The Age of Sangam


The conference of the learned and wise people is known as ‘sangam’ in Tamil. The poets and academicians gathered periodically at Madurai for deliberations on their academic works. According to Tamil legends there were three sangams called ‘mudhal sangam’, ‘idai sangam’, and kadai sangam. The works of the first sangam is not available because the city where they held the conferences was submerged by flood waters or sea level rise. The ‘kadai sangam’ produced a rich source of Tamil literature: ‘patthuppattu’, ‘etthutthogai’, and ‘pathinenkiizhkkanakku’. The period from 400 BC to AD 500 is regarded as Sangam period. It covered the entire South India including Tamil Nadu, Kerala, part of Andhra Pradesh, and part of Karnataka. It was ruled by three kingdoms called Chera, Chozha, and Pandiya. They were known as moovendhargal (Three great kings). Senguttuvan was the greatest king of Cheras, Karikaal Chozhan was the greatest king of Chozhas, and Nedunchezhiyan was the greatest King of Pandyas. In the sangam age the land was divided into five regions according to the landscape, season, and mood. They were called aynthinaigal, the five kudis or clans: Kurinji, Mullai, Marutham, Neithal, and Palai. The people of these five regions were in general called malavars (who gather hill products), kadambars (who thrive on forest), mallars (farmers), nagars (guards of city), and thiraiyars (seafarers) according to their way of living.

Kurinji: It includes mountains, mountain valleys, and mountain plains. Kurinji is the name of a flower which is found in the Western Ghats. According to a legend it blossoms once in 12 years. People in the Kurinji land worshipped mother goddess, ‘Kottravai’ and a male deity called ‘Sevvael’ or ‘Karthikeyan’ (Lord Murugan). Their chief economic activity is gathering hill products for their own use and for trade with the neighbors. People of this region also practiced different professions Viz. poruppas (soldiers), verpans (weapon-ists), silamban (masters of martial arts), kuravars (hunters and gatherers), and kanavars (people of mountainous forests).

Mullai: It includes the forests at the foot hills. People in this region worshipped ‘Thirumaal’. The economic activities of the people were gathering forest products, cultivating lands wherever available, and cattle rearing. People known by their professions are kurumporai nadan-kizhaththis (landlords), thonral-manaivi (minister and noble couples), idaiyars (milkmaids), and aiyars (cattle rearers).

Marutham: It is the land of the plains. They worshipped a male deity called ‘Vaendan’. The main activity of these people was agriculture. There were also traders and merchants. People known by their professions were mallar (farmers), pallar (warriors), uraans (small land lords), magizhans (small scale farmers), uzhavars (farm workers), and kadaiyars (merchants).

Neithal: It is the land of the coastal region. They worshipped Kadalon. The people lived in this region were generally called “thiraiyans” (sea-farers). People known by their professions were saerppans (sea-food vendors), pulampans (people who deal in palm products), paravas (sea warriors), nulaiyars (wealthy fishermen), and alavars (the salt cultivators).

Palai: It is the land of desert or dry-land. People lived in this region are known as eyinars or eyitriyars (robbers).

Social life: People believed God (Adi Bagawan, Kadavul, and Irraivan). They worshipped mother goddess ‘Kottravai’ and a male deity ‘Murugan’. But we do not know whether they followed a particular religion or followed Hinduism in the modern sense. Buddhists and Jains who came from North India were accepted by the local people. They even contributed to Tamil literature especially the Jains. Probably, caste was not known to them. They were known by their names and professions and not by their caste name. They led a secular life and gave more importance to ethics, politics, and love life. Women actively participated in politics, education, and economic life.

Musicians and dancers entertained the king and the common people. Musical instruments known to them were thudi (a small percussion instrument), maylam (drum), muzhavu (wind instrument), kadambarai ( a large bass-like drum), kuzhal (similar to nagasuram), and yazh (stringed instrument). They enjoyed kootthu, a stage drama in dance form. Parayan (drum), muzhavan (muzhavu), kadamban (kadambarai), and paanan (yazh) were the musicians known by their expertise in a particular musical instrument.

Literature: The literary works composed at the first conference held at South Madurai under the chairmanship of Agastiyar is not available. Except Tholkappiyam, a grammar book, written by Tholkappiyar who chaired the second conference held at Kapaadapuram, all other scholarly works are not available. At the third conference convened in Madurai, 473 poets, men and women, composed around 2,381 poems. No other Tamil literary work, in the past 2,000 years of Tamil history, has surpassed the classical standard of the poems composed by the poets of the third conference. The poems mainly had two themes called ‘agam’ (inner) and ‘puram’ (outer). While ‘agam’ deals with personal and human aspects ‘puram’ deals with heroism, valor, ethics, benevolence, philanthropy, social life, and customs. The most popular literary work ‘Thirukkural’ written by poet Thiruvalluvar belongs to the third conference. It contains 1,330 two lines poems, the first line with 4 words and the second line with 3 words throughout.

Trade: Agriculture, weaving, pearl fishery, manufacturing, and construction were the main economic activities in this period. They cultivated paddy, pepper, millets, grams, and sugarcane. Rice was their staple food. They manufactured cloths made of cotton and wood fiber. They exported cotton cloth, pearl, ivory, and pepper to Egypt and Rome and imported luxury goods such as glass, coral, wine, and topaz. Madurai and Urayur were major textile centers. Pearl trade flourished in Korkai. Muziris, Thondi, and Kaverippattanam were the other major trade centers. Archeological evidences show that they probably used Roman coins as a medium of exchange for exports and imports. The Kallanai built by the king Karikal Chozhan is one of the oldest water regulation structures in the world. It remains in working condition.

Most of Sangam Age Tamilagam was on the rain shadow region. Since the south-west monsoon did not bring rain to the rain shadow region they depended on river irrigation. The western region got abundant rains but did not have plains. The Western Ghats was at the same time a gift and a curse. Probably Nature expected people to be interdependent. Tamilagam did not have a desert. But, in the rain shadow region the enormous stretch of plains which could not be irrigated were generally dry. Yet, people lived in this dry land (eyinars and eyitriyars). Maybe these people did not find enough opportunities in other lands. Otherwise, the society by and large was egalitarian. Women were addressed with respect and dignity. Apart from chivalry, chastity was among the virtues glorified. Traders could travel freely into any of the three kingdoms. One of the principal duties of the King was to protect the traders. Foreign travelers noted that Tamilagam was richer than Rome.

It is important to note that even after 2,000 years the language is still in active use though the language had undergone a lot of change (the change is mostly absorption of words from other languages). For example, the word ‘sangam’ is not a Tamil word. Probably, it must have been introduced to Tamil by the Jain scholars. The present form of the language is more flexible. One reason could be the focus on contextual meaning rather than phonemes. For example, if you ask a Tamil shop owner, “give me one palam”, the shop owner will correctly give you one pazham (banana). The sentence, “give me one palam”, does not produce any other meaning in that context.

Another interesting point to note here was their ability of ship building and construction. The Kallanai (stone dam) built by the king Karikal Chozhan continues to be in use.


Source by P Mathivanan

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