Sangam Literature

Sangam Literature

This article deals with ‘ Sangam Literature ’. This is part of our series on ‘Ancient History’ which is an important pillar of GS-1 syllabus. For more articles, you can click here.

What is Sangam Literature?

  • Sangam literature is  oral bardic literature  belonging to time period 200 BC to 300 AD.

The legend associated with Sangam Poetry

History of the Sangam is clogged in legends.

  • Tradition says there were three Sangams patronised by Pandyas when Scholars assembled to publish their works . Work of only last one survives .
  • Word Sangam is of Indo Aryan Origin and is used nowhere in Sangam Literature. Scholars like Kamil Zvelebil argue that it should be called Classical Literature .
  • In reality, Poems were not the product of Sangam. Poems were much earlier composed in oral form by Bards between 200 BC to 300 CE. Word Sangam was associated with them when commentaries on it were written in 12-14th Century under Pandya patronage .
Sangam Place Chairman Kingdom Books
First Then-madurai Agasthya Pandya No book survived
Second Kapatapuram Agasthya Pandya No book survived
Third  Madurai Nakirrar Pandya Covers entire corpus of Sangam literature

These poems were written by 

  • Bards who roamed about singing in praise of their patron chiefs and heroes .
  • Some  were also composed by scholarly poets who followed the bardic tradition like Kapilar  and Gautamanar .

Two genre i.e. Akam and Puram

The whole text is presented in two genres

Akam – Love poems
Deal with the inner life of people  .
Love is expressed in separation & union ; before or after marriage & extramarital love  .
Puram Public or War Poems Deals with the outer life of people. Speak of  public celebration of the feats of the heroes even the death of heroes in wars .

Tinai Concept & Sangam Poems

According to the Tinai concept, Tamilaham was divided into five landscapes or eco-regions, Aintinai namely Kurinji, Palai Mullai, Marutam and Neital. Each region had distinct characteristics – a presiding deity, people and cultural life according to the environmental conditions .

Tinai Meaning  Akam Theme Puram Theme
Kurinji Hilly Zone Clandestine meeting of the hero and the heroine Cattle Raid
Palai Arid Zone  Separation of lovers Victory
Mullai Pastoral Tracts patient waiting on the part of wife for the return of her husband from a journey Invasions
Marutam Wet land /Riverine landscape Lover’s quarrel due to hero’s infidelity Seige of enemy fort
Neital Sea Coast Bemoaning the lover’s absence  Fierce Battle

Problem in Dating

There is problem in dating as  several periods are represented in Sangam Literature

  • Period of actual composition and oral transmission2nd century B.C. to A.D. 3rd century.
  • Period of the codification when written form was given : 6th and 9th centuries.
  • Period  of the commentaries : 12th – 14th centuries ( under Pandyan rulers of Madurai) – These commentaries infact give name Sangam to whole corpus 

it is hard to clearly sort out the earlier from the later as they are all mixed up

Other Points

  • Poet in Sangam Poetry doesn’t speak through his / her own persona but uses various characters such as heroine , her friend , her foster mother or hero as his mouthpiece .
  • Spanned over a few centuries, the poems reflect the gradual development of the Tamil language and literature
  • It is a great source of Socio-Economic life as well . Poets have taken real life situations for similes, metaphors etc .


Ettutokai Consist of 8 collections of Poems (out of 8, 6 belong to Sangam Period)  
Pattuppattu Ten songs
9 out of 10 songs belong to Sangam Age .  
Grammar Tolkappiyam (Author – Tolkapiyar) is a work of Tamil Grammar. Earliest parts of the first two books of Tolkappiyam belong to Sangam Period & rest  belong to later date  corresponding to 400-500 AD .  

Sangam Literature is not a homogenous corpus either in time or in style but spread over vast time of 5 centuries and later additions in main texts .

Sangam Poetry

These were quite spontaneous songs created by bards in praise of heroes & powerful chiefs.

Side Topic : Importance of these bards

  • Most important basis of legitimisation of political power in south India was eulogy of poets . Poet’s praise of  generosity & heroism of King that could attain lasting fame for him & conversely , poet’s anger could prove costly .
  • Sangam texts are secular in nature because unlike Vedic texts , they were composed by various poets in praise of heroes & heroines .

What Sangam Poems tell ?

1 . Sangam Poems are pervaded with a warrior ethic .

  • The goal of the hero of Puram poems was Pukal (glory , fame) and heroic death was greatly valued.
  • It was believed that the spirit of a warrior who died in battle dwelt in Paradise. A poem suggests that those who didn’t die in battle were cut with swords before funerary rights to simulate death in battle.

“If a child of my clan should die,

if it is born dead, a mere gob of flesh

not yet human,

They will put it to the sword, to give the thing a warrior’s death”

  • Losing one’s life in the battle, and that too with wounds on the chest was considered a great honour. On the contrary, wounds on the back were considered a sign of cowardice or disgrace. Numerous poems speak about the delight of brave mothers over the death of their sons in the battle with wounds on the chest.

“Her delight

When she heard that her son fell in battle Felling an elephant,

 Was greater than at his birth”

  • The practice of Vattakiruthal is also mentioned in which defeated king committed ritual suicide by starving himself to death.

2. Cult of Hero Worship

  • Chiefs needed strong warriors. To attract , warriors were rewarded with the booty or land, if they happened to be alive. But more important was their reward if they lose their life by making them on par with Gods through Sangam Poems .

3. Geography

  • In ancient Sangam poetry, Tamilaham is portrayed as a combination of five Tinais (Aintinai) or 5 Ecozones and bards tried to correlate the activities to ecological perceptions. (as explained above)

4. Polity

Three type of Chiefs were mentioned in Sangam poems 

Kizar Little Chiefs Headman of village(Ur)  Some were subjugated by bigger chiefs and they served them in campaigns  & awarded in return .  
Velir Bigger Chiefs Intermediate chiefs who were less powerful than Vendars . They were many in number and controlled the territories of varied geographical nature, mainly hilly and forest areas, that were in between the muvendar’s fertile territories.  
Vendar Biggest Chiefs These were the most powerful chiefdoms. There were three Vendars also known as Muvendars . These included Chera, Chola and Pandya . They controlled the fertile territories and thus had more resources at their disposal . They also patronised the bards and poets so that they glorified their name and fame. Main concern of Vendars was subordination of Velir chiefs who were next in importance. For this, they adopted following ways :- Subjugation through combats . Marriage alliances : Cholas, Cheras & Pandyas often took daughters of Velir as wife.

5. Interaction between south and north

  • Sangam poems also reflect emergence of new basis of legitimisation by performance of Brahmanical sacrifices , establishing links with northern epic traditions etc .
  • Certain chiefs were described in poems to have emerged from sacrificial fire pits of northern sages like Sage Agasthya.
  • Sangam poets were familiar with the Mahabharata and Ramayana legends and infact Chola, Chera and Pandya kings claim to have fed the warring armies on the eve of war.

6. Trade with Yavanas

  • Sangam Poems refers to Yavanas (Romans) coming by ships into ports of South India bringing Gold and wine and sailing away with cargoes of Pepper from Kaveripattanam and Muziris. 

7. Social Classification

  • The social classification of Varna was known to Sangam Poets. There is mention of Arashar (King) , Vaishiyar (traders) & Velalar (farmers) . Brahmins are also mentioned .  However, 4 fold varna classification had little application to ancient Tamil Society. More relevant basis of classification was Kuti which were clan based descent groups  . Although associated with lineage and hereditary occupation , there were no real restrictions on inter dining and social interactions among Kuti Groups.

8. Position of Women

  • Interestingly there were 30 women composers . 
  • In these poems, women appear to be regularly labouring in the production process along with the men in different contexts . 60% of the agricultural process were associated with the women. 
  • We also find that , women were engaged in rearing of sheep and cattle (in Pasture Zone) . In Coastal Zone , they were engaged in Salt manufacturing .
  • There are also references of kings employing women bodyguards.
  • Women also appear in Sangam texts as proud and glorified mothers of heroes
  • Sangam poems speak about various types of prostitutes and illicit and stealthy love is also a regular theme 

9. Deities

These poems also tell about the various deities worshipped by people of Tamilaham in Sangam period . These deities were also associated with different Ecological Zones or Tinais . Now  it is considered that  seeds of Bhakti in south India lies in Sangam age.

Region Deities
Kurinji Murukkam (later identified with Karttikeya)
Mullai Mayon (later identified with Vishnu)
Marutam Ventan
Neytal Varunan  (god of Sea)
Palai Korravai (Devi) 

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