Tamil Sangam – Facts and Fiction


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We all have read lot about the Sangam. We have read that there were three Sangams, Shiva,Kuberan,Murugan were part of these Sangams . Some where down the line, the Legend and True history got mixed up. This essay is intended to separate possible facts from myths based on the critical essays written by Dr. Zvelebil.

Sangam as legend says was an Academy based in Madurai which shaped and controlled the literary,academic and cultural and linguistic life of early Tamil Nadu.

The tradition of literary academy appears in both Literary and epigraphic sources.

Literary accounts:

The most important account of Sangam legend is given in a commentary to Iraniyar Agaporul(dated between4th-6th century AD) ascribed to Nakkirar(dated 7th and 10th century). It(commentary) might be the work of either Nakkirar or work of a Nilakantan of Mucuri.

Other accounts acan be found in Tiruvalavayutaiyar tiruvilaiyatarpuranam, of Perumparrappuliyur Nampi(12th -13th century AD) and Triuvilaiyatarpuranam of Parancoti (16th – 18th cent. AD).

The legend:

According to Nakkirar, there were three sangams or Academies.

First Sangam

  • The First Sangam was based in Southern Madurai(which got submerged into sea), lasted for 4440 years and 4449 poets took part in it.
  • The members of the Sangam included gods and sages :
  • Akkatiyanar, God with with well spread entangled lock who set three cities on fire(Shiva), Murukavel who surendered the mountain and lord of wealth(Kuberan).
  • Works composed: Paripatal,Mutunarai,Mutukuru,Kalariyavirai among others.
  • The Sangam had 89 people as the Chair beginning with Kayacinavaluti and ending with Katunkon.
  • 7 Pandiyas also produced poetry in this Sangam.
  • Treatise: Akattiyam

Middle Sangam

  • The Second Sangam was situated in Kapatapuram(also submerged under sea), lasted for 3700 years and included 3700 poets.
  • Important members: Akattiyanar,Tolkappiyanar
  • Important works: Kali,Kuruku,Ventokai,Viayalamalai Agaval
  • Treatise: Akattiyam,Tolkappiyam,Maapuranam,Icainunukam,Putapuranam
  • There were 59 chairs beginning with Ventercceliyan and ending with Muttatirumaran.
  • 5 Pandiyas produced poetry in this Sangam

Last Sangam

  • The Third Sangam was situated in present Madurai(Uttara or upper Madurai) lasted for 1850 years and included 449 poets.
  • Important members: Nakkirar the son of Kanakayanar(accountant),Pernunkunrurk Kilar,Ilantirumanran
  • Works: 400 Netuntokai, 400 Kuruntokai,400 Narriani,Purananuru,Ainkurunuru , Patirruppattu,150 Kalis,70 Paripatals,Kuttu,Vari,Cirraci,Peracai and other works.
  • Treatise: Akattiyam,Tolkappiyam
  • There were 49 chairs starting with Mutattirumaran(who escaped submergence by sea) and ending with Ukkirap Peruvaluti.
  • 3 Pandiyas composed poetry in the Sangam.

Other detailed account of the legend is available in Puranas on Madurai.

But there are quite a few changes to Nakkirar’s version. In this version Nakkirar becomes head of the Sangam and adjudged the work of the poets(what we see in Thiruvilayadal Movie!). This version also incorporated additional elements like motif of the Sangam bench(i.e they compose poems,they adjudge work others etc.),the story of Tarumi(immortalized by Nagesh!) and story of Agastya coming from north and being the father of Tamil.

Textual reference:

The earliest found textual reference of Sangam is found in one of the poems of Appar in Thirupputtur Tantakam, St. 3 . I have quoted the poem below,

6.76 திருப்புத்தூர் – திருத்தாண்டகம்

மின்காட்டுங் கொடிமருங்குல் உமையாட் கென்றும்
விருப்பவன்காண் பொருப்புவலிச் சிலைக்கை யோன்காண்
நன்பாட்டுப் புலவனாய்ச் சங்க மேறி
நற்கனகக் கிழிதருமிக் கருளி னோன்காண்
பொன்காட்டக் கடிக்கொன்றை மருங்கே நின்ற
புனக்காந்தட் கைகாட்டக் கண்டு வண்டு
தென்காட்டுஞ் செழும்புறவின் திருப்புத் தூரில்
திருத்தளியான் காணவனென் சிந்தை யானே. 6.76.3

The lines நன்பாட்டுப் புலவனாய்ச் சங்க மேறி
நற்கனகக் கிழிதருமிக் கருளி னோன்காண் mean “Look at him who was gracious enough to appear in assembly (Sangam) as a poet of fine poems and presented the purse of gold to Tarumi.”(Translated by Kamil Zvelebil)

Campantar also refers to a learned body in Madurai which he calls Maturai Tokai (மதுரைத் தொகை).The poem is uoted below,

அற்றன்றி அந்தண் மதுரைத் தொகை யாக்கினானுந்
தெற்றென்ற தெய்வந் தெளியார் கரைக்கோலை தெண்ணீர்ப்
பற்றின்றிப் பாங்கெதிர் வினூரவும் பண்பு நோக்கில்
பெற்றொன் றுயர்த்த பெருமான் பெருமானு மன்றே.11

Mannikavasakar in one of his poems says உன் அடியவர் தொகை நடுவே “admist the assembly of thy saints” , else where in Tiruvasakam he also sings about sweet Tamil studied and promoted in Kutal(Madurai). I have quoted the poem below

பாருரு வாய பிறப்பறவேண்டும் பத்திமை யும்பெற வேண்டும்
சீருரு வாய சிவபெரு மானே செங் கமல மலர்போல்
ஆருரு வாயஎன் னார முதேஉன் அடியவர் தொகை நடுவே
ஓருருவாய நின் திருவருள் காட்டி என்னையும் உய்யக்கொண் டருளே. 599

Also Andal and Thirumangai Alvar have also quoted about Sanga Tamil.

This shows both Saiva and Vaishnavite poets recogonised a well established tradition of assembly of scholars or poets as early as 7th century AD. This tradition was preserved till Nakkirar’s period who then detailed this legend. A popular legend regarding the Sangam must have been prevalent and according to K.K.Pillay in A Social History of the Tamils,” with lapse of time the legend itself must have assumed different forms.”

There are few lines in the Sangam literature which might be interpreted as referring to a body of poets and Scholiasts.

In the following lines from Maturaikkanci, the poet refers to Netiyon,”Rich and land-bestowing …who learnt sublime truths from great scholars of ancient lore,gathered in assembly ”
தொல் லாணை நல் லாசிரியர்
புணர்கூட் டுண்ட புகழ்சால் சிறப்பின்
நிலந்தரு திருவி னெடியோன் போல

The preface to Tolkapiyam mentions a Pandiyan Avai(பாண்டியன் அவையத்து) which may be in a long stretch of imagination interpreted as the Sangam. I am quoting the poem below


வட வேங்கடம் தென் குமரி
தமிழ் கூறும் நல் உலகத்து
வழக்கும் செய்யுளும் ஆயிரு முதலின்
எழுத்தும் சொல்லும் பொருளும் நாடிச்
செந்தமிழ் இயற்கை சிவணிய நிலத்தொடு
முந்து நூல் கண்டு முறைப்பட எண்ணிப்
புலம் தொகுத்தோனே போக்கு அறு பனுவல்
நிலம் தரு திருவின் பாண்டியன் அவையத்து
அறம் கரை நாவின் நான்மறை முற்றிய
அதங்கோட்டு ஆசாற்கு அரில் தபத் தெரிந்து
மயங்கா மரபின் எழுத்து முறை காட்டி
மல்கு நீர் வரைப்பின் ஐந்திரம் நிறைந்த
தொல்காப்பியன் எனத் தன் பெயர் தோற்றிப்
பல் புகழ் நிறுத்த படிமையோனே.

How ever since these are not explicit lines of reference, the conclusion that Sangam was body of scholars and poets is purely speculative .

There are also few poems in Sangam which connect Madurai and Tamil in a special way.

Puram 58.13 has the following line தமிழ்கெழு கூடல். Similar references can be seen in Kalithokai(நீள் மாட கூடலார்
புலன் நாவில் பிறந்த சொல) and Cirupanatrupadai(தமிழ்நிலை பெற்ற தாங்கரு மரபின்
மகிழ்நனைமறுகின் மதுரையும் வறிதே யுதாஅன்று).

There is no direct reference for Sangam as an “association or assembly” of poets and critics in any of the Sangam Literature (i.e from around 100 BC to around 3 cent.AD).

The meaning of the term Sangam as an “association or assembly” of poets and critics seem to be based on a Jaina Tradition found in Prakrit, according to which a Daavida Samgho was established in Madurai around 470 AD by Vajjanamdi a Jain.

There is also an very interesting point to note here. The years of each of the three Sangams are multiples of 37, first Sangam 37 x 120, second Sangam 37 x 100 and the last Sangam 37 x 50. It is well known fact that Jains had a special passion on numbers. This may give us the idea where the fictitious numbers for years of each Sangam had its origins.

Epigraphic References:

  • Cinnamanur Plates (10th century) praises Pandya to have translated Mahabratha and to have established a Sangam in the city of Madhura. According to K.A.N.Shastri and S.Krishnaswamy Aiyangar this refers to Sangam at Madurai.
  • Erukkankuti plates(9th century) praises Etticattan who had among his ancestors a poet who sat on the famous Sangam bench.According to Mu.Irakavaiyankar this may refer to Maturaik Kulavanikan Cattanar the author of Kurunthokai 349.

Rationale of the Legend:

  • Of the bulk of works quoted by Nakkirar which belonged to First academy can be very speculatively dated to 300 or 400 BC.
  • Out of all these books only Akkatiyam must have possibly survived till later part. (Only 17 verses have carried on to us from secondary sources)
  • Out of the works quoted by Nakkirar belonging to Second Academy only few lines of Mapuranam and 16 lines said to be part of ancient Icainunukam(considered much later work) have survived and carried on to us through secondary sources.
  • Out of the works quoted by Nakkirar belonging to Third Academy, 7 works have been completely preserved (Akananuru, Kurunthokai, Narrinai, Purananuru, Ainkurunuru, Kalithokai, Tolakapiyam), two in great fragments (Paripatal , Patirruppattu) and one in minor fragment (Akattiyam).
  • The years of each Sangam quoted by Nakkirar is fictitious and possibly this is due to the influence of Jains in the Sangam legend.
  • The number of poets quoted in last Sangam were 449 . The poets during that age are totally 473 poets (102 poems were anonymous poems). Out of the 473 , 35 are named after interesting line in their poem (like Orerulavanar). If we remove the 35 from 473 the total is 438 which is closer to Nakkirar’s tally. Or if we take 473 and remove authors of later period we get a tally of 459 which is also close to Nakkirar’s tally. This cannot be a mere coincidence.
  • Nakkirar’s version and later version of the Sangam legend is not completely acceptable.
  • But we cannot dismiss the academy as a pure fiction, such a legend couldn’t have arisen without any historical basis.And couldn’t have been just a Buddhist or Jain assembly of scholars.
  • There must have been some kind of assembly of scholars associated with Tamil being held at Maturai. But the some how facts and fiction have got mixed up so much that origin of either cannot be traced.
  • K.A.Nilakanta Shastri says” That a college at Madura(Sangam) may well be a fact…Some of the names of the Kings and poets are found in inscriptions and other authentic records, showing that some facts have got mixed up with fiction , so that no conclusion of value can be based on it.”


  • Three successive academies in Southern Madurai,Kapatapuram and Upper Madurai
  • The First academy with 4449 poets sitting in academy for 4440 years under 59 kings
  • The Middle academy with 3700 poets sitting in academy for 3700 years under 59 Pandiya Kings in Kapatapuram.
  • The last academy for 1850 years under 49 Pandiya kings.

Possible elements of Historical Truth:

  • A body of scholars and poets function as norm giving, critical college of literary experts and shifts its seat according to the geo political conditions of Pandiya kingdom.
  • Akkatiyar a pre Tolakappiayan grammarian who composed the first grammer of Tamil
  • After Akkatiyam many grammatical treatises arose, including Maapuranam and Tolkappiyam. Tolkappiyam survived in ur text and later expanded to its present shape.
  • In early historical perios, a norm giving body was established in Madurai for 250 years which comprised of 450 poets(who were authors of the anthology poems and number of works now lost).Various schools of Bardic poets regarded Akkatiyam (still in existence then) and Tolkappiyam as their authority.

Some additional information:

  • While Nakkirar wrote his commentary all the anthologies must have been compiled (i.e compiling individual poems into Akananuru,Kurunthokai etc)
  • But arrangement into Ettuthokai and pattupaattu has not taken place.
  • Tolkappiyam is acknowledged by Nakkirar as a single finished grammatical work.
  • Sanskrit tradition of Shiva being father of grammar got incorporated into the Sangam legend.
  • Murugan as the member of Sangam and one who presided over the Sangam can be attributed to his popularity of Tamil Kadavul(which I have discussed in length in my History of Murugan blog).
  • Lord of Wealth(Kuberan) should also been a popular god and possibly been associated with origins of Tamil.


  1. Tamil Literature (1975) by Kamil Zvelebil
  2. Smile of Murugan by Kamil Zvelebil

Please leave your comments.

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  1. According to History of the Tamils, by PT Sreenivasa Iyengar the Sangam legend was a combination of the following facts.

    1. The present capital of Pandyan kingdom, was their third capital, and they changed their capitals thrice.

    2. The Pandyan rulers being patrons of Tamil and poets, had a assortment of poets with them always. thats y we have the terminology, “puravalarum pulavarum” . meaning that poets were present where patrons were present.

    The above 2 facts combined to give the 3 sangam legend.

    Other than this, I think the numbers and most of the names can be treated as of now only has mythology.

  2. And for the argument that “sangam itself is not a tamil word and hence how can there be sangams before tamil got the word sangam in its vocabulary”

    is as stupid as saying “the children you beget is not your children until they call you by a word as amma/appa”.

    “just because that there was not a dedicated name to an activity , it does not mean it did not happen.”

  3. valid points….
    Academy surely existed but it was named as sangam in a very late period…
    Name Sangam can be attributed to Bhuddist and Jain monks….
    Tolakpiyam was sung in Pantiyan Avai…

  4. Can you suggest a good translation of Sangam poerms (in English)? I am finding bits and pieces. Whatever I found so far is good. In addtion, while we can not immediately decipher the sense of numbers 4444 for now, the numbers may have some mythological meaning and thus we should not discard them too easily.

  5. Again I wish the Tamil too could be posted in English script for the benefit of people who cannot read Tamil.

  6. I need literature tamil words to current tamil words meaning in pdf ;i searching this looong time

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