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Sangam

From Academic Kids

The Sangam is a collection of Tamil literature composed between 1,500 and 2,000 years ago.

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The Tamil Sangams

Though the idea that early Tamil literature was fostered in ancient academies on a submerged landmass has been widely discredited, literary historians do still refer to Tamil literature from 200 BCE to 300 CE as Sangam literature. Sangam literature is the oldest known Dravidian literature, written in Tamil and deals with love, war, governance, trade, eloping, bereavement and mourning. In contrast to contemporary literary works in Sanskrit and Pali, Sangam literature is surprisingly secular, dealing with day to day themes in a unique South Indian context.

The word Sangam is probably of Indo-Aryan origin, coming from Sangha, the Buddhist and Jain term for an assembly of monks. In Tamil the word means "assembly" or "academy".

According to medieval commentators on older Tamil poetry, assemblies, academies or learned gatherings called Sangams were founded to foster the Tamil language. Each was shifted around due to "Piralayams" or "Great Deluges". Three such Sangams, Talaicchangam (the first), Idaicchangam, the middle and Kadaicchangam (the last), had poets, musicians, kings and nobles as members. According to other accounts, even before the first Sangam, another one with the name of Mahendramalai Tamil Sangam is said to have existed, between 16000 BCE and 14550 BCE. These ideas were first expressed in a commentary to Iraiyanar Akapporul, a medieval work on Akam poetry. While the work itself is dated by K.A. Nilakantha Sastri to c. 750 CE, the commentary dates to the 13th century.

The First Sangam

This session was held at "Ten Madurai" (South Madurai) on the banks of the river Kanni (aka Pahruli) under the patronage of a Pandyan king called Ma Kirti. Sage Agastya convened this one and wrote Agattiyam or Agastyam – a treatise on Tamil grammar. This Sangam lasted for 4440 years. It was held in Mt. Mahendra in Kumari Nadu - a continent that extended beyond the current Kanyakumari. Iraiyanaar and Murinjiyur Mudinagarayar were other scholars who lived in this period. Sage Agastya is said to have had 12 students. Chief among them was Tolkappiyar, a member of the second sangam. Regarding the First Sangam, we know little. None of the writings attributed to this Sangam have come down to us in their entirety. The identification of "Ten Madurai", the seat of the first Sangam, has been a controversial point. Regarding the destruction of this place, there are certain allusions both in the Madurai Stalapurana and in the Silappadikaram. The commentator of the latter work writes as follows: "Between the rivers Kumari and Pahruli there existed an extensive continent occupying an area of 700 kavadam (a kavadam being equal to ten miles). This land consisted of forty nine nads (inclusive of Kollam and Kumari), innumerable forests, mountains and rivers had been submerged in the Indian Ocean as far as the peaks of Kumari, by a terrific convulsion which resulted in the upheaval of the Himalaya range". Five hundred and forty-nine people participated in the Premier Sangam. Participant poets included Akaththiyanar, Sivan, Murugan, Muranjicyoor Mudinaagaraayar, Lord Kuberan and others. Including them, 4449 poets presented their poems, it is said. Musical poems called Paripaadals were sung, as well as treatises on the grammar for Tamil music called Mudhunaarai, Mudhukuruku, Kalaviyaavirai, and so on. They remained convened in the Sangam for 4440 years. 89 Pandyan kings kept the Sangam convened, from Kaaycina Vazhudhi at first to Kadungkon at the end; seven of those kings even presented poems.

The Second Sangam

After a deluge the Sangam was shifted to Kapaadapuram aka Kavadapuram (Kavatapuram) in a now-lost continent know as Kumari Kandam on the banks of river Kumari which was South of present day Kanyakumari. This Second (Idai) Sangam is said to have lasted for 3700 years. This was presided over by Murugan (Skandha) and attended by Krishna. The work Tolkaappiyam by a Tolkaappiyar is from this era. Kapilar is also from this era. Kapaadapuram is mentioned in the Valmiki Ramayana.

The only work of the second Sangam which has come down to us is the Tolkappiyam. Nothing further is known about Tolkappiyar than that he was a student of Agastya and that he lived in a village near Madurai during the reign of the Pandya king Makirti. All the works of this Sangam have also been irretrievably lost, except the above work and a few poems which found their way into the anthologies of the third Sangam. Then unfortunately the ocean swelled and submerged the whole Kumari continent comprising various countries such as Ezh Thenga Naadu, Ezh Munpaalai Naadu etc., the vast Pahruli river and of course the city of Old Madurai itself. Almost all Tamil treatises composed at that Sangam were lost. The Tamil grammar Akaththiyam was the reference grammar.

The Tamil people were forced to move the site of their Sangam further north. 59 prominent poets participated in the Sangam including Akaththiyanar, Tholkaappiyar, Irundhaiyuur Karungkozhi Moci, Vellur Kaappiyan, Paandarangan the Younger, Thiraiyan Maaran, Thuvaraik Komaan ("The Lord of Dwaraka" or "Krishna"), Keerandhai, and others. Including them 3700 people presented their poems, it is said. They presented Kali, Kuruku, Venthaazhi, Viyaazha Maalai Akaval, and other works, it is said. Their reference works were Akaththiyam, Tholkaappiyam, Maapuraanam, Icai Nunukkam and Poothapuraanam. They remained convened in the Sangam for 3700 years; 49 kings kept the Sangam in session, from Ven Ther Chezhiyan ("The Pandiyan of the White Chariot") to Thirumaaran the Lame; 5 of those kings presented poems.

The Final Sangam

After yet another deluge, the Pandiyan king Thirumaaran moved the Sangam this time to current Madurai. This lasted for 1850 years and resulted in works such as Ettutthogai (eight Antholgies) and Pattu-pattu (ten-idylls). Almost all the Tamil classics we now possess are the productions of the third Sangam, which had its seat in Madurai.

49 prominent poets researched into Tamil culture during the Final or Third Sangam. Among them were Cendhampoodhanaar, Ilam Medhaaviyaar, Arivudaiyanaar, Mudhu Kunrur Kizhaar, Ilam Thirumaaran, the Madurai Professor Nallandhuvanaar, Madurai Marudhan Ilanaaganaar, Nakkeerar the Son of Madurai Kanakkaayar, and others. Including them 449 people presented their works. They composed Akanaanooru ("The Anthology of 400 Long Poems On Love"), Narrinai ("The 400 Good Poems On the Modes"), Pura naanooru ("The 400 Poems on the Exterior Landscape"), Kurunthokai ("The Anthology of 400 Short Poems on Love"), Aing kurunooru ("The 500 Short Poems on Love"), Pathirrup paththu ("The Ten Decades"), Noorraimpathu Kali ("The 150 Kalis"), 70 Paripaadals, Kooththu ("Dance"), Vari, Cirricai ("The Lesser Musical Treatise"), Pericai ("The Greater Musical Treatise"), and others.

Akaththiyam and Tholkaappiyam were their reference works. They remained in session and researched into Tamil culture for 1870 years; 49 kings maintained that Sangam from Thirumaaran the Lame to Ukkirap Peru Vazhudhi; three of them presented poems. The last Sangam ended around the 2nd century CE with the invasion of Kalabras from the north.

In Varahamihira's 7th century Grahasamhita, Lanka and Simhala are kingdoms south of India. Pali and Sanskrit works generally treat Lanka and Simhaladwipa or Tampapanni (Tamraparni) as separate countries. According to M.D. Raghavan, ethnologist emeritus of the National Museums of Ceylon in the 1960s, "Simhaladwipa seems to have been the remnant of Lanka after parts of it were submerged in the sea; what was left of the more extensive dominions of Ravana's Lanka." The Simhala classic Rajavaliya speaks of Ravana's castle "later submerged by the sea".

Last glacial maximum

The end date of the First Tamil Sangam coincides with the end of the last ice age, c. 11,600 years BP, which concluded the slow rise in ocean levels. This slow rise of ocean levels in the preceding millennia is called the ‘Flandrian Transgression’. This rise in global ocean levels is believed to have followed the ‘Last Glacial Maximum’ approximately 20,000 years BP.

Life and Culture during the Sangam Period

(B.C. 1465 to B.C. 165)- Over one thousand years of sangam

For over 1300 years and 49 generations, the three ancient Tamil kingdoms ruled by three kings and twelve velars, had an agreement of understanding or a treaty of cooperation and abided by the same. The basis of this agreement was based upon the literary creation Tolkappiyam’s Purathinai.

The ancient Hathikumba inscription, its message on the Tamils The great king of Kalinga Karavela tells in his Hathikumba inscription (Elephant cave) “All the Tamil kings were bound by an united alliance”, when he had visited these parts of Tamil country during 165 B.C. and states tha this alliance were in force since 1300 years back “ and these kings acted cohesively”. He feels that if this agreement continued to exist, it will be an impending danger even to his empire.

It was at this time the Cheraputra Anthuvan defeated the Kongu country king at Karuvur and captures it. As per the existing agreement, the King sows decayed seeds in the fertile paddy fields and ploughs them with asses. However, Karavela induces the Cheraputra King to expand his kingdom by not relieving his captured territory, thereby enticing him to break the treaty which had lived over the ages.

The inscription of Hathikumba was fully deciphered by J.P. Jayaswal MA Barister, Patna and Professor R.D. Banerjee, MA Banaras Hindu University. They were of a doubt whether this alliance or agreement of the three ancient Tamil kingdoms could have lasted 1300 years. Hence, they had interpreted that the total number of years could not be 1300 years and decided it as 113 years.

Though there are no inscriptions in Tamil Nadu that such agreements existed, it is true that such an agreement existed throughout the Sangam Period. To carryout such a treaty, it is a necessity to have a sort of control document. Hence, to implement such an agreement, these guidelines and rules were framed in into the famous book of Tolkappiyam which is considered a literary and legal bible of the Tamils. This could be found in Purathinai of Tolkappiyam. Just like a legal document, the Purathinai which comprises of the five divisions (Kurinji, Mullai, Marudham, Neidhal and Paalai), contains all the legal guidelines for this agreement. And this should have been done when Tolkappiam was formulated in its early ages. In a similar manner to Purathinai, Agathinai should also have been scripted together with Purathinai and created during its nascent stage.

In the olden age, the rules formed by the Tamil literary books had not been created by any one scholar. Each rule must have been created by one scholar (Pulavar) or by a group of learned men after considerable research. It was then created into an organized structure of rules and regulations. Most of the Rules / Regulations stated in Tolkappiyam ends with “enba” or “Mozhiba”. For example,

“Nunnithinayadhor kandavarae” “Yenmanaar Pulamayoerae” “Enba Unarumoerae” “Enba arichandinoerae”

are some verses of Tolkappiyam.

It can be inferred that these verses have been created and large volumes of regulatory/ legal books of Sangam literature have been created by means of conducting conferences (Tamil Sangam) of Tamil scholars during that age.

This legal document of Tamils, named Tolkappiyam, had evolved through the ages after its original creation by groups of Tamil pundits by suitably amending periodically and regulated as per the prevailing times and finally formed into a final shape as being read now. Both Agathinai and Purathinai were added with further information like “Agreement of Tamil Kingdoms”, and evolved into a biblical book called Tolkaapiyam, which means “to preserve the olden and enlighten it to the people”. Considering the beginning of the era of “Agreement of Three Kings” to be 1465 BC this creation of the final issue of Tolkappiyam should be after about 5 years or in 1460 BC. From this day, the culture of the Tamils had been classified as “Agam” and “ Puram” and people had lived by it.

Cooperative treaty between three kings

There was a cooperative treaty which gradually evolved from a single prince into ultimate formation of three kingdoms.

1. Rule by Small Grouping: When this was decided, there was only one crown prince of the Pandya King who along with his two brothers divided the country into Chera, Chola and Pandya and ruled the entire kingdom. Later the 12 velirs divided the country into smaller areas and ruled with greater interaction with the common people. Even during ages when good transportation facilities did not exist, there existed such kings who can be called upon any time. This way of rule which existed so long ago in Tamil country has a special reputation on its own.

2. Way of working of these Kings: “Kudi purangathombi kutrangadithal vendhan thozhil” – this means the kings’ duty is to do service to his country men, render justice, carry out punishments for criminals, maintain an army to safeguard the country. He himself undergoes a lot of training regarding warfare.

3. Three countries and the Three Kings: The three kings were praised profusely for their rule. The many velirs in each of these kingdoms were a sort of subordinates to these kings. The geographical contours of these kingdoms were used to create the symbols of these kingdoms and these symbols were minted in their coins. The symbols and flags were individualistic for each of these three kings. Velirs did not have such symbols or flags.

4. Relationships – Friendships and enmity: Among the velirs and kings, relationships were maintained through marriages and this was maintained ancestrally like a rule or a regulation . This can be inferred from Kabilar’s visit along with Paari’s daughters for trying to engage these girls with Velir’s sons (Puram: 200, 201, 202). For any grudge/ disagreements, there were conflicts only among these velirs or kings. These conflicts were only among the 3 kings + 12 velirs and their relations and strictly as per the rules and guidelines of the literary legal books.

5. Capture of Territories: If war was conducted as per Purathinai, even if a king captures several countries, there will be no change in the state of the kingdoms. Only the bravery of the war was looked upon and praised. The books tell about the direct involvement of the kings in the war and their brave deaths. However, the three kingdoms always existed as separate entities and secured as per the common law. For the bravery of the warriors, symbols of bravery called “Ninaivu chinnams” (small buildings) were only created. There were no kings who had thought about inscriptions to show his pomp or pride.

6. The guidelines of the learned scholars: These pulavars sang in praise of the kings and velirs indicating their important achievements, functions and celebrations. It was a common practice that these kings and velirs listened to the advice of Pulavars regarding warfare and acted accordingly.

It was only because of the deceitful king Kalingathu Karavelan that this treaty was broken in 165 BC. In this period, we can find evidences of one ruler capturing another’s territory by Cheraputras and Sathyaputras. Even during this time, the Chola King Killivalavan spared the children of Malayan Kari when he ran away in fear, as advised by the Pulavar “Kovoor Kilaan”. Also the king abandons the Malayan Kari’s kingdom and does not take over it, but leaves the place.

Also, it is evident from the Sangam literature that these kings also participated in creation of Ilakkana Nool or literary books and they themselves were established Pulavars.

7. Division of Wealth: While capturing other kingdoms, the victorious always took over a lot of the loser’s wealth and brought them to his kingdom. However, he did not take it away for himself. It was divided to all the people of his country. It is not like usurping the entire wealth and dividing among a few greedy rich men. There is no such evidence in any of these literatures indicating such events. Also, there is no evidence of kings flaunting their wealth by constructing self enjoyment houses such as dancing halls etc., There were a lot of developmental activity in agricultural, handicrafts in this age. Trade flourished by sea and land by improvement of infrastructures.

8. The invasion of other nations: It is evident that when a foreign invader threatens any of these Tamil countries, all the 3 kings and 12 velirs joined together to form an alliance. There had been training grounds to fight bravely and effectively in a war. It is clear that even the Maurya king could not invade the Tamil country because of their unity.

9. The long existed Treaty: This accord of understanding created in 1465 BC survived this longest period ever for 1300 years among the Tamil kings and velirs by scrupulously following the Rules and Regulations by all the kings and rulers, which finally faltered in 165 BC by the Kalingathu Karavelan.

Cheraputhra – who faltered: Unlike the Pandya and Cholas, the cheras were called as “Cheraputras” as evident from Ashoka’s inscriptions and Greek Scholar Ptolemy’s “Periplus” writings.

After the invasion of Aryans, they elevated themselves by means of their habits and created good relations with kings and big merchants. They were helpful to the influential class by helping them in creating contacts with foreign nations, language translations, understanding other languages and telling their meanings etc., Many Aryans also learnt Tamil and became scholars. It is understood that the word “Cheraputra” must have been introduced by the Aryans during Ashoka’s invasion.

A group of descendants of Chera king (Cheraputra) became dominant over a period and captured important positions in trade and governance. It was these people who had crept into the Kongu country and captured the big trade center Karuvoor and its allied Chola country. By the wily advice of the Kalingathu Karavelan, these cheraputras had retained the captured country for themselves. These culprits were in hold of the captive regions for about 2 - ½ years.

Chilapathikaram was written by Chera King. In it are the details of the Kongu Komaan (Zamindaar) and Kongu existing as a separate velir country. When this literary creation was being formulated, these cheraputras might have already started dwindling their evil designs and would have returned back to their country.

After the 2 – ½ years, even though the original cheras returned back to power, they were like men without strength. As they had already been in a time gap of about 10 generations, they were unable to establish themselves like their earlier counter parts and failed to created history.

Karuvoor has been depicted as a Trade center only in Karavela’s inscriptions. It is not the capital of Chera King. As per Sirupaanatrupadai (Verses 41 – 50), the capital of Chera king was Vanchi Nagar, situated in kutta naadu.


Cheraputras never followed the “common treaty or accord”. Their complete ancestral details are available in the book Pathitrupathu. Lots of treasures were distributed among the Pulavars. As per the accord, since the kingdoms do not belong to them, their coins minted in Kongu desam did not have any sovereign symbols. Slowly the Ways of the Sangam Age degenerated and Sangam Period is believed to have ended in AD 200. The powerful alliances of these Sangam Kings declined and rulers of other nations emerged and new ways of governance began to arise.

See also

Kumari Kandam

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