FROM INDUS TO INDEPENDENCE: A TREK THROUGH INDIAN HISTORY: Part 19

Kolkatta, 18 November 2013
THROUGH THE AGE OF SANGAM
Section II
The Society and Government
The Sangam literature provides a very accurate, complete and detailed picture of the prevalent society of the time. It is all the more surprising therefore that the same authors have not considered the chronology of the period and the dates of accessions and abdications of the kings sufficiently important to have recorded them for posterity. As a result, the modern historian is left with unfilled and confusing gaps in clarifying the progress of events in a sequential manner. On the other hand the most striking feature is the composite nature of the culture that emerges in the literature—an indistinguishable fusion of Tamilian and Aryan culture, wherein the original of either is impossible to differentiate from within the mix. From a literary point of view, this fusion led to Sanskrit ideas and philosophies being adopted into the Sangam writings. The stories of both Mahabharata and Ramayana, essentially Aryan epics, were well-known and quoted in Tamil literature. It is also thought that Tolakappiyam, the unparalleled book of Tamil grammar, was modelled on the Sanskrit grammar of the Aindra School.
The Society
The Tamil society, irrespective of the kingdom they belonged to, had a pervasive social solidarity and a deep-rooted respect for customs and traditions. The population was organised in occupational groups who lived in close proximity to each other in villages and towns. These occupational groups varied in size, status and economic standing which was normally accepted as part of the established order. There is no mention in the literature of any social upheaval provoked by the economic and societal disparities evident between the different classes. This could also have been because of the fact that the caste system was not well-entrenched in the Peninsula at this time. The worship of ‘hero-stones’ that depicted the fall of a brave warrior in battle, a custom enshrined in antiquity, continued during this period. It is also recorded that the Brahmins ate meat and drank toddy without any reproach from any source. There were also a large number of Yavanas, a name given to all foreigners from the West, resident in the three kingdoms, especially around the ports of Tondi and Musuri. They were also employed as palace guards in Madurai.
The buildings where people lived differed dependent on the social and economic status of the owner. The palaces of the kings were well constructed and surrounded by gardens. The houses of the nobles and the rich merchants were of brick and mortar with paintings of divine figures and animals on the walls. It is reported that the houses were planned and constructed according to the ‘sastras’. This practice could be considered the beginning of the prevalence of what evolved into Vaastushastra. The common people lived in much humbler dwellings made of thatch and brick, while the forest tribes only built basic huts for their abode. The rich were exposed to refined luxuries and seem to have enjoyed a gracious and easy lifestyle.
The higher strata of society enjoyed hunting with hounds as a favourite pastime, while the warrior class also engaged in wrestling and boxing matches both as exercise and as competitive sport. The older men seem to have played some sort of a game of dice, which obviously could be indulged in without the need to be physically fit. Women and girls also engaged in playing with balls and molucca beans on the terrace of their houses, which automatically indicates that this sort of diversion or amusement was available only to the women of rich households. Some of the poems mention mixed bathing and picnics in which both men and women participated freely and equally.
By the time of the Sangam the institution of marriage was well established as a sacrosanct ritual in the Tamil country primarily because of the influence of northern Aryans. Before the Aryan influence changed the perceptions, the Tamil concept of marriage was a relatively simple—a natural coming together of man and woman. The Aryans came into the Deccan and the Peninsula with a Dharmasastra that delineated eight forms of marriage, which in itself was a hybrid combination of Aryan and pre-Aryan beliefs, customs and rites. This Dharmasastra was superimposed on the much simpler Tamil concept, turning marriage into a difficult and complex relationship that also had an increasing number of rituals attached to it. The tying of the ‘tali’ to indicate married status is most probably a pre-Aryan custom that was continued. The Aryan concept of widows being treated as downgraded human beings found acceptance in Tamil country, which had not been particularly hard on widows till then. With the new concept of marriage taking hold, widows were forced to lead a hard, harsh life, had to give up eating greens, discarded their ornaments and had to cut off their hair. This degradation of status and the enforced reduction in living standards could have contributed as a direct incitement for sati amongst the widows. Sati was the practice of the widow burning herself on the funeral pyre of the husband—the incidence of which increased with the increasing Aryanisation of the society.
Sangam Literature and Music
The Sangam literature is the earliest stratum of Tamil writing and imparted a great richness to its idiom, poems and literature. It was the beginning of the rise of a strong and graceful literary form and tradition. Literary and artistic developments are never possible without the patronage and philanthropy of the wealthy and powerful of the land and this was the case during Sangam also. The upper classes were the patrons of poetry, music and dancing. The poets were both men and women, of all classes, who composed poems eulogising an individual or celebrating an occasion or event and were suitably rewarded by the patron. For example it is stated that Karikala, the Chola king, rewarded the author of Pattinappalai that celebrates his life and times with 1,600,000 gold pieces. This is a large amount of wealth by any standards and is obviously a gross exaggeration, probably done at a later age. However, it indicates the high rewards that fell to the poets as their rightful due.
Some of the poets were at times resident companions and advisers of the king or chieftain who was their patron, forging lifelong attachments. Others were itinerant wanderers in search of patronage. The poets were also not averse to pillorying a king or chieftain who they considered to be stingy with his gifts and patronage. Uniformly the Sangam poems were replete with fine turns of phrases and imagery while also being true to life. They also varied widely in length, from some being three or four line verses to others being longer odes and even longer epic poems as well as religious hymns. Although the elaborate and ornate Sanskrit form was not yet known in Tamil writing at this time, the poems were eloquent on the spiritual experiences of the authors and testimony to the literature having reached a highly developed state without any direct external influence.
Music was primarily based on singing and was practised by roving bands of musicians who performed in courts and in noble houses, most of the time accompanied by dancing girls. Two separate types of music and accompanying dance have been described. The first was the one practised by the roving bands representing the primitive tribal groups based on and adapted primarily from the folk songs and dances of an earlier era. According to the poems, these groups were considerably poor and barely managed to eke out a living, normally staying in the outskirts of towns and the society as a whole. The second was the more sophisticated version of music where the seven notes of music was identified and there were conventions already in place regarding the proper time and place for each ‘tune’ to be sung. This kind of singing was accompanied by musical instruments. The literature provides descriptions of various instruments that were used, which included different types of the ‘yal’, a kind of lute; and the flute, similar to what is used today. Karikala is mentioned in some texts as the ‘master of seven notes’ testifying to his prowess in the aesthetic and finer aspects of life and indicating that he was not a purely warrior king excelling in the martial arena.
The Silappadikaram describes the synthesis of the local (Desi), pre-Aryan, dance form and the northern (Marga), Aryan, dance form which was popular during the period. Various dance poses, especially the ones depicted by a number of intricate actions of the hand, were recorded and named. It is also stated that both men and women danced and that mixed dances were also not uncommon. During this period the first mention of the professional ‘dancing girls’ appear and they are described as an accepted and integral part of society. At a later age, these girls were to become rivals to the legitimate wife of nobles and at times even kings. The Manimekalai, written just after the Sangam period has been compared to Vatsayana’s Kamasutra, written at a much later age. In order to become professional dancing girls they had to be experts in a range of arts and crafts, cookery and perfumery, along with a range of other social skills. The Manimekalai describes the training that these girls had to undergo, which was spread over a number of years, before being acknowledged as a professional.
The Government
The foundational basis of governance during the Sangam period was a hereditary monarchy. This system had evolved over a period of time from tribal chieftainships to becoming established kings of large land holdings. The king was fundamentally a war leader with the primary function clearly delineated as the physical protection of the kingdom from attacks and invasions. From this primary role of protection from external aggression, evolved the equally important duty of internal protection of the people and the enforcement of customary laws. As the concept of kings and kingdoms evolved, the South Indian kings tended to favour autocratic rule that was tempered by the advice of able ministers and influential friends. A majority of successions seem to have taken place in accordance with established custom although occasional disputes and contradictory claims to the throne, which have further led to civil war at times, have been mentioned. 
Animal Totems in South India
The Ramayana is replete with the stories of ‘monkey’ kings, kingdoms, and warriors, as well as old, wise, and venerable ‘monkey’ advisers, especially after the heroes entered the Peninsula. Considering that the Ramayana episode took place before the establishment of the monarchical system of governance, the monkey army and warriors who assisted Ram during his attack on Lanka, celebrated in the Ramayana, has to be viewed as the totem symbols of the South Indian tribes of the time.
The relationship between the king and the people was one of give and take—the king had to adhere to a very high moral and ethical standard and the people in turn provided absolute loyalty to the ruler. In fact people were proud of and dedicated to even extremely autocratic rulers, provided they did not breach customary sacred laws. In order to achieve the people’s approbation the king also had to be a liberal patron of the arts and religion. He held the first rank in society and while patronising poetry and fine arts, also kept an open house in terms of entertaining nobles, warriors, well-known poets and other artists. While wars were a common occurrence during this period and dominated the lives of the kings and nobles, the Tamil kings were also well-known for their enjoyment of the proverbial wine, women, song, and dance. A great deal of feasting and drinking bouts carried on in the palace, a number of such events celebrated in poems and other writings of the period. The serving of meat and liquor during the feasts was an almost irreplaceable custom of the time.
The king had to be completely impartial—both actually and also seen to be so—in all his dealings, and could not be seen as being even slightly biased towards one or the other religion, tribe or occupational group. He also held a daily durbar, called ‘nalavai’, where he heard complaints from the people and gave rulings to ameliorate disputes. This part of the king’s duties is praised in a large number of poems that talk of the king being the life of the people itself and compare the king to a strong ox pulling a cart of salt (metaphorically the state and the people) up a steep hill. The king was normally assisted by a number of Brahmins in carrying out the daily chores of running an elaborate administrative machinery. Normally there was a ‘sabha’ or ‘manram’ in the capital which was the highest court of justice in the land. The manram was duplicated in each village and was the foundation for the village government system that took shape over a period of time. Selected elders assisted in dealing with the cases that were brought before the central court, which was also used by the king as a consultative forum for policy formulation and decision-making. As this usage became more prevalent, the manram became the original of what was to develop into a national general assembly in later years.
Powerful kings of the era pursued the concept, or the ideal, of the ‘conquering king’. This proclivity to claim greatness through conquest is one of the fundamental reasons for the Peninsula having been embroiled in conflict and remaining in a constant state of war for long periods of time. Victory against seven kings guaranteed a superior status to the victor and such a king symbolically wore a garland of seven crowns. Another aspect of conquest was the undertaking of the ‘Digvijaya’, meaning victory over the world, which was a conquering expedition that started to the north of the kingdom and was carried out in a clockwise manner across all of India. In this case the notion of ‘all of India’ was obviously interpreted in a contextual manner dependent on the beliefs of the kingdom involved. The concept of a king being given the title of ‘Chakravarti’, meaning the ‘wheel king’, originated from the practice of Digvijaya. It was also during the Sangam period that the earliest manifestation of the practice of ‘Companion of Honour’ started, perhaps as a necessity to have a core team of unquestioned loyalty to the king around him at all times in order to protect him from harm, especially in battle. In South India they were given titles such as ‘Velaikar’ and ‘Sahavasi’. Some poems regarding the Companions mention some of them committing suicide at the death of the king, presumably as an act of atonement for their failure to protect him.
Trade and Agriculture
The tax levied on the produce of the land and income from trade were the main sources of revenue for the state, although the exact amount or percentage of the king’s share cannot be ascertained from any records. It can be concluded that there was no set amount or percentage levied as taxes and that taxation was carried on an as required and at times arbitrary manner. Although foreign trade attracted a custom duty, the actual trade itself was well organised and brisk. Large ships in full sail were able to enter the main port of Puhar and other subsidiary ports facilitated flourishing practices in foreign trade. The Yavanas frequented the Chera port of Musiri (Cranganore) on the West coast and brought with them gold to trade for pepper and other spices not available in the temperate climate of their home countries. According to some Sangam poems, Saliyur was the most important port in the Pandya kingdom, while Bandar was the primary port for the Cholas. Horses for use by the kings and nobles and for service in the army were also imported through the foreign trade system. It is obvious from the descriptions in the poems that the merchant class were rich and influential. Their mansions are described as opulent multi-storied buildings in which the lower levels were used for business purposes and the upper levels as private quarters of the family. This arrangement can be seen all across the sub-continent even to this day.
The Periplus, dated 75 A.D., provides detailed information regarding the Indo-Roman trade. It lists the important ports on the West coast as: Naura (Canannore); Tyndis (Tondi, called Ponnani today); Muziris (Musiris, Cranganore); and Nelcynda near Kottayam. It is interesting that Nelcynda is mentioned as belonging to the Pandyan kingdom at this time, indicating that the Pandyans had access to the seas both in the west and the east at some stage during their ascendancy. The other ports of South India that are mentioned in the Periplus are: Balita (Varkalai), a village on the West Coast with a fine harbour; Colchi (Korkai), that also housed the pearl fisheries of the Pandyan kingdom worked by condemned criminals; and Poduca (Puducherry). That there was a booming Indo-Roman trade is confirmed by the findings of large quantities of gold and silver coins of different Roman emperors up to Nero who was the Roman Emperor between 54 and 68 A. D. Further, the coins found in the interior of the Tamil country point to large Roman settlements suggesting an impressive volume of trade, which probably began during the reign of Augustus and continued till after Nero. However, the Roman trade was not confined to the Tamil country and evidence suggests that it was conducted along the entire Indian coast. The movement of goods by sea encouraged exploration and sparse colonisation of South East Asia by Greco-Romans and Indians. Even though the lead role in seaborne trade with India passed to the Arabs by the end of 2nd century A.D., South India continued to be the centre of active trade with the far-east.  
The king also levied internal transit duties for the transportation of goods and in return ensured that the roads were efficiently guarded by soldiers to prevent both theft and smuggling. The goods were moved in caravans of carts and pack animals with salt being an important commodity for trade. Barter was commonly used in trading activities, both internal and with foreign traders. Farming was controlled by the community of ‘Vellalars’, who were professional agriculturists, and the community provided stability and development to the national economy. The physical farming activities were carried out by low class women who were little better than slaves, whereas the Vellalars were rich and held a high social status. They held high office in the court, both in the administration and the military and the more powerful families were even allowed to marry into the royal family. They were given the titles of Vel and Arasu in the Chola kingdom and that of Kavidi in by the Pandyan kings. Weaving was another commercial activity and Uraiyur has been recorded as the centre of a highly sophisticated cotton trade, in which the use of needle and scissors were common.  
Another source of wealth for the king was captured treasure, which was normally kept by the king in its entirety. The king used this treasure as a private fund to reward exemplary service to him and at times also to ensure loyalty of wavering supporters. The Chola dynasty’s treasure house in Kumbakonam is described as being one of the wealthiest amongst the three kingdoms.
The Military Forces
The times were bellicose and all kings, great and small, maintained professional armies to ensure the protection of the borders and ensure the sovereignty of their lands. The army was led by captains, titled ‘Enadi’, who were personally appointed by the king to ensure their personal loyalty. Traditionally, the army had four arms—ox-drawn chariots, elephants, cavalry, and infantry. The soldiers were armed with swords, bows and arrows, and also used armour made of tiger skins for protection. It is also certain that conches and drums were used as signalling equipment in the lead up to and even during the actual conduct of battle. The war drums held a special status as a symbol of the fighting prowess of a chief or king. They were personalised and objects of worship both in peace and war. The war drums were guarded and its capture by an enemy was considered a dishonour.
The status of the warrior was very high in society and in turn the warriors considered, and even welcomed, death in battle since it assured them a place in ‘Viraswarga’, the heaven of the valiant. This belief was so prevalent amongst the warriors that a peaceful death was looked down upon by most of them. [Under these circumstances warriors would have died at a relatively young age, since older persons would not have been permitted in the battlefield. This whole concept was geared to ensuring bravery in war to the extent of foolhardiness.]Very often the king personally took part in battles, leading the forces himself. This was fraught with danger since the army invariably gave up the fight, irrespective of the actual battlefield situation, if the king was killed or suffered serious injury in battle. A defeated king who was captured alive was humiliated by the victors and was the object of ridicule until he could redeem his honour through another battlefield victory, if possible against the same adversary. The memory of any defeat obviously rankled and became the cause for seeking revenge, thereby perpetuating the cycle of war and revenge, creating strife in the kingdom. It was also not uncommon for the victorious army to lay waste the conquered territory, which added to the woes of the defeated king and his people.
The poem ‘Kalavali’ provides a detailed description of the Tamil battlefield: all soldiers wore leather sandals; nobles and princes invariably went to war riding elephants [which would mean that they were armed with lances in order to be able to inflict damage on the opposing army, although this is not mentioned in the poem]; commanders were normally on chariots adorned with pennants to distinguish them from the rest of the force; and it is also mentioned that women of the higher class and status also accompanied their men into the battle area.
Of Religion, Beliefs and Customs
Vedic religion started to take root in South India during the Sangam period. According to the poems on the subject, kings and nobles adopted elaborate rituals for worship as status symbols. At the same time they elevated the Brahmins—considered to be of high learning and knowledge—to an exalted position in society. This gradual shift in the practice of religion—towards a more prominent Vedic/Hindu creed—is reported to have brought about ‘disputes’ with other religious sects. It is obvious that the ‘other’ sects could only have been Buddhism and Jainism. It was also during this period that the worship of Murugan, also called Subramanya, started to get entrenched in South Indian society. The legends surrounding Murugan were alluded to in the poems and some poems were also dedicated to him. However, the worship of Murugan can be traced to antiquity and featured distinctly indigenous feature, which the newer practices absorbed and allowed to continue. An example is the ecstatic dance called ‘Velandal’ that was practised as a form of Murugan worship. This dance continues to be practised even today in Murugan worship in South India.
Gradually the pantheon of Hindu gods made its appearance in Tamil country and the worship of Shiva, Vishnu, Balarama, Krishna, Ardhanarisawra and Ananatasayi became more prevalent. The worship of Vishnu with Tulsi (basil) leaf and bells and the accompanying rituals are well detailed in a number of poems. The practice of fasting to appease the gods is also documented, and asceticism was honoured. Kapalikas, an austere sect of Shaivite ascetics, is mentioned in the ‘Manimekalai’ as a group considered to be of a very high status. The poem also states that music and dance intertwined with religion and ritual practices, which was not a new phenomenon in the Peninsula. It goes on to mention a temple built to goddess Saraswati who was the patron goddess of knowledge, learning and the arts.
The general population had great faith in omens and astrology with even a poem having been written about the portents that predicted the death of ‘Sey of the elephant eye’. Fortune tellers, both charlatans and genuine seers, were common and sought after during some periods of the Sangam. It was common practice to wear amulets, especially in the case of children, to ward off evil. The banyan tree was considered the abode of the gods and worshipped accordingly and it was believed that eclipses were serpents devouring either the sun or the moon. Crows flying into a household were considered to be harbingers of the arrival of visitors and were fed by all. Mass feeding of the poor was considered a righteous act and encouraged by both the priests and the king—the spiritual and temporal heads. This concept of feeding the poor in later days became the basis for the creation of a welfare state, where no citizen was allowed to go hungry. [What is noteworthy in the beliefs described above, authenticated by the poems of the Sangam period, is that most of them continue to be believed even today in South India.]
The increasing influence of North Indian (Aryan?) thinking and beliefs is apparent in the descriptions available of the gradual but measured enforcement of laws that banned cow slaughter, killing of Brahmins and abortion, declaring them as punishable offences. On the other hand, the practice of sati—the burning of the wife on the funeral pyre of the husband—although reported as somewhat common in some writings, does not seem to have been enforced or even encouraged. In fact it does not seem to have been a universal practice in the Peninsula. The dead were either buried or cremated with no clear distinction available in the literature regarding who would be accorded a particular death rite or under what circumstances either method of the disposal of the dead was prescribed. However, pulaiyans—a lower caste who still exist as a definite group in South India—had a role to play in the death ceremony.
As the Sangam period progressed, the growing influence of the Buddhist philosophy of emphasising the sorrows of life and its doctrine that concentrated on escaping these sorrows through moving away from normal life started to take its toll. The poems became increasingly pessimistic regarding life, and the later poems advocate an almost complete rejection of earthly pleasures. These poems and concepts are in total contrast to the earlier poems that jubilantly celebrated a joyous faith in good living and the enjoyment of the pleasures of life to the fullest extent.
Conclusion
At the end of the Sangam period the Tamil kingdoms lapsed into a silent long night of dark moon for almost three centuries. There is a legend, mostly hearsay, of a mysterious dynasty called Kalabhra (or Kalappalar) who attacked and defeated all the three kingdoms and whose king is supposed to have kept the three South Indian kings—Chera, Chola, and Pandya—captive in prison. It is believed that they were subsequently defeated by a combined force of Pallavas, Pandyas and the Chalukyas of Badami who then restored the original order. There is no definitive information regarding the Kalabhras, except for a mention in a Buddhist source that states Accutavikkanta of Kalabhrakula in the Chola country was a great patron of Buddhism. This snippet does not prove any of the other legends attached to the Kalabhra dynasty. The legend states that: the Kalabhras uprooted a number of chieftains along with the three major kings; they were not well-liked by the general population; and that the Kalabhra take over could have been the result of religious rivalry and antagonism.
During this interregnum of nearly three centuries, the Cholas almost completely vanished from the Tamil country with only a minor branch surviving in the Rayalaseema area, known as the Telugu Chodas. This clan is mentioned by Yuan Chwang in 7th century A.D. Although there is no evidence to suggest it, it can be posited that the Cheras were also affected by the mythical Kalabhras and when their history is taken up again after few centuries of uncertainty it is seen that they had started to import rulers who assumed the title of ‘Perumal’. The Vaishnava saint Kulasekhara Alvar claims in a poem, dated to around 6th century A.D., that the Perumal of the time had sovereignty over the Chera, Chola and Pandya kingdoms as well as the Kongu country and the Kolli mountain. This can be interpreted also to mean that the Kalbhra intrusion was more damaging to the Cholas and the Pandyas who were weakened to a state wherein it was possible for the Cheras, who were relatively unaffected, to overrun the other two kingdoms.
Irrespective of the legend of the Kalabhras, the nearly three centuries of almost complete lack of information is intriguing and creates a void in the understanding of the history of the Peninsula in a holistic manner.     
                
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About Sanu kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS)

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