1. Introduction

Sangam literature, also known as "the poetry of the noble ones," was first recorded in South India and is penned in the ancient Tamil language. Sangam literature is the term referring to the earliest accessible Tamil literature. While the majority of the work is estimated to have been produced between 100 CE and 250 CE, the Sangam period is roughly between 300 BC and 300 AD.

Literally, "Sangam" means "association." A collection of Tamil poets who were prominent in ancient southern India are mentioned. The first Tamil Sangam is said to have been presided over by the Ancient Tamil Siddhar Agastyar between the first and fourth centuries CE at Madurai. In early Indian literature, which is almost entirely religious, Sangam texts may be unique. There were 473 poets who contributed to the Sangam literature, 102 of whom were unidentified. The poets came from a variety of backgrounds, including farmers, businesspeople, and members of royal families. At least 27 of the poets were women. These poets developed in a setting where Tamil (Dravidian) and north Indian (Indo-Aryan) civilizations had previously interacted and irrevocably merged, and both groups shared mythology, morals, and literary conventions. Many of the poems, especially the ones glorifying valour, are remarkably free from the literary conceits that characterise the majority of India's other early and mediaeval literature. These poems lack the rich tale connections that characterise most Indian art forms and almost exclusively deal with nonreligious topics. However, sangam poetry contains religious works as well. Sangam literature may contain poems on deities including Vishnu, Shiva, Durga, and Murugan.

2. Sangam Literature - Significance

The Sangam works contain mines of information for the study of early history of Tamilakam. They reflect the matter of great historical importance. Tolkappiyam, a treatise on Tamil grammar and poetics, composed probably during the second Sangam, is the oldest extant literary work in Tamil. Whereas, the earliest Tamil poetry now available, generally known as Sangam poetry, is said to have been produced during the period of the third Sangam. Modern scholarship use the term ‘Sangam Literature’ for only those works in verse (prose is of much later origin), which are comprised in the Ettutogai (Eight collections), Pattupattu (Ten songs) and Patinenkilkanakku (The Eighteen Minor Works), which are judged to have been produced in that order during the period A.D 150-250. The so called ‘Five Epics’ (‘the five great poems’) include Jivakachintamani, Silappadikaram, Manimekalai, Valayapathi andKundalakesi. These are assigned much later dates. Of these the last two are not extant. So, of the three ‘great poems’ that we now have, Silappadikaram and Manimekalai are called the ‘twin epics’ because they form a continuous story narrating the story of a single family – Kovalan (the rich merchant prince of Puhar), Kannagi (Kovalan’s chaste wife), Madhavi (the dancer) with whom Kovalan lived in wedlock and Manimekalai, the child of this wedlock. Ilango Adigal was the author of Silappadikaram. In the epic, Ilango is mentioned as the brother of the reigning Chera king Senguttuvan. Manimekalai was written by Sathanar mainly to propound the Buddhist doctrine among Tamils. Nonetheless, these poetical works describe about the social, religious, economic and political conditions of Tamilakam with the focus on the cities like Madurai, Puhar (Poompuhar/ Kaveripattinam), Vanji (Karur) and Kanchi. While the individual poems included in the above mentioned three groups may be taken to have been produced within the first three centuries of the Christian era, they were very probably collected and arranged in the order in which they are now found, at a much later date. Length of the poem was one of the very important bases for the classification into three broad divisions. The poems in the ‘Eight collections’ run from three to thirty one lines, whereas in the ‘Ten Songs’, the shortest poem runs to 103 lines and the longest has 782 lines. The ‘Eighteen Minor Works’ include the ethical and didactic literature. The didactic literature, which includes the world famous Tirukkural is mostly in stanza form, the stanza having from two to five lines. The Sangam collections at present consist of 2279 poems of varying lengths from 3 lines to about 800 lines. Some of these works are attributed to a single author, while others like the Naladiyar, contain the contributions of many poets. This Sangam poetry available to us runs to more than 30,000 lines. These were composed by 473 poets including women besides 102 being anonymous. Among the poets nearly 50 were women poets. These works reflect fairly advanced material culture. They also show that by the Sangam age, Tamil as a language had attained maturity and had become a powerful and elegant medium of literary expression. The language is inevitably archaic, though not perhaps more difficult to understand for the modern Tamil. The Sangam poems are of two varieties, though scholars have divided them into various categories on the basis of their subject matter. The two varieties are – the short ode and the long poem. For a historian the short odes are of greater value than the long lyrics. However, generally the historical values of these sources are irrespective of their length.

Sangam literature, Ancient Tamil.

Courtesy: www.examboard.in

The oldest are collected in 9 anthologies. The anthologies in which these are collected include – Ahananuru, Purananuru, Kuruntogai, Narrinai, Kalittogai, Paripadal, Aingurunuru, and Patirrupattu.

These are collectively called Ettutogai. The ten long lyrics or descriptive poems (10 idylls) known as Pattupattu is said to be the ninth group. These consist of – Tirumurugarruppadai, Sirupanarruppadai, Porunarruppadai, Perumbanarruppadai, Nedunalvadai, Kurinjippattu, Maduraikkanji, Pattinappalai, Mullaippatu and Malaipadukadam. Of these Tirumurugarruppadai is a devotional poem on Lord Muruga; Sirupanarruppadai deals with the generous nature of Nalliyakkodan who ruled over a part of the Chola kingdom; Perumbanarruppadai describes about Tondaiman Ilantiraiyan and his capital Kanchipuram; Porunarruppadai and Pattinappalai sings in the praise of Karikala, the great Chola king;Nedunalvadai and Maduraikkanji deal with Talaiyalanganattu Nedunjeliyan, the great Pandyan king; Kurinjippattuportrays the description of the hilly regions and hill life; and Malaipadukadam refers to the Chieftain Nannan and also to the music and songs to encourage the army, to celebrate the victory won by the king in a war, etc. Nevertheless, these works reflect the worth of the poets in Sangam age.

3. Classifications of Sangam Literature

Sangam literature is classified into two:

  1. Akam (internal)
  2. Puram (external)

Akam and puram are the two classification of Sangam literature. In the context of romantic love, sexual connection, and sensuality, akam poetry is concerned with feelings and sentiments. The subject matter of puram poetry is feats and heroism in the context of conflict and public life. One-fourth of the poetry in the Sangam is puram-themed, while three-fourths of it has an akam topic. Akam and puram are the two divisions of Sangam literature. In the context of romantic love, sexual connection, and sensuality, akam poetry is concerned with feelings and sentiments. The subject matter of puram poetry is feats and heroism in the context of conflict and public life. One-fourth of the poetry in the Sangam is puram-themed, while three-fourths of it has an akam topic. Seven minor genres called as tinai are used to categorise Sangam literature, which includes akam and puram. The setting or scenery of the poem is the primary focus of this unique genre. Seven minor genres called as tinai are used to categorise Sangam literature, which includes akam and puram. The setting or scenery of the poem is the primary focus of this unique genre. The akam poetry uses imagery and metaphors to create a mood; it never includes names of people or locations and frequently omits context, which the community would fill in and understand given their oral history. Puram poetry is more straightforward and uses names and places.

4. Major Works

The period of Sangam literature is still debated because the three major epics of the time, Silappathigaram, Dipavamsa, and Mahavamsa, show that Gajabhagu II of Sri Lanka and Cheran Senguttuvan of the Chera dynasty were contemporaries. Also, coins struck by the Roman Emperor in the first century may be found in considerable quantities in various parts of Tamil Nadu. Furthermore, Greek authors such as Megasthenes, Strabo, and Pliny claimed trading links between the West and South India. Inscriptions from the Ashokan Empire described the Cheras, Chola, and Pandya monarchs to the south of the Mauryan Empire. On the basis of literary, archaeological, and foreign evidence, the dating of the Sangam literature has been placed between the third century B.C. and the third century A.D. Tolkappiyam, Ettutogai, Pattuppattu, Pathinenkilkanakku, and the two epics Silappathikaram and Manimegalai comprise the Sangam literature. Elango Adigal's Silappathigaram and Sittalai Sattanar's Manimegalai were both published during the postmodern era. These works include important information on the Sangam political system and society. The Kalugumalai inscription provides information about Tamil Brahmi writing, which dates back to the 15th century. The Tirukkovalur inscription mentions local chieftains as well as the terrible fate of Tamil poets. The Tolkappiyam, written by Tolkappiyar, was the first of these works, and it contains information about the social, economic, and political situations of the Sangam Age, as well as Tamil grammar. Ettutogai were the eight Anthologies, each of which had eight pieces. Ettutogai and Pattuppattu were both separated into two major groups: Aham (love) and Puram (valour).

4.1. Silappathikaram

The earliest Tamil epic is Silappatikaram. It's a 5,730-line poem written nearly entirely in akaval (aciriyam) metre. Silappatikaram is credited to Ilango Adigal in Tamil tradition. He is said to be a Jain monk and the younger brother of Chera king Senguttuvan, whose family and rule are detailed in the Fifth Ten of the Patiuppattu, a Sangam poetry. Kannaki and her husband Kovalan are the protagonists of the epic, which tells the sad love tale of an average couple. Kannaki and other characters from the narrative are addressed or alluded to in Sangam literature like the Naiai and later works such as the Kovalam Katai, indicating that the Silappathikaram has deeper roots in the Tamil bardic tradition. It is said to have been written in the 5th or 6th century CE by a prince-turned-monk named Iak Aika.

4.2. Manimegalai

Kulavika Seethalai Sataar created Manimekalai, also known as Manimekhalai or Manimekalai, a TamilBuddhist epic, most likely in the 6th century. It's a "anti-love narrative," a sequel to the "love story" in the first Tamil epic Silappadikaram, including some of the same characters and their descendants. The epic is divided into 30 cantos and contains 4,861 lines in akaval metre. Manimekalai is also the name of Kovalan and Madhavi's daughter, who follows in her mother's footsteps as a Buddhist nun and dancer. Her tale is told in the epic.

4.3. Tolkappiyam

The oldest existing Tamil grammar text and the oldest extant lengthy work of Tamil literature is Tolkappiyam. Some believe Tholkapiyam was authored by a single author named Tholkappiyar, a disciple of Vedic sage Agastya, who is attested in the Rigveda. The Tolkappiyam consists of three volumes (athikaram), each having nine chapters (iyal), for a total of 1,610 sutras in the nurpa metre in the extant manuscripts. Sutras on spelling, phonology, etymology, morphology, semantics, prosody, sentence structure, and the importance of context in language are included in this comprehensive grammar work. It's impossible to put a date on the Tolkappiyam. Some Tamil scholars situate the passage in the mythological second sangam, which date to the first millennium BCE or earlier.

Ancient prints of Tholkappiyam

Courtesy: Tamilhindhu

4.4. Ettuthogai

The Eight Anthologies, also known as Ettuttokai or "Eight Collections," is a great Tamil literary work that is part of the Sangam Literature's Eighteen Greater Texts (Patinen-melkanakku) anthology series. The Eight Anthologies (Pattuppattu) and its companion anthology, the Ten Idylls (Pattuppattu), are the earliest Tamil works extant. Aingurunooru, Narrinai, Aganaooru, Purananooru, Kuruntogai, Kalittogai, Paripadal, and Padirruppatu are the eight works that make up Ettuthogai (Eight Anthologies).

4.5. Pattuppattu

The 10 Idylls, also known as Pattupattu or Ten Lays, is a collection of ten lengthier poetry from Tamil literature's Sangam period. They include between 100 and 800 lines, and the collection contains the wellknown Tirumurukarruppaai by Nakkirar. The Pattupattu collection is a later-dated collection, with the first layer dating from the 2nd to 3rd century CE, the middle layer from the 2nd to 4th century CE, and the last layer from the 3rd to 5th century CE. Thirumurugarruppadai, Porunarruppadai, Sirupanarruppadai, Perumpanarruppadai, Mullaippattu, Nedunalvadai, Madurai Kanji, Kurinjippatttu, Pattinappalai, and Malaipadukadam are the 10 works that make up the Pattupattu (Ten Idylls).

4.6. Pathinenkilkanakku

The Pathinenkilkanakku, also known as the Eighteen Lesser Texts in literature, is a collection of eighteen poetry compositions, most of which were written during the 'after Sangam period' (between 100 and 500 CE). Eighteen texts on ethics and morality are included in Pathinenkilkanakku. Tirukkural, written by Thiruvalluvar, a renowned Tamil poet and philosopher, is the most important of these texts. The poems in this collection differ from those in the Eighteen Greater Texts, which are the oldest known Tamil poetry, in that they are written in venpa metre and are very brief. The single anthology in this collection is Naladiyar, which has been sung by 400 poets.


During this period, there were three major Tamil kingdoms: the Cheras, the Cholas, and the Pandyas. The Sangam literature provides historical evidence of indigenous literary growth in South India parallel to Sanskrit, as well as the Tamil language's classical rank. While little evidence exists for the first and second mythological Sangams, the surviving literature attests to a group of intellectuals based on ancient Madurai (Maturai) who affected the "literary, academic, cultural, and linguistic life of ancient Tamil Nadu." The Sangam literature provides insight into various aspects of ancient Tamil society, secular and religious ideas, and individuals. The Sangam literature contains evidence of Sanskrit loan words, implying ongoing linguistic and literary collaboration between ancient Tamil Nadu and other areas of the Indian subcontinent. Sangam poetry is concerned with culture and people. Except for the odd reference of Hindu gods and more major allusions of numerous gods in the shorter poems, it is virtually exclusively non-religious.

.     .    .


  1. Pillai K.K. – Topics in South Indian History, Published by the Author, Annamalai Nagar, 1978.
  2. Pillai K.K – A Social History of the Tamils, University of Madras, Chennai, 1975.
  3. Srinivasa Iyengar P.T. – History of the Tamils, Asian Educational Services, New Delhi, 1983.
  4. Subramanian N – History of Tamilnadu (To AD 1336), Koodal Publishers, Madurai 1972.
  5. Thangavelu G – Indhiyakkalai Varalaru (Tamil), 2 Vols., Tamilnadu Text Book Society, Chennai, 1976.
  6. Vaithialingam S, Tamil Panpattu Varalaru, 4 Vols., Annamalai University Publication, Annamalai Nagar, 2000.
  7. Nilakanta Sastri K.A. – A History of South India, University of Madras, Chennai 1980.
  8. Noboru Karashima – South Indian History and Society, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1984.
  9. Pillai K.K. – Studies in Indian History (With Special Reference to Tamilnadu), Published by the Author, Adyar, Chennai, 1979.