As we have seen earlier the population of South India consists of many ethnic layers and many social groups. Civilization and culture go back to neolithic times in the south and there is reason to believe that the Dravidian speaking people arrived in India even before the pastoral Aryan confronted the urbanised Harappans.
If a cultural link between the Indus valley of Chalcolithic times and the Dravidian speakers of South India is to be posited, the greater prevalence of the Linga cult in the south and a claim made by later Tamils that their preferred religion was Saivism require a meaning. The Dravidians at the beginning had fundamentally different religious beliefs and practices from the Aryans, who worshipped the shining celestials of the open sky.
The Dravidian speakers believed in anthropomorphism, worship of three dimensional deities putting up the former and pursuing the latter in houses of worship called “koyils” and this did not form part of the Aryan religion, theology or mythology.
This was a fundamental difference. That all over India worship of anthropomorphic deities in temples has become more universal and popular than Vedic sacrifices only means that the Aryans in the course of a compromise with pre-existing religious groups in India gave more concessions than they received.
The earliest evidence of religion in South India is to be found in Adichchanallur near Tirunelveli. The excavated material at that site reveals gold mouthpieces, images of fowls and spears all symbolic of Murugan, the favourite God of the Tamils usually enshrined on hill tops. We have already noticed that it is proper to establish a connexion between the religion of the Sumerians and that of the proto-Dravidians in South India.
We find reference to Murugan as a deity in the earliest stratum of the Sangam literature which incidentally is the earliest source for the social history of South India. In the Tolkappiyam Murugan is the God of the hills and the hunters.
Mayon (who can be equated with Krishna) was the deity of the pastoral land and of the cowherds. Indra called Vendan presided over the cultivated plains and received worship from the peasant farmer.
The inhabitants of the literal tracts worshipped Varuna. It may be noted that three of these Gods can be equated with Vedic gods; Murugan alone has no Vedic counterpart. The Sangam literature belonging to the 1st and 2nd centuries AD and even a century or two B.C., mentions a universalised Kadavul (transcendental God), Murugan, Mayon, Balarama, the three-eyed One (Siva) and a number of village gods and totemic objects reverentially worshipped by the tribes of which the kandu, the stump of a tree was significant.
That a God resided in the tree or a pillar or the stream or the hilltop was the basis of many forms of religious worship which developed later. Ganesa the elephant God was unknown to the Tamils till the 6th century AD though he was known in Maharashtra earlier.
The centuries immediately preceding and succeeding the beginning of the Christian era saw a fusion of village deities and Vedic brahmanical deities, as well as a commingling of different forms of worship, bloody sacrifice, chanting of mantras etc.
The Agamas had even then begun to influence the construction of temples, making the icons and patterns of worship. The occurrence of the Pancharatra tradition in the Paripadal-A Sangam text-bears this out.
In the Deccan there was a primitive system of village God worship which differed from that in the Tamilian south only in so far as local legends necessitated it. The Buddhists and the Jainas who spread out in South India due to opposite reasons of royal patronage and indifference got rooted in the whole of the Deccan as is witnessed by the prevalence of these two religions in the Satavahana period and in Nagarjunakonda, Amaravati and elsewhere.
Though Hindu religious practices dominated, there was no question of persecution or fanatic faith. The equal patronage which all the sects received at the hands of the royalty and the aristocracy is proved by literature and by epigraphy.