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Sangam Age

Updated: Apr 10, 2021

  • The period roughly between the 3rd century B.C. and 3rd century A.D. in South India is known as Sangam Period.

  • It has been named after the Sangams (association of Tamil Poets) held during that period.

  • Three dynasties ruled during the Sangam Age – the Cheras, Cholas and Pandyas.

  • The Sangams prospered under the royal patronage of the Pandya kings of Madurai.

Three Sangams


According to the Tamil legends, there were three Sangams (Association of Tamil poets) held in the ancient South India, popularly called 'Muchchangam'.

  1. The First Sangam, is believed to be held at Madurai, attended by gods and legendary sages. No literary work of this Sangam is available. The sage Agastya is believed to have chaired the first Sangam.

  2. The Second Sangam was held at Kapadapuram, the only surviving literary work from this Sangam is 'Tolkappiyam'.

  3. The Third Sangam was also held at Madurai. A few of these Tamil literary works have survived and are a useful sources to reconstruct the history of the Sangam period.

Sangam Literature

  • The Sangam literature includes Tolkappiyam, Ettutogai, Pattuppattu, Pathinenkilkanakku, and two epics named – Silappathikaram and Manimegalai .

  • 'Tolkappiyam' was authored by Tolkappiyar and is considered the earliest of Tamil literary work. Though it is a work on Tamil grammar but it also provides insights on the political and socio-economic conditions of the time.

  • 'Pathinenkilkanakku' contains eighteen works about ethics and morals. The most important among these works is 'Tirukkural' authored by Thiruvalluvar, the tamil great poet and philosopher.

  • The two epics; 'Silappathikaram' is written by Elango Adigal and 'Manimegalai' by Sittalai Sattanar. They also provide valuable details about the Sangam society and polity.

  • Based on the context and interpretation, Sangam works can be classified as:

    • Aham (Inner): Abstract discussion on human aspects such as love, sexual relations, etc.

    • Puram (outer): Human experiences such as heroism, customs, social life, ethics, philanthropy, etc.

Political History of Sangam Period

  • South India, during the Sangam Age, was ruled by three dynasties-the Cheras, Cholas and Pandyas. The main source of information about these kingdoms is traced from the literary references of Sangam Period.

  • Their power declined with the invasion of a tribe called the 'Kalabhras'.

The Cheras

  • The Cheras ruled over large parts of modern-day Kerala.

  • Vanji was the capital of the Cheras.

  • Musiri and Tondi were the important seaports in this period.

  • The emblem of Cheras was “bow and arrow”.

  • The Pugalur inscription of the 1st century AD has reference to three generations of Chera rulers.

  • The greatest ruler of Cheras was Senguttuvan, the Red Chera or the Good Chera, who belonged to the 2nd century A.D.

    • His military achievements have been chronicled in epic 'Silapathikaram', with details about his expedition to the Himalayas where he defeated many north Indian rulers.

    • Senguttuvan introduced the Pattini cult or the worship of Kannagi as the ideal wife in Tamil Nadu.

    • He was the first to send an embassy to China from South India.

  • The Cheras owed its importance to trade with the Romans. They also built a temple of Augustus there.

The Cholas

  • The Cholas controlled the central and northern parts of Tamil Nadu.

  • Initially, the capital of the Cholas was Uraiyur (near Tiruchirapalli town). Later it was shifted to Puhar.

  • Tiger was their emblem.

  • The Cholas also maintained an efficient navy.

  • King Karikala was a famous king of the Cholas.

    • Many Sangam poems mention the 'Battle of Venni' where he defeated the confederacy of Cheras, Pandyas and eleven minor chieftains.

    • Karikala’s military achievements made him the overlord of the whole Tamil region of that time.

    • Trade and commerce flourished during his reign.

    • He founded the port city of Puhar (identical with Kaveripattinam) and constructed 160 km of embankment along the Kaveri River. It is known as the first dam in India.

The Pandyas

  • The Pandyas reigned over the Southern region of modern-day Tamil Nadu.

  • Madurai was the capital of Pandyas.

  • Korkai was their main port, located near the confluence of Thamraparni with the Bay of Bengal.

  • Their emblem was the Fish ( Carp).

  • They patronized the Tamil Sangams.

  • After the Sangam Age, this dynasty lost its significance for more than a century, only to rise once again at the end of the 6th century.

  • According to mythology, the curse of the Kannagi, wife of Kovalan, burnt and destroyed Madurai.

Sangam Polity and Administration

  • During the Sangam period hereditary monarchy was the form of government.

  • Each of the dynasties of Sangam age had a royal emblem – tiger for the Cholas, carp/fish for the Pandyas, and 'bow and arrow' for the Cheras.

  • The king was assisted by a wide body of officials who were categorised into five councils.

  • They were ministers (amaichar), priests (anthanar), envoys (thuthar), military commanders (senapathi), and spies (orrar).

  • The military administration was efficiently organized and a regular army was associated with each ruler.

  • The chief source of state’s income was land revenue while a custom duty was also imposed on foreign trade.

  • There was Five-fold division of lands – Kurinji (hilly tracks), Mullai (pastoral), Marudam (agricultural), Neydal (coastal) and Palai (desert).

  • Major source of fulfilling the royal treasury was the booty captured in wars.

  • The roads and highways were maintained and guarded to prevent robbery and smuggling.

Sangam Society

  • Tolkappiyam refers to four castes namely arasar(Ruling Class), anthanar(Priests), vanigar(carried on trade and commerce) and vellalar(Agriculturists).

  • Ancient primitive tribes like Thodas, Irulas, Nagas and Vedars also lived in this period.

Position of Women

  • Women had respect and were allowed in intellectual pursuits. There were women poets like Avvaiyar, Nachchellaiyar, and Kakkaipadiniyar who flourished and contributed to Tamil literature.

  • Women were allowed to choose their life partners. But life of widows was miserable.

  • There is also a mention about the practice of Sati being prevalent in the higher strata of society.

Religion

  • The primary deity of the Sangam period was Murugan.

  • 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 warriors in the battle.

Economy

  • Agriculture was the chief occupation where rice was the most common crop.

  • The handicraft included weaving, metal works and carpentry, ship building and making of ornaments using beads, stones and ivory.

  • A high expertise was attained in spinning and weaving of cotton and silk clothes. These were in great demand in the western world especially for the cotton clothes woven at Uraiyur.

  • The port city of Puhar became an important place of foreign trade, as big ships entered this port containing precious goods.

  • Other significant ports of commercial activity were Tondi, Musiri, Korkai, Arikkamedu and Marakkanam.

  • Many gold and silver coins that were issued by the Roman Emperors like Augustus, Tiberius and Nero have been found in all parts of Tamil Nadu indicating flourishing trade.

  • Major exports were cotton fabrics, spices, ivory products, precious stones, etc.

  • Major imports were horses, gold, etc.

End of Sangam Age

  • The Sangam period slowly witnessed its decline towards the end of the 3rd century A.D.

  • The 'Kalabhras' occupied the Tamil country in post-Sangam period between 300 AD to 600 AD, whose period is called a 'dark age' by historians.

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