Till the second century B.C., the upland portions of the peninsula with the Kaveri delta as the nuclear zone were inhabited by people who are called megalith builders.
They are known not from their actual settlements which are rare, but from their graves called megaliths.
These are called megaliths because they were encircled by big pieces of stone which contained not only skeletons of the buried people but also pottery and iron objects.
Tridents, which later came to be associated with Shiva, have also found in the megaliths. However compared to the number of agricultural tools that were buried, those meant for fighting and hunting is larger in number.
It shows that megalithic people did not practice an advanced type of agriculture. The megaliths are found in all upland areas of the peninsula, but their concentration seems to be in eastern Andhra and in Tamil Nadu.
Their beginnings can be traced to circa 1000 B.C., but in many cases the megalithic phase lasted from about the fifth to the first century B.C. The Cholas, Pandyas and Keralaputras (Cheras) mentioned in the Asokan inscriptions were probably in the late megalithic phase of material culture. By the third century B.C., the megalithic people had moved from the uplands into fertile river basins and reclaimed marshy deltaic areas.
Under the stimulus of contact with the elements of material culture brought from the north to the extreme end of the peninsula by traders, conquerors and Jaina, Buddhist and some Brahmana missionaries, they came to have social classes, they came to practice wet paddy cultivation and founded numerous villages and towns.
Cultural and economic contacts between the north and the Deep South known as Tamilakam or Tamizhakam became extremely important from the fourth century B.C. The route to the south called the Dakshinapatha was valued by the northeners because the south supplied gold, pearls and various precious stones.
Flourishing trade with the Roman Empire contributed to the formation of the three states respectively under the Cholas, Cheras and the Pandyas. These southern kingdoms would not have developed without the spread of iron technology which promoted forest clearing and plough cultivation.
The Sangam Period:
The Sangam Age in South India is a landmark in her history. The word sangam is the Tamil form of the Sanskrit word Sangha which means a group of persons or an association. The Tamil Sangam was an academy of poets and bards who flourished in three different periods and in different places under the patronage of the Pandyan kings. It is believed that the first Sangam was attended by gods and legendary sages, and its seat was Ten Madurai. All the works of the first Sangam have perished.
The seat of the second Sangam was Kapatpuram, another capital of the Pandyas. It was attended by several poets and produced a large mass of literature, but only Tolkappiyam (the early Tamil grammar) has survived.
The seat of the third Sangam was the present Madurai. It has also produced vast literature, but only a fraction of it has survived. It is this fraction which constitutes the extant body of Sangam literature. The Age of the Sangam is the age to which the Sangam literature belonged. The Sangam literature constitutes a mine of information on conditions of life around the beginning of the Christian era.
According to Prof. K.A. Nilakanta Sastri, the Sangam literature which combines idealism with realism and classic grace with indigenous industry and strength is rightly regarded as constituting the Augustan age of Tamil literature. It deals with secular matter relating to public and social activity like government, war charity, trade, worship, agriculture etc.
Among the poets and thinkers of the Sangam age Tolkappiyar, Tiruvalluvar, lllango Adigal, Sittalai Sattanar, Nakkirar, Kapilar, Paranar, Auvaiyar, Mangudi Marudanar and a few others are outstanding. Sangam literature consists of the earliest Tamil works (such as the Tolkappiyam), the ten poems (Pattupattu), the eight anthologies (Ettutogai) and the eighteen minor works (Padinenkilkanakku), and the three epics. The chief merits of the sangam works is their absolute devotion to standards and adherence to literary conventions.
Earliest Tamil Works:
Tolkappiyam is the oldest extant Tamil grammar written by Tokkappiyar (one of the 12 disciples of Saint Agastya.) It is divided into three major parts, each consisting of nine iyals (sub-parts) and has a total of 1612 sutras. Other earliest Tamil works were the Agattiyam (a work on grammar of letters and life) by Saint Agattiyar, Pannirupadalam and the Kakkipadiniyam.
Ten Poems Pattupattu:
Murugarruppadai (by Nakkirar), Sirupanarruppadai (by Nattattanar), Perumbanarruppadai, Maduraikkanji (by Mangudi Marudam), Pattinappalai (by Kannan), and other works, come in this category.
The poetry in the Pattupattu was divided into two main groups: Aham (deals with matters strictly limited to one aspect of subjective experience viz., love) and Puram (deals with matters capable of externalization or objectification).
Eight Anthologies Ettutogai:
1. Aingurunuru, compiled by Gudalur Kilar, consists of 500 erotic poems.
2. Agananuru, compiled by Rudrasarman, consists of love poems.
3. Narrinai comprises 400 short poems on love.
4. Kurunttogai has 400 love poems.
5. Purananuru consists of 400 poems in praise of kings. The Nandas and Mauryas are referred in one of the poems.
6. Kalittogaicomprises love poems.
7. Paripadal has 24 poems in praise of gods.
8. Padirrupattu is a short collection of 8 poems in praise of the Chera Kings.
The eight anthologies (Ettutogai) also are in two groups, the Aham and the Puram.
Eighteen Minor Works Padinenkilkanakku:
These works are called ‘minor works’ because the poems in these are shorter in form than those in the Ettutogai and Pattuppattu. The most important among these are the Tirukkural by Tiruvalluvar (known as the Bible of Tamil Land’, it is a compound of the Dharmasastra, the Arthasastra and the Kamasutra), the Naladiyar, the Palamoliby Munnururai Araiyar, the Acharakkovaietc.
The epics Silappadikaram (The Jewelled Anklet) and Manimekalai belong to the early centuries of the Christian era.
1. Silappadikaram was written by Mango Adigal (grandson of Karikala, the great Chola King) in the second century A.D. It is a tragic story of a merchant, Kovalan of Puhar who falls in love with a dancer Madhavi, neglecting his own wife, Kannagi, who in the end revenges the death of her husband at the hands of the Pandyan King and becomes a goddess.
It marks the beginning of Kannagi cult or Pattini cult that is worship of Kannagi as the ideal wife. There is also a reference to the Ceylonese king Gajabahu being present on the occasion of the installation of a Kannagi temple, the Goddess of Chastity, by Chera king Senguttuvan.
2. Manimekalaiwas written by poet Sattanar. It is the story of Manimekalai, the daughter of Kovalan, and Madhavi of the earlier epic. The main aim of this epic seems to be to expound the excellence of the Buddhist religion through the medium of the travails of Manimekalai consequent on the loss of the city of Puhar when the sea eroded into the coast. This epic is the only important ancient work which gives glimpse of the development of the fine arts in the Sangam age.
In both these epics, a good deal of social and historical information is found
3. Sivaga Sindamani, written by Tiruttakkadevar a Jaina ascetic, is the story of Sivaga or Jivaka
Period of Sangam literature:
The earliest script that the Tamils used was the Brahmi script. It was only from the late ancient and early medieval period, that they started evolving a new angular script, called the Grantha script, from which the modern Tamil is derived.
Some of the contents of the Sangam literature are corroborated by the writings of some Greek and Roman classical writers of the first and second century A. D, leading us to fix the period of Sangam age roughly between third century B.C. to third century A.D. So most of the Sangam literature also must have been produced during this period. The Sangam literature was finally compiled in its present form in circa A.D. 300-600.
From the earliest times Tamilham had known only three major kingdoms – the Cheras, the Cholas and the Pandyas. The Pandyas were first mentioned by Megasthenes, who says that their kingdom was celebrated for pearls.
He also speaks of its being ruled by a woman, which may suggest some matriarchal influence in the Pandya society. In the Major Rock Edict II Asoka mentions of the three kingdoms – Pandyas, Cholas and Cheras as neighbours.
The Hathigumpha inscription of Kharavelea contains the early epigraphic reference to the kingdoms of the Tamil country, where he is said to have destroyed a confederacy of Tamil states – Tramiradesa Sanghatam. However, the chief source for the Sangam period is the Sangam literature.
The Pandya territory occupied the southern-most and the south-eastern portion of the Indian peninsula, and it roughly included the modern districts of Tinnevelly, Ramnad and Madurai in Tamilnadu. It had its capital at Madurai. The Pandyas are rightly famous for patronising the poets and scholars of the Tamil Sangams.
The earliest known Pandyan ruler was Mudukudumi who is mentioned in the Sangam text as a great conqueror. The most reputed Pandyan ruler was Nedunjhelian, who ruled from Madurai and was a great poet.
According to Silappadikaram, Nedunjhelian, in a fit of passion, ordered without judicial enquiry the execution of Kovalan who was accused of theft of the queen’s anklet. When Kovalan’s wife proved her husband’s innocence, the king was struck with remorse and died of shock on the throne.
The Pandyan kings profited from trade with the Roman Empire and sent embassies to the Roman emperor Augustus. The Pandyan port Korkai was a great centres of trade and commerce, another port was Saliyur. The brahmanas enjoyed considerable influence, and the Pandya kings performed Vedic sacrifices in the early centuries of the Christian era.
The Chola kingdom which came to be called Cholamandalam (Coromandel) in early medieval times was situated to the north-east of the Pandyan territory, between the Pennar and the Velar Rivers. Their capital was first at Uraiyur, a place famous for cotton trade and later shifted to Puhar or Kaveripattiram.
It seems that in the middle of the second century B.C. a Chola king named Elara conquered Sri Lanka and ruled over it for nearly 50 years. A firmer history of the Cholas begins in the second century A. D. with their famous king Karikala which means, ‘The man with the charred leg.’ He was a contemporary of the Chera king Perunjeral Adan. Karikala was a very competent ruler and a great warrior.
He defeated the Chera king Perunjeral. One of his early achievements was the victory at Venni, 15 miles to the east of Tanjore; his victory meant the breakup of the widespread confederacy that had been formed against him.
He founded Puhar and constructed 160 km of embankment along the Kaveri River. This was built with the labour of 12,000 slaves who were brought as capitves from Sri Lanka. Puhar was a great centre of trade and commerce, and excavations show that it had a large dock. The Cholas maintained an efficient navy.
Under Karikala’s successors the Chola power rapidly declined. Two sons of Karikala ruled from two different capitals – the elder from Uraiyur and the younger one from Puhar. The last great Chola ruler after Karikala was Nedunjelian who successfully fought against the Pandyas and the Cheras both, but was ultimately killed in battle.
Their two neighbouring powers, the Cheras and the Pandyas, extended at the cost of the Cholas. What remained of the Cholas power was almost wiped out by the attacks of the Pallavas from the north.
The fortunes of the Cholas suffered a serious setback, when, according to a tradition recorded in Manimekalaia good part of the port town of Puhar was engulfed by the sea in terrific tidal waves, during the reign of the later Chola king Killivalavan.
The Chera or the Kerala country was situated to the west and north of the land of the Pandyas. It included the narrow strip of land between the sea and the mountains and covered portions of both Kerala and Tamilnadu.
In the early centuries of the Christrian era, the Chera country was as important as the country of the Cholas and the Pandyas. It owed its importance to trade with the Romans. The Romans set up two regiments at Muziris identical with Cranganore in the Chera country to protect their interests. It is said that they also built there a temple of Augustus.
The history of the Cheras was marked by continuous fight with the Cholas and the Pandyas. One of the earliest and better known Chera rulers was Udiyanjeral (A.D. 130). The titles Vanavaramban and Perunjaran Udiyan are applied to him by the poet Mudinagarayar in Puram.
The son of Udiyanjeral was Nedunjeral Adan who won a naval victory against some local enemy on the Malabar Coast, and took captive several Yavana traders. He won victories against seven crowned kings, and thus reached the superior rank of the adhiraja.
He was called “Imayavaramban”, he who had the Himalayas as his boundary’. He fought a war with the contemporary Chola king in which both the monarchs lost their lives and their queens performed Sati.
According to the Chera poets their greatest king was Senguttuvan, the Red or Good Chera. He routed his rivals and established his cousin securely on the throne. It is said that he invaded the north and crossed the Ganga. But all this seems to be exaggerated. Pattini cult, that is the worship of Kannagi as the ideal wife, was started by him.
Senguttuvan was succeeded by his half-brother Perunjeral Adan (180 A.D.), who was a contemporary of the great Chola monarch Karikala. We learn from the poems Puram and Aham, that while fighting against the Cholas in the battle of Venni, Perunjeral Adan received a wound in the back and expiated the disgrace by starving himself to death on the battlefield.
After the second century A.D. the Chera power declined, and we have nothing of its history until the eighth century A. D. The fame of the Cheras lies in the liberal patronage to Tamil poets and promotion of trade with Romans. The Chera had a number of good ports along the western coast such as Tondi and Musiri or Muziris (Muziris was a great centre of Indo-Roman trade). The capital of the Cheras was Vanji.
The king was the very centre and embodiment of administration. He was called Ko, Mannam, Vendan, Korravan or Iraivan. Though hereditary monarch was the prevailing form of government, disputed successions and civil wars were not unknown. The court of the crowned monarch was called avai.
The ideal of the ‘conquering king’ (Vijigishu) was accepted and acted on. The King’s birthday (Perunal) was celebrated every year. Kings assumed several titles. For example, the Pandyas were known as Minavar, Kavuriyar, Panchavar, Tennar, Seliyar, Marar, Valudi.etc the Cholas called themselves Sennis, Sembiyas, Valavan and Killi, and the Cheras had titles like Vanavar, Villavar, Kudavar, Kuttuvar, Poraiyar and so on.
The royal emblem of the Pandyas was the carp (fish), the bow of the Cheras and of the Cholas was the tiger. The sabha or manram of the king in the capital was the highest court of justice. The king was assisted by a large body of officials, who were divided into five assemblies:
(1) Amaichchar or ministers,
(2) Purohitas or priests,
(3) Senapati or military commanders,
(4) Dutar or envoys and
(5) Arrar or spies.
Provincial and Local Administration:
The entire kingdom was called mandalam. The Chola mandalam, Pandya mandalam and the Chera mandalam were the original major mandalam. Below the mandalam was a major division, nadu (province). The ur was a town which was variously described as a big village (perar), a small village (sirur) or an old village (mudur). Pattinam was the name for a coastal town and Puharwas the harbour area.
The administration of nadus was generally carried on by hereditary chiefs. The village was the fundamental unit of administration which was administered by local assemblies called manrams.
The commonest and possibly the largest source of revenue was land-tax called Karai, but the share of the agricultural proudce, claimed and collected by the king,is not specified. The ma and veli was the measure of land and kalam as measure of grain. A well-known unit of territory yielding tax was a variyam (Vari meant tax) and an officer in-charge of collecting the tax from that unit of land was called a Variyar.
Tributes paid by the feudatories and war booty (irai) constituted a considerable part of royal resources. Trade local and long-distance, constituted a very important source of royal revenue. Tolls and custom duties were ulgu or sungum. The duties to be paid to the king were generally known as Kadamai or Paduvadu.
Apparently out of the taxes collected from the peasantry, the state maintained a rudimentary army and it consisted of chariots drawn by oxen, of elephants, cavalry and infantry. Elephants played an important part in war. Horses were imported by sea into the Pandyan kingdom.
The institution of virakkal or nadukul (hero-stone), which was a practice of erecting monuments for the dead soldiers and worshiping them, was prevalent at that time. The institution of Kavalmaram or Kadimaram was also prevalent. Under it, each ruler had a great tree in his palace as a symbol of power.
The Sangam economy was simple and mostly self-sufficient. Agriculture was the main occupation and the chief crops were rice, cotton, ragi, sugarcane pepper, ginger, turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon etc. Weaving, ship-building, metal working, carpentry, rope-making, ornament-making, making of ivory products, tanning etc were some of the handicrafts, which were widely practiced.
The market place was known as avanam. This period also witnessed the emergence of various towns like Puhar, Uraiyur, Vanji, Tondi, Muzuris, Madurai, Kanchi, etc. Industry and crafts was given a fillip by a rising demand in the foreign markets.
Trade, both inland and foreign, was well organised and briskly carried our throughout the period Internal trade was brisk, caravans of merchants with carts and pack-animals carried their merchandise from place to place, Barter played a large part in all transactions and salt was an important commodity of trade. The Sangam period witnessed the rise of maritime activity.
External trade was carried on between South India and Hellenistic kingdom of Egypt and Arabia as well as the Malay Archipelago. The author of the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea (75 A.D.) gives the most valuable information about the trade between India and the Roman Empire. He mentions the port of Naura (Cannanore) Tyndis (Tondi), Muzuris (Musiri, Cranganore), and Nelcynda as the leading ones on the west coast.
Other ports of South India were Balita (Varkalai), Comari, Colchi, Puhar (Khaberis of Ptolemy), Saliyur, Poduca (Arikamedu) and Sopatma (Markanam). A landmark in the development of communications was the discovery of the monsoon winds by the Greek sailor Hippalus in around A.D. 46-47.
This led to increase in volume of trade. Large vessels made up of single logs called Sangara and very large vessels, called Colondia made voyages. The Periplus of the Erythraen Sea, written by an anonymous Greek navigator, gives details of Indian exports to the Roman Empire. The main exports were: pepper, pearls, ivory, silk, spike-nard, malabathrum, diamonds, saffron, precious stone and tortoise shell.
It also mentions Argaru (Uraiyur) as the place to which were sent all the pearls gathered on the coast and from which were exported muslins called agraritic. Silk, which was supplied by Indian merchants to the Roman Empire, was considered so important that the Roman emperor Aurelian declared it to be worth its weight in gold.
The Roman need for spices could not be met entirely by local supply; this brought Indian traders into contact with south-east Asia. In return for her exports, India imported from the Roman empire such commodities as topaz, tin cloth, linen, antimony, crude glass, copper, tin, lead, wine, orpiment and wheat. The Romans also exported to India wine amphorae and red glazed Arretine ware which have been found at Arikamedu near Pondicherry. They also sent to India a large number of gold and silver coins.
Connected with the phenomenon of trade was the growth of money economy in the early centuries. The imported coins were mostly used as bullions. The large quantities of gold and silver coins struck by all the Roman emperors beginning from the reign of Augustus (and that of Tiberius) down to Nero (54-58 A. D.) found in the interior of Tamil land, testify to the extent of the trade and the presence of Roman settlers in the Tamil country.
Sangam Society and Religion:
The society in the southern kingdoms chiefly consisted of agriculturists or those who depended indirectly on the land. Besides, the peasants there were landless labourers, carpenters, gold-smiths, hunters and fishermen.
The Brahmanas came there much later form the northern India. But in the ancient times, they followed neither the Varna system nor the Ashram system. Broadly speaking, there were chiefly two classes of people in the early Tamil society – those who tilled the land themselves and those who got it tilled by others. The latter were wealthier and this very fact introduced inequalities in the social system. Gradually, the Varna System also started.
The people lived chiefly in villages. Mostly they were poor who lived in huts and humbler structures. The forest tribal were very poor. The rich lived in houses of bricks and mortar. The town-people were generally rich and they led happy and prosperous life. The towns were surrounded by a wall for protection from invaders. Forts were also built.
The women in the Tamil society were free. Polygamy was practiced, though on a limited scale. Prostitutes and dancing girls lived in towns. Dhoti and turban were the chief attire. Women were fond of ornaments. The chief diet consisted of meat and rice. They also drank wine.
In the beginning, Brahamanism grew popular in these kingdoms, though its influence was limited. The kings performed Vedic Yajnas and the Brahmanas held discourses with the Jain and the Buddhist scholars. The four chief deities worshipped by them were Shiva, Vishnu, Balram and Krishna. Marugan was the local God.
During Chandragupta’s reign Jainism spread in the South. In this period, the Buddhism was on the decline. The growing popularity of Shaivism and Vaishnavism, however, caused a setback to Jainism. The people were tolerant and the followers of the various religions lived together peacefully. The practice of cremating the dead had started.