Sangam Literature: These Tantalizing Tales Offer a Window into Ancient Tamil Life
“In their antiquity and in their contemporaneity, there is not much else in any Indian literature equal to these quiet and dramatic Tamil poems. In their values and stances, they represent a mature classical poetry: passion is balanced by courtesy, transparency by ironies and nuances of design, impersonality by vivid detail, austerity of line by richness of implication. These poems are not just the earliest evidence of the Tamil genius.”
- Indologist Kamil Zvelebil quoting A. K. Ramanujan discussing the Sangam Literature
Sangam (spelled also as cankam, chankam, or shangam) literature is the earliest corpus of texts written in Tamil, one of the major languages of southern India. This collection of Tamil writings is believed by some to have been produced between the 1st and 3rd centuries AD. Others, however, are of the opinion that it was created at an earlier date, i.e. between the 3rd century BC and the 3rd century AD. In any case, the significance of Sangam literature lies in the fact that it provides us with a picture of everyday life in Tamilakam (the geographical region inhabited by the ancient Tamil people) during that time. Sangam literature is also one of the main sources employed for the documentation of the early history of that region.
Three Groups of Works
The word ‘sangam’ is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘sangha’, which may be translated to mean ‘a group of persons’, or ‘an association’. As a matter of fact, the ‘sangam’ in Sangam literature is a reference to the literary academies (in particular the third one) that produced these works. It is believed that there were three different academies, each flourishing at a different place and time. It has also been claimed that these academies were patronized by the kings of the Pandyan Dynasty, one of the three Tamil dynasties (the other two being the Chola and the Chera Dynasties).
Manikkavacakar, Minister of Pandya king Varagunavarman II (c. 862 – 885). ( Public Domain )
The first Sangam had its seat in Thenmadurai, a mythological city, and is believed to have been attended by the gods and legendary sages. No works produced by this Sangam are known to have survived. The next Sangam was located in Kapatpuram, another legendary city. Although this Sangam produced a large volume of works, only the Tolkappiyam has survived till today. This is a work that dealt with early Tamil grammar and rhetoric. The last Sangam was hosted in Madurai, a city in the modern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, and a capital of the Pandyan Dynasty. This Sangam was responsible for almost the entire body of Sangam literature that we have today. Be that as it may, it has been claimed that the extant works are but a fraction of that produced by this Sangam.
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Apart from the Tolkappiyam that was mentioned earlier, the other works that make up the corpus of Sangam literature are eight anthologies of poetry collectively known as Ettutogai (Ainkurunuru , Kuruntokai, Narrinai, Akananuru, Kalittokai, Patirruppattu, Purananuru, and Paripatal), another anthology of 10 idylls ( Pattupattu), 18 minor works ( PadinenkilkanakkuI), and two epics ( Silappadikaram and Manimekalai).
Ilango Adigal, author of ‘ Silappadikaram.’ (Kasiarunachalam/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
What is Sangam Literature About?
Sangam literature deals mainly with secular topics, such as government and war, and therefore provides the reader with a picture of everyday life in Tamilakam during the time when these works were being created. Nevertheless, religious themes may be found in Sangam literature as well, as the Paripatal, for instance, contains poems about the gods.
Sangam literature has also been used as a source of information for the early history of Tamilakam. Diverse aspects of that age, including the trade and commerce, society, and administration are known through these writings.
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A page of a palm leaf manuscript held at the U.V. Swaminatha Iyer Libary in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India. It contains the Ciṟupañcamūlam, a work of late-classical Tamil literature. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
A Sangam Story
This may be seen, for example, in the Silappadikaram (which translates as ‘The Tale of an Anklet’ or ‘The Jeweled Anklet’). This tale is about Kannagi, the wife of Kovalan, the son of a wealthy merchant from Puhar. After Kovalan falls in love with Madhavi, a dancer, Kannagi is neglected. Eventually, Kovalan realizes his mistake, and returns to his wife. The couple then start their life afresh in Madurai. One day, Kovalan enters the city to sell one of his wife’s ruby anklets, so that they could start a business. At the same time, the royal goldsmith had stolen one of the queen’s pearl anklets and used Kovalan as a scapegoat. The merchant’s son is executed by the king, and his wife, bent on proving her husband’s innocence, goes to the king’s palace, avenges her husband, and becomes a goddess.
Although the main characters of the epic are Kovalan and Kannagi, many historical figures and places are mentioned, which provide information about Tamilakam during that time.
Kannagi statue in Marina Beach, Chennai. (Balamurugan Srinivasan/ CC BY 2.0 )
Top Image: Agastyar, Father and Chairman of first Tamil Sangams, Madurai, Pandiya Kingdom . ( CC BY SA 2.5 ) Detail of ancient Tamil script found on the temple walls of the Tanjore Bragadeeshwara temple. (Symphoney Symphoney/ CC BY 2.0 )
By: Wu Mingren
Aggarwal, M., 2018. Sangam Period: Literature, Administration and Economic Condition. [Online]
Available at: http://www.historydiscussion.net/history-of-india/sangam-period-literature-administration-and-economic-condition-during-sangam-period/739
Drishti IAS, 2015. Sangam Literature. [Online]
Available at: http://www.drishtiias.com/upsc-exam-gs-resources-SANGAM-LITERATURE
Josh, J., 2014. The Sangam Literature. [Online]
Available at: https://www.jagranjosh.com/general-knowledge/the-sangam-literature-1398238526-1
Priyadarshin, S., 2018. Sangam Literature of the Ancient Kingdoms of South India. [Online]
Available at: http://www.historydiscussion.net/history-of-india/sangam-literature-of-the-ancient-kingdoms-of-south-india/2539
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2016. Sangam literature. [Online]
Available at: https://www.britannica.com/art/shangam-literature
Thanks for this post.
<a href="https://www.ramanasriias.com/manipuri-literature">Manipuri Literature Syllabus</a>
I have photographed a Sangam temple (no doubt, it has a bronze plaque so stating it’s name “Sangam”) in Thailand’s Kamphaeng Phet:
I don’t recall any information in the adjacent museum about these being of Tamil culture...not that I doubt it...these folks sailed up the rivers, speading their culture.
Another excellent article. I’m impressed by the depth of your knowledge. Your articles are always well researched and you provide excellent references. I’ve never heard of Sangam but I plan to research it. Hope some of your references provide English translations