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Sangam Age- Polity – Life

Sangam Polity

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.

An understanding of the social and political structure in the Sangam Period is very important. Tamilakam comprised three Tamil dynasties – Chera, Chola, Pandya – and a number of minor dynastic chieftains or kings. The three dynasties were ruled by kings called Vendhar and the smaller kingdoms were ruled by chieftains called vel or velir. In most of these regions agriculture was the main profession of the population and Vellalars, who were traditionally agriculturalists and considered to have also owned most of the land. The common interpretation would be that Kongu Vellalars were the natives of this region and have flourished throughout the history of mankind in South India.

There however is an alternative view. Vel or Velirs are the chieftains of the smaller kingdoms in Tamilakam. The chieftains of the smaller kingdoms are also referred to by some as Satyaputras (meaning fraternity of truth). Velirs had a close feudal relationship with the three Tamil dynastic kings. Velirs were mostly under the protection of one of the three kings. References to Satyaputras are found in many Sangam literatures and in Asoka’s inscriptions. Some of the famous Velir kings are of the Athiyaman, Irunkovel, Pari, Malayaman Thirumuid Kaari, Ori lineage. The Kongu Velir dynasty ruled Kongu Nadu.

Strong literary sources and archaeological evidences indicate that the Vellalars are the same as Velir chieftains. Velir is reported to be the title of the Vellalar chieftains.

It is widely acknowledged, and also noted in Tholkappiyam, that the Velirs came from Dwarka under the leadership of Agastya Munivar and belonged to Yadu Kshatriya clan. Yadu’s are of the agricultural and warrior clan. This may probably explain the special dispensation given to the Velir chieftains and their kingdoms by the three Tamil dynastic kings.

Based on the references to Agastya Munivar’s travel from North to the South of India, it would indicate that the Vellalars including Vellala Gounders are migrants albeit having migrated a long time back in the history.

Sangam Administration

 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.

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:

  • Amaichchar or ministers,
  • Purohitas or priests,
  • Senapati or military commanders,
  • Dutar or envoys and
  • 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 mandalams. 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.

Revenue administration

The commonest and possibly the largest source of revenue was land-tax called Karai, but the share of the agricultural produce, 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.

Military Administration

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.

Sangam Economy

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. 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.

Social Divisions

 The Tamil society during the Sangam period was broadly divided into several groups. In the beginning of the Sangam Age, the Tamil society was not organized on the basis of the Vedic caste system, namely Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Sudras.

However, the earliest of the Sangam literature, Tolkappiyam refers to the four divisions prevalent in the Sangam society namely, Anthanar, Arasar, Vaislyar and Vellalar, it may be said that this classification roughly corresponds to the Vedic Social division.

Another Sangam work, Purananuru mentions the names of ancient Tamil tribes such as Thudiyan, Pannan, and Kadamban. These divisions indicate the complex social structure prevalent in the Sangam Age.

Food and Hospitality

Rice was the staple food during the Sangam period. The food-habits varied among the people according to their economic status.
The rich had their feasts every day, while the poor took simple food. Chewing betel leaves was most common among the people. Offering betel leaves to guests had become a social formality.

Hospitality was a special virtue of the Sangam Tamils. The Sangam literature describes how hosts had always been waiting to welcome guests.

Dress and Ornaments

The Sangam Tamils paid more attention to their dress. It varied according to their status. The rich wore silk and fine cotton garments. The middle class people generally wore two pieces of clothes made of Cotton. Women paid much attention to their hairstyle. They used flowers like Jasmine to decorate their plaits and tufts. Both men and women used perfumes made of sandal and flowers.

The Sangam literature refers to a variety of ornaments worn by both men and women. They were made of gold, silver, pearls and precious stones. Poor people used ornaments made of shells and beads.

Economic Life

Generally, the Tamil society had enjoyed an affluent economy during the Sangam Age. Agriculture, industry, trade and commerce made the Sangam Tamils almost self-sufficient. Exports were also made to the other parts of the world.


The chief occupation of the people was agriculture. Paddy was the main crop. Millet, grams and sugarcane were also cultivated. Irrigation through rivers, tanks and wells was used for cultivation.



Weaving and spinning were the most important crafts of the Sangam period. Uraiyur and Madurai were the main centers for the manufacture of cotton fabrics. The weavers produced and exported fine cotton clothes. The word Kalingam refers to very nice garments.

The Sangam literature refers to clothes, which were thinner than steam. Silk clothes were also produced in the Tamil country. Other craftsmen like the carpenter, blacksmith, goldsmith and potter had practiced their respective occupations.

Fishing and hunting had also remained as important occupation during this period.

Trade and Commerce

In the beginning of the Sangam Age, the barter system of trade was followed. Generally, the people exchanged their commodities with their neighbors. For example, the people of Kurinji region exchanged honey with the people of Neydal region for getting fish and salt. Likewise, the Mullai people gave their milk products to Marudham people to get rice from them.

Later, when they began to use coins, trade picked up rapidly. Local markets came up and they were known as Angadis. Both Day Market (Nalangadi) and Evening Bazaar (Allangadi) existed in port towns. The Pattinappalai refers to their existence at Puhar. Goods from distant places were brought to these markets. The expansion of trade led to the growth of towns. Moreover, export of goods to other countries had increased.


The primary deity of the Sangam period was Seyon or Murugan, who is hailed as the Tamil God. The worship of Murugan was having an ancient origin and the festivals relating to God Murugan was mentioned in the Sangam literature. He was honoured with six abodes known as Arupadai Veedu.

Other gods worshipped during the Sangam period were Mayon (Vishnu), Vendan (Indiran), Varunan and Korravai. The Hero Stone or Nadu Kal worship was significant in the Sangam period. The Hero Stone was erected in memory of the bravery shown by the warrior in battle. Many hero stones with legends inscribed on them were found in different parts of Tamil Nadu.

This kind of worshipping the deceased has a great antiquity. Their rituals were related to animism and other forms of anthropomorphic diety worship.

The whole philosophy of reincarnation, hero worship, ancestor worship, sati worship etc. was related to death. Animism accounts for a good part of Tamil Sangam religion and comprised worship stones, water, stars and planets.  A mere planted log of wood called Kandu was an object of worship for it was believed that a deity resided in that log of wood. Three strands of religion, clearly marked off from each other, are discernible during the Sangam period:

  1. The indigenous gods and systems of worship
  2. The exotic Hindu gods and systems of worship
  3. The exotic non-Hindu religious faiths and functions.

The hunters of the hill tracts worshipped murugan as the god of the hillock. Indra, god of Marudam, was worshipped by the agriculturists. There was a special festival instituted in honour of Indra.

The fishermen and the people of the coastal regions worshipped Varuna, the god of the wide ocean. Korravai was the goddess of victory.

Cultural Life

The Sangam Tamils enjoyed a high degree of cultural life. Their interests in education, literature, music, dance, drama and festivals have been described in the Sangam literature.

Education and Literature

 Education was common for all, men and women, rich and poor and for different communities. Parents attached importance to the education of their children. The Purananooru describes that it is the duty of the father to make his children learned.

The bulk of the Sangamn literature was written by about 500 poets, and it indicates the importance given to education. The poets of the Sangam period played vital role in the social and culture life of the people.


The people of the Sangam Age spent their time in excellent ways of recreations. Poetry, music, dance and drama were significant. The Sangam poets made the kings as well as the people through rendering beautiful verses. The bards made merry in the king’s courts. The rulers and nobles patronized them with liberal donations.

Hunting was another important recreation. The young and energetic took part in duals, while the old played indoor games like dice. Women and girl children had their own games to play and evinced much interest in swimming.

Fine Arts

The Sangam Tamils had also established their greatness in fine arts. They developed the concept of Muthamizh iyal, Isai and Naatakam. The Paanars or bards were experts in music. They moved from place to place, singing bards in praise of kings and local chieftains.

Later, the Tamils developed musical notes or swarams. The musical tune was known as Pann. Several musical instruments were also used. Shells, drums, flute and lutes were famous instruments. Karikalan had been hailed as Ezhisai Vallavan.

The art of dancing was encouraged during the Sangam period. Attam and Koothu were performed during festivals. Tholkaappiyam refers to Naatakam or Drama.

The art of painting was also known to the Sangam Tamils.

They celebrated several festivals. Kaarthigai, Onam and Indra festival were some of them. The indra festival had been celebrated annually at Puhar. The dance and music had its religious connotation from the earliest times.

Trade and Commerce

 The Sangam people had brisk internal trade. The wholesalers, retailers and hawkers had indulged themselves in brisk trade. Barter system prevailed in internal trade. The business people sold their goods by openly announcing the profits that they were aiming at. Honest trade led to increased trade and the increased trade led to the increased prosperity. Integrity in trade was accepted as a general principle
The people of the Sangam age traded with Rome, Greece, Africa, Sri Lanka and South East Asia. The Romans liked the pearls of the Pandya kingdom. Gemstones, ivory, sandalwood, peacock, cotton and silks textiles and spices were exported to Greece and Rome.

Kodumanal, was a manufacturing and trading centre in the 4th century BCE. It is mentioned as such in the Sangam literature of classical Tamil (circa 300 BCE-300 CE). The settlement, which would have accommodated several thousand people in its heyday, appears to have been abandoned after the 3rd century CE.

Workshops for cutting and shaping precious gems, for making semi-precious stone beads, and also, incidentally, for shell-cutting, were present in Kodumanal more than 2,300 years ago. But the workers’ technical skills did not begin and end with gem-making. They also worked with iron and steel. In fact, ancient sources of iron ore have been found in and around Chennimalai hill, 15 km to the east.

There was, the archaeologists say, “constant movement of foreign traders between Chennimalai, where there are iron ore deposits, and Kodumanal where the ore was processed” and from where finished items were exported.

Kodumanal was one of the earliest wootzsteel centres of the world. Wootzsteel, a form of carbon steel, was a prized, highly durable speciality of ancient India, and much sought-after in the West.

In Roman literature there are references to the import of steel from the Chera country, or south India. References to wootz steel in Sangam literature indicate that Roman Egypt imported its finest steel from here. The rust-free ancient iron pillar still standing near the Qut’b Minar in Delhi is said to be made of iron from this region.

Ancient Kodumanal also manufactured textiles. A number of terracotta cotton spindles pierced through the centre with an iron rod have been unearthed here.

Dharanikota and Amaravati show the strong hold of Buddhism between the 4th and 3rd century BC and 13th and 14th century AD. Buddhist monks, traders and local residents gifted money for construction of monasteries at trade centres which is evident from the inscriptions at Kanheri and Junnar.

Since ancient days, varieties of pottery were carried in ships for transporting both solid and liquid. This is evident from pottery found both underwater and during inland explorations and excavations. In India the first evidence of carrying pots on ships comes from Ajanta paintings (6th century AD). However, the shapes and sizes of pots changed over a period of time. Different pottery, viz. a northern black polished (NBP) ware, rouletted ware, knobbed ware, russet coated painted (RCP) ware and red polished ware (RPW) found at ports, trade centres and hinterland sites suggest their widespread use in regional and overseas trade.

The distribution of NBP ware (700–100 BC) from 415 sites of India (Figure 8) along coastal and hinterland Buddhist establishments suggest the involvement of Buddhism in maritime trade network. Recently NBP ware, knobbed ware, RPW, and black and red ware were found in the Kalahandi region of Orissa. The finding of NBP ware in Nellore, Korkai and Alagankulam along with silver PMC indicates the existence of a trade route from northern India to eastern India then to southern India reaching Sri Lanka across the sea.

Further, NBP ware and PMC have been recovered from the citadel of Anuradhapura. Considerable progress has been observed during the NBP period in terms of development of cities, technology, trade and commerce.

During this period, trade contact of the Indian subcontinent reached up to  Southeast Asia and the Mediterranean regions. Introduction of PMC and cast copper, and silver coins, seals and sealings clearly indicate the existence of an established trade and money-based economy.

Rouletted ware has been reported from 124 sites across the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea. Rouletted sherds with Tamil–Brahmi, Brahmi, Sri Lankan Brahmi, Kharoshti inscriptions and graffito which are either names of traders or pot makers have been recovered. As partial names or short inscriptions are found on these sherds, it is difficult to draw any substantial conclusions. Knobbed ware was first reported from Sisupalgarh and Jaugada of Orissa. Subsequently, this pottery has been reported from northern Andhra Pradesh, Bengal and Assam. The recent excavations at Lalitagiri, Manikapatna, Radhanagar and Kalahandi have yielded knobbed ware.

Scholars have opined that arretine ware originated in the Roman world and was brought by the Roman traders to India as part of their personal belongings. RCP ware known as ‘Andhra ware’ (400 BC and 400 AD) has been reported from Satanikota, Mittapalli, Nilugondla in Andhra Pradesh; Banavasi, Brahmagiri, Chandravalli, T. Narsipur in Karnataka; and Uraiyur in Tamil Nadu and Arikamedu along with rouletted ware.

The excavation finds of Anuradhapura indicate that Brahmi script was introduced in Sri Lanka by Indian traders in the 5th–4th century BC prior to the introduction of Buddhism. The Brahmi inscriptions on a RCP sherd recovered in a burial at Kodumanal34 of Periyapuliyayankulam mention Tamil traders known as Visake and Visaki.

The Brahmi and Kharoshti inscriptions found on pots, seals and plaques in Bengal indicate that traders were involved in horse trade and that the horses were brought from Central Asia via north-western India to Bengal.

The terracotta seals from Bangarh and Chandraketugarh depict seafaring vessels with Kharosthi–Brahmi inscriptions referring to Tridesayatra, meaning a voyage to three countries or directions. Similarly, the Telaga Batu (AD 686) inscription of Indonesia mentions the special skilled people such as Puhawang (ships captain), Vaniyaga (long distance or seafaring merchants) and sthapaka (sculptors). Other Indonesian inscriptions refer to foreign traders as banyaga, which include the Kalingas, Singhalese, Dravidians, etc. and merchant guild as banigrama.

Apart from Indian pottery, glass and semiprecious stone beads have also been discovered from Sembiran and Ban Don Ta Phet excavations. The glass beads of Sembiran resemble south Indian samples, manufactured in Arikamedu.

Beads were also manufactured at Jaugada, Asurgada and Kalahandi regions of Orissa. Similarly, the beads reported from Ridiyagama and Mantai in Sri Lanka; Khuan Luk Pat in Thailand; Oc-Eo in Vietnam and Kuala Selinsing in Malaysia appear to be imported from India.

Original bead makers from Arikamedu region might have migrated to Sri Lanka and then to Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia. The finding of agate and carnelian beads at Ban Don Ta Phet indicates the earliest maritime contacts between India and Southeast Asia during 4th century BC. India was a considerable source of semiprecious stones which were exported to Southeast Asia to make beads and the final products were remitted back to India41. The finding of a quartz tortoise (turtle) from the excavations of Kodumanal is similar to the finds of Srikshetra in Thailand.

A wide range of fine to coarse cotton textiles and silks were bartered to Southeast Asia in exchange for spices. The burial site excavations at Ban Don Ta Phet have yielded cotton fragments and thread.

Some scholars hold the view that gold and spices are the major reasons for maritime trade between India and Southeast Asia. In addition, the fact that water transport was easier, safer and could carry more merchandise as compared to land transport, also contributed here.

The frequent disturbances on the silk route caused a decline of caravan trade and might have compelled the Roman and Indian traders to take the sea route through the Indian Ocean up to the South China Sea.

During this period, Indian mariners now aware of the trade centres, ports and products of Southeast Asia would have ventured into the open sea to expand trade; further, mariners also understood the direction of monsoon winds and currents which aided them in travelling to Southeast Asia and back.

Initially trade was confined to exchange of goods, then Buddhist monks and traders introduced Indian culture, script, language, religion, etc. onto foreign soil and some of them were followed by the people of Southeast Asia.

Once trade became frequent, Indian traders began to settle permanently in Southeast Asia and spread Indian culture and religion; whereas no such evidence of permanent settlement of Indian traders occurred in the Red Sea, Persian Gulf and Roman Empire. It could be possible that a large number of Indian mariners would have frequented the Southeast Asian region for trade than vice versa.

Similarly, more Roman mariners might have come to India than Indian mariners visiting the Roman world for trade. Buddhism had a great impact on trade and society in the whole of South Asia. The ancient Indian mariners were aware of the monsoon winds and currents and used them to their advantage during maritime trade with Southeast Asian countries for a period of more than 2000 years; probably they were the first to use monsoon winds and currents in maritime trade. the voyage to Southeast Asia was seasonal and coast hugging because ships were visiting different ports during their voyage and exchanging cargo.

Position of Women

There is a plenty of information in the Sangam literature to trace the position of women during the Sangam age.

Women poets like Avvaiyar, Nachchellaiyar, and Kakkaipadiniyar flourished in this period and contributed to Tamil literature. The courage of women was also appreciated in many poems.

Karpu or Chaste life was considered the highest virtue of women. Love marriage was a common practice. Women were allowed to choose their life partners. However, the life of widows was miserable. The practice of Sati was also prevalent in the higher strata of society. The class of dancers was patronized by the kings and nobles.

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