Tamil history from Sangam literature
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Sangam literature is one of the main sources used for documenting the early history of the ancient Tamil country. The ancient Sangam poems mention numerous kings and princes, the existence of some of whom have been confirmed through archaeological evidence. Sangam literature is still the main source for the early Cholas, the Pandyas and the Cheras.
Age of Sangam
Sangam was the ancient academy, which enabled Tamil poets and authors to gather periodically to publish their work. The Sangam met periodically in the city of Madurai in South India under the patronage of the Pandya kings. The current estimate is that the Sangam period lasted between 400 BCE until 300 CE. The earliest mention of the Sangam is to be found in the 8th century commentary on the Irayanar Agapporul. It mentions three Sangams lasting, at long intervals, for a total of 9990 years.
Sangam literature comprises some of the oldest extant Tamil literature, and deals with love, war, governance, trade and bereavement. Much of the Tamil literature belonging to the Sangam period has been lost. The literature currently available from this period is perhaps just a fraction of the material produced during this period.
In the Sangam literature, the Tamil language had 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.
Recent researches examining Chera inscriptions found in southwestern Tamil Nadu have revealed names of three generations of rulers from the Chera clan. These names are also found in some of the Sangam anthology Pathirruppaththu. Palaeographic analysis of the inscriptions has revealed its age to be within the first two centuries of the Common Era.
Evidence from ancient Greek and Alexandrian travellers such as Strabo, Ptolemy and Pliny give details of the trade and other relations between the Tamil states and the ancient Greece and Rome. Archaeology has given proof supporting these accounts. Numerous Roman gold and silver coins and pottery have been found from all over Tamil Nadu.
Sangam as a historical source
It is difficult to estimate the exact date of these Sangam works. The period covered by the extant literature of the Sangam is unfortunately not easy to determine with any measure of certainty. Except the longer epics Cilappatikaram and Manimekalai, which by common consent belong to the age later than the Sangam age, the poems have reached us in the forms of systematic anthologies. Each individual poem has generally attached to it a colophon on the authorship and subject matter of the poem, the name of the king or chieftain to whom the poem relates and the occasion which called forth the eulogy are also found.
It is from these colophons and rarely from the texts of the poems themselves, that we gather the names of many kings and chieftains and the poets and poetesses patronised by them. The task of reducing these names to an ordered scheme in which the different generations of contemporaries can be marked off one another has not been easy. To add to the confusions, some historians have even denounced these colophons as later additions and untrustworthy as historical documents.
A careful study of the synchronisation between the kings, chieftains and the poets suggested by these colophons indicates that this body of literature reflect occurrences within a period of four or five continuous generations at the most, a period of 120 or 150 years.
Any attempt at extracting a systematic chronology and data from these poems should be aware of the casual nature of these poems and the wide difference between the purposes of the anthologist who collected these poems and the historian’s attempts are arriving at a continuous history.
The Sangam age ended around the 3rd century CE with the invasion of Kalabhras from the north.
- Nilakanta Sastri, K.A. (1955). A History of South India, OUP, New Delhi (Reprinted 2002).
- South Indian Inscriptions - http://www.whatisindia.com/inscriptions/
- Nagaswamy, R, Roman Karur, Brahadish Publications (1995)
- Krishnamurthy, R Non-Roman Ancient Foreign Coins from Karur in India, Garnet Publishers, Chennai
- Codrington, H. W. A short History of Ceylon, London (1926) (http://lakdiva.org/codrington/).
- N. Parameswaran Tamil Guardian 12 October 2005