Ancient India

The Dawn of History in Deep South

The Megalithic Background

AFTER the pre-historic age several elements mark the beginning of the historical period. These are: settlements of large scale rural communities which plough agriculture with the help of the ironshare, formation of the state system, rise of social classes use of writing, use of metal money beginnings of written literature. All these phenomena are not found at the tip of the peninsula with the Kaveri delta as the nuclear zone until about the second century B.C. Up to this period the upland portions of the peninsula were inhabited by people who are called megalith builders. They are known not from their actual settlements which are rare, but from their graves. These graves are called megaliths because they were encircled by big pieces of stone. They contain not only skeletons of people who were buried but also pottery and iron objects. The people used various types of pottery including red ware, but black-and-red ware seems to have been popular with them. Obviously the practice of burying goods in the graves with the dead bodies was based on the belief that the dead would need all these in the next world. These goods give us an idea of their sources of livelihood. We find arrowheads, spearheads and also hoes and sickles, all made of iron Tridents which later came to be associated with Shiva, have also, been found in the megaliths. However, compared to the number of agricultural tools that were buried, those meant for fighting and hunting ate larger in number. This would show that megalithic people did not practise aft advanced type of agriculture.

The megaliths are found in all upland areas of the peninsula, but their concentration seems to be in eastern Andhra and in Tamil Nadu. The beginnings of the megalithic culture can be traced to circa 1000 B.C., but in many cases the megalithic phase lasted from about the fifth to the first century B.C., in a few places this phase persisted even as late as the early centuries of the Christian era.

The Cholas, Pandyas and Keralaputras (Cheras) mentioned in Ashokan inscriptions were probably in the late megalithic phase of material culture. The megalithic people in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu had certain peculiar characteristics. They buried the skeletons of the dead in urns made of red pottery in pits. In many cases these urns were not surrounded by stone circles and grave goods were not too many. The practice of urn burial was different from that of cist-burial or pitburial surrounded by stone circles, which prevalent in the KrishnaGodavari valley. But at any rate, in spite of the use of iron, the megalithic people depended partly for settlement and burials on the slopes of the hills. Although the megalithic people produced paddy and rapt, apparently the area of cultivable land used, by them was very limited and generally they did not settle on the plains or the low lands due to the thick forest cover.

State Formation and Rise of Civilization

By the third century B.C., the megalithic Burial people had moved from the uplands into fertile river basins and reclaimed marshy deltaic areas. Under the stimulus of contact with the elements of material culture brought from the north to the extreme end of the peninsula by traders, conquerors and Jaina, Buddhist and some brahmana missionaries, they came to practise wet paddy cultivation, founded numerous villages and towns and came to have social classes. Cultural and economic contacts between the north and the deep south known as Tamizhakam became extremely important from the fourth century B.C. The route to the south called the Dakshinapatha was valued by the northerners because the south supplied gold, pearls and various precious stones. The Pandya country was known to Megasthenes who lived in Patalipujxai. The earlier Sangam texts are familiar with the rivers Ganga and Son and also with Pataliputra which was the capital of the Magadhan empire. The Ashokan inscriptions mention the Cholas, Pandyas, Keralaputras and Satyaputras living on the borders of the empire; of these only the Satyaputras are not clearly identified. Tamraparnis or the people of Sri Lanka are also mentioned. Ashoka’s title dear to gods was adopted by a Tamil chief. All this was the result of the missionary and ac culturating activities of the Jain as, Buddhists, Ajivikas and brahmanas as well as the traders who went along in their train. It is significant that Ashokan inscriptions were set up on important highways. In the earliest stage much of the influence of Gangetic culture over the south was felt through the activities of the heterodox sects which are mentioned in the earliest Tamil Brahmi inscriptions. The brahmanical influence also percolated in a large measure to the Tamizhakam, but this really happened after the fourth century A.D. Eventually many elements of Tamil culture spread to the north and in the brahmanical texts the Kaveri came to be regarded as one of the holy rivers in the country.

These southern kingdoms would not have developed without the spread of iron technology which promoted forest clearing and plough cultivation. The distribution of the punch-marked coins of the janapada and of the Imperial Magadhan type shows the development of northsouth trade.

Flourishing trade with the Roman empire contributed to the formation of the three states respectively under the Cholas, Cheras and Pandyas. From the first century A.D. onwards the rulers of these peoples derived benefit from the exports and imports that went on between the coastal parts of south India on the one hand and the eastern dominions of the Roman empire, especially Egypt, on the other.

Three Early Kingdoms

The southern end of the Indian peninsula situated south of the Krishna river was divided into three kingdoms  Chola, Pandya and Chera or Kerala. The Pandyas are first mentioned by Megasthenes, who says that their kingdom was celebrated for pearls. He also speaks of its being ruled by a woman, which may suggest some matriarchal influence in the Pandya society.

The Pandya territory occupied the southern-most and the south-eastern portion of the Indian peninsula and it roughly included the modern districts of Tirunelveli, Ramnad and Madurai in Tamil Nadu. It had its capital at Madurai. The literature compiled in the Tamil academies in the early centuries of the Christian era and called the Sangam literature refers to the Pandya rulers, but it does not give any connected account.

One or two Pandya conquerors are mentioned. However, it is evident from this literature that the country was wealthy and prosperous. The Pandya kings profited from trade with the Roman empire and sent embassies to the Roman emperor Augustus. The brahmanas enjoyed considerable influence and the Pandya king performed Vedic sacrifices in the early centuries of the Christian era.

The Chola kingdom, which came to be called Cholamandalam

(Coromandel) in early medieval times, was situated to the north-east of the territory of the Pandyas, between the Pennar and the Velar rivers. We have some idea of the political history of the SOUTH Cholas from the Sangam texts. Their chief centre of political power lay at Uraiyur, a place famous for cotton trade. It seems that in the middle of the second century B.C., a Chola king named Elata conquered Sri Lantya and ruled over it for nearly 50 years. A firmer history of the Cholas begins in the second century A.D. with their famous king Kankala. He founded Puhar and construe ted 160 km of embankment along the Kaveri river. This was built with the labour of 12,000 slaves who were brought as captives from Sri Lanka. Puhar is identical with Kaveripattanam, which was the Chola capital. It was a great centre of trade and commerce and excavations show that it had a large dock. One of the main sources of the wealth of the Cholas was trade in cotton cloth. They maintained an efficient navy.

Under Karikala’s successors the Chola power rapidly declined. Their capital, Kaveripattanam, was overwhelmed and destroyed. Their two neighbouring powers, the Cheras and the Pandyas, extended at the cost of the Cholas. What remained of the Chola power was almost wiped out by the attacks of the Pallavas from the north. From the fourth to the, ninth century A D the Cholas played only a marginal part in south Indian history.

The Chera or the Kerala country was situated to the west and north of the land of the Pandyas. It included the narrow strip of land between the sea and the mountains and covered portions of both Kerala and Tamil Nadu. In the early centuries of the Christian era, the Chera country was as important as the Country of the Cholas and the Pandyas. It owed its Importance to trade with the Romans. The Romans set-up two regiments at Muziris identical with Cranganore in the Chera country to protect their interests. It is said that they also built there a temple of Augustus.

The history of the Cheras was marked by continuous fight with the Cholas and the Pandyas. Although the Cheras killed the father of the Chola king Karikala the Chera king also lost his life. Later the two kingdoms temporarily became friends and concluded a matrimonial alliance. The Chera king next allied himself with the Pandya rulers against the Cholas. But the Cholas defeated the allies and it is said that since the Chera king was wounded in the back he committed suicide out of shame.

According to the Chera poets their greatest king was Senguttuvan, the Red or Good Chera. He routed his rivals and established his cousin securely on the throne. It is said that he invaded the north and crossed the Ganga. But all this seems to be exaggerated. After the second century A.D the Chera power declined and we know nothing of its history until the eighth century A D.

The main interest of the political history of these three kingdoms lies in the continuous wars they fought with one another and also with Sri Lanka.

Although the wars weakened these states, they very much profited from their; natural resources and foreign trade. These kingdoms were fairly rich. They grew spices, especially pepper, which was in great demand in the western world. Their elephants supplied ivory which was highly valued in the West. The sea yielded pearls and their mines produced precious stones and both these were sent to the West in good quantity. In addition to this they produced muslin and silk. We hear of cotton cloth as thin as the slough of a snake. The early Tamil poems also mention the weaving: of complex patterns on silk. Uraivur was noted for its cotton trade. In ancient times the Tamils traded with the Greek or Hellenistic kingdom Of Egypt and Arabia on the one side and with the Malay; archipelago and from there with China on the other. As a result of trade the words for rice, ginger, cinnamon and several other articles in Greek language wore derived from Tamil language. When Egypt became a Roman province and when the monsoon was discovered about the beginning of the first century A.D this trade received great impetus. Thus for the first two and a half centuries A.D the southern kingdoms carried on lucrative trade with the Romans. With the decline of this trade, these kingdoms also began to decay.

The Purse and the Sword

Trade, local and long-distance, constituted a very important source of royal revenue. We know how the customs officials functioned in Puhar. Transit duties were also collected from merchants who moved with their goods from place to place. For the safety of merchants and prevention of smuggling, soldiers maintained constant vigil on the road.

Spoils of war further added to royal income. But the real foundation of war and polity lay in regular income from agriculture. The share of the agricultural produce, claimed and collected by the king, is not specified. The tip of the peninsula and the adjacent regions were extremely fertile. The land produced paddy, ragi and sugarcane. It was said of the Kaveri delta that the space in which an elephant could lie down produced enough to feed seven persons. In addition to this, the Tamil region produced grains, fruit, pepper and turmeric. It seems that the king had a share in all this produce.

Apparently out of the taxes collected from the peasantry, the state maintained a rudimentary army. It consisted of chariots drawn by oxen, of elephants, cavalry and infantry. Elephants played an important part in War. Horses were imported by sea into the Pandyan kingdom. The nobles and princes or captains of army rode on elephants and the commanders drove on chariots. The footmen and horsemen wore leather sandles for the protection of their feet.

Rise of Social Classes

Income from trade, war booty and agricultural produce enabled the king not only to maintain groups of professional warriors but also to pay the bards and priests, who were mainly brahmanas. The brahmanas first appear in the Tamil land in the Sangam age. An ideal king was one who never hurt the brahmanas. Many, brahmanas functioned as poets and in this role they were generously rewarded by the king. Karikala is said to have given one poet 1,600,000 gold pieces but this seems to be an exaggeration. Besides gold, tble poets or bards also received cash, land, chariots, horses and even elephants. The Tamil brahmanas took meat and wine. The kshatriyas and vaishyas appear as regular varnas in the Sangam texts. But the class of warriors was an important element in polity and society. Captains of the army were invested with the title of enadi at a formal ceremony. Civil and military offices; were held under both the Cholas and the Pandyas by vellallas or rich peasants. The ruling class was called arasar and its members had-marriage relations with the vellalas, whet formed-the fourth caste. They held the bulk of the land and thus constituted the peasantry, divided into the rich and the poor. The rich did not plough the land themselves but employed labourers for this purpose. Agricultural operations were generally carried on by members of the lowest class (kadaisiyar) whose status appears to have differed little from that of the slave.

Some artisans were not different from agricultural labourers. The pariyars were agricultural labourers who also worked in animal skin Wand used them as mats. Several outcastes and forest tribes suffered from extreme poverty and lived from hand to mouth. We notice sharp social inequalities in the age of the Sangam. The rich lived in houses of brick and mortar and the poor in huts and humbler structures. In the cities the rich merchants lived in the upper storey of their houses. But it is not clear whether rites and religion were used to maintain social inequalities. We notice the emergence of the brahmanas and the ruling caste, but acute caste distinctions which appeared in later times are lacking in the early Sangam age.

Beginnings of Brahmanism

The State and society that were formed in the Tamil land in the early centuries of the Christian era developed under the impact of brahmards cn, But the brahmanical influence was confined to a small part of the Tarail territory and only to the upper levels of Tamil society in that area. The kings performed Vedic sacrifices. The brahmanas, who were the followers of the Vedas, carried on disputations. But the chief local god worshipped by the people of the hilly region was Murugan, who came to be called Subramaniya in early medieval times. The worship of Vishnu is also mentioned, although it may have been a later practice. The megalithic practice of providing for the dead continued. People offered paddy to the dead. Cremation was introduced, but inhumation followed in the megalithic phase was not abandoned.

Tamil Language and Sangam Literature

All that has been stated above about the life of the Tamils in the beginning of the historical period is based on the Sangam literature. As shown earlier, the Sangam was a college or assembly of Tamil poets held probably under chiefly or royal patronage. But we do not know the number of Sangams or the period for which they were held. It is stated in a Tamil commentary of the middle of the eight century A D; that three Sangams lasted for 9-990 years. They were attended by 8-598 poets and had 197 Pandya kings as patrons. All this is wild exaggeration. All that can be said is that a Sangam was held under royal patronage in Madurai.

The available Sangam literature which was produced by these assemblies was compiled in circa A.D. 300-600. But parts of this literature look back to at least, the second century A.D. The Sangam literature can roughly be divided into two groups, narrative and didactic. The narrative texts axe called Melkannakku or Eighteen Major Works. They comprise eighteen major works consisting of eight anthologies and ten idylls. The didactic works are called Kilkanakku or Eighteen Minor Works.

Social Evolution from Sangam, Texts

Both types suggest several stages of social evolution. The narrative texts are considered works of heroic poetry, in which heroes are glorified and perpetual wars and cattle raids frequently mentioned. They show that the early Tamil people were primarily pastoral. Traces of early megalithic life appear in the Sangam texts. The earliest megalithic people seem to be possibly pastoralists, hunters and fishermen although they also produced rice. Hoes and sickles occur at many sites in peninsular India but not the ploughshares. Other iron objects include wedges, flat celts, arrowheads, long swords and lances, spikes and spearheads, horse-bits, etc. These tools were meant mainly for war and hunting. This has some parallels in the Sangam texts which speak of perpetual war and cattle raids. The texts suggest that war booty was an important source of livelihood. They also state that when a hero dies he is reduced to a piece of stone. This reminds us of the circles of stone which were raised on the graves of the megalithic people. It may have led to the later practice of raising hero stones called virarkal in honour of the heroes who died fighting for kine and other objects.It is likely that the earliest phase of social evolution reflected in the Sangarh works relates to the early megalithic stage.

The narrative Sangam texts also give some idea of the state formation in which the army consisted of groups of warriors and the taxation system and judiciary appeared in a rudimen tary state. The texts also tell us about trade, merchants, craftsmen and farmers. They speak of several towns such as Kanchi, Korkai, Madurai, Puhar and Uraiyur. Of them Puhar or Kaveripattanam was the most important. The Sangam references to towns and economic activities Eire attested by Greek and Roman accounts and by the excavation of the Sangam sites.

A good deal of Sangam texts, including the didactic texts, was the work of the brahmana Prakrit-Sanskrit scholars. The didactic texts cover the early centuries of the Christian era and prescribe a code of conduct not only for the king and his court but also for various social groups and occupations. All this could have been possible only after the fourth century A.D. when brahmanas appear in good numbers under the Pallavas. The texts also refer to grants of villages and also to the descent of kings from solar and lunar dynasties: this practice started in north India around the sixth century A.D.

Besides the Sangam texts, we have a text called Tolkkappiyam, which deals with grammar and poetics. Another important Tamil text deals with philosophy and wise maxims; this text is called Tirukural. In addition to this we have the twin Tamil epics of Silappadikaram and Manimekalai. The two were composed around the sixth century A.D. The first is considered to be the brightest gem of early Tamil literature. It deals with a love story in which a dignitary called Kovalan prefers a courtesan called Madhavi of Kaveripattanam to his noble wedded wife

Kannagi. The author apparently seems to be a Jaina and tries to locate the scenes of the story in all the kingdoms of the Tamil country. The other epic Manimekalai was written by a grain merchant of Madurai. It deals with the adventures of the daughter born of the union of Kovalan and Madhavi though this epic is of more religious than literary interest. It is claimed in the prologues to the two epics that the authors were friends and contemporaries of the Chera king Senguttuvan, who ruled in the second century A.D. Though the epics cannot be dated so early, they throw light on the social and economic life of the Tamils up to about the sixth century A.D.

The art of writing was doubtless known to the Tamils before the beginning of the Christian era. More than 75 short inscriptions in the Brahmi script have been found in natural caves, mainly in the Madurai region. They provide the specimens of the earliest form of Tamil mixed with Prakrit words. They belong to the second-first centuries B.C. when the Jaina and Buddhist missionaries appeared in this area. Inscribed potsherds during recent excavations have been found at several places and they provide examples of Tamil language in the beginning of the Christian era. It is therefore no wonder that considerable Sangam literature was produced in the early centuries of the Christian era, although it was finally compiled by A D. 600.


  1. Explain the meaning of the following terms and concepts: Tamizhakam, vellalas, enadl arasar, kadaisiyar, pariyars, virarkal
  2. What is meant by ‘megalithic phase’ in the history of southern India? Describe the material culture of the people during this phase.
  3. What is meant by Sangam literature? Describe the social, economic and political conditions that this literature depicts.
  4. Discuss the changes that took place in southern India during the early centuries of the Christian era, and the factors that brought them about.
  5. Describe the political history of the Pandyas, the Cheras and the Cholas up to the third century A.D.
  6. Discuss the-place of commerce in the territories under Pandya. Chera and Chola rule.
  7. On an outline map of India, indicate the areas which comprised the kingdoms of the Cholas, the Pandyas and the Cheras. Mark on the map the places mentioned in the text.
  8. Compile a list of the Tamil texts composed during the early centuries of the Christian era. Make a selection from some of these texts as a part of a group project.

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