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 themes 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.
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.
There were frequent conflicts between the Cheras, Cholas and Pandyas. It gave large scope to the Sangam poets to compose poems on war.
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.
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 contributed many poems to the Sangam literature.
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.
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, as mentioned earlier, 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.
We are told that 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.