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The Sangam Age – Social Formation & Polity

Social Formation in Tamil Eco-zones

  • Sangam poems help us understand the social formation of the time.
  • According to the thinai concept, Tamilagam was divided into five landscapes or eco-regions, Ainthinai namely Kurinji, Mullai, Marutam, Neythal and Palai.
  • Each region had distinct characteristics – a presiding deity, people and cultural life according to the environmental conditions, as follows:
    • Kurinji – hilly region: hunting and gathering
    • Mullai – forested region: pastoralism combined with shifting cultivation
    • Marutham – riverine tract: agriculture using plough and irrigation.
    • Neythal – coastal land: fishing and salt making.
    • Palai – parched land: Unsuitable for cultivation and hence people took to cattle lifting and robbery.

Tamil Polity

  • In a way this thinai classification is said to reflect the uneven socio-economic developments of the different localities.
  • That is seen in the political forms too.
  • Three levels of rulers are found:
    • Kizhar – Kizhar were the heads of the villages or a small territory, later known as nadu. They were the chiefs of tribal communities living in specific areas.
    • Velir – The Velir, who were many in number, controlled the territories of varied geographical nature, mainly hilly and forest areas, that were in between the muvendar’s fertile territories.
    • Vendar – The Vendar were kings controlling larger, fertile territories.
  • Chiefs
    • Chiefs like Athiyaman, Pari, Ay, Evvi and Irungo each commanded a big area, rich in natural resources.
    • They were generous patrons of the poets and bards.
    • They had military power and there were frequent wars among these chiefs on account of capture of cattle.
    • On many occasions they seem to have united and confronted one or other of the three kings.
  • There are differing views among scholars, with regard to the political organization of the three kingdoms.
  • The earlier and dominant view is that the Sangam Age society was a well-organized state society.
  • The other view which is put forward in recent decades is that the polities of the Cheras, Cholas and Pandyas were pre-state chiefdoms.
  • The arguments for the latter view are:

1. No social stratification is noticed.

2. Proper territorial association is absent.

3. Destructive warfare did not allow the development of agriculture and surplus production for the emergence of the state.

4. No evidence of taxation as in the governments of North India.

  • The following counter arguments are presented in response:
    • A closer look at the Sangam literature reveals that social differentiation is evident in the Marutham region.
    • The territorial associations are very clear in the case of the Muvendar, and their important position is corroborated by the Greco-Roman texts from the first century CE.
    • Warfare for territorial expansion was a major theme of Puratthinai
    • Evidence for taxation at the highways and in the port of Kaviripattinam is cited. The Chera king is spoken as receiving the resources from the hills and the port of Musiri.
    • Trade played an important role between the late first century BCE and third century CE.

Political Ascendancy of the Vendar

  • From the chiefs of the Iron Age (c. 1100300 BCE) emerged the Vendar of the early historic period.
  • While certain chiefs attained higher status (vendar) through the larger and effective control of pastoral and agricultural regions, others in the marginal regions remained as chieftains (velir).
  • For example, Athiyamans, mentioned as Satiyaputra in the Ashoka inscriptions, became weak and did not attain the status of kings like the Chola, Pandya and Chera vendar.
  • The Vendar subjugated the chieftains and fought with the other two Vendars.
  • For this they mobilized their own warriors, besides seeking the support of some Velir chiefs.
  • The adoption of titles was one of the measures adopted by the Sangam Age Vendar to display their power.
  • Titles such as Kadungo, Imayavaramban and Vanavaramban and PeruVazhuthi distinguished themselves from the ordinary people and the Velirs.
  • The patronization of bards and poets and entertaining them in their courts (avaiyam) was probably a step undertaken by the kings to glorify their name and fame and also their territories and towns.
  • For example, the Chola king Karikalan is said to have offered a huge amount of gold coins to Uruttirankannanar who composed Pattinappalai.

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