The period between about the 3rd century BC and the 3rd century AD in South India (the area south of the Krishna and Tungabhadra rivers) is known as the Sangam period. It is named after the Sangam academies organized during that time, which flourished under the royal patronage of the Pandya kings of Madurai. Eminent scholars gathered in the Sangams and acted as a censor board, and the best literature in the form of compilation was produced. These literary works were the earliest specimens of Dravidian literature.
Greek writers such as Megasthenes, Strabo, Pliny, and Ptolemy mention commercial trade contacts between the West and South India. The inscriptions of Ashoka mention the Chera, Chola, and Pandya rulers in the south of the Maurya Empire. The Hathigumpha inscription of Kharavela of Kalinga also mentions Tamil kingdoms. According to Tamil legends, three Sangams (Academies of Tamil Poets) were held in ancient South India, popularly known as Muchachangam. The first Sangam, believed to have been held in Madurai, was attended by gods and mythological sages. No literary work from this Sangam is available.
The second Sangam was held at Kapdapuram, from which only Tolkappiyam survives. The third Sangam was also held in Madurai. Some of these Tamil literary works have survived and are a useful source for reconstructing the history of the Sangam period. The Sangam literature includes Tolkappiyam, Ettutogai, Pattupattu, Pathinenkilkanakku, and the names of two epics – Silappathikaram and Manimegalai. Tolkappiyar was written by Tolkappiyar and is considered the oldest of the Tamil literary works. Although it is a work on Tamil grammar, it also provides insight into the political and socio-economic conditions of the time. The Ettutogai (Eight Anthology) consists of eight compositions – Aigurunuru, Narinai, Aganauru, Purananuru, Kuruntogai, Kalittogai, Paripadal, and Padirappatu.
The Pattuppattu (Ten Idylls) consists of ten works – Thirumurugarruppadai, Porunararruppadai, Sirupanarruppadai, Perumpanarruppadai, Mullaippattu, Nedunalvadai, Maduraikkanji, Kurinjippatttu, Pattinappalai, and Malaipadukadam. Pathinenkilkanakku contains eighteen works about ethics and morals. The most important among these works is Tirukkural authored by Thiruvalluvar, the Tamil great poet and philosopher. The two epics Silappathikaram is written by Elango Adigal and Manimegalai by Sittalai Sattanar. They also provide valuable details about the Sangam society and polity. Sangam literature is divided into two categories: Akam and Puram. Akam poetry deals with feelings and emotions in the context of romantic love, sex, and sexuality. Puram poetry deals with exploits and heroic achievements in the establishment of war and public life.
The Sangam literature is divided into seven minor genres known as Tinai. These genres focus on the setting or scenes of the poem. Kurinci refers to mountainous regions, Mulai refers to rustic woods, Marutam refers to the agricultural land of the river, Naytal refers to the coastal region, and Palai refers to the arid regions. In addition to landscape-based Tinais, the categories ain-tinai (well-matched, mutual love), kaikilai (incongruent, one-sided), and perunthinai (inappropriate, large style) are employed for Akam poetry. Ainkurunuru, a collection of 500 short poems, is an example of mutual love poetry.
Similar terms apply to the Puram poem. The categories include Vechi (cattle raids), Vanchi (invasion, preparation for war), Kanchi (tragedy), Ulinai (siege), Tumpai (battle), Wakai (victory), Patan (mourning and praise), Karanthai, and Pothuval. Akam poetry employs metaphors and images to build atmosphere; it never contains the names of people or places and often omits references that the community will fill in and understand based on its oral histories. Puram poetry, on the other hand, is more direct and uses names and places.
The land was controlled by chiefs, and among them, the chiefs of the Cholas, Cheras, and Pandyas were considered kings as they controlled agricultural lands and river valleys which had coastal ports that were becoming popular due to lucrative trade. The tenants had to pay taxes, which were collected by force. However, the taxation system is not known, and the information is insufficient. The regular system of taxation was also not known. The major concern of these groups was war and the bringing of independent chiefs under their suzerainty. War was celebrated and institutionalized as a great, heroic act. War heroes and martyrs were celebrated for acts of great valour.
The continuous wars wreaked havoc on the lives of poor peasants. Farms were plundered, and cattle were killed or captured. The farmer was defenseless in these wars. Agriculture was the main occupation, and the other rudimentary occupation was crafting. Artisans such as blacksmiths and weavers were known and mentioned in literature.
The character of society is tribal by tribal customs and traditions. But as society became agrarian-based, a complex caste system like the Brahminical Varna system emerged. Buddhism was also taking root in this society. Thus, the Tamil society described in the Sangam period ranged from simple heads of clans to complex heads of ruling houses. A full-fledged state organization was yet to take shape. Society was composed of unequally developed components that shared a common culture.
The Sangam period witnessed a gradual decline towards the end of the 3rd century AD. The Kalabhras occupied the Tamil country after the Sangam period between 300 AD and 600 AD, a period which was referred to as an “interval” or “dark age” by earlier historians.