The Sangam Age – Society

The earliest phase of Sangam society as described by Tolkappiyam was based on the five- fold classification of the land — the hill, the pastoral, the agricultural, the desert and the coastal. Different kinds of people inhabited these various classified lands and developed certain fixed customs and ways of life as a result of their interaction with respective environment. The ecological variations also determined their occupations such as hunting, cultivation, pastoralism, plunder, fishing, diving, sailing, etc.

Society in Sangam Age

Social Composition

Anthropological studies have shown that the earliest social element consisted of Negroid and Australoid groups with mixture of another racial stock which migrated from the earliest Mediterranean region. In its early phase these societies had small population and social classes were unknown. As a result there existed great unity among the people of each region, who moved freely among themselves and their ruler. The only classification Tamil society knew at this time was that of the arivar, ulavar, etc. based on their occupation such as the soldiers, hunters, shepherds, ploughmen, fishermen, etc.

The existence of numerous tribes and chieftains was seen in the later half of the Sangam age. The four Vedic varnas were distinctly of a later period. But it is interesting to note that though the varna system was brought in by the immigrating Brahmanas (1st century CE), it did not include Khastriyas as in the north. Only the brahmins were the dvijas (twice born) who qualified for the sacred thread. There are references to the slaves known as adimai (one who lived at feet of another). The prisoners of war were reduced to slavery. There existed slave markets.

Women

The women like men, enjoyed certain freedom and went around the town freely, played on the seashore and river beds and joined in temple festivals as depicted in Sangam poems such as Kalittogai. However, the status of women was one of subordination to men, which was an aspect of the general philosophy of the contemporary period. This is well reflected in Kuruntogai which mentions that the wife was not expected to love the husband after evaluating his qualities but because of the fact of his being her husband. In other words, it was not possible for a wife to estimate her husband. Though there are references to women being educated and some of them becoming poetesses, this can not be applied to the general mass. They had no property rights but were treated with considerations. Women remained a widow or performed sati, which was considered almost divine. Marriage was a sacrament and not a contract. Tolkappiyam mentions eight forms of marriage of which the most common was the Brahma marriage. However, there are references to wooing or even elopements, which were followed by conventional marriage.

Prostitution was a recognised institution. However, the prostitutes were taken to be the intruders in peaceful family life. But they figure so prominently in the poems and enjoy such a social standing that there could be no doubt that the prostitutes of the Sangam age were not as degraded as those of the modern times. Though texts like Kuruntogai refer to the prostitutes challenging wives and their relations, seducing men, they gave their companions more of a cultural enjoyment than anything else.

Dress, Ornaments and Fashion

The upper strata of society used dress of fine muslin and silk. Except for nobles and kings, men were satisfied with just two pieces of cloth — one below the waist and another adorning the head like a turban. Women used cloth only to cover below the waist. The tribal population was not in a position to do that even. The tribal women used leaves and barks to cover themselves.

The men and women of Sangam age were fond of using oil, aromatic scents, coloured powders and paints, while the sandal paste was heavily applied on their chests. According to Silappadikaram women had pictures drawn on their bodies in coloured patterns and had their eyelids painted with a black pigment. The ornaments were worn round the neck and on arms and legs by both, the men and women. The chiefs and nobles wore heavy armlets and anklets while the ordinary women wore various other kinds of jewels. Valuable ornaments of gold and precious stones were used for decoration by men and women of upper strata whereas the poor class used bracelets made of conch-shell and necklaces made of coloured beads. Silappadikaram refers to a ceremonial hot bath in water heated with five kinds of seeds, ten kinds of astringents and thirty two kinds of scented plants, the drying of the hair over smoke of akhil and the parting of it into five parts for dressing. Men also grew long hair and wore the tuft tied together with a knot which was sometimes surrounded by a string of beads. Tamils were very much fond of flowers and women used to decorate their hair with flowers, especially water lily as described by Kuruntogai.

Dwellings

People lived in two kinds of houses – those built of mud and the others built of bricks. According to the Sangam texts the second category of houses were built of suduman, which literally means burnt mud. The poor lived in thatched houses covered with grass or leaves of the coconut or palmyra. Windows were generally small and made like the deer’s eye. The literary works describe the well-built storeyed houses of the rich people, which had gopurams for the entrance and iron gates with red paint to prevent from rusting. Silappadikaram mentions that these houses were lighted with beautiful artistic lamps often from Greece and Rome. They were burned with oil extracted from fish.

Food and Drinks

Non-vegetarianism was the main food habit though brahmin ascetics preferred vegetarian food. The food was very plain and consisted of rice, milk, butter, ghee and honey. Meat and liquor were freely used. Curd was in popular use. Kuruntogai mentions various kinds of sweets made with curd, jaggery, puffed rice, milk and ghee. Spicing of curry and rice is also referred to in the Sangam texts. On the whole the upper class consumed high quality of rice, the choicest meat, imported wine, etc. The brahmins preferred vegetarian food and avoided alcoholic drinks. In urban area, the public distribution of food was made by the charitable institutions.

Feasts were organised for collective entertainment. The custom of feeding guests was a common custom and eating without a guest to partake of the food was considered unsatisfying. Poets and learned were always considered as honoured guests and red rice fried in ghee was given to them as a mark of love and respect.

Entertainments

There were numerous amusements and plays in which people participated for entertainment. The sources of entertainment included dances, musical programmes, religious festivals, bull-fights, cock-fights, marble-game, hunting, dice, wrestling, boxing, acrobatics, etc. Women amused themselves with the religious dances, playing the dice and varippanthu or cloth ball. Playing in swings made of palmrya fibres was common among girls. Narrinai refers to the games played with decorated dolls. Kuruntogai mentions about children playing with toy-cart and with the sand houses made by them on the seashore.

Dance and music were other popular sources of entertainment. The Sangam poems mention various kinds of dances. Silappadikaram mentions eleven kinds of dances, which are divided into seven groups. It also gives minute details about music. There are further references to the different kinds of musical instruments such as the drums, flute and yal sold in shops at Puhar and Madurai. The performing arts also included the art of drama. The dramas were mostly religious in character but sometimes these were enacted to commemorate great event or persons. Bardism and the system of wandering minstrels going from place to place with their musical instruments singing the glory of either a person or a great event commanded great popularity in the Sangam age. Initially, the bard (porunar) began as an individual to whip up the martial spirit of the soldiers engaged in war and to sing of their victory when the battle was won. However, their activities were not confined to encourage the soldiers in the battle-field alone but also to carry messages from there to the people at home. They had high respect in society and were even honored by the kings. Besides the porunar were the panar who performed for the common people.

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