The Sangam period - a look back into History

Sep 18, 2021 - 14:32

The Sangam period or age (Tamil: சங்ககாலம், caṅkakālam ?), or the third Sangam period, is the period of history of ancient Tamil Nadu, Kerala and parts of Sri Lanka (then known as Tamilakam) spanning from c. 6th century BCE to c. 3rd century CE. It was named after the famous Sangam academies of poets and scholars centered in the city of Madurai.

In Old Tamil language, the term Tamilakam (Tamiḻakam தமிழகம், Purananuru 168. 18) referred to the whole of the ancient Tamil-speaking area, corresponding roughly to the area known as southern India today, consisting of the territories of the present-day Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, parts of Andhra Pradesh, parts of Karnataka and northern Sri Lanka also known as Eelam.


According to Tamil legends, there were three Sangam periods, namely Head Sangam, Middle Sangam and Last Sangam period. Historians use the term Sangam period to refer the last of these, with the first two being legendary.

So it is also called Last Sangam period (Tamil: கடைச்சங்க பருவம், Kadaiccanga paruvam ?), or Third Sangam period (Tamil: மூன்றாம் சங்க பருவம், Mūnṟām sanka paruvam ?).

The Sangam literature is thought to have been produced in three Sangam academies of each period. The evidence on the early history of the Tamil kingdoms consists of the epigraphs of the region, the Sangam literature, and archaeological data.

The period between 600 BCE to 300 CE, Tamilakam was ruled by the three Tamil dynasties of Pandya, Chola and Chera, and a few independent chieftains, the Velir.

Literary sources

Tamilakam's history is split into three periods; prehistoric, classical (see Sangam period) and medieval. A vast array of literary, epigraphical and inscribed sources from around the world provide insight into the socio-political and cultural occurrences in the Tamil region.

The ancient Tamil literature consists of the grammatical work Tolkappiyam, the anthology of ten mid-length books collection Pathupattu, the eight anthologies of poetic work Ettuthogai, the eighteen minor works Patiṉeṇkīḻkaṇakku; and there are The Five Great Epics of Tamil Literature composed in classical Tamil language — Manimekalai, Cīvaka Cintāmaṇi, Silappadikaram, Valayapathi and Kundalakesi as well as five lesser Tamil epics, Ainchirukappiyangal, which are Neelakesi, Naga kumara kaviyam, Udhyana kumara Kaviyam, Yasodhara Kaviyam and Soolamani.


Further information: Economy of ancient Tamil country, Agriculture in ancient Tamil country, and Industry in ancient Tamil country The four fold vedic system of caste hierarchy did not exist during sangam period. The society was organised by occupational groups living apart from each other. The land was controlled by chieftains who indulged in constant war fare.

Religion: The religion of the ancient Tamils are animistic and shamanic in nature. Elements of nature such as mountains, trees, water bodies are worshipped along with spirits and minor deities. Some of this minor deities are later adapted into larger pantheons of Brahminism, Buddhism and Jainism.

The Tamil landscape was classified into five categories, thinais, based on the mood, the season and the land. Tolkappiyam, one of the oldest grammatical works in Tamil mentions that each of these thinai had an associated deity such as Kottravai (Mother goddess i.e. Kali) and Cheyon in Kurinji (the hills), Maayon in Mullai (the forests), Venthan in Marutham (the plains i.e. Vayu), and Varunan in the Neithal (the coasts and the seas). Varunan could be replaced much more ancient Sea Goddesses in late sangam age.

The ancient Tamil calendar was based on the sidereal year similar to the ancient Hindu solar calendar, except that months were from solar calculations, and originally there was no 60-year cycle as seen in Sanskrit calendar.

The year was made up of twelve months and every two months constituted a season. With the popularity of Mazhai vizhavu, traditionally commencement of Tamil year was clubbed on April 14, deviating from the astronomical date of vadavazhi vizhavu.

Festivals: Pongal (பொங்கல்) the festival of harvest and spring, thanking Lord El (the sun), comes on January 14/15 (Thai 1).

Peru Vaenil Kadavizha, the festival for wishing quick and easy passage of the mid-summer months, on the day when the Sun or El stands directly above the head at noon (the start of Agni Natchaththiram) at the southern tip of ancient Tamil land. This day comes on April 14/15 (Chithirai 1).

Mazhai Vizhavu, aka Indhira Vizha, the festival for want of rain, celebrated for one full month starting from the full moon in Ootrai (later name-Cittirai) (சித்திரை) and completed on the full moon in Puyaazhi (Vaikaasi) (which coincides with Buddhapurnima). It is epitomised in the epic Cilapatikaram in detail.

Puyaazhi (Vaikaasi) visaagam and Thai poosam (தைப்பூசம்), the festivals of Tamil God [Muruga]'s birth and accession to the Thirupparankundram Koodal Academy, coming on the day before the full moons of Puyaazhi and Thai respectively.

Vaadai Vizha or Vadavazhi Vizha, the festival of welcoming the Sun back home, as it returns northward, celebrated on December 21/22 (Winter Solstice) (the sixth day of Panmizh [Maargazhi]). It is sung about in Akanauru anthology.

Semmeen Ezhumin Vizhavu (Aathi-Iřai Darisanam) or Aruthra Darishanam, the occasion of Lord Eesan (Shiva) coming down from the Thirucitrambalam (திருச்சிற்றம்பலம்) and taking a look at the Vaigarai Thiru Aathirai star in the early morning on the day before the full moon in Panmizh. Aathi Irai min means the star of the God (Siva) on the Bull (Nandi).

Thiruonam or Onam, considered to be the birthday of Mayon, by the people of Pandya kingdom and was celebrated for 10 days.

That was mentioned in '[Maduraikanji]' one of the 'Pathupaatu' book, 'Thirupallandu' by Periyazhwar and from the song of Thirugnanasambandhar in Thevaram.

On this day, Keralites celebrate Onam as the state's harvest festival. Onam is observed for 10 days, ending in Thiruvonam (or Thirounam).

Arts: Musicians, stage artists, and performers entertained the kings, the nobility, the rich and the general population. Groups of performers included:

Thudian, players of the thuda, a small percussion instrument

Paraiyan, who beat maylam (drums) and performed kooththu, a stage drama in dance form, as well as proclaiming the king's announcements

Muzhavan, who blew into a muzhavu, a wind instrument, with the army indicating the start and end of the day and battlefield victories. They also performed in kooththu alongside other artists.

Kadamban who beat a large bass-like drum, the kadamparai, and blew a long bamboo, kuzhal, the cerioothuthi (similar to the present naagasuram).

PaaNan, who sang songs in all pann tunes (tunes that are specific for each landscape) and were masters of the yaazh, a stringed instrument with a wide frequency range.

Together with the poets (pulavar) and the academic scholars (saandror), these people of talent appeared to originate from all walks of life, irrespective of their native profession.

People: A major part of ancient Tamilakam today lies in Kerala and Tamil Nadu

The people were divided into five different clans (kudes) based on their profession. They were:

  • Mallars: the farmers
  • Malavars: the hill people who gather hill products, and the traders
  • Nagars: people in charge of border security, who guarded the city walls and distant fortresses
  • Kadambars: people who thrive in forests
  • Thiraiyars: the seafarers
  • Maravars: the warriors.

All the five kudes constituted a typical settlement, which was called an uru. Later each clan spread across the land, formed individual settlements of their own and concentrated into towns, cities, and countries.

Thus the Mallars settled in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, while the Malavars came to live in Kerala, western Tamil Nadu, eastern Andhra Pradesh and southern Sri Lanka.

The Nagars inhabited southern and eastern Tamil Nadu, and northern Sri Lanka, while the Kadambars settled in central Tamil Nadu first and later moved to western Karnataka.

The Thiraiyars inhabited throughout the coastal regions. Later various subsects were formed based on more specific professions in each of the five landscapes (Kurinji, Mullai, Marutam, Neithal and Palai).

Poruppas (the soldiers), Verpans (the leaders of the tribe or weapon-ists), Silambans (the masters of martial arts or the arts of fighting), Kuravar (the hunters and the gatherers, the people of foothills) and Kanavars (the people of the mountainous forests) in Kurinji.

Kurumporai Nadan-kizhaththis (the landlords of the small towns amidst the forests in the valleys), Thonral-manaivi (the ministers and other noble couples), Idaiyars (the milkmaids and their families), Aiyars (the cattle-rearers) in Mullai.

Mallar or Pallar (the farmers), Maravars (the warriors) Vendans (Chera, Chola, and Pandya kings were called Vendans), Urans (small landlords), Magizhnans (successful small-scale farmers), Uzhavars (the farm workers), Kadaiyars (the merchants) in Marutham.

Saerppans (the seafood vendors and traders), Pulampans (the vegetarians who thrive on coconut and palm products), Parathars or Paravas (people who lived near the seas-the rulers, sea warriors, merchants and the pirates), Nulaiyars (the wealthy people who both do fishing and grow palm farms) and Alavars (the salt cultivators) in Neithal.

Palai symbolises the dry arid lands and scorching deserts of Tamil country where nothing except for the hardy and war-like perseverant tribes native to those lands can survive.

It is also the only land among all five lands of the Sangam landscape that a female God, fierce mother goddess, Kotravai was worshipped which is synonymous with the common belief that all the other lands of Tamil country emerged from these original dry arid lands.

The tribes existed in these lands were the ruthless and fearsome Maravars (Noble Warriors, Hunters and Bandits) and Eyinars (Warriors and Bandits).

They actively seek out for wars, knowledge, invade far and distant lands and engage in banditry.

People were known on the basis of their occupation they followed such as artisans, merchants etc.

Warriors occupied a special position in society and memorial stones called "Nadukan" were raised in honour of those who died in fighting and they were worshiped.

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