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 ancient literature of Tamils, known as the Sangam literature, is very massive, but it hardly fulfill is the demands of history and chronology.


The kingdom of the Cholas with its capital at Kaveripattanam was started from Kavery delta to the adjoining region of modern Tanjore and Trichinopoly. One of their early kings, Karikala (A.D. 190), who figures very prominently in ancient literature, is credited with victories over the rulers of the neighbouring Pandya and Chera kingdoms and is believed to have even extended his authority over Ceylon. Towards the beginning of the fourth century A.D., the power of the Cholas began to decline mainly because of the rise of Pallavas on one hand and the continuous wars waged by the Pandyas and the Cheras on the other.


The kingdom of the Pandyas with its capital at Madurai extended to the modern districts of Madura, Ramnad, Tinnevelly and the southern parts of Travancore. References to the Pandyas occur in ancient literary works like the Mahabharata and the Jatakas as well as in Indica of Megasthenes. According to Ashokan edicts, the Pandyas were independent people living beyond the southern border of the Maurya empire. A Pandya king is also known to have sent as embassy to the court of the Roman emperor Augustus and Trojan.


The earliest reference to the Chera (Keralaputra) kingdom can be traced in the Ashokan inscriptions. It comprised the modern districts of Malabar, Cochin and Northerm Travancore. Its capital was Vanji, which is identified by some with a site of Periyar River, by others with Karur or Karuvur located in the western most Taluq of the Trichinopoly district. 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 last epic shows the dominance of Sanskrit style over the indigenous style of the previous epics.


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.


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–

  1. Andanar (Brahmanas)
  2. Arasar (kings)
  3. Vaisiyar (Traders)
  4. 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.


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.

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