The Sangam age refers to that period in the early history of south India when large numbers of poems in Tamil were composed by a number of authors. The term Sangam refers to an assembly or "meeting together" of Tamil poets.
Traditionally, three Sangams or assemblies are believed to have been convened one after the other. All the three Sangams took place at different places under the patronage of the Pandya kings of Madurai. Poems within the Sangam literature were composed on two broader theme of love and war. It was later put together in eight collections called Ettutogai. This literature is believed to have been composed between 300 BC and 300 AD.
A remarkable feature of the Sangam literature is its vivid portrayal of the contemporary society and culture of Tamilaham, or Tamil region and its peaceful and harmonious interaction with the northern (Aryan) culture.
Tamilaham stretches between the hills of Tirupati and the tip of Kanyakumari. It was divided amongst large number of chieftains and the chieftainship was hereditary. The important chieftains who dominated Tamil region during Sangam Age were the Cholas, with their capital at Uraiyur, the Cheras with their capital at Vanji, (near Karur) and Pandyas with their capital at Madurai.
The Cholas, Pandyas and Cheras had several subordinate chiefs. Tribute from subordinate chiefs along with plunder, were the main sources of revenue. There was frequent conflicts between the Cheras, Cholas and Pandyas. It gave large scope to the Sangam poets to compose poems on war.
The whole Tamilaham in this period was divided into five tinais or eco-zones, i.e., zones based on their economic resources. These were: kurinji (hilly region); palai (arid zone); mullai (pastoral tracts); marudam (wet lands); and neital (seacoast). These zones were not clearly demarcated, and were scattered all around the region.
Because of their different geographical contexts and ecological specialties people in different tinais had their own modes of subsistence. For example, in kurinji, it was hunting and gathering; in palai, where people could not produce anything they took to raiding and plundering; in mullai people practiced animal husbandry; in marudam it was plough agriculture; and in neital people took to fishing and salt making.
Though the concept of varna was known, social classes in the Sangam period were not marked by higher or lower rankings as in north India. For example, Brahmans were present in the society and they performed vedic ceremonies and sacrifices and also acted as advisers to the chief but they enjoyed no special privileges.
People were known on the basis of their occupation they followed, such as artisans, salt merchants, textile merchants, etc. The rich lived in well decorated brick houses and wore costly clothes whereas the poor lived in mud huts and had scanty clothes to wear.
War heroes occupied a special position in society, and memorial stones called nadukal or virukkal were raised in honour of those who died in fighting, and they were worshipped as godlings.
Women in the Sangam period appear to have been educated. This is testified by many poems contributed by women poets to the Sangam literature. Women are also described as engaged in various economic activities such as paddy plantation, cattle rearing, basket-making, spinning, etc. However, the cruel practice of Sati was also prevalent in Tamil society, and it was known as tippayadal. But it was not obligatory as there are references to widows present in society. However their position was miserable as they were prohibited to decorate themselves or participate in any form of amusement.
The people were engaged in various economic activities such as agriculture, crafts and trade. Paddy was the most important crop. It formed the main part of peoples’ diet and also served as a medium of barter exchange for inland trade. Since Tamil region does not have perennial rivers, the chief, wherever possible, encouraged agricultural activities by making tanks and dams.
The Chola king Karikala of the Sangam age is credited with constructing a dam on the river Kaveri. It is considered to be the earliest dam in the country. Among the crafts, the most important was of spinning and weaving of textiles cotton as well as silk. Salt manufacture was another important activity.
The most important feature of the Sangam economy was flourishing trade with the Roman world. It is confirmed by the recovery of a large number of Roman gold coins in south India. The discovery of monsoons and the use of direct sea route between Indian coasts and the western world was the main reason for the growth of this trade. It led to rise of important towns and craft centres in the Tamil region.
Vanji, identified with the present day Karur in Tamil Nadu, was the capital of the Cheras and also an important centre of trade and craft. Muzris, i.e., Cranganore on the south-west coast, was the foremost port of the Cheras. The Roman ships laden with gold used to come here to take back large amounts of pepper. Madurai, the capital of the Pandyas, is described in the Sangam poems as a large city enclosed by a wall. It was an important centre of fine textile and ivory working.
Korkai, in the Tirunnelveli district of Tamil Nadu, was an important Pandya port. It was famous for its pearls. Uraiyur (Tiruchirapalli in Tamil Nadu), the capital of the Cholas, was a grand city with magnificent buildings. Kaveripattinam or Puhar was the main Chola port. The Sangam poems refer to the busy markets guarded by soldiers.
In the field of religion, Sangam period witnessed a close and peaceful interaction between north Indian and south Indian traditions. The Brahmanas who performed religious ceremonies popularized the worship of Indra, Visnu, Siva, etc., in south India. There are also references to the presence of Buddhists and Jainas in Tamil region. The local people, particularly those of the hills, worshipped a deity called Murugan, which in northern India come to be identified with Kartikeya, a war god.
In short, the Sangm literature through its poems on love and emotion (aham) and warfare and social behaviour (puram) on the whole present a picture of political conflict, social inequality and economic prosperity of early Tamil region during 300 BC - 300 AD.