In the evolution of Indian history and culture, the role of South India is no less significant.
While the historiography of the British and the European scholars was based on Euro-centric perception, the historiography of Indian scholars was based on the perspective of the Gangetic basin in analysing the factors in the evolution of culture and history of India.
In the past five decades, new archaeological material has come to light and a critical examination of literary forces has proved that Tamilham or Deep South has contributed significantly from times immemorial.
Maurya Asoka’s edicts and Hathigumpha epigraph of Kharavela also refer to the earliest chiefdoms of Chola, Chera and Pandya and their transition from chiefdom to kingdom finds reflection in the Sangam literature. The beginnings of the historical phase in Tamilham or Deep South can be traced to the Sangam age. K.K. Pillai aptly states, “The Sangam is a unique institution of the early Tamils. It has lent its name to a number of classical works with the result that Sangam literature and Sangam age have acquired certain specific connotations, though in respect of details, doubts still continue to persist”.
The word Sangam is the Tamil form of the Sanskrit word Sangha and in this particular context, the Tamil Sangam is understood as an academy of poets and bards patronized by the Pandyan rulers with its headquarters at Madurai. It is very difficult to precisely date this Sangam age. The period between 300 BC and AD 300 is generally called the Sangam age. Likewise, it is also very difficult to fix the chronology of the works of the Sangam age. N. Subramanyam is of the opinion that the Sangam literature is attributable to pre-Pallavan age.
Tamilham as described by its literature is the region between the hills of Venkatam and Kanyakumari. This region is a combination of diverse eco-zones of hills surrounded by forests, undulating terrain, wetlands, long sea coast, pastures and arid zones. This region was under the political control of the three principal powers, the Cheras, the Cholas and the Pandyas. These were only chiefdoms and not kingdoms.
The most important political centres in this region were Karur and the well-known ancient port of Muciris (Cragnore) under the Cheras, Uraiyur and Puhar on the Coramandal coast under the Cholas, and Madurai and Saliyur, a port under the Pandyas.
The Sangam literature or heroic poetry refers to the concept of ‘Aithinai’ or five eco-zones and these five eco-zones are:
(a) Kurunji or hilly backwoods,
(b) Palai or arid zone,
(c) Mullai or pastoral tracts,
(d) Maruttam or wetland, and
(e) Neital the sea coast.
The occupations and lifestyle the people of these eco-zones is varied. Hunting and gathering was the occupation of Kurunji inhabitants. The people living in Palai depended on plundering and cattle-lifting. Shifting cultivation and animal husbandry were the occupation of the people of the Mullai zone. The people of Marutam pursued plough agriculture, and fishing and salt-making were the occupations of the people of Neital eco-zones. We also notice bartering of goods produced by one eco-zone people with other eco-zone inhabitants. Gradually, these small social groups living in different eco-zones became integrated through interaction and interdependence.
Where there was better productivity, they developed social divisions of labour and in other areas of lesser productivity; people led a simple life as clans. Though all the people of different eco-zones shared a common culture, the society comprised unevenly developed components. In the sphere of political structures also, we come across simple chiefdoms of clans and complex chiefdoms of ruling houses. A full-fledged state system was yet to take shape here as compared to Andhra and Maharashtra region where we notice the emergence of state system under the Satavahanas.
In Tamilham, there existed several chiefdoms big and small. The chiefs of these were addressed as the great son Peruniakan or Komakan or younger son. There existed three types of chiefdoms – Kizar or little chiefs, Velir or bigger chiefs and Vedar or the biggest chief The Chera, the Chola and the Pandya were the three principal ruling houses and were called as Muvendar or three Candar.
The relations between the chiefs and the people were based on kinship. In order to augment their resources, the chiefs resorted to plunder and catde-raids. The booty was redistributed among the warriors, bards and mendicants besides their own relatives. In this society, gift giving or Kodai also was very much in vogue. Sangam literature praises the generosity of the chieftains.
Livelihood of the people in Tamilham depended on hunting and gathering forest produce, cattle rearing, plough agriculture, fishing and salt-making and wayside robbery. By the time of Iron Age, we notice a spread of setdements from the upland areas to the fertile river valleys and the rise of agricultural economy. That agriculture was carried on with the help of the iron plough is known from literature and epigraphs.
Interestingly, a dealer in ploughshare figures as a donor in one of the inscriptions. Irrigation facilities were looked after by the people of the region as well as by chieftains and kings. At Kaveripattinam in Tamilham, remains of an ancient reservoir have been discovered. The cultivators of the land known as Uzhavar or ploughmen, and Vellar, or cultivators of the soil grew paddy, sugarcane and pulses. We also come across a category of Atiyor, who may be slaves and Vinaivalar or wages workers as can be gathered from literature. Sangam literature mentions that people of this age had great knowledge of seasons, which was essential for successful cultivation to feed diverse population of different groups of specialist artisans like blacksmiths, carpenters, bards, priests and monks.
We come to know from Sangam literature that the chiefs received two types of contributions – Irai or regular contribution and Tirai or tribute. The chiefs gathered the village resources such as cattle at one place and redistributed them as gifts to the priests and warriors by way of remuneration for their services.
Tamilham society of this period was essentially tribal, characterized by kinship organizations, totem worship and such tribal cults and practices. While tribal customs prevailed in all the eco-zones, in the Maruttam or the agricultural region, society appears to have become complex by the gradual break-up of old kinship ties and the introduction of the Varna concept.
Social stratification based on ‘high’ and low’ groups took shape in course of time. Besides agriculture, there were other professions such as blacksmiths, carpenters and weavers. Most of the people followed old tribal rituals of religious worship and cult practices, and the society was not priest-dominated. Trade and commerce was possible because of surplus production of goods; we come across traders – Unianan or salt merchant, Kogla vanikan or corn merchant, Amvai vanikan or textile merchant and Pon vanikan or gold merchant.
Tolkappiyam, the earliest Tamil grammar text indicates that Varna system entered into Tamilham as the above-mentioned traders were given the status of Vaisyas and the chieftains of the Maruttam region started claiming descent from Suryavamsa or Chandravamsa. Thus, in the agrarian zones, we notice amalgamation of old tribal practice and Brahmanical ideas. The economy of Tamilham depended on trade and commerce besides agricultural production.
There existed three levels of trade:
(2) Overland, and
In the local trade sphere, barter was the most common mode of transaction to obtain perishable commodities of daily use; paddy and salt were the only two items that had an exchange rate. Long distance overland trade and long distance sea trade resulted in the growth of urban centres as well as seaports. There was a flourishing trade between Rome and Tamilham. Tamilham also had commercial contacts with Sri Lanka and South-East Asia. Roman as well as Sri Lankan trade settlements are in evidence. Growth of trade and commerce led to the use of coins as medium of commerce in this period.
The coins may be divided into local and Roman coins. Sangam literature refers to locally available coins of Kasu, Kanam, Pon and Venpon but coins with these names have not been found so far. Roman coins generally of gold and silver and rarely, copper coins were in circulation.
In Tamilham of this period, ruling chieftains and kings derived considerable income from trade and commerce from toll or Ulka collected by agents from the traders. Revenue was collected in cash and kind as well. Artisans paid a tax knovm as Karukara. Coming to weight and measures, in Tamilham, land was measured as Ma and Veil. Large measure called Ambanam, and small measures such as Nali, Ulakan znd Alakka were prevalent.
Sangam literature and other literary texts refer to rural exchange centres, internal market, towns and port towns. Inland towns like Uraiyur located near modern Tiruchirapalli, Kanchi or Kanchipuram and Madurai developed into rudimentary market centres. Besides, there were port towns like Puhar or Kaveripattinam, Arikamedu, Colobil, Musiri and Tyndis. Bacare and Neleyamda were centres of maritime trade. It is also said that Musiris was a busy centre with a port crowded with large warehouses and markets.
These port towns did not have close links with rural or local exchange centres, as they catered to the needs of the nobility and the ruling group. The vitality of these depended on the success of foreign trade and when overseas trade declined, these centres too declined and disappeared as port tovms or Pattinams.
By 1st century BC, Tamil appears to have become a literary language. The earliest cave epigraphs prove this point beyond doubt. Label inscriptions found at Arittappatti, Karumgalakkuti and Kongarpuliyamkulam had both Tamil and Prakrit/Pali/Sanskrit words. Besides these label inscriptions, the Tamil heroic poems of Sangam literature constitute the important evidence for the old Tamil literary tradition. The literary tradition states that there existed originally three Sangams of which only the last one has survived. Sangam literature is characterized by specific poetic themes. Broadly, this literature is grouped into Ettuttogai or the eight collections of poems and Pattupattu or the Ten Idylls.
Narrinai, Kurandogai, Aingurunuru, Padirruppattu are some of the anthologies grouped under Ettuttogai, Mullaippattu, Madurikku; and Karunjipputtu, belong to the anthologies in Pattupattu. The entire collection includes 2,279 poems composed by 473 poets. The length of the poems varies from three lines to 80 lines.
Interestingly, there were some women poets also. The anthologies are divided based on the theme or the subject: Akam or love and Puram or glorification of plunder or raid. Apart from these heroic anthologies, Sangam literature includes Tolkappiyam, a treatise on Tamil grammar and Patinenkizkanakkse, a collection of eighteen didactic texts.
The most outstanding example of this category being Timkkural of Tiruvalluvar. KA. Nilakanta Sastri writes that doubtless what has survived is only a part of the much vaster literature of these remote times. Some scholars consider the twin epics Sihppadikaram and Manimekhalai as contemporaneous with heroic poems but they appear to be later compositions.
The literary piece Pattinappalai provides a detailed account of the activity of customs officials in Puhar. The literature advocated moderation in taxation. The Kalavali poems offer much interesting information on military matters. The twin arts of music and dance were highly developed. There are many references to variety of musical instruments, including drums. Karikala is famous as the master of the seven notes of music.
Poems also furnish valuable hints on popular beliefs and customs. In this period, we notice the influence of northern ideas entering into the sphere of religion and ethics. People worshipped Murugan or Subrahmanyam, Siva, Balarama, Vishnu, Krishna, Arthanariswara and Anantasayi. Manimekhalai refers to a temple of Saraswati.
Thus, by the end of the Sangam period the joyous faith in good living found in the literature gives way to a pessimistic outlook indicating a change in the general outlook on life and K.A. Nilakanta Sastri aptly describes “a long historical night ensues after the close of the Sangam age”.
Until 6th century AD, or the rise of the Pallavas, Tamilham was under the rule of Kalabaras or Kalappalar. We can conclude with the statement of K.A. Nilakanta Sastri that the literature of the Sangam age gives an unusually complex and true picture of the life of the people of Tamilham in the beginning of the historical period.