Sangam Literature





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Sangam Literature

The Sangam Age marks the beginning of the historical period in Tamilakam. The Sangam literature comprises poems, epics, grammar and the Tirrukural. The literature gives a foray into life in Tamilakam, including its social, economic and political aspects.

The Sangam Age broadly refers to the Ancient History of the Tamilakam, region south of the Krishna River. The sources for this age are largely in the literary realm, though archaeological evidences too sprout up over time. Kharavelas Hatigumpha inscription, dated to c. 155 BCE provides the earliest epigraphic evidence alluding to a confederacy of Tamil states- Tramiradesasanghatanam, which was 113 years old at the time, and had long been a source of danger. However, this is only a formative source, as the existence of such a confederacy isnt attested by literary evidence. [ref]


Tamilakam is broadly considered to be the land between the Tirupati hills and the southernmost tip of the peninsula. In the prehistoric period, this region was associated with megaliths. The advent of the historical period, in this region, is generally dated to c. 3rd century BCE. The region is associated with the three great kingdoms of the Cholas, Cheras and Pandyas. The physical features of this region neatly correspond with the chief occupations practiced by people inhabiting them. In keeping with the professional engagements of the populace, a specified set of deities were also worshipped (and in fact continue being venerated) in those regions. The five-fold division of Tamilakam society on the basis of physical features are as follows:

  • Kurunji- Hilly region (Occupation: hunting; Deity: Lord Murugan)
  • Mullai- Pastoral land. (Chief occupation: Cattle-rearing; Deity: Lord Vishnu)
  • Maradam- agricultural plains (Occupation: Agriculture; Deity: Lord Indran)
  • Neydal- coastal region (Occupation: fishing and salt manufacturing; Deity: Lord Varuna)
  • Paalai- desert region (Occupation: robbery; Deity: Lord Kurruvai)

Sangam Literature

Sangam literature is the oldest literature to have been composed in the Tamilakam. The word Sangam refers to college, and the commentary of Iraiyanar Agapporul (c. AD 750) alludes to three Sangams that lasted at long intervals over 9900 years. These were at Then Madurai, Kapalapuram and Madurai respectively. There is no material evidence or otherwise to justify this timeline, and historians treat the first two Sangams as fantastical rather than factual. Thus, it is consensually understood that most of the extant Tamil Sangam literature was composed in Madurai. The Sangam corpus broadly comprises of poems, epics, grammar and Tirrukural. [ref]

Broadly, Sangam literature consists of poems, grammar, epics and Tirrukural- all broadly being composed between 200 BCE and 1200 AD.


There are a total of 2279 poems of lengths varying from three lines to over eight hundred, by 473 poets (including some women), besides 102 anonymous pieces. At the end of each poem are notes giving the name of its author, the occasion of its composition and other details. The poems are divided into eight anthologies, also called etthuthogai. These are further classified into aham and puram. While the former deals with spiritual concerns, love and other emotive aspects, the latter concerns itself with military, administration and other more outward poetic expressions. The eight anthologies are as follows:

  • Narrinai
  • Kurundogai
  • Aingurunuru
  • Padirruppattu
  • Paripadal
  • Kalittogai
  • Ahananuru
  • Purananuru

The Ten Songs, or Pattuppattu are also an integral component of Sangam poetry.

The Tolkappiyam, a comprehensive work on Tamil grammar, is attributed to sage Tolkapiyyar, who was a disciple of Vedic Sage Agastya Muni. This is the most authoritative text on Tamil grammar.

Aimperumkappiyankal : The Five Great Epics

The Tamil epics shed light on the political, economic and social conditions that prevailed in the Sangam Age. There are Five Great Epics

  1. Silappadikaram- by Ilango Atigal
  2. Manimegalai- by Sithalai Sattanar
  3. Sivaga Cintamani- by Tirrutakatevar
  4. Valaya Patti
  5. Kundala Kesi

The Silappadikaram is the most renowned epic, largely because its protagonists include Kannagi, who went on to embody the Pattini cult. The story revolves around Kovalan and his spouse Kannagi who travel from Puhar to Madurai in the quest of selling Kannagis anklet and reviving their fortunes. Kovalan is falsely implicated in the theft of the queens anklet, and is executed on the spot by the Pandyan soldiers. Kannagi was devastated at this turn of events, and unleashed her fury in front of the great Pandyan king Neduncheliyan himself. The king, known for his fealty to justice, realized his folly and collapsed. The queen too followed suit, and Kannagi wreaked havoc in the city of Madurai. The Chera king Senguttavan celebrated this achievement, and lay the ground for the formation of the Pattini cult.


The Tirrukural, composed by Sage Thiruvalluvar, is inarguably among the literary treasures of the Indian civilization. It has 133 chapters, that deal with many aspects of life and religion. It borrows heavily from the North Indian tradition as well, particularly from the Dharmashastras, Arthashastra and Kamasutra. This highlights how Sanskritic influence percolated into Tamil literature in the second half of the first millennium AD. It may be surmised that this transition happened under the Pallavas of Kanchipuram, who endorsed Sanskrit literature. In that vein, the Tirukkural is generally divided into aram (righteousness), porul (wealth) and kamam (pleasure). 

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