The ‘Sangam Age’ is the earliest known period of organized life and history of the Tamils. Though there are some disputes about the exact dates, but roughly it goes back to the period of pre-Aryan and non-Aryan. During this period the first, second and third Sangams flourished and Tamil poets of that era produced several literary works. The Tamil poets throw considerable light on the everyday life and also reveal their culture, polity and social set-up. In the Sangam age Tamil Nadu was ruled by three kingdoms namely the Cholas, Cheras and Pandyas. The Sangam Age is considered the Golden Age of Tamils.
(~ from the book "In the Kingdom of Nataraja" by Chantal Boulanger)
From the fourth century B.C. we can establish with certainty the existence of the Pandya, Chola and Kerala (Chera) dynasties which formed a relatively stable political structure, based on an interplay of alliances. The Pandya kingdom and its dynasty chosen by the Goddess, who became a queen, is mentioned in Sanscrit texts of the fifth century B.C., by Megasthenes (third century B.C.), in the “silappadikaram”, a Tamil poetical novel from the second century A.D., and then by numerous authors, notably by Marco Polo in the thirteenth century. Remarkably, it is always described as having the same political structure and remains famous for the beauty of the pearls it exports.
The Mauryan Empire (third century B.C.) expanded to include all of North India and a great part of the Deccan, developing along the merchant routes already established between the North and the well organized kingdoms of the South. Emperor Ashoka might have gone down as far as Kanchipuram. He is mentioned in one inscription as being the first king of this city, which would explain why it became a great Buddhist center, and remained famous as one until the seventh century A.D. The son of Ashoka traveled to Sri Lanka but, as all the emperors of the Mauryan dynasty, he respected the Dravidian kingdoms (Chola, Pandya and Chera).
Archaeologists found inscriptions dating from that time in “Damili”, a mixture of Brahmi (the most ancient North Indian writing) and Tamil. It is interesting to notice that those inscriptions do not have vowels in the words. Some of them contain letters from the Tamil alphabet used to translate sounds impossible to render in Brahmi, which indicates that this alphabet already existed, although it was never engraved on stone.
After the fall of the Mauryan Empire, North Indian dynasties conquered most of the Deccan, although they never succeeded in invading the three Dravidian kingdoms. They brought with them Sanscrit and Brahmins and they exerted a tremendous cultural influence.Very quickly, even in the South, the inscriptions (on copper plates) were all in Sanscrit, most often registering gifts of land to Brahmins.
Written at the beginning of the Christian era, a large anthology of poems referred to as the “from the Sangam” evokes the life in the three kingdoms, especially that of the city of Madurai, where was held the assembly of poets, the “Sangam”. Although written in Tamil, we already begin to detect a Sanscrit influence which will only grow in the later centuries. The authors of those texts are almost all known and among them were women, including the very famous poetess Auvaiyar. Despite the Sanscrit influence, which is minimal in the early poems, it is where we find what remains of Dravidian culture in its purest state.
These texts describe three prosperous kingdoms in which the kings spend their time conquering each others’ towns. Poetry, dance and religion were held in high esteem. The most popular religion was the non-orthodox Dravidian beliefs on which we will dwell later in detail.
In addition, we find Brahmanism, Buddhism and Jainism, all of which came from North India and were in fashion at that time. The last poems from the Sangam anthology were written at the end of the third century of our era.
In these poems, women, although subordinate to men, were considered the pillars of society: the fate of the family and the kingdom depended on their good behavior. The sovereign never held audience without being accompanied by his queen. His personal guard was composed of women warriors. The marriage ceremony was simple, celebrated under a canopy by tying a string around the bride’s neck. The ideal for a man was to die on the field of battle and for the spouse to immolate herself on a pyre (Dravidian custom). Men and women who died in this manner achieved divinity. The ideal of this society was rather Spartan. It was said, “The Dravidians loved life and worshipped death”.
Love of life, dance, music, and all other pleasures were described with empathy in these poems. This was most probably due to the prosperity of the country, especially of the towns, which enjoyed a lucrative trade with the Romans through Egypt.
Here is a small quotation from the Tiru Kural, the most famous work of the Sangam, which shows some of the spirit of these times, and somehow renders the ornate style Tamils love to use:
“In sweet simplicity,
A woman's gracious form hath she;
But yet those eyes, that drink my life,
Are with the form at strife!
The light that on me gleams,
Is it death's dart? or eye's bright beams?
Or fawn's shy glance? All three appear
In form of maiden here.
If cruel eye-brow's bow,
Unbent, would veil those glances now;
The shafts that wound this trembling heart
Her eyes no more would dart.
As veil o'er angry eyes
Of raging elephant that lies,
The silken cincture's folds invest
This maiden's panting breast.
Ah! woe is me! my might,
That awed my foemen in the fight,
By lustre of that beaming brow
Borne down, lies broken now!"
(Robinson and Pope, 1977, p 223)
Some more details are available at Wikipedia.