Sangam Era – Of Literature & Life (3rd BCE – 3rd CE)

Sangam Era – Of Literature & Life (3rd BCE – 3rd CE)

The earliest Tamil literature on record paints a vivid picture of what life was like in Southern India over 2,000 years ago. Journey through Tamilakam or ‘Tamil country’, via the prose and poetry of the Sangam Era, when an intriguing blend of fact, myth and legend evolved

A Young Chieftain

The young bull
does not feel the yoke,
though the cart is loaded
with salt and things.
But who can
foresee the damages
when it dips into the creeks
and climbs the hills?
So the salt merchants keep
a second safety axle
under the axle tree.

Auvaiyar: on Pokuttelini, Purananuru 102, Translated by A K Ramanujan

This is an excerpt from Purananuru, an anthology of 400 poems written in the early half of the Sangam period. A compilation of works by over 150 poets, some of whom were women, the Purananuru was penned over a long period of time. This particular verse compares a young chieftain to a young bull, strong and fearless, and is part of a series of eulogies to kings, battles and heroes, and gives us a sense of the world was like over 2,000 years ago.

Historically, while it is an early work, legend tells us that the Purananuru is, in fact, one of the later pieces produced in the Sangam Age, a period steeped in mythology.

Sculpture of Sage Agastya, traditionally believed to have chaired the first Tamil Sangam in Madurai  | LACMA

The story of Tamil literature begins with the Sangams or meetings/conferences of great poets, scholars and gods, ‘thousands’ of years ago in the Pandyan kingdom at the tip of South India, a stretch from Kanyakumari to Madurai in present-day Tamil Nadu. Little remains of the works or even the memory of the first two Sangams. We are told that Shiva and the Sage Agastya attended the first Sangam, and the second Sangam is said to have lasted 3,700 years, in the submerged town of Kapatapuram or Alaivai.

The oldest work that has survived from the Sangam Age is Tolkappiyam, a work on Tamil grammar. Most of what is known as ‘Sangam Literature’ to historians today is said to have evolved during the Third Sangam, which is said to have taken place in Madurai. These works include the anthologies Patthuppattu (The Ten Idylls) and Ettuthokai (The Ten Collections), of which the Purananuru is a part; and the Padinenkilkanakku (The Eight Minor Didactic Poems), part of which is the famous poet Tiruvalluvar’s Kural.

While this may be confusing because so much has been lost, the fact that much of the commentary on these works was written between the 8th and 10th centuries CE has only added another layer of complexity. Yet there is enough in the works that have survived as well as in the later epics – Silappadikaram and the Manimeghalai – to give us a sense of the life and times, and hopes and fears of the people who lived deep in the southern tip of India around 2,000 years ago.

Historians trace Sangam Literature to a broad period between 300 BCE and 350 CE. Of these works, Tolkappiyam is perhaps the earliest and Silappadikaram and Manimeghalai, the latest. Through these works, one can actually trace how a narrative about warring chieftains and brave heroes turned into stories of love and betrayal, set in opulent cities overflowing with riches and kingdoms sprawling from coast to coast.

Long-forgotten, the Sangam texts were revived only in the late 19th century, through the efforts of scholars like U V Saminatha Iyer, C V Damodaram Pillai and A Narayanaswami Iyer. In 1985, A K Ramanujan published translations from the eight anthologies and the ten long poems, titled Poems of Love And War.

The cultural history of Tamilakam, the area covering the southern Tamil Nadu and Kerala today, can be pieced together not only through its literature but also through Tamil inscriptions dating back to the 2nd century BCE. Written in the Southern Brahmi script, which was probably derived from the Ashokan or Northern Brahmi of the 3rd century BCE, these are of Buddhist and Jain provenance and talk of donations by rich benefactors. These inscriptions also provide the earliest evidence of societal formations and practices in the Tamil region. Recently, evidence has emerged to suggest that Southern Brahmi is older, possibly dating back to the 5th or 4th century BCE.

A 1597 map depicting the locations of the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea

Besides Sangam Literature, Graeco-Roman accounts of the same period also provide a great deal of mundane detail which gives us a picture of those times. Texts like the Periplus Maris Erythraei or the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (a document that lists the ports and coastal landmarks, in order and with approximate intervening distances that the captain of a vessel could expect to find along a shore), Ptolemy’s Geographia or Geography, and the work of Pliny, Naturalis Historia or Natural History are also invaluable in this regard.

Then there are texts from Sri Lanka like the Mahavamsa, Rajavali and Rajaratnakari which contain accounts of this period.

Copy of an early palm-leaf manuscript of Tolkappiyam

Decoding Sangam Poetry

Tolkappiyam is considered the earliest work of the Sangam period and it has been dated by some scholars to between the 2nd and 1st century BCE. It is a work of grammar and poetics, on which the Ettuthokai and Patthuppattu are based.

Interestingly, in a commentary on this work, scholar Dr K R Srinivasa Iyengar of Andhra University believes Tolkappiyam also signifies something else. He points out, “As Tolkappiyam is a grammatical treatise, it must obviously have been preceded by centuries of literary activity.” This is an interesting point and is speculation of sorts on the possibility of earlier works, or perhaps the fact that Tolkappiyam itself was compiled over a period of time.

Several commentators have also mentioned how this work, among other things, defines the geography of the region it was set in. The region mentioned is bordered by the Vaigai River in the south (near present-day Madurai), the Marudam River in the north, Karuvur (present-day Karur) in the west and Maruvur (in present-day Thanjavur) in the east. This geography expanded to incorporate more territories during the course of the Sangam Era and thereafter, all of which came to encompass Tamilakam, as the region came to be known.

Sangam Literature also speaks through signs and symbols, which have to be decoded. As far as the poetical works that have survived are concerned, the poetry of this time is classified by theme into two kinds: akam and puram. Akam poems are love poems and deal with what poet and translator, A K Ramanujan called “the interior landscape”. Puram poems are poems on war, kings, death and so on.

Representation of Sangam landscape or tinai  | Rajesh Odayanchal 

Interestingly, the inner world or landscape of the akam poems is mapped on the basis of five external landscapes or tinai – each representing a flower or a tree characteristic of (and so signifying) an ecological zone.

From the point of view of the poetic form, a tinai also symbolises a certain phase in the relationship. This interplay of the external and internal adds a lilt to the poems of the Sangam Age. For instance:

– Kurinji, a mountain flower that represents mountains populated by hill tribes, indicates lovers’ unions.
– Mullai, a variety of jasmine which represents forests or pasture land populated by peasants, indicates patient waiting or domesticity.
– Marutam, a tree with red flowers that grows near water sources and represents the countryside populated by people following pastoral occupations, indicates lovers’ unfaithfulness.
– Neytal, a water flower that represents the seashore populated by fisherfolk, indicates anxiety in love and separation.
– Palai, an evergreen tree that represents wasteland (mountains or forests parched by the summer) populated by travellers and bandits, indicates elopement, hardship and separation from lovers or parents.

At the physical level, these ecological divisions have been interpreted by authors as charting the transition from a tribal itinerant society to a more settled agrarian society, which is said to have occurred during this time.

Marutam, for instance, is understood to be an agrarian settlement that has both natural and artificial sources of irrigation like canals and ponds. Agriculture had made considerable progress in this phase and was producing a surplus. This was clearly a move forward from the Mullai phase, which is understood to be a phase of subsistence agriculture. Mullai, on the other hand, is a step forward from the Kurinji, which is a time of hunting and a nomadic way of life.

The Marutam phase led to a growth in population, wealth, the formation of social classes, the emergence of social stratification and also resulted in the arrival of Brahmins from the North, who were patronised by the rulers of the time. This mention of the arrival of Brahmins indicates the beginning of the Aryan or North Indian influence on Tamil society. The exact beginnings of this are unclear and the extent of its influence is difficult to assess for want of clear evidence.

On the other hand, the Neytal phase runs parallel to the other phases. Fisherfolk exchanged fish and salt with people from inland regions. In the course of time, the arc of trade widened to encompass trade with distant lands and the growth of a number of coastal cities.

The fifth landscape, Palai, is not a specific phase of development. Dryness or a time of want occurs from time to time and is a natural phenomenon that must be dealt with.

While akam poems chart emotions and through their use of and references to various natural elements offer several clues to life during the Sangam Era, puram poems with their references to kings, battles and chieftains also speak of the same landscapes but in a different context. The subject matter of puram poems is the world of battle, valour and struggle. Mention is made of kings, chieftains, wars and the other preoccupations of a worldly kind, far removed from the ‘smaller’ concerns of the interior world that constituted akam poetry.

These poems indicate what people fought for in each of these tinais or areas. For instance, in the Kurinji Tinai, cattle-raiding appears to be a preoccupation, whereas in the Mullai and Marutam Tinais, emphasis is on defending the settlement and making provisions to guard it. Clearly, the concerns of societies at various stages of evolution are different.

Every town our hometown
every man a kinsman

From Purananuru 192, by Kaniyan Punkunran

This extract, from a longer puram poem, is indicative of the itinerant life of many who lived in that time.

Puram poems often provide interesting insights into commerce, technology and other aspects of life. The poems cited earlier provide several clues in this regard. The prevalence of trade routes, the items of trade and the risks of undertaking journeys all find mention in the verses.

Puram poems also refer to the Pandya, Chola and Chera dynasties with their areas of influence being the southern, northern and western portions of Tamilakam, respectively.

Regions of influence of the Early Chera, Chola and Pandya Kingdoms

It is important to note that Tamilakam then encompassed the geographical territories of what later came to be known as Kerala. The Cheras, who ruled this region, were very much part of the Tamil universe in the Sangam Era. Hence, the many references to the east coast (which is still part of present-day Tamil Nadu) and the west coast (almost all of which is in Kerala today, barring a small area near Kanyakumari) as forming part of Tamilakam. Between 500 CE and 1000 CE, opinions vary, the language of Malayalam began to evolve in the western regions, which eventually resulted in a separate political and social trajectory for that region, separate from the larger Tamil region.

Scholars who have interpreted the texts also believe that moving forward from one phase of development to another did not necessarily mean that people who followed the earlier ways of life disappeared entirely. Sections of the population continued to follow the earlier forms of social organisation, and trade and interaction continued between groups of people who followed different ways of life. This is borne out by the fact that even as cities were developing and agriculture was producing a surplus, hunting and gathering continued to be the accepted way of life for many people. There were patterns of symbiotic exchange between the tinais and these are often referred to in the texts.

Besides trade within the region, there is also clear evidence of linkages with the ancient Roman Empire, indicating that connections had been established between seafarers of Europe and West Asia with the seafarers of Tamilakam. The discovery of the monsoon winds in the West seems to have spurred this trade, allowing ships to make the journey back and forth. Puram poems refer to a Pandya prince who drowned at sea and there is also the legend of a Chola king who commanded a fleet.

Map showing ancient India trade routes

Overseas Links

Ancient Romans, Greeks and West Asians are all referred to as ‘Yavanas’ and appear to have had settlements in Puhar and Muziris, coastal towns on the eastern and western coasts, respectively. Besides Puhar (present-day Poompuhar) and Muziris, Naura (present-day Kannur) also appears to have been an important port.

‘Yavanas’ was a generic term for overseas visitors but the discovery of Roman coins and pottery indicates where these visitors came from. Coins and other artifacts have also been discovered in inland regions, clearly indicating that the Romans were not restricted to the coast. It appears that spices, pearls, gems, silk and cotton fabrics were exchanged for Roman gold and wine, for over two centuries in the early years of the Common Era. Sangam poetry mentions the quality of the wine that came from Yavana ships and the exchange of black pepper for Roman gold coins.

Archaeological evidence indicates the presence of beryl mines in the Coimbatore region. Clearly, these mines continued to yield a considerable output for several hundred years, a portion of which found its way to Rome and Greece. The later post-Sangam Era text, Silappadikaram, revolves around an anklet containing gems and an anklet containing pearls. The gems were perhaps obtained from these very mines. Pearls were found in the waters off the coastal areas of Tamilakam, and the port of Korkai was known as the ‘Pearl’ Port.

Silk (pattu) was brought from China through the Gangetic plains and the sea and then went west. Certain varieties of fine fabric (kalagam and kalingam) appear to have come from Burma and Odisha as well.

An indirect reference in the Patthuppattu talks of a Chera king, Neduncheralatan, punishing the Yavanas by “tying their hands behind them”, “pouring nai (ghee) on their heads” and “walking them along”. Clearly, the relationship was fraught, at times, resulting in the intervention of the local ruler in laying down the law and the terms of trade.

Sculpture of Ilango Adigal in Poompuhar Museum

Twin Epics

By the time of the great Tamil epics, there is evidence of the prosperity that came with trade. Silappadikaram is said to have been written earlier, by Ilango Adigal (also spelt Ilanko Atigal), the younger brother of Chera King Senguttuvan, and dates to the 2nd – 3rd century CE. It begins in Puhar, the ancient port-town in the northern region of Tamil country. By this time, Puhar was the capital of the Chola kingdom and enjoyed trade relations with Sri Lanka, Burma and even distant Java. Ships of all kinds sailed in and out of its harbour and foreigners were forever crowding its markets, looking for things to buy.

The story gives us a further peek into the times. It centres on Kovalan, the son of one of Puhar’s most prominent and wealthy merchants who marries Kannagi. The young couple sets up home and is very much in love, before Kovalan deserts his wife when he falls to the charms of a dancer, Madhavi. By the time the hero returns home to his wife, he has frittered away his fortune.

Sculpture of ‘Kannagi in Pandya Court’ at Poompuhar

The story goes that the couple then relocates to Madurai, capital of the Pandya kingdom, in an attempt to rebuild their lives. By now, all that Kovalan and Kannagi have left as capital is a pair of anklets. Kovalan offers one of the anklets to the royal goldsmith for sale. The goldsmith, in turn, implicates Kovalan in the theft of the Pandyan queen’s anklet. Kovalan’s wrongful execution, which follows soon after, drives Kannagi to rage. With her other anklet in hand, Kannagi confronts the king and proves that Kovalan was no thief as the queen’s anklet contained pearls whereas hers contained gems.

Devastated, the king dies of remorse and Kannagi walks out cursing the city of Madurai. She is placated only after the intervention of Meenakshi, the patron deity of Madurai, and finally, Kannagi undertakes a journey to Kodungallur in the Chera kingdom, where she attains salvation. This story, therefore, ties in the great capitals of the Sangam Era.

In fact, Silappadikaram consists of three kaandam (books), each named after the capitals of the three ancient Tamil kingdoms: Puhar of the Cholas, Madurai of the Pandyas and Vanji of the Cheras. By using each of these cities as backdrops for its stories, the work offers a glimpse into the political set-up of the Tamil region at the dawn of the Common Era. Kannagi is born in one kingdom, moves to another and finally attains salvation in the third, underlining the links between the three kingdoms of the deep south of the subcontinent. In the Vanji kaandam, there is also a reference to the Himalayas, from where Chera King Senguttuvan procures a block of stone to carve an idol of Kannagi to consecrate a temple built to commemorate Kannagi and what she did.

Madhavi with Kovalan, sculpture in Poompuhar Museum 

The Manimeghalai is another famous epic and is said to have been written by Sattanar. It is a sequel to the Silappadikaram. It is the story of the eponymous daughter of Kovalan and Madhavi. Like her mother, Manimeghalai too is a dancer but she gives up her life as a courtesan to become a Buddhist nun, when she hears of the death of Kovalan and the actions of Kannagi. The work also features the tragic love story of Prince Udayakumaran, whose love for Manimeghalai is doomed to be unrequited on account of her decision to renounce the world.

Like Silappadikaram, Manimeghalai also features an apocalyptic section, where the city of Puhar is consumed by the ocean, akin to Madurai’s destruction by fire, as a result of Kannagi’s rage.

Sattanar was a Tamil Buddhist and features in the prologue to Silappadikaram. In the prologue, it is Sattanar who tells the Chera court the story of Kovalan and Kannagi, and thereafter gently nudges Ilango to write their story even as he assigns to himself the responsibility of narrating Manimeghalai’s tale. Manimeghalai also features a detailed exposition of Buddhist precepts and offers a close look at the practices prevalent at that time.

Together, the two epics are clubbed with the period of Sangam Literature though they are not technically part of it. Like the earlier works, these narratives also present a comprehensive albeit later picture of early Tamil society, with its three princely kingdoms, its merchants, princes, and its Hindu, Buddhist and Jain populations, all of whom appear to have coexisted peacefully in spite of their differences. Through the story of the protagonists, we also meet a range of local people, farmers, hunters and pastoralists, who live in the countryside away from the main cities and have their own traditions and ways of life.

Unlike the Sanskrit or even the Greek epics, the twin Tamil narratives, sometimes referred to as the irattaikappiyam, are unique in that they both have women as protagonists. There is no ‘heroic’ angle to the stories and they do not feature war and its associated trials and tribulations. Instead, they place commoners at the centre of the narratives.

Statue of Tiruvalluvar, at Kanyakumari

A third work of that time is the Tirukkural by Tiruvalluvar, a work on ethics and morality. Besides being a treatise on life conduct, the Kural, as it is popularly known, also has sections on kingship, army, valour, agriculture and education and has for long been considered a huge influence on the life of the Tamil-speaking people.

The three sure ways of impoverishment are
Arrogant exhibition of your riches
Excitement for no purpose
And an inordinate need to possess the whole world

Truisms like these are relevant even today and make the Tirukkural a timeless classic. No wonder this is the most oft-translated work in Tamil literature and has inspired writers across the globe, including Leo Tolstoy, who quoted Tiruvalluvar in a letter he wrote to Mahatma Gandhi. Tolstoy had read the German translation!

Kodungallur Bhagavathy Temple, Kerala

Where Literature Meets Life

The Kodungallur Bhagavathy Temple in present-day Kerala is still closely identified with the tale of Kannagi. Kannagi or Pattini, as she is known, is also present in Sinhalese folklore. Gajabahu, the Sinhalese king, is said to have been Chera King Senguttuvan’s contemporary (some scholars contest this) and present when the Kodungallur Temple was consecrated. Several shrines to Pattini are found throughout Sri Lanka and she is regarded as a Boddhisattva, an individual on the path to becoming a Buddha.

This tale thus marries the early history of the Sinhalese and the Tamils, quite like the Sangam Literature itself, which ties together the cultural history of the ancient south.

The literary works of the Sangam Era, when viewed holistically, give us a fairly accurate picture of the time, and it is through the works of these ancient poets and bards that we can truly bring alive an era of heroes and heroines who still inspire and shape the land where they lived so long ago.


Karthik Venkatesh is a history enthusiast who writes on lesser-known aspects of India’s history.

This article is part of our ‘The History of India’ series, where we focus on bringing alive the many interesting events, ideas, people and pivots that shaped us and the Indian subcontinent. Dipping into a vast array of material – archaeological data, historical research and contemporary literary records, we seek to understand the many layers that make us.

This series is brought to you with the support of Mr K K Nohria, former Chairman of Crompton Greaves, who shares our passion for history and joins us on our quest to understand India and how the subcontinent evolved, in the context of a changing world.

Find all the stories from this series here.