Sangam Literature

Aparna Chatterjee

Ancient India adorned many dialects and languages. There were several language families seven that we know of. However, two families dominated the subcontinent and continued flourishing- Indo-Aryan and Dravidian Languages. We have found ancient texts and manuscripts from both branches. We now know them as Sangam. However, one particular work still makes us wonder about the advancements when humans of many regions lived in caves and hunted for a livelihood.

Sangam means association. Sangam also means union. This beautiful work unified the ancient poets; hence, it is also known as ‘the poetry of the noble ones.’ Written in the oldest living language of the subcontinent, Tamil, Sangam is also known as the most aged literature piece. How old, you may ask? It dates back to 300 BCE, while the latest addition has been said to be composed in 300 CE. It is so old that the first compositions were held in South Madurai and Kapatapuram, which have submerged in the sea. 

It talks about the life of the past. During 300BCE-300CE, three Sangams were composed, adding complexity and dimension to the latest one and having laid the foundation of the Tamil language as we know it. The first Sangam was known to be composed by the well-known and revered Rishi Agastya, who laid the foundation of Tamil Grammatical rules. The poems during this were mainly about Lord Shiva, his son Murugan, Kuber, and Rishi Agastya. 

Later, Rishi Agastya’s disciple Tolkappiar continued the work and composed the second epoch with the guidance of his Guru. This epoch starched over three millennia and ended with a giant flood at the eastern seaside of Kapatapuram. The legends Tolkappiar and Akattiyam survived and guided the scholars for the third composition. The third composition has done most of the knowledge uncovered. Not only learned scholars but people from different walks of life contributed with their poetry. Religious poems from Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism singing praises of their Gods and Goddesses, carpenters, merchants, chieftains, etc., wrote about their work and trades. 

The region was divided depending on its topology: Kurinji- a hilly area; Mullai – forests with pastures; Marudham – fertile land; Neydal- the coastal zone; and Palai- a desert region. Palai was not a desert like the Sahara, but this region faced acute drought. Each part found sustainable ways of producing food. Palai region was famous for its pickled food. The vegetables and meat would be dried over the year and stored with spices. As agricultural techniques developed, the remaining areas had many meat and vegetable sources.

We get a clear picture of the international relations and trade with ancient Greek, Roman, and Mesopotamian civilizations. The Greeks had trade relations with Tamil since the third century B.C. Many Roman coins in this region belonged to the era of Caesar, Tiberius, and Nero, hinting that Roman–Tamil trade relations were from the 1st-2nd century A.D. We see contributions from many poetesses – Avvaiyar, Kakkai, and Padiniyar- to name a few. We have gifts from Princes to Rishis to peasants, giving us a complete idea of life.

Interestingly, the first two ancient epoch mentions a submerged land, Kumari Kandam. This mythical continent stretched between India, Australia, and Africa. It is said to have been lost in the sea. It is believed by a few that the Vedas that we know now originated here and were called Vedhams. It’s a well-believed fact that only 20% of this ancient knowledge written in the five vedhams was preserved, and 4 Vedas were formulated. Historians brush away from these speculations due to the lack of evidence. It is also linked with lost Lemuria. Biologists from the 1800s suggested this landmass connecting the three continents facilitated the migration of prosimians.

Mythology or not, Sangam Literature shows the feats reached by humans in ancient civilizations. It is evidence of indigenous development in literature, the economy, social structure, and people. The beauty of this anthology lies in the contributions of the rich and the poor, from the scholars to the commoner. How every 473 poets captured their beliefs, day-to-day life, aspirations, and pride, glorifying the age-old saying that the strength of a nation is not only in its ruler but in the people. While the development of the language Tamil, the cuisine of the time, and the importance and usage of gold and other gems might not be very different from the current era, it is beautiful to see people being connected by the culture and disconnected by time.

Even though the first and the second Sangam remain a mystery, seeing it from the lens of the third epoch gives us something to hold on to while the rest is lost.

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