THE SANGAM AGE
Historical and pre-historical background
The extreme southern part of India from the tirupathi hill (vengadam) also known as pullikunram in an aham passage to cape comorin (kanyakumari), bounded by sea on the east and the west, was known as tamilgam, tamilham, tamilkam or tamizhakam (the tamil realm).
It was more or less co-terminous with the beginning of the iron age in this part of the sub-continent.
Iron appears to have arrived in south India without a preceding copper/bronze age or a chalcolithic age.
Historians assign a variety of sources to this period: the megaliths and their grave goods; the hero-stones; the tamil brahmi cave labels; the early tamil anthologies; the punch-marked coins; references in the arthasastra and in the arthasastra and in ashokan edits; occasional sherd of the NBPW (northern black polished ware); a scholium of katyayana on panini; megasthenes; greeco-roman accounts; the archaeology and numismatics of roman presence and so on.
The sangam literature
Tamil is the oldest among the spoken literary languages in south India.
The earliest known phase of this literature is usually designated the sangam literature for the reason that the anthologies of odes, lyrics and idylls that form the bulk of that literature were composed by a body of tamil scholars or poets in three successive literary academies called ‘sangam’.
These academies were established by the pandyan kings.
The term sangam was first referred to by tirunavukkarasu nayanar (appar), the shiva or saiva saint belonging to the early seventh century in the tripputtur tiruttanndaham.
The next reference is to be found in the contemporary to the lraiyanar ahappiorul belonging to the ninth century AD.
This text talks about three successive sangams, i.e., first sangam or talai sangam, the middle sangam or idai sangam and the last sangam or kadai sangam.
In the traditional accounts, the first sangam was constituted at the first pandyan capital at ten-mahurai.
On the occasion of a ‘deluge’, the pandyan capital and the sangam was shifted to kapatapuram, which was also engulfed by sea, and the capital as well as the sangam were again shifted to madhurai, an inland city.
On these occasions of deluge, many texts were lost.
Silappadikaram and kalittogai refer to the “loss of territory by deluge”.
Before the seventh century AD the alternative term for sangam was avaiyam or kudal or its variant kuttu or punarkuttu or even togai.
Important sangam works:
Ettuttogai (the eight anthologies) and patttupattu (the ten idylls) are the two major groups of texts included in the corpus of sangam literature.
The group of ettuttogai consists of:
The group pattupattu includes:
some scholars have included tolkapium, the tamil grammatical treatise by tolkappiyar (supposed to be the disciple of agastya, the famous saint who is said to have crossed the vindhyas first and propagated the brahmanical culture in the south), patinenkilkanakku, the eighteen didactical texts (comprising:
3. inna narpadu
4. iniya narpadu
5. kar narpadu
6. kalavali narpadu
7. aintinai aimpadu
8. aintinai elupadu
9. tinaimoli aimpadu
10. tinaimalai nurraimpadu
11. kainnilai (or innilai)
17. mudumo likkanchi
silappadikaram and manimegalai, the twin epics, remnants of poems like togadur yattirai and bharatam of perundevanar in the sangam corpus.
The ettutogai and pattupattu are together grouped as melkanakku (the longer serials) for they consist stanzas composed of metre which permits of a larger numbers of lines.
On the other hand the kilkkanakku works (the shorter serials) are so called because they consist of poems composed in the venba metre which permits on an average four lines for each stanza.
There is another imp characterization or division of sangam literature, i.e., into aham and puram.
The puram category of literature idealizes love and aspects related to it.
In ula, a later day minor form of literature dealing with the ‘King’s sojourn through the streets of the capital city’ the theme is partly puram and partly Aham but it is in fact kaikkilai (unilateral love) aspect ofaham literature.
The agattiyam, composed by agattiyar, tolkappiyar’s real teacher and the oldest exponent of tamil grammar is lost, except for a few sutras not by medieval commentators. Hence, tolkappiam is the oldest tamil literaray work extant today.
The kural by tiruvalluvar, a compound of the dharmasastra, the arthasastra and the kamasutra, is universally regarded as a work of immense importance.
Kakkaippadiniyam, a work on poetics by kakkaippadiniyar; pannirupadalam, a work on th twelve different situations in warfare by tolkappiar and eleven others; tagadur yattirai by panmudiyar, arisil kilars and other dealing with perunjeral irumporai’s invasion of the capital of adihaiman neduman anji; the bharatam by perundevanar are some works which are lost except for a few stanzas quoted by later composers.
Some other works mentioned by adiyarkkunallar and which are lost to us are perunarai, perunkuruhu, pancha bharatiyam (all by narada), isai nunukkam by sikandi, indra kaliyam, panchamarabu and bharata senapatiyam.
All these works deal with musico adiyarkkunallur mentions seyirriyam, guan nul, bharatam, agattiyam, muruval, jayantam, nataka-t-tamil nul by mativanan as important works on dance and drama.
Erambam was a treatise on mathematics mentioned by parimelalgar.
The sangam was a college or an assembly of tamil poets held under early pandyan patronage.
It is generally said that three sangams were held which lasted for 9,990 years, attended by 8,598 poets and were patronized by 197 pandyan kings.
It is also believed that the available sangam literature produced by these assemblies, was compiled between AD 300 and AD 600.
Ettuttogai collection excluding kallittogai and paripadal is considered to be the most archaic, belonging to 3rd century BC – 3rd century AD.
The twin tamil epics of silappadikaram and manimekalai are composed around the sixth century AD.
The site of kaverippatinam, also known as puhar, kakandi and sampapati, has yielded a sluice, a punch-marked silver coin, roulettted ware and a brick platform (a dock) – all probably contemporary with the sangam period.
At uraiyur, a chola capital, also known as koli and varanam, level I, which represents the sangam period, yielded black and red ware, russet-coated painted ware, rouletted and supposedly arretine ware (of roman inspiration), and a dying vat besides ordinary red and black pottery.
There were shell and paste beads, terracotta gamesmen, bone points and potsherds inscribed with the brahmi script.
At akkadu in tanjavur, “arkatos” of Ptolemy and the second capital of the cholas, exploration yielded the usual pottery types and some urns.
Kanchipuram yielded some locally made imitations of roman amphorai.
Excavations around madurai at kudal was given up for lack of results.
The ancient port sites of korkai, tondi and kodungalur also did not yield any evidence of real cities.
Karur, the ancient chera capital, also known as vanji and vanjimurram, has yielded a fairly large number of roman coins, some roman amphorai pieces, local rouletted ware, BRW, some with graffiti marks etc.
Megasthenes gives a quaint account of the pandyan kingdom “ruled over by the pandaiya, a daughter of herakles, to whom he assigned that portion of India which lies southwards and extends to the sea”.
He is the earliest non-indian to make any mention of a southern kingdom.
Strabo makes references to the pandyan embassies to the court of augustus.
He also refers to the change of pandyan capital from korkai to madurai.
Pliny the elder mentions many tamil ports on the west coast.
The periplus of the erythraean sea by an anonymous author (80-96 AD) gives the most elaborate information about the tamil country which the author calls damirike.
Ptolemy wrote half a century later (150 AD) and his work marks a decided advance in the regularity and volume of trade between the roman empire and India.
The peutingerian tables, composed in 222 AD, speak of a temple of augustus on the west coast of tamilaham.
Ptolemy’s accounts also show that the roman trade with east, which began sometime in the reign of augustus had by the first quarter of the second century AD reached beyond India to indo-china and Sumatra.
The recent discovery of a ‘roman factory’ of the first century AD in the proximity of pondicherry deserves particular metion.
Musiri or muziris and tondi on the west coast of south India, korkai and kaveripattinam on the east were among the chief ports of the tamil land where foreigners crowded.
The Chinese writer pan kou (1st cen AD) mentions the kingdom of houangtche (kanchi) in his ‘Ts’ien han chou’.
The sri lankan chronicle, mahavastu, read with the uraiperu katturai of silappadikaram, gives us the clue to a crucial datum in sangam history, i.e. the senguttuvan-gajabahu synchronism. It was gajabahu I of sri lanka who was present on the occasion of the installation of a temple to kannagi the goddess of chastity, by the chera king senguttuvan.
Gajabahu I is known to have ruled in the second half of the 2nd century AD.
The cheras ruled over an area comprising north travancore, cochin and south Malabar.
The site of vanji, the chera capital has been located by some scholars near musiri (cranganore) while many others identifiy it with the inland city of karur on the amravati river in the coimbatore district.
The cheras had the ankusha (elephant-goad) and the bow and arrow for their emblem.
Musiri was their chief port, but there were many others e.g., tondi (kadalundi), marandai, naravu (naura and nitrias of the greek writers) and bakare (porkad), etc.
The information on the geneolgoical history of the cheras largely comes from the padirrupattu (ten tens).
Some sundry information is also gathered from the purananuru and the silapadhikaram.
One of the earliest and better known chera rulers was udiyanjeral (130 AD).
The titles vanavaramban ‘one whose kingdom is bounded by the sky’ or ‘by the sea’, and perunjoran udiyan are applied to him by the poet mudinagarayar in puram literature.
Udiyanjeral was famous for his lavish hospitality; and his kitchen had become a bye-word for sumptuous feeding.
The commentator of puraunanuru makes out that he supplied the rival armies at kurukshetra with food.
Silappadikaram also records this legend.
The poet mamulanar records in aham (233) that the king gave a memorial offering to the spirits at the anniversary of the Mahabharata war, in which the heroes from whom he traced his discent, had died.
Udiyanjeral’s royal kitchen was at kulumur (ptolemy’s kourellour) which may have been the original capital of the cheras.
He was married to nallini, the daughter of veliyan venman, later known as porvaikko-perunarkilli chola.
Udiyanjeral was succeeded by his son nedunjeral adan (AD 155) who is said to have subjugated the ‘kadambu’ clan and conquered seven kings.
He is also praised as having set his bow on the slope of the himalyas so that his power was known from cape comorin to the Himalayas.
This is why he is known as imayavaramban.
The yavanas are said to have been punished in a strange way.
Their arms were pinioned behind their back and ghee was poured on their head.
The poet of patirrupattu was rewarded with the free gift of 500 villages in umbark kadu (elephant forest) and the revenue for 38 years from the southern province of the kingdom, by this king who ruled for 58 years.
His capital is called marandai and he fought a war with his contemporaray chola king in which both the monarch lost their lives and their queens performed sati.
Next in line was pal-yanai selkelu-kuttuvan or ‘kuttuvan of many elephants’, a brother of nedunjeral adan.
A fierce warrior who was the worshipper of korraivai changed over to Brahmanism and accepted nedumbaratayanar as his preceptor.
He later entered the title of dharmaputra.
Kuttavan was succeeded by his nephew, a son of nedunjaral adan known as kalankaik kanni narmudijera (the chera with the kalangay festoon and the fibre crown) who is said to have defeated the atiyamanas.
The other son of nedunjeral adan was senguttuvan, ‘the righteous kuttuva’ (AD 180).
He was the greatest early chera king, also known as pirakottiya senguttuvan or red chera, and was a contemporary of the poet parnar, one of the most celebrated and longest-lived poets of the sangam era.
He is the hero of the fifth decade of the patirrupattu and the real of silappadikaram, the tamil epic by the chera prince ilango adigal.
He is said to have conquered vast regions from cape comorin in the south to the Himalayas in the north ‘where the gods dwell’.
From the Himalayas, he is supposed to have got a stone to make an idol of the goddess kannagi.
Early in his reign, he is said to have subjugated the chieftain of mogur known as palaiyan as well as the chief of kongar.
He won a great naval victory and got the title ‘kadal-pirakkottiya’, i.e., who destroyed the efficacy of the sea as a refuge.
It was because of this naval victory that musiri became a safe port and in guttuvan’s days, yavana ships called in large numbers.
The mogur chief nannan palaiyan again rose in revolt with assistance from the chola and pandyan rulers, sometime late in his reign.
Senguttuvan repressed this revolt and, as a trophy, he wore on his chest the crest of jewels of seven ruling princes.
He is also said to have participated in the civil strife in the chola kingdom, helped parum-killis or nalam-killi, who was his brother-in-law, and placed him on the throne by defeating the rival at nerivayil.
The insignia that his royal decrees bore, consisted of the bow, the fish, and the tiger.
A2 silappadikaram, this monarch was the founder of the famous pattini cult related to the worship of goddess of chastity.
This function was attended by king gajabahu of sri lanka.
Senguttuvan was a great patron of arts and letters and was particularly fond of kuttu or dancing and the drama which he patronized liberally. This great chera king reigned for 55 years.
Senaguttuvan was succeeded by his half-brother perunjeral (or perumcheral) adan (AD 180) known to patirrupattu as adu-kotpattu charalatan.
He was the contemporary of the great chola king karikal.
We learnt from the poems puram and aham, that while fighting against the cholas in the battle of venni, perunjeral adan received a wound in the back and expiated the disgrace by starving himself to death on the battlefield with his swords in hand.
The sixth decade in which this king is discussed was composed by naccellaiyar and was married to this king.
All together, seven monarch of the line of udiyanjeral are mentioned in the patirruppattu while there is evidence of another line of cheras in the same sangam literature.
Establishment of this line was the result of the expansion of the chera kingdom towards with the north and placement of a viceroy with headquarters at tondi.
Olval-ko-perum-cheral irumporai may be regarded as the first of their viceroys as he is said in the colophone to have gone to reign at karuvur.
The kingdom seems to have started with anduvan ceral irumporai who died along with the chola king prunarkilli in the battle of por.
Anduvan was succeeded by his son selvakkadungo vali adan.
It is recorded that this king won a victory over the combined forces of the cholas and pandyas.
Vali adan was succeeded by his son perum cheral irumporai, a great warrior in whose prase Arisil kilar has sung
the eighth decade of patirrupattu.
Like his father, he is also said to have performed a yajna.
He was renowed for his overthrow of the stronghold of tagadur, the seat of the power of the adigaiman chieftains.
He is also said to have subjugated a rebellious shepherd leader named kaluvul and captured his fortress.
The last king of this dynasty was the son of (or cousin of) irumporai called ilam-cheral irumporai, the hero of the ninth decade of patirruppattu.
He is said to have fought a battle against ‘the two big kings’ (pandya and chola).
Another chola prince of the northern line deserving mention is yanaik-kat-sey mandaranjeral irumporai, i.e., ‘sey of the elephant look’ (AD 210).
He was captured by his pandya comtemporary nedunjeliyam, but regained his freedom in time to prevent his enemies at home from deposing him.
Another imp chera king was kanaikkalirumporai who punished muvan, a chief, by having his teeth pulled out and fixed on the gate at tondi as warning.
This king was some time later captured by the chola king sen-kanan and later released on request of the poet poigaiyar but died without water in the chola prison itself.
The famous chera port musiri or muziris was a great centre of indo-roman trade.
Col. Gerini connected the word chola with Sanskrit kala (black) and with kola which in the early days designatedthe dark-coloured pre-aryan population of southern India in general.
Bhandarkar connected it with Sanskrit ‘chora’ (thief) while it has been connected with ‘colam’ which means millet in tamil.
Killi, valavan and sembiyan are the other names of the cholas.
The cholas adopted the tiger as their crest while figured on their banner.
The chola dominion came to be known as tondaimandalam or cholamandalam in early medieval times with the capital at uraiyur in tiruchirapalli dist and subsequently at kaveripattinam or puhar founded by the chola king
In the middle of the 2nd cen BC, it seems that a chola king called elara conquered sri lanka and ruled over it for nearly 50 years.
Karikala, the foremost among the sangam cholas, was the son of ilanjetcenni.
Karikala means ‘the main man with the charred legs’.
In later times, under Sanskritic influences, the name was explained as death (kala) to ‘kali’ or death to (‘enemies’) elephants.
Karikala chola was a very competent ruler and a great warrior.
He fought a great battle at venni in which the pandyas and the cheras both suffered crushing defeats. In this
battle eleven minor chieftens were also uprooted.
He again defeated a confederacy of nine minor chieftains in a battle at vakaipparandalai.
Karikala maintained a powerful navy, which he used to conquer sri lanka, from where he brought a large
number of prisoners of war whom he used for building a huge embankment of 160 km to tame the kaveri river.
This was built with the labour of 12,000 slaves brought as captives from sri lanka.
He made puhar or kaverippumapattinam an imp port and an alternative capital of the chola kingdom.
The poet of pattinappalai gives an account of the port of puhar, state of industry and commerce under karikala, who also promoted the reclamation and settlement of forest land, and added to the prosperity of the country by multiplying irrigation tanks.
He is also credited with converting the oliyar community from nomadism to a settled life.
Two sons of karikala ruled from two different capitals – nalangilli from puhar and nedungilli from uraiyur.
The consequent civil war ended with the death of nedungilli.
After nalangilli, killivalavan came to the throne who captured karur, the chera capital.
He seems to have died in a battle with the pandyan forces.
Another renowed chola king was kopperunjolan who also ruled from uraiyur.
There was a serious quarrel between koppeunjolan and his two sons and the king ultimately committed suicide, along with his friend and poet andai.
Perunarkilli was another chola king who is the only one among the sangam kings who performed the rajasuya sacrifice attended by chera mari venko and pandya ugra peruvaludi.
Koccenganam come next as chola king. He is generally known for his religious zeal.
Another chola king was ilanjetcenni who captured two fortresses (seruppali and pamulur) from the cheras.
Senganan, the chola king famed in legend for his devotion to siva, figures as the victor in battle of por against the chera kanaikkal irumporai.
The chera king was imprisoned and later released.
Senganam chola is said to have built 70 fine temples of siva.
With the rise of pallavas, the cholas became only a marginal force in south Indian history.
The maduraikkanji refers to nediyon or vadimbalamba ninravan as the first pandya king.
He is credited with bringing the pahruli river into existence and organizing the worship of the sea.
The same text mentions pasalai mudukudumi as the second ruler who is mentioned as the first king in the velvikkudi grant.
Palsalai mudukudumi or mudukudumi peruvaludi is praised by three poets in five short poems.
A description of the way he treated conquered territory, ploughing it with white-mouthed ass and refers to the many big sacrifices he performed, hence the title palsalai meaning ‘of the many (sacrificial) halls’.
The third ruler mentioned in maduraikkanji was one nedunjelian, distinguished by the title ariyappadaikadanda meaning “he who won a victory against an Aryan army”.
A short poem (puram 183) ascribed to him, puts learning above birth and caste.
He is said to have died of broken heart when the innocence of kovalan was proved to him by kannagi. This story is the main theme of the epic silappadikaram.
His viceroy at korkai and perhaps his son and successor was seliyan, called verri verceliyan or ilanjelian, who wrecked terrible vengeance on the goldsmiths by sacrificing a thousand of them in one day to appease the great
goddess who had been kannaki.
The only other figure that stands out from the rest, the victor of talaiyalanganam, was later than the rulers mentioned in the silappadikaram and is known as nedunjelian (different from nedunjelian ariyappadaikadanda).
He came to the throne as a youth and at the very beginning of his reign he had to face a hostile combination of his two neighbouring monarchs aided by five minor chiefs at a place called palaiyalanganam.
In this campaign, mandaram cheral irumporai, the son of the chera king of the elephant look was captured.
He is said to have performed a vedic sacrifice.
Ilvandikaippallittunjiya nanmaran have pilloried in song for his liberality.
Another king ugrapperuvaludi subdued the chieftain of kanapper.
Himself a poet, he is said to have caused the ahananuru to be made.
Bhutappandiyan took ollaiyur and his queen is well known by her song on the occasion of her sati.
Under the pandyas their capital madurai and the pandyan poet korkai were great centres of trade and commerce.
The pandyan dominion was very wealthy and prosperous on account of the brisk indo-roman trade.
The pandyan kings sent embassies to the roman emperor augustus and Trojan.
The sangam govt
Clues in the texts points point more or less to a chiefdom level society with three catogeries of political powers:
Kilar (village headman), velar (hill chiefs) and ventar (lowl and chiefs).
An ur-kilar of the pristine type was a clan based headman with kinship ties with his people.
Velir with the hill chiefs who sometimes subjugated the neighbouring ur-kilar for predatory exaction, but were confined to their respective hills.
The ventars were the biggest chiefs who held control over larger areas through the subordination of the kilar
who fought for and shared the booty with them.
The chera, chola and pandya, constituting the muventar (three crowned kings), owed their superiority to
controlling the rice-producing plains and the transmarine trade set them apart from the less fortunate chiefs called vels, velars or kurunilaimannar.
The kings in the sangam texts are known by terms like kon, ko, mannan, vendan, korravan or iraivan, etc.
Ko is shortened form of kon which means cowherd and it is also used as a general term for ‘god’.
Courts were known as avai (a corrupt form of sabha), arasavai, olakkam or irukkai.
The crowned kings acquired many titles.
The cheras were know by vanavar (celestials), villavar (hunters and bowmen), kudavar, kuttuvar (westerners), poraiyar, malaiyar (rulers of mountain land), puliyar (rulers of puli nadu), etc.
The cholas were known as sennis (leaders), sembiyam (descendanta of sibi), valavan (rulers of the fertile land), killi (the chief) etc.
The pandyas were known as minavar (fisherman), kavuriya (related to the kauravas), panchavar (related to the pandavas), tennar (southerners), sliyar (of the fertile land), marar(southerners), valudi etc.
The term vendan was used only for the three supreme kings and rest were lesser kings who did not wear a regular crown.
The place of the king and the place of the god were both called koyil (the adobe of ko).
Arasan, a general term referring to a king was tamilized form of rajan.
The king’s birthday is celebrated every year and the day was called perunal (the great day).
The royal emblem (viz. the tiger of the chola, the bow of the chera and the carp of the pandya) was inscribed on the outer gate of the palace.
The eldest son of the reigning king generally succeeded to the throne by right and this was known as murai mudal kattil.
The crown prince was known as komahan while the younger ones were known as ilango, ilanjeliyan, ilanjeral etc.
The right of succession was called tayam (a general term for securing a property).
The coronation ceremony was known as arasu kattil erudal or mudi suttu vila.
The kings power was restricted by five councils which were known as the ‘five great councils’, also known as aimperunkulu.
The ‘group of five’ was a recognized body of people, composed of five divisions and constituting a council.
These five consisted of:
1. ministers (armaichchar)
2. priests (purohitar)
3. army chiefs (senapatiyar)
4. envoys or ambassadors (dutar)
5. spies (orrar).
There was another institution called enperayam which consisted of:
1. karanattiyalavar (accountants)
2. karumakarar (executive officials)
3. kanakasurram (treasury officials)
4. kadaikappalar (palace guards)
5. nagaramandar (elderly persons in the city)
6. padaittalaivar (chiefs of the infantry)
7. yanai virar (chiefs of the elephantry)
8. ivuli maravar (chiefs of the cavalry)
the kings bestowed titles and honours on their subordinates in recognision of their performance.
These honour were called marayam and were of three categories viz. etti (conferred on leading merchants, the vanigars), kavidi (conferred on personal attendants who got tax-free holdings), and enadi (to be conferred on
Some other officials of the sangam age included mandirakkanakkar (scribes in-charge of royal correspondence and were also known as mandira olai), arakkalattu andanar (judicial advisers), tandira vinainar (executive officals doing odd clerical job), dharma vinainar (discharging religious duties) and ayakkanakkar (incharge of
Municipal and village administration
The village was the fundamental unit of admn and in connection with the management of village affairs we come across the terms: manaram, podiyil, ambalam and avai.
The manaram, the podiyil and the ambalam seem to be synonymous terms denoting a place where the village assembly (avai) met to transact local business.
The entire kingdom (big or small) was called mandalam.
Nachchinarkkiyar speaks of the four divisions of tamilaham: chera, chola, pandya and tondai mandalams.
Below the mandalam a major division was nadu and we also hear of a unit called kurram.
A2 V.R.R. Dikishitar, nadu was a subdivision of kurram and A2 U.V.S. iyer, kurram was the subdivision of nadu.
The ur was a town which variously described as a big village (perur), a small village (sirur) or an old village (mudur).
Cheri was the suburb of a town or villae, while pakkam was a neighbouring area.
Salai was the trunk road and teru the street in a town.
Pattinam was a term for a coastal town and puhar was a general term for harbour area.
Kaverippumpattinam was the pattinam par excellence of Tamilaham and was generally known as Pattinam only.
Many towns have been mentioned in the texts but the major ones were puhar (the famous chola port and coastal capital), and uraiyur (the chola inland capital also known as koli and varanam: it was a strongly defended city and its outskirts had burial grounds which were full of stones and hence ‘there were many obstacles to easy movement’.
This description is strongly suggestive of the existence megalithic burials; the classical writers describe the place as noted for its cotton textiles-argaritic derived from argaru or uraiyur, korkai (the pandyan coastal capital, situated on tamraparni river; it was reputed for its pearl fisheries where the paradavar (fisherman) dived for pearls), kaval (meaning salt pans, situated near korkai; the periplus talks of colchi (korkai) and its pearl fishiers worked by condemned criminals), madurai (the pandyan inland capital), musiri (the chera port) and vanji or karur (the chera capital), kanchi (also known as kacci, kaccimurram and kacchippetu) the capital of tondainadir, was another major city.
Arikamedu was known to the sangam literature as virai (modern viram pattinam). It was one of the velar strongholds known to sangam literature.
Virai, described as a harbour was probably one of the coastal town like sopatinam (modern marakkanam), of the Oy clan of velir. It was also the capital of the velir chieftain virai veliyan venman.
Defending fortresses (inji, purisai or ahappa) well developed.
High battlement walls – nayil
Moat – ahali or kidangu
Towered gates – parvgal
The fortress of kanapper had on additional fence of impenetrable forest.
The sufferings of a beleaguered fortress from the subject of a poem by kovur kilar.
The traditional four fold army – padai.
Chariots were drawn by oxen or horses.
Sword (val) and and shield (kedaham or kiduhu) were used in close combat, and the tomaram is mentioned, evidently as a missiles to be thrown at the enemy from a distance.
Body-armour (tol) made of tiger-skin for the protection of the body, and a cover of leather for the forearm were in use.
Generally the war started with a well-known incident, viz., cattle lifting known as atandombal in the tolkappiam.
The warriors wore the heroic anklet called virakkalal on which the heroic deeds of the wearer were inscribed.
In the army the van (tusi) and the rear (kulai) were distinguished besides the flanks (pakkam).
The war drum was worshipped as a diety and crows and kites ate the bali offered.
Before marching, the sword was taken into a procession and umbrella and drum were sent in advance as a token of march towards the battlefield. This was known as the ceremony of nalkol.
The slain soldiers were believed to attain the ‘heaven of heroes’ (virasvarga) and were often honoured by the erection of memorial stones (virakkal or nadukal).
An institution peculiar to the sangam tamils was the kavalmaram.
The kings – sovereigns as well as the feudatories – maintained with great care a tree in the courtyard of their palaces or near the manaram or some central place in the town or at some convenient or well-protected spot.
It was a totemic symbol and was believed that the tree had the power to protect the town; it was therefore, called ‘tutelary tree’, a kadimaram or kavalmaram.
Senguttuvan destroyed palyan’s vembu (margosa) and tree and transported it in a huge vehicle drawn by elephants which were yoked to the carriage by strong ropes made of the twisted hair of the women of the enemy land.
Kalangaikkanni narmudi cheral defeated the chieftain nannan (the rules of puli land) and cut down his vahai (albizzia lebbek) tree.
Land tax was called irai or karai.
Tributes paid by the feudatories and war booty collected from recently conquered foes were irai;
Tolls and customs duties were ulugu or sungam.
The duties to be paid to the king were generally known as kadamai or padu, and paduvadu.
Vari was also a generic term meaning income.
Extra demands or forced gifts were called iravu.
A well known unit of territory yielding tax was a variyam and the tax collecting authority was a variyar.
The rate of revenue was 1/6 of the produce.
Kural states that the king’s revenues were derived from:
1. uru porul (treasure-troves and escheats or land revenue according to K.A. Nilakanta Shastri).
2. ulgu porul (customs and tolls).
3. onnartteru porul (war-booty and tributes).
Tamilakam had an extensive trade with rome, Egypt, mayanmmar (burma), kadaram (Malaya) and java (yava) and ulgu was collected on all items.
Other than variyar (land tax collector) we hear of alumbil vel (assisted by ayakkanakkar – revenue accountant), kavidi (finance minister), karanattiyalavar, ayakkarar (toll collectors) etc, as tax collecting authorities.
Weights and measures
Kanam was a measure of gold, very small in size.
Pons referred to perhaps the same measure as kanam.
Kasu was a kind of coin of the size of a margosa fruit and of the shape of lotus bud.
Kasu generally meant a small copper coin.
Silver was called velli and rarely ven pon.
Iron was also known as pon.
The grain from the field was measured in ambanam.
The padirrupattu commentator equates ambanam with a marakkal.
Nail was a much smaller measure equal to one ulakku or two alakkus.
Nalikai was a measure of time.
Usually, the grain measure was called nail and the time measure nalikai.
Tuni and padakku were also cubic measures used for measuring horse gram and other grains.
A smaller measure of a weight was a todi which was an equivalent of a polam.
Kalanju was a unit of measuring gold.
Popular unit of distance was a kuppidu.
The stratification in tamil sangam society was primarily confined to the binary between the vyarntor (the high born) and ilipirappalar (the low born).
Tolkappiyam list of four categories (castes):
Andanar (brahmanas), arasar (kings), vaisiyar (traders) and velalar (farmers).
Tamilham consisted of five tinais or physiographical divisions viz., kurinji (hilly backwoods), palai (parched zones), mullai (pastrol tract), marutam (wet land), and neital (littoral).
The kanavar, kuravar and vetar or kadar were the inhabitants of the kurinji-tinai and hunting and gathering their form of subsistence.
Palai-tinai, the inhabitants were kalavar, eyinar and maravar living by plunder and cattle lifting.
In the mullai-tinai the inhabitants were ayar and idaiyar subsisting on shifting agriculture and animal husbandary.
Marutam-tinai were inhabited by ulavar and toluvar subsisting on plough agriculture.
Neital-tinai was inhabited by paratavar, valavar and minavar dependent on fishing and salt extraction.
We get a total of eight social groups, viz.,
1. kuravar (shifting agriculturists)
2. vetar (hunters and food gatherers)
3. idaiyar (cattle-keepers)
4. kallar (plundering cattle lifting-people)
5. ulavar (plough agriculturists)
6. paratavar (fisherman)
7. umnar (salt manufacturers)
8. panar (wandering bards associated with all the tinails)
on the basis of nature of production the agriculture zone (marutum) was called menpulam and the rest, excluding neital, were collectively called vanpulam.
Menpulam produced paddy and sugarcane and vanpulam grew pulses and dryland grains.
Full-time craft specialists in the poems:
Kuyavam or kalace-kovan (potter).
The basis of production relations was kinship, signified by ilaiyarum mutiyarum kilaiyutan tuvunri, which is a stock expression in the poems referring to the labour processes in any tinai.
Illiyar means youngsters, mutiyar means elders and kilai means agnatic kin.
The term kilai stands as the tamil counterpart of jati.
Grain was husked in hollows made in the ground (nila-ural), and converted into flakes (aval).
Appam (apupa) or rice-cake soaked in milk was a luxary.
Mural paintings – ovaikkalai.
Traveling troops of dances carried their yal (lute); padalai (one-sided drum).
The dances of viralis (professional dancing-girls) took place at night.
Different kinds of lutes like periyal, palai-yal and sengottiyal are described in detail in different contexts.
There is a full length description of a padini, a singing women of the panar community (viraliyar) in the
perunanuruppadai in which karikal himself is described as a master of the seven notes of music.
Woman enjoyed much freedom of movement in society and the number of women poets of the age is sufficient indication that they were not excluded from the best education then available.
Sati (tippaidal – falling into flames) was common.
The worship of kannagi or pattini (‘the chaste lady’) was perhaps a very early institution and was but an extension of the worship of the goddess of chastity’. This become popular with senaguttuvana’s worship of kannagi and spread to distant places like sri lanka in the south and malva in the north.
The images of the pattini devi were preserved in tamil temples till recently.
The courtesans are mentioned at many places in the places in the texts, especially in aham literature. They were called parattaiyar or kanigaiyar.
Later works like the tolkappiyam and the kalaviyal say that the Aryans introduced the rituals and ceremonies of marriage (karanam).
These works also mention the spontaneous coming together of the sexes (kamakkuttam), they distinguish secret marriage (kalavu) from the open alliance contracted with the consent of parents (karpu); last they refer to the eight forms of marriage known to the Sanskrit dharmasashtra and show great ingenuity in fitting them into framework of the tamil scheme.
Though the gandharva form of marriage is easily equated to ualavu (later known as yalor system), the other Aryan forms do not fall in line so easily.
Sangam age economy
Vanpulam included all the hill slopes, arid plains and pastures which were larger thatn menpulam which
included exclusively the wet-land plains of paddy cultivation.
Cultivable tracts in the vanpulam were called enal or punam where millet and gram grew in abundance.
The material basis of menpulam was of advanced plough agriculture.
Sangam texts refer to ulavar or toluvar as the tillers of menpulam.
They knew the technique of harnessing the bullocks (erutu) at their necks with a cross-bar (nukam) to a
ploughshare (meli or nanjil) which was iron-tipped for furrowing.
Buffaloes (erumai) were also used for ploughing.
Tank irrigation (ayam) and minor dam (sirai) irrigation are mentioned.
Many of the jobless clans of vanpulam depended on the produce of menpulam as iravar (beggars), kallar
(thieves) and panar (the bards).
The subsistence farmers of vanpulam came to menpulam for exchanging their hill products for paddy and other goods.
The coastal people came to menpulam to exchange fish and salt for paddy.
In short, menpulam was the nerve centre of contemporary economic life.
And this is the region, the early tamil kingdoms were located in – cholas on the kaveri, pandyas on the
tambraparani and vaigai and cheras on the kerala coast.
Poems refer to the exchange of goods for goods (notuttal).
Kadam or kadan meaning debt is mentioned in the texts.
The loan of a commodity to be paid back in the same kind and quantity was in vogue and was called kurittumaretirppai or kuriyetirppai.
Avanam or angadi were the main organized points of exchange (market place).
Pattanam were the centres of long distance trade.
Certain weights of gold known as kaame and kalanju were used as media of exchange in the pattanam, perhaps also in certain higher transactions.
The institutionalization of war is clear from the description of vetcci (cattle raid), karanttai (cattle recovering war), vanji (cheiftains’s attack of a territory), kanji (defending war), tumpai (getting ready for war), vakai (the killing of enemies), untattu (social dining and drinking before and after the wars), perumcorruvilavu (grand rice feast) and citucorruvilavu (small rice feast).
In these plunder raids, often cultivated fields (kalani or palanam) and settlements were destroyed.
The anthologies mention paddy (cennel, putunnel), wild paddy (aivanam, torai, kalaivennel), ginger, turmeric, pepper, sugarcane, cotton, horse-gram, and many other cerels of coarse variety as main agricultural products.
Uraiyur, a chola capital, was famous for cotton cloth.
Smithy was another industrial activity which indulged in making weapons of war and the place (factory) was known as panikkalari.
Pattinappalai mentions how goods brought to the chola port were piled up and customs officers stamped each bundle with king’s tiger seal.
Fishers and coastal traders called paratavar imported horses, sandalwood and some kind of white snow.
Purunanuru tells how high-piled sacks of pepper were taken by yavanas (romans) in exchange for gold padirruppattu mentions that a chera king had warehouses for valuables coming by ship.
From the periplus, we know that the chera port of musiri imported spikenard from the ganga, while silk, tortoise shell and betel leaf came from south-east asia.
At puhar, the Chola capital, there were merchant colonies speaking different languages.
Shilappadikaram mentions how ships sailed directly from south-east asia to the chola coast with special woods, silk, sandle, camphor and spices.
Ptolemy lists six coastal places in TN to which he appends the word ‘emporium’.
Three of these, musiri, korkai and kavarippattinam are known from anthologies to have been chief ports of three early kingdoms.
Another city, called either perimula or perimuda, is described as “the greatest emporium of trade in India”. it was on the vaigai delta near rameshwaram.
A walled city called kapadapuram was situated around tambraparani delta.
Akkadu village in tanjavur has been suggested to have been the arkatos of Ptolemy which was also the second capital of the cholas.
Musiri of anthologies was known as muziris of the greeks.
A subsidiary capital, tondi has been identified with ponnani.
Greek records also mention vaikkarai, nilakanta and netravati as ancient port towns in kerela.
Pantar in the south of kerala and puli (around tuluva) were ports of the sangam period.
Kaveripumppattinam was known to Ptolemy as khaberis (puhar of literature).
Vellaiyan-irrupu (“white man’s settlement”) is located near kaverippattinam.
Kalaiyur, located near kaverippattinam has yielded a structure which was identified as a dock by S.R.Rao, korkai, a port of the sangam period, was a pearl market and the seat of the pandyan vice-royalty.
Manabalipuram may have been ptolemy’s mélange (mavilankai) which is said to have been an emporium.
It is also identifiable with the port of nirpayarrurai mentioned in perumpanarruppadai.
Marakanam, north of pondicherry, appears to have been a harbour and is identified with sopatma of the periplus and eyil of sirupanarruppadai.
The mouth of the vellaru was an arab ship building port.
The place called agarlu in the periplus was situated near tondi on palk bay (different from tondi in kerala).
It exported pearls and muslins.
The end of the peninsula, called kodi, was one of the earliest points of the south known in the north (arthashastra) and was used by the greeks as a fixed point of navigation.
Nearby was situated pasika mentioned in the arthashastra as a source of pearl.
Muthupettai, west of the vaigai delta, was a pearl market.
Tirucendur, south of the tambraparani delta, has a well known temple of murukan, said in myths to protect the pandyas from incursions from the sea.
This is probably the same as sentil of tirumurukarruppadai and is certainly one of the earliest pandyan sacred spots.
Somewhere nearby was the early pandyan capital of kapadapuram, and also on the coast in the same region was south madurai.
These are supposed to have been the first two pandyan capitals and the sites of the first two literary academies, kanniyakumari (cape comorin) is mentioned as early as Eratosthenes which the greeks used as a fixed point for
navigation. Ptolemy lists it among the ports.
Bandar and kodumanam were other ports with a wealth of seaborne imports, Bandar being noted for its pearls and kodumanam for rare jewels.
Mention is made of the abundance of quartzite precious stones in the hills of the chera country.
Pepper, ginger, rice, sandalwood, ahil, almug, cardamom, cinnamon, turmeric, ivory and pearls, gems like beryl (an aquamarine gem) and corundum, cotton and cotton fabrics were the main commodities,which were in great demand in foreign countries.
Monkeys, deer, peacocks, cheetahs, tigers and elephants were also in demand.
Kapin (kavi in tamil) and tukim (peacock, tokai in tamil) are Hebrew words and these were exported to the western world.
Similarly, greek oruza for rice is derived from tamil arisi, English ginger is derieved from latin zingiber which in turn was derieved from tamil injiver, the tamil chiruttai became cheetah in English, cardamom was from kurundam and sandal was derived from sandana or sandu.
We find large hoards of roman gold coins of the augustan age in many parts of south India which provide evidence of the brisk trade between tamilaham and rome.
The direct trade route between tamilaham and Arabia, Egypt and rome had been well established by the date of the periplus.
Trade with rome in the first century AD was so lucrative to the tamils that the pandyan king sent two embassies to augustus (20 BC) to win his favour.
We have reference to the inability of others to enter the western sea where the chera led his gold-giving ship.
One text mentions the ships of titan veliyan bringing gold.
Pliny’s reference to an Indian ship carried off to the german coast by wind is also given as evidence.
Recent excavations on the red sea coast have brought to light graffiti in tamil brahmi characters, probably the two names chatan and kanan.
Ins’s dated to the first century BC from Sri Lanka mention a Damila vaija, damila navika and a damila gahapati showing their association with horse trade.
A jataka (480) also mentions kaveripattam in the damila counry.
Religion of sangam tamils
The religion of the sangam age was not uniform.
Their rituals were related to animism and other forms of anthropomorphic diety worship.
The whole philosophy of reincarnation, hero worship, ancestor worship, sati worship etc were related to death.
Animism accounts for a good part of tamil sangam religion and comprised worship stones, water, stars and planets.
A mere planted log of wood called kandu was an object of worship for it was believed that a deity resided in that log of wood.
Three strands of religion, clearly marked off from each other, are discernible during the sangam period:
1. the indigenous gods and systems of worship
2. the exotic hindu gods and systems of worship
3. the exotic non-hindu religious faiths and functions.
The hunters of the hill tracts worshipped murugan as the god of the hillock.
Indra, god of marudam, was worshipped by the agriculturists. There was a special festival instituted in puhar in honour of indra.
The fishermen and the people of the coastal regions worshipped varuna, the god of the wide ocean.
Korravai was the goddess of victory.
Among the established gods worshipped according to rituals, the three eyed god (siva), murugan, tirumal, balram and indra seem to have been the more important.
The temple was called nagar, koil, kottam, purai or devlayam.
The popularity and prevalence of the brahmanical velvi (yajna) the sraddha and panda to the dead, fasting etc. are well attested to by the sangam literature.
References are not lacking to the performance of vedic sacrifices and the sacrificial posts, the yupas, those of pandya king mudukudumi peruvaludi being the best known.
The word yakacalai is used for yajnasala.
Vishnu sleeping on the coils of ananta in kanchipuram is mentioned in the perumbanarruppadai.
Shiva as ardhanarisvara (half-man half-woman), his bull nandi, his ganas, in fact the whole gamut of saivite legands are found together in the invocatory verse of the purananuru.
Siva, balarama, Krishna, and subrahmanya (better known as murugan in tamil) are mentioned together in one poem.
The birth of subramanya from kali, and his warlike achievements like the destruction of the asura called sura are favourite themes of the poets.
The worship of this diety was attended by primitive dances known as velanadal.
The reference to the worship of the deity of the forest (kaduraikadavul), often identified with durga, may be another survival of a similar nature.
Though Buddhism and Jainism must have found a footing in the land, there are few references to them in this literature.
Ascetics wearing orange robes and carrying a tridanda (mukkol) are referred to.
Tapas – austerities
There are references both to cremation and burial urns, and to judge only from the trend of these references, cremation and burial appear to have been alternative modes of disposal, and the manimekalai furnishes evidence that both these and other methods of disposal survived together upto a relatively late age, say the sixth or seventh century AD.
Some light on the funerary rites of the time is thrown by the references to the wife offering a pindam (rice-ball) to her dead husband who was supposed to eat it at the instance of a pulaiyan, before his pyre was kindled.
Indra, yama, varuna and soma (kubera) are mentioned as the guardians of the four directions: the east, the south, the west and the north respectively.
Gods on the basis of caste are also mentioned in the silappadikaram.
Brahma (the four faced one), the thirty-three devas and the elevan ganas are also mentioned in
Umai, tirumal, kalaimaga, aylrani (wife of indra) were some of the goddesses worshipped.
There seem to be parallel names in tamil and in Sanskrit for the same gods – murugan and subrahmanya, tirumal and Vishnu, siva and rudra.
Among the temples in the sangam age there is specific mention of quite a large number.
The temple was called nagar, in latter-day ins’s we also read of vinnagara, meaning the temple of ‘vishnu’.
Kottam, koil, nagar, il or griha meant place of residence; hence the expression vishnugriha also meant ‘temple for vishnu’.
The name ‘siva’ is rarely mentioned in the sangam literature; but many of his attributes (namely, the three-eyed one, the one that destroyed the three aerial forts, he that holds the trisula, he that is seated under the baniyan tree) are given in many contexts.
Siva, of course had his temple and kari kilar advising pandyan palyagasalai mudukudumipperuvaludi, says that his royal umbrella should be lowered when he comes round the temple of the three-eyed one.
The temple of indra is mentioned in silappadikaram and in manimekalai.
The festival of indra was held all pomp by chola king in puhar and manimekalai calls it “the festival of the thousand-eyed one”.
His temple was called vajrakkottam, for vajra is the divine weapon of indra.
The commencement of the festival of indra (vira kalkol) was proclaimed by the beat of drums placed on elephant’s back.
Tirumal as tirumal and as kannan is quite often mentioned and was worshipped and associated with valigaon (baladeva) and with Kaman.
Synthesis of the non-aryan tamil and the Aryan vedic deities had begun during this period.
The culture of sangam age, as a whole, is a synthesis of the tamil and Aryan cultures.