December 1, 2014
The Sangam Age (300 BC – 300 AD) represents an important chapter in the history of South India. The ancient Tamil country encompassing the present day states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and parts of Andhra and Karnataka. The three ancient South Indian dynasties – Chera, Chola and Pandya – ruled over this land with a unique culture, including culinary, and language.
According to legends, there existed three Sangams or Academies of Tamil poets in ancient Tamii country. These Sangams flourished under the royal patronage of the Pandya dynasty. The story goes that the first Sangam, held at Then Madurai, was attended by even gods and legendary sages. But no literary work of this Sangam was available. The second Sangam was held at Kapadapuram but the all the literary works had perished except Tolkappiyam. The third Sangam at Madurai was attended by a large number of poets who produced voluminous literature. These manuscripts engraved on palm leaves contain heroic poems written in ancient Tamil about life in south India.
The chronology of the Sangam literature is still a disputed topic among the scholars. The anchor of Sangam chronology lies in the fact that Gajabhagu II of Sri Lanka and Cheran Senguttuvan of the Chera dynasty were contemporaries. This is confirmed by the early post-sangam work Silappathigaram as well as the Dipavamsa, the oldest historical record of Sri Lanka and Mahavamsa, the epic poem about the history of Sri Lanka. The chief towns and seaports and the foreign merchandise of the Tamil country, as described in the Tamil poems correspond exactly with those given in the works of Pliny, Ptolemy and in the Periplus Maris Erythraei. Also, plenty of Roman coins issued by Roman emperors of the first century AD were found in various places of Tamil country. As a result the most probable date of the Sangam literature has been fixed between the third century BC to third century AD on the basis of literary, archaeological, and numismatic evidences. Towards the end of the third century AD, the Sangam period slowly witnessed its decline. The Kalabhras attacked and occupied the Tamil country for the two and a half centuries.
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. 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 meters – 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.
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.
The earliest existing work is Tholkaappiyam, a grammatical work from the second sangam. The surviving works of the third sangam, 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 Tamil literary works remain useful sources to reconstruct the history of the Sangam Age.
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 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”.
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 vocabulary of Buddhism or Jainism, the two religions prevalent 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.
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