulakesin II of Chalukya dynasty. His son Narasimha Varman I (695-722 A.D.) defeated his father's rival and killed him and thus he got the title Mamallan or Great warrior. He became more popular due to his architectural achievements even now seen in Mahabalipuram or Mamallapuram named after him. 

Sangam Literature

Sangam literature was compiled in circa A.D. 300-600. The literature is divided into two groups--narrative and didactic. Tolkapiyam written by Tolkappiyar, deals with grammar and poetics. It also mentions the eight forms of marriages of the Dharma Sutras. The epics are Silappadikaram, Manimekhalai and Civakachintamani. Tirukural written by Tiruvalluvar is  called the Bible of Tamil land. The eight Anthologies or Ettutogai were--Natrinai, Kuruntogai, Aingurunuru, Padhitru Pathu, Paripadal, Kalittogai, Agananuru, Purananuru. Sangam poems are divided into Agam (love) and Puram (kings). Sangam poems refer to different regions: Kurinji (hills), Palai (dry land), Mullai (forest). Marudam (cultivated plains), Neidal (Coast).

The first Sangam was held at Madurai but its work has not survived. Its Chairman was Agastya. The second Sangam was held in Kaptapuram. Its Chairman was Tolkapiyar. Only the Tolkapiyam a Tamil Grammar by Tolkapiyar survives. The third Sangam was held in Madurai. lts Chairman was Nakkirar. It was the third Sangam from which comes the entire corpus of Sangam literature.

Silapaddikaram literally ‘The Jeweled Anklet’ by llango Adigal is an epic, deals with the love stories of Kovalan and Madhavi. Manimekhalai is a sequel to Silapaddikaram written by Settalai Sattanar, considered the ‘Odyssus of Tamil poetry’. Civaka chintamani, a third epic by the Jaina Tiruttakadevar. Agattiyam, a magnum opus and grammer of letters and life is written by Agathiyar. The whole Sangam Age is called the Augustan Age in Tamil Literature. Sangam Age Corresponds to the Post Maurya and Pre Gupta period. Roman king built a temple of Augustus at Muziris. Murugan was the God par excellence of the Tamils, also known as Subramaniya. Yavan Priya is a Sanskrit term for Pepper. Muslin, Gems and Pearls and spices were the important export items to Rome.

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