Dates of the Sangam Books

Dates of the Sangam Tamil Books – This information is from the Tamil and Sanskrit scholar Kamil Zvelebil’s book, ‘The Smile of Murugan’.

There are 18 books which comprise the Sangam genreThey are the 8 anthologies  (ettuthokai), the 10 Lays (Pathupāttu). There is also Tholkāppiyam, parts of it were written before the anthologies, and parts of it were written after the anthologies.

The poetry probably started out as oral, got written down later, and finally got compiled and anthologized many centuries later.  Commentaries were written a few centuries after that. In this article, we are talking about the time that they were written on palm leaves.

There are many scholarly viewpoints out there regarding the dates of the Sangam books.   Scholars use many tools to estimate the dates of these books.  These are the following factors that are taken into consideration to arrive at possible dates:

1. Historical correlations – The Pallavas took control of Kānchi in 250 A.D. The Pallavas do not appear in the Sangam books.  There is not a single reference to them in the earlier books.  Tamil and Sanskrit scholar Dr. Kamil Zvelebil says we can safely assume that the literature was written before the Pallavas appear in Tamil Nadu, and that it is before 250 A.D.  The Pallavas left Tamil Nadu in the 8th century.  The poems definitely were not written after that.

King Gajabāhu I of Sri Lanka was a contemporary of King Cheran Chenguttuvanan.  They both ruled around 180 A.D. There are references to Gajavāhu in Silapathikāram.  Cheran Chenguttavan’s rule has been calculated to be from 170 – 225 A.D. We have information of the Chera line of kings.  This computation based on Gajavāhu I is a well known method called ‘Gajavāhu Synchronism’.

2. Accounts of Graeco-Roman authors – The Greek and Roman trade is well described in the early Tamil texts.  The poems speak of Yavanas and their ships, of their gold coins and their wine.  There are 10 references to Yavanas in Sangam poems. Mullaipāttu 61,  66, Perumpānatrupadai 316, Pathitrupathu II, Akam  57, 149, Nedunalvādai  31, 101, Purananuru 56 and 353.  The Yavanas served as body-guards to the Tamil kings (Mullaipāttu).  They bought black pepper and paid in gold (யவனர் தந்த வினைமாண் நன்கலம் பொன்னொடு வந்து கறியொடு பெயரும் – Akam 149), they made the pavai vilakku lamps that we still use in Tamil Nadu  – (யவனர் இயற்றிய வினைமாண் பாவை கை ஏந்தும் ஐ அகல் நிறைய நெய் சொரிந்து யவனர் இயற்றிய வினைமாண் பாவை கை ஏந்தும் ஐ அகல் நிறைய நெய் சொரிந்து – Nedunalvādai), they also made the ‘annam kuthu vilakku’ that we still use to this day (யவனர் ஓதிம விளக்கின் உயர் மிசைக் கொண்ட – Perumpānatrupadai 316, ஓதிம is another word for அன்னம்).

It has been determined by scholars that the Greek and Roman trade could not have contined after the 2nd – 3rd century.  Sangam Tamil country was well known to Pliny the Elder (75 A.D.), Ptolemy (130 A.D.), and to the anonymous author of Periplus Maris Erythraei (240 A.D.).   Scholarly books that have researches these ancient trades are, ‘The Commerce between the Roman Empire and India’ by E. H. Warmington, ‘Trade Routes and Commerce of the Roman empire’ by M. P. Charlesworth, ‘Foreign Notices of South India’ by K. A. Nilakanta Sastri, ‘Arikkamedu: An Indo Roman Trading Station on the East Coast of India’ by Sir Mortimer Wheeler, A. Ghosh and Krishna Deva and others.

3. Tamil and Sanskrit Scholarly Analysis – Scholars in both Tamil and Sanskrit are able to estimate the dates of the Sangam poems by analyzing the amount of  northern language words (Prakrit and Sanskrit) that have entered into the poems.  Tamil words have entered Sanskrit and Prakrit literature.

4. Poets and Kings – Poets sang for kings in Puranānuru. Sometimes, more than one poet would sing for a king.  One of them would sing for another king or two and we know that they were all comtemporaries. Dr. Ralston Marr has done a lot of research about poets and kings.

5. The Satavāhanas were a powerful Andhra dynasty.  They ruled from 230 B.C. until the beginning of the 3rd century A.D. In a Satavāhana coin from King Siri Satakani (about 170 A.D.) , one side has Brahmi script. The other side has Tamil text also in Brahmi script, showing that Tamil was the lingua franca of the South at that time.

6. Religions in Sangam Books – The Tamils were a totally secular culture before the arrival of Budhism, Jainism and Hinduism.  The Tamil scholar Kailasapathy has conclusively proved that the oral bardic secular tradition is the basis of Sangam Tamil poetry.  These poems are pre-eminently of this world.  They make no allusions to supernatural matters.  There are rituals like the veriyāttam, but there are no concepts of religion.  This original secularism that is unique to Sangam Tamil disappears over time and religious literature appears.  The earlier books have traces of religion.  Thirumurukātrupadai and Paripādal are among the earliest bhakthi literature in the Indian continent.

7. The Anthology layers – The anthologies have a range  as far as the dates go, since they are each a collection of poems written by many poets.  There are some poems which belong to the earliest layers, some belong to the middle layers and some belong to the later layers.

Dates for the books – Conclusions drawn by Kamil Zvelebil: Dr. Kamil Zvelebil writes that the bulk of the Sangam poems are from as early as 100 B.C. and upto 250 A.D. Parts of Tholkāppiyam are possibly the earliest, and they date to 100 B.C. These are the first two books of Tholkāppiyam – Eluthathikaram and Solathikaram.   Parts of Porulathikaram could have been written around the 3rd or even the 4th century.

Other Dravidian literature came much later.   The one that came after Tamil is Kannada, and that did not happen for at least 1,200 years.  To quote Kamil Zvelebil, “the first narrative Kannada literature  is Sivakōti’s Vaddārādhane in 900 A.D.  Telugu literature as we know it begins with Nannaya’s translation of Mahabharatha in the 11th century A.D.  In Malayalam, ‘Unnunīli Sandēsam, an anonymous poem of the 14th century, is based on the models of sandēsa or dūta poems;  its very language is true manipravālam, which is defined in the earliest Malayalam grammar  (15th century Lilāthilakam) as the union of Malayalam and Sanskrit”.

Influence of Sanskrit:  There is another important difference between Tamil and the other Dravidian literary languages:  the metalanguage of Tamil has always been Tamil, never Sanskrit.  As A.K. Ramanujan says (in Language and Modernization, p. 31), “In most Indian languages, the technical gobbledygook is Sanskrit;  in Tamil, the gobbledygook is ultra-Tamil’.  Kamil Zvelebil explains that there are traces of Aryan influence in early Tamil, just as the very beginnings of the Rigvedic hymns show traces of Dravidian influence.  In his words from the book ‘The Smile of Murugan’,  “Historically speaking, from the point of development of Indian literature as a single complex, Tamil literature possesses at least two unique features.  First, it is the only Indian literature which is, at least in its beginnings and in its first and most vigorous bloom, is almost entirely independent of Aryan and specifically Sanskrit influences.  Second, Tamil literature is the only Indian literature which is both classical and modern, while it shares antiquity with much of Sanskrit literature and is as classical, in the best sense of the word, as e.g. the ancient Greek poetry, it continues to be vigorously living modern writing of our days”.

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