Introduction to Sangam Literature

Sangam Literature

Tamil, one of the classical languages of the world has a continuous history of literature for more than 2500 years. The earliest Tamil work, now extant is Tolkappiyam, a treatise on Tamil phonology, morphology, syntax and poetics. (300 B. C) The earliest Tamil literature that has come down to us is popularly known as Sangam literature.

The Pandya line of Tamil monarchs patronized three academies, one after the other, in their successive capitals namely Thenmadurai, Kapaatapuram and the temple city of modern Madurai. Sangam literature is believed to have been authored by the poets who were attached to the third Academy which flourished in Madurai from 300 B. C to 300 A. D. The poems were composed by poets drawn from almost all the sections of the ancient Tamil society and belonging to different villages and towns. These poems were later compiled and made into nine anthologies called Eṭṭuttokai and Pattuppāṭṭu. The Eṭṭuttokai division includes eight separate anthologies — Naṟṟiai, KuuntokaiAikuunūu, PatiṟṟuppattuParipāalKalittokai, Akanaūu and Puanāūu.  The Pattuppāṭṭdivision has ten long poems — Tirumurukāṟṟuppaai, PoruarāṟṟuppaaiCiupāāṟṟuppaai, Perumpāāṟṟuppaai, MullaippāṭṭuMaturaikkāñci, Neunalvāai, Kuiñcippāṭṭu, Paṭṭiappālai, Malaipaukaām.

The Twofold Division

The ancient Tamils conceived a twofold division of themes namely Akam and PuramAkam means ‘interior’ and deals with love in its purest form. Puram means ‘exterior’ and deals with everything else. This twofold division of poetry is peculiar to Tamil.

The Akam Theme and Its Characters

The theme of love dealt with Akam is not in relation to any particular man or woman. It is love that is universal in its sweep. The ancient poets took care that even by suggestion the lovers are not to be identified. These love poems are dramatic monologues. In them, we don’t hear the voice of the composers. No poem is addressed to the reader.  The characters of the Akam poetry are limited. The hero and the heroine are the main characters. The confidante of the heroine occupies the next place of importance. The other characters are the friend of the hero, the parents and brothers of the heroine, the charioteer of the hero, the aides, panan, patini, velan, hetaera, parappan, dancer, bystanders, village folk and other minor characters. Some of these characters are not vocal, but their ideas are referred to by other characters. The father and the brother of the heroine remain mute participants. There is almost no mention of the hero’s parents.

The Sevenfold Division of Akam Poetry

The Akam poems are highly conventional. They are based on well-established and strict literary tradition, the knowledge of which is a basic necessity to understand and appreciate the poems. The grammarian Tolkappiyar divides the Tamil country into four distinct geographical regions and each one of them is a world by itself. They are the pastoral, montane, riverine and littoral regions which are presided over by Lord Tirumal, Lord Murukan, Lord Indira and Lord Varuna respectively. There is also a fifth division, the wasteland, which is temporary in nature and it is presided over by Goddess Kotravai.  These regions are denoted as Mullai, Kurinci, Marutam, Neythal and Palai in Sangam poems. The lands are named after the plants peculiar to the respective regions. These names, by extension of meaning also denote the Tinais, the love life of the people and the literature belonging to the Tinais.

 According to Tolkappiyar, the theme of love is sevenfold. They are,

1. Kaikkilai

2. Kurinci

3. Mullai

4. Marutam

5. Neytal

6. Palai

7. Peruntinai.

Of these, Kaikkilai is unrequited love and Peruntinai is mismatched love.The other five are compositely called Aintinai (the five tinais) and Anpin Aintinai (the five structured on true love)

The Akam Triad

There are three aspects which are very basic to Akam poetry. They are:

1. Mutal Porul

2. Karupporul

3. Uripporul.

The geographical division (Nilam — land) and the element of time namely, the six seasons of the year and the six parts of the day are included in the Mutal Porul.

The natural, as well as the social aspects of the various regions, constitute the KarupporulThe aspects may include in them the deity, foodstuff, animals, birds, Theloveplants, music, drum, occupation etc.,

The Uripporul is the emotional content of the poem without which no Akam poetry can come into existence. In Tamil tradition, the love-life of ideal pairs is described in five thematic divisions of Uripporul.

They are as follows:

1. Punartal – Secret union of the lovers.

2. Pirital – Separation and the suffering associated with it.

3. Iruttal – Patient waiting of the heroine for the return of the hero.

4. Irankal – Feeling of despair of the woman in the absence of the hero.

5. The love-quarrel between the lovers.

Though these aspects are common to all the Tinas, convention links a particular Uripporul to a particular Tinai or geographical unit. According to the convention, the following is the distribution.

1. Kurinci – Mountain – Secret union

2. Mullai – Forest – Patient waiting of the wife

3. Marutam – Plain – Love quarrel

4. Neytal – Coastal region – Mood of despair

5. Palai – Wasteland – Separation of lovers and the suffering associated with it and the elopement of the lovers.

The Two Phases of Love life

There are two distinctive phases of love-life. They are,

 1. Kalavu (Premarital)

 2. Karpu (Marital)

So long as the love-affair remains unknown to the society at large, it is called Kalavu. The close associates of the lovers are an exception. When it becomes a public affair, it is treated on a par with marital love. Tradition divides this phase into three aspects, thematically — the providential meeting of the lovers, their subsequent meeting in the same place and their meeting in the secret during the day or night with the aid of their friends. The part played by the confidante during this period is significant. It is through her the lovers gain union. Her major objective is to hasten the lovers’ wedding. She consoles the heroine when she becomes sad when the lover is absent or when he is away in a foreign land, in quest of wealth needed for their wedded life; she serves as the prop for the heroine. When parents detect symptomatic change in their daughter’s physique or deportment, they are prone to attribute it to some divine interference.Normally, the Velan (priest) ascribes it to Lord Murukan and so the mother arranges for a ritualistic dance namely Veriyattu in their house.

The word Karpu means many things. It means chasity of a woman and also the phase in love life. This phase covers the aspects of marriage itself, the joyous married life, love quarrels, the resolution of such quarrels and the separation of the hero for various reasons.

The Puram Theme

The Puram division has seven Tinas or divisions corresponding to the seven divisions or Tinais of Akam. This theory is peculiar to Tolkappiyam. But in later ages, this seven fold division gave place to the twelve fold division. It is followed in the grammatical works like the Pannirupadalam and the Purapporul venba maalai. The compilers of the Sangam poems have adopted the later day classifications. According to the later tradition, the following will be the various divisions.

  1. Vetchi – Stealing away of the cattle of the enemies
  2. Karanthai – Redemption of the stolen cattle
  3. Vanji – A king’s march against a foe with his armies
  4.  Kanchi – The defensive warfare by the attacked king
  5. Uzhinai – Seize of a fort by an invader
  6. Nochi – Defense of the fort
  7. Tumpai – Heroic exploits and personal valour of kings and warriors
  8. Vagai – Victory in war and excellence in other pursuits of every section of the community
  9. Padan – Singing the glory of patrons and victorious kings and seeking rewards
  10. Podhuviyal – Special themes dealing with higher values of life and experiences of loss and sorrow
  11. Kaikilai – One-sided attachment
  12. Perunthinai – Relationship between unequal people and its sorrows

Every Tinai has anumber of subdivisions called Turais. Every Turai is an integral aspect of the corresponding Tinai which define the particular activity of war, the glorification of patrons, and other higher aspects of life.

The Puram poetry covers all areas of experience related to the socio-political life of ancient Tamils. It also includes in it the ripe experience of wise men and saints. It ranges over vast thematic landscapes of praises of heroic exploits, just rule of kings and their munificent patronage of bards and poets and other groups of suppliants. The Puram poems form the main source of information for writing the social history of the Tamils.



2 thoughts on “Introduction to Sangam Literature

  1. you have a wonderful site. This is the most comprehensive write up of the Sangam era i’ve come across online. I have an interest in learning more about the period. Unfortunately i do not read (or even speak tamil). Would you be able to point me in the direction of books i may refer to? I am also looking for an english translation of silapadikaram. thank you for your input

    Liked by 1 person

    • We are glad that you find the site helpful in learning about the Sangam period. The above content is a summary of the introduction given to the Sangam Classics in the books translated by Dr. Dakshinamurthy. “Sangam Polity” by N. Subramaniam is a comprehensive study of the Sangam era which talks about the Sangam period in detail. There are two wonderful English translations of Silappadikaram, one by Kolkatta S. Krishnamurthy and the other is by V. R. Ramachandra Dekshitar. Both are in prose. All the very best!


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