A Brief Introduction to Sangam Period

December 1, 2014

The lierature of cassical Tamil, which later became known as Sangam literature, flourished for over two thousand years ago in ancient Tamil country. These manuscripts engraved on palm leaves dating back to the period between 300 BC and 300 AD, contain heroic poems written in ancient Tamil about life in south India under the Chera, Chola, and Pandya dynasties that ruled different parts of greater Tamil country encompassing the states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and parts of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.

The Sangam age is widely regarded as the golden age of classical Tamil literature and Dravidian culture. These literary works composed as hymns, ballads, erotic verses, and lyrics were composed by numerous poets including sages and kings. They wrote about kings, valor, wars, loyalty, gratitude, generosity and love and were patronized by the rulers who honored them with lavish gifts for their literary eloquence. These poets came from all classes of society and followed different religious beliefs; native Dravidian worship peacefully co-existed alongside Hinduism, Jainisam, and Buddhism that spread to south India during the last centuries of BC.

Unfortunately much of the Tamil literature belonging to the Sangam period was lost. The literature currently available from this period is perhaps just a fraction of the wealth of material produced during this golden age of Tamil literature. The earliest existing work in Tamil literature is Tholkaappiyam, a grammatical work. The surviving works written by 473 poets are collected in eight volumes of short poems in Ettuthogai (Eight Anthologies) and ten volumes of longer poems, Pattuppattu (Ten Idylls). These ancient poems are classified by their themes as Puram and Akam. Puram poems view life from outside the family and deal with topics such as kings, battles, heroism, hospitality shown to strangers, honesty of the traders, loyalty of the soldiers to their king, and the king’s generosity and dedication to the welfare of his subjects. They provide graphic details of the society and the life of the kings, merchants and common people in a cosmopolitan, trade-oriented, and religiously tolerant society. Akam poems view life from inside the family and their main theme is love.

In the Sangam literature, the Tamil language reached a level of maturity and began to serve as a powerful and elegant medium of literary expression. It had already developed an elaborate code of conventions governing the portrayal of social life in literature. This must clearly have been the result of evolution and development spread over some generations.The language of this early poetry is formalized and standardized. All these poems are composed in two types of metres – agaval and vanci. The poets were true to nature and their poems abounded in descriptions of nature perceived with a keen eye. They speak volumes about the powers of observation and attention to details of the poets of this age.

Tamil scholar Kamil Zvlebil wrote “This literature is a finished, consummate and inimitable literary expression of an entire culture, and of the best in that culture; in this sense, it is truly a classical product, a classical literature. Strictly speaking the term Sangam literature should not be used; if there is at all an appropriate term for this corpus of conventional literature, it is the term classical”.

The Legend of Three Sangams
According to legends, there were three Sangam periods, namely Head Sangam, Middle Sangam and Last Sangam period. The first full account of the legend is found in a commentary to the Iraiyanar Akapporul written around the seventh century AD by Nakkīrar. There are also a number of references to the legend of academies at Madurai scattered in Saivite and Vaishnavite devotional literature composed in the following years. A whole mythology has grown around these ancient poems, particularly the myths of kingdoms extending back many centuries and of a large body of work lost in great floods.

However, the word Sangam is not a Tamil word and is not used anywhere in the Sangam literature. There is a lack of concrete scientific evidence to support conflicting claims and an accurate chronological assessment of Sangam literary works is unavailable.The term Sangam period is used by historians to refer the last of these; the first two being considered legendary.

Tamil scholar Vydehi Herbert writes” the word Sangam is derived from the Sanskrit word sangha which means academy or fraternity”. The word was probably borrowed from the vocabulory of Buddhism or Jainism, the two religions prevelant in south India around the sixth and seventh centuries AD. Historical evidence show that in 470 AD a Dravida sangha was established in Madurai by a Jain monk Vajranandi, and it seems this organization took a great interest in Tamil language and literature. Scholars believe that that these poems were gathered into anthology form as early as the sixth century AD at a time when Buddhist and Jain sanghas existed in the Tamil country.

A Tradition Lost and Rediscovered
What has survived over the centuries is only a part of the much vaster literature of this remote period. It began as an oral tradition which may have gone on for several centuries. Later they were engraved on palm leaves and much later editing and codification into anthologies took place. Colophons were added to these poems a few centuries later. The classical bardic poetry became extinct somewhere in the sixth through eighth centuries of AD. These literary works of love and war poems gave way to religious hymns, and the old palm leaf documents faded into obscurity and were lost for several centuries. Only very few people knew of their existence as this classical heritage was conserved exclusively by certain families, a few learned poets, scholars and commentators. Some Saivite monasteries also protected the texts they liked and respected. A few kings and rich people made arrangements for copies to be made when old palm leaf manuscripts fell apart. These documents could only be copied manually, and scribes often made changes to the texts as they copied. Texts differed from copy to copy and the new copies of manuscripts had many errors and interruptions.

They were rediscovered buried in the collections of pam leaf documents in monasteries and some old family collections by U.V. Swaminatha Iyer and S.V. Damotharam Pillai in the second half of the nineteenth century. They spent many years unearthing, editing and printing these classical works towards the end of the nineteenth century. Many other Tamil scholars followed their lead in securing these classical texts. With this newly accomplished time depth of Tamil literary history, Tamil language emerged as a classical language of India.

Madurai Tamil Sangam, a language academy, was founded by Pandithurai Thevar to promote Tamil language and Tamil culture in 1901. It was modeled after the legendary Sangam of Madurai and developed into a publishing house. It published various old texts and a scholarly journal called Centamil. Madurai Tamil Sangam opened Senthamil College in 1957 to promote Tamil studies and today it is a major research center.

To read more about food described in Sangam poems please click on the
link to Food in Sangam Poems.

Achaya, K.T. Indian Food: A Historical Companion. Oxford University Press 1994
Chellaiah, J.V. Pattuppattu: Ten Idylls, Translated into English Verse. Colombo General Publishers 1975
Dikshitar, V.R. Ramachandra. Pre-Historic South India Cosmo Publications 1951
Hart, George L. and Hank Heifetz (trans. and ed.) Purananuru: The four Hundred Songs of War and Wisdom: An Anthology of Poems from classical Tamil. Columbia University Press 1999
Herbert, Vaidehi. Sangam Literature A Beginner’s Guide.  Digital Maxim LLC. 2013
Iyengar, P.T. Srinivasa. History of the Tamils From the Earliest Times to 600 AD AES reprint 2001
Kanakasabhai, V. The Tamils Eighteen Hundred Years Ago. Higginbotham & Co. Madras 1904
Ramanujan, A.K. (trans. and ed.) Poems of Love and War: From the Eight Anthologies and the Ten Long Poems of Classical Tamil. Columbia University Press 1985
Ramaswamy, Sumathi, The Lost Land of Lemuria: Fabulous Geographies, Catastrophic Histories University of California Press 2004
Sastri, K.A. Nilakanta. A History of South India. Oxford University Press 1999
Sastri, K.A. Nilakanta. The Cultural History of the Tamils. K.L. Mukhopadhyay 1964
Zvelebil, Kamil Veith. A History of Indian Literature Volume X Tamil Literature Otto Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden 1974 

Map of Tamil country in Sangam Period:
By Rameez pp (Own work) [<a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0">CC-BY-SA-3.0</a>],via Wikimedia Commons