In the Deccan region, encompassing major parts of present day Andhra, Karnataka and Maharashtra, the Satavahanas established a powerful kingdom in the first century BCE.

In the south, the three family ruling houses, the Cholas, the Cheras and the Pandyas were their contemporaries, ruling the fertile parts of Tamizhagam. But the Tamil rulers started two centuries earlier as they figure in Asoka’s inscriptions of the third century BCE. There were many common things as

well as differences in the polity and society of the Deccan and Tamil regions.



  1. The megalithic burials sites of the early historic period.
  2. Excavated material from ancient sites, including ports, capital towns,
  3. with architectural remains, such as in Arikamedu, Kodumanal, Alagankulam,and Uraiyur.
  4. Buddhist sites with stupas and chaityas located in Andhra and Karnataka regions (Amaravati, Nagarjunakonda, etc.)


  1. Coins of pre-Satavahana chieftains and of the Satavahanas from Andhra-Karnataka region.
  2. The coins issued by the Cheras, Cholas,Pandyas, and the chieftains of theSangam Age.
  3. Roman copper, silver and gold coins.


  1. The Asokan inscriptions, written in Prakrit,found in Andhra-Karnataka regions.
  2. The Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions found in the caves of Tamil Nadu and Kerala such as in Mangulam, Jambai, and Pugalur.
  3. The Satavahana inscriptions and other Buddhist inscriptions of the Andhraregion
  4. Short inscriptions found on pottery and rings and stones in Tamil Nadu and some sites outside India, like in Berenike, and Quseir al Qadhim (Egypt).


  1. Tamil texts including the Sangam and post-Sangam literature
  2. The Arthasastra, the treatise on economy and statecraft authored by


  1. The Puranas which mention the genealogy of the Andhras/Satavahanas,Buddhist Chronicles such as Mahavamsa.
  2. Gatha Saptasati, a Prakrit text composed by the Satavahana king Hala

Classical Tamil Literature

The Classical Sangam corpus consists of Tholkappiyam, the eight anthologies (Ettuththokai), Paththuppattu. Tholkappiyam,attributed to Tholkappiyar, is the earliest extant Tamil grammatical text dealing not only with poetry but also the society and culture of the times. The Pathinen Kilkanakku (18 minor works) and the five epics belong to post-Sangam times (fourth to sixth century CE) and describe a different social and cultural set-up.

Foreign Notices

The following Greek and Latin sources inform us about the long distance cultural and commercial connections.

  1. The Periplus of Erythrean Sea, an ancient Greek text of the first century CE.
  2. Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, first century CE
  3. Ptolemy’s Geography, second century CE
  4. Vienna Papyrus G 40822, a Greek document datable to the second century CE.
  5. A Roman Map called Peutingerian Table

South India during Mauryan times

The Asokan edicts (c. 270-30 BCE) present for the first time a picture of the political condition in south India. Rock Edict II lists the Tamil ruling houses Cholas, Pandyas, Keralaputras and Satiyaputra as neighbor rulers, lying beyond his domain, where he is said to have made provision for two types of medical treatment: medical treatment for both humans and animals.

The Mauryan empire at that time included northern parts of Karnataka and Andhra, while the Tamil kingdoms were treated as independent neighbours.

Ettuthogai and Pathupattu collections have about 2400 poems. These poems, varying in length from 3 to 800 lines, were composed by panar, the wandering bards and pulavar, the poets.

The Eight Anthologies are 1. Natrinai; 2. Kurunthogai; 3. Aingurunuru;

  1. Patitruppathu;5. Paripadal; 6. Kalithogai; 7. Akananuru; 8. Purananuru

Pathupattu (ten long songs): 1. Thirumurugatrupatai; 2. Porunaratrupatai;

  1. Sirupanatruppatai; 4. Perumpanatruppatai; 5. Mullaipattu;
  2. Maduraikanchi;7. Nedunalvadai; 8. Kurinjipattu; 9. Pattinappalai;
  3. Malaipadukadam.

Patinen Kilkanakku texts, which are post-Sangam works, include eighteen texts, which mostly deal with ethics and moral codes.

The most important of them are Thirukkural, and Naladiyar.

Silappathikaram and Manimekalai are the two important epics useful for insights into cultural and religious history.

After the decline of the Mauryan power, and before the rise of the Satavahanas, many small principalities emerged. Although not much information is available about their rulers, their coins and inscriptions reveal that they were chiefs who controlled small territories.

South India under the Satavahanas

The Satavahanas emerged in the first century BCE in the Deccan region. They ruled over parts of Andhra, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. From recent archaeological evidence it is understood that the Satavahanas started to rule in the Telengana area and then moved to Maharashtra to rule in the Godavari basin with Prathistan (Paithan in Maharashtra) as their capital. Later they moved eastwards to control coastal Andhra also. The work of Pliny talks about 30 walled towns, a large army, cavalry and elephant force in the Andhra country.

Gautamiputra Satakarni was the greatest of the Satavahana kings. He defeated the Shaka ruler Nahapana and reissued the coins of Nahapana with his own royal insignia. The inscription of his mother Gautami Balashri at Nashik mentions him as the conqueror of the Shakas, Pahlavas, and Yavanas. He is also said to have performed the prestigious Vedic asvamedha sacrifice.

Vasishthiputra Pulumavi, the successor of Gautamiputra Satakarni, expanded the frontiers of the Satavahana Empire. The coins issued by him are found scattered in many parts of south India.

Yagnashri Satakarni was another famous ruler who issued coins with a ship motif,indicating the importance of the overseas trade during his reign. King Hala is credited with the writing of Gatha Sattasai, a collection of 700 love poems. Written in Maharshtri Prakrit dialect, it has themes similar to those found in the Tamil Sangam poetry.

The Satavahana Empire declined around the 3rd century CE and was replaced by the Ikshvakus, followed by the Pallavas, in Andhra and the Kadambas in northern Karnataka.

Importance of Satavahana Period

Offering land grants was an important development of the Satavahana times. The beneficiaries of these grants were mostly Buddhists and Brahmins. The Naneghat inscription refers to tax exemptions given to the lands granted to Buddhist monks.

Thus we notice the beginning of priestly groups attaining higher status. These land donations created a group of people who did not cultivate, but owned land. This led to the development of land-based social hierarchy and divisions in the society. For the first time a big state covering a major part of the Deccan was established. Several rock-cut caves dedicated to the Buddha sangha bear evidence that they were situated in the trade routes linking the interior to the coastal parts of Konkan region. It was also a period of brisk Indo- Roman trade.

The Sangam Age

The first three centuries of the Common Era are widely accepted as the Sangam period, as the information for this period is mainly derived from the Sangam literature. More correctly this has to be called as the early historical period and starts one or two centuries earlier, from the second century BCE, as we have clear epigraphical and archaeological evidence, in addition to literary evidence.

The Muvendar

Though the three Tamil ruling families were known to Asoka in the third century BCE itself, some individual names are known only from the Sangam poems of the first century and later. Known as muvendar, ‘the three crowned kings’, the Cheras, Cholas and Pandyas controlled major agrarian territories, trade routes and towns. But the Satiyaputra (same as Athiyaman) found in the Asokan inscription along with the above three houses is a Velir chief in the Sangam poems.

The Cholas controlled the central and northern parts of Tamil Nadu. Theircore area of rule was the Kaveri delta, later known as Cholamandalam. Their capital was Uraiyur (near Thiruchirapalli town) and Puhar or Kaviripattinam was an alternative royal residence and chief port town. Tiger was their emblem. Kaviripattinam attracted merchants from various regions of the Indian Ocean.

Pattinappalai, composed by the poet Katiyalur Uruttirankannanar, offers elaborate descriptions of the bustling trading activity here during the rule of Karikalan. Karikalan, son of Ilanjetchenni,is portrayed as the greatest Chola of the Sangam age. Pattinappalai gives a vivid account of his reign. Karikalan’s foremost military achievement was the defeat of the Cheras and Pandyas, supported by as many as eleven Velir chieftains at Venni. He is credited with converting forest into habitable regions and developing agriculture by providing irrigation through the embankment of the Kaveri and building reservoirs.

Kaviripattinam was a flourishing port during his time. Another king, Perunarkilli is said to have performed the Vedic sacrifice Rajasuyam. Karikalan’s death was followed by a succession dispute between the Puhar and Uraiyur branches of the Chola royal family.

The Cheras controlled the central and northern parts of Kerala and the Kongu region of Tamil Nadu. Vanji was their capital and the ports of the west coast, Musiri and Tondi, were under their control. Vanji is identified with Karur, while some scholars identify it with Tiruvanchaikkalam in Kerala. Now it is accepted by most scholars that there were two main branches of the Chera family and the Poraiya branch ruled from Karur of present-day Tamil Nadu.

The Patitrupathu speaks of eight Chera kings, their territory and fame. The inscriptions of Pugalur near Karur mention Chera kings of three generations. Chellirumporai issued coins in his name.Imayavaramban Nedun-cheralathan and Chenguttuvan are some of the prominent Chera kings. Chenguttuvan defeated many chieftains and is said to have ensured the safety of the great port Musiri by putting down piracy. But the great north Indian expedition of Chenguttuvan mentioned in Silappathikaram is however not mentioned in the Sangam poems.

He is said to have ruled for fifty-six years, patronising the orthodox and heterodox religions. Some Cheras issued copper and lead coins, with Tamil-Brahmi legends, imitating Roman coins. There are many other Chera coins with their bow and arrow emblem but without any writing on them.

The Pandyas ruled from Madurai. Korkai was their main port, located near the confluence of Thampraparani with the Bay of Bengal. It was famous for pearl fishery and chank diving. Korkai is referred to in the Periplus as Kolkoi. Fish was the emblem of the Pandyas. Their coins have elephant on one side and a stylised image of fish on the other. They invaded Southern Kerala and controlled the port of Nelkynda,near Kottayam. According to tradition,they patronized the Tamil Sangams and facilitated the compilation of the Sangam poems. The Sangam poems mention the names of several kings, but their succession and regnal years are not clear.

The Mangulam Tamil-Brahmi inscription mentions a Pandya king by name Nedunchezhiyan of the second century BCE. Maduraikanchi refers to Mudukudumi- Peruvazhuthi and another Nedunchezhiyan, victor of Talaiyalanganam, and a few other Pandya kings. Mudukudimi-Peruvazhuthi is referred to in the Velvikkudi copper plates of eighth century for donating land to Brahmans. He seems to have issued coins with the legend Peruvazhuthi, to commemorate his performance of many Vedic sacrifices.

Nedunchezhiyan is praised for his victory over the combined army of the Chera,the Chola and five Velir chieftains (Thithiyan,Elini, Erumaiyuran, Irungovenman, and Porunan) at Talayalanganam.  He is also given credit for capturing Milalai and Mutthuru (Pudukottai district) two important places from a Vel chief. He is praised as the lord of Korkai, and as the overlord of the southern Paratavar, a martial and fishing community of the Tirunelveli coast.

Social Formation in Tamil Eco-zones

Sangam poems help us understand the social formation of the time. According to the thinai concept, Tamilagam was divided into five landscapes or eco-regions namely Kurinji, Marutam, Mullai, Neytal and Palai. Each region had distinct characteristics – a presiding deity, people and cultural life according to the environmental conditions,as follows:

Kurinji: hilly region: hunting and gathering

Marutham: riverine tract:agriculture using plough and irrigation.

Mullai: forested region: pastoralism combined with shifting cultivation

Neythal: coastal land: fishing and salt making.

Palai: parched land. Unsuitable for cultivation and hence people took to cattle lifting and robbery.

Tamil Polity

In a way this thinai classification is said to reflect the uneven socio-economic developments of the different localities. That is seen in the political forms too. Three levels of rulers are found:1) Kizhar, 2) Velir, 3) Vendar. Kizhar were the heads of the villages or a small territory, later known as nadu. They were the chiefs of tribal communities living in specific areas. The Vendar were kings controlling larger, fertile territories.

The Velir, who were many in number, controlled the territories of varied geographical nature, mainly hilly and forest areas, that were in between the muvendar’s fertile territories. Chiefs like Athiyaman, Pari, Ay, Evvi and Irungo each commanded a big area, rich in natural resources. They were generous patrons of the poets and bards. They had military power and there were frequent wars among these chiefs on account of capture of cattle. On many occasions they seem to have united and confronted one or other of the three kings.

There are differing views among scholars, with regard to the political organization of the three kingdoms. The earlier and dominant view is that the Sangam Age society was a well-organised state society. The other view which is put forward in recent decades is that the polities of the Cheras, Cholas and Pandyas were pre-state chiefdoms. The arguments for the latter view are:

  1. No social stratification is noticed.
  2. Proper territorial association is absent.
  3. Destructive warfare did not allowthe development of agriculture and surplus production for the emergence of the state.
  4. No evidence of taxation as in the governments of North India.

The following counter arguments are presented in response:

  1. A closer look at the Sangam literature reveals that social differentiation is evident in the Marutham region.
  2. The territorial associations are very clear in the case of the Muvendar,and their important position is corroborated by the Greco-Roman texts from the first century CE.
  3. Warfare for territorial expansion wasa major theme of Puratthinai
  4. Evidence for taxation at the highways and in the port of Kaviripattinam is cited. The Chera king is spoken as receiving the resources from the hillsand the port of Musiri.
  5. Trade played an important role between the late first century BCE and third century CE.

Political Ascendancy of the Vendar

From the chiefs of the Iron Age (c. 1100-300 BCE) emerged the Vendar of the early historic period. While certain chiefs attained higher status (vendar) through the larger and effective control of pastoral and agricultural regions, others in the marginal regions remained as chieftains (velir). For example, Athiyamans,mentioned as Satiyaputra in the Ashoka inscriptions, became weak and did not attain the status of kings like the Chola,Pandya and Chera vendar.

The Vendar subjugated the chieftains and fought with the other two Vendars. For this they mobilized their own warriors, besides seeking the support of some Velir chiefs. The adoption of titles was one of the measures adopted by the Sangam Age Vendar to display their power. Titles such as Kadungo, Imayavaramban and Vanavaramban and Peru Vazhuthi distinguished themselves from the ordinary people and the Velirs.

The patronization of bards and poets and entertaining them in their courts (avaiyam) was probably a step undertaken by the kings to glorify their name and fame and also their territories and towns.

For example, the Chola king Karikalan is said to have offered a huge amount of gold coins to Uruttirankannanar who composed Pattinappalai.

Society and Economy

In the Sangam Age the wars waged by the Vendar were involved in expanding their territorial base by annexing the enemy’s territories. Endemic warfare presumably created conditions for social disparities.

War captives serving in some cult centres are mentioned. Some references to slaves are also found there.Women were actively engaged in economic production and there were a significant number of women poets in the Sangam Age.

There is evidence of craft production such as bronze vessels, beads and gold works, textiles, shell bangles and ornaments, glass, iron smithy, pottery making. Craft production was common in the major urban centres such as Arikamedu, Uraiyur, Kanchipuram, Kaviripattinam,Madurai, Korkai, and Pattanam in Kerala.

Maduraikanchi speaks about day markets as well as and night markets selling several craft goods. Raw materials for the production of various objects and ornaments were not available everywhere.

Precious and semi-precious stones were collected, which were exchanged for other commodities. Such raw materials reached  the industrial centres, where various objects were made, and they were again exchanged for some other produce.

The names of persons mentioned in inscriptions on pottery reveal the presence of non-Tamil speakers, mostly traders, in certain craft centres and towns. Traders from faraway regions were present in the Tamil country. Manimegalai refers to Magadha artisans, Maratha mechanics, Malva smiths and Yavana carpenters working in cooperation with Tamil craftsmen. Traderelated terms such as vanikan, chattan and nigama appear in the Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions. Salt merchants called umanar,travelled in bullock carts along with their families for trade activities. Chattu referred to the itinerary or mobile merchants.

In trade, barter system was much in vogue, though coins were also in use. Roman coins circulated as bullion. Long distance trade existed and the connections with the Roman empire and southeast Asia are in evidence at many archaeological sites. The southern part of India, because of its easy access to the coast and location in the maritime trade route connecting the East and the West, played an important role in the overseas contacts. The major early historic ports have evidence of Roman amphora, glassware and other materials suggesting active maritime activities. The wealth brought by the Romans and the arrival of foreign merchants is evidenced in archaeology as well as literature. Roman gold and silver coins have been found in many hoards in the Coimbatore region and in many other places in south India.

Ideology and Religion

The earliest evidence of the appearance of formal religious activities appears in the time of the Asoka, when Buddhism reached south India and Sri Lanka. Asoka’s daughter is considered to have taken the Bodhi tree to Sri Lanka. There is a legend associated with the movement of Chandragupta Maurya to Karnataka region before the time of Ashoka. The Satavahanas, Sangam kings and Ikshvahus supported Vedic sacrifices. The evidence for the movement of Brahmins and the performance of Vedic ritual practices is found in the Sangam texts. But the varnasrama ideology was yet to take root in the Tamil region.

Evidence of Buddhism is widely found in south India. The Krishna and Godavari delta of Andhra had many important Buddhist centres. Archaeological excavations conducted in Amaravathi, Nagarjunakonda, etc. show how deep-rooted was Buddhism.

In Tamil Nadu, Kaviripattinam and Kanchipuram have evidence of Buddhist Stupas. But compared to Jainism, the evidence for Buddhism is restricted to a few sites in Tamil Nadu. The numerous cave shelters with Tamil Brahmi inscriptions found in Tamil Nadu show that Jainism was more influential in the Tamil country. Their influence on the common people is not known but we have evidence for the merchants and lay devotees supporting Jain monks by providing rock shelters and offerings. In the post-Sangam centuries Jains contributed substantially to Tamil literature.

Age of Kalabhras – Post Sangam Period

The period between the Sangam Age and the Pallava-Pandya period, roughly between c. 300 CE and 600 CE, is known as the age of Kalabhras in the history of Tamizhagam. As the three traditional kingdoms disappeared in this interval due to the occupation of their territory by a warlike group called the Kalabhras,this period was called an interregnum or ‘dark age’ by earlier historians. It was also supposed that many good traits of earlier Tamil culture disappeared in this interval.

This idea of the Kalabhra interregnum is no more accepted as correct. Rather this is the time when the greatest Tamil work Tirukkural was written along with many other works grouped as the eighteen minor works. The epics Silappathikaram and Manimekalai also belong to this period. As this was the time when the non-orthodox religions, Jainism and Buddhism became more influential,the scholars of the orthodox Vedic- Puranic school seem to have created the impression that the ruling Kalabhras of the time were evil in nature.

The recent interpretation of the period takes it as a period of transition leading to enlarged state societies under the Pallavas ruling over northern Tamilnadu and the Pandyas in the south from the sixth century onwards. To start with, the rulers of these new states were patrons of the Jain and Buddhist religions and gradually they came under the spell of the orthodox Vedic- Puranic religion emerging in the form of the Bhakti cults of Saivism and Vaishnavism. But the influence of Jain and Buddhist religions on the general society was so strong as to evoke much aversion from the Bhakti saints.

A group of inscriptions found at Pulangurichi in Sivagangai district datable to about the middle of the fifth century, name two kings. They are Chendan and Kurran. Though there is no mention about their family or dynasty name, some scholars identify them as Kalabhra rulers. The Kalabhra kingdom seems to have been uprooted by Pandyas around the third quarters of sixth century CE.

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