Among the three kingdoms it is difficult to say which originated earliest. Claims have been put forward in favour of the Cheras as well as of the Pandyas.
The reasons adduced for an earlier origin of the Cheras are (1) that the Cheras are first mentioned in the popular expression Chera-Chola-Pandya, (2) the Tolkappiyam refers to the Cheras first in enumerating the three kingdoms and (3) that the earlier poems included in the anthology called the Purananuru, relate to the Cheras.
These are not convincing reasons. On the other hand the Pandyas may have some claim to greater antiquity since the earliest foreign reference to any Tamil kingdom relates only to the Pandyas. We can admit that even this is no conclusive proof and say at once that in our present state of knowledge we do not know the relative antiquity of these kingdoms.
The Cholas generally ruled over the eastern (Coramandal) coast and the territory stretching as far west as a few miles to the west of the present city of Trichinopoly and in the north somewhat to the north of Kanchipuram and in the south a few miles to the south of the Kaviri.
The Cheras ruled over all the territory to the west of the Chola kingdom and also the coastal strip from the Palghat gap to the Cape; the Pandyas ruled over the rest of the Tamil country. It will thus be clear that the Chola sovereignty included the Tondaimandalam, the Chera supremacy extended over the Kongu country and the Pandyan king ruled over the extreme southern regions also known as Tenpandynadu.
These three kings exercised hegemony over a number of petty chieftains and these categories of rulers provided the political leadership for the Sangam Tamils.
The ago is called the Sangam age for it is the age during which flourished in Ma an academy of Tamil letters which presided over the deliberations of a literary c constituted by the Pandyan king and in which the leading poets of the land partici The king himself was besides being its patron an interested and competent particip the literary activities of the academy.
Now, there is an elaborate Tamil tradition relating to three Tamil academies which are said to have functioned consecutively, first in a p called Madurai which is said to have existed to the south of the present Cape and to been destroyed by the land being engulfed by an oceanic erosion. It is said also that this catastrophe the king and his academy left for an eastern port known as Kapatapuram perhaps due east of the present Tirunelvelli.
It seems to have passed that even this ca experienced the same fate as the first one and the king along with his academy now wisely chose an inland capital, this time the present Madurai on the Vaigai. The tradition in places liberally exaggerates.
According to it the very gods were members of the first academy and they contributed to the literature of the land. The number of years these academies existed and the number of poets who constituted them are astronomical according to source, and just cannot be accepted as facts by the modern historian.
This tradition found in its full detail in the commentary to a grammatical work composed in the San period (perhaps second century AD) and to which a commentary was provided by contemporary poet. To this commentary additions were made from time to time till it reached its final and present form in the seventh century AD. This commentary calls this academy Sangam. But it is interesting to note that the Sangam literature itself does not know word in that sense.
The facts mentioned above have persuaded some scholars to consider that everything about the Sangam found in that commentary is a fabrication. But the more sobre view of the matter seems to be to accept the main framework of the traditional act that there were three academies founded and patronized by the Pandyan kings functioning in three different capitals consecutively till the last Sangam was set up Madurai on the Vaigai.
In this there can be no historical impossibility. The legendary super-natural frills provided by that commentary can of course be rejected. The Sang’ seems to have done very useful work by looking into literary work and criticizing it making anthologies of scattered literary pieces and providing commentaries to difficult texts.
It was a sort of parliament of letters, a censor board and an editorial committee, we don’t have examples of such academies elsewhere in India can be no reason why should wholly reject the local tradition about them. The view that the Tolkappiyam is older than any available Sangam literary works possibly true. It could well have belonged to the third or fourth century BC and the literature usually classified as Sangam was produced a few centuries later.
It is improbable that the Tamils remembered the story of the loss of considerable land by erosion or perhaps even the Biblical story of Noah’s ark or similar stories of land be: swallowed up by the mighty sea. The turbulent sea adjacent to the Pandyan sea coast occasional loss of territory within historical memory added credibility to that legend. A’ least the existence of a Sangam in the royal court for purposes of literary evaluation n not be doubted.
The Sangam itself was perhaps called the Kudal which means the s thing, namely an association and the name of the association was given to the capital d where it functioned; i.e., Madurai was also called Kudal. Some scholars, as noted above refused to admit this possibility but treat the entire legend as a hoax and hold that the Sangam talked about in later times was only a Buddha Sangha organised in the fifth century AD by one Vajranandi for purposes of exposition of Buddhist scripture.
Anyway we have a sizeable body of literature which can be proved to have been composed in the two or three centuries immediately preceding and following the beginnings of the Christian era. There are two important pieces of evidence for this conclusion. In the first place there is a reference in the Silappadikaram, a Tamil epic written presumably and as stated in the text of the epic itself, by the younger brother of a reigning Chera prince by name Senguttuvan who consecrated a temple for the Lady of Chastity.
This occasion was graced by the presence of a number of royal personages among whom was Gajabahu I of Ceylon whose date has been fixed as the fourth quarter of the second century AD by Geiger, the editor of the Mahavamsa. Thus it follows that the Silappadikaram was written in the second century AD.
In the second place in some of the anthologies of poems purported to have been written in the Sangam period there are vivid references to the brisk Indo-Roman trade passing through many busy ports finding mention in Ptolemy’s Geography and the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea.
The descriptions in these sources of the trade agree so well that they may be taken to belong to the same period, i.e., the second century AD. A careful study of literary expressions and grammatical usage obtaining in this literature will show that within this period itself there was perceptible evolution and the entire Sangam period determined by the production of literary works by the Tamil Sangam belonged to two or three centuries before and two or three centuries after the commencement of the Christian era.