Sangam Age Polity: Political Powers of Tamilagaram
The Sangam Age has its roots in the Iron Age. In the Iron Age people were organised into chiefdoms. From such communities of Iron Age emerged the Vendhars of the early historic period and the Velirs of the Sangam Age were chieftains.
The Mauryan emperor, Asoka, conquered Kalinga (Odisha) and parts of Andhra and Karnataka regions. Ashokan inscriptions found in present day Odisha, Karnataka, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh are not seen in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Therefore, we may conclude that the Tamil rulers were independent of Mauryan authority.
Among the political powers of the Sangam Age, the Cheras, the Cholas and the Pandyas occupied pre-eminent positions. They were known as Muvendhar (the three kings). The muvendhar controlled the major towns and ports of the Sangam period.
The Cheras, referred to as Keralaputras in the Ashokan inscriptions, controlled the region of present-day Kerala and also the western parts of Tamil Nadu. Vanci was the capital of the Cheras while Muciri and Thondi were their port towns. Vanci is identified with Karur in Tamil Nadu while some others identify it with Thiruvanchaikkalam in Kerala. Pathirtruppathu speaks about the Chera kings and their territory. The Cheras wore garlands made from the flowers of the palm tree. The inscriptions of Pugalur near Karur mention the Chera kings of three generations. Coins of Chera kings have been found in Karur.
The Silappathikaram speaks about Cheran Senguttuvan, who built a temple for Kannagi, the protagonist of the epic. The bow and arrow was the symbol of the Cheras. Legend has it that Ilango who composed the Silappathikaram, was the brother of Cheran Senguttuvan.
The Cholas ruled over the Kaveri delta and northern parts of Tamil Nadu. Their capital was Uraiyur and their port town was Kaveripoompattinam or Pumpuhar, where the river Kaveri drains into the Bay of Bengal.
Pattinappaalai is a long poem about Kaverip o ompattinam composed by the poet Kadiyalur Ur u t h i r a n k a n n a n a r. Silappathikaram describes the trading activities at Kaveripoompattinam. Karikalan is notable among the Chola kings and is credited with bringing forestlands under the plough and developing irrigation facilities by effectively utilising the water from the river Kaveri. The foundation for the extensive harnessing of water for irrigation purposes, which reached its zenith in later Chola times (10th to 13th centuries) was laid in his time. Karikalan fought battles with the Pandyas, Cheras and other chieftains. The Chola emblem was the tiger and they issued square copper coins with images of a tiger on the obverse, elephant and the sacred symbols on the reverse.
The Pandyas who ruled the southern part of Tamil Nadu are referred to in the Ashokan inscriptions. Madurai was the Pandya’s capital. Tamil literary tradition credits Pandyan rulers with patronizing Tamil Sangams (academies) and supporting the compilations of poems. The Mangulam Tamil -Brahmi inscription mentions the king Nedunchezhiyan. Nediyon, Mudathirumaran, Palayagasalai Mudukudumipperuvazhuti were some of the important rulers of the dynasty. The Pandyan symbol was the fish.
Apart from the Vendhars, there were Velirs and numerous chieftains who occupied territories on the margins of the muvendhar. The velirs were the seven chiefs Pari, Kari, Ori, Nalli, Pegan, Ai and Athiyaman. Sangam poems write extensively about the generosity of these velirs. These chiefs had intimate relations with the poets of their time and were known for their large-heartedness. These chieftains had alliance with one or other of the muvendhar and helped them in their battles against the other Vendhars.