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Chapter 08. The Sangam Age (Indian History Notes)



Sanskrit word ‘Sangha’ means a group of persons or an association. The Tamil Sangam was an academy of poets and bards, who flourished in three different periods and in different places under the patronage of the pandyan kings. The Sangam literature speaks highly of three south Indian Kingdoms—Chola, Pandya and Chera. The earliest reference that we find about this era is preserved in three forms: Ashokan inscriptions, Sangam literature and Magasthenese accounts.
The three important kingdoms of the Cholas, the Pandyas and the Cheras, combinedly was known as Tamilakam. The Aryan influence did not penetrate to this distance region till the fourth century B.C., but our knowledge of ‘the country and its people belonging to the pre-Christian era is meager and indirect. The ancient literature of Tamils, known as the Sangam literature, is very massive, but it hardly fulfil is the demands of history and chronology.
The people of Chera Kingdoms were a sea-faring people who, established close commercial relationship with Egypt and the Roman Empire. Tondi, Musiri, Kaveripathanam and Korkai were among the well-known trade centres of Peninsular India.


Sangam was an association or assembly of Tamil poets held probably under chiefly or royal patronage. But we do not know the number of Sangams or the period for which they were held.
The Sangam literature was compiled in circa A.D. 300-600.
But parts of this literature look back to at least the second century A.D. The Sangam literature can roughly be divided into two groups, narrative and didactic. The narrative texts are considered works of heroic poetry in which heroes are glorified and perpetual wars and cattle raids frequently mentioned. The didactic texts cover the early centuries of the Christian era and prescribe a code of conduct not only for the king and his court but also for various social groups and occupations. All this could have been possible only after the fourth century A.D. when Brahmanas appeared in good numbers under the Pallavas.
Sangam literature consists of the earliest Tamil works (such as Tolkappiyam), the Ettutogai (Eight Anthologies) the Pattuppattu (Ten Idylls), the Padenenkilkanakku
(Eightten Minor works) and the three epics.
Earliest Tamil Works were the Agattiyam (a work on grammar of letters and life) by Rishi Agastya, Pannirupadalam (a grammatical work on puram literature) by 12 disciples of Agastya the Kakkipadiniyam (a work on prosody) and Tolkappiyam (a treatise on grammar and poetry). It is divided into three sections each consisting of nine sub chapters and has a total of 1,612 sutras) by Talkappiya (.) The three epics were Silappadikaram, Mianimekalai and Sivaga Sidamanai.
The last epic shows the dominance of Sanskrit style over the indigenous style of the previous epics.
Apart from Sangam texts we have a text called Tolkkappiyam, written by Tolkappiar which deals with grammar and poetics. It is the only work which has survived from the second Sangam.
Another important Tamil texts deals with philosophy and wise maxims; this text is called Tirukkural. Addition to this we have the twin Tamil epics of Silappadikaram and Mainmekalai. The first deals with a love story in which a dignitary called Kovalan prefers a courtesan called Madhavi of Kaveripattanam to his noble wedded wife Kannagi. The author apparently seems to be a Jaina and tries to locate the scenes of the story in all the kingdoms of the Tamil country. The other epic Manimekalai deals with the adventures of the daughter born of the union of Kovalan and Madhavi though this epic is of more religious than literary interest. Though the epics cannot be dated so early, they throw light on the social and economic life of the Tamils upto about the sixth century A.D.
Sangam Terms

Enadi – Captain of army Vallalas – Rich peasants Arasar – Ruling class Orrar – Spies Avai – Small village assembly Irai/Karai – Land tax Ulgu/sungam – Tolls and custom duties Nagar – Temple Perundaram – Higher officials Sirutaram – Lower officials Avanam – Market place Panar – Birds Vedars – Hunters Marakkhdi – Warrior class Kuravar – Hill tribes Varalis – Dancing girls Lamaram – Missile Kalavu – Sacred marriage Umanar – Salt maker Korravai – Goddess of victory Kadurai – Diety of forest Eripatti – Tank SANGAM POLITY

The Tamils during the Sangam period were ruled by powerful kings. The kings were regarded as Vendar while the local chieftains were called Mannar.
The form of government was hereditary monarchy. The eldest son usually succeeded the father.
The crowned king held impressive courts to which the subjects were allowed. There was conspicuous absence of Privy Council or a Council Chamber. The king was regarded as God. The theory of divine right of kingship was accepted. But he was always assisted and guided by wise men whether a minister, or a poet or a purohitar. These wise men were divided into two categories—Aimperukulu consisting of Purohita, the army chief, the ambassador, the spies and the ministers; and Enperayam consisting of accountants, executive officials, treasury officials, palace guards, and the leading men among his subjects. Wars occurred on the pretext of cattle-lifting.
Aimperukku Officials
Purohitar – Priest Senapatiyar – Army Chief Amaichhar – Minister Dutar – Ambassador Orrar – Spy Enadi – Captain of the army Umanchatha – Collector of merchandise from different regions Makamattor – Members of a guild Veellalar – Rich peasants Enperayam Officials

Karanattiyalavar – Accountant Karumakarar – Executive officials Kanasassurram – Treasury Officials Kdaikappalar – Palace guards Nagaramandar – Leading men among the king’s subjects Padaittalaivar – Chiefs of the infantry Yanai Virar – Chiefs of elephantry Ivuli – Chiefs of cavalry LAW AND JUSTICE

Sangam literature does not describe any posts of Judge disputes were settled by learned men of high character, and the judgement was based on integrity and impartiality . The Cholas have gained great respect because of this. The king was the supreme magistrate. The town court was called ‘Avai’ and the village court was knonw as ‘Manrams’ which might have been pachayats, were distributed across Mandalam (kingdom) in Nadu (districts) and Ur (town).


The Sangam society was based on binary fission, i.e.
1. Vyarntoc (high born people), 2. Ilipirappalar (low born people) However, Tholkappiyan mentions, about four categories of castes–
(i) Andanar (Brahmanas) (ii) Arasar (kings)
(iii) Vaisiyar (Traders) (iv) Velalar (Farmers) Moreover, these were communities, called parciyas experienced untouchability among higher classes.
Position of Women
Women took part in various fields like– • They contributed in literature, evidence is from their poetry.
• Women were allowed to choose their life-partners, i.e. love-marriage was permitted.
Widows lived a miserable life and sati system was practiced in higher classes of society.
• The kings and nobles patronised dancers for their entertainment.


The Sangam economy was most prosperous. The common people were included agriculturists or cow-herders, hunters and fisherman. Indigenous industries such as textile, weapon making, ship-building, carpentary, metal smelting, etc. There were also a large number of merchants who indulged in comprehensive trade with foreign countries particularly with Rome. Roman coins of Augustus Caesar’s period have been found in a large number in South India.
But, South Indians did not have a system of coinage and they bartered their goods. Examples of honey and roots exchanged for fish-oil and of sugarcane and cornflakes for venison and toddy find its mention.
Economic Groups of people
Group Work
(i) Kuravar – Practicing shifting agriculture
(ii) Idaiyar – rearing and keeping cattles
(iii) Vetar – hunting and gathering foods
(iv) Ulavar – ploughing land for crops
(v) Kallar – plundering i.e., cattle lifting
(vi) Panar – wandering bards
(vii) Paratavar – fishing (viii) Umnar – salt-manufacturing


Sangam religion is based on the synthesis of the non-Aryan Tamils and the Aryan vedic deities. The people of Sangam Tamil generally worshiped stones, water, stars and planets. The Sangam religious worship is classified into three categories–
(i) Worship of indigenous Gods, (ii) Worship of exotic Hindu Gods
(iii) Worship or faith in the exotic non-Hindu rituals.
The people worshipped Murugan, Tirumal, Balram and Indra in the temple known as Nagar, Koil, Kottam, Purai or Devalayam. The worship of Vedic deities was also not uncommon. The Vedic practice of Yagna (Velvi) Sraddha and Panda were practised by the Sangam people. Varna-system took roots even in the South. The influence of Buddhism, Jainism and Ajivikas was paramount.


The temples of South India had a distinct Dravidian style which is different from the Nagara style of the North Indian temples. The Kailash Temple at Ellora, Hoysala temple at Belur and Halebid, Chennakesava temple at Belur, the Hoysaleswara temple at Halebid, Ratha and Shore temple at Mahabalipuram, Brihadeshwara temple at Tanjavur, Vithala temple at Hampi, and Meenakshi Temple at Madurai are fine examples of architecture.
Points to Remember
► The Sangam literature speaks highly of three South Indian Kingdoms – Chola, Pandaya and Chera.
► The kingdom of Chola started from Kavery delta to adjoining areas of modern Tanjore and Trichinopoly
Kaveripattanam was its capital.
Karikala (AD 190) was an important Chola ruler who extended his authority over Ceylon.
► The Pandayas were independent people living beyond the southern border of Mauryan empire.
► The Kingdom of Pandayas was extended to modern districts of Madura, Ramnad, Tinnevelly and parts of Travancore. Madurai was its capital.
► The Chera kingdom comprised modern districts of Malabar, Cochin and northern Travancore. Its capital was Vanji. This kingdom had a close commercial relationship with Egypt and Roman empire.
► Sangam literature was compiled in AD 300-600.
► Sangam literature can be divided into two groups – narrative and didactic.
► The Tamils during the Sangam period were ruled by powerful kings. The form of government was hereditary monarchy.
► Sangam literature does not describe any post of Judge.
The king was the supreme magistrate.
► The Sangam economy was prosperous. The common people were engaged in agriculture, cow-herding, hunting, fishing, textiles, weapon making etc.
► The Sangam people worshipped Muruygan, Tirumal, and Balram. The worship of Vedic deities was also not uncommon.

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