The Sangam Age

After the collapse of the Mauryan Empire around the end of the 2nd century BCE, a number of small kingdoms were established all over North India. In southern India, however, three major dynasties, the Cheras, the Cholas and the Pandyas, (who were never under Ashoka’s rule) continued as powerful rulers. The Pandyan dynasty initially ruled their lands from Korkai, a seaport on the southernmost tip of the Indian Peninsula, and in later times moved their capital to Madurai. The Chera kingdom comprised present day Kerala and parts of western Tamil Nadu. The Cholas ruled over parts of northern and central Tamil Nadu. Together, the Cholas, Pandyas and Cheras were called the 'three crowned kings of Tamilakam'.

The Sangam kingdoms were experts in water management, agriculture and fisheries. They were eminent sailors and used their maritime prowess to establish strong trade links with Babylon, Egypt, Greece and later Rome. Given the large coastlines that the southern kingdoms were exposed to, it is no surprise that this period must have been one of exploration. It was perhaps sometime in this period of maritime expansion that Indic influences started to spread to South East Asia. Legends of Kaundinya (a Brahmin from India) and other Indian travellers abound in the founding myths of several South East Asian civilisations such as Thailand, Cambodia, and Indonesia among others. One has only to visit any of these countries to witness how Indic practices have shaped their cultures.

This period also coincides with the Sangam period in Tamil history. It is named after a tradition of Sangams (colleges) of poets and scholars centered in the city of Madurai. At these Sangams, scholars and poets from different lands would assemble to participate in academic debates and discussions. The entire Sangam collection of works includes 2279 poems of lengths varying from three lines to over 800. The Sangam poets composed works which mirrored the day to day life of the common man. Their literature provides a wealth of information on the history, socio-political environment and cultural practices of the times including the lives of the farmers, the rusticity of the villages, the hustle and bustle of cities and the brutality of war. Some of the present-day festivals of South India such as Pongal and Onam also find reference in Sangam Literature.

According to popular legend, the Third and final Tamil Sangam was established under the patronage of 49 Pandyan kings with 449 participating poets and it went on for 1850 years! All the surviving Sangam literature comes from this particular academy. The location of the Third Sangam was the Lotus temple tank at the Meenakshi temple in the city of Madurai. All the poets would gather around this tank and share their work with the academy. The academy judged the worth of any work of literature presented before it, by throwing it into the tank. Only those that did not sink were considered worthy of attention!

Sangam Age coins are very rare and mostly found on riverbeds of the region. The majority of the Sangam age coins are made of copper while a few are of base silver and very rarely lead. The coins of the Cholas and Cheras come in various shapes such as squares, rectangles, circles and semi-circles. Sangam Pandya coins are seldom, if at all, circular in shape. Many of the Sangam coins are die-struck but a few specimens were also manufactured by the process of punching. The royal emblem of the Cheras was the ‘bow and arrow’, the ‘fish’ was that of the Pandyas while that of the Cholas was the ‘tiger’. These royal emblems are the most common symbols to be featured on their respective coins. Along with these indigenous issues, the silver punch-marked coins of the Mauryan dynasty were also freely used as a medium of exchange all over the Tamil territories.

The coins of the south had the benefit of several influences: the Mauryan punchmarked coinage, the Greek and Roman coins reaching their areas via trade and of course, indigenous coinage. The coin shown above is a rare bust type coin of the Sangam Pandyas. Note the sturdy, muscular features of the face. The Pandya busts are invariably enclosed within a circle of dots or beads. These coin types were perhaps inspired by the Roman coins reaching Pandyan territory though trade.

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